The curtain rustled on the other side of the confessional. Worn leather creaked against old wood as some sinner knelt in the dark. Father Debhin sighed. He marked his place in the worn paperback, a gift from his brother Louis in America. The excellent Mr. Perry Mason had the case of The Haunted Husband nearly wrapped up, but the climax would keep until after vespers. The young priest slid the partition open and waited patiently for the penitent huddled in the shadows.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” whispered a tiny voice. “This is my first confession.”
“Congratulations on your first communion then,” said the priest.
“Back home our priest don’t confirm us until we’re twelve, unless we’re dying, of course. It’s two more years for me.”
“Then go out from here, child. If, God forbid, you died this very night, your soul flies straight up to heaven, pure and unblemished. You’re too young to know the difference between good and evil.”
“I wish that were so, Father,” said the girl, “but Mamai taught me that lesson, ‘The Age of D…Dis…’”
“What you said. I know in my heart I done a terrible sin. If I should die before I wake, I’ll surely burn in hell.”
The way she whispered the word “burn” convinced the young priest to hear her out. “But you’re no member of my parish.”
“No, Father. Our family hales from Mulinchasaigh, a few crofts on the road to Macroom. We cart our butter to the market here in Corcaigh. Mamai and me stands in Cornmarket Street to sell other wares.”
He knew without looking and by the odor of sheep grease that a thick, fringed shawl of dark wool shrouded the child kneeling on the other side of the screen. Impervious to the Irish damp, it doubled as her blanket by night. All the womenfolk who worked the stalls on that doglegged street wore similar garb. Females filled the Coal Quay each Saturday to sell wee bits of everything; food, soap, old clothing, brooms, the occasional jug of potín. Headstrong, they refused their husbands’ names at marriage. The father may be in doubt, but the mother always knew.
“Your mother’s a shawlie then?”
“Grandmother, mother, sister and myself,” said the girl with some pride. Through some system of their own devising, shawlies defended a daughter’s pitiful inheritance, even if it was only a few square meters of public cobbles. “We’ve stood the same ground forever. If Mamai has her way, my granddaughters will stand there someday, too.”
“Yours, and not your sister’s?”
“She’s scrubbing sheets for the Maggies up the Lee Road. Me and Mamai visited her this morning at The Good Shepherd.”
No more needed saying. He bowed his head in a momentary plea to Holy Mary. Residence behind the red brick convent walls of Cork’s Magdalene Laundry meant a bastard grew in the sister’s belly. If she repented, if the family forgave and vouched safe, she might yet escape a life sentence of shame and sorrow. But freedom only ever came at a high cost, her newborn babe taken, sight unseen, straight to the convent’s orphanage. No doubt, he’d be hearing the sister’s confession soon enough.
“And tell me why you’re confessing here to me, girl, and not to your own priest?”
The child cleared her throat. “Mine is a city sin.”
“As opposed to what? A county sin?”
“It’s as my sister taught me, Father. ‘Wiser to confess horrible sins in the city where there’s so much sin as not to be regarded at all. Leave the little sins for home,’ she says.”
He shook his head at their naive village logic and sighed. “Confession doesn’t work that way, my child.”
“But you’ll absolve my sin,” she pleaded, “because Father Michael won’t listen to me. He’s forbidden me to repeat my story at home, branded it a ‘tall tale,’ and says I must do the same or be called a liar from the pulpit. And I’m no liar, Father, I swear to God I am not!”
“Hush, now. Don’t holler or the world will know your sin. So, tell me this story Father Michael says is a lie but is not a lie.” The girl kept very still for a while, and he thought she might have slipped away.
Then her voice came quietly, “It’s the mermaid, Father.”
He gripped the arm rests of the chair and tried not to smile. “Half a woman and half a fish?”
“Well, she’s not really a mermaid.”
The priest relaxed.
The girl continued, “She has two legs when she wants them, and two fins when she needs them. She hunts the River Lee but she lives in the River Sulane that pours into the Lee, in a pool at the base of our waterfall. Folk say she’s been there for ages. The fishermen all curse her for releasing their salmon…though she says that they really are her salmon.”
The priest chewed the inside of his cheek, as he was visible to the child on his side of the confessional. “So what is this mermaid who is not a mermaid called?”
“I can’t say her name because it’s all squeaks and squeals. I call her the Green Lady, as she dresses in a gown of that colour when she’s walking the land.”
“And you’ve seen this mermaid often?”
“I talk to her all the time, Father. She comes when I play her whistle.”
Cloth rustled, and a tiny hand held a tin whistle up to the grate. No, not metal at all, but more like buffed ivory. “I come from a long line of whistle players myself,” he said. “I can’t say that I’ve ever seen one quite like that before.”
“And you likely never will,” said the girl. “I’m pitiful when I play the thing, but when the mermaid plays it I hear the sound of a man crying. The Green Lady made it from the arm bone of her enemy.”
“An arm bone, you say?”
“I don’t ‘say’ it is an arm bone. It is an arm bone. Of the man who tried to build the first bridge over the River Lee. She warned him not to build it but he wouldn’t listen, so she carried him off the bridge, straight under the water.”
“She drowned him?” Oh, this tale was far better than his Perry Mason.
“Oh, no, Father, though she could have if she’d wanted to, she’s that strong. He was handsome, her enemy, and she didn’t want to kill him, just teach him not to meddle with her realm. She carried him to the grotto behind her pool.”
“And he didn’t drown on the journey?”
He heard a sigh from the behind the screen. “When you swim with her, you’re able to breathe the water. It’s only when she sets you adrift that you drown.”
It was hard to keep incredulity from his voice. “And you know this because…”
“I’ve swum with her, Father, three – no, four times.”
He should have cautioned her on the sin of lying – especially lying in the confessional – but her story intrigued him. He’d hear it to the end, then do his duty to God and the girl.
“Where to did you swim?” he asked.
“Always to the same place, Father; the grotto under the waterfall. She’s lived there for the longest time. It’s where she carries away her lovers.”
“Like the man whose arm bone is not your whistle?”
The child laughed. “Oh, he was never her lover, Father – just a bad man who wanted to be a rich man, charging tolls to cross the river. She warned him, she did, not to build that bridge. She even tore it down twice by flood, and every time he built it back. So, she had no choice but to carry him away and bite off his arm.”
“No choice,” repeated the priest.
“None. You cannot build a bridge with only one arm. And worse, he could no longer play the fiddle. That broke his heart, and he never crossed her again. Good thing, too, or she would have taken a leg the next time, and he’d never dance again neither.”
The priest and the girl sat quiet together. She squirmed. He cleared his throat.
“And how did you come to own her whistle?”
“Oh, I don’t own it, Father,” she said. “I’m only borrowing it until the Green Lady makes me my own whistle.”
“Makes you your own! And whose arm will she be taking for it this time? Another bridge builder?”
“No, Father. She gave up on the bridge builders a long time ago. There must be a dozen or more bridges over the Lee now. But,” she hesitated, “we’re getting to the reason I’m here.”
“Your terrible city sin.”
“I told you that my sister is staying with the nuns,” said the girl.
“When is her child expected?” he asked, granting her peace from common knowledge.
“In a few months, Mamai says. Sister is staying here in Cork because she wouldn’t tell Mamai or Uncle or Father Michael the name of the baby’s da. Even when they beat her. Even when they sent her to the laundry. She’s saving that part of her truth for confession here in Cork. But before she left, she warned me to always bring a knife to bed. Made me swear not to tell another soul.”
“The baby’s da is our cousin Faelin. He and Uncle came to live with us when Uncle got hurt on the trawler. Faelin is an ugly brute, Father. His face is all spots and scars, and he smells of potín. Ní haon dóigh an fear sin.”
“What? I’m sorry, I don’t have much Irish.”
“I’m just saying he’s no man to be trifled with, Father. The dog came creeping into our loft at night, slipping into my sister’s pallet. Faelin vowed he’d slit all our gullets, stem to stern, if she so much as squeaked. My sister kept silent until her belly swelled. Even then, she never spoke his name for fear of him burning the thatch over our heads in the night.”
The priest shook his head. “And she made you promise to keep her secret?”
“Yes, Father, but I broke my word.”
He nodded. “By being a good girl and telling me.”
“No, Father, by telling the Green Lady. Once my sister was gone, Faelin crept to my bed. He waited until I was asleep. Stole the knife from under my pillow. Said I was safe because I’m just a girl and not yet a woman. Threatened me the same as my sister. I never told another soul, but Father Michael says mermaids have no souls.
“She’s lying in wait tonight. When Faelin staggers from the shebín, he’ll see her in her green gown. He’ll hear her sweet voice call his name, beckoning him follow her over the bridge. Then she’ll wrap him in her mighty arms, her flesh changing from skin to scales. She’ll smile and show him many sharp teeth.
“I don’t know how long she’ll let him breathe before she takes his arm, Father, but very soon I’ll be handing her back this whistle for one of my own. So, forgive me, for I have sinned. By my sin, I’m causing the death of my cousin. My sister’s baby will never know its daddai, and that’s no pity. Uncle will cry, but me, I won’t shed a tear.
“And Father, I’ll only play happy tunes on my whistle.”
Silence ruled their shared space.
The priest whispered, “Say four Our Fathers and three Hail Marys. Go and sin no more.” He prayed her absolution, heard the curtain rustle and the echo of footsteps skipping through the church. His own next confession would be…complicated.
The curtain moved again, prie dieu creaked and an older woman’s voice croaked in the darkness.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been a week since my last confession. Father?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, BRENDA SINCLAIR SUTTON
BRENDA SINCLAIR SUTTON is a playwright and songwriter from Danville, Indiana. One of her plays won a radio play writing contest sponsored by NPR’s Radio Mystery Theater. When not traveling the country with her husband teaching lyric writing workshops, she teaches Irish language and how to play the bodhrán, the Irish frame drum, at Irish Arts Academy of Indianapolis.“I spent decades studying the music, language, history, customs and the Irish people,” says Sutton. “The Internet is great, but an extended visit to Cork, Ireland, led me to the Cornmarket open-air market. Being onsite helped sidestep a major mistake of misplacing the POV character, a Catholic priest, in an Anglican church.”
“I never would have thought that I would find myself judging a story with priests and mermaids braided together. The story, while a little helterskelter, is ambitious with its thematic concerns. I was a little concerned about the use of the Irish language, which wasn’t always accurate, and some of the tropes had me a little worried, but in the end, the story unfolded nicely. This is a suspenseful tale about granting peace in the face of all the evidence. The writer took risks, which all good writers should do.”
Read the 1st place story, Caroline Bock’s “Gargoyles and Stars.”
Read the 2nd place story, “A Wolf with Patience” by Barbara Stark-Nemon.
Click here to read the honorable mention story, “White Rice” by John Philipp.