Fiction | June 01, 1998
I’m writing to say that I made it and I would like to go forward with our tentative agreement, that is, that I will live here for twenty pounds a month in exchange for repairs on the cottage. I understand that you have the option of asking me to leave at any time, and I also reserve the option of leaving if I find I’m not up to this.
I understand now why you told me to take a room in Dingle for the night, but I had already made up my mind on the bus ride from Tralee to Dingle to come out here directly. The scenery was so spectacular I knew this is where I wanted to live, and having determined that, I was not content to stay in Dingle for the night. I wanted to see the cottage, I wanted to know what I was getting into. I got off the bus in the lower end of town, as you suggested, and walked out past the tidal basin to the bridge where your map began. It was just dusk, and I felt certain I could hitch a ride the ten kilometers to Ventry and walk up before it was too dark.
I didn’t have much luck at first, so I started to walk. I got as far as a cemetery when a car pulled over. A couple from Cork on vacation. They were going to Kruger’s Pub in Dunnquinn. Consulting your map, I found this would take me within a few kilometers of the cottage. We passed through Ventry and followed around to O’Shea’s, where we turned up toward the pass. I had them let me out at the first intersection. I didn’t realize how dark it was until I watched their taillights disappear in the distance. I couldn’t distinguish the land from the sky. I could barely see the road in front of me. Striking a match, consulting your map, it appeared easy enough, so I shouldered my pack, took up my two bags, and set out.
When the paved road gave over to a cart path, I began to have serious doubts and wished I had taken your advice, but I didn’t see how I could go wrong. According to your map I was to take a left at the first fork and a right at the second fork, and this would lead directly to the cottage. Because of the hedgerow and the overcast sky, I could see nothing but the rut in front of me. I followed this up, looking for the fork, but found myself coming into a small village. There was nothing on your map about a small village, so I was confused. Trying to keep my wits about me, I guessed I had missed the fork and followed around to the right. Returning by way of the other rut, I found this is exactly what I had done.
As I walked along here mow, traversing the slope, I saw Kavanaugh’s farm come up on the right. It was a welcome sight, as you had indicated this on your map. I followed along to the next fork and turned up towards the summit again. In a little while I heard the river you had noted, but when I came to the river I saw no way to get across. The stream broke from a hedgerow on my right and dropped into a gully on my left. There seemed to be nothing for it but to wade across.
Confident I was nearly there, I ventured in. About halfway across I stepped on the edge of a stone and fell to one knee. I was fairly whipped at this point, but the cold water brought me to my feet in a hurry. I crossed and took a quick inventory of the damage. Fortunately my sleeping bag had remained dry, and I had managed to keep my bags out of the water. So really there was no damage, providing this path led to the cottage and a change of clothes.
As you know, it did. Trudging up that last leg, nearly exhausted, I came at last to a ruin of stone, or what I mow know to be the remains of a stable. Walking around to the front, I found this to be the lower of three stables terraced up the slope. The second lies in ruin also, but the third, as promised, has been restored. I’ll get to that later. I found the key just where you said I would, in a kettle to the left of the door. The keyhole was not so easy. I went through two matches before I found it at the very bottom of the door. I don’t know if I’ve ever beer more relieved than when this key fit the lock and the door opened Before entering, I knelt and kissed the floor.
Striking another match, I found the place is, as you suggested a work in progress. Tools, sacks of cement, buckets. Lighting a nub o: candle (I carry a bag of such nubs) I saw a table and on this table a bottle of beer, and there my search ended for the moment. Dripping wax on the table, I secured the nub. I changed clothes and pulled a chair up next to the table. Stacking three bags of cement for a footstool, I sat down and filled my pipe. After all I had gone through to get here, it seemed a fitting welcome, and without as yet really knowing where I was, or how much work remained to be dome, I told myself I’m staying, this is for me.
I sat there listening to the wind moan as it passed over the chimney and I could hear the purling of the river as it coursed down behind the cottage. It even seemed I could hear the blood flowing in my veins Gazing about at the stone walls, I noticed spider webs hung like tapes tries, dozens of them, shimmering in the light. I found it fascinating but just at that moment, the rim of my candle burned through, spilling the wax and the wick on the table, and the light went out with a soft fizzle. I sat there waiting for my eyes to adjust. I kept waiting. And waiting. But nothing appeared. It was as if I had gone blind.
I struck another match, and lighting first another nub, then my pipe, I fell once again into assessing my new home. I saw now a slick of light on the wall, and it appeared to be moving. On closer examination, I discovered it was a slug, about six inches long, crawling slowly up the wall. I scraped him off on a trowel and flung him outside. I walked out beyond the windbreak, and looking down across the slope, it appeared the world simply dropped off.
Turning back toward the cottage, I saw the meager light of my candle flickering in the doorway, and suddenly realized how exhausted I was, physically and mentally. I knew I would have no trouble sleeping, and indeed, I did not. I found a cot tucked away in the corner and crawling in, quickly dropped off into the deep, dark Kerry night.
I dreamed that I woke to find a creature sitting on my chest. I cried out and the creature leapt from my chest to the table and out through a hole in the wall near the ceiling. In the morning I discovered there is such a hole, in the wall attaching to the stable, and I’m now inclined to believe it actually happened. Perhaps it was a cat, I don’t know what else could be that agile.
In any case, I made a number of discoveries this morning. You have electricity. I didn’t notice the wall switch last night, nor, obviously, the power line. It attaches to the cottage just above the wall of the reclaimed stable. As you asked for an assessment, this is it. A floor has been poured in the stable. There is a wood-burning stove, but it hasn’t been installed. The stable has a tin roof, painted red, and it looks as if windows have been recently installed-one, I would assume, in the old doorway, and one in the lower end with a view of the lower stables. I can also see Brandon Mountain from this window. I assume, from what you’ve told me, that Bun has done this work. I have not met him yet. A door is being framed in between the cottage and this stable. It’s all a bit rough yet, and drafty, but has great potential. I say without hesitation that you will eventually have a very fine Kerry retreat, though of course, until I speak with Bun, I have no idea how long this will take. Oh yes, and there is also a huge slab of oak, six feet by three feet by four inches, set on two stumps to serve as a table. This is in the stable, along the window facing Brandon Mountain.
Outside the ground is quite rough and broken, dirt piled here and there, and there is a large pile of beams, presumably the roof beams of the old stable.
I spent the early morning getting my bearings. Walking out beyond the windbreak, in front, I can see Dingle Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Looking up to the right I can see the blunt profile of Mount Eagle. There appear to be no cottages above this one and very few, in fact, as I look down across the slope. You did say it was remote, didn’t you? I went around to the path I had come up on to discover it is bordered on both sides by blackberry bramble. I ate my way down to the river, which I now realize has a ford. I tried to cross last night at the worst place, where it bottlenecks into the gully. Otherwise it is just a broad shoal, no more than a few inches deep. A pair of Wellingtons, which I will pick up at my first opportunity, are in order.
Eating my way back up, I followed the stream to its source, a hole in the ground where it comes gushing out of the hillside. I imagine I will be able to bathe here, though the water is shockingly cold. From here I walked up a ways to gain a better perspective. There is indeed nothing above here. I could see Kavanaugh’s farm below. I could see his sheep and cattle were out grazing in the fields. Gazing down at my berry-stained hands, I had to admit, I’m just another critter grazing the slopes. In the distance, at the very tip of Ventry Bay, I could see a speck I believe is Quinn’s Pub. I find this most reassuring, that I can see a pub. I picked up the Slea Head Road as it comes out of Ventry and followed around to a steeple, which I assume is the church across from O’Shea’s. I could see the road coming up toward the pass, and, by following the hedgerow, could trace the route I had taken. I did not, however, see that cluster of buildings I came into last night. Finally, looking down at my new home, I saw the cottage coddled in the windbreak like an egg in a nest.
I would guess it is now early afternoon. As soon as I finish this letter I will walk down to O’Shea’s to post it and pick up a few supplies. I am anxious to meet Bun. I know you said he might come by irregularly, but I have nothing else to do but wait. I have cleaned up and rearranged somewhat, moving all the tools and building supplies off to one side. I have claimed the oak slab as my desk, laying out a few books, and I have swept a huge cloud of dust out the door.
I just want to repeat that I am more than happy with our arrangement. I can see now why you declined my payment until I saw the place, but this is exactly what I was looking for. Enclosed you will find twenty pounds. If I understand our agreement, this is my rent for September. When I meet Bun and get a better feel for what work needs to be done, I will write again. My regards to all in Finnstown, especially Eamon. I hope you will write and tell me he is improving. Also, please say hello to Tom Breen and the gang in Dublin.
I have received your letter and your payment of twenty pounds for, yes, September. I imagine you have met Bun by now. I hope so. I hope also that your first impression was not too hasty, as it will be a comfort to me to know the place is being looked after. Please do keep me informed. Thank you for asking after Eamon. I’m sorry to say he is not improving. We don’t know exactly what is ailing him. He has been through so many tests he refuses to see another doctor. He is confined for now to his room off the conservatory and can only get about with the aid of a walker. One doctor believes he has MS but has been unable to confirm this. Another believes it is the blood pressure medicine he takes. Whatever, he is extremely lethargic. On mild days he takes his lunch outside in the gazebo, but otherwise, as I’ve mentioned, he is housebound. I play piano for him in the evening, but half the time he falls asleep. Again, thanks for asking.
I’m sorry to hear about your father. It must be very trying for you under the circumstances.
Though quite possibly I was hasty in my first impressions, I still feel very confident I can stick this out until at least Christmas. I have a friend in Munich I may wish to visit, but that is too far off to think about now.
Yes, I have met Bun. He came up the second day I was here. I was sitting in the doorway smoking my pipe, reading a book, when I heard a man whistling. The sound drew gradually nearer and I thought, Well, at last. As you said very little about him, except that I would like him, I pictured a jaunty little man. To my surprise, a regular bell ringer of a man came striding around the corner. He was wearing Wellingtons and a blue sweater covered with a chalky powder. He is perhaps older than I guessed, judging by his gray hair, but certainly young at heart. When he saw me sitting in the doorway he stopped dead in his tracks. After a moment’s hesitation, he snatched a watch cap from his head and introduced himself. I explained who I was and why I was here, and he kept saying, “You don’t tell me that. Now, you don’t tell me that,” evidently quite pleased with what I was telling him. You were absolutely right about Bun. I liked him on first sight, and not a minute went by that I didn’t like him more.
We boiled a pan of coffee. He showed me how to operate the propane stove-the cock has to be positioned a certain way to keep the line from leaking-and we sat down on the bench in front (actually a plank laid across two stones) to get acquainted. He tells me he’s from Dublin originally. Served time in the navy, a tour in the Mediterranean. Married at one time. Had a farm in the midlands (a life he now regrets). After his wife passed away, he returned to Dublin, where he worked as a stonemason and took an interest in stone sculpting. Got tired of the rat race and moved to Kerry.
He was curious to know why I had come all the way to Ireland, and in particular this remote part of Ireland, and I told him what I told you, about Marie, and he said, “Aye, you’ll be able to lower the bucket a little deeper in the well here, that you will.” In short, we became instant friends.
