9. “The Voyage of SueAnne Larkin”, (4)

 

PART III

CELTIC IDYLL

 

If nature composed opera, the days following SueAnne’s drink at Hegarty’s would have rung with ensemble singing. Pleadings by SueAnne. Recalcitrance on the part of Mama. Declan’s bitter rant against fate counterpoint to the innkeeper’s muted dismay, Micheál’s strong baritone overriding them all. Even the scenery sparked theatrical comparisons. The day the Milucra readied for sail to Ard was a scene straight off a Verdian stage set, glittering Ballymastocker Bay, bedeviled Anthony Cuffe chucking bags to the tense trawler captain, air thick with foreboding.

“It’s a fine day, Declan, thanks be to God. The report is for good weather, is it not? Have you a tarp should the wind come up?”

“A good day, Anthony. By sundown, we’ll be anchored at Belmullet pier. The only thing slowing us down would be that bundle SueAnne stowed in the cabin while I was off enjoying myself last night. Maybe, she means to skipper this boat herself, she left little enough space for me.”

Anthony’s mournfulness elicited a tentative sympathy from the captain but was doused before it gained purchase by a seaman’s scorn. In summer, the innkeeper dressed in Bristol whites, hallooing every boat within earshot, sailed his pygmy sloop up and down the loch, deck crammed with people from Portsmouth over on holidays. Rarely did he brave open water. It would be a fool of a man who called Anthony Cuffe a chancer. Still, at the end of the day it was Anthony who was right. It was insane to let Micheál talk him into bringing those two to Ard. For christsake, Micheál, he argued, let them drive, but nothing would do, but they sail the Milucra. Get them used to the sea, he said. Declan pounded the duffel bag dumped in the storage box, his muscles bulging beneath the shabby blue sweater, shrunk from years of scrubbing by Aunt Aisling. Forcing the lid, he sat down, vengeance warming his heart as he divined a mangling of canvas under his weight. Nothing for it now but to get those cursed women.

“Will we have a cup of tea, Anthony?”

“Shouldn’t you be pushing back, Declan?”

“The tide’s got a few minutes. Plenty of time. Maybe, Hegarty can scare up a toasted cheese for us.” He clapped Anthony jovially on the shoulder. “Not to keep the American ladies waiting.”

Approaching Hegarty’s, the two men jibed in nervous exchange. Unmistakable Yankee strains of Mama in full throat escaped the framing of the aged oak door. Arrested mid-aria at the flinty creak of iron hinges, Mama spotted Anthony Cuffe.

“Why won’t you talk to her, Mr. Cuffe? We went to all that trouble to buy a car. Now she wants to go sailing. Even Maggie says it is an idiot thing do to. I have given up on Susie, but I didn’t expect you to be in her corner. You, Mr. Cuffe, are as lacking in sense as she is.”

“Mrs. Hutcheson, Declan is the most prudent sailor. If work didn’t prevent it, I would go with you myself. It’s a lovely day for a sail.” Anthony patted Mama’s arm.

Jerking away, Mama knocked the unsteady table sending a sugary brown wave rippling over the edge onto the floor.

“See what you’ve done. Well, I’m not going to sit here all day arguing.”

The captain of the Milucra, avoiding Mama’s ire, drew deeply on a cigarette. Anthony, in a state of shock, regarded SueAnne incredulously as she tossed the thick mane of nutmeg hair, a diva at her entrance. Heeding Hegarty’s silent rebuke at a set-to this early in the morning, SueAnne spurted after Mama. Declan in unaccustomed fashion fell back, niggardly steps parsing a gallows walk, Anthony’s silent pleading sending shivers of disgust down his spine. Wasn’t it himself stuck, not the bloody Brit?

“Jesus, it’s going to be one hell of a sail. I suppose it’s too late to back out.” He cleared the Milucra’s railing. “Give me your hand, Mrs. Hutcheson. I’ve a lovely spot for you in the cabin. Toasty warm, and a good view.”

Anthony reluctantly surrendered the mooring line to a lad in the boat’s stern. How old is Noel? Anthony ticked off the years. Seventeen? Probably not. Fifteen, more like it. Declan’s nephew knew the sea, but his smooth cheeks were those of a child. He could probably bring in the boat, probably, if something happened to Declan, if the weather held. Was Noel to be the whole crew? A slammed door, and a shout gave him his answer.

“Were you thinking of leaving without me?” Liam landed on the deck with a thud. Hair tousled, eyes puffy with sleep, he slung an untidy bundle toward the cabin, grabbed the boat hook and pushed the Milucra into the current. Declan revved the engine swinging the prow toward Fanad lighthouse. Playing up, Anthony snapped off a smart salute.

“Safe journey, Declan! All the best to Micheál. Give me a ring from Belmullet.”

The Milucra shadowed the shoreline curving along to the left, chugging out Ballymastocker Bay into the swells of the Atlantic. SueAnne, gripping the crane, waved her scarf, raising the bright banner higher and higher as the shore receded. Gone. Anthony queried the empty expanse. Not a shadow of the Milucra, not a speck. Inishowen’s great hand defiled the horizon, bony fingers plunging into frigid northern waters. The futility of the place weighed him down. Wild, rocky, unfriendly land. Cruel, merciless sea.

