was wearing black jeans ripped in the knees and a T-shirt that read Death To Brits on its soiled front. He'd bought it
the one time he was in Ireland. When he bent to drop a paper
full of droopy flowers on Nola's tray table, she saw the black stallion
on the back of his shirt. The beast was bucking, its hind
legs kicking up, the man on its back gone sprawling, top hat and allan
Englishman, she supposed, toppled by an Irishman.
"Fifteen minutes," the nurse said
in a starched voice and, frowning, rustled out.
Nola understood the frown. Here they
were in a Canadian hospital, with a picture of the queen on every wall! The
queen wore a silly little pillbox of a hat on top of her bluish hair;
the man in tights beside her was kissing her plump hand like it was
a warm macaroon. Ha! To Nola, royalty was no better
than poor Irish travellers like herselfin spite of the fancy carriages
and the horse guards dressed to the teeth in velvet and lace.
"And where did you pick the flowers?"
she said. "They got vases here, you know. Just
ask the nurse. They might die, though, in the cold of this
Nola was always cold, even though the nurse
insisted the air conditioning was turned down. It was because
of the surgery, the nurse said: brain surgery was a delicate matter. Nola
had been in critical, she'd barely come through, they said. She
didn't understand it. She'd simply collapsed one day on the
New York farm and Ritchie dragged her over the border in his uncle's
truck and up to this Toronto hospital. Canadians took in
every sick body was the excuse.
"Never you mind," Ritchie said. Meaning
he stole the posies off a cart or out of some florist's window. And
then, when she reached out for them, "Leave 'em beand get
that white sack offa you, we're outa here."
"No, Ritchie, I'm not ready."
They'd got the tumor (fancy thatshe'd
had a tumor, just in front of the left ear it was), but she still felt
the weakness, the pain in the left temple. Besides, they
fed her three meals a day here, they said she was anemic; she wanted
to take full advantage before they tossed her out.
The next she knew he was in the locker, throwing
jeans and shirt at her, her rosary beads, her black purse, then sucking
up the lemonade on the tray table with a little smirk, damn him. She'd
been drinking it slowly, to savor it, it had just the right sweetness. "Up,"
he said. "Before the big nurse comes back. We
gotta find Darren."
"Darren doesn't want to go back,"
she said. Ritchie's half-brother Darren was fed up with
the uncle's harsh ways. He'd left the farm three weeks ago
for Vermont where he had a cousin on his non-traveller mother's side
and the cousin had got him work on a nearby farm.
"Uncle wants him back. And move
your butt, we gotta hit the road."
"Hit it how, the road?" she asked. Uncle
would want his truck back, he wouldn't want it going to Vermont. And
their own pickup had died of old age the week before. She
couldn't believe Ritchie was doing this to her, with her only five days
before collapsed outside the cow barn.
He didn't answer her question.
"What about Keeley?" she asked. "I
don't want the boy left there alone."
"I called Penny," he said, "she'll
keep an eye on him."
Penny was their neighbor and Nola's friend,
Keeley liked her. She was a counselor in Keeley's schoolwhen
he went to school, that is. Keeley was as shy as a chipmunk
caught dozing on your front porch. Now Nola's twelve-year-old
son was out for the summer and the neighbor had a part-time jobshe
couldn't always look out for the boy.
Nola didn't have to go to Vermont. She
could ring the nurse, stay right here. She reached for the
bell but Ritchie's hand clamped down on her wrist. "You
stay," he said, "and you're on your own when they dump you
outa here. I wasted a week already waiting for you. Darren
could be in Mexico, and no one to say where."
She got up slowlyslowly was the only way
she could do it. Tormey Leary was cheap; he'd never let them
take the truck as far as Vermont, even if he did send Ritchie after
his brother. If Ritchie expected her to walk it might take
a yearif she had a year to live. She staggered some,
deliberately, on the way to the toilet. He didn't try to
catch her, he'd know she was putting it on. She heard the
woman in the next cubicle groanthat one was just out of surgerygall
bladder or something. At least she was beyond hearing Ritchie's
talk. Nola looked at the puffy face in the mirror and grimaced.
