Does art really imitate life, or are we attracted to art that is destined to reflect our lives?
The fire pulled itself higher on the wind, flickering ruby highlights through her wine. She shivered as the gust blew to climax and subsided.
The room was alive in the semi-darkness, outlines of doors and furniture shifting in the reflections from the fireplace. She loved the intimacy of this time of the year, fall not yet over but winter pushing against doorways, testing to see if summer had made people soft. She lifted her glass and as she drank her eyes came in line with the picture.
The painting had power even in the gloom, and though she knew it was only a trick of the firelight, the two sweater-clad men seemed to move as they pushed the currach against the incoming waves. To one side, a woman looked beyond them to the gray of a restless Atlantic.
Sweet Jesus Christ, how long will it take?
Another gust of winter pulled at the chimney, and she tasted again the spray from the sea salting her cheeks and lips. She wiped her face with her hand and found that it really was wet.
Megan had come across the picture in a fashionable Dublin shopping center. Drifting among the currents of shoppers in a pleasant interlude of aloneness, she'd browsed in a bookstore, fingered patterns in Aran sweaters, and, over the steamy rims of several cups of coffee, watched the patterns of movement from the central open-plan restaurant. She once found herself being observed, by a man who didn't drop his gaze when she caught it. He wasn't really coming on to her and she let it pass. Attention was something a woman lived with.
The interlude was over.
She smiled up at the two men. "How was the museum?"
Peter's glasses shrugged as he wrinkled his nose. "Tacky. An exhibit of what museums used to be."
"Hell, Pete, it wasn't that bad. The Celtic jewelry was cool."
Jeremy was the T-shirt of the trio, the towheaded younger of the men. Peter and Megan had first met up with him during a rowing regatta--both he and Peter were keen competitive whaleboat oarsman, pulling for Harvard and Boston U. respectively. Though at the comfortable stage of an "understanding" with Peter--they were to marry when he joined his law firm--Megan had found herself attracted to the young artist.
"Gold brooches in glass cases don't show context, Jeremy."
But Jeremy wasn't really interested anymore. He looked around the mall. "Hey, Meg, what's this place like? Buy anything?"
Her hair swished a negative.
"Not yet. There is a place--" she nodded over the boundary rail of the restaurant "--that picture stall. I like the styles."
"Let's look," Peter said.
"Yeah. Let's pick a picture." Jeremy gave his sloppy grin. He liked to be doing--he was going to set up a sculptor's studio when they got back to Boston.
She rose and slipped the strap of her bag over her shoulder. "Let's make waves, then," she smiled.
Pictures as memories, that had been the plan, one from each of the three countries on the trip. They'd drawn straws, and Peter had won Italy, their first stop. Jeremy drew Spain, leaving Ireland to Megan. The others could advise, if asked, on choices made by the buyer of turn.
Peter had considered in his careful way and had bought a watercolor of the Leaning Tower in Pisa.
"It's likely to fall eventually, and there'd be no point then," he'd explained. "Now I have what I've seen."
Jeremy had impulsively but definitely opted for an oil of charging bulls on the Pamplona Run, the beasts snorting on the heels of the scattering runners. "The runners could lose their lives," he said. "It makes life sweeter."
Now, in Ireland, it was Megan's turn.
The framed paintings in the stall were Irish, in themes typical of the country--moody landscapes, rugged portraits, thundering horses at race.
"They're all originals," the woman selling them said. "They all worked at it for their living."
The portraits she discounted because they were too specifically personal. One equine painting did attract her, three horses on a beach, one galloping a length ahead of the other two. The trailing pair almost touched, veins on their necks bulging as each strained to break ahead.
"Power," she murmured, leaning back against Peter and linking an arm through Jeremy's. "Power and freedom."
"Stallions chasing the mare, actually," Peter grunted.
"Same thing." Jeremy laughed.
She dug her elbow against him and linked her other arm in Peter's, moving them all to another stand.
She could almost hear the waves crashing on the shore as she saw the boatmen and their currach. And the woman watching. A signature was scrawled in a corner: Mairtin O'Driscoll.
"A good piece, a strong painter."
This time Megan noticed details about the stallholder, red hair and a face that was no stranger to wind and sun--and in the brief woman-to-woman contact she saw a sadness.
"Where was it painted?"
Her puzzlement showed.
"Inishmaan, the middle one of the Aran Islands. In Galway Bay."
Megan turned back to the painting. Unlike the picture of the horses, where the subjects were playing in a fairly benign sea, the characters on the Inishmaan beach seemed more threatened by moodier waves. There was again the separation of the males and the female, but in this painting she wasn't the challenge.
"What do you think?" Megan asked.
Peter shifted his glasses on his nose, a gesture she guessed would become well known in the courtroom.
"I don't like the frame--it's too light for the subject," he said eventually. "But the painting haunts. Or maybe it's the place."
Jeremy had already decided.
"I want to go there," he said.
"Me too," murmured Megan.
She agreed to the price with the woman, who offered to have the picture reframed. They looked at other paintings to find a suitable style, chose a frame, and arranged to pick up the picture some time in the next week or so.
Walking away, Megan looked at the woman's name scrawled on the bottom of the receipt. O'Driscoll.
"Wow! Are we really going to land there?"
Jeremy was impressed by the sea dashing against the little pier as they approached it.
"Aye, we are," the boatman answered. "It's smooth enough today."
Grinning at the blatant untruth, Jeremy returned to enjoying the views and the spray.
The 30-foot motorboat had seemed substantial enough when they'd boarded at Doolin, but what had seemed to be a mild swell from inside the little harbor was deceptive. They'd had a spectacular ride across the sound to the island, the middle of the three Arans in size. They had earlier passed to the north of the smallest, Inisheer.
Peter and Megan sat in comparative shelter on the lee side of the boat. The journey across Ireland in the rented car had been tiring, and each had developed a mood--in Peter's case, an unusually dark one that had been reflected in the two men sniping at each other during the last 30 miles. Megan was glad they'd been able to separate, even by the short distance available within the boat.
She gazed back at the mainland, the distant rocks of Doolin misted in the spray of waves ending their Gulf Stream journey. She knew that when they returned, all their lives would have changed.
"It's an end of the world."
Peter's words seemed to echo her thoughts. He hadn't spoken for nearly an hour.
"What d'you mean?"
He pointed back towards Doolin. "Maybe it's how Columbus felt, that what was fading behind him was it, an end. In front of him, for all he knew, was nothing."
"But we know there's something." She turned to the island, then looked back at him. "Isn't there?"
A splash carried on the wind blurred his glasses. "I don't know. This place is different, Meg. This is going to be an end itself."
Then the boat was lifting up and down on the waves sloshing at the pier and they were distracted by the boatman's efforts to gauge a landing that wouldn't leave them smashed on the stone wall. Only feet away he cut his engine and shouted, "Now!"
Jeremy threw the roped old tires over the side to buffer the boat in the swells. Two weathered men above caught lines thrown to them and tied them securely to rust-crusted bollards.
"Smooth enough," the boatman observed as he handed up their rucksacks. "Thanks for your help, young fella."
"You're welcome." Jeremy grinned, hefting his luggage over his shoulder.
Megan looked across at a small beach beyond the pier. She touched Peter's arm.
Three currachs were drawn up above the weedy tideline, upside down against the weather, looking like long black beetles asleep on the shore.
Later, in the way of visitors new to a place, they moved around to find their boundaries. On an island so small this didn't take long, but doing it improved their spirits.
They were fascinated by fields bounded by high limestone walls, built drystone, most minuscule. A few had post-harvest stubble and narrow stooks of hay stacked in the lee of the walls, drying before storage for the winter feeding of the few cows on the island. Most of the enclosures were without gates, and finding the lowest points in the walls so they could traverse the island was like trying to get through a maze with no breaks. A maze that sometimes led to surprises.
