This story is dedicated to Kelly Moore-Campbell: beloved aunt, leader, and inspiration, more whole than whole. Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.
According to Moïra, it was after the loss of her parents to the Connelly curse that she stopped believing in Mass, and started believing in magic.
My aunt Moïra disdained ceremony and lived for festivity. She drank too much, lived too hard, and blamed it on the blood in her veins. In appearance, she was the opposite of her brother, who was my father: a big, muscled woman, with a head of unruly dark curls, and thick tangles of Celtic tattoos on her arms. She wore good-luck charms around her neck and prayed to gods who’d been mostly forgotten long ago.
The first time I met Moïra, I was eleven, stuck in the hospital as doctors ran their battery of tests to discover why my legs no longer held my weight. Mother and Father had both worn themselves out waiting by my bedside, and I knew they would have to go home in time—but I was surprised at who came to replace them. Not a grandmother. Not a teenage cousin. A perfect stranger, dressed in motorcycle gear.
The woman brushed raindrops from her clothes and ran a hand through her hair, pulling the staticky mess of it under some control. Her chapped, cut lips formed words, directed at my mother. I didn’t and still don’t read lips easily or well, but I managed to make out the words “wouldn’t,” “options,” “rest,” and “thank you,” before Mother sighed in resignation. She then signed to me, explaining that this stranger was Father’s sister, Moïra, and that she would be taking care of me for a day or two.
Father’s sister Moïra waved to me in greeting, and I saw scrapes on her knuckles and black paint on her nails.
We made conversation in careful, halting Sign; what words she didn’t know, we wrote in bright purple on the little whiteboard I used to communicate with the doctors. She translated her conversation with my parents: they “wouldn’t have imposed if they had any other option,” but they “just needed a rest for tonight.” (Meaning, she said, that she and my mother weren’t on good terms, but she was desperate for a break and no one else had offered to come and sit with me.) I told her about the hospital, asked her what riding a motorcycle was like, complained about Father and Mother pressuring me to wear uncomfortable hearing-aids to “make things easier on them.” She sympathized with my annoyance with “Alfie,” as she called him, and told me he’d been the way he was since he was a little boy.
Then I asked her why I’d never met her. In fact, before that night, I’d had only a vague idea that Father had a younger sister.
She considered the question for a moment. Finally, she signed to me, ‘Ghost stories like you?’
I didn’t understand the change of subject, but I nodded. ‘All stories I like.’
Moïra smiled, showing all her teeth. She always showed all her teeth when she smiled. ‘I tell you story, want you?’
My nodding then was even more eager. I all but forgot about the question I’d asked. I was bored out of my skull, and it wasn’t even close to the time I usually fell asleep; a story to occupy my mind would be an oasis in the desert. Moïra picked up the marker. ‘Your parents don’t want me to tell you any of this,’ she wrote, ‘but I think it’s time you knew.’
Moïra told me everything that night.
She told me that the gold of my eyes, the faint sheen behind light brown that drew what attention could be pulled away from my talking hands and failing legs was the telltale sign of the second sight. Second sight, she told me, was what let us see places where the Other Place bled into our own world. Moïra’s eyes had the same gold in them.
‘Other Place, what?’
‘The world beyond. Where things that aren’t human live.’
That made me shiver.
She told me that sometime during the Age of Empire, though so muddled by time and deliberate attempts to hide the truth that no one remembers the exact year, the Ò Conghalaighs of the old country had meddled with something from the Other Place that wasn’t meant to be meddled with, which was why their bloodline was cursed with hardship—often with early death. She told me our history. She told me of the Connelly ghost, the spirit of a woman in burned clothing, whose weird musical keening heralded misfortune. ‘Those of us with the second sight can see her face-to-face, or hear her singing outside our windows.’ She erased, kept writing. ‘Those without it see her, or hear her, or both, in their dreams.’
A delicious shudder ran up my spine. ‘Deaf I,’ I signed, smiling. ‘Not hear ghost.’ I didn’t mention that, sometimes, I detected something like sound in my dreams, something that seemed to come straight into my mind. I wondered if it was Moïra’s “Other Place,” reaching out to me.
‘True. You have.’ She paused. ‘A-D-V-A-N-T-A-G-E.’
‘Why parents no want me know this?’
‘Your parents want forget past. I think should remember. They try forget me.’
The thought of being forgotten scared me worse than any of the ghosts she’d told me of, worse than any strange thing my golden eyes had already showed me. I tried to pull my legs against my chest, only to remember it was useless.
Moïra patted my knee, comforting me. ‘Strong you,’ she signed, and then, as if correcting herself, ‘Strong we. Different we. Survive we.’
Moïra left the next morning. I wouldn’t see her again until I was thirteen.
