Born in Fire
To AMY BERKOWER,
for a decade of taking care of business
I will marry, I'll be no man's wife. I intend to stay single for the rest of my life.
—nineteenth-century Irish ballad
HE would be in the pub, of course. Where else would a smart man warm himself on a frigid, windblown afternoon? Certainly not at home, by his own fire.
No, Tom Concannon was a smart man, Maggie thought, and wouldn't be at home.
Her father would be at the pub, among friends and laughter. He was a man who loved to laugh, and to cry and to spin improbable dreams. A foolish man some might call him. But not Maggie, never Maggie.
As she steered her racked ng lorry around the last curve that led into the village of Kilmihil, she saw not a soul on the street. No wonder, as it was well past time for lunch and not a day for strolling with winter racing in from the Atlantic like a hound from icy Hades. The west coast of Ireland shivered under it and dreamed of spring.
She saw her father's battered Fiat, among other vehicles she recognized. Tim O'Malley's had a good crowd this day. She parked as close as she could to the front entrance of die pub, which was nestled in a line of several shops.
As she walked down the street the wind knocked her back, made her huddle inside the fleece-lined jacket and pull the black wool cap down lower on her head. Color whipped into her cheeks like a blush. There was a smell of damp under the cold, like a nasty threat. There would be ice, thought the farmer's daughter, before nightfall.
She couldn't remember a more bitter January, or one dial seemed so hell-bent on blowing its frosty breath over County Clare. The little garden in front of the shop she hurried by had paid dearly. What was left of it was blackened by the wind and frost and lay pitifully on the soggy ground.
She was sorry for it, but the news she held inside her was so fearfully bright, she wondered the flowers didn't rise up and bloom away into spring.
There was plenty of warmth in O'Malley's. She felt it nuzzle her the moment she opened the door. She could smell the peat burning in the fire, its red-hot heart smoldering cheerfully, and the stew O'Malley's wife, Deirdre, had served at lunch. And tobacco, beer, the filmy layer that frying chips left in the air.
She spotted Murphy first, sitting at one of the tiny tables, his boots stretched out as he eased a tune out of an Irish accordion that matched the sweetness of his voice. The other patrons of the pub were listening, dreaming a bit over their beer and porter. The tune was sad, as the best of Ireland was, melancholy and lovely as a lover's tears. It was a song that bore her name, and spoke of growing old.
Murphy saw her, smiled a little. His black hair fell untidily over his brow, so that he tossed his head to clear it away. Tim O'Malley stood behind die bar, a barrel of a man whose apron barely stretched across the girth of him. He had a wide, creased face and eyes that disappeared into folds of flesh when he laughed.
He was polishing glasses. When he saw Maggie, he continued his task, knowing she would do what was polite and wait to order until the song was finished.
She saw David Ryan, puffing on one of the American cigarettes his brother sent him every month from Boston, and tidy Mrs. Logan, knitting with pink wool while her foot tapped to the tune. There was old Johnny Conroy, grinning toothlessly, his gnarled hand holding the equally twisted one of his wife of fifty years. They sat together like newlyweds, lost in Murphy's song.
The television over the bar was silent, but its picture was bright and glossy with a British soap opera. People in gorgeous clothes and shining hair argued around a massive table lit with silver-based candles and elegant crystal.
Its glittery story was more, much more than a country away from the little pub with its scarred bar and smoke-dark walls.
Maggie's scorn for the shining characters squabbling in their wealthy room was quick and automatic as a knee jerk. So was the swift tug of envy.
If she ever had such wealth, she thought—though, of course, she didn't care one way or the other—she would certainly know what to do with it.
Then she saw him, sitting in the corner by himself. Not separate, not at all. He was as much a part of the room as the chair he sat on. He had an arm slung over the back of that chair, while the other hand held a cup she knew would hold strong tea laced with Irish.
An unpredictable man he might be, full of starts and stops and quick turns, but she knew him. Of all the men she had known, she had loved no one with
the full thrust of her heart as she loved Tom Concannon.
She said nothing, crossed to him, sat and rested her head on his shoulder.
Love for him rose up in her, a fire that warmed down to the bone but never burned. His arm came from around the chair and wrapped her closer. His lips brushed across her temple.
When the song was done, she took his hand in hers and kissed it "I knew you'd be here."
