An Island off the West Coast of Ireland, 1863…
For nearly two days, Mary Kate’s pitiful cries had kept the villagers praying. The cries weakened to whimpers, and still the baby hadn’t come. A dozen women knelt by the pungent turf fire, rosary beads dangling from their busy fingers. The looks on their faces told Sweeney his wife was dying.
If she weren’t, he would never have dared to set out on such a big sea. During the night, the swells had grown. By dawn the surf crashed hard on the rocks below the village. Weak as she was, Mary Kate begged him not to go, but the island had no doctor.
Sweeney left her in her mother’s care and hurried to the sunlit shore. He told the men mending the nets that he must leave at once for the mainland. They shook their heads.
“The sea is restless,” old Jimmy Mac said, but Sweeney ran to the rows of currachs overturned on the strand.
He tugged at a seventeen-footer. The men set down their netting tools and rose to help. Four of them lifted the lightweight currach and carried it over their heads to the water’s edge. The others kept watch on the surf, ready to pull in the men and the boat if the waves should grow hostile.
Sweeney assumed he’d be going alone, but his brother Ned and Mary Kate’s cousin Manus joined him on the shingle. Ned waved to Jimmy Mac’s daughter, who’d come to the shore with a breakfast pail. The sharpening breeze set her red hair blowing. She studied the bustle on the beach, and her blue eyes grew wide with alarm. Yet she smiled and waved back to Ned, the man she was to marry.
Jimmy Mac slapped Ned’s back and called good luck on the crossing. The men hefting the currach waded to their thighs into the troubled surf. Sweeney stood with them, timing the water’s rush and ebb.
“Now!” he shouted, and they planted the boat on a played out wave. As the water receded, he tumbled over the gunwale with Manus and Ned.
Sweeney settled in the bow, Manus in the stern. Ned perched between them, humming the dance tune he fancied since falling in love with Jimmy Mac’s daughter. Secure in each other’s seamanship, the young fishermen set their nine-foot oars in the oarlocks and rowed toward the mainland.
The shouts of advice and encouragement trickled away behind them. Light as an eggshell, the bobbing currach traversed the swells, the sealskin stretched over the wickerwork hull the only barrier between the men and the sea. The pointed prow cut into each rolling wave, climbing until the boat reached the peak. For an exhilarating moment, the currach hovered like a seabird caught in a cross draft. Then the boat hurtled down into the next black trough, where its squared stern slapped up another wash of icy foam.
The spray soaked the men’s homespun clothing and caps, though no one complained. Sweeney tossed his dark wet curls away from his eyes and scanned the horizon, watching for a single swell towering over the others. A rogue wave could finish them. Blessedly, he saw none, nor did he see any sign of a storm, but the turbulent sea assured him that one was raging somewhere.
From the south, the distant boom of breakers lashing a reef or sandbar echoed toward him. A sudden blast of wind unleashed a torrent of blinding rain. Best to outrun whatever was coming at them. Resetting his cap to direct the water away from his eyes, Sweeney raised his hand to test the wind, and then he hoisted the currach’s sail, fashioned from a flour sack. The boat flew, and still the men pulled hard on the oars.
The wind changed. A violent gust blew the currach south, taking the men’s caps with it. Despite their desperate sculling, the boat spun on the currents like a bubble in a milking pail.
“Take the sail down, Sweeney!” Manus bellowed.
Sweeney had already leapt for it. He had it down before Manus finished shouting. Regaining his seat, he angled his oars to steer the currach over the surging sea. A wall of water rose around them, its tumbling top white and angry. Somehow the men maneuvered over it. They pitched about, trying so hard to keep afloat they couldn’t see and didn’t care where they were going. And then they were racing, tearing across the sea. Sweeney howled, defying the elements, laughing like a madman with each wave the currach crested, cursing and coughing with each slap of water that stung his face.
Ned saw them first. “The cliffs!” he roared. “We’re too far south!”
Blinking the brine from his eyes, Sweeney scanned the promontory that marked the entrance to Liscannor Bay. The storm had blown them down to Clare. “We’re all right, Ned. Let’s go past Hag’s Head and into the bay. We’ll wait out the weather there.”
He peered through sheets of rain until he spotted the inlet’s north coast. Arms waving, tiny figures ran on the beach. The locals had seen the currach. If they were decent people, and if they could do so in the rain, they’d light a fire to guide Sweeney and his kinsmen to shore.
As suddenly as it had started, the downpour eased. The wind weakened. The chop still tossed the currach about in dizzying swirls that drenched the men, but they were safe in the bay.
