Prophet’s Fire and Spindles of the Banshee

by Méabh de Brún

In the dark of night our Lord spoke to me, and said that He will put His words in my mouth, and I shall speak unto them all that He shall command of me. So I retreated to the wilderness to better hear His voice and I just want to be fucking left alone, you know?

Actually no. I’ve changed my mind. I want to be left alone and I want to be able to hook off chunks of flesh from my bones with my hands. Dig in my fingers and pull it off like dough. There’s fire under my skin. I need to get at it. I need to free whatever this is, whatever is burning inside me. I’m not sure what that is yet but it’s getting harder and harder to think in straight lines. My thoughts jump and twist, images of the past and present blurring and melding together. What of the future? Is that yet to come? My mind is losing its shape, bending and twisting around this new irrefutable reality. I am a prophet. I am a prophet. Taking out the fire will help.

On the third day my mam followed me to the bog. I’m fairly certain Moses never had to contend with that sort of thing. I probably look like a bit of a piss poor prophet in comparison, but in my defence she knows how to work the Find My iPhone app. She had my stepfather Tom and Dr. Brendan McTarnaghan in tow. McTarnaghan is my long-time nemesis, an ex-psychologist and colleague of my mother’s from UCD with whom she believes I should have a more communicative relationship. My disgust at this concept is only outstripped by my indignation at his utter disinterest in humouring me, the tweed-wearing fucker. They all came together in the early hours of the morning, driving out to the centre of the bog in slow fits and starts, avoiding the pools of swirling water, the marshland and the bog-holes.

They came together, and at first it seemed like they came to stare. Ever since the thing with my dad happened they’ve been waiting for something like this. Well, probably not something like this, to be fair. Standing on a raised area in the bog, Mam wrung her hands, knuckles cold and white, making noises about having a “friendly chat” with the nice doctor. Brendan McTarnaghan had no such reservations. He fired right into “stress-related nervous breakdowns” and “requiring professional help”. That was about the extent of his input. Maybe he’s sulky about all the other times I refused to give him the time of day, and he’s revelling in the apparent disintegration of my mental faculties. Regardless, once Beardy McTweedleson established that I was able to answer some basic questions relating to who I am, what year it is and the name of the current Taoiseach, he deemed me in no immediate danger and fecked off.

Mam and Tom left around midday, and came back in the evening with proper coats, gloves and hats against the cold. They’ve been anxiously watching me since. They haven’t called the Gardaí yet, probably hoping I’ll snap out of it on my own. That won’t last, of course. Something will have to be done. I can’t be left wandering the bogs. This isn’t ancient Ireland, I’m not a witch or a fae. I’m a twenty-something student apparently having some kind of mental breakdown.

The sun is going down, and there’s a chill breeze. The air smells green and peaty. I smell green and peaty too. I’m filthy and staggering, wading through dirty water that splashes around my shins. The sky is a marbled bowl in grey and white, its lip cut by the swells and rolls of the bog. I am collecting bulrushes, one at a time, gathering them into a large bundle on my arms. My mother is standing on the lip of the divot where the bog water has gathered. Where her only child is currently ditching lectures, meals, hygiene and reality in general, in favour of wandering through the bogland like a Shakespearean fool.

Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of a dragonfly, wings flashing in the sun, as it hovers lazily above the surface of the water. When I bend my aching back to grab a bulrush by its stem, I can hear grasshoppers chirruping cheerfully to one another. John the Baptist chowed down on locusts and wild honey. I don’t think I’m quite at the stage where I’d chase after an insect for a midmorning snack, three days of fasting or no, but it’s a moot point regardless. The bulrushes would weigh me down.

What is a prophet? Prophets are men of the wilderness. They head off to listen to God, to hear instructions for their holy work. Elijah spent forty days in the desert, sustained only by the Lord. John the Baptist, on the other hand, spent thirty years in the wilderness preparing for six months of teaching—I mean, there’s preparation, and then there’s procrastination. I am not a man of the wilderness. Reality might be stretched a little thin right now, but I’m sound as a bell on that point. I am a woman of Starbucks, and instead of locusts and wild honey I get my freak on with large caramel frappuccinos. That said, as wilderness goes, the Clara Bog Nature Reserve is pretty wild. Four hundred and sixty-four hectares of hidden dangers. Hummocks, hollows, lawns and flushes. Ten thousand years of history in ten square miles. So the old boys got their kicks in scorching deserts, what of it? Hot sand and whipping winds versus deep pools and quaking surfaces. These things are relative. I mean, I’ve never even been camping before. I’m an English student living in a shitty overpriced flat in Rathmines who woke up one night to the sound of holy words whispered in her ear.

