a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The narrow lane rises before me. Thick hedgerows on each side buzz and twitter with bees and birds. A stonechat somewhere in the gorse and brambles with its sporadic song, more syllable than melody, as if two stones struck together–tsch tsch…tsch tsch. Prickly blackberry vines with clusters of hard green berries; by August, wine-dark ripe, plump, ready to burst open, staining fingers and lips. Again, the stonechat–tsch tsch…tsch tsch, perched now on the tip of a thin branch as if weightless. Black head, white collar, bright orange breast. It flicks its wings, bobs like a buoy floating in the air. Tsch tsch…tsch tsch. The sound of thoughts rubbing up against each other–yes, no–feelings, too: joy and sorrow at once.
I am on the west coast of Ireland, ambling up and over and down the Burren hills to Fanore Beach along this rugged twelve-mile loop feeling an uncomplicated happiness. Birds, trees, cows, wildflowers, hedgerows, the river, the ocean, the limestone hills ahead. The unrelenting anxiety that has had me in a tight-fisted grip for the past two years? Kept my stomach churning and thoughts grinding into each other? Worries for my teenage son–would he be okay, would he come out on the other side of his dark slide into depression, would he stay in this world with me? Worries that became the center of my being? Jumping every time the phone rang, thinking this will be the worst, the very worst of news?
That anxiety? Gone. Well, in small part. My son has emerged and seems mostly happy these days and at ease with himself, which is all I have ever wanted for him.
Here, in Ireland, I feel as if I could walk for days with the only intent to observe the world’s wondrous variety. I am on my own, no one needing anything from me–vacation from administrative and teaching duties and my son in Greece with his father (my ex-husband) for the month.
Here, in Ireland, the place I feel most at ease in myself, I wonder how I could ever have contemplated my own suicide and with serious intent.
On a previous trip to Ireland many years ago: a solo hike on this same Atlantic route. The days grew longer and the light opened earlier and the dark closed later–what the Irish call the stretch. I walked that tightrope trail along the cliff edge, mud spattering my calves and thighs as if I was a horse that had sludged through sodden pasture dragging a plow, a cart, a heavy heart. I looked right and up at the jagged limestone shearing the sky and then left into the gray blue churning ocean, at a small red boat careening through the waves like a blood streak. What would it be like to lose footing and slip off the edge? I imagined this precisely. Dizzy at the seductive thought of that end. How easy it would be to step sideways, step wrong, step off.
A gleaming black horse in the field galloped back and forth, rowdy with delight. The sharp wind and bright sky! He tossed his mane, celebrating this return to spring, to beginning again, to the profligate clover, the sticky sweetgrass. I grabbed a fistful and held it out to him over the fence. He trotted over and–as if I was Persephone back from the dead, greedy for sunshine and a fuck–skidded to a stop, gave a suspicious sideways nicker. His eyes said: What do you want?
Want want want.
A cuckoo called from far afield.
Now, on this walk, I hear a cuckoo back from its African winter calling from a distant hedge.
Coo coo coo coo coo
I am impressed by this blithe marauder who steals other birds’ nests and chucks other birds’ eggs to the ground to make way for its own. Mine mine mine, all of this and more. Old instinct for life. For here. For carrying on.
No more slipping sideways. Depression is a greedy motherfucker that wants me dead: remember and do not forget.
The hike to the beach is meant to take six hours, up the narrow, paved lane, then grassy trail, over the stony hills, then down again through the valley. The lane curves toward the steep, treeless, limestone hills–called hums–formed during the Visean period 350 million years ago when Ireland was covered by a shallow tropical sea. In the rock, fossil remains of sea life–crinoids (related to starfish), corals, brachiopods, and gastropods. The limestone tilts and folds, exposing fissures, slabs, depressions, and runnels. All around are glacial erratics, boulders transported across the landscape by large ice sheets during the Ice Age. These erratics seem singularly and intentionally set down by the hand of God: Here you shall stay for all eternity. Some are stacked one on top of the other like a Jenga game, others poised to roll down the cliff and toward the ocean with the next wind gust. Two-ton beach balls. Erratic, from the Greek errare–to wander. Like me, wandering these roads, these post-divorce recovery years mostly alone. The hermetic pleasure and bittersweet sorrow of solitude. Self in the world with the birds and rocks and fossils and hums and humming hedgerows. So, not really alone.
