Where Light Travels, Catherine

By SONYA GILDEA

Irish shore
When Catherine woke and turned the light on, she was shaking, her whole body was cold. This, she thought, is aftershock. She had been fine all afternoon: a little sleepy, but fine. Now she was trembling. Her feet were freezing.

She put on a cardigan, found warm socks and turned the central heating on. It was still dark and too early to let the dogs out. She made coffee, stronger than usual, and sat at the kitchen table without putting on the main light. She liked this time of day. If the tide was coming in, the air was salty and fresh, and you could watch daylight starting out on the water past the rocks. 

She was sixty-four now, sixty-five next month. Her age felt sudden to her, as though it had happened quickly. Sixty-four, she said out loud, the kitchen quiet, the dogs sleeping by the back door.

 

Mossy, her neighbor, owned this house—the stone house, they called it. She was renting it from him. He and his brother Ardán had been born here, he’d told her, before his family had moved to the new farmhouse a few fields over and the old place was let go to seed. 

It was why his brother had taken on the rebuild with such demented fury, Mossy had laughed. That, and a misplaced sense of his own geography. 

They had rebuilt the house brick-by-brick, Mossy said softly, fondly. Every porous slab of cement, every inch of skirting, every metal pipe and fitting, he said. His brother had been possessed. And he himself had cursed it often: the clay tiles that came loose in winter, the bow window they could not find glass for. And later, by the time Ardán died, its unwieldy place in things. 

Catherine loved this house. It was built on a small, spectacular spit of land on the southwest coast of Ireland. Hidden from the road by tall elms and surrounded by sea on three sides. The only way of reaching the house was through a damp field at the back. The front of the house, facing out to sea, was startling to her, beautiful. 

Thirty-two years ago, she and Tad had moved to the next town over for his actuary job at the bank. Tad had already decided on one of the new builds in the town center: bright, two-story townhouses. Optimistic and double-glazed. 

Catherine remembers bringing him out here to show him the stone house back then. But it’s a ruin, he’d laughed, a wilderness. He was smiling, already walking back to the car. But she had stood, listening, the sea at her feet, a handful of warm pebbles still in her palm. Wondering what it would be to live in a place like this, on your own, watching the sea in all weathers. 

*

Yesterday, the car coming against her on the bend had swerved, but too late. She had sat stunned at an odd angle, the engine running and her shoulder lodged into the corner between the door and the driver’s seat. 

There had been a moment, she knew, when she had closed her eyes. She didn’t know if that was before it was too late, or just after. When she opened them, the car was sideways in a farmer’s field, the wipers still going and the radio playing some song she knew from the eighties.  

It felt ordinary, Catherine thought sitting there. Unspectacular, Mossy might say. Without note, he would add. And after a while, thinking, he’d say, that’d be the shock. 

But she hadn’t felt shock; her body was warm, and she was sleepy. She wanted to stay in the car, to give in to the tiredness. 

When she came to, she was freezing. She turned off the engine, pulled herself sideways out of the car and stood dazed in the field beside it. She couldn’t tell which direction the road was in and when she looked down, one of her shoes was missing, her stockinged foot pressed into the wet grass. It looked strange to her, as though it wasn’t hers. 

The farmer, when he came across the field, stood with his hand to the back of his head, looking at the car, then the field around it, and back to the ditch. That summer, they had downed telephone poles along the road, felled them horizontally into nearby ditches, and the car looked to have glided over one and into the field. 

“You were lucky,” he said. 
I was, she thought, looking to where he looked and back at the car.

He drove her home and said he would get the tractor to pull the car into his yard. Sonny, the mechanic in town, would come out and tow it into the garage. 

She must have slept straight through, she couldn’t remember getting ready for bed, just waking there in the dark. 

*

In the small weeks after Tad died, Catherine had thought of the stone house again and how it felt to her the first time she’d seen it. The give in it, something unquestioning. She picked up her car keys and without a coat or bag, drove out the Old Line to Mossy’s. She found him in the new farmyard and, standing in the rain, asked if he would rent the old house—the one by the water—to her for a month. She wasn’t sure why a month, or why at all, or why now, but he said he would, yes. The house wasn’t much inside, he said, hadn’t been lived in for a while. 

