The Storyteller

Afric and Nance went up the mountain, two little girls in shapeless, colourless smocks of coarse frieze. With them went the lamb. Afric had found it on the mountain, and it insisted on accompanying her everywhere. It was an idiotic, astonished animal which stopped dead and bucked and scampered entirely without reason.

It was drawing on to dusk. Shadow was creeping up the mountain. First light faded from the sea, then from the rocks, then from the roadway and the fields. Soon it would dwindle from the bog; everything there would fill with rich colour and the long channels of dark bogwater would burn like mirrors between the purple walls of turf. Behind each of the channels was ranged a file of turf stacks, black sods heaped to dry and looking like great pine cones.

‘And the priest came,’ continued Nance, pursuing a litany.

‘And what did he say?’

‘He said — he said grandfather would die tonight.’

“You said ’twas the doctor said that.’

‘The priest said it, too.’

‘Hike, you divil!’ yelled Afric. The lamb had walked straight up to the edge of a bog pool, bent down in innocent rapture and then tossed itself high into the air and off sideways like a crow.

‘And mom said you were to stop talking about the boat.’

‘What boat?’

“The boat you said would come for grandfather. Mom said there was no boat.’

“There is a boat. Grandfather said it. And lights.’

‘Mom said there’s no lights either.’

‘Mom doesn’t know. Grandfather knows better.’

‘Mom said grandfather didn’t mean it.’

‘Ha!’ said Afric scornfully.

‘’Tis true.’

‘And I suppose he didn’t mean about Shaun O’Mullarkey and the Sprid either. Or about Con of the fairies and the Demon Hurler. Or about the Gillygooley. Or the Gawley Cullawney and his mother.’

‘Mom said,’ continued Nance in the tone of one reciting a lesson, ‘that ’twould be better for grandfather now if he hadn’t so much old stories and paid heed to his prayers when he had the chance.’

‘Grandfather always said his prayers. Grandfather knew more prayers than mom.’

‘Mom said he told barbarous stories.’

‘But if they were true?’

‘Mom says they weren’t true, that they were all lies and that God punishes people for telling lies and that’s why grandfather is afraid to die. He’s afraid of what God will do to him for telling lies.’

‘Ha!’ sniffed Afric again, but with less confidence. The mountain did not inspire confidence. The shadow, quickening its mighty motion, rose before them among the naked rocks. Two tiny stars came out, vibrating in the green sky. A pair of horses, head down before them, suddenly took fright and rushed away with a great snorting, their manes tossing and loose stones flying from their hooves. To the right, a cliff, a pale veil dropped sheer to the edge of a dark lake, and from its foot the land went down in terraces of gray stone to the sea’s edge, a ghost-pale city without lights or sound.

It was queer. Afric thought the way Grandfather had stopped telling them stories all at once, the way he seemed to fix his eyes on the wall. Even when she had asked him about the boat he had only muttered. ‘Whisht, child, whisht!’ But all the same Afric knew that mom must be wrong. Grandfather had meant it all. There must be some other reason for his silence.

‘Maybe death will come like a travelling man, like it came to some,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘A man with long, long legs and a bandage over his eyes. Maybe that’s why grandfather would be afraid —a big man the size of a mountain. I’d be afraid of him myself, I’m thinking.’

It was almost dark when they reached the mountain top. There was a cold wind there, the grasses swayed and whistled, and their bare feet squelched calf-deep in the quaggy ground with its almost invisible hollows. Plunging on, they lost sight of the sea. The other side of the mountain came into view. A chain of lakes with edges like the edges of countries on the maps in school shone out of all the savage darkness, and beyond them, very far away, another inlet of the sea.

They almost failed to see the fire. It was in a deep natural hollow. It burned under a curiously shaped metal drum. On top of the drum was another metal container, narrow below and broad above like a bucket, and a jointed pipe led from this into a barrel with a tap on it. Under the tap was a mug covered by a strip of muslin. Four children were solemnly seated on the edge of the pit looking down on this queer contraption, their bare legs dangling in the firelight, their faces and heads in shadow. They were not speaking but looking with fascinated, solemn eyes at the still. Afric’s father was standing before it, his hands in his trousers pockets. He was a tall, handsome man, big-shouldered, broad-chested, with a wide grey kindly face and grey eyes, but now he seemed melancholy and withdrawn.

‘What way is your grandfather?’ he asked.

‘Mom said to tell you there was no change,’ said Nance.

