When she closes her eyes, Fiona recalls the pale smells of her mother's skin and hair; a smell like new muslin washed in salt water and left to dry in the wind. She tries to remember her mother's voice, and the pitch and treble of it passes through her, the rhythm of it so clear that for the shock of a moment they are returned to one another in the way they had been when she was small, connected by frail strings.
Displaced by the power of the memory, she sits up in bed to prove to herself that she is in Santa Fe, in her house on Delgado Street, with the cottonwood tree outside her bedroom window, her father's boxes and papers cluttering the floor in hopeless disarray. The dry mountain air outside is black and still, full of cricket noise.
As she switches on the lamp, the sudden light hurts her eyes. In the dark she had remembered her mother's face clearly, but now it is all shifting, unresolved particles.
She gets up and goes outside onto the porch. The night air is cold, the sky vast and brilliant with stars over the cottonwoods and the stands of tamarisk trees. She can hear the rushing of the Santa Fe River, the heavy snows of the previous winter melting now, coming down from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Fiona sits on the porch chair and shivers. There is a storm ring around the moon, something she'd seen a few times in Ireland, but never before in New Mexico.
The light from her bedroom window illuminates her lap, and she gazes at the green and white pattern of leaves on her nightgown, seized by the memory of their old flat in Athlone, the faded green and white floral wallpaper, soft in places from the dampness. She remembers when she was seven years old and she and her mother, Jane, were about to leave that flat where Fiona had been born and go to Roundstone, where Jane was from, along the rocky Atlantic coast in the west of Ireland.
Fiona had been afraid to move to Roundstone. Jane had told her haunting stories of Presentation orphanage on the cliff, where she had grown up. The girls' mothers were buried in the graveyard with the white stone crosses that could be seen from the dormitory window. Mothers who had died giving birth to their daughters. Girls were buried there, too, the frailer ones who hadn't lasted.
"Sometimes we gazed out into the cold at the boreens looking to see the souls of the floating dead," Jane had whispered to her. When Jane talked liked this, Fiona perceived a deepened smell of mildew coming from above the headboard; she imagined that the words awakened some dormant presence in the room, causing the wallpaper to breathe. "We were in awe of them who had passed into the next world, certain they were movin' around weightless and restless, floating in circles like they didn't know what to do with themselves."
Fiona thought of the dead mothers staring up at the dormitory windows, keeping vigil, hoping to catch a glimpse of their beloved child. Or the dead girls seeking out their sisters, or just trying to pass the time by watching the living.
A girl had once been found in a bog near the orphanage, a girl who, they would learn, had been dead for centuries, wearing a little pointed hat, her knees bent into her chest. Jane and some of the other orphans had trespassed, desperately curious when they'd heard that something shocking had been dug up. Before the man whose farm bordered the bog chased them away, Jane saw the creature lying on her side on a little stretcher. Jane had told Fiona that a picture of the bog girl had been published in a magazine and that she had the clipping.
Long before there'd been any talk of going to the west of Ireland, Fiona had searched through Jane's papers and photographs and found the clipping. The bog girl's face, though black and shiny as polished stone, was clear. A wide, smooth forehead and a resigned expression. A bit of tension at one side of her mouth made her appear slightly irritated. She clutched what looked like a piece of rope in her two hands.
"Why is the girl so dark and shiny?" Fiona had asked.
"From centuries of soaking in the bog."
"Why is she holding that rope?"
"It isn't rope, Fiona."
"What is it?"
"A braid of hair."
"Is it her own hair?"
"They don't think so."
"It's a mystery," Jane had said.
Jane was taking them from Athlone in central Ireland, and directly west to that dangerous place, the heart of the bogs where mothers and daughters lost each other.
For as far back as Fiona could remember, Jane had complained that she hated Athlone. She had persuaded everyone at her seamstress job that she was married to Ronan Keane, Fiona's father, and that he came and went because it was the nature of his job.
Jane confided the truth to a woman she was friendly with, but when they had a row, the woman told everyone on the job. Jane came home mortified one day, one of the bookkeepers having called her a name she would not repeat. She never went back and set her mind on returning to Roundstone. It was the place she knew, where she'd been born, she said. She should never have left it. There was a certain beloved nun from the orphanage that she missed, she said. The French nun, Sister Delphine.
