Nightmare Fuel

The Hag of the Beara

“If you’re there,” I prayed, “grant my wish. Make it possible for me to live one life, not two. Make me whole.”

Illustration: Max Loeffler

WeWe ascended the path on the cliff together, my wife and I. “She’s supposed to be right here,” Nora said crossly, as if I were somehow to blame for this situation, which I wasn’t. I didn’t know the first thing about it.

“You’re going to have to explain about this hag again,” I said. “It’s — a rock, or something?”

Nora seemed, just for a moment, disappointed in my cluelessness. “She’s a key figure. The Cailleach Beara!”

“And she’s like — the Professor McGonagall of West Cork?”

She smiled patiently. “You’re an eejit, Owen.”

I nodded. “Yeah,” I agreed.

Nora scanned the cliffside in vain. “The Cailleach,” she explained, “is a pre-Christian goddess of female power. The bringer of winter and old age. The oldest known Irish poem is said to be narrated by her. In the legend, Saint Caithighearn pursued her — it was a mad chase! Finally, in order to resist him, she transformed herself into a rock. Now she waits here.”

“What’s she waiting for?”

My wife looked at me, her red hair still blowing around madly. “For the world to change,” she said.

We’d been in Ireland for three months so far. After the election, it seemed like a good idea to get the hell out of Dodge. Fortunately, Nora still had lots of connections at University College Cork, and they were glad to have her back. The UCC gig had Nora teaching for the year at the An Léann Éireannach, the Center for Irish Studies. I, meanwhile, spent the year as a househusband, baking soda bread and shopping for Atlantic salmon at the English market in town.

Her face brightened. “Ah. Up there.” She pointed farther along the cliff and headed toward what I now saw was a tremendous rock, maybe five feet tall and a dozen feet wide. Gray lichen discolored its upper half. There was a bump at the top that suggested the head. A point emerging from this might have been a long, hooked nose. There was a hollowed-out space for eyes.

“It looks more like a chicken than a person,” I said.

Nora reached forward and touched the rock with one hand. She closed her eyes. Were her lips moving softly? “What are you saying?” I said. “Are you saying something?”

“Whist,” Nora said. “It’s just some verses.”

“Which verses would these be?”

She looked at me curiously. “Were you not listening before?”

I wanted to protest but didn’t see the point. I sat down by the stone and watched the ocean. Gulls hung in the air above us. The sound of waves crashing against the cliff below rang in my ears.

The flood wave and the second ebb tide have all reached me,” she said. “I cannot but know them well.”

She paused, one hand upon the Hag, her back to me now. My wife gazed out to sea. “That’s the poem?”

“It’s from the ninth century,” she said. “The Hag’s Lament.”

“It’s a cheerful little thing, isn’t it?” I said.

My wife turned to face me. “I think it’s beautiful,” she said.

We were quiet for a while after that, just the two of us alone with this ancient stone, the sound of wind and sea.

It had seemed that fall as if I could endlessly outrun the trouble that I carried in my heart. If this seems, in retrospect, like a foolish thing to believe in, I’m still not so sure I have much regret. There are times when false hope is better than no hope, no matter what the truth turns out to be, given the passage of time. Anyway, I’m surely not the only person who’s ever hoped that a profound love would transform her into someone different, someone better. To believe in such idealistic mutation strikes me as human. We are what we are, to be sure. But that has never kept anyone from dreaming of being someone else.

Nora sat down with her back to me. I looked out to sea. It was strange to find ourselves here alone. I tried to imagine what our lives had been like, back at Bennington, on the other side of the ocean. But the world we had known seemed distant and gray, like a dream from which we had awakened.

I stretched forward and put my hand upon the stone. I felt the rough surface upon my palm.

Then I saw something in the long grass at the base, and I reached down to see what this might be. I picked up a small clay figure. It had swollen breasts and a big pregnant belly. Its mouth was frozen open in an “O.”

“Hey, look at this,” I said.

Nora looked at me with curiosity, but then her expression changed as she saw what it was I held. “Owen, drop that,” she said, urgently. “Drop that now!”

“It’s like a — ”

“Sweet Jesus,” Nora said. “Put it down!”

“Okay,” I said, a little surprised at her urgency. But before I could comply, Nora reached out, snatched the figure, and put it back in the grass below the stone hag. “Hey — ”

“Someone left that here,” she said. “As an offering!”

“And you think the ancient druids are going to—what? Come for me?”

“It doesn’t belong to us,” she said, standing up.

“Okay,” I said and stood up too. The truth of the matter was that the thing had freaked me out. That open mouth and the heavy breasts. Who would make such a thing? What kind of private world would you have to live in to want to bring such an idol to the crag of this lonely place and leave it here? What kind of wish would it be if you thought that only the Hag of Beara could grant it?

