It was the beginning of darkness when Matthew Peoples saw it first. The thick shape of him upright in the field half- turning to scratch a nick at his shoulder. He stood there stripped to his grey vest unwashed and puzzled quietly upon what he saw — a thin cat’s tail curling grey into the sky, some kind of smoke that mingled easy with the cloud’s pewter. Evening was pressing down gentle and in the way the light fell he could have missed it, a yellowing that shook upon the fading day and cast the fields of Carnarvan in a flaxen glow. Three human shapes in that field and a triplicate of shadows winnowing long beside them. The bay horse for a moment easy.
Hardly a word was Matthew Peoples’ style until the work was done and maybe then he’d say a few words, a suck on his pipe and he would lean back and crack a joke quietly. He cleared his voice now and when he spoke he found himself unheard. He bent again to the work, the hair on his hands white to match the white shadow of his jaw, and he bore old-man eyes that sat deep in his skull, marked him out as older than he was. His hands red and spading at rocks that had sat for who knows how long in compact tight with the earth, lay orphaned now by the side of the field.
Matthew Peoples was following behind the horse. Eight years old she was and there was something unsettled about her. He had led her out from the stable that morning but she balked in the yard, tried to back up away from him, snouting the air with intransigence. Hold it easy there you. He thought he could smell an anxiety, something quavery beneath the skin, and he stared at her and took in the dark glass of her eye and saw in her the lengthening warp of himself. She blinked heavy a few times, turned her gaze towards the ground like she was in reverie about something and he watched her then lift a knee as if he had dreamed the disagreement. He was no expert with horses but he’d told Barnabas Kane about it and the man’s mouth made for a smile that did not reach the smiling place of his eyes.
When she’s not right she’ll as good as tell you, he said.
Well maybe she did.
Matthew pulled from the earth a stone shaped strange and he stopped and rubbed at its muck. A quality to it he saw and he spat on it and wiped it on his trousers. The stone was discoid- shaped like some neolithic tool he had once seen pulled out of a field, and he wondered if it was — the item smooth and flat and moulded by ancient hands he guessed as near a perfect thing. He looked towards Barnabas’s son Billy and held it up for him to see but the boy stood staring into his own thoughts. He was beside the horse, cradling his hand in his shirt, having scratched it earlier off a snarl of old bottle sticking out of the earth. He turned from the boy and pocketed the stone. The blue rope he used as a belt had come soft and he redid the knot and bent again to the work. A feeling then began to worry at him, like some strange tongue that came from a place felt but unformed, and he looked up the field towards Barnabas who had stopped to adjust the horse’s hitching. A gleam of power in the way Barnabas stood, squat and coiled under the muck-stained shirt. The stance of a man who was generally agitated. A man prone to thoughts of deeper things but awkward to mention it. The growing lank of Billy beside him, fourteen years old with a pussing face.
In her ears the music of bees and then the silence of the house. Eskra Kane stood thin in the hallway in a blue smock that near matched her eyes. Her brunette hair slid into her face as she took off her bonnet, the bee-veil draped bridely over it, and she placed it on the bannister’s snub-nose. The living room was held bright beside her by the yellowing light and it shone upon the dark of the piano. She sighed. Days like these dried the damp in your bones, set loose the heart from the hasp of winter. When she came to Donegal with Barnabas, the boy Billy was learning to speak. The locals watched them with wary eyes and the wind burled and sank its teeth. Only Barnabas knew the talk. She saw the country as wild and poor, a vision darker than the dream spun by her emigrant parents, Tyrone folk who took the boat for New York and built for themselves what they could. Here she saw damp and desolation, a gnawing you had to fight against that was relentless. Those first nights she would lie awake beside Barnabas and listen to the rain and the wind and then nights when the weather seemed to cease altogether and she heard in that silence the opening of a void. This place her husband had been sent away from as an orphaned boy. She had learned to find comfort in rare evenings such as this, drew solace watching the boy grow up natural in a country that was by rights his home.
