David O’Donoghue: Embers

It was only at this time, when the sky turned into a peat fire as the ashy grey of approaching night was flecked with the embers of sunset, that Tómas felt at ease. The day carried with it oppressive heat and a wave of sunlight that felt solid on his shoulders, weighing down his already tired muscles as he toiled in the endless canes of the plantation. The cool that came with night came some way to replicate the coastal breeze he had been extracted from. At this time, his ancestors had believed, the sunset made the barrier between the world of the living and the world of spirits and Gods more blurry. It was a tenet that grew more evident to them as the evening gathering of the slaves became a more regular occurrence.

The first buzz of giddy anticipation always came when they warmed up their throats with the Gaelic glow of their native tongue. When they worked during the day only an occasional, nationless grunt would escape their mouths here or there, or perhaps an animal shout when one of their number fell with exhaustion. But here, in the borderland between day and night, they briefly put their old skin back on, and spoke with their old voices, and went about their old ways.

Here, outside their meagre quarters or the eyes of the New Model Army that had followed them from cold Connaught to blistering Barbados, they gathering around the fire to reheat their humanity. For the first night the conversation was casual but bewitching and the men found themselves easily intoxicated by mundane conversations about the labour of the day, if only because the familiar feel of the words pushing past their teeth was a comforting reminder of home. But one night Tómas had found himself relating a story his grandfather had told, of the boyhood deeds of the great hero Cuchulainn. He found the men bewitched, cracking smiles through the grime and sweat on their faces, and sometimes raising up a little shout whenever the story took a particularly glorious turn. Tómas relaxed into his position of storyteller and excavating the mystic past had become a nightly routine for the men.

The fire crackled and Tómas assumed his position, the light flickering on his smiling face, and he looked down at the men who gathering around, who rubbed their raw and calloused hands together in anticipation. He had been preparing all day, during his miserable ministrations in the sugar cane, but even though the tale was all but memorised he still cocked his head to the side in a gesture of remembrance. It was a necessary part of the ritual, the moment that indicated to the men that this man had to travel great psychic journeys to bring back these fables of their ancient home.

“Each year for 30 years or more” Tómas began, speaking into the growing flames “the celebrations at Samhain were hampered by the fire-breathing spirit known as Ailleann. Each year he would stalk around the lands of the Fianna, incinerating all that fell within his path”.

As Tómas spoke the fire conspired in his show. The men saw the tongues of flame twist themselves into a figure; a towering, malicious spirit, and hover in the air menacingly between them all.

“But then came the great hero Fionn MacCumhaill” Tómas continued, and there were shouts of joy at Fionn’s introduction, who seemed to have wandered in through the fog of history into the fire of the present.

“Fionn vowed to vanquish the demon, who lulled the men of the Fianna to sleep each year with his twisted song”.

An army of small, bright embers jumped to the top of the fire to meet the demonic figure which floated there, but one by one they all dropped back into the heart of the pit like stones falling sullenly into the sea.

“But clever Fionn, in his infinite knowledge and courage, had brought his bag of magic weapons with him. All kinds of strange treasures rested in the crane-skin pouch, but most prized among them was Fionn’s spear, which glowed red hot at its tip with magical fire”.

Tómas picked up and brandished a nearby hoe to illustrate his point and watched as the shadows of the men came together behind the crowd to form the figure of Fionn. Behind the men, in a meeting of their tired arms and aching legs, appeared a hero.

“And Fionn kept himself awake, as the Aileen sang its song, by pressing his burning, hot spear to his forehead. He found power in his pain and with each touch of the hot spear against his flesh, his suffering and his strength intermingled”.

Tómas tapped his own forehead with the hoe, making a face of vague annoyance each time it struck. The men laughed, the fire grew and their shadows elongated into the waning light.

“And now” Tómas said “filled with the vigour of his own pain, Fionn hunted down the monstrous spirit, and saw him slaughtered with the same spear that had pained the hero. And so the cunning Fionn won glory and love and remembrance”.

The shouts exploded into the night and the flame-wrought figure that floated above the pit was consumed when the fire rose higher than ever before, almost meeting the stars which now were like scores of piercing white eyes.

The men were busy hollering and clapping each other on the back and no one noticed the approach of the guards. They knocked and kicked and scattered the slaves. They chastised them in their alien tongue and threatened them with their blades. The guards seemed to wet their tongue and forefinger and quench the stars one by one. Tómas was quickly hounded and huddled back to his bedroll. But before he left he opened his mouth and swallowed an ember of the fire, and the story of Fionn rested somewhere in his belly with his exhaustion, his fear and his longing.

*

Biography

David O’Donoghue is a freelance journalist and author from Kerry. He won the 2015 Kerry’s Eye creative writing competition and was shortlisted in the 2015 Hot Press Creative Writing Award. He is soon to be published in The Runt Literary magazine, as well as the SciPhi literary journal.

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