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KIERAN MARSH

 

 

 

Kieran Marsh in Southword Journal

Kieran Marsh lives and works in Dublin grappling, respectively, with children and computers. In his spare time he writes, and has finished two novels, neither of which has found any favour with publishers or agents alike. For the past two years, Kieran has focussed on short stories and is beginning to find a little more purchase in the real world, having been shortlisted for the Writers Forum competition, placing a piece in the forthcoming Writing4All anthology, and now being accepted to Southword Journal. You can read more of his ramblings here: http://gooseberryseason.com

 

 

 

Is This What I Am For?

 

 

 

When the loneliness grew too strong to bear, Grace unearthed the ancient grove at the bottom of the Long Field. It was always there, but hidden from the eye till the soul had need. She found it now covered in barbed winter blackberries, barely a cairn with a black crawlspace at its heart. Thorns tugged at her as she pushed in, and something arcane impeded her until she could dispel her doubts. She took a handful of totems, the head of a chicken, fresh killed, a bottle of nitre, a cruiscín of milk soured with piss. The incantation came back to her, learned by rote on her mother's knee, queer ancient words, the meaning lost, yet the power crackled from them. There was a small pool in the dark nucleus of the space. The grotto was chill, while the water was cold and caliginous as the grave. She closed her eyes and called to Johnny, across the aching void. She saw his face, replete with life, her heart flittered, then pain overcame her as her consciousness went numb.

Then she was elsewhere, in the shed where she kept cattle over winter. Beside her, naked, foetal, blood-spattered like a new born, was the body of a grown man, fierce and dark haired, lean and muscled. Gathering her strength she fetched cold water from the rain butt and gently washed him down. He was like Johnny, yet manifestly different to any other man.

At length he stirred, sat up.

'Who am I?' he asked.

'You are mine,' her voice was hoarse, exultant, impatient. 'You are my Johnny, and I will have you back. I am your Gracedeath cannot separate us.'

'I ... ' There was a glimmer there, as if he was struggling to recall a dream. 'I am not Johnny ... '

'You are now, for I have wished it, have needed it. My heart longs. My body craves.'

She lifted her dress over her head and stood before him, naked. He nodded, apparently accepting.

'Is this what I am for?' he asked her as she rode him, screaming. She surrendered herself to him, breathed life into him, gave him her spirit and her soul which she no longer had use for.

 

*

 

He wore Johnny's clothes and took his place at her hearth. Neighbours came and went, eyeing him as they might a six legged sheep, none staying too long. She set about keeping his belly full, and he learned the pleasures of tea and whiskey.

'Do you know any songs?' she asked.

He tried, a howling, staccato thing, but she did not like it. 

'You've no voice, but you've a grand smile.'

'What will I do?' he asked, drowsing over unfamiliar features reflected in a water bucket.

'You've enough to be doing, being alive and all.'

'That could never be enough.'

'Well, then. You'll do what you did when you came to my father from over the sea. Break the back of the soil, reap, drag the turf in from the bog. I've a fine farm, though it's grown poor since my father died. I need a man to work it.'

Grace hooked the plough to a great dray horse, and he knew work for the first time. The mighty beast dragged the blade through the rich loam, turning the sod over, releasing the fragrant humus. Johnny followed the plodding pace, stopping occasionally to pluck a wriggling earth worm and pop it in his mouth, wondering. With time, people passing began to wish God with him.

One evening, as the cold drew in, he sat by the fire and the neighbours came by. A fiddle was produced, and poitín, ham was cut thick, bread steamed from the ovens. There was wild dancing, like the beasts had come in to batter the floor. He and Grace lost themselves to the spirit, then found themselves in the moonlight as the sean-nós songs drifted to the sky.

'What was he like?'

'Who?'

'Your Johnny.'

'Hard as the battered rock on the Atlantic shore, but soft too. His tongue would cut you like a knife, ah, but when he laughed, by God, it was like Easter and Christmas. You have his face, and the rest ... ' A star streaked across the sky as they watched. She reached out and caught it. 'The rest will come.'

In the grey dawn, he lay on the settle and wondered, 'is this what I am for?'

 

*

 

The Priest came calling, for there was no good could come of a man and a woman living under the same roof without the sanction of God. Tea was laid out in the good china that her father had bought from England, and hot scones served with the richest butter.

'Now, Grace,' he spoke darkly, his message laced with damnation. 'You must end this madness. There's no good to be had!'

'There's nothing to be worrying over, Father, sure Johnny sleeps in the barn. I need him for the labouring.'

There was a cruel look to the man, despite his humility. The black clothes with the white collar, the pinched face, the feral stare.

'It's a coincidence, then, that he's called Johnny? And so soon after the drowning?'

'Sure what else could it be, Father?'

'I wish I knew, Grace. There's some in this townland whisper about the old ways, folk cures, curses, fairy groves. There's some as believe there is magic here. Deviltry, Grace. Nothing but deviltry!'

'Is it the devil I am now, Father.'

He wiped spittle on his sleeve.

'T'is no devil you are, to be sure, but damned you'll be if you don't turn from this path.'

Johnny watched the crucifix on the Priest's chest, leaping with the vehemence of the preaching. There was a tiny Jesus hanging from the cross in His agony, blood spilling from His wounds, pain creasing His face. As the three of them knelt on the cold stone flags for the rosary, Johnny imagined nails in his hands.

 

*

 

He worked hard, and the land became alive. Green things grew. Only the bottom of the Long Field remained bleak and lifeless. One day, on the high acre, he broke from his efforts in the fierce noon sun. A great flock of swallows darkened the sky for a moment, they seemed to flow about him, then dissolved away to the west.

He saw Grace approach with food, her summer blouse dazzled, long skirt cracked in the breeze. When her hand touched his, offering a sandwich thick as her wrist, there was a spark of knowledge between them. They lingered long over the lunch, feeling the satisfaction in their stomachs, something more primitive in their loins. This moment, the air fresh, the grass bristling, clouds scudding, was too perfect to spoil with sensuality.

'Do you dream?' she asked.

'Dream? What is that?'

'When you sleep. Stories that come, and when you wake up they're gone.'

'Yes, yes I dream.'

'What do you dream of?'

'Another place, a different place. There I am simpler, under the earth, and the whole world is more raw.'

'I dream of you, Johnny, and sometimes the other Johnny. Maybe, I can no longer tell the difference.'

'When I dream, am I back there? Am I home?'

'Oh, God, no Johnny. Your home is here. You are all I have.'

'Then I shall stay.'

The sun batted at the clouds all the long day, and they lay together in the fields.

 

*

 

There was a neighbour, a dark, fat man called Duggan. He eyed Grace's land with avarice, and watched Grace with greed. She did not greet him on the road, and would spit on a stone whenever he passed her gate. He had been middle aged and ugly since the first she could remember of him, and the years had made him more gruesome rather than older, like he wore his sins as a badge.

He had fought with Johnny. He had made trouble with the Priest and the Sergeant till Johnny felt he had to go back to the island. Duggan had been at the shore that day when she had kissed her Johnny goodbye. The squall that took his currach came up out of nowhere, the clouds descending like demons. All the men on the boat were lost, their bodies did not even wash up on the shore, consumed by the gluttonous ocean.

Duggan spoke to her father. A match could be made. Together, their land would be enough for a fine beef herd and a crop of cabbages. Grace had cried, till in the end her father acceded. He went to tell Duggan there could be no match, but he never came home. 'Lost his way in the dark,' the Sergeant said. 'Hit his head on a rock when he fell.'

'He would have known no pain,' the Priest whispered in consolation. 'God rest him all road ever he offended. Now, Grace, a woman can't be alone on a farm. You must think to the future now. Duggan can take care of you.'

'I'll join my father and mother in the ground before I let him take me.'

He left, angry, and would not say her mass so that she had to fetch a priest from the island to bury her father.

From the seat at the front of his house, Duggan watched her come and go.

 

*

 

Late in summer as the red skies stretched and the grains stood tall, Duggan came to Johnny.

'You're not welcome here,' he spat as Johnny took a break from fixing a wall, lifting stones into niches as men had done here for six thousand years, back till the land had belonged to the beasts alone.

'None of us are.'

'You're a quare one alright. Where did you come from?'

'Out of the long field. Out of the earth.'

'Aren't you the smart fellah, now. Not from the islands, anyway, by the sound of you.'

'No, not the islands.'

'Then what manner of man are you.'

'This is what I am for, to fix the wall.'

'Well, if you were a smart lad at all you'd be taking yourself back from wherever you fecking came from. This land should be mine, Grace should be mine, and no fecker climbed up out of the earth will stand before me.' Duggan put his face up close to Johnny, his foul breath curling, his black eyes keen. 

'I will stay.'

'Then may the Lord have mercy on you.'

Duggan walked away, and the evening brightened until the sun, the essence, slipped below the gorse ridden hills.

Grace cursed Duggan's name when Johnny told her of the man's words.

'Stay away from him,' she hissed. 'He has brought nothing but evil upon me.'

 

*

 

Grace's hands clenched tight as the harvest drew near. No good could come of Duggan's meddling, that was a certainty. Her season with Johnny was good, though she knew it was only moments trapped in time, like a cow stuck in a bog. She would grasp it and hold it for what it was worth, before she must let it slip away.

The geese and chickens were the reality that would mark this land, the cows, the trees, the rocks in the fields, so she set about making a mark on these things, keeping the farm in the best manner that she could, being only a woman. She watched Johnny bend his back to heavy tasks out in the sun and the rain and the wind, and a notion came to her. If she could get with child from him, a son, maybe, to work the land, a daughter to take the farm into a good marriage. To stop from Duggan getting it.

She set about the task with vigour, and Johnny proved a willing helper. She had him take her morning and night, in the bed or across the kitchen table, in the cow shed and the rookery. She would have had him in the open fields except for fear that the priest would drive her out if word came to him.

It was of no consequence. The blood of each month came with a heart destroying regularity, month after month, till she despaired.

 

*

 

When the yellow hay was drying in the fields, and his hands were cracked from the cutting, Johnny noticed a young woman coming and going from Duggan's ramshackle cottage. A niece, the neighbours said, up from Castlebar. She might be looking for a farmer, it was suggested. The old ladies clucked. It was trouble she was looking for.  

Johnny watched her while he was plumping the hay into cocks and she was white liming the cottage walls. He watched her again as he dug potatoes from the Long Field, and she feeding the red chickens newly hatched. When the meitheal had gathered and pulled the last of the hay into the low barn, he watched her hand out cold mutton soup to the thirsty men.

He thought hard, to tell her how good she looked, how fine her smell, but all he could say was 'good soup!' She smiled.

The meitheal had to be fed that evening, and their thirsts slaked. Duggan arrived up with two fine jars of good poitín; the neighbours saluted him and drank his health, but behind his back they spat. His niece came too, hair all joyous and dress full of promise, she was a honey pot to the young men that had busied themselves all day. She danced, oh how she danced, and through the night she exhausted every one of those men and sent them to their homes. When the last was gone, she went outside to the rain butt to wash the sweat from her breast. Johnny followed her, intoxicated. She took him in her arms and he could hear in her voice the song of the daoine sídhe, feel the raw primal power that kept all things alive, that made creature lie with creature. She slid him out of his clothes and pulled him to her. He swam in the fullness of her, in the glory of the moment.

'Is this what I am for?' he wondered, as she slipped from him.

 

*

 

When the house was quiet again and the stew pot washed clean, Grace called to Johnny. She went outside under the stars but could not see him. There was a noise, like a retching. A great darkness hulked over her, black and spitting.

'Devil take those as do the devils work,' came a dark voice spiced with a stench of decay.

She went to scream, but a heavy paw held her mouth and pushed her down into the foulness.

 

*

 

He found Grace in the shed where she kept the cattle over winter. She had been used by Duggan, and her spirit was broken, her clothes ripped. He took her up like a stillborn lamb and laid her in her bed, washed her gently with cold water from the rain butt while she howled. She kept calling "Johnny" and he held her mindfully. The long night she slept in desperate bursts, constantly waking, weeping.

In the morning she sat up. She said, 'You smell of her,' and then she went cold. 'Why? Why would you? All I wanted was my Johnny.'

'This was not what I was for.'

She left the room, left the house, and he felt a tightening in his belly, a great hunger.  

He chose a stone from the wall, it fit his hand well, and went down to Duggan's cottage. The dark man leered at him, spreems of spit emerging from his mouth. He cursed and swore like the devil, but he had not the strength of the younger man. There was a sound like a turnip bursting as Johnny brought the stone down on Duggan's skull. The smell of his blood could not disguise his foulness. There was no niece in the hovel, just a mangy dog that leered at Johnny as he slew its master.

Grace was hanging from a tree at the bottom of the Long Field, her face purple, the beauty of life gone from her. Rough hemp dug into her neck. Nearby, he found her place, dark and cold, a crawlspace beneath a cairn, stinking of the daoine sídhe. He found a cruiscín and a bottle, the skull of a chicken, crushed them with the stone still wet with Duggan's blood, then he pulled the earth over him like a quilt and crawled into the deepness. As his consciousness numbed, he knew, in the last, this was what he was for.

 

 

©2012 Kieran Marsh

 

 

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