An excerpt from the forthcoming novel, The Affection of a Hag, by Emer Martin,
available later this year.
You can now purchase Baby Zero on Kindle.
I am the hag. I am Ireland. When I die, even as a hag, my legs will curl up like a dead spider. I am not restless like ye; forever shape shifting from fish, to rodent, to ape, to human. You can find me in amber 130 million years ago. Before I was a hag, I was a spider for so long. It was when you came to my shore that I took your shape. I regrew my eight arms when you began to abuse me: I can’t shaky my spidery ways.
“Spiderlings, spiderlings,” I call on the abandoned mountainside on Bolus head, in the Barony of Iveragh, Co Kerry. I poke my withered arms into the earth of the limbo graveyard, and retrieve those little ones who you wouldn’t even take into the afterlife with you.
“It’s time for a day out,” I coo to my limbo babies. “A jaunt up to Dublin. I can only take 8 of you this time. So I’ll have one spider hand for each.”
We bus it up to Dublin. The limbo babies open their mouths and make popping noises with their lips. Grateful to be out of the ground. I spit on a tissue and wipe some of the dirt from their faces.
“This will be educational too you know. Next stop the National Museum. Can’t all be fun and games, storytelling at the Leprechaun museum, crawling about the tunnel in the wax museum. Up and down the slippery steps in the Phoenix Park, hearing the roar of the lions at the zoo. We’ll do all of that, but I have to see my bog bodies too. I haven’t been able to talk to them since they pulled them out of me. I’ve heard they’ve created a fine exhibit in their honour.”
In the National Museum I ignore the stares of the guards. We are quite the sight, the old hag trailed by eight, rotting, crawling limbo babies. I check in my bag and march off to find the bog bodies. While they were under the earth I had some contact with them, gave them a bit of a motherly affection over two and a half millenniums. I thought I had so much to say. But as soon as I enter their tombs I can say nothing, except remember. They lie under glass. The Iron Age seems like yesterday; my little rotten precious Limbo babies press their tiny noses to the glass as I hold one in each arm. They gasp at their kin, the perfect fingernails, the emptied out lives, the cut nipples. Sacrificed men. I remember the Iron Age nights you went down, boys. I remember the faces on those who killed you. I remember them cutting you under the nipples so you could never be king. I remember your last meal. How you looked to the sky at the new gods coming like flashing streaks of light. You were pushed into earth, into me, your old hag mother, old hag God, Ireland.
“I told you that I would come Lads,” I whisper.
There is a bench beside the bodies and I sit.
“Is it ok now?” I ask them. “Is time the great healer that everyone keeps saying it is? For me, you see, time goes in spirals; everything keeps coming around again but at a different level. “Whisht now. They are all gone, your murderers, but you are still here. Take some comfort.”
What did the bog body in the National Museum say to this old hag with her 8 limbo babies? If you don’t want to know just skip this part:
A Bog Body replies: “Fame is poor revenge, indeed. Would I have not chosen another night? Just one more might under the ancient stars before my sacrifice?”
I touch him, tender is this hag. He shivers but lets me. A man like what’s left of him can’t be fussy.
‘”What took you so long?” He asked.
“Arra, don’t whinge. I’ll never let you down. I’m not human.”
My limbo babies are getting fidgety and scuffle around the place. I have to keep an eye on them or they’ll be up to all sorts of mischief in the museum. Two have disappeared already. Some French tourists are staring at me with their mouths hanging open. They snap pictures on their iPhones. Here I am, Ireland herself.
“Every culture holds a sacrifice as its igniting force,” I whisper, I don’t like that they are already uploading my image to Social Media sites. I get ready to leave, looking around for my little spiderlings.
“Yes, I was their bog Jesus,” he says to me through his black skin. His perfect fingers twitch and clench. “Aren’t all sacrifices really acts of convenience? Isn’t there always someone to get rid of?”
More tourists gather and everyone has a phone out to record the moment the bog body moved.
“Shh,” I said, “wipe your tears, hush now.”
“Was it worthwhile? What is Ireland now?”
