My mother was never easy in the world of houses. She was a tinker, a traveler girl who had married a wealthy man. Her name was Agatha Sheehy. I don't know her maiden name. There are silences all around my mother's story.
People stared at her when we walked on the old road to Dublin or in the nearby fields on our way into town. She was an anachronism, like a vagabond who'd walked off with a wealthy woman's traveling case.
A pretty, red-faced girl with long white-blond hair, she had about her a wild, unrefined grace, and a penchant for sequins and beads and things that glimmered. In the bright of morning, on her way into town to shop for eggs and rashers, she navigated the often sopping fields in opulence, dragging the hems of long silk dresses, raking her black boots in mud. Even the old women wore their practical woolen skirts near the knee.
She watched the eyes of the townspeople, choosing to read their silent stares as approbation or envy; but some days when her mood was more suspicious, a suppressed smile could send her scudding back across the field and into the house in a breathy tirade about the ugliness of the little ramshackle beach town of Bray, calling the Wicklow hills "lumps," insulting the land as if it were inseparable from the people. She laughed at the Irish Sea, which we could see from the parlor window, and said that even at their most tumultuous, the waves were "demure" in comparison with the waves of the great Atlantic in the rocky west of Ireland, beating and spuming at the Galway crags.
We lived in an old estate house on Mercymount Strand, isolated between fields gone out of cultivation. Mrs. O'Dare, the woman who lived with us and did the cooking and cleaning, called it a "decrepit castle." It had no central heating, just the "fires," as the old woman called them: plug-in heaters too puny to heat the vast, high-ceilinged rooms.
Most of the house we left empty and unlived in, while my mother, twin sister, and I slept all together in the parlor and Mrs. O'Dare in a smaller, connecting room. In a pillowcase under her bed, my mother kept all the things my father had given her during their courtship, objects I took out secretly sometimes to wonder over. A glass sea horse with pearls for eyes. A porcelain Dutch girl holding a tulip. A pair of linen gloves with a mysterious blue stain on one finger.
In the one picture we had of my father, he was standing near a tree, squinting his eyes, his hair ruffled by the wind. The air around him was blasted with daylight so his face looked milky and blurred and I stared hard at him, struggling to read his expression.
Though I had never known him, I felt as if I knew more about him than I knew about my mother. With him I associated the area known as Dunshee in the west, straight across on the other side of Ireland; and I could imagine the great mansion in which he'd grown up, and where he'd brought my mother to live.
But my mother seemed to have come from nowhere.
The one story I knew about my mother's life before I was born was how she and my father had met in the west. He had been thirty years old and suffering from heart disease. My mother had been fifteen.
He'd first seen her, standing on Ailwee Head, facing the noisy Atlantic. He'd just come through a week confined to his bed having experienced serious palpitations. She had not heard the engine of the car, deafened as she was by the booming surf on the rocks below. Frank Sheehy had the driver stop. He got out and stood awhile watching her push the hair from her eyes in the wind, her rough skirt stirring wildly at her shins.
He'd later tell his unmarried sisters with whom he lived that when he saw her he felt his heart steady in his chest, and a surge of strength come into his body. Overcome by a desire to take care of her, the world seemed a different place. The sun lit the backs of the waves and in the depths of him something vital stirred. He had a dream that same night that she came to live in his house, and he took this as a sign from God that he should find her. Every day after that he went along the beaches and headlands looking for her but a year passed before he saw her, to his surprise, from an upstairs window, driving three cows up a rocky road on the outskirts of his property.
Careful not to frighten my mother off, my father had his sister Kitty overtake her on the road and invite her to tea. Surprised and a little suspicious, she agreed, and Kitty Sheehy followed her as she returned the cows to the farmer who'd hired her to drive them upfield.
When she'd first come into the house her skin was windburned and her feet hard and black, callous. "More like hooves than feet," Kitty Sheehy had whispered to her sister, Lily.
Before tea Kitty directed my mother to the lavatory to wash her hands. When she did not come back to the dining room, Kitty found her at the other side of the house having lost her way through the corridors.
My father was fascinated. At tea he stared at her unabashedly with a cocked half-smile on his face. If she expressed interest in any little object on the table he gave it to her. A porcelain salt shaker shaped like a windmill. A cluster of crystal grapes. A pink and gilt cup with a rose painted in the bowl of it. He offered her everything she touched, no matter that the things belonged to his sisters. Kitty and Lily held their breath tolerantly, seeing how she animated him, but behind the kitchen door they moaned about the smell of her, how her hair must be crawling with bugs.
