Paddle

Alyson Hagy

A woman was walking the strand at Dooega when she came upon a man building a currach. He was from Ethiopia. He told her so. She asked if he was with the gaeltacht school above the harbor.

No, he said. He was on the strand because Dooega was at the far edge of the world. It would be closer to launch from Dooega, he said. When the time came.

She didn’t ask where he was going. There were gulls in the tidal pools, stabbing at cockles. The sea was the color of the chest her father had been given in the Navy, the one he never gave away. Tiny islands with names like Innishthis and Innishthat were close by. She could see them when she hiked the headland. She knew about St. Brendan and his preachy voyages in a currach. St. Brendan went looking for the Land of Delight and found America. But it was none of her business where this man was going.

The man was good with his tools, precise and meticulous, even in the damp wind. The frame of the currach reminded her of a wren’s nest. She wished the man well, then completed her walk, traveling as far as the soaked stones of the island would allow.

The woman was on the Irish coast for the typical reason: sorrow. She had become a middle-aged woman pretending to be divorced, and she thought the packaged tragedies of Ireland would suit her. The night before she had been troubled by a dream where she was trapped in a wooden drawer surrounded by the ribbons and barrettes of happier wives. The cottage she had rented was modern and sterile. Its only feature of interest was a neglected rose garden that attracted ferocious bees.

When she took her evening walk along the strand there was no sign of the man or his boat. The indentations of his labors had been rinsed smooth by the sea.

The woman saw the man only once more. It was close to midday, after her droll magazines had driven her outdoors. The man was barefoot despite the chill and zipped into a red anorak with sleeves that were too short for his arms. It looked as though his work was going well. He was waterproofing the seams of the sealskins he’d stretched over the bent ribs of the currach. He was using tar and a brush.

Will your family come to see you off, she asked. She knew her question was very personal.

I no longer have a family, the man said.

Later, when she had recovered her equilibrium, the woman wondered where the man had acquired such beautiful sealskins.

When she didn’t see him for many days, she inquired at Lavelle’s.

There was a black fella off the bus from Westport some two weeks ago, the publican said. But no, no one he would call Egyptian, although you never could tell where a person might choose to go on holiday. He himself welcomed all kinds.

The woman went back to the strand again and again. Twice she stood in lashing rain without even a torch in hand. She consulted the tidal tables at the hardware in Achill. But she learned nothing more, though new figures began to appear in her dreams, dark-faced men who frantically paced the strand, searching for something they couldn’t seem to find. The men were hunched with exhaustion as though they’d been pursued across entire continents. And she knew what they were looking for, she knew! But she had no way to tell them.

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