Him in the Gorse
The poet first came to her uncle's cottage in the West Country after she had suffered a vision of a frock-coated skeleton trudging through the gorse. She had spoken of the spectral visitant only to her confessor, who had called her observations “premonitions.” It was likely the devil himself tempting her, the Father warned. Her penance was the recitation of three rosaries. But her heart seized at this advice: he was a whisky priest, soused by his own odious spirits. She knew, from the crack of her estranged father's belt and her mother's primal whimper, that demons were jealous taskmasters, envious of a young woman like herself graced by God with the second sight.
So, when she glanced through the window and saw the man pushing through wind and rain, she thought of her premonition of the skeleton in the gorse. “Premonition”: she laughed to herself, for summoning the cleric's word. In her vision, the bog had swallowed the traveler's yellowed foot bones. The gorse had twined around the bones and pierced them with its nettles. The skeleton's black coat then burst at the seams. The fabric rustled, molted feathers of cotton and thread, and its panels winged off, a pair of canvas crows with gleaming, brass-buttons eyes. The gorse's nettles then rooted into the marrow. Stalks and blossoms shattered the skeleton's jaw, scattering shards and teeth like chaff. The yellow blooms deepened into a rosy gold. The eye sockets remained vacant, a death stare that stalked her beyond the terrain of her dreams.
She looked again. The man was nearer, now, and he held an arm against his brow to ward off the rain. She placed a tray of biscuits in the iron range and turned over the minute-glass; she filled the kettle and set it upon the hob. Her uncle, a turf-cutter like all the men of her mother's side, would be in a roar tonight, with her wasting good tea on a vagrant. No matter if the guest was well dressed, she tittered to herself. She toweled her hands on her apron and went to receive the man.
She opened the door, seized him by his wrist, and hauled him in. He shed fat drops, which spattered constellations of wetness on the hard slats. This wouldn't do, she thought, fetching him a handful of tattered rags. She tossed these at him. He wiped down his wire-rim glasses first, then tousled his hair. He shucked his coat and asked her permission to hang it from a peg. Of course the peg was for her uncle's cap, and the drenched thing would do so much better if left to smolder by the range, but she nodded her assent.
His was the air of a man unaccustomed to caring for himself, a man who yoked his maintenance and desires around the necks of women who would otherwise refuse to pass him as little as a shilling. He wore his hair parted at the center, each side crooked like a kestrel's wings. He held his lips in a resolute frown. Every few seconds a nostril flared and an eyebrow twitched. He was lank and trim, but his waistcoat was snug—betraying the softness in the middle, which would prove so vexatious to the man in his later years.
“My uncle will be wanting to know why you've come,” she said.
“Is he at home?”
“That's for the best,” he said. “My errand isn't with him.”
“What are you wanting?” She looked to the minute-glass. The sands still flowed.
“Niamh O'Suilleabhin,” he said.
His accent was not unlike hers, but he said her name like an Englishman—Neve O'Sullivan. For an instant her vision went black, her soul stared into the hollow wells of the skeleton in her vision. The wingbeats of crows buffeted in her ears. She touched her throat. “And what are you wanting her for?”
He examined her, his face impassive as the sphinx.
The last of the sands had trickled through the minute-glass. She went to the range and, with her apron wrapped around her hands, removed the biscuits. Their finishing was a small mercy, further sanctified by the whistling of the kettle.
“You'll have a drop of tea, yes?”
“If it's no inconvenience.”
The skin on her back stung, both memory and premonition. “No, sir, it's not.”
He joined her by the range, rubbed his hands over its warmth. She poured over the tea strainer, the steam rising from the pot fragrant as peat. After it had steeped, she served her guest a cup.
He complimented her on the tea, then scalded his hand reaching for a biscuit. She handled it for him, sliced it and slathered it with some lemon curd that was kept for the priest's rare visits. He remarked that in the countryside biscuits tasted sweeter and the tea glistened as if with melted honeyed, without a honey-wand casting so much as a dollop of nature's gold into the brew. “In Dublin and London,” he said, “food and drink taste only of the barrenness of the demon's dim glass.”
She gave him a frosted glare and declared her contempt for the devils in demijohns and pints. She turned her back on him, on his meditations over the cloud rising from his cup. “You haven't told me what you're wanting with Miss O'Suilleabhean.”
“Do you know a man called Gorham?”
“Nobody by that name.”
He ripped off a chunk of biscuit and chewed. “He said that would be precisely your response. In a trance, he told me to seek out a young woman here.” He rested his face against his hand. “He said to ask her about the gorse.”
