This is an extract from a manuscript I’m currently re-working. Its just a rough draft, so don’t expect too much. And formatting is even rougher. Despite its many flaws, I hope you enjoy reading it.
(I found the above image on Pinterest, I don’t know the original source)
As the door closed, pushing back spring’s last attempt to invade the eventide cottage, Maeve heard a fluttering of tiny wings. Instinctively the corner of her lip rose slightly, just enough momentum to displace wrinkled skin. That sound took Maeve back to a forgotten moment, when she had intimately known such wings beating against her own chest. Back to a time when the younger Maeve had not yet discovered corporeal yearnings. However, that was then, this is now. Maeve Cliona Devlin had slowly and surely shed all sense of innocence but, as life tends to be cyclic, carnal matters had long since been replaced by a more ascetic view. Nestled in a wrought-iron bed that had seen better days, Maeve did not have a sense of nostalgia for the distant undulations of a life lived well, as she was more than content with the uncomplicatedness that ageing granted.
Brigid entered the room quietly, not wanting to disturb her grandmother. She was obviously unaware of the fluttering wings that had caught the attention of her grandmother. It could perhaps be said that the young woman was generally oblivious to many nuances, both the everyday kind and the extraordinary. Still, Brigid shuddered unconsciously as the coldness of her grandmother’s house hit her. Brigid didn’t notice that shudder squeeze through just a sliver of a gap, as she shut the door closed. Her grandmother did but took no offence, as she was had the good sense to know that not even a shudder would willingly spend time in a space where light was fading.
Maeve patted a space beside her, ‘Birdie sit down. Tell me about your day.’
Brigid walked towards the small kitchen table, placing upon it a well-laden basket, ‘Let me catch my breath first, Mamó. And I should open a window, let some fresh air in.’
The older woman nodded, as a few moments more of waiting were of no consequence. It was enough that someone had arrived, fleetingly bringing sunshine to the gloomy space Maeve had entombed herself within. She felt no animosity towards family, not really, but sometimes it felt as if they had already executed their final good-byes. Only the granddaughter willingly remembered the old woman at the bottom of the garden. Numerous times a day, Brigid brought her Mamó distractions from the outside world; to dilute the endless hours of waiting. The others, when they remembered, came out of a habitual sense of duty. Those strapping children on the brink of manhood, that physically reminded Maeve of beloved male kin left behind on a distant shore, rarely stepped over her threshold.
In the bluntness of age, Maeve no longer felt any attachment to the sons of her daughter. Unlike the familiarity she had for the oldest grandchild, Brigid: her Birdie. The grandsons didn’t know of Maeve’s sense of disconnect. Even Margaret, her daughter, was unaware. Perhaps those bonnie boys reminded Maeve too much of home; of love lost, and lands never to be seen again. Or perhaps the way they filled a room simply reminded Maeve that she was shrinking.
Opening the window, Brigid caught sight of a small black and white bird. Maeve raised her head seconds before the bird broke out in song. It was a cheeky tune, alluding to promised embraces and stolen hearts. At least it was to Maeve’s well-travelled ears. Birdie didn’t hear the same tune. She heard spring blossoms and warm afternoons. And had a sudden longing to hide in the long grass, to watch wispy clouds make patterns in the blue. Maeve smiled, as the bird-song had brought back cherished memories. In cahoots with an old woman’s fancy, the wind floated through the open window to kiss Maeve’s paper-thin skin; bringing lost whispers of forever and ever, and then some. It had been decades since her husband had passed, but some things are never forgotten. Kisses on yesterday’s skin last forever.
If her eyes had not grown milky, Maeve might have cast them over the room she now lay in. Not much more than that one room, Maeve had practically built this cottage with her own hands. The room she now lay in served as lounge, kitchen and bedroom. Later a small bathroom had been added by her son-in-law. Not an inside laundry though, as Maeve had insisted on using the tarnished copper tub in the detached laundry out the back; right up until her sight had completely gone. If she had the ability to look around the room now, she would have found more than a few shadowy memories lurking in corners, but none of her husband. He had never set foot on this land that Maeve had built a home on.
Setting sail as a young bride, Maeve had disembarked as a widow. The grief of leaving behind her family, knowing she would never again see the emerald island of her childhood, was overshadowed by the loss of her first and only love. His body had been sent to the bottom of the sea mere days before land was sighted. Having recently returned from war, he had been far from robust. He was certainly no match for La Grippe’s frenzied tango; this unwanted dance partner had barely raised a flamed hue on the other passengers’ cheeks, before dancing him to the end of time. Stepping away from the rail, having witnessed their shared dreams become entangled in the shroud that floated from sight, Maeve turned her thoughts to staying afloat.
