Niamh Mac Cabe


Four Night Seas

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(& An Admission of Failure)
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Winner of The London Magazine Short Story Prize 2023
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3 am, driving home from a wild Connemara party, drunk. A sodden half-moon hung above them. Passing Silverstrand, the car beams caught two small white discs shining out from the hedgerow by the strand’s carpark. This made her pull in, this unexpected flash, the sudden mystery of it opening up.
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They stood on the tallest dune, to get their bearings. An animal called out from a field behind them.
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‘A fox. That’s what was in the ditch back there,’ she said. ‘Beautiful animal.’
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Her certainty irritated him. Certain it’s a fox, certain it should be described as beautiful, certain he should be interested in what she finds beautiful.
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‘Could’ve been anything. Someone’s pussy-cat.’
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The animal called out again, a shriek.
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‘Sounds sad, to me,’ he said.
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Then they saw the fox, sitting in a sweep of oxeye daisies. It spotted them and fled, closed flowerheads swaying like groupies in its wake. ‘Fuck it,’ he said.
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Seashore walks had become a weekend routine for them, collecting bleached shells and pebbles in muted pinks and teals, writing nonsense in the sand, The Bees Love U. But they’d never been to the sea at night. And they’d never been to Silverstrand, it’s always been either Salthill, or the remote coral beaches further out in Connemara.
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They’d heard Silverstrand was a dogging venue (he’d needed to explain the sexual fetish to her; she’d pretended not to be shocked, he’d pretended not to feel stupid). They’d an ongoing dare with each other that they should do it; they should register on dogging websites, see what happens. Neither of them was sure whether the other was joking.
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But tonight, here, they appeared to be alone. There was no sense of an approaching dawn. The ocean, wide awake, reached in to them.
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She looked at him, the hollow V at his throat as he swallowed (he always swallows when he knows she’s observing him). She wanted him to look back. He didn’t. She fastened her arms around him. The ocean mumbled over tidal pebbles; a worn intimacy.
He rolled his shoulders. ‘Let go, gotta stretch.’
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‘Apologies.’ She unlocked her hands.
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‘How ’bout a joke?’ he said, extending his arms.
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‘Sure.’
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‘Okay. A student is putting some hypotheticals about snakes to his teacher.’
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‘Some what?’
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‘Some hypotheticals. So he asks the teacher, “What if the snake bites me and it dies?” The teacher says, “That means you’re poisonous”. The student says, “What if it bites itself and I die?” Teacher says, “Voodoo.” Student says, “What if it bites me but someone else dies?” Teacher says, “That’s correlation, not causation.”
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She was tired. Maybe they should go swimming, night-swimming. ‘Wait,’ she said, ‘Teacher said what?’
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‘Correlation. Doesn’t matter. Anyway, the teacher, I mean, the student says, ‘What if we bite each other and neither of us die?’ Guess what the teacher replies.’
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‘Dunno.’
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‘Guess.’
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‘Dunno.’
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‘Try.’
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‘Let’s go swimming.’
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‘Fuck it.’
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They stripped, and marched out towards the ocean. They didn’t break stride when they reached the water but, as the tide rose up their limbs, they slowed. The water felt no different than the air, occasional small currents of coldness or warmth pushing and pulling around them. Chest-deep, they stopped, floated, splayed their limbs. He started to whistle. She reached over, found his hand.
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Imagine in such a place closing your eyes because you want to fix it there, always there for retrieval, a story you tell yourself, a few small details amended, imagine thinking ahead like that, thinking these silvery waves could be captured solid
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The fox yelped again but this time its call seemed so far away it barely existed, at least not there, not at that wide time, floating in the night sea together. Lifting her head towards the sound to anchor herself, she saw they’d drifted far offshore. Alarmed, she tried to touch the sea floor with her feet.
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Nothing.
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And now they were both thrashing in the riptide, trying to get a foothold. No words were exchanged, their jaws clenched shut against the churning. They knew what they were supposed to do, he’d coached her many times. Stay calm, don’t fight the current, don’t swim into the riptide.
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He’d already turned, was heading haltingly in the other direction. She saw him striving to align with the strip of beach they’d been on. She decided to try, she’ll try to swim back, try to stay in a straight line, a parallel line, get back there, that’s all.
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Both raised their heads at every fourth stroke to check the shoreline in relation to their position, to make sure they were on the correct trajectory. They each focused on their limbs slicing through the water, on their solitary private terror that they might not make it, that what happened next was solely in their own hands.The dread of failing themselves both overwhelmed and propelled them.
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He arrived first. He watched her, a dark speck jerking against the silver- grey surface. By the time he’d dressed, she was half-way up the beach, head down, arms exed across her breasts. When she reached him, she said nothing, started to dress, taking time over zippers, buttons, collars, cuffs. ‘God, that was something!’ he said. She replied on a sharp inbreath. ‘Yep.’
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On the way back to the car, she said ‘You okay, then?’ and they both knew her intention was to mark the chasm that had just opened up between them, to underline it, the sudden, clear realisation that, caught in the riptide, neither of them had spared one thought for the other.
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The relationship didn’t last much longer. In the years following, in their individual lives, they lied about the event, recounting it as if they swam to shore side by side, arms beating the water together like synchronised clocks until they were both safely on dry ground. Eventually, neither of them recounted the story at all.
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*

