Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Spirits We Know

Everyone has their personal demons, whether they begin life among snow-capped mountains in the American west, the green hills and fields of Ireland, or anywhere in between.

---

He flickered on the edge of my vision as I picked up my bag and walked into JFK. You won't be able to keep up with a 747, I thought, and an hour later I was flying higher than he ever could.

I should have felt free. But what I really felt was lonesome.

---

I got off at Shannon, where the immigration officer was a big red face under untidy thinning hair. Friendly, easygoing, professionally disarming.

"Business or holidays, sir?" he asked. His hands, broad and weathered, flicked through the pages of my passport. Maybe he farmed in his spare time. Jenny's people had been farmers; mine too.

"Just a short holiday," I said.

He stamped the document. "I hope you enjoy it, sir."

---

The rental car was small, but I smelled the newness and thought of an old truck with a sagging bumper, and of an old man and a mixed-up young boy. I
turned on the motor, shifted awkwardly into gear with my left hand, and drove out of the parking lot. A sticker on the windshield reminded me that here, they drive on the left.

Now and again, without thinking, I looked skyward.

---

Green and rolling fields gave way to harsher land with rough stone walls instead of hedge rows. It was an environment different from both New York and Wyoming -- a place without the noise of one or the dust of the other.

It rained differently here, too -- sudden fine mists of wetness catching windshield wipers unawares. In New York it rains acid out of clouds invisible from the bottom of the skyscraper canyons, and in Wyoming what rain there is tastes angry. I got out of the car once and the Irish mist that trickled down my face was sweet.

I found the ocean, first in brief snatches beyond seafront villages, then below high cliffs which marked the western edge of the land. From that height the ocean seemed peaceful and slow-moving, until I saw how fiercely it chewed at the base of the cliff. I'd had to walk a path along the side of the precipice, inside a fence of stone flags laid on their edges. Beyond these were flat grassless areas of clifftop, some with people lying down to look over the edge. At the top of the path I sat out on one myself and looked across the ocean.

Jenny's ocean. The other side of the ocean she'd walked into. The only way she knew to go home. The sun came out suddenly, gently warming my
back, and then a voice intruded.

"There's nothing to see out there."

I turned to find backlit hair haloed red, and everything inside me went wild until the sun hid itself again. Then her face came out of shadow, I saw that she was someone else with red hair -- someone with smiling green eyes, wearing a bright rain slicker. A small backpack hung from her shoulder. The sound of the wind on the clifftop had prevented me from hearing her coming.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," she said, and waved out over the sea. "You were looking the wrong way for the best scenery."

I shrugged, rather ungraciously; I didn't want distraction. "It depends on how far you can see."

"And how far can you see?"

"Wherever I've been." It wasn't my usual style, but my tone was unmistakably dismissive.

"Sorry," she said, and gave me a little wave before walking back to the path, clambering easily over the stone flag fence, her red hair floating against the sky.

I turned back to the ocean. The crashing surf was soundless from 700 feet above it, but the keening and mewling of the seabirds on the cliffs were the songs of the wake I'd come to keep.

I came back down the pathway past a weathered man posing for photographs with a donkey. On its back was a small dog wearing a cap, with a pipe in
its mouth. I guess it's easier to show friends back home a picture of foolishness than to try and understand and explain a different culture.

I drove from the parking lot after a quick look at a map, turned left and found myself on the wrong side of the road with an approaching motorist panicking on his brakes. Swerving back, I gave the guy a suitably chastened look; he muttered something I couldn't hear and didn't need to. A bit further, a hitchhiker stuck out a thumb, and, still a bit shaken, I pulled over.

"Hi, going towards Galway?" she asked, bending to window level. "Oh -- " green eyes grinned, " -- the man with the long-distance vision."

This time I smiled back, thinking absently about second chances. "Sure. Get in."

When she'd done so, she held out a hand. "I'm Finnoula. Finnoula Regan."

"Mike," I said, accepting a firm and friendly clasp. "Mike Rainwater." I put the car in motion again. "Hey, I'm sorry I was short with you on the clifftop."

"That's OK. It was your space. I've used the cliffs to clear my head too."

I glanced over; she caught my look and smiled again, open and incurious.

"What's Galway like?" I asked.

"It's nice. Lively. It's a university town with lots of young people. Great crack."

I gaped at her and the car swerved slightly.

She burst out laughing. "No, not what you think... 'crack' means fun, enjoying yourself, music and drinking." She paused and looked thoughtful, and there was the resemblance again. "If you don't mind taking a small detour for lunch, I'll show you."

---

She brought me to a little pierside pub, which was full, mostly with foreigners enjoying the music and the food. We ordered salmon on coarse Irish bread and Finnoula asked for a glass of beer. I had a Coke.

"I don't drink," I told her when she suggested I try a beer. "It's a genetic thing. Low tolerance to alcohol."

"Genetic?"

"Native Americans and alcohol don't mix very well."

She was puzzled. "Native Americans? Oh... Indians?"

I nodded. "Yes, but we prefer 'Native Americans.'"

She looked at me, openly curious. "You're the first I've met," she said, "as far as I know."

"And how would you know?" I'd had this conversation once before.

"I don't know. Your skin isn't really red, just... outdoorsy. Your features, maybe -- they're not European." Her eyes glinted mischievously. "Maybe you shouldn't have stopped wearing feathers?"

"Maybe you should still be riding donkeys," I retorted.

She laughed. "Touché. Sorry."

We let it go and listened to the music, but she was obviously still thinking about it. "How does it work out in your job?" she asked when the musicians took a break. "Is there prejudice, like as if you were black?"

I work on Wall Street, where a Sioux is unusual in an environment of Jews and WASPs who tend to keep things in the family. But I had made it my business to become very good at what I did, and as long as I produced I was tolerated, I told her. "I don't get invited to certain parties, but it's no big deal."

It had been at one time, when I'd scholarshipped my way through a college too good for my breed; when hard work brought me high grades, which disturbed some of my financially and racially advantaged classmates. When comments about `good dead injuns' held real malice and a couple of physical confrontations made me wonder if they wanted to make it really happen. There were some depressing times.

The early times of the eagle.

---

Back on the road she told me something about herself. She was 21, an only child, and worked as a computer programmer. And her parents had split a month after her last birthday.

"They had it so well organized. I realized they'd only been waiting until I turned 21," she murmured. "They tried to be so damned civilized about it, but I know now the marriage probably ended years ago. They'd stayed together for my sake."

"That's bad?"

"Yes. They didn't think about how I'd feel, knowing I was the only reason they'd stayed together living what must have been empty lives."

"And how do you feel?"

She looked at me and winced. "Mixed up. I was angry with them and said things that maybe I shouldn't have. That's why I'm over here, trying to clear my head."

Two of us doing the same thing. "I'm sorry I didn't let you share my space."

She grinned at that, which was better. For both of us.

---

We drove through layered hills of uncovered limestone, the color of the clouds which sometimes came down over them. I'd not seen anything like it.

"There's plant life here that's not found anywhere else," she told me, and brought me to a perfumery which concentrated the scent of rare flowers. We went to a cave with bones of bears ("There haven't been bears in Ireland for five thousand years!"), and then she brought me to something which threw me right back to home.

"It's a dolmen, a stone age burial site." Four large rocks sat in a massive but delicate construction that looked poised to fly from its rocky field. "There are lots of them in Ireland, and in Britain. Some say they have magical properties."

I put my hand against one of the upright stones. "We have places which feel like this -- " I said quietly " -- they are places of... communication."

She didn't laugh. "Communication with what?"

"Memories, and things beyond memory."

I felt her green eyes scanning right through me. "You're a deep one, Mike Rainwater," she said eventually.

---

As we walked back to the car I thought once that a high shadow flickered just beyond my vision. But I didn't look up.

"I'm going to stay with a friend from college." She was poised at the half-open door of the car.

"Thanks for the company," I said, "and for the tour. Maybe we'll see each other again sometime?" I didn't expect to. And then I did one of those impulsive things which don't come from rational thinking.

"Come with me tomorrow," I said.

She nodded, and I was surprised.

"Four in the morning," I warned, expecting a change of mind.

"OK," she said, then smiled, touched my hand briefly, and got out of the car into the bustle of the Galway evening.

---

I sat on a limestone slab a little back from the dolmen and waited for the sun. She was beside me, bundled in a warm jacket.

"You're not going closer?"

I shook my head. "It's not necessary."

It was like a sound which kind of sneaked in and built slowly, growing under the lightening sky, and when the sun slipped up from behind the eastern hills and cast the shadow of the dolmen around me, the stones relayed its song. The ancient music enveloped me like the old robe of buffalo skins in which I had taken my tribal initiation vows, bringing me away into the past. It lasted until the sun cleared the stones, and it was long enough for Jenny to tell me that she hadn't meant to do it, and to properly say her goodbyes. And then she was gone.

I looked at Finnoula.

"Finished?" she asked quietly.

I nodded. "Could you hear?"

She shook her head.

A pity. She would have liked Jenny.

---

We had breakfast in a local hotel, the first customers of the day. She waited until we were finished to tell me she was going to Dublin on the afternoon train. To see her father. The prospect was bothering her.

"You don't know what to say to him?" I asked. "You're scared?"

"It's difficult for me to talk to either of them just now. Somehow..." she paused, searching. "Somehow I feel guilty."

I looked at her for a few moments, then signalled the waitress to bring the check. On the road I told her about my grandfather.

"He raised me. My parents died when I was small, killed when their old truck went off the road. He was the one who pushed me into regular school, instead of the one for people like us. One day I came back upset after somebody called me a no-good redskin --" It all welled up again. "Know what I was feeling? Guilty. Guilty for being an Indian. I was feeling ashamed because history had written us as the bad guys."

"That feeling wasn't rational," she murmured.

I grinned at her. "No, it wasn't. Is yours?"