Nance and Afric sat within the hollow out of the wind so that the heads and shoulders of the other children rose up on every side against the starlit sky like idols grouped in a circle. The lamb seemed to take the greatest interest in the whole proceedings, sniffed at the turf, the tub, the barrel, backed away from them, staggered to the mouth of the hollow and scampered back as though horribly shocked by something, licked the legs of the little girls and gazed with blank eyes into the fire, Its antics caused a sudden diversion among the four other children; they laughed without restraint. Then, as though they had grown self-conscious, they fell silent. Two wiped. their noses in the sleeves of their little frieze jackets. Then they rose and went off silently down the mountain. After a few moments the other two did exactly the same thing. It was growing very dark.

Then their Uncle Padraic came, and, standing against the sky, leaned on a turf-cutting spade. You nearly always saw Padraic leaning on something; a wall, a turf-rick, the pillar of a gate—there always seemed to be something for Padraic to lean on. Whatever it was, his whole body fell lifelessly about it. He stood like that now against the sky, his hands resting in a crossed position on the handle, his chin resting on his hands. He was a tall gaunt, gentle man, wearing a frieze vest without sleeves over a knitted gansey and very much patched frieze trousers. He didn’t say anything, but seemed to breathe out an atmosphere of tranquility. It looked as if he could go on leaning for ever without opening his mouth.

‘Himself is the same way,’ said their father.

Padraic spat sideways and rested his chin again upon his crossed hands.

‘He is.’

They fell silent again. Their father dipped a mug in the barrel of ale and passed it up to his brother-in-law. Padraic drank and carefully emptied the mug onto the ground before returning it.

‘One of ye better go for more turf,’ said their father.

‘I will,’ said Afric. ‘Keep a hold on the lamb, Nance.’

She took the bag and began to run down the mountain. It was a high hollow starry night full of strange shadows. From behind her she heard Nance’s cry of distress, and a few moments later something warm and white and woolly came between her flying feet and nearly threw her. She flung herself head foremost on the soft turf, rolling round and round downhill, while the lamb rolled idiotically on top of her, its warm nose seeking her face. There was a smell of earth and grass which made her drunk. She boxed the lamb’s ears, caught it by the budding horns, pushed, shoved, wrestled and rolled with it.

‘Ah, lambeen, lambeen, lambeen! You foolish lambeen! I’m going for turf and the fairies will catch you, the fairies will catch you! Look, lambeen, they’re searching for you with little lanterns!’

She filled her bag with turf. The bog was now wild and dark. The channels of bogwater were shining with inky brightness; as though the bog were all a-tremble they shook, but with a suave oily motion that barely broke the reflected starlight. Below, very far below, were a few lights along the shore.

She recognized her own house on the little spit of land that pushed out into the bay. There was light only in the west window in the room where her grandfather was lying. She could imagine all the others in the kitchen in the firelight; her mother and the baby, her mother’s two sisters, old Brigid, their mother, sucking her pipe, and Padraic’s children. They would be talking in low voices, and then her mother or old Brigid would go into the west room to the old man who would tell no more stories, and they would talk to him of the will of God, but still his face, pale as the little beard about his chin, would be bitter because he did not wish to die. Not wish to die and he eighty and more! And up on the mountain were she and her father, making poteen which would be drunk at the old man’s wake, because he was a famous and popular man and people would come from twenty miles around on ponies and in traps to pray for his soul.

Maybe he was dying now! But Afric felt sure if he was dying there would be some sign, as there always was in the stories he told: along the road a huge man, dressed in rags, a bandage about his eyes and his hands outstretched, feeling his way to their house: all the air filled with strange lights while the spirits waited: a shining boat making its way across the dark water without a sail. Surely there would be signs like that! She looked about her furtively, suddenly trembling and all attune for the wonder. But there was nothing. Not a sound. In sudden panic she repulsed the lamb and began to run, her bag of dry sods knocking her shoulders.

It was all placid and homely up there. Padraic was sitting on an upturned tub, smoking. It was so silent you could hear the noise of the stream near-by, loud in the darkness. Her father came up from it, carrying a bucket.

‘He had a long day,’ he said, as though continuing a conversation,

‘He had a long day,’ agreed Padraic, not looking up. He spat and sucked his pipe again.

‘He was a good man,’ said Afric’s father.

‘He was. He was a good father to you.’

‘He was so. ‘’Tis a pity he couldn’t be more resigned.’

‘’Twas what they were saying.’

‘He said a queer thing last night.’

‘Did he now?’

‘He says a man sees the world when he comes into it and goes out of it: the rest is only foolishness—that’s what he said.’

