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Authors: Matt Bondurant

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BOOK: The Night Swimmer
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Highgate gestured for me to sit and took his place in one of the chairs. The black dog curled up on my feet, at least a hundred pounds of animal on my toes. Highgate smiled sweetly and raised his chin, testing the air. He was an old man, white bearded but his skin around his eyes was smooth and uncreased, eyes cloudy blue, barely cracked. This man is
blind.

That is Ajax there, probably on your feet. The other one is Hector, who's officially retired.

He called back to the kitchen and in a few minutes Gus the German brought out two mismatched mugs of tea sweetened with goat's milk.

So you're the one who's been swimming in the Ineer, he said. A bit brisk in there now, isn't it? The cold must not bother you much.

The stove was barely warm, and a damp draft was circulating around my ankles. Highgate was barefoot, his feet gnarled and buckled with thick yellowed nails.

Never been in myself, he said. Sorry to say. But as you can imagine, it gets tricky for a man like me. I stay dry as often as I can. Is the tea all right?

Yes, wonderful.

And the Nightjar? Things going well for you there?

Yes. Mostly.

He chuckled and stroked his beard.

Tricky business, that. You just have to hang on till the summer.

That's what we've been told.

The gale season is long out here, Highgate said. It can be trying. But summer brings all kinds of fresh humanity to our shores.

I told Highgate that I was interested in goats. I didn't know what else to say. I didn't want to simply demand to know who was walking around his fields at night, watching me from the cliffs. He said he'd show me around the farm and introduce me to his helpers and goats.

First how about some lunch? We have plenty. Come meet the rest of the crew.

If a blind man cooks you dinner, you had better be prepared to have your food generously handled. I sat at the small Formica table in the kitchen with the woofers while Highgate prodded goat meat patties in a skillet with his fingers. He had washed his hands, but there was a layer of Cape Clear that could not be removed from the creases and nail edges. On the table was a pitcher of thick goat's milk, a bowl of crumbled goat cheese veined with blue streaks, a torn hunk of bread, and a plate of greens from the garden dressed with vinegar.

Highgate fumbled around on the counter, trying to locate some plates and glasses.

The trouble with being blind, he said, is other people. When I lived by myself, I knew where everything was. Someone else comes by, things get moved.

Besides Gus the German there was the slight, large-eyed Japanese girl named Akio; a young Frenchwoman, Magdalene, just back from hitchhiking through Africa, her hair tightly wound in a dozen braids colored with beads and feathers, each marking a place she'd been; and a clean-cut young man from Ohio named Patrick. The two other woofers, both American girls from Texas, had cleaning duty for the day and were mopping the upper rooms. They were all young, just out of college, save Magdalene, who was a hairdresser back in Marseille. They scrambled for the goat patties as Highgate ladled them out, spotted with beads of grease, and happily ate them with their hands like large cookies. Ground goat meat is not unlike very lean ground beef, and the cheese was pungent and crumbly, tasting of soil and salt.

Patrick poured me a tall glass of goat's milk, thick and sweet with a slight bluish cast to it. He was the only one who didn't bunk upstairs in the farmhouse; he told me that he had made himself a serviceable little home in an unused portion of the barn. I was amazed that someone who slept in a barn could appear so fastidious and clean. His blue polo shirt was crisp and his leather boat shoes had shining white soles. He was talking excitedly about the organic crops they had harvested and his plans for expansion, irrigation methods, and cultivation.
He was rebuilding an old donkey engine tractor and spoke of the mechanics of the thing with sober expertise.

Next year, Patrick declared, we'll have two solid acres of vegetables, producing sixteen hundred pounds per acre, or more than forty pounds per person on the island.

He squirted a perfect disk of catsup onto his plate and sawed a piece of goat patty.

In three years, Patrick said, Clear could be completely self-sustaining. Subsistence farming is not only a possibility, it is the future.

The other woofers nodded sagely. Patrick's cheeks were flushed and rosy, his brown eyes flashing. He took out a small notebook. Highgate sipped his tea with a faraway smile on his lips.

In six years, he said, with an expansion of acreage of course to about one third of the island, we are exporting twenty thousand pounds a year. If we can just get the co-op onboard, put it to a referendum.

What about Kieran? Magdalene said. He'll never let it happen.

Kieran is the old world, Patrick said. The people here know what he is.

And what's that?

A feudal chief in an isolated outpost, Patrick said. A niche in the cupboard of modernity. His time is over.

This guy, I thought, talks like the twits I knew in graduate school.

Yeah, Gus said, tell that to the board. Or all the fucking Corrigans.

Magdalene poked a fork over her shoulder.

Don't forget all the new construction. All that crap.

What's the problem with the construction? I asked. Won't it bring business and money to the island?

Patrick turned to me with a stern look, a piece of goat cheese balanced on his fork.

At
what cost
? What is lost in this transaction? And who benefits?

Gus swung his arm over his head.

All this, he said, all this, lost.

Don't be so dramatic, Magdalene snorted.

He's right, Patrick said, still fixing his earnest gaze on me. If Kieran has his way the island traditions and culture, the traditions and culture created by
his
people,
will be gone.

Why would he do that? I asked.

Kieran Corrigan, Patrick said, is motivated by things beyond understanding. He doesn't care about the world the rest of us live in.

Oh, come on, Magdalene said. She just got here, Patrick, leave her alone.

Highgate stood behind Patrick and placed his hands on the young man's shoulders.

Ambitious youth. How about we settle the western fence line first?

The woofers clattered to the sink with their dishes and bundled out the door.

*  *  *

When Highgate was finished cleaning up we went out back to see the goats. The farmhouse dated from the mid-eighteenth century, with a few later additions. When they bought the twenty-seven-acre farm, Highgate and his wife had arrived with one male and two female British Alpine milking goats. Within a decade their herd was up to forty goats with kids. They produced and sold nine different products, including yogurt, milk, meat, ice cream, and a variety of cheeses.

The goats were lurking by the concrete milking parlor, lined up in order of seniority. Highgate went down the line, holding their faces in his hands, feeling across their chests and groping the udders, telling me their names.

Angelica, Nai, Jenny, Penelope, Kate, Monica, Lucy, the last a castrated male named Ferrell.

Highgate didn't keep more than one uncastrated male around because two uncastrated males will fight violently, sometimes to the death, during mating season.

If the loser survives, Highgate said, he will get depressed, and will often wander off to die. But even a single uncastrated male can be
dangerous. If he felt that I or one of the woofers was a threat to his place in the herd, he could attack.

I watched the seemingly docile group of goats nibbling on the scrub that poked through the gate. They were tall, waist high, with bony haunches and rough hair mottled with black and white patches.

Does that happen often?

No, Highgate said. And not with this one, Ferrell. But the fight instinct is in them. They can rear up to smash another goat with their horns. Some of the bigger males could deal me one right in the face, kill me dead. Not like I would see it coming.

We walked into a stacked-stone hut with a thatched roof so low you had to crouch to enter that now served as the goats' sleeping quarters. The air was pungent with the fetid wet wool and ammonia smell of goats. A layer of dry straw covered the dirt floor, and pieces of plywood created several small chambers. Highgate knelt down by one of these and handled a couple of bleating kids, checking their weight and health.

We'll be sending these fellas off soon, he said. Their time is almost up.

We walked down through the fields below the house, Highgate picking his way quite easily, his chin up, watch cap pulled over his eyes. Spread before us was the entirety of Roaringwater Bay, Baltimore and the mainland to our right and in the distance the long arm of Mizen Head stretching off to the left. As we neared the cliffs the sea roared below. Why would a blind man choose to live on an island dominated by such dangerous geography and persistent, deafening noise?

So, he said. That's about it. Anything else?

I asked him about the strange man I had seen walking the fences at night, leading the pack of goats, a man with no arms.

Highgate paused, sniffing the air. A fat tear rolled down his cheek, from the wind I supposed, an odd contrast to his constant grin.

So you've seen her then. Miranda must have taken an interest in you.

He turned and started to walk back up to the house.
Miranda?
I
followed, waiting for him to say more. But he remained quiet, and when we reached the house he grinned and shook my hands and wished me good luck with my swim to Fastnet and told me to come back and visit soon. I said I would come back, and in the coming months I dropped by the farm often, having tea with Highgate and occasionally helping out in the fields.

It was hours later that I realized I had never told Highgate I was planning on swimming to Fastnet. I hadn't told anyone but O'Boyle.

*  *  *

The next day I called Fred back in Baltimore to check in and see if business had picked up. Just down the road from Nora's was the post office which had a pay phone in the back garden. Fred picked up with a rather morose:
Nightjar
.

Not much of a greeting, I said.

Yeah, well . . .

Everything okay?

I could hear music but no voices. It sounded like the pub was empty as usual.

Some guys came by, Fred said, from the island. Do you know who Kieran Corrigan is?

Yeah, he's an important guy around here. Was he there?

No, some other guys came by.

What'd they say?

Nothing really, they just wanted to take a look around. Did you say anything to him out there?

Who? Kieran? I've never seen the guy. Why?

You coming back?

I'll be home on the next ferry.

Chapter Six

I
met Sebastian Wheelhouse at the Five Bells that afternoon as I was waiting for the last ferry. I could spot him right away as a twitcher. The bird-watchers started coming to the Cape in early October for the first seagoing birds of the season. Bruised and battered by their Atlantic crossing, the birds would alight at the first possibility, the westernmost tip of Cape Clear. Very often a bird would be alone, separated from its migrating companions by miles of vast sea and wind.

The bird-watchers themselves came in a variety of forms, arrayed in mostly muted colors, soft hues and delicate browns and greens. Some carried large and expensive cameras, hard-sided cases with telephoto lenses, tripods, sight glasses; yet others went nearly unencumbered save their rubber boots and mackintoshes, small binoculars and notebooks. Most of the Brits were what they call twitchers, birders who travel long distances to sight and log various species, ticking them off their lists. They were mostly male, and solitary. They seemed to me to be a part of that disappearing middle class of English gentlemen, men who carried themselves like something from an E. M. Forster novel, the upright, cheerful, and staid Britishness, always quick to stammer an apology, men who unabashedly wore houndstooth coats over rag wool sweaters, walking sticks and notebooks bound with twine clutched in their armpits. In the pub they placed their books on the bar and using nubs of charcoal or elegant
silver pens filled their pages with artful and delicate drawings of the birds they had seen.

Sebastian Wheelhouse was unwrapped from his layers and enjoying a hot whiskey with nutmeg and drying his boots by the peat fire. I watched as he flipped through his bird book, studying the pages and occasionally running a finger over his sketches. His shoulders rolled slightly each time he turned a page, and his booted feet twisted before the fire. He was clearly deep in thought, his lips bunched together, and since he was the only remaining person in the bar, I figured he likely needed to catch the ferry.

Last ferry's leaving in a couple minutes, I said. If you need to catch it.

He seemed genuinely startled.

Oh, he said. Thank you. But I'm actually staying on the island for a few days.

He didn't move his body but craned his neck to look at me as I stood slightly behind him. He wore thin tortoiseshell glasses, and his hair was that low muddy color and streaked with bits of blond, like the chlorinated hair of a competitive swimmer, curling over his ears and forming a slight ruff at his collar. He had his forearms self-consciously covering his journal.

I glanced at my watch.

Well, have to get back to Baltimore.

Cheers.

His gaze didn't waver for a moment.

I nodded good-bye to Sheila and stepped out into the graying afternoon. The wind was light that day, and I knew the crossing would be nice and mild. A few birders lugging large bags were waiting on the quay, looking weary and windburned. I can honestly say that I thought nothing of this encounter, other than about his hair, and the way he bent his whole body over that sketchbook.

The Siopa Beag in Cape Clear's North Harbor sold coffee and tea and snacks, and in good weather they rolled out a few round tables next to the seawall. Bill Cutler was at one of the tables, holding down the
Irish Times
crossword puzzle with both arms in the breeze, his
reading glasses on and touring cap pulled low. Nora's son, Finn, was there on his bike, working his figure eights around the parked cars on the quay, his flaming head bobbing. When Finn saw me coming he launched himself at the seawall and performed his high-wire act, his face in earnest concentration.

BOOK: The Night Swimmer
6.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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