Silence the Dead
“Owing to deadlines put upon the creation of this novel by its original publisher, I researched and wrote Silence The Dead in three months. Those 90 days took me from the wilds of northern New Mexico, to the National Library in Dublin, the ruined farmhouses dotting the craggy coasts of Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula – and everywhere in between.
“It wasn’t a difficult story to write, however. Once the Conlan’s presented themselves to me, it was as if they took over the telling and it was all I could do to keep up. For that reason I can say, without being self-serving, this is a great book!
“The historical events and many of the people with whom my fictional characters relate are real and, despite some creative liberties, very much as they are to be found in fact. Those who appreciate threads of history and fiction woven together in an epic yarn, will love Silence the Dead. Please enjoy the sample chapters below.”
TRAGEDY IS NO STRANGER to the west coast of Ireland, and the old shepherd had seen his share; but he’d never seen anyone fall off a cliff. Looking down, even from a great height, he imagined he saw a slight movement; fancied he heard a cry of anguish in the wind-stuffed silence between waves. But the man’s body – twisted back on itself at an impossible angle – was beyond the skill of a doctor to repair. Christ himself, the shepherd thought, would be hard-pressed to remake a man from such a crumpled mass of human debris. Besides, there wasn’t a doctor for twenty miles.
The shepherd ran to the church.
Silence the Dead
by David A. Crossman
County Kerry Ireland, 1893
oooo“I was with ‘im when ‘e went over the cliff, Father!”
ooooThe priest, his cassock billowing in the wind as he rushed along the barren headland, had difficulty matching strides with the old shepherd, to whom every rock, root, and bush was as familiar as a family curse. “Is no one with him, then?” he yelled in ragged breaths.
oooo“No! Naught but me! ‘e was walkin’ the edge path when one’ve his damned beasts…pardon Father…one’ve his blessed flock startled at somethin’ an’ knocked ‘im over! When I got down to ‘im I says as I’d run f’r the doctor, but ‘e’d ‘ave none of it. He wanted you!” The shepherd flung further remarks over his shoulder, but the wind ran away with their meaning.
ooooAt that moment the grassy path fell away toward the sea and the old man disappeared over the edge. The priest pulled up short of the precipice, breathless, and watched the shepherd descend, scorning gravity as he flung his loose amalgamation of sinew and bone toward the spume-pounded beach hundreds of feet below.
ooooFather O’Shields, choosing not to tempt physics with faith, grasped clumps of grass and let himself down the nearly-vertical slope with a delicacy becoming a man three times his age. Nevertheless, he arrived on the shore muddied and shite-streaked, but in one piece.
ooooSedgework, the shepherd, was waiting, dancing fretfully from stone to stone around the body of his fallen companion. “O, Jesus, Mary, an’ Joseph, ’e ain’t dead, Father!”
ooooThat much was evident. Flanagan, his back bent over a hump of granite at an unnatural angle and his left leg crumpled backward under his torso, was losing blood from several wounds about his head and shoulders. But his chest rose and fell in spasms as he gulped at the frigid air of the North Atlantic.
ooooO’Shields ransacked his robes for his Bible. “No time, Father!” Flanagan wheezed, the words barely audible over the course expulsion of his breath. He held up his arm. “Come … come ‘ere!”
ooooThe priest’s knees creaked a painful complaint as he stooped over the dying man. Flanagan threw his arm around the priest’s neck, jerked him close, and pressed his lips to the ear of his confessor. “Forgive me Father, for I ‘ave sinned…”
Los Pinos Creek, Colorado – March 5, 1957
ooooIn the course of researching his doctoral thesis on the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant, Regan Ryan had made the trip on the #41 freight train from Antonito, Colorado, to Chama, New Mexico, more times than he could count. This trip, however, presented a number of firsts. It was the first time he’d ridden in such luxury: One of Denver & Rio Grande Railway’s deluxe parlor cars – refurbished as a living museum piece – was being transferred to the Chama roundhouse for service. The car’s plush, high-backed chairs and their time-worn plaid fabric crowned with starched white antimacassars were an anachronism in a decade of chrome and plastic and contrasted sharply with the bench seats he was used to.
ooooThe second first: In his experience the train had never before been stopped by snow so late in the season. Having spent countless hours over the last six months talking to crew members, he’d learned enough about the trains of the D&RG to identify the number of every engine on the line by its whistle. He knew the idiosyncrasies of various sections of track, the names and personalities of the engineers, and the wives and children of the section heads from Cresco, to Cumbres, to Los Pinos, Osier, and Sublette. He had also learned, in gory detail, the notorious reputation of Cross Long Creek – where the brutal wind could stack up drifts of twenty to thirty feet in a few short hours – especially milepost 321 where the train had come to a standstill – but he somehow fancied no amount of snow could ever hinder stout-hearted engine 483.
ooooThen again, he’d never seen snow like this. True, it had been a record-setting year, but this was March. Nearly spring!
ooooThen there was the last first; his only companion in the car was an attractive girl about his own age who had boarded in Antonito and, for nearly three hours, kept aggressively to herself. Burying her head in a book, not once did she catch him looking at her … which was most of the time as there was nothing else to look at beyond the steadily falling curtain of white outside the windows. This was somewhat dispiriting in that it made the likelihood of conversation remote; however, it allowed him all the time in the world to study her, which he did unabashedly.
ooooA pleasant pastime.
ooooHe got up and put a few more coals on the fire in the pot-bellied stove.
oooo“You may find it warmer by the fire,” he said.
ooooFinally she raised her eyes. “I’m fine, thank you.”
ooooHe wandered casually toward her end of the car. She stiffened visibly at his approach, but he’d committed. It was too late to turn back now. “It’s going to get cold, I’m afraid. Especially all the way up here…so far from the stove.”
ooooShe returned to her reading. “I’ll survive.”
ooooHe cocked his head to look at her book. “‘Hemingway?”
