Steven Cornelius was born and raised in Northeast Mississippi and is married to a beautiful, auburn haired second generation Irish woman with deep roots in Galway and Sligo. His love of books began at a very early age. When night fell on the farm and chores for the day were complete, he and his family sat around the fire and read until bedtime. Many of his childhood adventures are featured in his writing. He attended the University of Mississippi, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees while participating in Air Force ROTC. Steve completed more than thirty years Air Force service in the US and overseas. For the Distant Traveler Trilogy, he drew upon experiences and memories collected during assignments around the world. After retiring in 2015, Steve decided to get serious about a lifelong passion for writing. His most recent work has been published in Mississippi magazine (October 2022) and Louisiana Living (November 2022). He just finished a multicultural novel set in Cuba and Houston Texas featuring Hispanics as the main characters. Steve has written one hundred and five short stories collected in two volumes and posted stories on the Mississippi Folklore and True Appalachia webpages and has a following of more than 3,000 regular followers on each page.
By Steven Cornelius
Galway city lies midway up Ireland’s west coast and turns a hopeful face toward north America, 3200 miles distant. For a thousand years, settlers drawn to the area have competed for scarce real estate along the rocky middle coast. Galway’s urban center forms an irregular circle with two crescent shaped wings fanning out on either side. Business establishments and recently converted hipster “urban lofts” stand cheek by jowl underneath steel gray skies, each rough stone or brick building competing for nonexistent parking. Galway city proper stretches about a mile north to south. The shallow and fast moving river Corrib twists and turns through the town center, and in late spring, provides a show in itself when Atlantic salmon scrape themselves across its flinty shoals frantically rushing inland to spawn. On stormy days, pedestrians hurrying along Claddagh Quay or Grattan Road retreat deep into their raincoats, seeking protection from sheets of salt sticky spray thrown up by a stiff Atlantic breeze. Galway has been a proud seagoing town for more than five hundred years, well before power boats began dominating Atlantic fishing. During fishing season, men climb aboard brightly painted scows and trawlers closer to midnight than sunrise and point their vessels seaward, chugging toward the open ocean, fanning out, fishing the cold, deep waters for salmon, hake, pollock, monkfish and haddock.
The wild Atlantic is not to be trifled with and luckless fishermen sometimes pay with their lives for the right to pull a living from the sea. By mid-morning, a line of fishing boats head for the docks and ship’s crews offload their catch to eager fishmongers, who an hour later proudly display “catch of the day” placards over quicksilver scaled fish glistening like gems in the weak sunlight, stacked like cordwood on mounds of ice. Chefs from the city’s better restaurants rushed quayside to pick through the best of the catch; tasty morsels to be serve later that evening. It should be no surprise then, that many people you bump into walking the cobblestone streets are rough around the edges and brook no nonsense. If these men have gone to sea more than a few times, there is little left in life to surprise them. On a particularly cold March afternoon, about an hour before sunset, one such fisherman made his way through the Spanish Arch, shambled across Wolfe Tone Bridge and slowly threaded his way up Market Street, dodging inattentive tourists. His body was stooped and bent, used up by decades of working long nets at sea. When his arthritic ankles and feet began to truly ache from walking on hard cobblestones, the old man reflexively turned left and used his right hand, fingers gnarled as tree roots, to push the stubborn and creaky bright yellow door open. He was grateful to duck inside his favorite pub, away from a fierce and bitterly cold wind off the nearby Atlantic. The old man was short and powerfully built with long gray hair pulled back and tied with a blue ribbon, and a bushy silver beard that spilled down the front of a blue Aran wool sweater before splaying across a yellow, rainproof slicker. If he made eye contact for more than an instant, his smoky blue eyes were arresting. If Norman Rockwell set out to paint a typical Galway fisherman, he could do no better than using the old man as his model.