"Look at that." Megan pointed when they came around the ruins of a little medieval church, into the wind which was everywhere on this exposed Atlantic rock. Two vertical rocks with a long capstone stood stark against the sun setting into a dark cloud mass.
"A dolmen," Peter said.
It dominated a terrain where there were no trees. Even light-hearted Jeremy was affected.
"Men built it and we don't know them," he mused. "It'll be there when we're gone and nobody will know we've even seen it."
They looked at it for a long time.
"It will still be there even when the tower at Pisa falls," Peter said finally, breaking the spell.
"It's the bed of Darmuid and Grianne," the old man in the Tig na Ceoil said, taking his pipe from his mouth.
"Who were they?" Jeremy's innate romanticism always influenced him into being intrigued by any story that involved a man and a woman and a bed.
"He was one of Finn mac Cumhaill's Fianna warriors, and Grainne forced him to take her away on the eve of her wedding to Finn, because he was getting old and she didn't want to marry an aging man."
"Forced him?" Megan asked.
The old man looked at her, his eyes blue twinkles in island-ruddied skin. "Aye, young lady. He didn't want to betray his chief, but she put a geis on him and he had to do it. And later she seduced him."
"Ah, blame the woman for everything." Megan laughed. "What's a geis, anyway? Some kind of a spell?"
"No, girl, it's more than that. It is a prohibition ignored at one's peril. She doomed him to death and dishonor if he would not take her away. He had no choice."
"Why him particularly?" Peter wondered.
"He was special. He'd once been taken as a lover by a beautiful fairy woman, and she put a mark on him which ever more made him irresistible to women."
The old man ended his contribution by beginning the recharging of his pipe.
Jeremy stood up to get them another drink. "Boy, I wouldn't mind meeting that fairy woman myself." He laughed.
"You must have done it at some time," Megan teased him. "Aren't you already irresistible?"
Behind him the door opened and a clatter of men and women came in.
"If I am, why are we here?" he asked softly, then turned away.
Some of those who'd come in were musicians, and Megan idly watched them unpack their instruments. At another level she thought on the old man's story.
"You don't like Grainne," she said. "You don't approve of how she behaved. But if Diarmuid had been made irresistible by some magical means, surely it wasn't her fault?"
He scratched under his wool cap. He had rekindled the pipe and was expelling aromatic, contented puffs.
"Aye, but even with the magic mark, Diarmuid wasn't her first choice. She'd already asked Finn's son Oisin to take her, but he wouldn't. Finn commanded great loyalty, and even with Diarmuid she had to use the geis to get him to betray him. No man should be put in that position."
She wasn't going to let him get away with that.
"But why should a woman be put in a position that she must marry someone she doesn't want to?"
The old man pulled at his pipe. "Women mesmerise us, young miss," he said. "They always had power over men. Anything they want, they can make it happen."
His words made Megan uncomfortable. She turned and watched one of the musicians squeeze an under-arm bag-powered instrument, and at the same time Jeremy arrived with their drinks. She moved to let him put them on the table and caught Peter looking at her, and she knew he'd overheard the conversation.
"Hey, this is great!"
Jeremy grabbed her waist and swung her around in the center of the flagged floor, then released her to the arms of a man coming in from the corner of the formation. Breathlessly, Megan managed to laugh agreement before the dancing took him briefly out of her sight, and then she was back on the sideline as another foursome took their turn to the music.
It had been made clear early that visitors were expected to get fully involved in the entertainment at the Tig na Ceoil. Now the musicians played an end-of-set flourish, allowing the three to retreat to their table.
"Whew! They dance hard over here," Jeremy gasped, flopping into his chair.
"There's nothing smoochy about it," Peter agreed, flapping his arms to cool himself.
A bodhran hand-drum rapped out another roll of rhythm and one of the musicians called out something in Gaelic.
"What did he say?" Megan asked.
"It is the turn of the ladies," the old man told her, and nodded in the direction of a young woman walking across toward their table. "And it looks like one of them is going to take her turn here."
