Moria’s Prayer

by Mark on March 15, 2010

“She was standing on a wall, just inches from the cliff. The rocks shifted beneath her feet, and then, as fast as I could blink, she was gone! We’ve got to go back! She may be still alive.” Herb Donnell paced back and forth across the worn tile of the police station. He mopped sweat from his bald scalp with one hand and popped antacid tablets into his mouth with the other.

Officer Leahy sipped some tea and reviewed his notes. “Mr. Donnell, a clearer description of the girl will be helpful.”

Herb sat down and pushed back his glasses. “Hair was long and curly –– red. No, maybe orange. Can’t this wait?”

“I have people at the scene. They will ring us with any news. Now, what was she wearing?”

“White wool sweater, plaid skirt, and a cross –– a large Celtic one on a gold chain.”

The young policeman, puffing on a pipe, didn’t look up from his notes. “What on earth were you doing at the Cliffs of Moher so early in the morning?”

“Taking pictures. Taking pictures of birds.”

“Really?” Officer Leahy put down his pen and stared at Herb. “Awfully odd to be photographing birds in fog as thick as stew.”

“What the hell do you think I was doing up there?” Herb’s cheeks turned red.

“Calm down, Mr. Donnell. Just like you, I’m looking for answers.”

Herb sat down and sighed. “Look, I’m on the way to London on business. Stopped in Ireland for a brief vacation. Some holiday!”

The policeman resumed taking notes and said, “The cliffs are more than 700 meters above the Atlantic. It’s amazing you could see anything. Did she speak to you?”

“What do you mean?”

Officer Leahy put down his pad. “You were twenty or thirty meters from her. Did she acknowledge your presence?”

Herb closed his eyes. “I screamed, ‘For God’s sake, get down from there!’ She didn’t flinch, just turned and stared at me. Pointing her finger, right at my nose, she looked up at the sky and shouted something. It was foreign. I didn’t understand.”

“Please try to repeat it, Mr. Donnell. It may be important.”

Herb closed his eyes and concentrated. “Go . . . go dee-na . . . uh . . .go deena tro . . . something or other.” He threw his hands into the air. “Why this is important!”

Officer Leahy sighed. “We will try again, later. Please go on.”

“Well, she kissed the cross, stretched out her arms, like a bird, and she . . . she stepped over the edge. All I heard was the screaming of some sea gulls that seemed to encircle her until she slammed into the ocean. She was gone! Not a trace, just the gulls flying above the surf. That’s when I rushed back to Lahinch and found you.”

The phone rang and Officer Leahy scribbled some more notes before thanking the caller. “Mr. Donnell, do you want to make another attempt at recalling her words?”

“News from the cliff? Did they find her?” Herb almost dreaded the reply.

Leahy walked to a file drawer and searched through some documents before extracting a tattered manila folder. “They found nothing at the cliffs. I wasn’t expecting much.” He laid down an old brown photograph. “Is this the girl you saw jump off the Cliffs of Moher?”

Herb gasped as he studied the photo. “My God, that’s her! The same eyes. How could you have known? How could you possibly have . . .”

“Mr. Donnell,” the policeman interrupted. “This will be hard for you to understand. The girl you saw was Moira O’Grady. She jumped off the cliffs nearly sixty years ago.”

“Impossible!”

“It was 1940. Her body washed up a day or so later.”

“She was as real as you or me.”

“Mr. Donnell, you are not the first person to see Moira’s ghost. She says something different to each witness. That’s why it would be good for you to recall her words.”

Herb leaned back in his chair, a bit pale, and popped another antacid tablet. and moaned, “Ghosts may come easy for you Irish. I came here for relaxation.”

“Mr. Donnell, I could take you to the local cemetery and show you her marker, but I doubt it would help. Come with me. I know someone who might do you some good.”

A group of gulls shrieked at Herb as he got into Officer Leahy’s car. The fog retreated from the bay, like wispy white fingers polishing the blue water. Hazy sunshine illuminated the green and orange storefronts. Elderly men in wool caps queued in front of pub, laughing at each other’s jokes as the owner mopped out the stale Guinness.

The police car pulled up to a storefront by the wharf. Freshly painted bold block letters on a green sign indicated their arrival to O’Grady’s Pub. The taunting gulls landed on a nearby pier.

“In America we call them winged rats.”

Officer Leahy shrugged his shoulders, motioned Herb to wait, and went inside the establishment. A few minutes later he came to the door and beckoned the American to join him.

Sharp cheese and fresh bread filled Herb’s nostrils as he entered a deli selling sandwiches and baked goods. Through a rear door was a cozy pub with smooth stone floors, a mahogany bar with intricate horse carvings and a brightly lit mirror in which a bearded bartender washed beer mugs. Officer Leahy brought Herb to a table next to a roaring fireplace.

“Clancy Hanner. This is Mr. Herb Donnell, the Yank who met Moira this morning.” Clancy remained seated, but reached up and shook Herb’s hand with a strong grip and shoulder-separating enthusiasm.

“Mr. Donnell,” Officer Leahy said. “If Clancy can’t help, ring me and we can talk some more. Otherwise, I pray your remaining days on our Emerald Isle are more peaceful.”

Herb looked over Clancy as the officer left. The elderly gentleman wore a blue fisherman’s cap and a matching wool sweater. A flat nose and ruddy cheeks topped thin lips that seemed to be permanently curled into a smile.

“A couple of coffees, Bob,” Clancy yelled to the bartender as he motioned for Herb to have a seat. “Donnell? Wouldn’t you think that used to be O’Donnell or something?”

“Before my time.”

The coffees arrived and Clancy produced a bottle of Jamesons, pouring the Irish whiskey into his own mug. “Care for some?”

“A bit early for that,” Herb said, wrinkling his nose.

“It’s a bit early to be seeing ghosts jumping off the Cliffs of Moher”

Herb nodded, picked up the bottle, and poured the golden liquid into his mug.

“Legends say enemies used to be lured to those cliffs after dark, only to be dispatched with a wicked shove,” Clancy said with a grin.

“The constable thought you might have some information about Moira O’Grady.”

“Why don’t you tell me what you saw?”

The events were clearer this time as the whiskey warmed his cheeks. He recalled her walking out of the mist and climbing on to a wall, more like a pile of stones, at the edge of the cliff.

“She had a difficult time gaining balance: her arms flapped until she achieved stability. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. She looked down and seemed to shudder. I really thought she would change her mind.”

Clancy listened, sipping his coffee. The American finished by asking, “How well did you know her?”

The old man stared for a moment into a vacant corner. “Moira was a talented dancer –– exceptional! She used to perform for the customers, just over there. That girl could step through a jig like nobody. Kicked almost as high as those timbers. And that smile –– when Moira danced, her smile warmed the room.”

“Pretty carefree?” Herb asked.

“Just when she was dancing. Other times she was quiet and very intense. Always worrying about this or that. Her dream was to dance with a ballet company. Got a tryout in Dublin and was accepted.”

“What happened?”

“She fell in love with a big strapping farm boy. They used to hold hands by the fire, right where we’re sitting.”

Herb smiled.

“Moira had found her man. No two youngsters were ever more in love. She forgot Dublin.” Clancy poured some more whiskey into the half filled mug. Herb waved off a second round. “But her lover had never been out of County Clare. He still thirsted for adventure. When the Second World War came, Ireland remained neutral. Half of him worried about the Nazi’s bombing Shannon or Lahinch. The rest of him sought adventure. The lad joined a volunteer brigade with the ‘Brits.’ There was more than a few tears the morning he left. They say she remained at the train station for hours in the rain, staring at the empty tracks.”

Herb added some more whiskey.

“Moira didn’t dance after that. Three months later, word came the boy had been killed at Dunkirk. She jumped the next day.”

“Wow!” Herb got up and walked to a large bay window. While blue skies ruled over Lahinch, storm clouds guarded the Cliffs of Moher. “Such a tragedy. So impulsive.”

Clancy laughed. “You and I would come up with more legitimate reasons to jump than the death of a lover.”

Herb’s eyes narrowed. “Officer Leahy seemed to think she was trying to tell me something.”

“True Mr. Donnell. The lass said something to you.”

“Like I told the constable, I didn’t understand it.”

“Try sounding it out.”

Herb closed his eyes, concentrated and slowly verbalized the sounds. “Go . . . Go daynah . . .

“That’s good,” Clancy said. “Keep going!”

“Go deenah dee ay . . . Go daynah dee ay . . . ay . . . trow.”

“‘Go nde’ana Dia tro’ caire air?’ Is that it man?” Clancy shouted.

“That’s it! That’s it!” Herb clapped. “What does it mean?”

Clancy’s face turned grim. “You having some troubles, son?”

“Well . . . uh . . . I’m not sure what you mean. Tell me what she said!”

“It’s Gaelic for ‘Lord have mercy on him.’ ”

Herb walked over to the fire and stared into the flames.

“Moira’s choosy about who she appears to. I’ve gone out there dozens of times over the years and never seen her.”

Herb came back to the table and offered his hand. “Thank you Mr. Hanner, but I should be going.”

“Sit down lad!” Clancy ordered. “Tell me what’s really haunting you.”

Herb slid back into his chair. “My once-booming software company is being crushed by competition from India. The banks are pressing. Just when my daughter is ready for college. I could lose everything.”

“Ever feel like jumping?” Clancy’s voice was soft.

“Jumping? What do you mean?”

“I mean for a photographer, you are lacking some essential equipment, like a camera.”

Herb looked away. Biting his lip, he replied, “I may have given up hope at times, but never . . .”

“There’s only a step’s difference between giving up and jumping.”

“Really!” Herb shot back, and again prepared to leave.

“Look at you, man. Your eye’s twitching like a strobe. Your stomach must have a big hole in it.”

“Well friend, life may seem rosy, sitting in a pub and sipping whiskey. I have real pressures. People are depending on me! It’ would be nice to conjure up some ghost or leprechaun and wish it all away, like you blessed Irish.”

“Please sit down, Mr. Donnell. I haven’t finished the story.” Herb slumped back into his seat. “Moira’s lad didn’t die at Dunkirk. Caught some shrapnel in his foot and was taken prisoner. Lost the leg, right up to his knee. He hobbled about a POW camp nearly four years. Can you imagine that? All he could think of was his dancing Moira.”

Herb helped himself to some whiskey.

“Friends had been butchered on that beach or shot trying to escape. Some hung themselves in despair. One SS officer was trying to shoot prisoners as the Allies approached to rescue them. The boy held a dying inmate in his arms as American tanks freed him.” The fireplace glowed, projecting Herb and Clancy’s silhouettes against the back wall. “In the Spring of ‘45 he returned to Lahinch.”

“Devastating.” Herb shook his head.

Clancy nodded. “His precious love was gone. No more farming with that leg.”

“If anybody ever had a reason to jump, her lover certainly did.”

The old man frowned. “You think it’s that simple?” Clancy reached into a tweed jacket, hanging on a chair, and threw a jingling object on to the table. “Recognize this?” It was a gold necklace. The metal was a bit tarnished, except for the Celtic cross that glistened at the end.

“That’s it! The cross she was wearing.”

Clancy pulled himself up to his feet and lifted a cane high above his head. With tremendous force he cracked it against the side of his right leg. It sounded like two drum sticks slapping against each other. Lifting his pants leg, Clancy revealed an artificial limb.

“Moira’s sister gave me her cross at the grave.”

Herb tried to speak, but remained too stunned to utter anything.

“If I were just a farm boy, ending it all might have been a consideration. The detour to Dunkirk changed me. After that, I seemed to be living on borrowed time. You can’t feel lucky about a wooden leg until you’ve considered more dire alternatives.”

“And Moira?” Herb asked.

“My heart cries out for her, even today. For weeks I sobbed in the rain over her grave. But you know, Herb, that thirst for life, I developed as a prisoner, didn’t come from within me. To this day, I’m convinced her soul visited me and screamed at me not to follow her to the cliffs. Her spirit drove me to buy this pub from her father. Eventually, love came again. Bob blessed our marriage. Even though my wife passed on awhile back, I still celebrate each morning, like a thief who stole another day.”

Looking at the old man, Herb felt a shade of envy. “I can’t help but admire your attitude.”

“Thank you, son, but this vision of yours wasn’t about me. It was about you . . . about making choices. Moira gave up and jumped off the Cliffs of Moher. Her soul still screams, ‘Choose life . . . choose life!’ “ Clancy leaned forward and looked straight into Herb’s eyes. “What’s your choice going to be, Herbert O’ Donnell?”

Pausing a few moments, Herb stared at the empty corner. In a bizarre way, some of it was beginning to make sense. “Clancy, you’ve been very generous with your time and your whiskey. Thank you very much.”

Clancy replied, “Shaw once wrote, ‘Ireland––nobody can walk upon its green meadows or breath its air without feeling either better or worse for it.’ Have a good and happy life.”

It was mid-afternoon by the time Herb made his way along Lahinch’s wharf. Anchored in the bay, a trawler bobbed with the gentle waves. Its holds bulged with catch. Wool stores were hawking their caps and sweaters. Near an old church he came upon two red headed school girls. One cuddled a baby lamb. The other held a skateboard.

Herb said to himself, “How would Moira have coped with today’s problems? Drugs? Pills?”

While staring across the bay at the cloud-shrouded cliffs, a gull swooped close to his head, breaking the trance. Herb pulled out his car keys.

* * *

The fog formed a curtain at the cliff’s edge. Late afternoon sunlight, trying to break through, created a glow in the air. Herb carefully walked around a crevice and stood near the spot where Moira had jumped.

Sitting on a stump, and still confused, he contemplated the morning’s events. Preoccupied by his thoughts, he never heard a sound beyond the pounding surf. He never suspected another’s presence until someone tapped him on the shoulder. Startled, Herb spun around. There stood Moira O’Grady.

Jumping to his feet, he backed away almost to the cliff’s edge. Moira followed him, her figure radiating like a soft lamp. Her smile eased his fear. He could smell fresh soap and a hint of perfume.

“You’ve made your decision, haven’t you?” Moria’s voice was like a song, softly mellowing his tension and dread.

Herb stopped dead, astonished to that realize that indeed he had made up his mind. Moira nodded, then placed her surprisingly warm hands on Herb’s cheeks. She leaned forward in the gleam of the sunset and gently kissed him. When their lips touched, Herb felt an uncanny sensation flowing to every nerve. Unlike any spirit he had ever imagined, her lips were soft and moist.

“Have a good and happy life, Herb O’Donnell,” Moria said.

With that she turned and climbed on to the wall. As before, she struggled before gaining balance.

“Oh God, no!” Herb stepped forward and reached out to her.

Rocking back and forth on the crumbling wall, she turned her head and smiled. With that Herb sighed and stepped back, realizing this spirit would always be with him. Her arms came up, like wings, and Moira O’Grady stepped into the fog.

The End

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