Sean discovers the true reason for his existence.
Part 5. A Woman’s Eyes
After three hours in the water, Sean was barely moving. He was chilled to the bone. The sun was sinking below the horizon. This time, he thought, his soul and countless others would go with it.
His mind ranged back over his brief life. There wasn’t much to be proud about. Manny had told him from the start that he was getting into a crooked business. And he had only too eagerly gone along, drooling over the riches he thought would be his. Sam could have been a good friend … even a best friend. But despite the fledgling bonds of trust they had begun to forge, Sean knew he had never really stopped lusting for Julie. He had never killed another human being, but murder was in his heart only a few nights before. Had Rocky’s arm not snapped, he’d almost surely have killed him or crippled him for life.
Sean was jolted back to reality by a movement in the corner of his eye. Something big had rolled at the sea’s surface. With terrified eyes he looked around in every direction. There! A fin! And another! Barely five feet away a blue shark rolled at the surface. It was at least eight feet long. For an instant Sean could see its eye staring at him.
Sean wheeled around in a circle, frantically treading water. He ducked his head under and saw the blur of a big shark pass beneath him. The fins circled him, tightening the noose. Then suddenly, for some unknown reason, they canted over and with splashes scattered in every direction.
Sean could scarcely believe it. Had they realized he wasn’t their usual prey? Had they lost interest? Just when he was beginning to rejoice that he’d drown instead of be eaten alive, an enormous fish rolled only a few feet in front of him. It was a 20-foot Great White shark. Its dorsal fin dwarfed those of the blue sharks. Sean instantly knew why the blues had fled the scene.
He ducked his head beneath the surface. He had seen on a TV show how Great Whites often attack from below. But he couldn’t make out anything in the fading light. Then, about 30 yards away, he saw the big dorsal fin accelerating toward him. This was it!
"God forgive me," he cried. "Take care o’ Ma and Da’."
His mind was racing! Frantically he kicked in the direction of the charging fin. With horror he waited for the gaping mouth. And then … And then … Sean got his miracle. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. There was a bulge in the sea, and a snub-nosed head knocked the Great White completely out of the water! Sean recognized the markings immediately. It was an Orca … a Killer Whale!
As if in a dream he watched the huge shark’s body hang suspended for an instant in the air. Great ripples shuddered down its abdomen. The Orca’s head sank below the waves but another Orca, at least ten feet longer than the Great White, exploded out of the sea, arching over the submerged one. Sean could see its jaws open and hit the Great White as it fell back into the waves. There was a tremendous thrashing and then … silence.
Suddenly the shark rose only four feet from Sean. It was on its side, and one of its lateral fins quivered in the air. Sean backwatered frantically, but then realized that the shark’s head hung grotesquely down into the sea. Its neck was more than half-bitten through. As Sean watched, its great tail flapped the surface a few times, driving it feebly forward. And then it nosed down and sank into the depths.
Sean again spun around in the water. There was only silence. Would the blues be back, attracted by the Great White’s blood? Would he be dinner for the Orcas? He could barely move his arms and legs. They seemed to be all but paralyzed. The cold and exhaustion had come full circle.
"’Bye, Mommy," he whispered, ceasing his struggling. His head slid beneath the surface. But his feet touched bottom! His mind dimly sensed the bottom rising beneath him! And then he lay sprawling on the back of an Orca. He stretched his arms and legs out, trying to keep his perch on the leviathan’s back. It was like trying to hold onto the hull of a capsized ship.
Sean craned his head upward and stared at the enormous dorsal fin in front of him. It was at least 6 or 8 feet tall. There was a sound, and another Orca surfaced beside them. Its dorsal was smaller, although it appeared to be as long as the one beneath him. The second Orca made some noises and Sean saw the fin above him curve and straighten, curve and straighten, beckoning to him. Somehow he got the message. Like a turtle he crawled forward and grabbed the front of the fin with his left hand. He felt the huge beast begin to move. The sea washed over the whale’s back and into his face. He couldn’t breathe. He was drowning. Just as he began to loosen his grip, the leviathan stopped. The one next to them chattered away, and again the fin beckoned. Sean crawled to his knees and reached up higher, wrapping both arms around it. His mighty left hand locked onto his right wrist with a grip that only death could loosen.
Again his steed got under way. This time Sean hydroplaned on top of the water. In the fading light he could see the Orca’s blow hole breach and expel mist, only to suck in fresh air and submerge again. The smell of the great beast’s breath made Sean giddy.
"My God! My God!" he shouted. Above him the first stars were coming out. On each side, other Orcas porpoised along. He thought there must be a dozen in all. The memory of what Grandpa Joe had told him drifted up from memory into what remained of consciousness.
"Every God fearin’ man gets a miracle."
Grandpa was right! Sean didn’t know where the pod of Orcas was taking him. But he knew that nothing would tear him away from the fin that sliced through the waves. It was his ticket to someplace else, away from this place of sharks and death, and that was enough!
The great porpoise and his companions continued on into the night. Slowly but inexorably Sean sank into delirium. He sang wildly at the stars … My Wild Irish Rose … When Irish Eyes Are Smiling…
The Orcas seemed to appreciate his serenading, and even to expect it. It was a clear night out in the ocean, far from the belching gas pipes and stacks of civilization. The sky was filled with stars. Sean hallucinated madly, imagining that he himself was a creature of the sea.
The wild ride ended a little more than six hours after it had begun. At first Sean didn’t realize it. But then he sensed that he wasn’t hydroplaning. All around him the Orcas lolled in the waves, chattering to one another. And there was a sound … a familiar sound. It was the sound of surf! Sean raised his head and looked past the great sail of a fin. There, in the starlight, he saw a beach nestled in front of towering cliffs.
"Whoa!" he cried as the great form below him submerged. He could feel the fin slide down out of his arms. He tried to swim, but he couldn’t unlock his arms! Indeed they felt like lead. No matter how his mind willed them to move, they refused to respond. His legs were no better.
