I first saw the man who caused my downfall when I was thirteen years old, in Drumshevra, County Monaghan, not six miles from my home.
I was high up in a tree, collecting apples. It was early morning, bright and sharp. I’d left my bicycle and our red dog with Generous McCabe, a relation of ours known all around the district for his wildness and his wealth and who was as old as the century itself. When I was small he’d get down on his haunches so we could meet eye to eye. No one else did that, not the priest nor the master nor my own father even. I took in the cool air in the crown of the tree. I dropped the apples into my sack. I looked all around me. Clouds ran in the sky. A white mist hung over a trough in the land like a rising of ghosts.
The mist rustled and waved and a man stepped through. I hadn’t seen him coming. It was as if he’d been born in the mist. I thought I knew everyone in the townland, but I didn’t know him. He was tall and fair. He moved through the grass to a stream lined with willows, splashed water on his face, drank from cupped hands. I held still and watched him. Arrows of light shot through the trees and flashed on the running water. He studied the light and I studied him. Still as he was he seemed to be doing something and whatever it was there was nothing else in the world for him but it.
After a long while he rose. He stepped into a small round arena bound by the trees. The air was blue there, the globs and shafts of light white and gold. They passed over his body, soft, dappling. He held out his arms. He began to move around the perimeter of the clearing like that, arms out, side-stepping. A little dip at the knees like he could hear music. He watched the play of light, on his body, in the air. His mouth was open, his eyes bright. He was like a saint in rapture. Then he stepped into the centre of the clearing and lifted an armful of fallen willow leaves and launched them up over his head. They fell around him like a shower of sparks, green and gold in the play of light through the trees. He did it again. And then a third time. What a thing to see, I thought, here in Drumshevra, early on an autumn morning. Anybody doing something like that around here, you’d think they’d at least be laughing. But his face was serious, intent. I watched. I wondered what he’d do next.
But he stopped. He’d heard something. He stepped out from the trees and looked to his left. His eyes narrowed and the life left his face. I watched the line of his gaze. A white van I’d never seen before came off a lane and pulled in under the willows. The man moved towards it. And then, strange to say – it is still strange now to think on it even when I know so much more than I did then – I saw my brother Dermot step out of the driver’s side of the van. Dermot could not be there. He was hauling bags of cement on a site in Birmingham. He’d been in it the past eight months. Or so I’d heard from people I thought had never told me an untruth. I squinted to get a sharper look. It was him. It had to be. The long arms, the helpless shrug, the way he wrinkled his nose like a rabbit when he was at a task.
Everything went very fast then. A blue car pulled up, the van doors swung open. Goods were shifted from van to car. Some were in boxes, others wrapped in blankets. I couldn’t make out what they were. Then Dermot drove off the way he came and the car with the tall fair stranger in it set off to the east. Mist closed over their tracks.
I watched the spot, wondering if it had happened at all.
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