I closed the book Dubliners, the words of the story “Araby” lingered in my mind. It brought back memories of my first love, maybe my only love, though I have loved several women since. Her name was Shannon after the River Shannon in Ireland. Though she was not Irish and had no Irish blood in her as far as I knew, still she was named for the river the Irish call Abha na Sionainne. I was in the fourth grade and she was my baby sitter.
She sat afternoons with my sister and me after school, watched over us and kept us out of trouble until my mother came home from her job in the cotton mill. Some afternoons she played the piano my mother kept insisting I practice on. Her fingers made their graceful way across the keyboard, giving voice to the notes Beethoven wrote. It was such a lovely sound that it always moved me, sometimes to tears, sometimes filling me with joy. Even today, I cannot hear Beethoven without stopping and letting my imagination recreate those moments when Shannon sat at the piano.
About six, Mother came through the door and hugged us, not once but twice, as if she was making sure we were real and not something from her imagination. Then Shannon gathered up her things and off she disappeared into the evening. The setting sun created a glow around her that made me think of the angel in the picture above my mother’s bed.
I returned Dubliners to its place on the bookshelf. My wife out of town and off tending to her sick sister, I had the house alone. It was getting late and there would be an early morning the next day. All that was left for me to do was let the dog out for one quick run around the yard, then it would be bed for both of us.
The night had turned chilly, so I ran with the dog to keep warm. Five minutes of this running and she was ready to come in for the night. I lay down in my bed with the Irish terrier at its foot. But it was not a night for sleep. It was a night for ghosts.
Not meaning to I had betrayed my first love. One night I sneaked out and followed her home. I was desperate to know her better. Where did she live? Who was her family? She walked a half mile or so until she came to a beat-up old trailer. It was unpainted and rusting, its door only half hinged to the front. I peeked through a window and looked into the interior. Only shadows made by the moonlight revealed what was inside.
She went to a cabinet and pulled out a glass and filled it with water. Slicing a loaf of bread, that was her supper. She got up and walked over to a nearby dresser. For the first time, I realized one leg was shorter than the other. Her back to me, she pulled the pins out of the bun on her head, her black hair falling, falling to the floor like an endless stream of water. She undid the necklace around her neck and laid it out before her. I watched, fascinated, yet also curious to see the real Shannon as she removed her makeup, rinsed her face, dropped her dress.
A fallen branch snapped under my foot. Shannon faced me. No, I couldn’t believe it. It could not be. It was her face, but it wasn’t her face. Horrified at what I had seen, I dashed home as fast as I could.
Though I never saw Shannon again, I am haunted by that night and how I broke the heart of the woman I loved. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up to the sound of music as her fingers touch the keys of my mother’s piano downstairs.