My husband's mother had decorated the little room at the back of the house with me in mind. It was a room meant for solitude, for revery and prayer, because the face I had presented then, fifteen years before, had suggested a contemplative girl, a girl given to intercourse with the saints. To her I was an unassuming girl, a kind of empty vessel like the Virgin Mary, who would carry holiness in her womb. They were an ecclesiastical family; she wanted her son to father a priest.
A fortnight or two after we were married, and before Manus and I left Kenmare in the west, Mrs. O'Breen came to Dublin on her own and furnished this old Georgian house for us. It was then that in a surge of generosity toward me she had the walls of this little room painted sea green and scallop shells impressed into fresh plasterwork. She said that she'd been concerned that I would miss the Atlantic. In fact, after having been cloistered at Enfant de Marie, so far inland, I had grown to find the smell and sound of the waves diminishing.
But I never expressed such truths to Mrs. O'Breen. As I never expressed them to Manus.
I was up at dawn this January morning, though it was a Sunday, attempting to draw a blue vase that I'd brought in with me from the dining room.
The night before, Manus and our two daughters, Maighread, fourteen, and Caitlin, thirteen, were speaking in low voices at the dining room table. I'd come in and they'd gone quiet. When I asked them what they'd been speaking about, Manus evaded the question and began describing a horse he'd seen earlier that day on Grafton Street, decked out in ribbons and bells. There was a winter fair in Phoenix Park, and the city had been adrift with gypsies.
I struggled now to draw the likeness of the vase, but my mind was not on it. I'd had it before me for over an hour, yet I had only drawn a few faint lines. I was fixed, instead, on the static representations of water along the wainscotting.
Mrs. O'Breen saw decorative potential in all representations of the sea. Here they were, trimming the very room in controlled waves.
In spite of the plasterwork, the room she had bequeathed me was stark. The barest in the house, furnished with only a dresser and a draftsman's table more suitable for a child than an adult. The table faced the dresser upon which I placed the objects of my still lifes: flowers, fruit, bottles, and jars. When I'd finish drawing them I always cleared away the objects and replaced them with those that Mrs. O'Breen kept there: a marble statue of praying hands, and to either side of it, two separate pairs of gloves, lying palm up. They were the white novice gloves that I had been wearing the day I'd come to marry Manus in the house in Kenmare-by-the-Sea and the nuns' black gloves I would have worn if I'd taken my vows as I had been close to doing before Manus's proposal. But this morning a rebellious humor flickered in me, and I toyed with the idea of rearranging everything, and relegating the gloves and praying hands to some dim cabinet.
In the center of one bare wall hung a painting of the Annunciation in a heavy frame with fading gold leaf. There was nothing grand about this particular Annunciation. No lilies or terra-cotta floors. No sunlit cypress trees out the window. In this representation, only an empty, boggy field and an Irish sky with clouds inclined to thunder.
The angel, human looking, wore gray, one muscular knee and calf apparent as he knelt. He was earthbound, without a trace of divinity about him, except perhaps for his wings, which, in the tension of the moment, appeared slightly flexed, and, though his upper body did not lean toward the Virgin in the manner of a Botticelli angel or di Paolo's, he appeared attentive of her.
Over the years I had thought of asking Mrs. O'Breen about the painting, but in her presence my natural impulse was to be silent.
As she had selected everything else in this house, she had also selected me. I was only seventeen when she saw Manus staring in my direction at Mass at Enfant de Marie. I was a novice then, as she had been a novice when her own husband had proposed marriage to her. My quiet, careful demeanor appealed to her. I had come from a wild, windswept place, the Great Blasket Island. She'd liked the idea that I was an islander and probably thought, as many did, that islanders were more backward even than tinkers. I would be out of my element in her family, dependent, compliant.
The face I wore then suggested stillness and grace. Before my wedding night, Mrs. O'Breen had given me tea in a room with a sea view, filled with statues of female martyrs. Agnes, Lucy, Cecilia. I was at the height of my saintly persona, managing it so well that I had felt myself radiating light. Mrs. O'Breen could not take her eyes off me. For a while there was gratification in being this girl, but the young are in love with the moment, and disappointment had been inevitable. Even I knew that it would come.
I gazed at the face of the Virgin in the painting, expressionless except for the little squeezed mouth and the trace of mistrust in the eyes at the intrusion of the angel.
In retrospect, I marvel that Mrs. O'Breen had once believed so fully in me. Over the years I had found that seeing Mrs. O'Breen in the flesh, her real presence, was easier than feeling the darker spirit of her that made dim susurrations in the walls of this house.
