BRIDGID O’FAOLLAN lost her man in 1933 when he was drowned at the fishing not a mile from their home on the wild shores of Limmanoch, which is in the far West of Ireland. And she stuck it for ten years with no other company but an old brown cow; then, not able to stand the loneliness any more, she went on her knees before the altar in her little two-roomed house, and prayed to God and His Saints to send her a man. He did not need to be a talking man or a clever man, or even one who would work very hard. It was just that she wanted someone to warm her feet on in the cold nights, and to fill the empty place between her eyes and the walls; that would be Heaven indeed after the shadow of the last ten years.
It was in January of 1943 that Bridgid made her prayer. Then on a wild night in the summer the prayer of Bridgid O’Faollan was answered. The door of her house was pushed open and a stark-naked man walked in and stood looking around, stupid from the wind outside and the light in the room. And what did the silly woman do but let out a scream as the man collapsed on the one and only rug in the room, which lay before the big wide fire. He lay so still and so white that Bridgid thought for sure sinhad been sent a dead man, and was thinking of the wood and the nails for the making of a coffin when a flicker on his face brought the sense back to her head and the motion to her limbs.
She worked very hard on him rubbing him with warm water and giving him lit little sips of poteen until he began to show a bit of color, and after that it was not long before he was able to sit up and look round him. For the sake of decency and decorum she covered him with a blanket, and fed him with warm milk olive oil, and little bits of bread till he got sleepy; then she put him to bed and sat down by the fire to think it till out.
It was plain to her that he had come out of the sea, for ihe salt rime was on his hair and beard and on the two little charms he was wearing round his neck where a good Catholic would have a cross hung or maybe a Virgin and Child. This man who had come to her must be of some other religion because his emblems were a circle of dark red fiber and a rectangle of green fiber with holes in them for the string and some numbers and letters printed on them.
Bridgid, being unable to read, did not associate the two disks with the army of England or the idenfity of the man who had come to her from the sea. Instead, she packed the thought of them away with the odd assortment of unsolved mysteries in the back of her mind and busied herself looking out some of the late Sean O’Faollan’s clothes for the man to wear when he woke.
Now and again she would stop her work to go to the bed and listen to his breathing, keeping time to it with her head nodding assurance to herself. She watched his face, too, noting how lean it was, how the sinews of his neck made so emphatic a journey to some place under his skull. There were lines of suffering, too, the half-written autograph of death. His mouth opened a little as he slept, and his teeth were his own and good. These were things that Bridgid could read. The man would not be more than thirty-eight at the most.
There were liltle ripples running over his eyelids as though his eyeballs moved under them, and he moaned a bit in his sleep but not in words, and not the name of any woman, which was what she waited and listened for.
Three times she made up the fire with peats through that night, thinking to herself that she would have to bring in an extra load next day. When morning came she was asleep on the little stool that Sean had made in the first week of their life together.
IT WAS the man’s voice that wakened her, to find the morning sunlight lying like a carpet the width of the window over the floor, and reaching to the bed. Bridgid had no blinds, having nothing to hide. She went over to the side of the man quickly, and found him talking a mad stream of words that had no sense in them; and his eyes, all the time looking straight up at the roof, were glittering like bright coals with the fever in him.
Bridgid listened to his words as she made a brew of herbs from an old recipe of her mother’s, but still there was no woman’s name in them, only a queer wild tale of the sea and the creatures of the sea; so she took comfort from that and forced some of the herb tea between his lips. After a few sips of it he went into a sound sleep again, and the pillow got wet with the sweat rolling off his face.
As soon as he was well sunk in sleep Bridgid bestirred herself to get in some peats and to see if there was any worth-while wreckage lying about on the shore. But she found nothing more valuable than some broken pieces of wood, which might have been part of an open boat the way they were bent. She came back quickly to the house with the load and found the man still asleep, but in a chair by the table was sitting her sister Ellen, all the way from Dublin.
They looked at each other and they looked at the man, and Bridgid found without any surprise that she hated her sister; there was a queer feeling of her stomach coming up to choke her, and the red blood was sailing like a thin fiery smoke before her eyes. Ellen methodically took off her hat, which had a feather in it, and looked at Bridgid with a square empty look, the way she would have looked at an uninteresting picture on the wall. When she spoke, her voice was as flat as the table top.
“I did not look for you having company,” she said.
“The sea brought him,” said Bridgid. “The sea doesn’t send postcards, either.” It was things like that made Ellen never very sure whether Bridgid could read or not.
“There was no time for postcards,” she said. “I had a queer dream about you last night, and I came to make sure you were all right.”
“Of course I’m all right,”said Bridgid, “Sorra the thing is wrong with me at all. Ye should eat less goin’ to bed.”
