The letter from America changed all our lives. The postman presented it to me with great ritual as if it were a fine jewel. In his memory, he said, no one in my small village of Kilcross, in County Donegal at the north-west tip of Ireland, had ever received such a thing, nor had he himself ever delivered anything so rare. After he pedalled away from our cottage whistling, I stood at the door holding the envelope, with its bright ribbon of stamps, in my hands like a colorful bird.
‘’Tis addressed to me,’ she said, looking at me accusingly. ‘You should have brought it to me at once instead of standing there like a statue. You’re useless, so you are!’
I watched her walk back down the hall and wondered, as I often did, how such a small woman could command such a large presence. She was no taller than myself, but in my mind she still towered over me the same way she had when I was a small child. After she disappeared into the kitchen, I fled outside. I ran around the back of the cottage and up the fields to my favorite place – a group of rocks, bleached white and smooth, which formed a circle beneath an ancient oak tree and from which I could look out across the vast Atlantic sea. I sat down on one of the rocks, panting, struggling to catch my breath. I shivered, suddenly aware of the winter cold settling around me. I had been coming up here since childhood to escape Ma’s wrath. When I was young, I often cried out of self-pity and I was convinced it was my tears that had washed the rocks so clean. Now, at eighteen, I no longer cried, but the hurt in my heart remained.
I was born a twin. My brother, born first, only lived two minutes after birth. My ma took it into her head I was a ‘changeling’ who had been left by the fairies in place of my brother whom they had stolen away. Such stories about fairy children are common in our part of Ireland. The villagers thought it was the stress of childbirth that had put such a notion in my mother’s mind, and that she’d get over it in time. But Ma couldn’t be talked out of her belief and had always treated me with suspicion and, sometimes, disgust. I knew her reasons, but it did not ease the pain of her rejection.
Had my brother lived, he would have worked with Da on the farm. It was the way of things. Fathers teach their sons how to run a farm so that they, at least the eldest of them, could manage the farm when the father died. Mothers, in turn, train their daughters to run the house – to cook, clean, do laundry and rear children so that they, at least the younger ones, would be well prepared for marriage. Sadly, it fell to the eldest daughter to stay and look after her father and brothers after the mother died and the rest of the family left.
As the elder daughter, my sister Nora, born two years before me, should have been the one to stay after Ma died, but Ma would never allow that. Her dream for Nora was that she become a wealthy man’s wife, and thus have no need to learn to run a house. I took on a son’s role on the farm; Da needed the help and Ma refused to have me in the kitchen.
Spending time alone with Da was the only good thing in my life. We set out together each morning before the sun was up. As if by unspoken agreement, no words were exchanged between us as we went about our labours. Farming on the rocky soil of County Donegal required a persistence often born out of desperation. Like his da before him, Da had learned how to eke out a subsistence on this unforgiving land. We had four dairy cows, which was rare around Kilcross, chickens and a few hardy sheep. We harvested potatoes and grain, and carved turf out of a nearby bog to heat the house. My job was to milk the cows, collect the eggs and rescue the sheep that occasionally wandered too far up the hills. Had it not been for school, I would have stayed outdoors all day and night, enjoying Da’s peaceful companionship.
Even on rainy days, I loved being outdoors. It rained often in Donegal, washing the hills green and slaking the thirsty soil. Sometimes it fell in a fine mist that caressed my face, other times in pellets sharp as glass, and every now and then in unrelenting waves propelled by fierce winds. I welcomed it in all its forms, turning my face skyward to greet its baptism. And when it was over, I waited in anticipation of a beautiful rainbow arcing across the sky.
When I turned seven Da walked with me into Kilcross village to make my holy communion. Kilcross could hardly be called a village. It sat at a crossroads with the local pub on one corner and the small grocery shop on the other, flanked by a row of a dozen houses in which lived a doctor, a veterinarian, and a handful of elderly spinsters. Most Kilcross villagers lived in farmhouses or cottages like ours, scattered about the local countryside.
Kilcross church, on the outskirts of the village, was the largest building, and its spire was visible for miles. Next to it was the school, and the priest’s house. Father McGinty, the parish priest, was a short, hunchbacked man who ruled as judge and jury over the morals of his flock. He had a voice like thunder and put the fear of God in every man, woman and child in the village. When I arrived in my second-hand communion dress, he wagged his finger at me.
‘I see the changeling has come to ask for grace,’ he shouted, ‘but our Lord will only grant it if you convince Him that you are worthy of his mercy. You have reached the age of reason now, my girl, and your sins will be on your own head. ’Twill be your own fault if you fall from grace. And you know what happens then?’
‘You go to hell, Father,’ I whispered.
Da said nothing but put his arm around me as if trying to protect me from the priest’s wrath. After that, I went to mass every Sunday and day of holy obligation, and confession every week hoping to convince God and Father McGinty of my inherent goodness.
But there were also times when I was a child that a rebellious spirit took hold of me and I was tempted to do the ‘bad’ things that a changeling might do. I dreamed of taking Ma’s favourite plates from the dresser and smashing them; dousing the turf fire with water when no-one was looking; pouring paraffin into the churn turning the milk sour; and when Ma confronted me, shrugging my shoulders and asking what else did she expect from a changeling? Such fantasies made my helplessness bearable for the moment, but I knew I wouldn’t dare to make them reality. Ma was hard enough on me as it was, and doing such things might cause her to throw me out of the house altogether. So they remained in my head,
There were times though when I wondered if Ma wasn’t right about me being a bad fairy. From I was quite young I was often able to predict things before they happened. Sometimes I was wrong, but as time went on, I was right often enough that I realized it was not chance. I was nothing like the old biddies in the village who Ma often visited to get her fortune read from the tea leaves. This was something much more subtle and happened only once in a while. I knew when misfortune was going to befall a villager, or when good fortune would come someone’s way. I never mentioned this ability to anyone – it would only have brought me ridicule.
Although he never said as much, I knew my da loved me. By contrast, I knew Ma did not. She doted on my sister Nora while she treated me as an afterthought at best, and a burden at worst.
‘By the sacred heart of Mary,’ she often said, ‘sure, I don’t know what sin from the past has brought the scourge of yourself into my life.’
My stutter did not help my situation. It developed soon after I began to speak and persisted over the years. It was worse when I was nervous, and particularly pronounced when Ma was shouting at me. I tried everything I could to suppress it, but with no success. After a while I realized all I could do was limit the amount of talking I did.
As the years passed, I took refuge in books. The local schoolmistress, Miss Fagan, a young woman from Belfast, took a liking to me and brought books to me from the library in Donegal Town. ‘You’re a clever girl, Delia,’ she said, ‘you deserve more of an education than this wee school can give you.’ I was delighted with the books. They became my friends and my comfort in long winter evenings when the wind whistled through the window and rain pounded the roof. I would sit on my small bed in the stark attic holding a candle and devouring the pages one by one.
Over time, my dreams of outward rebellion were replaced with something more subtle. I came to find joy in the new words I was learning from my books – not just the joy of new knowledge gained, but joy in the notion that it was setting me apart from the rest of my family. Slowly, the word ‘imposter’ began to take on a new and positive meaning. The books I loved best were the ones where the people in them sailed away to foreign places in search of adventure, discovery and, sometimes, love. On fine days, I used to sit amidst my rocks and stare out over the distant Atlantic, lost in visions of lush jungles, hot deserts, sea-swept islands and teeming cities which surely lay beyond it. Such places were a far cry from my little Donegal village, and even further from my miserable home, and I longed to see them.
As I sat now on a rock looking out at the sea, its rough waves roiling with grey and white foam, I heard a noise behind me. I turned around and saw Da in the distance, his tall, gaunt frame bent against the wind. He trudged towards the cottage carrying a bucket in each hand, each containing sods of turf for the fire. As a child I used to run to greet him and he would nod as I ran along beside him, holding the handle of a bucket and trying to keep up with his long strides. I was used to his silence. I sometimes wondered if it was because he had grown up speaking Irish and was still uncomfortable with English words. I asked him once to teach me Irish, but he shook his head. ‘’Twould be of no use to ye,” he said, ‘’tis the English that rule this country, and ‘tis the English tongue ye’ll be needing.”
I went up to him now, took one of the buckets and fell into step beside him, lost in my own thoughts. Then I remembered the letter from America and my steps quickened. What surprises might it hold? Had it brought fortune? But by the time I pushed in through the cottage door, I knew. No matter what fortune the letter held, it would not be for me.