Kilronan, Inis Mor. Aran Islands
A breeze was rising gently to move between the many dreamcatchers that old Budgie Flaherty had suspended from the gutters to decorate the exterior of her cottage home. All different in shape and size, and placed with care in front of every window and door, the handmade talismans warded off the unwelcome, the dream stealers, the custodians of nightmares and dark thoughts. Driftwood, jetsam, feathers and glass beads, all blending unique and soothing timbres that mingled with the sounds of the night creatures and the sleeping sea to soothe the tired mind towards restful, unhindered sleep.
Or so they ought to…
Though he was choosing to ignore her voice at this minute, Caleb’s grandmother was calling out to him now. Caleb always heard her, often from miles away, an inexplicable telepathic power between them that he had long ago given up on trying to understand. Most of the time, he simply denied that it was anything to do with him at all, preferring to believe that the gift was hers and hers alone. That she could somehow transmit a thought to him, like a radio frequency, and that, in order to boost his fragile ego, she just let him think he also had that same special power.
And fragile it was, his ego, though Caleb would never admit to that out loud. Sure, he was different to the other young guys on the Island, could just about acknowledge that, for he had always stood out on his own. Even as a youngster, alone, but never lonely, his grandmother was the only one who could make him feel okay about his sense of separateness; seeing as how different old Budgie was herself.
Old she was too, though no-one knew exactly the age of her, and that was one subject that not even Caleb himself had the courage to broach. While straddling the worlds of her religion with her other-worldly gift, her natural magic, as she called it, Budgie regularly carried out spells and rituals to aid the sick and the worthy, her words, spoken with her suitably old world charm, and to deflect the spirits of the underworld, whom she believed roamed through the night in search of trouble. In search of the insomniacs, the deep thinkers; the minds that were filled with perceptible thought and belief that the fall of the darkness descended to allow the lifting of the veil that separates the real from the imagined, the living from the dead, the body from the spirit. And these notions that she had, once accepted by him as just events of everyday life, were now beginning to annoy the hell out of him.
Caleb ran his fingers through the coarse and shaggy coat of a tethered pony, a gift from his parents for his nineteenth birthday, just weeks ago. He had been trying to decide what to call it over many a hilarious evening spent laughing with his father, Brion, as they came up with the most ridiculous names he could think of. Loving the pony’s glossy blue-black coat, Caleb had suggested Bluecifer. That hadn’t gone down well with the women in the family. Names like Bobblehead, Metalhead, Alcapony, Cujo and Skag were offered, the latter not proving at all popular with Caleb’s father. None of these names seemed in the least bit appropriate now, if they ever had been, and so the pony was nameless, and would remain so for now, or at least, until Caleb could care more.
And all that laughter between father and son seemed like a lifetime away as he offered the animal an apple and led it gently to a water trough in a small field that spread out, unfenced, around his grandmother’s neat and postcard pretty home. Caleb grimaced now at the memory of those better days as he watched the pony drink from the trough and then amble off towards the centre of the field and into the darkness. I could go there too, into the dark; nameless…
He straddled the low stone wall in front of the cottage, rolling his own cigarette. Lighting it, the rapid flame of the match cast a momentary blast of light on Caleb’s interesting, almost aristocratic face. In an instant though, the light fizzled out, and with it, his strange beauty. Caleb inhaled greedily, devouring the cigarette as he lifted his head to look up toward the indigo sky that spread now like a comfortable blanket over the island. It could be magic in the making, that twinkling sky, as his grandmother would say, but his thoughts were so heavy and so far away now, that he could barely see the beauty of it. His expression remained sombre as he looked down again and towards the cottage he would now share alone with Budgie.
He heard her call out to him again, this time choosing to; Budgie’s voice mingling with the sounds that were coming from inside the cottage. Plaintive singing, women’s voices, lamenting and keening as a black, hooded crow swooped down from the sky to circle above his head. Startling him with its size and the close proximity of its large, hawkish beak, Caleb’s eyes remained fixed on the bird as it hovered over him. Large wings barely flapping and spanned wide, a pair of beady eyes scrutinized him, until just as suddenly, the bird moved off again, changing direction to fly towards the ruins of Arkyne Castle, seen only in distant silhouette. Caleb shivered as he gazed towards home; the outsider, looking in.
Several large Jack o’ lanterns were also placed around the façade. All were hollowed out and had jagged, menacing facial expressions cut into them. In the dark of night, and carved from Budgie’s buckled hands, candles placed inside the louring eyes burned from the scowling faces of these pumpkin shells, a constant reminder to the supernatural intruders that the people here knew of their existence. Were fully aware of their tricks and of their impishness, and were not afraid to share this mystical space, this island where myth and magic were as commonplace as the rain and the indigenous winds that flurry, blast and blizzard to the sounds of the ocean. Like the deep, rumbling sound of an overhead aeroplane that moved ever closer, Caleb’s insides echoed now to the sound of his own crippling pain and anger, his sharp and serious eyes creasing as he fought back tears to watch the flashing lights of its great metal under-belly pass over him.
