Hail battered the hooded man and dark suffering horse, tapping any will left in either to continue the journey. A quivering hand touched the prod. The man hesitated, before issuing blow upon blow to the frightened creature. Lightning scattered the skies, unearthing, for an instant, a line of gaunt, wintered trees taunting the pair from either side of their trail. The horse strained to a speed and through the dark ahead. The man, lowering his gaze and shutting his eyes, tried to quieten his frantic thoughts. He realised he was crying and felt boyish shame. The horse’s pace lessened once more. The man relented, slumped and warmed his stinging wet cheek with a woollen glove. He heard the wheezing gasps of the horse’s breathing. She would not last much longer in this state. The winds rose into a frenzy, its morbid tune whistled high, piercing through his felt hood. Letting it fall, he straightened up, tilted his bare head back and cried out. The bellow paled to the force of the wind. His voice dissolved back into the night, and the man into himself – a strange, absent grin left etched on his face. The lights of a town came into view.
Through empty cobbled streets, and alleys of rain, the man walked his black horse toward a greenish hew of light hovering in the distance, an inn. Engulfed in the green hew, leaving the horse untied below, he took the handful of stone steps to the front door. He knocked calmly – a staggered, short, soft rhythm. It remained unheard for fifteen minutes. Its persistence finally caught an ear in a brief rest-bite of howling wind.
“Get in, get in out of that, will ya! I’ll take care of himself. Jesus, not even locked up – what are you playing at!” said the man who answered. He rushed to the horse, calmed her, and led her away.
Lively piano music drifted through the hall. The traveller stepped into the hall. He stood still on creaking boards, dripping wet. He gleamed green wallpaper with golden floral flourishes & lowered his head and attention once more.
“Hello? Frank, are you there?” said a voice, from the farthest room where the piano now aired a brittle melancholic ballad.
The man was silent, his head held down. His mind committed to a place between thought. The piano played on, joined with chatter and footsteps – a pair coming towards him. A young, tired but pretty, woman dotted her head around the door-frame, stared vacantly, and returned.
The drip of water on wood.
Steps, loud, unyielding, came toward the man.
He looked up having seen shoes at the foot of his gaze. Another equally worn-out, but older rosy-cheeked woman tore the battered, black coat off the man. As she did, she was muttering how unfortunate the weather, the time, and the occasion it was to have him. Leading him in, she asked he leave his boots for her to clean before he entered.
“A wedding?” said the man, almost lucid.
“A wake”, she said under her breath – darting her eyes in the direction of the coffin and back at him.
A silent man lay amid the scene of stout and whiskey drinking men and women. All in formal dress, all fretting over glasses or fabrics, busying their hands, blubbered out semi-sensical, semi-felt sentiments about the diseased. All stopping at times to stare with dull waning eyes into the deadman’s. The man sat at the bar, dulled in feeling, but still shivering.
“Cold!? You’re best next to the fire” said the groundskeeper who had tied up a distraught horse, & sank a pint of porter before the man had even managed to sit.
“I’m fine. Leave me”, said the traveller.
“Course! One of those enough-fire-in-their-belly-already types, are yeh? Don’t need the flames, so you don’t! Stop that nonsense, and warm your spirits by the fire, or by the spirits behind the bar – if you’re that fuckin’ stubborn!”
The groundskeeper turned to the bartender – the woman who had taken his coat, calling for a hot whiskey and two stouts. He left a curious eye on the traveller as he ordered.
“Who’s the man in the box?” said the traveller after a gulp of stout, while raising a steaming whiskey to his lips.
“He speaks!” said the groundskeeper, slapping his new company’s back.
The party began to dwindle and filter out, most ascending bare-wood stairs to their rooms. The two men shared drinks, intermittent with sparse, sharp words. Each eventually worn down through mutual disdain of environment to more agreeable terms.
“That horse of yours is an awful cunt, isn’t he!” said the groundskeeper.
“You’d be one too, if you went through that weather.”
“That’s your excuse then, hah?” said the groundskeeper, laughing red in face.
