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Ah, Devon Unbowed (A Spirit Not Yet Home)
Words by Tom Sheehan
Devon whispers to me tonight out of the Bulliwicks and Doneraile and Elphin-Mere. Devon whispers in the clutter of an alley where Grandfather Johnny Igoe ran as a boy. Devon whispers through the amber of glass and the dark, dark of my beer suds. Devon whispers. If I told my father he’d be angry because he knows not Devon but another. And yet Devon comes in the long dark alleys and side streets of my nights and in the neon of shouting at my own silhouette on the moon.
I have heard him in the cratered hell of Korea and in Cleveland’s dusky pit and in Providence falling down a hill and in the big rail yards of Chicago as I tramped away from a troop train looking for a Budweiser and sober as hell on a March morning knowing the mists and hill greenness of Frisco as she popped America out of the purple.
And Devon whispers tonight sort of faded and distant as a thin star voice calling down the crook of years. Devon says words to me I have heard before:
“Ye bird is led a wilde goose chace adown ye river.”
And I hear him move, furtive and sly as winks, his shoulders hung in tight to hold off the cold moving on his skin even beneath his heavy cardigan, through Clanricard’s Alley and past Lyman’s Place, to find himself beside the door he long sought. He touched the door as he might have touched the hawthorn once that stood in the small green yard in front of the brick house back in the Bulliwicks. Back in the Bulliwicks. Back in the hundred years of time. He touched the door expecting it to sound as a stone on his fingers, a hard experience of touch, not really a touch of a hundred years of a tree, but it opened, the door.
It opened and Devon saw the light beneath a further door, a crescent burst in the pit of the room, a sky of night of a room. Devon moved inside the sky and closed the door behind him, hinges rolling smooth as leathers, the only sound his own breathing, the quiet burst of his chest only now finding painless expansion, just now finding relief from the sharp bang and pierce at his right breast. He enjoyed for a moment that knowledge of relief, that uninterrupted heavy breathing, and moved, more carefully than he had moved all the long evening from the river, toward the crescent of light in the deep space of a new place.
Devon was silent. Even his knees did not creak out their hyperbolic drumming and snapping that had once betrayed him. He moved out into that space of darkness and moon silence and treachery of sudden stars, in a stealth both grotesque and yet stolen from Ledwidge’s ballet, until he seized up in mid-flight. The room, the space, the utter darkness, had matter. matter shared the air with him, shared the darkness, shared the faintest odor of burlap in the air as thin as old gunpowder. Matter, with him, was soaking up the few calories of heat held inside the walls. Matter, he suddenly knew, shared knowledge with him. He let the one last hard breath go as if a sign were needed or indeed was being sought after. Then the bully whistles blew. All around the bully whistles blew and they split the darkness, they split the room, they split the outer space of the room and Devon whispered to me and said:
Tommy, Tommy, me culprit, I’ve lost it! But keep listening. The world is calling, I must go.
How can I know he does not pass booted but silent through the midnight grass?
Moved one night just past into the Bulliwicks and hid hard against a stone wall and Devon whispered through grass as fine as velvet threads, a hoarse whisper, a ragged edged whisper, much as liquid steel scratching in the Borgmal Mill against the bucket edge, a medicinal whisper with thick, dark dosages, a whisper full of tombs and brasses, a whisper Devon knows I feel even before I hear it coming hard through the soft grass.
Ah, Tommy, Tommy, I’m out on it!
Grass moved on his face catching as webs not quite there and shoved up into his his nostrils hard as bamboo sticks, all the while a half moon poked neon shots at him, at the sad, dark, long, cold, hungry, passionless, painless body of a man moving through the grass as if Eden lay ahead with all its promise.
He remembered a game they all played back of the other wall a mile back, smelling leaves, eyes bound, hands tucked away, trying not to smell even one scent of the odor coming up from their armpits ripe as dropped melons, saving odor-telling acumen for one quick breath of a leaf and to spit out the name of the tree.
Oh, hawthorn, he thought. Oh, tree. Oh, leaf. Oh, veined figment of a full life.
