It was the land of their ancestors, and Honor swore she could hear their voices crying in the wind. The storm had been building since morning, silver mist giving way to driving rain, gusts off the sea now blowing the hedges and trees almost horizontal. The stone walls that had seemed so magical when she’d first arrived now seemed dark and menacing.
From the plane yesterday morning, Honor had been awed by the green, by the emerald grass and hedgerows and trees. Her three daughters had gazed down, excited and hoping they could see their father’s sculpture from the sky. He had written them letters about Ireland, and about the West Cork farmhouse he had found for them to stay in, and how he’d built his latest work on the very edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. They had fought to open the letters when they came, and be the one to read them out loud, and sleep with them under their pillows.
“There it is!” Regis, fourteen, had cried out, pointing at a crumbling castle.
“No, it’s there…” twelve-year-old Agnes had said, crowding her sister to point out the window. Square green fields ran along the coast, each dotted with tiny white farm buildings. Stone towers and ruined castles seemed to crown every high hill.
“They all look like the pictures he sent,” Cecilia, just seven, had said. “It doesn’t matter which house it is, as long as he’s in it. Right, Mom?”
“Right, sweetheart,” Honor had said, sounding so much calmer than she’d felt.
“It’ll be just like home, Mom,” Agnes had said, forehead pressed to the plane’s window. “A beach, and stone walls…only now we’ll be on the other side of the Atlantic, instead of home in Black Hall. It’s like going across a mirror…”
“Look at all that green,” Cecilia had said.
“Just like our green fields of home,” Agnes had said, unconsciously echoing the lyrics of a song her aunt used to sing to her.
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you see Daddy?” Regis had asked, turning to peer at Honor. There was such a challenge in her daughter’s face–almost as if she knew how troubled her mother felt.
“She’s going to hug and kiss him,” Agnes said. “Right, Mom?”
“That’s what I’m going to do, too!” Cece said.
“The first thing I’m going to do,” Regis said, “is ask him to show me his sculpture. It’s his biggest one yet, and it’s right at the edge of the highest cliff, and I want to climb up on top and see if I can see America!”
“You can’t see America across the Atlantic Ocean, can you, Mom?” Cece asked.
“I’ll be able to see it, I swear I will,” Regis said. “Dad said he could see it, so why wouldn’t I be able to?”
“Your father was speaking figuratively,” Honor said. “He meant he could see it in his mind, or his heart…the dream of America that our ancestors had when they left Ireland.”
“And Daddy’s still dreaming,” Cece said.
Cece had counted the days till this trip. Agnes prayed for his safety. And Regis followed in his footsteps. Although she didn’t want to be an artist, she did want to live life on the edge. Over the past year she had been delivered back to the Academy by the police twice–once for diving off the train bridge into Devil’s Hole, and once for climbing to the top of the lighthouse to hang the Irish flag.
Instead of being upset, John had gone straight to the lighthouse with his camera to take pictures before the Coast Guard could climb up to take the flag down. He had been touched by his daughter’s Irish pride, and by her way of making a statement–regardless of risk.
Almost like his sculptures; he called them “sandcastles,” which called to mind gentle beaches, families building fragile towers in the sand at the water’s edge. But John’s installations were sharp, kinetic, made of rock and fallen trees, dangerous to build.
Now, on this craggy headland in West Cork, the spiky top of his latest–the bare, unadorned branches of a tree that had fallen somewhere, hauled here by John–was visible over the next rise, at the edge of a cliff, ninety-foot granite walls that dropped straight into the churning sea.
Honor stood at the bedroom window of the farmhouse he’d rented, looking out. John came out of the shower to stand behind her, putting his arms around her and leaning into her. Their clothes lay in a heap beside the bed. Her sketchpad, abandoned yet again, sat on the desk. She had made a few drawings, but her heart wasn’t in it.
“What were you drawing before?” he asked, his lips against her ear. He sounded tentative, as if he wasn’t sure how she’d respond.
“Nothing,” she said. “You’re the artist in the family.”
Honor pressed against his body, wishing she could turn off her thoughts and give in again to the desire that overtook her every time she saw her husband. She wished he hadn’t asked about her drawing.
