by Nuala Ní Chonchúir
A cotton ball moon hangs over Knocknarea. I push a wider gap in the curtains and stare up at it, before turning back to Oisín’s cot. I lean over the rail and scoop his breath to my nose; it is luxuriously sweet – the lovely, frightening smell of sick baby. I am so glad that Oisín, like my other three sons, was born at night. That way, all of them have the gift of seeing na daoine maithe – the good people – who will keep them safe. Superstition and its imagined cures have always kept me light. I know that charms are probably as useless as a fresh poultice on an ancient wound, but I cling to them anyway. I never cut my fingernails on Sundays; I jump in the path of black cats; I pluck luck-pennies from the ground; I place a blade of hay from each year’s crib in my purse; and I don’t bring lilac indoors.
I lean over Oisín and unfurl the collar of his babygro. He is my last straw child; the marriage fixer. I was hoping for a girl but it was not to be; Cormac didn’t care either way. Oisín sleeps. I go back to the window to look at the moon. Its pale coin suspended over the hill is a comfort and I decide that by morning Oisín will be better. For me. For himself. And for Regina, who will arrive tomorrow, expecting order.
Regina steps off the train and walks the platform ahead of a gaggle of businessmen. With her red hair and blue coat she is like a kingfisher blazing through fog.
“Audrey,” she calls, waving her arm over her head, though she is feet away. She skitters up and we hug tightly. Regina dips her head to Oisín in his buggy. “How’s my baby dumpling? It’s your favourite auntie.”
“Your only auntie,” I say. “He’s not well at the moment. He has a tummy upset.”
“He’ll be grand, won’t you, pet? Better before you’re twice married and once a widower. Remember granny used to say that?” She prises my fingers from the buggy handles and flounces ahead a few steps. “Look at me – I’m Audrey Fitzperfect.”
I trundle behind, pulling her trolley case. A single magpie swoops into the station and lands on a girder; it beaks the air and twitches while looking around, as if waiting for something. I stop and salute it madly, hoping its twin will arrive and sit beside it. Regina carries on towards the exit and I have to jog to catch up.
* * *
We drive down to the sea at Strandhill and park by the golf links. The morning is cold and fresh but there are lots of people out walking; it is the first sunny day of the autumn. A fisherman on the sand path takes one look at Regina’s hair fluttering from under her cap and turns away from us, his face grim. I want to tell him she is a henna redhead but he has seen her now and his day’s fishing is ruined. I watch him return to his car and pack away his rod and tackle. Lately, my dreams have been swimming with fish; fertility and fish are always bedfellows.
Like most childless women, Regina enjoys the chance to push a buggy, to claim the baby for her own. She pulls down the rain-covers to protect Oisín from the wind and my arms feel light and useless as I walk along beside her; I plunge my hands into my jacket pockets. Cormac has taken our older boys away for the day, to give me time with my sister. There are wet-suited surfers, like overgrown tadpoles, on the strand, getting instruction before they go into the water. The sea foams with enough breakers to make surfing worthwhile. At the rocky approach to the beach, I take Oisín from the buggy and park it behind a boulder.
“Here, give him to me,” Regina says, and I hand over my son, watching while she carries him away; she kisses his face and murmurs into his ear. The rocks wobble under her feet.
“Be careful,” I say, but my words are thrown back to me by the breeze.
I placed half an onion under Oisín’s cot last night and he has not thrown up since. Cormac hovered beside me in the boys’ bedroom while I slipped the saucer with the onion onto the floor, pushing toys and books out of the way.
“What are you doing? The smell of that will make him even more queasy,” he said.
“Says who? Oh, don’t tell me, it’s one of your granny’s ‘cures.’”
“What if it is?” I said. “Do you not want him to get better?”
Cormac tutted and went back along the bungalow’s corridor to where Regina was drinking tea by the sitting-room fire.
Regina has Oisín by the hand and they are stop-starting along the beach. He is new to walking and is not sure if it is something he likes. I catch up with them and see that Oisín’s hat has lodged on his ears, bending them and making him look elfish. My love for him burbles into my throat and I want to catch him in my arms and feel his small, wielding body against mine. But Regina is playing mammy today and here she is with a stick, carving his name into the sand by the lacy shoreline, spelling out each letter for him.
“O-I-S-Í-N. Oisín. Isn’t that great?”
She gives him the stick and lets him poke in the sand. I take a whip of bladderwrack in my hand and waggle it for Oisín to see.
