by Shannon Connor Winward
We don’t know how it was my father drowned. He had no bruises, no tears on his clothes to suggest there’d been a brawl. He had no enemies, in any case. He didn’t drink.
Perhaps an apoplexy took him as he bent to wash off the grime from his day. Perhaps he’d stumbled. Sometimes the men of the gunpowder mill had trouble with balance, a constant ringing in the ears from the explosions.
Perhaps it was his heart.
No one had seen him since quitting time. They crossed their eyes at each other when we asked, the MacNeils, the O’Brians, saying things without saying them. Maybe he’d gone to sup with “friends” (that woman) downriver, again. Too wet, too cold, too late to walk home.
Like most of the other immigrant families, we lived in a ramshackle house on Worker’s Hill. Ours was built right into the side of it, atilt as if it were too tired to hold itself up. From the window in my attic room I could only see the hill’s backside, so I could not watch for Da to return. I tried to listen, hoping he’d only tarried again, though the feeling in me said no, no. Hail scrabbled at the roof and walls, but I heard no boots on the stoop, no squeak of the door. Only Mam’s muffled tears. She felt it, too. In the wee hours I crept down to her room. We lay awake until dawn, Mam and me, with the baby between us, and we waited.
Come the next morning, they found him in the millrace, caught on a fallen log. His dinner pail was still on the channel wall, a bit of uneaten cheese wrapped in another woman’s lace kerchief. They say his eyes were closed, and that a smile was on his lips.
Mam died with her eyes open, watching the sky. I woke to find her place cold, abandoned in the night. Leaving Cornelius with Mrs. MacNeil, I trailed the search party, but it was me that found her, veering off to the river, for where else would she be? One could almost miss her, out in the middle near the biggest rocks, where in summer the fish would hide in deep pools and nibble at naked toes. In I went, past the sluice gates and into the Brandywine, not caring that this was November, not summer anymore.
There was a great kerfuffle on the bank, but for me, in the water, the whole world had gone quite still.
I was too small to move the boulder that she had drawn into her lap. The millrace swirled around me, tugging at my braids. I wouldn’t have minded if it swept me away, but I only lost a ribbon. Perhaps it came off when Mr. Murphy, the foreman, lifted me out. They passed me, dripping, to the shore, a bucket brigade and me the bucket, while Mr. Murphy rolled the stone. My mother floated then, her arms held out like she was ready, and there, for a moment, my green ribbon caught between her fingers.
I stood by in my squelching shoes, my dress heavy as laundry day but cold, so cold, until someone covered me with a woolen shawl.
We were the same size, Old Kathleen and I. We stood shoulder to shoulder.
“Don’ be crying now, cailín,” the old woman said.
Did I weep? They lifted my mother out of the river and arranged her body on the bank.
Bony fingers gripped my chin. In the Sunday school, I had a slate for writing my letters and arithmetic. Kathleen’s eyes were gray as that, and as sharp. “That’s not yer mommie.”
“She m-m-missed my Da. Now they’re both g-gone.”
“Gone they are, and ya must be strong, for yer wee brother. But yer mommie and daddie are in another place. They’re happy now, so ya musn’t cry. That’s not her.”
I felt my gaze sliding back. The men stood in a ring, trading clouds of icy breath. There, between their legs, on the ground, her body beneath somebody’s coat.
“What i…zzit then?” Shivering. There, my ribbon floating away.
“Scraps and bits, love. Nothing but scraps and bits to fool the bean-fionn.”
The white woman.
I saw her for the first time outside the church. In whispered, sideways talk, the worker’s wives called her the White Widow. And aptly—her hair was snow white where it escaped her scarf, like an old woman’s, though her skin was fair as a girl’s. She might have been younger than my mam, who hadn’t yet met thirty. She’d buried three husbands of her own, they said, and who knew how many other women’s? She lived alone in a big white house, friendly with the men of Mr. DuPont’s yards as well as the textile mill downriver.
