The Abduction by Paul Cezanne
What Thornton did that evening, what I saw him do, was as strange to me as the girl who came home without her baby. When John returned from London in early summer, I wanted to tell him about Thornton, but my brother had changed. He'd lost weight and his eyes no longer shone with anything other than despair. He came home stripped of his smile and of his youth, greeting our parents awkwardly and kissing Colette on the cheek. He gave me a brief nod, the way you would to a stranger, and said no more that day.
I had dreamed often of my brother, dreamed him home from London and back the way he had always been, except for his mind, which in my dreams was always as cold as a winter gale raging in off the Atlantic. Once I saw him standing in the doorway, pointing an accusatory finger. A knife glistened in his other hand and then began to dance, making patterns all around him. When it slid from his fingers all shiny and slick, I saw the awful wound in his side, and him probing around in there, trying to find reasons for the way he felt. He pulled out a mess of viscera and held it towards me. Smiling, he said "They're yours now, little brother."
I woke to feel a dark fist clenched about my heart, squeezing a quiet terror into my veins. I mumbled a half-remembered prayer, and demanded of God that he send my brother home and not the stranger I'd dreamed into being.
John had worked the farm with Father. I had an older brother, Noel, who was in Alaska now, laying oil pipelines. He came home every three or four years, but never really having known him, I'd never really missed him. John was different. Despite the fact that I was eight years younger, I had always felt that he was as much my friend as my brother. He'd been my source of knowledge about the world and the people in it. He took me to the pictures most weeks and gave me all his books. It was John who told me about girls and sex, and to not feel guilty about wanking. He said the proper word was masturbation, and said that most fellas did it at some time or other, and that those who said they didn't were liars. He taught me all the old stories and legends of Drumassan: of the tinker and his horse who drowned one night in the lake; of the Protestant Squire murdered in 1919, who was still said to haunt the crumbling Rectory; and of the night a burning Blackthorn tree lit up the hills north of the village, and how the next day Jack Crowley's body had been dug up from a shallow grave not six feet from the ruins of the tree. And he spoke too of the hardness and cruelty of life, and said that the only way to survive was to dance around creation and never let her hold you still.
But that all ended when I told my friend Georgie O'Connor something I'd sworn not to tell. I never thought Georgie would repeat it, but kids have no use for secrets unless they've someone to tell. When the story got out, John's girl was sent off to England, and when he found out, he knew who to blame. But he never did, never said a word, just took off one night and followed her to London. She returned two months later, the baby no longer in her stomach, nor anywhere at all. But John didn't come back, just sent a card to Mother saying he was well and working on the sites, and to me, not a word. Father hired Donie Thornton, a boy of eighteen, to help manage the farm, and for a short while I'd thought we might be friends and talk about films and girls, the way I had with John. But it wasn't long before Thornton disabused me of this notion.
"D'ya always have to be mopin' round me?" Thornton said one time. "Is it the way you've no pals of yer own?"
"I used to help John," I said. "He would tell me things."
"I ain't yer fucking brother, so get that straight. And I don't have time to fuck about." He put a fist against my chest and shoved me into the drain. "Jesus, watch yerself, you'll ruin yer clothes."
Guilt lingered in me for having driven John away, and I felt I deserved some form of punishment for my act of betrayal. Thornton must have sensed this, and so obliged me with some new torment on every occasion that our paths crossed. Even so, I couldn't hate him. Like me, he had a role to play.
And then I saw the thing he did in the sultry heat of the piggery. My initial fright gave way to curiosity. It puzzled me, why someone would do that, and what it meant. This failure to understand worried me and made me miss John all the more. He would have explained it so that the world once again made sense.
Only John wasn't there. But then he was.
We took turns killing crows with Georgie's .22 rifle. We lay in the scrub at the edge of a copse overlooking a field of barley that shimmered in the hazy sunshine. A line of telephone poles laden with glint-eyed birds marched across the killing ground. Georgie had scored five, I just the one. Neither my mind nor heart was focussed on the slaughter. I'd hoped to talk to John this morning, but he'd stayed late in bed. I'd heard him come in last night, his voice drifting up the stairs, slurred and brutal as he raged at Drumassan. I saw it in Mother's eyes at breakfast, a look that said, "leave it be."
"Have another crack at it," Georgie said, removing a finger from his nose to examine his find.
