The wise man, a short story by Donal Ryan

A holiday read - 12 Days of Stories, Day 2: A seasonal love story

Illustration: Morten Morland

Illustration: Morten Morland


He left the seminary in a temper and struck out walking for home. His anger had swallowed his reason. He was wearing tight shoes with hard soles that were worn down unevenly because he had a funny way of walking, a bit bandy-legged. He walked for a whole day and night until he came to the last of his strength and he used that to climb over a gate into a field and across to the bank of a narrow river and he lay down there beneath a willow tree.

He was stretched snoring when she found him, the flesh around his ankles swollen out over the tops of his shoes, his socks matted with blood and pus, his trouser-legs ribboned and caked. His upper half looked more respectable; his jacket and hat were well-worn but of fine quality. He roared when she woke him. She jumped back in fear, then saw that he was barely a man, and that he was frightened.

She walked him slowly along the river bank and over a small wooden bridge and along a path of packed dirt to the back gate of her house. She sat him at a broad table in the kitchen on a high-backed chair and she worked his shoes off his feet slowly, but for all her gentleness he almost passed out from the pain. Tears fell from his eyes; he wiped them quickly away. There was darkness at the sides of his vision, drawing in.

She was kneeling, tutting, cutting his socks away with scissors. Her hair was tied up but the pin was coming loose. Time was moving slowly forward, liquidly it seemed to him. She was wearing men’s trousers and boots and a tweed jacket. She had a pan of water and a glass bottle of some kind of ointment, set on the edge of the hearthstone before the open fire. He tried to straighten himself but he fell forward.

When he woke he was lying on his back on the floor, a coarse blanket over him, a thin cushion beneath his head. She was sitting on the high-backed chair where he had been. She was wearing a blue dress now, dark, nearly the colour of her eyes. The fire had burned low. “You’re awake,” she said. “I couldn’t move you from the floor. I couldn’t wake you. Otherwise I’d have put you up to bed. I have some food for you, and milk. Sit up now at the table.”

She watched him while he ate, quickly, trying to remember his manners. He was embarrassed to be barefoot, save for the bandages she’d put across his blisters.

“Where are my shoes?” he asked her.

“Outside in the yard,” she said. “They’re no good to you any more. I’ll give you a pair of my father’s.”

“Will he not mind?”

“He’s dead.”

“I’m not wearing a dead man’s shoes.”

“Fine,” she said, “go barefoot.” She wasn’t much older than him, two years or three at most, he thought. And yet she seemed possessed of a kind of wisdom, an ancientness, like she was a shape-shifter, a witch in disguise.

She sat with her fingers laced together, examining him, smiling slightly, her head tilted a little, away from the window light. “Tell me who you are,” she said when he had finished his food “And what you were doing in my field?”

“My name is Michael Ryan,” he said. “I’m a seminarian. I was on the way home to my parents’ house. I was tired so I lay down. I’m sorry for troubling you.”

She made no reply, only sat smiling at him, and he noticed how her eyes changed colour with the shifting light as broken clouds passed across the sun. He held her gaze until she lowered her eyes to his hands, and his wild notions about her dissolved, and he knew she was only a girl playing a woman, and he felt bolder.

“Aren’t you taking a terrible chance, allowing me to be in your house? Couldn’t I be any kind of a man?”

She stayed still and didn’t answer him, and the ticking clock grew louder in his ears, and he felt his cheeks burning again. His eyes dropped to the swell of her chest and rested there until he realised where he was looking and so he raised his eyes again and saw a mocking expression on her face and so he closed his eyes altogether in panic, and covered them with his hands.

She had defeated him, without speaking or moving, she had bested him. Maybe she was a witch after all, a piseog, or a fairy queen. Slowly, he lowered his hands.

“Why would it worry me what kind of a man you are? I know enough about you. That you got into some kind of trouble. That you have wounded feet. That you lie down in fields. That you call out for your mother in your sleep.

