I’m in full battle gear and I’m sweating my ass off. It’s gotta be at least 110 degrees and it’s not even daylight yet! We’re going out to man a checkpoint north of the city and we’re all kinda skittish. The day before, three of our outfit were blown to bits, one of them my best friend.
I should never have enlisted, but sitting in my dorm room on that Tuesday morning watching the towers fall, I felt I had to do something. But I didn’t get to go to Afghanistan. No, I get deployed to Iraq to fight a murderous thug that had nothing to do with 9/11. And now the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that we don’t know who we’re fighting.
Because replacements for those killed and wounded yesterday have not yet been assigned to our unit, I find myself in command. I am only a corporal, but I outrank the other five men. We’re supposed to set up a checkpoint on a lightly-traveled road into the city. The captain told me we would not encounter more than twenty vehicles all day, which is probably why he put a twenty-three year old corporal in charge.
We are traveling in a two-vehicle convoy. I am in the lead Humvee and with me are Hernandez and Scott. Behind us are Reilly, Simms, Grabowski, and our interpreter. Simms is sitting in his sling, manning the .50 cal machine gun. The night is dark in spite of the half-moon hanging in the western sky; electricity is sporadic, sometimes it’s on and sometimes not. Because of the darkness, the stars seem close and bright. As we make our way into the desert, I think of Jimmy, my friend that was killed yesterday, and what a waste of a life his death was.
Without warning, I peripherally see a flash and then I hear the explosion; it came from behind. Turning, I see the Humvee in flames; no one is moving. They’ve been hit with an IED, an improvised exploding device. Reilly has pulled off to the side of the road and we three run back to help our comrades. But we might as well have continued on. They are all dead.
Hernandez shouts, he is pointing to the east. He tells me he saw a shadowy figure running towards a house about one hundred meters away. I am in command and I must make a decision. I tell Scott to call in what has happened and stay here until help arrives. Hernandez and I start off for the house.
At the door, I do not knock, I kick at the latch. The door swings inward, it had not been locked. Hernandez and I stand at the threshold, moonlight slants in through a window, illuminating the room before us. Against one wall are two couches facing a television that sits against the opposite wall. To the left, at the far end of the room, is a rectangular table with six chairs around it. To the right is a hallway that leads off into darkness. On the far side of the room is another hallway with four closed doors, two on either side. Figuring that the hallway on the right leads to a kitchen, and if the man we are looking for came to this house, he would most likely be in one of the four rooms, I send Hernandez to the right with a nod of my head and I go toward the four doors.
A few minutes ago, I was angry. Now, as I approach the first door on the right I am angry and scared. I flatten myself against the wall, and with my gun at the ready, I push the door open. I expect bullets to come flying out, but nothing happens. In the dim light, I see two mattresses lying on the floor and not much else. Then I cross the hall and open that door in the same manner and see just about the same thing, two mattresses on the floor and a bureau against the far wall.
I don’t know what makes me so sure the man we’re after is in this particular house. Maybe because it’s the building closest to the explosion, but whatever the reason, I am sure he’s here. And I’m just as sure that he’s behind one of the two doors that I have yet to open. My mouth is dry, my heart is racing, and I’m scared. Where the hell is Hernandez?
I guess it doesn’t matter where he is. He’s doing his job and I must do mine. Because I’m closest to the door on the left, I choose that one to open next.
The door swings in easily. I am not against the wall this time because I have come to the realization that the walls are so thin they offer no protection from bullets. This room is different, there is very little light. There are curtains on the window and they are drawn shut, but a little moonlight comes in from around the edges. A mattress sits on a box spring and a frame, it is a double bed. Great, now I’ll have to get down and look under it, but first the rest of the room. There’s a dresser and an old-fashioned wardrobe against the near wall. In the far corner, there is something indistinct. Is that the glint of moonlight on metal that I see? It is! It’s a man holding a gun!
Without hesitation I open fire. I rake my gun back and forth, twice, and then stop firing. By now Hernandez is by my side, looking for a target. That’s when we hear the scream. Before we can react, the lights come on; the electricity must be working again.
I wish the lights had stayed off. The sight before me is too much to bear. There is a woman sitting on the floor, screaming, and as far as I’m concerned, she has something to scream about. Her face is covered with blood and she’s holding a baby or what used to be a baby. It is now a corpse with half its head missing. Next to the woman lie two children, both boys. One is about twelve and the other looks to be nine or ten. They are both dead, their eyes open, but not seeing. The younger of the two holds a puppy, a mutt, also dead.
In front of the boys and next to the woman is a man. In his left arm and tight to his chest, he holds a little girl, and in his right hand he holds a knife. I can’t help but fixate on the knife. It is just like the one my father used on Thanksgiving. How many times did I watch him as he sharpened that knife in anticipation of carving up a big, juicy turkey? The man and the little girl are dead, and still the woman screams. She holds the baby in her right arm, and with her left, she shakes the boy nearest her, the one with the puppy, as though trying to wake him from a deep sleep. And still she screams.
Hernandez now turns from the carnage and says the words I will never forget.
“That’s not the man I saw running. He was dressed in dark clothes. This man is wearing white.”
This man was only trying to protect his family. That was his crime.
The house is now filling with soldiers. The captain is beside me, he’s saying something, but his words are inaudible, there’s just too much damn noise … I can’t think straight.
My eyes are locked onto the woman’s eyes. She has now stopped screaming, she is quiet. She is looking right into my eyes. I want to turn and run, but I cannot break off the eye contact. To do so would prove me the coward that I am, so we look into each other’s souls until someone lifts her from the pooling blood of her loved ones, still clutching the dead baby. She is being led out of the room. She is docile, but at the door she stops and turns to give me one last look. I think she is trying to memorize my face. Her face, I will never forget—it is burned into my memory.
I’m brought back to the base where they try to debrief me, but I refuse to speak. Hernandez is brought in and is asked what happened. He explains that he was in another part of the house before and during the shooting, he did not know what precipitated the incident. Hernandez is then dismissed. It is decided that I must be in shock, so I am sent to the base hospital for treatment and observation. Three days later, I am released and sent back to my unit.
While I’m in the hospital, a sergeant has been assigned to our platoon, and the replacements for Reilly, Simms, and Grabowski are also in residence. I am surprised, and a little mystified, when I am not summoned to explain the shooting of an entire unarmed family. It seems the incident has been hushed up. Officially it never happened.
I no longer feel the comradeship or the esprit de corps of our unit; I just want to be left alone. Eventually the men do leave me to myself, after a few attempts to bring me “out of my funk” have been rebuffed.
The platoon has been idle since the night I murdered an entire family … all but the mother. I spend my days lying on my bunk, staring at the ceiling and seeing her face. I try to find out her name and where she is, not that I have the courage to approach her. But I’m told to let the matter lie, that there is nothing I can do to change what happened. I have to agree. Then I make a decision that is the first, small step to my redemption.
The captain walks in and tells the sergeant to have the squad assemble. The men stop what they are doing and gather in front of the captain. I remain where I am, lying on my bunk. I see the captain nod to the sergeant, who in turn yells, “Blair, front and center!” I remain where I am. The sergeant comes to my bunk, and standing over me, says, “On your feet, soldier.” I remain where I am. He turns to the captain for guidance. The captain nods and the sergeant grabs the mattress and flips it and me onto the floor. The mattress and I remain where we land. The sergeant once again looks to the captain. I cannot see the captain from my vantage point on the floor, but the sergeant retreats and I hear a whispered conversation followed by the captain’s voice giving orders for a mission.
The captain leaves and everyone gives me a wide berth lest they be contaminated by whatever is afflicting me. A few minutes later, I am surrounded by four MPs, very large MPs. Without preamble, I am hoisted to my feet and half dragged and half walked out the door. Once outside, I am given the option of walking under my own power or being knocked out and carried. I choose the former.
The base has no jail or holding cells. If someone has to be incarcerated, he is sent to Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein’s infamous prison now run by the coalition. I, on the other hand, am thrown unceremoniously into a small, windowless room. The door is closed and I hear the click of the lock. There is nothing in the room but four bare walls and the floor.
About an hour later, sitting on the floor, I once again here the click of the lock. The door opens and in walks the captain with a major that I am not familiar with. “Attention!” the captain barks. I remain seated. The captain and major look at one another and then the major raises his hand as a sign for the captain to let him handle things.
“What’s the problem, son? What happened the other night bothering you?” asks the major. His voice is soft and kind, like he really wants to know what is on my mind. I stand and face him, “Yes sir, I wiped out a family and I will not take another order that will put me in that position again. You can court-martial me, hang me, shoot me, or draw and quarter me, but I’m not going out there again … sir.”
The major nods as though he understands. Without another word, he turns and waits for the captain to open the door. Then they are gone and I am left with the vision of her eyes. They are dark, and surprisingly enough, there is no hate in them. Only the one question, “Why?”
Because I was afraid, that’s why.
I am given an honorable discharge with the proviso that if I ever speak of that night to anyone, especially a member of the media, I will be prosecuted for murder. They need not worry on that account. I have no need to speak of it, I see her eyes, her face, and I think of those dead bodies every moment of my existence … especially in my dreams.
You might want to listen to this before you read my story.
Michael was my friend. Michael died saving my life.
Michael row the boat ashore . . . sister help to trim the sails . . . the River Jordan is chilly and cold . . . chills the body but not the soul . . . the river is deep and the river is wide . . . milk and honey on the other side.
I can only hope that Michael has found his milk and honey.
This is the story of Michael.
Michael and I grew up together. We went through grade school together. Then on to high school, where together we stayed. Neither of us wanted to pursue a “higher” education, so we decided to travel to broaden ourselves, as the terminology was in those days. At that time, we thought good would always win out over evil. But we were yet to be taught our lessons of the real world. Evil does sometimes triumph over good.
Michael James was six feet tall. He had straight blonde hair and blue eyes. The bluest eyes I ever did see. If limpid means clear as I think it does, then Michael’s eyes were limpid pools of blue. The color was that of the sky, perhaps a little lighter with flecks of yellow throughout the irises. Upon meeting Michael for the first time one was taken aback by his eyes. They did not bore into your soul—they lit up your life. Then there was his smile. I had known Michael for many years and I don’t think I ever saw him without that shit-eatin’ grin on his puss. And that grin, and its persistence, was amazing, given the fact that Michael suffered from a skin problem. He had large red patches on his skin, including his face. They came and went. I thought the name of the disease was psoriasis, but of that I am not certain.
