by M. M. Driscoll
One thing John had told me: be careful about whom you trust. I remembered a time when it had been easy to trust the world and all the people in it. Ancient history. Truth and trust were just words that adults used to get you to do what they wanted. I sat at the table with Colette's dog, a mean Jack Russell called Kim, standing atop it, ears cocked and lowly growling. I stuck a finger out towards him, waiting for him to snap. Kim obliged, but I was too fast.
"Get that dog off the table," Father said, coming in from the yard. I poked my tongue out at the dog. He sat back on his haunches, tongue lolling as if imitating me. Father came and sat beside me, put an arm around my shoulder. He looked weary, the creases of his face lined with dirt. "What scutting have ya been up to today, ha?"
"No more than the usual," I told him, glad of his closeness, feeling safe from the strangeness of the world.
"Oh aye, that bad?" He laughed and ruffled my hair. "You're pleased your brother's home?"
I couldn't look him in the eye as I shrugged my shoulders. He sighed. "People change, Liam, whether we want them to or not."
We were eating supper when John came in, drunk. He collapsed into an armchair and started cursing us for what seemed all the sins of the world. "What would keep me here?" he raged. "When I've made a life for meself? I've me own money now, and I'll be wanting fuck all from ye."
"For God's sake John, you can't speak to your father that way," Mother said. "After all we've done for you."
"Christ, that's rich! Done for me? Kept me working this fucking place, holding me back, ruining my chances."
"No one forced you to stay," Father said.
"For God's sake, Da," Colette said. I looked across the table and saw that she was seething.
"Like fuck," John went on. "And what about Katherine? We'd a been married now if the two of ye hadn't "
"You were eighteen, for the love of God," Mother said. "You didn't know what you were doing."
"And ye knew best, ye interfering fuckers."
Father rose and went to the front door. Holding it open, he turned back to John. "If you want to go, son, then go. But I won't tolerate that sort of talk in my own house."
John leapt up and staggered towards him, fists raised. "Fuck you and your bastard house. It means nothing to me."
Something in my father cracked, and he swung at John. I watched in horror as John ducked the blow and punched Father in the face. Blood sprayed like rain from his nose, spattering his grey shirt. He staggered back and slumped to the floor as Mother and Colette began to scream. Anger and pity welled up inside me. Before I knew what I was doing, I'd launched myself at my brother, fists flailing and curses flying off my tongue. John fell back beneath my onslaught, then turned and back-handed me across the temple. I went down on my knees, dazed. Someone knelt beside me, speaking furious words of indignation.
"What business had you getting involved?" Colette. "Jesus, all of ye provoking him like that." When I opened my eyes, John had gone.
Father sat in the doorway, tears mixed with the blood on his face. "Provoke him?" he said, shaking his head.
"You hate him," Colette accused, before hurrying from the room.
That night I saw the dead. My grandparents, an uncle, a cousinBettycrushed beneath the wheels of a truck, others whose faces I no longer recalled, and someone else in their midst: a boy about my size whose face was featureless apart from a smile. Happy among the dead. I woke, trembling. John would go soon, then Colette, in a year or two. One day my parents would die, and I'd be alone. Kindness and security, love and warmth: these are the things that bind us. Only there comes a time when things fall apart and people lose sight of these things. I saw it happening and saw that I was to blame. When I was born, that was the start. Noel went before I knew him, and John was no longer John. The day would come when I'd re-enact all that he had lived through. I'd marry and have children of my own one day, and then one day, they would leave me. When you die you die alone, no matter who's by your side. I considered this, long into the night, uncomprehending, fearful. What was this chaos that ripped the roots from my world? Was there something in me, something more than mere difference, something evil? Difference here, in Drumassan, was no more than a sin. People were wary of me, could look only sidewise at my face, as if I were cursed. I was helpless against the cold hostility of the adult world, a hostility that would one day swallow me up and spit out someone new, a stranger I would never know.
I trudged home alone late in the afternoon. I'd been fishing with Georgie at the lake, but it hadn't gone well; not only had we caught nothing, but Georgie had sensed my preoccupation and listlessness and had spent the afternoon baiting me more than his hook. "Ya fucking mope," he'd said. "You've a face on ya like a sop in a sow's hole."
