three months earlier
south coast of Galway Bay
…dying, she found, was easy…. She relaxed, fell away into darkness, with no down, only away….
In that infinite comforting sea floated a ghostly cloud, lit within by an invisible moon. Seeing better as her vision adjusted to the dark, she saw fuzzy cloud-shape resolve into delicate misty leaves and evanescent branches leading down to a ghostly trunk….
Mary McCarthy woke. An odd dream… It faded, was gone, leaving behind only the sense that it had been really strange.
She smiled. Her mother was always telling her she had too much imagination for her own good.
Her mother, husband, and the two younger children were beside her in the family bed. To keep from disturbing anyone Mary lay perfectly relaxed and still.
Her bedroom was as dark as a cave far underground, but she thought nothing of this. A poor crofter’s cottage could not afford a fire for warmth and light after bedtime. Wood and turf cost hours of hard labor.
But being cold was unusual. The McCarthys could afford several layers of rag and linen quilts on the two beds that filled much of the main room of the stone cottage. Add the body heat of up to a half dozen people and only the bodies at the edge of each bed were in danger of being cold. Since Mary was the third oldest in the house at 53, behind her husband and mother, her proper place was one edge of her bed. But the McCarthys were well off. The covers spilled off the edge.
Mary lifted her hands to grasp the covers — or tried to. They moved only a little way from their folded position on her chest. She was wrapped in a sheet and there was a weight above it molding the sheet to her.
But there was enough room to let her rub the material between thumb and fingers. It was very coarse and thick and seemed to be wrapped several times around her, even her head.
She ceased all movement. This was a funeral shroud.
She could not be dead. She had been very sick, yes, but now she felt very healthy, better than she had in many years. She felt full of energy and well-being and a serene contentment. True, she was also very cold and thirsty and her stomach cramped from hunger, but these were not new experiences for a poor Irish woman.
Had she been buried? No. She could not be. She would be suffocating from lack of air.
Then she realized something.
She could not feel breath moving into and out of her lungs. Her chest was not expanding and contracting. She wasn’t breathing.
Nor was her heart beating — or so she thought. Testing, she found she could move one hand just enough to press her fingers to the pulse point on the wrist of her other hand.
No. No pulse. Though that proved nothing; it had never been easy for her to find the pulse point. Maybe she had missed it again.
She considered all this for a time. She felt no panic, no urgency to do anything. She simply wanted to understand what was going on.
Finally she decided to accept what had happened to her, at least for now. Perhaps it was a miracle. She was a pious and dutiful and loving woman, and it was not beyond reason that God would grant her a small miracle.
She began moving her hands more, exploring her surroundings as well as she could despite the restriction of the cloth and the earth piled atop and around her. It felt heavy but not crushingly so. Indeed, it felt as if the earth was clasping her lovingly, like a swaddled infant.
This was so interesting that she stopped moving and simply relaxed and savored the feeling for a time.
Another interesting sensation attracted her attention: her hands were beginning to feel slightly warm, as if she had immersed them in warm dishwater. They also felt as if they were dissolving into the imaginary water.
With that sensation came another: she tasted the fibers of the cloth making up the shroud, as if her hands had become her tongue. This was not terribly exciting; the taste was pretty boring.
Except it was as much feeling as tasting. For suddenly — like an optical illusion where a picture suddenly appears quite different — the sensation that her fingers were dissolving flipped into the sensation that they were becoming smaller, thinner, and much more numerous. Small enough to feel the tiny fibers that made up the cloth. The fibers were very fine and fuzzy, kinking and wrapping around each other to make the threads which made the yarn which made the cloth.
So vivid were the taste/touch sensations that she could almost see the cloth. And she saw that if she pulled the strands with her imaginary fingers just so — and she found that she could indeed pull them — that the cloth unraveled and became a very fine dust.
Now, with the cloth around them gone, she could move her hands a little more and could feel/taste the earth. The tiny, normally barely visible grains of earth felt more like gravel, and tasted of iron and copper and other less-identifiable tastes. And her many tiny fingers could move between the chunks of the “gravel,” pulling/eating at the stuff which glued the gravel together.
Slowly, patiently, she extended her real fingers into the softened earth. It caressed her fingers and arms like the softest, finest dust, so fine it felt almost like water.
Extending her real hands moved her imaginary fingers and their softening influence. She pushed her arms above her chest, above her head, above her torso, and with some effort sat up. It was as if she sat up through water as heavy and resistant as molasses.
Now she could reach her hips and soften the earth enough to pull her legs out of the cavity in the earth in which they rested. She stood. Her head broke through the earth and she saw faint light through her closed eyes.
Mindful of the dust on her eyelids, Mary rubbed them very carefully with her imaginary fingers — she had no desire to “soften” her flesh to mush — until they seemed dust-free. Cautiously she opened her eyes the tiniest slit. A faint remnant of dust brought tears to her eyes. She blinked them several times until they were clear and peered around her.
The waning crescent moon shown in the clear sky. It was part way up the eastern sky, just above Finavarra Point where it projected north into Galway Bay. The moon’s reflection was silver in the water.
She was in the cemetery where her father had been buried, on the low hill overlooking the beach. A simple head stone marked her grave and similar headstones around her marked others. The light was too dim to make out the inscription on her grave marker but she knew what it was: what she had chosen years ago. She’d bought the headstone and had it carved to make sure the job was done right: “Loving mother, well beloved.”
A cold wind came from the west. It made the knee-high grass in the fields about her sway and dance so that the grass almost looked like waves of water. The frigid wind caressed her body intimately but she felt no colder than before.
Interesting, she thought. She was not shivering and did not feel the expected cold-brought goose bumps on her arms and legs.
Mary put her arms on the waist-level grassy verge around the grave and crawled up onto the surface.
As she stood upright she noticed with a little pang in her breast that several small bouquets of flowers had been laid against her tombstone. They were so dry and shrunken they must have been there for several weeks.
She looked down at herself. Dim as the light from the moon and sky was, she could still see that she was a mess, her simple dress thin and dirt-stained, her body equally filthy. She grasped her dress-front and shook it. Dust flew up from it. Her eyes watered, so she faced into the wind to let it take the dust away.
The dust should have made her sneeze or cough. But she was still not breathing and so had inhaled none of it.
Her entire dress was dirty. She looked around. There was no one about, hardly surprising at possibly three hours before dawn. She slipped her dress over her head and, returning to her gravesite, swatted her gravestone with the dress, standing so that the wind off the ocean carried the dust away from her.
It was a disrespectful use of a gravestone but it was, after all, hers. She smiled at the thought.
With the dress she wiped as much dirt and dust from her face and neck and torso as she could. She noticed then that her long curly red hair, liberally shot with grey, was gone.
She raised a hand to her head. There was a short nap of very fine hair covering it, like a newborn’s hair.
Mentally shrugging, she used the dress to wipe clean the rest of her body, inspecting herself as she did so.
She was as skinny as a child. No; skinnier. Every ounce of fat seemed to be gone, leaving her ribs prominent. Her hipbones almost poked through her skin. They were still woman-wide, however. Her skinniness was that of starvation, not a return to childhood. Though, fingering her flat breasts, she could almost believe that. However, her nipples and areolas were still woman-sized.
She searched again for a heartbeat and found none. She decided that this was not incompetence in finding it. Her heart truly did not beat. Blood did not course through her veins.
Yet she felt absurdly healthy. Just cold and hungry and thirsty.
She could do something about that. There was food and clothing at home, water in a small stream that crossed the path on the way there.
Her body as clean as she could make it, she beat the dress clean again and re-dressed. Glancing about to orient herself, she started walking.
Perhaps a quarter hour later she came across the small stream. She drank her fill of the icy water. It satisfied her thirst and eased the hunger pains.
She could have drunk too much and made herself sick. But she had an interior sense of exactly how much water she needed and as she approached that point she stopped drinking.
She, and she supposed everyone else, had always had this interior knowledge. But this seemed much clearer than her former vague sensation of being full.
Her belly clenched. She was hungrier than ever. The water she had just drunk had whetted rather than allayed her appetite. She needed food.
Standing, she saw that the westering moon was noticeably higher. She had less time to get food and clothing from her home if she were to do it secretly. And she must do it that way, at least till she had time to figure out how to break the news to her family that she had returned from the grave.
She got to her feet and set off again on the path through the grassy fields.
Her home was still quiet when she reached it a bit later. She stood for moments listening outside the closed front door. Carefully she tried to open it and the door swung outward. Good; most poor Irish had so little that thieves had no reason to try to steal from them. She and her husband had never barred the door.
Pausing, she listened at the cracked door a moment then slipped inside and closed the door to keep out the cold, to keep her family from waking up.
The hunger in her belly screamed for satisfaction, but she had carefully thought through what she must do here. She ignored the hunger as she had so many times in her life.
For a moment she stood and listened to her family breathe. None of them snored; she had trained them to sleep on their sides. Two of her youngest daughters were here, the older two married and gone to America. Her oldest son of three was in that country, too. Here was also her mother and her husband and two younger sons.
But another person did snore. It was the widow O’Toole. For years Timothy had fooled around with her. As long as they remained discreet, Mary pretended not to know. Mary and he had not been husband and wife in a physical way for years, and she had been relieved that he had someone to keep him from bothering her.
Her heart turned over in her chest, because she just now understood that she was going to have to leave them all. She had left them all. She was dead. Or dead enough. She still did not breathe, her heart did not beat.
Turning aside she crept carefully through the middle of the room, which was as dark as her grave. The windows were closed to keep out the poison of night air, and they were mere wooden shutters, glass being too dear for poor people like her family. She used feet and hands to avoid unsuspected obstacles.
In the storage alcove clothes hung on pegs and lay folded on narrow shelves. Working by feel she found and wrapped a scarf around her neck, selected two dresses and her long coat, slung the dresses around her neck like scarves and pulled on the coat.
She also took a pair of her youngest son’s oldest pants, the ones he rarely wore anymore because they had become so tight. She draped them around her neck like another scarf; when she got the chance she would put the pants on under her dress. She folded tightly two changes of underwear and three pair of long stockings and tucked them into the coat’s big pockets. She also found her brogans, tied the laces together, and slung them around her neck. As an afterthought, she fitted one of her youngest son’s two belts around her waist, the one that was too small for him.
She crept into the kitchen. It was little more than a fireplace, shelves built into the sides of the house, and a narrow table against a wall to prepare food. She located bread and stored several small hard loaves in coat pockets. She desired salt but could think of no way to carry it.
She located a long-bladed butcher knife and made her way out the side door to the adjoining meat room where smoked and salted meat hung from the rafters. Her belly screaming at her for food, she sliced off a sliver of ham and crammed the bite into her mouth.
Her mouth was dry at first, then there was a spurt of saliva as she bit into the meat. Its pungent taste was heavenly.
Chewing, she cut two big slabs of ham from a hanging haunch and crammed them into another bulging coat pocket. She swallowed the first mouthful and swayed on her feet. The relief from her clenching belly muscles almost made her faint.
She managed to stuff two more slabs of meat into her pockets before they were completely full. It was time to leave. She tucked the long blade beneath her belt, tightening the belt another notch to keep the knife secure. Then she drifted through the living area like a ghost and eased open the front door.
She had not been quiet enough. She heard movement behind her and felt an enormous shock across her upper back. If not for the two dresses and the pants around her neck the blow likely would have killed her.
She stumbled through the door and went to her knees. Another tremendous blow struck her, this time on her side and back and upper arm.
Rolling desperately in her lumpy and clumsy clothing, she escaped another blow that whistled by her head. On her back she looked up at her assailant. Despite the dim light she recognized her husband. He drew back his long wooden staff to strike down at her and she screamed, “Timothy!”
He froze, squinting and gaping down at her in the dimness, the staff sagging. Then he lifted the staff again and she rolled desperately several more times, feeling the hard length of the knife in her belt pressing against her body.
