Mehel

Dark Mountain: Issue 18 – FABULA

This year’s autumn issue, Dark Mountain: Issue 18 – FABULA, is our first book dedicated entirely to uncivilised fiction. In its pages you will find short stories, flash fiction and excerpts from novels and longer pieces, as well as artwork and illustrations specially commissioned for this book.

Over the next few weeks we'll be sharing a selection of stories from its pages. Today, we bring you Micheál Mac Gearailt's short story 'Mehel', accompanied by Sarah Ainslie's 'At Purfleet's Estuary'. The story is also available as an audio version read by the author.

is a farmer without a farm from the west of Ireland. A lover of mountains, history and literature, he has worked as an archaeologist, chef, rock-climbing instructor, drama teacher and construction worker, amongst other things. He is currently a prospective student of some university somewhere.

You can find the audio version of this story here

 


Meitheal
: neighbours coming together to save the crops, gather the turf; the process of mutual aid.

 

‘Mrs. Leahy went quare last week.’

‘Oh. Where?’

‘She leapt the sod past the petrol station. Or maybe the bank. One of the wild spots up there. Dju remember, Keera love?’ She glances in the rear-view mirror; her eyes meet mine as I tear them from the window.

‘Hm. Who?’

‘Mrs. Leahy. She works in the tyre factory. Can’t drive. Dju remember where she leapt the sod?’

I feel my father tense in the passenger seat. I’ve been home too long.

‘No. I forgot.’

I hadn’t. 

 

We are a misplaced people. We never belonged on this tiny island; thus our process of constant disarticulation. We boil our flesh, gnaw our bones, and send them flying to the four corners of the earth. We belong on choppy seas, eternal maelstroms, vast laughing plains and unbound skies; in lieu, we cling to the underbellies of metropolises and offices, railroads and democracy. We belong anywhere but here.

This is what I tell myself as we drive into the bog. The dust surges before us as we speed down the cratered causeway road, rising and falling in perfect hymn. It is three months home; three months since the evacuation, and him. I don’t talk to the folks about it. It is high summer, with my days in the bog, nights staring into the screens of pocket gods getting ghosted. Three long years.

We pull up to the parking lot, fumbling out, and line up under the blaring sun. An overseer materialises in that quiet way they do, with the easy stride and cheek-splitting smile that I have yet to get used to. They told me I would. The folks have; they smile back.

‘Welcome! ID please?’

‘231,’ my mother croaks.

‘Fantastic! Your proofing?’

We lift our sleeves, in unison; we are one. The tattoos shimmer in the heat, unsure of their solidity.

The overseer blinks, blinks again, and smiles further. Perfect teeth. Sharpened.

‘Welcome Mary, Jim, Keera; you’re all good. Day 12 – we’re almost done. Head on down, and have another great day at mehel!’

Glance at the sign. M-E-H-E-L. We once spelled it differently, this word which unites us. We have no need for outdated orthographies, old diesel engines unheard in their excess of i’s, t’s and h’s.

We slunk past the truck, skidding down the causeway embankment to the edge of our plot. A gust of wind hits, drags my eyes skywards, filling my nose with rancid oil. The bog uncurls around me, a puckered rim of a plain pissing its way outwards for miles and miles to every horizon, sprawling confidently in her own perpetuity. At the edges, the barbed fences sway to unheard music in the searing sun. No unauthorised entry. I am authorised.

Our plot is half a hectare of thirty-three  rows of lazy brown turf, stretching five thousand metres – no further and no less – which stop, distinctly, sixteen metres from the barrier. The Carmodys’ above us. The Redmonds’ below. Though we cannot see Carmodys’ turf – we keep our eyes to ourselves – we heard whispers that it was blacker than ours, and would surely see them through another ice age, never mind a winter – so we cut their phone lines in the night. Big Redmond and his man could be heard like bulls rutting through the house. We laughed the night away.

‘Keera love?’

‘Yeah mam?’

‘Will you gwan down to the bottom few rows by the ditch and see if they’re ready for turning?’

I mutter agreement.

