Monday, 17 Jun 2019

I Call It “Éire”

Liam McMillin

– Part I –
The hair between his knuckles and on the back of his hand was gold, although not all the hairs shone at once. The light would choose some, and others would be invisible until he shifted his wrist to stir his tea or pull back his sweater cuff to check the time. He sat this morning in a cafe, reading silently. On the shared bookshelf he had found a book from his childhood of an underground city, and he read it now, cover to cover, pausing only once to ask for more hot water. He’d found the paperback between an Oscar Wilde biography and a large black book titled “The Official Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” wide and official looking. The day before, he had tried to read on the bus, but as soon as he bent his neck towards the page, he’d felt sick, and instead, pressed the side of his face against the cool glass and tried to sleep.

The book he held in his hands now was about children. They had strange names, and lived in a city built beneath the surface of the earth, and they were left there for centuries. Like all stories, they rode the river out, to the light, a boy, a girl, and a baby.

When he was younger, he’d read the book, but he’d skipped over the boring bits, looking instead for dialogue and exclamation marks. Now, he read slowly, the large font of the page embossing each letter, and each word, and he read it as if it were Braille, feeling it with his eyes.

When he finished, he placed the book back between the biography and the report, left his pot and mug on the table, pulled on his jacket, and walked slowly towards the door. The clouds hung low, flat and grey, but blue streaks cut across like cracks in a motel ceiling. His watch told him that it was nearing dinner time, but his stomach was not in it. A week and a half of meat and potatoes, bacon and pudding, mushrooms and fried tomatoes, had left his center of gravity lower in his stomach, a solid brick stuck at the bottom of his gut. In rural Ireland, he’d found, fish was the lighter alternative, and even that was breaded and fried. When he was on the coast, breathing sea air lifted his center into his heart, and he’d sat for hours in alcoves provided by the sculpting waves and spray of the sea.

Where he sat, the rocks had been carved from above. Small pools, no bigger than his cupped hands, were left by waves flowing over the stone at high tide. Farther into the sea, the thin walls were all that were left, the pools cutting deep into the rock until the water flowed easily between them. At low tide he’d walked out on these, the walls thin but more than strong enough to hold his weight. The waves, low then, sidled in, beneath the soles of his shoes, and back again. He’d squatted low, watching the water deliver small pebbles and sand, small fish and snails, small green plants, and he’d laughed with joy, at the life in the sea and of the sea.

He smiled now, walking along the street, farther inland than before. He came to a bookstore and went in, although he only looked at pens and pencils, and didn’t buy anything. Stepping on to the cobblestone path, he could feel the stones individually, and realized how worn his shoes had become. Before he’d gotten on the plane, he’d pulled down his kit from the shelf and cleaned and polished the brown leather, brushing the polish into the cracks formed above the knuckles of his toes with the small brush, using small circular motions to smooth out the leather. He paused now, and bent to one knee, pretending to retie his laces, and examined the toe. It was worn, and lighter colored than the rest of the shoe, scratched and scuffed from the rough volcanic rock of the waterfront. He made a point to climb to ledges and alcoves he figured the fewest people had stepped on, at times forgetting his footwear, reaching around cliff corners and carefully pulling himself up rock faces with only the white waves beneath him, his jacket whipping sharply in the wind.

He buttoned his jacket in front of him now as he crossed the intersection. He wasn’t sure where he was headed but walked with purpose all the same, letting his scuffed toes pull the rest of his body. Turning down an alley, off the main road, he peered over the stone wall as he walked. The houses here were all connected, one long building separated only by slight changes in paint color and roofing material. The houses were all made of thick plaster, unevenly splattered on the vertical face, lumpy and rough. The windows were placed in the exact same place on each face, but trimmed in different woods and panels. He saw a woman go into one, and a man come out of a different house, but besides that the street was empty. At the end of the road, a large triangle of grass between three streets held seven or eight kids playing rugby without a ball. One kid would pretend to hold the ball until he was tackled, and another would pick it up. As he walked by, two boys began to argue, each claiming that they had held the ball. They reached no solution, and as he turned his head to cross the street, he saw one of the two boys walking home to a yellow house at the end of the street he’d just come up.

He ended up at the edge of town, and turned back towards the center. He was beginning to get hungry, thankfully, and ended up in a small pub, where he sat near two men, one on the accordion, and the other on the concertina, who played from a couch. A microphone balanced on a pillow broadcasted the music through the whole pub, and he listened first to the music, and then to their chatter as he sipped his pint and chewed his sandwich.

– Part II –
Walking later, past “Kennedy’s Funeral Home,” he remembered his previous trip to Ireland. In Galway—where he’s headed next—when he was twelve, his brother, ten at the time, was overcome by an illness. He ran a high fever, lay in bed most of the day, which limited one parent at a time to leave the B&B that they slept in. “The patient,” as the father called him, claimed the world was moving faster than it should. A day later, the brother was fine.

Thinking about it now, the older brother remembers the white of the bedspread, and the hurling on the TV.

He crossed the bridge over the river towards the hostel. The river flowed quietly beneath him, solid and smooth. He paused at the peak of the bridge’s arc and peered down below. The water, which he had thought was green, was just a dark, clear lens for the flowing grass beneath. It covered most of the bed, the flowing hair overlapping with other wigs attached to the bed.

The next day, he sat waiting for the bus to Galway. A button had fallen off his jacket, and he’d found a needle and thread at the chemists on the way there. He slid the point through the wool of the blazer, and made an ‘x’ on the jacket, threaded the loop of the button, and back around the ‘x.’ An older woman sat next to him, and watched him carefully. “Handy with a needle, are ya?” she asked. He smiled and admitted his novice, but later, the button held, and only a little thread stuck out.

– Part III –
When it came time to put pen to paper, as it always did, he found it easier to write in third-person, to use “he” instead of “I,” embracing the separation between man and writer, for often, he had found, the writer tries hard to be the man, and the man too hard to be a writer. So he wrote of a character, unnamed, although still signifying his identity, this character perhaps closer to both.

He wrote in bed, on busses, waiting for meals. He filled his blue notebook with words trying to describe the indescribable island, and the sea. Oh the magical sea. Each time he wrote, he worked to give the sea lines and stage directions, but the sea seemed to prefer improvisation, and even that was too structured to describe the sea. For some reason, he felt that “ocean” was the word of suburban families, used when describing vacations. But when he wrote “the sea,” he could feel the whisper of spray in his ear, the push of the wind at the small of his back as he stood on the storm wall. The sea was a character so full of life it never paused to wonder whether anyone was watching. Oceans can be named. The sea is a sound repeated and echoed by humans when they close their eyes, and the water washes over their shoes.

When he sat to write, it wasn’t because he had to empty a full bucket but rather to mark his height on the wall with pen, and add his initials and date. So he wrote, and wrote, until the notebook could take no more. He filled another notebook. He found receipts, napkins, ticket stubs, and placed them in his pocket for no particular reason. He wrote long past the time he meant to, squeezing every last drop of light from the moon through the window pane. The moon shone on the base of each hair on the hand that held the pen, highlighting the silver he hadn’t seen before.

– Part IV –
The last day in Galway, he walked up and down the streets parallel to the sea. His feet led him. His splashing steps echoed from off the sea. He turned a corner around a waterfront condominium and was met with silence. He stopped, and watched the wind moving droplets of rain, but none landed on his jacket, so only his eyes told him they were there. A gull broke the silence in two. Two parts, the first the world’s inhale, and the second, his exhale. And then it was gone.

Liam McMillin is a writer and a rambler, and is putting the final touches on a religion major at Oberlin College, although he reads more Emerson and Muir than Augustine and Paul. A proponent for the trees and the sea, Liam sees himself listening to the rustles and the waves for years to come.