The Road to Emain
Thomas O’Malley

Father prepares to bring Rory’s stone to the grave with the old donkey and trap. He has a hard time putting the bit in the animal’s mouth and I see his damaged legs shaking with the effort to move the stubborn thing, but when I come forward to help him, he shouts at me, Stay back, she’s quare contrary and she’d sooner kick you and disembowel you as have you do this to her. The two of them struggle together, stumbling back and forth like old fighters, each vying for weight and balance. The donkey tries to bite Father and Father belts it one powerful blow square in the mouth that resounds off the bone with a crack like hurleys striking. The animal’s feet slip, and Father, holding tight, finally gets the bit in. The donkey snorts, rolls its eyes to the white, draws back its thick black lips into a sneer, and works its jaws to remove the mouthpiece. You would think my Father were killing it.

You effin bitch, Father swears, as he leans his shoulder into its thin skeleton, and brings it out the gate. The donkey’s foal rushes up but I close the gate before it. Both mother and child seem to panic. Father struggles in the muck as he draws the blind over the donkey and leads it down the path. I reach through the gate and stroke the rough back of the foal, around the hard bone of its brown eyes, in the tufts of thick hair around its ears. It stands, blinking its long dark lashes; I reach forward with hay but it moves away sniffing the air, as if there is something burnt or dead upon it.

In the courtyard, the tyre tracks of the stonecutter’s lorry have left deep sinkholes, now filled with black bog water. It seeps into everything. Father splashes through the holes to the wooden pallet upon which Uncle Rory’s headstone is strapped. It is greenish-grey Connemara marble cracked with veins of silver-white mica and quartz. He strokes the bevelled edges, searching for any defect, runs his hand across the smooth polished surface, along the straps where they pinion its sides. He asks me to read the words, and nods when I am done. I have forgotten that Rory is the same age as Father, and that they are both only 36.

Watch your face now, he says, as he raises the tamping bar and drives its blunt edge down. Wood splinters and the taut straps snap and uncoil like black whips. The donkey groans and stamps its hooves. A shiver runs along its ridged back and I imagine its eyes rolling white beneath the blind.

On the road, a sleek new silver Audi speeds past without slowing. Its tyres catch the narrow edge that drops to the bogs and it slides momentarily out of control, its spinning tyres throwing up muck, its young driver blowing his horn. The donkey trap lurches with the weight of the headstone.

You cunt you, Father says, serve you right ending up in the bog. He holds the animal’s shoulder absently, almost protectively. It shakes itself and its tarnished harness jangles with the sound of old metal. We continue on, and Father seems lost in the simple rhythm of the trap’s wheels, the clicking swivel of its axle, the old creaking bearings, the sagging lean of the springs trussed like two great arches beneath the small bed, and the beating of the donkey’s hooves upon the road, striking the ground at angles as if it were made of iron. It drags its hooves upon the road in much the same way that Father drags his legs. They move together, ineffably sad, straight-backed, stubborn, and belligerent; incessant as the clouds straggling above. As ancient as the bog-sunken land that stretches on either side of us, and that continues through the mountains. And I think there were trees here once, masses of vast dense forestland, jungles. We are walking through them now, a huge, desolate barren jungle plain. A hundred thousand years moving still beneath our feet. And the sky moving across the face of Rory’s stone as if it is a mirror to it all.

At the grave, a field of chest-high rushes that Father laid down angrily with the scythe, I look for but cannot find the drowned graves of Grandfather or Grandmother. Father says they’d used tall rowan branches to mark their resting places, but those too have sunk. He unravels long iron bars from a tarp in the back of the trap and curses that they, the brothers and sisters, never returned from America to place headstones on their parents’ graves. Now where they are is anyone’s guess. I wonder if Grandmother and Grandfather move about below cursing as well, unable to find their resting places, or each other.

Father tips the trap and using rope and harness slowly and softly drops the pallet and its stone from its narrow, precarious rest. I pull at an edge of the stone, try to lift it upright, eager to show Father that I can. No, he says, you’ll break your back that way, use the bar as a lever. Father pries the bar beneath the headstone and the pallet, and I do the same. Slowly we raise it together, and move it forward an inch at a time, side to side, to the left and then to the right. I pretend that it is easy, although each time the weight is on my side I fear I will let it fall. Father watches me. Sweat beads my upper lip. My arms are trembling. You’re doing a grand job, he says, we’re almost there. His forearms are limbed and hard as thick branches; even his legs seem strong, somehow noble, rooted in the bog.

Da, I groan, Da; to warn him that I am about to let it fall, that I can hold it no longer but he is driving relentlessly forward and I am stumbling and I hear a clang of metal and a pained sound whistling through his teeth and his feet continue to move and then the stone is sliding and the stone is slipping seamlessly into the narrow trench he has dug for it, black bog-muck sucking hungrily at its edges. I drop the bar and breathe deeply, sit heavily on the pallet.

I didn’t think it could be so heavy, I say, and rub my arms.

Father winces, and shakes the fingers of his right hand. It is a while before he opens his eyes. Aye, he says, it’s a heavy old bastard all right. He exhales long and hard. But I won’t begrudge Rory that, not after Mammy and Daddy. He grunts as he settles the stone, fingers reaching, scrabbling for a grip. Blood washes the marble, drops thick to the fresh-turned earth.

Your hand, Da.

It’s nothing, the bar caught it is all. I’m fine.

He stares me down. It’s nothing. I’m fine.

He continues rocking the stone from left to right, his face pale and wan, blood seeping from his fingers, and I stare at the blood as the stone sinks deeper, and I wonder how long it will take for the ground to swallow the stone whole—perhaps only as long as it takes for me to return with his headstone here; and I imagine Rory turning beneath us, his bones shifting with the bog in the years to come, as he waits, restlessly, for my father.

From across the channel, rain comes in hard: a great grey wave moving across the water, and driving before it, wild-wheeling cormorants and shearwaters. Father looks out at them, and I know that he is judging the movement of the birds, and the drift of the rain, as clearly as if he had said aloud: there’s a fierce storm on the way. I picture the boats moored in the bay rocking on the swells, and, on the piles beyond the rocks, Grandfather’s Hooker, An Bad Mor, lying splintered and rotted to its husk.

Rory almost died with the red fever when he was eight, Father says suddenly. They didn’t think he would live at all, they gave up on him. I remember, at the time, just waiting for him to get up out of the bed, and Mammy and Daddy and all the lads telling me it wasn’t going to happen. But I knew it was, I just knew. Honest to God, I knew. Eight days, eight bleeding days with the priest and Mammy moaning over him like fools, but I knew. Jaysus, sure they even gave him the last rites, so.

He stares at his hand, and fingers the wound absently. When he speaks again his face is pained, and I know it is not the pain from his hand he is feeling at all.

Rory never did go back to school with the rest of us. Something had happened in his head, and he couldn’t take to the learning no more. He began to go out with Daddy on the boat to the islands, and I don’t suppose Daddy had much choice in the matter.

Father laughs, and even he seems surprised by it. He shakes his head. The wee puckawn would hide beneath the tarps until Daddy was out to sea and there was nothing Daddy could do. I’d rarely seen Daddy so mad. When they got back that night, he wanted to give Rory a thrashing, but after Rory’s sickness, Daddy didn’t like to bate him. And it was no good anyway, so. The next time Daddy went out, Rory did it again until Daddy had to give in. Daddy used to say there was something special about Rory out on the open water, like he’d never been sick at all—like he’d never been sick a day in his life. He used to say Rory had the work in him of two men, and I believe it.

Father smiles and looks at his hand. He bites at the wound as if cleaning it, and spits blood when his mouth is full. I stare back towards the channel.

I imagine Rory as a child, hiding beneath the tarp on Grandfather’s Hooker, laden to the stem and bound for the Aran. Rory was all they had, their darling, soft magical boy risen from the dead, with callused hands, and wiry muscles. I see his shock of white hair, so like Father’s, betraying him as it poked up through the boards in the mainstay, but always it’s too late for Grandfather to do anything about it. An Bad Mor is already passing from the causeway, beneath the cantilevered Bealadangan bridge, and out into the great wide wash of the sea.

Come on awoch, Father says and gestures with his head towards the road. Let’s get home.

I reach for his hand but he is already bending for the iron bars. He throws them into the trap and the sound is loud in the stillness, almost deafening, and I feel as if I’m waking from a deep sleep as we move again. I can still feel the weight of Rory’s stone in my shoulders and the long walk to the grave in my legs, and I wish Father would just rest for awhile. On the road, I look back towards the graveyard. Rory’s stone stands the tallest in the field. As the sun breaks through the low grey clouds, grey-green veins within the marble sparkle, and Father’s bloodied handprint is a black claw reaching down towards his brother.

The donkey is lathered with sweat thick as brine; it streaks its matted coat as if it had been cut by the whip. We pause at the rusted village pump at the outskirts of Ivneen. Father draws the water slowly, his hand moving the handle up and down so that water rushes in the sluice, and spills to the drain where he urges the donkey to drink. He removes the mouthpiece and bit. The trap rocks weightlessly as the donkey leans forward. It laps at the clear water with its long pink tongue and Father removes his old wool jumper and wipes down its body with it. His hands move with a tender force as if he is lost in thought. The reins rattle in his hand. The donkey trembles with his touch but does not move away. Only when the animal is done does Father lean forward, and, with closed eyes, wash the wound of his hand. Shards of white bone poke from the pink flesh. The shock of such damage frightens me, but I do not say a word. I watch as he scrapes at the loose bits of matter, and the water is still running with blood when he wraps his hand with a tear of his jumper.