Quickly she got to her knees, scrabbling at the knife in her belt. It had turned at an acute angle to the belt but not fallen out. Finding the hilt, she jerked the knife from her belt and pointed it at her husband as he approached.
She screamed at him, angry. “Timothy, I’ll cut you! Before God I will!”
He paused. She could see his bearded face in the twilight that was ever-so-slightly brightening the eastern sky. He was angry but momentarily confused. “Who are you?” he demanded.
She got warily to her feet, crouching with her weight forward on her feet, poised to move quickly. She knew with absolute certainty that she had a cracked rib and a broken arm, but she had strength enough to point the knife toward his face.
“I’m your wife, you idiot!” she screamed at him. She was certainly breathing now, huge gasps, and she could feel her heart beating wildly. Anger and fear gave her enormous strength just now, but it couldn’t last long. Her body was eating up the very last of her resources.
Timothy stepped back, the staff now raised in a diagonal in front of him for protection. Anger and fear warred on his face. He was a very superstitious man, fearing bogles at night and wearing charms to protect himself from the faery world.
A light flared at the doorway. Several people came out. One held a torch. A quick glance showed that it was her second oldest son Michael before she brought her gaze back to the closer threat.
“My wife is dead!” he said.
“I’ve come back! This is a fine greeting.”
“You’re nothing but a thief!”
“A thief that knows you have a purple birthmark on your right side. A thief that knows that you threw up when you butchered your first pig!”
Her husband stepped back again, no longer angry. If the light were better she knew she would have seen his ruddy face turn pale.
“How do you know that?” He was joined now by the two sons who still lived at home, at his side but a little back. The flickering light of the torch that Michael held high cast a weird light on everyone’s faces.
“I’m Mary Katherine Frances McCarthy returned from the dead, that’s who I am.”
“Back!” Timothy said, placing the staff straight across his body, making a barrier of it. He stepped back, the staff pushing his sons backward as well.
But no one moved far. They needed one more push from her. She knew just what would work.
Mary took a step forward. “Darling Timothy, don’t you want to kiss me?” She took another step forward.
“Everyone in the house! Now!” Timothy shouted. He turned and pushed the people behind him with his staff. They rushed inside the house and the door slammed. Mary could hear the rarely used locking bar thud into its socket. She also heard Michael protesting. He was not superstitious and he was a brave man. But her husband would keep him in the house for a time.
That Michael! He had always been her favorite, though she had hidden it well, she thought.
It was time to go. For a time at least she was safe.
She rearranged her twisted miscellany of clothing and patted her pockets. One of the slabs of meat had fallen out. She picked up the dirty meat. The dirt was clean dirt; the meat could be washed clean.
At the verge of the rough yard she stopped and looked back. Poor as it was this had been her home for more than twenty years.
The last time she had left a home it had been hard. But then at least she’d been taking Tim and the young ones and a few precious items with her, taking part of home with her. This time there would only be herself.
She paused for a moment more, looking at her home, then turned and left it forever.
At first she was going to walk to the Burren, the limestone hills to the east. There were many caves in the Burren where she could hide out and get well and think. But she knew Michael would eventually be after her, despite Timothy’s opposition. Michael was a man grown at seventeen and knew his own mind. He could probably get others to follow him.
So she backtracked toward the cemetery, eating ham and the hard, crunchy bread as she went, taking small bites and chewing well. She did not want to get sick from eating irresponsibly and maybe throw up some of the precious food.
She walked on the softer earth on the path to make it easier for them to follow her. Along the way she would begin to walk more and more on rocky ground, then veer off carefully, hoping that they would continue on to the dead-end of the grave.
She snickered at the play on words despite the pain in her ribs and arm.
Then she thought a little more and devised a yet better plan.
Stepping carefully off the path onto some stones Mary examined one of the bushes beside the path. There, that small but sturdy branch would not be missed if removed carefully.
Reaching for her knife, she remembered how she had softened the earth of her grave. Perhaps she could do the same thing with the branch.
