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Nominated for the 2000 Booker Prize.
THE PRIEST'S STORY
You'll have to let me tell it in my own way, or I won't talk to you at all. I'll be as honest as I can in this deposition, and the word can't help but bring to mind the Deposition of Our Lord Himself from the Cross. For with every word out of my mouth, it's putting me up on the cross you are, make no mistake about that.
Here I am suspended from saying Mass by the Church to which I gave my life as my mother's only son. And think not of my agony but of my mother's pain, a pain she shares with Mary herself for her only Son. If it's penance you're talking about, penance speaks of a guilt that before God I do not feel in my heart. For the circumstances were such that I do more than forgive myself. I take humble pride in the fact that I kept a Christian community together in its extremity, and prevented it, through the grace of God as conveyed by his sacraments, from falling into barbarity. That should not be forgotten.
Paddy MacArdle's son, when he was here at the police station the other day, made reference to "my role in this degraded nightmare." I wouldn't have expected that from the son of a man who is a distant cousin of my mother's and a decent man from the day he was born. But I can expect little understanding from lawyers of every stripe, including Paddy's son, now that he has come back from Dublin to enlighten us. Justice wears a blindfold so that she can't see lies and falsehood overcome truth on her scales. The scales drop from my own eyes when I see the hatred offered me from this town, let alone the great worldoutside where the newspapers say that I've disgraced the cloth, giving comfort to every enemy this country ever had by proving that we are a degraded people. Truly, this breaks my heart. For if young MacArdle spoke about a nightmare, the nightmare was not up in the mountains. It is here, around me at every turn. That village up there was as decent a community of God-fearing people as you would find on a long day's march.
How did it start, you ask me, as many have, but never a moment does anyone believe my answer, or if they do, I can tell from their faces that no explanation of mine will ever change their opinion of what went on. When Bishop O'Farrell, God rest him, sent me up there thirty years ago, I swear he forgot me the instant I passed out of his sight. Nor did he or anyone else pay much heed to the souls in my charge, only when they came down for hurling matches and fairs and the like. And never a great welcome for them either, so dark were they in face and feature. There was talk about how they wouldn't return a greeting. But how can you give back what was never offered, when all they met were suspicious looks? Only one shop in the whole town would give them credit. On fair day, everyone turned up their noses at their few sheep and cattle. Maybe they weren't fattened up like others, but there's little grazing up on the mountain. I remember those young fellows lounging outside Moriarty's pub who never did an honest day's work, jeering at old Paddy, God rest him, when he tried to sell his cow in Irish. They hadn't had their ears boxed enough at National School.
It was the terrible winter of '39--only two years ago but it seems an age--that began it, as you well know. We were so cut off we didn't see the face of a stranger until May. Maybe there were some attempts at relief, I'll grant you. When the men came down to the town that summer, I'll guarantee that it wasn't for love of you. And you know the welcome they got.
Why did we stay up there? Why does anyone stay where they are? Because their fathers were there before them, and their fathers before that. Do I have to explain that to anyone who makes a living from a bit of ground, if living you can call it? Do you ask that of the people on the Blaskets? Oh, indeed there would have been a great welcome for us if we moved down here! There are times when I find it hard to live by my vows of charity when I have been offered none, even by the ministers of God Himself, in Whose charity and grace I will trust until the day I die, and may that not be far distant.
It was that first winter that laid the groundwork for it, make no mistake about that. The wind was cruel that winter. Buried in snow we were. We never saw another soul but ourselves from dawn till dusk. But the calamity the Lord visited upon us passes understanding. It was Maire Rua who went first, the only fiery head among all those dark ones. We put her by the hob for the heat and she died there, where she'd spent most of her waking hours. The cold was such you could hear your own bones clicking against each other. We kept the fire burning as best we could. The turf was sodden so it gave out more smoke than heat. Not a one of us could tell what was wrong with her, except that she couldn't breathe right. I'll never forget the terrible look of concentration on her face trying to keep the spark of life going. Near the end, she didn't know Muiris--her husband--at all, though he never left her. The women gave her inhalations of honey and spirits, though where they got the honey is a mystery. You'd never suspect what comes out of hiding when matters are desperate. It's easy to say now they stayed too close to her.