I hadn't responded. Suddenly, the joys of summer seemed jaded and forlorn, like last Christmas's toys. I envied Georgie's carefree attitude, his lack of worry, his unforced smile. I felt that all those things were in the past for me, and that the world of adulthood was one of grim compromise and uncertainty. If only I knew how to resist the forces of chaos that seemed to be acting through me, then perhaps I could reshape the world according to my own will, make it be the way it once had been.
"Sure, if ya had a good wank, 't'would do ya a world of good." Georgie was a great advocate for the healing effects of masturbation, but I knew that in my own case, it would take something more. There was so much in life that I'd only recently become aware of, but which made no sense to me, so many rituals I didn't understand. That was the key to it all, I felt: understanding. If I knew what things meantJohn's anger, Colette's hatred, Thornton's strange ritual in the piggerythen I'd see where I'd gone wrong. I could learn to accept, I couldwhat was the word?could be assimilated. That meant I'd be like everyone else. That was what I wanted above all other things.
When I got home, I put my fishing tackle in an outhouse and then spied Thornton driving thirty or so cows and calves into the barn for the night. "Hey, Donie," I called.
Thornton beat a tardy animal on the back with a stick, ushering it into the barn. "Go on with ya, lazy whore," he said. He swung the gate closed and, ignoring me, he set off across the yard and out into the field beyond. He'd finished for the day and was off home, I guessed. But I felt compelled to talk to him, and now seemed as good a time as any. I followed him, not hurrying, but walking on twenty or so yards behind, across the field and on down the valley that sloped away behind the farm, crossing two more fields till he reached the boreen that led to his home. He turned and leaned his back against the gate, watching as I walked down the slope towards him. He lit a cigarette and flicked away the match the way I'd seen Humphrey Bogart do.
"You following me, ya little fucker?"
"No," I said, awkwardly. Then, feeling stupid, "Well, yes, I suppose."
My heart beat frantically and I felt beads of sweat trickle down the side of my face. Could I go through with this? Would Thornton reveal the meaning of what he'd done? For a second or two, as panic threatened to overwhelm me, I was on the verge of fleeing. Instead, I climbed the gate and sat on the top bar. A crow cawed somewhere in the distance, maybe one I'd spared the other day. "There's something I want to ask you," I said.
"Thornton took a long pull on his cigarette. "What?"
"There's things I don't understand." It was best not to look down; down was where a crack had opened in the earth, dark and deep and dreadful. I was teetering on the edge, but even so, I forced myself to go on. "Important things I need to know."
"What am I?" Thornton laughed. "Your fucking teacher?"
"When John lived at home, he used to tell me things, explain whatever I didn't understand."
"A great one for the explanations," Thornton said. "Oh for sure."
"It's hard for me, now."
"Don't talk to me. I know what he's been up to, all right. Nothing escapes me." When he spoke these last words, Thornton glared at me, as if in warning. "A right fucking idiot and no mistake. Sure, what did he want running after that whore anyway?"
"That was one of the things I never understood," I said, feeling intoxicated with curious dread.
"No mystery at all, a matter of hole," Thornton said, bursting into laughter. When he saw that I'd failed to appreciate his wit, he grimaced and said, "What is it you want anyway, ya little wanker?"
"I don't want people to hate me," I said, defiantly.
"Impossible," Thornton said. "You're such a cunt that people can't help but hate ya."
I closed my eyes so as not to see his anger. "I never thought John would stop dancing, but he did. I think it's my fault."
"What the Christ are ya jabbering on about?"
"I need to understand creation." I swayed atop the gate like a drunken child. "Like that thing you did. Once I would've thought that was a sin, but John told me that sin was in the mind. What did it mean?" I opened my eyes; the sky bled into the earth.
Thornton frowned. "You're fucking touched, I swear to God. Sin? All that shite, that's all bollix."
"But what did it mean, what you did?"
Confusion spread across his face. "What I did?" he croaked.
"A while back," I went on, fists clenched at my sides, still swaying back and forth on the gate. "In the piggery."
Thornton's face darkened, and his words, when they came, were slow and dry and full of menace. "Saw what in the piggery?"
