The Story Collector (extract)

Prologue

My field books.  There are stacks of them.  In the attic; in boxes under the bed in the spare room; on the bookshelf.  And now scattered across the burgundy Shiraz rug in front of me.  I can’t remember when I gave up cataloguing them.  When Elena was a baby, perhaps.  Things started to snowball about then.

I pick up the top one – Field Notes Number 19, to give it its official name.  Its moss green cover is now starting to separate into layers at the corners, revealing its hidden construction.  The soft, pliable, outer veneer peeling off, exposing the more solid but less flexible core.  And the shiny spiral rings still just about holding it all together – cover and inner pages.  It isn’t as pretty a notebook as it used to be, all the way back then, crisp and new and full only of potential.  Yet it, and all the others spread across the floor and throughout the house are, despite the apparent neglect, more meaningful to me than almost everything else.

I put it down again and sit back on my heels.  It might be easiest to box them up as they are: battered, unprotected, uncatalogued.  

When Elena was shipped off, so to speak, only a few short months ago, she was wrapped in as much pre-paving and financial support as my daughter’s independent spirit would allow me.  I couldn’t bear to watch her spread her wings without knowing that I had cushioned her as best I could from the hard knocks of the world.

Do my journals not deserve the same attention? 

A sudden urge to find the first story – the one that started it all off – sweeps over me and I root through the field books on the floor, hoping it’s there.  And it turns out that it is.  Field Notes Number 1, with its dark blue cover as battered as Number 19.  I remember hoping that it would be the story of Oisín and Niamh that would start me off – that romantic tale of the hero forsaking his homeland in pursuit of a dream, and the only Irish story I had heard before setting foot here.  

It turns out to be the equally romantic though less well-known, ‘Donal and the White Hare’.  My eager, twenty-two year old scrawl careens across the opening page.

Once upon a time there was a Chieftain whose wife died, leaving him with a young daughter.  He remarried, the daughter of a powerful neighbouring Chieftain, who turned out to be a witch (note to self:  follow up on superstitions re. witches).  When the young daughter was ten, her father died and she was left alone with a witch for a stepmother.  The witch turned the girl into a white hare…

I am stunned by the deeper layer of meaning I’m now seeing in this simple tale.  The years between then and now collapse as I recognise both the hopeful yearning of my twenty-something-year-old self and the less hopeful longing I have been feeling recently.

I have a wild romantic soul that needs the sea.  Its constant changing and churning soothes me, drawing my restlessness into its own.  I think that’s what brought me to Ireland that summer – the idea of a small mystical island floating in the sea at the very edge of the civilised world.  But the sea just isn’t doing it for me these days.

What’s that Joni Mitchell line about all romantics ending up the same way?

 

1976

Chapter 1

The minute I see them, I know I haven’t made a mistake.  

The sea caves, that is.

Jagged and dark, they line the red cliffs at the far end of the beach, egging me on to abandon my Opel Kadett as it is, sprawled where the track peters out onto sandy grass.

With a grin wider than my jaw can contain, I bounce out of the car, catching myself before I habitually stick the key in the lock.  The last houses were at least a mile back up the road.  There’s not a soul in sight.  

The sharp dune grass catches my bare calf as I half-slide down onto the sand.  Rougher than I expect.  The beaches back home slope gently from freeway to sand, but I’d heard about the wild dunes here on the edge of the Atlantic.  Maybe I should have warned my scratched calves.

The sand itself is cool and soft under my toes – my sneakers chucked to one side behind me.    

‘Ireland?  Are you sure?’  They’d asked.  ‘It’s so very far away.  Wouldn’t you prefer to go to Mexico with Hannah?’

They didn’t get it and I couldn’t explain.

Or maybe I just didn’t want to.  

Mexico was on my doorstep.  It was too easy.  Too much part of my heritage. I wanted a challenge.  Somewhere further away.

And then there was my name – that tenuous link to a country I had no other connection with.

My parents called me Osheen, with typical disregard for its original gender designation.  Mom had come across the name in a compendium of stories from around the world, and had always loved it.   When I turned out to be a girl, not a boy, she stuck to her guns – changing the spelling to ensure correct pronunciation.  She’s a stickler for details like that, is mom. 

Not that it made any difference.  No-one knew that the name Oisín belonged to an Irish hero.  More familiar with Asian traditions, folks inevitably called me Asheena, or some variation of it.  Strangers tended to assume, taking into account my dark colouring, that my lineage must be Indian since I didn’t have a Spanish name.  But I have no Indian blood. Nor Irish, for that matter.  Only WASP and a smattering of Hispanic, strongly tinged with hippified Buddhism.

The tide is out.  My feet leave soapy foot-shaped holes in the damp sand at the water’s edge.  A little ways on, a flock of black and white birds with long bright-orange beaks are probing for food.  They shuffle away from me as I draw closer, reluctant to relinquish their feast, but then startle me as they take sudden flight with shrill peeeeep-peeps.

How cool is that?  I must find out what they’re called.  

The grin stretches my cheeks even further until they ache.

As I draw close, I can see that the cliff face and scattered rocks below are sprinkled with glinting pyrite.  The part of me that is looking for further evidence of my rightness in coming here sees it as a good omen.  I’ll push to one side the fact that pyrite is only fool’s gold.

*****************************

Pitching the tent is harder than I remember it being.  The metal poles are all in place except one.  No matter how much I yank at the stiff canvas, it won’t stretch that extra inch to slip over the end of the last pole.

