The summer glued Maeve’s T-shirt to her freckle-speckled shoulders. It ran in stinging rivulets over her eye, trickled through her bra-strap and chafed. She paused beneath a fruiting rowan to take a lukewarm swig from her canteen, aware that it was only giving her more to sweat out. Ireland is the home you’ve never seen, her mother often said, but if that was true, she should have told Ireland. By Sunday, Maeve would have reams of dead skin peeling off her back like gauzy pixie wings.
Maeve left herself enough water for the hike back to town. She’d traveled an ocean and several landmasses, but her destination was just ahead, exactly where her mother and the map in her back pocket had said it would be, beyond a final bank of nettles. It rose to her height, a hunching in the earth, shagged in moss and grass and ferns, too perfectly domed to be a wholly natural phenomenon. Upon its apex perched a crook-backed hawthorn, whose outstretched boughs cast the mound in a rare island of shade among the pastoral sea of County Armagh, where the hills rose and fell like frozen waves.
Come to the edge of the Forest of Song, and you will find there a little house beneath a tree.
She’d barely recalled the story her mother had told her of this place, yet there it was, and here she stood, and wasn’t the point of this trip to discover her roots? Well, one of several points. She moved closer, picking carefully through the brambles, wishing she’d worn jeans, and more of the story came back to her, as though the buried memory were gravitating towards its inspiration. This is where a fairy lord lives. The prince of all cicadas, those heralds of summer, his many children, whose song brings long days and fruitful trees.
The story had that right; the air almost thrummed with that telltale rattling. Maeve glimpsed their compact, bullet-like bodies shooting from leaf to sheltering leaf. Their discarded husks lay strewn about the mound. Up close, Maeve found a curious structure set into it—two slabs of hoary granite propped up on their sides, with a third lain flat across them, forming a crude portcullis three feet high— a dolmen, was the word, beneath which a passage into the mound had been dug. Maeve knelt to shine her phone light inside, but the shaft extended only a few feet before ending in dirt. The dolmen’s interior was littered with cigarette butts and condom wrappers, the shrapnel of sacrilegious teens. A line of ants marched in and out again. Hawthorn roots hung like stalactites.
Through winter and spring, he sleeps deep beneath his mound. But when the last snow melts, he emerges to walk the land again.
Maeve had majored in archaeology at UCLA and knew her way around a tumulus. Centuries ago, before Christ was a twinkle in Yahweh’s eye, this mound would have been a tomb, or a Celtic temple perhaps, where the druid-priests of forgotten gods had belted homilies at the moon. Those ancient stones had long since been carted off to cobble up Ireland’s earliest churches when the inexorable tide of monotheism washed over this part of the world, leaving only their raised-earth foundations to ferment in common memory, dark-age myth-makery warping them into the abodes of leprechauns, the entrances to the Otherworld beneath the earth, where the aos sí held court. Maeve’s mother adored that stuff. Every hill of her homeland was full of little men, degenerated, troglodytic gods. Maeve could sympathize, given the reality she’d fled.
A lusty lord is he, and to the maiden fair who comes a-knocking, he will grant three boons. Two for any gift given, and a third for a price his own.
Maeve closed her eyes and let the pollen gust over her. She waited for her blood-connection to this land to kick in like the first hit of something illicit, but all she got was hot. Too many degrees of separation lay between her and this place where her mother played as a kid. Too many bugs that wouldn’t shut up. Oh well. There was still plenty more Ireland to go.
Remember, this price you must refuse. Else he will take your hand and show you a land where the sun dare not shine.
On an impulse, Maeve fished a tuna sandwich from her backpack and placed it before the dolmen, taking care to unwrap the plastic. “Hi, Mister Cicada Prince,” she said to the hole. “Nice place you’ve got here. I rock a condo myself. Listen: if you’re still doing wishes, it’d be cool if you could help me find my grandma’s bones. Is that worth a sandwich?”
Nothing came for the offering but a legion of hungry ants
The female cicada can lay as many as six hundred eggs at a time. She stings them into trees with her ovipositor, where they incubate for a month and two weeks. As soon as they hatch, her larva drop to the ground, where they burrow into the earth to sleep for years and years.
On paper, it was the Southern Armagh Nature Reserve. The locals, called it Faraois An Amhráin—the Forest of Song—because it was the only place in Ireland where one could find cicadas. The town housing those locals, Glasbrook, lay some miles north across a rippling quilt of pasture-land, a smattering of picturesque houses, just as many pubs, and a library doubling as a town hall where Maeve had spent much of her time since arriving, burrowing like a gopher through the town’s archives.
