Summer Daze

By Bridie Canning

The huge Chieftain Oak outside the kitchen window was the only tree
on the landscape. During the night, her first in the holiday cottage,
Meave was scared the high wind was going to blow it over on to the
roof The storm passed over leaving droplets of rain like teardrops on
its leaves. As she started to prepare the potatoes for dinner she was
moved by the beauty of the light as the sunshine and slight breeze
played on the foliage. Through the window, came a beam that almost
blinded her. When she recovered she found herself under a small oak tree; she felt lightheaded
and free. The potato dropped from her hand as a voice said, “That Salanum
Tuberosum will not reproduce. You’ve cut out the sprouting eyes. It’s not native like you
an’ me.”
The tree had gone. She was standing on a hillside that was vaguely familiar. It was corrugated
by rills of white potato flowers.
“What a strange name. I’ve seen them called by many names in the Supermarket. Is that
a new one? This is a Dublin Queen.” She picked the half peeled potato off the ground
as she spoke.
Sitting on the edge of one of the rills was an old man. His weather beaten face was
almost hidden by a white beard and a few straggly hairs from his head were flying in the
breeze. “These are from the old seed that were saved from the Spanish ships after the
eight hundred men were massacred by Grey and that crowd of pishogs that cleared the
land. Are you hired hereabouts?’
His face changed as his anger rose leaving Meave, confused and uneasy, thought that
he was too frail to be dangerous but she would have to be civil to him. ‘No, my sister
Grania and I are on holiday. We have rented a cottage by the Lough.’
He looked at her pityingly, then said, ‘A fine looking girl like you’ll dear buy it if there’s
any of the Big Lord’s friends still hereabouts.’
Uneasy and anxious to go she looked around the neat rills of white flowers saying, ‘You
have a fine crop of potatoes this year. When will they be ready for digging? If we’re still
here may we buy them from you instead of having to carry them from the Supermarket
in town?’
She felt he looked through her as he sniffed the air
‘Smell the wind. They’ll be rottin’ before your eyes.’
The white flowers and the stalks started to wilt and the sweet sickening smell of decay
surrounded her.
‘Phytopthora Infestans steal the bite from the table – the undertakers -steal your soul.’
‘We have moved on since them days, Mister. Sorry! I’ve been so confused I forgot to
ask your name’
‘Sean Og they call me hereabouts, ‘He smiled showing strong white teeth out of kilter
with his aged face. ‘They all know me. Only a wain sees me….’
A gust of wind startled her as her sister Grania shouted in through the window, ‘I’m going
for a swim with some of the girls from up the hill. Lordy, you look the colour of death.
Are you all right? What a stink. It’s no wonder you’re a bad colour. Are you coming for
a swim. It’ll do you good. We’re getting a lift into town for the disco tonight. It’ll be good
crack. That smell is awful.’
Still in a daze Maeve answered in agreement, ‘That’s the Phytopthora Infestans.’
Grania shook her head in exasperation saying, ‘Get real. Maeve! You really are weird.
That’s a fungus not a smell. It was one of the questions on my last paper. Are you coming
or staying here?’
‘I want to get the dinner cooked first. If I didn’t think about food we’d starve. You run on.
I’m not in the mood for swimming.’
When her sister left Maeve finished peeling the potatoes and put them on to roast while
she prepared the salad. When she had the table set, still feeling light-headed and free,
she locked the doors of the cottage went out the kitchen door and walked up the hill
at the back of the house expecting to see the old man and his ruined potato crop. He
was nowhere to be seen. Yet, she knew that this was the place where she had seen
him. Grazing sheep startled by her appearance scurried away from her as she walked
through the grass covered corrugated rills.
‘Are you coming to the disco in town tonight Maeve? Our Hugh is giving us a lift.’
It was one of the girls from the cottage up the hill.
‘I’m not sure, but Grania won’t miss a night in town. Can you tell me where that old man
Sean Og lives. I’d like to have another word with him.’
The girl laughed, ‘Whose been telling you stories. I suppose it’s them edjits down the
pub. You didn’t fall for it, they do that to every new girl that comes here. That’s their
chat-up line, hoping to pull as they say, thinking you’]] be too scared to walk back here
on your own.’
‘I haven’t been in the pub so far. What has it to do with Sean Og? He seemed harmless
enough. I thought he was rather sweet, spouting Latin names for the potatoes. Is he a
teacher?’
‘The only Sean Og here that I know of,’ she looked worried then continued, ‘What do
you mean harmless? You must be joking. Everybody knows the story of Sean Og – it’s
been handed down since the Famine.’
Can’t be the same one. I spoke to a Sean Og today.’
‘Maeve, he has been dead since 1847. They say he hanged one of the Undertakers and
then himself on that big tree outside your kitchen window. That’s why it is still standing.
Almost a memorial to his protest against the rents. So the story goes. Oh! and superstition
says that every time he appears a house in the area goes up in flames. Where is
that smoke coming from?’
Maeve turned to see the smoke and flames billowing out of the window and on to the
thatch of her cottage roof. ‘Oh Lord! I forgot I had the potatoes in the oven. Get the fire
brigade. Have you got a mobile? Mine’s in the cottage.’ But the girl was running down
the hill talking into the phone while a voice in Maeve’s ear made her turn to face Sean
Og.
‘You said they were Dublin Queens. Grey’s men were Queen’s men too. Hell roasts
them.’
For the first time
Maeve saw the rope marks on his neck as he became one with the tree outside the
burning cottage.

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