He soaked up the shameful looks from the few pious drunken patrons still lingering there, utterly unaffected by them. The piano player had left for bed. In her absence a brief mournful silence which soon gave way to slurred speech from all parts of the room. Few still feigned an air of properness. Subtle gestures for refills gave way to grunts. And pure disdainful looks pierced the pair laughing at the bar.
“Better keep it down, you’re getting the filthiest looks from these lot”, said the traveller.
“Ah, they’re just jealous. Playacting – the lot of them. No one in their right man could truly mourn that bastard.”
“Who is he?” said the man, only noticing he’d let the question lay
“He was the owner” said the bar-lady.
A silence took hold of the room, while a gust pelted the bay window looking out over the back garden.
“What happened to him?” the traveller asked in a new, almost civil, tone.
“What does it matter? The result’s the same, isn’t it!” said the groundskeeper, knocking back the clouds of a spent glass.
He knocked his hand on the bar gesturing for another round. The traveller had enough facility of mind to sense he should leave it. Rather, he asked the direction of the facilities of the body. Passing the open coffin, the smell of perfume caught him. He hesitated before looking in. The embalmed man wore a dark suit with a buttoned-down waist-coat. His legs lost in dark, closed end of the frilly white-laced interior. The face wasn’t as serene as death so often leaves it. There was tension, still, between his eyes – in his brow. Powder lay heavy on his cheek, and an ill-fitting shirt pinched tight at his breathless throat. He had hung himself, noticed the traveller – the rope marks faintly visible under that deep coat of powder.
“He tell ya anything good, yet?” asked the groundskeeper, in a raised, slurred voice.
Darting looks shot across the last of the attendees, silently agreeing this the moment to adjourn to their respective rooms – a perk of an inn-house owner’s wake. The traveller shook his head and left, thankful to be facing the roaring wind with a swimming gut and a shelter in mind. Emptying his bladder the man noticed the barn where his horse held up through a hole at the back of the outhouse. The furious storm raged over it, the door held by a tether of thread. Without a coat, or any real intention, the man paced toward his animal. The horse was laying down. A bad sign. The man felt a shallow remorse stirring beneath his blurred, drunken senses. He patted the beast while laying alongside him, and exhaustion took him. He slept there, for a time, a dreamless slumber, as the barn door rattled and banged.
“What in the name of fuck are ya at! Get up! Out!” said the groundskeeper.
“She’ll fucking murder ya if she catches ya here!”
The man, dazed and drunk, allowed his usher to lead him in, without issue. They traversed through a back door leading to the green-walled hall, and up to the uppermost room of the inn. When he awoke, he found himself, dart-upright and alone in an attic room with an old unlit fireplace. His panting breath froze before his eyes and the storm still raged, the night still firmly in place. He was startled awake, troubled by a dream. A vivid scene still etched in his mind’s eye. He dreamt he had heard a key through his door. Opening it, he found nothing there but heard low groans, that – he intuited, as you do in a dream – where that of the deadman, sounding through the halls. Feeling he must do something, that he must act, he paced hurriedly down the stairs and into the bar. There he found the man in the coffin seated upright, moaning and crying hysterically.
“Don’t cry, dear man, you’re okay. You’re okay.” said the traveller.
He stroke the blubbering man’s back, in an attempt to soothe him.
“I’m done, I’m gone, I’m done, I am” said the waking, stuttering, gasping corpse.
The man felt someone was behind him, and turned to see an old woman in a night gown – gripping her hands in fists at her sides, and glaring at him.
“Look what you did, you dirty, filthy excuse for a man!” she said in a low, stern, voice.
“I didn’t kill him, I didn’t do anything.” said the traveller in a panic.
The woman’s fury dispelled into tears, and she fell to the floor and wailed, rolling about in a fit. Agony etched on her face, her arms pulsated and pleading for a place to grip. The man turned back and away, the sound and sight of her anguish too much to bear. He saw that the man in the coffin had returned to his laying position, with blood pooling around him. The man attempted to lift him out, to save him before the pooling red engulfed the corpse’s face. As he grappled its sides, the ribs gave way under the pressure of the traveller’s grip. He felt his fingers sucked into the innards of the blood-spluttering body. Attempting to retrieve himself, the man found he was stuck. As the levels of red rose to the traveller’s chin, the woman’s reeling on the floor came closer. He felt her tug at his trousers for help. An eddy of blood formed in the coffin. It swirled and lifted him up and away from the lady’s grip, his head contorted and twisted – dragged into the flooded casket. The horrendous sound of the woman’s waling only subsiding as the gulping blood covered his ears, blinded his eyes and guzzled down his throat. Coughing for air, he woke. And he stayed like that, panting, and coated in sweat, too petrified to move for some time. Until the first rays of light and birdsong changed the colours of the room – and signalled the end of the storm.