Maeve rented a room on the outskirts, in that blurred divide between woodland and farmland. The owner, Mister Healy, was in his chair out front when she arrived home, where he could be found most every day, weather allowing.
“Afternoon,” she said, with a wave.
The old man nodded, a hand-rolled cigarette bobbing on an underbit lip. His hands continued to work, one gripping a hunk of wood while the other steadily carved the crucifix out of it, covering his green cardigan in little curls. “Grand drying day, isn’t it?”
“Sure is. I’m positively arid.” The outing had wrung her out like a sponge.
“If you’re going to be off in them woods all day, best be careful.”
Maeve smirked. “Why, is a leprechaun likely to carry me off?”
Mister Healy sneered. “Ain’t no such heathen things. The blessed Saint Padraig scared ‘em all off with the snakes. Us boggers go hunting in those woods. Pale thing like you is liable to get mistook for a doe. Best put some orange on you.”
Maeve knew plenty of Catholics, but she’d never met a Catholic, pronounced just like that, before Mister Healy. He insisted on carrying her suitcases the day she moved in, and growlingly invoked every saint there was to help him get them up the stairs.
“Didn’t pack any,” she said. “I’ll be careful.”
“Hm. Still an’ all. Don’t go get yourself kilt like an eejit.”
Mister Healy leaned forward and pronounced very carefully, for her American ears—
“Will do,” Maeve said, and went inside the house that had been her mother’s, long ago.
As she climbed the stairs, she tried again to discern what belonged to Mister Healy and what had belonged to her family. Did her mother leave those scuffs on the stairs, or was it the old man’s muddy rainboots? Perhaps her mother didn’t have time to leave her mark. She’d have been ten in 1980, when her family had packed up and split for America. When The Troubles were at their bloodiest.
In school, Maeve learned about the bombings in Dublin, the snipers in Belfast, but the violence of the countryside had been cut for time, and there was so much of it, for the nationalist streak in County Armagh was green as its fields. A knife-wound through the orange flesh of unionist Northern Ireland. Maeve had only heard the story once, in full. The way her mother told, she and her father had returned from Keady to find the door kicked down and Maeve’s grandmother gone. There was no note, no blood-spatter, but her grandfather recalled he’d said something flattering of Margaret Thatcher at the pub a half-week prior, and knew what had happened. He hadn’t spent a minute searching for his wife, merely filled two suitcases and drove them both to Kilkeel, where they’d began the series of voyages that ended in Los Angeles.
Maeve’s mother had been undocumented until she married. She never wanted to be an American; in that, she’d been crystalline. The country’s muddled, materialistic mythology disagreed with her. Maeve theorized that a part of her mother had remained in Ireland, wandering the memory of green hills in search of Maeve’s grandmother. Maybe, probably, that explained why they’d never been close the way mothers and daughters should be. Maeve had too quickly outgrown the stories of pucas and selkies and the Cicada Prince, and those were all her mother cared to learn. The idols of Maeve’s adolescence had been Britney Spears and Mario Lopez. She spent her nights cruising with her girlfriends along Hollywood Boulevard, while her mother, elsewhere, wondered which of a thousand holes in the Forest of Song contained the woman who raised her.
Maeve wished she’d realized that sooner.
Exhaustion puppeteered her to the bed, where she collapsed, never-minding her dirty clothes. Tomorrow would be another long search, according to the topographical maps she’d copied from the library. The bones of this land were bones, not many marked out with a dolmen. But if she couldn’t find her grandma’s grave, maybe she’d dig up her roots instead, which her mother insisted were here. Sweat out salt and soak up Ireland. And then the two of them could talk—really talk—without having to shout across a phantom Atlantic.
Maeve’s smile prodded her eyes shut—either way—and she began at once to dream.
In her dream, she stood upon a grassy knoll at sundown. She recognized the view from above Glasbrook, but there was no house nor heifer in sight. A hand suddenly snaked around hers, and a young woman rushed past, dragging Maeve behind her. She went along, because this was a dream, and that was how the dream went. The trees ahead spiraled around them, swallowed them, a whirlpool of emeralds.
On the other side, they came upon a clearing where more girls were dancing in a circle. All of them shared the same carrot-colored curls, the same diaphanous shifts that hitched on their nipples and blew taut across bellies tumescent with child. The girl holding Maeve’s hand let go and ran to join them, slipping seamlessly into their high-kicking, hair-tossing rhythm. Together, they sang.
Bábóg na Bealtaine, maighdean an tsamhraidh,
Suas gach cnoc is síos gach gleann,
Cailíní maiseach go gealgáireach gléasta
Thugamar féin an Samhradh linn.