In despair he looked up as the sea closed over his face. So close, only now to drown! His mind began to shut down … to go somewhere else. But then he felt a great pad of warmth lift him. He was raised up to the surface. As in a dream he realized that he was in an Orca’s mouth. His arms unlocked and flopped out between the great conical teeth in the behemoth’s lower jaw.
It was the pod matriarch who had realized Sean’s final peril and was rescuing him. With a great rush she accelerated toward the beach. And then Sean felt the huge tongue thrust outward. He was catapulted into the surf. Grunting and sobbing, on the fringe of insanity, he pulled himself up the slope of the beach.
He looked back over his shoulder and could see the mother Orca, thrashing back and forth and inching back into the sea.
"Shank you!" he cried, unable to make his swollen tongue work. "Shank you berry much! God blesh!"
He inched himself higher.
"Arive! Ruck o’ the Irish," he exulted feebly. And then, a strange buzz in his head. The sound of the surf fading into the distance. And then … nothing.
It was a stroke of good luck that Sean’s wild ride ended at high tide. While he lay unconscious at the ocean’s edge, the tide receded. The sun rose, and gulls began to sail up and down the beach, eyeing the strange apparition lying in the sand.
In the distance there was a sound of bells. William O’Ryan walked alongside his old horse, picking up pieces of driftwood and throwing them into a two-wheeled cart. At first he couldn’t make out what he saw in the distance. And then, as he drew nearer, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
Leaving the horse, he hurried along the beach toward the human form. Pain stabbed in his left arm. When he reached Sean he looked down in utter amazement. What kind of a strange man was this, all but naked and drowned? He knelt down and felt Sean’s wrist. A pulse! The poor bloke was alive!
"Wake up! Wake up!" O’Ryan intoned, rolling Sean over and gently slapping his face. Sean’s eyes opened. His face relaxed in a look of complete peace.
"Are you God?" he grated, barely able to make a sound.
"No, laddy, I’m Bill O’Ryan. You’ve washed up on the shores of Ireland."
"Alive? I’m still alive?" Sean croaked.
"Aye. But not by much, from the looks o’ yuh. We’d best be getting’ you into a warm bed!"
O’Ryan hurried back to the cart and pulled the driftwood out of it.
"Come on, girl," he said to the horse, taking her by the halter and leading her toward Sean.
"You’re a big man," O’Ryan said, lifting Sean to a sitting position. "I don’t think I can get you into the cart alone."
Sean nodded and willed his body to assist the old man. He was so weak that he couldn’t stand by himself. O’Ryan pulled him to the back of the cart and sat him on its edge. He gently pushed Sean down onto his back, leaving his legs dangling over and his feet dragging the sand.
The old man led the horse back along the beach and up a rocky path slanting up the cliff’s face. Sean lay staring up at the blue sky, punctuated here and there with fluffy white clouds. Occasionally a gull swept overhead, looking curiously at the cart and its occupant.
"Betsy! Betsy!" he heard O’Ryan call. "Make ready the bed in the spare room. I’ve a near-drowned man here!"
Sean was only vaguely aware of what was happening as O’Ryan half dragged him into a farmhouse. He nodded at a young woman, vaguely embarrassed at his nakedness. O’Ryan helped him down a hallway and into a small bedroom. The old man sat Sean down on the bed’s edge, pushing him sideways. Sean’s head toppled onto a soft pillow. He moaned as O’Ryan lifted his feet into the bed and pulled a sheet and a couple of blankets over him.
"He’s half froze," the old man muttered to his granddaughter. "I’m goin’ to fetch Doc Anderson. Don’t worry. I don’t think he’s gonna move."
O’Ryan hastened out of the house and Betsy knelt at the bedside, reaching under the covers to rub heat into Sean’s arms. She was all but blind, but she was able to make things out when they were only inches in front of her face. She could feel what a mountain of a man Sean was. It was the first time in her twenty years that she’d ever felt a man’s body, other than her grandfather’s.
"You’ll be all right," she whispered over and over again. Sean moaned and seemed to hear her voice as if through a fog.
"Cold. So cold," he slurred through chattering teeth, shivering violently. Betsy’s hands ran down his torso to the wet jock.
"Best if this comes off," she whispered. She tugged it down and off under the covers.
Sean continued to shiver in spasms. On an impulse, Betsy lifted the covers and crawled into bed with him. His entire body was as cold as ice. She pressed her own body against him and placed her mouth close to his. Each time he inhaled she tried to exhale, breathing her own warmth into his lungs.
Slowly Sean’s shivering abated. He opened his eyes and found himself staring straight into hers. It was the most beautiful face he’d ever seen.
"Are you an angel?" he whispered with effort.
"No. Don’t you know where you are?" she whispered back.
In a state of delirium, Sean pulled her face toward his own and kissed her on the lips. His hand cupped her breast and he moaned. She shrank away, but he complained like an infant, not wanting to let go of its mother. Somehow she knew that she was in no danger. She placed her own hand over his and pressed it more firmly against her bosom.
"Uh-h-h," Sean moaned, tears streaming out of his eyes. "Uh-h-h."
"You’re all right," she whispered to him. "You’ve had a rough time of it, but you’re safe now."
Sean’s eyes opened for an instant, slightly crossed and unfocused. Then they closed again and he began to snore lightly. Betsy moved her hands over his body, gently rubbing warmth and life back into him. It was difficult to believe that any man could be this strong.
"You’re goin’ to be all right," she whispered again, kissing his cheeks and eyes.
"Thank you," he slurred, only half awake.
"Rest. You need rest," she murmured, rubbing his massive torso.
Bill O’Ryan chased Doc Anderson down and returned to the farmhouse an hour later, followed by the doctor in his own car. Betsy heard them coming and slipped out of the bed. The two men entered the bedroom on tiptoe. The doc bent over Sean, feeling his forehead and lifting his eyelids. Sean’s eyes were rolled back and only the whites showed.