In the kitchen she found the stove ticking. Must of turf and the savour of cooking stew. Lavender on the air lightly. A storm of crumbs as usual about the place where Matthew Peoples had sat down to eat, big slow hands reaching for the black bread and pulling at it. She wiped the deal table and saw they were near out of loaf. Time soon enough to light the lamps. Around the room the gloaming bore its shadows that stretched like a circus of dark animals waking.
The field was an uneven hummocked thing long unused, lay like a withered leg alongside wider pasture made separate by trees. It was of no use other than as a dumping ground. At the start of February Barnabas had stood knuckling his cheek and said he was sick of looking at the place. A funny few days of warm weather. We’ll plough it up and get the rocks out of it and manure it to fuck and let’s see. They stood looking over it. Swathes of the field nettle-fleshed that roiled when the wind rose up a wild sea. Half- hid amidst them was the wreck of an old grubber spored with rust. They had to drag it out using the horse and left the old implement tensed and gnarled in a hollow by the trees. The field cornered with bunching blackthorns and Matthew Peoples went at them flashing smiles with a billhook.
The horse was giving Barnabas trouble and Billy stepped in to lead it by the harness. Barnabas looked at the boy and walked over to him, took his hand in his own. Go back to the house would you and get that tended to by your mother. He let go the boy’s wrist and pinched him softly in the ribs and Billy shrank away from him. Leave off will you. He stood there looping the end of his shirt around his hand ignoring the instruction.
Barnabas sighed. You’ll ruin that shirt.
Shirt’s old as fuck anyhow so it is. I can fix the horse.
The horse doesn’t need no help.
Billy leaned in to examine her. A coin-sized patch of hair missing just behind the harness and he walked around and saw the same on the off side.
She’s going raw so she is.
I doubt that.
Maybe we should rest her.
Barnabas laughed. That horse’s been on her holidays, lying in field and stable all week.
Billy soothed the horse’s muzzle, looked into the dark of her eyes as if he could transmit some feeling or intention into her.
Matthew Peoples stretched his back and he heard then the distant sound of the byred cattle. Lowing like a sour wind. What in the hell’s up with them? The damned rope-belt had come loose again and he fixed it tight and felt some queer thought nicking at him and he turned and caught sight then of the smoke, saw how the curling cat’s tail had thickened into a spiral of dark slate. He watched how it folded upon itself and in an instant seemed to increase twofold and he looked across to the others, felt something flutter inside him. His voice in his throat tight and his mind seized upon words and made them concrete.
Hey boys, he said.
Billy’s mongrel, Cyclop, had appeared in the field beside him, stood watching fierce-gazed with his orange eye unblinking. The dog with a mind of his own, a lordly indifference to the call of anybody and he turned and woofed toward the trees. Barnabas stood wondering. Maybe the horse was getting old or maybe there was something wrong with her like Matthew Peoples said
but he couldn’t see what it was. Never a bother before. And that boy needs to get that hand of his sorted. His face was hot and he was itching under his shirt and he waved at a fly buzzing by the horse’s withers. He turned to his son.
Would ye go and get that hand seen to. You’ll get it infected so you will.
The boy looked down at the hand and the blood on the shirt and he addressed the ground as he spoke.
I’m all right so I am.
Go on and get the rod for the horse then.
Barnabas bent and grabbed a rock shaped like the tooth of some old animal that had fallen there to die under the wheel of an ancient sun, and perhaps that may have been, but as he tossed it lazy towards the ditch Matthew Peoples took a step forward and cleared his throat again. Jesus Christ, boys. They took no notice of him or perhaps they didn’t hear, for later in their memories what each of them heard was the dull sound of Matthew Peoples’ boots thudding up the field. Not a word from the man and something comic about the way he moved with his limbs all thickly, like he was set to stumble and hit the ground at the knees, fall without his hands into the dirt face-forward, break apart into his constituent elements. But they’d never seen him move quicker, his hands balled like stones and the whites of ankles winking at them through the rise and fall of his slacks. And if Matthew Peoples had known what he was running towards he might have stopped right there, turned instead for the road gated at the far side of the field. Barnabas wondering what was up with the man when he heard him bellow belatedly, a single word that came backwards over the man like a lobbed stone. Had to hear it twice in his mind till his eyes travelled to a place above the trees where he saw the swirl blackly, a shimmy of smoke that seemed to do a bow just for him.
