by Susan Burke-Trehy
Rose got on the bus at half past ten, having said goodbye to her life. There was surely no other way to look at it; this trip to Rag Tree Cottage would be her last. The house in Cork was closed up, her affairs were in order and her friends had been told she was ‘going travelling’. They, of course, understood her need to escape – the broken, childless marriage, and now the final insult of facing forty alone – of course, poor Rose needed to go.
She settled into her seat near the back of the bus, grateful that her dishevelled appearance would discourage the other passengers from sitting close to her. She had, in the last few weeks taken to dressing in dungarees, fleeces and wellies. Added to this were a few well chosen gardening titles from the library and a straw basket so that she just about passed for an organic farmer-type, the kind that would not look out of place on a bus bound for West Cork. As she peered out of the grimy bus window, she allowed the last glimpses of Cork to slip out of sight, pushing away any feelings of regret or fear. All is as it should be, she whispered under her breath, wishing she paid more attention to the actual words of the affirmations she had learned in yoga. ‘All is as it should be’, she tried the mantra again, but all she heard was her mother’s voice hissing at her: ‘It’s your own fault, Rose. You brought this on yourself, on all of us.’
There was no escaping her mother, especially now. Always a difficult woman, she had never forgiven Rose for escaping Lisheen and choosing a real life over their miserable existence in a small-minded village. Rose had had enough of being treated like a social outcast, withering away in a damp, mouldy cottage just as her mother and grandmother had done. As soon as she was old enough, Rose bolted for the city. Cork first, then Dublin, New York, London. Tom thought Rose needed to relax and de-stress, so they returned a few years ago believing the slower pace of life in Cork would help. A new home, a new city – Tom was sure that this time the IVF would work. He negotiated a transfer in work and in what seemed like no time at all, Rose was installed in a plush new house in the ‘burbs. It had all seemed so easy, so hopeful that she had almost begun to believe it herself. But she should have known better.
As the bus exited Bandon and headed out along the road to Clonakilty, Rose began to recall her childhood in Lisheen in all its miserable glory. Even now, knowing the truth, she still burned with resentment at her mother for never properly explaining the freakshow into which she had been born. Why didn’t she try to help me? She knew what I had done, knew I had broken the cycle; a cycle started by some madwoman decades ago in Rag Tree Cottage. Instead, Rose’s mum had buggered off to Crete. That was over twenty years ago and Rose had never again heard a word. As she glanced down at her dirty, earth filled nails and the grimy grey hue on her skin, Rose wondered, not for the first time, if her mother was even still alive. Maybe Rose’s actions were killing her too – maybe, her mother is sitting in Crete right now hiding straw hair and moss covered flesh under a tie-dye sarong. Dora had always been a wild-haired free-spirit whose life revolved around moon cycles, chakras and transcendental meditation. She had been the joke of the village, the weirdo with no husband who was rumoured to dance naked at night while invoking the devil. Dora herself however, had a crazy mother too, and her mother before her, and for a time all four women lived in Rag Tree Cottage together. Like Rose, Dora had suffered the humiliation of being shunned by the schoolchildren, whispered about by the locals, scowled at by the parish priest. Their bizarre menagerie of women was known locally as the witches, or ‘those Hawthorn women’. That was their surname, or at least had become their name. Rose knew no more and her mother certainly didn’t help her, always telling her that the answers would come with time. “You’ll know it all some day, Rosie, have a little patience”, she would laugh. Her mother was always too flighty to be of any use to Rose – she smiled ironically, as she remembered that she used to accuse her mother of being away with the fairies, not realising the veracity of her words.
