Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
I find myself speeding down a road that is, for some reason, both familiar and unfamiliar. The sky arches above me like an ancient and angry sea, grey and melancholy, reaching down to the horizon to kiss the earth. I’m going to fall into the sky, I think to myself. My car will sink down into the clouds like a stone and that will be the end of me. I smile at the absurdity, but grip my steering wheel tighter. The trees, what few there are that I see upon the road, are gnarled ugly things, bereft now of even their autumn foliage in the early November frost. My car is the sole occupant of a lonely stretch of highway, silently bringing me to my destination. “It’s a good day for a wake,” I say to no one, breaking the stillness of the day. My voice startles me and I retreat into my head. I let the yellow lines of the road and the monotony of the scenery hypnotize me, and soon my mind is wandering down familiar corridors. For what must be the thousandth time, I think of him.
Seamus Hagan could pass for a good man when sober. He was boisterous and affable and could talk to strangers as if he had known them their entire life. He would tell bawdy stories that could make men laugh well into the evening, and tell sweet lies that could make women swoon. At parties, he was the center of attention, surrounding himself with members of all social strata. They gathered in their revelry to hear of his outrageous stories and antics, but still, they did not know him. Beneath the thin veneer of personality Seamus Hagan was unhappy. He harbored within himself an unending sadness that always threatened to peak above the surface if he was left too long alone in his own mind.
When I was young, my father looked up to Seamus, I feel like he idolized him in his own way. They had grown up together and Seamus, who could never hold onto a wife for very long, was always traipsing through our home, an unwelcome guest to all but my father. I remember clearly the day I solved the riddle of his being. It was a crisp autumn day, the last of October, and I for my part was dressed as a cowboy. Seamus, who had been drinking again, looked me up and down and said
“What sort of a get-up is that?”
“I’m a cowboy,” I replied
“Are you stupid or something lad?” he said. “You’re supposed to be a monster on Halloween, something scary.”
I grew silent and looked away from him.
“Come here and sit down I’m gonna tell you a story about why you look
Seamus was never parted from his drink for long and I could smell the beer on his breath as I approached him. His eyes had grown dim from the alcohol but his voice was as melodious and commanding as ever. His breaths were steady and his pale grey eyes were fixed on me. Obediently, I sat next to his chair at his feet unsure of what to expect from the old drunk. I was at his mercy and he began his tale.
“Now all this business of Halloween that you children get on about is a sanitized, Christianized version of the festival of Sauin celebrated by our heathen ancestors before St. Patrick taught us to fear wrath of Jesus Christ. Now my mother, gone these thirty years God rest her soul, she was something of an expert on Sauin and while she was a God fearing woman she knew rightly that it isn’t wise to completely forget the old ways. You see the Druids knew on Sauin certain doors were opened, temporarily, and the dead could come back for a night. To keep themselves safe, the Druids appeased the dead with certain rituals, some of which have trickled down to us. They’d carve lanterns out of turnips to light the path of the way back to the underworld. They’d dig up the corpses of the newly dead and arrange them at a grotesque feast so that they won’t be hungry on their way. They’d go around through the town and find a little child. Then in the fields that had been left fallow that year they would construct a gigantic wicker man with the help of all the townspeople. When it was complete, the child would be shut up in the head and then the wicker man would be set alight while all the people joined hands round it and chanted to the gods and the dead; one living soul given as an offering to the dead, to ensure their prosperity and leave ‘em alone for one more year. No one went out on Sauin for fear of encountering the dead in their grim procession and being dragged into the nether world. Those travelers that could not help but be on the road would rub chalk on their faces and charcoal under their eyes, or maybe wear some ugly mask so that if they should be questioned by a dead man they met, they could say ‘no sir I am already dead, I am already among the dead.”
Seamus looked around and stood up from the chair. Somehow I knew intuitively not to move yet. He returned in a minute with two beers, one of which he offered to me but I declined. He drained one right then and there and then took to nursing the second. He swirled and churned the lager in his mouth taking in the full breadth of its flavor, trying to decide what to do next. After a moment the alcohol began to affect him and he continued his story.
“Now my mother, God rest her soul, was always beating me senseless when I got to sneaking out at night but that only encouraged me to do it all the more because, fuck her, right? So one night, I was about your age, she says to me ‘Seamus, you have the devil in you and you don’t care one lick for your mother but I’m telling you don’t be sneaking about at night tonight. Tonight is the feast of Sauin where the dead come up from their graves and follow grim Morrigan in procession in search of some living child to drag back into the underworld, for the dead despise the living. For the sake of your mother, stay in your bed tonight.’ So naturally that night when she was asleep I got my clothes on and prepared to sneak out and see what mischief I could get myself into. Now my mother’s stories were rattling around in my head and I must have believed some of ‘em because before I went out I whited my face and blackened my eyes and snuck out a window and set out upon the road.”
Now I recall Seamus paused here again and shifted his glaze uneasily around the room as if checking its dark corners for some unseen stranger. His breathing became deeper and his mind seemed in turmoil. Seamus’s skin turned ashen and for a moment I thought he would vomit. The words he meant to speak next seemed stuck in his throat and he feared to spit them up. He looked down at the beer in his hand, quickly finished it, and grabbed another. Filled with the courage that one often finds at the bottom of a beer glass, he cleared his throat and began again.
