Flower on the Cliff
Oct 19, 2023
Three days after Rían Boyce's funeral, Anthony found himself in the town of Doolin for a purpose that eluded him. When Rían asked him to go on this journey, he said nothing except that it would be meaningful to him if Anthony indulged a dying man's wishes, and that perhaps he might be able to get something out of it from his siblings. Anthony agreed because as Rían made the request amidst bouts of arduous coughing, his brown eyes took on a hint of the mischievous, conspiratorial nature that had made them friends in the first place. Two days later, he was dead.
On the day he was supposed to meet with the Boyce siblings, the sky had been a happy blue, with low and lazy clouds. He could see from his rented cottage the whole municipality of Doolin, a humble central cluster of homes and businesses, and then the rest -- a spattering of thatch-roofed homes separated by vast plots of green, and beyond that the deep blue of the sea. Just as he had set out from his room to go to where he needed to be, the sky had turned into a dreary gray, then a deep dark gray, and the solitary, thin, dirt road to Oscar's Pub had been hidden behind an impenetrable veil of rain, and all he could see between the thick droplets on his glasses were faint orange glowing lights piercing through the mist.
The door had been rattling in its frame on account of the wind when he barged through it. He set his cane against the doorframe and patted down his body, looking for a handkerchief to wipe his glasses with.
There was music at Oscar's, a bodhrán played by a girl keeping time with two fiddle players: one an old man with a long mustache, sallow skin, and closed eyes. The other a fellow, reserved and skillful, a tender player. At the far end of the pub, sitting by a small round window, were half a dozen fishermen with harpoons set against the wall behind them, drinking large pints of dark beer and eating from hearty bowls of stews and chowders, exchanging sea tales, passing the tide.
And more still: farmers discussing the harvests to come, and harvests past, their wives delivering parcels of news and projecting news to come, some spinning yarn. Off in a corner were two men by a telephone taking turns putting the phone up to their ears and listening attentively, their backs turned to the pub, shoulders set in a square and urgent way, their business unknowable but imminent and important. Near the bar were the adolescents, having a laugh with flush cheeks and ambitious quantities of beer and whiskey at their table, passing time. Perhaps more than anyone at the pub, the youth passed the time.
"You're feckin drenched, lad," the bartender said. "Do you happen to be named Anthony? I'm Oscar, myself." He threw a rag at Anthony to dry off.
"Ah, yes. I'm Anthony. Anthony St. James," he said as he wiped his face and hair down with the rag.
"You're not Irish," Oscar said. He waved him over, and Anthony moved closer to Oscar and set the cane against the bar. Oscar began preparing a whiskey for him. "Compliments of the Boyce family. It'll warm you from the inside."
"Thank you. I'm American, in fact."
Oscar furrowed his eyebrows in such a way that they resembled fishing hooks. "And you’ve come all this way to Doolin?"
"To Doolin," Anthony said. He took a sip from his whiskey.
"All this way and you managed to forget a raincoat." Oscar grinned, which was an awkward expression on his rugged face, but charming in its strangeness.
"Well," Anthony said. "The sky was clear until just a bit ago, the promise of a perfect day, to be fair to your fine country.”
The bartender laughed and the whistling of the wind picked up as it passed the windows and played at the straw roof. In the distance, growling thunder chased fleet-footed lightning. “Fine and fair my country is, there are scarce few lands as fine or as fair. But false are the promises of an Irish sky."
Oscar pointed to a table in the center of the pub, where two young people sat, glancing around the room: out the door, out the window, at the liquor. "They're waitin' for you."
Anthony resisted the urge to adjust his tie as he joined Oscar in walking over to the Boyces, with his cane and his peg-leg making thudding sounds against the wooden floor.
The Boyce siblings had pale skin, and their hair was the color and texture of a bundle of reeds in autumn, just as Rían's had been.
Ron, the youngest of the siblings, pointed his chin at Anthony. "We've been waiting long enough," he said, standing up. "You're Rían's mate?"
"Hello," Anthony said. He shook hands with Ron and then Rosy, who had stood as well. "Yes. I'm terribly sorry for your loss."
"It was some time coming," Rosy said. Rosy Boyce had freckles across her cheeks and nose, but as sporadic and sparsely placed as the township of Doolin, and her eyes were dark and discerning. "He called us to say goodbye, and to tell us that you were coming."
"Not that you had much in the way of a choice. He was a persuasive bastard," Ron said. He interrupted himself to say "Go on, take a seat, so," as he glanced at Anthony's leg.
Anthony obliged, taking off his coat and then sitting at the small round wooden table. He set his cane against the table. He could feel the proximity of the Boyce sibling's legs to him and he was careful not to make contact.
"I don't mean to be rude," Anthony said. "But I must admit to not knowing why I'm here, exactly."
