Strangers on the Road
Excerpted from In Circling Flight, winner of the 2019 Brighthorse Prize in the Novel
They’re gathering dew from the flats of leaves, from stones, from lintels, and rubbing it into their skin. They’re racing now from creeks to wells, drinking out of cupped hands. It has powers, this first draw of May, makes them beautiful. And it must be true, they think, because people come to see them, to watch them revel, waves of visitors from across the Irish Sea. They set up easels and paints, sketch in journals. Sometimes these pages are published in London or Paris, because it is not only these sightseers who are fascinated by how a race of such poor people, living on such a poor diet—the potato, of all things—could be so full of life.
This, the festival of Beltane, is a favorite of the onlookers, with its yellow blossoms strung from neck and post, picked fresh from hills and boreens: primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel, marsh marigold. It is so popular a time that even the tiny townland of Ballydonegan on its far west perch might see a carriage by midday, wheels stumbling over rocky cart paths. The travelers might halt by a low stone wall, near enough to hear the music and the odd tongue they know not a word of. The songs, some of those might be in English and might then be understood, like the lines of the one sung now by the woman, Julia. She is accompanied on the tin whistle by her young daughter, who plays nervously, missing a note here then there. The girl has surely practiced the tune, but not in front of so many people. Not in front of strangers on the road.
It is a poem by Speranza that Julia has set to music. This poet in Dublin is her idol, a voice of the Young Ireland movement, though Cornelius writes her off as a member of the plantation class. Speranza was born of such a family, sure, but Julia knows better. “Look at what she writes,” she always tells her husband, holding up the page in the Nation newspaper. Cornelius says he can’t read a word, doesn’t want to read a word of a language forced upon them, so she translates. (In truth, he can read a fair bit from examining handbills on the streets of Berehaven, where ships take away the grains and animals for export, take away their kin for far-flung jobs. He’d rather his wife not know he spends so much time studying those notices of passage.) If thy mighty heart has stirred / With one pulse-throb at my word / Then not in vain my woman's hand / Has struck thy gold harp while I stand / Waiting thy rise Loved Ireland! is a stanza of what Julia has put to music this day. She sings confidently, because she doesn’t yet know that the verse is as good as lament. She sings it as a clarion call to her neighbors, to battle once more, to win their country back for sons and daughters born and yet to be born.
She holds a hand to her belly, just barely rounded, as the gathering applauds the mother-daughter duo. A fiddler starts up and the dance turns to a jig. Julia sits, watches; she’s overly careful, is determined to keep this one. She imagines the baby plump already, because never had they seen such a lumper crop as the one last fall. The old women who stand in doorways puffing on clay pipes had looked upon the abundance anxiously but never said, not aloud, what worried them, just exchanged glances behind curls of smoke. It is unusual for the potatoes to last into May, but they have, and Julia is yet bartering for oats and buttermilk. Foraging has begun, too, for the wood sorrel, the wild garlic. It’s the game, though—Cornelius is so sure—that is making this new baby thrive in the womb. Julia doesn’t know where he gets the meat, nor the blood she made into a pudding for them just this morning. It worries her to think about that, so she puts her mind on other things, the merriment. She claps as the jig comes to an end.
Though their ancestors, the Celts, had looked upon Beltane as a day to venerate cattle, to bless the herd and send it off to grassy mountainsides, the only animals that seem part of this day’s festivities are dogs—herders and hounds, all of them, wandered off Lord Bantry’s estate over the years. You could say these dogs are worshipped, in a way, welcomed by those who can ill afford to feed them. It is thought by some in Ballydonegan that the spirits of Irish rebels live in these mutts, choosing as they do to be hungry in the company of the poor rather than fat from the hands of the landlord. Skinny as they are, they don’t lack energy. They nip at dancing heels, race around the fire, leap at flowers. Some sit sentry next to the old men who have pulled chairs out of their huts on this day, their feet on upturned buckets.