Doc began to pull the covers back, and could see that Sean was naked. But, he knew that Betsy was functionally blind. O’Ryan noticed the wet jock kicked halfway under the bed, but said nothing.
"He’s already warmin’ up," the doc muttered, feeling Sean’s body carefully. He scanned the misshapen form before him.
"You know who this is, don’t yuh?" he asked O’Ryan. The old man shook his head ‘no’.
"I’d bet fifty quid this is Fiddler Crabbe. He’s a fighter … a boxer who just fought a championship bout in America."
"How ever did he end up washed ashore here?" O’Ryan wondered aloud.
"I have no idea," Doc replied. "Whatever, he’s a tough customer."
"Should you be givin’ him anything … a shot or somethin’?" O’Ryan asked.
"No, not for the present," Doc answered. "He’s runnin’ no fever. We’ll wait and see what develops."
Sean was dimly aware of the sound of strange men’s voices and forced his eyelids open.
"Well, now," Doc exclaimed, smiling down at Sean. He pulled the covers back up to Sean’s chest.
"It looks like you’ve had quite a time of it," he continued. "How long were you in the sea?"
"All night, I think," Sean croaked. "I haven’t eaten in several days."
The doc gave a little start. Sean did seem to be somewhat emaciated.
"Can he have anything?" Betsy whispered.
"Aye. Somethin’ warm if you have it," Doc replied.
Betsy nodded and felt her way out of the bedroom. Minutes later she came back in with a plate piled high with steaming mutton. Sean had lapsed back into a slumber.
"Laddy, Laddy, here’s some food for yuh," Doc said, gently shaking Sean by the shoulder. Sean’s eyes opened with a start.
"Let’s get you sittin’ up," the doc said, motioning for Bill to help him. They got Sean propped up against the bed’s headboard and handed him the plate of meat. Sean began shoveling forkfuls into his mouth and swallowing without chewing. He wolfed the meat down like a ravenous beast.
"More?" O’Ryan asked after he’d cleaned the plate. Sean nodded gratefully.
"Maybe some bread. And a glass o’ milk if you have it," the doc again said to Betsy.
While she was gone the doc asked Sean if he was Fiddler Crabbe. Sean’s eyes became guarded.
"It’s all right. You don’t have to talk now if you don’t want to," Doc said gently.
"Where am I?" Sean asked. It seemed like the food was already having an effect. Color was coming back into his cheeks.
"You’re on Achill Island," O’Ryan said. "I found you near drowned, washed up on the beach."
Sean’s eyes glazed over as his mind went back over his time in the sea. Had it really happened? Or was it a dream?
Betsy came back in with half a loaf of bread and a glass of milk. Sean took them from her gratefully. He gazed at her face. She looked familiar. He watched the way she felt the furniture as she moved back away from the bed. Her eyes looked normal, but he guessed that she was blind. It occurred to him that he was naked under the covers.
"Well," the doc said as Sean tore bites out of the loaf of bread and washed them down with gulps of milk. "I think it’s safe for me to be goin’. I’d like you to stay in bed for a few more hours, young man. If you feel like gettin’ up this afternoon, that’ll be fine."
As an afterthought, the doc turned to O’Ryan.
"D’ you have any clothes for this lad to wear?" he asked.
"Aye," O’Ryan nodded. "We’ll make do for now."
As the doc left, O’Ryan walked him out to his car.
"A fighter, isn’t he?" O’Ryan said in a low voice. "Such a strange … build."
"Aye. I’ve read about him," the doc replied. "Lopsided from birth, he was. The strength in his left side is legendary … more like that of a gorilla than a man."
"Is he the lad who killed that bull a few years back?" O’Ryan asked.
"Aye, I believe he is," Doc answered. "From stunnin’ steers with his punches, he got into boxin’."
"I didn’t know…" O’Ryan murmured. "I don’t follow the sports that much."
"If it’s him, then his real name is Sean … Sean Crabbe," the doc said.
"Yes … I recall now," O’Ryan murmured. "What d’ you think we … me and Betsy should do?"
"Well," Doc answered, "I think you’re safe enough, if that’s what you mean. From all I’ve read, he’s a decent enough chap. But if you’re worried or don’t feel up to keepin’ him here…"
"No, No, we’re happy enough to have him until he’s up and about," O’Ryan said. "I guess we’ll just have to wait a bit and see what he wants to do."
Doc nodded and squeezed the old man’s shoulder.
"I’ll be back out tomorrow afternoon," he promised. "Phone me if you need me sooner."
"Aye, Doc. Thanks for comin’," O’Ryan said, taking out his wallet. "How much do we owe yuh?"
"You don’t owe me a pence," Doc said. "If he’s who I think he is, he’s more than able to pay his own bills."
Doc got into his car and drove off. O’Ryan waved and winced at the pain in his chest and shoulder. He took out the small vial of nitroglycerin pills that Doc had given him and placed one under his tongue. There was no telling when the clogged arteries in his heart would close down completely. He’d been worried about Betsy. What would become of her if he suddenly joined her grandmother in the family plot? Her father … his son in law … had died in Belfast, fighting with the IRA. And her sainted mother, his lovely daughter, had succumbed to cancer not long after They both shared the family plot with his departed wife..
Would this strange young man play a role in Betsy’s future? Who could say? More than seventy years of living had taught O’Ryan that life is never without its little surprises. Men could only guess about their futures, not to mention the future of the entire earth. Many a night he’d prayed for Betsy’s security and happiness after he was gone. And now, out of the blue…
"Mysterious are the ways o’ the Lord," he murmured, turning back into the farmhouse.
Sean was out of bed by noon, and put on the clothes that O’Ryan had stacked on a rocking chair next to the bed. They had belonged to Betsy’s father, and they weren’t a bad fit. A little snug on the left side, but at least he was decently covered.
