I never burned. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m just lucky. Growing up in san Diego and living in San Jose for several years I always spent plenty of time outdoors in the sun, but through it all I never had a single sunburn.
So naturally, somehow, within a month of moving to Ireland, of all places, there I was with my forehead and cheeks and ears decidedly pink and parchment dry, and feeling very tender to the touch.
“I can feel the heat coming off you from across the table,” Annie said sympathetically in our Monday morning team scrum.
“The sun wasn’t even out, and you managed to burn? You’re officially Irish now!” Peter told me, laughing.
I laughed along with them, but on my way home I stopped at the English Market and bought some moisturizer, and I didn’t even wait until I got back to my flat before slathering it all over my face.
Peter was right — the sun hadn’t been out over the weekend when I took a long walk west along the River Lee. In fact, I hadn’t seen the sun since my October arrival in Cork. The famously fickle Irish weather had been behaving more like the stultifying sameness of Seattle, so that even the locals complained about it. The grey blanket of clouds was uniformly heavy, and as autumn deepened, so too did the darkness of the short, overcast days, casting such a darkness over the city that streetlights stayed on all day. Everyone kept remarking that this fall seemed particularly gloomy, but the Irish are used to bad weather and don’t let it keep them in. I did my best to embrace this spirit, and rain or not — there was never shine — I spent my weekends exploring my new city.
Cork is one of the centers of the revived Celtic Tiger economy. With the boom drawing thousands of people to the city, there is a housing shortage, but I was paid well enough that, with the help of an excellent HR department, I managed to land a charming old flat downtown, right on the bank of the south branch of the River Lee. The river runs west to east through the old historical part of the city, built on an island in the middle of the river, although it has long since sprawled well onto both banks, and every night as I lay in bed I could hear the water lapping against the canal walls, lulling me to sleep.
Cork is more than 1400 years old (a mind-blowing concept to someone from a country as young as America, and especially from the West Coast) and history here comes in layer after layer — Georgian on Renaissance on medieval, all the way back to Viking ruins which can still be seen in the city. And with so much history come many legends, of course — and many, many ghosts.
I avoided the cheesy overhyped public “ghost walks,” preferring instead the tales told round the table at the pub with several rounds of pints. I learned the real stories on those nights and then spent my weekends visiting the sites. The old Cork City Gaol, home to several ghosts, as befits such a place. The Maldron Hotel downtown. The Famine cemetery. But most of all — worst of all — the abandoned hospital and asylum a couple miles to the west of town. Fenced off, officially closed to the public, it is supposedly home to several specters and is one of the most haunted places in Ireland, and so I couldn’t resist sneaking in.
I lasted about twenty minutes. I’ve never been to a creepier place in my life. I didn’t encounter any ghosts, but whether it’s actually haunted or whether it’s just the stories, or even just the architecture, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. The building itself is decrepit and decaying, partially burned, and within it those dark wards and oppressive hallways seemed to exude an overwhelming sense of misery and madness. The poor patients may not have been insane when they were sent there, but they couldn’t have spent much time there before the place itself drove them mad.
After that experience I needed to be outside, so I had spent a couple hours just walking along the river. That’s what had resulted in my sunburn.
The hospital was the end of my ghost hunting. I spent the next week nursing my sunburn, and when the weekend came around again I sought lighter fare for my sightseeing. Museums, parks, that sort of thing.
Somehow I managed to do it again, just three weeks later. I walked along the river to Blackrock Castle, a sixteenth century fortress-turned-observatory which now offers both history and astronomy exhibits. The castle stands three miles or so east of the city, where the Lee turns suddenly south to empty into Cobh Harbour and the Atlantic; it’s not a long walk, but apparently it kept me outside long enough to burn once again. Maybe my skin still hadn’t recovered from the first burn; maybe whatever weak light there was that day reflected off the river, intensifying.
Whatever the cause, I retreated inside after that — and I bought a fedora, hoping the brim might fend off the invisible rays of the hidden sun.
