By Orlaith O’Sullivan
I moved out to the shore in March. Jostled along a narrow road, trying to decipher a map scrawled in The Stag’s Head the night before, scrounging for table space amid wet rings of beer.
“Sure, the place is empty till June,” my mate had said. “You’ve nothing to feel bad about. You made no promises to her.”
Another clapped me on the back. “It was a bit of fun! Let her go and leave the husband if she wants. And raise two kids alone, and now with another on the way? No way she’ll budge. Sitting pretty she is.”
He sat back, raised his pint to his mouth. “Blackmailing you with talk of a baby. Sure, it’s nonsense!”
“She’d have you changing nappies and mixing formula, world without end,” said my mate. “Listen, man. Mi casa es su casa – put her from your mind and go write that book of yours!”
‘That book of yours’ had been part of our talk since college days in the Department of Classics. It had begun life as a deconstructionist take on Ovid and morphed from there. The latest incarnation was an urban thriller, gritty with months of research on the effect of violent crime on the female body. I had cashed in on a good redundancy package and there was no hurry to find gainful anything. Getting away from Dublin made the world of sense to me. I spotted my turning and dropped into first gear to manoeuver into the lane—narrower still, and loosely woven of potholes. Something glinted on the roadside: a gold leather sandal, held aloft on a corner-tuft of grass. I smiled. It might have been a ruby slipper, or Cinderella’s missing footwear.
“You’ve been hanging out with women too long,” I told myself. I took it as a sign.
I bumbled along the rough track, took a steep blind corner, and braked sharply. Thick branches of gorse blocked my way. Debris from last night, I guessed; the storm was engulfing Dublin as I left. I hefted the sharp branches into the hedgerow, revealing the path winding down to my mate’s house.
Fit for the gods, it was. The aspect was idyllic: perched on the side of a tapering valley that sloped down to a scythe of white shoreline. The inlet was deep and sheltered; its azure waters fading to grey as dusk slipped down the land. A single other house was visible, high up on the opposite side. I counted six fields spanning the gulf between us.
A space-age heating system and one of those fake-flame fires soon chased off the damp. I’d been instructed to help myself. “All the quaffable reds you could want,” my mate boasted, puffing up his chest. “Sure, I feel like a patron of the bloody Arts!” I opened a decade-old Fleurie, put my feet up, and toasted decadent patronage more than once. Later I chose a bedroom; lay there listening to the myriad unrecognisable sounds that emanated from the darkness absolute. Eventually I succumbed to sleep.
In the morning I set out to walk the land. I followed the progress of a herd of cattle as they picked a path down to the lower fields. It was then I noticed the sweep of honey grass pulling inland from the beach. Sturdy trees issued from its midst, towering over the yellow; their lower branches stroked by the grass—seven or eight feet tall. When I got close, I realised it was wetland. The grass was thick and supple, like willow, but with feathery tops that trembled in the slightest breeze, caressing the gnarled limbs of the tremendous coal-black guardians. Something about the ancient growth, the honey feathers, reminded me of a mangrove swamp. I didn’t venture in; told myself I didn’t have the right footwear for a place of neither water nor earth. But it had an air about it—as though nothing that walked out of there would surprise you.
Or so I thought.
It began the morning the black calf was born; my third or fourth day. He was curled up away from the herd, a small lump among vibrant green, his mother standing guard. I caught movement from the yellow. A doe stepped out from the grass: grey-brown in her winter coat, elegant and petite. She moved among the herd, grazing, seeming to enjoy the anonymity they offered. Catching sight of the nestled calf, she approached the bovine Madonna and Child. The doe studied the face of the new mother, then lowered her sinuous neck and licked the calf’s flat black head. The mother fidgeted during the benediction, nudging the grass around as though tucking in blankets. Straightening, the doe checked the sky overhead and walked on. The mother remained bowed over her charge, wide eyes fixed on the doe until the grey-brown merged with gorse and stone.
From then on, I kept watch. She came almost every morning. I scanned the surroundings for other deer, hoping to glimpse the powerful antlers of a stag—but there was only one, only she. Moving casually, the doe remained sharp to every sound and movement. I swear, when the toaster popped my bagel, she looked up to the house, to the kitchen window, to me. Each time she chose a single cow to graze beside, and isolated him to herself, contrasting her slender frame to his beefy bulk. Once, the elected cow tried to rejoin the herd. The doe moved quickly to block his path, her legs slightly splayed. The cow made a low noise, trying another direction—blocked again. Defeated, he—although I suppose technically it was a she—bowed his head and ate slowly, deliberately. The doe lined up alongside and resumed her breakfast of enforced camaraderie.