She gazed down at the small pile of moonstones–luminous, worn smooth by the waves at the foot of the cliff, a gift from John the minute she’d stepped off the plane–on the desk beside her sketchpad. She knew he’d meant them as a peace offering, but her heart was reluctant to accept it. She felt turned inside out, frayed from the stress of trying to keep up with him. He turned her toward him, pulled her body against his, and kissed her.
“The girls,” Honor said.
“They’re sleeping,” he whispered, gesturing toward their daughters’ room as he tried to pull her back to bed.
“I know,” Honor said, “They’re jet-lagged and exhausted from the excitement of being here, seeing you.”
“But what about you?” he asked, stroking her hair and kissing the side of her neck. He sounded so hopeful, as if he thought maybe this trip could stop what they both felt happening between them, stop what they had always had from slipping away forever. “You’re not tired?”
“Yes, me too,” she said, kissing him. She was beyond tired; of wanting him to come home, of worrying that he’d get hurt or killed working on his installations alone, of wishing he’d understand how worn out she was by the demands of his art. At the same time, she was tired of being blocked. It was as if his intense inspiration had started killing the fire of her own. Even her drawings, such as they were, were of his soaring sculpture just over the next rise. She peered out the window, but the structure was now obscured by today’s wild storm.
He had taken them all to the cliff edge yesterday, when they’d first arrived. He’d shown them the ruins of an old castle, a lookout tower built a thousand years ago. Sheep grazed on the hillsides, impossibly steep, slanting down to the sea. The sheep roamed free, their curly white wool splashed with red or blue paint, identifying them for their owners. They grazed right at the base of John’s sculpture.
It affected Honor deeply–to see her husband’s work here in Ireland. They had dreamed of coming for so long–ever since that day twenty five years ago when she, John, Bernie, and Tom had found the box in the stone wall. Honor knew that John had always felt a primal pull to be here, to try to connect with the timeless spirits of his family, as Bernie and Tom had done years earlier. In this green and ancient land, his own family history meshed powerfully with his artistic instincts, an epiphany in earth and stone.
His sculpture awed her, as his work often did–she found it inspiring, disturbing, stunning, rather than beautiful. She knew the physical effort it took him to drag the tree trunks and branches here to the cliff’s edge, to raise them up and balance them against the wind, to haul rocks into the pile–cutting his hands and forearms, bruising his knuckles. John had hands like a prize-fighter’s: scarred and swollen. Only, it had so often seemed to Honor, that the person he was most fighting was himself.
The sculpture rose up from the land like a castle; echoing the ruins just across the gap. It seemed to grow from the ground, as if it had been there forever, a witness to his family who had worked this land, farmed these fields, starved during the famine. He was descended from famine orphans, and as he and Honor and their daughters walked the property, she had to hold back tears to think of what their ancestors had gone through.
And what John experienced now. He was an artist, through and through. He channeled powers from far beyond his own experience–became one with the ghosts, and the bones, and the spirits that had suffered and died. That’s why he’d come to Ireland alone–to haunt the Cobh docks from which his family had emigrated, to drink in the pubs, and to build this monument to his Irish dead.
His sister Bernie–Sister Bernadette Ignatius–was probably the only person who really understood him. Honor loved him, but she didn’t get what drove him, and she was also a little scared of him. Not that he’d ever hurt her or the girls, but that he’d die in pursuit of his art. It wore her down, it did.
She’d felt exhausted yesterday, standing at the base of his huge, ambitious, soaring, reckless installation. How had the wind and the weight of his materials not carried him over the edge of the cliff? How had the storm-scoured branches, the bark stripped right off them, not fallen on him and crushed him? Alone on this headland, he would have never gotten help.
“You did this alone,” she’d said to him while the girls explored the headland. The sculpture rose above them–in silhouette it had what she had failed to notice before, a cross set at the top, to mirror not the castle ruins, but Bernie’s chapel across the sea.
“No,” he said. “I had some help.”
“Who? Did Tom fly over?”
“No, Tom’s too busy at the Academy,” John said. “This was a local guy, an Irishman I met…”
Something about the way he trailed off made Honor stop asking. Strange people were sometimes drawn to John because of his work. He unlocked the souls of all kinds of people–there was something about the soaring, spiritual, seeking nature of what he did that spoke to the hurt and troubled. She shivered at the way John looked now, his lips tight, as if there was a back-story to his assistant that she was better off not knowing.
“Have you taken the pictures yet?” Honor asked.
He shook his head–was that sorrow, or regret? He glanced around the headland, as if on guard against a threat.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her skin crawling.
He hesitated. She saw him peer at the sky, then at the sea, at low black clouds gathering along the horizon. And he decided to lie; regarding the weather, it was true in its own way, but it obscured his real concern, so Honor wouldn’t have to worry too.
“I haven’t gotten any decent shots yet,” he said. “The days have been too sunny, which is great, and makes me so glad that you and the girls got to see Ireland in the sun. But I need some shadows and rain, to get the atmosphere the piece needs.”
His work was a two-part process; he built sculptures from materials gathered entirely from nature. Then he photographed them, and let nature take the work apart again. The wind, or the sea, or a river, or gravity would destroy what he had done, but the photographs would last forever. Very few people actually saw his installations–Honor and the girls, Bernie and Tom were among the people who did. But the world–art lovers, environmentalists, and dreamers–knew the photographs of John Sullivan.
“Looks like you’re getting your wish,” she said, pointing at the dark clouds scudding along the horizon.
“Maybe,” he said, hugging her. “Then we can go home.”
It had struck her, almost bitterly, how tender he sounded. John was never in a hurry to get home; he made a life of his work, and his family had to fit in around his trips and installations. But she also felt some hope–he wanted
to come home this time. She wasn’t begging him. She believed he knew how close they were to losing their marriage.
He had called the girls over yesterday, let them pet some of the sheep, showed them the stone walls, famine walls built during the 1840’s by his ancestors, starving to death and worked to the bone. He pointed at the maps he’d brought from Connecticut, shown them how the walls corresponded with the ones built by his great-grandfather across the water, on the grounds of Star of the Sea. He told them that the cross on the top of his sculpture lined up perfectly with the one on the top of the Academy’s chapel.
Agnes had wanted to walk on the walls, and Regis had wanted to climb the sculpture, all the way to the cross. Cece had clung to her mother, afraid the wind might blow her off the cliff–even though the sun had been shining, brightening the green, making the blue sea gleam down below, as the wind, barely a whisper that morning, began to pick up.
Honor had pulled Cece into a quiet hollow, sheltered from the stiff wind, and pulled her sketchpad from her jacket pocket. Sitting there, hearing John and the older girls talking and laughing, she had sketched John’s sculpture. An artist herself, she had once been passionately inspired by John’s work–and he by hers. But lately she had just felt daunted. Sketching his sculpture on what felt like the edge of the world, holding her youngest, she remembered some of the joy art had brought her. As John’s work had gained power, she had lost track of herself. Maybe she could turn that around….
Today Ireland’s gentle green was gone, washed away by sheets of cold rain. The fog was gray and constant. Instead of reinforcing her bleak mood, it made her feel happy to be safe and cozy with her family–all together again. An east wind had whipped into a full gale, howling off the sea, blowing whitecaps into spume, churning up the dark bay. Honor felt as if they were on a peninsula at the end of forever.
She felt John’s warm body against hers, wanted to follow him into bed; something about the coziness of their cottage juxtaposed to the dangerous cliff edge made her want him more than ever. But as she started to turn away from the window, she saw the flash of someone passing by.
“Did you see that?” she asked. “Someone on the path–right there.”
John glanced out the window. He frowned and pressed his head against the glass and tried to see through the rain–there were big, muddy footprints through the side yard, leading toward his sculpture, and he caught a glimpse of a tall man hurrying along.
“Who is it?” she asked, watching John pulling on his jeans.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Then why are you getting dressed so fast?” she asked. “I thought–“
“Where are the girls?” he asked.
“In bed,” she said. “We just said…they’re tired from traveling…”
“Honor,” he said. “That guy I told you about. I met him down at the docks in Cobh. I went to do research there, to find out about the ships my family immigrated to America on. And I stopped into a bar, and got to talking to someone–he’s from Connemara, but came down here looking for work. I needed some help with the heavy lifting, and I hired him. Gregory White.”
“He helped you?”
“Yes, I paid him. But now he won’t leave me alone. He keeps coming back for more work, more money, and when I told him there wasn’t any more, he vandalized my sculpture. Tore off some of the branches and threw them off the cliff. Knocked the cross off, so I had to climb up and put it back.”
“Why did he do that?”
John shook his head. “I don’t know. Greg’s messed up. Drinks a lot. I made the mistake of telling him about the gold ring, and now he’s convinced there’s pirate gold buried on the land. He’s nuts. We got into a fight, Honor. He was screwing with my work, and I told him I’d kill him if he did it again.”
“What makes you think that was him just now? Couldn’t it be someone else, just taking the coast path?” Honor asked, even as she started to shiver. Grabbing her robe, she suddenly felt cold, as if the wind were rattling through the windowpanes and into her bones. She felt her heart plummet. She and John had been doing so well since she and the girls arrived, and now this….
“On a day like this?” John asked. She saw the rage building in his muscles; his shoulders seemed to double in size when he got this mad. It was never at her, but she felt it all the same. “Goddamn it. Goddamn it. If he does something else to the installation, I swear to God. The whole bar heard me tell him what I’d do to him. I warned him!”
“John, stop it!”
“Call the garda, Honor. The police. The number’s by the phone. I’ve had it with this. Tell them to come to the Old Head. Ballincastle, right?”
“John, don’t go out in this,” she said, staring into the bleak, ferocious weather. Even as she spoke, he opened the door. The wind howled, blowing papers in a cyclone around the room. John’s eyes met Honor’s, but he didn’t even speak. He just left the house, slamming the door.
This was her life, she thought. One minute in John’s arms, and the next–if the spirit moved him, impelled him into a fifty-knot gale–left standing alone to wonder what had just happened. She heard her own words of the last moments echoing in her ears: “John stop–please, John–don’t!”
She felt as if she had somehow become the mother of a stubborn, willful boy. What had happened to the Honor who’d climbed hills with him, stretched the limits on her own art?
“Where’s Dad going?” Regis asked, sleepy, coming through the door in her nightgown.
“He’s checking on his sculpture,” Honor said, picking up the phone, wishing Regis hadn’t chosen this moment to wake up.
“Who are you calling?” Regis asked.
“Go in with your sisters,” Honor said, covering the receiver. “Right now, Regis!”
Looking alarmed, Regis backed into the bedroom as her mother dialed. Honor reached over, pulled the door tightly shut, just as the Irish voice answered: “Gardai.”
“This is Honor Sullivan,” she said. “My husband asked me to call you–he’s built a sculpture on Ballincastle, at the Old Head, and he said someone, Gregory White, has been damaging it. We saw someone pass by on the coast path outside our house–John thinks it was him, that he’s here now, and he asked that you send help.”
“What’s that name again?”
“My husband’s name is John Sullivan, and the man is Gregory White. We’re at Ballincastle,” Honor said, edging toward the window, her heart starting to pound. She could barely see ten feet in front of the house, through curtains of rain. The footprints seemed deeper, closer. Peering over the rise, she couldn’t even glimpse John’s sculpture, couldn’t see the cross.
“Would Gregory White be the same man whose life your husband threatened? We’ve been called to pull your husband off him before.”
“Just get here!” she cried.
Then, just before the connection was broken, she heard the voice chuckle and say “the monstrosity…” As if the person had spoken to someone standing there, speaking of John’s sculpture…
?” Honor asked.
But the phone line was dead. She pulled her robe around her tighter. John got lots of reactions to his work; people loved it or hated it. Not like Honor’s paintings and drawings–her landscapes of the countryside and seashore around Black Hall. They were quiet, pretty, popular…safe. She had lost the way to her deepest forces and inspiration, but her students at Star of the Sea, where she was the art teacher, wouldn’t know that.
Right now, hearing the police belittle John’s work, she felt her blood boiling. Should she go after him now, try to help? She wavered, leaning against the windowpane. What if he needed her? Who was Greg White, and why was he trying to destroy John’s work? Her skin crawled at the though that her husband could be in danger. She felt the pit in her stomach, deep and terrible. The police said John had threatened his life. What kind of fight had they had in that bar?
Oh God, she was so on edge. She always was; this trip to Ireland had felt like a walk across razor wire. Her chest hurt; it felt so heavy, as if her heart was turning to stone. When it came to John, she hardly knew what to do anymore. She had three young daughters, and she was always worried and afraid that they would lose their father. Almost worse, she felt that she and John had lost their connection. There were moments she didn’t think she could take it another day.
Regis had seen her crying just before they’d come over to Ireland. She’d found Honor in her studio, bending over a handful of John’s photographs–silvery pictures of the ice caverns he’d sculpted when they were young, after a blizzard had blanketed the Connecticut shoreline. She remembered that John had worked until he had frostbite. He had wound up in the ER. Honor had wept for the young couple they had been, for her young husband who had thought he had to push himself that far, for the way he hadn’t let up on himself at all. Regis had seen her weeping and asked in a strangled whisper, “Are you and Daddy going to get divorced?”
“Mommy?” Agnes called now, from inside the farmhouse bedroom.
“What, honey?” Honor asked, not wanting to move away from the window.
Outside, a siren sounded–thread-thin, it was swept away by the wind, making Honor wonder if she had heard it at all.
“Mommy…” Agnes said again, slowly and quietly.
“Don’t tell her,” Cece said in a stage whisper. “Regis said not to!”
Honor turned quickly at that. She walked into the bedroom shared by all three girls–just like at home–and saw her two youngest daughters sitting on Agnes’s bed.
“Where’s Regis?” she asked.
“That’s what I wanted to tell you,” Agnes whispered.
“But we’re not supposed to,” Cece said. “Regis said not to.”
“Said not to tell me what?”
“Don’t,” Cece warned, looking at Agnes.
“She went out to help Daddy!” Agnes blurted out.
“No,” Honor said. “Please, no.”
Honor was frozen. She heard the siren again, or thought she did. Doubting her hearing, she couldn’t ignore the feeling in her blood. It was cold, as if her heart had started pumping ice, and she knew before she knew.
She ran to the window, then to the door. Pulling it open, she felt the storm’s force flatten her against the wall.
She was barefoot, dressed in her robe, but she ran outside. Her feet sank in the cold mud. The younger girls were right behind her, beside her.
“Get back inside!” she ordered them
“We’re scared,” Agnes shrieked. “Don’t leave us alone.
She grabbed their hands. Breathless, they ran toward John’s sculpture. It had looked like an ancient castle against the sky, but now she couldn’t see it at all. Driving rain and fog obliterated everything, blurred the rocky cliffs, the green hills. Even the sheep looked like clouds blowing off the sea. Honor heard another siren, and had to jump back with the girls, allowing the police car to pass on the narrow road, blue light flashing.
“Mommy, what’s wrong?” Agnes cried.
“What’s happening?” Cece wailed.
Honor was scared, too. Trembling, she held the girls’ hands. Small rocks on the road cut her feet. The blue lights sparked up ahead, showing the way. She scanned the hillside for John’s sculpture, but couldn’t see it–until they rounded the corner, and she saw the trunks and branches toppled over, lying on the ground at the very edge of the cliff. The gardai had clustered at the precipice, looking down.
“Regis!” Honor cried. “John!” Then, “Girls, stay here–right here!”
Dropping her younger daughters’ hands, she tore across the field. Breathless, she stopped at the brink. Daggers stabbed her eyes–silver knives of wild rain. She couldn’t bear to look. The cliff was ninety feet high; the wind blew her back, and she had to inch her way forward. Weighted with dread, it took super-human effort to look down the jagged cliffs falling to the sea.
Expecting to see everything she loved crashed on the rocks ninety feet below, she gasped to see the narrow ledge just twenty feet down. A man’s body lay crumpled on the rock, blood spreading from his head. Regis, her lips blue-white with shock, stood beside his body, a woman’s officer’s arms around her. John looked up at Honor, his blue eyes sharp with rage, meeting hers just as the gardai snapped handcuffs on his wrists.
“John,” she called down the ledge.
“He tried to kill Regis,” John said.
“He tried to kill my baby,” John said. “So I killed him.”
“Don’t say anything else,” Honor said.
“It’s too late,” an officer said, shoving him. “He’s already proved he has a history of violence, and fifteen people heard him threaten this man. The fall didn’t do that to his head. You heard him. That’s a confession.”
They led John and Regis up the narrow path from the ledge to the hillside, past the destroyed sculpture, and Honor grabbed Regis, her sobs a muffled keening as the wind shrieked in their ears and the rain pelted their faces, and John was taken away.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Sandcastles by Luanne Rice. Copyright © 2006 by Luanne Rice. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.