Read The Night Swimmer Online

Authors: Matt Bondurant

The Night Swimmer (8 page)

Later that evening when I left the Five Bells in the cloaking darkness I heard a pant and the crunch of gravel, and looking toward the construction site I saw O'Boyle dancing a jig in front of one of the half-finished guesthouses. He threw his knees high into the air and stepped widely from side to side, his heavy rubber boots flopping and slapping against his bare legs, muttering a jaunty tune in Irish. The backhoe crouched behind him in the darkness like a patient spider. I made my way up the Waist toward the Ineer.

A rattling Citroën came flying down the hill, the gears whining as the driver downshifted to slow it, and I stepped off the road by putting one foot over the ditch and using my hands to grasp the stone wall. I held myself there suspended, a maneuver I would perfect in my time on the island. The single headlight stabbed at me as I clutched the fence, then went probing on down to the North Harbor. When I turned back up the hill I saw a figure moving along the top of the ridge, walking with a halting gait, a small silhouette against the night sky, glowing faintly white. He was moving away from the road, across the fields toward Highgate's place and he stopped and seemed to gaze at me. What would I do if he came sprinting down the hill? I thought about diving into the Ineer to escape. We stood there, watching each other for a few moments, before he turned and lurched up the hill, moving beyond the horizon.

Each evening after dinner at the Five Bells I would wait at the top of the hill outside Nora's gate near midnight, watching Highgate's fields for the armless man. I found that he was a regular fixture, and I was able to observe him from the sanctuary of Nora's front garden without incident. He never came closer or varied from his course. But he knew I was watching. He would pause, and turn his long face toward me, the wind ruffling his shaggy head of hair, regarding me for a few moments before vanishing into the night.

*  *  *

Nora claimed to be unaware of such a man in Highgate's fields.

You could go ask Highgate himself, she said, setting a stack of toast on the table. He sells milk and cheese, so he's open for visitors.

Is this milk from his farm? I asked, pointing at the small jug on the table.

Oh, no, she said. Tourists buy most of it, I think? I know that he ships a bit to the mainland. I don't think any islanders use his products.


She shrugged.

Highgate and his woofers are a bit of an odd bunch, she said.

And nobody, I said, has ever mentioned seeing a guy walking through the fields at night?

Nora stood at the head of the table with her hands full of jam packets. She wouldn't look at me.

Go over to his farm, she said, and ask him yourself. That's all I can offer.

She blushed and scooted into the kitchen.

Chapter Four

had been talking about the lighthouse enough to intrigue Fred, and so he arranged with Bill to take a day sail on
out to Fastnet on a Sunday morning. When Bill brought his long white sailboat into the harbor the sun was brilliant and the skies clear, and as we walked down the cobblestone street to the quay it was hard not to cry out or hold your hands to the sky in response to such beauty. Fred packed a cooler full of bacon and tomato sandwiches, a tub of baked beans, crackers and cheese, and six bottles of white wine on ice, and we swung the cooler between us as we jauntily strode down the quay.

It is all shining, Fred declared in a loud voice, it is Adam and the maiden!

Fred had been making great progress with his research and was in an antic mood. He had determined that our voyage was to be an epic undertaking.

Bill wore a ball cap, the visor tucked low over his eyes. Like Fred, he wore cargo shorts and sandals even though the temperature couldn't have been more than sixty degrees. He stowed our cooler and the small bag of extra sweaters, hats, and a camera, and Fred started untying the lines. I stepped aboard and stood in the stern, holding the boom.

What do you need me to do? I asked.

Find yourself a good spot, Bill said. Enjoy the day.

I was hoping that Bill's wife would be along for the ride, and I asked him about her.

Nell isn't much for the boat, Bill said. Not these days. Gets a bit seasick.

Open one of those bottles, Fred said, clambering over the safety rails with coils of rope over his shoulder. The sauvignon blanc. There are some plastic cups in there.

It's ten in the morning, I said.

Fred grinned and shrugged. It was a disarming gesture that made me want to squeeze him with both arms and bite his earlobe.

Rules of the sea, he said.

*  *  *

As we motored out of the harbor Bill laid a map out on top of the hatch and showed me our route. Because the wind was strong from the north, we would beat upwind until we could turn and go downwind to Fastnet, and get a close look at the lighthouse.

A marvel of engineering, Bill said. The blocks are Cornish granite, locked together like a puzzle. The old Irish call it Carraig Aonair,
the Lone Rock.

The upwind leg was the usual slapping, jerking affair, the boom hissing overhead and the sails cracking as they filled with each tack. Bill steered and worked the mainsheets while Fred struggled with the jib lines and winches. I huddled down on the stern benches, trying to stay clear of the lines. Fred had trouble getting the sheets coiled properly on the winches and Bill barked out directions that made little sense to me.

Three loops, he yelled.
loops! There, now crank it. Crank it! Fred, you're going the wrong
for god's sake. Now. That's it. Good!

Fred hurled himself around the boat cinching lines, pulling winch handles, going forward to free the jib from the safety lines. When we made the north side of Hare Island, we turned west and the beating eased into a comfortable long tack, Bill steering with his foot.

Hare Island, he said, or in Irish, Inishodriscol.

It was a low, flat island with sandy beaches and a few houses emerging from glades of stunted trees. Bill said that maybe a dozen
people lived there, but he didn't know much else about it. The wind was strong and steady, and we ate sandwiches as the boat surged along in the green-black water. Bill explained that the Corrigans had been the dominant clan in this corner of Ireland since antiquity, and their descent from St. Kieran, the first saint of Ireland, gave them some kind of sacred right to rule.

It's the story of Ireland, Bill said, the same story over and over. That unflinching Irish obedience to the strong man.

Feudalism, Fred said. One of the reasons why I love this part of the world. The past is never really past.

We cruised on our starboard tack for a couple miles, passing north of three long islands, working our way west and out of Roaringwater Bay. We were now nearly abreast of the hulking black-green mass of Cape Clear. Fred was doing sketches of the islands in his notebook with a pencil stub, annotated with the nautical and geographical data that Bill pointed out to us. I never doubted Fred's single-minded zeal. His projects were often multiple and scattered, but he worked with such great intensity that he nearly always succeeded in his goals. The first time we met, at a small graduate student gathering in a pizza joint, Fred ranted about the postmodern genius of Martin Amis and Schopenhauer's veil of understanding. He wore a flannel shirt and came from a rural background, the star linebacker on his high school football team, and in certain moments, clouded in cheap pitchers of beer and the blueing fog of cigarette smoke, Fred seemed to me like the distillation of the working-class hero and the intellectual dreamer all compact. We were all drawn to Fred. He created the life he wanted for himself, carved out his own space, something most of us never do.

Those are the Calf Islands, Bill said. There's no one out there anymore. Just some cattle and a few summer homes.

Each island was perhaps a half mile across, pocked with small sandy spits of beach. In one cove a large three-masted sailboat lay at anchor. An American flag snapped from the stern, and on the wide, flat teak transom the name in gilt gold lettering:

That's a hell of a ship there, Fred said.

Some nice swimming spots, I said.

Bill said. Water is far too cold.

Fred slapped my knee, jostling his cup of wine.

Not for her. My wife here has a gift.

You're joking.

She can get in water, Fred said, that will kill most of us, paddle around all day. She could swim from here back to Baltimore. Or all the way out to Fastnet.

We are at least four miles, Bill said.

She's done it before, Fred said. She's done Alcatraz, Lake Michigan, swam all the way across Lake Champlain a bunch of times. She can go for hours.

Well, Bill said, just promise me you won't jump off this boat!

I was looking for Fastnet. Bumps and peaks seemed to rise up and disappear and the water deepened to a rich royal blue as we passed westward.

How do you do it? Bill said, I mean just keeping your head down in the water for that long. How do you hack the boredom?

I don't really know, I said. I don't get bored. You can just listen.

Listen to what? Bill asked.

The inner workings of your body, the actual sound of your muscles and tendons working. The process of breathing, your lungs. Your heartbeat.

Sort of like a form of meditation, Fred said. Or sensory deprivation.

Not deprivation, I said. More a matter of being able to allow your body to focus on one set of sensory inputs and your mind on others. It creates a kind of separation. Like two distinct beings.

Huh, Bill said. He squinted at me, one hand resting on the steering wheel.