At thirty she was already getting lines from the hot work in the corn
fields. She'd balked, but Ritchie wouldn't let up on her. He
and his half brother had capital in the uncle's place; he was in the
will, he said, they had to make a go of it.
"Hurry up, will ya." He
was standing in the doorway, scratching his armpits, shuffling his feet. "No
time for primping. You can do that on the road."
"I gotta sign out at least," she said,
"I can't just leave."
"You can," he said, "you definitely
She was too weak to fight back. There
wasn't even the guts in her to grab that last hunk of cake from the
plate on the tray table. And they'd left the posies behind. "My
flowers," she said, but Ritchie said, "Keep going."
On their way out down the echoey corridor a
woman shouted, "Don't go! Bad luck if you go!"
A man stepped out in the hall and narrowed his eyes at the dark-bearded
Ritchie, but Nola felt it was herself the woman was speaking to.
Ritchie hustled her past the nurse's station
where the nurse had her nose in a computer, down the elevator, and out
into the lobby where no one paid attention to them, no one at all. Outside
she shut her eyes against the dazzle of the late June sun. The
traffic coming and going sounded like the outer space she'd seen once
in a Disney film where the stars and planets and asteroids all spun
crazily about one another. Her knees gave way under the terrible
weight of her headache.
She leaned on Ritchie and this time he had to
let her, there was a cop standing on the corner. If Ritchie
was scared of one thing in his life, it was cops. One day
she'd dare to ask him why.
For now, she was his captive. They
walked right past the cop and around the corner to the truck and no
one said a word. She, for one, couldn't have said a word
if she'd wanted to, his arm was cramped so tight around her chest.
usual, Colm had fallen asleep after they made love. It wasn't
that he wanted to, she could hear him straining to stay awakeall
those groans and mutterings: "Love ya to pieces, Ruthie, let's
live together, let's.
" The leg and arm muscles shifting and
twitching, and then the soft sonorous breathing into her neck.
And he was off to dream land, leaving her wide, wide awakeall
that adrenalin left over from the lovemaking.
Ruth was glad, of course, that they were lovers;
it had been a long drought since Pete leftfully four years while
she'd struggled with the farm and the three children. And
Colm had waited all that time. Impatiently, yes, but waitedthe
old Irish bullshit about "no other woman" in his life since
they'd first met in high school. Though when she called
it "bullshit" he'd rear up on his hind legs and shout, "It's
not fair, Ruthie, to say that word when a guy bares his soul to you.
Would you like me to say 'You don't mean it when you tell me you love
No, she wouldn't. There were times
when she had to back off and apologize. No more using the
word "bullshit" now except out in the barn when she had to
clean up the droppings. She got up to use the bathroom,
was suddenly overcome with the heat. The sole air conditioner
was in the bedroom and that one installed only this summer over her
protests. Colm needed cooling, he said, to counteract the
sweat that oozed the length and breadth of his body while making love.
A normal Vermont summer had only four or five days in the nineties,
but this summer they were already up to a dozen hot dry days and it
was only the fifth of July. A suffocating thought.
She shoved open the window and the sound of
an accordion poured in, and then a woman's sweet soprano.
Ruth had succumbed in a weak moment when Colm had brought along a distant
cousin to fill in for her hired man Tim, who was taking a year off to
explore Alaska. But the cousin arrived in a pickup more
battered than her own beat up Toyota and began to unload suitcases,
tents, cooking equipment, musical instruments. Then out
came a dog, a potbellied pig, and three human females: two adults, and
a pony-tailed girl barely out of puberty. They looked like
gypsies, but they weren't gypsies, according to Colm: they were Irish
travellers, whose forebears had come over after the First World War. Some
had settled, like the herdsman Darren, who stemmed from a village in
North Carolina; most were clannish and peripatetic and kept to their
Colm was quick to point out that he had
no traveller blood: the kinship evolved through a perfectly respectable
Irish grandmother who'd happened after the war to wed a handsome young
traveller named O'Neill.
It was the younger adult, a thirtyish woman
named Maggie, who was singing nowsomething about love and loneliness.
They weren't quite the right words for Ruth who had found love these
days, but who still needed her space for quiet thoughts.
