The pod of whales beached themselves on Rutland Island,
chose the isolated sweep of the Back Strand to come ashore.
My grandmother in her final years would have understood.
Those long-finned pilot whales suffered some trauma,
became distressed and confused. And so for her that winter
when told her grownup daughter had died suddenly.
Three years later, hearing that her eldest had also
passed on threw something within her off-kilter.
Sent her mind homing towards the Back Strand.
The whales had wandered together, over thirty of them,
swam through Scottish waters to the Sound of Arranmore,
heading towards the crescent of shoreline and their ending.
She would have understood, the Rutland-born woman
who had long left the island but yearned for that place; called
for it constantly, rose from her sickbed in the middle of the night.
I need to go now. They will be waiting; it will soon be low tide.
She wanted to journey, follow those already gone,
float ashore, let grief beach her there on the Back Strand.
An off-white cup with three blue stripes,
soggy tea leaves sunk into the last sup,
a side plate coated in brown toast crumbs,
knife with the blade splattered in butter
and red homemade jam, a sugared teaspoon.
Mum had placed them all on the plastic
drainer at the sink, beside my cereal bowl
with the remains of floating cornflakes.
We hurried out of the house silently,
as Dad and all the rest still slept upstairs.
The plan was to stop for Mass and a cuppa
in Monaghan, lunch would be in Dublin,
dinner with my uncle, aunt and cousins.
A whirl of women rushed in that afternoon,
hoovering, washing, tidying, for her wake.
The cup, the side plate, the knife, the spoon,
were scrubbed clean of her touch, placed
with the ordinary crockery in the cupboard.
The morning of our anniversary, and we are out
on our lawn in Ramelton. The freshness of air
has shocked me awake. My shoes and the ends
of my jeans are drenched from the dew.
7 a.m. Facing the Lennon in glorious light,
low tide has sanderlings on the salt-water banks.
All around us are sheep munching for all
they are worth. We don’t know what they are worth,
who owns this flock, where they came from,
how they came to stake a claim here; chomping bushes,
pulling leaves and leaving their mess everywhere.
Laurence laughs, little did we think…
This morning thirty years ago, my sister began
the wedding preparations. I remember leaving home
with my father, being driven in a white Mercedes,
the walk up St Eunan’s aisle, Laurence at the altar.
The line of a reading; let us grow to old age together
as sunlight streamed through stained-glass windows.
In sickness and in health, I never imagined us
surrounded by sheep; never saw us as shepherds.
I picture sheepdogs chasing them on vast fields.
There are fifty or more here, we’ll be working all day.
Then Laurence shouts. They run from all corners,
head in single–file down the grassy slope of the hill.
Now I see the truth in the cliché, as we follow them.
The air is filled with the sound of their bleating
and I am caught by the strangeness of it all.
Last month our youngest left home for University,
moving from rural Donegal to Halls in the city.
I hadn’t realised just how rural we are.
Laurence hands me a stick, says stand there
so they don’t run past us. Neither of us know
what we are doing or where the sheep will go.
He whistles and like a scene from a dream,
they run to one place, rush over the bank,
onto the shore, down across the sandbar,
around the inlet’s corner, along the river’s flow.
Over fifty, in a long line, one following the other
like days following days, years following years,
until you wonder how it all passed so quickly.
I’m opposed to words:
I told you so words,
You’ll get over it words,
When I was your age words,
That’s not the way it’s done words,
Welcome to my world words
I’m opposed to the words:
You still have your health
It’s only a job, it’s only a house
You’d need to pull yourself together
My cousin’s boyfriend’s sister had that
Sure, that’s nothing to be worrying about
Everything happens for a reason
Someday you’ll look back on this
It could be worse
You shouldn’t have
Why didn’t you
If I were you….
I’m opposed to them all. Give me
the silence that says: I’m listening.
Demeter: mother of Persephone, goddess of the harvest
and the cycles of life. The Universal mother whose daughter
went missing; who did not drink, eat or bathe until she found her.
Mother of grain and crop, the bountiful gift, blessings on
those who looked after her own. The curse of unquenchable
hunger on those who brought harm to the ones she had borne.
Mistress of the home, producer of life, she sent her cubs
through a darkened cave into immortality and a blessed afterlife.
As it was with her, it was with my grandmothers and my mother.
Good mother, blessed mother, working mother, fairy godmother.
Guardian angels; tooth fairy, baker of birthday cakes, lovelorn healer,
soother of hot fevers, stitcher of torn hems, night-time story teller
who taught us how to walk, talk, sing, dance, cry a river and then smile.
Mother Nature full of fresh berries, wild roadside flowers, lilac
filled fields. A lioness, black bear, white vulture, all-present mother.
Watch over my clan, watch over their future, watch over their care.
The Goddess mothers: Anu, Gaia, Toci, Rhea, Durga, my own;
a Cailleach and Bríghde, Glinda the good witch, moody woman, crazy
kitchen-dancer. Mommy, Mummy, Mum, Ma, Granny, a Mháthair.
Creator of cycles, unconditional love and hurricanes. The core of peace.
Give me guidance, nourishment and strength. Help me to hold on
and let go, be present and absent, wise and foolish, the past and future.
Help me to be the mother my own sons need, the person they will cherish,
and the woman who will warm a hollowed soul in those who need a mother.
The Beaching and other poems © Denise Blake