The blight had come and then come back, and the first year was terrible but only the beginning. The shellfish were lost when the ocean brought a red tide, and the second year the herring stayed north, out of reach of the boats. Those that could got to survive a while on rats, insects, any birds that they could catch, but as fodder diminished weakness grew until, soon enough, there was nothing. And it was bad for everyone. A mile over, towards Allihies, a fisherman’s wife was lost in birthing. One of the women saved the child through butchery, but it was born small and seven weeks early and died that first night. The fisherman sent the woman out, then blocked the door and set fire to the thatch. The house took almost an hour to go. There were three more children in the house and those who had come down to see said they never woke, that they were already dead from smoke before the flames reached them. And the fisherman stood at the window, staunch as a tree, gazing out into the darkness, until the roof came down around him. In the days after, the neighbours raked through the embers, collecting what could be salvaged.
The Master kept a hedge school down in one of the back acres, sometimes down on the beach. The children came from as far away as Cahirkeen in the north and Knockroe to the south. Men and women, too, as things began to deteriorate. He taught them to read and add up, but mostly he instructed them in prayer, in the ways of worship. The priests had come, of course, generations of them, and they’d thrived during the better times when prayers never had to be more than easy words. They were tolerated but couldn’t quite belong, and they never penetrated the fabric because the stories they told had no grounding here. This land had its own gods, ancient when the likes of Christ was young. These gods controlled the sun and the tide and the seasons, and they were cruel and vengeful to disobedience but generous to loyalty, protecting those who knew how to properly ask. Teaching was required, the old faith needed awakening, especially once the potatoes turned putrid in the fields and everything stopped growing. The congregation needed to make amends for what had been abandoned.
People began dying on the roadside, in ditches. On a still day, or if the wind was coming from the wrong direction, you could hear the keening for miles. Early in the second year, the Master killed a girl. A child, sixteen, seventeen years old. He’d taken her away from the group and led her down onto the beach. She wore a torn smock and hadn’t eaten in more than three days. They held hands on the path and across the sand toward the rocks, where no one could see them, and when he made her clothes away and bent her naked over the first low outcropping of shale her ribs and backbone stood up against her pale skin like the ridges in a ploughed field. She cried out when he entered her, a small, deep, destroyed moan, and he felt her break in a warm gout, and through what followed she gripped the rock with one hand for balance and held her head in the other, gagging with pain and imploring of him to stop. But he didn’t stop, couldn’t. He kept on until his own control snapped, and then he slumped against her, breathing deep, shuddering breaths, and her body held beneath him, a delicately carved thing but cold and still as something already dead except for the enduring hum of her crying. He kissed the filthy sweep of her neck, the skin coated with sweat and dirt and pocked raw by the stabbing of ticks, then ran his fingers into and against the spill of her tangled hair, jerked her head up twenty inches and before she could resist or even breathe to scream smashed her face five or six times back down into the reefs. She died almost instantly but he didn’t stop until she was ruined, and then he smeared clots of her blood into the skin of his own face, chest and groin, cradled the body in his arms and waded out into the ocean to shoulder-depth. It was a sacrifice, part of the ritual, the sowing of a seed, the reaping of a life, and an attempt to sate Manannan, almighty of the sea, and the Cailleach, and Crom Cruach, the thunder-crack, god of day, of the sun.
They all knew. Everyone knew, even the family of the girl, the father and sister she’d left behind. What the Master had done, and why. And that he had done it for them. Worse, they’d all colluded. They helped select her and, by turning away, by sitting in the acre in a silent huddle, denying her distant cries as the bleating of a cormorant or gannet, studying the sky or the dirt or their own hands but never one another, they’d granted him permission to do what he claimed and assured them was necessary. But a month passed, and then a second, and nothing changed. The anger of the gods didn’t abate, and no prayers were heard. Maybe their faith had been allowed lie too long fallow. By October, the Master himself had taken ill. He’d started eating grass, as many did, just to feel his mouth full again, and spent desperate days hunched in pain, his shrunken stomach knotted with cramp. There was talk, just a whisper but with a ring of truth about it, that further north, in parts of Mayo and Galway, areas where the blight had wreaked even greater havoc and where even the grass had ceased to grow, some had taken to eating their dead. The ones who spoke of this, and those who heard, shook their heads and tried to force the thought away, but the natural abhorrence for such acts had softened, dictated by a deeper ache.
On the fifth day after falling ill, he saw his wife at the window. Áine. She had passed several years earlier, during their second year of marriage, taken by a yellow fever. Back then, he’d spent most of his days out on the water, waiting for the return of spring, and he should have been with her because he’d known she was bad but not how bad, not that her condition would prove so quickly fatal. She died alone, sweating her heart to stillness in a bed that he later had to haul outside and burn, and for a long time after, months at least, perhaps even as long as a year, he continued to see her everywhere. Then, gradually, she seemed to fade from his life, and by those final days, until she again started appearing to him, he could hardly even recall her face. He was on the floor, slumped in a corner of the empty room, and lifted his head to find her at the window, looking in, watching. He felt only a sense of calm at the sight of her, maybe even relief. And what struck him was not the paleness of her complexion but the familiar brittleness of her shape, her slender shoulders, the narrow hips. She was not smiling but there seemed no sadness about her, either. She was simply waiting, as she had waited so often in life, gazing out over the ocean for the first hint of his return. And following this visit, she came back often, standing in the doorway as he lay down on the floor to sleep, accompanying him in the mornings and during the last of the light when he trawled the beach in search of a bite to eat, even the least morsel, a crab, a mussel, dead carrion, a snarl of kelp, anything. She never spoke, because they had no need for words. Her expression was placid, unchanging, a mask of infinite patience. Waiting, he’d come to know, for realisation to take full hold.
As the days built and passed, he grew increasingly weak, until eventually even standing presented too great a challenge. That final morning, he stumbled outside into the rain, fell to his knees in a corner of the field nearest the house and ate what grass he could force into his mouth. His teeth had begun to fall out, the gums receding in a way that turned everything loose, and he lay for hours on that patch of ground, through into the afternoon, on his side, helpless, with the juice running green from his nose and broken lips. Waves of cramp kept tearing him from the stupor of a punch-drunk sleep, the violent purge of his stomach convulsing, giving up its yellow acids and, in ropes of blood, its lining. Sometimes, when he could force open his eyes, he saw the disk of sun at half-height in the sky, muted to opalescence by a skin of cloud, the puncture wound of a musket-shot in a sheet of canvas sail. But more often the cloud banked itself in layers so dense that there was nothing at all but the unbroken greyness, and the threat of further rain. And then, on towards evening, he saw her again, Áine, standing just out of reach, and as she moved before him he moved too, struggling first to his knees and then his feet, and following her inside, surrendering at last to what he had to do.
He’d prepared for this. He had already hung the rope and tied the noose. All that remained now was its execution. His climb, with the little strength remaining to him, was slow and unsteady, up onto the chair and then the table. He brought himself to its edge, put his head through the loop, and drew away the few inches of slack, twisting it so that the rope’s fibres bit into the flesh of his throat and the big knuckle of knot settled heavily just behind and below his left ear. So that the end would be quick. So that even if the neck failed to give, the jugular almost certainly would. He’d seen men hang before, and knew the way. He closed his eyes to spare himself the sight of the window that lay ahead, the blanched filter of the light spilling through the crusted glass with its boast of the world beyond and the small, good things it still, for some, possessed. But the new clenched blackness put up an instant, nauseous challenge to his balance and when he opened his eyes again, Áine was standing there, just inside the glass, her shape diffusing the light but not stemming it. And as he leaned forward from the table’s edge towards her, she reached out her arms and for the first time in half a lifetime revealed the teeth inside her smile.
© Billy O’Callaghan
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan]