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|By Geraldine Mills|
|She made her decision in the Hungry month. All morning the
storm raged around the caravan. Trees bent to its supremacy and birds thrown off
their flight paths were dashed against the main window. Cows stood, back to the wind,
and all over the cliff hailstones found their way down chimneys and hissed in open
flames. There was a dream she had to follow like a trail across the clouds. Aisling
read their sign and knew what she had to do.
She pulled on her jacket and closed the front of the stove. Catlin, curled like a fat rope, purred in the cradle of its warmth. "Mind the house till I come back, Cat." she ordered him as she went out the door, the wind almost whipping it off its hinges. She sidestepped the wind, a solo dancer on the sloping path that gave way from clinging grass to rock before she felt the softness of sand under her boots. She stood there, holding onto her hood, the sand stinging and beating against her legs on a jetsammed beach. She watched the break of waves, the huge swell rising up and blocking out the horizon till it quelled and for a speck of time the world was level again. Then her eyes stretched across the scape to take in its expanse from the far cliff to infinity.
Her canoe was resting in the tuck of sand by the rocks. She squelched it across the knotted wrack until she pushed it into the sea. Then she hopped in and picked up the paddle. There she became a constant on the great movement, arms raised and bowed as she worked it. With determination she navigated the waves, eased in with them, pulled against the wind and the force of it, the paddle enjoining the vessel how to cut each wave. She rode high on a crest; disappeared into the black of the trough. There in that hole, with the water growling up around her she knew it was going to be a tough contest. Water dropped off her eyelashes, ran down her face into her mouth. One mean swipe from the sea and she would be gone into its churning. She held fast, waiting for the moment when she could ride out of it, when she was in the superior position again. She continued to ease and bite until she had it settled in her mind. Then sideswinging, she let the waves carry the vessel in. It crunched on the sand, a paddle thrown on to the shore while her body pulled its shape from the canoe. The body stood up looking none the worse for its adventure. She knew it could be done.
By afternoon the wind had exhausted itself to a whimper and she walked to the village to get some masking tape, to try and patch the window. Another bad wind and that glass would be in on top of her. The rain had eased off too and by the time she got there the clouds had lifted and were being blown somewhere across the Atlantic to the next pub after Grogan's, letting loose its taste of Ireland and dropping its dampness before it reached Martha's Vineyard.
She pushed in the door of Danny Minihan's hardware store. The bell pinged to attention and Danny looked up from the boxes of nails and washers through which he was searching. Danny had yet to hear of neat little sealed bags of screws and grommets that would slide off their own tagged hook into the customer's hand. The old man did not live by such certainty. Five-eighths shared the same bed with quarter-inch and whatever other orphan fixtures that were searching out a home. He was glad to see Aisling. He was fond of the young woman who stood inside the door. He could never figure out what possessed her to live up on the cliff in that draughty caravan, especially after what happened. She should be out painting the town red or whatever they did with their friends these days, instead of forever tinkering with boats or going out in her canoe. But sure it wasn't from the grass she licked it.
"Ah you went out this morning again. It must have been fierce entirely"
"It was Dan."
"See any mermaids today?"
"Divil a wan. A bit blustery for them today", she laughed "I need some masking tape to fix that window of mine. If I don't it will come in on top of me one of these days."
"Wouldn't you be far better off going back to the cottage and leaving that ole tin can for summer visitors. How many times do you need to be told. That cliff isn't safe, girl."
"You know the answer to that, Danny."
"I do girl, I do, that'll be 1.50."
"O.K. if I settle up with you tomorrow?"
"Grand girl, sure you're not going anywhere."
"No, well not today anyway, Danny."
Aisling then went as far as the post office to see if there was any mail for her. The postman refused to climb the cliff and deliver her post after what he had seen of her mother. Now Mrs. Cassidy held them for her, beaming up at her as she handed them over as if she were bestowing on her a personal gift. She didn't open her letters until she was back in the caravan. There were two for her, one was a bill for a boating magazine and the other from James to say he and the gang would be coming down at Easter. The Flower month. It would be her last time to see them before she went.
Once the decision was made the rest was easy. She studied the canoe until she was sure in her mind that it was big enough to hold her and Cat and provisions. What it needed was a shelter and a place to rest when tiredness took over. She set about getting a cabin built at one end. She went to see Tom Sullivan in the garage to shape a hood out of aluminium for her. He came, measured up and disappeared for a few weeks. Aisling went searching for him, impatience dictating to her that time was scuttling by. He was run to ground in a pub somewhere and promised delivery next day. When next day turned into next week and Aisling was gearing up for battle he arrived with the shaped shelter and his welding equipment. He proceeded to attach it to the frame, one eye watching her with her hair parted in the middle, falling in straight locks along her cheeks, exposing a clear, wide though not high forehead. Her skin was dark and weathered and her eyes looked out under dark lashes.