"The Irish are a small-minded people," Jane had chanted as she wept. She'd said it again and again, sitting on the bed, shaking her head. "The French understand human frailty."
She kept on her dresser a photograph of the old nun standing outside the convent in the sun, holding her veil to her head in a high wind.
The morning they were to leave, Fiona tried to lock herself into the bedroom. The creaking floor and the bed's curving iron headboard with the peeling white paint, even the musty wallpaper, had become for her a source of comfort. Jane managed to open the door. Fiona fought her, screaming and refusing to leave. The hysteria had gone on and on into the afternoon until Jane was furious and threatened to leave by herself. Fiona was still tremoring from the tears when they'd got on the bus.
When they'd been riding steadily for ten or fifteen minutes, Jane sighed and fell quiet. She'd looked to the window. Fiona knew from Jane's uneven breaths, her quiet swallowing, that she was holding back tears.
Letting go of the effort she'd been maintaining all day, Jane had pushed the seat partition up between them and drawn Fiona close. "Little love," she whispered. "The place will be familiar to you."
Jane had thought for a while and then said, "Because it's a part of both of us."
Fiona goes back inside and gets into bed. She wants to sleep, to let go of the memories. Before she turns off the light she struggles to root herself in the present, fixing her attention on the big oak dresser her father gave her and the objects she's placed on top of it, things that give her comfort. An antique silver brush and comb, a sandalwood box where she keeps her earrings. Her eyes settle on a small red bottle that she bought at a flea market, a bottle that catches the light and is unusually cold to the touch.
Sometime during the telephone call from her mother's husband, Ned McGinty, she'd picked up that little bottle and held it. She hears his voice again and wonders if the strained sound to it was due to the poor connection she had from Ireland, or his reticent emotion.
"A car accident...," he'd said. "On the Galway road. The garda said that your mother died instantly. So she did not suffer."
He'd said that twice.
But not until an hour or so after she'd hung up did Fiona find herself wondering how he could be so certain of this, take it so much for granted. There could have been moments, even minutes, that Jane had suffered. Tears and a ferocious indignation rise within her.
Fiona stares at the red bottle, the lamplight igniting its dips and curves. They'd had the funeral that morning, he'd said, and Fiona had not reacted. She had not asked him why he hadn't called her. Had he thought she would not come? She does not even know the date of her mother's death. A wave of nausea moves through her.
She tells herself that in the morning she will telephone her mother's friend Noreen Feeney; that she will have a long conversation with her. She will find out the date of her mother's death.
She switches off the lamp, but each time she moves toward sleep, she hears a distant rush of ocean, a faint noise of gulls and breakers. She holds her breath and listens intently, and the sound stops.
But when she tries again to relax, the waves return, softly crashing, growing slowly to a roar.
From the outside, Presentation orphanage looked like a vast castle, set as it was on a rocky summit, the wind wild in the trees behind it. Inside, it was a maze of narrow hallways and dim, austere rooms. The nun, Sister Delphine, tall and willowy with frail, dry skin etched with many delicate little lines, light coming through her cheeks like rays through a paper lamp, swept toward them with her arms open.
"Little Jane. Dear little Jane," the nun sang in her French accent, the sound soft and guttural and sweet, embarrassing to Fiona.
"He still hasn't married me, Sister," Jane said, and dissolved into tears, the nun leading her to a hardwood bench, putting her arms around her. "Sssshhh. Sssshhh, little Jane O'Faolain."
Moved by Jane's emotion, hot tears had rolled down Fiona's face, her hands still folded in her lap, in the way her mother had shown her she must sit in the presence of the nun.
Jane looked feverish, shiny and pink of skin; the nun's continued incantation of her name worked a transformative magic on her, tears rinsing years away from her, reducing her to the very girl she'd once been. The girl Jane O'Faolain.
Unable to restrain herself, Fiona rose from her chair and knelt before her mother, joining the nun in chanting her mother's name. She touched the side of Jane's face and, smoothing her hair away from the dampness of her temples, ran her hand through the length of it again and again like a comb.