3am, a half-arsed moon night, they’re driving home, drunk. He’s found her pearlescent nail varnish in the glove compartment and is blowing loudly on his badly painted fingernails. Passing the strand, the car lights catch two white discs reflecting out at them. A dog? Something about this hidden presence stirs him. (Recently he’s been preyed upon by an irrational certainty that there’s some ghostly being tracking him.) Then he remembers the local dogging rumours, and their recent dare. Perfect.
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‘Pull in,’ he says. ‘Let’s go walkies.’
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‘What’s the magic word?’
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‘Christ, just pull in,’ he says, twisting the steering wheel and dinging the still-doughy pearl varnish.
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In the dunes, they try to get their bearings. Car park empty, beach empty, no happy-slappy doggers tonight. Fuck it. Galway city still smoulders in the eastern sky, and ahead, across the bay, tiny lights on the coast of Clare.
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‘Shshsht,’ she says, though they’d both been silent. ‘Hear that?’
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There’s an animal yelping somewhere.
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‘A fox,’ she says, ‘a beautiful creature. Bet that’s the eyes we saw in the ditch.’
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‘Sounds more like a dog. Maybe it’s some mad dogging activity.’ ‘That’s a fox, Sweetheart. Calling out to its mate. Shshsht.’
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‘Shsht yerself. A dog, or doggers. Take your pick.’
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The animal calls out again, a series of shrieks.
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They sit in the dune’s marram grass. He knows she’s looking at him; he pictures himself in her eyes. He straightens his back, touches his mouth, waits for her to lean in. Maybe now is a good time. He’ll give her one lasting, sweet kiss, and then he’ll tell her. The age gap, look, it’s not working. She’ll be upset, humiliated, he’ll stay calm, respectful, willing to talk her through it. She’ll refuse to engage. She’ll drive back to their flat without him and, by the time he walks home, she’ll have gotten used to it, will want out, will want to be the one leaving. With a bit of luck she may even have packed her stuff by then. He’ll take over the lease. Could all be sorted by midweek.
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She settles her head on his shoulder, picks at a seam repair she’d made to his shirt. The sea gripes low over its own pebbles. He rolls his shoulder away.
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‘Need to stretch.’
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‘Sorry. Stretch away.’
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He stands, extends his arms, swivels from the waist.
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‘You’re like a helicopter about to take off,’ she says, lying down into the marram.
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‘Hilarious. Want to hear a joke?’
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‘Sure.’
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‘About voodoo.’
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‘Sure.’
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‘Okay. So, if a doll, if you look into the eyes of a voodoo doll, of your voodoo doll…’
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‘Wait, what d’you mean “your doll”? Like, you own it but you’re trying to stick needles in someone else?’
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‘No, sorry, my bad, the doll is you, you have it in your hands, for some reason, your own doll…’
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‘So, you’ve yourself in your hands?’
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‘Yeah, your own doll, and you’re looking into its eyes, and, this is more of a riddle than a joke to be fair, so, if you’re looking into its eyes, what would, wait, start again. What would happen if…’
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‘Pause, let’s go swimming, give me the punchline on the way.’
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‘It’s not a punchline kind of thing but yeah, you do you.’
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‘What does that even mean, you do you?’ she says, hauling herself from where she’d sprawled out prone, limbs in an X. ‘It makes no sense.’
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She undresses, snapping the air with each piece of clothing before throwing them on a pile at her feet. ‘Furthermore, FYI, neither does the phrase my bad. Both grammatically incorrect. And not in a good way.’
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She’s naked, one step ahead of him. As she walks towards the tide, he slides down the dune, back towards a clump of oxeye daisies at the edge and grabs a fistful. He’ll give them to her after the talk. They don’t look like much now, but they’ll be something when they open up in the morning. He balls his clothes with hers, leaves the flowers on top, stumbles after her. She’s waiting in the tide, hands on hips.
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The water feels about the same as the air. When they’re chest-deep, they float, splaying their limbs. Starfish. He remembers the X she made of herself on the marram. When her hand searches for his, he offers it. He hears the animal yelp again, but this time it seems so far away it barely exists. Maybe it is people fucking. Class.
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Close your eyes to fix it here, a story, silver-tipped waves captured solid
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The water shifts. For the first time, he notes the little silver licks of warning, the tongues beginning to lash round his limbs. Spooked, he looks up. They’ve drifted far off shore.
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Shit, a bastard rip tide.
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And now he’s thrashing in the water, trying to pull himself back. He knows what he’s supposed to do. Stay calm, don’t fight the current. Swim parallel to shore until you’re out of the riptide. Then arc your way back to solid ground. For fuck sake she’s grasping for him, hands pawing the water, pug eyes fixed on him, lips pulled back chin jutting forward like a fucking puppy dog.
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‘Just swim!’ he shouts, and turns, allowing the current to pull him from her. He curves his way towards the beach. Just once he hears her calling out.
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When he reaches shore, he looks back. Where is she? He scans the horizon, everything quiet, streaks of dawn now visible to the east. She’ll be grand. Might’ve reached land somewhere else, might’ve scrambled up the rocks at Cloosh, or drifted on toward Mutton Island. Christ, that’s at least five kay away. At fucking least. How far out were they anyway? Not that far, they weren’t past Cloosh head surely.
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He plods back to their belongings, gets dressed. He starts to fold her clothes away before he realises what he’s doing. Maybe there’s people watching. Doggers. Probably hiding in the dunes. Saw the whole thing. Watching him now. He gets to his feet, calls out towards the dark sea. Then again, louder, his hands splayed taut either side of his mouth, rigid fingers pointing skyward like a row of pearl-tipped exclamation marks. ‘Hey!’ he shouts, and again, ‘hey where are you!’ because he doesn’t know what else to do.
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*
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3am, we were driving home, we saw discs glowing by the strand. So we pulled into the car park, to walk the dunes, to suck on some cold sea air.
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Parking under the lone lamp post, we laughed about the dogging rumours. Wouldn’t it be funny if we came across some fuckery. Yes, wouldn’t that have been something.
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On the dunes, we pulled greasy fistfuls of marram, scattered them behind us, some Hansel and Gretel thing, how to get back home, how to return (we didn’t want to go home) (we were hoping to find people fucking). Our feet sank, cool sand filled our shoes, it felt good.
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A fox yelping in a far-off field saw us standing there, and fled. The ocean grumbling over its worn pebbles reminded us of ourselves (we didn’t want to be reminded). We stripped, then on into the waves.
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The water felt no different than the air. We pushed past the little silver licks of warning, the tongues of water lashing at us (get back, back). We kept going, then floated, holding hands, X-X.
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(close our eyes and fix it here, silver waves trapped solid)
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This water shifted beneath us.
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And on shore, what?
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The yelp, so far away it barely exists (what was it, was it tomorrow). This water shifted and we were not where we should be and we were trying to get back to what we were, but this keen, we found no foothold and our limbs, their sad frenzy, remember, but the water’s no different than the air, and we left our limbs behind and we left our pink lungs behind and the cold ocean got into us and we were left behind is what it was.
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*
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3a.m. and we’ll finally be heading homeward, spent. But when the beams catch something by the strand, we’ll decide to pull in.
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The sea will beckon us, gurgling baby-soft. When water whispers round our ankles, we’ll keep walking. When water reaches the tender heat of our armpits, it’ll seem that we’ve crossed a threshold. We’ll let the waves rock us, forgive everything.