I picked up my pencil and, with a series of quick, curved lines, struggled a last time to draw the dark blue vase. But when I heard the girls' footsteps above, my heart began to throb and I stopped drawing again.
As I ascended the stairs, I heard them talking softly. They startled as I appeared in the doorway. Sitting close together on Caitlin's bed, they were looking at a pamphlet of some kind.
"What is it you have?" I asked them softly.
They exchanged a wary look. Then, gathering her resolve, Maighread stood. "We're going to boarding school in September," she said.
"You're not," I said. "You're both registered for another year at St. Alban's."
Caitlin looked down at her lap, having thrown the pamphlet off to the side. She rubbed her fingers together nervously.
A few months back we had talked about boarding school, one in particular where a number of their friends were going -- St. Lucretia's in Wicklow. Pressured by Maighread's appeals, I had almost given in, only because it was a short train ride from Dublin, and because I had had little to support me in my fight against it. It was simply what girls of their age and social class did.
But in the end I'd said no. I had tried to hide the desperation I'd felt at the idea of their going from me, and I'd believed that if they had known how hard leaving home would be, they would not have wanted it. It had, I told them, only been the novelty of it they'd been bucking for.
"I'll not send you unmoored into the world," I had said as my final word.
"It's you who would be unmoored in the world," Maighread had spat back. I'd been stunned at how clearly she could see me.
Now, standing defiant before me, she said, "We're going to Kilorglin in the west. To Enfant de Marie!"
I let out a little, incredulous laugh. "You don't want to go to that nightmare of a place," I said.
"We're going," Maighread said defiantly.
"First of all, it's a terrible place! Girls die there of consumption!"
"That was ages ago, Mammy. Things are different now!"
"It's on the other side of Ireland! Do you think I'd let you go that far away?"
"Nanny's already registered us. We're going," Maighread said. Caitlin shifted uncomfortably on the bed. Maighread watched my face carefully as she always did when she confronted me.
"No one's consulted me about this," I said.
"We all knew what you would say."
I paused. "I'm sure Caitlin doesn't want to go that far away," I said, waiting for her to meet my eyes. "Do you, lamb?"
"She does!" Maighread said coming closer to me, almost as tall as I was, her chest high in a glory of forthrightness.
"Let her tell me herself," I said.
I felt Caitlin softening as she stared at her hands on her lap.
"Mammy," she said tenderly, and Maighread let go an infuriated sigh.
Caitlin shot her a confused look and then said quickly, "We'll not be far from Nanny! You shouldn't worry over us."
I brushed past Maighread to Caitlin. I touched her shoulder. "I don't want you to go," I said.
She breathed hard and set her mouth. "I want to go!"
The room swayed around me. She watched me now like Maighread did, her eyes softer but resolved.
"You never let us do the things the other girls are able to do. You're always afraid about everything."
I sat on the edge of the bed. "The wind there in the west is fierce," I uttered, reaching now for anything.
"What are you on about the wind for?" Maighread asked, holding my eyes.
Manus was at the door then. I was uncertain when he'd come.
"Let them out from under you, Deirdre," he said.
The three of them looked at me, and an expression of pity came into Caitlin's face. She averted her eyes.
"Your mother registered them at Enfant de Marie?" I asked him, rising to my feet.
"Yes. All the arrangements have been made," Manus said. "And September is still far off. You've plenty of time to get used to the idea."
"But I've registered them for school here in Dublin for September. I've paid the installments."
"I notified them. I got the money back."
I stood a few moments without moving, then took a deep breath and walked vacantly downstairs to my little room at the back of the house.
I was fourteen years old, Maighread's age, when I first crossed the bay to Ventry Harbour. Until then I'd resisted the sea, afraid of its moods, its lack of pity, the black boil of it at night. My grandmother and I were leaving Great Blasket Island for good, moving to her sister's house near Ballyferriter, the place she had originally come from before she'd married into island people and the place where she would remain until her death.
I remember the pattern around the rim of a cracked teacup, dark green curlicues snaking this way and that, small, fierce-looking male heads in profile woven into the design. My great-aunt's cold, rough hands grasped the cup as she told me that such designs were called "Celtic knotwork." She spoke an unsettling combination of Irish and English, a disagreeable warble to her voice. The memory brings a heartsore feeling, my parents newly dead, my fate undecided as it was, the alien language deepening in me an uncertainty of the world.
The waves slapped inconsolably at the rocks below my great-aunt's house, throwing white sparks into the air. My grandmother was too old, she said, to care for me properly. My own mother had been born to her when she was fifty. "An old cow's calf," my grandmother had called her. Even after she was dead, my grandmother shook her head when she spoke of my mother. "Never with a lick o' sense."