He was right, but it was small enough to fix. And anyway, she had thought, what did that matter. She had the time now. 

 

Her first weeks out here were the quietest she could remember. Quiet wasn’t it exactly; the sound of the sea was there always. But the quietest she had felt in herself. She liked how whole days could drift by without talking with anyone. Sometimes two or three days together.

In the morning, early, after she had walked out on the rocks collecting kindling and wood, she lit the fire. She waited for it to take before building it up from the turf in the lean-to out the back. She liked everything about this work. The certainty of it and the sequence of it. 

If it rained, she changed out of her damp clothes while the room warmed and later, after she had eaten breakfast and washed up the dishes she’d used—leaving them to dry on the draining board—she read at the table under the window with the stove door open. Books she had brought with her, books from the local library, and books she had ordered online.

 

When she had first told her son, Trealach, that she was going to rent Mossy’s stone house and stay out there for a few weeks, he had looked at her confused. “Why would you want to do that… at your age?” he’d asked. “What will you do there?”

“Think, maybe,” she had answered. “And read a little…” It was true, that was what she wanted. Time—small, solitary pockets of it—she had never had.

He couldn’t understand why she wanted to leave her own house; it was warm, comfortable, and central. A little like his father in this, she had thought, and smiled.     

But Trealach had felt betrayed, she knew. He needed her to miss his father more than she did. Well, not more, but differently, more conventionally. She understood her son. He would come round in his own time, she thought. He had always been slower than his sister with this kind of thing.  

And Catherine had loved her husband—Tad, or Thaddeus as he was called—and been loved by him; she didn’t doubt or question it. They hadn’t been too young or too naive. They had been good friends. They’d laughed a lot. There were the early years when they moved, sometimes once every eighteen months, because of his work. The later years when they had settled in town in the house Tad wanted and planted-out rowan trees at the end of their long garden. 

It was, for the most part, Tad’s life she had lived. She understood that. None of it was remarkable, or unremarkable either. It was just the slow shifting underfoot of a lifetime. 

*

By the time the phone rang, there was light in the sky and the tide was in. Catherine let it ring and got up to let the dogs out. They were patient, both of them, and happy always when the back door opened out onto the tiny courtyard. 

The strength had gone out of her legs and there was a soreness down her right side, bruised probably. Stiff too. If she could find the Epsom salts, she would run a bath to see if that might loosen up her shoulder, and there was arnica cream somewhere in one of the kitchen cupboards, or maybe it was in the car she had last seen it. Afterward she would call Sonny’s garage to see about the car.

 

When she had first gone back to her own house in town and back to work, she had missed being out here like you would miss a person. She missed waking in the small room off the kitchen, the light on the panelled wood. At night, falling asleep tired, listening to the sounds the house made. She’d felt most like herself when she was here. 

She wondered now how a whole life could have as easily been lived in any one of two different ways. For all of us, probably. Or most of us. 

She had taken the new job as school secretary the year Tad died. It wasn’t complicated once she had learned how to use the new software and, mostly, they were nice people. She wasn’t suited to it in the way Ursula Adebari had been. Ursula had been school secretary for almost twelve years. Still, in the end, Catherine learned to do everything in the way Ursula might have done, which was what they had wanted most. 

Marissa, Catherine’s daughter, had her first child that same year: a little girl who, like Marissa, would never sleep. She was going to be tall like her father—Catherine had thought—and fragile and stubborn like her mother. Then the twins came quickly, two boys. And that was that.

*

When Catherine asked Mossy if she could rent the house from him again, you can, he had said, yes. 

At first, she came out for weekends and during school break, with the longest stretch in July and August. And then she came back in winter and again after Christmas the year they had the bad snow. 

It was harder to get out onto the shore once the ground froze, but she pared down a hazel stick to push ahead of herself, and went out anyway. Some days for hours on end, walking over frozen fields, across the rocks, and down to the water. 