I allowed myself time to settle in; told myself I needed to get the lay of the land first without feeling the pressure of writing. I saw my neighbour-farmer bringing down some additions to the herd. I strode out casually, like I belonged. As I introduced myself andexplained my presence, he glanced behind me to the car, eyeing its D registration.
“Writing, is it?”
“That’s right, yeah. Thought I’d come out here. Focus the mind, you know?”
“Well.” He urged the passing cattle along, and they trotted for a few steps before lapsing back into a lazy gait. “Don’t be getting distracted by the local girls.”
I laughed warmly; stopped suddenly. Was he warning me off his cows? Or perhaps my mate had told him I’d be coming, explained I was aiming to get away from female
“Well,” I began. “I’d better get back. Hit the computer, bang out some words.”
“Right enough,” he moved on, speaking without looking back. “Mind yourself now.”
Inside, I made a cappuccino and watched him guide the animals below. Tiny song-birds darted among the hedgerows, gathering filaments to weave into nests. Raggedy crows scooped across the fields, so low that the grass shuddered beneath their chests. Down at the shore, the pair of swans arrived – the two of them came in at the same time every day. I followed their flight with binoculars, tracing the perimeter of the inlet twice before touchingdown. The tide was coming in: a single long low wave curled in to the crescent, its white rim looking like a neat fingernail, or a moon-sliver, or, or… something else.
I couldn’t write. Not so much as a shopping list, since I arrived. I filled my days with notwriting: breakfasted leisurely; read until the swans flew in; then off to a hotel or a coffee shop where local voices swirled around me. Afternoons I explored the coastline: markets, stone circles, crumbled monasteries, whatever took my fancy. At one point, I thought I could write some travel articles—I had a connection in The Examiner. But I couldn’t even write the email. On my way home I’d stop for a pint in Hegarty’s, nod to the couple of auld fellahs propping up the bar, their talk falling to silence as I entered. I’d leave them to it; sit in the snug and read the paper in peace. Except for Fridays – when a group of mothers came in for their post-school-pick-up gossip and chardonnay fiesta. One to avoid. Fridays, I headed for home, turning at the sign of the golden sandal (which miraculously stayed in place); back to the house and its underground cache of wine.
The cattle stayed below for two weeks, until the night of the storm. I thought the Scandinavian roof would come off the place, there was such howling and screeching. I slept little, and badly. The next morning, the valley brimmed with warmth and sunshine. The fields looked their normal selves, and I wondered if my imaginative powers were such that I could have conjured the tempest. As I breakfasted, a cow broke away from the herd and began to ascend the valley. The others followed. One after another they clambered slowly up and gathered on the slope before my house.
I only turned away for a moment, to take out the warmed buttery-chocolate brioche (a woman’s breakfast, I told myself – time to leave the French fancies behind and return to granola and toast). When I looked back, the cows were all turned in the same direction, gazing up the old cattle path, up past where the gorse ended, where there was only a single old tree, bent crooked by the wind, all grey and smooth.
A woman crowned the hill top.
She had porcelain skin, a halo of glowing platinum curls and a white dress that flowed like liquid over her body as she moved. As she approached the kitchen window, I saw that she was barefoot. She carried a branch, covered with delicate pink blossoms. It was only after she passed—when the cattle had resumed their bovine poses, their stolid fixed expressions—that I realised I had been holding my breath the whole time.
The binoculars were in the living room. I moved quickly. Her hips swung from side to side as she stepped easily down the rough path, the thin dress outlining her curves. I tracked her, step after step, her arms swinging loosely. When she reached the shore she paused, looking out to the horizon for a long moment. Then she glanced overhead, and stepped into the thick honey grass of the wetland.
My mouth dry, I stumbled out and down, almost tripping. I moved without thought; fired by base instinct. I pushed my way through the grass—hard as bamboo—and into the wetland. My feet were drenched in seconds. Surrounded, I listened for rustling, for a direction. A mellifluous voice carried through the grass, cascading over me and into me like a physical warmth.
“I’m so pleased that you could come.” For a second I thought I’d been seen. But it wasn’t directed to me. I crept towards the sound.
