Nancy Cook – nonfiction

White Taylor’s Cross

Patrick Healy was a man of courage and poetry who could stitch the words together like a grand quilt or a dainty christening gown, as it suited him. He and Peg O’Leary were married late in the spring, once the lambing was done and the Blarney Road was passable again after the rains. They lived in the house Patrick’s great-grandfather had built in the years between the famines; it stood just where the roads to Donoughmore and Churraigh met, not far from the tracks of the Cork and Muskerry Railway Line. Peg, whose cold, hard eye concealed a tender heart, kept a warm, clean house, and Patrick filled it with his rhymes and beautiful words. Over time, the spot, that for decades before had been known as Healy’s Crossing, came to be called the Poet’s Cross.

Peg and Patrick had a strapping boy named Denis. Denis was wild and beautiful, a strapping boy indeed, with dreams in his head. And there were three daughters as well, Mary and Margaret and Rose. But in Donoughmore, for a long while, few remembered the children, for the daughters died and Denis went off to America with the dreams still in his head.

By a miracle, in their later years, Peg and Patrick were blessed with another girl. They called her Kate, and a good girl, sensible and devout, Kate turned out to be. She married young, a handsome lad, Gerry Connell from Adare. The grandchildren came along every year, four boys and the twins, Nora and Mary Louise, all healthy as ponies, and near as high-spirited. Gerry counted himself a lucky man and Kate would not deny it, so. Like Kate’s father, Gerry had the courage of Fionn’s hound, but like Denis her brother, Gerry’s wandering feet could grow no roots. It was said that Gerry heard the voices of the angels, and wasn’t it a shame that he didn’t have a poet’s tongue to match his fine ears.

It was just after the twins were baptized that Patrick saw fit to die. The house his great-grandfather had built was quiet now, all Patrick’s fine words having been but a gift to the air, and forever lost. Peg cursed the silence, even as she sprinkled the holy water at all the doors and windows to bless his departing soul. Across the road, the limestone walls turned a shade grayer, the fuchsia dripping over the edges like bloody tears.

Denis came home from America for the funeral. The boy was handsome still and the county girls were all for showing him how sorry they were about Patrick. Their mothers and fathers who’d come to pay their respects said to Denis that he must return now and settle in Donoughmore, or Blarney or Cork, there would be work for him, not to mention a good wife. Ach, if only I could, said Denis, and his eyes were wild and sad and mischievous; alas, he said, I’ve a job and a fortune to be made back in Philadelphia.

The last of the mourners hadn’t returned to their homes before Denis was after his dear mother to come away with him to America, never mind the Jesuits and the Sisters of St. Joseph who’d said he couldn’t teach and made a poor example; he was going to start a school of his own, invest his savings, build a grand house for Peg. Still with the dreams in his head. But she was against it, for who would look after Patrick, so newly buried there wasn’t a word on his headstone? And her little ones, Denis’s own sisters, their tiny grave-markers already softened by the rains, she said, who would be remembering them?

Kate, the daughter of Peg’s old age, spoke up and said to her mother, I’ll tend to the graves and to the house as well; it would be a mercy, for Gerry has been out of work these many months and with the young ones we have need of the rooms. The devil take the rooms, said Peg, those young ones will suffer my absence, though it was Kate she would herself be missing. To stray would be her undoing, for didn’t she have a need to see her own tears floating in the morning mists? And her very heart that was now among the great jagged stones sinking into Ireland’s soft ground, was she to forsake even that? But Peg saw the looks exchanged between Kate and Denis, and knew that the matter had been decided between them, so, and they’d be forever arguing with her.

I will do it she said, but I will come home to die.

So Peg sailed to America with Denis, and Kate lived in the house at Poet’s Cross that her great-great-grandfather had built in the years between the famines. Gerry at last settled into a job with the railroad and the children grew up, and twice a month after Sunday Mass Kate wrote to her mother in Philadelphia. And though Peg never wrote back, every year at Christmas, Denis, himself married now, sent a picture and a card that said they were doing fine and life would be very grand indeed when the raise came through or the Democrats were voted back in office or the gout improved, and wouldn’t he be a school principal soon and then he’d be giving up the bottle in grateful thanks.

