“You throw that Cecilia in the river, she’ll boil the fish alive!” someone yelled as the crowd pressed in to see what had laid Gerald out.
They crowded around her, smelling of soured stout. Sweat poured down Cecilia’s stomach as she dropped her skirt, a tangle of red lace, but it was too late and hands pressed in to touch her naked skin. Sam grabbed Cecilia by the waist, hoisted her over his shoulder, and marched out of Sin-é’s, away from the leering crowd. Heat radiated from his body, but she pushed it away, kept his pulse apart from hers. Outside, he set her down, but kept hold of her hand, squeezing so hard that she squealed and tried to untangle from him.
“Not this time,” he said, and dragged her down through the broken streets of Shandon and up into the hills, where the walls climbed even higher. Cecilia ignored him and didn’t speak, let the night act as her barrier. Her free hand fluttered through the air.
She listened for the Bells of Shandon, hoping someone might climb the tower of Saint Anne’s Church and play the song, but only the lapping of the River Lee answered. She’d never sit in the pews and hear the service — Mum would forbid it. Mum forced them to walk three kilometers across Cork City to sit through Catholic Sunday service at Saint Finbarre’s, where older women glared down their noses at Cecilia. Even now, after Sinead O’Connor and her bald head and all her talk about the Pope.
“I saved you, Sam,” Cecilia said, laughing, her voice a bell. “My body saved you.” She ran her hand through her long brown hair, trailed her fingers along her torso. She fingered the lace of her skirt before gliding her hand on the air again. Sam didn’t speak, only jerked her forward.
When they got to their door, Sam stopped, shook her by the shoulders, and forced her to look at him.
“I gave you all the chances, little sister. At eighteen, you got no more sense in your head than when you were a baby. Mum’ll do what she always said. You know, don’t you?”
Cecilia gazed at her brother, his chalky face pinched with red.
“You want to get me because I stopped you. Because you can’t have it. But don’t let on, right? I can’t help it. You know it, Sam.”
Sam didn’t answer, only stood with his hands clenched around her shoulders, before he sighed and steered her inside.
Inside the cluttered structure with peeling walls and threadbare carpet, their mum sat in an armchair, hands at work on an afghan. Sam shoved Cecilia into the chair next to her, but the woman only shook her gray head and remained focused on her knitting needles. Cecilia cast her eyes down, away from the sharp ends of her mother’s instruments.
“She’s playing the Sheela again, Mum,” Sam said, fists clenched at his side. “Showed her sticky out in public. Got the devil in ’er.” A vein trembled in the middle of his forehead.
“He’s tossed up bout nothing, honest, Mum. Mad bout something else.” Cecilia smiled, but Sam shook his head and stomped out of the room.
Mum tsked, her knuckles white as she curled her fingers around the knitting needles. “Why can’t we unravel the things we make. I’ve had enough of your trouble, girl. Tomorrow we take you to work. You’ll be rid of those demons quick.”
“Mum, it’s not so wrong as all that. He was in a fight cause they didn’t let him on the team. I didn’t want him to get pummeled.” Cecilia smoothed her hands against her skirt. Despite the cool air in the room, sweat rolled in rivers down her body.
“There’s a place for girls like you, don’t think I don’t know.” Her mum took a small, etched stone from her dress pocket and clicked her needle against it.
“You can’t stick me in a convent, Mum. They’ve done with all that these days,” Cecilia said, eyes on the stone. Beneath her skirt her body quivered. She blew a puff of air through her lips.
“There’s always a place, girl, remember that.” Her mum traced a tiny pattern out on the smooth grey surface and waved Cecilia from the room. Cecilia glanced back at the stone, shining red in the dank lamplight. Part of her world fell into darkness, the stone the only element of color left.
After Sam came back, shut her up in her room, and locked the door, Cecilia paced for several minutes before stripping and climbing into bed. The sheets scratched her skin. When the house slouched into sleep, she brought her fingers down, curled around her pubic hair, and began to caress her soft flesh. She imagined her mother’s stone as her own, twisting into the shape she dreamed of so often. The sheela with her vulva open. Protector, safe keeper.
Cecilia curved her fingers further, hunting for comfort. She was careful to stay silent, as careful as every night, but the rhythm of her fingers floored her, and a soft moan slipped out. Footsteps creaked outside her door. She ripped her fingers away, pulled the covers over her chest and froze, breath heavy, hot.
Metal clinked against metal as the key turned and the door opened. Cecilia could make out the stone, glowing red, the engraved figure swaying to and fro as her mum began to speak.