Then she smiled too -- tentatively, but it was there. "No, it's not." She reached across and squeezed my arm. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. And remember, you still have parents to talk to."

I don't like railway stations much; too often they're places of saying goodbye. But we had time for coffee.

"How did you handle the guilt problem?" she asked.

I added sugar to my cup and stirred. "My grandfather took me on a trip into the Tetons, high up until we could stand on a ledge and see back down over Wyoming. Then he told me simple truths. That my people had been there long before the people who taunted me. That we had a civilization in this land much older than theirs. That though the white men had taken the land, they couldn't take our souls."

"He sounds like a wise man," she said. "But it doesn't sound like enough to solve all your problems."

I nodded. "You're right. But he also gave me something else that day."

---

We were high, but he was higher still, circling in the air currents around the peak. My mind's eye provided detail which distance hid. Talons and beak razor sharp, eyes which could find a mouse hundreds of feet below, a majesty befitting his place in the kingdom of life.

"That is your soul, Michael," my grandfather said softly. "That eagle will always be near when you need him, when you have difficulty finding yourself. Look up and you'll see him."

The bird dropped a wing and came swooping down towards us. I made ready to run but my grandfather held my arm firmly. "Do not be afraid of your soul," he murmured.

The eagle came so close that we could feel on our faces the wind of his slowly beating wings, and I could see the beak and talons and eyes which I'd only imagined before. He circled us once, then gave a strident call and rose back up into the blue above the Tetons.

---

"I haven't felt guilty or afraid since then," I said when I'd told her about him. "Call it superstition if you want, but I believed in that eagle."

"Have you seen him often?" she asked.

I nodded. "Several times, in school and later in New York when I needed sorting out. I'd look at the skyscrapers and see him wheeling around the peaks of the city."

Until he failed me: when Jenny went, I blamed him. I needed something to blame, even though it had been inevitable. A genetic thing, a low tolerance to life. And one night, when the demons of fear had momentarily overcome her, she had gone to the ocean and walked in until her red hair floated lifeless on the waves.

I had asked him to help her and he'd failed me, and afterwards I wanted to be free of him to curse him. But there is no freedom from the spirits we know.

"There was a girl... Jenny, an Irish girl, in New York," I told Finnoula. "Neither of us fitted perfectly in our lives. Both of us were lonesome for our homes and our own people. But we had also both said our goodbyes and we had to make good."

I had my eagle, but Jenny had a different bird, a raven that sat on her shoulder. That's what she called her depression.

"She'd been dumped by a guy, her husband, in the small village where she came from. She felt... ashamed. She became convinced it was her fault, that she hadn't tried hard enough. She ran away, from her village and her shame." I paused, remembering the helplessness, hers and mine. "We became friends, and I was trying to help her see that she couldn't hold herself responsible for what happened, but one night when I wasn't there, she drowned herself."

I looked at Finnoula and saw the woman that Jenny could have been. "I came here to be sure she got home."

The public address system blared a call for the Dublin train and she stood up. "I have to go, Mike." She came close and kissed me on the cheek. "Thanks, again," she whispered, then she drew her head back and looked at me. "Will you be coming to Dublin?"

I shook my head. "I've only another couple of days, and there's something I have to do before I go back. But I'll come here again."

"We don't have eagles in Ireland now," she said softly, a little sadly. "We used to."

I hugged her and she felt warm and soft and very close. "They're inside of us, Finnoula," I whispered. "We just have to let them fly."

She waved to me until the train disappeared around the first bend. And then there was only the locomotive's horn mourning me a fading last goodbye.

---

The village was tiny, a straggle of houses tight into a bay, with a small finger of pier pointing toward America. When I drove in, I knew every house and the hidden people behind each window.

There was no family to see; Jenny had told me her parents had died some years before she left. And an only brother had gone to Australia since then. When her crisis came, there was no one close.

I parked the car near the pier and walked slowly through the main street, and it was as if Jenny was beside me pointing out her happy times. I recognized the house she'd grown up in, now closed and dilapidated, with a 'For Sale' sign that also looked tired. A school seemed too new to be the one she'd talked of, and then I found the original one-room building was now a library. A church at the end of a laneway stood guard on a graveyard and I creaked open an iron gate which echoed the final hopes of generations.

I found her parents' grave and said goodbye for her.

I met a few people as I walked back in a cool wind coming off the sea, but none paid me much attention. Most seemed to be old. It was like the tribal villages back home, where the young people had left because there was nothing for them. On the pier I stood for a few minutes looking at the bay. Waves staggered in from the ocean, falling exhausted onto a rocky beach from which the child Jenny had paddled and swam, and on which years later the woman Jenny had decided to run from her raven. But it had followed her to the other side of the ocean.

I went back to the car and took a small box from the trunk. When I stood on the end of the pier and scattered her ashes into the waves, the raven finally flew from her shoulder.

---

The morning before I left, I waited on the clifftop. Soon I heard the sun begin to rise behind me, and, as the music got louder, a speck on the horizon grew.

Eventually I could feel on my face the wind of his slowly beating wings.

©1995 Brian Byrne.

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