The Field of the Haws
'Twas Patrick Keagan who tipped his hat to a seal and found that nonsense is not to be taken from life as gold is taken from the sunset
PAT KEAGAN’S farm had been in the family for generations, and there was a held on that farm that always bothered Pat, for right in the middle of it grew a grove of haw trees. The neighborhood children wore a path through Pat’s field to play among the trees and eat the ripe haws. That in itself worried Pat. The county roads were cobblestoned for the likes of them, he had said, and he warned the parents of the children that he’d have damages from them for crushing his green crops down in the field of the haws. So that was stopped. In the echoes of the summer evenings, the children sighed longingly as they listened to the bird songs that came from the haw trees, their playground.
Even then Pat Keagan wasn’t satisfied. The trees still bothered him. They ought to be taken out of the field, a half an acre of good soil wasted by them soil that had never earned a penny in the Keagan history of the farm. And as the years passed by and the older Keagans died, the farm was left to Pat: and he lived alone in the house where half a hundred Keagans had lived before him. but not one of them ever thought of cutting down the haw trees. To them there was something sacred about the tret's. The birds sang sweeter there than on amtrees in the county.
and the wild things that were chased always made for the haw trees. There they were safe from dog bites and shotguns,
Pat was a man in his prime, ambitious and worldly. He was going to make the farm pay now more than ever. He would farm the soil where the haw trees grew, and the wood he’d make into firewood. Many winters of heat were in those trees.
One morning he walked down to the sea. as was his habit, to buy a lobster from the old lobster creel man.
“The edge of the morning to you. Pat Keagan.”
“And the same to yourself. Darby O’Brien. What a fine showing of lobster you have the day !”
Old Darby looked up from his creels in the boat. “I have no more or no less than I had yesterday, or these many yesterdays. For sixty years I’ve put down my creels in the bottom of the sea. and when 1 pick them up again there are lobsters in the creels."
“It's the good bait you use,” said Pat. “that accounts for tire luck.”
Darby O’Brien smiled and tire old eyes of him grew warm. “Maybe it’s the bait.” he said, “and maybe it isn't. You’ll be buying a lobster this morning?"
“To he sure, a nice one. Darby.”
“Here you are. Pat. This one weighs two pounds and a half, and sweet and wholesome it is."
“I'll be needing wholesome food for awhile. I’m cutting down the haw trees and grubbing out the stumps. I ‘11 have to do it alone. I can’t get a man that’ll chop a limb off tire trees. I’ve offered them good pay for a swing from their axes. Not a man will take the job. They shake their heads and walk away.”
Old Darby sat down on the stern of his boat. “So you’re going to cut down the haw trees. How do you know they are your trees?"
"Whose would they be. Darby O'Brien? They’re on my farm, and what’s there belongs to me. I owe no man a shilling. I have fine horses and the best milk cow in the county.”
“So you have. Pat Keagan, and you're always good pay, but there are other things besides cows, horses and money. Take the haw trees, for instance. They were there long before your eyes looked on light, or mine either for that matter. Those trees have been a great comfort to things that we don’t see or hear.”
Pat Keagan laughed out of his lungs of forty summers, and as he started home with his lobster Darby called after him: “Leave those trees alone. Pat Keagan. Don’t cut them down. Are you hearing me?”
“I am, Darby O’Brien, and it’s nonsense I’m listening to. The things I can’t see or hear don’t exist for me. I’ll make wheat grow where the trees stand now.”
“You’re full of learning, Pat Keagan. You know much, but who is it that knows anything? Good day to you. It’s half a crown you’ll be owing me for that lobster.”
“Oh, I forgot to pay you. Darby. For the minute you muddled the mind of me with your nonsense.”
“Faith, and it’s muddled you’ll be if you disturb the haw trees.”
“They're coming out. Darby, roots and all. and if God spares you. it’s a line stand of wheat you’ll see there.”
"Much good may it do you. Pat Keagan. but if I know anything at all, the wheat you’ll grow where the haw trees stand won’t make bread.”
“Darby, you’re tottering under a load of superstition.” “I’m carrying it well, Pat Keagan. I’ll have to bait my creels, there are lobsters around.”
“And how can you tell, Darby O’Brien?”
“Don’t you see himself sitting out there on the rock?” “Do you mean that old seal?”
“That’s him, Pat. When he comes up out of the sea and flops himself on to that rock, it’s time to sink the creels down to the bottom of the sea.”
Pat Keagan laughed again. “Well, well,” he said, “what’s the world coming to, anyway, -when a man will take stock in an old hairy seal? Aren’t there any beliefs of good in you at all, Darby O’Brien?”
“There may be a few, Pat Keagan, and one of them is a warning to you. Leave the haw trees standing, and allow the children to come back to their playground again. What if they do make a path in your field ! Isn’t it grand to hear the young throats of them singing as they climb to reach the ripe haws on the trees? And there’s something else, Pat Keagan, that’s worth mentioning while we’re talking. There are wee creatures that your eyes can’t see, that make their home in the haw trees. They aren’t human as humans go, but there they are for all of that and I’m not the one that would interfere with their pleasure. And I wouldn’t, Pat Keagan, if I were you. If you do, you’ll sup sorrow with a spoon of grief.”
“If for no other reason,” said Pat, “I’d cut the trees down as proof to prove the nonsense in the world.” Pat looked out at the seal on the rock. “What is he doing, Darby, flopping around like he is?”
“He’s upset with me, Pat, for talking to the likes of you. Now be off with you.”
PAT KEAGAN was a man of his word. He cut the trees down and grubbed out the stumps. All that fall and through the winter he worked, and he was proud of the pile of firewood the haw trees had made. When spring came he plowed the field, and he plowed the ground where the haw trees had grown. Then he sowed the field, all of it, in wheat.
Nothing had happened to Pat. He slept well and ate fine lobsters, and watched his crops grow. And ne said to old
Darby O’Brien, “I have proved one thing to my own satisfaction: that nonsense is nonsense no matter which way you look at it. Now if I had been a man that listened to you, and the rest of you, the haw trees would still be standing with no return from them at all. Instead, I have the finest stand of wheat in the county growing there now. Why, it’s a foot higher than the rest of the field. The heads are swelling full. I’ll thresh thirty bushels off that half acre.”
“Don’t boast, Pat Keagan. I wouldn’t be in your shoes for all the wheat in the world,”
“Darby O’Brien, I suppose you’re not long for this world, and there’s no need of me giving you advice now, but if you were a younger man I would say to you, ‘Wash the nonsense out of your head and believe in things your eyes can see.’ If you had done that years ago, it’s a farm of your own you’d be having today, and wheat to thresh and good milk cows, and pigs enough to pay the rent and a good thatched cottage over your head. Now what have you to show for the eighty years you’ve been using the good air and the good light of the world? Nothing, Darby O’Brien, but a few lobster creels and an old patched boat that you’re always bailing to keep it afloat.”
“Now see here. Pat Keagan, I have no complaints with life at all, nor have I ever worried a day of what the morrow would bring. My harvests have brought comfort to me— harvests of sunshine and love. True enough they wouldn’t bring rent for a pigsty, but I sing to the sunrise and I sing to the sea, and there’s always a lobster in one of the creels. And when I want decent company I talk to the seal out yonder. Look at him, Pat Keagan, his eyes are upon you.” “I've noticed him more lately,” said Pat. “Does he sit staring there all the time?”
“Well he does, and he doesn’t,” said Darby, “but now that you’ve brought up the subject he hasn’t been quite himself since you sowed the haw field into wheat.”
“Darby O’Brien, in the name of all that’s good and holy, are you losing your mind? Now how could an old hairy seal know anything about land or land ways?”
“Ask yourself that question, Pat Keagan, for I’m not answering it. I’ll have to be going, for now I see he’s
Hopping his flippers out there. There are a few lobsters crawling around now on the bottom of the
Old Darby shoved his boat off into the sea and rowed out with his creels. When he passed the rock where the seal sat, he tipped his cap to the seal and he said, “Isn’t it. the grand day? Not a cloud in the sky nor a wail from the sea.”
Pat Keagan stood on the strand listening to Darby having a word with the seal, and Pat shook his head as he said to himself, “Darby’s mind is leaving him, talking to a seal. Well, it’s not to be wondered at, at his age.”
Pat walked up the strand to his farm and he strolled around looking at his crops. The turnips and cabbages were thriving, but what took his eye most was the wheat field. He climbed the stile into the field, and along the fence he walked till he came to the place where the haw trees had grown. The wheat there now stood almost five feet high. Stout and strong it had grown. Pat felt with his fingers the kernels of wheat. They were full and hard and ready for the scythe. Tomorrow he’d harvest the wheat. But he’d need help, and Pat didn't know which way to tum for a man, for he wasn’t on speaking terms with his neighbors; nor was it any wonder since he had destroyed the playground of the children and the home of the song birds. But he had destroyed something else, and old Darby O’Brien wasn’t alone in thinking that.
Nevertheless Pat Keagan had to have help to harvest the wheat. So he took himself down to the crossroads where youth and old age sat together in the summer evening talking about the things that are and the things that are not. And when Pat came along he said, “The time of day to all of you. I need a man. I’ll pay him well to gather the wheat where the haw trees grew.”
An old woman sitting there along the roadside smoking her clay pipe said; “Pat Keagan, you’ll have to be asking the devil himself to be helping you. Ne’er a man around here would soil his feet on your farm.”
“Now, now,” said Pat, “that’s all nonsense. We’re not living in the dark ages. The devil would be of no use to me, my good woman. The wheat is ripe. It must be cut. Three shillings I’ll be paying to the man that gives me a strong back. From sunrise to sundown is all I’ll be asking of him, and his meals into the bargain.”
The old woman took the pipe out of her mouth and spat on the road. “Take yourself away from here. Pat Keagan,” she said. “There isn’t a man, woman or child that knows you, would allow their shadows to skirt the field where the haw trees grew. The ears of you are waxed against the day’s laughter of the children hereabouts. Oh, we know you, Pat Keagan. Now take yourself away from us; the sight of you would sour the milk in the udder of a cow.” The old woman raised her voice and asked, “Am I speaking the truth?”
“Indeed and you are, Molly Lowery.”
Pat Keagan eyed the crossroads crowd and he said, “Well, I’ll harvest my wheat in spite of all of you. If there’s one of you that should need a head of cabbage or a turnip or two, don’t come to the Keagan farm, and as for your shadows skirting my land, good riddance to rubbish.”
PAT KEAGAN walked back to his farm, and to say the least he was distressed. The wheat was ripe and should be cut. If a wind came up it might shell the wheat out of the heads. Then the crop would be lost entirely. He stopped at the gate and his eyes lit on the pile of firewood the haw trees had made. The sight of it cheered him. It looked white and wholesome in the setting sun, and it would fire well. It would give more heat than the turf from the
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bog. He could toast the soles of his feet in the winter evenings, the while the north wind roared up the chimney.
And now his eyes lifted and shifted to the tall wheat over yonder. The evening was without wind, but Pat would have sworn that the tall wheat was waving.
Then he heard a voice behind him say, “The green bough of the evening to you.” Pat turned around. He saw a middleaged man walking past him with a bundle on his back. He looked footsore and tired, and Pat said, “How are you, stranger?” “Well as the road, ” he answered. ‘‘Well as the stars when the sun goes down.” “Hold on,” said Pat, “stay awhile. It’s talking to you I’d like.” The stranger stopped. And Pat asked him, “Do you see the tall wheat over yonder? Is it waving, do you think, in the calm of the evening?” “It is,” said the stranger, “but why shouldn’t it wave? Sure’n there are wee winds in the world that a man never feels.” “Of course there are,” said Pat, “stray strands of it, here and there. For the minute the wheat’s waving bothered me, kowtowing and bowing as it does over there. And now,” said Pat to the stranger, “is it a name you’d be having?”
“Hughie Hamev, it is, and my father paid five silver shillings for the name.”
“Is it work you’re after?” Pat asked. “Sure’n I don’t mind taking on a few days of it. What is it you’ll be asking of me?”
“I’m going to harvest that wheat tomorrow and I need hired help.”
“You look like a man that would pay well,” said Hughie Harney, “for work well done.”
“Wages is no object,” said Pat, “if you give me enough of yourself.”
“I can bind your wheat, stook it, pitch it and gather the stray heads.”
“You’re hired,” said Pat. “Come into the house and have a bite of supper.”
“Hold on,” said Hughie, “Where’s that singing coming from?”
“Oh, that,” said Pat, “is old Darby O’Brien. There he is out yonder in his boat sinking his creels down in the sea. He’s singing to the seal that sits on the rock out there.”
“So he is,” said Hughie, “so he is.”
“And while I’m on the subject of Darby O’Brien,” said Pat, “don’t talk to him while you’re working for me. His mind is gone and he talks nonsense.”
“Of course, I understand,” said Hughie, “that nonsense is nothing, and not to be taken like gold from the sunsets.”
Pat Keagan looked at Hughie and said, “The -world is full of nonsense. Come into the house.”
Hughie Harney ate well—-two duck eggs and Irish bacon and a pot of strong tea. And as Pat cooked, his mind was on the waving wheat. “So you think,” he said to Hughie, “it’s natural for the wheat to wave in the silence of the sunset?”
“Don’t let it bother you at all,” said Hughie. “And now tell me, does old Darby O’Brien, as you call him, always sing to that seal on the rock?”
“This evening is the first time I’ve ever heard him sing to the seal.”
“I see,” said Hughie.
“See what?” Pat asked abruptly.
“Now don’t let that bother you either. The duck eggs are tasty, and the tea is heavy and sweet, and now I’ll be sleeping if you’ll show me a place.”
“Take that room beyond the kitchen. At cock-crow bare your feet to the morning air, for it’s an early start I want on the tall wheat,”
Pat Keagan was up and had his chores done long before the cock earned. When the cock did crow he was slamming pots in the kitchen. He was cross and ill-humored and he said to Hughie Harney, “Were you about last night?”
“I didn’t turn over,” said Hughie. “I
wasn’t astir at all, but I wasn’t alone in the room.”
Pat stared at him. “Who was in the room?”
“Now don’t let that bother you at all,” and Hughie smiled.
“The reason I asked you,” Pat said, “something kept pulling my nose the night long. Here, sit down to the table; your porridge is ready. We should be working; daylight is upon us. I must cut that half acre of tall wheat today before nonsense gets the better of me. I’ve been hearing nothing but nonsense since I cut the haw trees down.”
As Pat walked out of the house with the scythe on his shoulder, he looked down on the sea and he said to Hughie, “The seal isn’t on the rock this morning.”
“Oh, he caipt be sitting there all the time,” said Hughie. “He may have some work to do, and besides he may not always have been a seal. Who knows what he may have been in the past? But come on, let’s get after the wheat. I feel grand this morning.”
Pat Keagan said nothing. He walked into the field and lowered the scythe down from his shoulder. “I’ll start here,” he said to Hughie. “It’s a wide swath I’ll be mowing. Leave no stray heads for the birds to eat.”
“Oh, ne’er a one,” said Hughie, “sure’n there’ll be plenty for the birds to eat, anyway.”
“There won’t if you know your work.” Pat swung the scythe and down fell the tall wheat. And Hughie said: “Isn’t it the strange sound that’s coming out of the wheat?”
Pat stopped and looked behind him. “It’s the stubble,” he said, “the heavystubble where the haw trees grew. Bend your back and gather it into sheaves. Bind it well.”
“Oh, to be sure. Go on mowing and I’ll listen awhile for the wee sounds that wing to my ears.”
“You’re a stranger to me,” said Pat. “I’m paying you three shillings a day: no nonsense goes in this wheat field.”
Hughie smiled at the mower. “And so your nose was pulled last night,” he said.
Pat Keagan went on mowing, mumbling to himself.
Hughie gathered the tall wheat into sheaves, and before the sun went down that night the tall wheat was cut and stooked.
“Well,” said Hughie, “we did a grand day’s work.”
“Middling fair,” said Pat. “The wheat is riper than I thought. We must get it to the stack tomorrow in case of rain. I wonder what the neighbors will think now that the wheat is down. It’ll be an eyesore to them again, with their nonsense and palaver. It’s the likes of them that have nothing that whisper the while about a decent man and his doings. As for my nose being pulled last night, I have reason to believe it was only a twitch, for I’ve had it off and on all day. Are you yourself, Hughie?” he asked.
“I feel as strong as the stubble under my feet.”
“Let’s go to supper then,” said Pat.
Old Darby O’Brien stood waiting at the gate with a lobster in his hand. “Pat Keagan,” he said, “what ails you? Your eyes are red and your cheeks are wan, and you didn’t come down for your lobster today.”
“I cut the tall wheat, Darby O’Brien.” “So you did, so you did. I might have known it, Pat Keagan, for the seal has teen away all day long. If he doesn’t come back it’s worried I’ll be, for how am I to tell when there are lobsters about?”
“Give me that lobster, Darby O’Brien. It’s a tired man I am, and it’s little time I have for seals and nonsense.”
Hughie Harney said to Darby, “It’s
knowing the seal you are. When are you expecting him back?”
“Well,” answered Darby, “that’s hard to tell. He went off without a word, but I’ve never seen him so upset. He plunged off the rock into the sea the minute Pat Reagan here laid the bare scythe on the tall wheat.”
“Come into the house, Hughie Harney,” said Pat. “Don’t listen to Darby O’Brien. Didn’t I warn you against the mind of him leaving?”
As Darby turned away to go down to the sea he said, “It’s myself wishes that it was all over. A good night’s rest to you, Pat Reagan, and as for you, stranger, sleep with your hat on tonight.”
Plughie smiled. “Didn’t I wear it last night,” he said, “pulled down over my eyes and my ears?”
Pat Reagan boiled a pot of water and dumped the lobster into it. “While I’m doing the chores,” said Pat, “keep your eye on the dock and in twenty minutes by that timepiece take the lobster out of the pot and let him cool awhile.”
“You’ll be eating him yourself,” said Hughie. “He’ll be tasty and nice, I know, but he’ll not grease my mouth—not tonight anyway.”
“Are you telling me,” said Pat, “it's afraid you are to eat fresh lobster out of the
“I’m against it tonight,” said Plughie, “and now that reminds me of the thing I’ll be asking you. Tomorrow is a new day, but what do we know about tomorrow? And for that reason, pay me three shillings for the work I’ve done today.”
Pat Reagan stared at Hughie. “I didn’t know,” he said, “that you, too, were limp in your mind like all the rest of them around here. But here’s your money. Now I’ll milk the cow,” and Pat went out to the byre.
As he passed the woodpile he cried, “By my soul, if the haw wood isn’t shrivelling away !” Pat Reagan was frightened. There was a jump in his eyes as they compassed the yard, and he said to himself that his ears might hear, “What ails me at all, at all? Is nonsense taking hold of you, Pat Reagan?” He sat down on a one-legged stool to milk the roan cow. He slapped her udder, as was his habit, so she’d let her milk down. He pulled and he squeezed on the roan cow’s teats, but not a drop of milk would she give to the pail. Pat got up and scratched his head and gave the cow a cold stare. “Who’s been milking you?” he asked. The roan cow blinked at him and went on chewing her cud. Pat dropped the one-legged stool. Pie heard a cuckoo call, and the eyes of him reached for the sound of it. He saw the cuckoo sitting on one of the stooks. “Have your fill of the tall wheat,” he said, “it’ll be in the stack tomorrow.”
r"PHERE WAS no milk for supper that night. Hughie made himself a pot of heavy tea and he found no fault with the duck eggs and trimmings. Pat Reagan ate the lobster and sucked the claws dry.
“I’ll be going to bed,” said Plughie, “good night to you.”
“Is it a candle you’ll be needing to light you into the room?”
“No light,” said Plughie, “no light tonight.”
“Hughie Harney, is your mind with you or was the tall wheat too much for you?” “The mind of me wasn’t in tune last night,” said Hughie, “or I would never have stopped here to gather the tall wheat. I’d have gone on counting the milestones along the county road and kept out of trouble.”
“Go to bed,” said Pat, “you’ll be yourself in the morning. I had an itching that Darby O’Brien would upset you.”
“It wasn’t him at all. It -was what happened to me in that room last night, and the cry of the tall wheat falling this morning.”
“I am a sensible man.” said Pat. “I take no stock in the rumors of nonsense. Where would I be if I did? But I say, Hughie,
did you boil the lobster twenty minutes? The reason I ask you, it lies heavy inside of me.”
“I did by the clock,” said Hughie, “but what is time but nonsense.”
Hughie lifted his hat off the chair and pulled it down over his ears. “I’ll take the shelter of your roof for this night,” he said, “but the road will have me by the first noise of the mom.” Hughie groped his way into the dark room.
Pat’s eyes followed him. “What rubbish,” he said, “gets into the minds of such men as you and Darby O’Brien.” Pat lit a candle and washed the supper dishes, and wondering the while he was. The roan cow didn’t give her milk down. “It is strange,” he whispered to himself; “it never happened before. If she were going dry that would account for it, but she’s a fresh cow with a three-months-old calf. Could it be that the calf sucked her while the tall wheat was falling?” A plate fell out of his hand and broke on the floor, Pat looked down at the pieces of delft. “I could swear,” he cried, “that plate was knocked out of my hand.” Then Pat’s nose began to twitch as if something were pulling it. Then he thought he heard chairs moving around in his room, and he lifted the candle off the table and walked into the room. There was nothing in there. “By heavens,” he said, “aren’t things queer around here tonight?”
He looked into the room of his hired help. Hughie Harney lay spread out on the covers, boots and all, with his hat pulled down over his eyes. Hughie was sleeping.
“I’d like to talk to somebody. Is there something in that rumor of nonsense about the haw trees? Has it come to this, when a man can’t do as he pleases with the things that belong to him? The haw trees were mine. I cut them down and grew wheat in their place. Now what was wrong with that, I am asking myself.”
His breath now was coming quickly. His eyes were all about him. He looked as if he’d committed a crime and was trying to justify himself. “There could be no harm at all,” he whispered, “in cutting those trees down. The children’s playground—yes, yes, of course they did play there, and the birds sang, too, they did that; they sang well, so they did.”
Pat now sat down on a chair, still holding the candle in his hand. The mind of him was wavering between greed and good. Thirty bushels of wheat he’d thresh from the tall wheat. He’d always had plenty of bread, but he didn’t have a friend
in the neighborhood, and the older people rained curses down on him. There was no nonsense about that; it was real. But he didn’t care about their curses: they were powerless to hurt.
But in spite of his worldliness, he was hurt when the children turned away at the sight of him. Darby and his seal and Hughie Harney’s nonsense, what did he care about them? There was something else in the heart of him that bothered him now. He didn’t know what it was. Well, he must get to bed, and get an early start in the morning and prevail on Hughie Harney staying to pitch the tall wheat to the stack. But first he’d go outside and see that the night was well. He blew out the candle and unbarred the door. Outside he saw a half moon rising up from behind the sea. He heard the sucking sound of the rip-tide’s ebb and the corncrake’s call in the pasture beyond, and he asked himself, “Why do those sounds come so clearly tonight? I’m listening to them now as I did when a boy.” He turned his back on the sea and gazed in the direction of the tall wheat in the stooks. For the moment, Pat’s mind took a flight into fantasy. He saw the grove of haw trees standing there. How grand they looked in tire half moon’s light! Not an axe sliver out of one of them. The hares the hounds had hunted, were hiding over there now, hiding as they did when he, as a barefooted boy, carried cabbage leaves to feed the scared creatures.
Pat Keagan’s body swayed as if a stout wind were tugging at him, but his hobnailed boots held firmly to the ground. Pat rubbed his eyes as if the brine of the sea were in them and stared at the woodpile. Then, as if ashamed of his eyes, he lifted them into the field of the haws. The trees had disappeared and he saw the stooks of wheat over yonder.
He cursed the tall wheat. “Dam you!” he cried, “and all you stand for. You’ve harrowed the soul of me, wheat, tall wheat, where the haw trees grew.”
Pat Keagan reached up with his eyes to the heavens. “Rumors of nonsense are nothing,” he cried, “but by the Maker of moonlight and stars I’ll grow the grove of haw trees again !”
And now the county road was lined with people, and young and old were shouting, “Pat Keagan’s tall wheat is on fire !”
Molly Lowery coughed the smoke out of her lungs and cried: “Watch the big bonfire Pat’s making, the while the red face of him looks calm in the blaze.”