Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The Night of the Arabian

 

 

On a blustery afternoon in April, 1976, the sleepy village of Mooncoin, Co. Kilkenny, came alive to a spectacle that brought shopkeepers running and saw bricklayers dropping their trowels to gawk.  The excited crowd grew and converged on the market square to feast on a vision of perfection never seen before and unlikely to be seen again in this remote mountain village.  The narrow street was graced with a splendidly handcrafted carriage—a Croydon, named for its high end London manufacturer going back to 1850—driven by a tall, stern-faced horseman, who stood in the front, his wife and young daughter huddled in the back.  But it was not the horseman, the Croydon, or the family that was the focus of all the hubbub. It was the horse —a magnificent Arabian stallion, jet black, with a large white star on his forehead, four white stockings, already standing sixteen hands tall as a three-year-old, a perfect specimen of the ancient sporting breed.

The stallion, green and edgy, signaled danger with every flash of his pedigreed  hallmarks—the finely sculpted head, the arched neck, the high, swishing tail, the flared nostrils—as though anticipating a duel.

The cobblestone street was thick with drovers and tipsy farmers, as the striking Arabian dodged and snorted at the honking cars, darting border collies, and bevy of sleek fillies sashaying around the auction ring. Knowing the checkered reputation of blooded stallions in crowded places, the locals gave the prancing entourage a wide berth, turning to stare from a safe distance, mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the ebony stud.

 It was market day in the village and the out-of-town drovers and jobbers—expecting to see the usual ponies and heavy-set, docile work horses—muttered their disdain for the dazzling showhorse and its driver.  The last time they’d seen a horse of this caliber was on the Curragh racetrack, and that was Arkle, a gelding, unbeaten as a steeplechaser, back in 1960, when he won the Grand National.

One Dublin jobber, in pursuit of a pint with a local farmer, was curious.

--Who’s yer man with the black stallion?

--Some gobshite from the other side of Sugarloaf, a Yank.

--I might’ve known it. Who the feck does he think he is, Lord Wicklow?

--His name is Doyle, Eddie Doyle.  Came home from the States when his Da passed some years ago an’ left ’im the farm. They say his Mammy is mad as a hatter, but he can’t put her away. His Da left that in the will—a kind of poison pill ta go with that godforsaken bit o’ land.

--How’d he get hold of a stallion like that?

--Won him at a high stakes poker game in Wexford. He’d bet the farm on the hand.  God’s honest truth. All he had was a pair o' Jacks. Took some brass, I’d say. Course it coulda gone the other way, too—crazy as hell, like all the Yanks.

--So what’s he doin’ with the stud? Is he showin’ ’im or racin’ ’im or what?

--Nuthin’. He does nuthin’ wid ’im. Has no clue about horses. Might as well be a feckin’ mule as far as that gobshite is concerned. Tryin’ to cash in, but no one wants a stud like that—not around here. Maybe in Balbriggan or the Dublin Show in Ballsbridge, but not down here in Mooncoin. No feckin’ chance! No way!

The two had arrived at J.J. Ryan’s Pub at the end of the market square, thirsty and tired. The familiar whiff of malt and Guinness beckoned, so they promptly forgot about the fine black stallion and its odd-ball owner. 

Though the stallion had shown remarkable poise under pressure, Eddie Doyle was in no mood to admire the performance. He was at the end of a long, frustrating day, a day in which he’d hoped to sell the Arabian, pay off his gambling debts, and retire the note that was six months overdue at the Bank of Ireland.  Instead, he hadn’t had a single nibble. No one wanted an uncut three-year-old. Too hard to handle; too distracted; too goddamned dangerous, unless you ran a stud farm, of course. And no one with that kind of money roll was likely to be caught dead in Mooncoin. Ponies and donkeys were the right stock for these feckin’ ejeets, Eddie reflected bitterly, remembering the barrage of barbs he’d absorbed all day. 

--How much for Black Beauty here?

--Two hundred quid an’ not a penny less.

--Shure ya’ve gotta be jokin’. This wan’s not even gelded. What happened . . .  lost your nutcracker?

--Oh, feck off, gobshite. Ya wouldn’t know an Arabian stallion from a sow’s arse.

--Ya may be right about that, Captain. But I do know dis much: Ye’ll never sell Black Beauty here at Mooncoin Fair. No wan wants a horse like dis! No wan. Too much class, my friend. I’m tellin’ ya the God’s honest truth. How about 50 quid?

--Feck off. I could sell ’im to the glue factory for more than that.

--It may come to that, Captain. Mark my words . . .

After a day of listening to riffs on this from the Dublin jobbers—all cockscombs and hustlers—Eddie’s alcoholic cravings were raging, clawing at his innards, twisting his aching joints, making him feel hollowed out and mean. 

