James Nash claimed to be the last man to see Albert Cagney, on a summer's night in 1917 or 1918; he was also the only man in Kilroan, on this same night, to see what he called "a blazing from the man above himself." I heard him tell it on a Saturday evening, in autumn, when he happened to walk out of his forge for a breath of fresh air and a smoke. He always wore a black patch over his left eye, which I'd heard the men say was from his youth, when a red-hot horseshoe he was hammering hopped off the anvil and landed there -- that evening I had come out from under the trees, and I stood in the forge yard with my brother and sisters; our father was getting the pony shoed. The blacksmith said what he first remembered about the night were the buttons on Albert's British army uniform glinting in the moonlight, which was how he knew it was Albert, walking the road from the village toward the crossroads. The soldier stopped; the blacksmith and he chatted for five minutes or so, and about ten minutes after Albert had wished James Nash a good night, and Albert had headed back home along the hill road, the blacksmith's bedroom behind the forge filled with an unnaturally bright light, and he fell out of his bed, ran without a stitch on him into the crossroads to see above the hill road a small flame in the sky, in the shape of a huge tear, but with enough force in it to illuminate the darkened fields for miles around; in fact, so powerful was the light and the heat that the blacksmith said he could see all the way to the top of Conway's hill, where the rocks glowed like hot turf; then the light vanished -- quenched as fast as you'd blow out a candle, the blacksmith said, and he threw himself flat on the road, which hissed from the heat, to ask God for forgiveness for all of his sins, the sins of his ancestors, the sins of every man, woman, and child living and dead in Kilroan; and he prayed for the repose of the soul of Albert Cagney, who he wrongly thought was either taken up body and soul into heaven or turned into a smoking pile of ashes.
"Only that that wasn't flesh and blood unlike yourselves standing there could have survived it, I tell you," said the blacksmith, who turned from the men and tightened the string of his eye patch, then sauntered off to the edge of the yard, where he pissed into the grass and the weeds underneath the sycamores. The men around the anvil didn't stir or utter a word, but stared at the ground at their feet. "And not a word of it is a lie, lads, I tell you," said the blacksmith, when he came back, tightening his belt beneath his leather apron. "However, lads, there's work to be done, so I must go on in," he said; and I felt a chill, as I watched him walk back into his forge, his sleeves rolled up to his powerful shoulders, his cap switched peak-side backwards, similar to how many of the farmers wore theirs on workdays, and the glorious autumn light filling the yard that would soon be covered with the yellowing sycamore leaves that fell steadily, the straight line of darkness the blacksmith crossed into at the forge door, where the fire blazed up before him; and in a few seconds, when the blacksmith was hammering away again, John Hogan, my father, Rome Kelly, and the other men raised their heads, smiled and winked at one another. Of course they would have had to listen to the blacksmith tell this many times over the years, so this evening's telling wasn't in any way new to them.
We then lived in our first house, what we would later call the old house. The year was 1968 or 1969, a few years before we got a black-and-white television -- at this time, only the schoolteacher and the parish priest had one, and a few of the farmers with more land. We listened to the news from Dublin on the wireless; there was only one channel. We all read Ireland's Own,
and my father read the Irish Independent,
which he brought with him from the creamery every morning. We ate kippers, fried in butter, on Fridays, knelt together and said the Rosary every night, drew buckets of water from a well down a stone path from our house, for the house itself, and to cool the milk my father took to the creamery, but we did have a secondhand Ford Anglia, with a lovely trophylike ornament on its hood. My brother, Dan, was the eldest; next was Kate, then Mary, and I was the youngest. Dan was my father's pet, and he was the one who asked our father to tell us a story this one night in spring. It was my mother who told my brother to go to the fire and ask our father; we had finished our schoolwork and were playing cards at the kitchen table, being too loud for my mother's liking, and it was still too early to make us go to bed. My father didn't say yes or no at first, but told Dan to turn the wheel of the blower for a few seconds, for the fire was dying out; then my father slid the newspaper underneath his seat, yawned, and carefully scratched his thick white-black hair, took his glasses off, leaned over and laid a few blocks onto the glowing turf; then he stood and lowered the kettle on the crane a few pegs, to heat water for the hot-water bottles, because that was an unnaturally cold night, and he stared at the kettle, hands on his hips and his bare feet in the warm ashes, and when the kettle began to whistle, he raised it up a couple of pegs, and then sat back into his seat and told Dan he could stop blowing the fire because it was now all right.
"Can't ye sit in at this fine fire," my father said. "Don't be letting it go to waste on a night like this. I will then tell ye a good one all right. I've been meaning to tell ye this one for a while."
Dan sat alongside my father. I sat by Mary and Kate. My mother, who was darning one of my father's socks, pulled her chair next to me. Before me, streams of rain were flowing gradually around the bumps on the firewall. I heard rain on the slates above my head, and rain striking the galvanized hay barn roof across the yard; my father turned his face from us to the firewall, where now the streams of rain ran faster, blackened and thickened by the chimney soot, falling heavily before his eyes until they hissed and died on the scorching blocks of wood.