Sister Delphine told them that she had arranged for the house they would live in, a house that had belonged to a nun's cousin, a man now too old to keep up with the small bit of a farm that had been in his family for centuries.
"You should sew again, Jane," Sister Delphine said. "I think you'd do well. There's a demand."
Sister Delphine had saved one of Jane's notebooks, a green one, with a creased cover. The finger-worn pages crackled as Jane separated them. On every page were two or three drawings of dresses, some in soft, faded pencil, some in ink, all opulent in design: gowns with small, fitted waists and voluminous skirts. Some drawings had been erased over many times and redrawn.
"Such a romantic girl," Sister Delphine said affectionately, tilting her head as she looked at Jane, touching the hair at her temple.
"Sister Conception and Sister Elma often receive commissions for bridal gowns in the spring, but they're too old for it now. They turn girls away. We could direct girls to you. The dresses from the bridal shop in Galway are overmanufactured and overpriced."
Jane looked at her, full of consideration.
"And the orphans only make bone lace, nothing good enough for bridal veils."
"Sister Elma always said that these designs were meant for another century," Jane said.
"Not if you make them as wedding dresses," Sister Delphine said. "These are perfect for wedding dresses."
Jane led Fiona through halls tremulous with nuns' footsteps, echoes of girls' voices, watery and high-pitched. They arrived at the sewing room where Jane had learned the art of dressmaking. A heavyset nun on her knees attended the elaborate hems of a white dress on a headless figure. "Sister Elma," Jane said in a quiet, affectionate voice, and the nun looked up and nodded, smiling, lips clamped shut on three straight pins. Her damp eyes bulged.
At a table under a window, a group of girls labored with needles and thread. Fiona stared, captivated by the deft rhythms of their hands.
One of the lacemakers, a dark-haired girl older than Fiona, shot her an angry look, and Fiona wondered if that girl had a mother. Some girls who came to school here, she knew, lived with their families in Roundstone or nearby villages, and the rest were orphans. She wondered if Sister Delphine held each of the orphans at night, chanting their name the way she had with her mother, to remind them who they were.
Fiona was afraid to see what they were crafting, maybe the stuff called bone lace. She wondered with a shiver if there was something skeletal about it; if it was used to embellish the shrouds of dead people. It was the orphans, Sister Delphine had said, who manufactured this lace. Her mother had made it, and now Fiona wondered if it would be her lot to make it, too.
Jane opened a drawer full of fabrics and grazed her fingers over each one. "Silk...brocade...organza...pure Irish linen." Each word carried on her breath. She drew out a piece of silk and touched it to her cheek. Closing her eyes, she let out a little sound of pleasure. Then she offered it to Fiona, who did the same, and her heart floated with the sensation. It was soft and alive but cool, and when it brushed her skin, it made a whispering sound.
In the morning the telephone awakens Fiona. She lets the answering machine pick it up. It's the woman from the Armory for the Arts again who wants to organize a retrospective of Fiona's father's photographs. With poorly hidden irritation in her voice, the woman offers again to go through the material herself. Fiona's said no to her twice before, feeling protective of the boxes her father left to her. There are so many pictures she has not seen. Dense numbers of them, packed away in slides and frail, nearly opaque negatives. Yet, for almost two years now since his death, she's only skimmed the surface.
Fiona has to fight the sensation of being small and helpless against the woman's voice. She sits up in bed and stares at the boxes.
She sold her father's big house in Nambe after he died and bought this house in Santa Fe, hoping to open a little dress shop right in the front room. She'd decided that she'd make the dresses she'd sell, starting simple. She bought a hundred yards of gauzy Indian cottons and plain, light Irish linens. She designed an easy pattern, a summer dress she could once have cut, pinned, and seamed in her sleep.
But she has been unable to motivate herself to sew, the concentration that had once come so naturally to her now requiring tremendous effort.
