R E Derouin's character, freshly single, travel's to Ireland and finds herself at the crossroads of a fairytale.
To flee the sympathy of my friends, I blew a windfall tax refund on an off-season promotional week to the home country of Aero Lingus. I deserved a what-the-hell week with New York on the other side of the Atlantic.
"Why Ireland?" my BFF Ellen asked. "It sounds boring."
I shrugged away the question with a maybe. Blame my grandmother. She'd spun tales of Emerald Isle in my growing-up years, as we shared a rainy day tea, snuggled in her massive easy chair. Her legends and stories bred a curiosity about the soil of my family roots. Telling red hair was good for free green beer every March, and those locks identified me a product of this land of goblins and spirits.
Here I am, booked in a haunted bed and breakfast. Summerside House is a rambling two-star inn with a down-the-hall bath, on the edge of a seaside town. The man of the inn busies himself in the bountiful garden, while his missus dotes on me, trying to replenish the pounds I'd worked so hard to shed.
I am the sole guest, save Molly Clerkin, long since deceased, who they say roams the moon-lit halls, in search of the perfect mate. While I haven't met this spirit lady, the irony of her spectral quest does not escape me. If you're successful Molly, ask if he has a brother who can pee straight and reads at least one book a year.
"Tell me about Molly," I asked Bridget, my hostess, as I sat in her aroma-filled kitchen while she kneaded the first stage of soda bread.
"They say she passed up the chance for a husband and wallows in eternal regret."
I slathered butter on a slice of carbs I didn't need. "Maybe her decision was the right one."
"A woman needs a man around," my resident cook answered. "A good staple mate, like soda bread."
"Oh, they can be useful at times."
"If the right one comes to your dance, you'll jig to the fiddle like the rest of us. Maybe you're just being picky."
I laughed. "I want a pumpernickel guy, but it's a white bread world."
"You won't find him in my kitchen," she laughed. "Go out and see the countryside."
I took Bridget's advice to embrace the Irish landscape, so different from my urban neighborhood. No doorway bums on cardboard pallets, snoring to the serenade of sirens and honking taxies; only bucolic tranquility. With walking stick, bird book in hand and a lunch sack over my shoulder, I was off to hike the rolling hills, with only my imagination as a companion.
My hosts laid out a five mile trek of country byways, instructing me that by keeping to the right at cross roads, I could complete a circle route without getting lost in the purple heather and yellow gorse.
What a delight! The dusty rural road was outlined with field stone fences creating a patchwork of fields as far as the eye could see. Wild strawberries jeweled lichen-covered walls with ruby fruit while Blue Tit, Wag Tails and Stonechats flitted about singing a welcoming chorus. I startled a rabbit whose oversized feet kicked up a dust puff as he skittered across the road. My vista was free of inhabitants, save occasional cattle and, in the far distance a man and woman, pitching hay into a staked wagon.
I let my mind meander as I strolled along. What it would be like to live a life with a man I loved immersed in a calendar cottage in this beautiful land, surrounded, not by bums and city strangers, but generations of relatives and caring neighbors. How far different a life from my hectic city existence; a capped-pay job I despised and a now empty apartment, shared with dust bunnies and frozen dinners. Wouldn't I be bored to desperation before the last chorus of "Danny Boy?"
As I strolled further, the open fields gave way to a wooded trail, foot-worn up a gentle hill. I could almost spy Allingham's little people peeking at me from behind every ancient stonewall, lurking in each shaded copse. A mist rose up through the trees in this mystical land of ghosts, fairies and superstitions.
Atop the rise, my path cleared to an extended panorama. I stopped, sat on a stone wall, caught my breath, and gazed around. Behind me, in the far distance, I caught sight of a wedge of the ocean with sunlight bouncing off the blue of the sea; blinking diamonds. Ahead, my trail opened to display pasture land, a wisp of peat smoke from a far off thatched cottage, and on the horizon, the misty outline of a stream and tiny village.
As I rose and descended the hill on a dusty lane, I felt a contentment I'd not hosted in months. It brought a smile to my face as I strode along. When my stomach signaled lunch, I settled beneath a sprawling tree and opened my knapsack. I was nibbling cheese and fresh soda bread when I caught sight of my first fellow trekker.
An elderly gentleman with head bowed rounded a curve ahead of me. He walked laboriously with a cane in one hand and a basket in the other. I called a greeting so as not to startle him. He smiled as he approached.
After bidding each other a good afternoon, he slumped down in the shade next to me as we exchanged pleasantries. He asked with a wink if I'd spotted any leprechauns.
"Not yet," I smiled. "I've a couple more miles to travel." When I looked at him closely, my smile and euphoria melted like the mist as I saw him wipe away a tear.
"Sorry," he said. "I just come from buying the grave digger a pint. He buried my daughter."
