I don’t know how long I might have sat there, staring. Later, I would know that it was nearly long enough to get myself killed, but I knew nothing of that at the time.
I was saved from myself, from my story ending right here and now on this very page, by a sharp rap to the back of my head.
“Ow!” I hopped off my perch on the stool, turned around, and glared at my assailant.
She glared back at me—a tiny old woman, eighty if she was a day. Thick silvery-white hair was pulled back in a long braid from a fine-boned face. She was wearing black from head to toe and I was briefly aggravated to realize I might have to revise my theories about women’s fashion. Before I could say, “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” she reached up and rapped me again, her knuckles cracking sharply against my forehead.
“Ow! Stop that!”
“How dare you stare at him like that?” the woman hissed. Fierce blue eyes glittered furiously at me from within nests of fine wrinkles. “Would you be jeopardizing us all, then, you damn fool?”
“Huh?” As with the elderly leprechaun of a desk clerk, I had to replay her words more slowly in my mind. Still they made no sense to me.
“The dark Tuatha Dé! How dare you betray us! And you—an O’Connor, no less! I’ll be having a word with your kin, I will!”
“Huh?” It suddenly seemed the only word I could manage. Had I heard her correctly? What in the world was a too-ah-day? And who did she think I was? She raised her hand and I was afraid she was about to rap me again, so I blurted, “I’m not an O’Connor.”
“Sure you are.” She rolled her eyes. “That hair, those eyes. And that skin! Och, aye, you’re an O’Connor through and through. The likes of him would snap a tasty little thing like you in two and be picking his teeth with your bones before you even managed to part those pretty lips to beg. Now get out of here, before you ruin us all!”
I blinked. “But I—”
She silenced me with a quelling stare no doubt perfected by half a century of practice. “Out! Now! And don’t you be coming back in here. Not tonight, not ever. If you can’t keep your head down and honor your bloodline, then do us all a favor—go die somewhere else.”
Ow. Still blinking, I fumbled behind me for my purse. I didn’t need to be hit over the head with a stick to know I wasn’t wanted. A few knuckle-raps did just fine. Head high, eyes fixed straight ahead, I backed away just in case the nutty old woman got it in her mind to try to bean me again. At a safe distance, I turned and marched from the bar.
“And that’s that,” I muttered to myself as I stomped back to my cramped, unwelcoming room at the inn. “Welcome to Ireland, Mac.”
I couldn’t decide what had been more disturbing—my bizarre hallucination or the hostile crone.
My last thought before I fell asleep was that the old woman was obviously crazy. Either she was or I was, and it sure wasn’t me.
It took me a while to find the Pearse Street Garda Station the next day. Things looked a lot different when I was walking on the pretty little map instead of looking down at it. The streets didn’t branch off at quite the same tidy angles, and their names changed without rhyme or reason between one block and the next.
I wandered past the same outdoor café and independent newsstand three times. Man Sees Devil in County Clare Cornfield, Sixth Sighting this Month, one tabloid blared. The Old Ones Are Returning, Claims Psychic, another proclaimed. Wondering who the “Old Ones” were—an aging rock band?—on my fourth trip by I broke down and asked the elderly vendor for directions.
I couldn’t understand a word he said. I was beginning to see a distinct correlation between age of speaker and unintelligibility of accent. As the grizzled gentleman fired off a spate of lovely lilting words that made no sense to me at all, I nodded and smiled a lot, trying to look intelligent. I waited until he wound down, then took a gamble—what the heck? my odds were fifty-fifty—and turned to go north.
With a sharp clucking sound, he grabbed my shoulder, turned me in the opposite direction, and barked, “Air ye deaf, lass?”
I think. He might have called me a hairy jackass.
Smiling brightly, I went south.
The morning desk clerk at The Clarin House, a twenty-something woman named Bonita (whom I’d understood with little difficulty), had assured me I wouldn’t be able to miss the Garda station once I got there. She’d said the historic building looked a little like an old English manor house, made of all stone, with many chimneys and rounded turrets at each end. She was right, it did.