 

It happened one late spring night that Gerry Connell heard a thumping in his sleep and thought he was dreaming of the trains, but when his eyes opened the sound went on. It was at the bedroom window, a loud insistent knocking, and Gerry eased his nose from under the blankets and lifted his head. He was leaning on his elbows, staring at the drawn shades, when he heard a voice, sharp as a pickaxe, between the rappings: Open the door, Kate, it’s your mother and I’ve come home to die.

The knocking grew bolder; on and on it went like a band of demons at heaven’s gate. Give me peace, said Gerry and he went to the window and thrust it open, not caring if it was Satan himself he’d encounter. But it wasn’t the devil at all, only Peg standing there under the blackest sky, dressed all in white and looking like the moon itself.

Let me in for I’ve come home to die, said Peg. Aye, said Gerry, I will, so. Wake up Katie, he said to his wife. You must get up for your mother is here and she is wanting to come in. Lord in heaven, back to bed with you, said Kate, for how would she be arriving here, and this the darkest hour of night. She must have come by train from Cobh said Gerry, for she is here and getting more of a chill every minute you leave her standing on the doorstep.

They went to the front door but they found no one there. Kate sent Gerry out in the dark and damp without even a woolen for his shoulders, and he searched the yard, and all along the road and in the ditch behind the limestone walls where the fuchsia was tangled thick. He himself never saw another sign of Peg, though Kate, standing in the doorway, did notice a faint glow of pink and white floating toward the edge of the world where dawn would crack the horizon in two hours time.

They sat up all the rest of the night until Kate came to believe it was all in a dream, but Gerry was insistent that he knew what he knew, and didn’t he have an ear for the voices. Sure enough, it was early evening of the next day when the telegram arrived from Denis’s wife in America saying that Peg had died of a broken heart. Then they knew it had been Peg herself at the window, and that she had indeed come back to Donoughmore to die.

And so, Denis came home to Ireland and put Peg’s body in the ground, where she could lie with Patrick her husband, the poet of Poet’s Cross, on one side of her, and her darling girls who had died so young on the other. Denis’s wife came to Ireland, too, for they had no children, and she and Kate became dear friends. Denis built an apartment on the backside of the house, and in the fall, the village school hired him to teach the older children Latin and Grammar and Western Literature.

Denis refused to mourn his mother. He said she wouldn’t have it so, to see them sad and grieving. And though he was soon bored with instructing the sons and daughters of Donoughmore in the finer points of language, still, he said, a joy sustained him. He walked the county roads declaring it so and took to wearing white as further proof. In Philadelphia he had grown wide and now his wild, silky black hair began to come in white and feathery. If there was any emptiness in him at all, he used the bottle to fill it.

One day, it was a Wednesday, the school master came to the door wondering where Denis might be, and his wife said, why he is at school, teaching, where else would he be? The master shook his head and said, indeed, he is not. And he likes his stout, madam. Aye, he does, so, said she.

Denis lost his job and in the months that followed, he lost his dreams, too. With these many doors closed, he shut tight his mind, and he quit the drink except for every other Saturday and the feasts of Patrick and Denis and the Lord’s birthday.

He took up raising doves as a hobby. Then one day he took up a needle, too, and he began to stitch. First it was only the hem of his nephew’s bleached trousers, next a kerchief for his sister Kate, and after, it was his own fancy shirts he was sewing from white cuffs to buttonholes. It wasn’t long before the neighbors discovered his doings and were after asking for this or that, a seam to be let out, or perhaps a touch of embroidery.

And so, for the next eighteen years, all day and into the night, Denis’s threads patched the holes, held the ragged edges, and mended the rips and tears of Donoughmore’s worn wools and linens. His skin grew bone pale, and with his white attire he was like a ghost to be seen, daily walking the roads to the graveyard where his father and mother lay. 

The house that Patrick Healy’s great grandfather built still stands at the crossing where the roads to Donoughmore and Churraigh intersect. A traveler passing through can locate it easily enough. From the train station at Foxes Bridge, it is but eight kilometers to Donoughmore; in town, at any of the four public houses, anyone of the older generation can give directions. ‘Tis a short distance down this way, they’ll say, past the ruins of the old Church of Ireland, straight on to where the road rises over by St. Lachtin’s Church. And then it’s just a half-kilometer or so downhill to the east, around a bit of a bend, to where the trains can be heard whistling, if you’re listening, so. Yes, you can find it out that way, on the corner across from the signpost, where the road to Kilmartin comes in, at the place they now call White Tailor’s Cross.
 

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