THE CROW OF CONNEMARA - sample chapters

NOTE: The sample offered below is from the manuscript, not the book, and thus may vary slightly from the book text...

1: DEATH & THE SINNER

Darcy Fitzgerald lay dying in the next room.

His family and friends were gathered in the small front room of Darcy’s farmhouse on Ceomhar Head, well outside the town of Ballemór in County Galway. Two and sometimes three of the group took brief turns sitting at Darcy’s bedside with the priest and Darcy’s sister Margaret Egan, who were holding vigil. The priest—Father Quinlan—had been sent for by Margaret; the truth was that in living memory, no one could recall Darcy ever trudging into town of a Sunday to attend mass, but Margaret had insisted that her own pastor come out and sit with her.

“Darcy’s been baptized, an’ so I’ll be having the Last Rites done proper for the repose of his poor soul,” she proclaimed. “The good father will do them, too, or he won’t be seeing another pence of mine or m’family’s in the offering tray.”

Margaret, Father Quinlan, and the occasional friend sat in the stuffy bedroom: listening to Darcy’s labored, stuttered breathing and the muffled din of conversation from the other room. They talked quietly to each other over Darcy’s form under the blanket once quilted by his twelve-year-dead wife, occasionally glancing at the grizzled, sunken face on the pillow that was, in turn, staring blindly at the candlelit shadows gathering on the ceiling.

In the front room, the evening already had more the aspect of a wake. The dozen folk there had gone through two bottles of Jameson 12-year-old Special Reserve from Darcy’s cupboard (“Well, he won’t be a’needin’ the whiskey now, will he?”), and flasks were regularly being produced from back pockets and passed around. The air was murky with fragrant smoke from cigarettes, pipes, and the smoldering peat fire in the hearth, which didn’t seem to be drawing properly. Their voices were loud and boisterous, laughing as they related stories from Darcy’s past: purely fiction, embellished, or nakedly raw, they didn’t care. Someone had brought along a guitar and another a fiddle, and the stories and conversation intermingled with playing and singing.

Outside, a gale off the North Atlantic howled and shook the shutters and roofbeams of the farmhouse. The door to the farmhouse rattled in its frame, causing those closest to glance toward it to check that the latch was still holding.

The door to Darcy’s bedroom opened. Margaret stood there with her white hair and a rosary clutched in her hand, Father Quinlan a dark presence behind her. The song failed in mid-phrase and the laughter shuddered to a halt. Margaret sniffed and wiped at her eyes. “Poor Darcy’s gone,” she stated simply. Several of those in the room made the sign of the cross at the news.

At the same moment, the shutters boomed and rattled, and the door visibly quivered with a sound as if wild fists were beating on the planks. “Sweet bleedin’ Jaysus!” one of the company shouted in alarm, then glanced guiltily at the priest. “Beggin’ your pardon a’course, Father.”

The door and shutters continued to rattle as the wind rose with a nearly human, furious shriek. The blue flames of the peat fire shuddered in a sudden downdraft that sent smoke pouring into the room. “What in heaven—” Margaret began as the gathering coughed and waved hands against the invasion, but a new voice interrupted her.

“ ’Tis yer fault, all of yez,” the voice said, and as one they looked over to the hearth from where the voice had emanated. A woman stood in front of the fire, and hers was a face that none of them knew. She was bundled in a hooded red cloak, the cloth beaded with rain as if she’d just come in from the weather, though no one could remember her entering the room. Her eyes were a deep, saturated green, and the strands of hair that escaped the cowl were the color of a moonless sky at midnight. Her voice was edged steel wrapped in dark velvet, low and sensual. “There be no door or window open here for the soul to depart through, as is customary. The spirits sent to accompany Darcy are angry.”

“Darcy’s soul ca'nah be kept from the Lord by doors or windows,” Father Quinlan interjected. He scowled. “This blather is simple superstition, woman. Shame on yeh.” Both he and Margaret glared at the intruder.

“Darcy Fitzgerald didn’t believe in yer foolish God, priest, so shut your gob,” the woman said, and half the company drew in their breath at the blasphemy. Several warded themselves again with the sign of the cross. “Darcy believed in things much older than that, and they’ve come for him now. Yeh must let him go. Why has no one stopped the clocks here or turned the mirrors?”