He swore the moon was cold. He swore the rock wall coming hard up against him was cold. He knew the stone of every wall and this was much like them all. He knew the gray slam of it, the flint, the fire thrust. Then the marble pits buried in other rocks older than the earth itself, pulled out of the universe by a power stronger than the one that would take it again.
He measured, with his hand, a cold, callused hand, a hand this night had closed on life, the almost bottle-green bulb on a rock and swore he knew the fire that sent it. There was but the wall. There was no other wall. There was no other wall to climb over, slide down, scurry behind, squint over at the unknown. This was his last wall. This was his last field, last meadow, last pasture, last fling far from the little stone house.
Devon told me in that deep hurting whisper, it was his last field. He thrust one shoulder under himself and the jacket bound tightly at his armpit and he measured the slowing blood touching at his fingertips, a tide withdrawing from the very edges of the world.
Tommy, Tommy, I’m out on it!
And he sucked in the night and the stars and the half-death moon and the bamboo-threatening grass and the bottle green of rock bulb and the heavy-necked taste of his sweater and the air leaping in cold pieces and the abject, miserable silence strutting proud as death and the odor of a hawthorn leaf moving its anesthesia deeper into his mind than he cared. His fingertips took the silence first.
He lay on his side, but his head back and eyes looking up into the near-cream moonlight and thought of looking up at Rhoda MacGawran standing above him on a staging back in Schlah Cruach and how the white of her never seemed to end, and how his fingers ceased a grasp with cold coming through them slower than suds.
There was something else. He had forgotten something else. How had it been so important once and now to be forgotten? He was sure it had not gone away. Things don’t disappear without reason. There was something. But what? What besides the cold? The cold now in his fingers was more reality than the whiteness above him. What else? What took him to this? There was something beside the whiteness. There was something besides Rhoda MacGawran’s crotch staring back down at him heavy as August garden.
There was something. It was alien to him. It was alien to him. It did not belong. It had not meant to be. That was the real matter, it had not meant to belong. And then the insidious heat of that alien thing became known to him again, the sly, subtle, beguiling heat, the white heat, pained heat; somewhere, down where his hand could not reach, where his fingers could no longer feel, the heat of the alien thing grew. And the total night leaped in flames. It raced through him.
The hawthorn leaf faded, its odor lost in the smell coming up under his sweater strong as stable sweep, sharp as a Friday stable sweep back in Schlah Cruach.
He strained to bring back the hawthorn leaf, strained to bring back the blessed Bulliwicks full of sun and bright air searching out all things, strained to race a million years back to his first fish, stone, ride, seed, chocolate bite from Newby Gantt, to the previous of forever, and he suddenly knew the alien. It was lodged there somewhere off the hip, deep in, hot, burning, feeling as if it would again explode on him, in him, as it had.
The corporal had taken one shot. It was growing now. It would always grow, It would never stop growing. It would explode again. It would careen in him like a mad shell of a car in a wild ride. It would hurt again.
Oh, Grampy, he cried. Oh, Tommy. Oh, Grampy. I’m out on it! Oh, God, I’m out on it.
Devon cries when he whispers, poetic sobs:
It's the hoarseness in his voice.
It is the dosage.
It is the liquid of steel.
It is his own shell.
Devon, is your peace in me?
“Ah, Thomas, you’ve been wondering where I’m at and all the time I’ve been burning the mountains behind me and burning the rivers behind me and burning circles in this old land behind me and the bloody bastards keep coming! Oh, lad, they keep coming like the angel’s breath was on them. I tell you, it’s a great thing to see perseverance like they have, not letting air out of sail, or steam out of gut, just coming on in one command, and if they become notorious or famous for these goddamn deeds, well, lad, they’ve earned them.
They’ve seen more of this land, more of her real bush and stream and strange tree lines than many mouthy bastards I’ve met in my great circle of home. One of them’s a savage bastard and near caught me in Ballinascarthy and if he isn’t my brother he near is for the damned way he has about him, like part Skye terrier. I swore once I would kill him next time meeting and then that night, safe in a dark room with a real lass of the land and one without upstart ideas, I could have loved him like the brother I never had.