“Hush this child, wash this child, clean thy sins from me.”
“Mum?” Cecilia asked, a hot breeze blowing against her, singeing her skin. Her mum continued chanting.
The air boiled against Cecilia’s arms, but she clung to the sheet. When her mother finished the chant, the red stone cast a glow across the room and onto Cecilia.
“My girl, you weren’t made for this world. You’ll learn not to show yourself,” were the last words Cecilia heard before her bedroom, the hallway, the red stone, and her mum all disappeared.
• • •
She couldn’t breathe. She knew what this place was. But thirty years before, it had closed down, and a fire had devoured its insides. Cecilia had walked out here once with mum, when she was seven years old. Purple foxgloves had edged out from the stone walls, creeping through rock. In a recess at the bottom of a hill had sat the burnt out husk of The Good Shepherd Convent. Behind the charred brick, her mum took her to a site — dug up fresh earth, a mass grave where the Sisters had flung their dead, a burial of women whose names remained unknown. Their wrongs unknown. Sinners, all, mum had said.
“The Magdalene Laundries. Those women all won their rewards. I got myself there but Uncle got me out after a few days. Don’t I know they tried to teach me straight. You best be a good girl, Cecilia.” Mum had laughed, dug her fingernails into Cecilia’s palm, and told her to stay out of trouble. But Cecilia hadn’t.
Her arms shook. She clenched her hand into a fist. Above her, the sky looked the same as any other sky. She pinched herself, then bit her cheek and tasted the metallic tinge of blood. A stab of pain. This couldn’t be. She couldn’t really be in a laundry. Not a magdalene.
From the building a Sister marched toward her. Cecelia swiveled and dashed toward the gate, burrs impaling her bare feet. As she stumbled and fell, the shouts of the nuns closed in. She scrambled up, but by that time, the groundskeeper grabbed and wrestled her back.
“Get her to the dorms,” a woman said, her voice coarse and heavy. Cecilia fought the groundskeeper, who gripped her so tight she couldn’t breathe. He reeked of old tobacco and rotting leaves. When she couldn’t get free, she squirmed, trying to hide her breasts and genitals, but he’d locked her into place, one rough, dirt-caked hand fastened on her breast, the other squeezing her behind. So it was that every person in the yard saw her nakedness and made their own plans for her flesh.
• • •
“We don’t like it when our daughters turn to the sin of the flesh, Catherine,” the Sister lectured.
“My name is Cecilia.” She tried to stand, but the Sister shoved her back into the chair, which nearly toppled backward.
“Your name is Catherine. You’re in the home of our Lord God and you will obey, if you want to be clean. In our house, you will always wash. Wash until you’re clean, Catherine, and then you might find your way home.” Sister Benedict smiled and then flicked a finger toward Cecilia. “Take her to her bath, Sister Mary,” she said, and another Sister hauled Cecilia away.
They turned a hose on her in the shower, the icy water pelting her back, tearing at her flesh. She faced the wall, and when she refused to turn around, someone grabbed her by the arm and forced her. The water skewered her chest and then her vagina, a knifing pain stripping her of any other feeling. When they finished, she dripped dry, shivering.
“Come along, Catherine,” Sister Mary said. The woman smiled, a twisted, brown-toothed smile, and ran her finger along a black rubber belt she held at her side.
Cecilia stumbled, her hands across her breasts, as the Sister marched her through the smothering halls of the convent. They wound through the laundry rooms, where the other inmates worked. Tubs lined the walls and more were clustered into the middle of a cavernous room, with mounds of linen over half Cecilia’s height. The air burned, the scent of raw flesh hanging.
Women, knots of them, all dressed the same in a shapeless brown sack of a dress and a pinafore over it, huddled around the tubs, turning wash cranks, feeding sheets through the presses. Many of them hand scrubbed enormous sheets, and when they stopped, a Sister always stepped up and smashed a rubber belt at the girl. Some of the women wore their hair in tight buns. Others’ hair had been shorn so close to their skulls that razor scars snaked across their scalps.
Cecilia hugged herself tighter. These women all bore that same, long-suffering glazed look. It was not God they sought at all, but death, quick, a cloud of steam that would drown them and remove their torment.
“You, fetch this one her uniform,” the Sister barked. A girl no more than fourteen slipped out of the heated room and came back, a pile of brown in her arms. Sister Mary grabbed it and led Cecilia downstairs past walls papered with giant poppies, their petals like wings stuck fluttering in time. They walked into a dormitory of sagging cots. Sister Mary pointed to one near the corner and forced Cecilia to sit.