Both she and the fire died in the night, and no sooner was she stiff and cold than one of the other women complained of a pain in her side that wouldn't leave her. The next night another of the women--Josie Mahon--was laboring away with her breath. There was no way to get help. The snow was up to your shoulders, and you couldn't see the trace of a path. The whole mountain-side looked so different under the snow. You couldn't tell where one man's patch of ground ended and another's began. When the wind wasn't blowing there was a silence like I've never heard. Not a sound, only when a cow or a sheep stirred.
We couldn't break a bit of ground to bury the poor woman. We cleared a patch where we always buried our dead, but the spade struck the ice beneath the snow as if it were made of iron. The earth didn't want our dead, no more than the sky above gave a welcome to the living. As we stood there, the sky over us was the color of lead and it seemed heavy enough to press on our shoulders. It's the right of everyone to bury their dead, and to take consolation from it. But there was no dignity in that attempt at all, no way of setting the poor woman in her grave. Little did we know what we had was a luxury compared to what followed.
I said the prayers for the dead, the body lying there on the side of the hill in that makeshift coffin. We took the boards from old Matt's barn, old Matt O'Connor who died ten years ago this winter and well out of it he is. There we were, with the dark sky above us, the earth white as a ghost, as if it were giving out the light. The only dark spots were ourselves and the coffin lying on the snow, with the poor woman inside doubly stiff from death and the cold. The shame of leaving her out in wind and weather made us attack the ice and make a kind of ledge for the coffin. Then we half-covered it with snow, hoping to freeze it in, and with a few branches we had broken from the trees. What trees, you may well ask, since you could count them on the fingers of your hand, so scarce and scalded are they by the wind, which bends them to the East. Sure enough, the wind had whipped the branches away the next morning. But at least we did have the wake, if you want to call it a wake.
The women prepared the body and laid it out with her scapulars on her chest and her rosary beads in her hands. And there were enough spirits to warm us, though I left before the spirits moved them to gossip and singing. Of course, you could never stop Old Biddy talking. They weren't great talkers, except when they had a drop in or a story to tell. As for Muiris, he said not a word. What his thoughts were then, only he himself knows. But before the whiskey and the porter got going, the women set up a keening that seemed to have no end. The sound went out over the darkness outside, a darkness that pinched those short days into no more than a blink. If you blinked yourself, the day would be half over and another night upon us, so dark you couldn't even see a glimmer of snow.
I never cared much for the keening. It always unsettled me. You rarely hear it nowadays. The sound would frighten a scarecrow. It has madness and pain in it and exaltation too, as if its agony was a hurtful pleasure, like that of John of the Cross and Saint Teresa and other saints you could mention. If you've never heard it, you've no cause to seek it out. It opens a void in me that prayer can't fill, a void through which the spirit drops endlessly. That sound, rising and falling, those throat spasms putting a hitch in it before the breath urges it forward again, makes you question your beliefs, as if Christ never died on the Cross and all we have is a wilderness beyond reason. It brings back a wildness that the Holy Mother in her wisdom was always eager to moderate but not chastise, for it speaks to a part of our souls that precedes even the birth of Christ. I take my lesson from the Church itself, which acknowledges that what is deep in the people's minds is dangerous to displace. But it can be joined with the true teaching and adapted to God's plan.
The keening did not console me as it consoled them. It always made me a little uneasy, and I felt far from the Diocesean seminary where all those farmers' youngest sons were preparing to give their lives to the Lord. My mother made a bigger sacrifice with her only son--working herself to the bone to ordain me, selling her little farm and taking on work in the town she should never have looked at twice. What must she think now, close to ninety, to see me without the right to say Mass? When I said the words of the burial service at Maire Rua's grave, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, de profundus ad te clamavi, it seemed to me that the Lord was mocking us, for the earth wouldn't yield a scrap of soil, burnished by the winter with a shield of ice and the snow over that. It wasn't too long before there were four more coffins out there beside her, and the last of them you could hardly call a coffin at all.
* * *
That sickness was like a plague and we prayed to the Lord to have mercy. It would begin with a weariness that the cold didn't help, and then the breathing would labor, like a bellows that had to be pushed in and out, when normally you don't give a thought to breathing. Then the throat would hurt so that swallowing was like swallowing a knife. Then you could see them take on a shade of blue that was the shadow of death. We all got a touch of those throats, except for the children, mark you. Strange indeed.
Sometimes it started with the throat, and sometimes with the breathing. Whatever way it started, it went the same way. Breath is life to us all, and that life was slowly squeezed out of them. Some had trouble breathing in and others had trouble breathing out, and some, most painful of all, could find no ease either way. It was a torture to witness. Sometimes, I tried to match my breath with theirs and had to give up. But they had to go on, and go on they did, according to their natures. Each of us finds our own way to the next life. They were women of great faith and an example to the living. The Lord received them with open arms, you can be sure of that. For there was not a stain on them, who had never done anything but honor their Savior and keep His commandments, minding their children and waiting on their husbands hand and foot, dragging themselves from one task to the next from dawn till dusk, year after year. It was the children that caused them the most grief, for they didn't want to leave them, and they told me a hundred times between breaths to take care of them and make sure their fathers took care of them. What could I do but promise on my solemn oath? And you will see how that turned out.
I had trouble with the confessions when some of them were far gone, for they hadn't enough breath to spare for a whisper. Their eyes would fix on me with a stare I can see to this day, and they made their penance with the eyes and a nod as best they could. It was because of sin that death came into the world, and yet having heard their confessions over the years, I knew how sinless they were, apart from the usual gossip and white lies. It was a comfort to me as well as to the dying to give them the last sacraments, to anoint each separate sense. "Through this Holy Unction and His most tender mercy, may the Lord pardon thee for whatever faults thou hast committed by sight," and then anointing the other senses, "by hearing, taste, touch, and smell." Though what sins are available through taste and smell is a mystery to me. But when I anoint each avenue of sense with the Holy Oils, God's sanctifying Grace flows along them almost visibly to the spirit within. It seems to calm and soothe them, no matter how harsh their torment. If unbelievers should ever doubt the power of grace, all they need do is to come with me on my rounds to the sick and dying and they will see for themselves. For the oils of Extreme Unction--I had trouble warming them in the bitter cold--heal as much as they reconcile those on the edge of eternity to God's will.
When I anoint those suffering eyes and lips and ears with the oils, I can often tell what God has in store. Sometimes I learn their fate from the eyes, when they look at me with a new peace, but from a distance as if their spirits had moved through an invisible door. I know then that they will die as surely as if God has whispered it in my ear. It's after that they begin the long hard work of climbing to heaven as they slide downhill, a paradox surely, for the body is returning to the earth, while the spirit ascends to its Maker, to be reunited on Judgment Day. When the Lord wants them for Himself, nothing will change His mind.
But sometimes I see in their eyes a peace that reaches out towards me and the living, and they sleep and sleep as their spirit fastens on to their bodies again, as if putting on a new garment, as indeed they are. For the body is the temple of the Holy Ghost and no matter how ravaged with disease or accident, it should always be treated with the dignity due to it. The hands seem to be a station on the way to eternity. And sometimes on the way back, if that's the way it's to be. Either way, getting better or worse, they look at the backs of their hands as if they belonged to a stranger, one examining and rubbing the other. Some say the hands pluck at the bedclothes when they're going to die, but I've never seen that. I've seen them limp as two geese at times. And I've seen them lift themselves to the eyes for a close look, dangling as if the wrists were broken. But there wasn't any coming back for these poor women. The pillows got bigger as their faces shrunk to nothing, with noses like beaks. The rest of them melted away like a candle. Their arms were sticks and when we lifted them, they didn't weigh more than a child. I was almost demented running from place to place without a soul to help. That housekeeper of mine, Old Biddy McGurk, was in her element. You'd almost think she enjoyed the dying.
The hardest thing of all is at the end, when they lie still as a waxwork, then draw a breath that startles you out of your wits, especially in the dead of night with the candles casting shadows. Then the long delay until the next gasp, and you say to yourself--there's life there yet. The body won't let the tired spirit go. So you wait for the next gasp. It comes, as unbidden as a hiccup, and then everything is still as if time had stopped. That's when you fancy you can feel eternity. And sometimes as time stretches out, you feel you could take it in your hands and pull back the past, recover the healthy woman previous to the poor soul giving her last gasp.
So there I was, in the long nights of November and December, measuring the length of time until the arrival of the next breath, or next to last, or last. The interval becomes longer and longer, until you don't breathe yourself for fear you might disturb the passage of the spirit to the next world as it rises off the body and appears before the throne of God. Some say they can see it leave, see a shudder in the air or a glow gone so quickly you think it's inside your own eye. Then the body is left behind to become as solid as the table or the chair, and the worn face, no matter how old, has a memory of its youth. Then all the pain seems justified, and the anguish of witnessing it eased, I don't know why. That's the moment of relief before the pain of loss.
Five women died that way; except, would you believe me if I tell you, the oldest one of all, that Old Biddy. I've had her for the past five years. She was the only one who'd come up and housekeep for me. I was never that happy with her. But I suppressed my irritation with charitable thoughts. Who else would take her? She was always a great one for the herbs and cures. More than once I had to put a stop to her mischief. When all was well, there was no great harm in it. But when the plague was upon us, the men would as soon turn to her as to me. Inscrutable indeed are the ways of the Lord, who took to Him five women who couldn't be spared, and left one old woman who could. Then one of the men died, old Paddy Meagher, who was always ailing and short of breath with his heart. We thought our time had come. We put him out with the others.
I missed the moment of Sarah Donoghue's passing--Jamesy's mother. Can you imagine this village--if you call a few houses placed every which way a village--in the arctic heart of a terrible winter, with men here and there sitting beside their sick wives, and in Jamesy's case, by his mother's bed, all dying at different rates of departure? I was tramping through the snow on a path of my own making, for I recognised my own footsteps made that morning, when I heard a shout out of Jamesy Donoghue (he was a strong young fellow whose voice would wake the dead).
In I ran and he was holding his mother in his arms and weeping like a child. All the more shocking to me, since these men appeared to have so few passions--they were deep within and never a sign of them except when they were well on. I went down on my knees to start a rosary but Jamesy did nothing but rock her back and forth. It took two of us to release his grip and sit him down. He covered his face with his hands and sometimes looked at his empty hands as if a part of him had been removed, as indeed it was. His mother had kept a tight rein on him. He paid no attention to his young brother who kept pulling on him, a young boy of eight, Tomas, his name was, a bright young fellow and manly enough. Not a tear out of the boy, but he had a face on him between fright and wonder. I haven't spoken of the children at all, but that's another story and a sadder story was never told.
The fathers had a rough way with them so as not to spoil them for the hard life ahead. Apart from Thady's sickly lad, they were the hardy children of mountain people who don't complain even when the earth turns against them, and the earth was never as unforgiving and cruel as it was that winter. There were only seven children left. For when they reached the age of fourteen or fifteen, they got restless and many's the quarrel that would stop when I came in with my God save all here. They didn't want to stay up the mountain, though some did, those whose parents had a better hold on them. Once they got to be young men and women they were off down the mountain on Sundays to the dances at Skibbereen and as far off as Tralee. You wouldn't see sight nor light of some of the young men for three days, which I can tell you didn't please their fathers, who had to mind the animals themselves. On a farm every day is a work day.
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