The Old Sod

by Billy O’Callaghan

After the dreams have come, the mornings feel like glass around me. Everything looks too bright, too well-preserved. My way of coping is to sit in the kitchen in silence and try to wait it out. I don’t close my eyes because the faces hang there, in that darkness, ready to loom, faces that will make me smile to see again but which will also bring deep sadness, knowing that they’ve been lost, that I have let them go. The house is always still then, silent apart from the acceptable sounds, the clicking of pipes in the walls, water running at a murmur, the paper-weight of my own breath and Barbara’s as she idles about small chores, maybe rain against the glass or the crack of snow shifting its weight on the roof. While the coffee percolates, I sit and try not to move or even think, knowing too well the traps and pitfalls that lie in those directions.

I like to watch Barbara buttering toast. It’s a small thing, but it softens the solitude. She scrapes the slices with a knife, then cuts them into triangles. We’re middle-aged, and have dug our rut. But plenty have it worse than us. In a lit kitchen, Queens can be almost anywhere, and the missing things matter less. The butter is a chemically correct shade of yellow and easily spread, but is actually a type of low-salt-content, sunflower-oil substitute. All along its packaging it boasts in outright lies about the remarkably comparable qualities of its taste. And, in keeping with this trend, the bread is not real bread either, at least not my definition of real. Finger-thick slices the colour and flavour of dust, with an elasticity that bloats with every chew and which leaves grains of itself on my tongue and in my teeth even after swallowing. Lately, Barb has been pushing for a switch to one of those pro-biotic spreads. The change will make no great difference, since it is all just pseudo-magic anyway, and empty promises, and I’ll probably give in, but not yet, because I’m stubborn. Healthy diets are all the rage, even among the dying, but I still hold out on a few of the details.

The way my father and my sister live on in my mind is the way I saw them after I’d broken the news of my going: the old man at the table, head bowed over a mug of hot tea, and across the room, in the chair beside the unlit fire, Áine weeping, her fist clenching and relaxing around an old handkerchief that she held pressed to her lips in an effort to quell the tiny rumblings of her sobs. She was already married by then, and pregnant to a point that was just beginning to show; barely twenty but bulked and rubbed to a state of middle-age. Her hands shone pale and alabaster-hard from cold-water work, and her hair, the blackness of soot and wild as briar, hung long to her shoulders. Tears came, in a strained, wrenching way familiar to our kind, and she let them fall.

We waited until she’d gone home before starting on the whiskey. We had a night in early April, the waking part of the season but with the blanched colours of winter still holding sway. Rain had come in with the evening, following a watery sun’s slow traipse across the sky and infusing my last Inishbofin dusk with an ochre tinge that I’d always remember, but it was a soft rain that thinned out with the last of the light and by eight or so there was only darkness. Even the wind had fallen.

I was sixteen, and already broad across the chest, inflicted from time spent on the water and squatting in field corners with a measured stillness and an appreciation of balance in all things. I felt set for the world, innocent enough perhaps to believe in dreams but capable on a blood level and beating like a drum to run, to see cities and know the press of crowds, to meet and dance with women, to drink, fight, work and swear.

At the fireside, I watched pale, powdery beards of ash fringe the turf. A settled redness offered heat but little else to the room, but the level of dark felt right, somehow. Better to keep the details hidden, in case minds should change. I could hear him lumbering through into the pantry for a bottle, the rubber soles of his boots sucking up damp notes from the flagstone floor, every step laid down heavy.

“Here,” my father said, his voice all crust, pressing the space. “Get this down you, boy.”

His best whiskey. Two years locked away and still with its seal unbroken. I took the offered glass and raised it for the filling. He poured in splashes, then hauled the other armchair in close to the fire. We’d not long finished clearing the back field of rocks, an acre and a half that had taken the better part of a month, and the pull of such work still lay heavy in our bodies. So it felt good to sit.

“Easy with it,” he said, watching me in the dark. “Don’t force it down. That’s the trick. Let it find its own way.”

For a while, we drank. I held myself close to the fire, taking the heat against my face even after my skin had acquired a papery stiffness, and tried not to look at him because even in the dark there was too much to see, too many marks. When we spoke at all we kept mainly to the subject of the weather, how bad the winter had been for the fishing and worse, with so much wind, for the soil, our occasionally murmured words rising up in hesitant jabs and then, out of embarrassment, falling away again. The sense of goodbye lay within the night’s grain, and the silence made that a sad thing to bear. But the silence was still easier than words. I was new at that time to whiskey, and it burned and then soothed my mouth. In the low firelight the glass glowed, and the whiskey, warmed from the outside in by the casual inductance of my cupping hands, tasted unexpectedly sweet. Through the fusions of raw and malted barley, a terrific watery cleanness, and then the peaty aftershock. To the end, I braced myself for what I felt certain had to come: the plea to stay, its tune infused with threat or blackmail. But the matter was already decided. By morning, no matter what was said, I’d be on the boat across, and then Dublin, perhaps London, perhaps, in time, New York. No set plans, beyond the running.

It’s natural, of course, to reminisce, especially as we age, and regret is a flavour familiar to anyone who has ever fled one life in the chase for another. I was sixteen when I left, and mired in some half-formed state between childhood and the ways of adults. Most of the time, I cling to this as my excuse. And, most of the time, it is enough. But the truth is that I’d already felt the loom of an end.

Some weeks earlier, we’d been down in the bottom field, laying out a turf rick, and the old man had straightened from his stoop, tossed down the armful of clods that he was holding and went to lean against the wall. His mouth hung open and his staring eyes shone dark against the waxy flats of his face. Weariness was part of it, but levels of exhaustion were facts of our lives and this was something more convoluted, something vampiric.

“We’ll stop a while, boy,” he said, once he felt sure of his breath. “Sure, there’s legs in the day yet.”

His voice retained an element of composure but seemed detached and not quite natural in how it used its air. I averted my gaze, electing instead to consider firstly the rash of cloud that cloaked without quite obliterating the colourless smudge of sun and then, when that wasn’t enough, the rough-cut chunks of turf which lay scattered around my boots. I longed to sit too, and the support of the stone wall looked inviting, but I allowed myself only a minute’s pause before bending again to the chore, knowing that the day would not end for us until the work did. I gathered up the bricks of turf, stacked them as I’d been shown so many times, laying them into place thick-side down, sod-side up so that the rick could waterproof itself over months’ worth of drying time. Working steadily and without much thought, focusing on nothing but the order of the job, focusing least of all on the ache that sunk as a chill into the low of my back. Cold grey mud packed the folds of my neck and coated my hands like a leprous second skin, and I tasted and breathed it, feeling the sourness of its soupy grit between my back teeth whenever I clenched my jaw. There was no way to erase what I’d seen, but island boys and men know well enough what fits the silence and what does not, and the shadow that greyed and blunted him seemed a harbinger, of sorts. My father did not die that day in the field, or even that year, but with the benefit of hindsight, he did seem to skirt a bow of some hill around that time, because what followed were degrees of slow, meticulous disintegration.

That day, stacking the turf, I considered the old man’s blanched expression, the accepted horror within the down-turned eyes, the mouth that sucked and bubbled like a stab wound, rabid for the cold refreshing air, and the image that stormed my mind was of my mother laid out in a lamp-lit bedroom, dead at barely thirty and looking as if she had never lived at all. An aneurysm of some sort, a sudden thunder crack that ripped her from the world and reduced her to that smoke-yellowed mannequin state, mute as space and stiffer than any bone, her raven hair unnaturally flat without the pull of wind to turn it feral, tendrils of fringe boxing in her broad forehead. Because I’d been so young, the details that I remember seem detached from one another and have to be stitched together with lines of logic. After the sun went down the house had quickly filled, but through most of the night people continued to arrive, women carrying cakes or plates of cold sliced meat, men laden with dark unmarked bottles and jugs of stout or hauling sacks of pigs’ trotters that would be left to boil for hours and soften to a state of almost unbelievable sweetness.

Initially, I’d had a place to sit, a piece of couch cushion that I was forced to share with Áine but which still afforded comfort. Then, as the space thinned, I was moved and resettled on the flagstones beside the empty fire and given no choice but to stand. Áine kept me at her side and held my hand, with our fingers tightly entwined. Her intent was to discourage thoughts of escape, but it was an unnecessary precaution. Fear kept me still, fear that was different from the anxiety I felt for strange soundings in the night or those things the darkness masked. Because this time the worst had already happened, and the aftermath lay before me as a hole in the world, gaping and immutable.

My mind that night of my mother’s wake was full of many things, but heaviest in my thoughts was a memory of something she had once told me, months or a year earlier, her voice exasperated and yet full of compassion as she knelt before me and wrapped a piece of cotton gauze around yet another of my badly skinned knees: “You know, Billy,” she’d said, “if you don’t run so much, you won’t fall so much.” Standing holding hands with Áine in that crowded living room, I let those words roll through me again and again, and there was still a sense of calm to be had from the gentle remembered float of her voice. But from the little I’d glimpsed through the bedroom door, the previous night and again that morning, stillness seemed to me a far worse fate than falling. Surely there were times when the feel of all that chasing energy was more than worth the tumble, and the skinned knee. I didn’t fully understand what had happened but sensed enough to realise what death must mean, and it was the reverence that the word earned which made me feel so afraid. Beside me, Áine’s breathing had the thin, put-upon texture of shocked calm, and her fingers between mine were cold and dry, as if some essence of who she was had retreated, taking all her heat with it. But I was glad of the touch, glad of the promised reassurance offered by skin against my skin. We stood there, breathing the good wintry aroma of the sweet-boiling trotters thickening the air and insinuating every pore, afraid to speak but watching the tide of faces that we knew well, neighbours bunched in groups, their cheeks reddened from whiskey, their mood sombre, especially as the light softened and was lost and the time came for lanterns to be lit. Each was sincere in his or her grief, but it was different for them, a passing thing. They were saddened that one of their own had been lost to them, but the equilibrium of their world at least held its level.

Across the room, ignored by everyone, my father sat on the edge of a hard chair, head bowed, weeping. Sometimes, when the packed bodies parted just enough, I could see his big shoulders heaving against the punch of tears, and whenever the murmured conversations hit a lull, the sound of his pain carried throughout the house, forlorn as the lowing of something bestial across a span of valleys and fields. That weeping continued for hours, and through the terrible days that followed. It shook him and shook us all as we huddled together at the heart side of the sloping graveyard’s opened ground while rain lathered our faces, and it continued after we had returned home and were swallowed up once more into that small house’s dense gloom. But at some point it did soften and eventually it stopped all together, to be replaced with the kind of silence that told its own story.

Glimpsed through a doorway left ajar, death for me is and will always be a curtained bedroom yellowed and set off kilter by a burning lantern, and on the bed a face too still, known but no longer quite right, the muscles too relaxed, the shape pulled slack in every wrong direction. Calm, but too still. Once seen, it had felt a thing impossible to forget, or deny, yet somehow and for a long time I managed to find a way of doing both. But that day in the field, the month or so before my leaving, there it was again. Not the same, but with enough similarity to make me remember. I laid the turf in place and thought of how things would be a year from now. And then I thought about running.

People die every day; the world is full of little voids. My mother had slipped from a living, breathing, laughing state to a still and yellowy husk, and part of the overgrown hillside, tucked beneath the winds and crooked stones. And not alone either, but there with her people, the old stock who lived and died before my time as well as the minutes’ worth of nameless younger sister that I’d seen only as a dreamy blueness through a grey threadbare bed sheet and in my mind, in the darkness, can sometimes see still. That hillside bulged, with my mother and the rest, but still the shadow roamed, insatiable, seeking and marking out, separating weaklings for the cull.

In a city like New York, in a city like Dublin, even, no one thinks this way, not like they can and frequently do in country places and on islands. In the cities, steel and stone are the tangibles, and death is just death, a fact of life and an end to things. No hoods, no scythes, no shadows, no capital letters. In the cities, stories are for the pages of books. Told sometimes to pleasure or to scare, but not believed, at least not to a level where belief gets to dictate. Neither ides nor omens for New York, London, Paris, Dublin, only facts. It has to do with different sets of freedoms.

On those mornings after the dreams have come, Barbara brings coffee and sits with her back to the windows, facing the open kitchen door so that she can see through into the hallway. Always waiting for something, some news from afar, even if it’s just the morning paper. Sometimes she hums little snatches of whatever song she has woken with in her mind. And when the stillness becomes too much, she rises again, and switches on the radio. It is always the same, a grumbling of static, music jerking in and out of tune, and then either a news station or something gentle and innocuous, ’sixties and ’seventies hits, but with the volume kept low. We listen, finish our coffee and toast, then reach for bowls and the cereal. These days, we eat muesli. Eggs are high in cholesterol, and bacon has become like a swear word, but muesli is meant to be good for the heart, or the bowels, or something.

The whole thing is a farce, shadow play. After the dreams have come and the bounds of time have been broken, what is gone feels far more immediate, more enlivened, than what tries to count as the here and now. And such mornings fill me with the sensation of having been cast adrift. I sip the coffee and quietly digest my breakfast, knowing that I properly belong nowhere. As good as New York has been to me, I’ll never understand the city on a conspiratorial level. I was not born for these streets. Barbara, who is full of her own concerns, seems content in leaving me to my silence, but I know that, were she to press me into conversation, my words would come only and ever in Irish.

This would probably amuse and then frighten her, and the thought of it frightens me too, because I sense that once I started there’d be no stopping, that it would be like splitting an artery. I chew the muesli and keep my eyes open, inhaling with care because the bare stone walls of my father’s cottage feel suddenly only a breath away, the small kitchen window coated with the salt and grit of the sea wind and whistling drafts where the sealing putty has crusted and turned to powder. If I try at all, I can feel the heavy wool of an old sweater across my back and shoulders, a thing passed down, the thick shape of it sagging around me several sizes too big, but its weight comforting against the bleak days, its odour filling my mouth with sooty, slightly gamey sweetness, a familiar taste that itches my tongue and lights a fire deep down in my throat. And when the wind catches just right in the eaves, it can pass, almost, for the high keening of Áine, deep in one of the ancient laments she so loved to sing, as she busies herself with collecting breakfast eggs from the small coop or struggles with a slopping pail of water from the communal pump at the bottom of the hill.

Inishbofin is home, even still, but the connections to the place are too long lost, the damage irreparable. My father dead within two years of my leaving, Áine also gone. There were the boys, her sons, my nephews, three of them, steps of stairs, but they are grown men now and have themselves long since abandoned the island. They have my address but none of them have kept in touch, as so often happens. They can’t be blamed. They don’t know me. I’m a name, that’s all, a nowhere man and a nobody. Someone they will have heard their mother mention, someone to look up if they ever happen to find themselves in New York, who can speak, if pressed, as they do and who will offer food and a bed, money, if needs be. I am nothing to their lives, but even though I only know them from the flattened expressions of the photographs that Áine used to send every Christmastime without fail, they are, in a way, everything to me. Because they remain the last surviving links to my past, to who I was before I started trying so hard to be someone else.

 

Billy O’Callaghan is the author of three short story collections: In Exile (2008) and In Too Deep (2009), both published by Mercier Press, and The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind (2013), published by New Island Press. Winner of the 2013 Irish Book Award and the 2010 Arts Council of Ireland Bursary for Literature, his fiction has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Confrontation, the Fiddlehead, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Kyoto Journal, the Los Angeles Review, Narrative, the Southeast Review, and numerous other magazines and journals around the world. He also reviews books for the Irish Examiner.

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