Beyond the Holy Islands to the west, an old whale trawled the rocky depths under the grey sea, spending the last of his breath slowly as he searched for a deep grave. Too blind to see the arc of the heavens, too weak to follow the moon and the throb of the tides, he had drifted into unknown water, where the contours of the seabed were unknown. His journey from the Arctic feeding grounds was a journey to death. He tried to dive deeper, but in stead of a deep blue, roofless plunge into oblivion, he felt only the irresistible pull of heavy, slanting land, the drag of the death sand and slashes of unkind light.
Who knows to what gods the old whale called out when he died, far from his tribe, on a stretch of coast that belonged, in completely, to a people who had once hunted the great whales out of Blacksod Bay. On the Red Hill men and whales had barely disturbed each other for a century. The hunting of whales was far behind the people of the Red Hill. The Blacksod Bay was a whaling sea, but men and whales had forgotten it.
Who knows to what gods the people of the Red Hill called out to when they followed the whale into oblivion. On the Red Hill men and women had learned through hardship and deprivation what their devouring and bellicose neighbours across the sea would never learn—how to see, hear, smell and think with the uncluttered perception of the first man to rise out of the dust. Man and whale died together, on the same fleeting day, which is about to begin again.
* * *
Breedah O’Hackett peeped out of her father’s cabin, like a rabbit from a hole. The entrance of the cabin was low and she crouched there, sniffing the brackish air. Frost glistened on the overgrown tussocks of grass, on the crumbling turf rick by the shed where her father stored his skins and on the brittle, frozen carpet of straw outside the door. It was dark and Breedah was hungry. At least the wind had dropped. One glance at the sky told her that the worst of the storm was over. It was winter and the storm was unusual, even unnatural. Breedah breathed deeply, to smell and taste the day. There was a musty tinge on the wind, something she had never smelled before, a faint aroma she could not define. Had she the choice, she would have stayed indoors, but hunger drew her further out, against her instincts.
Breedah lived alone with her father in a oneroomed cabin to the south of the Red Hill, an isolated place on a rocky prominence some distance from the main road, overlooking Blacksod Bay. Wild rabbits roamed there, thick as fleas. Breedah’s home was known, not surprisingly, as The Warren.
Molly, her mother, had been dead for five years. Now, with no one to count the months and years –– for neither father nor daughter cared –– no one could tell exactly how old she was. When her mother had died, Breedah had been somewhere between the ages of seven and ten. She had been a goodsized child, but five years on, having added nothing to her stature since her mother’s death, she was small, even in a part of the country where tall women were rare. Her diminutive stature gave an impression of fragil ity—which was deceptive. Breedah’s hands may have looked frail and delicate, but the skin on her palms was reddened—tough as leather—and her long fingers could grip like a monkey’s. Her tiny child’s feet, which had never worn shoes, had been punished — scourged by rocks and thorns, hardened to insensitivity.
An icy gust blew in from the ocean and Breedah returned indoors. Her father was still asleep, snoring in his corner bed. Hanging by the fire was a fleece he had flayed from a dead sheep. It was nearly her height. Of all the things that could keep a body warm in winter a raw fleece was best of all. Risking a beating, or worse, from her father for stealing the fleece, Breedah wrapped it around her shoulders and set out on the jour ney that she made nearly every morning. With her basket and sickle on her back, she carefully stepped down the rocky hill from her father’s cabin, along the Blacksod Road and across the fields to Ebber Strand. In the fields along the way, she picked a few leaves of dock and sorrel—those that were not brown edged, rainrotted or burnt by the frost. All the yellow charlock had gone; in its place she cut some nettles, which were also good for the blood. Nettles made good soup, boiled with oatmeal, or stewed with rabbit.
The path from the Blacksod Road wound through Major Walch’s fields, over a stream with deep sandy banks and down to the sea. Between the strand and the wide ocean, which Breedah never cared to think of, was the band of dark water that separated the Peninsula from the islands of Inishkea, Duvillaun More and Inishglora. The grey shapes of the Western Islands, which stretched across most of the horizon, were like an ancient, ruined wall around her world.
There was a grey, cold light over the sea, but no fire in the sky. There were still some hours until dawn. The wind whipped hard across the channel and the waves were flinty peaks. The air was filled with gull cries. Her mother had told her that gull cries were the voices of the dead, returning from the West. So many dead, why did they want to return? Breedah shuddered, wrapping the fleece tighter around her back and shoulders before descending the low cliffs onto Ebber Stand.
Before she reached the beach, Breedah put her basket and sickle to one side and squatted over a pool. Her fingers explored its hidden crevices. Numbed by the icy water, they wandered crabwise into blind corners. She loved the dank underside of ledges where nothing lived. A solitary prawn was lying in the mud at the bottom of the pool. It was safely transparent until one twitch of its tail raised a tiny flag of dust. Breedah’s heronsharp hand snatched it. After sucking the body into her mouth alive she choked, spat and finally licked the salt from her lips. It was her first food of the day.
Breedah was starting to scrape the sand and pebbles for shell fish and weed when she saw the whale. The grey water swelled into a smooth hump sixty feet across and then the waves engulfed its huge mass. Its head could be clearly seen above the surface for an instant, apparently lolling against a steep sand bank, dead or alive she could not tell. In any case, she did not believe she had really seen the creature, she could not conceive of anything so large, and alive. It rose again, this time further out, near the islands, free in the deep water. It dived and she straightened up to watch.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”
The head cleaved the surface with hardly a ripple and the giant bow of its back followed on with unerring momentum. Then it was gone, seeking the deep.
Breedah stood, transfixed, staring at the point where the whale had dived. She willed it to rise once more. When it did not reappear, Breedah, who was as wary of devils and unkind spirits as she was of wild, hungry dogs, removed herself instantly from what she perceived to be an enchanted spot.
Further along the strand, by the rocks, she started to work on the dulaman that grew thickly along that part of the coast. She bent to lift handfuls of the puce-coloured weed from the rocks, sliced it above the roots and dragged it into a pile with the point of her sickle. Dulaman was not usually harvested until after the first severe frost, when it was prized as a winter vegetable. It was early in the season to cut dulamen, but her father needed the weed for bait. The dock and sorrel that she usually picked for the rabbits would do for Breedah and her father. They were fortunate to still have the rabbits on their land. The weed Breedah’s father used to bait his traps with might one day be the only food on the Peninsula. After that, if the spring harvest failed, there would be nothing. A wilderness inhabited by people waiting to die.
The sheep in the open fields followed Breedah onto the rocks. With the fleece on her back, bent double, she looked like one of them. Breedah stooped to cut the dulaman and left the harvest in little heaps behind her. Some of the sheep began to crop the rocks around and she had to throw stones to make them keep their distance. Then, there was a most unusual sight. A lone cor morant padded into view, so close that Breedah could hear the clicking of its hooked beak. She picked up a stone. It flashed a yellow eye and took flight. All at once, the sheep scattered.
Breedah followed the cormorant’s flight out over the waves and saw that the whale had reappeared.
The rocky foreland had blocked the whale’s retreat to the open sea. The flowing tide had left it stranded. The whale was on the beach. It thrashed in a curtain of muddy water. It writhed on the sand, ploughing a trench twenty feet wide. Unaccustomed to its own bulk, it slowly rolled on one side. The crack of bone could be heard as the whale’s ribs caved in under its own weight. The great fins dragged tangles of kelp and the same weed veiled its eyes. Breedah thought she heard the dying whale speak. The roar of a thousand bulls. Breedah covered her ears but the sound reverberated in the cups of her palms. She closed her eyes and heard the whale calling out to her. The whale had a voice, a voice so large that the sound of a storm was merely a syllable within it. Her mind was a turmoil of noise beyond her under standing. Then the world fell silent. Blind and deaf, hooked to earth by the crushing, suffocating air, the whale spoke to Breedah in her own language.
He whispered: “Eat this body!”
She was no longer frightened. The whale did not want to harm her. Breedah felt the contentment a person looks for in a peaceful and holy death. The sight of the whale on Ebber Strand had transformed her. Ebber means “sacrifice.” She had witnessed a miracle.
The wind dropped and the whale died.
Breedah ran back across the meadows, stumbling often in the dark. The grass was silver with frost and crinkled underfoot. Her bare legs and arms were mottled red and blue with the cold. On she went, bending to climb the hill. The fleece she had worn lay abandoned on Ebber Strand. The wind at her back was icy and the front of her red skirt was damp. If she did not run fast enough, find someone to share the sight with then perhaps it would disappear, like a dream that dies on waking. Had the whale really spoken? Breedah thought it had, but there were always words in the air on Ebber Strand—the screech of the gulls, the slosh and gasp of the waves, the howl of the wind and the cries of the seals that carried across from Inishkea.
Breedah had to find someone who would believe her. It was no use going to her father. Not yet—he would beat her for lying as well as for taking the fleece. Maybe when he heard what she had discovered, he would never beat her again, or touch her at night and frighten her.
People stayed indoors at this time of the year, there was no reason to be out. Later in the day though, groups of women would be on the strand looking for shorefood. Then it would not be her whale, but someone else’s.
Once within sight of the Blacksod Road, she rested. In front of her was a dilapidated turfrick, the black bricks stacked some time in the summer but neglected ever since. Breedah placed her basket on a flat slab of rock and scanned the length of the road. To the north was An Geata Mor, or Binghamstown, as it was now called. Major Walch’s hated agents lived there, somewhere inside the landlord’s grey stone mansion. Most people had left the village, to better lives in England. Father Brophy, the new priest, still had his Mass House in An Geata Mor, but he was too close to the agents. He spoke to them every day, unwittingly keeping them informed. He could not be trusted. Breedah had heard tales of shipwrecks up and down the coast, steamers and merchant vessels which had provided poor people with unheard of luxuries ... but the moment the landlords were informed, these goods were stolen away and the people were treated as thieves, punished with fines and lashings. The law stated that the wreck of the shore belonged to the Queen. Major Walch’s Agents —who already had authority to steal land and crops from his tenants—could claim the whale as their own, in the name of the Queen.
A lean, hunched figure, dressed in black from head to toe, backed out of one of the cabins on the Red Hill. Father Brophy, the new priest. He stood bent at the door, imparting some final words of comfort, then hurried across the field, hugging his bre viary tight to his chest, weary from another night on the rounds of the dying. When he met the path, he turned and leaned into the wind, moving with rapid steps, almost on tiptoe. His head was down –– his arms and shoulders forward around his ears. He struggled to walk, as if he was cradling a great weight. Father Brophy lurched blindly down the hill, surrendering his compo sure to the wind, which had long ago blasted every tree, bush and tender living thing from the land.
It was Father Brophy’s second year in the Parish of Kilmore, but he was still regarded as a newcomer. The general view was that he lacked the authority to control the parish. He had very few words of Irish, which meant that truthful confessions had ceased to exist among those who were unable, or unwilling to articulate their sins in the language of the conqueror.
The English language had yet to gain even a foothold in the area, though almost everyone would grudgingly admit to a degree of fluency if they were to be confronted by an outsider. Those who had command of both languages, perhaps half the population, were only willing to speak out in an emergency.
Communication in English was always a slow and deliberately laborious business, full of tangential misunderstandings and blind alleys, giving considerable amusement to the bilingual party but giving the false impression, recorded by travellers at the time, of a truculent and uncommunicative people.
Father Brophy still counted as an outsider and could not expect to be favoured by a demonstration of Breedah ’s excellent English—she lived with the only man on the Peninsula who spoke the language in preference to his mother tongue. English was, after all, the language of commerce. Breedah prepared to use her second language to confound and mislead the priest.
Father Brophy was the last person Breedah wanted to meet. It was the worst kind of luck to meet a priest first thing in the morning. Worse still, they would meet at the crossroads. The fact was that crossroads compounded ill luck. Why this was the case, Breedah was not sure. Not long ago, women used to bury their unbaptized babies at crossroads. The last one was buried here only eight years ago. She often thought of the angry spirits of unlived lives. What was it like to yearn so much for life and know so little? Breedah shivered.
The women who buried their children here would not have known it, but they had adopted one of the burial rites of Persian Mithraism. The women of the Red Hill inherited the custom through Alexander, the first European to witness it—in Phyrgia, two thousand years before the last Irish baby was buried at a crossroad. Who knows how the custom reached these shores? Perhaps it was a Roman soldier, another four hundred years on, standing sentry at the far western tower of Hadrian’s wall, discussing the relative merits of the mysteries of Mithra and the mysteries of Christ with local shepherds who brought the custom to the Celts.
Breedah had never heard of Alexander the Macedonian, Phrygia, or even the Romans—except the Roman Church, which she understood as the ‘roaming church’ for Father Brophy roamed incessantly. All she knew was that crossroads compounded bad luck.
Breedah didn’t question this fact, any more than she would have questioned the fact that it was unlucky to talk about pigs or weasels, to smoke a pipe when fishing or put to sea on the Feast of Saint Martin. The truth was that crossroads compounded ill luck. This was Breedah’s truth. Madmen, it was said, gave their souls up to the devil at crossroads and the Liss More, the Great Herb, was as potent when plucked from there as it was from a graveyard. Nothing happened by chance. These were some of the established laws in Breedah ’s world. The priest and the whale must be intertwined with her fortune. For six years she had scavenged on Ebber Strand and not once had she met a priest in the morning. Something bad was coming. However bad it would be, Breedah knew there were ways of trading bad luck for good. She knew from her mother that luck could be bought back. One way was to invoke the name of a dead person in conversation. An other was to get a priest to bless a lie. They had their uses after all. Breedah could use the priest to restore her good fortune.
Father Brophy caught sight of Breedah beating down her red skirt as it billowed in the wind. She was attempting to conceal herself behind a crumbling turfrick. At least she had avoided meeting him at the crossroads. He stopped and waited for her to come out of her hiding place. Breedah showed herself and called out to him.
“Father Brophy, how is the old man today?”
The priest cupped one hand to his ear.
“It’s Red Padraic Donnely I’m asking after, Father. It was his cabin you were at just now.”
“Wait there, Breedah, ‘til I’m down. I’m deaf with the gale.”
The priest carefully made his way down the hillside to the road. The incline was not steep, but his acquaintance with the land was not as intimate as Breedah’s. He had to watch his feet for holes hidden by the long grass and rocks that were slippery with moss.
“Now Breedah,” he said, approaching her, “I thought you said Padraic Donnely just now?”
“I did, Father. How is Padraic himself today?”
“Today? What do you mean, Breedah? Padraic is dead! I buried him on St. Martin’s Day.”
“Forgive me, Father, but what day would that be?”
Breedah narrowed her cozening eyes, enjoying the priest’s confusion.
“The eleventh day of November.”
Breedah greeted this strange intelligence with a look of incomprehension.
Father Brophy kept the year by a calendar, which made no sense to Breedah. The Celtic year had only two seasons, Geim hreadh and Samhradh, turning on Hallows Eve. He paused to calculate the days.
“The eleventh of November would be … let me think … the last new moon … or ... the tenth day of Geimhreadh.”
“Is that the truth?” gasped Breedah.
“It is, and you know it. Red Padraic is dead a month or more.”
“Red Padraic gone! God save us. What was it took him?”
“Breedah, it was the dropsy, as you know full well. What’s the matter with you?”
“It was the dropsy, surely.” Breedah looked nervously at the Priest.
“What day is today, Father.”
“The twentieth day of December. The year of Our Lord eighteen forty six. It is only five days to the Festival. You should learn the months of the year, Breedah.”
“Tell me, Father, when do the dead appear? Would it be on the eve of Geimhreadh, or on other days?”
Father Brophy leaned towards her and shook his head emphatically.
“The dead never appear. That is a pagan belief. On All Hallows Eve and All Hallows Day, what you call Geimhreadh, Christian men and women pray for the souls in purgatory, in order to free them from their suffering and bring them to God.”
Breedah managed to make tears.
“Then what is it I’m after seeing on the strand just now? Father, I’m afeared for my own soul these past hours since ...”
She pointed over an expanse of heather and snipe grass in the direction of the sea.
“Since what child?”
“Father, it’s the ghost of Red Padraic, walking the strand and talking again like a man.”
The priest raised himself up and widened his eyes in mock astonishment.
“Oh, Red Padraic was it? And what did he say?”
“Father, he charged me to stay away from the Point and not to gather dulaman there—on pain of losing my soul. Now is that not a warning for all Christians to heed?”
Breedah was crying freely now, almost believing her own story. She dropped to her knees before Father Brophy. “I’m a wicked creature, Father,” she sobbed.
The priest raised her up.
“Wicked ... no, no, no,” he laughed, “but where the rocks off Ebber Strand are concerned, you can be ... a little...” he pursed his lips, searching for the right word, “... fanciful?”
He offered the word with a defensive smile—it was a mere suggestion that he would withdraw if it caused offence.
Breedah took no offence because she did not know the word, but she enjoyed the sound and turned it over in her mind ... faahnseefull ... seafool.
“Yes, Father, I am that, a little fancy fool.”
“No, no! Dear me! Just give me your hand.”
Father Brophy took Breedah’s freezing hand—though it was not offered—and placed it on the gold casket under his cloak, which contained the bread of the Holy Sacrament.
“There now, pray to Jesus for strength,” Father Brophy said solemnly.
Breedah felt the casket against his chest, the cold metal heart of the priest.
“You are not wicked child, only fanciful. That means you ... sometimes … see things you shouldn’t ... no, I mean you ... dream in the daytime. Ask Jesus to help you—trust me, Breedah—and he will. Always remember that Red Padraic had a Christian burial. The dead do not walk on Hallows Eve, but the Church teaches us to remember their suffering souls on that day. The devil himself would not dare to disturb the bones of one buried in consecrated ground.”
Father Brophy resumed his hunched posture and edged past Breedah.
“It was not the ghost of Red Padraic then?”
“What was it then, Father?”
“Nothing, Breedah, nothing at all!”
“A trick of the light maybe?”
“That would be it, Breedah. God bless you now. How is Mathas?”
“Well, Father ... getting by ... you know him. Thank you, Father.”
“Come to the Mass House on Sunday.”
“I will, Father …”
Breedah smiled inside as she watched the priest climb the rest of the hill. When he was out of earshot, she added: “... when you tell us all what bloody day is a ‘Sunday.’”
The priest did not know it, but Breedah had worked her pagan magic. A lie had been blessed, a dead man’s name invoked. The priest need know nothing of the whale, for now.
All was restored.
Not far from Ebber Strand lay the cabins of the Red Hill. The nearest was Roderic O’Lachtna’s, a small single cabin. Breedah knew that Roderic would believe her. After all, he had once followed her the seven miles to Annagh Head just to look at a stranded school of herring hogs. They were friends. Last winter he had supplied her with cabbages and beans in return for showing him the best places to tramp fluke. Roderic should be the first to feast on the sight of the whale — who else? Roderic’s grandfather had been to sea—all the way to the Newfoundland fisheries, even to the far North to hunt whales. Roderic still had his grandfather’s trophies and he treasured them.
Breedah loved them too, but admired, above everything, the two bone pipes, exquisitely engraved with the strange animals that lived in the Land of Ice. He had two human figures also, carved out of the same bone—one of a man with rough black fur crowning his head and another of a woman carrying a child on her back. The man had once held something in his hand, a harpoon perhaps?
Breedah now walked on the grass beside the road, for despite the rain, the muddy, rucked track was as hard as rock. Streaks of frost, a webwork of silvery white lines, glistened in the folds of frozen mud. The creases and valleys made by cartwheels were solid and the little pools made by the slow, cold tread of tired donkeys on the day before were iced over. This was the main highway of the Peninsula, the Blacksod Road, connecting the port of Belmullet to Blacksod Bay.
Roderic O’Lachtna was about the same age as Breedah—two or three years older, at most, but he had outgrown her rapidly in past years. At thirteen, his body had raised his head so far above his feet in such a short space of time that the expression he al ways carried was one of bewilderment and fear. At fifteen he was already walking with the tired stoop of a tall, hungry man. His expression remained the same, but now there was more to fear than a sudden elevation in stature.
Roderic was the man of his family. He had occupied a bachelor’s cabin near his mother’s house since the Spring. Adjacent to the cabin was a score ground of the family plot that Niall O’Lachtna, his father, had marked out for him. The day after St. Brigit’s day, nine months gone, father and son began the Spring work together. Roderic planted his new plot with borrowed seed. The previous growing season had produced a good supply of food. There was the Blight, of course, but it was mostly inland and the only people affected were those who had harvested their crop too late. The O’Lachtna roothouse was full. There was enough food to go around.
At the height of summer, not long after the heavy rain that fell that year, Roderic looked out on his scoreground, proud of the fine crop he had raised. He walked through the plants, thigh deep in green. With every step, he raised up a cloud of the white, dusty flies that fed on the leaves, the million specks of life that would perish when he harvested his crop in a few days time.
When morning came, the leaves were black and shrivelled. It was as if fire had consumed his poor scoreground of roots during the night. He dug down with his bare hands. The tears burned in his eyes when he felt the tubers; they were soft and spongy, the skins giving way to the pressure of his fingers. He crushed one, unseen, then another, under the ground. They were pulp. He did not want to see. Again and again, like crushing giant beetles. Roderic looked at his hands. His fingers smelled of the foul jelly he had raised. Four months of patient tending ended with nothing but black, scorched leaves and corrupted roots.
Roderic and his father went out about the Hill and discovered that this time the failure of the crop was general. Everyone on the Red Hill had suffered from the Blight. In the space of two days the winter food had been wasted. Some men had plants that were visibly affected by the disease, the leaves and stems white with the killing threads of the Blight. Others had already har vested and were concerned about their root houses or their pits now that the barrels were infested with the new crop. If any plant was not already dead with its leaves and stems burned black, then it had a web of poison growing over it — a white fuzz of killing hair. There had been failures before, but nothing like this. Three months after the general failure, the root house was empty. Roderic’s father had gone in shame to Killala to look for work, leaving his family to exist on shorefood. Roderic, in the meantime, reached his adult height without benefit of nourishment from his own plot. His father died on the journey home. Roderic’s first experience of being the man of his house was looking down on a widowed mother worn to the bone––a baby boy not yet a year old and three naked, hungry sisters who had not ventured out of their mother’s cabin since St. Martin’s Day.
When Breedah, unseen to Roderic, came within sight of his cabin, Roderic was bitterly pondering the failure of his roof to survive its first severe elemental test—the storm of the night be fore. A furious gale, an unexpected lash from the tail of a mid Atlantic demon, had left the beetle-backed cabins on the Peninsula barely clinging to the earth. Many houses were damaged. The wind rushed at doors and shook them. Poorly knitted thatch was lifted and scattered. The waves that pounded the shore threw boulders fifty feet in the air. By morning, the low land on the Peninsula was awash and the high land was still cowering. Bitter frost followed on as usual. Nature cared nothing for the Red Hill. The overhang of thatch, Roderic decided, was not trimmed close enough. No wonder the roof had nearly been lifted off.
After repairs, he would have to cut the thatch at the eaves to a more sensible length and tie it down securely.
In the stone outhouse, where his father stored the tools, Roderic found what he needed—a billhook, a paring knife, a quantity of pegs and a roll of twine. He had all the materials, but knew little about thatching—no more than he had observed one spring morning when assisting his father to lay part of the roof now in need of repair.
He was just beginning to work on the roof when Breedah appeared below.
“Good morning, Roderic O’Lachtna!”
Roderic, who held a hammer in his right hand, a roll of twine in his left and a hazel peg between his teeth gave her no more acknowledgement than a grim nod and the observation that it was not yet morning. As Breedah watched him, he managed to free his left hand and hammer the peg into place.
“There!” Roderic exclaimed in his gruffest voice. “Let’s hope the others hold like that one.”
“God bless you, Roderic, man of this house.”
Breedah called up in a honeyed voice.
Roderic ignored her and continued to work.
Breedah came to the foot of the ladder and shook it gently.
“What ails you Breedah O’Hackett? Can’t you see I’m working?”
“Pssssst, Roderic, I’ve a secret to show you.”
Roderic placed the next peg in position and turned his head to look down at her.
“Oh! And what would that be?”
He was not yet enough of a man to prefer the practical necessity of repairing the thatch to the appeal of a secret. When she had Roderic’s attention, she looked about her and then continued in an urgent, conspiratorial whisper: “After myself, it’s you will see it first.”
