Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1
When I was still Rose Mannion and had the full use of myself, I was a force to behold. My hair's fine blackness was my signature, the legacy of a shipwrecked Spaniard off the Armada who washed onto Connemara and arrived, bedraggled and desperate, at the cottage door of some love-starved great-grandmother. In every generation that followed, it is said, there is but one like me. My mother used to call my mane a rain of Moorish silk as she brushed two hundred strokes before prayers. Never cut since birth, each wisp that pulled free she collected and worked into a dark snake she scored inside a wooden box. Now, ever since that terrible night, its lengthening coil I wind within a salver of Galway crystal, my constant souvenir of destruction. In the milky glow of lamplight it shifts and expands through the engraved cuts like a Hydra with many faces, each one of them Gerry Lynch.
What was there, back then, not to love about Gerry Lynch? It's true, I was a girl in the habit of measuring each person new to me by a tabulation of their natural imperfections: this one had too short an upper lip, that one unfortunate hair. This one was marred by the heaviness of the upper arm, that one by the gap of a missing tooth the easier to place them the next time we met. But Gerry Lynch broke the mold.
You even had to adore his flaws. Too quick with the compliments, and those, too expansive to be absorbed without a shading of doubt. A tendency to sometimes withdraw into the depths of himself while feigning to listen politely. A furtiveness, hesitancy, better describes it, and at the late-night meetings, when his turn to speak arrived, he once or twice in his enthusiasm seemed just that much off brasher than need be, almost as if he took personally the injury that united us all in our resolve to remedy. An occasional bout of silliness, a touch boyish in a grown man.
But if these trifles be the beads on his Sorrowful Mysteries, think only of the Joyful, the Glorious! His devotion to the Cause. His bow-head humility at the Communion rail. His gait, so bouncing with natural exuberancy that who could fail to follow where he led? His clean town-smell, warm days and chill. The tenor voice that pulled the heart tight as the cross-stitch of a doubled thread. And for the Hail Holy Queen: that song he made up, that darling brave ballad that bore my name. He sang it to all who'd listen, his eyes twinkling merry except when he'd glance into the crowd my way, and then, so serious that everyone but us two faded into nothing. I could not meet his eyes, and still draw breath.
There's no denying, that song set me off, elevated me you might say, beyond the already considerable pedestal of my own and the county's regard. I first heard it as dusk was falling outdoors, and it took me that much by surprise. I was wiping a table in the lounge of McGarry's Pub in Boyle, half-listening to Liza O'Connor, the other afternoon employee besides myself, expound on the injustices of the Ursulines, the cruel penances they extracted for her merest transgressions. It was too early for the supper crowd and there was little to occupy me. Out the window the post road was an empty lane, not even enough traffic to raise dust. The sweep and dip of the land, bisected and angled into small plots by stone fences, was a maze without escape bricked in, I was, by the poor rectangles of Ireland. The walls had no gates wood was too dear and so each day a part of the structure had to be dismantled to let the sheep out or in, then built up again to ensure they would not stray.
Suddenly, from the adjoining common room there came a shout of laughter that piqued my attention. Why else tolerate the slave wages paid at McGarry's than to listen for the boys next door, to puzzle out the dazzle of their rowdiness, me with no brothers at hand of late for closer study?
"Thee would be Sean O'Beirn," Liza observed. He was her love interest of the moment.
"It's not the laugher I question," I said to deflate her, "But the one who inspires him." That shut her up.
Again, a round of loud urgings penetrated the thin wall. "Sing it," a chorus seemed to goad. "You dare not."
"I do, though," replied a familiar voice that instantly, in song, turned into such polished silver that a mist of quiet stilled the establishment, muted the clink of pints, the groan of chairs, the murmur of mundane conversation. The sound was pure music, so much so that I stopped my rag midway across the rough surface, listened below any search for the sense of it, content to float among its blending and overlapping tones. I looked in question to Liza at the serving table, who mouthed, careful not to irritate the perfumed chords with any grating noise: Lynch.
Of course, but a Lynch transformed. And then, like some echo that must reach the end of a distant valley before wafting back to earshot, the words revealed themselves.
I don't know when and I don't know how
But I'll wed my Rosie Mannion.
