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J U L Y  1 9 9 9

(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

SHE asked Lyle at breakfast if he would come with them to the market. "I've seen the famous hippie market," he said, and then, maybe because of something in her face, "I suppose we could meet for lunch at Tigh Neachtain's." He wiped his mouth and nodded to Gilbert. "They always have something vegetarian, but it's a real Irish pub -- crowded, cramped, smoky, local color." He chuckled.

"Grand, then," Mary said. Once she and Gilbert were away from the house, she said, "He goes on some, he does -- you mustn't let it bother you."

"Oh, I don't mind," Gilbert said. "Jimmy told me -- I mean, he said his dad had strong opinions."

Mary laughed, a little guilty, a little grateful to Jimmy. "He does indeed," she said. They were coming to the corner where they'd have to go straight, up the canal to see the cathedral, or turn and cross O'Brien's Bridge, straight into the market, and see the rest later. She decided to do the market first, but she asked, "Will I show you the cathedral on our way home? It was blessed by Cardinal Cushing."

"Is that the same guy who turned out to have a son in America?"

"No," Mary said. "That was Bishop Casey." She was glad that the river was high and loud, and the footpath crowded as they crossed the bridge.

The market was a success. Gilbert admired the size of the carrots and parsnips and the fact that they were still dirt-covered. He talked for a bit with a young man selling Celtic armbands (he was Canadian, they discovered, and had a tattoo around his wrist), and was suitably impressed by the bodhrán playing of a redheaded fellow at the top of Market Street. He did eat cheese, he said, and at Sheridan's stall Mary bought three kinds and a loaf of good bread, saying they'd make a picnic of the walk to Mutton Island the next day. As they went on, he said the smell from the Middle Eastern food stall almost made him wish he still ate meat. A girl with curly black hair turned and said, "Ah, no, there's no meat to it, love -- eat all you want." Mary laughed at Gilbert's blush. "I'd mind myself -- that one's from wild Donegal, probably wild herself," she teased. They might have gone around the corner and seen a bit more of the town, but the rain began again, so they made their way to Tigh Neachtain's.

Lyle was there before them, and had taken a snug and ordered her a cup of tea. For a moment, in the pleasant flurry of arrival, Mary loved everything -- Lyle for the tea, Gilbert for liking the market, the pub for having a snug, Ireland for being her home. And then Gilbert said, "I'd better wash up -- where's the men's room?" and Lyle burst out in a loud laugh and nearly shouted, "Outdoors!"

It was, of course. The toilets at Tigh Neachtain's were outside, in a covered alley, just the kind of thing about Ireland that Lyle loved to mock. "The walls are granite a foot thick," she said. "Would you be running pipe through that?" But later Lyle was on about Gilbert's vegetarian lasagna, which did look and smell like paste.

"They've no practice in it," she said.

"Except potatoes," Lyle said, "and they overcook that, too."

Gilbert mentioned how narrow the streets were.

"The city's old," she said, "the streets just lanes from medieval times, and the buildings too solid to move."

Lyle laughed. "Cow paths, she means," he said.

The rain was bucketing down when they left, and Gilbert said, "It never does stop, does it?"

"That's how we have the million shades of green," she said, just before Lyle stepped in a bit of dog mess on the footpath, and had his say about dogs running loose.

Over the supper of spaghetti with separate meat, she asked again if Lyle would go along with them the next day to Mutton Island, and he said no, he'd no patience for pilgrimages, and Gilbert asked what Mutton Island was. So Lyle had his say about the sewage situation, and about the artist types who had fought the treatment plant, and how they also wanted to pass an ordinance banning certain colors of paint on the houses -- "Infantile color combinations, they say," Lyle said. She'd have preferred other conversation, but Gilbert seemed to enjoy it, and Lyle was making an effort.

As she was clearing away the dishes, Lyle said, "How old are you?"

"Twenty-two," Gilbert said.

"Legal," Lyle said. "Would you like a whiskey?"

"Sure," Gilbert said, and Lyle took the bottle from the cupboard over the sink and poured two small ones and handed one to Gilbert, who held up the glass, smiled, said "Cheers," and drank it down.

Lyle stared.

"Nice," Gilbert said.

Lyle held out his hand for the glass and poured again. "Sip this one," he said. "It's good whiskey." He went into the front room.

Gilbert shrugged and smiled at Mary before he followed.

Still, what happened was her fault. She was putting knives and napkins into the green Sheridan's carry bag, along with the cheese and bread for the picnic, and wondering about the breakfast before the long walk, so she went in after them and said to Gilbert, "Do you eat eggs at all?"

"Just free-range eggs," he said. He said it pleasantly enough.

Lyle didn't take it so. "They have those free-range eggs up at Ward's shop," he said. "They cost more than twice what the others do."

