A Sparrow Falls

Author and playwright still in his thirties, JOHN D. STEWARTdevotes his leisure time to writing and his working days to the British civil service. “Border Incident,” a lighthearted story of Irish shenanigans, was published in the ATLANTIClast July; here is another Irish story in a more tragic vein.

THE mother said, “It will take me to stop over for the night. With that much to do I’d never catch the boat back this day.” Then all her sons looked up at her and she saw the little light in their eyes that showed — what? Interest? Pleasure? Plots and plans and mischief.

“I’m better to get all done at once and save the expense of going soon again. I’ll stop over then with your Auntie Mary. So you’ll have to fend for yourselves for a day and a night, but you all know what to do. Dermot’s the boss while I’m away” — she raised her voice slightly — “and you must all do as you’re bid and not give him trouble. You must all help to keep things right till I get back. You hear me?”

They had heard it all before, and they gave no indication now that they had heard it again. Brendan, her youngest, was trying to catch a tattered butterfly trapped on the little windowpane.

“Brendan, you’ll see to the cow tonight and in the morning, and close the fowls in at dusk, and pay particular attention to the young turkeys at all times. If they get wet, they’re done for, and mind the gulls don’t get them. Do you hear me?”

He said yes without even pausing in the chase. Paddy and Tony said nothing at all. She stood there longing for some reassurance, some acknowledgment at least. Would they miss her? Did they need her? Did they not know they needed her? They didn’t care. They just lounged around her, bored and watchful, waiting for her to go away, waiting to be free. Free for what? Who could tell what devilment or danger? They despised all the small, safe things of life. They did not understand; they took everything for granted.

A girl would be different. A girl would value the small things that make life safe and secure and smooth. If God had sent a daughter — but He didn’t, and now He never can. A widow with four boys must look out for everything herself, for everything.

Had she forgotten anything? She looked around the dim kitchen. She scanned the altar of her home, the brown painted dresser that Hugh had made — ill-fitting drawers, “all the easier to go out and in,” he said. But it was the best he could do with the tools he had. The dishes there, few and faded, but just enough to do. The Sacred Heart pinned over the door — may all harm keep outside. The holy lamp burning well? Yes, saying, “Trust. Be calm.” But the loud little clock beside it crying, “Hurry, hurry, hurry.”

Still she lingered, looking at Brendan’s back, at Paddy and Tony sitting so quietly at the hearth, storing their strength, no doubt, for when she went away. Last, she looked at Dermot. Nearly eighteen. Nearly a man. A man already, the only man in the house. He sits there like a man, like his father exactly. He sits there on the sofa — that’ll need new oilcloth before Christmas — and leans his elbows on the table. His face sad between his hands, you’d never think he could laugh and sing like a madman. Ah, he’s looking at the money.

She looked at it too. It lay on the table beside her basket and bag. Two crumpled notes and a little pool of coins. The sum of it they knew to a penny, both of them. For a penny counted now.

Oil and flour and seed, those for sure. A whole long list of groceries, very, very hard to shorten. Wool to knit, must have that. The lantern, the spade, the dentist’s ten shillings, the oatmeal. Boots, too, for the good weather’s overdue to break. No dodging boots. But the money won’t do, she thought. We must try to do without something more.

The money won’t look at it, Dermot thought. I’ll have to earn some. I’ll have to work harder. But what pay work can a man do here? Less than two acres that could ever be labored, grazing for but five beasts or a few sheep — take your pick. Pay transport on either, to the mainland, and then count your money. Nothing from an island, a far-out island can never sell and pay well with the cost of the boat to meet. That’s why people leave islands. They have to sell for less profit and pay more for goods, pay boats both ways. The same stuff grown on the mainland can sell cheaper and pay better, always. The same stuff, yes. The only hope for us is different stuff, what the island has that doesn’t grow over there. And that’s one thing only, the sea birds’ eggs. We can live. We can feed ourselves, just about. But the sea birds’ eggs are the only hope for cash money. And she forbids me to gather them!

She won’t let me go over there and work, either, and send my wages back. She might let Paddy go when he’s old enough. Tony, too, and maybe even Brendan. But not me, she says, never. I’m the eldest, and that makes me the farmer, and my duty lies with the land. The head of the house, she says, and the farmer, since the day he died, so she’ll never let me leave this place willingly. I could leave, in spite of her, but she’d grieve very sore and that would take the pleasure out of it.

But the farmer! Farmer of seven acres of heathery rocks! Farmer of bog cotton and bullrushes! Of blackthorns and briars! No outlet for a man at all here, except, always, the eggs. Six shillings a dozen for sea birds’ eggs, a record price that. Only due to the war, of course. You couldn’t expect the war to keep up forever. The eggs were only fit for five weeks in the year. We’ll get a haul of them while she’s away, not to worry her. I’ll sell them straightaway to Dooley. He’ll pay and ship them. There’ll be a bit of money in the house when she gets back, enough to fill the place of what she has to spend. She’ll be angry, but then she’ll be glad.

“Well, I’m off now,” she was saying. “God keep you all. Be good boys till your mother gets back.” Only Dermot heard her voice tremble. His heart twisted quickly, but he had to hide that for custom’s sake and the lack of words. She waited a second for a sign from them. None. They don’t care. They’ll hardly leave their own selfish thoughts for the time it takes to say good-by. She had kissed them all already, ten minutes ago. She could hardly do it again without making a fool of herself. Oh, boys! I’m your mother — don’t you see, know, feel? Helpless you were, every one of you, and needed me there every minute of the day and night, and I never left you. I never took my eye off you, or my ear, no matter what befell, and I saved all your lives, and that’s why you’re alive and well and so proud and strong and independent to run away from me now that I need you.

“God bless you all and keep you,” she said, and she gathered up her load quickly and hurried off across the mauve clay of the lane, hobbling a little over the sun-baked wheel ruts.

DERMOT and Paddy watched her separately and in silence until she passed from view. Then their eyes met, and Dermot said, “We’re for the cliffs. Come on.”

They walked out, but Tony called after them, “What about me?”

“You stay with the nipper and mind the fowl,” Dermot told him.

“But—”

“Shut your mouth.”

They went over the heights toward the sea, the dry heather crunching underfoot, the warm breeze stroking their cheeks. Often their boots clinked on bare rock. Farm!

They took their gear from its hiding place and humped the ropes and spikes on their shoulders and strode down the long slope to the sea. Here pipits sprang from their path, fluttered up clear of the heather, and then lay down on the wind and let it sweep them away to safety. High overhead larks spelled each other, but the boys heard them only when their song began or ended. They glanced up at a great robber gull wheeling over them, glaring w ith its pale-gray eye, uttering cruel laughter. Such a bird had taken three of their turkey chicks. “You bastard,” Dermot said. “You big bastard.” The gull sailed away across the hill toward the farm, laughing.

They reached the cliff edge, and Dermot looked down at the slowly swirling sea. Far away below, the green water writhed between the rocks, thick as melted glass. Kittiwakes sailed out from the cliff with sad, slow cries — slow like the sea itself, he thought. They twisted their soft necks to look at the intruders as they passed and cried the sad tidings to the auks. Soon the auks arrived and began to circle around the boys in endless succession. Razorbills, guillemots, and puffins, all whirring past in one direction, all looking back over their shoulders as they sped away. They always did the same thing, but Dermot never tired of watching them. He picked out a razorbill and held it with his eye, following its orbit.

The razorbill swept out over the ocean on stiff planes, out and down, down to the surface of the sea, and around in a great wide curve, gaining speed to bring it up again and around again and down again in the never-ending circus of blackand-white bullet-shaped birds. And every time it came level with the boy’s head it turned its vain face and stared at him haughtily. It seemed to say, “Come, follow me.”

I have the better of you, though, Derrnot thought, neat as you are and strong in the air. I can get to your nest as sure as you can yourself, however hard you have made it for me. And then you can sweep about and show off to the sea, with nothing to come home to but the bare rock. Then you can lay us a few more eggs.

Paddy was excited. “See over yonder, Dermot,” he was saying. “See below that white mark on the rocks? See the razorbills hatching all the way down! And there’s a bank full of puffins at the bottom that you might reach too!”

“I might and I mightn’t,” Dermot said. He was studying the cliff.

“You’d get a great haul of razorbills anyhow! That’s the place, all right!”

“Have you it marked in your eye?”

“I have, surely.”

“Come on ahead then.”

They walked along the cliff top. Paddy stopped at a high thistle.

“Here it is. Right below here.”

They drove a spike into the turf, but it grated on the rock. They probed along the edge, foot by foot, until they found a place where the soil was deep enough. They drove the bar in until it stood firm, and then they hitched the rope around it and threw the long end over the cliff. Paddy gave the short end a couple of turns around his waist, set his heels in the turf, and lay back with a flourish. “Go ahead,” he said.

“I’ll go when I’m ready,” Dermot said. But he spat on his hands and gripped the rope at once, and then he lay flat on the wiry grass and worked his legs backward out into space. He elbowed himself onto the rope and took the weight in his hands and dangled high above the sea.

Climbing down, Dermot braced his feet against the rock to keep his body out from the crumbling face. This was rotten rock, as they call it, little stronger than hard clay and never to be trusted with any weight at all. The razorbills whistled past his back so close that he could hear the rustling of their pinions and the flutter of their swerve. Apart from that, they made no sound. He knew of old that they would never touch him — only this silent flight of protest.

He reached the highest of their nesting ledges and began packing his haversack with the great pear-shaped eggs. Heavy and rough-shelled, sky blue, sea green, all blotched with gobs of velvet brown, rich to look at, rich to eat, rich to sell. “A tanner a time,” he said to himself. “Sixteen for a new lamp, thirty-two for a pair of boots, forty to rent two acres for a year.”

Once, when he stretched out sideways, the rotten basalt crumbled under his feet. He swung on the rope and watched the rock falling. Down, down, down it went, down to the black boulders far below. It struck with a muffled crack and a puff of dust and splinters and bounded off again like a mountain sheep, far out into the water, where a proud plume of spray marked its momentary grave. Dermot began a prayer, and laughed at himself and went on with his work.

