This story is by Gary Little and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Standing five feet one inch, shrunk from the five feet four he had towered to as a youth, Michaleen Oge Flynn stood and surveyed his realm. Wet and soggy and muddy as it may be, it was where he was born, where five generations of Flynns had been born, lived, and died.
He clenched the stem of an upside-down briar pipe between his teeth. He pulled a kerchief from a back pocket, pushed a black derby hat back on a thinning noggin, and wiped the sweat from his brow. Gray-green eyes squinted against the late afternoon sun and peered through a pair of pince-nez glasses perched precariously at the bell of his nostrils.
One eye opened, one eye closed, with the pipe and the derby, he brought to mind a certain animated character that had been seen in the cinema houses of late. Michaleen chuckled the first time he heard the paistí say, “Toot! toot,” followed by peals of laughter, and ending with, “I’m Popeye the sailorman!”
Heavy woolen slacks stained with mud and frayed around the cuffs, emphasized the bow of his legs. His coat, made of the same heavy wool, hung loose upon his frame. Collarless, his white shirt buttoned to the top, he waited for the one o’clock train that was three hours late. Brogans, well kept, though caked with the mud of the day, clomped on the train stations wooden deck as he paced to and fro, hands clasped behind his back.
Up one side of the raised platform and down the other. Pause somewhere in the middle, Michaleen removed a watch on a golden chain from its pocket, checked the time, compared it to the time on the station clock, replaced the watch, and began the circuit one more time.
At 3:45 in the afternoon, a mournful wail echoed from the distant hills.
“About bloody time,” Michaleen mumbled to himself, checking his watch once again.
In seven decades he had perfected the fine art of sauntering. He appeared to meander, though it was with a purpose, as he stuffed a fresh wad of tobacco into the pipe. From a pocket, he pulled a small box of matches, removed one, struck it, and touched it to the tobacco. He sucked the stem, drawing air down into the pipe and exhaling smoke. When he reached the debarkation end of the platform, the pipe was fully lit, and the box of matches back in its pocket. There he waited, hands clasped behind his back, puffing on the pipe, awaiting the locomotive.
When he was a kid he had been known to climb these hills and once or twice, unbeknownst to the station keeper, he had even climbed to the tops of the peaked roof and beheld the vistas of the Inisfree Valley. To him, a youth with limitless vision and imagination, the horizon had seemed to stretch forever. Those seventy decades now kept his brogans firmly planted on the ground. His horizons had also shrunk; from the vistas atop the roof, to the perspective of the small hamlet before him.
In the distance, a line of white clouds rose and seemed to hang above the dark green hills of the countryside. That cloud formed a layer between the darkening rain loaded clouds above and the hills beneath. A sudden explosion of steam was followed by another mournful wail as the engineer of that approaching juggernaut let the township of Gan Teorainn know the 1 O’clock train was arriving … three hours late.
Around a bend in the tracks, Inisfree R & R Engine #21 could, at last, be seen. Black and bulky like all locomotives of the day, white steam billowed and mingled with the black puffs of a coal-fired furnace. Another burst of steam from the whistle and another mournful wail. Slowing as she approached the station platform, this twentieth-century dragon breathed fire and smoke. Brakes squealed and the main drive wheels seemed to stop as the engineer bled off the momentum of all that steel, iron, and wood. Quaking and shuddering, old number twenty-one, at last, pulled up to the station platform of Gan Teorainn.
The engineer and motorman stepped down from the engine and began a litany of maintenance checks; wiping with cloths, checking tension, and twisting fittings. They took care of their dragon.
Doors opened along the sides of the passenger cars as the conductor moved through the train announcing the stop. At the other end of the platform a door opened and heavy leather bags were thrown down. From the station house, the postal clerk stepped out and swung a leather pouch up to the waiting clerk on the train. A long tube swung into position above the locomotive, and water from the station’s supply was provided to the thirsty behemoth, huffing and puffing even while at rest.
No one stepped down from the passenger cars until at the very end of the platform, near Michaleen, a tall figure of over six feet swung down from the steps and reached back inside for a pair of carpetbags. Seeing Michaleen, he strode forward, dropped his bags, and offered a hand. “Afternoon. Name’s Gallagher, James Gallagher. Can ya tell me how to get to Gone Tourin?”
Michaleen puffed his pipe, ducked his head, mumbled, “Bloody Yank. Can’t even remember where he was born.” He grabbed the two carpet bags and headed toward Dobbin and the buggy at the other end of the platform.
“Hey … ” James started to object, but fell in behind. In truth he was a bit embarrassed to have a man of advanced age carrying his luggage.
Luggage stowed, and Michaleen with reins in hand, James finally managed to get aboard the buggy and settled down.
As they road under a sign, Michaleen pointed to it and said, “We pronounce it Gan Teorainn.” Returning to the mumble, he continued, “Gone Tourin … hmph … like ya bloody never spoke the Irish.”
“An’ yer name,” he said aloud, “is Séamus! Just like yer Da!”
They rode in silence through the mud and Dobbin’s hooves clip-clopping on stone pavings.
“Never had a view of a horses arse before,” Séamus whispered, louder than intended.
Michaleen turned a popeyed sideways glance on him and puffed harder on his pipe. He almost broke into a grin.
Séamus tried again. “Michael. You’re Michael.”
“Michaleen to yer Ma and Da.”
“I remember. I remember the pipe … and the bowler … and the glasses. I never could figure out how those glasses never fell off.”
Michaleen looked up at the brim of his derby, asked for strength, but said nothing.
“A horses arse yer say?”
“Well … that is a horse.”
“And yer would’n’ta be refer’n to Michaleen?”
Both of them let that hang in the air.
“I haven’t been called Séamus since Ma died. Took down with the flu in ’18.”
“And yer Da?”
“Just a year or so after. Not the flu. He never seemed to recover from the loss of Ma. Uncle Ben and Aunt Mary raised me. Good people.”
“Ben and Mary Buchanan?”
“Yes. Did you know them?”
“They were indeed.”
They rode in silence. Séamus remembered these green hills that seemed to go on forever when he was a kid. Michaleen held the reins, puffed on his pipe, and considered the son and the memories of a friend he would never forget.