“So I went through the town looking for what mischief I could get into but I found no one about and no shop open. I was about to start vandalizing houses when I looked into the distance beyond town and saw a pale orange light flickering in the distance. I thought it must be some bonfire lit by likeminded children and so resolved to make my way towards it. In no time at all I was in the woods outside of town on a narrow dirt path that passed for a road in Ireland in those days. I looked down the road and saw the light moving toward me slowly. I realized what I thought was a bonfire in the extreme distance was actually just some old codger in a car. Determined as ever to make the best of a bad situation I gathered up some good sized stones to throw at the car as it passed by and hid in brush on the side of the road.”
Seamus paused here for the last time though the pause was the longest. He didn’t say anything or move just continued staring off into the space beyond him reliving events in his own mind. Minutes passed and I began to feel uneasy. He began to rock in his chair a bit, and I thought for a moment he was going to have a seizure like someone I had once seen on TV. All at once he began speaking again, as if in a trance, as if no time had passed at all.
“I waited for that damn car to come. Five minutes became ten minutes became twenty. It was moving so fucking slowly I should have known I was no car. I was just about to get up I was just about to leave when I saw this big bird fly over me, it looked like a raven or a crow, but it was the size of a house cat. It perched on a tree just beyond me and let out a screeching cackle that chilled my bones. I saw the road light up and thought that the car had come at last. I crouched down and readied my stones but instead of a car I saw people, lots of people. It was some parade I thought, but as my eyes adjusted realized they were all dead. At the head of the procession was a gaunt man, naked and bone white, carrying a scepter of polished bone. On his head he wore the skull of horse and he urged on the mass of corpses behind him with his hideous gesticulations. Behind him came in no particular order the mob of the dead. Old, young, women, men, it made no matter. Some looked nearly whole and could pass for the living if not for their unearthly paleness. Still others looked as rotted corpses, blood and maggots dripping out of every orifice. Still others were little more than skeletons who wore their flesh like a beggar wears rags on a hot summer day. They shambled along held together by an unseen force. All of them carried small lanterns, some carved from pumpkins, others form turnips, and still others from things I didn’t want to recognize. The parade lasted minutes, hours, years, millennia. Time stood still and yet jumped ahead of itself. It was over before it started, and yet lasted forever, all the while presided over by that grim bird who watched it all with dead and lidless eyes. Eventually the shambling corpses and their unearthly light moved past me. The bird took to the air once again and I was left alone in the brush, gasping for breath as my heart threatened to beat its way out of my chest.”
“I emerged from the brush and looked down the road. I saw the lights of the phantom parade safely in the distance and tried to collect my thoughts, when I heard a twig break behind me. I turned slowly and acted unsurprised, and maybe that’s the only reason I’m still here today. In front of me was a young boy, pale and in tattered clothing. Pieces of his flesh and his face were missing and his throat was cut from ear to ear causing the blood to dribble down his shirt like a bib. In one hand he held a small pumpkin lantern, and in the other a knife. I took only small breaths least he realize I was still breathing and looked deep into his cloudy eyes. He spoke to me in a gurgling voice that seemed more to escape from the bleeding slit in his throat than his mouth.
‘Are you alive who walks among the dead? I’ll carve you up and drag you piece by piece to my home beneath the earth and you shall never see another sunrise. That is a promise I make to you living boy.’ I stood glued to the spot. I thought this was the end of old Seamus, but then I remembered my mother’s stories and I looked at the dead boy and said
‘No sir, I am already dead; I am already among the dead.’
‘Liar,’ said the dead boy, ‘I can hear the pitter patter of your heart it sings to me through the night.’
Again I replied in a steady voice, ‘No sir, I am already dead, I am already among the dead.’
‘I see your chest moving living boy though you try to hide it will you deny that?’
‘No sir I am already dead; I am already among the dead.’ It stared at me for a good long while after that toying with its knife but I matched its gaze as best I could. After a while the dead boy seemed to fade into the shadows around him and then was gone. No long after the sun came up.”
Seamus didn’t say another word; he just stared into the space ahead of him looking like a corpse himself. After a few minutes I got up, and approached the doorway. He shouted at me then “But you don’t understand that wasn’t the worst of it, you don’t understand what I saw in that parade that night, you don’t know who was there,”
“Who was there?” I said
Seamus never spoke of that day again. Perhaps he drank away the memory. When I was a few years older he and my father had a falling out, I never asked about what, and I never saw him again.
What I partly realized that day and elaborated on upon reflection was that Seamus believed that the fate of all men saint, sinner, and everything in between, was to join that hideous parade. It was their fate to be called down to a gloomy sunless netherworld where an eternity of languished sighs robs them of their minds and their sanities and they die a second death. Their jealousy of the living morphs into a deep well of hatred and every Sauin night they comb the land searching for someone to drag down with them and share in their unending misery. The dread of one day joining that parade haunted Seamus and molded him into a man filled with fear, who tried all manner of diversions to hide from the truth that dogged his footsteps his entire life, that hell was the destination of all men.
I am driving down a road that is becoming more and more familiar. I see before me, just ahead on the dirt path that passes for a road in Ireland these days, the funeral home, not a mile from the house where I grew up. Outside my father waits, beckoning me to come in, it’s a marvel how well death can mend fences. For what must be the thousandth time I think of him. I tell myself he was just an old drunken fool trying to scare me. I say to myself, no man knows what becomes of us when we die, and perhaps that is for the best, for if we knew the truth of the lurking horrors awaiting us on the other side of the horizon line it would drive us mad. This thought too I push from my mind. No living man knows what becomes of us. No one can say to a certainty what, if anything Seamus saw that night, and no one can say what it meant. Whatever demons haunted Seamus in life he’s beyond them now. Whatever waits for us on the other side no man can say but one thing at least is true, whatever waits for us, now Seamus knows.
Credit To – John Fitzgerald