I take Dáithí to meet Biddie at the airport. It’s a surprise — Biddie squeals with joy when she sees us waiting for her at the gate.
“It’s only an hour layover,” she says, delighted, and she flings her arms around my shoulders. “How’d you talk your way past security? Charmed ‘em?”
She squats on the floor in front of my son. She’s very good at not crowding his space; she just says: “How’s my Dáithí, then?” and holds out her stethoscope for him to investigate. He takes it, warily, turning it over in his chubby hands, keeping one eye on her.
“You know me,” she says enthusiastically. She stands in a fluid movement to pull me close to her. “See now?” she says. “I’m your Auntie Biddie. See how much I look like your Mami?”
Dáithí looks dubiously from my face to Biddie’s — looks at her fresh young cheek next to my thin, pale one. Each year, as I age and she remains unchanged, she asks anyone who will listen the same pointless question, her cheek pressed to mine, her arms wrapped tightly around my waist.
“See how much we look alike?” she always says. “Like twins, don’t we?”
This time it pains and embarrasses me just as much as always, even though Dáithí merely turns to chase a little girl with long curly ringlets and a pink denim jacket. We hurry to follow him.
“I love the way you let him lead the way — how you let him experience his world,” she says, slinging her army surplus bag over her shoulder and effortlessly quickening her steps.
She is constantly, frantically, complimenting my parenting, to make up for the past.
As if she’s the one who needs to seek forgiveness. As if she’s the one who abandoned me.
The airport isn’t crowded — it’s Sunday afternoon and not many other planes are in.
“How’s Brigit?” I ask, trying to keep my tone neutral.
Biddie’s face clouds. “She thinks you should ask her yourself,” she says. “But I’ll tell you she’s fine.”
The last time I went to see Brigit I lurched from the ferry, retching, almost before it ground to a halt, engine churning brine as the chains clanked against the metal gangplank.
I rudely pushed past an old man in hip waders to reach the gravel road first. I gulped sea air, pressing hard on the acupressure points I’d learned to halt nausea.
I heard the grumbling behind me but did not turn to acknowledge it. I took several deep, gulping breaths before I headed down the road past the ruins of the nunnery. I tried to ignore the memories which bustled there from centuries ago — roof strong, bells vibrant, voices raised in song to Ana, Mary, and St. Bríd — and practically ran through the damp, cold air toward the Protestant Abbey which had replaced the illegal Catholic one long ago.
Exercise seemed to help the nausea, although I was weak-kneed with hunger, cold, and probably fear.
I passed the Abbey and its warm glowing windows and walked on, more slowly now, as years of living in the dry American climate had left my lungs unprepared for a Scottish December. Despite myself, I savored the sea air, glorying in the stillness and the roar of the sea, soaking in the rolling hills and the wild smell of seaweed. I could feel the echoing vastness of the ocean to the west, and walking down a simple gravel road in Iona, a fog rolling gently back from the fields, as always, I felt as if I were strolling through a tiny scrap of heaven.
I was, perhaps, also stalling. My backpack seemed to grow heavier as I continued.
But my feet got me to the door of the house eventually, even though I stopped unnecessarily to allow sheep to pass more than once, nodding to the farmers who recognized me with that strange, offset but respectful glance that residents of Iona always used when they saw one of the sisters.
The cottage looked like a fairy tale: thatch neat and heavy, stucco patched, and so exactly the same as it had always been that I swallowed hard past a lump in my throat.
I knocked on the heavy wooden door, even though I knew Brigit had watched me climb the rolling hills to the doorstep for half an hour.
She opened the door, and we were both freshly startled by each other.
I stood in the doorway and waited while she studied me.
“Dia dhuit,” she said finally.
“Dia ‘s Muire dhuit,” I returned, and she stepped back to let me in. The stove was banked, and the sudden warmth and sharp smell of coal sent another wave of nausea through me. I pressed the acupressure point again.
“What the hell’s happened to your face?” Brigit asked abruptly.
“They’re called wrinkles, and thank you for noticing,” I replied. “You know what happened to my face, you old crow.”
She turned from me and snorted, as if wrinkles were a silly affectation, and poured boiling water over the leaves in her teapot.
“You’re on the nest then, are you?” she asked as she turned to pull out a large, overstuffed chair for me.
“That’s what I came to tell you,” I said.
“So you’re never coming back, then.”
I ground my teeth and stared out of the window at the pearl-gray sky and the rust and green hills.
“I was thinking you might be happy to have a nephew,” I said flatly.
Brigit’s anger, even when she held it in tightly, was as fiery as her love, her forge, and her inspiration.
Her thoughts pressed thickly around me, filling the cottage, scouring the stone floor, howling over the low beams of the ceiling and battering at my face. But I couldn’t hear them. They couldn’t get in.
“You’re never coming back,” she said again, busying her hands with the teacups and the pot. “I’ve seen too many new mothers to think there’s any hope of it.”
