The following story received an honorable mention from Tales from The Lake Vol.3 editor Monique Snyman. ©TracyFahey
The Crow War
Have you ever driven through Ireland on the back roads? I don’t mean on the antiseptic motorways that cut an indifferent grey swathe through fields, rivers and forests alike, but the strange little B-roads, the C-roads and the unmarked, pitted little boreens with their stone walls and cratered surfaces. If you do—if you make this long, bumpy and sometimes perplexing drive in the summertime, you will see the truth of the small towns laid bare. Ireland has always been a land of a hundred kingdoms, in spirit, if not in geography. Each parish or village or town has its own behaviours, dialects, traditions, and of course, its festivals. In the summertime you can’t miss the festivals. As you drive down these roads, lurching slightly through the potholes and stopping for the odd sheep, there are many reasons to stop off in the little towns that dot your route. You might pause to fill up some petrol or to buy limp, pre-packaged sandwiches, sweating under their plastic containers, or simply to check the success of your navigation of the last few unmarked crossroads. And when you do, you’ll see the tell-tale signs—a dirty string of bunting over the main street, the trailer of a lorry abandoned in a public square, a forlorn tootle of music played across a crackly PA system, or an excess of children running around, high and angry on sugar. Look a little closer and you’ll always find a banner. Some will be intelligible and self-explanatory—‘Annual Summer Charity Fete,’ ‘The Horse Fair,’ ‘Vintage Steam Threshing.’ Others will be infinitely more arcane—‘The Long Ropes Weekend,’ ‘The Scarecrow Festival,’ or ‘The Glass Boy Championship.’ They’ve been going for years, since before anyone can remember although in some villages the natives would be hard pressed to remember the origin. But when the summer is on the cusp of shifting and becoming something darker, when the nights begin to encroach on the day, you’ll find the strangest festival of them all on a little boreen in County Clare. You’ll follow a tiny road with savagely buckled tarmac, a bright, mossy stripe of grass sprouting up the middle. It’s the road to Bive, and what lies down it odd beyond imagining... What do I know about it, you might ask? Ah, I know all the celebratory rites in the little towns. I’ve travelled criss-cross across Ireland for years as a salesman, with my bright smile, my bulky suitcase and my battered car. I’m the last of a dying breed, as I visit and talk and sell my way around the country. I know all the dips and turns of the roads. I know the local stories that are only whispered around family fireplaces. I can smell where I am by what’s cooking, the packet and tripe of Limerick, the coddle of Dublin. I can tell the seasons as they turn by the festivals that straggle over the midlands. So. Bive. Bive’s festival. I want to tell you about that one. Well, I could tell you all about it, but it would be a lot more fun to show you. So let’s leave the motorway on this sleeping Sunday. The sun is climbing high and weak in the sky, and the late summer chill has started to melt into a bright but windy day. Come down the road now. Feel yourself relax, free from the competitive snarl of the motorway, that eye-aching glare from the never-ending ribbon of pale grey. Drive slowly. Look around. And as you drive, you start to notice things again. On either side are fields of corn, their surface a smooth surge of yellow in the breeze; other fields are dark green velvet with grass, cows lying flat in the deep, luscious shadow of the hedgerows. Then the light dims, turns a cool and grassy green as trees start to meet above you, above the road. Their branches sway together, a glossy yellow-green dappling the road underneath. This is the plantation that grows thick and fertile around Bive. You turn a corner and there it is—a dusty sign that says: ‘Welcome to Bive,’ with a little symbol of a black bird in the corner. It’s not a big town, but it’s got a lovely market square with a central monument like a Gothic church spire, and a comfortable cluster of colourful houses and shops on the main street. All around the town huddle the long coniferous trees of the plantation, their branches now waving slightly in the breeze. It’s a real, old-fashioned country town. I like to read the names over the shop doors—there’s ‘O’Malley Butchers,’ with a glassy-looking plaster pig’s head in the window, beside it is ‘Flynn’s Cobblers (and Key Cutters)’ with its smell of hot metal, and ‘Reilly’s Grocery Store’—no…wait, it’s gone. In its place there is an antiseptic mini-version of a bland, white-lit chain supermarket. I pause and sigh. This happens more and more every year, another little family business gets eaten up, the shop owners die and their children put out their hands for money. The last time I was in Kilkenny, I didn’t recognise the place. The familiar, family shops were gone and in their stead a range of expensively-plain restaurants, all lower-case fonts and no visible menus. I’m rambling. The point I was making is that although the rate of invasion is a lot slower in the country towns, it still happens, steady and relentless as the tide coming in. Even in Bive. But let’s not get melancholy over the inevitable. We’re here for the festival, after all. And what a festival it is! As you drive towards the main square, you see figures starts to move around it, and the set-up for the festival begin to blossom among the trestle tables and the parked cars, their cluttered boots spilling out a muddle of boxes and tablecloths. Bunting is being strung up by two large men on twin stepladders. There’s a PA system being set up in the corner, with an unhappy-looking teenage boy whispering ‘one-two’ softly into the microphone, face flaring with self-consciousness. That staple of the festival, the tea-marquee is majestically rising into the air, as figures strain against the ropes. So far, so normal. But I promised I’d show you something odd, didn’t I? The surprise is that everything is black. The marquee. The bunting. The tablecloths. Even the people’s clothes. Draw closer. There’s a reason for it. Look at the details—the shape of the napkins, the pennant that flaps from the top of the marquee. Everything has the crow emblazoned on it. This is Bive’s annual ‘Battle of the Crows’ festival. Bive means ‘crow,’ in Irish—it’s spelled ‘Badhbh.’ Back in the olden days, Badhbh was a fearsome war goddess who most commonly appeared as a large black crow. You might know her better as the Morrigan from the Táin saga, and that famous illustration by Louis Le Brocquy—the giant, brooding, hunched figure of the crow goddess. Sometimes Badhbh would appear before a battle, wailing like a banshee, as a premonition of death. Once the battle starts, she would circle around, causing confusion, swaying soldiers to her side. But round here she’s Bive, the Anglicised version, the crow, the emblem of the town. Even as I’m explaining this to you, a small child runs round the square with the buzzing energy of an escapee. He is wearing a crude crow mask behind which his eyes swivel, fast and excited, as he watches the Hallowe’en pageantry of the square unfold around him. “Hello stranger!” I turn and smile. It’s Joe O’Malley, the butcher, instantly recognisable by his purple birthmark that streaks a jagged path down the left side of his face. We shake hands. He is still strong and stout, but his body seems somehow lighter, more depleted. ”Good man, good man,” he says, still pumping my hand up and down. ”Great to see you. Your usual spot is free over there.” He drops my hand to point over beside the tea-tent. I smile over at the ladies carrying jugs and kettles. They’re the ones you want to make sure remember you when it gets warmer and thirstier into the afternoon. Ramble round now, take it all in! The doors to the chapel have opened, and spilling out in a raggedy line from the doors to the square come the throng, their voices gradually gaining volume as they leave their subdued church-tones behind. The band, who have assembled behind us, strike up a downhearted folk air. An instantly-remembered call rings out behind me, the fair-cry of the vendor on the refreshment stand—“Apples, pears, lemonade and chawk-late.” She slurs the words together as she calls again, automatically dragging out the last word in a plaintive tow-tone descant. “Apples, pears, lemonade and chawk-late.” She used to walk around with a kind of wheelbarrow stall, I remember. Now she sits heavily at a table, her body thickened and her face more sunken, almost indefinably older. I’ve set up my own stall, selling crow masks and black plastic rods with feathers to the children. These were made by a group of women in Cork who make batches of them for me every August. Here, look at this one. Prime quality, that. Look at those feathers—real ones, you know, they gather them up and sew them on. At this point I put one on and chime in my call perfectly between the pauses of the old lady’s refrain. “Crow masks here!” I shout. I waggle my head so that the feathers glint in the sun. ‘Get your crow masks here!’ It’s now late afternoon. Everyone has turned out for the festival. The square looks like a strange and gigantic funeral has camped down on it. The blank pennants wave overheard. I am chatting, selling, happy. My trestle table is nearly empty, and I am satisfied to notice a black, sticky ring round the mouths of everyone under ten—my liquorice stock has sold well. There is a candy-floss machine that whips sugar and food colouring to create an endless stream of edible storm clouds. A solid ring surrounds the trailer in the square, where the local, black-clad band of musicians keeps churning out relentlessly mournful folk ballads. I recognise the elderly man who plays the melodeon. He sees me too; his salutation is an upward jerk of the head and a wink. I nod back. If events follow their usual pattern, I’ll be seeing him later. My right hand slips down to touch that other bag by my feet. There is a thin, high, squeal. I look up, distracted. The children have started to run in a complicated circling motion around the square. They scream and squawk their way through the crowd, frantic for sweets, for fun, for games. And there’s no shortage of games. The most popular one is a version of Halloween apple-bobbing, where the children with their crow beaks, try to peck liquorice sweets out of a hillock of fairy-dust. The air is punctured with their squeals of victory. I smile and watch them flock around, happy and excited. Of course in the old days everyone would be playing—small children, large children, teenagers, even some adults. I am saddened to see some of the older children sitting on the grass verge of the square, faces twisted into deliberately bored scowls. They are flipping through small electronic devices. Their thumbs move rhythmically, tap-tap, slide, tap-tap. They sit side by side and never interact. Occasionally one of the tiny children will run out of the crowd to brandish a prize or a sweet at an older sibling, but the only response they get is an irritated twitch as earphones are removed, a sneer, and a quick, plunging motion as the earphones are replaced. The sun is starting to sink in the sky, basking in the reflected glow of the late afternoon warmth. The air itself is heavy and golden. It glitters palpably on the corn fields behind and infuses the scene with a rich, pastoral glow. I draw in a breath of warm bodies, sweet candyfloss and flattened grass and wait, contented and expectant for the Battle of the Crows. And yes, here it comes. The six o’clock bell chimes, low and deep behind me. In the air is the faintest stir and crackle of noise, like a saucepan being scraped. The big golden sun is resting almost on the skyline now, streaking the fields with streams of yellow light. Now there is a rustling, a staccato burst of rough noise. In the square the children divide in two and line up on either side, pulled into place by adult hands. Their oversized crow masks and their small bodies with sticking-out tummies make them look like giant, confused birds. Heads bend over them, whispering caution. The bell strikes again, and again. On the third toll we start to see them, first a few, then more and more until a mass of dark shapes start to cloud the sky, trailing black lines of birds string out across the sky from the horizon. The children run to each other across the green, tapping one another on the head with the plastic feathered rods. Fourth toll. Their shrill screams are drowned out by the flickering blanket of crows overhead blocking out the sunlight with their beating wings, filling the air with their relentless, discordant cawing. In the shadow, I give a sudden quick shiver, a goose walking over my grave. The crows are flying home to the plantation, to roost and caw and circle over it. They are right overhead now. Fifth toll. The sky is thick and dark with movement. We stand, together but separate on the green, heads tipped back, eyes and ears full of the spectacle. The sixth bell tolls. As the bell-stroke dies in the shattered air, some old people cross themselves, the rest simply roar. Everyone on the green shouts out together, a wordless yell at the sky. I shout too, feeling the noise fill me, something primal, deep, thrilling. The sound is almost unbearable as it fills the world, the dying tones of the