Her name was Gray, which I found fitting because her eyes were that stormy blue-gray you seldom see, and when the sky was overcast, you had to squint to bring what little blue they had into focus. She had an arresting face and a delicate manner, but she dressed with neither forethought or self-awareness, usually presenting herself as if she’d dressed by recycling discarded clothes from the night before, in some predictable combination of flannel shirt, cargo pants, and lace-up boots. She was twenty eight and lived in the holiday home next to me in Inverin. She was Irish, but had spent the previous seven years living in England. She made her home now in Inverin because she was working in the film business, and Inverin was the home of the studio owned by the American movie producer Roger Gorman, who had made his career by making low-budget, independent films. I’d been surprised to learn this when she told me, for two reasons: It was news to me that Inverin was the home of a movie studio, and I had yet to meet a soul in Connemara with half of Gray’s trail-blazing career ambition.
Gray never bothered to introduce herself to me with any formality, but I guess passing like two ships every so often with nothing more than a salutary wave is enough. All kinds of information can be gleaned from such a nonverbal gesture if repeated with regularity: I’m single; you’re single; we’re both living in the middle of nowhere; we look to be about the same age.
It was eight thirty on a Saturday morning when Gray knocked on my door unexpectedly. “There’s a film festival in Cork this weekend,” she said. “Want to go?”
You can slip into the soul of the west of Ireland by driving from Galway to Cork. On a map, the two-and-a-half hour drive looks to be a straight shot on the M-18, interrupted by a bypassing skein on the outskirts of Limerick, but to actually drive the route between the two cities makes you feel like you’re winging it without a plan. But I’m not the type that worries about logistics; I tend to take people’s word for it when they tell me they know where they’re going. Gray guided her two-door silver Honda through the chiaroscuro of flatland, making turns seemingly unprompted, yet somehow headed in the general direction. Through the car window, unpopulated, uncongested, barren silence levied the soft-slate insularity of a region seemingly untrodden.
The reason we saw only one Irish film in Cork that weekend was because Gray decided to drop in on her friend Sarah, and what with the drama over the goat and all, time got away to the point where it was just better to stay. It began with an exploratory walk on Sarah’s property, which sprawled 85 acres of plush, inherited coastal splendor between her rustic, two-story, A-frame house and the ruins of her great grandfather’s salt mill. It was probably my fault that time got away: I’d made the mistake of acting like I knew what I was doing when Sarah asked me to tie up her goat. What I had was the will, but not the goat-wrangling acumen, so when the goat scuttled loose, it gave chase far afield, sending the three of us careening after it, straight to the windswept cliffs over the sea.
I couldn’t hear what Gray shouted. The wind was so mighty, it slammed her cries to a muted dead zone, so I crept up beside her and looked down to the tawny sand below, where a wind-combed bay arced in a graceful alcove, and I spied something small, bulbous, and milky-white, lumbering tentatively, its head facing the sea. And there in the coastal water, something metallic rode the sinuous, inbound, undulating swells in a rhythm like sleight of hand: now here; now gone, as the three of us waited for further convincing before our powers of discernment synthesized the aquatic Passion play below. The air was freighted with soundless anxiety; it tore at our heartstrings and called to the fore a collective maternal instinct that demanded immediate intervention as a great mother seal monitored its stranded baby, bobbing up and down, slicing the water, swimming to and fro.
“Is it hurt?” Gray shouted. “Why can’t the baby get back in the water?”
“We need to get down there,” Sarah directed. “We can’t tell anything from here.”
Down the side of the cliff we traversed on our backsides, wind whipping, water spraying, ears roaring, hair flying, and all the while, the mother seal watched us, head lifted, whiskers twitching, great mass navigating. If mental telepathy exists between man and nature, surely the force that surrounded this moment sang with beneficent tacit agreement. For one surreal moment, the seal in the water faced forward in suspension as Sarah inched forward on the sand cautiously in the direction of the baby seal, compelling it to enter the shallow tide, where its mother retrieved it, then backed into the waves, but not without a backwards glance. She sailed in and out of the water with her eyes cast forward, and I heard Sarah call into the wind, “You’re welcome.” We stood for a long time thereafter, processing the event, musing on the chance encounter, even though Gray kept telling me nothing in Ireland happens by chance.
It took close to an hour to scramble back up the cliffside and weave an uncharted way back to Sarah’s yard, our hands roughened and scraped from the climb through the indigenous bracken, leaving telltale signs that every once in a while disparate worlds collide and change a person forever. For, in that instance, we knew we’d been put to use, that there is no disparity in nature, that all female hearts speak the same language and it matters not what skin is involved. It took the reappearance of the goat to shake us out of our otherworldly reverie. It perched on the gray stone wall in the side of the yard, all devil-may-care and patiently waiting, as if it had been a willing bit player in the preordained rescue of the baby seal.
It was Gray who laughed loudest, but Sarah who spoke first: “If it’s all the same to you, Claire,” she said, "I’ll be back to ye after I tie up me goat.”
Author's website: http://www.clairefullerton.com