"How did you know I was thinking of you, Maggie, my love?"
"Must be I was thinking of you." She sat back to smile at him. He was a small man, but toughly built. Like a runt bull, he often said of himself with one of his rolling laughs. There were lines around his eyes that deepened and fanned out when he grinned. They made him, in Maggie's eyes, all the more handsome. His hair had once been gloriously red and full. It had thinned a bit with time, and the gray streaked through the fire like smoke. He was, to Maggie, the most dashing man in the world.
He was her father.
"Da," she said. "I have news."
"Sure, I can see it all over your face."
Winking, he pulled off her cap so that her hair fell wildly red to her shoulders. He'd always liked to look at it, to watch it flash and sizzle. He could still remember when he'd held her the first time, her face screwed up with the rage of life, her tiny fists bunched and flailing. And her hair shining like a new coin.
He hadn't been disappointed not to have a son, had been humbled to have been given the gift of a daughter.
"Bring me girl a drink, Tim."
"I'll have tea," she called out "It's wicked cold." Now that she was here, she wanted the pleasure of drawing the news out, savoring it "Is that why you're in here singing tunes and drinking, Murphy? Who's keeping your cows warm?"
"Each other," he shot back. "And if this weather keeps up, I'll have more calves come spring than I can handle, as cattle do what the rest of the world does on a long winter night"
"Oh, sit by the fire with a good book, do they?" Maggie said, and had the room echoing with laughter. It was no secret, and only a slight embarrassment to Murphy, that his love of reading was well-known.
"Now, I've tried to interest them in the joys of literature, but those cows, they'd rather watch the television." He tapped his empty glass. "And I'm here for the quiet, what with your furnace roaring like thunder day and night Why aren't you home, playing with your glass?"
"Da." When Murphy walked to the bar, Maggie took her father's hand again. "I needed to tell you first You know I took some pieces to McGuinness's shop in Ennis this morning?"
"Did you now?" He took out his pipe, tapped it "You should have told me you were going. I'd have kept you company on the way."
"I wanted to do it alone."
"My little hermit," he said, and flicked a finger down her nose.
"Da, he bought them." Her eyes, as green as her father's, sparkled. "He bought four of them, and
that's all I took in. Paid me for them then and there."
"You don't say, Maggie, you don't say!" He leaped up, dragging her with him, and spun her around the room. "Listen to this, ladies and gentlemen. My daughter, my own Margaret Mary, has sold her glass in Ennis."
There was quick, spontaneous applause and a barrage of questions.
"At McGuinness's," she said, firing answers back. "Four pieces, and he'll look at more. Two vases, a bowl, and a ... I supposed you could call the last a paperweight." She laughed when Tim set whiskeys on the counter for her and her father.
"All right then." She lifted her glass and toasted. To Tom Concannon, who believed in me."
"Oh, no, Maggie." Her father shook his head and there were tears in his eyes. To you. All to you." He clicked glasses and sent the whiskey streaming down his throat "Fire up that squeeze box, Murphy. I want to dance with my daughter."
Murphy obliged with a jig. With the sounds of shouts and clapping hands, Tom led his daughter around the floor. Deirdre came out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. Her face was flushed from cooking as she pulled her husband into the dance. From jig to reel and reel to hornpipe, Maggie whirled from partner to partner until her legs ached.
As others came into the pub, drawn either by the music or the prospect of company, the news was spread. By nightfall, she knew, everyone within twenty kilometers would have heard of it.
It was the kind of fame she had hoped for. It was her secret that she wished for more.
"Oh, enough." She sank into her chair and drained her cold tea. "My heart's about to burst"
"So is mine. With pride for you." Tom's smile remained bright, but his eyes dimmed a little. "We should go tell your mother, Maggie. And your sister, too."
"I'll tell Brianna this evening," Her own mood shifted at the mention of her mother.
"All right, then." He reached down, brushed his hand over her cheek. "It's your day, Maggie Mae, nothing will spoil it for you."
"No, 'tis our day. For I never would have blown the first bubble of glass without you."
"Then we'll share it, just us two for a little while." He felt smothered for a minute, dizzy and hot. He thought he felt a little click behind his eyes before it cleared. Air, he thought. He needed a bit of air. "I'm in the mood for a drive. I want to smell the sea, Maggie. Will you come with me?"
