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The Vault of Heaven

Mary Rose McCarthy

The rope groans and creaks in Malachy’s calloused hands. It is hardened and sodden from years of salt water labour. Years of hauling fish ashore by net - years of standing waist deep in freezing water. And for what? wonders Malachy. Can a man’s life be measured in a fish catch?

The tendons on his neck and arms bulge and stand to attention as the weight settles and solidifies. Fish flapping frantically. Men shouting manically, ‘heave, heave, heave ashore boys. Nearly there now boys’.

Malachy digs his heels in the dun coloured sand, tries to get a purchase in the softness, moves back an inch or two, and hauls the booty nearer to shore. His opposite anchor on his right is doing the very same. Imperceptibly moving back, dragging the rope, dotted at intervals with other men all straining, sensing rather than seeing, the end in sight.

Out in the deep, where the net makes the perfect curve of a semi-circle, Murph treads water, guiding and holding the depth, ensuring that not one precious fish manages to swim away. Murph calls the instructions, moves along the circumference of the net, hand over hand.

Murph can’t swim – none of the fishermen ever learn. There is an old tradition here that the ability to swim will only prolong a slow agonising death, if the sea has it in mind to claim a man. And every so often the sea does demand its ransom. So the men believe it is better to relinquish their grip on life should their time come - better to succumb to the lap and suck, the pull and tug, of a water that never rests.

Malachy senses less resistance in the rope; it is slowly relenting and acquiescing to the struggle of the men. His feet move backwards step by quickening step. Murph is looming from the depths. The first of the fish gasps against the sand, desperately trying to stay in the inch of tide. In unison the men’s final heave brings the net full clear of the water. They sink on the sand - sentinels around their final, panting prize. Exhausted, they look one to the other and smile; no energy for words.

It has been a good day.

The vastness of the vault of heaven, streaked with white clouds, catches Malachy’s attention.

Malachy walks home alone. The other men have stayed behind to sort and gut and grade and box the fish. More cold, hard work that Malachy can’t bring himself to do. He knows this will mean less divvied out to him but he can’t allow himself to think of that now.

It’s that vast sky Malachy wants to capture. He was born to paint – watercolours, oils, anything. But there is no living to be had from painting; the mouths of offspring always demanding – food or clothes – or just plain demanding.

‘Who ever dreams of growing up to be a fisherman,’ Malachy has asked his wife on more than one winter’s evening when they are sequestered by the fire, nature trapping them indoors.

Her only answer – a sigh from the depths saying it all and more. Saying we’ve been over this before, what’s the use of what ifs? It is as it is, and we’ve responsibilities now, making do and stretching. There is never enough. Enough food or money but most of all, for Malachy, there is never enough light or time.

And this evening, with the sky so blue and the sea so calm, Malachy is determined to carve out time. Sneaking into the house, he checks if any of them are back yet from school or town; he never keeps track of where they spend their days. The stairs creak as usual on the third step, an echo of the groaning rope of earlier. Creaks and groans musical regrets peppering his life.

Shrugging himself from the still moist salt-stiff clothes, he pulls dry ones from the wardrobe and leaves the bedroom in a mess of his divested fisherman self. He grabs his paints and paper, donning his artist persona. Putting on his true self. Within minutes he is back on the same shore, the same sand and sea; but a mile further downstream from the fish and the screaming gulls and the work. The dreaded, hateful work.

Pulling pipe and tobacco from his pocket he fills the bowl, tamping the shreds of tobacco down, taking his time, anticipating the satisfaction of the first draw. The smell mingles with the salt-air tang, the first lungful burns and then settles as if flowing into the very marrow of his bones.

At the height of hauling the fish earlier he spied the other boat. Those well-heeled, well-dressed people, with nothing better to do than putter about on the river all day long. One of the women on-board wore something red, the colour vivid in his mind’s eye. She was standing, lone and alone, in the stern as the men pottered on the pebbly shore. Perhaps he can depict it, paint them as they are, blissfully oblivious of the motley crew of men hauling and heaving nets ashore.

His hands, coarsened and stiffened, are clumsy as he opens up the sketch pad. The wind has come up now stinging his cheeks and ruffling the pages. It is a nice sound; paper rustling in the wind. But it is a moisture-laden breeze which also ruffles the sea, whipping horses’ heads into view. His pencil digs into the mist-softened paper. The lines won’t flow; the whole he saw in his mind’s eye now smudged and blurred.

The well-to-do leisure party have weighed anchor. He can hear the rhythmic tutter of the engine. They’ve read the signs in the mackerel sky; know that heavier winds and rains are on the way. Malachy watches in despair and disgust as the boat moves up-stream towards the city and comfort, leaving, momentarily, a white stream in its wake. His day is now wasted, the vault of heaven quickly closed over, with the lowering, grey clouds of another soft, Irish day. Too late to join his fishermen colleagues and attempt to claim a larger share of the day’s labors.

Orange flames lick the pub’s turf fire into life. Meager warmth is beginning to seep out into the bar where Malachy perches on a stool at the counter, contemplating his third pint. The swirl of black as it spirals and settles into the creamy top echoes the swirl and bubbling of the ocean as it eventually gave up its bounty this afternoon. In a battered leather satchel at his feet are the papers and paints, the trinkets and trappings of another unlived life. Abandoning his art due to the adverse weather, he settles for the pub, the comfort and succor of alcohol to dull the edges. The other men at the counter ignore Malachy, his aura of despair warding off company, enclosing him in his own semi-circle of misery.

He orders a whiskey chaser, the amber glow mirroring the warm tones of the fire. The peat-filtered drink seeps and soaks into his pores, thawing the salt-stiffened joints, dulling the pain in his soul.

There is a rumor that a French craft will be in town next week. In the warm glow of whiskey Malachy sees what life might be like in Paris for an artist. The freedom and space and weather for painting; art and creativity wafting in off the Seine. His humble needs would be so easily met in France – some bread and cheese, a palette and paints. Perhaps the occasional bottle of red wine.

Lost in contemplation, Malachy is not aware of the door opening or the fog-wet draught swirling in around the drinkers’ ankles.

“So this is where you are. As usual. Drinking it all away before you even get paid. Losing the catch in the depths of the glass. Come on home. With you. Now.” And his wife crooks her arm under his elbow and steers and pushes him through the throng of smirking onlookers.

As he staggers into the night air, Paris and art, bread and cheese evaporate.

“I told you before, every time you go off spending money we don’t have I’ll come and get you. It doesn’t bother me who sees or what they think for that matter. Let them talk. We’ve children to feed. Something you conveniently forget. And, by the way, I met Murph coming down the road. On his way to pay out your share. He gave it to me.”

Blinded with alcohol, misery, and rage, Malachy follows his wife up the half-mile hill to home. He can see the indignation bristling from her shoulders as she walks. There is no money for him. There is nothing for him. His satchel of painting materials jags against his left leg with each uneven step, mocking his dreams, his needs for more. More than this, this life lived on the edge of seas and rivers, fishing for food, never catching dreams.

The sea, the family, his children, trap him. His wife colludes with his gaffer to pay the wages directly to her, so he can’t squander them in porter and whiskey. Her words. Neither now can he invest them in getting away to France. Watercolor worlds, skies seeping into rain filled clouds, barley fields framing gunmetal rivers, none of this is meant for him. It taunts and teases him, beguiles and beckons, but is always too distant to grasp.

Half way up the hill he pauses, shuddering to catch his breath, his dreams and visions leaching from him in sobs as he bends over putting his hands on his knees. Not caring, or not seeing, his wife marches on, virtuous in her newly won battle, proud that one of them is taking their responsibilities seriously. Malachy straightens up staring at his wife’s retreating figure. Despite the distance he still senses her self-righteousness. With a massive heave and animal-like bellow he lobs the satchel over the furze-shrouded hill.

For a moment it hovers, caught on a bush. In the half-moonlight it looks grotesque, a battered, brown, bug-like creature about to devour the plant on which it settles. The wind sighs, rustling the branches, unsnagging the burden.

The up-draught catches his materials, his dreams and passions, and sends them sailing into the careless, continuous swell of the sea far below. Boating parties in colour, studios on the Parisian left bank, weigh it down sufficiently to fill up and sink.

Malachy continues the trudge on home.

“You needn’t think I kept you any dinner,” his wife says as soon as he’s through the door. Later in bed she humps her body into a tight coil, making an S shape away from him, as sibilant as any hiss.

Towards first light she prods him awake. His tongue, furred and dry, is stuck to the roof of his mouth. In the morning dusk he sees he still wears yesterday’s clothes.

“Get up,” his wife says. “Murph said they want to make an early start today - there’s a big school of trout out around the point. He thinks it will push in on the morning tide. Be sure to turn up, Murph said.”

Malachy stumbles from the bed, reclaims his dried out, stiff-as-boards fishing clothes from where he discarded them on the floor in yesterday afternoon’s urgency to capture the light. At the back door, he draws on the heavy boots which drag his footsteps, as he faces downhill to join the other men waiting on the sand which crunches under foot. Each crunch splinters Malachy’s hangover as his boots splinter the salt-crusted shore. The men chafe their calloused hands, gruff hellos to each other from under cap-shaded eyes. Malachy waits with them for Murph to pay out the rope and assemble the crew before they wade, waist deep, into the jade-green water. Men are dotted at intervals along the rope like beads on a rosary. They cling to the damp, thick strands as if it is a life-line.

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