Maeve understood perfectly, though she had no idea what the words meant.
We brought it in from the leafy woods,
We brought the Summer with us.
From home to home to our own hearths
We brought the Summer with us.
As Maeve looked on, crucified upon the narrative, the girls began to dance into the earth. First their toes, then their shins, then their knees, sinking as if into mud, until the grass rose over their lips and noses and smothered their song dead. Then it was just their eyes above ground, staring silently, unblinking, each exactly the blue of her own. A cold wind breezed through the glade. The girls stared. Maeve shivered. Somewhere amongst the trees, a cicada began to call.
With a gasp, Maeve awoke. That hazy dream-logic boiled away, and with that breath, she screamed. She stood in the same clearing, except there were stars overhead, and dewy grass squelching between her toes. She looked about for the dancing girls, but where they’d gone into the ground, there was instead a circle of mushrooms, the white of stained teeth and ghostly luminescent in the moonlight. A fairy ring, in the local folklore. Maeve shuddered and became aware of a weight in her hand—a garden trowel, its edge scabbed with clay. Where did it come from? Christ, she had lost time. Sleepwalked, which she’d never done before. She was lost in the dark, and in a country not her own. All these facts jockeyed to panic her. Instead, she knelt, stabbed the trowel into the grass, and dug.
She couldn’t say why, but the repetitive motion felt better than freaking out, so she kept going, gouging deeper into the earth. The mushrooms were not isolated specimens, but the fingers of a single, chthonic organism, networked underground by mycelium threads, thick as cobwebs in a haunted house. Maeve tore through them, compelled by an intuition not her own, as she dug towards the spot where they converged. There—clank—her trowel bounced off something solid.
She threw the tool aside and scraped away loam with her hands. Then she sat back on her haunches and stared. There, in the pit, protruded the top of a human skull, its crown putting out mycelium like the flyaway wisps of an old woman’s hair, its sockets weeping tears of mud.
“Can’t say this is where I saw me day going,” Niall groused.
“Oh, quit it. I’ll buy you a drink later.”
“Make it two,” Niall said. He pulled a cup of dirt from the hole and poured it on the heap behind him. “One for the favor, the other to help me forget. Jesus, who’d do this to a lady?”
Niall was the deputy at Glasbrook Library, lanky, maybe thirty, with glasses that wouldn’t stay on his nose and a bald spot contrasting his boyish features in a way that Maeve found adorable. Early in her investigation, he helped her navigate the town’s paper archives, and they got to talking. When she asked for his help with an outside project, he’d jumped at the chance, though he clearly hadn’t realized that she literally meant “outside.”
When he first saw the skull, he suggested calling the cops. Maeve could admit that was the smarter idea, but she still said no. The cops had the right tools, but they would make it a whole thing. They’d open a case. Do an investigation. Maeve didn’t care whodunnit. Whoever the killer was, they were forty years away by now. She just wanted to know. The law could wait.
“You sure this is your gran then?” Niall asked, peering skeptically at the skull. “She’s got one of them faces you see everywhere, you know?”
Maeve felt certain, though her rationale did not make logical sense even to her.
“Going to be sure,” she said, as a deflection. “My mother once told me that she always wore a golden pendant. An heirloom, I guess. All we’ve got to do is find that, and we’ll know.”
“I’ll keep an eye out. One last thing.”
“Swear you didn’t do it?”
Maeve laughed and threw dirt at him.
It was finicky work, freeing the bones without doing damage, like coaxing a brittle fossil from a Mesozoic mud-tomb, but by the early afternoon, they’d laid open a six-foot swatch of dirt, exposing most of the ribcage, the arched knees. Maeve’s grandmother—if it really was her—had been crammed into a too-small hole, suggesting a grave dug in haste. Time and tiny scavengers had stripped away everything nonessential, leaving behind clean and permanent pieces of proof. This wasn’t how she’d seen her decade going, but if she ever had to give a commencement speech, she’d have a real warhead of an anecdote. I got heatstroke digging my grandma out of an unmarked grave. Work hard for your dreams, young scholars.
That, or have a fairy friend.
Maeve stood and mopped up her sweat with her shirt. “Give me a minute. I’ve got to pee.”
“Don’t go that way,” Niall replied, nodding towards the tree-line. “Saw someone watching from over there a minute ago. Couldn’t tell who.”
“And you didn’t think to say anything?”
Niall shrugged. “Watching ain’t a crime.”