Roderic descended the ladder and ushered Breedah into his cabin, out of the cold.
“God bless all here,” said Breedah, giving the customary greeting, even though the cabin was clearly empty. Roderic’s scrawny grey cat edged away from the fire when Breedah entered and she added: “... except the cat!”
“You may include the cat in your blessing,” said Roderic, following her through the doorway. “There’s only me here. I am the man of this house and the cat is no devil—so none of that, if you please.”
Roderic drew a stool up to the fire for Breedah to sit on. “It was a cruel wind last night. Look at my roof.”
Loose thatch was flapping and the wind blew in the through the holes above the door.
“It’s nearly fixed, Roderic, and better than it was before.”
“Ah ... never praise work before it’s finished.”
Roderic filled a pipe out of a leather pouch, lit it from a pink cinder at the corner of the fire and offered it to Breedah.
“Sit down now and take a taste of this. It’s too early to be out and about.”
When she refused the pipe, he wondered what else he could offer her.
“I’ve a jug of milk in need of drinking, Breedah, and a cut of bacon, too big for me to eat alone.”
Breedah was in no mood to be appreciative of his efforts at hospitality. She wasted no more time.
“There’s a whale on Ebber Strand.”
Roderic received the news calmly. He drew on his pipe and it emitted a faint whistle. His lips made a papping sound as he sucked the broken stem.
“A whale, you say? Is that it, then? Is that the secret?”
Breedah was dumbfounded. There was he, the grandson of a whaler, talking to her as if she were a child, blowing out contented clouds of smoke, not in the least concerned. She felt obliged to remind him that his grandfather had once chased whales across the Northern seas, had watched men in boats dragged down to their deaths by whales, had walked on the belly of a dead whale wallowing in an ocean of its own blood. Roderic found his tongue before Breedah could berate him.
“I’ve heard tell of whales, Breedah, and the whale is a mighty big fish, too big for these waters. Are you sure it’s not just a herring hog, or a big bull seal?”
At this Breedah jumped to her feet.
“Herring hog! You say herring hog to me? Who was it showed you the herring hogs at the rocks below Corraun? Who showed you where to bucket sprats last year how to keep the seals away? Big bull seal, says he! I know every seal in the West. I’ve seen every type of creature that ever was in these parts. I tell you there’s a whale on Ebber Strand at this moment and he’s talking like a man!”
Roderic and Breedah were standing facing each other. Behind the gauze of pipe smoke and the soft light of the fire Roderic’s eyes glowed dog yellow. He believed in the whale.
If there is under the skin of every man the shadow of the man he once was in the far distant past—a hunting animal—then that shadow stepped out of Roderic’s body and stood behind him.
“How big is this whale then?”
He did not really want to know the size of the whale. He knew it already. As soon as the shadow stood behind him, the whale engendered itself in his hunting brain. All the time the whale was growing. It was now his quarry and he knew it intimately. The blood pounded in his head. He felt unusually warm. His feet, clad in hard boots and caked in mud, yearned to run. It was the other part of him that wanted to know the size of the whale. The feeble, domesticated farmer, who, if he owned a pig, would measure its worth by its weight, its dead weight of course, not the length and sharpness of its tusks or the danger it posed. Roderic discovered a part of himself that he despised. The poor man who laboured for rotten roots, who lived at the mercy of the weather, the landlords and the venom that heaven spat on the meek.
Breedah was pointing at the east wall and saying something.
“What was that, Breedah?”
“I’m saying if the whale was lying against your back wall, he’d stretch to the edge of Martin Keogh’s land, head to tail.”
Roderic looked again at the thatch that needed mending, but the shadow pushed him on. Roderic fought hard to make a farmer’s calculation.
“God save us!” he said at last. “That’s twenty yards of whale, or more.”
Breedah was already in the doorway, beckoning him. Roderic gave no further thought to his roof. He wanted to go with Breedah to see the whale. It was just like the time they had gone to Annagh to see the porpoises. Breedah, always in front of him, ran on nimble bare feet and Roderic, in his father’s boots, tripped clumsily behind. Breedah did not turn her head once, but was drawn along, as if by an invisible cord.
Minutes later they arrived together on the low cliffs above Ebber Strand. Beyond them, two rocky fingers, a mile apart, reached out, pincerlike to the Western Islands. The tips of these fingers sloped back to rocks and then dunes. Between the fore finger and thumb of this giant hand—on the web of skin—that white, windy curve of sand on the west of the Peninsula that was Ebber Strand, lay the immense carcass of a whale.
There had never been such a sight on the Peninsula. They did not need sunlight to pick out the shape of a whale, perfect and whole. Roderic and Breedah stood on a low cliff looking down on the whale. Breedah noticed the strange effect the whale had on the landscape. It were as though nature had, overnight, created a new, permanent feature, a body of such immensity that it would block out a storm. The sea was gentle, lapping against its flank. There were no clouds around the shape of the body and the first flecks of fire were glittering under its tail. Everything receded in the whale’s presence. The rocks seemed no more than a sweeping of dust in the corner of the strand. The great waves crashed over them and sprinkled the massive corpse with tiny drops of water. The sky flew upwards and brightened to give space for the whale to fill. To Breedah, it seemed as if there was a reverent silence around the monstrous body, the peace and stillness in the eye of a storm.
