So here it is, word for word, my memory of it all.
I walk home as I often do in a heatwave of cider and June. To escape the moistening damp of the public house, I leave at sunset. No wind greets me at the door, but the width of the outside world re-oxygenates my senses. I feel refreshed, though the warmth of the evening still burns like embers. I light a cigarette in the porch on that humid final night and begin my last walk.
I bid my friends farewell: ‘Goodnight, pals. I’m bound for bed.’
Little was I to know then what I know now. And from where I speak to you—my readers of terrible words—I did not know that I was walking to my hanging place.
Contented I stroll, leaving Finnegan’s, past the schoolyard, and the pebble-dashed wall of the church grounds. I look at the steeple, the spire lit from the spotlights below. It was tall and very grand. I remember it so clearly. The path straightened and rose, to the crest of a small hill. Follow the stars, I say, and onwards I sail, merrily, further from the village.
My route turns from the road, through a small wooded trail, where the trees—especially the flaccid willows—brush me until the last bark. Then, free from their suffocating affection, I feel a breeze at last.
Over the field, across the corn rows, it blows: the first wave of freshness on a close and sweaty night. I plunge into the corn and walk with my hands out, that rough carpet of grain scratching on my palms. Then I leap the fence at the border in one charge to land on the path, by the quiet backroad.
Occasionally cars pass in roars there. Dazzling lights to eyes that have become so used to the dark, but soon I leave the tarmac, the streetlight-strewn moth orgy. I slip from the black scabbard to a trail where a stream plays its way east. Drumming on the bedrock, softly it sings, falling into the valley where every last sinew of that musical water will soon be east, and drowned by the big river.
At night they say it’s a dangerous path, but I’ve never—not once—been frightened of those woods. In all my years, I can say with certainty: I have not felt afraid in The Glen after nightfall.
In the day it’s as pretty as a painting. Light breaches the high canopy and shines on swathes of bluebells. The mushroom-pickers fill their bags there in early autumn. At twilight young men and women do what young people often do against vertical trunks of oak, leaving the trail ruddy-cheeked and breathless once night truly falls. They fear The Glen after sundown.
Often, I feel as though it is the path that walks me home. It takes my feet and guides them. My boots bend over the great gnarled roots. They kick off the stones embedded in the soil as ghosts of drought dirt rise. High it lingers in the air. I will watch as the ground flies before it returns to the earth, where all things will go in time.
But not that night.
In the sweltering heatwave of cider and June, one kick of dust never falls. It rises and remains in the air. It sails above my awestruck eyes, hovering most unnaturally, not withering like the fall of a light drizzle, not as it should have. The earth’s sky disappears behind it, and even as I squint, disbelieving, and count my ciders, there is a question on my mind.
There had been an appearance in the dust. Hadn’t there?
I close my eyes to clear my mind, to reason with myself. I was sure, though. And yes, I was drunk, and yes, the eyes will play tricks on the mind when alcohol and darkness collide. But something is amiss, and I am, for the first time, ill at ease in The Glen after nightfall.
What is this thing I’m seeing?
Standing prone, in awe at this terrible marvel, daring not move another inch, I take my cigarettes and lighter from my shirt pocket. The cigarette wobbles in my lips. The lighter glows and then, in its flame, I see what has risen.
A vision of a man. A face. Two narrowed eyes. Two thick, scowling brows folding over a long crooked nose between fat cheeks. A downturned opened mouth, and the entirety of this manifestation from the dust is sneering at me. It forms fully then—a three-dimensional shape—and it breathes in my cigarette smoke and blows back the fumes until I cough.
‘You can’t be a thing… can you? But maybe… and if so… then good Christ! This is horrifying… if you are there. Are you really there? Are you real?’
The sneer remains, but the cloud backs off, as if to say: “go ahead, chap, I won’t stop you on your way, wouldn’t dream of it, wouldn’t dare”. But, as I walk, the face follows, always at my side, always looking. But no, not looking, it’s leering at me, studying the lines of fear across my brow now beaded with bubbling balls of sweat that burst and fall down my temples.
‘I think you are real, aren’t you? Right then. Go on now. Fuck off. Go bother some other bastard.’
But no matter the profanity, or the volume of my torrent, the face in the dust remains at my side, between me and the quickening stream.
I raise my pace as my heart beats in double time, playing fast jazz with the rushing of the water, smashing on the rocks like cymbals. Those staring eyes clap on me like snare beats, constant and fierce. My eyes, like tom-toms, bounce about my line of vision, deep holes of green irises and black pupils on islands of white seas.
What unnerves me most is that it says nothing. Soon I beg it to speak. Declare your intentions, I say to it. I must know, and I swear again because I’m growing frantic and anxious to discern why this… thing… is following me. But the scowling sneer grows fierce as I raise my voice. Still, I demand to know who it is and why it is haunting me?
It gives no answer. It tilts its head ever so slightly, as though studying my expression with immense pleasure.
My nerve breaks.
Standing on the final flat before the last run to the trail’s end, at White’s cottage, I confront it.
‘If you’re the first sign of a madness in me then you will speak. Do you understand? If you’re inside my mind then I order you to talk. But I’m not mad, am I? So, stay silent, better yet, go away. Disappear back into the ground. Down you go,’ I say. ‘Into hell.’
Its mouth upturns, the narrow eyes squint. Then a simper, and finally a grin, but this is no stretching grin of gaiety, rather the expression of amusement at a cruel and heartless prank.
