Sean is born with a genetic deformity.
Part 1. The Early Years
In springtime there are places in Ireland that can seem achingly beautiful to a young man in his twenties. Lester Crabbe was awash with such feelings one Saturday morning in May. He sat on the slope of a dune that looked out across the Irish Sea. The sun glinted and danced on the waves like a billion diamonds. Seagulls drifted effortlessly over the beach in their perpetual quest for stranded fish and sun-stricken clams. Below him Coot, his old dog, ranged up and down the beach, scattering the gulls before him as he went. Now and then the dog would stop and dig furiously in the hard, wet sand.
Lester couldn’t know it then, but at twenty-four he was at the height of his powers. He would never again feel so alive. The sun beat down on his forearms, already beginning to lose their winter pallor. Sweet, balmy sea breezes ruffled the thick shock of red hair on his head. An old man might have wished only to stay there in that spot forever. But Lester felt restless and vaguely tormented by ancient siren songs … songs that had stirred young males since the dawn of time.
He wondered why, even on calm and balmy days like this one, the waves rolled faithfully in. The sea had always been mysterious to him.
"Where do they come from?" he mused. He knew there was probably a scientific explanation for it all. But he as much liked some of the Irish myths that had come down from old. Whatever the truth might be, one could not help but be lulled by the muted roar of the surf, punctuated here and there by thuds as the breakers fell over themselves and spent themselves on the beach.
Lester reveled that he had this day and the next off. Some of his friends had to work on Saturday’s. But his truck-driving job required his presence only five days a week. He loved the job. Indeed he had loved the feel of a steering wheel in his hands from the first time his father had held him on his lap, letting him help steer the family car to his grandparents’ place. He knew then that he would drive a truck when he grew up. As a teen he had read everything he could find about internal combustion engines, drive trains, transmissions and the like. Even now, after several years behind the wheel, he got a thrill out of controlling all that power.
Lester leaned back on his elbows and let his mind drift back to high school days. It was then that he first met Emma. With a smile he remembered how pretty he’d found her to be, even while she acted as though he didn’t exist. It had taken every ounce of his courage to ask her to the prom in their senior year. And he’d been numb and walking on air for the rest of the day when she smiled and agreed to be his date. From that time on there had really been no one else for either of them.
After graduation Emma’s family had sent her to vocational school in Dublin. For the two years she was away he had drowned his loneliness in hard work here in the village. But the summer between Emma’s first and second years in Dublin had been theirs. And sometime during that golden season it became clear to both that they were more than high school sweethearts. The love they discovered together was so beautiful that it never occurred to him to confess it as a sin.
After completing her training, Emma had returned to an accounting job at the meat processing plant. It was the region’s biggest employer. A year after her return they were married. Lester had lived frugally during Emma’s two years away. And after her return they saved money by going for long walks on the beach, rather than go out for intimate dinners. He had never really proposed to her. It seemed that both knew they were mates for life. By the time the date for their wedding drew nigh, Lester had saved enough to make a down payment on the cottage.
"Thank God for this sainted place," he thought. Belfast, with all its unrest, seemed a million miles away. Here in the village life was as peaceful as it ever gets in Ireland, notwithstanding the donnybrooks that occasionally spilled out of one pub or another on Saturday nights.
Lester winced now at the state of anxiety he’d existed in while Emma was away. Would she meet someone else? Would she change? In fact she had met other people, and time changed her as it inevitably changed him. She had left for Dublin a pretty girl, but had returned a beautiful woman. And during the same period, he had matured from a callow youth into a man.
Why did he feel so restless? It was a beautiful day! He should be dissolving in a puddle of contentment. He knew that Emma would have the cottage’s windows open, and the bedroom curtains would be billowing inward like the sails of a ship. Perhaps he yearned for an afternoon nap back there in their bed. Although gone for only an hour, he longed to see her.
"Coot!" he shouted, rising and brushing the sand from the seat of his pants. Down on the beach Coot’s head snapped up.
"Come on, boy!" he shouted, turning toward home, secure in the knowledge that before he’d gone a dozen steps Coot would race past him and take the lead. On the walk back to the cottage the old dog paused frequently, adding his own marker to bushes along the path. Lester marveled that he could do it so often between drinks. At last they broke free of the dunes and were on the cottage’s street.
When Lester entered the kitchen, Emma was on her knees pulling pots and pans out of the lower cabinets. It was a fetching sight.
"Hello the house," he greeted.
"Hi!" she smiled over her shoulder.
On an impulse, Lester lifted her to her feet and turned her to face him. He pulled her against himself and smiled down at her pretty face. Her blue eyes seemed to divine the hungry look in his own.
"And what’s this then, Mr. Naughty?" she teased.
"What are we doing?" Lester mumbled thickly.
"Cleaning the cupboards," she shrugged, smiling shyly.
Lester kissed her long and hard on the mouth until her body began to go limp.
"Can they wait a bit?" he mumbled huskily.
Emma didn’t answer, but took him by the hand and led him into their bedroom.
"I love you, Mrs. Crabbe," he whispered, wrapping his arms around her and kissing the graceful curve of her neck. Emma pulled away and moved toward their closet, undoing the top button of her blouse. With a happy sigh Lester sat on the bed’s edge and began unlacing his shoes. Outside there was only the sound of the sea breeze in the trees. The sweet scent of roses, planted by Emma along the back wall of the house, wafted through the open bedroom window.
"Remember these moments," he thought to himself. "They’ll warm your heart when you’re old and all the world’s gone cold."
In what would eventually become the state of Wisconsin, in the land destined to be called America, the woolly mammoth raised its shaggy head. Muck and vegetation hung from the great beast’s tusks. Far above, a distant star spewed a million tons of elementary particles into space every second. One of them started on a long journey to the mammoth’s home planet. By the time it arrived, the mammoth’s kind would have been extinct for tens of thousands of years.
Through the millennia the tiny particle sped through the vastness of the cosmos at speeds close to that of light itself. Only a few days after the Saturday when Lester had interrupted Emma’s spring cabinet cleaning, the particle plunged through Earth’s atmosphere, passing between the atoms of the cottage’s roof and into Emma’s abdomen. Finally, after its trip of more than a hundred thousand years without incident, the particle collided with an atom deep inside Emma’s body. But it was not one of her own atoms that took the hit. Still unknown even to her, a tiny cluster of guest cells had embedded itself in the wall of her womb. It marked the beginning of new life. By the time the tiny projectile collided with one of the microscopic cluster’s cells, the cluster had begun differentiating left and right halves. The star-particle smashed into the nucleus of one of the tiny speck’s left-side atoms, making subtle changes to a strand of DNA.
This was of course not a unique event. Science tells us that such genetic mutations are intrinsic to the process of evolution. Sometimes the changes are advantageous, and sometimes they aren’t. It’s all part of the great genetic game of chance that has populated Earth with countless forms of plant and animal life.
Five weeks later Emma suspected that she might have conceived. A visit to Doc Fitzsimmons confirmed it. Lester nearly fell to the floor when she told him that there would soon be three of them in the cottage. His joy at becoming a father filled Emma with a warmth she had never experienced before.
In the ensuing months the two busied themselves, converting the cottage’s second bedroom into a nursery. Emma’s mother arranged for a baby shower, ensuring no lack of clothing for the family’s new addition. Lester and Emma spent many an evening trying boy and girl names out on each other. Eventually it was decided that the baby would be called ‘Sean’ (pronounced Shawn) if it were a boy, and ‘Catherine’ if a girl.
Little Sean arrived on schedule nine months later. Doc Fitzsimmons presided over the baby’s entry into the world, as he did at all such events in the village. It was a routine birth. Lester became light-headed when the doctor came out to the waiting room and told him that he had a son. Mother and child were doing fine. Lester thanked Doc Fitzsimmons at least five times. Doc Fitzsimmons smiled and patted him on the shoulder. Over the years he had grown used to the wild gratitude of fathers.
"You can go in and see her in twenty minutes," the Doc said. "We’re movin’ her into Room 225."
"225 … 225," Lester kept repeating in his mind, watching the minutes click by agonizingly slowly on the wall clock. At last the time passed and he ventured out of the waiting room, his heart pounding and his mind full of fear that he wouldn’t know what to say.
When Lester found Room 225 Emma was already nursing the baby. Her face was blotchy from the strain of delivery; yet she never looked more beautiful. Indescribable feelings filled Lester to the core of his soul. He crept into the room and sat next to the bed, kissing Emma on her soft shoulder and gazing with rapt eyes at the tiny person sucking on her breast. Emma searched out his eyes.
"I love you," he whispered.
"Me too," she answered.
"My son … my son!" kept coursing through Lester’s mind like a mantra. Philosophical thoughts flooded his brain … thoughts that had never occurred to him before. For the first time he felt his own mortality. Just as his grandfather had passed on, leaving his father and him behind, so one day would he leave Sean and his children. What would Sean grow up to be? So much depended on him and Emma. He vowed that they would not fail to provide Sean with every advantage.
Two days later Emma was brought out to the hospital’s curb in a wheelchair. With great care Lester helped her into their car. A nurse handed her little Sean, wrapped in a soft blanket. In all his years behind the wheel, Lester had never driven with greater care than he did that day on the way home. Once at the cottage, Emma handed him the baby to hold while she got out of the car. It was the first time Lester had held him. It was the first time he had held any baby. He was stiff and afraid. It brought a smile to Emma’s lips.
Slowly they wended their way up the sidewalk and into the cottage’s front door. Once inside Lester couldn’t hand the small bundle back to Emma quickly enough.
"Let’s lie down in our new crib," she cooed, taking the infant into the nursery.
"When does he eat?" Lester whispered.
"Oh, not for an hour," Emma smiled. "Let’s lie down ourselves."
Lester followed her into their bedroom and stretched out on the bed next to her. He held her in his arms and kissed her chastely on the lips. She dozed off while he whispered over and over, "I love you."
Six weeks after Lester brought Emma and little Sean home, the time for Sean’s first doctor appointment rolled around. Doc Fitzsimmons was his usual, outgoing self when they arrived.
"Let’s have a look at this big boy," he said softly, taking Sean from Emma and leading the way into his small clinic’s examination room. After Emma had removed Sean’s baby clothes the Doc seemed to grow pensive.
"Hm-m-m," he muttered, turning the baby this way and that. He placed a finger in each tiny hand and tested its grip. He felt the baby’s legs.
"OK," he said at length. "Go ahead and get him dressed and bring him into my office. It’s down at the end of the hall."
Lester watched silently as Emma pulled the tiny togs over their son’s arms and legs.
"What do you think?" he whispered. Emma remained silent. When she’d gotten Sean dressed, she looked up at Lester.
"Shall we join the doctor?" she murmured. The office door was open and Doc motioned them in.
"Have a seat," he bade them, motioning at some chairs in front of his big, polished desk.
"Well, he’s a fine boy," Doc began. "Everything seems to be OK."
Emma and Lester relaxed visibly.
"Have you noticed anything … unusual?" Doc continued.
"No," Emma answered, thinking it to be a routine question. But Lester felt his stomach tighten.
"I, ah … I feel there are signs of a slight asymmetry," Doc continued, looking them both squarely in the eye.
"Asymmetry?" Lester answered. "I don’t understand. Asymmetry where?"
Doc’s eyes seemed to admonish Lester not to get excited.
"His left side," Doc replied at length. "His left side seems to be a wee bit larger than his right side. It may be nothin’. It may have been there at birth and I didn’t notice it at the time."
Lester looked at Emma. She seemed to be blocking the whole conversation out, being more intent on fussing with little Sean than listening to the Doc.
"What would cause such a … an asymmetry?" Lester asked.
Doc looked candidly at Lester.
"I don’t know," the old man replied. "It could have happened in the womb. The right side might catch up with the left side in time. It’s hard to say. I’ve never seen it before, and I’ve never read about it. But I’ll nose around a bit."
"What do we … what should we do?" Lester asked.
"Nothin’ unusual," Doc answered. "Just treat him like a baby. We’ll wait and see how it goes."
Doc rose, signaling the end of the conference. Lester helped Emma to her feet. He clasped Doc’s extended hand across the desk.
"And don’t worry!" Doc charged them both. "He’s a fine, healthy boy!"
As Lester and Emma walked out the door, Doc called after them.
"Tell the nurse I want to see Sean again in three months."
That night Lester watched intently as Emma washed the baby and prepared him for his crib. It did indeed seem that the left side was slightly bigger.
"What do you think, do you see anything?" he asked Emma.
"Oh, it’s nothin’," she answered, wrapping Sean in a fresh diaper. "Doc Fitzsimmons is just an old dope, isn’t he? He’s just an old dopey dope," she cooed.
Lester put the thought out of his mind and joined Emma.
"Hi, Seanie boy," he sang in his best falsetto, squeezing one tiny foot between his thumb and forefinger. "How’s Daddy’s boy?"
The baby smiled and stiffened all four limbs, waving them about in the air.
"Asymmetry my foot!" Lester thought. Maybe there was a small size difference there. But he was confident that in a few months everything would even out.
Lester and Emma settled comfortably into the routines of parenthood. Four weeks after bringing little Sean home, Emma returned to her job. Her own mother and Lester’s mother happily took turns, watching the baby during the day and taking him to the processing plant midway through each morning and afternoon. While her coworkers took coffee breaks, Emma came out to the car and nursed Sean.
In no time at all little Sean’s follow-up appointment with Doc Fitzsimmons arrived. Again Lester took some time off from work to drive Emma and the baby to the doctor’s office.
Doc Fitzsimmons pursed his lips after removing Sean’s baby clothes and scanning the tiny body. Lester’s heart skipped in his chest.
"Any change?" he prodded.
Doc Fitzsimmons nodded slightly, looking up over his wire-rimmed spectacles.
"Um hm-m-m," he said in a tone designed not to arouse alarm. "Maybe a little more asymmetry … maybe a tiny bit more. But he still appears to be a perfectly healthy little boy."
Lester bent and stared at Sean. There was undeniably a small size difference between the baby’s left and right sides. Afterward, in his office, the Doc apprised Lester and Emma of a theory he’d read about. This theory suggested that many of the changes wrought by chance genetic alterations were of a repressive nature, merely masking traits no longer advantageous in a changing world.
"Did you know that we all have gill slits early on, when we’re still in the womb?" he asked.
"No! Whatever for?" Lester exclaimed. "Is it to breathe under water while we’re in there?"
"No, no," Doc laughed. "We get our oxygen through the placenta and the umbilical cord while we’re in the womb. The gill slits are believed to be genetic artifacts from our ancestors’ days in the sea. It’s believed that they’re masked and closed over as the embryo develops into an air-breathin’ creature."
"The repression theory," Lester mumbled, his voice trailing off.
"Yes, I think so," Doc confirmed.
"And Sean’s asymmetry?" Emma interjected. Doc gazed at her, appreciating her decision to participate in the conversation.
"Possibly some ancestral traits that escaped repression because of a genetic change. You know that the Earth emits low levels of radiation constantly. That and cosmic rays are believed to be responsible for these random changes at the root of evolution."
"Ancestral traits?" Lester murmured. "What does that mean? Are we supposin’ that Sean is half cavema … half cave child?"
"Oh, that’s a droll one," he said. "Cave child indeed. You’ve a wild imagination, Lester Crabbe. He’s a lovely, modern boy, he is. But there’s no denyin’ his left side is already showin’ greater strength than his right."
Doc rose again and shook Lester’s hand.
"Tell the nurse that I want to see Sean again in six months," he smiled. "And don’t worry. He’s as healthy as any baby I’ve ever examined."
In the months that followed, little Sean’s lopsidedness persisted and even (Lester secretly thought) increased. The baby’s left and right arms and legs seemed to be the same length. But everything on the left side was more massive and, as Lester and Emma soon discovered, a good deal stronger. It wasn’t a bit easy to extricate one’s hair from little Sean’s left hand once he’d grabbed a handful. Lester and Emma quickly learned to duck away from such small catastrophes.
All of the asymmetry appeared to be below the neck, and Lester and Emma both said more than one silent prayer of thanks for that. The baby’s face seemed to be perfectly symmetrical, and there was every reason to believe that he’d grow up to be a handsome lad.
At ten months Sean was on his feet, pulling himself around the inside of his playpen. And just after his first birthday he took his first real steps. His relatively massive left leg never seemed to impede his toddling. But by the time he was two, he had the strength of a six-year-old in his left side. In the normal course of banging his toys on the floor he destroyed many of them, and his parents quickly learned which toys had a reasonable chance of surviving through the first few play sessions.
By his fifth birthday Sean was playing out in the backyard. Fruit trees grew there, and he climbed easily up into their topmost branches. Other mothers in the neighborhood were more sympathetic than alarmed at Sean’s condition. They readily allowed their own children to play with Sean. From the start he seemed to know that he had to go easy with his left side, and not give his playmates the same treatment he gave to his toys.
With a nagging sense of dread, Emma brooded as Sean’s first day at school loomed on the horizon. Children could be so cruel! She shared her fears with Lester after they’d retired for the night.
"I know … I know," he agreed. "There might be tough moments for him. But what’s to be done? I really think he’s better off in the local school, home with us at night, than bein’ shipped off to a special school out of the county."
"Sure and I agree with that," Emma concurred. "We shan’t be sendin’ our boy away!"
But still, she worried. It was as if Sean’s condition fanned the flames of her maternal protective instincts. Happily, it turned out that much of her worrying was for naught.
In the days preceding Sean’s first day at school Emma strove mightily to hide her fears. She went to great lengths to tell Sean how much fun school was going to be. Sean of course had no clue that he was different from other children. And by the time the dreaded day arrived he was full of enthusiasm. Emma took the morning off from work in order to walk to school with him. At first he strode purposely along, feeling very grown up. But when the schoolhouse came into view he slowed and it was clear that his confidence was giving way to anxiety. Once inside the schoolhouse, however, his confidence seemed to return. He could see that many of his new classmates were also tense. Two were actually crying and this, oddly enough, made him feel better. He told himself that he was braver than that, and resolved to give them words of encouragement before the day was out.
