Peat Fires | creative nonfiction by N. West Moss

            Christmas in Ireland had sounded lovely a month before when she’d learned she’d been given the gift of a fellowship to write in County Kerry for a few weeks.  She’d stay on the coast in a stone cottage perched high on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. Wouldn’t it be picturesque? Wouldn’t she get a lot done? Finish her novel maybe.  
            She’d packed so much warm clothing that she’d had no room for books, so at a little thrift store in Cork (on her way to Ballinskelligs) she’d picked up a copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles for two euros. 
            Oh her stone cottage was lovely with it’s fireplace and all, until she opened the kitchen door and caught her wedding ring on the doorknob in just such a way as to nearly rip her ring finger clean off her hand. Some welcome. 
            When she climbed into bed that first night and turned off the light, it was dark in a way that made her feel like she’d been laid in a stone coffin.  Her heart pounded and she reached frantically for a light, knocking the lamp on the stone floor where it made a loud crack. She found the overhead light. It was either that or pitch blackness, so she left it on and tucked into Tess. 
            The book was hard to put down, and not because of how good it was either. In fact, it became evident that it would be an annoying book with a beautiful, idiotic heroine. Tess thought herself wronged so continuously that the reader couldn’t help wishing something really bad would happen to her, like for a boulder to just squash our Tess in all her butter-fed, curly-haired, innocent glory and put everyone out of her misery. 
            Without the small light, it was difficult to read in bed. The pillows were thin, and it was hard to get her neck and the book and the overhead light to all line up. But every time she put the book down, she couldn’t sleep. There was no internet in these cottages. There was no TV, no phone service, so it was either read Tess of the Fucking D’Urbervilles or lie awake all night staring at the bare bulb in the ceiling. 
            At about 7 the next morning, her ring finger still swollen, a pale light crept in through the window over her bed.  A new day had dawned and she set to work on her novel, which was not coming along really, and even a few hours later, still was not coming on, dogged though she was about it.  She went for a walk and looked at the sheep, who seemed to be saying she was quite the fool prancing about the countryside in her brand new sneakers, thinking she could write a novel. She stared at the view. It would look prettier, she thought, if she weren’t an asshole trying to finish a hopelessly shitty book. 
            It was Christmas Eve morning and she’d been told that a man would deliver three bags of peat to her for her little fireplace. She hurried back, finished her coffee early and straightened things up, swept up the ashes from the hearth, hung her drying socks in the bathroom out of sight. She caught her ring again on the fecking doorknob. Seriously. Ireland was trying to kill her. Then she went out to warm herself in the sun and there was the peat delivery man, pulling up to her front door. 
            As he got out of his van, she remembered being told by the other artists in residence that Irish people didn’t like getting right to the point of things, felt Americans were too abrupt overall, so instead of saying, “Bring the peat in here,” she tossed around for something chatty to say, and came up with, “Sunny morning.” 
            “S’allright,” he grunted. 
            She sensed that he didn’t share her notion that delivering peat on Christmas Eve was the most romantic thing on earth.  He hauled the first bag in by the fire.  She thanked him and then remembered, too late, that she’d been told the Irish felt Americans were too effusive in their praise. Crap. She’d already over-thanked him, and he hadn’t even carried in the other two bags. 
            It was when he carried in the second bag that she noticed what a large and handsome man he was, handsome the way the big glossy head of a cow might be handsome, like you wanted to reach out and pet his nose. He had a full bushy head of graying hair, and good lord his neck was as thick as a tree trunk. He looked like the kind of man who had perhaps once been an athlete, and now could haul around heavy bags of peat. He could probably pick her up, she thought, and heave her onto something, if there was some kind of an emergency. 
            Maybe she was just lonely, far away from home on Christmas Eve. Maybe she was beginning to think this attempted ripping off of her ring finger was symbolic of something, but she really could hardly believe how attractive the peat delivery man was. And to think that just the day before she didn’t even know that such a thing as peat delivery men existed. 
            She made more small talk.  “Do you have a big Christmas planned, then?” she asked. 
             “Ah,” he said, “Christmas is for the children really, or I should say, the grandchildren.” 
            Good Lord. She’d never knowingly been attracted to a grandfather before. That rather changed things, rather put him in a newish light. “Twenty-two Euro,” he said, shifting from one foot to the other. She paid him and thanked him in a way that implied he’d hardly done anything, which seemed to perk him up a bit. 
            After he left, she worked for a while on Chapter 2 of her novel, then did a character study which was helpful in that it made clear what utter garbage this book was. She thought maybe she should try to nap so she lay on the couch in front of the peat fire, but the couch was too short, and she had to curl up on her side.  Three seconds after she lay down, the fire went out. 
            Up she got and took a piece of firewood and put that on the embers. Then she put a piece of peat on top of that and watched it all smoke. She poked at it and then took a fuel pellet (a black brick kind of thing) and put that on top of the peat, which was on top of the wood, which was on top of the hot coals. She looked around for paper but there was none. She opened the fireplace door, blew on the coals and a great billow of smoke and ash filled the room. A peat fire, it turned out, needed as much tending as every other fecking god-forsaken thing on God’s green earth. They swore a lot here. It was beginning to rub off on her. 
            She had dinner with some of the other artists who were staying in the other stone cabins.  “Don’t say ‘thanks for the ride,’ when we give you a lift from the pub,” one of them told her. A ride was a sexual thing here, they explained. Another one said, “When you walk around saying you need wood, that might be misinterpreted.” They were laughing into their glasses as they said it. It seemed that normal language in Ireland held a great barrel-full of innuendo. It was a lot to keep straight. 
            She had to translate chips into crisps when she went to the grocery store, and to her dismay she couldn’t purchase “crisps” without vinegar all over them. How in hell had that trend taken over the Irish crisp industry? And their largest bag of chips, or crisps, or whatever the feck they were fecking called, the largest one they had was the size they’d give a seven-year old in her lunchbox at home, and was doused in vinegar, killing all of the joy of the crisp experience. Sad life, she thought, shaking her head. Sad life. 
            Everyone she met, the artists, the pub clientele at Cable O’Leary’s, were obsessed with ghosts. They told her about pookahs and ‘little people’. “Oh,” they told her, “the banshees are the ones you want to avoid. They portend death.” Fine for all of them, but she knew as they told her story after story of ill-meaning creatures pervading the Irish countryside that she’d never sleep through the night again, not while she remained in Ireland. “Don’t forget the faeries in the forest,” someone urged, his mustache of Guinness bobbing above his mouth. 
            Christ. She should have brought a book with her to read, but all she had was Tess, so she lay back on the couch, her legs hanging over the arm rest, and read onward. It was maddening. “Take the money,” she yelled at Tess, and later she shouted, “For Christ’s sake, Tess, just tell the poor man the truth.” Hardy could have cut out a full hundred and eighty pages if he’d just let Tess tell the fecking truth from page one. “Aw Tess,” she said, relighting the fire with a wad of toilet paper, “no one is worth all this trouble.” 
            When she reached the final page and realized how it all ended for Tess, she was furious at Hardy. Furious. What an asshole. Worse than The DaVinci Code. She realized too that Tess, who had been in the full bloom of her youth, had squandered it with all her fretting and self-loathing.  She lay back on the couch and stared at the ceiling thinking that she too had squandered her youth.  TV at least had kept her from thinking too much about that kind of thing, but here there was no escape. She had whizzed right past the pinnacle of her life without even knowing it. She lay there awkwardly sprawled on the couch thinking that before you knew it, you had to pee all the time and were attracted to grandfatherly peat delivery men who probably had not gotten the telegram, sent in 1973, that announced that women could in fact have orgasms. 
            She thought that instead of working on her wreck of a novel, it would be more profitable to write a piece for Penthouse Forum about a burly peat-delivery guy. It would sell. What red-blooded American woman wouldn’t want a grandfatherly peat delivery man to haul her like a sack of firewood onto the couch, and then give it to her whilst murmuring things she couldn’t understand?  
            The sun had set and she poured a can of Guinness into a glass and stared at her glowing computer screen.  She didn’t know how to fix her novel, and didn’t feel like banging her head against that particular door just now. She thought briefly about actually writing the piece for Penthouse, just for fun, but she knew that for it to work, the peat man would probably have to be giving it to someone like Tess.  And banshees would crop up from her subconscious. No one reading Penthouse was going to thank her for the banshees. Jesus, there wasn’t even a moment’s peace to be found in pornography. She turned off her computer and stared at the wall. 
            She poked at the sickly fire. Tomorrow was Christmas.  She figured that if the doorknobs and the pookahs and smoking peat fires didn’t get her, she might make it to New Year’s Eve intact, and if she could make it to New Year’s Eve, she’d probably survive to return home to New York. What a relief it would be to be where people spelled Neve with a fecking “V” for feck’s sake. And wouldn’t it be nice to go to the grocery store and get an obscenely large bag of crisps, one the size of a collie, that she could call chips, that weren’t sour and disappointing? 
            It was time for bed whether or not she could sleep. Christmas morning was only a few hours away. She opened the door to the fireplace and peered in.  There was one wee red coal glowing in the back.  Should she bother? No, it was plenty warm and she didn’t feel like getting covered in soot, so she closed the door and a little fire leapt up inside.  Ah, a Christmas miracle. Or a fecking pookah, more like it. 
          She thought about New Year’s Eve coming up. She’d have to make some resolutions, including watching her feckin’ mouth when she got home.  This vulgarity wouldn’t go over well in the mean streets of New York, where even the criminals didn’t have mouths like these Irish sons of bitches. Jesus H. Fecking Christ on the cross, these mother fecking sons of bitches had mouths on ‘em, God love ‘em. 
    As she lay in bed, the moon streamed through the window so brightly that she could finally turn off the overhead light. The wind churned up the ocean down on the rocks so forcefully that she could hear it right through the floor, like nature was trying to spend the evening with her. It was beautiful here, even if it was trying to snuff the life out of her.             
           She would not miss the vinegar on her crisps, the judgmental sheep, the grabbing doorknobs. But now she could see that there might be a sweet mystery in the way that V’s were invisible here. She’d miss that, as well as the smell of the peat fires, and the men, handsome and incomprehensible as the gorgeous cows lined up along the narrow roads. And the way that the wind came right up to your front door to remind you how cozy and safe you were, after all. 

Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram

N. West Moss’s most recent book, a memoir titled Flesh & Blood is out from Algonquin now! She has also published a short story collection with Leapfrog Press, and has a middle grade novel forthcoming from Little, Brown. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Saturday Evening Post, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram at @NWestMoss, on Twitter at @scoutandhuck, and on Facebook at N West Moss