“Don’t bother with school Rosie; it’s a waste of time. We are of the land, child; nature will reveal herself to you as she has done to me”. Rose could see now the happier moments, sitting under the trees in the field adjoining their cottage. Inside she could make out the shape of her grandmother at the kitchen sink, and knew that her great-grandmother was sitting in her chair by the fireplace – she never left that spot, or so it had seemed to a young Rose. “There’s nothing that you need to know in this world other than the laws of the land, the rules of nature, the soil, the earth, the trees. We are tied to this place Rosie, we owe a debt to the Folk, and it’s our job to stay put and protect them, Rosie”. Her mother took her little hand in her own and brought her to ‘The Spot’. It seemed from far away just a bump in the land, a blot on the horizon, a dip, a swell, a mound, but when you stood at the spot you could see that the grass gave way to a rock that appeared to be emerging from the surrounding soil. This rock was moss-covered and had a growth of ivy protecting it. The mound of earth sheltering it was also protecting another secret – for, on the south facing side of the rock, hiding her modesty beneath the choking ivy, was a Sheela-na-Gig. Her ugly face was smiling, but who really noticed her face? Surely the inhumanly large gaping vulva was what the eye was drawn to first and, once it caught your attention, it was hard to turn away. As a child, Rose had been repelled, yet fascinated by this ugly little witch-woman but was entranced by her mother’s tales of the fairy folk, to whom, by all accounts, they owed a great deal. Superstition and ritual dominated their lives, and the older Rose got, the more disillusioned she became with her circumstances. Every week without fail a seed was placed in Sheela’s stony vagina, another ritual her mother performed, believing that it ensured fertility of the land for themselves and the village. When she was almost twelve Rose’s grandmother invited her to ‘reseed’. Rose took the seed reluctantly, silently noting the pride on her mother’s face as she parted the ivy to reveal its treasure within. As she placed the seed, she saw a look of triumph cross her grandmother’s face and in that instant Rose knew that as soon as she could, she would run as far away from this crazy place as her legs would carry her.
She stepped off the bus at ten past one, feeling strange to be back in Lisheen after all these years. The remaining few passengers looked shiftily at her as they waited for the driver to open the luggage hold. Rose appeared to all intents and purposes to have slept in a bush for a month, washing sporadically in a muddy stream. She had what seemed to be grass and twigs in her hair and her skin had a greyish-greenish hue. She reached into her holdall, pulled out a small trowel, and gardening fork, pretended to examine them and returned them to the bag. Her brief performance seemed to relax her travelling companions as they now recategorised her as a gardening enthusiast as opposed to a lunatic. Heading down the small main street, Rose caught sight of her reflection in the window of the butcher’s and laughed at the change in herself. As a teenager, she had been surly, moody and exquisitely beautiful. She hadn’t known what to do about these looks, and she could see the locals were all the more uncomfortable with it. They used to look at her with contempt and repulsion, but suddenly she was so beautiful that it was hard not to stare at her. This caused confusion among them and so, as if by, mutual agreement, they did their best not to look at her at all. She had worn her mother down and had continued with school even though she was begged to stay home. “Our ways are not their ways, Rose. You’ll be getting notions about yourself when you should be here; you have a job to do. You must continue the line Rosie. It’s been promised.”
Rose made her way down the road towards Rag Tree Cottage. The cottage bore its name from the scraps of cloth and ribbons that hung from the tree, for the hawthorn tree was magical and conspired with the fairies to protect the land. Desperate women had frequented their house under cover of darkness for generations too, stopping as they left to tie a rag to the tree, by way of a pagan prayer ritual. They hung there still, faded and rotting scraps of material bearing sad testimony to the desperation of generations of women – for no men ever darkened the path of Rag Tree Cottage. Walking along the road for the first time in years, Rose felt suddenly and overwhelmingly swamped by memories of previous visits, once with Tom, just before he gave up on her, and before that with Robbie. Rose shoved the memories back down inside her; she couldn’t cope with them yet. She forced herself to think about other things, the unreality of what she was doing, the fact that this was certainly the last time she would walk this road, walk anywhere for that matter. As she walked, she remembered how as a child she would watch from the stairs on those nights when visitors came. Usually they arrived just as night was folding in around them, a hooded figure slipping down the path in the moonlight. Following a timid knock on the door, the cottage would fly into action, her grandmother quickly wiping down the table with the hem of her skirt before turning to give Dora the nod to let them in.
The women who came were usually of a certain age, who had, for one reason or another failed in providing their longsuffering husbands with a child. A few minutes of awkward chat would be followed by a lowering of voices, the scraping of chair legs against the stone floor as the women shuffled in closer together. The guest would then unburden herself, nervously, beseechingly. There would be low, sage murmurs and nodding of heads and, usually, their guest would weep bitterly, torn between hope for their healing abilities and guilt over what the Priest, or worse still, her husband would do if, God forbid, they found out she had come here. At this point, following a few conspiratorial whispers, Dora would begin removing dried herbs and berries from the ‘special’ cupboard, clattering around the kitchen with pots and strainers and all sorts as the Hawthorn women brewed up another potion. Tea was made and sipped out of chipped cups, and following another clatter of bottles and jars, their guest would be handed a concoction of dark-brown foul-smelling sludge. Money was quickly exchanged and scarf firmly in place, the guest would begin to leave. At this moment, always and ever, her grandmother would whisper something to the woman who would falteringly follow her outside and through the field. She would be shown the Sheela-na-Gig and would be encouraged to leave a coin for her. Then, just before they left, the woman would tear off the hem of her slip, tie the rag around the hawthorn tree and disappear into the darkness.
