Special thanks to seneca, eternally, and to Lex, fearless leader of the JMB, outstanding author and wonderful friend. The nosiness of the Irish, as well as many of their other character traits, the textures of Ireland, the hideout for the first battalion of the Dal Riada, and much more inspiration besides, all enabled me to write this. These are all gifts from her. Thank you, Lexy.
I stepped down onto the dock in Dublin and turned my face up into the soft Irish rain. The city lights were wavering vaguely on the bay; the rain here is so different from the California rain, which has an acrid edge. Rain here is sweet and temperate, it seems to sink into the skin, it has a vague flavor of green, of rich soil, of rosewater, even in the city. I found my way off the pier with my duffel bag slung over my shoulder like a sailor coming home. It didn't hit me full force until my feet touched the actual ground, the soft and rocky earth of Ireland, in a small patch of grass. Then the rush took me. The scents, even beneath the oily city smells they were there, the scents of my childhood, my human life, my change. I was overcome suddenly by a deep ache for my family, by despairing sadness, by shame, and then by nausea, all in rapid succession. The power of it literally sent me to my knees. I saw my mother's face, Darla's profile in the streetlamp light, cobblestones running with blood, I saw the piercing blue sky over the bogs, the sun shimmering off the sea, and then I saw your eyes, and I lowered my head and wept.
I jumped to my feet and faced an elderly man eye to eye; we were the same height. We looked at each other, and I knew it was John. How can I explain what it's like to see my mother's eyes after centuries? My mother's quick, dark eyes, her sly smile, widening into a grin. I choked; I couldn't speak.
"I was hoping for some kind of a greeting, Uncle," that sound from my human life, that brogue, a crisp-edged baritone; he leaned foreword to peer good-naturedly into my eyes. I looked back at him helplessly. He threw his arms around me and squeezed me with astonishing strength, thudding me on the back. I felt like I was made of stone. Then a sob broke.
"Sure, sure," he soothed, "You're home now. It's been a long time, hasn't it, Uncle?"
In America a display like this would be cause for explanation, but the Irish are passionate people, and don't take family connections lightly. I didn't need to explain. He hooked an arm around my shoulders and leaned on me.
"Help an old man to the pub, will you?" he started walking, nearly pulling me along.
Finally I managed, "You promised you'd be in London. It's too dangerous-"
"Ah-none of that," he said. "There's a few things you've forgotten, Uncle. No one in the family fights alone. Besides, I've already spoken to the bullocks,"
"Had a visit, Thursday last. Reminded me of American gangs on TV, all talk. Ugly, too,"
"What do you mean, a visit?"
"Came to the house. Stood outside snarling and spitting. 'You'll never find him,' I said, 'He's already hunting you down'." John chuckled. "Cowards. They're afraid of you. Asked for you by the old name. I had myself ready, you told me how. I held up my crossbow. They left," John laughed again.
"Then the house isn't safe," I said, "They're too close-"
"Plenty close," said John, "I know where they're hiding,"
"In Galway?" I asked, amazed.
"Yes," he smiled at me, "The old factory not five meters from the bank of the Corrib. Hidden in plain sight. Windows all bricked up. I spotted one sneakin' in,"
It couldn't be that easy. It had to be the advance battalion. There were more, I knew it.
"You shouldn't be following them, you shouldn't be doing anything. I want you to do what you promised. I want you to go to London,"
"No," he said happily, "We're staying. Mark and Johnny will be home tomorrow."
His sons. I couldn't allow it.
"If I have to worry about you it will weaken me," I said.
"Nice try," he grinned, "You've forgotten how this works. In America tradition hasn't any meaning at all, but here, it's different. You're home. You're family. And now, to the pub,"
"We can't go to a public place-"
"I'm not so daft as all that," John said, squeezing my shoulder again, I grunted. "Besides, I'ts our own pub, Uncle. Closed tonight for a private gathering. We'll be safe there,"
We walked through the cosmopolitan streets of 20th century Dublin. It was disorienting; I remember a Dublin that has no resemblance to this one. By American standards it's a small city, but to me it had a nightmarish quality, to see old buildings I remembered buried among the newer, uglier structures. The scents were the most disturbing...how could there still be a trace of the texture of my life in the air, where did it come from? Was it the land itself, or the sea, or was it just the idea of Ireland? It held me on edge, to be glued to those powerful memories, and yet be looking at a completely different place.
We made our way through a series of narrow streets and down an alley; John led me up a short flight of stairs to a back door. He banged on it. The door opened on a warmly lit room and a smiling white-haired woman. She looked from John to me.
"Two peas out of the pod you are," she said, and she took me by the wrist and pulled me in. She reached her arms up to me. "Give your niece a hug," she ordered in a whisper. I complied. She spoke into my ear.
"These are all good friends, know nothing about you, just think you're here for a visit. The more people know you're here, the better," she released me and patted me on the cheek. "This is our cousin from the States, everyone," she announced, "Let's get him a pint,"
"You're Betina," I said, before I was shepherded to the bar. John's wife.