Ellen looked down again at the man on the bed, and her lips thinned out to a bit. of a bloodless line no thicker than a stretch of tea string over her face.
“I’m not so sure,” she said, very softly, “after the dream I had. Queer things happen to people.”
Bridgid would not ask about the dream to satisfy her, but only said she would make a cup of tea so that Ellen would not be cold going away again on the bus to Dublin.
That made Ellen’s face worse than ever, till it looked like the door of an old church closed tight against the wind and rain. She said, “ Maybe it would be better and more like my duty if I stayed.”
“There is no need,” said Bridgid over the teapot, “seeing that I am well enough able to look after myself and have done these ten long years athout anny help from annyone.”
Ellen said nothing to that, but looked again at the figure of the man on the bed, and there was more meaning to the look than she could have put readily into words.
“As for him,” said Bridgid, “he’s only now washed up from the sea, and lying senseless that way since ever he came in, so ye can keep your mind off unclean thoughts, sister Ellen.”
“There’s not a thought in me head isn’t for your own good, Bridgid O’Faoilan, God bein’ me judge, an’ that’s surely only the bare elements of a sister’s duty,” said Ellen. “I’m only thinkin’ what people will say,” she added slowly, in a dark fashion.
Bridgid put that away quietly in her mind, and poured out two cups of tea, trying all the time to think ahead at what was coming. Ellen took the silence as a portent of dawning victory, and became more confident.
“It’s aisy enough to be hoity-toity,” she said, “but yourself alone with a man in the house — well, it isn’t the way to live if you want people’s tongues to lie still, is it?”
Bridgid said, “How much sugar do ye take?”
Ellen said, “Two,” and added, “There’s no use bein’ obstinate about it. You were brought up a good Cath’lic, an’ you know mortal sin when you see its ugly face.”
“Be ashamed av yerself, Ellen, to talk like that,” said Bridgid, “an himself lyin’ there as helpless an’ far away from the lusts av the flesh as a newborn babe, the way he is.”
Ellen sniffed at that, sniffed portentously. “I never knew a man was anny greater distance off the lusts av the flesh than the thickness av the clothes atween him an’ the nearest woman,” she said. And Ellen sipped her tea with all the virtue and mortified dignity she could command.
Bridgid watched her, and thought, “The way she drinks her tea ye can tell what she is well enough. Little squirtin’ sips would hardly wet the skin av her rotten oul’ scandalmongering tongue. Too much Holy-Moseyin’ aroun’ the clergy, an’ her a useless oul’ maid with the dust av ages lyin’ like a deep cloud aroun’ her sensibilities.”Out loud she said, “An’ who’s payin’ me rent an’ keepin’ me, annyway, that I should worry what they say?”
Ellen made a maddening little noise on the saucer with her teaspoon. “It’s not now you’ll be sorry,” she said; “it’s when he wakens up an’ finds the strength comin’ back into him.”
Bridgid took a great gulp of her tea and looked straight into the eyes of her sister. She said quietly, “It’s a queer thing all the good people I know have all the worst thoughts lyin’ around in the corners av their sanctimonious minds, handy for their tongues when a time comes to throw them like stones at annyonc isn’t as full av tormentin’ virtue an’ misery as themselves.”
That stung Ellen to the quick and she dabbed a handkerchief in the corners of her eyes. Bridgid thought, “She’ll dab a long time afore she ever gets anny tears out o’ them, besides makin’ herself look such a damned fool.”
She was suddenly struck with the funny idea that she had never seen Ellen all together before. One time she would come and be all body and digestive troubles, with a good selection of nerve-murdering sounds to fit to each particular ailment; another time she would be all spirit and prayer and the holy saints, casting a respectable gloom over anything was in the nature of a laugh. But now she suddenly stuck out body and soul together, and it didn’t take much of a vision to see the dirty little lines of communication she maintained between them. Bridgid was suddenly moved to hurt her as much as she could.
“It’s a fine brave feelin’ to have a man in the house again,” she said, “even wan that’s half drownded. Afther seein’ nothin’ aroun’ ye for years but female faces, an’ them not able to gather together the thin edge av a smile for fear av disturbin’ their humble holiness, a wom’an would open her arms gladly to annything would come along, outside the skin av a gorilla ape itself, an’ that’s tellin’ ye somethin’, Ellen MacGuire.”
Ellen drew that in with a long whistle of her breath, chasing hard round the inside of her skull in search of a suitable and scorching reply, but before she could find one Bridgid rose and looked very businesslike. “I am now goin’ out to the back place to milk the oul’ cow,” said Bridgid, “an’ yourself can stay here — that is, if ye’re not afeared to be left alone in it with a man is half dead, an’ full av sea water.”