“Sadhbh,” my mam says. She’s not crying anymore, which is great. “Sadhbh, you need to stop this.”

It didn’t start with the whispering. The whispering was what brought me here. No, it started a long time ago. It started with the pervasive and persistent thought that if there is a God, then He’d want to get off his fucking arse and do something, wouldn’t he? Nothing big, no overnight worldwide changes to the nature of reality. Just grant a delegate a bit of jiggery pokery magic and make sure they have the gravitas to be taken seriously when they say that they come bearing the word of the Lord. Is that hard? He’s supposed to be omnipotent for Christ’s sake. He’s definitely omniscient, so there’s no excuse. It started with the idea that maybe God should do His job, or at the very least send someone to explain what the fuck is going on, and it grew and grew from there until it was rattling inside my brain like the lid on a pressure cooker.

I want to say definitively that it started before the whole thing with my dad, but that’s just the Beardy McTweedleson generated defensiveness talking. It could have been around then. Time has gone very strange. It’s like—it’s like a flat disc coated in shimmering silver. I can see it reflecting what’s happening right now, but it might easily show yesterday, or the day before, or twenty years ago, or tomorrow.

Ireland, land of saints and scholars. I haven’t seen too many of either lately, but we do love to flaunt the title. A saint, I mused. What we need is a good aul’ saint. Someone to engage in a bit of public flagellation and shame the Government into doing something about the housing crises. I quickly dismissed that as a bust. Not only was something a bit stronger than public kinkiness called for, but there are hundreds of Irish saints. Hundreds. This tiny island is a veritable saint generator. They’re obviously run-of-the-mill religious figures. The nail in the coffin was a headline I stumbled across from 2017—Pope to declare 35 new saints on Sunday! I knew that we needed something better than that, something more than a mass-produced, knock-off paraclete. We needed a mouthpiece of the divine.

My brain feels hot and swollen, throbbing against the confines of my skull. I think my Mam said something there, but I missed it, busy tugging on the thick stalk of a particularly ornery bulrush. I have to bend and twist it, try and crack the thick green stalk before ripping it from the ground. The fingers of my right hand are stiff and sticky with sap. My left arm, bent holding the bundle, is a long cold ache. I did a project in Transition Year on sleep deprivation. After 72 hours the hallucinations start, then the tremors and the false memories. Holding up my head is an effort, and the need for slumber drags my limbs down like the earth itself has claws in my bones. But what else can I do? There’s no ignoring the urge, the need to complete, even if I don’t know what it is that I’m completing. My limbs won’t stay still, galvanised into constant movement by a holy current.

No mere saint was going to do the trick, that much was clear. After some deliberation, I came to the conclusion that we needed a prophet. Did I know then, as I know now? Was I trying to put a name to the fire that had begun to smoulder beneath my skin? Maybe. All I know is that the topic of prophets and prophecies grew in my mind like a weed doggedly sprouting from between the loose chippings of a tarmac driveway. I caught myself sitting in lectures, paying no heed to the lecturer and instead trawling through buried websites which dissected religious texts, trying to get a solid picture of these people outside the empty words of scripture.

What is a prophet? An old grizzled man wandering in the desert in a foreign land. Names like Ezekiel, Ahijah, Iddo and Jehu. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Ireland, land of the endless saints, also produced a single prophet. The Prophet Columba.

My foot hits a rock covered in moss slimy with bog water. I stumble and splash, elbows dipping into the freezing cold before I stagger and right myself. It might be the endless hours without sleep, it might be sudden ice in my veins, but for a brief second constellations spin in front of my eyes like burning torches on another world.


She’s not budging. Mam is still stood at the edge of the water, hands on hips and feet planted firm. She looks like a stampede of wild horses wouldn’t move her. Tom has also settled in for the long haul, though in slightly more weather-friendly conditions. He parked the car about twenty meters away on firm ground, and has wisely sequestered himself therein. It’s a jeep, actually. They must have rented it. Normally mam drives a grey Subaru Impreza. Normally she wears stylish pantsuits with light linen ponchos. Clunky colourful jewellery that looks like it was strung together by toddlers. She’s good looking, my mam. A handsome woman, I’ve heard some say. Right now, she’s wearing a heavy rain jacket, a fleece and wellies. All done up against the elements. Wish I was.