The braces around my legs clunked and clanged as I climbed the creaky stairs to Moïra’s front door. Her house, with its slanted roof and its faded paint, looked like it belonged in a black-and-white photo, which, according to what Mother told me, it did; the house had been in our family since the thirties, as long as our blood had been in America.
“Do you need help, Hardy?” Mother asked, her concerned eyes locked onto my legs. Her words were fuzzy and faint.
I shook my head. “I can make it.”
“Are you sure?”
Still, she stared.
Since I went into remission, it seemed like people couldn’t help but stare at me. Well, they stared at the metal parts of me, anyway: the braces around my legs, the machines in my ears. They whispered behind their hands, thinking that just because I couldn’t hear, I wouldn’t know. They forgot that the Deaf know the language of expression and gesture better than anybody.
Poor thing, they said. Cursed she must be. That’s no worthwhile life she’s living.
I could have interrupted. I could have explained to them, in scholarly terms that would have left them staring in surprise instead of pity, about childhood Guillain-Barré Syndrome and various reasons I may have been born Deaf. I could tell them every good reason my life was worth living. Instead, I pretended I didn’t notice. It’s always easier, I find, to let people continue believing whatever they believed before.
Mother rang the doorbell, and was answered with a shout from inside, “It’s open!” She shooed me inside like a cat, before stepping inside herself, hauling both of our overnight bags.
Moïra was, as mother liked to say, “in a bad way.” (“In a bad way” was her catch-all euphemism for the things she wanted to keep from me, that bad family fortune.) Being “in a bad way” didn’t stop Moïra from being her bustling self, however. When we entered the house, we found her standing in the foyer, using the coatrack as a wobbly crutch. She was grinning.
“Good Lord, Moïra,” Mother scolded her, “you shouldn’t be up. In fact,” she muttered, “you shouldn’t be out of the hospital at all.”
“I don’t believe in hospitals.” With a quick glance at me, she added, “Not as applies to me, I mean. Doctors have their place. But when it’s my time, I’d rather be in my own home. Not in some lifeless hulking thing crammed with suffering folks. Not being prodded and dissected by a bunch of strangers.”
“‘Your time.’ Goodness. You talk as if you’re dying—which, right now, you aren’t, but you’ll end up killing yourself if you carry on like this. Go sit down, before you trip on a stair and break your neck.”
Moïra’s legs were so heavily bandaged that she could barely move them at all, only stiffly and slowly, and I noticed she gritted her teeth when she did. Two of her fingers were splinted, and she had an ugly purple-green bruise on her forehead. ‘Bike crash,’ she signed to me when she caught me staring.
I nodded. ‘Mother tell me.’
Mother gave us both a hard look that said shush. I shoved my hands into my pockets.
Moïra pulled a face at Mother. I’d never seen an adult “pulling a face”—which was another of Mother’s favorite phrases—at another adult, but that’s exactly what she did. “Let the girl talk, Alice.”
“If Hardy wants to talk,” Mother replied, “she can use her words.”
For a second, Moïra’s look could have killed; then, it twisted into a smirk. “Abair arís é go mall, le do thoil?”
Her retort sounded so strange to my ears, I thought my hearing-aids had broken. I took one out and shook it, before I realized she wasn’t speaking English.
Mother’s face crinkled in confusion. “What?”
I put my hearing-aid back in just in time to hear Moïra’s reply. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you wanted us speaking our second languages. Well, to be fair, I’ve tried to pick up a language plenty of times over the years, never really had the patience for it.” She looked down at her bandaged legs. “I’ll be out of commission for a while, though, so I’ll have time to brush up on my Gaelige. Maybe this time it’ll stick.”
I repeated the unfamiliar word, Gaelige, aloud, and she spelled it for me with her hands. “Irish,” she said aloud, and then, to me: ‘How sign I-R-I-S-H?’
I showed her, creating the word in the standard thing that is form, as in, American—America-thing that is. Or bad luck-thing that is—the closest thing Sign has to a word for cursed. Ireland-thing that is—Irish. She nodded, copying my motions.
“What did you take that up for?” Mother interrupted. “There’s no practical use for that, not that I can see.”
“Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam.” She shrugged as well as she could while still holding herself up. “The past informs the present, those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it, et cetera, et cetera.”
“Those who forget their history…yes, I understand that,” Mother said. “But then there’s those who forget that they live in the present. Who cling to fantasies of something they never lived.”
Moïra’s usual easygoing smirk faded, replaced by thin lips and chilly silence.
Mother shot another sharp glance at me. For all she pushed me to hear, it seemed like she wanted me Deaf when it was convenient for her.
