Brigid, a native of County Cork, was nineteen in 1889 when she moved to Boston to marry Michael O’Flannery, who ended up hanging her out the window by her hair. They had not set eyes on each other prior to when she came to live with him. He was an older brother of one of her friends. She had only sent him a letter full of questions, asking if he knew of any places in the city that might need a maid. She could clean fine enough and had a taste for living across the ocean.
Michael replied that not only was there plenty of work for maids, there was a warm bed if she would come and have it. It happened to be his bed, too, but he wrote, “Your writing is so very sweet, I fell in love immediately. Come be my wife.”
And she was suspicious. It sounded like the man was short a few bolts, but the hand he wrote her in was a strong, beautiful hand. It even shook at the end, as if he were scared to write down his most intimate wish, one born of instant love. In her mind, Brigid built a stoic man who was six foot three but secretly shy and enormously romantic. It was a foolish vision, she thought to herself, but it made her warm. It gave her a dream to weave as she tried to till the stony soil of her and her mother’s farm.
She wrote back to Mr. O’Flannery saying she would come by ship. She would decide whether to marry him when she arrived.
Brigid said goodbye to her mother and left before she received Michael’s reply. Her mother received it instead. It was a note that began, “To Hell with an impulsive woman! Stay where you are,” and it grew worse from there. Her mother read it in horror but Brigid was already on her ship.
After a journey where she spent much of the time sick, miserable, and eating the crackers set out for people in steerage to settle their stomachs, she arrived in New York. From there, she spent her last cent on a train ticket to Boston.
She went immediately to Michael’s address. Her legs wobbled in her boots, both because she was afraid and because the boots had belonged to her mother and were a size too big.
The man who answered the door was two inches taller than she imagined. He had blue, sweet eyes and hollow cheeks from the teeth that had rotted away.
But he smiled regardless. “Pretty girl,” he said and caught her hand. He stroked her wrist with his thumb. “Brave, beautiful, stubborn girl.”
Brigid was charmed.
“Did you come from the madam’s house? I didn’t think Lacey would be sending me anymore girls.”
Brigid was less charmed. When she told him who she was, his face became stormy, but his eyes still shined that lovely blue.
It would be nice to have a baby with blue eyes, she thought, and I don’t want to go home to my mother and explain why I’m back again.
They married on Wednesday. Michael’s friends from the saloon came to hoot and applaud. She later learned they were not so much friends as the people who had happened to be in the bar that day when Michael stopped by and told them Brigid was making an honest man of him.
The next day, she interviewed for a job at a Mrs. Dunaway’s. They needed a girl for the kitchens. She was hired.
On Monday, she woke before dawn to go there, and Michael told her no, please don’t go, he was in one of his melancholy moods. He was likely to jump out the window if she left him in the next few hours. She was struck by his earnestness and stayed home. The bed he had promised her was awfully warm, anyway.
Mrs. Dunaway dismissed her immediately.
Brigid found another job in the kitchens of the Herbert family. She came home tired and right after Michael came home from the munitions factory. His breath smelled awful, perhaps his last teeth rotting in his skull. She wasn’t sure how to tell him this without tempting his anger.
Eventually, she told Michael she was expecting.
He lit up a cigar for himself and laughed. “About time. You love throwing open your legs too much for me. I was beginning to suspect you were barren.”
She made the decision to say nothing to that. Instead, she went to pray. Then, still feeling her ears warm and her temper frayed, she sat to write down a song. She loved songs, though could not sing and spelled very poorly. It was the romance of the idea of songs that licked into her and didn’t stop. It calmed her.
Brigid’s mother had once told her a secret. She had not really been named for St. Brigid but the other one. The one you weren’t supposed to talk about, the one who was perhaps, or perhaps not, what the saint was before the Church took her in and canonized her. She was a different thing, something that went against God.
One of the reasons it was so difficult to till their land was because Brigid’s mother had a head for daydreams and books and translating English to her native Gaelic. As she translated, she would read aloud to Brigid from the poems she found. “Brigid, let me tell you how the goddess invented keening. Brigid, let me tell you about her sway over poets, smiths, and Spring.” She was locked in another world and her daughter hated her for it.
Brigid knew there were women who had it worse than she. They had traveled to New York and Boston on far flimsier promises for far meaner men. Another maid who came to the Herberts with a smile on her face, always, also had cruel, purple fingerprint bruises all along her arms and, once or twice, a split lip.
Michael was fine, mostly. She could pretend he didn’t stay out to play cards and got into trouble with the men at the saloon. Perhaps he would smooth out along the edges before the baby came.
They had the boy in November, Joseph Flannery, named for Michael’s father. Michael cried and Brigid breathed a sigh of relief.
When the baby was a couple weeks old, and had made a practice of screaming most of the night and sleeping intermittently throughout the day, Brigid was deeply rattled and enormously tired.
Michael told her he saw how sleepy she was. “Put the baby down. I’m in one of my dark moods, again, and I need you.”
“Not right now. The baby needs to be put to bed first.”
He looked at her with his china blue eyes. His chin shook, like he was about to start bawling himself.
Instead, he leaned over and opened the window.
Brigid snorted with laughter and held Joseph closer. “What are you doing?”
He said nothing. Instead of jumping out of it, he took hold of Brigid by her hair, jerked her forward, and held her outside. She, in turn, held the baby close to her chest.
The ends of her hair screamed into her skull, but she was too terrified to open up her own mouth. In her sick fear, she didn’t want to upset the baby by screaming. And the O’Flannerys lived in a neighborhood with many people, people who had become Brigid’s friends and drinking companions.
But they did see, because the woman downstairs, who had butter-colored hair and sang when she helped Brigid do the laundry, looked up just then at Brigid’s waving feet and squawked.
Michael pulled his wife back inside. When he set her down, his hand pulled out bloody clumps of her hair. Seeing that, now she cried.
He colored. “Don’t try to make me ashamed,” he snapped and threw the hair at her feet. He thumped out of their rooms.
She swaddled the baby, made sure he was all right, and laid him down in his cradle. She put a bandage on her head, folding it like a turban, and she cried harder.
Brigid prayed to her mother’s god.
Then she wrote a song.
She wrote a song of sorrow and longing. When she ran out of words, she considered finding a priest to tell him her troubles, but she knew he would not want to interfere with the business between a man and his wife. He would counsel her, of course, but her husband had told her about his black moods, hadn’t he? And, really, he had only held Brigid out the window once in front of all of her neighbors, hadn’t he?
It grew dark and Brigid looked for the lamp. When she couldn’t find that, she lit a candle, which glowed warm and reflected off the window. It smelled of fat.
Brigid’s baby gave a small fussing noise. She turned to see if he was alright, but spun too quickly. The hot wax ran from the top of the candle and rolled over her thumb.
The wax was hot, terribly hot, like sweat flicked off the Devil’s brow, and then it dried quickly. It cooled and hardened. In the half-dark, it looked like a strange, misshapen shadow.
And she was struck with an idea for a song.
It was a dark idea, a creeping, difficult one that made her heavy. It was huge. So huge, in fact, it was a song that could not be confined to her poorly spelled words on sheets of paper.
It had to be acted out.
She went to pick up and kiss her baby. He stirred and slept once more. His head smelled so good and his hair was so soft. She would miss him. This was the beginning of the first verse.
Then, without looking back, she went to the kitchen.
Brigid found the sharpest knife there. Then she found a wooden spoon.
She went to their front door. Michael’s front door, really. She locked her eyes on the dark stain spread across the wood.
Brigid placed the spoon between her teeth. She bit down as hard as she could.
As she did, she began to saw through the base of her thumb with the knife.
Sweat broke out on her brow. It was a hard way to end the first verse, but she was the instrument through which something otherworldly was acting. This was her sacrifice.
Her skin opened under the knife. The meat was harder to push through. The bone was worse still, pain that started and grew shaper, keener.
Blood poured from her hand and hit the floor in flecks.
The severed thumb was such a little thing. It didn’t look like it could be part of her hand at all, but this was a song, wasn’t it? A ballad, even. What sense did a ballad make in a world of flesh? Not much and it did not need to.
When Brigid pulled the spoon from her mouth, it dripped with spit and had grooves from her teeth. She put it into her apron pocket.
With her good hand, she turned the doorknob, and walked into the hallway of the tenement.
Blood dripped from her hand and hit the floorboards. Brigid’s breath was ragged as she moved. She tried to befriend the pain, the way she had tried to befriend hunger in County Cork when there was so little to eat, the way she had tried to befriend her husband, but it hurt selfishly, hideously.
She walked down the stairs, dripping quietly, and praying to meet no one.
In the alley beside the tenement, Brigid dropped the thumb on the ground. Her eyes leaked tears, now. She turned to look at the brick wall, wondering if she had the strength to write, “I have been killed!” without fainting.
But that wasn’t necessary to the song, she realized. The thumb with no one attached to it was enough.
Instead, she ripped a length of her dress and wrapped the stump on her hand tightly. She knew she would have to change the dressing, soon.
Brigid began to walk down the road. Her thumb no longer dripped blood but the dirty bandages rapidly changed color. The pain did not stop but the bleeding did.
She walked for a very long time. A day.
This, she decided, was the second verse.
She stopped to eat an apple from a tree on the road. It tasted sour and out of season.
Then she stopped at a rectory, where everyone there thought she was a quiet, homeless drunk. Let them think it. They didn’t know who she was or about the song. There, in the donation box, she found a white shift.
No one spoke to her, as if she was as invisible as the air, as invisible as the song she continued to act out. The pain in her hand was a dull thrumming, now.
After a day, she arrived in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she could smell the sea and hear the water crash against the rocks nearby.
A gentleman in a fine coat and silk hat walked by her and turned, eyes wide. He looked at her hand, the bandage brown with dried blood. “Miss! Are you all right?”
He did not have blue eyes. He was not very tall.
But he seemed kind and had on good clothes.
In the logic of ballads, she would have to trust him.
“No, sir,” Brigid said. She kept her accent as simple and lilting as she could, an American’s idea of what an Irish woman sounded like. “My father brought me to Boston. He demanded I marry a man I do not love, so he pinned my hand down and tried to cut off my fingers. I’ve been running all day.”
The man did not point out she didn’t look particularly winded from running. He did not ask her where she lived. Instead, he took her to his house and had his maids draw a bath and prepare a set of clothes for her.
His name was Winston McNair. He had a factory that canned fish. His parents were of Irish extraction. He had put together a large house by the sea for the woman he would marry one day, but the woman had never come.
Brigid listened to his sorrows and he listened to the ones she made up.
He suggested she stay as long as she liked.
A year and a day later, Brigid became Brigid McNair, and Winston moved through his vows with gentle befuddlement.
This, too, was part of the song.
Brigid now wore gloves with cotton stuffed in the empty thumb case. She never took off the gloves at parties.
She went to school to properly learn her letters and came out a teacher. She taught poetry in a soft, breezy way. When the children fell asleep in class, she would be annoyed but she realized that it was only her great song lulling them into dreams.
Every day fed into a single verse. In the magic of songs, one verse would encompass years.
What bothered her about it all, as she continued each day near the briny bite of the sea, was that this song had begun in sacrifice. It would have to end in some sort of tragedy, too, something to punish her and her family
She had three children from Winston, Thomas, Johnathan, and little Brigid, and if Winston minded her naming the youngest child after herself, he didn’t say. They were all round, sweet children with his dark eyes and gentle face. Little Brigid had even inherited the mole he had beside his nose.
He treated them with the glad openness of a grandfather. He crawled along the floor with them when they were babies and helped them write letters to Santa Claus when they were old enough to hold a pen. He put the letters into the grate after they had gone to bed and lit them. They turned into ash and he said to Brigid, “They float up the chimney to God. And that’s how Santa knows what to get the children for Christmas.”
Brigid knew he meant this sincerely. She accepted it because, yes, it too was part of the song, and she only wanted an easy, simply marriage to an easy, simple man, one who might die before she did and leave his money.
He died in 1917 and, after, she began to have fainting spells. Brigid lost her appetite and often felt sick.
The doctor found lumps in her breast and said it was a great, black cancer. She imagined it crawling out of her heart and choking her. This, then, was her tragedy, and the beginning of the final verse, she thought.
Her sons and daughter stood beside her as she lay in bed on a perfect, golden afternoon.
She asked them, softly, “What good news do you have for me to take into the next world?”
Thomas said, “I’ve decided to take over the family business.”
“And I plan to teach as you did,” said Jonathan.
Little Brigid said, “I will be marrying a man. His name is Joseph O’Flannery. He owns a saloon. He’s a good man.”
Brigid stayed still. There were many Joseph O’Flannerys in Boston, she told herself firmly. “Who is his family?”
Her daughter smiled sadly. “He’s not well-off, but he seems to be a good man. His father died of jaw rot some years ago, though the neighbors thought he should have died in prison. They thought he had killed his wife. He cries to think of that, but Mama, when he cries, his eyes get so much bluer than they are already.”
Thomas and Jonathan told her daughter they disapproved of such a match, certainly in light of such a ghastly story.
Brigid wanted to open her mouth, tell them all the true ghastliness of it, but she saw how her daughter touched her belly, as if she had a secret inside.
But that was a song, wasn’t it? A good ballad ends with tragedy, and because it was her tragedy, she would keep it to herself, unlike being hung from her hair outside the second story window, which all the neighbors saw and still talked of, she was sure.
“Mama, before I marry,” said her daughter, “do you have anything to tell me?”
After a long moment, she said, “I have a wooden spoon in an old apron in the closet. It has tooth marks along it. If you are in trouble, make up a song, and bite down hard.”
The children all looked at each other. They didn’t understand.
Let them be innocent of it, Brigid thought as she watched the sun light the window up like a candle. It was her song, not theirs, and she was done singing it.