That morning, the man listened to guests doddle and chat on the stairs. He heard them prepare and eat their breakfast. He heard them leaving for mass and walking about the grounds – exhibiting the worst of the storm’s havoc. He could not face them. He decided to stay hidden away until the inn seemed quiet. Yet he could not bear the room he stayed in, its cold, its straw-laced wooden floors. He felt rigid in his stiff sheets. It was three before the hunger finally became too much and he stood up – finding himself already dressed – and made his way down. Descending the stairs, and through the open door he saw the body was still there as before. He figured from this there was one more day until the funeral mass. The bar-lady lingered in the hall, hesitating between rooms, before laying a hand on the banister to greet her guest. Her eyes were sad. She must have stationed herself in such a manner to have heard his steps as they came, her other hand holding a pair of clean boots – those of the traveller.
“Your horse, dear lad.”
“What is it?”
“He’s, he passed during the night.” she said, handing him the boots. “I’m sorry.” she added.
Taking him by the arm, more sympathetic and delicate then she had taken his coat before, she led him out through the back door. Past the out-house, the branches were strewn across the large garden, and toward the open barn. The groundskeeper squatted there looking over the lifeless beast.
“I know a man. He can come and get him” said the groundskeeper without lifting his eyes from the animal.
“Her” said the traveller, sick with hunger and guilt.
“Right you are.”
“I must be going”, said the traveller
“And how are you going to manage that, now?”, said the bar lady.
The man protested. He yelled in fury, and cursed the inn and the stable, and the bar-lady and the drunk for having killed his companion. But seeing the pity in their eyes, relented. He mouthed an apology. And, again, he slumped over his horse. There he felt the last lingering warmth of his companion before it seeped into the ether. The inn-keepers left him there, telling him tea would be ready for him when he arrived back in. The traveller cried then, his face sunk into the skin of the creature. And he rose, feeling somewhat better for allowing himself one moment of truthful emotion. As he returned to the bar, he noticed the groundskeeper had begun nursing a new Guinness and gestured he should join him.
“No tea, then.” said the traveler.
“I know you’d rather not think of it now, lad, but there’s a bit of money can be had from a horse like that – if you manage it right.” said the groundskeeper, ignoring him.
“Sure the French eat them, don’t they!?”
“Jesus, I don’t fucking know” he said as he tasted his first glass of Guinness that day.
“Leave him Frank, will ya?” said the bar-lady.
After a pause the bar-lady asked the man’s name be jotted down in the records.
“A McCourt, are ya? I knew a young lady McCourt, when I was working the docks. Said she was from Kinvara. You know a Nessie?” said the groundskeeper.
And that was the sum total of exchange until the early winter night swarmed around them. And the fire lit. And the quiet chatter of the inn guests started up. Guests coming back from their days of pattering about Drogheda town, rested and ready for another eve of mourning. The piano player took his mark, and a young lady, attractive and vacant-eyed, sat next to McCourt at the bar.
“I saw you come in last night”, said the lady.
“Did you know my father?”
“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t.”
“He didn’t kill himself. That’s what this shower of shites are sayin’ among themselves, but it’s not true.”
“He didn’t fucking hang himself. That clear with you?” she said with a veiled glare in her water-laced eyes.
The man noticed the stench of stale whiskey on her clothes and fresh on her breath. A man with an overgrown moustache, curled inward, his lower lips grasped, half-muttered some half-apology for the young lady and led her away. He took her to a room at the bottom of the stairs.
“Jaysus, I was plagued something rotten by her pacing about the place last night above me” said the groundskeeper.
“You’re sleeping below her?”