Michael had no mother. She died when he was quite young . . . before I knew him. He had no siblings; he was reared by his father, which is probably the reason I am alive today. By that, I mean he was raised to be a man. He was taught “The Code” of real men, which is: You do what you have to do.
Michael row the boat ashore
Though we both had the travel bug, my case was more pronounced than his. During the summer between our junior and senior years of high school, I took off and bounced around the country while Michael held down the fort, so to speak. When I returned to finish my last year of school (at that time I still bought into the myth that you needed at least a high school education to survive in the world), I regaled Michael with tales of my adventures.
Well, after hearing what a wonderful world awaited us out there, Michael could not wait to hit the road. He wanted to leave immediately, but seeing as how I had just come in from a three-month run, I prevailed upon him to wait a few months and allow me to at least try to get my diploma. He said he would wait, but he did not, or he could not. Within six weeks of my return, Michael was on the road.
the River Jordan is chilly and cold
Michael was hip, and the only place for a hip guy to migrate in 1968 was San Francisco. And that was the end of Michael’s roaming. He fell in love with the city. I endured my senior year as long as I could, but two weeks short of graduation I said, “The hell with it!”, stuck out my thumb and headed for San Francisco to rendezvous with my friend.
When I arrived, I didn’t know where Michael was living; however, I knew if I hung out on Haight Street long enough, I’d see him. It took less than two hours.
This will tell you something about my friend Michael: He always had a place to live out there, and never paid rent. People were always asking him home, and once there, he just moved in. They were always glad to have him. And when I would hit town, he’d take me to wherever he was living and tell me to make myself at home. The person who actually owned the domicile never looked askance when he brought me through the door, they all loved Michael, and any friend of Michael’s . . .
it chills the body, but not the soul
For the most part, Michael stayed in San Francisco. I, however, could not stay in one town for more than a few days. I was like a pinball, rebounding from coast to coast, and from Canada to Mexico. While on the road I was alive. When on the road, I interacted with humanity and had to live by my wits. I loved being on the road. Because of Michael’s reluctance to leave San Francisco, I had two homes, one on each coast. My mother’s in Miami, and wherever the hell Michael was staying at the moment in San Francisco.
On one of my forays to San Francisco, I was introduced to Linda, the love of Michael’s life—his soul mate. They had met at a Clint Eastwood marathon. A movie house was playing the three Sergio Leone films. You know, A Fist Full of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly … non-stop, twenty-four hours a day. Michael had a bag of Red Acid, and in 1969, what girl wouldn’t swoon toward a man who was into Clint Eastwood and had a bag of LSD? It was love at first sight.
sister help to trim the sails
Now that Michael had himself a woman, he got his own digs. Every time I hit town they were living in a new place. It wasn’t always easy to find them, but somehow we would always meet up on Haight Street. I stayed with them on Geary in the Tenderloin. We stayed south of Market in the low rent district, we stayed across from Golden Gate Park, and at the end, we were again in the Haight-Asbury district.
One thing I must tell you about Michael so you can get a sense of the man. And yes, he was a man; though we were the same age, he was a man, while I was just a kid. I think Michael knew he did not have much time in this world. He could not wait for anything. Back then, we were doing acid all the time. Normally, you would swallow a pill and wait for it to take effect. But not Michael. The twenty minutes or so that it took was just too long for him. He had to shoot the acid into his vein to get off instantaneously. Of course Linda and I would have to follow suit or there would be no peace. And in those days, I just did not have it in me to stick myself with a needle. Michael did the honors.
the river is deep and the river is wide
The last time I came into San Francisco and saw Michael and Linda was in 1970, it was July. They were living in the Haight. It was a crummy neighborhood; the Summer of Love was three years gone by then. All the shops on Haight Street were boarded up with sheets of plywood, and the denizens of the street were the leftovers from that long ago summer.
True to form, it was not Michael’s apartment he took me to; he and Linda were living with a guy named Bobby. Bobby was a likable enough fellow. He just didn’t know bad men when he met them. Bobby had set up a “drug” deal to buy two pounds of marijuana. Nowadays it seems ridiculous to term buying two pounds of pot a drug deal, but in those days, that was heavy shit.
It was my first night in town and we were sitting in Bobby’s pad smoking a joint when Michael told me he was going to be a father. I looked over at Linda, she was radiant, and she was also blushing. I was just about to say something appropriate when the door crashed open, and two guys burst through the entrance. They were the assholes that Bobby was supposed to buy the pot from.
Michael row the boat ashore
Only one of them had a gun, but that was enough for us. When told to lie on the floor, we did so without protest. They then said to Bobby, “Where’s the cash?”
Bobby answered, “In my pocket.” The guy covering us with the gun told the other guy to get the money. Bobby, trying to be helpful, reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. Then it seemed like a lot of money, but now, as I look back on that night, it couldn’t have been more than $500.00.
As soon as the money was in the asshole’s hand, the other one with the gun walked over to Bobby, placed the gun to the back of his head, and killed him. Upon hearing the shot, Michael and I looked at each other and knew that we were next.
the river is deep and the river is wide
Before I could think of anything to do, Michael bounded to his feet and rushed the guy with the gun. When I saw Michael go into action, it released me from my paralysis, but not soon enough to help Michael. He took a bullet to the chest. While Michael was being shot, I picked up a lamp from a table and smashed it over the gunman’s head while his partner stood frozen in place.
it chills the body, but not the soul
The man with the gun went down hard and the gun fell from his hand. All this went down fast; in a blur, I did not have time to think. I picked up the gun from the floor while the other guy still stood frozen. Obviously they were not professionals, though, at the moment, that did not enter into my thinking. I aimed the gun at the one standing and shot him dead with two shots. Then I turned to the one on the floor. He was moving and about to get up when I put a bullet into his head.
sister help to trim the sails
By the time the second one fell to the floor, Linda was bent over Michael. I dropped the gun and went to them. He looked at her and smiled, then he looked at me and said, “Get her out of here.” We both, Linda and I, said at the same time, “No!” Then Michael died.
Michael row the boat ashore
It took me a full minute, which at the time felt like an eternity, to make a decision. I grabbed Linda by the arms and pulled her into a standing position. She was numb. I told her we had to get out of there; that this was a drug deal gone bad, and there were dead bodies—four of them! I told her prison was no place to have a baby, and Michael knew that. That is why he wanted her out of there.
if you get there before I do
I told Linda to collect everything of hers and Michael’s that could identify them. I had the presence of mind to wipe the gun clean, but not to pick up the cash lying on the floor. Linda could have used it; she had a baby on the way. I took Michael’s wallet. He had never been arrested so I knew they couldn’t identify him by his fingerprints. After I had Michael’s wallet, and while Linda went about collecting her things, I took the time to vomit all over Bobby’s carpet. It was, after all, the first time I had killed. We left Michael and never looked back. Though it wasn’t actually Michael we left, only the body that housed that wonderful, brave man.
tell all my friends I’m coming too
Linda’s folks lived in New Jersey, so I hitchhiked with her to the east coast. She was in a state of shock, and because Michael’s last words, though not implicit, were to look after her, that is what I did. After getting her to her parents, I stayed in the northeast for the next seven months. I kept moving, but would drop in to see her every few weeks. Seven months later, when the baby was born, I was there. I was there for my friend Michael. It was a boy and I was asked to be his godfather.
milk and honey on the other side
Once Linda had the child, and I knew she was in the goods hands of her parents, I said good-bye. And while still on the road, I dropped in to see Linda and my godson every few months.
There are three human beings extant on this earth because of my friend Michael James. I am one of them.
Michael row the boat ashore . . . Hallelujah.
You guys are sensational. You looked over my first chapter and made astute observations and suggestions. Some, I have already incorporated into the manuscript—others, I’m giving serious consideration to. I had not intended to post any more of the novel, but then I woke up this morning, I thought, Why the hell not? Getting input from as many people as possible before publication can only make my humble offering better. And don’t worry. At the rate I’m writing, after the first five chapters, you’ll be let off the hook indefinitely. I’m not working that hard. I’m too busy out smelling the roses, so to speak. And if I smell many more roses, my liver is going to explode.
By the way, the horrors you are about to encounter are real. Maybe the reason the book is going so slow is not my drinking. Maybe it’s my research. For every ten minutes of writing I do, I spend twenty minutes in research. I’m not saying that is a good thing. Perhaps it’s my way of avoiding that dreaded blank page.
If you remember, chapter one ended with my protagonist stepping out onto the road for his journey to Cork.
An ancient road it was. The Roman Christians had used it in the fifth century to spread the Word and baptize an entire nation. Then it was the Danes, or Vikings as they were known, who had come to conquer the isle late in the eighth century, deepening the wheel ruts laid down by the monks. By the time the Normans arrived in the twelfth century, it was a well-worn track that led from Cork to the Western shore. Along its length, the Danes built their castles. In the sixteenth century, Henry the Eighth’s soldiers used the road in their subjugation of an unruly people. Three hundred years later, Devin Mahoney, in solitary desolation, followed the wheel-rutted lane to an uncertain future.
With a pale dawn approaching, Devin made his way east into the face of the rising sun. It was an exceptionally clear day—not a cloud in the sky. He saw no children playing on the side of the road as in years past. Occasionally he would pass a work gang, but for the most part he had the road to himself.
As he approached the town of Coom, he came across the body of a dead man right there on the side of the road. There was little doubt that he had died from starvation. The body was barely more than a skeleton. It was not the first dead person Devin had seen. Over that last fifteen months, he had seen many. Devin wore no hat to doff as he passed by, but he did nod in that direction as a sign of respect.
He made it as far as the outskirts of Glenflesk before deciding to stop for the night. He went into the woods off to his right while the last rays of the setting sun reflected off the somber grey clouds in the west, turning them a soft pink around the edges. He found a small clearing after a few steps. This will do, he thought.
The road followed the River Lee, so water was easily accessible. He had not stopped during the day to eat, for his strategy was to make what he carried in the sack last as long as possible. Besides, he was used to going without food. Nevertheless, he now eagerly anticipated a bowl of bland cornmeal or perhaps a little oatmeal.