This was the first summer in years in fact she'd had the house all to
herself. Teenager Vic was a counselor at a summer camp and
Emily was spending a month at the Jersey shore with a college classmate.
Daughter Sharon, as always, was at home in East Branbury, with a dozen
chickens and three crowing roosters that were the butt of threatening
phone calls each week but that Sharon and the grandbabies refused to
The singing followed Ruth as she padded back
into the bedroom, and grew louder still when she pushed up the window.
Colm was asleep, sprawled now across the whole bed. He was
a restless sleeper, had only recently had himself taped and wired head
to toe to discover whether or not he had a sleeping disorder.
It might be sleep apnea, he said when she laughed; she might find him
dead one morning in beddid she have no compassion?
She had no compassion at least for these relatives
who seemed already to have multiplied, for another female voice was
joining in and it wasn't the high-pitched tremolo of the younger sister,
Liz or the quavery soprano of Maggie's grandmother, whom she envisioned
squatting on the trailer steps, stroking her pet pig. This
new voice sounded more mature, a kind of deep-throated contralto.
A third instrument came in on the chorus of "Danny Boy": Oh
Danny Boy, the shades of night are fa-all-ling
a male voice, slightly off key, bellowing Oh sweet Ellen-a-Roon
It was too much. Too loud.
Too jarring. They were revving up the cows in the pastureshe
could hear the bellowings. Colm must wake up, he must go
down and deal with themnever mind the sleep disorder.
She shook him and told him so. "Colm, lovewe
can't have this." She snapped on the table lamp.
"Huh?" Colm looked startled, as though
he'd seen an apparition. She supposed she did look ghostlike:
hair hanging in her face, bags under her eyes she called uddersa
joke of coursebut when she looked in the mirror they seemed to
deepen and darken. Ruth hadn't particularly worried about
her appearance until she and Colm became sexual partners, and now she
found herself taking surreptitious glances even in the shiny milk pans
in the cow barn.
"Listen," she said, and flung the
window wide. One of the female voices hit a high C and Colm
groaned. The males bawled an octave below. One
of them attempted a harmony that came out a cacophony. A
drum joined the chorus; then high-pitched laughter and more bellows
from the pastured cows.
"Tomorrow's Monday. Work day,"
he murmured, but it was no excuse.
"They're your relatives," she reminded
him. "And I work every day. I need the
peace." Colm yawned and started for the door.
"You can't go out naked," she said, "they'll think you
want to join in the orgy." She threw him his shorts.
He sat back on the bed to pull them on, maddenly slow, examining a mosquito
bite on his leg, just when the outdoors sounded like a whole rock and
When the noise went on for another quarter of
an hour she went to see for herself. In spite of the light
from lanterns set up on plastic chairs, no one seemed to notice her
standing there in bathrobe and barn boots. She was only
one of a crowd of a dozen raggedy participants, all beating on makeshift
instruments: pots, fry pans, metal waste baskets, glass bottles.
A pale thin woman was clapping spoons together to a sentimental melody
that the traveller Maggie Power was belting out an octave above everyone
And where was Colm? Why, leaning
against the John Deere tractor, grinning ear to ear, his unshaved face
pink in the fire the group had made in front of the travellers' trailer.
He was waving his hands to the rhythm of pots and accordion as though
he were back on the old sod himself. She threw him a dark
look but his eyes were on the woman playing the spoons admittedly
a beautiful woman: long lustrous black hair, curving cheek bones and
skin the color of milk. No, not milk but chalk, Ruth decided,
for there was a sickly pallor about the face. Her hands
were busy with the spoons but her dark violet eyes were gazing up at
the half moon as though any minute she would swing herself up on it
and sail off to some quieter clime.
As Ruth watched, mesmerized, the woman appeared
to shrink into herself, like a genie melting back into its bottle.
In moments she was crumpled on the ground, curled up like a foetus.
Was she dead? Playacting? Or simply passed out,
drunk perhaps? The others, carried along by their music
making, appeared to ignore her. The music crescendoed to
its high, maudlin resolve.