Maeve looked but saw only a leaning elm and its unoccupied shadow. If someone had seen them with the bones, though, Maeve couldn’t imagine them getting the right idea. She trudged over to have a look, just in case. Niall was right; there in the soft earth beneath the tree was a trampling of boot-prints, size twelve. And something more—an itch in her nose, a lingering scent of burning leaves. Not pot, though; she would know. Tobacco, maybe?
“Maeve? Hey, Maeve?”
“Were you curious about cause of death?”
Maeve came jogging back. Niall had scooped more dirt away from her grandma’s spine. The vertebrae between her L1 and L5 were mostly gone. What remained looked like it had been through a garbage disposal. Maeve reached into the grave, into the hollow of her grandmother, and retrieved a disk of metal the size of her biggest toenail. “What do you think that is?”
Niall took off his glasses and gave it a squint.
“I know what it is. That there’s buckshot.”
Steel hammered flat on an anvil of bone.
The larval cicada is smaller than a grain of rice. It has no mandibles, only a beak like a sharpened straw. In its subterranean adolescence, it feeds at first upon the roots of grasses, nursing itself on xylem. Once it matures, it will anchor itself to the root of a tree to drink and drink and drink as the seasons revolve overhead, fattening in preparation for the summer that will bring its wings.
Mister Healy’s truck was gone when Maeve returned, though his rainboots had been left by the door. She called through the house, but only her echo called back. The door to his room, across from hers, was shut, but then, Maeve had never seen it open. It was a strange and unpleasant feeling, not knowing whether she was in the house alone.
“How long’s he been there?” she asked Niall back at the pub. She had kept her word and then some. Beer made his accent more pronounced, and Maeve would have bought it on CD if she could. The bones sat beneath their table, bubble-wrapped snugly into an Igloo ice-chest. They hadn’t found the pendant, but Maeve remained undaunted; the bones would tell their own story. The length of the femur would ballpark her age, for instance. Parturition scars would tell she had given birth.
“Mister Healy? Oh, since forever,” Niall replied. “My mum said he moved to town back in the 80’s. Real odd duck, that geezer. Came into the library fluthered one time and called me a protestant like it was spelled with four letters.”
“Well, are you?”
“Nah. Atheist. But I was wearing orange at the time.”
“Sounds like you were asking for it, you filthy Unionist.”
They laughed, and Maeve forgot about Mister Healy. They drank a black beer more beer-y than anything Maeve knew. Some old men began to sing Muirsheen Durkin, and she and Niall clapped along. The song was about an Irish fellow gone to California in search of gold, which Maeve found endearingly ironic, her story told backwards. She hoped the Man Whose Name Was Carney found his gold. She was starting to think she’d find some herself.
Afterward, Maeve asked Niall if she could use the library after hours. There was something she wanted to look at, and he had a key, didn’t he? Niall agreed, on the condition they do something another night, preferably not involving family and the exhumation thereof. Maeve said yes, knowing a good deal when she saw one. Perhaps it was here she’d find her roots: in a summertime romance trope-bound to age miserably and inspire a saccharine-sad pub-song for the besotted to sing.
In the present, Maeve found her hand on Mister Healy’s doorknob. Her heart scrunched against her spine. She slowly twisted left and jumped when the deadbolt clicked. Her nerve snapped, and she retreated hastily to her room. You’re putting pieces together that don’t fit, she assured herself. Everyone in this town smokes like a chimney. Focus on the real puzzle.
With the door locked behind her, she shoved the chest of bones into her closet, then emptied her backpack across the bed. Collections of children’s rhymes, regional histories, the hand-scribbled manifestos of podunk philosophers ignored into the grave—Ireland was a crowded barrow of clever thinkers with no opportunities other than to dream, write, and die young.
The shadows grew taller and sharper the longer she scoured their jaundiced scribblings for any mention of cicada songs or wishes granted in neat sets of three. Of fairy-sightings perhaps a tad too real. The Cicada Prince was but one of multitudes, his legend eclipsed by more cosmopolitan creatures, the ever-popular banshees and changelings. The most thorough examination she found was in The Little Gods of That Emerald Country, by Alister Brading FRSL, published 1957—a sort of catalog of Irish legends.
The Cicada Prince is a supremely provincial specimen of Aos Sí, Brading wrote, his mythology centered entirely around the region of County Armagh known as the Forest of Song and unheard-of elsewhere. Heralded by the namesake insects said to be his offspring, he is viewed as a bringer of harvest and fertility, albeit at a price. Most versions of his story see him arising each summer in search of beautiful maidens who are happy to accept his gifts, until he asks their hand in marriage, at which point the wise flee and vow never to stray from Christ again. Beyond this key tenet, the story varies wildly. To some, he is a lusty trickster not dissimilar to the leprechaun. To others, he is an ineffable and puissant potentate, to be respected and feared in equal parts, harkening back to the Tuatha Dé Danann.
