I don’t mean people who had sharp twenty-twenty vision, able see small thing at a distance.
I mean to see clearly the really big things, the important things, those things that are so big that most folks do not see them, like how the world fits together and how the people fit, how the groves connect and how flesh and bone mesh to make a person good or mean.
The first was my mother who always saw my world through my eyes and never dismissed me as “just a kid”.When I was young, and I only knew her in that time because she was long gone before I became what you would call grown-up, my Ma was the only adult I knew who would set aside anything she was doing to just listen. She never said “Um” or “I see” instead she would say things like “How exciting” and “Wow Danny” and she would listen, I mean really listen, in the same way other kids would really listen but that nearly all adults never do.
Adults don’t listen. Even when they are talking to other adults they are not really listening, they are thinking about those things that adults think about and maybe they are also thinking about what they can say that will make them sound clever or educated or sophisticated because they are the things adults want to be.
But my Mam was never like that, she was the one adults who was never in too much of a rush to spend time with me there. Maybe it was because she would never grow really old. Maybe those who die before they grow-up fully never have to become completely adult.
The other old person who could see right into my world and the world of all children was, I was told, a bona fide witch. An old woman who lived in a tumble down cottage on the edge of the harbour overlooking the bay and the beach. She lived above the expanse of sand and rock that was the playground of village children.
The story I will tell about Ma, me and The Sea Witch, is exactly as I remember it, I cannot vouch for the complete truth of it, maybe I dreamt some of it or maybe my grieving mind made up some of the details as grieving mind do, I am sorry if any part of it is untrue but please know that no part of what I will relate is a lie.
The Sea Witch wasn’t old in the normal way, she was not sweet or doddery like old Miss Plunkett who was ninety four years old. No! The Sea Witch was ancient, so old you would almost expect to see barnacles growing on her weather wrinkled face. No one knew exactly how old she was but Eammon McMahon’s grandfather claimed that she was old when he was just a boy.
She was a recluse and considered eccentric in a village where characters were the norm and insanity was a familiar to every family. But The Sea Witch was beyond all that. She was a creature of legend, a myth who lived on the edges of our small world.
She was only seen wandering the strand early in the morning or in the evening after twilight, when the moon painted the golden beach silver and shining paths of wet showed the track of tide.
She didn’t come out by day except on those few occasions when she could be seen on a bench by her backdoor shelling peas or knotting onions into hanks to be hung from rafters for the the winter.
She hauled water from a garden well every day and often frogs could be seen sitting on the stones that surrounded the well as she worked, familiars of a witch as everyone knew. Mattie Boyle had once seen a newt clinging onto the wall of her cottage. He ran then, as fast as his legs could carry him to his father’s boat on the harbour, pretending he wasn’t scared but we knew he was.
Her house was old. It had no indoor toilet, instead, a wooden outhouse with a corrugated tin roof served that purpose. The floor of the cottage, or what could be seen through the open back door was stone flag. Inside dark, evil lurked, we knew this as children because we had been told by older children who had been told by children who were now adults.
She cooked over an open fire. Those who had been inside said she always had a pot hanging on a hook with some wicked brew bubbling there. They said that the kettle on her hot plate was always full and whistled loudly but that the water never boiled away.
She grew vegetables and herbs in her garden and along the borders certain weeds, wild plants were allowed flourish for use in her brews and concoctions. She used plants to make charms, wicked or occasionally good depending on who paid. The fishermen who thrived and did well were those who gained her favour and those whom she cursed had bad luck.
When Black Willy Boyle’s boat sank it was because he had spat on the road in front of her cottage. When John Hagan’s baby brother recovered from the meningitis that had killed two other babies it was because his Mam had paid the Sea Witch to cast a spell over the baby’s cot.
And it was not just the kids who feared the witch, the adults of the village also shunned her or at the least treated her with a healthy respect.
Outside her house, fastened to the wall, was a hook, a bucket hung there from a short piece of chain rotating in the wind, clattering off the stone walls on stormy days, the witches bell we called it and on days when stroms came out of nowhere and boats raced home for cover the bell witches bell could be heard tolling.
Fishermen place freshly caught herring or cod, prawns or crab, even lobster into the bucket. Payment for the charms and spells she cast for them or tribute to the spirit of the damned and the saved.
The story of a proud fisherman in years past who had forgotten to pay his fee of fish when the Sea Witch had blessed his boat was a tale known by every child in the village.
