In the Hollow of a Wave by Rachel Hynes
New Irish Writing’s winning story for April
When she was a child, my mother swam in the waters of a little shingle beach situated between five long sea-stacks which, when viewed by fishermen swaying to sleep on small boats offshore, resembled the lichened fingers of a submerged sea-giant. My mother held no romance about the sea. Her people were seafarers: dockhands, oystercatchers, fishwives; those whose very souls were both writ and drowned in water. Like all those subject to the wavering temperaments of the oceans she worried about fate and time, and, even as a girl, she had a sense of these terrible forces pressing down hard upon her. An island child, she learned how to read clouds, the winged semaphores of the sea. Each day she rose with the skylark and stood on a grassy headland overlooking the island sound to squint up at the morning sky. She studied all types and shapes of cloud; long clouds that scrape across the sky, great big purple clouds swollen like birthday balloons and even the crocheted clouds like white lace on a wedding day.
I’ve never seen a cloud.
In my world there’s no movement in the sky save the rolling red eye of the sun patrolling the heavens like a vexed god. But I like how the word ‘cloud’ sounds on my tongue: full and fat.
We sleep dreamlessly. Entwined together under a tarpaulin smeared with clay and dirt. Night falls and with it rise cold, faceless stars. The nights are so cold I think my heart will stop. Days are spent walking across mudbanks, scabland and dried sludge. The sky is a poisonous blue and the sun bleaches and kills all it touches. My mother’s hand rests under the side of her face as she sleeps, hiding the crescent-shaped brown scar on her cheek. She’s sun-hardened; her face leathery and lips blistered. Clay rings her nailbeds from digging for groundwater. Though I’m now a teenager, she still sings to me on the infinite road. Humming a lonesome tune from when I was a baby. Sometimes we pass through places where water once ran; riverbeds, loughs, estuaries. For a moment I think I can hear the whispering of water in the mire; its soft, freshet breaths faint but perceptible. We pick our way across tracts of hardened ground to avoid sink-holes and fix our eyes on the horizon to soften the glare from the endless mud. Mother knots rag kerchiefs around my mouth and nose to dull the persistent stench of decomposition and sulphur.
I often try to coax Mother into talking about the sea, in hope of inspiring a fragment of memory or a story. “Ah, but even Shakespeare spent time as a simple sailor,” she replies, mischievously, before instructing me to straighten the water cannister at my hip. Instead, she amuses herself by telling a yarn about a monstrous hag banished to the bottom of a clear mountain lake and cursed to drain it with a thimble for all eternity. In this tale the bitter old crone drags teenage swimmers down to their watery graves motivated by spite alone. I roll my eyes dramatically in Mother’s direction, which cheers her up considerably.
I keep an old seashell with me. Dirt clings to its curves but it is lustrous and otherworldly, this memento mori of the sea I carry in my pocket. Mother says I held it fast in a little fist on the day we found it. We were almost 200 miles inland from the lost sea. She put it to my small ear and told me to listen carefully so that I might hear the murmurous sea turning in my ear. Even now, when I put the shell to my ear, I can hear a whole world turning in it; the beat of birdwings and sea sound all waltzing together in a ghostly song.
We’re going to the rag well.
The last green place. The women from mother’s island used to make pilgrimages to it. Women usually in want of a husband or a child. They cupped their hands and drank deep from the little well beside a whitethorn tree hung heavy with scraps of men’s shirts and baby blankets…
“LIAR,” I finally screamed at Mother, turning to face her in the falling dusk. “LIAR! LIAR!”
The pressure of her hands pinning my wrists into the sun-warmed mire around our camp anchored my raging, thrashing body. Later, in the freezing night, she reached for me. “We’ll get there,” she whispered. “I promise.” But her voice was small and uncertain. When I woke before dawn, she was staring up at the fading stars; her knees drawn up under her chin.
We scurry through houses in abandoned villages like rats; emptying kitchen drawers, turning over moulding beds, stuffing our grubby haversacks with any useful items we find. When we find tins of food, Mother claws them open with her penknife and often feeds me from her mouth like I’m a little bird. On the dusty track north of one particular village, we come to unwelcoming wrought iron gates swinging in the breathless heat of afternoon. Mother holds them open and silently beckons me forward with her hand. We trek up a sloped drive flanked by wide craters in the ground; the vacant places where trees once stood. We’d play games in the graves of trees when I was a small child. Roots dried out and chalky like the skeletons of giant prehistoric mammals. Large hurting wounds to jump in and jump out of.
A 19th-century building with a bellcote and steeply-pitched roof slumps in the afternoon sun. A statuette of a woman in a classical gown with a windblown veil about her face perches above the barricaded front porch. She is deep in reverie but seems to stare disapprovingly at mother who tells me to watch the road and then hurls a rock at a downstairs windowpane. “A convent,” Mother says, as our eyes adjust to the dim inside. The high vaulted ceilings make me feel small. Pulped wallpaper hangs in loops and strips from walls. I cough from the film of agitated dust motes dissipating into air. Now abandoned and forsaken, I imagine the convent in its former glory; little nuns scrubbing soapy floors, prayers whispering through the walls, the rustle of skirts on the stairs.