We stand for a moment uncertain, homoousios. It is difficult to forget the slow, squelching unravelling of mind and tongue that happens in this place. You feel it the moment you pass the gates. A slow buzzing in the throat, some wasp laying little, uncertain eggs.  The bog is too wide, too open; only on the far-flung edges can we see the low patchwork hills with perfect places to hide. This place is the silence after the orgasm, the burning sensation of almost-memory leaving you sad and unsatisfied. We are unsuited to open space; it leaves no room for shame.

I turn and walk. Causeway to my right, comforting in its edge and definition, with the bog to my left. Its softness makes me nervous. I trail the dusty rut with precision, filling the form of every footprint left before me, an arrow sludging slowly north. I am careful not to step on the heather; it is unsanctioned and indecent, and furthermore dangerous; the wind and sun and weedkiller has left it vengeful. It is bleached, like the hair of a girl named Ashling.

I am at the end of our plot – row 33. The sods are unturned, and the grass has giggled its way through the grikes to stand, perversely, a slow sigh on the wind.

The sods sit; row on row of little brown bricks, churled out by royal procession. The machine gathers the raw contents in her apron, strolls slowly through the bog; excretes. The unformed turf passes through the hole and emerges, compressed, a perfect sod ready for life. Rows and rows shooting northwards, cockroach eggs or snail-trail. Each sod must be turned, again and again, meticulously; each side must face the sun.

Seeing the sods laid out, I am reminded of the Holocaust. They laid the bodies out like this, and made the Germans come and ogle at their crime. It is strange driving in here, every day, into the colony. As the diggers and tractors cleave deeper into the peat, cracking beers and celebratory paeans, I can feel, just for a moment, the pride of Leopold in his Congo. It is intoxicating.

The sods were once known to talk, if turned too soon. We were instructed not to listen. Each year we take our harvest, unearthing vast trees and fishheads, idols of dead gods and riverbeds; those are thrown away.

The sods were once known to talk, if turned too soon. We were instructed not to listen. Each year we take our harvest, unearthing vast trees and fishheads, idols of dead gods and riverbeds; those are thrown away.

Neither the anxious before nor the remorse of the after. In the action, consequence flees past you, licking your nose and then melting away. Treacherous whore. In the in-between we are caught up in the nowness, the skyhigh will to power. I wonder how the Russians felt on the eve of the Revolution, the Chinese in the aftermath of Tiananmen. We know only the ecstasy of war.

Unthinkable thoughts. Gone too long.

I bend down – I can still bend.

I don’t wear gloves. The cold slush of turf is thrill to the skin. Beating drums and warhorses.

I pick up each one solicitously. Testing. Small brown edges. Fits in the palm; just. It has been a hot summer, the hottest we have known, and the turf’s skin is tanned and stiff. I break it open; resist the urge to bite.

Ah yes. Wet and unmitigated. I feel saliva rise in my throat, dancing circles on my tongue. There is cooking to be done.

It is too wet to be taken in – too malleable for history, we might draw blood. Let’s wait for it to dry and desiccate.

I turn the first sod, content; the grass beneath will die. Then another; then another. Five thousand metres of slow, succulent rotation, one long spit without a pig.

Sometimes I wish we could disappear. Like Mrs. Leahy, like Shaun Michaels and the Kearneys. That last one was a shock; a whole family going quare. The priest talked about it in Mass. Sometimes I go and look at their son’s Facebook; we’ve all gone to the page of a dead man.

If we were to leap the sod, immaculate and unsullied; in trying to identify us, they would find our PPSNs wet and squelching, our bank accounts covered in some cold unintelligible filth.

One-third of the row done, I found a bog body.

‘Mam – dad – another one.’ My voice is carried by the eager wind, and my mother and father stand, blinking stupidly. Approach.

We prise the leathery skin out of the ground. Its neck is twisted wonderfully, encased by braided rope. Looped earrings hang from its lobes, and two frog eyes croak softly in the sun. It is naked; my mother blushes. Its ballsack swings, lugubrious. We are holding it aloft now, six hands on one corpse. I stare at my father who stares at my mother who stares at the balls. Dad watches telly in the sitting room, while Mam watches in the kitchen; the same programme, but the kitchen telly has the slightest delay, so that you can always hear one echo repeating the other. Mam always knows what will happen. They leave the door open, and sometimes discuss the episode if I am not locked in the bathroom.