Despite the ribbing I received at the office — I was something of a sunburn celebrity now, “more Irish than the Irish” — I spent long hours at work, taking the bus in before sunrise and not returning home until well after sunset (which, at midwinter, came before 5 p.m., but I usually gave it an extra hour or two just to be safe). My boss, the VP of Global Development, expressed some concern that my team might feel pressured to emulate my long hours, and he explained that EU regulations are very strict about such matters. I tried going back to a 9-to-5 schedule, but the morning bus ride seemed agonizingly bright. After three days, I gave up and returned to my pre-sunrise habit.
As a compromise, I kept the light in my office off until at least a few minutes past nine, figuring that might make my early presence less obvious. Everything I did was on the computer anyway, and the screen was bright enough that I didn’t need any other light.
Of course, I didn’t spend all of my time at work; I spent plenty of time enjoying myself in the evenings, and I still got out to explore my new hometown — with so much time at work spent sitting, on the weekends I felt the need to get out and walk, to move. I just did so bundled up — which fit right in with everyone else on the streets. Although the unremitting darkness of the blanketing clouds continued to be a topic of conversation, cold, dreary, and more often than not wet weather was standard here; with a stiff wind either whipping up from the coast or funneling down the river valley to drive the chill deep into your bones, everyone went about in hat, gloves, and jacket. No one had to know I was doing so to avoid the light as well as the cold.
One Saturday I stumbled upon the city museum. It was small, more like the display put together by a small-town Chamber of Commerce or civic boosters club back home, and filled mostly with knick-knacks and archaeological artifacts and old photos, and I rather swept through, but one thing did catch my eye.
It was a large table-top diorama of what looked like a medieval farming settlement. There was a little walled town on two islands surrounded by a moat, with thatch-roofed huts, tiny people and cows and boats, and I stood fascinated for a long time, mainly just thinking of how much fun it must have been to make the model.
“It’s amazing how we’ve grown, isn’t it?” the elderly woman who was minding the museum said to me.
“What is it?” I asked her — I hadn’t yet read the placard.
“That’s Cork back in 1195” she said. And she added, “You’re American, are you?”
“Well, the name Cork comes from the Gaelic word for marsh, corcach. Do you know of Saint Finbarr?”
I laughed. “It’s right across the canal from my flat — I can see it from my windows.” St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, with its towering gothic spires, is the tallest building in Cork; it can be seen from practically everywhere in the city, and it’s hard not to know of it.
But she shook her head. “Not the Cathedral, but the saint it’s named after. The Cathedral is just two hundred years old, built on the site of the previous church, which was built on another, which was built on the site of a monastery Saint Finbarr founded here in the year 606. His first monastery was up at Gougane Barra, the head of the Lee. Legend says the lake was home to a great serpent, Lú, a dragon. Finbarr cast the dark spirit out of the lake, and as it tumbled away its tail carved the course of the river through the valley and out to sea. Where the serpent clawed at the ground to try to halt itself, it dug furrows that created marshy islands on which Cork City was built. Finbarr followed the new river to make sure of the serpent’s banishment, and then settled here to start a new monastery.”
This hadn’t really explained anything to me. “So . . . this is Cork City? That canal between the two islands was filled in to make the one big island we have today?”
“The original city was quite small,” the woman told me. She pointed to the diorama. “The road running through the middle of the walled city here is today’s Main Street. The river here along this wall is now Grand Parade — you can still see part of the original city wall in Bishop Lucey Park. These bits along the edge are part of the many other marsh islands. The land was all built up over time, yes, but the river itself was bridged and eventually covered over the centuries, not filled in. We’re less like Paris, sitting on one island in the river, and more like Venice.”
I tried not to smile at her grandiose comparison. “So the water still flows under the city?”
“It does. Look at how St. Patrick Street curls through the city, when all our other roads are straight. It follows the course of the water. It was only covered in the 1770s and 80s, and the buildings on the banks were already well-established, so there was no way to straighten it.”
I thanked her for the information and spent several more minutes staring at the model, fascinated. I found where my flat stood (or would stand, in a dozen centuries). It was fun overlaying my incipient knowledge of modern-day Cork onto the model. It was fun, but something about it — about the woman’s explanation — gnawed at the back of my mind.
That night as I lay in bed, the lapping of the river against the foundation of the building gained a new dimension. Rather than the simple, charming sound of moving water, it became mythological. I imagined I could hear the hidden water flowing secretly under the city, mapping its origins, whispering its history. . . .