A skim of starlings in the sky above Carnarvan seemed to mirror the rising wreath of drift smoke. The murmuration swung in unison like minds entwined, weaved the sky with giant breathing until the dusk pulsed like a lung. The group inverted and swirled, caught the light and bent it, swung again into a strip of infinite looping, nature’s way of mocking perhaps what was playing out below, or more likely the birds were oblivious, locked into their own state of being. The boy saw the display above the townland but did not register it in his mind, watched instead his father run blind up the field, looked towards the darkening trees. Like a visitant, something passed through him cold.
Barnabas’s mind staring over an abyss he could not see. He followed Matthew up the field, a drunkenness in his legs as if apprehension had become a fluid thing administered into his blood, and then he managed himself into a run.
Not the house, please be. Oh, Eskra.
The narrow field and the stretch of it endlessly and then he saw Matthew Peoples disappear into the trees. He followed, trees of oak and sycamore and a wizened beech that remained with fingers pointed to the sky as if trying to beseech some urgent claim upon life. The path worn through. He met relief in the shape of Eskra running towards them, her skirt hitched, her elbows flaring, flour on her hands. Never more fully alive in the way he saw her, her two cheeks burning. He saw Matthew Peoples stalling for a moment to listen to her, the man bent on his knees to catch his breath, and then he was off at a run. Barnabas caught up and stopped for her and she took his wrist in her floured hand white as if the blood had drained out of it. Sweat filming her high forehead and her breath jagging at the air like a knife, jagging at his eyes. She tightened her grip, tried to catch her breath. What he saw in her eyes near defeated him before she spoke, and when she did so, a sheaf of hair fell loose across her face.
The byre’s burning, she said.
She swiped quick at her hair and put upon her cheek a line of flour as if she had been marked.
Go shout for the boy, he said.
An imprint of her face upon his mind as he ran. His world narrowing down into a different kind of seeing.
The byre stood right-angled to the house, a building made of stone that was upon the land when he bought it. In length it was some fifty feet with pens for cattle now housed for the winter. Fodder in the loft under old oak beams. The byre had red double doors at the front that were not built wide enough for big cattle to walk through shoulder to shoulder, made it slow-going to move them in and out. His mind went over what he expected would meet him. Why now to fuck in February when they weren’t yet in the fields? Another few months and they would be passed it. He could hear Cyclop panting behind him, strained his eyes beyond the trees but could see nothing but what was before him, tree shadow serpentine on the track as if he had stepped into an unreality that annulled all time and rewrote all laws indifferently.
He came upon the pasture field and what he saw was a helix of black smoke that hid the house, spread like squid ink in water.
The west end of the byre’s roof was blazing. Smoke sidled from its windows like water streaming backwards over rocks, curled towards the roof where it made with darker smoke a sickening union. He ran into the yard and saw Matthew Peoples working the long handle of the pump. The huge tree arms on him. A bucket slung over the pump’s snout and water sloshing in. Matthew Peoples turned with his face lit as if by rage and he began at a run towards the fire, swung the bucket back and pitched into the air a river. The water travelled for a moment glittering and strangely beautiful until it fell dimly upon the roof like a stone met with an ocean. Barnabas ran to him, grabbed at his shoulder. Fuck that, he said. He pulled him by the arm and pointed. They ran to the byre’s double doors and stood facing them, a wraith of smoke sly through the cracks as if the fire were but a small thing. Matthew Peoples’ eyes widened, took the look of a man who can’t swim being asked into water. He shook his head at Barnabas who stood squinting at the door. A pleading in Matthew Peoples’ eyes that went unseen and Barnabas stood watching the smoking door, felt for a moment his legs weaken, forty-three cows inside, and he took a breath, saw Eskra and the boy approaching the gate from the field, and it was then he put a hand to Matthew Peoples’ back and pushed him towards the door.
