by Eileen Keane
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In the hour before dawn I lie on the grassy slope and watch the light etch the shape of the house against the brightening sky. I cling to the earth as if for consolation. I stretch my body against its rough skin and feel its pulse thrumming deep in there, nourished by the old stories, spewing them out in sparse scutch grass or lush vegetation. I feel disengaged from my life, as if it is a series of stills from a film, or moments captured in images that I offer to the earth. I spread them out there and examine them and rearrange them as if by doing so I might somehow find answers. The older ones seem faded and when I look at them it’s as if my head fills with noise, but when I focus on the ones that link to this place, the din fades and the mellifluous sound of the clarinet takes its place.
The first picture, the one that I see as pivotal, is of a man and a young woman in a garden in Wicklow. His hands are held out in a gesture of irritation or resignation. His gaze is directed towards the garden but his eyes are unfocused as if they are looking inwards. He is wearing a purple shirt and his hair is tied back with a coloured fabric plait. The young woman is leaning towards him. She has wide trusting eyes and her face is unlined and untroubled.
I close my eyes and remember that moment.
‘I have to go back,’ he is saying, ‘I can’t bear it, all this abundance. Too much growth, too many people. It’s like a conversation in my head that never stops. It saps my inspiration. My music seems superfluous here.’ He gestures vaguely at the garden. ‘I need to recreate an internal landscape.’
‘It’s just not what you’re used to, Luke.’ I clutch his arm in an impulsive gesture. ‘Take me with you!’
What was I thinking? It wasn’t that I really loved him then, more about the sodden dark skies overhead, my garden, which wouldn’t stop growing, the recession that had swallowed my job and my independence from my mother. His surprise was obvious in his sudden upward glance.
Next a family portrait. His mother in the centre, a small vulnerable looking woman with soft brown eyes but a hard light behind them. Luke close by her side, to her right, his eyes looking upwards as if towards the sky. His sister, Nancy, to the left of her mother, standing slightly away from her and staring straight at the camera with an air of something like defiance. None of them are smiling.
Then there’s a still of this house above me at the top of the slope, alone in a landscape of wide empty fields, in Maine. It stands out against the line of the horizon as if it is the last dwelling before the world drops away to some uninhabited place. The horizon is a strip of green against the intense blue of those skies. The house is brazen, shockingly itself, no trees or gardens to soften its line. It was once white but most of the paint has flaked off in the sun over the years. Below at the bottom of the slope a car has turned off the main road onto the track. In the car a young woman is looking up towards the house, her face a mixture of eagerness and anxiety. The young man beside her looks relaxed, solicitous, his head turned towards her. The car is weighed down with their bags and suitcases.
I rerun their conversation in my head.
‘The house needs a bit of looking after,’ he says.
‘It’s like one of those houses you see in the American films, except they usually have balconies all around the front and a swing chair.’
‘My mother was never much of a one for that, but we could build one one day.’
He does not sound convinced.
‘I thought you said she was a semi-invalid,’ I say, as the car pulls up in front of the house. There’s a frail old woman standing in the doorway whose face lights up when she sees her son.
‘You’re back at last. I thought I would die alone.’
She doesn’t acknowledge me as I struggle from the car with handbags and stray lipsticks and papers and books, my face clothed in an uncertain smile.
I remember my feeling of disquiet when I saw the house first. I had never been in the United States before, had never been anywhere really except to Paris on a school tour. I knew fields with boundaries, stone walls riding the landscape, sodden ditches bristling with ash and rowan trees and wild berries. The houses of my landscapes were closed in by the earth’s fecundity, secretive and hidden like the lives we lived. It was hard to imagine secrets in this exposed place. Luke had prepared me for all this, had described the open spaces, the way the house dominated the landscape, repelled it almost. And yet there was something claustrophobic about the little clutter of buildings around the house, a barn and henhouse, a grain store with crows flying in and out. I’ve always been unnerved by crows.
In the next picture the old woman is propped up in bed in her sitting room. What was once a spacious lounge has been converted for her but heavy drapes give it an air of gloom. In the shadows around her bed you can make out the clutter of an old woman’s keepsakes: bookcases stuffed with yellowing paperbacks, magazines and photograph albums, occasional tables covered in ancient ornaments and souvenirs, framed photographs, wardrobes and chest of drawers of yellowing cloth and faded memories. She is looking towards the front windows, which face down the slope and over the track to the road. It is a clear day and you can just make out shapes that suggest the tops of buildings in the town six miles away. Her friend Maisie, a small wizened woman with sharp eyes, is sitting in an armchair by her bed reading a newspaper. Maisie comes every day to look after her and cook for her and be her companion.
The image comes to life as I remember shyly entering the bed sitting room. I have been summoned at last for a formal meeting but the old lady barely looks at me.
‘You’ll stay for a while,’ she says, looking away again, as if her glance has confirmed my deficiencies. It is evident that she sees my presence as the price she must pay for the return of her son. I do not know how to talk to her.
‘I missed him so much. I missed the sound of him practising, the way he can make that clarinet talk. If he had not come back my daughter would have put me in a home. She said that I should not be holding my son to ransom. I would never do that.’
Her voice is plaintive but her eyes have glints of steel as she shakes her head. She looks me full in the face for one moment.
‘His music is the most important thing in the world to him, more than anything—anyone.’
When Luke showed me around the house that first time I hid my dismay at the dourness of the furnishings, the air of staleness that seemed to permeate everything. But there was a small sitting room upstairs near our bedroom and I saw that I could make it into our own space, make it brighter, prettier.
I sort through my images of Luke. Here’s one from soon after our arrival, because he has that eager boyish look that I associate with him then. I see his face close up, his eyes looking directly at me as if the part of him that is more often wrestling with an arrangement of notes in his head, is completely present for once. He is perhaps in the attic that he has converted for his music room. There are bare floorboards and dormer windows. Sheet music is piled in bundles on the table, and bursting out of shelves. At one end there are CDs and old records and a sound system and a computer with the latest technology for music composition.
‘Look!’ he said to me that first time, ‘I can communicate with people all over the country using Skype. We can play music together this way, share ideas.’
I was impressed by his enthusiasm for this new technology. But what I really wanted was to meet his friends and hear them play. I had imagined concerts, musical evenings and how I would dress and what I would serve.
In this picture perhaps he is in the kitchen. Luke likes to cook, and from the beginning I was happy to let him, shocked by the lack of modern equipment in the bare kitchen, by the unpredictability of the wood fired stove. Sometimes he chooses food by colour, sometimes by the imagined song created by the rhythm of its shape and texture. Maisie cooks for his mother and herself, silently raising her eyebrow in disdain at the aroma of his spices, at the strange combinations he produces.
I remember his sister Nancy sitting at the table sharing supper with us a few days after our arrival.
‘Your mother doesn’t feel up to seeing you. She has a migraine,’ Maisie announced tersely, barely glancing at Nancy before shutting the door of her mother’s room. Nancy shrugged off her upset. She addressed me directly.
‘My mother doesn’t like to hear the truth. I’m glad you’re here. You’ll help him. He has never been able to stand up to her. Always comes running back.’
I heard Nancy argue with him after dinner when they went outside to smoke. I was washing dishes. Snatches of their conversation carried over the slosh of water in the bowl, the clatter of cutlery.
‘You should be in Europe, you should travel more, meet all the great musicians. You can’t keep running back to her apron strings.’
Already I knew it wasn’t as simple as all that. It wasn’t just his mother. It was something about the landscape, its isolation and lack of change. It had seeped into his bones, become so surely a part of him that he did not feel complete anywhere else. Something too about the delicate nature of his emotional landscape, about his dependence on the known, the unchanging. A solid base from which his creativity was freed.
In this image the girl is standing by a window staring into the distance. Smoke is rising from a distant house, which is partly hidden by a dip in the ground. It has the same stark unforgiving look as the house she is in. Elderly neighbours four miles across the fields. There's a strange solitary woman who lives on her own in a cottage beyond some trees to the south. The countryside seems alien, lacking in warmth, though it is hot and dry.
‘I’ll take you into town on Friday and we can get the groceries,’ Luke said. The thought of the trip made the days pass more quickly but I was perplexed when a delivery van pulled up that first Friday morning and a young lad appeared on the step with a box of groceries in his arms. The delivery boy had a bored sullen look when he explained that he delivered every week from a regular list unless Mrs Mitchell rang up and changed the order. Later Luke drove me to town anyway but he was preoccupied and I could tell that he was anxious to get back to the piece of music he had been working on all morning.
‘Doesn’t anyone ever visit?’ I said to Maisie in the kitchen that afternoon, and later his mother scolded me, her voice harsh as if her mouth was full of pebbles.
‘We don’t have much call for gossiping or sipping tea around here. We like our quiet. And so does Luke. That’s why he comes back here and he doesn’t need to be gadding off to the town being distracted from his music. We all have to make sacrifices.’
I tried walking to attune myself to my surroundings, and though the exercise was soothing, I soon tired of the sameness of everything, of never meeting anyone. If I wanted to survive in this isolated place I would have to learn to drive. I adapted to the rhythm of the house easily enough, seeing to the housework while Luke composed his music and practiced. Luke spent most of the day in his attic, but at night with his arms around me safe in our bedroom I’d feel so close to him that it was hard to imagine a time when it had not been so.