Again there came the sound of fists beating at the door, and the shutters were nearly pulled from their hinges. The wind shrieked in the chimney, and the guitar player, sitting on the hearth nearest the woman, looked at the fire, startled. “’Tis the very banshee,” he said, then glanced guiltily at the woman.

“Aye,” the woman in red answered. She was smiling strangely. “Open the door,” she commanded, gesturing to the men nearest to it.

“Nah,” Margaret shouted back. “There be no need for that. Darcy’s soul is already in heaven, and his body will be placed in consecrated ground.”

The cloaked woman laughed as fists continued to hammer at the planks, and she gestured once more. “Open the door,” she repeated. Her voice was imperious, commanding, and one of the men sitting next to the door rose to his feet, glancing at his wife who sat alongside him, who in turn was staring at the woman.

Finally, the wife nodded, faintly, as if she and the woman had exchanged some unheard communication. “What can it hurt?” she half-whispered, though she kept her gaze averted from Margaret and the priest, who remained standing in the doorway of Darcy’s bedroom as if defending the corpse. Her husband lifted the latch and turned the knob, pulling at the door.

The door flew from his hands, slamming hard against the limits of its hinges as the mourners shouted in alarm. A hurricane wind as cold as a winter gravestone blew hard into the front room, snatching papers and napkins from the small table and hurling them about, extinguishing all the candles, sending the pictures on the wall swaying and falling, and toppling the empty bottles of Jameson. The few electric lights in the room—Darcy having been slow to have the lines run out to his farmstead—flickered and went momentarily dark. Only the faint, ethereal light of the peat fire remained, strangely untouched. The wind plucked at the coats and pants and skirts of those gathered there as if with invisible fingers, and tugged especially hard at the priest’s cassock, enough that they heard him cry out in the darkness. Then the wind abruptly reversed itself, rushing out from the house and slamming the door shut behind itself. Later, some of those in the room would swear they heard a man laughing in the midst of the retreating gale, and that the laughter was that of old Darcy himself.

The electric lights pulsed once and returned. The peat fire crackled contentedly as the gathering blinked and looked around. “That woman…” they heard Margaret say. “I swear that she…” and they all looked to where the woman had been.

But she had gone as suddenly as she’d come.

This time, it was the priest himself who made the sign of the cross.

 

2: A Dream, Vanishing

The Chicago weather promised to be a shock. Even in early May, the heat threatened to overwhelm the sweater Colin Doyle was wearing. He pushed his glasses back up his nose as he peered myopically at the crowd near the Arrivals gate.

His sister Jen waved at him as he emerged, rushing over to him after a moment’s hesitation. Her short hair was disheveled, as if she’d just hurriedly toweled it dry after a shower. She wore her smile in the same way she wore a business suit. When he hugged her, he heard the smile break and a sob escape. “How’s Dad?” Colin asked as he embraced Jen.

“No better,” she answered, sniffing as she stepped back. “Sorry. I promised myself I wasn’t going to cry when I saw you.”

“My face sometimes has that effect.”

That brought back the smile momentarily. “Silly as always. Good. I’ve missed that.” He saw her glance at the gig bag on his back, his Gibson J-45 safely ensconced within; she said nothing, but her lips tightened a bit, and he wondered if she were going to say something about it. “Let’s hit the baggage carousels and get home,” she said instead. “You’re sure you want to stay with me and not Mom? You know she’s expecting you at home, in your old room.”

“I’m certain she is. I’m just not sure that’s where I want to be.” Colin gave a shrug. He lifted his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. “Or is that going to be a problem with you and Aaron? You are still seeing him, aren’t you?”

Jen’s quick blush gave him the answer, and suggested more.

The first time he’d heard about Aaron had been last semester…

#

Last semester…

Colin slid into a booth at the Starbucks on University Way NE with a grande latte. He pulled out his phone, which claimed it was 6:32 in the morning—8:32 back in Chicago. He touched the link for his sister Jennifer. He heard the click of the connection, a long hiss of static, and finally a ring. A second ring. A third.

“Colin? Do you have any idea what time it is here?” Her voice was simultaneously sleepy and irritated.

“8:30, give or take a couple minutes.”

“Yeah, in the morning. Saturday morning.”

“I wanted to get you before you left the apartment.”