I took the rifle and sighted along the barrel, sweat trickling into my eyes as I raised it towards a pole. Nothing there, so I swung it towards the ditch. In the two years since John had left, I'd grown used to his absence, found that I could, after all, live without him. I still had my parents, and though my sister was a pain, I loved her after a fashion. Life went on, only in different ways. So what was it made me feel so tense and ill at ease? Was it that having wished so long for John to come home, what I'd got was someone else in his body? Like in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers? Certainly it wasn't the John that I remembered. Perhaps I was thinking that way so as to avoid the simple truth, which was that John would never again be my friend.
"Christ, Liam, shoot the bastard," George said, pointing to a large crow atop the pole.
I swung the rifle, aimed and squeezed the trigger. Too fast. The bird flew off on drowsy, taunting wings.
"What a fucking hames," Georgie said, lying on his back. "What's up with you?" He took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt and lit one for himself. "Have you ever seen your sister starkers?" he asked.
If there was one thing Georgie always came back to, it was sex. He was obsessed with it. But then, as well that as anything else. I turned on my side, facing away from Georgie. Colette was sixteen and imagined that she had reached a level of sophistication beyond the reach of most boys in Drumassan. She was certainly unattainable to any thirteen year-old. Invariably, when Georgie and I were together, the subject of Colette would come up, and he'd ply me with questions about what colour knickers she wore, her toilet habits and so on. But she held no fascination for me. The truth was, I considered her a bore.
"Do you ever think about her when you're pulling your wire?"
Why would George ask a question like that? Dumb ignorance? Or did he seriously think it was a possibility? "No," I replied. "I usually think about Helen." Helen was Georgie's eldest sister, but even so, I was lying because the girls I fantasized about only existed in books or inside my head.
"That cow?" Georgie said. "Sure she thinks she's God's fucking gift. Head the size of Cork and an arse to match."
"My brother fancied her."
"Did he do the business?"
"Not everyone is only after the ride."
"Yes they are," Georgie was certain. "Except maybe you. Why'd ya always have to be so fucking different?"
"Different how?" I asked, turning towards him.
"Jay, any fella in his right mind wants to get his hole."
I wondered if that were true. "And what if you couldn't?"
"What d'you think God gave us hands for?"
"I didn't mean that."
"What did you mean?"
"Nothing, forget it. Do you ever talk much—to your brothers?"
"Just talking, anything. Like you talk to me."
"Talking bollix, you mean?"
I sighed. Even now Georgie remained unaware of the pain he had caused by blabbing about John's girlfriend. I'd never pulled him up about it, knowing that he'd meant no harm. But since then, I was more careful about what I told Georgie. For a while I'd considered telling him what I'd seen Thornton do, to see if any of his brothers had ever described such a thing. But the thought of word getting back to Thornton kept me silent. After breakfast, I'd hung round the yard waiting for Georgie. Thornton had sauntered towards me from the barn.
"Made a show of himself last night," Thornton said.
"Who?" I said.
"Yer prick of a brother." Something like glee burned in his eyes. "Thinking he can come waltzing back any time he wants. He's got another fucking thing coming, so he has."
I turned away.
"Mark my words," Thornton called. "Ya little cunt." I left the yard, Thornton's malice sucking at my resolve, thinking of John and of the creature into which he had been transformed. Home nearly a week, he seemed to have lost his zest for life. He spoke to our parents in monosyllables and to me hardly at all. Is it my fault, the way he is now, I'd asked myself, or was it something else changed him? What had kept him in London, even after his girl came home? I imagined London as a vast and wonderful place, a world of punk rockers, skinheads and other mythical creatures. Was it that essential difference to home, that unfamiliarity, that had held him there?
Later, Georgie remembered that his sister, Patsy, and some of her friends were swimming down by the Graney. He suggested we go and spy on them. I thought about going home to try and talk to John, to ask him about Thornton. Surely the bond between us was not completely broken? But doubt festered inside me like a tumour, and it wasn't hard to let Georgie persuade me to go with him. As we walked through the fields, Georgie held out the promise of a glimpse of forbidden glories. He said, "Sure, if we're lucky, we might get to see their tits."
I nodded, dry-throated, trying not to think of how I'd spied on Thornton, telling myself that the thoughts that quickened my breath were not in the least impure. Quite the opposite: they were motivated by a quest for knowledge, and what could be purer than that?