The Sister extracted a long brown strip from the pile and, snapping it between her fingers, walked up to Cecilia, pressed it against her breast and began to wrap it around her chest. The fabric rolled and rolled until Cecilia thought she couldn’t breathe. She wrenched away from the woman and ran, slipping through the cots, banging her shins against metal which clattered against the concrete ground. The Sister dropped the strip and pulled a long rod from her belt, and when Cecilia glanced behind for a window, a door — any way out — the nun caught her with a whip of leather that cracked across her face and down her back.
• • •
“There now, get up. There’ll be no more of your nasty bumps,” Mary said, lips curled in a crooked, upside down gash.
But Cecilia couldn’t stand without falling onto her knees. Any breath came as a burn, her lungs unable to pull in air without the deep slicing sensation of a razor. When she looked down, her breasts, which had been full and supple, were now flat, insignificant. Her chest ached from the pressure, but when she tried to speak, the Sister slapped her with a belt.
“Only one way to leech yourself clean, Catherine.” She threw one of the brown shapeless sacks at Cecilia. Hot pricks of pain swelling behind her eyes, Cecilia pulled the garment over her head, ribs nearly cracking from the effort. It hung heavy, pulling her toward the ground.
• • •
“Young woman, you’ll need to be made of stronger stuff to make it here,” Sister Mary said, and shoved Cecilia back up the stairs, into the laundry room.
“Time for quiet reflection, Catherine,” she said. “You clean the linens, you repent of your wrongs. Eyes ahead.” She planted Cecilia at a washtub and told her to work with her hands. The piles of linens closed in, allowing Cecilia only one foot of space. Another woman stood on the other side of the pile from Cecilia, head down. As Cecilia fumbled with the sheets, the water in the basin scalding her, she thought of her mother in the ironing room.
Her own Mum, spitting her into a place like this. Heat pressed against her face and sweat poured out of her, drenching the binding on her chest, the ugly brown sack, and the pinafore. She reached to pull it off, but the girl next to her hissed.
“Don’t do it. They’ll put you in the dark room if you do,” she said, her voice a shaky, already breaking string. Heat washed against Cecilia’s face. She thought of her old life, gone now. The way she’d played with the men in the pubs, the way she could pull anyone to her with just a glance. But not here. Never here. The girl next to her was shapeless, like she was, now.
“Least it’d get me out of laundry duty.” Her skin puckered up, already blistering in the hot water.
“You don’t understand,” the girl whispered. “They’ll lash you, parade you out in your knickers, let the groundskeeper into your room. You don’t know.”
Cecilia returned to scrubbing, her body sticky, unyielding to the heat.
• • •
Perhaps she’d imagined her mum pressing out the wrinkles of some too clean thing, pressing them out forever. That first night she went to sleep believing she’d imagined her mum, believed she’d imagined all of this, that it was only a bad dream.
But the next morning she awoke to a windowless dormitory with rows of girls abandoned to God and the chosen flock who performed his commands. They worked Cecilia ten hours a day, six days a week, until her skin crumbled from her hands in long red flakes. The laundry came out nearly white except for spots of red she tried to cover when she passed the sheets along for rinsing. Sometimes she succeeded, and others, she’d receive a lashing.
Each night the sharp cot springs dug into her shoulders. She longed for her bed, the pubs, the sweet musk of stout on a man’s breath, the raging crowds of hurlers and footballers sloshing their beers over each other. The way she’d sway to the sounds of her people. Despite her discomfort, she felt blood pumping through her genitals again, the first time she’d felt it all day, and though she was tired, she let her fingers linger down toward her vagina.
Her dressing gown was too long to pull up without anyone noticing, so she played her hand over her garments, letting her pulse build, her fingers pressing. She thought of the ocean surrounding Cork, and the whole wide world beyond that and longed for it all. The pulse and swell of an ocean inside her, the waves cresting, sweeping whole cities up between her thighs. She lifted her pelvis, cot squeaking. Her vagina opened and moaned for the sheela to pull the swells into her, to wrap the world into herself, she the maker, swirling men, forests, the greatest of buildings, all of it into her aching, moaning, wide, wide body.
Her cot slid and scraped against the floor, and squeaked a little, a little more, and more, growing as she grew, and suddenly a Sister was there, ripping back the sheets and grabbing at Cecilia’s hand and forcing her from the bed and down the hall.
