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The news came to Castlelough as if riding on wisps of early-morning fog, winding its way from Donal's gift shop on the tidy medieval square, to The Irish Rose pub on Gaol Road, to Molly Lee's Confectionery at the top of the ancient steps, from which visitors made a breath-stealing descent down the towering limestone cliffs to the sea.
From schoolyard to church to cottage to manor house to the post officewhere Elizabeth Murphy was quick to announce whenever another red, white and blue overnight express letter arrived from Americathe question was always the same:
"Did you hear? The movie people are coming."
By the time Nora Fitzpatrick arrived in the village on the day the movie people were due to arrive, the whispers and murmurs had risen to a near clamor.
Although the sunshine yellow gorse was blooming vividly in the hedgerows and the taste of late spring rode faintly on the soft wet sea air, the day had turned chilly and threatening.
Nora dropped into O'Neill's Chicken and Chips for a cup of tea, to warm up after her long ride from the farm, and watched the oldest O'Neill daughter flirt with the handsome boy delivering an order of canned lemonade. Feeling a great deal older than her twenty-five years, Nora left them merrily laughing at some joke the boy had made.
As she crossed the stone bridge over a river rushing its way toward the Atlantic, it occurred to her she'd been jealous of eighteen-year-old Brenda O'Neill.
"Not jealous," she amended out loud. "Perhaps just a wee bit envious." The sight of the carefree couple had brought back thoughts of when her husband, Conor, had been courting her. She sighed at the memory, which was both pleasing and sad at the same time.
Conor Fitzpatrick, who'd grown up on the neighboring farm, had matured into a man as handsome and bold as an ancient king. Nora doubted any woman would have been able to resist falling in love with him. After spending time on the continent, he'd literally burst back into her life and eased the grief she'd been suffering so at the time. And for that she'd always love him.
She pushed her bicycle up the steep narrow cobblestone street. In the distance she could see the lake, carved out by a glacier thousands of years ago, limpid against mountains tipped with silvery fog. On the far bank a pre-Christian ring of stones appeared to be silently awaiting a solstice ritual fire. The sap had begun to flow in the birch trees, turning the winter brown twigs a brilliant eye-pleasing purple.
It was spring when Conor had first made love to hertheir wedding nightand Nora hadn't even thought to be afraid, she'd trusted him so. The bittersweet memories were as preserved in her mind as fossils captured in amber.
"I had a 'dream' about your mam the other night," Nora's sister-in-law had told Nora just the week before. "She thinks you need a new man in your life."
Nora was not particularly surprised that Kate would be claiming to be in communication with Eleanor Joyce. The fact that her mother had been dead for years had certainly not stopped Nora from talking to her. Since the conversations were a source of comfort, she never bothered to wonder if others might think her a bit daft. Besides, Nora often thought she'd probably go daft if she weren't able to talk things out with her mam. But although her mother never actually answered her backexcept in Nora's own mindshe suspected it might possibly be quite a different case with Kate.
Ever since childhood, Kate had been able to "see" things. Like when she was five and saw the black wreath on Mrs. Callahan's door two months before the old woman dropped dead of a heart attack while weeding her cabbage patch. Or the time they were teenagers and had been picnicking on the beach with a couple of boys and Kate saw little Kevin Noonan floating facedown in the surf seconds before a white-crested wave swept the wandering toddler off his feetbut soon enough to warn his mother, thank God.
When her sister-in-law had brought up the subject of men the week before, Nora had reminded Kateand her mother, in case Eleanor Joyce had been eavesdropping from heaventhat she already had enough males in her life. "There's Da," she'd said. "And, of course, Michael and John."
"I don't think your mam was talking about your father or brothers," Kate had argued. "She thinks you need to marry again. You need a husband."
Nora had grown up in Castlelough. As a child she'd run barefoot in the meadows with boys who'd grown up and were now the county's eligible males. She knew them all, liked most of them well enough, but there wasn't a single solitary one whose boots she'd want to put beside her bed.
"Well, then," she'd said with a soft laugh, "since there's none handy around here and I'm too busy taking care of the farm and the children, along with trying to keep Da on the straight and narrow, to go out and find myself a proper husband, I guess you'll have to tell mam to pull some strings up there and send me one."
"I suspect that may be what she has in mind to do," Kate had answered. "But I doubt she has a proper one in mind. What would be the challenge in that, after all?"
What indeed? Knowing her father's quicksilver nature all too well, Nora suspected Eleanor Joyce had certainly had a great many challenges in her own life. As did Kate. And most of the other married women of her acquaintance. Irish men, while charming, unfortunately did not always make the easiest of husbands, she thought as she stopped in front of her destination.
The sparkling windows of Monohan's Mercantile were filled with treats designed to lure the passerby insidecolorful tins of biscuits, bags of saltwater taffy, tidy rows of Cadbury chocolates, jars of skin creams and bath lotions made from the carrageen moss still gathered by hand from the rocky western coast and bunches of perky golden daffodils displayed in dazzling white pots.
A paper banner, handpainted kelly green on white, welcomed the cast and crew of The Lady of the Lake to Castlelough. Bordered with blatantly touristy shamrocks, the banner also featured an imaginative rendition of the creature rising from the water. Nora guessed it had been drawn by the Monohans' twelve-year-old daughter, Margaret, a talented young artist who always won, in her age group, the summer's Sea Safety poster contest.
Beneath the sign was a collection of miniature sea monsters for sale, ranging from cheap plastic ones to sparkling crystal serpents hand-blown by local artisans. A towering pyramid of hardcover novels claimed the center spot of honor in the gaily decorated window.
A small brass bell tied to the Dublin blue door signaled Nora's arrival in the shop.
"So, today's the big day, is it?" Sheila Monohan asked, looking down from the top rung of a ladder where she was replacing a burned-out fluorescent tube. "The day your movie man arrives."
"Mr. Gallagher is a writer." Nora repeated what she'd already told Mrs. O'Neill.
She glanced at the pyramid of books. From this vantage point, the author photo on the back of the dust jacket seemed to be looking right back at her. Scowling at her, actually, which she didn't believe was the best expression to encourage people to buy his book. Still, even with his glower, Quinn Gallagher didn't appear old enough to be so successful. Perhaps success, like so many other things, came easier in America.
"I don't read horror novels," Sheila confessed. "There are so many things to worry about in the world. I'd much rather settle down at night with a nice love story. But I hear many consider him quite a fine writer."
"John certainly thinks so." Nora's youngest brother had stayed up all night reading the American horror novelist's latest book. "Kate sings his praises, as well.
But it still strikes me as odd the way everyone's behaving. You'd think a bunch of Americans arriving in Cas-tlelough was as important as the Second Coming."
After all, Americans weren't an uncommon sight. Even perched on the far west coast of Ireland as it was, Castlelough received its share of tourists. Still, Nora hadn't seen so much excitement since the time it was rumorederroneously, it turned outthat the pope was coming to visit the rural county.
"People figure the movie folk will liven up the place," Sheila said.
"We're already lively." When the older woman lifted a jet-black eyebrow at the outrageous falsehood, Nora shrugged one slicker-clad shoulder. "Well, we may not have the bright lights of Dublin, but that's the point. Some of us appreciate a quiet life."
"If it's a quiet life you're seeking, Eleanor Rose Joyce Fitzpatrick, you should have stayed in that Dublin convent.
"Besides" Sheila nodded, appearing pleased with herself when the light flickered to life "you know as well as I do there's not much opportunity in a small village like Castlelough. Tourism or emigration, that's our choice, my Devlin always says."
Even as her heart took a little dive at the depressing prospect of having to leave Castlelough, Nora couldn't resist a smile at the mention of Sheila's son, the man who once, in what seemed like another lifetime, had taught her to French-kiss, even as she'd worried for her immortal soul.
Sister Mary Augustine had taught all the girls in her class that letting a boy put his tongue in your mouth was one of the vilest of mortal sins.
"And don't forget, girls, every sin you commit is another thorn in our Lord Jesus's side." Sister had glared like Moses standing atop the Mount at the group of tartan-clad adolescents. "French-kissing debases a girl. And makes the devil smile."
Although Nora certainly hadn't wanted to make Satan smile, three years after that memorable sex-education lecture, Devlin Monohan's kisses had proved so thrilling she'd recklessly risked hell on more than one occasion during that idyllic summer of her first love.
"How is Devlin?" she asked now.
"Fit as a fiddle. He rang up last night, as a matter of fact, to say he's been offered a position at the National Stud."
"That's wonderful!" Graduating from veterinary college and working at the National Stud had been Devlin's dream. He'd talked about it a lot between kisses.
"Isn't it just? I'll have to admit I'm guilty of the sin of pride at the idea of my son helping to breed the best racehorses in the world."
"It's no sin to be proud of a son." On this Nora had reason to be very clear. Nora wondered if her mother knew this latest news about Devlin and decided she probably did. Not much had ever slipped by Eleanor Joyce.
The woman who might have been Nora's mother-in-law climbed down from the ladder and brushed her dusty hands on her apron, which, like the poster, bore a fanciful image of the lake creaturewhich, in a way, was the source of all this uproar.
If those old myths hadn't existed, Quinn Gallagher wouldn't have written the book, Hollywood wouldn't have bought the film rights and the movie people would have stayed in Hollywood.
"We were all surprised when you went off to become a postulate," Sheila said suddenly, as if that lifealtering Sunday morning were only yesterday and not eight long years ago. "Everyone expected you and my Devlin would get married."
"I thought we might, as well. For a time." After all, Nora wouldn't have risked hell for just anyone. "But I truly believed I had a vocation."
"Just because you could memorize all the prayers and catechism answers faster than any girl at Holy Child School," Sheila said, "didn't necessarily make you a candidate for the convent." She was only pointing out what Nora's own mother had told her as they'd loaded her suitcasefilled with the muslin sheets, black stockings, black shoes and white cotton underwear the nuns had instructed she bring to the conventinto the family car.
"I would have eventually realized that." Nora wondered briefly if this out-of-the-blue discussion might be no coincidence. Her mother had supposedly told Kate she might be sending Nora a husband. Could she be trying to get the two childhood sweethearts back together again?
"As it turned out, you didn't have time to make up your own mind," Sheila said with a regretful shake of her head. "What with your poor mam dying giving birth to Celia and you having to leave the order."
It had been the second-worst time of her life. "Someone had to tend to the house and children." And Da, she thought, but did not say.
"I've always said it was too much responsibility for a young girl. A child raising children was what you were. Lord knows Brady, as good a man as he is in his way, couldn't take care of himself, let alone those babies.
"Considering how lonely you must have been, it's no wonder you fell head over heels for Conor Fitzpatrick when he came back from the continent with all those flashy trophies."
"I loved Conor," Nora stated firmly.
Her love for her dashing husbandwho'd held the promise of becoming one of the world's greatest steeplechase ridershad been the single constant in Nora's life during that time. And if she hadn't married Conor, Rory, the shining apple of her eye, wouldn't have been born.
And then Conor had been killed in a race, which had been the worst time of her life.
"He's been dead for five years, Nora. It's not good for a woman to be alone. Especially a woman with children to raise."
"Of course you do, dear." Sheila paused, giving Nora the impression she was choosing her words carefully. "Devlin had other news."
"He's engaged. To a young woman he met in veterinary school."
The older woman's gaze had turned so intent Nora felt as if she were standing at the wrong end of one of those telescopes all the lake-monster trackers inevitably carried.
"I'm so happy for him," she said. "You'll have to give me his address so I can write him a note."
"You don't mind?"
"Of course not. It's been over between Devlin and me for a long time. I'm pleased he's found someone to share his life with."
So much for her mother's perceived matchmaking.
"Here's my list." Not wanting to discuss her love lifeor lack of itany longer, Nora handed the piece of paper to the storekeeper. "I hope you have some of those Spanish oranges. Rory loves them, and they're so much better for his teeth than sweets or biscuits."
"You're a good mother, Nora Fitzpatrick," Sheila said. "And no one can fault the job you're doing with the children. But it's easier on a woman to have a man around the house. Sons, especially, need a father's firm guiding hand."
As the older woman began plucking items from the wooden shelves, Nora almost laughed as she thought how much Sheila Monohan sounded like her mother. Which made sense, she decided, since the two women had been best friends.
"Brady brought in your eggs this morning, in case you're wondering," Sheila offered as she began adding up Nora's purchases on her order pad. "I gave him a credit."