Where the River Lee runs through the city it is dull and lugubrious, a dark river but a pale thing, yet it defines the city and always has. Through the city itself the Lee is a lifeless and walled canal, rising and falling with the tide, it’s murky water brackish with the ocean salt, yet even so the Lee is and always has been the life blood of the city. Life in the city revolves around the Lee but at the same time avoids it. The people of Cork proudly call themselves Leesiders, yet they seem largely reluctant to engage directly with their river; they love it, they romanticize it the way Parisians romanticize their beloved Seine — but they remain ambivalent, almost wary of it all the same. History I did not understand has created an uneasy balance between the romantic ideal and the dark reality of the ancient water.
The winter’s darkness continued to grow, and the cloud cover held its thrall over the city. No one could quite explain it. Sometimes it rained, sometimes it didn’t, but the clouds remained always, heavier than usual, and less and less light seemed to be able to struggle through, but there didn’t seem to be any specific reason for it.
Despite the darkness, I found myself often squinting painfully against an odd lambency. The clouds seemed not to block the light entirely, but to diffuse it; it glowed from everywhere at once, and as dim as it was, it assaulted my eyes in a way it never had under the cloudless California sky.
Of course, sunglasses were nowhere to be had in Cork at this time of year. In the end, I ordered a pair online and had them express shipped. They were a big hit at the office — everyone’s concept of California and Californians came straight from the movies and TV, and my wearing sunglasses in the midwinter darkness only reinforced their ridiculous ideas. Well, I had to admit it was a bit ridiculous. Such wan light never would have bothered me at all back home.
I went about now swaddled in coat, gloves, hat, and sunglasses, like the invisible man. At work I stayed as much as possible in my dark office; I came to dread meetings and conferences in the brightly lit rooms, and I wore my sunglasses everywhere.
Walking out to dinner one evening, I crossed St. Patrick’s Bridge over a low tide, and a thought struck me. I stood on the quay on the far side of the river and looked back to the island, surveying the stone wall of the canal. It was difficult to see in the dim evening light, but eventually I saw a deeper darkness just downstream of the bridge — a large open culvert. Was this just a storm drain, I wondered, or could this actually be the river flowing under St. Patrick Street emptying back into the main channel? Not that I had disbelieved the old woman’s history, but it still amazed me that it might actually be true.
That weekend when the tide was out and the river low I walked both banks, scanning the island walls for more indications of the river beneath the city. Starting on the south bank across from my flat and walking east, then crossing to the north bank and walking back west, I saw a number of culverts piercing the stone walls that supported City Centre Island. Of course, in the artificial walls the openings likewise were all constructed, so there was no way to know if any of them channeled the river under the island instead of merely draining rainfall. I hadn’t expected anything else — certainly not some kind of primeval natural fissure indicating absolutely a natural channel — but still a certain frustration tinged my fascination.
Still, I couldn’t help mentioning my discovery to the bartender when I stopped at the Franciscan Well Brewery for lunch, drawn in from the street by the aroma wafting from the brick pizza oven in the beer garden out back of the pub, beside their brewhouse.
She admirably feigned interest in my story. “Oh, yes, water flows everywhere here. Right out back, even.”
I thought she was making a joke about the brewery, but she explained, “We’re the Franciscan Well Brewery because this used to be a monastery, built around a holy well. The well is walled up now, but it’s out back, if you want a look.”
“So is that where Sunday’s Well gets its name?” I asked. The pub sits at the base of Sunday’s Well Road, which leads up the steep hill to the very posh neighborhood of the same name.
The bartender smiled. “Different holy well. That one was also bricked up years ago. And there’s Lady’s Well on the hill above the Murphy’s Brewery, in the little park there. That one’s got a grating over it now, and it’s honestly not much to look at, but at least it’s there. Like I said, water flows everywhere here — although it’s probably just plain groundwater flowing out from the hills. Nothing holy about it, really.”
I thought about the geography. The north bank did indeed leap steeply from the river itself. “What about the south bank?” I asked. The land there rose much more gently from the river.
