The Dead Republic
Model Ts prowling the country, men in trenchcoats moving in to kill me. But the Civil War was three decades gone, and it was just a Limerick taxi. I stayed still and waited for it.
—Good morning, sir.
—I’m not American.
—Where d’you want me to take you?
—Roscommon, I said.
—Is it not wet enough for you here?
I looked at him.
—Will you take me or won’t you?
—We’ll need a map.
—We won’t, I said.—I know the way.
He still hadn’t moved.
—The old homestead, is it?
—No, I told him.—Someone else’s. Will you take me?
—Right, he said.—I will. I’m curious.
He was young, half my age.
—But you’re the navigator, he said.
—Fair enough, I said.—Let’s go.
—Will I be bringing you back?
—You’ve no bag or nothing.
—And you’ve got the money?
He leaned forward, like he was giving the car the first push.
We began to crawl into the rain.
I should have been going to Cong, in County Mayo. I should have been there already. That was why I was in Ireland. I was the I.R.A. consultant, come home to watch the filming of my life.
But first I was going to Roscommon, to the house my wife had come from. I had to see the house.
It wasn’t there. The house was gone. It had been burnt out when I’d seen it last, just before I’d left Ireland for good. My wife’s mother, Old Missis O’Shea, had moved into the long barn, and I’d slept in the kitchen, under a tarpaulin roof. But the wall that had held up the tarpaulin, and the other walls—all the walls—were gone. And the barn—it was gone too. I was standing in the right place, but there was nothing. I wasn’t there to find anyone; I wasn’t that thick. But it felt like another death.
My bearings were exact. The few bits of trees, the yellow furze, even the cows had stayed more or less put, where I’d left them in 1922. But it was as if the house and the outhouses had never been there, or the well, or the low stone walls that had kept the cows out of the bog.
I walked to where the door had been. I knew exactly where I was going, where there’d once been a stone step. I could feel it in my muscles; I could feel the knowledge sing through me.
I stopped. There was no hint that there’d once been a door there, not a thing. I stamped my foot. I felt nothing under the grass. I walked around, to the wall we’d been put against, myself and my new wife, Miss O’Shea, with her cousin Ivan and the other cousin, as we were photographed on our wedding day, in September 1919. I could feel that day’s heat and shine as I turned the corner. I knew exactly where Ivan had placed his lads, to guard our normality for that one afternoon in the middle of the war. But there was no wall, no hint of dry clay where the wall had fallen, or hardness in the ground where it had stood. My trousers were wringing. It wasn’t raining but it must have been just before I’d paid the taxi driver and got out. I was in the middle of a field, in good wet grass. Not the edge of the field, where there’d once been a wall surrounding the kitchen garden. I could have coped with that, the walls knocked and covered, topsoil thrown over the map of the house. That would have made sense; it had been a long time. But this was just weird. My angles were perfect. I’d walked exactly here, trying to feel running water, with my father’s wooden leg held in front of me, and I’d heard her voice—Two and two?—and I’d seen her boots and the laces made fat by the muck. But there wasn’t even muck here.
I walked back now through the field. My own wooden leg was groaning, protesting, biting into the folded flesh. I could feel no water under me, and the well I’d found that day was gone. But I grabbed the gate and the top rung was there, exactly as cold as it should have been. I’d held that gate before, even if the path from the gate to the house was gone. The gate was real; it felt like sanity.
I walked out onto the road. I left the gate open. They weren’t my cows. They were Ivan’s cows, probably. If Ivan Reynolds was still around and living. On the drive from Limerick I’d passed dozens of abandoned farmhouses, falling in on themselves, left standing beside the newer, brighter houses. But this was different. There was no new house, and no ruin. Ivan had razed the house, then he’d buried it too deep to be remembered.
I’d paid the taxi driver and sent him back to Limerick. I was alone on the road. The heat was picking up the morning’s rainfall. The rest of the day was going to be hot.
They were all dead—my wife, Miss O’Shea, and my children, Saoirse and Rifle. All three were dead. I’d never thought that they were going to come running to find out who the man was, getting out the taxi. I never thought I’d see my wife or daughter looking out the window, over the window box, as I marched up to the door. My son wasn’t going to be mending an outhouse roof or gelding a fuckin’ greyhound in the yard. They were dead, somewhere.
They’d been dead for years.
I’d come to see the wall, maybe put my hand against it, break off a piece of whitewash, put it in my mouth and taste it. But just to see it—that would have been enough. To find its foundation in the grass, to feel it in the sole of my good foot.
I had sat in front of the wall. I had held my new wife’s hand.
I could have started from there and worked my way forward, to the old man standing in front of the fallen wall, or squatting in the grass, picking up pieces of clay. That was me, what I’d come to this place to be. I was the old man. I was only forty-nine, but not many would have believed it. I wasn’t sure, myself, what I believed—if I believed. The wall would have helped.
I sat down beside the gate.
I’d cycled every inch of every lane of this county. I’d lobbed bombs from most of the ditches. Bullets had slowed me down, but nothing had ever stopped me. Thirty years ago. Only thirty years. It wasn’t a lifetime. I looked at my hand, at yellow, knuckled bone. The hand had once held guns and women. I closed my fingers and felt nothing.
I used to be heard. My eyes used to kill.
There was no white wall.
I was once a man called Henry Smart. I was born in Dublin, in 1901, and I fought for the freedom of Ireland. I married a beautiful woman and we tried to save Ireland together. There was a baby, a girl called Saoirse, born when I was hiding. I went into exile when my comrades decided that they needed me dead. My wife was in jail. I went alone to England, then to the United States, with a false passport and a wedding photograph. I hid again, for years. I changed my name and cities. I found my wife again—she found me—in Chicago, when I broke into a house with Louis Armstrong. But I had to run again. My old comrades—a man who might have been called Kellet—had caught up with me. They put me against a wall. But my wife shot the men who were going to shoot me. I ran and, this time, we ran together. I had a family, and it grew. We had a boy we called Séamus Louis, and I called Rifle. We rode the boxcars through the years that became the Great Depression. We never stayed still for long. We were rebels again and we were happy. But I lost them. We were boarding a moving train. Rifle slipped. I caught him, saved him and fell. The train moved on, taking my family and my leg. I recovered. I learned to walk with a wooden leg. But I never found them. I searched for years. I heard stories about them and I followed the stories. The stories stopped, and I stopped searching. I crawled into the desert to die. I lay down and let the sun burn me to nothing. I died. I came back from the dead when Henry Fonda pissed on me. He was acting in a film called My Darling Clementine, emptying his bladder between takes. I was brought back to life, and I met John Ford, the man who was directing the film.
This had happened five years before, in 1946.
Ford knew me—I didn’t know how. He knew all about me. He knew my scars and how I’d got them. He looked across the darkness, straight at me.
—You’re the story, he’d said.
He was going to make the film of my life. That was why I was there now, in Ireland, sitting against the stone wall. I remembered it like quick pain, like the anger that was my real blood. I remembered the decision: I’d go home. I’d go home and tell my story.
I was an old man—the bullets and grief had caught up with me—but I felt bright and new. We shook hands. Ford was an old man too; he understood. I looked up at the black-blue sky, at all the dead and wandering stars, and I shouted.
—My name’s Henry Smart!
I stood up now. I got up, away from the wall. I knew where I was going, and I knew what I was going to do.
I was going to kill John Ford.