The piece of ceramic was stuck to Cora’s fingers, so she had to wipe away her tears with the back of her hand. It was useless, shattered beyond repair. She gathered the pieces into her cupped hand and dropped them into the kitchen bin. The blue of the Virgin’s veil was still visible, even in the dark recess of the black, plastic liner. The glue made webs of her fingers, and she walked to the sink. The warm water and liquid soap did little to remove it, and she knew it would take days before she managed to pick it free. Even the cloth she used to wipe the table down stuck to her fingers.
“Stupid thing,” she pulled it free, but it left pieces of cotton behind.
She sat at the table and slowly lifted the material from her skin. The tears splashing on her hand surprised her. She had not realised she was crying again. But then, she was always crying. It was a sort of sick hobby and gave her something to do during the long nights when her children lay asleep, and her husband lay, God knows where.
It took little to put him in bad humour, and since they moved into the new house, his temper was worse. She knew the renovations were costing him a fortune, but she played no part in his decisions. He chose the house and uprooted them from everyone they knew. Now they would be made to pay if anything went wrong. It was so unfair. She tried to be a good wife, a good mother, but nothing she did ever pleased him. Her stomach rumbled and she brought her hand down to soothe it. She had not eaten since breakfast and she gone without dinner the night before, as she hated to eat in front of him. It only gave him an excuse to mock her.
“Still going to your fat class?” He would say, scorning her attempts at slimming.
Her eyes strayed to the bin in the corner. Tonight, she really upset him. The holy water font was a farewell present from her neighbours, who all knew of her commitment to her faith and she hung it inside the front door. The sight of it sent Liam into a rage, and she had to block her ears and thank God the children were asleep. He cursed her for her bad taste, as he hurled the font onto the marble floor, and she groaned aloud, as the images of mother and child exploded at her feet. Not done with cursing her, he cursed her religion, the day he met her and the ideals of a judgemental society that kept him tied to her.
Then he stormed off and left her crouched on the hall floor, picking up the pieces.
It was late now; well past midnight, and she was weary. The kitchen, yet untouched, grew colder. Outside the autumn wind sent leaves scuttling across the windows and she shivered. The lighting was much too low for a room that size, and threw the corners into trembling, threatening shadows. She frightened herself with images of dark cowled figures lurking there. It was time for bed. She rose and switched off the light, not daring to look back into the darkness. The grand chandelier in the hall was restored to its former glory and its crystals cast diamond shapes on the floor beneath. Small replicas hung from the walls and it was these lighted the stairs. They would be left burning until Liam returned home if he returned.
The stained-glass window was cleaned, and she stopped at the gallery rail and looked at it. They had been in the house for over a month and she was still in awe of the scene it depicted. A young girl with flowing dark hair who held out her hands before her in what Cora imagined, was a vain attempt to ward off the great advancing beast.
“Poor child,” she whispered and brought her hand once again to her stomach, nauseous now from lack of food.
It was past eight when she woke the next morning. Liam’s side of the bed lay smooth and untouched. She groaned and rolled onto her side. It was another Saturday and at least there was no school run, and no hoards of workmen around the place. Running her fingers through her hair, she kicked off the covers and went to rise. A wave of nausea overwhelmed her, and she ran for the bathroom with a hand clasped over her mouth. There was little in her stomach, and her body shook as she retched. Her quivering fingers sought out the washbasin, and she managed to locate a face towel. She wiped the bile from her lips and sat shivering on the bare floor.
“Oh no,” she sobbed. “He’ll kill me.”
“Who’ll kill you, Mam?” Laura stood in the doorway.
Cora eased her way up and held onto the washbasin for support.
“It’s nothing. I am just being silly. I’ve been sick on the new paintwork.”
“He can’t kill you for that.”
“No, I told you I was being silly.”
They walked back into the bedroom and climbed into bed. Cora was still shaking from the shock and glad of the warmth of her daughter’s body. The girls were going to a birthday party this afternoon, so she could rest then. Although she hadn’t had a period in over five months, she assumed herself her swollen stomach was because of her strict diet or fluid retention and the slight fluttering within, nerves Anyway, she was probably blowing it all out of proportion. It was a bug of some sort. It had to be.
The house was quiet when she returned from dropping the girls off. Liam had obviously gone on one of his binges, so it could be days before he returned home. She secretly enjoyed these times. When he was away, they had more fun, more freedom and she did not feel as uptight. Her thoughts strayed to the paper bag in her purse.
The white plastic cylinder of the pregnancy test lay on the sink top. She stood and walked to the basin but avoided looking down in case the blue line showed. Was it just the light she wondered, as she studied her reflection in the mirror; made her look old and the circles under her eyes so dark? She glanced down towards the test kit. The blue line showed clear against the white background. The realisation made her stomach turn, and she had to take deep breaths to still the nausea. Beyond tears, she dumped the cylinder in the waste bin and staggered towards the bedroom. She felt trapped, and pulled at the neck of her jumper, gasping for air. She had to get out.