Perhaps the jambs had buckled in the spreading heat for the doors shook but wouldn’t give. Matthew Peoples pressed down the latch and he kicked at the wood and it met his advance with a judder that was made mute by the fire’s roar. Faintly they heard the voices of Billy and Eskra. Matthew Peoples took a step backwards and he looked nervously for the sky hooding slowly with evening and saw it instead made naught by smoke, and then he bulled towards the door and the door sucked open into a strange dark that swallowed the man in his entirety, Barnabas running in after him with his shirt hitched to his mouth.
The different smells of the barn wiped out like nothing in it had existed. The catalogue of smells – the way grass and dung and feed knit into an odour of their own making. The weighted must of hay. The damp smell of an aged building. Now just the rank smell of burning and the air smoked to the nullity of a dream. What terrified the two men most was the sound of the animal’s frantic thunder. The cattle locked in their pens clamouring on top of one another to get out. One dark autumn day Barnabas had seen them rattled and stampede as if they were a single thinking thing, fleeing towards the byre during a break of thunder under clouds that had come down to meet them. Now they gave off a dismal bellowing that no person would want to hear. He felt Matthew Peoples’ arm upon his shoulder but could not see him, felt the arm let go, the impress of the man’s hand still upon him. The faint outline of things, his eyes rawing to the smoke, his breathing shallowed as if he had taken a kick to the belly. He coughed and bent to his knees, and what he heard then was the issuing of the fire’s own sounds, the deep purring of contentment, as if fire was something that sat compact and waiting in a coiled malevolence and revelled being let out. He had to replay in his mind the layout of a byre he knew backwards but wherever he crawled he could not find the pens, could find nothing at all, his hands upon the ground yet the surface yielding no clues to him, no marks nor points of reference, as if what had been was erased, and when he tried then to find the door nothing at all was visible, not the walls nor the light from outside nor the man who went in with him, and he called out to Matthew Peoples, could barely hear his own voice as if he had been wadded at the mouth, and the panic then that seized him was like the bursting of light in his mind.
A pair of hands huge on him. A hank of his shirt noosed about his neck and he felt himself being pulled backwards, out the byre door and then into the yard where he was laid upon his back. His eyes stung shut from the smoke and the daybright hurt his eyes to see it. He lay there on the flagstones with his head turned dumbly and slowly he began to see, the world a thin blear, a patch of sky empty as a vale of snow until he saw it stain with dark smoke. The weft and warp of his breathing undone to a ragged stitching.
He looked up towards Matthew Peoples to thank him but who he saw was another. The hard-nugget eyes of his neighbour, Peter McDaid, one strabismus eye upon him and the other staring past his head as if he saw the shade of another there to disturb him. The laughter lines that made a marionette of his mouth had collapsed now altogether and a terrible frown was etched into his forehead with smokedirt in the creases of it. He began to shake Barnabas. Are ye kilt? Are ye kilt? Eskra leaning over him and then she helped Barnabas to sit up. The air was rank and yet in that moment he caught a linger of soft and ordinary smells off her, jasmine in her hair, a trace of the lavender she liked to place about the house in small bottles salvaged from the garden, flour dust from the hand she placed upon his cheek, and in that moment though he could not speak it he felt for her an eruption of no greater love and gratitude. And then as his eyes took full view of the byre he could smell nothing else but the smell of the world corrupted. He saw McDaid run towards the byre and saw him beaten back by smoke that corkscrewed towards him, the man going at it again and standing at the door helpless with his hands to his head. When he turned around Barnabas saw in McDaid a childishness that spoke of the man being stripped of all action and power in the quickening then of what was. The struggling of Barnabas’s tongue and he leaned over and tried to spit, his voice scratching out of his throat as if the greater part of it had been ripped out and left behind in the byre, a scream upon the floor shapeless and mute. Trying to sound the words to them. Matthew Peoples.
What kind of day it was afterwards those who talked about it hardly remembered. A temperate yellow evening with no rain was made forgettable. The fire had forged its own weather, wind-smoke that burled and circled like demons unleashed, one woman said. The way the evening heated up seemed as if the fire had boiled the air. Soot softly like snow that fell a brittle powder to the skin. The event impressed itself so strongly it consumed them like a folktale. The sound of the fire’s hunger was like some enormous force let loose upon the world – an epic thing that held within its violence the fierce, rolling energy of the sea. Human shapes rising up against it, their smallness pressing forward in waves only to be beaten back. Later, Barnabas could not even remember the difficulty they had with the horse. Or the things he had done that morning – the egg with the two yolks he had cracked open into a bowl and noted how it had happened twice that same week. And when darkness had sooted all but the smouldering byre’s embers, he did not remember about the horse that had been left hitched in the field until Billy reminded him of it. Must have stood for hours in discomfort. Sent the boy out to get it, an oil lamp bleary against the swamping darkness and then that warped communion of shadows coming back in.
In the space of a few minutes neighbours came to help. Three McLaughlin brothers running through riven fields, the three of them near-alike. They charged like racehorses with their chests out and their shoulders backwards slung, chestnut hair fluttering behind their ears. Shadows from the failing light made stern countenances of their sloping hard faces and they came to the house with their clothes thorned and burred like men who had climbed through all of nature to get there. One of them scratched red from the wrist all the way to his rolled sleeves. They saw Barnabas lying foetal in the yard, Eskra bending over him helping him to sit up. Peter McDaid standing there helpless with his hands to his head. The boy skulking back by the house like some animal wild-eyed and confused trying to remain hid. They saw too Peter McDaid’s bicycle where he had dropped it in the yard, the back wheel spinning slowly to a stop like a rickety wheel.
Soon more people came. A neighbouring farmer called Fran Glacken appeared stout-faced from an adjoining field with his two grown sons beside him, their wine-bald heads wet with sweat. Later, the wives and children who made their way to the farm began clutching at each other’s arms as if upon each other they could find resilience. How they stood together like a fortress.
Eskra ran about the yard but her mind in its violent thinking would not allow her to see. Fran Glacken grabbed a hold of her shoulder and shouted at her, his face held inches from hers and his eyes fit to bursting. Woman. Where are the buckets? The man before her an ageless beast, hairless and red like he had been skinned raw by weather after years of service to it and was left hardened like a lobster. She pointed towards the byre and froze till Glacken shook her again. She turned towards the stable and said you’ll find some more in there, swiped at the hair on her face that fell upon her vision like a curtain. Glacken moved towards it with his feet hid by smoke, a huge-limbed gliding thing, and he came out with buckets and went to the pump. He began to work its gasping mouth and nodded for one of the McLaughlin brothers to give the bucket to the men lining up in file. Saw Billy beside him wearing a look of confusion. Billy saw how the man’s face was smoked and his eyes were burning as if some kind of lunacy was let loose in them and perhaps it was, for Glacken reached out then with the flat spade of his hand and struck the boy in the face. Wake up there, he shouted. He sent Billy into the house for towels and the boy ran stunned into the kitchen. He stopped at the window to look, saw his father broken in the yard, three clocks ticking and then the slow lolling sound as each one belled five o’clock. He went upstairs to the cupboard and tumbled everything out and it came upon him then what it was and it shook itself loose, a great heaving thing inside him, and he became helpless to its forces. He stood staring at the wall and took a deep breath, took a heap of towels and went to the hall mirror and rubbed his eyes dry until it looked like he had not been crying.
Smoke lingered in the kitchen and nestled catly in the corners. It thickened the air of the back yard like a wall. He pushed through it towards the pump where he saw the outline of Glacken as if the man was half-being and he came close and wary and saw the man’s forehead split by a swollen vein. Glacken took the towels without looking at him and sluiced them and passed them up the line telling the others to tie them about their faces. Eskra came alongside him then, tried to push him without a word away from the pump. He moved her away with one arm and a shout. Yer not strong enough woman. He saw igneous in her eye and outstared her, thrust into her hand a full bucket. You’d be better off, Eskra, if you were passing buckets in the line.