We walk the long road back from Oughterard. Father wants to remember the way to the grave by foot, not in a car or a hearse. When they were younger they made the trip in the same trap. He says the roads haven’t changed all that much. We stumble over the broken bough of the narrow macadam, split along its spine by rock and wild grass, back towards the home in Ivneen. The donkey plods ahead of us, the trap rattling as if it is full of bones. The ditches fall away and on either side the road drops to the slough. With the sun shining on the wet troughs dug in the bog and a light wind skittering across pools of water and the shadows of clouds racing overhead, it is as if everything were moving, heaving upwards, and out to the dark mass of sea. A jet thrums far above, a silver glint of metal catching the sun, and I imagine it is bound for America, a hard metal star full of wishes and dreams falling across the western horizon.

The Bealadangan bridge is a fixed structure now and as we pass over it the wheels of the trap clatter on its cement and iron slats. Wind whistles through the causeway, and it begins to rain, a soft warm rain that draws up the coolness of the earth and turns it to mist. The wide channel rushes below, roars against the cement embankments, and out to the bay and the sea beyond, carrying in its thick swirling eddies, tree limbs wrapped in torn netting, a plastic slop bucket, and a small upturned heifer, mottled and grey, staring blindly up at me as it rushes past in the boiling.

I imagine An Bad Mor on its passage back from the Aran, rounding the thick-bearded head of the pile marker rising from the frothy swells leading into the channel. The clouds are moving at its back. The shifting Atlantic light glimmers on its fully peaked mains’l, flat as a cormorant shearing the wind and the clouds. It’s running fast, and Grandfather is hollering at Rory through the rain squalls: drive it hard, by God, you have it a bouchal, drive it hard now, and the rain at his small shoulders is beating with the darkness. Coming now, thundering across the sky and the water and the light, and Rory grinning, forever the white-haired boy that resembles my Father, eager to clear the lifting span of the bridge, eager to reach the channel and the distant shimmering lights of home.

Did you ever go out with Grandfather yourself? I ask him.

He leans his arm to rest on the donkey. The tear of jumper is sodden and dark. I never did, he says. Only Rory. He was the best at sea. Daddy said he could tell a storm coming by talking with the salmon. But then, he adds sadly, Daddy was always one for the stories.

Father stares out past the channel to a point upon the horizon, and I suspect he is either seeing Rory coming over the waves or it is himself leaving, all those years ago.

Rory believed everything Daddy ever told him, he says. He believed in the land and the sea. But Jaysus, sure all that was ever here was ghosts, and not one bleeding sheep or cow in four square miles of rock. Sure, you couldn’t call it living at all.

Father suddenly seems very tired, as if the words themselves are draining the life from him. Besides, he says and pauses, runs a hand through his thick hair, curling now in the rain. His jaws clench and he wipes roughly at his damp cheeks with the heel of his palm. And it’s as if he’s trying to find the right words. I’d already left for America, he says. We all had—we had to, sure, you’d never make a go of it here. All Mammy and Daddy had was Rory. For the next twenty years, he’s all we left them. God, he shakes his head as if he can shake the memory of it—I hate everything about this fucking place.

Father moves his arm and he leaves the animal bloodied. He follows my eyes. Don’t mind it, he says. When we get back I’ll bandage it proper. He moves on and the donkey follows, a dark glistening track cleaving its narrow back in two. Together they occupy the narrow width of the bowed road, and as the gravel rises slowly towards the mountains and the bogs fall away on either side, both donkey and Father seem to meld as one into the soft rain-mist, the rhythmic beating of footfall and hoof like ancient trees splintering and falling slowly, softly, with the last of the land.

As an emigrant I’ve found that it’s often easy to remember the country one has left with a keenness never available to one prior to one’s leaving. This acute perception allows one to keep the memory of the place inviolate and close to one’s heart, but over time this sense of place, instead of being a source of great happiness, can become skewed and stir emotions of melancholy and longing—of incompleteness and even resentment. And when—if—one ever returns to that place called home these feelings are only exaggerated by the realization that one can never fully return. And in many ways, perhaps, this is what it truly means to be emigrant. This is what I feel when I read “The Road to Emain,” in which I see part adoration, part idyll, and part grotesque.

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