It was only when the lights had disappeared and the sound of the plane’s engines had been swallowed up and consumed by the approaching clouds above the Atlantic, did he finally give in to his grandmother’s call. ‘Caleb, son?’ she once again beckoned to him from the door of the cottage, her voice cracked with grief, ‘We need you.’
Inside the cluttered interior of the cottage, a time capsule awaited; fussy, 1970’s wallpaper, earthenware pottery, some of it a century old. And rustic, artisan folk furniture, colourwashed and laden with books, bric-a-brac, dried flowers and herbs. A comforting, welcoming place were it not for the funeral wake that was in full swing, two coffins placed side by side in the centre of the room, and a gathering of people crowded shoulder to shoulder into the cramped space surrounding them.
Budgie Flaherty gestured to her grandson, her long silver hair, loosely braided down her back, casting a soft silver halo around her face of eighty-odd years; the only number, of sorts, that she would ever concede to. ‘Make sure everyone has had enough to eat,’ she gently prompted, ‘I’ll see to the drinks for the final toast.’ She was wearing black, head to toe, even to the hand stitched lace collar of her dress. The only relief from the starkness of her mourning clothes and shocking white mane were her blue eyes, and the light that bounced off them against the sapphire and silver twisted crucifix around her neck.
As she moved away, Caleb, silent and stoic, did as he was told. Lifting a tray of sandwiches from the table, he moved mechanically between the gathered mourners as they uttered condolences to him. While he nodded his head occasionally, Caleb barely acknowledged any of them, not out of rudeness or even his grief, but because he was finding it difficult to focus on faces, any face, since the accident. It was as if to look into anyone’s eyes, and to let them look back into his, was to make himself vulnerable. To let them see his fear. Now that everything had changed, forever.
Watching him sombrely was Paddy Coyle, a local lad, the same age as Caleb, and though, just like Caleb, he was a fisherman’s son, they could be worlds apart. Paddy was a hard case, a large, muscle-bound youth turned man through a life so far speckled with the tough gig of long days spent facing the elements of the sea. Something that Caleb had rarely experienced, and avowed that he never would again.
A wet arse and nothing caught, his father would say in the early years, teasing Caleb on his lack of skills at the occupation his family had partaken of, and been supported by, for centuries. And though it was said in jest and good nature, Caleb knew that deep down his father had been disappointed that his only son would not be carrying on with the fisherman’s life. No longer a sustainable existence for most, it had become inevitable to him that his Aran boy should go forth and find a world, and a life, away from the island, a world that Caleb’s parents could never know, nor need.
A pretty girl excused herself from Paddy’s company and inched towards Caleb, much to Paddy’s irritation. For the day that was in it, though, he would hide it well. Wearing heavy make-up, her complexion falsely dark and her nails long and manicured as they gripped his arm, twenty year-old Maeve Murray was consumed with concern for Caleb as she moved in and tried to embrace him. Caleb allowed her to, though he barely reciprocated her touch as Paddy’s expression tightened while he watched the interaction between them. ‘Will I see you later?’ she asked, and there was much hope in her tone, though her expression soon dropped as Caleb shrugged, eye contact negligible as he moved on.
Father Moriarty, a portly man in his mid-sixties, who today looked twenty years older, stepped into Caleb’s path. ‘How are you holding up?’ he asked with a manly grip on Caleb’s shoulder. The younger shook his head, eyes lowered to the ground and the priest drew his hands away from Caleb’s shrug, unsure what to do with them now. ‘I wish there was something I could say,’ he offered, locking his fingers across his large belly, well-padded from years of home baking gifts that his native parishioners bestowed upon him daily. ‘There isn’t.’ Caleb snapped, cutting him dead. Father Moriarty tried again, ‘This is not God’s will, Caleb,’ he said as Budgie appeared to take the tray from her grandson, gently touching Caleb’s cheek as the priest tried to continue, ‘But he is there, with open arms, to take them out of their suffering.’ Caleb looked sharply at him, angry as he prepared to retaliate with some deeply held and colourfully worded comeback. How the fuck would you know? The words went unuttered though as Budgie, reading his thoughts, softly cut in to deflect his attention. ‘Are you ready?’
He looked towards the open coffins; the male and female corpses, middle-aged, in their best Sunday Mass clothing. Draped carefully over the bodies of Brion and Peggy Flaherty, Aran-stitched shawleens, pepper-white, and knitted by Budgie for the special purpose of keeping them warm and protected on this, their final and most important journey. Beside each other now in death as they had been in life, victims of the same sea, that all of their short existence, had given them shelter and daily bread. Each had their names embroidered on the front of the shawleens; elaborate green and gold letters with birth and death dates below them and several trinkets were sewn between the stitches. A brass button from Brion’s good coat, a ring that Budgie had given him on his eighteenth birthday, a silver charm from Peggy’s favourite bracelet, her pearl rosary beads, and their wedding rings, exchanged, and taking pride of place, strategically sewn above their hearts.
In the bitter context of loss and finality, the procession of condolence bore many smiling faces. So, so wrong, it seemed. Nonetheless, the deceased, in their finery, were entirely riveting, a certain contentment emanating from them. Several mourners gasped and sighed in wonder at the adornments, praising Budgie for her earnest work and loving attention to detail.
Sure, I’ve never seen them look younger. Don’t they look so peaceful? Well, at least they won’t be lonely on the next leg of their journey. Not a line of stress or worry on their faces; together in life, forever in the afterlife…
And on and on the comments poured out, the trying so hard to say the right thing to the family bereaved as they continued with each shuffling foot to move the procession on; a slow-moving train of condolences around the morbid centerpieces of Budgie’s cramped home.
Caleb closed his eyes. This can’t be real. But it is. It is.
Budgie eased herself through the gathered crowd, her hands swaying gently to silence the din. Conversations became muted and then hushed altogether as Father Moriarty opened a prayer-book, and flanked by both coffins, began to recite from the pages. As the priest spoke, Caleb moved slowly, all eyes on him as he lifted a coffin lid from against the wall and moved slowly to the casket with his mother’s corpse laid out in it. He kissed her cold, lifeless, painted cheek, and carefully placed the lid over her. To see those eyes glisten blue again.
A frailty in her stance that he had never seen before, Budgie offered him a hammer and some nails. Caleb secured the lid with the nails, hammering one by one, his face contorting with each strike until he finally ceased to make a sign of the cross. It seemed like the correct thing to do, though he didn’t really understand why. He never was one for the organized religion. Caleb just didn’t get the systems of it all, the churches, the mosques, the synagogues and their differences and their sameness. His grandmother often reminded him, with fond memory, how at age four, at mass one Sunday, he kept tugging at his mother’s skirt, trying to get her attention. When she kept shushing him, in frustration he announced loudly that people were God, and not that man up there on the alter; that man in the dress. Shushed again by his mortified mother, and with some seriously frowning faces looking down at him, Caleb had said no more.
Later, at home, over the traditional Sunday brunch, and despite his parents’ disapproval, Budgie had asked the little man what he had meant. ‘God’s not above us,’ he replied. ‘He’s right here. He is you. He is me. God is everyone.’
‘And how do you know that?’ she asked, amused as his brow crinkled to find the correct words.
‘Because he tells me so, when he wakes up inside my head.’
‘But, Caleb, if he’s inside your head,’ Budgie gently probed further, ‘How could he be in me too?’ She still chuckled when she remembered the little face of him, and the consternation coming at her because she didn’t understand. ‘He is everyone, I told you! And someday, he’ll wake up inside your head and tell you how.’
Over the years, his words had stayed with Budgie, and as he got older, she would have wonderful conversations with Caleb on his steadfast belief. At one point, just before he hit puberty, Caleb seemed to be able to explain it so that she could finally see he meant. ‘We all have a true identity. God,’ He explained, ‘These bodies we walk around in are merely vessels, the real ‘us’ are inside them. The real ‘us’ is God. We don’t let him in, or become him, we are him. We wear out these bodies, and they die. We don’t die, because we are God.’
‘So what does God do when the bodies are gone?’ Budgie asked him, fascinated by his confidence in the matter.
‘You mean, what do we do when the bodies are gone?’ He replied, his eyes shining with sincerity and truth, ‘We transcend beyond the material, we become invisible, but we are still here. We are still God.’
Whether he still held this to be truth, Caleb had stopped talking about his beliefs in general, and Budgie wondered now, though the latent anger he was holding prevented her from broaching the subject, if he could take any comfort in his early beliefs. She watched in silence as an older man appeared beside Caleb; Mister Coyle, Paddy’s father, long experienced in these ceremonious rituals, he held the lid of the second coffin as Caleb stroked his father’s hair, bending in to kiss his forehead. If ever there was a moment when she saw her version of God, it was right there in the love that had connected this man and boy. Budgie always remarked how Brion could have spit him out, so alike were the two of them. Her son and her grandson, one light now extinguished for an earthbound eternity, the other dimmed forever it seemed, by the ultimate and infinite pain of loss. Paddy’s father helped Caleb to lift the lid of the coffin level and slide it into place. Again, Caleb hammered in the nails, one by one, his mouth growing tighter and tighter as his arm rose and fell, blow after blow falling harder as his pain over-flowed and overwhelmed him, until the older man, with a swift yet gentle movement, prised the hammer from his clenched, trembling grip.
Budgie stood at his back the entire time, weeping sorrowfully. When she could hardly bear it anymore, her eyes moved towards the window, and looking out at the raging, darkening sky, she caught her breath. The black crow was there again, that ravenous, filthy creature, hovering, lurking. She suddenly remembered a question she had asked Caleb when he was just thirteen, a question she had at once regretted when his silence assured her that he had no answer to it; If God is inside these bodies of ours, could the devil be there too?
The hammering sounds of her grandson’s unspeakable grief continued to echo inside her head; fists punching against the thin walls of her chest, and drumming in unison with her broken heart. And Budgie closed her eyes, all seeing…
Excerpt from Arkyne, Story of a Vampire (c) Caroline E.Farrell: 2016
Image by Charles Edward Butler.