The Devil I Know (an excerpt).
In this excerpt from her latest novel, Irish writer Claire Kilroy's characters ride through a "country dark" post-Celtic Tiger landscape, their GPS registering, nothing and no St. Christopher to protect them. Is that the Devil out there in the gorse?
We were travelling along a tertiary road with no white line down the middle. The sun was shining through Hickey's window, and then it was shining through mine, and then it was shining through Hickey's window again. We were going around in circles. "Ask for directions," I said to annoy him--we hadn't seen another soul for miles. The few old farmhouses that we passed looked neglected and sad. There wasn't what you'd call evidence of a local housing need. "The Celtic Tiger didn't bother venturing this far north," I noted.
"We are the Celtic Tiger," said Hickey. "We're here now."
More byways, more barbed-wire fences snagged with silage bags. I could already see the newspaper graphics in the property supplements: a dot indicating Malahide and our new urban quarter next to it as if the two were side by side. And the punters would believe it because they wanted it to be true, and lately in this country, wanting something to be true made it true. Wanting something to be worth a hundred million made it worth a hundred million. I checked my phone. No word from M Deauville.
The satellite navigation system indicated that our vessel was adrift in a sea of black. The sun was low in the sky. Soon it was going to get dark. Country dark, that is; real dark--there was no street lighting. Hickey and I weren't used to country dark. "I think it might be time to turn back," I told him. "We'll come out again in the morning."
An old black Audi A6 came booting up from the rear and overshot us on a blind bend, its registration plates mud-caked to illegibility. Three clipped male heads juddered about in the backseat and one of them turned to eye us. Whatever he said made the others turn to look too and then they were gone. "Fucken Eastern Europeans," Hickey muttered. The Audi was a left-hand drive. Plus the Irish no longer drove cars as old as that.
The road narrowed into a lane and the lane narrowed into a cart-track with a mohawk of grass running down the centre. A very bad feeling was brewing inside me. "This can't be right, Dessie," I said, but what I meant was: Dessie, this is wrong.
Finally, a rusty green gate. FOR SALE BY PUBLIC TENDER read the sign erected on stilts like a prison watchtower, SALE AGREED nailed across it. Hickey killed the ignition and jumped out to empty his bladder into the ditch before wrenching the gate out of the long grass and shouldering it back into the field like the turning arm of a mill. I sat peering out at Dublin's new urban quarter--fields of scutch grass and clumps of gorse. The sky was a dusky wash of blue and the first of the evening's stars had appeared. The heavens, I remember thinking as I gazed up at them. And down here, the hell.
Hickey was delighted to get an opportunity to see what the truck could do, so we reared over hillocks and plunged into troughs, the white scuts of rabbits bounding out of the headlamp beams as he gunned the throttle. Then we hit something. He slammed on the brakes and whipped around in his seat to peer out the back window. "What the fuck was that?"
I hadn't seen anything either. The impact had been loud but dull. We had collided with something soft and heavy. "Don't get out," I warned Hickey because the bad feeling was even stronger in the field, but he jumped out to inspect the front of the truck, running his palm along the bull bars. "Doesn't seem to be any damage."
I lowered my window. "It sounded like an animal. Maybe it was a badger?"
He shook his head. "This is a raised chassis. It has a clearance of over three feet. A badger would've fitted underneath. It was something bigger than that. I don't understand how we didn't see it in the headlamps." He spat into the grass. "It's dead now anyways."
Then we heard the animal howl.
"We can't leave it like that," I said. "We should go back and find it. Have you got a torch?"
"It's a hammer we need. I left me tools in the old truck so that's the end a that." He was hauling himself back up into the driver's seat when the thing wailed again, a bloodcurdling sound. "Ah, fuck it. I suppose we'd better put it out of its misery."
So we both got out and went combing through the long grass in the violet twilight. I came upon a snowdrift of feathers where a killing had taken place. The strong brown wing feathers yielded to the downy white ones as layers of the bird were stripped away. When the feathers ran out, I encountered what looked like a fox's brush. I got down on my hunkers to illuminate it with the screen of my phone. It was indeed a severed fox's brush. The nub of the tailbone was the leathery black of a gorilla's palm. No blood--this wasn't a fresh wound. The blue light attracted Hickey's eye. "Have you found it?"
We moved on.
