I spent some time in Ireland a few years back and latched onto the fascinating idea of the American Wake, an antiquated custom in which a person or family preparing to emigrate would essentially be subject to a funeral thrown in their honor—an event that seemed to encapsulate some serious passive-aggression with a morbid bit of tenderness. After all, the boat wasn’t guaranteed to make it, and even if it did, separation would likely be permanent.
My favorite thing to examine in fiction is the way characters interact with their geography, and maybe the most powerful time to do that is when the character is about to make a willful change in location. That’s a hard moment for people and characters; it’s a great moment for writers and readers because the decision to change place is one of the most emotionally wrenching and logistically intricate things a human can do. Add a grandmother with a shovel, and you get all the pretty, sad messiness of life in one swift bundle.
Brooks Rexroat lives and teaches in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing- fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and his work has appeared in such publications as The Telegraph (U.K.), Weave Magazine, The Montreal Review, The Cleveland Review, Revolution House, and Boston Literary Magazine. Visit him online at brooksrexroat.com.
Permalink: All That Water
It was more a box than a proper coffin, rough hewn and tacked together with knuckle-sized gaps between the ash planks, but it was enough to cause a month’s worth of whispers around the neighborhood.
At first, Colin thought his grandmother’s plan was a joke in her peculiar fashion—right up until the day she brought home an armload of discounted remnant boards and a box of penny nails.
“You’ve got to be kidding, Gran,” he said, but she quietly laid everything out on the porch. “Chrissake—can you at least do it inside and spare turning it into an emblem?”
“Not even a Yankee yet and already the Lord’s name is a playtoy.” She pulled a nail from the box and fastened two boards that instant, just to make a point. They weren’t nearly aligned, nor were they of anything close to matching lengths. But she beat that nail until it was flush, and then some.
She was just old enough to feel connected to the hard times, if only through the murky lens of stories overheard as a child. So he left her be to noisily resuscitate obsolete tradition.
Colin’s leaving was no surprise: he’d spent six years waiting for a visa. Everyone understood, and over pints his friends joked about stuffing themselves into his luggage.
“Hell,” James Peale said one evening at Crane Bar, “the way BBC colours it, you can wander right in, maybe tiptoe over a fence or two, if you’re coming from the right direction.”
“And when, precisely, has Ireland ever been the right direction?”
Both boys drank at that, and the conversation moved back to the immediate: girls, football matches, particularly good pints they’d drunk.
The eve of his flight, he checked the postbox, which was empty. The mail rested next to gran on the porch, where she held a small cross fashioned of scrap wood.
“Tell me that’s not what it seems.”
“You’re sharp enough, boy,” she said. “Course it is.”
She angled it toward him so he could watch her paint black over his name, already chiseled deep into the crossbeam. He glanced left and saw a shovel jabbed into the lawn.
“It’s not like I can’t come back—I’ll see you again, Gran. Sweet God, I’m not taking a steamship and trading my passport at Ellis.” He said this with clear eyes, but he knew at least the important parts were unlikely true. She was old. And though he’d tasted escape by flying cheap RyanAir trips across the whole of Europe, there was something about all that water. Something that made return seem improbable.
He met Meabh at her porch, as they’d often done from adolescence and through postgraduate school. But where her studies led to immediate work as a biological researcher, his degrees earned him sparse day gigs as a dockhand. This final meeting, neither spoke. Each reached for the other’s hand and they walked to the River Corrib then followed it to its mouth.
Fishermen were still at sea but tourists snapped pictures of the museum Gleotag bobbing with the waves. They sat at the edge of the Claddagh, legs dangling over an ancient rock wall and talked in spare, quiet voices. Weather and music: light things. Nothing of permanence.
When the sun dipped, they meandered down Shop Street. Colin passed once more the odd menagerie of shopfronts, some trying far too hard to seem urban and others trying even harder to seem quaint. He held tight for the final time that familiar soft hand, and worked hard to ignore this one regret in his leaving. In his periphery, he saw Meabh, too, was fighting to keep her jaw shut—to keep herself from speaking on it. They passed between the college and cathedral, all those old stones glaring at each other from across the way. As the city gave way to suburbs, they quickened their gait, resigned to getting on with it.
Colin opened the door, and maybe twenty people milled about inside. Most were Gran’s parish friends; some were vague acquaintances curious more than anything as to why in God’s name anyone would still do this sort of thing. Most of Colin’s friends quietly toasted him the evening prior at Roisin Dubh, having resolved to keep it at that: just a final pint and then the leaving.
Kieran and Tim had come to his America Wake, though. They stood along the back wall whispering, fingering cigarettes they were eager to step outside and smoke. Those two had come, Colin figured, to get a jump on wooing Meabh. He hoped when she moved on, it would be with neither of them.
Gran planted Colin on the sofa, and Meabh held his arm. “I’m actually relieved,” he whispered. “I expected she’d hire wailers.” But Gran hadn’t taken it that far: mostly, people gawked and occasionally ate Gran’s food. Along with pitchers of drink and pots of tea sat tubs of potato salads, a pair of roasted hens, some assorted greens. Gran even set out a box of snuff like they would in the old days, but no one so much as cracked the lid.
Before long, they said farewells and fled for more interesting places. By midnight, even Gran’s most stubborn friends quit on what was supposed to be a nightlong affair.
He was left alone with the two women he would leave—the two people alive who particularly cared whether he stayed or left. They sat together for a time, but by one, Meabh, checked her watch twice, then gave in.
“So this is it.”
They stood and took timid steps toward the door.
“Skype?” she asked. He nodded. He saw a dimple in her left cheek where she was biting it, trying not to cry. He couldn’t tell whether it was anger or sadness. Most likely: an even blend.
“You’re loved,” she said, and pulled at the door handle. Gran stood, quiet and solemn. For the first time, she had the look of someone who truly approved of Meabh. “As are you,” Colin said. He followed her to the porch, prepared for an embrace, but she kept going into the night. “Safe flight,” she called. It stung, but as her frame slipped down the dimly lit sidewalk, he couldn’t imagine her having done it differently.
“This is foolish,” Gran said after another hour of sitting. “Go rest,” she said, and pointed to his room. He hugged her, cleared the food, then went to the bed. He stared at old ceiling cracks, the simple furniture, the dimpled mattress, trying to lock it into his mind, until he heard a faint sound: Gran’s shovel slicing through damp soil. He recoiled at the thought of his grandmother doing that absurd work and sat up, poised to help. But he thought better of it. She needed this.
He listened to the sound of that dull shovel slicing a hole in her tidy lawn on his account, knowing that wherever he stepped during the next twelve hours, he was already vanished to everyone who mattered. It made no difference whether he was in that shoddy crate or across all that water. He was departed.
by Brooks Rexroat