‘You’re no threat, are you? No, you’re a lost soul with no hand in this world. You’re nothing but dust.’
The face withdraws. With a nostril flare, its glower returns. Then I cower from a sudden thump to my back, then another. The third strike is a wet slap on my neck and the squeal of a dying animal.
It begins to rain, and it rains heavily. It rains death. Howling shrieks of agonised birds drown out the splashing sound of the stream. The deluge turns my limbs from muscle and hard bone to jelly and twigs as I run, blinded, stumbling, towards the dim sound of water. I brace, covering myself with my hands that take the brunt of the falling bodies. I crouch in the valley of dying birds whose piercing wails grow into a violent chorus.
Then it stops, and all around me is a carpet of death. The face moves in the distance. Like a winning prize fighter prowling the ring, it waits for its moment to encroach on me again, to terrify me to my own death as I was sure this being could now do. But the sound of the flowing brook at my back sings to me and I step into its waters.
The cool flow swims fast around my ankles. Then, the terrible face comes like a torrent. It leers above me. I tremble to a quivering jelly and fall under the unbearable weight of fear. I sit and sob in the water bordered by banks of a hundred birds, death-rattling until they still.
Some roll and splash into the water and carry down in the current, on to the big river. It’s then that I rise to my feet. Not daring to look behind, I trudge on. But the stone below is wet and slippery. As I fall on one slick rock, my head aims towards another, my hands too slow—scared and drunk—to stop my fall.
When there is light again I see Mrs White and I thank God.
Her hand is raised above my brow, her curious eyes watching mine.
She has cared for me before. As nearest neighbours she has often fixed my mornings after a cider night, after I had perhaps lost my key and slept in the garden.
Mr White, it seems, found me bleeding at dawn. I had been laid on the rocks in the stream below their garden. He stands in the doorway as Mrs White says I’m damn lucky I didn’t bleed out. She sits me up in a soft, feathered bed and gently pours coffee into my mouth. Then her firm fingers turn my face to hers.
‘Time to quit now, do you understand? Enough is enough.’
I say I will, and I won’t drink cider anymore.
‘You won’t drink an’thing. You know, my husband had it bad once with the bottle like you do. He was a devil for the drink, weren’t you dear?’
‘Oh I was.’
‘He’ll tell you what stopped him, won’t you sweetums?’
‘A devil, I tell ya. Mr White came home to from the pub a different man than the one I let out—wild as anything you’d see in an animal. Like a bull, he was. Like all he had done was gone out and filled himself full of rage, but all that stopped, didn’t it, Mr White?’
‘It did indeed.’
‘It did, because I says to him one night, I says: “don’t you dare go out and come home to me drunk as a fool or I’ll set you right”. So off he went. And he comes home to me drunk as a fool and vicious too! So, I says to him “I told you now” and he says to me “so what? Whatcha gonna do to me woman?”. I says, “I’ll bury ya up in The Glen, you’ve beaten me for the last time ye bastard”. But that didn’t work, did it dear?’
‘No, he hit me a good dozen times and when he ran out of breath and strength I says to him “go on asleep now and we’ll talk in the morning”. So he slept, in that very bed you’re lying in now. While he was snoring I went to the shed and took his axe in my hand and after a big whack of it I took his head and buried the thing up in The Glen. It took me some time, with him being twice the size o’ me, but I hung his fat body in the woods. After a while, the birds made light work of him, didn’t they honey?’
‘Oh they did.’
‘The birds grew big on him, and they had all the time in the world to feast. In them days, few walked in The Glen, not like now—all those youngsters gyrating and whoring. I don’t like that at all. We don’t like that at all, do we dear?
‘No. We don’t like that.’
‘And then there’s you. We had high hopes for you, moving in to Mrs McGlynn’s cottage after she passed and we were glad to see it lived in and looked after, but off you started then, cavorting up in the village and making a show of yourself, drunk and messy, your shirt dirty and unpresentable. Your hair… scruffy. If Mrs McGlynn knew who had moved into her lovely home she’d turn in her grave, wouldn’t she Mr White?’
‘Oh she would.’
‘Now. Finish that coffee and we’ll get you presentable.’
Mrs White leaves the bedside, humming, dipping her head as she passes under Mr White’s arm, who still leans on the door frame before his outstretched hand flops by his side. He comes to the bed and crouching over me I see then what I had seen before: two very familiar narrowed eyes with a downturned sneer under a pointed nose.
Then, from behind his lips, somewhere in his throat, comes a choking, gagging sound.
Mr White’s face clenches and his body rattles, every muscle contracting and releasing until his mouth opens, wider than seems natural. Out crawls a small black ball of fur that takes off, with webbed wings, around the room, before landing on Mr White’s hand, and biting at his fingers.
I yell, I cry out for help, until Mrs White calls back from the next room.
‘He’s for the birds, that one, I think, dear.’
The bat on Mr White’s hand looks up from its feast, at me, and squeals with delight.
Mr White grins. ‘Oh I think so, dear. A good judge of character is my wife. For the birds indeed—the good, hungry birds.’
Irish writer Stephen Gildea-Young is a former sports journalist now living in northern Italy. Currently working on his first novel, Whistling Mr Clinke, his short story work has appeared in Crossways Literary Magazine and featured on the podcast Bob’s Short Story Hour. For more on Stephen visit www.twitter.com/gildeayoung.