DRIVING THE LOOP

Today, we’re having a hearty breakfast with oatmeal, eggs, and bangers served by Mr. Harrigan, the innkeeper. Devin, his son on holiday from Cork, drops by our table. He wears a cobalt blue shirt that sets off his near-black eyes and thick, dark hair.

“So, you’re from that grand town of Boston.”

When my sister Leslie doesn’t answer, but continues to push food around with her fork, I say, “Our father’s relatives sailed there from Galway.”

“How do you like Dingle?” he asks, looking at both our hands. Leslie still wears her wedding ring. Mine is bare.

“When we first got here it seemed the most traditional of spots.” If only Leslie would take over. She doesn’t, so I go on, “Until we saw Oceanworld and Fungi. That’s like a Florida beach town.”

“Ah, but Dingle’s more than that pesky, bottle-nosed dolphin. You’ll have to take in a few pubs tonight—a bit of folk music and set dancing.”

I glance at Leslie’s downturned face framed in thick blonde curls.

Reaching up, I adjust the barrette that keeps my own ash brown strands in place, and say, “I’ve been wanting to hear more Irish music…for my students.” It’s obvious she’s not going to join the conversation.

“So, musicians you are. Then it’s a must.”

Leslie doesn’t bother to tell him she’s in real estate.

“We’ll see. After our drive,” I answer for both of us.

When he’s out of earshot, she mumbles, “I don’t feel like that sort of thing.”

Will she ever feel like anything? Two years ago, before Danny was killed, Mr. Harrigan and his son would have gotten a full dose of her attention. For Danny, a quiet guy by nature, being married to Leslie meant watching her captivate others. He never seemed to mind. They were a team. While she engaged potential clients, he covered the details. She was his sail. He was her anchor.

I can’t help but recall my senior prom, over 10 years ago. Leslie’s address book overflowed. After three tries with guys who had taken her to dances, she finally found a presentable date for me.

I scrape up the last bite of my meal. Leslie’s barely touched hers.

*

Mr. Harrigan ambles out from the white stucco house to the right side of the car, where I’m fidgeting in the driver’s seat.

“Follow the sign after the bridge,” he points to a white board, hand-lettered in black, which says Slea Head Drive—Ceann Sleibhe.

He pulls off his tweed cap and scratches his head, then bends to peer into the car. Is he concerned about my ability to comprehend directions or whether I understand him? Or, is he worried about Leslie, unblinking in the passenger seat, oblivious to everything?

“Don’t know if you’ll want to get out much, with the mists, but you’ll be dead impressed by the drive. And remember,” he chuckles, “watch out for the soft margin. And the sheep!”

I start our burgundy-colored Opel, which the man at the Hertz counter in Dublin promised would be a “breeze” to drive. A terrifying gale is more like it. I can’t believe I’ve managed to get us around Ireland to this remote fishing village on the west coast.

Devin Harrigan walks out of the inn’s yellow door. He stares at Leslie the way men always do, but she never glances his way.

I put the car in gear and roll towards the road, pebbles on the driveway crunching. Out loud, I say, “Driver next to the center line,” as I nudge the blinker for a left turn.

Mr. Harrigan touches his forehead in a salute and Devin waves. Thank God, the car doesn’t jerk like a dying chicken as I maneuver into place.

Moments later, after another left turn to a dirt road, we’re on our way. I ease into my seat and say, “The innkeeper’s son is attracted to you.”

Leslie’s glazed blue eyes never leave a place they’re focused on, somewhere in the opaque sky. “Why would you say that, Noreen?”

“He has the look about him.”

“Maybe it’s for you.”

I don’t bother responding to this silly notion.

Instead, I pop in the Enya tape—which had been playing nonstop since our entrapment on the roundabout leaving Dublin—to relax me. As I left the puzzling traffic circle, I found myself headed towards Belfast. I reentered the maze, and it happened again. Leslie would have driven like a pro, from the start. Yet, all Leslie said was, “I guess driving on the wrong side of the road’s a challenge.”

“It’s not the wrong side. It’s the opposite side—the Irish side.”

“What difference does it make?”

I’ll show her, I thought. The next time I chose the exit correctly.

