In pots aligned along our window sill, the menagerie of my mother's holistic wares—aromatic rosemary, mint, and hemlock—remind me I should be preparing my morning vitamin concoction instead of staring starry-eyed over the kitchen sink at Liam McGill. But I am smitten.
In the early morning fog, Liam chops firewood on the severed surface of a tree trunk by the barn. Without a shirt. He swings a long-handled ax, slicing mightily through splintering, thick-barked branches and steadied by thighs that flex beneath his blue jeans. His hard-working lungs bellow misty vapors, and his skin glistens with the full measure of his purpose. When he has split enough logs, he is visibly changed, his shoulders more pliable, his eyes more welcoming, his mouth more edible. By the time autumn's splendor saturates the oak leaves that shade his garden in six months' time, his family's burgeoning woodpile will surely fume with the aggravations he has shed.
Liam turned nineteen only last night and, in celebration, his family had crooned "Happy Birthday" like drunken revelers. Mum and I had stopped eating our mutton stew to giggle and peer through the windows as they tumbled out of their cottage one by one and stumbled up the road. We took bets on their destination, since the star attractions within walking distance are St. Helens Catholic Church and Flannery's Pub. The jaunt is a lot farther to the village proper where shops and cafes thrive, thanks to the island's tourist trade. And since his gigantic father is best served traveling by car, the pub's proximity seemed like a no-brainer.
Ah, but Liam is fine. Pure poetry. In my dreams, my fingers have caressed every hard-muscled fiber of his body. Not just once or twice, but every night since his family moved in on New Year's. Lately, the dreams have escalated, and more and more I wake sweating profusely after engaging in some fantastical tryst that shocks and appalls me. Truth be told, I am exhausted before I can even untangle my legs from the sheets. So restless, unfulfilled, and tormented am I by their never-ending grip on me in the darkness, that every morning I drop to my knees in prayer to the Virgin Mary.
Dear Mary, Mother of God,
Please stop these perverse yearnings that rise up inside me the moment the moon shines through my window. I am repulsed by my own unquenchable need to see a man's private parts, to touch his soft skin and feel him pushing himself inside me, deeper and deeper—his hot, slick tongue painting circles around my nipples, flicking the hardened tips, and causing such incredible stirrings in the nadir of my belly that...
Oh, please, Mary! Make them stop. I'm completely frustrated!
I know what you're thinking: holy-rolling slut. But I am pure, and proud of it. But I have always thought my heart was made for love. Love has occupied my dreams since I was small. Love is what I am. Even Mum says so. And the greatest love of all, I've come to believe, is my destiny.
I'm not naïve. I know people don't talk like this, but they think like it. And maybe my erotic fantasies are an extension of love. Or maybe it's just a phase, and I'm a perv in denial. In real life, I am the prim, plain-dressed Catholic girl tutored by nuns.
Liam, on the other hand, has shunned the traditional thrice-weekly sit-down, stand-up, kneel-before-God hymn-alongs called Mass. Instead, he dropped out of school to work at the shipyard with his boisterous, God-blaspheming father. But none of that matters to me. Only Liam, and every day the deep longing to be near him—to be seen, heard, and touched by him—blooms more ardently in my chest. Perhaps one day Liam and I might actually meet.
"Maia," my mother calls, severing my yearnings. "Are you going to stare out the window at that boy all day? You've got school."
I swivel to see her leaning against the threshold of her bedroom door, a burgundy scarf tied round her head in attempt to tame impertinent brunette curls. It's her day off from the Brookings House, the wealthy family on whose land our cottage rests. Never content to only clean houses and nanny other people's children, Mum shares her healing talents and herbal medicines with the locals. Instead of a maid's uniform, she wears her moonlighting costume, a white peasant blouse, a flowing gold skirt, and scuffed boots—like a gypsy. Better than the plain gray school uniform I'm wearing, I suppose.
"I still have plenty of time," I say.