"Of course I will." She rose immediately. "But it's freezing out, and the wind's the devil. Are you sure you want to go to the cliffs today?"
"I've a need to." He reached for his coat, then tossing a muffler around his throat, turned to the pub. All the dark, smoky colors seemed to whirl in his eyes. He thought, ruefully, that he was a little drunk. Then again, it was the day for it. "We're having us a party. Tomorrow night it'll be. With fine food, fine drink and fine music, to celebrate my daughter's success. I'll expect every one of me friends there."
Maggie waited until they were out in the cold. "A party? Da, you know she'll not have it"
"I'm still the master of my own house." His chin, very like his daughter's, jutted out. "A party there will be, Maggie. I'll deal with your mother. Would you drive now?"
"All right." There was no arguing, she knew, once Tom Concannon had made up his mind. She was grateful for that, or she would never have been able to travel to Venice and apprentice herself in a glass house. Never have been able to take what she'd learned, and what she'd dreamed, and build her own studio. She knew her mother had made Tom pay miserably for the money it had cost But he had stood firm.
Tell me what you're working on now."
"Well, it's a kind of a bottle. And I want it to be very tall, very slim. Tapered you see, from bottom to top, then it should flare out. A bit like a lily. And the color should be very delicate, like the inside of a peach."
She could see it, clear as the hand she used to describe it.
"It's lovely things you see in your head."
"It's easy to see them there." She shot him a smile. The hard work is making them real."
"You'll make them real." He patted her hand and fell into silence.
Maggie took the twisting, narrow road toward the sea. Away toward the west, the clouds were flying in, their sails whipped by the wind and darkened with storm. Clearer patches were swallowed up, then fought their way free to glow gem bright amid the pewter.
She saw a bowl, wide and deep, swirled with those warring colors, and began to fashion it in her head.
The road twisted, then straightened, as she threaded the rattling lorry through hedgerows yellowed with winter and taller than a man. A roadside shrine to Mary stood at the outskirts of a village. The Virgin's face was serene in the cold, her arms spread in generous welcome, foolishly bright plastic flowers at her feet.
A sigh from her father had Maggie glancing over. He seemed a bit pale to her, a little drawn around the eyes. "You look tired, Da. Are you sure you don't want me to take you back home?"
"No, no." He took out his pipe, tapped it absently against his palm. "I want to watch the sea. There's a storm brewing, Maggie Mae. We'll have a show from the cliffs at Loop Head."
"We will at that."
Past the village the road narrowed alarmingly again until she was threading the lorry along like cotton through the eye of a needle. A man, bundled tight against the cold, trudged toward them, his faithful dog following stoically at his heels. Both man and dog stepped off the road into the hedges as the lorry eased by, inches from the toe of the man's boots. He nodded to Maggie and Tom in greeting.
"You know what I've been thinking, Da?"
"If I could sell a few more pieces—Just a few more mind—I could have another furnace. I want to work with more color, you see. If I could build another furnace, I could have more melts going. The firebrick's not so costly, really. But I'll need more than two hundred."
"I've a bit put by."
"No, not again." On this she was firm. "I love you for it, but this I'll do on my own."
He took immediate umbrage and scowled at his pipe. "What's a father for, I'd like to know, if not to give to his children? You'll not have fancy clothes or pretty baubles, so if it's firebrick you want, then that's what you'll have."
"So I will," she shot back. "But I'll buy it myself. I've a need to do this myself. It's not the money I want It's the faith."
"You've paid me back tenfold already." He sat back, drawing the window down a crack so that the wind whistled through as he lit his pipe. "I'm a rich man, Maggie. I have two lovely daughters, each of them a jewel. And though a man could ask for no more than that, I've a good solid house and friends to count on."
Maggie noticed he didn't include her mother in his treasures. "And always the pot at the end of the rainbow."
"Always that." He fell silent again, brooding. They passed old stone cabins, roofless and deserted on the verge of gray-green fields that stretched on, endless and impossibly beautiful in the gloomy light And here a church, standing against the wind that was unbroken now, was blocked only by a few twisted and leafless trees.
It should have been a sad and lonely sight, but Tom found it beautiful. He didn't share Maggie's love of solitude, but when he looked out on a sight like this, with lowered sky and empty land meeting with barely a sight of man between, he understood it.
