Ciotóg
Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin  

Is doiligh drochrud a mharú.

It’s hard to kill a bad thing. —Irish proverb

 

The thing inside me is screaming, it knows it is about to die. Its piercing voice, sharp and pointed as pikes' teeth, has had nothing clever to say for a while now. Better to rip it out, cast it out, than have it fully formed and left to writhe and rot in a pit like the others. Like the ones back at the laundry.

 

I tried to steal a glance at them the night Muireann and I left. My ears strained to hear their cries against the darkness' weight, all sound smothered by the rustle of leaves and the heaviness of the clouds, threatening a downfall. I wanted to know if they looked the way I imagined them to look. Gnarled bodies, peat black with cragged flesh, twisting like roots. Or were they fish-slick and shining, the way they felt when they coiled and tossed within us. Muireann said they looked like normal babies.

 

It is thanks to Muireann that I come to Mamie. The journey to Dublin was hard, with us arriving on dirty and bloodied feet. We daren't ask for carts to stop for us so close to the laundry. People knew well enough how to recognize runaways. Often a girl would disappear in the night, only to return the following afternoon, cowed and wet with tears. Then it was back to hot red hands, vats of heavy saturated sheets, working under names our families wouldn't know.

 

Even beyond the reach of the laundry, and its Bon Secours - those good and Godly helpers - it was unwise to bring attention to ourselves. Two young women traversing the country, one swollen and tormented by the thing within her.

 

"She's far enough along," Mamie says, tutting as she dons her ritual robes.

 

"Can you help her?" Muireann asks.

 

Mamie nods, flustered, as she assembles the ceremonial tools.

 

She instructs me to lie on the table, which is dressed with a sheet white and pressed as those we laboured over just days before. Muireann clutches my hand, her knuckles white, nails biting into the welts in my palm. Opened too often to fully heal. Searing hot and red, like the women's hands in the vats of water, licked by the belt each time I took a trembling grasp of a pencil. Ciotóg. Marked by the left hand. The lashes were thought to be a mercy, a loving act, to spare me from my sinister dependence on my left hand. A way to heal the soul-sickness that was left-handedness. A sin to be beaten out of the flesh with leather.

 

When the sickness took hold of me, it was this innate allegiance with the devil that took the blame. Had I worked harder to reject his influence, had I retired my pained and bloodied hand, had I only been better. I tried to tell them about the night. How he grabbed me and held me against the wall, my face turned towards the rain-worn Sheela-na-gig, the abyss between her legs stretched wide and welcoming all the badness of the world. Coaxing it in so it may be trapped within her, her carved eyes wild and smiling.

 

How I thought she mocked me, rocked against the wall, all the wind knocked from my throat. Unable to cry out. Spread wide, so painfully wide I thought I would split in two, accepting all that badness.

 

A pot bubbles on Mamie's range, bright-shining silver utensils submerged in the steaming water. She lays rags beneath me, her brow stitched in a tight furrow.

 

"Ye won't be able to stay around long after," she says. "And don't tell anyone where ye've been."

 

Between us we had enough shrapnel to pay Mamie for her services and put ourselves up in a boarding house for another night. Then we'd have to go on the hunt again, slipping gentle hands into unguarded pockets or allowing myriad men to foot the bill of a small meal in exchange for speaking far too closely, too familiarly.

 

"I'll go alone," Muireann had said. "You mightn't be in any fit state. You'll need to stay in bed."

 

But nothing will keep me down once it's out of me. Not when my body is my own again. Unscathed and unharmed.

 

Muireann insisted I have it taken out. Hers grew fully within her, tearing her open on the way out. The only respite was that she never saw it again.

 

"All I saw was the back of its head," she told me. "Red and wet."

 

She wanted to spare me the pain. The pain of bringing badness into the world, left with scars from its violent eruption. A constant reminder of the evil that exists around and within us.

 

Before I met Muireann, I thought I was the only one. Wives swell with babies. Unwed girls and women house only demons. This I did not know, until my mother found me doubled over and retching by the brook. Her hands fell upon me like a spell of hail, quick and sharp and frantic.

 

Mamie brings the pot from the range to the table, the hot water steaming and sloshing, its movement within the copper reflecting light around the room. She wets a cloth using something from a dark bottle, its scent stinging my eyes. I look to Muireann.

 

"Uisce beannaithe," I mishear. Holy water. It is not until later I realize that she had said "uisce beatha". Whiskey.

 

The cloth anointed, Mamie cleans where I cannot see. Her head appears above the crooked steeple of my bended legs only to nod her intention to begin, before disappearing once more from view.

 

I stayed in bed while my parents fretted over what was to be done, with only the thing inside me for company. It was then that it first spoke, in its cutting tones, mocking me. It was the voice of the abyss, the snide gleam in the Sheela-na-gig's eyes, of every neighbouring tongue that clucked at the spectacle of such a stupid girl who'd allowed herself to be filled with such badness. I scratched at the welts on my palm, watched the browning blood ooze lazily forward, the pain dulling the thing's insults.

 

The parish priest came to look me over and click his tongue against his teeth. My parents haunted the doorway, their faces pale and drawn. Kneeling by the bed, the priest and I muttered hushed decades of the rosary, my beads passing along my wounded palm, collecting grime with each iteration.

 

By the end of our recitation a decision had been reached. I was to be sent to the Bon Secours, who would house and feed me until the thing had grown enough to be cast away. My mother wept, apologizing to the priest between sobs. I was gone by the following morning.

 

Something sharp stings within me, and I clutch Muireann's hand tighter. Her eyes are wide and shining grotesquely from tears and the low candlelight.

 

"Hold still," Mamie warns from beneath me, out of view but poking and prodding, fishing the thing out.

 

My teeth bear down against one another, threatening to splinter. The shrill cry of the thing rattles my bones, its time almost at an end. My voice soon joins it, belting a crescendo of agony. Muireann clutches my shoulders, attempts to hold me fast against the pained twisting of my body.

 

Nights in the laundry were full of such cries. It seemed as though the very walls wailed. An empty bed, sheets white and visible even in the moonlight, heralded another demon set to be released. Sent out of the abyss and into the world. The girl would return, fragile and limping. Back to work the following day, her sheets stained in the night.

 

The rags beneath me grow wet and warm. Mamie stands abruptly, hairs stuck with sweat against the paling surface of her face.

 

"Hold onto her," she instructs. "We need more rags."

 

She moves from the table, her skin stained from nail to elbow in bright red. I feel Muireann's hand tremble against mine. It occurs to me that I can no longer hear the thing. Its voice has ebbed away, given over to the hiss of steam and the frenzied rustling of cloth as Mamie grabs as many clean rags as she can. A strange peace throbs through me, fervent and welcome. My grip on Muireann's hand loosens.

 

I met Muireann after her demon was already exorcised. She had the tell-tale limp and darkened stare of all the girls who had survived the ordeal. The thing was so powerful and stubborn, she said, that the doctors had had to break her pelvis to bring it out. She would never walk the same.

 

How many nights we whispered, faces wrapped in the white folds of our sheets, as though wearing bright new habits. How many nights we plotted our escape, and my salvation. Where would I be if not for Muireann, if not for her mercy and her courage.

 

She stares down hard into me now, her once darkened gaze now ablaze with urgency. Her hand holds fast to mine, sweat stinging my old wounds.

 

"Keep your eyes on me," she says, and I see that she is just a girl. Just a child, same as myself.

 

"Keep your eyes open and on me."

 

And I try, Lord do I try, but the peace is spreading through my bones and it feels as though I am about to sleep for the first time in months. Mamie works quickly, all her bright silver tools dirtied now, wiping the sweat from her brow with a blood-slickened hand.

 

I look into Muireann's watering eyes and remember the reddened hands, the steam, the bright white sheets. I remember the cries of women and their demons. All the badness of the world, all of it contained within us. And I feel it drain from me, soaked into the sheet beneath me, its white abyss dyed red.

 

Muireann is hacking a cry, her mouth wide and gaping. If I had the strength, I would touch her cheek. I remember the wall, and the Sheela-na-Gig, and the deep dark of that bad night. With a shudder of relief, I let it all go.