Douglas Roth hadn’t written a decent word in over three months. Pages and pages of overly dramatic narration, self-serious commentaries on the human condition, concerned paragraphs dealing with failed relationships and various types of cancer were easy: Everyone on the planet Earth at one point or another suffers from an existential funk or has the extreme misfortune to experience or know someone who is diagnosed with a terrible disease—that’s why his four stories from the past three months had been snatched up almost immediately after he put them in their envelopes. Douglas, though, had always strived to write about something Rare. These Rare things came in a flash of inspiration, usually in disjointed phrases that made no sense and took either a tremendous amount of coffee, tremendous lack of sleep, or tremendous amount of booze to make sense of. Generally, these Rare things were nonsense or had no relevance to anything going on in the modern world and were thus called trite or nonsensical by literatis, but Douglas loved each of them like children and was continuously surprised when someone came up to him in a bar expounding a theory about one of his stories. It seemed that his readers were much, much more intelligent than he was.
The last Rare thing he came up with was a story that belonged in the Twilight Zone. It was about a man who continuously saw another man walking in windows and mirrors. Eventually the first man was driven mad and inadvertently caused the death of his pregnant wife.
Reviewers tended to call it, and other similar stories, pulp material. Douglas, however, was quite pleased with the response that came from it. The check was small—as they tended to be—but Roth had long ago received a generous inheritance from an aunt. Combined with an almost unfailing ability to invest, Roth wasn’t generally concerned with income from stories.
But that was three months ago. After a quarter of a year spent dredging incredibly depressing stories from his childhood and friends, Douglas was ready to spend a grand on an airplane ticket to Dublin and then a train ticket and then a tour bus pass in order to go to a secret place he’d heard about that happened to be located on the Cliffs.
It was in a pub in Knoxville, Tennessee. Douglas had just given an author talk at the university and was feeling the depths of depression. He convinced himself that he sold out for writing something that wasn’t Rare and bowed to the Real, and, despite the royalty checks, he felt like he’d sold out his muse. The pub was dimly lit and he opted for the dark wood-finished bar instead of the comfortable red seats lining the walls. He sat at the bar and let out a deep sigh, looking at the taps on the wall, but not paying much attention to what they were.
The bartender, a tall, lanky man with a head of brown hair, brown eyes, and the evidence of a few days’ worth of ignoring a razor, saw him and poured a pint of stout. Douglas was a bit surprised at the sudden appearance of black liquid with a white head. “Er,” he said.
“Wid a sigh like that,” said the bartender, “yeh need something a bit, eh, fuller, than a Budweiser, am I right?”
Douglas let the stout settle and took a sip. Warmth ran through him. “You’d be right on that.”
“Man comes in wid a sigh like that, it’ll be a woman or he went and got fired.”
“Nothing that drastic,” said Douglas, “more like I sold out.”
“Ah, you don’t say. I sold out once. Worst day of me life was when I got a job instead of bumming round Cork.” He swung the towel in his hands onto his left shoulder and reached out to Douglas. “Name’s Cassidy.”
Douglas shook his hand. “Douglas Roth.”
Cassidy’s eyes widened. “Roth? The author? Jaysis, imagine that, an author here in the Crying Shamrock. Usually we just get the college kids and local waiters. What’re you talking about, selling out?”
“You write at all, Cassidy?”
“Used to write a bit back in Ireland. Prose mainly. Didn’t have enough time on my hands for poetry.”
Douglas nodded. “I’ll assume you ran into writer’s block a few times.” He took another sip. “Well, I’ve been lucky. Haven’t run into that as of late, but I have had the extreme misfortune of running out of subjects that aren’t my usual fare—”
“You mean stuff like that weird bit about the talking stones?”
“Aye, that was the dog’s bollocks, it was.”
“Thanks. So recently I’ve been writing more realistic stuff. Things I don’t like writing about. Turns out, though, that this stuff gives me the most respect. I’ve sold out.”
Cassidy took a sip from Douglas’s pint glass. “So you want to get back to writing for yourself.”
“That’s right,” Douglas took a sip from the glass in retaliation.
Cassidy nodded and scratched the stubble on his chin. “I know a place on the Cliffs of Moher in the west of Ireland, about an hour north of Galway—you ever been out that way, Roth?”