I stood at that window often in those first weeks, looking out at the silent landscape, the wide expanses of grass, and I’d ache with longing for the view from my home in Wicklow, the bank that climbed steeply a few feet from the back door, the heather and wild grasses that my mother never managed to tame, the dark trees that rose over the hill.
The music circled around me, the mellow sound of the clarinet that became like an object in my life. I could tell Luke’s mood from the density of the notes, the temperature of the music, whether it swelled and filled up the house and travelled out across the wide fields or lurked quietly in nooks and crannies, echoing faintly through the barns and outhouses. I could hear a tune developing and maturing as the notes rolled around the house, surprising me around corners and open doors. Sometimes it was a dark sound, rich like black velvet or hard like the night sky; sometimes it was bright like the sparkle of gold in granite pebbles in a Wicklow stream. At times there would be silences between the notes and I would stop what I was doing and wait for the music to circle around me again.
I avoided the old woman as much as possible. In her presence I felt drained as if her room was a vacuum that sucked all the energy out of me. I heard her complaining to Luke that I was neglecting her, that I was cold hearted and unnatural. I always tell the truth she’d say, before making comments that could cut straight through you to the place where you were most vulnerable. The ‘truth’ is a many layered entity.
I have a picture of Luke that wrenches my heart. He is in the kitchen. I must have surprised him, because he has not had time to hide a look of sadness and anxiety. Earlier that day he had come unexpectedly into our bedroom and found me crying. It was just one of those days in those first weeks when everything seemed too much. I tried to tell him it was nothing really but he could not hide the bleakness in his face and the notes he made that afternoon were strident and harsh. For the next few days he followed me with his eyes, appeared beside me at frequent intervals with a look of anguish on his face like a lost boy who does not know how to get home.
‘You will not leave me, will you?’ he’d say to me often after that, his eyes searching my face.
This is the last image I have chosen. A landscape. The sun is beginning to appear over the horizon and faint traces of warmth fleck the cool earth. From a hill beyond the house the spires of the distant town and behind it the faint sheen of the sea can be seen. The young woman is out walking, her gaze directed towards the earth at her feet. She is wearing old jeans and light plimsolls. In the shadow of the trees in the distance another woman is watching, muttering to herself and looking at the sky.
I come here most mornings. I find it difficult to sleep the night through so I rise before dawn and go walking. In my head now the sound of the clarinet follows me and even at dawn when I know Luke is sleeping I hear the plaintive notes echo across the landscape. My feelings for Luke are strengthening and deepening. His eyes at times have a haunted quality, an intensity that is only assuaged by the music. Sometimes he is not even aware of my presence I feel sure, retreated into that internal landscape he talked about in Dublin. I know that he feels my presence here is the defining thing that has allowed him to reach inside himself and create music that shocks him by how pure it is. It frightens him too.
‘You must never leave me,’ he says to me often, looking into my eyes as if to find out the truth. ‘You are the key to it, to all this. This is my place, my life but it was never complete until you came.’
The sky is lightening and I must go back. I am startled to hear footsteps close by. A middle-aged woman seems to have appeared out of nowhere. She’s in her late fifties I would guess, about my mother’s age, and she has long thick auburn hair and a velvet coat and a stick with a fork on the end of it that she turns towards the earth.
‘You like to listen too,’ she says, nodding at the house.
‘How do you mean?’
‘The music, all the greats – sometimes jazz with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Sydney Bechet, all my old favourites, sometimes classical. I’m not familiar with those modern composers he likes, but I can identify some of them from their tone. In the day the air fills with his music. I hear it from my house.’
She nods towards the distant trees.
‘In the night it collects and ripens and before dawn the music gathers in the air around the house. This is a special time, a holy time. The earth balances itself before the dawn.’
‘But he is not playing now,’ I say slowly. The woman smiles and shakes her head.
‘You can hear it. Your baby can hear it too,’ she says, glancing at my flat stomach. I look at it too. I have only just begun to suspect that I might be pregnant.
‘Live in this moment. We have nothing else. The past exists only in memory; the future is but a dream.’
She closes her eyes, smiles as her head sways gently as if in time to the music. Crazy woman how could she know I think, but I close my eyes too and allow the sense of the music to calm me. I open my eyes when I feel her move. She is shaking bits of grass from her skirt.
‘Come and see me,’ she says. ‘I have many stories to tell you.’
She wags a finger. ‘You think the skeleton woman is chasing you. No, it is you who have fished her from the depths. You must untangle the lines, but first you must let them go. You have already begun. You have other pictures.’
She nods in the direction where her house must be.
‘Over there. My name is Laurie. Ask him, he will tell you how to find me.’
I watch her walk away. What a lot of nonsense. But how could she know? I lie down on the earth again and see them, the pictures that I have hidden, all jumbled together.
There's Maisie holding the phone out, the voice from Ireland that spoke of my mother’s illness. My shock and tears as I packed a suitcase. Luke hovering. My assurance that there was no need for him to come with me, as I also furtively packed anything that I really valued, in case I did not return.
There’s me seated on the plane; bracing myself for the anxiety of take-off, relief that made me light headed when the plane was in the air, as if I was a kite that had been cut loose and was free for the first time.
Later the jumble and noise of Dublin airport, the rain that greeted me like an intimate friend.
My mother vulnerable and isolated, attached to monitors and drips. Memories of the shock of my father’s death came flooding back, her need for support. Watching her dozing, my lips moved in a silent promise that I would not leave her again, that I would never go back there. But after a few days the crisis was over. My mother was not alone, my two brothers were there, and Dónal and his wife insisted that she must come to stay with them while she recovered her strength.
I see myself walking the city streets around St. James hospital, allowing the smell of the hops that lingers around the former Guinness breweries to fill my nostrils and my head as if to block the images which pursued me. Everywhere I went, the sound of the clarinet followed me and the pain of missing Luke spoiled my joy in being back home. Like Luke’s fear and despair that I could not be happy with him, I too felt a kind of hopelessness, like that of an animal caught in a snare and faced with the dilemma of chewing away its own foot in order to live.
‘Something is wrong,’ my mother said to me one afternoon when for once we were alone. ‘What is it, love?’
‘Ah it’s just everything. Being so far away from you, all this…’ I gestured at the hospital equipment.
She reached for my hand. ‘You must not worry about me. I’ll have to take it a bit easier, but I’ll be waited on hand and foot at Dónal and Norma’s.’
‘I wish I was closer to you.’
‘That can’t be helped. But Luke? Are you happy with him?’
I looked away, letting my gaze travel out over the rooftops. She squeezed my hand, waited for my answer.
‘I love him. I love him more than anything, but it’s the place. It’s so isolated. His mother, Maisie. I feel like an intruder in their house. I miss home so much, I miss having my family near me. I don’t want to leave you, not after this.’
Looking at her pale face I felt guilty for burdening her.
‘When you move to a strange place it takes time to adjust. When I got married to your father we lived in Birmingham for the first few years. I’d never been away before and in those days there was nothing only the letters from home once a week, if you were lucky. Several times I had the money gathered for the train and the boat, when your father went on a drinking binge.’
‘Drinking? Daddy? You never told us.’
‘Ah no, that was all best left in the past. Those first years were hard but I stayed with him and I helped him to find the will to give it up. And look at the life we had after. He worked so hard and was so proud of all of you. The drink is a terrible curse. Is Luke a drinker?’
‘No, not at all, we just have the odd bottle of wine with a meal.’
‘When your Daddy was killed in the accident I thought I’d never be able to pick up and go on without him. But I had to. You were only thirteen and so close to him, but it was you who was always by my side with a cup of tea when I couldn’t cope, it was you who helped me to find the strength to get over it.’
I couldn’t help the tears that ran down my cheeks. She squeezed my hand again. ‘You are strong. This time it’s for yourself you need to focus your strength. You never liked to be idle. You’ll figure out a way if you love him.’
Two weeks later I was on the plane, filled with a new resolve to learn to drive, to get a part time job in the town, to break through his mothers distrust. When Luke took me in his arms at the airport I vowed that he would never find out how close I came to betraying his trust.
And here I am as dawn lights up my new home, clinging to the earth as if in atonement. I know that this is part of my reconciliation, that this place has to enter into me, that the rhythm of its music will become mine as it is my husband’s and that of the child in my womb who will be of this place but who will also feel the ancient call of stone and small fields with hidden places and ash trees in the ditches.
It is time to go back. The sun coming up behind the house gives it an ethereal quality as if it is part of a dream. I watch the figure of the woman, Laurie, get smaller and disappear over a slope, and then I begin the climb towards home.
Eileen Keane is a Roscommon born writer and artist now living in Newbridge, Co. Kildare. She was shortlisted for a Hennessy award in 2014 for her short story ‘A Perfect Prayer’, and she won first prize in the inaugural James Plunkett short story award in October 2013 for her story ‘The Peace of Evening ’. In June 2013 she was selected by Kildare County Council Arts office for The Cecil Day Lewis Emerging writer award. She has been long and shortlisted in many other competitions. Read samples of her work and her complete bio on her website EileenKeane.ie