“I’m not feared,” said Ellen, “havin’ in front av me the Cross, an’ round’ me me faith to keep me. While ye are out milkin’ the oul’ brown cow I’ll go through there to the little altar an’ pray for yer sowl that it might be lifted high an’ dry an’ unscorched out av the deep pit av destruction ye are diggin’ for it.”
“Ye can do what ye like,” said Bridgid, “though I’m thinkin’ to meself, if your prayers are as long as your face is, it’s a rosary made av rocks from the shore ye’ll be needin’ so’s not to be wearin’ the poor beads to nothin’, savin’ me sowl that isn’t lost yet.”
With that and a toss of her head, Bridgid flung out and went behind the house to call the cow down for the milking. The old cow knew her ways and was down at the bottom of the field waiting for her, so she opened the door and gave the beast a gentle push into the milking place.
Then she followed with the pail and the stool, liking fine the quiet shade of the byre that seemed to hide her from the eyes of the world. She sat on the little stool and laid her head gently against the firm swollen side of the cow; she breathed deep into her stomach the warm smell of the animal and the sharp acrid smell of grass.
And Bridgid O’Faollan cried for the first time in ten years — cried a slow soft rain of tears, for all the things that were past and the long lonely nights by the fire, for the death of her man and the endless toll of the sea. She cried for the hunger of all lonely creatures who have died to hope and fear; she cried for the beauty of a man’s ripe body that is cast on the sea like a broken bough from the tree of life. Bridgid O’Faollan cried for the shadow of death that is laid over life as the night lies over the day.
And she prayed silently, as they do who have grief beyond words, her heart and hunger going out in the shadow beside the old cow that stood in patient waiting like a picture of sorrow painted in quiet color. It was a long time before Bridgid’s fingers reached down for the milk-heavy udders.
WHILE this was going on in the byre, Ellen had gone into the other room, where stood the little altar, covered with a white cloth, and above it on the wall a Virgin and Child with an everlasting lamp burning. Ellen went on her knees by the altar, but it was a hard thing to pray with all the turmoil of her mind battling against the feeble call of a duty that had now no witnesses but God and His Angels. So she fell to wondering about the man in the other place. What kind of man was he, and what was it sent a woman flying into a man’s arms like a useless, helpless bit of straw in a wild sea?
Ellen had been early gathered in under the black skirts of Mother Church, away from the hurly-burly of life, away from the world, the flesh, and the devil, till now her bones were drying and her thoughts with them — drying away into little dead twigs of remorse that had no glory; only a fear of concupiscence (whatever that was) and the eternal damnation of the flesh.
But now the thought of the man pressed in on her, coming closer and closer, making her listen to the tide of blood in her ears, and feel its warm surge coming up her neck and through her head. The thought of the man would not go away, but came nearer and nearer till she could feel his arms closing strongly rotind her, and his hot, dry breath on her neck. She could smell the salt, in his hair, and she seemed not to be kneeling at all, but buried to the hips in a pool of warm living water.
So she dropped the beads of her rosary out of her hands, and rose and turned away from the little altar to hide her thoughts behind the things of the room. It was then she saw the model of the ship standing bravely in a, corner, with its white sails shining out of the shadow. She went near to it and touched it, and maybe found something wistful and beautiful about it, because she lifted it up to look closer. Then she saw it had a little key tied to it, and that there was a little keyhole in the hatch over the hold.
When Ellen saw that, she laid the ship down and went quickly away from it to look out of ihe window. There was no one to see, Bridgid being still in the byre, so she went and listened at the door. Not hearing a sound there either, she came quickly back to the ship and opened the hatch with the key. There, inside the hold of the little ship, was a roll of onepound notes, rolled very tight. Ellen counted them and there were twenty-five altogether.
It made her dizzy to think of all that money lying there with a strange man in the house. It might be that Bridgid would be murdered in her bed some night when he came back to his strength and found there was a fortune in ihe house.
The very thought of that made Ellen Irenible so much that she could not get the notes back quickly enough before the door opened and Bridgid was in on top of her with flaming red cheeks and her eyes all starry with crying.
“ What are ye doin’ with that money in your hand?” demanded Bridgid. “It is a queer way ye have av prayin’ for me sowl, by robbin’ me body av nil I have saved.”
“I didn’t,” said Ellen. “I jus’ lifted the boat in me hand an’ the money fell out.” It sounded very weak in the tense air of the little room with that red accusing face in front of her.
“Oh, it fell out, did it,” said Bridgid, with a fine measure of irony, “and in order lo allow it lo fall oul, I suppose the key just jumped into the lock and turned itself round at bout anny help at all.” Bridgid was gathering herself into a tight bundle of fury now; the color in her face was as if the wind had whipped it.
