Aine knew she would die soon. It was not just the doctor’s words of uncertainty about her latest tests in Dublin; he had been vague enough to convey a well-rehearsed hope. And it wasn’t that the nurse in his office would not meet her eyes and made sure never to linger in a room with her without focusing on a medical chart. The evidence came from Aine’s own body. It was in her increasing exhaustion no matter how much she had rested. It was in the smell of her sweat and urine, in the yellow of her skin, in the way small cuts took too long to heal. It was in the pain in her abdomen that had once come and gone and had now come to stay. No, Aine did not need the doctor in Dublin to tell her she was dying.
She stood in twilight at the cliff’s edge near her home on the west coast of Ireland. She had been silently saying good-bye to the things of her world for some weeks. This night would be no different. The smell of seaweed. Whitecaps flashing like mother of pearl on the water at dusk. Calls of seagulls mixed with the wind. Sunset walks on the cliffs with Fiona…
With this last thought, she stopped herself. This was as close as she could come to saying good-bye to Fiona herself. For of all the beauty that Aine had released, for all that she had loved and let go, nothing she had known compared to her feelings for Fiona—her talented and sensitive daughter. Now the time had come for Aine to make arrangements for Fiona’s care, and she would need to bring her clearest focus to this most important decision of her life. I cannot leave her with my family, thought Aine. They would do to her what they did to me. Aine suddenly felt a familiar weariness in her chest, a weariness that had intensified with her illness but had been there all along. This is what is killing me, she thought. It has been killing me since childhood.
She had fled her small-town Irish Catholic family at age twenty, and though she lived only a few hours’ drive away, she rarely visited. The times she had gone back had been a test of her patience that she had usually failed. No matter how much she promised herself beforehand that she would ignore their provocations and their ignorance, it all became unbearable from the first moments of seeing them, from the first words out of their mouths. The cruelty of their Catholicism, the hatred of anyone who was different, the hypocrisy of their lives. Even the very rooms where they lived and breathed evoked claustrophobia. The small windowless kitchen, the paisley wallpaper in the living room stained several shades darker from years of cigarette and cigar smoke, the cheap knick-knacks and doilies on every surface of furniture. It was as if the pervasive dreariness of their surroundings represented the precise expression of their internal lives. She had tried to see that they could not help being who they were. She had tried to “forgive them for they know not what they do.” But she was not strong enough. She was, in her own way, a product of their smallness.
Her thoughts went involuntarily to her uncle, her mother’s youngest brother, the proverbial apple of her mother’s eye. Uncle Martin, who owned the local bakery and came home with them to dinner after mass every Sunday with fresh pastries. Uncle Martin, who was the only one who could make her mother laugh. She thought of the day her mother had slapped her across the face and said, “Don’t you ever say anything like that about your uncle again, do you hear me, you lying girl? Don’t you ever breathe one word of that nonsense to anyone.” Aine had obeyed her mother and never again spoke the forbidden truth. She had endured her life there until the first opportunity to leave. But on the few visits to her family over recent years she had seen the way Martin’s grown son Michael had looked at Fiona when his wife was out of the room. She had even noticed Martin himself, now in his sixties, with that familiar hunger in his eyes.
She pictured the school Fiona would attend if she lived with her family, the Catholic school she herself had attended. She remembered the grim nuns and having her knuckles rapped for slight infractions or missed homework and the way almost every natural joy of life was made to seem dirty. It could hardly be more dissimilar to the Waldorf-based school she and her small community had set up on the coast, where Fiona had thrived since the age of three. Fiona had never known an unkind word from a teacher. She had never sat in a straight-backed desk repeating the multiplication tables in unison with the class, fearful of a smack with a ruler should she falter in her recitation. She had never been sheltered from the company of boys her own age. Instead, Fiona had been encouraged from the time she was little to paint, draw, dance, sing, celebrate the solstices, and, when it was time and she was ready, to learn to read and study the basics of elementary education. But most of all, Fiona had been encouraged in her love of stringed instruments.
It had begun with an Irish fiddle. At the age of four she
heard a young man playing one on a street in Galway, and Fiona had been wonder-struck. Silently staring at the marvelous device, enchanted by its sounds, she stood perfectly still for twenty minutes, tightly gripping her mother’s hand. When Aine decided that it was too cold to stand on the street any longer, Fiona had cried tears the size of marbles. A few weeks later, Aine bought an inexpensive used fiddle, and the love affair began. A parent at the school spent Tuesday afternoons over the course of a year teaching Fiona the basic hornpipes and jigs of fiddling, and she was off. She played when she awoke in the morning. She played during breaks in her school day. She played most evenings at home. She even slept with her fiddle at the side of her bed. Over the next few years Fiona’s playing became the center around which most of the musical events and theatrical accompaniments occurred in her school. Local charities invited her to perform at their fundraisers, and she was often asked to join adult quartets at Galway county fairs and community gatherings in the summer, a sight that was sure to please the crowds. The young girl prodigy on the fiddle. But her real love was yet to come.
When Fiona turned nine, her mother took her to Dublin to see Vivaldi’s violin concerto, The Four Seasons. Aine had saved for the trip over a six-month period, ever since she had seen notice of the concert in the bookstore where she worked. She had arranged for them to stay in Dublin with relatives of Moira Keaton, who, along with her husband Sean were fellow parents at the school and Aine’s closest friends. She and Fiona had taken the train in from Galway, a journey of six hours counting the hour’s bus ride from their home to the train station. They arrived in Dublin in the early afternoon. As they exited the city center station, Aine felt quietly excited, having lived and worked in Dublin for years after leaving home and having had her first tastes of freedom on those gray streets. But for Fiona, the big city was strange and foreboding, a noisy place where few people smiled and no one said hello, a very different place from her village or even Galway, the biggest town she had known to that point. She was happy to go directly to the house where they would be staying, a distance of several blocks, which they walked in the light afternoon drizzle, carrying their overnight cases.