These days, he didn’t come into the pub as often as he once did, but Helen the pub mistress quickly recognized him. She’d been running the Blind Parrot pub for almost thirty years and the old man was a faithful regular. As he approached seventy-five, times had changed, and it seemed that most of his hours were spent on “The Happy Hooker” a forty foot trawler tied up quayside. His crew had long since moved to other vessels, and he had neither the stamina nor appetite for the early morning castoff from the dock and hours spent bobbing like a cork in the fierce north Atlantic. However, this was a Thursday night and live music was certain to be on offer, and the old man expected the craic to be exceptional; it almost always was, especially once he’d consumed a couple of Irish whiskeys, which always improved his mood considerably. The Parrot had occupied a long narrow slice of a stone, brick and blackened timbers building since about 1410. Considered crude by modern standards, the old building was still serviceable, and acoustics were just right for fiddle, drum and flute. A small stone and metal hearth built at each end of the place threw off great blasts of welcome heat. Nine months of the year, each hearth was constantly piled high with cherry red turf briquettes. About ten feet away from the glowing fire, four local musicians who played better than they looked were setting up to entertain patrons with a few hours of Irish tunes. Spotting his wind whipped curly grey hair as he ducked through the door, Helen called “Hey ya,” as she casually signaled to the thirtysomething sitting in a scuffed red leather chair nearest the hearth. The younger man quickly rose and moved to the bar.
The old man nodded his thanks to the younger man as they passed, grateful to be treated with deference and concern, as he settled into the still warm chair, leather rustling under him as he collapsed down with a sigh. He settled in not six feet from the glowing hearth, heat washing over him, warming his aching bones. As he shrugged off the slicker, removed a well-worn, heather blue and green flat cap, dark wool scarf and slicker, he took a moment to glance down the length of the bar, studying the oddball mix of young clientele; some sipping on Guinness, while others chose the newest fruit flavored drink of the day. All were either chattering amongst themselves like magpies or deeply engrossed in their tiny masters…luminescent smart phones, clutched in right hands. The old man shook his head. He was naturally suspicious of electronics and these newest devices heightened his misgivings and deepened his puzzlement over the obsession with such a tiny thing. He had used a weather radar on his trawler for years and a ship to shore radio, but he could not fathom the obsession with the small glowing devices and that people would become so transfixed in their content that they often walked into traffic or other pedestrians…not seeing or hearing them until impact. That very afternoon as he shuffled through city center, a distracted young woman had bumped into him and fallen backward, almost landing on her arse. She had been so engrossed in her phone that she hadn’t seen him. Over the years, the old man had grown obstinate about the matter. For a time, he stepped aside, allowing digital zombies to pass unmolested. These days he held his ground and they learned that though he was short of stature, he was a stout stump of a man and not easily moved.
On this late afternoon however, he was not going to fret over such matters. He was content to sit quietly, allowing the heat from the fire to wash over him, turning his cheeks a ruddy red. The old man watched with detached curiosity as the band tuned and tested instruments, before turning his gaze outside, watching the weak light fade as the sun raced west and a blue-grey veil settled over Galway. Helen glanced over, saw his empty tumbler and drifted by, resting her right hand on his shoulder, giving the old man a smile, “Everything okay here, dearie?” The old man nodded and covered her small soft hand with his rough and calloused fingers. Helen lingered for a moment and then lifted his glass and moved back behind the bar, pouring another generous helping of wonderful amber liquid known as Irish whiskey. When she returned and placed his glass on the table, he smiled up at her, admiring her classic beauty. Helen had the look of a fallen angel. Porcelean skin and ringlets of soft curly hair going from auburn to grey framing her oval face. If one stood close enough to plant a peck on her cheek, the beginnings of age lines, small cracks in her porcelain complexion were visible around her eyes and mouth. She was capable of becoming whatever the situation called for; tough as nails, or gentle and kind as a nurse, as she consistently was with the old man. He had always been puzzled by Helen. She’d never had a steady feller that he knew of, seeming instead to only have a long-term commitment to the Blind Parrot. He had heard rumors of a husband or lover lost at sea many years before, but had never pried into the matter, that was Helen’s business and no one else’s until she made it so.