"Hello," he said softly, entering the kitchen. Betsy was seated alone at the table, peeling potatoes. Sean could see, by the way she held the potatoes up close to her face, that she wasn’t completely blind.
"How are yuh feelin’?" she greeted. "Help yourself to some pie if you like."
"Thank you. I think I will," he said gratefully.
"There’s dishes and glasses in the cupboard to the left o’ the stove," she said. "And silverware in the top drawer below. Feel free to have a glass o’ milk too."
Sean was cutting a wedge of pie when O’Ryan came in from outside.
"Well," the old man smiled, "you’re up and about. The clothes seem to fit all right."
"Aye," Sean smiled back, extending his hand.
"D’ you remember me name?" O’Ryan asked. Sean shook his head ‘no’.
"I remember next to nothin’," he admitted. "I guess I was out o’ me head."
"Aye, a fair assessment," O’Ryan answered. "Sit down, lad, and tell us who you are."
Sean took a seat at the table and told O’Ryan and his granddaughter who he was and how he’d stowed away on the Gypsy Queen.
"Filthy blighters. And they left yuh in the sea to drown," O’Ryan growled. "How far d’ you figure you had to swim?"
Sean shrugged. He felt that the story about the Orcas was too farfetched to tell to strangers. He wasn’t even sure that he hadn’t dreamed it.
"The Mafia," O’Ryan mused. "I’ve heard tell o’ that lot. What are you gonna do?"
"Oh, lay low for a time, I think," Sean shrugged.
"O’ course you could stay here. I could use a hand," O’Ryan said casually. "I’m gettin’ on in years, don’t yuh know."
Sean’s ears pricked up.
"I’d be happy to earn me keep," he said eagerly.
"I’m thinkin’ you’d be safe enough here," O’Ryan continued. "There are no criminals on the Isle of Achill."
"Achill …" Sean murmured. "To the west of the mainland, isn’t it?"
"Aye," the old man agreed. "We’re mostly farmers and fishermen here, with a bit o’ the tourist trade."
And so the deal was struck. Sean pitched in and more than earned his keep. It was a beautiful and peaceful place. O’Ryan owned over a hundred acres, all fenced by stonewalls. Behind the farmhouse was a medium size barn where sheep were shorn. O’Ryan’s flock numbered over 300. The sheep spent their time in the well-grazed pastures that sloped down from the front of the farmhouse, to the cliffs at the edge of the sea.
O’Ryan suggested that Sean grow a beard, and stay there at the farm until it grew in. In his second week at the farm, Sean asked permission to call his parents in County Louth. O’Ryan readily agreed. Sean called in the evening, when Lester and Emma would both be at home.
His disappearance had been in all the papers, and it was a great mystery what had become of him. Rufus had told no one but Seth how Sean had stowed away on a ship. And Seth had told no one else.
Emma wept openly on the phone when she heard her son’s voice. Sean didn’t want to go into details about how he’d wound up back in Ireland. He asked them not to tell anyone but his grandparents that they’d heard from him.
"When will we see you?" Emma asked.
"Soon," Sean promised. "I’m growin’ a beard and shouldn’t be so easy to recognize in a few months."
Emma made him promise to write, and they rang off.
Two months after going to work for O’Ryan, Sean accompanied the old man into the nearest town. Betsy had taken Sean’s measurements, using pieces of string, and had altered some of her father’s old clothes to better fit Sean’s odd shape. Sean watched her at work. She was, in fact, a good seamstress.
O’Ryan suggested that Sean might like to use a different name as they drove into town. Sean knew that Crabbe was a common name in Ireland. His middle name was ‘Peter’, and he suggested that he be introduced as ‘Peter Crabbe’. The few people he was introduced to marveled afterward at Bill O’Ryan’s good luck to find such a stout hired hand.
"I shouldn’t be surprised if he and Betsy …" the wife of the general store’s owner mused to a friend.
"D’ you think so?" the other lady exclaimed. "He seems nice enough."
"Sure, and he is."
"Wouldn’t that be a relief to Bill O’Ryan?" the other lady thought aloud.
"Aye, I should think so. Bill has a heart problem, you know."
"So I’ve heard. And he is in his seventies …"
In the weeks after Sean’s first trip to town, Betsy continued to alter clothes for him.
"What a fine figure of a man you are," she’d murmur, feeling around his torso with her measuring strings.
Sean gazed at her pretty face gratefully. Where others saw a freak of nature, she saw … or felt … only strength. Her eyes were as blue as Grandma Mary’s had been. Looking at them, one would never guess that she was severely impaired. Sean began to feel stirrings for her.
One day, while she was fitting an altered shirt on him and chattering away, he bent toward her on an impulse and kissed her. She was still talking when he did it. There was a stunned silence, and tears welled up in her eyes. Sean immediately thought that she had wanted only to be friends, and that he had ruined everything.
"I’m sorry," he muttered. "Truly I am."
"Why?" Betsy asked.
"I shouldn’t o’ done that."
"I didn’t mind," she whispered.
"But … you’re cryin’," Sean murmured.
"I’m cryin’ because it’s the first time I’ve been kissed," Betsy explained.
Sean looked at her in astonishment.
"But … you’re so pretty!" he exclaimed.
Betsy put her hands to his face, exploring his lips and cheekbones with her fingers.
"Nobody wants a blind girl," she said.
"That’s not true," Sean whispered huskily. He put his arms around her and pulled her to him, kissing her mouth until her lips parted. When he drew his face back, she grabbed his head in her hands and kissed him hungrily on the mouth.
"Sweet Jesus," she murmured, pressing her cheeks against his chest. "I never thought this would happen to me."
"Nor did I," Sean answered gently, stroking her hair.