Rose’s skin began to itch as she wound her way down the lane, this being the final approach to Rag Tree Cottage. The moss on her upper arm was beginning to spread down towards her elbow. She shivered but kept on walking as she allowed herself to remember the last time she was here with Tom. He had always wanted to see where she came from, sure that it couldn’t be as bad as she said. He’d found her in that first year when she’d come to Cork and had been captivated by this innocent, beautiful, sad-eyed girl. They had loved instantly, each sensing the other’s drive and ambition. She painted a romantic but vague picture of her childhood and neglected to tell him the bleaker truth. She left out the bit about fairies, pacts and healers, and how she had worked her arse off in spite of the bullying and harassment in school to get the hell away from it all. She told Tom about her yachting buddies from the summer holidays, but omitted to say they were the only friends she had ever had. That was the beauty of coastal villages – every summer they became infested with the offspring of the wealthy who came and splashed their cash. Rose’s looks had attracted them and so, every summer, she lived an alternate life, one filled with friends, fun and drink. She would sip wine and brandy or whatever was on offer down by the beach, sometimes even sharing a kiss with one of the older boys. She decided that this was how she wanted to live her life – surrounded by people who didn’t know who she really was, enjoying the finer things. School became a lifeline, a means to an end, a way out. And when finally she was offered a place in UCC studying law, she knew she was saved.
At last she was there. Rose felt her resolve weaken slightly as she shoved open the rusty gate. The cottage looked eerie, but then again it always had. She stood on the path, the leaves of the Rag Tree touching the top of her head. Rose closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The wind rose unexpectedly, sharply, the force of it triggering a memory that had been long buried. Her grandmother had rarely been one for affection or kind words, and Rose had been more than a little afraid of her. But one night when she was twelve, weeks after she had reseeded the Sheela-na-Gig, days after the blood had come, there had been a sudden and violent storm. Her mother was away and Rose and her grandmother were awkward together. As the wind howled around the house, Rose finally plucked up the courage to ask once more about her heritage. She had asked her mother so often that Rose expected to be shot down with a dismissive response. But for some reason, her grandmother sat up straight and began to speak:
Well, Rosie, tis a queer oul story, but tis true so listen carefully child. This is your birthright, this cottage and this land, and the responsibility that comes with it. Years ago, long before you or I were even thought of, my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother lived here with her husband. He was a brute; he slapped her without a thought and drank like the devil. He tormented her because she hadn’t given him a child – they always blame the women, of course. Anyway, she came every night to the fairy fort and begged for a child – she had long turned her back on the Church, no help at all to anyone that lot. After weeks of begging and desperate pleadings, she made a deal with the fairies that if they gave her a child, she’d make sure that they remained on the land to protect their fort. Bridget, that was her name, collected twigs and grass and earth and made a baby from it, taking the berries from the hawthorn tree for its eyes. She wrapped the baby in a blanket, brought it upstairs and placed it in the empty cradle that they had gotten for a wedding gift. Then she tied a rag on the tree and went to bed. Next morning she woke to find her husband gone and a real baby girl inside in the cot. Don’t pull that face, Rosie, tis true every word of it. We are descended from that baby girl. That is why every generation must produce an heir, for we can never leave this place. We are keeping the bargain that Bridget made; we reseed the Sheela-na-Gig every week and we keep the land safe for them. Your time will come too, Rosie, and you must honour the bargain. It is your destiny. You are Aos Sidhe, one of the fairy folk’s human slaves, but their blood runs through you, sure as it does mine. When you’re older you’ll learn the herbs and the plants that help people to have babies, it’s a gift we have. That’s why those women come Rosie.
–But Granny, I saw Mrs Foley the butcher’s wife here one night and she has nine children. Was she sad because she wanted to have ten?
–Sometimes there are other things we can do to help women, but that’s enough for now. Your mother would kill me; she wanted to wait until you were older. Away to bed with you now.