The infant class teacher asked for everyone’s attention and told the children to find seats. Sean ended up sitting behind a pretty girl with long, black curls. He sat rigidly upright in an attempt to be as tall as she, but when they stood up it was clear that he fell short of that goal by two inches. Nonetheless he was drawn to her from the first.
Emma joined the other parents … mostly mothers … in the back of the room. The children quickly settled down and gave Mrs. O’Shaughnessy their undivided attention. She introduced herself and gave a little welcoming speech. Then she showed the youngsters how to fold their hands on their desks, how to lay their heads down on the desks during "quiet time," and so on. The children were all very eager to please, and it occurred to Emma that her memories of schoolyard cruelties were from a later time. Infant class students were, for the most part, angels. With a sigh of relief she silently filed out of the back of the room along with the other mothers when Mrs. O’Shaughnessy signaled them that it was safe for them to go. Sean smiled over his shoulder at her as she left. She began to feel good about things. Everything was going to be all right.
As the year progressed Emma was delighted at how readily Sean was accepted by his schoolmates. Children at that tender age seem to be all but blind to any deformities in one of their peers. By the end of the first month Sean had made many new friends.
There were swings and a jungle gym in the schoolyard, and Sean became somewhat celebrated for the feats he could pull off with ease on the latter. Using his mighty left arm he maneuvered through the bars more like a chimpanzee than like a six year old boy. He developed two great crushes in that first year. One was on Mrs. O’Shaughnessy, who he thought was quite the most wonderful teacher in the world. And the other of course was on Kathleen, the pretty girl who sat in front of him. She, in turn, found his mighty left half to be extremely admirable, and was quite in love with him. Their attachment carried over into the first and second classes, but tapered off in the third by mutual consent.
By the time Sean entered the fourth class life had become rough and tumble. Football … what is called soccer in America … was the sport of choice. Sean’s lopsidedness didn’t affect his ability to run, and he was a welcome participant in the games during recess and after school. The one thing that set him apart at such times was the inordinate power in his left leg. He had to restrain himself from kicking the ball clear out of the school grounds, and cultivated the habit of using his right leg for ball kicking purposes.
Most of the same faces turned up for class every year. But at the start of the fifth class there was a new one. It belonged to a big youth with a cruel glint in his eye. Sean would learn later that this boy was a year older than he and his classmates. Rumor had it that he’d been held back a year in his former school.
His name was Michael Lister, and it soon became apparent that he was a bully of the first order. Sean, with his asymmetric physique, was a natural target. Like a shark, young Lister approached Sean cautiously at first, but then with increasing confidence. He would purposely collide with Sean as they filed out for recess.
"Watch it, stupid," he’d snarl. And the truth was that Sean was cowed by the bigger boy, quite as the other students were.
Michael took to body-blocking Sean harder and harder during the football games. By then, refraining from using the great strength in his left side during rough and tumble had become second nature to Sean. Naturally Michael soon concluded that the man-sized musculature in Sean’s left side didn’t amount to anything.
All of the fifth class boys, except for Michael Lister, had bicycles. No doubt Michael’s father would have bought one for his son if apprised of the situation. But Michael hated asking his father for anything. Mr. Lister was more powerful than his son was, and Michael resented that. And so it was that Michael decided to take Sean’s bike.
"I’ll be needin’ this, freako," he told Sean after school one day. He took hold of the handlebar and pulled it with such force that Sean nearly fell to the ground. The other boys instantly understood what was going on and averted their eyes. To a one they felt sorry for Sean. But what could they do?
"Would you like to take a little ride, then?" Sean asked meekly, hoping to sow the idea that this was only a temporary matter.
"Would I like to take a little ride," Lister sang out in a mocking voice. "Get off, you freak, this is my bike now. Find another."
By now Sean was standing next to the bike. Without really thinking about it, he lifted the heavy bike off the ground and held it at arm’s length behind him. The other boys gasped at this display of strength. The move jerked the handlebar from Lister’s grip with a force that startled him. But many weeks of submission on Sean’s part had convinced the bully that he had nothing to fear.
"Give it here, gimpo, or I’ll smash your ugly face," he commanded.
"I can’t. It was a present from me mother and father," Sean pleaded.
"You’re askin’ for it," Lister snarled, and punched Sean in the face. It was the first time Sean had ever been struck. With a strange but fleeting buzz in his head he staggered backward and fell on top of the bike.
"Get the picture, dummy?" Lister growled, grabbing Sean’s shirt and pulling him off the bike. Blood trickled out of Sean’s nose and down his upper lip. The old inhibitions vanished and he grabbed Lister’s wrist in his man-sized left hand. The muscles in his meaty left forearm knotted.
"I said no," he stated quietly, applying pressure to Lister’s arm. Michael cried out in pain and he was forced to his knees. So powerful was the vise-like grip on his arm that it seemed to be either yield or have the bones in his arm snapped. Despite himself, he cried out.
"Ow! You’re breakin’ me arm, Crabbe."
Sean was pleasantly amazed. It was the first time he had ever used his abnormal strength on another boy in anger. He had not realized until this moment just how much stronger the left half of him was.
"No more trouble from you, then," he more stated than asked.
"All right, all right," Lister answered in a tone rapidly admitting defeat.
"For any of us," Sean added.
"Sure, sure. Let go, man, you’re breakin’ me bloody arm!"
The other boys sat on their bikes, taking the amazing incident in with wide eyes. Those who missed the show would make the ones who were there recount the whole scene in minute detail for weeks afterward.
Sean released his iron grip on Lister’s arm, mounted his bike and rode off without further comment. The other boys fell in behind him, leaving Michael Lister sitting in the dirt.
At first young Lister tried to block the truth from his mind. He got up and morosely slapped some of the dirt from his pants. By the time he had shuffled doggedly home, however, his initial denial had been displaced by the acceptance of a painful and inescapable new reality. For as long as Sean Crabbe was around, his bullying days were over.
Sean finished primary school without further incident. Michael Lister, initially shunned after his losing encounter with Sean, changed his ways. In time the other boys accepted him. Several years later, as an adult, he would look back and realize that Sean Crabbe had done him a great favor the day he had all but snapped the bones in his forearm.
In Ireland, as everywhere, the girls grow up before the boys. And in the sixth class Sean began to sense a subtle change in his female peers. It seemed that they no longer accepted him so freely and without question. Some might argue that deep instincts were beginning to kick in. As the girls approached childbearing age, they became repelled by Sean’s asymmetry. The great strength that had once excited them now made them feel uneasy. Although Sean sensed this change, it didn’t unduly upset him. For although he had the strength of a grown man in his left side, physically he remained a boy. Indeed he would remain a boy up through his second year in high school.
Unhappily for him, some of his boyhood chums also seemed to become distant when their voices cracked and deepened. For reasons less obvious than in the girls’ case, they too seemed for the first time to feel that Sean was not part of "the group." Sean was much more keenly aware of such changes in the case of the boys, and it wounded him. Fortunately there were a few other late bloomers in the old gang, and they continued being blind to Sean’s deformity.
Most of the people in the village attended mass every Sunday. Sean’s family was no exception. After the services it became a tradition for either Lester’s or Emma’s parents to come over to the cottage for Sunday dinner. And, about once a month, Sean and his parents would have dinner at one of the grandparents’.
On those Sundays when Emma’s parents came to the cottage, Sean loved to sit at the feet of Grandma Mary while Emma busied herself in the kitchen. Lester and Emma’s father would usually go out into the backyard, weather permitting, to enjoy a pipe. Sean and Grandma Mary would settle into the parlor for a chat. They’d start out by discussing the day’s sermon, and would then move on to other topics. Sean loved these times and opened up to Grandma Mary as he did to no one else. While he sat with his great, muscular arm lying on her lap, he would expound on many topics while she listened and rubbed her fingers through his head of thick red hair. She always seemed to be interested in his opinions.
One Sunday the sermon had been on the time honored idea that "No man is an island." Afterward Grandma Mary had an interesting, related thought:
"You know, Sean, every man who ever lived has had some one special island that he feels is his home," she said.
Sean was silent for a bit.
"What about people who live on continents?" he challenged. "What about Canadians, or Europeans?"
"Well … what are continents? They’re just big islands, aren’t they?"
"Australia is," he granted.
"But they all are. All are surrounded by the sea."
"Europe isn’t," he argued.
"Sure and it isn’t. But the distinction between Europe and Asia is man’s work. The land mass they occupy is an island, as is every scrap o’ dry land risin’ above the oceans of the Earth!"
"I guess I think of an island as bein’ somethin’ small," Sean mused.
"Faith and many are," Grandma answered. "But some are larger, like Ireland. And some are enormous, like the America’s."