"Do you now."
I turn back to the window, biting my tongue and raising a mental barrier to keep her out of my psyche. A useless gesture, if you must know. She will read me if she chooses to.
"I'm expecting a visitor soon," she says. "Why don't you gather some eggs? I'll need at least a half dozen. Since you've so much time before class, that would be a big help."
Mum's head tilts forward and her eyes lock onto mine. She is far better at reading me than I am at blocking her. The tenacity of her expedition crawls up my neck and flicks my ears. I feel her there, probing, sifting through my auras, trespassing into my private thoughts, like a match lighting candles to illuminate Liam's naked body inside my skull. Can she see what I try so hard to secret away?
I mentally shirk her off. Only when Liam disappears into his weathered outbuilding, his trousers riding low on his backside, do I surrender and venture to the back porch. The screen door hinges creak and groan behind me, and I hesitate on the stoop. Damp ocean breezes, pungent with brine, strafe the grassy hillside beyond our small garden and swath my stockinged ankles in goose bumps.
Spring, it seems, will not be rushed.
I hurry across the dirt and grass toward our small henhouse, tingling in anticipation. What if I run into Liam?
I bend to enter the structure, inciting the fat brown chickens to squawk their displeasure. Their necks are darting little pistons, pecking and clawing the earth, rearranging the hay in an unfaltering quest for slimy creatures that squiggle in the dirt.
The basket is never where it's supposed to be, so I squat and gather six eggs in my skirt. I've become an expert at holding the hem between my fingers and ferrying the eggs about without ever breaking a yolk.
"Maia!" my mother calls from the back door. "Ask Liam if we might borrow a cup of goat's milk."
My heart leaps into my throat. Ask Liam? Ask Liam? That would require I speak to him!
I emerge sheepishly from the henhouse and stare across the fence to the McGill's barn, to the shadowy black square of a doorway through which Liam has disappeared.
"Go on then." My mother stands under the porch awning and prods me with a swishing hand in Liam's direction. "Hurry."
"But, as you said, I'll be late for class."
She sets her hands on her hips. "Maia, I need milk for my porridge."
Bloody porridge. Who these days drinks goat milk? My mum, that's who, with one of her feet stuck firmly in the nineteenth century. I can only sigh heavily at her endless bossiness.
This little errand is thanks to Nanny Goat. I was recently reprieved from fetching milk for Mum's morning porridge when Nanny Goat kicked the bucket, quite literally, having expired in the midst of a gallant retreat from me. As I'd cornered her against the fence, I felt like I couldn't breathe, as if I carried her full weight on my chest, as if she were running from not only me but something terrifying. Reading her on the fly filled me with foreboding, and that's when Nanny Goat punted the empty metal bucket from my grasp and keeled over.
I'd never witnessed death before Nanny. I wondered, had her death also expelled what terrorized her? Or was it captured behind those glazed golden orbs that had fixed on me with such desperation?
Is there anything sadder than death? Or more inconvenient? Only weeks ago, Nanny had provided all the milk Mum could want, and now I cursed the beast for her ultimate failing. For dying on me.
Liam exits his barn wearing a bulky pea coat. He's not buttoned it, and the strip of his bare torso peeks at me. With every purposeful stride, the wind picks up his coattails, pushing aside the front flaps to reveal more of his bare, pale abdomen. I am mesmerized—and then quite stunned to realize that for the first time ever, Liam McGill is walking toward me.
My feet root into the ground as he stops before the fence. I hadn't previously detected so many freckles on his fair-skinned face, but this close, my ginger-headed Irish boy is positively polka-dotted. He has a crooked smile, and his eyes are a piercing, vivid green that prickles the hair on my arms.
Vivid snippets of my dreams flash in my mind, and sharp prick deep in my abdomen jolts me, as if a seed of guilt has burst and spills through me like sacramental wine across a white altar cloth, soaking and staining my insides. A scorching quiver surges up my torso and the length of my throat, burning my cheeks and my ears—a deluge so complete, even my eyes feel drenched. I want to look away but cannot. Instead, I swallow the odd alarms going off inside me and venture inside his auras, where I know I should not go.
