I knew it was real when I started bleeding. Too early in the month for it, that undeniable dull pain, that gravity in my flesh. Whatever it was that had come into my bed had brought it and left it with me.
I stayed in one of eight ancient stone cottages on the nose-tip of a cliff in Kerry, in the cold of February this year. This is one of those stories that kills the buzz if it’s told in a smoking area. Friends have rolled their eyes, batted the word crazy across the table. Fine, I always think. That’s fine. You weren’t there on the cliff, in the old of it. In the bed when the long limbs descended over the covers, the thin fingers brushing hair from my forehead – that’s fine, I think.
Cill Rialig, Ballinskelligs. Eight studio cottages, desolate since the famine and refurbished for artists. Through a series of kindnesses I was offered a week long retreat there to brew over my second novel. Seven other writers and me down there - a temporary village. When I posted about it online writers who had been there before offered advice. Said, please God bring an electric blanket, it’s a special kind of cold. Said, remember to do your big shop in the Supervalu in Cahersiveen, there’s not a shop for miles upon miles around. Said, listen out for the children at night: the famine took them and they’re still crying. Said they hoped I knew how to build a fire.
I bought cans of Guinness and Club Milk bars and sausages and cheese in the supermarket, brought sriracha and a good knife from home. The bed was away up in a loft under a tiny square window. The desk was under a skylight. There was a single turf fire and a fat chimney and February was remorseless on me: I wore almost all the clothing I brought at all times, layer upon layer. I rarely took off my hat, until I lost it in the lane on a morning stroll through the fields on one of the clearer days. The turf man came three times a week with big bags of peat for me to burn, I had the kindling man up every day because lo and behold, the jackeen can’t keep a fire going. The jackeen even lost her hat: the kindling man showed up with the grey woolen thing the day after it went missing, holding it by the bobble. Found it in the lane. Nobody round here has a hat like this, only you.
Firelighters left the stench of petrol on my hands, in the wool of my husband’s gloves. The days blurred into one another as I wrote and wrote. I sat at the fireside instead of at the desk, feeding the mouth of the furnace, nudging it, pleading with the flames to stay red and awake. I watched it go out again and again. I burned the paper I brought for writing. I burned pages that didn’t come out right, watched the heat lick them into nothing.
I burned a wand of sage, and here’s where I admit that I have always been superstitious, which might undermine the possibility of my experience being authentic. As if superstitious is somehow synonymous with naive. Or liar. Or worse still, with crazy: that old bullet word I’ve had lodged in me so many times my body knows the metal of it well enough to just absorb it and use it for iron. I burned the sage before the turf had even been delivered on the very first day. I burned the sage because the building was old and sage protects and look, I like the smell. I like the medicinal quality of it, the look of spiraling smoke. I like trying to do little things to make myself feel safer.
The other writers and I drank together some nights, ate dinner. Cabbage and rice and garlic, red wine, what were you writing today? Holding my lantern on the way out the door I’d joke that if they didn’t see me come tomorrow that meant the banshee had taken me, eaten my teeth and hair and left the rest for the famine children. They’d laugh, I’d laugh, and pull up the hood on my parka, trundle up the stony path on the cliff, stopping to download a few podcasts on the threadbare wifi, turning in with American laughter in my headphones. Expecting a banshee was pushing it a bit too far, I thought, but still glad I saged the place. I slept so well there it was almost shocking. Deeply, undisturbed, full of dreams. My sister an apparition in one, dancing with me in a blue dress, a tattoo on her arm of an open window. Beyond the open window, a bed of daffodils.
I packed my things on the Friday, the book fatted, Ceri’s gloves all but destroyed. Lay down in the bed for the last time, podcast on, some chirpy chat show. The wind howled like it only can that far away from the city – really let roar.
I let my eyes close and listened to the mix of voices and screaming wind and when I say I wasn’t even drowsy please believe me. When I say something descended on the duvet, believe me. When I say it had long, sharp limbs and made a whispering sound, know that it wasn’t immediately apparent that it was probably a child. She was probably a child. She clambered over the blankets, over my legs, hushed voice a distinctly separate sound from the radio, from the storm. She was so light.
She was not malevolent, though it took me some time to feel that. As I lay under the covers, her fingers skating on my cheekbones and eyelashes, my hat removed from my head, she investigated around the bed. She did not leave for hours. My eyes screwed shut I knew that she must know I was awake. She stayed and she moved and she whispered and I have never been more certain of anything than her presence. Sometime during the night I felt a tightening in my abdomen, the certainty of blood.
The sun rose, she was gone. I did not sleep. I just lay while she moved. When I eventually opened my eyes the normality of the room was shocking to me, the intensity of those old familiar cramps both nauseating and mundane. A week early, a whole week. My period is still a relief to me month by month, but February’s sudden arrival felt wrong. A mark left with me by the child in the night, the force of her over my body too much, pure lunar death. It felt like a summoning of blood.
When I say crazy is a bullet, believe me. I’ll tell this story a time or two more, I’m sure. Light a smoke, take a sip of my pint and say, actually yeah I have had a supernatural experience. Wait for the eyes to roll at my sincerity. Still, I light sage by my writing desk. At the end of every month when that gravity hits, I think light limbs. A soft touch on my eyelashes. Whatever it was that she was whispering.