“Hush now, maybe someday you’ll be back inside me. Maybe I’ll gather you up.”
“They sucked the fluid out of me like a spider.”
I let go of his hand; he did look rather like an empty school bag.
“Nothing to do with me. I gave you all the affection I could.”
“Is fuar Cumann Caillach.” He snaps.
The affection of a hag is a cold thing.
So it is, spiderlings. So it is.
Before I cause a riot in the museum, I run off to gather my bold wee spiderlings. We’ll go in the shape shifting boat past St Patrick’s Cathedral. The man in the Viking Splash Tour gives us a funny look. An old hag and her eight dead and rotting babies. There are so many crows following us that he keeps glancing in consternation at the sky above. But we have cash so they give us our plastic Viking helmets and off we go. He tells us about the grave of Dean Swift. The inscription on his tombstone reads: “Here lies Jonathon Swift, where savage indignation can no longer lacerate the heart.”
I wish I could lie somewhere like that.
Into the water by the canal, the babies all clap in delight. One claps so hard her finger falls off. I pick it up and pocket it.
Last stop before we go home, I buy all my putrid limbo children a Happy Meal. If they can never sit close to God they can at least have a happy meal.
As they eat I watch them for signs of happiness and I think I see a glimmer. I sigh as they snuggle up to me. I hate to have to put them back inside the mountain on Bolus Head. But they wouldn’t last long here. Not on this diet. I shake my head at the table as we finish: all the paper, and the cardboard, and the drinking straws, and the plastic toys that they have lost interest in already. It is a carpet of ruin. No, you will not survive yourselves if this is your residue from one feeding.
We make our way to Bus Arus and I don’t know Dublin all that well, so we get lost in Marlborough Street. What I see here shocks even me, who has been witness to all since the Devonian, since the Cambrian, since all the world was one big country of Pangaea. Since I, Ireland, was two halves that collided. I, who had once been moored by Australia. I have witnessed years in the millions. I see it has come to this. Was it for this you crawled out of the water? Was it for this you came down from the trees? Was it for this you walked the land bridge from Africa? Was it for this you set out on small boats from the foggy coast of Iberia and made first landing on Bolus Head?
The lost junkie tribe on Marlborough Street gathered in shivering clusters. The light had gone out of their eyes worse than even in all the famine times. What really shocks me is that everyone else is moving about obliviously, while their own people stand soul destructed as they wait for the dealer. There had been more life in the bog bodies.
Suddenly, my handbag gets snatched. “Lousy Junkies.” I find myself howling. “No one cares about ye. Where will you pawn a hag’s handbag?”
My limbo babies begin to cry and it almost takes the good out of the happy meal. Since we have no bus fare, I have to mount onto the roof of the Kerry bus. Their bodies are so flimsy; one loses an ear to the whipping wind. I gather them closer to me, spider hag, wrapping my hairy old arms around each of them.
At the end of the journey some of them pretend to be asleep just like real children do. Just so I have to carry them.
Exhausted, I tuck them back into the dark deconsecrated mountain, my wee spiderlings. Rest now far from God, no grace granted to you, only me here to take care of you.
Is fuar cumann caillach.
The affection of a hag is a cold thing.
Emer Martin is a Dubliner who has lived in Paris, London, the Middle East, and various places in the U.S. Her first novel Breakfast in Babylon won Book of the Year 1996 in her native Ireland at the prestigious Listowel Writers’ Week. Houghton Mifflin released Breakfast in Babylon in the U.S. in 1997. More Bread Or I’ll Appear, her second novel was published internationally in 1999. Emer studied painting in New York and has had two sell-out solo shows of her paintings at the Origin Gallery in Harcourt St, Dublin. Her third novel Baby Zero is now available on Kindle; it was published in the UK and Ireland March 07, and released in the U.S. 2014. She completed her third short film Unaccompanied. She produced Irvine Welsh’s directorial debut NUTS in 2007. Emer was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000. She now lives in the jungles of Co. Meath, Ireland.
–Art by Lisa Griffin