“It’s almost time to close your eyes.”
Oisín shifted down into third gear, letting the car roll through the winding hills of Malin Beg. Niamh wanted nothing more than to ignore him, her cerulean eyes glued to the colossal palisades that were Slieve League as they towered above their beat-up Auris like the sword of a demigod resting against an ogham stone. She imagined the sheer drop hidden behind the grassy mountain, and how the waves might be flinging themselves against the undertow in a bid to spray the seagulls above as they searched for disoriented fish amid the foam. She released a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been withholding.
The West of Ireland offered a way of life seldom seen at home in Dublin. Here, populations grew at a peaceful pace and open country sprawled scores of land both high and low. Sheep roamed freely with painted bottoms, regarding the perusing vehicle with droopy-eyed boredom as they ambled from one side of the road to the other, jaws stuffed with the dewy evening grass. The roads themselves sparsely widened enough for two cars to pass alongside each other, encouraging one to be creative in their driving techniques when encountering the odd traveller and yet, the roads themselves grew peacefully too, gently reviving as the years went by.
Oisín found himself narrowly dodging sheep arses as they fled from the middle of the smooth tarmac at the last minute, their slender calves propelling their bottoms into the air with each canter. Malin Beg had been his second home since childhood and so, while daring provincial sheep no longer amused him, their peculiar gallops drew endless laughter from the young Dublin woman holding his heart in the passenger seat. He stole a glance, only to find that her eyes were already searching for his. The heart she held skipped a beat in her hands. Oisín was not sure if he trusted her to hold it properly, but he could never ask for it back. Her innocent love for the country bore an unspoken promise that she might surprise him.
“What are you looking at?” She grinned, and despite himself, Oisín’s cheeks burned. He drew his eyes back to the road, the knuckles of his right hand rising and falling like soft rolling hills across the top of the steering wheel as his other rested in his lap.
“You were looking at me first.” He grumbled, but he was smiling. There still existed between them a coy sense of awkward enjoyment of the other’s company. An inability to make masterful conversation but an overpowering desire to make it, and so the reduction to childish banter occurred again and again, happily, unending.
“That’s your fault,” Niamh said. “You’re giving nothing away.”
“As I shouldn’t,” Oisín replied. “T’would ruin the surprise.”
“You should know by now that I hate surprises.” Niamh’s tone was daring but if he gave it away now, the nigh-on five-hour journey they’d made from East to West would have been for nothing.
“I promise you,” Oisín said, “that if you hate this surprise, I will never surprise you again for as long as I know you well enough to be in a position to give them to you.”
He ventured another scan of her painted features, catching sight of the way her bottom teeth teased her upper lip. She was looking at the hand that rested on his thigh. He thought of the olive theory as he looked between her and the road; she hated surprises, he loved them. She teased her top lip in thought, he teased his lower. He offered her his hand, palm facing up, she took it, palm facing down and fingers sliding through his own. Oisín breathed in deeply, sampling the swelling strength of salt in the air, and remembering the amalgamation of sour, sweet, and bitter that exploded in his mouth the first time he tried an olive. God, how he hated olives.
Niamh loved them.
A peaceful silence befell them, and their route began a gentle meander, making its way through the interlocked spurs of a valley as they lost altitude to the rising western mountains. The setting sun began inching behind the Leagues with an assurance of its remaining presence casting itself across the top of the valley. Niamh looked straight ahead, catching sight of the glinting diamond in the distance that was the sea. It disappeared as the car dipped down, surfing to the right across an eroding stone bridge adorning the valley floor and up again. A wooden fence reminded the sojourners of the steep drop between them and a rocky end. Oisín had warned Niamh to look as far down along the floor of the valley as she could at this point, where she might see the broken remains of a jeep that had sailed over the edge of the bridge years before they had lived.
As the bridge rushed to meet them she rolled her window down and loosened her seatbelt, releasing her hand from Oisín’s just briefly enough to hook her fingers over the window ledge and gaze down at the valley floor below. As the cool summer wind whipped through her auburn hair she saw it. Rather, she thought she saw the back of it standing straight up toward her, bearing a shattered rear window and a license plate long marred and coated in black dirt accumulated from falling debris over the years. The spare wheel remained intact, fastened securely below the rear window as though it were mocking the nakedness of the jeep where its back tyres once were. Long, dry, pale brown grass had grown through the fallen giant, claiming it back to the Earth where Niamh imagined small creatures now made their homes: rabbits, foxes, pheasants, mice.
Perhaps the bodies of those who lost their lives had never been removed and their skeletons became homes, too. Human hair replaced by grass, skin by earth, conversation by thumps and barks and crows and chirps and squeaks. What lives had those humans led before their plunge to sudden death all those years ago, Niamh wondered. Were they lovers, or family, or friends? What led them to this secluded den at the edge of the Atlantic? What sweet, soft tune drifted from their radio as they approached this bridge, and what might they have been talking about? Perhaps about their travels, their lives, their loved ones. Their plans for the future, for themselves, for each other. Their desires and dreams. Their fears, and thrills. The reason for their coming here, to a place so distant from the world that it did not yet have the coverage to make a phone call or the means to post a letter, or even the opportunity to sip stout in a local pub. The ocean seemed an obvious answer, Niamh thought to herself, for that was the answer Oisín gave her time and again when she asked what made Malin Beg so special to him. In the profundity of her thoughts, she hadn’t noticed that the wreckage below the bridge was long gone and that her eyes had settled, glazed and dreaming, on the resounding vista passing her by in green, purple, and bister.
“Alright!” Oisín broke their comfortable silence as a ribbon of miniature cottages began dotting the horizon. “Close ‘em.”
Niamh did as she was told, falling back into her seat but keeping her window down. Her knee bounced out a quick rhythm, quietly urging the car to grip the gravel with a search for meaning that matched her own. As she squeezed one hand between her legs to ease her nerves, she cast the other out into the wind, employing her remaining senses with fervour in a bid to pick a clue from the naturalistic array of sounds and smells basking in the countryside. The air harboured balms of salt and manure and smoke from a fire, accompanied by bleats drifting by in a Doppler effect. As the car rolled into the village the ambience took on a new energy, offering the scratching of collies’ paws against gravel as they herded sheep along the road, whining and nipping at the grumpy cattle. The gassy roar of a tractor engine spurred them on from behind, coaxing the tourists out of the way. The main street fell away then, replaced by the caw of seagulls soaring overhead. Niamh leaned closer to the open air, the corners of her lips curling upward as she registered the soft greeting of a low tide on the shore. The car swerved to the right, grinding to a halt before the sound of jingling keys cut the rumbling engine short. Oisín’s breath slowed beside her.
“Out you get.” Niamh could hear the grin in his voice. She fumbled for her door handle, squeezing her eyes tighter in concentration as she felt for a platform outside the car. Her sneakers met gravel, and as she reached up to haul herself into a standing position she was met instead with a large, warm hand that encircled her fingers and guided her toward Oisín’s tall frame. Her breath hitched in her throat. He had never failed to catch her off guard with his beauty when her eyes were open, let alone wired shut. Neither spoke as Oisín guided Niamh forward, save for the shrill giggle that escaped her upon tripping over her own two feet. The measured waves taking turns to feel the shore became mixed with other, unidentifiable genres of moving water as Oisín’s hands came to rest on Niamh’s shoulders. She inhaled deeply, bathing in the dissipating July heat and salty sea air. There arrived an absence of all sound where she stood, and with it came an emotion she could not quite decipher. She felt lips hovering by her ear.
“Open your eyes.”
In light of having worked so hard not to peek, Niamh suddenly felt apprehensive about revealing the surprise. Her right hand reached up to caress the fingers of Oisín’s as his lay on her shoulder, her eyes drifting open to be met with a sight she had never once witnessed in her twenty-two years living amongst Irish water.
At first, the azure blue of the sky in front of her had confounded her. She had been convinced she was standing at sea level, but when she looked down at the crescent moon beach more than one-hundred feet below, she realised her mistake. The low tide lapped at clear, white sand stretching from one rocky cliff-edge to another. Two magnificent headlands reached for the horizon, encompassing the beach within an intimate nexus of flora and fauna. Niamh’s eyes swept the painting that had come to life in front of her, from the Leagues holding their hand out to her on the left, to the flat moorlands carpeting the headland on the right. Sheep dotted the cliffs, portraying skills she had never perceived in the East as they scaled the curtains of the beach to reach the most nourishing greenery that benefitted from the rock. Never had she become privy to a corner of nature so brilliant and unapologetically beautiful that she had felt she had fallen head-first into a fantasy, expecting to be awoken at any moment.
“Oisín.” She spoke, unable to tear her eyes from the waterfall cascading from a river embedded in the Leagues, the rapids tumbling into the sea to join the tide. “It’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
The sun begged an audience to their right, but as Niamh turned her head to grant its wish, she found Oisín gazing down at her, his hands reaching for hers as he turned to face her.
“This was my spot, once.” He admitted, a bashful rose colouring his cheeks as he said, “But, I was hoping you could share it with me, for a while.”
Niamh thought she’d hated surprises. And though, now, her head swam with questions about herself, about her life until this moment, she realised with a full heart that she loved them more than anything in the world.
“You, Oisín,” She said, “are a surprise.”
He laughed, a real and tender laugh, and his nose dipped down to brush hers, lips inching forward as he shared with her an embrace beneath the darkening summer sky, yet above the rising tide below.