Evening pooled around McIntosh and as it closed itself into night cold shadows gathered about his ruined frame laid flat upon the forest floor. The sound of trees sleeping as the wind died was poetry in silence. No lush bustling or creaking kept him from his rest. No cawing cackles of far off creatures stirred the privacy of nature’s palace. In that sweet openness of his own unbroken freedom each breath purchased was a drawing in of that same unashamed finality. No more blood or flesh to fall away. No more hatred. He belonged again to nature, not Joseph Fay. Sleep bathed McIntosh in a soft kindness he had not known since he was a child. No matter the cold of night he rested as he never had before then woke to the sound of larks in the distance. Their tones were so fine, unbounded by any form, aloft atop the air that filled their lungs – sure of their place, as if they knew some secret truth that men were never privy to.
Above his resting place McIntosh could see the buds of shrubs still shut from the world slowly hoping their way open. It took time for them to split themselves and let their flesh spill into the world, vibrant and unspoiled. Such a sight had never stirred McIntosh’s heart before, but as he lay there and watched he knew that that was only because he had never taken the time see. He ached for them, so delicate and weak. He longed for them to open out and take the sun and drink of life’s great love. They were so calm that their measure of time crept into McIntosh’s heart and slowed his own perception. It seemed to him that he had always rushed. When he was a child he was never happy. Prison and Park Castle had been a torment he had always hoped would pass soon. But there, for the one and only time in his life, McIntosh felt his place. He was a creature of the earth. No more important than the buds that slowly bore themselves above him. And that knowledge, that quietness, it was a gift that made itself known only then when the end was due so shortly.
So sad it was, McIntosh felt, that in the final moments of his life he would receive such wisdom. It pierced more than any metal rods or even fire. It was such a pure feeling of one’s solemn righteousness that as the buds unfurled their final corners McIntosh felt the honour of bearing witness to a single moment no other human had or ever would experience. He was the sole participant in that sacred act, that solitary emotion lost amid the entirety of all the world. That anything had been shared with him was more than his redundant needs could enjoy and so, broken and flat, McIntosh wept. In the throes of his ignorance of joy McIntosh turned his head away from the buds, tears dripping onto the rock his head was rested on, and breathed the free pain of happiness lost. He knew his life had been a falsehood. Only those few moment at the very start had meant anything and even they were spent in self-servitude. That he had never known the real happiness of the communion of spirits and that, worse still, he himself had betrayed his own life, it was too much to hold in.
Sobbing through the revelation of a life spend wrong, McIntosh glanced and saw a worm labouring to bury itself inches from his face. Its simple form, always taken for granted until then, seemed a marvel. How clean it was, slick with beads of soil, fervent in its efforts. Nothing kept it from its determination. Its valour shined in the early morning sun that peered between the trees. Blind and helpless too, it forced itself way down and reeled its body in a coil that slithered in all directions. Then, once it had broken through, it throbbed and surged its flesh until only the tip of its tail was left exposed. Watching it, McIntosh sensed its completion tremble inside of him. He joined with it in that moment, urging it and hoping for it. But all too soon it was gone and he breathed a loss for it.
Resting his head back again and staring up to the sky, the full worth of day gleamed on the tree tops even though their trunks still slept. Their greenery was so bright that it veiled the blueness of the sky with yellow hints and bore an almost golden sheen. That shroud of light, having not yet ventured down to the creatures of the earth, promised so much. McIntosh called to it and bade it come and soak into him. He wished its love would join him as he had joined the worm, but all too slowly it crawled instead of falling down and warming up his shattered flesh. The sense of unworthiness this gave McIntosh washed over him as a sorrow of longing set so sure and clear that again a meandering woe wrought itself upon him. A slave to his circumstance once more, McIntosh wished to climb the branches and drink the light that clung to only the bravest and the tallest masts of wood. So he closed his eye and reached up in his heart to feel the golden warmth caress him. That imagining of still having arms to reach with gave so sweet a moment’s breath that while his eye was shut from the all things but the sunlight McIntosh lived above his lot. He sailed the air and drank the light and viewed the forest from on high. He perched himself and felt the leafs and the sap that clung to them with his imagined fingers. It had been so long since he had felt anything with fingers that it purged the sense of joy he had then and rotted the moment into a putrid loss beyond his control.
Crashing down to his mortal form, McIntosh opened his eye to see the golden glow halfway down the trunks around him. He had been away for some time, enough at least that the glow had made its crawling way further still towards him. But the distance then, though less than before, was a jeering of hope unachieved that lauded rejection. Being so close and yet still out of reach, like so much else, the shining bark of trees showed the knots and scars of time. These deformities whispered of their tribulations and the burdens they had weathered in silence. As one who knew such things, McIntosh leered at the folds of bark grown around where chance had cursed the flesh of those trees long before and he knew their pain. His own skin rippled with the wrath born and worn thereafter. The flat patch of skin where his nose had been streaked with tears that dripped into his mouth and his chest heaved again as his choking breath whispered of his own pains. The sight of scars on his beloved equals, though silent, bonded him to them even further. For he knew their suffering.