His hazel-eyed wife, Marie—still beautiful at 40—and their freckle-faced, 11-year-old daughter, Lil, huddled anxiously in the back of the Croydon carriage—the two-wheeled, rubber-tired wonder of country life that turned the dreaded, bone-crunching trek in the iron-wheeled farm wagon into a smooth, feathery ride—which few farmers could afford and even fewer would dare show such flamboyance, an open invitation to ridicule in a community where gossip and rumor-mongering was practiced as an art form. The Croydon was a remnant of the Doyle’s impulsive splurge on their homecoming from Boston ten years ago, one that now seemed grossly misplaced in this isolated farming village.

At the outskirts of the village, the crowd thinned and Eddie seized the opening.  Coming upon the green sign that said “BALLYDUFF, 10 miles,” he leaned forward in the Croydon, reached for the whip, and flogged the black stallion—already in a white lather —to a careening gallop, its eyes rolling, hoofs pounding out a frantic cadence, mouth-froth spraying the carriage with a musty perfume. Marie and Lil clung to the fine, polished railing, and to each other, their lips forming silent prayers, their eyes staring in mute terror at Eddie’s flying curls as he urged the stallion recklessly through the rainswept dusk.  

Thirty white-knuckled minutes later, they hurdled over a rise in the pockmarked road, and were relieved to see yet another familiar green sign that now said, “WELCOME TO  BALLYDUFF.”  Just beyond it, the blinking neon sign of Flanagan’s Pig & Whistle beckoned travellers from its perch on top of the hill. Drawing closer, they could make out the huge billboard familiar all over Ireland, “Guinness Is Good For You” with the famous black porter with frothy head inviting the weary to take a load off.  This was familiar territory, almost comforting, except that Marie knew what was coming next.

Eddie yanked viciously on the stallion’s steel training bit and urged him toward the iron railing in front of the pub, skidding to a halt on all fours, barely avoiding disaster.  “Alright, this’ll just take a few minutes,” Eddie announced breezily, hopping down and leading the trembling stud up to the railing, where he proceeded to tether him to one of the sturdy crossbars.

Marie didn’t move or speak. She just sat there, stonefaced, waiting for the inevitable to unfold. Eddie pulled the pub door open, releasing the slurred voices of its patrons and the acrid odor of stale stout, the Guinness-drenched loo, and blended tobacco smoke. In the background, someone with a fine tenor voice was trying to sing a ballad but was being drowned out by the drunken banter. Eddie poked his head in, looked around, and turned back to his family. “Well, come on, will yez!” he shouted, not as a question, but as a command.  “I’ll just have a quick wan and we’ll be on our way.”

“No, Eddie!” Marie said, her voice defiant.  “Ya promised me you wouldn’t do this anymore in front of the children. We’re not going in there. Ya know I don’t want the child in a pub, and I know I’m not welcome either—even if I wanted to come.  Which I don’t, as you well know.”

“Oh, would ya give it a rest!” Eddie whined in his familiar self-pitying voice, letting the pub door slam as he stormed back toward his wife and daughter. “Here we go again. I stop for one lousy pint after stayin’ sober for Lent and this is the thanks I get. Well, I’m gonna show ya. One pint an’ we’ll be back on the road. Think ya can manage that? Or is that too much for Saint Marie?”

“Ah, sure, Eddie,” Marie said, meeting his sarcasm with a sad little smile,

“We’ve been over this a thousand times. We both know you won’t be out after one pint. Or two. So why don’t ya just have the decency to admit it and at least get someone else to take us home? The child is famished and so am I, but we’re not going in there. An’ that’s final!”

“Goddamit, woman!” Eddie shouted. “You’d drive anywan ta drink. I’m gonna have a pint, right now. An’ I don’t need any feckin’ woman’s approval.” With that he stormed back to the pub and barged through the door like a man on a mission.

Minutes after his departure, the wind picked up and the rain came down in blinding sheets, drenching Marie and Lil and frightening the restive young stallion. Unaccustomed to being confined on a leash, the giant horse yanked on the bridle, trembling in his withers as he cooled off. Still growing, with a voracious appetite, he hadn’t been fed or watered since early morning, and now he whinnied and pawed the wet cobblestones in protest. Marie, sickened at the cruelty, considered asking Sean Flanagan for a bucket of water and some oats, but thought better of it, knowing Eddie’s violent reaction to “a woman interfering in his business.” She’d learned that the hard way over the years —a dark side of her marriage she hid from Lil and her older brother, Noel.

 Their first-born, Noel, was a tall, robust 16-year-old, mature beyond his years. He was Eddie’s pride and joy, already good with the horses and a skilled carpenter—a craft he’d learned from his Da.  Marie sensed that Eddie might even be a bit afraid of his son, since all it took to back Eddie off was a quiet, “Wait a second, Da, let Mammy finish,” reminder from Noel.  Today, he’d characteristically volunteered to skip the market and stay home with the workman, Jimmy Brophy, to finish up the spring planting.

