EVERY MORNING BUT SUNDAY I watched them depart, Finn and my father heading off to the schoolhouse, my long-legged brother matching strides with our da. By then my father had lost all of his faith and much of his hope; mostly charity remained as he taught without pay the few lads left to learn. And discipline, his belief that routine gives shape and therefore meaning to the day. For logic, one studied Latin, for truth, the Greeks. It irked me that they should leave me behind, for I thought myself twice as clever as my twin. So when Finn returned at tea, I made much of the time spent with my mother, of our mornings exploring the shore in search of kelpies and mussels, climbing up to the faerie ring that overlooked Tawny Bay.
During the day the ring was safe enough, for the faeries only did their mischief at night. We sat in the sun high above the sea, watching the shadows of the clouds on the hillside, my mother’s hand on my own as she helped me to shape my letters. Her hands were rough, for as a girl she’d mended the fishing nets alongside her mother. Her years as a wife had not softened them, although she had married the Scottish landlord’s son and could have had help. Nor had they softened her temper, as sharp and quick as her laughter.
When I open the door to memory, I hear her voice reciting the old verses, the ones that proclaim our glory days. It was she who chose our names for their power and wisdom: Fionn, the great hero of Irish myth, Aine, Queen of the Faeries.
My father had indulged his pretty wife in this fancy, but the names soon became a source of pain for him for their terrible irony.
An Gorta Mor, The Great Hunger: a million dead, millions more leaving Ireland on ships rife with typhus and cholera. The English, who had starved us, observed that with so many departed, a man could now have a decent portion of land to support his children. “They have no shame, no decency! We are not “better off!” My father shook the cottage with his anger. He tore through the newsprint until he found the quotation. “Here, read what the German, Marx, has written: ‘After being starved into ruin, the Irish are good only for whoring and begging.’” By then the rift between my father and his own family was complete, his father and mother returned to Scotland, the plantation manor left in the hands of the British overseer.
I understood even as a child that my mother filled my days with heroes and faeries to replace the faith my father had lost. She did not know how many hours Finn and I spent exploring the empty cottages that had once held our playmates. Some had been buried near the kitchen gardens because the church yards were overcrowded, their unsanctified graves piled high with stones to keep animals away.
Like so many others, Father began to look to America for salvation. He was convinced of its bounty: there a man could raise his children to believe in the possibility of dignity, of dreams. Our mother was adamant that we remain in Ireland. Although the days of the coffin ships had passed, the journey was still dangerous, the cities brutal. Those who survived arrived desperate and ill, welcomed only by kin. She would not leave her home for such an uncertain future.
In the end, it was no dream of bounty that carried us to America. As Finn grew older, Father came to recognize in his son his own idealism, corroded with a hatred of everything English. It seemed inevitable that were he to remain in Ireland, Finn would join one of the secret brotherhoods, ending up imprisoned or dead. So our father cast our fates to the winds that would carry us across the Atlantic. Ten weeks, the voyage took, and as fate would have it, Finn and I were left to survive on our own. Our mother died before we stepped aboard the Marguerite, our father, in Kingston, Ontario, in the aftermath of the terrible journey.
I was twenty when this story begins, living in the state of New York on a rough granite island named Grindstone, just below the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River. By then Finn had gone for a soldier and I was alone. In the atlas Grindstone looked like a country unto itself, surrounded by a hundred lesser islands, inhabited, I was certain, with bears and wild men. When I came to that place, it was October, and the trees were red and gold. Then November came, with its somber skies, December, when all living things seemed to abandon the land, and the river boomed and cracked as it seized up in ice. Then everything froze altogether, and the sky and the water became still.
New to that country, caught up in my own survival, I did not understand the scope or nature of the War of the Rebellion, only that it was not ours, my brother’s and mine, to fight. I could not have imagined that the war would come to the very shores of Grindstone, with such treachery and brutality that I still wake at night with a pounding heart.
But when I open the door to memory, I am leaning against the warm stones of the faerie ring, a piece of slate in my lap. Sun on my face, breeze from the sea on a May morning in Kilcar, County Donegal. My mother’s hand on my own as she helps me to shape my letters. In the deliberate turning of chalk, my name appears: Anya O’Neill MacGregor. In the fusion of chalk and slate, I shape words, and with words, meaning.
“If it’s not written,” my mother told me, “it won’t stand. Do not leave it to others. Only you will be able to tell your own story.”