My brother lurched through the door in the late afternoon, eyes glazed and reeking of drink. He collapsed into an armchair and winked drunkenly at Colette. He said nothing to me, so I pretended to carry on watching tv.
Mother came in from the kitchen. "Look at the state of you," she said to John. "You're a disgrace."
"Oh Mam," Colette said. "Can't you leave him be?"
"Lord knows," John said, his voice slurring, "it's a fucking crying shame a man can't have a drink without being lectured."
"Please, John," Mother said. "There's no call for that sort of language."
"What harm is it?" he said. He winked at Colette again, as if she were part of his drunken game. At that moment I felt torn between my mother and my brother, not wanting them to fight, not wanting to have to take sides.
"In all fairness," John continued, "no one ever died of cursing."
"I won't have it," Mother said. "Not in my house."
Colette said, "Why must you always be at him? He's not home a week and you're already trying to drive him out."
"This has nothing to do with you." Mother said. "No one asked your opinion."
"Well maybe you should."
"If your father heard the way you talk to me!"
"What would he do? Beat me? The way he did John, and Noel?"
"Shut up for fuck's sake, both of ye," John said. He stood up and stormed out into the yard.
"It isn't enough that ye drove him away the first time," Colette said, bitterly. "How much more do ye want him to suffer?"
I followed John out into the yard. "Where's the pre-pubescent off to?" I heard Colette call after me.
I found him up in the mill, staring out an open window, at a tractor become part of the field, grass growing out of the silent engine. John glanced at me. "Jesus," was all he said.
I waited for something more. He lit a cigarette and nodded to where the falling sun turned the tractor's rust to gold. "First one I ever drove," he said, then was silent again.
The quietness settled on us like a shroud. To break it, I said, "I'm glad you're home," though I was no longer sure that it was true.
"I won't be staying," he said. "I've me own life to lead now."
My heart was filled with a terrible sadness. I wanted to be brave, to ask his forgiveness, but I didn't know how. "I might go to London when I'm older," I said.
"T'wouldn't suit you. Ya gotta gave a head on you, know what you're about and mind that—not any other fella's business."
The implication being that I didn't know what I was about. The bitter truth was that he hadn't forgiven me, and would probably never do so. "I want to say something to you," I said, afraid to meet his gaze. The words came with difficulty to my lips, more difficult even than Confession, and in my head I prayed that he would understand and that things might be as they once had been. "After you went, I used to dream about you nearly every night. I couldn't bear it that you never said so long. I know I was the cause of it all, but honestly, I never meant to say anything."
John smiled, and for a moment my heart lifted, till I saw it was a smile of contempt. "Never mind what you meant, you did it anyway."
"I'm sorry John, I thought I could trust someone."
"Trust someone? Who?"
"It doesn't matter, it was my fault."
"Fucking Jesus, it matters to me, it matters that you broke your promise and gabbed to some bigmouth pal." The anger in John's voice was chilling. Bitterness burned in his eyes, and I saw no acceptance or forgiveness there. I tried to speak but the tongue felt glued to the roof of my mouth. I was scared, I realized, though not nearly so much as I was scared by the brother in my dream.
John stubbed his cigarette on the sill and said, "There's nothing between us now. There never will be again." Then he pushed past me and stormed out into the brooding fullness of the evening sky.
I thumbed a lift to Dunmellon and browsed for an hour in the town's second-hand bookshop before coming to a decision. I bought two books by Philip K. Dick. It was the titles that hooked me, and the weird, unsettling images they conjured up in my mind. They were Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, titles whose meaning were puzzles, the answers to which, I thought, could be revealed only in dreams.
I bought a Mars bar with the change, then walked out the Drumassan road to hitch a ride home. I sat on the ditch by the roadside and read "On Tuesday, October 11, 1988, the Jason Taverner Show ran thirty seconds short." I wondered where I'd be in 1988, and whether or not the world would make more sense. Last night I'd sat in a white room with John and tried to make him understand. But there had been some sort of invisible barrier between us which blocked my words. John seemed unaware of my presence. Tired and frustrated, I sat in a chair, isolated, cut off from the world. I dozed and when I woke, there were a crowd of people sitting on John's side of the room, including Colette, our parents, Noel and Thornton. They were staring and pointing at me, talking and laughing among themselves, but I could hear no words they spoke.