“ It’s not, safe for ye, him lyin’ in there an’ all this fortune in the next room, said Ellen. Her voice was a thin reed now, and her face was as white as Bridgid s was red.
“ Ye mean it’s not safe with a snoepin Holy Moses creepin’ an’ crawlin’ around rattlin’ her rosary to cover up the sounds av her thievin’, pilferin’ fingers,”snapped Bridgid. “Hadn’t ye belter be gettin’ out av it now, an’ get the Holy Father to wash the sin av the Seventh an’ Tenth Commandments aff yer narrow-gutted sowl? Ye snivelin’, whinin’, kneeereepin’ oul’ snake thief that ye are!”
Ellen look to her handkerchief again, and dabbed her eyes with weak viciousness, trying hard to incite the moisture of tears from her dry glands.
“Very well,” she said. “If that’s all the thanks I am to get for tryin’ to save ye from bein’ murdered in your bed, an’ your fortune stolen, I’ll go back where I came from.”
“Ye’d better do that same, an’ quickly.”said Bridgid, “afore I starl murtherin’ ye meself. an’ you stood there where ye are in all yer thievin’ guilt afore the altar, an’ the Blessed Virgin watchin’ ye from above it.”
At which Ellen crossed herself hurriedly and made quickly for the door to the other room.
“I’ll not be to see you again,” she said, “for I could not bring meself to stay in a house with a sister was livin’ in sin with a. stranger out av the sea.”
“Don’t bother yourself. I’ll not he askin’ you not while I’ve anny money about the place I want to keep safe,” said Bridgid.
“Ye’ll not have your money long, nor your good name either,” Ellen replied, going stiffly over to the corner by ihe bed to get her umbrella. She picked it up, holding it between two fingers as if it had become contaminated by the house, then she dropped it again with a sudden clatter on the floor. Her mouth gaped open, she made a vague sprawling sign of the Cross before her in the still air, and mumbled, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.”
Bridgid came through from the other room, where she had been putting the money away again, and said. “Will ye get out av it quick, an’ stop prayin’ an’ chantin’ forever in me ears that, is worn out. an’ tired av listenin’ to ye?” But Ellen only stood still and waved her arm feebly in the direction of the bed. “He’s dead,” she said. “The man is dead.”
BRIDGID took the words full force like a punch over the heart; she felt the blood fall out of her face, and the whole world seemed to take a great drunken lurch to one side. By a tremendous effort of will she saved herself from falling, and came over to the side of the bed to look down on the man. Sure enough he was dead, and printed on his lips was a little tired smile as if he had died in a happy dream. She said nothing, but put her hand down to feel the soles of his feet, and they were as cold as the smooth stones on the shore.
Ellen knelt down by the bed and mumbled an Avc very low in her throat; even if the man wasn ’t a Catholic, it was the least you could do, and might help him on his way to wherever he was going. Then she rose and looked at him again. “Maybe I was wrong about him, she said. He looks a good man now he’s dead.”
Bridgid still said nothing, but stood watching Ellen putting on the hat with the feather in it; the feather seemed to wave an admonishing finger at her.
Ellen finished her dressing, lifted her umbrella again like a banner of virtue, and went in a procession of one to the door. Her hand was turning the knob when Bridgid said, “Ellen,”in a thick tearful voice.
Ellen said, “Well?" and waited, looking at Bridgid with all the warmth of a fish just out of the sea.
“Oh, nothin’,”said Bridgid, with a little weary gest ure.
Ellen said good-bye, and continued her procession out of the house and through the little bit of garden to the gate. She was reaching for the latch to open it when there was a great flurry of skirls behind her and she turned to face the panting figure of Bridgid.
‘Ye’re not goin’ away,”said Bridgid, and to emphasize it she planted herself firmly between Ellen and the gate. “Ye’re not goin’ away an’ leavin’ me alone with him.”
“An’why not?" said Ellen. “He can’t do yeanny harm an’ him dead.” But Bridgid only clung tighter to the gate and would not let her go. “Ye’re not leavin’ me alone in this place all night with a dead man an’ him a perfect stranger,” she said.
Ellen turned that over in her mind very slowly and judiciously. And while she was thinking it out there came into her mind the picture of a little ship standing bravely in the corner with white sails gleaming and a fortune of twenty-five pounds in the hold. And she looked at Bridgid closely, remembering the terrible dream she had about her, which had had nothing to do with the man inside at all. Then lastly, she thought about the good insurance policy she had on her sister.
So Ellen came back into the house, laid down her umbrella with a firm and definite little sound, and took off the hat with the feather in it. Then she went over to the place by the fire to sit down on the stool that Sean O’Faollan had made. But first she covered up the man’s face with the blanket, because Ellen didn’t like people to die smiling.