At the end of the song a tall, lean, bearded
man picked up the prostrate woman and, complaining bitterly"Christ,
Nola, and I got a bad back, you want to crucify me, huh?"carried
her beyond the lantern light and into a tent that someone had pitched
several yards beyond the trailer. Which made Ruth all the
madder because who had given permission for a second family and a tent
on her property? This was a working farm, a hardscrabble
farm; there were balsam and scotch pine trees in this area, Ruth's attempt
at diversity. Already she saw where a row of seedlings had
been trampled by callous feet.
"Look here," she shouted, and no one
looked. Colm's relative, Darren O'Neill, was pumping up
a new tune on his accordion. Maggie was arguing with him:
"That's not the tune," she screeched,
"that's not it a tall, you got it wrong."
"Is," he yelled, "is an alternate,
you never sung it right, you don't listen."
"I do, I do, you got it wrong!
Now put down that thing and let me sing it right."
Ruth marched forward, hands on her cotton hips.
She wished she'd had on her working jeanswho could show authority
in a bathrobe? "It's midnight," she hollered.
"Do you know what time the cows get milked? Do you?"
The crowd quieted to a few whisperings, stared
at her. Who was this creature come to put the damper on
their party? "Now what kind of foolish question is
that?" Darren said, smiling at Ruth. "Where you
think I'll be at four-thirty this morning but in that bloody barn over
there, milking your big beautiful herd?" He pointed at the red
barn that seemed at this hour little more than a dark heap of boards
where the moon had slid under a cloud.
Ruth stood there, awed by his insensitivity.
"Aw," he said, coming over to her,"five
hours of sleep is plenty, I never needed more, ma'am, not even when
I was a kid." He grinned into her face.
"Colm," she said, addressing the infuriating
figure in the white boxer shorts. "This is your relative.
Please explain things to him. And who gave permission for
that tent?" She pointed to the tent where the bearded newcomer
was emerging now, stomping over to the group of spectators squatting
on the grass.
Squatters. The word came to her.
They squatted on your unoccupied land until they claimed it for their
own, and who could get them off? She'd heard that about
the Irish. Who were these people anyway? Gypsies,
she thought. She didn't care what Colm called them.
Travellers like Maggie were surely to be classified as gypsies.
Not European Roma gypsies, but itinerant wandering Irish-Americans who
thought nothing, folk said, of taking the corn you'd just brought to
fruition in your garden, or the ripe tomatoes or pole beans.
Human racoons! Come in an ancient pickup and a trailer painted
a canary yellow.
Colm was whispering to Darren; the tall lanky
fellow was all apologies as though he'd no idea the music could have
disturbed anyone's rest. "Right," Darren said,
"we'll put it all away and let you go back and have your night's
sleep. We'll be fresh as buttercups in the dawn and you'll
get a day's work out of me'll make you fall on your knees and shout
"And that?" she said, ignoring the
bullshit (that word again but fitting this time)she pointed at
the newcomer's tent.
Darren squinted as though surprised to see it
there, a thin plastic structure with tiny holes as though it had been
attacked by a swarm of killer bees. He laughed. "Oh,
that's just my big brother Ritchie, come to take me back to Uncle's
farm. The hired guy quit when he couldn't take Uncle's temper,
and now he's short of hands. But would I leave you in the
lurch? Aw, hell, you know I wouldn'tI sweargot
a Bible around here?" He crossed himself with a flourish, glanced
at Maggie for support; she trilled a few high notes. "Not
this summer, not when I promised to stay, and Maggie here's got a concert
next month, up to Burlington, in one of them cafes there.
Good pay too, I tell you, am I right, Mag?"
"Right," she said, and rubbed her
palms together. She gave the younger sister a slap on the
bum and sent her into the trailer, presumably to sleep.
"They're not staying, any of them,"
Ruth mumbled, and glared at the yellow trailer, which was clearly profiled
now where the moon had swung back into view. Beyond the
trailer she saw a second pickup that someone had ridden into her pasture,
mowing down a hundred new trees no doubt. And then a horse
grazing on her scotch pine. She was dumbstruck with the
audacity of it. And there was her lover, Colm, smiling,
calm as a summer's night, thumbs stuck into the band of his white boxer
shorts. They were all alike, the Irishon both sides
of the ocean. Not like her own rational Scots, who'd feel
the weight of an awful guilt to be exploiting another's hospitality.
