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Land of Dreams


It was a mysterious day on Fire Island.

The visitors of high summer were gone and the beach at the end of the walkway to our cabin was entirely empty. It was hard to  believe that this thin strip of barrier land off the Long Island shore  was less than two hours’ drive from the teeming chaos of New  York City, followed by a short ferry ride. Although the air was still warm and the sky a sharp blue, I could sense autumn in the swell of the sea. There was no wind to speak of and the white sand along the edge of the beach was as soft and warm as a wool carpet --- yet the waves seemed uncharacteristically high. They lumbered toward the shoreline like an advancing battalion of old, slow soldiers. The gray hills kept coming --- bloated by an invisible wind, rising into fat mounds, line after line of them until, with a gasp of shock, they shuddered into pathetic sandy bubbles on the shoreline.

I sat and watched them for a while, contemplating their rhythmic symmetry, trying to picture in my mind’s eye how I might paint them, when I was interrupted by Tom, who had been playing in the dunes behind me. A brown bobtail rabbit rushed past my eyeline and in its pursuit was my raven-haired seven-year-old son.

“Damn!” he shouted.

“Don’t say ‘damn,’ I said in the admonishing tone I reserved exclusively for him. Tom was so different from his older brother. Leo was serious and beautiful, but remained something of a mystery to me. Tom was an open book—stocky and lively and inquisitive. He looked at me, then pursed his lips and shook his head in frustration as if holding the bad word inside and bouncing it around his head. I struggled to keep myself from laughing. His dark curls were sun-dyed red at their tips after a hot summer at the beach, his cheeky round face littered with freckles. A true child of nature, he was barefoot and dressed in just a pair of torn trousers. He’s entirely unsuited for the civilized world, I thought, just like me! I was flooded with love.


Briefly cornered at the shoreline, the rabbit had stopped for a moment to contemplate its options. Which was the more dangerous: chancing a few hops into the sea and risk drowning, or putting himself in the hands of the raven-haired bounder who had doggedly been pursuing him for weeks? While the rabbit made up its mind, my son suddenly threw himself on the creature in an alarmingly quick and somewhat feral movement.

“Mammy! Help me!” he called as the fluffy bundle flattened itself underneath him, threatening to wriggle out from under  his torso.

I ran across to him in three long strides, my feet struggling to grip the sand.

“Don’t move, Tom,” I said, as I slid my hands under my son’s chest. I quickly took the bunny’s two ankles in one hand, just as it was burrowing an easy escape route through the soft ground.

“Now get up slowly, slowly now . . . ,” I told Tom. “Back there now, easy, easy.”

As my son moved his body aside, lifting each limb individually with comic stealth, I scooped up the bunny with my free hand and held it firmly to my chest. The poor creature was quivering with fear, its ears flattened, playing dead in my arms—as if pretending to be no more than a tan-colored fur muff that I might forget about and cast aside.

“Come on,” I said, “let’s go back to the house and get some breakfast.”

As we walked toward our cabin, Tom swung his arms like a soldier; he was strutting with pride at having finally caught  the rabbit he’d been chasing these past few weeks. He nodded his head up and down the deserted beach, as if acknowledging the cheers of an invisible audience.

When we passed the sand dunes at the back of our house I crouched down so that Tom and I were eye to eye. The rabbit was a hot, silent bundle in my lap, a terrified prisoner.

“Do you want to stroke it?” I asked.

Tom put his small slim fingers into a bunch and stroked the bunny’s forehead; its eyes half opened in an all-forgiving ecstasy.

I looked at my son’s face and it was pure joy, untainted with pain, unsullied by corruption --- full of childish expectation that this feeling of total happiness was his right and would last forever. He had what he wanted now, had finally captured what he had been chasing.

“Thanks, Mam,” he said, “for helping me catch it.”

My heart opened up and snatched the compliment. The more he grew away from me, the greedier I became for the affection of my miniature man—my own maneen, as we called such sons back home in Ireland.

“He’s so soft, Mammy, I love him. I’m going to love him forever.”

A dark cloud moved over the blue sky ahead, and fat drops of rain fell into the sand beside us. Tom put his hand on the rabbit’s head as a makeshift hat, then turned his face skyward in an uncertain grimace, opening his mouth wide to catch the raindrops.

I wanted, in that moment, to indulge him, to give myself over to the mawkish instincts of my love for my baby son, but I knew I had to do the right thing.

I lifted the rabbit from my lap and put it on the sand in front of us. It sat quietly for a moment, unsure that it was really being let go.

“What are you doing?” Tom asked, his hands reaching out for the animal.

I put my arms around his waist and held on to him, saying, “The rabbit doesn’t belong with us, Tom. It’s wild—it needs to go home to its own mammy. It needs to be free.”

“But I love him,” he said, his face collapsing.

“I know you do,” I said, “but the rabbit won’t be happy living with us, and you want him to be happy, don’t you?”

He looked at me uncertainly, struggling to weigh up the rabbit’s well-being against his own desires.

“We have to let him go,” I said, as the animal leaped forward and disappeared into the dunes in one square hop.

Tom broke away and ran toward the house, sobbing. “I hate you! I hate you!” he cried.

I followed behind him, regretting that life lessons were always so hard-learned, and wondering if I should have let him cherish his dream a little longer.

Part One: Fire Island, Long Island Shore, New York 1942

Chapter 1

I stood back and looked at the painting. It was a four-foot-by- six-foot landscape of the dunes in muted gray colors, a barely discernible figure approaching from the distance --- little more than a smear --- representing the mereness of humans  against the magnitude of nature.

It wasn’t my best work. It was a commission from a wealthy industrialist with Irish parentage, who was spending his money for the sentimentality of investing in an Irish artist, more than for loving the art itself, so I wasn’t going to agonize over it for days.

I rubbed my hands together, before poking at the left-hand corner to check that it was dry enough to transport. The studio was cold and, despite having run the gas heater for an hour before going in to start work, the air had the bite of ice to it.

It was late October, but already vague icy patterns were forming on the inside of the small glass windows.

“You’re crazy staying out there all winter,” Hilla, my art benefactor, had said. “You’ll freeze. Think of the children,” she went on, as a last desperate attempt to talk me into going back to Manhattan and the round of society functions and art-world parties she was always dragging me along to.

I smiled when she said it. Hilla didn’t give a damn about my physical well-being; or, indeed, my children. Hilla just cared about art—Non-Objective Painting, to be exact—but she liked me well enough to make an exception for my Abstract Impressionist landscapes. Mostly she missed me as a friend --- and that was one reason why I didn’t want to return to the city. I was tired of the endless round of “doing” and being with other people that, as my benefactor, she dragged me into.

As a young woman, I had relished and craved the social buzz of life in Manhattan. The glamour and freedom there had helped me escape the cloying Catholicism of my poor Irish upbringing --- I thought of New York as my “City of Hope.”

At forty-two, and after eight years living back here full time, the novelty of its social whirl had worn off and I longed only for solitude and quiet in which to paint.           

“You’ll starve,” she finally conceded, but we both knew that wasn't true. My work was popular enough and I had already been paraded about New York society, had fraternized with her friends the Guggenheims and their like, as “Hilla’s new  find, darling: Eileen Hogan—she’s  Irish.”

“Irish? An Irish artist? How unusual!”

How collectible, it turned out. German Abstract Impressionism was old hat at this stage. Irish Abstract art? As far as I could gather, we were few and far between. I liked to think that my work was popular because it was beautiful, serene and dense with color and meaning. I had started painting as a hobby to please myself, in an effort to recapture something of what I missed of Ireland. I was happy with my life in New York, the vibrancy, the people, the anonymity --- but I missed the beauty of my homeland. Postcards and photographs could not express the mixed emotions I felt in memorizing what I missed of the green fields and the crisp air; the soft mist of an autumn morning as it seemed to seep up from the purple bog. So I spread the images as they appeared in my head onto canvas with a paintbrush, daubing dots and lines of color, trying to recapture my past. I tried to believe it was the work itself that earned my success, but there was an element of novelty around me too. Collectors coveted the unusual, and I was not only an Irish Abstract painter living in New York --- but a female to boot. There were two or three notable Irish female artists that I knew of because of Hilla’s contacts in Europe,who were constantly on the lookout: the furniture designer Eileen Gray, a woman called Evie who worked in stained glass and Mainie Jellett --- a “fine painter:  an original artist,” whom Hilla kept threatening to bring over to New York and give my crown to. While I had no intention of giving in to Hilla, I understood that much of her bullying had to do with fear.

Germans were not popular since the war had broken out in Europe, and although Hilla was an artist and argued her lack of bourgeois values, she was, after all, from German aristocratic stock and was surely frightened of losing both her social standing and the good income that her relationship with Solomon Guggenheim—as his art curator—had afforded her. Her tenuous hold on charm was also, I suspected, due to a poisonous and painful relationship with another German artist—Rudolf Bauer—an egocentric fool (and mediocre artist, in my opinion) who undermined her at every turn. Hilla was one of the most powerful people on the New York art scene, but she was a gruff, opinionated person, and was not always easy to like. She had needed a friend when we met, more than she had needed another artist to “mind.” It might have seemed to her, and to others, that I had given her my friendship in return for her patronage, but that truly wasn’t the case. I had earned my own money through working hard and being wily in business all my life—I became an artist because art fed my soul. I had other means by which to feed my body. I had willingly given Hilla my friendship because I knew what it felt like to be an alien in another country. We Irish had always been underdogs, and I recognized her carefully hidden stance of being both uneasy with and proud of her background, at a time when it was very uncomfortable to be German in America.

I had a habit of looking beneath the obviously unfavorable in a person to the vulnerable human who lay beneath the skin. I was good with other people, but I had come to realize that was not necessarily an asset when it came to pleasing myself.

However, in one sense, Hilla was right: It was too cold out here at this time of the year to work with oils. The paint needed heat to help it dry quickly --- but even then, my work had to be handled extremely carefully for up to a year.

Leonardo da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” and never was this  more true than when working with oils, where one could scrape off and start again months after “finishing” a piece of work. “Abandoned” was such a cruel word that I preferred to call it “letting go.”

In any case, I was ready to let go of this landscape.

I took it down from the easel and placed it on the large sheet I had  laid out on the floor, so that the painting was facing up toward me. I could not risk letting the fabric touch the canvas as yet, and had devised a way of wrapping my canvases for transportation to avoid damage. I never painted to the edge of the canvas, but always left a two-inch margin, onto which I placed narrow wooden slats that I carefully screwed into place with the narrowest, shortest screws that would hold it. On top of these I glued two more slats diagonally across, then finally a layer of cardboard pinned on with thumbtacks, before wrapping it all in a cotton sheet.

I had been nervous that my opulent wrapping would make it seem that I was churning my work out with such speed that I didn’t allow it time to dry before cashing the check. However, my agent assured me that the reverse was true. The bare margins and four pin marks had become my trademark --- as distinctive  as a signature --- and the theater of unwrapping my pieces (carefully unpinning the cardboard, unscrewing the pins and, finally, removing the wooden slats) gave a sense of drama and suspense to the proceeding, which was so unique that my clients now enjoyed it as part of the process.

The “unveiling” of an Eileen Hogan was almost as important as the work itself. Such was the nature of the New York art scene that my extensive packing had come to be perceived as a deliberate artistic eccentricity more than a practical necessity. I had spent the vast majority of my life working at practical things --- farming, housekeeping and business --- before entering the whimsical, self- indulgent profession of an artist. Few artists were women at that time, fewer again were mothers like me (none that I knew of, at  least), so the idea that I would feign eccentricity amused me greatly, especially when my agent asked me to wrap all my work in this way, regardless of whether it needed it or not. It was to perpetuate the uniqueness of my Irish heritage that Hilla insisted that I continue to work under my first husband’s name ---Hogan— rather than allow me to adopt Irvington, after I married my second husband, Charles.

I went over to the large wooden cupboard where I kept my supplies and tugged at the swollen drawer. I was out of string. Damn! The shop on the island was poorly stocked at this time of year. Most of the inhabitants of Fire Island were already back in their homes on the mainland, where I knew I should be. Maureen and Bridie, my old friends in Yonkers who ran the homeless community I had helped fund during the Great Depression, wrote every week with news and were, I knew, longing to see me. The apartment in Manhattan, after all the trouble I had gone to, creating an elegant home for me and the boys, lay empty.

Fire Island had been my summer retreat for the past four years, but this year I didn’t want to leave it, even though  I knew it would be a harsh  place to spend the winter. Something inside me had shifted that summer. I was tired. I just wanted to be alone --- and Fire Island in winter was as remote as the Himalayas. Unfortunately, it seemed, it was also as cold. Nonetheless, this  wooden cabin and studio were my haven, the place where I felt most at ease, where I could be alone with my sons and my art, with nothing to distract or bother me. On Fire Island, life stopped, and I didn’t feel ready for my life to start up again.

So much had happened to me; so much kept happening that I could not help but think that I was bringing much of it on myself.

All I wanted now was a simple life that would enable my boys to flourish and me to create meaningful art.

Fire Island was the perfect place for me to hide away, physically and socially, from my hectic life. We were a small community of artists and eccentrics burrowing our simple wooden summerhouses into the dunes. Cherry Grove was the most settled of the Fire Island communities: a tiny village huddled around the dock, with a post office, a hotel and little else. I had bought my tumbledown house and plot for very little and had renovated it more or less myself. My first husband, John, whose death in Ireland had precipitated my move to America, had been a skilled carpenter --- and I knew how to cut wood and handle a hammer as well as any man. The village had built up over the years into a network of wooden buildings. Most of us preferred simple two-story houses behind the sand dunes that ran on either side of this long, narrow strip of barrier island off the Long Island coast. Although we were less than two hours from the city, Fire Island had the remote air of a forgotten land.

During the summer, our beaches were busy with holiday makers, although the crowd who came here was almost entirely bohemian, mostly artists and writers. We creative types prided ourselves on always finding the most beautiful and interesting places to inhabit.

Cherry Grove was also a hub of social activity for homosexuals and lesbians. The bohemian lifestyle provided sanctuary for people who could no longer endure the convention of hiding their preferences. Fire Island allowed them to live an alternative lifestyle --- at least during the summer months and weekends. My nearest neighbor was a wealthy socialite who lived here with her much younger female lover during July, August and September each year. Her husband was content to have his wife do as she pleased during her summer vacation, as long as she maintained her loyalty to him in front of their peers, so for the majority of the year they attended functions and smiled  for the press cameras and nobody was any the wiser. There was a code of secrecy and a respect for privacy on Fire Island that made it, for me, the perfect place to live. So even though we were, in many ways, a small close-knit village, nobody asked any questions and there was none of the interfering, cloying neighborliness that I was so familiar with from my rural Irish background.

As I had done before, I stepped off my Manhattan carousel in July and settled into my summer routine of happy solitude on Fire Island. My September deadline came and went; I wanted it to last a bit longer.

I had been stockpiling all summer and had arranged everything I needed to hole up here for the winter: enough food and fuel, books and art supplies to keep us happy through to the spring. I did not want to have to go back onto the mainland in search of something as banal as string!

Against the silence of my studio, I suddenly heard a strange noise and, when I turned around, I nearly jumped out of my skin. A huge stag was scraping his horns along the rusted metal side of my studio doors. Behind him was a deer and a baby fawn tucked into her side, its tan ears too large for its delicate, pretty face. The stag lifted his huge head and the three of them stood for a moment and regarded me expectantly. They were a perfect family: father, mother and their child. Although the animals on the island were generally tame, it still wasn’t a good idea to shoo away a stag. I knew if I just ignored them they would go of their own volition, but I was anxious to get into the house and search for the string. If it were the deer and fawn alone, I happily would have walked past them --- but the stag was a different story.  As a male, he commanded respect. I was not in the habit of giving respect to males, especially not strutting stags trespassing on my space.

The mother and her fawn were gazing at me, and I became irritated by their calm stare. I was in a hurry.

“Shoo!” I said, not very loudly, waving an oil-stained rag feebly by my side. The stag stopped scratching and looked up. His head was not much bigger than the female’s, but his antlers spanned the width of the huge open doorway. He looked at me and, sensing this could go badly wrong, I kept the next “Shoo” to myself. After just a few seconds he turned and walked away, the deer and fawn following him. I was, he had decided, of no interest to him whatsoever. Strangely, I felt more rejected than relieved.

When they were gone, I walked up the wooden steps and opened the door to the kitchen. A breeze followed me in and sent three hastily pinned watercolors fluttering to the floor. After four summers here, I was still so infatuated with the beauty of Fire Island, in love with its muted sea-soaked  palate, so grateful for the peace and solitude it had offered me, that I found myself sketching all the time in a sort of homage to the landscape. My passion for creating art --- despite  my commercial success --- was still very new to me, as was the skill of drawing; the novelty of being able to capture life as it was, with merely a soft pencil and a piece of paper, had not worn off. While my sprawling artist’s studio behind our house was packed with canvases of my stylized Impressionistic landscapes, the walls of the narrow two-story cabin where I lived with my two sons were pinned with small, simple watercolors of the natural landscape and abundant wildlife that surrounded us: sketches of the silvery grasses that looked so delicate and yet anchored our precarious sand dunes with their network of slim, greenish threads; the ballooning clouds of a summer morning that floated overhead on breezy days like “angel’s ships,” as my sons called them.

There were sketches of the boys on every surface of the house. Both my boys were adopted, so they looked very different  from each  other. Tom was stocky and black-haired. Leo, now sixteen, was blond and lean. There was nothing more beautiful to me than my sons’ faces; there was no greater feeling than their soft lips on my cheek. As they grew older, they paid less and less attention to me. Their arms were directed  now out into  the world,  and not back toward the comfort of their  mother’s bosom; yet, as with  a bad  lover, their sometimes feckless disregard  only  made  me love them  more. I craved their affection, but perhaps the fact that I wasn’t their natural parent made me more reserved in demanding it. I did not feel that I had the right to cloy, so when they came crying to me with a scuffed knee or a cruel slight, my concern for their troubles was overridden by the joy of being allowed  to give them comfort; a pleasure so addictively sweet that every mother hopes her child will need her forever.

Although I was certain  I loved them with the same passion that a mother loves her natural child, the act of re-creating  them over and  over again on  paper had become a compulsion for me, as if every sketch was in itself a microcosm of giving birth. Each picture was a homage to their detailed, intricate anatomy: the complex formation of their ears, the perfect rounds of their  shoulders, the soft confusion of their eyes, the plump innocence of their lips --- hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hastily drawn  sketches, not just on the walls, but in the pockets of aprons  and handbags and jackets. While the few visitors who called at the house would comment on the abundance of pictures, Tom, Leo and I did not see them anymore. My drawings were merely an extension  of our lives with one another, another eccentricity of their artist-mother’s abounding love.

I opened the odds-and-ends drawer in the kitchen, but there was no string there, or in any other drawer or cupboard. I now clearly remembered putting a large roll of string in that drawer.

“Did you move the string, Tom?”  I called over to my son, who was  sitting  on  the  sofa with  a blanket over  his lap,  under  which was a bag of expensive crackers that I had specifically told him not to touch.

There was a pause. “What string?”

“The string in the top drawer,” I said, pulling aside the blanket and snatching the bag of crackers from him, “the string that you obviously took, Tom --- where is it?”

His crackers now confiscated, he had no further fear of punishment and said defiantly, “I made a kite.”

I groaned as I remembered him chasing down the beach, trying to get two sticks and a hankie to take flight. “Where is it now, Tom? I need the string.”

He looked at me and shrugged, then his eyes opened and he blinked—fearful that  he might have really upset me.

I lifted my eyebrows and reset my expression from frustrated to benign.

“Let’s see if Conor has some in the post office shop,”  I said. “Can we get candy, Mammy, can we?”

“Come  on,”  I said noncommittally as he ran ahead of me down the stairs and, still only half dressed and barefoot, onto the sand path toward the Cherry Grove post office.

I watched Tom skip ahead, a cold, fat sun sitting square in the sky ahead  of him, and I felt a shot  of gratitude for  him, for  my health to enjoy him and, briefly, for the symphony of circumstance and coincidence  that had been my life thus  far and had led me to this peaceful place.

My reverie was broken by the figure of our stout postmaster, Conor, running along the path toward me, a look of panic across his face.

“Ellie,” he  gasped with exertion, “Ellie --- it’s  Leo.”  He finally caught his breath. “The school has telephoned to say you must call them immediately --- he’s gone missing.”

Land of Dreams
by by Kate Kerrigan

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062340522
  • ISBN-13: 9780062340528