Roderic could only wonder if the whale was really dead. Such a creature, surely, would take days to die. The whales in his imagination were violent monsters, enraged with the taste of their own blood. After hours of chasing, stuck with harpoons, a whale could still haul its hunters across the sea, and—in its death throes—smash their boat to splinters. Breedah said it had come ashore alive. A whale on land could not be as dangerous as a whale in the sea. Even if the beast was still alive, it could not move. It was overburdened with its own weight. The air around it would be like hoops of steel.
Roderic jumped down onto the sand and ran towards the body. He stopped, still some distance off, when he caught the smell of the whale and began to walk. It was a dank fish smell, but not a dead smell. If the whale was dead, then it was newly dead, as Breedah had reported. The colour also changed as he came closer—lighter, bluer. He could see one small eye, an ox eye, disproportionate with the rest of the body and a long curving mouth, almost a smile. The skin was not as sleek as it had appeared from a distance. Patches of barnacles, like the crust of lichen on the rocks, covered most of the head and tail. His underside was pale yellow, with curious fleshy ribs running from the throat to the belly. There were scars, mostly circular bites, like brands all over the skin. This was an old whale. It had survived many battles and grown to a great size. Roderic chose to approach the middle part of the whale, safely distant from the tail and well back from the huge fin behind the eye.
At ten feet or so, he could no longer see over the back of the whale and he began to feel the warmth that emanated from its body. At arm’s length, he hesitated to touch the whale and claim it. Was it waiting? Had it drawn him, as it had doubtless drawn poor whalers before him, into a hopeless fight? Would it roll over now and crush him mercilessly? Palms first he reached out to touch the whale’s flank. The flesh was soft and offered no resistance, once he had touched its body he knew that the whale was dead. It had been dead some hours now, but it was still warm.
Roderic wondered what kind of boiling blood filled this creature, that it was still warm. Here was a bounty of food unimaginable only hours before. There was more meat on one of the whale’s fins than on a score of sheep. Roderic had not eaten meat for several months. He knew from his grandfather that the best cuts came from the tail and the back. It would take days to strip the meat from the body. By this time tomorrow everyone would be looking for extra peat and firing up the smokehouses. If the meat smoked well, then there would be more than enough food to last to the Festival and beyond—to the next Spring and a new planting season. Roderic also knew that somewhere inside a whale’s head was a well of oil, precious fuel to light the winter coming and many other winters.
Roderic used to go up to the Mass House, dutifully, once a week. Sometimes he got the wrong day, but he was better than most. Recently, he had found it easier and easier to go. Even though he did not understand everything the new priest said, he was quite prepared to believe wholeheartedly in a better life after this one. He could not remember a time when he was free from pain. If it was not simply the cold and hunger of the day, then it was the loneliness of lying in the centre of the night—where there was nothing for light but the pink glow of a near dead fire. At night, there was no thought but the bitter contemplation of tomorrow. It was not hard to believe that death offered some thing better.
‘Flock’ was another word the priest used. He called everyone his ‘flock’. This had recently puzzled Roderic. Surely, the priest knew that there was no winter feed for the sheep and the flock had been abandoned? When the early frost came, the sheep had left the fields to scavenge on the rocks. They would have to be hunted down and slaughtered before long. If God herded man, when He had nothing more to give, was He going to abandon them in the same way? Had He already done so? This was something that Roderic had understood imperfectly until now. The priest must have meant that God did not simply breed, protect and slaughter his flock—He loved them too. He provided for them. He cared for them. His winter feed never ran out.
Roderic looked forward to the warmest and brightest winter of his life. ‘Ebber’ meant sacrifice. God had sent the whale.
“Breedah, there is nothing in the world the equal of a whale.”
Roderic was thinking again about the great whales his grandfather had hunted in the far corners of the earth. Ebber Strand was the deck of a whaler and Roderic was at one with those daring men of the past who humbled God’s most fearsome creation. “I tell you, not one bit of him will be wasted—not his meat or his bones, or the oil he keeps in his head. Not his tongue or his teeth even. From nose to tail not one bit of him exists that can’t be used.”
“But you wouldn’t want to be cutting him up would you?”
Roderic looked astonished. “Why not?”
“Look at him, Roderic!” Breedah sighed, “just look at him. He’s a wonder.”
“That’s the whale for you, Breedah—a wonder and a treasure house.”
Breedah had no doubt that Roderic had the mettle for the task and that the whale would eventually be reduced to a skeleton, if time and circumstance allowed.
“Eat this body!” the whale had said. Breedah had heard him speak. The whale was food. Hadn’t he said so himself? But Breedah had heard about the traps that spirits laid from her mother. The whale’s voice had been a miracle, a vision—and there was danger in visions. Of all the hallowed spaces in the world, none was more holy, or treacherous, than the line between sea and land. Wherever there was a line, frontier, a strong division—whether it was the door of a house, a gate, the space between earth and sky or the shell and the egg—the FaedhRee were at their strongest. Didn’t they swarm in the thatch and the timbers of a roof, around the windows, in a tree, between the bark and the wood? They were the fallen angels, always stirring up mischief. Wasn’t their magic most potent at the death of summer?
Breedah had misgivings, doubts and suspicions, but she did not know how to communicate them to Roderic.
Roderic was honest and faithful. She had trusted him and he had believed her. But Roderic was like so many others on the Red Hill. He had grown tame and forgetful, like a domesticated animal. He had lost his sight and feeling to such an extent that he could only see the whale as meat. He no longer under stood ‘sacrifice’. When an animal gives itself to man, it demands respect, even veneration. Even the humblest of creatures, her father’s rabbits, for example, could not be slaughtered without a price. What payment would the whale exact? The FaedhRee rejoiced in men’s mistakes. How could Roderic understand that where the chill water lapped about the belly of the whale, there was a host of FaedhRee jealously laying traps, a cauldron of evil intent.
“I mean, Roddy, would you put a knife into him yourself then, through his skin?”
Roderic drew vigorously on the empty pipe. “I would. I’ve no fear of whales myself.”
“No? Even after seeing him so close? I’d be afraid myself.”
“I’ve slit the throat of a living pig before. I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of anything.”
“A pig!” laughed Breedah. “A pig is not a whale. A great beast like a whale might have a terrible great soul still hovering about the strand and looking down on you.”
“Let him look on! He’ll be a sainted whale with after all the joy he’ll bring to the Red Hill this day.”
As Roderic dwelt on the abundance of treasure inside the whale he also considered the awful possibility of letting most of it slip away. Would the sea reclaim the body? Breedah said that this was not possible: “The whale put himself where he is, not the sea. The sea can’t take him back now Roddy, but men can steal.”
This thought was far more disturbing to Roderic than losing the whale to the tide. How long would the meat last if hundreds of strangers from the North wanted a part? What would happen if townspeople, who did not have to live or die by the meat came to stare and wonder at the whale’s amazing bulk?
“I don’t want my father to know,” said Breedah, sensing Roderic’s haste. “The whale belongs to himself and no one else.”
Roderic didn’t hear her.
“Well, Breedah, let’s to work. Rory O’Maolfabhaill’s place is not far. He’ll know what to do. Rory’s the man for this job. I’ll get him to bring his cart.”
Breedah shuddered. The FaedhRee enchantment had already gripped Roderic, robbing him of his memory.
“Rory is still in Killala, Roderic. Don’t you remember the day Rory and the other men left?”
“Yes, of course. Well, let you be going up to the Hill and stir some of the women.”
Roderic was already running along the sand in the direction of the rocks where Breedah had first come to harvest the dulaman. “No one will listen to me, Roderic!”
He turned to shout: “We’ve a power of work ahead of us this day. Let you be going.”
“Don’t tell my father! He’ll have every merchant in Belmullet fighting over a share.”
“Don’t tell him! You know what he’s like.”
Breedah did not believe that the whale was dead. If the swelling voice inside her told the truth, then the whale was alive and watching. He would die soon and the people of the Red Hill would consume him, but now he was alive, speaking to her as he had before. He was communicating to her with a new voice—not a physical sound, like the sea sounds he had used before, but a voice with the spectral quality of a dream, a visitation or a possession ... a spirit voice which filled her with pain and thoughts that tugged inside like hooks. There was no way she could prevent the agony that was to come. Breedah felt every slice of the toothed sickles in the whale’s flank, every cut of the spade on his back ... men digging into him, as if they were digging a trench, the flesh yielding like the earth. She felt the digging and the slicing. For an instant, she knew the pain. The vast soul of the whale entered and possessed her. She felt she would die. Her frail body could not contain the soul of a whale.
Roderic had said that he’d be a sainted whale. Breedah knew better. Who could bring it peace? Who knew how to placate the spirit of a whale? Souls wait near the bodies they have expired from, often resentful at the living. The quieting of a soul was a prolonged and delicate business. In the old days, women skilled in flattery used to coax spirits to their doom. They talked, cried and laughed with the dead—sometimes for days without rest ... all for the soul of a mere man, who might sour the milk or twist the body of an unborn calf if he was displeased. What prodigious evil could the soul of a whale create to show its displeasure?
As Roderic hastened away to spread the news, a terrible silence fell over the strand. For a moment it was as if the sea had held its breath. Breedah sensed that the work of the jealous FaedhRee had already begun. Then came the squawk of the hungry gulls that perned and swooped inquisitively over the vast, grey carcass of the whale. If only the sea would take the whale back and let him have his peace. She turned away. Looking down, she noticed that she had trodden on something small and spiderlike that was skittering across the sand. She heard the FaedhRee laughing at her and she began to weep inconsolably.
This day should die unborn.