We ascended the path on the cliff together, my wife and I. “She’s supposed to be right here,” Nora said crossly, as if I were somehow to blame for this situation, which I wasn’t. I didn’t know the first thing about it.
“You’re going to have to explain about this hag again,” I said. “It’s — a rock, or something?”
Nora seemed, just for a moment, disappointed in my cluelessness. “She’s a key figure. The Cailleach Beara!”
“And she’s like — the Professor McGonagall of West Cork?”
She smiled patiently. “You’re an eejit, Owen.”
I nodded. “Yeah,” I agreed.
Nora scanned the cliffside in vain. “The Cailleach,” she explained, “is a pre-Christian goddess of female power. The bringer of winter and old age. The oldest known Irish poem is said to be narrated by her. In the legend, Saint Caithighearn pursued her — it was a mad chase! Finally, in order to resist him, she transformed herself into a rock. Now she waits here.”
“What’s she waiting for?”
My wife looked at me, her red hair still blowing around madly. “For the world to change,” she said.
We’d been in Ireland for three months so far. After the election, it seemed like a good idea to get the hell out of Dodge. Fortunately, Nora still had lots of connections at University College Cork, and they were glad to have her back. The UCC gig had Nora teaching for the year at the An Léann Éireannach, the Center for Irish Studies. I, meanwhile, spent the year as a househusband, baking soda bread and shopping for Atlantic salmon at the English market in town.
Her face brightened. “Ah. Up there.” She pointed farther along the cliff and headed toward what I now saw was a tremendous rock, maybe five feet tall and a dozen feet wide. Gray lichen discolored its upper half. There was a bump at the top that suggested the head. A point emerging from this might have been a long, hooked nose. There was a hollowed-out space for eyes.
“It looks more like a chicken than a person,” I said.
Nora reached forward and touched the rock with one hand. She closed her eyes. Were her lips moving softly? “What are you saying?” I said. “Are you saying something?”
“Whist,” Nora said. “It’s just some verses.”
“Which verses would these be?”
She looked at me curiously. “Were you not listening before?”
I wanted to protest but didn’t see the point. I sat down by the stone and watched the ocean. Gulls hung in the air above us. The sound of waves crashing against the cliff below rang in my ears.
“The flood wave and the second ebb tide have all reached me,” she said. “I cannot but know them well.”
She paused, one hand upon the Hag, her back to me now. My wife gazed out to sea. “That’s the poem?”
“It’s from the ninth century,” she said. “The Hag’s Lament.”
“It’s a cheerful little thing, isn’t it?” I said.
My wife turned to face me. “I think it’s beautiful,” she said.
We were quiet for a while after that, just the two of us alone with this ancient stone, the sound of wind and sea.
It had seemed that fall as if I could endlessly outrun the trouble that I carried in my heart. If this seems, in retrospect, like a foolish thing to believe in, I’m still not so sure I have much regret. There are times when false hope is better than no hope, no matter what the truth turns out to be, given the passage of time. Anyway, I’m surely not the only person who’s ever hoped that a profound love would transform her into someone different, someone better. To believe in such idealistic mutation strikes me as human. We are what we are, to be sure. But that has never kept anyone from dreaming of being someone else.
Nora sat down with her back to me. I looked out to sea. It was strange to find ourselves here alone. I tried to imagine what our lives had been like, back at Bennington, on the other side of the ocean. But the world we had known seemed distant and gray, like a dream from which we had awakened.
I stretched forward and put my hand upon the stone. I felt the rough surface upon my palm.
Then I saw something in the long grass at the base, and I reached down to see what this might be. I picked up a small clay figure. It had swollen breasts and a big pregnant belly. Its mouth was frozen open in an “O.”
“Hey, look at this,” I said.
Nora looked at me with curiosity, but then her expression changed as she saw what it was I held. “Owen, drop that,” she said, urgently. “Drop that now!”
“It’s like a — ”
“Sweet Jesus,” Nora said. “Put it down!”
“Okay,” I said, a little surprised at her urgency. But before I could comply, Nora reached out, snatched the figure, and put it back in the grass below the stone hag. “Hey — ”
“Someone left that here,” she said. “As an offering!”
“And you think the ancient druids are going to—what? Come for me?”
“It doesn’t belong to us,” she said, standing up.
“Okay,” I said and stood up too. The truth of the matter was that the thing had freaked me out. That open mouth and the heavy breasts. Who would make such a thing? What kind of private world would you have to live in to want to bring such an idol to the crag of this lonely place and leave it here? What kind of wish would it be if you thought that only the Hag of Beara could grant it?
“Come on,” Nora said. “Let’s go.”
“Really?” I said. All at once, I felt reluctant. I looked at the Hag’s face, and I could imagine her presence now, the patience and the sadness.
“Let’s get lunch,” said Nora pleasantly. “Are you not hungry?”
I nodded. I was hungry. My wife reached out and took my hand, and the two of us started back down the cliff walk toward our car. The ocean roared in my ears. I let go of Nora’s hand so we could walk single file, and more than once I stopped to look back at the place where we had been.