Four or five times in the past year while browsing in the downtown stores, she had spotted garments with unusual designs or eccentrically fashioned sleeves. To find the shapes of the pieces so that she could make a pattern, she'd bought the garments, separating the seams carefully, filletting the stitchwork. But then she'd left the pieces on her shelves, never making the patterns or even attempting to reconstruct what she had dismembered. She wonders if somewhere in her mind she knew when she set out each time to the task that she would not follow through; that she found some perverse satisfaction in unraveling the careful work that had formed them.
Yet in her thoughts she sees her store open for business, a bright Santa Fe day, one of her dresses hanging from a hook on the front porch, undulating in the breeze.
This house is not that far off the beaten track. The tourists could find her easily, right off Canyon Road. She could advertise in the Pasa Tiempo and leave flyers at the La Fonda and the Inn at Loretto.
She bought a wicker chair with a large round back, imagining it would be a nice addition to the shop, but even before she'd received news of her mother's death, she'd found herself daydreaming in this chair, sinking into lethargy, unable to organize herself, to rise to the complications of such an undertaking.
She'd seen this house many years before when she and her father had driven past it on the way from a Canyon Road gallery. She remembered it because of its pitched roof and the towering red hollyhocks behind the black, wrought-iron Victorian fence, unusual on this particular old Santa Fe street where all the houses are surrounded by smooth, low adobe walls.
The first thing the Realtor had pointed out when Fiona'd come to look a year ago was the arched, leaded-glass window inset between splayed walls. The house had other interesting features, a mullioned door in the bedroom leading out onto the porch, various niches and alcoves, traditional spots to keep santos and bultos. But she'd kept going back to the window, the smoky glass giving a dimmer patina to the bright Santa Fe daylight, making it appear overcast. More like Irish light, she'd thought, faintly startled by the idea.
Standing in its penumbra, she'd begun to feel uneasy.
She thanked the Realtor for his time and left. But she'd thought for days about the house, and late one night she'd walked up Delgado Street and, after standing a while across the road, gone through the gate and to the door, which she found unlocked.
Inside, she went right to the window. Even at night she could not stop gazing at it. The many little panes reflected the room and her own shadow in various squares like dark mirror, each pane set at an almost indetectably different angle from the other. She sat in a shadow against the wall, facing the window, and experienced a sense of infinite safety. Sighing, she'd felt her muscles soften, the house emitting fortitude.
She goes into the kitchen and puts on the kettle for coffee. A few letters had come from Jane over the past twelve years since she's seen her, but Fiona never answered any of them. She thinks about Noreen Feeney, but in the bright of morning the thought of calling her does not offer the reassurance it did the night before. She has to fight an urge to sink into the wicker chair. She needs to leave the house, she tells herself. To set herself to a task.
She wants to buy a mirror, something that would make a nice addition to the shop. Something old-fashioned, maybe Victorian to keep with the mood set by the wrought-iron fence. She was in a shop once in Durango, or in Mesa Verde, filled with hanging ferns, furnished with antiqued white shelves and display tables.
A few months back she had read in the Sunday New Mexican that the Aragon family had expanded their antique-restoration business; that they'd bought a gutted church near Santuario in Chimayo. She imagines that they have a mirror.
After she finishes her coffee, she showers and puts on her faded jeans and a loose, white cotton blouse and drives along the Paseo de Peralta and out onto the Espanola highway. It is almost noon and she smells rain coming. Low winds runnel through the widening patches of mesa on the roadside leading out of town.
When she reaches Tesuque, lightning makes nervous lanterns of the clouds. By the time she's driven up the rocky earth roads to Aragon's, a front of shadow has moved into the sky. When she gets out of the car, a raw wind exhilarates her.
There are still large, white holy-water fonts in the vestibule of Aragon's Antiques and Restoration, and a broken fresco of La Trinidad, the triplet Christs sitting together, the two on the outside pointing at the thorny, inflamed heart of the one in the center. The vast main room is dim and cool, whitewashed plastered adobe. Dark vigas at the high cathedral ceilings.
