Updated: Apr 13, 2022
January, and the ground is hard. The bump is hard too, and full of your legs in my ribs. Your name eludes us and we look for it everywhere. We search in movies and in memories. Sakura, after the cherry blossoms in our beloved Japan? Back home in faded Ireland, our vivid honeymoon seems a million years ago, and as many miles.
The cherry blossoms had actually long disappeared when we arrived in the heat and humidity of the summer rainy season. A sudden downpour drenched us as we got off the train, dragging our cases through Akihabara, the electronics district of Tokyo. A jungle of neon, gaming, computers, skyscrapers, and gadgets; we were transported to a futuristic planet so completely different from our home surrounded by farmland and forest that despite the deluge we stood, staggered and soaking, taking it all in.
Tall buildings glowed, red and green and blue lights flashing up and down their hulking bodies. Throngs of people scuttled under the raindrops with transparent umbrellas and dark hair. Beepings, bleepings, arcade games and traffic signals, digital noises engulfed us. Anime characters looked out of shop fronts, danced on screens, and even appeared on manhole covers. We marvelled at the chaos and the order, the juxtaposition of the two evident in the very movement of the city’s inhabitants. The frenetic energy and the polite calmness, bustling and bowing.
We discovered that for every square inch of metropolis concrete and neon, there was another of grass and painted wood, quiet sacred spaces immaculately tended. Little old men worked in khaki uniforms, trimming grass, raking pebbles, and caring for the shrines and statues proudly perched within lush parklands. Red temples bustled with tinkling votives, processions of torii gates and ancient deities; the metaphysical, breathing all around. Wooden emas, or prayer plaques, clacked together in the breeze, and O-mikuji, tiny papers predicted the future, revealing fate in exchange for a five yen coin.
I rubbed my coin, pushed it into the slot, and turned the dial. A tiny scroll appeared. Unrolling it I thought of our future, our home together, a baby perhaps. It read 末小吉, sue-shou-kichi: future small blessing. Rolling it back up I smiled and pocketed it, looking at the fortunes left behind, tied to branches to avoid bringing home bad luck.
If Tokyo was another planet, the rest of Japan was another universe. We travelled by train outside the city, marvelling equally at the speed of the shinkansen, the bullet train, as it flashed through flatlands and cityscapes, and the quaint creaking country funicular railways that climbed mountains, zigzagging through forested wilderness.
When we reached Hakone it seemed as though we had stepped straight into a Studio Ghibli film. Winding pathways took us through mountain villages on foot, a canopy of greenery above us, the trees letting in flickering light to dance on our heads. The air was hot and vaguely tinged with sulphur, earthy and volcanic. Ferns squeezed through the steep rock face which the path wound around, their green fronds tickling as we picked our way carefully down. The warm and comforting aroma of steamed gyoza wafted from hidden homes, hovering between stone and tree on the mountainside. We ordered some of these delicate dumplings from a modest street vendor, sitting at the front of his house, and ate them in a room above, in what might well have been a parish hall, with cold bottles of Asahi beer and no shoes. Pure happiness. We bought soft drinks later from vending machines that seemed to have grown out of boulders and appeared into being, their power sources invisible and baffling. At night, we bathed naked in the onsen, hot water bubbling up from beneath the ground we had earlier walked on, and gazed at the surreal starlit landscape we found ourselves in.
We speak often of living in this place one day, or somewhere like it. Perhaps we will come back here with you, little frog, jumping in my belly, and buy you gyoza and happiness for a time. A month in Japan? A year? We will show you the world. What is your name?
Another moment, another train, another reality. Onwards to Fuji-san.
Aokigahara, the sea of trees - known unfortunately by some English speakers as the Suicide Forest, a name the locals are trying to banish from the place. An area at the base of Mount Fuji where the porous lava rock absorbs sound, Aokigahara forest is thick with wildlife, unseen and extraordinary. Dwarfed by titan trees, the sense of peace is otherworldly, serene, though the solitude is heavy. It is easy to imagine the yūrei, or departed spirits, hidden and watching, like the Japanese say. Here, where there is little in the way of ground cover, footprints betray the presence of foxes, deer, and even the Asian black bear. Beneath their feet stretch immense ice caves, great tunnels underground formed by lava tubes and prehistoric eruptions.
