taabe: Tipsy sylph with a cat on her shoulder (Default)
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He's called the small, dark man. He's an Irishman out of Glen Glounagrianaan, a school teacher who can sing a come-all-ye and wrap a bandage and tickle a trout out of a stream for breakfast. And he's in my thoughts at the moment.

His name is Aodh McFirbis, Hugh Forbes. If you've met him, I'll be delighted and surprised — because he's the soul of a novel written in 1929, and I only know Maurice Walsh from the hard-back books my parents stumbled on in a used bookstore decades ago. My town library gets tremendous points for having a couple of his short story collections and a film based on one with Maureen O'Hara.

I read and loved The Small Dark Man in high school. It's been more than ten years, and I borrowed it last time I was home. I didn't know until I opened it how much Aodh reminds me of another small, dark man. They both had a gift for conversation, and they both lived solitary. They both had a bedrock resilience, brashness over philosophy, fine vintage non-sequiturs and a nose for whisky. They were both, in Walsh's words, men you could be frank with.



When Hugh Forbes bathed a blister or theorized over a dram about the necessary balance of pleasure and pain or stirred up an argument and then laughed and gave it away without ever admitting a fault — he reminded me of my grandfather. My grandfather stood five foot four in his socks. He could say anything and get away with it. And he lived alone the second half of his life.

That overlap isn't the only reason Hugh Forbes caught at me, and it's not complete. Hugh Forbes fought in the first world war and came home to a remote valley and the Irish civil war. My grandfather was a city man in love with wooden ships, and he served a term in the navy during Korea — in the Philadelphia Children's Hospital. He wore trifocals. They both worked with children and saw them grow in mind and body, and they had the same kind of toughness. Walsh calls Aodh a whole man, even when he's in pain.

But when Aodh stares at the smoldering bricks of a peat fire, looking for a rhyme for rust, he reminds me more of me. Though I'll never set a record in shot-put. And when he walks over cairn bahn or gathers heather tops to make an old chair comfortable and cooks trout over the peat fire to eat with his fingers with a fragment or two of Yeats, he is — I'll admit it — the kind of man I'd like to know.

This doesn't happen to me all that often with imaginary people. I admire Peter Wimsey and Atticus Finch and Frederick Wentworth and Barney Snaith and Haroun Khalifa (a few off the top of my head), and I'd like to talk with any of them, but I don't think if I met them I'd want to live the kind of lives they live, or even spend a weekend with them. But a small, tough, indefatiguable Pict who knows the science behind a fog, and the hobgoblins in the hills, and how much of either come from his own loneliness — a man who can look at what he needs and what he has and find resources, because he's willing to try — a man who will walk the hills and sit quietly by a stream and instruct his peers in historic words of greeting — a man who's so damned original no one knows what he means half the time, and still he's the one most often aware of what's going on and saying so plainly —

Oh, hell yeah. A man like that I want to walk over the hills with. And you know I can't even have tea with the writer?

Yes, I know. That I miss my grandfather is in its way a good thing, even that, because I miss him as much as I love him, and we did what we could to fill his loneliness as long as we could, and it's up to me to find people to walk in the hills with. And I'll go concentrate on getting outside and finding people to talk to and revising my novel and writing down memories of my grandfather... and shovelling my driveway and eating fresh bread with my first, imerfect but tasty, batch of homemade marmelade.

But I'm letting myself write this down because it feels good to set it out. And as I've thought about it, I've realized all over again something I value. That small dark man is intelligent, he has his eyes open, and Walsh knows how to describe even a cold bath and a set of bruises from a scrap in the heather in words to make me sit up straight. He is sure of himself, and so he understands silence. He loves walking at night and sleepign in the heather. And Aodh McFirbis is blessedly his own man — he knows a set of fine swears it would do any woman good to hear, and he can be obscure, but he is always honest. And he's never seen so much as the backside of a convention at a mile off.He sounds almost Austenian sometimes, but can you imagine any man out of any book before the war turning to a woman for his final line and saying look, Frances Mary. Thinking I had lost you, I was crying like hell?

I still don't know why that moves me the way it does. But what gets me is that Aodh does what he has to. He does the work he has to do. He may get it wrong, he may hurt himself, but he doesn't walk away. The book most often calls him resourceful. His resources are not always extensive — a kettle, a handkercheif, cheese and crackers — but they fit the need, because he is willing to see what the need really is and then to do what he can. And sometimes, the need is only that, for someone who will sit quietly and look at what the need really is.

I grew up learning by example how far doing the work can take you, and what a rush it can give. Like climbing up Ragged Mountain to sit on the rock at the summit under the scrub pine, gulping water out of my leaking thermos and looking for a view through the trees.
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taabe: Tipsy sylph with a cat on her shoulder (Default)
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