Bog-brown glens, mica schist rocks, waterfalls
Gulching down screes, a rain-logged mountain slope
With scrawny pine trees twisted by mad gales,
They see from my ball-yard and abandon hope.
For the first time in nearly two years, Imogen finds herself alone with Kieran in the breakfast room. Alice, the young Australian woman helping Kieran at the hostel, just left to start cleaning upstairs; the guests, eight in total, finished eating and have wandered off. After observing him in a brooding silence in the pub three evenings before—when Imogen drank her 5pm pint quietly across the room before collecting her daughter from choir practice—Kieran is in a talkative mood.
“Maybe he’s slowly settling back into himself, she decides to herself, “after the mad summer season.”
When in session, Imogen stops by the hostel before class at the design school a few mornings a month, but always with Michael now. With the youngest of his four children sick, however, Michael is home in Cork with his family. Imogen isn’t quite sure what made her turn up the dirt drive to the hostel, or what gets Kieran to recount the story of the clairvoyant, but there she is, listening intently to him talking as if it were happening all over again.
“So, I stop my work to show her around. She drove all the way from Dublin to get here. Said her father told her the old place was haunted. I bought the old man’s caravan, see, three weeks before. He delivered it himself and stuck around for a while.” He shrugs; “What can you do? She had a card and everything. A Traveller, comes from a long line of clairvoyants.”
“Was she looking for work or something?” Imogen asks.
“No, she didn’t want any money. Said she’d come out of professional curiosity.” Kieran sits up straight in his chair; “So, I walk her around upstairs a spell . . . nothing. But then, when we start down to this level she stops on the landing, abrupt like. In this far-off voice she says: ‘I sense something dreadful.’ Then she starts moving again but freezes, stiff as a statue at the bottom of the stairs. She points down the hall toward the dorm room next to the boiler closet.” Mimicking the woman, Kieran raises his index finger rigidly toward the empty space before them, ‘There!’ She says.”
“‘He’s right there,’ she repeats, stabbing the air with her finger, ‘and he’s mean.’ So, I look at the space she’s pointing at but don’t see a thing. Then she says, in a very low voice mind you—like she doesn’t want your man to hear us: ‘His name is George.’”
Kieran pushes his chair back and stands. Imogen looks up at him from the window seat. Her tea is getting cold but she’s gripped by his voice: the roll of his west coast accent, the throatiness of his tone.
“She asks me if we can go into the dorm room. ‘Why not?’ I say. It’s not like this George has ever stopped me from doing what I please in my own bloody place!”
Imogen grins at his bravado, “And?”
“In the room she comes upon two lads, huddled in the far corner near the window. She points her finger again: ‘The poor little wretches.’”
“Could you see them?”
“I didn’t see a damn thing!” He leans down to take a quick swig of coffee, looking Imogen straight in the eye. She feels a heat between her thighs, as if being touched there. “I’ll tell you something, though,” Kieran says, lowering his voice, “Last Christmas time I put a couple in that dorm because they wanted to be alone. The private room upstairs was taken and I didn’t need the extra beds. Gave them the bunk with the double on the bottom. In the middle of the night they switched rooms. Came upstairs and took two single beds in the mixed dorm. Told me in the morning they had been frightened by a ‘presence.’ Real shook-up they were. I had a mind to let them have it, messing up extra beds but,” Kieran bows his head for a moment, “It was Christmas time and well, they seemed genuine like.”
“Was it George do you think?” Imogen asks, surprising herself.
“Or the lads.”
Imogen falls quiet, but only for a moment; “But so, then what happens? With the clairvoyant, I mean.”
“She tells me they’re distressed. That they want to leave.” Kieran gestures toward the door leading out to the hall, his arms and hands spread wide. “Then why don’t they just go?” I say. Well, she’s fuming by now, practically shaking like—‘because,’ she tells me, ‘that bastard George won’t let them!’ So, I think: that’s it. Me, I’m all set to go along with the situation. What can you do? I figure the lads and George are a permanent part of the place. At least they don’t take up beds,” he grins slightly, “Well not obvious like, anyway, to most.”
“So, she leaves?”
“No! Not at all. She doesn’t leave. She insists, I mean that woman insists, that she can’t abandon the lads. She wants to help them like. To give them some comfort she says.”
