Then we turned off our flashlights.
The stable was made of stone, and Daniel's two windows touched the ground. We rustled through the ivy and crouched down by a window. In the dark, between the leaves, fumes were rising of wet earth. The stone was musty as we leaned into it. The curtains were drawn. We could hear him practicing his Beethoven sonata, repeating four notes over and over. He would probably do this until two or four in the morning. He was in his own solitary world, but the light edging the curtains was warm.
Mónica and I smothered our giggles and shushed each other. Then she picked up a stick and scraped against the glass.
He continued playing.
"Wait -- sh, sh." I took my fingers and pattered across the window.
Then I tapped louder. Daniel's practicing stopped abruptly.
We snickered, bit our hands. Mónica ran over to the second window, and knocked. Then I reached out, and with five fingers extended, drew my nails slowly -- icily -- torturously down to the very base of the glass. I flayed one pane, and then another.
Suddenly the light in his room shut off. Mónica and I jumped up and ran backwards, stifling merry frightened squawks. We hid behind a fuchsia bush, waiting to see his curtains yank open. I felt anxious tingles in my belly, like little popping stars. We held onto each other and watched the windows.
But -- nothing. Finally we pulled away from each other.
"Has he gone to bed?" I whispered.
"Maybe he didn't hear us," Mónica wondered.
"Could he not have? Maybe he stopped only to brush his teeth." The bathroom was outside his bedroom, in the hallway. "And then came back and went to bed."
We looked at each other, shrugged, and began making our way back to the Big House, keeping our flashlights off. But I was starting to feel uneasy. The sky was deep blue, Méabh's cape of velvet. We stumbled through the moss and violets in silence.
Finally Mónica said,
"Maybe Dani is not okay."
My stomach turned over. "I was wondering that, too." Then I turned gustily on my heel and flipped on my flashlight. "Yeah, no. Let's go check." I shored up my courage. "We might as well tell him it was us. Come on," and we ran this time, to the front of the stable.
We squeaked open the door and banged our way into the hall. It was comprised of a staircase to the second floor, Daniel's bedroom door, and Daniel's bathroom, which was empty. The entire stable was shrouded in darkness, and smelled like flagstone and spiders. We knocked on his door.
We pushed our mouths at the crack. The door was solid oak. We rapped, pattering our fingers up and down the panels. "Honey-dolly," Mónica called.
"He is asleep!" I said irrationally.
"Baby flower," she cooed.
We heard nothing from the inside, and it stayed dark. Real chills started spiraling down my body. In a sudden motion, I lurched forward and tried his latch --
-- but we heard a rustle above our heads. At the landing of the stairs, a white figure appeared.
Daniel was wavering in the shadows.
"Sarah?" he ventured. "Mónica?"
She went to the bottom of the stairs. "Dani," she rebuked drolly. "What are you wearing? You are in your pants. It is just us."
"Thank heaven you're here," he whispered tensely. "Did you get my texts?"
"No," I said, "we left our phones in my room."
"Then you heard my astral call for help in your spirits. Oh, thank Brigid and all the saints."
I saw Mónica's neck turn stiff.
Daniel continued, "Girls, I have to tell you what I've just been through. For the past fifteen minutes I've been ringing you and texting you, and when I didn't hear back --"
"You didn't hear back," I laughed, not able to let him go further, "because it was us."
He looked down at me.
"What do you mean it was you?"
I smiled. "I mean it was us making those sounds."
Daniel regarded me. Both of us. Then, in one short motion, he turned on his heel and was gone.
No words had been spoken, but there was something in the way his head went first and his body followed, a swift flick like a thrush's wing into the gloom -- that left his agony in a wake on the landing and all over my body.
I reeled backwards and my hand went to the door. But Mónica moved forward as soon as he had disappeared, her foot striking the lowest step -- pleading, "Dani!"
And I followed her, one moment behind.
When I mounted the staircase, I dimly registered their shapes across the room. The second floor was used as a hall for concerts. There was an old piano and stacked-up chairs, all making grisly figures in the dark. Daniel was backed into a corner, his elbows bent, his skinny arms up. His fists and his thumbs were going into his chest.
Mónica was already hovering over him, her body supplicating, protective. Saying something. I approached and whispered, "Oh, Daniel --"
He looked at me, and his eyes were electric in the moonlight, slanting through one small window -- and he pronounced us several choice Irish words.
"We deserve that," I said humbly. But Mónica's mouth became tight.
"I know it."
