Séamus Sweeney’s “Lackendarra” from Alt Hist Issue 9 explores the effect of war on the individual in this fictional telling of the story of a real-life survivor of the First World War.
by Séamus Sweeney
They make new things to kill each other, and then when some of them are dead, the rest of them cry.
No green to be seen.
Rain that drove into the skin, a heavier rain than anything Jim had ever felt in Ireland. Rain that enveloped them, and mud that crept up to embrace every inch of their skin. Mud fifteen inches deep, mud that stuck to their lead-heavy feet and glued them, mud as slippery as ice. Not hours off the boat when they were thrown into the fighting. The Turkish trenches were invisible in the glassy, brown plain. They had come here to Mesopotamia, thinking they would be baked alive in the heat, and found themselves slaughtered in the mud. No green to be seen. Only all-embracing, all-conquering mud, on everything and in everything.
Years later, when sitting in his cave, he would find himself there again, amidst the wet brown hell of those first battles, and the suffocating heat that followed. He would smell again the sweet diarrhoeal cholera. Hear again the pat-pat-pat of gunfire from invisible Turks. See again comrades fall before him. Feel again wet fabric trapping his feet, making him a muddy statue.
Again the Raven was there, about twenty yards ahead of the spot he stood rooted and leaden. There lay lifeless the bodies of Jack Phelan and Pat Lonergan. Seconds—or was it minutes, or was it hours? – earlier they were as alive as he. And now a raven stood on Jack’s dead head, picking at its eyes. The raven looked up, and fixed Jim with its eyes. In that instant, Jim was back in Lackendarra, with the Comeragh mountains looming to the north east, their smooth-lined greenness suddenly topped by sharp, raven-circled crags. Jim knew that this raven—from that moment on, The Raven—had been there too, had followed him from Ireland to this land of mud and dust between the Tigris and the Euphrates. It was here, at what was supposed to be the relief of the Siege of Kut.
He saw no more death after that, but there would be much more soldiering. There was “reconnaissance in force”, there were marches without water; there was cholera, diarrhoea, thirst, and dust. It was afterwards called the Great War, later still the First World War once there was a Second to match it. Jim never thought of it that way; nor did he think of it, sardonically or otherwise, as the War To End War. For him, it came down to that moment in the first attempted Relief of Kut, when the Raven stared into his eyes, and his two friends lay dead in the mud. That was war for him, and that was the world. In a way, the war ended at that moment, and Jim Fitzgerald’s interest in the world ended as well. The rest of his time in Mesopotamia was an endless haze of dust punctuated by rain.
Back home, people never asked. The country had risen up, and the men who went to war did not fit into the new Irish story. And if they didn’t wish to hear about Flanders, they cared even less about Mesopotamia. Jim didn’t mind, and didn’t care. Jim laboured first on a farm near Ballymacabry; after two days he walked out, leaving his pay behind. The same happened twice over. The War of Independence, the Civil War, the establishment of the Free State; all went by, he stayed silent. That was war; that was The Raven, pecking at Jack Phelan’s face. Across the mountains IRA columns and brigades moved like silent predators; Jim would see men running in improvised uniforms, and watch them with indifference. He was finished with war, but was the war finished with him? For The Raven had followed him; it had been on the farms he had walked away from, and it followed him on his way. Always somewhere in his view; sometimes right in front of him, black and massive. Sometimes outside his direct vision but in his periphery.
He walked the roads, generally keeping on the other side of Knocknaffrin ridge, away from his homeplace. His parents had died when he was young, and the grandparents who had brought him up had died while he was in Mesopotamia. He slept in outbuildings, or under the stars. Finally, one day he went up to live by one of the corrie lakes under Knocknaffrin peak itself. This still pool of water stood like a giant teardrop shed by the mountain above. He found bits of blankets and mattresses, and in a cave that centuries earlier housed a bear’s den, made a place of some softness to live in. People called him Jim Fitzgerald from Lackendarra who had been touched after being away at the war, then Lackendarra Jim, then just Lackendarra. Local children first ran from him, then watched him with a protective respect, bringing him milk and bread from their parents. Many of these children emigrated; some stayed, married, and their children in turn kept a close eye on Lackendarra. An invisible network of care surrounded him as years drifted past.
END OF FREE EXTRACT
You can read the rest of this story by purchasing a copy Alt Hist Issue 9.
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