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Soilmates (Short Story)

Donal Kelly Feenish Island Black and White

Out in the rhododendron, an old wind lies coiled lengthways along thick roots. The acidic slopes they twist through drop steeply towards the curve of the fjord. Sounds of the Atlantic and its dwellers drift up on younger, more eager airs. This tired wind has lost most of its voice, taken to a bed of sinewy shade. It has grown accustomed to perpetual dimness, tolerant of its intolerant soilmates, respectful of their drive, their entrepreneurial vision. But it struggles to relax, to unhitch memories from hungrier ages hurling foam-tipped gales or exhaling light sighs across glint-rippled tapestries.

Some days the fishermen retreat, cursing. Other days return with blessings. Always somewhere hearts are left unsealed to draughts.

Reilly is in the school’s round room. Nothing seems to have changed since he walked out ago ago after the last exam. Faded watercolours and a framed inspirational quote. “Words must be weighed, not counted”. When he’d started reading heavy books he’d felt big in a small town, but now a piece of furniture, identifiable from distance. The real heft lies in the oral tradition, in such venerable classics as “MAYBE SOME OTHER TIME” or “NO”. You can be big in a small town if passing through. Or become scaled down by a narrow description that pares your mysteries back, as far back even as wherever the bare line of dignity is drawn.

That’s Pat Reilly’s middle lad, the dropout who missed the free in the quarter-final.

Out near the lakes, in roofless ruins, a dream of lost love is wedged, a folded note in a gap over a big irregular hearthstone. It once burned bright enough to throw light across the back of a winter, but comings and goings faded to goings alone, and later the village was emptied of its dreamers. This survivor has grown used to silence, tuned to the wear and tear of season etched onto season, grand palimpsest of skins.

It watches the thin sally growing amid tumbled stones, spring fuzz being overtaken by impatient leaves, impossible greens bucking in the breeze.

“Will wait for you on Tuesday at Lough Shindilla by the pier.” ends the note, after much leaking of love. The dream reads its text often, alternating the focus, perhaps on the yearning opening, notes of despair about the middle, urgency towards the end. It looks like it took a long time to finish, many drafts deep.

Can it still be unfolded?

Andrea reaches for her water bottle, wedged into the backpack’s side pocket. She keeps walking. It must be more than four miles to the hostel. Here would be an ok spot to pitch, but after last night’s fragmented sleep and loud rain, she wants a shower, soft bed, sound of voices.

Anxiety from the early days has gone quiet. Now there’s a basicness, the gradual changing of terrain, the carrying of food and planning of meals, the arriving and disappearing of towns and villages. Out here in the wilder sections, wide skies, map checking, big silences, mountains. Soon, the ocean. Can almost smell it.

She pauses to take a photo. She likes verses of skies that carry soft pales, subtle gradients, the vault opposite a sun sliding down horizon’s lip.

Is this what she needed? Is she healing? The better days are when she doesn’t ask.

“The green’s too green. Looks fake.” says Reilly. Michael glances up at the bobbing poplars, continues his tangent. “Which is more important?” he asks. “To be able to do something, or to want to do something?” They are behind the boathouse. The swelling of late April is giving way to the riotous advances of May. Reilly is, as he says, “flat”. The greens look like someone added a filter.

“I suppose if you have things you want to do then you are probably not depressed?”, he says.

Michael snaps open another tin. “Think of all the things you could actually be doing right now if you had a reason. All the places you could be.”

“But how much time should you spend thinking about being somewhere else?”

“Yeah. Tricky. Selling discontent; that’s how a lot of the world seems to roll.”

“There’s a market for it.”

The river gurgles, water boatmen skim about a calm crook in the shelter of a bay in the bank. “I didn’t realise that hanging out by yourself was an ability until I couldn’t do it.” says Reilly. Michael reaches out to kick a low green plant. “That’s another one. Invasive”, he declares. “Probably brought in when they widened this car park”. They survey the car park and what it had brought in. More cars. A jogger goes by, nodding.

“Knotweed,” says Michael. “That’s the real bastard.” He begins to list its qualities. Grows ten centimetres in a day, gets right into concrete foundations, wreaks them from the inside out. Invincible to potions. Sword hacking only makes it spread. “And once it gets in! You can spend years at it, think it’s wiped out, and a horse can trot along after a decade, kick up the ground, and boom, off it goes again.” They both sup. “You know you can’t get a mortgage or sell your house in England if they find it?” They silently consider such a predicament. Neither would be given a mortgage or feel comfortable talking to a bank manager, even about the weather.

They both struggle to explain their unmortgageable trajectories, or would if asked. Let sleeping black hounds lie and so on, but these things have a tendency to gatecrash the small hours.

“Sharon said there’s a pile of it out her way, you know, where the old road goes out to the lakes. Someone dumped a load of topsoil. I heard it was Fitzy’s dad.”

The apathetic old wind has no plans to unwrap itself, but today, all is change. Distant engine noise since morning, getting closer and closer, until soil twists and buckles in a torrent of sound and hack and slice. An attempt at clearing is underway, heavy machines cutting into the soft earth, saws buzzing into stems, Roundup in syringes.

Dislodged, the wind is thrown into the light. It spins, knocks off a man’s hat, rustles the glossy toxic leaves, then rises, jostling awkwardly with the prevailing, afraid at first, confused, then higher up beginning to waken.

It will blow inland, find something loose to scatter.

A forever home is being hoisted up where Fitzy’s lane ends, down past his dad’s sheds, in on the field where Reilly’s oldest brother once tore his knee on a chunk of sheep bone when attempting a sliding tackle. The raft is down, nine feet of wall waiting for a roofer, thick layer of the latest insulation padding up the floor atop a warren of air-to-water pipes. “You can’t even build without this stuff now” says Fitzy. “They won’t sign off on it.” He says he doesn’t know how the Dublin crowd got planning permission in the first place, but they have connections. And cash.

“They’ll fire it up on Airbnb,” he says to Reilly, pulling a leaf from a trendy shrub. “Money flows, price goes up, they’ll come down for a few weeks in the summer.”

Fitzy has the engineering job, mortgageable, never says how much his aul fella got for the site. Claims he doesn’t know, though he bought the beemer after. “At the end of the day it’s money coming in,” he says. “The place needs it. And what’s the alternative?”

Over Lough Shindilla, a stray memory roams, hovering between oaks on the little island, then across to the blackstoned shore. The water is starting to warm. Spring at late tilt, skylarksong, hawthorns preparing to wear white. It has been detached for so long, so free, so lonely, trying to keep its now from seeping into its original. How does it go again?

Two by the water, evening into night, bats flickering over the lake, an unlikely pairing, an intersection of stories, simple but charged hours, hinge on which change spins, one with a name that the other cannot hear later without darts of prickly blue.

The memory has to be careful not to over-remember itself, aware of a delicate co-existence, so easy to distort.

As it traces another lap of the dark lake, a red van comes bouncing down the narrow track running to the east, and the memory is nudged that way by a sudden kink in the air.

Just off the path, Andrea sees a cluster of ruins. Instinctively she begins to walk over, crossing spongy ground, a stream, an undulating field of lazy beds. A wind blows by, throwing hair across her eyes, shaking a skinny willow that grows in one of the long-deserted homes.

Reilly figures he has the right spot, leaves the van on the rough road, pulls the plastic bag from his pocket, walks to the mounds where people dump, marked by a pair of ancient mattresses. On his phone he opens up the knotweed picture. Mike said even a few morsels would do. A fine gift for the blow-ins and their tidy lawns. But he sees first only an indistinct mess of plants, and by the time he starts to resolve them and pick out the segmented redgreen stems of Fallopia japonica, evening is afoot. He puts on gloves and pulls scraps of stem and root and soil into the bag. A wind kicks up. Everything mobile shivers. He straightens up suddenly, shivering too, and he remembers sharply.

She did come after all, down to the pier and she threw stones into the water and cursed them all to hell and they had both cried and sat there for a long time in silence. Until darkness chased the last glimmer of orange over the hills and a crescent moon walked.

And then. Then the long lapse. Heavy whether weighed or counted. And what exactly did she say? And what did he say back? And why?

Andrea lifts the camera up in front of the unusual hearthstone, inside the remnants of cottage. The odd wind returns, stronger, swirling round the little space. The world begins to flap, and when she moves to fix her balance something small and folded blows out from the wall, lands by her feet.

Reilly stuffs the bag into his pocket, leaves the van where it is, starts walking down to the lake, trying to remember better. How is it so urgent and yet so vague?

Impossible blues, impossible greens, impossible kinds of memories.

The note is almost worn through, and tears when she unfolds it, but Andrea can read parts, and a part of her that has been still, stirs.

She sets her bag down, slides out the map. It wobbles in the wind. There’s the lake it names, Shindilla, just a few hundred metres west, right next to the track. She hauls the pack onto her back and clambers out over a crumple of stones.

Beyond the pier the wind is giddy, digs creases into the water. It too remembers being here before. It cannot help but caress, pick and drop, poke or knock, whatever will budge to its bidding.

“Oh, hi, sorry, I didn’t think anyone was out here!”

“That’s ok! Neither did I. Are you from nearby?”

“For my sins. You doing the Western Way?”

Night has set. A red van bumps from a narrow track onto the N59, turns towards Clifden.

Inside, an unlikely pairing of unmortgageables chat with the openness of unguarded strangers.

In his pocket, a plastic bag of dirt and invasives. In her pocket, shards of paper. Between the worn engine pistons, an old wind, massaged by the vibrating drone. In the cabin air, a detached memory that is letting go, ready to be written over. All are
Flimsily tied to
These fleeing hours
That we sometimes share
In happenstance hush that flies
Between the tumbling walls of

Written Spring 2022. Been some time since I finished even a very short story. Such is life. Is it even finished now? Every time I read it I see tweaks. I tweak and untweak, never quite sure about the direction. Better or worse? It’s not quite like left or right. I think my stories are both too simple and too complex. Narrative cluelessness, too much texture. I have a tendency to slip into poetic fancies. Fallacies. How much of our mental scape is fantasy? I think life has a tendency to slip into many different kinds of clothes. On it goes. Thank you for reading, you are part of the chosen few. Praise be with you. Go surf that void.

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