MY DEAREST KATIE,
Do you remember that evening we flew together from Burlington in Vermont to Saint Paul in Minnesota? Do you remember how the wind came in off Lake Champlain and cut through the streets of Burlington like a sawblade, the snow blistering somewhere out over the lake? We flew just ahead of the snow and when we looked out the window of the plane we saw the aurora borealis. I got so excited, it was such a spectacular thing, like a rainbow that had been let loose and was dancing, and I said, like the whole sky moving to the music of Waldteufel’s “Skater’s Waltz.” It was one of the most wonderful sights I ever saw, and do you remember how you laughed at me, you who had seen this sight often before? You began to give me a rational explanation of what I was looking at, something about the crashing together of energy-charged particles with atoms, or some such, at a very high altitude?
I did not pay much attention then to your rational approach to such things. But it has worried me a little since then. Now, let me go on with what I need to say to you, dearest Katie.
A few days ago I was out in the back garden, just standing there, really, minding my own business, but deeply sad as I saw the Café au Lait dahlias Helena had planted, and how the autumn dying had blackened the edges of the pure white of the petals. I knew that another year, the third, had gone by since we lost your mother to cancer. Whether it was the sadness I felt that came over me like a weakness, or something far more threatening that came to a conclusion within my poor old body, I am not sure, but I simply collapsed onto the wet grass of the lawn, as if the life had been sucked out of me all of a blow and left me empty and crumpled up about myself. And yes, Katie, I’ve been to Dr. Weir, and yes, I am going in for tests tomorrow. I will not phone you; why should I worry you? I know you have serious business to attend to over there in Minneapolis. I’ll write when I get some results. But I have very strong intimations…. So, I am writing this letter which I will leave somewhere for you, when you come back to see me down.
Let me begin by going away back to my own early days. To the little church in Bunnacurry. A day when Father Tiernan was moving slowly along the line. The altar rails were white marble with wandering lines through them of reddish-brown, like rust, like veins in an old man’s hands. He was murmuring over each boy in turn: “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” Now I know, Katie, you being so bright, you know what that means: “Remember, man, thou art but dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”
What got me about it all was that word “man,” for we were a line of boys out of school for the morning, to get the ashes on our foreheads. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, of fasting from all that we held sweet and delightful. Now we were supposed to enter into a tunnel of misery. But the cheeriness of it all, that ceremony, that got me, too. How meaningless it was, and that was why I found it hard not to laugh out loud when Packie MacRory, who was acolyte for the morning, stood just a little behind Father Tiernan and held the saucer of black ashes for the priest. For when Father Tiernan came to me, Packie crossed his eyes and made a face at me. I held firm. If I laughed it would have had me in serious trouble with Brother Sebastian.
Father Tiernan had an old cork; somebody had fixed it so the top of the cork stood out in the shape of a cross. We were left with a smudged, vague shape of that cross on our foreheads. In black ash. And we were in trouble, too, if we wiped it away. Afterwards. Or lifted our faces to the rain on the way back to school, so that it would wash off naturally.
At playtime we compared crosses. I never seemed to have a good one. It was too smudgy, or else it was not black enough.
It was a great tragedy when Packie MacRory was drowned off Achill Head that summer. Caught in the current and swept off out to sea before any of us had an idea what was going on. That same summer. The withholdings of Lent well over. Easter gone by. The holidays just begun. They found Packie’s body away down the coast several days later. Not dust, by all accounts, but sodden and bloated and dreadful.
I always hated Ash Wednesday, from then out.
Be patient with me now, Katie, for I think it is important that I tell you all of this. I hope I have been a good father to you. I know I never really sat you down and talked deep moral things with you; you always were so busy, and then, of course, I have always been such a diffident old guy. I have wanted to tell you about the wonder of it all, of incense, and swallows, and field mice, the wonder of the hollyhock, of a cliff-face, of jellyfish…for you always seemed to have your head turned to figures, and business, and profits and losses. Always on the move. Always busy. As if time were at your back, moving faster than all of us, and wielding a whip. Anyway, let me go on.
When Grandfather Ted disappeared upstairs one day, my father said nothing to me. I’m sure he should have explained, just like I should have said things to you over the years. But, perhaps like myself, he trusted that life will be the best teacher. In the long run. Anyway. Ted’s place in the fireside chair was left empty. Nobody took to sitting in it. It seemed wrong. It felt wrong, too, when I sat in it, those times the kitchen was empty and nobody would notice. Father said, much later, that Ted was taken sick. They had no name for the sickness. There was no word for it I could use to tell the class, when they asked. Nor Brother Sebastian. When he asked.
When Father Tiernan was brought upstairs one day, and there were strange goings-on above, I was told to stay in the kitchen and be quiet. I stayed by the fireplace, looking in at the vermilion colors, the reds, the grays, the blacks. Sometimes I’d take the long poker and watch a small dusting of yellow ash mixed with the tiniest of sparks falling down through the grate. They were a long time upstairs.
I found a real terror in myself the morning they buried Grandfather Ted. A few old women, as old as Ted was, started a kind of wailing and crying as they were lowering the big coffin down into the hole. There was a misty rain drifting in over the graveyard. It was very cold. I think the wailing was in Gaelic, but I couldn’t get any of the words. They stopped suddenly, and seemed not to be really upset, for they began chatting and murmuring amongst themselves. I saw a man drop a full bottle of whiskey down on top of the coffin in the grave. Puzzling, that was. Then we, all the members of Ted’s family, down to us, the grandchildren, had to step up to the grave, take a handful of the clay that was piled up, and let it drop into the grave. There were a few tiny pebbles and knobbly bits in the clay I gathered and when it fell on the coffin the noise was horrid, like a dry rattling cough in the back of an old man’s throat. I huddled away against the cold of it.
I took to the learning of French in the latter days of my undistinguished university career. I was a studious type, but a tincture slow. In my final year, it seemed like a good idea to learn another language, as it looked as if the job scene at home wasn’t too bright. I took classes in the evening. And it was there I met Helena for the first time. Well, not met, not exactly. She was beautiful and I was still a slogger, particularly when it came to relationships with the opposite sex. Didn’t know my eyebrow from my shoe, what to say, how to stay in the presence without falling down, or knocking something over. So I gazed at Helena from afar. And she caught me, betimes, at my gazing. And I could feel myself blushing like an overripe plum. Sexy, she was that, too, but unselfconscious about it, far as I could tell.
We were learning French, but I wasn’t making great headway. Anyway, there was a big, black-haired smoothie guy who was handsome and extrovert and good at everything. He wasn’t long in laying his masculinity on Helena. She seemed pleased. Now and again she caught me looking at her wistfully, and more than wistfully. Now and again I said “bonjour” to her, to save me from having to say something in English. I felt like dust before her. She seemed always just to bustle by me, leaving me stuck with my own embarrassment.
That final summer of my nonbeing I went to France for a month, basically to smooth out the few phrases of French I had picked up. I went as a volunteer, a Little Brother of the Poor, if you don’t mind, a title I felt suited me. There were about twelve of us, young lads from various countries, along with a few local whelps from the town, Châtillon-sur-Seine it was, a fair distance south of Paris, where there was a château, and in this fine old house a large group of not-well-off elderly French men and women were given a holiday for themselves. It was our task to serve them, help them, even chat with them. And they were lovely old creatures, modest because they were poor, gentle because we were young and foolish, and helpful with the language because they were beginning to lose the use of their tongues themselves.
A few things bothered me while I was there. Firstly, the bats. We, the Little Brothers, slept in basement rooms that had once been the cellars of the château. It was dark down there; our rooms were no bigger than monks’ cells, and the corridors between were long and low and dark, and the bats scuttered about the corridors, flying low and erratically and squealing like hurt mice, before heading off out into the night to do their mischief.
The other thing was cheese; that almost killed me. The little old dears, after their dinner every evening, were offered cheeses, and I was given the task of wandering about amongst the tables with an enormous tray of cheeses, most of which, to my eyes and nostrils, looked and smelled abominable. I had to hold the tray well out from my face and stand well back as the old creatures cut and sliced and dribbled their way among the putrid and putrefying stuffs. And then there were the old dames; so many of them—being in a château, dining fine, wines and cheeses available—did themselves up of an evening and this doing up consisted mainly of cementing their old faces together with various talcum powders. That was fine, in itself, and I couldn’t object. But they were elderly; some of them shook. They often sneezed. And I found myself sneezing, too, but unable to stop, as if I had developed some kind of allergy to the talcum powders that rose in soft, small clouds from them, if they coughed, sneezed, or stumbled. It was as if, as they moved, they were leaving little wakes of dust after them. Memento homo…remember?