oooo“Oh, Dickens. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’.”
oooo“This is The Mystery of Edwin Drood, not A Tale of Two Cities,” she said coolly.
ooooRegan reddened and tugged at his collar. “I don’t, ah … I’m more of an historian. The name’s Regan.” Venturing all, he extended his hand. If she didn’t take it, it was going to be a long, lonely walk through the wilderness back to his seat.
ooooShe looked at his hand, then at his face then, pleasantly and unexpectedly, smiled and shook his hand. “I’m Maryellen MacCartney.”
ooooEven the snow on the roof seemed to groan with relief. The worst was over.
ooooFor a long time they engaged in small talk. He learned that she was a teacher from New Hampshire. She’d accepted a position at the middle school in Chama. It was her first job – she’d graduated Dartmouth in December – and her first trip west of Pennsylvania. She preferred the Four Freshmen to Elvis, I Love Lucy to Milton Berle and the Red Sox to the Yankees. She had two sisters, one older and one younger, and her family had a cabin on an island off the coast of Maine where they spent their summers.
ooooShe learned his academic particulars – that he was from St. Louis, an only child who liked everything she didn’t, that his mother taught English, his father was an ear, nose, and throat specialist, and their family had never been on a vacation together that he could recall. He enjoyed hiking, pizza, and football, which she detested.
ooooAfter that, conversation flagged for a while, its echo drifting in that unsteady silence where relationships are forged or acquaintances ended. He was thinking about putting more coals in the fire when she spoke. “So, what’s there in Chama to interest an historian?”
ooooShe’d touched upon his passion, and for the next hour and a half, there was no stemming the tide of his enthusiasm. The New Mexico Land Grants – of which the Tierra Amarilla Grant was a part – dated back to the 1500s and the machinations of the Spanish Crown to settle the territory. Through successive Mexican and U.S. governments, documented ownership of the land and its component parts had become about as convoluted a morass of claims and counterclaims as could be conceived by the mind of man. His studies, however, had led to the discovery of certain personal documents – including the diary of an exceptional young boy, a copy of which he had with him at the moment – of a family whose extraordinary history had captivated his imagination and become his obsession.
County Kerry, Ireland – 1879
oooo“I’m sorry, boys. There was nothin’ I could do.” Doc Murphy ducked through the low doorway as he came out of the bedroom, vigorously wiping his hands on a flannel he’d brought with him. The refrain was both bitter and familiar on his tongue. He’d only been doctoring a year or two during the blight of ’48 – ’49 when, in town after town, village after village, hovel after hovel across the Irish countryside, he’d had to announce death.
ooooAt first, in those days, he’d tried to couch the blow in soft language. It never worked. There was no dulling the edge of the Reaper’s blade and the response seldom varied: violent, or angry … or pathetic. Sometimes all three in dizzying succession. Better that, though, than the fourth – apathy – expressed by those whom life had so beaten down they envied the dead.
ooooThirty years’ experience told him it was best just get it over with.
ooooIn this case it was harder than usual though: Josh Conlan had committed suicide.
ooooMurphy tried not to let his gaze be caught by that of Josh’s sons – both of whom he’d helped bring into the world; Thomas some sixteen or seventeen years past. Tiffin, what, eleven? Twelve? Last of all Katy, now asleep in the nook in the wall near the fireplace. Could it be five years ago already? The record was in his journal, the dreary chronicle he’d come to call his Book of the Dead. Alice, the children’s mother, had died not six months earlier as a consequence of any of the maledictions attendant upon grinding poverty. Take your pick. Now their father was gone as well. At the ripe old age of thirty-eight. Bloody waste. Suicide seemed redundant, somehow. He’d have starved to death in a week or two anyway.
ooooWhat would become of the Conlans who remained?
ooooTiffin had been standing by the fireplace, immune, by long practice, to the smoke the wind stuffed back down the chimney. He was carefully inscribing something in the notebook he always carried. Murphy, anticipating the weeping that would come once the news sank in, lingered a little longer than necessary over the ceremony of washing his hands in the ice cold water of the tin basin, just to be there. When the time came, there would be nothing to do but withstand the onslaught; tears, accusations, wailing. Whatever. He’d heard it all, even received physical blows from hearts so bloodied they mistook him for God: husbands who’d lost their wives, mothers who’d lost their children. Children who’d lost all hope. It was part of the job.
oooo“I read once,” he’d said to someone long ago, (no doubt at the pub, for that was where such recollections came to him) “there’s a heathen tribe somewhere on the back-side of bumpus that makes life-sized dolls of reeds and takes their grief out on ‘em. They might just hit ‘em a few times. Or twist their heads off, or set ‘em on fire or feed ‘em to the cattle in bits and pieces. Maybe then they eat the cattle. Who knows? Anyway, when it’s over, they just go on with their lives. All that hurt and anger bundled into that Judas Goat of a doll … and forgotten!
oooo“That makes me a kind of grievin’ doll, I suppose. Though not as effective.”
ooooIn the present, Tiffin stood staring at the smoldering peat fire. “He’s with Ma now,” he whispered at the flames.
ooooInstinctively, Murphy reached out to put a hand on the boys’ shoulder, but thought better of it. The boy, bookish like his mother, was trying to be brave. Who knew how fragile the walls of his little fortress were? A simple touch might knock them down in ashes and tears.
ooooThomas was standing in the doorway, staring at his father’s corpse on the bed, reading Murphy’s mind. “You did what you could, Doc,” he said, speaking low so as not to wake Katy who, in her rope-lattice crib, continued to sleep the sleep of blessed ignorance. “Thank you for that.”