Hickey disturbed a pheasant then. It exploded out of the grass, a clatter of whip-cracking wings, and he flinched backwards with a whuuh! "The size a tha!" he grinned over at me, keen to laugh it off because it did not sit well on him, having his fright witnessed by another man, even if it was only a man like me. Then we heard a whimper. It was coming from a mound of gorse. Hickey picked up a rock and we approached.
It was woody old gorse, left to grow unchecked for so long that you could walk between the trunks propping up its prickly canopy. The closer we got, the higher the mound loomed, and then we saw the glowing eyes. And the glowing eyes saw us. They had been watching us all along.
Neither of us said a word, just about-turned and legged it straight back to the truck. When we were both in, Hickey hit the central locking button and the accelerator pedal. He didn't stop to shut the rusty gate when we finally found our way out. "But what if it escapes?" I said and immediately regretted voicing the question, because in referring to it, I had confirmed that there was an It. Hickey didn't answer.
"Do you believe in God?" he asked me some miles down the road. Night had fallen by then. Real dark, country dark.
"Do you believe in the Devil?"
"Don't be absurd." The quality of his silence made me turn to him. "Why, do you?"
His face was lit electronic blue by the screen of the GPS, which indicated that we were still stranded in a void. "Yes."
"You believe there's an actual man called the Devil who walks amongst us?"
"I do," Hickey asserted with vehemence, keeping his eyes on the road. "I seen him. Down at the Steak one night. The lot of us were standing around a bonfire outside the cave when suddenly there was this face on the other side a the flames, standing right across from me an looking at me mate Shane. Staring at him, like. Boring holes into his head. He was black. An I don't mean African black. He was a white man but his skin was black, an shiny an greasy, so I elbowed Shane an says, 'Who's your man? Who brought him? Fucker seems to know you.' But Shane couldn't see him. 'Where?' he says, an I nodded across the bonfire but your man had already went. But I seen the prick. I seen him there that night. A few hours later, Shane was dead. Drowned. Fisherman's son. Never learned to swim. You remember Shane."
"I'm sorry, Dessie, I don't."
"You do. He was in the little school with us. Did you know he was dead?"
"No, I hadn't heard. I must have been away."
"They said you were dead too."
"That was another Tristram St. Lawrence."
"That's right. Another Tristram St. Lawrence. Common name."
I lowered my head. "Yes, it is a remarkable coincidence."
We journeyed for another mile or so without speaking. Hickey turned the heat on full. "Perishing in here," he complained, though it wasn't. Moths blundered into the beams of the headlamps, and a frog made a break for the other side of the road, getting its timing spectacularly wrong. The amount of vehicles that passed that way--maybe one or two each night, and maybe none at all--why did it have to wait until then?
"Have you ever seen the Devil?"
"No, Dessie, I haven't."
"I think you have seen him. I think you just didn't know it was the Devil. Or that you just didn't admit it was the Devil. That's what I think."
"It is. Do you think he'd talk with an English accent?"
"Or would he be one of them mad fuckers from Kerry? You know where they hold the Puck Fair? The Puck is another word for the Devil, isn't it? Isn't that right, Tristram? Isn't the Puck another name for the Devil?"
"I don't know, Dessie. So don't keep asking me." We were going around in circles again but there was no sun to orient us this time. No moon either, that I could see. And no St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. The dashboard of Hickey's new truck was bare.
"I'd say he'd be English. Like you."
"I'm not English, Dessie."
"You know what I mean. I'd say he'd talk posh like you." Hickey pondered the Devil's accent as we raced along the country lanes. The blackness of the surrounding fields facilitated this strain of thought. There could have been anything out there. "Yeah," Hickey concluded, "the fucker at the bonfire with the coal-black skin didn't look like a Kerryman to me. He didn't look human. I'd say he was English. A posh English toff."
The lane was steadily tapering and the hedgerows crowded in, a scrawny rabble clamouring at the windows to get a look at us, convicts in a prison van. They dragged their claws along Hickey's new paintwork. "Jesus," he whispered. I glanced at the GPS. It was still reading a blank.
"Tell us this, Tristram: why don't you drink any more?" The heat in the truck was overpowering.
"Because it'll kill me, Dessie," I told him, although it was none of his business.
"Why, what were you drinking, strychnine?"
Trying to make light of it. There was no light to be made of it. Addiction was a dark road. "Alcohol, Dessie. If I drink alcohol again, I'll die."