For better or ill, it was done. The innkeeper crossed the few yards of gravel to SueAnne’s car. A great doubter, Anthony hadn’t set foot inside a church since McCafferty’s funeral seven years ago, but without thinking he drove to the far fringe of Portsalon stopping in front of the modest Anglican chapel. Moving cautiously, fearful of a chance encounter with poor, lonely O’Meara, he sat self-consciously in a back pew, head bowed in prayer. Please, dear God, don’t let those silly women drown. He held scant conviction his plea would affect the good Lord’s will, but as he was here, he might as well make the most of it. A light filtered through stained glass windows tinting the bare limestone walls, adorning the altar with a borrowed warmth. Devoid of earthly comfort the damp chapel bore witness to a faith, honest and unquestioning. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Life, Anthony Cuffe grouched, is more complicated than that.

Late that same day, a hundred land miles to the south, Micheál, climbing the rise to Mary Molly’s, stopped short at a light, spectral, visible over the drumlin. He broke off whistling. Had to be the bare bulb in the scullery. Nula! You’d think she could turn off the light when she finished washing up. The whole bloody house lit up. Looks like a Christmas tree. His hand, halfway to the door latch, a volley of light shot out.

“You keep late hours, my boy. I was about to give you up, have this salmon for myself.” Father Dan pearled with pleasure. Behind him slim tapers flickered beside a vase of Michaelmas daisies, to one side stemmed glasses, strangers in Conamara, flanked a dusty bottle of burgundy.

“I wasn’t expecting you, Father.” Verdi’s stage set shifted allowing for the possibility of an approaching storm.

“Ah, Dublin is a bit of a trial, Micheál. A few days in Ard will sort things out. It’s our own, of course, Joyce’s dear, dirty Dublin, but I fear the scent of the Saxon shilling hovers in the air. This is all we need, this barren strip dripping with golden seaweed. Dry turf. Plenty of potatoes.” He halted, a sardonic twist to his lips.

Micheál grinned, wordlessly spinning out the Conamara mantra. And, a good fuck. Poor old Father Dan. Wouldn’t it be a lonely world?

“Have you an opener, Father? Let’s see what that cork looks like.”

Salmon eaten, burgundy drunk, Father Dan puffed contentedly on his briar. Micheál, hunched on a three-legged stool, hummed a Clare waltz, feet to the fire. Light rain spattered the windows. A ewe’s call to her newborn lamb, the scale of notes descending to a minor key, grew ever more plaintive, abruptly stopped.

“Care for a jaunt to Mannion’s? A pint for the homecoming?”

“Oh, my boy, thank you, no. It’s prayers and bed for me. Will you come for tea in the morning?’

“I will, of course. Ithe mhaithe, Father Dan.”

“It is good to be back with you, Micheál.”

Bracken lashed the path dipping through rock and bog to Mick’s cabin lost in a grove of sallies and alder. Pitched thatch, whitewashed clay and rubble, for a hundred years it fronted the bay breasting the cusp of high tide. Inisherk lay dead ahead, Inishmuskerry a degree to starboard, deserted islands marking the channel to Casheen Bay, so familiar, Micheál could sight them in the dark. Beside a patch of pier, the Máire Rua rocked dreamily, sea and sky coupling on the far horizon. A scruffy sheepdog lazed at the cabin’s gable end scratching her back on a mound of turf.

“Get down. Where are your manners?” Micheál scraped the leavings of yesterday’s stew onto a tin plate. “What have you done today to earn that? Give the gombeen man a run? Good dog.” Absently, he rubbed Beryl’s ears.

“We’ll sleep on board tonight. Come on. Bring that bone. I can’t be listening to you whining when I should be sleeping. I’ll need a clear head tomorrow.” Beryl dashed off concentric circles of excitement, jumped the stone ballast heaped in the Hooker’s keel, landing on a tattered cushion at the foot of a bunk. A thin flame hungry for turf, rose from the blackened fire stone, gasped, blurred blue around the kettle.

“We didn’t count on Father Dan, did we, Beryl? It’ll be an American 4th of July when the Milucra ties up, fireworks like Ard hasn’t seen since old Dev won the presidency. Mary Molly’s will be shuddering like a ship in a hurricane, Father Dan devising penance, Mamo snoring in the big room, Áine in the loft. I used to climbed in that loft window, swinging from the apple tree to the roof. Take my shoes off so Mary Molly wouldn’t hear the tile snickering. Tacking in, praying the gutter held. What do you think, am I up to it in my old age? Áine curled up asleep, hair spread out, opening her eyes, all surprised.”

Clasping hands behind his head, he began whistling, stopped, fidgety. “Tomorrow will be a mighty day, but isn’t it funny Father Dan didn’t say a word about his two American ladies. Declan thinks he is off his head. He may be right, but The Yellow House keeps getting in the way. First me, then Declan. The way Áine glommed onto him in Portsalon like she was waiting for him doesn’t hold together. Áine is wild enough, but she has a head on her. If they are couriers, they are good at it. But what would that mean for us, for me and Áine, if they were sent over? Is she bold enough to bed down in Mick’s cabin?”

The only noticeable change since Micheál’s grandfather, Mick Ó Flaharta, kicked the slate hearthstone into place was the cookstove. From early boyhood, Micheál resisted and resented the creeping modernity in Ard. He refused to run lines to the cabin, filled with bitterness at the poles slashing across the bog, mangling the cloud Scorning coal, he cut turf from the bog the way Mick did, sharp-edged rectangles, dried and stacked in an oblong clamp, sloping gothic sides. In spring, he slaughtered a sheep, set out seed potatoes in lazy beds, poached salmon. Strangers came, braying for the future, wanting work and a tug of the forelock from the Irish, and at their own convenience. You made money, you lost your comfort. What was the point? Beryl sprawled and kicked against his feet. If Áine didn’t stay, Beryl would still be trying to gain ground. A woman would be a little comfort and a lot of bother. Kicking back, Micheál fell into an agitated sleep, floundering in a crystalline haze of Yankee dollars.