He seems to understand and appreciate your plan to move here next spring and feels confident that with my help, the cottage will be ready for you, or both of you, as the case may be. Needless to say, we didn’t do any work that first day. Bun thought it more important that he provide me with a little background. He told me about Beatrice O’Shea and her family and what reception I might expect from the locals. He said a man wearing a headscarf is rare in these parts and might take some getting used to. He told me I’m living in the townsland of Ballintlea, spelling it out in the dirt with a stick. I must say, it looks as lovely in the dirt as it does at large. “If the whole of Ireland is compared to a calendar year,” he said, “a county would be equal to a fortnight, a parish roughly one week, and a townsland, such as the townsland of Ballintlea, one day.”
So you might say I’m living in one day (at a time). Bun has since finished framing out the door between the cottage and the refurbished stable, and will soon hang a door. And we will eventually run a line down to a water main so I can draw from a tap what I now dip in a bucket each day. And of course eventually there will be a toilet and so on. My main project for now is digging a ditch for the plumbing. I must dig one ditch out from the bathroom and another out from what will be the kitchen sink. They need to extend beyond the windbreak and run another thirty meters to where a cesspool will be dug. Where, you may ask, do I go now? In a can, which I dump far out in a pasture. I add a capful of disinfectant every so often which is supposed to break down the doodoo.
I’m sorry, you probably didn’t need to know that, but I hate to revise letters. I will keep you posted on our progress.
Let me begin with an apology. You could hardly have failed to notice that I was, shall we say, cold during the brief time you spent at Finnstown. Since you have chosen to overlook this (I refer to the friendly tone of your letters) I feel I must not only apologize, but explain. Frankly, when we were introduced, I thought you rather funny in your headscarf, bib overalls and white socks. I had you pegged for either a hick or a hippie, neither of which appeals to me. If I managed in some small degree to present myself in a civil manner, it was only because you were in a position to do me a service. Since, as I say, you have kindly overlooked that, I would like to set the record straight. Where to begin?
First of all, Eamon is not my father. Like the child I carry myself, I am an illegitimate child. You may have wondered why my mother is living in the servants’ quarters with Fergus. Twenty-three years ago she had an affair while Eamon was away on business, and I am the result of that affair. For appearance’s sake, Eamon let her live in the main house for another eleven years, until he discovered she was involved again, this time with the groundskeeper. No, Fergus is not my father. But it is typical of Eamon to forgive, or at least make the best of things. As he happened to like Fergus as a groundskeeper, and as he had already lost Mother, he simply allowed them to carry on. I am telling you this because I fear you may hear of it anyway, and what you hear might not be the truth. Sordid as the truth may be, I do prefer it.
There is another reason I am telling you this. I need very desperately at this time someone in whom I can confide, for you see, I cannot even tell Eamon the whole truth, as the father of my child is a friend of his.
This is not my first pregnancy, and when I learned that I was pregnant, I thought, “Oh, so now I must go to London again.” I told Eamon I was going on holiday to visit my friend Kate in Belsize Park, and I wrote to Kate to make arrangements for an abortion. But then a most wonderful thing happened. I was walking on Poolbeg Street near Trinity College and came upon a woman with a baby strapped to her breast. She had spread a red cloth on the pavement and was playing fiddle for spare change. This poor woman, with none of the advantages I have, was playing fiddle in the street to support her child. I will never forget the song, a reel entitled “Lark in the Morning.” (Have Bun play it for you, he’s quite handy with a penny whistle.) Well, I almost canceled my trip to London on the spot. Then my cynical side took over. Perhaps the child does not even belong to this woman. Perhaps she borrowed it to wring sympathy from passersby such as myself. Tinkers think nothing of letting their children beg for them. So I tried to put this woman, this child, this song from my mind. But on the flight to London I kept thinking about it. Am I really going to do this again? The only thing that made sense to me was that scene on Poolbeg Street. I mentioned this to Kate straight off, and though she was prepared to walk me through another abortion, she quickly seized upon my change of heart. “If you want to keep the child, Mairead, let nothing stop you.” We discussed the consequences, and I began to see they were not so alarming as I had led myself to believe.
That same evening I placed a call to the child’s father. I told him I had changed my mind and wanted to know if we could come to some agreement. He said that would be very difficult, given his relationship with Eamon. David is not only Eamon’s friend, but a business associate. So I asked him bluntly if he had any feelings whatever for his child. He said no, under the circumstance, he did not. It had been an unfortunate mistake, he said, and he was not prepared at his age (forty-seven) to become a father. He hoped that I would reconsider and carry through with the abortion.
By this time my feelings had swung so completely in favor of keeping the child that I wanted nothing more to do with David. I told him so in no uncertain terms. I am keeping the child, I told him, and want nothing from you except that you remain anonymous. This, of course, he was more than willing to do.
On returning to Dublin I found David was making plans to move from Dublin, so I was satisfied that everything would go smoothly. I felt like a new person. Recalling my own childhood, the happiest time of my life, I began to see where I could bring about this happiness again. In other words, reproduce this happiness in my child. I returned several times to Poolbeg Street, looking for the woman who saved my child’s life, but I have never found her. I look still, pursuing any fiddle music I hear.
Now that I had made the decision, however, I had to tell Eamon. I was in an awkward position. I told him I had made a mistake, and did not want to compound the mistake by having an abortion. I told him the father wanted nothing to do with the child and I would accept the responsibility myself. I should have known! Without asking a single question, Eamon embraced my decision and threw his support behind me. Mother, of course, was not surprised to learn of the pregnancy, only that I had decided to keep the child. She is happy for me but, having been through this herself, a trifle wary.
I would like to mention, before it slips my mind, that you made a good impression on Eamon. He liked your unobtrusive manner. And though Fergus claims you look like a charwoman, he found you a “right decent sort.” Mother thought your headscarf charming.
So this is my story, Ray. I feel it is only fair that you should know what you’re getting into. I hope you wont think me vain for sending the photograph. Perhaps you recognize the gazebo here on the grounds at Finnstown. It was taken recently and clearly shows that I am pregnant. I send this so that my child and I can be there in some small way until we can be there body and soul. You may show it to Bun, as he has not seen me since I started to show. I last saw him shortly after I returned from London. I was in Kerry at that time to see if he would take on the job of restoring the cottage. I’m exceedingly happy that the two of you have hit it off so well. I will write to Bun myself for an update, but I would still like to hear from you, as you actually live there. I will need to know, eventually, if the cottage is suitable for my child.
I don’t know what to think now. I’m due in three weeks, and David has not yet moved from Dublin. He has not changed his mind, he tells me, it is only that he has business to wrap up, and he is concerned about Eamon’s health. He is no better, unfortunately. I reminded him the other day of a horse he bought for me when I was a child. He took me to the stable so I could witness the birth of this colt, and he told me that if I picked the colt up each day I would always be able to pick him up. That is doubtful, as the horse grew to eighteen hands. Still, as a mother, I know what he meant. Every time I stand, I pick up my child. I told Eamon this, and I promised to repay him for all he has done for me by being a good mother.
Having reread this I realize it must come as a great shock to you. I must apologize again for my absurd behavior while you were here. It was only through your letters that I understood how much I need what you have, solitude. Perhaps you can share it with me. I would like to know who you are in moments of silence. Who are you when the wind rattles your door? If this is more than you bargained for, simply say so, and I will regard you in the future as my tenant.
As you know, I had hoped to be there working with Bun myself right now. I never dreamed when I purchased the cottage that I would now be pregnant. Under the circumstance, given Eamon’s health, I’m inclined to believe it has worked out for the best. I need to be here now. Come next spring, when I will most certainly need to be there, the cottage will be ready.
When Tom and Colm came to me and said they had the man to fit my needs, I thought they were joking. But Colm had just interviewed you for his article on death and he assured me you were indeed the man I was looking for. Your letters, I must say, have proved him right. Only isn’t it a little frightening to be so alone? A wee bit, perhaps?
I am like a man who pissed on the wall beside Jesus. Merely in the right place at the right time. I am not now, here and now, who I used to be. I was someone known by a select group of friends. I was someone known by the job I did. I was someone who had to be somewhere at a certain time. None of this applies any longer. I am now someone who lives here, alone, and yes it is a wee bit frightening, but also very exciting. I saw myself sleeping the other night as if looking at a stone at the bottom of a clear pool.
I look forward to sharing my solitude. One can only experience it alone, yet I do want to share the experience. I write many letters, at least one per day. I have a great need for correspondence, so your invitation is welcome. Unfortunately, that may involve bats and rats and slugs. I had a bat in here last night, flying from room to room. I held the door open and he eventually found his way out. And rats. It’s a little disconcerting when I wake at night to hear them dragging sticks across the floor. But this is nothing a little tuck-pointing wont solve, I just have to find all the holes. I keep my food in glass jars. Eventually the rats will get the message and move on.
I received your letter yesterday and brought it up from O’Shea’s immediately. Any mail (which has been relatively scarce so far) is a treat. But before I read your letter, I put on a pan of coffee and filled my pipe. It was a fine day. I sat down on the doorstep. A few of Kavanaugh’s cows were grazing in the yard on tufts of grass growing from the broken ground. I opened the letter to find the photograph, and that’s as far as I got for a few minutes. As much as I admired the gazebo on my brief visit to Finnstown, you make it seem as if it were built only for this purpose, to frame you. Your profile speaks volumes, but the look in your eyes, Mairead; I would never have understood that look without the aid of your letter. I have already shown it to Bun, the photograph, that is. You can rest assured that whatever I read in your letters will go no further.
Bun remarked that you are a “most handsome woman,” and he sends his compliments to the stonemason who built the gazebo as well. The photograph is now on my desk in the converted stable. I have moved into that room, as the main room is still a tool shed for the time being. Bun helped me haul my bunk in here, and he brought up an eight-feet-by-eight-feet straw mat that lends a certain warmth simply by hiding the cement. We will eventually connect the wood burner, but for now I stay warm by sawing and splitting the old roof timbers. Or by writing letters. It is strange how I don’t notice the cold at night until the very moment I put my pen down.
As I write this letter it is sometime after nightfall. I never know what time it is, nor, often, what day it is, unless I ask Bun or Beatrice. I only need to know what day it is, “perchance,” as Bun would say, to catch the bus into Dingle. It comes out as far as O’Shea’s on Tuesday and Saturday. I went in Saturday to do some shopping, so I know today is Monday. I decided yesterday to go down to the church across from O’Shea’s. I arrived early, so Beatrice sent me down to the strand to bring her cattle back up. Tommy had left the gate open. “Ach, that boy.” The strand is beautiful this time of year. The sand is clean, and just behind the beach is a field of tall grass bleached to a dry yellow. The sky was exquisitely blue, the air fresh, the sea tossed into whitecaps. I found the cattle in the field and began to drive one back, as Beatrice suggested, smacking him on the rump with a stick, and the rest followed. They are such docile and trusting creatures, unlike the skittish and timid sheep I encounter. Walking with my hand on the cow’s rump, I led the whole herd back to pasture.
By this time a number of men had gathered in front of the church, each wearing a sport coat, a rag of cap and a pair of Wellingtons. They regarded me with idle curiosity and friendly nods, but not much more. Bun tells me this will change in time. One old-timer did actually introduce himself as Phaedric. He shook my hand and offered a brief comment on the weather, “Pissing rain,” which I assumed was a forecast, as there was not a cloud in the sky. It did, however, rain later that afternoon, and “pissing” is a fair description.