“The basement, yes. Fucking brutal. But, only for a short spell – till the funeral’s over. Then I’m back to my quarters.”
“My room’s no gem either. It’s fucking freezing. Actually, can I get the makings for the fire?”
“The fire’s out of use.” said the bar lady.
“Enough gusts coming down the chimney! I’ll get it going, no problem. I’ll pay.”
“Out of use. That’s that.”
The traveller looked to his drinking companion for support in the matter, but found his eyes fixed on the glass before him. The lady went about her business, sweeping the halls, trampled with mud from their guest’s morning walks throughout the house. The men drank in silence. The traveller’s temper boiling at the thought of needlessly staying another night in that freezing attic and in the inn for another night.
“Was there a fire, or something?” said the traveller, shortly.
The groundskeeper’s eyes, half-open, stayed fixed on the glass before him.
“Are ya listening to me?” added McCourt.
“The man’s coming at six to get the horse. Have a drink with me until then” said Frank.
A man shouted furiously from the room where the drunken lady was taken. She wailed and shouted back, before yielding to a quiet quivering tone of voice. Just then McCourt recalled his dream from the previous night fully for the first time, and became frightfully pale. Silence engulfed the bar and room at the bottom of the stairs.
“Did you sleep alright in the end?” said the groundskeeper, noticing the change in his companion’s complexion.
“I did” said McCourt, not wishing to engage any further.
“Good. That makes one of us.”
The piano reluctantly played a staggered waltz.
“Where do they keep the fixings for the fire?” said McCourt after a whiskey, in a hushed tone to Frank the groundskeeper.
“She said it’s out of use. Don’t push it with her. She’s not one to put one over on.”
The traveller knew the stubborn old man would be no use to him. Scared straight he’d have to pay for his drinks if he put a step out of line with the woman, he thought. After a time, he told the old man he’d relieve himself of the man’s company, saying he’d retire on his way back from the outhouse – he said his goodnight. Passing the now bare barn where his horse had lain, the body already removed, he left uneasy, weak, as if a flu was coming. Outside the barn he collected some branches, strewn across the dark of the garden, dried out after the storm. With an arm full, he peeked his way round the door of the hall, and – seeing it empty – he quickly and quietly climbed the stairs, his energy depleted. Slipping on the top step, wood-pieces fell, sounding loudly through the hall as they hit the landing.
“Ya alright up there?” the bar-lady shouted from the bottom of the stairs.
The man looked downward, hunched over and saw her glaring up to him. He felt she must have caught sight of the twigs, but her startled brown eyes softened meeting his.
“Yes! Sorry about earlier, I didn’t mean to raise my voice” McCourt said.
“Don’t be. I’ve left an extra blanket for you – in case of the cold. Goodnight.”
With that he knew he was safe, and hurried to his room, exhaling in an astonishing level of relief for such a trivial thing. Laughing to himself, feeling as if a boy who’d made off with some sweets – deeming it silly to worry any longer. McCourt took an envelope from his pocket and placed it carefully upon the mantel piece over the scorched black fireplace. He tossed his twigs into the hole, and felt for a draft. The air pooled out, and he knew the chimney couldn’t be blocked. Happy the fire wouldn’t blow backward, he took a box of matches from his trousers and went to work lighting it. The flames trickled into life, and danced in the wind. The man, completely at ease, lay serene in his single bed, sipping at a flask of whiskey he had stored away. Staring blankly at the letter above the mantle, he abruptly stood, and threw it onto the waiting flames. The letters “Court” were unearthed for a second, before the burning erased the matter from his mind and place. Hearing a knock on the door, the man panicked. The knocking paused for a moment, which felt an age for McCourt who’s breath stopped sharply waiting for the knocker to turn & leave, unanswered. The knocking started up once more, louder now, more erratic. He stood deathly still until he heard the footsteps of the visitor descend the stairs. Peculiar though, he thought, was the sound of the steps as they retreated. One foot a thud, the other as if a wooden crutch hitting wooden floors & scraping along it – over and over. The man felt unspeakable dread in his belly. And a force on his bladder he’d empty on the flames, thinking the cold a better companion then whoever came knocking at his door. The room went dark. The sounds of the steps disappeared. The man sat on his bed, emptied his flask and lay to rest.
