If I ignore the door hanging half off its hinges and the swallow’s nest surveying the dust from beneath the exposed center beam, Nana’s cottage is little changed from fifteen years ago, when Dad left me here to “find my roots.”
I knew better, even as a child. I was there to give him space to drink away the hole where mum should’ve been without me watching.
“She’s gone,” he’d said, that first night when I’d stumbled out of bed for a glass of water. The flat had stunk of gin. The only thing redder than his nose were the whites of his eyes. He’d collapsed into sobs, jabbing his thumbs into his sockets as if they could plug up the tears.
I’d been too scared to ask questions so I sat at his feet and wrapped my arms around his shins, shivering in my thin cotton nightie.
When the gin was gone and the tears with them, Dad had finally reached down and run his fingers through my hair. “You’re a good girl, Eileen.” There’d been a rustling noise, then a cool weight settled around my neck. Mum’s silver locket. One side held a photo of her as a child, the other a lock of her nut-brown hair. Dad fumbled with the clasp until it finally closed. “She’d want to you to have it.”
A week later, I’d taken my first steps into Nana’s domain.
Silver-haired and silver-tongued, Nana was nothing like her son. Pillowy and warm, she’d welcomed me in with a sturdy embrace and a plate of gooseberry-almond tarts.
Standing in her kitchen again, for the first time since Dad had come to collect me four months after he’d left me in the first place, I can almost taste the lingering scent of almond.
It’s only wishful thinking, of course. Nana spent her last years in an adult care home. Dad hadn’t thought to tell me until after she died this past summer. I hadn’t told him I’d already known. I gave up on reaching out to him long ago. Too often I ended up talking to the liquor.
He’d been sober when he called, though. “She left you the cottage. Said the land had taken to you.”
It’s the sort of thing she would have said. Not a day passed when I was with her that didn’t begin with a tale of the wee folk or a bit of arcane knowledge about this tree or that bush. One particular tree had caught my attention. It stood alone in the center of the field out back, its trunk surrounded by a low wall of stones. Bands of cloth hung from its sharp branches — some in brilliant hues, others bleached beige by the sun and rain.
“It’s a hawthorn,” she’d told me when I asked about it, “a fairy tree. Folks tie those ribbons as wishes or prayers. Maybe the wee folk might hear. Maybe they might answer.”
She gave me my space those months I was with her. I spent hours out of doors, walking down by the stream or hidden in the hollow space beneath the roots of the old oak tree along its bank.
I tried to forget that mum was gone — that dad, while he was still somewhere, needed his drink more than he needed me — but when I was alone, cocooned beneath the oak tree, sometimes the loneliness hit me so hard my tears turned the soil to salty red mud.
Nana was kind, and I was grateful to her, but more than anything I wanted my mum.
My thoughts often strayed to that solitary hawthorn. Sometimes the wee folk hear wishes, if you tie a ribbon on the fairy tree.
I didn’t have a ribbon. Besides, a ribbon would eventually fray, then rot away into nothing.
Standing now in Nana’s kitchen beneath the swallow’s nest, alive with a chorus of tiny cheeps, my fingers stray to the empty space where mum’s locket once hung, its silver strand the only thing strong enough to hold my deepest wish.
The wee folk had never answered. How could they? Mum was gone, and besides, Ireland wasn’t the same place it had been once upon a time when the legends were born. How could the wee folk exist in a world of asphalt and industry?
But somehow, in this one small slice of the countryside, Nana had made me believe, just for a little while.
I step out through the overgrown vegetable garden and walk around to the back of the cottage. In the center of the field, the hawthorn still holds pride of place. Colored ribbons still flutter in the breeze.
I trail down the slope, dew soaking into my trainers, until I stand beneath the spreading branches. A gust of wind shakes them and a flash of silver draws my gaze to where mum’s locket still hangs where I left it all those years ago.
I scramble up onto the stone wall and slowly unwrap the chain. It’s surprisingly clean, without a hint of tarnish.
I’ve nearly forgotten what the young child who had been my mum looked like. Biting my lip, I snap the locket open.
A stately woman looks back at me, lines across her face, deep and curved around her soft smile. Blue eyes mirror my own. The once nut-brown strands of hair on the opposite side now glint as silver as the chain.
Mum, as she’d never gotten the chance to be.
Tears pool in the corners of my eyes.
A breeze redolent with gooseberry and almond dances past, brushing the back of my neck like Nana’s sturdy fingers had done when I was a child, then fades away and is gone.
I close the locket gently and fasten the clasp behind my neck, then lay my palm against the hawthorn’s rough bark. “Thank you.”
I turn back toward the cottage and blink away my tears. There’s work to be done.
I’ve come home.
Rebecca Birch writes in Washington State. She is a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees.