"Me and Pangur Bán, my cat, 'tis a like task we are at," said da.
_character description_ Arms solid as hewn granite; face creased like well-worn cowhide; eyes of faded denim; grey hair, 62-years-old, 5'6"; farmer.
Da shifted the pickaxe shaft between his hands and stuck sparks off the curved spike when it punctured the stony surface and he rocked the embedded spike to break up the surface and then moved along a few inches and repeated and continued and repeated until the line of the shore was etched in the earth.
_explanatory aside_ A shore is a drainage system used in agricultural land to remove surface liquid from waterlogged fields. It consists of a bedded system of interconnected pipes laid in a stone-filled trench beneath the surface which collects water and channels it into a dry well, soakaway, stream, flume, bottomless pit, alternative dimension, etc. This particular shore will connect the gutter drainage from our newly constructed two-story family home to a soon-to-be-built dry well twenty yards away.
"Messe agus Pangur Bán," said da. "Cechtar nathar fria shaindán." The pickaxe struck the ground. "Bíth a menmasam fri seilgg." The pickaxe pulsed with a drumlike rhythm. "Mu menma céin im shaincheirdd."
_personal note_ I have recently graduated from Trinity College Dublin and my final summer of freedom before I begin a teaching career has been allocated by my da into this daily ritual of digging this feckin shore by hand. Day of digging: number one. Time: nine AM. Temperature: hot as the surface of the sun. Countenance: forehead glistening like igneous rock.
I hadn't been home in six months and during this time the ancestral family home had been demolished and a new home built on the same location. The rubble from the old house had been used to backfill the area and during the excavation process of this shore I expected to encounter various-sized chunks of masonry, splinters of doorframe and floor tiles to be revealed and to complicate and lengthen the time frame allocated to this task.
"Me and Pangur Bán, my cat, 'tis a like task we are at..." said da.
He would often recite this poem when we worked the fields. His father had recited it to him when they worked together. He wanted me to finish and he watched me and waited.
"Hunting-mice-is-his-delight, hunting-words-I-sit-all-night," I said in a rushed jumble like I was nine-years-old again stood up at the front of the living room reciting my multiplication tables. I don't know what it was that made me feel like a child in his company.
_scenic description_ Slieve Gullion Mountain is located in the south of County Armagh in the province of Ulster in the country of Ireland, an island located in the north-west of Europe, between latitudes 51º and 56º N, and longitudes 11º and 5º W. Slieve Gullion means "Mountain of the hill slopes" and from on top can be seen Antrim (50 miles), Dublin Bay (65 miles) and Wicklow (110 miles). I am currently located in a valley carved by glacial erosion at the base of Slieve Gullion Mountain and gazing at the summit some 1,900 feet high with its rocky outcrop of grey granite known as the King's Table which sits above a scarf of purplish heather and dry heath.
_explanatory aside_ Lots of Irish mythology is set in the Slieve Gullion area. It's where the Irish warrior Cú Chulainn lived as a child. It's where Finn MacCool was tricked by the Cailleach Beara to dive to the bottom of the bottomless lake on top of the mountain, from which he emerged as an old and withered man. Finn was a robust young chap but not as savvy or mentally acute as evidenced by his disproportionately overdeveloped biceps. Luckily, the Fianna, Finn's group of fighting men, forced the Cailleach Beara to release the curse and change Finn back, which she did, except his hair remained grey. These were the kinds of stories da would tell when we worked in the fields to gouge potato drills or collect by hand, and often on the knees, the surface stones turned out after a ploughing, and each stone collected into a kern for later collection by tractor/trailer would earn the next line of the myth. It got to where, after a week of work on a five acre field of newly ploughed meadow, the stories no longer resembled any of the myths I would later research in books. Exhibit A: Finn MacCool stole a metal glove from the Mole People, which facilitated his digging of a tunnel from Ireland to China where he had tea with Marco Polo. Exhibit B: Finn battled with the Balrog, a lava demon, and spawned the Giant's Causeway with its hexagonal 50p-shaped basalt columns. Exhibit C: Finn, who had to wear a nappy after a feed of the bad turnips because he didn't want to cause his Fianna embarrassment, at the special meeting of the Justice League in the courts of King Arthur.
It had just gone nine o'clock and a swollen crimson sun hung menacingly above the eastern peak of Slieve Gullion and the valley heaved a single breath of air which rustled the oak and ash trees, and ghosted our two fields of cut hay grass, which stretched either side of the lane that connected the road to our house. I shovelled loose scree from the trench of the shore and da returned to the beginning and pickaxed back to the end and I followed in his shadowy wake.
"Tell us the one about Finn marrying a wasp," I said.
"Finn's about to get married and is all kitted up for the ceremony in his cleanest thong," said da. "But Gods curse the like of it didn't the Cailleach Beara, Finn's old flame, get jealous and turn Finn's new wife-to-be into a wasp. Now, this wasp took umbrage that Finn had invited his old flame to the wedding, so she stings Finn, and she keeps stinging him, and to get away from her Finn dives into the bottomless lake at the top of Slieve Gullion, which was silly because the last time it turned him into an old man.
"Now, this had the whole wedding party, the Cailleach Beara and the Fianna in stitches 'cause it was a good bit of auld craic. So the Cailleach Beara she changes Finn back into his youthful self but she won't lift the cure on Finn's wife because Finn had broken the Cailleach Beara's heart.
"The story goes that poor Finn just had to get used to the constant buzzing in his ears and endless jags from his wife."
"Sure," I said, "to hear a story as grand as that there's no finer hall than this."
The countryside was serene, with the nearest public road several hundred yards away and the next door neighbours were three fields over, unless you counted our sheep and cows which were the only signs of life and they were mostly laying in the short grass, chewing the cud. Air drier than tinder. Cloudless sky like bleached cloth. The vapour trails of jet planes looked like squeezed toothpaste.
The needle of hobnails boots echoed from the road and da said, "Look at that auld codger go."
_character description_ Danny's John, 72-years-old, 5'7", farmer; clothes black; flat cap grey; use of one remaining tooth known affectionately as Old Chompy.
Danny's John walked alongside a pushbike the kind of which had been out of production since the war. His boots clip-clopped on the road surface. A bale of hay was balanced on the bike's handlebar. He made this mile-long pilgrimage three times a day to feed his cattle.
"He's a quare flutin one," said da. "Won't stop till he's dead. Doesn't know any other way."
"Not a bit of it."
"Give him his due the labouring man, the navvy... He's worked all his life in the only work there was around here. I guess you just get used to it, make do. Sure well and good."
"Your man there, he has some set of feet on him," I said. "Big enough that he'd need to wear canal barges."
Da laughed at that. He spat on his hands, clapped them and returned to the dig.
_scenic description_ To the left of my present location there is an insignia of peat bog that is harvested by the next door neighbours, two brothers (my cousins) Danny and John who live in a two room stone cottage, which borders the northern extremity of said bog while my present location borders the southern extremity, and with the two brothers aged in their late seventies and having no central heating the harvested turf is used to light the fire, heat the house and cook on.
I swapped tools with da and punctured the ground with the pickaxe. He kept his eyes on my work like a setter and when the scree had been loosed he pounced on it like a cat on a field mouse. He'd been vigorous with his efforts all morning and I had said to him to slow it down but he'd hear none of it. I didn't want to tell him I'd blisters on my soft hands and that it was hard to get used to working with something that didn't have batteries in it. I punctured through the stones and rubble into a layer of think black muck with a malodorous odour.
"Put the shaft of a shovel in my hand and I'm happy," said da. "It's home to me."
The sweat was pouring down our faces from the force of the work. There'd be no five o'clock whistle for what we were doing, this thankless work paid for with brow sweat. Not being one to back away from a challenge, my old man being an expert at laying shores, I matched his speed of intensity and honesty of effort and we continued toiling in this fashion in silence for a half hour until the shore stretched two-feet deep for fifteen yards. It would need to be five-feet deep before we could bed down the drainage pipes and backfill the trench.
My mobile phone summoned me with the beep of a received message and I used it as an excuse to climb out of the shore and take a break. The phone was on the window ledge of a whitewashed outhouse, and our lunch was packed in a pail and rested in the shade of the outhouse. Even though we were digging this shore outside our home we wouldn't eat lunch inside; we always ate where we worked, out in the fields.
"Off to a hooley tonight?" asked da.
_description of message_ Bearing a lascivious quality but in good banter. Gist of message: invitation to party with old school mates. Interpretation: fortification of the body with the imbibing of various alcoholic concoctions with the distinct and unenviable result of an embarrassing evacuation of stomach contents through the convulsing of oesophageal muscles taking the vomitee by utter surprise sometime before midnight. Prognosis: hellish day digging the shore tomorrow. Result: worth it.
"I'll go out for a sociable pint or two," I said.
I checked the mobile phone signal but it had dropped out and I was unable to send a reply. This reunion with my old friends was something I had been looking forward to with great anticipation because it would mark the end of an era: I was moving permanently to Dublin to pursue a teaching career, which meant I would only make it back to the area for holidays and special occasions. Tonight's party was to be a grand send off, a wake for my old life.
"Don't drink too much, son" said da. "Stick to the stout. Those shots you see the young ones downing would kill the quicks in a ditch, they would."
Da was practically a pioneer, a teetotaller. He rarely drank, except for the occasional hot whiskey made with Powers and administered as a medicinal nightcap or the obligatory case of MacArdles ale for Christmas.
"Still can't drink a pint of stout to this day," said da. "Our fella sickened me on it. Da and uncle Jemmy were divils for the drink, and me and Patsy got this idea that we'd see what all the fuss was about. I was fifteen, so that'd make Patsy sixteen. Me and our fella went to O'Hanlon's bar in Mullaghbawn and got set up with a pint of the stuff each, and it went down a treat. And the great thing about the stuff was that it'd help you spin a yarn the length of your arm, not that our fella needs any help with that. So on we goes with the drinking not noticing how much we were having but the craic was ninety and we were having a great time of it, lit with the drink.
"I see his face turn red as a turkey cock's wattle and Patsy pukes his ring out all over the place. Doin it all in great style he was. Puked on people's clothes, shirts, handbags, caps, the bar, tables, in people's glasses - it was like a geyser. But it was the unexpected nature of this outpouring and unending voluminous quantity of the expectorant that must have gotten to me for the next thing I know I'm puking everything I'd drank up between my toes and I'm puking stuff I didn't even know I'd eaten. I puked so much I puked air, so I did.
"I had such a tumultuous time of it being sick, I made a compact with Patsy that we'd never touch the stuff again. And we were on our pledge for a week before we gave it another go. It took a few more times like that before I learned my lesson."
I laughed at that story of his until I had stitches in my side. "When the drink's in the wit's out," I said. "Why is it you took over the farm and not Patsy?"
Da didn't answer for a long time. "Well, he was older and he'd left home, gone to London. I had to take it over. Da could hardly walk anymore with the arthritis. I had no choice. I was in my second year of apprenticeship as a stone mason and had to give it up."
I had never heard him speak of this before and I had never thought to ask about it until now.
