water muse

rising from the water
muscle-heavy
she bends her neck
hangs her head low
to touch her chest
eyes closed
she listens, feels
for words strung along
on silent waves
swaying to their distant tune
she breathes them in
they enfold her
in meaning, memories
they fill the space left empty
these long months

She had the Walk of a Queen

Plunkett’s Cottages off Sandwith Street, Dublin, 1913. Source: Derelict Dublin 1913

I hadn’t been able to sleep that night. I never could when I worked at the factory. Instead, I stood in our low-hung doorway, looking out into the gloom. The narrow cobbled back streets at the heart of Dublin darkened quickly back then, before there were electric streetlamps, before they brought light to the tenements. It was the stone walls, too; they stood close together, squeezing out any of the light that might have reached us from the main road. And most of the residents would have retired or gone out by then, extinguishing their candles before they did. Anyone moving through the warrens at that hour did so in almost complete darkness.

Several men were huddled together further on, the embers from their pipes bobbing faintly as they spoke. Liquid sloshed in a bottle as one of them tipped it up, then down again, and passed it on. Hoarse voices and raucous music drifted up from O’Mahony’s place at the bottom of the alley. It seemed a fight was brewing.

While I lingered, too awake to return to bed, the shadow of a woman fell across the top of the laneway. In the flickering of the distant gas lamps, it seemed to dance up the walls. Sensing a presence, everyone else stopped moving and turned to look. The place fell silent.

The fog that had rolled down the River Liffey from the sea swirled around her so that she seemed to be rising from it, like a goddess. She towered, tall and stoic, in a high-necked cloak and a blaze of red hair, her feet anchoring her dancing shadow. Even from that distance, I could see the pride and defiance in the way she held her head.

Though time seemed to stop, she must have paused only briefly. The tamp-tamp-tamp of two sets of police boots were clunking up the road somewhere behind her. She turned her head slightly to glance back before plunging into our world.

The footfalls slowed to a stop as her pursuers were brought up short, unwilling to follow. They lurked just beyond the walls for a moment before their footsteps could be heard receding, grudgingly I imagine.

She glided, unflinching, between the narrow stone walls of the alley. Light seemed to emanate from her as she greeted all who lived here: labourers, weavers, dock workers, factory girls like me, and the rest of the wretched among us who had emerged to see the great lady. As they tipped their hats or bowed their heads, murmuring “Ma’am,” she nodded and smiled, enquiring after those she knew. Despite the late hour and her recent escape from the authorities, she took her time, discussing evictions, the food situation and promising to “keep working for Ireland.”

Perhaps she didn’t see me, standing as I was in the shadow of the doorway, but she passed just in front of me – so close, I could feel the air move. It stirred my hand, drawing it after her. I felt myself reaching out, daring to touch her rustling cloak. The sensation at my fingertips was soft, vibrant, electric.

When someone cleared their throat nearby, I jumped, snatching my hand away and sinking back against the door. A gravel-gargled voice asked, “Madam Gonne, were those men bothering you?” So it was her!

There was laughter up and down the tenements; everyone knew that the authorities watched her, aiming to catch her at some subversive act or other.

Maud Gonne smiled and I swear she winked. “Oh, not really,” was all she said before she slipped from view, turning the corner down by O’Mahony’s.

They used to say she walked with the gods, but they don’t say that anymore. They say other things instead, things I’d rather not believe. What I do know is that she was Ireland’s heroine–our goddess–and that once she passed by here, right past my own house, so close that I was able to reach out and touch her.

.

In her autobiography, A Servant of the Queen, Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne, lightheartedly describes the creative ways with which she frequently evaded the Dublin Castle detectives sent to watch her.
“And she had the walk of a queen” is the final line in W.B. Yeats’ play about Irish nationalism, Kathleen Ni Houlihan. Maud Gonne, Yeats’ life-long muse, played the title role in 1902.

Into the Earth, Into the Sky

Into the earth
she reaches her hands,
down through the grass
and into the dirt
caressing the roots
and the sleeping bulbs
before she lays down
for a season
to sleep.

As the light
gently filters back
through the clouds,
through her lashes
she lifts up her hands
and, reaching into the
darkness above,
she moves between stars
like a song in the sky.

 

When the Orchids Bloomed

Fynbos on Table Mountain, Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

In the span of a breath, everything changed. Breath is powerful; it can transport and transform you. Sethunya had learned this lesson at an early age. But on this day, it would transform her beyond anything she had experienced. It would carry with it new life.

Early that morning, she had ventured out into the quiet scrubland surrounding the settlement, ignoring the protests from the other women. “You must rest,” they had implored her, “your time is near.”

Sethunya waved her hand to dismiss their concerns and assured them she would be fine. “It’s a lovely morning for a walk,” she said before she turned and disappeared into the sun-gilded mist that had settled across the valley.

Sethunya was young, almost a child herself, though she already possessed great wisdom. Because of this, and her kind and gentle ways, even the older women listened to her. In those days, it was common enough for one so young to be wed and on the verge of motherhood. But her situation was different, for she was not wed and the father’s identity was unknown. Stranger still, she radiated with an inner glow that inadvertent mothers usually did not possess. As her belly had grown, so too had the bewitching twinkle in her eye. And none of the menfolk gave any sign – haughty or otherwise – of having played a part in the conception. So it remained an enigma.

Usually, shaman women did not wed or bear children. Usually, they were older — often elders. And it was certainly unheard of for a shaman to practice while with child. No one could recall one before Sethunya who had been so young, or so unusual.

She was indeed as rare as the orchid for which she had been named, an orchid that blossomed only once a year and, when it did, remained scentless but for one magnificent hour. To the people of the settlement, this orchid was a wonder. And for this reason alone, they might have chosen to name her after its blossoms. But it just so happened that the orchids began to release their scent at the moment she appeared. The perfume, believed to be the most beautiful in all the world, continued to grace each step she took that day, illuminating her with its miracle until nightfall. No one could explain it, just as they could not explain the girl’s mysterious appearance. The settlement’s shaman, the oldest woman among them, proclaimedthat her coming was meant to be and invited Sethunya to live with her. It was she who named her after the orchids.

After the shaman passed on to the stars several years later, Sethunya stayed on in the hut and, despite being only 12, took over the role of shaman, applying all the lessons her mentor had taught her.

Now, at 15, Sethunya had earned the love and respect of her community, and she loved them in return. These lands were the only home she knew, these people the only family she remembered.

On this particular morning, she was following the red, earthen paths worn into the countryside by centuries of nomads, the ancestors of her adopted people. She passed the towering rocks and gnarled branches that left shadowy, mythic shapes in the mist. She breathed deeply, feeling at peace, enjoying the beauty surrounding her. Every now and then, the mist cleared and she glimpsed the sparkling blue of the distant sea.

As she paused beside a small lake to admire the stillness of the water, her child began to stir. Instinctively, she knew she had gone too far to make it home before the birth. Looking around, she saw an outcropping of rocks which shielded a patch of long grasses. It would be a soft place to lie, she thought, and would protect her from the sun when it rose higher. Small white orchids – her special flowers — poked up here and there through the grasses, their delicate starburst blooms dainty among the other plants.

People have been giving birth on this land forever, she reasoned.

She knelt down and prepared herself. Nature welcomed and enveloped her and a calm settled upon her.

Her labour did not last long. At the final moment, Sethunya took one deep breath. In the span of that breath, she smelled the scent of the orchids and was transported. She was free of pain, she was one with the Earth. As she exhaled, the next shaman was born.