She had the same red hair and outdoor complexion as the woman who'd sold Megan the painting. Her eyes laughing, she stood before Jeremy and held out a hand. When she spoke it was also in Gaelic, but the meaning was clear.
Jeremy rose, grinning at the others.
"Could this be the fairy woman who will make me irresistible?"
"I don't know why she'd want to," Peter retorted.
The younger man gripped the girl's hand. "Jealousy, Peter, suits you," he laughed, and then the two walked across to where a set was forming.
It was their normal banter, but Megan could feel the undercurrents coming stronger, waves fighting each other to claim the shoreline. She looked at Peter.
"I don't feel like dancing. Would you like a walk?"
As soon as she'd asked, she wished she hadn't. She might have trapped herself.
But Peter nodded and pushed back his chair. "Sure. I'd like some quiet myself."
The pier had a single light on the end that didn't seem nearly a strong enough marker for a boat trying to land at night, particularly an engineless currach. Megan wondered about it as they looked over the edge.
"Boatmen have done it for thousands of years," Peter said.
A gust of wind scattered across the pier and Megan shrugged her jacket closer. She walked to one of the bollards and sat, knowing that before long its chill would force her to rise again. She heard a rasp and turned to see Peter cupping a match to a cigarette.
"Oh Peter! You haven't smoked since--since we started the trip."
He spun the match into the wind, and the tip of the cigarette glowed bright as he pulled on it.
"I think there are more important things to consider right now," he said quietly. "We're flying home soon."
Another gust whipped a taste of spray over her.
"Yes," she said eventually. "I know."
She shook her head. "I haven't decided. I..." Her voice trailed off.
The cigarette glowed bright again for a few moments.
"I think I have, Meg. I don't think I can wait any more."
"We agreed to wait. We all agreed--"
"It's become too much of a game, Meg."
"No, Peter. It's not a game. It's a decision for my life."
"And for mine. And for Jeremy's...."
From somewhere beyond the harbor came a dull metal sound. A buoy of the kind used to mark shoals near land. It clanked in an uneven rhythm, ominous, funereal. Megan stood up and looked back towards the village, willing herself to hear music from the Tig na Ceoil that would drown the unseen bell.
"We'd better go in," she said.
"Hey! Conas ta tu?" Jeremy hailed them. "Mairead here is teaching me Gaelic. What d'you think?"
"I'll tell you if you tell me what it means." Megan laughed, her mood lightened momentarily. "Did you get your `irresistible' mark yet?"
"It means `how are you?' and no, I don't think so. What's it like outside?"
"Wind coming up," Peter said. "It could be squally tomorrow."
"Great. I've arranged for us to take a trip in one of those currachs, to the small island. It'll be interesting in a real sea."
"Hey, that sounds good." Peter said, brightening too. "How'd you swing that?"
"Mairead's grandfather--the man who was with us earlier?--he's going to check his lobster pots tomorrow, and he wants to visit a friend on Inisheer. He said he'd take us with him."
"Well, it'll be different from the whaleboats." Peter became thoughtful. "Hang on while I get a drink."
He looked at Megan, an eyebrow raised.
She shook her head. "I'm tired. I think I'll go home to bed."
"We'll have this last one," Jeremy said.
She felt something exclusive between the men. It was uncomfortable.
Mairead stood up and smiled at her. "I live beside your lodgings. I'll walk with you."
"Thanks." She smiled at Jeremy. "G'night."
When they got to the door she looked back. The men were deep in conversation. Peter was doing most of the talking, and both of them seemed excited.
She woke to rain blustered on her window by a keening wind. She figured it was after dawn but not yet day. She savored the moment--the luxury of spare time before having to get up shouldn't be wasted on slumber--and thought back to the last early morning with Peter in Boston. She'd told him she didn't think she'd be going to Europe.
"Why not, Meg? We've planned this for over a year." He turned from where he'd been looking out at the street. "This is our celebration of my finishing law school--we're going to be married when we come back."
His face was in shadow against the window, but she could hear his frustration. She sat on her bed, feeling miserable.
