Authors: Paul Lynch
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary
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For Anna Taylor
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
T. S. Eliot
Because the known and the unknown
T WAS THE BEGINNING
of darkness when Matthew Peoples saw it first. The thick shape of him upright in the field half-turning to scratch a nick at his shoulder. He stood there stripped to his grey vest unwashed and puzzled quietly upon what he saw—a thin cat’s tail curling grey into the sky, some kind of smoke that mingled easy with the cloud’s pewter. Evening was pressing down gentle and in the way the light fell he could have missed it, a yellowing that shook upon the fading day and cast the fields of Carnarvan in a flaxen glow. Three human shapes in that field and a triplicate of shadows winnowing long beside them. The bay horse for a moment easy.
Hardly a word was Matthew Peoples’ style until the work was done and maybe then he’d say a few words, a suck on his pipe and he would lean back and crack a joke quietly. He cleared his voice now and when he spoke he found himself unheard. He bent again to the work, the hair on his hands white to match the white shadow of his jaw, and he bore old-man eyes that sat deep in his skull, marked him out as older than he was. His hands red and spading at rocks that had sat for who knows how long in compact tight with the earth, lay orphaned now by the side of the field.
Matthew Peoples was following behind the horse. Eight years
old she was and there was something unsettled about her. He had led her out from the stable that morning but she balked in the yard, tried to back up away from him, snouting the air with intransigence. Hold it easy there you. He thought he could smell an anxiety, something quavery beneath the skin, and he stared at her and took in the dark glass of her eye and saw in her the lengthening warp of himself. She blinked heavy a few times, turned her gaze towards the ground like she was in reverie about something and he watched her then lift a knee as if he had dreamed the disagreement. He was no expert with horses but he’d told Barnabas Kane about it and the man’s mouth made for a smile that did not reach the smiling place of his eyes.
When she’s not right she’ll as good as tell you, he said.
Well maybe she did.
Matthew pulled from the earth a stone shaped strange and he stopped and rubbed at its muck. A quality to it he saw and he spat on it and wiped it on his trousers. The stone was discoid-shaped like some neolithic tool he had once seen pulled out of a field, and he wondered if it was—the item smooth and flat and moulded by ancient hands he guessed as near a perfect thing. He looked towards Barnabas’s son Billy and held it up for him to see but the boy stood staring into his own thoughts. He was beside the horse, cradling his hand in his shirt, having scratched it earlier off a snarl of old bottle sticking out of the earth. He turned from the boy and pocketed the stone. The blue rope he used as a belt had come soft and he redid the knot and bent again to the work. A feeling then began to worry at him, like some strange tongue that came from a place felt but unformed, and he looked up the field towards Barnabas who had stopped to adjust the horse’s hitching. A gleam of power in the way Barnabas
stood, squat and coiled under the muck-stained shirt. The stance of a man who was generally agitated. A man prone to thoughts of deeper things but awkward to mention it. The growing lank of Billy beside him, fourteen years old with a pussing face.
In her ears the music of bees and then the silence of the house. Eskra Kane stood thin in the hallway in a blue smock that near matched her eyes. Her brunette hair slid into her face as she took off her bonnet, the bee-veil draped bridely over it, and she placed it on the bannister’s snub-nose. The living room was held bright beside her by the yellowing light and it shone upon the dark of the piano. She sighed. Days like these dried the damp in your bones, set loose the heart from the hasp of winter. When she came to Donegal with Barnabas, the boy Billy was learning to speak. The locals watched them with wary eyes and the wind burled and sank its teeth. Only Barnabas knew the talk. She saw the country as wild and poor, a vision darker than the dream spun by her emigrant parents, Tyrone folk who took the boat for New York and built for themselves what they could. Here she saw damp and desolation, a gnawing you had to fight against that was relentless. Those first nights she would lie awake beside Barnabas and listen to the rain and the wind and then nights when the weather seemed to cease altogether and she heard in that silence the opening of a void. This place her husband had been sent away from as an orphaned boy. She had learned to find comfort in rare evenings such as this, drew solace watching the boy grow up natural in a country that was by rights his home.
In the kitchen she found the stove ticking. Must of turf and the savour of cooking stew. Lavender on the air lightly. A storm
of crumbs as usual about the place where Matthew Peoples had sat down to eat, big slow hands reaching for the black bread and pulling at it. She wiped the deal table and saw they were near out of loaf. Time soon enough to light the lamps. Around the room the gloaming bore its shadows that stretched like a circus of dark animals waking.
The field was an uneven hummocked thing long unused, lay like a withered leg alongside wider pasture made separate by trees. It was of no use other than as a dumping ground. At the start of February Barnabas had stood knuckling his cheek and said he was sick of looking at the place. A funny few days of warm weather. We’ll plough it up and get the rocks out of it and manure it to fuck and let’s see. They stood looking over it. Swathes of the field nettle-fleshed that roiled when the wind rose up a wild sea. Half-hid amidst them was the wreck of an old grubber spored with rust. They had to drag it out using the horse and left the old implement tensed and gnarled in a hollow by the trees. The field cornered with bunching blackthorns and Matthew Peoples went at them flashing smiles with a billhook.
The horse was giving Barnabas trouble and Billy stepped in to lead it by the harness. Barnabas looked at the boy and walked over to him, took his hand in his own. Go back to the house would you and get that tended to by your mother. He let go the boy’s wrist and pinched him softly in the ribs and Billy shrank away from him. Leave off will you. He stood there looping the end of his shirt around his hand ignoring the instruction.
Barnabas sighed. You’ll ruin that shirt.
Shirt’s old as fuck anyhow so it is. I can fix the horse.
The horse doesn’t need no help.
Billy leaned in to examine her. A coin-sized patch of hair missing just behind the harness and he walked around and saw the same on the off side.
She’s going raw so she is.
I doubt that.
Maybe we should rest her.
Barnabas laughed. That horse’s been on her holidays, lying in field and stable all week.
Billy soothed the horse’s muzzle, looked into the dark of her eyes as if he could transmit some feeling or intention into her.
Matthew Peoples stretched his back and he heard then the distant sound of the byred cattle. Lowing like a sour wind. What in the hell’s up with them? The damned rope-belt had come loose again and he fixed it tight and felt some queer thought nicking at him and he turned and caught sight then of the smoke, saw how the curling cat’s tail had thickened into a spiral of dark slate. He watched how it folded upon itself and in an instant seemed to increase twofold and he looked across to the others, felt something flutter inside him. His voice in his throat tight and his mind seized upon words and made them concrete.
Hey boys, he said.
Billy’s mongrel, Cyclop, had appeared in the field beside him, stood watching fierce-gazed with his orange eye unblinking. The dog with a mind of his own, a lordly indifference to the call of anybody and he turned and woofed toward the trees. Barnabas stood wondering. Maybe the horse was getting old or maybe there was something wrong with her like Matthew Peoples said
but he couldn’t see what it was. Never a bother before. And that boy needs to get that hand of his sorted. His face was hot and he was itching under his shirt and he waved at a fly buzzing by the horse’s withers. He turned to his son.
Would ye go and get that hand seen to. You’ll get it infected so you will.
The boy looked down at the hand and the blood on the shirt and he addressed the ground as he spoke.
I’m all right so I am.
Go on and get the rod for the horse then.
Barnabas bent and grabbed a rock shaped like the tooth of some old animal that had fallen there to die under the wheel of an ancient sun, and perhaps that may have been, but as he tossed it lazy towards the ditch Matthew Peoples took a step forward and cleared his throat again. Jesus Christ, boys. They took no notice of him or perhaps they didn’t hear, for later in their memories what each of them heard was the dull sound of Matthew Peoples’ boots thudding up the field. Not a word from the man and something comic about the way he moved with his limbs all thickly, like he was set to stumble and hit the ground at the knees, fall without his hands into the dirt face-forward, break apart into his constituent elements. But they’d never seen him move quicker, his hands balled like stones and the whites of ankles winking at them through the rise and fall of his slacks. And if Matthew Peoples had known what he was running towards he might have stopped right there, turned instead for the road gated at the far side of the field. Barnabas wondering what was up with the man when he heard him bellow belatedly, a single word that came backwards over the man like a lobbed stone. Had to hear it twice in his mind till his eyes travelled to a place above
the trees where he saw the swirl blackly, a shimmy of smoke that seemed to do a bow just for him.
A skim of starlings in the sky above Carnarvan seemed to mirror the rising wreath of drift smoke. The murmuration swung in unison like minds entwined, weaved the sky with giant breathing until the dusk pulsed like a lung. The group inverted and swirled, caught the light and bent it, swung again into a strip of infinite looping, nature’s way of mocking perhaps what was playing out below, or more likely the birds were oblivious, locked into their own state of being. The boy saw the display above the townland but did not register it in his mind, watched instead his father run blind up the field, looked towards the darkening trees. Like a visitant, something passed through him cold.
Barnabas’s mind staring over an abyss he could not see. He followed Matthew up the field, a drunkenness in his legs as if apprehension had become a fluid thing administered into his blood, and then he managed himself into a run.
Not the house, please be. Oh, Eskra.
The narrow field and the stretch of it endlessly and then he saw Matthew Peoples disappear into the trees. He followed, trees of oak and sycamore and a wizened beech that remained with fingers pointed to the sky as if trying to beseech some urgent claim upon life. The path worn through. He met relief in the shape of Eskra running towards them, her skirt hitched, her elbows flaring, flour on her hands. Never more fully alive in the way he saw her, her two cheeks burning. He saw Matthew Peoples stalling for a moment to listen to her, the man bent on his knees
to catch his breath, and then he was off at a run. Barnabas caught up and stopped for her and she took his wrist in her floured hand white as if the blood had drained out of it. Sweat filming her high forehead and her breath jagging at the air like a knife, jagging at his eyes. She tightened her grip, tried to catch her breath. What he saw in her eyes near defeated him before she spoke, and when she did so, a sheaf of hair fell loose across her face.
The byre’s burning, she said.
She swiped quick at her hair and put upon her cheek a line of flour as if she had been marked.
Go shout for the boy, he said.
An imprint of her face upon his mind as he ran. His world narrowing down into a different kind of seeing.
The byre stood right-angled to the house, a building made of stone that was upon the land when he bought it. In length it was some fifty feet with pens for cattle now housed for the winter. Fodder in the loft under old oak beams. The byre had red double doors at the front that were not built wide enough for big cattle to walk through shoulder to shoulder, made it slow-going to move them in and out. His mind went over what he expected would meet him. Why now to fuck in February when they weren’t yet in the fields? Another few months and they would be passed it. He could hear Cyclop panting behind him, strained his eyes beyond the trees but could see nothing but what was before him, tree shadow serpentine on the track as if he had stepped into an unreality that annulled all time and rewrote all laws indifferently.
He came upon the pasture field and what he saw was a helix of black smoke that hid the house, spread like squid ink in water.
The west end of the byre’s roof was blazing. Smoke sidled from its windows like water streaming backwards over rocks, curled towards the roof where it made with darker smoke a sickening union. He ran into the yard and saw Matthew Peoples working the long handle of the pump. The huge tree arms on him. A bucket slung over the pump’s snout and water sloshing in. Matthew Peoples turned with his face lit as if by rage and he began at a run towards the fire, swung the bucket back and pitched into the air a river. The water travelled for a moment glittering and strangely beautiful until it fell dimly upon the roof like a stone met with an ocean. Barnabas ran to him, grabbed at his shoulder. Fuck that, he said. He pulled him by the arm and pointed. They ran to the byre’s double doors and stood facing them, a wraith of smoke sly through the cracks as if the fire were but a small thing. Matthew Peoples’ eyes widened, took the look of a man who can’t swim being asked into water. He shook his head at Barnabas who stood squinting at the door. A pleading in Matthew Peoples’ eyes that went unseen and Barnabas stood watching the smoking door, felt for a moment his legs weaken, forty-three cows inside, and he took a breath, saw Eskra and the boy approaching the gate from the field, and it was then he put a hand to Matthew Peoples’ back and pushed him towards the door.
Perhaps the jambs had buckled in the spreading heat for the doors shook but wouldn’t give. Matthew Peoples pressed down the latch and he kicked at the wood and it met his advance with a judder that was made mute by the fire’s roar. Faintly they heard the voices of Billy and Eskra. Matthew Peoples took a step backwards and he looked nervously for the sky hooding slowly with evening and saw it instead made naught by smoke, and then he bulled towards the door and the door sucked open into
a strange dark that swallowed the man in his entirety, Barnabas running in after him with his shirt hitched to his mouth.