This was what she had told Tom that night she came here with him. They had cleaned the place up, made dinner with the shopping they had brought. They longed for steak and red wine but the doctors had forbidden anything other than mung beans and broccoli – or that’s certainly what it felt like to them. They endured years of hormone-filled, dairy-free, cigarette-and-alcohol-free misery that resulted always and ever with blood, never a baby. Tom had remained relatively positive in light of everything – they could be childfree and happy, he insisted, but Rose didn’t believe him. Perhaps she should have told him the truth about what she had done; he may have understood. Instead, she told him about her life before that the mystical, mysterious part of her life. She told him all about Bridget and her baby made of earth and twigs with haws for eyes. She told him about the Sheela-na-Gig, the Fairy Fort and the deal that had been made with the fairies. Unburdening herself felt good and she became intoxicated by the sudden feeling of freedom, urging Tom to make love to her on the mossy soil at the foot of the Fort, under the watchful eye of Sheela-na-Gig, certain that all the fertility treatment in the world was worthless compared to the magic of this place. Tom had looked at her in a way that she could not understand – something in his eyes had changed, darkened. He went upstairs to bed, while Rose sat by the fire. She must have slept because in the morning Tom was gone. When she returned home all trace of Tom was gone from the house. An inadequate note lay on the kitchen table; it seemed to shrink into itself as her eyes fell upon it and its derisory message scratched on its surface. Even the ink seemed ashamed of itself, its thin lines barely enough to form the words: I’m sorry – I can’t do this. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, a final few words, tacked on knowing Tom because he genuinely believed it was the right thing to say: get some help.
Rose had refused to let the divorce become a circus. The house was sold quickly and Tom moved to Galway. It was allegedly a career move, but Rose was certain he couldn’t bear to be in the same city as her. Over time, she heard from mutual friends that he’d met somebody else. She was 26, worked in IT and clearly had no fertility issues, as she was pregnant within five months of their meeting. Ever the gallant gentleman, Tom had married her in the Registry Office in Galway six weeks before their daughter was born. Rose tried to move on with her life, which, on the surface wasn’t all bad – she had a comfortable home, a successful career, hobbies and friends enough to fill her diary. She held swanky dinner parties, pasted a smile on her beautiful face, and convinced most people that she was fine. Friends had even begun to drop hints about their bachelor brother or newly single work colleague, eyes glinting with the prospect of playing Cupid. Rose wasn’t interested, but decided to play along and reluctantly agreed to a blind date. It was on that first night, as she got ready to meet Don Wilkins – 45-year-old accountant, recently divorced cousin of her friend Lynn – Rose first noticed what looked like straw, or maybe grass in her hair. She pulled it out and was shocked to find that it hurt – it actually felt like it was rooted in her scalp. She shrugged it off to the best of her ability and went off to meet Don.
He was a nice guy and Rose enjoyed his company, though you could tell he wished he were at home watching telly with his ex-wife. Somewhere between courses and small talk, Rose noticed his eyes flickering to her hands. Convinced at first that he was just checking whether she still wearing her wedding ring, Rose was horrified to notice her nails and hands were filthy as if she had been gardening all day. Later on at home, she scoured her hands but no matter how hard she scrubbed, she could not get the dirt off. Her hair had gone crazy too; it was all tufts and clumps, and appeared to contain grass and straw. By morning, there were twigs in it too. She cleaned up as best she could, went to work late and handed in her notice. She made an appointment with her solicitor and commenced the dismantling of her life. For she now knew the family myth to be true, and knew with certainty that her demise was all down to the events of that night.
It was the last summer before college. Rose had sent those few weeks in a state of bliss, for she was certain that her Leaving Cert results would more than earn her a place in UCC: it was her passport out of Lisheen for good. She had over the years learned to ignore her mother’s antics and her grandmother would not see another Christmas. Rose reseeded the Sheela-na-Gig when asked, but other than the occasional poke around the herb press, she took no part in her family traditions. Ever since her grandmother had spun that yarn about the baby made of grass and earth and the bargain with the fairies, she felt sure that escape was the only way to avoid inevitable madness. Her mother nagged and begged, but failed to get through to her. She spent the afternoons walking by the sea, and drank most evenings to pass the time. One particularly drunken evening, Rose found herself in the bar of the village hotel. Suddenly self-conscious she got up to leave in a hurry and tripped on the way down the steps, right into the waiting arms of Robbie the Brit. Rob was a Londoner, around 40 maybe, who had come to Lisheen ten years earlier. A washed-up musician who now wrote very bad books about all manner of things, he was famous in West Cork for two predictable reasons – drink and sex – but Rose didn’t know this as nobody spoke to her. He put his arms around her, stroked her cheek and said she was a fine looking girl, but a drunken one so he’d see her home. Flattered by the attention Rose gladly let him take the lead.
