Irish tales: from The Raven Girl

From the land of Patrick, circa 1488: Just four years before a Genoan named Christopher Columbus would sail west and discover a new world…A boy on an Irish beach makes an astonishing discovery:

He had not gone far when, in the midst of the fog, a distant shape and color caught his eye, something mingled, ensnared in the beached seaweeds. Something large, as big as a porpoise perhaps. But he knew exactly what it was.

Corpses often washed ashore, almost always male, usually unlucky fishermen lost in a gale. He did not avoid them, because he was not afraid of the dead. And he knew the dead, though unpleasant to look upon, often had things of value to offer. He would not hesitate to pull leather boots off a dead sailor or go through his pockets. His family was so desperately poor that anything the sea threw up on shore could only be a special prize, a gift from God to be eagerly accepted.

So he ventured closer to this new corpse, with some hope and anticipation. He was startled to see a tangle of inky black hair, and the pale linen of a city woman’s shift.

A lass? He blinked in surprise. Women and girls generally did not go off to sea. It was considered bad luck by island fishermen to have a female in the boat. Colm tiptoed closer to her, gazing with no small amount of curiosity at this unexpectedly female creature.

The girl lay in the sand just above the surf, looking as if she had been dropped from the sky. Her dark mane twisted about her body, her hair coal-black and shiny as a raven’s. Her face appeared rather serene, as if she were deep in a long, peaceful slumber. There was no wound, no sign of violence or struggle. She was a very young woman, and Colm could not guess her age. Perhaps she was fifteen, sixteen years, younger than his mother.

What truly intrigued him was the girl’s coloring and features. He had never seen another human being like her: So dark, her skin tawny and golden, like an oatcake left to brown on the griddle. Her face was broad, flat, with full lips and a small, wide nose, cheekbones so high Colm thought she must be deformed. He felt a wave of sorrow for her, dying so young and in such an unpleasant way. Drowning, he thought, must be the worst kind of death, choking on brine then sinking to the depths of the ice-cold sea, only to be eaten by the fish.

But the fish had not touched this dark maiden. Colm, naturally curious, moved closer to her. Was she like the island maidens in all ways? He wondered, tempted to lift her shift. He saw there was something about her neck, a fiber cord with an ornament: a small orb, a dull gleam in the fog-shrouded light of dawn. He reached out to touch  this shining pebble, round as a bird’s egg or berry; but darted back suddenly in shock. Beneath his fingers, the girl’s skin was warm to the touch, not clammy cold as it should have been.

She was alive!


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