She wore a fine, long dark coat that covered her boots. At the cemetery gate where she turned away, I imagined that she floated: a legless, godless creature. Not waiting to see my parents laid to rest, the white woman tread back down the path, disappearing into the brown-black trees with their last, stubborn leaves.
My brother howled all through the funeral, drowning out the eulogy. I didn’t want to hear what the priest said, anyway. Suicide is a mortal sin.
Cornelius quieted as I carried him away, nestling his auburn head beneath my chin. Once I would have complained about the weight of him, but he didn’t feel heavy anymore.
When my father was a boy, the grandmothers warned him away from playing near lakes and streams. The bean-fionn loved children and young lovers best, they said—she envied their light from her deep waters. She hungered for their promise. When one lingered by her shores, she might sing to them the sweetest song and reach for them with her long white arms. Down, down she would take them, to live forever in her dark kingdom. Thus it was my father never learned to swim.
But I was born in a new country. We would as well have been mermaids, merrows, selkies, splashing in the Brandywine with our freckle-brown limbs. No white water woman ever troubled us.
On the day the sun set on the graves of my parents, I carried my baby brother to the river, and I looked for the bean-fionn in the murky water.
Old Kathleen found me instead. She sidled to me, her shillelagh as limber as a third leg, poking at the ice-crackled mud.
From beneath a clump of rotting leaves, Kathleen laid bare a sleeping frog. Affronted, sluggish, it flopped across the wall and into the channel. My brother blinked, blue-eyed and curious. I squeezed Cornelius tighter, wiping my eyes on his peach-down head. Our breath salted the air.
To Kathleen I said, “Tell me, then.” Since the funeral, my heart had begun to thaw. The pain was worse than anything I’d ever known. I wanted to think she was right, that I had misunderstood… that my parents weren’t dead, just living in some other world. Old women are always the authority on such things.
“Don’ ya be listening to what that new priest would tell ya,” said Kathleen, spitting on the ground. “City-born he is. It was yer mommie’s faith that saved yer daddie’s soul, and her own with it. Fought for him, she did, and me that told her how. The bean-fionn would have kept them apart, away from the light of the Father.
“Te Good Folk cannot abide the power of the Trinity, ya see. When yer mommie came to the river with the words of God upon her lips, the river spirit had no choice but to let yer daddie go.
“But the bean-fionn hates to lose—in her rage, she let loose a great wave, fit to drown them both, but the Good Lord intervened, and changed their forms—he to a frog, she to a toad—so the bean-fionn did not know them. She returned to her shadows empty-handed, while yer parents rode the great wave to a far away shore. Their proper forms were returned to them, and they live again, together, in the land of eternal youth.”
The old woman fell silent, leaving only the mumbling of the river between us. Dark had fallen, and with it came a cold to chill the bone. Cornelius began to fuss.
“You’re a liar,” I said, at length. “Just a lying hag. My parents are dead.”
I half-expected Old Kathleen to box my ears, as my mother would have done. But she said nothing. No blow came.
I turned my back on the old woman and took Cornelius home.
Some families lived twenty to a room on Worker’s Hill. Old Kathleen herself had a hundred grandchildren and great-grandchildren, or so they said. I’d never been able to count them, but it could be true. Mam had but the two of us that lived, and she and Da with no other kin. Our little leaning house had always felt large to me. We might have been lords of the manor.
With just Con and me, I saw the house for what it was—small, drafty, not ours.
We stayed by the stove for warmth. I sang to Con as Mam would, doing my best to keep my voice steady until he fell asleep.
They came in the morning. I had just built up the fire and was after fixing Con some bread in milk when I heard them stomping outside. Sleet had come in the night, covering everything in a layer of ice.
“Ya know ya can’t keep him, and you just a wee girl,” said Mr. Murphy’s fat wife. Her cheeks were apple-round and chafed from the cold.
Finding that I couldn’t speak, I shook my head. I would be ten come St. Stephen’s Day. I put myself between the trundle and the door.