Gilbert nodded. "Sure. On the big farms they keep the chickens locked up all the time, stimulate them with light, give them hormones, so they get greater production, so they can sell cheaper."

"So your position is that it's more important to protect chickens than to feed poor people," Lyle said. Before Gilbert could respond, he added, "Or maybe it's that the finer moral points properly belong to people with money."

She knew well that mean pleasure in his voice. He was a good man, and why he needed to act the bully like this she had never understood. A hundred times he'd done Jimmy so, and then complained that the boy avoided conversation with him. And it was no way to treat a guest, however he'd treated your drink.

But Gilbert said, "The healthiest diet anywhere in the world is the cheapest one. People don't need eggs to get protein. Grains and beans do just fine, without fat or cholesterol. So, yeah -- the people who can afford the luxury of eggs ought to be responsible for the morality of egg production."

Lyle nodded and sipped his whiskey. The nod nearly fooled her. She nearly turned back to the kitchen, where the washing-up waited, but then he said, "So, you'd agree that the Famine was the moral responsibility of the Protestant landowners."

Gilbert tilted his head. "I'd agree that the Famine might be considered the best thing that ever happened to the Irish," he said.

God in Heaven, Mary thought.

"Would you?" Lyle said.

A holy show there'd be now, and not a thing she could do to stop it: Lyle had brought it on by criticizing everything, and Gilbert hadn't a clue he'd gone past the mark.

"I would. Without the Famine, the diaspora would have been delayed who knows how long. As it was, people emigrated and made better lives than they'd ever have been able to make in Ireland." The poor boy thought it was a conversation, and went on as if it were an examination question he had learned the answer to. "In 1845 there were eight and a half million Irish, most of them living at the subsistence level; today there are forty-four million Irish-Americans, most of them middle-class or better -- and nobody's counted the Irish-Canadians, or the Irish-Australians."

"I'd be interested to hear you make that argument in Padraic's pub, down by the docks," Lyle said, his voice so dangerously level that Mary could hardly keep from saying "And when have you been in Padraic's?" to head off what was coming, even though she knew that if she asked such a thing, he'd never forgive her. "There's men down there whose grandfathers didn't emigrate -- who stayed and watched their families die while the Protestant landowners' farms got bigger."

Gilbert shrugged and took a sip of his drink. "Sure -- people have a big romantic investment in the idea that the Irish got screwed by the English. It's part of what keeps everything such a mess up north. Even so, it's actually another benefit to Ireland -- that sentimental idea is a big part of what keeps tourism high, and brings American dollars in."

Lyle exploded. "The babies buried in Connemara would be happy to hear that," he shouted, his face gone wild red. "All those people dead of hunger and disease are resting real easy now they know they died for the Celtic Tiger!"

"Well -- "

"And the men who broke their backs making the Famine roads, and then watched their children scatter to the four winds -- "

Now Gilbert was loud too. "I'm not saying -- "

But Lyle was louder, leaning at him, shaking his finger at him. "You are! You're saying the English saved the Irish, for Christ's sake. Saved them! By starving them to death, boy! Don't stop now -- don't you want to claim that the past hundred years of poverty came out of Irish pigheadedness, too -- because they didn't all turn Goddamned souper?"

Mother of God.

"I don't even know what 'souper' is!" Gilbert yelled.

"Converts," Mary heard herself say, in nearly a whisper.

"Ah," Gilbert said, the beginning of a grin on his face.

"Starving people," Lyle said. "Starving people preyed on by your good Protestants, who wouldn't feed them unless they renounced their faith. Sound familiar? Sound profitable? Sentimental?" He stood and drank the rest of his whiskey. "I think I'll take a walk."

Mary didn't move as Lyle left the room and then the house, but Gilbert did: slowly, in four unhurried sips, he finished his whiskey.

"A long day," she said finally, because something had to be said.

Gilbert put his glass carefully on the small table beside the chair and shook his head, the ghost of a grin still around his mouth. "He gets mad, doesn't he?"

"The Famine -- " she said, but Gilbert stood up.

"Yeah," he said, and touched his earring. "I am pretty tired."

He was right: it wasn't the Famine at all. Lyle had no more been to the Famine graves in Connemara than he'd been to Padraic's bar by the docks. He'd spent no grief on leaving his own sons an ocean away, and he'd not even done his Easter duty after the boys were grown.

And Gilbert didn't care about the chickens, or the Protestants.

"Oh -- hey, I was thinking I'd just go on up to Belfast tomorrow. This friend of mine up there, he said any time."

"You don't have to leave," she said, though of course he did.

"Oh, I know." His faint grin was there still. "It's just I only have like ten days. I need to get the whole picture, you know?"

"The first Sunday train's not until after eight," she said.

"That's cool," he said. "I was thinking I'd hitch. It's safe here, right?"

"If you're careful," she said. "You've a map?"