That night Sean lay awake until after midnight. He felt that he was falling head over heels in love. Old Bill seemed happy enough to have his help. Achill Island was beautiful and peaceful. He realized that he didn’t miss the life he’d left behind in the slightest. Who needed to be a millionaire? For some … for many … great wealth could be more a curse than anything else.
Betsy’s handicap was a blessing in disguise. She would never see him as something grotesque. He remembered the conversation he’d had with Grandma Mary so long ago. What was it she’d said? ‘You’ll know you’ve found your island home when you gaze into the right woman’s eyes.’
Had the Orcas brought him home? Sean thrilled at the prospect. He had enough money stashed away in English banks to buy his own farm. Were he and Betsy destined to be mates? It had never occurred to him that the right pair of eyes would be blind to his deformity. Was that what Grandma Mary had in mind?
"How did she know?" Sean whispered into the darkness. "How did she know?"
It was autumn and the days were beautiful on Achill. Sean rediscovered the secluded beach where Bill had first found him. It was nestled at the foot of the cliffs in front of the farm. One Friday he walked down the path that O’Ryan used when he went and gathered driftwood. The cliffs curved in a crescent along the coast, effectively isolating the beach entirely from the rest of the shoreline. At one point the rocks were somewhat hollowed out, no doubt by eons of high tide surf. Sean stretched out on the sand in the hollow, looking alternately up at the vaulted rocks above and out across the broad Atlantic. He could see the cliff’s rock face above the hollow, but it occurred to him that no one topside could see down into the hollow without tumbling over the cliff’s edge. A plan began to form in his love-struck mind.
He suggested that night, when he and Betsy were alone, that the two of them go for a picnic on the beach the following day.
"How will I get down there?" she asked
"You’ll ride the horse and I’ll lead the way," he answered.
"It sounds like fun," she mused. "I’ll wear me swim suit. It’s been more than a year since I was in the ocean over on the Eastern Shore."
Sean frowned. He of course had no swim togs there on the farm.
"What’ll I wear?" he asked.
"Nothin’," she whispered in his ear. "You said it was secluded. And I won’t be able to see yuh!"
Sean’s heart thumped at the prospect. He was a little taken aback at her suggestion. He had thought of taking a blanket and lying on it with her, kissing her and seeing where things would lead. But the thought of being naked when he did it made him skittish.
"But, what the hey? What’re you afraid of?" he asked himself. That evening he asked Bill if he’d be able to take Betsy away for a few hours the next day. He managed to explain, with only moderate blushing, that they planned to go on a picnic down on the beach.
"Aye, it sounds like a nice outing," Bill slyly agreed. Sean breathed a sigh of relief, awash now with mixed feelings of deserving Bill’s trust on the one hand, and passion for Betsy on the other.
The next morning he and Betsy had their chores done by 11 AM, and Betsy had packed a picnic basket. Sean put a bridle on Bill’s old horse, but no saddle at Betsy’s request. He helped her mount the steed and called to Bill.
"Well, I guess we’ll be off then. We should be gone only an hour or two."
"Aye, off you go," Bill answered. "Take your time and have fun. I’ll hold things down here for the afternoon."
They set off, with Sean leading the old horse with one hand, and carrying the picnic basket with the other. Betsy grabbed a handful of mane and seemed to be enjoying the ride. She wasn’t the least bit apprehensive as they wended their way down the path to the base of the cliffs.
Once there, Sean led the horse over to the secret hollow in the cliffs and helped Betsy down. He took the blanket Betsy had packed in the basket, and spread it out on the sand.
"Would you care to sit down for a bit before goin’ in for a swim?" he asked innocently.
"Aye, that sounds good," she answered.
Sean kneeled down and took her hand. She sat down on the blanket and Sean stretched out beside her. He could feel her swimsuit beneath her dress.
"What a beautiful day," she murmured. "Tell me what you see."
Sean stared up at the cliffs and out over the water.
"Well, the Atlantic stretches to the west as far as the eye can see," he said softly. "It’s as blue as the sky and sparklin’ in the sun. Above us rise the cliffs. There’s grasses and mosses sproutin’ higher up, and it looks like some birds are nestin’ in the cliff walls here and there."
"Let’s go in," Betsy said of an instant, rising and lifting her dress up and over her head. Sean’s heart thudded in his chest. She had a beautiful figure. He wanted to pull her back down onto the blanket but she held her hand out and asked him to lead her into the surf. When he rose and took her hand, she could feel that he was still fully clothed.
"Faith and you can’t be goin’ into the sea like that," she scolded. Sean looked around uneasily. There wasn’t a soul in sight.
"Well, why not?" he told himself. "She clearly doesn’t mind. If Bill is lookin’ over the cliff’s edge, so be it."
He shrugged out of his clothes and dropped them on the blanket. The sea was cold when they waded into it. Chest deep, sudden feelings of terror gripped Sean. Betsy seemed to sense his unease.
"What is it?" she murmured, turning to face him.
"I don’t know," he answered. "Maybe it’s the memories of the night I spent out there, alone…"
Betsy put her arms around his neck and kissed him. He could feel her body pressing against his own. And she could feel his manhood responding to her.
"I want…I want…" he mumbled thickly.
"I do too," she whispered. "Let’s go back to the blanket."
Sean lifted her up into his arms and carried her out of the surf. When he set her down on the blanket, she kneeled and pulled him down in front of her. She put her arms around his neck and lay down. He kissed her passionately and pulled the top of her swimsuit down. She was so full breasted and beautiful it made his head swim. He put his hand on her and she moaned.
"Oh, my love, my love," she whispered.
Sean could tell that he was her first, ‘though she did no more than cry out once. As far as he was concerned she was his first also.
Afterward, when she lay next to him basking in the autumn sun, he kissed her softly and asked her to marry him.
"I will, Sean Crabbe," she sighed. "I will, and that’s for sure ."