The man who suddenly found his nets empty while those around him hauled fish in abundance. He, who for three long months caught nothing while his family went hungry and sickened and he could not feed them. He lost his boat to the money lenders, or so we were told, the loss was so great that he had thrown himself from the cliffs into the bay, dying on the rocks below. His family forced into the poor house and none of his relations stayed in the village because they had no luck there.
My Da laughed at the story, said it was a lot of old nonsense and My Ma told my that the Sea Witch was just a harmless old spinster who clung to the old ways and old faiths but I knew the truth as did every other child in the village, she was a witch, we had no doubt.
I grew up in fear of the Sea Witch because she could take children and turn them into sea creatures. she could condemn a lost child to live forever in the bay below her crooked old house.
I was told that if she got you out after dark, then you would never get back to your family. They said Nell Harkness who disappeared from the village when she was twelve, was taken by the Sea Witch and that her mother had been driven insane by the sound of the creature that poor Nell had become, crying from the bay every night.
And I had seen it with my own eyes, the death heads, the faces of the damned. A head popping up in the bay. I knew that these apparitions where mostly grey seal that came to steal fish from my fathers nets, I had seen them hundreds of times playing in the water like mermaids at dusk, sleek and dark forms dancing underwater.
But sometimes something different would emerge from the water. A twisted figure that the light would catch it in a certain way, the sun going down, low on the horizon and the face of a lost child screaming silently was turned directly towards you. Sometimes you saw the face of the damned, saw the pain and the longing. On those evenings your feet would speed for home, your heart beating wildly in your chest.
I didn’t play much on the beach, I didn’t mix easily with other children. I came to the harbour when my Dads boat was coming in, I would come with Mam or with one of my uncles. We came also in the early mornings or the late evenings to collect shell fish which my Mam would cook and serve hot, still in their shells. That taste, salty and delicious was one of those things I missed when Mam was gone, not because of the taste, but because it reminded me of her, of times we spent together on the rocks, the smell and taste of salt on our skin, the laughter and her smile and how much I missed all of those things.
I only saw the Sea Witch properly for the first time when I was eleven years old. Up to that time she was a half believed myth and a distant figure occasionally spotted on the rocks by the peninsula.
It was during the late summer of the year that Mam got really sick. When I wasn’t in school I spent my time sitting with her, either in the kitchen of our house or by her bed when she felt too tired to get up. As the summer came and the weather warmed she began to get a little better, the colour come back into her face and she was able to get up almost every day. On a dark night, as I lay beside her, I begged her to come to the rocks with me to collect winkles, I missed walking and climbing on the rocks with her, I missed her company and her ear. I missed the games we played and the adventures we had. I missed my best friend.
The walk from our house to the rocks where we picked winkles is across flat damp sand that compresses and dries beneath your feet as you walk, so that your footprints are for a moment, enclosed in a halo of light and dark. As the water seeps back into the shape of your foot, the print you have left becomes clear, deeply etched into the damp sand. One other set of prints could be seen as we walked, boots that left deep crisscross groves, not like our sand shoes that had dimpled soles that were now nearly worn smooth from use.
Mam looked wonderful then. Her smile full of sunshine and love, her hair the colour of ripe wheat, her eyes steel grey flecked with gold and orange. Her cheeks were full of colour again after the winter and spring of pale whiteness that frightened me so much. She danced beside me swinging the bucket and singing “She Sells Sea Shells” the song I tried time and again to sing.
Mam was never afraid to dance or sing or be silly like other adults were. She never cared about who saw her or what people said. When people looked down their noses at us or said something mean Mam would call them snooty or old fogies’ and stick her tongue out at them when they weren’t looking. She would laugh and take my hand and we would both dance and be even more silly and ridiculous just to prove we didn’t care. Dad said Mam was always a child at heart, I think he was right.
Overhead, blueness could be seen through the high mist and you could tell fog was coming. It was that kind of mist that you can see the sun through but you don’t have to squint or use sun glasses because the light is not strong enough to burn your iris and blind you.
Steam rose from the rock pools and the warmth was gentle so it felt like the heat was caressing your skin and the back of your neck. We started to search through the rocks for the black periwinkles. Small sea snails that grew in the tidal pools along our beach. We had a bucket that held a gallon of winkles at least and we had promised to fill it so we would have enough for Granddad and Dad as well as Mam and I.