After about fifteen feet the hard thick grasses gave way, revealing a glade of lush velvet grass. The platinum lady was standing, surrounded by a circle of seven seated women. Their skin glowed, in tones from palest ivory to glossy mahogany. Everything about them was brighter, deeper, more intense than any woman I had ever seen. I nudged myself closer. They were at their ease, passing a small amphora around the circle.
Her clear blue eyes shining, the platinum lady laid her branch down in the centre of the circle. I could make out other things there: a mound of summer berries, a small earthenware jar, pebbles that glittered like precious gems, and some white material, like dewy gossamer. She seated herself between a figure veiled in dove-grey and a majestic brunette in golden robes, her chestnut hair arranged high in elaborate plaits.
The majestic one spoke. “Danae, perhaps you would like to start?”
A woman with sublime skin in a pale yellow gown began speaking, quietly and carefully. Ash-blonde tresses woven through with pearls cascaded down her back. She sat upright, her legs curled under her.
“At first, I didn’t know what was happening. There was a shimmering, then all around me was saturated with fine gold dust. And then came the heat: like the eruption of a volcano. The air seemed to melt under the surges; I remember it burned to breathe in. I trembled.” One of her hands slid down and cupped the delicate pale arch of her foot. “When I felt him inside me, I thought I would break apart.”
The speaker looked across the circle, to a woman draped in rich orange: skin the colour of deep-roasted coffee beans; hair in spiraling corn rows; long legs crossed casually and stretching into the circle. “It was different to what you described before—I couldn’t feel anything beyond the heat. I simply blazed. When he receded, there was something inside me, a stirring.” Her delicate fingers moved across her foot, touching each perfect toe in turn.
“Little Perseus.” She looked down, gave a tiny shrug. “That’s what I wanted to say. Thanks.”
Zeus. Zeus appeared to Danae as a golden shower. She was Danae. I couldn’t move.
“At least your encounter had some mystery.” A woman in sage-green picked daisies idly as she spoke. I fixated on the outline of her slim shoulders, her elegant collar bones, longing to taste her cinnamon skin. “Dazzled by a bull—who’d believe that?” She looked down at the daisy, twirling the flower between her fingers. “But in that moment, with all of the ocean crashing in around me, and this enormous, glorious creature kneeling at my feet—mine—and bowing his white head low. It felt wondrous.”
The amphora passed to the woman beside her, hooded in mocha silk. When she leaned back to drink, her face remained hidden in darkness. The speaker let the daisy fall and looked up.
“Then I felt stupid. Criminally stupid. I forgave him immediately—I was in love. Forgiving myself took longer.” She looked to the majestic brunette, and there was a peculiar expression on her face—like the memory of being humoured as a child. “I remember I begged you to wipe me clean.”
The majestic brunette turned her palms upwards in her lap of golden silk. “I remember well, Europa. There were times when I wanted to forget the form of the shepherd who crossed the hills to me. But remember we must.”
Europa nodded, accepting the amphora from the hooded figure.
“I remember how you explained it to me.” said Danae softly, “That without remembering, each word, each thought would evaporate without a trace. We would drift, without even comprehension of being.” She looked to the majestic brunette, “You remember for all our sakes.”
The amphora passed to her and she took a long sip. As she swallowed, a golden radiance pulsed through her fair skin.
Danae smiled playfully, “I can imagine Zeus as a shepherd”.
Responses came from around the circle.
“With me, he was an eagle.”
“He took the form of my husband.” The dove-grey veil moved as the rough voice came from underneath.
“He came to me as a satyr,” said a redhead, draped with gold and lapis lazuli.
Danae wrinkled her nose in distaste. Europa raised an eyebrow. “I suppose each to their own, Antiope.”
“Really? Like a bull is so much better!” countered Antiope to Europa.
“A satyr would have been better-looking than my husband, that’s for sure.” said the dovegrey veil. My mind raced through stories… she must be Alkmene, mother of Herakles. Zeus strikes again.
“Zeus was an ant with me.” A small woman with her back to me had spoken. She picked at the grass beside her, extracting moss, arranged twigs and leaves in orderly lines. “I mean, he appeared as an ant. He changed before… you know.” She splayed her fingers, examining them for stains. “I thought no amount of time could ease the hatred.”
“Well, I felt honoured.” Antiope tossed back her red hair in defiance, “I’d become a goddess! Always dreamed big, I had. By the time I understood… well, by then I was transformed. Sorry, but that’s how I felt. I know it was different for many of us.” She looked lovingly towards the ash-blonde Danae.
“A vessel for a day,” Danae murmured. “But it’s that day I relive.”
She raised her head, listening to the air. She smiled. Then I heard it too.
Voices drifted in from the sea, slipping through the grasses like the tinkling of bells. The chants grew, encompassing us in a single word cascading in exquisite harmonies, withouth beginning or end: Mnemosyne.
I recognised the word, the name. The Mother of the muses. Mnemosyne. Memory herself. An impossibly beautiful female form with violet eyes entered the glade. She leaned over the majestic brunette and kissed her cheek.
Mnemosyne smiled and closed her eyes, as though breathing in the kiss. “Calliope.”
One by one, the other voices entered the glade, until nine encircled the seated group. Nine muses. They intoned a single note. Mnemosyne raised her cupped hands to her lips and closed her eyes. She whispered into her hands.
Deep in the earth beneath me, something stirred. As if something had woken up. The stirring resonated through water and earth. The land fell silent: no bird-chatter, no moaning of cattle. The wind dropped. The only
sound was the single long crescent wave sweeping the shore.When Mnemosyne opened her eyes, they smouldered gold. She turned to my platinum lady from the hill top.
“Is there anything you’d like to add, Leda?”
“What’s done is done.” Leda shrugged carelessly, her halo of curls bobbing. “Sitting like this, it keeps everything revolving around Zeus. But we are who we are; what we’ve become. And you know what?” Her blue eyes searched from face to face around the circle. “We are limitless. We are iconic.”
Most of the others smiled, some laughed. Leda turned to the nine figures circling and announced formally, “This choir of creation fosters with light what he took with force.”
“Yes,” said Mnemosyne, “I believe it’s time we transformed these histories again”.
“But not crudely,” offered Danae. “Some of the artists were too… obvious about us.”
“Too crass,” agreed the redhead Antiope. “Though I did enjoy Yeats. So mastered by the brute blood of the air…”
I glanced to Leda. A shadow crossed her face.
“I think this time, there would be no need to publish,” said Mnemosyne. She nodded to Danae, who reached into the circle and uncovered the earthenware pot. A sweet scent infused the air—like jasmine mixed with honey; cloying, dizzying. “In fact,” she continued, “I’m inclined to think there’s no need to share at all. We could keep it all to ourselves.”
And then Leda looked out into the grasses. Directly at me.
They all looked.
I gagged a cry as I fell back. Scrabbled to my feet, and as I ran the name of Acteon flashed in my mind. Turned into a stag for glimpsing the flesh of Diana. Torn to pieces by his own hounds.
I thundered up through the fields, expecting to be hauled down and back at any moment. I made it to the car and screeched away: lurching from pothole to pothole, muttering newly-made prayers as I steered wildly. “Zeus! Zeus protect me! Dear Christ, may Zeus watch over me. May Zeus get me out the hell out of here!”
I swerved around the blind corner, slammed on the brakes. Gorse blocked the road completely. I decided to abandon the car, run to the road. But it was too late. It had always been too late.
I write every day; their vessel. They pour sweet dew upon my tongue, and from my lips flow words of grace and limitless beauty. I murmur aubades and orisons over their fragrant flesh as dawn stretches her rosy fingers across the sky. Anointed with ambrosia, I imbue the land with sweet persuasion. I am prophet, mystic; I am priest, forging canons of scripture under the noonday sun. Larks sing of me; cattle bow down in reverence; swans thunder their great wings in awe. In forgotten languages, I beat out these women’s lives in sacred rhythms, drumming lyrics that rise beyond fact, beyond fiction, that soar wildly over uncharted worlds. I glorify them in song, in dance. I draw constellations down from the sapphire heavens. I trace epics in diamond starlight.
I sense the synapses firing in my brain. I feel the light—the heat of thoughts ravishing my organs, the lava of concepts flooding my atoms. I heal. Captivated, I inspire. Within this golden crucible, I conjure Tragedy and Comedy. I draw the indiminishable flames of beauty and love and passion and sex into expansive existence. I am Tradition. I am the messages that swirl within waves. I am the fire in the mind’s eye. I am the ages of the moon. I am the knowledge inscribed before the womb. Mine are the words that reverberate through this divine sanctuary, this gilded cradle, this never-quite-my-tomb.