Fortuitously, before his fated journey, Maeve’s husband had the foresight to secure a modest slice of land in the country they had chosen to sow their marital future. When Maeve arrived alone, heavy of heart and womb, she took comfort in the realisation that her love’s legacy was a patch of good earth. Using coins that had weighed down her hem during the ocean-crossing, Maeve purchased timber and set to work. Ignoring strangers that scoffed at her determination, she welcomed extra hands when offered. Unable to pay for their labour, Maeve acknowledged her new neighbours’ kindness with lovingly prepared food, resulting in full bellies and warm laughter. This did not gain her any friends among the women in the small town by the coast. Not to begin with. Once word had spread that Maeve was not only recently widowed but expecting, primly downturned mouths became welcoming smiles. Maeve soon had a one-roomed home and caring neighbours to shelter her for decades to come.
With her bridal trousseau finally unpacked, Maeve made her acquaintance with the land. Removing a sea of stones, she put them aside for a future wall. She imagined a simple wooden gate sitting between low stone walls, opening to a path that led to her front door. On either side of the path would grow an abundance of fragrant herbs and flowers; familiar plants from her homeland. These pleasant images made time pass quickly as she tilled the land, building callouses on her long-fingered hands.
First Maeve planted the sprouting potato eyes that she had kept damp all through the ocean crossing. Unbeknownst to her husband, who had sworn that his bride would never have to eat another potato for as long as she lived, Maeve had hidden precious peelings in her luggage. She had listened attentively at the feet of her elders, and knew that there are times when the most humble of vegetables makes the tastiest meal. Reassured that a good future-crop of potatoes nestled in the Spring-warmed earth, it was time to prepare her modest home for the little stranger’s arrival. Having been so intent on grieving, building and planting, Maeve had put off pondering the child she was growing. Until mild pains in her lower back reminded her that time could not be controlled.
At first sight, her daughter’s resemblance was confronting – dead man’s eyes on a healthy cherub. Later Maeve fond comfort in these bluest of blue eyes. The midwife, and female visitors, had laughed at the inexperienced mother, before kindly informing her that all newborns have blue eyes. Maeve knew her daughter’s eyes would never change.
Maeve named the child Margaret, a moniker an expectant-father had chosen. And even though she knew it to be foolish, she conferred her with Boudica as a middle name; as she felt her daughter might one day need strength from the homeland. There was no saint’s name given, for grief had caused Maeve to question, and then abandon, her once ingrained faith. Shortly after her milk was flowing, Maeve had returned to the field. And with help from her neighbours, she brought in the first crop of potatoes.
‘Mamó, are you alright?’
The old woman startled. Dragged from days past. It took her a few moments to recognise the voice.
Maeve coughed, ‘I’m fine. Quit your fussing.’
Brigid moved away from the open window, and perched on the edge of her grandmother’s bed.
Maeve reached for her granddaughter’s hand, ‘How are the apple trees?’
‘Father managed to get rid of those woolly aphids. He made up something smelly, to wash them away.’
‘That man was born with a green thumb. You mother did right finding him.’
The apple trees, and other fruit trees in the orchard that surrounded the cottage, were important to Maeve. They connected her to many people, and the home of her childhood. Maeve and her husband had brought cuttings of fruit trees from home, wrapped carefully in dampened moss and cloth. With careful coaxing, Maeve had got those trees to adapt to a new climate, and to bear fruit for generations of offspring.
In addition to creating this orchard, Maeve had made preserves, pies and other treats. She sold the excess to neighbours, and then later at the local market; where she had been selling potatoes and other vegetables for years. This had enabled her to live modestly, and to support a child.
Those earlier years were tough. At first she was lonely, far from family and widowed so young. Although devoted to her daughter, Maeve was never without affection of a different type. There would only ever be one true-love for her, but that did not stop her from taking a lover here and there. In her cottage on the outskirts of town, Maeve was able to be discreet.
As Margaret grew taller, it became apparent that she had not inherited her mother’s green-thumb. Instead she had her father’s wanderlust. She left home too soon, travelling north-west to follow a young man. A few years later she returned, causing quite a stir. Having children out of wedlock was considered wicked, but not uncommon. Still, the colonialists could not fathom what Margaret had done. Maeve did not see things the same way as her neighbours. Instead, she was instantly besotted with her grand-daughter. She marvelled at her curly dark-brown hair, so like her own, and eyes of deepest brown. The first time someone had dared call her little Birdie a piccaninny, Maeve had flashed them such a look of contempt that no one ever said that word again. At least, not when Maeve was in ear-shot.