“Heads down and bums up” Mam was laughing then, she always said that when we come for Winkles or Muscles or when we picked potatoes from the back garden. We were at least an hour at the rocks lost in collecting and talking and laughing, our backs to the sea so we didn’t realise just how bad the fog was becoming. I looked up and I couldn’t see the sea, Mam had not brought a watch so we did not know the time or how long we have been there, we did know the tide would be turning soon and the fog would come in with us and leave us stranded.
Where we were, was at the furthest rocks from the harbour and the road, an area that could be quickly cut off by the rising tide. “We are grand, Danny”. Mam tried reassuring me but I knew she was concerned. “We’ll just move back towards the harbour”. She took my hand, tight, in the way adults do when they are worried but trying to hide it. She carried the bucket on her other side, her steps quick and she was looking out towards the sea trying to see through the fog, her face tight and pinched. I felt her worry like a tremor from the earth before thunder.
The mist thickened quickly, swirling about us blocking a clear view from all but a few feet ahead. “Stay close in along the rocks”. Mam warned me, but I already knew the rules, I was the great great grandson of a fisherman and every generation of us had salt in our veins or so Da said.
On the sand you had no land marks, could get lost in thick sea fog and walk into the sea, or walk in circles while the sea rose around you. But if you kept the rocks in sight to your right hand then they would guide you back towards the harbour and the road. We were too late, the water was rising fast. We would have to cross open sand if we were to make it to safety.
It was then we saw her, rising like a creature out of the mist. I saw her shape first, hunched and bent, then her form, the Sea Witch. I swallowed the scream I felt rising. She loomed large before us wearing yellow rubber boots, that covered her shins and above their level her legs were covered with white stockings and then an apron with blue and pink flowers over numerous skirts. She was wearing a coat that was several sizes too large for her and in her left hand she was carrying a huge pale full of winkles and clams.
She turned towards us, her face contorted, a grimace, Grey hair tumbled out from under her brown scarf and lighter grey hair sprouted from her chin and from a wart that grew between her left cheek and nose. She squinted at us, her crooked grin showing only one twisted yellow tooth. I couldn’t prevent it, I screamed and grabbed Mams hand.
“Quickly” The witch called, “The water is rising fast, follow me” her voice coarse and rough. She set out then, away from the cliffs and rocks across the open sand. “Mam” I cautioned but Mam had already made up her mind and was pulling me after the disappearing bent frame of the witch. I had no choice but to follow.
We darted across the strand our feet quickly soaked from rising water but the Sea Witch seemed sure and then the water was suddenly gone and ahead I could see through the fog the shape of the emerging harbour. We were safe.
The Sea Witch stood on the harbour road considering us, I wondered if we should be paying her something for her favour. “Get your Ma home boy” she rasped “She looks none to good” I looked at my Mam then, saw the paleness, the blue of her lips, she was smiling but her whole body was shivering. I took her hand it was stone cold. I let her lean on me and we slowly made our way from the harbour to the safety of home.
I remember helping Mam to her chair and switching on the kettle to make her tea. I realised we had lost the bucket. We had left our winkles on the harbour road. Mam must have dropped it after the dash across the strand, but it didn’t matter. My only concern had been for my Mam.
Mam recovered quickly. The warmth from the tea and the heat of the sun through the kitchen window restoring her. It was about four in the afternoon when the knock came to the back door. It took me so much by surprise that at first I had to cast about to identify the origin of the sound. In our village, back doors were never locked even by night, people didn’t knock they just walked in. I rush to the door, I didn’t want the knocking to disturb Mam who has fallen asleep on the arm chair but I needn’t have worried because it only came once and then stopped. When I opened the door no one was there but on the step sat our bucket. Not now with the miserable half gallon or less of winkles we had collected but full to overflowing with both winkles and muscles. I looked left and right and through the returning mist. I think I can see a figure, stooped over but walking quickly just as she had done across the strand saving us from the rising tide.
I didn’t see or think much about the Sea Witch for a long while after that.
Mam was sick throughout the winter and into the following summer. I watched her slowly slipping and I couldn’t help her. I did spend as much time with her as I could. I hated school, all throughout that long winter and spring I resented the intrusion of it. I hated leaving Mam in the mornings and hated being away from her all day. I rushed home every afternoon to be with her and to look after her. I did everything I could think of to keep her happy and to make her laugh, I made up stories, I told barefaced lies, I pulled funny faces and I made silly noises. I did whatever it took to keep her from slipping away from me.
I asked her to tell me everything about her life. I wanted to know all the things she remembered. I wanted to collect her memories so I could become a custodian of them and keep them safe for her. I believed that if I could capture all that she remembered then I could keep her close to me and that even death could not take her fully.
She talked every evening. She told me all about her own Mam and Dad, my Grandparents. I had never met them but she told me so much about them that I felt like I had, I could imagine them alive, could imagine them sitting in the room with us. Mam had a stack of photo albums that I had never seen before. Pictures of her when she was smaller than me. When she was a baby being held by my Granny. She had pictures of them all at the beach in Bray. Mam grew up in the middle of the country and coming to the beach was a holiday for her, an adventure.
I couldn’t believe that, I could never imagine Mam being anywhere else but beside the sea. Even now years on I can only picture her with her hair blown back by the wind and her eyes squinting and a big smile on her face as she faces the sea.
Mam had a brother who was two years older than her and in the photographs he looked just like me. His name she told me was also Daniel. Mam seemed sad when she spoke about him but she never told me why. He had gone to America when he finished school and Mam wasn’t sure where he was now. She thought that there was an address for him somewhere in the kitchen drawer, the one where see kept all the bits and pieces that had no other home in our disorganised house.
The Photos I liked the most were the ones of Mam and Dad on their wedding day. Not the picture with lots of people but the few of just them on their own. The photographer had taken one picture where they are both looking down over a valley close to where Mam lived. You can see both of their Faces. Mum stands in front of Dad and he has his arms protectively around her, he is holding her gently and you can see he loves her. Mam is looking back across the valley, toward her home place, the day is cloudy but the photographer had been patient and had taken that one wonderful photograph just as the sun broke out from behind a cloud. Rays of light reached down to Mam, her face in the photograph bright and glowing from the radiance of it. It was like the heavens had opened just for her. Like the angels were inviting her to walk straight in.
The Christmas before she died, when I was Twelve, Dad took her to the hospital. I cried then, for the first time since I was a little kid I cried uncontrollable hot fat tears. I wasn’t crying for Mam, I was crying for myself, I was crying for all the things I knew we would never do again. On the day she left she sat me on her knee, even though I was too big for that and it felt silly and uncomfortable. She hugged me and kissed me and hugged me again, she kept hugging me and I knew she wouldn’t be coming home I knew she was going to the hospital to die.
She smiled and told me it would all be ok that I would be fine, that she had taught me all I needed to know. She told me that she would always be close by, she told me she would find a way to send me a message. That she would let me know that she was happy and the pain was gone and that she would wait for me and for Dad. She made me promise I would never forget her that I would remember the fun we had, the good days. I wanted to cry then but I didn’t, I stayed strong for her but she knew, she could see right into my world.
I wasn’t allowed to go see Mam in the hospital but I wrote her letters. I told her everything that was happening at home. I told her about school, pretended I loved it because that was what she would want. I told her about the house and the garden. Every day I walked to the harbour and the strand and I looked at everything, all of those things she loved and when I wrote my letters I told her about the gulls starting to nest, the sea spinach sprouting again. I told her about the dead shark washed up on the strand and the storm that had collapsed another part of the cliff. I wrote to her every day. Even when no adult was going on the long journey to Dublin to see her I still wrote. I wanted her to know that I thought about her every day. Sometimes she would get three or four or even five letters together.
Aunty Sheila came to live in our house. Dad spent every day In Dublin, he came home only once or twice a week to have a bath and to sleep in his own bed instead of in a chair at Mam bedside. He looked old and worn, his eyes red and puffy and his face sad all the time. He never complained but he never spoke to me either. When I asked him about Mam he just smiled in that sad way of his and ruffled my hair and promised me she would be back home soon. I knew he didn’t mean it but I don’t think he was lying. I just don’t think he was ready yet to face the truth.
Mam never lied to me. She never said that she would be home, she never pretended that she wasn’t going to die. She did all she could to prepare me for the day that she would no longer be with us but I wasn’t yet eight years old and death was new to me. I knew boys and girls in school who had lost a mother or father, I vaguely remembered my uncle Pete dying when he fell over the rails of his boat but I had never lost anyone close and no matter how hard Mam had tried, I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready to be told, wasn’t ready for Dad’s tears. The shock of the words, the look of desolation on Dad’s face, the finality of it. I could not comprehend the suddenness, One moment she was in the world, a constant presence and the next she was gone. I cried for the first day and night. I would stop for a moment and I would hear her chair creak or a door open and I would be sure it was her but then the awful reality of it would hit me again. The absolute nothingness of it all was too much.