We hoist the body higher, feeling our throats tickling with hints of asphyxiation. Their fears live on after death. Carry it over the hoppers, southwards, to the ditch. As we approach it we feel our unease rising, hackles on end, the slow, disjointed crescendo rising to climax. Ringing in the ears. The demarcation line. We reach it, filled with bubbling, black, sluggish water. The ground beyond is wild and unkempt, with thorny spines of heather boasting too-bright bells with phallic pride. I break a sweat at the sight.

Phone-signal weakens as you approach the separation line; they’re fixing that – installing towers.

We chuck the body; it flies over the ditch, landing softly on the other side with a soft yawp. We scramble back, deeper into our plot. The unease subsides.

‘How long have we been here?’ my mother asks, breaking the silence.

My father is annoyed. ‘An hour.’

‘And how much left?’

‘One more.’

‘It feels longer. I’m dying to get back to the telly.’

‘Yera.’

He turns to me.

‘Call them there to take it away. They haven’t eaten in a few months.’

With that they slink away, back to turn their own rows.

I turn back to the ditch, opening my windpipe with slow, deliberate relish. My tongue meets my teeth and laughs.

‘Heeeeeeere suc suc suc suc! Heeeeeere suc suc suc suc suuuc!’

My call echoes across the bog. Far in front of me I see the ramshackle tents stir; cloth and calfskin sheets, plastic and galvanise heaped together in rickety sheds and shelter. A village or favela, camp or booley; this festering amalgamation eludes definition. A lone alder tree, sickly and leafless, hangs heavy over the twenty or so crumbling structures.

They reach the boundary in minutes, racing and whooping over the wild heather. My eyes watch, red-rimmed and watering; I tear away, returning to the sods.

Rotate. Step. Rotate. Step. Keeping my eyes on the ground, I hear them stampeding to the body, howling and popping round its leathery neck. I feel safe. The ditch is between us, impassable. I hear them drag the body back into the wild heather, back to their slum. I glance quickly, rapidly; I see leaves growing from ears, tiger tattoos, mottled ten-toed feet and eyes blinking lazily in chests. Dozens of them.

One form remains in the corner of my eye. I glance east; my folks are busy turning. I unbend my back, looking over the ditch. My breath catches in my throat.

‘Mrs. Leahy?’

Her sweet smile is long gone; replaced by a cold, hard prune. Her skin is dark and windworn, and hair has begun to sprout all over her arms.

‘Am Sweeney now.’ Her voice is lighter, easier, sharper. She laughs, and the wind laughs with her. ‘Biolar?’

‘What?’

She blinks. ‘Watercress.’ Smiles.

I stand dumbly, working my mouth in slow circles. Head down. Keep turning.

‘Am virulent.’ She says. ‘Am Baptist, headless cock-bashing vestibule grinding knuckles, announcing the arrival. Even pissing has become a sacred act.’

I try my best to ignore her. She continues.

‘The empty place in guts is filled with roving fingers oozing mana and honey – am androgyny, hermaphroditus, Teresa after the ecstasy filled with cum of the godhead. Am poisonous sex, phallic teeth spitting out vulvic flecks pruning chaos in the formless sky above. Am the fishy aftermath of the schmundie. Am –’

I grasp a sod; firmly. Fire it at her face.

It misses. Our eyes meet. Hers are green. She pauses.

‘Will ye come chousin’ with us on the high gurt?’

With that she whirls and runs away.

I keep turning.

The sun rolls over my back. I love him for his virility, and detest him for darkening my skin. I envy him.

I look up. Mrs. Leahy has reached the camp; they are dancing round the bog body singing songs of praise. Firesmoke

rises to the sky.

The ditch smoulders. Moss and scum gurgle in the boghole.

My phone vibrates in my pocket; far away, I hear a curlew. Or maybe a cuckoo. I forget.

I stand at the edge of the ditch.  My ears scream.

I leap the sod. I fly.

 

Image: At Purfleet’s Estuary
Sarah Ainslie
Photomontage, 2020

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 18 – FABULA

The Autumn 2020 issue is dedicated entirely to fiction, featuring short stories, illustrations and colour artwork
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