It almost seemed that Mass was being held up for Beatrice, for when she closed the store and came bustling over, a bit of a heifer herself, coattails flapping, holding her hat in place, all the men shambled toward the door. Allowing Beatrice to enter first, they snatched off their caps and followed. I removed my headscarf and sat in the back of the church. I didn’t understand a word of this strange language, and was more or less drifting along, enjoying the feisty old priest, when suddenly he broke into English. “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” I have no idea if this is standard, or if it was only intended for my benefit, but the old priest went right on in Irish, so I assume it’s not uncommon. It had a powerful effect on me, however. 1 wont say I’m “meant” to be here, as who knows what anything means, but I feel all the more confident in my ability to stick with this.
Since you were so forthcoming in your letter I feel compelled to reply in kind. What I have to say, though not distant in time, seems so far away as to be irrelevant. It is now no more than a memory, albeit (a favorite word of Buns) a vivid one. I lived with a woman named Marie for three years. She was in graduate school at the time. I thought we would eventually get married. She became pregnant early on, but as a child would interfere with her schooling, she had an abortion. I wanted to keep the child, but it was her call. I still think of that child. He or she would be three years old now. Anyway, when Marie graduated she took a well-deserved vacation in South America. She wrote about a man she had met. He came back to the States with her. They were married soon after. It was at the wedding that I decided to go abroad myself. In other words, to come here. I haven’t put this quite so eloquently as you did, but what I’m trying to say is this, I understand something about abortion, and I feel you made a very wise choice.
And now for an update of this work in progress. My main contribution remains digging the ditch for the PVC. The hole for the cesspool was dug Saturday, while I was in town, so I now have somewhere to dump my shit bucket, pardon my language. I must admit, I like this rudimentary dipping and dumping. All the water I use for cooking, cleaning, drinking, etc., is dipped from the stream in back. A day goes something like this: I wake up at first light, dip a bucket of water, pick a mess of blackberries, boil a pan of coffee, smoke my pipe, read, split wood, dig ditch, eat lunch, read, walk to Quinn’s Pub where I have a pint at the bar, return two empty pint bottles for two to go, stop off at O’Shea’s for mail, supplies (frequently Beatrice will have some small job for me, in exchange for a loaf of bread or pouch of tobacco) come back up, eat, read, write letters, drink two pints of Smithwicks and go to bed. Of course there are variations. Bun often needs my assistance, or we will simply knock off and gab, or at any moment I might, inspired by the beauty of this land, walk off across the fields.
I’m going slow with the ditch digging because I fear when I finish Bun will lay the pipe, connect the plumbing, and have little reason to come back. I can only take so much of getting to know myself. Bun has his lady friend in Castlemaine and his sculpting, which he would like to devote more time to. He tells me he is working on a special project, part self-portrait, and by and by will invite me over to see it.
We patched the hole where either a cat or a dream came in my first night. Searching about for a suitable stone, hefting one, dropping it, hefting another, dropping it, Bun said, “You know something, Ray, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is God.”
“No, gravity.” He launched into a great leap of faith. Gravity as God’s love. God the Creator gave Himself up in what we call the Big Bang, transforming Himself from creative power to a binding power. Gravity. Through gravity He is omnipresent, holding His creation together. Bun held forth dramatically. God’s love (gravity) will eventually pull all of creation back until the universe as we know it will be restored to its original form as God the Creator. This is actually similar to the Hindu view of creation, as I understand it. Cycles of creation and destruction, each cycle characterized by an avatar, or God incarnate.
My own view is not so lofty. It was a warm, still day, and the midget flies were biting. They were particularly bad up on the roof where Bun was working. I was standing at the foot of the ladder, or shall I say, the foot of the master, listening to his discourse. I got to thinking, if God’s purpose is to hold things together until His creative powers are restored, then we are more or less on our own. The conflict between good and evil is essentially a human conflict. Assuming there is an equal portion of good and evil, a positive charge for every negative charge, it would follow that voluntary suffering would alleviate pain somewhere. To put this to the test, I climbed up on the roof with Bun, and sure enough, the more I was bitten, the less he was bitten.
Enclosed is a fuchsia blossom from the windbreak. I am holding this blossom in my hand now. Whatever survives of this blossom, know that this moment, which lies in the future for you as I write this, is now in the past as you read this.
You might tell Eamon that I also have a favorable opinion of him, one enhanced by what you write of him. I painted the door and the window frames bright red.
The fuchsia blossom arrived looking like a globe flattened into a map, but the sense of moment you wrote of did survive. I will press it in a favorite book, perhaps Pride and Prejudice, on the very page where Elizabeth and Darcy are reconciled. I have never placed much stock in happy endings, as I have witnessed so few-trying to overcome the past is like a game of leapfrog-but as I keep telling myself, I am a new person now, by virtue of a new person inside of me.
I’m sitting at a table in the gazebo as I write this, looking out across the lawn at the patterns of shade and light, and my little baby is moving, Ray. I can feel her elbows and knees. Of course I don’t know if my baby is a girl, but both Mother and Geraldine, my midwife, feel that it is. I am carrying this child rather low, they note. From inception, according to Geraldine, a boy will climb to the highest point, King of the Mountain being in his blood.
And how is the King of Mount Eagle getting on? There is, so far as I know, no one living higher on Mount Eagle, at least not on that slope. Bun could tell you. I have just reread all of your letters. Concerning your arrival, I apologize for my map being so sketchy, but I did tell you to wait until the following morning. If you haven’t been told already, the farming community you wandered into that first night is Kilvarna. Frankly, when drawing the map, I didn’t even think of it. In any case, you seem to have had a good adventure. I was confused by the first line of your last letter, dated September 10, “I am like a man who pissed on the wall beside Jesus.” Eamon tells me that in biblical times, only “those who pisseth on the wall” (men) were counted in a census.
I had a good chat with Mother, woman to woman. She wanted to know who is the father of my child, and I said I couldn’t tell her. She can accept that, but she wonders, will I tell my child? I grew up thinking Eamon was my father. Mother never meant to tell me otherwise, but she did, and I recall that day quite distinctly. Mother had been banished to the servants’ quarters because, as I’ve mentioned, Eamon discovered she was sleeping with Fergus. She was indignant over this, as she now readily admits, and to spite Eamon, she told me he was not my father. These things have an uncanny way of repeating themselves. The sins of the mother, and I am about to become a mother with sin. I am a mother with sin! Oh well, as Geraldine says, these are different times. “You will do fine, Mairead. You will raise a little girl to help advance our cause.”
When I allow myself to think of it, it frightens me half to death. In but a few days I am due to give birth to an illegitimate child. Her grandfather (for all she will ever know) is becoming an enfeebled old man, and her grandmother is living with the groundskeeper. Is it any wonder I want to move to Kerry? Of course, Finnstown will remain. My history won’t go away. And it will one day be mine, Finnstown. What am I to think of that? My only hope is that I’ve changed, truly changed, and will continue to change, day by day putting the past behind me and looking instead to the future. Only how will I ever explain this to my child? I’m tempted, as Geraldine suggested, to bring it out from the first, to tell my child before she can even understand, and keep telling her until she does understand.
I’m sorry to go on like this, but it is helpful to think out loud, to know my thoughts will be known by someone “outside of the gyre,” as Bun would say. I like to think of my cottage coddled like an egg in a nest, protected from the howling wind. I like to think of how happy I would be if I were only there. Of course I know this is not true. Kerry, Finnstown, what does it matter? I am who I am. Or does it matter? Is it easier to accept the loss of Marie now that you are an ocean away?
This much I know, it does help to hear about my cottage and the progress you are making. I love the idea of a red door and trim. But bats and rats and slugs, oh my! This is not what I have in mind for my child, to be sure, but in my correspondence with Bun he assures me the cottage can and will be made snug and cozy. I have been to his cottage, for example, and others in the area, and I know it is possible to rid them of that dreary, damp tomb effect. That cottage, by the way, dates back to the Potato Famine, and had not been lived in for fifty years prior to, well, prior to you.
Please accept this wild daisy as a token of my appreciation.
Please don’t worry about the cottage right now. I have taken on the rats, adding tuck-pointing to my list of daily chores. Each morning I mix a bucket of mud and apply it to the back wall of the stable, which seems to be where they’re coming in. Eventually this whole interior will need a makeover, plaster and whitewash, but it’s my problem now, not yours. It sounds to me like you’re in good hands with Geraldine. It’s only natural you would be nervous about this, but I would hope the necessary instincts will kick in when you most need them. In any case, it’s no time to be thinking of Kerry.
I have whittled a handle for the door between the stable and the main room out of a block of two by four that perfectly fits my grip. We have also installed the wood burner, running a stove pipe out the back wall. Our first fire did not take, owing to a back draft. Bun decided the stovepipe was not high enough. Wind slicing across the roof seemed to be the problem, so he attached an extension, raising it three feet, and now it seems to work fine. He also brought up a bundle of peat briquettes, but it seems a little early in the season to be using up my fuel.
Bun seemed a little distracted as we worked on this project. When we finished, he invited me to go for a ride out to Slea Head. You may know of this place. You follow a narrow, winding road down to the ocean, a very steep descent, to a beautiful cove, a beach fronting a cliff, bordered by high rock formations reaching out into the ocean. The waves were rolling in pretty good, and the sound of the crashing surf was positively deafening. I’m not sure what he had in mind. As I say, he seemed distracted. Normally a very talkative man, he merely paced in the surf. The tide was coming in. In the short time we were there the beach was reduced to a thin buffer between the ocean and the cliff, and we finally had to leave.
On the way back here Bun spoke of his sculpting. He tells me it’s a bit of a secret, but coming along nicely. It’s at a point now, he said, where I might come around and have a look at it. Dropping me off at the ford, he told me how to get to his place, by walking up behind the cottage and following along toward the pass.
As he did not return for a couple of days I decided to take him up on his offer and pay a visit. I set out this morning after breakfast. It was a beautiful day. Walking the hills on such a day is one of the true pleasures of living here. The wind was brisk, the sky clear and blue. The heather is beginning to color, what passes for autumn here, and runs on the hills like wildfire. I walked I would guess about an hour when I came to a deep ravine. From there I could see Buns cottage in the pass, but the walls of the ravine were too steep to either climb down or up. Not only steep, but covered with bramble. Crossing was unthinkable. Stay high up on the slope, Bun had said. So I began to follow the ravine up, looking for a place to cross. However, this ravine, like a great tear in the landscape, appeared to run all the way to the top. So I followed it down, thinking at the very least I would eventually come to the road. But what I found, on the lower end of this ravine, was a series of what I might call fjords, smaller ravines forcing me to backtrack somewhat. The next thing I knew I found myself in a bog. It didn’t look any different than pastureland, covered with a deep, succulent grass, but with each step I felt myself sinking deeper.
I began to have difficulty lifting my feet. The bog land virtually wanted to pull my Wellingtons off.
I kept walking toward higher ground, but to no advantage. It got to be half an hour since I had stood on solid ground, and I began to recall stories I’d heard about the bogs, bodies discovered in them, and wheels of cheese perfectly preserved. It crossed my mind that this beautiful day might be my last. Have you ever been in a bog? Damn strange. With a little imagination one can believe it’s out to get you.
