Late one afternoon, a fisherman was down by the pier, checking his boat for damage. Scanning the sullen water of the harbour, he glimpsed a pale, floating object that could have been driftwood.
He waited as it drifted in, ready to salvage it for his night fire. The tide bore it to a few inches from where he stood. In the failing light, he looked with horror in the dead face of a young man. When they drew him in, it was plain from the remnants of his uniform that he was a young soldier. The body was light and slim as in youth. There was no means of identification or of deciding his race. But the dead were beyond such definition. The spirit was with God. The body must be decently buried.
That night the body of the unknown soldier was waked in a cottage down by the pier where the tide had brought him in. As was the custom, all the people came to pay their last respects. Hugh Ro was in doubt as to whether Caroline should attend, but she insisted.
“It might have been Fergal,” she said. “He was somebody's son ..... somebody's brother. What matters it now?”
The dim, smoke-hazy kitchen was crowded with grave-faced people, murmuring prayers, speaking softly one to another, weeping for the lonely stranger's death. On a bed by the wall, the body was laid out decently under a white linen coverlet, a precious piece reserved for such occasions. A few bunches of black ribbon indicated that the body was that of an adult, white was for children. On the recessed window ledges plates of tobacco and snuff were laid out and some of the men had begun to seek consolation in these. As Hugh Ro and Caroline entered, the company made way from them. They stood, solemn and silent with the hushed crowd. Outside, the water in the bay murmured ponderously; a ghostly wind moaned in the chimney. There was a sorrow on the whole company that was more than grief for a dead stranger; it was as though the unknown warrior represented the death of a forlorn hope; there was little of living hope in the eyes of the poor that night. Caroline felt their despair wrap her like a shroud; even in the warm room, she shivered. It could have been Fergal, was all she could think.
Presently the women began to range themselves about the white bed, kneeling or crouching with heads bent. There was a scarcely audible mutter of prayers, a ghostly rattle of beads. The candles, brought out for the occasion, guttered and flickered, casting eerie shadows on the white-washed walls.
By the bed-head, a woman seated herself on a low stool. Erect and still, she sat like a creature in a trance, her long, black hair falling over her shoulders, her deep, grey eyes intense. A voluminous blue cloak, pinned at the throat, fanned out about her, framing a tall, gaunt, wiry frame. Like a priestess of the death ritual, she sat waiting. And gradually the room hushed its sobs and murmuring.
When all was still, she rose as if impelled by some inner emotion. She stood erect and perfectly still, her hands clasped about her body, her head slightly bowed. Then from her lips came the first spine-chilling words of a wild chant and, as it rose, she threw her arms above her head, fingers splayed, clutching at the smoky air. The chant crescendoed to a shrill cry that seemed to pierce the rafters and tear away the thatch. It could have been a soul escaping from hell or limbo. Faces paled at the sound.
The women, kneeling about the corpse, rose in a body and took up the keen, their bodies swaying to and fro, their arms flung high and wide above the body of the dead. The chant swelled and intensified till the cabin trembled. Then there was silence, an indrawing of breath. The woman in the blue cloak resumed the chant, her cry forming the words of a ritual dirge for the dead slain in battle or by enemy hands. When she paused for breath, the women took up the chant. Always she began softly, her voice rising to a blood-curdling wail, and they followed with a chorus of doom.
This ritual chant for the dead warrior was a release of emotions, quite terrifying in its intensity. Sad and bitter, at times malevolent. It praised the hero's swiftness of foot on hill and in valley, his valour in battle, the ferocity of his eye that could strike death or terror to an enemy heart. It invoked curses on the enemies of the dead: that the light might fade from their eyes, that the grass might grow over their thresholds, that they might melt away like snow in summer, that their cup of sorrow might overflow, that they might die unblessed. Then, malice appeased, the chant sank to a mournful dirge bewailing the death of the hero in the flower of his manhood, the dying of the light in his eyes, the stilling of his heart, the desolation of his kin.
The women writhed, their faces contorted, their arms flailing over the dead. The bean caointe (keeing woman) in her long, blue cloak, cast a lone shadow on the wall. The men's faces were carved in stone. It was unbearable. Even for Caroline, it was unbearable. She stole swiftly from the room. Once outside she began running ..... softly on the grass, lest they hear ..... running by the sea. Hugh Ro caught up with her on the pebbly shore. She stood weeping, hands clasped over her ears as though she would shut out the terrible echo of grief and hate. In her blood the streams of mingled, warring races, fought a bitter, tragic battle. Hugh Ro put his arms about her. His hands were gentle on her hair.
“It could have been Fergal,” she moaned over and over again. “It could be Fergal.”
“It was not Fergal. I made certain of that. He was a stranger ..... probably a Frenchman.”
“He had no enemies here ..... but the wind and the sea.”
“Nor friends, it seemed, till he was dead.”
“We must leave this place, Hugh Ro. We must go tomorrow.”
“Yes, we must go. It is time to be going.”