Not everyone had ostracised Margaret. It wasn’t long before she had fell in love again. And soon, perhaps too soon, she was expecting another child. This time as a married woman. Maeve accepted Frank into her home and family, even before she had discovered he was skilled in horticulture. Frank’s presence in the home also provided Brigid protection from the Protector.
With the cottage now overcrowded, Frank built his wife a house of her own just before their son was born. Three years later, Brigid had three blue-eyed brothers. Although it was a nice home, and her brothers were nice enough, Brigid spent most of her spare time at her grandmother’s cottage.
Maeve and Brigid shared many things. Like those soft curls of the deepest brown. And they both had wide-awake eyes, although Maeve’s were hazel and Brigid’s brown. They also shared a love of birds, believing that birds talked to them. Which is why Maeve called her granddaughter Birdie.
‘How peculiar,’ remarked Brigid.
‘What is it child?’
‘That bird that was singing just now has perched on the window sill.’
Maeve shifted in the bed, ‘What does it look like?’
‘Small. White on black.’
Nodding sagely, Maeve replied, ‘Ah. It’s already that time.’
Before the tale of the little white on black bird can be told, other birds must be heralded. Three, to be precise. For a conspiracy of ravens was taking place just outside the small cottage at the bottom of the garden. The first one had settled in the tree out the front of the cottage. Then two. Maeve knew it was only time before the third would appear, but she was ready.
These large black birds did not frighten away the smaller bird. A willie wagtail goes where it will, does what it wants. And what it wanted was Brigid’s attention. It had first appeared at her bedroom window, on an unmemorable morning a few weeks past. It took a few days before Brigid noticed it; first by its cheeky song and later by its persistence. That bird sang at her window every morning, greeting her as she woke to a new day. The novelty soon wore off for Brigid. She’d open the window, to swoosh it away, but that cheeky bird just hopped around a bit, before recommencing its song.
Her brothers also tried to get it to go away, rushing at it with flailing arms, but still the bird sang. On the third morning of the third week, that willy wagtail was at the door, waiting for Brigid. When she walked to the washing line, it followed, chirping away. When she went to the shop, it hopped down the road in front of her. She couldn’t go anywhere without that bird.
In the fifth week, sick of its carrying on, Brigid’s stepfather chased it away with a shovel. Not with malice, just frustration. It made the family laugh to see a tall man yelling at a tiny bird. By the time Frank had shut the door, that bird was already out there again, singing even louder than before.
That bird was beginning to annoy the whole family, so it was time her grandmother told Maeve what that little bird was saying.
Maeve knew the secret language of birds. She had learnt it from her grandmother, who had learnt it from her grandmother. Surprisingly, these local birds weren’t that much different from those in her homeland. For example, Maeve knew that those ravens were waiting for the third to arrive. And once it had, it was time for her to leave. Although she’d miss her Birdie, Maeve knew that her granddaughter had a journey of her own to go on. Who would be leaving first was still undecided.
Maeve told her that small bird had a message for her. A message that needs to be heard in a faraway place. So that willy wagtail would not be going away anytime soon. Instead Brigid must follow it. Brigid had no plans on going anywhere, ever. She laughed at her grandmother, and laughed even harder when she was told about birds and destinies.
There are two types of birds: those that lead you to good fortune, and those that lead to trouble. And it’s often too hard to tell the two apart, until it’s too late. Maeve had a feeling that this bird was the type that would escort a young woman to find love, but she had no idea if that would end up as being fortunate or trouble.
The day the third Raven appeared Maeve didn’t need to be told. She had already felt its presence.
‘There’s now three of them,’ Brigid said, as she closed the door.
Placing a warm plate on the bedside table, Brigid removed the cloth that covered her grandmother’s dinner. A pungent but pleasant aroma hit Maeve.
‘Leave it,’ she said.
‘It will go cold, Mamó.’
Maeve shifted slightly, letting out a pale sigh. Brigid helped her to sit up, fluffed the pillow, before re-settling her grandmother. With sightless eyes, Maeve looked towards the window.
Brigid lifted the fork, ‘Have just a little. Its roast lamb, peas, and mashed potatoes with gravy. I made it for you. Please Mamó.’
‘Just the mash, then.’
Brigid carefully lifted the fork, and placed it on her grandmother’s tongue. Maeve thought of potatoes and ships. And a husband resting on an ocean floor. Suddenly, she longed for his embrace. The memory of his strong arms around her shoulders was still vivid as if it was only yesterday.
Yes, it was time.