Grab a cup of tea and find a quiet corner, for Halloween Sophie White has written IMAGE a very special – and very scary – original short story. Prepare to sleep with the lights on, children.
When we went back to the island, my father told me it was for my mother’s best. Even at the age of 12 and young as I was, I remember being confused – I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen my mother’s best.
She was a watchful, grey-faced person. Nervy and worried. Her hands shook continuously – I realise now as a result of her medication and they were red raw and split from the obsessive hand-washing she punished herself with day and night. Those hands were terrible. I knew.
And because I knew, she treated me with a simpering, cringingly apologetic love. I grew to hate her.
My father was tolerant of his quaking wife. There had always been low words at family gatherings about the woman she was before. Before. Before what? Eventually I understood. Before me. Or rather I should say, before us because there was an us. Back then I was a we though I don’t remember it. Not all of it anyway.
Edward said we should go back. My doctor agreed. And it was decided. For weeks before the journey, I had terrible dreams. The dreams were razor sharp and filled with a suffocating dread, splintered memories penetrated my nights – I woke into the narcotic smog of my medicated life and was grateful for those meds that blunt the edges.
We never told the authorities about what Edward’s wife had done. The island has always been governed by laws other than those written by men and most of the islanders’ transgressions were dealt with amongst ourselves. When the post office was robbed, the men beat the living daylights out of those responsible, likewise when the daughter of a local farmer was meddled with, the boys who’d perpetrated the violence were dealt with. But when Maria brought such a violent and unnatural act to the island, the community closed ranks. No one could speak of the terrible thing. Edward, Maria and I were pariahs. Maria barely realised what was going on. In the weeks afterwards, Edward kept her locked in the spare room where she screamed and cried at night. Terrible sounds, like an animal trapped. Baby Mary was silent as the grave, such a strange child. I fed her her mother’s milk from a bottle until Edward decided it was an abomination to pollute a baby with the milk of such a mother.
The island had always been an unhappy place but after what Maria did, it became even wilder and more alien. The day it happened had been like all the hundreds and thousands of days lived before on that wind-hewn rock. The sky above was blank and impassive even to this horror.
The island emerges from the sea 15 miles from the west coast of Ireland. It is long and narrow. At the end closest to the coast lies a pale, white beach with clear water but nothing would tempt you in. Just a few feet from the beach is a sand shelf and the ocean floor disappears abruptly underfoot. From this beach, the island rises like a knife-edge for several miles before ending in the sheer limestone cliffs that fall away into the roiling black Atlantic. Nothing grows. Farmers mind their livestock, but still every year they are lost to the relentless waves far below. The land is crisscrossed with walls of loose stones through which the wind whispers terrible secrets. Though nothing so terrible as what happened that day.
I still don’t quite know when it started. The birth, of course, had been terrible. We’d planned to go to Galway. I had an obstetrician there. But the possibility of being unable to get off the island had always been hovering on the edge of my mind. Edward’s mother, Maebh had delivered many babies. All the older island women had. We had planned to stay in Galway from 35 weeks on to be safe and I had been counting the days. I hated the island. I would walk to the back cliffs each day and contemplate the drop.
Even though the wind howled all the time, it was a void.. The cliffs frightened me but they were also somehow irresistible. Standing there I had the impression of standing on the prow of ship, but one that had run aground. One under siege. Water surging into the hull and sucking us all down with it.
As I got bigger, the walk became a focus to my entire day. The hours were maddeningly empty on the island. Edward would be gone for most of the week working on the mainland. I’d sit with Maebh in the kitchen and contemplate the years stretching ahead on this lonely boulder. When I neared the cliffs each day, like clockwork the babies inside would begin to stir. I would stand there sometimes all day, my thoughts – if I had any – were shapeless and unformed and the hours would ebb away on the tide. On the wind I thought I heard cries. I was still. I was petrified. In my peripheral vision I thought I saw someone. A woman. But when I turned she was never there.
The night the twins were born, it all went wrong. I see it now dimly in my memory. My blood-streaked legs were sprawled. My teeth barred into a silent snarl with the pain. My body clenched like a claw on the bathroom floor. Maebh’s soothing intonations too far away to do any good. I was alone in this fight. I’d be alone forever, I realised. My body and my world cleaved apart by these monstrous babies. When they were pulled from me I felt the urge to run but the birth had maimed me. Is that why it happens this way? To keep us there trapped.
The weeks stretching beyond this day are murky. I cannot bear to visit them. And yet I go there often at night. I close my eyes and I can see my white hands pushing the pram up and over the bumpy path, days on end bringing the babies to the cliff. The gusts sent whispers through the cracks of the island. They hit notes like an instrument but this song also seemed to have words. The island harnessed the squall and distilled from that wildness a deviant message.
“She is wrong. She is an abomination. She not human,” it sang.
The babies’ dark eyes peer out from the canopy of the pram. Unblinking and black like the ocean below. They are called Mary and Eve and on this last day, they are watching me. They are always watching me. They look identical, and to tell them apart Maebh pins a ribbon to their clothes. Yellow for Mary and pink for Eve. The whispers from the island have spurred me to the edge today. Eve is the one. Mary has dropped off to sleep but Eve’s gaze is fixed. Nothing has felt right since Eve was born. She is the poison the island sings about.