WHEN he got down to the end of the rope, his sack was not yet full. He pressed his feet hard against the face and lay out on the rope to look for puffins’ nests. He could just see them, the beginnings of them, beyond a spur of the cliff, twenty feet along and slightly below him.

But there was not enough rope for that. There was nothing to spare at the top and not another foot down here. He looked at the nest holes again, the few that promised hundreds. He looked at the rope again. He swore, but that was no use. Maybe he could get over there without a rope? He began to study the terrain.

There was a narrow ledge leading to the spur. It sloped steeply outward and downward, partly grassy, partly red dust. Above it he made out a few handholds in the broken wall. It would be hard work to climb up to the top again and come down twenty feet further along. But worth it, maybe? No, the crowbar wouldn’t hold there. They had tried it. It might drive further back from the edge, but that would make the rope even shorter. It was get them now or leave them, he decided. He left the rope dancing free behind him and started out along the ledge.

Dermot pressed his body close to the cliff face. He tugged at every handhold before he trusted it, and more often than not it crumbled like a biscuit in his fist. He kicked the red dust from the ledge and hacked it with his heel, and here and there a stone broke away and sped down silently and bounded from the rocks out into the sea.

At last he came to the spur, and he saw that it was impossible to go further. Where the basalt hung out over the sea, where it had jutted into the wind and rain of a thousand years, it was flaked and crazed like dry clay. Tons of it hung there in suspense, undercut and crisscrossed with cracks and fissures. A bird might bring it down. A bird, or a root of sea pink, or one more night of frost and thaw. Or it might hang there for another thousand years. But Dermot knew that he dared not lay a hand on it.

He rested for a little while with his left foot on firm rock and his right hand gripping a little knob overhead. His right leg hung from his hip with no resting place at all; his left hand could find only wiry grass to hold. He looked back at the way he had come. It was the way he must go back.

The ledge led back to the rope, but from this side it looked far worse, narrower and steeper, and scarred and broken by his passage. A cry rose in him — it wouldn’t do, it couldn’t be done! But there was no other way. He couldn’t even move to look for another way. And he was getting tired. He’d have to do it. No, he couldn’t face it. He’d stay where he was. He’d hold on forever. He’d die where he was — nor that! He couldn’t do that either. He’d have to go. He’d have to stay. He’d have to die.

Dermot allowed himself to whimper aloud like a little child. “Mama, come and help me! Mama, Mama, I’m frightened! I’m stuck! Mama! It’s me, Dermot — I’m going to fall!”

“I’m here. Mama’s here. Be a man now. Be a brave little man.” That’s what she would say, if she could hear. That’s what she used to say when I called her in the night. His mind calmed a little and turned to the auks whirring by, close to his back. He laid his cheek against the rock and watched them for a little while, patiently and endlessly whirring by, each one beckoning with its white face as it fell down, down, down to the sea. His free, useless hand found a bottom corner of the sack and it occurred to him to empty it. He raised his hand and shook the sack so that the eggs fell out one by one. He called out, “Here! lake your eggs!” again and again, gaily. The birds made neither sign nor sound. He listened hard for the sound of the eggs striking the rocks, but he could not hear it. He went on shaking the sack until the last egg fell out. “Take your eggs!” he shouted. “They’re no use to me!” Nor any use to them either. He laughed a little at this. Then he laid his cheek against the cold cliff again and closed his eyes.

A harsh, deep chuckle at his elbow gripped his bowels coldly, and then he recognized the voice of the robber gull. He was glad that it had come. Over his shoulder he watched the great bird wheel and sail toward him again, with all the auks swerving away from it. Close in now, it hung for a second on the updraft, its pale eye glaring wide in greedy interest. The gull chuckled once more. As it fell away he saw the head of a turkey chick dangling from the corner of its bill. He called after it once more, “You bastard! You big bastard !” He laughed at this, too.

But now he found great pains in his limbs. His back hurt too. The thought came to him that he could not do any more. Not even a rescuer could help him now. He could do nothing for himself. His limbs had failed him. He began to sob quietly, without tears.

He thought he heard, tossed and torn on the breeze, a fragment of his name called, maybe in his mother’s voice. He stopped breathing to listen, but he heard nothing more. Nothing but the faroff sigh and thump of the sea and the puffins whirring past. Yes, the puffins had closed in again now that the gull had gone. He turned his face once more to watch them, the only living things left in his world. He let his eyes follow them as they swept down to the slow green water.

But the sea writhed and heaved as he watched. A tremor ran through his loins, his stomach stirred and heaved, and his mouth filled with bitterness. As weakness crept over him, the grip of fear loosened a little, and because it was the only thing he had not done, he raised his eyes to the rocks above him.

He saw the black cliff top swaying out to crush him — “Hail, Mary, Mother of God” — and the clouds racing over the edge, pouring out into the sea. The clouds drew his head back to follow them, and then he felt his handhold snap off and he clutched it in his hand as he fell.

Hail, Mary, Mother of God . . . now it is all decided . . . free now . . . falling free . . . resting . . . turning over, over, over . . . slowly down to the sea — and a flash: white light.