“Doesn’t look like we’ll have much traffic today,” I comment. There hasn’t been another car since we entered the road to Slea Head.

“That’ll make it easier for you.” Leslie speaks with the monotonous tone that shows she doesn’t care if anything is easy for me or not.

I picture her at five, reigning from our red wagon, issuing orders to me at age three as I hauled her. Once, I made too sharp a turn. She tumbled out and got a bump on her head. Right about now, a good bump might do her a world of good.

Through the curtain of mist, hedges of pink and red fuschia mingle with a multitude of green hues. The fuzzy outlines beside the incline give an aura of timelessness. How can this magic escape Leslie? Perhaps today I’ll be able to reach her.

The left front tire crosses into the soft margin Mr. Harrigan warned me about. I rapidly straighten the wheel and squint through the gathering fog.

Ahead are a trio of goats standing nonchalantly on the 18-inch stone wall above Ventry Bay. They seem amused by my slip. Even though they look balanced, something is off kilter.

One fellow has only three legs. “I didn’t expect to see goats, especially a disabled critter.”

Leslie glances his way. “Maybe he’ll fall.”

“I don’t think so. He’s had to adapt.”

Just beyond, there’s a flicker of our first view. I gradually brake the car, steering clear of the soft margin. “How ’bout we take a look?”

Leslie shrugs. “I can see enough.”

“Years ago, ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ was filmed here,” I try to entice, but she doesn’t budge. On this very beach, the wayward girl, in her long black skirt, strolled—ruffled parasol held high. The sand looked like gold dust.

While I take it all in, fingers of mist tickle my ears. I pull my Gore-Tex jacket’s hood tighter. The salty fragrance of life’s beginning intensifies as my body trembles. What would it be like to walk on this beach in the sunshine? I imagine casting the parasol away, shedding that long skirt, and running barefoot across the warm, sparkling sand.

“Are we going to keep moving?” Leslie’s peeved voice pulls me away from my musings.

In a few more minutes, we come upon seagulls clustered atop the wall. I stop again and dig out a package of crackers from our supplies. “Do you want to give these to the birds?”

“Why don’t you?”

I sigh and step out to scatter the offering. Many more birds gather, squawking over their unexpected treat.

For quite a while, we move along quietly. There’s not much to say about the fog. I hope that something will come along soon to talk about. Then, on a grassy hillside to the right, I see one.

“Look! A sheep!” I hand the annotated map to Leslie. “Can you find where it says how many there are?”

“I thought you memorized every word.”

“C’mon, tell me about the lambs.” Growing up in the city, we seldom saw livestock this close.

“There are 500,000 sheep on Dingle Peninsula, which is part of County Kerry,” she singsongs. After a pause, she continues, “That one seems kind of lonesome. I wonder where all the others are?”

Since Danny’s fatal car accident, Leslie hasn’t reached out to, or shown interest in, anyone or anything. She’s even taken leave from the office. Mom came up with this trip. If it wasn’t for her problem back, she’d be with me right now—helping. “Bring our Leslie home,” she whispered, when we said good-bye at Logan. Mom knows the loneliness of being a widow. Dad passed away over ten years ago. Leslie used to be just like him. They were the canaries to Mom’s and my accompanying sparrows.

We’re coming on a sign. It reads Taisteaal go Mall.

“What’s the map say that means?”

” ‘Drive Slowly’—there’s a school.” She gestures to a yellow structure.

“As alone as we are, it’s hard to believe we’d need to be warned to go slowly.”

“Or, that children are nearby.”

I study the schoolhouse, blurred in the fog. Ghostly kids seem to be running on the playground. Leslie watches two swings trembling in the wind as if only recently left behind.

“You must be hungry,” I try to pull her attention back to more earthly matters.

“Mr. Harrigan told me there are eating places at the turnaround.”

No response.

Moving on, we pass relics built into the slopes. I cajole, and Leslie begrudgingly reads about a stone-age ring fort, dating from 500 BC. Later people believed it was a fairy enclave and preserved it.

The locals’ effort to retain their first language of Gaelic, as well as these ancient structures, touches me. It makes up for Fungi.

Odd-looking beehive huts called “clochans,” which resemble stone igloos, dot the landscape. There are over 400 in the area. Early ones sheltered monks who fled to Ireland’s wilderness, saving Christianity from extinction. I feel a twinge of admiration for their sense of purpose.

“Let’s walk up to one of those buildings.”

“They look awfully dank.” Leslie wrinkles her nose.

“You may never pass this way again.”

We stumble over slippery grass, catching ourselves on mossy rocks. Leslie places her hand gracefully, never falling. I scramble and slide to my knees and am reminded of a St. Patrick’s Day morning when we were young. As I squatted on my bedroom floor, marking dynamics to a violin piece, Leslie tiptoe-ran through the door, then twirled and twirled, never falling. She wore an emerald green velvet dress from the holidays. Sitting there in my dingy yellow-green sweatshirt from music camp, I grew dizzy watching her.

We reach a clochan and enter. I rub my hand along its rough, dry wall. “In this weather, it should smell mildewed, but the way they’re built—it’s called ‘corbelled’— must keep them dry.” I sense the presence of a long-ago huddled holy figure. “Can you imagine living in here?” Maybe Leslie feels it, too.

“No. And, I’m getting out. It’s too close.” She backs into the rain. Soon, I follow.

Around a few more curves, I spot the site for which this drive is named.

“That’s Slea Head,” I announce, feeling like a tour-bus guide. There’s a large white crucifix—Christ with the three grieving women at His feet. “We’re on the westernmost point of Europe. People say the next parish is Boston.” I’m closer to home than anywhere else during our whole journey, yet a bubble of detachment seals around me.

Waves crash over rocks below. The ocean, visible for only a short distance, disappears into an impenetrable wall of rolling gray.

“A ship called the Santa Maria de la Rosa was found out there.” I’m reminded of Devin Harrigan’s dark good looks. He defines the term Black Irishman. “It was part of the Spanish Ar…”

“Those statues are horrible!” Leslie’s perfect face has twisted.

“Why do you say that?”

“Noreen, can’t you see? There’s red paint streaked on the hands and feet. Even the body. To look like blood.”

I stare at the blotches and agree they’re disturbing. But, I feel something else, too. “Maybe someone was trying to get closer to the pain. Make the story seem more real.”

“Why would anyone want to do that?”

“Life has often been wretched for these people. This must give them something to cling to.”

Portions of whitewash have worn off the statues, showing gray beneath. From the angle where I am, Leslie looks gray, too.

“It makes me sick. When Danny died, and I lost the baby, I went to church…”

I think of our Episcopal church, where you’d never see statues like these.

“It was useless,” she goes on. “Why did God do this to us? I don’t care that Mother paid for our trip. Why would she think this place, with its gloomy weather and bizarre traditions and morbid religion, could possibly make me feel like I used to feel?”

“I guess we were grasping, thinking something about Grandpa’s Ireland might console you.”

“Can’t you understand? I don’t want to be consoled…I want to go!”

“We better. There’s still over half the loop to make.”

For quite a ways, the silence inside the car feels as thick as the fog outside.

Occasionally, there’s a glimpse of reclaimed land—patches where rock walls support grass growing over transported sand and seaweed. We come upon stone houses sprouting from the earth. Some are inhabited, making up the loosely connected village of  Dunquin—Dun Chaoin. Others fall in shambles, abandoned eons ago.

I stay quiet until I see a road companion. She’s middle-aged, riding a bicycle up the hill and out of town.

“I’ll bet she came for her mail,” I venture. “Wonder how far she has to pedal?”

“Looks abysmal.” Leslie shudders.

The woman wears a plastic rainhat and several layers of handmade cardigans over her dark-print housedress. “She’s going to be soaked through by her return to the kitchen.”

“Don’t females here believe in wearing pants?” Leslie frowns at the woman’s mud-splattered bare legs. Rolled-down anklets skim the tops of her brogues. She keeps a steady pace, features bunched, eyes straight ahead, as her shoulders bob back and forth with each push to a pedal. Trotting behind her, a herding dog ignores the rain, which now lessens to a drizzle.

As the car passes, I raise a hand and smile, but the woman never turns our way. It’s the first time on this trip that Ireland’s legendary friendliness proves amiss. She perseveres as if in a trance. The dog halts, wags his tail, and barks when we cruise by.

“She’s not curious about us,” I say.

“Good for her. The cheeriness in this country gets to be too much.” Leslie pauses, scowling at the woman whom she just praised. “Her mind’s on the task at hand.”

The old Leslie would have wheedled an acknowledgment.

We continue along the road. At a turn-out, I stand alone next to the wall, mesmerized by the ocean’s sound, hoping for enough of a clearing so that I can see something. Could there be a sea maiden out there? I strain to hear her music.

Instead, there’s a bark, and another, and another. The biking woman has caught up while I waited to be spirited away. Once more, she ignores our presence as the dog runs in circles, yipping his happy hello.

Back on the drive a few minutes later, I become wary and confused. “Oh my gosh. What’s coming?”

It takes a minute to identify a herd of black-and-white cows, plugging along, straight down the road. They ooze around the car’s edges and engulf us. Against each closed side window a gigantic head rubs slimy smudges. Eyes roll sideways, looking in with no genuine interest, while the acrid aroma of barn seeps through to our enclosure.

“It must be milking time. Nothing’s going to keep them from the barn.”

“They’re determined, all right. Galumping. A step at a time.” Leslie’s head bounces back and forth. “And here comes that woman again.”

This time, she walks her bicycle around the mob, brushing by a roadside building.

My eyes follow her. I wait for a nod as she passes so close that I hear sloshes of water squishing in her shoes. As before, she keeps her eyes straight ahead, intent on her mission. Not even a wink for our shared predicament. The dog weaves in and out between manure-encrusted legs, mindful of a kicking hoof.

We sit, cows surging in one direction, as the woman breaks free, mounts her bicycle, and resumes the uphill trek.

Before herd stragglers pass so that we can go forward, the woman turns right and wobbles around puddles in her driveway. A gray stone cottage awaits her at the end. As our Opel moves by, the dog stands for several moments, watching us pass from his life. He doesn’t bark, but his tail wags, and his mouth hangs open in a panting grin.

“That dog’s exhausted,” Leslie says. “I hope she gives him a bowl of water right away.”

My sister recognizing another creature’s need?

When she discovered her pregnancy, Leslie assumed I would babysit for them on the weekends. “You could use something to do,” she told me.

“I’m plenty busy,” I snapped, but had to admit to myself, that other than preparing for my music classes, I sat alone with the television most evenings.

She miscarried shortly after Danny’s accident.

Much as Mother and I have tried to get her through this time, Leslie’s never been the same since those dual catastrophes. Sometimes I’m afraid I’ve lost a sister, in addition to a brother-in-law, and a little baby I did want to look after.

We arrive at the turnaround where the sign indicates two different roads will return us to Dingle Town—11 kilometers, either direction. The dreariness of the day succumbs to darkness. I’m tired and stiff and hungry. Without consulting Leslie, I turn away from the ocean, searching for a place to eat.

*

A few miles down the road, which now has hazy fields on both sides, I spot a shake-covered building with smoke drifting from its chimney.

Not surprisingly, ours is the only car in the parking area. The first thing I notice when we get inside is the comforting aroma of meat and vegetables simmering. A woman with a mantle of gray frizzy hair and pale pointed features greets us, saying “Failte”—welcome. She leads the way to a table tucked next to the crackling fire, and says, “I’ll bring tea?”

“Sure, that’d be great.” I sit on a padded window seat, with square-paned glass behind me, wondering what to talk about now. Beside me is a bookshelf. I pick up an autobiography by Peig Sayers, documenting hardships of life in the nearby Blasket Islands—Na Blascaodai.

“Did you enjoy our drive?” Leslie asks.

Surprised by her question, I say, “Yes, a lot. I’m going to come back another day when it’s clear.” I think of the golden sands and my make-believe run.

She doesn’t ask when.

“How about you. Did you like it?” I refrain from saying at all.

“I did. Eventually.” She blows on her tea. “At first it was just one more thing I had to force myself to do.”

“When did that change?”

“It was the woman on her bicycle. And those silly cows.” A small, long-absent smile lifts her lips. “Their determination to reach home, without distraction, despite the weather.”

“That woman kept pedalling uphill, no matter how difficult the day.”

“She didn’t feel the need to be friendly or pleasant, either. Blast the rest of the world and the reputation of the Irish.”

“She was…”

“There’s always been this expectation that I would be charming. Delighting everyone. Taking charge.” Leslie looks over my shoulder and through the window to the falling rain. “I can’t do that anymore. When Danny was killed, and the baby…that part of me died, too.”

Her eyes meet mine and hold steady. For the first time, I see all the colors in them. My sister’s eyes aren’t solid blue at all. There’s a mixture of gray and green rays interspersed. They used to dart from person to person, never resting long enough for this kind of scrutiny. More recently, they’ve been fixed far off, beyond my own gaze. At this moment, Leslie stares directly, eyes still, allowing the different colors to show.

“So, you’re always going to be miserable?” I finally ask.

“I’m not miserable.”

My immediate thought is, you could’ve fooled me.

“I’m sad and sometimes angry. You probably won’t believe this, but once in a while, I’m even content at this still place I’ve found myself.”

The woman with the cloud of gray hair returns, carrying our order—lamb stew and a basket of bread, in earth-toned pottery she says is made locally.

When she leaves, Leslie sits forward. “I always got what I wanted. I didn’t think about it much. That was the way it was.” She goes within for a moment. “Two years ago, the most important person in my life was stolen. Then, his baby. After that, all the wants left. I’ve come to accept that. Maybe I’ll never want again. Except one thing.” She takes a deep breath. “I want you to stop watching, hanging on my every word, as if at any moment the real me will suddenly materialize. That person’s gone. And it’s time for you to move on with your life. I’ll find my way. I promise. But I can’t find yours for you.”

I feel like she’s taken my shoulders and given them a hard shake. “Forever…you’ve had the answers…” I stumble over the words. “It seemed right for you to tell me which way to go.”

“Since I don’t have a hint where I’m heading, I can’t very well show you, can I?”

I nod. For the first time, since this began, I feel no hope that Leslie will ever be the same. I understand—she’s been left adrift to grope for new moorings.

As we continue silently eating, the door opens. In walks Devin Harrigan, his dark hair sparkling with raindrops. He’s bundled in a gray stormcoat, smiling broadly and striding our way.

“Glad you’re well,” he says. “Da fretted when the weather changed.”

“How thoughtful of you to come checking on us.” What a relief to have someone else at our table.

“’Tis nothing. I needed to set his mind to rest.”

“We didn’t have any problems, except a herd of cows headed for home.” I laugh. “The car will never be the same.”

“It’s hard to come this way and not get stalled by one type of animal or another. Still, I figured all would be well. You were in complete control when you left.”

Devin declines my offer of stew. “I’ll join you in a cup of tea,” he says, and pulls up a chair to sit down, facing the entry.

Other than a greeting, Leslie doesn’t say a word, for which I’m unexpectedly grateful. She stares into the fire’s flames and nibbles at her meal.

Tones from a piper begin to float through the background. It’s “Londonderry Air”—a piece I played at the memorial service. I listen for a short while and am surprised that I don’t feel like crying for Danny or clinging to Leslie.

I tell Devin what we saw on our journey. When I mention the three-legged goat, he says, “That’d be the Scanlons’. There’re many scrambling on these hills, but only one like him.” With a grin, he adds, “That fellow’s almost as much of a curiosity as Fungi back in town. Maybe they should charge for viewings.” Then, “Speaking of town, do you feel up for that round of pubs and old-time music?”

“I’m settling in with my book,” Leslie says immediately.

“Noreen?” Devin Harrigan’s look of anticipation never wavers.

“I’ll let you know—when we get back to the inn.”

Of course I’m going with him—to hear the music. I can’t wait. But I still have the rest of the loop to drive and plenty of soft margin along the way. I’m surprised. I don’t feel the least bit wary.

Maybe I won’t run on the golden sands this trip, but singing along with the lilting ballads and dancing an Irish jig might be every bit as memorable.

Published by Crucible

<– back