Fortunately, I saw a herd of cattle grazing not far away, and knowing they wouldn’t be so stupid as to muck around in a bog, I followed them to solid ground. As I approached they moved off ahead of me, and feeling they were my ticket out of there, I followed after them. They filed onto a boreen, half-mud, half-manure, that led to, of all places, Kilvarna. I found myself coming into this village from the other side. I followed the herd into a barnyard, empty but for a few goats and a turkey. The place looked to me older than America. Stone buildings, thatched roofs, smoke rising from chimneys. I wondered about the smoke, it seemed a little early in the season for that, but I didn’t have much time to think about it. The turkey took exception to my presence and chased me out the other end. He literally had me on the run, but I was now back on familiar turf, the cart path I had come in on that first night. I walked on down to O’Shea’s, and Beatrice told me Bun has been in Castlemaine the past few days. I wonder if that is why he was so distracted, trouble with his woman friend.
I imagine you will be writing with good news soon. No hurry on this end. When you get a few minutes-if you get a few minutes-drop me a line. I have enclosed my rent for October. Everything is fine here, Mairead.
avoid the bogs,
The petals that hopefully spilled out when you opened this are to announce that it is a girl, a girl, Mr. Billings! Penelope Hanley! Born September 23, at 9:35 in the morning. Geraldine had just left the night before when I felt Penny shift down, as if to say, “I’m ready, Mom,” and my water broke. Mother called Geraldine back at once, and I must say, it went much easier this time.
Yes, this time. Penny is my second child. I delivered a baby boy at the age of eighteen. Just part of the sordid history of Finnstown. He was well placed, I understand, though I do not know where or with whom. He would be six now, and he is mine, but I have no right to him. What I have is a second chance, Penny, my little “Lark in the Morning.” Penny, Penny, Penny. I put myself to sleep saying her name.
Whereas you wake at night to the sound of rats, I wake to inner turmoil; I come wide awake, my mind racing. My poor little Penny does not have a father. I am to blame for this, of course, giving myself so carelessly to a man who now has no interest in his child. He still wants nothing to do with Penny. I find that hard to imagine but it’s my problem more than his and I intend to make the best of it. I have never been very fond of David, and though I should have thought of that beforehand, had I rebuked his advances, I would not now have my little Penny. In the end, she justifies everything. She cries to be fed and already I’m awake. You were right about instincts. There is so much more to giving birth than I ever imagined.
All the same, it bothers me that David has not yet moved from Dublin. He is staying on, as he said before, because of a business deal he initiated with Eamon, a deal that is still pending because of Eamon’s health, which is not improving. The unfortunate result of this situation is that David has had to step up his involvement. This requires that he come to Finnstown to consult with Eamon. Many of Eamon’s associates have been coming here, and he takes a great pleasure in introducing his granddaughter. Of course I don t mind, but believe me, it was most awkward introducing David to his own daughter, carrying on this charade to such an absurd degree. When I observed the terse, polite way in which David greeted his daughter-granted, he was scared silly-I knew there could never be anything between us. We can only make a clean break. I have, however, told Penny. “That was your father,” I told her afterward. “I don’t know if you will ever know him, but one day Mummy will marry a nice man who will be very good to you, just as Eamon has been very good to me.”
This is why I need to be in Kerry next spring. I have always had the tendency to much too easily become involved with men, and I must guard against this now. I must now be especially selective, choosing not only a mate for myself, but a father for Penny. In time I might feel differently, and raise Penny alone, without a father, but I hope it doesn’t come to this. It is ironic, is it not? Your Marie didn’t want a child when you did, and I have a child that David does not want.
We have a painting here in the conservatory, a reproduction rather, of Saint Joseph the Carpenter, by George de la Tour, and it seems to express how I now feel. Perhaps you noticed it when you were here, it is above the mantel. I have always admired this work, though previously for the very opposite reason I now admire it. I had thought, previously, that it was darkly executed. Joseph, strong and swarthy, is working in the light of a candle held by the boy Jesus.
All about them is darkness, pressing in from every side, merging with the boy’s robe, the man’s back. My focus before was the darkness, pressing in from every side, but now I see the light as holding forth. Joseph is working with an auger. He has his foot on a block of wood. The work almost seems to be of some secret nature. “The Lord, who sees in secret, will reward you in secret,” comes to mind. Joseph’s forehead, forearm, the handle of the auger, a shaving of wood on the floor, and the face of boy Jesus are illuminated by the flame of the candle. But it is Jesus, shielding the flame in his hand, who seems to be the source of light. No, I have not become a Christian (any more than you have) but I can appreciate how Jesus would appeal to one burdened with the weight of a great sin. But it is not easily rectified, this is where I fail as a Christian. I fail to accept that there is an easy way out. I cannot give my sin to Jesus. He is dead, for one thing, and it is far too personal. Though I will do everything I can for Penny, as Eamon has done for me, I do not believe I can ever give my sin to Jesus. What de la Tour’s painting says to me is, yes, there are many secrets, mysteries if you will, and though we must often bear them in silence and privation, there is someone who understands. This is important to me right now, Ray, and without wanting to put undue pressure on you, I hope that someone is you.
I expect, come next spring, that Eamon will object to me and Penny moving to Kerry, but I hope to prove to him between now and then that I am in fact quite capable. Should it come to that, I believe I can persuade Eamon that raising Penny in Kerry would be preferable in certain respects to raising her here, where her grandmother, for example, is living with the groundskeeper.
I was about to close when one thing further occurred to me. Have you cleared customs? Though notoriously lenient, they have been known to pull the rug on some people. I know when you were here you had not obtained a stamp. I suggest you do that. They will either grant you a three-month or six-month stay. If for some reason (your headscarf might be enough) they only grant you a three-month stay, I’m sure Eamon could easily obtain an extension for you. And while I’m on the subject, what are your plans for next spring? Perhaps you haven’t even thought that far ahead, but I want you to know I won’t simply run you out when I’m ready to move in. We can work out something, I’m sure, if you would like to stay on a while.
Your landlord and friend,
Congratulations, Mom! Happy Birthday, Penny! Penelope Hanley has a splendid ring to it. Let me tell you how I came to learn of this news. I was off in the field behind O’Shea’s digging potatoes when Beatrice brought your letter to me. She knows how much any correspondence means to me, but I don’t think she had any idea of the news she handed to me this time. Suspecting myself what this news might be, I slipped the envelope into the bib pocket of my overalls. I did this for two reasons. I wanted to read the letter here in the cottage, and I wanted to carry it, however briefly, in expectation of reading it. I went on to dig up a basketful of potatoes for Beatrice. Sinking my pitchfork into the ground, I looked out across the fields at the sun, embedded in a bank of clouds like a hot coal. This gave me an idea for supper. I would roast potatoes in the wood burner. The contemplative life, I’m finding, while an emotional high, an unending meditation, is at bottom a matter of hand to mouth. The simple pleasures become ecstatic pleasures.
I took my potatoes home, built a fire in the wood burner, tossed in my spuds, and only then did I read your letter. I read it twice, often looking up from the page to stare at the wall, trying to both absorb what you were saying, and let my thoughts expand to embrace it. Then I put the letter aside and ate. I make a great noise when I eat, chomping and slurping. I have absolutely no manners to observe, and I find it adds to the pleasure. After dinner I wrote a letter to my mother, trying to set her mind at ease about things I may have written earlier, such as rats and bats and slugs, and the cold. I have adjusted to these things and I want her to know that. It never occurred to me that I was doing this because of your letter, but as soon as I finished the letter and kicked back with my pipe and a pint of ale, it seemed to follow perfectly. Also, I did not want to write to you immediately, because I wanted to think a while on what you had said.
It is raining now as I write this, a thunderous tapping on the tin roof, as if it were raining nails.
There are a number of things in your letter I would like to address. First, concerning next spring, I have no idea. I imagine a winter in this cottage will determine that. Your offer is very kind, but this is a very small living space. I don’t think you would truly want me around, nor do I know if I could share it after this. Second, you mentioned that you have no husband and consequently no father for Penny. Is that so bad? In the States this past decade this was becoming rather common, single mothers. In a number of cases I knew of personally it seemed to be working out quite well.
I imagine Geraldine, from what you tell me, would feel right at home with some of the women I knew, including Marie. Strong women. Women who run co-ops, health clinics and bookstores. Doctors, bricklayers and longshorewomen. Anyway, Mairead, Penny could do a lot worse than to learn from you the hard lessons you have learned.
Third, but who’s counting, I do indeed remember the painting by de la Tour. I recall standing in front of the mantel with my hands behind my back, looking at the painting and remarking to myself on a number of points which you made in your letter, the interplay between darkness and light, the strength and innocence, the suggestion of something secret or mystical. However, I did not know the title of the work nor who was being portrayed in it. I merely thought it a provocative work. Now I see the intention. Jesus as the source of light. (I happen to believe it’s the same light Socrates exemplified, and other shining examples throughout history but I might finally prefer Bun’s theory to any).
Needless to say, I’m honored that you would share such private thoughts with me, and I’m only too happy to respond. It strikes me as the highest calling in life, to understand and accept people for what they are, or at least to try. I spent three years in a monastery as a cook, and there was a great deal of talk about the power of prayer. There was a great urgency in general to justify the contemplative life. I can buy into this only so far. I can understand, and have known examples of,
monks who shun the material world and the pursuit of pleasure, but I do not agree that this does anyone else any good. I am not doing anyone else any good by being here, removed from modern conveniences, but I am certainly learning a lot about myself. I don’t kill or trap or harm in any way the other creatures who are living here, not even the insects, because the contemplative life, while highly emotional, is basically a lesson in humility.
But let me move on. Rather than my two pints tonight, I have opened a bottle of wine, the contemplative’s best friend. The rain continues to come down like gravel. As for customs, I recall distinctly that when I entered the country, stepping off the boat in Rosslare, a sleepy agent simply waved me through. I mentioned this to Bun, and he said I should contact the customs office in Dingle, just to be on the safe side. I stopped into O’Shea’s to use the phone and Beatrice offered to place the call for me. She did, and said I could expect a visit one day at the cottage. About a week later a portly man by the name of Seamus Keegan showed up. We had a spot of tea together, he stamped my passport (six months) and went his way. Imagine that, a customs agent making a house call. Anyway, scratch that off your list.
Now let me backtrack a moment. I mentioned that Bun and I installed the wood burner, and I mentioned that while passing through Kilvarna I saw smoke rising from chimneys. I have noticed it elsewhere. It seemed to me to be a little early to be heating, so I mentioned it to Beatrice. “Why is it I see smoke rising from chimneys?” And she said, “‘Tis the walls, to be sure. Three feet of stone doesn’t change temperature overnight.” So I am now heating at night. I build a fire after dinner and stoke it again before I turn in.
I understand that I have you to thank for a recent visit. On a night such as this, a hard rain with thunder rolling down the mountain like boulders, there came a knock at my door. It was Bun. Just back from Castlemaine, he had received a letter from you asking him to keep an eye on me. Thank you, I appreciate that. He had brought a quart of homemade carrot wine so that we might have a few “stoups” together. Nasty stuff. It reminded me of lacquer at first, though after a few stoups I was beginning to think more along the lines of nectar.
