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Here be Dragons

by Cyril Ó Céirin


We sat, a small working-gang of us,
in a circle, taking our midnight tea and sandwiches,
in an old mine workings, talking of ghosts -
it was Hallowe’en, the time, they said, when spirits
wake and walk. Twelve months before, exactly,
a young man in this pit had fallen
to his death: tonight, unknown terror watched
from every black hole and shadow. The shiftboss said
he’d seen a light where no men worked; a blood-stained
stretcher, without a body, was found by the morning-shift
on the First Aid floor; one man swore
he’d stepped aside to let an atty-wagon pass
in the tunnel, as it wheeled from his sight
he saw it for a hearse. Strong men
would not work alone and others cowered
behind timberpacks rather than walk to the drillshop
unaccompanied.

But we were tough, we laughed
it off, unbelieving, until we heard
in the empty dark over our shoulders, the hoarse
and heightened breathing, coming from nowhere, coming from a dead-end
suddenly lit up like a stage by
our concerted headlamps: there was
nothing there, only the spectral breathing which
stopped our breaths. We broke and ran -
even Dunne, the rash one, who took chances
with gelignite and platforms (I saw him once
jump with a grimace across a chasm seven or more feet wide,
daring us wordlessly to follow) - all broke and ran.

Except Staunton, a rude but gentle giant,
who, looking desperately about, clawed at a mighty rock
and, hoisting it high on both hands, Samson-like over
his helmeted head, advanced on that stygian hole,
shieldlessly mortal against that infernal breath - we heard him
roar, ‘Man or divil but y’are bad in the chest anyway!’

He had no need to fight to the death or
fall at the feet of the unknown: it was
only a monster rat, breathing its last
from phthisis in the dust. Staunton’s great laugh
halted our shameful flight.

In later years, I often thought
that was an act of primeval defiance, seldom seen
and monumental, worthy of a song or a standing-stone,
like an ice-age hunter (while lesser mortals cowered)
pulling a brand from the fire and hurling it
at the exterior darkness
eyeing his camp, his woman and his son.


________

Taken from ‘Roughly Speaking’ (1991), pages 60-61.



Cyril Ó Céirin
 

Moments of Grace