Last time I did this, Hannah, Amy,  Maria and I had driven the two hours on Interstate 10 to San Bernardino Forest for Amy’s twenty-first.  She’s a year younger than the rest of us.  We had two tents between four of us – Hannah and I slept in mine, but it took all four of us to get each tent up.  

I crawl inside the canvas, propping it up on my head as I push against the last pole with my extended heels, tugging the reluctant fabric towards it.  It’s stifling in here, the sun still beating down outside despite it being almost five.  I thought Ireland was supposed to be damp and cold?

There’s a rooting, shuffling sound outside, and a bark, followed by a black and white muzzle inserting itself through the opening by my feet.

‘Oy!’ I yell, pulling my legs out of harms way.  ‘Scram’.

‘Paisley!’  A man’s voice summons the dog and it retreats.

The tent is still a jumbled mess as I clamber out and stand up, keeping an eye on the Collie.

‘She looks like Lassie.’

‘It’s a he,’  the man in the grey suit and cap corrects me.  ‘You have one like him, do ye?’

‘No.  I meant Lassie the movie dog.’

‘Ah, the movies, is it?  No, I wouldn’t be too familiar with them, now.’

He gestures at the tent.

‘Máire Phait asked me to check in on you if I saw you arrive,’ he says.  ‘See if you need anything.  Maybe you could do with a hand with that?’

Processing the accent means my understanding is lagging behind his words, and I’m not sure I’m hearing what he’s saying correctly.

‘Maura Fat?’

‘She said you might be needing a hand, being on your own and all.’

Is it me or is it him?  Who on earth is Maura Fat? 

‘Máire Phait Conroy?’

‘Mary Conroy!’ 

Understanding dawns.

Mary is my college tutor while I’m here – my connection to the course programme at UCLA.  It was her home in Galway I stayed in the last two nights.  It was she who told me where to come, who gave me Kit Sweeney’s name.  And she’s the one who placed six careful ‘x’ marks on the map so I’d know how to get started here.

An ‘x’ for the nearest shop and post office; another for where to get petrol; a third for Kit’s house; a fourth for the retired schoolteacher who knows everyone; a fifth for a good spot to camp; and a sixth for the public phone.  

To be clear, Mary suggested I not camp – which is why I have Kit’s name.  

‘At least with Kit you’ll have a bed and bath – like you’re used to back home,’ she’d said.  ‘It can get a bit wild sometimes, there by the coast.  And I’d feel a whole lot better knowing you were being looked after.’

But she’d marked the ‘x’ all the same and this is where I am – sitting where that fifth ‘x’ marks the spot, a mad-looking Collie and an old man I can’t seem to relate to both staring at me.

‘Yes, Mary Conroy,’ the man continues,’ that’s how you’d know her, I suppose.’ 

‘Sorry – I mean, hello, I’m Osheen Miller.’  

I stick my hand out to shake.  He takes it – reluctantly, I think – and limply shakes, then releases, without any introduction on his part. He gestures at the tent again, and I wonder how much experience he has with erecting them.  I can’t imagine his stiff frame would take to crawling around on the ground.  I’m not sure I want the responsibility of it, either.

His eyes look from my bare feet to the sneakers lying by the car, and on to the beads wrapped round my wrist.   

‘Ye weren’t part of that hippy commune on Dorinish a few years back, were ye?’

I wonder what he’d say if I say was.  Not that he looks too bothered.  I get the feeling he’s being curious more than anything.

‘No,’ I say.  ‘I just got here a couple of days ago.’

‘I had to ask, to be sure.’  He nods, then looks directly into my face.  ‘They were takin’ drugs there, d’ye know?’  

I raise my eyebrows and shake my head.  Drugs?  No way!  I hope I look convincingly outraged.

He takes another look at the canvas mess. 

 ‘Well, young miss, I’ll get one of the youngsters to give you a hand.’

He lifts his cap at me, and I watch as he strides back up the track, Paisley trotting ahead.  

*************

It’s gone six thirty. I’m eating cold refried beans out of the can and flicking through the May edition of Crawdaddy when I see them.  Five kids of different heights, one so small he’s being carried by the tallest girl, her short skirt bunched up under where the toddler is perched straddle on her hip.

‘Grandpa said you need help,’ she says drawing close, plonking the toddler on the ground by her side.  All five have ash blond hair and staring dark blue eyes.

‘What’s yer name?’  A boy of about nine asks.

‘She’s Oisín,’ the older girl says, shooting him a warning look.  ‘Remember what mam said!’

I wonder who their mom is, and what the warning look is for.

‘But, Maeve, she can’t be!’ An even younger boy protests.  ‘She’s a girl!

‘Yes, you’re right.  I am Osheen.’  I smile at them.  Maeve smiles back; an open smile, big solid front teeth but pointy, crooked eye teeth. She must be about fourteen, I reckon.  

The others continue to stare at me – the youngest with an accusatory look on his face as if I’m deliberately trying to mislead him.  

‘My mother didn’t know much about Ireland,’  I add.

I resent having to apologise for a name I didn’t choose but his expression pulls the apology out of me before I can catch it.

‘Sean, she’s American,’ Maeve says, by way of clarification.  That seems to do it.  The younger ones lose interest in me and turn their attention to the tent.

….

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Freya Watson

Author, lover, mother, adventurer, shaman, therapist, business consultant and healer - I wear lots of different hats!

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