It would be such finery to have a brother now. This one has a way of dog about him and I hate him, the bastard he really is, and I love him because he’s me coming after me and there is no power so great in the world, lad, as one chasing one’s self in merry circle of life and death around the amoebae of the Irish Ocean/Atlantic Sea.
I was settled in a sure place at Ballinascarthy, warm and good tea near and some muffins I haven’t had for twenty years, sitting in a pan so close it was like stealing each time I ate one. And my Uncle Tim from Rathkeale sitting, reading, in the half light of the fire and pretending all the time he was hero and his heart pumping so loud you could hear it across the room and the sweat pouring off his brow and the tip of his nose regular as rainfall.
It’s something, Tommy, Tommy, to sit in the presence of a coward and feel all your heart go out to him to make the one move that will bring it all back and you know it just can’t happen, because one is made the way he’s made, and wishing don’t change a thing. A coward has a special way of covering. It’s a way he has learned in many places and many scenes and many situations. He’s excellent at protecting himself most of the time and horribly bad at protecting others and as smart as I am, I’m as dumb as I am, and should have smelled the rat moving in the guise of himself.
And I sat there, Tommy, Oh, Tommy, I sat there trying to renew myself and trying to speak at him the words I wanted to say and I was as much coward as he was and held my tongue. And all the time this near-brother is using my uncle to get at me and I should have known. Oh, lad, I should have known; the fox has all that’s left over of cunning.
I moved with a slight word of goodnight into the deep silence of my room and closed the door behind me softly and with a prayer for Tim. My mother is crying yet over him and I could not pass on without giving a word she would have given regardless of the matter and the time.
Mother, your brother sits like a savant, the book open to a good word, his glasses tipped at a professorial angle, his pipe giving off a comfortable smoke. But I don’t believe the body of his eyes. He was born one with the fox and I could feel the fox near.
You might think for one moment your Devon is gifted, but not so, Tommy, not so. More coward than gifted that moment in Ballinascarthy as I lifted the window sure as the devil himself coming in from the Easter sunrise and slipped away. I heard the strange edge of voices and that of the near-brother coming from the full darkness.
Oh, there’s no heart so loud as one’s own in the dead of night, no heart so drumming, no heart so full of a nearness to pain that you want to reach out and pull it in to get rid of the suspense and anxiety. There’s no heart so brave in its beating and so fragile in its pounding as one in flight.
I wondered, even as I moved as sly as I thought the fox of him could move, how my Uncle Tim’s heart really sounded in his own head, in his own mind, in his own conscience. And suddenly I was told by all the grains of my own thought and being that the heart my Uncle Tim heard was indeed one of fright, always of fright; from dawn to dusk, at all hours of the night, he would not know anything more than he would know fright.
And I could have cried then. I could have spilled the waters of heaven and hell for him then as I moved, even greater than the fox could move, through the crowding night and out toward Carrigaline and the place where Jack Templemore sat night after night, his heart echoing in the far recesses of his mind a dial tone of love, waiting for one or another or another of the small committee in its flight to touch at his door, to take of his bread, to sip of his tea, to pass on to what lay in the politics of the land and perhaps, and, more than likely, never to be seen again.
And he asked nothing, not thanks, not gift of any measure, but shook a man’s hand and looked into a man’s eye as no man shall ever be accosted and we who moved away from proud Jack Templemore remember that eye upon our eye and that hand upon our hand and we had found the power of the people.
And some nights I sleep like this, Tommy, Tommy, such nights as tonight, with the sky as big as bells peeling out freedom in great waves and clouds breaking up at dawn to run off in strange elopements, and all turns well for me, though my flight is not yet done.
When my flight is done, you shall hear my cry.”
This night is frogged down, there is a gulp in its air. The night moves without the blessings of moon or stars, but the voice moves over the land. It comes out of icebergs and across floes of the north and rises full of steam up out of the gnarled equatorial limbs of one man.
