Stories make us feel less alone, which is especially important at a time like this
The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might dream along with you, and in this way memory, imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head
Tim O’Brien – The Things They Carried
Joe chose his visiting times carefully.
“Early afternoon was best,” he said. His father was usually alert at this time of day and his mother had completed her chores. They would be resting in their chaise recliners, either side of the charcoal cast iron stove, the forked flames visible through the toughened glass door panel. The perfect setting in which to tell a story.
“I don’t bring cakes or flowers,” he said, but I do like to bring a story.”
Joe and his parents lived separately on the far end of the Renvyle Peninsula, a wildly beautiful piece of land that juts out into the Atlantic. I had called him to ask about his father. It was the middle of the second lockdown. The summer visitors had gone home, all but the most essential shops and services were closed, and the weather was mostly wet and windy. Joe’s father was growing frail, he had poor mobility, his speech was almost gone, eating was a struggle, and he slept a lot.
“It passes an afternoon,” Joe said, “a break from Covid.”
I asked him if he would tell me his most recent story. I too, wanted to forget the pandemic, if only for a while.
Joe needed little persuasion. “It’s an interesting one,” he said, and he began.
“I was at the bog, stacking the last of the turf, a few weeks ago. It was getting dark and there was no one around. I am the only lunatic who goes there at this time of year. I was circling the stack of turf, throwing the last of the clods into a pile and tidying the place up when I noticed two figures in the distance. As I said, I have never seen another soul up there, so I stopped my mooching and stood waiting for them to get closer.”
As Joe spoke, I could see him alone on the bog, his hair in a low bun, sticking out from underneath his woolen cap; black gilet zipped to his chin; brown hiking boots under green khaki trousers. I could hear the wind and smell the turf, could see the light fade from the Connemara sky and the Twelve Bens turn from blue to grey in the late afternoon.
“The two boys approached,” Joe continued, “so I walked out to meet them. I knew them both, a local archaeologist, and his companion. They were as surprised to see me as me them. Their story was that they were looking for an ancient well that they believed was somewhere in the general vicinity. I had been over most of that ground and I had never seen a well. Nevertheless, I decided to join them and the three of us set out across the windswept bog in the dwindling afternoon light. We were about to give up, when suddenly the wind calmed, the landscape changed from brown to stony grey, and there in the distance, like an oasis in the desert, was a patch of green fertile ground, out of which grew a cluster of trees, eerily still and silent except for the occasional tweet of a winter starling or thrush. And under the trees, a large grey stone slab, atop the ancient well. Three thousand years old, and God only knows when the last time was that any human set foot there. St Ceannanach’s Well. If we were believers, we would have been on our knees.”
Joe paused briefly before continuing. “My mother was very interested,” he said, “but my father’s eyes were closed, and I thought he was sleeping until I noticed him rousing himself. He asked me did I know who St Ceannanach was and I told him I did not. With all the energy he could muster, he told me that he was a missionary saint in the fifth century who fell afoul of a local king and got himself beheaded. But immediately his head fell to the ground, he bent down, picked it up, washed it in the waters of the well, then carried it to the neighboring village, lay down, and died.”
Joe explained that in his day, his father would have had much more to contribute, but he was grateful for this temporary connection, this glimpse of his father as he used to be. As I put down my phone, the words of Tim O’Brien came to mind and I thought about how stories do indeed help us dream along with each other and how when we emerge from this dreamlike state, we do not feel quite so alone.
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