‘’Tis a deep saying.’

‘’Tis deep.’

‘But there’s meaning in it.’ Padraic went on.

‘I dare say.’

‘There is. He was always a deep man, a patient, long-thinking man.’

Afric was astonished. She never remembered her uncle to have spoken as much.

‘Do you remember,’ he continued, ‘on the boat? He never liked one of us to do a thing in a hurry. ‘Mother was drowned a year ago,’ he’d say, ‘and she’d have been round the lake since then.’ That’s what he’d always say.’

‘He would so.’

‘’Tis a pity he didn’t do more with himself—a clever man.’

‘’Tis. But he wouldn’t stop in America.’

‘He wouldn’t sure.’

‘There was nothing he cared about only the stories.’

‘No, then. And he was a wonder with them.’

‘He was. You wouldn’t miss a day in a bog or a night in the boat with him. Often he’d keep you that way you wouldn’t know you were hungry.’ Afric’s father spat. It was not often he made such admissions. ‘And there were times we were hungry.’

‘You never took after him, Con.’

‘No, then. ’Twasn’t in me, I suppose. But ’twasn’t in our generation. I’d get great pleasure listening to him, but I could never tell a story myself.’

‘The place won’t be the same without him,’ said Padraic rising.

‘Ye’d better go home with yeer uncle,’ said her father.

‘I’ll stop with you, Father,’ said Afric.

He thought for a moment.

‘Do so,’ he said.

She knew then he was lonely.

When Padraic and Nance had gone, everything seemed lonelier than before, but she didn’t mind because her father was with her. He wrapped his coat about her. The lamb snuggled up beside her. And now she let the mountain come alive with all its stories and its magic. Because she knew it was up here the spirits lived and planned their descents on the little cottages; at night you could often see them from the bay, moving across the mountain with their little lanterns. Sometimes the lights would be close together and you would know it was a fairy funeral. A man from the place, making poteen in the mountains at night, had come across just such a funeral, and the spirits had laid the coffin at his feet. He had opened it, and inside was a beautiful girl with long yellow hair. As he looked at her she had opened her eyes and he had brought her home with him. She had told him she was a girl from Tuam, and when inquiries were made it was found that a girl from Tuam had been buried that same day; but she wouldn’t go back to her own people and remained always with the man who had saved her and married him.

Afric could see her father moving about in the smoky light, his legs seeming immense. Sometimes she saw his face when he bent to the fire. Then he sat on the upturned tub with his head between his hands. She went to sleep at last.

When she woke again the helmet of shadow had tilted. It was cold. The high hollow drum of the sky had half filled with low drifting vapours. Some one—she did not know who—was speaking to her father. Then he caught her in his arms, and the jolting and slithering of his feet in the long slopes wakened her completely. He stumbled on blindly as though he did not know she was in his arms. Even when she looked at him he did not seem to be aware of her.

There was a little crowd kneeling even at the door of the west room. The kitchen was in darkness only for the firelight, and this and the flickering of candles made the west room unusually bright and gay. The people kneeling there rose and made way for her father. He put her gently down on a stool by the fire and went in, taking off his hat. The low murmur of prayer went on again. Afric tiptoed to the room door. Yes, the west room was very bright. Her grandfather’s great bearded head was lying, very pale and wasted over the bowed heads under the light of two candles. Her father was kneeling awkwardly by the bedside, covering his face with his hands. Her grandmother, old Brigid, suddenly began to keen and sway from side to side.

Afric went out. She looked up and down the lane. She was looking with a sort of fascinated terror for the big man with the bandage over his eyes. There was no sign of him. The lane was quiet only for the whispering of the bushes and a blackbird’s first bewildered, drowsy fluting. There were no lights, no voices. Frightened as she was, she ran down the lane to the little cove where her father’s boat was drawn up among the slimy rocks and seaweed. Over it was a grassy knoll. She ran there and threw herself on her face and hands lest anyone should spy her and take fright. The light was breaking over the water. But no boat came shining to her out of the brightness. The blackbird having tried his voice, threw it out in a sudden burst of song, and the lesser birds joined in with twitters and chuckles. In the little cove there was a ducking of water among the dried weeds, a vague pushing to and fro. She rose, her smock wet, and looked down into the cove. There was no farewell, no clatter of silver oars or rowlocks as magic took her childhood away. Nothing, nothing at all. With a strange chocking in her throat she went slowly back to the house. She thought that maybe she knew now why her grandfather had been so sad.