I offered my condolences, but he dismissed my sympathies with a shake of the head.
"I didn't mean to be melancholic, lass. We knew long ago my Katherine's time was up. It's too nice a day to cloud it with sadness."
"Had she been ill long?"
"Fit as an Irish fiddle. Today was her sixtieth birthday."
"That's so young to pass."
"It was time."
His answer so surprised me I was at a loss to respond.
"She left behind a husband of forty years, but no children." He freed a red-bandana wrapped sandwich from his basket and began eating.
"The poor guy," I said.
"He'll move on." With a wave of his hand he pointed in the direction of the village I'd seen from the hilltop, indicating where they'd lived. He asked if it was my destination. I answered no and named the town where I was staying. I described my circular hiking route. He nodded his approval, and indicated he knew the hosts of my B and B.
"I thought you might be seeking Ballygilmore," he added. "But you'll be turning to the south instead of crossing the bridge."
"Should I make a detour and visit the village?" I asked as I sipped from my canteen.
He shrugged. "It's a decision you have to make, lass. Two of my daughters chose Ballygilmore."
From his tone I inferred he was less than pleased with their choice, but I was uncertain how to respond. Imposing on his sorrow seemed impolite, but so was ignoring his strange statement. "You still have another daughter living there?" I asked.
The old man sighed. "Until June eighteenth, next year. That's when she passes on." He couldn't have missed the surprised look on my face, but offered no clarification.
I hesitated. "She'll be moving away?"
He shook his head. "I guess you don't know about Ballygilmore." He abruptly changed the subject. "You're not married?"
"No," I answered, adding, "and there's no reason for optimism."
My response startled him. "Never say that, lass. You're a pretty young thing. Any man with more sense than an Irish potato would see so at a glance."
I laughed. At thirty I hadn't been a "young thing" in a decade. "I'm not on the hunt, believe me. It feels good to be on my own. That was just the phrase my boyfriend used when I questioned our future together."
"Well, I hope you sent the troll packing!"
"Wiped my hands of him and hopped on a plane to this beautiful country of yours." My attempt at a cheery rejoinder only seemed to sadden him.
"You're not holding out for the perfect man are you?"
"There's no such thing, but I've got plenty of time to find a runner up. I've set high standards."
He nodded. "My daughters found 'em. They married husbands, perfect in every way."
Politeness dictated I not disagree... or laugh. He took a deep breath and continued. "Katherine and Anne both married Ballygilmore men. All the men folks in that village make perfect husbands."
"If there are any bachelors left in Ballygilmore," I answered with a smile, "perhaps I should mosey over the bridge, play coy, and introduce myself! I could have fun with a perfect man!"
"No bachelors live in the village, but there is at least one widower."
I felt terrible for my flip comment, thoughtless to his just-widowed son-in-law. I hastily apologized. He brushed my regret aside and rubbed his whiskered chin.
"I'd best try to explain about Ballygilmore, lass. It's a village unchanged in centuries, in a very special way. The men folks there revere their women like no other place on earth. They idolize their wives, have wealth enough to provide abundance and answer every wish and fantasy a woman possesses. There's never a harsh word, only a loving smile." He looked embarrassed as he added, "It's said Ballygilmore men are the most passionate lovers in all of Ireland."
"The place sounds like paradise," I said with a smile as I listened to his fairy tale. "What's the down side? Do they all look like the troll you called my ex-boyfriend?"
"Just the opposite. Ballygilmore men are all thirty or thirty-five, handsome, fit and wealthy." When he saw my incredulous look, he added, "And they remain that way, forever." I awaited the punch line, but none came forth. He shrugged. "I know you don't believe me; lots of folks don't."
"Why am I not surprised? You must admit; what you're saying isn't just implausible, it's impossible." I added, "It makes a nice story."
"Ah," he said with a smile. "There's lots that happen in this ancient land that seem farfetched to a stranger, but most folks here keep an open mind and don't question what they can't understand.
"Surely when someone doesn't age, it gets noticed!"
"When they see a Ballygilmore man they met twenty years earlier, some think he's a brother or a son, but the wise ones know; he's the very same person." His blue eyes shorn as he added, "Only the women grow old in Ballygilmore."
It was a fascinating story; conversation ingredients for a Manhattan rent party. I could hear the whoop of my friends as I spilled the tale, sipping sugar-rimmed cosmos, from grape-jelly tumblers. "Tell me more," I prompted.
I could see he knew I wasn't buying his story, but he continued. "Ballygilmore has been that way for centuries, maybe since St. Patty went snake hunting. The men stay the same while their wives grow old."
"You're saying the men folk live forever? Some Brigadoon-like fantasy?"
"Old age isn't the only way to die, just the most popular. Once in decade or so a Ballygilmore man is killed or dies of a disease, but most lads are healthy and fit. There are fewer men than in olden times, but still plenty left."