It had grown colder. A biting wind hurried clouds, swollen with the promise of rain, across a darkening sky. The garden lay grey and wind-swept before her. This was the first time she had walked there. The plot of land on either side of the house was huge, but it was impossible to judge the size of the back garden, even from the upstairs windows. It was so overgrown, and, in a way, she was glad of this. At least Liam had not infected it with any of his ideas. Large thorn bushes blocked her way and she tugged the branches aside, pricking and scratching her hands in the process. Some caught in her hair, and she pulled them free uncaring of the tufts left behind in the struggle. She made her way towards the trees at the end of the garden. Something told her she would be safe there, and free from prying eyes. Once through the tangle of branches she found herself in a clearing. The grass was waist high, but there was a small, uneven footpath, so she picked her way along the large stones. She was sweating, despite the cold and her heart thudded painfully. She felt hunted and glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one was following.
The land continued onwards for she guessed about four acres. Her legs shook and a couple of times she thought she would collapse. Now, on the border of the garden and the wood, she stopped and rested her forehead against a stout tree trunk.
“Oh, thank you,” she whispered to the wood, glad of its firmness in a day that was fast becoming surreal.
There was no sound other than the sighing of the breeze. Deep shadows cloaked the woods, and she knew it would be foolish to venture further. The light was fading, but she felt safe here hidden by the trees. Her thoughts were interrupted as a light was switched on upstairs in the house. Its beam cut a pathway through the gloom, and she knew Liam was home.
“What will I do?” she asked.
She looked around, searching for the answer on the darkening air. Sentinel spirits, who had watched throughout time, heard her anguished question and whispered to one another. The wind suddenly whipped up again and skimmed across the grass parting it before her. It was then she noticed the top of the tombstone. The wind blew stronger catching at her clothes and pushing her towards it. The stone, what she could see of it, was blackened and scarred. The writing if there was an inscription, was hidden. Her movements were dreamlike as she knelt and pulled aside centuries of leaf mould. There was something carved there, but it was faded and hard to read in the dim light. She used a twig to poke away old spider cocoons and bits of dried mud. When the carvings were clear, she traced her fingers across each letter and spelled out the words. “Annie Ryan aged 17. Dora Ryan aged 6. September 1653. In restless sleep.
“So young,” Cora whispered
She glanced across the garden towards the house where Liam would be waiting, and her hand went instantly to her stomach.
“What’s this?” Liam held the test tube in front of her.
It was so close she smelt the chemicals and urine inside it. Her stomach lurched, her throat contracted, as she answered.
“I had to do a pregnancy test.”
“How the fuck can you be pregnant?”
She did not bother to answer.
“I mean, when?” He dropped the tube into the bin and ran his hands through his hair.
“About five months, I think.”
“Really, he smirked, “And how drunk was I at the time?”
“Please, Liam,” she tried to put her arms around him, but he pushed her away.
“Get rid of it.”
“You heard me. Get rid of it.”
“This is a child, your child.”
“I don’t care. I told you I didn’t want any more children.”
“It might be a boy,” she pleaded.
“It might also be a girl. I do not really care what it is. Get rid of it.”
“No, it’s a sin. I won’t do it”
She tried to run, but he caught her hair and dragged her back.
“You had better do as I say or God himself won’t save you.”
“I won’t kill my child,” she stabbed at his hand and felt her nails slice into his skin.
“Bitch,” he roared, lunging at her.
She stumbled, but managed to keep upright and then she ran, down the stairs out the main door and back through the thicket of branches, uncaring of the thorns reefing her face. The trees in the wood seemed to be spreading their branches wider, willing her to come to them. She stopped when she reached them and hid. So far there was no sign of Liam. Her face stung and she winched when she felt the puckered skin. She knew she had no choice but to return to the house. The girls were being brought home by their friend’s mother, and she would have to be there to shield them from their father’s temper. Still, there was plenty of time, so she walked a little further. She had not intended to return to the tombstone, but now she was beside it. Her heart ached when she remembered the ages of the girls’ buried there, and she sank to the ground.
“What will I do,” she whispered. “He wants me to kill my child.”
She thought of her aged parents and decided against troubling them. There was no one else. Though she had always been frightened of Liam, that fear was tangible. This new terror took her breath away.
“But I won’t do it. No matter what he says or does. I won’t let anything happen to this child.”
The tears that were threatening spilled over, and she laid her head against the tombstone.
“I’m frightened,” she sobbed. “God help me, I’m so frightened.”
The loud laughter of children drifted towards her on the quiet air and she knew her daughters had returned. Wiping the tears from her face, she forced a smile and walked back to the house. This time she was ready to do battle.
The children were full of stories about the party. They were over stimulated, and it was difficult to get them to settle that night. Even Laura, who was caught up with news of her friends, failed to notice her mother’s pale, tear-streaked face. Cora was glad when they finally drifted off to sleep. Liam locked himself in the study and she was spared his anger for now. She showered and got ready for bed. With a little luck he would sleep elsewhere. The moon was shining bright enough to light the room, so she left the curtains open. She lay huddled beneath the covers and prayed harder than she had ever done. From far away she heard the creaking of floorboards and the heavy footfalls on the stairs.
Liam stood silhouetted in the doorway.
“I’ll be sleeping in the spare room from now on,” he said, then unsure if she was awake. “Did you hear me?”
“Good and I meant what I said. Get rid of it.”
Cora started to cry once the door closed.
Liam pulled a duvet and pillows from the linen cupboard. He would have a makeshift bed that night but, in the morning, she could make up the room properly. He was sick of his wife, sick of her holier than thou attitude.
Later, when the night grew deeper and the things belonging to the dark were about, something stirred. Deep beneath the earth an ancient soul heard Cora’s tears for her unborn child and started digging its way towards the surface.