Birdsong

The hillside had been leeched of life and all its former vibrancy. Plants along the road had been pulled out cruelly, or had withered away into brown nothingness.

It looked not like the Emerald Isle, but rather like an import from Siberia, purged of snow and draped over the lumpen form of a hill. Certainly no race of gods lived beneath this mound. N

yet it was not the horridly wrong brownness of the hillside that was its strangest aspect, but the silence.

There were no voices. No barking dogs or lowing cows or masticating sheep. No birdsong.

Every sign of life, every blade of grass, the silvered lichen and moss spiraling up the asperous tree bark like the marble veining beneath the ground, among the roots, the bogs, the corpses laid low, bones blanching slowly, corroding into the dirt that had failed them, was a pale mockery. Humans, animals, plants died and rotted among blighted potatoes, unharvested. All of it, moss and grass and sticks that broke open spring green, was an affront, a taunt, to the skeletons walking, skin laid over their spectral forms, eyes hollow.

Here stood Grace Reilly. Dark hair thinning, falling out. Eyes like the sea large in her face, their whites turning yellow. The fingers of a healthy child could have closed around her arm, a small girl's hands around her thigh. Grace was dying.

"Go, girl," her father said roughly once her mother was gone. Rough was the only way he spoke these days. His vocal cords were frayed, like as not, as was his mind. Rough was the only way he could speak.

"Go 'cross, down in Galway you'll sure enough find sumthin' to busy yer hands with enough so's to get the passage t'England."

Grace did not answer. She simply walked out the door, having nothing at all to carry with her. Sister and mother gone, what did she care if she collapsed walking down the mountainside and died? If she made it to the city and died in a doorway begging half-heartedly? It should be better, perhaps.

But Grace had strength in her yet, somehow; she was knit from good thick cloth. The walk down the hill did not kill her, but it was not easy. Once it had been that she took that walk near daily. Now she had not come down from their worn old shanty in the hills for months. There was naught to buy and naught to buy it with, it was better surviving on what plants and birds were up there, better trying, still, to eke out a living from a plot that had never given enough, no matter how much blood was poured into it.

The earth was cruel, as it had been cruelly mastered. It would not be conquered, not even by those who had been. It had no sympathy, and Grace found herself understanding it.

She made her laborious way north up the coast to Galway, eating grass when she could find it and sleeping on the earth. It was eight days walking in her weakened state, but when she arrived, there was work found easily enough, if she would have it.

At first she wouldn't. Stepping foot in Galway, where the stones were snug in the road beneath her bare feet, cold to the point where they were no longer cold, she stared, shocked. Still it was ghostly, here where it had always been the center of things. The seamen still walked through town, calling out with the loud boisterous voices of working men, but they went unanswered, for the most part. The girls that called to them, rags hanging from shoulders white as bone, thin as bone, could barely please so badly did they need food. And Grace watching them promised herself she would never be among their number.

She slept the first night in an alley, curled against the cold brick of a butcher shop, from which emanated the odor of raw meat. She thought the vibrant bleeding corpses, ruddy and skinned, must be more alive than she. She ate the meat in the alley raw and felt like a beast, a wolf with the blood in her mouth, tasting as if she had swallowed coins. And she knew the fifth night, after she'd been shooed off by the butcher's boy, that she could feel no dirtier. There was hunger tight in her stomach, a knot of blackness twinging every moment. And this could get worse. So Grace left her empty alley and found one of those houses with the ragged girls, all white hanging skin and black tangles.

Grace would lay there and think of food, more often than she thought of home or the Holy Virgin. As they worked her body like kneading bread, plunging into her like a knife into soft new risen loaves, she stared at the ceiling, cracked like a child's plate, and thought of bread. Potatoes, newborn and blanketed in butter. Turkey, roasted golden and flavored with rosemary flecked like Connemara marble, foods she had glimpsed and eaten with the Bourke girls but the names of which she did not know. But she did think, too, of home. She lay there some nights and recited the Rosary to herself. She prayed Hail Marys, because Mary, she thought, might understand. Though surely one so blessed as she had never felt the keening contraction of an empty stomach, a living banshee itself.

Grace dreamed of selkies and the sea. The seas of her dreams were rough, and she had only a curragh to brave the waves, a thin half-skin. The salt stained her mouth with an exhausted health.

The dreams were dangerous, but free. Alive.

"Cultivate a clientele," a girl who called herself Nicola advised when Grace mentioned how slow the flow of money was, especially with the large portion of earnings pressed into the clammy, wash-worn hands of Mrs. Grady, who ran the place, if one could call it running. Nicola claimed, with her black Irish looks and talent for dialects, to be Venetian, but whether anyone was fool enough to believe an Italian girl had ended up in a Galway whorehouse on a strip of nowhere was a more dubious matter.

"If you get a few good clients, what come for you and no one else, they'll slip you money separate," Nicola said behind her hand over the meager supper table.

But Grace could not, for she found herself unable to act, mute and still as a butterfly pinned to corkboard by the stiff prickling dick of a laboring man with a corpulent belly, thick swinging thighs, in port for the night, in her body for the night, surrounded by starving ghosts.

The ones with English accents Grace stole from; Mrs. Grady and the garda themselves would give them no credence.

But there was one who did like Grace, perhaps for her pliancy, the pliancy of hunger and degradation, the pliancy of limp exhaustion. It was not submission but indifference, though the two were easily confused.

Submission, though, required first an act of resistance, a state of resistance, from which to submit, and for that Grace was far too tired. He was English, this man, and he had business with Connaught's landlords. An accountant, a banker, whose pounds sterling were bloodstained, his soul would be damned by God alongside her own, Grace was certain. But she did not care; his bloody prick and its bloody dollar bought her bloody food and she felt free to take it, though eating it weighted her more than it perhaps used to, though she had lost the familiar feeling of eating and so was unsure.

She could not be stirred to care.

Each night in Galway he waged his own war for the domination of her body. Grace didn't resist. She lay and thought of ocean and Mary and Mama and Annie; she thought of Emmet and Cuchulainn, their rifles and javelins, and she did not resist. The first time, he had come into the house, stood as men and clients would in the entryway, staring into the living room where the girls pretended liveliness so as to be chosen. Grace had been near the piano, beside Nicola, who was playing, and she had, at the assistance of Nicola and Mrs. Grady, begun to sing.

She sang an old Irish song that her mother had taught her, a man's song of roving and wandering and leaving behind. It was not the usual story of a woman, but Grace sang it high and clear, as if she had never starved, as if Nicola's piano was in tune and its keys pearlescent as the moon, not chipped and worn and stained with coffee and whiskey, as if no one was watching, green eyes shuttered as the cottages on the roads, inhabitants gone to coffins or coffin ships. And he chose her, chose her as England chose its colonies, and then left her to starve, broken and beaten and empty. She knew, she felt the cold stare through the glass, and she sang anyway. Her voice flew out, open-throated as the cries of the absent chirping birds.