Mike Dillon, a retired community newspaper publisher, lives on Puget Sound northwest of Seattle, USA. He is the author of four books of poetry and three books of haiku. His most recent book, “Departures,” a book of poetry and prose about the forced removal of Bainbridge Island’s Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor was published by Unsolicited Press in April 2019.
By Mike Dillon
Soft rain pattered the green canopy overhead. The swollen stream on our right muscled by with a sibilant roar.
“Are you sure this is it?” my wife called from behind.
“It has to be.”
I was almost sure this muddy path through the woods is the one I walked alone on a warm June morning in Ireland in 1975. And so here we were, my wife and I, slopping along the presumed trail on a wet morning in May 2018. I had long dreamed of a return to this place.
I had spent almost a year backpacking around Europe starting in May 1975 — a standard, twenty-five-year- old American set piece. “Standard,” though, isn’t quite the word. Even now, I can’t tell you what the right word is.
In my high school and college years I was tortured by shyness towards women, to the point where I imagined myself a Byronic exile on earth, doomed to wandering the blasted moors of my loneliness through eternity. Maybe Europe will change everything, I thought.
“You’re a handsome fellah. You’ll have no trouble with the women over there,” a well-traveled friend of my parents told me in the weeks before I set out. My parents smiled approvingly. They were beginning to worry about me. I hoped, just this once, he wasn’t a fool.
I had worked a night janitor’s job in a tony athletic club in Seattle; lived like a hermit, read literary classics — books were my hidey-hole — and tried to write. I had big plans to write. When I wasn’t sleeping by day or cleaning the crap out of toilets and mopping floors by night, I picked up my fountain pen to pan my deep bruise for literary gold.
Nothing much happened.
After my “Wanderjahr,” I returned to Seattle, my shyness unbroken. I’d wandered from Trondheim to Tunis, Istanbul to Barcelona trapped in the thickets of my solitude. A lapsed Catholic, a few times I kneeled in a famous cathedral or wayside chapel seeking guidance. Or help. It’s best I can’t remember the details of my prayerful utterances.
Months after returning to Seattle, I met the woman who became my wife — a tall artist whose Ingrid Bergman-like beauty stirred men on the street and in the bars. Sometimes she wore her long, dark hair loose over her shoulders; sometimes in pigtails or a pony tail, and other times twisted up into a knotted, Victorian bun that accented her high cheekbones and almond, green eyes. Once an art professor of hers, a worshipper of Dante, greeted her in the hallway: “Good morning, Beatrice.”
A mutual friend introduced us. “You must meet her,” she told me. “She is so beautifully aloof.” This mutual friend was also an artist who thought I was a lady’s man I because I talked like one.
For her own reasons, which I can only half-imagine, she wanted her friend’s aloofness broken.
We met by arrangement in a Seattle café. I glanced down into her open shoulder bag beneath the café table and espied a book of Paul Eluard’s poems in French, a red delicious apple and a sketch pad. As part of her university studies, she had attended art school in Dijon, France. Her dedication to her art was, and remains, absolute.
She asked me about my writing and seemed interested in the little I had to offer. To this day I can’t explain why. Two years later we married. A few years after that our first child came. We’d returned to Europe many times after our two boys were grown, to visit old haunts we knew separately and to discover new places together.
Finally, we booked a trip to Ireland, where she’d never been. The journal of my first trip, earnest and pitifully innocent, embarrasses me now, but at least I could retrace my footsteps.
“There’s one place we must go,” I told her. “There’s a trail I need to find.”
I remembered Glengarriff as a small, lovely village just north of Bantry. On that warm morning in 1975, I sifted through the village square past the hobnobbing villagers dressed in their Sunday best after Mass.
The road out of town dipped where a sunlit a stream glimmered into the woods. I stopped walking, faced back towards the village, and stuck out a thumb for a ride headed north. Small cars bearing large families whished past. One driver in his packed car turned up his palms to gesture: Sorry, but what can I do?
A half hour crawled by. I decided it was time to break the spell of unsuccess. Shouldering my pack, I followed a path beside the stream through flickering leaf light. It ended where the quiet stream smoothed around a mild rock face. After an easy scramble to the other side I stood beside a pond of sky-blue silence.
On the right bank: A young woman in white blouse and blue jeans, her long black hair tied up into a Victorian bun, her back against a boulder. A profile fine as a Romantic heroine’s bent to a thick book. The smoke from her cigarette columned towards the sun.
Across the pond, a blond young man, sleeves rolled past elbows, cast a fly from an oak limb ten feet up. With each cast water beads flashed and fell from the line. I couldn’t tell if they were a pair.
I glanced back to the young woman lost in her book, unaware of the wraith admiring her distant beauty. I took a deep breath and a last look. And quietly withdrew. And pocketed a glimpse of a Sunday morning paradise.
My wife and I slopped a couple of hundred yards more through the rain and mud.
“I’m even more sure, now,” I called behind me.
She said something I couldn’t make out.
“I might surprise you,” I offered anyway.
We came to the mild rock face noted in my journal. We slid around it. And there was the pond after forty-three years, swollen and wide, pitted with rain, slug-belly gray.
My wife took my picture — a tall, shadowy figure in a watch cap and rain gear, left hand propped against a tree trunk, boots planted on the mossy, angled rock face, the enlarged pond behind me.
Back in the car I leaned over and kissed her on the lips.
“What?” she said, with a quizzical squint.
“Nothing at all.”
I slid the car into gear. And aimed north.