I veer into this weird limestone moonscape, stepping carefully over the ankle-breaking cracks and fissures. In one deep crevice, a large bone. I kneel for a closer look. The femur of a cow who took a terrible fatal tumble? Where is the rest of the skeleton? Placed here as an offering or in warning?
Rock and bone and me: a barren landscape scoured by wear and wind and time.
But not barren because the Burren has both arctic and tropical microclimates between the fissures, as if pop-up greenhouses. Wildflowers native to both climates flourish here. Despite the wind and rain, despite the force of the elements: Spring gentian, Heath-spotted orchid, Ladies bedstraw, Carline thistle, Maidenhair spleenwort, Bloody crane’s bill. Jags of blues and pinks and yellows and purples and greens against this almost monolithically encompassing gray world. Not an empty landscape but a resplendent one, a landscape that invites me to kneel and peer into cracks.
Earlier this morning, I sat in the breakfast room of my BnB with a pot of hot tea, a small bowl of red and black currants, and a homemade scone with strawberry jam, writing notes for this essay: stone, light, sorrow, fossil, loneliness, joy. I ate the currants one by one, squashing them against the roof of my mouth, sweet tart bursts on the tongue. Out the window: blue gray ocean, blue gray sky, stoic cows in field, empty road.
I turned away from the window.
Eithne, the BnB owner, stood in the doorway. “Hiking today?”
“Yes, then a swim.”
“Mind yourself,” she said. “The riptide.”
Mind yourself. Such a lovely expression. A gentle directive: keep watch–like a lighthouse keeper–so you don’t crash into the rocks or get pulled out to sea.
“How’s the writing going?” she asks.
“A tangle. I’m trying to write about sorrow. My father died during Covid lockdown, and I didn’t get to say goodbye or go to his wake or funeral.”
“Terrible here, too,” Eithne said. “People dying in hospital without family, and no wakes. When Liam’s father died, a line of people stretched down the street, came to share the memories his father created for them through the storytelling. You celebrate their life even as you mourn their death. You didn’t get that.”
“No,” I said. “I sat on a stool in my kitchen in Georgia and said goodbye to my father over an iPad propped on a stack of books.” My dog asleep on the couch, a loud mockingbird in the backyard. I wore a black dress, not that anyone could see me. I felt my family together on the other side of the screen, how they were holding each other up. “I was alone with it. I couldn’t be there with him.” I was repeating myself: the circular nature of sorrow, if I keep stating the facts, the facts will be altered. My father will not be dead and I will not be in Georgia and he will not be in a hospital bed, but seated next to my bed in my childhood bedroom reading a Nancy Drew book to me.
Eithne watched as I blinked back tears, looked at the scone, the teapot, the cows, the sky, the ocean.
I start my climb into the Burren uplands. On one side of the path just beyond the trees, the ruins of an old parish church which, my guidebook informs me, was abandoned in the 1840s during the Famine when more than one million Irish died of starvation and disease. Here in County Clare, out of a population of two-hundred-and-sixty thousand, fifty-thousand people died and another forty-thousand emigrated to America. The Burren’s vast emptiness even emptier. I slowly spin around—gray sky, gray limestone, gray stacked stone walls, the rocky trail leading up and the rocky trail leading down. Nobody else up here, not that I can see anyway. Nobody knows where I am. Me, and me alone.
Sweet relief at this temporary detachment from my factually circumscribed life that often holds me rigidly in place [Kerry-mother-daughter-single-head-of-household-ex-wife-friend-writer-teacher-bipolar-recovered anorexic.] Walking and wandering up here? As if I am without history or identity. Just another someone taking a long walk. A being being. Less consequential than the stonechat. Tsch tsch…tsch tsch.
But not inconsequential. Not to my son. He called from Greece last night and said that his mood was up and down.
“What can I do?” I said, swallowing hard against the familiar panic. “Does your dad know?”
He shrugged. “I’ll be okay but maybe I can come home early?”
“Okay,” I said, “okay.” As if by repeating it I could make it so. “If you need to come home, I’ll make it happen. I promise.”
