The meteorite collided with Dr. Jackie Doherty’s heart at ten after ten o’clock, on a mid-summer evening that was her first night in Ireland.
The sun had just begun to set. Jackie grasped for composure, rattled from her overnight flight into Dublin and successive five-hour drive north to this village that hovered like a promise over the Atlantic, at the whim of Gaia or God or the wind currents. The bartender responsible for the gaping hole in her breast seemed unaffected, though a force of this magnitude must reverberate back to its source.
Jackie, who preferred the details of such things, imagined the river of nutrients that pumped through her arteries and kept her among the living—in, out—as she observed the cause of her chaos. The woman wore some makeup, with her dark hair clipped up above her neck in a way that caused all the longer pieces to fall to either side.
She—the bartender—moved with ease from the far end of the bar toward them. A slow burn lit in Jackie’s chest, like a comet circling its orbit. It seemed an age, though it was only twelve after ten o’clock—two minutes since impact.
Jackie’s Irish cousin, a stout older woman with the dark hair that seemed prevalent in these northern parts, spoke with a soothing lilt that mimicked to-and-fro of the waves. “The Lough is up for sale,” said Mary. “Ava here, her aunt owns the place, but she’s tired.”
Jackie had heard this a dozen times since she arrived. The bar didn’t seem to be much of a landmark, in the middle of nowhere. No one visited this part of Ireland unless they had family or had gotten lost.
“The Lough has been open since the civil war at least,” said Mary.
The bartender—Ava—continued to pour and chat and smile and glow. She refilled Jackie’s Chardonnay and spoke with Mary about the bingo night, whose jackpot had not been claimed for several weeks. “It’s quite high now,” said Mary. “Jackie, you ought to go while you’re here on your holiday.”
People crowded in the tight room and ducked its low rafters. Jackie traced a carving in the lip of the weathered old slab of wood that separated the publicans from the patrons. Ava poured Jackie’s third glass.
“Mary says you’re from Philadelphia,” said Ava. “My older brother lives there. Liam, his name is.”
“Philly is a big city,” said Jackie. “Have you been?”
“When did he leave? Your brother.”
“Ten years ago. Just bought a plane ticket and poof—gone.”
“Does he visit?”
Jackie couldn’t think of anything to talk about except her mother, who would rise up and summon the Four Horsemen if she knew that at this very moment, her daughter fantasized about a female bartender in northwest Donegal.
“My mother’s grandparents were born not far from here,” said Jackie. “She spent a lot of time researching our genealogy.”
Jackie hadn’t discovered Mary’s address until months after her mother had been lowered into the earth and the requisite prayers said above her grave. It was not until she’d packed clothes and books and knick-knacks into cardboard boxes and sifted through the records and photographs and scribbled notes, all doomed to the purgatory of a vacant house, that Jackie realized her mother had felt some connection to these people who had been dead for so long. The communion of ghosts plagued Jackie’s thoughts so that she’d been unable to teach, to work, to research until she booked a plane ticket, just after the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death.
“It’s gorgeous here,” said Jackie. “You don’t know what you have.”
“Have you done the Loop?” asked Ava.
“I haven’t, no,” said Jackie.
“It’ll take you up into the Gaeltacht,” she said. “Most people come for that, and the view.”
“You’ll have to take me on a tour of the sights,” said Jackie. “Mary mentioned that there were ruins nearby.”
Ava tapped her finger against the bar. “We’ll see.”
Mary questioned Jackie about all of her relations, and seemed disappointed to learn that, although she had attended college there, Jackie did not know a branch of the family tree that had settled near Pittsburgh.
“I didn’t have a big family,” she said. “It was just me and my mom.”
Ava poured Jackie more wine, interspersed with shots of whiskey, so that, after a while, Jackie concluded that, on her very first night in Ireland, she was as drunk as she’d been on her twenty-first birthday. She announced this to Ava with the air of granting her a great secret.
Ava raised an eyebrow.
“Tell me about these pictures,” said Jackie.
“Just some photos of football and rugby,” said Ava. “Local boys.”
Jackie peered at the photographs in a nook that wrapped around the corner closest to the entrance.
“My brother is in one of those, somewhere,” said Ava.
Ava reached over the bar. “That one.”
Jackie’s chest tightened as she focused on Ava’s details: the dark tendrils of hair damp with sweat, matted against tiny earlobes, a pert chin, lips pursed in thought.
“You smell nice,” said Jackie.
Ava twisted the cork in her hand. The cadence of pouring, serving, and talking that Jackie had so admired vanished. Jackie bit her lip.
Mary Doherty announced her intent to leave. Jackie was struck with how many years the older woman carried in her short stature. Their distant relationship meant that there was little physical resemblance between them, but Jackie sensed that her mother would have recognized her kin in this tiny, aged woman. They shared a name, though Mary was common enough on both sides of the Atlantic. This seemed a benediction of sorts, as Mary asked Ava if it wouldn’t be too much bother, could she drive Jackie home since she was making friends with every which person.
Ava didn’t say no.
“You shouldn’t bite your lip like that,” said Ava. “You’ll chew away the skin.”
“Oh,” said Jackie. She tapped a cigarette from a pack that she’d bought from a vending machine. She hadn’t smoked since a brief experimental period during college, and then with her mother—
Ava motioned toward a rear door for the employees. Jackie followed.
Once outside, Ava pulled the lighter from her pocket. She sparked the end.
Pop music drifted outside from the bar. Jackie didn’t recognize the tune. The two women observed the goings-on behind the old pub building. A bar back brought out several bags of garbage.
Ava nodded her head a bit to the tune. She spent a few minutes on the smoke before she spoke.
“I don’t think that Mary would like to hear that you flirted with me tonight,” she said.
The words hurtled Jackie back to an evening just after she’d moved to Pittsburgh. She’d called her mother, whose voice had soothed her, as it always did. It had been autumn, so the night was chilly, and being on the western side of the Pennsylvanian mountains meant that snow began to fall as early as October. Jackie had wrapped herself up in a wool sweater, curled up against a pillow in her dorm room on the eighteenth floor, and observed the murky sky. She had listened as her mother discussed the church, the neighbors, and the new paint in the dining room. Jackie told her mother about the cafeteria meals, her composition class, and that it cost a quarter to wash her clothes. She didn’t tell her about the day she’d spent crying, after the woman she’d been dating ended things.
This isn’t working out.
The bile rose like a great wave and coated her throat. She hurled her body forward and gagged.
“I bet you did that on your twenty-first birthday, too,” said Ava.
“I suppose Mary told you about my sister,” said Ava.
“She was special,” said Ava. “That’s what we called her. Special.”
“What was her name?”
“I always preferred that to Margaret,” said Jackie. “It means ‘pearl,’ doesn’t it?”
She sensed Ava’s surprise.
“My mother liked that stuff,” said Jackie.
Ava finished her cigarette. She stubbed it out with her shoe. “I’m leaving,” she said.
Jackie leaned against the stucco wall.
“I’ll follow you soon,” she said, but Ava had already disappeared.
People mingled, but it was late. Some gathered their belongings and paid their tabs. In the parking lot, Ava coaxed Jackie into the passenger side, then remained silent as they steered out of the tiny parking lot. The headlights illuminated the great empty space ahead, but not the shanties that jutted up along the road.
Jackie spoke. “I don’t know anything about this place.”
At the next intersection, where Ava ought to have turned right, she made a left. Jackie pressed her forehead against the window. When she turned into the gravel pull-off, Ava turned off the beams so that the stars were clear.
“It’s part of the Atlantic Loop,” she said. “You can see shooting stars here, sometimes.”
“No harm in waiting.”
They stood awhile against the car. Ava produced a blanket from beneath the seat. Jackie wrapped herself in it and braced herself against the winds. The cliff was a steep drop-off, where during the day Jackie would have seen the rock crags and moss that led hundreds of feet down to the ocean surface. A shack perched on the rocks, over the sea, open to any sort of weather disaster that might disrupt the tides; but now, the black hole of the night swallowed them.
Ava moved closer. Jackie tensed, her awareness of everything at that moment acute: the musty blanket, the chill, the tick-tock of the pulse in her throat.
“The words on the bar spelled something.”
“Tiocfaidh ar la,” said Ava.
Jackie shifted her hip so that it brushed against Ava’s.
“Tell me about your sister.”
“She loved fairy tales,” said Ava. “Her favorite place was the old castle, the one Mary told you about. It’s a pile of rocks.
“We sent her to a hospital down south and we never spoke of her again, like she never existed. Then, one day, she didn’t.”
Jackie slipped her hand into her pocket and fingered her mother’s scapular, the one she’d found in her mother’s jewelry box with some other devotional items: a rosary, a prayer card to the Blessed Mother, a vial of holy water. The scapular meant nothing to Jackie except that it once belonged to her mother, but she took comfort in the texture of the leather as she rubbed her thumb over it.
“My mom,” said Jackie. “She died a very slow, painful death. She couldn’t breathe without extreme pain. They couldn’t operate. She refused drugs.”
You’re a faggot.
“I’m sorry,” said Ava.
The words were inadequate for the husk that had been Mrs. Doherty in her final days, a once vibrant woman reduced to a catheter and prescription painkillers.
I don’t think that Mary would like to hear that you flirted with me tonight.
“You know that ‘shooting star’ is a misnomer, right?” said Jackie.
Jackie spent her professional life pondering the questions of things located light years away. The night skies had always fascinated her. How to explain the phenomenon of the meteor as it intersected with the planet Earth?
“It’s a piece of rock that breaks off from a comet or meteor,” said Jackie. “Its elements interact with the atmosphere. That’s why it looks like it shoots light. They usually burn up before they hit the ground.”
“You smell nice,” said Ava.
It had been so long since she’d looked at the constellations. On another night, Jackie might have been preoccupied by the lack of sky pollution. Now, she concentrated on Ava, who sliced through the narrow country lanes without hesitation, as though the land needed permission before re-routing itself.
Her mother had believed until the end that Jackie’s sexuality was a phase. Since Mrs. Doherty had goaded Jackie’s accomplishments her entire life—the scholarship to Pitt, the fellowship to Penn, and the tenure-track position early on in her career—she insisted that’s how Jackie would learn to love men, too.
When she was dying, Mrs. Doherty asked Jackie to read from a modern history of Ireland. So Jackie read, and read, and when she stumbled across a Gaelic phrase she used a book to sound out the word. It was from this book she recognized the words on the bar in the Lough, though Ava didn’t know it: our day will come.
Here, in this tiny spit of land on the coast, where the sand and rocks cradled the water like an infant, these dark hours between the rising and setting of the sun did not indicate the blood struggles, the heartache of families rendered apart by violence: no, this night was still, the salty scent of the ocean a soft whisper on the air.
When Ava parked the car in the drive, she jumped from the cab. “I’m to check on my mam,” she said. “Wait.”
Jackie stood in the kitchen and observed the silent world beyond the paned glass of the window. The murmur of voices traveled from the upstairs, where Ava spoke with her mother. The words were unclear, but the soothing tones against anxious ones echoed something too familiar, too sudden, too soon.
She thought of the house her father had built, the one that had been transformed into Mrs. Doherty’s personal hospital. In the end, it had smelt like a strange place, not home. Hospice aides had entered and left on scheduled shifts, but Jackie hadn’t the luxury of escape. She’d slept on the couch where her father had watched his Sunday news program as though it were a religion; he’d been dead for so long that the scent of his tobacco had long faded, though Jackie pretended that she could smell it on the throw pillows. Mrs. Doherty’s old bed had been replaced with one operated by a control switch. Jackie had raised and lowered her by degrees and angles. The sound of her mother’s labored breathing—in, out—was the tune to which Jackie lived. The nasal cannula hooked up to an oxygen tank in a complex tubing arrangement that strung throughout the ceiling beams and along the walls, like party streamers or Christmas lights. The day that Mrs. Doherty had sighed out her last breath was the summer solstice, as though she’d waited in order to soak up the most hours of sunlight before letting go.
When Ava returned, she said, “No one else wanted to take care of her.”
To Jackie, her figure seemed etched with the stone of the hearth behind her, like the great giants in stories from long ago. The fireplace stretched from one end of the wall to another, large enough for a child to stand in. At some point between the Loop and the farmhouse, the clip had slipped from Ava’s hair so that the long, dark strands fanned out over her shoulders. She wore a sweater.
Jackie rubbed her hands into her elbows and watched her breath fog the glass.
You smell nice.
“The castle is over beyond those fields,” said Ava.
Jackie imagined how it would look: stones crumbled around a small peninsula, with a moat that once protected its landward side. Each sunrise over the ruins would vary, from the gray of a foggy morning, to bold stripes of orange that sailors feared, to the simple lavender of an un-extraordinary day.
Jackie had not been intimate in—eons.
Her first time had been long ago. Before, she did not understand the capacity of the human heart. After, it had rendered into a thousand different shards. Each inhale, exhale—in, out—stabbed from within. The trajectory of her mother’s mesothelioma had been finite; for that, she’d envied her mother’s last breath. Jackie’s ache persisted, like a star with infinite millennia before it burnt out.
Mrs. Doherty had been the first person to point Jackie toward the vastness of space. It was a summer night—the solstice –when her mother guided her toward a telescope set up in the back yard. “When the meteor breaks through the earth’s atmosphere,” she had said, “it becomes incandescent. You must call it something else after that. It’s like a baptism, for a rock.”
Jackie kept a collection of meteorites tucked in a small void in her chest. Each one had a unique shape and identifier, but the one that had landed earlier that night, her first in Ireland, stood in front of her and exerted its pull, like the moon lulled the early tide toward the shore, the one that Ava had driven along that night. “You are incandescent,” said Jackie.
It became less clear where one woman ended and the other began when Ava placed her hand on Jackie’s back, in the soft crest of the sacroiliac joint. The small details—lips and cheeks and skin, and the thrum of two disparate pulses—were invisible to all but those restless ghosts, who sighed at that first hint of light.