The Boat from Kilronan
The midget spotted Seamus Millane the moment he entered the pub.
“Let’s have a go! C’mere, Giant.”
“I won’t be fightin’ ya, Tommy,” Seamus said as he turned his back and the barman waved him over. The din of the crowd competed against the small television set above the bar that blasted out news reports of the Vietnam War. A few people watched solemnly, most ignored it.
Seamus ordered a beer. “Tomas Doyle’s in one of his moods again,” he said.
The barman laughed. “You gotta feel bad for the eejit. He’s the only pixie on Inishmore and he’s angry for it.”
Seamus knew about anger and he understood why Tomas had never left the island. A man could blink his life away and realize, too late, that he’d only himself to blame for the chances he hadn’t taken. Once, Seamus had a burning passion to build boats, but now he barely remembered the heat, let alone the fire. He lived on Inishmore his whole life and now that his parents were buried, the farm and the house were his alone. He had no say in the matter, but he kept his farm in working order, and his church shoes polished.
He drank a pint, crossed the street to the hall and sat down next to Teresa O’Donoghue, a girlish woman of forty-eight who lived in a thatched-roof cottage and wanted little more than to be the light of someone’s life.
“They’re givin’ Michael a gift to honor his last day at school,” Teresa said. “The dance teacher called my son a bluebird in a sea o’ blackbirds.”
She sat up, straight and satisfied.
The day before, Seamus and Teresa had gone to the cliffs of Dun Angus and Michael joined them.
“You ever goin’ to build that currach?” Michael asked.
“Now what would I do with a row boat?”
Teresa stood up and brushed grass from her pants. “How long has that Oak log been lying in your barn?”
“It cost me dear to ship it from Galway. I’ll use it someday,” Seamus said.
Michael stared out at the ocean. “I’d like a boat,” he said.
They ate their lunch and afterwards Teresa and Seamus sat in silence while Michael threw rocks over the edge of the cliff.
“It’s so calm today. I swear I can’t even hear the ocean,” Teresa said.
“I can always hear the ocean,” Seamus said distantly, and he smiled as he watched the boy stand and stare up into the sky with his arms stretched to the sides.
He saw himself in Michael. If the boy stayed on Inishmore, he would end up a farmer, mixing sand and seaweed to make his soil. His happiness would always be the mainland, faraway and envied. And when it came to love, he would always feel hollow, and no woman could ever change that.
The concert started. First the wee ones; stomping their feet clumsily to Merrily Kiss the Quaker. Then there was a short break, and when the fiddle started up again, the older children rushed into the center of the room.
Michael was there, right in front. Someone hooted in approval from the back of the room, a few people applauded and a woman shushed her crying baby. The piece began slowly, but its speed increased, all the while the dancers moved their feet in unison, without a pause or a misstep.
Teresa pressed sideways into Seamus and whispered.
“He’s hoping for college but I’ve got nothin’ but a failin’ yarn shop.”
Seamus began to respond, but she patted his arm and pointed to the center of the room because Michael had started his solo. The other dancers formed a circle and clapped along with the rhythm of the Bodhrán drum. The audience in the hall sat up on the edges of their chairs, and people in the back rows stood so as not to miss anything.
Rose O’brien’s mother turned around, leaned on her chair and squeezed Teresa’s arm. She knew what it meant to be proud; to live through your child’s accomplishments. If there was anything Teresa wouldn’t do for her son, she didn’t know what it was. She watched Michael dance and reminded herself that he had done fine without a father. Then she glanced over at Seamus and looked down at his large calloused hands, watched his fingers squeezing and sliding the crease of his pressed pants.
After the concert, Seamus drove Teresa home and walked her to her door.
“Some boys in town are callin’ Michael a ‘Poof’,” she said.
Seamus thought of Tomas the midget, then imagined Michael years from now, as the object of all that whispering and pity. He knew he'd do anything to spare the boy that future.
Seamus reached down and took her hands in his.
“I’m fifty now. It’s time I make my life count,” he said. “Sell your thatched-roof cottage and marry me, Teresa. You can use that money to put Michael in school. There’s plenty of room in my house for the two of us.”
She sighed and melted onto him. In all the years they’d known each other, he hadn’t as much as held her hand. But he’d been there for Michael since he was a baby. He loved her son and she knew he loved her, too. It wasn’t until that night, when they finally kissed, that Teresa knew for certain she would only ever be the glow and not the sunrise.
But Teresa accepted his proposal, and one month later, they were married in the parish of St John’s.
“Here’s to me mother,” Michael said at the party, raising a glass. “To her potent love and her tender whiskey cake.”
“And to me father,” he added, and looked at Seamus for long enough so he knew his words were important.
“To his large heart and his shiny shoes.”
Seamus could do nothing but laugh and it seemed that all the happiness that had been denied him, suddenly rushed up from his past and met him there in that moment.
That night when they were finally home, Seamus showed Teresa the headboard he carved for her from the oak log he had been saving.
“It seems your boat is now a bed,” she said, embarrassed.
Gently, he used his thumbs to wipe away her tears. Then, Seamus and Teresa, complicit in Michael’s freedom from Inishmore, held each other’s hand and lay down in awkward certainty of the choice they made.