I don’t like ignoring her, but I tried explaining and that didn’t go so well. The main thrust of her argument centres on heading home and talking about it. That’s her plan, just head on back to Rathmines and have a coffee and a chat. I mean, Rathmines is great. It’s not a bog. Very definitely not a bog. It’s what one might call a sought-after residence, with its Edwardian red brick houses and proximity to the town centre. It’s definitely what one might call a sought-after residence given the fact that there’s people all over the country seeking somewhere to reside. A Housing Crisis, they’re calling it, as though it’s some sort of natural disaster, like fire, flood or plague. Rathmines has the Swan Shopping centre, the old Stella Cinema where you can sip a cocktail while you watch Casablanca, two Starbucks, extortionate rental prices and a homeless person roughly every twenty feet along the street. Sure, Rathmines is a fabulous destination for the casual shopper, but it’s not the spot to explain a religious epiphany.

My dad only visited me there once before he died. Visited me at Rathmines, I mean. Last week I found a bar called the Bowery that’s all done up like a pirate ship on the inside. I kept thinking I should text him a photo. He’d love it. I kept thinking I should text him, and then I kept remembering.

“Sadhbh,” mam says again, sounding like the tears are going to make a comeback.

I don’t answer her for a lot of reasons. The main reason, the most prevalent one, is that I’m busy. I’m up to my fucking knees in bog water and my arms are full of bulrushes. I have a lot of them now, enough that the bundle of thin stalks is getting heavy, the weight of it pulling my shoulder. I keep collecting them though, my red fingers wrapping around the stems, breaking them free with a dull snap. The rough brown heads rub my neck and the skin of my jaw. I have a lot, but is it enough? When will it be enough?

The other reason to keep my gob shut is that if I start to explain, she’ll start crying again. I’m just not able for it, to be honest. We’re not big on emotional displays in Ireland generally, but I’m not up for that specific display of emotion because, like, fuck off? Fuck off. I should be crying, not you. I had plans for my life, and they didn’t include being a prophet of the Lord.

Thanks to my hours spent poring through old books and online infographics, I knew that Saint Columba was one of the three chief saints of Ireland, after Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid of Kildare. Once I discovered his status as a prophet I delved deeper. He was born a prince named Crimthann, his father the chieftain of the territory of Tir-Conaill. His life was filled with royal entanglements, but surely something must have burned white hot inside him, because he turned his back on it all and moved to Kells to give himself to God. Columba’s name spread far and wide. He became known as a visionary, capable of astonishing prophecies and insights. Nostradamus studied his predictions, which consisted of cheery things about the future like, “The powerful will oppress the poor with false laws and perverted judgement, and the aged and infirm will regret the time they have lived to see”. I mean … he wasn’t too far off, yeah? I know it’s irrational to feel fury towards a historical character who may or may not have been talking out of his bundúin, but I was disgusted with his failure to implement long term prevention measures. The only Irish prophet in existence, and he was as useless as all the saints that came before him. I stopped reading, my search for answers be damned. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did read a little further. At some stage he apparently used the sign of the cross to ward off the Loch Ness monster. So honestly, who fucking knows.

“Sadhbh! Sadhbh, cop on!”

She keeps telling me to cop on, to get out and come home. It’s starting to scrape at my nerves. Do I look like I’m skiving off schoolwork for shits and giggles? I’m muddy to the waist, covered in brackish water and weeds. I wasn’t dressed for the cold in the first place, wearing nothing but a light shirt over a strappy top. Denim pedal pushers and tennis shoes with ankle socks. The shoes and socks are long gone, lost somewhere in the sinking, sucking mud. My clothes are only fit to be burned. My hair is plastered against my neck, sleek with sweat. My head hangs, almost too heavy for my neck to hold up, the muscles at the base of my skull cold and calcified from the angle. My eyes sit in my head like two boiled marbles. I am panting, scanning the muck in front of me like a robot. Prophets and saints, hair cloth and flagellation, fasting and seclusion. Head bent in prayer and submission. I just want to be left alone. I just want to be left alone.

