On a Wild, Red Dawn

Billy O'Callaghan

The fields were sodden from four days of late February rain and the cold dawn air smoked to every torn breath. We’d been moving across fields for upwards of an hour and had now lifted our pace to a half-run; four of us, dressed in denim jeans, heavy sweaters and dark coats, each man spread out from the next by a span of thirty or forty paces. Now, finally, an unseen sun had begun to curdle the darkness in the east with colors of dust. We’d quickened to a run because time mattered, and because we all sensed that the border had to be close; and with dawn breaking, these were the dangerous moments.

I had the right flank. I was seventeen years old, and tired and cold after a long night, and this was my first time over the border into the North. I had spent years listening to the stories that my father and brothers liked to tell, and to the songs they’d sung, but the past ten hours had been another kind of reality, and very different from what I’d imagined. Arriving at dusk, standing in a copse of ash trees with Larry Burke, Sean Crowley, and five strangers holding machine guns and whose eyes never stopped studying me, trying hard to look comfortable in my silence after Dan Stout, an uncle on my mother’s side and our man in charge, had been led out of sight by a couple of other armed men so as to receive further instructions. Later, sitting by a turf fire in the busy upstairs room of an Armagh village pub that we’d accessed by a concealed back stairs, waiting for the rawness of those woods to leave my bones and swallowing from a pint bottle of tepid Guinness while people talked at me in accents so thick I could make out barely one word in six. Old yellow and brown daffodil-patterned paper cloaked the walls, the linoleum-covered floor wore a skin of fresh sawdust, and an unseen transistor radio, tuned through mists of static to Radio Éireann, hummed soft airs played on fiddle and banjo. And from the room’s far corner, a girl of about my own age, a beautiful creature with wild gatherings of coppery hair and a flimsy white blouse yellowed from the glow of the nearby kerosene lamp, sat on a low stool with her legs crossed tightly at the knee and kept making apparently accidental eye contact with me and smiling.

It’s possible that places wear different faces for different people, but that was the Ulster I’d found, that and running through these dark muddy fields, trying to make the border with dawn still just a suggestion and then a softness in the sky. I ran in line with the others as the night around us thinned, clambering over ditches, wading through gullies and once, up to my knees almost, through a stream bulked by all the recent rains, and decided that this land, away from the accents and the tension pressing every surface, could easily pass for Cork or Kerry. There was the same cold freshness about the air, the same field and ditch details—bracken, furze, the swathes of clawing bramble, the scarlet-berried Rowan trees—that I knew by heart from mornings out with the hounds on a drag-hunt or with the terriers in chase of rabbits. Land partitioned and labelled British, yes, but Irish to its very soil.

Pat, my eldest brother, had given me the word. Something to be delivered, an easy run for a first outing. Think of it as training. And I’d be in good hands; the other three knew the run of things. “Don’t ask,” he said, when I had inquired, just between brothers, about the parcel. “The less you know, the less you’ll be able to tell, if the wrong people get a hold of you. Best for everyone, that way.”

At the safe house in Armagh, we’d split into pairs and were driven in two cars, staggered by twenty minutes, to a rendezvous point on the outskirts of Newtownhamilton. From the few words that I had picked up and pieced together, our parcel was destined to be tucked under a chair at an Orange Order meeting in Crossmaglen, either the following Saturday night or the one after, depending on who’d be in attendance. The precautions were routine, but deemed militarily necessary. Because, up here, mistakes were punished hard, and there was no room for second chances.

“An hour to the border,” Dan Stout had told us, after we’d watched the second car’s tail lights make red eyes in the distant dark and then vanish, taken by a bend in the road. And another hour, more or less, after we’d crossed back over into the Republic, to the friendly farmhouse this side of Castleblayney. We’d get breakfast there, and a chance to warm ourselves by a roaring fire, and transport would be standing by to take us back down to Cork. Once we were across into Monaghan, he said, we could stop and rest awhile if we needed to, but because of all the recent activity, and because of the massive incendiary device that had been discovered, a month or so earlier, just before it could take the walls and upper floors off the barracks at Newry, the RUC were on heightened alert for movements anywhere along the border. It was unlikely that the patrols would be out here, but it still paid to be vigilant.

The way he’d talked made the crossing sound like nothing at all, but his words hadn’t taken the cold of the morning into consideration, or how the soft, stultifying fields pulled at every step until it was like wading in the sea, turning four miles into the equivalent of twenty and putting lead in every pocket. Now, an hour in, and the border was somewhere among these fields or patches of woodland, the uneven ground divided along irregular lines by centuries-old ditches or briar-clad stone walls. And even when, somewhere behind the heavy cliffsides of further rain cloud, a winter sun began to pull itself into the sky’s low eastern edge, my mind was bound fast to the ache in my knees and thighs and the inferno that had engulfed my lungs. I kept going, because what mattered was getting clear; and even though the world had been reduced to a pure screaming pain, I still felt reassured by the presence, whenever I glanced leftward, of the accompanying silhouettes. As badly as I hurt, Sean Crowley, the nearest man to me, was close to fifty years old and badly out of shape, and I could hear the rasp and squeal of his breathing even from thirty, forty yards of distance.

I’d begun to crawl up over the next of the uncountable shoulder-high ditches, and was still looking across at Sean and at the lightening sky beyond, when a shot rang out. At first, confused, I couldn’t place the sound’s origin, though it seemed impossibly close, and I glanced stupidly skywards, because something had gone past my face in that direction hard enough to move the air. Behind it, almost separate, the sound came, the sharp crack, in the same instant there and gone, edgeless in the morning, leaving behind a dawn of great stillness, as if the very world had shuddered to a halt.

Instinct took over. I lurched on, scrambling up through the bramble and trying to kick loose from the briar tendrils that snagged at the ankles of my jeans. As I reached the top of the ditch, something bit at me; I felt a small slamming sensation against the inside of my right wrist. And in the same instant a second shot sounded, again close enough to feel it inside me, the sound of someone putting a hobnailed boot-heel to a held-down forearm, that dry crunch of a bone being broken clean, but with the sort of loudness, in your head, as you are made to watch, that far exceeds the reality.

And then, as I cleared the ditch’s brow, something moved in the long grass down below. I didn’t hesitate. My pistol was in my hand, cold and heavier than I’d remembered, and I straightened my left arm and squeezed the trigger, once and then, in quick succession, twice more. And then I was over, leaping down into the field beyond, my weariness forgotten now, obliterated by a white heat.

I threw myself to the ground, as I’d been trained to do, but the shooting was done. Still, I lay there, my lips whispering frozen breaths that fogged the dim quarter-light, softening everything. The grass had a clean, wet smell from all the recent rain, but the earth beneath tasted of sourness and stone, ripe with all the dead there’s ever been.

I could tell that time was passing by the hard beating of my heart, the feel of it like a pain, thick and bitter, high up in my throat. But whether seconds or minutes I couldn’t have said. Instead, my mind busied itself with the sudden memory of a fox I’d once seen, during a drag-hunt, running in a wide sweeping arc across a blue-white, frost-covered hillside, ahead of a pack of hounds already weary from five or six miles of hard chase. The rust-red flash of its body held like firelight against the landscape, the outstanding color in the day, and I’d been young but not so young that I couldn’t sense the transcendence of the moment, the raw and terrible beauty of nature at full stretch. And in the upstairs of the pub, only hours earlier, the girl had shone in much the same way, lustrous and as wild. January embers. She’d watched from across the room, knowing from the overheard whispers who I was or was trying to be, why I’d come here and what I had committed myself to do; and her smile, when she caught me looking, had the flashing dance of that fox in full flight, a high breathless thing, alive with the terror of its own tease.

“Michael!” someone called out in a loud whisper from behind the ditch.

I raised myself from the ground and discovered that I was still holding the gun. Blood poured in dark gouts from my right wrist, but I felt no pain yet.

Sean Crowley came into view, walking at a stoop and trying to keep close to the cover of the ditch in case there were other snipers lying in wait.

“You’re hit?” he asked. Then, almost in the same moment, he saw how my hand was hanging, dropped to his knees beside me and began swabbing at the wound with tufts of long grass. Blood continued to seep in black pulses, and he popped the button of my shirt’s cuff, pulled up the sleeve and gripped my forearm tightly. Almost at once, the hemorrhaging slowed.

The others came, Larry Burke trying to watch every direction at once, though there was nowhere near enough light yet in the morning to see very far; and seconds after him, Dan Stout. “How is he?” Dan asked, his voice more curious than concerned.

“He’ll need to get the arm tied,” Sean said. “The bullet went clean through and must have opened a vein. He’s losing a lot of blood.”

Larry began to unbuckle the leather belt from his own jeans. “Will this do?”

Sean nodded that it would, and took the belt and tied it in a simple knot around my forearm almost to the elbow, tightening until I grunted in discomfort. We watched the wound bubble darkly, then slowly clear to reveal a gaping black hole.

“Can you stand?”

“I’m fine,” I said, when I saw how they were looking at me. Murmuring the words, not trusting the strength of my voice, I got slowly to my feet. “It’s nothing. A flesh wound. I’ll be grand.”

They all recognized bravado, but needed to believe me. And to spare me further scrutiny, they turned back towards the ditch. The RUC officer lay in the field’s gully, partially covered in the long grass, only the blackness of his uniform and the pale three-quarter moon of his face in semi-profile interrupting the nature of the scene. The morning around us felt very still, but heavy. No wind, and only the sound of the early birds, the high plaintive chatter of robins and greenfinches in the nearest trees, punctuated by the driving flute-notes of a blackbird somewhere very close by.

“Christ,” said Dan, after several seconds had passed. “He was lying in wait. He must have been patrolling this stretch and heard us coming.”

“Why is he alone, though? That makes no sense. Shouldn’t there be others? Shouldn’t we be buried in the ditch there, trying to gun our way through an entire regiment?”

Dan looked at Sean, and then back down at the body. “Who knows? But we’re talking more than two hundred miles of border between Warrenpoint and Derry. That’s a lot of ground to guard, especially with any one of the towns and villages along the way, on either side of the line, liable to light up at half a minute’s notice.”

“Poor bastard, all the same,” said Sean.

“He knew the score.”

“I doubt he knew he’d be signing up for this, having to spend his nights out here, alone and miles from anywhere friendly. How did he think it’d play out? He was always going to be outnumbered, and even if he managed to get one or even two of us, the odds still wouldn’t have been doing him any favors.”

Larry spat on the ground. “We have hundreds of our lads locked up, Michael’s father included, and Christ only knows the kind of beatings they have to bear. And think of all the women widowed and children orphaned. Save your pity for our own people.” He paused, his rage turning him pale, and spat again. “I say, fuck this one. Let the crows have his eyes and I hope the rats make a nest of his asshole. A bed in hell to him.”

“He wanted us dead,” said Dan, softly. “That’s the fight. Like I said, he knew the score. War is no soft thing.”

I stood beside the others and heard their words, but from a distance. I didn’t want to look at the body, but had to, because this was too much of a thing to be forgotten or denied. I’d fired three shots at a still target from almost touching range. All three had hit. And that’s how easy it was to kill a man, to destroy a life and maybe other attached lives, too. Because no man is ever truly a man alone. A heart had stopped beating because of me. Lungs had ceased taking air. And somewhere, at some hour of this day, other hearts would twist in pain in response to the news of what had happened here. The eye visible to me because of the head’s partial turn gazed widely, still full of glimpsed horror and gleaming like rain on glass. Inches down the face, one of my bullets had opened a crater that decimated nose and upper lip to white shards of bone among the deeper pulp. The lower jaw protruded, exposing a row of perfect teeth and offering the worst imaginable half of a terrible grin or a silent scream. And as I watched, the white of the eye began to fill with blood.

“The bastard asked for it,” I muttered, and the words were like a foreign language in my mouth. The breath inside them quivered. “And he shot first. What else could I have done?”

“You did well, boy,” said Dan, putting a big hand on my shoulder. “Better him than you. Keep telling yourself that. And he’s one less for our lads to worry about.”

“There’ll be hell to pay when they find him.”

Dan shook his head. “No, there won’t. They’ll do well to find him at all. And if it goes more than a couple of weeks there won’t be much to find. But they’ll get the message, soon enough. They drew the border line, not us. We’re the ones who belong. But there’ll be time for talk later. We need to be moving. It’s getting bright, and the noise of the shots will have carried a fair distance at this hour.” He looked at me again, at the way I was cradling my right arm with my left hand, then turned away and started westward out across the fields in the direction of Castleblayney. Larry hesitated only a second or two before falling into step behind him, and then Sean and I began to move, too. Not speaking, not looking at one another, just walking, and trying hard to resist the urge to look back.

 

In the days and weeks that followed, I tried to avoid newspapers and radio broadcasts. The body had been found and identified, and for awhile I carried the name with me, until others replaced it, and until time made it seem less than it was. People looked at me differently, the ones who mattered to me, those who knew and who knew what it was like; and around me there was a new kind of silence, as if we had all somehow moved into a place beyond words. They’d ask about my wrist, which was slow in healing, and their gazes lingered against mine, even as their talk dried up. No one mentioned what had happened, and after awhile it began to matter less. Everyone is marked in permanent ways, and our scars might make us ugly to some eyes but they don’t stop us from living.

I’ve been to the North on several occasions since but, when I think about that first time, my clearest recollection is of how the girl’s hair had shone, the same way tree sap does in sunlight, like honey dripping in slow spools, like a fox in full flight on a white winter’s day. And I remember her smile, and how it had at once excited and troubled me, perfect and wide over perfect teeth and with just the merest bite of tongue, yet still somehow only half a thing, lingering only around her mouth. Her eyes were green and daring, the dead moldering green of shaded ponds. Young as spring but somehow full of winter, too knowing of the darkness.

We’d meet again, some months later, in the country kitchen of a cottage in South Armagh that was being used to house some visitors. I woke before dawn, and rose and dressed while the others around me slept, and I came through into the kitchen to find her buttering soda bread in front of a large window and gazing dreamily out into the darkness beyond. She’d told me the night before, handing me a mug of tea, that her name was Siobhan, but with her accent she couldn’t pronounce it the same soft way we did in Cork; and when I used it now, from the doorway, low with awareness of the early hour, she turned as if she’d been expecting me, and smiled the smile I’d so remembered. My wrist by then had healed as much as it ever would, but I’d fallen into the habit of touching it in times of stress, protecting it, and her eyes followed the movement of my hands and stiffened. She knew; everyone knew. She pulled out a chair from the table. And, afraid to speak, I nodded and came to sit. While a large kettle steamed slowly towards a boil on the range, she held herself close to me and examined my wound with her fingertips. I leaned back in my chair, matched her smile with one of my own and surrendered myself to the coldness of her touch.

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