Soaked and shivering outside the pub, Marie reflected—for the umpteenth time—on the two Eddie Doyles she was married to. The good-natured, hardworking husband and father, popular with everyone, adored by his wife and children, a staunch neighbor to be counted on in a pinch.  But that Eddie disappeared abruptly near the end of the second pint of Guinness. Often in a matter of seconds, he morphed into a sinister stranger—a veritable Mr. Hyde—a demon from hell, bent on gouging and goring everything in its path. Marie had no doubt that this wretch, this Mr. Hyde—who invariably came out with his friend, Mr. Guinness—was a very sick man, if you could even call him a man.

It was after his last binge and the latest black eye, when the wretch spent all the spring seed and fertilizer money on booze and the race track, that Father McCarthy  came  out to the house at Marie’s request. She’d told the kindly old priest she couldn’t take it anymore, that she was thinking of leaving with the children.  That was the day, just two months ago, that Eddie—the one she thought she’d married—took the pledge for Lent, and presumably for good.

But Easter was last Sunday and now—less than a week later—it was as though the pledge and Father McCarthy’s visit had never happened. An hour and a half after he disappeared into Flanagans, Marie came to a decision. Lil—cold, hungry, and terrified by the stomping and snorting of the jittery Arabian stallion—began to weep, softly at first, then settling into a heartbreaking wail.  The situation had become untenable all around. Marie knew that reasoning with Eddie would not only be futile, but dangerous. She had no illusions that anyone but Mr. Hyde would be coming out of Flanagans and what would follow, as day follows night, on the dark, homebound journey.

Flanagans was six hilly miles from the farmhouse in Ballyhale. Their thatched cottage was nestled in the foothills of the Sugarloaf Mountain Range, which ran in a jagged stair-step descent all the way down to Rosslare Harbor in Wexford. Marie’s choice was stark: walk home in the rainy night and hope for the best, or risk being killed by a homicidal drunkard racing a green stallion on a narrow, winding road in the pitch dark, an invitation to disaster by any measure. She could hear the hoarse, angry voice already.

--I told ya, goddamit, that all I wanted was a couple of pints, but ya wouldn’t listen, would ja? All this could’ve been avoided if you’d just come in, like a normal wife. Ya just don’t trust me, do ya?

--An since when do I need your feckin’ permission to do anythin’ anyway? I’m gonna put some manners on you. That’s what a real man does, and by God, so will I.

And then the punches would rain down, followed by the rapacious, punishing sex—the piece de resistance of degradation. This part often lasted forever, it seemed, till he wore himself out, or fell down drunk. It had become a cruel, humiliating ritual, a subterranean hallmark of their tortured existence.

With these dreaded images playing like a horror movie in her mind, Marie lifted Lil from the Croydon and wrapped the woolen cardigan around her frail frame.  “It’s going to be alright, Mo Cushla,” she whispered. “God gave us two legs for a reason; we’ll get home on our own steam.” She gave her daughter a reassuring hug, turned and patted the restive stallion, and stepped out on the dark mountain road, a road bordered on both sides by thick hawthorn hedges and yellow furze bushes. They called it River Road, since it traced the Dargle River on a serpentine gulley over Carrigoona Mountain and down into Enniskerry village.

Drenched down to her worn shoes, holding Lil’s hand, Marie could smell the perfume of the purple heather wafting down from Sugarloaf and hear the gurgling water cascading through the steep ravine on its way to the Irish Sea.  Off in the distant meadows, blackbirds sang their thrilling songs, welcome harbingers of the birdsong that she knew would soon fill the Sugarloaf vale.

Ewes called to their lambs on the hillside and border collies exchanged territorial volleys across the valley. The familiar sounds and scents comforted Marie, serving as good company, a sensory navigation system to guide her up the ink-black mountain road.

 An hour or so on, the rain let up and a full moon sailed triumphantly from behind the Sugarloaf, casting every tree and shrub in ghostly silhouette. Several miles and many “breather stops” later, Lil complained of blisters, pleading for rest, so Marie steered them through the first iron gateway to a clover meadow and, in spite of the cold, damp ground, collapsed on a clump of tall, drenching grass. Lil pillowed her head on Marie’s lap and was instantly asleep. 

Sitting in the fragrant clover, stroking her daughter’s hair, soothed by the valley symphony and the gentle rhythm of her child’s breathing, Marie counted her blessings and retraced the journey that brought her to this moment—all the way back to the night she first met Eddie Doyle—three thousand miles away and three thousand years ago, or so it seemed tonight.

*  *  *

They’d met in Boston on St. Patrick’s Day, 1959—at an Irish-American dancehall in Dorchester. He was from Wicklow, she from Kilkenny—Marie Costigan then. She’d grown up on a small farm on the Wexford border, the oldest of six, and emigrated at 18 to a housekeeper’s job in Cambridge—a wealthy community close to the city of Boston. Her  sponsors were a wealthy Jewish couple—Jacob and Ruth Steiner.  Their agent had advertised in The Nationalist & Leinster Times, the regional weekly that everyone read. They’d paid Marie’s fare and all expenses to cover the trip to Boston. In return, she’d found herself an indentured servant, committing to five years of cheap, live-in labor, and 80-plus hour weeks. The only free time she ever got was Saturday night, but she never missed the Irish-American dance in Dorchester, a poorer section of Boston.

Eddie Doyle worked for a small renovation company, was a skilled carpenter and a smooth dancer. He was 29 when they met, six two, handsome, serious, athletic, musical, with deep blue eyes and a shock of unruly auburn curls that sprung in several directions, falling over the collar of his suit jacket. Marie was just 21—blonde and outgoing, crazy about ballroom dancing, a favorite partner with all the best dancers. She dated several of the lads from home before she met Eddie. But after he kissed her goodnight on their first date, she was a goner—as was he.

A year later she was pregnant. She broke the news to Eddie on a Sunday afternoon in March of 1960. They’d gone for a seashore walk around Castle Island, following Marie’s visit to her doctor with a bout of morning sickness.  She thought it might be some dread disease she’d contracted. She was relieved at first, then shocked, to learn that she was two months pregnant, and that morning sickness was a perfectly normal response.

Sick with worry and dreading Eddie’s reaction, she churned through another sleepless two weeks, trying to gin up the courage to break it to him. She told her best friend, Angie Dillon, who insisted that she tell Eddie the truth, and immediately.  “Listen to me, Marie Costigan,” her no-nonsense friend had lectured. “It’s his business, too! It takes two to tango, right? So he has a responsibility here. And it’s also his right to know the truth. Honestly, I’m sure Eddie’ll be fine with it. He seems like a stand-up kinda guy to me.”

Her friend was right. When she finally broke the news, Eddie was fine with it. “I have something to tell you,” she began. “I know,” he joked, “you’re in the family way, right?” 

“How did you know?” she asked, feeling a flush of anger, suspecting Angie.

“I didn’t,” he replied quietly. “I was just having you on. But I do now, an’ sure, to tell you the God’s honest truth, I’m glad. It’s not like we’re at home where this’d be a family disgrace n’ we’d have to rush to the altar—shotgun style.”  He reached out and held her close, patting her gently and wiping away the tears of relief.

“But what are we going to do?” Marie asked, stepping back, sensing Eddie’s hesitation. “I can’t just go have a baby out of wedlock. By meself.”

“No, no, no, love!” Eddie reassured her. “That’s not what I meant at all. I meant we can get married without all the fuss and shame. Have a wedding on our terms, not because we have to, but because we want to.  One way or t’other, ya won’t be by yerself. I’m here. Ain’t goin’ nowhere. I love ya. That’s it. Have since the first time I laid eyes on ya at The Saint Pat’s Dance, wearing that grand green dress.” They both laughed at the memory, she more with relief than humor.

“I thought only girls were supposed to remember details like that,” Marie said, smiling through tears. “Eddie Doyle, you just made me the happiest girl in the whole world. I promise you’ll never regret this. I’ll make you glad you decided to stick with me, with us,’cause I know you don’t have to.”

“Hey, look at you, goin’ all mushy on me,” Eddie teased. “Come on, no time for that. We’ve got a wedding to plan and a lot o’ work to be done.”

They married two months later, May 18th, 1960. Jack Kennedy was running for President, and it was a good time to be Irish in America, especially in Boston—home to the Kennedy family and launching pad for generations of Irish emigrants. The Doyle’s first generation Irish-American baby—a lusty 10-pound boy with powerful lungs and an insatiable appetite—was born on Christmas Eve, 1960.  They christened him Noel Jack, in honor of the season and the first Irish-American President. Five years and two heartbreaking miscarriages later, Lil was born—premature at 8 months, but alert and healthy. They named her after Marie’s mother—Elizabeth.  By then Eddie was foreman of a 12-man building crew, bringing home good money, and able to make a solid down payment on a three-bedroom colonial of their own in Dorchester.

Then the letter arrived, and with it, a kind of death sentence to the good life they’d created for themselves in America.

The letter was mailed from Enniskerry—closest village to Ballyhale, where Eddie’s family farmed a rocky 25 acres. Marie immediately recognized the distinctive, convent-trained handwriting of Eddie’s youngest sister, Eileen.  He’d opened the small pink envelope without hesitation when he came home from work.  He read the letter several times before handing it to Marie and rushing to the bathroom, where she could hear him sobbing in anguish:

 

Dear Eddie,

I’m sorry to be the bearer of sad tidings, but Daddy passed away last night in his sleep after a week of complaining about chest pains. I came over as soon as I could get Mary Corrigan to take care of the children. As you know, Mammy is in no condition to help and I’m expecting again in November, so I’m not much good meself these days. I’ve notified Angela and Peggy in Australia, but sure it’ll take weeks for a letter to get there, as usual. I doubt they’d be able to come in any case.

I’m afraid that leaves you, Eddie, as the only one I can turn to, which seems right, of course, since you’re now the sole heir to the farm. I trust that you’ll fly home as fast as you can to make the funeral arrangements and take care of things here. Ballyhale Farm is yours now and I know you’ll need to think things through.

Mammy can stay with me and Jimmy until you sort things out at home.

Please wire me back by return about your travel plans.

Your loving sis,

Eileen

 

Eddie was the oldest of four, the only male—typically a privileged position in rural Ireland, which still practiced primogeniture, the right by law or custom of the oldest male to inherit the family estate in its entirety. “Big Bill,”as Eddie’s Da was known, had been an unusual Irish farmer—a man who befriended his children and raised them to make their own decisions. He’d encouraged Eddie to get a carpentry trade so that he could be independent of farm life—if that was what he chose. More unusual still, he’d done the same for his three daughters—all of whom had won scholarships to a convent education and pursued professional careers: two nurses and a teacher. The two oldest girls, Angela and Peggy, emigrated to Australia to take advantage of nursing opportunities, and Eileen, the youngest, stayed home, teaching in the local primary school in Enniskerry before marrying Michael Kavanagh, the handsome young principal, and leaving to raise a family.

Years earlier, Eddie’s mother had suffered a stroke, in her sixties—and had lost her voice as well as most of her faculties. But Big Bill refused to have her “put away.” He took care of her at home with uncomplaining devotion, even after his own health began to fail. Though only 68 when he died, Big Bill had complained of chest pains for years, but—like most men of his generation—he’d toughed it out, refusing to see a doctor. “Sure all them gents are interested in is money. It’d cost me a harvest to have ’em poking n’ proddin’, only to be told that, lo and behold, I’ll live till I die . . . which’ll probably be hastened if I hang around them white coats n’ sick lads. No thanks. I’ll take me chances right here with the pigs n’ the sheep. Better company all around.”

So his sudden death was a shock, not because it was unexpected, but because it was something both Eddie and Marie had dreaded for years, but characteristically, they’d avoided the issue and never discussed what if . . .

What neither had anticipated was the will Big Bill had drafted and left to be executed by the only solicitor in the village—a trusted friend of the family, Eddie’s godfather, Pete Breslin. As expected, Big Bill left the “entire estate” to Eddie, including a proviso that would irrevocably change their lives.

Breslin, feeling awkward delivering the news to Eddie after the funeral, recalled his conversation with Big Bill the day they finalized his “Last Will and Testament."

--Pete, I want to leave the whole shebang at Ballyhale to Eddie, with one—what do ya call them things?

-- Stipulation? Proviso?

-- That’s it, proviso.  I want a proviso in there that he honors his Mammy’s wish to stay here, in her own house, and that he not sell it before her death. Between you, me, an’ the gatepost, she’s always favored ’im o’er the girls. I don’t need to tell you about Irish mothers . . . Anyway, I want that spelled out in the will. I gave Sheila me word on this.  It was the last conversation I can be sure she understood, poor auld thing.

--As you wish, Bill. But did you ever consider Eddie’s feelings on this? He has a wife and family of his own and a good job in America.  He may not want to come back to Ballyhale. May not want to be a farmer.  After all, you were the one that encouraged him to get a carpenter’s license and get away from the drudgery o’ the land.

--I know, I know. But that was when I was young an’ not thinkin’ ahead. I wasn’t lookin’ at the end o’ the road then, the end of 300 years of Doyle family legacy. Sure we’ve always been here in Ballyhale, an’ I’ll be damned if I’m going to be the one to bring the curtain down on it. After we’re all pushin’ up the daisies, Eddie can do whatever he wants. Sure it won’t kill ’im to spend some time taking care o’ his Mammy.

-- I suppose you’re right. It’s your family Bill, your will. An’ you’ve got to do what ya think is best. I just wanted to be sure you’d thought it through, that’s all.

--Thought it through! Sure it’s all I’ve thought about for the past several years, since Sheila lost her mind. Dementia, they call it. Bloody awful scourge. She doesn’t even know me or where she is. Seems happy enough, though. I intend to keep it that way. I gave her me word, and that’s all there is to it. Nuthin’ more to think about, Pete. Honor is honor, like the fellow sez.

A month after Big Bill’s funeral, Eddie and the whole family was boarding a plane—“going home,” as he put it—from Logan Airport, headed for Shannon on a one-way flight.  It was the last thing either Marie or Eddie wanted, but Eddie felt he had no choice. The oldest and only male, he took for granted his right to inherit the land. And with that right came the responsibility to carry on the family tradition as head of Ballyhale Farm, to honor his Da’s will, and the plea his Mammy had made while she was still compos mentis.

