In her travel memoir in progress, There Will Never Be the Likes of Me Again, Emily Herzlin follows her obsession with 19th century Irish playwright J.M. Synge to the Aran Islands to retrace the writer's footsteps and try to understand the pull the islands had on him. The book alternates between Emily's travels in the present day and Synge's own time in Aran in the late 1800s. Here, we publish two chapters from the book for the first time.
* * *
The curraghs rest black-belly-up on the slip, like a family of beached whales. Michael selects one, lifts the prow, and motions for Synge to take the rear. Synge ducks underneath and hoists the boat up off the ground, balancing the middle seat on his neck. He can see nothing but the wood slats curving round him. His back aches, and a sharp twinge shoots up his spine every time a pebble makes its way into his pampooties. Even Michael groans from the strain of lifting the vessel. Its graceful movements on the waves are misleading – it’s quite heavy and cumbersome to move on land. Finally they reach the water’s edge.
Today is special, for today Michael allows Synge to try his hand at rowing. Synge examines the oars, how they move about one another in front of him, how they scrape his knuckles if the rhythm is even slightly off. He appreciates even more now the dexterity of the men whose lives and livelihoods depend on their ability to row.
One passage across the sound nearly took Synge’s life. Even though a rain shower passed and the wind died down, gigantic waves began to roll towards the boat. The man steering turned the curragh around and around to avoid the incoming waves, but the curragh shook like a frightened animal. The fate of the passengers all lay in the judgment of the men at the oars. One wrong move and they would be destroyed. A towering wave curled over the boat, and the steersman couldn’t avoid it. The wave crashed and water rushed into the boat, pounding the backs of the passengers. Water and white foam sprayed Synge, getting in his eyes, soaking to his knees. Finally the waves passed, the damage to the boat wasn’t bad, and the curragh and all inside survived.
But even if they hadn’t, Synge thought, death at sea wouldn’t be a bad way to go. In fact, it seemed rather damned glorious compared to the thought of wasting away in a hospital bed with the smell of his own sick around him.
Synge takes the oars and rows the curragh now. He rows for about a half hour. He doesn’t maneuver the vessel as well as Michael, of course, but he’s able to get it turned in the right direction, and Michael, at least, seems satisfied.
Synge sits on a stool near the door to the kitchen. He produces a wallet with the photographs he took on Aran to show to the family. They recognize themselves, point out their neighbors, amused to see their likeness on the paper just so.
A young woman pokes her head in the door. She greets Synge with a simple, confident hello. She sits down on the floor beside him, and without hesitation leans across his knees to get a better look at some of the pictures. Synge sits very still and continues to pass around his wallet.
Later he and the young woman sit on opposite stools by the fire. Synge listens to her voice, which itself is like a folk song, dipping into mournful tones of loss and high peaks of joy within the same sentence. They talk about the short time she lived on the mainland. How she disliked it. She stares into the fire as she recalls her disillusionment, and her gray-blue eyes seem to rage from storms within.
Looking directly at Synge, she blurts out that she is very fond of boys. As soon as the words escape her lips she seems surprised at herself. Synge says nothing. He admires boldness in women, in anyone. I imagine he would not describe himself as bold.
He sees her in the kitchen in the evenings. Here, the young men play cards when it is dark, and the young women gather to watch them play. And Synge watches her, watches how the candlelight flickers in her eyes, how her cheeks grow red.
He finds her in a little side room of the cottage, trying to light a fire. It is a new kind of fireplace, not the hearth she is used to. Synge enters the room and offers to help. He bends down next to her and takes a piece of paper. He holds it up near the mouth of the chimney to get the draft, strikes a match. The paper holds the flame and kindles the wood and peat. She sits on the floor with her skirts about her, watching the flames grow. Synge tells her that in Paris, men who lived alone, men like him, who had no wives or children, had to light their fires themselves.
He gets up to leave and wishes her a good night. She tells him, “I think it’s to hell you’ll be going, by and by.”
I wonder if John is in love with her, and if he is, how frightened he must be. I wonder if it is more frightening than the prospect of dying at sea.
Synge dreams he is walking the island roads after dark. The buildings seem taller than usual, and glow with an unearthly, bright light. Music comes from a violin somewhere far away. He stands still. The music gets louder, its tempo increasing each second. Soon it is upon him, in his spine, in his veins, pulsating through his weak body, pushing his limbs into motion. Synge resists. He knows somehow that if he gives in, if he moves, it will hurt dreadfully. He tries not to move, tries to hold his arms and legs still. He clutches his knees tightly with his hands. The violin turns into the swell of a harp, the moans of a cello, and Synge can no longer withstand the force of the music, swept up into a violent dance. He loses himself completely. All boundaries of self and sound are blurred. Synge has become the music. For a moment, he is happy, for he has no more worries left in him—all terror dissipates and, just for a moment, he is light, he is joy. But realizing his utter lack of control, he becomes furious, and rages against the music that has taken hold on him. Every scream he emits is just another violent strum of the harp.
With a supreme force of will, Synge breaks himself out of the dance and the dream and wakes shaking in his bed. He drags himself out from under the covers. He is in the cottage and all is silent. He staggers over to the window, looking out at the moon.
* * *
Lee and his “great uncle” Owen wore dark blue beanies, guzzled down pints of Guinness, and burned through a cigarette every five minutes. Owen was in his eighties, maybe nineties. He was missing his front bottom teeth, and the ones remaining were a yellow-brown. He talked out of the side of his mouth. There was a mole on his right eyelid. While he sat he swayed from side to side a little. Looking at Owen was like peering into Lee’s future.
In front of Lee on the wooden picnic table outside Joe Watty’s sat a plate of six oysters on ice, and a tall frothy pint of Guinness.
“Here,” Lee said to me. “Try it. It’s a requirement if you’re on the island.” He explained, “You chase the oyster with the Guinness, like this.” He picked up the oyster and slurped down the meat, took a swig of Guinness and let it roll around his mouth before swallowing it. “It brings out the flavor like nothing else.”
I loved oysters, but I didn’t want to take one off of his plate. There were only six there to begin with, and I’d heard Lee grumbling about the rip-off prices at the pubs on the island. I politely refused.
“You have to. They’re local. Full of zinc. You’ll never get another one like it. Eat!” He tossed the plate in front of me and pushed the glass of Guinness across the table.
I picked up an oyster and used my lips to dislodge it from its shell. Lee was right: the meat was tender, crisp and cool, and just salty enough. I chewed it slowly. Lee’s bushy eyebrows gestured to the pint. I picked up the glass and took a tentative sip of the thick brown drink. I wasn’t sure what flavor I was supposed to be paying attention to—the bitterness of the Guinness or the saltiness of the oyster—but I smiled like I approved. Lee crossed his arms and raised his eyebrows as if to say 'see that wasn't so bad now was it?'
“This man is the jolliest man on Aran,” Lee said, nodding at Owen. “That’s what they call him. When the film crews come in, when they’re doing a documentary or something, they get this guy to come sit in the pub all day and smile. Bet he’s been in more films than most big American movie stars.”
Owen grunted. “I’m an old bastard. Am I right or am I right?” He looked at me like he wanted an answer.
“He’s a hundred and ten!” Lee said.
“What! No!” protested Owen. “I’m a hundred and twenty five! Fuck you!” he spat.
Owen got up from the table. He pointed to Lee’s empty drink. Lee nodded. He pointed to me. I shook my head. He made the oh-come-now-you’re-in-Ireland-have-a-drink face. But I was feeling sick again after my night out at the pub and didn’t want to drink, so I said I’d just have a Sprite.
“A what now?”
“Sprite. A soda.”
He looked at Lee. “She’s not a big drinker, Owen. We’ll have to help her along.” Owen shrugged and went inside.
Lee told me that Owen had lived on the island his entire life, and had only ever left Inishmore twice to go to Galway. He was a true islander, not one of the “blow-ins.” Owen lived in a house just down the road from the pub, and two of his brothers had died from alcohol poisoning. The pubs had put a limit on how many drinks Owen was allowed in a night after he fell off a barstool one evening. People were afraid he’d kill himself from the drink. If he started out at one pub and later left to go to another, the bartender would call up the other three pubs on the island to let them each know how many pints Owen had already had.
Owen returned. A few moments later one of the bartenders brought over our drinks. He didn’t need to ask which one of us the Sprite was for.
Owen and Lee lit up another cigarette each. We sat silently, each of us nursing our drink. Outside the pub the tourists were enjoying the fiddle and accordion music played by two local boys on the lawn.
Suddenly Owen asked, “Who made time?” His eyes were wide.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well you should know!”
“Do you know?”
“No, but I do know that whoever made time made plenty of it. Am I right or am I right?”
Lee nodded. “Owen’s old as fuck but his mind is razor sharp. Owen, tell Emily about the fishing.”
Owen leaned back and closed his eyes. “The fishing.” He crossed his arms. He spoke slowly, evenly. “Very plentiful fish, forty years ago. Now, five or six boats left. I used to be the boat trailing the nets behind. I was raping the sea,” he said with pride. “Nobody ever died of hunger on Aran, because we had fish. Now the fishermen drive the pony traps.” He nodded to the road where two or three horse and carriages were parked, waiting for the tourists who had hired them. A pony trap ride around the island could cost upwards of eighty euros.
Owen noticed Lee’s pack of cigarettes was empty, so he took a pack out of his pocket and offered one to Lee.
Lee took one and rubbed it between his fingers. “These’ll kill me.”
“Fuck you,” said Owen. Leaning back, he moaned softly, “Lonely, lonely.”
Lee handed me some money and asked me to go inside the pub and buy him a pack of Benson and Hedges. I told him I’d never bought cigarettes before.
His eyes were red and watery. Through a puff of smoke he said, “Well, don’t go tellin’ your mother, then.”
Emily Herzlin is a writer and teacher living in New York City. She has been published in The Millions, USA Today, Shambhala Publications’ The Under 35 Project, The Women’s International Perspective, and Crescendo City. After studying dramatic literature and creative writing at NYU, Emily received her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University. She teaches mindfulness and creative writing at Columbia, GreenspaceNYC, and the Interdependence Project.