Nobody saw Goat McLaughlin appear in the yard, the father of the three McLaughlin brothers. He sidled through the smoke with quick small steps, a prophet face fiercely bearded save for brilliant blue eyes that shone out of him as if he carried within him a conviction more righteous than all others. His muscles were waste on his bones and dewlaps of skin hung off his sinew and his quick-seeing eyes picked out Fran Glacken at the pump. He stepped silently into the chain and pushed one of his sons to the front so now there were three men throwing buckets of water upon the roof, water coursing into the air and firewind spraying some of it back upon the yard and upon their faces, a lurching carousel of limbs that began and circled back to Fran Glacken.
Barnabas sat on his haunches with his head in his hands, his breath a ruined thing. He looked across the yard and met the eyes for a moment of his wife, the woman swivelling her hips to pass backwards an empty bucket, wasn’t sure she even saw him, her hair now hanging loose over her face like she did not give a damn to see. He eyed the burning door of the byre and could hear the dying of his animals. The body of Matthew Peoples in amongst them. Jesus fuck. What have I done? In his mind he saw Matthew Peoples reaching out for the pens, blind and grasping through smoke as if you could get a handle on such a thing, the smoke scattering in his hand like dream dust. A big man like that brought down. He could see him lying there, his lungs full as if he were drowning. Matthew Peoples’ mute face. He felt then an urge to run back in for the man even though by now Matthew Peoples would be dead, thought again of that smoke welling in his own lungs, and it brought to him a perfect terror.
At first, stunned word went through the line that Matthew Peoples had not come out of the byre, but then they grew quiet, wore it in their faces. It was if they were afraid of acknowledging it to one another, a glance told that would speak of some communal guilt that only one man amongst them had gone into the fire and he could only bring one man back out. They knew too the dangers without having to talk about them. The way the buildings were laid out. The new shed fattened with hay. A small mountain of turf under a tarpaulin. The way the firewind made towards the house. They wondered if the fire would reach it, saw the way the smoke mapped the wind’s movement so that the shape of it became visible, a calligraphy of violence that rewrote itself with a capacity endless for its own pleasure. Peter McDaid dropped out of the line and ran to the turf and began to move what he could but the heat became too much for him. He swatted at it as if it were a horsefly bothering him, held his elbow up beside his face until he was forced to turn. The chickens long scattered from the yard to the back fields while Cyclop ran about the yard barking at the commotion and then he turned and retreated to the back step.
Goat McLaughlin saw a drop in the wind and told his eldest the weather was granting favour. The house will be saved, he said. He pronounced it like a sage and the son turned and spoke behind him to his brother. The fire humming with its own satisfaction while every person there blocked from their mind the noise of the cattle – the mournful slow sounds of their dying that cut through the air like bassoons.
Nobody saw Barnabas as he leaned himself up and began to walk slowly towards the house, a dread thing with torn breathing. A wheezing in his chest as if something had nested itself inside him. He noticed how smoke had pressed into the house so that everything stank of it and he went to the kitchen cupboard and took down a box of cartridges. He walked slowly towards the door and took the break-action shotgun that leaned behind it, a twelve- gauge Browning, and sat down on the chair with a slump. He put the gun flat on his lap and hinged it open and fumbled with a shaking hand for the cartridges, fed them into the gun’s mouth. He stood and filled his pockets with the remaining cartridges and held onto the deal table, sucked air through a rasp in his chest as if he had been holed by the gun, saw through the window the way the smoke had unmade the farm into the remainder of some dim dream.