This author wonders if there is not a chronological solution to these irreconcilable interpretations. Perhaps these stories are not confusions of one another, but recollections from successive eras, for it is well-understood that the little men in today’s hills were the gods of our pagan antiquity.
Maeve closed her eyes and remembered.
She was seven, maybe eight, too young for the glitz-hypnosis of MTV, but just barely. Her mother tucked her into bed, having just told her the story of the Cicada King, and being at that wondering age, it had occurred to Maeve for the first time to ask—
“Did you ever meet him?”
Her mother glanced away, hiding a darkness in her gaze that Maeve would only later recognize as the urge to lie. “Yes,” she finally admitted. “My mother did too, and her mother before that.”
“What did you wish for?”
“I wished first for fewer freckles. Then, for a new Barbie Doll. After that, I asked to meet my true love. And for that, he wanted”
Even stretched out on the table of memory, Maeve could not dissect the queasy pall that came across her mother’s face. She had slightly more of an idea now that she’d been touched inside by a man, but none back then. Looking back, it was the first of the distances that had accrued between them.
“Well, I gave him my Barbie’s hand instead, and here I am,” her mother murmured, “God, I was only nine.”
Maeve dropped the book and massaged her eyes in slow, forceful circles. Mister Brady had no answers for her, just stories that weren’t her own, when hers, she understood now, was the only one that mattered. She gazed through the open window at the post-midnight forest, where trees stacked like layers of tint into a perfect blackness. The nights were dead quiet here, in this place from which all freeways sloped away. To one sung to sleep by LA traffic, the lack was uncanny. On an evening such as this, a voice could travel as far as the breeze would carry it. Perhaps into the white-petaled embrace of a hawthorn tree, and then, coaxed by gravity, into the old stone door below. Not really, of course, but then, what was real but the sum of all one had seen with their own two eyes?
Maeve found a loose hair and plucked it from her scalp. People said she had pretty hair, like fire braided into thread on a magic spinning wheel. Sure enough, when she laid it on the windowsill, the wind snatched it away in an instant.
“Tell me Mister Healy’s secrets,” she whispered, and then laid down to sleep.
Samhradh, Samhradh, bainne na ngamhna,
Thugamar féin an Samhradh linn.
Samhradh buí na nóinín glégeal,
Thugamar féin an Samhradh linn.
Sunlight slashed Maeve’s eyes apart. Once more, she stood barefoot in unfamiliar woods. Once more, a girl that looked too much like her guided her by the hand. Once more that song, rising and falling on flittering wings. In time the trees parted, and they came upon the fairy mound. It was bigger than Maeve remembered from reality, its surface stretch-marked, distended, its foliage spilling over in long snarls. The hawthorn upon its hump impaled the entire sky with thorns as long and sharp and black as grudges. Red-haired girls waited in a circle around it, curving away into imperceptible distances. As Maeve drew near, they danced towards her in two rows, surrounding and absorbing her, creating a path that led only towards the mound.
May doll, maiden of Summer,
Up every hill and down every glen,
Beautiful girls, radiantly dressed,
We brought the Summer with us.
Maeve peered at the girls as her feet marched her towards the mound. She knew they were her ancestors—great-aunts, greater aunts, their cousins and their nieces—all the women who came before her but had not birthed her, orbiting the chain of wombs that ended in hers, the fruits that dropped off the family tree, here preserved as red and ripe as they were at the fertile apex of their youth, even as their mortal husks withered stiff and rotted into nothing. They sang in a harmony impossible for the living, the same voice echoed across centuries beyond counting.
Seat her on the silver chair,
We brought the Summer with us.
Or on the golden chair if she prefers it.
We brought the Summer with us.
Bristling black claws groped at flimsy white hems. All at once, cicadas began to boil from between the girls’ thighs, thousands of them in an endless stream. The air was suddenly frenzied with wings, glossy black-green streamlined singers, and their chitinous allegro quickly drowned out all other sounds, though the girls continued to croon as insects mobbed their teats like flies on shit. Maeve forged ahead. Tiny bodies goaded her on. Nearer now, the door in the gravid mound offered shelter, not a dolmen in this slow-wave space but a smooth oaken slab on brazen hinges. It cracked open at her approach; light spilled across her feet. She was meant to go in. Want was not a factor. This was how it went. How it had always gone. Maeve grasped the knob, swung it wide, and—
—the box opened with a crackle of brittle mechanisms snapping. Pieces of broken lock skittered across the floor.
