“I shouldn’t be here,” Siobhan said, biting her lip. She looked toward the frosted window of the snug — the closet-like room in which her Da and Frank’s father were haggling away over The Bindings, settling her future forever. “The pub is no place for a lass.”
Behind the bar, her old friend, Colin Murphy, youngest son of the publican, scoffed gently. “Och, no one — not in this Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Sixteen — will mind a proper lady in the public house on this, your grand day.” The village poet, Colin could as scarce resist an eloquent turn of phrase as a gesture of the heart. He smiled reassuringly — but perhaps a little sadly? — as he dolloped currant preserves across two thick slices of bread. Somebody fiddled a melancholy tune. Tobacco, burning peat, sawdust and musk hung heavily in this strange cavern of men. The candlelight glistening on the preserves and on Colin’s ruddy hair flared into an incandescent aura. Siobhan felt a part of herself fading; she thought she might be overcome — but she would not allow it.
Colin’s hand brushed hers ever so slightly, and her fair cheeks reddened, as he passed the sandwich. “This will steady you,” he said softly. “You should be nothing but glad today.”
“Should I?” she wondered. Indeed, it seemed a brilliant match. The McCarthys owned more cows than anyone. It was a fortune worth waiting for. On the matchmakers’s advice, her Ma and Da had kept aloof from suitors for a couple of years into Siobhan’s marriageable age, hoping that Frank’s parents might indeed turn their eyes her way. Maybe, Siobhan mused, it would have been easier to submit a little while ago, when she was truly but a girl.
She thought of her and Frank’s “walking out”. The young villagers — lads and lasses alike — had looked at them with such sweet envy. Sweet, except in Colin’s case. He had been since early childhood her exemplar and protector, but when he’d seen her with another, his eyes had fallen on her a little too long, whispering to her of passion, of danger, of the life of stories. Siobhan’s escort had stepped into the line of Colin’s gaze, cutting those whispers short.
Frank, on the other hand, had spoken loudly, if flatly, of cattle, of acreage, of his mother’s mashed spuds. Well, he might be a bit dull, but she would have a fine life as Mrs. McCarthy. So her Ma had told her, and so she told herself. And did it matter whether she believed? “Sooner,” her Ma had told her, “sooner will King Georgie loose his grip on Ireland than a woman will choose her own path in this weeping world.”
Unbidden, there drifted before her eyes an image of the cailleacheen, that old woman who had died just a couple years earlier. No one would say who the cailleacheen’s people were, but it almost seemed she had lodged at the edge of the village since the time of her namesake, the Cailleach Bheara, the eldritch Hag of Beara herself. When all was well, the villagers would turn their eyes from the cailleacheen, until an unruly girl needed correcting. Then, the devout women would point at the shriveled, wretched hag and say, “This is what becomes of little girls who don’t obey.”
But once when Siobhan had been down with a bad cold that might have been the ’flu, and the old doctor’s patent medicines had availed nothing, Colin had brought the cailleacheen, with all her herbs and ancient charms, and Siobhan’s parents, grudgingly, had opened the door and stood aside. As the witch bent over her bed, Siobhan had seen a great sadness in her, but also, something grand — strength, would you call it? Freedom? There can be truth in fever, granddaughter. Whatever you have seen or felt today, remember it, the cailleacheen had told her, in the midst of her ministrations. And now, in the pub, amid this queer stew of scents and sensations, the fever was back, and the cailleacheen’s spirit was back with it.
Inside the snug, by now the parties were likely debating how many eggs would be delivered to Siobhan’s parents of a Sunday to ease their old age. Inside her heart, another debate raged. You’ll have a fine life as Mrs. McCarthy, her mother’s voice whispered, insistently, cajolingly, pleadingly, striving to refute the cailleacheen’s wordless argument. Siobhan shut out both women (so she thought) and looked into Colin’s blue eyes — deep into the mysterious glow kindling there. A match had been lit.
Later the door of the snug burst open. “Where’s my beautiful girl?” asked Siobhan’s father, his ample face beaming, his arms spread wide. But she was nowhere to be seen, and there was no one behind the bar to answer.
Brian O’Sullivan teaches English literature and rhetoric at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.