Nobody saw him drift up the yard, the way he walked slowly like a man footing thick sand. At the west end of the byre the heat was less intense. They heard the sound of two gunshots and some of them thought it was an explosion. Then Peter McDaid saw Barnabas by the side of the byre trying to reload the shotgun. He ran towards him and Barnabas raised the gun and aimed it through the window. McDaid ducked when he heard the third shot and he saw Barnabas squaring to fire another. McDaid upon him then, seizing the gun. Jesus Christ, Barnabas.
Eskra came running towards them with her hands hid by her sleeves. Her lips parted when she saw the shotgun. They propped him under each arm and walked him through the yard and she saw the look Glacken gave them, a look of pure disgust. A car came into the yard as they walked towards the house. Out of it stepped Doctor Leonard, the old man tall and stooped with a thicket of greying yellow hair. He came towards them with his bag and a cigarette perched at the end of long brown fingers. He smoked undeterred, smoked as if to seal his lungs from what plumed around him, looked with concern at Barnabas, saw he was infirm and reached for him under the elbow but Barnabas weakly shook himself free. Naw, he said.
The doctor took hold of him again. Come inside now, Barnabas. I need to be out with them.
The doctor walked him in. He pulled up a chair at the table and sat him down, saw amidst sweat and smoke and dirt the man’s frightened crying eyes, could hear his rent breathing. He leaned his cigarette in an ashtray on the table and helped Barnabas out of his shirt, put a stethoscope to the squall of greying hair on his chest and listened to the storm amplified. Eskra stood fidgeting and angry behind them. What were you doing with the gun, Barnabas? she said.
A knife-edge in her voice brought out the foreign notes in her accent and the doctor gave her a long look to leave the man alone. He nodded to her hands. I see your eczema had broken out again. Barnabas looked up at the outline of his wife, his eyes half closed, and he smiled at her a look she saw as blank and bovine. Leave him be for now, Mrs Kane. He’s taken in a lot of smoke.
Eskra dropped onto her knees, her hair loose about her eyes, and she grabbed Barnabas by the hand, spoke to him sadly. Tell me what you were doing with the gun.
Barnabas continued his strange smile and then he let the smile fall and began to whisper to her but she couldn’t hear through his breathing. She leaned in closer.
I wanted to give them all a clean death.
Nothing they could do could stop the byre burning down, though the wind with a mind of its own turned before the fire reached the house. No one spoke about the dying sound of the animals and they kept silent to themselves the thought that a man’s bones were mixed up in it. The burning made the darkness that fell around them more compact and as the dark deepened the sounds of the animals quietened. The men began to stand in the comfort of women. Somebody made tea and steaming cups were passed around. The men slaked from the cups and wiped dirt- sweat from their eyes with blackened towels. Eskra encircled. Barnabas kept in the kitchen by the doctor, who sat with him. Everybody heard the sound of the collapsing byre like the last rattling breath from something huge now spent of its life force. Whatever beam was left standing collapsed with a shudder and that was it. It made a shiver of dark smoke and a glittering of sparks shot terrible amber into the sky that burned itself out into black snow. They heard what they guessed was the sound of a wall caving in and they took a step back and some of them gasped. Christ, a man said. The others followed to look. Every person had assumed that no animals could have survived, but they were met by the vision of dark shapes emerging from the byre, shapes indistinct but for the flaming that consumed them and turned them into ghastly silhouettes, the voices of the animals weirdly silenced. Barnabas struggled past the doctor and came out of the house to watch. He saw whatever was left living of the cattle come pouring out through the broken wall, some of them tottering and then falling, others running blind, living things it seemed that had become the separate parts of some sort of slow explosion that sent them in different directions through the night. The flaming cattle ran into walls with a pathetic dull thud or came with a silent end upon a tree. Another cow collapsed upon a whin bush and the bush took light and winked at them an eerie yellow purple and when the bush burned itself out the animal still sedately flamed, while some of the animals did not run at all but dropped down under the silent sky, lay there with their burning hides. Barnabas turning around to the doctor, trying to speak, clutching at his arm. He whispered the words out of him. As if the black gates of hell have been cast open.
Excerpted from The Black Snow by Paul Lynch Copyright © 2014 by Paul Lynch.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.