Why me? Why not me. Why here? Why not here. I keep asking questions but I don’t get any answers, just my own snotty voice taunting me from the back of my skull. This is my body, this is my blood. This is my body. This is my blood. This is my body. This is my body.

What is a prophet? The thought was like a worm in my brain, a thrumming refrain that beat against my skull at night. The research graduated from idle googling during lectures to taking books out from the library, pouring over inked pictures of old white men with delicate halos in gold foil. Here were the people with a direct line to the almighty, words captured on page like empty echoes in print. What had they said? What does God want? Because it isn’t this. Look around you. It fucking can’t be this.

I didn’t tell anyone because it was my business. People were already at me to see a counsellor because of the whole thing that happened with my dad and I—I was dealing with it myself, okay? What, was I going to give in to mam’s well-meant prodding and expose the soft pink insides of my brain to Dr. McTarnaghan, wearer of tweed and prick extraordinaire? He isn’t even a practising psychologist, he’s just her friend from work, for fuck’s sake.

My bones are lead. I want to take out my eyes. There are truths burning in the back of my skull that I’m afraid to look at. There are holy words underneath my tongue and blood in my mouth from biting it.

The sun is going down. The sky is starlit at its centre, a black core that seeps towards purple against the horizon. It’ll be dark soon. One of the benefits of spending your days and nights wading through a bog is that you’re so far from civilisation, you can see every star in the sky. It’s the only benefit, to be honest. Stars but no Starbucks.

I’m so fucking tired. Every joint aches and creaks in the cold. My stomach has given up the ghost, no longer grumbling and groaning but still aching hollow. The yellow, purple and green grass smears and blurs as I stare at it, searching for the brown head of a bulrush, like trying to find the piebald horse in a magic picture. I’m not doing great on the endurance front. Jesus spent forty days and forty nights wandering the desert. I’ve only been here for three days. I don’t even know why. What am I supposed to do? Moses got a burning bush. Where is my fire? Where are my words of guidance? Oh God, why have you forsaken me?

“Sadhbh!” Mam’s shouting now. “Sadhbh! Get out of there and come home!”

She doesn’t try to climb into the sunken, waterlogged hole. That’s a blessing. She tried yesterday. Tried to pull me out with her own two hands. What a shit show that was. A woman possessed, I bucked and fought like a wild animal, one arm still wrapped around the bulrushes. There was no thought to it, nothing in my mind but the need to stay, the need to finish. Mam came scrabbling out of the bog water with nothing to show for herself but four red welts on her neck. No blood drawn, thankfully. I always keep my nails short, which is actually a hindrance here. The stems of the bulrushes are thick.

Freaked out by this entire debacle, Tom is still sitting in the car. Sorry, Tom. I don’t blame him, it’s a pretty freaky series of events. His cheerful if somewhat high-strung step-daughter walked out of her apartment in the middle of the night, climbed into her shitty Ford Fiesta and drove an hour and twenty minutes from Dublin to Offaly. She abandoned her car at the Clara Bog Visitor Centre in Clashawaun, phone sitting neatly on the front seat, and finally, without any appropriate clothing or survival gear, she spent three days and three nights wading around in a bog collecting bulrushes. Oh, and she thinks she’s been chosen to spread the word of God, but that’s a secondary concern at this point.

My flesh is so heavy. I want to pull it from my bones. I don’t know if that’s a side effect of what’s happening inside of my skull, the strange sparks firing off my synapses, or if it’s a normal physical response. It’s hard to remember what things were like before my mind was suffused with this strange light, this idea on the edge of understanding. I am waiting for the words. I am waiting to be told. I am waiting for the Lord to speak unto me.

Listen, my dad would have an absolute fucking laugh at this. If he was alive, I’d have rung him when I was leaving just to tell him what I was doing. He would have pissed himself laughing. Even if he was sober, it’d get a chuckle off him. I’m not saying he wasn’t a disappointment as a parent, but the man had a great sense of humour, you had to give him that.

Oh, tis a nervous breakdown you’re after having, is it pet? I can hear him say. Isn’t that desperate altogether. Come here to me, and we’ll have a drink to calm your nerves.

Good old dad. Always with the medicinal drinks. Bit of an oxymoron when you consider what they did to his liver, but that’s neither here nor there. Always up for a chat, my dad. Never up for actually saying anything, but the thought was there. Stoic and schtum, that’s how we like our men in Ireland. Keep it all on the inside until it rots.

