Very hadn’t felt the same way as other mothers, the way everyone says you’re supposed to feel – like it is the closest bond ever. Sure, she would have stepped before a speeding truck, sacrificed herself to save Sofia, in a way she could not have done for other people. Yet, Ander had said once, “You are creeped out by our child.”
It has crossed Very’s mind that she was simply a creepy mother. She hadn’t felt flattered by the reflection of her child; instead, she felt a queer sort of narcissism. She had felt burglarized by a little person with one parent’s nostrils and the other parent’s toes and some strain of ancestry heretofore unknown in the crease of her brow. It shames Very that she used to call Sofia her miniature ghost. Now Sofia haunts her.
Forgive yourselves, say the religious and karmic. Do something small and pleasurable every day. Know that she is looking down on you from some unspecified but white and bright place on high. She is waiting for you. You’ll meet again. She is the ant crawling on your arm – don’t swat her away. She is happy.
A therapist, who was not their therapist but the friend of an acquaintance, suggested that they go on vacation. Get away for a while, away from the memories of your dead child. That is all the therapist friend of an acquaintance had suggested, but somehow Ander had heard the therapist say to get rid of every trace of Sofia. Very could not convince Ander that no one had said that. And why not torch the house, then, if they were willing to throw away all of Sofia’s things? Even without her objects, Sofia would be there; even without the house, she would be in their minds and dreams.
But they could agree upon leaving town. Leaving the country, even. And this is why Very and Ander are on a group tour in Ireland. Ander is still bothered that they have not winged it, rented a car, snaked a path around the tiny green country; instead, they are stuck on the western side, which is, they have read, the most beautiful part.
They are immersed in the blankness of group touring. It’s the final four days of Irish Dreams, and they are on the ferry from Cleggan to Inishbofin, the island of the white cow. Gripping the railing, Very looks for a sea creature – the back of a whale, a shark fin plowing through a wave – but only sees gulls and the sky, baffled with clouds. And then Inishbofin begins to materialize through the watery fog. A thin line of thatched-roof buildings indicates it is inhabited; otherwise, it is rife with lonely promontories and inlets.
It is their first time on the ocean. Until now, Very and Ander have been landlocked, in the middle of America, with highways and cornfields and strip malls and solid earth. Most of the passengers, faces pale as batter, cling to wooden boxes on the deck. Ander is there in the center, too, his head bent. The wind wets and whistles through Very’s ears as she dips toward the surface of the sea, then gets yanked back by Catherine from Ohio, a college student who leaps away to hug Sara from California, nuzzling her red hair, her arms crossed over Sara’s chest. Ander, his face peaked, is watching Catherine and Sara. He catches sight of Very and shakes his head. They have opinions about the people they are with, and they share these opinions at night, in the cold beds of Ireland.
It has been over a year since Sofia died, her face blue and gasping, a different blue than the black and blue ocean off Ireland. On the morning that they left for the airport, Sofia’s bed was still made up in cartoon sheets. Ander’s mother had volunteered to clean out Sofia’s bedroom while they were gone. Very agreed with the idea only because she saw in Ander’s face how much he believed it would help. But she insisted on keeping all the photos. Because she doesn’t trust that Ander’s mother won’t throw everything away, even things that aren’t Sofia’s, Very has locked the photos in a chest in the basement. And, just before they left for Ireland, she had stuffed one of Sofia’s toys – a glassy-eyed puppy – into her carryon bag.
Theirs will be the only tour group on Inishbofin, described in the green Irish Dreams brochure as “a place of peace.” There are no shops on Inishbofin – nothing to buy but beer and fish. Since it is not a popular destination, writers and musicians often visit. According to the brochure, Sylvia Plath – the poet-mother who laid her head in an oven after leaving out milk for her sleeping children – had visited frequently.
In college, Very had taken a seminar about Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich. The class met at a bar, where the professor – in rehab every other semester – bought pitchers of beer and platters of nachos. For the final exam, as the jukebox belted out country, Dr. Booth asked each student to decide whether they would prefer Plath, Sexton, or Rich as a mother and to explain their decision to the class. Everyone except Very chose Plath or Sexton. Very’s rationale for choosing Rich was simple – “She’s the only sane one,” she said, and got a B for the course.
Still, Very had been enthralled with Plath – with her description of penises as turkey necks, with the way she courted Ted Hughes by biting his ear, with the sneering suggestion of a male professor that all the young ladies in class read The Bell Jar. Dr. Booth, the only female professor in the English department, was convinced that Plath had a thick hand in her husband’s poetry. When Very decided to write about Plath for a final paper, Dr. Booth had taken her to Indiana University to research manuscript proofs and clippings at Lilly Library. On the last day of research, Dr. Booth asked the librarian to bring out three long boxes, and she ceremoniously opened each one. The boxes contained hanks of Plath’s hair that her mother, Aurelia, had saved. One was a long braid, held together by two rubber bands at each end. “Touch it,” Dr. Booth had whispered to Very.
They dock at Inishbofin. As they lug bags to the bed and breakfast, the guide, Mickey – as drunk and as jolly as you could wish for an Irishman named Mickey to be – pulls them into a circle on the dirt road. A few hours ago, a helicopter airlifted the charred remains of two old women to Cleggan. Mickey pauses so all can react. The Swedish women blink. The Americans emit empty gasps. The aloof British man, still looking confused about how he has slipped into a tour group, steps back.
Last night, a man down from Belfast got kicked out of the Inishbofin pub. He then broke into the house where the two old women – sisters – lived. This morning he admitted to raping one of the old women, tying them both up, and burning down the house.
The Northerner is in Cleggan, in police custody, so there’s nothing to be afraid of. But it’s an utter tragedy, Mickey says, bitterly. All three hundred people on the island knew the women, grew up with them, ate their brown bread, read the Catechism with them, did chores for them, took piano lessons from the eldest sister. We’re already booked and paid for, so we’ll stay on the island. But understand that you won’t be dancing jigs or patting the backs of cheery Irish men; you won’t be asking after your Irish ancestors, says Mickey. Inishbofin is a place to be quiet, anyway, a place of peace.
Mickey says he’s Irish, so he understands. You can’t understand something like this, but you can certainly show proper respect. Maybe where you’re from, this kind of thing happens, but not here, no. Mickey looks hard at the young people in the group, including Ander and Very.
Last night, Mickey was falling onto Catherine from Ohio’s breasts, stroking her hair, his nose bulbous and snotty, telling her how much, for fuck’s sake, he really loves those breasts. Even Catherine, who has been offering pussy to any codger in the Galway snooker hall who can beat her, seemed disturbed.
Very masks a morbid laugh with a hiccup. No one here knows about her dead daughter. They only think Ander and Very are newlyweds, here to have a good time before settling down, having a family, being normal and responsible and good. Ander slips his hand about Very’s waist.
Whether they wanted to be or not, the old Catholic women had been cremated by their burning house. Sofia, too, hadn’t a choice – they had buried their daughter for the sake of Ander’s mother, who was not religious but conventional. Very wonders how long Sofia’s hair has gotten under the ground, if it has grown past the length of her bones, and she feels the scrape of these bones as Ander’s thin fingers grip her hip.
The woman at the bed and breakfast who hands them a room key has ruddy cheeks and swollen eyelids, and she keeps a rosary wound about her fist. When Ander thanks her, she grunts and looks just past his shoulder.
Their room is stony and damp, like all of Ireland, and the beds have yellow sheets with faded flower designs. After Ander leaves for a walk, Very pulls aside the pale yellow curtains. Next to the B&B, a few sheep, each spray-painted with a blue mark in filthy wool, graze near rusted containers and luxurious weeds. Very clucks at the sheep as if they are chickens, then lies down, cold.
She half-naps a memory, nothing sleep-worthy about it – the day she attended a revival at her granny’s Baptist church. A fat teenager with a Mohawk fell weeping before the altar, and others rushed to lay hands. Russell the preacher, who looked like Sonny Bono and carried his sermons in a leather-bound book, presided over the fat girl’s salvation. There was a cacophony of weeping and shouting and clustered hands as each sinner fell before the altar and performed devotion like a frivolous dog.
She goes outside, past the silent B&B keeper with her clicking beads, and listens to the sea slapping the island. On the heli-pad near the dock, Catherine from Ohio spins in circles, her arms out like propellers. Down the road is the burned white house, yellow police tape flapping in front of it. Beyond, Ander sits on a large rock that overlooks the sea.
Very imagines climbing the rock, laying her head on his shoulder, or letting him lean against her. They will cry. They will open a neat metal case holding Sofia’s ashes and sprinkle them into the sea. But Sofia was pickled and put into the ground, and they aren’t one bit Irish. For the Irish, it seems, tragedy is a badge. More likely: Ander’s shoulders will grow rigid because Very will say something stupid like “pickled,” and she’ll try to make up for it by squeezing his hand, and he’ll let her, but it will be as if they are not touching at all.
The only inhabitants of Inishbofin that Very has seen have been in the B&B or fishing, and it is no different now as she stands on the lonely dirt road before the burned house. It was a white house on an island that favors pastels – its damp, scorched walls still hold. The police tape is crossed in an X and hangs on a short iron gate, behind which is a sidewalk darkened by rain. She can barely smell the doused remnants of fire, as if the wind could carry it away so quickly, as if the ocean could dissolve everything, even memories. How long, she wonders, before the house is razed? Or will it continue to stand as some terrible memento? Walls and stone inhabit cold, green Europe, while her mother-in-law razes a house in America, swallowing a room.
Very cups a bleeding heart springing from a bush beside the gate. The wet bell droops in her palm. No one said the age of the Northerner, yet everyone has noted that the women were old. It is worse to imagine the rapist as a strong young man, forcing himself onto an old woman. Even worse is to conjure the contentedness of the eldest sister playing a hymn on the piano as a child of Inishbofin sways his curly head back and forth. It doesn’t seem as if there has ever been laughter or children on Inishbofin, only the grimness of rape, Sylvia Plath eking out poetry, decrepit thumbs on rosary beads.
Once she climbs the rock, she sees a rusting boat half-sunken into sand. Across the inlet is a ruined castle that Mickey said Cromwell used as a prison for priests. A fishing boat is passing, followed by a mob of gulls skating the wind. Very pats at the rock with the flat of her hand.
“It must have been terrible for those old women,” she says. “It’s awful to imagine.”
She shivers and leans into Ander, but he wraps his arms around his legs. “No one’s trying to make you imagine,” he says.
As an infant, Sofia had had night terrors. Even when plucked from her crib, her eyes would remain wide and rigid, even as she sucked on a bottle of milk, even as they rocked her in their arms and sang. The pediatrician said there wasn’t a reason, probably, and that it would go away, probably. Ander’s mother had said night terrors were a myth.
Sofia’s night terrors evolved into visceral nightmares as she grew into a little person who could think and create events and suffer their consequences. She would stand in the bedroom doorway, posed in her white nightgown, her belly jutting, whimpering until one of her parents awoke. The one who woke up first would be up for the rest of the night. You would stay up, wait for her to calm down. You would hear sturdy sleeping breath and begin to tiptoe from her room. You would be nearly out the door before you would hear her plaintive call. It would go this way for the rest of the night, nearly every night.
A few months before Sofia died, Very rustled to her elbows in bed. Sofia was in the doorway, silent, raising a toe to scratch her opposite calf. “The Shining,” Very whispered, as Ander got up, embraced Sofia, and took her back to her bed. Very heard Ander two rooms over, humming a lullaby. He didn’t come back. It was just as well because she would have told him that their daughter was the frightening one, not the indescribable pulses that she thought haunted her.
Night has fallen, and they sip pints in the pub with the materialized locals and a man named Dermot, visiting from Limerick, who sits between Catherine from Ohio and Very. He wears overalls and a black cap, and he buys the pint for the fairies. His face is lined old by the wind. Catherine has propped her breasts onto the table and keeps scooting closer to Dermot, who had been caressing Very’s knee under the table before he realized she’s with Ander. Sara from California, who is tiny enough that a half-pint has sent her silly, laughs and leans against Lizbeth, a fiftyish Iowan who closes her eyes as she sucks on an unfiltered cigarette. At a separate table, the Swedes courteously sip.
It is a small pub, not big enough for a fiddler in a corner. A television silently depicts men running up and down a field and holding what look like clubs. Most of the patrons watch the game intently. The beer comes through a window like one would see at a diner, from the disembodied hands of the B&B keeper, the rosary still wound in her fist.
Dermot has bought everyone at the table a pint of Guinness. Very drinks it slowly, nodding at the usual comments that it is as good and hearty as a meal. Ander thinks Guinness smells like bacon, and he leaves the pint Dermot has bought untouched on the table.
Dermot puts his arm around Catherine, and she laughs, too loud, then reaches over the table and cups Very’s pint glass. Some of the locals stare. The Guinness slides in Very’s mouth. She scoots closer to Ander and feels the warmth of hopeful love pitched higher by the beer. “Let’s go outside,” Ander says quietly. Very pulls her glass from Catherine’s hand.
Once Ander shuts the door to the pub, Very can’t hear Catherine’s laughter; she can’t feel the islanders’ silence. She can’t really hear the ocean, even. It is dark as a stage, a weak light hanging above the pub, shining on Ander and on her. They sit on a bench near the front door, and Very pours her beer into the ground. She bends, folding her arms over her gut. Ander takes the empty glass from her hands and rolls it back and forth over his palms.
“People expect we can’t be okay,” says Very. “But I think we can. Let’s stop listening to anybody but ourselves.” She grins at him, hoping he’ll grin back and embrace her, close, but he looks stricken, far away.
The pub door swings open, and out comes Catherine with Dermot and Sara, the latter two heading for the rocky steps not twenty feet away. Catherine stops to light a cigarette. “Come on!” she says. “Skinny-dipping! Hey, let’s go see the phosphorescence! Last one in is a rotten fuckin’ egg!” She disappears down the stairs.
Very looks at the sky and sees a few stars through the patchy fog. On the beach below, Sara and Dermot whoop. “Wanna go down there?”
“Go ahead – I’ll meet you in a minute,” says Ander.
They stand, and she lowers her head into his chest. He rolls the empty glass over her spine. “Maybe we’ll skinny-dip,” she whispers.
“Maybe,” he says.
On her way down the uneven stairs, Very gets her first sight of phosphorescence – light in the crests of waves, microscopic bodies bumbling and sparking greenish-yellow, water electric and sinister and good. Sara and Dermot are there, shadowy amidst the phosphorescence. Sara perches on Dermot’s shoulders, naked, her thighs slipping around his neck, his hands high on her legs.
Catherine, still on the beach, is slipping out of her khakis. She tosses her white shirt to the sand. Then she turns and pulls the collar of Very’s jacket. “Come on! Chicken fight – I get to be on top first!”
“Not my thing.”
“Oh, come on.” Catherine pulls tighter on Very’s collar, her lips close.
Very uncurls Catherine’s fingers from her jacket. She knows she’s buzzed, and this makes her dislike this girl, who has probably never held a child. “You’re drunk. Don’t try to make me do things I don’t want to do.”
Catherine looks pricked. “Go fuck yourself.” She stalks into the water, the phosphorescence hopping toward her toes. Dermot and Sara cheer, Sara tumbling off his shoulders. Dermot catches her, and they start kissing. A wave breaks over Catherine’s curly hair, over her ruddy neck and back and pearly bra and sagging white underwear. She is almost to her neck in the ocean and keeps walking in, unsteady but making no clear moves to swim. Very cranes forward. People do this. They walk into bodies of water and die.
She runs in, clasping her hands around Catherine’s waist, and Catherine struggles, elbowing and pushing. Very tries to dig her heels in the shifting, sandy floor. She falls, and the waves whoosh over and choke her, but she clings to Catherine and closes her eyes and hears the water rushing like corn into a silo. As she drags Catherine out, disembodied in the act, she imagines Ander coming down the stairs and thinking her a strange hero. Forgiving her for being her. Her tennis shoes squelch heavily as she lifts them out of water and stumbles to the hard sand, Catherine falling next to her.
“What the fuck? Psycho!” Catherine punches Very’s shoulder. Sara and Dermot, oblivious and love-stained, cheer again. Catherine runs back in, this time making her way toward Dermot, where it is her turn to throw naked thighs around Dermot’s neck.
Very climbs the stone stairs, dripping and angry. Ander’s not in the room. But he’s discovered the stuffed puppy Very put in her carryon. He has laid it on the bed next to a note ordering her to get rid of it.
Very holds the toy to her chest. It wasn’t even Sofia’s favorite. She had simply grabbed it as Ander was nagging at her to come downstairs because the airport taxi was waiting. Before she shoved the puppy in her bag, Very ran her hands over the dip in the mattress where Sofia had slept. She opened the ruffled curtains that had been drawn since Sofia had died, and she ran her finger over the dust on the sill and put it into her mouth.
She crumples the note. She’ll throw the puppy away, into the ocean, where it will get soggy and sink. It will disintegrate slowly, like a corpse underground, but with a tumbling freedom. It can be eaten or worried by so many things – by salt or shark.
More stars have forced past the fog. At the top of the stairs again, with the puppy clenched to her chest, Very peers at the water, where Catherine is perching on Ander’s naked shoulders. Her husband’s clothes have been tossed into the sand. He’s holding Catherine’s sleek wet thighs, and he is smiling and laughing. He smiles and laughs as if Very has never emerged in his mind or life, as if grief were a mythical creature. It is the first time he has looked happy in at least a year.
She squeezes the toy in her fist. She is coated in the ocean, salted and cold as hatred. She veers down the dark road, toward the burned white house.
If she had come the day before, Very might have heard a piano, played by an old woman with arthritic fingers. But the house is silent and smells of damp ashes. The door opens easily, and she walks through a tiny foyer, where raincoats hang on hooks, rubbery and wrinkled and burnt, like the shadows of eviscerated people.
As her eyes adjust to the moonlit darkness, Very sees a living room, where there is an overturned chair, its legs burned off, black marks in the stone floor. She wonders if one of the old women had been tied there, but then the chair probably would have burned, too. She knows nothing about fire, whether it is fickle or purposeful. Worse than the chair are the shoes lined next to each other against the living room wall – boots and leather flats that seem untouched by flames. A crucifix hangs above the shoes.
“Who’s there?” calls a trembling voice. Footsteps and a flashlight. Very holds her breath, looking for somewhere to hide, then sees the B&B keeper, whose rosary beads click in the dark as she pleads to Saint Christopher and Saint Veronica.
“I’m sorry,” says Very, sighing.
“Mary, Mother of God!” The B&B keeper stops praying and shines the light into the room, her other hand gripping her neck.
“I’m sorry. I’m from the tour group. My name is Veronica.”
“Get out. Go along, then.”
“It’s not what you think.” Very holds out the stuffed puppy.
The B&B keeper crosses the room, her eyes black behind the flashlight. “And what’s this, then?”
Very hands the toy to the B&B keeper and tells her about Sofia.
Then: “I’m here with my husband. And-and I’m going to leave him. But he doesn’t know that.” She has not thought of leaving him until this moment.
“Your name’s Veronica? God must have brought you, dearie. I took Veronica as my saint.” The keeper says she will pray for Very.
“It’s Very. At least, that’s what my husband calls me,” she says.
The flashlight slips from the keeper’s hand and clatters on the floor. A cat streaks through the room, and they both jump.
“It’s a cat! Just a cat,” says Very, holding her chest. They begin to laugh in the dark.
“It’s a sign,” says the keeper. She is silent for a minute. “I have a boy – in Monaghan, close to the border. The only way you can live on Inishbofin is if you fish or run the B&B, as I do. He didn’t want that. Such a handsome boy he is. I was too proud of the way his looks favored him. That’s what my aunts used to say.”
She’s clutching Sofia’s toy, holding it to her breast. “They was my aunts that got killed. All I had left here of family. You can’t be too proud of your lad, they’d tell me. It gets in little children’s heads when you don’t tell them their faults. Better for family to disappoint them first than the cold hard world, they’d say. Spinsters. But I loved them.”
The cat streaks through the room again. “One of their toms, he is. A sign. My aunts would say to keep cats away from babies. Cats will come in a nursery and steal a baby’s breath. They always kept a cat, so they never kept my son. They weren’t much for babies, God bless them.” She strokes the toy. “Now, why would you leave your husband in his time of need? Have you been praying with each other? You must know it would help to pray.”
A minister had prayed at the cemetery. When he had talked about Jesus, Very wept and thought about the morning, a few months before Sofia died, when she was woken by her daughter and pulled into the front yard. It had been spring. The dew had already evaporated from the new grass. Sofia had paused, glanced at the house, and beckoned Very to the sidewalk. “Sit. Be little. So nobody sees.”
“Shh, Mommy. Nobody. If we little. So little. Nobody. Be little.” Then Sofia hunched her shoulders and talked about a recent night when there had been a thunderstorm. She had woken with her jaw clamped shut, a suffocating weight on her chest. There was a shadow hulking against the door; it was a hanging man, stuck fast, rags about his waist. He stretched one arm toward her, though his chin fell to his chest. She saw the quiet rise and fall of his stomach, and blood on his torso, and a pile of thorns screwed to his scalp. She had wanted to holler but could not open her mouth; instead, she shut her eyes. For a long time, she worried that the man in rags had noiselessly climbed from his perch and was hovering over her, and that, if she moved, he would kill her.
Sofia had known that the man in rags was Jesus. She had seen him before, hanging like that – a crucifix on a wall at her friend Molly’s house. Molly’s mother had told her that Jesus was Light and Truth. But Sofia hadn’t understood how a hanging body could be these things, so she was afraid of Jesus. Eventually, she had unsealed her eyes, “like a Band-Aid you pull off, Mommy,” and the hanging man was gone. She said she hollered for Very.
Very couldn’t remember that night but was sure that she sighed and poked Ander, and he had muttered “She wants you,” and Very had rolled out of bed and dragged a kitchen chair into Sofia’s room and stroked her forehead and told her it was going to be fine – Think of nice things. Think of flowers. Puppies. Sunshine – trying to maintain a pacific expression, fingernails puncturing her legs.
“Shhh, don’t tell anybody,” Sofia had said, as they sat on the sidewalk that morning.
“Are you scared, honey?”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “Mommy, shhh.”
“You don’t need to be scared. It was just a dream. Jesus isn’t in our house.”
“He is everywhere. Molly’s mommy says.”
“Molly’s mommy is wrong.”
Sofia puckered her lips and said, “NO.” She then whispered, “He’ll put the hand over my breath.”
Very had never wanted Sofia to fear the things she could not touch. But one afternoon Molly’s mother – some other mother – had so easily put the fear of God into her. And here is this Catholic, beads clicking, pushing for Very to pray with her atheist husband. Who had they been kidding to think that they could protect a child from the myths of the world, from the waves that seep into everything?
“I can’t,” she says. “I can’t pray.”
The cat howls from another room in the house. The keeper grabs Very’s hand and mumbles a prayer anyway, as if she hasn’t heard. Her grip is cold and rough, her hands wrinkled as school paste.
“Do you want me to chase that tom away?” asks Very.
“Leave it. It’s a sign.”
“You never said – why’s it a sign?”
“They’re here. My old aunts, they’re waiting for me, my soul. When it’s time.”
Very can only see part of the keeper’s face. “Why did you come here so late?”
“I closed up the pub just a while ago.”
Very understands now – it’s the first chance the keeper has had to be here since last night when her aunts were murdered. The Irish Dreams tour group has needed her services all day, from linens to keys to pints.
“I’d like it if you kept my daughter’s toy,” she blurts.
The keeper covers Very’s hand with her calloused and damp palm, the rosary beads grazing cold against her skin. “Was it one of her favorites?”
“Oh, yes. Her favorite one,” Very lies.
“I appreciate it, love,” says the keeper. “And here’s something for you. I found it in the house. I think they’d want me to give it to you.” She pulls a sealed packet from her pocket. “Wait ‘til you get into the light to open it, dearie. Wait ‘til you get back to your room. Now I need to be alone with my family.”
“Thank you,” says Very, and the keeper whispers, “God bless you.”
Ander is at the window, his lips pursed under his long nose. “Where did you go?”
“I went down to the beach – you never showed up.”
“I came looking for you. Catherine said she didn’t see you.”
Very squeezes her eyes shut. “I found your note. I went out walking – looking for you. I thought you were upset. Because of the toy.”
“I looked and looked for you, Very. Jesus.”
“Really. Did you think you’d find me in the ocean, with some girl’s pussy on the back of your neck? I saw you having a jolly old time.”
Ander crosses his arms. “I’m sorry you saw that. Nothing happened.”
“Do you like those girls?”
He trembles. “You brought Sofia! After we talked about what we needed to do.” He cries into his palms.
Very puts her hand in her pocket, feeling the sealed packet from the keeper. She can’t move closer to him. This isn’t a new situation. Neither of them were criers before Sofia died, but they’ve begun to cry regularly, and almost never at the same time.
“I read your note. I went out to a bog and threw the stupid toy away. All right? It’s gone.”
He wipes his nose with his forearm.
“On the way back, I saw the B&B lady going into the burned down house – she invited me in. The ladies who died there – they were her aunts.”
He rubbed his eyes. “In the house? Didn’t that freak you out?”
“No. I know it’s weird – it was comforting.”
“I feel that way about Sofia’s room. I felt that way. It was comforting to go in there. It’s going to be gone. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. Maybe that’s why I brought that toy. Sofia hated it, anyway. She never played with it.” She starts to cry, too. “Ander, am I psycho?”
Ander laughs through his tears. “What? Of course not.” He crosses the room and kisses her. “Let’s go to sleep.”
Very heads to the bathroom to brush her teeth then peels off her jeans, shrugging and pulling at the wet denim. She yanks off her soaked underwear and pulls the B&B keeper’s packet from her jeans pocket. It feels as if there were a pebble in there – maybe a lucky Irish rock or a smooth worry stone. She tears the rim of the packet and shakes it into her palm. It’s a tooth, stained brownish-yellow. A brutal bone – contingent and harder than glass.
At breakfast the next morning, the B&B keeper serves bangers and mash, her rosary beads clanking against the plates. She leans down and tells Ander and Very that they are a lovely couple, just lovely, and she winks at Ander and then grimaces at Very.
The ferry won’t be arriving until the afternoon, so Mickey suggests that they take a group walk to see a blowhole at the edge of the island. Ander and Very walk next to Lizbeth, the Iowan, who fingers the evergreen pack of cigarettes in her breast pocket. Sara and Catherine drag behind with their hangovers.
Very doesn’t quite trust her memory. Maybe she was the one who had waded into the ocean, wanting to be engulfed. Maybe she had a nonsensical dream, finally, one that ended with a dead woman’s tooth. She keeps squeezing Ander’s hand and looping her arm around his waist. She keeps thinking about how there are so many things she does not manage to tell him. They shrug each other off in their grief.
Spray-painted sheep migrate from the group. They pass abandoned cottages and hayfields, where Mickey urges them to listen for the corncrake. They pass a bog, and Ander nudges her – “That one?”
“No,” she says. On the sea, white gulls follow a fishing boat, and men throw out nets. The gulls seem caught at times by the mutable wind, their wings stretched and wobbling.
Lizbeth has been twirling an unlit cigarette between her first two fingers, and she finally lights up. She offers one to Very. The cigarette has an immediate effect, stronger than a pint. Bits of tobacco stick to Very’s lip as she exhales.
She had expected some kind of geyser, but, as far as she can tell, the blowhole is just a natural hole in a rock, which offers a picturesque view of the ocean. The group climbs down a pile of stones. When the tide comes in, Mickey says, it will cover the rocks. They can see evidence in the awaiting detritus – the clinging starfish and colorful shells.
The Swedish women take photos of the rocks, the shells, the starfish, and Mickey, then Mickey takes photos of them. Ander unlocks himself from Very’s grasp, stepping over to help. He has a way. The women glow with his attention. He laughs, clasping his hands behind his dark hair. One of the women is much older than him and gorgeous, and she flirts, grazing her hand over his when he hands back the camera.
It begins to rain outside of the shelter of the blowhole. Very puts on her raincoat, and the zipper sticks. “Here,” says Catherine. She undoes a safety pin from the waistband of her khakis. She then maneuvers the pin so that it loosens the zipper. “You should always keep one of these with you,” she says, handing the pin to Very.
The fishing boat is passing through the blowhole view. It looks different now, almost telescopic through the hole. It is a trick of the mind. There are men on deck, and it seems they have paused in their work and are staring at the tour group. Catherine has already left Very’s side, and Ander begins to clamber up the rocks with the Swedes.
Very stays looking at the boat, which appears to have stagnated, an imperfect telescope isolating the image. She watches the men, and they seem magnified when she squeezes her eyes half-shut, and it feels as if they might extend rubbery arms over the waves, through the hole in the rock, and yank her on deck, whipping some terrible truth out of her. It occurs to Very that maybe last night they heard everyone, yelling and naked in the phosphorescence. Maybe they think that Americans face unspeakable horror with laughter.
The others have gone a ways by the time Very climbs up, but Lizbeth is waiting, her wide eyes sunken as a corpse. She offers Very another cigarette, but Very shakes her head.
“I want to tell you something,” says Lizbeth. “You know that lady at the front desk at the B&B? She was the niece of those two old women who were sisters.”
“Oh?” Very watches Ander and the Swedes disappear down a hillock.
“I knew she was related – I could tell by the way she acted. And think about it. She had to put up with us all day. I expect she thought she had to keep busy, or she had to keep making some money. She probably kicked that Northerner out of the pub. One more beer might have put him to sleep. Or one more beer could’ve drowned him. But he went and raped and murdered her aunts instead. Think about that.”
Very watches rain weigh down Lizbeth’s helmet hair. “Do you really think it was the beer that made him a murderer?”
“A murderer’s a murderer, I guess.” Lizbeth pulls out a cigarette. “I heard you all last night, out there. I couldn’t sleep, you were so loud. I’m just telling you it must have been bad for everybody to hear ya’ll out there whooping it up. I didn’t think you were the type to call attention to yourself, like that Catherine. But you’re young – you must’ve never really suffered. Nobody that’s suffered acts like you and your husband do.”
“Oh, like the whole world’s a joke.”
Very undoes the safety pin in her hand and lets its sharp point stick her in the center of her palm. She closes her fist over the point. “My daughter used to get night terrors – ever hear of those? I did everything I could think of to help her. One time I tried putting a blue nightlight in her room. I thought the color would be calming to her – it’s peaceful, you know? But Sofia hated it. She said when she looked at it in the dark, the light expanded and came closer. I tried to convince her that she was wrong. I tried to explain that the way the light appeared was just a trick of her eye. A trick. You see, Lizbeth? It’s a trick. But Sofia’s dead – she won’t ever get to understand that.”
Lizbeth parts her lips, and Very opens her hand with the safety pin still stuck in her palm, a bright speck of blood circling the metal. She turns back to the blowhole, expecting to see the fishing boat where she left it, or closer, perhaps. But it’s off in the distance.