Maeve stood in Mister Healy’s room beside his bed, left unmade and reeking of cigarettes. In her hands sat a small, hand-carved, wooden box. A chill coiled around her spine and refused to let go. Suddenly she wanted only to drive to the port just as her mother had and fly back to Los Angeles, where the lights stayed on past midnight, the gods all lived in the Hollywood Hills, and nothing was ever too real, but it was too late. She got her wish. It gripped her like an event horizon, and she could only go deeper.
In the box, Maeve found a folded flag. Unfurled, it displayed a golden plow upon a field of clover green, its blade a pitted sword. She’d seen the design in a history course she took in college. An Camchéachta. The starry plow. First flown by the Irish Citizen Army, and later by, among others, the various incarnations of the Irish Republican Army.
Beneath that, almost like an afterthought, Mister Healy had stored a hunting knife in a leather sheath. Tangled around its hilt was a golden pendant on a chain.
Trembling, Maeve presented it to the light, watched it swivel right and left. Her gaze wandered higher, to the wooden rack on the wall above the bed, where a shotgun would go when not in use.
The cicada’s song is a complex one. A symphony of carapace and chitin. Membranous tymbals shudder in time to the stridulation of wings; the angle of its abdomen makes this note or that one. That tiny body must be an instrument of instruments, every muscle devoted to the production of that call. Above ground, newly winged, it lives but a matter of weeks. It lives to be heard.
The adult cicada emerges only in the summer, and only for one purpose.
Niall didn’t seem displeased to find Maeve knocking on his door at five AM, though he was confused and more than a bit worried. He offered her a place to sleep—on his couch, not his bed. It was both too late and too early for the passion of that classic setup to bloom. Maybe another evening, they wordlessly agreed, when things were less weird.
He departed for work at seven sharp, leaving Maeve to latch all the windows and stare at the phone for what felt like hours. She only needed to dial 999 to reach emergency services. The Glasbrook PSNI station was just four streets away. The debate wasn’t should she call the cops, but rather, what good would that do? Owning a locket wasn’t illegal, and she couldn’t plant the evidence to have him arrested. Even if the police found the bones, the truth would come out in the investigation; her fingerprints were all over them.
The smartest thing that Maeve could do was leave. Order a cab to Kilkeel and throw her credit card at the fastest flight to as far away from here as possible. Let her mother resent it all she liked—Maeve’s grandfather had been right to get out. There was a hunger here in the Forest of Song, of which Mister Healy was but a piercing, sucking mouthpart. Her roots were here, but they were tangled with red hair and slender bones. Logic said to get the fuck gone before she joined them, and yet, she stayed, while minutes piled upon minutes.
It was hard to hate her grandmother’s killer when he was a nameless phantom lost to time. Then she’d seen his face.
Mister Healy still had the bones, and Maeve would be damned if he’d keep them.
Maeve borrowed Niall’s gearless Schwinn bicycle and rode to the mound within the Forest of Song. Pedaling uphill and against the blubber of a midsummer heatwave, she arrived sopping. She dumped the bike in the grass and slogged through the brambles. The mound wavered in the heat boiling out of the ground—a hair’s-width shy of totally real. The sandwich she’d left before the dolmen was gone. Maybe the ants had taken it. Maybe not. Perhaps it was the angle of the sun, but when she peered between the stones this time, she could not make out where the tunnel ended.
Maeve knelt before the small door. “I know you’re there. I know you’re real.”
A breeze trickled through the leaves overhead.
Maeve crouched lower, pitching her voice down the tunnel like a dime into a wishing well. “I need you to protect me from Mister Healy. I know you’ll want something this time; that’s fine. Let’s talk about it.”
No response. The hills spoke with silence.
It occurred to Maeve she might be mad. That the evidence of supernatural influence she’d witnessed might actually be symptoms of a brain disease.
She stood, and just then, a more powerful wind raked through the hawthorn, peeling back its outermost boughs and their shadows with them. For the first time, Maeve noticed the figurine posted between the roots of the hawthorn tree, the same color and texture as bark. Storms had weathered but not washed away the carven likeness of a little man, stout as a baby in distinctly buckled shoes. One hand was braced cuplike upon their knee, Buddha offering wisdom, while the other was raised, faced outward and clawed, a brass Moloch beckoning for children. Maeve’s gaze traveled up the idol to where its shoulders supported the animal head incumbent of all pagan idols, and gasped at a hideous verisimilitude that could only have been born from a live portrait.