I’m not having a nervous breakdown. I’m not having a good time either, which no one seem to be getting. This isn’t fun. During the day the sun beats down, burning my forearms and the tender line of skin in the parting of my hair. The filthy remains of my clothes cling to my skin, soaked in sweat and bog water. In the evening the air cools, and the sweat turns to chill. At night it’s black and cold as a witch’s tit. I stumble and trip over unseen rocks, bloodying my palms and my shins.

If it isn’t fun, doesn’t it follow that I’m doing this because it has to be done? But no one makes that connection. My mam certainly hasn’t, but then I didn’t expect her to. I guess the initial terrifying strangeness has worn off and now she’s convinced I’m “having notions,” the general catch-all Irishism for delusions of grandeur. Maybe she thinks I’m being contrary by refusing to drop the act. Which is grand, to be honest. Preferable to the alternative. If I reiterate what I’ve already told her—Prophet of the Lord, retreat to the wilderness, yadda yadda—she’ll revert to thinking I’ve gone fucking nuts and start crying again.

I feel bad for her. She’s the good one, you know? She’s the one who raised me and provided for me. I’m old enough to understand that when I thought she was being a dryshite bitch, she was actually being a good parent. Parents who leave don’t have to do any of the shit work. We still love them though. God, we still love them.

I’m getting fucking eaten alive by midges. The tiny buzzing bastards are swarming en masse around my blood-filled body. It’s like they’re rising out of the humid peat. Someone told me that only the female midges bite, and only when they’re pregnant. Blood is what they’re after, to feed their young. This is my body, this is my blood. It is given up for thee—

For who? Why am I here? I keep waiting for an answer, but it doesn’t come. All I have is a fast-paced whispering in the back of my skull, speaking holy secrets that I’m not ready to hear. I can’t stay still, the buzzing in my limbs and the burning in my brain keeps me awake, so I wade through the bog, sleepless and wild, collecting bulrushes.

It’s dark now. Other than the low hanging gibbous moon and the frosty pinpricks of the stars, the headlights of the jeep are the sole source of illumination. Thanks, Tom. Good job. My mam’s figure is a black silhouette against the light, still refusing to abandon her post.

On the first night, clouds covered the sky. There were no stars to light my way. The dark was a cold, smothering blanket over my face. The snipes and skylarks were sleeping, and there was nothing in the air but frozen silence. Things moved around my ankles in the bog water, and I searched for the bulrushes blind, hands outstretched, fingers grasping at the thick wet clumps of grass.

When I was younger, my dad told me a story. He was a bit of a selfish bastard by all accounts, but it was a good story. It made me feel special to be told. It captured something about him, some inner self that we rarely see in our parents. It gave me a snapshot of him as a separate person, with hopes and dreams wholly unconnected to me. Even though it’s technically not mine, it’s one of my favourite memories of him.

My dad grew up in Macroom, a market town in Cork. His father was the local butcher, and he had a brother on the Cork hurling team. He sounded like a bit of a chancer, my dad did. He had stories about mitching from school, stealing apples, all sorts of shenanigans. The best one was about the bulrushes. When he was twelve, he and his friends had nothing better to do but cause mischief. Getting on their bikes, they’d cycle out to Macroom Lake together, like a small tribe of grubby nomads with skinned knees. As a group, they’d collect lots of bulrushes and tie them together with ratty bits of brown string, before riding their bikes up the Boggeragh Mountains. This task took stamina and dedication, but the results were always worth it. Once at an acceptable height on the mountain, the boys disembarked and undid their bundles. Careful not to spill any on their clothes, they set out a (stolen) plastic canister of petrol and took turns dipping the bulrushes inside, soaking the brown heads until they stank to high heaven. Each boy took a bunch of bulrushes and they spread across the mountain, jamming the ends of the stems into the ground. In the early evening, as dusk started to fall, they shared out the packets of matches they had each filched from their parents, and lit the brown, petrol-soaked tips on fire. Once they were burning good and strong, the boys cycled back to town hell for leather. No one realised what they had done until the sun set, and by then they were far away from the scene of the crime. They could sit and watch as darkness fell, the lights of the burning bulrushes dancing and moving on the mountains.