Da leaned on the shovel shaft and stared off into vacancy. "I've always regretted not being a mason." He took hold of the shovel and struck the point of a large piece of masonry from the old house that was obstructing the shore and would need to come out. "Shouldn't let anything get in the way of your dreams, son." He struck the shovel tip off the piece of masonry and listened to the ring of the steel. "It'll have to come out." He took the crowbar and wedged it into position and rocked the masonry. It was an unmistakable obstacle that would take the two of us a sizable amount of time to surmount. We wrestled at it for half an hour, an hour, even more. At times da's face was twisted in a rictus of exertion and, I thought, agony, but he did not stop and so I also did not stop. I pickaxed around the area to free it for movement and between the two of us we joggled it loose and it released into the bottom of the shore. We remained motionless and silent for a long time like the winner of a long distance race who has expelled all energy on the approach to the finish line.
"That's the goat's toe," said da.
_explanatory aside_ Note that I am neither a farrier nor a veterinarian and I cannot vouch for shod goats, particularly those with a penchant for wearing iron shoes, them being an equine-type creature with keratin exterior to the hoof, but it is believed by the author that the weighting of said phrase bears that of an exclamation such as oh great! wonderful! but with a hint of deserved triumph.
Da studied the object that had been freed from its grave. Part of its DNA was an eight-inch masonry block.
_character description_ Face like a crumpled dish cloth.
"That's the quare fellow," said da. "I built the extension on the old house with that block. Used them a year before you made an appearance."
He flattened the scree on the bed of the shore with the shovel heel.
"Cost me four bob a hundred," said da. "Eighteen miles there in a tractor with no roof. Christ curse the likes of it didn't it always rain. Must have made the journey a half-dozen times. Got a hundred on the trailer at a time. The fella that worked there was a bit of a kiss-my-hand. Had an awful time haggling with him. But four bob a hundred, that's a decent price, and I said it to your man's face. Almost didn't get them, but it was all I could afford,so I had to haggle him."
I was still on my knees with the block of masonry and had affixed a sling around it ready to haul it out of the shore.
"Up on your legs, man."
_cognitive aside_ First time my father has ever referred to me as a man. A momentous instant of acceptance. He had recognized that his youngest son would not follow in his footsteps. Middle son would take over the farm and I would help from time to time, and send part of my wages each week.
"No use being on your knees, man, unless you mean not to get back up," said da.
We both moved onto the sling and dragged the masonry out of the shore.
_olfactory description_ Smell of haylike perfume. Contrast: oily black muck in the shore.
"The grass is turning," said da. Both fields of grass had been cut two days previous and were yellowing in the sun. "It'll near be time to bale it."
"We might be lucky," I said. "But it's meant to rain tomorrow."
"We might be lucky," said da. "The frogs are black, though, so it'll rain soon."
Along the lane came a boy on an eighteen-speed mountain bike and he stopped next to the shore and peered over the edge of it like someone near the brink of a cliff.
"What are youse at?" he asked.
"Laying down the long shore."
"Long sure?" he questioned.
_character description _ Drooped jaw.
"Looks like a lot of hard work. Would youse not get a digger? A digger would do this in minutes."
"Doing the work is half the sport," said da.
The boy took out a piece of folded paper that said Sponsored Walk.
_explanatory aside_ Sponsored Walk: an annual event organized by the church in which sponsorship is collected on the basis of a money per mile equation. The sponsorship collector is then obliged to walk the eight mile course around the Crooked Lake and finish in the lakeside picnic area where charred burgers and warm cans of coke are served, and the walker can bask in the warm summer glow of riotousness in having collected money for a worthy cause, ie the Catholic Church.
"Go on up to the house," said da. "There'll be someone there with a purse."
The boy got on his bike and took it atop a pile of rubble and ploughed toward the back door of the house.