“I thought you were dead when I saw you first. Until I heard you snoring. It mattered not one bit to me which or whether. In fact it would have been easier had you been dead. I’d have called for someone to take your body away and I wouldn’t have had to prise your shoes off and cut your socks from your stinking feet, or had you land in a faint on top of me.” Her words were clipped and curtly spoken but her voice had a melody to it, a strange foreignness, not English or Irish, or French, even – he had met a Frenchman once at a horse auction with his father – but an otherworldly quality, as though she wasn’t fully present but flitted between this plane and some other, and he found it hard to follow the meaning of her words because the sound of them was so beautiful.

He noticed then a notebook on the table, open to a blank page, and a pen beside it nibbed and inked. He felt as he had when the rector of the college called him to his office. As though he was being studied, like he was a new species, something to be taken apart and looked at from the inside out.

He felt his temper rising, from his stomach to his chest to his head, a sick and burning feeling, and he tried to damp it, to clamp himself shut. He looked past her and up at the mahogany cupboards with their glass fronts, and he noticed for the first time the height of the ceiling, the size of the kitchen, the depth of the bay of the window and the thickness of the curtains. He saw no sign of a Sacred Heart or a Blessed Virgin. It was a Protestant house, he suddenly knew.

He rose to leave. “If you’ll direct me to the resting place of my shoes I’ll be grateful to you, miss. I have to be away now. I thank you for your hospitality and for attending to my feet.”

She seemed taken aback by the abruptness of this, and her eyebrows moved upwards, and something flashed in her eyes, and her mouth opened as though she was about to speak, and her lips, he noticed, were red and full, and her eyes now were the colour of the farthest part of the sea, the blue just below the horizon, and her hair was coming loose again and a strand of it was curled against her cheek, and something happened in his chest, some kind of tightening, and his head felt woolly and his lips were dry, and he wanted to sit back down but now that he had stood he could see no way back to his previous position and his two feet burned beneath him and neither of them would move for him.

“Sit down,” she said. “You can’t go anywhere a while. You’ll have to wait until your feet are healed. What kind of a person sets off walking from Wexford to Tipperary? What sort of an impulse overtook you?”

And he felt his eyes filling with tears, at the thought of home, and his dear parents, and how he’d be the ruination of their joy, because he couldn’t hold his temper, because he couldn’t submit to the canons of prescriptions and proscriptions and leave his self behind and be a vessel for Christ and it occurred to him then that maybe it was the devil had put this woman in his path, that she had some kind of a siren song to sing, to lure him from the course that God had charted. But hadn’t he already knocked the rector on his arse and told him he’d kill him and roared at the top of his lungs that they could all go to hell? There was no going back.

“Sit down,” she said, and her voice was softer now, and she stood and smoothed herself, and walked a step away from the table and stood looking at him and her face was all of a sudden kind, and she said she’d make a cup of tea and as she turned for the stove she was gathering her hair back into a twisted mass and skewering it again with the wayward pin.

And so he stayed. And she told him what her notebook was for. She was writing a play and had all the tools to do so except for one: an idea. She was going to Paris to live on the left bank of the Seine, to be among bohemian people, who had a different sensibility to the people she lived among now. She’d lease the house and land she’d inherited from her parents and she’d live on that income until her plays were staged and she was rich and then she’d instruct her lawyer to realise her assets over here.

She wanted to hear his story, all the things that happened to him up to the point where he had lain down beneath a willow tree to die. “To sleep,” he corrected her.

“Oh, yes, to sleep, of course.”

So he told her all the things about himself that he could think of that might interest her. The parts of his childhood he could recall, about his tall, handsome brother who was to inherit the farm, his brother’s wife who was suspected to be barren because they were three years married now and nothing. The horses his father broke and trained, his sister who’d had a match made for her by distant cousins with a man from Mountshannon. How she’d cried the day after her wedding as they left in a pony and trap, and how her new husband was stony-faced as he shook hands firmly with his father and his brother and him, and how his mother had been quiet in herself a long time afterwards and wouldn’t say a word at all to his father for a month or more.

He told her about his three years in the seminary and how he hadn’t felt the friendship of God down there and how his anger had grown and grown at the things to which he was expected to acquiesce.

