Gráinne Daly scribbles poetry and fiction. Her work was highly commended in the Blue Nib Poetry Chapbook Competition 2018 and shortlisted for the Gregory O’Donoghue and Anthony Cronin Poetry Prizes. She has been published in numerous publications such as Southword Magazine, Pocket Change, Ogham Stone and Boyne Berries and is currently working on her second novel.
For Whom The Bird Soars
By Gráinne Daly
The candle cast a shadow of flames around the window, giving her the mildest promise of comfort. Where there was light there was hope. And at the candle’s end, there would be morning. The faintest buds of fresh news would come, wouldn’t they? With the morning light, they would resume the search and they would be found. With the help of God.
Outside was as black as sin, but undeterred she kept her eye on the window. Every minute or so, the night was interrupted by the lighthouse beacon on its rotation. The beacon that was there to save people, to steer them away. Tonight, she wished it’d guide them back like a great North Star. Could it not function like the star that led the three wise men to the stable in Bethlehem and light the way home? Oh Lord have mercy on them.
She lifted the empty teapot to see if she could drain another drop from it, then filled it again and set it on the fire. If she’d been a drinking woman now would be the time for a sup of whiskey. Above, in Lavelle’s at the crossroads, that is what they’d all be doing now. No doubt about it, but Francie Lavelle’d be at the table and a tumbler of Jemmy in front of him. It’d be the same beyond in Gielty’s -concerned looks on men and women clasping glasses, hoping it might lead to good news, or at least some news, or even just some relief for the night. There’d be candles in every window, willing them home. Guiding them back. None of them would sleep for the night. Sure, how could you at the thought of those four souls out God knows where in that bitch of a sea in the bowels of nighttime?
The flame beneath the Sacred Heart danced a little and she pressed the rosary beads tighter. Deliver them safe oh Sacred Heart of Jesus. As the pot boiled, she thought about their parents. What the must be going through? The panic. The fear. Of course she knew the state they’d be in tonight. She was no stranger to surrendering her loved ones to the sea. It had consumed her father when she was only a girleen and later her husband Seamus when her son Tom was only a baby. It was something you could rely on with the sea; it’d get its own way, always. Making memories of men, widows of women.
She added a splash of milk to her tea, not minding that a few drops had spilled on the oilcloth. The table needed a wipe down anyhow, and the small wee hours had never been the time for housework. Only the mad would take to housework after midnight. The clock ticked loud on the sideboard. The batteries must be going; it always got louder just before the batteries died. She would get some in town next week.
The wind had been moody since evening, picking up and dropping off every hour or so. It was calm now and you couldn’t hear a thing from outside. Calm was good, it gave them a chance. If it could just stay like that until dawn…
Hours like this are the provenance of ‘if onlys’. The sanctuary of ‘please Gods’ and ‘God be goods’. They are the heavy hours where you try overpower despair with hope, grief, with belief. She reached into her apron pocket and took out a memorial card, turning it to read the prayer on the back. Again and again she recited it, aloud. A thiarna bí cheansa, getting louder every time. By the umpteenth time she wasn’t looking at the card; she recited by heart and it was more like a conversation with God himself. She spoke with an urgency that verged on impatience, like when you stop to ask someone for directions because you’re lost and you’re late, but all they want to do is stop and chat about the local folklore and you don’t want to be curt but you wish they would just whisht and tell you how to get to the church of St Bernadette in Gleann na Coile. And then, as if detecting her own anxiety, she stopped, opened the card, kissed it, whispering something inaudible and slid it back into the large pocket in the front of the apron.
The lighthouse beacon seared through the darkness, a remnant of its beam falling on a few grains of sugar on the table, illuminating them like tiny gems. It was Páidí Gallagher’s sugar don’t you know? Páidí’s the only one who crossed the door and won’t take a drop without sugar in it. He’d dropped in earlier when they’d called off the search for the evening. Wanted to check in and make sure she was alright for everything, though he didn’t fool her.