Roth shook his head. “Only been to Dublin.”
Cassidy snorted. “Dublin. Dublin isn’t Ireland, it’s Europe. Ireland’s in the west. The soul lives in places where you can have country pubs and sheep. You won’t get that in Dublin. Anyway, the place on the Cliffs, that’s where I am, right?”
“Kay. Up on the cliffs, about a mile south of O’Brien’s Tower, there’s a little—how should I put this?—outpost. It’s set up in the middle of a ring of stones—I’ll get to them in a second—in turn surrounded by grazing sheep. Now, the Cliffs are the most lovely things you’ll ever see, but you probably won’t get to look at them that long. When you get to this place, you’ll get your first glimpse of the Muse station. Looks like an old cottage, but it’s a bit longer and better whitewashed. This is one of those places you can still find in Ireland where there’s legitimate magic—leprechauns and all that shit. Fact is, it’s so magical that only people who know it’s there can see it. Everyone else sees a ring of useless stones with old Gaelic written on them. It’s a place the bards used to go before Connemara was taken over by the English. It is, in fact, a place where the Muses reside.”
Roth arched an eyebrow. “I’m a bit old to believe in stories about fairy rings.”
“Aye, and I’m a bit old to be told that I’m a feckin’ wanker by a sell-out.” Cassidy took a swig from the nearly-empty pint glass. “I’m trying to help yeh here, boy. One of the problems you Yanks have is this mentality that you’ve seen everything, that you’ve got everything figured out. Well listen, yeh cut out this jaded bullshit point of view yeh got and yeh see what there is in life.”
“Shakespeare and Hamlet.”
“Horatio. Aye. That’s right, then.”
Douglas drank the rest of the glass and looked at Cassidy for a few seconds. “Why should I believe you?”
Cassidy jabbed the bar top with a finger. “That’s another reason there’re problems with yer country: no trust. Everyone has ulterior motives.” Cassidy poured himself a scotch. “Bollocks to that.” He drank the scotch.
The worrisome question about the management of the pub allowing its staff to consume what appeared to be vast quantities of product flitted through Douglas’s mind. “Just trust you, then.”
“Aye. Yeh can always trust a Paddy. It’s the Brits you gotta watch out for. They’re animals. Sides mate, it’s not a question of belief or trust with these rings. It’s a question of knowing that there’s something out there just beyond yer field of vision, orchestrating all sorts’ve things. You can slap whatever label you want on these things, but I’ve seen em. Big lads, full black beards and sloppy t-shirts, stained with coffee and liquor. Not the nicest lads you’ll meet, but inspiration tends to come at the worst times of the day, yeah?”
“Right,” Cassidy said, taking out two half pint glasses. “Tell you what, Roth. I’ll pour you a half-pint now, and a half-pint when you get back to Knoxville, brimming with stories to tell and a giant grin on your face.”
It was at that moment that Roth realized he had the choice of two paths: The one was financial success, awards, and a severe hole in his soul. The other was poverty and spiritual fulfillment. At this moment, Roth chose the latter. “Fuck it. I like those terms.”
Cassidy grinned. “Fuckin-a.” He raised one of the half-pints in a toast.
Douglas returned the action. “Slàinte!”
After Douglas left the pub, Cassidy wiped the rings from the glasses off the bar, put the glasses in the washer, and turned around to see his supervisor grinning from ear to ear. “Cassidy,” the man said. He was short and portly, with hair obnoxiously gelled and parted to the right. “I know that accent brings in the tips, but you could cut it out, you know.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“The Irish. All the ‘yeh’ and ‘Jaysis.’ Come on, I know Irish guys, no one’s that Irish.”
Cassidy bit his tongue, grinned, and faked a slightly more American accent. “You’re right Mr. Sinclair. I’ll try to cut it down.”
“No worries, pal.” He clapped his hand on Cassidy’s shoulder and went to the back to harangue the kitchen staff about not making the fish and chips bland enough.
“Prick,” Cassidy said as the supervizor waddled back to the kitchen.
On the plane ride from London Gatwick to Dublin (Douglas had the extreme misfortune of being unable to find a direct-to-Dublin flight), Douglas experienced a taste of things to come.
Anyone who has flown on an airline knows that there are, generally speaking, no sounds over the PA system save for the cabin crew and the pilot. On this airline, though, Douglas found that electronica was the standard fare—momentarily broken for the airline safety speech given by the cabin crew. Towards the end of the speech, the crewmember in charge of leading his flock through the knowledge of what to do in case the plane suffered something horrible (“Might as well resign yourselves to death,” he thought as he read what was actually written on the script) said, “And will Douglas Roth please note that the Irish Guild of Magical Entities Inc., welcomes him to Eire and requests that he fill out Form 42-B upon landing. Thank you.”
Douglas blinked. This was unusual. He reached up and pressed the call button as the plane began to back up.
The crewmember walked over to Douglas’s aisle. “Sir, the plane is about to take off.”
“Yes, I know. What did you just say about the Guild of Magical Entities?”
The crewmember sighed and shook his head. “Look sir, it’s against Ryan Air policy to give out free liquor. I’ll ask you to please note that we have buy one get one free vodka, whiskey, and rum.”
Douglas nodded. “Yes, I know. You said something addressed solely to me, and I’d like clarification.”
The seatbelt light dinged twice and the crewmember ignored Douglas and walked to the front of the cabin to buckle himself in.
An hour and a half later, Douglas was woken up by another crewmember and had a blue form shoved in his face. On the top of the form, there was a header reading: ‘FORM 42-B – TO BE GIVEN TO THE CUSTOMS AGENT AT PASSPORT CONTROL.’ Below that, there was only one item on the form. It was a question asking what sort of magical entity Douglas had business with. Douglas circled ‘MUSE’ and waited for the plane to land.
At passport control in Dublin Airport, Douglas walked through the nearly-empty Non-EU resident line and presented his passport and form to the agent. The agent’s green eyes glazed over and she stamped the form, tossed it into a wastebasket, and then stamped Douglas’s passport. The writer thanked her, walked away, and opened it to see that he had been given a four-month long stay in Ireland. Apparently, the Irish Guild of Magical Beings, Inc. held a significant amount of sway in passport control.
There were two important events on the train ride from Dublin to Galway. The first was that the train did not explode, crash, or any other bad thing like that. It was an old relic of a train, still running on petrol and seemingly the last train in the Irish rail system that hadn’t made it to diesel. The insides of the carriages looked a bit like a nightmare from the 1970s: they were full of red, yellow, and green-colored seats, speakers that jutted out from the walls and announced impossible-to-understand things, and made more noise than any vehicle Roth had rode in—including an old truck his grandfather used to have that lacked both a muffler and a hood.
Roth sat in a part of the train where all of the seats were set up like booths, forcing people to either have a conversation or stare at each other in awkward silence. The man with the scraggly white beard and twelve one-pint bottles of liquor opted for the latter. The carriage was completely empty save for the two of them, and Roth didn’t understand what would prompt a human being to choose the seat in a booth across from someone only to stare and drink liquor in utter silence. Roth would occasionally try to make conversation with the man, trying to bring up topics like politics, the EU, or favorite brands of whiskey, but all the time, the man sat across from him. Staring. It was a three hour ride. Towards the end of the journey, ten minutes out of Galway’s station, the man belched and spat up bile, projecting it so that it landed on Roth’s side of the table. Judging from this, Roth guessed that the man didn’t like Americans.
The second important event (the interaction with the silent man being more of an interesting event, which is not necessarily the same thing) happened throughout the journey. As the train continued westward, passing countless sheep and cows, Roth started feeling much like he had when he first started writing in college. It was like he was thinking in a way that sounded like a Samuel Beckett play. Everything he thought came out in bursts and didn’t make much sense, but it sent a wave of joy through his mind and down his spine. As the train rolled on and the nonsense bursts became more frequent, Roth began to sincerely believe the Irish bartender. He became so enraptured with the possibility that there was a shack on some cliffs that held the key to his writing malaise, that he didn’t react to the bile-spit in anywhere near the disgusted way he should have. While it was still a quite disgusting act and Roth had dearly wished the train managers would walk down the aisles more often, Roth looked at the semi-solid hunk of spit with a sort of amused grin. The Rare felt like it was ready to show itself.
The next day, Roth was on the cliffs. He ignored the obscenely green grass as well as the sea foam crashing against the rocks quite a ways below. He also ignored the gulls that, for some reason, were diving at a family of tourists who were scrambling to get under cover in the overhang jutting out from O’Brien’s Tower. The only thing that was in his mind was what the Muse station would look like. While he knew it was there, Roth believed that since it was a place for Muses, it would have to be different for everyone. For Cassidy, it was an old country cottage, but what would it be for Roth? Would it be small like a drive-up coffee stand? Would it be like an information building in public park? Would it be a trailer? Would it be an amphitheater?
As he approached the mile mark south of the Tower, Roth saw a glint in the distance and he sped up to a run. The bumpy path worn by tourist feet didn’t slow him down, nor did the possibility that if he made a false step he’d go tumbling off of the more than hundred meter-high cliffs. He drew closer and he realized that the Muse station was completely unlike anything he’d considered.
It was centered in the middle of a small ring of stones, about thirty feet in diameter. It stood about seven feet tall and was made of stainless steel, hooked up to a generator. The Muse station he’d wished for, he’d known existed, was a hot dog stand. On the front of this stand there was a painting of a drunk Dionysus, clutching a hot dog with a pipe in his mouth. Manning the station was a man about five foot five inches tall wearing a Dublin Bohemians football jersey, dirty and torn jeans, and a Houston Astros baseball cap. He had a big, bushy black beard and was chewing pink bubblegum. Roth skidded to a halt in front of the stand, clutched the top, and panted, staring at the Muse.
The Muse popped his gum and said, “Hot dog?”
Roth, out of breath, said, “You a Muse?”
The man nodded. “You want a hot dog?”
“Why would I want a hot dog?”
The Muse shrugged. “It’s a hot dog stand. People like hot dogs, so they come to a hot dog stand.”
Roth shook his head, open mouthed. “But, you’re the Muse! You give inspiration!”
The Muse cocked an eyebrow. “We also do hot dogs. You should take one. Best hot dogs this side of the Atlantic.”
Roth shook his head again. “I came for inspiration!”
“You want inspiration? I jam a hot dog down your throat, you get inspired to write about the time you almost died in Ireland. How’s that stroke you?”
Roth gulped. “Not well.”
The Muse nodded. He opened the top of the stand and picked out a hot dog with a pair of tongs. With great care, he held the dog as his other hand reached in the back of the stand and pulled out a bun. He placed the hot dog in the bun, gently laid down the tongs, closed the top, and squirted ketchup and mustard on the dog in smooth, practiced, wavy lines. Then he opened another compartment and, bare-handed, took a handful of pickle relish and dumped it on the dog. He then placed the hot dog on a white porcelain plate from behind the stand and gave it to Roth. “Bon appetite.”
Roth took a bite out of the dog. His eyes widened and his eyebrows raised. It was the best damn hot dog he’d ever had. “That is good.”
The Muse nodded. “Damn right it is. Now. What do you want?”
Roth took another bite and belched. Yes, it was the best dog he’d ever had. “I want to get back to writing what I’m good at.”
The Muse laughed. “You’re Douglas Roth, right?”
“How’d you know?”
“I’m a fucking Muse, don’t ask questions. You just made shittons of money off of a movie deal based on a book you wrote when you were a senior in college. Have to be good at something in order to pull that off.”
“But that’s not what I’m doing now.”
The Muse snorted. “Let me tell you about a guy named Homer. Homer was a blind bastard. Smart as hell, brilliant poet, and humble as a chastised dog. Back when Homer wrote, one of us showed up, he’d write what we said without whining about not writing what he liked. He realized that his profession didn’t allow for the luxury of choosing what story to write.”
“But the stuff I’ve written, it’s generic!”
“What kind of an asshole are you, Roth?” The Muse asked, slapping the hot dog out of the writer’s hands. Roth looked at the delightful hunk of goodness on the dirty ground and the unbroken plate to the side. “Only reason it’s ‘generic’ is because life is a bitch and everyone has the extreme misfortune of knowing death personally. Calling it ‘generic’ like you do dehumanizes death and everything that just paid for your trip over here.”
“But I’ve been called to write the Rare!”
The Muse turned red in the face, took a hot dog out of the stand and slapped Roth in the face with it. “You are an ass! Called to write something? You’re just as pretentious as everyone you hate. Jee-zus! You writers and poets are the worst, always coming here complaining about not having access to us Muses but never willing to do the work yourselves aside from tripping on drugs, drinkin’ booze, and complaining about your sensitivity as artists. You know what the painters who come here do?”
Roth, thinking this was a rhetorical question, didn’t respond until the Muse hit him in the face with a hot dog again. “No.”
“They come here, make the hike, eat a hot dog, and walk away happy. Yeah, they’re pretentious, but all of you creative schmucks are. You come here thinking that you deserve special treatment or something. You know how many Muses there are?”
Roth shook his head.
“There are now eight of us. All the times you get inspiration, that’s just you working your magic, Roth. Only time we come along is once a decade or so, sprinkle some coffee grounds on you during the night, maybe hit you once or twice for kicks and then fly off to do the same thing for the other guy down the street who thinks he can write.”
“Huh. So that’s where the bruises come from.”
“Sometimes. Other times it’s the banshees.”
The Muse nodded. “They’re jerks. Scores of scores of scores of them, flying around, screwing with people, screaming people’s names just out of their field of vision.” The Muse stopped, spit on the ground, and took a drink from a water bottle behind the stand.
Roth looked out at the water smashing into the Cliffs. “So it’s all just an excuse.”
“About right. You’re still humans. You still want an excuse to not do work when you don’t particularly feel like it. You still do things you may not like. You think of something, though: You think the best writers always wrote what they wanted to? No.
“First thing you have to do is cut out this bull about the Rare versus the Real. Both of them are real, just as real as these rocks we’re on and the hot dogs you just ate. Everything’s got an iota of real in it, or people would reject it all outright. Just because you can write a story about talking rocks in a cave doesn’t mean it’s any more out there than anything else.”
“But it was a commentary on—”
“You ripped it off of Plato and Aristotle and we both know it.
“Second thing you gotta realize is simple. Stories change. Mentalities change. Sometimes you write sci-fi, sometimes magical realism, sometimes naturalism, sometimes you write slash fiction about a hobbit screwing an alien rabbit.”
“That was only one time in high school,” Douglas said. It was only once. It was the one time in high school that his work had an audience—it just so happened that the audience was his entire sophomore class. Laughing at him.
“Doesn’t matter. Still happened, Roth. Look: I know you’re not proud of those stories you wrote in the past three months and you’re concerned that you may be thought of as a sell-out by your fans. Thing you gotta realize though is that everything you write is just a story. Nothing you write will alter the fundamental nature of humans. It’s not because of what you like to write, it’s just because everything you write is just a story.” The Muse then paused and thought for a moment. He started to speak, then stopped again.
It was a few minutes before he spoke. “Course, you could always try to make a religion out of your writing, but that takes either extreme dedication to radically screwing over a large group of people or the balls to deal with some incredibly stupid people. You want to deal with that, Roth?”
“Good, didn’t think so. Now—”
“Wait. You mean religion screwed people over?”
The Muse hit him in the face with a hot dog again. “Now’s not the time for that. Now listen. You’ve got my sympathy for the problem you’re having about struggling to write, but that’s all I can give you. I can’t assign you special treatment to come up with something ‘Rare’ as you put it. The last time we gave that treatment was to a guy in Patmos and he wrote some stuff that really messed up Western society. Something I can do is offer you another hot dog.”
A week or so later, Roth walked back in through the black front of the Crying Shamrock at noon. As a Pogues song started to quietly play over the speakers, he took the barstool he sat in before going to Ireland and tapped the bar top in time with the song. From the other side of the wraparound bar, Cassidy the bartender walked over and grinned. “Half pint of the black stuff, yeah?”
Roth grinned and nodded. “You know what the thing about the Irish train system is?”
“Ah,” said Cassidy. “Railing on the Iarnród Éireann, eh? Well, this’ll be a full-pint story.”
“Cassidy!” Mr. Sinclair yelled from the kitchen. “Cut out the Irish.”
Cassidy slipped into his fake American accent. “Sorry boss!” He went back to his natural voice: “Prick.”