They sat each day facing one another in soft armchairs in the drawing room, in the deep bay of the window, and he paused now and again so that she could catch up and he looked across the long garden to the road beyond where every now and then a motor car would buzz past and his eye would be drawn farther out to the distant hills and he’d think of the valley he was from and the gently sweeping sides of it and he’d remember something, some detail from his life, and he’d tell her this thing and her eyes would brighten and widen and she’d sigh beneath her breath and the sun and the clouds would vie with each other for the colour of her eyes.

Every day she wore the same blue dress. It never seemed to crease or grow shabby or worn. A round and red-faced lady cooked for them and did for them each morning and evening and she spoke little but when she did her voice was soft and refined, and he grew ashamed of his frayed clothes and awkward manners and his accent that must have seemed strange and rough.

One evening a new suit appeared in his room and a pair of soft leather shoes and a week of shirts and not a word was spoken about this but he wore the suit and she smiled at him at dinner that first evening and she asked him how his feet were and he said they were fine, they were fully healed, he’d be on his way and he’d send back payment for his lodgings and his board and the suit of clothes. And she was silent a while and still, and she sat across from him looking fixedly at him and a tear escaped her eye and the sight of it moving slowly along her cheek shocked him, and she said, “Please don’t leave me here alone. We’ll write to your parents and tell them you’re working for me, with my horses. Please, Michael, stay. I’ll give up Paris for you.”

They walked some days along the river path and she’d point at the willow tree and laugh about the sight of him there, stretched in the dirt, his bloody shoes poking through the fronds, and he’d feel embarrassed and happy at once. They stood inside the bare cascading branches one cold clear evening and she stepped towards him and took his hands in hers and said, “Do you love me, Michael?”

And he couldn’t answer, no words would come, and he couldn’t look down and into her eyes, and the smell of her filled him and made him feel as though he might fall away, and he felt a tremor in the centre of himself, and she let go of his hands and turned from him and stepped through the fronds and she was gone.

He didn’t walk as far this time, just a good dry morning’s step along the road until he passed across the Kilkenny border and a man offered him a lift as far as Thurles in his lorry if he’d agree to help him unload bags of feed along the way that had been ordered by farmers low on hay after the bad growth that year. He was after twisting his back and had hardly the use of himself at all.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “it’s clean work, you won’t destroy your good suit.” He slept that night in a tiny room at the back of the man’s house and he was given a fine breakfast and a lift was arranged for him in a motor car from a man who turned out to be a cousin of a cousin from Pallasbeg. The man dropped him near Nenagh and wished him a peaceful Christmas and sent regards to his parents and his family and he walked the final miles as the sun reached halfway along its short winter arc.

And finally he stood at the cross of the four roads at the top of the hill and looked down into the valley. A neighbour drew beside him in an ass-drawn car, a man who laboured summers for his father years before.

“Hah, the boy. Back from the wars. Where’s the other two?”

The man’s cap was sideways and his eyes were bright with drink. “What other two?”

“The other two wise men, of course. Isn’t your brother’s wife about to give birth to a little lord below? A Christmas babby, begod. Hop up here and I’ll carry you down. I’ve all the post delivered. We’ll see what’s stirring. Have you no bag?”

And he hupped the ass and gave him a lick of the switch on his matted rump and they moved off across the brow of the hill and down into the valley.

Half the way along the grassy road he put his hand on his neighbour’s arm and said, “Stop. Go on ahead without me. Tell my mother and father you met me and I was well. And I’ll be back for a visit in spring or early summer with my wife. Tell them that, all right? With my wife.”

And before the man could form a reply he slid off the car and onto his feet and started again to walk, back up the hill and onto the main road. A waxing moon lit the earth and the North Star blazed above it. She was sitting in the window looking out. A candle glowed on the low sill, lighting her face and her loosening hair. His feet were blistered sore. He was home.

Donal Ryan’s latest work is A Slanting of the Sun (Doubleday Ireland). The title story won the short story of the year prize at the Irish Book Awards. Morten Morland is a political cartoonist and illustrator.

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