This is the second part of the story of my summer spent as a cowherd on a dysfunctional farm in western Ireland in 1998. A lot of nice people said they wanted to hear more so I'm indulging whatever inclination I have for storytelling today. The first part is here.
I last left off talking about how my boss had been away on a two-week bender down in Milltown-Malbay, and how the first sign I saw of her by the backdoor where I took off my wellington boots was a red keychain hanging on a hook that read Sexy Bitches Carry Red Keychains.
Before I met her, everybody in West Clare seemed compelled to warn me about this woman. A teenage girl who worked in the bed and breakfast looked over my shoulder while I vacuumed under the tea cart: "You're gonna have to do better than that when Aideen comes round." A regular guest from Dublin munched on a piece of soda bread and said, "She's an intense woman, but very kind inside. When she yells at you, don't let yourself get too worked up about it." Tessie, her mother-in-law who had been running the farm in her absence scrubbed potatoes over murky water in the sink said, "My daughter worked at a hotel in Switzerland. They were very hard on her. She takes it out on us. Sure, you'll see for yourself when she gets back." A long-haired hippie girl who worked at the laundry in Lisdoonvarna bent over and handed me a sack full of quilts: "You're working for Aideen? Jesus, fair play to you."
After I first saw her keychain, I heard her screaming in the kitchen:
"Oh Jaysus Mary and Saint Joseph what's been going on here while I've been gone. For fuck's sake who's been scrubbing the pots?" I walked into the kitchen and she sized me up with a quick look. "Are you Jimmy, then? What time do you think we get started on this farm, Jimmy? It's nearly seven-tirty. It must be Tir na nOg out there."
Tessie later explained to me that in Irish mythology Tir na nOg was a land of infinite beauty, where sickness and death did not exist, and everyone sat around doing nothing all day. For the rest of summer, Aideen referred to the pile of hay covered in moldy duvets where I slept in the barn only as Tir na nOg. She was in her fifties; her face plotted with moles sprouting long white hairs that she never bothered to cut. And dear Jesus and Mary and Saint Joseph I don't know about the sexy part but she was a fucking bitch. She was the kind of woman who could silence a room full of four chattering farmhands with one look from her crooked eyes.
I avoided her as much as I could for the rest of the summer.
When I got done with my pubic-hair duties one day, there was an old man wearing a tweed cap and muddy wellingtons down in the kitchen drinking a glass of whiskey with her. It wasn't even close to noon yet. Aideen seemed in good spirits. "Davey O'Dwyer," she said with an emphasis and annunciation that connoted all the good times they'd shared over the years, "it's good to see you, crater." She introduced me to him and I sat down across the butcher block table from him, staring at his farmer's hands, dirt crusted into every crack and crevasse of his knuckles. His nails were black with blood and filth, caked with toil. They reminded me of my own father's hands, both of which had lost several digits over the years that were reattached dead and bloated in several frankenstein-esque surgeries. Not long before I'd left for Ireland he'd called to tell me he'd just driven across town to the hospital with his right ring finger sitting in a cup full of ice in his lap.
"Davey," Aideen said. "Will you take Jimmy here down to the fields to look after that lame heifer?"
In Ireland, a man's masculinity is not tied to his automobile as it is in the states. Davey drove a miniature Ford hatchback of some unfamiliar vintage. I would like to say that he and I had an interesting conversation on the drive down to the fields, but the truth is I didn't even know if the man spoke English. From what I could tell he communicated in some proto-Indo-European dialect spoken only by his particular tribe of bog-dwelling muck farmers. He seemed to understand me just fine, though, but in the end it was decided that simple grunting and pointing were best. In the car I got a better look at the rest of him: a swelling belly; a drinker's face below the cap, checkered with the parabolas of age; a short, red nose. The face of a well-fed farmer. A face meant for smiling.
He drove me past the ruins of old phosphate mines, farms and abbeys. When we got to the field he removed a pre-loaded syringe from the glove box and we walked through a huge field that stretched several hundred yards to granite cliffs impeding the progress of the sea. The timid cattle scurried away from us, and Davey zeroed in on a cow who was favoring one of her back legs. The karstified ground was so full of sinkholes and limestone crevasses that cows often broke their legs while grazing. Davey walked right up to to the lame heifer, laid his palm against the ridge of her back and she let out a tremendous fart in his face that oozed out a couple pounds of steaming shit that landed right on his wellies. He didn't seem to notice, or even say a word. I turned aside to prevent him from seeing the surprise on my own face, suppressing laughter. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him push down the plunger on the hypodermic, pushing morphine into her haunch. She jumped forward. He pulled out the needle. That was all we did for her.
