They met through a mutual acquaintance, a photographer who had a knack for bringing people together. “You’ve got a lot in common; I think the two of you would hit it off.” Though she’d heard that line before, she was feeling lonelier than she had in months, so she agreed to have drinks with him in an Irish pub she frequented because it was friendly and well-lit. He showed up thirty minutes late, just as she was about to leave. He apologized immediately and said– in a slightly bemused tone– that his seven-year-old daughter had suddenly developed a stomachache as he was about to leave the house. He was sure it was a ploy to keep him at home. She had tried it before. He hoped Hannah understood; divorce was rough on everyone but especially on children, who naturally felt insecure. Then he ordered a whiskey for himself and another white wine for her, leaned forward in his chair, and fixed his eyes on Hannah.
He was dark-haired, dark-eyed, lanky and slightly unkempt, reminding Hannah of the stray cat she fed from time to time in the park near her apartment in the city. There was a tenseness in his body that Hannah decided came not from nervousness but from an eagerness to be attentive to her. This pleased her and she began telling him about her new life in the city: her weekly trips to the Italian market where she bought lovely vegetables and exotic cheeses, her Sunday mornings at the deli on South Street reading the New York Times and drinking endless cups of coffee, the concerts she attended at the Academy of Music, where she sat in the “nosebleed” section of the balcony because that’s all she could afford.
When the waiter came to take their order for dinner, Hannah recommended the crab cakes and salad. He nodded in agreement, then lit up a cigarette and asked if she had any children. “No,” she said, matter-of-factly, then added, “Not yet at least.” She’d been married for almost ten years before divorcing. She couldn’t really explain why she and her husband had never had kids. Just one of those things, she imagined. She’d been busy with graduate school and then teaching and had always put off thinking about a family. She said she hoped it wasn’t too late, then regretted saying it. She didn’t want to sound like one of those desperate thirty-somethings, who could hear their biological clocks ticking away and grabbed the first guy willing to marry her. Though sometimes she felt desperate. She’d read in one of those women’s magazines—Vogue or Madamoiselle— that men didn’t like vulnerable, needy women and that you shouldn’t wear your heart on your sleeve, especially on the first date. Since her divorce she had tried to be light-hearted and cheerful on the few dates she’d had. But the truth of the matter was, she was often miserable, and it was hard to hide misery.
But he didn’t seem to mind; he’d had enough of phony conversations with women who were afraid to be themselves, he said. He was tired of playing games. Hannah seemed different somehow, more honest and open, he said, a breath of fresh air.
Besides, he had his own share of troubles which he eagerly recounted: a vindictive ex-wife who tried her best to sabotage his relationship with his two small children, friends who blamed him for the divorce, a mother who repeatedly told him he had committed a sin in the eyes of the Church, from which she would never recover. “She’s sure I’m going straight to Hell. Sometimes I think she takes great pleasure in my failings. It gives her a reason to suffer.” Then he laughed and added, “She’s Irish, if you haven’t already figured that out.”
After their second date, which ended up on Hannah’s futon, they both agreed they had an emotional connection, that, as he put it soon after, was uncanny. Uncanny. She’d had to look it up in the dictionary to be sure she had understood him: strange or unusual; hard to believe.
Hannah hoped that was a good thing, but she wasn’t certain. After all, except for a few dates, she’d really only had one other man in her life—her husband—to measure against. “It’s not just that we both love Yeats and Hardy and Chopin,” he told her. “When I look at you, I see myself somehow, as if you were a mirror image of me.” Then he mentioned Plato’s Symposium and the story about the humans who had been cut in half and spent their whole lives searching for their other halves. Hannah remembered reading about them in college. Had she found her other half in Michael?
When they weren’t together, she did in fact feel like half a person. That was another thing she wasn’t sure was good or bad. Because maybe that meant she was too dependent on him, too needy. Her therapist suggested she slow down a bit, take some time for herself, maybe even date other men. But Hannah didn’t want to date other men. And she certainly didn’t want to slow down. For the first time in her life she felt understood.
One night as they were lying in bed after making love, Michael announced he was going to Ireland on a teaching sabbatical. His grandfather had been born in Ireland, and he had some distant cousins still living there. He wanted to travel a bit, visit his cousins, maybe do some rock climbing in the west of the country. He thought eventually he’d find a place to settle where he hoped to write poetry. His two kids would be going as well, that is if he could talk his ex-wife into it.
Hannah didn’t know what to say. She wanted to be happy for him, but his news shocked her. How could he even think of leaving her? She had to hold her breath to keep from crying.
There was a long stretch of silence. Then Michael sat up, took her hand and said he was afraid to ask, but, of course, he hoped she’d go, too. He couldn’t imagine being without her. “I’d be miserable you know. Please say ‘yes.’”
They rented a car at the airport in Dublin and headed southwest. Hannah hadn’t gotten to know Michael’s kids all that well, but now she was with them twenty-four hours a day. She had to adjust to sharing their father, whom, it was clear, they adored. She sometimes felt like a child herself, vying for his attention, even pouting when he neglected her. But it was a challenge she happily took on. She was sure the children would eventually grow to love her, too.
After weeks of cheap bed and breakfasts, greasy pub meals and a rather uncomfortable few days with Michael’s cousins who didn’t quite understand who Hannah was and why she was there, they found a small cottage to rent on the Dingle Peninsula, in a place called—mysteriously– Wine Strand. Their landlord, Mr. Sullivan, proudly told them it was so-named because in the late eighteenth century the French used to smuggle wine and guns onto the beach in a futile attempt to help the Irish against the English.
They both agreed it was hard to imagine anyone fighting in such a beautiful spot. From the front window of their cottage, across a rugged cow field, they could see the Three Sisters and the foothills of Mt. Brandon, named after the saint who, legend had it, climbed to its summit, saw America in the distance, and sailed to the New World. There was a long stretch of sandy beach to the east of their cottage and the ruins of an ancient castle within walking distance. The place suited the romantic notion the each held of their life together.
In mid-September the children began school, in a village about two miles from Wine Strand. Hannah was relieved because it meant she’d finally have more time alone with Michael. They spent mornings making love or reading to each other from various books they’d picked up on their travels—Yeats, Gaelic poetry in translation, legends of Kerry, Irish fairy tales.
The story that most intrigued Hannah was “The Merrow,” about a fisherman named Dick who lived a lonely life and longed for a companion. One morning on the strand as he was smoking his pipe and gazing across at Mt. Brandon, his eyes fixed on a beautiful woman perched on a large rock. She was combing her long green hair and singing. Beside her lay a magical cap. Immediately, the fisherman knew she was one of the Merrow, creatures who lived in the sea and used their magical caps to dive from the rocks. He knew that if he could steal the cap, he would have power over her, so he sneaked up beside the Merrow and snatched her magical cap. She immediately began to cry. “Please don’t eat me,” she begged the fisherman. The fisherman assured her that he didn’t want to eat her; in fact, he wanted to marry her if she would have him.
They did marry and lived many happy years together. Then one day while the fisherman was out on an errand, the Merrow discovered her magical cap in the fisherman’s tackle box. A flood of memories came pouring over her and she longed once again for the sea and her sea family. She put on her cap and dove back down to her home in the sea.
That night the poor fisherman came home to discover his wife was gone and with her the magical cap. There was little for him to do but resume his lonely life and hope for her return. Year after year he waited for the Merrow. But she never came back. And he never knew why.
About a month after they had settled into their cottage on Wine Strand, Hannah was collecting seashells on the beach with the children when Sean, who was just five, turned to Hannah and said quite matter-of-factly, “I wish Mommy was here instead of you.“ It completely unglued her. She wanted to dig a hole in the sand and crawl into it or better yet dive into the surf and swim across the Atlantic, back to her apartment in Philadelphia, back to her old life. Although she had known from the start she could never replace their mother, Hannah had hoped the children would grow to love her in time. But maybe that would never happen. Maybe Hannah could never find a place in their hearts, would always be an outsider.
Then Michael’s daughter, Erin, began waking up in the middle of the night, complaining of stomachaches and insisting on crawling into bed with them. The first few times Hannah didn’t say anything; she hoped eventually Erin would give up her games. But when the young girl persisted night after night, Hannah couldn’t stand it anymore. She reminded Michael of their first date and demanded he not give in to his daughter’s theatrics. Couldn’t he see the children were trying their best to make Hannah unhappy? How could he let a seven-year old control him? But Michael would have none of her advice. “Don’t tell me what to do, Hannah. They’re my children, not yours.” His words cut deeply, and she wondered what had happened to the man who loved her openness, her honesty.
Even worse was the day Erin came home from school in tears and said she never wanted to go back there again because the kids made fun of her American accent and her clothes and said Hannah wasn’t her mother and that they were all committing a sin. “I want to go home to my friends and my mother,” Erin wailed. “I hate Ireland, and even more I hate you.” She looked directly at Hannah when she said this.
When, once again, Hannah tried to explain to Michael how unhappy the children were making her, he accused her of selfishness and said she was exaggerating. They began to quarrel, at first late at night after the children had gone to sleep, then even in front of the children. Michael would often storm out of the cottage and retreat to Brick’s, the local pub, and stay until closing, staggering back home and falling into bed without saying a word. Sometimes Hannah would take off for the beach and sit beneath the stars until she was so cold she had little choice but to head back for the cottage and Michael’s angry silence. Their life together was unraveling bit by bit like a sweater caught on a piece of barbed wire; Hannah felt helpless to stop it.
Then one night when she and Michael had drunk far too much cheap French wine, she told him she thought maybe they’d made a big mistake. They were fighting all the time. The kids were miserable. They hated her and missed their mother. Perhaps she should go home. She didn’t want to spoil his sabbatical and his time with the children.
She hadn’t really meant the going home part. She had said that because she wanted sympathy from him, assurance that somehow things would get better. Instead, he flew into a rage, accused her of self-pity and melodrama; she’d never seen him so angry. For the first time she was afraid of him.
After that night, she began to realize just how responsible he felt for all their unhappiness—hers, the children’s– and how helpless he was to remedy it. He had too much at stake to admit to problems; it would mean a failure on his part, his lovely dream vanished. She remembered something he had told her the night they first made love, when Hannah said she often felt like a delicate piece of glass about to shatter. He had told her it didn’t matter, that he was strong enough for both of them. Now she didn’t think that was true at all. He was the one who seemed fragile, ready to break apart at any moment.
Hannah decided she’d either have to leave or try to make the most of her situation. After all, Michael hadn’t forced her to come to Ireland with him; it was a risk she had been willing to take and so she had to suffer the consequences. She still loved Michael, though it was harder to focus on that now. She tried to be patient and understanding of him and of the children, but more and more she felt separate from them.
One Saturday morning in late September, after a particularly heavy downpour, they woke to the sun streaming through their bedroom window. The night before she and Michael had made love and after talked about traveling to France when the children went home for Christmas. Michael said things would be better then; he told Hannah he wanted to get married, have more children, spend the rest of his life with her. Hannah wanted to feel hopeful, wanted to think that maybe they had somehow turned a corner.
“Today is the perfect day to climb Mt. Brandon,” he said, stroking her arm. They’d been talking about climbing the mountain ever since the day they’d first spotted it looming in the distance, like a sleeping giant. They’d take the children and follow the shortest path, where the guidebook said they would have the best chance of reaching the summit. Hannah hadn’t seen Michael that excited in a long time.
It took them nearly an hour by car to reach the foot of the mountain on the western side. They parked by an abandoned farmhouse, just off the main road, and the four of them began their ascent.
They followed the ruins of an old stone wall, passing a flock of sheep and a few stray mountain goats, until the wall gave way to a narrow dirt path edged on both sides with thickets of bright yellow gorse and broom. Then the path became steeper. Behind them the Blasket Islands stretched out across the Atlantic like tossed pebbles. Hannah thought there couldn’t be a more beautiful spot in all the world.
They’d been walking for nearly an hour, stopping occasionally to take in the views below when Sean said he was tired and hungry and wanted to rest. “Me, too,” Erin said. “And I’m thirsty.”
They found some flat rocks a few yards from the path, spread their jackets, and sat down to eat the sandwiches Hannah had stuffed in her backpack that morning.
Halfway through his sandwich, Sean climbed into Michael’s lap, said he wasn’t very hungry after all, and promptly fell asleep, his little head limp on Michael’s arm. “I think we could all use a rest,” Michael whispered, lying down on his back with Sean still in his arms. Then Erin moved closer to Michael, snuggled up against him and closed her eyes.
Hannah wasn’t at all sleepy; the trek up the mountain had invigorated her. She finished her sandwich, retrieved her journal from her backpack, and headed further up the mountainside. The heat from the sun, now directly overhead, warmed her face and arms. She breathed in the moist, fresh air and felt happy for the first time in weeks.
She found a good spot by an outcropping of rocks, sat down against the warm rocks, and opened her journal. She’d been thinking about the story of the Merrow and why she never returned to the fisherman. Now Hannah thought she knew; the sea was her home, the place she most felt herself, and no matter how much she had loved the fisherman and his children, she loved the sea even more. It would always separate them.
It frightened Hannah to think there could be something stronger than human love, something so powerful it could separate people from one another. Though she couldn’t yet name it, she knew there was some barrier between Michael and her. And it wasn’t just the children, she was sure of that. Maybe she’d been right after all the night she told him they’d made a mistake. Maybe the two of them could never make a whole.
Maybe no two people could ever make a whole. Maybe Plato’s parable about the halves searching for each other was misguided; maybe the most anyone could hope for was a kind of partial understanding, moments of connection, but never a lifetime.
Hannah was so lost in her thoughts she didn’t notice the mist until she looked up and realized she was surrounded by it, as if someone had drawn a curtain around her. Her throat tightened as she remembered the stories in Brick’s about all the climbers who had lost their lives on the mountain. The mist would suddenly move in from the Atlantic, leaving them completely disoriented. Even experienced climbers were known to have lost their bearings, walking in the wrong direction, then falling off the western face of the mountain where the cliffs were dangerously steep.
She tried to calm herself by breathing deeply, something she’d learned in her yoga class. “Breathe in, breathe out. Easy does it, girl.”
But it was no use. She decided she had to find her way back down as quickly as possible. Moving cautiously, one slow step at a time, Hannah tried to retrace her walk. If she could find the dirt path, she’d be okay.
It was true what she had heard in the pub. She was totally disoriented; she couldn’t tell if she was going up the mountain or down, east or west. The mist was so thick she could barely see her hands in front of her. With every step she felt less and less sure she was headed in the right direction. Her panic turned to anger. Why had she wandered off from Michael and the children? Why hadn’t she been content to stay with them? It would serve her right if her adventure with Michael ended here, lost on a mountaintop in Ireland. Hadn’t her whole life been a series of missteps? This was one more to add to the list.
Then another thought occurred to her, one even worse. What if Michael came looking for her and lost his way? Or the children? She couldn’t let that happen.
She began calling his name. “Michael! Michael! Can you hear me?”
Hannah held her breath and waited for a reply. Nothing. She called again. And again nothing. But she kept walking, determined she’d eventually find her way.
Then in the distance she heard his voice. “Hannah? Where are you?” But which direction was it coming from? She couldn’t tell. Then seconds later, she heard the children calling her, their little voices echoes in the mist. “Where are you, Hannah?” Where were they? Where was she?
She turned in the direction of Michael’s voice, lost her footing and stumbled momentarily, catching herself just before she was about to fall. “I’m here, Michael. I’m coming! Stay where you are!” She began to move more quickly. If she could just follow his voice, she could find her way; she was sure of it.
Then, through a break in the mist, they came into view. Sean was perched on Michael’s shoulders, waving his arms back and forth, like a baby bird flapping its wings. Erin was holding Michael’s hand, waving too. All three were smiling.
Hannah smiled too, relieved to see them, happy they were all safe. Then Erin ran to her, hugged her waist. Hannah put her hands on the girl’s damp hair and pulled her in close.
“Do you think we’ll see America when we get to the top, just like St. Brendan?” Sean had climbed down from his father’s shoulders and was looking up at Hannah.
Michael laughed, then winked at Hannah. “I believe we’ve gone far enough today, sport. Maybe we’ll try another day, when it’s clearer, when we can actually see where we’re going.”
Yes, Hannah, thought, Maybe we will.
Alison Goeller is a retired college professor of American literature and lives in France.