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THE COLLECTED STORIES OF BENEDICT KIELY
By BENEDICT KIELY
David R. Godine, Publisher Copyright © 2001 Benedict Kiely
All right reserved.
At the age of five, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Isaac said he wanted to be a German. He was then blond and chubby and not at all pugnacious. Because he stuttered, he pronounced the word, German, with three, sometimes with six, initial consonants. He had heard it by his father's bedside where, propped most of the day on high pillows, the old fusilier remembered Givenchy and Messines Ridge in the hearing of his friends: Doherty the undertaker Mickey Fish, who sold fish on Fridays from a flat dray and from door to door, and who stopped young women - even under the courthouse clock - to ask them the time of evening Pat Moses Gavigan who fished pike and cut the world's best blackthorns; and the Cowboy Carson, the only man in our town who lived completely in the imagination. Occasionally the old fusilier read aloud out of one or other of the learned anthropological tomes dealing with the adventures of Tarzan the ape man, but mostly the talk was about Germans. Isaac, quiet on his creepie stool, liked the sound of the word. Bella, the loving wife of the old fusilier, had received her husband home from the war, we were told, in a glass case, the loser by a stomach shot away when - all his superior officers dead - he, the corporal, gallantly led an action to success, carried the kopje or whatever it was they carried in Flanders, and stopped just short of advancing, like the gallant Dublins, into the fire of his own artillery. Back home, stomachless in his glass case, he cheated the War Office on the delicate question of expectation of life, collected a fine pension and lived at ease until the world was good and ready for another war. No crippled veteran, left to beg at the town's end, was the old fusilier. Secure in his bed, in his lattice-windowed room in his white cottage that was snug in the middle of a terrace of seven white cottages, he talked, read about Tarzan, told how fields were won and, on big British Legion days, condescended to receive homage from visiting celebrities, including, once, Lady Haig herself. On the creepie stool, chubby Isaac absorbed the wonder of half-comprehended words, pondered the girth of the undertaker, the lean, loveless face of the fish merchant who thought that only beauty could tell him the time on a June evening, watched the hands of Moses as they cut a thorn or measured the monstrousness of an escaped pike, studied the cowboy's eyes that squinted, by way of twopenny paper-covered books, back to the Texas Panhandle and the Old Chisholm Trail. The undertaker, or the pike fisherman, or the fish merchant, or the Cowboy would say, 'Isaac, what do you want to be when you grow up?'
Isaac would say, 'I want to be a German.'
Then the four visitors would laugh. His father, pale on his pillows, would laugh - forgetting Germans once seen in the sulphurous haze as he charged roaring through shot and shell to become a hero. His father would read the next instalment:
'When Tarzan of the Apes realised that he was in the grip of the great jaws of a crocodile he did not, as an ordinary man might have done, give up all hope and resign himself to his fate ...
'His body trailed out beside the slimy carcass of his captor, and into the tough armour the apeman attempted to plunge his stone knife as he was borne to the creature's horrid den ...
'Staggering to his feet the apeman groped about the reeking, oozy den ...'
In the moonlight the Cowboy walked home, pulling imaginary guns and talking in admonitory tones to Wyatt Earp, 'Stand there, Earp. You may be a big man, but I'll cut you down. Do I have to push you into slapping leather?'
Alone in the moonlight on the hill that went down to the red-and-white creamery, the brook, the Cowboy's hut, the fields beyond, he pulled and whirled and fired three times. With satisfaction he listened to the echoes dying away at the town's last fringe of shabby, sleeping terraces, over the tarred iron roofs of Tansey the carter's stableyard, over the railway-engine shed and the turntable. On green-and-white moonland beyond the Dublin railway a mystic, white bronco galloped in circles as, noiselessly, the Cowboy slipped the smoking Colt back into the holster. He turned then and went on down the hill to Tansey, the carter's, and supper. Every day he worked, carrying bags of meal to clumsy four-wheeled drays, in the warehouse of Dale, the grain-merchant, nicknamed Attention, who was an amateur astronomer and had a telescope installed in a beehive-shaped structure at the back of his store. Every night after the fusilier's reading the Cowboy ate his supper of yellow Indian porridge and buttermilk in the huge coppery kitchen where Tansey the carter was a smiling extrovert Buddha in the middle of six stout sisters who had never shown the least inclination towards matrimony.
'Every day, Cowboy, Attention's back is stiffer and stiffer,' Tansey said. 'He sat on a poker,' said the third sister.
The sisters were all red-faced and brown-haired. The fourth one cooked the porridge.
'I hear he got drunk on wine gums in Devlin's sweetie shop in Bridge Lane,' Tansey joked. 'The sergeant had to wheel his bicycle home for him.'
Seriously resenting the imputation, the Cowboy, thumbs in the armholes of his patched and darned grey vest, drawled, 'The Big Boss is a fast man on the draw. He never touches hard likker.'
'We heard he can stare the sun in the face up in that spinning beehive of his,' said the second sister.
The carter said, 'It takes a good man to stare the sun in the face.'
On a hook behind the broad oak door the first sister considerately hung the Stetson that a rope juggler in a travelling circus had once given to the Cowboy.
'What goes on between the sun and himself is his own business,' said the Cowboy reverently. 'There was a cattleman in Wyoming had as big a spyglass. Could spot an Injun or a stray ten miles off.'
'You and Wyoming,' gently said the sixth sister.
'The Big Boss reaches me my wad. At the door of the bunkhouse. Your pay, Michael, he says. Count it. I counted one pound, nineteen and eleven pence. A penny short, boss, says I. One penny deducted, Michael, for a box of matches purchased on credit last Tuesday at eleven ah em. He misses nothing.'
'Your porridge,' said Tansey the carter, 'and give us another bit of the story.'
'The place I was in at that time,' said the Cowboy. 'Down Deep South. There was a river. Alligators. As plentiful as trout in the brook. This day I went for a swim. Just the way you'd go for a swim above the salmon leap by the hospital on the Camowen River.'
'Showing off and strutting before the nurses,' said the third sister. 'For shame, Cowboy.'
'And what should happen when I was out in deep water but an alligator. Silent-like he grabs me by the arm. I could show you the marks still. But cute enough, he doesn't take the arm off. He needed it, you see, to drag me down.'
'In this life you'll always get somebody to drag you down,' said the second sister.
'Down to where?' asked the carter.
'Not down the town to a pub or the pictures, anyway. Down to his cave. They live in caves in that river.'
'No homes to go to,' said the third sister.
'Was he big?' asked the carter. 'Would he be the size now of the last pike Pat Moses Gavigan caught at Blacksessiagh?'
'Size! Ten times the size. A mouth that wide. And the growls of him. Well, there was I. My body beside the slimy carcass of my captor. But I had a knife. A stone knife. Never swam without it. Wouldn't be safe in those parts. And as I was borne to the creature's horrid den I attempted to plunge my knife into the tough armour of the reptile.'
'Cowboy,' said the carter, 'you're the lucky man to be alive and eating porridge there this blessed night.'
'Lucky! Quickness: that's what does it. An ordinary man might have given up all hope and resigned himself to his fate.'
From the stables came a wild volley of hooves on cabbining wood, then a second volley, then a slow thud - thud - thud and one mad, high, equine scream.
'That savage you bought,' said the fifth sister. 'He'll never cart.' 'He'll cart,' said Tansey. 'More India-buck porridge, Cowboy?'
That was the time when Isaac desired - as every child, male or female, sometimes desires - a pony. It was, of course, long before he found his vocation and in a green lane above the engine shed - the town's unroofed gymnasium - learned to become the best fighter our town ever had. Poise and stance, dynamite right and cunning left, footwork, speed, quick eye, cool head and iron muscles, the fusilier's son was a natural champion. And, graduating from the green lane, he brought belts, cups, medals, honour and glory home with him from every part of the country. We were proud of him.
But in the days of his desire for the pony there were no blows struck but one. Where would a boy go who wanted a pony or a stable to house him but to Tansey's yard where the great carthorses stamped with the assured gravity of savants, where the Taggarts, the horse dealers, displayed the shaggy, sullen-eyed animals they brought in droves from the mountains away to the south-west, even from tinker camps in the province of Connacht. Roosted high on the shaft of an idle dray, Isaac was there the day Tansey bought the wild, white horse. In among the brown, shaggy brutes he was white-limbed Tarzan among the ape people of Akut and, until he felt on his quivering flanks the confining shafts, he concealed horror in docility. Then he reared to the perpendicular, assaulted the heavens, came down again and lashed out backwards, did the rounds of the yard like a Derby winner while old and young, Isaac among them, ran for shelter. With great Tansey swinging from the reins the horse went round and round and round until the cart was in firewood and broken shafts trailed the ground. 'Powerful God,' said Tansey to the Taggarts, 'where did you get this one?' 'In Ballinasloe in the County Galway,' they said. As if that explained everything. 'Take him back to Ballinasloe,' said Tansey.
'But no, linger now,' he said. 'There's life in him. He'll cart. I'll coax him.'
Dreaming at a safe distance, Isaac saw himself coaxing the savage with gently-proffered lumps of sugar, and all through the white one's novitiate under Tansey, Isaac was in constant, reverent attendance. But no coaxing, no lump sugar, no whispers or magic hands, could reconcile the untamed tinker-spirit of Ballinasloe to the base servility of the shafts of a dray.
'He has good blood in him,' Tansey said. 'I'll try him in a trap.'
Some of the fragments of the trap, they say, were found fifty yards away on the railway line, and the great white creature stood shivering as if, if it were human, it would burst into hysterical sobs. For a whole fortnight, with Isaac perched on high walls or drays or snug on the hay in the hayshed, the wooing went on, and it was one evening in the stable that Isaac said: Give him to me, Mr. Tansey. I'll tame him for you.
For one half second while the carter, distracted, turned and laughed, the horse lunged and snapped, the razor teeth grazing the back of Tansey's skull and gashing the lobe of his left ear. The blood came out like a spout and Tansey dyed his hand in it. Then, disregarding it, he looked sadly at the animal. With no sign of temper he went to the back of the stable, picked up a crowbar from a heap of rusting metal and, with the deliberation of God, struck the animal between the eyes and stunned it. When it woke up an hour later it went, almost of its own accord, to the shafts. Isaac's sugar lumps were never needed.
By the fusilier's bedside that evening the Cowboy was sitting straddle on a stool, knees in, feet out, hands wide, showing how he had held the reins and stayed in the saddle when lesser men had bitten the dust of the rodeo ring. Isaac chewed toffee. He said, 'Tansey the carter broke a bronc today. I saw him.' He told his story.
'Tansey's a brute,' said Doherty the undertaker. 'He'd slay his six sisters before he'd lose two pounds sterling.'
'You'd benefit,' said Pat Moses Gavigan. 'Six coffins.'
'They're six fine big girls,' said Mickey Fish. 'Not a watch between them,' said the fusilier. 'Time doesn't count in Tansey's.'
The fusilier read: Screaming with terror the Maoris were dragged from their lofty perches. The beasts, uncontrolled by Tarzan, who had gone in search of Jane, loosed the full fury of their savage natures upon the unhappy wretches who fell into their clutches ... Sheeta, in the meanwhile, had felt his great fangs sink into but a single jugular ...
Afterwards when the guests had gone Isaac said, 'The Cowboy Carson had a ranch once on the Rio Grande. He told me he had seventy pinto ponies.'
'Son,' said the fusilier, 'I hate to rob you of your fancy. But better for your father to do it than for the hard world and the black stranger. The Cowboy Carson was never out of this town except perhaps to carry Pat Moses Gavigan's bag as far as the pike-water at Blacksessiagh. It all comes out of the wee books you see in the paper-shop window: Deadwood Dick and Buffalo Bill, and Hit the Tuttle Trail with Hashknife and Sleepy.'
'But he was a gun-slinger, da, in Texas.'
'Guns, he never saw guns,' said the fusilier - musing for a minute and remembering Flanders and the roar of the iron monsters.
In the dusk the Cowboy walked home, spurs jingling, stiff and stilted on high heels, bowlegged from the saddle, left to right and right to left practising the cross-draw and remembering with affection his deceased friend, Buck Duane, the Lone Star Ranger. He was light and elated. There was no pressure of crushing bags of grain on his old, bony shoulders. Melodious with beeves, a freight train from the West truckled on towards Belfast. The Cowboy made his customary crooked way to the kitchen of Tansey the Carter.
'You broke the bronc today, I'm told,' he said to Tansey.
'I broke the bronc, Cowboy, the only way my father taught me. If I buy a horse to cart he has to cart. Or a woman to cook.'
'He never bought a woman,' said the third sister, and the six sisters laughed.
'Your porridge, Cowboy.' 'Did I ever tell you about the time I was in New Zealand?' 'You never did,' said Tansey the carter.
When the Americans came to our town on their way to meet Hitler somebody told them about the Cowboy and one of them, meeting him, said, 'Haven't we encountered you before.
'Was it in Tucson?' said another. 'More whisky,' said a third, 'it was in Tombstone.' 'Not there,' said the Cowboy. 'I guess and calculate it might have been in Deadwood.'
'Deadwood it was,' said the three of them. 'Well, we'll be doggone darned.'
'Tell us about Deadwood, Cowboy,' said the man behind the bar.
Excerpted from THE COLLECTED STORIES OF BENEDICT KIELY by BENEDICT KIELY Copyright © 2001 by Benedict Kiely. Excerpted by permission.
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