In the Peat

by Dan Fuchs


 Portrait of the author as a much younger man, during a literary pilgrimage to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, Summer, 1988.

The night Laurelyn and I planned our Ireland trip was the same night I came to understand she no longer loved me and never would again.  We were out for dinner not far from our apartment in Madrid, at a place we’d wanted to try for a while on the Traviesa del Nuncio, overlooking the viaduct and the royal palace.  Laurelyn was reading. Her tousled red hair came alive in the jumping candlelight, and her freckles seemed to blink on and off like tiny lamps beneath her skin.  

I finished mopping up the last of the squid ink sauce with a still warm hunk of Spanish bread, its crust hard enough to saw the roof of my mouth, the insides soft as butter.  I sat back in my chair, admiring the view of floodlit landmarks.  It was a moment full of possibility, with the makings of that rarest of occurrences: the Perfect Moment.  As travelers around Europe since fleeing upstate New York soon after graduation from college, we’d at one time fancied ourselves collectors of these moments, and we’d come close to that elusive perfection on a few occasions.  Most notably, there was the time we got caught in a rainstorm in Perigord, France.  We had to ditch our rented bicycles and duck into an abandoned car in a remote field.  We laughed and shrieked, shutting the doors of the musty, old Citroen, the deluge tapping a crazy rhythm on the faded vinyl roof.  Without speaking, we grabbed at the various buttons, clasps and releases on each other’s clothing like our lives depended on it.  That was only a few short months ago – certainly less than a year, but it now felt so far gone.

“That was so good,” I said now, as I did then, this time referring to the pasta in squid ink I’d just devoured.

“You say that about everything you eat,” Laurelyn said, flipping through our dog-eared copy of Let’s Go Ireland.

“Not true.”

“You like everything,” she muttered.

“I like most food, but not all,” I protested, taking a kind of stand.

“Name any food you don’t like.”

“Fresh monkey brains.”

“That you’ve tried.”

I gave it some thought and did finally recall a dish I’d tried since we’d rented our place on Cava de San Miguel:  Orejas a la Brava.  (Ears with Brava sauce.)

“You ate them,” she said, “and then complained about them later.”

“I ate one pig’s ear and had to spit it out.”

“We need to start making some concrete decisions about this trip,” Laurelyn said, changing the subject and tapping the open book with her nail-bitten fingertips.  

“It wasn’t the flavor so much as the texture,” I said, still on the pig’s ears.  

“We need to go by AmEx in the morning and buy travelers checks.”

“Unmistakably like chewing on, well, on an ear.”

“Are you even listening to me, Carl?”

Her eyes fixed on mine, their butterscotch brown reflecting the candlelight.  The way they shot up at me from the pages of the guidebook made me feel like a rat transfixed by a cobra.

“Yes.  Ireland.  Planning.  So let’s do it.  Let’s plan it.  What do you have so far?”  I gestured toward the guide, in the hopes she might return her laser gaze to its pages.

She shut the book, never taking her eyes off me.

“What?” I asked.

“Maybe we shouldn’t.”

“What are you talking about?”  I had to shake the haze of the red wine they’d paired with the pasta negra.  It was a heavy Rioja, high in alcohol content. 

She sat there, shoulders straight, her copper hair in the characteristic, unkempt arrangement.  Still, she stared at me, so that I had to repeat myself.

“What?” I said, looking around at the other diners who appeared to pay us no mind.  

“Carl, can I ask you a question?” Her tone was softer now, almost conspiratorial.

“Laurel, come on.” 

“Is this what you want?” she asked, finally looking away to reach for her wine glass.

“Is what what I want?” 

“This.  With me.  The traveling.  Living here.  Being away from home for so long.”

“If I didn’t want it…”

“I know, I know.  You say that, but…”

“I love you, Laurelyn,” I said, interrupting her.

Instead of “I love you too,” Laurelyn said, “Why?”

“Why?”

“Yes.  Why do you love me?” she asked.  The lasers were locked in once more.

“This is ridiculous,” I sputtered, an odd tickle rising somewhere in my gut.  Sometimes our fights brought on a physical response akin to arousal; perhaps I unconsciously anticipated the making up that would come after the tears and vitriol, though I couldn’t remember the last time Laurelyn and I had kissed, let alone made love.

Maybe it was a slight opening in the door, a possible escape route, that aroused me.  The hint of a way out.  Had I said the words “Are you breaking up with me?” she might have answered in the affirmative, and everything from that moment on would have turned out different.  

“Alright,” she said, reclining, backing off.

“Jeez, Laur,” I sighed after a good bit of quiet.

“I’m sorry,” she said, though I don’t think either of us was clear on what about.  Then she moved forward once more in a way that made me lean in to hear her, as if she had a secret to share.

“Can I ask you one more question? Last one, I promise,” she whispered.

I said nothing and waited.

“Do you think we’ll be together forever?”

“You’re drunk,” I answered, tossing a wad of pesetas onto the table.

“Do you?” she asked loudly enough to stop the other conversations in the room for a brief moment of collective embarrassment.

“I’ll see you at home,” I said, feeling righteous.

As I said, this was the conversation that informed me that Laurelyn had stopped loving me.  That she felt the need to ask what she’d asked told me what I had needed to know.  In retrospect, I heard her questions not as interrogatives for me but rather as declarations about her and about her thoughts on the state of our relationship.  “This is not really what I want.” And, “I don’t think you and I will be together forever.”  

I told her none of this.  Instead, I denied it.  I buried it.  Onto Laurelyn I imposed a blistering, non-stop barrage of optimism.  I unloaded my positivity onto her like daily airstrikes.  In the end, she could only relent, and our trip to Ireland proceeded.  

We traveled mostly by rail.  What I noticed right away, along with the sweet and sticky smell of peat smoke that I immediately fell in love with and which seemed to hang in the air everywhere, was Ireland’s eerie lack of young people.  In Dublin, where we first touched Irish soil on a rain soaked morning in mid-March, there seemed only to be old men everywhere, congregating in chummy, wool-clad groups. (I later learned there had indeed been a mass exodus of the young at the time.  The silicon boom that would call them all back was still a good five to ten years down the road.)  The old men of Dublin were kind and deferential; it seemed as if every time we opened up our tourist map, we were swarmed by a new group of them, smelling of coffee or beer or cigarettes or some combination thereof and wanting desperately to help, to be of service.

We did eventually meet other young travelers as we made our way across the country to Galway.  On our train was a squat, tow-headed, red-faced Icelander named Riita, who treated us to vodka she kept cold in a thermos.  We got shitfaced with her, and gave her the name of the Inn where we would be staying in Galway.  Sure enough, she visited us there a couple of days after we arrived, with a red, plastic snow sled in one hand, with the word “HELSINKI” in big, white print down the middle, and a large, flat cardboard box that contained an enormous fillet of smoked salmon.  

“There’s a Burning Spear concert tonight at the University!” she slurred.  “Come with me!”

I was reluctant, wanting instead to spend a quiet evening at the pub just down the block from the inn.  Laurelyn, of course, was in.  

“Come on, Carl!” Riita implored, grabbing my shoulders and shaking me.  Her grip was unusually strong, despite her only standing at five feet, if that.  Her hands felt knobby and muscular.  

I’d seen Burning Spear back when they’d come through our college town and played a free outdoor show on campus.  Suffice it to say that anyone in attendance that day succumbed to the cloud of cannabis smoke that hung over the park for the two hours or so they performed.  I had a vague recollection of enjoying myself, but nearly all the shows I went to during that phase of my youth became “hazy” at best as the years went by.  

It was at the show in Galway that we met Ileana.  She and Riita had apparently crossed paths previously, in some youth hostel or another, somewhere along the way.  Ileana was tall, athletic, and undeniably striking.  Her hair was short, and she had an imperfect smile; she was from a place where pediatric dentistry was unheard of, or at least that was my guess.  Ileana never came to tell us where she was from.  

The reason we never learned of Ileana’s national origin is because of all the things we did come to learn about her, in a very short span of time.  The two women came back to our room with us after the show, where we’d smoked and drunk throughout. Riita barely made it in the door before stumbling onto a settee and falling into a heavy, snoring sleep.  I placed my overcoat on her like a cover, and she pulled it up so that only the tips of her Nordic blonde hair protruded.  There she would stay, just like that, snoring loudly, till morning.  

Ileana laughed and said something like, “That Riita.”

“Drinks?” I asked, unpacking a bottle of Jameson’s we’d been nursing since our arrival.

We each had a glass, and then Ileana blushed as she confided in us that she was a psychic.   She said it very matter-of-fact, as she would have told us she was a nurse, or a waitress.  

“Really?” Laurelyn said, her eyes wide with childlike, drunken wonder.

“I knew you were going to say that!” I said.

“Carl,” Laurelyn scolded.

“Funny,” smiled Ileana.

“Do you tell fortunes?” I asked.

“Well I don’t call it that.  I do readings.”

“We used to read the Tarot!” I said, remembering nights in a friend’s apartment off campus, when we would stay up late and ply ourselves with a variety of intoxicants, and read our set of cards, with a paperback book that came with them in a package.  

“Carl!” she said again, louder this time.

“I’d like to do something with you first,” Ileana said, her crooked smile and chestnut brown eyes sending a shiver straight down to my loins.  

“Sure, what?” Laurelyn enthused.  

“I’d like very much to adjust your auras.”

I let out a guffaw that didn’t seem to faze Ileana, who turned her calm, beatific smile first to me and then to Laurelyn, who swatted my shoulder with the back of her hand.

“Oh sorry.  You were serious.”  I’d expected something else – the offer that had eluded me for so long, of group sex, of a ménage a trois, a threesome, the kind of party that I used to read about in Penthouse Forum as a kid:  “I’m just a regular Joe from a small, Midwestern town, and I never thought anything like this would ever happen to me.”  This was the Jameson talking, of course; the fact was Laurelyn and I hadn’t touched each other in ages; we were more like brother and sister now than lovers.

“You first, Laurelyn?” she offered, her expression unchanged.  

Riita farted in her sleep, which only momentarily distracted us.  

“Yeah definitely!” Laurelyn giggled.  Ileana had her stand with her back and heels against the wall, the way my father used to do before marking my height on the pantry door each year growing up.  

“Just relax,” Ileana said.  “Just breathe.”  

Ileana directed Laurelyn in her breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth.  “Take a deep breath in, over the throat, down through the chest, fill up your lungs and hold. Hold.  Hold.  Now out of your lungs, up through your chest, over your throat and hold.  Hold.  Hold.”

I lit a peat log in the small, ancient-looking fireplace that had made this room such a draw, according to Let’s Go.  As Ileana repeated this rhythmic direction, I lay back on the bed and closed my eyes.  I allowed my mind to wander, as I too matched my breathing to Ileana’s.  The smell of the peat log floated over to me in an agreeable way and I smiled, my eyes closed.  The bed was spinning, but only slightly, not enough to nauseate me.  I imagined Ileana and Laurelyn kissing, which they weren’t doing.  I’d opened my eyes briefly to check, and Laurelyn’s eyes were closed; she had given in fully to this experience.  Ileana appeared to be pushing an invisible force field this way and that around the outline of Laurelyn’s body, her palms out, working together.  The image was so comical I almost laughed out loud again, and any chance of creating a full-on sexual fantasy, let alone having an actual threesome, was gone forever.  

“How did that feel?” Ileana asked when it was over.  I had dozed off.

“Oh wow, that was great,” Laurelyn answered, her eyes bright with gratitude.  “Thank you.”

“You were in need of that,” said Ileana.  “It’s violet now.  Your aura.  Before, it was almost brown.”

“Violet? Really?” Laurelyn said in her childlike way.

“Really?” I added, sincerely.  “I don’t see a color.”

“Shall I do yours?” she asked, turning her attention to me.

“Yes.  Do Carl’s.  Definitely,” Laurelyn said, stretching.  She looked serene for the first time in as long as I could remember.

“Yeah?” Ileana asked in a way I found irresistible.  

“Yeah,” I said.  “Sure.”

I was self-conscious standing against the wall with this beautiful stranger breathing so close to me.  I peeked at her when I was supposed to have my eyes closed and was surprised to see her just inches away.  Our lips were nearly touching.  She had a lovely, beatific smile on her face that made the blood rush to points south. 

“So?” I asked, stepping away.

“So?” she echoed.  

“How’s the old aura looking?”

“Actually, your aura is very beautiful.  I didn’t have to change much.  It’s among the most lovely I’ve seen.” 

“No shit,” I said.  

“No shit.”

“Really?” Laurelyn said.  She sounded surprised.  Disappointed, even.

“Does that shock you?” I asked.  I barely knew what an aura was, or if I even believed I had one, but the fact that Laurelyn would question mine pissed me off big-time.  

“It can mean many things,” Ileana said.  “In this case, I think maybe Carl you are in very good touch with your antecedents, no?”

I didn’t quite get what she meant.  “Like my family tree? My ancestors?”

“Your antecedents.  Your ‘previous incarnations.’”

“My former selves?”

“Okay yes,” Ileana smiled.  “Your former selves, yes.”

“So what about me?” Laurelyn asked so pathetically, I almost felt bad for her.  “What about my antecedents?”

“I had to adjust for much negativity,” she said.  “You are blocking out the joy.”

“Damn straight,” I almost said aloud.                             

                                                                                                                                                                                                            I slept late the next day; when I got up at around noon, Riita was nowhere to be found.  The only trace she’d left behind was the red Helsinki sled.  I had passed out shortly after Ileana had finished my aura adjustment.  The last thing I remembered was Laurelyn laughing – way too hard, in my estimation – at something Ileana had said as she was walking out the door, excusing herself politely.    Now, Laurelyn was finishing up getting dressed in her Clash Combat Rock t-shirt, charcoal grey Levis, and Doc Martens.  She looked cute, the way she looked when we first got together during my junior, her sophomore year.  

“You going somewhere?” I asked, realizing these were the first words either of us had said to each other today. 

“Huh? Oh, yeah.”  Laurelyn put on her leather biker jacket and her checkered keffiyeh scarf and reached for the doorknob.  

“Where you headed?” I asked in what I hoped was an affable tone.

“Carl…”

“Yes?”

“Can you just…”  She didn’t seem able to say whatever it was that she’d wanted to say.

“Can I just what?”

“Nothing.  I’m sorry,” she said, relenting.  “I’m going with Ileana to a national park.  Connemara.  It’s a day trip.”

“I thought we were going to do a hike around town today,” I said.  

“Carl.”

“We planned it out.  Remember? In the book.”

“Just let me go, Carl,” she pleaded.  “Can you finally just please let me go?”

So I did.

And then I followed her.  

My daughter Isabel is going to be twelve soon.  She and I love to watch NOVA together on our local PBS station.  Honestly, I don’t normally pay much attention to whatever it is they’re showing; for me, it’s more about the pure enjoyment of watching my daughter learn, but something about this particular episode catches my interest.  The dour, English-sounding announcer describes the scene, and I’m transported immediately back in time.

“The smell of the peat bogs of Connemara is something one never forgets,” he intones. 

“Daddy, are those mummies?” Izzy asks in that way that makes me want to have the answer to every question she’ll ever have.

“Shush now.  Let me watch,” I say.  

“Every so often, these peat cutters make a grisly discovery.  ‘Bog bodies,’ as they’re called, preserved almost perfectly in the peat.”

The presenter goes on to give the names of several of the more famous specimens dug out of the muck in the past few centuries – Gallagh Man, Meenybraddan Woman,  Oldcroghan Man.

“I’ve been there,” I tell Isabel in a joyless monotone, pointing.  “I’ve been to that place.”

I’m breathless as I wait to see what they have found.  The sweet, cloying stench of the peat smoke wafts in through the doors and windows of my memory, so thick, I lose track of my daughter and have to call out to her through the haze.


Dan is a longtime writer and educator who lived in Madrid, Spain for two years shortly after graduating college in the late eighties.  He taught English as a Foreign Language, worked on his writing, and had many European adventures from his home base in Madrid.He has since written several as yet unpublished novels, and numerous short stories.  Dan currently lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and two teenage sons.  He continues to write fiction, and works as an administrator in a local public high school.  You can read Dan’s work at oldschoolnavelgazer.blogspot.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @oldschlnvlgazer, and on Instagram @dan.2496.  

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