It's 1970 in Northern Ireland. The British troops are still protecting the Catholics from the Protestant fanatics. Brendan and Joanna are 14, and he's taking her to Grianan Aileach, a circle fort just across the border in the Republic of Ireland.
We left the jeep on the side road and hiked down the muck to the hole in the border fence. It was good we’d both worn Wellies, for yesterday’s rain made the earth sticky and mean. It took me a moment but I found the space I’d covered over and shoved the vines aside, making an area wide enough for Joanna to pass through without being touched by twig, leaf or wire, and the whole time I keep a scan going over the countryside, especially along Groarty Road down to the hollow, but I saw neither Saracen nor helicopter of Paras nor even a constable’s armored support sniffing about. The stones Colm tossed in the brook to let us cross without getting soaked were right there and she danced over them like a girl guide -- quick and light -- then we tramped up the muck and through a field to climb a fence by a lane that would lead us back to the road.
We stopped for a breather and looked about. A few fresh lambs, still with their cords hanging down, came bouncing up to take a gander at these two curious creatures standing on hind legs before jumping to a halt and remaining perfectly still. A flock of black-nosed ewes saw us and bleated, warily, calling their young back to them, and off the little buggers bounced, bleating with fear. Jo laughed at them. I only grinned from ear to ear.
We turned and looked up the hill and the fort was just visible at its crest.
“Doesn’t look like much,” she said.
“It isn’t,” I replied, “not till you’re up there.”
So up the rough narrow road we went, passing field after field of lambs dancing about and talked of the world and what it meant, and said nothing deeper of ourselves. Seems her family follows the Clyde, of Glasgow, in football. She had aunts, uncles and cousins there and visited at least twice a year, the last being on Boxing Day. She and her brothers would pile in their estate car, catch the ferry in Belfast and have a grand time of it for two days.
I told her of my aunt in Houston, mam’s sister living there some twenty years, now, and married to a man half again her age who owned a “real Irish pub” near some university, with three wains and all of them younger than me. They’d send gifts at Christmas and Easter, which is why I had the NASA cap on that day, with a card on my birthday...but I’d never been there. And I was a bit jealous of her trips away; it sounded wonderful, going someplace else besides Dublin.
“I’ve thought of hopping down to Cork, maybe Liverpool, and signing on with a freighter or passenger ship. Travel ‘round the world and back again. See something other than just the Derry walls out my window.”
“And then what?” she asked, seeming to be genuinely interested.
I shrugged. “Maybe come back, when I’ve some money. Start a repair shop like Flynn’s. Get married. Have a family.”
“You don’t dream for much, do you?”
“What do you mean?” I was truly confused. It seemed a perfectly fine thing to wish for.
“Haven’t you ever thought of being a doctor? A solicitor? Living in Paris to learn a new language? Anything like that?”
I laughed. “Me, a doctor? I’ll be lucky to finish with fifth Form let alone stand for the A-levels.”
“Not even Father Patrick thought it a good idea. ‘A trade’s best for you, lad.’ And considering my grades, he was right. I’ve no head for university.”
“You never struck me that way.”
I looked at her, a bit startled. Never had anyone said I might be smart enough for learning, and to her it was just a simple assumption. And made me feel more alive than I’d ever before.
We cut left down a road that curved around and I thought was the same road I’d seen joining the one Paddy had lead us down, when he’d almost taken us past the fort, the first time we came. But it curved the wrong way, and I realized we should have cut left much earlier.
“Does this lead up there?” asked Jo.
“It will,” I said, for this one would lead us back to the road that did curl around and up the hill. It made our walk maybe half a mile longer, but I didn’t care. I loved just walking there with her, nothing to worry about or fear as I lead her higher and higher. What was the height of this hill -- two-hundred, three-hundred meters to the top? I’d no idea nor cared, before, since the other times we’d been goofing and laughing and jacking around and hadn’t noticed the climb. But now? Now it put the work to Jo.
She held it well, taking only the occasional pause to “take in the view,” as she put it. And I had to admit, finally noticing it for myself, the world around us was grand. To one side were rolling hills with dark patches of green that looked like forever shadows on the earth. The rest of the ground between them was partitioned into fields much like the one we’d just gone through, the majority of them square, some angled, all brown and ready for sowing or freshly sown. And farther out was a silver dagger of water framed by two high peninsulas. To what I think was the north stood an ice blue inlet, wider than wide and snaking her way out to the sea between the rising hills to join her even wider sister, the sea. Tiny white houses dotted roads long built and traveled only by the occasional vehicle. A soft haze covered the land to give it a fairy tale feel, and my breath escaped me at the beauty of it -- and the beauty of Joanna’s face as she gazed out upon it. Her cheeks bright pink from the biting breeze. Her breath adding to the haze. Her eyes gleaming from discovery.
When at last we reached the fort, itself, it seemed...I don’t know -- different. Hard. Not a mere pile of stones rounding a courtyard whose sole purpose was to hide stupid boys from prying eyes as they drank the porter, ale or whiskey they’d pilfered. It carried a sense of meaning. History. Destiny. It almost seemed to say, So you’ve finally come. And it was all I could do to keep from replying, I’ve been here a million times before. Aloud. But it heard me and laughed, Only as a child.
Jo touched the stones and marveled, “No mortar holds them.”
She was right, and why hadn’t I seen that before? There were spots here and there that had been patched and sealed with awkward cement of some kind, and there seemed to be a line around it as if to say, “This was before and this was after.” But the main part of the stones just lay one atop the other. I’ve since learned it’s a corbled style, and this fort was considered a marvel of it.
