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The Mermaids Singing (Lisa Carey)


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  My father wasn't at the airport when we arrived in Ireland. I had a moment of panic--maybe he was dead, too, maybe he'd never existed and was just this woman's ploy to get me across the ocean. As though she knew I was panicking, Clíona spoke up and eased my fears.

"They'll be meeting us in Galway," she said. "We'll take the bus there."

I readjusted my fantasy. I would not meet my father in an airport (though Shannon airport was smaller and less dramatic than I'd imagined), we would be reunited in a bus station. Not as romantic, but romance was becoming less important. What I wanted.... What was it I wanted? First to see his features, I suppose, to see if I was in them. Then, answers.

At the bus station in Galway, my grandmother left me alone and went searching for her husband, who was somewhere in this maze of luggage and plastic-framed schedules with my father. I stood by the newsagent, looking at a postcard rack. The cards showed first names and their meanings, with Celtic designs around the border. When I was in the fourth grade, all my friends had things with their names on them: pencils, mugs, key chains, and stationery. Names were fashionable accessories. Of course, nothing ever had my name on it, but I'd got into the habit of looking. Here, for the first time, I found my name on a rack with the rest of them.

"Gráinne"

The most popular interpretation of this name is: "She who inspires terror." The best known owner of the name is the pirate sea queen, Gráinne Ní Mhaille.

Gráinne Ní Mhaille, also called Granuaile or Grace O'Malley, was the daughter and wife of two legendary Connaught chieftains of the O'Malley and O'Flaherty clans. Gráinne, after the death of both men, took on their responsibilities, ruling the sea and the land with infamous courage. She commanded a respect and fear that no other woman in her time in Ireland had.


Reading that card made me uneasy. I knew my mother picked my name to instill me with courage and independence, but my whole life I've sort of gotten it backwards and thought that the terror I inspired was in myself.

Would my father, who had probably helped my mother name me, expect me to be so fearless?

"I see Marcus," my grandmother said, coming up behind me. I reached up to smooth my hair, forgetting I had almost no hair left to smooth.

"Grab your gear now," she said. I had only a large blue suitcase and my backpack, and most of the space in the suitcase was taken up by my poetry books. In my backpack, with my notebooks, Walkman, and tapes, I'd stashed the little box with my mother's ring, a heart-shaped ruby surrounded by gold hands and a crown. She'd kept it in a drawer for as long as I could remember. My grandmother, when she saw it in Boston, told me it was my mother's engagement ring from my father, Seamus O'Flaherty.

Marcus, my grandmother's husband, patted her arm awkwardly, as though he was too embarrassed to hug or kiss her in front of me. He was a gigantic man, tall and thick, with red hair and a redder beard, and a smile that pushed his cheek up past the lower lids of his inky-blue eyes. He was alone.

"Howaya, Gráinne?" he said, then followed the greeting with something I couldn't decipher. His voice was deep and rhythmic; his words ran together into one long sound, and his lips barely formed them. I nodded, pretending I'd understood him.

"You're welcome," he added, though I couldn't remember saying thank you. Did he expect me to be a meek and thankful orphan? I wanted to smack the sympathy from their faces. Marcus tried to take my suitcase, but I backed away.

"Where's my father?" I said. Marcus looked at Clíona, who grabbed my suitcase impatiently, hefting it with a thud into the trunk.

"It seems Seamus had to work," she said. "You'll see him at home." Marcus nodded as if he thought she'd given a good answer. They got in the car and I hesitated before following them. They were conferring in the front seat. Listening to them murmuring to one another (Marcus, like my grandmother, spoke sentences as if he were singing them), I began to worry that I spoke too loud, that my voice sounded ugly as a fart in a quiet room.

We drove for two hours down a road so bumpy I had to stick my hand out the window, the way my mother had taught me, to stop from feeling carsick. When we started, the land was acres of green fields divided by brush walls. I saw sheep, cows, a few white, bare-backed horses. After about an hour on the road the scenery changed drastically. Craggy mountains rose above valleys, the fields were scabbed with gray rock that seemed to grow right up out of the grass, low stone walls ran like veins impossibly high up the mountains. Piles of what looked like stacked rectangular manure stood tied together at the sides of muddy pits. I smelled a sweet, dense burning, like a fireplace but not wood, something unfamiliar and moist.

"We're in Connemara now, girl," my grandmother said. There were no free-growing trees, just occasional squared-off groups of pine that looked purposeful, like Christmas tree farms. The sun broke through in patches high on the mountains, illuminating purple grass. Some clouds were so low they were oozing over the mountaintops. We began a descent into a vast valley, and between the two mountains ahead there was a thick, bright rainbow. I'd never seen a whole one, only pieces blocked by buildings or trees. Something about the gray stone pushing up like pimples from the soil, and the sight of sheep standing at suicidal angles on the slopes, and those ridiculous but painstakingly constructed walls, made me feel like sobbing. It's not that it was ugly, it wasn't. It just made me feel lost. My mother had left this, and would never be back. I shouldn't be here, I thought. I don't belong.

I closed my eyes and tried to picture my father. In the photos Clíona had shown me, he was always slightly out of focus: his hair was long, dark ringlets like mine before I cut it, but his face was a bright white empty space except for the dark contrast of his eyes. I wondered what he would do when he saw me, what expression would be on those features that were missing in the photos. Would he cry and try not to, like Stephen? When he opened his mouth and said my name, would I remember him instantly?

"We're almost there," Clíona said, and I opened my eyes. A sign pointed our way: INIS MURUCH FERRY. The name was spelled differently from how it sounded. Irish words seemed to have more letters than they actually used.

Marcus parked the car in a lot beside the dock. He brought our bags over to the moss-smothered stairway at the water's edge.

"We've been waiting on you, Marcus," a man on the boat called.

He then said something which I didn't understand, but which made the other men on the boat and Marcus laugh loudly. None of them looked like he might be my father, though they smiled and nodded at me.

The boat was very small, the open deck piled with crates of milk and juice cartons. I walked carefully down the slimy steps and climbed over a rope into the boat. The man who'd spoken to Marcus took my hand to keep me balanced; the skin of his palm was thick and rubbery.

"This can't be the little girl I know," the man said, grinning at me.

"Ah, that's her, all right, Eamon," Marcus said, looking proud, as though I were a puppy he was showing off.

"Aren't you just the image of Seamus when he was the wee lad," Eamon said. He winked at me and turned to untie the boat before I could respond. He had hair on his cheekbones, and I could see where he'd shaved just beneath it, leaving patches of fur under the hollows of his eyes.

Clíona and I sat inside on cracked plastic seats. The air was thick with the smell of gasoline. Someone started the engine, and the boat groaned forward, rising up with the waves.

"How's your stomach?" Clíona yelled to me after a few minutes. "Your mother was a brilliant swimmer, but she got fierce seasick on this boat." I didn't like her knowing things about my mother.

"My Mom doesn't get seasick and neither do I," I said, though the smell of the gas was giving me a headache. I climbed out on deck, avoiding the cluster of laughing men at the back.

Clíona was right about one thing; my mother was like a fish when she entered the water. It had always disappointed her that, even though I could swim from the time I was four, the sea still terrified me. "Stop grabbing me," she'd say whenever we took a ferry in Boston. "You're not going to fall in." I'd never explained to her that my fear was not of falling. Instead I was afraid of pitching myself in, afraid that my body might hurl itself directly into what scared me the most.

The dock faded into miniature, and as I watched the silver water and gripped the cold, rusty handrail, I imagined my mother lifting her delighted face to the sea air.

The boat passed the high cliffs behind the island and turned in to a thumb-shaped harbor, where the water was clear and calm. At the point where we turned in, there was a half-ruined castle, the same gray as the stones jutting up from the land. At its base, a sheet of rock angled steeply into the ocean. The walls looked like they were about to slide into the ocean any minute.

"Granuaile's castle," my grandmother said. She'd come to join me on the deck.

I didn't say anything, but she smiled when she saw me looking.

"Your woman had castles all over Connaught and the islands. They say Gráinne and her crew hid in this one, rowing out in curraghs to capture Spanish ships on their way to Galway. Grainne would climb aboard and demand a passing fee. If the captain refused, she'd steal all their gear."

The tumbledown structure didn't look like a queen's house. A new picture of Granuaile was forming in my mind: a rough-looking woman with no hair, a bloody sword at her side. Maybe chewing tobacco and spitting like a man.

"There's our hotel," Clíona said, pointing to a long yellow building with red trim, just up the road from the dock. Next to it was a brown cabin with O'HALLORAN'S PUB painted in white across the roof. The island, like the mainland, had no trees, just bushes and rock and varying shades of green and purple climbing toward the sea on the other side. The houses were single-stories, paint chipping off cement, lined along a road that twisted out of sight. Power cables hung like an ugly web over the populated tip of the island.

"Is that it?" I said, thinking the place looked depressing, but Clíona nodded proudly.

When the boat docked, Marcus drove us up the graveled road in a pickup truck. At the back of the hotel was a red-and-gray stone extension, smoke puffing out of its piped chimney.

"Home," Clíona said, looking excited. She opened the door to a swarm of people, most of whom jumped up to kiss me and introduce themselves. I couldn't keep them straight. All the woman said they were my "anties." They kept saying, "You're welcome, Gráinne," which I figured out was a greeting rather than an answer to "thank you." Most of the middle-aged men and women were Marcus's children and their spouses. They had Marcus's blue eyes, and two names apiece: Mary Louise, John Patrick, Anna Mariah. I started to get that dizzy, detached feeling I'd had at my mother's funeral. I had the instinct to reach for Stephen.

"Which one is my father?" I asked Clíona when she took my jacket.

"He's not arrived yet," she said, slipping away from me.

Someone gave me tea, which I drank. It was sweet and milky and something to concentrate on. The Anties left me alone finally and went to laughing among themselves. They spoke like Marcus, rhythmic voices out of mouths that barely moved. Even my grandmother sounded as though she'd switched languages now that we were here. I sat on the stone shelf in front of the fireplace and waited.

A boy came slamming in the back doorway to my right. He had a long, fluid-looking body, shining black hair, and a pale face with those inky-blue eyes, which he fixed on me, blinding me to the rest of his features.

"Howaya?" he said, smiling. I nodded and looked back at the fire. I knew he was still watching me.

"Liam!" Clíona yelled from across the room. "Don't you take another step in this house with those Wellies." He was wearing long rubber boots that were discolored with mud on the toes.

"Is that Gráinne?" he asked her, gesturing at me.

"'Tis, sure. The girl's home now."

"Jesus, Nana," Liam said, looking at me again. "What did you do to her? She looks knackered." I sat up straighter, glaring at him. He wasn't bothered, he just grinned and winked at me.

"God help you, girl," Clíona, walking over to me. "You must be dying to get to bed. Are you tired?"

"I'll wait until my father comes," I said. Liam looked at the ceiling and whistled. Clíona seemed embarrassed.

"Your father won't be back until late," she said. "You'll see him soon enough." She looked away when I glared at her.

"He's not out on the trawler, is he?" Liam said. "If he's fishing with my father could be ages before they get back."

I looked at Clíona. "He's only joking, he is," she said. "Don't be teasing the girl, Liam."

"I'll wait, then," I said, my voice sounding distant, like an echo in my ears. "I'm not tired. I'll wait."

"You'll want to see your room, sure?" Clíona said.

My room? I didn't have a room here. Didn't this woman get it? I didn't want her house or her family or any of it. I wanted to meet my father, find out the truth, and go home to Stephen.

I turned my back on her and headed for the door. The family was quiet now, watching me.

"Are you going for a walk?" Clíona said in a falsely cheerful voice. "Be certain you return before dark, child, for you don't know the island--"

I slammed the door, shutting her up.

I ran toward water. There were a few men at the harbor shore, tying up black rowboats, who looked at me and smiled. I slowed down and veered away from them. I slogged through the deep sand, along a beach that looked out toward the mainland. The wind was so strong that it pounded my temples and screamed in my ears. I thought of building a fire but realized I had no matches.

I must have walked halfway around the island before I noticed it was dark. My fingers were stiff end my cheeks felt thick from the cold. Though I had not touched the water, my clothes were damp, and when I licked my lips I tasted sea tears.

Up ahead, outlined by the moonlight, I saw cliffs of rock growing out of the water. The screaming wind changed its pitch and from the rock's crevices I could hear a rhythmic moaning.

For an instant I thought it was my mother. I ran to the cliffs, but as I reached them the sound moved behind me.

Stupid, I thought, and I started crying. I sat down in a tiny cave and tucked my legs into my chest. They were too thin to shield me.

I fel1 asleep wedged within the cliff and woke when Marcus and Clíona found me. Their mouths were moving, but I could not hear them because my ears were ringing with the echoes of moaning wind and sea. Clíona covered me with a waxy coat and Marcus lifted me. They carried me back toward the truck, their voices blending with the music that still sloshed in my head.
 
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Excerpted from The Mermaids Singing by Lisa Carey. Copyright © 1998 by Lisa Carey. Excerpted by permission of Avon/Bard, a division of The Hearst Corporation. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.