Eddie had assured Marie that it would be only temporary; they’d be back in Boston in a couple of years. They could lease Ballyhale, perhaps to Eileen and his brother-in-law, and maybe Noel would show an interest in farming later on. If they could have imagined any inkling of what came next, they would surely have thought twice before getting on that plane.

An interminable 10 years on, Sheila Doyle was still alive—though reduced to a birdlike shadow of herself at 85. The generous Irish Public Health System paid for round-the-clock nursing care, monthly visits to the doctor in Dublin, and increasingly complex drug protocols to control diabetes, arthritis, and high blood pressure. All of which augured she might well live to be 100, though with advanced stage dementia, she seemed blissfully unaware of anyone or anything.

From almost the moment they unpacked, Eddie had felt trapped by his decision, and responded by escaping to P. J. Byrne’s pub. At first, it was once a week, then every other night. Within a few months, he’d joined the local band of heavy drinkers who made up most of Mooncoin. He hated Ireland, claimed he always had, and saw no future for himself or his family on the barren, rocky farm.  Marie’s reassurances that it was only temporary seemed to make things worse, make him more distant, more moody, more irritable.

That was before the affair. Marie found out about it by accident—while doing the laundry when she discovered a love note in Eddie’s shirt pocket . It was from his first cousin, Brigid Doyle—the buxom, only child of Uncle Ned—Eddie’s only surviving uncle and namesake. Brigid and her Da shared the western boundary fence with Ballyhale Farm. It was the farm she’d grown up on and inherited from her Da before he passed away a few years back.  Ned Doyle had left his daughter a thriving 90-acre sheep-farm, well-managed and lucrative—a glaring contrast to the rocky, waterlogged 25-acres Eddie had inherited at Ballyhale. 

After they came home from Boston, Bridget proved a generous friend and neighbor in letting Eddie borrow the tractor, cultivator, and other farm implements that he couldn’t afford.  In return, he helped her with shearing, dipping, and labor-intensive veterinary chores. The upshot: he spent a lot of time at “Uncle Ned’s Farm,” sometimes missing dinner and coming home well after dark.

Marie didn’t confront him with the love note directly, but bided her time till Bridget came to dinner, as was her custom, the following Sunday. With the whole family assembled at the dinner table, Marie tapped on her water glass for attention. “Listen, everyone!  Bridget has an announcement to make. It’s kind of a surprise, but I wanted to give her a chance to share it with the whole family.” Marie smiled mischieviously, reached across the table and handed Bridget a little pink envelope with the love note inside, which read: “Darling, I can’t wait till next time. See you Tuesday in my boudoir, as usual. I’m all yours, B. XXXX.” With the family waiting impatiently, Bridget opened the envelope, read the note and suddenly looked stricken.  She gasped, turned white, clutched at her throat, then turned crimson, and fled for the upstairs bedroom.  Marie, feigning a puzzled look, busied herself around the kitchen while everyone else waited uneasily for Bridget to reemerge. When she did, more composed now, Marie had her coat and handbag ready. Marie smiled and said evenly, “I’ll see you out, Bridget.” Eddie, fidgeting with his food, avoided eye contact with either of them. He just stared at his plate, saying nothing, sensing the moment of truth at hand.

Outside, Marie opened the door of the Land Rover for Bridget, leaned in with close eye contact, and whispered emphatically, “You don’t need to say anything. I’ve suspected this for a long time. But don’t come back here, ever. You understand! I’ll make life very hard for you if you ever darken this door again.” With that, she squeezed Bridget’s arm gently, turned and walked slowly back to rejoin the family dinner. They finished the meal in silence and the incident was never mentioned again.

The first sign of Eddie’s smouldering resentment came soon after that, as he struggled to make do without Bridget’s tractor or other implements. He began staying out all night now and went on more benders.  The violence began with a deliberate shove, knocking Marie against the stove, causing a serious burn on her arm.  The next assault, about a week later, was an openhanded slap—over some trivial matter she couldn’t recall.  It knocked her across the cowshed and bloodied her lip. Then came the black eye from his closed fist.  That was the night his dinner wasn’t on the table at the stroke of 6PM;  the workman was out sick that day and Marie had to milk all six cows by herself.  

The abuse was never in front of the children, and she never brought it up  afterwards.  Each time, Marie forgave him and moved on—hoping these were temporary lapses, never imagining Mr. Hyde had come to stay.

She slept in the hayshed on those nights—increasingly frequent—when her husband came home late, in a drunken rant, baying at the world, threating to kill her. The worst were the times, like tonight, when she was trapped with him alone coming home from the pub, though now driving the unschooled Arabian in the dark. She’d brought Lil along today, counting on him keeping his word about the pledge. 

Her reflections were interrupted by the distant sound of thundering hooves approaching from the east, from Ballyduff and Flanagan’s pub. The full moon was balanced precariously on top of the Sugarloaf, like a giant spotlight mounted on the summit of the majestic mountain. Under other circumstances, it would be hard for the setting to be anything but romantic. But tonight it was only a source of terror—making Marie feel like a cornered animal, exposed as easy prey to a vengeful predator.

Huddled in the clover meadow, with the stallion’s hoof beats getting closer, Lil started to wail, sensing the fear in her Mammy’s labored breathing and clutching arms.  

“Mammy, what if Da finds us? What will he do to us?”

“Don’t worry, pet!   He won’t find us. Rest assured, we’re better at hide-and-go-seek than he is, remember!”

The hoof beats were almost even with the gate and Marie had no doubt it was Eddie, given the breakneck pace and the distinctive shouts and curses breaking the silence of the clear spring night.

“Goddam BITCH of a woman. I’ll teach her to make a feckin’ show o’ me in front of the whole parish. Just WAIT till I get my hands on her scrawny neck. She’ll THINK TWICE before she pulls this shite again.”

Marie put her hand gently over Lil’s ears and mouth to shield her from the invective and to stifle her wailing, whispering, “Don’t worry, pet.  It’s all right. God is good.  Say your prayers. We just don’t want Daddy to find us right now, that’s all.” Lil nodded her understanding through tear-stained eyes and clung to her Mammy behind the hawthorn hedge.

Eddie stopped the carriage to peek behind the iron gate, the only break in the fences for miles.  Marie and Lil were only a few feet away. Holding her daughter tightly, Marie stroked the beloved head, her hand still gently covering the child’s mouth lest Eddie catch wind of the sobs. After a quick glance behind the hedge, and a prolonged emptying of his bladder, Eddie seemed satisfied with his search. He led the stallion back to the road and whipped him forward once more into the moonlight, cursing at the outrage of his wife “shaming” him in front of his drinking buddies at Flanagans. He would definitely have to teach her a lesson this time. A real man couldn’t have these things happening, not if he was to command respect in the parish of Mooncoin.

Reaching the entrance to Ballyhale Farm, Eddie realized that Marie and Lil must have given him the slip.  He jerked the frothing stallion around and flogged its tender ribcage back toward Flanagans, knowing that they must be back there somewhere. He dared not show up at home without them. What would he tell his son? That boy was growing up fast, too fast—16 going on 30—with a way of looking through him when he had a few drinks. Eddie felt suddenly sober at the thought of facing those piercing blue eyes, trying to explain how he’d lost his Mammy and Sis. There was nothing for it but to go back and find that feckin’ wench. She needed to learn some manners.

For what seemed to Marie like hours, a deadly game of hide-and-seek played out on River Road, with Eddie whipping the frenzied, bloodied stallion up and down the narrow boreen, in smaller and smaller loops. Eddie was now a creature so reduced in moral and emotional faculty that he was indistinguishable from any other desperate predator.  Each time Marie heard him coming in the distance, she pulled Lil through a gate or slid behind a stand of sycamores, watching the hapless Arabian and silent Croydon charge by in the moonlight, praying for deliverance of the noble animal as the brutality of his tormentor seemed to grow more vicious with every failed foray.

On the final leg of his gruesome search-and-destroy mission, Eddie yanked hard on the searing bit, turning a careless, wide arc into the roadside gorse, flushing a brace of partridges from their cover. The sudden explosion of game spooked the jittery stallion, already half-crazed after hours of abuse. Marie  heard the percussive sound of the partridges’ escape, then a loud crash—like a sledgehammer smashing through a sturdy wooden door. The stallion, true to his dueling heritage, had had enough. He clamped down on the bit and lashed out with his hind legs, like a bronco shedding its alien human burden.

A sickening thud followed as Eddie was thrown from the Croydon, cursing in agony as he landed like a bag of bones on the granite roadside.  The Arabian, finding an extra gear, bolted —the bit jammed between his powerful teeth—sensing his freedom, racing for his life toward the sanctuary of Ballydale Farm.

Mad with pain and adrenaline, the runaway stallion charged down the narrow, moonlit laneway to the farm just as Noel was coming the other way.  The boy, always protective of others, had finished his work early and grown anxious when his family hadn’t come home on time. He told the workman, Jimmy Brennan, that he’d head up River Road and surprise them with a homecoming greeting. Thinking his Da was driving the stallion and playing a game—as they often did in macho give-and-take—Noel stood boldly in the middle of the lane, waving and laughing in the path of the charging Arabian.  

By the time the boy saw that there was no driver, no Da, it was too late. The white-stocking hoofs were on him, slashing blindly, in mortal terror of being caught by his tormentor.  At the last second, the thoroughbred must have sensed the obstruction in its path, for it reared, upending the Croydon on top of Noel and fracturing its right fetlock as it rolled and tangled in the harness.

