Breathing Space By Time Barrow

Through the darkness, I could see her rocking slowly, rhythmically in the hand-crafted chair, just off-center atop a small, round rug I imagined she’d woven with skills passed down from her mother’s mother. The chair’s soft creaking reminded me of the aged wooden door she’d opened to me, only hours earlier.

I’d had no agenda and actually hoped to reach the western Ireland hostel before sunset. But when she’d beckoned hesitantly from her front porch and with the sun almost down, I rerouted that plan across the small field. Maybe I wasn’t that attached to my destination, maybe it was that simple beckoning invite that hinted at a need I might assist with, maybe it was because the light behind her detailed her lower figure through her floral dress. Regardless, I easily found myself playing the part of a weary traveler, just looking for a respite from the rain.

We didn’t share a word, not even awkward small talk, before I’d shed the backpack and she began removing my wet clothes. When she shifted her attention to unbuttoning her own top, we started the feverish exchange of intermittently helping each other and removing our own items. The subsequent hours passed, actively.

I watched her in the chair, as Connemara’s nearly-full August moon extend through the wooden blinds, casting symmetrical stripes that rose and fell, ebbed and flowed across her small, nude body, strong and toned in a way daily labor produces. I’d spent my 15th summer on my uncle’s Missouri farm, learning to feed, milk, and shear sheep by day, and to whittle their likeness at night, while watching my aunt prepare full meals after a long day’s work in the field and barn.

She slowed the chair and leaned to light a wide candle on the side table. The match’s flare and resulting glow exposed her beauty in a way I’d not seen before. She was young, far younger than I’d first assumed. Her jaded, albeit kind, face belied an aged existence that had not likely seen twenty-three full years.

The men’s clothes I saw hanging might not be those of her husband, but rather of her father. It mattered little, he was the same character, serving the same role: older, quiet, distant, cruel… a rare cruelty I’d now seen twice in my life, delivered flippantly, even unconsciously, in a way that at best sidesteps—at worst exceeds—physical and verbal abuse, that takes youth and shelves it in a place so secluded that if you’re lucky enough to find it again, it’s so diseased and deteriorated and unfamiliar that you no longer recognize it, remember what it was or what do with it, and don’t want it, anyway. So, you go back to the cruelty that took it away from you, because that’s all that you know.

In the flickering light, atop the side table, lay a buck knife, a hand-whittled sheep, and a framed picture of four people, one of which could have been her.

She rose from the chair. As she walked to the kitchen, a single, glistening drop of perspiration ran down from beneath her hair and disappeared in the small of her back. My own salty liquid reawakened the fresh nail-borne stings on my shoulders. I sat on the edge of the low bed, forearms on my knees, imagining sweat was blood as it ran down onto the already-sodden sheets.

She returned with two mugs of tea, set one by my feet, and ran her still-warm, callused hand across my back, bringing a welcomed sting to my scrapes. Her touch brought an emotion that dominated the discomfort by far, especially being she’d left the bed so quickly after our experience, not staying to cling, an act I’d always rather enjoyed. I remained in a delirium of pained satiation until she felt the impromptu massage complete and returned to the rocker with her own mug.

Taking a small blanket from the foot of the bed and wrapping it around my waist, I picked up the tea and walked over to her, sliding down the wall until I was sitting on my heels. To warm my hands, I held the coarse mug between them in begging bowl fashion and sipped from between my thumbs. She gazed into her own mug. Since she continued to distance herself, perhaps she wanted me to leave.

“How long should I stay?”

She appeared uncomfortable, glancing into my eyes, then looking down, and replied, “He was due back this morning.”

Neither of us spoke until we finished our tea and then found ourselves in an effusive series of discussions on flowers, clouds, rain, sharks, tattoos, and wooden flutes. Eventually, we fell silent. She stood, took my hand, and led me back to the bed.

Before the sun rose, we enjoyed one more lengthy encounter. I imagine both my attention and performance were at least mildly affected by the sound of every passing truck that might telegraph his return. We slept late, and I awoke with her sleeping head upon my chest and with an elation her face had likely not seen in years. The smile was enough to quell both my perceived distance and any feeling of wrongdoing.

I let her sleep, while I made a late breakfast of eggs and ham, which we completed largely in silence, though amidst a sea of smiles and a giggle or two. After, she hand-washed the dishes and hummed songs unknown to me, while I collected my things and stuffed my backpack, including the whittled sheep I hoped wouldn’t be missed,

Just inside the door, I held her, and kissed her long on the neck until she gently pulled away. I knew nothing about her, but I felt something genuine for her. Whether it was her taut body I’d welcome waking up to for the next 40+ years, the rural lifestyle that seemed a bit too inviting, or something deeper, like never knowing if this one is the one, I would miss her… more than I should.

For a moment, I considered inviting her on my directionless Ireland journey, away from a situation I couldn’t know to a path I didn’t know. I quickly shed the idea. I’d done enough. She was no wounded wren that needed any uninitiated care. At least, I didn’t think she’d suggested such in voice or action.

Wandering into what was indecipherably either late morning mist or lightly falling rain, I pulled the carved sheep from my pack’s side pocket, clutched it, and headed North.

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