She shrugged. “Nothing there, as far as I know. It’s all here on the steep, steep north side.”
I looked around the pub. “This really used to be a monastery?”
“Thirteenth century, I think,” she said. “I’m not sure when it closed down.”
“I thought Saint Finbarr established his monastery around 600.”
The bartender laughed out loud at that. “Different monastery,” she told me. “Ireland’s lousy with ’em!”
I sipped my beer and thought about Cork’s uneasy relationship with water — why did they keep trying to cover it up? And why, with so many holy wells on the north side of the river, would Finbarr have settled on the south side, where there were none? And why so close to what was then a marsh? It seemed like a poor location overall. Why had the saint chosen such an unremarkable site?
The river flowing under the city flowed through my dreams that night. Its voice was nearly silent, but to those who knew, who would listen, the Lee filled the dark night with centuries of stories. The river did not shout, but instead saved its mysteries for only those few it chose as its own. For me.
At the Franciscan Well I had toyed with going in search of Lady’s Well, the one in the park, but I woke the next morning feeling slightly feverish, my forehead not only hot to the touch but dry and tender as well — despite the clouds that shrouded the sky and the hat and sunglasses that shielded my face, I somehow had managed to burn yet again.
I woke Monday morning feeling slightly better, but decided not to take any chances. I called in to work and told my boss I’d be working from home that day.
“I think you should see a doctor,” he told me. “It’s not natural, sunburns in this weather. And this fever sounds almost like sun poisoning. This may not just be the sun — I’m worried you could have some sort of allergy or something causing this sensitivity.”
I told him I would make an appointment, but of course I didn’t. But when I opened up my laptop to log in to work, the screen seared my eyes. I tried squinting, but even when I turned the brightness down as far as it would go, the light hurt so much I couldn’t force my eyes to stay open. When I ended up sitting in my darkened living room with the curtains drawn and even so wearing my sunglasses just to be able to endure using my screen at minimum brightness, I had to admit that something was not right.
I called a doctor and got an appointment for the following Thursday. Later that afternoon, however, I received a call from a different doctor’s office.
“Doctor Carrow’s office referred your case to Doctor Bennet, and he can see you tomorrow morning at ten,” the receptionist told me.
This seemed remarkable to me, being used to the American system, and I jumped at the chance. Best of all, the new doctor was at the hospital just three blocks north of my flat.
I worked as best I could for the rest of the day, and the next morning I bundled myself up against the cold and the light and hurried up the street to the hospital. I made my way through the maze of hallways and finally found Dr. Bennet’s clinic, which turned out to be epidemiology — a worrying start.
It seemed blindingly bright, but as soon as I struggled through the morass of new-patient paperwork a nurse took me back to an examination room and turned off the light so I could wait in blessed darkness.
Ten minutes later there was a warning knock at the door, and then light flooded in as the doctor entered.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to put on the light, if you don’t mind,” he said.
The sudden assault forced my eyes shut even with my sunglasses. By the time they had adjusted enough that I could open them, the doctor was observing me with obvious concern.
I’m Doctor Bennet,” he said.
I introduced myself.
“You’re obviously suffering some light sensitivity,” he said sympathetically, “and I see a bit of sunburn on your face. How long has this been going on?”
“Two or three months? I got a sunburn about a month after arriving in Ireland, and it just keeps happening. This is the third one. My supervisor thought it might be some sort of allergy, since I’m new here.”
He nodded. “And this last was the first that made you feel poorly? Other than the sunburn pain itself?”
“Yes. The others were just normal sunburns. I mean, I assume — these are the first sunburns I’ve ever had.”
“And the optic sensitivity began about the same time as the sunburns?”
I thought about this. “I suppose so. After the first burn, certainly.”
Dr. Bennet nodded again, slowly, and wrote a note on my chart. “And are the burns coming more easily each time? That is, with less exposure to the sun?” A brief smile flickered over his face. “Or at least to what little we’re getting this year?”
“That’s right.” A sudden realization made my stomach dance with trepidation. “You know what this is, don’t you?”