Devon has my ear this night. He will not let me be still as dead leaves or snow banks at deep midnight, but wants me to know. So I listen as Devon speaks to me, his voice a shadow of his other voice, the laughter gone from it, the gaiety gone from it, the mystery of love gone from it, the panic of chase gone from it, as a voice cannot remember of one's self.
Tommy, Tommy, he said to me. Listen this night. Oh listen, me culprit, the word is now.
And Devon slunk in his hospital bed as a piece of uninvited vermin and gave me his terror of white, his mind shrieking into my mind, his heart bursting into my heart, his breath bursting into my breath, his loneliness and fears finding their way into my self.
Ah, Tommy, Tommy, there’s no right.
Can one feel the beauty of a man dying? Can one man in this bloodthirsty world feel the dying of one man and his dreams going like crap up the air of our lives? I fear Devon is going this way and I listen to hear his dream buried in white, buried in the solvents of a strange world.
There is no tuning but Devon as he calls out from his lonely place. He shares his sudden stars and sudden darkness with me. He has his way over the air full of white linens and anesthesia.
Devon cries in this world, in this jungle of corridors and white walls. He abhors the odors in the middle of the air. He cannot stand the artificial smell of things. The sterility in the rooms gathers about him strong as Lysol. The walls of a tomb begin their smothering and lids close down and he refuses the belief of cherry wood’s closing of final doors over his eyes. But his voice does not say the same thing. It is filled with the real belief.
Ah, Tommy, Tommy, not now, not now! We’ve not done yet! We’ve not done yet!
He has been a hundred roads and a hundred caves and dark alleys and secret rooms in all the time I have known him. He has lived more life than I have and he touches at me in strange ways, but the word carries and I listen.
Ah, Tommy, they must get me from here. And if they don’t, get me to the Bulliwicks, Tommy. Only you can get me to the Bulliwicks! After all the times, Tommy, only you can get me home again!
And I know on certain nights I can never take him home. He must move on to a new task, the real assignment, he calls it, of one man’s life and destiny.
Tommy, I shall not go easy to the clay.
And suddenly that terror is mine. I cannot take him home again! I cannot let him rest in the Bulliwicks until his job is done, until his war is over.
Ah, Devon, the bullet of my spirit hits the runway at Shannon after The Dingle popped out. You crowd me with misery and the pestilence of long hope. I have brought all my nights with me, our silent screaming back and forth, the shined kaleidoscopic stars and moons serving as soul transmitters, oh, the brittle and unremembered pain numbing my bony joints forever scarred with your deep injection, the well of tears I’ve spent and hold collected in the explosive bag that veins and aorta serve, and the talkless times when my son was born and my nights were cries for him grasping at the edge of life.
Oh, Christ, Devon, you smother me, the highs and lows of such long pursuit, the sands shifting over the spectrum of lore binding our ends, as I move the English Ford between obstacle barrels like crude orange chess pieces on a Limerick bridge guarded by a new army, their automatic rifles hung bore down, their faces stiff as clock faces, lips set at nine and quarter past the hour, an army you never knew and yet began.
I impelled myself out of the city ganging at me harsh as my own dark cities, much like Lowell or Lawrence or Worcester with the ghosts of their mills forcing thousands of aimless steps on every corner, every street, their red bricks inanimate, bearing the wrong breathlessness, usurpers, idle squatters; then only to find that new army in wayside patrol, slow meandering, a bore-down search for time, and I know you are near.
Will I find you in Elphin-Mere, by the crude hut of Johnny Igoe, blue and thatched on the far turn, or out from town, toward Cassidy’s, where that lone statue stands, the Gaelic names burning stars. Your army, Oh, by God, Devon, your army imprisons me at Elphin-Mere!
I struggle for the Bulliwicks, moving nowhere in the tide rushing through my limbs, helpless as my son crib-bound looking up to me, only eyes reaching, and I am my son!
I am that babe beneath the power.
Oh, Christ, Devon, I am you! I am you! And the Bulliwicks fade, the hawthorn fades, sweet smell lost in the granite pull, strong stable smell up in smoke, the Easter names popping bullets of letters in my eyes, and I am caught, we are caught, in a freeze of time.
Ah, Devon, will we never go home again?