"How --" he spat out -- "did you even think of it. What put it into your mind? I mean, how. Were you just sitting there, and thought, 'Let's go tormenting Daniel, because we're bored'?" His voice clawed at us. "Is that what?"
Mónica said, "Dani, we did not --"
"It was my idea," I interrupted. "Mónica protested."
"No," she said stoutly. "It was both us."
Daniel stepped back and pressed his hands into a table's edge. On the surface, a box of cutlery rattled. "If this is how my friends treat me, I don't even know what to do. I've been through the wringer in my life, but I didn't expect it from you two. Do I even know you?"
His lash landed. I looked down, at his waist. His skin was translucent. And there was too much starkness between his soul and myself. I had nothing more to say.
"You know what," Daniel suddenly dropped his hands, "I can't talk about this right now. I need to finish practicing and go to bed. I have to learn that piece before Saturday."
I said, "Please let us --" as the three of us went too fast down the stairs.
"Don't even try right now."
"But I want," I panted, when we reached the first floor, "want to sit with you or something -- until you feel better. Comfort -- make sure that you're --"
"I can't be any worse than I was twenty minutes ago," Daniel snapped wryly. He was holding his key to the lock. "Frankly I'm too mad to be scared right now, Sarah. I think you drained all the fear I have inside."
"I don't -- I don't want --"
I didn't know what to say, and my voice was catching. But Mónica was silent as a stone behind me.
"I mean, I don't feel that I should leave you."
"No. It's all right," Daniel said. Then softly: "In all honesty I don't want to see either of you for a bit."
"Yes." I sidled up against the stable door. "I get that." My hands behind my back lifted the rope-latch.
But Mónica took the rope out of my hand, and lifted it, and was gone -- without even a backward look at Daniel.
I paused in the doorway.
"I am so, so sorry," I said in the smallest voice.
Daniel flicked on his bedroom light. He stood in the door frame, silhouetted. "I'm sure I'll forgive you," he said, "in time."
Then I ran out into the yard, where moonlight was puddling across the cobblestones and capering with the weeds, but I barely noticed. Mónica was already stalking towards the house. I jogged over to her.
Leaning closer, I whispered, "Well, that went worse than I was expecting," in a conspiratorial tone.
"¿Quién se cree que es?" she exploded, crushing a violet under her boot. "Sí, estaba asustado. ¿Pero cree que puede hablarme así?"
"Oh, no," I groaned, pulling back. "You've reverted to Spanish."
But she switched back once we were inside, asking, "Do you want a tea?"
We sat down in the kitchen with our mugs, and the windows were fogging up in the corners. The stars were wheeling slowly from pane to pane.
Across the table, Mónica's spirit felt stern. She would only look at her hands, cupping her mug. Her bottom lip was pushed out.
Finally she let down her shoulders, and unhinged her mouth.
And exhaled several Spanish and English curses combined.
"All of those," I agreed.
She clucked. "Poor Dani."
I turned my mug for a hotter spot. "I don't think he is ever going to forgive us."
"No. He will tomorrow," she said. "Or maybe the day after. Or the próxima --"
"-- the next week. But he will."
"I don't know," I ventured. "We used to do stuff like this all the time as kids, so I wasn't really thinking. I do feel bad. But in some sense it was kind of funny. Don't you think?"
Mónica shook her head at her tea, her spirit iron again. "It was wrong for to do," she said.
* * *
The next day I was eating a late breakfast in the Beatha kitchen.
Dressed in an over-sized sweatshirt and my polyester pants, I was grubby from gardening. My wrists were dirty, and I was digging into a bowl of porridge.
The door suddenly squeaked and popped open. (The door through which I met Daniel, only a few months before.)
He walked in. I looked up, and his irises were rimmed with a darker blue than usual. An embering.
He glanced at me. "Good morning." He directly went to the electric kettle and snapped the button down.
It sprang up immediately.
"It's boiled already. Before you say anything," I preempted, "I want you to know that I've decided that you're allowed to do whatever you want to me for the next twenty years. With no repercussions from me whatsoever."
"Oh, I will." Daniel took down his favorite mug from its hook. It was an orange lion, with a tail for a handle.
"Or even make it twenty-five." Then I added, cajoling, "I bet you'd be terrifying if you really wanted to be."
He dipped a teabag in and out, and squared his eyes at me. "You don't want to test it."
"I'm sure I don't want to," as he carried his mug over to the table. "I really am sorry, Dan. We both are. I don't know why I have that side to me. It's not a nice streak at all. I've been like that since I was a kid."