Cornelius sits with these elders. Most younger men have chosen to dance, but he’s enjoying the talk and drink—good craic, they say of this social time as they watch the revelers. Ever since his brothers went across the sea, Cornelius has gravitated to his uncles, especially Jeremiah, who’s got the best poteen, makes it up in the bog. It is a scourge among the miners, their drinking, but Cornelius has learned to sidestep the worst of it. At least he knows to never take drink when he’s just come up from a shift, though it’s offered to them all, a shot of whiskey from the casks the company brings in on ships, Berehaven’s largest import by far. “It’s part of the pay,” they say, “take it.” But the shattered nerves crave another shot, and that must be bought at the company’s shebeen, as does the next and the next. When Cornelius pointed out that he should get extra coin if he’s not taking that “part of the pay,” the captain begrudgingly added a bit to his wages. He’s determined to save more than will be due next gale day, no matter how high Bantry spikes the rents. A fund, enough to get him across—he sees that as the only way. Not a ha’penny will he waste, not on anything, not on drink. No need, thanks to Jeremiah’s generosity and the lumpers that keep feeding the hidden stills. Cornelius has probably had too much of it today, he’s thinking now, because he can’t say just how long McCarthy-Moor has been standing in front of him, staring at his boots.
“What happened there?” the landlord’s agent asks, running a finger over a gouge in the side of Cornelius’s shoe. The torn leather exposes the wool of his sock and extends down to the sole, which looks as if someone has taken a bite from it.
“What business is it of yours?” Cornelius answers, setting his feet flat on the clay.
“Maybe none, but at the next assizes it might be the judge’s business.”
“Ah,” Jeremiah chimes in, “we have a new law, do we? What’s the punishment for damaging your own boots? Drawing and quartering?”
“No,” McCarthy-Moor says, “but you can still hang for stealing from a rabbit warren.”
Cornelius sets his eyes on Julia. She has just started singing a sad air.
“I’m not following your line of reason,” Jeremiah goes on. “What does a boot have to do with a rabbit warren?”
“Think about it,” McCarthy-Moor mutters. He follows Cornelius’s gaze, and then says to him, “Fine color, there, in your wife’s cheeks. The kind that comes from a thick chop or, say, roasted game?”
Cornelius is up in a flash, one hand on the agent’s throat, the other in his own pocket. Jeremiah has shot up, too, and gets his own hand on his nephew’s wrist. He knows what Cornelius is reaching for, knows it is, in fact, what they were making at the forge when, due to their inexperience and rushing so as not to be discovered trespassing, they’d dropped the red-hot tongs on his boot. “Don’t take his bait, Con,” he whispers.
“Get out now, you traitor,” another of the men is saying, ominous despite his long beard and shaky stance. A dog, scruffy, ginger-haired, is by his side, teeth bared.
“Just doing a job,” McCarthy-Moor says. “I’m Irish, same flock as you.”
“Your job is to pull every penny from us for that land-thieving Bantry,” the shaky man says, teeth clenched. “No real Irish would do that.”
Cornelius spits, “But if it’s a flock you’re looking for, maybe the buzzards will take you in.”
“Better not be testing me come gale day,” the agent says to Cornelius. “There’s talk of turning all this here to pasture.”
“Pasture, hmm,” Jeremiah says, scratching his head. “So, we’re to eat grass, now, is it?”
“Oh, quite the funny man,” McCarthy-Moor says. “When cattle have taken your place, Jeremiah, maybe you can find a job as a performer in Cork City. Bantry’s ready with the battering ram, you better believe it. All I have to do is say the word arrears.”
By now a gaggle of others have gotten out of their chairs and are glaring at the agent, pointing to the road. More dogs have gotten in on the act, and, not one to get along so well with the canines, McCarthy-Moor takes a nervous tug on his vest and sidles to the post where he’s tied up his horse. He steers the animal out of Ballydonegan to a barrage of curses.
“Let’s get that boot repaired,” Jeremiah says to Cornelius as they settle back into their chairs, pass the jug again. “We’ve got a little time before the assizes. If there’s no evidence, they can’t bother you.”
“He must’ve set a trap,” Cornelius says, “some ash laid for a print. I’ve been careful.”
“You weren’t being careful today when you reached for that tool of yours. Though I know you have good reason to want to skin or bleed that animal.”
Cornelius watches as Julia takes her last bow and then wends her way toward him. From the smile on her face, it appears she hadn’t noticed the agent there at all, and Cornelius has no intention of telling her of the encounter. Nor has he ever told her how desperately he begged McCarthy-Moor for milk, for meat, for anything when she was last carrying. Always a bad time for a new life to grow, summer, when they’re waiting on the first harvest. Cornelius takes a swig and stands to greet his wife.
“You look tired, Connie,” she says to him, lifting the garland from her neck and putting it around his. She smirks, says, “Might you be wanting a nap?”
“She’s gone off with her fairy pipe,” she says, using the moniker the girl gives the tin whistle. The child is sure that it came from the Tir Na Nog, the underwater home of the sí. “She’ll be busy for a little while.”
Cornelius looks down at Jeremiah in his chair, who motions impatiently that he should go. So, he takes ahold of his wife’s hand and they walk the short distance past huts of mud and thatched roofs like beehives, to the edge of the village and their own front door. From the stoop, they can see their rows of potato plants, white blossoms dotting the leaves. Cornelius blinks his eyes a few times, because he can swear he is seeing the land shift, his plot misshapen by pushes from beneath. It’s the poteen, he knows, working on his imagination, too keen these days as it is. Sometimes, when he’s on his belly in the mines, he is sure he is looking down on himself, and what he sees is a stoat tunneling through the dark.
“We need to bless the plants,” he says, ducking in through the door and taking a few clumsy strides to the corner, to the mattress tick on the floor. He drops heavily onto the spread—blue, like all the fibers Julia dyes, with the brambleberries and the ink from the ocean mollusk she won’t speak the name of. It’s bad luck, she has always insisted when Cornelius, not one for the superstitions, has tried to tease the name out of her. “Let’s do the blessing together, the three of us.”
“Of course.” But she’s surprised, peers into his hazy eyes. He usually lets her carry out that rite with other believers, that walking the perimeter of the garden, praying at cardinal points.
“Sorry,” he whispers, “I meant four.” He presses a palm against her breastbone, but sleep comes over him and his hand drops to the floor.
Julia sighs, gets up and makes her way to the box of a window that looks west, out to sea. She leans her elbows on the ledge, watches the swift movement of gray clouds toward land, blackening the water below like a curtain being drawn. Soon there is a crack of lightening. How rare, she thinks, not recalling a thunderstorm on a Beltane, not ever in her life. She pulls her skirt up into an arm, darts out the door to find her daughter.
Though Julia doesn’t realize it, she has knocked over the small carved animal that she keeps on the window ledge. She thinks it a creature of myth, or possibly a fanciful version of a cow, because she has never seen a buffalo. The figurine had appeared on the strand, and she had picked it up and taken it home. The rule the people go by with the raic—what they call this flotsam that washes up from shipwrecks—is that if you haul it up yourself it is yours. So, you might see, when having a visit in the starkest hut, a candelabra in the center of a table, or a statuette of an Eastern dancer on the floor next to a family’s cookpot. A crone in rags might have on a chain a red stone set in gold. Maybe a garnet, maybe a ruby.
Perhaps that is what adorns the neck of an old woman who leans now against a door frame and watches the travelers up by the low stone wall. They are noticing the sky, too, and with fear plain on their faces, they pack up their picnic and paints, steer their carriage eastward. A fairy blast, the old woman might say, eyes wide and set on the salty mist that makes the horse go paler and paler until it is gone. Those visitors will not be back next May—oh, no, maybe never—for the roads will be filled with the hungry, their gazes hollow, strange. “A ghastly, spectral army,” that Dublin poet, her style turned elegiac, will call this people pushing shoreward.