Distant Lights in the Foothills Beyond Owari-Eki

20:42

The emergency call from Central comes over the line at 20:42, but Matsuda has already decelerated the train. He often reacts faster than the automated shutdown system.

Central tells the motorman the tracks have become obstructed ahead at Katsubo Station. Central says, “Expect at least a thirteen- to fourteen-minute delay.”

Hai,” says Matsuda, acknowledging the transmission. The train slides to a soft stop some three hundred meters short of the star cluster of shops and restaurants at Heiwa-cho.

Matsuda makes the announcement to his passengers: “Attention please. Due to a slight complication farther up the line, all outbound trains will be momentarily delayed. Thank you for your patience. We’ll be under way soon.”

A narrow, rain-glossed road runs along the tracks to the left of the train. Across the road, a dental clinic and a Sumitomo bank stand pale against the night sky. Empty and dark-windowed. The only life comes from a juku, a cram school, above the dental clinic, where a teacher’s agitated arms suggest his emphatic speech. The second-floor window cuts off the teacher at his belly. As for the students, Matsuda can see only the very tops of their heads.

Matsuda’s hand radio suddenly hisses and speaks. It’s Yoshida, the motorman at the rear of the train. He asks, “Did Central give you any details about the problem up the line, Matsuda-san?”

“Very few,” Matsuda answers. “An accident at Katsubo-eki.”

“A jumper?”

“I’m not certain. I believe so. They expect a thirteen- to fourteen-minute delay. Seems about right.”

“I’ll use the time to fill out the logs.”

Hai,” says Matsuda, pleased with Yoshida’s initiative.

The evening is dense with humidity, and Matsuda quickens the flow of air through the train to relieve the passengers tightly packed in the middle cars. He checks the traffic grid on the control-panel monitor: up and down the line, dull, blinking orange lights represent static trains.

He looks across the street again, to the juku. The teacher continues to batter his students with historical dates, solid geometry formulas, or maybe English grammar. But because his back is turned to his class (he’s writing on the chalkboard), two students seated next to the windows have risked lifting their heads to peer out at the halted train. They’re twelve or thirteen years old. Already studying for their college entrance exams. Matsuda feels slightly nostalgic, the pull of a sad smile on his lips. A third boy now peers out, a boy who looks to be seated farther from the windows and who has had to stand to get a look. Soon, a fourth face appears in the window, and then a fifth and a sixth. They’re like puppies trying to escape a cardboard box. Matsuda blares the trains horn, a sharp sound that startles the juku teacher, makes him turn around, and spoils the mutiny.

20:59

Once Central gives the all-clear signal, the train accelerates again, clicking steadily. It passes through low stucco canyons of company housing blocks, ramshackle wooden houses half-obscured by hanging laundry. It drifts by the red paper lanterns of noodle restaurants, the empty stalls of fishmongers and vegetable sellers, the corrugated roll-down doors of corner shops stocked with radios or bicycles or cosmetics.

Matsuda has traveled tracks like these thousands of times. But tonight, this trip feels particular. Particular not because it’s one of the last he’ll ever make (he’s retiring next week), and not because a person has possibly leaped in front of another train up the line (a disturb-ing situation, certainly-but not out of the ordinary). He wonders if a “particular” trip is even conceivable at this point in his life, if this is just a trick of his mind. Whatever this sensation is, he struggles to put a name to it, to explain its sudden clutch on him. It feels original, and he assumes it will take time for him to understand it. He’ll be patient.

When Matsuda started with the company as a twenty-two-year-old junior employee, the urban terrain struck him as paradoxical. The individual pieces of the city seemed ordinary, even unsightly: endless white block buildings, thick cross-hatchings of power and phone lines, rows of deadened faces stretched along commuter platforms, dutiful housewives sweeping wet streets in front of their homes with bamboo-handled brooms. The scenes never seemed to change. Yet at times the view framed by the compartment’s wide, glinting glass stirred Matsuda.

Once, pulling out of Kitazawa station into a feathery rain-the train high above the boulevard-Matsuda looked down on what he would later describe as an exquisite composition. He saw shimmering advertisements for cigarette companies; an endless lineup of green and orange taxis outside the Seibu department store; a throng of pedestrians, small puffs of breath rising in the cold; a lone dog dismally searching the crowd for its master. The sky was divided unequally. In the low distance where the sun would soon set, it was a narrow hazy-bright strip. But above, encroaching rain clouds had turned the sky the uneven color of a bruise. Without warning, the rains came, pattering the compartment window. Below, yellow and red blossoms of umbrellas opened like tulips. Matsuda felt an immense satisfaction as the scene slipped behind him.

When he got home, he spoke to his wife about the world he saw from his compartment: “This is the only way I can describe it. I hate to put it so plainly, but each time we run up the line, I feel as though an artist is painting my window. Like it’s a canvas, you see. Not an extraordinary notion, granted. But this is an artist obsessed by his subject. Always the tracks, prominent in the middle of the picture-always the tracks. They curve left or right, sure. But the artist can only paint slight variations. His subject has cornered him, you see. Who’s really in control-the subject or the man trying to capture it?”

Matsuda sipped at his evening Kirin lager as he spoke. A pot of udonnoodles boiled on the gas range, throwing up whorls of steam. Hiroko was holding Shuncho against her shoulder, facing the gas range, her back to Matsuda. The baby, barely seven weeks old, was sick and frail. Near the end. He needed constant comfort. Hiroko swayed to quiet him, cupping the infant’s head to her neck.

“If you spend enough hours out there,” Matsuda was saying, “which is all I do – this is all I see for hours and hours – these variations seem almost imperceptible. But that’s their power, of course. The tiniest of variations in themselves are exquisite. When I recognize them, I feel … I don’t know … I feel I’m on the inside of something. Something valuable, perhaps. Unspoiled.”

Hiroko finally turned and interrupted Matsuda. “I wish you would not do things to put your job in jeopardy.” Despite her small frame and smaller voice, she never withheld contrary thoughts. They often flew from her mouth in small furies. Her husband both admired and despised this part of her, though he had never confessed so.

“Jeopardy?” said the motorman sharply. “I don’t see how putting my mind to use would jeopardize my job. And like any muscle, the mind will become soft and feeble if one doesn’t exercise it.”

“True,” she returned, “if one applies his mind to his work, then he is doing a service to himself and his company. To his family. An exemplary man should do nothing less. But concerning oneself with ‘Where is the beauty here?’ or ‘Look how the light is striking the roof tiles ever so differently today’ – these are the thoughts of boys. Daydreams. Call them what you want. But they are terrible thoughts to be thinking now.”

Hiroko tried to pull the noodles off the gas range, but as she adjusted the baby on her shoulder, she set off the child’s cries once again. Shuncho had been in and out of the hospital since birth. When the doctors finally said there was nothing more they could do for the child, that the illness was too firmly settled into the boy’s body, Hiroko and Matsuda took him home for good. They did not want him to die in the care of strangers. They agreed to comfort Shuncho and love him, but not pity him. Or pity themselves. Pity was selfish. Yet to put up a pretense of strength was difficult, especially for Hiroko. Matsuda was sure she secretly believed she alone could nurse Shuncho back to health. That her words, her songs, her touch were what the boy needed. He’d held on longer than the doctors predicted, but the baby’s wails had become weaker over the last two or three days – still as constant as ever, but more horrifying because one could barely hear them coming from his tiny, enraged mouth.

The motorman was furious that his infant son prevented him from shouting at his wife. “You don’t understand,” he wanted to say. The fact that his anger appalled him did little to diminish it. He caught his tongue, which pleased him because it felt as if he’d deadened a whip already set in motion. Prevented the snap. With even temper, he said, “Shu-chan seems better, I think. Quieter than he was yesterday, but his lungs are sturdier. I can tell.”

Hiroko turned from the gas range and looked at her husband as if from the far side of a vast room, though their six-mat apartment was anything but vast. Her lips pinched hard, and a pink bud spread outward from the center of her forehead. She said nothing. The motorman decided he would let his wife think she had won this battle. If she could not see the importance of his ideas-how they gave him hope-then it was better to explore them quietly, in the solitude of his train compartment, where he often made better sense of the world.

When he returned to work the morning after he’d spoken to Hiroko, the first early snow of the season was powdering the city as though it were the face of a withered kabuki actor. The motorman, away from his apartment, away from his sick child and his cheerless wife, thought, I’m traveling through a museum. He repeated it aloud, with force, as if to test the truth of the statement. When he did, he experienced delight for the first time in weeks, a glimmer of happiness that almost seemed foreign. He felt he’d made an important connection between distinct worlds – life and the representation of life. He sensed he was traveling along a seam, the exact fold where two worlds merged. Because none of his passengers could see this seam through his window, he was sure they couldn’t imagine it was even there. The idea of it had probably never occurred to any of them. And even if it had, surely none had worked it out as elaborately as he, for Matsuda had begun to catalogue and title the cityscapes so familiar to him now: “Reluctant Fog at Hashiyama Crossing,” “Pale Light on Wet Rails after Storm,” “Night Descending on Tracks near Suidobashi in Russet Autumn.”

21:02

Now, as the train rushes through the night, the motorman feels he’s approaching a scene for which he has no title. And perhaps this is what makes this trip ishijirushi. Particular. What he suddenly senses is this: there is a man standing on the platform of Katsubo Station, a man Matsuda knows. Yet Katsubo Station is still more than seven hundred meters up the track, and the commuters on the platform don’t even look like people yet. The station, in fact, sitting atop the apex of track where the rails come together far up the straightaway, has the look of a distant cook fire. The motorman thinks, So this is what it has come to, Matsuda old boy, forty-one years of service and your mind is now slowly turning to wood.

It is likely that less than a half-hour ago a jumper took his life at Katsubo Station. A body crushed, a crowd horrified. Or perhaps someone carelessly fell from the platform. As sober as these possibilities are, Matsuda’s thoughts push elsewhere.

This is an express train, and the station in question is a local stop. So if there is indeed a man on the platform, an old acquaintance whom Matsuda might recognize, what does it matter? They’ll have no opportunity to lament the persistent accumulation of years since their last meeting. No time to exchange family pictures. Yes, in fact my wife and I had two boys, though the first died quite young. Yes, a heavy blow to us at the time. But my other boy has his own family now. Two children. My son’s an associate professor at Keio University. He travels to Papua New Guinea every winter to study endangered birds. Oh, you should see the lovely blue plumage. Yes, he’s quite successful. Yes, yes, thank you. You’re most kind to say so.

Perhaps, thinks Matsuda uneasily, this man waiting on the platform is no friend at all. It’s quite possible that he’s an old enemy, is it not? Life turns that way at times. Coincidences are not necessarily happy. But if this is the case (and somehow Matsuda now senses this isunavoidably the case), the motorman fears he will not have an opportunity to make amends. To right a wrong. To ask for forgiveness, or to forgive this other gentleman as the case may warrant.

This train will pass through Katsubo Station without stopping.

At twelve, Matsuda and his friends often raced to school in the morning. They loved how the long hill that sloped from the station seemed to force them into a run. Invariably it was Matsuda who arrived at the school gate first. But one day, as he and three schoolmates ran through the mist, Matsuda’s friend Yamata kicked his legs out from under him. The wet road suddenly burned along Matsuda’s arms and hands. His friends clomped past, yelling jubilantly, “Ha, Matsuda, you’ll be last this time!”

Matsuda lay on the sloping road, fighting the sting in his hands by clenching his teeth, hurt and angry at the betrayal. When he finally sat up and wiped his eyes, he discovered bloody rips in the elbows of his uniform.

“They’ve made a fool of you,” came a voice from a beer house behind Matsuda. “Baka dai-yo.” If the boy’s own dog had spoken to him, he wouldn’t have been more amazed. An Occupation soldier leaned in the doorway, tilted like a garden rake set against a house. The soldier’s hair was the color of beach sand. His hands were in his pockets as if he were saving them for a more important purpose. Behind the soldier, unfathomable shadow lurked, but from out of this shadow, around the soldier’s waist, came two pale arms, so thin and delicate it seemed the lightest touch might hurt them. The arms were connected above the soldier’s brass-clip belt by slim white fingers, woven together. Their nails gleamed coral red.

“Look there,” said the American, nodding down the hill. “Mite.”

Matsuda’s three friends appeared at the bottom of the slope, dipping and rising from the waist as they laughed. They looked like finches drinking from a rain puddle. “Come on, Matsuda,” they called up to him. “Master will be waiting for us with his cane.”

Matsuda turned back to the soldier. “You like this?” the American said. “Suki?” He unclasped the girl’s hands, taking a finger and lifting it to his mouth and putting the tip inside as though it were a piece of candy. The boy wondered if the man tasted cherries. The American let the finger move of its own accord, and it slowly traced the contours of his lips. Big-band music began playing from the second floor. Girls laughed. With a knowing smile, the soldier backed into the shadow until all Matsuda could see was the uniformed arm reaching to slide the fusuma shut. But the soldier didn’t completely close the door, and the slat of darkness seemed like an invitation for Matsuda to follow. Instead he limped back up the hill toward the train station.

Later that evening, the boy’s mother took a reed of bamboo to the back of his knees. “That’s what happens to little devils who skip school and ruin their uniforms,” she said.

In bed he cried with a controlled quietness that made him proud. Under the thin sheet, lying with his back to his mother, he pulled his knees to his chin. His raw hands held the back of his scorching knees. He imagined they were not his hands, but the hands with red nails and wet fingers.

21:05

As the train bears down on Katsubo Station, it no longer resembles a distant fire, but two halves of a phosphorescent moon, cut by the perfect parallel lines of the train tracks.

Matsuda is passing right through it. The motorman barely has enough time to look at the faces along the platform, some six or seven deep.

Is there a particular face looking back? It’s difficult to tell at this speed. But yes. There – leaning out over the track, clearer than others, a man outlined by a glow of familiarity. He stares through the compartment window at Matsuda, and as Matsuda looks back, he knows he’s looking at himself. Or a man he might have become, like others he might have become, men who once traveled with Matsuda but who, at different moments since 1935, took their own paths, like branches of lightning flashing independently of the primary vein. The man on the platform was once a boy who slid back the fusuma of a beer house, in a part of the city that had no official name but that people called with disgust “Little Yoshiwara,” a boy who decades ago played hooky to follow the scent of tobacco and foul tatami, the sound of a big-band orchestra and the clomping of feet up a dark stairway, into a second-story room hidden from the world by wood and rice paper. This, while another boy stood helpless against the slope of a hill on the street outside, a boy who ran away and spent a morning along the banks of the Taimagawa, digging up frogs already packed away in the cold, hard mud for winter.

At the end of the platform, the stationmaster salutes Matsuda, white glove at the bill of his cap. And the motorman, for the first time in his forty-one years of service, forgets to return the salute.

Out into the night again, the train rushes onward. Matsuda feels something like anxiety or regret shatter and then release skyward. It dissipates like a startled cluster of pigeons. He calls his partner on the radio, the motorman at the other end of the train, Yoshida, who will take over when the train reaches the end of the line and reverses direction, passing back over these same tracks.

“Yoshida, can you see Katsubo-eki behind us?”

“Of course I can.”

“For me,” says Matsuda, “it has already disappeared. Tell me what it looks like.”

Yoshida says, “Nothing much to report. No emergency vehicles. No sign of an accident. It’s as if nothing happened, I’ll confess.”

“It might not have been a jumper.”

“Very true, Matsuda.”

“Tell me what it looks like, Yoshida. The station.”

“The glow is getting duller every second. What can I say? It’s a station like any other.”

“Would you say it looks like the death of a star?”

Yoshida doesn’t answer right away. He’s taking time to give the question serious consideration. Matsuda respects this quality in the younger man, a quality lacking in most young Japanese. Yoshida says, “I suppose if one’s imagination had the freedom, yes, then it might appear so. But Matsuda-San, I’m just a junior motorman. What do I know of dying stars?”

Matsuda says quietly, “Yes, true,” but by agreeing, he feels as though he’s just betrayed himself.

The next stop approaches and Matsuda makes the announcement: “Sugi wa Akigawa desu. Akigawa desu.” Everything is methodical again. The train pulls into Akigawa Station, slows to a stop. The train unloads and loads. The stationmaster blows his whistle when the doorways clear. The train moves on.

The motorman speaks to his partner again over the radio. “My son is going abroad next week, Yoshida. To Papua New Guinea. His annual trip.”

“To study his birds?”

“What a fine memory you have, Yoshida. Yes, the blue birds of paradise. It’s courtship season. Have I told you? To attract females, the males swing upside down from the branches of trees, making calls to potential mates. Can you imagine – hanging upside down? Like bats! They have fat red breasts, but their magnificence is really in the plumage of their wings. Blue as pure water. As the bird swings, the wing feathers fall outward, like a fan opening. My son has never tired of the sight. He says he feels like an alien on his own planet every time he sees it. He keeps telling me, Father, when are you going to join me in Papua New Guinea? You must see this bird. You must. You must. Yes, well, I tell him, one of these years, I just might.”

“Matsuda-san, forgive me for suggesting we cease communication. This conversation is exceeding the scope of official train operations, don’t you think? You have always been disciplined with respect to this policy, and I have you to thank for passing some of this discipline on to me.”

The track bends, and the train lists and screeches metallically as it makes the turn. The white blaze of the train’s lamps catches something scampering out of harm’s way. Perhaps a stray mutt.

“Matsuda-san? Don’t you agree?”

“Yes,” says Matsuda heavily. “Thank you for reminding me.”

“Forgive me, sir, for overstepping my bounds.”

“Nonsense, Yoshida. I’m getting old and forgetful.”

Matsuda sets his hand radio down as if putting it to sleep. The gentle clicking of the train’s motion on the track fills the compartment, and Matsuda enjoys how it softly hammers the soles of his shoes. “There is something simple and graceful and pleasurable about feeling a sound,” he thinks aloud. “I shall miss it when I retire.”

21:27

The city thins out here. Periodically, rice fields back up to the line, mostly irregularly shaped plots no larger than Matsuda’s apartment. Matsuda calls this piece “Rice Stalks and Silhouettes of Distant Hills.” It’s one of his favorites.

Moving through “Rice Stalks and Silhouettes of Distant Hills,” the motorman wants to reproduce a sense of floating wonder he often experienced when as a teenager he accompanied his father out to sea beyond Tokyo Bay. Matsuda’s father was a commercial fisherman. During school holidays, Matsuda helped his father set the nets and bring the catch in to the buyers before sunrise. Matsuda liked to swing in a hammock his father had stretched across the foredeck, studying how on certain moonless, starless nighs – when his father indulged him by cutting the boat’s running lights – the sky and sea lost their identities. No hint of a horizon. Water and air, amalgamated by pure blackness. The sea gently slapped at the boat, and the motor droned under the water, but one might have imagined these were the sounds of a much more distant place. These moments both frightened Matsuda and exhilarated him. Swinging, feeling suspended, nearly weightless, he had the notion he was the only solid thing in the universe.

Now, twenty-five years after the death of his father, Matsuda has the sudden urge to re-create those moments, to make Left, Right, Up, Down, Backward and Forward meaningless. He switches off the train’s headlamps and waits for the obscuring black. The moon, however, casts the greater plain in a dull, ashy glow, distinguishing it from the distant violet hills and the hills from the deeper violet of the sky. On the water of the rice plots, the moon burns silver, and it seems its reflection is a great shivering fish. It’s racing the train. “Ha!” says Matsuda, driving the accelerator forward. “Swim, moon! Swim!”

“Matsuda-san?” comes Yoshida’s voice over the hand radio, an accusatory sound.

Hai,” says the startled motorman, already easing the throttle back. His neck is tight and hot. “Forgive me, Yoshida. I’m clumsy tonight. I bumped the throttle. Give me your current train speed reading.”

“Back to normal.”

“Yes, confirmed here as well.”

Hai,” says Yoshida.

Matsuda turns the beams on again. The rice plots are gone, and they have taken the silver fish with them.

Child! he scolds himself, or perhaps it’s the scolding voice of his wife. A memory of her voice. You should have listened to me, Matsuda. Matsuda with the wooden head. Matsuda who makes a paintbrush of rain, a canvas of the black night. Why do you idle away your time thinking of such nonsense?

It’s not so much nonsense.

Look at you. Are you even capable of operating this train anymore? Your hands are shaking. Your mouth is full of saliva you can’t swallow fast enough. You’re chasing the reflection of the moon.

It was only a small game. I do my best. The company values me.

Matsuda, look at yourself. You don’t see what I see. Look.

Hiroko has been gone only a year now. It seems odd to the motorman that the memory of his wife’s voice should still be so vivid to him, while the memory of her face peers at him as if through sea water.

Hiroko and Matsuda had stayed with each other through many unpleasant years. They’d formed a pact of tolerance much in the way employees who otherwise want nothing to do with each other work together for the good of a company. Early on, their marriage had been agreeable enough, filled with cooperation, sometimes laughter, even moments of romance. But in the months after Shuncho died, Hiroko rarely spoke. When she did, her speech was sometimes afflicted with a slight stammer. Unable to sleep, she often left the tiny apartment late at night, wandered the streets. On more than one occasion, Matsuda, having woken up to an empty bed, found her on a park bench where she’d previously sat with Shuncho. She sang “Bird in the Cage,” her arms cradling the air under her bosom.

Hiroko recaptured some of her old self when she gave birth to their second son, Harunori. But as she recovered her cheerfulness and warmth, she directed most of it toward the new baby and merely suffered the third member of the household for the child’s sake.

When Hiroko had passed away last year, Harunori, now a university lecturer, placed the butsudan altar in his own home, which, he argued, provided a larger space for the family to gather and offer their prayers than did Matsuda’s eight-mat apartment. The photograph of Hiroko in the center of the butsudan was taken nearly thirteen years earlier, on the day Harunori graduated from college. She looked as proud and happy as a mother could look.

On the first morning they prayed around the butsudan, Harunori asked his father to sit and talk about the future. Harunori’s wife, Yuka, served the men o-cha and kept the children from disturbing the room. Harunori proposed that his father retire and come live with his family. They owned a house in one of the new communities beyond the Tama River, where each residence had extra room for grandparents, a Western-style oven in its kitchen, a small veranda, a carport.

“After all,” said Harunori, “next year you’ll have to retire, Father. And if they moved you to a desk job – would you be happy? I don’t think so. That’s a misery you’ve talked about for years.”

Matsuda said, “If I have only one more year to drive, then I will drive. All the more reason I shouldn’ t retire early.”

“But you can still collect nearly a full pension. Plus you’ve saved so much over the years. You and Mother were almost cruel in the way you saved.”

“Money is no concern to me now.”

“But Father, your apartment will be too quiet.”

“That apartment has been quiet for years, Harunori. Little has changed.”

Harunori sat in thought. He had many of his mother’s features, and he’d also inherited Hiroko’s frankness, her strong head. He said, “Think about Keiko- and Aka-chan, Father. When I do my field research, there’s no man around the house. For two months every year, Yuka has complete influence on the children. I need to have someone here to make sure she doesn’t turn them against me.”

“I think your mother would want me to stay where I am – far from your affairs.”

“Father, you’re being unfair to Mother, now.”

Perhaps I am, thought Matsuda but didn’ t say it. Instead, he said, “What about these trips, Haru-chan. Your birds. It seems to me you could use a hand at times. I’m not talking about the entire two months. But for a week or two, I could be useful to you. I have some vacation time coming to me.”

Harunori put a hand on Matsuda’s knee. “Father, I’m pleased you’re interested in my work. But it’s no place for you. The heat is terrible. Sometimes we hike as many as twenty kilometers a day. Why don’t you take a vacation in Hawaii? You’ve always wanted to go.”

“You won’t consider my joining you? Won’t at least think it over?”

“Father, there’s no funding. Trust me, you would hate it there.”

“You mean I would be a burden.”

“Father-”

“Enough. I want to talk with my grandchildren. I haven’t seen them in weeks.” Matsuda yelled past the closed door, “Keiko-chan, Aka-chan – come see your grandfather. Come pull on my old ears for a while.”

21:32

As if propelled by the metronomic clicking, Matsuda does something he’s never considered before: he passes through the door of his compartment into the passenger carriage. Yoshida, at the other end of the train, will immediately know compartment security has been compromised. He’ll take over. Matsuda has faith in the younger man because Yoshida reminds him so much of himself at that age.

The few passengers remaining pay little attention to the motorman. Some stand, some sit. They read comics and evening newspapers. Many stare passively at the floor, lost in the music of their Walkmans. At the far end of the car, a small boy – perhaps four or five years old – sits with his grandfather. The old man’s hand rests on the boy’s bare knee, as if it’s keeping the boy in his seat. The boy’s legs are plump and dangling, fitted with snug white knee-high socks and small blue sneakers. He has a child-size backpack and wears a Seibu Lions cap – it will be years before his head fits into it.

As the motorman approaches them, only the boy looks up, the first of any these passengers who seems alarmed. You are the motorman! What are you doing here? The boy leans out into the aisle, grandfather holding him back. He’s trying to see past the commuters into the operator’s compartment. Who’s driving the train?

“My son Harunori was a pull hitter,” says Matsuda, standing above the boy. “He played first base. But you look like a shortstop to me. Am I right? A good arm from deep in the hole? Quick as a cat?”

The boy is too frightened to answer. His grandfather looks up and nods warmly to Matsuda. “Yutaka wants to be a pitcher,” he answers for the boy. “Isn’t that right, Yutaka?” The boy looks uncertain, and not about the question. The motorman eases into the empty bench seat next to the boy. “A pitcher. That’s a good thing. Yes, a pitcher. Your feet won’t tire like a trainman’s. A pitcher gets rest.”

The grandfather winks at Matsuda, then stares straight ahead.

Beyond the windows opposite them, over the heads of the silent office ladies and salary men, thin bands of red and yellow and blue neon interrupt vast stretches of black.

“It’s like a movie,” Matsuda says, and points.

The boy looks up at him, eyes almost covered by the too-large hat.

“How would you like to see the view from my compartment, Mr. Pitcher? Have you ever been inside a motorman’s compartment?”

The frightened boy appeals to his grandfather for help. “Would you like to see where the driver works?” the grandfather asks him. The boy shakes his head no.

Matsuda stands, puts his white-gloved hand out for the boy to take. “You don’t want to come with me? Only very important people get to see the view from my window. You want to drive the train?”

The boy climbs into his grandfather’s lap to get away from the hand.

“No?”

“Thank you for offering,” says the grandfather. “It’s very kind. We’ll be getting off soon anyway.” He shakes his head at Matsuda as if to say, No matter how hard you try, he won’t come with you. He’s just that way. A shy boy.

Suddenly the boy claws his way up to his grandfather’s face and says, “I want to get off now. Right now.”

“We have to wait,” says the grandfather. “Patience. We need patience.”

But Matsuda thinks of the possibility: Why not stop the train now? Feeling foolishly happy with the notion-as if it’s an obvious solution to a problem – he says, “What a clever little boy.” And then he makes his way back through the passengers toward his compartment with a sense of purpose.

An announcement drones over speakers. “Next stop, Owari Station. End of the line. Next stop, Owari-eki.” Yoshida’s voice sounds appropriately calm, though Matsuda figures he’s quite concerned by now. But Yoshida is a capable young man. Matsuda decides he will praise him in the report he’ll prepare next week, the last report before he retires. He’ll recommend him for promotion. The company has a good man in Yoshida, and Matsuda is proud he’s played a role in shaping the younger trainman.

When he reaches the control panel, Matsuda figures he has less than a minute before the train enters the last station on the line. He eases back the throttle and engages the brakes. The train slows and stops. Owari-eki is a still few hundred meters up the line.

“Matsuda?” says Yoshida’s voice over the radio. “Do we have an emergency? Matsuda, are you there? What’s our status, please? Over.”

Matsuda overrides the automated door controls and then passes back into the passenger carriage, where everyone now stares at him, some panicked, some looking for guidance. In their faces he reads, Why have we stopped? What should we do? What’s wrong? Are we in danger? The grandfather of the small boy looks horrified, as if he feels he and his grandson are responsible for this turn of events.

Because the doors are open, the sound of stuttering hydraulics from the trains undercarriage fills the car. The passengers make way for Matsuda, yield to the authority of his blue uniform. He stands at the threshold of the doors, a meter and a half above the track. He wonders if his legs will absorb the landing. It’s been so long since he’s tested them. He drops down to solid earth, surprising himself. He rolls, forward. He feels no pain. He stands. The ballast rattles behind him as a few of the passengers touch down. He hears Yoshida yell, “Matsuda-san!” down the length of the train.

Everything Matsuda feels connected to-the locomotive, the tracks, his passengers, his partner – remains at his back. He begins running, something he hasn’t done in years, something he thought he wasn’t capable of doing. His lungs are as large as ten-kilo sacks of rice. He climbs over the retaining fence without care. On the other side, he finds himself bounding through the high grass of a derelict soccer field. Nets torn. Goals collapsed and rusted. The high grass pulls at his feet so hard, it seems a signal to slow down.

He stops for a moment to take in the composition before him. He’s without his compartment window to frame it, but the scene defines its own boundaries. Above the glow of Owari – the station platform suffused with the luminous red of Coca-Cola machines, the streets whitewashed gauzy by night lamps, the roof tiles of tourist shops catching the gleam of the moon – ascending above all of this is the dark indigo prominence of the foothills. And in this expanse of indigo flicker several lights like torches, guideposts, zigzagging their way up toward the summit of Nakao-san, the last of them so weak and distant it seems merely a figment.

Matsuda looks back to the train. A tiny crowd of figures moves about uncertainly. Station men bound down the track, whistling, their flashlight beams caroming off earth and track and night. The train looks helpless. Melancholy iron and steel. But Matsuda places this scene outside the frame, cropping it off at the corner of his eye, as though it were something unseemly.

A breeze cools the sweaty back of his neck, and laughter sweeps in upon him like an updraft, suggesting his next direction. And now, running again, the high, heavy grass slapping at his feet, he leans toward the lights in the distant foothills, feeling like an artist who’s escaped the prison of his own work.

Fianchetto

This essay is not currently available online.

Hannah, my daughter, asked me to teach her to play chess. She had been teaching school in Istanbul. There, she said, young people take chess lessons the way they make music lessons in the States, but none of her turkish friends wanted to trouble themselves with a total beginner. This took me by surprise, not so much because she wanted to learn the game, which she had never expressed any interest in before, but because of her sudden forthcomingness.

Poetry Feature: Gary Fincke

Featuring the poems:

  • The Uses of Rain
  • Schmaltz
  • During Sixth Grade
  • The End of Uncertainty

The Uses of Rain

We sat, in geography, for nine weeks

With water, a marking period of rain.

We followed the dittoed diagrams

Of water’s efficient recycling-

Precipitation, evaporation,

All the clouds we memorized for exams:

Cirrus, cumulus, the great thunderheads

Like the ones Mr. Sanderson called us

To watch at the windows. Snow, he told us,

Was nature’s cheap ice cream, more air in drifts

Than water. A barometer, he said,

Could thrive inside an injured knee, but he

Made us read the names for irrigation,

How crop rotation and the geometry

Of plowing could safety-net the earth.

He taught the proper times for lawn sprinklers,

The folly of building in the flood plain,

And we remembered the timetables

For tides, the value of deltas, wetlands,

And the extraordinary ecosystem

Of the ocean. And though we conserved

For extra credit, though we catalogued

Our care, we took our test, turned it in,

And listened, books closed, to Mr. Sanderson

Tell us the story of the crested bustard,

Whose desire is triggered by the sound of rain.

“Because it lives in the desert,” he explained,

“Its courtship dance must be timed just right.”

He held our stack of tests to his chest

And walked among our rows. “In zoos,” he said,

“In captivity, those birds begin to dance

When they hear a keeper’s hose. They prance

To the simple sound of washing, believing

That rain will water the luck of their children.”

 

Schmaltz

My mother’s old bacon grease filled a jar

That sat among flour and sugar and salt

As if that unlabeled glass held one more

Kitchen staple. 100% fat,

100% thrift-the smoked flavor

Worked its way into eggs so we could eat

More meatless breakfasts. Or no eggs at all,

Just that grease, with green onions, reheated.

That meal took timing, taking the rye bread

To the barely hardened, sopping up schmaltz

Like uncles who drank coffee to cut it.

Such richness stayed overnight in the mouth

Where German melted into the English

Of memory, its sentimental schmaltz.

People my age were forgetting the waltz,

The fox-trot, and my father’s sad box step.

What would be left, my mother worried, when

Conventional dances were gone? When thrift

Was laughed at? And all those warnings about

Salt and fat, the satisfaction of grease.

Already there were complaints about Heinz,

The soups my uncles made. Pittsburgh was home,

Now, to high blood pressure and heart disease,

All the Germans fleeing to the suburbs

Where bacon was drained, salt never slathered

On the crisped skin of chickens.

My mother said we could shimmy it off in no time,

Doing the Twist and the Mashed Potato,

The dances of the slim who’d never heard

Of real schmaltz and the terrible success

Of learning place, those who wouldn’t admit

To grandfathers who ate pure grease and lived,

Who’d punched in for fifty years and carried

The company’s gold watch to prove it.

 

During Sixth Grade

We learned the Redcoats lost to Patriots

Who wore drab hand-me-downs and mended rags.

We memorized the spellings of handsome

And beautiful, vanity and conceit.

Miss Blatt said listen to this lesson: birds

With the brightest feathers are attacked first

By their predators. We wrote it down so

We wouldn’t forget the consequences

Of fame. We passed around her photos of

Harlow and Valentino, beginning

An album which stopped at the red jacket

Of James Dean, who the year before had been

Pecked by the great beak of our jealous God.

I memorized the size and shape of each

Sixth grade bra cup and thought Elise Nestel

Would surely die before the rest of us.

My father, the troop leader, testified

To the character of a Boy Scout who

Confessed, at last, to a series of rapes

As if any girl’s body had beauty

Enough to attack. The homely brother

Of a classmate crashed his old car and died.

The perfect proportion of bright plumage

To death broke like schoolbook bindings; nothing

Excluded me from the spell of disbelief.

 

The End of Uncertainty

Researchers are said to have golden hands

when experiments produce a result only for them.

 

During our two-week retreat, we campers

Had to be praying by sunrise, alone,

Then together, and never for ourselves

Before hymns by the lake where the cold fog

Clung like God’s contempt for our indifference.

Our counselor, when we slept in, told us

The tale of St. Cuthbert, who sank neck-deep

In the sea to prepare himself for prayer.

Thanks be to God for the monk who followed

And his careful recording of such faith.

He showed us, that morning, his Widow’s Mite

And his authentic splinter from the cross.

Because the holiness of parts could keep

Us whole. Because, at night, he kept his fists

Closed in sleep, his fingers curled around them

With Christian discipline, what we could learn

So we’d never worry about God’s fire

Or the cyanide of the gas chamber

That had punished the sins of Caryl Chessman.

 

There were capital punishments, he said,

For countries, the recent executions

Of the French Sudan and Belgian Congo.

Think what’s happened to the Gold Coast,

He said, and we waited until he breathed,

“Ghana” like the amen at the end of prayer.

His last sermon explained how the world’s maps

Were revised and revised until they were

As reliable as the Vinland Map,

Forged to give Vikings credit for first claim

Of discovery. And there were further frauds,

He preached, naming none, but I could tell him,

Today, how Libya, finally, produced

A map without England, expanding

The North Sea to excise what it loathed.

And I could name the astronomer who,

For love of belief, altered photographs

Which proved additional galaxies.

 

This year the Shroud of Turin is making

A comeback tour while someone claims he owns

The armor worn by Joan of Arc, its nicks

And scratches where her sacred wounds would be.

Soon there may be a whole host of returns:

Piltdown Man, Cardiff Giant, and Barnum’s

Colorado Man, all of them called out

Like the planted sick of a faith healer’s

Audience. This week, from the riverbank

A mile from here, a skeleton unearthed,

Each day regaining more of itself from

Six fillings and the evidence of wounds.

This morning, the published photographs

Of the long-missing woman, interviews

With her parents, nothing like armor

Keeping their daughter from harm. It’s the end

Of uncertainty, the mother declares.

It’s the end of miracles, the father adds,

Continued on the page where a woman

Displays one thousand origami cranes

She owns to bring fulfillment of wishes.

 

And I’m thinking, now, that we should forgive

The scientists who have doctored data,

Forgive the golden hands of researchers.

Absolve the man who marked mice with the ink

Of false verification and pardon,

The doctor who beat probability

With a simple shift of answers. For they

Do the work of our wishes. For they bring

Miracles and divine intervention.

There are so many God-signs in science

We need a library for likely fraud,

Space enough for enormous paper flocks

To dream among, letting go of no coins

Or splinters, and willing the body not

To shift in sleep, those frail, paper birds so

Securely settled they will not startle.

Those Deep Elm Brown's Ferry Blues

This story is not currently available online.

I heard a whippoorwill last night, the old man said.

Say you did? Rabon asked without interest. Rabon was just in from his schoolteaching job. He seated himself in the armchair across from the bed and hitched un his trouser legs and glanced covertly at his watch. The old man figured Rabon would put in his obligatory five minutes then go in his room and turn the stereo on.

Monastic Ruins

August 25

Dear Mairead:

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.

Sincerely,

Ray Billing

August 31

Dear Ray:

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.

Mairead

September 3

Dear Mairead:

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.

your tenant,

Ray

September 7

Dear Ray:

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?

in confidence,

Mairead

September 10

Dear Mairead:

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.”

“A stone?”

“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.

your tenant,

Ray

September 14

Dear Ray:

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.

Expectantly,

Mairead

September 23

Dear Mairead:

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,

Ray

October 3

Dear Ray:

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,

Mairead

October 9

Dear Mairead:

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,

Ray

October 15

Dear Ray:

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.

your friend,

Mairead

October 19

Dear Mairead:

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,

Ray

October 27

Dear Ray:

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,

Mairead

November 4

Dear Mairead:

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.

Ray

November 10

Dear Ray:

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,

Mairead

November 19

Dear Mairead:

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?

Ray

November 25

Dear Ray:

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.

Mairead

November 29

Dear Mairead:

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.

Ray

December 7

Dear Ray:

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.

Mairead

December 13

Dear Mairead:

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,

Ray

December 25

Dear Ray:

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,

Mairead

Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule

Mammoth is a grand, gloomy and

peculiar place, not soon to give up its

last, darkest secret.

-Stephen Bishop

 

Stephen Bishop was the slave of Dr. John Croghan, owner of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave from 1839 to 1849. Bishop served as a guide at the cave from 1838 until 1857. His daring explorations, which led to the discovery of miles of cave passageways, were covered in newspapers and books. His fame drew visitors from all over the world. By smoking their names onto the walls of the cave, he learned to read and write. Stephen Bishop died in 1857 at the age of thirty-seven. Oddly, the cause of his death was not recorded and remains unknown.

 

Candlewriting

Childhood was a mapless country, a rough

terrain of sinks and outcrops. Not once

did I suspect the earth was hollow, lost

as I was among the fields and shanties.

I remember the wind and how the sounds

it carried were my name, meant me, Stephen . . .

called out over the cornfield where I hid.

There was no sound when candlesmoke

met limestone-just this: seven characters

I learned to write with a taper on a stick.

What have they to do with that boy in the weeds?

Am I the letters or the hand that made them?

A word I answer to and turn from, or the flame

that holds the shadows, for a time at least, at bay?

 

Star Chamber

 

Once, the Doctor spoke to me at length

of stars and prognostications, how,

when we observe the waxing of the Moon,

everything cognate to her nature-marrow

in bones and in trees, flesh of the river

mussel-increases also. He told of tides

and how the ocean is affixed as with a chain

to moonlight. I think it must be different

in the Cave, where no light penetrates.

There, I have lost hours, whole cycles of the sun.

At Star Chamber, I control the spheres-

a lantern hung just-so will produce the night sky

as if seen from a gorge; wobble it, and a comet,

smoky, pestilent, streaks across the Ether.

 

Visitations

 

There came to us, Tuesday last, a man

of most peculiar visage. The Doctor,

to whom we turned for insight, muttered

of abominations, dismissed our questions.

And yet I did not hesitate to show the Gentleman

as far in the Cave as his leisure and his pocket

would allow. For, there, to the faltering

glow of a greaselamp or candle, throng

shadows far more monstrous than he.

These I do not fear. It is the women

on the tours that give me pause, delicate,

ghost-white, how, at night, I’m told,

they wake to find themselves in unfamiliar

beds, and lost, bewildered, call my name.

 

Bottomless Pit

 

Before I crossed it on a cedar pole, legs

dangling into blackness, here the tours

would end: a loose and shingly precipice.

From my pack I would produce a scrap

of oiled paper, set fire to it, and send it

twisting and sputtering into the abyss.

I never saw it land, a flicker of light

on the fluted cistern. Soon I had found

the rivers beyond, their strange inhabitants

that emerged into the circle of my light

as if from another world, then vanished

at the least agitation of the water. Touched,

they said, fish with no eyes! until I sloshed

a pailful into light, reveled in their silence.

 

Echo River

 

Soon we had fashioned a rude boat,

and with lanterns affixed to the prow,

were ferrying tours across the smoky waters:

Styx, Lethe, Echo River, the host

of wonders I had found. By slapping

the water with the flat of my paddle,

there comes a sound like the ringing of bells,

a mournful, hollow melody-waves lap-

ping and beating under the low stone arches.

The voice, too, will reproduce in myriad;

often I have led a tour in song, shouts raised

or pistols fired on the dark, deep water.

Children of a clanging, squeaking world,

we cannot bear the silence.

 

Shadow World

 

I am speaking of the shade of walls

and woods, the half-light on the dark side

of groves and fences-a region nearer

to the source of things, but always close at hand.

I have felt, of late, my shadow as an other

person there. Behold how the shades in the Cave

gather and deepen, extend in darker zones

from the center of the flame where I stand.

It was in such light that first my Charlotte came

to me. For a week I’d half expected her, until

at twilight, a shadow at the door, the sky waiting

a long time, pale and still, for the Moon

to rise. And afterwards, even the pitch pines

seemed foreign, their scent and turpentine.

 

Cartography

 

At Locust Grove, Great House, I pass days

in the garden-a stone bench, ornamental

cherries, August’s dappled light. Once, a hawk’s

shadow crossed my paper, startling me

from the dark rooms and corridors of my map,

an eye-draught of the known Cave passages.

The mind moves and the hand follows, as if

by torchlight on a moonless midnight, inking.

The Doctor is himself engaged in certain nightly

observations, plotting, by aid of lenses and tubes,

an atlas of the Moon, that distant, yellow orb,

yet closer, he says, than our own dark Continent:

its map made up of fringes and waterways, a dense,

vine-thick interior left blank. Uncharted.

 

Cave Formation

 

Safe from the withering glare of daylight,

a stone arbor, stone clusters of grapes.

I have heard more than one traveler

proclaim these encrustations coral-like.

Was once this place the bottom of a sea?

I think it must be so. How else explain

the salts that grow from joints in the rock:

Epsom, Glauber. Or what of the eyeless fish?

Stranded, perhaps, when the ocean vanished,

never again to join their kindred tribe

in that great salt realm. Who better to conjecture

on these matters than I? Theories I have learned

to keep from other, educated men,

lest they, like bats, fly shrieking at the torch-bearer.

 

Doctor Croghan

 

The Doctor draws the world to him by dint

of much imagination, fortunes spilled

to bring the rudiments of culture to this

poor backwater. At his bidding, oxcarts

bearing crates of wine will leave the coastline

of Virginia, clinking. The latest books

he brings that this place too might shine

as a center of learning and enterprise.

I have watched his projects grow, consume him-

hotelier, surgeon, gentleman farmer-

days when the light drains out of him,

and irritable, distant, he walks into

the orchard but finds, it seems, no peace

among the trees, his dream of ordered rows.

 

Brush Fire

 

A hot night, and the first breeze through my window

carried with it the whinny of a horse.

It had been so still, and suddenly the night

was restless, cocking its ear to a distant crackling,

a light, as of dawn, across the valley. To walk

abroad, and toward its source, was to swim

against a river of game, flushed from their roosts

in the oldest stands of timber, or from dens

in the tangled underbrush. By dawn,

forty acres had been consumed, the Hotel saved.

How strange when a party emerged from the Cave

at daybreak, blinking into the blue, smoke-

filled ridgetop of embers-unaware

of the flames that all night raged above them.

 

Indian Mummy

 

If, as the Doctor believes, putrefaction

is the work of unquiet spirits hastening

to congregate with the air, she must have died

at peace, little Indian. Still dressed

in cloths of woven hemp, preserved,

she was displayed for a time in the Cave

where I found her. I will never forgive him

for selling her remains to a Mr. Nahum Ward,

purveyor of traveling curiosities,

oddments, a renowned Wonder Cabinet.

As I predicted, she never returned-lost,

they say, in a burning Museum,

a tiny spirit freed in ash and smoke . . .

safe at last from looters, learned men.

 

The Church

 

How soon the Cave forgets their worshipping,

a preacher and his flock, the great vault quiet.

Surely their God was here as he was not

in their sermon, words that have dissolved unheard.

I have stood at Pulpit Rock and felt the Cave

grow thick around me, as if for having

once been broken, it here became the essence

of itself. Nothing remains of their scattered

lights, of what they said or did. Nothing.

Where once the faithful came, a congregation

of bats, faint stirrings from the pews.

Gods too will be forgotten, exiled

to the pages of books. The Cave is praising them:

from the Organ Loft, vast chords of silence.

 

Dripstone

 

The Bengal Light is the most effective means

we have of driving darkness from the corners

where it lurks-a quick, blue flare that brought this day

a single drop of water to my gaze. Globe-like,

suspended, it held the scene about me in reverse:

a grotto glistening with nodules and globules.

Though not of the vegetable world, these

live and grow, and when struck, produce

melodious tones, liquid and wavering.

Mat and I had gone in search of specimens

for the Doctor’s collection. How sad I grew

to see the changes wrought in them by sunlight.

How lusterless they appeared under glass,

their sparks extinguished, their music fled.

 

Tuberculosis Sanitarium

 

A taper burned at night, two stearine lights

by day-no way to gauge the weather here.

Such was their hope, distinct and inseparable

condition of the disease, that even when

reduced to shadows, they refused to quit

the Cave, insisted on their imminent return

to health. From the Doctor’s monograph

on the curative virtues of the Cave, came

stone huts, black drifts of smoke from cookfires,

their dry, hollow coughs. A colony of invalids.

I smuggled them plants against the Doctor’s

commands that they should take the cure

beyond the solar influences-that grave

experiment. Unmentionable now.

 

Tours

 

The services of a guide cannot, as a rule,

be dispensed with; we alone can disentangle

the winding passageways. I will admit

the tours for me grow burdensome.

How long must I endure their need to fill

with talk the natural silence? I have heard

it all before, their proposed improvements:

Widen the trails so that two carriages

may pass abreast . . . here, a capacious ballroom.

Mere fancies. And yet beneath their words

I have discerned a kind of rough-hewn fear.

From drawing rooms and formal gardens

they come to me, from sunlit lives they enter

the chill, grand and instantaneous night.

 

River

 

The river is a wondrous machine. Haunt

of the Moon’s changing face, it drifts among

the knobs and foothills: there, deep and fluid;

here, rippling over gravel beds. The water

swims with flesh-walleye, minnow. From nights

foggy and indeterminate rise mornings

when the sun burns like a scald. On its banks

frogs pipe, the grass bends and rustles. It is

the singularity of chance and the shuffle

of things, stone basins where the chaff I’ve cast

on waters in the Cave emerged some several

hours hence. From the high stone bluffs nearby,

the water shines with an inner light-

makeshift, shifting, a candle in the current.

 

The Others

 

Thus far I have explored into the bowels

of the earth without impediment.

Others too would try-Materson, Nicholas,

those injudicious and eager for fame.

I’ve heard it said that yesterday, our Nick

was lowered by rope into the Maelstrom,

a pit of unknown depth. Those present claim

such shouts arose then from the chasm, the rope

was pulled until it fired by friction. A comedy.

I have seen the eyes he casts at her, and she

at him. This year I hardly note the seasons’ turns:

first spring, and now the woodlands are awash

with summer. My thoughts remain unquiet,

here: low arch of the Netherworld, brooding.

 

Fame

 

It was the night before the night before last

when I sat so deep in thought by the fire.

The Doctor boasts I was the merest germ

of a man when he bought me. Through him,

I was able, in time, to acquire a knowledge

of science, a considerable degree of culture.

Through him, my fame-the subject of articles,

my map distributed widely. But fame,

like the fire in the hearth, must be fed:

a bundle of twigs soon needs a log to stay

alight. And then full thirty cords of oak.

I am ever in search of exploits, discoveries.

Some nights I wake in darkness to know

a greater darkness waits. A hillside. A mouth.

 

Ultima Thule

 

Above me even now the hills are bristling

with pine and cedar, dark branches shifting

in the rays of Sun or Moon; there, deep pools

receive their cave-cooled water, the Entrance

breathes its mingling airs, and, surely, somewhere,

Charlotte-stepping, perhaps, to the back porch

door at twilight. Absently. By habit.

I have felt the legend almost leave me.

Elbows, rucksack. No one has ever come

this far-a dusty, Hell-bent crawl, past pits

and keystones, to find myself deep in the ridge.

I was drawn to wonder, the margins of the map.

Breath and a heartbeat. A fading lamp.

I was coffled to the light.

 

An Interview with Harvey Shapiro

This interview is not currently available online.

Interviewer: What have you found the hardest thing about being a poet?

Shapiro: I suppose the hardest thing about being a poet in America is the unreality of what you do. You spend most of your creative time doing something that society for the most part has no use for.

The Storekeeper

Splash

Four days before the UN Security Council resolution will turn Desert Shield into Desert Storm, the team waits for the scouts on the south side of a dust-covered washout deep in the Iraqi desert. Their operation is illegal but necessary. Hays, the storekeeper, a thin man with pinched, worried shoulders, slumps against a rock. It is hot, 102 degrees. Across from him, the shade reaches out, but because the team’s pale desert camouflage best matches the bright, sun-bleached rocks, he must sit in the sun. The radioman tells him the temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, as he does every hour, whether Hays needs the information or not. Humidity can slow a bullet down, but today the humidity is negligible. The wind speed is seven knots–light for the desert.

The rifle lies across his thighs. A beige cloth sticks out of the muzzle as protection against the sand and dust. Sand fleas move through the hairs on his wrists and under the collar of his shirt. He reaches into his pack for more insect repellent, dabs some on his neck. The lens hoods on the scope are down, and Hays closes his eyelids, too. Sweat runs down his forehead and stings his eyes.

The scouts return. They’ve located an Iraqi observation post a little over a kilometer away. The guys say, “He’s just up there smoking cigarettes. They left this guy on a perch.”

The CO looks around. “What’s he have up there?”

“A radio and machine gun.”

The CO tightens his lips. “Hays,” he says. “Splash the target.”

Hays opens his eyes. For the first time, he is ordered to kill a man.

 

Accuracy

I got my first rifle when I was ten. It was a .22–a gift from my dad. He was the kind of man who could just look at a gun and tell what’s wrong. He’d glance over, say, Son, the bolt’s not locked down. And I’d think it was, but when I checked, sure enough, it wasn’t all the way locked down. Or he’d say, The shot’s right low–you’re pulling.

My father was in charge of auto parts distribution in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri, and he was often gone. I knew when he was home he didn’t want to waste a lot of time teaching me how to shoot. He wanted to get out in the woods. So, I practiced.

One thing I did was take a toothpick and tape it to a garbage can. I’d start walking backward until I couldn’t see the toothpick anymore. Then I’d take one step forward and shoot it.

We hunted all over the wild country near our home in Sebastian County, Arkansas. My dad always seemed to know where the birds and squirrels were, though in truth he didn’t care much for squirrel hunting. He didn’t find it challenging. He preferred quail hunting. I thought squirrel hunting was sporting because the squirrels could hide in the trees.

One day, my dad showed me that deer hunting wasn’t so sporting. We were out bird hunting. I remember some snow remained on the ground, just in patches. He held up his hand and motioned for me to turn around. And I did, and there was a six-point buck about fifty yards away. I stood there for a second. The deer stood there looking at us. Then it ran off into the brush.

I said, “Wow, that’s pretty.”

He said, “See why I don’t hunt deer?”

I didn’t, so I said, “No.”

“Could you have hit that deer?”

“Sure, Dad. It’s as big as a barn.”

He said, “I rest my case.”

And that’s the last we said about it.

 

1219 Meters

The bolt-action single-shot .50 caliber M88 that Hays carries was designed in 1988 by Wes Harris, then master gunsmith at G. McMillan and Company of Phoenix, Arizona, to meet specific Navy requirements. It was titled “a special application sniper rifle.”

The weapon has an effective range of 2000 meters (1.2 miles). With tactical optics, it weighs in excess of thirty pounds. According to G. McMillan’s technical manual, the M88’s purpose is to “provide the user with a system capable of a high probability of a destructive first round hit on identified point targets.” Hays’ instructors at sniper school called it the ultimate in overkill.

Hays rests the weapon against his shoulder and takes a small plastic case out of his shirt pocket. He removes earplugs and screws them into his ears, muffling exterior sound. He flips the switches on the scope that release the lens covers and scoots over to a low rock that has an unobstructed view to the northeast. He folds out the gun’s bipod and places its feet on the rock. According to the scouts, the target is about a kilometer away. He levels the weapon. Crouching, he moves his right eye to its sighting distance. Because the scouts’ directions are good, he finds the man almost immediately.

The man has his observational post in the sharp mountains. He holds a military crest, a ridge line below the actual crest of a hill. He has an excellent view of the low valley spread before him, but he is not silhouetted against the sky. Though a low row of sandbags lies in front of him, his head and chest are well within the reticle of Hays’ scope.

He is armed with what looks to Hays to be an American made M60 machine gun. Above his head, he has fashioned a sunscreen by draping a beige cloth over two prongs stuck into the sandbags behind him. The sunset casts the red sandstone into a deeper red.

Hays adjusts the split-image focus which is the range finder. Green numbers in the lower center of the sight compute the distance as Hays turns the dial mid-scope. The man’s M60 leans against his shoulder. Because the image shimmers with the heat waves, Hays uses the sharp lines of the gun barrel to join the upper section–the man with a concave wrap on his head–with the lower, his shoulders and the hands that rest passively on his weapon. When the two halves meet, Hays sees the range is 1219 meters.

The man turns his head in Hays’ direction. For an instant, they look at each other. Hays does not move. The man’s eyes remain unenlightened. On his ledge, from that distance, he cannot see Hays. The man puts his head down left and away, lights a cigarette. Then he returns his gaze to the eastern horizon.

 

Curves

We met in high school. I’d been playing football, had been injured, and I decided to take the band bus. I looked around and saw her sitting in the back, and I said, Goddamn, that is a good-looking woman. She was a majorette. So I got up and went back to where she was sitting. I sat down and more or less just told her, By God, we’re going together.

She was a perfect mother and a perfect wife. On a Friday night, we were out dancing, and I noticed a twinge in my left knee.

The morning after, my knee quit. I fell on my face. I couldn’t stand.

The doctor said, “Looks like you have some serious cartilage problem here. We’ll scope it. Two hours, you’ll be back.”

An in-outpatient deal. We scheduled the operation for a Thursday. She was caring for me, perfectly wonderful. They took me into surgery and six hours later I came out of surgery.

Six hours later, I’m in the recovery room. And my wife is standing there, but she is dressed differently. I made a mental check to see when she could have done that. I didn’t know at the time–that it had been six hours.

“Well, there was a problem,” she said.

I said, “Hi, Honey. You look awfully nice. What do you mean ‘problem’?”

“The doctor says you’ll be unable to walk for a while.”

I thought, two or three days. “Well, that’s no big deal,” I said.

“Here he is. He’ll tell you.”

The doctor explained that at some point I had my knee cap crushed, and that while most of it healed, some bone chips got between the two bones and acted as an abrasive. They chewed the bottom off of this bone and the top of this bone. He said I wouldn’t be walking for six months to a year.

When he was done, my wife leaned over, gave me a kiss, and said, “By the way, I’m going out.”

That’s why she was dressed up.

Something happened when that doctor said I was going to be gone, unable to do anything. What I think is she snapped right then and there. She blew a fuse.

It wasn’t a full year after that, maybe eight months, she said she was moving to New Orleans, and she was gone for good

I was completely devoted to her and our kids. I always built everything around that premise. That was the way I was raised. That was the way my parents were raised. And then, out of nowhere, this curve hit me.

 

Ammunition

The team carries three types of ammunition for the M88: armor-piercing DUs, “whitey petes,” and exploding ballistic tipped. Since Hays only takes out targets at a great distance, he does not need much ammo. They carry one box of each type, each box containing twelve rounds.

Because naturally occurring uranium contains only 0.7% of the fissionable U-235 isotope, the process of extracting fissionable U-235 for commercial and military applications creates the nuclear waste, depleted uranium (DU). This is the principle ingredient of the DU armor-piercing round. DU is two-and-a-half times more dense than steel and one-and-a-half times more dense than lead. The density of DU makes it possible to have a smaller bullet, with less air drag but the same mass as a larger round. The DU concentrates phenomenal weight onto a single point–more initial shock, more destruction. For example, the DU liquefies steel on contact and forces the molten steel out in its wake.

The white phosphorous round, “whitey pete,” is primarily used for munitions and fuel. Phosphorous is packed around a titanium spike, and then the entire bullet is covered in a protective skin. As the projectile travels through the barrel, its protective material wears off, and air friction ignites the phosphorous.

The ballistic-tipped round explodes on contact. The lead compresses a core of high explosive. This compression creates the heat which is the catalyst for the explosion. The ballistic requires less accuracy–even in a close hit, the shrapnel will kill or wound the target. For this reason, the Geneva Convention outlaws this round–more potential suffering. No one discusses the illegality of the round with Hays. The ballistic is necessary, like being there before the war starts is necessary.

The armor-piercing round is the most accurate of the three rounds the SEALs carry. After this first shot, Hays will take every other shot with a DU. For this shot, though, because he is nervous, he uses a ballistic.

 

Plumbing

My father called me about plumbing problems, and I went over. He met me outside. He took the grate from the side of the house and climbed into the crawl space. I handed through the toolbox and followed. We crawled along, ducking the girders and the joists. He led with the flashlight. I brought along the tools. I noticed we were passing the bathroom, but I only got suspicious when we passed the kitchen at the north end of the house. Finally he gets down into the far corner and rolls onto one elbow.

I said, “Dad, why are we here? We’re not here to fix the plumbing are we?”

“Son, what are you going to do?”

“About what?” I asked. I really didn’t know what he was talking about.

He said, “About your life.”

He laid the flashlight down and its light kind of faded off into the dark corner of the house, and all at once, I saw that he was exactly right.

He said, “I’ve already talked to your mother, and we would be willing to take on the kids.”

He’d been in the Navy and he recommended ships.

 

Rising

Hays supports the rifle butt with his left hand. The sweat has all but stopped dripping from his forehead, and he is glad for his eyes, but both his hands are perspiring. He knows he can make the shot, but he is nervous. All the man has to do is pick up the radio. Hays wants to make sure that if he misses, or the bullet just goes through a lung, it will take the man anyway. He gestures toward the ammo box containing the ballistic rounds.

A gunner’s mate hands him one. Hays puts the ballistic in his left hand and places his right hand, palm up, on the bolt handle. He rotates the bolt out of lock-down and slides it back.

He shifts the ballistic round from his left hand to his right. The round is nearly seven inches long and weighs one pound. He brings it up close to look at it, one last check for imperfections, and then, without thinking, he blows on it–purely ritual.

Because he doesn’t trust using the bolt to fit the bullet, he pushes it with his thumb, feeling it along the way, easing it into place. The shell’s case head clicks when it meets the chamber. Hays slides the bolt forward and locks it down. Then he taps the bolt handle to make sure it is locked down.

Hays has his left leg folded underneath him. His right leg is stretched out. He lifts his weight off the left. His movement is almost imperceptible. He rises. The rifle barrel comes down.

 

God

Since I’d completed two years of college and had a degree, I went to APG school. About the second week, Chief Petty Officer Pate calls me into her office. Pate was a hawk-nosed warhorse, a grade-A ball buster. And a wonderful woman. She taught me how to be a petty officer and a hell of a lot about what it means to be a human being.

She said, “So, Hays, what do you want to be?”

Well, that’s a good question. I mean, if I could be anything. And that’s how it felt to me, being in the Navy at that time. The world was ahead of me. So I’d given it a little thought. I said, “I want to be God.” Pate looked like she didn’t get it, so I said, “I want to be the guy they call.”

She nodded. “You want to be a storekeeper.”

I didn’t know what that was, but later I saw she was right. I thank her for that.

My first assignment was on the fast frigate, USS Fanning. Later I transferred to the St. Louis.

 

Variables

The scope is infrared capable and has Twilight Vision. It can detect wind speed. But Hays does not use the wind sensor because the wind at the rifle is not as important as the wind at the target, and for that he reads the mirage.

Hays’ scope does not have mechanical adjustments for Minutes of Angle and windage that would allow him to shoot dead-on in the crosshairs because, should the scope go out of whack in the field, it could not be accurately reset, and the weapon’s accuracy is Mission Critical for the SEALs. If the weapon cannot be counted on, then Hays will not be Mission Critical either–which means he can get sent into dangerous situations because he is expendable. Still, more important for Hays is that he have confidence that the weapon will perform the way it always has. Therefore, the vertical range line and the horizontal windage line of the scope’s reticle are calibrated with green marks for the DU round, white marks for “whitey pete,” and red for ballistic. Hays eyeballs his adjustment with the red marks. He is the only variable, and he does not vary.

 

Storekeeper Explained

The ship I was on, the USS Saint Louis, a 557-foot LKA, was in Sasebo, Japan. They were decommissioning the ship and parceling out the people. And me being the rate I was, an SK, I could pick anywhere in the world. I thought, I’ll go to the supply center in San Diego. So that’s what I did.

A week or two later my captain called me over.

I took my little notepad. “Yes, Sir. What can I do for you?” I figured he wanted cigars. You see I could get anything–anything.

He said, “Hays, how would you like to be attached to a SEAL team?

I said, “What do you mean attached to a SEAL team?

“They need a storekeeper.”

“Where is it?” I asked. “Not Little Creek is it?”

“Coronado,” he said “Two to three months max. They’re short a storekeeper.”

I said, “Great, I’ll do it.”

I packed my bags and a week later I was on Coronado. I found out that the previous storekeeper would sometimes take two or three days to fill an order. That’s particularly a problem with the SEALs because they’re used to getting what they want when they want it. Twenty-four hours is the rule.

So when I got there, I knew that the first thing to do was teach the team that I could do anything. If they got confidence in me right off the bat, I’d have the battle whipped. They’d all come to me and say, We need this.

Maybe my third day, the captain of the base, a type A personality cubed, called over and said he wanted Stinger missiles.

I said, “Sure. I can get you anything you want.” But I thought, Jesus, Stingers.

But I’d be damned if wasn’t going to get them. Now, I’d been to Stinger school. I knew they had them at Pendleton.

I called them, said, “I’ll send a helicopter.” Whatever it takes to get that captain what he wants, I’ll do. I’ll send a plane.

They said, “You’ll have to come yourself.”

“All right, I’ll be there.”

I ended up getting an old gunship, a Huey, to pick me up and take me over to Pendleton. Had to sign all this shit. I couldn’t believe how carefully they controlled those things. We’re back by two in the afternoon. Went over to the captain’s office.

He figured I was going to make some excuses. “Where did you want them delivered?” I asked.

He looked at me. I could tell he was surprised. “You got the Stingers?”

But that was my job. They ask for it. I get it. That’s the way to be a storekeeper.

There was only one time I didn’t get something in twenty-four hours. A SEAL comes in. He’s enormous. He asks for boots.

“Sure,” I said. “Right away. What size?”

He put his foot up on the counter. Size fifteen. That was the only time I didn’t get something in twenty-four hours. Goddamn it, that pissed me off. I don’t like to let someone down.

 

Calculations

The ballistic-tipped bullet needs contact with a sturdy bone structure to explode. In humans, bone ossification is completed about the age of twenty-five. The last bone to ossify is the breast bone, the sternum. The target looks about twenty. Hays would like to take a sternum-to-spine shot, but the man faces due east. The bullet will be coming from the southwest at approximately a thirty-degree angle. He decides his trajectory should meet the target just below the man’s right pectoral muscle. In sniper school, he learned that any torso shot with the .50 will neutralize a soft target from the shock alone. Still, he has never seen that, and he knows a good shot requires an exact target, not an approximation. Hays believes he can make out a shirt pocket. This is where he wants the bullet.

The acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 meters per second squared. His scope has been bore sighted at 1000 meters. With the M88’s muzzle velocity of 2660 feet per second, the scope compensates for a drop of approximately ten feet at 1000 meters. Through the scope, Hays sees this as dead-on in the crosshairs; one thousand meters is his zero distance.

From Hays’ zero distance he elevates the crosshairs for the additional 219 meters. He uses the red calibrations on the reticle to adjust his Minutes of Angle for this added distance. The crosshairs settle on the man’s ear lobe. Then Hays compensates for the man’s elevation, which he approximates at 100 feet. Hays knows that a bullet’s curved path is dependent on the angle of opposition between the bullet’s velocity and earth’s gravity; therefore, he sights high. He moves the reticle from earlobe up and left of the frontal lobe. The man inhales cigarette smoke deeply, glad, perhaps, that the shade has stretched out to meet him.

 

Mirage

When I was on the USS St. Louis, I was traveling around, winning marksmanship competitions. I had a specially built stainless steel Colt .45 Mark IV and, of course, I used an M16 rifle, too. To improve, I ordered the classified manuals on sniping–I could order whatever I wanted as storekeeper. I read them, though they mostly confirmed what I already knew. But they did give me more information on mirage.

When I was transferred to the SEAL team, I went where they went. One day, they flew from Coronado to the Navy firing range at Pendleton, and I was with them. They went out to take turns with a type of rifle that I’d never seen before. It was an M88, and they were shooting at something you couldn’t even see. Anyway, I ribbed them a bit.

I said, “You need a scope to hit that?”

A gunner’s mate had just missed. He said, “You’re so good, grandpa, you take a try.”

The other guys laughed.

The CO said, “Go ahead, Hays. Show these girls how it’s done.” I think he knew I could shoot.

I asked what the zero was, and he told me. So, I get down on my stomach and sight. It was a type A1 silhouette–a black outline of a man on a white background. It was near a sign that told the distance, over a thousand meters. And I saw that the problem they had was the mirage. I read it and fired. The CO said it was a hit.

I said, “I know,” cocky. I sure didn’t say anything about the pain from the recoil, because there’s not much that humbles a SEAL, and it’s great to shut those guys up.

They were there that day to find a guy for sniper school, for a sniper for Iraq. I didn’t know that. I was only there on cross-assignment. They were supposed to cut me loose. And I was too old. And I didn’t have the right psychological makeup–I was too logical. But I had to take that shot, to prove that I could do it.

 

Mirage Explained

Rising heat waves cause mirage. Late afternoon mirage is worse because the sun’s heat, absorbed all day long by the desert, is released. While mirage can sometimes make a target appear to be where it is not, read correctly, it can tell the sniper where the target is, and what the weather is doing at the target.

Because the man is isolated, he is an easy read. His image shakes with the rising waves–he is “scared.” Behind him the mirage of the hill, a mirror image of the hill, reaches up and skates off to the north. The hill is scared in the same way as the man, with shimmering waves crossing both. The left side of the mirage flickers in and out, vanishes. From this, Hays sees that the wind comes from the left side, moving from south to north. The man’s image skates left, too. He sits in a crosswind. From the angled ascent of the mirage, Hays estimates a ten-knot wind. The bullet’s thirty-degree approach cuts Hays’ ten-knot adjustment in half. He brings his sight just left, over the man’s shoulder.

The man has not finished his cigarette, and Hays does not want him to. When he finishes the cigarette, he may do something sudden. Hays knows; he used to smoke.

 

Team

There were twelve people on the team. Of course, no one was allowed to wear insignia. There was a radioman–RM, Second Class Petty Officer. He was in charge of talking to the people in Scotland, the guys looking at the satellite pictures. That was his job.

We had at least four or five gunner’s mates, and they ranged in rate from Third Class Petty Officer to First Class Petty Officer. They carried M60 machine guns. They were in control of all the weapons except my rifle.

Two guys from Operations. They were big guys. On a ship, Operations specialists are primarily concerned with radar. They’re the guys who write on those acrylic boards backward. Here, one of them was a painter. But actually, in the end, everyone got to paint.

Two CHT guys. On the ship, they would be plumbers and take care of the CHT tanks. Why see them out there as warriors? Well, there again, they had the build, the mentality.

We had a boiler technician. On the ship, his job was to take care of the boiler, obviously. On the SEAL team his job was to kill people. That was his job.

The rest of the team was comprised of boatswain mates. In the Navy, the boatswain mates are full-time drunk and disorderly. And these guys could shoot. Not as good as me, unfortunately.

Our mission was to paint. We got into a position about a mile away, depending on the size of the target. The laser was a box about a foot long, two inches wide, with a scope. The aircraft flew at thirty thousand feet, above the clouds. From there they dropped their missiles and bombs–the laser-guided ones. The aircraft would be past the target before the things even hit.

But we were there. We were putting down very specific radar information, just for those bombs.

It takes two men. One lights up the target. Usually he’s lying down with the bipod set up. The other guy has an infrared reader. The guy with the IR sees what the radar’s on and then he says, Stay right there. Even though the painter can’t see the laser, he stays right on what’s in his crosshairs.

The bombs go only to the reflected signal, and we make it big with a spreading device, an aperture in the box.

We radio that we’re set up and in position. They acknowledge the transmission. We wait. Then, we get a call that the missile’s launched, or the bird’s in the air, how long it will take to be there, and what direction it’s coming from. Then we paint the target. After a little while, it blows up. And it was amazing because we would be painting a target, pretty close by, and the thing would just blow up. There was no whine from those bombs. We didn’t see them. It would just fucking blow up.

 

Safety

The operation of the M88’s bolt automatically flips the safety back. Hays’ also acts automatically. With a swivel of his thumb, he arches the safety forward.

 

Team Explained

I knew it was illegal, but I justified it because our mission was to paint specific critical targets. Really important targets. Not scud missile sites, or something. Germ warfare, chemical warfare plants, beginnings of things like nuclear power plants that can be used to make plutonium. Really critical shit that they wanted destroyed first strike. If they went in and carpet-bombed the targets, they were going to kill hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t need to die. By painting, we were certain of hitting what we wanted to hit.

But as I lined up the shot, the thought that it was illegal didn’t cross my mind. The thought that I shouldn’t be there didn’t cross my mind. The thought that this guy was going to die didn’t cross my mind. The only thought that went through my mind was, I can’t let this SEAL team down. I would be devastated to let them down.

 

Splash Explained

Hays’ index finger touches the trigger at the center of the pad where his whorls peak. He exhales. He inhales. He is not concerned with remaining still. He concentrates on his projected trajectory. He concentrates on reaching out to his target. Because anticipation might cause him to flinch, he empties his mind of the future, of the inevitable, retina-jarring recoil. He exhales half his breath and holds–just for a moment. The trigger has a single step, smooth-as-glass pull. Twenty-two milliseconds pass before the firing pin falls upon the primer.

At the blast, he is surprised. The bullet spirals out of the barrel as he takes the recoil like fluid into his chest. Involuntarily, he shuts his eyes against the impact.

The bullet leaves the muzzle of the M88 at over twice the speed of sound–a penetrating sound, in this case, which kicks up dust in a ten-foot radius around Hays. Everyone holds their hands over their ears except the spotter, who has plugs in his ears and watches the target through binoculars. Some of the team, those who stand in the sound wave’s expanding path, feel the vibration in their gut. The sound spreads out and echoes off rock and the opposite bank and the surrounding hills. It echoes in their ears.

Meanwhile, the bullet’s boat-tail is reducing air drag and allowing the bullet to retain optimum velocity. Involuntarily, Hays opens his eyes. The bullet meets the target in one and six-tenths of a second. The man is not surprised. He is unaware, because the bullet meets him in silence.

The major destructive force of a small caliber bullet is the result of the permanent wound channel–the tubular path the bullet makes as it passes through a body. Because the sniper wants one shot to achieve his objective, he might choose to induce unconsciousness and eventual death with a hit to the vascular organs such as the heart or liver, or by cutting major blood vessels, such as the groin’s femoral artery or the carotid arteries in the neck; however, a target might retain consciousness and muscular control for up to ten seconds. Therefore, a sniper prefers a hit on the spine–the higher the better–and best yet, a brain stem shot which requires hitting something about the size of a golf ball that sits at the base of the cranium. Snipers leave nothing for chance. They care only for accuracy.

Yet for Hays, it is not the permanent wound channel that causes his target to splash.

The second way a bullet affects a soft target is through temporary cavitation, which is the result of the shock wave, the moving molecules that are the projectile’s wake. It is this shock wave produced by all bullets which will cause a full beer can to explode, but leave an empty one sitting peacefully. The wake of the liquid is forced outward by the impact and bursts through the tin can. Because most human tissue is flexible, the shock wave causes only a temporary inflation and cannot generally be counted on for destruction.

However, since the shock wave is proportional to the kinetic energy of the projectile, which is a reflection of its velocity and its ability to retain that velocity–its mass–the prodigious shock wave that accompanies Hays’ .50 caliber ballistic does not allow the tissue to retain its flexibility. Instead, the tissue absorbs the energy of the .50, expresses it through velocity, is forced outward like wake, and does not come back. The target goes splash.

This is what happens to the man: His chest splashes; his spine dents the lead; the high-explosive core compresses; the heat acts as catalyst; the solid powder turns to voluminous gas; the lead bursts outward.

The sound wave follows–crosses the washout, passes up into the hills and over the perch, to be lost in the distance forever.

Hays snaps the lens covers down on his scope. He twists his earplugs out and places them in their case.

Hays does not cross the washout with the SEALs. The SEALs go up the hill first to make sure there isn’t anybody hiding. Then they make a hand motion for Hays to come up. He goes up and stands on the edge of the site. There isn’t a sound. He can tell they are amazed. He thinks, these guys are badasses–for-real badasses, and not a word crosses their lips. He knows the assumption is, you have done this, you are proud of it. Hays thinks that the man looks like a big animal has come in and destroyed him–like his spine has been taken out, like something reached in and took it out of him, laid it off to the side. And there is a strange smell. He knows it is the smell of death, plain and simple.

There is no way to clean him up, so they leave him.

They move away from the washout, meander north. The red glow in the west sinks. The stars appear more brilliant with the passing moments, moving with the darkness from east to west. The cold comes. They walk three or four miles. The SEALs have their night vision, Cyclops, on. Hays does not have one, so he follows behind, tracing their silhouettes against the desert rock. The wind picks up and then dies. For Hays, the air smells clean, empty, even though he smells his own body odor and the insect repellent heating on his neck

When they stop, they just stop for a rest. He opens his pack and eats some MRE–Meals Ready to Eat. He stows the rest.

The CO motions, and they cluster for the briefing. Hays stays on the outskirts. He wants to seem like he is part of the group. He isn’t really; his only job is to shoot. The CO talks about where he thinks they should be at the end of the next day. Then he asks the team how they think the day went.

“Well, the old man can shoot,” one says.

Some others agree. Hays doesn’t move. He does not say anything.

Afterwards, he moves off and takes a cleaning kit from his pack. He opens the rifle’s breech and takes out the bolt. He has a mirror, like a dentist’s mirror, that he places in the breech. Then he shines a red light down the barrel. He looks at the mirror and the reflected light to see if there is any crud. There is. There always is. He pokes a brush through two or three times, then he puts down the rod, slips a patch in the slot, soaks the patch with Break-Free, pulls it through. It pulls out, twisting along with the rifling. He looks at the patch. He checks the barrel again with the mirror and the red light.

In all, Hays takes nine shots and has nine confirmed kills. He is perfect. The war ends.

***

Seven years later, the Navy calls him. They ask if he would like to come back and teach marksmanship. He won’t do it. At thirty-nine, he’s back in college completing a psychology degree–not on the GI bill. He doesn’t want any of that. His oldest daughter will attend university in the fall. His son has begun at military school. His youngest daughter is competing in cheerleading competitions. All is well. But that is not why he won’t take the Navy’s offer. His vain hope is that time will push his memory to the vanishing point. He no longer wishes to see so far.

Mirage is real. The light from an image bends as it passes through different air densities. Hays’ dreams are real. Neither is the thing it reflects, but both indicate where that thing is. Many people will dream of moments of fanatical concentration. Hays dreams repeatedly of the man smoking his cigarette, the man inhaling, perhaps because Hays is smoking again, too. Then he looks for the lack of surprise in the man’s eyes. For some reason that is important to Hays, that the man didn’t know it was coming. But as he watches, the image starts to skate away. That is generally when Hays realizes he is viewing the man through a scope, that its reticle is superimposed on the man’s image: crosshairs that for years were made from a black widow’s silk webbing. In this, engineers followed nature. Hays followed those who believe that through the intellect we might become sublime. Hays has no natural killer instinct. From over a kilometer away, there is no need. Instead, Hays calculates the distance, elevation, wind velocity and direction. What he does is all intellect. And in a sense, his action is sublime, in that it is perfect. And it is through perfection that we find our closeness to God.

Still, it is an ugly purpose. And for Hays, in his dreams, he will forever be reading the mirage, not for some small hope of absolution, but in order to calculate the shot.

The Storekeeper

When I squeezed the trigger, it was like there was a different person there. I wasn’t being me. I was more or less the guy who could get you anything you want. I could work miracles. And I carried that well. I think I did really good at that. Then they put me into killing people, and that’s not my bag. But they asked. And I agreed.

It was when I was flying home that I decided to give up all my guns. My father had died recently. He wouldn’t have understood my reasons. He’d say the gun is just a tool. And he’d be right. Still, I got home, I took my son to the gun cabinet and said, “All these are yours now. You take care of them.” The Mark IV, the over-under, all of them.

And he said, “I’ll take care of them, sir.”

I never told my son what my job was over there. A storekeeper, I tell him. He knows what that is.

The thing is, sometimes I feel if I had not taken that shot at Pendleton . . . I think that right there was a turning point in my life. Or at least, that’s the way I’ve chosen to accept it, that I had no choice in the matter.

Let me put it this way, I don’t want to see any of my old colleagues, anyone I was on the ship with. I’m not going to go to any reunions. I’m trying to forget it. I want to start over with square one. Because if what I’d thought before was true–that my entire life had led up to and was completed with the Storm–if the last shot I took was the climax of my life, then the rest of my life is an anti-climax, and I don’t want to look at it like that. I don’t want to look at my last shot as the high point. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not the high point.

I deserve to have a better memory than that.

Mortimer of the Maghreb

CHARLES MORTIMER WATCHED the rippled brown land wheel back to horizontal. He drained the last drops from the plastic glass of Johnny Walker the air steward had given him, and decided: that’s it, no more booze for a week. Au boulot. His former life, his real life, stitched together by the clackety-clack of the typewriter and the patter-patter of the laptop, and by the roar of jets, was coming back to him now. Once again he was baptized in the odour of jet fuel (which still made him sick), born again in the air, the medium of his real work.

They had been flying for two hours, deep into the desert. As the plane finished its turn for final approach, one of the Migs stationed at the air base sliced through the desert sky like a steel meteor. His heart tightened. The old feeling came back to him, the feeling you almost smelled in your nose and which told you this was the one, this was the right place to be, you would find what you needed here-the feeling that guided you to the front page. Enough of those page-rune columns. How good that he had returned Mohammed Ahmoud’s telephone call and gone to meet him at the Wolf and Whistle, that he had got away from that damn little office with its blue carpet and lunch account and oversized computer terminal-all the perks just for him, the grand old man come home to grow fat and die.

“Welcome, Mortimer of the Maghreb,” a man in fatigues addressed him when he reached the bottom of the aeroplane steps. Mortimer squinted at the man, who was grinning broadly, by which Mortimer understood that he was to take the greeting as a joke. He chuckled back. Like his compatriot Mohammed Ahmoud back in London, the man looked like he would weigh very little. He introduced himself as Ibrahim. Mortimer noted a certain friendly roundness about his face, almost a clownishness. Men like that could be dangerous, Mortimer thought. They didn’t care about anything.

“Welcome to S.A.S.R.,” the man said, speaking awkwardly, with excessive emphasis, as if it was difficult for him to utter each foreign letter of his spurious nation’s name. He hissed on the S’s. The letters stood for “Saharan Arab Socialist Republic.” A seriousness came over the clownish face as he pronounced them.

Mortimer followed the man towards a waiting Land Rover. As he moved across the tarmac, away from the aeroplane, the wind caught him unawares. It was an extraordinary wind. He had traveled a great deal-in the Pamirs, the Balkans, the Caucasus, in South Africa, the Middle East, in Sri Lanka, all the world’s trouble spots over the last thirty years-but never, it seemed to him, had he known a wind like this. Strong and steady, and so hot he felt there must be some mistakesomeone had left an engine running, or opened a furnace at the wrong time. It scalded his face, burnt his neck. It came from nowhere, from everywhere. Mortimer looked around. Beyond the airstrip with the one jetliner there was nothing but flat, open desert, beginning at the edge of the tarmac and stretching away for hundreds, thousands of miles.

What a place to live! It was an unfinished world, not ready for human habitation. What a place for a war. He remembered his wars being in beautiful landscapes, among valleys and mountains and rivers. You would wake up to see the dew glinting on a gun barrel and feel the sun warming your back. You would eat your porridge overlooking a gorge. Or you would hike up a trail among fir trees. Or you might be staying in some dismal concrete city but from the hotel window you could see splendid dusty mountains. This was different. A construction site with no construction, an emptiness without end.

Mortimer had been here before, ten years ago, but he remembered the terrain quite differently, as a glinting plain of gravel.

The Land Rover sped off down a paved road that soon became a washboard track and finally a set of tyre tracks on packed earth. Beside the tracks ran an intermittent line of old oil drums, each painted with one white stripe. Finally the car passed several rows of white canvas tents. The rows were very long. Mortimer couldn’t see how long, because far away the tents disappeared over a brow. This was the “canvas city,” as Mortimer had dubbed it, where the Solario guerrillas and their people lived, the vast tent home of the “Nation-in-Exile” for whose homeland they were fighting.

The car pulled into a compound of old buildings covered in peeling yellow stucco, some French desert post from long ago. Mortimer was left in a high room with a stack of foam mattresses and a pile of blankets in one corner. He understood that he was to arrange a bed for himself, a comedown after the way he had been treated so far, in Algiers and on the flight. He pulled the top mattress off the stack and began unfolding one of the thick, hairy blankets.

A soldier interrupted him. “Venez, monsieur.” Then, not sure if Mortimer understood, he added, smiling, “Vamonos. Yalah, yalah.”

One thing about these men: they really knew how to smile at you. Desert men were the ultimate brothers. Forget old-boy camaraderie. No men knew how to befriend one another like desert men. They held hands, they hugged, they sprawled by the fire with arms draped over one another’s thighs like wild animals in repose.

He followed the man down a corridor, across the compound and into a canteen. He took a seat at a long bench, along with some fifteen or so others, most of them local soldiers, but one a man in a pale blue shirt with a UNHCR badge over the breast pocket. A soldier brought Mortimer a plate of couscous with some red sauce and a lump of tough meat. A glass of a sweet pink drink followed.

Mortimer was halfway through the meal when the man called Ibrahim appeared beside him, squatting on his heels. “Are you ready?”

Mortimer was clearly still eating, but answered, with his mouth half full, “Whenever.”

“Let’s go,” Ibrahim said, as if eating were merely a way of passing time.

Outside, another Land Rover, open-top, was waiting. “Bring anything you need. We’ll be gone four or five days.”

Mortimer wasn’t sure what he needed. He went into his room and pulled -a toothbrush and a new notebook from his bag.

The men wrapped a headscarf round Mortimer’s face, laughing, until he was left with only a slit to peer out of. The material smelled of plaster dust.

“You have to,” Ibrahim explained. “We drive fast.” A light chorus of laughter approved the remark. “The wind here, the dust. They can make you ill.”

It was as open as a Land Rover could be: not even a windshield. Just the bare bottom half of the body, with two spare tyres and two giant jerry cans attached to the back. The whole thing was painted a dusty desert brown, and all bare metal had been coated in matte grey paint. Mortimer noticed there was no speedometer. No instruments at all. Just the pedals and the various gear sticks.

The Solario fighters were good with their Land Rovers. They drove excellently and would long ago have had to give up their fight had they not. They likened the Land Rover to the old Bedouin’s camel, to the corsair’s sloop, to Britain’s Spitfire.

Thus, so simply, so matter-of-factly, and before he was ready for it, Mortimer found himself finally embarked on another war story, another front line, back in business.

*

Charles Mortimer, foreign correspondent extraordinaire, chronicler of wars and plagues and ruptured governments, interviewer of popes and pashas, had had columns set aside for his exclusive use in half the world’s papers. He had smoked Cohibas with Castro and dined on Maine lobster with Reagan. He had been hosted by the best hostesses of London and Washington. He had written light pieces on the L.A. Jacuzzi set, who counted him a friend. He had drunk beer with the mad Billy Fuentes, beer baron of Bolivia, commanding chief of the death squads. Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama had agreed to a joint interview with him. He had eaten lunch with every European leader. Haile Selassie had bestowed the Order of the Silver Stork on him, and the queens of several countries, including Romania, Norway and Tonga, had personally awarded him honorary degrees. For twenty-five years Mortimer had ridden the biggest waves in the business. Whimsical embracer of causes, instigator of media hunts, media races and winner of media coups, Mortimer had redefined his profession.

He had done all these things, but he had done them then, not now. All that was then, five years ago, seven, ten, twenty years ago. Now was different. It surprised Mortimer, when he thought back, how long and how short five years were. That so long a time could go by so swiftly, so emptily. Or not emptily (life abhorred a vacuum), but filled with something so different, so uncomfortable, compared to what had come before. Five years filled by gales of doubt, drunkenness, regret. Regret, the great devourer, could swallow half a decade in one go. Regret was a terrible trap, people said. Stop it. Just stop it. Don’t think about it. You must look forward, onward.

Five and a half years ago Mortimer had risked everything on his biggest story. He had succeeded in gaining an interview with the Soviet president, and after endless consultation of every source, he syndicated a story on the impregnable primacy of the Supreme Soviet. Contrary to all reports, he declared, the writing was not yet on the Kremlin wall. Everyone took the story-Le Monde, the Zeitung, the Washington Post, the Times. It was the coup of a lifetime, the summit of achievement. Except that just five weeks later the Berlin Wall came down, and six months later the Soviet Union was in tatters.

Mortimer had not just been spectacularly wrong, he had risked everything. It was as if every editor and source he had was implicated in his shame. A Times leader referred to him as a curiosity, an American paper alluded to his “disgrace,” and the Spectator cancelled his retainer. Of course most people were too caught up in the excitement of the new events to think about him, but he wasn’t. He had flown too high, and here was the result. After such a debacle, he thought, a man needed a change of profession, of name, of identity. He needed to start all over again. Which was out of the question at the age of fifty-two.

Saskia, his wife, had argued with him about it for months at the dinner table. She had told him again and again that he was wrong, and she took their differences personally. Which was unlike her. Also unlike her, after his great misjudgment she started minding about his peccadilloes-the publicity girl at the magazine where he was an honorary editor, the pretty assistant at the Times news desk. Their marriage had long been pragmatic, accepting of human weakness and strength, elastic enough to contain his work, his erratic urges, his sudden departures and returns. But now Saskia talked to him only in public, at dinner. Otherwise, she slammed doors, left the house without goodbyes, and forsook for the spare room the matrimonial bed that he so often forsook himself. Eventually, eighteen months after his great embarrassment, she left him.

By then he was already caught in a swift stream of forgetfulness. It wasri t that he stopped working-he dabbled with foolish columns in the Standard and the Mail, long inches in which he was free to scribble himself hoarse on any matter that piqued him: waiters no longer wearing ties, wine lists in which the Australian imports had squeezed the clarets into an appendix; the new “Metro” taxicabs. The brash new world springing up around his ankles was ripe for stomping on. At three in the afternoon, with copy due for the evening editions, it provided an inexhaustible supply of annoyances for a man with a keyboard in his lap and a bottle of Pauillac in his head, a man who would much prefer to have remained before his Camembert and gleaming glass than to have hailed a Metrocab back to the grey-walled warehouse of an office where you were no longer even supposed to smoke. At least they allowed him that: a little box of a room all to himself, regarded, incredibly, as a privilege in that open-plan arena, where he was permitted to smoke up a fog as long as he kept the door shut.

Occasionally, in the office, Mortimer would look up from his column-“Mortimer’s Monday”; “Mortimer on the Movies”; “Metropolitan Mortimer”-and sniff the air, test the ground: still foul, still tilted. When life went wrong, why didri t it right itself like everything else on God’s earth? Five years on, the ground was still skewed. And while you waited for it to recover, the weeks turned into months, and once seven months had gone by, you saw that seventy-seven could do so, and before you knew it they nearly had.

The rushing chaos of these years could have gone on and on, he knew, until he found himself collapsed into a hospital ward with two weeks to live. Did you blame the drink? But he had drunk before, he had always drunk, except in Saudi or when he caught hepatitis. Was it Saskia’s leaving? But he had never depended on her for his sanity or purpose. Things had gone wrong before she left, anyway. Was it really just his hideous error, then? But all men made errors. Editors knew that. They were willing to give him a second chance. He had only to indicate where he wanted to go, what war, what famine.

When, in short, would he no longer find himself churning out furious columns about newfangled menu items like arugula and pecorino (“What the devil is wrong with good old parmesan?” he watched himself typing, like some foolish old colonel) and instead be back at work? But it was desperate, not a hopeful, question.

When Mohammed Ahmoud telephoned and reintroduced himself, the two of them not having spoken for over seven years, Mortimer had felt a stirring of old, good feelings-that simple enthusiasm, almost joy, of sensing that someone was about to do you a favour, and you would be able to return it, and together you would advance one another’s causes. Ten years ago Mortimer had brought Solario’s war to international attention, though since then the story had stagnated and dropped from the papers.

Chuckles of reacquaintance down the telephone line. It was morning, fortunately. Mortimer was more or less sober.

“Something important,” Mohammed Ahmoud said. “When can we meet?”

Mortimer and Mohammed Ahmoud met in the Wolf and Whistle in Pimlico. That was something new-lunch in a pub, not at a white-cloth establishment. It felt good. It felt like things ought to feel.

“A major new offensive,” Ahmoud said. “We cut through the Wall in many places at once. We reduce the Moroccan army to nothing. They’re just boys.”

“When?”

They had to plan and arrange, Ahmoud said. Two or three weeks.

Mortimer watched the slight Arab facing him across the pub table, sipping his lemonade through a straw with his curiously big lips. Ahmoud moved slowly, with that desert economy born of unrelenting thirst. Mortimer liked that way of moving. It seemed more a way of being. Something in him loved a desert.

Sitting in the dingy Wolf and Whistle with the drizzle of Pimlico tapping against the window, Mortimer remembered how he used to feel in his heyday. It occurred to him that if he had that feeling in him still, his heyday was not necessarily over.

“Can you get me to the front line?” he asked.

Mohammed Ahmoud put down his glass of lemonade and tilted his head to the side, trying to conceal a smile. He shrugged. “All things are possible,” he said, in the way of desert men.

*

Before they left the camp, the guerrillas drove Mortimer between two rows of tents for mile after mile. They were big square tents, canvas, UN issue. Women sat in the doorways, some dressed in the traditional robes, a few in fatigues with scarves over their heads. The Solario were proud of their particular brand of Islam, which did not subjugate women, many of whom held staff positions in the army. Here and there children in tattered clothes stopped to watch the Land Rover pass. There was an air of slowness about the camp, as if everyone were living at half-speed.

They drove past a huge old black Bedouin tent. Mortimer remembered such a tent from ten years ago, when he had visited before. The guerrillas had held a kind of banquet in it for some delegates visiting the refugee camps. It had been like some bizarre folklore evening in a posh hotel, inexpertly rendered out here in the desert. They had slaughtered a baby camel, which sat, hump and all, on an ark of tinfoil, being slowly hacked to pieces as the evening progressed, while in the corner a band wailed on primitive oboes and thumped frenetically on goatskin drums.

He had enjoyed that evening, drinking endless glasses of tea and smoking pipes of rough tobacco. He had just published his first story on the guerrillas, his initial report on the Great Wall of Africa, as he called it, a phrase that had been used in the headline and became general currency. The Solario’s enemy, Morocco, had constructed a 1,000-mile rampart of sand in the desert to keep the guerrillas out of the disputed territory. It wasn’t really a wall, just a bulldozed dyke some six feet tall with military posts strung along it, but it was still a remarkable story, and Mortimer had broken it. He had been riding high then. Everything he touched came out right. An editorial in the Times the following week referred to him as “Mortimer of the Maghreb.” He remembered dancing along to the crazy music, flirting wildly with a pretty Saharawi woman who was a guerrilla colonel.

The Land Rover passed a well where a throng of people had gathered. Farther along, a water truck with a great green tank on the back crept past them, going the other way, dribbling on the dust.

Then they left the tents behind and accelerated onto the open desert. The day was cloud now, and the desert stretched away as a sheet of grey sand, an endless beach without an ocean.

*

Ibrahim grinned at Mortimer and whispered, “I could pick them off with my Kalashnikov.”

Mortimer believed him. He and Ibrahim lay side by side at the top of a mound, passing a pair of binoculars back and forth. Ahead of them, perhaps two hundred yards away, the top halves of three Moroccan soldiers showed as little figures above a long, low dune. This was the third time in one day that Mortimer had been asked to crawl up a stony bank to peer at Moroccan positions. He was tiring of it. He couldn’t write a story about looking at soldiers. And it was uncomfortable. Little stones pricked his elbows and knees.

He nodded at Ibrahim and began to move down the slope. Ibrahim immediately started too, so that the initiative might seem his.

Back at the camp Mortimer wrote, The noisiest place on earth is not a pressing mill, not a rave, not an aircraft test hangar, but a war. War assaults not the ears but the very bones.

He closed his notebook. He was lying. This war was quiet. Now and then came the soft thud of a shell exploding far away, well off target, its sound absorbed by the endless desert. The enemy had installed- a radar artillery system at immense cost and to little effect.

Mortimer had forgotten the strange matter-of-factness of war, the way you could be in the heart of a war and not even know it. Nothing really happened. You just drove about in an empty landscape. You saw no one. Occasionally you heard a distant boom, but otherwise nothing told you a war was going on. Except for something in the men, perhaps, a calmness born of danger, as if they were saving themselves for something big, lazing the way opera singers or rock stars might do on the day of a show.

Several times on his first day Mortimer heard the distant thud-thud of the Moroccan artillery, followed a few seconds later by a pair of brief whines, two soft crashes. The guerrillas had long since learnt to dodge the radar. Ibrahim pointed out a faint stick on the horizon once, between two hills. “Radar antenna,” he said.

Mortimer nodded and felt he ought to take a picture, but buckled up in his jacket and headscarf, it seemed like too much trouble.

In the evening and all the second day they traveled on the terrain Mortimer remembered. It was an amazing land, a rolling plain of gravel-real gravel, like on a drive in Hampshire. It went on for hundreds of miles. In the morning it looked like a beaten sheet of silver. At noon it shimmered like overheated metal. In the late afternoon, golden light hovered above it, blinding like the ocean. And for ten minutes just after the sun slipped down, it wheeled itself through the entire spectrum, beginning with a fiery red, ending in luminous violet. Under the moon it glittered like sugar.

*

Day Two. Saskia, I have decided I must write to you. I don’t know of course if I’ll ever send this, but you are the one person I want to talk to. Being here makes me think of you, I don’t know why. I feel that I have been a fool, an ass, someone despicable mostly for his obtuseness. But let’s forget about that. I think you’d like it here.

They stop every five minutes. What? Hello? A puncture? Carburettor trouble? An ambush? No: tea every time. Tea after tea after tea. We all pile out, someone lights a fire, out comes the tiny blue pot, the plastic bags of mint and sugar, the tin of fierce grey “chinois noir. ” Six shot glasses carefully twisted into the sand. No warming the pot. They just pour in the water, add a palmful of tea, and set the whole lot on the fire. When it fizzes they drop in a great lump of sugar and the interminable frothing begins-pot to glass and glass to pot, back and forth in the highest arc you can manage. The idea is to get up a good sweet froth. But the first glass is never sweet. The tea is too bitter. You can hardly get it down, it’s so strong. Bitter like life, they say. They always have three rounds. The second is better: they add the mint, and more sugar. Strong like love. The third is easiest of all. Sweet like death. A sentiment peculiar to the desert.

Tea helps a man who has just come off the bottle, no question. My fingers are settling down at last. Yesterday I had such bad shakes I could hardly hold the blasted glass.

Amazing men. They lounge by the fire giving half their attention to the tea, keeping half on the alert. You’ve never seen people so relaxed. And in the middle of the Sahara, in the middle of a war. Tolstoy was right: there’s no laziness like a military life. You can spend weeks doing bugger all and feel fine about it because you’re a soldier. You don’t even get bored. Boredom is a child of guilt, and there’s no guilt here.

Have I done the right thing? Too early to say. Is there a price? The thirst is intolerable. They ration water. I drink five times as much as anyone else. They have this way about them, like camels or snakes. They don’t need to take anything in. My asking for water has become a joke. They call me ‘Z’eau. ” Yet I hardly mind the thirst. This is one of the damn things about life. Do the one right thing and everything else falls into place. But sit around doing the wrong thing and you can’t handle anything. What makes you make the crucial move? That’s the question. Thank god I don’t have to worry about that for now. Just get on with the story. This must be the big one. The week that changed the Sahara. I believe it still, though so far we have done nothing but drink tea, and there’s been no sign of an offensive.

*

Mortimer woke up disgusted with himself in the middle of the night. He got up to pee. The men were still sleeping, and as far as he could see no one was on watch. No sign of dawn yet, but you could tell it was close. A kind of plain peace hung in the air, a sense of ordinariness, which seemed to connote day.

His stream rustled on the dry ground. He was able to wonder why self-loathing had invaded his sleep. It was a strong, sad feeling, but it was possible it made no sense. It was possible that in the early morning on the desert such a feeling might evaporate.

*

Nothing had happened yet. He mustn’t forget that. He had come down to give their cause the limelight just as the tide turned, just as they swept across that Moroccan barrier in a flood of mortars and grenades and Kalashnikovs, in a modern-day Bedouin swoop. And after three days of rambling and camping, and enjoying it, there was no question he was going soft on the story.

His hosts carried on in their leisurely desert way: twelve cups of tea a day, hours spent in repose, hours spent driving silently across the wastes in order to fire off two rockets at some lonely stretch of the Moroccan wall, then all the way back for a bowl of couscous.

Mortimer liked being with them. There was nothing brash or macho about them. When men were doing the most manly things-fighting wars, sailing ships-they appeared most womanly, doing the cooking and washing, taking care of themselves with a fastidiousness beyond the scope of suburban man. They were modest too. They went about their chores good-naturedly: the building of the fire, the opening of giant cans of soup and pasta, all mixed together in an aluminum cauldron, the tea ceremonies, the spreading of blankets as if for a picnic, the handing out of enamel bowls of couscous eaten with a mix of ease and dutifulness, without pleasure. For they were never hungry. They showed up the Western obsession with food and drink, the compulsion to fill the mouth. Nor did they ever tire, or sweat, or sneeze, or even cough. They were hard to pin down.

The truck had broken down once. Mortimer watched the man who fixed it. He appeared to have no idea what was wrong. He stared at the engine a long time, then reached in with a spanner-he didn’t even have to find the right spanner-and turned a nut randomly, it seemed, vaguely, dreamily. The Land Rover started up at the next try.

Mortimer couldn’t help admiring them. He felt himself become a little like them: perhaps that was what made a traveler. In Afghanistan, for example, he hadn’t just laughed at the Mujaheddins’ jokes, he had learnt to find them funny. In the jungle he had naturally squatted on his haunches and spat like the tribesmen. In logging camps he had drunk beer at eleven in the morning and enjoyed the feel of sweat spreading across an overtight T-shirt. In British country houses he developed a taste for port and cigars, for whiskey before dinner. Now he remembered the taste and smell of other deserts, and began to recover a peculiar stillness of the mind which he had learnt from the Kalahari Bushmen. A lizard mind: being still within the cave of your skull while looking out on the dazzling world. A useful way to be.

He felt better. Perhaps he was just a natural traveler, a man who couldn’t live happily at home. Unless it was being with these men, who did not stand if they could squat, or squat if they could lie, who thought nothing of lounging by a tea-fire for half the day, nor of rising at two in the morning for a difficult and dangerous ride without food or even tea until the afternoon. They did not respond to comfort the way other men did. Once, years ago, Mortimer had shared a hotel room with one of their diplomatic team in Geneva. The room had two big beds. The guerrilla unrolled his cape and slept on the floor. What was the point of a bed? What, when it came to it, was the point of a house? Tombs for the living, they called them. Only they could claim an unbroken line going back to the apes. They alone of men had never stooped to sow seeds. Their daily life mapped out the truth of human existence: that our home on the planet could only ever be a transitory camp.

*

Day Three. The flies! You’d hate this. You’ve never seen anything like it. The absurd tea-pouring attracts them. They settle all over everyone’s fingers, first the pourer’s, then everyone else’s. Once the glass is in your hand they line the rim completely, like margarita salt. Wave them away and they ignore you. Only if you touch them will they move, and even then you have to push. Reluctantly they step onto their neighbour, then angrily buzz away. You lift the glass to your lips. Inches from your mouth, there they are still. Just as you think: Fuck it, I’m never going to be able to drink this. Or else: Fuck it, I’m just going to have to swallow a couple of flies, they vanish. Lower the cup an inch and there they are again.

The desert is good for fuck-its. Who can be bothered in this heat?

A funny thing: how I like it here. How it suits me.

About the guns. Men want clarity and simplicity and that is what guns offer. Guns make life simple. They feel right. Let me explain-guns clarify life. They give you a buzz of direction. They make a man feel loved. They justify him.

*

On the fourth morning, Mortimer looked through his notebook and wondered: What was all this nonsense? This was hardly the first time he had been in a war. Perhaps he had softened in the last few years, and perhaps it was even a good thing. Saskia often said how hard he was, how he needed softening. He must surely be softened, if he thought softened a good thing.

He wrote down: Copy, you bastard. Enough bloody philosophy.

They were lying in the lee of a dune, around ten o’clock. All trace of the morning cool had evaporated. Mortimer was having to resist the urge to pull away his headcloth, which they said would make him thirstier. A trickle of sweat was making its way down his side. He remembered to lie still. The kettle gurgled as it heated. The man in charge of it opened the lid. He was a handsome man, the darkest of them all, dark as a Ugandan, with bottomless eyes and deep folds on his face.

“Ibrahim,” Mortimer called.

Ibrahim was busy stuffing a pipe with the foul, powdery black tobacco they smoked. He inverted the instrument and lit it with a twig from the fire. Exhaling a stream of smoke, smiling benignly, looking high, he raised his eyebrows at Mortimer.

“The paper is not going to be pleased,” Mortimer said. “There are many other places they might have sent me.”

Ibrahim rested his eyes on Mortimer in such a way that Mortimer felt easy about going on, in fact felt relaxed about his complaint, no longer especially wanting it acted on. “I mean, at the very least I need an interview from Lamin Aziz.”

Lamin Aziz was the “president,” the guerrilla leader and head of the refugee camps-of the Nation-in-Exile. It was a toy town: toy government, toy politicians, even a toy government house, that giant tent of black wool, one of the original nomad tents. The intention was that one day all these toy institutions would be moved to a small dusty city in the disputed territory. It made one wonder about government and the machinery of state-it was all like a game at playschool, not just here but everywhere.

Ibrahim shrugged and took another pull on his pipe. “Vamos a ver,” he said, breathing out smoke.

We’ll see. Mortimer shook his head. These people. So laid-back. They didn’t mind that their war was going on and on. In fact it suited them. They could carry on living in tents and scampering around the desert in Land Rovers, just as they liked. What would they do with a country, if they ever got one?

*

All that day they stayed at the same camp, lying in the shade of the Land Rover. Three of the men dozed beneath it, crawling out only to drink tea. Mortimer’s impatience grew, then dwindled, then grew again toward noon, as the strip of shadow he had been lying in became too narrow to cover him. He lay beside the hot brown iron of the vehicle, baking like a pizza, as hot as he had ever been, even in the baths of Siberia. Despair touched him: What was he doing here, wasting his time? If he was going to go somewhere, he could have gone to the oil spill in Greenland. The word “Greenland” felt like a rebuke. What a fool. Here he lay, pressed to the ground by an immense heat.

At four o’clock they returned the teapot to the back of the Land Rover, kicked over the ashes, and climbed aboard with their rifles in their laps.

Mortimer had slept. When he saw the sunlight glittering on the plain like water, he felt better. The day was nearly over. He had survived. It felt like an achievement. They swayed and purred over the desert, then wrapped their faces for a long, fast race across packed mud. At the far side the driver plugged the vehicle into four-wheel drive and picked his way between two gravel slopes, hidden from the world. When they stopped, Ibrahim took Mortimer’s hand, which surprised Mortimer, and made him follow behind on his belly as they slithered up a rocky slope. At the top Mortimer slowly raised his head. Ahead of them, some fifty or sixty yards away, four black dots showed at the top of a sandbank: helmets, soldiers.

No one else had come with them. Ibrahim pressed a finger to his lips. They were evidently to wait for something. He had an idea he was about to be given a graphic display of guerrilla tactics. They were showing off to him.

Two cracks sounded. Ibrahim sank to the ground and pressed a hand into Mortimer’s back. He lay with his cheek against a rock. A moment later he heard a whine, then another, each followed by a thud. They came from somewhere behind them. Mortimer eased his head around to look back down the slope. The Land Rover was gone.

Ibrahim kept his face to the ground and smiled. “They know we are here,” he whispered. “But you see? They don’t know where.”

When they raised themselves on their elbows, the four little helmets had vanished.

Mortimer felt uneasy. A clatter of gunfire broke out a ways along the wall, accompanied by the whoosh of rocket grenades. There was silence, and another clattering of guns. Then some weapon made an odd noise, like a moan cut short. A little cloud of smoke rose up into the sky, faint and precious.

A few minutes later Ibrahim started crawling backward down the hill. Mortimer followed. The Land Rover had returned. In it sat two new men, wearing faded navy blue caps. Mortimer could see at once that they were different from the others, though it was hard to say why. Perhaps they were a shade paler. All the guerrillas climbed in, and they drove off in silence.

That evening they passed a group of nomads. Their black tent was startling on the empty land. The nomads were apparently friends, and greeted the rebels warmly. The rebels left a jerry can with them and drove off with a small goat. One of them, sitting on the side of the vehicle, held it clamped between his knees. At first the animal attempted to stay upright as the vehicle bumped along, then gave in, realizing that it didn’t need to, the man’s legs would hold it steady.

They made a detour across a dry wadi and pulled up beside a kneehigh shrub. One of the men dug around the plant with a machete and excavated a small log of root.

They camped in the middle of an open flatness. The driver simply switched off the engine and let the vehicle coast, and wherever it stopped was camp. Everyone spilled out.

The two newcomers with blue caps sat in the circle of men, drinking their tea slowly and thoughtfully, staring at the ground. Mortimer pulled out his notebook and began describing them: young men, moustaches (like all of them), heavy eyebrows, quite dark … in short, almost identical to the others. Maybe not as lean.

He nodded at one of them and asked where he was from, thinking he knew the answer.

The man glanced at Mortimer, then looked away. He must have been astonished by the question.

Ibrahim stepped around behind the circle and sat beside Mortimer. “They’re Moroccans,” he said. “Fresh from the Wall. Prisoners. You want to talk to them?”

Mortimer asked them a few questions. Both were silent, unsure who this strange foreigner was, unsure whether they were being interrogated, suspecting perhaps that he might be a journalist and afraid of what might get back to their command. Mortimer left them in peace for the second and third rounds of tea.

He flipped through possible headlines. Desert Rebels Stop for Tea. Tea on the Frontline. Desert Rebels Give Their Captives Tea.

From a little way off, outside the fire circle, came a soft, anxious bleating, then the sickly liquid sounds of slaughter. One of the soldiers fed the tip of the big root into the fire, building up a blaze.

*

Day Four. Barbecue tonight. First they flay the poor beast (a goat), then spread out the skin, fleece down, and use the slippery sheet as a butcher’s block. They dismantle the animal and store the various components-legs, organs, skull, ribs-in piles at the edge. The first fresh meat in almost a week, but I have little appetite for it. Who cares? Eating is just something to do.

I keep remembering years ago when I walked from Timimoun to one of the little oases. While covering the Malian famine. There was nothing but sand, dunes forever as far as you could see. It was a windy day. After half an hour Timimoun was lost from sight. We knew it would be a few hours before we could see the first palm gardens of the oasis. Just the compass to guide us across the ocean of sand, the Great Western Erg. What a place. The wind blew away our tracks. Can you imagine that? I can barely remember the sight now, but I remember what it felt like. It was a lesson. No tracks. No past. It was true not only of that journey but of everything, all life. All of it blows away. I mean that not as a metaphor but as reality. We have no past. There is no going back.

They say the struggle for good and evil goes on in the human mind. Nowhere is that clearer than in the desert. This is the original tabula rasa, where whatever has been is erased.

This is embarrassing but I keep seeing you in the landscape, in the crevices between the hills, in the hill on the horizon, which lies there just like you do, still, sure of itself. I am beginning to realize how much I miss you. Sometimes I see suddenly that none of this makes any sense. I mean these last few years. Our situation. You were always right. You understood in advance of me. It has taken me a long time to see, to see myself, and you, and us and what remains to us. We must meet as soon as I am back.

*

The last time he’d seen Saskia, ghastly time, he took her to dinner at L’Escargot. Why there, of all places? He should have known better. The minute he held open the door and saw her sitting on one of the stiff little sofas waiting for him, he knew it would not work. They had had to sit through an excruciating dinner. He should have had her over, if she would have agreed to that, or else gone to a Chinese or an Indian, even a pub. Somewhere informal. And why meet at night, like a pair of dating undergraduates?

She had looked beautiful. He didn’t have the habit of noticing her beauty. Seeing it that night, he felt excluded. The old sadness rolled over him. Her blonde hair pleasantly, outdoorsily grey at the roots, was pinned back the way he liked, sleeking her cheeks. She had lost a few pounds, she looked strong, lean. He recognized the beauty in her small frame. She seemed to have acquired shape. She sat very correct-looking, with her knees together, just showing beyond the hem of a black skirt. She had dressed up not for him but for the restaurant.

What sharp, intelligent eyes she had. She could look like a rabbit, a fiercely bright rabbit, sitting there hunched up and staring at you. Thank god, he thought to himself, that she had had children. Imagine if she had come to him childless, and he had kept her that way, as he would have done. Only one thing, in the end, could redeem any life: progeny. Not for him, of course, but for her. She could survive whatever love threw at them because she had her future assured. Children mitigated death, he thought, as if reproduction really were the one thing we were put on this earth to accomplish. He would go naked into death with nothing to diminish it but age.

Was Saskia the love of his life? His first answer would be no. That was Clarissa, who had left him when he went off to Afghanistan on his first assignment, and who had never looked back. She was married by the time he returned, and she had made a good life for herself. Women were practical like that. But his second answer would be yes, of course Saskia was the love of his life, his actual life. The dream life might hang on, but in the end, he was sure, it would be the actual life that counted.

*

The prisoners were with them all the following day, silently doing whatever the party did-tea, drive, tea, eat, drive. They never looked at anyone, not even each other.

All wars were strange. You sat around a fire and chatted. The fact that your cousin or brother or friend was no longer at the fire with you made no difference. The fact that two of the enemy were, also made no difference. Still you sat and spat and smoked and drank tea and entertained the foreign journalist with little stunts. “Fighting” consisted of endless sitting around. Clipping nails, picking at dry skin, rubbing stubble, musing, composing letters in one’s mind.

Just now they were all sitting on a caked white mud flat. They seemed to make their own little stage around the fire. They had to have their own reasons for all of this. The surroundings could supply none.

“Ibrahim, this is the end of the fifth day,” Mortimer said. He had not showered since being down here and had lost all desire to. His skin and clothes had become one. “Is anything going to happen?”

Ibrahim chuckled deeply. At times he had an incredibly deep, rather beautiful voice. “No problem,” he said. “Everything can happen.” “I’m only here another day and a half. I have to leave with something. It’s the Sunday Times. Why won’t Lamin Aziz see me?”

“All things can happen,” Ibrahim answered, with typical desert oracularity.

*

Day Five. We have taken two of the enemy. They seem nice enough. Life goes on. We all drink tea together. In the desert all men are brothers first, warriors second. It’s a little like those Christmas truces in the trenches. Another tea, Maroc?

*

Night fell. The huge planet wheeled its flatness across the western sky, sending a band of deep blue shadow into the pale east. The band deepened and spread. The orange west became spangled with early stars. A slither of a moon, a hair caught on a camera lens, shone luminously in the glazed sky.

The two Moroccans and two of the guerrillas had vanished. They had slipped away somehow. Mortimer must have been dozing. He got up to have a better look. All around, the plain lay flat: no sign of anyone. Yet they could not have gone far. The desert’s apparent flatness contained hidden gullies and ditches, even small canyons that you saw only when you were almost in them, but still their disappearance startled him.

He heard something. A faint crack. A whine, a high-pitched groan. He stood still, staring into the silence of the coming night. Nothing more. Just stillness. A hissing in the ears. As he listened a wonderful feeling crept over him. His legs felt warm and fluid, his heart seemed to tingle. Good things would happen to him. They had before and they would again. His fate was to clasp the globe in his fist. Never in human history, perhaps, had there been a man of such wide experience.

Another crack, a moan. Both sounds were very faint. Mortimer wasn’t sure if it was his ears playing up. It could be a desert fox, he thought. Or one of the birds. He had seen a bird in the sky the previous day.

One of the guerrillas fiddled with the knobs on a big cloth-covered military radio. He wore a pair of small, hard-looking headphones. He raised a speaker to his lips and spoke softly, then adjusted a dial.

Ibrahim approached Mortimer. “Get some sleep. We’ll be up very early. Midnight.”

“Where are the prisoners?”

Ibrahim smiled. “Sleep. The desert tires a foreigner.”

Mortimer lay on his back. He could still feel the glow that had entered his body. The stars dropped from the sky and hung just above his face, so close he could stick out his tongue and lick them. They were coarse like sea salt.

Mortimer understood that he had been playing it too much their way. He must stay awake, but so they thought he was sleeping. He was a journalist, a reporter. He had got caught up in the romance of things. Back to basics: the difference between what they say and what I see equals the truth.

The soft human voices in the emptiness were soothing. The crackles of the fire died down to a low hiss. The voices became big and deep, superbly resonant out there on the flat land. Mortimer listened, imagining at times that they were talking in French or Spanish, and that he would understand what they were saying if only he listened harder. At some point the Land Rover left. When it came back there were a few hushed, concerned exchanges. He rolled onto his side and opened his lower eye. By the car’s wheel, a cap lay on the ground. It belonged to one of the Moroccans. He decided to stand up and surprise them.

He did so. He yawned and shuffled off to pee, and saw what he needed: the two Moroccans bound back to back, lying on their sides in the back of the Land Rover, slack as a pair of socks. The face of the man nearer him was covered in dirt. The mouth of the other hung open.

Mortimer’s stream made a pleasant sound in the wide night. It drowned out the voices at the camp. He had a heavy feeling in his chest. He told himself it’s nothing to what you have seen, remember Eritrea, remember Cambodia, this is war, war is like this. But it didri t work. His stomach rose. He took a few steps forward, not as many as he planned, bent over and puked. Strings of phlegm swung from his mouth as his stomach hardened into a knot.

“Too much for you?” came Ibrahim’s voice. “You’ve been to many wars, no?”

Mortimer didn’t answer but walked with lowered head back to his sleeping roll.

*

The action that followed was hard to make sense of until it was over. In the middle of the night they dismantled the campsite and mounted the Land Rover. They drove for an hour, then parked at the foot of a low hill. Ibrahim clutched Mortimer’s arm, guided him halfway up the hill, then pushed him flat on his belly. What Mortimer saw from the brow surprised him. The whole area between the hill and the Moroccan wall was covered in bodies, and the bodies were moving. It was an eerie sight: an infantry attack of the old school, the oldest school. This was how the pashas’ caravans had been ambushed: a knife clenched between the teeth, elbows creeping forward over the ground. There must have been fifty fighters.

Then: thud-thud, thud-thud, sounding far away. A moment later the screech-booms rang out. There was another attack going on a few hundred yards up the wall. Mortimer stared but could make out nothing. The snaking figures had risen up in a silent wave and were sprinting up the bulldozed dune. Then they were out of sight. This was the strangeness of war: Mortimer and Ibrahim still just lay there on the ground, and unless one knew, unless one actually made the imaginary connections, it might seem that nothing unusual was going on.

A clatter of rifle fire sounded out. Then silence again. Figures came back over the dunes: more this time. Soldiers kept on coming, more and more. Most of them held their hands clasped on their heads. Everyone was jogging, jogging and stumbling down the dune, across the open space, and up the hill, the nearest within thirty feet of Mortimer. It all happened in silence.

Mortimer slithered back down the hill. He watched the new prisoners being loaded into a waiting Unimog. He wondered how they would all fit in. Somehow they did.

The Solario fighters dispersed. Mortimer found himself back at the Land Rover with exactly the original band of six. Everything was as it was before. It had been a good operation: slick, quick, and without traces. Like a dream, the attack might never have happened. How would you know it had?

The two dispensed-with Moroccans were gone.

*

Day Six. Perhaps things are getting better not when the bad times are over, but when you stop thinking of them as bad times. When you can see good even in them. Heigh-ho.

For example? For example the locusts. Saskia, you have never seen anything like this. It changes you. I’m serious.

*

They passed the locusts on the way back to the camp. Locust Africanus: Lime-green, wingless, the juveniles draw up in marching columns hundreds of miles long.

They showed as a black line, some geological feature remarkable only for being long and straight. The Land Rover rode over it. Then Ibrahim called to the driver to stop and tapped Mortimer’s knee.

The two men knelt close. The insects were unaware of them. Ibrahim said the vanguard would already be in Mauritania, two hundred miles away. Every bit of them was bright green, the bent thighs, the heads and bodies, even the antennae, as if they had been dipped entire in green paint. They were at once horrific and magnificent. A thousand miles’ marching lay ahead of them. Incalculable distance, incalculable number. You could just hear the rustle they made. Where were they going? What made them go? What made them that brilliant colour? They stopped neither to eat nor sleep. They belonged to a destiny vaster than man’s.

Things of this magnitude, Mortimer wrote down, require the whole sky in which to resonate.

He put his pen back in his breast pocket and closed the notebook. His heart was racing. Had he been a fool? Had he failed to realize something perfectly simple? He thought all the trouble was to do with his work, but maybe it was quite different. Maybe he had nearly been doing the right thing these last few years, without knowing it. Perhaps he no longer wanted what he thought he did.

He looked at the locusts, and again his mind resonated with a song to their magnitude. He didn’t think: famine in Mali. One hundred and twenty thousand refugees within the year. Logistical nightmare. UNHCR, etc. He thought: The world is so big. That was all. His head hummed.

Then he wondered: all those years in which he had flitted from atrocity to atrocity and horror to horror, perhaps an overarching question had governed his randommotion. He had been looking for a reason not to have faith. And he understood now that he had failed.

He must stop and rest. That was the stern injunction of the plains of gravel: rest, traveler, rest.

*

On his last day Mortimer had still not seen the president.

He understood what had happened. The Solario had tried to impress him with their first small capture, and failed. They had tortured their captives for information and carried out the bigger raid. It would benefit them anyway, of course, but more so since Mortimer could report that Morocco’s defenses were at least partially ineffective.

But it was nothing like the promised offensive. Mortimer had been had. Or something had gone wrong.

War. wasn’t the way the papers reported it. It was all an act. Those Moroccan soldiers didn’t want to be killed. They were recruits who had just left school. Of course they would do what they were told if the enemy had them at the end of a gun barrel. A war was a show, a movie. Algeria produced, Solario performed. Meanwhile Britain; France, and the U.S. bankrolled Morocco’s side, pouring huge sums into the friendly autocrat’s thousand-mile defense without any hope of return. What was in the disputed territory? A few thousand nomads, a barren seaport clinging to the Atlantic coast with a few streets of crumbling concrete, some phosphate mines long ago abandoned because of the war, and a thousand miles of nothing.

Meanwhile Solario lived in tents, drove Land Rovers, camped on the desert, just as they liked. They had a mission in life.

Mortimer was waiting in the same long, high room to which he had been delivered on first arriving. It might once have been a Legionnaires’ barracks, he thought, though it had the air of a schoolroom. He had to wait until sometime in the afternoon. The guerrillas had dropped him off that morning and driven away with the minimum of good-byes. Four of the foam beds had been made up. There were other visitors now. The same stack of blankets stood in the corner, shorter than before. Otherwise the room was empty except for Mortimer’s bag, which sat open beside a pile of papers and books, his. He couldn’t understand why he had brought them all.

He sat with his back against the wall. He was good at waiting now. In his lap was an open notebook, in his hand a pencil, but he was staring at the opposite wall where, just below the room’s one window, a large section of yellow plaster had fallen away, exposing dusty brickwork. Something stirred in his mind and caused him to look up at the three big beams supporting the ceiling. It was a vacuum of a room.

He had been here three hours, he was covered in desert dust, but his appetite for what might have been a pleasure-washing off six days’ dirt-had vanished.

*

Day Seven. I’m not sure how I’m going to leave here. I wish you could come and meet me at the airport like in the old days. I can see no reason to go back other than to see you. They killed our two prisoners. I was sick. Then they captured another batch. They want me to see that they can.

I leave this afternoon. There’s no respite in this life. Not even in the desert.

A young reporter in Kabul once told me we were the reason people fought wars. Look at Lawrence of Arabia, he said. You know Lawrence was made by that American newspaper man. I thought he was crazy, but now I have to wonder if he wasn’t right. I do.

*

Half an hour before he was due to leave, when his bag was packed and he was still sitting alone in the barrack room, Mortimer heard footsteps advancing down the hall. Ibrahim entered. “Yalah. Let’s go.”

Mortimer was surprised to see him. He smiled. “I thought you’d be back at the front by now.” He zipped up the bag and lifted it to his shoulders.

“No, no,” Ibrahim said. “No bag.”

Mortimer looked at him. “The airport?”

Ibrahim shook his head. “Important meeting.”

“The president?”

“Important meeting,” Ibrahim repeated, without a trace of a smile.

Outside, another Land Rover, dark green, hard-top, waited. They drove Mortimer around the camp and away. At the side of a hill a set of unlikely steel doors appeared. They opened from within, and a guard spoke to Ibrahim through the car window. The Land Rover entered a long ramp lit by intermittent bulbs. They drove downward a long way, curving always to the left. As far as Mortimer could see, the ramp might continue endlessly downward on its slow spiral beneath the desert. They stopped outside a grey metal door.

Ibrahim nodded. Mortimer climbed out and pushed open the heavy door. A guard within led him along a dark corridor into an enormous ambassadorial suite full of huge armchairs and ashtrays. You could feel at once that it was a room large and comfortable enough to absorb fierce differences, and probably had done so.

President Lamin Aziz looked like a young man. He had a moustache and bright eyes and wore combat fatigues. He shook Mortimer’s hand and pulled a pack of Marlboros from his breast pocket, along with a gold lighter, and offered one to Mortimer. His English, French and Spanish were fluent, Mortimer knew. He was an intelligent man. You could see it in his eyes. As the lighter flared at the tip of his cigarette an unmistakable sparkle showed in them.

He lay back in an armchair, draping one leg over the chair’s arm. “Eventually he has to stop this insanity,” he said of the king of Morocco. “We won’t stop. We are in the right.”

Mortimer took notes and fired off his questions just like in the old days, yet the more he wrote down the less he felt he had. As his pad filled, his hands emptied. Why was there a war? Sitting in armchairs and discussing diplomatic initiatives made no sense. Once you heard someone talk about it, war became absurd. What made sense was streaking across the desert in a Land Rover, camping around a fire, sucking harsh smoke from a copper pipe, and baking bread in the sand. That was what humans were made for.

“I know we can count on you to understand our cause,” the president said, blowing his smoke up toward the high ceiling. “You know the injustice of the Moroccan position. You know he has violated UN Resolution 565 repeatedly. You know this must not go on. You also know how we can deal with two prisoners if it helps our struggle. You know how we can deal with eighty-seven prisoners also.” He paused, took a big draw on his cigarette, and blew the smoke up again, following it with his eye.

Mortimer watched the president’s face. It was rough, pockmarked like an adolescent’s, and shone with a contained excitement.

The president didn’t look at Mortimer for a long time. Another man let himself into the room, also dressed in combat fatigues.

“Ah, Mohammed,” the president said expansively, waving his cigarette hand.

Mortimer nodded at the newcomer, who walked in smiling, took a seat, then asked Mortimer, “So how was your stay?”

Only then did Mortimer realize it was Mohammed Ahmoud, the London man. “What the-?”

He felt the floor move, as if beneath the ground one might actually feel the world turning.

Mohammed Ahmoud could plainly see Mortimer’s surprise. He smiled. “I’m here to make sure everything goes well.”

“We need to know we can count on you,” the president continued. “You are a respected man.”

Mortimer waited. The desert had taught him to wait.

“We know you support our cause,” the president said. “Why does Britain still support the king? We must do everything to isolate him.”

“I’m a journalist,” Mortimer began.

“The struggle makes demands of us all,” the president interjected. “I am a soldier by nature, not a politician. Look at Mohammed Ahmoud. He is a teacher by training, yet he must work as a diplomat now.”

Mohammed Ahmoud nodded gravely.

The president stubbed out his cigarette in one of the giant marble ashtrays. “Think of those prisoners.”

“We can’t trust anyone,” Mohammed Ahmoud added. “We have been treated badly. By certain people.”

The president shrugged, sniffling vaguely. “You know our position is just. We do not like to mistreat our prisoners. It would be a pity if we were forced to.”

Mortimer saw that the glint in the president’s eye was not humour or intelligence but zeal. He was a dangerous man. It seemed obvious now that something like this would be said.

Mortimer had no doubt whatsoever that he would do what they asked. He would print whatever they wanted.

As Mortimer was driven toward the airport, out of the refugee city, a terrible nostalgia seized him. Everything seemed sad. The huge red desert, the two men who had died horribly and unnecessarily, the atrocities committed under cover of vegetation, and the brown rivers , of ugliness and waste threading through the world, all were sadness incarnate. So too the gleaming airliners that ferried you back and forth among these places. He felt flat as the desert, and the flatness stretched on forever. As he stood on the tarmac waiting to board, hearing the steel roar of the jet engines, his nostrils touched by the nauseating odour of jet fuel, he was surprised by the sudden knowledge that this was the last story he would ever do. He had crossed the wilderness now, the chariot had come to take him home, and he was going home. He would pay the warriors off once and for all.

Ordinary Apples

ASK SOMEONE HOW EVE tempted Adam, and the answer will likely be apple. But the Book of Genesis says only that Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree. Some biblical scholars believe it was an apricot. I feel that a plum or a peach would have been more likely, something with juice that could run down Adam’s chin, trickle along Eve’s bare breasts. Sin never sounded to me like the hard, clean chawk of biting into an apple.

I grew up in Baldwin, Connecticut, where apples have always seemed an ascetic pleasure. The town took its name from one of the most commercially successful varieties of the nineteenth century; our founders must have felt it would have lasting resonance. However, though the Baldwin survives shipping well, its trees bear fruit only every other year. New annual varieties began to supersede it around the turn of the century. Now you hardly see the Baldwin anywhere. Should we miss it? F. A. Waugh, in his 1908 book The American Apple Orchard, wrote, “It is exactly the apple for the ordinary man. It is an ordinary apple.”

This could serve as the town’s motto.

Most of what I know about apples comes from my high school Latin teacher, Mr. Kintner, whose family owned the largest orchard in town. Often, toward the end of class, when we had finished conjugating twenty verbs or giving the dative forms of a long list of nouns, Mr. Kintner announced which varieties had been grafted onto the orchard’s trees the previous day, or how many pounds boiled down into a pint of apple jelly, or how it was a shame that the insipid McIntosh and Red Delicious were crowding the other varieties out of grocery stores around the country. He made these remarks in the same animated tone of voice with which he mentioned that the ablative singular always ends with a vowel-a tone suggesting that apples were another ancient language unjustly maligned as dusty and irrelevant.

Five foot seven, very skinny, with the cuffs of his suit coat hanging down almost to his knuckles, Mr. Kintner resembled a walking coat-rack. His thinning, coppery hair, swept away from his forehead, had a peculiar ripple to it in the back, like a waterfall ending abruptly at his neck. I had a running discussion with Roger Longo, who sat next to me, about whether it grew that way naturally. Roger claimed Mr. Kintner plugged himself into an electric socket each morning with his hair wet.

Mr. Kintner rarely stood still. He hated to sit at his desk. “Gaul is divided into three parts!” he said, drawing Gaul on the blackboard and slashing it with chalk lines. “The game of bobbing for apple comes from a Druidic rite of divination,” he said. Vitam regit fortuna non sapientia, he wrote, and we translated: Chance, not wisdom, rules life. He showed us a slide of Rubens’ Judgment of Paris, the three goddesses with their luminous, doughy flesh, the dazzled young Paris awarding the apple inscribed “To the Fairest” to Aphrodite, in exchange for the love of Helen of Troy.

Early in our first year at Baldwin High, he told us the myth behind the Latin word for apple, malus. There was a priest of Aphrodite name Melus, a close friend of Adonis. When a bull gored Adonis to death, Melus could not stop mourning. “Finally,” Mr. Kintner said, “the Goddess of Love took pity on him and turned him into an apple tree.”

Melissa Colhalter raised her hand. “Why an apple tree?” Her broad and shiny forehead radiated her usual insistent drive for knowledge; someone had told her that Latin would teach her the origins of words, and so she was determined to get to the heart of everything.

With one of his sweeping gestures, Mr. Kintner clapped a hand to his chin and pondered. “Because the apple trees,” he said finally, “are quiet. If you’re the Goddess of Love, the last thing you want in your temple is noisily weeping priests.” Then he turned to me and said, “Vaughn please translate: manus manum lavat. ”

Though everyone loved Mr. Kintner’s enthusiastic style, the class dwindled with each grade level as students defected to more practical electives, like Typing and Accounting. By senior year only Melissa, Roger, and I remained. Melissa loved the different forms that Latin nouns took: nominative, accusative, ablative, dative, genitive. I ask her once how she kept the declensions straight, and she said she pictured each one as a bookcase; choosing the right word was like lifting down a book from the proper shelf.

Though I struggled with the vocabulary, I stuck with the class because I loved anything that touched on the Greek and Roman myths, the fantastic array of gods and heroes, their outsized cruelties and desires. I loved Hermes and his winged sandals, Hephaestus and his jealous rage for Aphrodite, Odysseus and his quick wits, Procrustes and his bed.

Roger took Latin because he wanted to be near Melissa.

The first day of our senior year, we arrived at Latin class to find ourselves assigned to a tiny room crammed with six student desks and a miniature version of a teacher’s desk. We quickly sensed how difficult this year would be. There was no room for Mr. Kintner to pace in front of the blackboard. Instead, he had to sit for the entire class, and while we inched through The Aeneid-our sole text for the year-he had to satisfy himself by fiddling with a pink rubber eraser, which he spun and bent and stabbed with his fingernails. When he waved his hands in the air, he resembled a man who has been confined to a wheelchair without the use of his legs, but who refuses to acknowledge his disability.

To make matters worse, it was the last period of the day, when we were all exhausted and chafing. And Roger had edged his desk so close to Melissa’s that their elbows nearly brushed, which made the room seem even smaller, as if it should only have fit two. When Roger leaned forward to read from his translated lines, a slight flush came over Melissa’s cheeks, though she continued to stare intently at the page in front of her.

I had always thought of Roger as one of those amiable, bland boys, the kind who carry combs in their pockets, wear Polo shirts and chinos, join the Key Club. The kind who seem inexplicably at home in school. He walked through the halls easily, as if wearing slippers. In Latin class he was a middling student-he always studied for quizzes, but cursorily. He had never stood out.

The summer before our senior year, however, he’d had a polyp removed from his vocal cords, and the operation had tinged his voice with smoke. Now he sounded, not exactly raspy, but nubbly, like a flannel blanket. This gave him distinction, made us take a new look at him. Like Melissa, I watched him while he read. He had a round, sleepy, pale face with a slightly upturned nose, which made him resemble a handsome china pig. I could understand why even Melissa, known for dating only her homework, got lost in his voice. When Roger finished and Mr. Kintner asked me to translate the next six lines, I gave a start and asked which line we were on.

Toward the end of class, Mr. Kintner leaned back in his chair and stretched his alarmingly supple spine. “As you know,” he said, “every year for the past three years I’ve written a little play for the Apple Harvest Festival Pageant. This year, it will be the story of Atalanta’s race. I always ask my Advanced Placement students if they’d like the starring roles. Don’t worry, you won’t have to learn lines, you will simply have to act, while I read the narration.”

None of us were really theatrical types, but we liked Mr. Kintner, and more than that, we saw the rest of the school year unrolling before us, every day ending in this tiny room. The thought of being able to work with Mr. Kintner on the open-air stage in October seemed like the only chance for relief. “Sure,” we said. “Why not?”

“Ms. Giovanni will design the set,” he said, “and she has graciously offered to have her classes build anything we need.” Then, as if he’d said too much, he closed his book, stood up, and went out into the corridor, although there was still a minute to go before the bell rang.

We knew he had been married to Ms. Giovanni for a year. She taught wood shop at the high school. They had first met seven years ago during a community theater production of Barnum, in which he played the lead and she played his wife. We speculated that they had divorced because both of them liked center stage. Ms. Giovanni had since married a much older man. Now she and Mr. Kintner were both nearly forty. When they happened to pass in the hall-rare, as the wood shop was in the school’s basement-Mr. Kintner would stop and give a loud “Ahoy!” in the middle of his hurry, and she would curtsy with exaggerated formality, a few wood shavings detaching from her blouse. It was as if they were old theater hams who had been rivals so long they’d become cheerful about it.

And so we had two Mr. Kintners for a while-the circumscribed one in Latin class, and the more expansive one who guided us after school in the roles he had prepared. Because our school lacked an auditorium we practiced in a room off the gymnasium, often accompanied by the grunts of football players charging into sawdust-filled bags. Mr. Kintner called them a Greek chorus. He cast Melissa as Atalanta, saying he’d chosen this myth because Atalanta was a runner, and he knew Melissa was on the track team. Roger was to be Hippomenes, her suitor, and I was to be Atalanta’s father, the king. Mr. Kintner had coaxed a few juniors and sophomores into playing the smaller roles.

Mr. Kintner engaged us in preposterous theater exercises, getting us to move around the room like different kinds of animals or like one the four elements, asking us to quack the way a lion would if lions quacked, or to speak with the voice of a refrigerator. “Mr. Derousse doesn’t believe in this sort of thing,” he said, referring to the history teacher who directed the high school drama club. “He’s a strict adherent of the Stanislavski method. No room for true creativity.” At the beginning of each rehearsal, when he required us to shudder like trees in a windstorm or ooze around the floor like mud, we winced and avoided meeting each other’s eyes. But by the end of rehearsal, even Melissa laughed.

“Remember to remain royal in your posture when you perform the marriage ceremony,” he told me, pulling back my shoulders. But I noticed he was gazing at Melissa and Roger. They stood as he had just posed them, facing each other, their hands in each other’s hands, staring at each other’s sneakers with great concentration, as if attempting at all costs not to smile. Perhaps because they could not, Mr. Kintner smiled instead, in an easy, unhasty way that I had never seen from him before.

“Is this marionette theater?” asked Ms. Giovanni, coming in from the main gymnasium. The “oofs” of the football players followed her in until she shut the door behind her. “Are you going to dance Vaughn around the stage through the whole play,” she said, “as well as speak everyone’s parts?” Mr. Kintner removed his hands from my shoulders. She smiled sweetly and sat on a pile of mats to watch the rehearsal. Mr. Kintner gave a slight bow that consisted mostly of closing his eyes in her direction, then resumed instructing.

Not long after, I saw Melissa and Roger in the cafeteria together, taking sips from the same can of cola. In Latin class they moved their desks farther apart, as if to conceal their affection, but from time to time I leaned forward in my seat and saw their shoes touching. The room came to seem even tinier. If Mr. Kintner noticed, he gave no direct sign. But he often let us out of class a minute early, with another of his sweeping gestures, as if to say, “Go, enjoy your youth.”

On the first weekend of October, the Apple Harvest Festival began. Canvas booths occupied the town green like an army encampment. A traveling carnival set up rides and games in the vacant lot next to the Congregational church. Everything looked orderly: the booths were in line, the carousel gave off its happy tune like a perfume, and the air smelled of fresh apple fritters from the Lions Club booth.

But the more interesting of the festival’s two weekends was the second. It started with a few of the booths opening Thursday night- people strolled through hesitantly, almost furtively, as if worried they might be participating in something unauthorized. On Friday, arts-and-crafts vendors crammed their stalls into any remaining space in the town green and squabbled over boundary lines: the vendor of hand-tooled wooden belt buckles complained about smoke from the Rotary Club’s barbecued ribs booth; the vendor of stained-glass lampshades found she had been assigned the same stall number as a group of clowns who painted children’s faces.

By Saturday afternoon, you could hardly move. You had to inch past people carrying paper plates stacked with corncobs and runny beef sandwiches, past parents clutching at children who chased apple-shaped balloons that were forever escaping, past teenaged girls who didn’t watch where they were going and jostled your elbow with sheaves of pink cotton candy. By evening, splotches of spilled beverages and food colored the sides of the canvas tents, and the bright orange garbage receptacles overflowed with crumpled napkins and greasy waxed paper. The carousel’s music had repeated so often that it seemed demented.

From the booths you could buy every kind of apple concoction imaginable: apple cider, apple crisp, apple cake, apple pie, apple rhubarb pie, apple-and-green-tomato pie, apple cupcakes, apple brown betty, apple slump, apple pandowdy, baked apples, caramel apples, mint apple jelly, maple apple custard, apple chutney, apple soufflé. You could buy plain apples from the three huge Kintner Orchards booths which sold Gravensteins and McIntoshes. No Baldwins, though. They didn’t ripen until November.

At three o’clock on Sunday, the last day of the festival, we met at the field below the elementary school, where the pageant stage had been set up. Ms. Giovanni’s senior wood-shop class had constructed a throne for me and a pair of arches to serve for entrances and exits. Aside from a spear, our only props were three apples that had been rolled in glue and gold sparkles. The throne had been painted black, with red roses stenciled on as decorations. “Roses?” I said when I saw the throne, and Ms. Giovanni smiled. “That makes it ornate,” she said. Mr. Kintner raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.

When we finished rehearsing, we went up to the elementary school, whose bathrooms had been designated our dressing rooms, to put on our costumes. Ms. Giovanni applied makeup, giving me thick, sharp-pointed eyebrows because, she said, kings always had big eyebrows. Then we all waited in the parking lot for our turn. The weather was unusually warm for October, and I felt itchy in my heavy toga. I envied Roger and Melissa, who wore tunics.

Roger began juggling the golden apples and then did tricks, tossing them under his legs or over his shoulder, crossing his wrists, jumping in place. I had never seen him so lively. Melissa caught sight of him and ran over. “Don’t do that!” she said. He laughed and kissed her cheek, but she did not smile.

The Apple Pageant served as our town talent show. Mrs. Polanowski, the librarian, sang Irving Berlin’s “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” and two men who worked at the hardware store recycled an Abbott and Costello routine. Mrs. Breen’s tap-dancing class hammered the outdoor stage with shiny red shoes. At last it was our turn.

The audience numbered around seventy, most of them friends and family of the players. The rest simply weren’t ready to leave the festival yet; they had tired of everything apple-oriented but still could not drag themselves home. They had the look of people dawdling in bed, in contrast to the actors’ friends and the beaming mothers and fathers who were sure whatever happened on stage would be miraculous. It was hard to know which made us more nervous, the sleepy strangers or the alert familiar ones who hoped for more entertainment than the pageant was likely to supply. My own mother sat all the way in the back, and at first I thought hopefully that she had binoculars or a camera in her lap, but then I realized she had brought knitting.

Mr. Kintner stepped up to the podium. Without his suit coat, dressed in a toga, his matchstick wrists should have looked more fragile than ever. Yet he enlarged himself with his voice, speaking with the commanding rigor of a Roman orator as he narrated our pantomime of the myth of Atalanta.

As soon as Atalanta was born, her father, the king, seeing that she was not a boy, abandoned her on a hill near the country of Calydon. The goddess Artemis ensured that she was nursed by bears, and later a clan of hunters raised her. She grew up swift and strong; no man could catch her, which was fortunate, because the Delphic Oracle had told her that marriage would be her death. As a young woman she won a contest to kill a great, ravaging boar, and when her father heard about it he decided to recognize her after all. He demanded that she marry, however. She told him about the oracle’s prophecy, but he responded, “Who are you going to listen to, a stranger in a cave, or your own father?” So she consented, on the condition that any potential suitor had to race her – if he won, he could be her husband, but if he lost, she would kill him.

Although Mr. Kintner had taught us that good public speakers choose different individuals in the audience to speak towards, I noticed that more often than not he addressed the corner where Ms. Giovanni sat with her husband. They had brought a cooler, and with wine glasses in their hands they watched Mr. Kintner with approval and a genial amusement. Like a Roman senator making his case, he strode across the stage, unable to remain behind the podium.

Yellow ropes marked out a track that encircled the stage, and here the races were staged. Atalanta raced one unlucky suitor and met him at the finish line with a spear, which she gleefully plunged through his armpit. He fell writhing to the ground with realistic moans. The second suitor turned around and ran the other way when he saw she had reached the finish line, but she caught up and slew him, too. To my surprise, Melissa improvised a little jumping-up-and-down dance after each death.

Hippomenes was the third suitor to try. He had help from Aphrodite, who secured for him three golden apples. As soon as I gave the starting signal, he threw the first apple. Atalanta gave a cry of delight and stopped to pick it up while Hippomenes surged into the lead. She quickly outran him, but just as she began the second lap he threw the next apple, and once again she couldn’t resist pausing to grab it up.

The third time around, as Atalanta neared the finish line, Hippomenes got cocky and, in an unscripted move, threw the last apple from behind his back, over his shoulder. He put enough force into it to sail it over Atalanta’s head, but his aim was imperfect, and it flew into the crowd.

Melissa jumped over the yellow rope to hunt for the apple. The crowd tried to help her. Those who had been sitting on lawn chairs or blankets stood up to look for it. Some people said they’d seen it bounce over here; others had seen it roll over there. Soon everyone in that section was standing, shaking out blankets and jackets, hunting through the grass. “Well, it can’t have vanished,” Melissa said, darting impatiently from place to place. “Someone must have taken it. It couldn’t just vanish by itself.”

Mr. Kintner came out from behind the podium, hesitant, folding and unfolding his script. Hippomenes shouted, “Doesn’t matter! I won the race! Time to get married!” But Melissa did not step back into character; her whole posture had changed, and it was only then that we saw how well she had been playing Atalanta, how she had so perfectly captured the Amazonian grace and cheerful confidence of the fastest person alive. Now she was panting with exhaustion, a few strands of her hair stuck with sweat to her tall forehead.

“I know it doesn’t matter,” she shouted. “I just don’t see why anyone would steal it.” Her face rippled, as if holding back the pressure of tears. She turned and headed toward the stairs that went up to the elementary school. Roger made as if to follow, but Ms. Giovanni reached her first and, touching her shoulder gently, accompanied her up the steps.

It took us a while to wash off our makeup. The elementary school sinks were so low that we had to hunch over them, and Roger hay forgotten it was his job to buy cold cream. We were using a jar of mayonnaise that the janitor had found for us in the faculty lounge refrigerator. It worked all right, but we smelled like sandwiches.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Kintner had warned us that actors often felt sad when they washed off their makeup after the last performance, no matter how successfully it had gone. But we had never even finished. Roger moved with a contained agitation, grimly wiping the greasepaint from his face with paper towels, as if half expecting to be called back out to the stage to finish things. His tunic’s yellow sash had come untied and dragged along the floor behind him. I wanted to tie it back up, tie him back together so he could become his old affable self again. But when I picked up the sash to fix it, he snapped, “Just leave it.”

We ran out of mayonnaise, and our eyes remained rimmed with black, giving us a hollow, awake-at-three-A.M. look. “Well, everyone could probably guess the whole thing would end in marriage anyway,” I said, trying to cheer him up as we put on our coats. “This way,” I said, “the audience gets two endings – the one they knew was coming, and the unexpected one.” But Roger only shrugged as we walked out to the parking lot behind the school.

The field where the pageant had been held was now deserted, the stage empty. Our props had already been removed, and the sun had just set. Melissa approached Roger, whispered something in his ear, slipped the two remaining golden apples into his coat pockets, and ducked back into the school.

Mr. Kintner closed the trunk of his car and came over to us. “Does anyone need a ride home?” he asked. Roger only waved good-bye and walked away. I said I would stay at the festival a little while longer, even though things were closing down. Mr. Kintner looked tired and dried out – his suit jacket hung from his body even more loosely than usual. Then Ms. Giovanni’s truck pulled up alongside us, with the throne and the two arches in the back. Her husband leaned out the passenger’s side. “Wonderful. Really enjoyed the play,” he said, his white hair luminous in the twilight. Ms. Giovanni jumped out and ran to Mr. Kintner’s side. “Don’t look so sad, it’s theater, it’s about the unexpected,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek. She waited for him to smile, then jumped back into the truck and drove away.

“‘Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit,'” Mr. Kintner said, quoting the Aeneid. “Perhaps one day we will look back on this and laugh.”

I shook his hand and headed off. But as I reached the corner of the school, I heard Melissa calling to Mr. Kintner, and so I turned around. Dressed in blue jeans and a white shirt, carrying her tunic, she walked with a slouch. “I ruined your play,” she said. “I ruined it. I’m sorry.” In the parking lot’s orange floodlights, the two of them looked spectral, stage-lit. “I’m sorry, I should have kept on with the rest of the story.” She kept winding and unwinding her tunic around her arm. “I screwed up,” she said. “I don’t know why I got so mad.”

“No, no,” said Mr. Kintner. “Don’t worry about it. The real Atalanta should have been so lucky. Not long after she married Hippomenes they misbehaved in a temple together and were killed by the gods. The oracle had been right after all.”
For a while Melissa studied the pavement. “You didn’t put that in the play,” she said at last. Her tone implied disapproval that he had misrepresented the truth. She looked up at him. “You had it end with the marriage.”

“Good heavens,” he said, “why depress everybody?” And then he reached into the pocket of his suit coat and pulled out the missing golden apple.

She reached for it suddenly, and he jerked it away with a startled motion. But when she said, “Hey,” and reached again, he intentionally raised it high in the air, jogging sideways as she chased him.

“Where did you find it?” she said.

He gave a short chuckle in reply, and handed the apple to her.

Feeling like a spy, I turned away, hot-cheeked, and walked to the front of the school. A breeze carried the smell of cotton candy toward me. I thought that now Roger and Melissa’s relationship would end. Mr. Kintner must have rigorously combed through the grass after the performance, hunting for the third apple so that he could be the one to capture Melissa’s heart. Hadn’t his chuckle meant that?

Not until days later did I learn that a family in the audience had found the apple, which had bounced into their bag of doughnuts. They had returned it to Mr. Kintner as he and Ms. Giovanni were loading the set into her truck. Perhaps, then, he had teased Melissa only to lift her out of her earnest woe, perhaps he had only been playing some kind of theater game – the kind of game a teacher might play who realizes he’s swept up his students into his own darkness.

But on that Sunday evening, as I walked back toward the festival, I believed he had found a way of forgetting Ms. Giovanni. I imagined he would give Melissa a ride home, talking to her with animation. I imagined Latin class would become even more claustrophobic, with Roger glowering unhappily on one side of me and Melissa pretending not to notice on the other, while Mr. Kintner shredded pink eraser after pink eraser. He would take Melissa on a stroll through his family’s cider mill after school one day; he would show her, with a flourish, the rows and rows of mint apple jelly lined up for sale.

Eventually I found Roger by the Lions Club booth. Darkness had fallen, but most of the portable lights attached to the booths were still on. The Lions Club members were closing up, brushing fritter crumbs off the counter and pouring vats of used oil into metal canisters, taking great care not to spill any.

Roger paced back and forth. “Have you seen Melissa?” he asked, and I shook my head. “She said she was going to meet me here ten minutes ago,” he told me. The pockets of his brown corduroy coat bulged with his two apples. I asked him if I could see one, and he handed it to me. The gold sparkles had worn away in places from having rolled on the ground, and my thumb found a soft, half-dollar-sized bruise.

It was then that I did something unlike me, something cruel in a way. I took my pocketknife and began peeling the apple. Roger had been glancing around agitatedly, so he didn’t notice until I had a nine-inch strip of skin hanging from my knife. “Hey,” he said. But I kept going, without meeting his eyes, saying only, “What were you going to do, let a good apple rot?” Finally, I had one long spiral of gold.

According to one legend, if you skin an apple all in one piece at midnight on Halloween and throw the peel over your shoulder, the peel will take the shape of your future spouse’s initials. But Halloween wouldn’t come for another two weeks, so I threw the skin onto one of the overflowing trash barrels. Then I sank my teeth into the apple. It was a McIntosh, not one of my favorites – a little too sweet – but a fine one nonetheless. Roger watched me eat for a while, and then pulled the other apple out of his coat and put his hand out for my knife, which I gave him.

The crowd had thinned out, and here and there men were already collapsing booths. Small trucks and vans inched through the streets, coming to carry away whatever merchandise hadn’t sold, and over by the vacant lot I saw a flatbed truck pulling out with the Ferris wheel, folded like some gigantic dead beetle.

You could say what we were doing by eating the golden apples was symbolic, and then try to figure out what it symbolized. Certainly we weren’t eating them because we were hungry. After the festival everyone in town was appled out, and for a week Kintner Farms couldn’t give them away. If I’d meant anything by peeling the apple, though, once I started eating it I was only eating an apple. That subacid tang, the mildly rough texture against the tongue. Roger looked so solemn that I leaned close to him, as if to say something important, but instead I opened my mouth to show the chewed-up apple. The laugh took him suddenly, and he began to choke. I pounded his back as he bent over, my hand whumping his corduroy coat, which was so padded I had no effect, and that seemed to make him laugh even harder.

When he finally straightened up, he looked much happier. All the blood had rushed to his face. He didn’t know I’d lied about not having seen Melissa, and he didn’t know how much I wanted to kiss him then. I didn’t let myself know this either. We weren’t eating the apples of the Tree of Knowledge, we were eating a couple of McIntoshes, we were eating the apples of stupidity, we were eating ordinary apples. They tasted good. When we had finished, we threw the cores into some evergreen bushes. It was my last October in Baldwin. The men in the Lions Club booth turned off their lights, and one of them handed me a heavy white box of fritters.