"Albert was down below in the trenches in Verdun," was how he started it. "Faith, he was, with rats crawling all over him and soldiers dead and dying and screaming beside him in all the smoke and the blood and the corpses piling up, but Albert came back to us alive and in one piece but not too long after he was back he happened to be walking from Powers one night and the devil appeared to him in the shape of a ten-foot pig, stepped from behind a tree on Garvey's ditch on the hill road.
"Albert's father was Mr. Cagney the tailor; they lived down the path from us on Conway's hill. The tailor raised Albert all by himself. And only a young fella, Albert was, when he went to that war that killed and ruined so many, and then to come back safe and have the misfortune to run into the devil, when you think all the devils in the world were behind him and the devil says to him: You my son have always been mine.
"Albert told me every word of this himself the next morning in his own yard, his father asleep in the house behind him, told me that the devil had horns on him like a whitehead bull, Albert shaking in the yard like he was freezing but he did not look a bit like the young fella he once was, not one bit -- he was that shook-looking, like he had aged fifty years overnight. His hair had turned to pure white, and he a very good-looking young fella once, but what I want to ask ye is is why the devil ever visited us here? Why, I ask you, of all the places in the world that he could go to, would he come here? We never done anything here but nothing -- and didn't Albert himself have it hard enough, walking away from Conway's hill, out into the world and the trenches to a place called No-man's-land? The brave Albert, who was the devil's from the very beginning -- you my son have always been mine. And, faith, Albert ended up in the home a few days after that night. They put him in there and he passed away a few weeks after, God rest him, talking and raving away to himself, saying prayers and reciting verses he'd learn off by heart from the Bible; such a dear friend of mine, the very best. A lad you'd think who had everything in the world anyone would want, a youngster who came home fine, and he posted letters during the war, writing about how he missed Mr. Cagney and me and all of us on Conway's hill, and how he missed watching the cows walk onto the hill after they were milked in the morning and in the evening; those chats Albert and me had back then, when we were all only young fellas, and you see Mr. Cagney could not read a word of those letters, so I was the one who had to read them, so Mr. Cagney crossed the ditch to the path and walked onto the hill in the evening when he saw me hunting out the cows, and he'd wave the letter over his head and he'd shout my name, and I'd run to him and stand before him like a schoolchild and read the letter out loud in the field, and after I read every letter he'd kneel down on the grass and he'd cry and say a Hail Mary to God to look after his child, aha, yes, my darling Albert, God rest him. His wretched and brave soul. His tormented and anxious soul that God put into him but the devil took away, but if only he had stayed at home, faith, stayed where he was safe, if only -- and it wasn't like we didn't have our own troubles here at home. But off Albert went in the first place. Had to, it looked like. Wanting the adventure. But he saw too much. He saw the youngsters dying in the muck on their bellies with rats crawling all over them and bullets flying above them day and night that harsh winter in a country foreign to most of them in the last year of that awful war, and a soldier that you spoke to a second ago dead and bloody beside you, and all in a matter of seconds, it changed, Albert said, and they lay on their bellies in two feet of muck; you'd drown in the muck itself, he said, everyone's feet wet and perished, and your boots and your toes rotting off of you from the cold and the rain, Albert told us about the young men moaning and crying for their mother and for their God and home, and a grenade blowing up beside you and splashing you with muck and blood. And you wet yourself and soiled yourself and there wasn't a thing you could do about it, and in the end muck and blood and yourself was all the same thing, and you crawled along in the wet and the cold and it was never daytime but always nighttime, Albert told me when all of us were young, thinking the world was right again, that nothing else could ever go wrong in it -- but when I think about it now what anyone really knew was nothing, his mistake being that he was young and thought he knew everything. And then he thought he'd seen it all and the worst of life was behind him, that he had been down in hell and had the luck of God to come back up."
There my father stopped and took a deep breath. My mother laid the sock in her lap, and raised her head to the firewall; the streams of rain had stopped, leaving fading black tracks.
"Listen, Mike, you're only frightening them," she said. "Not one of them will be able to sleep a wink, and look at the state of that wall, me thinking the worst of the winter was behind us, but that'll need another whitewashing."
"I won't frighten them at all"; my father spoke to the firewall, which he had not once taken his face from. "Words is all it is now, Nora," he added.
My mother picked up his sock. My father turned from the firewall; the shadows of the flames flickering on his long, red face. She had her head down; her needles were clicking. His eyes were filled with tears.
The tailor Mr. Cagney lived for thirty-five years after Albert's death; he was buried beside his son in Kilroan graveyard, and at this funeral my parents met for the first time. My mother told me about this in 1983, when she was in the Regional hospital, in Limerick City, where she was dying after her second bout with cancer in twelve years.
That graveyard in Kilroan is small. The older plots, where Albert and Mr. Cagney are buried, were at the back, sheltered by bushes.