I raised the fists to my eyes so that I could see the red of the evening sun through the skin of my fingers. I was afraid, but more importantly, I sensed that I was on the verge of some vital revelation. "With your pants down and the pig's back legs in your wellingtons, fucking it like it was some girl."
A silence so complete that even the birds and insects were hushed fell on the world. I clenched my fists still tighter till even the red glow was extinguished. In this place, I told myself, it was safe to ask such questions.
Then I dropped my hands and saw that it was no longer safe. Thornton grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me down into the field. Half a dozen blows rained about my head, knocking me senseless. "Ya fucking cunting little sneak," I heard. "I'll teach ya to mind your own fucking business." After a while, I didn't feel too much, just heard his laboured breathing as he laid in with fists and boots and curses; but it seemed that I was elsewhere, an unreliable witness to the beating of some other kid.
The sun had gone when I found that I was still in the world. The sky was rapidly darkening, and a cool drizzle was falling on the quiet land. I tried to sit up, but the pain I felt was testament to the hammering I'd received. My nose was thick with crusted blood and snot, and the flesh around my eyes felt puffed and swollen. All down one side I felt the bruises where Thornton had kicked me. But more than pain, I felt anger and a sense of betrayal. I'd been honest with Thornton, admitting my inability to make sense of what he'd done. Was it right that he batter me for my lack of understanding? Was that what it meant to fuck a pig? It gave you the right and the power to punish the ignorant? If you did that, it led to this? Or was there something more? I remembered the rage in his eyes just before he'd dragged me down into the field. Rage and something else. Guilt, shame, despair. People didn't love pigs, not in that way; he used the pig, used it in place of someone, used it because he could, because he had power over it. John said once that the world was full of lies. He was right.
I lay still for a while, letting the rain dribble between my lips, grateful for the taste. Eventually, the rain stopped, and I watched the moon rise from the mountains. I tried to stand again, and this time I managed it. I opened the gate and staggered out onto the boreen. I walked slowly along its winding route, up out of the valley, till I came out on the main road about three-quarters of a mile from my home. But I could walk no further. I slumped down beneath a lamp-post and felt my mind slipping into darkness.
"Hey!" a voice called out from beyond the pool of light. "What's up?" A voice slurred with drink. I opened my eyes and saw John stumbling into view. I shivered, tried to stand, and failed.
"Jay, what're them tears?" John said, crouching down in front of me, his body rocking back and forth on unsteady haunches. "Been in a scrape, uh?"
"Fuck off," I told him, fighting back bitter tears. If John had still been my friend, I wouldn't have had to take this beating.
"Like that, is it?" John said. He hawked up phlegm and spat out into the darkness. "Soon as I'm gone, everyone forgets me."
Still angry, I said, "I never forgot you. I thought about you every day."
"Yes, yes," he spoke softly. "Hold still a second till I take a look at ya." He held my chin and turned my face gently from side to side. "Lord, that's an awful beating you've took. Who was it?"
I pushed his hand aside and shook my head.
"Can't say? I know what that's like. But, but " his voice trailed away in the night.
I looked up and saw tears rolling down his cheeks. "I only wanted to know the things that the other fellas know," I said. "You always told me to ask questions, to understand things, not to judge people."
"I did, yes," John said. "I'm sorry, Liam." It was the first time he'd spoke my name since he'd come home.
"I asked a question because I wanted to understand. I don't want to be different anymore. I want to be like other people, like you."
John shook his head and reached under my arms. He stood and lifted me up against his chest. "No, kid. Ya can't do that, ya don't want to," he whispered, walking out of the light. "Yer different whether ya like it or not. We all are. We're all fucked up, except maybe you." He carried me along the road towards home, unsteady with drink, and I felt safe and loved once more, the way I'd felt as a young boy a lifetime ago. When we reached the yard he lowered me to my feet and said, "Okay now? Manage from here?"
"Aren't you coming in?"
"It's too late for that," John said. He leaned down and kissed my forehead, then rose and began to walk away.
"Wait," I said, my heart bursting. "Can't you come home?"
He smiled drunkenly and waved. "Some fellas, Liam," he said, "they can never come back." Then he turned and staggered away into the night beyond our home.
My flesh is purified, as white as the day I was born; the stains are all inside my head. John stands at the door, knifeless, unseeing, lost. Out in the world, somebody weeps in the night. There is nothing I can do to lesson any hurt but my own. I don't sleep but dream instead of a world where fear, lies and shame do not exist; it is not possible in this one, outside this dream. Flames burn in John's eyes, silencing the real things he has to say, consuming who he might have been. I see this even though my eyes are shut tight against life.
The moans of beasts echo through the night. A world seeps through the crack of the dream, and with it, the smell of smoke and burning hide. I open my eyes but John is no longer in the room. Outside, the cattle are lowing and the sky is all aglow.
Aglow like Hell.
I woke with a shudder and opened my eyes to stare through the window at a night sky turned chimney red. Great clouds of fiery smoke bloomed up from the yard, and the night was full with dreadful sounds. I went to the window and saw the commotion in the yard. There was Father hurling bucket after bucket of useless water at a blaze which crackled and swallowed them up, and Mother, helpless and shocked beside him, mute with the horror of it all.
I dressed as quickly as I could, my body hurting all over. I went downstairs and out into the yard, where Colette was screaming for somebody to for God's sake save the animals. Her face was black with smoke and tears, and I saw there were things that she, too, didn't understand. And above her screams and the snapping flames came the awful, sickening roars of the trapped animals, cows and calves, as they were roasted alive in the inferno. People poured into the yard, rushing to help my father, throwing buckets of water at the flames until, realizing the futility of their efforts, they simply stood and stared in silent fascination.
I stood beside my mother. She looked at me, touched my battered face but said nothing. She turned back to the flames, and I saw her lips move in useless prayer. By the time the fire engines came, nobody was fighting the fire. Men and women stood back in weary silence as the hungry flames sated themselves on the bones of the building. The animals it held were all dead and hushed.
Neighbours consoled my parents, as shocked and horrified as they. Others exchanged views amongst themselves as to how such a tragedy had come to pass. I stood alone in the shadow of the house, hearing words like "negligence" and "compensation," and more sinister phrases such as "a bad sort," and "bound to happen." I understood that more than love or joy or kindness, people's hearts were filled with greed and spite and fear. Knowing this, I wanted no part of it. I fled inside and back up to my room. I closed the curtains, undressed and lay down to sleep. I dreamed, but not of John, nor of any other living being.
On the second morning after the fire, I woke to a sky blue with promise. But it was a false promise. The smell of grief and burnt fat lingered over the farm, and people were still calling in to console and speculate. In truth, I felt, the tragedy had made us into celebrities. Even the Cork Examiner had sent someone down to do a story on the fire. I read the paper at breakfast. "Cattle Burned To Death In Mystery Blaze," the headline said, and underneath it "Gardai Suspect Arson."
Out into the yard I saw Pad the Post, Babs Regan and Nancy Hegarty, their backs turned to me, standing before the blackened shell of the barn. I listened a while to what they were saying.
"They say," said Babs Regan, "they say t'was the son."
"The fella that's home from England?" Pad the Post asked. "Sure enough, there's been no sight nor sound of him since it happened."
"An awful thing," Nancy Hegarty chipped in. "Poor Noel."
Babs Regan leant forward conspiratorially. "Sure wasn't Noel after throwing him out two days before?"
"T'is true for you," said Pad the Post. "There was no love lost between them."
"Wasn't he lighting drunk every night up in The Star, making an awful show of himself?"
"And where is he now?" Nancy Hegarty wanted to know.
"Far from here, mark my words." Seeing me, Pad nodded at the two women and put a finger to his lips. "All right there, young man? An awful thing to happen."
I saw that they too had failed to understand. John was not the only one who had fled Drumassan, though he was the only one whose absence condemned him. Thornton was gone too, though nobody bothered to ask why. After all, people said, what was there to hold him now? Yet who would tell them the truth of fucking pigs, of lonely men reaching inside young boys' trousers, and of burning cattle? Who would tell them the things they never spoke of, the things they didn't want to hear?
I forced a smile and danced surreptitiously towards the liars, knowing that I'd have to live among them for some time yet to come.