- Across the road-
Thea Hudson gave a look to her notebook. A bunch of words, she could read “boring” and “Warhammer”, a muffin recipe and a fairly cute dragon who blew flames to the margin of the page. Not exactly a torrent from two hours of interviews.
She grimaced, casting a glance to the cat-shaped clock, creepy, hanging over the earth, just beside the photo of a dangerously fat baby and a printed san Patrick's blessing. She had really thought that would be the right time. Two old sisters, a rock cottage lost in foggy woods, it was practically screaming Narnia First Chapter. She had even left her cozy Galway room to drive on Connemara's borderline, as to say something that made uncomfortable both cars and sheeps.
Unfortunately, Mrs. and Mrs. McGoran's idea of folklore coincide mostly with their family's chronicle, pretty surreal indeed: so Thea found herself knowing everything about Cousin John's meatloaf indigestion and being questioned about her whole life from the uterus on.
-So me darlin', I still can't understand why such a cultivated lass like you want to know our silly stories. I thought you were a professor, are you not a professor?-
Mrs. Mary McGoran still belonged to the generation for which a professor should be either an architect or, even better, a super charming scientist of some genre. It was one of the rare occasion when she desired to have chosen a less strange profession.
-Not exactly, ma'am. I work at college, but I'm a researcher, and I'm currently working on Irish Folklore in...-
-So you actually study silly stories?-
Her smile got painful. -Yes, I, I study Folklore mythology, and the anthropological basis it is founded on.-
-Ah. Then you're writing a child book? That's so adorable.-
-No.- she growled before anyone, her, namely, could hit her Reason switch. Piercing eyes fulminated her behind glasses.
Stop glaring. And Gosh stop gritting like a dog.
-Uh, I mean, I looked at myths as past cultural exhibitions. Scientifically.-
Mh-mh, 'f course.
-Ah. I see. Well, I'm terribly sorry, but we are not very in these things, if you catch my meaning. Always been very good Catholic, in our family. Mom didn't want that nonsense of fairies and elves and Lepriscones.-
-Yes, that stuff. Anyhow, we have a wonderful book about St.Patrick and his followers. So inspiring, so inspiring me dear.-
-Oh. Ah, I appreciate your interest, Mrs McGoran, but that's not exactly my...study zone.-
The sisters fell silent; having drained the rainfall of family adventures and inane conversational questions. The big cat's purring filled the silence.
Thea decided it was better fleeing right in that moment, before her face betrayed her further. Professor Linger's words echoed in her mind.
Decency with the sources respect of their believes, at least until they tie you over a giant fire.
She dropped the tea cup on the crochet tablecloth. -Oh, well, thanks so much for your time, Mrs. McGoran, but I think it's time for me to go. It's a long way to Galway, after all.-
-But the city center is ten miles from here.-
Her grin got bigger and faker. -Not with my car.-
Mary and Rosie exchanged a look, scowled subtly, and gave her a discharge smile as relieved as hers. They knew perfectly that even her rickety pick up could be home in less than twenty minutes. They didn't bother to point it out.
They got up with Thea, mixing chirp and gripes of improbable pain like only Irish grandmas could do, oh it has been such a terrible pleasure to meet you oh you would come back oh yes of course take another biscuit please. Guiding her to the door with utter efficiency, so less than a minute after the end of conversation she found herself out of the cottage with her notes stuffed in the purse and a bunch of cookies wrapped in tin foil.
She grunted in defeat.
Oh, Hell. RPG and cookies. At least the evening is up.
She turned, walking over her over-sized pick up. Her own Beetle remained in California, but her college had felt gracious enough to give her a car in Ireland. Too bad hill muddy paths are not exactly made for big sturdy trucks.
She patted lovingly its reddish side, reaching for the passenger seat and throw there there everything. The cookies, the Moleskine she bought after the graduation, the bag with her Celtic Myths book, the pair of smashed headphones from the Mexico Holiday and her battered key chains. All the things her mother had began to hate passionately.