Then a bird darted past on the wind, green wings stretched out, a tan breast under it -- held itself in place for an instant then dashed down into the rough foliage. And I near wept. I’ve no idea why, but the sight of so elegant a creature in the midst of all this drab brown and green cover seemed to draw a sense of wonder from me, for all my bravado, and the joy it added to my already growing happiness stung at my eyes, and tears seemed the only appropriate sacrifice.
I jumped around to find Jo by the low entrance to the fort, a good twenty meters on. She was looking at me odd. Queer. Like she’d not seen me before. I shrugged, jammed my hands in my pockets and joined her, and inside we went through the smallest of openings.
The courtyard still seemed like nothing much, just muddy grass covering the ground. Broken bottles and empty cans about. Trash from sandwich packets. We climbed the three tiers of steps and walkways that circled the courtyard, protected from the growing wind by the outer wall, and in here I saw many of the steps had been reset with a form of mortar and the walkways were uneven, still. Muddy. Littered with stones.
We reached the top walkway and the wind cut harsher against us, now we had not even the least bit of protection. Oh, but what you could see from the summit. I knew without thinking that this -- here -- this is where the world came together. Beauty and grandeur and tenderness and magnificence, all uncaring about the thoughts or concerns of a pair of wild kids. Hell, for anything of man’s making.
We looked to the south and far below us, miles in the distance, was a silvery slip of the Foyle nestled between hilltop after hilltop after hilltop, winding its way to the lough and just as unconcerned with any and all other existence. Beyond it, we now saw the shadows of mountains in the distant mist, some capped with snow. The fields appeared to be less carefully quartered and the houses fewer, with a single tiny town of the Republic nestled there and barely a road to be seen.
We turned back to the east -- and there lay Derry, clinging to a single hilltop. You could see St. Columba’s steeple and just across the Foyle to the Proddy side, but only barely. The only real portion of her that was visible lay closest to us, homes circling round the hill. Smoke drifting into the sky. No sign of anything but peace about her.
“She seems so tiny and frail,” I whispered.
“She does.” It was Jo saying it. I jolted, for I’d not realized I’d spoken aloud. “Forget I was here?” she laughed.
“No, Jo, never,” I whispered. She looked at me, grinning and not believing a word of it. Her lips the color of rubies. Her bright eyes amazing me. Her pert nose glowing red with cold. And I drew her close and kissed her. Found her breath laced with the scent of Spearmint. Wrigley’s and nothing less, for her. And my heart leapt and the warmth of her filled me and the wind whispered, This is good.
She finally pulled away, much too soon. “You’re frightful and fast, Mr. Kinsella,” she giggled.
“I had no choice,” I whispered.
“So you’re not a lad who believes in self-determination?”
“In this world, you ask me that?”
“In any world.” She was making sport of me, and oh how I loved it.
“I believe in fate,” said I, grinning wide, once more. “For what else could have brought us together?”
She stepped back, pulled her hood back atop her head. “So -- now comes the Irish poet, a spinner of the South using words like a snare for simple young girls.”
“I’m not so well spoken,” I smiled, pacing her. My gloves were feeling thin and the scarf round my neck was not doing much to keep me warm. But I cared not. I had a cheap Mac rolled up in a pocket and that would be enough to cut out the wind should I need it. “Just well inspired.”
“My brother fancies himself a poet.”
“You don’t think he is?”
“Not in the same way as you,” she smiled, her head cocked to one side as if I should know what she meant. “He’ll be off to London, soon.”
“A Proddy having to seek work?”
She cast me a look. “Royal Academy of Music.”
“Oh.” And I wished I could take that word -- hell, the full sentence back.
“His A-levels were good, just not good enough for Oxford.”
“Didn’t even take mine.”
“So you said.”
I shrugged. “I fix cars and things. I’m good at that. The jeep we drove up -- .”
“The Land Rover.”
“Aye. Land Rover. I rebuilt the timing components a month back for Mr. Sweeny.”
“He’ll not be happy where it is, now.”
I shrugged. “It’s a pile of junk. Leaks oil. Drinks petrol like it’s water. I rebuilt the clutch a year back and the rear brakes, soon after. He’ll be glad to report it gone.”
“You brought me here in a car that’s been stolen?”
“Borrowed,” I smiled.
She laughed, and my heart flipped twice over. “My father will not be pleased, if he finds out.”
“He’ll not be pleased you’re with a Paddy instead of a Proddy.”
“True.” She leaned back onto the fort’s wall, looking across at the distant, snow-capped mountains. Her hood dropped away from her head and the wind whipped at the golden silk she called hair.
I propped myself against the wall and gazed upon her, hurt pounding at the back of my chest. “Why did you come with me?”
She looked my way, her face a mask of coyness and wary indecision. “Your eyes. They’re kind and hurt and filled with acceptance, not like your usual ‘paddy’.” She almost giggled that last word out, cutting away all its horrible meaning. “Why’d you ask me to come?”
I shrugged then looked away...then looked back at her. She was worth more of an answer. “You looked at me. You saw me. With you, I...I don’t know how to put it...”
“The poet’s words fail him?”
“Words can’t tell you what I’m trying to say. I felt -- comfortable with you. Right. Complete. You made me want to grow -- to move forward instead of hold back and...and...” I groaned and spun about, furious with myself. “Arra, I’m not putting it right.”
She rose and turned me to her -- took my face in her hands -- her smile warm and gentle -- and she said, “You put it perfectly.”
And she kissed me. Long and soft and warm, as home should be. As life should be. And at that moment, I’d have died for her.