"How did this business start? Don't tell me it's some ancient witch's curse." I tried to hide my smile.
The old man shrugged. "Curse or blessing; depends on your point of view, doesn't it?"
"Most women I know wouldn't be content with a lap-dog guy who always did their bidding."
"Ballygilmore men have a sense of what their woman truly wants, and they provide it."
"Life can't be much fun for the guys, when their wives grow old," I said, trying to hold my sarcasm at bay.
"They're bible-firm committed to remain perfect husbands. Elsewise they'd never find a willing woman in the first place. They make a pact, you see." He brushed bread crumbs from his lap and looked me in the eye.
I prodded. "So a thirty-year-old hunk is married to a seventy or eighty year old crone? What do they do for entertainment, look for four leaf clovers?"
"There's the pact they make. The women all die on their sixtieth birthday." I dropped my canteen. I made a grab for it before all my water sloshed over my boots. In spite of knowing I was listening to a fairy tale, his answer darkened my mood.
"Do the husbands kill their wives?" I asked.
"They just die. Every one of the Ballygilmore wives die. It's what they agreed to. Maybe their body knows and they just pass on; I don't claim to understand; no one outside does."
"That's why you said your daughter..."
"My Anne will be sixty on June eighteenth next year. I'll make another sad visit to Ballygilmore."
"Both your children, Katherine and Anne, agreed to this... arrangement... as young girls; to be like wife number thirty-two or something, to an immortal lover?"
"It was a wonderful life. Not a day passed that Katherine wasn't in heaven. John loved her dearly and she him. It's the same with Anne. She and Robert adore one another. They have two wonderful sons."
In spite of total disbelief, the story ignited my imagination mind. "So the sons; they're immortal too?"
"They're normal healthy boys who love both of their parents. Dennis is married and living in Dublin and William is a doctor in America. They'll be back for the funeral next June."
"Why would a sane girl agree to so preposterous an arrangement?"
"Perhaps her future doesn't look otherwise 'optimistic'," he answered, chiding me with a smile. "Forty or so years of bliss, versus an unknown? At age twenty, sixty is a lifetime away. There is no shortage of young ladies in waiting."
"How could anyone live in so fey a household?"
"It's not like that at all."
"Must they stay in that one small village their entire life?"
"Heavens, no! Katherine and John travelled everywhere. They always came back to Ballygilmore because it's a beautiful place and the folks there are an understanding lot. Anne loves music and William has taken her to concerts in London and Paris; even America, but it's nice to know you have a home where you're welcomed back."
"Why must the women die at sixty? If the man loves his wife, he can't want her to die, especially if she's healthy!"
"It's tradition. The man agrees to remain with his wife for a few years in her later life, but in fairness to him, she agrees to let him... move on."
"Can't she run away... I mean, when the time comes? Sixty isn't very old nowadays."
"Marriage is forever. It's inbred in this country. Always has been. Your divorce rate in America is five times higher. In Ballygilmore marriage is forever."
"Until the expiration date! How could you possibly let your daughters sign such an agreement?"
"It was their choice, lass; not mine, but I can't say their decision didn't sadden me some."
"How does it... work? Do the men, like, bid on a bride?"
He laughed. "It works like everywhere else. A girl visits Ballygilmore and meets a young man. They get acquainted; get to know one another. Fall in love. She knows the risks. They talk, have lengthy discussions; meet the parents."
"Is she trapped in Ballygilmore?"
"She's perfectly free to leave him, until they are married. But most lasses who meet up with a Ballygilmore man can't wait to be his wife."
"They somehow bewitch the ladies."
"Not so. Life is filled with free choices."
"Surely many who agree must later regret their decisions."
"I never heard tell of one and I've spent many a day in Ballygilmore."
I tried again. "Some women must have the common sense to just say no."
"Ask Molly Clerkin, if you meet her on your staircase." He smiled as he rose, picking up his cane and basket. "The road to the right is your way back to town." He left unsaid that the other fork led over the bridge, to Ballygilmore.
The old man's departure left me bewildered as he tramped off in the direction I'd come. Was his conversation a fairy tale for a naïve tourist? I repacked my sack and continued on my way. I climbed a slight rise and as I began to hike down the other side, a pall of fog drifted into the dale that lay before me. Even the birds were silent and the air thickened as I made my way toward the river. Once I reached the valley floor I could see a signed fork in the road ahead. The right lane rose upward into heather and birch while the left led to a stone bridge that crossed a lazy stream.
Suddenly I heard the tinkle of a fairy bell! My heart jumped until I saw a girl on a bicycle weaving her way down the road from my right. She waved gaily as if motioning me to follow. Slowing, she glanced at the road sign, before continuing, off to my left. I stood there and watched as she crossed the bridge, to Ballygilmore.