It would seem Bun came here to give me a history lesson. We sat at the kitchen table, in candlelight, and Bun told me about the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. It was not, as I had assumed, as our own Civil War was, a battle between north and south, but a battle between protreaty and antitreaty factions in the south, led respectively by William Cosgrave and Eamon De Valera. I learned also (and this should interest you) that the tenant-landlord dispute was at the heart of the Irish Rebellion. I am now fully advised of my rights. One, fair rent will be determined by a tribunal. Two, a tenant cannot be evicted for failing to pay rent on time. And three, it is illegal to increase rent because of tenant improvements, i.e., a door handle, painting, tuck-pointing or ditch digging. (You have plumbing now, by the way. We ran a line down to the main, connected the hot water heater, and laid all the PC. Except for the toilet, which I now use, I have not yet given in to these improvements. I still dip my water as needed, and I still take a weekly bath at the source of the stream.)
Through the course of a day and a week I think of so many things I want to tell you that I think at times I should keep a list. But a letter should be spontaneous, as honest as a slip of the tongue. If I should forget to tell you something, then I will have to call you up in the middle of the night, when it is helpful to have the thought of you near me. I mentioned to Bun that I tried to walk to his place but came upon a ravine, and he said only, “You didn’t stay up high enough on the slope.” I am happy to report that he seems himself again. Whatever was troubling him, and it wasn’t his woman friend, seems to have been resolved.
Did I just say, a few lines back, “it is helpful to have the thought of you near me”? By Jove, I did. And I just said it again. When I first came here Beatrice had a jar of honey with ragged holes punched in the cap that she placed in front of the store to capture bees. The bees would come to the honey jar, crawl in, and get sucked down into the honey. These past few days the bees have become aimless and are dying a natural death. There was one in the cottage yesterday buzzing around in circles on the floor, too weak to fly. I put a small mound of sugar before him or her and he thrust a long telescope-like tube into the sugar and appeared to be feeding. Moments later he resumed his frantic buzzing, and in a matter of minutes he was dead. It bothered me. I sat before the wood burner last night staring at the fire, fear creeping into my bones. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking of three feet of stone slowly changing temperature, and realized how quickly I would become cold and forgotten should I die. To comfort myself I recited a favorite passage from Thanatopsis, by William Cullen Bryant. “When thoughts of the last bitter hour come like a blight over thy spirit, and sad images of the stern agony, the shroud, and pall, and the breathless darkness, and the narrow house, make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart; go forth, under the open sky, and list to Nature’s teachings.” The teaching, as I recall, is that we “mix forever with the elements.”
I have never been able to determine for myself if this poem is hopeful or just so beautifully written that it doesn’t matter. And that brings me to Pride and Predictability. Austen’s style is undeniably clean and refreshing, but who really gives a rat’s ass about these rich people and their entails? Entrails maybe. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of pressing the blossom between the pages of Elizabeth and Darcy’s reconciliation, but that novel rubbed me the wrong way. I’m sure the fact that I read it after learning that Marie was traveling with Enrico had nothing to do with it.
Not exactly the letter I had envisioned writing. You might want to scratch everything after the first paragraph. Yes, perhaps I should have left it at that.
Congratulations and Happy Birthday,
Lest you forget – and I take it as a compliment that perhaps you have – I am rich, quite rich, no doubt richer than Elizabeth Bennet, whom I might characterize as of the middle class. This is yet another reason why I would like to move to Kerry and live as common folk, so my daughter is not constantly being introduced to this and that civic leader. My trouble in large part, though I blame no one but myself, stems from an arrogance I acquired growing up the daughter of a rich and powerful man. Eamon is not arrogant – eccentric perhaps, but not arrogant. But somehow I acquired arrogance (a touch from Mom possibly) to such an extent that I could abort and give up my own children. I don’t know which came first, whether I quit liking myself first, or quit knowing myself first, but both happened, and had it not been for that woman on Poolbeg Street, I doubt there would have been any adjustment. It is only because of Penny that anything has changed. I have shifted my focus (I wont say entirely, but significantly) from my self to my child.
I ran into Tom Breen Sunday past and will see him again Friday week. He asked if I would provide background music for an opening at a gallery on Essex Street. And I can bring Penny.
As she has been nurtured on Chopin, I will play a selection of nocturnes. I ran into Tom and the whole gang from the Dublin Beatin Phoenix Park. I was feeling well enough to go out, quite well in fact, and it was a splendid day. Pope John Paul II gave a Mass in Phoenix Park last Sunday. I don’t know if this news would reach Kerry, or Ballintlea, at least in English. It is probably being discussed in Irish. In any case, I put Penny in my old pram, and we remained on the fringe of the crowd. I don’t have any numbers but would guess half a million or more people were in attendance. I never saw the Pope, of course. For the most part I never took my eyes off Penny. A child’s gaze is so magnetic. As a mother it is hard to believe this little creature is one’s own.
Two things happen when a child is born. There is a great joy and a great terror. I am over the fear now, the shock of sudden responsibility, but I still check a hundred times a day to make sure she is breathing. In one way or another I’m certain I will always be anxious about her well-being, and this gives me some insight into my mother. I am not over the joy, however. I keep asking myself, what did I do to deserve this? We both know very well what I did, yet I feel I have been rewarded. The prodigal daughter.
In any case, Tom, Robert, Liam, Maureen, Helen, and Colm all wish you a hearty “bullocks.” As you may know, they ran a controversial cover story on the Pope’s visit, with the Pope entering Dublin on an ass, and apparently, as some had feared and warned, a number of sources have pulled advertising and funding for the magazine. Being a motley crew of freelancers, they seem relatively unperturbed by it. Colm asked me to tell you that his article on death, including your interview, has been canceled.
I have also been asked to forward a story about Donald, the chap you met on the train from London to Fishguard. Donald made such a nuisance of himself around here that he was put on a train to Belfast. I’m told this happened soon after you left. He became so drunk and obnoxious one evening at Grogans that O’Sullivan and his henchmen hauled Donald off to Heuston Station and put him on a train. Though he has not been seen again, he has been heard from. Under the name of Patrick Bard, he turned up in the editorial section of the Times, referring to Sherrif ó Súileabháin (who sits on the Provincial Council of the IRA) and Deputy Hearn (Minister of the Arts). I take some interest in this because Eamon once served as Minister of the Arts, but I really know nothing about this Hearn fellow except he is reputed to be an alcoholic. According to Tom, your buddy Donald was removed because of something he had on O’Sullivan, but as Liam points out, if that were true, O’Sullivan would hardly send him to Belfast.
I imagine this all seems very far away to you in Kerry, where the major indigenous crime is the theft of a donkey or pig. Though I used to run with that crowd (and I’m telling you this strictly in confidence), I found them rather tiresome yesterday. I was happy to go my own way again, staring down into Penny’s penny-brown eyes.
I cannot imagine what letter you envisioned writing if not the one you sent, but I did enjoy reading between the lines. You may, of course, speak freely with me. In seeing the old gang on Sunday I was reminded of how much I have changed. At one point in my life, and not all that long ago, it seemed my only purpose in life was to establish a reputation, a reputation, I might add, that I am now trying to live down, or simply ignore. For instance, it was reputed at one time that I did not remove my boots when making love. This was supposedly my trademark. On Sunday in Phoenix Park, though it may be my imagination, I saw one of the lads look from Penny to my boots, with what struck me as a smirk on his face. This, you see, is what I must now live with, which is why it is so important for me to correspond with someone who knows nothing about me, except what I tell him.
You might be surprised to learn that I already knew about your boots. I wont say who told me, but possibly it was the same lad who looked from Penny to your boots in Phoenix Park. In other words, someone you named as being there. I didn’t put much stock in it at the time, nor does it mean anything to me now, as it has nothing to do with you as I know you.
Well, I had another run-in with that small farming community of Kilvarna, and it most likely took place at the same time you and Penny were in Phoenix Park. I walked down to O’Shea’s that morning for a pouch of tobacco, and Beatrice told me the Pope was at that very moment giving mass in Phoenix Park. She was, in fact, listening to it on the radio. I’m not surprised the Dublin Beat took it on the chin for their preview of the event. I was at the meeting at the Bachelor’s Inn when they were discussing how they would handle it. The topic under debate was the cover for the issue. Tom and Robert were pushing hard for Alfred E. Newman in vestments entering Dublin on an ass. It seems they were dissuaded, but apparently not enough.
You’re right that I am far removed from these things. Poor Donald. I remember him as a rather troubled man. He could not get a drink on the train from London to Fishguard, nor on the boat from Fishguard to Rosslare, and he was quite frazzled by the time we arrived. And the pubs in Rosslare were not open yet, so we went on to Gorey, where Donald assured me he had friends. They were all in Gorey for the Arts Festival. I went along with Donald hoping to make a few contacts myself. We went straight to French’s Bar where his so-called friends were assembled, but I could see at once that they really wanted nothing to do with him. This Hearn character and a poet by the name of Mehan in particular were rather sarcastic toward Donald. He thought they should put him up, as he was a visiting poet, but they told him in no uncertain terms that he was on his own. So Donald, drinking heavily, became belligerent about the whole thing. I slipped out myself and went to find a room, and when I came back Mehan told me Donald had gone on to Dublin. I later ran into him there, at Grogan’s, when I was staying with Robert looking for a place to live. He was invariably drunk and fairly incoherent. He told me that he was married, but couldn’t stand London, and his wife refused to move to Ireland. So I don’t know where this leaves him. Maybe he went back to London. Ironically, it is because of Donald that I met you, that I am here. Had I not gone with him to Gorey, who knows where I might be right now?
However, whereas this story is ironic, the story I will tell you now is just plain hard to believe. After purchasing a pouch of tobacco from Beatrice, I set out to walk back here. Just off the Pass Road a car pulled over, and the driver offered me a lift. I got in back. There was another young man my age in the passenger’s seat. As we were driving up he looked over his shoulder at me as if to ask, What is going on here? When we came to the fork I told the driver I would get out here, but he kept right on going into Kilvarna, saying, “I need a hand for a minute.” He pulled into that same barnyard the turkey chased me out of and, hopping out of the car, set off for the fields.
My fellow captive, as it turned out, was also an American. He had been thumbing out to the end of the peninsula to visit the site whereRyan’s Daughter had been filmed when our host, Mick Long, picked him up. Following Mick out to the fields, we discovered we had been conscripted to help bring in the hay, which lay scattered across the hillside in bales. There were a couple dozen Kilvarnians, old and young, gathered around a hay wagon. Mick jumped up on the tractor and started driving back and forth across the hill. We followed along, hefting bales up to those on the wagon. Once I understood what was happening, I was only too happy to help. I was actually grateful for this opportunity. It was, as you mentioned, a splendid day, what we would call back home a “bite-apples day.” I’ve always been partial to autumn. It’s different here because there are no trees, but no less spectacular.
The hills are a patchwork quilt of color: wheat, grass, hay, shot through with the blazing red of heather. The stone walls are like picture frames. In the distance I could see the gray peak of Brandon Mountain and, below, the wind-tossed sea. Here as at home there is that sense of a season coming to an end, and coupled with the labor of harvest, a sense that man and nature are working hand in hand.
One of the men on the wagon stacking bales was my old friend Phaedric, who had introduced himself to me at church. I have since learned he does not speak English. I frequently encounter him on the road, and each time we stop to exchange a few words, he in Irish, I in English. I have no idea what he thinks I’m saying or what he is saying, but we always shake hands and part with a smile. It was the same thing out on the hillside. The Kilvarnians were pleasant, but everyone spoke in Irish. Fortunately I had my fellow American to talk to. We learned fairly quickly that we were both from Milwaukee, Wisconsin (where I had been living the past five years). We got to talking about this, and the name Gail Spencer came up. When Marie returned from South America with Enrico and I decided to travel abroad, I turned my apartment over to Gail Spencer, who had answered an ad I had posted at the co-op. Gail was looking for a place because her roommate was also going abroad. You guessed it. Gail had been living with this same man Mick had picked up on the road. His name is Eric Penderson. That was more than enough to see us through a long day in the fields.
