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Ard na Mara

Catherine and John said it meant beside the sea.
    I thought it meant above,

because the house was above a pasture swooping down
    to the tide, a thirty-foot drop.

You'd step through layers of grass and manure-smell
    to the red, leathery weed splashed

across the rocks, and then looking up, you'd feel dwarfed
    by the one wall left standing—

a fragment of Sweeney's castle—just a stone wing-blade,
    but you got the idea: fortress,

and the fear of raids. Later when I first read the opening
    of the Agamemnon, I thought

the Greek signal fires must have been lit on points like this,
    the war won but not over,

the flames a signal to begin learning the next thing to dread.
    The Dobbyns long ago had turned

the hayloft into a room to let. There was a shred of linoleum,
    a cot with spring, and a low sink,

the kind to bathe a baby in. Knives, forks, butane,
    and windows on three walls.

A red door with a latch opened onto cement stairs leading
    down to a toilet in the barn.

Me pissing with the cows, those enormous, contented breathers.
    I spread a sleeping bag

on the cot and slept at an angle so I could look out to the point.
    I had a Hermes Rocket to type on.

The war in Viet Nam still ongoing, but I was well out of it,
    as far as I could get. I went in

to Donegal once a week for newspapers and wine gums.
    For rent I helped John milk the cows

and tend to the hay all through the summer. In return
    I got the earliest hours of the day,

and during storms, the whole afternoon free. I stayed put,
    tried not to leave the farm.

I never saw the ruins of a chapel in the next pasture over,
    and only now have I learned

that a sixth-century monk named Aedh had made his cell
    in the crawlspace there.

Now there are metal roadside markers, and a guidebook
    to his gravestone, an upright bolt

of granite, as tall as I am, rough-hewn, rounded, mossy,
    and chiseled smooth in front.

At the top, like a halo, an incised, long-armed Maltese cross
    in a wide circling rim, a sign,

the book says, of an art in transition, the pagan monolith
    crowned with Christian radiance.

To the right and below the wheel is a three-sided Celtic knot—
    symbol of the Trinity—a weave

that makes me imagine Aedh's bones, the arms and legs
    folded neatly over one another.

I stand above him in the mid-day quiet and remember
    how deeply I resented the cars

that sometimes sped by on their way west. I stirred as little
    as I could, sought out no one.

I loved the sweet silence of hay as it cured, and the labor too,
    the mowing and tossing,

letting grass breathe itself dry. Even the raucous, oily baler,
    an old engine with flying ropes,

and compacting magic, dropping bales behind for me
    to pick up and bring in

on the back of a tractor cart. I would heave them to the loft,
    then climb bale upon bale

to wedge them into dusty corners, the weight of each
    locking the other down.

I worked with single-minded intent, the way a calf
    might plunge its nose into a milk pail.

I felt a little like the cows too, the way they knew exactly
    where they belonged. They walked

themselves in from the field, did nothing but chew and stare
    while I fiddled with the milking tubes.

Each summer night was a long prelude and a short darkness.
    I would eat late and alone in my room—

scrambled eggs, rice. I could hear the pub in the village
    warming up as I went to bed between

nine and ten. Sunlight would angle low into the room sometimes,
    and I would feel vaguely visited,

though I could hardly say by what. My knuckles would ache,
    and my breath would quicken,

as if I were late, or had to get somewhere in a hurry,
    though I didn't know where.

I would lie in bed, eyes open, fingers behind my head.
    Though I had nothing to worry about,

I worried. I would watch that light as it passed through
    the window as if it had a mind of its own.

It would reach across my room out to the field and trees
    that stood between me and Aedh

and his grave. In the morning I woke before the cows.
    Sometimes I could see the bay,

but mostly it was a mist or a fog or a shifting cloud cover.
    I would heat water for tea,

and sit at my table and lamp while the sunlight, wherever
    it was, nibbled at the dark.

I wrote in a lined spiral notebook as much as I could.
    I wanted to tell why I joined

and how I came to quit the war. The feeling the words
    gave me was as the light did the night before.

Fred Marchant

The Looking House
Graywolf Press

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