He put the sack down and collected what dead branches he could find in the vicinity. After clearing a space for his fire, he snapped the thin wood into foot-long lengths and laid them on a small pile of dead leaves. Next, he reached into the sack for the matches. While rummaging around, he also brought out the small kettle and the larger of the two bags of food, figuring it to be the cornmeal.
Once the fire was going, Devin went to the river and drew a kettle half-full with water. On the way back to his camp, the thought suddenly struck him that Missus Meehan had made no mention of a spoon. How was he to eat his stirabout?
He need not have worried. Missus Meehan was a good woman, indeed she was. There was a large, wooden-handled spoon at the bottom of the sack.
With the meal mixed with water, he held the pot over the fire using a three-foot-long branch and waited for the concoction to start its contented bubbling. Then he would stir it, and before long, he would have warm food resting comfortably in his empty stomach.
Devin’s eyes were fixated on the dancing flames of the fire. They were mesmerizing. His body was warm, wrapped in the fine overcoat; his thoughts wandered. Little doubts silently crept into his contemplations. It was a long way to America. Did he really want to leave The Auld Sod? But if he stayed, what hope would there be for him? Half the country was slowly starving to death.
His thinking was abruptly interrupted by a thrashing noise behind him. Quickly he turned his head, but he could see nothing. He was blinded—he had been looking into the fire. In fear, he cried out, “Who goes there?”
A voice sang out, “’Tis only I, Tom McNevin from Kinsale, County Cork. I saw your fire and thought you might be wanting company on this grand night.”
When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he saw a man standing a few feet away, wearing a smile, his hat in hand. Devin relaxed. “Come in, Tom McNevin. Come and sit by the fire.”
McNevin squatted opposite his host and held his hands over the fire to warm them. The firelight reflected off his gaunt face, showing him to be about forty. His hair and beard were dark, but starting to turn a little grey. His eyes were laughing eyes—merry eyes. His clothes were little more than rags and he sported no overcoat—he wore no shoes. He looked across the fire at Devin and saw a young man with a sparse brown beard and stormy blue eyes. He was a good-looking lad and his welcoming smile made Tom McNevin feel right at home.
“’Tis a grand night to be sitting by a warm fire, such as yours, and in such in such fine company,” said McNevin.
“So ’tis. I’m Devin Mahoney.”
Devin noticed McNevin eyeing the pot he held over the flames. “Have you eaten recently?” he asked in a soft voice.
“I cannot say that I have. But I have not come to eat your food. ’Tis a cold night and your fire looked inviting.”
“You are welcome to anything I have. I too know what it is like to go without.”
Devin handed the stick holding the kettle to McNevin. “Here, take this. Keep it over the top of the flames. I’ll do the stirring and soon we’ll be eating like kings, we’ll be.”
As Devin gingerly stirred the cornmeal, he asked of McNevin, “When did you last eat?”
“Like many of our countrymen, it’s been a little while since a bit of food has passed these lips. A day or two days, ’tis all the same. Since the blight came upon us, one day seems like all the others. I don’t count time by days anymore or even hours. Time is the distance from one meal till the next.”
When the stirabout was ready, McNevin placed the pot on the ground next to the fire and eagerly looked in Devin’s direction. He was trying to be polite and wait, but the pain in his stomach willed him to inquire, “Do you have two spoons?”
“Only the one; you are my guest, you eat first. When you have had your fill, then I will eat.”
They took turns eating and when the pot was empty, McNevin insisted that it would be he that took it to the river and cleaned it. While he was at his task, Devin searched out more firewood. It was a cold night and they would have to keep the fire going. Devin would be warm enough in his heavy coat, but McNevin would need the warmth of a fire so as not to shiver throughout the night.
With things taken care of, the two men sat down next to the fire, one on each side, and looked into its flames. They were grateful to have eaten this evening. Their stomachs were full. Tomorrow would bring what tomorrow would bring. But for the moment, they were two contented Irishmen.
Without taking his eyes off the fire, Devin asked, “Are you going or coming from Kinsale?”
“I’ve been to Dublin. I’m going back to Kinsale, but there’s little of any worth there for me, no more. These days there is very little for me—and people like me—anywhere in all of Blessed Ireland.”
“You’re slightly out of your way.”
“When I left Dublin, I thought I’d roam a ways to the west and see if there was any work for an able-bodied man. I’ve been all the way over to Glenbeigh. There is no work—and very little food that I’ve come across in my travels.”
“I’ll tell you true, Tom McNevin, there is very little for us poor folks here in Ireland. The land of St. Patrick, fairies, and the little people. The land of ruins. Of standing stones that have stood since the beginning of time. The land where my ancestors vanquished the Danes and ruled all this land hereabouts. I tell you true, Tom McNevin.”
McNevin moved a little closer to the fire.
Devin threw on a few sticks to build it up. “Tell me, Tom. What is it like in a big city like Dublin? Are there hungry people there too?”
“If you are not ready for sleep, I’ll tell you what I’ve seen from Kinsale to Cork to Dublin and back. Me thinks that somehow we Irish have angered the gods. What misery I’ve seen. But I have also seen acts of boundless Christian kindness.
“Before I tell my story, you must tell me what it is that you are doing out here on a cold night, mixing stirabout and wearing a fine gentleman’s coat. I would think that you could afford to stay at an inn.”
