I would forfeit any single smell in NYC for one whiff of peat fire on a misty afternoon. I miss there and him so much my limbs are aching for them both, though that could be from jet lag and the flight. Hard to believe I started this day sixteen hours ago in Dublin, and yesterday morning I spent underneath a pale blue quilt, eating soda bread.
I don't do well with change. I fall in love too readily, too fast. I've wanted to stay in every place I've ever traveled to (and some I've never seen), but the fact that Donegal and Jack exist is near enough to break my heart.
To walk across the stone-walled realm of Inishowen is to step into a dream, a place I never dared to hope to find. The ground is hopelessly green, each field lusher than the last, and spotted here and there with cows and sheep. The sea is grey and blue and huge, the horizon far, the clouds low slung. The hills loom straight into the water and the sky. They are mossy, lichened, laid with rocks and scree. When the sun shines, it makes the country glow. It cascades from cloudbursts like a miracle.
I took his hand and trudged with him along the path, then off and over a barbed wire fence and into pastures. We tromped, avoiding bulls and rams, until we scaled the heather patches to the top, and looked down at the sun-scaled sea beneath us, acres down. There was not a soul for miles to see us there.
He picked me a bouquet of hardy blooms, and tied it up with braided grass. "Bushcraft," he explained, all rugged grin, adding in a thistle sprig he'd hacked free from its cluster with a sneakered kick. He found me a mushroom, a shell. A thousand treasures that I cannot name.
We made our way through grasses to the sea. Another barbed wire fence. We walked home against the sunset, sucking peat smoke through our grateful pores. We drank unhurried tea with bread and jam. He built a fire. We sat there in our woolen jumpers with our single malt, nothing but the sound of crackling flames.
After dinner, we read the paper by the fire. He folded his in half, took off his glasses, and lay along beside me—his head on my chest, his arms curled in my hair. We slept like that until the fire died.
For three straight mornings, he made breakfast in bed: a tray laden with soda bread and Irish butter, rhubarb jam and whole cream yogurt, tea, fruit, and a flower in a vase. We read, refilled our tea, not getting out of bed for anything except another endless roam.
It took us the better part of forty five minutes to reach the nearest store on foot, a tiny rural post that sold stamps and not much else. Convenience wares, prepackaged loaves of bread. An ice cream freezer half-stocked with frozen fish. We cut down to the water, through a pasture strewn with dung. It was raining as it had for hours—all morning and all afternoon, the wind whistling across the fields. We didn't mind. We were already soaked. We stripped to nothing on our isolated beach, wading in together, hand in hand, negotiating pebbles underfoot as the rain tapped muted nothings on the surface of the sea.
We high-fived and tried to dry each other off, pulling on our soggy layers. Then back up over fence and pasture to the road. A lonely man in an ancient car gave us a lift. "There're no Ghaeltachts left here. Those people all have died." His mother, too, had died just months ago. He told us we could visit him whenever we liked; he lived just past the pier.
We ate fried cod and vegetables, then I made pie. He helped me cut the fat into the flour with a plastic potato masher. Hours later, the discs of rhubarb given way to stewy tartness, we ate hot slices drenched in cream. And watched another film by firelight.
Day three was much the same. We heard the donkeys bray from bed. Only we slept too late to spend all morning with our novels. We tromped up the Mamore Gap to where the rocks get lost in mist. We met more people by the Blessed Virgin shrine. Mary Queen of Heaven, attended as she was by broken candles, soggy jars, a pile of rubbish and a mass of rosaries. Padre Pio guards the well, on St. Egney's site. I dunked my fingers in to bless myself. After all, the lady said, it couldn't hurt.
We went up a little path that turned into a stream, awash with mud, my Ked soles slipping on the stones. We took our shoes off when the path ran out, went squelching up the hill with pants rolled up, the heather nearly three feet deep. He hauled me on a rock to sit and watch the sea across the bogs. Our breath was steaming while we didn't speak.
I couldn't feel my feet the whole way down. He lent his trainers, walked down barefoot while I bounced along beside him. At the bottom of the gap, we traded shoes, then pressed on to the beach while peeling oranges and smiling at the cows.
The beach was a miracle of cliff and sand, the bay vast and peopled just by fishing boats. We sat in total quiet, listening to the waves, smiling that half-swept wistful smile of those whose hearts are breaking out of beauty by itself. A few families arrived for their pre-supper swims. He ran along the beach and then into the water in his underwear—and that was how I wrecked my Irish lingerie: I ran full force into the ice cold sea. Brand new minty silk and peachy lace be damned. I ruined the reveal. Or—rather—not, he said. He'd never seen me look more joyous than I did when I was standing soaking wet in those exquisite panties, holding up my goosefleshed arms into the sky and smiling like the world might end. I fell in love with him again right then and there.
And then once more, some hours later, as the leeks were frying in a buttered pan. The dog who stole the ham right off his plate day one returned to make his final rounds. He'd learned to love us by the trail of lamb bones left for him in hedges, the scent of breakfast sausages. Cheeky, we named him.
Our last dinner. Steak and roast potatoes, last night's pie. We carried the leftover slices to the neighbors and walked right into history. We sat in high backed wooden chairs, painted schoolyard red, and listened to the songs and stories of men in scallycaps and sweater vests.
And then it disappeared into the rear view mirror of the hired cab, the bus from Buncrana, and then to Dublin via Derry. Then airports, flights, landing somewhere else across the world. I cried the whole way home (by way of Newark), and still I hurt for it. I look at the pitiful array of pictures taken and I want to hoarde them for myself. As if it were a secret, kept by him and me. Ireland, I say. As if it hadn't happened. As if it weren't real.
It was never going to be easy coming back alone.