"I'm confused, Peter. I didn't plan this, but it's happened and I need to work it out. Going away with you to Europe simply doesn't seem to be the way to do it."
He sighed and came across and sat beside her, reaching for his cigarettes. He shook one out, looked at it for a moment, then shoved it back in the pack.
"OK, honey," he said, leaning back against the headboard beside her. "Let's think it through."
And they had, sitting and talking for the rest of the morning, Peter balancing the weights of the situation on one side and the other, as he'd been taught to do.
"OK, I'll go along with that," Jeremy said later in the restaurant to where they'd all gone for an extended lunch. "I'd nothing set for the summer anyway. But are you sure that you wouldn't be better working this out on your own, Meg? You know what they say--out of sight, out of mind."
"You really mean, `make up your mind,' don't you?" She laughed, shaking her head. "Maybe I'd let go of you both. No, at least this way we're friends together for the summer, and what will be, as they say, will be."
They sealed the pact in the rosy glow of a second bottle of wine, and each made his or her way home separately. For Peter and Megan that was the first indication of the changed circumstances: it was understood between them that there would be no more sex until the matter was resolved. That night both wondered what on earth they'd done.
It had seemed such a mature way of dealing with the problem, Megan thought as she got out of her bed on Inishmaan and drew back the curtains on her window. Yet now she felt angry. Damn both of them! It wasn't fair to put her in this position.
It was gray and wet and wild outside in the Aran morning. Dressing quickly in woolly jumper and jeans, she went to the dining room and saw only one setting for breakfast.
"They left an hour ago, a leanbh," the landlady told her as she brought her cereal and juice. "They said they wanted to make the most of the waves, that they had been waiting too long."
White tips coasted in on the beach in never-ending armies, sometimes battering across each other before collapsing on the sand and then slithering back into the undertow. Above them, leaden clouds scuttled low before the wind. Mairead's grandfather was standing beside a lone currach.
"They're not coming?" he asked. "Your friends? They were to meet me here, ten minutes ago."
"They're gone, gone an hour."
The old man looked to the other side of his boat, at the marks where two others had been, rapidly washing away under the weather and the sea.
"They are good with boats, they told me."
"They are," Megan whispered.
"They were racing, it seemed like."
The boy on Inisheer had seen the two currachs approaching. "A wave caught one boat badly and it went over. The other stopped, and after a minute the man from it dived in. Then there was rain and I couldn't see them anymore."
The guard from Inishmore looked up from his notebook. "Could you make out which one was which?"
The boy shook his head. "No, Sergeant. They were too far."
The policeman sighed and closed his book. He turned to the two women.
"I'm sorry, miss," he said to Megan. "The currents here are treacherous. We can't even be sure that the bodies will ever come in."
Megan turned to Mairead. The young islandwoman, drawing on the reserves of courage from generations of sea tragedies, held her stricken friend tight and comforted her and looked out beyond at an ocean which had once more left a woman bereaved. This time twice.
"Are you related to the artist?" she asked the woman at the picture stall.
The sadness that Megan had seen once before came back, but this time the American could feel it too.
"We lived on the island. He died a year ago... he'd been sick for a long time."
"I'm sorry. He was good."
The woman nodded, reaching for wrapping paper.
"This was his last painting, some time before he died." She deftly worked on the packaging. "He didn't like it much after it was finished. Before he died he asked me to destroy it, he said that the woman was watching men going to their deaths. He said women have the power of life and death."
She finished her task and shrugged her shoulders. "I couldn't destroy it. I felt sure it would be important to someone."
The wind keened again and the firelight brought the waves and the clouds in the painting to life once more. To its left the bulls of Pamplona thundered closer to a runner, and on the right the leaning tower seemed to shift another fraction.
This is one of the stories in my story collection Mariseo's House and Other Stories published in 1996 under the pseudonym William Trapman.
Sunday, July 06, 2008
Does art really imitate life, or are we attracted to art that is destined to reflect our lives?