"Yes, I guess you could say that," Sean thought aloud. "I guess that makes Ireland me island home."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not," Grandma answered cryptically. Sean gave her a puzzled look.
"Sure and it is!" he protested.
"It is for now," the old woman answered. "But who knows what the future holds?"
"You mean I might one day leave Ireland?" Sean asked.
"Many have," she answered. Sean pondered that fact and wondered what the future held for him. At length he spoke again.
"What is home, if not where a man lives?"
"Ah!" Grandma answered. "Home isn’t so much where a man lives, as where he wants to live."
"I’ll bet there are lots of people not livin’ at home, then," Sean snorted.
"And you’d be right," she answered.
"How does a man … how will I know when I’ve found me island home?" Sean wondered.
"You’ll know," the old woman answered. "You’ll know it when you gaze into the right woman’s eyes."
Sean grew uneasy at this thought. He was beginning to believe that a relationship with a woman was not in the cards for him. Grandma Mary sensed the reason for his silence.
"Oh, you and she will find each other one fine day," she said, rubbing Sean’s head a little harder. "I don’t know where or when. But I know it will happen."
"And how do you know that?" Sean muttered, still convinced that no woman would ever want him.
"I just know," she answered gently. "I feel it in me bones. And when that happy day arrives, think of our talk today, won’t you?"
"Aye, I will that," Sean promised. And indeed the day would come when he’d not remember anything else about that day, but he’d remember Grandma’s promise. And he’d wonder how she could have known.
"Dinner!" Emma called from the dining room. With a sigh Sean rose and helped Grandma to her feet. It would be several weeks before they talked again, and indeed not many more of those enchanting sessions remained. Grandma Mary died unexpectedly in Sean’s second year of high school. It was the first time he had lost anyone dear to his heart, and at first he was in full denial. He had touched her face as she lay in her casket and had felt only a vague sense of cynicism. He knew he should be sad, but there had been no tears.
Two days later, at the church’s funeral services, the priest had spoken.
"Mary Flannagan had a full life. She shared nearly fifty years of marriage with Shamus Flannagan. I’m told that she never left our island home…"
And suddenly the only grief Sean had ever known filled him to the depths of his soul. He collapsed in tears, burying his face in his hands. "Grandma … Grandma…" his mind cried silently. "Where are you?" And then he felt his father’s arm on his shoulders, comforting him. On the other side of his father he heard Emma softly weeping. With tears streaming down his face, he looked across at his mother. His father’s other arm was around her. Sean reached across his father’s lap and squeezed Emma’s hand. She looked up at him and smiled through her tears, taking comfort in his own sadness. And through it all he heard the priest’s words float, as in a dream:
Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me. And may there be no moaning at the bar when I put out to sea.
In the beginning of his third year in High School, adolescence hit Sean like a ton of bricks. There were the usual changes of course. But in his case there was something more. Whereas his right half became more manly, his left half nearly doubled in size. It was undeniably grotesque. The strength in his left arm became prodigious. Weightlifting in the school gym was a favorite pastime. With one hand Sean easily lifted weights above his head that no grown man in the village could match using both arms. Not only was he the only one in anyone’s memory who could do a one-armed pull up, but he broke the Guinness record for the number he could do without letting go of the bar.
As these changes in his body occurred, Sean of course became interested in girls. And it was now that the lack of interest on the girls’ part became painfully obvious. A few girls went out of their way to be nice. But it was clear that their intentions were not romantic.
"It makes them feel good to be nice to the freak," he thought bitterly.
Virtually all of the late-blooming males, who had stuck by him during his eighth and ninth years, also lost their boyhood by the tenth year. And more than ever Sean was odd man out. Group outings on the weekends now inevitably included both sexes, and Sean was not invited.
Lester’s father, Grandpa Joe, sensed the void created in Sean’s life when Emma’s mother died, and he took steps to remedy the situation. He owned a small shop and asked Sean to come by after school to help him out. Sean eagerly accepted, and they shared many an interesting conversation during lulls between customers.
"Life is a game, me boyo. ‘Tis a great game," Grandpa Joe would say. "And a man will not fail if he plays the game straight."
"Even if he loses his life by playin’ things straight?" Sean half teased.
"Even then," the old man answered without hesitation. "Everyone dies. It’s how a man feels about himself when his time comes … that’s the important thing."
Sean pursed his lips and nodded agreement. All of his sensibilities affirmed that his Grandpa was right.
Toward the end of his eleventh year Sean applied for a summer job at the meat processing plant. He was thrilled when they notified him that he’d be hired. Whereas his classmates reveled in the free time summer vacation afforded them, Sean could scarcely wait for the new job to begin.
He was tasked with washing down the floors and cleaning the equipment used in the slaughter of steers and hogs. It was the least desirable job in the entire operation, but he pitched into it with a vengeance. With his left arm … now bigger by far than the strongest man’s … he could wield the big push broom with the greatest of ease, scouring the concrete floors for hours without tiring. Men who had worked at the plant their entire adult lives whispered to one another of his strength and stamina.
Midway through the summer, three strange men held up the plant payroll office. The company cashier, a slight man named Leroy Farnsby, was a good fellow, active in the community and well-liked by all. He complied with the robbers’ demands, quite as upper management had instructed him. Nonetheless, after he had handed over two canvas bags of money, one of the thieves pointed his pistol at Leroy’s head and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked but nothing happened. The robber looked at the pistol in disbelief. He pointed the gun at Leroy again and pulled the trigger twice more. Again, click, click and nothing more.
"Come on!" the others shouted at him as they bolted from the office.
"You are a lucky bloke," the thief muttered to Leroy, chasing the others out the door.
They were never caught, but their getaway car was found twenty miles south of town. In it were the bags they had taken from the cashier’s office, empty of course, and the three guns they’d used in the holdup. Leroy readily identified the one that had been unsuccessfully fired at him, it being the only revolver.
The police checked the pistol. It was in good working order. They fired two of its five bullets into special wadding at the police station. But the other three … the three that had failed to blow Leroy’s brains out … were duds. Everyone marveled at the odds of that happening.
Sean still sought Grandpa Joe out for conversation whenever he could.
"What are the chances o’ that?" he mused aloud when the talk turned to Leroy Farnsby.
"I’m not sure chance played a role," Grandpa answered.
"No role? How else can you explain it?" Sean demanded belligerently.
Grandpa Joe looked over his spectacles at his grandson. He knew how tough life must be getting for Sean.
"Leroy Farnsby was a God fearin’ man … he was a good man, Bubby," the old man allowed.
"To be sure," Sean agreed. "But…"
"I’m goin’ to tell you a secret," Grandpa continued. "Some say it’s blarney and nothin’ more. But I know from experience that it’s true."
Sean looked at the old man attentively. His eyes begged him to continue.
"Every God fearin’ man…" the old man went on, "…every man who loves and honors God gets at least one miracle in his life, and I expect Leroy got his when that pistol misfired. Not once, mind you, but three times in a row."
Sean nodded in somber agreement. There was no denying that the whole business did smack of a miracle.
"And you, Grandpa, what was your miracle?" he asked.
"I’ll no say," the old man answered. "But I’ll tell you this: when you get yours, you’ll know it. Make no mistake about that."
Sean pondered his grandfather’s words that night as he lay waiting for sleep to come. What would his miracle be? He doubted that he would ever be made symmetric. And if that were possible, then which half would he want to change? He fell asleep debating the question.
The summer drew to a close, and the awe over Leroy Farnsby’s incredible escape from an untimely end wound down. Sean’s classmates more or less eagerly prepared to return to high school. But Sean was less than enthusiastic. The men at the plant seemed to accept his deformity quite as his peers in primary school had done. It was only the other adolescents in high school who depressed him in a thousand ways. He even thought about telling his parents that he wasn’t going to return, but was going to stay on at the processing plant. However, he knew they’d have none of that! With the greatest reluctance he bade goodbye to summer vacation. Emma sensed his pain, and many a night she shed bitter tears into her pillow while Lester lay breathing deeply beside her.
Sean’s senior year in high school turned out to be not as bad as he’d anticipated. He avoided disappointment largely by remaining a loner. Occasionally he would overhear comments from other students, but as often as not they were complimentary in their way, marveling at the enormous strength in his left shoulder and arm. His Saturdays were taken up by a weekend job at the processing plant, and of course Sundays were family time.
The one great threat to Sean’s self esteem turned out to be the high school queen bee. Her name was Lillian Scully, and without question she was physically striking in every way. Unfortunately, years of being deferred to by virtually every man she’d been around since childhood had not made for a sensitivity to match.
All Sean knew was that he was hopelessly smitten with her. There must be something to the old saying that love is blind, for he pushed his deformity out of his mind whenever he fantasized about her. Nor was he discouraged by the fact that she was the steady girlfriend of Peter Connolly, the captain of the football team.