The air was sweet and still warm as they stumbled out of the hotel and made their wobbly way down the road. Rob sang a Bob Dylan song, his voice thick with cigarettes. Rose shivered as he slipped her hand into his and kissed her lightly on the lips. As they weaved their way along the dark country road, the breeze whispered through the trees, softly accompanying their drunken chatter. After twenty minutes, they reached the turn off for Rose’s cottage.
“Well,” she muttered, “I’d best be off. Thanks for walking with me.”
“Are you mad, girl? It’s another bleedin’ ten minutes down that road. I can’t let you go alone – the fairies might come for you!” Rob laughed at his own joke. Rose felt herself grow angry; he was mocking her.
“I’m fine thanks very much. Goodbye.” She stormed off down the road, feeling tears stinging her eyes.
“Hey, calm down. I love all that magical folklore that your lot go on with. Tell me, Rosie Hawthorn, is it true what they say? That you’ve a Sheela-na-Gig on the land in a Fairy mound? I’d love to see it.”
Even now, sitting in the dishevelled kitchen of Rag Tree Cottage, her hair sprouting grass and leaves, earth covering her body in a mucky film, moss attached to her skin, rapidly returning to the soil from which she came, Rose does not know why she did it. Why she took his hand and led him down the road, past the cottage, the Rag Tree, through the field and across to the Fairy Mound. She cannot explain why she peeled back the ivy to reveal the Sheela in all her glory; why she took his face in her hands and kissed him with an unknown force; why she lay there in the mossy soil and had sex with Robbie the Brit. Sitting there now in the kitchen, she could smell that night as if it were happening all over again, remembering how, when it was over, he had laughed and thanked her and headed off down the road as if things like that happened to him all the time. They probably did, she thought bitterly.
Of course it came as no surprise to her when weeks later she discovered she was pregnant. Some part of her had known that night as they lay together in the grassy mound that this was something out of her control; it was as her grandmother had told her, her destiny. Rose knew she would die rather than give up on her dreams of escape. Over the last few weeks, she had been gathering the berries and leaves she needed, taking what she couldn’t collect herself from her mother’s supplies in the herb cupboard. She had watched them perform their rituals for so many years that she brewed up her potion as if she’d been doing it all her life. She waited until a night that her mother was away – her grandmother was entirely bed-ridden at this point – and like so many women before her, Rose tied her rag around the tree branch and drank down her brew. It was foul-tasting and she decided to revisit the scene of the crime to wait for its effects. Rose settled herself into the fairy mound, back tightly pressed against the rock, and began to feel discomfort, followed rapidly by great pain. As the night wore on, she sat there in agony but refusing to cry as she spilled her baby drop by bright red drop into the soil on which it had been made.
Her mother returned as Rose made her final preparations to leave for Cork city the next day. Barely a word was uttered as they each sized up the other, one suspicious, the other guilty. On Monday morning as she was about to get on the bus, Dora grabbed her arm.
“You killed it didn’t you? You’ve broken the deal! You selfish little bitch!”
And with that, Rose never saw her mother again. She heard a few weeks later through an old classmate that her grandmother had died the day Rose left. A month later a letter arrived from her mother saying that she was moving to Crete. The keys to Rag Tree Cottage were enclosed. Rose threw the letter in the bin and locked the keys in a drawer.
And so, the time had come. Rose could feel grit in her mouth and when she looked at her tongue in the mirror, it was black with soil. Moss was growing up her neck and creeping onto her face millimetre by millimetre and her bones cracked like dried twigs when she moved. She took one last look around the God-forsaken cottage and heaved a sigh of relief. It was nearly over. She dragged her weary body across the field to the fairy mound and settled herself into the space where once she had created and destroyed life. Feeling drained of all energy, she noticed a rapid change in her skin. It deepened in colour and toughened until it began to resemble tree bark. Shoots of leaves began to emerge from under her nails and from inside her ears. Her last breath felt like she had swallowed a mountain of earth, her feet rooted themselves into the soil, becoming part of it, and as Rose finally disappeared, her last human sensation was one of peace, as she became a Hawthorn tree.
Susan Burke-Trehy is a writer with a background in film and third-level teaching. Awards include a bursary to participate in the 2008 International Short Story Conference and a Government of Ireland IRCHSS Scholarship. Susan is completing her first novel and is working towards a short story collection. She lives in Cork with her husband and four children. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanBurkeTrehy
Alan McCord is a Canadian photographer. View more of his work at Flickr.