DECONSCRIPTION-Writings of Curtis Cottrell


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Here I am, a professional photographer, and I didn't have my camera with me the one time that I needed it the most. How else will anyone believe me?

It was my first trip to Ireland. I was lucky that Jim had chosen me to accompany him on an assignment to cover the IRA hunger strike, although prison walls covered with excrement can hardly be passed off as studies in ocher and umber. Days, weeks, and eventually months passed, and the public was about as enthusiastic over our reports as it would be for a tale by Kafka. What can you say about a hunger strike? It's not what they do, but what they don't.

We were finally given a bank holiday and issued a beeper in case any of the strikers in hospital took a turn for the worse. We were staying with the parents of the poet Kelly Sheats, a pub-crawling crony Jim had met in college. I felt left out as the others talked of old times--not old, old times that would have interested me, but personal family matters.

Jim suggested I go to the Hallows' Eve fair on the seashore that afternoon when he sensed that I was at loose ends. I agree, although I don't usually like to do things alone, but since I was a stranger in a strange land, I listened carefully to his directions, which were not very hard to follow.

The musky odor of peat pervaded the atmosphere as I strolled on down to bumpily sloping lane to the salt-scented strand. When I came to the intersection at the bottom of the hill, I took a right, and soon the fair was in sight beyond the undulating dunes that perpetuate the constant roll of the sea.

It wasn't much of a fair, but it must have been a big deal for the people in this county. The few rides were filled with children squealing in glee. For a while, I watched their faces straining in the grip of vertigo, then went into the gaudily flashing arcade.

The cacophony of clanging amusement machines chimed in with the carnival calliope to make a hectic half-harmony of chaos, confusion and pandemonium. Because of my limited budget, I didn't gamble on any of the games. I wanted to get my money's worth, something I could hold on to, so the engraving machine, which stamped out medallions, attracted my attention.

There were a couple of people ahead of me, so I tried to think of something memorably appropriate to put on my first souvenir of the Emerald Isle. By the time it was my turn, I had decided to use a line I had composed as the caption for a photo that has unfortunately been lost. I counted out the letters and spaces and carefully turned the wheel then pressed the lever to stamp them into the metal. When I was finished, I pushed the release button and the anodized aluminum medallion came clanging down the chute. On the obverse was a four-leaf clover emblazoned "Good Luck," and I smiled in self-satisfaction when I reversed the coin to admire my creation, "A moment of love is worth eternity."

I walked out on the beach a while, watching some kids flirt with the surf until the sky started getting dusky, and I decided I ought to be heading back to the house. The day waned fast here, and I was amazed at how soon twilight had set. I wished I had a way to get back faster, but there did not seem to be any cabs out there in the country. Kelly and some other poets were going to do a reading in another town the next day, after which Jim and I were returning to our assignment, so I had to get packed that night. I also did not want to miss Mrs. Sheats' home-cooked hospitality.

As I approached the outskirts of the fair, I came upon a booth hawking "Seven League Balloons." I had noticed several arcing orbs down the beach that day, but then I realized that there were people hanging on to them. I guessed that they worked on a principle similar to hang gliders--after a running start, the wind caught the balloon and carried its passenger several yards at a bound. I had never seen anything like them in America, so I decided to get one to take home, since it would also help me get back to Kelly's folks' house quicker.

I hardly begrudged the pounds and pence I shelled out as I anticipated the Icarian exhilaration of an airborne uplift. As the man gassed the flaccid form into life, he pointed to another fellow on his left saying, "You will have to receive instruction for this before you try it, because we cannot be responsible for your safety otherwise." The other guy seemed to be giving quite detailed and complicated instructions in a tedious monotone. There were several people ahead of me, each making a few trial runs before setting out on their won. It did not look too difficult, and time was passing, so I decided to skip that step and get on my way.

I realized that I might have been getting into more than I had bargained for as I stepped onto the easement at the side of the road. I grasped the handle awkwardly trying to manage the bobbing balloon buffeted by a few small wisps of wind. As the next great gust came up, I decided that this was it, now or nev3er, I ran to catch the breeze, but it lifted me on up before I was quite ready. I was headed into the road, and the veering traffic blared in alarm, so I twisted my body to try to jerk my careening career out of harms' way. I felt fortunate that my first bound had not abruptly ended in disaster as my toes touched the not -too-solid ground, and I sprinted lightly to make another start.

The wind was gentler this time yet had a certain sustained power that carried me farther than my first attempt. Easy does it, I thought as I touched down again and tried to stride more deliberately in order to govern my progress. After a short while, I thought I had the hang of it, and my former fear was replaced by euphoria. I felt like some blithe spirit, though bird I never was nor ever would be.

My elevated feeling began to subside as I apprehended the approach of the selfsame intersection where I had to turn to the left. There was a steady stream of care coming, probably people going to pick up their kids at the fair. The children were celebrating the Celtic New Year, but their parents were probably preparing for All-Saints' Day mass in the morning. That was not my concern, so I concentrated on guiding my flight trying to figure out just how I was going to cross the road. I did not have quite enough altitude to clear the oncoming cars, so I overshot the intersection, descended to a grassy knoll, and dug in my heels to halt my forward motion.

Going against the wind now, I had to trudge slowly with the balloon in my arms to make a low profile for the least resistance. The balloon slipped out of my grasp, and I was carried back but held tight to the handle and soon made a stumbling recovery. I bent down more this time until I reached a suitable point perpendicular to the toad. I had to wait a while for a gap in the traffic and a gust in the wind, but when the appropriate moment came, I was on my way. I should have known I couldn't steep my flight with the wind from the side, since I had no jibs to tack against the gale. I was blown into a large plane tree across the road whose stark naked branches scratched my skin and punctured the balloon with a resounding "Pop!"

"Hello? Are you all right?"

I seemed to be hearing an angel as the haze dissipated from my consciousness, and I leaned up in a daze. Two ivory knees were in front of me, and I gazed up across a plaid skirt and white sweater embroidered with a convent emblem to find the source of the voice. The coral lips smile and the topaz eyes sparkled as she asked if I was hurt and extended an alabaster hand to help me up.

"You're Jim's colleague, aren't your? I came to find you now that it's getting late."

"Yes, I am. And who are you?"

"Colleen Sheats, Kelly's sister."

"I'm surprised that they never mentioned you before."

"Oh, they try to keep me tucked away in the convent. They think I'm too precious for the world at large."

I told her I had to take care of my balloon, which wasn't much good now that it had been punctured. Still, I thought it was possible to patch. She showed me a hollow near the tree roots away from the road and suggested I stash it there. It would be cumbersome to carry, and Kelly could take me in the car to pick it up later. I agree, so we covered it with leaves and then started on up the road.

"Are you a poet?" she asked with winsome look.

"Why do you ask?" I replied, as I hesitated to think.

"Oh, I think poetry is divine. My brother has it made compared to the clods in this village. I adore Lord Byron. You know, Shelley came to Ireland once, but he alienated his audience when he spoke against the church. These people are so superstitious that they think your soul will wander forever if a priest doesn't administer the last rites."

I had written a bunch of bad poetry when I was younger, but not much recently, so I hedged when I told her I had written some. That is why I became a photographer. Her encouraging look reminded me of the medallion, which I took out of my pocket telling her it was a line from my latest work.

"'A moment of love is worth eternity.'" she tunefully intoned and looked at me in admiration. "I think that is really sublime. It reminds me of Keats in a way. It is so sad that those who appreciate beauty the most have to die so young."

I did not think the line was so great myself, but I told her to keep the coin if it meant so much to her, and she tucked it into her cleavage.

My bruised right leg stumbled against a stone, and she caught my hand to keep me from falling. Her silken touch sent a shivering pulse charging up my arm into my chest. This electric instant seemed to me some kind of elective affinity. Although I had never met her before and would probably never see her again, I gave up the urge to let go as she firmly held my hand.

"I guess I really bashed myself as I fell against that tree. My battered body will recall this a while," I said trying to sound as poetic as possible.

"We can walk the soreness out," she soothingly purred, "We can slow down a bit, if you like."

I wasn't in a hurry to get back any more, because I wanted to prolong that marvelous moment. We walked without speaking, yet we seemed to be in the most intimate communion connected by our intertwined hands. I could hardly look her in the eyes, for every time I did, I seemed to see eternity.

As we came up the to the county cemetery, she told me about the crazy caretaker who let the air out of lovers' tires when they parked there to go into the woods at night. The old man's madness was most manifest when he put up speakers on All Saints' Day and played "All I Want Is A Real Live Girl."

When we approached her parents' house, I asked if they would be upset that I was late for supper, but she told me her mother would save me a plate because she would never let a guest go hungry. She suggested we go to the village, and I eagerly assented with a blushing nod. The longer we could be alone would be quite all right with me. As we strolled along, I noticed that someone had turned on the stars.

Myriad muscles were throbbing blue pain to which I had given no mind, for her gentle grasp spread an anaesthetic glow making me forget my injuries. I suggested we stop when we got to the village to let the soreness subside. It was a short way to the central square where we sat at a table on the sidewalk in front of a Gothic sign depicting "The Hound of Culain."

The waiter sneered at my torn shirt and dusty trousers as he approached to ask if we would be served. I asked for tea, but Colleen nodded no when I asked if she wanted anything. When the waiter had gone inside, I told her we could have dinner on my credit card, as I smelled the hearty aroma of corned beef and cabbage. She said she never dealt with the people because they didn't post their prices, and out-of-town customers were often astounded by the exorbitant total. My American accent must have given me away a as visitor because he asked for a shilling at first, but her reprimanding glare caused him to balk and mumble "Ten pence." I counted out the coins with a tuppence tip, and he gave a half smile of acknowledgment as he returned to the more lucrative customers inside.

Colleen talked about poetry as I sipped my tea, but I don't recall exactly what because I was lost in her dark eyes. Somehow I felt we had known each other forever. As the twilight passed, the temperature dropped as suddenly as the night. She must have noticed me shiver, and I was pleasantly surprised to see her reach down to peel off her sweater. She slowly stretched with her arms over her head, and the amulet I had given her glinted out from the gap between the straining buttons of her blouse as it lay nested between two pomegranates ripe for the plucking. When she offered me her sweater, she told me she was used to the climate and that I should not catch cold on top of my other misfortunes. The sweater stretched slightly as I slipped it on, and I soon felt enveloped by her warmth. I tried to imagine the warmth inside her that I longed so much for then.

She must have sensed that longing, too, for she said it would be nice if we could go back to the beach. As we walked back to the seashore, she put her arm around my waist, and I responded likewise. We saw groups of children with jack o'lanterns on the road yet their fun could not equal what ours would be.

When we got to the beach, she showed me a place between the dunes that could not be seen from the road. I stroked her raven hair as the last lights of the fair twinked off in the distance. Somewhere among the stars, celestial spirits were our only witnesses.

This magic moment surely topped the giddy ecstasy of the balloon flight. Waves of pleasure crashed into my brain mounting again ever higher. Locked in love's embrace, we seemed frozen together like figures on an ancient urn. That is all I know, and all I need to know. Our bodies matched perfectly like two shards separated for eons suddenly rejoined.

I don't know how long we lay there in the afterglow of love, but after a while she said she had to be back by midnight. I asked her why it was so important and was shocked when she replied that she was to marry Brian Fingal in the morning. I told her I was sure that he would be able to tell what we had done, but she said he had never been with a woman before, so how could he know the difference? Anyhow, she was not sure she would let him touch her, for the marriage was not her idea. Her parents had arranged it and were quite pleased that his father had the biggest farm in the county. She said that one night with an artist was worth more to her than a whole life with a clod.

She said I couldnt accompany her, so I gave her back her sweater, and we parted with one last kiss. The sound of the sea seemed unsettling now, and I wanted to run after her as she gave one last look over her shoulder when she went over the top of the dune. I waited a short while, then started back to find the tree where I had left my ill-fated balloon. I looked for her, but she was nowhere in sight.

My feet slogged in the sand and dragged upon the road as I attempted to soothe my letdown depression by telling myself that it was worth it after all. If I really believe my poetic blarney, the all-too-short time we had spent together was infinitely priceless. I was still thinking of that invaluable instant as I groped around the tree, tripped over a root, and striking my head, knocked myself senseless.

"Hello? Are you all right?"

I thought the whole episode was starting over again, but somehow the voice was not the same. The morning sun glared into my eyes as I recognized Jim helping me up.

"A farmer told us he had seen a stranger passed out on the side of the road, and we figured it must be you. We were worried when you didn't return last night. We thought the ghosts and goblins had gotten you."

I winced as he touched the lump on my head, and told him that at least I'd be glad to see Colleen again.


"Kelly's sister, Colleen. I met her last night, and we had some tea at The Hound of Culain."

"That place has been closed for three years now. No one could afford their high prices after the tourist trade declined. Anyhow, someone must have played a cruel prank on you, because Colleen has been dead for five years. It was really a shame because it was the night before her wedding."

I stared at him in dumbfounded amazement. How could I tell him how real it actually was to me?

"What was really strange was that next to her heart, they found a medallion engraved with a mawkish motto: 'A moment of love is worth eternity.'"

What could I say?