“Go rest,” she told Moïra, sighing her most Motherly whatever will I do with this child sigh. “Alfie will be here tomorrow, he’ll know how best to get you back on your feet.” Brooking no argument, she put an arm around her waist and helped her to an old leather couch in the living room. “I’ll start dinner. Keep an eye on Hardy, please, as best you can without getting up. And don’t tell her any more of your ridiculous stories!”
I took my hearing-aids out as soon Mother was gone from the room. ‘Thank you,’ I signed. ‘For stand up to Mother.’
‘Family you,’ she replied. ‘Good family protect each other.’ Her Sign was much more confident and quick than it had been, I noticed, and she noticed my noticing. ‘I lie her. For one thing I have patience. I have patience learn Sign.’
I thanked her again. ‘More stories you tell me?’
She feigned shock. ‘Your mother say no! Break rule we!’
‘I not mind,’ I signed, with all the eagerness to mischief of every child that age.
Moïra sat back a moment, thinking. ‘No more stories have I,’ she finally replied. ‘I tell you all. Maybe you tell me story now.’
‘Me’—my face froze. I wasn’t sure what to express, puzzlement or shock or flattery.
She nodded yes. ‘Family history I write,’ she told me. ‘History of people with….’ She paused, at a loss for a sign, and finally she pointed to her eye. I understood. ‘Your story I need. You write for me maybe.’
The idea of my story standing among a proud lineage—the idea of no longer being alone in the weird visions I glimpsed from the corner of my eye—thrilled me. I went into her study, rifled through the desk for cheap stationery, and when I had some in hand, I sat beside her on the sofa and began to write, unaware that the story I wove was about to gain a new chapter.
I dreamt of sound, and woke to soundlessness.
Unsure what had woken me, I rolled off the large chair I’d fallen asleep on, shrugging off the knit blanket Mother had wrapped around me. (Mother had taken the bedroom for herself; the closet wouldn’t close, and it made me nervous, especially with Moïra’s insistence that something lived in there.) I looked around; Moïra also wasn’t where she had fallen asleep.
Fingers brushed my shoulder, and I jumped. It was her, of course. She was supporting her weight on the windowsill; if not for the gloriously bright moon, I wouldn’t have seen the motion of her hands. ‘Come,’ she signed. ‘Look.’
The spirit that moved, barely visible, through the yard, drifting close to the window, Moïra had called a B-E-A-N-S-I-D-H-E, though she had explained to me back when I was eleven that she wasn’t certain it was one in a traditional sense; beansidhes were said to appear at the time of a death, and this ghostly woman heralded more general misfortune. She appeared younger than Moïra, but with a look of long, hard years in her eyes. Her dress was centuries out of style, covered in soot and tattered. Her hair was the same dark red as mine, wild and messy. Her face was soot-streaked as well, tracked with long-shed tears. Her mouth was open, to scream or to speak or to sing a piercing note, I couldn’t tell.
Then, my attention shifted from her, to the trees behind her. They weren’t our trees, I knew it. The Other Place, I thought, my breath catching in my throat. From where this woman had come, or how she would return, or if I could reach that place myself, I didn’t know, but I was sure of what I saw. My second sight had finally showed me, in full, what existed beyond our world.
Moïra’s eyes burned gold in the ghostly light, and I wondered if she thought the same thing I did.
Us Ò Conghalaighs have witchery in our blood.
magic in the hills. charms about necks and offerings under trees, altars in homes and icons over fireplaces. folk come to us for luck, for health, for love. English soldiers staring in the streets. my brother spits at them. “éire inniu éire amárach éire go brách”
“golden-eyes,” they call us. disdain and fear. “enchanters.”
all but little Saraid. little Saraid, with no gifts. with no witchery. no gold in her eyes. no sight in her eyes.
Us Ò Conghalaighs have darkness in our blood.
they have sought something dark. and they have found it. there are things in the Other Place that shouldn’t be touched, and my sisters and brothers have taken them in both hands.
only dark magic comes from want of power. only bad magic is used for revenge.
the Ò Conghalaigh enchanters let the darkness in. little Saraid, with no gold in her eyes, pays the price.
“tine! tine istigh cillín!
fire! fire in the church!”
Us Ò Conghalaighs—aren’t Ò Conghalaighs any longer, and with the way time flows like honey in the Other Place, I have to remind myself of it all the time.
Us Connellys have a curse on our blood.
Deaths. Accidents. Illnesses. Fires like the one that took me. Centuries, and an ocean, haven’t stopped the incidents, and at each one, I find myself compelled to sing, to mourn.
Inniu. Amárach. Go brách. Today, tomorrow, forever. You can cross an ocean, you can change a name, you can forget the old country, but the old country never forgets you. The hills do not forget. The Other Place does not forget.
Who knew that little blind Saraid, with no gold in her eyes, was the one who belonged among shades and daemons?
Another funeral. Only time all us Connellys ever saw each other, and considering how small the cluster of towns is where we all made our dwellings, it took effort never to see each other.
I heard the song again the night before, and for the first time since my accident, my fatigue overwhelmed my desire to go after it. Maybe Alfie and Alice were right all along, I thought. Maybe the way to make this thing die off is just to pretend it doesn’t exist. Shut our eyes and cover our ears and hide under our blankets waiting for the monsters to pass.
I leaned heavily on my cane, twisting the charm around my neck as I glanced nervously around the crowd. Some days I still wasn’t used to walking with a limp. Some days I forgot the new Moïra Connelly altogether, and went about my morning forgetting I needed a steadying agent, until I stumbled into my kitchen counter. That morning had been one of those. My hip still ached from the bruise I’d acquired.
From the grove beyond the graveyard, over the droning of many voices, I heard the creak of a rusty swing. Curious, I followed the sound, out of the land of carefully-shorn grass and plastic flowers into wild trees.
The swings were covered in moss—along with a few broken birdbaths, and cobblestones poking out from beneath the leaves under my feet, they were the remnants of a long-forgotten garden. The creaking was made by a young woman, swinging slowly back and forth. Red-haired, grey-and-gold-eyed. Braces on her legs. I knocked on the swing-set with my cane, prompting her to look up, and tapped my hand—shaped in the Sign letter H—against my chest.
She made a similar gesture, her hand forming a letter M: ‘Moïra.’
I sat down on the other swing and kicked my legs, happy to see they were still useful for something. ‘Why you here?’ I signed.
‘No like people stare.’
I nodded my agreement. ‘I no like either.’ I used the tip of my cane to indicate her braces. ‘Same we now.’
‘Same we,’ she echoed.
‘How old you now?’
‘Seventeen! Almost grown you. Old I.’
‘Old you no!’ she signed, and laughed. It occurred to me that, whether we realize it or not, all of us that can hear will at some point feel insecure about our voices, our laughs. Hardy had no such insecurity, and it was a beautiful thing.
She shot my query back at me: ‘Why you here?’
I shrugged. ‘No believe in church,’ I signed with a flippant expression. Then, I grew sober. ‘I no want talk to family. Family not want talk to me either. Black sheep I.’
Again, she signed: ‘Same we.’ Then: ‘What this place?’
‘Garden,’ I answered, punctuating it with another shrug. ‘Old place.’ I wracked my brain for the sign for “ruin”—the place was a ruin, I thought, and a truly beautiful one, like a half-smashed Aztec pyramid without all the tourists—but couldn’t find it. Once there was something beautiful here.
‘Ruin,’ Hardy signed. An X sliding forward and curling up over another X.
I nodded. ‘Yes, exactly. Ruin. Beautiful,’ I added.
Hardy edged off the swing, the closest thing she could manage to jumping. ‘You want know why I here?’ She didn’t give me a chance to nod. ‘I find,’ she signed, beaming expectantly at me.
‘You find what?’
My arms pricked with goosebumps. The door. Since Hardy was thirteen, we had emailed back and forth near-constantly, we had spoken of finding a “door” to the Other Place, somewhere the worlds bled together so much that we might find ourselves walking beyond.
Hardy believed it was here. In this garden. Could it really be so? All this time, had it been mere walking distance from the little Irish Catholic church where I’d sat every Sunday as a child?
She hesitated, then slowly and carefully Signed, ‘I go. You want go with me?’
My throat dry and my heart hammering, I nodded yes. ‘Yes, of course, yes.’ The apathy of the previous night was gone; the drive in me to find the Other Place had never been stronger.
She took my hand, which surprised me at first, but I understood a moment later: she wanted our journey to be silent. She wanted me to privately take it all in and let her do the same.
I breathed in, holding the air of this world in my lungs one final time, and I followed her.
I remember what I told her that night in the hospital. We are different. We survive.
I remember sleeping fitfully on a row of plastic chairs shoved together. Waiting for the sound. Hardy’s song. I remember it never came. I remember Alfie telling me he waited the same way, in the hospital when she was sick and in the hospital when she was born, when he was told she would never hear, and it never came. The song of Connelly tragedy never came for Hardy. No, there’s another song for her: the flute music of the Other Place.
I don’t know where she’s leading me. I don’t know what we’ll find on the other side of the door, if we find the door at all. I don’t know what awaits us, if time will start again, or if it will move like honey the way it does in the Other Place, or if we’ll remain in this moment forever. I don’t know what awaits the blood we left on the other side.
I know nothing, but still I follow Hardy.
Because I know one thing: we are different. We survive. We are golden-eyes, we are broken and we are more whole than whole, we are the last Ò Conghalaighs of the hills.
We belong among the shades and daemons.