She took good care of her customers and seemed to draw what daily social interaction and comfort she needed from long-standing regulars. Five minutes later, the musicians kicked off their first set, interrupting his thoughts and fifteen minutes after that were truly hitting their stride with an raucous Irish reel. He drained the remains of his second whiskey, signaled for a third and leaned back in his red leather chair, letting the music and warmth wash over him, eyes closed and a faint smile on his lips. He looked up when the sound a refilled glass clinked against the table and felt the warmth of Helen’s soft hand on his cheek. He opened his eyes and looked up. She smiled down at him, “Would you like a little something to nibble on…maybe to tide you over til mornin?” The old man patted her hand and nodded. Helen said nothing, returning to the small kitchen to pull together a supper plate for him. A whiskey induced glow spread outward from his belly, tentacles of warmth from each sip increasing his mellow outlook on life. The old man glanced around the crowded pub for someone to strike up a conversation with, but the other patrons came from such different backgrounds that he wouldn’t know where to begin…the weather maybe…which caused him to smile and shake his head. His life had been lived enduring open ocean weather, studying coming fronts, and going to sea anyway, always at the mercy of quickly changing conditions. Could he hold a youngster’s attention for more than fifteen seconds? Doubtful. It seemed that anyone under forty was technology obsessed these days.
Still, he craved the chance for friendly conversation. The old man had lived a solitary life, never marrying, or being blessed with children. There was no loved ones to spend time with and pass down memories and experiences. When he’d run his final race all that he knew and had done for decades would be lost to history. A few weeks earlier, he’d gone to see his regular physician, one of the few friends he had in Galway. Placing his hand on the old man’s shoulder, the doctor looked him in the eyes, “Your heart is failing and is so weak that every day going forward is a gift.” The old man nodded, smiled and replied, “I have always treated each day as a gift and blessing. Too many men have steamed away from Galway harbor and never returned for me to treat life so casually.” What he didn’t tell the doctor was that he hardly had the strength to climb a flight of stairs these days. The doctor looked at him intently, “If I prescribe medicine for your heart, will you take it?” The old man grunted and shrugged, “If I can remember to do so. Anymore, I have trouble remembering what day it happens to be.” The doctor frowned, “Do the best you can.”
His plate of fried scallops, malt vinegar and salt seasoned chips arrived so hot they were steaming. Nursing on the refreshed glass of fine Irish whiskey to pass time, he waited a minute or so before touching a chip to his tongue…just right! The old man tucked into the food, relishing warm, tasty grub that he didn’t have to make using the small galley hotplate aboard the trawler he called home. He turned toward the bar and offered a smile of thanks to Helen, who nodded and then turned to other business. About two hours later, the crowd had begun to thin out some and Helen drifted over and sat next to the old man, “So, you’re primed with whiskey and full of good seafood and chips…yer doin okay then.” The old man nodded as he gently patted her left arm, “Aye, I’d be hard to please if what you’ve fixed didn’t satisfy.” Helen’s eyes twinkled and she held his gaze for several seconds before asking, “So, you haven’t been in for a while. Are ye feelin okay?” The old man hesitated before replying. This woman was the daughter he’d never have. “As yer asking, I am having a spot of health trouble. My heart’s giving out on me, ye see.” Helen glanced down at her feet before again looking him unable to conceal the sadness in her eyes, “Oh, that’s not good…not good at all.” Her voice trailed off, causing the old man to reach for her small, soft hand, his much larger, rough right hand completely engulfing hers. “Oh now, don’t fret over an old seadog such as me self. I’ve had a fine life, though I would have loved to leave me things to a son and maybe a grandson to dote over.”
Helen surprised the old man by withdrawing her hand from his and wiping tears from her eyes. She looked at the old man intently, “Is there anything I can do to help?” The old man shook his head and smiled, “Nothing comes to mind right off.” He hesitated for a minute before adding, “Come to think of it, maybe you can help with the few possessions I have. Should I pass before making arrangements, sell off my possessions and use the money to have me buried at sea. Whatever is left, you may keep for yourself.” Helen glanced around the pub, “Since you have no kin, maybe I should come visit you and help you work through this matter.” The old man shook his head, sighed loudly and then grinned up at Helen, “I think that is a fine idea. How about tomorrow?” Helen chuckled, “I suppose so…no time like the present.” She turned to walk back to the bar, but stopped, “Where will I find you?” The old man pointed out the window, “Walk past the Spanish arch and look for my fishing trawler, in slip forty-two. She’s called the Happy Hooker. I’ll be waiting with a pot of tea on the burner.” Helen laughed out loud, “The Happy Hooker! Yer kiddin right?” The old man smiled, “I was reading Penthouse a lot back then and the magazine had a column called the happy hooker that told lurid sex stories and gave advice to a certain type of man. The name seemed fit my trawler and the crew thought it brought us luck.” Helen shook her head as she walked away thinking, no matter the age, men are always boys deep down.