They lay there holding each other until passion awakened again in Sean. When it was time to go back, Betsy stuffed her still damp swimming suit into the picnic basket and pulled her flimsy dress on over her head. To Sean it seemed obvious that she had nothing on under the dress. He worried that O’Ryan might notice and he resolved to talk to the old man that very night.
Once back at the farmhouse Betsy took a shower, explaining that she needed to rinse off the sea salt. Sean went outside and busied himself with the sheep. After a time Bill came out and joined him. Sean decided that the head-on approach was best.
"I’m in love with your granddaughter," he blurted.
"Are yuh now?" Bill answered. "Well, that’s fine. I’ve a feelin’ she fancies you too."
"I asked her to marry me, and she said ‘Yes’," Sean continued.
Bill looked up at Sean and his eyebrows arched.
"I’d like your permission," Sean continued nervously, looking old Bill squarely in the eye. "I accumulated a tidy sum durin’ me fights in Europe, and I can afford to buy me own farm."
"Well, well," Bill said, clearly impressed and pleased. "If Betsy said ‘yes’ then I’ve no objection. But why don’t you work this place? It’ll be hers soon enough. If the two of you want, I’ll sign it over to her now, as a weddin’ gift, provided you keep me on as a hired hand."
Sean grinned widely and his eyes glistened. He stepped toward Bill and extended his hand.
"This place is yours for as long as you live," he said.
Bill nodded and returned Sean’s handshake.
"When did the two o’ yuh want to tie the knot?" Bill asked.
"I don’t know," Sean answered. "It’s all up to Betsy. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner the better. I’d like to go see me Ma and Da’ and transfer some funds to a bank here on Achill. And o’ course they’ll be comin’ to the weddin’."
"Aye, absolutely," old Bill said. "I look forward to meetin’ them."
Bill grinned absently as a devilish thought seemed to occur to him.
"By the way," the old man said, I’ve a bottle stashed in the house. Will yuh join me for a drop o’ the Irish?"
"Aye, I will that," Sean said. "It’s been a while since I’ve had a taste. Will Betsy be joinin’ us?"
"I don’t know," O’Ryan smiled. "Let’s go ask her."
Betsy, Sean and O’Ryan had a rousing good time of it that night. They all got into Bill’s bottle of Irish whisky and it had the desired effect. Sean told Betsy that he’d gotten her grandfather’s permission to marry her.
"He wants to know when we’ll tie the knot. I told him the sooner the better," Sean slurred.
Betsy grew serious for a moment.
"I think…I’d like to wed durin’ the holidays," she announced.
"What a grand idea!" Sean cried. "Before or after…"
"Between Christmas and New Years," Betsy decided.
And so the date was set. The next morning Sean’s head felt like concrete, but nothing could dispel the warmth he felt at how well things had gone.
He discovered that his funds could be transferred from England without his leaving the island. He had O’Ryan take some pictures of himself and Betsy. And he in turn took pictures of her and Bill. He spent an extra hour or so roving the farm, taking pictures of it and of it’s lovely setting. That evening he wrote a long letter to Emma and Lester, filling them in on his good fortune and of the impending nuptials.
Emma was in seventh heaven when she read Sean’s letter. She had the grandparents over for Sunday dinner and passed the letter and pictures around.
"Ain’t that the limit?" Grandpa Joe exclaimed. "What a pretty colleen Sean has snagged.
"Aye, she is, isn’t she?" Lester chimed in. "She’s blind, yuh know."
"No! How ever?" Grandpa asked.
"We don’t know," Emma answered.
Emma and Lester announced their plans to travel across Ireland during the Christmas season. It was decided that the grandparents were too old for the trip. And so Emma wrote a long letter back to Sean and Betsy, telling them of their plans. Betsy made reservations for them at the best hotel on the Eastern Shore.
Autumn slipped by in silent grandeur there on Achill. It seemed that the betrothal of Sean and Betsy had a near mystical effect on Sean. It was as if a door clicked shut on his past, and the years he’d spent in the fight game became more and more a curious memory.
He took a new interest in the farm’s operation, and by November was pretty much running things alone. Bill made heroic attempts to pitch in, but the simple truth was that he could do little. With each passing day the angina pains in his shoulder and arm grew more frequent. Doc Anderson quietly shook his head when he listened to the old man’s laboring heart.
Betsy sensed her grandfather’s weakening state, but with quiet resolve carried on. She dug her late mother’s wedding gown out of a trunk in a spare room and made alterations to it befitting her own full figure. Tossing old superstitions to the wind, she had Sean help her each time further alterations were called for. It was pleasant work for him, and as the alterations took shape she looked more beautiful every time she put the dress on.
Sean’s family had never attended church regularly, but Betsy and Bill went every Sunday. At first Sean had stayed there on the farm. But once they had become engaged Betsy insisted that he accompany them at least one Sunday to meet their priest. Sean agreed readily and following services they gathered in the priest’s place for Sunday dinner. Sean enjoyed the whole affair, particularly the church services. He had a fine baritone voice and enjoyed singing the hymns. Betsy was happily surprised when he announced the following Saturday that he’d like to go to services again. And so he became a Sunday regular along with her and her grandfather.
The other farmers on their side of the island visited the O’Ryan farm occasionally. And gradually, between the visits and the church going, Sean made the acquaintance of many men and even of their families. With each new friendship he felt his roots sinking deeper into the island’s soil. December came, and then the day of their wedding was practically at hand.
Emma and Lester arrived by train from County Louth and Sean picked them up at the station. On the drive out to the farm Emma waxed enthusiastic about how beautiful the countryside was. The western coast of Achill was of course a good deal more rugged than the eastern one was, and Emma and Lester were virtually enchanted when they arrived at the farm. There was the usual feminine fuss when Emma met Betsy. They had dinner there at the farm, and then Sean took his parents on a walk around the property. Both lovers of the sea, Lester and Emma were enthralled by the view to the west.