It was more difficult to heat the house in the winter months, but she dressed in layers, adding a thermal fleece under one of two old woolen jumpers that had been Tad’s, and another pair of men’s socks inside her work boots. She had found a wool hat, a navy one, and piled her hair up into it and began wearing it indoors as well. She had meant to replace the old mirror above the kitchen sink, bring out a small, new one from town, but she never did. There were no other mirrors in the house and after a while, she forgot about it and how she looked. 

Marissa had come out here to the stone house just once to see her. The visit had come about too quickly for Catherine to know why it wouldn’t work for her daughter. And then Marissa was standing in the small yard, trying to hold onto her coat in a gust of wind. She looked bewildered. 

And they were shy with each other, drank tea and talked about things, and the children, but not about the unheated kitchen they were sitting in, or the small and unfamiliar house. Nor about Catherine’s old, loose clothes, or the wildness in her hair now probably. There was nothing here for Marissa to recognize in her mother, Catherine realized. There was a damp, rough woodpile inside the door that Catherine said, yes, she had cut and logged herself. She hadn’t painted the place after all, and she had never thought to bring out any of the nice things from town with her. She hadn’t, in the end, needed or wanted them. 

*

“You made shit of the car.”
Catherine looked up. Mossy stood in under the doorway, the pup with him. 
“I did,” she said. 
He had seen it in Sonny’s yard.

“And yourself?” 
It was why he had walked over, she knew. 
“I’ll be okay.”
“You will faith,” he said, putting the post on the table. “Is the phone out?”
“No…”
“Just not in the mind for it?”
“No,” she nodded. 

Catherine knew whole days went by when Mossy didn’t know where his phone was, or had put it on silent and left it that way. His sister, in her eighties and living outside New Jersey, called once every month. Mossy found the phone then, charged it up and left it nearby and ready.

He stood out of the light to see Catherine, “You’ve banged up the arm.”
“I have, but it’s nothing.” 
“And the face took a wallop.” 
“Probably,” she said. She hadn’t realized, but inside her mouth felt swollen. 

Mossy was late into his seventies, near eighty, and stood over six foot.  

“Tea?” He moved to the kitchen sink, filling the kettle, the pup at his feet. “Did you eat anything?” 
“Not yet, no.”
He found a jar of honey and dropped some into the tea. 
“What put you in the ditch?”
“A car, coming against me. It was on the wrong side.”
He nodded. “That’ll do it.” 
The car had slid silently into the ditch, she thought now. There hadn’t been a sound. Nothing.

He handed her a cup and stood with his own, looking at the sky behind her. “It’s clearing.”
She turned to see, but winced with a pain shooting up her arm.  
“You’re stiff.”
“I am, all over… I was going to run a bath, you know, see if that might free it up.” 
He put his cup down. “Sit on there awhile and I’ll get it going.” 

She could hear him moving around off the bedroom, his boots on the old wood, the pup following him in and out, then the water running. It was strange to hear him there—among her things—but comforting in a way. She rested her head back, closed her eyes. 

When Trealach was born, it was his father who chose his name—Trealach after his own father. Even now, after thirty years, Catherine did not like the name, though she had never said so to anyone. It was too harsh for him and he had not—as Tad once said he would—grown into it. At fourteen, Trealach’s friends had started calling him Trey, and he liked it and began using it himself. So too did the girls that came and went. Tall, skinny, thoughtful girls. Languid creatures, Catherine thought, their smiles bright.

Mossy stood in the doorway.
“Do you have salts?”
“Above the bathroom sink I’d say, or if not, maybe in the airing cupboard.”
He turned and was gone again.

Mossy had grown up the second youngest—Din Laverty had told Catherine—until Matty, the baby brother, died out on the boats two months before he was to marry. Mossy blamed himself, Din said. It was Mossy had taught Matty to fish. They had only finished in the yard and they’d be out no matter the forecast. Though that summer it had been fine and the sea was calm for days on end. 

“We’re right,” Mossy said.
Catherine reached for the armrest too quickly. “Christ!” she whispered in pain.
“Here, give me the good hand,” he said, and took her hand. A farmer used to handling new calves. He helped her to her feet. Taking her other arm under the elbow, he gave her a minute to get her balance before they stepped off. 