Recalling the dream, I tried to make sense of what my isolation might mean. Was I being punished for seeing things in a different way to Georgie, or Colette? If I was different, did that mean they were normal? Was John? And what about Thornton? Over the last few months, I'd become aware of patterns of behaviour into which I didn't seem to fit. Did that mean there was something wrong with me? Simply by virtue of difference? Surely the world could accommodate more types of people than were to be found in Drumassan?
A lorry from Drumassan Co-op hove into view. I slid down from the ditch and stuck out a thumb. The lorry slowed to a halt and the door swung open. I climbed up into the cab and grinned at the driver.
"Been in town, ha Laddie?" the driver said. I knew his face, vaguely, but not his name. I nodded and showed him my books.
"At the books? Ya can't beat a good read, so ya can't." The lorry groaned, shuddered, then moved on towards Drumassan. "You're Noel Collin's youngest boy, are ya?"
"That's right," I said, enjoying the view. High up in the driver's cab, it always felt more like flying to me than driving along a country road.
"I seen your brother the other night in Tallamount. A fine man. He's working now, across the water, yes?"
"Carpentering, I heard?"
"I think so." I didn't know what John did on London's building sites, but no way was I going to admit my ignorance.
"He's married now, is he?"
"No," I said. What did he mean, John married? Who told him that?
"Christ no, t'was yer one he put up the pole, I was thinking of." He turned and flashed me a yellow-toothed smile. "Would you like a smoke, Laddie? Reach up there and light a couple." He nodded towards the dash.
"I don't smoke."
"Sound, no problem. Just light the one for me." I did so and passed him the cigarette. He took it and held my hand for a second or two. "So he's with some other one now, eh? T'is a wonder he didn't bring her home?"
I pretended to yawn to disguise my confusion and unease.
"English, is she? Right fast, I'd say."
I guessed the drivers meaning but was puzzled by his interest. Was he an old friend of my brother's? If he wasn't, I daren't say anything about John. Speaking about him had already cost me his friendship. I said, "Sure, he tells me nothing."
"Nothing at all, eh?" the driver said, grinning. "I heard they're right fast altogether, the English ones. Do anything at all, they would, the whole business." He took a hand from the wheel and put it down in his trousers, fidgeting about there. When he placed it back on the wheel, he said, "Gives a man a stir just thinking about them."
"I wouldn't know," I said, my throat dry, my mind reeling.
As we came to the lake he pulled into a lay-by. He cut the engine and sighed. "Did you ever get your hole, young lad?"
I shook my head, and wondered if he could hear the heart booming in my chest. Was this what terror meant?
"But I'll bet you've thought of it, eh? Pulled your wire a few times, yes?" He leaned towards me, his stale breath wafting over my face. "By Jesus," he whispered. "I've a prick on me like a rod of steel. What could a man do for that?" I saw his prick standing up through his open fly and backed away across the seat. He grabbed my hand and forced it down to his crotch. His prick twitched in my fist. Fear sapped the strength from my bones and I felt a sense of absolute helplessness. These, I could understand, but not the curiosity that bubbled up in my mind. The driver moaned. "Pull it hard," he said, smiling stupidly at me, then reached over with his other hand and groped me through my jeans.
My mind screamed, and somehow I found the will to snatch my hand away from the driver and shout, "I have to go now. Me ma and da are expecting me home soon."
The driver grunted, "What?" as if startled from a dream. Then, contritely, red-faced, he withdrew his hand from my jeans and said, "Right, of course." He turned the key in the ignition, pulled out into the road and drove on. He was silent till he stopped outside my house, and then he said, "Be sure and tell your folks I was asking for them."
One thing John had told me: be careful about whom you trust. I remembered a time when it had been easy to trust the world and all the people in it. Ancient history. Truth and trust were just words that adults used to get you to do what they wanted. I sat at the table with Colette's dog, a mean Jack Russell called Kim, standing atop it, ears cocked and lowly growling. I stuck a finger out towards him, waiting for him to snap. Kim obliged, but I was too fast.
"Get that dog off the table," Father said, coming in from the yard. I poked my tongue out at the dog. He sat back on his haunches, tongue lolling as if imitating me. Father came and sat beside me, put an arm around my shoulder. He looked weary, the creases of his face lined with dirt. "What scutting have ya been up to today, ha?"