Over the next few days I realized Aideen was sending Davey along with me while I did my tasks, probably to make sure I didn't do anything that would endanger her entire herd. I'm glad she did. After several days with Davey, I became accustomed enough to his manner of speaking that if I trained my ears I could make out a few words of the Queen's English. He came with me one day when I was supposed to move Christopher to a different field where I'd seen some heifers "bulling" each other, their euphemism for hot lesbian bovine action. Christopher was Aideen's bull. He slept in the barn with me. Before we left, Aideen splashed us with holy water and said several hail Marys.
Davey walked right up to Christopher and grabbed the rope attached to the ring in his nose. "He's as gentle as a baby if you've got him by the nose." We walked down back roads for nearly an hour. Christopher was slow and stubborn. But when we were about halfway, he surprised the both of us by charging through a low spot in a stonewall. "Oh Jesus," Davey said mournfully. "He's after Gussie's heifers."
Unfortunately, there was a bull in that field, too, and he silently watched Christopher head for the cows and then watched us charge over the wall after him. "Grab a piece of wood, lad," Davey shouted. "Hit him in the ring." Davey surged towards Christopher, holding his blackthorn like a bayonet. But Gussie's bull was already charging. The two bulls rammed heads and roared. "Oh Jesus," yelled Davey, reversing himself at full speed back over the wall. Again, I followed. The bulls thrashed at each other for a few seconds, then Christopher got loose and retreated straight towards the low wall, leaping through it, tossing old stones all over the road.
The two bulls snorted and panted at each other. We stood there for a moment before Davey ran down to Christopher and swept the rope up in his hand, swatting at the bull's nose with his stick, dragging the giant beast down the road.
"When two meet there's usually certain death for one." We looked at Christopher, timid now from the fight and breathing heavily. "He's absolutely knackered," said Davey.
"What's that sound?" I asked. There was a loud rapid rumbling noise in the air.
"'Tis his heart," Davey said.
Gussie's bull snorted fifty feet behind us. Christopher would only move twenty feet at a time before he needed a rest. We walked and waited to the music of his heart. "A bull is never the same after something like that," Davey said, handing the rope off to me.
That night we celebrated in the spa, which is what the locals called the town of Lisdoonvarna. We started in the afternoon, actually, and the only people in the pub when we got there were two priests eating egg sandwiches. Davey drank three pints of Guinness for every one I finished, and I never saw him exchange any money with the bartender. We moved on to a pub called "the Ritz" where people were dancing. Davey was telling the story of Christopher the bull to anyone who'd listen. I sat there silently, wondering how a man could drink as much as he was drinking without a seismic shift in his sobriety. Aideen had told me stories of his drinking:
"Davey is a great fighter, he is a man that loves his row. One time he was down at the Ritz with my brother before he died. There were two men who got into a fight and were throwing punches and pushing each other all over the bar. Now my brother was the type of man who would avoid a fight at all cost; if you told him the moon was red he'd say, 'Yes, indeed it is.' When the men stopped hitting each other, they started to argue about who started the fight. One went up to Michael and Davey and asked who threw the first punch. Michael said all he'd seen was the head on his pint. But Davey looked over at the bigger of the two and said, 'I saw this dirty fucker punch yeh in the eye!' Any time there's a row in a pub, there will be loads of drink afterwards. So that night they showed up here at the farmhouse piss drunk and I was still up preparing cooked meats and salads for a big dinner the next day. They sat down at the kitchen table quietly giggling at each other and I told 'em to stay away from the food. But of course the second I turned my back Davey was into it. When I turned around I saw him lifting a fork full of meat and sticking it in his ear. He was so drunk he couldn't tell his mouth from his ear, or his arse for that matter, and he just sat there with a big smile on his face and a fork full of meat in his ear."
The pub filled up and I grew extremely drunk. Davey kept bringing me pints. Occasionally his friends Paddy O'So-And-So and Seamus MacSomethingorother would come up to me to me and accost me in their indecipherable accents made worse by the din. I smiled and nodded. Aideen eventually showed up, but she was, in her own words, fluthered. Turns out what all those people should have warned me was that she was intolerable when sober, but a gas woman when drunk. We talked and laughed. Eventually all these filthy men and their extremely ugly women started dancing and I got caught up in it. At one point I remember Davey hoisted me on his shoulders and covered himself up in a long coat and whirled me around the room while some hippies played traditional music with some old men in the corner. I think he was doing a fucking jig below me. The room was spinning even after I stopped dancing, and I thought about Wood. She was five hours earlier in Washington D.C., interning for a Republican congressman and we hadn't spoken in the three weeks I'd been on the farm. Some girl who washed dishes at a hotel was talking to me when my head hit the table. I'd counted 23 pints that Nicky had consumed, far more than me, and he may have drank even more when I wasn't looking. At 11:30 the man himself dragged me like Christopher the bull back to his Ford hatchback and dropped me off back at the farm. Except for the three old stone walls he clipped with his side mirror on the way there, you'd hardly know he'd been drinking.