We didn’t talk of love again after that moment for months. Back then we still had to get Winnie back to full health. But once she regained her strength I checked with Sila to be sure that she was fully ok with Winnie staying with us and so we settled into a routine. Then one morning after I’d dropped Sila to school we sat down to talk.
“Winnie, it’s been a couple of months now. Are you ready for your own bed?”
I could see at once that I had stabbed her in her heart with my words.
“Do you not like sleeping next to me anymore?”
She looked so hurt. But I had to think straight. As much as loved her and wanted her I felt like I would have been taking advantage of her if I made things romantic while she was still so vulnerable.
“Not at all, Winnie. That’s kind of the reason why I think you should have your own bed… ”
“… I don’t understand. Don’t you want me?”
“Winnie, you’re not back to your full self yet. For the first time in a long, long time I feel love my heart again. But it’s just out of reach. You’ve had such a traumatic experience and I’m the only person you know, it would be wrong of me to have you until you’re sure that it’s me you want and not just your reaction to having a safe haven. Am I making any sense here? Cuz I barely been able to reconcile my feelings for you with my beautiful responsibility towards you.”
She said nothing and just looked at her feet, “… I suppose.”
“It’s because I care about you that I don’t want anything we might become to be sullied. Do you understand what I mean?”
“… I suppose.”
“I suppose too that you’ll get tired of me burdening you, won’t you? And you’ll want me to leave.”
“You have this completely backwards. I want you as my woman, Winnie. And aside from everything I just said, you’re still a nun.”
“I was never a nun, James. Not in my heart. I took the vows but I never meant them. It was all just a means to escape my family. And now that they’ve found me I’m not safe even in the convent anymore. I’m not a child! I’m not a victim! I’m all woman, James! And I want you! Now!”
Her conviction was undeniable and it pounded my chest. She wasn’t wilted or meek. She wasn’t under any illusions. She was the Winnie that I fell for those months before. I took a breath and there, in our kitchen, at ten past eleven on a Tuesday morning we kissed for the first time. Her lips trembled, but with the pleasure of a long desired at last release. She breathed into my mouth and it evaporated any will that I had let. We were no longer in the kitchen. We were in another place. And as she hummed and whimpered in my arms we grabbed at each other’s clothes. The cool of the tiles on the floor was like liquid on my back as the warmth of her hips overtook me. I could feel hair and skin and kisses and the softness of the inside of her thighs against my hips and ribs. Then I felt the strain of muscles as they quivered for uncontrollable need until finally I felt them loosen to sweet nothing as a dampness coated us both. The tangible connection between us was as real as any great ancient column of stone, in the shadow of which we made love again as pure as any ever have.
It was only afterwards, when we lay sprawled on the kitchen floor, spent and drained, that I realised that she still hadn’t officially renounced her vows. I panged the slightest glint of disbelief and then sat up and looked down on my love. She lay with her arms up and on knees raised from the floor. Her hair was damp and her fringe hung down and clung to her cheek. Her eyes were exploring my body and she smiled as she discovered me anew. Her fingers ran along me in as her tongue played along her lips and when her arm was fully extended she moaned a faux complaint then sat up next to me, running her hand over my shoulder.
“So that’s what all the fuss is about!”
“That’s only the beginning, Winnie. We still need to learn each other .”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Oh yes… are you hungry?”
“Always, James. Always,” she said as her fingers trails south.
“I meant for food.”
“Oh, I see. Well now that you mention it, I could have a bite.”
And that was how we became a full couple. That evening we sat Sila down and asked her if she minded if Winnie stayed with us all the time and she was overjoyed. I was expecting her to be confused or upset but she loved Winnie so much that the thought of having her around all the time was too exciting to contain. She disappeared into her bedroom to make a card I asked Winnie if there was anything else she wanted to or needed to know and she just put her hand on mine and leaned in and kissed my lips. I’ll always remember that kiss, like light in darkness, it was definitive and giving.
And so we went. Winnie sent the paperwork off to renounce her vows and stayed at home to care for Sila while I worked in my office upstairs. We became a family like any other and the months rolled into years. Sila reached ten years of age and both myself and Winnie reached our forties. Neither of us knew many people so we were well suited. And the neighbours on our street barely spoke to one another so we never had any trouble. Winnie and I made love daily and our love grew into a fire that consumed us both. I was again alive and happy in myself but in a way I had never been before. Days flew by in a joy of existence and I felt whole in every moment. Winnie filled my thoughts and Sila blossomed, becoming more outgoing and even more mad and happy than she had ever been. I hadn’t realised how much I was lacking in providing for her as a single parent until I saw how she grew once she had Winnie living with us. I wasn’t even sad or angry when I realised it, because of Winnie.