“It’s a cell phone, dear; you’d get me whether I was in the apartment or not. And on Saturday, ‘before I leave the apartment’ means, oh, somewhere before one in the afternoon. Maybe later. It’s Saturday, damn it.”

“You complain a lot. What happened to the ‘Don’t worry what time it is, little brother, just call me whenever you get a chance’ story you gave me when I left?”

He heard her yawn; a male voice muttered something indistinctly in the background. “My brother Colin in Seattle,” he heard Jennifer say. “Go back to sleep.”

“Oops,” he said. “Jen had company last night. Sorry. Anyone I should know?”

Colin thought he heard the sound of bare feet on hardwood; she’d left the bed. “Hah, you’re not in the least bit sorry, so don’t even try to apologize. And no, you don’t know him, and as to whether you will ever know him… well, that’s not decided yet. It probably depends a lot on when you come back here.” She yawned again, sounding a bit more awake, and he heard dishes clattering in the background: she’d moved to the kitchen.

“What would Mom and Dad say?”

“I’m not in the habit of discussing my sex life with them. And not with you either, little brother. Speaking of which, how’s yours? You know Mom’s half-terrified you’re going to bring home some young undergrad coed, probably from the Music department, with a grandchild already incubating in her belly.” Colin heard something liquid being poured, and Jen taking a cautious sip: coffee. He took a sip of his own before he answered.

“Not much chance of that at the moment, I’m afraid. I’m too damn busy. So who’s this paragon?”

“His name’s Aaron Goldman.”

“Aaron Goldman? He’s Jewish?

“Yes.” He could almost see her eyebrows raising with the affirmation, as if in challenge.

“And how has that gone over with the parental units?”

Her sigh scratched at the speaker of the phone. “It’s not 1950 anymore, Colin. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in a whole new century, and Irish Catholics marry Jews all the time now. They marry Latinos and African-Americans too. Guys marry guys, women marry women. Or have you regressed back to another era since you went to the left coast? I thought things were more liberal out there.”

“Sure, all that goes on, just not in the Doyle family. Heck, I remember Tommy getting lots of grief back in high school for dating a Methodist. Somehow, I can’t see Dad letting his grandchild go to temple wearing a kippah.”

Another sigh rattled the speaker. “I’d like to point out that I’m neither married, pregnant, nor considering a conversion. And Mom said she thinks Aaron is very nice, thank you. Now, let’s talk about you, since you called…”

#

… They had, though he hadn’t told her then what he’d already been thinking.

“Hello?” he heard Jen saying now. “Earth to Colin.” Colin shook away the memory.

“Sorry,” he said. “Just not enough sleep. So Aaron’s still in the picture?”

“He is, but I do have an extra bed in my office at the apartment, and you can have that if you decide to stay with me instead of Mom.”

Colin nodded. “Good. I don’t think I slept more than a few hours last night. I’ll probably end up crashing pretty soon, and I’d rather do that at your place, if you don’t mind.”

“Not a problem for me, though it might be for Mom. But we can decide that later. Right now, let’s get you to the hospital. Everyone’s there.”

Colin lifted his chin in agreement and started walking down the corridor to where the signs pointed to the baggage area. “So… tell me about Dad,” he said as they walked. “He’s going to be all right, isn’t he?”

He saw her eyebrows raise at that, but he also saw her press her lips together again, as if to hold back the comment she wanted to make. “I’ll fill you in once we’re in the car…”

On the drive to the hospital, Jen told him that there’d been little change since the phone call he’d received the day before, and the changes that had occurred weren’t heartening. His father had been found collapsed on the floor of his downtown Loop office by one of the janitorial staff, after his mother became worried about him not answering his phone and called the building owners. No one knew how long he’d been down, unconscious and barely breathing. The doctors were saying it had been a massive coronary event, that their father been too long without oxygen, that there’d been too much resultant brain damage, and that his body was failing. His kidneys had shut down; the circulation to his extremities was poor.

“They’re telling us it’s our decision to make. They can keep him on the vent and see if he improves, but…” Jen stopped, biting her lip. He saw her eyes filling with tears, and when she blinked, twin streaks rolled down her cheek. She took one hand from the wheel to wipe at them, almost angrily. Colin reached over to place his hand on her shoulder. He could feel her trembling underneath his touch.

“S’okay, Jen. I wish I’d been in town and able to get here sooner.”