*

and you’re trying to write about that last night you spent together in Silverstrand, and you’ve chosen to present the idea of tapetum lucidum in the eyes of nocturnal animals, trying to do the inexplicable justice, this miracle of a reflective lining behind the retina at the back of the animal’s eye, a sheath that glows when light shines on it, a thin iridescent disc enabling vision in dim light, without which clear sight would be impossible
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and you’re closing your eyes to allow yourself to picture a creature hiding in a hedgerow

on a damp spring night, to bear silent witness to it hiding
from the overwhelming beams of an advancing car
a creature trying to get to the other side
trying to go back, back to its mate
and at the back of your eyes
can you find forgiveness
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Niamh Mac Cabe is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and hybrid prose. She’s published in numerous journals including Narrative Magazine, The Stinging Fly, Aesthetica, Mslexia, The Offing, Southword, The Irish Independent, and Minor Literature[s]. She’s won many awards, including the Wasafiri Prize, John McGahern Award, and Molly Keane Award, and has been placed or shortlisted in several contests including Costa Short Story Award, SoA’s ALCS Tom Gallon Trust Award, Glimmer Train Press Award, American Short Fiction’s Prize, Harvard Review’s Chapbook Prize, New Ohio Review’s Editor’s Award, Lit Mag’s Virginia Woolf Award, and Masters Review Flash Contest.


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