They ripped her clothes from her body, their voices calm. Sister Benedict beat her with the black rubber belt, commanding her to recite Hail Marys, but Cecilia couldn’t remember them when the lashes swept across her back, through her nerves, and deep into her bones. The Hail Marys disappeared, replaced by the chant her mum had whispered before sending Cecilia off to this hell. When Sister Benedict cut off all her hair and sliced the razor against her scalp, the only words Cecilia could remember were clean, clean, clean.
What made matters worse were her dreams. The more pain Cecilia felt in waking life, the more vivid the dreams became. The Sheela paraded through them, naked, open to the world, taking in everyone and everything, swallowing Cecilia’s old home and old life and holding them safe for her return. In some of the dreams, Cecilia lay down with the Sheela, and they swelled into each other, until, finally, Cecilia broke free and through the gates, back to her Mum, who would hold her and tell her she was sorry.
The Sheela bound itself to her, whispered her secrets into Cecilia’s ear, and Cecilia would wake, tears on her face, hand on her vagina, fingers trying to release her from harm, but she would pull her hand away as soon as she was conscious and dry her face. As long as she didn’t move too rapidly or jerk in her cot, the Sisters wouldn’t drag her from her bed. But still, she stopped masturbating, no matter how much she yearned for that simple touch.
• • •
“I wouldn’t touch it, I were you,” the girl said, and raised her head. It was her mum. Cecilia balked, but grabbed the stone anyway. She cradled it in her palm. But when she opened it, coldness swept through her. It wasn’t the same stone her mum had used to cast her into this darkness, but her mum had touched it, had breathed life into it. The rock spat a needling stab of ice into her palm.
“Looking for something else? Told you not to touch it,” her mum shook her head.
“What do you know about what I shouldn’t touch? I’m Catherine.” Cecilia couldn’t let the stone go. Instead, she slid it into her boot, casting around for the Sisters. A few of them stood near, but they hadn’t seen.
Her Mum shrugged. “Doris,” she said, though Cecilia knew well her name was Edna.
“They’ll find that rock,” Mum said, hands digging at the grass.
“They find everything,” Cecilia said.
“Not all. You probably don’t got the brains to slip anything past them. Looks like you like their attention. Shaved head and all. What did you do? Ride some boy out behind church? Pretend you’re a cuttie after someone caught you out?”
“I’ve only been myself. But my mum didn’t bother to look at who it is I am,” Cecilia said. Inside her boot, the stone cut against her ankle. Gnawing at her skin, trying to hollow her out. An instrument of her mother’s.
Her mum glared, her smooth skin free of wrinkles, hair free of grey, a honeyed chestnut that would cascade in waves if it wasn’t tied into a taut bun. Still, something hard inside her, burrowing through her insides, trying to cement her organs into stone.
“She probably saw you just fine. You don’t get here without a reason.”
Cecilia coughed a hard laugh. “You don’t have room to talk.”
She didn’t want to ask what her mum had done for her family to abandon her. Part of her wanted to smash her across the nose, but something stopped her. Maybe it was the curl of hair fluttering across Mum’s forehead, or the way her fingers fidgeted with the earth.
“My reason is my own. I wanted it. I asked for it. Lot of good it’ll do me. Soon as my uncle found me out, he petitioned to bring me back. They’ll be here tomorrow. Can’t cut twisted sin out this way. Not like they’ll do you. Maybe you’ll have a chance. Me, I’ll be dirty always. Devil got his hooks in too deep.”
“Only dirt you got is what they shove all over you.” She stretched her fingers toward her mom’s hand but stopped.
“I’ll bet you want to believe that. No blame on yourself.” Her mum stood and pointed her finger at Cecilia. “You put that rock back. You don’t, you’ll see what more sin you bring on yourself. Warning you, girl.”
Cecilia’s throat tightened, like her mum’s touch had stolen her breath. As she stood, the hair on her neck and scalp prickled in the wind.
“You’re knackered. What do you know about my sin? I got reasons. I need a way out just like you.”
“Fine. Sleep with that stone for a while and see just how far you go.” She marched away, not bothering to look back. Cecilia trudged back toward the convent, eyes on her mum. The stone banged around in her boot.
• • •
For days she kept watch for her mum, finally spying her pressing linens. Cecilia trailed behind her back to a second dormitory set near her own.