Maybe it's just me, I said. I don't know. But you can listen to what is happening. You can hear if something is wrong.

My mother, a classic hypochondriac herself, told me that what defines hypochondriacs is how they are overly attuned or so sensitive to the feelings and sensations of their own bodies that they begin to
interpret these sensations as signs of illness when really they are just the body going on about its business. Fred was the inversion of this idea; he never listened to his own body. He would walk around with pneumonia, broken ribs, a splinter the size of a toothpick in his palm without noticing a thing. He was not immune to illness, but its effects baffled him. When he got the flu he shuffled about muttering as if there was something going on he just couldn't grasp, like some kind of magic was being employed.

It's also surprisingly interesting down there, I said. You have things to look at. Fish, weeds, stuff on the bottom, jellyfish. Out here you have waves and currents and things to think about too. The weather. What's happening on the surface takes up a lot of attention.

Last time I was in the ocean, Bill said, was off Guadalcanal in 'forty-three. Don't plan on doing it again.

I pointed to a small grayish tick on the horizon.

Is that Fastnet?

Bill got a set of fat, heavy binoculars from below and handed them to me. I brought the horizon into focus and after I'd traced it to the south for a few seconds Fastnet leapt into view. The rock was heavily bunched and folded, like a clenched fist, the white lighthouse emerging like a protruding finger. Lowering the binoculars, I contemplated the long stretch of water between the western edge of Cape Clear and Fastnet. Open ocean, deep water. I felt my heart beginning to thump in my throat.

I'd like to swim out there, I said. I could go from the South Harbor of Clear. How far is that?

At least three miles each way, Bill said. But you can't. The seas rarely cooperate. It gets rough out there.

The swells were perhaps two to three feet on the outer edge of Roaringwater Bay. The sea undulated in gentle rolls toward Fastnet, wide troughs that would be easy to navigate. A swell every six to eight strokes in my normal breathing pattern.

It looks great, I said. The weather's nearly perfect right now.

Bill shook his head. He spread the map out on the cabin top and poked at it with his finger.

It's hard to explain, he said, but the weather, the currents, the ocean itself is just different out there. We are somewhat protected here in the bay, but out to Clear and beyond, the sea is wild. They get weather that doesn't make it to the mainland. They had to increase the tower height after the first beacon was getting swamped and all twisted. Made out of iron but just got all smashed up. This one they built in 1903, and it is solid. A hundred and fifty feet above waterline, the tallest in Ireland. But they still get the occasional rogue wave. In 'seventy-nine the sensors measured a wave more than a hundred and thirty feet, smashed the light clean out. Killed the keeper. A Force Twelve gale. That almost never happens.

Is it manned now? Fred asked.

Fully automated, Bill said, they took the last keeper off about ten years ago. Sheamais Corrigan was the last to man it. Kieran's uncle.

That would be a gig I wouldn't mind having, Fred said. Real solitude.

They did several months at a time, Bill said, between supply vessels. Sheamais served out there for twenty years. His brother before him did another dozen. Every keeper on Fastnet was a Corrigan. Baltimore is the physical home of the Corrigan clan, and Cape Clear is the spiritual home. But their attachment to Fastnet is even greater. They revere it with religious intensity.

You'd go nuts out there, I said.

Maybe, my husband said. Maybe not.

We made our turn to the southwest, Bill setting the spinnaker for the downwind leg, Fred holding the mainsail out wide, and the boat rolled before the steady push of wind, surfing the swells. I found a spot just forward of the mast to lie back against the slope of the cabin, my legs stretched out and the spinnaker billowing above me. Fastnet was now clearly visible on the horizon, still a few miles off, and it seemed we would make it there by early afternoon. I closed my eyes and dozed off, enjoying the slow roll of
and the light crackle of the sails. I thought about swimming out from the Ineer at Clear, the long stretch of blue to Fastnet. If the weather was good, and I had seen days when the sea seemed as smooth as a farm pond, and I got
a safety boat, I could do it. Since we'd arrived in Baltimore, I felt cut loose, like a dog let off the chain. Something drew me out there, to Cape Clear, and even farther out to Fastnet, and the spaces between Fred and me that normally drove me to distraction unspooled in every direction without end.

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