Digging

A short story

So one day a farmer—his name was Seamus Sullivan, and this was in County Mayo, not far from Knock, where, when Seamus was fifteen, the Virgin had appeared—says to the wife, "I'm off up the field, then," and he goes off in his boots in the early afternoon with the dog at his heel and a shovel in his hand. His only idea is to be out there, as far from the house as he can go without leaving his own bit of land, digging; what he wants is the heft and smell and slide of his own earth at his command. He doesn't wonder whether a man can own something like land; he owns this field and the dirt within it, and the field goes straight down to the center of the earth.

So he goes after the roots of a furze bush. It's the first edge of spring, and thin lips of yellow show here and there on the bush. This digging is hard work, starting away from the thorny bush to make sure he's beyond the spread of the roots, but it's a long day ahead with nothing else he need do, and he dedicates himself to it. He's forty-five, still strong enough to spend the whole day driving the shovel in and piling the good dirt out. But the furze is a shallow weed, and after only an hour the excuse work is mostly done, the thorny bush as root-exposed as if he were planting it instead of casting it out. So he pulls it to the center of the field and sets it afire. Then he goes back to crouch beside his dug pit and roll a cigarette with his dog lolling beside him while the bush burns. It's a pitch-filled thing, a furze bush, so it burns hot and fast. As he tosses the damp end bit of tobacco and paper away, he sees the wife standing down by their house, shading her eyes to watch the last of the flames. Bridget is just a girl still after two years of being married to him, who's older than her husband ought to be. That's enough; he stands and takes up his shovel again.

Maybe the sun comes out for a few minutes, and he feels so good, digging in the thin sunlight in his field, that he wonders why he doesn't do this once a week. His muscles are limber, the rhythm steady, and then his shovel hits something not dirt. Even that, even the challenge of going now into the next layer of his land, where rocks will complicate the digging—even that feels good. He moves the shovel back a few inches and drives it in again and lifts up the dirt and sees there, mud-encrusted and bent, a chalice, the gold pale and shining where his shovel has struck it.

So there stands Seamus, rubbing the dirt from the cup with his broad, calloused fingers for a few seconds before he looks guiltily down the slope to see if Bridget is still watching him. She isn't, so he has a chance to decide: Will he keep digging and see if he can find more? Will he take just this one thing? Will he have a good look and then, tenderly, tuck it back where it came from and replace the dirt and pray for the grass to grow over it all?

In this same midafternoon, in Cork instead of Mayo, Mary Alice O'Driscoll comes hurrying along the road into Clonakilty, tears in her pretty eyes. She's nineteen and a strapping girl, tall and strong, and she has dreams. This is a difficult situation, being a strapping girl with dreams, because nobody believes the combination is natural. Her sister Rosie is the beauty, and people assume she has dreams, but Mary Alice is sturdy, and her mother, a practical woman, sees no reason for Mary Alice not to marry Jimmy Curtin, who owns his own boat and has the hope of a house when his father passes on. He's a hard worker and a decent man, and if Mary Alice would just be reasonable, she'd see that decency is quite a bit to get in a husband, and Jimmy's not that old, not forty yet, and he fancies the girl.

Mary Alice is reasonable, so she has already abandoned any number of dreams without ever having mentioned them to anyone—gracefulness, for example, and a piano, a quick wit in conversation, a holiday in Switzerland, and a wedding in Saint Colman's Cathedral, in Queenstown, the most beautiful thing she has ever seen and as far from Rosscarbery as she's ever been—but now her mother says she can't go to the dance on Saturday in Glandore. Missing the dance shouldn't matter, given all those other things she knows she'll never have, but it does matter. Mary Alice believes her heart is breaking. So she's on her way down the road to complain to her aunt Margaret, who was the strapping sister herself and knows where you end up if you don't hold on to some dream—where she is, housekeeper to the priest.

So here's Mary Alice, her head up so that the tears won't spill, tapping at the kitchen door of the priest's house, tapping and tapping, and not until Father Moran himself, a book in his hand, pulls open the door does she realize that she has come into town with her apron still on and her hair still in last night's plait. Not that Father Moran is tidy, standing there in his stockinged feet and his hair mussed as if he has just waked up and here it is almost time for his tea.

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