Of a sudden something tasted rancid to her. She looked through the window. The heath outside was wet and grey, horrid as dead flesh. A pair of silhouettes marched from the horizon; they swung spades, mattocks, like a tramp does his blackthorn. Her uncle and another of the men, a fellow worker from the village. Her uncle's mood, she knew, would be grim as the weather—a mucky day, the work (if any was to be had) paying poorly. She marched to the peg and collected her visitor's coat. Shushing his whispers of protest, she fitted his arms into the sleeves and shooed him from the kitchen.
She hustled him through the door. “There's a village two miles north of here. Stay the night there in the inn. Tell the chambermaid you're an especial friend of Niamh's, and she'll set you a nice fire. Come back on the morrow—but earlier, mind.”
He consented. The rain veiled him. It was only then that she wondered why a man should hike this countryside only to ask her of the gorse, and what sort of creature would do so without a hat.
FROM “THE BLACK CISTERN,” COLLECTED IN FOLK TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY:
While strolling the trails worn to dirt beneath the feet of so many travelers, I encountered an old man who had hoisted himself into the lowest boughs of a nearby tree. He hailed me and asked what I was wanting in this distant corner of Connacht, where never did they see a man dressed such as I. “Black as death and pale as the moon is how you look,” he said. He had a voice like the quicksilver ripple of the lyre, and in his eye a glint that, I had come to know, meant he had in his time engaged in some congress with the good folk (or the fairies, as my English publisher shall insist I call them), whose visitations are alternately cause for joy or peril in the breasts of these remote peoples.
I was frank with this man about my purpose. I had come to Connacht to conduct a tour on foot of Counties Mayo and Galway. It was my intent to hear, collect, and champion those legends of the good folk and the ghosts and witches whose hauntings revived, in our own time, the heart of our Isle from the cask in which our two masters—the Holy Roman and that under Saint George's cross—had so interred it.
With a laugh and a nod, the old man extended his hand, indicating that I should aid him in his descent from the tree. I did so. Once he was certain of his stance on the ground and had dusted the stray splinters and fragments of bark from his roughspun breaches, he said that he was in possession of a tale that should grace my volume. Now, it is the custom of these rustics to brag, but that shimmer in his periwinkle eyes was enough to inform me that his was a myth received direct from the good folk.
I have transposed this curious man's story into a dialect and manner that shall please even those readers whose uncultivated ears protest at the ancient lyricism of his tongue. Here, then, is the tale:
In these parts, you must know, there was a youth who went by the name of Cearul, who was the son of Derry, a generous man oak-hearted as his name would imply. He forgave Cearul his fierce trespasses against the morals of our town, for Cearul had a reputation at the cup and dice, which would've made a beggar of any man less thrifty than Derry. But even Derry's heartwood conviction at the goodness of his son caught the blight, when the wind conveyed to him some gossip concerning Cearul and a girl, Mary. Derry demanded of Cearul that he marry the girl; when Cearul refused, his father turned him out to the bog.
But it was said, too, that this Mary was known well to the spirits. When she had heard that Cearul had vanished into the bog, she went to a cistern where the good folk and the souls of the long-gone were known to convene. There she sang them a song, its feathery notes plucked from her lyre. Each new tone granted the good folk luminescent wings that vibrated with the strange music. They vowed to aid her, for the kindnesses she had shown them in the past.
Uncle Niall had taken no notice of the depleted store of tea, for the pot was still warm when he returned from the field, his clothes resembling mud and turf more than wool. He wore the peat's fragrance as if it were an emanation of his most private soul: rooted deep in the loam of his soul was a yearning for his days as a lad, days brown-dead as the golden-samphire at its season's end.
Sometimes when Niamh touched his hand in passing him his cup of tea, she saw the moment when he'd withered, at once: it was when the square-nosed spade was first thrust toward him, and he was ordered to fall in behind his own father, that is, Niamh's own grandfather. And in other seasons it was the pitchfork that ripped the potatoes from the earth, and the pouch of money which young Niall had been entrusted with. The threadbare sack containing the rent, to be run up to the manse.
In time, the lad within had grown brittle, a wildflower pressed in the pages of a heavy book. When she passed him a cup of tea or a plate, and his hand grazed her, she shivered and received an intimation of her uncle as a young man, his spirit translucent and frail as the preserved stem.
Niamh willed herself to ignore that moment in which her seasons turned, and the wilt first afflicted her. She and Uncle Niall resolved never to speak of it: when first the visions sent their electric darts into her temples, governing the schoolroom and the scurrying children under her tutelage became impossible; the children had about them a hazy effulgence like the will-o'-the-wisp, and they radiated summer-hot with flashfire thoughts that, a few years hence, would kindle into lust. So she resolved to float, lily-pad fashion, through her days, in the private labor of minding her uncle's cottage.
But in those days after the hatless man from Dublin arrived at her door, she felt the tendrils creeping through the floors and binding her ankles.
For the first few mornings, she set the tin lunch pail in Uncle Niall's grip and waved to him as he took the trail with the square turf-cutting spade leant against his shoulder, an armament at parade carry. Once Uncle Niall had diminished to a grayling speck behind the hazy rain, Niamh bustled to the iron stove, set the brimming kettle on the hob, and warmed oatcakes on the griddle. She built a small fire by the grate and left a footstool there, so the man might dry his boots during his visit. She could always sense when the Dubliner was within a half mile of the cottage: if she closed her eyes, she glimpsed the waver of his form, a human fog materializing in the drizzle. When he opened the wicket down the lane, her flesh prickled and a pang hit her ribs. As if he were unlatching her chest, as if his fingers were digging through her organs as though her innards were mulch.
And yet, each of those first mornings, she startled him by throwing open the door before his knuckles had so much as tapped out a greeting.
After unlacing his boots and leaving them to steam by the fire, he took Uncle Niall's place at table and served himself, without thanks, to tea and oatcakes. He was careful to greet her by name, though she had no desire to hear his. He'd once gotten so far as saying “Willy,” but she had pressed a finger to his lips and declaimed that she wouldn't hear it. To know a man's name was to know his form, was to understand the veins that like vines ran through him. And she feared: his veins were the gorse and the nettles, his bog-moldered bones the skeleton in the black frock coat.
She would not will that thing to life.
Each morning he pressed her with questions. Was she certain that she knew no man by the name of Gorham? (She did not.) Had she always lived in this cottage? (She had, more or less. She never tallied the years before Uncle Niall took her in.) How did she always know when he set foot on the flagstone path? (She simply knew.) What manner of stick did he walk with in Dublin? (She had never seen it, but a fool could've guessed. A blackthorn.) Had she any stories of the good folk or the generous spirits or the ancient wondrous people of Connacht? (She balked. Any folk who would inflict on her these omens, they couldn't be called “good” or “generous” or “wondrous.”) Had she never left this country? (She had not.) Could she perhaps answer him fully? (She thought her answers sufficient.)
She thrilled at denying him, thrilled at fanning the flint-spark of his want into a pale fire.
He had come for several days, excepting Sunday, when she and Uncle Niall celebrated the mass at the cold church. The place enfeebled her uncle; he took her arm, slouched his shoulders, walked with a hunch as if he were a much older man. All about her she expected the Dubliner in his greatcoat or a shadow that lurched like the skeleton choked in the gorse. The place was grim enough to accommodate them, the church marbled with lichen and ripples of yellow-white powder where the mists had performed their eons-long erosion of the stone walls. Yet the eaves were empty, and only dark lurked behind the ancient columns. Even outside she expected one of these shades to ripple at the edge of her sight. But all about her was only the usual decay, which had so long blighted their country. Encircling the church was a yard cragged with the remnants of tombstones. How many laments had been wailed here as mourners tossed themselves onto the mounded earth—how many laments, for a ledger of names since effaced by the elements?
Then, on the Monday after, Uncle Niall returned to the bog to cut turf or clear the scrub from a field or to offer his hand at the mill—whatever labor he could plead for. And the Dubliner, she knew, would return, for he was preceded as ever by her familiars: those intimations, the “premonitions” about which the whisky priest warned her. An undulating form that acquired mass in the fog, the pain in her marrow when his hand swung open the wicket.
Niamh heard it like his soles clipping on the flagstones, the relentless echo of his wants. Tell me. Tell me. The skeleton in the gorse. The good folk. The visions. Tell me. Tell me.
When she flung open the door, her cheeks and throat were rage-tinged. As ever he fawned, tiptoed back. She said, “I've nothing to say to you. I don't want him here. Let him stay in the gorse. I beg you.”
He gave a wan smile. “Who would that be, Miss O'Suilleabhean?”
“Sure you can't say it. I won't have him.”
“The skeleton in the handsome coat?”
She pointed off to the distance. “I won't have him here. Or you. By God, I won't.” She made a puppet of her fingers, two long legs striding. “You can be on your way and take God's grace with you.”
The rain had silvered his spectacles, and through the glass his fine eyes appeared pewter. On the stoop, he began unbuttoning his greatcoat, then fussed with his blazer and waistcoat. His middle had sloughed off some of its softness, on account of his walking the countryside. And then he pawned his little smile, once again, for her hospitality. She found herself stepping back into the cottage, the Dubliner allowing himself in.
They stood together, he dripping on the slats. After a spell, he said, “Gorham had told me, ‘After a week she'll bring up the skeleton of her own accord.' You're certain you don't know a man of that name?”
FROM “THE BLACK CISTERN,” COLLECTED IN FOLK TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY:
As recounted to the editor of this volume, by a native of the region…
Once the spirits had consoled Mary, they asked that she confide in them the name of the man so poor in generosity, so devoid of kindness, that he should leave her so imperiled. “Cearul, son of Derry,” Mary told them. The good folk spoke amongst themselves and agreed that it was only right that a man so noble as Derry should oust his very son from under his roof. And it was a cruel truth but one known to the wise, they told her, that a man's decent sense is a treasure that cannot be entailed to the future generations.
In a voice that rumbled like water from the floodgate, the good folk together said: “Kind Mary, who has so oft preserved our secrets in the past, if you but bathe in the depths of our cistern, in its rainwater fresh and cool from these many spring months, you shall stub your toe on a tooth or a two-pence coin, and that shall guide our intercession on your behalf.”
So Mary bathed in the cistern, and the good folk rose an illusion about her so that any passersby saw only a white hart and a wolfhound slaking their thirst together. Should those wanderers near the cistern, the spectral beasts would nuzzle their snouts, such amity between mortal enemies a certain sign that the good folk were present and that they would not suffer fools. And as she bathed Mary sang to the good folk, splashed with them, and in time stubbed her foot against something. “A tooth!” she said to them.
And so the terms of retribution were set for Cearul, son of Derry.
When she told it later, Niamh spoke of a raking in her throat. As if with each breath she was swallowing nettles, which razored the lining of her throat. To speak was to press the thorns deeper in her windpipe. So, she refused the Dubliner her conversation, refused him tea and cakes. Refused him biscuits, refused him butter fresh from the churn or lemon curd from the pot. Allowed him to eat from his own canister of potted meat at the table. (On his prescient decision to bring the tin with him, he cited this “Gorham” again, this vague entity that read from the future as if the whole deckle-edged volume were open before him.) Allowed him time enough to warm the chill from his feet, before sending him tramping back through the muck.
The fire in the hearth had spent itself before she was bolting the door behind the man. With him gone, she tidied the rooms. With each swipe of a rag, with each scuff of the broom's bristles across the hardened floor, she heard the hush of a vow: never again will I let him in; never again will I let him in.
Her evening lapsed in its old fashion: Uncle Niall trudged in with his calloused hands rawed and his knuckles bloodied from work; they shared silence as they broke a rough heel of brown bread over their bowls of cabbage and corned beef. Niamh served Uncle Niall his tea and nodded along to his delivery of the parish gossip, which of course concerned the Dubliner chasing down every soul and, with the cudgel of his charm, compelling little trifles from them. After Uncle Niall's tea, they retreated to the fireside, where she read to him from a well-thumbed digest of old tales and lessons by the Edgeworths. She saw him to bed, promised him coffee and a hot breakfast at the dawn.
She attempted to sleep on the narrow cot that was hers, a rough-slatted thing bearing a straw-stuffed mattress and a fibrous, knit throw that left pink scratches on her arms. It was all the comfort she cared for. Yet, as soon as she had lidded her eyes, she felt the prickles of wool and the blade-sharp hay cutting away from her, slicing through the bedlinen's carapace of warmth. The cold clung to her at once in a film of frost. Her skin pebbled; aches needled her breasts and the hollow of her throat and the underside of her wrists. With each breath her lungs seared. She hugged her arms about her. She was wearing only a shift and gasped. Why should she go out in—of course. She wasn't out. This was not a place she would choose to visit by night. It was a minor mercy that about her was nothing, save the church graveyard. The earth was black and here, there, sprouted shaggy grasses that bowed with the wind. The grave markers knuckled from the earth, debris from those slabs littering the yard. She flinched against the chill and toed to the church doors. The shards of limestone and gravel cut at her feet. Niamh cursed God but praised the pain, thanked her blood for remaining hot enough to counter the numbness in her toes. She gained the door and pounded her fists against it. She screamed for the priest, for anyone, for shelter, but her panic came out as a gale of snow, which flash-froze crystalline striations of hoarfrost on the wood. She pummeled the door until her fists split and stamped slashes of red across the spreading webs of frost. Then the hinges squawked, and the door slowed open. Niamh stared into the black aperture. The stone floor of the sanctuary ruptured, and the gorse—its yellow buds, its thorny branches, its evergreen fronds—slithered from the stone. The earth buckled and rose with the emerging shrubs, until Niamh could see a crosscut of the earth. The gorse was rooted in the frock-coated skeleton. The skeleton was writhing and yanking the gorse roots from its ribs. She struggled to step back, but shackles of ice were latched about her ankles. And her skin too had gone frozen, slick and translucent, the blood vessels and veins and arteries electric streaks of cobalt, the bones glacial white.
>> click to read: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
>> back to Issue 22, 2019