An intense revulsion bored through Maeve like a drill. Her stomach turned, and she went with it, Ireland’s green grass catching her gently, a mother receiving her child. Darkness closed in on every side.
She lay upon a bed of flowers, her clothes replaced with a shift more transparent than any color. Greenery rippled towards every horizon, and high above, stars made happy faces in a sky as blue as a dead heart. Maeve understood that she was underground, in fact, and this was how the surface-world looked from way down underneath, deeper than the dinosaurs were ever buried.
From across the endless field, a man came. A man, tall as a scarecrow, dressed all in velvet green but for his white silk stockings and black buckled shoes. His halting, bow-legged stride carried him over the distance in an hours-long heartbeat, and he knelt beside her. He took her hand, his touch warm like a sunny afternoon. The man grinned lopsidedly. His face was Niall’s, glasses and all, yet Maeve knew that this was only a seemingness, a glamour, her desires worn like a mask, and that he was very different underneath. Still, in this dream, that didn’t matter. She was adrift in its predetermined course like a raft with no paddle.
The man who was and wasn’t Niall whispered something in a language that Maeve didn’t know but made her laugh regardless. In that laugh she granted him permission to do whatever he liked. The dream told her she wanted it, wanted everything he had in store. It told her she was growing hot, and so she did. The narrative weighed upon her like a lead apron as Niall’s lips descended towards hers. His hand stole between her knees and slowly unzipped them as it burrowed towards her groin.
Maeve awoke to a tickle between her thighs. She looked down at herself and saw her jean shorts on the ground nearby, her underwear hanging off one ankle. That tickle again—this time it stung. Her heart stopping and starting, Maeve looked closer.
A black, barbed forelimb emerged from inside her. Two more joined it, struggling to push apart her labial folds. The cicada thrashed into the daylight, glistening with her inner mucus, its dampened wings buzzing fitfully. It perched upon her vulva, sun-drying. Its abdomen whisked across her hood like a teasing finger.
A scream carved loose from Maeve’s throat, and she smashed the cicada flat against her pelvis.
“No, no,” she said, with a swallow and gasp. “Fuck, no. Not that. Anything but that.”
Dazed, she pulled her panties over the mess and staggered to her bike. She fell twice before finding her balance, and then rode off as fast as she could. Behind her, the cicadas in the trees began to call in unison, their song rising and deepening into a seething roar.
Mister Healy’s truck was still gone. Maeve stared at the house from the shade of the tree-line, waiting for what, she did not know. She let herself waste fifteen minutes and then went inside.
Every step in that house sounded to her like a shell slotting into a shotgun barrel. She made each of them count. Through the hall and straight up the stairs, with the house shuddering with hostile breath around her like a guard dog preparing to bark. Mister Healy lurked behind every half-open door, in every slanting shadow. She reached her room and opened the closet. The bones were still there. Nobody stopped her from taking them. She abandoned, her spare clothes and toiletries.
Maeve retraced her steps through the house, her heartbeat the only sound in her ears. She tied the Igloo chest to the back of her bike with a few bungie cords,= hopped on the bike, aimed herself towards town, and took off. She rode the forest’s swells and dips without braking. Where the canopy split, she could make out Glasbrook’s tallest rooftops. By degrees, her lungs began to unclench. She was a baseball sailing towards the stands. A storm-tossed ship homing in on a lighthouse.
Just ahead, the path curved to skirt a brawny ash tree. As Maeve came pelting around the bend, she spotted Mister Healy standing behind a falling-down fence beside the path. Their eyes met, and then he raised the shotgun to his shoulder.
Fire ripped through her. There was pain beyond what she’d thought possible, and then a wrenching, hollow chill, as her nerves discharged a final alarm before that fire destroyed them. The force behind the shot flung her off her bicycle and against the slope bordering the path, a tangle of deadened limbs. The tub full of bones came with her, spilling open across the grass on impact. Carpals and phalanges skipped and jumped like ugly dice; her grandmother’s skull stared back at her with an ivory smirk, like it had seen the hole meant for her in its time underground.
Maeve glanced down at herself, at all the outside things that should have been inside and the spreading stain in the grass. She tried to move, to push it all back in before it got dirty, but could only move her thumb and forefinger, a futile pincering. Everything below the neck belonged to some other person who wanted nothing more than to watch her errant blood return to Ireland.