Like many of his contemporaries, Sean had been bombarded with the idea that a troubled teen should talk his problems over with his parents. And so late one Sunday afternoon in November he caught Lester alone in the living room and sought his counsel. Lester listened intently as his son pulled the curtain back and bared a corner of his young soul. And as Sean spoke of his infatuation with Lillian Scully, Lester felt his heart sink. What should he say? How should he respond? He would die rather than wound his boy. Yet all his instincts told him that Sean was headed for a great fall. Perhaps if he de-glamorized the object of Sean’s affection…
"Well, you know, son, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that physically beautiful women don’t always have the inner beauty that makes for a good relationship."
Sean looked at Lester with surprised eyes.
"O’ course your Ma is one of them that does," he added hastily.
Lester studied Sean’s face. Clearly that approach was falling on deaf ears. What advice could he give Sean that would at least minimize his heartbreak? Suddenly it hit Lester that perhaps the best advice would be no advice at all.
"But then," he continued, "the truth is that no man can advise another on his dealin’s with the fair sex."
Sean swelled with pride. It was the first time his father had hinted that he was becoming a man.
"How did you and Ma get together?" Sean asked.
"Ah! Well now, there’s a bit of a story there!" Lester laughed. "When I was your age I thought she was the prettiest girl in the world. But she wouldn’t give me the time o’ day."
"Really!" Sean exclaimed, obviously fascinated.
"On my oath. I was dead certain she’d laugh in my face if I asked her to the senior dance. But I also knew I’d hate myself if I didn’t chance it."
"So you asked her?" Sean pressed eagerly.
"Aye, I did, I did," Lester smiled, fishing out his pipe. "It took every drop of courage the Lord gave me, but I popped the question."
"And?" Sean cried.
Lester smiled, his eyes seeming to drift back twenty years. He tamped tobacco into the pipe’s bowl.
"And…" he said, striking a match and sucking flame into the tobacco, "And, she said ‘Yes’."
He looked at Sean with twinkling eyes. Sean’s own eyes glowed with the boundless idealism of youth.
"And the two o’ you fell in love," he murmured, gazing wistfully out of the window.
"Aye," Lester answered gently. "We did."
Sean heaved a mighty sigh, and Lester snapped back to the present reality.
"But you know, Sean," he continued, striving his best to sound casual, "more often than not things don’t work out that way."
"No?" Sean answered absently.
"No, they don’t. More often than not a young man’s crush on a young woman is one-sided. Maybe she’s interested in someone else."
Lester again watched Sean closely.
"Or o’ course as often it’s a young woman who’s infatuated with a young man, but he doesn’t know she exists."
Sean nodded, glancing sideways at his father. He seemed to be considering the possibility in his own case. But then his face took on a resolved look.
"Only one way to find out, isn’t there?" he half-smiled. "Ask her."
Lester sucked hard on his pipe, sending a veil of smoke up in front of his face.
"Well … I guess…" he murmured. "But you should remember … every young person should remember … more often than not things don’t work out the very first time. Your Ma and I were the exceptions to that rule."
"If things don’t go well," Lester continued, "rest assured that you’ve got lots o’ company!"
"What would you have done if Ma had told you to get lost?" Sean asked, looking carefully at his father. Lester looked away.
"Oh," he sighed at length, "I’d have survived, I’m sure. I’d have got over it. Time heals all hurts and disappointments."
"Someone else would’ve come along," Sean said soothingly, seemingly trying to ease a case of broken heart that had never occurred.
Lester smiled at Sean.
"I expect so," he said. "But aren’t you glad things turned out the way they did?"
"Yes, I guess I am!" Sean laughed.
But that night, as he lay in bed, Sean wondered, "What if Ma and Da’ had never got together? Would I never have been born?" A tear squeezed out of the corner of one of his eyes.
"And would that have been so bad?"
It was Monday, the last week in November, and the senior prom was only a week away. Totally blocking out the thought that Lillian Scully no doubt already had a date, Sean decided to make his move at lunchtime in the school cafeteria. Lillian sat on the other side of the room, at a table with a handful of other girls. All of them were cheerleaders, and they were all school royalty.
"Well, here goes," Sean thought, rising from his solitary lunch. His brain felt numb. Voices of doom screamed inside of him that he was on a fool’s errand. Yet other voices prodded him not to lose his nerve.
"Nothin’ ventured, nothin’ gained," he muttered in an attempt to bolster his courage. As he approached the table there was a distinct ebb in the chattering of students in the vicinity. The girls’ incessant laughter died away and they all looked up at him curiously. One or two smiled, but Sean took no notice. He was completely focused on Lillian.
"Hi, Lillian," he tried to smile, bowing slightly and immediately realizing how stupid that must look. Lillian Scully only nodded. What on earth could this freak want?
"I was wonderin’ if you … if I could take you to the prom," he forced himself to say. Sean’s entire body was suddenly drenched in sweat.
A few of the girls secretly admired Sean for his courage. But Lillian looked like he had touched her in some inappropriate way. She laughed out loud. The other girls looked at her in mild disdain. Their eyes seemed to soften in sympathy for Sean.
"I’m afraid I’m booked," Lillian answered curtly.
"Oh … too bad," Sean mumbled lamely. Waves of mortification swept over him. What could he have been thinking? His embarrassment only roused the killer instinct in Lillian.
"Too bad? Too bad?" Lillian laughed. "Even if I weren’t, I wouldn’t be your date for a million quid."
Sean felt the blood drain from his face. Indignation began to crowd the embarrassment from his mind. By now the entire cafeteria had gone silent. A couple of the other girls at the table now looked with disgust at Lillian. Their eyes seemed to ask her how she could be so cruel.
"And how about for two million?" Sean asked quietly. He had no idea why he said it. The question just popped out of his mouth.
Lillian’s eyes lost some of their cruel mirth. She really didn’t know anything about this odd young man or his family. For all she knew, he might come from rich people. And her mother, also a shrew of the first order, had drummed it into her head from girlhood that her highest priority should be to snag a rich man.
"Maybe," Lillian answered demurely. "Why? Have you got two million to pay for a date?"
Sean smiled. Suddenly he knew that he had her!
"No," he answered, "I’m just tryin’ to establish your price."
Several students within earshot stifled strangled laughs. Lillian’s cheeks blanched with rage.
"You cheeky scum!" she shouted, jumping to her feet and throwing a glass of punch into Sean’s face. Sean smiled and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket.
"Have a nice day," he smiled. Dabbing at the punch, he began to move away just as Peter Connolly approached the table. Lillian’s face flushed red when she saw her boyfriend.
"Smash his ugly face!" she shouted. Now the entire room went totally silent. Peter looked at her in surprise. When he glanced at the other girls, a couple of them shook their heads almost imperceptibly. Little warning flags went up in young Connolly’s head.
"What’s the problem then?" Peter asked tentatively.
"Smash him!" Lillian yelled. "He called me a whore!"
Peter Connolly looked at Sean. Sean in turn had paused a few tables away and was looking back at him. Peter didn’t know much about Crabbe, but he could scarcely believe that Sean could be so callous.
Sean instinctively felt it would be a sign of weakness to deny it. So he raised his left arm, bare to above the elbow, and made a great fist, slowly rotating it back and forth. Huge muscles, like the cables that anchor a large ship, rolled over each other beneath the skin.
Now Peter Connolly would in time become a political figure at the national level. And he had made it his habit early in life not to get into fights he could not win.
"Did he?" he asked the other girls at the table.
"No-o-o," three of them said quietly. Lillian looked at them, her eyes flashing anger.
"He did … he implied it!" she shouted.
Emily, the one girl who had never been cowed by Lillian, rose to take her tray to the drop-off window.
"Whatever he said, you had it comin’, dear," she smiled sweetly, walking away with swishing hips.
Peter Connolly put his hand on Lillian’s shoulder and gently pushed her down into her chair.
"Calm down," he chided her. "We’ll talk about it later."
"Oh, so you’re goin’ to let him get away with it then," she cried. Her eyes filled with angry tears. "Maybe I should o’ accepted his bloody invitation."
She rose to her feet, sending her chair skidding back against the next table with a bang, and stomped up to the tray collection window. Without a backward glance she threw her tray onto the conveyor belt and stormed out of the cafeteria.
"What really happened?" Peter asked the other girls.
"He asked her to the prom, and she laughed at him," one of girls began.
Sean continued back across the room to gather up his own tray. Underclassmen … some of them late bloomers like he had been … looked up in wide-eyed awe as he passed. Before the day’s end the whole scene would be told and re-told a hundred times.
In a sense, the legend of Fiddler Crabbe began on that day. But Sean had mixed emotions. He kicked himself for having been fool enough to think that Lillian Scully would have anything to do with him. On the other hand he couldn’t help being pleased at how he’d returned her cruelty.
"It probably isn’t the last slap you’ll be gettin’ from the fair sex," he thought to himself. He’d have to be careful. In his case, romance could be expected not to be without pain. One thing became clear to him: a relationship had to be as much her idea as it was his. He resolved never to delude himself again on that score.
Lillian Scully was not finished with Sean. Not by a long shot. She knew that her three older brothers would be coming home for Christmas, and she hatched up a plan to put Sean in his place. Two of her brothers lived in Belfast and were, in fact, active in the IRA. The other was a junior stockbroker and had emigrated to London. They were a tough lot. All three of them were strapping young men, and they all liked a good fight --- especially when the odds favored them.