Much to their distress my father insisted she stay in one of the guest rooms. They agreed so long as she let one of the servants bathe her and give her something clean to wear. My mother'd been horrified about the bath, particularly when the servant washed and pumiced her feet. And then she expressed uneasiness with staying on one of the upper floors so Mrs. O'Dare, who'd been working for the Sheehys at the time, offered her own room that was behind the kitchen.
Right away my mother took to Mrs. O'Dare. "I was the only one among them that treated her kindly. None thought they should be serving her."
She hated using the toilet in the lavatory and crept from her room at night to do her water in the cold grass. The servants whispered about her odd ways. A rumor spread among them that she had been living in one of the caves in the sea cliff. A fisherman had reported seeing a dim fire flickering among the rocks each night until the tinker girl met my father.
My mother liked Frank Sheehy right away, gazing at him with the same gentle inquisitiveness with which he gazed at her. She was touched by his attention, and though it had never been revealed to her that he was responsible for her invitation to the house, she knew, and her warmth to him increased his affection for her.
Soon enough she realized the advantage he afforded her; that it was his word that was most important in a house full of women and servants. She sidled up to that and as she grew more comfortable, sneered at the reluctant servants and pushed her weight with them. Once, she deliberately spilled a bowl of oatmeal and demanded that a certain haughty kitchen servant clean it up.
Frank Sheehy asked questions. Where was her mother, her people? Why was a fifteen-year-old girl on her own so? She met his inquisitiveness with dismay and silence, and he did not persist, afraid of driving her away. She was not interested in talking much, except to ask about little glimmering objects. They went for walks together in the house the way most couples go for walks outside. They toured the house, him speaking with a gentle formality, pointing out paintings, statues. Decorative novelties. Her eyes shined. She touched his arm.
"The man's besotted with the creature," the servants whispered.
"Whatever's wrong with his heart has made its way into his brain."
One particularly stormy night she urinated in the water pitcher in her room rather than face the rain or the toilet. The servants complained to my aunts and my aunts approached Frank, wanting to know when she was going to leave.
Mrs. O'Dare remembered an argument behind closed doors. She saw my father storm from the room breathing fast. He stopped as he ascended the stairs and shouted to his sisters, "She's keeping me alive." In the middle of the night he had a mild heart attack. The week he was in hospital my mother kept near Mrs. O'Dare. My aunts went out of their way to be kind to my mother, promising Frank that she'd be there, well treated and comfortable, when he returned.
My father married my mother in a service in the conservatory in Drumcoyne House. She'd been put through a trial by the priest and had proven she was a Catholic to his satisfaction by reciting the Angelus, the Act of Contrition, and the Hail Mary. He'd asked her, "Who is God the Father?" and she'd answered, "The maker of Heaven and earth."
Rumor among the servants was that Frank Sheehy had schooled her, but others cited the fervent Catholicism of many of the tinkers who loitered in the backs of churches on Sundays, earnest for the word of God.
My father died the following spring, almost a year after they'd married, and a few weeks before my mother discovered she was pregnant.
After his death, Drumcoyne House was a lonely place to my mother. She walked on the beach for hours. A few nights she stayed outside on the windy shore, sallying into the house after dawn, trailing damp sand and weather after her. The brocade and velvet skirts that had been made for her were torn or ruined from walking in the salty tides.
And she took things. Cups and saucers. Figurines. She took a small, very expensive bottle of perfume and a pair of sapphire earrings that belonged to Kitty Sheehy, the older, more nervous of Frank's sisters.
"Your mother didn't like Kitty Sheehy," Mrs. O'Dare once told me. "She knew the woman had little patience for her."
Kitty Sheehy said that she couldn't take it, that her nerves were too frayed by Agatha's presence. What would they do with the creature, pregnant as she was with their brother's child?
Kitty floated the idea about sending Agatha east across Ireland to live at the family's empty house on Mercymount Strand. Lily said they should wait until the birth but Kitty insisted that would be worse; that she ought to start a new life elsewhere; that they could provide her with everything, but elsewhere.
And so my aunts shipped my mother across Ireland, discharging the old woman to take care of her in the deserted house.
Copyright © 2001 by Regina McBride
The Nature of Water and Air
So begins The Nature of Water and Air, set on a patch of Irish coast where, amid a flurry of whispers, we meet Agatha's only surviving daughter, Clodagh. Determined to secure her mother's elusive love and the truth about her, Clodagh is swept into a relationship with a handsome, isolated man. He brings her to the heart of her mother's story, where she must confront the questions "Does a truth change love?" and "What madness will come from chasing a secret?"
Powerfully sensitive, this startling debut novel about forbidden love will place Regina McBride among our most celebrated novelists.