Read The Night Swimmer Online

Authors: Matt Bondurant

The Night Swimmer (5 page)

I followed the signs for Ard na Gaoithe that led up a hill into the island's interior, steep and long enough that my thighs burned. Along the way I met a man coming down, walking a tiny white dog on a leash. He was dressed in jeans and a thin parka, his head bent to the ground, and as we passed he mumbled something unintelligible. In the distance to the east a giant wind turbine rotated silently on a green plateau.

Nora Cotter's place was one of the highest habitations on the island. A small hand-carved sign—
Ard na Gaoithe
—on a low stone fence and iron gate. The wind roared like the sea itself, and I was buffeted as I made my way through the gate.
Ard na Gaoithe
is Irish for “A High Windy Place.”

*  *  *

Nora Cotter was a plump, rose-cheeked woman with a pleasant smile. Her B and B was an old farmhouse built in the boxy, concrete tradition of the island, with an additional wing that housed four bedrooms.
I was the only guest, the only visitor on the entire island, she said. Nora invited me to sit at the smoldering peat fire in the modest parlor while she prepared some tea and generally made a fuss. This was the reaction I received nearly everywhere in Ireland once I broke through the veneer of indifference; the Irish love a redheaded, freckled American lass, as if the stamp that their people have put upon that faraway land brings them a slice of immortality.

Nora pointed to a framed poster on the wall of an impossibly cute young girl in a green dress with a mound of strawberry curls, “Ireland” emblazoned across the bottom in large letters.

That's my daughter there, Nora Bean. She's in school on the mainland now.

She's adorable.

Yes, she is. And her brother too, Finbar, lurking here about somewheres. You've likely seen him, forever on his bike, hanging about the harbor. He'll be off in another year. The island school only goes up to age sixteen. Breakfast at eight then?

That'll be great, I said. Is there any place to get dinner?

Nora clucked and clasped her hands.

I'm afraid you'll be limited to the pub for that. In the down season there isn't much open. Kieran's pub is due to open next summer and he'll have a full restaurant apparently, but now there's only the pub, sorry. You have a torch? A light?

Nora bustled off and came back with a flashlight.

You'll need it coming back. The way gets quite dark.

My room was simple and clean, the furnishings something like you might see in an old seaside motel along the New England coast.

All payment taken care of, Nora said, handing me the key, courtesy of Murphy's.

Cape Clear Island is the most southerly point of Ireland, save Fastnet Lighthouse which lies four miles to the southwest, perched on a small thrust of black rock. From nearly all points on the island the rock is visible, and at night the beacon flashes on the horizon like a dying planet, an orange-green streak thrown across the southwestern cliffs.

That first night when I descended the hill from Nora's place to the pub I was presented with a spectacular view of the sunset behind Fastnet Rock, the sea shimmering and tipped with whitecaps, and I knew then that if I could get in that water, I could spend a lot of time on this island with little else to wish for.

Chapter Two

T
here are those who will tell you that the pubs of rural Ireland are these laughing, happy places where strangers are greeted with shouts of good cheer. These people are blackguards, not to be trusted, plainly insane, or just full of shit. Those notions are fantasies. As in any remote outpost anywhere in the world, particularly in the off-season, the reception is decidedly chilly, even hostile, disinterested if you are lucky. Once you are through the door of a rural pub in Ireland every human in the place will do a full-body turn and give you the long stare. You get more than the once-over from the locals if you happen to be an oversize redheaded woman with preternaturally long arms.

The Five Bells had only a few patrons that evening, mostly scrappy gents in builders' clothes, and a woman, Sheila Flaherty, behind the bar. I ordered a Murphy's and inquired about food.

Soup and sandwich?

That'll be great.

Staying the night?

Yes, at Nora's place.

The builders continued to openly give me the up and down, gripping their pints with chipped and cracked hands, beet red in color, the same as their faces and necks. They had the look of old sailors, like the kind you may have seen in the nineteenth century aboard whaling vessels crossing the hemispheres. They wore stained coveralls caked with cement and yellowing long johns underneath. They
smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and kept their squinty faces pointed into the dark spaces of the pub.

I took a seat at a small table by the window and shrugged off my damp jacket. The walls were adorned with nautical charts and photos of islanders in an earlier age, boats and cows, narrow, ruddy people, holding on, each photo looking like the aftermath of a natural disaster. Sheila brought my sandwich and soup over to my table.

The birds is it, then?

No, just visiting.

Tough time of the year for it.

Sheila Flaherty wore a man's flannel shirt, untucked, and had the calm, almost sleepy, indifferent manner of a longtime bartender. The soup was rich and oily, with fat-lined hunks of lamb in a thick brown broth. There were no discernible vegetables involved, other than potatoes. The sandwich was made with thick soda bread, black with flecks of hazelnut on the crust, and I fell upon it like a wolf.

I heard a stirring behind me and realized that there was someone else seated at a table in the corner by the peat fire. I heard the plucking of strings and when I turned I regarded a generously fat man fingering a fiddle that he held on his lap. On the table before him he had a spread of papers covered with a cuneiformlike scratching that I assumed was musical notation, which he pored over with a pencil stub clutched in a chubby fist.

When I left the Five Bells, I was thankful for the flashlight that Nora had lent me. The darkness was vast and complete. In the distance there was the throbbing hammer of a car engine, someone winding up a hill on some other part of the island. I eventually switched off the flashlight and walked by moon and starlight. The water in the South Harbor looked smooth, barely a shimmering ripple, but I could hear the steady pound of surf on the rocks below and knew that the swells were still at least a couple feet. I debated for a moment going down the seawall steps to test the temperature but I was already exhausted and turned up the hill to Nora's. The fields stretching off on either side, cut into rough squares by the low
stacked-stone fences, glistened with night dew, the hulking shadows of cattle glowering in the darkness.

When I reached Nora's I stood and stretched in the road, looking down into the wide bowl of South Harbor. To the west Fastnet and its baleful eye cast quiet metered slashes across the sea. A single light burned in Nora's place upstairs, another in the entrance hall.

I watched a field a couple hundred yards off where some goats were moving in a mass toward a fence. One animal seemed to rise at the wall, a man, who stepped up and over the wall, continuing on into the next field. The pack of goats remained behind, bleating softly. As he strode across the field with an odd, halting gait, his arms tight to his sides, heading closer to me, I backed into Nora's low wooden gate, trying to keep him in sight. The clouds shifted over the island and the fields darkened for a moment, and when they cleared again he was closer, heading on a diagonal path toward the road where I stood. He neared another fence and I could see his profile, an impossibly long face, the torso distorted and seemingly without arms, the angles of the legs all strange, and when he stepped over the fence I could see his
knees were going the wrong way.

I was inside the door scrabbling for a lock but there didn't seem to be one. I backed down the dark hall, feeling the wall with one hand, till I reached the last room. I fumbled with the old skeleton key and locked the door behind me. The window was shut and the shades drawn. I could not bring myself to look out. I thought about calling loudly for Nora but instead I sat on the bed in my jacket and hat, and considered what I had seen. It couldn't have been a man. Whatever it was, I was sure it had seen me. It knew I was there. I lay down under the heavy quilts with my copy of
The Journals of John Cheever
and turned to one of the dog-eared pages.

One does not ask, skating on a pond, how the dark sky carries its burden of starlight. I don't, in any case.

Until that night, I'd never voluntarily spent a single night away from Fred since our wedding. My feet hung over the edge of the narrow
bed and I curled up and dug myself deeper into the quilts, listening to the winds buffeting the walls of the house. When I put out the light I knew that I would dream of a white figure walking the cliffs above the ocean. I fell asleep almost immediately.

*  *  *

In the morning Nora placed a plate of sausages, blood pudding, bacon, a fried egg, and a slice of tomato on the breakfast table. Another plate held a stack of toasted white bread, a French press of coffee, a bowl of heavy cream.

Anything else, dear?

I was alone at the table, facing the window that looked out over the backyard of the house and up the rising hill of Glenn Meanach, south to the cliffs and the ocean somewhere beyond. I picked at the fried meat on my plate with a fork. The egg was crispy and tough around the edges, just the way I liked it. I worked my way through the stack of bread and jam packets, a map of the island spread beside my plate.

The farm across the road out front, that's a goat farm?

Part of it, yes, Nora said. Highgate's farm stretches back this way.

I thought I saw a man, I said, walking in the fields with the goats, late last night.

Nora cocked her head.

Well, Highgate has some odd ways of doin' things, him and his woofers.

Woofers?

Volunteers, Nora said. World organic farming something. Young kids, come from all over to work on the farm. You'll see them around.

*  *  *

A clear morning, the air bright and the wind salty. Across the road a pack of goats gnawed gamely on tufts of grass. An old white house, Highgate's place, was just visible in the distance, surrounded by a couple of rough outbuildings and old stone barns. Looking down
the road I saw a small flapping form at the bottom of the hill, young Finn Cotter on his bike wearing shorts and an oversize mackintosh, climbing. The hill was at least a quarter mile at a forty-five-degree grade; you could have built a set of stairs beside the road that would have been more serviceable. I waved as we passed but Finn kept his head down, puffing softly, his thin white calves cranking away, moving slower than a walking pace.

I went down to the Ineer, walked to the end of the quay, where a small island called Illaunfaha, or the Giants Island, extended like a stunted thumb into the bay, connected by a concrete causeway. A man walking a small dog, the same man I had seen the day before, circled the harbor edge, heading up to the Waist and the construction site. Under the roaring wind there was the faint thrub of diesel. A few sailboats bobbed in the bay, their stays clinking lightly. Otherwise the Ineer was empty.

The inner mouth of the Ineer is about a quarter mile across, and the water there changes color almost immediately, from jade green to deep blue, then the darker green-black of open Atlantic, all within the space of a few hundred feet. The inner bay itself is thirty to forty feet deep in most places, right up to the walls of rock on either side, like a deep soup bowl with a portion broken off one side. The water in the bay was sparkling emerald green, long brown strands of channeled wrack and other seaweeds swaying with the swells, the shoreline mottled with purple sea cabbage and slick mosses. The visibility was at least twenty feet in the harbor itself. I strapped my GPS to my wrist, powered it up and checked the signal, stripped down to my standard heavy TYR suit and went down the quay steps. I crouched at the bottom and let the waves carry the water over my legs. It felt nice, and I thrust my arm in up to my shoulder to check the reading on the GPS and got sixty-four, which meant no wet suit. I took a long drink of water, put on my cap, slipped on some latex gloves and lubed up my underarms, crotch, and neck with Ultraglide. I stashed my gear bag behind the wall and spat into my goggles as I walked down the steps. I planned to proceed along the southern edge of the bay, staying close to the shoreline, circle around the point, feel out the
strength of the current there, and then work my way east along the edge of the island.

I dove off the steps and dolphin-kicked down into the green water, equalizing pressure with my thumb and forefinger on my nose. The bottom of the harbor was nearly uniform black rock, riven with ridges and crawling with scuttling crabs. Turning to face the surface from twenty feet down, I had the sensation of being submerged in a giant cup of green tea, the surface shimmering with light. I relaxed and let myself rise, feeling for the gentle tug and ebb of current, then stroked toward the harbor mouth, keeping within ten yards of the shore, focusing on stretching out and timing the sway of the sea.

At the wide outer mouth of the Ineer I paused to get a sense of the current. I took twelve heavy breaths to hyperventilate my lungs then dove and made the bottom, and grasping a bit of rock I clung upside down, the crabs clearing a circle around me, the water colder here, reading sixty on the GPS, a deep ocean current pushing from the west, curving across the harbor mouth. The color shifted where the massive drop of the continental shelf began, and I looked down into the abyss of the ocean, watching fish and other small creatures spin through the darkening void. This was depth that I had never experienced, and it came pulsing out of the black, waves of invisible power, pushing through my skin until I felt it echo in my spine. When you are swimming in deep ocean water with decent visibility, at first the sea seems wide open and empty of anything, and this creates a strange feeling of suspension, floating in a cavernous void. But that is just an illusion. There is life there. After a while my eyes adjusted and I began to see the multitude of life that occupied the blank spaces of water, the minute, teeming, darting creatures and simple organisms. Then the perspective went; I saw things that could've been a few inches in front of my face, like krill and particle matter, or they could've been the distant images of something much larger, much farther down, the twisting shadows that writhe in the deep. I couldn't tell if they were coming toward me, rising up to my position, or if they were headed in the other direction. I couldn't tell if they were merely swimming away.

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