"No more than the usual," I told him, glad of his closeness, feeling safe from the strangeness of the world.
"Oh aye, that bad?" He laughed and ruffled my hair. "You're pleased your brother's home?"
I couldn't look him in the eye as I shrugged my shoulders. He sighed. "People change, Liam, whether we want them to or not."
We were eating supper when John came in, drunk. He collapsed into an armchair and started cursing us for what seemed all the sins of the world. "What would keep me here?" he raged. "When I've made a life for meself? I've me own money now, and I'll be wanting fuck all from ye."
"For God's sake John, you can't speak to your father that way," Mother said. "After all we've done for you."
"Christ, that's rich! Done for me? Kept me working this fucking place, holding me back, ruining my chances."
"No one forced you to stay," Father said.
"For God's sake, Da," Colette said. I looked across the table and saw that she was seething.
"Like fuck," John went on. "And what about Katherine? We'd a been married now if the two of ye hadn't..."
"You were eighteen, for the love of God," Mother said. "You didn't know what you were doing."
"And ye knew best, ye interfering fuckers."
Father rose and went to the front door. Holding it open, he turned back to John. "If you want to go, son, then go. But I won't tolerate that sort of talk in my own house."
John leapt up and staggered towards him, fists raised. "Fuck you and your bastard house. It means nothing to me."
Something in my father cracked, and he swung at John. I watched in horror as John ducked the blow and punched Father in the face. Blood sprayed like rain from his nose, spattering his grey shirt. He staggered back and slumped to the floor as Mother and Colette began to scream. Anger and pity welled up inside me. Before I knew what I was doing, I'd launched myself at my brother, fists flailing and curses flying off my tongue. John fell back beneath my onslaught, then turned and back-handed me across the temple. I went down on my knees, dazed. Someone knelt beside me, speaking furious words of indignation.
"What business had you getting involved?" Colette. "Jesus, all of ye provoking him like that." When I opened my eyes, John had gone.
Father sat in the doorway, tears mixed with the blood on his face. "Provoke him?" he said, shaking his head.
"You hate him," Colette accused, before hurrying from the room.
That night I saw the dead. My grandparents, an uncle, a cousin—Betty—crushed beneath the wheels of a truck, others whose faces I no longer recalled, and someone else in their midst: a boy about my size whose face was featureless apart from a smile. Happy among the dead. I woke, trembling. John would go soon, then Colette, in a year or two. One day my parents would die, and I'd be alone. Kindness and security, love and warmth: these are the things that bind us. Only there comes a time when things fall apart and people lose sight of these things. I saw it happening and saw that I was to blame. When I was born, that was the start. Noel went before I knew him, and John was no longer John. The day would come when I'd re-enact all that he had lived through. I'd marry and have children of my own one day, and then one day, they would leave me. When you die you die alone, no matter who's by your side. I considered this, long into the night, uncomprehending, fearful. What was this chaos that ripped the roots from my world? Was there something in me, something more than mere difference, something evil? Difference here, in Drumassan, was no more than a sin. People were wary of me, could look only sidewise at my face, as if I were cursed. I was helpless against the cold hostility of the adult world, a hostility that would one day swallow me up and spit out someone new, a stranger I would never know.
I trudged home alone late in the afternoon. I'd been fishing with Georgie at the lake, but it hadn't gone well; not only had we caught nothing, but Georgie had sensed my preoccupation and listlessness and had spent the afternoon baiting me more than his hook. "Ya fucking mope," he'd said. "You've a face on ya like a sop in a sow's hole."
I hadn't responded. Suddenly, the joys of summer seemed jaded and forlorn, like last Christmas's toys. I envied Georgie's carefree attitude, his lack of worry, his unforced smile. I felt that all those things were in the past for me, and that the world of adulthood was one of grim compromise and uncertainty. If only I knew how to resist the forces of chaos that seemed to be acting through me, then perhaps I could reshape the world according to my own will, make it be the way it once had been.
"Sure, if ya had a good wank, 't'would do ya a world of good." Georgie was a great advocate for the healing effects of masturbation, but I knew that in my own case, it would take something more. There was so much in life that I'd only recently become aware of, but which made no sense to me, so many rituals I didn't understand. That was the key to it all, I felt: understanding. If I knew what things meant—John's anger, Colette's hatred, Thornton's strange ritual in the piggery—then I'd see where I'd gone wrong. I could learn to accept, I could—what was the word?—could be assimilated. That meant I'd be like everyone else. That was what I wanted above all other things.