"It’s such a beautiful place, son," Emma murmured, taking Sean’s arm.
"Aye, it is that," Lester heartily agreed.
Sean recounted his misadventures in America and told them of his deliverance from the sea. Lester listened in near disbelief.
"So Jonah and the whale is a true story," he murmured after Sean had finished.
"Aye, I hadn’t thought of that. But it probably is," Sean agreed. "I don’t know whether he spent a full three days in the beast’s mouth, but…"
"Probably a less than perfect translation of the ancient texts," Lester allowed. "I don’t always feel that the English version of the scriptures accurately reflects the original writers’ meanin’s."
Sean and Betsy drove his parents back to their hotel late in the afternoon, and Lester treated them all to a fine meal in the hotel’s dining room. Later, after Sean and Betsy had said their good-byes and returned to the farm, Lester and Emma lay in the dark in the strange hotel room, marveling at how things had worked out.
"Did I ever tell you what my mother said to Sean once?" Emma asked.
"About every man findin’ his island home?" Lester asked.
"Yes," Emma answered, wondering how Lester had heard the story.
"I’d say she somehow knew, wouldn’t you?" Lester asked.
"Yes, it’s uncanny isn’t it?" Emma replied. "Sean knew he’d come home when he looked into the right woman’s eyes. Who ever would have guessed those years ago that they’d be eyes unable to see his deformity?"
"Yes, things do have a way of workin’ out, don’t they?" Lester answered, pulling Emma to himself and kissing her on the cheek.
Everyone had to gather at the church the next day for a rehearsal, and Emma and Lester had dinner out at the farm that night. Sean and Betsy were wed the next day, on December 30th. It was decided that they’d forego a honeymoon for the present, and that Emma and Lester would leave following the ceremony in order to be back at their own home for New Year’s eve with the grandparents.
"Be happy, Seanie," Emma whispered as she kissed her boy goodbye. "And know that your Da’ and I are happy for you. You’ve married a beautiful girl."
"Aye, that’s for sure," Lester agreed. "May shamrocks and bluebirds be with you all the days of your lives."
And then they were gone.
That night Bill O’Ryan settled back into the soft pillow on his bed with a happy sigh. It was as if his work on earth was done. Betsy would be taken care of. He had long since lost any dread of his own end. If anything, he believed that he’d be reunited with his wife and looked forward to the final curtain.
He wanted Betsy and Sean to take over the master bedroom. But Sean would have none of it. He reminded old Bill that the place was still his. But the truth was that Bill was letting go. By the following spring it was clear that the old man was fading. One day in April he failed to come into the house when Betsy rang the lunch bell. Sean went looking for him and found him laid out in the shearing barn. He was still alive, but he was wheezing and his lips were blue.
Sean carried the old man to the truck, shouting to Betsy to call the medical center. Bill had tried nitroglycerin tablets under his tongue, but this time they hadn’t seemed to help.
"I fainted dead away," he murmured to Sean as they sped toward the medical facilities. "It was like the bloody ground rose up and hit me in the snoot."
In the medical center Doc Anderson’s face grew somber as he listened to Bill’s irregular heartbeat.
"He’s had a heart attack," he told Sean when they were alone. "We’ll keep him here for a day or two. It’s touch and go."
Sean nodded gravely.
"Will he recover?" he asked quietly.
"It’s hard to say," Doc answered. "His EKG is erratic, but that’s to be expected. If he comes home, I recommend that you rent a hospital bed. He’ll be more comfortable with his upper body elevated."
"Aye, I’ll do that," Sean promised.
That night he and Betsy lay quietly in their bed. Sean had arranged to pick up the hospital bed the next morning.
"We’ll put it in the front room. He’ll like that," Betsy stated.
"Aye. He’ll be able to hear you workin’ in the kitchen and the like," Sean agreed.
Two days after going to the hospital, Bill was brought back to the farm in an ambulance. Sean explained to him that they’d set an adjustable bed up in the front room, and Bill seemed to be happy about that. But there was a certain vacant look about the old man. It was as if the fight had finally drained out of him.
They got Bill settled into the bed and Betsy prepared a supper for him in accordance with Doc Anderson’s instructions. Bill picked at it but ate little. That night Sean told Betsy that he was going to stay up at least part of the night. She kissed him and went to bed. The spring air was moist and chilly, and Sean lit a fire in the hearth.
"Many a fire the ocean has provided us fuel for," O’Ryan rasped, turning his hoary head and looking across the room at the flames.
"Aye, the driftwood always burns well," Sean agreed. "I’m gonna stay out here for a while and keep it goin’. Try to get some sleep."
O’Ryan looked into Sean’s eyes.
"I’m grateful you washed up on our beach," he whispered. "You’ve been a great help to me, and I know you’ll take care o’ Betsy."
"Aye, we’ll take care o’ her together," Sean smiled. "Rest now."
Sean walked back to the hearth and threw a large chunk onto the fire. He slumped down into a chair and gazed into the whispering flames. Bill’s labored breathing was the only other sound in the room. Every now and then it seemed to stop and Sean would tense. But then it would resume with a gasp.
Sean became contemplative as he gazed into the flames. Every now and then a log would pop and send sparks up the chimney. Were they souls leaving the earth? He knew that every day thousands upon thousands of new lives begin on the planet, and other thousands end. One day it would be his turn. How would he feel? Bill seemed to be not at all afraid. It was all such a mystery. Perhaps the deepest mystery the human mind must deal with.
The longer Sean stared into the flames, the more his eyes seemed to tire. He closed them and continued thinking about the changes that seemed to be in store for all of them. Imperceptibly his thoughts drifted into dreams. The fire gnawed away at the big chunk of wood. Pieces fell away, adding to the bed of embers under the grate. Slowly the flames died down, and finally the log broke in half. The noise partially roused Sean, but his mind clung to sleep. A shower of sparks wafted up the chimney.