bell, and the sound of open throats calling together, the dense cawing of the crows. And then, abruptly, it is over. The crows have passed overhead, settling like a whirling cloud on the silhouetted trees on the skyline. The children, already bored, are pulling off their masks. Two of them continue to fight, trying and failing to land blows with the light, bendable rods. Parents start to tug them towards the nearby cars, calling to the bored teenagers. The Battle of the Crows has been fought again, a timeless ritual, its origins unclear, but still enacted year after year. “Another one down,” says the old woman behind me. She sniffs and rubs her hands together. “Aye,” I agree, my hands beginning the practised dance of repacking the few remaining masks for a Halloween market. Smooth, fold, wrap and stack. I am clearing the last few from the table when I hear a long, low whistle. I look up. It is the old man from the stage, his melodeon now in its case, resting on his knee. He nods at me, and jerks his head towards the hills behind. I hesitate and then nod abruptly. I’m going, of course. I always do. My bags are packed up in the car. The sunset is a tie-dyed burst of yellows and oranges at the bottom of the sky, and the dusk is falling. I accept a Styrofoam cup of tea gratefully and sip its scalding contents. It’s grown colder now. I close my eyes and sense the tingling warmth of the tea sending hot fingers into my stomach. I sit on the bonnet with the old lady from the stall. A group of young boys—possibly her grandchildren— are packing up her wares. She offers me a bar of chocolate. The taste is rich and milky on my tongue, almost too rich for someone who hasn’t eaten all day. I swallow hard to quell a sudden surge of saliva, a feeling of nausea or anticipation. The sun is sinking fast, now, exhausted, into pillows of dark cloud. It’s time to go. I push myself off the bonnet and pick up the last bag of merchandise. The old lady grunts. “Are you off then, so?” Her eyes are shrewd in their pocketed wrinkles. “Aye.” I am non-committal. “Good luck to you then,” she says quietly. I feel her gaze on me as I walk out of the market square. Time to go. It’s also time for me to leave you now. You’ve seen the festival, eaten the black sweets, watched the children play-fight. It’s been lovely. But the sun is down, and it’s time for all visitors to leave Bive. Wait! Don’t protest. I’m a visitor too, I know, but I have something they need now. I get to stay. There’s no need to be angry with me. I don’t make the rules. I wish you a safe journey home, back onto the motorway and beyond.
My feet find the remembered path. The crunch of pebbles beneath me is crisp and reassuring. Between steps I strain to listen, but I can’t hear any other movements. They’re probably all there ahead of me. It’s dark now, the pressing dark you only get when you’re walking among trees, when darkness brushes your face from a black void. I keep one hand up beside my face. The wispy, damp strokes of the leaves feel clammy, like wet feathers on my skin. It can’t be much farther ahead I think, and then almost instantly, I see the yellow light of windows ahead. I step into the clearing. The huge shape of the barn looms overhead, its roof blurred and deformed by the huddle of crows roosting on top, drawn by the warmth within. I step inside, and instantly there is a low crackle of conversation, interlaced with the melancholy sound of the melodeon. I look around. There aren’t many people there—about fifteen people, all drinking beer or homemade cider; the air is heavy with the scent of it. Their faces are animated by the flickering glow from the old hearth in the corner. One corner has a curtain over it, its heavy folds absorbing the light within the dense fabric. I see faces I recognise, O’Malley the butcher, the old man with the melodeon, and even the vendor I shared a cup of tea with an hour ago, a lifetime ago. She moves towards me. “Do you have them?” “I do.” I hand over the bag. She opens it and smiles. “Lovely work, as usual.” I turn to the old man with the melodeon. “Grand evening,” I say. He nods. “Good to have you here.” He runs a twisted arthritic finger over the shining surface of his instrument, and then looks up. “We need to get cracking now. Do you have them?” I jerk my thumb over to where the vendor is carefully unpacking my bag. She slowly draws out two crow masks, and gives a sharp, admiring intake of breath. If the children’s masks were well-made, these are splendid, beautiful