Where years touch little

On the lonely road skirting the shore of mountains that ring Lough Nafooey, in the tangled mass of lakes and glens known as Joyce's Country, in Ireland's "Golden West," I met him.

He was working by a low stone wall bordering the roadside, part of the endless maze of walls which stretched like twisted strands of grey rope over tiny fields, bogs, and barren, rock strewn mountain slopes.

I stopped for I saw a picture in a small, whitewashed, thatched cottage snugged into a hill crest at the end of a mud rutted boreen. A blue pennant of fragrant turf smoke trailed from a stubby chimney.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him edge of few tentative steps closer. About seventy years of age, with a shock of dark unruly hair, his face but a thin structure of bones covered by drawn, drum-tight skin which time, like a relentless glacier, had scored with toil and weather.

"Good morning," I smiled at him.

"Aye, 'tis a fine day, thank God."

"Nice to cut the turf in sunshine," I continued.

He apparently had been measuring me as to my station in life and decided that , despite my car and clothes, I was just another human being on the same journey as himself.

"'Tis. They say Ireland's rain makes her green but a change of color would be easy to live with for a bit." We both laughed.

"And where would you be from?" he asked, seeing me as a species strange to the area.

"New York," I replied.

"America, is it? 'Tis a great country. I was out there fifty years ago. Had a grand job driving a cart in Chicago. I might have been a Yankee by this time, but I couldn't be standing the weather. In winter the wind flayed a man to a skeleton and in summer the 'hate' cooked the marrow in his bones. One summer it was so terrible the horses were dropping in their shafts all over the streets. I saw it with my own eyes, I did. "'Twas a fearsome sight."

He wiped his forehead with a ragged sleeve as though rekindled memory was searing him with the vision.

"Sure, what with the forever rush of things the weeks were nothing but come day, go day, God send Sunday. So I came back where a man can be easy with time."

"Any regrets?" I asked.

"Ah, no. 'Tis a hard life farming a bit of ground here, but I'm content. At times, to be sure, I could be using that Chicago 'hate' to be warming my old bones."

He savored the thought for a moment, then, concern marking his words, said, "I hear there are a powerful lot of motors in America nowadays, and I'm often wondering how the horses are making out in the middle of them. It must be hard on the poor animals.

"Well," I answered gently. "There are not too many left."

"Aye, I suppose things have changed since I was there. In America they were forever talking about time as if it was money and nobody ever had enough of it. We've no value for time here. We've lashins of it, more than anybody knows what to do with. You know . . ." His voice trailed off as his gaze wandered over the stunted, heathery bogland to where, in the far distance, the blue misted, rounded peaks of the Twelve Bens shouldered into each other like cattle in a herd.

He picked up the dangling string of his thought ". . . many a man says 'tis a sad thing to be poor but I'm thinking 'tis a poorer thing to be sad."

A breeze tossed a nearby hawthorn bush into a drift of snow as I said goodbye and drove away.

At the top of the pass leading out of the valley I stopped for a backward look. No sound of man, bird or beast broke the silence. Lough Nafooey's unrippled surface was but part of a sea of timelessness lapping the mountaintops with an ebbless tide.

Could Joyce, that Welshman who, over seven hundred years before had settled in this valley, have stood beside me, all would be familiar to him -- for little had changed in the passing centuries.

I thought of my nameless friend with his tattered clothing, his mud encrusted , string- tied brogans, his memories of a Chicago as far removed from reality as a dream in the night. It did not, however, matter greatly for daily he moved within that abiding pattern and rhythm of life which endured through changes of nations, men, and their times.

He was content, and all I could wish him was a memory of the Chicago "heat" to warm him when the winter winds keened through the valley and he went his way -- easy with time.

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