Saturday, November 30, 2002


                        —With thanks to Sebastian Barry’s Steward of Christendom.

Sure, the old man, he was out walking the lunatic meadow again
after telling me you mustn’t be talking to shadows.
Conversing with himself, the trees, and God Almighty.
And the ginger cat followed him like a dog,
her tail in a question mark, listenin’ to every word he said,
stopping to sniff the flowers like a large hairy bee. Silly creature!
She must’ve said something because soon enough he quieted down like a lamb.
And all the birds were madly singing by the hunter’s moon.

Him out there walking like mad Sweeney himself,
morning, noon and night, talking to the birds and the trees.
I couldn’t bear it, seeing his arms raised up to the night sky,
the watery stars weeping. And him keening like Absolom.
It went all wrong when the birds flew into the house.
Or maybe it was the Kiltegan curse taking root after all.
The field belonged to that witch was next door to theirs, you know,
and her washing the milk buckets in the well made us all queasy.
Uisht! Who is it busy walking on my grave, now?
Him and the cat paraded around that meadow until I was dizzy with grief.
Even the small fingers of sunlight couldn’t banish all that fear
rising up from the dark eye of the well.

Funny how the mind plays tricks. Even now.
I kept thinking of Hamlet chatting up his dead father.
No, I said, Thomas, you come in from the cold.
Willie, he’s not coming back. The Great War is over. Sleep.
Sure, it’s your nightshirt all covered with dew, I said.
Sleep, that’s the ticket. But the grief came anew each time
as if it was the first time he’d heard of it.
He just turned his face to the wall. Then, the awful silence. 

Talking to shadows he was. I don’t blame him. Willie’s gone.
But I do blame the hawthorn he slept under all the day,
the bees breaking their hearts over closed flowers in late afternoon.
I was so afraid, I wanted to bring him some tea, but it was no use.
I said to myself, if only we could catch the honeyed words.
Put them in a jar for some creature comfort later.
Ach, I could kill for a good cup of tea, Annie.
Make it strong enough for the mice to skitter across.
Give the cat a fightin’ chance to earn her keep.
Scald the pot! Oh for godsakes, child, that’s a poor way to be making tea!
You’d think you were brought up wrong, but then you had no mother—
or father, for that matter, after he went off in the head.

Do you remember what they say about sleeping under the hawthorn?
I’m sure that’s how it all began. His mind wandered to all sorts of strange places.
Once he said he was with Hannibal crossing the Alps. Imagine that! 
Poor lummoxing beasts climbing mountain passes
with no more understanding of snow than the man in the moon.
And him worried about elephants trembling at the sight of snow.
Wanting me to knit elephant sweaters! Imagine that!
I thought to humor him but then I’d never hear the end of it in the Hereafter.
Should I use the popcorn stitch or a cable stitch like the Aran sweaters?
They were dogtags, you know, for the lost fishermen,
in case the sea returned our treasures.

Sure, I didn’t know what to make of it.
There he was, ranting through the ages,
a fine white snow covering him.
Petals drifting down on him from the hawthorn
until he was blanketed white as snow.
I blamed the hawthorn, I did.
We were told never to pick it or invite trouble into the house.
Thorns into the bed. Or a changeling.
And that he was. A changeling, after they let him go.

Annie, your father was like Hannibal all alone in Abyssinia.
He was leaderless after he turned over Dublin Castle to them.
A loyal servant of Ireland and to the Crown, he was. 
The Crown was good to us. The King, when he came to visit,
it was after Queen Victoria died....
your father called her the Flower of Christendom, he did....
the King, he praised my hair.
Blue-black as the barrel of a rifle it was.
I was wearing a new polka-dotted dress.
And all the little tea cakes staring up at us like Christmas presents.
I wanted to dance. But your father, he stood
like a great tree in the middle of the dance floor.
I was afraid he’s take root right there.
They began to whisper and laugh.
Shame upon us bright as Brigit’s cloak over the land.
I had to coax him off the floor with tea cakes.
And them all laughing at us.

Annie, don’t be so hard on your father.
Was a time he was a different man, he wore invincibility like a cloak,
but after he turned Dublin Castle over to Collins and the like,
he was a changed man. After that, he was dreaming candlelight into song.
He admired Michael Collins, he did. But they called him a traitor.
Blamed him for Larkin’s death. And the others.
He never even carried a gun. Just the billy club was enough.
He kept Dublin orderly and safe. It was his job. Annie, he did it well.
They gave him trouble with his pension, the new government,
and him, Chief Constable working for Ireland and the Crown 45 long years!
And they called him a traitor. It broke his mind, it did.

There’s always betrayal at the heart of it.
They should look to themselves.
Who was it gave the order to kill the Big Fella?
Themselves alone. How he wept when Collins died.
There was real hope for the Big Fella, you see.
Not for “King” de Valera,
him with the stone heart of a mathematician
leading us back into slavery
with rings through our noses like cattle to Rome.
Dev, the called him. More like devolution.
Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.
Soldiers of destiny they called themselves.
All it brought was more civil war.
As if there wasn’t enough bloodshed already.

It all began with your brother Willie’s death,
it unsettled your father something terrible, it did.
You know, he was never quite right in the head after that.
I remember when he saw God in the face of his newborn son.
That settled him down right enough.
But why is it fathers and sons never see eye to eye until it’s too late?
Poor Willie! All he wanted was a kind word.
And your father, like a big lump of a stone.

Poor tyke. He was only six
when I was with Dolly in the childbed,
my own blood racing to meet Lough Derg.
Such a long night it was.
And I couldn’t stop it, for the life of me.
To let the birds in was to let death come into the house.
When the candle failed, the birds began to sing,
it was my father came to me, but it was so queer,
he was my husband wearin’ my father’s face.
I didn’t know who I was talking to.
He began to keen. Hush, I said.
But the candle guttered.
Him, crying like his heart would break.

’Tis a pity I never got to hold Dolly.
My arms and breasts still ache to hold her.
Where is she now? America? And your sister Maud?
She never comes home. Only you.
Why do you keep returning to this house, empty of memory
with no family of your own to fill it? Poor Annie.
Your back curving like a riverbend of hammered pewter at dusk
that no man would ever set sail on.
Pour us another cup of tea dear, you’ll feel right as rain.

Will this cursed rain never stop? It’s driving me mad.
Poor Willie. In what foreign field does he lie in?
He was so proud to be in the Rifles, he was. Caught in the crossfire.
But you can’t lose a son without blaming yourself, your father said.
You can’t fight a battle without spilling some blood, I said.
They said it was a whole generation Irish blood—not English—
that fed the fallow fields of the Somme. Fodder for the Crown.
That’s all we were good for. Fodder, that’s what your father said.
They say there’s guns and war medals enough rusting on uniforms
in shadowed cupboards of every country of the world.

Willie, he was our own Finn MacCool.
We called him William after your Gran’Da.
But the others, they thought it was King Billy we were referring to.
And they shunned us at the market. Painting the door orange.
Calling your Da a spy for the Crown. We were good Catholics, we were.
Sure, it was the Crown who put the food on our table during the Troubles
when there was little else to be had. What else could we do?
They were jealously counting all our Sunday roasts stacking up into eternity.
Accusing us of putting a little something aside for purgatory.
But jealousy is ever the traitor’s mistress.
The Have Nots hungering after the hard-earned good fortune of others.
I told him it was enough to make any man crazy serving two mistresses:
Catholic Ireland and Anglican England.
But he couldn’t hear me.
Not a single thing I said.
’T’was a pity I was only talking to the shadows.

’T’is such a pity the old man went off his mind like that,
waving that sword and babbling in the grasses
like a babby wanting his mother.
Annie, I swear he wouldn’t harm a hair on your head.
’T’was only his wounded pride speaking in the graveyards of betrayal.
The sword was a symbol of the power he’d lost.
And the crows diving at him like banshees.

When the candlelight fails,
when they’ve killed the heroes,
and the potential of the father’s only son
lies buried in the cold clay,
when that stony love slips down their cheeks
into the glittering face of the well,
what loyalty was left for there to crown?
This coffinship of a house is adrift in a sea of memory
and here I am, talking to shadows.
Sure, it’s a false quiet after a storm.
There’s a good girl now, Annie.
Put the kettle on the hob and we’ll all have tea.

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