_reminiscent aside_ I took part in the Sponsored Walk for five years from the age of nine. I was guilty of the sin of deception, which I never mentioned in the confessional for fear of offending the priest who had arranged and adjudicated the annual Sponsored Walk. I only ever completed the first section of the walk, which led west from the village along the main road, up steep and twisty Sturgan Brae, south along single-lane Ballynalack Road for another mile... and this is where the shortcut came into effect. It removed half the journey. My mates and I would climb through the vegetation and pine trees down the lakeside, which from there was a short swim to the picnic area and a couple of hours spent peering through the chain link fence at the stock-car racing track. Swimming was the scariest part because the consensus was that this end of the lake contained a vortex that was capable of submerging and drowning children. We'd dry off in the sun and time it so that we trudged past the finish line somewhere in the mediocrity of the middle of the group. The best bit was messing around down on the shore. Áine sure hated my guts but always made me kiss her.
Waves lapped against the lake shore... I realized I had been mistaken and it was the echo of a car passing by on the road behind the thicket of oak trees where pied wagtails paid out their tune and flitted hither and thither. The sun beamed down like waves in a microwave oven.
I came upon on a shard of cardinal-coloured tile, which used to be the floor of our living room, which in turn, before the extension, had been the kitchen of the original two room property. The living room had an open fire for cooking on and the ceiling was so low that by the time I had turned fifteen I could touch it with my hands. The living room floor was covered in carpet and as children my brothers and I would race around the room and where our feet fell the loose tiles beneath clip-clopped like horses' hooves.
"Me and da laid those tiles," said da. "I must've been no more than twelve. Do you know what I'm going to tell you, I don't think I enjoyed one minute of it because it was summer and he was making me work when I wanted to go outside and play. He was an awful one for the work. Couldn't sit still a minute. Even with the arthritis he never stopped..."
Da stopped speaking mid-sentence. His mouth had turned down at the corner, a grimace perhaps, lips thinned to the thickness of a paper cut. We'd been working hard all morning, too hard. I was worried he might be having a stroke. I scrambled to get out of the shore, but his face relaxed and he took hold of the shovel and continued to work.
Reluctantly, I returned to the dig and sifted the excavation. I unearthed a leather boot sole that belonged to granddad, a yellow Lego brick that I hadn't seen since childhood, a mess of fine copper wire from an electric motor that me and my mates had unravelled and strung between two paper cups to use as walkie-talkies in a game of soldiers, a toy plastic farmyard cow, and the wheel of a stroller I had used on the ill-fated maiden voyage of a soapbox car. It was my life thus far I had been digging and unearthing.
"I think you'll do just fine in Dublin," said da. "Just fine," he said. "It's what you want and don't ever let anything or anybody change that."
"I'll not be a stranger," I said. "I'll be back home. I promise."
"A shore is a particular thing," said da. "They cut through the land and then disappear. Years from now, this'll still be here when we're long gone, and nobody will know of it because it's buried beneath the surface. You only really ever learn of something's existence when you start to dig."
The sun had reached its zenith and lunchtime had arrived. I climbed out of the shore, which had steep loose sides that were above the height of my shoulders. I entered the outhouse to retrieve the food. Blue-bottle flies traced crazy parabolas. Panger, our cat, wanted to eat too and it mewled and studied my approach. I opened the lunch pail and took out a wheaten bread farl. I noticed da had gotten down into the shore. He shovelled loose scree out of the bed of the shore and flattened the ground with the back of the shovel in little tap-tap-taps.
"It'll make a good bed," said da. "And Gods be good we'll never see what goes into it ever come back out of it, the longest day we live."
"I won't want to see anything come back out of it," I said.
I watched Panger leap on something. Between its claws was a field mouse, a terrified mass of trembling brown fur. My instinct was to shout at the cat to try and scare it into releasing its captive but it would not have changed the situation or reversed the nature of life. I looked beyond Panger and all you could see now of da was his head with its thinning grey hair. His head bobbed up and down as he worked so that it disappeared from view and reappeared. Farther on toward the treeline the swallows flew low. They were down catching flies, which only happened before a hard rain. The sun poured down like melted wax.
When I no longer noticed da's head bobbing into view I knew something terrible had happened. I went to the edge of the precipice of the trench and da was laying down the long shore like he were sleeping on a bed and he was face down and unmoving.
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