On the Monday after the prom, Lillian approached Sean before classes.
"Hi!" she smiled brightly.
Sean looked at her in surprise.
"Hello," he answered warily.
"Sean, I want to apologize for the terrible way I behaved a week ago," she said. "I’m really sorry."
Sean felt slightly stunned and embarrassed.
"Oh, it’s OK," he smiled. "No harm done here." The thought flitted through Lillian’s mind that the cripple actually had a rather handsome face.
"Listen," she continued excitedly, "we’re plannin’ a little pre-Christmas party at the community center this Saturday night, and we’d like you to come. Could you?"
Little warning bells went off in Sean’s mind. If nothing else, the scene in the cafeteria had been a reality check for him. He no longer harbored any illusions about Lillian Scully and himself. But he decided to play along and see where Lillian was going with this thing.
"I think I could," he answered, smiling weakly.
"Oh, good!" Lillian beamed. "The party’s at 8 PM, but I could use some help doin’ a bit of decoratin’ beforehand. Somebody to hold the chair while I’m up on it hangin’ balloons and the like. D’ you think you could meet me there at 7?"
"I could," Sean said, rationalizing to himself that ‘could’ didn’t mean ‘would.’
"Great! See you then!" Lillian smiled seductively, giving his left shoulder a little squeeze. Feeling its mammoth size through the cloth of his shirt disconcerted her for an instant. But she quickly rallied and walked away.
Later that day Lillian confided with one of the other cheerleaders. She gleefully described how Sean Crabbe was going to get his block knocked off on Saturday night. Of course before the day was done the word had spread throughout the cheerleader squad and even to Peter Connolly. Although Peter didn’t understand it at the time, a little switch tripped in his head. As a result he would eventually distance himself from Lillian Scully. She would never become Mrs. Peter Connolly. But that all lay in the future. For now he only felt that he should somehow warn Sean Crabbe.
The next morning, after physical education, Peter sauntered past Sean’s locker. Sean was seated on a bench taking off his sneakers.
"Sean," Peter said quietly, pausing in front of Sean but not looking at him.
Sean looked up curiously, hoping that Peter wasn’t going to pick a fight. He really seemed to be a decent sort, and Sean didn’t want to get into it with him.
"Don’t go," Peter suggested in a barely audible voice. Somehow Sean knew exactly what Peter was talking about.
"I wasn’t plannin’ to," he answered.
"Good," Peter nodded approvingly as he walked away. Although he didn’t know the details, Sean was moved by the warning.
"But thanks anyway, Peter," he called softly. Without answering or looking back, Connolly raised his arm and made the victory sign with his fingers.
Lillian’s brothers all arrived Friday afternoon for the Christmas holiday. After being properly hugged and kissed by their mother, they were pulled aside by Lillian. In low tones she told them how this freak at school had called her a whore when she tried to tell him, in the gentlest possible terms, that she couldn’t be his date for the prom.
The three brothers listened intently and exchanged hard glances. They told Lillian that they’d take care of him. It was a matter of family honor.
"I thought you would," she smiled. "I’ve arranged to meet him Saturday night outside the community center."
And so the plan was set. The three brothers would wait in the shadows across the street, and when the cripple showed up they’d give him a beating he’d never forget.
"There’s just the one thing," she added. "He is massively developed in his left side. They say he’s stronger than two men on that side."
The brothers were fascinated and even eager to see this. But they assured Lillian that there wasn’t a man alive the three of them couldn’t handle, no matter how strong he was.
Saturday night at 6:45 the brothers and Lillian took their positions. Lillian wore a miniskirt that showed off her shapely legs. She was mindful of her promise to let Sean hold a chair while she stood on it. Even though he’d never get the chance to check her out, the idea excited her.
7:00 o’clock came and went with no sign of Sean. It was chilly outside and Lillian began to shiver. At 7:10 one of the brothers sauntered over and suggested that perhaps there had been some sort of mix up.
"Oh, he’ll be here all right," Lillian snapped. "It’s the best offer he’s had in his entire, miserable life."
The brother shrugged and went back across the street. By 7:30, with no sign of Sean, the brothers had had enough. Together the three of them crossed over and told Lillian that they were going to the pub for a night of celebrating with some old friends.
Lillian felt tears of rage sting her eyes. Someone had warned Crabbe! She kicked herself for having confided in one of her so-called friends.
"It looks like beauty’s been stood up by the beast," the brother from London teased. Lillian wheeled on him and punched him savagely on the ear.
"Here, now," one of the other brothers scolded, wrapping his arms around her and pinning her arms to her sides. "We’ll have none o’ that!"
Lillian twisted free from his bear hug and stomped away. The brothers could see that she was crying bitterly.
"Hell hath no fury…" the brother from London said, rubbing his reddened ear.
"Aye," one of the others agreed. "Especially when the fury is a conceited colleen."
"I wonder if the cripple ever actually called her a whore," the third remarked.
"I doubt it," the brother with the smarting ear answered. "Lill has never had any qualms about bendin’ the truth when it suited her purposes."
By the time classes re-convened after New Year’s, Lillian’s feelings of rage toward Sean had mollified somewhat. All of her girlfriends swore that they had not tipped Sean off. The idea that Sean might not be so stupid as she’d initially thought began nagging Lillian’s mind. She couldn’t help remembering how he had raised his mighty arm that day in the cafeteria. Despite herself the memory thrilled her. But of course she avoided Sean for the rest of the school year. When the "friend" she’d confided in asked her about Saturday night, she answered that she’d thought better of the idea and had never shown up.
The rest of the school year played itself out without incident for Sean. In midyear Lester and Emma began to press him about what his plans were. They had put aside a sizable sum over the years and wanted him to continue on with his education. But Sean told them that he wanted to take a year off from school. He promised to think about going to college or university the following spring.
And so, after graduating from high school, Sean went to work full time at the meat processing plant. He would ride to work with Emma every morning. She’d go into the offices to her company finance officer job, and he would walk down to the stockyards and into the slaughtering rooms at the back of the plant.
It was good to be back full time with the rough and tumble men who worked there. As always, none of them looked askance at Sean’s deformity. If anything they were thankful for it. He contentedly resumed his job of scrubbing down the slaughtering floors … a job that they found tiring. As usual they would glance at one another and shake their heads in wonder as Sean scrubbed the floors for hours on end, swathing the great push broom back and forth effortlessly.
The processing plant slaughtered steers, hogs and sheep. There were areas where each of these animals was killed. In the case of hogs, the animals’ hind legs would be shackled and they’d be unceremoniously hauled into the air. Once the pigs had been hoisted by their hind hocks, one of the men would expertly stick them in the throat with a long knife. After their blood had drained out into a trough in the floor, they’d be pushed along the conveyer for further processing. It was always a noisy time, since the pigs screamed bloody murder when pulled off their feet.
The much larger steers necessarily had to be handled differently. Hauling a conscious animal that weighed over a thousand pounds into the air was too risky, especially when the animal had horns. In the steers’ case the animals were led into stanchions where their heads were secured. Their rear hocks were then shackled as in the case of the pigs. But before a steer was hoisted off its feet it was dispatched with a stunner. This was a device that fired a retractable, stainless steel pin into the steer’s skull, rendering it unconscious and in many cases instantly killing it. Once this had been done the stanchion would be opened and the steer would be hoisted up.
On the days when steers were slaughtered, the screams of the hogs were replaced by the reports of the stunner. For the skull-piercing pin of this device was fired into the steers’ heads using blank pistol cartridges. The steers, aligned in a long row, would jump at the first couple of shots, but then got used to them and went to their ends for the most part quietly chewing their cud.
Toward the end of the summer the men were informed that a special job was scheduled for the next day. One of the suppliers of steers had raised a bull that had turned out to be too mean to be of use. The big animal had gored several cows, and the farmer who owned him had decided to cut his losses and have the brute butchered.
The next morning the animal arrived in a large cattle truck, and the men at the slaughter house pursed their lips and nodded admiringly as the bull was unloaded. It was more than twice the size of a typical steer and, as was the usual practice with bulls, had a ring in its nose. The farmer led it onto a large floor scale using a stout pole that clamped onto the ring. A bull’s nose is of course very tender, and rings have been used since ancient times to control these big animals.
Once on the scale the bull was found to weigh in at over a ton. The farmer had been instructed to precede the bull through one of the stanchions, and then to pull the bull’s head through. As the farmer led the big animal from the scale toward the designated stanchion Sean couldn’t help but marvel at the animal’s strength. One could see enormous muscles ripple in its shoulders, and no sane person could doubt that this was a creature not to be trifled with.
The bull’s eyes were red and he snorted as he was led toward the stanchion. He would clearly have wreaked havoc if not restrained. And then the unthinkable happened. The owner slipped on a wet spot and fell hard on his back, releasing his grip on the ring pole. The pole came unclamped from the ring in the bull’s nose and rattled across the concrete floor.
