As Andy opened the door to O’Grady & Son, a hammering sound and a fragrant mélange of coffee, fresh-cut wood, and linseed oil escaped the shop. “The place seems safe enough to enter.”
Suzanne nodded her thanks and went in. Neither she nor Andy spoke, for the man behind the counter was clearly immersed in his sharp-tooled task. He wielded a mallet and chisel at a piece of wood clamped in a vise, tapping the tools in different beats as if he were playing an instrument.
From the silver invading the woodcarver’s ginger hair and beard, Andy placed him in the foothills of his fifties, the same age as his father. This had to be O’Grady. He wore a tan fishing vest whose pockets brimmed with metal files and other tools. Beneath the vest was a faded plaid shirt rolled up at the sleeves.
At a pause in the work, Andy called to him: “Mr. O’Grady?”
“Yeah, hang on,” he growled without looking up. “I’ll be right with yez.”
Andy exchanged places with Suzanne so she could view the pieces in the window, a tidier space than the rest of the cluttered workshop. While she checked out the figurines, he inspected what struck him as the habitat of a mad genius.
Blocks of wood, scraps of sandpaper, and curled wood shavings shared counter space with old design books and cans brimming with nails and screws. Maps and calendars lined those parts of the walls devoid of ancient saws and drills. Power tools crowded a corner table. Sawdust coated everything.
Yet the front of the shop where O’Grady displayed his goods was neat enough. Suzanne seemed mesmerized by the wooden figures lined up in the window like soldiers.
“See anything interesting?” Andy spoke softly. It wouldn’t do to have O’Grady think they wanted something badly.
“Yes,” she whispered back. “All the bogwood things, but I especially like the horse.” The furtive glance she shot at O’Grady suggested she knew the rules of bartering.
Andy looked forward to the game. “Pick up something else.”
“Okay.” She chose a fish with its tail in the air.
“The Salmon of Knowledge,” O’Grady said, his deep voice pulsing over the shop like a magical incantation. “The fish who held all the world’s secrets.” Wiping his hands on a cloth that might once have been white, he came toward them. Unsmiling.
Andy frowned. What sort of Irishman welcomed his guests without a smile?
The man continued his salmon tale. “All you had to do was catch him and eat him. The old stories say that when the boy who later became Finn MacCool, the leader of the Fianna, was cooking him, he burned his thumb. Stuck it in his mouth. Suddenly, he knew everything.” He tossed the cloth over his shoulder, paying no mind to where it landed, and held out his hand to Andy. “Ronan O’Grady, lad. What can I do for yez today?”
Alert for signs of roguery, Andy shook the man’s hand. “Andy Connigan, Mr. O’Grady.”
“I’m not sure.” She put the fish back in the window. “I can’t decide. You have so many stunning things.”
“Call me Ronan, lad. Mayo man, yeah?”
“I know a Connigan or two in Westport. Are you related to Ben?”
“He’s my father.”
At last, a smile stretched the woodcarver’s beard to his ears. “Good man, Ben. Brings the tourists to see me.” He shifted his gaze to Suzanne. “Who have we here?”
“This is Suzanne Ingerson," Andy said. "From America. She’s looking for a souvenir to remind her of her visit.”
Suzanne and O’Grady exchanged hellos. “Has the salmon caught your fancy, Suzanne? I have bowls and cutting boards, and jewelry boxes that might better suit a lady.”
“What are you working on?” Andy nodded toward the work area, a diversion to let him think how to best protect Suzanne from a shifty gombeen man looking to make a quick profit from a woman he viewed as a rich American ripe for plucking.
“Christmas pieces,” O’Grady said. “Nativity sets. Tree ornaments. Santa and his reindeer. Should have a good supply finished by October. I do custom orders too,” he said, addressing Suzanne. “If you’ve a mind for something special—”
Her dazzling smile appeared. “I’m curious about the different types of wood you use.”
She seemed on guard. Her crisp yet cordial tone reminded Andy that she was a competent businesswoman, one who could look after herself and direct a conversation to her liking. Still on guard himself, he leaned against the counter to watch the fun.
“I only use native Irish wood,” O’Grady said. “Beech, oak, and ash, mostly.”
Suzanne gazed around the shop, as if she were searching for something. “I see. What about bogwood? The pens in the craft store up the street aroused my curiosity. I’ve never seen bogwood before. The lady there thought you might have some pieces to show us.”
“Ah, Bridie. There’s a few fine samples behind you, but I can’t take credit for making them. My father did. He preferred the bogwood. Said it told him stories.”
Andy relaxed, though he still thought O’Grady was malware incarnate. “Did he obtain it locally?”
“He did. Used to walk the bogs and bring home bits and bobs of it. The neighbors helped him dig out the bigger lumps. He put them in the shed to dry. It sometimes took four years before he could work it, which is another reason I don’t care for it. And I find that it’s reluctant to show me the pictures inside it. The new wood reveals the images faster.”
Suzanne pretended to see the bogwood pieces for the first time. “Which ones are bogwood, Mr.—I mean, Ronan?”
He stepped closer. “The dark ones at the back. Once my father finished them, they told me stories too. They still do. I sometimes feel he left a piece of his spirit in them.”
If Andy’s father hadn’t said similar things about his whistles and flutes, he might have thought O’Grady insane. “How did your father become a woodcarver?”
“He started out as a carpenter, and I’ll tell you, he struggled to earn his crust. My brother and I became carpenters too. Cabinet makers. Good work, but not as steady as we’d have liked. My brother went off to Australia to push his fortune. Sent for his wife soon after. Broke my father’s heart. He hoped to see them before he died, but it wasn’t to be, and I haven’t seen them in years.” His smile had faded away.
“I’m so sorry,” Suzanne said.
“Ah, those aren’t things I meant to say. I’ll try to stick to the subject. My father loved carving wood better than anything. When his age started coming against him, he bought the old grocery shop here and quit the carpentry. The woodcarving gave him a decent living. ‘It destroys the craft not to learn it,’ he’d tell me, and so, I divided my time between my job and the shop to help him out and learn the carving. I can pass myself, but I’ll never have his knack for it. ‘Do it as if there was fire in your skin,’ he’d say. ‘It’s no delay to stop to edge the tool.’ He’d eighty-eight years put over on him when he got into bad health and passed. For the last ten years or so, I’ve worked exclusively in the shop, and I’ve found it no hardship. My hair can turn gray in peace here.”
“You’ve spent your time well, Ronan,” Andy said to move things along. “Your work is impressive.”
“Thank you, lad. I try to make what the markets want, but my father had no care for markets. ’Twas the old tales inspired him.” O’Grady waved his hand toward the window display. “If you look, you’ll see a banshee and a fairy or two. There’s Cuchulain with the raven on his shoulder, and there’s old Brian Boru himself.”
Without warning, Suzanne bent and grabbed the horse, a muscular beast about six inches wide and eight inches tall at its highest point.
“What about this one? I’ve heard of the others you mentioned, but I’ve never heard any Irish tales about horses.”
“’Twas one of my father’s favorites. A local legend. George McNamara, the Robin Hood of Mayo. The horse is Venus, his favorite mare.”
“A mare.” A dreamy look came over Suzanne’s face. “How much does it cost?”
She’d asked too quickly. O’Grady would play hardball now.
Lips pressed together, he shook his head. “There’s no price tag because it’s not for sale. None of the bogwood pieces are.” He took the horse from her.
Suzanne slumped against the counter. Her mouth opened and closed several times before she could speak. “Are you kidding? So why are they in the window?”
“Those pieces are priceless. No amount of money can buy them.”
“I’ll pay you a fair price, Ronan. Please reconsider.”
Andy took her arm. “Sorry to waste your time, Mr. O’Grady. We’d best be on our way.”
“Will you so? Sure what hurry is on yez? And we’re back to Mr. O’Grady, are we? Where did the Ronan go? Come out back, and we’ll have a cuppa tea.”
“I really don’t see the point if—”
“I said no amount of money can buy those pieces, lad. I didn’t say we couldn’t bargain.” He stepped to the front door, locked it, and turned the “Open” sign so its “Closed” side showed to the outside world. “Let’s see what can be done.”
Gut tight, Andy took a breath to demand that O’Grady unlock the door, but Suzanne sniffled. The sniffle changed to a hopeful smile. The pleading look she fired at Andy gave him no choice. He released her arm. They followed O’Grady across the floor to the side of the shop, where he opened a door that Andy’s earlier probe had missed.
On the other side, a modern office, complete with a desktop computer and filing cabinets, shared space with a kitchenette and a square wooden table with four matching chairs. A middle-aged woman sat before the computer. She glanced up and smiled.
“Alice, we have company,” O’Grady said as he closed the door. “Be a love and put the kettle on.” He set the horse on the table and pointed to the chairs. “Come in and have a seat, you two. The door doesn’t keep all the sawdust out, but Alice looks after this side of the shop well enough. Alice, meet Suzanne from America and Andy from Westport.” As he marched to the sink, he said, “Andy and Suzanne, my wife, Alice. She keeps the books and myself in good order.” He turned on the faucet and washed and dried his hands.
Once everyone had exchanged pleasantries, Andy and Suzanne took seats at the table. O’Grady joined them. His wife set about making tea.
While they waited, Andy took his first good look at the bogwood horse. The black mare rose from a rugged wooden base on hind legs poised to leap. Her forelegs curled in the air in warning, a sense reinforced by the downward slant of her head, akin to that of a charging bull. The curves carved into her shoulders and flanks suggested power and bravery. An invisible wind blew the beast’s thick mane and whipping tail. Andy thought the older O’Grady had been a genius to capture such motion in ancient wood.
“Venus has your attention, lad.”
Still unsure what O’Grady was up to, Andy pretended to smile. “Just admiring the workmanship, Ronan, and thinking about George McNamara. I’ve heard of him. The Robin Hood of Mayo, but I know nothing of Venus. I expect you do.”
Suzanne leaned forward, plainly intent on hearing the story.
O’Grady set his elbows on the table. “George was born to a Catholic family in 1690. Oliver Cromwell’s time. Cromwell took their property away, for the law forbade Catholics from owning land, y’see. None of it stopped George, though. He married a well-to-do Protestant lady. Through her, he became the manager of a large estate near Cong. A gentleman, he was. Educated, a skilled hunter, an expert marksman, and a fine horseman. He planted orchards and built a bakery and brewery, and he took care of his tenants, unlike most of the other landlords. George disapproved of his wealthy neighbors’ mistreatment of their tenants. As was his way, he took action.
“His plans included Venus, a horse with magical powers. How did she get them? George went fishing one day near Lough Corrib. He caught no fish, and he was hungry. When he spied a raven flying about her nest, he climbed up and helped himself to her eggs. He boiled them, but he had second thoughts and put them back in the nest, for all the good it would do. As he watched from behind a rock, the raven swooped down and inspected her eggs. She flew away and soon returned with a smooth black stone in her beak. She rubbed the stone all over the eggs. They hatched moments later. Impossible, but they did. She left to gather food for her chicks, and George stole the stone. He rubbed it all over himself, and didn’t he find that he now had the second sight? No danger could surprise him. No man could refuse him. As soon as he got home, he rubbed the stone all over Venus, his favorite mare.”
At this point, O’Grady’s wife poured the tea. She caught Andy’s eye with a look that said “I’ve heard this a million times,” but she remained silent. So did Andy, still suspicious, yet curious now. He wanted to hear more.
O’Grady picked up his spoon and stirred milk into his tea. “Wearing a mask, George rode Venus onto the highway and robbed the gentry at gunpoint. When he rode away, no one could catch him, for Venus flew like the wind. He hosted parties and pretended to have too much drink taken. After he wobbled off to bed, he’d ride out on Venus and rob the estates of the very guests staying beneath his roof. He distributed the plunder among the poor. The legend caught my father’s fancy. Hence, he spent a lot of time carving Venus, the magical mare.”
“What a wonderful story,” Suzanne said. “The pens in the craft store were bogwood, but they were different colors. Do you know why?”
“I do indeed. Bogwood can be oak, or yew, or pine, or birch. Six or seven thousand years ago, Ireland’s climate turned rainy, and the forests turned to bogs. What’s left of the trees is deep in the bog, where acid changes the wood to different colors. Bog oak turns black. Venus is made of oak. Out in the shop, she told me she’s ready to find a new home, if you’re willing to make a fair trade.”
“All right, Ronan,” Andy said, his tone sharp. “What is it you’re looking for?”
“A song, lad. Only a song.” He crossed his arms. “Give us a song, and Venus is yours.”
Andy gawked at the man and his wife, and then at Suzanne, who silently mouthed an unmistakable “Please.” Her shining eyes made him realize he’d undergo any hardship for her. Singing a song should be easy enough. Ideas of the various ways she might later express her gratitude flooded his thoughts.
“What song were you thinking of, Ronan? Please make it something I know.”
The woodcarver smacked the table. “Good lad! I think you’ll know this one. Give us a song for my brother. I told yez about him. He’s ‘Far Away in Australia.’”
Andy could sing the well-known song in his sleep. He set his hands on his knees and closed his eyes, finding his note, becoming the character in the song. A good, deep breath, and he began.
"Sweetheart, I’m bidding you fond farewell.
I will be yours someday.
I’m bound for a new land, my fortune to try
and I’m ready to sail away."
As always, he lost himself in the song. He barely heard O’Grady, his wife, and even Suzanne, join in on the chorus.
"Far away in Australia, soon will fate be kind
and I will be ready to welcome at last the girl I left behind."
He lilted and trilled the dialogue between the young man and his sweetheart, describing her heartbreak, her long wait to hear from him, and her joy when he sent for her.
After they’d finished the final chorus, the ladies applauded. O’Grady’s hands, however, were otherwise occupied. He was wiping a handkerchief over his eyes.
“Grand,” he said, uncaring, it seemed, that everyone knew he was crying. “Well done, lad. I’ve never heard it sound better.”
Mrs. O’Grady patted his arm. “Nor have I, Ronie. How did you know the lad could sing?”
“He’s Ben Connigan’s boy. You remember Ben. He stops by now and then.”
“The tour guide who plays the tin whistle and flute?”
“That’s him. He’s often mentioned what a fine singer his boy is.”
“He is that, and without so much as a fiddle to play with him. I hear your father’s getting married soon, lad.”
Elated by his father’s praise, Andy confirmed it. “Yes, this Saturday, Mrs. O’Grady.”
O'Grady stuffed the handkerchief somewhere in his fishing vest.
“Andy lad, you’ve done your father proud. The proper shops print what they call a provenance for their artwork. I have only the yellowed cards my father wrote by hand, telling what each piece depicts, the date he completed it, and what it’s made of. I’ll get the card for Venus and wrap her up for you.”
Andy rose as well. “Thank you, Ronan. You’ve made Suzanne a happy lady.”
O’Grady raised an eyebrow. “Me? Ah, not me, lad. Another thing my father used to say: ‘Blessing without equal I give to the makers of music.’”