A morning mist skimmed the blackthorns back of Mary Molly’s cottage, tamping the smokey plume from Father Dan’s fire back down the chimney. Waking early, he had stirred the ashes, added copious amounts of turf, lay the table and donning an apron busied himself arranging rashers and chops for a breakfast fry. He slept well; Conamara decompressed him. This Ard cottage was a remnant from a fast disappearing way of life that had once been his own. He admitted the urgency goading him to elicit what Micheál knew about those hectoring Americans in Donegal might be nothing more than an excuse to spend a few days in the Gaeltacht, hear the pure Irish spoken beside an acrid turf fire. He longed to be on the Máire Rua, salt winds scrubbing away the Pale’s foreign carapace. A sail would be a double blessing. To his dismay, the lad though possessed of a voluble nature remained disturbingly reticent, not a word in fact the whole of last evening, on the subject of Mrs. Hutcheson and her too attractive daughter. A zip to the Arans was the thing. Plenty of time to tighten the screws.

The chops sizzled accompaniment to an approaching whistle. Beryl nosed past Micheál avoiding the priest who, despite his yearning for a return of the Celtic spring, harbored a deep distaste of animals prowling the kitchen. Safe behind a chair, square black head resting on white paws, Beryl innocently contemplated the brambles straggling over the garden wall.

“Micheál! A mighty day. We are promised fresh breeze and plenty of sun. I neglected to pick up eggs. Too much chat with Maureen. I was in Mannion’s an hour if I was there five minutes. She is full of Desmond’s ordination. What would the Church be without mothers to consecrate their sons? They give their precious gifts to God to keep them safe from other women. It is a grand strategy. They are surely among the chosen, our mothers. Mary Molly, bless her soul, never managed the trick, did she, Micheál? She has kept you safe so far. Right she was to keep you out of fields, where a boy thinks of little but the charms of a lass. Between the Máire Rua and the fiddle you’re not much use to any decent woman. Nothing new, I suppose, on that front? No surprises for Mary Molly when she returns from Boston?” Father Dan cleared his throat. Ahm m m.

“You’re dead on, Father. I’m of no use to any decent woman. A few indecent ones have great time for me.” Micheál drew a sharp half breath. “Give me that pan, Father Dan, the chops are turning to charcoal.”

“My boy, let’s take the Máire Rua out for a spin. It has been too long since I’ve set foot on the Arans. I’ll ring Nula. She’ll put together a few sandwiches and a biscuit or two. Eddy will be happy to leave the lobster pots for the day. While you ready the sails, I’ll collect the lass. Look! An omen. Breathtaking how the sun cuts through, shattering the mist.”

“There’ll be no sailing for you, Father Dan. Maureen didn’t tell you they’re bringing Tommy Conroy home from Galway this afternoon? I planned on falling in at Ma’am, but they’ll expect you to join the line in Galway. We’ll go early, and stop at McDonough’s for a bucket of tar.”

“Never mind the tar.” Father Dan frowned. “I didn’t drive to Conamara to spend time at funeral masses.”

Micheál shrugged. “It’s up to yourself.”

“It is worse than Dublin. Is there no place a man can rest?” Father Dan’s plate clattered in the sink. “Why must you feed that dog in the kitchen. Get out, you mongrel.”

 

“Close, SueAnne. That’s Slyne Head. Dangerous piece of water.” Declan pointed to a black rising off the distant coast. “It’s the northern head of Bertraghboy Bay. Safe enough out here. Keep your rosary handy if you get caught in the saddle on a dirty day.”

SueAnne blinked and squinted. “A big rock. Not very interesting. Wouldn’t make a good painting. Not a whitecap in sight.”

“Thanks be to God. We wouldn’t be chatting if the sea reared up. Will you look at that Liam sweet-talking your mother?”

SueAnne shook her head in disbelief. “I never saw her smoke before. I couldn’t believe it when Liam asked, ‘You want a fag?’, and she held it up for him to light as if she was sixteen.”

“Ah, it’s a mistake to think you know the mother, SueAnne. She was around long before you were. My old one was in Paris rattling a cup for the lads before I came about. Sometimes, she’ll be talking, that look comes over her face. Makes you wonder.”

“Shudder,” corrected SueAnne, not knowing and never to know.

The young bard, swaying against the rusty rail, was singing the fame of the men of the Red Branch of Ulster, and of Cuchulain, mysterious to men, beloved of women, slayer of his son, dying, mad, fighting the sea. Liam’s aging queen sat enthroned on oaken timbers waving away puffs of smoke smudging those blood-drenched hills beggaring the coastline.

Ard quay was empty an hour later when Declan switched off the Milucra’s engine.

“Noel, grab the line. Liam, for christsake keep us off the Finn. Where’s the boat hook? Stay where you are, Mrs. Hutcheson, we’ll have you on the pier in a minute. SueAnne, settle her down, will you? Look at this. Not a hungry cat to welcome us. We’ll be walking to the village. Leave the bags, Mrs. Hutcheson. Liam and Noel will be back for them.”

Micheál and Father Dan, standing off the church path in a circle of men, weren’t the first to be aware of the arrival of the Milucra contingent. It was Jimmie Fada, his long frame eclipsing Father Dan, who spotted their advance over the priest’s shoulder.

“Welcome, Declan.”

A wry glint in his gray eyes, Micheál nonchalantly swung around.

The captain of the Milucra stuck out his hand. “I’m delivering your cargo right to the church, Micheál. Didn’t want to keep you waiting.”

Though not a syllable of conversation was lost nor any head turned, every mourner in the churchyard chatting up the exploits of Tommy Conroy was instantly aware of the arrival of Micheál Ó Flaharta’s two American ladies. A light soughing as of the beat of fairy wings, more movement of air than current of sound, passed over the congregation. Interest in the heroic dissipation of the lately departed Conroy crashed. Only the inviolable rule that you never give satisfaction to a waster who is so ill-mannered as to spring a surprise on you held the gathering together.

“Aren’t you a great stranger, Declan? You missed mass. Plenty of time for the wake.” Micheál girded himself for battle.

In his eagerness to one up Micheál, Declan failed to see Father Dan standing at his side. It was with sinking heart he caught the priest’s blistering gaze.

“Declan, what a clever lad you are to bring Mrs. Hutcheson and Miss Larkin to me.” With great ceremony Father Dan took Mama’s hand. “Mrs. Hutcheson, I feared I might never see you again. This is indeed a great pleasure. Micheál, it seems, is always arranging for us to meet. We must not fail in our duty to that boy. You sailed on the Milucra? That is quite a voyage. You’ll be captain of your own ship when next we meet.”

“Well, Father Dan, I didn’t want to come, but you know how Susie is. Micheál said we could stay in his mother’s house. Do you know where it is? I hope we don’t have to walk.”

“Oh, indeed! Mary Molly’s. What a coincidence. It seems we will be,” Father Dan cleared his throat, Ahm m m, “room mates. What a splendid idea, Micheál. You are a constant source of amazement to me.”

“Are we to stand here all day talking? These ladies are thirsty. The captain is shrinking for lack of liquid. Look at him. That sweater fit him once, but it could make do for a sail now.” On the way out the church grounds, Micheál spoke to the vast consciousness of the assemblage. “Cousins of Mary Molly. They’re from Boston.”

Liam, unable to secure a pint, despairing at Mama’s fickleness, her affection now directed to the attentive priest, stalked off in search of dinner. Noel, bored with the lot of them, followed in his wake. Mrs. Geary, a cousin of Liam’s mother, discovered them sitting on a stone wall gorging on lemon cakes. She took the boys home, sending Mary Catherine to Mannion’s with a message for Declan. “The boys will bed down with me.”

Sorting things out at Mary Molly’s proved more complicated. Mama, never having shared a house with a priest, was uncertain of its propriety. It took months to accept Percy into their lives. It was only his fervent appreciation of her sour cream biscuits which at last allowed her to be comfortable with his presence. This latest crisis was resolved on a brief evening stroll during which she and SueAnne thrashed out the finer points of ecclesiastical decorum. SueAnne carried the day, intermingling a variety of vague ethical arguments with repeated references to Father Dan’s rooms at the home of the irreproachable Nora Keaney. Father Dan would continue his stay in the guest room, Mama would lay her head on Mary Molly’s pillow, SueAnne, as Micheál foresaw, claimed the loft for her own.

Micheál and Declan nodded a sedate farewell, escape from the impending wrath of Father Dan within their grasp, when they became incautious.

“A goodnight to you, Father Dan.” Micheál, buoyed by the thought of Áine asleep in his old room, shook hands in farewell.

“A great day altogether,” chimed in Declan sensing victory.

At the heel of the hunt the priest was not put off so easily. “Wait up, lads, I’ll be joining you for a drop.”

In less time than it took the conflicted trio to finesse the rocky path to Mick’s cabin, Mama was asleep in Mary Molly’s four-poster waiving SueAnne to the gabled room under the eaves. Fretful as a child sent to bed early, SueAnne groped for the light and not finding it, yielded to the lure of a ghostly halo at the far end of the room. An unshuttered window lay bare a night caressed by rapturous branches, heavy with spring, unfurling leaves out of frost-hardened husks. Far below, a pale ray hove in and out of focus. Some yards on a dark shadow stretched languidly. She imagined the Irishmen at their ease. What would they be saying in that rapid rush of Gaelic, followed by quick laughter? I’ll never learn it. I can barely speak English. Her head ached with the ignorance of it all as she watched and wondered in a fit of jealousy.

Micheál strode the planks of Mick’s cabin as though hosting royalty, stoking the fire, scattering orange reflections across crude cabin chairs drawn in a semicircle. Three glasses rinsed in the stone basin, rubbed to a dull shine, were rotated in front of a paraffin lamp in a last check for vestiges of previous liquid. Excusing himself, over the side of the Máire Rua he went, returning from her hold with a bottle of Armagnac.

“A French trawler captain gave it to me when he was tied up in Cork for repairs. They know how to live, those French men.”

Father Dan, a bed pillow to his back, extended his legs toward the hearth. Closely monitoring his confessor’s angle of repose, Declan let the liquor dissolve the knots in his stomach. Two days at sea saw him upright, but the Ard welcome flung him down. Calmer he was yet chary enough to keep his thoughts to himself, his attention trained on his likely executioner. Micheál, full of confidence, knew he could still fall victim to the priestly rancor but counted on Father Dan’s fury suffering a severe setback from a dram in Mick’s cabin, the turf roaring, the sea singing. For the knockout blow, he placed his faith in the French captain’s Armagnac.

“But isn’t it very good?” He replenished glasses as he sought their approval, forehead creased in deferential concern.

“It is, Micheál, it is.” Declan nodded appreciatively. “We haven’t had anything of this quality in Donegal since a poor, lost vessel ran ashore at Malin Head. That was ten, no, let’s see, twelve winters ago. I’ll be hanged, if it was as good as this. It was a Portuguese trawler. That may account for it.”

“There is something to be said for the Portuguese, but the French know how to do it right, don’t they? They could teach us island men a thing or two about good living.” Micheál was expansive. “You were in Paris yourself, Father Dan. Did you ever have a better night than right here in Mick’s cabin? That’s the Máire Rua shivering in her sleep remembering the day Micheál Mick grounded her in Saddle Pass. Mattie trying to lasso her as if she was one of those sleek Arabs at the Galway races. Marcus dead away in the hold. It cost a few quid to plank her that time. Colm cursin’ and calkin’.”

Father Dan sighed. “You’ve got around me, Micheál, I admit it. I find my interest in our American ladies fading fast. We won’t speak of them tonight, but tomorrow the three of us must put our shoulders to the wheel. When I wake in the morning to the sound of Mrs. Hutcheson exploring Mary Molly’s kitchen for the coffee that every American expects upon rising and discovering the cupboards bare, my interest will be renewed. Don’t try sailing the Milucra to safer waters, Declan. Best face it here. Father Conlan and I were at seminary together. Even then, sinners blanched Conlan’s day in the confessional.”

Micheál raised his eyebrows in a pained expression. “It’s the birch for us tomorrow, Declan. We’ll be needing this to get us through.” Somberly, he refilled each glass. “Sláinte!”

Long after midnight, a westerly wind whipped past Slyne Head, heaving fountains of foam in its wake. A high whine woke Micheál shortly before dawn. Reaching the Máire Rua through an inner radar, he pulled her lines tight, slinging bald tires over the side to cushion the pounding against the pier. Bent low, retreating to the cabin he slammed into Declan weaving, bleary-eyed, in the doorway.

“Where is the transport, Micheál? If I had sense instead of limping along behind you like some blind dog, I’d be snug under Mrs. Geary’s covers peering out a tight glass at the Milucra. Here I am miles away from Ard, not a boreen in sight let alone a proper road, and I haven’t a clue to how she’s faring. That fancy car of yours, where is it? It is no use to me straddling some Dublin sidewalk. I’m to walk, is it?”

“The boys will take care of her. Geary will see to the Milucra.” Micheál’s hand groped for the kettle.

“Tell me the day that dosser ever saw the sun come up. Noel is bad, and Liam worse. They’ll not see the glare of day till I pull the covers off them myself. By then, we’ll be piling up pointy splinters that once was the trawler Milucra. Jesus, Micheál, what were we drinking last night? I can barely stay steady.”

Micheál rested his eyes on the ashes faint on the hearth. “Will I fix a cup of tea?”

“With the Milucra breaking to pieces? Have your tea yourself.” Declan straight-armed the soulful figure hard against the sink, and set up the path.

Micheál clumped after him, shouting above the wind. “We’ll take Father Dan’s car. Slow down, for christsake. It was only for a cup of tea I was asking.”

They crept into the sedan, noiselessly pressing the doors into their latches. Not risking headlights, trusting the storm to muffle the purr of the engine, Micheál cranked the steering wheel. Declan tipped in the passenger seat readied himself for an outraged yell. The car rounded the high field running away from Mulherin’s. Declan clicked his tongue against his teeth.

“You live dangerously, Micheál. I’d sooner face Malin Head in a hurricane than be talked to death in one of Father Dan’s rages.”

They raced the wind down the empty road, a fleeting sweep of headlights descended on dark cottages, roofs streaming water. Sheep huddled against stone walls sprang into view and were gone. A squealing of brakes stopped the projector on the wildly pitching Milucra crashing against the helpless Finn caught inside in a tangle of lines. Jimmie Fada struggling to fend off the trawler with a boat hook shouted a welcome.

“Did you sleep well?”

Micheál heaved off the Milucra’s stern line. Declan kicked over her engine, inching forward, unerring as a seal. Jimmie loosed the Finn’s snarled aft line slinging it to Micheál stretched crablike on the kelp-slick stone. Double hitching the line to an iron ring, Micheál urged the bucking Finn back, snugging her in as Jimmie, long arms doubled at the elbows, the flat of his hands raw and bleeding, held the Finn a paper’s width off the pier. Placidly waiting for Micheál to tie-in the Finn before securing the trawler further up the sea wall, Declan lit a cigarette, handing the pack over the railing.

“A dirty day altogether.”

Jimmie pulled out a fag with bloodied fingers, struck a match on the seat of his pants and took a drag. Declan inclined his head toward Micheál squatting on his haunches securing lines.

“He’s not good for much, but once in a while he comes in handy.”

“Come up for a cup of tea.” Jimmie slid onto the rear seat of Father Dan’s car, and settled back, his knees on a level with his chin. “Lovely little thing, isn’t she? How many masses do you suppose it took to pay for her?” He ran his hand over the upholstery, brushing the faux leather affectionately. “Not a ridge. Never been sat on. No bold boys for the Father.”

The leaden sky lowered over Jimmie’s pebble-dashed house blotting out low hills. Rivulets bubbled through the jagged cracks in a concrete path fed from newly opened springs. Behind steamy windows, a row of Jack o’Lantern faces monitored their approach. A shriek and a clutter of children spilled out the door, scrambling one over the other, cries shrill against the wind.

“Micheál! Micheál! Micheál!”

“It’s Micheál, Mother. He’s back with Father.”