“She’s still here.” My mam’s on the phone and she’s crying. She went away for a bit today, and then she came back. I half wonder if she went to teach her classes. She’s a lecturer in Celtic Studies and Folklore. Her students love her, they think she’s cool and arty, with her cropped hair and thick red glasses frames. Like, she is, to be fair, but I’m her daughter. I’m not going to tell her that. “I don’t know what to do.”

Is that Brendan? I think, looking for anything to focus on other than the frantic whispering in my skull. Is it Beardy McTweedleson? Tell him he’s a failed psychologist who needs a better outfit and a trim of the aul’ nose hairs.

How my mam ever thought she was going to get me to talk to that knob is beyond me. She used to try to get me to meet him for a cup of coffee, clearly hoping things would build from there. “Playdates” she called them, demonstrating her tendency towards the inappropriate. Don’t get me wrong, my mam is cool, but she has a weird sense of humour. Tom digs it, but sometimes she gets a bit “antisocial academic” and says batshit stuff. Like when she started calling me daddy’s little banshee at the funeral. She meant well, but in all fairness that’s fucked up. Right? Yeah.

Tom was the one who told her to quit it, God bless him. I wasn’t talking back then. Plus, it was a dumb nickname. Banshees don’t just scream. They foresee and foretell. I hadn’t foreseen anything. I hadn’t talked to my dad in weeks. He kept answering the phone when he was drunk, so I stopped ringing. I barely want to talk to my friends when they’re drunk, let alone a sixty-year-old man who can’t stop talking about how Cork are fixed for the Intermediate Gaelic Football Championship.

I kept thinking there would be time, you know? I was going to sit him down and have the intervention that nobody else seemed to care enough to hold. Certainly none of the stool-sitting, pint-in-hand, farmer-cap-wearing gobshites he called his pals. Roll into the pub around noon to watch the match. What match? Shur, any match! Tis’ the watching of it that’s the point. Stagger out around midnight, singing teary snot-filled songs about missing Ireland when they were slap bang in the middle of it. Not seeing the woods for the trees. I was going to sit him down. He was going to get sober. When he answered the phone we’d talk about our lives. We’d reconnect properly, and have one of those Reader’s Digest stories where we’re so bonded and healthy and smiling. But I didn’t sit him down. I didn’t do any of that. I foresaw nothing, I foretold nothing, and the neighbours found me screaming, over and over and over.

Did that do it? Did it start there? Did it begin with the idea of holding the Lord responsible, or did it start with the whispering that drove me into the wilderness? Time is a circle now, I feel like I could reach a hand out and flip the disc, send the image spinning back to when my father was a small boy collecting bulrushes. I don’t think this had a beginning, not really. I think the holy flame inside me was always growing, growing as I grew, in a country still trapped between the old, cold stones of a church so hell-bent on maintaining Catholic morals that it forgot the concept of forgiveness. The Baby John case, the death of Ann Lovett, the Tuam Mother and Baby home, the Magdalene Laundries, the Eighth Amendment. Nuns brandishing sally rods and Christian Brothers with fists and rulers. Sky high suicide rates in a country that quashes any talk of mental health, eight thousand people in emergency accommodation and no figures on how many are sleeping rough. Is this what you think God wants? The lid on the pressure cooker rattled and rattled and though I waited for something to be done, I never imagined I would be the one to do it.

I’m not religious. I know how that sounds, but I’m not. The word religious doesn’t sit well with me. It conjures up the thick smell of cloying incense, images of huge stone halls with stained glass windows sitting empty at night while people sleep on the streets. If I believe in any God, it will never be one who demands I become a vessel for an abstract concept. It will never be a God who denies love in any form, or who employs soft, useless men to stand a lectern and murmur lilting passages from a book that was meant to breathe and change with the passing years, but has been smothered. Old, white men trying to herd, instead of lead. Old men sitting on gilded thrones in a land where children are homeless and fathers hang themselves.

Each step I take sinks into the soft bog. Alive things move around my bare feet, hidden in the brackish water. Each bulrush makes a small snapping sound as I yank it from its stem, loud in the night air. My breath plumes from my mouth in heavy, choked gasps, illuminated by the jeep’s headlights. I think I have enough bulrushes. The bundle is heavy in my arms and the stems scratch against the bare skin of my clavicle, tender and thin with the cold. My feet are numb, but I can feel the jab of sharp stones as though through a thin layer of rubber. I slowly, cumbersomely, climb out of the dip in the ground and towards where my mother is standing.