Devin laughed. “The coat was given to me by a kind woman. Underneath, I am dressed much as you are.” He then told his story and ended it with, “I’ll be going to America now. When I return, I’ll live in as fine a manor house as you have ever seen and have a coach-and-four to draw me to and fro as befits a man of my standing. No longer will I be walking from town to town.”
McNevin warmed his hands over the fire. “I’m sorry about your family. Me, I never had much of a family. My mother died giving bringing me into the world and, for one reason or another, I never married. Perhaps it was for the best. I don’t know how I’d survive having my whole family wiped out in a trace.”
Devin shrugged and said, “My sister is safe up in the North.”
“’Tis good to hear,” affirmed McNevin.
Devin threw a few more dried branches onto the fire. “Now, you tell me what is happening outside of County Kerry, in the rest of Ireland.”
McNevin leaned back as the fire flared up. “I’ll get to telling you, to be sure. I am a seanchaí of renown. An Irish teller of tales am I. You make yourself comfortable and I’ll pay for my supper this night with a tale that you will remember and pass down to your grandchildren as they sit upon your knee in that fine manor house that you will one day be building.”
Devin pulled his knees up, wrapped his arms about his legs, and waited for the seanchaí to begin his story.
“I had six acres that I planted every year for twenty years. The crop fed me with enough left over to sell at market and keep me steeped in whiskey for a few weeks after harvest. My rent was always paid. But then the blight struck. The leaves withered, the stems rotted, and my beautiful praties were covered with dark and black patches. It all happened very quickly.
“Without a crop, my rent I could not pay. The owner’s middleman badgered me daily and told me I’d be thrown out onto the road unless I came through. This after twenty years on the same plot of land. I had always paid my rent, but would the landlord give an understanding to the blight and what it has done to this country? No, he would not. He wanted only his money and his tenant of twenty years be damned! I told the middleman that you cannot get blood from a turnip.
“As a result of the agent’s badgering, I took myself off and joined one of those work gangs that the government had set up. We went out at dawn each day to dig holes. There was no reason to dig those holes, but if we wanted to be paid, we’d have to dig them damn holes. The next day we would go out and fill in those very same holes. Sometimes we would build stone walls that enclosed nothing or made an existing wall higher by two feet or more. All for no rhyme or reason, only to keep us busy.
“At least we were fed twice a day. Once at ten and then again at four. But it was very poor gruel they gave us, it was. And you had to work the full ten hours to be given even that.
“At the end of the week, I would turn my pay over to the middleman to keep a hold on my farm. But he always told me I still owed. Finally, I had had enough. I was working ten hours a day, six days a week for two miserly meals a day. And after all that work, I still went hungry on Sundays!
“The summer of last year I gave up my farm and left Kinsale. I thought I could find work in Cork, loading boats. It was on my first day out that I saw my first horror. I came across a woman walking my way, holding a bundle in her arms. Like me, she was dressed in rags, and like me, she was thin, her face drawn. I could tell by her looks that she had not eaten in many a day. But unlike me, she had a look about her that I cannot describe.
“When we came abreast of one another, I stopped and asked, ‘Are y’ alright?’ She looked at me with a blank stare and says she, ‘I do be alright, but my baby is hungry. Can you spare a morsel of food for the wee little one?’
“I had a biscuit in me pocket that I was holding for dinner. How I could I say no to her plea even if I had wanted to? I withdrew the biscuit and held it out to her. She says, ‘You give it to him.’ She unwound the swaddling to reveal her child. It was horrible, it was. The infant was dead, and from the look of it, had been so for some time. I looked at the woman smiling down at the lifeless baby boy as though he was alive. She had lost her mind either from hunger or grief—or both.”
Devin exclaimed, “That is horrible. What did you do?”
“I did the only thing I could do. I pressed the biscuit into her hand, saying, ‘You feed him and have some for yourself.’ She did not try to feed her baby and she did not raise the biscuit to her mouth. So, the only other thing I could say was, ‘Mind yourself, mother.’ She thanked me and resumed her slow wanderings. I stood in the middle of the road watching until she was out of sight.”
“Yesterday, I came across a dead man lying in the road just outside of Coom,” volunteered Devin.
“Aye. Corpses lay thick upon the roadside these days. I’ve seen a few myself. A month back, I stepped into a burying ground to avail myself of a little shade from the beech trees lining its walks. There was a funeral taking place and I decided to linger until the service was over. After the mourners had left, the burying men held the coffin over the dug grave. One of them pulled a string and a spring mechanism popped open the bottom and the body wrapped in old potato sacks fell six feet to its final resting place. I asked about it. ‘We have run out of wood for making coffins—there are just too many dead,’ informed one of the men. ‘Undertakers all over Ireland are doing the same,’ said another.”
“Now tell me, Tom McNevin, what is life like in the cities of Cork and Dublin?” questioned Devin.
McNevin leaned toward the fire—his face a ghostly yellow from the reflecting flames—and said, “’Tis a little better than the country, but not by much. There is no work to be had in either place. People from the country have crowded the streets looking for work and the police do not like it. But they arrest no one because then they’d have to feed them. What they do is give beatings in an effort to drive them back to the country. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few beatings myself.”
