Eli chewed his oatmeal like a cow. The oats churned back and forth between his wobbly wisdom teeth and a protruding pocket in his left cheek. Unfortunately, his mother was out of honey.
In a bay window, just a room’s length away, sat his younger sister, curled up in a ball. Between the bends in her knees and her flat chest lay a book, open to page 445. It was a thick tome, some ridiculously complicated text of scientific knowledge. Sarah turned the page, engrossed in a chapter on molecular chemistry. This was how she spent her Sundays.
As the rhythm of turning pages and the slow grinding of Eli’s teeth slowed to match the lackadaisical pitter-pat of rain on the elongated kitchen windows, Eli paused. His mouth was still partially open, the remnants of pulverized oats visible on the crowns of his teeth. He stared into the deep green outside the windows, hazy from the tides of rain that slithered down the glass. There was a forest somewhere outside, masked by the weather. And beyond it, an unusually flat plain that was forever lush. No one ever planted anything there, and there was never any upkeep. But here, in the isolated wilderness of Ireland’s northern coastland, there was no need. Mother Nature took care of herself.
“You gonna finish that bite, or are ya savin’ it for show-and-tell?” Eli’s mother, a wrinkled woman despite her young age, jetted into the room with a basket of recently washed t-shirts and underwear. They were hung outside to dry before the rain started; as soon as they sky clouded over, she grabbed them offer their dangling lines, clipped tenuously with pins. Usually, she was able to make it inside before the rain came down. This time, she was not so lucky.
“Well, I guess they were wet anyway. What’s a little bit of rain gonna do, eh?” She said this to no one but herself, but her voice was naturally loud. It reverberated in the back rooms of the long house, against the mismatched, uneven windows and the compendium that Sarah was reading, oblivious to everything around her. Eli kept staring through the window, through the rain, into the dark green of the forest.
His mother looked up at him. “Christ, child, are you awake?” She threw a shirt at him, half jokingly. It was bound to disrupt his daydreaming.
“I was just thinking,” Eli muttered softly through his oats. His eyes never strayed. “Do you suppose John is out from university?” The shirt felt off his head where it had temporarily hung, straight into his bowl of oatmeal.
His mother, fussing over the wet clothes, didn’t part attention from the shirt she was wringing out over the kitchen sink. “I reckon he’ll be back soon, if he isn’t back yet. Why? You’ve got work today, you know. You can’t just go callin’ on him.”
“But if he’s back I could hear about the school. He’s gotten to know the professors, and I’m sure he could tell me whether I’d be better off staying in Clifden. I can’t work the same job forever.” He was right he knew, but the momentary needs of money often trumped pursuit of his dreams. His father, Rupert, had been a farmer, and his grandfather once made liquor—the best whiskey from Clifden to Kent. They were laborers by blood. And they labored, not because they loved the hard work, or because they fell in love with what they made, but because that’s all they had been able to do. University was out of the question.
Sarah, mumbling to herself over a passage she had just read, was paying no attention to the conversation. Her fixed attention made her both a joy to be around, and a burden. If there were things to be done, Eli could never tear the girl from her book to do them. But if he wanted peace and quiet, they were abundant. He wondered whether she, too, had thought about going to university.
“Well all’s I’m saying is that most of yer friends are here to stay. And they hardly think of great things when they’re busy keeping their families alive. You aught to be doin’ the same.” Erin—Eli often called his mother by her first name—was skeptical of schooling. It cost money and never directly translated to a comfortable job and reliable income. It seemed an intellectual’s game to her, another way to separate the workers from the thinkers. In the world that was Ireland, the thinkers spent their time and money in cities, building libraries, consecrating churches, and billowing speeches from pulpits and the steps of government buildings. But little of it, good or bad, had any effect on the rest of the country. No one seemed to care how they got along. So they had come to rely only on themselves. And, for the most part, the arrangement seemed to work.
Eli swallowed the last bit of his oatmeal and pushed his bowl away from him. “I know you don’t think there’s much to it, Erin, but I’ve got to try. Even father said so before he died.”
“Don’t be tellin’ me what yer father said. I know it all too well. But he died when things were good, when we had plenty to eat and there wasn’t this constant—“ She paused, dropping her hands into the basket where wet shirts still lay, musky from the morning rain. Shaking her head, she continued wringing them out, one by one. “It’s just not a good time, that’s all. And you should know that.”
He knew it. But there was something that drove him to consider the alternative—a life in the city, studying what everybody seemed to know but him. Even John was difficult to talk to anymore. Every time John came home to Clifden on break from school, they would greet each other with an aggressive hug, punctuated by tender thumps on each other’s backs. Very quickly, the excited greeting fell into idle talk about potato farming, or the sheep that grazed just outside Eli’s house. Really, Eli thought, they would talk about nothing much at all. And they had less and less in common each time they saw each other. Eli hated that.
Despite how much Erin leaned on him, she knew that he wasn’t quite at home in Clifden. There was a world outside the constant rain, the constant farming, the constant constancy that came to nothing but a few dollars in his pocket once a day, all of which he gave over to Erin. It was hard to cage him in.
“I know you want to go to university,” she would often say, “but we can’t afford it now. Maybe next year.” That was always her trick. She sounded enthusiastic enough, but Eli knew nothing would change. It never did. And next year, she would say the same thing again.
Erin perked up, forcing a wry grin. “You know, if you work hard this fall, we might save up enough in the winter that you could—“
“Not likely,” Eli cut her off. He got up from his rickety chair and started toward the living room. The rain was falling harder now, faster than Sarah could turn the pages in her book. It did not distract her. Eli examined the leaks in the living room windows that let in steady streams of water. It was collected in buckets that he dumped out every few hours in the creek, just a few steps from the house. The paint on the windows frames was long-since eroded; the wood was warped beyond fixing and looked ready to buckle. He didn’t know how to fix it and there was no way they could afford someone to fix it for them.
As he leaned against the wall, reaching underneath the window to let the cool water run over his fingers, he heard a knock at the front door. Erin ran to get it, forgetting momentarily about the clothes that had absorbed her attention for the last half hour. She always ran for the door, as if expecting there to be an agent from the lottery who would, with no pomp, little circumstance, and a dry English accent, announce that she was the lottery’s next big winner. The fiction inevitably led to her disappointment.
Entranced by the sounds of the water, Eli had fallen into a daze. Just as his mind began to wander to thoughts of university, he heard his mother’s bellowing voice from the front door.
“It’s John,” she shouted. “He’s got news for you!”