“Who is it with you? Let me see. I know. It’s Declan!”

Hands on hips, Emir dispensed order. “Look at you. Isn’t it enough for the men to be dripping? Go dry off. Don’t be bold. Welcome, Micheál. I hear Father Dan is at Mary Molly’s. That will keep you pure. Declan McDaid! What a stranger you’ve become. You’re very welcome. Jimmie said you sailed in with a boatload of American ladies. Ah, you Donegal lads are great ones for sweet-talking. Let me clear a place at the table. No school today. I’ll be mad by supper. Sit down there. Never mind. The floor will be a cistern before the day’s over. Tell me the news. Where ever did you find them, Declan? Jimmie said the young one is pretty. Has she a man? What is she doing in Ard?”

“If it is answers you are after, Emir, you must look to Micheál. That man is ruining my sleep, and my reputation. It is his doing that Father Dan is threatening excommunication. After he discovers we stole his car, he may have us in jail. It is a cruel fate, but what’s to be done when you travel with evil companions?”

“You, Micheál, bringing women into this village where we have spinsters pining for company? You have no sense at all. There’ll be visits to the cursing stones before this is over.” Gleefully, she sat a plate before each man, bustling back for brown bread and butter, poured tea into mugs, fed the fire, shouted at the children to be quiet and settled at last next the range, eyes bright and full of malice.

Jimmie in an excess of goodwill passed around a bottle of poteen. “It’s aged a bit. Geraghty left it for thanks after I helped get his bull out of the bog last summer where the old fool had wandered in search of a bit of pleasure. He ages it, Declan, like his father did. Not a man to hurry.”

“Never mind Geraghty, Jimmie Fada. What about those two women? Are they really yours, Micheál? Whatever will Mary Molly say, they sleeping in her bed?”

“They’re not mine, Emir. They belong to Father Dan. I don’t know what’s got into him. He’s grand all this time without a bit of skirt, and now at his age. It’s a scandal.”

“The scandal is you trying to put this off on that lovely man. Father Dan married Jimmie and me. Came from Dublin for all six of the children. I’ll not hear a word against him. Of course, I don’t blame you. I suppose Clíona is no match for an American lady. Sure, you would know better than me.” She turned to the grinning captain. “Mind you, Declan, if you have any feeling for those two women, you best load them back on the Milucra. Leave them off where you found them.”

Micheál lowered his voice. “Father Dan says they are thirty-two county women.”

Emir started. “Go on with you.” She looked quizzically at Jimmie, then back at Micheál. “You’re slagging me, Micheál.”

“That’s the way of it, Emir.”

 

“They have stolen my car, Mrs. Hutcheson. I trust you understand what rogues you and your lovely daughter have taken up with. Not to be trusted, those two. I am not surprised at Micheál who will do anything to avoid facing responsibility. I expected rather better of Declan, a decent Donegal lad who takes care of his mother and never misses a feast day. If you don’t mind, I will have another cup of tea. Thank you. We may be marooned here for some time.” Father Dan scraped a bit of egg from his plate. “That was delicious. You are a great cook, Mrs. Hutcheson. I will relieve you of that last rasher. Miss Larkin likes her little lie-in, doesn’t she? Quite nice, just the two of us, a chance to get better acquainted. In some ways I feel I have known you all my life. You say you are not Irish, but Miss Larkin appears to believe she is. How does that come about?”

“I swear, Father Dan, you’d think nobody in Ireland ever heard of the United States. I am an American. So is Susie. I suppose we came from somewhere a long time ago. People hated it where they were, that’s why they came to America. All this searching for roots is a bunch of hooey.” Mama picked up her knitting. “I would like Ireland a lot better if everyone I met didn’t try to make an Irishwoman of me.”

Sadness blurred the ascetic lines of the priest’s face. His voice became mournful. “You’re quite right, Mrs. Hutcheson. Americans all came from somewhere, a million of them came from Ireland. One of that million came from this house. Mary Molly’s grandfather fled to America, cold and hungry, weeping, four children in a famine grave, his wife not to be parted from her wee boy and the baby, pleading he not forget them. He didn’t forget them. He found a job in your country, in Boston, sent back remittances, died never again laying his eyes on Ard. Hard as it was, those American dollars saved the family. We wouldn’t be sitting here now, warm in front of this fire, away from the storm, patting our stomachs cushioned with eggs and rashers but for America. We owe you a great debt. One way of showing our affection is to believe you to be a lost cousin. It is not much, Mrs. Hutcheson, but it is the best we can do.”

“You sound like Jack when he climbed on his soap box talking about his little Irish grandmother freezing in a sod house on the Great Plains so she could send money back to Cork. I thought that was crazy, but Jack would cry, and say no matter what, you take care of your own. The next thing, he’d be doing the clog dance and singing ‘the boys who beat the Black and Tans were the boys from the County Cork.’ I can hear him singing this very minute as clear as if he was in this room with us. It makes me as disgusted now, as it did then.”

“Did your husband ever talk about the I.R.A, Mrs. Hutcheson?” Father Dan filled his pipe, a flame shooting from the gold lighter lodged between thumb and forefinger.

“The what? He hated the W.P.A, if that’s what you mean. Said he’d steal before he enlisted in a charity brigade. Hated Roosevelt, too. Jack was so independent we came close to starving ourselves at times.”

“Father Dan was asking about the I.R.A, Mama, the Irish Republican Army, not the W.P.A.” Down from the loft, still in her nightshirt, SueAnne reached across the table for the teapot. “Did you leave any for me?” She gave it a shake. “Good. Enough for a cup.” She backed up to the cooker, spreading her arms to capture its warmth. “Did you know DeValera raised money in Butte, Montana after the Easter Uprising? His picture was in the Standard. You can see it for yourself at the Irish Times Pub.” She was rocked by that delicious tremor which comes of superior knowledge acknowledged by Father Dan’s startled stare. “Really, Father Dan. The not yet president of the not yet Irish Republic raising funds for the fight in Butte, Montana. You know Butte was owned by the Irish at the turn of the century.” Following that sally, SueAnne, not yet aware of the night’s thievery, retired, impatient to dress and be ready for any other triumphs the stormy day might bring.

 

“Though our brains are afloat on a sea of tea, we have reached agreement on several important issues. One, and this goes against the cut, we must credit Jackie Foyle when he insists his grandfather was a miner in Butte, Montana. Two, in 1919 Éamon DeValera did, indeed, raise funds for the cause in that very city and, perhaps, Jackie Foyle’s own grandfather threw a few quid in the hat – yes, SueAnne, we will include in our summation, that while Dev was downing oysters and champagne, Michael Collins was risking his life as the most wanted man in Ireland building the Irish Republican Army, the man on the bicycle, as Nora would have it. Three, here I am surmising from our morning’s discussion, you support a united Ireland. Mrs. Hutcheson, it pains me to say, does not give a fig one way or the other. Lastly, we agree – here I do include Mrs. Hutcheson – it is past twelve, there is no food in Mary Molly’s pantry and Micheál Ó Flaharta best beware when next we lay eyes on him. There, I believe that covers it. May I move now?”

“One more minute. There. That does it. You have wonderful bones, Father Dan. That aquiline nose. Are you sure you’re Irish? There must have been an Italian in there somewhere.” SueAnne swirled the paintbrush in a bottle of thinner.

“Roman, SueAnne. One of St. Patrick’s captors, no doubt. A light touch of the victor. It protects me from that incessant Celtic infighting. Let’s see what you’ve done. Am I really as handsome as all that? I would have made quite a ladies man, if the Church hadn’t other plans for me.”

“A plan, that’s what we need. Give me a list, Mama. I’ll make a dash to the shop for supplies.”

“You can’t go out in this storm, Susie. You’ll be soaked before you get to the gate.”

“Mrs. Hutcheson is right, SueAnne. The thing is to wait in front of the fire for the erring lad to return my car. You two will be my guests for dinner at the Ostan. They do a wonderful leg of lamb with fresh mint sauce. Conamara lamb, Mrs. Hutcheson, is the best in the world. Our farmers have more sense than to tart up their livestock with chemicals. The ewes and their lambs roam free on our hillsides unhindered by man or beast. They are excellent, excellent creatures. It is worth the wait, I promise you.”

“The walk will do me good. How far is the shop? Can’t be too far. Do they carry the Herald Tribune?”

“Often you’ll find an Irish Times, but not on such a day as this. A bin of potatoes and a few onions, a butcher counter bare except for thinly cut chops and moldy mince is what you must expect in Ard. Most cottages boast a garden. Families do their own butchering. Fish fresh off the boat. We are not much of a market town.”

“They have milk, don’t they, and cans of something?”

“If you must go, stop at the first house. Mrs. Craven will be delighted to give you a lift. It will give her something to talk about after mass Sunday. If you see my little bomb parked outside Mannion’s, bring it home. The keys will be dangling in the ignition.”

Arrayed in oilskins purloined from a kitchen hook, SueAnne ducked into the downpour bequeathing Mama and her reproaches to Father Dan.

“She’ll catch a cold. You shouldn’t have let her go. I don’t suppose there is a doctor in Ard.”

“Ah, there’s no harm there, Mrs. Hutcheson. We may not have a medical establishment, but we do have the absolute best cure for a cold. A drop of poteen vanquishes chills and fevers quicker than the most skilled physician. As for my influencing your daughter, there is little chance of that.” He tapped his pipe on the grate. “She may be a while. A nap is the thing. Give the day a chance to settle down.”

In solitude, Father Dan took stock of the last – could it be? – less than twenty-four hours. He cleared his throat. Ahm m m. The city boys had it all wrong. They were of the opinion time moved swiftly in Dublin, and stood still in the West. Quite the opposite. In the Gaeltacht, devoid of Parliamentary wrangling and ponderous debates tailing off into nothing, men acted, momentous decisions arrived at and implemented with scarcely more than a lift of the eyebrow.

Here we all are. Micheál. Declan. Myself. These two improbable couriers. He was sure of it now. The American women took great risks. AcceptingMicheál at The Yellow House. Following him into the night. Chancing a sea voyage with an unknown captain. Unhesitatingly agreeing to accommodations at a known safe house. It was as clear as if they had taken the oath from Collins himself. It was equally clear, they were waiting. Money was on its way from America. They did not know, as he did, who would bring it to them, but they were prepared to deliver it to the North. This pretense of Micheál’s was annoying, but Molly Mary would be the first to tell you it was in his nature to be cute. The ladeen enjoyed the spectacle of a person floundering in a welter of unwieldy facts, sizing him up, seeing how fast he could put it together. Well, my boy, it’s together now. Father Dan drew deeply on his pipe, rubbing his thumb on the briar as comforting to him as his rosary.

Out in the storm, SueAnne pounded on Mrs. Craven’s front door, pushed it open, poked her head inside. “Mrs. Craven.” No answer. Another shout preceded an about face, and off she tramped down the middle of the pockmarked road, shoulders hunched, face buried in the unyielding folds of the slicker, rain dripping from her lashes. Afraid to swivel her head lest the hood be ripped off, she passed among scattered cottages unaware of the dim lights within or of the astonishment marking her voyage through the storm.

At a bend in the road, directly ahead, a metal sign careened wildly above a sprawling L-shaped building. In the adjacent parking lot, a shiny foreign car hoping for cover embedded with a heap of pummeled vehicles. Without a second thought, SueAnne slued to the back of the building, sideswiping the dingy shop at the front with its thin chops and bins of potatoes and no hope of a Herald Tribune, aiming true for a side entrance over which gold lettering proclaimed, Guinness. Dispatching the outer door, she collided with an unexpected inner door emerging in a state of confusion, water puddling around her, within the thick fog of Mannion’s pub. An accelerated bowing of a fiddle backed by a bodhran beat jigged the air. Dark jacketed men leaned against the wall or sat backs canted into the counter sipping pints. A shift of shoulder and Micheál, betrayed, materialized beyond, chair kicked back, arm crooked, bow in air, Declan beside him, head lowered, beating the Irish drum.

So this is how he spent his time in Ard. Did that man never work? Sluicing her face with the palms of her hands, flicking drops from her fingers, she was unbuttoning the oilskin when Micheál leaned toward Declan. The captain looked past SueAnne, seeing no one, nodded a welcome. A broad-faced man at the end of the bar shoved out a stool signaling SueAnne, with a subtlety of movement she almost missed, it was meant for her.

“She drinks Paddy and soda.” Micheál held the fiddle by the neck, dangling it between his knees, scratching the top of his head with the bow. Declan took a long draught of Guinness. Strains of sadness pentimento’d the air.

“It’s love he is thinking of.” The broad-faced man nudged SueAnne. “You must be the Yank. What’s your name?”

Jimmie Fada craned around. “Aren’t you the curious one? Let her be.”

“Never mind him. Tell me your name, love.”

“Have a fag.” A teary-eyed man reached round Jimmie Fada, a pack of cigarettes extended in a paw reeking of fish guts.

“Get away.” The broad-faced man wriggled his fingers at the proffered gift. “Let her drink in peace. Now, love, where did Micheál Ó Flaharta find you? He said your mother is Mary Molly’s cousin.” He brought his face close to SueAnne’s. “You might be Irish, but you don’t look like an Ó Flaharta.” He finished his examination. “No,” he said to no one in particular, “she’s not an Ó Flaharta. Her nose is too thin.”

“Look at you.”

The lament dying away, Micheál passed the fiddle to Jimmie Fada, brushing SueAnne’s shoulder as he claimed a freshly pulled pint.

“Every time I see you, you’re surrounded by men. Where is your mother? Where is Mamo? Give her another Paddy, Noreen. She is a fast drinker.”

“We’re all starving. There’s nothing at Mary Molly’s but a couple of eggs. Why didn’t you come home?”

“You see how it is, Mattie,” Micheál complained to the broad-faced man, “she’s just over from America, and already she’s giving out to me. It’s hard to find a quiet woman these days. Our fathers had it better. You wouldn’t get a peep out of a Conamara woman in the old days, sure, she was so glad to see you.”

“Ah, she’s a lovely lass, Micheál,” Mattie touched SueAnne’s hair. “Look at her, tossing her mane like a colt. No offense, girleen.”

“I’d say she doesn’t like you, Mattie. Better try your luck somewhere else. This is Jimmie Fada, Áine. It is his fault I’m where I am. Pouring poteen at the break of dawn. What could I do? I couldn’t leave Declan without transport. How did you get here? Did you catch a lift with Mrs. Craven? I suppose Father Dan wants his car.”

SueAnne cringed. “Yes, he wants his car. I told you there is nothing to eat in the cottage.” She made a valiant effort to clear her head. “I’m going to the shop, and then, I’m driving Father Dan’s car home. He promised Mama he would take us to the Ostan for dinner since there wasn’t anything for lunch.”

“We can’t leave Declan; he hasn’t finished his pint. Jimmie Fada can’t walk home. It’s terrible out there. He’d get blown into the sea. Give us another round, Noreen. As soon as Declan is ready to go, we’ll leave, give Jimmie Fada a lift home, pick up Mamo and the good Father and have dinner at the Ostan. Cáíth siorradh!”

Jimmie Fada lifted the fiddle to his chin, tentatively running the bow over the strings, tightening the A, playing a bar or two as he went along.

“Give us ‘The Prodigal Son’, Jimmie. Come on Áine.” Micheál tugged at the slicker’s hood.

She let the coat drop. Dreamy and drunk, wisps of hair sweeping Micheál’s shoulder, SueAnne danced over the ballroom floor, a swish of heavy brocade in her ears, breathing deeply of the scented rose tucked into her bodice. Micheál danced formally, one arm lightly encircling her waist, their bodies not touching, leading her in broad whorls between and around low, shellacked tables, high stools, the men lounging along the wall, weaving a spell of the sidhe.

Declan and Jimmie Fada spun out waltz after waltz. Tremulously, Mattie sang. “Say you love me, say you love me. I’ve waited as long as I can.” Micheál and SueAnne drew closer. Glasses of Paddy and Guinness stood three deep on the counter. Forgotten the maddened storm, Mama’s hunger, Father Dan’s fury.

 

The Voyage of SueAnne Larkin, Part III, Celtic Idyll, continued on Pages, Sunday, April 1, 2012

No responses yet

Leave a Reply