One of the negatives of having had such a busy week is that I did not have time to finish Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Since there is a HUGE waiting list for it at the library, I couldn’t renew it and had to take it back. I was about 1/3 of the way through, and now I am back at the bottom of the hold list! Aaaaaargh! It is so good — I was running to and fro so much this week that I had very little time to read.
I picked up the book that is due next at the library and started it: Ireland: A Novel by Frank Delaney. This is how it starts:
Wonderfully, it was the boy who saw him first. He glanced out of his bedroom window, then looked again and harder — and dared to hope. No, it was not a trick of the light; a tall figure in a ragged black coat and a ruined old hat was walking down the darkening hillside; and he was heading toward the house.
The stranger’s face was chalk-white with exhaustion, and he stumbled on the rough ground, his hands held out before him like a sleepwalker’s. He looked like a scarecrow deserting his post. High grasses soaked his cracked boots and drenched his coat hems. A mist like silver veil floated above the ground, broke at his knees, and reassembled itself in his wake. In this twilight fog, mysterious shapes appeared and dematerialized, so that the pale walker was never sure he had seen merely the branches of trees or the arms of mythic dancers come to greet him. Closer in, the dark shadows of the tree trunks twisted into harsh and threatening faces.
Across the field he saw the yellow glow of lamplight in the window of a house, and he raised his eyes to the sky in some kind of thanks. With no fog on high, the early stars glinted like grains of salt. He became aware of cattle nearby, not yet taken indoors in this mild winter. Many lay curled on the grass where they chewed the cud. As he passed, one or two lurched to their feet in alarm and lumbered off.
And in the house ahead, the boy, nine years old and blond as hay, raced downstairs, calling wildly to his father.
The stranger’s bones hurt, and his lungs ached almost beyond endurance. Hunger intensified his troubles; he’d eaten one meal in three days. The calm light in the window ahead pulled him forward in hope. If he held their attention, he might get bed and board for a week — and maybe more. In the days of the High King at Tara, a storyteller stayed seven days and seven nights. Did they know that? Nobody knew anything anymore.
With luck, though, the child in this house would help. Children want stories, and the parents might stretch their hospitality, fired by the delight in the boy’s eyes. Unlike last night’s billet; high up on a hill farm, he had slept in a loft above the cows, where the east wind got at his bones. The ignorant people there, who had no use for stories, gave him no food and closed their fireside to him. It happened more and more.
But this house would surely prove better; and it was, after all, Halloween, the great time of the year for telling stories, the time of All Souls’, when the dead had permission go rise from their graves and prowl the land.
And a few pages on:
At a noise from outside, the Storyteller swung his head hopefully. The door heaved open; a man and woman ambled in with two daughters, aged about twelve and eight. One was blond and one red-haired, and they wore flowered pinafores. The younger girl was directed to join the boy on the high bench by the fire, where she sat watching the Storyteller with wonderland eyes.
A coal fell forward on the hearth. The Storyteller sucked vigorously on his pipe, and it made a little dottle of noise. Next moment, the audience increased again — another couple strolled in from across the lane with their young daughter.
Word had obviously spread. Perhaps someone among the farms had earlier seen the tall stranger’s descent through the misty fields and guessed who or what he was. So he would have an audience tonight. Whether he would have one tomorrow night — or a venue — would depend on him.
“What would you like in your whiskey?” asked the host.
One neighbor said, “More,” and they all laughed.
After some minutes of talk and smiles, everyone settled down. No electricity in the houses in those days; an oil lamp in the window and another with a glass sconce on the wall laid gilded shadows into the room. The firelight played on the Storyteller’s long face. He jiggled his pipe, eased back in his chair, spread his shoulders, and began.
How can I resist a story that starts like this? I’m going to enjoy this book.