ooooIn the darkness – wrapped in layers of shadows that made him feel like a storybook ogre in the tiny, low-ceilinged room of the cottage – Murphy shook his head. He was about to say, ‘Wish I could’ve done more …’ but the stoicism of the boys in the face of impending doom demanded something more than platitudes. “What you gonna do now, Thomas?” he asked. He knew the landlord – too strapped by taxes to keep a tenant who couldn’t work the farm, even if he was disposed to kindness – would have to evict the little orphan family, the demands of his mortgage-holders ringing louder in his ears that the muted sobs of suffering. For a moment, the boy didn’t respond. He sniffed a little and wiped his nose on the back of his dirty sleeve.
oooo“Bury him,” he said. “Up by Ma.”
ooooThe funeral, Murphy knew, would be sparsely attended. That’s the way it was with suicides. Objections of the church aside, there was a deep suspicion in the region that the ghosts of suicides – shades, as the locals called them – forever caught in limbo, visit their torment on passersby, whispering the horrors of hell to the wind, which repeats it in the ears, baring it to the brain of the Unfortunate where, ultimately, unavoidably, it brings on madness.
ooooMurphy didn’t know how the boys would take the next bit of bad news. Their mother was buried in the church yard. Consecrated ground. Josh, having taken his own life, would no doubt be buried without ceremony in Sinner’s Bog, alongside all the others whom life, over the years, had heaped with more than they could bear.
ooooHe’d leave that to O’Shields.
oooo“I mean about yourselves. You and … “ he mouthed the word, “the children?”
ooooThomas turned from his morbid contemplation and looked at his brother, who looked back with unflinching eyes, evidently eager to hear the reply to the question that hadn’t passed his ken. None was forthcoming. Thomas shrugged. “We got bread and herring for a day or two,” he said. “Some oats for porridge. We’ll be all right.”
ooooBless the short-sighted eyes of youth, thought Murphy. “Aye. Well, that’s good. I expect some of the women in town will help see you right, as well,” he said. “After the funeral.” It was more a prayer than a statement of fact.
oooo“Aye,” said Thomas.
ooooThat’s the way it was in the village. People helped each other. Grieved with each other. Celebrated with each other – on those occasions, all too rare of late, that warranted celebration. Though what help the village women would be, faced with the starvation that haunted their own doorsteps, was left unsaid.
ooooAll at once Thomas looked sharply at the doctor. “He didn’t kill himself, you know.” His dark eyes, full of tears dammed by defiance, dared Murphy to claim otherwise. But there was no doubt: a single bullet to the heart. The gun was still in his hand when he got there. Amazing he’d hung on to it in the time it had taken him to die. That kind of tenacity wasn’t typical of suicides.
oooo“There’ll be an inquest,” Murphy said. “Has to be.”
oooo“What’s that?” Thomas asked.
oooo“A legal proceedin’, to determine the cause of death.”
ooooLikely so, Murphy allowed. Or one of the Irish gentry who, Thomas knew, maintained their position at the sufferance of the English and were, therefore, not much better.
ooooThomas made a noise of contempt. “Doesn’t matter,” he said, as if aware of the outcome of such an affair. “He didn’t kill himself.”
ooooMurphy would like to believe it. The boy had been alone with his father for fifteen or twenty minutes before he’d arrived. Had Josh been conscious during that time? “Did he tell you that?”
ooooThomas choked down the urge to bolster his argument with a lie. “No,” he said flatly, after some hesitation. “But he never killed himself with that gun.”
oooo“It was in his hand, Thomas. And there’s a bullet hole … he died of gunshot.”
oooo“Maybe so,” said Thomas. “But not from that gun, he didn’t.”
oooo“What makes you say so?”
oooo“That’s a Colt 44.04, brought back from Mexico by my great uncle Theo.”
oooo“I know,” said Murphy. “It’s pretty famous hereabouts.” And so it was. Back in the ‘40s Theo, then Sergeant Theophelus Conlan of the 18th Irish battalion, had taken up arms – together with some 800 of his countrymen – to join Mexican fellow-Catholics in their war against the American aggressor. Fewer than ten percent of the Irish had escaped death on the battlefield, or hanging at the hands of the U. S. Cavalry. Fewer than ten percent of the remainder ever saw Ireland again.
ooooTheo had been one of those fortunate sons. The gun, “taken from the still-warm hand of a genuine United States Cavalry Major, I swear at the feet of the Holy Mother,” had been his trophy. He’d often brought it to the pub, waving it about in deadly punctuation of his assertion – which dependably grew grander and more colorful as the night wore on – that the Irish “very nearly had them Yankees licked, we did. Aye, it was a close thing.” And would have ended in victory rather than defeat if not for the timidity of an ally who, faced with a foe too well-armed, beat a hasty retreat back to Mexico City.
oooo‘“Drinks all ‘round!” someone would inevitably yell, “and double for Sergeant Conlan!”
ooooSergeant Conlan eventually succumbed to a wound he’d received in that battle. The gun had been his bequest to his brother, together with the new leather boots he’d accepted in partial compensation for the service that had cost him his life. The remainder, equaling some 150 pounds sterling, he’d either used to get home, or drank when he got there.
oooo“There’s no bullets,” said Thomas, calling Murphy abruptly back to the present.
oooo“What do you mean?”
oooo“A 44.04 takes special bullets,” the boy replied. “Uncle Theo got the gun from that soldier, like he said, but the chambers were empty. The cavalry man had used them all.”
ooooHe absent-mindedly banked the coals in the fireplace. “And he never got the ammunition belt.” He leveled a significant glare at Murphy. “No one’s fired that gun since the day Uncle Theo took it off that soldier’s body.” He tossed a nod toward his father. “Includin’ tonight.”
ooooUpon his arrival at the scene, Murphy had immediately pried the gun from Conlan’s grip and placed it on the bedside table. Now, he went into the bedroom, picked it up, and held the barrel to his nose. It was hard to tell – the house was so full of peat smoke – which had a pungency all its own that could easily overwhelm that of gunpowder. “I can’t tell.”
oooo“Somebody killed him,” said Thomas, almost without expression.
ooooMurphy was taken aback. “Killed him? Murder, you mean?”
oooo“But … who would do such a thing?” Murphy sputtered. “Why?” He looked around the rude little crofter’s cottage. From the dirt floor to the soot covered roof, there was nothing worth stealing apart from the gun itself. “Anything missing?”
ooooThomas knelt to retrieve a coal that had tumbled from the fire. He picked it up with his bare fingers and tossed it back amongst the embers. “He didn’t kill himself.”
ooooMurphy shot a quick glance at Tiffin, who was staring at him. Whatever was true, these were hard words for a kid to hear. “How do you know?”
oooo“I knew my father.”
oooo“Who would want to kill your father?”
ooooThomas shot the doctor a quick, deadly glance, but said nothing.
ooooThe presiding judge at the inquest hadn’t known Josh Conlan. He simply assembled witnesses, including Doc Murphy, listened to the evidence, and judged; “Suicide,” then rose to leave. Not “death by misadventure,” which would at least have earned the deceased a place by his wife in the churchyard. Suicide – plain, simple, and unforgivable.
oooo“What about the gun!?” Thomas had cried from the back of the room. “What about the bullets?”
oooo“Quiet that boy!” snapped the Judge, who had listened impatiently to Thomas’ assertion and discarded it out of hand. “Stuff and nonsense. The man shot himself, so there had to be a bullet. One is all it took. Grief’s got the better of your reason, lad.” He lobbed an accusatory glance over his spectacles at Doc Murphy, who, while not vociferous in support of the boy’s theory, had not spoken against it. “Bailiff, you put the boy out if he makes any more noise, you hear?” Addressing the court, he reiterated his conclusion. “Suicide. That’s it.” He banged the gavel as if he was passing a sentence. “God rest his soul.”
ooooTo say there was sorrow so great it couldn’t be born, with faith, was to repudiate the church’s teaching that God would not allow his children to suffer more than they could bear. Ergo, anyone who stumbled and fell under the burden of life, succumbing ultimately to the temptation to end it, must not be a child of God and, therefore, must be interred in other than holy ground. This was the rationale of the church, and it sealed the fate of Joshua Conlan.
ooooThe funeral was even more dismal than Murphy had thought it would be. Only the children, Father O’Shields, the grave digger and young Riley Coxon were in attendance. Riley was a strange, death-besotted lad whose chief recreation was attending funerals. Bog, fen, or churchyard, he drew no distinction. All were equally fascinating. Unbidden, the old proverb came to mind: “Don’t count the mourners at a funeral.” Murphy himself stood at a distance lest the children might consider him – the bearer of the news – somehow responsible for their father’s death.
ooooThe trio of siblings, dressed in little more than rags, stood hand-in-hand staring down into the hole that held their father as the low, cold Irish sky, heavy with sorrow, anointed the humble proceedings with tears.
ooooIn the best of times, Father O’Shields was a genial, out-going man – not overly fastidious in his cultivation of temperate habits – with a song from his vast repertoire (and not all hymns) ever-present on his lips. The best of times, however, were a distant memory. For months now, deaths and funerals following one another in numbing procession, had made time-worn words of comfort burn like live coals in his throat, shaken the foundations of his faith, stolen his joy, and torn the music from his tongue. He had the growing conviction that a piece of his heart was lowered into the grave with each casket, each life that he, as confessor, had shared so intimately. All the frailties that human flesh is heir to, hidden ‘til the Judgment by a few shovelfuls of dirt.
ooooFor his part, he had nothing but sympathy for Joshua Conlan, suicide or no, and would have seen his remains placed beside those of his wife without a twitch of conscience – the God of his heart surely would make no objection – but he was bowed by the weight of hundreds of years of church tradition, a burden that would crush Christ Himself.
ooooAnd so he found himself this dismal morning, in this dismal bog, performing his dismal chore, making spiritual noises so weak and watered down and Christless in power that he burned with inner rage. He concluded the service by rote, crossed himself by habit, and the children did the same in imitation.
ooooTiffin picked up a rock and scratched a careful cross on the rude lid of the makeshift coffin.
ooooWhat now? There would be no wake for Joshua Conlan. No festivities of any kind in celebration of the life he’d lived – that of a good husband, caring father, and conscientious worker – all because, in losing his wife, he’d apparently lost his will to live.
ooooFather O’Shields hunched down on his knees and the little Conlan family formed a semi-circle ‘round about. With a thumb, he brushed a tear from Katy’s purple-rimmed eye. ‘The purest thing on earth,’ thought the poet within. ‘More precious than gold.’
ooooIf so, it was a treasure Katy had in abundance, and could easily spare. But it came without weeping. Indeed, none of the children wept outright.
oooo“Do you have food?” he asked.
oooo“Aye,” said Thomas, too quickly. “Enough.” He and his brother and sister had finished the last of the porridge and herring two days ago. No one had come with food. Apart from some boiled nettles, stampy, and a bit of old cattle feed left in the bottom of an unused bin, they hadn’t eaten since.
The priest looked up at the boy, whose sunken cheeks betrayed the lie. “It’s not just yourself, Thomas. You’re the man of the house, now. You’ve got the children to think of.”
oooo“Aye. You think I don’t know’t?” said Thomas, his languid eyes flashing briefly.
ooooShields stood up. “I’m sure you do. Now, you’ll come to the house. I happen t’know Miss Meredith has a bit of stew on the stove.”
ooooNeither of the younger Conlans said anything, but they beseeched their protector with hungry eyes.
ooooThomas was torn. The meal to which they’d been invited could mean life and death to them … especially Katy … yet their host was to be the man who personified the institution that had just consigned their father to an unmarked grave in unhallowed ground.
oooo“Pride is hard to chew,” O’Shields suggested with a smile. “And harder to swallow.”
ooooThe battle played across Thomas’ face, but eventually his pride crumbled before the supplication in the eyes of the little ones.
ooooDoc Murphy watched from the protective cover of a clump of trees as the priest gathered Katy in his arms and led the boys to his house. He watched them go out of sight to the unmistakable cadence of dirt on wood as the gravedigger filled in the hole, desultory about his job since he wouldn’t receive the customary bottle of whiskey for his trouble, only a shilling from the church. The priest and the Conlan children – last of their line in Cork – disappeared around a hedgerow. Murphy would never see them again, but that last image of them would haunt him forever.
ooooAn hour or so later, having persuaded Thomas to take a bag with such tidbits in it as Miss Meredith could scrounge; it was O’Shield’s turn to watch the children leave. He stood beneath the stone arch of the rectory door and waved at their backs as they walked down the hill toward the squalid little cup of crumpled earth and rocks that held their home. Only Katy, her hands held by a brother on either side, craned her neck for a farewell glance. She smiled, her flashing blue eyes and crackling red hair, for an instant, retrieving her mother’s memory for the aging cleric.
ooooThey hadn’t spoken during the meal, which they’d eaten with the appetite of starving children. It hadn’t been anything special; Miss Meredith’s stew was passable at best, and her biscuits never the talk of the village, but the food hadn’t lingered on the tongue long enough to be tasted anyway.
oooo“Ah, Lord,” he sighed, resting his weight against the doorpost. “Knowin’ everyt’ing, as You do, it’ll come as no surprise my faith ain’t what it once was. But, I’ll tell You this, if You was to do something wondrous for them children, it’d go a long way toward callin’ this derelict old prodigal home. In Christ’s name. Amen.”
ooooThe farmhouse huddled with its back to the wind in a little declivity at the end of a rutted lane on the farthest edge of down. Life for the Conlans was lived to the rhythm of the sea but had nothing to do with it, apart from the salt smell, the biting, briny wind, and the distant thunder of the surf that forever embroidered the subconscious. The aerie they inhabited was far above the crashing waves. So far that on those rare occasions they thought of it at all, a kind of dread was aroused at the nearness of such an immensity of menace. It was a brooding beast upon the threshold, mysterious and forlorn in its vastness, its living-ness, capricious in its moods, relentlessly clawing at the land as if to consume it and them together.
ooooThomas and the children stumbled down the cleft on their return from the funeral and were met by the last thing in the world Thomas wanted to see – the white mare of Ledger Flanagan. “Damn,” spat Thomas under his breath.
ooooThe door stood open. Their mother would never have allowed it, for it let the chickens in, and they fouled the rough stone floor she took such pride in keeping clean. But she was long gone. So were the chickens.
oooo“You two wait here.” Thomas went to the door and looked in. As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he made out the form of the landlord’s foreman, slumped in a chair by the dead fire. He had a bottle in one hand, more than half empty, and a picture of Thomas’ mother in the other.
oooo“What’re you doin’ here?”
ooooStartled, Flanagan raised his head, which bobbed on his neck as if he was having difficulty keeping it balanced. He slowly drew Thomas into focus against the background of the bright, gray sky. “Ah, it’s you, is it?” The words were thick on his tongue.
ooooThomas had been struck by Flanagan once some years ago, for some imagined offense. Josh had made him pay dearly, pulling him off his horse on market day and thrashing him soundly in front of half the town, for which Flanagan hated him with an undisguised fervor.
ooooFor some time thereafter, Flanagan had done everything within the limited scope of his power as son of the landlord’s foreman to make Josh Conlan’s life a misery. Then something had happened that made him change. Thomas never knew what, but he stopped arriving early for the rent. He stopped pestering Conlan about the look of the pigs or the cows. Best of all, once he became foreman on his own upon his father’s retirement, he all but ignored them altogether.
oooo“I said…” Thomas skirted the room out of Flanagan’s reach, “…what’re you doin’ here?”
ooooFlanagan could no longer support the weight of his head. He let his chin drop to his chest. A silver thread of drool escaped his lips. He murmured something unintelligible. The photograph – apart from a revered china tea set in the cupboard which was the only memento of more prosperous times in the Conlan household – went limp in his fingers, and Thomas quickly grabbed at it to keep it from falling to the floor.
ooooThe action revived Flanagan somewhat. “Huh? What?” He looked at the picture in Thomas’ hands. “Ah!” He smiled. “Alice.” He reached out for the picture. Thomas held it back.
oooo“Give it over. Give it over,” Flanagan blubbered. “I’ll not break the precious thing. Don’t worry. I’m not so drunk as that.”
ooooReluctantly, Thomas gave the picture back. Flanagan put the bottle down and taking the picture gently in both hands, stared at it. “Alice … Alice. You could’ve had it all.” With effort, he lifted his head and surveyed the humble farmhouse. The main room, which they now occupied, had a large open fire place against the wall at one end. Over this, a wooden flu directed the smoke up the chimney, on days when the wind blew right. The underside of the thatched roof was time-blackened with soot and tar. The hearth, which extended the width of the house, was flanked by cast iron cooking utensils: a large kettle, a fry pan, a water kettle and the hooks by which to hang them from the crane that stood in the middle.
ooooA plain-board table, its surface worn to a warm sheen with constant use, stood on unsure legs beneath the room’s only window. Under it was a rude bench where the Conlan children would sit to take their meals. A ladder-backed chair with its seat of woven hemp, one of three in the room, occupied the end of the table where the head of the family sat. A picture of the Holy Mother adorned the wall opposite, and beneath that was a large wooden chest in which were all the family’s Sunday clothes, linen, and blankets.
oooo“And this is what she got.”
oooo“What’s it to you?” Thomas demanded.
oooo“What’s it to me!” yelled Flanagan, rising, or trying to rise, but the whiskey knocked the legs out from under him and he slumped back into the chair. “More nor you’ll ever know,” he slurred. “More nor you’ll ever know.”
ooooThomas was on unfamiliar ground. He’d never conversed with Flanagan and found being on more or less equal footing with him uncomfortable. “I’ll take that back now,” he said, holding out his hand.
ooooFlanagan said nothing for a moment. He just stared at the picture. At last he held it out and Thomas took it quickly from his hand, as if afraid he’d snatch it back.
oooo“Take it and to the devil with ya,” said Flanagan, drunkard’s tears forming in the corners of his eyes. “His lordship says you’re to be out by Monday.”
oooo“Out! Out where? This is our home!”
ooooFlanagan took a long pull at the bottle. “No more it is, young Conlan.”
oooo“Have you not heard of the Land League then?” Thomas protested boldly, none too sure himself what the national initiative for the three ‘f’s — fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale of land – meant, exactly, but knowing it was an incantation his father had set great store by.
ooooFlanagan laughed. “Killarny’s a month’s trek past the end of nowhere, boy. The Land League will come just after Christmas in July. Besides, you’re to be off t’America.”
oooo“America!” said Thomas, “yer talkin’ foolish. Come back when yer sober.”
oooo“If I was sober,” said Flanagan, “it’d been me you found in that bed t’other day.”
oooo“What’re you talkin’ about? You’re wasted drunk and don’t know what yer sayin’.”
oooo“That I may be, an’ t’ank the Lord,” replied Flanagan, whose pretensions at an English accent degenerated rapidly under the influence of alcohol. “Because wit’out it I wouldn’t have the strength to do me job.” So saying, he removed a small packet of papers from his leather shoulder bag. He handed them to Thomas who, laying aside his mother’s portrait, opened them and read. It took some time, as he hadn’t taken to reading as readily as Tiffin had, but eventually he unearthed the meaning.
oooo“This is passage to America.”
oooo“I said the same, did I not?” said Flanagan, taking another swallow of the piss-colored liquid that was making him senseless. “Fer the t’ree on ya. You an’ your brother, and … and wee Katy.”
oooo“The landlord be givin’ us these?”
oooo“Because, me pestilential laddy,” said Flanagan, placing his heavy hand behind Thomas’ neck, “it’ll get you off the tax rolls.”
ooooThomas understood. In 1846, Parliament had enacted the Poor Law to provide for the destitute, those too old, or infirm, or unlucky to be able to work their plots or mind their flocks. But, perverse as only Parliament could be, they further decreed that this welfare should be paid for by the landowners, many of whom were themselves facing ruin … crushed by new taxes levied on vast family estates, some of them hundreds of years in the making. Thus, in a hopeless cycle, the landlord could neither afford to keep such tenants, nor to let them go. Someone, however, thought of a practical expedient: ship them to America. Get them off the land, and off the tax roles. The perfect solution.
ooooEntrepreneurs quickly arose who were willing to buy cheap ships at the tether-end of their seaworthy lives, and crew likewise, and to stuff as many Irish in their holds as space would allow.
oooo“They call ‘em coffin ships,” said Flanagan. “You know why? Because passengers are as likely to die on ‘em as make it to Boston with breath left in ‘em, that’s why. That’s what you’ll be sailin’ on. Landlord’s doing you no favor. He’s just wantin’ you off the land and out of his hair.”
ooooThomas didn’t care. He’d heard all about America from his uncle Theo who spoke of it with the fervor of a Protestant evangelist unfolding the wonders of the Promised Land to the upturned faces of the faithful. The image that resulted in Thomas’ unschooled, untethered mind was a mingled phantasmagoria beyond the capacity of the tongue to convey. A land of boundless spaces and copious plenty, where fruit fell from the trees into your mouth, game as well as leapt on your plate and handed you a knife and fork, and the whole geology swelled with gold and silver already embossed with the likeness of ones’ dreams.
oooo“There’s places,” Theo had said in one of Thomas’ most oft-visited recollections, “where you can see halfway ‘round the world. Like standin’ atop Glengary Craig and lookin’ out to sea. Only ‘tisn’t ocean you’ll be lookin’ at. It’s land! Enough of it to swallow Ireland whole a t’ousand times over, and never stop to fart. Mountains, and deserts, and mesas, and lakes, rivers, and plains stretchin’ clear to tomorrow and back. Me hand to the Blessed Mother!”
ooooTheo had chosen the losing side in the Mexican-American War, and it had broken his heart to come back to Ireland. “This close I was,” he’d often said, holding his thumb and forefinger a whisper’s-width apart, “to a patent on thirty thousand acres of the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant. That’s what the Mexicans promised us. Thirty thousand acres of prime grazin’ land … and forest as far as the eye can see! That close…” he would conclude, his voice dropping, his empty eyes enlarged by the glass as he raised it to swallow what remained of his fortune.
ooooEven Thomas’ fertile imagination strained to encompass the America Uncle Theo described. But there was something unspoken, too, a resource that didn’t exist in Ireland: hope for the future. It was his understanding that, in America, you didn’t have to be what you were born to. You could go as far as wit and determination would take you. If you failed, you got up and made another go.
ooooHe shuffled through the papers again; passage for three aboard a ship called the Crimea, set to sail from the port of Queenstown on the sixteenth instant.’ Golden tickets to the Promised Land.
oooo“That’s only five days from now!”
oooo“Aye. So ye’d best be off then, hadn’t ya? It’s a long walk.”
oooo“Where is this place?” He shook the paper.
oooo“It’s Cobh. The British renamed it.”
ooooThomas was unenlightened. “Cobh?”
oooo“They call it Queenstown today. Near Cork … walk south and east through Killarney. And it’ll take every bit o’ five days with the little one in tow.”
ooooThomas looked out the window which framed his brother and sister. “They’ll never make it, not without food.”
oooo“There’s food in me saddle bag,” said Flanagan. “Oaten bread and cheese. A skin of milk and some tea. Take ‘em. They’ll see you on a fair way, if ye stretch ‘em a bit.”
ooooThomas was confused by Flanagan’s kindness and, therefore, suspicious of it. “Why are you doin’ this?”
oooo“Me job,” said Flanagan, looking out the door at nothing in particular. “Now, get on with ya.”
oooo“I’ve got to pack some things.”
ooooFlanagan shook his head. “Ye’ll leave everyt’ing but your clothes, landlord says. He’ll sell the rest to make up the rent.”
ooooThomas’ mind flashed at once to his father’s precious boots, the same that his brother had brought back from Mexico and had been worn only to weddings and funerals since. Religiously polished and coddled, they were the closest thing to new-made he’d ever known. They and the gun and the clothes he was buried in were all that Josh Conlan could claim as his own at his life’s end, and Thomas meant to have them.
oooo“My father’s boots … ”
oooo“They’re stayin’,” said Flanagan. “Get clothes together fer the t’ree of ya, tie ‘em in a travelin’ bag, and be grateful. I’ve known his Lordship to turn folk out with less…” He tilted his head back and drained the bottle, concluding the ceremony with a grimace and a belch. At that moment, he seemed to slip away into some haunted precinct of his mind and become unaware of Thomas’ presence or actions.
ooooThomas quickly opened the trunk and extracted the few items of clothing that would serve them on the journey. By the time he’d tied these in a burlap sack, Flanagan was snoring loudly. Counting it grace, Thomas stole silently into his parents’ bedroom. The prized boots stood in careful array beneath the table where the water pitcher rested. The drawer in the table had always been a place of mystery, the only thing in the house no one was allowed to touch. It was, therefore, with a sense of reverence that he pulled the porcelain knob. The door slid silently open on its beeswaxed runners. Inside was his mother’s wedding ring, and a lock of hair tied with thread to a tiny square of paperboard on which was written the word ‘Alice’ in pencil. Flashing a glance toward the door, Thomas removed the contents of the drawer and stuffed them in one of the boots.
ooooJust as he was about to sweep them up, his eyes fell on Theo’s pistol beside the pitcher. He grabbed it and stuffed it in the other boot, wrapped the bundle in a blanket, and ducked back out into the main room before Flanagan should wake.
oooo“That’s the lot,” he said.
oooo“Huh? What?” Flanagan sputtered, emerging hazily from his stupor. “Oh. Well then, off with ya.”
ooooThomas didn’t want to loiter and run the risk of the theft being discovered; neither did he want to arouse suspicion by seeming too eager to depart. He took a careful survey of the room and, as he did, his thoughts were drawn to the laughter and music of happier times within those walls.
oooo“Me father’s squeeze box! It can’t be worth more’n tuppence to his lordship…”
ooooFlanagan shook his head. “Nothin’ but yer clothes. That’s me orders.” He looked up at the china cabinet and took down a teapot that had seen much use over the years. “But give this … this is for Katy, to remember her mother by. And ye’d best take a tin cup for each of ye.”
ooooThomas took the teapot and cups and tucked them in the blanket that held the boots, briefly revealing the highly polished leather of one heel. He looked quickly at Flanagan, whom he seemed to catch in the act of looking away.
oooo“Drunk men see very little,” said Flanagan. “And recollect even less. You’d best be off before I take inventory.”
ooooFor a moment, Thomas stood rooted to the spot, his mind in chaos at the events of the past few minutes. At last, standing as straight as possible under the weight of his possessions, he held out his hand. “Thank you, Flanagan.”
ooooAt first, Flanagan didn’t acknowledge the gesture, then turning his rheumy eyes to the boy, he seized his hand, pumped it once firmly, and let it go. “Quick now,” he said. “And take the saddle bag as well. You’ll need it.”
oooo“I’ve another, I’ve another. Now, off wi’ ye!”
ooooWith a final backward glance, Thomas left the house. His shadow had not departed from the threshold when Flanagan withdrew something from the folds of his coat: the picture of Alice. He held it to his lips and kissed it and, looking out the door at Katy who was assuming her share of the family burdens, the teapot, and her straw doll, allowed tears to well up from the past and flow silently down his face. “An’ may the road rise to meet ye, my little one,” he said, though whether to the photograph or its living reflection it was impossible to say.
ooooAs the trio took the road down the mountain, past the foreman’s house – now empty — Thomas explained, as best he could, what had happened. Bad news and good news. By the time they drew abreast of the church, he had answered a stream of questions from both his siblings, many of which, like ‘What are we going to do when we get to America? What do they eat there? Where will we live? Will we go to school? Will we have shoes?’ he made up answers to – mentally tasking God to make it so and thus redeem the lies.
ooooAt the back of his mind, the nagging suspicion that when Flanagan woke from his stupor and discovered the theft of the gun, he would repent of his kindliness and set out in sharp pursuit, hastened Thomas’ footsteps until Katy was hard-pressed to keep up. Drawing close to the church, though – a glance back toward the huddle of rough stone buildings of Farran revealing an empty road – he hesitated.
oooo“Hold here a minute,” he said, dropping his bag and the bundled blanket by the entrance to the church yard. The children demanded no explanation. They followed his footsteps, threading their way along the worn path among the tombstones, to the familiar cross marking the grave where their mother lay. Tiffin and Katy conducted their memorials in silence. Thomas spoke for them.
oooo“One day, ma,” he said, manfully battling the tears that sprang to his eyes, “we’ll see pa here beside you where he belongs. I swear.”
oooo“I swear,” Tiffin echoed, crossing his heart.
oooo“I swear,” said Katy, genuflecting, with no clue of the promise she’d bound herself to.
ooooAs they neared the bog where their father lay, it began to drizzle. The grave was marked by a mound of black, freshly-turned mixture of earth and peat – the gravedigger had at least finished his job.
oooo“We’ll never be able to find it again,” said Tiffin, “once the weeds grow, and the rains come.”
ooooA quick survey of the immediate vicinity testified that this was so. Of the fifteen or twenty graves that were reported to lie in the vicinity, none could be seen, nor was there any marking as to who the occupants were, or why or how they had died. Thomas passed his bundles to Tiffin and conducted a quick survey of the area.
ooooTo the northeast, a dry-stone granite wall, covered with moss and three-fourths hidden by brambles, separated the church yard from the bogland. Situating himself at the seaward-end of the wall, he counted the paces to the earthen mound. “Eighteen steps,” he said aloud to himself, as his siblings gazed at him wonderingly. He looked around for another permanent landmark, but there was nothing man-made. On the slope rising from the western edge of the bog, however, was a natural spire, forever pointing at some unknown star in the heavens. From there, he numbered the paces to the center of the grave. “Thirty-six. Write that in your book, Tiffin.” Removing the precious bundle of papers from the sack over his shoulder, Tiffin licked the nib of his pencil and carefully inscribed the figures.
oooo“Finished, Thomas,” he said, reading for approval, “Eighteen steps from the northeast edge of the wall, thirty-six steps from the senotaf – I don’t think I spelt that right … ”
oooo“It’ll do, Tiff’. We’ll know what it means.” Thomas stood by their father’s grave, thinking of all the rituals they’d failed to perform on his behalf, not least of all the great wake that should be every Irishman’s legacy and farewell. From somewhere in the unreasoning regions of his brain from which troubles arise leapt the notion to dig up the grave and, under cover of darkness, transfer his father’s remains to a proper grave in the churchyard. Upon its heals, from regions equally unknown, came a wiser voice inquiring whether his father’s mortal soul would rest easy slithering into Holy Ground to be buried under another’s name? There was no back door to heaven, Thomas was sure.
ooooOnce again, as the clouds lowered and night began to gather in the east, he distributed the ragged belongings among them and, hand-in-hand, without a backward glance, they trudged the rutted road leading down the valley and up the forbidding heights of Conlan Pass.
ooooAs night embraced the peninsula – starless and threatening rain – Thomas and the children nestled in a damp crag near the waterfall at Ballyrishteen, the ancient farm that clung to the hillside, its stones seeming to have grown from the earth. The light of a candle burned in one of the windows and the wind tore ghostly veils of smoke from the squat chimney. Thomas debated whether to make themselves known to the cottier, but fearful they might be followed, chose the dark and cold of the hillside over discovery.
ooooWrapped together with their worldly goods in the single woolen blanket, the fleshless bundle of orphans huddled together and, exhausted, slept deeply ‘til dawn.
ooooA rarity at that time of year, the sun broke over the mountain like a hoard of seraphim, piercing the shadows with golden fingers of warmth.
ooooWhile Thomas got water for tea, Katy made three portions of biscuit and soft cheese for breakfast, carefully folding the remainder in the saddle bag. Having spread the blanket in the sun to dry, Tiffin, ever curious, drew pictures of a plant he’d never seen before. With his tinder box, Thomas nursed a smudge of fire from a clump of peat and boiled water in Katy’s teapot. The sky spread high, blue, and cloudless in all directions and, between the warm September sunshine and the full bellies, it began to seem as if they just might survive after all.
ooooDeparting from the road, Thomas led them up the sheep path over the hills in the direction of Anuscaul, the village at the edge of his known world. Beyond that, for all he knew, there be dragons.
ooooBy mid-morning, the world had changed. A black sky swept in from the northwest and angrily battled back the hollow promise of warmth and fair weather. Before noon the atmosphere was more water than air and they were soaked to the skin. Only the contents of the saddle bag – the papers of passage, their food, Tiffin’s notebook, and the blanket – were dry. Heads down, they slipped and slid down the muddy trail, threading their way around steaming piles of sheep dung, arriving at the edge of Anuscaul by two o’clock.
ooooKaty had begun to cough at intervals. At first, Thomas thought she was crying and tried to ignore her. He was cold and wet and miserable, too, and he had no remedy for sorrow. But she didn’t complain. She soldiered on, her tiny figure consumed by her cloak and hood. The cough persisted, and a sneeze now and then.
oooo“Katy needs to get dry and warm,” Tiffin said as they skirted the village.
oooo“Tonight,” said Thomas. “We’ll find someplace dry to sleep.” Where? The next town of any consequence was Tinnahally, and he had no idea what they’d find there. “But we’ve got to keep going if we’re to catch the ship to America.”
ooooThomas stole a quick glance at his brother and sister. Their clothes hung off their spare bodies in sodden masses. The shoes on their feet were hand-me-downs of castaways, Katy’s too small, Tiffin’s too big, both leaving blisters on their ankles. He was overwhelmed by helplessness. “We just have to keep puttin’ one foot in front’ve the other ‘til we get to Queenstown. Then we can rest on the ship … nothin’ to do for three whole weeks but eat and rest!”
ooooDoubt pressed on Tiffin’s brows. “Three weeks? Is that how long it takes?”
ooooThomas didn’t know where the figure came from. He must have heard it somewhere. “I think. About that.”
ooooTiffin had read otherwise, but he kept it to himself. “That’s not so bad,” he said.
ooooSomewhere under the hood that enveloped her, Katy coughed again. Thomas reached down and put a hand on her forehead. It was warm. “You want me to carry you a bit, Kate?” Without a word, she stopped and held up her hands. Thomas took a deep breath and picked her up. Despite the sodden state of her wardrobe, she was light. Much too light. The veins on the hands she put around his neck stood out blue against the milky whiteness of her skin.
oooo“There now, my love,” he said comfortingly. He’d never called her that before – his pet name for her was Pinch, for no particular reason other than he liked the sound of it – but their father had always called her “my love,” and wasn’t he more father than brother to her now? She pressed herself against him, and somehow, he felt himself suffused with a strength he hadn’t had the minute before.
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David A. Crossman