Content warning: death or dying
All the Souls of the Faithful
I kept my head bowed down, not so much out of respect for the dead but as a way to avoid eye contact with the living.
My altar boy cassock is slightly yellowed now, handed down year after year until the virginal pure white had gradually faded into a seedy cheddar-stained eggshell.
The intricately crocheted fringes of Celtic crosses fluttering softly against the material of my thin school trousers tickled my thighs as I plodded towards the graveyard, side by side with my cousin Connor, now too old and too tall to be an altar boy. His cassock rested on him like a tutu on a dolphin, so that each step resulted in a dramatic fidgeting and rearranging of everything from collar to cuff to underwear.
In front of us, the priest waddled, his shawls and vestments flung on in such a way as to make him a dodecahedron of avant-garde angles, labels and gracelessness. His standard-issue Clarks priest’s shoes, soft leather loafers contorted by twenty years of Fermanagh damp, set the eternal pace.
‘Nearer My God to Thee’ filtered out through crackling speakers, the airwaves resisting the flow with a snap and hiss. The hymn barely audible, the rhythm incomprehensible. Somewhere inside stood Gerry Bán, Patrica McCusker and the one and only Seamus Carolan, huddled around a Clogher Market microphone. Their voices harmonising and cutting out. Seamus bellowing. A baritone cacophany of sincerity to usher the lifeless to their resting place.
Step. Stop. Pause.
Step. Stop. Pause.
Step. Stop. Pause.
At the entrance of the New Path to the New Graveyard at the New Side of the chapel, where my brother lay, the solemn parade stopped.
Fr McQuaid turned – his robes even more dishevelled now – gestured over my head and past Connor, who was so tall he obscured McQuaid’s line of vision. The eyebrow lift indicated something to someone behind me.
The caterwauling choir ceased with a Seamus special: a fading vibrato on the final vowel as he stepped back from the microphone. The old chattering boys at the back were shushed, a concluding “I’ll tell ya after this,” whispered at a volume that reached everyone. Craic was awaiting in the land of the living.
At first a clumsy silence.
Then an uncertain silence.
An evolving, velvety silence.
An established silence.
A tangible, vinegar silence.
A mournful silence.
A funeral silence.
A hold-your-breath silence.
A giggle-inducing silence.
A knowing, pulseless silence.
The mantra began.
A mumble. A rhythmic mutter. A vague female voice behind, blurring the syllables in a bombardment of phonemes to begin the ritual, the call-and-response of the breathless, punctuationless rosary:
Followed by the collective mumble and half-known, half-familiar:
The beeches and oaks swayed slightly under a concrete and cobalt sky. Rain had stayed away but was looming. The dignity of the awaiting hole in the ground draped in green AstroTurf carpet and flowers from O’Dowd’s Pharmacy. The yellow JCB conspicuous.
Holes must be dug.
Holes must be filled.
Then three men in uniforms, tilted Saoirse berets and masks proceeded to step forward with quick, deliberate steps. Dark combat trousers, camouflaged jackets and knitted balaclavas. Two wiry men with black boots laced tight. One with sand-coloured Caterpillar boots with checked yellow-and-black laces tied in big childish loops, just like the ones my uncle wore.
An order yelled by a surprisingly high-pitched male voice made me jolt. The men pulled out small pistols and fired rapidly into the sky, puncturing holes in the clouds. The drops fell gently – one on the back of my hand and another on the nape of my neck, slithering down my spine to be absorbed by the waistband on my trousers – causing me to glow at Nature’s living, loving caress on my skin amongst the inept rituals of life and death.
Tiocfaidh ár lá, Éirinn go Brách.
Wild Boars in Tavertet
We walk along the edge of the deep cut valley, carved by a billion years of geothermal turmoil and volcanic anguish. It is well into the wee hours and the homemade ratafia has demanded a night stroll. Before we left, our host recalled the day the Americans found the dinosaur bones here in the valley when he was a child and how his T-Rex Halloween outfit made him look like a sorrowful gecko.
The darkness is absolute, thorough and opaque. I have rarely experienced this level of darkness since I was a child in rural Fermanagh, where the absence of street lighting would reveal the night sky. Here in Tavertet, it has a velvety texture and is disorientating. But for the presence of the silvery moon and the damp cliff fence that is illuminated as if cold steel, this could be molt perillós, as they say. The silence is pure and complete. It is engulfing. One could fall into this silence and remain cocooned by it.
We stroll onwards, along the L’Avenc viewing point, polluting the buttery silence with each step. Once at the panoramic platform, we stop to observe The Plough, The Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt and the other three I know from my free Weetabix star chart that I got by collecting tokens when the Hale-Bopp comet was all the rage.