Sila finally had another female to confide in in ways that she couldn’t really confide in me. Not that she kept secrets but the female perspective that Winnie provided enabled Sila to flourish in the ways in which I never could. Winnie knew this too, of course, but we never spoke of it. Simple smiles and nods were enough to share those moments when Sila would whisper in her ear and then lead Winnie away to another room by the wrist. It was palpable how much Sila loved Winnie. My little girl slowly grew into a woman and in her teen years all the madness of emotion and discovery swelled the walls of our home, but Sila took all in her stride that she had her parents to come to. Mostly I was the bank and taxi and Winnie was the shoulder on which to cry and the keeper of secrets. But above it all we were both the anchor to her life. Then she entered higher education; the year that everything changed.
Sila had never been closed off from us. She had always, always told everything to one or other of us. So when she moved to Dublin city centre to attend Trinity we were stunned by her silence. At first we waited for her to settle into independent life. We didn’t visit or call for the first week. Then we called to no avail the second week. Then visited, but her rooms on campus were empty. The faculty had no Sila Fay on record.
Now, as a father, to say that I was enraged would be meaningless. I called and emailed and texted and checked with all of her friends and anyone I knew that had ever known her. Then I went to the Garda. I filled all the forms and waited like a fool. Winnie was distraught too but through all of it I held us steady. I blanketed social media and the city centre with missing posters and I put ads in papers and on the radio. I hounded the Garda and hired private investigators. I drove around night and day and stalked the streets possessed by fear. Every time I lay my head down in exhaustion I could see her in my nightmares. Evil men attacked her. Dogs tearing her limb from limb. Buses and trains smashed into her. Her body discarded in filthy butters and laneways. Her screams for my help. Her tears. My baby died over and over in the most horrible ways whenever I closed my eyes.
That was our life then. Every moment was a horror lived in inconsolable fear. Then one day the Garda came to our house and told us that they were postponing the search. They left Sila’s case open but they’d decided that they could no longer afford to invest resources in searching for her. It was a vile blow. Winnie and I slumped into a low that we had never known possible. When we ourselves had been set upon by fate we had dealt with it however we could, but when your child is lost it is insurmountable. We fought and argued and wept together. We unravelled and sowed each other up again. We drank and spent days without sleep, torturing ourselves about how poor a home we had provided for our daughter. Our pain consumed us. It consumed our relationship. It smothered our lives until we were both wrecks with little more that skin and bone and love holding us together. Then one night Winnie turned to me out of nowhere, “Baby, this can’t continue. We have to change. I can’t accept that she’s dead either but we’ll die if we don’t at least eat right.”
I didn’t care if I died. Part of me wanted to be free of the pain of living with Sila’s disappearance but every time I thought about death, in whatever form, I immediately thought of Winnie. Even in the face of impassable sorrow my love for her won out. I could see all the pain that I was feeling being swallowed and then crushed in her eyes. There were no bounds to her love for me and by her love she was somehow able to keep me in this world. I vividly remember the night that changed it all. We were eating dinner in silence when she just rested her fork on her plate, placed her hand on mine and looked me in the eye. She took my hand and stood and I stood with her. Then she turned and walked from the table and led me by the arm to our bedroom. We hadn’t made love in months then and the heat from her palm on my wrist sent sparks shooting through me. She never said a word but in the way that she walked and moved there was the presence of absolute calm. She was beyond angelic, some spectre of intangible desire. It was raw emotion that she portrayed, an animal need like nothing I had seen in her before.
She sat me on the edge of our bed and undressed herself. She watched me watch her as her hands unzipped and unbuttoned and slid cloth from flesh. And I watched her delight in my desire for her. She dragged her nails hard along her skin once she was naked, leaving red lines all over her thighs and chest and when she had whipped herself into madness she dove at me with a wildness the like of which I never saw before or after. It was her animal self, unleashed. All the barriers of society and life itself had been shorn away from her under the weight of losing Sila and in that moment she was no longer a woman but a creature of flesh and blood and bold need. It was a night of rough cathartic dominance and acceptance. We were changed into new beings that night. We slept that night as if we’d never slept in our lives. It was a dreamless sleep, a death of sorts that cleansed our weary selves.
We awoke with a hunger that was unending. Once we had breakfast we continued with sandwiches and reheated and finished the dinners we had left half eaten the night before. We barely spoke a word that morning but the colour in Winnie cheeks had returned and we caressed and touched each other like teenagers as we ate. It was a silent mass in which at last neither of us were put upon by that stale mortal dread. I cannot explain it, nor would I if I could, it was too pure to confine to words, but that escape from death’s whispering clutches returned us both to life. We still agonised over loosing Sila and there wasn’t a moment that she wasn’t in our thoughts, but we were at last able to function again.