objects. One woman in Cork has spent months on these; they’re made completely from crow feathers, stitched with gold thread, with jet beads of decoration encircling the eye holes. Someone stamps the ground loudly with a heavy boot, one, two three. Immediately the old man with the melodeon begins to saw out a searing, plaintive air, a song of longing and elegy. Heads nod in rhythm. A man stands up—he’s the farmer who owns the land, as far as I remember. Everyone stops speaking. The music softens, quietens. He opens his mouth and shouts, “Bive! Bive! Bive!” The small crowd echoes him. There were once other words, but no-one remembers them. The curtain parts and there are two men, both stocky, both middle-aged, both wearing the special crow masks. A cracked bell rings, a sharp ting-ting of sound. The figures turn to each other and start to fight. One launches himself at the other, a solid block of body hitting body. Both fall to the dirty floor. A roar goes up, a mass of shrill and deep voices, shouting. Some are chanting. Others are shouting encouragement or just plain shouting, thick, wordless yells. The air is heavy with the spoiled-fruit smell of cheap drink. The masked figures sweat and grapple on the floor before us. I stand with the others, watching the fight, but what is happening is like a film projected onto a more compelling image. Instead of the small crowd, the thin shouts, I can see clear as light the earlier years, those wonderful, terrifying years of mass fighting. Then, the barn seethed with young men, stripped to the waist, their crow heads dangerous and sharp as they struggled. I remember the dark patches of blood on the floor and the screams of the women. I am seized by nostalgia so powerful it brings tears that blur my vision at the edges. I bring an arm over my eyes. It’s an ugly, low fight. They pull at each other, and claw at each other’s bodies. Blood is already running down their chests from scratches and slashes. They stumble to their feet, collide, fall again. Their wrestling is weaker now. I can hear their exhausted pants as breath tears from their throats. They grab each other, locked together as their razor sharp beaks slash wickedly at each other’s arms and heads. One mask starts to slip, and the opponent sees his chance. His beak rips a cruel red V in the hollow of the neck, and blood pulses and spurts from it like a hose. He flops to the ground, no sound, just a thick throaty gurgle of blood as he twists below me, head coming to rest beside my feet. Underneath the glossy black feathers with their sleek oil-gleam is a shock of grey hair, a sightless red eye turned upwards and a livid purple birthmark that drips down, from eye to mouth. A thin cry goes up from the crowd, a small shout of victory that dies almost as soon as it begins. The door is opened with a squeal of rusted hinges, and the crows fly in, thick, fast and hard. They flock around the limp figure on the floor, and their sleek heads dissolve into a blur of pecking and pulling. The faces of the others are blank as they stand, enthralled. I wind my coat around me and walk outside. I stand outside on the edge of darkness, and stare at the flicking lights of the town at the bottom of the hill. Down there, people are talking, going to the pub, watching television; it is another place, another time, centuries away. I am still holding a soft mass of feathers in my hand. I think of the lined face of the old vendor, the arthritic hands on the melodeon, the lurid purple birthmark under the crow mask. In another year this will all be gone. I shrug and release the feathers into the cold breeze. They spiral and flicker in the wind gusts, dipping and swirling, a dark benediction raining down on the town below. In a few hours the sun will be up and it will be time to go. I breathe in deeply, and inhale the cold fetid air that smells like autumn, of all our autumns coming, dark and inevitable as time itself. BIOGRAPHY: Tracy Fahey writes short fiction that is concerned with ideas of uncanny domestic space and its various intersections with literature, art and folk-tales. Since taking up fiction writing in 2013, she has had short stories accepted for publication in anthologies by US and UK presses including Fox Spirit Press, Hic Dragones Press, Dark Minds Press, A Murder of Storytellers and Hydra Publications. Her debut collection, The Unheimlich Manoeuvre, will be released by Boo Books in 2016. Her author website is www.designingtracy.wix.com/tracyfahey.