"No, I woke up this morning and decided to take the high road," Daniel said, sitting down across from me, "and forgive you both."
"Thank you," I said. "I don't deserve it."
"I know you don't." He held his mug between two hands. Then he looked up with his full-moon eyes. "Sarah, do you want to hear something I did before you and Mónica found me?"
But his voice was warmer.
So I leaned my chin on my hand. "Yes. Tell me what you did. If it tortures my conscience more, all the better."
"Well, I was looking for a weapon."
"You were looking for a weapon?" I pulled my head back. Then I bit my lip. "Though I guess I would have, too."
"But I didn't have time to find anything in my room. I wanted to get out of there before the murderer could come around through the stable door."
"Right." I squirmed. "That makes sense." I clanked my spoon repeatedly against my empty bowl.
"I didn't even stop to get dressed. That's why I went out in my pants," he explained.
Pants is the Irish word for boxers.
"But, wait." I stopped clanking. "Hold up. Does that mean you were practicing piano in your pants?"
"Irrelevant," he said.
"Okay," I said. "Continue."
"Do you know where Sebbie keeps that box of cutlery upstairs, for the concert dinners?"
"Well, I was looking for a knife, but there weren't any knives. So I grabbed --" he paused -- "a wooden spoon."
"Wait." I held up my hands again. "Wait. Wait, wait, wait."
I couldn't seem to say anything else, so Daniel in turn invited, "Continue?"
I pinched my fingers together. "No, I'm just trying to comprehend this." Suddenly my face contorted. A spasm went through my torso, but I made no more sound than a squeak. "You're saying you were going to defend yourself against a potential murderer with a spoon."
"Oh, I'm not saying I had any delusions I would defend myself with success," Daniel answered coolly. "I knew I was going to die. But I got it and hid behind the table anyway. And I decided, as I was crouching there in my pants with my piddling weapon, that if these were going to be my last moments, I would go down swinging."
I lurched forward and banged my forehead into the table.
"-- Eejit!" he said.
"I swear I'm not laughing."
"It's just --"
I lifted my hands and stacked my two fists in wordless imitation of holding a spoon.
Then I broke down again. "With your -- and in your --" Then I caterwauled. "Oh, no. No. No, no, no. I can't deal. I promise, after this, I'm going to feel guilty and pity you my entire life," I gasped. "But not just now. You shouldn't have painted that so vividly. I can't -- I can't handle -- I can't. A sp-sp-sp-sp --"
And I was laughing so hard my stomach was convulsing.
When I managed to sit up again, Daniel was covering half his face with one hand -- a habitual gesture I have never seen anyone else repeat. He was hooking his pinky finger under his nose, and spreading his two other fingers over his eye. He looked at me between the two.
His peeking eye was actually shy, mischievous. I melted when I saw his mouth smiling past his hand. No longer thorny.
* * *
As he pulled back the yellow quilt, I crawled across the bed and pushed my nose into his arm. "Snuggle bunny," I nuzzled. "Sweet spectre."
"I still can't believe you called me that. You're delicious."
"I was thinking tomorrow, Dan," I said, "we could go up a mountain, if you want."
"They'll be at church then."
"That'd be grand, so." He scrubbed his hands over his eyes.
Suddenly my phone starting dinging, with those popping bubbles.
I lifted my head from his shoulder and looked over in surprise. These mountains were a notorious black hole, with pockets of reception only in certain places, such as a knoll by the barn. And, once in a long while, in this third floor bedroom.
I swung my legs over the bed and picked up the phone, remembering that I hadn't responded to my ex. Daniel turned away.
I typed out, I miss you, too, and sent it.
On my home screen, the bars of reception tripled, like water rushing from a spring.
His response was instantaneous. I was just thinking of you
I've been thinking about you too! Oh look. You made me take out the comma.
It was a joke and half an argument between us: the (grammatically correct, let me say) placement of a comma before "too", as opposed to the colloquial omission.
I placed the phone on the bed stand and sat down at the edge of the mattress. Daniel rolled over again, as if his back hurt. I counted, and it had been fourteen days since the split. The bed stand was covered with a lace doily, and I studied my device: the red veneer chipped on the corners. Wanting and not wanting to want.
Then his next message said, I wish I was holding you right now
Disbelief and sweet relief rushed through me. But I held my phone in my lap, looking at it and wavering. I finally typed, Yes, I wish that, too. -- Comma back in. No. I really, really wish it.