We made our way down into a great hole in the earth, the temperature dropping from a sweltering thirty degrees on the surface to barely one or two in a few downward steps. We had slipped under some kind of veil into an incredibly cold pocket, the air seemingly belonging to somewhere else entirely. Approaching the mouth of the cave we observed the dark ice within. Ivy had managed to colonise some of the blue black stormy stone around the entrance, with feathery ferns guarding the way, holding frigid air between their fingers. The ground outside was hard navy and sponge-like in appearance, but inside was smooth, onyx. We ventured in as much as our guide dared. Too far and a slip could send a person sliding deep within, perhaps to the centre of the earth. Stalactites and stalagmites glittered above and upon the black floor, white and cerulean, revealing themselves to be icicles on closer inspection. They dripped and sweated, the summer temperatures outside affecting them ever so slightly, yet we stood on ice completely solid beneath our boots, some three to six metres below us. Eternal winter.
Eternal winter is how it seems at home now as your advent nears. The gorse prickles the sky, flowerless. Ice grey and emerald. Yet you swim around, warm and pink in your own little grotto, very far from the cavern of ice in which your father and I once stood, awestruck. Our adventures look very different now.
We think back to that trip so often. We thought you would materialise instantly, that pregnancy would happen nearly as soon as we stepped off the plane in Cork. These things are not as easy as you might think, and we are grateful, so grateful, that you are nearly here. We are awestruck these days for other reasons, feeling your limbs reaching out to us through my skin, toward our voices. Who will you be?
We have been doing a lot of walking, of course. It feels like we know our five kilometre radius quite intimately at this point. The seasons have rolled on since, despite our movements being restricted, and though we have not been anywhere as exotic as the concrete jungles and volcanic forests of Japan, we have instead explored our local woods and hills. Making an effort to take in the wonder around us, we have wandered gravel paths, forest trails, and country roads. Instead of hidden shrines, we have found mass rocks and abandoned cars, overgrown with brambles and reclaimed by the wilderness. I discovered that your father has a bizarre fear of sheep (no, love, they are not having a conference on how best to chase us down the hill). We have realised that we share our garden with a family of magpies, that a lanky heron visits the bridge at the stream at sunset, and occasionally, very occasionally, a pair of peregrine falcons can be seen swooping and whirling in the early morning sky above our house. Shining yellow beaks, hard eyes, flirting or fighting, they swirl around one another like slicing blades. There are less pigeons this year, unsurprisingly.
We hunt for your name constantly in our home, and in the hills and valleys we are nestled between. I have a long standing notion, since well before you glinted in my belly, that you will have a green name, like Joni Mitchell sang. Choose her a name she will answer to. Call her green and the winters cannot fade her. Jade. Holly. Olive. Green names from nature, verdant, but not yours.
Still January, unending January. The trees are naked and reaching. The wind stretches their cold limbs. Few footprints have disturbed the mulch of wet leaves at their feet. Cold rocks cling together for warmth, a barrier as old as local memory stretches, as much a part of the landscape as the creaking trees at their sides. Yet here by half-hidden broken stone walls, amongst the detritus, magic slumbers. Furling and unfurling, secretive spirals. The velvet dark ferns begin to raise their heads.
Their round bumps remind me of my own. Full of promise and meaning and life, waiting to reveal itself.
Fern. We see the word written down. A fleeting moment. A shared look. Fern. Fearn. Fearne. Variations in spelling and meaning, but there is a spark there, a connection.
Could it be you?
I begin to notice the shy curlicues more and more on my walks. My strolls really; I am slowing up as your due date approaches. My feet swollen, my balance wobbly. The soft brown spirals are crowded together, hunched and velveteen. They populate the undergrowth, subtle and strong. There are so many I cannot count them, and as many different types it seems as all the other plants around combined.