“Do they beat the women also?”
“To be sure, I have seen it done, so I have.”
“Then glad I am to be going to America,” sighed Devin. “What else have you seen? I want to know so that I can tell the people of America the true story of what is happening here. They are a rich people, and a kind people. They would send relief if they only knew.”
McNevin threw a few more sticks onto the fire. When they had caught, and the flames danced about in the slight wind that was coming down from the north, he said, “’Tis to be a cold night this night. I am grateful for the warmth of your fire, and I will tell you of more things that I have seen. I cannot understand how we have fallen so low.”
Devin braced himself for what he about to hear.
“From Dublin, I walked west to Galway. ’Tis on the coast that I saw what cruelty really is. There were two women collecting seaweed and putting it into baskets. Having nothing better to occupy my time, I approached them with an Irish greeting, ‘Dia dhuit.’
“‘Hello to you,’ answered one of the women.
“They were both older than I, grey-headed, and dressed in rags. One of ’em had a ratty old red shawl about her shoulders. The other one’s dress was in such tatters that it was cut off above the knees. Both their dresses were heavily patched and neither of the women wore shoes.
“They continued with their work, picking up the seaweed below the high water mark, as we walked along the beach. ‘There be plenty of what you’re after just a few feet away, above the high water line,’ says I. ‘Why do you scavenge for the scraps when the bounty is within reach?’ ‘We dare not,’ said the one with the red shawl. ‘’Tis the landlord’s property above that line.’
“The wind was blowing in off the ocean and it felt good, being the warm August day it was. We walked in that manner for a short while, when, from the north, three policemen came running towards us, making heavy footprints in the sand.
“When they caught up to us, two of them pulled the baskets out of the women’s hands. There was a sergeant and two privates. The sergeant said, ‘I arrest you for thievery. You three are to come along with us. And come peaceably if you know what is good for you.’
“I was shocked at the turn of events. Not so much that I was being arrested, but by the fact that it was against the law to collect seaweed. Since when?”
Devin shrugged his shoulders.
McNevin answered the shrug. “I’ll tell you since when. Since those damn English came here with Henry II hundreds of years ago. Those damn English think they own the whole damn island and all of us too! But enough of that. Back to my story.”
Devin broke a dead branch in two and threw the pieces onto the fire. “Please continue,” he urged.
“The women told the police that they took seaweed only from below the high tide mark. ‘That is surely not against the law,’ pleaded one of the women.
“Apparently it was. The constable’s rejoinder was short and to the point. ‘One of the landlord’s drivers saw you and reported you. There is nothing that we can do here. You must face a judge in a court of law. But why were you collecting seaweed? You do not look like you have a crop that needs fertilizing.’
“‘We was gathering it to eat,’ said the woman with the torn dress. At that point, I spoke up. ‘I was not stealing seaweed. I was merely walking along with these two grand ladies, enjoying the smell of the ocean air and their good company. You do not see a basket in my hands.’
“The women corroborated my words. And the sergeant, being a fair man, said, “Seeing as how the report was about two women and there was no mention of a man, you be on your way now.”
“I wished the women well and continued down the beach until I came to a path that led back to the road. I’ll tell you true. There have been times since then that I wished I had allowed myself to be arrested. At least I would have been fed twice a day while in jail.”
Devin shook his head and said, “’Tis a sorry thing to hear.”
“Aye, it ’tis,” concurred McNevin. Then added, “But not as bad as seeing it.”
Devin fed the fire and said, “We should sleep. We have a good walk ahead of us tomorrow.”
“Are you saying you want me to travel the road with y’?” asked McNevin.
“Sure. You are my seanchaí. As we walk, you’ll be telling me tales of things you’ve seen in this last year and I’ll be sharing my food with y’.”
“It will give my head peace to travel with you. May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow.”
“Thank you, Tom. There’s enough wood to sustain the fire throughout the night, but I’ll have to depend on you to keep it going. According to my brothers, I’m not very good at that sort of thing.”
“I’ll see you on the morrow, Devin Mahoney.”
You can read the original letter here.
I forgot to mention that publishers, for the most part, do not take on books that have already been published. And agents think the same way. If your book is selling maybe 1,000 copies a day (or even 500), and all by word of mouth, then they’ll knock down your door to sign you up.
I don’t know if you are in the process of writing another book, but if you are, you might want to save all that energy and work sending out your query letters for the new book.
You probably already know this, but there are sites that will teach you how to write a dynamite query and their members will critique it for you and add advice. That’s what I did. I think the site’s name is Agent Query. They also have up-to-date lists of agents to work from when sending out your letters.
Finally, have you ever thought of doing paid promotions with the likes of eReader News Today, Choosy Bookworm, or Free Kindle Books and Tips? For $30.00 or $40.00 they’ll send out an email to their thousands of subscribers and you’ll get some sales. You’ll have to drop your price to $0.99 for the day of the promotion. Remember, the more books you sell the more reviews you’ll get, and the more reviews you get the more books you’ll sell. I never give my books away for free. When people get books for free, many of them stick it on their Kindle and forget about it. But if they pay for a book, they’ll read it. Even if the book was only $0.99.