The old man struggled to his feet and shuffled toward the door calling over his shoulder, “Until tomorrow then” gathered his collar against the cold wind and was gone. Even though the walk was mostly downhill, the old man gasped and wheezed from the effort. By the time he reached his trawler, unlocked the main cabin door and stepped inside, he was out of breath and his chest hurt. He slumped down into the padded galley booth and waited for his weak heart to recover. After a couple of minutes he felt strong enough to stand, remove a glass from the cabinet and a small bottle of Jameson’s whiskey from the cupboard, pouring two generous fingers and taking a long gulp. The whiskey restored his equilibrium somewhat, so he drained the glass and prepared to turn in, moving forward to the small head taking care of business before disrobing and crawling into bed. As he lay there in the semi-darkness, he thought about his next day meeting with Helen and roused himself from bed and grabbed a small yellow pad and ink pen before returning to the warmth of his bunk. He quickly jotted down his intention to leave everything he owned to a woman he admired but barely knew. After signing the single sheet of paper, he turned out the small reading light and closed his eyes. About two hours later, a single sharp pain ripped through his chest as his heart stopped beating. The old man’s face contorted in momentary pain and he was gone. As his spirit left his body, the old man looked down with curiosity at the mortal remains his soul had once occupied. Light as a feather, he continued to rise until the small ketch and Galway were specks in the dark night. The old man heard the voices of his long dead kin calling him to join them on the other side.
The next day, Helen found his trawler with no trouble, stepped down into the main cabin, closed the door and turned to discover his now cold and stiff body, mouth agape and eyes staring heavenward and the single sheet of yellow paper with his last wishes written and signed in his own hand laying on the galley table. Despite the fact that Helen hardly knew the old man, she sat and cried for almost an hour, holding his cold, stiff hand and keeping vigil with him. As a strong and cold early spring wind came into the cabin, chilling her, Helen stood, walked off the trawler and made her way back past the Spanish Arch, waving down a Garda. The policeman knew Helen and listened while they walked and she explained the situation as they approached the trawler. The coroner ruled death by natural causes and the old man’s scratched out will stood up under official scrutiny. The last thing the city attorney asked her was, “What will ye be a doing with a fishing trawler?” Helen smiled sadly and shook her head, “I’ll figure something out.” She returned to the trawler and took stock of the old man’s possessions and discovered eight quart coffee cans, plastic lids closed and taped. Each can was filled with rolls of Euros and Irish pounds. In all, there was more than a hundred thousand in cash inside the trawler. The old man didn’t trust banks so he turned his boat into one. It took Helen a month to close out the old man’s affairs and bury him at sea as he requested. She put the word out along the quay about his death and the few surviving men who’d known him made the trip out into the Atlantic to spread his gray ashes on the ocean’s dark blue, foamy surface.
Her last act on the old man’s behalf before returning to her job as pub manager was to arrange for a brass plaque on the Galway fisherman’s wall of honor. It took one of the old men who’d accompanied her out to sea for his burial to tell her his name…Eamon Hickey. Each night for a month after his burial, Helen knelt and said a prayer for Eamon and each Sunday lit a votive candle for him after mass. As she poured drinks for rowdy customers, Helen reflected on how a few simple acts of kindness shown to an old fisherman had so drastically altered the trajectory of her life. She now owned the pub and a fishing trawler that she leased to a couple of younger men who were making a good living with it and paying her a monthly fee. Whenever she drank an Irish whiskey, it was always accompanied with a toast for Eamon.
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