SHE slept badly. Lyle came back and up to bed not long before she heard Gilbert leave quietly, when it wasn't yet light. She felt herself between the two of them, and let herself descend again through a shaft of darkness, invisible. Late in the morning, far too late for the early mass she loved, she came awake and left Lyle snoring quietly in the bed, dressed, made tea, and started out for the cathedral.

The wind came up cold, slapping her face and head as she walked, and she'd gone as far as O'Brien's Bridge before she stopped. The cathedral was ahead; it had been nothing but a huge construction site when she was a girl. She turned away from the cathedral and walked back down the streets to the promenade.

She saw people gathered farther up the bay, but she chose a place where she could make her way down to the sand without climbing over rocks. She walked, skirting the huge hanks of seaweed and the pools of seawater left by the tide. She walked, not thinking, her hands in her coat pockets, the wind at her scarf, and then there she was, stepping from the sand onto the long, tangled grass of Mutton Island. Her feet were wet despite the newspaper's promise. The sky hung gray.

The grass of Mutton Island lay like the enormous locks of some giant woman's uncombed hair. Mary felt it beneath her feet as hummocks, springy lumps, and tangled dips, and paid attention so that she wouldn't trip. She walked as the others did, following the walls and the shadows of paths worn by the feet of the long-dead lighthouse keeper and his wife and their children and animals, and she came as the others did through the ungated opening into the lighthouse garden.

Here, inside the wall, the wind dropped away, and Mary stepped into its absence, where others stood in small groups. A man pointed out past the back wall of the garden and said, speaking of the plant, "That's where they'll put it."

A younger man turned and looked back across the bay to the city and nodded. "It'll hardly show, will it?"

"So they say," the first man said, gruff and cautious. They were alike, tall and heavy, facing away from each other. "You want to go in, do you?"

"I do -- don't you?"

But the older man didn't answer, and the younger -- his son, of course -- went on through the low doorway of the lighthouse keeper's house. After a moment the father walked deliberately back out of the garden, into the wind.

That was how they were -- men. Gilbert, Lyle, Kevin, even Jimmy. Strange to her, just from being men.

She stood a bit in the garden. Once, carrots had been grown here, and beets and parsnips. Deep in the tangle of grass the remains of a cold frame rotted, so once, an experiment with lettuces, too, had been tried. Certainly there would have been cabbages, a line of pale globes, like the memory of the freshly washed faces of children in the twilight as the lighthouse keeper's wife stepped out of the low kitchen to breathe the chilled wind. Down the slope several women were digging spent daffodils and putting the bulbs into plastic sacks to carry home, a bit of the island saved.

She thought it was sentimental, or maybe rape of the land. She sighed. She had no idea what any of the men would say about it, and she'd no wish to have a Mutton Island daffodil in her own garden. She had walked to an island, and this was what it was: an abandoned garden dug by strangers outside an abandoned home beneath an abandoned lighthouse, all of it about to give way to a sewage-treatment plant. And that was the whole truth of it, except that she had a mile of cold, wet walking between herself and her house. No mermaids, dear, she thought, no magic.

But she had come here, and never would again, so she turned and went through the low, dark rooms of the dead lighthouse keeper's house, out into a small yard, and into the lighthouse. The steps were as she faintly remembered, the whitewash flaking from worn stone in a spiral, and tight enough near the top that if a girl hadn't backed up the steps to let her come, she might have changed her mind and gone down again.

But the girl did back up, laughing, and said, "This is so cool," in an American voice. Behind her in the dark stairway a child's muffled voice called, "Up here!" Mary climbed up and stepped out into the wind on the narrow railed platform.

There before her, spread across the littered, mottled, puddled stretch of ocean floor revealed, walked the Irish, in boots and coats, by ones and twos and fours, with children and dogs about them, some moving slowly out toward the small green island, and some as slowly away, back toward the larger island. In the gray light they all looked sharp-edged,and divided by great distances.

Beside her an old man wheezed and said, "Lovely, ant it?" She squinted her eyes so that the figures blurred.

Hundreds would cross that sand before the extraordinary tide sighed, far out toward America, and turned itself back to refill Galway Bay. And it was only this they would come to, only this they would leave.

The old man pointed with the end of a cigarette held between his fingers. "Your man there," he said. "Got his lunch, looks like."

She cleared her eyes and looked, and among the figures just off the island stood a man in Lyle's coat and hat, a green carry bag in one hand, waving his other arm slowly back and forth in the air above his head. "He does," she said. He'd no more be Lyle than Gilbert had been Jimmy, but she raised her own arm and waved, slow and steady, before she turned, deeply tired, and made her way back down the stairs.

The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.

Beth Lordan is the director of the creative-writing program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Her first collection of stories, And Both Shall Row, was published last fall.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1999; From Mutton Island - 99.07 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 1; page 74-80.