Water falls from me in drips and rivulets. The sound of the droplets hitting the surface of the pool is loud in the freezing silence. She watches me warily as I climb towards her, like a hiker being approached by an alarmingly confident deer. Pulling myself up with one arm, the other clutching my bundle, I reach the top of the divot. The phone is still in her hand, but she’s holding it away from her ear, eyes fixed on me. I don’t know how she knows what I need, but she waves a hand at the jeep and Tom turns off the lights. It takes a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but the stars are sharp and bright. The moon is swollen and glowing.

I walk past her towards a flat plain and start stabbing the ends of the bulrushes into the ground. If there’s a pattern to it, it’s not one I’m conscious of. I put them where they need to be. The sensation of stabbing them into the earth is deeply satisfying. I imagine I can feel the trapped grass snapping underneath the butt of each stem, the rich green crunch as I push them into the ground. There’s a lot of bulrushes. It takes time.

“Sadhbh?” I don’t look at her, but I can see her expression in my mind’s eye. Concern. Alarm. “Come home. We can talk about this at home.”

We’ll have to. This isn’t over yet, and likely won’t be for some time.

The bulrushes are in the ground and my arms are free. I breathe out slowly and roll my shoulders, feeling the blood rush back into my limbs. The bulrushes stand in the mist like silent watchers, like witnesses. They stand as though they are waiting for what comes next. I stagger then, my knees buckling beneath me, and I only have time to feel a split second of dismay before my mother’s arms are around me, pulling me up. I gather the strength to stand, and then the strength to stand my ground as she tries to manoeuvre me towards the car with tentative, gentle pushes. I will not be moved. I’m seeing this thing through. Whatever else, whatever comes after, I am going to fucking finish this.

“I miss him so much.” I’m looking at the bulrushes. I’m looking at the stars. I’m looking anywhere but at her face.

“I know,” my mother says. She was always good about understanding the double-sided coin of the uncommunicative parent. The twisted burning longing, versus the cold and stagnant sense of abandonment.

I take her hand. My skin is cold and sore, and the material of her gloves feels rough. But the fire is out now, outside my chest and buried in bulrushes. Coigeal na mBan Sí. That’s what he called them in the story. It’s the Irish for bulrushes. Spindles of the banshee.

“I miss him so much.” I say again. White mist puffs out from between my lips at every word, like the release of thin and feverish ghosts carried in my chest. “Losing him was hard. But I deserved better. I will not have another absent father.”

I tell her that. I tell the bulrushes that. Something takes note.

We stand there, hand in hand in the cold air. The stars glitter like spilled diamonds across a velvet sky, turning the landscape into a study in monochrome. There is silence. Deafening silence. My mother squeezes my hand briefly, and starts to pull me towards the car. “Come on, pet,” she tells me, her voice on the edge of a whisper. “Let’s go—” She’s about to say home, I know she is, but a sharp gasp catches the word and holds it in her throat.

Like signal flares on an unknown sea, like stars in some distant galaxy, blue flame engulfs the bulrushes. It starts with one at my far left, and then it spreads as though they’re catching fire from one another despite their distance. As each brown head lights up, the flames dance and flicker in the night, though there is no wind to set them moving. The air is filled with a gentle crackling noise, and a wave of heat hits my face. The bulrushes are on fire, yet they do not burn.

Mam inhales, a shaky sound. Her grip tightens until she’s grinding the fine bones of my hand, but I barely feel it. I am crying, the warm salt water leaving hot tracks down the cold skin of my cheeks and neck.

“Please,” I tell Him, for I am a prophet of the Lord. “Talk to me.”

Méabh de Brún is a Cúirt Slam Poetry finalist and an Arcade Award-nominated playwright. Her writing has been featured at HeadStuff, the Imbas Books Celtic Mythology collection, Inside The Bell Jar and The Stinging Fly. You can find her waxing lyrical on twitter as @jooovinile.

Copyright © 2018 by Méabh Browne.

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  1. Startling. I have to say, my Dad was Irish American with a dash of a few other things, but in temperament, very Irish. I see some of his story here; I see some of his heart here. We lost him in the last year. And oddly, this made me feel not so alone in the loss.

  2. Fantastic story. I feel this, the words and images settling in to stay awhile. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Fantastic story. I feel this, the words and images settling in to stay awhile. Thank you for sharing.


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