Monday, March 15, 2010

An Encounter

Spring – in its commonly understood sense, not its astronomical one – is late this year in Tipperary. A week ago, the day before the movers arrived to pack, I walked from the corner where our road, the ancient Dublin road, meets the even narrower road to Ballylooby, seat of the local parish. It is at this corner that the old house, built by my mother-in-law’s grandfather, stands. As far as I know, it was last occupied sometime after the birth of my husband’s oldest sister – who is now retired – when my father-in-law, the penultimate child of a family of ten, moved his young family from the cottage to a town on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland in pursuit of his career. The roofline is showing cracks, slates are slipping, windows are shattered. Still, remnants of furniture and crockery lie cluttered under its low ceilings. Ash from recent fires fill its wide open-hearth fireplace. As a teenager, when visitors from Boston arrived for summer visits, my husband and his brothers spent nights there, in upper rooms reached by stairs now so sagging I lack the courage to explore them.

At the disused entrance to the yard, horse chestnut branches dangled over the gate, bulbous purple tips oozing. I had been searching for signs of spring, wanting some hint of it before leaving. There were a few, but they were slight – reddening of bare dogwood branches on road sides, a scattering of deep gold and vivid purple crocuses at the base of the Big Tree, and the hint of arrow tipped leaves where I had planted tulips bulbs last fall. Still, the spreading branches of beeches across the fields showed no hint of pale green haze. Hedges were dull green and brown, showing jagged spears of pale torn ash branches where they had been recently cut. I would not see the daffodils bloom before going away.

I was on my way to our neighbours, the Murphys. From our kitchen window, you can see the rounded roof of the Murphy hay shed half hidden by the trees, a line marking the near horizon below the further horizon of the Knockmealdowns. When I first came to Tipperary, Anne Murphy was particularly kind to me. Offering red wine during late afternoon visits, she gave me also advice and lent cookbooks as I tried to learn to cook using different measures and ingredients, vegetables new to me and unfamiliar cuts of meat (or names of cuts of meat). Soon, though, changing work schedules, illness, the birth of her grandchild – life – had limited our visits. It had been too long since we sat together with a glass of red wine, and now I was going away.

Anne, her husband Michael, and I sat by the fire in their sitting room that looks west over the rolling fields, the low sun bright in our eyes. Michael and Anne told me what they could tell about the big tree, how it was part of the hedge at the entrance of the avenue leading to Millgrove, how it came to be burned, and how our neighbours stood circling it, protesting over two days, refusing to let the council cut it down. This was not long ago, perhaps 15 years back, within the time I had been coming to the neighbourhood, but I had never heard the story. They promised to try to recall more details of the tree’s history and send them to me.

We agreed that the hard frosts of winter were lasting too long. Usually by Patrick’s Day the road sides and gardens would be filled with daffodils. Now, a week before the 17th, there were just the tips of leaves and bare swelling buds, cresting the earth only this week. I worried aloud about the birds I had been feeding. How would they survive when I left? Michael didn’t agree with feeding birds; it makes them lazy, he said. But the winter has been so cold, exclaimed Anne and I. They would have starved! Maybe, he conceded, more out of kindness than conviction, I thought.

Anne told me about visiting Salzburg with their daughter, who has worked in one after another European capital for years now. It’s a beautiful city, they said, a nice drive from Munich, convenient to Italy, even Paris. I would learn German, she was sure, though her daughter prefers French. German, we agreed, is easier to pronounce than French, which I studied for years in secondary school and university without gaining verbal fluency. I’d get by, she told me. In the cities of Europe, if not in the country, so many people speak English. It’s true, I said. Dependent on tourism, Salzburg is a welcoming city, and most people I met there speak English.

I drained the last of my glass of wine and stood, saying goodbye to Michael, urging him to take care of himself. He was born on the morning of my mother-in-law’s 18th birthday, and his health has been poor recently. Anne and I embraced at the door, then she stepped outside with me. Under a small tree near the door, she picked a bright gold crocus and handed it to me. ‘Put this in a book,’ she said.

In the field next to their long drive, sheep congregated at the rail fence, bawling loudly. Were they hungry, I wondered. No, said Anne, it’s just they hear our voices. We said goodbye again, and she went into the house, waving as she went. I clutched the crocus and crossed to the fence, drawn by the sheep. Those closest to the fence put their heads over it, while more approached from behind them, bawling louder. Heavy with thick dirty wool, they watched me as the noise of their bawling swelled. Though they must be ewes, I thought, the heavy bass of their baaing was masculine in its intensity. It rumbled up from the depth, Robeson-deep, shuddering the air. I watched them; they watched me with equal intensity. Strange, I thought, how I’d never stood and contemplated sheep in the time I’d been there. Well, there was the solitary ram we sometimes passed in a small pen on our bike rides. I had dismounted and stood watching him. But never had I seen sheep come up to the fence, observing me while bawling at volume. I tried to take in their faces, black and dull white-grey, their thick coats, the shape of their hooves, their eyes and ears.

Those at the fence stood watching me watching them while stragglers behind them drew closer. I longed to reach out to stroke one. What would happen? I tentatively put a hand out; the ewe drew back. Still, we stood.

At length, I tried the trick Himself had showed me as we stood next to a field of young calves, also watching us. I drew myself up and, while looking intently, suddenly jumped side to side: right foot, left foot.

Unlike the calves, they did not all immediately scatter, but it startled them. They drew back, and briefly the bawling quieted. Then it rose again, loud and deep; it followed me as I walked away in the growing dusk, still holding between two fingers my golden crocus.

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