Ireland, Connemara - 1974
You couldn’t tell the rain from the mist. That kind of day, where the greens were black and shades of gray defined everything else between the village and the cliff which drew the land up like a bowsprit – Ireland sailing ever westward. And like a dreary ship’s crew coming forward to drop anchor and make fast, a handful of villagers accompanied the horse-drawn hearse toward the churchyard.
It was called a churchyard, but no one from Darrig could tell you why. It was rumored there had once been a church near the pond and that through the first half of the 19th century villagers had worshipped there until it was struck by lightning. One or two of the oldest families in the district held to a darker version, saying it had been burned down, and whisperers might add fanciful stories of a pagan altar on the cliff nearby. The McCabes owned the land, however – that was clear enough – and there had always been a graveyard there just as there had always been McCabes. But here was the last of them, Brone himself, about to be laid to rest. The gravediggers had joked about how deep to dig, lest they strike heathen things said to underlie the original site, and that Brone McCabe himself was closer to pagans than to the Pope.
“He’ll be the Watcher now,” said Laughlin O’Brien the young peat cutter, and he moved closer to the mourner in front of him to cover the fact that he had been thinking out loud.
The churchyard Watcher. Even the children of west County Galway knew what it meant to be the last corpse interred in a cemetery. Someone had to guard the graves. And hadn’t Laughlin’s own father, Fahey, been buried the same day as Dolan’s sister, and hadn’t the two funeral processions broken into a run and a gallop to reach the churchyard gates first so as not to be the last one buried, and hadn’t he lost? So Laughlin’s father became the restless spirit who watched over the others and couldn’t lie down proper until another body was interred. But now Brone was dead and coming to his grave . . .
The dun mare tossed her head as they reached the churchyard, scenting something she did not like through the rain. And it was more rain than mist now. A single flicker of lightning declared it so, lighting up the three-sided stone pylon that thrust out of the black pond hard against the sea. The pond was the central feature toward which the churchyard had burrowed, plot by plot, over nearly two centuries. Two millennia, said some with families so old their roots could not be traced. To the west a narrow grotto of smooth monoliths separated the pond with its graves from the North Atlantic that rolled its salty tongue relentlessly along the cliff as if it had a taste for the dead. To the north was the McCabe house, white and stark, like an overgrown stucco cottage that had reached two stories, its casements indelibly smudged from long-ago candles. Brone’s dog His Nibs could be heard howling above the rain.
The gravesite tarp was hauled back and the priest changed registers from bass to tenor as the water ran off the mound of dirt into the yawning hole. No one was sad at Brone’s passing. No one was happy to be at his funeral. It went like a speeded up film. The Holy Water sprinkled on the coffin as it was lowered roughly to the bottom of the grave was absurdly redundant. Not only was it raining, Brone had drowned. It was as if God and nature and the villagers of Darrig wanted to make sure he wouldn’t draw another breath.
His body had floated up against the pylon, or “the Pillar of Thiollaney Merriu,” as the oldest inhabitants of the village still called it. He had drowned in the pond somehow, though no one could imagine why he would have gone in unless it was to save his wife Una, who was missing. They had dragged the pond but could not locate a second body. Some thought so ill of Brone McCabe as to suggest that he had murdered Una and drowned himself in remorse. Except it was hard to imagine blustery Brone remorseful over anything, besides which, as far as anyone could tell, he had been as fanatically devoted to his wife as he was disdainful of everyone else in Connemara.
Still, Una McCabe was missing. Not a sign of her in the house (the local gardai had searched thoroughly), no blood, no overturned furniture. His Nibs, the old hound, did not scratch at a loose floorboard or dig at freshly turned earth. It disappointed more than a few. So the stalwarts of Darrig performed their duty to the deceased in cursory fashion, while the county culled through statutes and mulled over what to do with the property should Una McCabe also be declared dead.
She seemed almost to be an unnecessary detail, because few in Darrig had even seen her up close, let alone spoken to her, and when she did speak it wasn’t in their dialect. A startlingly beautiful woman, she must have been two decades younger than Brone who was forty-one. Where had she come from? In this village whose customs and celebrations were no less hallowed than its rituals and rites, there had been no courtship, no wedding. Brone had gone away and come back with a bride. “Dublin,” he grunted in the pub when pressed about her origins. Brone had a rugged masculinity and modest means, nothing to suggest a fatal potency over women. Especially this one.
It was the mourners at the foot of the grave who saw her first. A moving shape in the mist from the direction of the pond, becoming then a human figure, then a female figure – very female – because she hadn’t a stitch of clothing on to hide her comely form. If they hadn’t seen Una McCabe up close before, they got to see her now. Naked to her navel, no matter which direction your eyes started from. Rivulets running off her firm breasts, down her tapered thighs. In the achromatic light she looked almost luminous, her ash blond hair nebulous, her sea-green eyes electric out of dark hollows. And something else that the women noticed for a certainty, and that the men afterward agreed must be true. She was pregnant and beginning to show.
Scota O’Neill threw an elbow into her husband Dolan, meaning for him to take off his jacket and cover the bare naked thing, but somewhat dumbfoundedly Dolan merely jerked an umbrella over the nude woman’s head as she continued to the lip of the grave.
“He’s not dead,” Una said in an even voice.
At once shock toned to sympathy, because obviously she was bereft. No one wondered how she knew who was in the coffin; clearly she knew and that was enough. The priest had his plastic raincoat over her shoulders now, but his arms were too short to hold it around her front without actually embracing her body.
“There, there, miss,” he said, “you must go inside –”
“He’s not dead!” she said with the timbre of a decree and pointed her arm ramrod straight at the coffin.
The gravediggers had begun to fill in just when she had appeared, and now the mourners thought it was dirt they heard rattling from the hole. But when they tore their eyes away from the nude woman, they saw that the shovelers had stood back. And then there was a beat, weakly at first – thrum, thrum – and then the eruption into solid thuds, frantic banging (Brone was a strong man), and the muffled cry.
Pandemonium. Whatever it was that was alive, several villagers with advanced heart disease were sorely tested. Lady Godiva and Lazarus in the space of two minutes was more than anyone wanted to comprehend. Gasps, cries, an odd shuffling away, then back again. The barber and the headmaster were the first to gather their wits and kneel in the mud to resurrect what should never have been buried. They got the thing upright in the grave somehow, like a mummy case, and Brone tumbled out through the split lid – four rescuers and a corpse all standing in the grave. It wouldn’t be funny for at least a month when it was retold in the pub, and it wouldn’t be retold at all for two days. The Irish wit would take over then, allowing how Brone was welcome to die again anytime, naked women and all, if that was how he was going to do it, and that he’d put the “fun” back in “funeral.”
More sober assessments had to be made, nonetheless. Catalepsy was the accepted verdict. Brone McCabe had never been dead, that was clear enough, the headmaster said. The priest went along with it. The doctor kept his mouth shut. Only Laughlin O’Brien protested, insisting Brone had been dead and in the grave. “Naturally you’d feel that way,” Dolan said. “Brone would have become the Churchyard Watcher, if he really died. But looks to me that your father’s tenure has been extended until the next burial.”
The embalmer was the problem. He had done the thing, he insisted. Embalmed Brone right there at the house, like they did in the old days. But the embalmer was a good candidate for Darrig’s leading alcoholic – no mean feat in that bibulous coastal village – and it was more than suggested that he had put the embalming fluid in the wrong body.
“What wrong body?” he asked in self-defense. “There was me and there was the cadaver.”
“Well, you’ve got that right, Sweeney,” Moriarty Walsh said. “I expect the liquor store was closed when you went to work, and we all know how particular you are in your choice of personal preservatives.”
“You don’t remember goin’ into the pond?” Brone asked with an odd note of hope in his gravelly voice the night of his resurrection.
The doctor and the rest of them had finally gone home, convinced that he was stable. Another half hour and Brone would have thrown them out anyway. It was all that was missing from the funeral, a donnybrook. Now he and Una sat at the weathered table in the kitchen, hearthlight and moonlight battling the shadows between them.
“You know I never swim anymore,” she said listlessly.
“You had it on.”
“Had what on?”
He swallowed, guiltily somehow, like a dog who has just been caught digesting human food. His Nibs, in fact, looked up at him. “You were naked, you were wet – how do you think that happened?”
“I don’t know. Did I fall in the pond? Oh. It was rainin’.”
“You brought me back, Una. You saved me. They were buryin’ me.”
“They were buryin’ you alive.”
“I couldn’t have been alive.”
“The doctor said it was a coma.”
“The doctor didn’t say that. Sweeney the embalmer said it.”
“The doctor, the embalmer – I’ve never met either of them before. Didn’t he say he’d seen it once? A dead man coming back alive from . . . from a coma.”
“Catalepsy, yes. So, you weren’t dead.”
“I heard things in the grave, Una. I heard rumblin’ . . . and marchin’.”
“Of course you did. Half the village was tramplin’ six feet over your head, and the rain was drummin’ on the coffin.”
“It came from beneath me. From under the grave. An army . . . so close. And I knew things.”
“Things you can’t know if you’re still among the quick. And I heard far-away bells. They say you hear the bells in the distance when you die and go to Mag Mell.”
“It was the church. That’s far away, and they rang the bell for your funeral.”
Again Brone’s slow pasty swallow drew His Nib’s attention. “No one must ever be buried in the churchyard again,” he said. “It’s far too close to what’s underneath. No one must ever dig anywhere near the Pillar of Thiollaney Merriu on this parcel of land.”
Her head came up, and he knew she was seeing as well through the darkness as she did through water. “So be it. The ground is nearly full anyway.”
“Then you agree? You know?”
“What I’m talkin’ about. You must have known. You’re special, Una.”
She placed her cold soft hand on his.
“Not just special to me, Una. Special.” She patted his hand mechanically and he laughed in frustration. “Of course you don’t remember goin’ in the pond. You don’t know what you did, or who you are. How could you, you came back, and as soon as you did, it made you forget. You took the damn thing off and came back. I swear I’ll make it up to you. Don’t leave me again, Una.”
He wasn’t a man to plead, and even the dog was staring at him now. But with Una there were no games of power and pride, only mystery. He wheezed and sibilated through the darkness, but she didn’t seem to breathe at all. His heart ticked like a clock, a heart that she had caused to start again, and he felt that that fact alone should make them close at last, should bridge the gap. Why had she saved him, if she didn’t love him?
But she didn’t seem to be listening. Or rather she was listening for something else. When the silence between them dawned on her, she said, “I’m pregnant.” She never looked at him. He didn’t think it mattered to her what he felt; just that he needed to know what was coming. And what did he feel? A surge of opportunistic joy that she was much more his wife now. But it also poisoned her rescue of him. Had she gone into the pond thinking she would no longer be pregnant? And had she returned because she still was? And had she saved him only for that same reason: because he was her baby’s father?
He found it later, lying near the grotto. It. The thing she had found before she entered the pond and that she had taken off when she came out. He wished he could destroy it, but of course that was forbidden, if you believed the sidhe – or shee, as it was pronounced – lore. Brone McCabe wouldn’t do anything that could possibly sever his bond with the beautiful and intriguing Una. And he hid the thing again, as he must. Though he told himself it didn’t matter anymore if he possessed her or not, because his life was no longer his. It had changed when he heard the marching. Such an ominous trembling through the earth, a vascular rush into the wooden coffin flowing along stupendous and unsuspected arteries, as of legions in tunnels . . . so close below. Call it catalepsy, but he had heard it clearly enough. Call it the curse of his own Irish creed. He had walked for a time in the nether twilight of Tir na n-Og – the isle of the dead – he believed, and now he was the churchyard Watcher.
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