When the work was done all the Kilvarnians retired to their thatched-roof cottages. Mick Long told Eric and me to wait in the barnyard, and went in to fetch us a roasted chicken, brown bread and two pints of Guinness. Ordinarily I don’t eat chicken, but this was one meal I felt took precedence over my moral leanings. Mick placed the bird on a stone wall and crushed it with his fist, ripping off a leg each for Eric and me. He sprinkled salt at us in a vaguely religious way and, thanking us for our help, retired himself. So you may have had the Pope in Phoenix Park, but we had Mick Long in Kilvarna, and I can only think that you and a half-million others got the short end of the stick.
As can so often happen here, the weather changed. A front came down off the mountain and a light rain began to fall. I invited Eric up to the cottage for the night, but he was determined to visit the site of Ryan’s Daughter. It had been his grandmother’s favorite movie. He had a room in Dingle for the night and was leaving in the morning, so he had to see it today. I gave him my headscarf and the last I saw of him was that yellow scarf bobbing down the road.
And now for an update on the cottage. Though I continue to tuckpoint in the stable, progress has otherwise come to a standstill. I haven’t seen much of Bun lately. I’m not squealing on him, he knows that I write to you, just reporting as is my duty. Actually I do more work for Beatrice now than I do here. She always has something for me. I’m wallpapering a room in her home now. She tells me Bun is holed up working on his sculpting. You might want to write Bun yourself to get a feel for what he has in mind.
I climbed to the top of Mount Eagle yesterday. As often as I’ve been out in the fields, I’d never gone all the way to the top. I was determined to do that, to get a view of the Atlantic from there. I walked up to the lake, which is as far as I’ve gone before. Do you know this lake? It’s quite small, more of a catch basin formed by an outcropping. From there on up it’s a rather steep climb, or crawl, to the blunt, flat top of the mountain, or what I thought was the top. It was actually another half-hour walking across this grassy plateau before I had a view of the ocean. And the wind was so stiff coming off the ocean that I didn’t see much anyway, as it made my eyes water. So I turned my back to the wind and sat down to view the peninsula. It was as if I could see all of Kerry. Such a view is supposed to make one feel small, but I felt just the opposite, expansive. I felt somehow that I was all that I could see. “Above, below, behind, ahead, I am all this,” according to the Upanishad. Even now, writing these words, I have lost the feeling I had up there, and I suppose that when I leave here, I will lose the feeling I now have here, but that of course is the secret, to live in the moment, not a memory of the moment.
It is Friday evening. Dark. The days are getting short. The sun merely arcs across the sky, setting now in the mouth of the bay about four o’clock. It is silent but for the moaning of the wind and the scratching of my pen. You are, as I write this, performing Chopin on Essex Street. I can see you at the piano, your hands moving in a spider dance over the keys. I can see Penny also, lying in her basket, reaching for the notes as they drift off into thin air.
Your man on the mountain,
Please accept this headscarf as a gift. The texture and color remind me of moss. That is indeed a remarkable story you tell about Eric from Milwaukee. Then, again, consider the woman on Poolbeg Street. Under any other circumstance I would have simply walked by and gone on with my life unchanged. The scarf you have now is presently draped about my neck. If you cant smell the “telltale” perfume, something else I was known for (a special blend from Italy), it is because I no longer wear it. One whiff of my newborn was enough to bring me to my senses. I can’t believe I continued to douse myself with that perfume (guaranteed to enchant men) when I was pregnant, but as I now realize, the change working in me had to go full term.
Geraldine has informed me that I can register with the Bureau of Child Adoption, leaving my name as a parent who has given up a child for adoption. This information will be made available to my son when he is eighteen if and when he should desire to locate his mother. He probably doesn’t know and may never know he is an adopted child, but this is all I can do, hoping he will one day be curious enough and forgiving enough to contact me.
On a brighter note, I would like to invite you to Finnstown for Christmas. Eamon thinks it is a good idea. He said he would be pleased to have you. Things here at Finnstown are, dare I say, better. Given Eamon’s condition, he has even allowed Mother to care for him, and Penny was a pick-me-up for everyone. Eamon is not doing well, though. He continues to languish. He is too weak to even read, so I read to him. I have read parts of your letters to him. You would hardly recognize Eamon if you saw him now. He was always so fastidious about his manner, the way he dressed. He doesn’t even shave regularly now. He lives in his pajamas and a house robe, a pair of slippers on his feet, scarcely able to be a grandfather to Penny.
That is another reason you must come, to meet Penny while she is yet an infant. On her one-month birthday we held a small party for her, Eamon, Fergus, Mother and myself, and she is already beginning to learn that the attention we shower on her gives her a power over us. There is nothing you can do in Kerry but sit in front of your stove feeling lonely, so please come visit us, Ray. Maybe to you it is not lonely, but quite honestly, my own holiday would be ruined if I had to think of you sitting there alone. Rather than your wood burner, you could relax for a few days in front of a good sod fire. Have you ever experienced a sod fire? They are like no other. Wood snaps and coal crackles, which is all very well, but a sod fire smolders, it meditates, and when it has burned out, it leaves an exact replica of itself. I often think of the Cheshire Cat, his body fades and only his smile remains.
Can you imagine, I had a dream the other night in which I could not remember my name. I simply could not think of it. I was trying to swim across a lake and the effort to remember my name wore me out. I was barely able to lift my face to breathe. I thought surely I would sink and die, not knowing who I was, when someone dragged me up on shore. I did not know who, I could see only his white socks. He left my name scratched in the sand. He had given me my name back. You must know where this dream comes from and who the man is.
Ray … no. Do you know the song by Smokey Robinson, “The Tracks of My Tears?” “Take a good look at my face, you’ll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer, it’s easy to trace, the tracks of my tears.” I play this song for Penny. “Humoresque” is another of her favorites, and naturally, “Lark in the Morning.” If you come here I will play them for you.
I am very upset with David. He has decided for now to stay in Dublin. After the initial shock of meeting his daughter, he now claims he has become comfortable with the situation. I have told him I am not even remotely comfortable with it and wish him gone. I asked him, “What if I should fall in love, as I hope to? What if I should want to marry, so Penny has a father, as I intend to?” He says this would be fine with him, he has no ambition other than his career. The trouble is, I don’t believe him. I half-suspect he stays on because of Penny, to be near her in spite of his refusal to admit it. Either way, it is not a position I can accept.
If David is a concern regarding a holiday visit, please put that from your mind. I can promise you he will not be here. I will threaten him with revealing the truth should he even think of dropping by. So here is what I’m proposing. You come here for the holidays. We can discuss what needs to be done to make the cottage ready for Penny and me. I will send you back to Kerry with the necessary funds to do this. The sooner it is done the better. Then Penny and I can move to Kerry. I will pay your train fare, of course, both ways.
Bun writes that he has not abandoned the project, he is merely engrossed at this time with his sculpting, a project, as you mentioned, that he is quite secretive about.
Ray, it is now the 28th of October. When I woke last night to feed Penny I was unable to sleep again, so I reread your last letter, then I reread this letter, and speaking strictly for myself, I feel there is something beneath the surface of these letters I would like to examine more closely. I think of you standing on top of Mount Eagle looking back toward America and I wonder, will you be leaving soon, will you go back? I don’t know, honestly, if during this difficult and wonderful time in my life I am merely reaching out to someone who happens to be available, or if my feelings for you, as I suspect, are partly why this is a difficult and wonderful time. There are others I could reach out to, but they are all, somehow, a part of my past. It is because you are not that you are so attractive to me. You said once that you are not who you used to be. You are no longer known by the company you keep or the job you do. But in a sense you are. You are known to me by the letters you write. But it is more than that. It is … I just put my pen down for a moment. I just sat here staring into space for a moment. I wonder if I should say, “It is,” or “Is it?” Either way, the next word would be, the next word is, love. There, I have said it. I hope this does not come as a great surprise to you, but this feeling caught me off guard in the middle of the night, and you wrote that you think of me in the middle of the night, so anyway, I have said it. It is not a slip of the tongue.
I think, by the way, that we can dispense with the rent. Regardless of your response to this letter or your feelings for me, I can no longer accept even this small sum.
Your former landlord,
Before I answer your letter, concerning “the next word,” or the invitation for Christmas, let me tell you a story. I was down at O’Shea’s doing some painting and it got on toward dinnertime, so Beatrice insisted I stay for dinner. I was sitting at the table with Beatrice and Frank when someone entered the store. I recognized Bun’s voice. He asked Beatrice if she had seen me today, and she answered, “Aye, your man’s here this minute, taking his dinner.” Bun came in, said he’d just been up looking for me. He wondered if I might stop by his place. I said I would, and he sat down until I finished eating. Then we drove to his place. I was surprised at how small it is. One room. No plumbing or electricity. Bun lit a kerosene lamp on the table and poured two stoups of carrot wine. I filled my pipe. I could see his work at the far end of the room, with a cloth thrown over it. “You going to let me have a look?” I said.
“In good time,” he said. “First, I’d like to follow up on our history lesson, if you don’t mind.”
“Don’t mind at all,” I said.
He clanked his cup to mine. “Well now, to begin with, this house took me five years to build. Every stone came from these fields, and I’ve been living here twelve years now.”
“And before that you were in Dublin?”
“Howth, near a monastery. There was a monk there I used to see every morning. He’d be standing at the gate as I walked by, and we’d chat a bit. He was getting on in years and he told me he was digging his own grave, a little like the way you went at that ditch. He told me he’d only dig so much a day, then sit down and think about it. One day I didn’t see him at the gate and I was told he had finished his project.”
“That’s a fine way of putting it,” I said. “So you’ve been here what, seventeen years?”
“That’s right, five and twelve. Nothing, when you think about it. St. Brendan sailed from here in 483 A.D., shortly after the Romans were called back to defend their frontiers. Just after that, St. Patrick arrived. For thirty years he went about on foot, pulling a two-wheeled cart, preaching, baptizing, building churches. He converted a few Druids, so they say.”
“What about those huts up above the cottage? When did they come in?”
“Fairly recent, 900 A.D. They were built by hermits who felt Ireland was sacred ground. Ireland has always attracted its share of monks and hermits, such as yourself. But before all this, before those beehive huts, before St. Patrick and Brendan, we shade into prehistory or legend. Legend has it that Ireland was discovered by Princess Cassara,” he said, refilling our cups. “Princess Cassara took up the question of her destiny with no less than Noah, and Noah advised her to sail westward until she found an island. There she was to marry an honest man, and her maidens were to marry honest men, and altogether beget a race of honest men. According to the Book of Invasions, there were five chief races after the days of Princess Cassara: the Partholians, the Nemedians, the Firbog (men of the bogs), Tuatha De Danann, and the Milesians. When the Milesians conquered Tuatha De Danann, Mother Queen Scota, the wife of Miles, was killed, and her grave is believed to be somewhere in Kerry. There are those who look for it to this day. Which brings us to modern history, the Hanleys of Finnstown.”