I close my eyes and imagine him in Greece, three hours ahead, future time, cross-legged on a rocky outcrop on the beach strumming his ukulele. I switch on my cell phone’s mobile data. The bars light up. Connection! I text: “Hiking today! Just checking in. You ok? XXOO”
I wait. Wait. Wait.
Please let him be okay.
I take a deep breath and walk on.
Past the church, a wind-savaged hawthorn with crooked limbs as if suffering from rickets. In spring, the tree’s delicate white flowers emit an indelicate smell, like gangrene attracting flies for pollination. Buzzing with life and death at once. Then the ruins of a stone cottage with its chimneys still upright. Who knows how long since a family gathered around that hearth to stave off the damp and cold? Did they survive the famine and live on to see another decade, century, or millennium? Did they die in that cottage, the workhouse, the fever hospital, or the roadside ditch as so many did with lips stained green from eating grass, all that was left to them?
I think of my own years of self-starvation, the deliberate winnowing of calories, the measuring by singular ounces, the passive intent to die via my own little selfish famine.
“Aren’t you hungry?” my family asked.
“No,” I said, with cruel indifference.
(This world–this sun, these clouds, this ocean, that flower, this bird, those apples, my children–offered to me, given to me for safekeeping, for caretaking–miraculous gifts–and I spurned them all. Blasphemy.)
I think of my son as a toddler visiting me in the eating disorders unit of the hospital, how he threw himself at me in joyful desperation, planting a sloppy kiss on my mouth. How he pressed upon me a red construction paper heart with his photo taped to the center–big brown eyes and mischievous grin. How this gift was a question: Remember me? How this gift was an imperative: Remember me! How I slipped that heart into my bra, left side, against my breast, against my heart. How my heart, now doubled, beat out this message: come back…come back. How it took two more years for me to recover my will to live.
Shame and sorrow. Years wasted wasting away.
The cuckoo again, closer by—coo coo coo coo coo.
I think of my son playing his guitar into the dark hours of night, how recently he shouted from behind his closed door, “Mom! Can I play you something?” I rolled out of bed because of course, he could (I listen for his voice, his steps, his movements in the dark, ready to leap to my feet). He played a fast and furious song, his own.
“It’s called ‘Fuck You.’” He said. “But don’t worry. You’re not the intended audience.” We laughed.
I turn away from the cottage and toward the panoramic view–Galway Bay and the Gleninagh Mountain’s twin peaks across the valley–and then look at the ground. A pink Heath-spotted orchid growing in a crack! I kneel, cup my hand around the delicate stacked blossoms, nose-to-petal, breathing its sweet-spare fragrance.
Cracks and fissures. Scoured rocks and sparse grass. As if the world is just being built, waiting for the glue to hold it together. Alternately, the world breaking apart–too hot, too cold, not enough rain, too much rain. The world no longer in alignment. Start over. Too late for that now. Already Ireland’s winters are milder. Eithne had mentioned a drought in May. “We’re worried,” she said. “Changing too fast.”
I survey the cliffs, the lower pastures, the small splotches which are cows, the angular splotches which are cottages and farmhouses, then the ocean. The wind rushes along with my noisy thoughts: my son my father my writing my loneliness my grief my failures my days accumulating and accumulating and becoming…anything nothing? Sorrow’s white noise. Can I admit to trying to outrun my sorrows? As if speed and distance could secure them in the past. Like the BnB’s dozen feral farm cats that scatter at my approach, flying off for the field and heather. Impossible to rely on one day’s equanimity to the next.
High above, a screeching hawk circles, a mouse or rabbit (or me!) in its sights. How far must I go to leave all the noise behind? I’ve trekked to the top of this rocky outpost hoping to find silence, and instead? The rattling wind and the shrieking hawk and my thrumming heart. As if the only sounds left in the world.
My phone buzzes. The most important sound. My son: “I’m good at the beach xo”
Yesterday, I went to the nearby Neolithic portal tomb Poulnabrone dolmen, Ireland’s oldest megalithic monument, built between 4200 and 2900 BC. Poulnabrone is situated in a rocky field at high altitude. Archaeologists found the buried remains of thirty-three people at the site–a jumble of disarticulated bones. Bones that had suffered. Arthritis in the neck and shoulder bones. Teeth malnourished and infected, especially in the children. Violence–skull fractures, broken rib bones, and an arrowhead embedded in a hip bone.
In Irish, Poll na Brón. From bró, meaning quern, so “Hole of the Quernstone,” the millstone. But also, as if in fated mistranslation, from brón, sorrow, so “Hole of Sorrow.”
At the site entrance, a man sat in front of a table with a pair of crutches by his side. He was selling jewelry.
“First time here?” he asked.
“Here, yes,” I said. “Been to the Burren before. Taken a few years to get back. Covid kept me away.”
“Covid is shite,” he said, and then pointed to his crutches. “I broke my fecking back falling down a riverbank. Lumbar fracture. Back hurts all the time.” He shrugged. “Life fecks you up but you keep going. What other choice do you have?”
I looked at the trays of silver Celtic charms: infinity knot, trinity knot, and the spiral three-swirled triskele (mind-body-and spirit).
“Pick what you like and I’ll make you a bracelet.”
“A bracelet for my son.” What protective force did he need? The triskele with an infinity knot on one side and the trinity on the other. All of them. Talisman to ease his way.
“Go see the tomb,” he said. “It’ll be done when you’re back.”
The portal tomb: Hole of Sorrows. A massive structure on a dandelion dappled limestone plateau overlooking the valley. Two upright stones supported a horizontal stone slab roof, creating a chamber maybe twenty-five feet high. No guards, no entry fee, just a rope encircling it and a sign, “Keep Out.”
The sky was ominously gray. Low, dense, dark clouds. The wind cut through my rain jacket. I thought of my infinitely-distant ancestors trekking up the hill, one step at a time, to mourn and celebrate their dead in this spot. I thought of my father and his grave at the veteran’s cemetery which I’d finally visited last summer. Thousands of white stones in orderly rows. And then suddenly his name, his stone, his grave.
Tá sé imithe ar shlí na fírinne: He is gone on the way of the truth. An Irish phrase for someone who has died. I reached into the grass, plucked a sunny dandelion, kissed it, then tossed it over the rope towards the tomb.
The path down stretches for several miles. Harder going down than climbing up. Unlike an erratic, which is anchored in its place by weight and gravity, I am erratic, clumsy and careless, I try not to skid out or tumble forward. Knees bent. Lean back. Go slow. Resistance as formidable protective force. No need to break an ankle. I check my phone to make sure I can reach the world below should I need help. I have made not-needing-help my stupid prized egotistical possession. Self-congratulatory bullshit: managing just fine thanks on my own, thanks. When I was anorexic and in nihilistic despair about ever getting better, I disdained all help because I was going to fucking die so why waste your time? No–I deserved to die so why waste your time? But that was then. My body is restored and my bipolar brain balanced. I intend to live to one hundred and carry my sorrows with me.
I look at the ground and notice, beside my foot, the improbable spring Gentian. Not meant to be here, to survive this climate, yet it is here and yet it survives, a perennial, returning each year. I kneel for a closer look. Five metallic blue petals with an inner petaled fringe, like a crown, and a white throat. I brush my finger across the flower–a wee soft thing amidst the hard rock.
Another mile and I’m back in the valley on the lane between the humming hedgerows and honeysuckle. A bumblebee bumps from blossom to blossom. Suddenly on the ground in front of me–a small, feathered clump. Closer look. Leopard-speckled breast, brown and gray body, yellow feet askew, and wings outstretched as if in flight. A song thrush. The song thrush can sing one hundred phrases, mimicking other birds’ songs. I nudge it with the tip of my shoe then notice blood blots on the ground by its head. Silent now. I cry.
Earlier in the week, I visited Orla, an acquaintance who lives in the middle of a beautiful nowhere at the very end of a one-lane famine road. Ireland’s west is crisscrossed with these roads built by starving people working themselves to death in exchange for food. Dead ends. Ghost roads.
Orla had set a pot of tea and china teacups on an outdoor table in enormous garden. Lupine, roses, dahlias, foxglove, salvia, lavender, allium. We chatted about her flowers, my struggles with my garden and Georgia’s red clay, and Covid lockdown.
“I was so grateful to be out here,” Orla said. “My son…he died just before lockdown. He was thirty-five. An aneurysm. Right in the house. Took the ambulance an hour to get here.” She turned her cell phone toward me. A video of a young man playing guitar and singing. I watched him strum, listened to his voice–so alive and sure, so clear and deep.