Manus shouted that one of his oars had snapped in half. Only Ned rowed with Sweeney now. Sweeney thought his arms would break, but he found renewed strength in the memory of Mary Kate’s good-bye: “Come back to me, mo chroí.”
Manus’s quivering voice prayed one Hail Mary after another. Breathing hard as he sculled, Ned added a loud “Amen” after each “Now and at the hour of our death.”
Sweeney focused on the bonfire blazing on the strand. The closer the currach grew to the fiery beacon, the harder he rowed. The clouds began to break apart, as if the leaping flames had melted them. Beneath the brightening sky, the waves calmed. Sweeney muttered a prayer of thanks.
The currach skimmed over the eddying wavelets. Pausing to rub numb fingers over his sodden trousers, he played his oar to steer the craft ashore. Now that the crisis had passed, he worried about Mary Kate. Surely he could find a doctor here. He eyed the people guiding in the boat, kind people who’d surely help a fisherman’s dying wife.
Frenzied shrieks above and behind him made him turn his head. Seagulls streamed from the cliffs, flying out and over the bay to circle above a spot fifty yards off the boat’s port side. Sweeney took comfort in the familiar sight.
A moving patch of sea bubbled beneath the wheeling gulls. A mackerel shoal surfacing after the storm, no doubt. The birds had barely swooped to snag their supper when they veered off, screeching in alarm.
The water churned like a boiling cauldron. The currach lurched in a new sort of wave.
Ned released his oars and tore at Sweeney’s shirt. “Kilstiffian! ’Tis rising from the sea! We’re doomed!”
Sweeney pushed his brother’s hands away. “’Tis but a legend, Ned. Sit before you capsize us.”
Manus cried out. He crossed himself. So did Ned. Following their bug-eyed gazes, Sweeney stared in disbelief at the black thing bursting from the water. Could it really be Kilstiffian?
According to the legend, the lost church and its tiny hamlet rose from the seabed every seven years. Sweeney didn’t know when Kilstiffian had last appeared. He only knew that those who saw it died.
The helpless currach bucked and rolled, spilling the men into the angry sea. Kicking and sputtering, Sweeney clutched at the boat’s crumpled frame, calling Manus, calling Ned.
The remains of the fragile craft sank. Unable to swim, Sweeney sank with it, holding his breath in the oddly lit water. The pulsing glow faded as blackness from lack of air enveloped him.
I can’t die. I must help Mary Kate!
Kicking hard, he launched himself away from the sinking boat and broke through the surface gulping for air. The effort proved futile. He went under again and knew he wouldn’t rise this time. Ned and Manus would die here too. Sweeney had failed them, had failed Mary Kate.
Invisible fingers squeezed him until he felt his chest would burst and his back would break. Tighter and tighter the fist squeezed. He opened his mouth, swallowed the salty water, and knew at once he’d done the right thing.
The pain eased. A peculiar calm came over him. He floated through the sea as if in a soft, sweet dream. From somewhere Mary Kate called to him.
A sharp yank on his hair roused him from the dream. Strong arms pulled him from the water. He tumbled into the bottom of a sturdy boat and turned on his side, retching and gasping. Oblivion claimed him. For how long he didn’t know, but he woke on a bed of rocks and sand, wet and shivering beside a crackling fire that failed to warm him.
A muddle of mainland accents surrounded him: What was it? Was it a whale? It looked like a church spire! Was it Kilstiffian? Kilstiffian!
“Get the priest,” commanded a woman close to Sweeney. Her aged voice softened as she knelt beside him. “God help ye, ye poor man.”
He blinked up at a dark shawl covering a gray-haired head. The woman touched his cheek, brushed the matted curls from his forehead. Mary Kate’s face glowed inside the shawl.
“Easy, man,” said the woman with his wife’s face. “Old Brigit’s here now. I’ll say your Act of Contrition with ye. What was it ye saw out there?”
“Kilstiffian. My…my brother…”
He croaked the words. They hurt his throat, though he didn’t mind. Mary Kate smiled down at him. He wanted nothing more than to be with her.
She spread a blanket over him. “I’m sorry, man. They found no one else.” Her shadowy image made the sign of the cross. “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee…”
As she prayed, Sweeney’s lips moved silently, following the ritual words until she whispered “Amen.”
He reached for her cheek. Mary Kate’s cheek.
Mary Kate smiled and took his hand. The shivering stopped. Sweeney rose from the beach and soared to the stars with her.