I saw she had taken out three teacups.
“Is Biddie coming?” I asked.
“Of course she’s coming,” Brigit snapped. “She came running as soon as I told her you were here. She’s in the garden.”
Brigit meant the garden on the Isle of Women. Our home was very much like we had been once: three-in-one. If you walked out of the north door, you were in Iona, Scotland. If you walked out of the south door, you were in Kildare, Ireland. And if you walked out of the east door, you were on the Isle of Women. Our own Isle.
I had passed the Isle on the short ferry trip from Mull to Iona. With my mortal eyes, it looked like nothing but a pile of barren rock. Although it still appeared on maps as the Isle of Women, no one could remember why anymore.
I heard Biddie before I saw her, shrieking with joy like a wild thing in the winter outside before she flung open the door. Despite myself, I hoped to see a flash of our sweet, snug garden on the Isle of Women behind her. But I saw only Iona, as a mortal should.
“How do you know it’s a boy?” she asked delightedly, seemingly oblivious to my pang of regret. “You’re not far enough along to tell yet, are you?”
I smiled then, and told them about the funny dream he sent me: baby penises growing from the ground like grass and sprouting from bushes like tight, sharp rosebuds.
We spent the next hour speaking as if everything was right — if Biddie and Brigit said anything to each other in their shared mind that was not meant for my ears, I pretended not to see it on their faces. If they were frustrated that my mind remained closed to them, they did not let on.
All of us kept our bodies angled just slightly away from the east door, and I ignored its call for me to just step through it — just one step, and I’d be back in our cozy garden, back in our Isle: breathing in the sweet smell of good, clean winter grass, neat rows of sheep sorrel, second-season lettuce, and cooking herbs; surrounded by the stone fence nearly as old as the hill the house stood on, looking down our well-worn path which curled through the gate to the sacred well in the tiny valley. Just one step, and I would be back in our shared mind and our shared power, back in our immortality and its endless twilight.
Brigit poured the tea and conversation warmed as we did. We talked of old times like other women do, our feet steaming in front of the stove where we sat underneath neat bunches of drying thyme, rosemary, yarrow, and oregano. Brigit began to sing one of our old songs, and Biddie and I joined in.
It was almost as if the other two weren’t as alike as two new pennies; almost as if all three of us saw the same view from the windows; three in one again, no one exiled, everyone home.
Biddie says no more of Brigit and we break into a trot to keep up with Dáithí. He has only been walking for a few months, so he still turns corners like a drunkard. I pull him from the path of an oncoming motorized cart in the nick of time.
“Don’t scare your Mami, mo stóirín,” I say absently, smoothing his curly hair and breathing deeply of his baby smell.
“Sorry John couldn’t make it,” I say to Biddie. “They gave him another weekend shift.”
I don’t tell her he could have easily gotten out of it, but she brushes my excuse away with an irritable flip of her wrist.
She doesn’t care if she sees John anyway. He’s not sick, so he doesn’t interest her. We have stopped arguing about this: my fists clenched, demanding that my sisters see the people they claim to care for as something more than a faceless mass; the other two laughing at my insistence on voting, on reading the news, on knowing how to use a computer. They say the same thing about John that they ultimately say about every mortal who crosses their path at one time or another: “He’s rather simple, though, isn’t he?” Brigit scornful, Biddie as if she finds this a delightful quality.
Without knowing he is nothing but an abstraction to them, John still can’t help but feel jealous when I get together with one of my sisters.
“It’s like I’m not even in the room,” he says. “Like you can read each other’s minds — like you’ve known each other a lot longer than only thirty-five years.”
Brigit is amazed that I have married, and classifies this decision with having a television, and chatting with the neighbors over the chain link fence about things of no consequence: the weather, how to nurse a cold, whether the Twins will make the playoffs. She refused to come to the wedding. Very little can get her off of the Isle nowadays, and absolutely nothing has ever gotten her to board a plane for what she still calls the New World.
“One of us has to stay where we belong,” she says, to remind Biddie and me that we are too worldly — that we have forgotten who we are and whom we are supposed to care for. “One of us still listens to the prayers of old women.” They are the only ones who leave candles, flowers, and rosaries at Brigit’s wells anymore.
Biddie flies everywhere — New World or old. She decided to become an M.D. after I left, taking my medical knowledge with me, and she doesn’t even focus on Diasporan Irish and Scots, but goes wherever she is sent through Doctors Without Borders. This is shocking even for me — there are good doctors everywhere, and our special commitment to the Gaels seems more important. But as one who has abandoned them entirely, I am in no position to argue. I don’t even know how many of them died before Biddie learned enough to take over my work. It could have been hundreds. It could have been none.
“It’s dry as the desert on those planes,” says Biddie. “I’m going to get a bottle of water for my throat.”
We argue a bit about who will pay for it, which is absurd because she has limitless resources and I’m a stay-at-home mom, married to a postman.