“You’re here now,” she told him. “That’s all that matters. Mom and Tommy’ll be glad to see you.”

Colin wasn’t quite so certain of that, especially not given the news that at some point he had to relay to them—when the time was right, which it certainly wasn’t now, not with his father’s condition. That has to wait. There’ll be a moment soon enough.

He could only hope that was right. He sighed and laid his head back against the seat rest, watching the once-familiar landscape scroll by.

Home. At least it once had been. Somehow, it no longer felt that way.

#

Colin wasn’t so certain that Jen was entirely right as the elevator doors opened on the lounge of the Cardiac ICU unit. His mother and Tommy were sitting in chairs near the nurse’s station, conversing with his Aunt Patty and a man in a suit that he didn’t recognize. Tommy was also dressed in a suit; even from this distance, Colin could tell it was expensive. His mother was wearing a black dress and looking as if she were going out for an evening on the town. Diamond earrings sparkled below her carefully-arranged and dyed-too-dark hair.

Tommy looked their way as the elevator doors open and nodded, as if in approval. He leaned down to speak in his mother’s ear, and she glanced toward the elevator. There was a frown on her face before she theatrically arranged it in a smile. He would see weariness in the way her face sagged, though, and that told him how much she’d been affected by his father’s illness.

“Colin,” she said, rising and holding out her hands. “It’s so good to see you again, my dear.”

Jen nudged him forward before he could move, and he went to his mother, kissing her on a dry cheek as she pursed her lips for an air kiss. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I came as soon as I heard,” he told her. Great. Starting with an apology right at the start. She squeezed his arm, and released him.

“At least Tom and Jen were here for your father and for me,” she said. “I was blessed to have that.”

He told himself that there was nothing personal in the words; it was only her way. But the sting of them also told Colin that his rationalizing was only a partial success. “Hey, Tommy,” he said as his brother came over to join them. Tom Jr. was a decade older than Colin; his hair already touched at the temple with the start of what Colin was certain would soon be a distinguished salt-and-pepper gray. Tommy had always been too old to be a true playmate for Colin; as a teenager, he seemed to consider Colin more a nuisance than anything else. When Tom had reached college, he seemed to be more like a distant, usually absent uncle than a brother. It was Jen, three years older than Colin, who’d been his true sibling.

Tom extended a hand—no offer of an embrace there. Colin shook his hand: Tom had a politician’s grip, firm enough to feel solid, but careful. He put his other hand over Colin’s as if to make up for the lack of an hug. “Good to see you again, little brother. Just wish it weren’t in these circumstances. How’s school?”

“School’s school,” Colin answered. If Tommy noticed the false smile that accompanied that statement, he didn’t react.

Behind Tom, the man in the business suit watched. He looked to be in his forties, with an athletic build that was beginning to sag and paunch, his hair thin on top and gray. Tom followed Colin’s gaze, releasing Colin’s hand as if relieved. “Oh, Colin, this is Carl Harris, Dad’s campaign manager.”

Harris extended his own hand. “So you’re the grad student who’s also the musician.”

“Yep,” Colin answered. “The black sheep of the family. They usually keep me carefully hidden.” Harris gave that a thoughtful half-smile.

“You’re exactly what you should be.” Aunt Patty had come up behind Colin. He turned into her full embrace and an enthusiastic kiss on both cheeks. “You and Jen always were more like the O’Callaghan side of the family than the Doyle side. So sorry you had to come back like this, darling.” She hugged him again, tightly. Their glasses clashed slightly with the embrace—the O’Callaghan’s were also uniformly near-sighted. He could smell the musk of her perfume and the shampoo in her hair, which—unlike his mother—she had allowed to go naturally gray, though she kept it unfashionable long. Patty was his mother’s older sister, now in her early sixties, the athletic figure she’d always had softening over the years. Aunt Patty had always been his favorite relative. Sometimes he felt that he had confided more in Aunt Patty than in his own parents. She was childless herself. She’d once been married to the stormy and temperamental Andrew Martelli, who had owned a small chain of Italian ice and yogurt shops. Aunt Patty had divorced Uncle Andrew sometime two decades ago, for reasons that were talked about in hushed tones but never around Colin or the other children, though it became easy enough to guess why.

