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The Sun Palace by Brighid O’Sullivan
West Coast of Eire/ AD 520
West Coast of Eire/ AD 520
Bevin would never have believed that a man she trusted like a brother would have betrayed her so easily. But here she was. Seated adrift for all she knew. No shore in sight. Arms and legs tied. Blood pooled in her wrists so that her fingers felt like dead wood. She felt cold, confused, and dazed as a newborn calf. Was she hallucinating, she wondered, brought on by the intensity of the birth? She had felt the same when her son was born, had labored in agony for days. Even when it was all over, she remembered his birth continued to haunt her. She had dreamt of something inside her clawing at her bones, a sense of being ripped and scraped from the inside out, the child ‘s head squeezing and pushing. This was not like that however. How many days had it been since the birth? Two? Three? Four maybe. She felt no pain at the moment. Only terrifying rage.
She refused to look at him as he sat opposite in the boat. The thought of him sickened her inside; his scent raw and animalistic mixed with wet kelp and sea salt, reminding her of a beast injured in a fight. His floppy red hair hung down over his eyes like shards of dead eels covering his evil deed. She knew it was not his idea, this stealing her away to God knows where but it did little to ease her mind. He was still the one rowing, still the one making her child an orphan. Slowly she raised her head, afraid of what she might see. Pity, she thought, and she refused to be pitied no matter who put him up to this. She watched as the large wooden oar struck fast and sharp into the violent sea. He watched her too, through piercing grey eyes, no doubt gauging how much devils root she’d spit out before succumbing to a deep sleep. Unfortunately, for him, she had woken sooner than he anticipated. She was sure of it and it gave her a sense of … what? Hope? Satisfaction?
She felt weak. “Where are you taking me?” she murmured. The words were almost a whisper. Had he heard her over the wind? He had not broken his stride. She spoke again, only louder, but all he said in response was, “calm yourself Bevin,” and then “sit back, it isn’t much further.”
“Calm myself?” She blinked and tried to focus. Her vision was still fuzzy but it was clearing by them minute. Yes. There was only one of him. Him! Her face felt hot. She struggled against the ropes and the words split from her throat. “I said. Where. Are. You. Taking me?” She gasped and then shuddered. “My child! Where is my child?”
He stopped rowing and lifted his head. “She’s well. She’ll be well taken care of,” he said gruffly but he did not look gruff at all. He looked sad, his eyes wrinkled and red rimmed, his red hair a wild mass above his head reminding her of Medusa’s snakes, alive over a monstrous sea.
Her nostrils flared and a trickle of sweat slid precariously down her back. She shivered and her hands clenched into fists. “Well! How can she be well? You have her mother!” The words made her shake and her muscles strained. She rose to her feet but could not straighten completely because of the horsehair bindings.
“Sit down before you fall,” he shouted and put the oar down in the boat.
“I won’t,” she said stubbornly. She gripped the port side of the boat; the seal skin covering cold as a moist leech. Releasing her grip, she stood up, trying to balance but the bottom of the boat was not flat. She grabbed the side helplessly once again less she fall overboard and groaned in frustration. The tonic was wearing off quickly, replaced instead by intense determination. “You cannot do this to me. Turn back. I command you to turn back now!” Her eyes stung and she kept blinking from the spray. Stupidly, she felt the bottom of the boat with her bare toes, searching for a flat spot, knowing it was useless.
All the while, he was lecturing her, one did not stand in a currach and what was she trying to do anyway? She ignored his complaints and swung her hips back and forth, determined to throw him off balance when he rose angrily to his feet. He sat down suddenly, nearly losing the oar before cramming it inside the gunwale . He wiped the back of his neck and gasped. “Stop it!” His face had gone scarlet, his bottom lip rigid. “I’ll throw you over myself if you don’t.
She gave him a watery smile, her suspicions confirmed. The coward could not swim. The boat danced and tipped and rocked some more. Each narrow escape with tipping the boat, his voice grew more frantic. She laughed at his protests but she seethed with every word. “You’re threatening me now? You above all people. What do you think my husband will think of this? You were his friend!”
His face had paled at that but he offered no explanation. He took a deep breath and then another. “Sit down,” he said calmly. “Please. I wish you no harm,” but she surprised him by lunging forward instead. The boat tipped precariously on its side.
She never heard the splash and the sky disappeared.
She struggled to the surfaces just before an angry dark wave smashed her back down, slapping her as if she were a stubborn child.
Gripping her between its teeth, the sea engulfed her. It regurgitated her between cusps, swallowing her as if she were nothing and she could not tell which way was up. She rolled and tumbled about, becoming tangled in something slimy; arms flailing in the direction she hoped was the surface. She tried to cry out but the sea flooded her throat, a salty bitterness that choked her with every breath. Under water grew deaf, disturbing her even more than the water’s icy grip which numbed her, almost solemnly.
Flashes of memory sparked before her eyes. Old men with bald crowns and thick thatches of hair like halos about their heads wearing long brown robes and kind faces.
She wanted to kick, and did but not without much effort. Thick cords secured her legs, the only thing keeping her thin gown from floating around her head.
She flipped onto her back and tried to stay afloat. Once over the shock of bitter cold, she struggled to think, to get her mind clear. Surely, he would see her, swing around and come back. I forgive you. I forgive you. I won’t tell a soul. She stared up at the sun and swiveled her head, trying to spot the curragh but it disappeared inside breakers, each bright white hem pillowed overhead. The wind was making a ruckus. The world seemed out of kilter.
I can’t see it!
Her breath jammed in her throat.
Then, she finally caught a glimpse of fleeting black hull as it crested over waves.
She tried to tread water but her limbs were leaden, her arms barely moving. Her mind took over instead. If I can simply float until he reaches me. Willing herself to remain calm she floated on her back.
She had given birth only two days before, a girl, strong and healthy by the sound of her cry, but someone had taken her away … quick as an intake of breath and then what? Her heart quickened in her chest at the thought of leaving the infant behind. She had not seen the child in the boat and was grateful for that fact. She must be safe, she decided. She clutched at her breast. But who will feed her?. How—she pushed the thought from her mind. Nothing she could do about anything now and there others things needing her energy.
She lay on her back, sputtering and coughing, energy nearly spent. She could see gulls overhead and grey scattered clouds; the sun hot as a new-forged blade upon her face. She refused to lose hope. He’ll come back for me. He never meant for me to drown. The water shot up her nose, sharp as a red-hot poker. It flipped her on her side. She sputtered and coughed, kicking desperately as she did so. The boat. The boat! Which way is shore? I’m here. I’m here!
Delirium set in and a queer tightness tingled in her breasts, confusing her at first, until she recognized her milk letting down. Not now. Not now. Oh gods. If I had only—Stop! Stop! Mustn’t think about that. Must float. Must float until he gets to me. She summoned her last bit of strength but it was impossible to stay in one position. Her throat filled with water.
Then something miraculous happened. The hem of her tunic rose up near her face, a soft linen of seafoam green, meaning the knotted rope had stretched ; they slackened around her legs. Yes!
Groggily, she peered up. Angry clouds had stretched too, revealing an azure blue horizon and a tiny dark shape to the right. Was it—? She blinked and it was gone. An island? She wasn’t sure. Lifting her chin and kicking, the sun bowed and kissed her hands. She turned. Yes! It was land; she could see someone on shore. Wave! Wave, you idiot! But she had forgotten her arms were tied. She barely could feel her legs, even as the ropes untangled from her feet.
A queer calmness overcame her.
With one last snip of energy, her head above the grave, she searched the horizon.
There was nothing … and the boat was gone!
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