We come to a stately room saturated in light. It pours in from tall lancet windows made of thin glass in deep gemstone colours. Sombre human faces melt together in a story told through light. The intense glow and aura from the glass reminds me of firelight. I can hear Mother pacing through pews behind me, running her hands across the walls and looking into corners for anything of use. She’s numb to the beautiful spectacle. “I went to school in a place like this,” she mumbles. “Before things got bad. It’s an oratory.” I wonder how they awaited the end, these forgotten sisters. Calmly? Stoically? My soul burns to hear them sing. Mother leaves unceremoniously to search other rooms. I stare after her, resentfully. Resentment for keeping me alive, for seawater touching her skin, for this girlhood locked up in a charnel house. A dusty pipe organ beckons me to its slender keys. I place a fingertip upon one but know better than to attract the interest of highwaymen out on the road.
She stands silently in the vestibule around sunset with a candle in her hand. As always, searching for water. The soft candlelight floats over a network of pipes in the walls. Water, brown and discoloured, had spat from the brassy kitchen taps. Sometimes domestic taps yield a merciful dribble but she needs to find the water tank to check for certainty. “A full water tank!” she shrieks down from a dusty loft before composing herself. I rush to the panelled bathtub in the large communal bathroom. Water laden with lime and sediment rushes from the faucet. Mother joins me and holds a torn piece of muslin to the flow until it runs clear. A pale violet shard of lavender soap is our most prized possession. I take it out of a battered little tin. We undress. Mother gets in and I follow with my back to her. She washes my hair. The lavender perfume from the soap is faint but herbal. The discoloured water is soothing on our grazed, overheated skin and we luxuriate in it. Mud on my skin dissolves into silt and sinks to the bottom of the tub in a rust-coloured fizz.
“My favourite view of it was at night,” Mother says softly. “The light beam from the old lighthouse glittering out over wavelets in the sound and illuminating the dark sky.
“Moonlight slick on seawater. The far-off glow of hearths in the hills of neighbouring islands. The sound of corncrakes nesting low in iris-dotted grass. Everywhere a murmuring and a sense of an unseen world of nature at work while humans slept. That cathedral feeling of being something small in a much larger chain of being.”
The disused bathroom seems to expand out on to a blue night and I’m flying over the sea with the speed of the silvering porpoise fins below me. I’m scaling purpling cliffs teeming with coastal flowers and seabirds.
And then I’m back, abruptly.
A heavy, knowing silence falls between us. About the day not long after my eighth birthday when we met the man who had seen the sea. He stood in the middle of the road clad in rags. He’d been to the coast, he shouted. The sea was gone. In its place was a vast murky gorge with mountains that grew taller and more terrible every day. Ships, mourning water, rusted and groaned in the wind. An asphyxiating stench. Half-mad, he shouted, gesticulated and raved, foaming at the mouth. Mother pulled me behind her legs and then thrust me out to her righthand side, pushing me off the road. “Run south-west and do not look back,” she hastened. I ran and I ran. When Mother caught up with me she was bleeding from a sickle-shaped gash on her face. And when I looked back towards the road, the body of the man who had seen the sea was lying there, still and crumpled in his soiled garments.
Months pass and the world desiccates, flakes and dries out more. The water in the convent keeps us off the open road. We descend to the shadow-filled, sinking village only to scavenge. Mother starts to take longer to awaken at sunrise. Her breath labours until eventually she cannot move from the coil of dirty blankets we placed on the convent dormitory floor. Then death comes by the setting sun. The last vestiges of daylight crept across the floor through the tall windows and a splice of rose-coloured sunlight settles on her chest which rises and falls laboriously. She doesn’t believe in God so there are no prayers she taught me to say for her. I stay with her body for two more nights, holding her in the darkness. Then I take her penknife and I go back on the road.
We tell children things to keep them from drowning. Stories become sea pearls, lifebuoys and the sails of a ship. My inheritance is my mother’s memory of water. Her desire is my desire. To return to the gaping wave-mouth; to drench myself in the roar of water. To sweep back hair clumped with brine. To lick salt from my lips and to dust my skin in fine, gritty sand. I see my mother now in my mind’s eye as a fierce little girl with clenched fists, standing face-to-face with the wild waves. Her arms outstretched like a tiny sea sprite until she’s pulled into the hollow of a wave and lost forever in its blue-green flickering light.
How to enter
New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty and appearing in the Irish Independent on the last Saturday of each month, is open to writers who are Irish or resident in Ireland. Stories submitted should not exceed 2,000 words. Up to four poems may be submitted. There is no entry fee. Writers whose work is selected will receive €120 for fiction and €60 for poetry. You can email your entry, preferably as a Word document, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, address and contact number, as well as a brief biographical paragraph. Only writers who have yet to publish their first book can be considered.