Just above where the golden light touched one trunk in particular a branch had grown down and to the side. Its malformed appearance jilted the trembling McIntosh. All the other branches had found their path to the sky and made themselves clear and honest, but that one branch, though high above him, shared itself with him. He sensed its angst at being so and called to it. But to his own dismay it did not return his care. Instead it lay there drooped in its bitter emptiness, alone. Detached from all the other beings in the forest the branch wept its form toward the ground and poured that terrible haunting in its heart deep into McIntosh’s own well of loss. And so, he wept his human tears and thought of all the missed chances he had wasted in culling life’s beautiful freedoms.
And then the deed returned to haunt him one last time. And he let it come. Not fighting it as he always had. It seemed to have the right at last. The blood seeped in and over him, blurring his mind’s eye. The chill of her skin froze his own and the glaring stare of death that looked out through eyes drank his newfound sense of things. Again he was alone and separated from all things. Again the void swallowed him. Again she whispered to him. This time, knowing that the end was finally near, he let himself listen to her. She wasn’t angry anymore. She called his name and told him that he was a bad man. She told him that he had stolen her life and that even her mammy said he was a bad, bad man. Then she broke his heart and forgave him. He could feel it. Under his skin. Down where Fay had never seen the truth. Lina scalded his soul with her gentle kindness. And as he all but died of sorrow he took in the scent of life anew. Her words destroyed what had become of McIntosh and unleashed a spirit free to roam.
Then the rains came. It was early for that time of year but not unheard of. Such storms always started softly but McIntosh knew at once what was coming. The skies dimmed and the sun, though at its noon perch, hid from the world as if afraid to witness what was to come. The first drops splattered onto the folded and knitted skin of McIntosh’s face but soon they hurled themselves in great hordes down into his eye and mouth. Their constant rage engulfed him and gave no quarter in their race to obliterate the world. Soon they had gathered into sheets of water that folded themselves on top of everything but when they reached the treetops they cracked into shards of water that lapped at the branches and the ground.
Gasping in minutes, he turned his cheek and sucked in what air he could between lashings. Gulping breaths and already coughing splutters of froth, McIntosh cursed the rain and wished for sunlight, tired of enduring and wanting only rest. But the rains never rested. Once they began, as well he knew, their fall was a constant. Nothing ever stopped the rains and as they tried to drown him he fought, not knowing why. Somehow life seemed important then, as if his desire to die did not include a stormy end. And so he shook his head and choked down what breaths he could achieve. This lasted for hours, well into the godless night. Each second was an unwelcome barrage of death that slurred the meaning of life for him. He clung with sadness for himself and for clinging at all, but cling he did.
And then a wash of sludge lifted McIntosh and slid his twisted frame along with an ease that scared him. The ground didn’t touch his back and small waves within the mass of water stifled and snuffed and smothered as he poured alongside leafs and bark and branches. Momentum rose and soon he clipped a sturdy trunk that turned him to his front. Holding on and fighting hardest then, he felt the air and rain on his back as it protruded from the tumult. But soon the darkness licked his neck and clawed his gut and temped him with all it had. Yet still he refused. The stream shallowed then and let McIntosh glimpse a breath, then snatched him again into the sludge. But then, as the stream diverted at a boulder he was halted, sideways, bloodied both by his journey and its abrupt, solid end.
At last McIntosh drew a flood of air into himself, glad to be alive for the first time since he could remember. Slowly his heart quelled its rage and allowed him to enjoy having survived. Then, pushing off the boulder with his bloodied chin, McIntosh flopped onto his back and watched the gathered rains plume from a branch above his head. The sweet relief and inadequate shelter lent a strange desire to live, if only to die right
. That feeling soaked into him where the sludge couldn’t and cleansed his mind. There in the scolding thrashes of the storm he closed his eye and listen to the sky release itself onto the earth. The wind and the rain and their efforts to uproot every tree. The thunder growling at the soil and the rocks. The air itself humming with the murderous desires of the storm. But he was unafraid. He lay there and took in the raw emotion of the night. He knew all the pains and wants any being could possess and the unanswered need that the night begged for then seemed to be all of those pains and wants at once.
Compassion came to him then. Slowly he let himself feel the knowledge of his heart pass through his own fear and leave him in a whisper to the skies. And so, holding to himself the brilliance of fear’s power, he let the great suffering he had allowed upon himself guide his mind. No more would he endure the rage that the night itself was shedding. No more would he breath in and choke upon the resentment of such woe. It was only that he had passed through those unrelenting agonies that he knew that truth, so he himself, in silent calm, forgave himself his errs. It was the only time that McIntosh had considered even broaching such sheer decisiveness of thought. He had never permitted himself even to think of the chance that he was capable of forgiving himself. Not even under Fay’s worst raging anger. He had always deserved to suffer, he knew and accepted that, but there, in the feral night, McIntosh chose for himself for once and for all.
Sleeping soundly in the madness of rain and lightning, all around him the world was new. Even there under the eye of the wildest of nights, he dreamed of the pastures of his youth that he had once so disliked. He felt his feet and the grass under them and the cooling breeze that always eased the heat of day on his skin. There were strawberries and other fruits and the bridge on which he had fished with his father. It was pure and it was all that his heart could take. Then, while listing in his dream of heaven, Eli McIntosh slipped away forever.
© Stephen Fahey