For a moment the big animal stood blinking, evidently unaware of its sudden freedom. Everyone on the slaughtering floor stood riveted in place. The huge beast looked to the left and right and then with astonishing nimbleness was on the farmer, sinking a horn into the hapless man’s abdomen.
"Agh-h-h!" the man half screamed as the bull twisted its massive head, driving the horn in deeper. The slaughtering room men watched in horror.
"Stun him!" one of them shouted. But the man holding the stunner froze when the bull lifted its head, one horn dripping with blood. The bull looked around and then continued to gore its owner.
Without thinking, Sean sprinted across the floor and landed the bull a prodigious blow behind its ear. No one had ever seen anything remotely like it. With a low rumble the great beast staggered back, its eyes glazed. In a flash Sean was around in front of it and rendered another sledgehammer punch between the animal’s eyes. Without further sound the bull flopped to its stomach.
The man with the stunner regained his composure and rushed across the floor. With a bang he administered the usual coup de grace to the animal’s head. But many doubted the necessity. Some likened Sean’s blows to that of a grizzly bear.
"There’s nothin’ smaller than a grown elephant that wouldn’t o’ fallen dead from such mighty blows," one older worker repeated for weeks to come.
An ambulance was summoned and the hapless farmer was whisked away to the hospital. Miraculously, he survived his wounds. But it took over two hundred stitches to repair his ravaged abdomen, and massive doses of antibiotics to ward off infection. When interviewed by the regional media the attending surgeon said that it was the farmer’s fat that saved him.
"I don’t think a leaner man could o’ survived a gorin’ like he took," the doctor stated.
Of course the same media carried a full account of how Sean had saved the man’s life. Images of Sean cropped up in papers and television throughout Ireland and England. People far and wide marveled at the mighty arm that had dropped a 2000-pound bull with a pair of punches. Overnight Sean became famous. It was a fame that in time would prove to shape his future.
Shamus O’Roarke was the general manager and major shareholder of the processing plant. Emma reported directly to him. When he got word of the accident in the steer slaughtering area he immediately went down to the processing floor. The farmer who had been gored was already being loaded into an ambulance. The bull still lay on the slaughter room floor, knocked cold by Sean and finished off by the stunner. The operations foreman hastened over to greet Shamus.
"That’s the one that did the damage?" Shamus asked, nodding at the huge bull.
"Aye, that’s him all right," the foreman confirmed. "We’re not sure what to do with him. Should we hoist and butcher him, or is he evidence?"
"Go ahead and process him," Shamus directed. "I’m sure that’s what the farmer would want."
The foreman shouted some orders and the bull was hauled up. The hoist groaned but didn’t buckle under the unusually great weight.
"And where’s young Sean? Shamus asked.
"Where’s Sean," the foreman repeated, scanning the slaughter room. "Ah! There he is."
Shamus motioned for the foreman to tag along and walked over to the small group of men who were talking excitedly with Sean. They all quieted and watched nervously as Shamus and the foreman approached. When Shamus asked Sean how he was, the other men drifted away.
"Oh, I’m fine enough, sir," Sean smiled.
"No injuries?" Shamus asked, taking Sean’s left wrist and feeling his enormous arm.
"No, I don’t think so," Sean answered, flushing slightly.
"What’s this, then?" Shamus asked, examining Sean’s knuckles. They were barked and red. Evidently the skin on his left half didn’t grow any thicker than that on his right side.
"Ah! I hadn’t even noticed that," Sean mumbled. "It’s nothin’."
"Go up to the medical office and have the nurse look at it," Shamus ordered. "Do you know where it is?"
"Aye, I do," Sean answered.
"Good boy," Shamus smiled, patting Sean on the shoulder. "We’ll talk some more in a bit."
Shamus O’Roarke went back to his office and called a glove maker in Dublin. He asked the owner if it would be possible to make a glove that would protect a man’s hand when he repeatedly punched a brick wall very hard.
"Aye, it can be done," the glove maker answered. "It’s a custom job. I’d have to measure the man’s hand."
"That can be arranged," Shamus said. "How long would it take to make such a glove? By the way, this is a very large hand."
"Is it now? Well, no matter that. Once I’ve gotten the measurements, I’m thinkin’ maybe two or three days."
"That will be fine," Shamus answered. "I’ll be in touch."
Now Shamus O’Roarke had had an entrepreneurial streak since the days of his first paper route. It was he that had initiated Wednesday afternoon tours of the plant. He personally found the slaughtering business to be immensely interesting, and expected the tours to be a big hit with the public. But, despite the fact that plenty of tourists passed through the village each year, the tours had never really caught on. To Shamus it was one of the mysteries of the ages … how a carnivorous race like the Irish and English could pass up an opportunity to see where the meat they devoured came from. In any case, Shamus thought now that he had a foolproof way to turn the situation around.
After ringing off with the glove maker, Shamus called the slaughtering floor and asked the foreman to come up to his office.
"How many steers are we processin’ weekly?" he asked.
"Oh, I think we’re averagin’ maybe 300 a week," the foreman estimated.
"And how much do the stun gun cartridges cost us?" Shamus continued.
"Well, we order ‘em from America. The last time I looked I believe they was runnin’ us 96 cents apiece, American."
"And what are we payin’ Sean Crabbe?" Shamus went on.
"I believe we’re payin’ him $150 a week, American," the foreman answered, starting to sense where the conversation was headed.
"Let me run an idea past you," Shamus mused, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers behind his head. "What would you say to havin’ Sean stun the steers with that mighty left o’ his?"
"Aye, I guessed you were thinkin’ that," the foreman grinned. "I think he could do it. I don’t know if he’d want to do it, but I’m confident he could do it."
"Amazin’, isn’t it … what transpired down there today?" Shamus murmured.
"Aye. Like nothin’ I’ve seen in me entire life. But I’m thinkin’ he might need protection to do it over and over again. You saw his knuckles."
"Already taken care of," Shamus said. "I just got off the phone with a Dublin glove maker. Protection for the skin of his hand should be no problem."
"Well, then…" the foreman grinned. "Should I feel him out on the subject?"
"No, say nothin’ for now," Shamus replied. "I’ll ask him meself."
After the foreman left his office, Shamus asked Emma to step in. He told her what he was thinking and that he wanted her thoughts.
"It would mean a substantial raise for the lad," Shamus added as a tickler.
Emma said that she had no objection. The decision was Sean’s to make. He was a man now, making his own way.
Shamus thanked Emma and called the slaughtering room floor again.
"Send Sean up to me office," he told the foreman. Minutes later Shamus’ secretary waved Sean into her boss’s office.
Sean carefully opened the polished door and stepped nervously into the paneled office. Shamus rose and shook Sean’s hand across his desk.
"Sit down, sit down," Shamus invited, gesturing toward a chair. After Sean had settled carefully into the overstuffed chair, Shamus continued.
"So! How d’ you feel about droppin’ that bull?"
"Fine enough, sir," Sean answered, shrugging uneasily.
"Think you could do it to a steer?"
"Oh, I should think so," Sean said.
"Is it somethin’ you’d like to do day in and day out? Wearin’ a protective glove o’ course," Shamus asked.
Sean seemed to be confused.
"It’d mean a nice increase in your pay," Shamus pressed.
"D’ you mean stun steers with a punch, instead o’ usin’ the stunner?" Sean asked.
"Aye. That’s exactly what I’m thinkin’," Shamus verified. "Would you like doin’ that?"
Sean shrugged again.
"Well, sure … I guess … that might be interestin’," he murmured.
"Good!" Shamus grinned. "I’ll be sendin’ you down to Dublin. There’s a glove maker there who needs to measure your … your business hand. It’ll be a fun day for you. All your expenses will be paid o’ course!"
Sean nodded agreement, and Shamus picked up his phone.
"Annie," he said, "get a round trip ticket to Dublin for day after tomorrow. For young Mr. Crabbe. And we’ll be givin’ him fifty pounds for expenses."
Shamus rose and again extended his hand across his desk. Sean jumped up and shook the hand awkwardly.
"Annie will call you with the details," he smiled at Sean. "She’ll give you the glove maker’s address. You can take a cab from the train station to his shop. We’ll talk again when you get back."
Sean thanked the plant manager in a slightly choked voice. Two days later Emma drove Sean to the train station. Sean was dressed up in his Sunday best.
"So you’ve got your ticket then," she asked for the fifth time that morning.
"Aye, right here," Sean answered good naturedly, patting his jacket pocket.
"And the expense money they gave you?"
"Aye," Sean said again.
"Well, then, I’ll be off to the plant," she said, kissing Sean on the cheek. "Enjoy Dublin. And be careful."
"I will, I will that," Sean smiled.
With a thumping heart he entered the small station. This was all such an adventure! Never before had anyone outside his own family paid such attention to him. He felt important. He patted the reassuring bulge of his wallet in his pants pocket.
"Fifty quid," he thought. "I should be able to buy a fair lunch with that!"