I must have plunged my hands into the pram because the next thing I see is the baby in my outstretched grip. It’s been 8 weeks since the thing arrived and the fear that has settled inside me is unbearable.
The island trills in my ear, “It’s not a baby,” as its rosebud mouth opens wide and dark. No sound emerges or if it does it’s lost to the wind and the waves.
The roar of the island builds and I look over the edge. I see no life for me beyond this point but I cannot take this thing back to the cottage and spend one more night sitting up watching and waiting for the terrible future to unfold. The island has shown me these future days lined up and it has shown me the horrors they contain.
I lean back and hurl her out over the edge. I think of her always suspended like this. A streak of pale blue blanket against the steel sky and nothing more. She never lands.
Is that why I’ve been tormented since? She never felt gone.
She’d arrived back with the pram, blank-faced and silent. I was bustling around the kitchen with the tea but when Maria didn’t budge from the door I went to bring the pram in. I saw the wriggling bab alone in there and something ancient stirred in me. A familiar terror buried many, many years ago. The shock robbed me of my voice but Maria began to speak.
“Eve had to go. She had to. She wasn’t right. She would ruin us.”
It wasn’t the first time the island had claimed someone’s sanity.
The day after we lost the baby, Edward closed the door on Maria and kept her locked away for several weeks. He went to the cliffs himself but it was futile.
At home, my hands shook as I tried to care for the child we still had. I struggled with the poppers on the tiny cardigan, my tears fell on her warm soft baby belly. It was then that I realised I had mixed up the girls’ ribbons the day before.
We had lost Mary to the sea and here still was Eve. I regarded the baby and agonised but eventually thought it best to forget this knowledge. To keep the baby safe I called her Mary just as Maria did and hid the ribbons away for good.
Soon after Edward took his wife and child to the mainland to exorcise the awful history. We had never brought the babies off the island, as far as anyone knew Edward and Maria had only one child. The islander’s knew but over the years the story knit itself into the landscape of the place and became no less noteworthy than the year a boat in broad daylight and good visibility was wrecked on those cliffs or the myriad souls who’d leaped from them.
The first weeks on the island were not so bad, Granny Maebh made soda bread and jam for tea and I was allowed to roam the fields playing. The only place that was out of bounds were the back cliffs. I didn’t mean to break this rule exactly. But each day the gusts of wind seemed to nudge me up and over the path towards the back end of the island. Sometimes before I’d notice where I was I was nearly at the last field. The rocky bald one that looked out on the shining grey rock that stretched away to the edge. One day I was crouched beside a low wall that edged the Herr’s place when a rushing sound by my left ear startled me. I thought I heard a voice.
“She’s still there,” it said.
I spun round but there was only loose rocks and tufts of dry grass. I looked all around me. The sky was empty. The fields were empty. But I wasn’t alone. I pressed my eye to the wall and peered beyond to the cliffs. There I could see her. My pale fleeting mother was pacing at the edge. How I hated her. The rushing sound again.
“She is not right. She is a monster. You know what she did.”
I swing this way and that but I see no one. But then just ahead of me slender white fingers emerge from a tiny gap in the wall. The fingers unfurl once and then withdraw. I hurry towards the spot but there’s nothing. Further ahead I see movement on the ground beyond the end of the wall. It looks from here like blue material blowing in the wind. I check my pacing mother is not coming for me and then crouch and run to the spot.
The blue is a fleece blanket half-drenched by a pool of water gathered among the slick grey slabs. I am beyond the wall now and if my mother looks back she’ll see me but I can’t tear myself away, the surface of the pool shivers with a shriek of wind and the sky darkens overhead. I peer into the waters and see my own face reflected. Though there’s something off about my face. My eyes are inky black holes, black tears course down ghostly cheeks and all at once the mouth draws open, gaping and horrible. I scream my hands rushing to my face but my supposed reflection is not mimicking my movements.
The ghost me is pointing, her finger reaches beyond and through each pool of rainwater from where I kneel to the edge of the island, until it hits the spot where Mother suddenly stops dead, released from her pacing and looks straight up to the heavens. In the next moments I understand what happened. I see the blue blanket, that I’m now clutching, reflected in the pool. The blanket and baby thrown carelessly up into the harsh wild sky. And I know that I am my sister. I was supposed to die.
I’m at the cliffs again. Pacing. I am restless everywhere, but at the cliffs I am safe in my restless pacing. Since we arrived I’ve known that something’s coming. But what and when?
I feel the tap on my back but cannot bear to turn. A shadow disturbs the blank sky and I look up. The blue blanket drifts above for a moment and then I can’t take it, I turn. She’s right behind me.
Her face is a horror, her mouth hangs open, her gaping teeth are sheer like the cliffs we stand on and the black eyes are still watching. She rushes me off the cliff and I am finally relieved. I land on the rocks below and spend my last moments listening to their shrieking howls of laughter. Then the island claims me.
This article was originally published in October 2018