He sighed. “I’m afraid I don’t. But . . . I have seen this before.” He paused, as though wondering how much to reveal to me. “In fact, you are the fourteenth case like this I’ve encountered. In the last three months. And all here in Cork. I’m trying to . . . consolidate all of the cases in order to determine a cause. That’s why your GP referred you here — I’ve sent round a bulletin asking any doctors who encounter patients with these . . . well, these symptoms to contact me. The more cases we can study, the better our chance of figuring out what’s responsible.”
I took this in. “So . . . you don’t even have an idea?”
He looked embarrassed, and ignored my question. “I want to run some tests. Blood samples, that sort of thing. And tests to set a baseline for your sensitivity — eyes and skin.” He seemed to be getting more and more uncomfortable. “And. . . .”
He glanced at my chart, at me, and then returned his focus to my chart, avoiding eye contact.
“For the more . . . advanced cases, we have established a special ward. Absolutely minimal light exposure. It might be more comfortable for you there. And, of course, it would allow us to constantly monitor your progress.”
“Advanced cases? You’re saying this is progressive? It’s going to continue to get worse?”
“To be honest, I don’t know.” It was obvious that this made him uncomfortable — both not knowing, and having to admit it. “At this point, we quite honestly don’t know anything.” He finally looked up and met my gaze. “But judging from the other cases — yes, I’m afraid it is likely to progress.”
I collapsed back in the chair. An allergy, a disease, even cancer I could have dealt with. A diagnosis. But just not knowing. . . .
“Run the tests you need,” I told him. “But I don’t think I need to check into the hospital. I’ll be fine at home.”
Dr. Bennet nodded weakly. “Of course. However, I would at least like you to come in weekly for tests, so we can judge your progress and also compare your case against the others. I can’t force you, of course, yet, but it would be helpful.”
That yet, so subtly emphasized, caused the pit of my stomach to drop, and I dumbly nodded my acquiescence.
By the time of my check-up the following week, I was almost ready to give up and check myself in. Light was indeed becoming increasingly unendurable, and I found myself feeling fevered again after a long meeting in a brightly lit conference room, dangerously close to burning just from the overhead artificial light.
So when I went back to Dr. Bennet, I said, “Tell me more about my options.”
He gave me a penetrating but hopeful look. “The Dark Ward? Well, you would have a private room where you could control the amount of light, and the common area is kept absolutely dark unless staff are there. I’ll have the paperwork brought in, if you’d like.”
Reluctant but resigned, I agreed. Dr. Bennet gave me a reassuring look and turned the lights out as he left. Ten minutes later, the receptionist brought in a thick stack of papers — forms, questionnaires, and pages of legalese I needed to sign.
They left me alone while I sorted through it all. So much reading and writing numbed my brain, the scratching of the pen and the rustling of the papers and the hum of the ventilation a lulling susurrus, like the rhythmic whisper of the river beneath the city.
As my mind drifted further on these subterranean currents, that voice became clearer.
I put down the papers and put on my coat and gloves and hat, and I left without a word. I would not shut myself away from the water. Because I finally understood its whispering secrets.
When Saint Finbarr left his lake and followed the river course carved by Lú, the River Lee, followed to make certain the serpent had been expelled from the land, he did not track her to the open sea and then return upriver to found his monastery by the marshes as the legend states. The saint stopped here at the marshes because the serpent had stopped here; she formed the marshes when she clawed at the ground as she tried to arrest her flight, yes — and she succeeded in stopping. Saint Finbarr settled here to keep vigil over the dark spirit of the water who had made her sanctuary in the waters of the marshland. With the saint watching over her she could not escape, but neither could he destroy her outright. Water flows everywhere here.
Lú bided her time and built her strength, at first in the marshes and then under the city as it built itself unknowingly around and over her. And now her time is almost come.
So I returned to my flat to wait as she waited, in darkness.
The voice of the Dark One is all around me here.
When she calls my name, I will go to her.
James Bassett’s fiction has appeared in markets such as Crannóg, Amazing Stories, and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Leviathan 3. He co-edited (with Stephen L. Antczak and Martin H. Greenberg) the anthology Zombiesque (DAW Books, February 2011) and (with Stephen L. Antczak) the anthology Clockwork Fairy Tales (ROC, June 2013). He is also an award-winning stone and wood sculptor.