A half hour later Sean watched the Irish countryside slide by through the window of a train bound for the great city he had heard about all his life, but had never until now had occasion to visit.
Sean was bowled over by Dublin City. It was his first real trip away from the village where he was born, and certainly his first time spent in a major metropolitan area. The huge buildings, the countless restaurants, the cinemas, everything about the place enthralled him. People on the street occasionally gave him a curious glance, but mostly they seemed intent on their own business. In a small corner of his mind he began toying with the idea that one-day he might move away from the village and out into the world at large.
The glove maker greeted him warmly when he entered his shop. Sean could sense some surprise in the old man’s eyes when he took off his jacket. But this lasted for only an instant and he treated Sean like anyone who came in to be measured for custom gloves. The whole business took less than half an hour and Sean had a full eight hours to burn before his train back home departed.
He treated himself to a fancy lunch and then gravitated to the so-called combat zone … an area of honkytonk bars, populated by women who hustled expensive drinks from anyone fool enough to accommodate them. After quaffing a pint of stout, trying to act like a big-city denizen as he did so, Sean was easy pickings. In three hours he had been parted with half his spending money. It finally occurred to him that he hadn’t even gotten a peck on the cheek for his largesse.
Again those little warning flags went up in his mind and he went for a walk out in the fresh air. With a bit more than three hours to go, he wandered into a movie and, despite himself, nodded off for a full hour. He awoke with a start and looked at his watch. There was still plenty of time, so he took a cab back to the train station and had some fish and chips before departing.
Sean turned in the unspent expense money the next day when he returned to work at the plant. Then it was back to scrubbing the slaughter room floors. He waited for some of the other men to broach the subject of his new assignment, but none did. Evidently the whole concept was being kept under wraps.
A week after his return he was again summoned up to the plant manager’s office.
"How was Dublin?" Shamus O’Roarke boomed when he entered the office.
"Very fine, sir," Sean smiled back.
"The expense money was adequate?" Shamus asked innocently. (He of course knew that Sean had turned in several pounds after his trip.)
"Oh, yes, more than enough," Sean replied.
"Well, then, let’s try this on, shall we?" Shamus said, taking a large, black leather glove from a box.
Sean examined the glove. It looked somewhat like a boxing glove, but with fingers. The area over the knuckles was padded with extra layers of leather. Gingerly he slipped the fingers of his great club of a left fist into the glove, pulling and tugging on it with his right hand.
"Fit OK?" Shamus asked.
"Yes, sir, it’s a very good fit," Sean answered, still making small adjustments.
"Good!" Shamus boomed. "D’ you think you could stun steers with it then?"
Sean made a few punching motions in the air. His arm moved in a blur, and the air made low, roaring sounds as he did so. Shamus felt his mouth go dry.
"Aye, I think I can," Sean said, obviously fascinated at the prospect.
"All right, then. We’re goin’ to have you try it in private for a few days. The next plant tour isn’t until Wednesday next. After that some of the public might drop by and watch you at work.. Will that be OK?"
"Not a problem with me," Sean answered.
"Jolly good! I’ll tell the foreman and we’ll give things a trial run tomorrow mornin’," Shamus said, moving to the office door and opening it.
"Give them proper whacks," he chuckled, patting Sean on the shoulder as he departed.
"Aye, I’ll do my best," Sean answered. Shamus’s secretary watched with wide eyes as Sean moved to the elevator, swinging his gloved hand through the air.
The next morning the foreman assembled all the men in the steer slaughtering area and told them what was going to be tried. He called Sean up next to himself and had Sean show everyone his new glove. The men looked at one another in silent wonder, mutely nodding their heads. To a man jack their expressions seemed to say, "If anyone can bring a steer to its knees with one blow, Sean Crabbe is that person."
And so the whole bizarre process got underway. Fourteen steers were brought in from the stockyard and placed in the row of stanchions. Their hind hocks were shackled.
"Well, are you ready?" the foreman asked Sean.
Sean pursed his lips and looked at the row of heads.
"Aye, I guess so," he said a little hesitantly. He stepped up to the first steer.
"It’s goin’ to die one way or another," he told himself. "What does it matter if I do the deed?"
And so Sean punched the beast between the eyes. To all there it seemed like a mighty blow. But Sean knew he had held back. The steer bellowed and lurched in the stanchion, but it didn’t go down. The foreman hastened to Sean’s side with a concerned look on his face.
"It’s OK," Sean muttered, slightly mortified. "I didn’t really let him have it."
"Are you sure, lad?" the foreman asked. "We don’t have to do this, you know."
"No, no, I want to," Sean answered. "I’m just goin’ to have to land him a good one."
The foreman nodded gravely, stepping back to give Sean room to operate. Sean braced his tree trunk of a left leg on the concrete floor and swung again, this time giving it his all. It was a prodigious, stunning blow and the steer flopped to its belly without a sound.
"Hoist him!" the foreman shouted, leaping forward and unlatching the stanchion.
"It looks good," he said to Sean, his face flushed with excitement. "Shall we keep it goin’? "
"Aye," Sean answered.
"All right, then. You drop ‘em and I’ll do the stanchions."
And so Sean began working his way down the line. Whack! went his great fist time and again. Ker-flop went the steers. Up they went, hoisted by their hind legs, and from there on it was business as usual. After Sean had dropped the last one in the row, the foreman paused and looked at him.
"Feelin’ all right?" he asked, panting with excitement.
"Oh, yes, I’m feelin’ fine," Sean answered calmly. "The glove works like a charm!"
"Shall we do another lot, then?" he asked.
"Absolutely!" Sean answered.
The foreman shouted to the men who brought the steers in from the stockyard.
"Bring in another fourteen, boys. We’re in business!"
Over where the steer hides were stripped off the carcasses, an older worker quietly crossed himself.
"Saints preserve us," he murmured. "Never in the history of our storied race have such blows been landed."
Sean continued with his new assignment for the remainder of the week. On the second day Shamus O’Roarke slipped quietly through the slaughtering room door and watched for a few moments. The foreman, who knew he was coming down to the floor, met him at the door.
"No problems?" Shamus asked.
"None!" the foreman answered.
Shamus watched Sean drop a few steers.
"Quite a show, isn’t it?" he mused at length.
The foreman nodded without smiling.
"To tell the truth, I’m still gettin’ used to it," he answered.
"Pity the poor bloke who crosses him in a pub," Shamus grunted.
"It won’t be me, I can tell you that," the foreman muttered.
"Well, stay at it," Shamus directed, vanishing back into the office areas.
Shamus wasted no time. Within the hour he was on the phone with media types. He told them there was a story of great human interest for them if they could be at the plant by 3 PM that afternoon. A few pressed him for details. But Shamus would only tell them that it involved the lad who had saved the farmer’s life by dropping a great bull with two punches. It was enough for them.
At 3 PM Shamus came out of his office and greeted more than twenty reporters and camera people milling about impatiently in the reception area. He still refused to tell them what they were going to see, but asked them to mention the weekly plant tours in any articles they saw fit to print. Having done this, and in view of the number of people attending, he bypassed the elevator and led them down the stairwell, out onto the slaughtering room floor.
"Don’t mind us!" he shouted to the men on the floor. "We’re only here to observe!"
The timing was such that a new bunch of steers was being brought in and lined up in the stanchions. All of the reporters wondered where the story was.
"As you all may know, we have to stun the steers before hoistin’ them up for butcherin’," Shamus shouted above the din. "Well, the reason I called you here today is to demonstrate a new way we have of doin’ the stunnin’."
A few of the reporters guessed what was in the works and whispered to their camera people to get over by the stanchions. When the steers had been secured, Sean stepped out of the background, smiling at the assembled press corps. He raised his left arm in greeting. The huge glove on his hand was like nothing any of them had ever seen before. Flashbulbs began to pop, and floodlights on the large, shoulder-held video cameras flicked on.
With gasps bordering on disbelief the reporters watched as Sean methodically worked his way down the row. The event was carried on all the TV news networks that night. By the next morning it was in all the Irish and English newspapers. Protests over the cruelty of it were staged in London. But for the most part the public … a devoted beef-eating public … saw nothing wrong with it.
The weekly afternoon tours picked up significantly the very next Wednesday. So great was the number of curious visitors who showed up that Shamus ordered the tours to be broken up into multiple groups. He was pleased as punch at all the free publicity.
Sean, meanwhile, began getting fan mail at the plant, with a few letters even finding their way to his parents’ cottage. They were all from young women, telling him in countless different ways how they’d like to meet him. The other men badgered Sean to share the letters’ contents, and when there was no chance of the writer’s identity being compromised, he passed them around during breaks. Some of the letters included fetching photographs, carefully posed to conceal the girls’ faces.
The men hooted and howled as the letters went from hand to hand. Morale on the slaughtering floor had never been higher. Sean got several requests for interviews from London tabloids. The thought that had begun as a whisper in his mind in Dublin … the thought that one day he might find a way to make a living out in the world at large … changed from a whisper to an insistent roar. Only the details of how he would do it remained a mystery.