“My son,” she said. “James.” She began to cry. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for the conversation to take this turn.”
“Thank you for showing him to me,” I said.
“Thank you for seeing him,” Orla said.
She rolled a cigarette and took a long drag. I took a deep breath—cigarette smoke, but also lavender, loam, and the meadow beyond. I thought of my own son, budding guitarist and singer, and how close I came to losing him. I pulled out my phone and texted: “I ♥ you.”
Orla stood up. “Ever seen a pine marten?”
“Almost went extinct. Loss of habitat, hunted for its fur, farmers poisoning them. I have one in the freezer. Found him down in the lower road. I’m saving him to bring up to the wildlife lab so they can figure out the cause of death.”
She emerged from a storage shed with a large plastic bag. Inside, a small furry creature– foxlike face, piglike nose, and a white fur collar. Two front paws crossed over each other as if in prayer.
“It looks asleep,” I said and stroked its head. The fur was stiff and cold.
“Hate to think he was poisoned,” Orla said. “But no blood or visible wounds.”
No visible wounds. I thought of Orla’s son, my son, myself.
I am finally at the beach, a long golden arc framed by undulating sand dunes.
Archaeologists discovered evidence of Mesolithic people living in the coastal rocks and dunes more than six-thousand years ago–stone tools, empty shells, and flakes. What did they see when they looked across the ocean? Could they imagine another continent three-thousand miles away? How did they carry on despite their sorrows? I look out into the ocean, at the waves, and imagine my children, my family, my friends, my dog, and yes, my father awaiting my return. Yes, I mind myself now when standing at the edge and alone.
I text my son: “You ok? XXOO”
My phone immediately buzzes. “Yep xoxo” As if he is standing right beside me on this beach in Ireland instead of a beach in Greece.
Yep. The casual affirmative.
I crouch behind the rocks, strip off my clothes, pull on my bathing suit, and run to the shoreline. 53-degree air temperature, 46-degree water temperature. A double dog dare to swim despite the cold. No dithering, no hesitating, get the fuck in the water. And yes, in sight of the lifeguard and in between the flags. Long, quick strides until the freezing water rises over my feet, legs, hips. I stop, feeling the current’s drag at my feet, wobbling balance. Mind yourself. I retreat to shallower water, dunk under. My brain splits in two again: sharp, cold, acute consciousness. Alive. Alive. Alive. A bracing swim to wash off the dust and wear and tear of the long hike. I dry in the wind, peel off my bathing suit, dress, and wander along the shore.
Jellyfish with purple-starred centers lying in the wet sand like constellations. Tangled plastic rope, fishing line, and gull feathers knotted up in clumps of seaweed. Bottle caps and rainbow-colored bits and pieces of plastic. A broken lobster trap with two white buoys attached to the netting. Ahead, though, a white clump, more animal than flotsam and jetsam.
I walk closer.
Dead. Face up.
Half of its body a bloody mash buzzing with black flies. The other half pristine–a long elegant white wing with black-tipped feathers outstretched in the sand. That wing could start flapping and I wouldn’t be surprised.
I walk to the water’s edge and gather dulse, sea grapes, rockweed, and sea lettuce, and drape them across the gull like a grave blanket. I’m sorry your end was so hard, I say. May you find peace wherever you are now. I gather white shells and arrange them in a circle around the gull, and stones in a circle around the shells. A sentimental gesture, but I don’t care. I kneel in the sand: Blessed be the sea gull and the song thrush and the pine marten. Blessed be our fathers and our sons. Blessed be the walkers and wanderers. I rise, brush the sand from my knees, look over the ocean, at the seagulls swooping and caterwauling. I walk on.
Kerry Neville is the author of two collections of stories, Necessary Lies, which received the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Fiction and was named a ForeWord Magazine Short Story Book of the Year, and Remember to Forget Me. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Gettysburg Review, Epoch, Triquarterly, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. Her fiction and nonfiction have been named Notables in Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays. In 2018, she was a Fulbright Fellow at University of Limerick in Ireland, where she was Visiting Faculty in the MA in Creative Writing Program. She is an Associate Professor and Coordinator of the MFA and Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Georgia College and State University.