"What would you be wantin' a cabin for now", he quizzed her as the solder ran likequicksilver along the frame's edge.
"That's for me to know and you to find out, Tommy Sullivan, so just keep welding", she retorted.
"Wouldn't it be a lot nicer now if you were weldin' that body of yours against mine instead of this cold ole contraption."
"Keep your filthy thoughts for your wife, Tom Sullivan, or you'll feel the welt of that iron on your fat arse."
"God but you're a hard woman, Aisling Finn."
Aisling's first cry was into a world of fish smells, salt and diesel. This world grew with her into her hair and under her nails. Part of the very air she breathed, she took it for granted until she grew up and was sent to boarding school. There she tried to walk the city way, to suck out the lean bits of living in this world that was dry and barren to her. The day that she couldn't hear the sound of the sea in her head she packed her bag, left all her school books in her locker and hitched home. She arrived at her parents door and insisted that her father take her out on the boats with him. There her body and soul returned to its own rhythm of learning from the wind and the pull of the tide.
Everyday now she took out the canoe. On calm days Catlin came with her, settling himself into comfort at the base of the craft before the first stroke on the water. Each trip strengthened her resolve as much as her muscles. She remembered how far back her story started to unfold. She was only three or four when her father brought her out on the boat. The mackerel were running and they worked all night pulling in nets that were glinting, wriggling live things. When the boat, gorged with fish, turned to go back to shore she set up a cry so fierce that her father thought she must be in pain. Her childish words could not explain for her how she wanted him to keep going out, till they got to the other side of the ocean. She cried till they got to the pier. This happened so many times her father lost his temper with her and refused to let her go, unless she stopped crying on the home run. After that Aisling learned the knack of keeping the longing within bones so that only she could hear the deep echoing within her. To go back to where she came from, for she was on the wrong edge of the ocean.
She could not, however, pinpoint when she first noticed the look in her mother's eye. It seemed to be forever there like a birthmark. That look that was the biggest thing in a room when the boats were gone out and she and her child were left behind. She brought that look with her every other evening when she walked the cliff edge, holding fiercely to her daughter's hand while she stood staring across the vastness. As Aisling got older she stopped going with her. Then one evening, her mother's longing, fractured by years of looking, finally cracked.
Her father lived a few years after her mother and when he was gone the house no longer held her in its care. Now alone, she was free to leave it. Taking nothing but a few clothes and her father's tools and fishing gear and an old photograph she moved to the caravan on this knife-edge of cliff. Then she rented the cottage to a German couple who were crying out for a house on the western seaboard. She put the picture on a little shelf, studying the photograph in the light of her new home. There was a middle-aged woman standing to the left side of the half door. She was tired-looking with three small children on each side of her. They wore no shoes and their eyes had that funny look of old photographs as if someone had pierced them with pins. But it was the younger woman leaning over the door that had Aisling returning to it again and again. She stood tall and proud, her hair parted precisely on each side; that broad low forehead the high cheek bones. Aisling knew these features went back further than that and further than that again. She knew they were present in her too.
In the evening when the light began to turn itself down and prepare itself to emerge on another horizon, Aisling sat outside in front of a blazing fire. She plucked leaves from the plants and herbs that she had growing in wooden boxes around her and sprinkled them on the fire. As they sacrificed themselves to the flames she watched them throw shapes from the smoke that curlicued above the fire, swirling up into the sky. They gathered and shaped into night images, dark shadows of faces that looked like her, her mother, her grandmother. Boats with sails, men in them. As each curl ripped itself, it unveiled more. Pillars, large animals. Crosses and tomahawks. She squatted there, chanting in a strange sound whose origins she was only beginning to guess at. She cradled the pictures in her mind. They were taking on shape. Then she smoored the ashes over the dying embers, sealing in the last of the heat, as hermetically as an alchemist, so that it was there all night, never quenching until she woke in the morning and raking off the ashes, found the flame still burning there.
Today the water was very calm and she moved with even balance, the paddle skimming the clear water. A day like today would be easy moving. Silent. Being carried with grace like a seabird. For one moment she could feel a vulnerability, as if eyes from the high ground were arrowed on her, watching her every move, preparing to attack until all was shattered by the passing of a speedboat which left her bobbing up and down like a shelduck. As each day stretched itself to a fly's wingspan of brightness, she became more intent on her preparations, taking the canoe further out past the islands, some nights sleeping curled up on the floor before working her way back to the cliff edge.
James and Helen and Aoife were coming late that afternoon. She was going to meet them in Grogan's for a pint.
"How is our very own Crusty," they cheered as she walked in. Pints were ordered and soon they were talking her through their affairs and how many stripes they owned of the celtic tiger. She was glad to see them. Glad to have the laugh with them. But would they understand what she told them? When they were all thrown out of the pub they wended their way back to her caravan. It was the same every visit. They liked the idea of sitting around a fire crosslegged, wood crackling and spitting at them, singing while they passed around the bottle of whiskey. The moon was out full, shining down on the camp.
"Well any plans since we saw you last, Crusty," asked Aoife.
A cloud came covering the moon. Its shape like the head and beak of a cormorant shyed momentarily, and the moon shining through it became the monster gleaming eye of the bird.
"I'm thinking of going away."
"That's a big step. I didn't know you had anyone over there," said James. "Have you booked your ticket yet?"
"Well, I won't be needing one."
"You're going to sprout wings and fly over I suppose."
"Stop messin' Helen. I'm not flying. I'm taking the canoe."
"You're what?" James spluttered whiskey all over Helen."You can't be serious."
"You're fuckin' crazy. You'd be smashed to a pulp before you were five miles out."
"If you really want to go," said Aoife, "take a liner, a boat. Or if you really what to play scary fly out from Knock. Then it would take nearly as long."
They all laughed.
"You could be right." Aisling said.
"Why, Crusty, why?"
"I'm on the wrong side of the Atlantic. I'm going back. Back to where I came from."
"When are you going?"
"Before June is out."
They finished the whiskey on the strength of that, Aisling filling them in on her plans and her reasons for going. They didn't know if it was the effect of the whiskey or their friend's convincing argument that had them accepting it as a great idea before they had passed their sell-by dates and collapsed one by one onto her bed and floor, for what was left of the night. If she was going, and they were by now sure that she was, they were going to give her a right good wake. They finally left on Monday, the only day Aisling did not go out.
The days had now almost stretched to their fullness. Soon it would be Green Corn Month. She would be well gone before the Summer Solstice. Day by day another part of the preparations were finalised. The hardware was loaded up a week in advance of setting out, rope, heavy plastic, a spare paddle and all the other bits and pieces that were part of emergency supplies. The money from the cottage would help her get settled in the new world. It was just a matter of patience now, before she started to unravel the pattern that had been knitted into her race memory. All the other supplies were piled high inside the caravan door.
The day before, she went down to Dannys' for a can of paraffin.
"You'll be heading off to the islands soon."
"Yes, " she said, not wanting to enlighten him on her exact route.
"And do you think you'll get far up along the coast. As far as Tory maybe?"
"I might you know, maybe even further."
"Mind you don't get caught in Hy Brazil and never come back to us."
"I know where my home is,Danny,"she said as she put her money on the counter and left. The day she was leaving was at last hers. She spent all morning walking up and down to the beach with her supplies. Everything had to have a place of its own. She continually checked the balance of the craft. If she was going to turn over it was not going to be because of her own clumsiness. She had years of that drilled into her. The last thing to go in was her own belongings. She packed the photograph on top of her holdall and zipped it. Closing the door behind her she knelt and taking a piece of charcoal from the fire drew lines across her face. Then she scattered the ashes from the fire and stamped them into the ground. She took the can of paraffin, sprinkled it over the caravan; stole the last spark from the fire and set it alight. With a swift turn she picked up her bag and Catlin and took the final steps down to the beach. Pushing out she launched the canoe into the sea. The paddle dipping, she silently moved off. Looking back she watched the flames rising up on the cliff and the smoke signals visible as far back as Grogan's pub and beyond. She was no different to the monks who had taken that journey all those centuries ago.
This was the way the sea divided for them to let through their hideboat, of wooden frame and skin of leather stitched together with flax and sheep grease. They navigated through the paradise of birds, the isle of smiths, the land of crystal pillars till they came to the promised land. They would have found it impossible not to have entered into the warmth of a long house and shared the food and hospitality of the people there. They settled there, casting their eyes on some full-blooded redskin squaw. Until somewhere they heard the bell of their own brethern tolling at the foot of Mt Brandon which they could not deny. They returned again in their leather boat. With their woman. Who settled on the western seaboard forever looking across to where their own people lived. Whose eye could not see but whose heart was forever longing for the familiarity of sisters around the fire at Big Trading Month when the men had gone to the next camp, exchanging furs and bison and women. Bearing them children that always had that broad flat nose between black hair that sprung in thick plaits divided by a clear knife sharp parting and framing a face that was just like hers.
Geraldine Mills lives in Co. Galway.
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