There was excitement, too. One of the local bright guys, a man called Léon, had a fine old deux chevaux, a bit of a banger, loud and cantankerous, but willing. On our evenings off, Léon would bring some of us—and he seemed to take to me, particularly—into the town and try to make us drink the strange French drinks, the cocktails and strongly colored drinks the French dip into to keep their spirits up. I was not too good at that, and stayed, almost always, with Vittel and a small tincture of menthe through it. I liked that. It was easy, piquant, and tasted sweet. Then, often quite late, we headed in Léon’s car to the park in the center of the town; Léon would stop directly up against one of the fences of the park, in under the plane trees. We’d all sit quietly and wait. Inevitably, a young man and his young woman would come, sit on a bench, and try a bit of canoodling together, to my great embarrassment, God help me. Léon would wait until things began to get a bit hotter. Then suddenly he’d flash on the headlights and make the poor lovers deeply uncomfortable. They quit the place at speed, and Léon laughed uproariously. Then we would head out for the château, down long country lanes, none too wide, none too straight. Léon had the habit of suddenly turning off all the lights and letting the car coast along through the dark for as long as he dared. He scared the life out of me. I was too scared and shy to challenge him, or to refuse to join him on his escapades. Dust. I was made of dust. Scared of my own flesh, inhibited in my own living.
I went back to my French classes at home. Helena was still there. So was Mister Big. One evening, the teacher asked us individually what we had done over the summer, and we were to present our little talk in French. Mister Big, of course, had gone to Toulouse, sailing, and he gave of his adventures in fairly fluent French. Yachts, and evening receptions, and dances. Such heady stuff. Impressive. Helena had spent a few weeks in Paris, with an aunt. It didn’t sound too exciting, but she spoke modestly, and I fell in love all over again, this time with the way she spoke French. It got right into my blood. I stuttered my way through my story, telling of the old folk, their kindliness, and of the château, the cheeses, the bats. I kept it as short as I could. But, on the way out that evening, after the class, Helena came up to me and said she had found my story lovely and terribly interesting, and asked me if I had time to go for a drink. There was no sign of Mister Big.
I was all awkwardness in the pub, though I managed to buy her a drink. It was a rum and coke—how could I ever forget?—and she always wanted a good slice of fresh lime in it. I took a simple soda myself, being scared of anything stronger. I could not believe I was talking to Helena, and that she had initiated the evening. She was more beautiful up close. And modest about her beauty, and her life. Within minutes I felt more relaxed and found I could talk coherently. I did not mention Mister Big. Nor did she. She asked me to tell her more about the Little Brothers of the Poor, and the château, the old folk, and the town nearby. And I was almost fluent, surprising myself. And enjoying it all. Then I asked her about Paris. She laughed.
“No,” she said. “I never went to Paris. I made it up. I had to get a summer job, to keep my flat here in Dublin. I watched a few movies set in Paris, and I listened to a few tapes. But your story really impressed me.”
I relaxed even more. We were getting on very well indeed. She could see I was nervous and she tried to put me at ease. We didn’t stay long. I hesitated. So did she. Then I blurted it out: could I meet her again? Perhaps go to a play or something? She laughed aloud, and her beautiful face set my whole body ringing.
“I thought you’d never ask me,” she said. “I was hoping you would. That old phony, Bill, the big guy, you know him? He kept nagging me. I couldn’t stand him. Then I got tired waiting for you to make a stir.”
When I told her that I had felt I was nothing but dust beneath her feet, she laughed, heartily.
“Well,” she said. “You’re pretty good at giving dust a tongue.”
Do you know what I did, dear Katie, astonishing myself and making Helena giggle like a little girl? I took the slice of lime from her glass, when she was finished, of course, told her how much I loved the lime sweets in a Cadbury box of chocolates, how I always thought lime was a dangerous white fertilizer the farmers spread on their lands, and then I rubbed the lime all over my palms and fingers, loving the smell of it. And then I almost died, for Helena took my right hand, lifted one of my fingers and licked it, laughing like a little bold girl. Oh dear, oh my. Guilty of dust, indeed.
