New Zealand Flax, a short story by Eílís Ní Dhuibhne
A holiday read - 12 Days of Stories, Day 11: A touching account of living with loss
The early purple orchids are plentiful this year. So plentiful that Frida wonders if they really are as special and rare as she believes. In her field they’re as common as the other flowers of June, the clover, the buttercups. The yellow one. Bird’s Foot Trefoil, sometimes called scrambled egg. Still, she swerves around any patch of grass graced by the chubby little orchids - turgid, phallic, episcopally purple - but mercilessly slices through buttercups and clover - the latter is the bees’ favourite thing, and smells nicer than the orchids, when the sun shines. Little islands of long grass with an orchid or two dot the ‘lawn’ - that’s not the right name for it. The patch of field that she cuts, so it’s like a pond of short grass in a forest of long rough stuff.
‘Why don’t you get someone to do it?’ Her son is exasperated on the phone. Perhaps a tad guilty? He hasn’t been down here in over a year, to cut grass or do anything else. It’s time to paint the walls, and the windows, and he likes doing that. He says. ‘You shouldn’t be going all the way down there just to cut the grass.’
‘I’ll get somebody,’ she says. ‘Before I leave.’She has figured out, recently, that the best way of dealing with advice from him, or anyone, is to pretend to take it. Some people realise this when they’re four years old, but better late than never. The thing is. Having to cut the grass provides her with a reason for coming down. That’s why she doesn’t get a boy or a man to do it. That, and the cost, although it would most likely cost less than the price of the petrol for the drive down and back. And then, a man or a boy on one of the lawnmowers that look like toy tractors would not avoid the early purple orchids, or the two little hydrangea bushes, or the clumps of New Zealand flax that she planted last year and that have survived the winter storms, the spring storms, and the early summer storms. Barely survived. The spikes of flax look like soldiers who came home from the Battle of the Somme, battered, their skin burnt, and minus a couple of limbs. A man or a boy speeding around the field on a big lawnmower would certainly cut them down. A man or a boy wouldn’t even see them.
Well. There is only one other person on earth who would see those clumps of pathetic flax.
Did she think, on earth?
She wipes the wheels and puts the lawn-mower back in the garage. Just come and take a look, would you. When the sun goes down. The lawn-mower feels wounded. It has been rattled - the grass was more than a foot high, no ordinary lawn mower should have to deal with such stuff, it was a job for a big lump of farm machinery. The blade may have loosened.
After two hours pushing against the gradient, doing the work of a combine harvester, the last thing she wants to do is examine the insides of the lawn-mower. But she forces herself to take a look.
Yes. There is a screw loose on one of the wheels. Now, where does he keep the toolbox?
The grass is so long because she has been away for the month of May. You can’t let the grass grow for the month of May and expect anything other than a hayfield. She’d been in Finland; she’s not sure why. Since this time last year she has travelled to all the countries Elk had ever lived in, or loved. Four or five, the north of the world. There have been different reasons for going to the various countries: a book launch, a 60th birthday party, a conference. A funeral. The ostensible reasons were many. But there was always another reason under the surface and that never varied. Constant as the northern star, it was. Dreams have an overt narrative, which is usually repeating random bits and pieces of your recent conscious experience, and a latent one, a broken record churning out the same old message for all of your life. Apparently her waking life is now operating on the same principle as her dream life. This doesn’t particularly surprise her.
Why travel? To get away from Elk, on the one hand, and to look for him, on the other. Why else go to his places, far flung northern islands and archipelagos, rather than perfectly nice warm countries that might cheer her up? The only reason for the choice, which seemed not like a choice, was that he might be far away in the north, hidden in the deep evergreen forest, or sitting on the edge of a lake, fishing for pike? Or climbing the side of a volcano?
But maybe he’s here, in the south of Ireland, in the cottage in Kerry, in his own study, which he always dignified with the name of ‘library’, or sitting on the side of the ancient volcano at the back of the house, looking out at the Great Blasket?
The red toolbox is in the corner at the back, hidden behind an old dustbin. She takes out a screwdriver and tightens the loose nut. When she is replacing the tool in the box, something catches her eye.
A bottle of wine. Empty? No. It’s a Chablis. 2007?. They must have bought it one year - 2008? - on the way down, from the farm shop in Nenagh where they often stopped for a coffee, and to buy treats. Cheese from France, country butter from Tipperary. Mango chutney with caramelised onions that somebody in Cloughjordan makes. Mostly they drank the wine on the first night. But he must have tucked this one away in the garage for a special occasion and forgotten about it.
Or maybe she did that herself.