"To play a game with us," Ron said, leaning back in his chair. "To honor our bastard brother."
"More like a conversation," Rosy said, "than a game. But a special conversation."
"That is not much of a game," Anthony said in a dubious way. But he was relieved, because he would much rather have a conversation with the Boyce siblings than play any sort of game. He was not overly fond of games.
Ron snorted and then motioned at Oscar for a beer.
Rosy leaned closer to Anthony. Looking at her, he could not see any sign of mourning Rían's death, except that her eyes were tired and watery, but not red or puffy as with those who have cried. "To be perfectly honest with you... we Boyce's struggle to speak in earnest with each other without at least some form of pretense."
"I see," he said. "And how did it work, exactly?"
Ron sat up properly. "The way it goes, so, is that we meet here every year and have a talk about a certain disagreement between the three of us about how best to live."
"And the way this disagreement came to be is that in our childhood we all lived together here in Doolin on a farm not too far from where we are. And on this farm, if you can picture it, were some low walls like the ones you can see out the window now, sure."
All over the countryside there were long low walls of balanced stones. Not packed together tightly, in the manner Anthony was accustomed to seeing, but loosely, with space for light and wind to pass through and play. "Yes," he said. "I know what you mean."
"Right, so, each one of us when we were young and playing by the walls on our own without the other two to pester us, had the same experience."
Anthony leaned forward, intrigued. Here, there was something of interest for him, and he became more comfortable.
"At some point, playing by those walls near a sapling tree on our family's lot, we all separately had a moment of revelation. Deep, movin', important. We, each of us, tripped on a stone on the ground from the wall, and scraped our heads on the wall. Never losing sight of the little sapling through the opening in the wall where it had fallen apart."
"Ah," Anthony said, and his heart picked up its beating pace. This was it, what he needed. A place where moments upon moments layered together, perspectives intersecting at a point across the long spool of time, jumbling up and confusing itself. "And what was the revelation?"
"For meself," Ron said. "I thought that day that what a fine thing it was to live, to be part of a long line of peoples who worked to let us exist. Like one of them stones on them walls. Isn't it that you can't have one without the other? And I also thought about me dying, maybe the first time I had ever thought of that. And so said I: 'what's the point of life if not to honor the stones behind me?' Life should be about fixin' the walls where they're broken, and restoring the rest when you can. Maintaining them."
"And mine's much the same," Rosy said. "Much the same. Excepting that what happened for me was that I thought to myself -- me ancestors built these plots. Put it all together, stone by stone. And so I wondered why couldn't I build me own walls too? Not for me own sake, but for the sake of the future. Somethin' for them to look back on, somethin' to protect them."
"And Rían?" Anthony asked. "What did he think?"
Ron chuckled. "All he would say to us was that there wasn't a single wall in all of Doolin he hadn't pissed on when he was after drinkin'. And then he fecked off to Dublin, which just about sums up his position on the matter."
Oscar, who had been picking up glasses near their table, began to laugh. They looked over at him, and he smiled sheepishly. "I didn't mean, sorry, to be eavesdropping 'n' all."
Ron rolled his eyes and Rosy waved him over. "Come, Oscar. Join us."
Oscar glanced around at the patrons, and felt that he could take a moment to join them. He pulled up a chair, and sat just out of the bounds of the table, too big a figure to tuck in his chair. He clasped his hands between his legs. "Rían was a good lad," he said.
The storm outside had tempered down to a drizzle in time for duskfall. The last of the day’s light reached in through the windows with long, orange fingers that tickled the perspiration on the glasses on the tables.
"You're too young to be so set on all that," Oscar said amidst the silence. "Too young, by far. D'y'know whatfor we make it so that the walls have hole's in 'em?"
Rosy and Ron shook their heads. "Just assumed that's how it is."
"Well everything's the way it is for a reason, isn't it?" Oscar said. "You two are big city folk now, living in Galway 'n'all, but you haven't forgotten the Doolin winds, have you? Or how it is out in the hills when it's storming like just now."
Rosy shook her head, laughing. "How could one forget?"
"Well, the walls are that way because the wind's so fierce. That's all. They built walls the regular way and they kept on getting knocked down, back then. They figured that they ought to just let the wind get through, so. And so here we are."
"And so?" Ron said. "What does that have to do with our particular discussion?"
"I'm not sure, sorry," Oscar said. "I suppose... I just mean to say that Rían had a good head on his shoulders, so. I think he had the right notion about the discussion."
"That we ought to piss on Doolin's walls?"
"That there are some things that there are no use building walls against," Anthony said. "Sorry to interrupt." They all looked at him, and Oscar nodded appreciatively.
"I suppose that's what I mean," Oscar said.
The siblings looked expended, like the wind had gone out of them. "We'd use to go around in circles about this," Rosy said. "Just arguing about what the best way to live was. For the legacy, for the future. But it's just... different now that he's gone."
"Well, it's a very strange game," Anthony said. He offered an apologetic smile.
"I..." Ron said. "I'm going to miss him." Tears began to fall down his face and he quickly moved his hand to wipe the tears away.
Rosy reached over and hugged her brother. She began to cry as well.
Oscar got up and fetched some water from the bar. He offered it to the siblings who took their cups and tried to sort themselves out. Looking at them in that moment, Anthony could tell that they were younger than he had thought. Early to mid twenties, at most, and how very alone they must feel, and he understood why it was that Rían had asked him to come.
He put his hand over Rosy and Ron's and said, "Thank you for letting me join you here today in Rían's stead. And for the sake of the game I must admit I think he's right. You don't need to build a legacy. You don't need to build a future. That's what I think, anyways."
Rosy cleared her throat and shakily said, "Rían told us to give you the sapling in exchange for coming... but it died the day he called for the last time. But we didn't want... we still wanted you to come for the game."
Anthony smiled warmly at her. "I understand," he said.
Ron cleared his throat, which was a little raw, and asked "What exactly is it that you collect anyways? Old things, odd things, or occult things? That's about all a man can collect, so."
Anthony laughed. "I suppose so. You're right. What I collect is... hard to describe. It's the sort of thing I recognize when I see it. Usually personal sorts of artifacts. Family heirlooms, sometimes, or a special portrait. It has a glimmer I can see."
"You're not one of 'em fellas who makes spells, are you?" Oscar asked, his tone suspended between joking and cautious.
Anthony smiled. "Do you believe in magic, Oscar?”
Oscar lit up a cigarette. "I believe in the ground beneath my feet and God in the Heavens and the love of my wife, sure, but nothing beyond that myself." He paused. "And yourself?"
"I think magic is a perspective, if you follow. I don't believe so much in spellcasters or anything like that. No witches. But I believe that there are these moments charged with meaning, and that the essence of such moments that happen in the life of a person could be found in certain objects. That's what I collect."
"Why?" Rosy asked.
Anthony considered the question and said simply, "Because I seek to understand."
She nodded. "Okay."
Ron set his hand on the table and said, "Thanks for yer company, Anthony." The siblings stood and shook his hand. "If you'll be excusin' us. We have to mourn our brother, now, I believe. That's how it's supposed to go in a normal, regular family."
"Do keep in touch," Rosy said.
And just so, they left the pub.
"Those walls... It's too true, Anthony St. James. There ain't no wall that can stop time. Or death," Oscar said.
"So what do you think is the best way to go about it all?" Anthony asked.
Oscar considered him for a moment and said, "The best way to go about it is to not go about it alone." He paused. "Will you give me a moment, lad?"
Anthony waved his hand in welcome.
Oscar got up and lumbered over to the back room of the pub. He came out with something in his hand.
"You have to understand how it is to be from Doolin, it's a lonely place, and harsh," he said as he sat down.
"The clouds come down low here, low enough that you can brush them with your fingers if you're in the right hill on the right day. And they cast these shadows, bein' so near 'n' all. And so when I think about my life when I was a lad, it is to have lived under the shadow of clouds. Lots of clouds. Proclivities and faiths and tempers and recipes and superstitions passed down from generation to generation like the culture of yeast for making beer.
Me pa' was a drunkard and I ain't have a mother, which all in all made me a bitter fellow. When I was older I was tired of all of it, and so one day I walked to the Cliffs. I just sat down, absolutely miserable, and it started to rain just to top it all off. I hoped that I might slip on the grass and not have another worry in the world, to be right honest with you. But I'm something of a coward, thankfully. So I stayed put.
The wind never lets up in the Cliffs. It just howls and whips about, and I used to be a thin lad if you can believe it. I was being buffeted by the wind. So, scared, I scooted up away from the edge and held onto the long grass for my life in the storm, and I touched this little flower by accident."
Oscar opened up his palms, and showed him a small yellow flower, perfectly vibrant.
"That was over twenty-some years ago and the flower hasn't let up either. When I saw this flower back then I thought to myself that I was a bit like that flower, too. Just holdin' on all alone up in the face of the wind, right by the cliff's edge. But then I thought that the flower wasn't that alone because I was up there too, holdin' on for dear life, and so we were doin' it together, and that wasn't so bad."
Oscar gave it to Anthony. "Does that work for your collection?"
Anthony looked at the flower in the palm of his hand and nodded. "More than you can know, Oscar," he said.
Oscar patted him on the back. "It's yours. Now be safe, lad. And don't go at it alone. That's my two cents, anyways."
Anthony stood, shook his hand, and set out under the cloudless Doolin night sky back to his inn, with a yellow flower in his inner-vest pocket.