Moura McGovern - is an editor and writer based in Philadelphia, PA. She has an MFA in creative writing from the Pennsylvania State University. Her work has appeared in publications such as BlazeVox, the Chattahoochee Review, and Slow Trains.
Irish legend has it that fairies live in the air and in the water. They are not cute, Tinker Bell things that flit and fly. Irish fairies change form. Known as the little people, yet mostly invisible to the naked eye, they live in rings. They can spirit away our essence, those who we love, or any number of things that make us who we are. The fairies can transpose elements, turning and twisting worlds in a flash. They can swirl, and they can swarm. They can be heard singing sometimes, when the breeze is pitched just right. Bridges are their lairs.
As a child, I always imagined my dead grandmother as a fairy godmother, looking over me. On the day I became an adult, the day that marked the before and after, on the day the Irish fairies came to visit, I learned otherwise.
My mother hardly had known Dublin, with its filthy quays and low stone bridges. She had birthed me in Boston, on this side of the pond, as the phrase goes. Her father had sent her there after the dirty swirl of the Liffey spilled the secret of her own dead mother into the Irish Sea and the wide Atlantic beyond. My grandmother's body was never found. Some said that with no body, there'd be no mourning. Some said that the fairies took her.
On a number of cold New England days during my childhood, when the air reeked of brine, my mother would start singing. It began as a light and lovely lilting. Her brogue existed with just a hint in her every-day speech, but when she began to sing, it sharpened into a dangerous and crystalline thing. My mother's voice and my father's hands: These are things that I remember.
When my mother stood and began to sing, my father would look up from his coffee, or put down his hammer, or shut off the game, and walk to her. He'd stand in front of her, tilt her chin towards his face, and then place each strong hand on either of her narrow shoulders. He had carpenter's hands—hands that could build anything, hands that could fix anything—anything but my mother. Yet he tried. Always he tried.
Her enamel blue eyes would lock onto his brown eyes, her voice climbing in register, her unintelligible lyrics increasing in speed. He'd hold those slim shoulders, and he'd breathe in her exhalations as if she carried the last oxygen on earth. "Hold onto me, my love," he'd whisper. "Don't leave. Stay. She's with the fairies, my love. We need you here."
Sometimes it worked. Her singing hushed, the two would shut their bedroom door, after my father told me and my sister, "Go out and play." (Even if it was the middle of a blizzard.)
Most times it didn't work though. Most times her voice rose higher, her song grew faster, until it shattered, taking her to the floor with it.
My wife tells me mental illness sometimes runs in families. Today they'd call it bi-polar or some such thing. I sometimes wondered if that too would be my legacy. Yet I was not so lucky. Perhaps it was a female gene. My wife smacks me when I say that. My wife tells me that there are things that don't need to be joked about and simply don't make sense. She's a wise woman. Yet if you can't laugh, what's left?
My parents are both dead now. Sometimes though, I look at my own hands, and I see my father's hands after my mother died. I see how he'd sit in his favorite chair in his workshop. He'd spread his calloused and cracked fingers before him, and he'd gently place one clean, soft, white cotton glove onto one hand, and then the other. He'd slowly slide open the drawer of photographs. Then and only then, he'd shuffle through the pictures of a lifetime, the photographs of love, his love.
I never asked him why he repeated this process; I didn't need to. I knew that he would try and try and try to arrange the photographs in a way that made sense, in a way to make it come out differently.
A woman dressed in white under the sea does not bother with the white gloves of sense. A woman dressed in white one day began to sing. She took her young son for a walk from Boston's north end to the Charlestown Bridge. She walked to the middle of the low-lying steel, on a bitterly cold, damp day of the kind only New England can produce. She sang higher and faster, the wind stealing her words, without my father there to breathe in her madness. She paused just long enough to unclasp the hand of the boy, and then to kiss the boy—me—on the cheek. She then climbed over the green steel rail, and she stepped off. The frigid gray water swallowed her quickly. Her blonde hair flowed behind her for just a moment, a veil of what to me has always been mystery.
Sometimes, when I see a mark of red lipstick upon a young child's cheek, I can just sense the edge of it, of what she was after all along: She simply heard the music of the sea. Or perhaps she heard the music of her mother before her. Perhaps they were the same. They each stepped off into the deep water, women dressed in white, paler than their fragile skin, their golden hair streaming around them, their madness a permanent veil on their sanity. Or perhaps they stepped into the deep blue of freedom, a beautiful place free of the cropped borders, hard angles, sequence, and frames of sense.
Yet, my father, my father with his white gloves, he had to hold onto something.