As he looks on me, his chest fills with apprehension. And so then does mine. Flashes of his inner conflict—a nascent desire for me, tainted by wariness—sends the whisper of a thrill low in my belly and accelerates the shakiness in my hands and arms, knees and ankles—even my toes.
I feel near to combusting and mewl the word "ladle." But it comes out "ldl-ldl-ldl." I gesture toward the doorway where the gypsy witch had stood moments before. "Mum. Porridge. Hungry."
"Yer mam, she's in need of the goat's milk?" Liam's soft brogue rolls thickly off his tongue, and his gaze skims the cold ground while one hand fishes nervously for the pocket of his coat.
He'd heard Mum's request. I nod dumbly. His awkwardness magnifies my own, and I swell with a full-bodied rash of conscience, as if every sexual act I've perpetrated in my dreams is exposed under a brutal spotlight where he can see my alter ego, the Perverse Virgin Maia.
"Don't worry," Liam says. "My mam has a taste for the goat's milk too. Let me get a wee bucket for you."
He walks back to the barn, and I can breathe again. My lungs have stilled so long, I feel dizzy. I try to blink myself right and grip my hem tighter, pondering not only what the bloody hell is wrong with me, but how I will carry a pail of milk and a skirt full of fragile eggs at the same time.
And I keep thinking back to the things Liam does in my dreams until I've roused myself to complete distraction, until the bits between my legs stir with the same sensations that haunt my sleepless nights, until I lurch forward. I feel displaced then, watching my hands work of their own accord, lifting my skirt higher and higher. As if I'm outside my body. As if someone else is about to expose herself, not me.
I hear sounds from Liam's barn and then, panicked I will humiliate myself, abruptly reconnect. I glance about and spy not even my own shadow, yet the presence of another feels so real, so frightening that I drop the skirt and my cache of eggs crashes to the ground.
I survey the mayhem, rubbing my sweaty palms on the wool fabric draping my hips. Broken sepia shells and sticky yellow yolks cling to a mélange of twigs and pebbles, dirt and grass. When I look up, Liam stands there again, staring across the fence, this time holding a small, rusting pail by its narrow metal handle. I know that look from other townspeople. Mocking. Accusatory. You did that?
"Well," I say, "I'll be able to carry that bucket now."
A grin spreads across his face. "Maia, right? I hear yer mam calling for you all the time."
Of course, Mum would make her presence known before I ever could. I only hope he hasn't heard the rumors about her. About us.
"You're not really witches, are you?"
My heart sinks. I'd sensed some reluctance but could not properly identify it. He is unsure whether I can grow nose warts, cast a spell with eyes of newts, or travel the countryside on a broom. I shouldn't be surprised.
I hold out my hand for the pail, though my pride orders me not to take it. In fact, throwing milk in his face holds a distinct appeal. But instead, I do what Mum preaches and keep the unkind thoughts to myself.
"Thanks for your trouble," I say. "Mum will be sure to pay you back."
I head off as he calls behind me. "I didn't mean nothin' by it."
Of course not.
I was wrong. Liam McGill is just another outsider after all: shallow-minded, content to follow the mob, believing whatever vicious gossip blows through his ears. Some days I fear the townspeople will come after us with pitchforks and kindling for a right-hot roasting.
My worn Mary Janes clop across the wood floor of the kitchen, and I deposit the pail with a thud on the breakfast table so that the milk jostles. I can't look at Mum, though her eyes have so locked onto mine, I feel squeezed.
"Maia," she says, blocking my bedroom door. "Did something happen out there?"
"Like me embarrassing myself? Yeah, that happened."
"No. I—I don't know. I felt…" She places one hand low on her abdomen and, with her other, pulls my hand there, too.