One morning, Cecilia spied her shoving something into a bed in the middle of the damp room. She ducked back and joined the others for breakfast, sweating through her duties for the rest of the day. They led them back to their dormitories after another potato and water dinner, and Cecilia wiggled into a line of girls headed into the other dormitory. Her mum wasn’t there yet. Cecilia looked around, went to the cot, and sat down. It creaked like her own. She lay down, lifted her hand above her head and fished around in the fabric. Girls filed in and one of them kicked at her leg.
“This isn’t your bunk. Move it before I call Sister Mary.” Cecilia looked at the girl, whose head was shaved and scarred like her own. She sat up and walked toward her own quarters.
In her palm, she cradled a second stone, grey, carved with a winding spiral. For the first time in months, something bubbled inside her, lifting her up from the binding of the Sisters and the words they used to trap her.
• • •
If she did make it back, her family’s blood would burn her through. But if she didn’t get out, her insides would collapse. She would wither into threads that would dissolve in the soap and lye of the burning laundries. The stone had to carry her from this place ‘as soon as she could learn to use it. She would have to wait, to etch herself into it properly, to get the words right. To pull herself back into her time. To pull herself back to her family.
• • •
As she lay on her cot, she reached through the tear and pulled out the two stones. On the one she’d taken from her mum, a black figure flaked red before her. On her own, the figure was almost complete. She scraped her finger against it, filling out the edges, until the etching became her sheela-na-gig. Something in her stomach flip-flopped as she placed the stone on her tongue. It tasted not of dirt, of filth, but clean, of the warm, red wine saltiness of her vagina. She swallowed and heat flowed, an electric charge she’d thought they’d stolen.
She rose, walked through the dormitory to the adjoining dining hall with its sagging wooden tables and splintered benches, took up Sister Benedict’s seat, and bashed it through the window. The room seemed to shrink. She gazed out from the broken space onto the still green lawn, barely a breeze rustling the reaching green trees, before walking back into the recesses of the building. Her feet swelled beneath her and smashed through the creaking steps, up the garish poppy staircase toward the laundry.
The room spread out before her, silent, a rare cold pressing into her skin. She lifted the dry detergent, shook a little onto her palm, then dropped it to the ground. She grabbed up buckets and poured soap over the tubs, over the floor, dashed it against the wall, and shook out piles of sheets so they’d lay smothered by the detergents. She ripped her dress from her head and tossed it into the mess, then lifted a match she’d snatched from the dining room out of the binding on her breasts, flicked it against her arm and let it loose. As the fire rippled up, Cecilia ripped the binding and her underwear from her body and tossed them into the blaze. Flames rose, reaching for her, but she stepped away, marched out of the building and watched the heat build as waves rose within her body, and she stretched up, up, up into the air.
The sheela-na-gig poured through her, burning through her lungs and into her loins. Cecilia grew, her body a mass uncontrolled by the Sisters, the Good Shepherd, her family, her city, her country. Her organs swelled as she reached down and let her hands rove over her body, fully free. Fire licked the top of the convent and Cecilia smiled and blew on the flames to watch them dance. Then she turned her back to the building and marched.
As she wrapped her fingers around her mum’s stone, she muttered the words to bring herself back into her own world. A bolt of red shook the sky and then the wind howled her away from the flames, away from the stench of soap and steam. And then before her lay a crumbling ruin, her past dead even as she bled and grew from its lacerations.
As the curving, pulsing walls of her vagina sang, she gave birth to the being inside her — neither woman nor man, not the penitent they hoped she would be. The tidal force of her change swept through the yard, swirling the sins of the Good Shepherd up into her swelling, ever widening cave. The blackened, crushed stone walls that never cleaned and never healed. Swallowed inside. She marched.
She was the sheela, and the sheela was she. As she glided naked through the night, her genitals expanded and engulfed the city, a rippling mass that belonged to her. She wrenched Saint Finbarre’s Cathedral up from its roots and pulled it inside her soft flesh. She, the protector, the exhibitionist who offered shelter in exchange for your body. Who destroyed and gave life. Cecilia stretched wider, higher, taking in the River Lee, its lapping waves children of the ocean, the quays, the crowds on the sports fields beating each other without mercy, the fumes of puttering trucks trying to escape, the cracked walls and houses that bent into the hills. The city came into her. An ocean creeping across land, soaking the leftover world with wine, sweet wine of the body, that dripped, without remorse, with faith that the pulse, the urge, the swell of her vagina offered the only salvation.
As she swept through Shandon, she rang the bells at Saint Anne’s to let her mother know she was coming.