I begin to spiral like them, my mind in circles, reading all I can about ferns in the dark evenings, about the colour green, about the etymology of the word ‘fern’ itself. I blurt out facts to your father, notes out of context that I have absorbed from the internet when I am unable to sleep, when you elbow me awake.
A symbol of eternal youth all around the world, the fern is a good omen, auspicious and filled with potential. In New Zealand, for the Maori, it is a symbol of new life and new beginnings, while in Japan, dear to our hearts, it represents family, and hope for future generations.
Fossils of ferns have been found dating back millions of years, they are one of the earth’s oldest plants. There are more than twenty thousand species growing around the world. Alien and ethereal, they inhabit damp woods, tropical forests, surreal landscapes, and unexpected hidey holes, lending a touch of enchantment to whatever space they claim.
They are plants which reproduce by spores, and so in medieval times it was thought that they had magical properties. People imagined the seeds of a fern must be invisible and if found, could grant the power of invisibility to any who discovered them. With names such as fairymoss, lady fern, ostrich, Christmas, Venus hair fern, moonwort, and maidenhair, is it any wonder such mythology persists? The idea that ferns have mystical powers still exists in many cultures around the world; in Finland for example, anyone who finds the seed of a fern in bloom on Midsummer night will be guided to a forgotten place where Will-o'-the-wisps glow, marking a hidden treasure.
Delving into Irish history and language, Fearn (ᚃ) is the third letter of the ancient Ogham alphabet. It means alder, one of our native Irish trees, and a wood which when cut turns from white to red. Vanguard of warriors, guardian of sustenance; in past ages, alder was used to make both warriors’ shields and vessels for milk.
An alder tree. I realise the tree on the corner where the magpies reside is an alder. I see its catkins, mischievously dancing in the biting winter air. It is huge and twisting, roots sprawled, trunk vast and imposing. A guardian indeed.
It all adds up in my mind. The ferns, the spirals, the alder, the magic, the green.
Just a little green. Like the nights when the northern lights perform.
You are our magic and our new hope. A shield maiden, a warrior princess. Your tiny fairy face, peaking and swimming, in and out of view on the ultrasounds I have to attend alone. Little fiddle head. Little fern.
It is decided. Now we wait.
Somehow I know you will be early and it will be soon, now that you have a name. I pace the paths. Bags are packed and repacked. Your moses basket is ready, passed down from your grandmother; we all slept in it once and yet it looks impossibly small. I have made bed linen for you. Stitching it carefully, mathematical precision. I am reminded once more of ferns, their fractal forms, mathematical and repetitive.
One night you pick your moment. My waters break, shocking us awake. Get up, it is time to become parents. Laughter and fear, we make our way to the hospital. Your father cannot come in due to restrictions and I spend two nights alone, waiting again, and thinking, as you change your mind and decide to stick it out another while in your cosy cavern.
And suddenly it begins, waves of agony washing over me. The soothing images of nature in the delivery ward are no comfort. Cherry blossoms painted on the ceiling offer no relief. I am alone and terrified for hours. The rolling anguish balls me up. I cry out for your father, who has been waiting in the car park for some time. They examine me once more to discover you are nearly here. They move me somehow, some way, to somewhere else.
My memories are blurry. Your father comes in and I cry more, with pure relief as well as pain, and he holds my hand. I bear down. I cannot speak clearly, but it will be ok I think. There is a lot of blood. And then there is one more push. And one more push. And then the midwives are saying encouraging things, and the doctor is making a cut, and there is one more push and they drag your father around to see you emerge. His face is all awe and reverence.
The first wet glimpse of your head in the delivery room. Dark and velvet. Unfurling.
They pull my hand down, and place it on your little slippery scalp, your tiny face, your magic fingers, grasping the new air. Everything stands still. I am holding my breath as I wait for yours.
One last push and you are unfurled, naked and perfect and sprawled on my chest, bleating your cries to the world, declaring your presence and your possibility. We have loved you a long time, and now you are here.
Our little fern.
Just a little green. Like the color when the spring is born.