His response was fleet. You're actually all I can think about
Then I became fevered with longing. So much that I was embarrassed to be sitting next to Daniel. My heart was hissing like boiling syrup poured into a snow bank. Congealing to candy, brittle as a rock. Cold to the touch and sweet on the tongue.
But I tapped out something casual, and before I could send it, the bars of reception disappeared. I dropped my phone on the bed stand. The mattress creaked as I shifted closer to my friend.
"Who was that, Sazzy?" Daniel murmured, taking me into his arms. He twitched again. And scratched his fingers into his eyes.
"Oh. That was just my ex." I hesitated, and then offered, "We're actually going to have some kind of dialogue later." I threw the quilt up and submerged. "But I told him for now I want to focus on just you."
The quilt floated down over us both.
"By the way, Quink," Daniel said, brushing a piece of hair off my face and hooking it behind my ear, "I talked with Mónica today, and she said her boyfriend already told her about the birthday surprise. Three days ago, so she could pack. So I was right."
* * *
The next morning, my relatives dressed up, packed their guitars into cases, and drove off to sing at mass.
The day was breezy, and the aspens swished around us -- golden and lissome. It was a quick, steep climb up Mount Sabattus. "You need to slow down," I gasped once. "Remember I can't walk as fast as you."
Near the top of the mountain, I had to scurry off to relieve myself. When I came thumping back through the bushes, buttoning my shorts, I could see Daniel waiting on the path ahead.
But before I reached him, I noticed sunlight pouring through a clearing in the woods. I ran to it. In the center of the clearing, in the slew of sunshine, there was a plain granite rock. It was mounted by a copper plaque, commemorating the life and death of a teenage boy. I knelt down to read it, my knees cracking, the carving corroded with oxidization.
He was born only a few years before me, but he died in 2003, when he was nineteen. He and his younger brother had been fishing off the coast of Maine, when a squall struck and overturned their boat. A witness on shore took a kayak out to them, but the kayak was a one-man boat, and could barely fit a second person. The older brother demanded that the man put his younger brother into the kayak, and he held onto the back, staying in the water and swimming. A quarter of a mile from the shore, the young man's body succumbed to hypothermia and he went under.
I stood up, hearing a junco's call. I looked around and saw the tossing trees, but the leaves suddenly turned to bladderwrack, and the boles to waves biting the boy's life away. I saw the bobbing kayak; the teenager's mind thrumming only with,
"Let him live, please let my brother live,"
-- his knuckles turning frosty on the plastic of the kayak. I saw him go under then, the final submergence, his hair so wet.
And I knelt again and covered the words with my hands -- as if I could touch his skin when it was once warm. But the copper was somehow cold. I couldn't understand it all and I didn't want to understand it. The plaque declared at the end, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. I fingered the boy's name, tenderly, bewildered, bowled.
I stood up finally, and walked back to Daniel.
At the top of the mountain, the air was radiant -- finespun with light.
"This is my world," I told him.
We were sitting on a boulder, and my knees were tucked up to my chest. We could see for miles: the rolling hills a symphony of green, dissolving into ribbons of blue. The summit was wrung clean with wind, and the sun was lifting a sweet potpourri of pine. I turned out my hands: "I was made by all this." In the valley I noticed a pond, like an oval mirror, turning pure white in the sun. I held my wrists tightly again and added as if to myself: "I don't know if I'll end here or not, but this is where I began."
Because I was with Daniel, I expected to see my world with fresh eyes, and relish it with a rare pungency. I thought my feelings would reach their utmost point. And they did. But not because he was there: but because I was realizing anew that this land was my taproot. There was an oak tree next to us, stubby and twisted like every mountain tree. So many times in my life I had lingered in the northern hills, and looked at similar oaks, gnarled with crinkling bark -- crying, or laughing, or singing, and always dreaming.
Then a black-capped chickadee fluttered down, and flirted on a branch above my shoulder. Its eye looked like a blackberry, tiny and glossy. The sun was pressing its hands into the top of my hand, smearing honey down my face. The bird hopped nearer, and I could hear its nails scratch on the bark -- though it was penny-light -- and I noticed its eye was rimmed with a very fine line of gray.
And, even though I was sitting next to Daniel, I felt suddenly alone. . . with the oak tree, the bird, the mountains, the sun.