“That’s quite a leap, isn’t it?”
“To come to the point, I have received a letter from Mairead. In this letter, which came yesterday, Mairead tells me she’s fallen in love with you. If that be the case, and if you have reciprocal feelings, then we must leap forward to the Hanleys of Finnstown.”
“I haven’t answered Mairead’s letter yet. I’ve been thinking about it, composing it in my mind, and nothing I can think of seems quite right. May I ask how much you know about this? Or did she spring it on you?”
“I began to suspect as much when she asked me to keep an eye on you.”
“The night you came over to advise me of my rights as a tenant.”
“That’s right, and now this letter. It’s because of this letter I have invited you here. I think it’s time you meet someone. My work in progress.”
Refilling our cups, Bun took up the lantern and we crossed to his work. He whisked the cloth off, revealing two figures, one a young girl, one an adult man. They are hewn of two separate stones. They are facing each other. The man is reaching down to the girl and the girl is reaching up to the man to exchange a flower, which was in the girl’s hand. The flower is made of wire and hammered brass and can be moved. Bun took it from the girl’s hand, where it fit into a small hole, and put it into a small hole in the man’s hand.
“I couldn’t decide who was giving and who receiving, so I left it open,” he said. “Do you recognize the girl?”
“It’s Mairead,” I said. “No question of that. And who is this other chap, who looks remarkably like you?”
“That would be Mairead’s father,” he said.
He went on to tell me the whole story, how he was hired by Eamon to build the gazebo, how, while Eamon was away on business, he and your mother had an affair and conceived you. So, back to your question. Yes, I will come to Finnstown for Christmas. Like you, I have just put my pen down. I have sat here staring at the wall. The wind is blowing pretty hard and my candle wavers, causing the light to probe the uneven face of the wall. I want to be careful in what I say, and I want to be honest. I wonder if I can drag what is in my mind out onto this table and make it conform to words. I have been thinking about this for days now. I don’t think I will know the answer for sure until I see you, and that frightens me. Prior to this there was no risk. It was easy to write and let you read between the lines. Before I close I would like to tell you of a dream I had. I feel you should know this. We were sitting at the table here in the cottage. You wore only a pair of boots. There was a jar of sugar on the table. I knocked it over, and dragging my balls through the sugar, I fell on you.
Like a little boy who knocks on your door to say, “I love you,” I will close now and run away.
And the little girl called after the little boy, “Don’t run away.” When Bun received my letter he called to say, “I have to tell Ray.” He said it had become an obstacle, that you had asked him at one point if he knew who Mairead’s father was. He almost told you the day he took you to Slea Head. That’s why he was distracted. Also, he wanted to show you his work. I hope you don’t feel deceived or as if we were playing a game with you. I can hardly remember how it started, or rather, I can remember, it just doesn’t seem possible. You were introduced to me as someone looking for a place to live, someone who might find Kerry attractive or at least bearable. I sent you to Kerry only for what you could do for me, finish the cottage. Looking back, however, I think I began to take an interest in you when I read your first letter, when you wrote of going up that first night, becoming lost, falling as you crossed the river, kissing the doorstep, lighting a nub of candle, flicking a slug out the door. Of course it didn’t hurt that you wrote so favorably about my father. And now we have come to this. I, too, am afraid, but I take that as a good sign.
I haven’t much to report. I have been so occupied and preoccupied I can hardly believe winter is upon us. Fergus has prepared the grounds, cut back, put the storm windows on. The days begin to turn over as a succession of withering gray backdrops. I don’t go out much; there is so much to do here. And such extremes. Eamon and Penny. I look at Penny and think of all that is ahead of her, and I look at Eamon and think of all that is behind him. Somewhere in there lie all the hope and happiness and success that life has to offer. Eamon has known more success than happiness, but none of it seems to mean much to him now. Will I end up like this? Will Penny? What makes a person happy? Eamon was an honest man but not a happy man. You strike me as a happy man but not a simple man. Bun is a happy man because he does exactly what he wants to do, and he has nothing to tie him down, no responsibility. I am happy now, happy or trying to be happy, but I have not learned to trust it.
I had not cared so much about happiness when it was only myself; I cared only about pleasure and getting my way. I slept with Eamon’s business partner. I was thinking only of myself, but not of my best interest. But now my best interest is Penny. What can I do to make her happy? How do I protect her from all she will learn about me? The Hanleys of Finnstown, as Bun put it. That is why I named her Penelope, you see. Because she must undo this tapestry I’ve woven.
This next month is going to be a very anxious time, waiting for you to arrive. I can remember as a young girl waiting for Christmas. I would make a chain of paper rings and each day tear one off. And then suddenly Christmas is come and gone and it’s over. I have told Penny you are coming. When I talk about Ray she appears to be listening. “Ray is living in Mummy’s cottage. Ray is coming for Christmas.” I wonder what it must be like for her, not having a father. I think there must be some instinct in a child that wants or needs a father. The physical fact that she is part mother and part father would argue for this. Maybe this instinct is waiting to be told who her father is, where he is. So I tell her, “You will never know your father. He did not make love to Mummy to make a baby. He will not be here for Christmas. Ray will be here.”
Your dream is funny, Ray. Thank you for telling me. It ends, “I fell on you.” I picture two things. I picture you falling off the table, accidentally, on top of me, and I picture … good night,
The day after I mailed my last letter, that night after dinner, I decided to go out and walk in a rainstorm. I love to walk in the rain, but I had never done this at night. Not here. So I put on my Wellingtons and my foul-weather gear and I went out. It was raining quite hard, and there was lightning on the far side of Mount Eagle, on the ocean side. When it flashed, I could see the profile of the mountain. I made my way up, weaving back and forth, navigating more by feel than by anything I could see. The rain was coming down the mountain into my face, and of course it was pitch dark. As I got up near the lake I noticed the storm was coming near. I began to see lightning bolts overhead, as if they were striking on top of the mountain. It came on actually much faster than I had guessed it might, booming like cannon fire, and suddenly the entire wild landscape was lit up in flashes. I decided I had better get back down. I got as far as that beehive but a hundred or so meters above the cottage, and by this time the storm was right on top of me. I found myself thinking again this might be my last day on earth. I’ve been up to that beehive but many times before, but I’ve never been able to crawl in. I’ve always wanted to. Bun tells me there are tunnels branching off inside, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it. But now all of a sudden things were changed. Now I was no longer afraid of the inside for the outside. So I crawled in.
To be fair, not really in. Just enough to crouch down in the entryway to get out of the storm. From there I discovered I had a perfect vantage point. I imagine some monk must have done this very thing over one thousand years ago, crouch here and watch a storm. It was spectacular. The storm raged, cracking and booming and hurling lightning down on the peninsula.
It lit up with every flash, pelting rain, rock, grass thrashing in the wind. I watched it move inland and I watched it play itself out on Brandon Mountain, where the saint is said to have prayed before embarking on his seven-year voyage. Some say he discovered America before Leif Ericson. I can tell you this, whoever or whatever is behind it all (the God of creation, if you will) doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about us.
I have given some thought to what you wrote about aging and happiness and I can only say, I hope to live my life like a storm and die like a gentle rain.
Forgive me while I continue to be evasive. I didn’t know what I would write to you when I sat down, and I’m still not sure. It occurs to me that what I’ve just written might address the subject to some degree. I was afraid to go in, but I did. I was lost, but now I’m found. Bear with me, I’ll get around to saying what I want to say.
I have become a regular at Quinn’s Pub. As I wrote in an earlier letter, I go there every day. I have a pint at the bar, sometimes two. I have gradually come to know the few odd and old men who park their pigs at the door. Another regular is Tommy O’Shea, Beatrice’s son, the one Bun refers to as a halfwit. Tommy sits at the bar and never says a word, his head lolling a bit. I’ve just recently come to realize that if Tommy would close the gate or dig potatoes or paint for his mother, Beatrice wouldn’t need me. More than the tobacco or homemade bread she gives me for doing this work, it gives me a sense of belonging here. So in a sense, I have Tommy to thank for that.
Well, a couple days ago we happened to be sitting at the bar. I finished my pint and went to the loo. When I stepped outside to walk back I noticed Tommy had gone just ahead of me. He was just stumbling down the lane to the Slea Head Road. It was again very dark, and as soon as we got away from Quinn’s I lost sight of him, but followed close enough that I could hear his plodding footsteps. Down at the bottom where the road swings around toward O’Shea’s, I lost even the sound of his footsteps as the wind was blowing hard, rattling the hedgerow. An unholy darkness descends on this land and one can well believe the myths and legends one hears. I thought I had come upon one myself that night when a horse suddenly reared from the windbreak. Scared the bejesus out of me, rearing up, his eyes flashing down on me. He galloped off toward O’Shea’s. So I’m thinking, Tommy has changed into a horse.
A little farther down the road I found he had changed back into a drunk. I heard him swearing before I saw him, not far ahead of me now, struggling to get up. I called to him, “Can I lend a hand, Tommy?” On his knees now, he said, “Is it the lad from the Hanley place?” “It is,” I said. “May I walk on with you?” “Bloody horse knocked me down,” he said. “If you’ll just help me to my feet.” I think he was embarrassed by the whole thing, but as we parted he tugged on my arm and said, “I want to thank you for helping my mom.” Not for helping him, but his mom.
I love it here, Mairead, that’s what I’m trying to say. Have you ever dreamed you were digging in the sand and you find money, and the deeper you dig the more money you find? It’s like that here, only it has nothing to do with money. I keep finding more and more of what is here, the raw material, the sad, pathetic, mysterious, beautiful stuff of what we are.
Have I thanked you for the scarf? I absolutely refuse to reread what I’ve written. Thank you. I put the scarf on first thing every morning and take it off last thing at night. All day long my head is wrapped in thoughts of you, you and Penny, Christmas. It is dangerous, however, to think ahead, so I go about my business here of being a hermit.
It’s getting cold, but I now have a winter coat to keep me warm. I went in to the street market in Dingle and found this overcoat just like all the old duffers around here are wearing. It was marked twelve pounds, which seemed a little steep. I asked the chap if he’d come down, and he said, “By the time I pack up, I hope to have sold every coat I have. With winter coming on you’d better snap it up while you can.” I said I’d have to think about it and went up to Dick Mack’s for a pint. When I came back I noticed he hadn’t sold many coats. “How much do you want for that coat now?” I asked. “I’ll let you have it for ten pounds,” he said. I stroked my chin and said I’d have to think about it. I went back to Dick Mack’s for another pint. When I returned to the market my man was packing up. He still hadn’t sold that coat. He let me have it for six pounds.
I went back to Dick Mack’s for another pint to celebrate, and I met a man who runs a print shop around the corner. We got to gabbing about this and that. He said he was forty-three years old, that it was the first and last time his age would match his shoe size. He feels this is an auspicious year, when his age and shoe size match. I told him I’m thirty and wear a size forty-two. When will this auspicious year come for you, Mairead?
I haven’t seen any more of your dad since I learned he was your dad. It might be time for you to write and remind him to keep an eye on me. And if you are no longer my landlord and I am no longer your tenant, then who are we to one another?
Eamon passed away three days ago. He went in his sleep. He simply quit breathing the way the snow will stop falling. I was with him, Mother and I both. To the very end the doctors were baffled by his decline. The cause of death was listed as heart failure. Neither Mother nor I were surprised. We knew it was only a matter of time when Eamon quit dressing, when he would receive well-wishers in his slippers and house robe.