I gasp and pull away. Had she felt it too? The bursting, the deluge of warmth, the awakening deep in my sex?
"Did you not sense it?" she says. "The earth shifting?"
I scoff, determined to deter an inquisition. "No, Mum. That's bizarre, really."
"Something's wrong." She cups my cheek with her hand and stares at me, though she is not seeing me; she is looking inside me. She is forcing her sensories into my auras, hunting through my gray matter for images and meaning, listening to my heart, embracing my essence. I'm horrified that she might flash on the sexual fantasies of Liam—the ones in my dreams and the ones outside in his presence.
Starting my day with a shaming and an order for confession with Father Michael is not on my agenda. I knock her hand away. "No, Mum. Stop it."
But, too late. Her eyes are wide and blazing into me.
"What is it?" I say.
She swallows and presses her hand to her décolletage. "Why don't you stay home today, Maia. Let me make you some herbs."
I tuck my chin and scowl up at her. As much as I fancy going to school—not—I fancy the twenty questions Mum is sure to grill me with even less. "I can't miss today, Mum." I sidestep her and slip into my room, slam the door between us.
"Maia Kelly," Mum says through the door. "Is there something you need to tell me?"
I throw myself onto the bed. "Yes. Leave me alone! Just once, could I have some privacy?"
I hear her gypsy boots shuffle off, and I breathe a sigh of relief that I know will be short-lived—because Mum.
What had come over me as I stood near the fence, lifting my skirt? What an odd sensation in my abdomen—like a grenade exploding with liquid desire. I don't understand my idiosyncrasies at all. I have come to accept them, but the urge to expose my knickers takes weirdness to a whole new level. Liam makes me sweaty, churned up inside, and utterly bird-brained. And now I wish I'd been unable to read him because it only adds to my bewilderment. His desire to be near me was palpable. Yet he thinks Mum and I are witches, so how can he want anything to do with me? If I could shield myself before insights to another person run through me with sword-like precision, the weight on my shoulders would be ever so much lighter.
I've ruined it anyway, I'm sure, mumbling like the village idiot for a blasted ladle. I wipe the disappointment from my eyes, my chest feeling as if it's caving in. It doesn't matter, Maia. Liam doesn't matter. It couldn't be real love; you hardly know him.
One day I'll meet a fine man to love—maybe even to marry—and I'll not struggle as an unwed mum. I'll be someone respected. I'll have actual friends. I'll fit in somewhere—anywhere but this rural throwback. Dreams of a posh flat in London shine ever brighter in my mind. Mum can stay with her petty-minded islanders. She is the reason people treat us like lepers. She is the knocked-up nun, the disgrace of her order.
I stare at the water stain on the ceiling from where I'm sure God keeps a creepy eye on me. What's the use? He sees everything! I make the sign of the cross, then roll over and bury a long, high-pitched scream into my pillow.
The truth of my existence is as much cruelly whispered rumors as it is lunacy. The indisputable facts are these: Mum is a de-cloistered Benedictine nun who raised me devoutly Catholic, despite her quarrel with the church and involuntary departure from St. Cecelia's Abbey where she had lived her whole life. Mother Superior hadn't bought into Mum's Immaculate Conception story for how I came to be and wasted no time exorcising the abbey of scandal. But ask Sister Miriam how her babe could be born free from the stain of original sin, and she'll tell you my conception was as close to Truth and God as she had ever felt or would ever feel again.
The whole of my eighteen years, Mum promised that one day my father—the father—would return to our little Isle of Wight, infuse his power into my veins, and carry my soul unto his exalted life. Yes, she is deranged. The whole town thinks as much. But even in madness, sparks of truth exist. I should know. I inherited her gifts. Afflictions, more like. Flashes of a person's essence—snippets of their memories, images, and sensory details—seek me out like iron fillings to a magnet. I know it sounds impossible. Absurd, really. But there it is. Heredity is a bitch.