They are always with me. At times they appear out of the ethereal mist, and other times they speak directly to my mind. I wish they would leave me to myself, but that they will not do. No, first I must do their bidding.
They come in the night and stay until the black sky fades to gray. When the stars leave the sky and the clouds to the east turn pink, I am allowed my rest. But I ask you, what respite can a murderer have? At their behest, I have killed again this night. And I will continue to kill until they go back from whence they came.
After all I’ve been through, I still remember the first time they came to me. It was a little over a year ago, and since then I have killed twenty-nine people. Please do not think me insane. I assure you these beings are real and not immanent. At first, I, too, thought myself demented when they stood before me telling me they came to save the human race, and to accomplish their mission, certain people must die. They explained that the demise of the race was not impending, but if action was not taken, and taken soon, it would be too late to set things on a course to ensure the continuance of mankind.
You are probably wondering, if you do not think me crazed, why they cannot do their own dirty work. That is a very good question and one I have asked them. They, of course, are not of our time and space. They appear—when they appear—as diaphanous specters; they cannot manipulate physical matter. Thus, I have become their instrument here on earth. Where or when they are from, I do not know. And why, out of all the billions on this planet, I was chosen, I know not. But it has been a long night and I must sleep. I will continue this at a later date, and continue it I shall, for I want there to be a record of my actions and the reasons for them.
I am back. It has been two days since my last entry in this journal, and tonight they had me kill again. That makes thirty people—thirty innocent people … men, women, and children—I have dispatched from this world. Yes … I am sorry to say that they have had me kill children. However, I was told that after tonight there would be no more need of my services. The human race was safe for the foreseeable future.
I refer to my tormentors as they or them because I do not know what they call themselves. Their form is vaguely human … two arms, two legs, and a head of sorts atop a torso, but their gossamer appearance precludes calling them human.
Tonight’s victim was a man in Moscow. I was directed to him and given his name. I then set about their business. I was told that his son, yet unborn, would one day invent something that would cause the death of billions. Being told the basis for this particular death was a departure from the norm. I had never been given rhyme nor reason for any of the others. The man’s name and the names of the other twenty-nine, including where and when they died, are in the addendum attached to this missive. I remember every one of my quarry.
I guess I should have mentioned this earlier, but my victims were scattered around the world. I do not know how they did it, but one minute I was in my room behind a locked door, and the next minute I was standing in a foreign locale with the name of that night’s victim swirling through my brain. Then into my mind came the place I could find him or her in the city, town, or hamlet.
Now, the thirty-first person will die. They, at last, have left me to myself. I am now free to end this the only way it can be ended—with my death. I’ve been saving and hiding my medication for quite a while now; there is enough to kill three of me. May God have mercy on my soul.
I affix my hand to this document this 3rd day of May in the year of our Lord 2017.
When Dr. Allen had finished reading the above, he turned to Dr. Harris and said, “Interesting, but why have you brought it to me? We both know that the man was a certified, delusional schizophrenic. How long have we had him here at our institution?”
Dr. Harris hesitantly answered, “He’s been here at Oakwood twelve years, sir.”
“Well, there you have it. It’s too bad he took his own life; it doesn’t help our reputation any, but these things happen.”
“Yes, sir. However, there is something I think you ought to know.”
“I’ve taken the liberty of investigating a few of the names on Fitzgerald’s list. It’s taken me three weeks, but I’ve verified eleven of the deaths and their time and place. They all correspond with what Fitzgerald has written.”
Dr. Allen straightened in his seat, glanced at the papers in his hand, and looking Dr. Harris in the eye, forcefully said, “Preposterous! If there is any correlation, he read of the deaths in the newspaper or heard of them on the television.”
“Excuse me, sir, but Fitzgerald had no access to newspapers. He was denied them because they would agitate him to no end. And the only television he had access to was in the day room where the set is perpetually tuned to a movie channel.”
“That still does not give credence to this fairytale,” said Dr. Allen, waving the Fitzgerald papers in Dr. Harris’ direction.
“No, sir, it does not. However, there is one more thing I think I should make you aware of. My sister is married to a Russian physicist, speaks fluent Russian, and lives in Moscow. I called her about the last name on Fitzgerald’s list. She made a few calls for me and it turns out that Fitzgerald was dead before the body of the man he mentions was discovered. And just one more thing, sir. The man’s wallet was found in Fitzgerald’s room. I have it if you’d like to see it.”
Turning a color red that is not in the regular spectrum, Dr. Allen shouted, “NO! I DO NOT WANT TO SEE THE DAMN WALLET!” Then handing the Fitzgerald papers to Dr. Harris, he said with ice in his voice, “Burn these, burn them now. And if you value your position here at Oakwood, you will never speak of this matter again … to anyone. Do I make myself clear?”
Dr. Harris accepted the papers with a meek, “Yes sir,” and walked out of the room. When he was in the hall and by himself, he muttered, “I’ll be goddamned … the old bastard is afraid.”
But Dr. Harris did not burn the papers. He placed them, along with the wallet, in his desk drawer and locked it. He had some thinking to do. As he started on his rounds, a quote of Shakespeare’s kept repeating itself in his head. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
If anyone feels so inclined, I’d appreciate it if you’d like my Facebook page. You can click on the button on the right side of the page. Thank you.