“We’ll only go slow,” he said, picking their way around the furniture and down to the room.
“Get up, you thick,” he whispered to the pup in their way. 

She could smell the warm water, the air soft with it. 
“How are you doing now?” he asked.
“Fine. Bit wobbly, but that’s all.”
“You are.” Mossy nodded. “This’ll fix you though.” 

He had put a towel out on the bed, she saw, and another beside it folded. And he had pulled up and straightened the bedcovers. The kindness of that, she thought. 

“There,” he said, letting her take her own weight back, so that she could lean on the chair. 
“Were you awake half the night?”
“I was.” 
He nodded. “That’s only the shock.”

And pushing the ends of his coat back, he knelt down and started to loosen the laces on her boots. She stepped out of them, one and then the other, the floor cold against her feet. 

Standing at Catherine’s shoulder, he took one sleeve and freed her good arm. “Now we’ll go gentle at the other here.” And very carefully he took the cardigan from around her bad shoulder, laying it down on the bed. 

Mossy was neither shy nor embarrassed. He was easy in himself. And he was private, Catherine knew. Weeks could pass before they might see or talk with each other, or meet up on the road while out walking. They’d chat then, catch up on local things before going on again separately. He was solitary. They both were, she thought.

And Mossy wouldn’t see a dog or an animal in pain. Before Brennans lost the foal last winter, he had taken the foal in and slept with her on the floor of the kitchen; the heartbeat, he said, they like to hear it. 

“See if you can make any fist of them,” he said of her buttons, “and I’ll try and lift it off for you then.”

With her good hand, she worked her way down the small pyjama buttons. Stupid buttons, she thought now—she usually pulled the whole thing on, or off, over her head. 

“Nearys have the soil turned in the haggart,” he said.
“How does it look?”
“Good. Healthy, they’ll grow away there.”

When she got to the last button, he began slowly pulling the sleeve down over her wrist.
“Is Gatch happy with it?” she asked.
“He didn’t say one way or the other. But he’ll be easier now that he can have the animals in closer.”

He lifted the pyjama top away and reached for the bath towel, pulling it around her. She wrapped the towel around her bare shoulders, and he freed a strand of her hair caught at the back. 

“You’ll go slow,” he said, before turning to walk back up to the kitchen. 
“I will,” she said, looking after him, watching him disappear down the hall. Her father was the only other person she knew who could help you with no weight in the exchange. 

 

She lowered herself into the water. It was warm and full and sudden. She slid slowly down until it was around her shoulders, and felt the heat taking where the soreness was. 

“You’re in now.” Mossy had walked back down to check from the other side of the door.
“I am.” 
“And settled.”
“Yes.”

She lay there a long time. Her body was old to her, slackened in the water, and the green bruising ran down her side and hip and thigh, making the rest of her skin whiter. It was funny, she thought, how a hurt body can be the same one you had sex with, or carried children inside. 

Overrated, her friend said once, in the kitchen, the children running around outside. The whole subject of sex. Maybe she was right. Though Catherine thought there was something more to it. She remembered those first years with Tad: they had been awkward and strange and lovely. Then, after the children came along, they relaxed into each other, and how it felt. It was usually the other way around, she was told, but she didn’t mind about that. 

Outside, the school bus was making the hill on the main road. She could hear the engine. They had raffled locally all last winter trying to raise enough money to replace it. She would miss it when they did, she liked the sound: the end of day in it. 

She remembered a morning when Marissa was almost four and Trealach was just walking. Catherine had been sitting out on the back step, the children playing in the yard. The day was already warm, the sky clearing. She remembered watching Marissa and Trealach playing, and never having felt a loneliness like it. Though for what exactly she couldn’t have explained; something in herself, she knew. And in some way, for them, though they were right there, in front of her—she could have called them to her, touched their warm hair, their small hands.

She never spoke about that feeling—then or afterwards—to anyone. The women she knew, her closest friends, would have been betrayed by it in some way. She felt betrayed by it herself. 

And though as a girl no one had said to Catherine that there was a start and finish of yourself in a child of your own, she had felt that day looking at the children, that in them some part of her—of what she had expected, or waited on as a girl—had finished. Ended, in a way. 

It had, she thought now, reasonably, or at least in exchange. Part exchange, maybe. 

*

Mossy had put a fire down and Catherine sat at the stove, dressed and dry, a fleece around her shoulders. She felt steadier in herself, clearer. Mossy sat on the other side, rubbing the pup’s ear with the side of his boot. He had warmed soup she made yesterday and left it ready for her for later on.

“Do you mind the time that fucker sliced into the back of the combine, Kate?”
She laughed, out loud. It had been the only time she’d ever heard Mossy roar.
“Ninety miles an hour,” he said. 
She nodded. 
“At the very least,” he added. And after a while, he smiled. “That combine was never right after.”

Mossy was the only person who called her Kate; he didn’t use her name often and hadn’t asked, but it was never Catherine. 

“You can’t be going around crashing cars on your own, Kate,” he said.

“No,” she agreed. 

He reached and pulled the turf together in the stove and added coal, banking it down for the evening. Her father too had dogs at his feet always. He would quieten them with a soft sound, wait until they were in their bed or under the table, then look at her. “Now go on where you started, Catherine,” he’d smile, wanting to hear what she had to say. Listening then to whatever she had been thinking. 

“Would you sell me the house, Mossy?” 
He sat for a long time and she was afraid she had said the wrong thing.
“I would. Yes,” he said when he looked up. 
“Would you do me a good deal though?” 
“Well, a fair one.” 
“Right.” 
“Right.” 

They sat on, listening to the coal in the grate. 
“You’ll sell your own house?” 
“I will.”
“And the children?” 
“They’ll come round to it. They’re busy now, with their own things…”

This was what she had wanted, she realized. To go on living here, by the sea, the days fully her own. The quietness.

 

It was getting dark out when Mossy stood to go, rousing the pup. “There you have it, I’ll take that pup back up to her mother, lazy article she is. Will I look in before you sleep?”
“No, there’s no need. You have done too much.”
“For nothing.”
“Thank you all the same.” 

She heard Mossy pull the gate closed, the wind starting up again. She wasn’t tired; she would read the end of her book in bed before getting up to let the dogs out a last time. 

On nights that were clear enough, she put on an anorak and stood at the wall looking out until her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she could begin to see out past the rocks. And then the sea, if the tide was in and full. She tasted the saltiness in her mouth then—the sea in the air—while she was locking up and turning out the lights. 

 

 

Sonya Gildea is winner of the John McGahern Literature Award (2021), a selected poet for Poetry Ireland’s 2021-22 Introductions programme, recipient of an Artist Literature Bursary Award (2021) from the Irish Arts Council, winner of an Ireland Chair of Poetry (post-grad) Student Award (2020-21), and winner of the Cúirt International New Writer’s Award (2015). She has published in Crannóg, the Irish Times, the Stinging Fly, Tolka journal, the Cormorant Broadsheet, the Night Heron Barks, The Maynard Journal of Poetry, the commemorative anthology Hold Open the Door (UCD & Chicago Press, 2020), the Poetry Ireland anthology This Is What You Mean To Me (2021) (edited by Seán Hewitt & Paul Lenehan), and is set to be included in Arlen House Publishing’s forthcoming anthology of contemporary Irish women poets (2022). Sonya is recipient of DLR Arts Office & Creative Ireland Artist Literature Bursary Award (2021), recipient of an Artist Residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre (2021), and recipient of an Irish Arts Council Agility Award (2021). Sonya holds an MA in creative writing, University College Dublin (2020). She has written The Switching Yard, a first book of short stories, and is currently writing a first poetry collection, 500 Seconds, and completing a chapbook in collaboration with visual artist Sorca O’Farrell, The Nine River Beats of Owenea, which is set in Co. Donegal, Ireland. Sonya lives and works in Dublin, Ireland.

Photo by author.

Where Light Travels, Catherine

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