“So, what do you do?” Imogen’s tea has grown tepid.
“I don’t do a damn thing.” He sits down, slouching in his chair; “I go back upstairs to make some beds and leave her there.”
“But . . . to do what?”
He sits up abruptly, “To wrestle spirits I suppose. For fuck’s sake, how do I know!” He swigs more coffee as if to quell something, a fierce look crossing over his face.
“Okay, okay,” Imogen says, in a voice she’d use to calm a distressed child.
“When I come back around after about an hour’s time she’s there in the hall, sweaty and completely knackered. Hair all disheveled, but claiming success.”
“But what did she do exactly?” Imogen presses.
Kieran glances sharply at her. He waits a minute to answer, “Now I wasn’t there mind you,” he continues, his tone deliberate, “But the way she told it is: first, she went to work to let the boys out, which she managed, infuriating George. Then she sweated more to rid the house of him.”
“Sooo . . .” Imogen grins slightly, “The clairvoyant is actually a Ghostbuster?”
Kieran swallows the last of his coffee and slumps in his chair again, grinning back at her, “Now you’re sounding like a Yank, Imogen, and we’ve already got enough of them coming around already.”
“I haven’t seen you minding much.” She pauses for effect, “As long as they pay, and the women are lovely in their way.”
Kieran bows his head sheepishly, playing his part, “Not at all; not at all.”
Held high on the tongue, Kieran’s sharp, breathy “t” lingers in her ears, more pronounced than a Dublin dialect. It still doesn’t fail to draw her into him. To her, Kieran’s accent gives off a grave and dire finality, mixed with the desire to whistle a tune; it holds a tenacious, ancestral urge to survive, with an intensity of light in the eyes.
Imogen muses for a moment on just how far away Dublin feels now, though it’s only a few hours drive across the country. She left the city a little over two years ago to live in this remote place. When she first arrived in Bencorr, both she and Kieran had been getting over failed marriages. Exotic in his rural, rakish way, she was quickly seduced. With all the economic shifts and upswings happening in Ireland from the introduction of the Euro, Imogen suddenly wonders if Kieran and his kind might be a dying breed. She focuses again on his story.
“Do you believe it?” she asks him, but rushes on before letting him answer; “I mean it’s no shameful secret to anyone, at least not anymore, how the Christian Brothers here abused the lads. The horror of it would linger like a sickening mold in the walls I should say. I do shudder sometimes that I’m ever even in this place. Mind you, you’ve done a grand job transforming the old monastery into a lively and welcoming hostel, but imagine!” She lets out a quick breath, “And the design school, the rooms I learn in now, once an industrial school where those orphans also suffered so to abandon hope I’m sure. How do Murphy’s lines go in his poem? Wild boys my workshops chasten and subdue / learn here the force of craft.”
Imogen shivers and takes a sip of tea; it provides no warmth. She coaxes a smile, “Best not to dwell on it too much or a body wouldn’t be able to enter these buildings at all.”
Resolved to abide all things for the remainder of her time in Bencorr, Imogen has learned to cultivate a certain acceptance. Offered an Irish National Grant for career stimulation, this is her big chance. The EU has brought a boon to the country and she is determined to take advantage of it. She never earned a higher degree after passing her Leaving Certificate Examination in secondary school. Her last job in Dublin was an assistant to the production team in a design firm, but that was over a decade ago. When she got pregnant and married James, a successful banker, she had her daughter, then three years later, a son. She became a posh suburban mother and wife—then everything changed in a single day.
Imogen watches Kieran nod his head slowly to her question. The curl of his soft hair sweeps forward. Despite being weathered, his fair features take on a look of boyish reverence, “Yes, I believe it,” he answers her evenly; “Before the clairvoyant arrived, the cat never came downstairs, see? If you tried to carry her here she’d claw you, panicky like. Now she sleeps on the table in the hall where the clairvoyant said your man, George, stood, menacing the spirits of those suffering lads.”