When I got home, I put my fishing tackle in an outhouse and then spied Thornton driving thirty or so cows and calves into the barn for the night. "Hey, Donie," I called.
Thornton beat a tardy animal on the back with a stick, ushering it into the barn. "Go on with ya, lazy whore," he said. He swung the gate closed and, ignoring me, he set off across the yard and out into the field beyond. He'd finished for the day and was off home, I guessed. But I felt compelled to talk to him, and now seemed as good a time as any. I followed him, not hurrying, but walking on twenty or so yards behind, across the field and on down the valley that sloped away behind the farm, crossing two more fields till he reached the boreen that led to his home. He turned and leaned his back against the gate, watching as I walked down the slope towards him. He lit a cigarette and flicked away the match the way I'd seen Humphrey Bogart do.
"You following me, ya little fucker?"
"No," I said, awkwardly. Then, feeling stupid, "Well, yes, I suppose."
My heart beat frantically and I felt beads of sweat trickle down the side of my face. Could I go through with this? Would Thornton reveal the meaning of what he'd done? For a second or two, as panic threatened to overwhelm me, I was on the verge of fleeing. Instead, I climbed the gate and sat on the top bar. A crow cawed somewhere in the distance, maybe one I'd spared the other day. "There's something I want to ask you," I said.
"Thornton took a long pull on his cigarette. "What?"
"There's things I don't understand." It was best not to look down; down was where a crack had opened in the earth, dark and deep and dreadful. I was teetering on the edge, but even so, I forced myself to go on. "Important things I need to know."
"What am I?" Thornton laughed. "Your fucking teacher?"
"When John lived at home, he used to tell me things, explain whatever I didn't understand."
"A great one for the explanations," Thornton said. "Oh for sure."
"It's hard for me, now."
"Don't talk to me. I know what he's been up to, all right. Nothing escapes me." When he spoke these last words, Thornton glared at me, as if in warning. "A right fucking idiot and no mistake. Sure, what did he want running after that whore anyway?"
"That was one of the things I never understood," I said, feeling intoxicated with curious dread.
"No mystery at all, a matter of hole," Thornton said, bursting into laughter. When he saw that I'd failed to appreciate his wit, he grimaced and said, "What is it you want anyway, ya little wanker?"
"I don't want people to hate me," I said, defiantly.
"Impossible," Thornton said. "You're such a cunt that people can't help but hate ya."
I closed my eyes so as not to see his anger. "I never thought John would stop dancing, but he did. I think it's my fault."
"What the Christ are ya jabbering on about?"
"I need to understand creation." I swayed atop the gate like a drunken child. "Like that thing you did. Once I would've thought that was a sin, but John told me that sin was in the mind. What did it mean?" I opened my eyes; the sky bled into the earth.
Thornton frowned. "You're fucking touched, I swear to God. Sin? All that shite, that's all bollix."
"But what did it mean, what you did?"
Confusion spread across his face. "What I did?" he croaked.
"A while back," I went on, fists clenched at my sides, still swaying back and forth on the gate. "In the piggery."
Thornton's face darkened, and his words, when they came, were slow and dry and full of menace. "Saw what in the piggery?"
I raised the fists to my eyes so that I could see the red of the evening sun through the skin of my fingers. I was afraid, but more importantly, I sensed that I was on the verge of some vital revelation. "With your pants down and the pig's back legs in your wellingtons, fucking it like it was some girl."
A silence so complete that even the birds and insects were hushed fell on the world. I clenched my fists still tighter till even the red glow was extinguished. In this place, I told myself, it was safe to ask such questions.
Then I dropped my hands and saw that it was no longer safe. Thornton grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me down into the field. Half a dozen blows rained about my head, knocking me senseless. "Ya fucking cunting little sneak," I heard. "I'll teach ya to mind your own fucking business." After a while, I didn't feel too much, just heard his laboured breathing as he laid in with fists and boots and curses; but it seemed that I was elsewhere, an unreliable witness to the beating of some other kid.
