THE COURTING by GABRIELA BLANDY
The first rays of dawn break the darkness above her. The sky separates from the treetops, and she blows out the candle as she comes past the Church to Saint Brigid. The lake is dark, an ivy green; thick with salt. It was freshwater some several thousand years ago, until rising sea levels came upon the coast here. Seals have been spotted but, although Macha comes every morning, she has never seen them. The swans are here though. The cob prowls the pontoon and makes great efforts to guard his mate. He is fierce protective.
She removes her cloak and lays it with the linen sheet on the wooden boards at her feet, slipping off her shoes and sitting them neatly beside, coming to the edge of the pontoon when the swans have moved a little further away. The lake is deep and still. She sits and drops herself in, her nightgown riding up. The water is cold, but not like in Autumn, when her body cannot fight back and the chill seeps in, diminishing. Her blood holds out and she goes deeper, making the strokes quick and solid, to propel her and work her. She glances at the swans, turning onto her back to look at them that way, making her movements smoother and less likely to splash. The swans watch and then turn, dip their beaks into the water and come back. They are like children playing at mirrors, one a fraction delayed so that she can just make out the leader.
Macha has seen the swans in another performance. It was the pen who led then, on a ferocious sprint through the lake. Her legs were almost out of the water, and both wings were spread, flapping up a splash of foam – quite messy and certainly noisy – until the bird rose, Jesus-like. Not walking, not running, but a ballerina, springing from one leg to the other. Beautiful distances in between. Her wings flapped free and sought to glide, one side dipping and then uprighting to keep the balance. And the cob kept up. He fought for this dance and was just behind, dying down when she was spent, idling beside her, until she started, once more.
Macha had felt the thickness of tears beneath her eyelids, slowing her blinks as she watched and held herself as still as she could. Every cell inside her body rose and lay burning beneath the surface of her skin.
The sun is clear of the land now, working upwards. Macha has come out of the water and crouches on the pontoon, drying herself. She rubs the sheet up the back of her neck and into her hair, tipping her head forward and scrubbing her face, thinking of the milking to be done, the butter; until she sees something. She scrambles to the edge of the pontoon and stares hard into the lake, but it is just the water and the rocks beneath, with seagrass and purple urchins, and then into depth and darkness.
She continues looking – certain of something, though not what. The pen has swum close and stares up at her.
Just when Macha realises the pen is not looking at her, she hears the huge flapping, and feels the cob’s swoop like a shadow, passing through her. It does. It comes from behind: the power of all that air, pushing at her flesh with nothing, but everything. She cries out and throws herself to the side, grabbing the pontoon. Her feet slip off the edge, into the lake – dragging her so that she hangs half in half out – and there, in the foam and ripples, is the cob’s reflection, climbing away. She feels a twist in her shoulder and lets herself go, with the sheet tied about her head. But as she drops she sees into the darkness of the lake and it is changed. Or containing something. It is not how she knows it to be – quite simple and black and still. She kicks with her legs to keep from going too deep. But somehow like that, with her arms flailing and her legs working hard and up, she is drawn down – like an almighty yank at her ankles – until she hits the rugged bottom, crying out the air in her lungs.
She pushes up as hard as she can and, reaching for the pontoon, leaves the sheet sinking behind her. The swans have flown. They are up the bank on the far side.
She pulls on her cloak and hurries to the house.
Her sister Kelcie is at the door, bringing the eggs in.
It’s all right, she says as Macha rushes past. He’s not up yet, though you’ve been an awful long time.
Macha pulls off her wet things and stands close to the fire. She is shivering. Kelcie giggles and wraps a blanket around her, saying: did you forget a sheet?
It’s not funny, she says.
What isn’t? Kelcie draws back and looks at her.
She wipes her hand across her eyes, rubbing them. Nothing, she says.
I wasn’t laughing.
It’s all right, she says and Kelcie continues scrubbing, and she lets her body flop in these narrow, delicate arms. She can hear the kettle above the fire, half way to boil. Her sister’s hands are small yet firm. She knows these hands.
Did you ever see something? Macha says.
Kelcie stops. What’s that?
I see you, Kelcie says, shoving her face forward.
Macha pinches her sister’s nose. That’s not what I meant.
What did you mean then?
She sits down at the table and brings her hands out to hold the sheet on her shoulders
and says: that kettle’s boiling.
Not yet. Kelcie sits down and gawps at her.
What are you looking at me like that for?
Yes you are!
You’re the one talking about seeing things.
I didn’t see anything, Macha says. I just thought I did. I wanted to know if you ever thought you’d seen something.
Lots of times, Kelcie says and jumps up for the kettle.
Macha hangs the blanket and goes into the basket by the dresser.
I’ve not ironed those yet, Kelcie says.
I can see.
Will you be waking him?
Yes, yes, she says, buttoning her shirt.
She goes up with a tray. Her ankles click on the stairs, stiff in the cold: tic, tic, tic, and on the landing she takes smaller steps across the rug. She manages the door handle with the tray balanced on the back of her hand and her fingers straining forward.