I’m grateful he lived long enough to know his granddaughter, and to know that I had finally turned my life around. I am grateful also that he allowed Mother back into his life. His decline and death even brought Mother and me closer. But I have no idea what lies ahead now. We buried Eamon this afternoon. David was there, mourning the loss of his friend and associate. I didn’t speak to him, he made no effort to speak to me. I hope he carries through with his plan to move away, but it occurs to me, he no longer has to. I can’t think of it now. I haven’t even thought much about your last letter, which came the day before Eamon passed away. I remember a storm, a wild horse, a winter coat. The only truth I’m able to grasp and hold at this moment is Penny.
You seem far away suddenly. I remember the fuchsia blossom you sent to me. You wrote, “What is present for me lies in the future for you, and what will be present for you will lie in the past for me.” It struck me as magical then, but now it only seems logical.
I have closed my eyes for a moment. Fragments of your letter come back to me, but only the words. Twelve years. What is so funny about this? If I could only remember, if I could only bring myself to pick up your letter and read it again. But I can do neither. Still, twelve years is the answer to your question.
I’ll keep this short and wait to hear from you. Remember the midget flies. Let me take a little of the sting if I can.
Without Eamon there’s no one to forgive me anymore. Mother has moved back to the house but she’s depressed. Fergus is sad and lonely. I have Penny, but I wish I had only Penny. There’s been an unfortunate turn of events. Now that Eamon is dead, David has come forward. He believes we should be married. I remember a conversation I had with Bun after I told him I had given up my son for adoption. He told me a time would come when I would have to face up to it, when I would regret what I had done, and the only recourse I would have at that time would be personal sacrifice. Those pesky midget flies. My time has come. I thought by keeping this child I had beat it, but that was no sacrifice. It was a blessing. I had thought, daring to imagine, that perhaps I was doubly blessed, that David, my mistake, would simply go away. I had thought, daring to imagine, that you might step in. But where is the sacrifice in that? I don’t believe that by marrying David I can atone for anything. What I have done is done. Will it bring my son back, will it make me happy? Only Penny can make me happy, and I have said as much to David. One last temptation before me is to tell David I am in love with another man, that he has waited too long. But then I would be thinking of myself and not Penny. David is her father. He is a good man in many ways. In principle he is like Eamon, yet he is nothing like Eamon. I don’t think I can ever forgive him for disowning his child until the coast was clear. And yet, he is Penny’s father. What would she want if the choice were hers to make? This is not a problem I can analyze as Eamon would by spelling it out, advantages in one column, disadvantages in another. David is not a problem, he is Penny’s father. I keep coming back to this. Try as I might to think my way out of this, I can’t think for Penny. She can’t even think for herself, but she is flesh and blood of this man. He and I together made her. She is not mine, she is ours.
It must be obvious that I love you. And I do think it is logical. In my early letters to you I defined just how logical it is, how natural that I should confide in you. The very fact that you were living in and restoring my cottage, my retreat, my getaway, helping my father to do this; it is all too logical. I was here, trapped in my history; you were there, preparing my freedom. But love, no, I am not prepared to call it logical. Is emotion logical? No. I’m afraid my time has come and my sacrifice is love.
Leaving Penny with Mother, I went into Dublin last night to think this through. I parked near Tom Breen’s flat on Ormond Quay. I crossed the Ha’penny Bridge and did something I’ve never done before; I gave money to a tinker child. I walked to Poolbeg Street. I circled around Trinity College and returned by way of the O’Connell Street Bridge. I got back in my car and drove to the cinema. I wanted to stop thinking, it wasn’t going anywhere. I watched a movie about an American, disillusioned with the Vietnam War, who offers his service to the IRA. The Belfast scenes were shot here in Dublin, in Ringsend. This poor American had no idea what he was getting into. The IRA didn’t want him, didn’t trust him. They set him up to be killed by the British soldiers. But the Brits couldn’t kill him either, for fear of offending the U.S., so they devised a plan to have him killed by the IRA in crossfire. He escaped, more disillusioned than ever, and returned to the States. The movie ends in Detroit, with our man in a phone booth trying to place a call.
It was a very depressing movie and had the opposite effect I had hoped for. What should I do now, Ray? Do I dare suggest that you still come to Finnstown for Christmas? This is what I want. David knows only that I’m renting to an American (though even this is a lie now), but it would not be unusual if I would invite my “tenant” for the holidays. You must certainly need a break from Ballintlea. And what of Bun? There’s no reason he cant come to Finnstown now. Perhaps I should invite you both for Christmas. David will know in due time that Bun is my father. I just don’t know what to do. It is perhaps unwise to invite you here, but I have already invited you, so you decide. If you choose to stay there for the winter, or for however long you wish to stay, you have certainly earned it. In fact, you can have the cottage. You can have it. What will I do with it now?
Do you see what happens when I face a problem? I throw my hands up. I throw my money around. It is time to grow up, Mairead. Please write and tell me what you will do, and please, please, forgive me.
Walking up from O’Shea’s in a pissing rain with your letter in my pocket, I saw a herd of cattle appear on the road above. Kavanaugh followed with a stick. As we drew near, I moved off to my right and the herd moved off to their right. As we passed I turned my head to look at them and they turned their heads to look at me. The rain beat down on my back, it beat down their backs. I raised a hand to Kavanaugh and Kavanaugh raised a hand to me. Livestock passing in the rain.
Mairead, you’ve got Penny. Start with that and stick with that and everything will work out.
What will I do? I won’t return to the States and make a phone call, not yet, and I won’t be staying here either. As I read your letter it hit me all at once that what has made this tolerable is the knowledge that it isn’t permanent. I can leave, and I’m now ready to leave. I don’t have the stamina for this, like Bun. I have a few options. For one, I have some unfinished business in London. I made a loan to someone there before coming here, a foolish loan, I fear, but I may go there to see if I can get my money back. Then perhaps I will go to Munich. I have a friend there, a professor from the States who is on sabbatical. He has invited me to come for Christmas. Bun and I have already made arrangements to close this place up for winter. If he hasn’t already told you himself, he is coming with me. We will be coming by train.
Just this evening after dinner I made a fire and burned all the letters I have received, including yours. One by one I ran my eyes over them and tossed them into the fire. How ironic that living here so alone I should fall so in love. In the future, when I look back on this time, I will remember that I was alone here and I fell in love. I came up here in the dark, not knowing where I was until the following morning. I fell in love in the same way. Before I entered this cottage, I knelt and kissed the floor. I can still recall the grit on my lips. I have also kissed you, in a dream. A dream kiss. You were wearing a white dress and white slippers. We kissed and the tips of our tongues slipped through to touch. I knew this was a kiss over which I had no power. We are helpless in the face of love. Love is clearly a higher power. That little boy in de la Tour’s painting, love incarnate. And how well did he fit in? I have a fear of love in the same way I have a fear of God, of the unknown, of the higher power.
There’s still a good supply of wood. I thinned out the windbreak and laid in nearly half a cord. Bun told me at the time it would have to age before it would burn properly. I have come full circle to the very arrangement we first agreed on, to prepare the place for you and Penny. There’s no reason you shouldn’t see it the same way. You have your retreat now, Mairead, and by the sound of your last letter, you may need it now more than ever. Nothing would make me more happy than to know you and Penny will vacation here. You and Penny can come here next spring. You can be near your father, Penny her grandfather. If you marry David, he can come with you. You must have seen something in him at one time. And if, as you say, he is like Eamon, anything at all like Eamon, then he will prove to be a good father.
Damn it, Mairead, I cant help but feel a certain bitterness over this. Then again, I’ve been through this before, and if I’ve learned anything from that, it’s that I was as much to blame as Marie. She didn’t go looking for Enrico because she was totally satisfied with me. And moreover, look what it led to? It led to this, an experience I will never forget. You wrote once about the past being a game of leapfrog. All right, let’s leap over this frog and get on with it.
Bun came over the other night with his trusty carrot wine. God, how I love him. I got so stinking drunk I told him so. “I would have been honored to be your son-in-law,” I said, and he, stinking drunk himself, said, “I would have been honored to be your father-in-law.” Then we faced the stinking bloody facts. Won’t happen. Can’t happen. He put on his hat and coat, and I walked with him down to the ford. It was raining, the drops of rain streaking through the beam of his torch, and I thought suddenly of time as a broken toy. We play with it, break it, and leave it behind. When we reached the ford I said, “Bun, you’re a genius.” “How so?” he says to me. “That flower in your sculpting,” I said, “a flower that can be given or received. That is the true genius of art, reducing the magic of love to a simple gesture.”
I love you. I’m drinking up my backlog of Smithwicks right now. I’m dying, yes, this solitude I have become is dying, and I love you. So here is the plan. Bun and I will arrive by train on the 17th, Heuston Station. I would like to meet Penny if that is at all possible, but I will probably spend the night with Robert. I haven’t made any arrangements with Robert or anyone else, but I know where to find them. I may stay in Dublin a day or two, then I will go on to London and Munich. I would like to be in Munich with my friend for Christmas. Don’t write to me, I will only read it and burn it. Bring Penny to Heuston Station if you can, and we will say good-bye there. In case you can’t make it,
my love to Penny,
I don’t know when this letter will catch up with you or you with it, but I imagine it will be my last. I feel I must write and tell you what it was like to see you after all we had written to each other. And of course, I’m writing to thank you for the gift.
It all happened so fast I hardly knew what was happening. I was standing on the platform holding Penny in my arms. I held her so she could see the train coming in. “Your grandfather is on this train, honey, and a man I want you to meet. Ray. Ray is on this train. It will only be a moment now, only a moment. Can you feel Mummy’s heart pounding? There, there, yes, it is loud. Trains make a big noise. Watch now, don’t cry. See the people getting off. Your grandfather is a big man. He will hold you and lift you over his head. There! There! Do you see him? And Ray, with the green scarf on his head. And his coat from the market in Dingle. My heart is about to break. Don’t cry, please don’t cry.”
And then what happened? Bun took Penny. And you kissed me. The kiss we have no power over. I didn’t think you would kiss me. I didn’t think I would kiss you. But it went by so fast. You would not come back to Finnstown. You would not accept a ride. You asked if you could hold Penny for a minute. You told me why you couldn’t come with us, but I don’t remember why. I know why, but I don’t remember what you said. You handed me a box tied with a piece of baling twine. You kissed Penny, but you didn’t kiss me again. You wiped a tear from my eye. You handed Penny to me. You shook hands with Bun, and he led me away.
I forgot about the gift you had given me until much later that night. Bun came back to Finnstown with us. We all had dinner together, Bun, David, Mother, Fergus, Penny and I. It was far more civil than I could possibly have imagined. Bun and David. Bun and Mother, my parents, at the same table, in Eamon’s house. And Fergus. I excused myself when dessert was served and went up to put Penny to bed. It was then I saw the box you had given me. I opened it. Lambskin slippers. Size thirty-five. The one and only year my age and shoe size will match. I had to go back to that letter and read it again to make sure that is what you were asking me. I have not burned your letters. I will keep them and maybe from time to time read them.
It is Christmas evening now. I am wearing the slippers you gave me. I have half a mind to wear them at my wedding.
I love you, Ray,
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