A pint of fragrant, warm Guinness was thrust at me; I was put on a bar stool and surrounded by curious well-wishers. The Irish are extremely nosy, but benignly so. They don't appreciate vague answers, so I was forced to lie. After a time John moved in through the crowd and planted himself beside me.
"That's enough now," he laughed, "I want to talk to my cousin,"
We shared a pint, and I noticed John staring; he grinned.
"Sorry, Uncle," he said quietly, "But damned if you don't look just like the painting,"
I was surprised. "It's still up?"
"Word is," he said, "That the curse on the family would return if ever it came down,"
The "curse" was, of course, me. Or, Darla and I. That painting had stayed up in my day because of my mother's determination. It was unfashionable even then, but she had stood by it stubbornly. It's a medieval rendition of an ancestor, Angelus, "Killer of English". I remembered the stern set of the mouth, the lowered brow, and in each hand, a raggedly severed human head. Even when I was a child it was cause for moral discussion among the people of Galway, who found it to be in poor taste, but my mother's answer was always, "We should never forget that freedom is earned. It's not to be had for a song," and no one wanted to confront my mother more than once. My father used to say that my mother's beauty was matched only by her "unrelenting will". Her will had transcended centuries. I was glad to know that my namesake was still glaring down at the drawing room.
John and I looked at each other. It was impossible not to; for me, the fascination was based on family resemblance, and how it could possibly have held up through the generations. John must have had at least a few strange thoughts running through his head.
"I've believed-I've known you were telling the truth for years," he said, "But it's still something to look at you, my councilor, my advisor, my friend, so young after 60 years," he tilted his head, "Are you all right, Uncle? Something's got it's claws in you,"
"I need to fight them alone," I said quietly.
"That, I'll hear no more about," he said sternly, "We won't get in your way, but we won't leave you, either. That's the long and short of it. But there's something else...a blonde, maybe?" he said, but he didn't say it suggestively. He said it with sincere sympathy.
"You miss her,"
"You've got a broken heart, Uncle,"
"She's not-she's not mine, I can't be with her. I've got no business missing her anyway,"
"Love isn't business,"
I suddenly realized that I had downed four pints to keep up with everyone, and that I was feeling cloudy and teetering dangerously on the edge of more emotion. I couldn't spend my time in Ireland blubbering, it was ridiculous. I told John about you, and about what happened, about the curse. He went several months with no letter or call from me because of it, and I had plenty of explaining to do after I got back from Hell. He knows what we went through.
"You're not going to age," he said.
I was confused. "No-"
"So, try again, when you're done here. You've got nothing to lose,"
"We have everything to lose. My soul. Her sanity, her family, her friends, her life. It's impossible-"
"Love doesn't come 'round often," he said, "You know it even better than I. Find a way,"
"There isn't a way,"
"That's America talking,"
"You remember the famine, don't you? How many wars have you seen, Uncle? It's not in our blood to quit. Nobility isn't just in the bank, not for us. Winning against the odds, that's our legacy. That's what's kept us afloat. It's in the heart. I know your heart. Remember, when I was ten, that soccer match? I thought I was beaten for life. You were the one who told me to keep my head up, to go out and play another game, that my losses were the dues I paid to win, that I'd have better wins because I knew about losing. You've lost. Now go back out and get a win,"
"I don't see how that could happen-"
"It's not for us to see, though, is it?" he interrupted. "Not our business, to know it all. We can't. We can only keep up the fight. Day by day. That's how it's done, and you know it,"
I laughed incredulously. "It's not that easy,"
"Something always comes along,"
I blinked at him.
"Just when you least expect it, when it's hopeless, something comes along. Don't give up on love, Uncle. It's the worst mistake a man can make,"
"I'm not a man, exactly," I said soberly.
John threw back his head and laughed. He thumped me on the shoulder, almost knocking me off the bar stool. "Well, stick to that, if you like. But you've been man enough to come here to fight, and you were man enough for her, that's plain. Ease up on yourself, Uncle," he leaned foreword, his eyes sparkling, "You're dear to us. You're an ancestor in the flesh. And you've come to fight. You're man enough for the family. Isn't all that enough for you?"
We leave for Galway tomorrow night. I'm still astounded by the depth of emotion I'm constantly assaulted by, here. John and Betina have carefully covered the windows in this room upstairs in the pub, they've seen to everything. It's their warm acceptance that touches me the most. My mother was like that. She always had something to offer an injured soldier making his way home, or anyone in real need. She never asked too many questions of anyone; she offered what was needed and sent them on their way. Is it strange that I miss her so much? I always have, but being here makes it incredibly vivid. So much of the happiness I had in my human life was connected to her, to the talks we would have, late at night after my father had drunk himself to sleep. We would sit in the drawing room in front of the fire and talk, about the family history (I never tired of these stories), about her dreams for me, about everything. I miss the way she touched me, her gentle grip on my arm, the way she would pinch my ear when she was annoyed and then shoot me an indulgent smirk, the way she put her hand on my cheek and her eyes would pierce mine when she asked what trouble I was up to. I never successfully lied to her.
Or to you.
I miss you ferociously. I have no right to, but I do, anyway.
I love you. Always.