Once a year he wanted to drive to Brandon Creek; often on a Sunday afternoon when there was that Sunday afternoon feeling, that mix of nostalgia (for what? For nothing you can put your finger on) and boredom. The sound of football commentaries, wildly excited, from car windows and cottage windows, which filled Frida with a strange ennui, a longing to escape to somewhere, she knew not where, even when she was eight years old. One of the great things about Elk was that he couldn’t care less about football, and didn’t even know that that was an unusual gift, in a husband.
But even so. Let’s go to Brandon Creek. Cuas an Bhodaigh. St Brendan is supposed to have sailed from there, in a naomhóg, and landed in America. But there is another tale associated with it, the story which gives the inlet its name in Irish, and that’s what drew Elk to it. The story of the Big Bodach. The Big Bodach was a rich Kerryman who built a huge castle here on the coast; he had just one son. The Bodach wanted his own name to live forever, and he married the son off as soon as he could to a rich young woman. Then, when everything was in place, he died himself. But fourteen years passed and the couple had no children. Every day in summer the woman went for a swim at Cuas an Bhodaigh. One day, when was drying herself after her dip, a sea man came sweeping in from the ocean and took her in his arms. She fell asleep and when she woke up he was gone. Nine months later she gave birth to a son. He was a wonderful child, clever and handsome, but he had a problem: he could never sleep. Because he was half human and half merman, as only she knew. The Devil’s Son as Priest, it’s called in the international index of tales. Although he’s not a devil; just not human. Not someone you should be consorting with.
Frida reads the story today, for the umpteenth time, in a collection of tales by Peig Sayers. She wants to have the story in her head when she’s looking at the place. It has often occurred to her in connection with the tale that nobody in their right mind would go for a swim in Brandon Creek.
A long narrow inlet, a fjordful of black water, fathoms deep, a ravine, a chasm, loomed over by Mount Brandon at the back and grim cliffs on each side. The creek crashes angrily down, and the water slurps ominously into crevices in the rock. There’s no beach of any kind.
It’s like an entrance to another world - and not a very nice one, if the gateway is anything to go by. You can understand that Brendan, obviously fond of high drama, would sail from here to the unknown, and that a big bodach from beneath the wave, a merman, Neptune, would emerge here. Here, rather than some golden sandy cove or long stretch where children play in the frilly shallows and where any normal woman would go for her daily swim.
Frida parks the car high above the creek, in a sort of layby, and walks down a winding boreen to the water. A young couple are on the way up, the girl with long black hair, the boy a redhead. They are dancing up the road, laughing, sort of waltzing and humming like bees in the sunshine. Or two butterflies.
They don’t see her at all, have eyes only for one another.
At the start of the pier Kerry County Council has a warning: Do Not Enter This Pier if the Sea is high. DANGEROUS. The sea is not high, on this fine summer’s evening. Down to the end of the pier she goes. There’s a car parked on it. People drive the whole way down sometimes; it always amazes her. They’d rather risk drowning than walk a few hundred yards. A man in a navy blue jumper. Hello. A bit cheeky. Lovely day. She doesn’t look at his face, but walks to the end and looks down into the water. It’s not black when you’re beside it. Transparent. You can see right to the bottom. Small fish darting about, in a great rush to go to somewhere. Bubbly kelp, and a huge clump of seaweed with long waving fronds, rather like the New Zealand flax. They say that everything found on land has its match in the ocean. Even that.
Behind her, she can sense the man in the blue jumper. His eyes on her back. She becomes conscious of how lonely it is here, at Cuas an Bhodaigh. Alone at the end of a pier, with deep black water all around. This happens, a lot. She’s in a place she likes, a place that is familiar and was always safe, and she suddenly feels, I shouldn’t be here. Why am I here?
She turns and walks back along the pier and up the winding hill to her car. The man is at the back of his car as she approaches, doing something in the boot. She tries to look carefree as she strides past. ‘Here!’ he hails her again. She jumps out of her skin. There’s a pause, as he eyes her with amusement. ‘Have you any use for crab claws?’ He extends a plastic bag full of them.
‘I’ve more than I need.’
‘Thanks,’ she takes the bag, since that seems to be the easier option. Forces a smile. Elk loves crab claws, and so does she.
‘A treat for your tea.’ ‘Thanks!’ she repeats. ‘We like them. Thanks.’
She walks slowly up the hill. The young couple have disappeared. Before she climbs into her car she looks down at the inlet. The man in the blue jumper is reversing, down the slip, towards the water. She can hear it lapping and slapping against the stone, friendly, before it deepens and becomes a dark other world.
Driving back, southwards through Muiríoch and Baile na nGall and Ballyferriter, through little hayfields and purple slopes, the story is still on her mind. It dawns on her that it’s about a kind of incest. Is the merman the woman’s father-in-law, impregnating her from beyond the grave to ensure his line? Once she spots it, it seems obvious, although Peig doesn’t spell it out. She’ll have to ask Elk. It’s the kind of matter to which he would have given some thought: what really happened in a story about a man who lives under the sea and a woman who never existed.
They’ll have a nice dinner to celebrate the cutting of the grass and the survival of the New Zealand flax. She has the crab claws and the wine. New potatoes and salad and spinach. Lemon and parsley.
She peels the potatoes, puts them on. Slices spring onions and tomatoes; chops parsley. Spreads the white table cloth, and sets it with the best cutlery she can find. Flowers. Buttercups, clover, and two of the orchids, which may be a protected species but since she has saved the lives of about fifty of them today her guilt is minimal. In the small glass jar they look lovely, against the snow of the cloth. When it gets dark - which won’t be till about half past ten - she will light the white candle.
She has Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ beside the CD player for when dinner is served. One of his favourites. One of everyone’s favourites. Now she’s listening to Kathleen Ferrier’s hits although she shouldn’t, because it opens with ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’, a song of longing for a sailor who won’t come home, because he is drowned. Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly, bring my love safely back home to me. And somewhere on the CD - it is towards the end - is Orfeo’s lament for Euridice. What is life if thou art dead? The saddest song in the world. Tradition doesn’t hold back on emotion and neither does opera, though few get as close to the bone as Gluck.
She travels to get away, to look for something, to forget and to remember. But coming home all she wants is to tell him about her travels. Coming home, she realises that the main point of going anywhere is to report back.
Which is why she has invited him to dinner tonight. There are so many aspects of the recent trip to Finland that only he would have the slightest interest in. She wants to ask him about the loan words, how the Finns seemed to drop the ‘s’ from some words they borrowed from Swedish. Kuola from skole, for instance. Tie instead of Stig. And other words which are so strange. He would know why the Finns call a book kirja. You’d expect the word for book to come from Latin, or Greek, or Swedish or even Russian. Where did they get ‘kirja’ from?
Who cares about this sort of stuff?? Elk and Frida. Into the thick goblets from the local pottery she pours the old wine.
Sits down, and raises her goblet. ‘Kippis!’ she says, to the empty chair opposite her. The Finnish for Sláinte!
She sips the wine.
‘It is very good,’ she nods. ‘I can never sort out what the Finns did during the Second World War,’ she says. ‘Can you explain? So I get it straight?’
The sun is still high, in the South-west, over the island they call the Dead Man. Frida prefers the other name, the Northern Island. Euridice! Eurid eeeeeeche.
What is life without your love.
At last the sun starts to sink behind the Northern Isle. Elk loved it when they showed that scene on RTÉ, back in the days when they played the national anthem at close of programming.
The blue of the night.
And when the sun slides down behind the Dead Man he comes out of the library and sits in his own place at the table.
‘Will you have some wine?’ He looks at the bottle as if he has never seen one before. Puzzled, shakes his head. He is like himself. Not pale and thin as he was in the last year, or panic-stricken as on the last days in the hospital, with his horribly swollen stomach and tubes shoved down his throat. He’s wearing his navy blue jumper, which is odd, because that’s the jumper she keeps under her pillow at home in the city.
‘Now you’re here I don’t know what to say to you.’ She leans over to take his hand. His long fingers, thin and agile from a lifetime of typing, like a pianist’s. But he pulls it away, not unkindly. ‘Well.’ She says the first thing that comes to her head. And yet she knows the time is valuable, like the time you’ve got for a job interview. You’ve only got half an hour so don’t waste it saying unimpressive things. ‘I miss you.’
‘Yes, my darling,’ his voice is his voice. Soft, round, robust, male, like a mellow burgundy. Like a purple orchid. It was one of his great attractions.
‘Well, I am glad to hear that, even if it is selfish.’
‘I miss you a lot.’
No need to repeat yourself. ‘Yes, yes. It’s terrible.’ He sighs. ‘But spilt milk.’
‘I went to Finland.’
‘Good for you! Did you learn some Finnish?’
‘Anteeksi! Huomenta! Päivää! Excuse me. Good morning. Hello!’
‘That’s all I learnt.’
‘Did you have a sauna?’
‘Nearly every day. You’d have loved that. We should have got one, for your back.’ He is blurred, like a photograph that is not in focus. Sometimes the photos are like that, on the computer, and then after a little while they swim into clarity.
‘I was listening to that song, Euridice.’
‘Maybe you could find something more cheerful?’
‘I’ve got Abba’s Greatest Hits in the car.’
