10. “The Voyage of SueAnne Larkin”, (5)

 

PART III

CELTIC IDYLL

 

 

“What did I tell you, Mrs. Hutcheson? Here they are. Here we’ll leave them. So.” Father Dan’s icy disdain froze the room in a tipsy tableau. Drinkers caught, glasses halfway to their lips. Noreen in the act of laying change on the counter, held it in the sweaty palm of her hand. Mattie lost the melody. Jimmie Fada’s cadaverous face set into a death mask.

Declan was the first to recover. “We’re just on our way to you, Father. Can I stand you a brandy before we tackle the storm? It will do you good. Noreen, a pot of tea for Mrs. Hutcheson, and a Cognac for Father Dan.”

“We appreciate your thoughtfulness, Declan, but Mrs. Hutcheson has had nothing but tea for the last six hours. As for myself, something a little hardier is what I crave. Surprised as I am to find myself saying it, Mrs. Hutcheson’s biscuits are quite the equal of Bridie’s scones, but she can not conjure them out of thin air. We rather hoped SueAnne might bring a jug of milk or a pat of butter to keep the larder from feeling lonely, but it was, I see, too great a wish. We were foolish to suppose we might win out against the charms of the likes of you.”

“Now, Father, there is no call for crankiness. Jimmie Fada saved the Milucra from being dashed to smithereens. When Declan and I found him, he had fought the sea to exhaustion, bruised and bloodied, a hero is what he is. What kind of men would we be not to show him our thanks?” Feet planted wide apart, arms folded across his chest, Micheál’s defense spluttered out under Father Dan’s outraged glare.

SueAnne reached for the slicker, thinking better of it, tucked her hair behind her ears instead. “Hi, Mama.”

“Do you know what time it is, Susie? It is almost seven o’clock. I have been sick with worry that maybe you fell in a ditch. No one could see you, because anyone with an ounce of sense wouldn’t be out on a day like this. I told Father Dan, I was going to find you, he could come with me or not. And, where were you?”

The seriousness of the situation began filtering through to Jimmie Fada. He sidled across the floor intent on a diversionary move before the afternoon was lost altogether.

“You must be Mrs. Hutcheson. Declan was telling me what a fine sailor you are. It is always a pleasure to meet a woman who loves a boat. Not many do. Noreen, may we have some sandwiches for the American lady. And, a pot of tea, please.” He cupped his hand under Mama’s elbow, steering her to a table before the fire. “Is he as good as he says he is, Mrs. Hutcheson? How did our Donegal lad perform around Slyne head? Were you sloshing on the deck wailing your Hail Mary’s? Tell me the truth now.”

“Declan is the best sailor in Ireland. Porpoises followed us, jumping out of the water. It was the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Jimmie reached for a sandwich. “Have you ever seen such sandwiches, Mrs. Hutcheson? Noreen makes the best chicken salad in Ard. Try this one. Take a toasted ham and cheese. Father Dan says you haven’t had any lunch. Noreen, could we have some apple tart with cream? Mrs. Hutcheson has had no lunch. That’s a dreadful thing! I’ll have a pint. See what the lads want while you’re at it. Bring my friend here a Cognac to drink with her tart. She needs a bit of warming.” Jimmie crossed his legs, beaming benignly on Mama. “It’s a dirty day, Mrs. Hutcheson. You were a brave woman to leave your fire with the rain chattering at you. I admire you for that. You say Declan is the best sailor in Ireland. We’re in trouble for sure.”

Setting aside a vision of perfectly prepared lamb reclining in a pool of glistening mint sauce, Father Dan sank down opposite Mama. He reached for a chicken salad sandwich. “Though we have fallen among thieves, Mrs. Hutcheson, we must be content with what the Lord provides. Perhaps, a few more sandwiches, please, Noreen, and another Cognac. I believe Micheál is standing the house.”

Rooted in the middle of the floor, Micheál acknowledged first those at the sandwich-heavy table, then SueAnne. “Put down that glass, Mattie. You’re not the best with the fiddle, but you’ll do. See if you can make it through ‘Eileen Ni Riordain’.” His arm slipped to its accustomed place at SueAnne’s waist. “Forgotten, we are, and lucky at that. Let’s see if you can remember what I taught you.”

The reels came faster, eddies of thrusting sound lapping walls, bounding toward the ceiling, the dancers a blur caught in the vapors. When Mattie wearily dropped the fiddle to his knee, SueAnne and Micheál danced on, revolving ever more slowly, mechanical dolls running down, until they stalled under the puzzled gaze of Jimmie Fada.

“Hello. You still here? It’s Áine, isn’t it? I’ve been chatting with your lovely mother. She tells me you’re a handful. Looks like you’re more of an armful.” Jimmie tapped Mama on the wrist, roaring with laughter. “Wouldn’t you agree Mrs. Hutcheson that your daughter looks more like an armful than a handful?” Off he went, rocking, arms around his knees, head jerking in a paroxysm of mirth.

“Susie, we better go home. I think it’s probably tomorrow. What do you think, Father Dan? Is it tomorrow?” Mama, alternating brandy and tea for several hours, felt lightheaded, a sensation unusual for her, but not, she found, particularly alarming. She put her lips as close to Father Dan’s ear as she felt it polite to do. “I don’t know if I can stand up.” Tears came into her eyes. “What would Jack say?” She began to cry.

“Now, now, now, Mrs. Hutcheson. This won’t do. Hold on to my arm. The two of us will walk proudly, heads held high, out of this room filled with blackguards. They cannot best the likes of us. Here we go. Be brave. It is a short distance.” The priest assumed the haughty air ordinarily reserved for rare but deeply troubling disagreements with the bishop. “Micheál. You would be so kind as to bring the car around. Thank you. Declan, you and Jimmie Fada go with him. Make certain he brings the car directly to this door. No whizzing off to Marty Mac’s. Do not lose sight of your duty.”

Passengers a gaggle of bewilderment, a despotic stream of air lifted and flung the fragile craft back to earth in a fit of bad temper. From out the madness Father Dan’s disembodied voice hung, suspended, spectral. “Don’t ding my car, Micheál.”

Slammed at last into Mary Molly’s courtyard, Mama, helpless, allowed the priest to lead her into the cottage. Declan lit a cigarette. “Jesus, Jimmie. You could slaughter a calf with nothing but your elbow. I think I’ve a broken rib.” He stopped stupefied. “Micheál! For christsake, are you daft?” Lunging across the sedan’s hood, he grabbed Micheál wrapped inside Sue Anne’s slicker, spinning him around. “What’s gotten into you? Father Dan will have us on our knees for the rest of our lives.”

“Ye-haw!”

Micheál bounded down the hillside, Declan stumbling after, Jimmie Fada, sure-footed as a ram, striding amiably behind.

Presently, Mary Molly’s door opened.

“I realize, it is not yet dawn, and Americans are used to late hours, but, perhaps, SueAnne, you should consider coming to bed. I doubt you need keep watch on Mick’s cabin the remainder of the night. The little people, it seems, have cast a spell over our wild fiddler.”

As so often happens in Conamara, the storm tiring after a few hours, sank into the sea, leaving rock, heather and an assortment of creatures, wild and not, giddy in the dazzlement of a new day.

“Look, Mrs. Hutcheson, down at the cove.” An early morning departure of the Máire Rua from Mick’s pier gained the attention of the duo higher on the hill. Father Dan and Mama traced the Hooker riding high in the water, mainsail luffing. “On their way to deliver Jimmie Fada to his long suffering wife, and not a breath of air. Haven’t a thought between them. What is that children’s nursery rhyme, ‘rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub?’ If I had half a mind, I would swim out and catch them before they make the channel. I think your daughter’s charms have left Micheál befuddled.”

“If he has his eye on Susie, he may as well forget it. Susie’s already in love.”

“Where is he, Mrs. Hutcheson, this love of SueAnne’s? Perhaps, it is time for him to make an appearance.”

“Percy’s dead. That doesn’t mean Susie doesn’t still love him.”

Color bruised the priest’s cheeks. “I am sorry. Forgive me.”

“You didn’t have anything to do with it. Jack would say it was luck of the draw. Percy made Susie happy. Left things in a terrible mess, when he died. It wasn’t all his fault. Susie is as stubborn as a mule. It is like that day we got back from Butte. Susie lay on the sofa, smiling, looking as pretty as ever she did. Said, we’re going to Ireland. That was that. Nothing could make her change her mind. Susie does what she has to do, or at any rate, thinks she has to do. Doesn’t mean she’s in love with Micheál Ó Flaharta. It means she has this plan. We won’t be going home until it’s finished.”

“What is the plan, Mrs. Hutcheson?” Father Dan steadied his mug of tea on the wall.

“Well, I wish I knew.”

The priest’s interest in the receding Máire Rua, blood-red sail fluttering listlessly, dissipated as he reconciled himself to failure. So close to tying the ribbon on the courier package. With a shrug, he concluded it didn’t matter a whit one way or the other; let Micheál worry about it. The day was too good to waste lamenting defeat.

“Let’s go for a sail ourselves, Mrs. Hutcheson. May I call you Clara? Thank you. Very kind. I might suggest the Arans. Hear the sounds of the pure Irish. Look across the pristine expanse of Galway Bay to unforgettable County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher rising out the billowing froth. Celtic magic, Clara. Find your daughter. I’ll pack a blanket or two. Off we go.”

Near Mannion’s pub, opposite the overgrown churchyard, a small boy sat on the stoop of An Post rubbing his toes. A pair of sneakers and one sock lay a few feet away. Catching sight of Father Dan rounding the bend, Little Jimmie let out a yowl, hopping toward the road, one hand clutching his bruised foot.

“What is the meaning of this, Jimmie? Why are you in this carpark instead of doing your sums at school? Does your Mother know you’re here?”

“I’m bleeding, Father Dan.” The boy twisted his leg, exposing a mud-caked sole. A trickle of blood oozed from the grimy pad. “Somebody left a briar in the road. I stepped on it. I can’t walk. It hurts. You’ll take me home.” He reached for the back handle. “Who is she?”

“This is Miss Larkin, Jimmie. If you want a lift, it will be best to quit asking questions, and get in the car. We haven’t all day.”

“My shoes!” Heroically brushing his agony aside, Little Jimmie darted across the lot. Shoes in hand, he scrambled onto the back seat launching into a litany of wrongs for SueAnne’s benefit. “I lost one of my socks. It isn’t my fault. Mother sent me to find Father. I almost drowned in the creek. Mrs. Geraghty pulled me out. Father is coming round on the Máire Rua. If you come in for tea, Father Dan, Mother will forget to be mad at me. She likes you better than anyone. Except Micheál. Everyone likes Micheál best.”

“Imagine, Clara, Micheál serves as a role model for the boys of Ard. They want to grow up with black curls, and without a lick of sense. We Irish have come to a pretty pass.”

“There’s Mother. M-uu-ther! Father Dan brought me home. I hurt my toe. It’s bleeding. I found Father. He’s with Micheál.”

“Go wash yourself, Jimmie. You’re a terrible sight. You’re very welcome, Father Dan. I heard you were back. It has taken you a long time to get here.”

“You may thank Little Jimmie for showing us the way. Even in Ard I find myself slow in arriving. I promised to show these two American ladies the Cliffs of Moher. Take the pony cart to Dun Aengus. Beg for tea at the Bailey’s. A perfect day for the islands, wouldn’t you agree?”

“A cup of tea to speed you on your way, Father. The kettle is boiling.” Emir swished hot water in the metal teapot looking expectantly at the women.

“This is Clara Hutcheson, Emir, and her lovely daughter, SueAnne. They’re visiting from the States. We met at Nora’s. Happy circumstance has us lodging at Mary Molly’s, one jolly crowd. The world has become very small.”

“Not so small I see the likes of you everyday. Too many leave. Not enough come back.”

“Join us on our brief holiday. We’ll not spend the night. The wee ones can tend themselves for a day.”

“Father, I cannot. Look at Little Jimmie. Out of my sight for an hour, comes home covered with blood. No, it won’t do. Another day, when their Da is around. Have you laid eyes on that man? The ladeen said he found him, but where is he? He was off yesterday with Micheál and Declan for a pint at Mannion’s, a tribute, Micheál said, to the man who saved the Milucra. Heaven help me, I haven’t seen him since.”

“The last I saw him, he was off to America in the Máire Rua with not a breath of air in her sails. I judge Jimmie Fada will be rocking by the fire this evening.”

“Micheál and his Hooker. She is like a wife to him.” Emir smiled at SueAnne. “Get Micheál to take you for a spin. You’ll see what the women of Ard are up against.”

“I’d love to sail on a Hooker. Would you come with us? I’d fix a lunch. We could go to Inishbofin.”

“I’m not often on the sea, SueAnne, but Jimmie Fada would be up for it. I’ll tell him you want to go. He’ll bring Micheál around.”

“No, no more tea. Thank you, Emir. We must be off.” Father Dan patted her affectionately on the shoulder. “We’ll have a proper meal at the Ostan before I return to the Pale. Leave Mannion’s sandwiches to the less fortunate.”

Slán, Father. The best of luck to you.” She had great time for Father Dan, as good a man as you’d hope to find, and the finest priest. It was a mighty day when the Church got that one. She walked the hill behind the house, stooping to brush her fingers across tufts of waxy primrose. Atop the rise, the trapezoidal sail of the Máire Rua heading for Ard pier blotted out a portion of shoreline. Good-humoredly, she watched the Hooker’s sluggish approach, noted the nudging of the pier, Declan snugging the line, Jimmie Fada dropping the sail.

“How was the journey? Did you see the Statue of Liberty? Was she lovely?”

“Don’t be hard on a man who spent the last day of his life trying to get back to his family.”

“Never mind your lies. Father Dan told me your story. Are you checking the pots, or is it another day off? The sun shining. The lobsters clawing at the nets. No one to take care of them.”

“Father Dan was here?” Jimmie inspected Emir with a searching eye. “We’re not going to need him, are we?”

“Father Dan and the American ladies are off for tea at the Bailey’s. I’d be careful, Micheál. It wouldn’t need much encouragement for Tim Bailey to take the young one off your hands.” A wicked gleam lighted Emir’s face.

“The Aran boys are fine with girleens, Emir, rolling on the bracken, leaping over the walls buttoning their trousers when the mother calls. They’ll not know what to do with the likes of a brazen American. As for Tim Bailey, he’ll be red as the Rose of Tralee, wheezing and stuttering, shaking Father Dan’s hand, making up to Mamo. Jimmie, where are you off to?”

“Emir says Little Jimmie and I must check the pots. I’m not allowed a day of rest.”

“Hold on. We’ll go with you. Come on, Declan. We’ve bothered this woman long enough.”

The Finn, Jimmie Fada at the helm, Little Jimmie hanging over the side, chugged toward Mason Island, a lather of wake spreading behind. Micheál rubbed his nose, monitoring her progress.

“What time is it, Declan?”

“You can see for yourself it’s about noon.”

“What’s the tide?”

“It might be going out.”

“Wind coming up. Five hours to Kilronan. A pint at Daly’s. Let’s go.”

“Jesus, Micheál, I’m to be back to Ballymastocker. We’re not all rich like you. Some have to work.”

“It’s too late to sail today. Leave it for the morning. We’ll be back before Mannion’s closes. You’ll be in Belmullet by nightfall. Home for mass Sunday. When was the last time you were on the islands? I’ll tell you when. When Malachy died. Eight years ago.”

Declan leaned on a post considering the horizon. He flicked the end of his cigarette into the water. “Hell, Micheál. I wouldn’t say no.”

The five o’clock ferry, picking up speed as it left the Aran harbor on course for Galway town, sent the Máire Rua yawing in a sharp succession of swells. Passengers crowded the railings, shouting as the waves swamped the Hooker’s weatherboard. Micheál skimmed the trough, boom jerking, crashing down, sails taut. The Hooker listed, tumblehome submerged, stays creaking with the mast jammed starboard. Cries from the ferry reached a crescendo. A skinny man in a striped jersey grabbed a life preserver off the cabin wall preparing to throw it to the hapless craft.

Declan stretched on the bow, legs crossed, back resting against the clanking mast, grunted at the activity on the ferry deck. “You’re good, Micheál. They’ll be talking this up for days, boat in danger on Galway Bay, battling captain, worthless crew.”

“Their lives are dull, Declan. Let ‘em have a bit of fun.”

Mooring the Máire Rua at the far end of Kilronan pier they made the rise to Daly’s.

“I thought that was the Máire Rua. Quite a show you put on for Terry’s passengers. He’ll be obliged to you.” Peadar topped off two pints. “It’s been too long since we’ve seen you in Kilronan, Declan McDaid. I was thinking while you were tying up. Malachy’s funeral, wasn’t it? Christ, that was a time. You couldn’t shut Máirtín up. Singing that blasted song. He ought to leave ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to the Aussies. Are you back for long?”

“Work tomorrow. Would be making a few quid today, if it wasn’t for this man. He’s not happy unless he’s dragging you down to his level.”

“You know who was ahead of you, Micheál? Father Dan. Squiring a couple of nuns from Boston. It’s a shame about the young one. I could find some use for her.”

“How’s Bríd? She lonely these days?”

“I waited too long for that one. She’s found herself a man. A rich farmer in south Kerry took a fancy to her. She’s peering from behind a fancy lace curtain down in Waterville, yelling commands to some poor skivvy, like she’s not been one herself.”

“I wouldn’t begrudge her a place to settle. Bríd worked hard cleaning after the toffs. Who is he?”

“Wouldn’t know. A pledge man. I ask you, how would you make it through the day without a pint, Micheál? Wouldn’t like to try myself. Bríd was never much for the stuff. She’ll make out all right.”

“How are the Bailey’s getting on? Tim was nosing around Ard after a motor to put in that broken down trawler of his. Ever find one?”

“Yes, indeed he did. He’s made the Claddagh boys get up earlier. Tim’s not much for the craic, but he lands on his feet every time.”

“He’ll make some lass a fine husband. Fill up the whole island with stutterers. There’ll be great talk in Dublin, the government sending boat loads of Trinity caps to find out what’s up with the peasants.”

“The Father is stopping with Meg for tea. He took the American sisters to Dun Aengus. Wanted to show them the wonders of those damn cliffs. You’d think that man was born on the other side of the Atlantic the way he goes on.”

“We’re heading to the Bailey’s ourselves. Meg’s been after me to come for the Capall’s calico sail, raise it on the Máire Rua. It’s been in the attic since Johnny, may he rest in peace, died. She was a fast boat, the Capall. Beat the Saint twice in Kinvara.”

“She was a grand boat, the Capall. Were you in Howth that year, Declan? The only thing the Dubs saw was her stern. She was a mighty boat. In the old days, if the wind was right, Johnny Bailey skippered her three turf runs from Rossaveal into Kilronan between sun up and sun down. Women emptied their creels in the hold. He’d be off again. Mighty men they were in those days. Put the likes of us to shame.”

“Mighty men! We’ll not see their likes again. Declan, do we make a go at the hill?’

“I’d like to get a look at that calico. Can’t remember seeing one since I was a wee lad.” He drained his glass.

“Don’t be such a stranger, Declan. The island can use a spare bachelor.” Peadar wiped the counter. “Bring the Dunn na Gall up for the regatta. Last weekend in August. Good craic.”

“Peadar’s all right.” Declan matched his stride to Micheál’s. “Not many publicans you can say that about. He’s a decent man. A gentleman.”

“He’s better than some.”

A rutted road girdled with airy rock walls wandered upwards, cabins pinwheeled off, granite slabs slid into the sea. Nearing the Bailey’s, they saw in the distance a man and woman materialize out of a “T” in the track beyond. Clad in Aran trousers and dark sweater the man carried a sack over his shoulder. Head tilted toward the woman, he spoke with great animation. She pushed unconsciously at strands of hair escaping the coil at the back of her head, neck arched.

“Isn’t the stutterer doing well for himself, Micheál?”

“He’s happy now, that one.” Micheál slowed his pace and began to whistle. “The Prodigal Son” purled across the stillness loud as a spring tide over Meg’s cobblestone courtyard.

An old woman, thin hair plastered to her skull, shrieked from the doorway. “Micheál Ó Flaharta! I will know that whistle in my grave. You’re being after the calico. It is hung on the rope in the attic in the place Johnny strung it the winter before he died. You’ve been long coming for it.” She struggled out of his embrace. “You’ll make a shameful woman of me. Company I’ve got. Father Dan brought two American ladies to me. Do you know them?”

“Hello, Meg.”

“Declan. Declan McDaid. You are very welcome.” Meg took Declan’s hand, eyes filling with tears. “How is your mother? I have great time for that woman. She came to me after the wreck. She is like a sister to me.”

“She still does a jig when the Wren boys come, Meg.”

“Ah,” Meg nodded.

Father Dan observed the welcome with bleak dignity. “You are no where to be found when we have need of you, Micheál, still we number ourselves among the fortunate when you honor us with your presence, no matter how unexpected.”

“Peadar told Declan you were carting the two American nuns to Dun Aengus. Isn’t it lucky we found you at all?”

Mama, as crestfallen as Father Dan, felt called upon to respond. “We came on the Rossaveal ferry to see the Cliffs of Moher. Father Dan says they are one of the wonders of the world.”

“Me and Declan sailed on a real boat, Mamo. You should have hopped aboard the Máire Rua instead of riding that metal box like some stranger.”

“You never invited us, Micheál. If you wanted us to come, all you had to do was ask. I guess you’ll want to invite yourself for supper. I don’t suppose there will be enough for you and Declan.”

“No, Mrs. Hutcheson. I wouldn’t turn Micheál Ó Flaharta away, if there was only a crust of bread to chase away the hunger. The Ó Flahartas and the Baileys, and the McDaids, too, have seen bad times. During the worst of it, our doors never closed to our neighbors.”

“If it isn’t himself.” Tim Bailey not as much of a dullard as presented extended a workingman’s hand to Micheál. “Declan McDaid, you’re a long way from Ballymastocker. Is the Milucra fishing our waters?” Tim swung the burlap bag off his shoulder. “Lobsters. This wooo-man rowed with me to check the pots.”

“Tim built the curragh himself. He bought the timber in Cong. Hired a lorry to take it to Galway, loaded it on the ferry. Put it on a cart, and his donkey pulled it to a cove just over the hill from here. He built it right on shore.”

“Where else would he build it, Áine? All the shipyards are in Liverpool. What have you been doing, Tim, puffing yourself up?” Micheál clicked his tongue against his upper teeth. “Are we going to cook these lobsters, or just stand around and talk?”

Heaping odd pieces of lumber and a handful of turf on the cobblestones, Declan lit a match. A flame sought out the scruffs of concealed turf, gasped for air, coughed, and fingered its way between the boards, shooting up with an exuberant crackle. Tim larded the blazing timber with uncracked claws.

“This is the finest lobster you will ever taste, Clara, thrown on an open fire, sweet and succulent. It is a Conamara delicacy equal to any item on display at Fauchon. The brine of the sea mingling with arid turf, its very essence, cannot be purchased. It may only be savored as a gift among friends.” Father Dan sipped poteen Meg poured from an old whiskey bottle. In his happiness, he flung away ire at the arrival of the unexpected guests. When all was said and done, didn’t Micheál and Declan, vessels of all he held dear, reside in his heart at the very feet of the Holy Virgin herself? Moments like these in the bosom of family, once as common as the rain, were vanishing before his eyes. The old ways were going fast. I pray I am gone first.

“You’ll be spending the night with us, Father? Tim can go to Pat. I’ll put down a bed for Mrs. Hutcheson and SueAnne in the attic. They’ll have their privacy. The lads can stay on the Máire Rua. It won’t be the first time that Hooker provided a bed for those two. We’ll have tea, and a chat first.” Meg petted Father Dan’s arm as he solemnly shook his head no. “Ah, you will, Father. You’d be running down the hill to catch the 10 o’clock, out of breath and the boat gone. Think of poor Mrs. Hutcheson, her cane not used to our stones, hurrying behind you. Stop here. Let me put the water on.”

Hunkering around dying embers a decent distance from the others, Tim and Declan and Micheál entertained themselves with lies of time past, snatches of “by Jesus” and “I tell you the truth”filtering across the rude courtyard. After a seemly interval, Micheál detached himself to stand in front of SueAnne.

“The Hernons are playing at Daly’s. I’ll introduce you.”

“What about the others?”

“They’re happy here, Áine. We’ll leave them. So.”

 

“I brought you the dancing nun. I stole her away from Father Dan. Those are the Hernons. They’re the best fiddle players in Conamara. Peadar, I’ll have a pint. She doesn’t drink. Give her a white lemonade.”

“I’ll have a Paddy and soda, Micheál.”

“You drink too much. I can’t have you going around drunk all the time. You’ll ruin my reputation. Put that away, and I’ll give you a whirl around the floor.”

Men and women, three deep at the bar, jostled one another, laughing, calling out to friends in Irish, relieved for the evening of the burden of coddling strangers with English. Micheál, holding drinks high, shouldered his way down the long room, SueAnne buffeted in his wake. In a far corner, huddled around the Hernons, a detached circle drank quietly. A heavyset woman with small bright eyes sunk into roly-poly cheeks made room for SueAnne on a banquette, smiling knowingly at Micheál who leaned against the wall behind them. Men, muscular in tight sweaters, sleeves pushed to the elbows, turned their backs on the seated group speaking with Micheál in conspiratorial tones.

The Hernon brothers tossed off Guinness between tunes, grabbed a puff on a cigarette, lifting a finger and giving a nod to a voice from the bar. A young woman sculptural in black jeans jived in intricate ellipses, pushed and pulled by a becalmed partner. Micheál tugged SueAnne to her feet as the first dizzying notes of “The Prodigal Son” furrowed through the clouds of cigarette smoke. Eyes fixed on the floor, audibly counting beats, the woman in black twirled, her lethargic partner focusing on SueAnne’s hips as Micheál led her through a dizzying quarter-step. The dancing woman shrugged off “James Bryan’s Waltz” reaching through the crowd for a pint. Micheál spun SueAnne in a half-whirl pointing her to the entrance.

“She’s not allowed out past twelve. Father Dan keeps watch. Slán.”

The Hernon fiddle danced after them, sliding through the crack under the door, leaping arpeggios growing faint and more distant.

“Where are we going?”

“Check the Máire Rua. Trawlers don’t give a damn who they bang.”

They loitered along, SueAnne’s hands thrust into her pockets, Micheál, arms swinging loosely at his side, a rough rustle overriding their footsteps as wavering water licked the pier. Riding a high tide, the Hooker bobbed a length away from the nearest fishing boat.

“We’ll go for a spin.” Micheál slipped the knot, and threw the line on the bow.

Sitting on the timber spanning the stern, a burlesque of Emir’s half-mocking tone offering Jimmie Fada’s help in cadging a sail played in SueAnne’s head. I guess it’s one for the American lady, Emir. Thanks, anyway.

Tanbark sail raised, Micheál kicked the boat around a corner stone smooth under a century of stormy assault. Wind filled the canvas. Holding the tiller, Micheál cleared the jagged rocks lying east of the lighthouse, jibing to the west.

“We’ll catch the sunrise on Deer Island.”

“Deer Island?”

“Abandoned a good while. Not a cabin standing. Hard to get into. Bay studded with rock. You have to know what you’re doing, or you’ll end up with a split seam. That’s a lot to ask nowadays. You throw anchor a couple of yards out. Walk in. Sand fine as breath. No need for a mattress with ferns for a cushion.” Micheál sat on the span next to SueAnne, the tiller their chaperone. “This is the first time I’ve got you alone, Áine. It’s time I found out who you are.”

SueAnne touched the hand on the tiller. “Aren’t we going back? What about Mama and Father Dan? And, Declan? They’ll be in a rage.”

“Do you care?”

SueAnne weighed the question. “No.”

As the black boat melted into inky swells, mute, cloud smothering moon and star, the man and the woman slipped, unnoted, through the void.

They woke to a transparent morning, light bathing a blue pool. Beads of sand patterned the beach tentatively caressing clusters of yellow and white daisies. Unwinding bodies, SueAnne and Micheál shook themselves free, unself-conscious as puppies. He ran his fingers through his hair.

“We’re in trouble now.”

“I don’t feel like I’m in trouble.”

“Maybe, we’re in love.”

“Mmmmm!”

“We’re too old for that. We’d make fools of ourselves.”

“Too late, Micheál. Might as well enjoy it.” She threw out her arms in an exuberant gesture. “Let’s go swimming.”

An awkward power betraying a Celt’s primeval mistrust of the untamed elements shot Micheál to the bay’s rocky point. SueAnne came after with a lazy crawl, raising a dripping hand to be pulled onto the warming granite.

“Before the priests got the lot of us, a buachaill, not a stitch on, raced ponies, swimming and neighing, from Ard to Barna, a cailin running mad on the shore after him. The dog collars put an end to that.”

“Didn’t last, did it? The end? Here we are centuries later. Nothing the church can do about it.”

Micheál laughed. “Maybe, Father Dan could do something about it. If he couldn’t, I bet Mamo could.”

“We’ll stay here. Live off the sea. Slip into Galway town for supplies.”

“And, a pint. We’ll need a jar after a week of wrestling on the sand.” His arm reached for her.

They swam back, sleek as seals, nudging one another, throwing themselves out of the water, high in a hail of droplets. Dried and dressed, they lingered over cups of stewed tea, chewing stale biscuits from Máire Rua’s locker.

“Are you a happy woman?”

“I am, Micheál. I am a happy woman.”

“Tomorrow?”

“I never pictured you as a man worried about tomorrow.”

“You’re changing me already. Let’s go. We’ll be having a pint at Mannion’s by the time the Black and Tans arrive.”

“The Black and Tans?”

“The enforcers. That priestly crew. Declan will be the worst.” Glumly, he poled through the shallows.

“Will you stay? You won’t. You will. I’ll have to find you a house. The mother is set in her ways. She and Mamo might get along, but Mary Molly cooking and cleaning day and night would be wearing herself out. That finished, she’d plan a wedding. Where would we be then? I suppose you want one of the tax collector’s houses. A cottage isn’t grand enough for you. Will you buy a place? How much money do you have?”

“Can’t I stay in Mick’s cabin?”

“You must be joking? You Americans have no sense.”

“We’re not children, Micheál. Have you never lived with someone?”

“In this country, if you live with someone, you are married. End of story. We don’t go changing beds every time we – umm,” Micheál struggled for a phrase, “see a new bit of cloth.”

“You didn’t ever live with anyone? I don’t believe that.”

“I had a sweet thing once. Timid. Beautiful. It was a long time ago. I don’t mean I spend every night alone. I make a foray now and then. I’m not one to stay. Mick’s cabin is all the home I need. What about you, you and Mamo running around Ireland? Not a man in sight? Is it for the lads, you came over?”

“Is that what you think? I dragged Mama over to Ireland so I’d have a new sandbox? There are plenty of studs in the States, Micheál, and they’re not afraid of their mothers or the priests.”

“That’s not what I meant. I was talking about the lads up North. Yanks like to think they’re doing their own for the cause, throw a few coins around, sing a rebel song, then it’s back to walks in the park. Makes them feel grand.”

“For god’s sake, that is absurd. Do we look like the kind of women who sew hundred dollar bills in the lining of our coats to hand over for the struggle?”

”It’s the kind of look the lads like.”

Despair crept around the edges of their anger, poking and prodding. SueAnne picked her way through the rocky ballast, defiantly putting one foot arrogantly, if precariously, atop the tumblehome. Berating herself for not keeping a sketchbook in her pocket, she swore not to be caught off balance a second time. Ahead, a fishing trawler paralleled the coastline heading for the Barna co-op. Furious, she drew a mental picture, staccato, breaking lines, harsh intervals.

Micheál whistled a low dirge, tired of it, segued into a jig. Inspiration hit. The low growl flecked with humor rang out.

“I was at the fair of Dingle on one bright and sunny morn, when a tinker man walked up to me, and hit me in my left eyeee!”

SueAnne turned. “How am I to get to you, Micheál?”

 

Father Dan woke to the singular sound of an Aran morning. Meg Bailey’s steps on the concrete floor, light to the door, heavy in return under the weight of a full turf basket, flat thuds as the poker stirred last night’s embers into flame. Still warm in his blood, the evening’s poteen urged the priest back to sleep. He turned on his side. A stiletto of pain cascaded along his rib cage. Bursitis, a gift bestowed by perennially damp bedding no turf fire could completely dry. I’m getting as soft as the English; time to get back to my roots. He lay back, listening to Meg’s high-pitched cackle.

“Sure you’re grand, Mrs. Hutcheson. There you go, one hand after the other. A short distance. Oh, lordy, don’t start fretting. Ask that pretty daughter of yours to give you a hand. She’ll make short work of it.”

“I’m down now, Mrs. Bailey, thank you.” Mama’s brisk tone drowned Meg’s chatter. “I’d have been fine, if I hadn’t peered over the side before I started climbing down that ladder. Is Father Dan up?”

Father Dan listened to Mama’s decisiveness with waxing unease. A tension underlying the terseness of her reply to Meg, a kind of strangled courtesy alerted him to some lurking danger. What possibly could have put her off, he wondered? I handed her up the ladder myself just hours ago. She was as giggly as a young girl. The poteen. Not used to it. The priest recalled her talk of bootleggers and moonshine. A good many years ago, that was. If Clara followed the faith, he would have seen her as a young girl sneaking into the confessional, worrying, but not too much.

“Good morning, Meg. Good morning, Clara. A happy sight for the eyes of a poor cleric. Two grand women preparing morning tea.”

“Ah, Father, you do go on,” Meg, blushing, hung the kettle on a crane above the turf. “I have a cake baked yesterday for your tea, and butter and a pot of jam Tim found at Naughton’s last he was in Galway town.” Meg joggled two cabin chairs close to the fire. “Here, Mrs. Hutcheson.” She patted the back of a heavy-bottomed seat, sending it skipping across the concrete. “Sit yourself here.”

“While the kettle comes to a boil, Meg, I’ll step outside a moment. Sniff your Aran air. Will you join me, Clara? I believe the sun is about to pounce.”

Mama rocketed through the cabin door, straight across the courtyard, brought up short by a pile of stone. “Where is Susie?”

The priest folded his hands, ferreting out his most benign expression. He coughed. Ahm m m. “Is she not in the attic, Clara? No. Off for a stroll while the island is still? I thought I heard,” glancing skyward, “a flutter of noise before I was fully awake. SueAnne climbing the ladder, perhaps?”

“Don’t try to put me off, Father Dan. Susie left with that no good Irishman. A lot of help you are. Saints and sinners, Jack always said, you can’t tell them apart.”

“That is a harsh judgment on poor Tim Bailey, Clara. He’s a good boy. His dear mother, Meg, bless her soul, brought him to me for his baptism.”

Mama cut him off. “You know I’m not talking about that slow-talking dimwit. I’m talking about Micheál Ó Flaharta.”

“Now, Clara, we must not be hasty. Let us look calmly at the situation. Are you quite certain SueAnne spent the night elsewhere.”

“Susie is not here. She wasn’t here when I went to bed. She wasn’t here when I woke up. I guess I would know if someone climbed into and out of bed with me in the middle of the night. I swear, you are beginning to sound like a politician, trying to make me think something is true when we both know it isn’t.”

“No, no, I quite believe you, but I wasn’t in the loft.” Chagrined, he hesitated before continuing. “I wanted to be certain I had the facts correct. We must not rush to judgment. We believe SueAnne did not sleep here, but we have no idea where she did sleep.”

“We know she snuck out with that wiry-haired scoundrel, when the two of them thought no one was looking.”

“Clara, please remember Meg Bailey sent Micheál and Declan to sleep on the Máire Rua. It is not likely SueAnne joined the lads on the boat. There are only two bunks. No, there would be no place for her on the Hooker. Much too crowded. The young people went to Daly’s to hear the Hernons. The Hernons won the All Ireland, Clara, they are not to be missed. It is entirely possible, the night got away from them, and Meg’s niece, Pegeen, took SueAnne home with her to sleep, not wanting a pretty stranger to climb the hill in the middle of the night. Yes. Yes. Pegeen is taking care of SueAnne. We’ll have a cup of tea. If SueAnne is not at the door when we are finished, I’ll take you down to her.”

“It is no use trying to distract me, Father, with talk of Pegeen. Susie has run off with Micheál Ó Flaharta. How are we going to get her back? That’s what I want to know.”

“We must be sensible. We don’t want to alarm Meg. Our hostess will have the entire island in an uproar, swarming over rocky outcrops, searching tidal pools, eyeing turf piles, examining lumpy feather beds. That won’t do. Clara,” he declared firmly, drawing her hand under his arm, “we will have tea. Then, we will find SueAnne.”

Mama, sensing a double catastrophe, yielded to Father Dan’s pressure as he propelled her back to the seat next the fire.

“Ah, ‘tis a brilliant morning, Father.” Meg beamed. “The wind wants a sail to blow. Will you go with the Máire Rua? Micheál will be coming to me for the old calico soon enough. Here’s your tea ready now, Mrs. Hutcheson. Sit there at the table so you’ll be nearer the butter and jam. Let me cut that cake, Father. You’re as stingy with those slices as a Protestant. You won’t find the likes of my cake anywhere but here, Mrs. Hutcheson. I dig into the old sack of brown meal and stir it up with a scoupeen of the water that bubbles out of the ground to the side of the cabin, clear as Micheál Ó Flaharta’s whistle. The women in this family baked in this skillet since the beginning of time. You have no cause to worry about a cake if you use this skillet. Ain’t it nice and chewy? Puts a skein between you and the hunger.”

“If I didn’t have the collar, Meg, I’d run after you like a lovesick swain just for a life with your cake. We won’t wait for Micheál to collect the calico. Mrs. Hutcheson expresses an interest in seeing the film. We must put this hill behind us, if we are to carve out two hours before we leave paradise.”

“Sure, everyone wants to see that film. It seems to me, if you want to see a man of Aran, all you have to do is look around you. No need to waste time sitting in a dirty room when the sun is shining. The Scanlons will relieve you of £2 before they let you in, afraid you might break a chair with the weight of your coins. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Father Dan, it is pure wickedness.”

Mama sloughed off the urgency of finding SueAnne to stare at Meg. “What are you talking about?”

“It is the movie you wanted to see, Clara, ‘The Man of Aran.’ They have a showing every two hours.” The priest looked at his watch. “We’ll have a pleasant walk to the village, and be there in good time for the ten o’clock screening.”

“I forgot all about that old movie, Mrs. Bailey, I was having such a nice time drinking tea with you. If you see Micheál Ó Flaharta, tell him we are looking for him. Isn’t that right, Father?”

Mama’s complaint shrank to insignificance when Delcan’s roar reached them on the outskirts of the village. “That bastard – pardon me, Father, but what else can I call him – that bastard left me. Took the Máire Rua,” he shifted uneasily, his gaze on Mama, “and here am I. He is grown worse in his old age. There was a time when one or two of his friends could trust him. There is no hope now. He is ruined altogether.”

“I told you. Micheál and Susie have run off.”

“They haven’t run off, Mrs. Hutcheson. They have sailed off. Left me stranded. Micheál never had much sense. He lost what he did have when he met your daughter. SueAnne. I let her on the Milucra. A fool I was listening to you and your fantasies, Father Dan. Lord help me if ever again I am mad enough to leave Donegal where a man can place faith in his friends and not be disappointed.”

“Don’t you say anything bad about my daughter. It wasn’t Susie who led that ruffian astray. He practically kidnapped us when all we were doing was having a cup of tea at The Yellow House. Came over and pretended he could solve our problems. Preying on unsuspecting women. He ought to be put in jail.”

A tall, sharp man wearing a black tam left his doorway to lean against a boulder. “You’re very welcome, Father Dan. It has been many a year since I’ve seen you on this road. Here is Declan McDaid. You’re very welcome, Declan. Will you be staying long with us? The Máire Rua put to sea without you. Is that,” he inclined his head toward Mama, “the American nun Micheál Ó Flaharta bought a white lemonade in Daly’s last night?”

“You’re a great man for keeping up on your neighbors, Tomás.” Declan lit a cigarette. “We need the likes of you to keep us straight up North. The Brits could forget their guard stations, just sit down for a cup of tea and a chat with yourself, and know every pint taken in Ulster.”

“Don’t be harsh, Declan. We see few strangers. You won’t deny us our little pleasure in admiring the odd one now and then.”

Reversing his direction, Declan headed for the pier leaving a trail of invective for the laggards to follow. “It is bad enough to have tongues wagging all over Aran without Tomás seeing to it our names are bouncing off the walls at Stormont. We’ll be lucky not to end up on the blanket ourselves. It’ll be good enough for Micheál Ó Flaharta if the Brits do lift him.”

At the ferry’s arrival the captain of the Milucra jumped queue assuming a proprietary stance at the prow, daring all comers. Father Dan, assuring himself they had no English, stowed Mama next to a family of Italians. Patting her hand, he whispered something about a breath of air and sprinted to the door. Avoiding Declan, he set up rear guard at the stern, surveying the receding island with distaste. Astonished at Micheál’s rashness, he needed to gather his thoughts. A fine piece of work. We suffer from a confusion of loves. The great Parnell had victory in his grasp, a United Ireland, Home Rule. Made a hash of it. “Parnell loved his country, and Parnell loved a lass.” Yeats was right, of course, but a married woman. Unbelievable. We lost the six counties. Almost a century later we are still a divided Republic. A baneful look warped his aquiline features. Surely, you are not comparing your darling waster to the mighty Parnell. Nora is right. I get blown off course too easily. If SueAnne is a courier, a dalliance with Micheál may set bells ringing in Stormont, but our English cousins will have a hard job of it in Conamara. We need not set ourselves worrying over the Royal Irish Constabulary. It is Clara, on what I believe the Americans call the warpath, who begs for attention.

Declan jumped the rail, cigarette dangling, as the ferry struck Rossaveal’s jetty leaving Father Dan to advance alone on the inner cabin with valiant step and martyr’s heart. Time, Ahm m m, to retrieve Mama, and begin his penance.

 

The Voyage of SueAnne Larkin, Part III, Celtic Idyll, continued on Pages, Sunday, April 8, 2012

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