Hickey couldn't get his head around this. "Is that what they tell you in the AA? That if you take a drink, you'll die?"
"Not immediately, but yes, I'll die."
Hickey laughed. "An you believe that shite?"
"Yes, Dessie, I believe that shite. I believe that if I started drinking again, I would keep drinking until I drank myself into the grave."
"An you laugh at me for believing in the Devil?"
"I didn't laugh at you, Dessie. We all have our private conceptualisations of Hell."
"Private conceptualisations of Hell," he repeated dubiously, giving the words his full consideration. "Private conceptualisations of Hell. So what you're saying is, it's in me head?"
"The Devil was invented by man, Dessie." And like the nuclear bomb, once we invented him, we could not uninvent him.
Hickey shook his head. "I know what I seen that night. I know the Devil was standing at that bonfire. An I know that two hours later, me mate Shane was dead."
Why had I denied knowing Shane? I remembered Shane well enough. I hadn't heard that he was dead. "Where's your St. Christopher?"
"In the old truck."
"Oh." Silence. Miles of silence ensued. There was much to weigh up. "I don't think we should go ahead with this project," I finally said.
"Too late," said Hickey. "We already signed."
Of course. Last night, or was it the night before? During the night of delirium, we had signed every contract put in front of us. pp M Deauville, I had inscribed beneath my signature; per pro, per procurationem, through the agency of. By the power delegated to me as his procurator, his steward, his proxy.
"Do you ever feel he's in the backseat?"
"Stop it, Dessie."
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you sounded exactly like him just there!"
"I mean it. Enough."
"When you're driving around, I mean. Like now, for example. Do you ever feel he's sitting right behind you just out of range of the rearview mirror?"
"No," I said firmly, "I don't."
"Or maybe he doesn't have a reflection. Maybe that's why I can't see him."
"Or maybe you can't see him because he isn't actually there."
"Nah," said Hickey. "He's there, all right. I can feel him. Breathing down the back a me neck."
The relief when the first street light appeared on the horizon was immense, a glimpse of dry land to a shipwrecked man. A sign for the motorway soon followed and we hurtled towards the orange glow of civilisation. The navigation system started tracking our position again. I didn't care that Hickey was speeding. I could not get out of that black hole fast enough.
"I do right now, Tristram," Hickey said out of nowhere. We were stopped at a red light at Sutton Cross by then. At least forty minutes had passed between us in silence, Hickey blessing himself every time we passed a church, and sometimes when we didn't. The Cross was deserted at that hour of the night.
I was frankly surprised when Hickey had slowed to a halt at the empty junction. I had expected him to bulldoze through the way he bulldozed through everything. Why, having broken all the other rules, had he chosen to obey this one? The rules of logic, of business, of matrimony, the rules of the Irish State--a trail of broken rules lay scattered in his wake as if a tornado had passed through town, and then he decides to stop at a red light after midnight? I looked at him. "You do what right now?"
"Feel him in the backseat."
I turned away to look out at the crossroads. The two of us stared dead ahead like a pair of mannequins. The skin on the back of my neck crawled like the pelt of a cat because as soon as Hickey said it, I felt it too. Felt him. Breathing on me.
The lights changed to green. We pushed on. Motion somehow alleviated it, that sense of the Devil bearing down on us, contracting his tensile spine.
"Why do you think I bought the truck, Tristram?" Hickey asked me at Corr Bridge. He was over-enunciating his words.
"I don't know, Dessie. Why did you buy the truck?" I was over-enunciating my words too. We were under observation now. We were speaking before an audience.
"Because it has no back seat."
"I see." We trundled on.
"Nowhere for him to sit."
"I got that."
He rolled down the electric window after dropping me off. The castle hovered in darkness, a damp slab of stone. "I still feel him breathing behind me though," Hickey stated grimly, inclining his head to indicate the space to his rear, the nonexistent backseat that we were both afraid to look at. The window glided up again, sealing Hickey in with his cargo, and no St. Christopher to protect him.
Claire Kilroy (b. 1973) is the author of four novels: All Summer (2003), Tenderwire (2006), All Names Have Been Changed (2009), and The Devil I Know, forthcoming in August 2012. She was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2004 and lives in Dublin.
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2012|
|Next Article:||Two Crows in a Sandbox.|