Seriously, Thea, you should get rid of that crap. How in the Hell could a broken headphone be useful?
They are not useful, Mom. But they're tokens. Amulets. I can't leave them.
Suga', you know they're not alive right?
The fact is, she knew it perfectly. But, still was a but. Always been a but. I know perfectly they're not alive, and that the headphone is pretty crappy, but. But maybe they were important. But they were amulets, her amulets, and there should be a reason if every civilization has amulets, and she had been about to throw them away at least six times but she had never done it and maybe one day, one day it would even make sense.
It was more or less the same reason she came here, doing that absurd job. She brushed slowly her key chains. It was a little plastic leprechaun, green paint almost completely vanished, the grin faded by touch.
Folklore mythology is a useful, suggestive way to penetrate a culture, the universal responses to fears and needs.
Loneliness tasted of sawdust, just like during highschool.
The buzz of her phone made her squeak. She fumbled with her anorak pockets, patting every inch of fabric before finding it in her jeans.
-How's going in ye old Ireland?-
She could almost feel her mom's smirk. Her voice always reminded Thea of hailstorms, fresh and powerful and pretty annoying; but she didn't mind. It was family, smell of coffee and detergent on Saturday mornings. It was home.
-Oh. Oh, everything peachy, really. - Thea hissed. Gave a look around, let the venom flow. -Apart from the fact that these horrid ploughmen love to drown an astonishing heritage of traditions with catholic-peasant dipshit filled with awfully bourgeois bigotry.-
-Whoa. So many adjectives in only one curse. 'm still hoping no one throws you a sheep out of anger.-
-I'm serious, Mom.-
- I know you are, honey. You have a thing for being serious in the most untimely moments. May I deduce that the interview has not exactly been a success?-
- They offered me a St. Patrick's hagiography. Pope approved.-
The choir of snorting told her she was on speakerphone.
-Uh, okay, maybe you've found the only sanctimonious ladies still alive in Ireland. But you can't really blame them, Thea. You love and study things that are boring for the most and vaguely ambiguous for the rest.-
-But they're important.-
Thea was not pouting. Definitively.
A sigh floated over the phone. She could almost feel the small hard hand brushing her hair. - I think they are, sweetie. I know how beautiful these stories are, and how they shape men: but that's me and ten persons in California. You have to understand that not everyone squeaks in front of every plastic elf on his path.-
Thea growled, a non compromising sound that could be both an agreement and an accusation.
-Yeah. Whatever. Stupid loutish Starbuck's- gulping IPad-manhandling ignorants.-
-Are you talking about Irish or Yankees now? And you adore Starbuck's.-
Another grunt. She twisted above the driver seat, rummaging around to find the truck keys. -I think both Irish and Yankees, thank you very much. And however -oh damn!- The keys were nowhere to find. Flashes of passing the night with the cat-shaped clock petrified her. -Bloody bloody hell!-
-You're not finding the keys, right.- Her mom's was not a question.
-And you have picked up again the purse with all that crap, right.-
Thea glimpsed at the bunch of wrinkled notes, the peppermint box rolled near the foot brake.
-Try under the scarf, honey. You ram there everything since you're twelve.-
She fumbled a little more, digging her hand under the indigo wool scarf draped on the gearshift. Finding the car keys in all their shiny glory.
She grabbed them, unraveling herself from the cabin.
-They were there, aren't they?-
-I would not leave you that satisfaction.- It was beginning to rain; gray drops shivering down the sky with ease and no hurry at all. For a California girl rain was storm: fast and boiling and necessary like a plunge or a slap. This was different. She clutched her coat, feeling the sawdust coming back and nearly choking her.
-There's a meaning if I like this place so much, right? I mean, there's something, something worth of squeaking and ranting. I know it. They'll see it.-
-Thea, you don't need reasons to be who you are; and the others are not some 1984 Dystopian villains. They just don't need your world and want to live their own.- Her mother stopped, a crackle of pots clacking and water running in the background. Cake time.
-Just enjoy the moment, sugar. You're a young, independent woman with the coolest job ever, and you're in an amazing land. Hang around, sneak in the Trinity, hook some hot Irish boy. You don't need to see magic.-
Thea slumped against the truck door, looking at the sky, the hills drenched in rain and heather. Swallowed a sigh.
-I suppose not.-
-Good girl. C'mon, now go. It's awfully late here. June sends a lotta kisses.-
-Now hop on that trap you drive and go, Thea.-
The clack of a flour jar snapped over the Atlantic Ocean.
-And quit the Romantic Hero Pout, please.-
Thea cheerfully followed Carly Ray Jepsen's chirping, flailing on the pick up seat with her best Beach Babe expression. Expression that was very rusty and not a bit alluring, but it was too fun to quit.
Ah, Pop music. Salvation for my academy-worn soul.
Since the departure from McGoran's cottage she had shuffled through Taylor Swift, folk random things and a bunch of those Celtic-ish new-age musics that remind of upper-class yoga sessions; and at every angry bang on her mp3, she found herself scowling at the world with a little less fierceness.
The fact was, she didn't even know why she was so upset in the beginning. She hated to be upset: cranky, artfully bitchy yeah, but truly upset, no. Being upset equals being vulnerable, and she was not always ready to let others know how freakishly hard things could hit her. Especially because those things were usually frivolous and very fleeting. People tend to think that a serious person's tantrums are serious too, but that was nowhere near truth. Her serotonin swing was at least whimsical. She had felt better listening to Glee covers, for God's sake.
But something, oh, something had hurt. And hurt bad enough.
Her smile dimmed; Good Time wearing off in a blur of pink notes. Thea sobered, turning on some of her Thinking songs.
The fact was that she felt lonely. Not right in that moment, or for the interview fiasco: it was more like a chronic illness. Something that never got deadly, but stuck to her fingers like chicken pox. It went far behind, more or less to the Trekkie twelve years old with a C bra and no idea what to do with it, although she had always been the privileged kind of outcast. Never bullied, never overly shy: but when she unfolded to the world her most inner desires, a ticket to San Diego, the latest Jared Diamond's book, she knew there would be no more than five people grasping it. Sometimes it was a easy way to feel special; others you would just like to pick a guy on the tube and know they had any idea why you're so excited or so distraught.
Thea sighed. Oh, damn. She needed a man. Someone bounded to listen to her crap, even just to touch her boobs afterwards. Maybe she could tamper that cute History Assistant that said hello even without knowing her name. Although probably he was a Contemporary historian, all Top Man's jackets and cheap cynicism and economical balances of WWII. Ugh. She couldn't stand any of that. Made her feel either truly lightheaded or unbelievably bored, or both. There was Jack too, the read-haired beauty working at Costa and blinding her with stubble-wrapped smiles every morning. Never spent so much time sipping a Cappuccino. But you can call a man beauty? Seems socially fair. Focus, Thea.
Yeah, Jack. He would be a lot of fun, and she always had a kink for the Irish: it could work.
But no, it wouldn't work. Both of them were cute, but not enough to be worth all the Courting snag.
And anyway she should think about serious things. Big Girl things. About how many slips she still had clean, for example, or if they had called the plumber to repair the Department laundry before academics began to stink. And where to buy a decent pair of jeans, if she wanted a date. Double Ugh.
She snorted, taking advantage of the desert road to give a glimpse to the woods. Rain was pouring down on the country: fat, thick drops that cradled her pick up, the rusty harmony of tough things against tough things. Behind it, the true reason she spent half of her second grade's pocket money to buy Ireland guides.
The dusk was mellow, dusts of indigo and gray rolling across the earth; old trees arched around her, and their barks flushed with green and musk, leaves burning with a felt-pen yellow. Large spiderwebs glistened of light; the mud bulged under the roots. Gosh, it was so beautiful. Those places just slipped under her skin; crushing bones and half measures and good portions of common sense.
She turned a bit, the windscreen wiper working furiously. That evening was Mabon. The beginning of fall. The harvest is done, the mankind retreat to earths and warmth against the winter, the stories flow. Fairies and gods dance nearer. And not seeing them aches more.
You don't need to see the magic, honey.
Thea blinked, sinking in her not-quite-damp coat. Rumbling on the mp3 to find the Lord of the Rings soundtrack./ maybe it was a good time for a cookie.
And there a man dashed from the dark, running across the road.
Thea's time turned into molasses. She had the time to dig her foot on the brakes, it was fast too fast too fast, catch wide eyes staring at her, and then the car bumped into something and there was a sickening noise and the world swirled in a twist of shrills and girly squeaks and tons of metal pick up wobbling and seezing and oh Gosh the trees we're smashing in the trees, and then.
Then it stopped.
Thea stared in front of her, teeth gritted. The truck was still, turned haphazardly not three feet away the wood line. Her hands were clutched around the wheel: the blood roaring all through her body. She was trembling. She was whining.
Wide eyes filled with lights, staring right at her through glass and universes.
She took a shuddering breath, slowly. The silence was deafening. The whole moment should have lasted three, five seconds at best, but it was stretching to a dot of eternity.
Thea didn't leave herself time to properly break down.
Simple tasks. She needed simple tasks. Breathe in. Put your hand on the door handle, pull. Don't throw up. Good simple tasks.
She acted stiffly, way before her mind knew anything. The door cracked open. Out of the car, now. Out of the car, or you would be stuck here forever. Out of the car, breathe, keep steady, breathe. Turn. Lightening poured over Ireland.
A body laid in front of her.
Oh shit. Oh shit shit shit.
The rain was falling thick and dark, but here it was. A body. A human body. That was so not moving.
Thea let herself five seconds to be terrified. She could still hack it, you know. She could throw herself in front of the wheel, press the pedal as if for dear life and drive all the way to Galway, and no one, no one would ever link an American scholar with that bad scrape. She could. She really could.
Oh, damn. She wouldn't.
Stifling a groan she ran to the fallen body, crouching on the concrete and trying desperately to remember her half-listened first aid lessons.
Okay, first thing, the pulse. So the neck. Or the wrist. No, that was in Victorian novels. Move your ass, Thea.
The body in case was a man, sprawled on his stomach near the road outskirts. The rain was too hard to see if he was breathing. She took a shaky breath, tentatively pulling two fingers in the crease between shoulder and head, head at a strange angle, oh crap oh crap. Waited for the two longest seconds of her life. The man's face very white and very corpse-like. And there it was, a beat, vagamente! fluttering against her touch. That was good. And his skull was not spurting blood and juices everywhere. That was very good too.
She balanced on her heels, blinking away the rain. The first aid slides, she remembered it perfectly, said countless times not to move an accident victim: to avoid further damages, and instead call immediate and more skilled assistance. Which would work just fine in the neat world of Power Point, but was definitively not supposed for a goddamn wood lost in the Irish country. In the middle of a storm. With no signal.
She let something between a whine and a curse.
She cast a rapid glance to the man at her feet. There was a gash on one temple, dripping fat blood rivulets over his eye at a steady pace; an arm twisted as it surely shouldn't do and an ankle that was no better. The pulse was quivering against her fingertips.
Do not move the victim, it was that simple. The slides said it. And the teachers said it and the poor glassed doc babbling to their high-school class in a sticky Summer morning said it. She had even taken notes. She was good at rules. She was responsible, and reasonable. She was no hero-type. For sure.
So Thea wasn't sure how she found herself with the stranger's unharmed arm thrown over her shoulder, hobbling toward the pick up with an half-plan blurring in her mind.
He's hurt, I can help. Then I'll have all the time to blame myself.
-Okay, we're almost there, don't worry- she heard her voice rambling, or at least a very high-pitched, off-center version of her voice. Comforting mantras, formulas to cast away bad luck, her scholar brain decided. Fascinating. -It's all okay, yeah. All okay.-
She somehow managed to reach the passenger door, kicked it open, hoping her hardest that the keys were not lost somewhere in the grass. After it, a big blur in fast-forward. The man's long limbs slumping against and in the middle of her feet, a rush of calculations and curses and prayers and her body throbbing and working, no time to think no time to be scared. Until suddenly she was in front of the wheel, breathing hard in the damp-soaked cabin, and with an unconscious man plopped next to her.
She had loaded him up. She had the keys in the ignition. She was sweating like a bear. Rimandiamo the anthropological implications.
Thea sucked in, checking the controls with shaking hands. Galway's hospital was on the north outskirt of the city. She could be there in less than ten minutes.
I never believed in slides, anyway.
It was when she glimpsed the tired buzzing of Galway's Tesco thst Thea let herself breathe in again. She licked her lip, slumped a bit on the seat. Head throbbing like a supernova.
Okay, I'm here. Okay. No one dead, no one screaming. Yay.
Wide eyes, filled with headlights.
Oh. Him. Ah. I ran over him. Ah. I've freakin' run over a person.
She had the urge to cry and scream and sob all at the same time.
Oh, hell. How did she come to this? She, she was a good person, c'mon, it wasn't cosmicly fair. And if he die? And if he's maimed? What about my work? Hell. I'm an asshole.
What if he's already dead?
Thea swallowed, hard. She should check him. Either way, either way, she should at least know his face. It was the right thing to do. If she was the person she loved to be, it was the thing to do. Her hands were shaking.
Oh, Levi-Strauss, protect me.
Before she could fret further she turned, and gave her first real look at the man she had almost killed and almost saved.
Uh. Okay, he was a wreck; but not much as she had thought at first blush. There was the arm, oh hell, that should be pretty painful, and the ugly clot on his forehead still bleeding on her seat; for a fraction of second Thea saw the fat face of the pick up rent agent and her no insurance, and felt both very unhappy and very sociopath. The stranger's shirt, red silk?, was loose enough to glimpse the big, purple spot spreading on his skin. Bruises. Effusions. Grey's Anatomy plots flashed in front of Thea's eyes, and she tried hard to swallow them.
What the Hell was he doing in the middle of the road, anyway, and at the exact center of nothing? She hadn't seen any cottage along the road, and he didn't seem dressed for hiking. For a party, maybe, or a datd and, oh Gosh were those leather pants? Had she picked up a bdsm maniac?
Not that it would make a lot more sense, that is.
She leaned in a bit, and found herself rubbing her nose again. There was a smell in the car: not unpleasant, but fresh, swelling all over the damp stench of the seats. It remembered her the smell of grandma's garden after rain, but with a edge that prickled her nose like spice. Peppermint, it was peppermint. Had she let an Arbre Magique under the seat?
She shrugged it off and took another look, quietly. The man had short black hair, impressive eyebrows, and the palest complexion she had ever seen. He should be in his early thirties, and yet she couldn't find any wrinkle.
She squinted. No, it was not just that. She couldn't find any sign: no freckles, no lines ; no hardness at all. Nothing. Just that clear, ageless face. So strange. So bright.
He sprang out of the woods. Dressed absurdly. His skin is flawless.
She blinked, hard. Because for a moment, less than a moment, she had let herself have a thought. A forbidden thought. A twelve-years-old thought.
What if he didn't come from a cottage at all. What if Mabon, and the autumn, and he.
Oh yes, it would have been beautiful. Not really strange, not terrifying. Just beautiful. And so easy to believe.
Oh, this is going to end so bad.
Thea drove faster.