(Apologies in advance for the surprise ending.)
Whenever I give a person directions to Reavilleen, there are always a few moments of blank staring as they consult some internal memory map of an area that SHOULD be known to them after decades of driving Irish roads, but occupies a grey hinterland where Google Maps doesn’t drop the little yellow man who takes you street-side for a view. One of the most frustrating things in our house hunt was hovering the satellite map just above the house and then asking for a little zoom in to check out the immediate area. Many houses were given a fail on further inspection this way because we could verify in “real time” the condition of the neighboring houses or farms and see if there was pride of ownership. No matter what side of the pond one is house hunting on, some things remain the same. No one wants to live next to a dump. Or a hoarder. Or downwind of a slurry pit on a large cow farm.
Here’s where EIRcodes come to the rescue. Google Maps recognizes the Irish equivalent of ZIP codes, even though the Irish often scoff at them as newfangled inventions. Our string of numbers that pinpoints our exact house was one of the first things I drilled Tom about before he left the States to come over for two weeks alone. In an emergency, I wanted those numbers etched into his head because I had visions of him clutching his heart in the midst of an attack and frantically pleading: No, no, turn BEFORE the Morris Arms pub, not AFTER the Old Mill Store, then go up hill for four and a half minutes and turn at the telephone pole that has a triangle support, then veer left at the stone wall. Ohhh…. The ambulance is coming from the opposite direction? Then take the Castle Salem road to the first left across the valley and…… You get my point. When I dropped in the EIRcode of Reavilleen, it showed only three homes on the cul-de-sac, and one looked like a large farm holding with a business title attached. Hmmm… would we be overrun with tractors and lorries at all hours?
It turns out that we have two neighbors, John and Kathy Helen who live directly next to us (though in a different townland altogether,) and Alec Jennings, an elderly farmer who lives on the large complex a way down the curve in our road. Alec is John’s uncle, and they run a herd of 100 cattle and farm the surrounding fields, but the large business enterprise, much like Alec, seems to be retired. Alec is up in years, and I have yet to see him walking. Instead, he drives around alternately in a beat up Toyota four door, or a shiny Mercedes that sounds like it is grinding brake pad again rotor as it wheezes past on the road. Alec owns Trixie, the pup who filled our early days here with her infectious puppy joy and mischievous tricks. We felt lucky to be chosen by her as companions, though we did not like that she took to sleeping outside our door even in the wind and rain, as we would wake in the mornings to her shivering in the cold sunlight. We resisted feeding her anything and did not provide a blanket as Alec said he was “teaching her how to come home at night.” For animal lovers such as this, it took every shred of willpower to resist indulging her, as we knew as sure as it rains in Ireland, we would leave at the end of summer and she would be left without that handout to count on.
The Irish farmer has a different relationship with their animals than we do in the States. Dogs here live outside in the elements, don’t get fluffed at the groomer regularly, even when they have burrs in their fur and mats in their coat, and they often smell as rank as the livestock they live with. They are working animals, sometimes with chains for collars and pads on their feet shredded by the wild brambles and sharp stones they roam. When you breed animals for slaughter, you develop a thick skin, as dogs and cats become property you own and workers on an already busy farm when it is every man and beast for him or herself. Alec’s last dog was hit by a tractor and killed, and Trixie was a very young pup, taken to cowering every time we came outside, but so excited to be near us that she overcame her fear and wiggled her little butt up under us, begging to be touched and scratched. She barked at the girls as they rolled down the grassy hills, accompanied Tom and I on our contemplative stares at the sea, and followed us for miles down the roads as we rambled. We guessed Alec didn’t walk with her much, and judging from her deep fears, perhaps didn’t touch her much either. But she was learning to love us, slowly.
And so it is with great sadness that I tell you that one day last week we returned home and Trixie came running like usual, full of her puppy joy to see us, and I immediately noticed something was wrong. She had a deep gash across her skull that had crusted over hard and she was limping badly on one back leg. I scooped her up in a beach towel and held on tight as she wriggled, unaccustomed to being held, and then finally went slack in my arms. Tom called Alec and he drove over in his dusty Toyota, opened the passenger side, and told me to place her in the floor. He shook his head and said softly under his breath, “Sure, it was a car that got her, so.” We nodded sedately, but I’m not so sure. With as shy as she was I think it more likely she came between a cow and her calf and got kicked, or got curiously mouthy with a bull, or even chased the stallion who lives in the front pasture and got trampled.
We were sure he’d drive her to a vet to save her, but he thanked us, reversed, and we went back home. I stood there with a hot pink beach towel in my arms, stunned. I mean, maybe he was going to nurse her himself (though his hands barely work) and maybe it just looked worse than it actually was? I walked around in a daze for the rest of the afternoon. What had just happened? That evening I walked down to John and Kathy’s to chat about other things and when I brought up Trixie Kathy reminded me that the Irish do things differently with animals. She had vivid memories of when a dog in her neighborhood had puppies and the owner collected them all up in a sack and threw them in the river. When an animal is badly injured, a farmer simply shoots it and gets on with life. And there is always a spot on a farm to dispose of dead animals, either your own or ones you’ve found crushed on the road blocking your path. As I sit here today, five days later, and still no sign of Trixie at my doorstep, I can’t help but accept that she must be gone, and I don’t have the heart to ask Alec if this is so.
Clare and I still ramble our back of beyond, taking new roads and sometimes hopping little fences to explore fields that aren’t ours (first checking for livestock to be safe,) and each time we walk I feel a twinge when I instinctively look down beside me for Trixie. I feel like she was both a welcome sign and a warning of how different life is out here, away from the formality and decorum of city living. You have to depend on yourself and your closest neighbors, fix your own appliances and septic system, act instinctively when medical problems arise, and not get too emotionally invested in the things you can’t control. I understand that this is one of the hardest lessons I will learn about living in Ireland, and perhaps why the people here are so resilient and kind. They deal with incredible challenges that we in the city centers in the States can’t imagine. When the rain comes rolling in, as it has today, they are cut off from the world visually and physically; a veil is pulled between themselves, the land, and the sky. One moment the path is clear and right in front of you, and the next, tears fall from the clouds, obliterating the way home.