Thus began a new chapter in our lives. We were no longer ghosts but functioned again as two people who loved each other despite all the suffering that we were both enduring. It is all but impossible to help you understand what it felt like to have such a stable force in my life at that time. I had known the farthest reaches of pain when Ola died. I could smell death’s breath on me as it begged me join with it then, as it also had when Sila went missing. In both instances Winnie had been my salvation. She had literally pulled my soul to shore, twice. This deepened my love for her greatly. When one is besotted everything is about the person whom you love, but over time love changes into something more meaningful and honest. That morning after Winnie saved us from ourselves I loved her as someone must do when they have been with someone for decades upon decades. I loved her more then than I ever had in a joined acceptance of a shared pain and the undertaking of a journey through a life that bore that awful weight with honour.
We rented out our home and bought a small house in the countryside near Kells. I didn’t have to change jobs but Winnie took work for the first time in years in a small shop, just to keep herself busy. It was a huge shift in lifestyle and it worked wonders. We were away from the city and away from the constant haunting truth of Sila’s disappearance. She was always with us but removing ourselves made an enormous difference day to day. Over the following months our relationship became a bond so strong that I could feel her heartbeat in my chest even when we were miles apart at work. I sensed her soul in her kiss and tasted her love every time she touched me. It was a love like nothing else. Back then I used often think that it was some warped cosmic repayment for our suffering. It was the only explanation. But there needn’t ever be an explanation for such a bond, if there even is such a thing. We were simply a couple so close as to be all one being.
And so we lived in the countryside, unknown to the locals as the couple who lost their daughter. We smiled and waved at everyone we met but we never got drawn into any conversations. We lived away from the world and loved the solicitude together, despite the bitter aftertaste it left. Winnie took to painting of an evening and I to woodworking, but we made love every day again, often in the mornings and evenings or late at night. We had one another outside and in rain or sun, in the kitchen and on the living room floor. We tossed aside our clothes at will whenever one or either of us wanted the other. It was a coursing richness of life uncompromised by tragedy or self-hatred. We all but started anew there, alone and free from our previous lives. We had stepped outside of the shadow of losing Sila and were healing each day, until almost a year after she disappeared I came and saw our front door ajar. I just knew something had happened. I shouted for Winnie and was met with an awful silence. I called and I screamed and still nothing. I rang her phone but it was off so I began to panic, I could feel it well up in me but I breathed in my fear as I searched the house. I could feel that old familiar terror churning my guts like broken glass as I searched every room but found nothing.
There were no signs of a struggle or theft, no broken furniture or emptied drawers. It was as if she’d just left without closing the door behind her. Out there in the rural areas there wasn’t a Garda presence like city people are used to. Locals often settle disputes amongst themselves and when someone goes missing neighbours help in the search, but we didn’t know anyone. We’d never connected with the other residents in the area. I was alone, and I knew it. I drove to the shop where Winnie worked and they told me that she hadn’t come to work that morning. Then I drove around all the nearby places that we’d ever been together. Then I really panicked.
I can only recall splinters of memories after that; driving, screaming her name from my car, wandering the streets and people looking at me in bewilderment. That night I came to in the garden outside our home. It was raining and I was soaked to the skin. There was no wind but I was shaking with the cold and as I tried to stand I stumbled back into the dirt when a shaft of pain tore my thigh. I reached my hand down and then lifted it to see a smear of blackness in the moonlight that turned purple and then red the closer I got to the light on our porch. My footsteps squelched as I walked inside and as I peeled my clothes off in the kitchen I saw a trail of blood from the front door to where I stood. It was painful but I didn’t care. When I inspected the wound it was jagged and long but not deep, as if I’d cut it while climbing over something. I washed it with whiskey and wrapped it without stitching it, then I turned on the remainder of the bottle. It burned my throat raw after all the screaming and I was glad of the distraction. I could feel it in my nose as I stepped into the shower and set the bottle on the cistern, just within reach. I was covered in grime and the water at my feet was pink and brown. I watched it fade into clarity as I drew false strength from the bottle.
The following night I awoke to darkness, I’d slept through the day and while I dressed I was overcome by imaginings of Winnie being murdered by her family. Until that moment I’d all but forgotten that her family were likely still pursuing her. She’d always said that they would never stop, that they had too much to lose as long as she was alive. Over time we’d gotten used to it and then we forgot it. But as I stood there half-dressed all I could think was that someone had caught up with her. I was sure of it. She would never disappear. Not without leaving word. Again I was cast into that pit where death licks one’s neck with its forked tongue and whispers in one’s ear with vile contempt. And so I folded into a brutal anger to keep me from myself until I had my love back in my arms.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey