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Road of Souls

by P.J. Curtis

    I’m at the age when memory begins to fail me. People say, ‘Don’t worry, it happens to everybody at your age.’ Maybe so, but I don’t think it’s fair and it makes me angry with myself. I’ve always prided myself for having a sharp memory; at instantly being able to recall names, faces, events - indeed any scene from the past, from all my decades and many different countries. Memories would rush to my mind, dancing fresh, sharp and alive. Now, when they come, they are reluctant and ragged, presenting themselves like tired, grey ghosts, each one irritated at being wakened from its death-like sleep. But I suppose Mother Nature knows what’s best and perhaps not every memory is worth keeping.
The memories which come easiest now are those from earlier parts of my life. They leap to mind with greater clarity than events from last week. I don’t understand it but they do. Often, the sweetest though sometimes more painful recollections are triggered by a casual word, a familiar sound or sometimes even a particular scent.
This evening it was a combination of all those things - a distant dog barking in the frosty night air, the sweet aroma of a hazel-wood fire and the sharp, cold twinkling of a star away to the north. I was sitting alone in my kitchen with the clock ticking off the minutes, when I had the urge to breath in the autumn night air. I stepped outside, looked skyward and without warning, I was propelled back down the tunnel of time’s memory. For a moment I was ten years old again and sitting by a campfire with Rory Dubh, ‘Black Rory’ the Traveller, the Last Prince of Thomond.
It’s different now. These days travellers are greeted mostly either with suspicion or outright aggression and hostility. It was not always so. There was always a welcome extended to travellers who called to our door. In those days we called them ‘tinkers’ in our house at least. Only Rory Dubh though commanded the title of ‘traveller’; setting him apart from others.
‘They’re the real Irish,’ my father told us. ‘They were driven off their rightful lands by Cromwell and his cursed armies and forced to take to the roads as a way of life.’ They were the great clan of the Dispossessed traversing the highways and byways, following the seasons and the old camping grounds. Most of the travelling families were known to us by name and they arrived and departed with the waxing and waning of the moons. I was more exited at their arrival than if they were the circus.
‘The tinkers are coming! The tinkers are coming!’ we would shout and my brother and I ran to witness their arrival. Looking for all the world like a cross between a tribe of plains Indians and a frontier wagon train they trouped by our house and set up camp on one of their traditional sites nearby. Overnight we would have a bustling village of new neighbours. I would follow the carts and caravans at a distance to watch the activity. I watched fascinated as the shawled women set blackened pots over cooking fires and their swarthy, black - haired men erected tents to the laughter of barefoot children, the yelping of dogs and the bleating of tethered goats. Nearby, the piebald ponies were loosed to chomp the sweet grass at the roadside.
The arrival of the tinkers was always something to look forward to. Not so the lone, dark travelling man who showed up at our door without warning, This man we feared. We feared his aloneness, we feared the two brooding dogs seated on his red - wheeled cart which was drawn by a tired old pony. We feared his silent arrivals and departures, but most of all we feared the dark eyes which flashed from his furrowed, threatening face. I don’t remember the first time I saw Rory ‘Dubh’ O’Brien but I do remember, as a very small child, scurrying like a frightened rabbit to the safety of my bedroom on his arrival at our door.
‘If you misbehave,’ my mother warned us whenever childish high-jinx got out of hand, ‘I’ll give you to Rory Dubh and he’ll put you in his sack and take you away with him.’
The sight of Rory Dubh on his cart arriving in the farm-yard with the first November frosts would send us scampering to the safety of a bedroom closet or underneath the bed to wait out his departure. Hidden, we were safe but we stayed out of sight in case mother should decide to carry out her threat. From our secure havens, we heard Rory Dubh thump the kitchen floor with his blackthorn stick, chuckle gently and ask my mother, ‘Any children to give away today, missus?’ We held our breath, tingling and giggling with fear and fascination. We knew well of course, that Rory Dubh would once again depart with nothing more in his canvas bag than the potatoes, bread and meat given to him by my mother and we would come tumbling with laughter from our hiding places.
Time passed and we no longer feared the strange, silent traveller who came to our door.
‘He’s the last of the Princes of Thomond,’ my father often said.
He would tell us about Rory Dubh’s aristocratic O’Brien ancestors who once ruled over half the province as kings, princes or chieftains. I could tell from the way my father spoke to him and of him, that he held Rory Dubh in high esteem.
One sharp, frosty November evening as darkness fell I passed close to the site where Rory Dubh had made camp. From a distance, the perfume of his hazel-wood fire wafted gently in to the still air. The glow of his campfire looked as a fallen star. In the half-light he recognised me and called out for me to join him. I approached the fire with caution. After all, this was the same man whose very name had filled me with such dread not too many years before. His two dogs, I knew well, were none too friendly. But I was fascinated by the man, by his aura of fierce independence, his aloofness and most of all his aura of royal mystery. I was much in awe of this ragged old travelling man’ this prince of his tribe - maybe even a king - who summoned me to his court. He motioned me to a seat on an up-turned butter-box by the campfire. I clutched the hot tin mug of sweet tea he poured from a billycan heating on the glowing embers and answered his many questions.
    What age was I? Did I like school? Was I good at lessons? Did I read books?
‘Books are better for you than bread,’ Rory Dubh said, puffing his pipe and stirring the fire with his blackthorn stick. After a long silence, he pointed the stick upwards,
‘There’s my book,’ he said softly, ‘the book of the sky.’
My eyes followed his stick to the heavens.
‘Do you know anything about stars atal?’
His eyes burned bright as the hazel embers. I shook my head and gazed up at the carpet of diamond-hard stars twinkling overhead.
‘There’s the Great Bear … there’s the Plough and there’s the North Star … the traveller’s friend … but there …,’ he swept his arm in a wide arc, ‘is the mighty Milky Way.‘
My eyes followed the sweep of his arm.
‘Do you know what it’s made up of?’ I shook my head again.
‘Souls, the souls of the dead,’ he said softly. The words chilled me to the bone and seemed to send a shiver through the arc of stars like a soft wind stirring wind-chimes.   His voice sounded far away as he continued, ‘When we die our souls fly up there to join all those who have gone before us and get in line to enter Heaven. Every star you see is a soul waiting its turn to go through the Gates.’
I stared at the great trail of shimmering lights across the heavens and tried to imagine how many millions of souls went to make up this vast highway in the night sky.
‘Every time you see a star fall it’s another soul let into heaven,’ Rory Dubh spoke so softly his voice was but a brittle whisper and I knew he spoke only to himself.
‘We’re all heading for a place on that road of souls. All my own people are gone on ahead now just waiting for me to join them. His old eyes scanned the flight of stars.
‘I’ll be there a lot sooner than you, young fella!’
He jabbed his stick at me across the blazing sticks and twigs. He looked upwards again and said, ‘And the better we are on this journey here below the brighter our souls will glow on that journey above.’
He grinned a rotten-tooth grin and added, ‘I’m sure you will make a grand bright star, but not for a good long time yet with the help of the Man above.’
We sipped the hot, sweet tea and lapsed into silent communion. The hazel-wood fire cast dancing shadows on the nearby stones and whitethorn bushes and its sparks seemed to jump directly into the Milky Way to join the throng of shining souls on their journey.
Rory Dubh turned his face toward the stars and for a long while I watched the glow of the fire light the years on his lined, weather-worn features. When he looked at me again across the campfire I saw his eyes were glistening with tears. He sighed, smiled a slow secret smile, reached inside his canvas sack and said gently,
‘Would you like a piece of rhubarb cake? It’s your mother’s. She makes the best in the whole county.’
I wanted to say yes but refused.
He sighed again, nodded his royal head and retreated deep inside his tattered greatcoat. He rubbed his hands and turned them towards the dying flames,
‘It’s going to be a cold night … maybe you’d be better off home with yourself, young fella. We’ve a long journey ahead of us on the morrow.’
I left Rory Dubh’s camp and made my way home. My head was full of sky and stars. A pale winter moon rose to the east, turning stones to gold. Behind me I heard Rory Dubh talking quietly to his pony and dogs. Warm and secure later on by my own fire, I longed to be with Rory Dubh the Traveller at his campfire and gazing deep into that starry road of souls.
Early the next morning I returned to his campsite but he had moved on. The only sign of his stay were the ruts cut in the frosted earth by his cart-wheels and the cold, dead hazel-embers within a stone circle. I never saw the old man again. Some months later we got news that the Rory Dubh the Traveller, last Prince of Thomond was dead. He had been found underneath his cart one freezing January morning watched over by his trusty old pony and faithful dogs. They said he was laid to rest in a graveyard near the road so he could hear the traveller’s caravans and carts go by when spring and autumn came. That night I went outside to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way and whisper a prayer for that gentle roadside emperor and descendant of Kings.
I wish I could remember all the interesting facts I ever learned about the sky and stars in my life but as with so many important things, I’ve forgotten much of what I learned about them. But, as I said, I figure that’s the way Mother Nature means for things to be, especially at my age. That way, only the really special memories will surface from the misty places of the mind.
My memory, as I mentioned earlier, is not as sharp as it was but tonight, as I catch scent of a hazel-wood fire, hear a forlorn dog baying somewhere in the distance and look at that splash of light across the moonlight sky, I remember and cry a silent tear for Rory Dubh the Traveller. I fancy I see his star light up the Milky Way; brighter than the rest as he makes camp, reunited at last with his own people on his final journey along that endless road of souls.
The years that have separated him and I grow heavy on my shoulders and it probably won’t be too long before I set off down that road on my own last journey. I long to sit with Rory Dubh again, to warm my bones by his fire and watch it cast shadows which dance across the universe, to drink his sweet tea, to gaze again into his wise old eyes and outward to other lights and other stars, and remember.


Taken from ‘Viewpoints’ (1995), pages 8-13.

P.J. Curtis

Marie Deans