The legend of Sheila NaGeira looms large in the early history of the New World. And it stretches back to Ireland in the 1500s and an ancient crone, Sheila Na Gig, whose form still haunts church doorways. NaGeira tells two interlocking stories. The first is of eighty-year-old Sheila, a midwife and healer living apart from a settlement at the North American Bristol plantation in 1660. The second, a parallel tale, tracks Sheila’s early life in Dublin’s English Pale where she is caught in the crossfire of politics and tragedy. Even after she escapes persecution, leaving her enemies far behind, Sheila finds that forces can still resurface to conspire against her.
by Paul Butler
“We burn something of yours and something of hers together in the same flame.”
David still holds his palm to the side of his head as though stemming the bloodflow from a mortal wound.
“Come,” I say. “It could not have hurt so much and you have plenty to spare.”
“You could have used a knife rather than pulling from the root!”
“And lose precious skin and blood?” I say, laying the clump of coarse sandy hair close by the now raging hearth. The wood the boy brought me is good and dry and will do for days. It hisses and smokes but little, sending odd sparks rising into the room. They waver in mid-air for a moment, then wink out in the darkness. The nights are still cold, and I am getting too old now to gather wood for myself.
“What do you have of hers?” he says hugging himself morosely, sitting far off by the joint-stool.
I reach into the folds of my dress and pull out the tooth—dried blood still on the root and a crack down the middle. “When you are physician to everyone, a piece of everyone remains with you.”
His look of disgust does not affect the odd sense of pride I feel. No one in this place can do without me, I know. It doesn’t matter how I am shunned. Sudden elation gets the better of me for a moment and I am like a child again, striking out for the first time to discover the possibilities and limitations of my powers. I defy the crone that has become my outward shell. It is just a disguise; I can feel the withering years peeling away from me. “You should be careful what you wish for, my boy,” I say. “A girl who loses a first tooth at thirteen will likely lose her last at twenty. You will feel you are sucking on the mouth of a codfish!” I laugh with abandon. Although it feels like the mirth of youth flowing in a torrent, I’m sure the boy, who now purses his lips and turns to the door, would call it a cackle.
He knows he cannot leave now. His desire is too great and is held fast in my darkened room as sure as the black and gold shadows that leap and duck over the four walls.
“Now come, boy, kneel beside me by the fire.”
I turn to the flames with the boy’s hair in one hand, the tooth of his beloved in the other. He leaves the joint-stool and shuffles towards me, kneeling.
“What now?” he says.
“Put out your hand as though to receive.”
Obediently he does so. I put the clump of his hair in the middle of his palm. His hand is sweating and the hair sticks as it should. I place the tooth in the centre of this little nest.
“Now close your fist.”
Again he does as he’s told.
“Now,” I say grabbing hold of his wrist and turning it so that the knuckles face upward. I can feel his alarm in the stiffness of his hand. “Don’t be afraid. Hold on as long as you can. Only when you cannot bear it any longer, only then can you open your fist and let the hair and the tooth drop on the fire.”
Feeling his wrist tug away, I look at him hard. His eyes glisten with fear and he is breathing quickly, yet I know he is bracing himself. He nods. I put both my hands behind his elbow. David grits his teeth and mumbles to himself. I squeeze his elbow tight as a sign to get ready, then push his elbow forward. He does not resist.
David gives a muffled cry and jolts his arm back for a moment. Stiffening, he plunges it forward again, gives a small, rising moan but keeps his fist steady above the flame. Then, shaking with pain, he opens his fist and pulls his hand away, cradling it to his belly like a chick he has lost and found again.
The hair and tooth land on a glowing log. The hair sizzles and curls around Sara’s tooth. A single small flame dances around, licking the now black and withering strands. Perfect!
The boy shivers and breathes heavily, his head bowed.
“Up!” I say, using my knuckles against his shoulders to climb into a standing position. He is slow to react. “Salt water!” I say to rouse him. “And quickly, or your hand will be useless for a week.”
I lift the bucket onto the table while he gradually rises, stumbles towards the table, and plunges his hand into the water. He cries out, turning his head to the ceiling, eyes tight shut.
“Quiet!” I hiss at him. “Do you want them to hear you down in the cove?”
I know no one will hear us—my home is far from the rest of the settlement. But this boy is beginning to worry me. So timid, yet sullen; so backward with his girl, yet so determined to win her, no matter how singed his skin must become in the attempt.
“If your uncle, or anyone else, asks about your burn, tell them you were helping me with the fire.”
The boy doesn’t reply but looks down, drawing his hand out of the bucket. Tears of pain run down his face and he breathes hard, gritting his teeth.
“What now?” David asks, gazing down at his pink and trembling hand.
“What must I do to win her?”
“You have done it already. Go home. Rest. Let the medicine work.”
He stands rigid, still staring into his quivering palm as though expecting to see some kind of answer there.
“You have sent your message to the gods and goddesses who reign over all,” I whisper to comfort him. “They are in all living things, in the earth and the sky. You have joined Sara and yourself in the flames. To the gods, you are one.”
“What if it doesn’t work?” says the boy, his tears mingling with sweat.
“It will work because the spirits move in Sara as they move in us all.”
The boy stares at me for a second.
“I am grateful to you, Sheila,” he says, then turns for the door.
“Treat her well if you want to repay me.”
He nods without turning. His movements are slower, heavier than before. I think of the boy who came to see me earlier, his coltish love and his shyness. That boy was a more delicate creature altogether than the figure whose shoulders now block my narrow doorway.
David opens the door and steps into the night, closing it after him with a clunk. His heavy footfalls crunch on the path as he makes his way down to the cove.
I turn back to the fire which still leaps and ducks around the wood. The spitting violence of the flames seems meant for me, but I am equal to it and stare back in defiance. We are adversaries, the fire and I, and I do not mean to yield to it yet.
Butler's prose is smooth and clean; the story moves forward vigorously, with patches of poetry.-- The Globe and Mail --
Butler keeps the story grounded, brisk and inviting.-- The Telegram --
A tour de force of the imagination...-- Canadian Book Review Annual --
[A] brilliant exploration of one of Newfoundland's central mythological figures set within highly-crafted, well-written parallel stories that hinge on twists of fate and an intricate plot structure.-- Atlantic Books Today --
The novel is poetic, compelling and surprisingly fluid.-- Product of Newfoundland website --
Butler’s writing is vivid, fluent, and filled with wonderful period detail, bringing these historical names and legends to life in a series of revealing snapshots.-- Compulsive Overreader Blog --