BY FERGUS EGAN
This is an excerpt from Fergus’s novel Black Donnelly, Rats and Pigs. Copyright is held by the author.
Killbawn, County Mayo, Ireland
Late October 1947
SUDDENLY ALL is quiet. The jennet’s ears are twitching; her nostrils are sensing the air as we round a bend to view a bleak landscape. The boreen crosses an area of bogland. It is bleak because the bog has been worked out and there is no more turf to be had there. Treeless. Not even a hedge at the side of the road. Lifeless. It is without colour and is dark even with the morning sun beating down full. Not fit for man or beast. At the bend ahead, the road swings sharp left at a right angle, and then straight as a rush for a mile across the flat bogland to where the welcoming farmland takes up again. All three of us stare ahead; even the jennet has forgotten to blink. There is a stone house at the bend. It will be on our right as we pass. We are approaching it from the gable side. Its frontage is at right angles to the long bog road. It’s as if the straight road is built as an approach to this house, and then just before it reaches the front door, it suddenly changes direction and turns sharp right.
The jennet’s shoes are clicking a rhythm of iron on stone; the cart’s iron-rimmed wheels are making that peculiar crunching sound on the black stone chips that surface the road. As we near the bend we can make out the front door of the house, black and lifeless, even though it is facing east and is taking the full light of the morning sun. The whole house appears even bleaker than the bogscape, and we can make out the surrounding low buildings almost hidden by the bogland sloping upwards behind the property. Not fit for man or beast.
And now a whiff of pig, disturbingly different from the smell I am familiar with on the farm. It brings to mind manure and rot – and something dead. The jennet is getting skittish. I do my clicking thing to soothe her, and she settles back to her rhythm. As we round the bend I notice the front door nudge open a fraction. Is someone peering at us from out of the dark interior? Through the partly-open door, I hear the ‘bong, bong, bong’ of striking clocks. Just then, I am startled by the unexpected added sound of alarm clocks, all ringing at the same time, and the door closes with an audible clunk. How strange that there should be so many loud clocks in a lifeless house out here in a dead bog.
My uncle mutters, “Black Donnelly’s.”
The dark sinister house is now behind us, and a mile of straight road lies ahead. I had heard of Black Donnelly. But I thought it was just a story to frighten children. Like my granny in Killbawn would say, “If you don’t behave yourself, Black Donnelly will get you!”
Late in the day, on the way back from market, my uncle makes himself comfortable sitting in the cart, propped up in one corner. With the excitement over and a few porters in him, he eventually rolls over onto the bed of the cart and falls sound asleep in the banbhs’ straw. Standing in my position of driver, I urge the jennet to keep up a steady pace. Being tired, and since my uncle would not notice, I sit down and let the jennet choose her own pace. Shortly, she decides that it is time to go home. She ceases chomping the roadside grass and sets a steady pace with determination. I could tell that we are heading west into the evening sun. Sitting against the boards with my back to the jennet and the reins slack in my hands, I lazily observe the lengthening shadow of the cart on the road. The iron rims mark the road surface behind us, tracking our progress. We might still get to the farm before dark.
The lurching of the cart rocks me left and right with the rhythm of the jennet’s steady pace. I am being lulled to sleep, too sleepy to light the lamps on the tailgate. The carbide is probably stale, I suppose, and would be unable to ignite. And I don’t have matches.
The tracks of the wheels on the road are like the wake of a boat, drawing two white parallel lines all the way from Killbawn to the farm. Now and again I check our progress through half-closed eyes looking backwards at the road behind us, recognising a tree or a bend in the road, and now passing the creamery… all the while the two white lines are being scored into the black road surface. As the shadows lengthen, the black road surface gets blacker; the white tracks of the wheels get whiter. Our progress is being written in luminous white lines suspended in darkness.
The sweet smell of moist earth and grass diminishes as we leave the farmlands; the sylvan smells of leaves and ferns fade as we leave the fringe woodlands; and I feel the cold flinty breeze of the desolate mountainside brush the top of my head. We had turned onto the straight length of bog road that leads to Black Donnelly’s. I am unperturbed, too elated and too content with myself to let thoughts of Donnelly ruin a pleasant day.
Something rounds the bend behind us. Probably a local dog. Dogs are common sights on country roads, and like the jennet, this dog is probably on his way home. A black dog on a black road. It is difficult to make out his features or determine the breed. But there he is, trotting up between the two luminous strips of white as if he owned the road. Who does he think he is? The setting sun illuminates his eyes. They glow red. This is the only discernible thing about him, indicating his size and proximity.
The lengthening shadows give over to twilight as the sun goes down. But the eyes still glow, even brighter, and ever closer. My eyes, which were half closed, come to full alertness, and my hair stands on end, as I strain to make out what manner of dog this is. I listen for his panting. What I hear alarms me. I hear the snorting breathing of a snout, and surmise that this may not be a dog at all. The realization of what this might be, registers with the jennet. She rears up and takes off at a gallop. I am aware that the cart is not designed for comfort or speed. It lurches and skids from side to side. I grip the side panel for fear of being thrown overboard. My uncle is lying in the bed of the cart, sound asleep. He is of no help. I am frightened and helpless.
Even with our increased speed, the glowing eyes still come closer and closer, until I lose sight of them under the tailboard. There is a thump on the tailboard, and I see a malevolent face piercing me with its eyes, a black pig with fiery eyes burning into my chest. I fear my heart would stop. The black pig attempts to clamber over the tailboard, but his crubeens fail to grip, and with a lurch from the cart he falls back onto the road. Now he is coming again. Snorting saliva and wheezing steamy breath, and staring with his demonic eyes.
A feeling of dread washes over me from my head downward, and I feel the warmth drain from my body, and I feel the blood drain from my veins, and my bladder fails. This is dying. I know this is dying. I feel my mind slipping away.
Thump! There he is again clambering over the tailboard. This time he might succeed. Death itself cannot be worse than the terror of dying, and I wished that he would get it done and over with. Another lurch. The cart tilts up on one wheel. Sparks are flying from the skidding wheel, red and blue. The cart is going to tip over and that will be the end. But the pig has lost his grip once again as the cart bumps and rights itself. I feel myself leaving my body, drawn to the malevolent beast of death. I cannot hold myself. In one quick glance, like a lightning flash that is instant but can be viewed over the succeeding few seconds, I see that we had rounded the bend and that the pig-beast had continued straight on to Black Donnelly’s front door. I see the pig disappear through the black door; or is the door wide open with the entrance in black shadow? I cannot tell.
Next morning, I insist on leaving the farm in Ballycorry. We make quick progress on bicycles. I am anxious to get to Killbawn and then get back home to Donegal. My uncle is anxious to get back to work on the farm. I want to get past Black Donnelly’s horrible place, but not before my uncle is convinced of things there. Was it really a nightmare, and my fear and dread unfounded? No! I am certain of what I saw and experienced, but I need someone to see the daylight evidence.
Rounding the bend, there it is. Black Donnelly’s place in the spent bog, as bleak and foreboding as ever. Parked in front is Mickey Motor’s motor-car. And Mickey peering in through the front window, cupping his hands to his eyes against the glare of the dirty panes.
Seeing us coming, he shouts, “This place is dead!”
Of course, it’s dead, I could have said. Everything here is dead – Donnelly, the clocks, the whole place.
And he continues shouting to us as we near; but I stay well back on the road as my uncle approaches the house. “I brought two pigs for Donnelly. He’s not in the slaughterhouse, where he ought to be at this time of day. And there’s no answer from the house. He must be dead or something!”
My uncle had reached him by now and gives him a dig in the ribs to shush him. Now both of them peer through the front windows.
“It’s quiet, all right,” says my uncle.
I shout from the road, “Of course it’s quiet, the clocks are dead!”
They look at each other, and back at me, but say nothing. Mickey goes around to the back, to enter the slaughterhouse by the trapdoor, the one used to haul the carcasses by the winch. There is an entrance to the house from the slaughterhouse. Mickey seems to know his way around the forbidding place. We wait for Mickey to reappear.
I shout to my uncle, “Can you see any clocks?”
“What time do they show?”
“Twenty past 10 on that one, and 20 past 10 on the other one,” a pause. “It’s 20 past 10 on all of them.”
“The time of sunset?”
“I don’t know, and even . . .”
“Oul’ Moore knows!”
He pulls out Old Moore’s Almanac, and consults it. He puts it back in his pocket, but is a shade paler now. He hammers on the door with his fists, shouting, “Mickey! Mickey! Are you there? What’s keeping you? For God’s sake, Mickey, answer me!”
There is a sound from the house. Mickey, or someone, is falling about in there. Is he tripping or slipping or what? At last, the sound of the front door being unlatched, and Mickey stumbles out holding on to the wall for support. His black boots and blue overall knees are wet, so he must have fallen on a wet floor. He moves away from the door, still leaning on the wall for support. Then vomits, and slides to the ground. He is shaken, pale and weak. Nevertheless, he grips my uncle’s wrist like an iron vice to prevent him from entering. I am still down at the road, but I hear their lowered voices.
Mickey is still spluttering and coughing bits of vomit. “Donnelly — dead.”
“Do you think the lads from Cork . . . ?”
“No! Too gruesome. Not even the Tans at their worst would have done this.”
Mickey grips him with two hands to impress upon him not to enter. “His chest. His heart cut out.”
“What? With his own knives?”
“I don’t think so. It’s too crude; many hacking cuts; more like he was gnawed.”
Now my uncle slides to the ground. So bewildered am I that I almost laugh at the spectacle unfolding in front of me. This is the evidence — what I saw last night was no dream.
Mickey puts a cigarette in his mouth but is unable to strike the match. “We’ll have to get word to the guards.”
“You go, Mickey, in your vehicle.”
But neither one moves. Mickey attempts to strike another match, but it breaks.
“Mickey! The guards!”
He stumbles up shakily and staggers down to his motor-car.
“And drop off the young lad at Muldoon’s on the way to the barracks!” my uncle shouts after him.
He looks at me as he fumbles with the matches. “Are you comin’ or stayin’?” he asks with little interest.
“Home to the Six Counties, is it?”
He tries again to light his cigarette, but his hands are shaking badly. He breaks another match. I get into the car; he is not going to invite me. The two pigs are still in the back, the unlit cigarette is still in his mouth. It begins to rain. He starts the car. The wipers don’t work, so he drives with his head out the window. Now his cigarette is wet.
Mickey is an amadan. He never learned my name, and thinks I am from “the Six Counties”. And his car is a wreck. And it smells of pig stink, and of Mickey-vomit, and of wet cigarettes.
I shut my eyes. I never hitched a jennet to a cart ever again.