After divorcing Uncle Andrew, Patty had never remarried, though Aunt Patty’s best friend, Rebecca, had moved into the old Martelli house, which Patty kept after the divorce, not long after. That Rebecca’s ‘best friend’ was also her lover was something that was never openly discussed by his parents, though it was an open secret in the family. “Hey, Aunt Patty,” Collin said as they hugged. “It’s so good to see you. How’s Rebecca?”

“She’s fine, and thank you for asking, darling. She said to give you a hug when I saw you.” She kissed his forehead and hugged him hard. “So there it is,” she said, smiling.

Aunt Patty had, along with Jen, supported Colin when he had announced that he wasn’t going to go for the Ph.D in History, that he intended to leave college to pursue playing music full-time. His parents had been appalled; Aunt Patty had been supportive. “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” she’d told them. “He’s young, and that’s the time to do these things. Let him go—he may just surprise you with how well he turns out.”

In the end, Colin had succumbed to the pressure from his parents and from Tommy: Get the Ph.D now while you still have the energy. Go now, while that nice offer from Washington University stands. There’s no future in music, especially for the traditional music you like to play. You can always do that as an avocation and a sideline, but with a doctorate, you could make a decent living, like Jen… He’d listened to their incessant arguments for continuing his education, though he now regretted his capitulation.

He remembered a favorite saying of his father: Regretting past decisions is useless. All that matters is making better ones in the future. He wasn’t certain his father would like the one he’d made.

“When can I see Dad?” Colin asked the group.

“I’ll take you back to his room,” Jen said. “OK, Mom? Then maybe we can go out and get some dinner and talk.”

His mother nodded. “Go on. We’ll wait out here— they don’t like lots of people in the room. Tom, come here and tell me what you and Mr. Harris are thinking…” She turned away, her mind obviously already elsewhere.

“So has Mom been playing the stoic as usual?” Colin asked as they walked down the hall.

“She’s being Mom, so yeah, I guess so. But this has been hard on her. Dad’s always been around, and now…” She gave a shrug. “Well, you’ll see.”

Three doors down, she turned into a room. Inside, there was the rhythmic sigh of the ventilator machine. On the bed, laced by tubes from the vent, IV, and catheter, a blood pressure cuff around his arm and an array of graphs on a flatscreen behind him, his father lay on a bed. Colin stopped in the doorway, trying to take it all in. His father’s face was pale, the cheeks sunken, his hair disheveled. His hands lay like two dead birds on the sheets. His eyes were closed, a rubber tube ran into his nose, held in place with tape. His mouth was slightly open, and below, the blue bulk of the vent wrapped his neck over the tracheotomy site. The only indication that he was alive was the slow rise and fall of his chest in tandem with the life support machinery and the relentless, slow beep of the heart monitor.

For a moment, the room seemed to shift in his vision, like an old movie lurching in its sprockets. He saw flecks of light at the edges of his vision. “Oh my God,” he whispered, and Jen took his hand.

“I know,” she said. “It was really hard, the first time I saw him this way.”

“There’s been no change?” Colin blinked, taking a deep breath before moving to the bed. He touched his father’s hand; it felt cold, and there was no response when he squeezed his father’s fingers.

“No. If anything, there’s been further deterioration, according to the docs. The question is, how long do we keep him on the vent, and when do we take him off—or do we? But go on, talk to him. They say that he can still hear you, even if he can’t respond.”

“Hey, Dad,” Colin said. “It’s me, Colin, back from school. Sorry that it took this long to get here. I wish you’d wake up, Dad, so we could…” His throat closed up then, and he couldn’t finish. He felt unbidden tears well up in his eyes, and he blinked them back. He took a long, slow breath, patting his father’s hand. “Anyway, you just rest and get yourself better. Everyone’s praying for you, Dad.” He hesitated, then: “Love ya, Dad.”

It was as if he spoke to a cut log or a bronze statue. There was no response, no indication that anything he’d said had been heard or understood. The words hung in the air and vanished. Whatever spark had once inhabited his father’s body was gone; he was an empty shell tossed up on a beach. Vacant.

The exhaustion of the long hours of travel and the sleepless night before hung about him suddenly, dark and heavy and silent. Colin stepped back from the bed. Jen’s arm went around his waist and she leaned against him, but he could he could barely stand himself. A nurse came in and slid around them. “Just here to check his vitals,” she announced. “You can stay if you like.”

“Thanks,” Colin said. “But we were just leaving.”