The last time I would see my grandmother was when she came to Kenmare after my wedding to Manus. She got tipsy, and I was ashamed over her toothless, windbeaten face and the way she regaled Mrs. O'Breen with what a mad thing I'd been as a child; a regular faery like my mother, taking off barefoot in the icy gales, destined to the madhouse with the queer ways I had. And wasn't it a great thing she'd done bringing me to the Poor Maries, and weren't they the miracle workers? Look at me now, with the radiant face of God's lamb.
She had left me at Enfant de Marie with worn shoes and a coat without buttons. One nun told another that I was a filthy, windburned creature and looked like I'd been walking the roads of Ireland for weeks. But it had been the crossing of the sea and standing in the boat crying, my face leaning into the bluster, and the wiping of those tears that had reddened my skin and made the sleeves of my coat taste like salt. I was attached to that coat and its old smell reminiscent of the Blasket, a smell of black turf from the field near the Way of the Dead, different from mainland turf. It was a darker, wetter fragrance like the mud that keeps to new-dug potatoes.
My last name, O'Coigligh, was Quigley in English, and one nun laughed that it suited me because it meant "untidy or unkempt hair." She said I was a trembly girl and grew impatient with my wincing when she tried to comb through my tangles.
Through intense monotony the Irish was driven back from the forefront of my tongue, into my throat. I lived a period of my life underneath language, words rising and moving above me on air, but I hadn't a mouth to speak them. I understood the English quickly, but I resisted it now. Though certain beautiful phrases of it taunted me.
My Beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth amongst the lilies.
I liked the look of it on the page, but I pronounced the vowels wrong, which made me hesitate to speak it aloud. Sister Dymphna shamed me. "You can hear the mud slides of the Blasket in your vowels," she said, insisting there was an ignorance to the Irish spoken on the Blasket. My gut and throat contracted when I tried to speak, and I felt her ruler across my tongue. The tongue, with its quivering will and form amorphous enough to slip and contract and reshape itself, sustained little of the blow, yet it was crippled with indignity. And with the banished language any sense of who I may have been retreated, and I became a blank, white page. They called me Deirdre from the Blasket rather than Deirdre Quigley, to make allowances for my backwardness and my muteness.
Though I don't think I was ever denied food, I was afflicted with the ache of an empty stomach. I tried to soothe it with porridge or bread and bacon. But the extra food did not fill me, and closing my eyes in my cot each night I feared the hunger would make an end of me in my sleep. I dreamt of standing knee deep in the unruly tide off the western strand, gathering limpets and winkles, filling my apron with "sea fruit" as my grandmother called them, the wind lashing my hair against my face, my wet dress slapping at my legs. Seeing a soft light over Woman's Island west of the strand, I heard behind the noise of the wind a tinny, hardly audible music, the melody of Donal na Grainne. In my dreams, my mother and father danced, embracing each other in the private sweetness between them. That is how I saw them, set that way. I could barely recall them at all, except as the two mythic figures, my father's back articulated with muscles and my mother's head gracefully reposing on his chest. Hopeless that they would take their eyes off each other and see me, I'd travel back up to the empty cottage, struggling to cook the limpets and winkles. The low, single flame from the cresset's wick, which floated in its little vessel of seal oil was so dull and oily and low it barely cooked the bit of flesh scraped out of the shell.
Copyright © 2004 by Regina McBride
The Marriage Bed
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Reading Group Guide
1. Think about Deirdre's relationships with her daughters; her panic at the thought of not being with them. Why is this so powerful in her? Why is she afraid to let them go into the world? Is it them she fears for, or is it, as Maighread says to her, "It's you who would be unmoored in the world." We learn as the story goes on, how deeply Deirdre loves each of them. How would you identify the active force in Deirdre, which enables her to finally take charge of her own life? Is it related to her attachment to and love for her daughters? What is the significance of her daughters accompanying her to the Great Blasket Island near the end of the book?
2. After they escape to the garden rooms early in their marriage, Deirdre and Manus find the Secretus Secretorum and read from its pages. Manus reads aloud: "Inside each of us there is a heaven and hell and a universe outside of us...all the order and the chaos of the universe exists within the human heart" (158). Deirdre then goes on to read: "The created world began with a separation of opposites, the tearing apart of the united opposites. Injustice is incurred by the existence of separate things" (158). What does the imagery in these quotes bring to mind? What kinds of injustices has Deirdre suffered and how have they contributed to the chaos in her own soul? Are there "separate things" in Deirdre's life that prevent her from reconciling the warring elements inside he see more