Hair as black as ravens' wings
And eyes like forty-seven.
Hair as black as a banshee's wail
And eyes that hold my heaven.
I don't know how and I don't know when
But I'll wed my Rosie Mannion.
A heat spread across my cheek, down my neck and arm to the hand that clutched the cleaning cloth as if it were a shroud I could yank over my own face. The presumption of it, I thought, but crouched behind the outrage lurked another assessment: the silken triumph.
I rapped last night upon her door
Expecting Rosie Mannion.
Her mother's ghost 'twas greeted me
With eyes so dark and gleaming.
The bald shock of it. To take her name in vain as if her loss were not a stone lodged in my heart. I would never forgive him. Liza covered her open mouth with her hand in solidarity.
Hark to me, she said, dear boy:
You'll never have my colleen
Unless you take her father's oath
And swear your life to Ireland.
My mind raced to its limits like a bird flown down the chimney, trapped in a room, beating its wings against a closed window. The audacity, the heedless jeopardy, to acknowledge the pace in daylight, in the company of who knows who? Was it courage Gerry Lynch possessed, or stupidity. Liza went white, her pallor I'm sure the mirror of my own. If the rooms were listening before, they were positively fixed in concentration now. And yet the lilt of the song, the innocence of it, the pitch and dangle of the jaunty voice, belied the seriousness, made life and death but backdrop to . . . me.
Wait. It was my father he was offering up in his laxity. My father who had read to me every night of my childhood, who had led me through the Classics, shown me the world.
I took charge of myself, burst through the swinging door of frosted glass like Joan of Arc herself and pushed my way into the men's assembly until I stood, trembling, face-to-face with Gerry Lynch. I was tall for a girl and he was taller but somehow in my agitation our size was equated and I could taste the whiskey breath of him on my own tongue.
"Have you gone moony?" I demanded of him. "My poor father's taken no oath. He's an innocent man, devout and simple, unfairly accused."
Gerry looked at me stupefied, almost as though surprised to be overheard, and then a smile a smile his face pretended to fight but clearly he was too pleased with himself for having so summoned me. He nodded a bow, courtly as if we were but passing neighbors on a street corner, and kept in his throat whatever else remained of his song.
"It's only a ditty," he said. "It's nothing but a word that fits the meter, that makes the rhyme."
The bird flew to the opposite wall, smacked into it hard enough to unstun its brain.
"Nothing, is it? The oath is nothing? Ireland is nothing?" I looked around the room, the smoke dense as fog, the men bleary eyed, torn between amusement and curiosity. The sight of them, safe and free, curled my lip. To hell with puny caution, with cleaning up the mess of dirty dishes and sloshed stout. Was I not Rose Mannion, my mother's daughter? My father's? My brothers' sister?
"I'll give you 'nothing,' " I said to his grinning face, and placed my right hand, still clawed around its rag, hard enough upon my breast to feel the thud of my heart beneath it. "There'll be no life for me, no wedding bells, no rest or haven, until the land I walk upon is mine." I cast my eyes accusing around the hall. "Is ours." My voice was bold and steady I alone caught the quake. The wording may not have been exact but it was close enough. Those that knew, knew, and chose that didn't, be damned.
"Rose." Martin Michael McGarry, the young nephew of the house and himself a tall drink of water, gawky and half-formed, laid his big-knuckled hand upon my shoulder. "Enough."
I turned the blaze of my eyes at him. Who was he to stop me? "Am I clear in my meaning?"
"You are heard, dear girl," he said, and I knew for a fate that he was one of us, or rather, that I was now one of them. The room I had entered in my fury moments earlier was no longer the room in which I stood. It had become . . . how do I express it? . . . churchlike, sacred in its grave solemnity, and for that fleeting, solid instant, I was its priest.
Gerry Lynch broke the spell. "We're with you, Rose," he said abashed and sobered.
"I'm glad to hear it," I answered, and yet I didn't hear it from him, not quite, not like I heard it from Martin McGarry, but I chose to believe him all the same. it wasn't a matter that bore lies or exaggeration, after all, and every man who had witnessed my profession had witnessed Gerry Lynch's as well. We were full into it, united as if wed already.
Copyright © 1997 by Michael Dorris