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More Great Stories

With A Touch

Of The Irish Spirit

The following short story was inspired by my sister's experience picking blackberries while visiting Fanore, Ireland this summer, as well as by a gentleman I spoke with briefly in a local pub.

Thorns & Sky.JPG

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Blackberries and Thorns

Slam! Charlie’s whiskey glass hit the wooden surface with a knock.

            “It’s the God’s honest truth,” he demanded with a voice that trembled along with his shaking hands. “I swear it on me mum’s grave. Sure enough, I’ll be a joinin’ her soon if there’s room for one more in the family plot. And, when I do, she’ll see that I’m happy to be away from the two of you!”

            Charlie knew his story was doubted by those of us sitting next to him, as well as by the bartender who moved in and out of our corner of the bar, glancing our way while placing glasses on the shelf. Rightly so, for Charlie told a good many tales over the years that some might consider a wee bit exaggerated – but he always told ‘em with the good-hearted intention of entertaining us. He never failed to give us a good laugh. This time, he seemed frustrated, even a bit angry with his ol’ friends. It was getting hard to read Charlie at this point in his tremors. We watched his hands shake with increasing severity over the past year and had seen him set a glass hard upon the old bar more than a time or two. His head shook too and, more recently, was causing his speech to stammer. If it was frustration, one could hardly blame the man.

            Charlie was fully aware that his condition would only get worse. He saw it progress in the widow O’Conner who lived on the hillside her husband farmed for decades but had long since passed.

Dacey the bartender filled his glass again.

            The full glass of whiskey sat there at a safe distance. Three wet, overlapping rings from Charlie’s previous fills formed that ancient and revered mark of the blessed trinity. Lights from above the bar reflected in the rings. Aye, it was pure happenstance but I stared into the glimmering whiskey slosh asking myself if Charley’s condition, or any condition one of us might be struck by one day, was the will of Almighty God. I snapped out of it, thinkin’ the almighty has better things to do than to bring a misery such as this into the life of a good man.

            Charlie’s shaking hands entered my gaze. They shook uncontrollably as he took the glass into both hands and lifted it close to his shaking head. “It calms me nerves,” he declared as if we questioned the number he was having. He was so very careful not to spill. He placed his mouth above the rim and, with steady resolve, paused his tremors long enough to take a sip.

“I’ll just say this, it was far away, across Lochy’s field, but my eyes are still good enough to see that it was a great, disfigured beast – large and hideous – and it moved in a halting and cautious manner. I swear it was the Púca!”

            The fellas and me were hesitant to laugh. We had laughed at many of Charlie’s wild tales before, as friends do, but he was more serious this time and none of us knew whether poor eyesight or even his questionable observations could be symptoms of the disease. It was an awkward moment, to be sure.

            The pub’s fire was burning low and the light outside was getting dim. The glow from a row of draft beer handles lit by each brand’s emblem provided enough light for Charley, having finished his parting glass, to carefully squirm off his stool and make his way to the door. As he parted, he shouted his usual, “If I don’t see ya in the future, I’ll see ya in the pasture!”


It was a long walk even for a healthy man. Charlie had walked this way home for many years. It was nearly four kilometers and much of it was over rolling hills on a road barely wide enough for a single car. I stepped out for a smoke and watched Charlie as he passed the cemetery where his mother and wife lay, past the crosses that rose above the perimeter walls, and past the stone ruins that gave shelter to graves of past centuries. Rain had fallen on-and-off throughout the day. The sky was still cloudy and retained a soft gray light long after the sun had set. I watched his figure fade into the gloaming, his body bent and right arm flailing. The damn rain started again.

            A half-hour or so into his journey, Charlie sat down and leaned against an old stone wall to rest. He could hear the Spring lambs behind him bleating in the distance. His mind wandered. He thought about his wife and wished that she would be there, warm at home, waiting patiently to welcome him. He never stayed late at the pub back then. He didn’t like to keep her waiting long. Then, there was his friends at the pub. He thought about how confused we must be about his illness, how we acted around him, and how he was only pushing his friends away. A sadness came upon Charlie. He regretted his offenses and mourned his losses, recent and past.

            The wet grass began to soak through the seat of his pants and was cold on his arss, so he struggled to his feet and regained his balance to resume the journey home. Oddly, a kilometer or so into it, he came upon an old man creeping along in a wheelchair. He labored steadily as he made his way up the hill by rolling the wheels with his weak hands and dragging his feet to prevent himself from losing ground. His effort was not a mighty one but a gradual one – his progress, only a few inches at a time. Charlie knew who occupied each house along the way and had heard nothing about this strange visitor who was out late and on the road alone.

            “Say . . . old fella . . . what brings you out here, so far from home? Who are you here to see? I know everyone along this country road. Are ya visiting someone I know?”

            “I came here to see you my friend,” the old man said breathlessly, looking up at Charlie’s face in the pale light.

            Charlie was puzzled. “Do I know you? You look familiar to me – in an odd sort’a way.”

            “You will know me soon. I’m here to help you . . . with your journey.” Even after a moment of sitting still in the road, the old man was unable to speak without gasping for air. His manner of speaking was as difficult to understand as Charlie’s. His head and body shook as well.

            “Help me?” Charlie questioned. “How could you possibly help me? I mean no disrespect, of course.”

            “Push me along. We’ll travel together a while.”

            The road was narrow enough, and sections of it ran below pasture walls, on both sides, where weeds and brambles tangled and waved in the wind. Blackberry bushes seemed to run the full length of it. Dark purple berries, appearing black, were ripe and ready to be picked by man or bird. Others not quite ripe had the hue of raspberries – more red than purple. The least ripe were white or pink. Shiny, ragged leaves of the blackberry bushes mixed with tall grasses, especially in the depth of the sunken road where rain pooled and dried slowly. Vine-like stalks with large, sharp thorns wove their way in and out of the weeds to protect their fruit from picking. Nature has a way of both tempting us and repelling us, don’t it?

            “You have walked this path many times, Charlie. Do you remember picking blackberries with your mum as a child?” Charlie looked ahead, searching for the spots where he and his mother would stop to gather them.

            “Aye, my dear mum taught me which to pick and how to avoid the thorns. Those thorns – no matter how hard I tried, my little hands would get completely mangled! But the tenacious child I was, if they were ripe, I’d reach in deep to pick ‘em, no matter how many lay along the road just ahead. My mother taught me how to make good choices. Happy times they were, picking berries with me mum. She baked a good pie with ‘em, too.”

            Charlie paused for a moment, “Did ya know my mother?”

            “Let’s push on,” the old man replied coyly.

            Charlie leaned into the wheelchair, his arms shaking as he pushed ahead. A car suddenly appeared over the next hill’s crest. Its lights were not on yet and it was approaching with a reckless speed. Fortunately for the two of them, a wider, worn spot on that narrow stretch allowed them to get out of the way, but Charlie had to react fast and push hard!

            “You have had to move fast on this road before, haven’t you?” The old man chuckled. “The fairies had ya in their spell when you paused in thought back there, to protect you here, didn’t they? A pishogue by the hands of fairies, I’d say.”

            “Indeed it was. As a boy, I jumped much faster – I once jumped squarely into a patch of those blackberry thorns. Saying I was all scratched-up doesn’t cover the half of it. It was that or be run over! My bleeding face sent me mum into a panic. She thought I’d been run over.”

            “You walked this way home from school. Tell me about your brother.”

            “Aye, we used to race home from school. Our races didn’t last long though – the way is longer than it seemed – so we usually ended up walking it together, eating berries along the way. The time and distance passed quickly when my brother and me walked together . . . we talked about our troubles and our dreams. I haven’t seen him since he left for America – not in 25 years – do ya know my brother?” The old man didn’t answer Charlie. Then after a quiet bit, “Tell me about your wife.”

            “My wife was a lovely woman. Always kind. Occasionally a flirt. We walked home together this way when we were in second level, then home from the pub when dating – sometimes in the rain. Sometimes, if it weren’t past her curfew, we’d dart off to the other side of those bushes, just over there, and have a roll in the tall grass.” Charlie looked out into the field for a moment. “Then, not wishin’ to part, she’d get home well past her curfew and wouldn’t be permitted to see me for a week. I miss her . . . it’s been 10 years since her passing from the fevers.”

            The old man took Charlie past his home. They didn’t stop but Charlie looked hard across the field lying before it, trying to see some movement and hoping this strange journey was a dream that would give him a glimpse of his wife through the window, if only for a moment.

            They eventually came to the end of the road where Charlie clearly saw the “disfigured beast” he vaguely saw before. It was a horse. Like Charlie, it was disfigured by disease but broken in its own way. Its back was twisted and it stood on its hind legs to move about. It was mere flesh and bones which made the head look larger than normal. It was the Púca he claimed to see.

            The old man told Charlie that he too will soon be making the journey on his long road home in a wheelchair, and when he does, he should get on patiently, inch by inch if necessary. The horse whinnied and moaned as if it were suffering, but the old man assured Charlie it was ready to take him to his grave – to be with his wife and mother – when he no longer wished to pick the blackberries and endure the thorns that come with it.

            The old man asked him, “Do you wish to keep makin’ the journey, Charlie? Will you be pickin’ the berries a while longer?


Charlie passed away Tuesday last. We finally removed the ramp we built for him to get in and out of our pub for five more years. I suppose one can make such a journey, on that long and narrow road, only so many times. Charlie kept on – havin’ a drink with his ol’ friends, joking, and telling his exaggerated tales – as best he could. It only required a little patience and careful listening on our part, which he patiently taught us. I put my cigarette out and went inside to warm-up. We had one last slice of his blackberry pie and raised a glass to him at our corner of the bar.

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