That’s how the workman, Jimmy Brennan, came upon the carnage in the laneway. He’d extricated Noel’s body and laid it under the sycamores by the time Marie and Lil arrived on the scene. They’d found Eddie by the roadside, out cold, and left him to get help, assuming he was dead.

Holding the dead boy in her arms, her first and only son, Marie mustered the compassion to send Jimmy Brennan back to the farmhouse for the shotgun.  The frothing Arabian, thrashing in its death throes, would clearly have to be put down. Jimmy brought the gun but couldn’t bring himself to use it, so Marie asked him to take Lil home while she did what had to be done.  “There’s no sound more haunting than the moans of a horse in agony,” she explained when a neighbor asked how she got up the nerve to pull the trigger.

Miraculously, Eddie survived. He’d live to wish he hadn’t , never so much as the day after Noel’s funeral when Marie announced she was leaving with Lil for Boston.

“Eddie, I’m not blamin’ ya for Noel’s death,” Marie said, the day before she left. “That was an accident. God’s will. An’ I’ll forgive ya for all the rest, for that matter. But I don’t want to be around ya anymore. Don’t want to see you, ever again. It’s time we went our separate ways.”

“I might have known it,” Eddie snapped, staring out the window while his birdlike mother drooled in the easy chair, oblivious of any human presence. “I might have known you’d be the kind to kick a man when he’s down, when he’s lost the only thing he ever cared about.  An’ what about yer marriage vows?  Don’t they mean nuthin’?”

“They used to,” Marie said quietly, looking directly at Eddie, who avoided her gaze over the breakfast table. “They used to mean everything, Eddie. They were what I lived for— all those years I loved you, or who I thought you were.  But you see, something happened to me as I was hiding behind those sycamores on River Road. I woke up and the old me had died and a new me was born. I made a solemn promise to  that new me: I swore before  God that I’d never put myself or our children through anything like this again. That’s my new vow, my new commitment, Eddie.  To get as far away from you as possible .”

“But that’s not who I am, Marie,” Eddie pleaded. “It’s the drink. An I’ll quit it, for good this time. I swear ta God I will; I swear on the grave of our son. I’m just not meself when I have drink taken. Ya know that. It’s not me that does those things. I’m not that kind of man . . .”

“That’s your story, Eddie, and for too long I believed you,” Marie cut him off sharply. “But it’s a lie. It is who you are; it is the man you’ve become.  It is you who does all those cruel and despicable things. It is you that has that first drink; it is you who cheats with his first cousin; it is you who beats his wife; it is you who flogged that fine stallion to his death. And it is you that I want nothing to do with or want anywhere near my daughter.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a daughter to raise and a life to go live.”

“But what am I supposed to do without you?” Eddie asked softly, tears running down his cheeks. Marie knew this ploy and was having none of it. She wondered how she ever could have.

“Same thing you were doing before, Eddie. Pretend that I never existed and stay focused on yourself. You won’t have to change a thing.”

Eddie stood and took a belligerent step toward her. “Now listen, bitch,” he hissed, his voice rising, turning hoarse. “I’ll have the law on ya.  You can’t just go and take a man’s child away from ‘im just ’cause ya feel like it.  I have me feckin’ rights, too, ya know.”

Marie didn’t budge. She met his baleful stare calmly and said, “Suit yourself, Eddie. You always have anyway. Here’s the address of my solicitor in Dublin. If you attempt to contact me, it will have to be through him. Goodbye. I wish you well. I honestly do.”

Lil was already waiting in Pete Breen’s green taxi with the luggage when Marie ducked in beside her, just in time to miss the flying tea mug that Eddie had launched at her departing back.  The mug smashed against the concrete wall, decorating the muddy farmyard with splinters from the yellow-and-red sunflower of their delicate Ming Dynasty design.  It was the last of a set they’d been given as a wedding present from Marie’s best friend in Boston, Angie Byrne. Even through the closed taxi windows, she could hear Eddie’s hoarse voice, in familiar, sinister form. “Goddamn feckin’ whore! If ya think ya can get away with this, ya got another think comin’.  Wait till I lay my hands on your scrawny neck…”

Marie shuddered , drew Lil close, crossed herself at the giant sycamore in the laneway, where Noel and the Arabian had died, and cried softly as the green Vauxhall turned north on the Dublin Road.

 

 

 

 

Thomas Rice was born in rural Ireland and lived there until he was 16. He dropped out of school at 13, emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, and later graduated from Cornell University. He spent 20 years in academe before turning to writing full-time in 2007. Along the way, he’s been a farmer, breeder of border collies, construction worker, tractor driver, bartender, licensed carpenter, story-teller, social activist, and founder of an institute for social justice. He’s published a memoir, several short stories, and novellas. His first novella, Hard Truths, was published in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2012.