The sun had gone when I found that I was still in the world. The sky was rapidly darkening, and a cool drizzle was falling on the quiet land. I tried to sit up, but the pain I felt was testament to the hammering I'd received. My nose was thick with crusted blood and snot, and the flesh around my eyes felt puffed and swollen. All down one side I felt the bruises where Thornton had kicked me. But more than pain, I felt anger and a sense of betrayal. I'd been honest with Thornton, admitting my inability to make sense of what he'd done. Was it right that he batter me for my lack of understanding? Was that what it meant to fuck a pig? It gave you the right and the power to punish the ignorant? If you did that, it led to this? Or was there something more? I remembered the rage in his eyes just before he'd dragged me down into the field. Rage and something else. Guilt, shame, despair. People didn't love pigs, not in that way; he used the pig, used it in place of someone, used it because he could, because he had power over it. John said once that the world was full of lies. He was right.
I lay still for a while, letting the rain dribble between my lips, grateful for the taste. Eventually, the rain stopped, and I watched the moon rise from the mountains. I tried to stand again, and this time I managed it. I opened the gate and staggered out onto the boreen. I walked slowly along its winding route, up out of the valley, till I came out on the main road about three-quarters of a mile from my home. But I could walk no further. I slumped down beneath a lamp-post and felt my mind slipping into darkness.
"Hey!" a voice called out from beyond the pool of light. "What's up?" A voice slurred with drink. I opened my eyes and saw John stumbling into view. I shivered, tried to stand, and failed.
"Jay, what're them tears?" John said, crouching down in front of me, his body rocking back and forth on unsteady haunches. "Been in a scrape, uh?"
"Fuck off," I told him, fighting back bitter tears. If John had still been my friend, I wouldn't have had to take this beating.
"Like that, is it?" John said. He hawked up phlegm and spat out into the darkness. "Soon as I'm gone, everyone forgets me."
Still angry, I said, "I never forgot you. I thought about you every day."
"Yes, yes," he spoke softly. "Hold still a second till I take a look at ya." He held my chin and turned my face gently from side to side. "Lord, that's an awful beating you've took. Who was it?"
I pushed his hand aside and shook my head.
"Can't say? I know what that's like. But, but..." his voice trailed away in the night.
I looked up and saw tears rolling down his cheeks. "I only wanted to know the things that the other fellas know," I said. "You always told me to ask questions, to understand things, not to judge people."
"I did, yes," John said. "I'm sorry, Liam." It was the first time he'd spoke my name since he'd come home.
"I asked a question because I wanted to understand. I don't want to be different anymore. I want to be like other people, like you."
John shook his head and reached under my arms. He stood and lifted me up against his chest. "No, kid. Ya can't do that, ya don't want to," he whispered, walking out of the light. "Yer different whether ya like it or not. We all are. We're all fucked up, except maybe you." He carried me along the road towards home, unsteady with drink, and I felt safe and loved once more, the way I'd felt as a young boy a lifetime ago. When we reached the yard he lowered me to my feet and said, "Okay now? Manage from here?"
"Aren't you coming in?"
"It's too late for that," John said. He leaned down and kissed my forehead, then rose and began to walk away.
"Wait," I said, my heart bursting. "Can't you come home?"
He smiled drunkenly and waved. "Some fellas, Liam," he said, "they can never come back." Then he turned and staggered away into the night beyond our home.
My flesh is purified, as white as the day I was born; the stains are all inside my head. John stands at the door, knifeless, unseeing, lost. Out in the world, somebody weeps in the night. There is nothing I can do to lesson any hurt but my own. I don't sleep but dream instead of a world where fear, lies and shame do not exist; it is not possible in this one, outside this dream. Flames burn in John's eyes, silencing the real things he has to say, consuming who he might have been. I see this even though my eyes are shut tight against life.
The moans of beasts echo through the night. A world seeps through the crack of the dream, and with it, the smell of smoke and burning hide. I open my eyes but John is no longer in the room. Outside, the cattle are lowing and the sky is all aglow.
Aglow like Hell.
I woke with a shudder and opened my eyes to stare through the window at a night sky turned chimney red. Great clouds of fiery smoke bloomed up from the yard, and the night was full with dreadful sounds. I went to the window and saw the commotion in the yard. There was Father hurling bucket after bucket of useless water at a blaze which crackled and swallowed them up, and Mother, helpless and shocked beside him, mute with the horror of it all.