You know the rest of the story, Katie, and let me tell you, and I know you know this, too. She loved you with all her heart, soul, and body. It has always puzzled me, this negative thing that seems to grow between mother and daughter, an antagonism, though Helena did nothing but love you, want to bring you to the fullness of your own lovely self, and that was all. I know you always knew it, but failed to know how to express it, and sometimes I think the antagonism you showed to her, and never to me, was your way of telling Helena how much you really did love her.
We met a few times after that night in the pub, and I realized I had a girlfriend. The world became light for me on Ash Wednesday, that same academic year. She and I both turned up at our French class, our foreheads marked with the black ash.
“Are you scared of death?” she asked me that evening.
“Oh yes, I hate the thought of it. Memento homo, quia pulvis es. Dust thou art, and all that. It’s dreadful.”
She was quiet, then, for a while. When she took out a fine handkerchief from her handbag and dipped one end of it into her rum and coke and lime, she quickly rubbed the ashes off her brow. Then she reached towards me. She hesitated. She put the handkerchief back in her bag. Then she licked the tips of her second and third fingers, leaned over, and gently rubbed the ashes off my brow. Then licked her fingers and laughed again, a naughty, most beautiful girl. I shivered with the delight of it.
“Come on!” she said. She brought me back, for the first time, to her flat. When we reached the foot of the stairs, inside the complex, she turned to me.
“We’ve shaken the dust off ourselves,” she said to me. She took my hand. She turned towards the stairs and began to lead me up. “Now you won’t be scared. I won’t be scared. I’m going to bring us both to the very edge of eternity and we’ll never dread the dust or ashes again.”
And she did. We loved well, and long. We had a splendid, even a magnificent, life together. She was the beginning, the middle, and the end of my living. The cancer was hard, but we fought it together. It was a hopeless struggle but we had never loved so well as when we fought that wickedness, as one. You were in Detroit, at your important corporation work. We knew that, and we were not sure at all that the end was so close when I called you. I tried to soften it all. We did not think you needed to come home, then, and if you had rushed home, poor Helena would have known that I expected her to die. So, forgive me that failed subterfuge; I think I harmed both you and her with my diffidence. When she died, I thought my life had ended, too. I gathered her dust from the undertakers. I brought her home. She is still with me. Every so often I take just the moistened tip of my finger, and touch her dust. Then I rub it on my tongue. Sometimes, too, on a dreary evening, I will take a slice of lime and rub it all over my hands and fingers, lick its sweet bitterness, smile to myself again. She is part of my blood. Part of my body. Part of my very soul.
Now, darling Katie, here is what I pray you will do for us both. When you read this, I will be gone. You will have me cremated. You will bring home my dust. You will mingle my dust with the dust of Helena, mingle us well together. And then you will take us back to the headland on Achill Island, there, over beautiful Keem Bay. You will do this on a clear night when the stars are in their bewildering multitudes above you. There will be a gentle breeze coming in off the Atlantic. You will stand a while and listen to us whisper to you from where we are, for we will be together. And this will be our last gift of love to you, for the heart, Katie, has reasons that reason will never divine.
And this I ask, especially, Katie darling, this, too, I ask you to consider. Bring Jack with you. Yes, I know, he’s a simple country lad, not all that bright, not all that enterprising. But he’s a fine, gentle, truthful man and there’s more in this world, Katie, than compiling reports for your fine corporation, more to the world than filling up your bank balance and buying your bonds and investing in your shares. He’s open, Katie, open to the wonder of the world, open to the truth and marvel of it all, and he loves you, Katie, and love is a wonder in itself.
Dearest Katie, this is what I ask. You will look up at the sky, its symphonic score of stars, and you will know it is as uncommunicative as the past, the way music written down is uncommunicative, until you touch upon it, drawing out the music, sounding it. In a gust of that lovely breeze you will let our mingled dust fall out into the world again, letting the breeze take it as it will. It will be, then, as if ours is a fall upwards, and we go tumbling on and on forever, getting nowhere and everywhere at the same (timeless) time, hearing the music of it all, of the earth and the sun and the moon, hearing the harmonies of the spheres, and being part of it, a note, a sound, true to the harmony, true to the creation, true to the Creator.
Katie, with all my love, and all my blessings,
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.