That night, her mother hired a taxi to take them to the concert. Fiona had never ridden in a taxi and couldn’t take her eyes off the meter. “Mother, the numbers have the word euros and cents next to them, fixed right on that gadget, and they are rolling very fast. What does it mean?”
“That’s what the taxi ride costs,” Aine explained.
“Does that mean we have to pay that many euros just to ride in this car?” Fiona asked. When Aine nodded, Fiona thought her mother must have shape-shifted into someone else, like the stories in Irish myths, in this case a city version who looked more or less like her mother but was behaving very oddly.
Ever since they arrived that day, Aine had been in a delightful regression to her twenties. She had once shared an apartment not far from where they were staying and had frequented the same local Spar shop on a nearby corner. Memories from that wonderful period of her life (was it wonderful or did it just seem so in hindsight?) drifted in and out of her awareness throughout the day and into the evening, creating in her a dreamy sensation of being in another time but also in now.
Fiona could not read her mother’s mood but could clearly observe the facts at hand. Her mother was wearing perfume, a fancy black dress, and her special pearls. She had painted her face and lips and looked very pretty as she gazed out the taxi window, smiling for no obvious reason. And now she didn’t even seem to care about this taxi gadget that was surely going to take all the money they had. How would they ever get back home? Stop worrying, Aine said, still smiling. This is our holiday. Fiona sank into the seat and tried to be interested in the enormous buildings, double-decker buses, and tattooed young people in all sorts of weird attire that passed before her eyes on the Saturday night streets of Dublin.
As strange as her day had been to that point, it was about to become stranger still. Within the hour, Fiona found herself in the most majestic room she had ever seen as she listened to the opening bars of The Four Seasons, played by the flamboyant Nigel Kennedy and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. In those first few moments, Fiona felt as if she had returned from a long journey, as if she were overcoming a homesickness she never knew she had. The violin reached deep into her body, her breath and the blood in her veins mysteriously connected to its strings. The notes themselves relied on her presence to dance in the air of the concert hall just as she, in turn, relied on their presence to continue to exist. Her own bodily rhythms somehow knew exactly what was coming next and ached to get there while mourning the notes that had only just passed and were forever gone, thus producing in the young girl an ecstatic mix of pleasure and pain. None of these feelings came to Fiona in words; they came only in the language of music in which her deft ear and heart were fluent. Her mother sensed that something like this might be happening and was not surprised when Fiona refused to leave her seat during intermission, preferring instead to let the sounds reverberate in her mind until the blessed moment when the concert began again.
They were silent when they left the hall that night. But Fiona noticed on the taxi ride home and on the walk to the train station the next day that the city of Dublin had become all at once the most beautiful and enchanting place on earth. After the concert, her mother purchased a CD of Nigel Kennedy playing Bach’s violin concerto, recorded live in London. Within the next few months, Fiona would wear out the disk and require a new one, along with dozens of other violin concerti on CD. A few months later, her school held a bake and rummage sale two weekends in a row to help raise money for a violin. Several local businesses made donations, as did the bookstore owner where Aine worked.
When Kevin O’Shea, a violinmaker in Galway, heard news of the young fiddle player in need of a violin, he offered to custom make one for her at a greatly reduced price. Fiona’s patrons were thus able to purchase a beautiful violin that had been crafted on the design principles of the old Italian masters using selected tone woods. Kevin O’Shea presented it to Fiona in the school’s small theater before the entire student assembly and many members of the local community.
Fiona did not disappoint. Her mother found a teacher just outside of Galway, a famous Italian recluse and former concert violinist, who no longer accepted students. Maria Girardi had been widowed four years previously when her Irish husband died in a fishing accident, and though she was still a relatively young woman, Maria had grown more and more eccentric, eventually refusing all company and arranging to have groceries and other supplies left on her doorstep once a week so she wouldn’t need to go into town. It was rumored that she had family money and would one day return to Italy.
Aine sent Maria Girardi an audiocassette of Fiona playing the new violin along with a note explaining that her daughter, though skilled in traditional Irish fiddle, had never studied classical violin. Upon hearing the tape, Maria immediately phoned Aine to arrange for Fiona to begin weekly lessons at her home. For the next three years Fiona spent almost every Saturday with Maria Girardi. She had mastered the Bruch and Mendelssohn concerti as well as most of the Mozart and was now working on the Bach sonatas. She regularly held solo concerts at her school and in venues throughout County Galway. There had even been sightings at these concerts of Maria Girardi, who sometimes slipped into one of the back rows of a venue after the lights went down.
Aine thought about these things as she stood at the cliff’s edge. She ruled out leaving Fiona with her family. And though she knew that the Keatons would take Fiona if she asked them, they were hard pressed to feed and clothe their own four boys. Plus, the Keaton lads were a rough and tumble lot. Loud, coarse, and always fighting, they were the biggest troublemakers in school.
Aine also felt it imperative that Fiona keep up her practice and concerts not only because she knew Fiona would need a passionate focus to get through losing her mother but also because she wanted her to have a career that would provide financial independence someday. She knew that the Keatons could probably not afford the time to drive Fiona to her Saturday lessons, even if Maria Girardi agreed to give them for free. She considered asking Maria to take Fiona but rejected this idea as well, feeling that, although Maria was a wonderful teacher and seemed to adore Fiona, her cloistered life and general disdain for the world were not the best environment for a child.
There was one other possibility. When the last rays of sunlight had been replaced by the first stars, Aine walked slowly home in the darkness, her feet knowing every stone and turn on the path as she silently composed a letter.