Leaving the knife where it was, she placed one hand on the branch where it attached to the trunk. She closed her eyes and focused her attention on the hand. A few leaves were moving slightly in the cold wind that flowed through the night. They tickled the back of her hand. She tried to ignore the tickling and concentrate on the branch beneath her hand.
At first nothing happened. She persevered, concentrating on the roughness of the bark, imagining the wood beneath her hand. If the bark was gone the branch would be white and slick and smooth….
She felt her hand warming and seeming to dissolve, turning to mist. The mist reformed as long, thin fingers, dozens, hundreds of them. The imaginary fingers sank into the branch, which now seemed the size of a log, taking her consciousness with them.
Down into the wood she swam, the “log” expanding to the size of a huge tree trunk laid on its side. She saw/tasted the pathways where the water flowed and the food dissolved into it. The food seemed to sparkle and she somehow knew that the sparkle came from sunlight absorbed through leaves hours before, during the day.
The vistas of information opening up fascinated her, but she had a purpose here. She turned her attention to changing the wood, softening it.
A moment later the hardness around her turned instantly to mush and she found herself plunging downward as the wood surrounding her consciousness became fluid and fell. She opened her eyes, swayed on her feet, caught her balance.
The small branch had not fallen far, being held in place by the surrounding branches. She grasped it and gently pulled it from its place. She looked at the branch. The “cut” end was white and tapered to a point. On the trunk of the bush was a white scar. Mary rearranged the bush’s remaining branches to conceal the loss of the branch.
She glanced up. She could see better now because the east showed the brightness preceding dawn. Looking down she saw that her hand was plastered with a white mud-like substance: the dissolved wood. She wished the mud gone. It turned to liquid and fell away, leaving her hand clean.
She stared at her hand for a moment. She had a powerful tool here. And a weapon if she wanted it to be. But a knife could turn in your hand and cut you. She would have to explore this power very cautiously lest it do the same.
Stepping carefully on stones back to the path she went all the way to the grave, still leaving an obvious track, and filled in the grave as best she could with her hands.
Then Mary tiptoed away from the grave on the hardest ground and thickest grass that she could find. She walked backward with occasional turns of her head to see where she was going, occasionally mussing the path with the leaves of the branch.
This probably would not fool determined trackers in daylight if they looked for signs leading away from the grave. But she hoped they would conclude she had returned to her grave and would not look for her tracks. Also that wind and time or one of the frequent rains of Ireland would wipe out all tracks.
It was just past mid-day when Mary came across another of the streams that wound down from the hills to spill into Galway Bay to the north. It pooled enough at one spot to bathe in, though barely.
She looked all around carefully and, seeing no one, took off her clothing. She placed everything except her knife in a pile under a solitary scraggly tree so small it was barely more than a bush, but large enough to hold a small flock of birds who twittered back and forth in avian conversation.
Carefully Mary entered the frigid water at a hard sandy piece of stream bank that would not show tracks and stabbed the point of the knife into the water at her feet, concealed but easily reachable.
She lay down in the water, just barely deep enough to cover her entire body. She gasped at the shock but the sensation of cold immediately disappeared, replaced with a refreshing cool feeling. Somehow she knew that her skin had thickened and the tiny blood vessels near the skin’s surface had tightened, shutting off the blood to the skin.
She supposed that was a magical talent, but it used natural resources. Everyone’s skin could do this, just not as fast or as much.
She immersed her head in the water and twisted it sharply from side to side to swish the water around it. Then she popped her head out of the water, shook and brushed the water from her eyes, and looked around.
Nothing. No one.
She went back to bathing. Soon she was completely clean and left the water.
Drying off with one clean dress, she donned underwear, stockings, her youngest son’s castoff pants as a sort of petticoat, and a clean dress over it. She draped the shoes around her neck. Then she dried the knife very carefully. It was very valuable, and not just in monetary terms. With it she could prepare food and protect herself.
As she finished all this she realized something. She had felt no pain, or even stiffness, from the blows she had received this morning. Her body had healed itself, and so well that she had washed and re-clothed herself with no thought for her injuries.
