Nearby, the Edge of Europe

(excerpt)

One of the young men who worked on the ferry said they might want to go below; it was a windy day and the ride wouldn’t be the smoothest.  But Jenny said she wanted to stay up on deck and Ethan who was only four wanted to do whatever his sister did.  Caitlin frowned at Martin, as though he was indulging the kids again.  Then she touched Jenny’s head, said, “Be good,” and with Boen the baby around her chest in a sling, joined the trickle of passengers going down to the seats. 

The ferry left Rossaveal on time.  Though the day was overcast Martin could make out Inishmore. 

“That’s where we’re going,” he said, squatting between Ethan and Jenny, pointing out to the island that rose like a whale’s hump.  The mist and haze were so thick the island very well might, he thought, slip back under the waves.

 “Where?” Ethan said, resting his forehead on a low white rung. 

The ferry rocked as it sped up and Martin put a hand down on the deck. “The gray shape,” he said.  “Out there.”

The boy squinted, biting his lip.  “I don’t see it.”

“Your cousins live out there.  That’s where we’re going.”  The pride he felt, filling up his throat, so intense it was almost as though he could cry, was a little silly, sure, but also heartening.  He was bringing his children to a part of their past, his past.  With the oblivious ease of the average American they could have lived with no thought of their relatives living here on the far edge of Europe.  Of course, though he tried not to hope for too much, he found himself imagining Jenny writing letters to his cousin Sharon and her husband Thomas’s daughters about life in America, replies arriving in battered white envelopes, cursive writing on yellow paper telling of the fierce soccer games between the island’s three schools, how Patricia had scored a goal.  And beneath what he hoped for the children, Martin maintained a small hope that his wife would see something through his family on this remote island off the Irish coast that would make her love him again: he would offer up his past, his family.  Doubtful, but worth a shot.  He was willing to do anything.

“I see it,” Jenny said, grabbing the bar just above her head.  “I see it, Daddy.”

“Me too!” Ethan said, stomping his foot.

“No you don’t.” Jenny glared at Ethan.  Then, as though it had just occurred to her – an inspiration – she added, “You dumb-dumb.” 

“Jenny,” Martin said.  “I’m sure he sees it.”

“I do,” Ethan said, starting to cry.

The ferry hit the first large wave and they all rocked back, Ethan just barely keeping his grip on the bars, though he could easily slip between them.  Martin put his arm beneath his son’s sagging backpack and lifted him up. 

“Come on, Jenny,” he said, touching his daughter’s blond hair, wet with spray from the waves.

“I’m fine,” she said, fixing with little pats the hair he’d ruffled.

Thirteen years ago Martin’s father had visited these same cousins out on the Aran Islands.  While he was visiting, Thomas was out fishing (he’d been raised on the island, his family had always been fishermen) and his boat was late coming back after a strong storm that had rattled the windows and doors while Martin’s father sat with the family, trying to talk jovially, all of them watching the clock.  At one in the morning they were called down to the harbor: Thomas was standing against the wall in the harbormaster’s office, dripping.  He didn’t look up when Sharon and Martin’s father (who was carrying the one year old Patricia) came in.  Thomas’s brother had been washed off the boat in the storm.  Martin’s father said that, back at the Collins’ house Thomas hadn’t changed out of his wet clothes, had sat in the kitchen, drinking tea until morning, a puddle spreading around him over the yellow linoleum. 

In the morning they started walking the coast, looking for the body.  They searched for days: traveling over to the Galway shore to walk through the piles of brown seaweed, the sand cold and gray, the sea-side quickly becoming impassable so they were forced to climb up through wet grass to then peer down over the eroded shore into the water.  It sounded like something from one of Caitlin’s novels: a dirty flock of seagulls squalling away from a pair of searchers, crabs picking at swollen white fish bodies.  He hadn’t told Caitlin about Thomas’s brother for exactly this reason.  He was possessive – childishly so, he knew – of his connections to his Irish relatives.  He didn’t want Caitlin using their stories in her next novel.  What he wanted was to mediate between his family and his relatives out on the island, to become somehow a crucial link.  In a way this was why he’d begun writing a non-fiction piece (he didn’t want, yet, to call it a book) about his family and Ireland.  Maybe it was partly driven by jealousy, but he wanted to produce something that had the effect Caitlin’s novels did on her readers, on him.  By the end of the trip he might have one hundred pages.  At any rate, he was trying something new.  He was a scholar, a historian, not a memoirist, but he was willing to try, to branch out.  This was, he thought, one of his more admirable qualities.

On the deck of the ferry Ethan wrapped his arms tight around his father’s neck and Jenny clutched the rails, her mouth open.  She smiled (she was beautiful, so much like her mother) and shouted, “Daddy!  It’s salty!”  Then turned and opened her mouth again as they hit another wave.  The ferry rose up the crest of a swell and fell rapidly into the trough.  On the Aran Islands he felt sure, as his stomach lurched, he’d find the Ireland he’d always hoped for.

– This story can be read in its entirety in the Summer 2005 issue of The Antioch Review.

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