She finally pays and we settle down in the Starbucks. Dáithí sits with us, happily tearing his napkin into bits, his large blue eyes barely clearing the edge of the table.
“It’s been sixteen years, now,” says Biddie quietly, and she doesn’t look at me.
I know what she is thinking the way every mortal knows what her sister is thinking: Why? How could she? Why, why, why?
Even if she asked it aloud, I couldn’t answer.
At first, if there ever was a first, it never occurred to me there was any other way to live. I was what I was. We were what we were. We shared every thought and feeling with each other for century upon century, one finishing the other’s sentences whether said aloud or imagined, two sharing one’s grief, three watching over our people together. Where one sister ended, another began, or perhaps we overlapped, from time to time. Our arguments linked back to embraces, our disagreements merely added to our knowledge.
Brigit imagines that my itch to leave started when the angels of the Lord appeared to us and took only me away, as I was the midwife. Made me put on airs, she said. But it was more than two thousand years ago that I held hands in a faraway desert with a maiden mother as she groaned and fought through the night, the other two working with me in thought and spirit, looking out through my eyes, breathing with my breath, sending me their strength, marveling all together as we held the Son of God in our arms.
I’ve argued with her. The Gaels would have long forgotten Brigit, Bríd, and Biddie if not for that night and if not for our sainthood in Ireland. The others weren’t so lucky. We should be grateful.
Grateful to them for breaking us apart? Brigit would answer back with a snarl.
She may be right. Perhaps it was Him who gave me the idea. I really don’t know. I don’t know if it started then or afterwards — or even sometime before. When you share every thought and feeling with your sisters, there are no focused thoughts of leaving. There is no dreaming and planning an escape.
So I did not plan. I was not even aware that I was slowly feeling strangled by the endless babble of three voices in my head. I did not know that I was chafing at the reflection of my own face on either side of me. I did not know that I yearned. I did not know that I had grown weary. I only knew that one day, quick as a breath, I left them to plunge into the endless streaming torrent of humanity. Like a salmon leaping up and then borne away into the deep, I was gone.
Biddie looks at her watch. “Oh, no!” she says, rising to her feet. “Where did the time go?”
Dáithí and I walk her to the gate, where they have begun boarding. Dáithí suffers himself to be kissed and even gives Biddie one of his rare smiles.
“We’ll meet again soon,” we promise each other, knowing that we probably won’t.
She slings her bag over her shoulder: lithe, firm, strong. Even with no one knowing who she is, people turn to look at her. She glows, and I can almost see the light dimming in the terminal as she leaves it.
“Are you ready to go home for your dinner?” I ask Dáithí, and I take his tiny hand. He wants to ride the escalator, so I go up and down with him on it a few times before we suit up to find the car.
The dream is always the same.
I’m trying to leave the cottage. I am late for the ferry. If I miss it, it’s the last of the day. I will be trapped here.
My suitcase is filled with a confusing heap of blouses, stockings, shoes, toiletries. Someone’s pennywhistle. My sisters’ clothes are thrown in with mine: Biddie’s jeans, Brigit’s blouse, someone’s underwear I don’t recognize. A shoe.
My clothes, tangled in with Biddie’s and Brigit’s, are spread over the butcher-block table in the kitchen, the backs of the wooden chairs, flung over the arms of the chairs by the fire.
I frantically run from place to place, trying to pack, panicking. Every time I turn, the clothes are mixed up more. And more. And more.
Then their voices start in my head, even though I haven’t stepped out into the garden: overlapping, laughing, dismissive of my panic. Ferries and planes and being on time — what are they to us? Loud. Soft. Careful. Then angry. Swarming through me.
As the clock ticks on and I have missed the ferry, I am still doggedly trying to separate our things and shut my suitcase. I lose track of who is saying what in my mind. The clothes multiply, then shrink, and some of them are far too old, from long ago, and some are far too fine, and some are wrong for all of us altogether. And still the voices continue: rolling, roiling, faster and faster one on top of the other until I crash through the surface of sleep.
I am lying very still under the gently rotating ceiling fan. John’s warm bulk presses against my back, his breathing even. Curled up against my belly, Dáithí snores gently. With the cat on my knees, I can barely move. I am pressed in on all sides. But I am utterly, blissfully, alone.
Copyright © 2004 Haddayr Copley-Woods
Haddayr Copley-Woods has published one other short story, in Rabid Transit: a Mischief of Rats. She writes a regular column for the feminist newspaper Minnesota Women’s Press. She lives with her husband Jan and their son Arie in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she works as a copywriter and graphic designer. For more on her work, see her website. To contact her, send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steven Riggs is a professional artist and illustrator whose works are a part of many corporate and private collections. Steven focuses on depicting people in their surroundings and the importance of the human condition. He lives with his wife and three sons in Groveport, Ohio. To contact him, send him email at email@example.com.