He glances at the wrack. “Ush,” he says, his version of his name, then turns back to where Regina crouches and points at the letters in the sand. I drop the seaweed and watch the tide nudge it and retreat; nudge, retreat.
“Cormac is having an affair,” I say.
Regina’s head whips up and she shields her eyes. “How do you know?”
“I’m not stupid, Regina.”
She stands, saddles Oisín onto her hip and strides towards Culleenamore Bay; she stops to let me come level with her.
“Are you sure?”
“I found a hotel receipt; so fucking predictable.” I laugh.
“Have you talked to Cormac? Told him you know?”
“Not yet. I’m hoping he’ll just get it out of his system. I’m OK with it, as long as he doesn’t leave us.”
“He wouldn’t leave the boys,” Regina says, fixing Oisín’s hat over his ears. “Will we go on or go back?” she says, more to the baby than to me.
I cut a cross in the bread before putting it into the oven. The lunar haze over Knocknarea draws my eye up to Queen Maeve’s cairn as I stand at the sink. From this distance, the cairn looks like the plunger on the desk bell of the hill. Up close it is a ten meter high mound of rocks. Maeve had a wayward husband or two, I think, and a clatter of sons; but she also got the daughter she wanted.
* * *
I turn to face the dining table. My sister and my husband are playing cards, silently turning aces and spades, trying to bluff each other.
“Would you like to walk up Knocknarea tomorrow, Regina, to see Maeve’s cairn?”
She glances at Cormac before answering. “Sure.”
“The boys can come with me to Sligo,” Cormac says. “Oisín too.”
“Great,” I say, and start to set the table for dinner. They move their card game to the sitting-room and I hear the low thrum of their laughter and chat through the wall.
The track is rocky to begin with and deep ruts from tractors have hardened in the cold; cow pats are littered everywhere. We are ginger over the stones but soon the path turns to a mud trail and the going is easier. I stop before we reach the stile.
“Let’s pick our stones to add to the cairn before we go any further,” I say. “You’re meant to carry your stone up the hill.”
I choose a fist-sized rock with wormy holes; it must have found its way from the beach. Regina’s one is lavender and smooth, like a goose egg.
“Can we sit for a minute?” Regina says, and we perch side-by-side on a grass-bank.
I point down to the bay. “Look, you can see the quarry at Ballysadare.”
Regina slumps forward and holds her head in her hands. “Urgh,” she says, pushing the noise, it seems, from her stomach to her throat.
“Are you OK?” I rub her back.
“Queasy, that’s all.”
“You must have caught Oisín’s bug.”
“I’m grand. Come on.” She stands and stretches; I see that her face is pallid.
“You look really sick, Regina. We’ll go back. It gets steep after this.”
“I want to go to the top.”
The path is worn from footfall at the steepest sections, making it almost like steps. Still it is tough going. Regina pants as she climbs beside me and her nose runs. When the cairn comes into view she stands suddenly, leans forward and vomits. I wait for her to stop heaving, then mop her mouth with tissues. I make her lie on the grass beside the path, with my scarf for a pillow.
“We should have turned back.”
“If I didn’t come up here now, I’d never come,” Regina says.
I look at Queen Maeve’s cairn, stretching above us, rock on rock, and I imagine her inside, armour-clad, standing to face her enemies. Fearless Maeve. Regina hands me her stone but stays lying down.
“Put it on for me, will you?”
I walk to the cairn. “Maeve, I’m putting two stones on your cairn,” I say, as I add them. “One for me, one for my sister. Send us your strength and protection.”
I go back to Regina. She is sitting up, watching me approach; the wind lifts her hair around her eyes.
“Audrey,” she says.
I lift my hand. “Don’t say anything. I realised last night. If it’s you, I know he won’t leave us.”
“Please, Regina. Let’s just get back to the house. You need to go to bed and rest.”
* * *
Fish skim and burble through my dreams all night long, as effortless as acrobats. I lunge and try to grab their slick bodies but I can’t catch hold of any of them. In the morning I hear Regina throwing up in the bathroom. Cormac lies on his back beside me, staring at the ceiling.
“My only hope is,” I say, “that she doesn’t have a girl.”
My husband turns on his side, away from me and, through the bedroom window, we both watch the sun rise over Knocknarea.
“Moon Hill” won Second Prize in the
6th Annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway, Ireland.
Her third short story collection Nude was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize.