Penumbra

A short story
More

Mark and Laura had come to Ireland, though neither of them had said so, in pursuit of a miracle caused by joy. In the months between his diagnosis and their trip, Mark had believed in his death only for brief moments, shudders of a fear that was near euphoria and that gave way almost immediately to shy pride, as if he'd discovered that he had a talent previously unsuspected by anyone. It was true: he, Mark Driscoll, high school history teacher, husband, father, as ordinary a person as he could imagine, had an incurable fatal disease, and was dying. It seemed impossible that he should be doing something so outrageously dramatic. Who am I to be doing such a thing? he'd nearly think. The cancer itself was real, of course—the treatments, the discomfort and expense and awkwardness of it. He'd lost his hair; his face was swollen by medication; he'd grown terribly thin; his balance had become poor; he had no desire for food or sex; even sleep was rarely restful. He knew that strangers found him grotesque and that old friends pitied him, and pitied Laura because she was burdened with him. He pitied her too. So when she proposed the trip to Ireland, he agreed: maybe something would happen. A miracle seemed to him no more unlikely, no more inexplicable, than dying. In any case, they'd always wanted to go to Ireland.

And then, without warning, on St. Patrick's Day, halfway through their three-week stay, as they were dressing to go out for a walk, a moment of terror came and stayed, deepened, thickened. He was suddenly blind with it: he staggered wildly out of the room where Laura stood barefoot, braiding her hair, and careened down the short hall of the hostel and into the street. He knew it, knew it: he was going to be dead. Five more months, maybe six, the oncologist had said in February, and he'd thought then, Oh, that's good, it'll all be over before the holidays. But now, for the first time, he knew that he would be dead, and he could not bear it, and he stood in the chilly Galway street and wept in helpless, wordless fear against the side of a building.

Laura came and got him, and helped him back inside, to the room, to the bed, and sat with him, her hand on his chest, until the sobbing stopped and he was quiet.

When he could speak, he said, "I'm afraid."

"Of course you are," she said. "So am I." And then, quietly, sadly, she began telling her fears—the loneliness, the children's confusion, the future without his company, growing old and facing her own death without him.

She had said these things before; maybe the story of her widowhood comforted her. But hearing her tell it, he realized now, had pleased him. He'd been flattered, he could see now, and the tawdriness of that, its near obscenity, forced a groan from his chest, and he turned his face to the wall.

"Listen," she said, "it's been raining for two days, and we've been stuck in here. That's all this is—bad cabin fever." She patted his back briskly. "What we need to do is get out, go somewhere. I think we should rent a car and go to Kerry."

He couldn't admit his fear, how absolute it had been, and he couldn't say what this was now, this deep shadow of that fear, this understanding that life had nothing to do with him. Nothing mattered. Nothing at all. "All right," he murmured, and for the rest of that day and the next he did as she suggested, dressing, eating, walking within the flurry of her telephone calls and guidebook consultations, her plans for this complicated excursion to Kerry, the Ring of Kerry, Kerry the Kingdom. The darkness weighted his bones, his tongue, his vision, his mind: he would be dead. No: he would be nothing. He would not be. He felt only and obscurely that he should behave well, cause no pain or trouble.

He slept thinking that and woke the second morning beside her. He could feel that she was awake, lying quiet at the slight distance they kept between them now, since sex had stopped—the distance that had once held the pettiness and comfortable meannesses and easy generosities of marriage but was now filled with careful politeness. He was chilly, and thought of the blanket on their bed at home: it was a wool blanket; it had been pretty expensive; they had discussed buying it; it was a blanket like the blankets of his childhood, weighty and rough.

He wanted it. To be there, under that blanket, in the bed and room and house that had been his for so long, was a thing he wanted, and he said aloud, "Laura, we have to go home, now, today."

She stroked his back. "You know we can't do that," she said.

"Jesus," he said, "why not?"

She stopped her hand and then took it away. In his mind he imagined her answers to his question: the cost of changing tickets, Kerry, he'd feel better soon—and to all the answers he replied silently, So what, so what?

"You're upset," she said gently.

"I'm not upset, Laura—I'm dying, and I want to do it at home, not on the damned sidewalk in a foreign country."

He knew now that he would not die heroically, or with wisdom or humor, or by the generous courage of suicide; he wished at least to do it privately. He insisted, bluntly, immovably, as they dressed and ate and walked beside the bay and came back to the hostel, and there, hours later, she finally agreed.

And then, as she left the room to begin the necessary telephone calls, an island, distant and stone-blue, surfaced through the calmed despair of his mind.

All through the afternoon, while he dozed and Laura talked to travel agents and to family members back in Idaho, the small island grew more solid, soothing him, even when she reported that they couldn't get a flight with connections until Thursday. As evening fell and she finished, and came and sat on the edge of the bed beside him and sighed, the island was so close and real that he could almost make out the welter of stone walls, the noise of waves against cliffs.

"We've still got three days," she said into the near dark. "Maybe we could do something."

"Two full days," he agreed. "Not long enough to get to Kerry and back, is it?" It was barely a question.

"No," she said softly, and then, "but thanks," and in a moment she went on. "Maybe we could go to the Aran Islands—Lyle's wife said it would be sunny there." She had her hands in fists in her lap, tapping her knuckles together.

Lyle was an older American man they had met and chatted with most mornings on their walk beside the bay—a man, Mark had thought before, pretty obviously smitten with Laura, and embarrassed by it, because he was quite a bit older, and because Mark was sick, a poor rival. Mark had found it a little irritating that Laura had been so oblivious, but he hadn't quite been willing to tease her about it. And then this morning Lyle's wife had come with him, so maybe she'd noticed it too, in something Lyle had said, or hadn't said. At any rate, she'd come along this morning, and she had said the Aran Islands were sunny—"Bright as Arizona," in fact—and he'd forgotten, had hardly heard her, but surely that suggestion explained this island in his mind.

"When we get home, it'll still be March," Laura said, hurrying through something wretched in her voice. "We could use a little sun."

She had given up a great deal, so he asked, "Is that what you want?" And when she said, "Yes," he said, "All right, then—tomorrow?"

"I think the bus for the ferry leaves at nine and three." She reached across his chest and turned on the lamp. "I'll get the tour book. Maybe we could take the later one, and spend the night?"

The light and the book, full of photographs and advice, replaced the odd, bare island of his imagination with Inishmore, the largest of the three islands, where they'd see the huge ring fort and hidden holy wells, and buy sweaters for the children. He didn't mind: when this was over, they would go home, where he would wait, among familiar faces and familiar things, to die.

The ferry was a good-sized boat, with an open deck on top and another at the rear, and a big windowed cabin below. Mark and Laura sat inside, protected from the wind and spray and excitement of actually being on the sea. "You can sit outside if you want to," he said, and she said no, she was all right. She might nap a bit, she said, and he might want to too. He agreed, and the steady rhythm of the ferry's engine sent him to the edge of sleep; the island met him again, rising beyond a stretch of jumbled boulders where huge, glistening seals, their backs mottled gray and brown, gazed steadily past him, wise and placid, out to sea.

When he awoke, the ferry was slowing, and he knew they were approaching the real island. They waited, as had become their pattern, for most of the others to leave; then they made their slow way up the steps and across the little gangplank onto the pier at Kilronan, Inishmore.

The wind was cold, but the sun shone brilliantly on five minibuses lining the pier and, farther up, a dozen or so pony traps standing beside the road that led around a small beach. A ruddy-faced Irishman in a tweed Irish cap stood by each bus and each two-wheeled cart, calling out his offer of a tour to the people leaving the ferry. Beyond, on the slope behind a very tall, clearly modern Celtic cross, crowded the buildings that must be the village proper: a hotel, two pubs, other low buildings he couldn't identify.

All of it struck Mark as shabby, after the clean, wild barrenness of the island in his mind, but Laura said, "Oh, isn't it pretty?" so he kept that thought to himself. He said, "Well, here we are—what'll we do?"

"We ought to take one of those pony carts," she said, and her face was bright. "The book says they take you halfway up the island, to that big stone fort."

They walked slowly, and Mark watched a couple get into one of the carts and then grab the sides, their faces startled, as the pony began trotting and they bounced away. He shook his head. "I don't think my unpadded bones would take it," he said. "Why don't we find a place to sit down and take a look at the guidebook—see what's nearby."

She shrugged, and he could feel her disappointment, but she said, "Okay—how about over there," pointing. There, at the lowest edge of the village, in front of a pair of new-looking sweater shops, a low wall curved behind several concrete benches.

As they walked past the pony carts and along the small beach, among the other tourists and around the groups hurrying to board the return ferry, Mark hoped for something to see, something pleasant for her and possible for him.

"All right?" she said, and her voice was so simply kind that he was ashamed: she was kind, and this was the last of the Irish adventures—he should try to make it pleasant for her, at least. He thought of saying that Lyle's wife had been right about the sun, and then he thought he'd do better than that—he'd tell her that Lyle thought she was beautiful. Without thinking further, he said, "Lyle was attracted to you, you know."

"Lyle?" she said. "Oh—Lyle."

"He was—that's why he was so awkward when his wife came along."

She laughed softly and shook her head. They came to the benches and sat down.

"No—really," Mark said. "I'm serious."

"Oh, don't be silly," she said. She squeezed his hand and let it go, and opened her bag to find the guidebook.

"He probably dreams about you."

"I doubt that," she said, but he could see color rising in her cheek. She opened the book to the index in the back.

Her dismissal of his compliment made him stubborn. "Well, I know what I'm talking about," he said. "I've wanted some women that way." A gull glided in and began foraging in front of them. "You remember Kathy—she lived across from us in married-student housing? I used to think about her all the time, that long hair of hers. And then when I first started teaching at Polk High, there was a science teacher, Joanna. I don't know if you ever even met her, but there was something about her hands." He watched the gull, thinking distantly of how much it looked like a pigeon, really. "Sometimes I'd be driving home, and the way she moved her hands would leap into my mind and take my breath away." Across the little bay return passengers were filing onto the ferry. "And then Toni—remember Toni?" He turned to her then, and saw that she did, and he saw too that she was waiting to be injured, but he found he couldn't stop. "I didn't actually dream about her, but I used to wake up Sundays sometimes, thinking about what it would be like—"

"For heaven's sake, Mark," she said, and that did stop him.

"I never did anything," he said.

Her eyes didn't change.

"I didn't," he said, and he heard the resentment in his voice and was astonished at it. What had he expected? He had meant to pay her a compliment at first, and then he'd begun bullying her with his memories. Had he thought she'd be grateful?

And yet, behind all that his resentment was real. He had tried to be nice, to be pleasant, to assure her of her attractiveness, and here she was with this accusing stare, as if he'd confessed infidelity. He'd been faithful—if faithful meant he'd never said anything, never touched another woman in other than a publicly affectionate way. But he had loved those women in a way, and half a dozen others, desiring them through long afternoons and upon waking and while driving home. "I just found them attractive," he said.

Slowly, her eyes hard now, she nodded, and turned from him to look out over the water, her hands tight on the book in her lap.

"I don't anymore," he said. "I don't feel that way anymore. About anybody."

She nodded again, without looking at him. "I know," she said. "It's all right."

"I just thought you should know," he said.

"It's all right," she said again, and carefully put the book back in her bag. She stood up. "I'm going to find a B and B." She adjusted the red scarf she wore over the shoulders of her coat, but she didn't look at him.

"Shall I wait here?" he said.

"That's a good idea," she said, and turned and walked away, toward the big cross and the clutter of village beyond it.

He watched her, seeing as if it were new how jaunty her walk was when she was angry. And she was certainly angry, and probably had a right to be.

They had talked about confessions in the support group he'd attended until Christmas, solemnly justifying their desire to set every record straight. And then one guy, even younger than Mark, had said, "Okay—so you tell it all, right? And then they say, 'Hey, you're in remission.' And then they say, 'Hey, you're cured!' And then she says, 'You bastard—you're history.'" Secretly willing to jinx marriage if that could bring a cure, giddy with the possibility, they'd laughed almost to tears.

He'd managed not to confess that he'd never really liked the couch she'd chosen, that he hadn't actually applied for the promotion he hadn't gotten, that he wouldn't have chosen to have a third child, even that he actually preferred his beef well done. And now, after all that, out of the dozens of misunderstandings that must now, in kindness, be allowed to stand—after all that, and knowing better (he could admit it now, alone on the bench), he'd gone and blundered into the worst of them.

She disappeared up the road into the village, and he turned back to the water. He was right about Lyle—he'd seen Lyle's face when Laura touched his arm as she spoke, seen how he watched her touch her own hair. Laura was beautiful as well as good. And yet, even before he got sick, he hadn't longed for her in years—not in that nearly swooning way that Lyle's eyes had betrayed. Not in the way he had longed for other women. That was still true, even if he shouldn't have said any of it.

She would return, of course. They'd been married twenty-one years. He watched the ferry cast off and start slowly out of the bay. Briefly he saw his island again, brilliantly sunlit, and Laura in her dark coat walking across its bare stones, the wind blowing her hair, small flowers bright in the stone walls. She would return, and they would have an evening, some kind of day tomorrow, and then they'd go home.

And he would die.

He tilted his hat to shield his face from the sun and closed his eyes, but the darkness of Laura's coat in the bright sunshine remained, a deep, wavering shadow.

"Driscoll, is it?"

Mark's stomach took a mad swoop as he struggled to his feet and took off his hat, the fragility of skin—the skin at Laura's temples, the softness of her stomach—tumbling through his mind. A woman his mother's age stood behind him, on the other side of the low wall. "Yes," he said, "I'm Mark Driscoll."

The sleeves of her sweater were pulled up to her elbows, and she wore a canvas apron; when she smiled, her false teeth were very white. "You are, of course," she said, "with the hat." It was a distinctive hat, brown leather and wide-brimmed, and both of them glanced at it there in his hand. "Your wife is after ringing the shop with a message if we saw you. She's taken a room at Ann Flaherty's for tonight, she says."

He managed to nod as if this made sense, through the insistent memory of the near dampness of Laura's breath against his throat, the texture of her hair against his lips. "Thank you," he said. "Ann Flaherty's."

"It's just up the hill," the woman said. "Not far at all—just past the Spar a bit and to the left. She has a Bord Fáilte sign."

"Ah," he said, and nodded again, suddenly and distinctly aware of a need to urinate. "Well, that's good news."

The woman pushed her hair back from her brow. "There's many open this early now," she said, "before Easter, though they didn't used to. The Germans come earlier every year. But Ann's is a good place—clean and airy, and she's her daughter to help her. She'll look after ye, I'm sure."

"I'm sure she will," he said. "Well, I guess—" and smiled and tilted his head toward the hill.

"Right past the Spar Market, and to the left," she said, and turned back to the shop.

"Thanks again."

"Oh," she said, "it's a yellow house." And almost at the door of the shop she turned and called, "With the Bord Fáilte sign," and waved.

Well past the turn to the Spar Market, his thighstrembling with weariness, his bladder aching, he stopped to lean against a field wall. He must have misunderstood, in the peculiar vividness of Laura in his mind, or missed a turn in the odd confusion of the village, where none of the streets were straight and everything seemed chaotic. At a picnic table in front of a pub called The American Bar a middle-aged American man had been explaining loudly to three women (sisters, maybe, their hair, glasses, concerned frowns, and Aran-knit cardigans identical) that all he could figure out was there'd been some kind of crop failure. Two very tall, very blond German men carrying towering backpacks had asked Mark directions. Three children had chased a collie dog almost into him, making him stagger. He'd walked on, slowly, but no B & B had appeared. The sun was still bright but lower, and the wind was still cold. He'd thought to ask the next person he saw for directions, but quite abruptly all the people were gone, left behind in the center of the village with the sandwich shop and the pubs, which might have public restrooms, and here he was faced instead with two brown goats, faunlike, side by side, staring at him from the corner of the little field. Beyond them, behind a low wall, stood an abandoned house, its door and windows blocked with stones.

Like a grave, he found himself thinking, like a mausoleum, and he could feel the cold dark of it, and his fear lurched upward into his chest, and he said aloud, "No," and the goats startled and stumbled. He would not fall apart here on the side of the road, would not spiral down into that terror, wet himself, weep—not here, not alone. He drew a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. First things first: he would walk up behind that house and relieve himself. Then he would walk back down to the village and ask directions.

He walked slowly up a narrow grassy path between fields, touching the tops of the walls for balance. The goats pivoted to watch him, and he saw that their collars were fastened together. He stepped behind the house, out of view of the road and the goats. The two windows were blocked with stone, as in the front, but the wooden back door hung ajar, a rusted water trough beside it. A broken wooden chair lay in the grass, with a pale flowered rag nearby. It was only a house, a sad abandoned house, and he might have imagined its people, but a queer yodeling cry rose from beyond it, and he saw a woman with a bucket coming up across a field. If she raised her head, she'd see him. He opened the door wider and nearly stumbled over an escaping yellow cat. "Sorry," he whispered, and looked inside quickly—just a small room, empty but for a pile of trash and maybe the remains of a fire by the far wall—before he stepped in and pulled the door shut.

He'd expected it to be dank and dark: he hadn't expected such fruity warmth, or so night-blue a darkness, or the illusion of stars, of being suspended among stars. It dizzied him, and he put out his hands, as if he might fall. The stones were packed tight in the front door and in the four small windows, but tiny specks of light came through: he understood what had created the illusion, but still the stars remained, and for a long moment he stood there with his arms extended, feeling the heavens whirling him slowly, gently, from the known to the unknown.

Then his eyes adjusted to the darkness and the dark grew lighter, the starry points paler; the sound of metal against stone came to him from outside, and his bladder insisted, so, apologetically, he did what he had come in to do, one hand against the warm, dry wall, his gaze elevated to the luminous shadows.

The goats and the woman were gone when he came back around the house, and as he walked down the grassy path to the road, he saw a boy trotting up the road from town. He recognized him as the tallest of the boys who'd been chasing the dog, and the boy raised his hand and called out, "Mister Driscoll, you've gone wrong!" grinning as he changed from his steady trot to an exaggerated imitation of exhausted effort. He looked to be about eight.

They met on the road, the boy panting elaborately. Mark smiled and said, "You're absolutely right. What's your name?"

"Oh, I'm Stephen," he said, and put out his hand. "I saw you below."

"I saw you, too. Did you catch that dog?" Stephen's warm, narrow hand reminded Mark sharply of his own sons, almost men now, grown far past this frankness.

"Ah, no," Stephen said, blushing a little. "We were just messin'."

"Well," Mark said. He understood the blush; apparently, people in the village had watched him wander away in the wrong direction. "So I'm lost, trying to find Ann Flaherty's. Can I get there from here?"

The boy didn't register the joke. "You can, of course," he said seriously.

"All right. Can you tell me where I go?"

"Will I take you?"

"You don't have to do that."

The boy's seriousness turned worried, and he rubbed his knuckles along his jaw, the gesture of some grown man. "I'm to get you sorted, Mrs. Kennedy said."

"Is that the woman at the sweater shop?"

The grin returned. "Ah, no—that's Mrs. Joyce. Mrs. Kennedy, she's—young." He pursed his lips, his eyes dancing, and Mark almost laughed.

"All right, then—you'll take me," he said. "Let's go." They walked down the side of the road.

"I saw some goats back there," Mark said. "Their collars were hooked together. Why is that?"

"That way they won't be able to get out."

"Doesn't it keep them from eating, too?"

"Oh, no. There's not a bother on them."

"Do you have goats?"

The boy laughed. "No," he said, and after a few more strides he said, "Are you American?"

"Yep," Mark said.

"My cousins live in America," Stephen said. "In Chicago. I'll probably go there someday."

"It's quite a city."

"Maybe I'll see you there," Stephen said, grinning again.

"Maybe so," Mark said.

"That's if I don't keep up the fishing."

"Is that what your father does?"

"It is. And my brothers." He hopped in front of Mark and hopped back. "So we don't have goats," he said, laughing.

"I see," Mark said. "And is that the best thing about being a fisherman?" They were nearly to the village.

The boy shook his head. "My cousin Dara was drowned once. Now you go on here," he said, and stopped at a turn down what seemed to be a driveway, at the end of which a small parking lot backed a supermarket, "and then there," pointing.

"Ah—so I was supposed to go all the way to the Spar Market. That's where I went wrong." The sun was low, and the lane was already dusky.

"He said he saw Little Aran once."

"Your cousin?"

Stephen nodded, and narrowed his eyes at Mark, as if measuring him.

"Little Aran—is that Inisheer?"

"No, it is not," Stephen said, and his tone was so level that Mark looked him in the eye.

"Is it an island?" Mark asked carefully.

"It is," Stephen said. "A magic island."

Mark nodded slowly. "I see," he said.

The boy looked away, rubbed his jaw again, and then grinned. "Yeah—all right, then—down the left there and it's Ann Flaherty's, and you're sorted," and he turned before Mark could offer to shake his hand again, and trotted away. But then he stopped and called back, "She's not young!"

He was right: curiosity and disapproval balanced in the not-young, thin, sharp face of Ann Flaherty. She glared at his hat as she opened the door and let him in, and instead of hello she said, "She's gone off to The American Bar."

"Thank you," Mark said. If she could be abrupt, he could match her. "I'd like to see our room."

"You're sick, I'd say."

"I have been," he said.

She twisted her mouth and turned and led him down a narrow hall to a remarkably pleasant room. Laura's scarf lay on the bed. "It's en suite," she said, pointing to a door, "and there's more blankets in there," pointing to a wardrobe.

He nodded, and picked up the scarf and folded it into a small square and put it into his coat pocket.

"It'll be cold, now the sun's gone," Ann Flaherty said, and then, grudgingly, "They've music there tonight." She wasn't young, and she wasn't pretty, but Mark could imagine the texture of her thin, dry lips against his own, and for a second he was light-headed with the temptation to touch her.

Instead he smiled and asked, "Where exactly is this American Bar from here?"

Her smile was sour and satisfied. "Up the lane and down the hill," she said.

"Thank you," he said. She turned, and he followed her back down the hall.

At the door she said, "She's got the key."

He put his hat back on. "All right," he said, and went out into the growing dusk to find his wife.

She sat alone at one of the picnic tables on the deserted lawn in front of The American Bar, looking down toward the bay, where a few boats showed small lights. Mark stood still, watching her; she raised her glass, drank, and set it down again on the table. The wind was much less now, and he could hear the murmur of talk from inside the pub. He inhaled carefully, and then walked across the rough grass to the end of her table.

"Hi," he said.

She didn't look up, but after a small pause she said, "Hi."

The island never appeared to Mark again, and he never told Laura about seeing it, or about whirling among the miraculous stars in the abandoned house. But that night, taking a seat across from her at that picnic table, as carefully as if this were some crucial moment of courtship, every gesture perilous, choices still unmade, he said, "I hear there's going to be music in there."

"So they say," she said.

He touched the scarf in his pocket and reached tentatively for her glass. She slid it toward him, and he took a sip.

"I met a kid today," he said. "He told me about this island we might want to see sometime." He passed the glass back to her and left his hand beside it, so when she took it again, her fingers brushed his.

"Where is it?"

"Pretty near here," he said. "There's seals there."

Inside the music began, a swaying fiddle.

It was nearly dark, but he could see the pale line of her jaw, and the way she lifted her chin. "I'd like to see seals," she said. "Next year we should go there."

He nodded. "That's what I thought," he said.

They shared the rest of the pint slowly, without talking, and when it was gone she shrugged her shoulders quickly and said, "It's getting cold," and he took the scarf from his pocket and held it out to her, and when she took it, he moved his fingertips softly against her palm. He watched her hold the scarf up and let it unfold, and swirl it in the dark air above her head and let it settle across her shoulders, and bend her head and lift her hair free of it.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to a Seaside Town in Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In