She stood still, thinking about this. Then she peeled her dress over her head enough so that she could look at the arm which she knew, in some esoteric way, that Timothy had broken. There were no bruises, not even a hint a one.
She fingered her upper arm where she had been struck. Through the terribly thin skin she felt no knot of healed bone.
Thoughtfully she completed dressing, finishing with the long coat and the belt with the knife tucked inside it. She was back to normal, with breath and heartbeat like anyone else, and her body was warm. Her stomach was full but not over-full after a morning of slow eating and well-chewed food.
She squatted and arranged her meager belongings and tied them into a crude pack with a handhold, then stood upright, crossed her arms, and leaned against the scrubby tree. She needed to pause and think, not rush to do something, anything.
That was one of her weaknesses, that she always had to be doing something, going somewhere. Timothy used to call her Mary Always-on-the-Go.
For years she had tried to learn to slow down and had only moderate success. Now the instant she decided to relax some mysterious spirit or engine inside her took over her body.
Her body drew in a deep breath and very slowly let it out. All her muscles relaxed except those needed to keep her standing upright. All need to move disappeared. She breathed in slowly, then out…. In… out….
Time seemed to slow, then stop. For a moment she remained an observer unattached to the rest of the world. Then she seemed almost to move forward, into the world. She felt herself — sink into the world, to relax fully.
In the slight shade she absorbed the sight of the green countryside undulating downward toward the sea, the noontime sun striking an occasional sparkle from the water where it burbled down one of the dozens of tiny waterfalls made by the rocky streambed. A breeze ruffled the baby-fine short hair that her resurrection had given her in place of her long curly locks, the wind like an invisible hand comforting her. The birds in the tree twittered companionably, flew away and made a wide loop and came back to rest in the tree branches.
From out of the deep reservoirs of her mind the reminder rose up: there was no going back to her old life. Even if she wanted to — and she did not, as much as she missed her mother and children and even her husband — she was now perhaps thirteen years old physically. And somehow she knew she was a virgin again.
Her earlier plan, to hole up in caves and heal, was unneeded. She was already healed. And she could not make a living in those lonely, stony hills.
If anyone did indeed believe that that Mary had returned to life they would expect her to go east along the southern shore of Galway Bay, to Ballyvaughan. A substantial village of several dozen souls, it was only five miles away, with a church, small dock for fishing boats, and several small businesses and homes. It was where Mary and her family went every few weeks for civilized niceties.
So it would be best to travel west along the shore of the bay to Black Head Point, then south down the coast a few days to a distant village and see what work she could pick up. A woman, especially a young one, would find it near impossible to live alone, so she would have to steal more boy’s clothes and pretend to be a boy. Perhaps, with these strange new powers, she could make herself look more like a boy.
Or even become a boy.
She looked north, out over the bay to distant Galway city, but thinking about the journey not the broad expanse of water. And the powers that had cured her of death and age brought themselves to her attention yet again.
She could see everything perfectly clearly, but she had done more than cure herself of her decades-long nearsightedness while she was in the grave. As she focused on every further bend of the little stream her eyes were automatically reshaping themselves into ever-stronger binoculars.
Just how much she could change herself — and without doing herself harm in the process — she would have to find out by experiment. Very careful experiment.
But for now all that was speculation. She had to attend to more immediate needs. Survival alone, without kin or even friends, would not be easy.
But she had no fear. She was an accomplished woman, used to devising clever stratagems to make do with very little. She was also used to hard work and God had given her a new life. More, she had been given extraordinary gifts, perhaps magical, which she had only begun to explore.
She was young again, totally free of duty or expectation. Mary could go to any place in the wide world, places about which she had only heard or read. And when these new powers were mastered — what might she be able to do?
For a moment she remained totally relaxed, at rest. The air was as clear as crystal with something of the inner light of crystal. The slight breeze of early afternoon was just cool enough to caress her cheeks, and the cool air moved calmly in and out of her lungs….
…what would she see, what would she do in the days and years to come?
She reached down for the handhold of the pack, picked it up, and strode off downhill to find out.