‘I cut the grass yesterday. I came down specially to do it. It was over a foot long.’
‘My dear little darling.’ Nobody ever calls her that any more. Well, of course not. ‘But you shouldn’t come down here just to cut the grass. Why don’t you get someone to do it?’
‘I will,’ she promises.
There is plenty to tell him. About the funeral. About the tributes, the obituaries, the solemn ones and the funny ones. That he has a new grandchild and their other son is going to get married at the end of the summer. And especially that she has found out how much she loves him, that she always loved him and should have told him that more often. She should have told him that every minute. She needs to tell him these things, and to ask several more questions. Where is his article about ‘The Dead Lover’s Return’? The introduction to the book he was collaborating on with the guy in Galway? Is the Bodach in the story of Brandon Creek the father-in-law of the woman?
What used he do on Sundays, before they were married? That’s before she even gets to the big issues. ‘I got a man to level the field.’ He walks to the window. The field is not actually very level. The man came with a digger or a bulldozer or something and dug it up, then put on some grass seed in last August. It cost about a thousand euro but nobody has noticed that it is any different from before. Apart from Frida herself.
‘It’s very nice, my darling!’ He doesn’t comment on the three New Zealand flax plants. She points them out to him, down by the septic tank. They look like nothing. Like a few rushes that the lawn mower missed.
‘They’re a bit scrawny but they’ll get bigger and make a shelter belt and then I can grow other things.’
‘That will be just lovely, won’t it?’ He can be ironic and kind at the same time.
There is one thing she really has to tell him. She can’t say it so she puts on the CD and the voice comes pouring into the dim room.
‘What is life if thou art dead?’
He leans over, and his face is close to her, his woollen jumper. ‘Dear darling. I miss you too.’ He looks around the room, at the fire-place and the bookshelves. The picture of Peig. ‘I miss everything. And there is so much work I didn’t get done.’ For the first time his face is sad.
‘But you don’t want to come with me.’ ‘I do.’
It strikes her that this is the solution. It’s simple.
‘No, dear darling. You went to Finland. You cut the grass. And you’ve planted those ... scraggy things!’
‘New Zealand flax.’ He laughs.
‘Yes, New Zealand flax! You’ve got to look after the New Zealand flax, and make sure it grows big and beautiful.’
Frida doesn’t know why it has that name; probably some sort of cloth can be made from it. But it looks nothing like ordinary flax, that misty blue corn which you never see any more and from which rare and lovely linen is made. New Zealand flax is not blue, and the flowers it gets look like brown withered prunes. It seldom flowers in this climate, and the leaves look like green spears, rusty from the west wind, with pointed tips that cut you if you touch them. There’s only one reason for planting it.
‘It survived the winter!’
‘Yes, my darling, it survived the winter.’
He gets up. ‘Don’t go.’
Please don’t go. ‘Yes, I must go. Before the sun rises. You know the rules!’
He walks towards the door. ‘The sun won’t rise for ages.’
‘It has already risen in Finland.’
She runs after him. ‘Will you come back?’
He turns. ‘One of us had to go first. That’s the way it is.’
They warn you. Till death do us part. You hear it but you don’t take it in. The small print. You throw it away, into the bin, like the wrapping paper on a beautiful present. He puts a hand towards her shoulder, but not on it. If only he could hold her in his arms for one second!
‘Make the most of the time you have left. It will be over soon enough. There’s plenty of work to do.’ He winks. ‘You can do mine, if you don’t want to do your own.’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I will.’ He always gives good advice.
Imagination is supposed to be a great thing. A gift. It can conjure up, it can invent. But its creations are as nothing, really, compared to the real thing. The man on the pier didn’t reverse into the water. He attached a rope, which was dangling from the back of his car, to a small boat in which he must have been out before she came, fishing for the crabs. And he pulled it up after him, to dry land.
Eílís Ní Dhuibhne writes in both Irish and English. Her short story collections include Blood and Water, Eating Women is Not Recommended, Midwife to the Fairies, The Inland Ice, The Pale Gold of Alaska and The Shelter of Neighbours. She received the Irish Pen Award for an Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature in 2015.The novel The Dancers Dancing (Blackstaff Press, 2000) was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her next novel for young people, Aisling, will be published in autumn 2015. Eílís worked for many years as an assistant keeper in the National Library of Ireland. She is now Writer Fellow in UCD (University College, Dublin) where she teaches on the MA in Creative Writing. She is a member of Aosdána.
This story was first published by Tramp Press in A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance – a short story collection edited by Belinda Mckeon exploring the many ways in which it is possible to feel far from home, by award-winning international short story writers.