Through the whistling crack of the window, he could smell the sea. Once he'd dreamed of crossing it
Once he'd dreamed of many things.
He had always searched for that pot of gold, and knew the failure to find it was his. He'd been a farmer by birth, but never by inclination. Now he'd lost all but a few acres of land, enough only for the flowers and vegetables his daughter Brianna grew so skillfully. Enough only to remind him that he had failed.
Too many schemes, he thought now as another sigh fetched up in his chest. His wife, Maeve, was right about that He'd always been full of schemes, but never had the sense or the luck to make them work.
They chugged past another huddle of houses and a building whose owner boasted it was the last pub until New York. Tom's spirits lifted at the sight, as they always did.
"Shall we sail over to New York, Maggie, and have a pint?" he said, as he always did.
I'll buy the first round."
He chuckled. A feeling of urgency came over him as she pulled the lorry to the end of the road, where it gave way to grass and rock, and at last to the windswept sea that spanned to America.
They stepped into a roar of sound that was wind and water lashing furiously against the teeth and fists of black rock. With their arms linked, they staggered like drunks, then laughing, began to walk.
"It's madness to come here on such a day."
"Aye, a fine madness. Feel the air, Maggie I Feel it. It wants to blow us from here to Dublin Town. Do you remember when we went to Dublin?"
"We saw a juggler tossing colored balls. I loved it so much you learned how yourself."
His laugh boomed out like the sea itself. "Oh, the apples I bruised."
"We had pies and cobblers for weeks."
"And I thought I could make a pound or two with my new skill and took me up to Galway to the fair."
"And spent every penny you made on presents for me and Brianna."
His color was back, she noted, and his eyes were shining. She went willingly with him across the uneven grass into the gnashing teeth of the wind. There they stood on the edge of the powerful Atlantic with its warrior waves striking at the merciless rock. Water crashed, then whipped away again, leaving dozens of waterfalls tumbling through crevices. Overhead, gulls cried and wheeled, cried and wheeled, the sound echoing on and on against the thunder of the waves.
The spray plumed high, white as snow at the base, clear as crystal in the beads that scattered in the icy air. No boat bobbed on the rugged surface of the sea today. The fierce whitecaps rode the sea alone.
She wondered if her father came here so often because the merging of sea and stone symbolized marriage as much as war to his eyes. And his marriage had been forever a battle, the constant bitterness and anger of his wife's lashing forever at his heart, and gradually, oh so gradually, wearing it away.
"Why do you stay with her, Da?"
"What?" He pulled his attention back from the sea and the sky.
"Why do you stay with her?" Maggie repeated. "Brie and I are grown now. Why do you stay where you're not happy?"
"She's my wife," he said simply.
"Why should that be an answer?" she demanded. "Why should it be an end? There's no love between you, no liking, if it comes to that She's made your life hell as long as I can remember."
"You're too hard on her." This, too, was on his head, he thought. For loving the child so much that he'd been helpless not to accept her unconditional love for him. A love, he knew, that had left no room for understanding the disappointments of the woman who had borne her. "What's between your mother and me is as much my doing as hers. A marriage is a delicate thing, Maggie, a balance of two hearts and two hopes. Sometimes the weight's just too heavy on the one side, and the other can't lift to it. You'll understand when you've a marriage of your own."
"I'll never marry." She said in fiercely, like a vow before God. "I'll never give anyone the right to make me so unhappy."
"Don't say that Don't" He squeezed her hard, worried. There's nothing more precious than marriage and family. Nothing in the world."
"If that's so, how can it be such a prison?"
It isn't meant to be." The weakness came over him again, and all at once he felt the cold deep in his bones. "We haven't given you a good example, your mother and I, and I'm sorry for it More than I can tell you. But I know this, Maggie, my girl. When you love with all you are, it isn't unhappiness alone you risk. It's heaven, too."
She pressed her face into his coat, drew comfort from the scent of him. She couldn't tell him that she knew, had known for years, that it hadn't been
heaven for him. And that he would never have bolted the door to that marital prison behind him if it hadn't been for her.
"Did you love her, ever?"
"I did. And it was as hot as one of your furnaces. You came from that, Maggie Mae. Born in fire you were, like one of your finest and boldest statues. However much that fire cooled, it burned once. Maybe if it hadn't flared so bright, so hard, we could have made it last"