David Mohan is based in Dublin and writes poetry and short stories. He has received a PhD in English literature from TCD. He has been published in The Irish Times, elimae, Abidged, The 2012 Stony Thursday Book, Southword, and the Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails anthology. He has come second in the Sean O’Faolain International Short Story Award and won the Hennessy/Sunday Tribune Poetry New Irish Writer Award. In 2012 he won the Cafe Writers’ Open Poetry Competition, the Cavan Crystal/Windows National Poetry Award and came second in the Inktears Short Story Award and Poetry Ireland/Trocaire Poetry Award. He has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and shortlisted for The Bridport Prize.
Aerial Meditations of the Slob Land's Only Prince
Commended in the 2012 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
My father used to call this ditch of a place the spike lands.
Spikes because of the twiggy-fibrous stuff you have sticking out every which way. Not quite gorse. Just the indescribable fuzzed wool that makes up winter on this island.
And the practise of walking here in the early hours when there’s only wild birds cavorting to view the geese—my father called that slobbing. Slobbing in the spike lands.
In those days we had a grand old Fiat to take us out on a morning, but now I make do with my mongrel van, that resembles, I must confess, a paint tin tossed into a culvert.
This dark after-dawn I step out of it and into a grey with only the birds awake and crooning for me, my father’s ghost a little way offside and only palpable in how my boot-squelches echo across the spikes. He might be following this latest patrol—I leave my imagination to decide what paternal duty he fulfils this Sunday.
It’s always been a Sunday, as regular as religion. It’s a long-carried family tradition. Habit is a very powerful thing and today I am, pre-programmed, scanning the ground for tracks, signs, marsh-chaff, looking for what the slobs have got to offer.
All places are no better than a shifting sand, my father used to say.
He loved this place but he was always hardest on what he held affection for, and so he would twist our sheepdog’s ear when he scratched its head, and sometimes when I was a kid, he would squeeze my hand tight as we walked. It felt like something half-way between love and viciousness.
The shifting sand analogy is particularly apt to this place. The North Slob is most definitely a place where sky, sea and land bleed together. You’re close to everywhere and nowhere all at once.
This morning I walk across trackless wet grass. Sometimes when I walked here with my father in the past I would look to the ground so I could pretend we were in our own private country. But now I let the pump-station guide me. I walk with an eye to landmarks this day because I am here to map a route never taken. I watch the line of the dyke that runs from Raven Point to featureless mud flats, attempting to find a way to make them match. Each time the nature of this land-sea place eludes me, eye and foot.
I take out my father’s notebook and lick a fingertip to find my place. Back when I was a kid he used to call it his ‘Almanac for Hidden Places’ as it charted all kinds of obscure bog holes and land slips. Now, it’s a battered old thing, a diary of pressed flowers and sketches, notes and elisions. I look for the page with the diary entry marked May the 5th 1973. That was the day of the fateful picnic when my mother ran off forever. My father told me down the years not to dwell on it too much but it’s so much on my mind just lately that I’ve decided to try and track the spot down based on his expert naturalist observations.
I look out for Bee Orchids as I walk—my father sketched them all those years ago. The old picnic spot in question was apparently a favourite of my mother. Back then she used to rhapsodise about the slob lands as a place that was all over orchids, as though it were a subtropical pastureland. I look for the pink, the Pyramidal variety—whatever might still flourish after all that time.
But today, mist cleared, all I see is the white blossom of the Blackthorn, the white mead-filled cup of the Dog Rose, the yellow spring gorse. Familiar because I’ve seen them so often but also unfamiliar. In this sea-light everything looks askew.
My father would come out here precisely because the spikes didn’t seem quite like Ireland. He’d compare the place to Achill or the Burren. It was a fine nowhere you could run to when the small town rain was fit to burst your heart open in small rivers. And so every Sunday morning we’d tramp out to watch wading birds wherever we could find them.
I find I am drawn back to this place again and again, and not merely to watch the birds preen and pose. My father said to mind his notebook well and study its secrets. He said the reading of it should be called my marsh studies as it had relics from the deep past buried between its pages.
When he said such things he’d nudge my downturned chin up a notch to make sure I’d listened. ‘You’re a Prince, you are,’ he’d say. And here must be where I reign according to that logic. This place is my slip-shod princedom.
Soon, I come to a pool I recognise. All around there is Lesser Celandine and Adder’s Tongue. And anywhere you find flowers you’ll also find insects. What a greenhouse of dragonflies this place could be in its summer heyday. What a swarm of butterflies. I remember my father caught a Speckled Wood butterfly for me once in his naked fist. He held it still between two fingers and made me look up close at the wing scales.
‘Almost amphibian when you squint at them,’ he’d say.
This place always frightened me when I was a kid. It was always a chill place with peat-black water. You’d look in and see yourself reflected against a sepia depth as though you looked into a foxed mirror. Dad warned me off, said it was a bad place for all kinds of reasons. Kids would come here to neck or commit suicide in the old days, he'd say. There was no in-between.
Today, I tear out the page describing my mother’s last picnic, then drop my father’s dog-eared almanac into the pool. It is swallowed up immediately with an earthy gloop. The water bucks a little, throwing up a little gulp of water as a bog-black punctuation mark to the marsh-stillness.
I’m finished with my father’s notebook after today. I either find the place based on his diary entry or that’s it for me. There aren’t any other secrets I care to enquire after. And so I give the slob lands’ almanac back to the marsh.
I have my own sketchy memory of that day. My mother holding me up, her hair – what colour? – I can hardly say. But she had a sweet perfume, I know that much. I was basking in it when she swung me around in her arms.
After that day, my memory’s a blank. As my dad used to say, it all went to shit when mam went. We lived in a very motherless house ever after. The only sign of care in our home was in how devotedly my father would polish the glass on his bird prints by John James Audubon. Every other household beauty fell to dust.
Now, I look across the spikes and see two figures approaching. Not all visitors are guests, my father used to say, and I’ve never quite been cured of his native suspicion.
My father hated being interrupted on the spikes. He’d say, ‘Here comes the invasion,’ and call the interlopers all sorts of names – Vandals, Huns, Goths, Astrogoths, you name it.
I watch this lot come, then smile as they stand beside the drowning pool.
The couple, both giants in rain-gear and Gore-Tex, shake hands with me and share sips from their thermos. Their names are Marianne and Rudi Akkerman. There is kettle steam rising from their bodies —
they’ve been walking up a storm.
They ask a few questions about the birding in this area, show me the maps they depend upon, enquire into a little local history. I’m politer than my father would have been—I’ve grown used to strangers in my home. They seem almost innocent in their wonder at the place – I forgive them as they must feel this place is eerily familiar – another polder slipped loose from their northern homeland.
‘Are we too late for the Brent Geese?’ Marianne asks, an anxious lilt to her voice.
‘I shouldn’t think so,’ I say, ‘though there’s always some flock or other camped out there. You’ll find Bewick’s swans or widgeon if you don’t find geese. Though you might find a whole lake of White-fronted geese if you’re very lucky.’
A fire sparks up in Rudy’s eyes at the image I’ve painted of this avian paradise. They speed off then. I watch them go, half in wonder at their zeal. Marianne leads the way, holding a sat nav as though she were an astro-scientist exploring unmapped lunarscapes.
I walk on at my own more leisurely pace, watching the ground for tracks and spoor, a hunter of the slob lands. As I walk I steer my mind away from thinking about how a family falls apart. Instead, to distract myself, I mentally leaf through the book I’ve spent my life memorising—my father’s almanac. Learn from the past, he used to say, and then would scribble down notes from the grand masters of our watery craft.
I am nearing the grass mere, an old touchstone, and I can’t help myself from thinking that a family spoils when there are too many visitors. There were so many women in our house over the years I can’t put names to half of them. As for my mother I’m not sure of her face, even in my memories. My father burnt all the old photographs out of what he called ‘a wrong-headed grief’. Can you believe I find it difficult to picture my mother? Was she the girl at the picnic with yellow curls, or the blow-away blonde who used to carry me down a beach, or the red-gold sing-song woman who took me to the flicks?
I stand at the edge of the grass mere. My father called it that and loved it though he warned me against it. His love and fascination with it destroyed him eventually.
Now it looks calm but I remember the day it happened, when this place was made into a welter by my father’s drowning.
I remember that a week before my father’s last morning he was having trouble with the girl tenant in what had been our back parlour. Made up into a proper bedroom it was. Better than a hotel—the nicest room in the house in fact. Had a beautiful print of Audubon’s Ivory-billed Woodpeckers on the wall if I remember correctly.
She was sporting a ripe black eye that day when I came down to breakfast.
‘You’re as bad,’ she said to me as I scooped up my porridge. ‘Never saying a word to anyone about anything but always watching. All of nineteen years of age and not a notion of your own in your head.’
She tore the notebook I’d brought down from my bedroom—a chart of migrations I was working on at my father’s suggestion. ‘It’ll help you keep rooted to the place when the time comes that you might need to know the "lie of the land",’ he’d said.
I didn’t say anything in reply to the girl as she was already distraught.
Next thing, I heard him and her arguing in the front sitting room, him fulminating, she spitting like a cat.
That girl moved away a day or two later. I didn’t wonder too much about that at the time as I’d grown used to girls moving on all of a sudden, as if, just like the widgeon and geese, they’d only the inclination to stay in one place for a season.
A breeze blows across the grass mere as though it were a proper field and not the marsh’s illusion of one. A week after the argument with the girl, my father took me out walking in the slobs. He still seemed upset by the argument and walked ahead of me. When he came to the grass mere he told me to wait at the edge—he was going to lie down for a moment.
I must admit the parrot-green scum can look inviting in its own way.
Then, without looking back, my dad waded out into the water meadows he’d always warned me against. He lay down in marsh flowers just like Williams’ springtime widow. This is the one place in all the slob lands that I’m sure is not the site of my mother’s last picnic—the reason I’m so sure is because I know this place is the site of my father’s grave. Or as good as. And he would never have despoiled her memory in such a brutal way. It would be like some Vandal hacking the gold leaf off a Madonna in a cathedral.
Now, when I look across the water I can see no sign of the past happening. You would never believe that once a man had submitted to lying down in such a place and letting the mud consume him.
I walk on, trekking nearer to the sea. The sound of the sea was always a part of my picnic memory and so I know I need to steer close to where it begins.
Dad always said that when he reached mam that day she had taken a small fishing boat and drifted out too far to chase. This was what was claimed ever afterwards. It became part of the myth of that picnic. He said she was never seen again but that his nearest guess was that she headed for Hook Lighthouse. Then she must have got lost or lost herself on purpose. She’d always loved the idea of the lighthouse as a girl he said—the idea of it would have appealed to her.
Today, I can’t help being a little sceptical. A lighthouse of all places. It would have to be a lighthouse naturally—what else would my too-romantic father choose?
By this time I’m feeling sick of the swollen skies of this place. I feel more like a slob-surveyor assessing the place for drainage capacity than someone leaching the place for a glimpse of my half-forgotten past.
It’s then that the land dips a little and I walk out into a patch of waste ground that seems to be filled to the brim with geese—a great waddling flock of them. Brent, by the colouring.
Most straggle off, heedless of me. One or two fly off a little distance and look back at me disdainfully. Others move in swaying sidesteps, parrying at their nearest fellow traveller, others hotfoot and hightail it away from me, wary as cats.
They can sense my lack of fear of them, no doubt, and they’re right not to hiss at me today. Not with the heat I have in me.
I walk through their company like Moses through a black-winged sea.
The land beyond them seems unearthly as though the sea has just lately washed away from it. I can feel its near presence brushing the coast like a sea breeze.
I stand near the furthest reach of the land round these parts and there’s not a hint of the place I’m looking for. Ideally what I would need is a map of time, if you can map a time as easily as a place. For a moment, I can see my mother picking me up before she ran. Was she a blonde woman? A brunette? Was my father chasing after her? And why would she need to run?
Now, in the sea light I see him coming over the ridge that separates the land from sea, walking alone. I see him come back to the child I was and take me by the hand. How my mother managed to not come back with him is the mystery. Unless she was a gull or seal she wouldn’t find a living in that wild place.
I walk on, feeling a surge of curiosity about what the sea from this part of the coast might look like. There must have been a boat back then, perhaps there are boats here still. As I walk over the rise I see that the land just stops at a certain point as though it were a sentence ending in ellipsis. There is nowhere to hide a boat—no jetty, no cove, no secret harbour. But I look anyway, walking along the slop of land-sea, searching for rushes that might conceal a raft or dinghy.
It’s then that I see a familiar colour not far off, an orchid. Then I see another, and then another. Bee Orchids. This is something—this is the paradise my parents spoke about, the spot they loved. I walk across to fetch one but need to turn back almost immediately—the land is too water-logged to bear my weight.
Instead, I climb back up the rise and sit facing the sea.
Where could my mother have gone all that impossible time ago, years folding into the peaks of decades like wave crests? Was it Bergesen island, the Big island, the Middle island?
Now that I have witnessed orchids I can believe in any of these destinations. Or was it Greenland like the geese that roam behind me? Or did she cross the sea-dyke into more ambiguous land? Did she go, as my father swore, to Hook Lighthouse?
Humpback whales have been viewed from these shores, not to mention shoals of sprat. Seal bodies wash up round here all year round. The visiting geese fly thousands of miles just to roost here for a season.
When you think of such things you soon realise that anything could be possible, couldn’t it?
©2012 David Mohan
David Mohan story in Contrary Magazine
Flash fiction by Mohan in Elimae
Poem by Mohan in Café Writers