A flicker of light dances across the lime-rendered walls as the curtain blows in the open window, dragging in and out. William is turned on his side, facing her. His mouth hangs open. She drops the tray and her lungs flatten with a hoarse whimper, which arrives from deep down in her belly. She stays like that, staring at him until she hears Kelcie on the stairs calling. Her hands are rolled into fists. The day has changed outside.
Macha? Macha! Did you fall?
Kelcie comes into the room. Oh! she says, and then screams.
But Kelcie doesn’t. Oh Lord, she says. Oh Lord oh Lord.
Macha steps over to her sister and grips the tops of her arms. Shush, she says, and directs her towards the door, pushing her out into the hall.
She stands looking at the bed, and William. She looks at everything: the faded, fraying rug and the candle on the table; William’s silver beard, the hand slipped under the pillow beneath his head.
She sits down on the chair in the corner, hugging her knees.
It is Dr Sheehan that finds her later. He steps forward quickly into the room and then halts at the sight of the broken crockery and catches her on the chair in a ball. He makes a sound, turning to the door.
Kelcie peers around and he ushers her forward, waiting until the sisters have each other in their arms; waiting.
But Macha says: I will stay. And so the two of them stay, clung together while he reaches for her husband’s pulse; clearing his throat after a moment.
She comes into the studio and sees his brushes in the jar and thinks, it will be best not to go to the funeral, considering how things were.
She would not expect a stranger at hers.
There is a half-finished canvas on the easel. She takes it down and leans it up against the wall. It is a landscape. There are wild foxgloves and fuchsia bushes; fuchsia bushes everywhere, as they are – a thing that has always amazed her.
It is the path down to the bay, but not the bay itself. They made this walk many times. She always felt he would prefer it that she were not there beside him: for he rarely spoke; and in fact she had to march to keep up. She often wondered why he chose her as a wife, as he stalked away, beneath his wide-brimmed hat, his neck in shadow, both hands like small boulders at his sides. She took one of those hands once, in the first few weeks, having crept up beside him as he paused to observe something further along the headland. He peered down at her as if wondering who she was. She felt a fool, and let his fingers slip from hers and ran down to the bay and then home. Kelcie came soon after that. To be with her.
She crouches down by the painting and squints her eyes, imagining them together on the path.
Marriage had frightened her. Until then, it had been Kelcie and her in their room at home and she thought of nothing else. Not of times that wouldn’t be that.
Father took her into the hall one morning, for that was where consultations took place – not in the kitchen; or upstairs. All that was left was the hall. Even in summer. As if the light-dappled shade beneath the mulberry tree was quite wrong for a discussion about marriage.
And that was how William courted her: through Father, in the dark hall.
It had never been a bright space. During the day a misty glow came from the stairs. But not much, because really it was just the top step, and two closed doors: the door to the left, Mother and Father, and on the right, Kelcie and her, sleeping in bunks, till she was seventeen and in the hall, and a week later a wife. She thought that to have her own home would be grand. That to be married to a painter would be grand. She had not thought what it would be about.
As it began, the house was merely walls and doors and it was as if she had always misplaced something: coming into a room and not knowing where to start, whether to sit or stand, or take some other pose and await discovery. And William was often pacing on the other side of the doorway, not able to enter with her in there; she thinking, what does he do? Out there.
For several months she put dinner on the table and called, softly: William? As if he were in the room, right beside her. The word a plea, a soft soft beg, which he would never have heard. If only he were right beside her.
Ah, he would say, passing the doorway, looking in to the plates on the table.
He came in and rolled up his sleeves and washed at the bucket. He wiped his hands with the cloth she kept dry by the fire. She knew it would be warm and crisp, that it would almost snap in his palms and crumble over his strong knuckles.
He would sit at the table and she would say: I don’t know, it’s not bad, but you don’t have to eat it if you’d rather not.
He would look at her, but she could tell by his face that he had no idea what to say.
She turns to the brushes on the table and sees Kelcie at the door, looking in.
Will you come and dress? her sister asks.
Macha says: do you think they will expect me to cry?
They will expect you to be on time.
She turns and gestures at the room. I didn’t know him at all, she says.
Shush, Kelcie says, stepping forward and taking her hand.
But I didn’t. If you hadn’t been here I should have died.
It’s William that’s dead, now come on.
She leads Macha upstairs and leaves her.
The funeral passes beneath a silver sky, but there is enough light to create gentle shadows on the grass. She watches a cluster of men from the village lower William into the ground, and wonders what he will do in there.
After a while, she steps forward, close to the grave. On the ground, she sees a faint silhouette stretching out from her boot, like another foot beside her, but too thick and black for the muted sun. She cannot move. She knows if she does, the shadow will remain on the ground: it will not move with her. She is too cold to even breathe. Voices murmur behind. There is a pain in her chest, like a thumb pressing harder and harder, and the dim shape on the ground could be her, it could be. But she is not sure. She cannot move.
She knows nothing else, but to bring his name into her mind. She feels it there in an awkward sort of way, between her temples, until it becomes a brilliant presence, flowing something down her spine that feels like peace.
And the pressure in her chest weakens, and she can breathe and the shadow across the ground doesn’t move, or flicker, or alter, but she is safe to bring her arm across and drop the earth, rubbing her thumb across her fingertips.
As she steps back, she turns to the forest and knows something, like a thought, but without words. She runs across the graveyard, not thinking of the graves. Or the folk gathered. His family. They call her back, but she continues and slips through a break in the blackberry, and although the skirt of her tunic brushes the thorny branches, it is only their very tips and they have no hold, but to scratch a little.
The ground is soft and green, so green, even in the silver morning where clouds are fringed with charcoal. The strands of grass are wide and thriving. They douse her legs and soon her stockings are wet and her toes slip against each other in her boots. Each tree reaches up high. The narrow trunks are moss-laden and knotted. The vistas between are striped ribbons: first a light green of grass, then darker where spindly low branches have sprouted foliage, up to the silver-grey of sky.
He could be behind one of those tall, straight trunks, she thinks: standing in his hat.
Or over there.
She sees fern, dots of foxglove, lichen-draped boulders...colours...green – oh, why did she always press him to speak when all he wanted was to look at the world and paint?
And he never adjusted the fork in her hand and said, like that, as Father would do: like that, Macha! Wanting her to be this very specific thing and none other.
No, William would sit with her, in the bay, the two of them side by side on the shingle, surrounded by fuchsia bushes; and he would say nothing. But she would want to know. What was he looking at? She would want him to point and say, can you see, Macha? Because she had not known life without instruction; she had never thought to see for herself. And now she wants to say, look at me, William, for I am. But he is no longer here. He is gone and she is, but there is nothing to do about that.
William is lying on his back under the bed. His face is grey. He is whistling.
Stop that! she cries, sitting up in bed.
She looks across the room in the darkness. The moonlight has cheered the curtains and she can just make out Kelcie’s silhouette up against the wall.
Yes, I was dreaming. She lies back down, staring up at the ceiling. William was under the bed, whistling.
What was he whistling?
I don’t know.
Was he...was he looking at you?
He was dead. He was in that suit.
Oh God, shhh.
Sorry. It was just a dream. Macha turns over and pulls the rug up high to her ear and says: he wore that suit on our wedding day.
It was the only suit he had.
Yes, she says, and then after a moment: do you think he knew he’d be buried in it?
It was his only suit.
But perhaps he thought he would own lots of suits by the time he died.
I wish I knew.
I wish I knew what he was thinking.
He’s thinking how grand heaven is.
No, not now. She closes her eyes and draws her knees up close to her chest. I wish I’d known what he was thinking when he was alive.
She climbs out of the bed and goes next door into the room where she had slept with William; some of the time. She stands by the closet, but as she reaches for a dress she stops and feels the blood in her body so thick and hard that she cannot bend. Her lip trembles.
He is behind her.
Sitting on the bed, she thinks. He is sitting on the bed, watching.
And she remembers: he did. He would watch her dress; quietly. His eyes were round not oval. They were rounded by the skin that drooped at each edge, wrinkling down.
He had once sighed and said he wished he was not so old – this was after a long day where he hadn’t managed to sketch a thing. She had thought it was because he wanted more time – to work, but it all seems very different now. She had been angry. He tired himself out, running up and down the stairs when there was no need. But now she sees him keeping young in those leaps.
She turns, her breath shuddering. The room is empty. He has sprung out of the window. She knows it. She knows it.
She sits on the bed, on William’s side and puts her hand on the mattress. When he slept he breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth so there was always the muffled click of his soft palette. And when she woke and it was silent and she knew he was awake, she would lie fearfully beside him, not knowing what to do, thinking he hated her, thinking, without me he would sleep a thousand sleeps and never be pained.
But now, she brushes his hair back from his forehead in rhythmic strokes until she feels his shoulders sink into the bed, and a great sigh comes from his lungs, with many things riding out into the ether.
Her face is still, her hand on the mattress, stroking back and forth.
She wakes before dawn, to the fresh darkness, the fresh of a new day; not the thick of night. She gets up and has her cloak on the way out. She goes down the stairs and out into the garden. The night is grey with mist, low down to the ground, hovering. The grass is very damp and wets the hem of her nightdress. She walks down to the lake, to the water’s edge, and crouches down. It is too black for a reflection; there is only the night. She has never seen this. It is like looking into the mirror and seeing nothing there. But there is something.
It was him. It wasn’t a memory. He was standing, waiting for her. He was smiling. He was holding out his hand. And she thinks of how she knew what to cook for him after a time, from him leaving small piles of things on the plate, which he had no taste for; never saying, I don’t care for this or that, but in those leavings she grew to know him.
She hurries back home, up the path, and bangs open the kitchen door, rushing through, calling, William! William! running up the stairs.
But the room is dark: he is not there as he was. She goes through the house with a candle, whispering into rooms, shining the flame in corners. She goes out into the garden.
Back and forth in front of the house. And then, returning to the lake, crying.
Sitting on the shore, weeping. And the day comes up. The candle has blown out.
I saw you, she says. I saw you.
The seeds have blown over from America, she hears him whisper. And she knows he is talking about the fuchsia bushes, for she was always asking how it was they lined the coast so: asking and always sure he was not listening.