I dressed as quickly as I could, my body hurting all over. I went downstairs and out into the yard, where Colette was screaming for somebody to for God's sake save the animals. Her face was black with smoke and tears, and I saw there were things that she, too, didn't understand. And above her screams and the snapping flames came the awful, sickening roars of the trapped animals, cows and calves, as they were roasted alive in the inferno. People poured into the yard, rushing to help my father, throwing buckets of water at the flames until, realizing the futility of their efforts, they simply stood and stared in silent fascination.
I stood beside my mother. She looked at me, touched my battered face but said nothing. She turned back to the flames, and I saw her lips move in useless prayer. By the time the fire engines came, nobody was fighting the fire. Men and women stood back in weary silence as the hungry flames sated themselves on the bones of the building. The animals it held were all dead and hushed.
Neighbours consoled my parents, as shocked and horrified as they. Others exchanged views amongst themselves as to how such a tragedy had come to pass. I stood alone in the shadow of the house, hearing words like "negligence" and "compensation," and more sinister phrases such as "a bad sort," and "bound to happen." I understood that more than love or joy or kindness, people's hearts were filled with greed and spite and fear. Knowing this, I wanted no part of it. I fled inside and back up to my room. I closed the curtains, undressed and lay down to sleep. I dreamed, but not of John, nor of any other living being.
On the second morning after the fire, I woke to a sky blue with promise. But it was a false promise. The smell of grief and burnt fat lingered over the farm, and people were still calling in to console and speculate. In truth, I felt, the tragedy had made us into celebrities. Even the Cork Examiner had sent someone down to do a story on the fire. I read the paper at breakfast. "Cattle Burned To Death In Mystery Blaze," the headline said, and underneath it "Gardai Suspect Arson."
Out into the yard I saw Pad the Post, Babs Regan and Nancy Hegarty, their backs turned to me, standing before the blackened shell of the barn. I listened a while to what they were saying.
"They say," said Babs Regan, "they say t'was the son."
"The fella that's home from England?" Pad the Post asked. "Sure enough, there's been no sight nor sound of him since it happened."
"An awful thing," Nancy Hegarty chipped in. "Poor Noel."
Babs Regan leant forward conspiratorially. "Sure wasn't Noel after throwing him out two days before?"
"T'is true for you," said Pad the Post. "There was no love lost between them."
"Wasn't he lighting drunk every night up in The Star, making an awful show of himself?"
"And where is he now?" Nancy Hegarty wanted to know.
"Far from here, mark my words." Seeing me, Pad nodded at the two women and put a finger to his lips. "All right there, young man? An awful thing to happen."
I saw that they too had failed to understand. John was not the only one who had fled Drumassan, though he was the only one whose absence condemned him. Thornton was gone too, though nobody bothered to ask why. After all, people said, what was there to hold him now? Yet who would tell them the truth of fucking pigs, of lonely men reaching inside young boys' trousers, and of burning cattle? Who would tell them the things they never spoke of, the things they didn't want to hear?
I forced a smile and danced surreptitiously towards the liars, knowing I'd have to live among them for some time yet to come.
Mike has been writing for about seven years and has had over 30 stories published, mostly in British science fiction and fantasy magazines, including Interzone, BBR, Third Alternative, Fear, Far Point, and Works. He's also sold to the anthologies Darklands 2, The Sun Rises Red, Last Rites & Resurrections, and all four volumes of Cold Cuts, as well as in two American anthologies, both edited by Ellen Datlow, which are Off Limits and Lethal Kisses, and in Thomas Roche's Noirotica 3. He says, "I admire writers like Jonathan Carroll and Lucius Shepard,and newer writers like Jeff Vandermeer and Martin Simpson, in that they all seem to transcend genre boundaries, which is something I hope stories like 'Dancing with Creation' succeed in doing. The story is one of a series of a dozen or so set in an imaginary village in the south-west of Ireland where I grew up. My memories of childhood are all tangled up with early dreams and nightmares, to such an extent that I find it hard to separate what was real and what I only imagined. Whatever, these confused memories are the source of these stories and of Drumassan itself, which is not to say they're real, only that they might have been. Maybe the strange childhood events depicted in these stories were only the result of my too vivid imagination, but if these stories can make them real in minds other than my own, then that's enough for me.