Mr. Murphy knelt down to look me in the eye. “Ya can’t stay, Mary. The Sisters have come up from St. Peter’s for ya. Yer brother is bound for the foundling hospital. Ya must give him to us.”
It was not in me to argue with the foreman. My brother slept, his lashes shining like gold thread in the firelight. I kissed him, then passed the warm bundle to the foreman’s wife.
“Go on, now” Mr. Murphy said. “Gather yer things.”
I felt their eyes on my back as I climbed the stairs.
There was little that was mine to take. My second dress and undergarments. I left my baby doll but took my mother’s comb and silver needle and her little book of psalms, tied up in a blanket from Cornelius’ crib. Looking one more time on the small, gray room, I wondered what would become of the rest—colorful quilts and bits of tatting, dried flowers in a glass vase. Then I went to my attic window and climbed out onto the hill.
Old Kathleen found me on the path to the millrace. “And where is it you’re going?” she asked.
“Where my parents are.”
“Ah, so you believe me now?” When I didn’t answer, Kathleen clucked her tongue. “Will ya leave yer wee brother, then?”
“The nuns took him.” The river churned through the channel, frothy and fast with the night’s rain. “I don’t want to be an orphan. I’ll pray to God to take me where my parents went.”
“More like the Good Lord would drown you for a fool. Tir Tairngire is a magical place. Ya can’t just go there, and you decide you want to.”
“My faith is strong.” Stomping my foot to prove it, I slipped on the channel wall. Lightning-quick, Kathleen’s staff came up to steady me.
“I’m reminded of the friendship of frog and toad,” she said, when I’d regained my balance. “Have you heard that tale?”
I shook my head.
“Come down, then. Walk me home and help me build up a fire for these old bones, and I’ll tell you.”
Once a toad and a frog lived by a pond. At nights, when the moon was high, the toad would come to the water’s edge to sing, and frog would swim up to listen. The two became great friends, sharing their nights and days, until one day the pond was ravished by a great wave. The friends were washed to separate shores, far, far away.
As this was a magical wave, frog and toad were given new forms—one a lad, the other a maid. They lost all memory of the pond, and each took up a new life. They were safe and happy, if lonely, always feeling in their heart that something was missed, though neither could say just what.
Many years passed. When finally their paths crossed again, the lad and maid, frog and toad, became friends once more. Each sensed in the other a thing that felt like home. Still they did not recognize each other until one night when the pair went walking and came upon a pond. The moon was high, and the lad began to sing. When the maid heard his tune, she said, “I used to sing that song upon the water’s edge, in another life.” Then the scales fell off the lad’s eyes, and he knew the maid as his long, lost friend.
In Old Kathleen’s cottage, I had been snatched up, wrapped and tucked like a nestling into the thick of young bodies by the kitchen stove. Someone had thrust a cup of tea and whiskey into my hands; a fistful of shortbreads had been pilfered from the tin and divided into shares. Chores abandoned, cherry grins on unwashed faces, my arrival had become a holiday, complete with a tale of the old country from the matriarch. Even the adults crowded into the front room to listen.
“Do ya see why I am minded of this story?” said Kathleen.
I nodded, drowsy and dreamy. I had not truly slept since the night Da died. I let myself imagine that this family, this suffocating comfort was not just borrowed, that this was something I belonged to. “Like my parents?” I whispered. “Or Con and me…”
“Perhaps that’s it.”
And like a dream turns a dark corner, where something beloved becomes ugly and monsters rise up from still waters, I heard voices outside the cottage, wrenching me awake.
Mary! they shouted. Mary Malone!
I didn’t want to go, but I was weary. Sometime in the course of Kathleen’s story, the fight had gone out of me. I was left just with the knowing that life was not about my choosing. Clutching my little sack, I rose up from the tumble of children and I waited. The search party came nearer, calling my name. Mary Malone!
“Here she be!” cried one of the boys, throwing the cottage door wide. Old Kathleen’s kin crowded onto the porch, the wee ones squalling and waving their hands. “We’ve got her, Mr. Murphy! She be here!”
In the wake of their excitement, Kathleen came up beside me. “See that yer brave, cailín, and keep always to the righteous path. Even when all we love is torn from us, who can say but that the Good Lord, in His wisdom, has a plan?”
A year after I went to stay at St. Peter’s Asylum for Girls, the Sisters came for me again. There was a need for young ladies to help with families in the west. I was put on a train and sent to Kansas, given from there to a strange man and woman with dirty hands. I rode with my little suitcase in the back of a wagon, in among the corn and tomato crates.
I knew nothing of farming, but I learned. I could sew, and cook, and care for children. If I earned my keep, no one kept after me.
There were girls of an age on the neighboring farm. In the summers, we would steal off together to bathe in the river, under the wide open sky.
I cannot say that I was happy—it never occurred to me that I could be. But time marched on, as it does, and I learned not to think overmuch of the hollow places in me. Mother, father. A brother with hair like sunset on water. The pain I had felt grew quiet, and memories turned cold.
Then one summer evening, after a dip in the river, I lingered to watch the fireflies. The other girls had started off without me. I began to follow, still tying up my wet dress, when something called me back.
I went down, sliding easily between boulders to the river’s edge. There in the silt I found a ribbon, laid out like a sleeping snake, as green as the day I lost it.
As easy as that, it all came sliding back. I could not breathe, homesickness and grief choking like a noose.
I heard my friends calling, laughing. Are you there, Mary? They sounded very far away. Below the water, the bean-fionn held out her long, white arms.
I could hear her voice, like music, in the whisper of the river. I had been sleeping, she sang. I had given up, been swept away. Not since the morning in our kitchen, when the foreman and his wife came for Con, had I thought to struggle. Life had made an orphan of me, uprooted me. Was this the Will of God? That I should be cast in this strange place, so far from all I knew, alone?
Was it faith that kept me here? the White Woman asked. Or was it fear?
My ribbon undulated in the current, sparkling, enticing. Mine again for the taking. Would I not be happier, forever loved, forever young? Would I not just take the leap, as my parents had before me?
My friends called out. Are you coming?
And from the water, the sweetest song of home.
I had stepped closer to the river without knowing. The hem of my dress danced just above the water. I reached out for the ribbon, felt the merest touch of her fingers in my reflection, so deliciously cold.
Then a sound came from behind me, drawing my attention away as surely as if I had placed a hand on a hot iron. Drawing up my skirts, I stepped away.
It was not the girls, whose sing-song voices could be heard on the path above, but something else. I bent to peer among the bracken and the twisting vines and found there, crouched and snuffling, a little boy.
He couldn’t have been more than four. Even as I told myself it was not, could not be, I thought, what would my Cornelius look like now? Blue eyed, freckled. With a bath, his hair could have been the same sun-kissed red. Warmed by the fire, his cheeks might have the same pink glow.
The river seemed to grow louder, urgent, but I ignored it.
“Well, come on then,” I said, after a time. Holding the branches aside, I held out my hand. The boy crawled out and took it. He clung to my damp frock as if he had never belonged anywhere else.
I looked him over. He was thin, covered in bloody scratches, but hale enough. I touched the fist-sized bruise upon his cheek, fading to blues and yellows.
“Run away, did we?”
The boy only shrugged and squeezed me tighter.
The girls were almost to the river. Their chattering was growing closer, their tread on the path, and with them I knew would come questions that I didn’t have an answer to. But it didn’t matter. My heart had already made up its mind.
The voices grew louder, but the boy and I watched as the river, empty-handed, tossed her waves upon the shore.
Shannon Connor Winward is the author of the Elgin-award winning chapbook, Undoing Winter (Finishing Line Press, 2014). Her writing has earned recognition in the Writers of the Future Contest and has appeared (or is forthcoming) from Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, The Pedestal Magazine, Pseudopod, Literary Mama, Cast of Wonders, and Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine. In between writing, parenting, and other madness, Shannon is also a poetry editor for Devilfish Review and founding editor of the forthcoming Riddled with Arrows Literary Journal.