The crackle and bursts of waking flames awoke the man in the dead of night.
“I mustn’t have gotten all the embers”, he thought – his head still buried in the wall corner, half-asleep.
Now fully awake, the man’s face drained of blood as he heard the knocking erupt once more, much more vigorous than before.
“Are ya alright in there!” yelled a man’s voice from the other-side of the door.
Opening his eyes, the man turned in his stiff sheets, and saw those glaring eyes, those of the woman from his dream an inch away from his drained white face. They peered into his. Frozen ridged, he coughed as smoke engulfed the room, and the old woman’s face, towering over his, lock on him, and knocking became beating on the door. Finally, he found energy enough to let out a terrible, guttural scream. The woman’s green dark eyes seeped back into the black soot cloaking the air. The man succumbed to the smoke, as the door broke open and the groundskeeper grasped McCourt for a second time, tugging and dragging him out. As McCourt fell in and out of consciousness, his neck on the Frank’s shoulder, he could make out screams behind him. Those of the woman in the dream. Her pulsating figure fallen and flailing about in the dancing flames of the old fireplace.
When the man opened his eyes again, he found himself alone with Frank in an unfamiliar room. Family portraits and hunting paintings donned the walls. The man with the curled moustache and Frank were looking over him. In a chair in the corner of the room the attractive young woman sat, drinking from a stained glass – clouded with countless fingerprints.
“Put the rope around him.” said the man with the curled moustache.
“I’m not doing it. You can go fuck yourself, if you think I’m doing it again” said Frank.
“He did it to himself. He lit the fire. You should have left him there”
“And how did he fucking know what he was doing. He’s only a child.”
“How old are you, McCourt?” said man with the moustache.
“His name’s Fionn” repeated the groundskeeper.
“Can you answer, me, Fionn? How old are you?” he said chewing on his moustache.
“And what are doing here, child?”
“On the way to where?”
“And what are you doing there?”
“Delivering a letter.”
“Where, Fionn? Tell us where you’re delivering it to.”
There were a flurry of looks among the room.
“Give us over the letter, Fionn. We’ll get it there.”
“It’s gone. Wouldn’t do any good, anyway. Too late for him now…”
“It doesn’t matter.”
The men looked forlorn. Silence filled the place.
“No rooms left here, Pet. You take the attic or take nothing” said the girl in the corner of the room, in a trance like state, in a low booming voice, her glass tight in her hand.
“I can’t make it there with the leg” she said in another voice, a frailer one, not unfamiliar to the messenger.
“No good at all. That room. No good at all, no good can come of it.”
She knocked on her leg as she said this. Feeling put off by the sound it delivered of skin and bone on the carpet beneath, the woman grew angry and started knocking on the wooden table beside her. First with her free hand, then with both until the glass tumbler smashed and red flooded her hand. Looking at her fingers, unaffected, unaware, she parted her slender knuckles and gazed with empty eyes through to McCourt.
“Do you hear that, Fionn? How am I going to fucking walk with that leg? Hop one legged, all the way to the fucking attic, is it? What happens when, if I fall, Fionn? What if the leg gives out, all the way up there in the fucking attic- light my own fire, should I? Will I? That or freeze to death. That’s the choice I had, Fionn. Freeze or burn, in the end. Freeze to death or burn to death. What would you choose, boyo? If they wanted me dead they could have hung me. More civil, it is! More sympathetic! What’s the world come ta!”
The boy was frozen with fear, his arms locked down by the weight of two men. The furious woman coming toward him, lifted herself upon him, and kneeling on his chest, her hand pooling blood into the mouth she now covered. She peered deep into his eyes. Her brown eyes turned a dark familiar green. Her face became warped and old. She clasped her hands around his neck, and roared at the room to assist her, “lest ye be next”.
“What did you do, Fionn? Poor pet” said a timid voice out of sight.
Fionn McCourt skewed his eyes back to the source of frail, near-whimper and saw his friend, the bar-lady. She paced slowly toward him, upside-down to his sight, holding the rope that would end him. And the room, the inn, the town itself were engulfed, once more, by a storm ever-raging, a storm still firmly in place.