More than that, I was experiencing a recognition between two entities, a delightful sense of being perceived by all I was perceiving -- even owned. It was a sensation after which I ran in Ireland, hungrily, but never encountered. Now, here in America, that feeling of belonging was being so easily, so lightly given: the sun nuzzling into my lap, the bird's eye like blackberry juice. The chickadee began to sing then -- a sharp surprising miracle -- a twiddling and tweetering, directly into my ear drum. "You were made here," everything seemed to croon.
I then placed my hand down on the boulder: it was granite. A piece broke off easily and I crushed it. It turned to dust in my fingers.
I lifted my hand to my eyes and saw that my fingers were all powdered with mica. My heart was springing off the rock-face; my skin turned entirely glitter.
* * *
That afternoon the dock swayed under our feet. It creaked and clanked as we carried a heavy cooler.
Lily pads were bobbing on the water's surface. They were green or -- if flipped over -- rosy with yellow veins. Below them, sinking into silt, mussel shells were open like ash trays.
At the end of the dock, my aunt pulled back the cover from their pontoon boat. She freed the ropes; my uncle revved the engine.
I climbed onto the boat and slid down in the couch, hugging my arms around myself. The couch was white leather, and my sweatshirt was roomy and luxurious. When the boat began gliding, I felt abundant. We were wrapped in flannel blankets, our faces dotted with sunscreen. Our cooler was packed with peanuts and Mike's Hard Lemonade. Loon Lake was ringed with mountains, and behind the boat, the water was unbelievable, undulating like black oil.
"This is probably almost as beautiful as Lake Geneva," I suggested to Daniel.
"No," he contradicted. "It's more beautiful."
The lake was still by the shore, a sheet of polished onyx. Glinting like swan feathers. But then we passed under a bridge into larger waters, and my uncle threw the throttle into high gear.
Daniel's face split into glee and I laughed -- "Did you think we were going to stay slow?" His hair blasted back as the boat spat up and down, whizzing across the waves. The air was so clean and wet in my nose.
My uncle turned a knob for the speakers, and a brassy orchestra went cannoning around the boat. The music caroled up into the summer sky: It's the most wonderful time of the year!
"Yes," I laughed. "Perfect."
Ding, dong, ding, dong!
With the kids jingle-belling
and everyone telling
you, 'Be of good cheer!' --
it's the most wonderful time
of the year!
Perfect. I felt perfect and light. I buried my chin into my sweatshirt like an old turtle and drifted off. I closed my eyes for an hour.
When I opened them again, the Indigo Girls were playing.
Some other fool across the
ocean years ago
must have crashed his little
I sang along into my collar, murmuring,
How long till my soul
gets it right?
Can any human being
ever reach that
kind of light?
My uncle switched off the music and downshifted. "The eagle's nest is along the shore," he said. "Somewhere next to a cabin, our neighbor said."
I half-sat and looked along the shore, scanning the pines for something like a tree-house. But when the minutes crept by without any luck, I slid down again and crossed my legs over the arm of the couch. I tapped my feet together and studied my ankles idly. My sneakers were from Spain, and had pounded sienna dust at one time.
Then I glanced over the edge of the boat.
The pontoon was skimming the floor now. I could see the sludge at the bottom. Flint-sparks of sunfish. Mussels. Rotting sticks. And somewhere, along the sandy shore, an eagle's nest.
I felt my cheekbones burning in the sun's sword-angle.
"Sarah," Daniel presently whispered.
I glanced up languidly. Across from me, on the other couch, he was leaning against one arm. His knees were drawn against his chest, under a blanket.
"Oh, you did say my name," I answered lazily. "I thought you hadn't. Mm?"
Then I sat up, fast. Scissored my neck to the back of the boat. But my aunt and uncle were gazing at the shore, or the dash board, or the cooler of drinks. Either the wind had swept away his voice, or they did not understand the Irish slang.
I turned back to face him, and Daniel's smile was gone. He was unblinking, his expression soft and impenetrable. His words had been soft, too. And random. I wondered, for a moment, if I had even heard him correctly.
But then I smiled, myself.
And said, "We did."
At that moment, the nest pistoled into sight, and we all shouted and jumped to our feet.
It was in a pine tree -- chickless, and unbelievably large. Erratic with branches, and monster-wild. The nest was toppling near the summit of the tree, like the messy chignon of a giant's wife.
Yes. Yes, we did.
*Shifting is Irish slang for kissing. ......Throughout this entire narrative, I have almost never stopped for self-reflection... but then I did, in that scene on top of the mountain. Did it break the flow? I wonder if that kind of thing is a necessary layer or not.