Imogen breathes in deeply. The chill of the misty morning goes up her spine through the large window of sixteen panes. She shivers again and takes one last sip of cold tea as if something may have miraculously heated it again. While he grips her with his story simply by his way of telling it, talk of spirits has never affected her before. Raised by Anglo-Irish parents with no particular religious practice, she doesn’t take much stock in talk of things like spirits or miracles of Catholic saints. Given the recent brave testimonies of aging men who were emotionally, physically, and sexually abused as boys by the Christian Brothers in Ireland’s not-too-distant past, Imogen has, in fact, no shred of respect left for religious institutions.
For a moment, however, her mind wanders. If they do exist, she muses—again surprising herself, maybe spirits, too, carry a hunger for more. Death doesn’t guarantee some kind of heavenly reprieve, just as life can be its own hell. Abruptly, she finds herself wanting more from Kieran. These days she always wants more. More sex? She’s a single mom back in school at age thirty-five having an affair with a married man named Michael who commutes to Bencorr from Cork to attend the design school on a career grant, too. Kieran is a better bet for sex, like when she first arrived in the village—if sex is all she really wants.
“Do you think there are others in the house still?” She hears herself asking Kieran, “Spirits of the lads, I mean. One or two the clairvoyant might have missed?”
He doesn’t answer her right off, but stares into space. Imogen lets him. Unpredictable, she knows if pushed too hard Kieran can clam-up completely and dash off somewhere, saying he’s got work to do. A shift in light comes through the window; it makes his eyes deepen to the color of the sea in a storm. In that instant she lusts for him still. Does she love him? Well, they salvaged their friendship at least. The village is painfully small. You need to be able to drink a pint in the pub without regret for God’s sake.
At least with Michael she knows the other woman he sleeps with: his wife. With Kieran, the temptations come and go. It’s the nature of his business running a hostel and his way, Imogen decided when they ended their affair, of conjuring a kind of adventure in his life with a burning desire to forget—at least ever since his wife left him, but she has only known him since then.
“In all fairness,” she thinks to herself, “He’s going out with a local girl now. Seems to be making an effort at least . . .”
More. Imogen wants more adventure, too, but she has her daughter to consider. Studying design, earning a degree is a kind of adventure. She will make it an adventure, she tells herself. She had fiercely loved her husband and yet that hadn’t kept him. When their three-year-old son died five years ago from bacterial meningitis, something broke irrevocably between them, though the crack had already begun. They dropped their grief into separate chasms and never spoke of him again to each other.
“I have my needs,” Imogen reminds herself. A kind of momentary solace only the sharing of a body brings. A married man like Michael is predictable in his way. He has his needs, too, after twenty years of marriage. She can go on with the affair as if he has no wife, can’t she? Her own husband had an affair while they were married and it didn’t kill her. The village certainly didn’t offer much in the way of available grown men. “If any man ever really grows up,” she quips to herself. She feels a familiar rigid sorrow take over inside: her own son never would.
Strung tight from what he’s just reenacted after drinking three cups of his own strong coffee, Kieran shifts in his seat, rests his elbows on the table, leans over his empty cup and falls further into silence. He remembers suddenly seeing soldiers coming through the wall in the night when he was a small boy. He could feel the rain running down the blades of their long swords.
“Never you mind them,” his grandmother told him gently, tucking the blanket back around his small body, “They’re only lookin’ for a wee bit of comfort. We’ll light a candle for them in church come Sunday. Go back to sleep now,” she urged but he couldn’t. His mother had died the previous week—thirty-six years ago but just like yesterday. His one true source of comfort ever in his life; her memory haunts him still.
Sitting there beside his mute brooding, Imogen abruptly decides that Kieran is attuned to something she has never even pondered. “So, what do you think?” She risks asking again, her voice unnecessarily loud, her tone insistent this time; “Are there more of them in the house?” A dire urgency to know rushes through her—a need to put something to rest or let it drag her down for life; “Are there Kieran? Are there more spirits of the lost boys huddling here somewhere? Are there?”
His voice comes as if from a place too far for her to see. “Dunno,” he answers, his eyes averted; “Go on across the road to the graveyard. Ask the souls of the young bodies the Brothers buried there.”
Virginia Barrett’s books of poetry include Between Looking (2019, Finishing Line Press) and Crossing Haight—San Francisco poems (2018, Jambu Press). She received a 2017 writer’s residency grant from the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. She has taught in the MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco.