The March wind was wild that Saturday morning when I left the cottage with my brothers to go down the hill to the beach.
I squinted and yawned in the mild sunlight as we descended from the promontory upon which our cottage sat exposed to the full force of the Atlantic gales. I shivered, pulling close the collar of my oilcloth coat.
None of us had slept well the night before.
Our mam had been up crying, and though our da had done his best to calm her, she’d been restless and uneasy over something particular, something she spoke of only in whispers.
Mam had not been fully herself since tragedy had struck our house the year before, when my baby sister had grown sick and died. Now my brothers and I all wanted to shake off the long sleepless night we’d just passed.
My brother Donal began to race toward the rocks where he saw our da’s boat beached. “I’m taking the boat out!” he screamed.
“The wind is too strong!” Fingal called out to him over the noise of the waves. “The boat’ll be dashed to the rocks!”
The waves broke and arched up, foaming and falling across the shoals.
“Our vessel can ride those swells!” Donal shouted proudly. He stood near the boat but made no efforts to drag it into the tide. I knew he was just taunting Fingal, who was of a cautious nature. Even Donal, daredevil that he was, wouldn’t tempt water so agitated.
My brothers and I had helped our father craft the boat and had lined it threefold in fat sealskins. Mam said that if the boat had a soul, it was a seal’s soul, the way it moved, long and dark and sure of itself, cutting the waters. So she had named it Mananan’s Vessel after the Irish sea god.
“I’ve an idea,” Donal said with a desperate sort of exuberance. “Let’s take the boat and leave Ard Macha for good and sail in search of the Holy Isles.”
“There’s no such place as the Holy Isles,” Fingal bellowed over the noise of the surf.
“Many people have reported seeing them,” Donal insisted.
“They’re imaginary. They’re only territories of the mind,” Fingal said, the wind blowing so hard it carried his voice above us and sent it seaward.
All my life, I had heard stories about those mysterious isles, where the goddess who had once ruled Ireland had exiled herself in centuries past. Some said the isles lay to the south, and others said they were to be found at a more northerly latitude. They were known by many names—the Holy Isles, the Land of Women, the Country of the Perpetually Young, the Isles of the Dispossessed—and were supposed to be otherworldly places where extraordinary things occurred.
“They have never been mapped or charted,” Fingal said, always the one to require proof of things.
Donal and Fingal were fifteen, one year older than I, and though they were twins, they could not have been more different. Donal had dark brown hair like mine and Mam’s, and he was strong and solidly built, while Fingal had red hair like our da’s and was slender. Donal was fiery and impulsive, while Fingal approached things with logic and caution. I often felt pulled between the two poles of their different natures, but today, Donal’s wish to escape resonated strongly with my own feelings.
Though the sun shone weakly through the clouds in the eastern sky, the horizon to the west was all mist. The idea of such an adventure, sailing to the west in search of mystical isles, appealed to me greatly. Mam’s unhappiness had been wearing away at my spirit. I ached for the world to open up before me.
“I think it’s sad that you don’t believe in the Holy Isles, Fingal,” Donal said.
Fingal laughed. “I think it’s sad that you do!”
“Stop fighting about it,” I snapped. “And you both know we can’t take the boat out in this weather.” The wind intensified, and our coats beat and rippled wildly around us.
I envisioned the three of us in Da’s boat, sailing through an otherworldly place, the dark clouds broken and ignited with green glimmering light. The Holy Isles were said to be a province altogether different from ours, lit by a black sun. I imagined the sea and the clouded sky illuminated by a dark planetary brilliance.
My two brothers were restless, full of energy and uncertain what to do with it. They ran closer to the water and began kicking stones, making them skid across the water. I saw Fingal bend down, finding something among the flotsam from the tides; then the two of them came running back.
“Look what I found, Maeve.” Fingal held up a jagged piece of something shiny. “A mirror. There’s enough sunlight that I can start a little fire with it.”
The three of us squatted down near a clump of beach grass.
“You see, you get the sunlight in the mirror,” he said, angling it back and forth with blinding flashes, “and shine it on the grass.”
We formed a kind of wall around the grass, blocking the wind. Fingal moved the mirror very carefully, and a blade of grass began to burn; soon, two other blades near it caught on fire.
A sudden loud commotion of birds sounded from the estuary around the rocks to the north. Gulls circled overhead, screeching wildly. As we stood, the wind put out our little fire.
We ran toward the noise, balancing precariously on the stones and leaning against the rock wall, making our way to the estuary. Tom Cavan, a boy a year older than my brothers who lived in the cottage closest to ours on Ard Macha and whom we’d known and disliked all our lives, was clutching tightly to a bit of slippery cliff shelf, stuck there, not certain how to get down safely. A large gull swept back and forth past him, its beak open, threatening to bite. That was when I noticed the hatchlings that lay dead below on the stones.
I pointed them out to my brothers.
“You devil! You lout!” Donal yelled at him.
“Help me, O’Tullagh!” Tom cried. “One of you climb over and around the other way and give me a hand up.”
“No! You monster!” Donal yelled.
“You’re getting your due! I hope she plucks your eyes out!” Fingal said.
“And why do you care so much about these nuisance birds?” Tom asked.
One of the hatchlings squirmed and moved its hardly formed wing.
“Fingal,” I said, touching my brother’s arm. “One of them is alive.”
He went over to it and squatted beside it. “The poor creature is still breathing,” he said, and lifted it very carefully, holding it in one cupped hand.
“I don’t think it’s long for this world,” Donal remarked, looking closely at it.
I touched the hatchling gingerly with one finger, and it blinked and gave a little spasm. Sensing its suffering, I went mad with anger at Tom.
“If it wouldn’t make me as low a creature as you, I’d pick up a stone and throw it at you!” I shrieked, trembling so I could barely control myself.
Tom turned his windburned face in my direction, wearing an expression I’d often seen come into his eyes: a cool fascination, almost as if it entertained him to see how outraged he could make me. At such moments, he seemed indifferent to my brothers’ anger with him. It was my reaction to his cruelty, my frustration with him, that he seemed to revel in. His green eyes glinted with a spark of orange as he stared at me.
For as long as we could remember, Tom Cavan had gone wild each spring, dropping the eggs of gulls from cliff rocks or throwing new hatchlings from their nests. And he shot down birds he never intended to eat. My brothers and I policed him. Da had said that Tom would likely grow out of that bad behavior, but now Tom was sixteen and seemed worse than ever.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Fire Opal by Regina McBride. Copyright © 2010 by Regina McBride. Excerpted by permission of Bluefire, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.