She could see from the way he kept passing his cap from palm to palm that he was more concerned with how she was doing. Had the news upset her? Could she do with a bit of company – that sort of thing. A good skin is Páidí – from the best of stock. He’s been around the bay all day, looking and trawling and hoping for a sight of them. Hadn’t he done the same when Séamy went too? The cap went from left hand to right and back until she pulled out a chair for him and bid him sit down.
“ ’Tis only early days”, he said to her, stirring his third or fourth sugar into the mug. “And there’s plenty of us. Sure aren’t the Vaughans all back from Glasgow for a fortnight? Aye, Josie, there’ll be no shortage of folk to help, that’s for sure and certain”.
He gulped half the tea in one go, the cap now lying beside the sugar bowl. The clock ticked loud.
“Your batteries are going,” he said.
“Err a word on how it happened?” she kept her eyes fixed just beyond his shoulders to where darkness filled the window.
“No one knows yet.”
They finished the rest of their tea in silence, sighing silent prayers and pleas for a different ending. There’d been enough heartbreak. She turned on the radio. They’d just missed the news, and a rerun of the farming programme was on, so she turned it off and set another pot of water on to boil.
“I suppose the families are on the way up?” she asked, one hand clasped over the other, right thumb rubbing the four bent fingers of her left.
“They are, if they’ve not already arrived. They’re being put up in the parochial house and in the Healy’s out by the Rock. Mikey Howard was to meet them in in the town and show them the road out.”
“Good of him.”
“No”, he shook his head “the hardest of times.” He picked up his cap.
“If there’s anything I can do Páidí…”
“I know. We all know. There are plenty of hands around Josie, so sit tight for now.”
She looked from the window to the empty cup and back.
“I’m away,” he said “I’ll speak to you tomorrow. God willing we’ll have good news by then.”
She blessed herself and closed the door behind him. Páidí was as good as they come. He’d reared a family of five, and all of them had left and made a success of themselves beyond in America. You’d see them home every few years or so. One of the boys Finn, visits when he’s home. He was born the same day as Tom. They’d gone to school together and were like twins, always inseparable. Of course, he was the first one to come back last year. He’d stayed with her for the week. Finn is a fine young man, God bless him.
There’d only been a letter from him last month. He reported that all was well in Connecticut. He’d met a girl. Her grandfather hailed from Cork. A red head with a good singing voice and wonderful wit, he’d said. “She dances better than me”, he’d written, “though as you know Dear Josie, I’m not from a family of dancers”. Truer words were never spoken. Paidí Gallagher was known for his two left feet. She’d laughed when she read it.
She wondered if they’d be thinking of a wedding in America or over here. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a wedding in the area? The build up and the gathering and the music and laughing. It’d be a wonderful affair. When the day came of course. If it were to come that is, but something told her that he was very happy with her, so she may well be the one. He’d only ever once before written about a girl – a Cavan girl who’d got too homesick and moved home to Belturbet. She’d make them a gift of a lace tablecloth, if the day did come. Her lace was well known in these parts, a skill that had been in her family for three generations. Yes, that’s what she’d do, she’d make a good table cloth for Finn and Nora to help them set up their home in America.
She took a wool blanket from the back of an armchair and set it across her legs on a stool by the window. The wind was on the rise again, whistling every now and then when it blew through the hole in the turf shed roof. She wanted to close her eyes and drift off to someplace quiet. To someplace without the pain. Even just for a few minutes. But she knew she couldn’t yet, and so she prayed a silent novena into the candle flame.
It was then she saw it. The hairs stood on her arms. The candle stopped flickering, its flame stood upright. The clock silenced. Soaring up from the black of where the sea lay, it rose elegantly. The great white dove climbed into the sky just it had on times before. This time it flew in circles four times before falling back into the black from where it had come. She blessed herself and cursed God. Why oh why have you done this?
Staring out to where the sea lay hungry, salty tears flowed down her cheeks. She took out the memorial card from her pocket and spoke to him. Tom, my love, look after them won’t you? God bless you all.
A knock came just before dawn; a passing trawler had found the four. May the Lord have mercy on their souls.