At 3 AM the sound of soft weeping roused Sean with a start. The fire had gone out and the room was cool. He heard Betsy sobbing across the room by the hospital bed. Kneeling beside her, he felt Bill’s hand. He was gone.
Somehow all of the arrangements got made and after a day and an evening in the funeral home, Sean and Betsy drove to the church for the funeral services. Bill lay in repose at the front of the church. Sean was awestruck by the number of people who attended.
"He touched many lives during his own lifetime," the priest said. "And not just here on Achill."
It was the truth. Dozens … perhaps a hundred or more people drove across the Island Bridge from the mainland.
Betsy wept silently, but already with acceptance as the priest’s voice gently read the mass. Following the services they met with many people in the church’s vestibule and then they left for the farm. It was decided that no one but Sean and Betsy would attend the graveside services such as they were. Bill was laid to rest beside his wife of 53 years.
Less than two weeks after the burial Betsy announced that they’d be moving into the master bedroom. Bill’s bed was moved out and their furniture was moved in. Betsy’s period of grief was brief. It was as though she had let go of the old man while he was still alive. Late in the summer Sean drove her into town to see Doc Anderson. She informed Sean that night that they were about to become a family of three. Like his father had done before him, Sean nearly fell to the floor when she gave him the news.
Little Mary was born in the spring along with the lambs. Sean looked at the baby anxiously in the hospital nursery. She seemed to be perfect.
"D’ you think there’s any chance that my…condition…"he began to ask Doc Anderson.
"I don’t, I surely don’t," the Doc replied. "I’d say that your asymmetry isn’t an inherited trait. She looks to be perfect to me. I shouldn’t worry about givin’ her lots of brothers and sisters."
The Doc was right. In the first few years that followed, Mary grew straight and even. She had Sean’s red hair, and her eyes were as blue as her mother’s. But there was no sign of blindness. Betsy conceived again when Mary was three years old.
As the Christmas holidays drew near, Sean got to thinking about his escape from America and how Rufus had saved his hide. He decided to somehow let Rufus know that he had made it. Presumably the old boy was still a cut man at the fight club, and would get a letter if it were mailed there. But how could Sean get the message to him without compromising his own existence. And then it hit him.
Sean held Betsy in his arms the night she told him that Mary was getting a brother or a sister. The air wafting through the cracked bedroom window was crisp and smelled of the sea. Outside he knew that the sheep were bedded down, warm in their wool and waiting for the morning sun. Sean felt that he must be the luckiest man alive. Only a few years ago he’d been driven to accumulate great wealth. And now he thought he understood why.
"The matin’ game," he thought to himself. "We all think we’re unique. And to be sure we are. But we’re also part of a grand process… a process that’s been goin’ on since life began in the sea."
Reproduction of the species. He knew it was one of the most fundamental instincts that man shares with all the other creatures of the earth. How many other lives had preceded his and Betsy’s, back through the mists of time? Like he and she, they’d had their dreams. But always they’d been driven by the same imperative he now felt…to raise their progeny…to leave someone behind when their time came.
"Men need a cause to live for, and even to die for," he mused. "And raisin’ a family’s the most tried and true cause of all."
He realized now that the quest for riches had, in the final analysis, been a desire to attract a mate. Was it not that way with all men? Yes, they wanted wealth and power. But why?
With a sigh Sean pulled Betsy closer to him and kissed her mouth. He breathed in the fresh scent of her hair.
"I feel like we’ve been so blessed," he whispered into the darkness.
"And so we have," she murmured, snuggling closer to him.
Six weeks after Sean disappeared from New York, Tony Skopelli concluded that his Mafia boss wasn’t his friend after all. He secretly arranged to have Vito Carbino assassinated by some out-of-town guns. Tony planned to be in Los Angeles when it happened. But he never made it. Carbino got wind of the hit, and Skopelli’s body surfaced in the Harlem River two days before his scheduled flight to LA.
Manny was shocked at first, but he was too pragmatic not to recognize an opportunity. He had been laying off sure bets for years and had accumulated a hefty chunk of working capital. He took over Skopelli’s lease on the fight club and started his own stable of fighters. Rufus and Seth were kept on the payroll.
The years slipped by and the operation flourished. During the Christmas season four years after Sean’s disappearance, Seth called Rufus over to the equipment room window.
"You got a letter or Christmas card, man," Seth grinned. "It looks like it come from across the pond. What you been up to over there in England?"
Rufus took the envelope from Seth’s hand and stared wonderingly at it. He hadn’t been in England for nearly a year. And not knowing how to write, he had never gotten any letters.
"And what kind o’ name is that?" Seth demanded, pointing to a couple of words written where the return address would normally be.
"What’s it say?" Rufus mumbled.
"Ain’t no address. Just what look like a crazy name."
Rufus gave his younger brother a look that seemed to say, ‘If you don’t tell me what it say, I gonna slap you up side the head!’
"I never see a name like that before," Seth grunted. "Uca somethin’."
"Uca? Uca?" Rufus cried, tearing the envelope open with trembling fingers.
Inside there was only a photo. It showed a red haired man and a pregnant woman holding a beautiful little girl in her arms. The man had a bushy beard and his left half was hidden behind the woman. He looked perfectly normal except for the hand resting on her shoulder. It was as big as a frying pan.
Green fields sloped down and away behind the couple. Beyond the fields blue ocean stretched away to the horizon where it met the sky.
"Who is it?" Seth asked, grabbing Rufus’ wrist and looking at the photo.
"Don’t you recognize dem eyes?" Rufus asked.
"No, man, who that be anyway?"
Rufus looked away. In the sparring ring two young hopefuls practiced on each other. In the corner another rising star made the light bag move in a blur.
Ratta Tatta Ratta Tatta the bag went. Rufus sighed and tucked the photo into his shirt pocket.
"I’m dogged if it ain’t de Fiddler," he murmured. "Irish done foun’ his island."