We took her home then. Too late but I was glad that we brought her home, she would have liked that. I kissed her cold forehead and I cried even more because it wasn’t her. Mam was warm and vibrant and energetic, even when she was sick she was animated. The shell that we brought home was cold and still and her face looked all wrong, they had put far too much makeup on her but it didn’t matter. Mam wasn’t in our front room in a coffin, Mam was out on the strand now, free of pain, free of fear and I went out to be with her. I ran from our house, ran despite Dad calling. I shouted that I was ok, that I would be back soon and I ran.
I ran along the beach, I could see in the distance the old woman who we called The Sea Witch, I tried to recall her name but it seemed I had never known it. She is on the rocks with her pail collecting shell fish. I walk on remembering the last day I had been here with Mam, the day the Sea Witch had saved us. I wondered if we should have paid her something. Maybe Mam would still be alive if we had given her some fish or some prawns. Tears run uncontrollably down my face. I see the old woman lift and straighten her back. She is looking at me but I look away. I am not brave enough to ask her, instead I run back across the wet sand towards the harbour. I stand before the little cottage and I take from my pocket the Half Crown Dad gave me at Christmas. I hadn’t spent it. I had wanted to buy something for Mam. I quickly walk into the garden and put the coin into the Sea Witch’s bucket.
We buried Mam in the tiny graveyard at the top of the village. My Dad’s three brothers and one of the men who worked on his boat carried Mam on their shoulders all the way from our house to the church. Dad and I walked right behind. I had a new black suit and coat. The collar scratched my neck but I ignored it because that’s what Mam would have wanted. Behind us over half the village walked. People had come from neighbouring towns and from Mam’s home place. Aunts and Uncles I had never met. An abundance of cousins. I cared for none of them, they weren’t part of our lives and had been no part of Mam’s life either. Along the lane we walked people stood silent, some crying. Men removed their hats and blessed themselves and most fell in behind us as we took Mam to the church. It rained for the last hundred yards of the journey but I didn’t care.
I remember the people, hundreds of them all coming and putting their hands on my head or my shoulder or shaking my hand and telling me how sorry they were and all I wanted was for it to stop. It made no difference, they had nothing to offer me. My Mam would have wanted me to sit up and be proud and so I sat up and I tried to look proud, but inside I was panicking, I was afraid, scared to death not knowing if I would survive without her; terrified of tomorrow and the next day and all the days beyond that.
The rain grew heavier, I could hear it on the roof of our tiny church. The priest had to raise his voice to be heard above it. The church was packed and still people arrived. The crowd overflowed the church and the church grounds and years later I remember and love those people for showing their compassion for a boy and his Dad on the day their whole world was taken from them. But just then, on that day I was unaware of anything except that panic and that awful illness of loss.
Outside the church people came and shock my hand but I was numb of it by then, exhausted by grief, my face sore from the tears I had cried. Then she stood before me. I didn’t recognise her, she was younger looking without the scarf, she was dressed like any other old woman and she shook Dad’s hand. “I’m so sorry Paul” I heard her words, she spoke like any other person, not like a witch not like a hag. “She was a joy, a wonderful mother and wife and a bright spirit” The Sea Witch was crying, except now she wasn’t The Sea Witch, I saw the tears falling, her heart too was broken and I was suddenly glad she came.
She turned and shook my hand and I felt something press into my palm. “She loved you best of all Danny” She was looking directly at me then, tears still falling but there was a kindness and an understanding in her face. And then for just a moment I saw clearly my Mam looking back at me from the eyes of the Sea Witch.
Then we were moving again, Mam was lifted shoulder high for the last time as she was carried to the grave that she was to be buried in. The rain had stopped but the sky was still dark and threatening and the priest rushed through the prayers. And then as the priest finished I saw Dad’s hand reach out, he laid it softly on the coffin, touching her for the last time before she is gone forever. The sun cleared the dark edge of a cloud, rays of dazzling light streamed down lighting them both up Dads face glowing his tears reflecting the sudden brightness as he said goodbye.
Again the Angles were calling Mam to come join them.
I looked down and in my hand I see the Half Crown placed there by the Sea Witch and I knew that Mam was safe and free at last.
OK so if you read this from start to finish I thank you very much.
I wrote this story about 18months ago and left it to stew, I have edited it a few times to improve its fluency and flow but I am still not sure it is 100% right, so if you have any suggestions on how I can improve it I would be most thankful of them.