The first room houses delicate pieces: opulently carved tables, upholstered chairs in velvets and rose brocades, Victorian-looking statues and tiresome bric-a-brac. Behind a reception desk, a young woman glances up at Fiona expressionlessly. Fiona nods but the woman does not acknowledge her, looking back down at her ledger. Fiona walks unobtrusively past her and into the next room, where she enters a forest of archaic dressers and breakfronts and chiffoniers. The passageways become increasingly narrow as she goes, tall wardrobes casting shade into the lanes beneath them. She stops and opens a small drawer, and it exhales a dusty, rosy-smelling draft. She opens more drawers distractedly, breathing and smelling. She forgets herself, taking in the coolness the furniture exudes around her like a system of living trees. She runs a finger over the antlers of a deer carved in decorative relief on the side of a balustrade.
When she comes into a clearing, she sits down on a wooden bench, studying the peculiar masts and turrets rising from an arbor of Gothic-looking cabinets.
"Please don't sit on the bench."
Fiona gasps and turns. The woman from the reception desk is standing in an interval between furniture. Fiona gets to her feet.
"I didn't mean to scare you," the woman says. She has short, black hair and eyebrows enhanced by black pencil.
"It's all right."
The woman's eyes glow mistrustfully. "That bench needs work. My husband and his brother brought it back from a demolished church in Spain."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"Are you looking for something in particular?"
"I'm looking for a mirror to fill a wall."
"To fill it?"
"Well, it's for my shop in Santa Fe. I have a shop and I need a mirror."
"What kind of shop?"
"A dress shop."
"Oh." Fiona thinks she sees the shadow of a smirk on the woman's face. "There are no mirrors in this room, except the ones attached to furniture. Go downstairs and look. There are a few."
"Thanks." Fiona follows the woman back through the lane and out of the forest. The woman points at the staircase and returns to her desk as Fiona descends.
One mirror downstairs captures her attention, but it is nothing dainty or Victorian like the one she's had in mind. The frame is heavy and dark, minutely carved, the crevices dusted in gold leaf. As she stares at herself, her face softly distorted by a ripple on its surface, she hears a man cough from some nearby room. She sees a bright, unnatural light issuing through the crack of an open door.
Fiona looks into the vast, cool basement room. On a table, with a single lamp bright as a stage light shining down on it, stands the partially fractured terra-cotta figure of a girl, an urchin or ragamuffin about three feet tall, wearing a feverish expression on her cracked, stained face.
A man leans in close to it with a small brush, gingerly applying something to one of the figure's hands, which is caught in a graceful gesture a few inches from its heart.
Fiona is intrigued by the face, unable to distinguish whether it is joy or suffering she sees in the expression. She wonders if it is a saint. The stains that run down from the figure's eyes suggest tears, but her aqua green dress runs with the same dark trickles.
Fiona leans into the doorway, her attention held by the patience with which the man applies the brush. With his other hand he holds the chin of the saint between his thumb and forefinger. He scrutinizes her face so intently and gets so close to it that Fiona imagines he is going to kiss it.
The man's grace and delicate sensibility are at odds with his largeness. He is big, wide-shouldered. A long vein ripples around one forearm and runs up, disappearing under the cap sleeve of his black T-shirt.
Each smooth, unbroken motion of his brush suggests devotion. He seems to be tracing the ancient workmanship, memorizing it.
He reaches over to his table of little colored bottles and opens one. A sharp smell of herbs escapes and rushes Fiona, dragging after it a fume of alcohol. He dabs the girl's fingers with the solution.
His hair is caught in a negligent ponytail, held by a coarse string of leather. He is sweating and a few loose black strands of hair glisten when they catch the light. A few cling to the dampness at his temples.
The man applies his brush again and Fiona finds herself entranced by its soft repetitions. She recognizes the pleasure he derives from such concentrated labor. She remembers the way the daylight had changed across the dressmaker's table, how a morning could become an afternoon, cutting and pinning fabric, and afternoon turn into evening with the pieces of a dress basted on a dressform. With diligence and focus, something could become beautiful and take form.
Over the last minutes the line of sweat along the man's backbone has deepened on his shirt. She has almost forgotten the woman upstairs, and now, hearing the soft booms of footsteps descending the stairs, wonders if this man she's been watching is the woman's husband.
But it's not a woman's voice that speaks to her from behind. "Are you interested in restorations?"
She turns suddenly.
"I'm Joe Aragon," a man says, holding his hand out proudly to her. His jaw slides a little as he smiles.
She shakes his hand. "Is that the figure of a saint?" She looks back in and notices that the other man is looking at her for the first time.
This proud one, Joe Aragon, standing with her in the bright room of mirrors, is as tall as the other but thinner. His hair is shorter, too, and overgroomed, Fiona thinks. She can see where the teeth of a comb last ran through it.
His eyes travel down her neck and survey the skin of her chest. She becomes self-conscious of her redheaded, freckled complexion; something she's never grown easy with living in New Mexico. A lot of Hispanic men like this one give her lustful, incredulous looks. She is a curiosity to them.
"My brother, Carlos," he begins, pointing at the man restoring the figure, "thought it was La Alma de Maria. The Soul of the Virgin. He says he saw a Spanish Virgin like her once, wearing green. But now, he thinks she has a relation to a lost ship of the Spanish Armada."
"What kind of relation?"
"Some of the Spaniards made statues and figures in honor of the ships that were wrecked."
"Along the western coast of Ireland," Fiona adds.
His eyes open a bit wider and she senses his surprise. "Yes," he says, and smiles at her, revealing prominent, slightly buck teeth, his upper lip rising and curling at one corner. He is watching her closely now, and she feels the heat of a flush go up in her face.
"José," the woman calls from the summit of the stairs.
He rolls his eyes and turns to face her. The woman lets loose a soft tirade in Spanish, and he climbs the stairs to meet it.
Fiona does not look in again at Carlos Aragon. Her eyes rake the room for mirrors, and she catches her own face looking back at her in the one with the ripple on its surface. She blames her startled expression on hearing lore familiar to her from her girlhood, as if her Irish past is pursuing her, finding her in the unlikeliest places.
José and his wife are arguing in the forest of furniture, and Fiona is able to slip out unobtrusively, laughing to herself when she hears the wife call him a cavronne.
The wind is high when she walks outside, dry earth stinging her face, hitting the window of her car as she gets in, slams the door, and starts the engine. Driving back into Santa Fe, she watches the tumbleweeds on the mesa, the wind rattling the windows of her old car.
Copyright © 2003 by Regina McBride
The Land of Women
She tries to remember her mother's voice and the pitch and treble of it passes through her; the rhythm of it so clear that for a moment they are...connected by frail strings.
So begins The Land of Women, and we are swept into Fiona O'Faolain's last summer in Ireland, the season of her burgeoning sexuality. It is a time, too, when mother and daughter step toward friendship among the voluminous gowns they make for local brides. Yet that giddy summer also delivers betrayal. Fiona's journey from the shame that ended her girlhood takes her to Santa Fe and to Carlos Aragon, a restorer of antiquities, whose ancestry is mysteriously linked to hers. As he explores their pasts with the precision of an artisan, Fiona must face her excruciating memory.
In The Land of Women the past lives in the present, and physical and emotional geography touch.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
The Land of Women
1. Consider the language in the first paragraph. What do you learn about the characters and about the story?
2. Look at the opening quote, "Begin a voyage across the clear sea, / If you would reach the Land of Women." Recount the story of the Land of Women. What does it mean to you? Discuss whether it's a man's fantasy. Why do you think Regina McBride uses it here for her title?
3. What are your early impressions of Fiona? Think about her life story and discuss what kind of person she is. How does her relationship with her mother define her?
4. What are your impressions of Jane? What kind of relationship do mother and daughter have? Consider the openness of their relationship, and discuss which one is more maternal.
5. What is significant about the story of "the bog girl"? What was she holding in her hands? Why does the story fascinate Fiona? Do you think there is a connection, symbolic or otherwise, among "the bog girl," the orphanage, and Fiona.
6. Discuss McBride's use of memory. For example, consider the smell of Jane on the first page, Fiona's abandonment when Jane left to be with Ronan in Chapter 2, and Fiona's tactile feeling of sex in Chapter 15 -- "It amazes her, how love remains, hiding in her skin, flooding up from the cells..." How do these memories inform and enhance the story? Share some of your memories that bubble up from nowhere when you smell, hear, o see more