Suddenly and rather violently, there is a crack, shuffle and grunt a few feet behind us. I feel the air move against my legs and I spin around on instinct to find myself eye to eye with an enormous wild boar, silhouetted black against the backdrop of the dimly lit village. At once we move to run, but it reacts before we get a chance to take a single step, screams in an unnervingly similar pitch and tone to Janet Leigh in Psycho and, in a flash barely perceptible in the darkness, runs under the fence and launches itself over the side of the cliff into the valley. The initial rustle of the tall grass becomes a rapid cacophony of squeals, cracks, groans, growls, snaps, squelches and, eventually, silence. But not the same silence as before.
Returning to our room, I go out to the little balcony to say goodnight to it all, and see two very small wild boar shoats, surely only days old, snuffling along the garden wall. One knocks over the empty watering cans and they run off, bumping into one another as they are swallowed up by the darkness.
I have lately found myself exploring Northern Catalunya on my bicycle. The language is very difficult to understand. Here, al nord, it sounds very different; they choke their vowels. Here are the beach folk, their bodies gold and sallow. From the promenade, I can see their daily dance, like birds skylarking at dawn or frogs echoing a mate’s call across a Fermanagh lake.
They flirt and giggle like school girls and act appalled by a lewd innuendo or suggestively placed hand. Ra’s disciples, they worship the sensual ebb and flow of the wet nights and sweltering days of sun and sea, of fire and water; their very existence is elemental. Here they pray at the altar of youth and vitality, kiss as if life depends on it.
These pensioners are very different to my grandparents.
Buying a Camel by Accident
“Look, whatever way we look at this, we now have a camel and that’s that. Now, what do you want to do about it?”
It took twenty-three hours to drive here. Twenty-three. Were there disagreements along the way? Yes. Algeria is big – really big. Surprisingly big. Yet here we are in Tassili n’Ajjer National Park. We shouldn’t be here but we are. Maybe something happened in Algiers involving some rum, a Libyan called Ot and an antique, yet functioning pistol. Maybe that happened. Maybe Le Boulevard de la République was explored in the wee hours, barefoot, and somebody said something about the origins of all life on Earth. The source.
The next morning, before the dawn, when that moustache of lilac hovers softly on the lip of the Mediterranean, I walked to a highly recommended kiosk close to the industrial harbour – recommended by Ot, his cousin’s place – to hire a car for a drive to see where the origins of all life on Earth began.
After five hours of post-apocalyptic, factory-ridden landscapes and post-apocalyptic, factory-ridden towns, the road opened up and the Sahara came into view. After maybe eight hours, as darkness collapsed, we trespassed with a velocity that jolted the senses on an American oilfield that did-not-and-does-not-exist on any map. A soldier with an automatic machine gun – glistening new, also functioning – and X-Files-esque waving torches, yelled at us to get out of the Toyota and lie face down on the Saharan dust, hands behind our heads. “Show me your credentials, sir, NOW.”
Now didn’t feel like the moment to mention my PGCE, my forklift driver’s licence and my Boy Scout’s badge for bicycle repair.
Maybe, as I reached into my bumbag (fannypack to the soldier), there was a small bag of something that resembled something that might have even been something. Maybe that happened. Maybe, whilst eye to toe with his surprisingly soft leather military-grade desert boot, I noticed a cigarette butt stuck to the sole. Who smokes cigarettes in an oilfield that did-not-and-does-not-exist? Americans, that’s who.
Passports checked, visas inspected and an honest-to-goodness mistake being agreed upon as an honest-to-goodness mistake, we were allowed to leave the oilfield that did-not-and-does-not-exist on any map.
“My mom was in Cork for a trip, do you know it? What was the name of it? Comb? Come? Cover?”
“Yeah! Cover! You guys know it?”
“Yeah! Amazing place, very Irish.”
Never been there.
“Awesome. A small world, eh? You guys have a good trip and take care out there. Keep hydrated.”
Even in an oilfield that did-not-and-does-not-exist on any map in the depths of Saharan Algeria where men with automatic military-grade weapons lurk, there is no avoiding Americans and their endless romanticising of the old country. Sin é, gach la.
So here we are. Look. Seriously. It is a natural wonder. The rock formations, the shifting colours of the sandstone, the flamenco-coloured horizon and gentle hum of the searing desert heat. Maybe this is where it all began? The origins of it all. Bacteria and oozy gloop under a long departed ocean. Maybe it means something.
It looks like this might be the place. Archaeologists insist that this might be the place, possibly. Ot told me in Algiers that this categorically is the place, and he should know. Yet with a moment’s breath and given all evidence in all directions, all it appears to be is a callous, scalding moonscape. A Martian kaleidoscope of reds, vermells, cardinal, scarlet, Syracuse, firebrick and seeping cantaloupe. The sky is bleeding in this heat. Have you ever seen this? The sky is actually dripping. The elemental crushing of lust and maroon in an interminable, cruel sun.
And the camel.
Our new camel.
See, the thing about nomads is they come and go.
Do you know what the cost of acquiring a camel in the Illizi Saharan region is?