I want them out by tomorrow night."
"But, ma'am, the woman's sickshe
had surgery, Nola did, two weeks agoup to Canada," Darren
said, looking innocent. "You can't throw her out.
It's just till she recupes, you know, and they'll be outa here.
I give you my solemn promise." He held out his large
calloused hands as though a Bible might suddenly drop into them.
"Day after tomorrow then," Ruth said,
relenting. "Tell your brother to find a place for the
two of them. These are new young trees on this pasture.
I need the income. And see to it that horse is out of here
at dawn. Can't you see it's digging up the grass?"
She blinked, and the place was suddenly empty.
The spectators, horse and all, had gone, crawled away it seemed, into
the dark. Were they bundled up among her trees?
Sleeping with the cows? What would she find in the morning?
Her trees trampled, her pasture littered with bottles, jars, paper cups,
She had to have her sleep. She had
to be up at four-fifteen. The cows wouldn't wait.
She stumbled back to the house. Colm was there at her elbow,
all sweet talk and hands stroking her butt. Not a single
apology for this mayhem in her life, this loss of sleep.
She loved him: he was good, loyal, engaging, compassionate.
He had a great sense of humor. But there were times he went
"They would've sneaked over the border,
I expect," Colm said. "I suppose we should call
that hospital, but I don't want them in trouble."
"What hospital? Why would we
call them? What about?"
"Why, that woman who died of variant CJD
diseaseyou didn't hear it on the radio? They did an
autopsy after she had surgery in a Canadian hospital and that's what
it was, CJD, CreutzfeldJacob diseasethe human form of Mad
Yes, she'd read about it, but oh, he was maddening,
using those foolish initials. As if you could reduce pain,
death, and disease to mere initials.
He went on with an ingratiating smile as though
she were some kind of idiot, wholly out of the mainstream.
"Comes from eating the meat of animals tainted with Mad Cow.
They're making a call for a hundred patients who might've been infected
from the surgical instruments after some young woman died of CJD.
Or from a patch of brain sheathing they closed the incision with.
And worse, a couple of them donated blood, might've lied about where
they'd beenlike in farms where they'd had Mad Cow.
The hospital's closed down for now. They need those folks
back for testing. For quarantining, I'd expect."
Slowly she put it togetherher brain wasn't
working too well at this hour of the night, especially after the rude
interruption out in the pasture. Some young woman up in
Canada had some incurable disease, and this woman in her tent, here
in the Willmarth pasture, who'd been in that hospital and might be infected
Oh dear. "Do you think it's
"Contagious? Well I don't know
about that. Could be, I guess. But over a hundred
deaths in Britain and Ireland in the ninetiesyou read the papers,
right? It attacks the whole brain, makes it look like a
sponge, full of holes. Brings on depression, paranoia.
You start seeing things upside-down. You see things in surreal
colors, you hallucinatesee bugs crawling all over the place.
It eats away speech, memory. You turn into a vegetable. The
worst, they say, is if you're infected it can sleep inside you for up
to forty yearstens of thousands could already have it.
And when it wakes upbango!" Colm clapped his hands together.
He was clearly enjoying the effect his words had on her.
"Dead in seven days."
Outside, the accordion made a last trill, and
was silent. The night beyond the bedroom window was black,
the moon eclipsed by racing clouds. She imagined waking
to a pasture empty of cows, like the sheep farmers up in East Warren
who only three years before had their herd quarantined and then slaughtered
because two animals had tested positive for a form of Mad Cow that could
take years to prove. A livelihood removed, dreams destroyed.
She'd felt sick for them.
"It could happen to me," she said,
struck with the magnitude of it, the horror. "Oh, my
God, it could." She flung her arms around her lover's
neck. "Colm, we've got to get the woman out of that
tent, back to that Canadian hospital!"
"Even then it could be too late for us,"
he said. "People will hear about it. Panic.
Jump to false conclusionsyou know."
She knew. She knew only too well.
She felt the panic herself. She held on to him, needing
solace. But he was already asleep.
© Nancy Means