Shoes crunched over grit and twigs. Mister Healy’s stooped shadow unfurled across the path. She heard him muttering in Gaelic, buckshot clattering in his vest pocket as he rummaged for another pair of shells. “Tiocfaidh ár lá. The war goes on, but our day will come, whore.” Maeve realized she was going to die. It came at her terribly slowly, an illustrated process—shell into chamber, hammer into shell, shell into skull, skull into earth. She would go into the final darkness, leaving so much undone. Niall would never know where she’d gone. Her grandmother’s murder would remain an unsolved crime. She would die apart from her mother, divided, as ever, by the sea.
The wind whisked across her ear. In the distance, she heard the cicadas still singing. Singing, for mates, and listening for a reply.
Maeve licked the blood from her lips and spoke. “Save me,” she rasped, her voice less than a whisper, lighter than the wind, “and I’ll give you a hand in marriage.”
And like that, like a switch flipped, the cicada song stopped. Quiet lorded over the seconds.
Shoes crunched over grit and twigs.
Mister Healy hadn’t moved.
Where the path once more bent out of sight, a blot appeared against the sky. Mister Healy’s shadow pivoted, and he called out, “Oi there! Stay back now!”
The figure paid him no heed. It approached unhurriedly, developing from an ink-jot into a silhouette, quavering in the heat-shimmer. Maeve’s vision contracted as all the little sailors who crewed her head—the eye-openers and puil-narrowers—abandoned ship, but it seemed the figure walked with an uncanny gait, a bent-knee strut, and the head upon its shoulders wasn’t quite the proper shape or size—
Mister Healy squeezed a warning shot into the air, and on his signal the cicada song resumed in earnest, crashing from that cordite crescendo into an unmistakable melody, a buzzy, bouncing, brassy, military march such as might proceed a coming noble, a general, or perhaps a prince. Onward the figure came with its slowed-down, luxuriating prance, its hands swaying like a drunken conductor. At last, it stepped from the shade of the trees bowed low overhead, and Maeve glimpsed a waistcoat of clover green, two silken stockings—and wings that hummed vestigially upon its back.
Mister Healy saw its face.
“Oh Mother Mary,” he shrieked, “Oh Jesus Christ!”
But Mother Mary was not listening.
Jesus was not here.
The figure devoured the remaining distance in a blur. That final shell never left Mister Healy’s gun. Maeve could not see what happened to him, but she heard it, and if her own death were to come on so silently, she was sure it wouldn’t be as pitiable as his.
When it was done, the figure waddled over to her. Crunch, crunch, crunch, went its black, buckled shoes. Maeve watched its hand extend into her line of sight. In the light, it was pink and strong, its knuckles gilded with carroty hair. But when Maeve blinked, and death edged nearer, it became for that tiny span another thing, a many-pronged hook of squamous exoskeleton cuffed in velvet.
The Cicada Prince beckoned for what she promised.
Maeve blinked for the last time, long and slow, and against that final darkness she saw her mother, eyes overcast by memory.
Well, I gave him my Barbie’s hand instead, and here I am.
All the strength Maeve had left went into her wrist. She reached out feebly and raked her fingers through the grass, scooping up a handful of her grandmother’s finger bones, tiny joints and cylinders, an erector set in pieces. She bundled them in a fist and then poured them into the prince’s waiting palm.
“A hand,” she gasped, and finished dying.
To her surprise, Maeve woke up again.
The setting sub cast tangerine shadows that blanketed her legs. Maeve’s hand flew to her belly, the hole in her T-shirt, felt an unbroken expanse of gooseflesh. No blood on the grass. None of her inside things on the outside. She stood—easily—and surveyed the path. Mister Healy’s shotgun remained, but he was gone. Her grandmother’s bones, too, had disappeared.
Maeve looked west, the direction of the mound. She cleared her head and listened, but the cicadas had retired for the night. She sensed an indignation, like they’d never sing for her again.
Niall’s bike rested where she dropped it. Its chain had come off, and she had no idea how to fix it. With no other choice, she set it upright and started walking. She’d apologize to Niall. Get him another drink. Maybe offer something more. But in the morning, she’d go. She doubted she’d be back again.
Maeve knew what she’d say to her mother. This beautiful, bruised homeland was truly theirs, and her mother would see in her eyes that she meant it., for the new pall hanging over them was a thing they’d have in common. That small understanding would have to be enough; it was all she’d get. Embrace your roots, she often said, as if Maeve belonged to them, as if she was wrong to love these stories and yawn at others, and to call home a land that was not drenched in the blood of her ancestors. But Maeve had seen her roots, glimpsed them through a little stone door, and they went deeper than she cared to go.
Maeve walked on and left her roots where they belonged, buried, corkscrewing in their thousands through the human troubles of this last century and into the dim forevers below, where blind and clinging instars suckled through piercing mouthparts—a child for every mother.