“Come on,” Nora said. “Let’s go.”

“Really?” I said. All at once, I felt reluctant. I looked at the Hag’s face, and I could imagine her presence now, the patience and the sadness.

“Let’s get lunch,” said Nora pleasantly. “Are you not hungry?”

I nodded. I was hungry. My wife reached out and took my hand, and the two of us started back down the cliff walk toward our car. The ocean roared in my ears. I let go of Nora’s hand so we could walk single file, and more than once I stopped to look back at the place where we had been.

TThe next day, we drove around the coast—the Wild Atlantic Way, the Irish tourist board calls it. We looked at an ogham stone near Aghadown, a finger of ancient granite covered with runes from the 4th century. It stood surrounded by an iron gate at the edge of a farmer’s boggy pasture. Nora looked at her guidebook, then at the stone.

“What do the runes say?” I asked.

“That’s what’s so weird about this one. Usually it’s just people’s names. But this one has a declaration, like.” She placed her fingers on the stone. “Gip e tised in faidche, dia m-ba gascedach, geis fair ar thecht dind faidchi cen chomrac n-oenfhir do fhuacra.”

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me,” I said. “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them…”

She cleared her throat. “Whoever comes to this meadow, if he be armed, he is forbidden to leave the meadow without requesting single combat.

“Yikes,” I said. From somewhere nearby came the lowing of calves. The air was redolent with the smell of hawthorne and manure. “You’re not armed, are you?” I asked.

Nora laughed. “I’m always armed, love,” she said.

After lunch, we drove to the cliffs at Baltimore and stood there at the edge, watching the ocean crash against Sherkin Island. It was uncommonly clear, for Ireland, as we stood there in the unseasonably warm autumn sunshine.

I considered, for a moment, that my long years of suffering were unnecessary, that she had known about my secret self from the beginning.

A young woman walked toward us, dressed in blue jeans and a white linen shirt. She had a pashmina scarf wrapped around her neck. The scarf blew in the wind off the ocean. As we passed, the two of us made eye contact, and for a sudden moment I unexpectedly felt something in my heart tear open. It seemed cosmically unfair to me that she got to live her life, this beautiful young woman, whereas I, etc. It felt like being stabbed over and over again with a blade no one could see, leaving a wound I could never acknowledge. The sunlight seemed to dim in my eyes for a moment, and I thought of the cruel ending of Joyce’s short story, “Araby”: Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

“Are you alright?” Nora said.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“I know I keep saying it,” Nora said. “But you don’t have to always keep everything inside.”

Her words terrified me, as if she could know what dwelled in my heart. I considered, for a moment, that my long years of suffering were unnecessary, that she had known about my secret self from the beginning, and that, should I ever speak my true name aloud, I would receive love and compassion — rather than the horror and revulsion I had long imagined.

“I know,” I said to her, which felt to me ambiguous enough to fit the occasion. I stopped walking forward, and then I turned out once more to face the sea. She put her arms around me, hugging me tight, and I gazed off into the distance. It occurred to me that our home — my home, anyhow — was somewhere out there, beyond where we could see.

We headed back to Cork in the afternoon, following the N71 past Castletownshend and Squince, Union Hall and Glandore. Nora had wanted to visit one last site in West Cork, and so we’d pulled off the R597 and followed it east, past St. Fachtna’s church, down country roads lined on either side with high hedges. Nora was always behind the wheel on these adventures, having learned to drive on the left side back in the days before she left home. We passed through green fields lined with old stone walls. At last, she turned right at the sign for the Drombeg Stone Circle, and soon we pulled into a parking lot. There were a half-dozen other cars there. Cows were lowing from a nearby field.

“Okay,” said Nora, leading me down the path. “Now this one’s really scary.”

I followed her down the twisting gravel lane. Our shoes scuffed against the small stones. “What’s scary about it?” I asked.

“You’ll see,” she said.

There before us were 17 standing stones. A larger pair stood at the “entrance,” like a portal. Opposite this, on the other side of the circle, was a flat altar stone. Beyond the circle were a few other stone ruins. A family was looking at these remains as Nora and I approached.

“It’s oriented toward the sunset at the winter solstice,” Nora said. She took me to the altar stone, which had a notch in it. Then she turned around and pointed toward the hills in the distance. “The setting sun on December 21 shines through the hollow between those hills and aligns precisely with the notch.” As we stood there now, the sun was sinking before us. The standing stones cast long shadows.

“That’s amazing,” I said, and it was. There was something so powerful about the place, you could feel it, like a living thing. “It sounds like you’ve been here before.”

“Not in this life!” she said, and laughed.

“You said this place was — scary?”

“Yeah,” said Nora. “During the late 1950s, there was an excavation here. In the middle of the site, they found human remains, along with some shattered urns and ashes from a pyre.”

“A pyre,” I said.

“Theory is they performed sacrifices on the altar.” She lay her hands on the flat stone.

“Sacrifices… to whom?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.

“To the Cailleach, of course,” Nora said. She turned to face the setting sun. “I want to see the huts,” she said.

I placed my hands upon the altar stone. “Are you coming?” she asked.

“I’m going to stay here for a second,” I said.

She nodded, as if she’d known all along that this would be my response. I watched as the woman I loved walked off among the ancient ruins. For the moment I was left alone at the altarpiece in the Drombeg Stone Circle. My hand felt warm upon it. I closed my eyes.

“If you’re there,” I prayed, “grant my wish. Make it possible for me to live one life, not two. Make me whole.”

In my heart, I heard the same voice that had spoken my name last night in the dark. Cad é an íobairt, came the reply, and I did not need Nora to tell me what this meant.

“My soul,” I thought softly. “I swear to fucking god I’ll give you my soul.”

The sun vanished over the far hills, and the stone grew cold. I turned my back and walked toward the entrance pillars. Something within me ached. “Now that,” I thought, “was some weird-ass voodoo.”

I knew I was not the only person who suffered with what I had, and I also knew there were reasonable scientific ways of proceeding in the world with safety. There was a protocol. I felt my cheeks growing hot as I recalled my words with shame. “Seriously, you’d give up your soul?” I thought. “You’d give up the life you know, in order that you could do—what? Stand forever upon a cliff, everything you had ever known now gone and turned to stone?”

I turned around and saw Nora over at the altar, spinning around and now making eye contact with me. The two of us moved toward each other and met in the middle. It occurred to me, as we stood there, right about here must have been where they’d found that body, that person they’d killed.

“Let’s head home,” Nora said, and we walked back to our car. But something in me thought, “We’re already home. Aren’t we?”

We got back to the flat about 9 p.m., and my wife and I settled back into the house. I lit a peat fire, and we sat in the living room reading our books.

And then Nora’s hand was on my shoulder, and I looked up, having nodded off some time before. Dubliners was open on my lap. “Come on, Owen,” she said. “It’s time for bed.”

I was so sleepy. I felt like some underwater creature that had just crawled out on land. A vast weariness was in me, and I fell back asleep almost the moment my head hit the pillow, although I was vaguely aware that Nora was still awake beside me, the room dimly illuminated by her light.

Then I opened my eyes and took in a great lungful of air, as if I had surfaced from below the water. My chest ached, like something within me was trying to burst forth. I thought of the jack-in-the-pulpits that erupted from the soil in the woods near my Pennsylvania home when I was a child. I got out of bed and rushed to the bathroom and flicked the switch. The light was soft and tender. A young woman I did not recognize looked back at me from the mirror.

My mouth fell open in that “O” of wonder, and her mouth fell open too, and I saw that this was no stranger, but the person I had always been. All these years, I had wanted to know what I would look like, and now at last I knew: I looked like myself. And who else should I resemble? I would not call myself beautiful in the traditional sense, but then a child emerging from its mother’s womb is not beautiful in the traditional sense either, and who would say that a baby in the second of its birth is not the most blessed thing on earth? My breasts were heavy. My hair fell to my shoulders. I looked at my hands — the fingers slender, the nails longer. There was a warmth in my palms from where I had touched the altar long ago, before I had felt myself slain and buried at the center.

“Eve,” said a voice, and I looked up. Nora was standing behind me. I saw her in the mirror.

“My name,” I said, and the sound of my voice was different.

“In Irish,” she said, “it is Aioghe.

“Ee-fa,” I said, sounding it out. I looked at my reflection again. This time I looked more familiar. Older, too — there were laugh lines around my eyes, although I did not feel like laughing.

She looked down at my body and she smiled sadly. “Is there anything quite like it?” she asked.

My eyesight wasn’t very good.

“You weren’t the only one who made a wish, Aioghe,” she said, leaning against the doorframe.

As I looked in the mirror the years passed swiftly by. My hair turned gray, and my spine hunched and curved. Spots appeared on the back of my hands. A network of wrinkles spread across my face. Dark, weary circles appeared beneath my eyes.

“What was it you wished for?” I said to my wife, although I wasn’t even sure that was the word anymore. I felt so very tired. “Nora,” I whispered. “What was it that you wished for?

But my voice was ancient and hollow now, like a whisper from the grave.

Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University; New York Times Contributing Opinion Writer; National Co-chair, GLAAD.

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