"The Sorry-Making Machines" Issue

Faith of Our Fathers

     by Emmet O'Cuana

     Instinctively he crushed the moth against the fine material of his suit. A thin yellow dust stained the fabric. For the briefest of moments Keith Hannon forgot the girl's scream.
     To distract himself he lit another cigarette. He was standing outside London City airport, enjoying the pleasantly mild afternoon air. The men entering and exiting alongside him all looked alike. His tribe — close-cropped hair, clothing tailored and easily appraised at a glance, hands smooth and unblemished. Masters of Christendom all.
     The City was a jewel of the Holy Christian Empire, a capital fit to stand alongside Madrid or Jerusalem. A place of good works and good business. Hannon was proud to be one of the righteous elect.
     He finished his cigarette, said goodbye to London and stepped inside to buy a paper. Travelling back and forth from the City to Dublin each week had become such a routine he knew each of the swarthy-skinned shop assistants by name — Gershom, Feizel — and fell into the usual pattern of pleasantries. London still held a certain hint of the exotic, with its admixture of races and creeds, holdouts from the centuries-past brief reign of King Henry the Apostate. Britain-that-was had been a refuge for those thousands fleeing Christian expansionism. Now it was a pacified nation, its bastard inhabitants dutiful servants of their old enemy, Rome.
     Hannon spoke to the men with a relaxed contempt that could not be ignored, making a point of carefully checking the change they gave him in as insulting a manner as possible, but then it was his God-given right to do so. Afterwards he casually turned his back on their desperate smiles.
     Walking to the line at the check-in he glanced over the latest news items. Social unrest in the Americas, scandals among the clergy, and there, at the front line in Darkest Africa, so many fine Christians were laying down their lives for the greater good, fighting armed militias in the Congo or maintaining the siege of Jo'Burg. The flag and cassock marching in step to the drum of war. What evils did they have to contend with each and every day? What horrors did they dream of at night?
     Hannon snorted in an attempt to suppress his laughter. It was too easy to fall into the usual Sunday mass rhetoric of the Church. Better those fools wading through the mud in some god-forgotten land than him. There but for the grace of an excellent education with the Jesuits. Half the executives in his company were fellow boarders.
     He knew the right people, knew whose dinner invitations to accept and whose arse to kiss. Hannon had a hunger in him that his superiors admired, as well as a well-remarked upon talent for sniffing out the weak spot of opponents in negotiations. He was young, successful and newly single.
     The ridge along his ring-finger led women in smoke-filled bars to assume he was interested in an affair. Despite his abruptly concluded union, Hannon knew the future had much to offer.
     He was about to toss the newspaper and check the e-mail application on his micro-set when he spotted the item.
     There had been another riot in Co. Kildare. A dig ordered to commence at the site of one of the so-called fairy forts had been sabotaged by tinkers. The constabulary had been called and arrived to find the machinery surrounded by a mob of women, children, even some old farts who should have taken the cure long ago. The fighting had been vicious. A number of the saboteurs died. Despite the site being surrounded by police and members of the Holy Armed Forces some of the tinkers had managed to escape.
     "Fucking Fairy worshippers," hissed Hannon.
     He glanced around quickly realizing he had spoken aloud. The man ahead of him in the queue turned and gave him an odd look. At times Hannon felt embarrassed to be Irish, to have been born in a country still, after two millennia of Christian civilization, afflicted with paganism.
     Secret worship in public places, offerings of food left to the damned fairies on doorsteps, drunken storytellers keeping their legends alive, the so&ndashlcalled Seanchaí, in the back of some country pub — these people were mad! For them now to be engaged in sabotage was a worrying development. Was terrorism next? Hannon shook his head in disbelief, dropped the paper in a bin and stepped forward to the counter.
     After boarding, Hannon found his seat and hung his jacket by the window. Once sat, he folded his hands together and bowed his head. The inter-com chimed as the last passengers scrambled on board. A man, awkwardly dressed in clothes too large for his thin frame — practically smothered in a parka &mdashl was last to board. He shuffled down to the aisle seat opposite Hannon. Then the removal of several outer layers commenced.
     Hannon glanced with mild curiosity at the stranger, before bowing his head once again. The intercom chimed a second time to signal the commencement of the Angelus. The passengers and crew mumbled in time with one another, all priding themselves on their show of devotion.
     Hannon spoke the verses not by rote, but prayed as if his life depended on it. In many ways, he believed that it did. If you were to ever ask Hannon directly whether or not he believed in God and he was feeling especially honest, or had discovered honesty at the bottom of a bottle, he would simply say 'No'.
     He believed in Christ the man most certainly, and was a proud citizen of the Holy Christian Empire that this single individual with a powerful force of personality had set in motion. That was something he could point to as real and tangible, an example he was happy to follow. When Hannon knelt in church it was not faith, but duty to that legacy of empire, which compelled him to.
     While thousands of feet up in the air though, digging his fingers into the material stitched to each arm-rest as he imagined a multitude of plummeting deaths, Hannon would be suddenly struck with the need to be sincerely devout, in the spiritual sense. In those moments of utter fear he would wish the god with a long white beard who lay on top of the clouds really did exist, that he was watching right now, and could keep Hannon safe from any harm. Pluck him from the flaming wreckage of a falling plane, say.
     Most of all, he believed in God while stuck in a winged can soaring through the air because he knew he was a sinner. He knew if God was real, then so was Hell, and he had greatly sinned.
     The memory of her scream — it was never far from his mind — would return in these moments of utter fear.
     Every trip he felt this way. Every week, every journey back and forth across the Irish Sea, he died in his imagination in a ball of flame — only to then face judgement. Keith Hannon made each plane he travelled in more a church than the temple at Bethlehem.
     Then he saw it. It took a moment for Hannon to believe his own eyes.
     The thin wisp of a man sitting across from him had removed two miniature clay containers from his coat pocket and was mixing their contents on a cloth napkin. A strand of glistening honey was dripping down upon an already congealed puddle of pulpy matter.
     Porridge, like the breakfasts his dad used to make him when he was still a child at home. Honey and porridge mixed together.
     The man then dipped his finger into the mess and began drawing a series of concentric circles. He was muttering to himself, chanting in some variant of Gaeilge.
     Hannon hissed loudly, but the fairy-worshipper continued. The sound drew the attention of a flight assistant who was looking down the aisle at him. Hannon beckoned him forward, a large fellow with ginger curls who had from his impressive physical frame no doubt taken holy orders at some point to join the army. Commercial flights were generally crewed entirely by retired servicemen. Hannon pointed out the fairy rite as the crewman approached.
     "Excuse me," he said loud enough for the other passengers to hear, "this man is committing a crime. I want him removed from the flight."
     The tinker, for that was what he obviously now was, seemed unaware that he was the centre of attention. He continued to stir the mixture calmly, even as the flight assistant leaned over him.
     "Sir? Sir, I am going to have to ask you to stop."
     "Pardon me?"
     The tinker spoke softly with a County Roscommon accent, but the tone was remarkably calm. The assistant leaned forward.
     "You are upsetting the other passengers and performing a private act in public. Your rights as an Irish citizen entitle you only to worship within your own home. If you do not desist, you will be arrested at Dublin airport when we land."
     "Dublin? Kick him off now," spluttered Hannon.
     The flight assistant gave Hannon a glare in turn, even as some of the other passengers muttered in agreement.
     "Please sir, if you could just remain quiet, the situation is in hand. At present we are ready for take-off and the cabin doors are sealed."
     He turned back to the tinker, who during Hannon's interruption had removed the offending handkerchief and secreted it somewhere upon his person. The flight assistant nodded curtly and then signalled his colleagues that the show was over.
     "My apologies for the commotion everyone. If you could all fasten your safety belts now, as we are about to take off. Please enjoy the rest of the flight."
     The tinker then looked directly at Hannon and met his furious expression with a sedate smile. After a strained moment, Hannon gave in, sneering "fucking fairies" before dropping his gaze.
     Outside the City airport tarmac began to slide past. Travelling without moving, Hannon settled back in his seat and clutched at the armrests like a man facing execution. The plane picked up speed, lifting into the air. As the engines shrieked, the memory washed over him.
     The old house had sat abandoned by the Naas carriageway since the fifties. It had belonged to a long-departed wealthy family, Spanish landlords owning properties from Newbridge to Saggart on the outskirts of County Dublin since the 1700s. Eventually they simply left and the proud manse fell into ruin. Hannon and his friends had made a habit of travelling out to the house to drink on summer weekend evenings. It was a dreary August night in 1985 when the trio dropped down over the property's walls carrying bottles of cheap cider.
     Hannon, Harrington and Feaney trudged through the overgrown, damp grass to the house. Occasionally the glare of cars passing on the carriageway would light up their surroundings. Hannon kept his gaze fixed at his feet as he walked — just the week before he had stepped on the skeleton of a rat and fallen. The sickening crack of bone was still echoing in his ear. The rustling around them let him know there were plenty of nocturnal creatures in the grass moving about.
     Feaney was swigging from a bottle filled with poitín as they walked. It made him giggle shrilly like a fool. Harrington, darkly handsome and broader than the other two, stalked forward with long strides that forced them to keep up with him.
     Then they saw it — a dim glow from inside the house. Harrington sparked his lighter so the others could see his face, held a finger to his lips and motioned for them to follow.
     This was their place after all. Intruders would not be tolerated.
     They entered via the collapsed shed adjoining the building. Lumps of coal were still scattered about on the stone floor, with strips of rotten wood and the odd bird carcass. The three of them stepped quietly through the hole in the brick wall.
     The wide open room beyond had once been a kitchen. There was an oven area to their left, with rubbish and loose balls of rolled up paper piled up within. Harrington motioned to his companions and pointed. In the hallway beyond the kitchen entrance the reflected light of a fire could be seen. Feaney dislodged a brick from the wall behind them. He nodded at the other two in the gloom and they continued.
     Harrington led the way down the hallway to the Manor lobby — and there she was. A young woman — none of them knew her from the locality — dressed in a mock-up of tinker clothes. Thick woollen jumper, lurid scarf and wellington boots. Hannon wondered if she had ever even met a tinker at market, or by the canals. Her skin was too fair, the clothes themselves amateurishly dyed and distressed, for her to be one. But there she was, mumbling in cod-Gaeilge over an open fire. Her performance was doing little more than attracting moths.
     Feaney jumped forward and tossed a healthy measure of his poitín on to the fire, causing the flames to leap upwards, near singeing the girl's hair. She yelled and pulled back as Feaney declaimed in a stage Irish shout, "Och me darlin', ye've called for the fairies and here we are!"
     He then stood in the firelight and leered.
     "Now give us a kiss."
     The expression on her face shifted rapidly from a brief moment of wonder to sick fear. Feaney casually threw the brick he had been carrying off to the side of the empty room.
     "C'mon now, don't you know it's rude to enter another's home without permission? This is our place. But since you're here now — stay a while. Let's get to know each other."
     She hurriedly grabbed her possessions — a diary laid open on the stone floor with whatever instructions she had found on fairy worship was shoved into her bag — and backed away in a half-crouch.
     "I'm sorry, I didn't know anyone else... sorry." Her words ended with a rodent-like shriek.
     The three boys rushed forward. She screamed and ran. Feaney was laughing maniacally, Hannon hooting, but Harrington was grimly silent.
     They chased her out of the lobby and into the high-ceilinged lounge room. She dived for the window frame — small shards of glass remained from the long broken pane — and as Feaney snatched at her clothes, he found himself holding only her patchwork coat. She had slipped it off, like a snake its skin. Even after St. Patrick's greatest miracle, there was one last serpent left in Ireland. She was through the window and away. Harrington did not hesitate and leapt after her. Hannon had more trouble as he tried to avoid cutting himself on the glass, only to be shoved out by the now livid Feaney.
     Hannon could hear her gasping out "no...no...no...no..." as she ran. He clambered to his feet and gave chase.
     She was making for the carriageway. Harrington threw his bottle of cider and carrier bag in to the overgrowth to make up the difference, but she was faster than him. She did not trip or stumble, moving so quickly she seemed to be gliding through the tough grass. Harrington landed flat on his face courtesy of a hole in the ground, but quickly recovered, showing no signs of having sprained an ankle. He let out a bellow, with Feaney and Hannon taking up the yell, which changed into catcalls and hoots as they fell in together. She seemed to be making for the mansion gates and then swerved to the right and jumped to the top of the wall. In an instant she was gone.
     In the distance Hannon could see the approach of car lights.
     Harrington did not pause, jumping to grab the edge of the wall and swinging his legs over. Hannon jockeyed the smaller Feaney up, then found a foothold to climb.
     He only just made it over the wall in time to see what happened.
     The girl was backing away from Harrington, terrified, a golden nimbus about her hair as she turned to run — right into the path of the oncoming car.
     A scream, a shriek of tyres and it was over.
     For Hannon, from that moment onwards, he thought of death as the smell of shit and diesel.
     The memory faded once again. Like the tide, it came and went with a regularity he had over the years become accustomed to. Even after all the time that had passed, after his good fortune had led him to this blessed life, he could still remember every detail. Outside through his window he could see the sky, placid blue, clouds idling below.
     Then the memory rolled back over him. The car driver had turned out to be a young police man with a lot to lose. The beery fumes on his breath told a tale. There had been a moment between Harrington and the driver, a hint of violent escalation. They had sized each other up and through some unspoken communication decided to leave each other well enough alone. Then the police man took charge, telling the three to vanish and not to speak to anyone. He would make this all go away.
     Feaney retrieved the bag with the tell-tale diary containing fairy worship instructions.
     The story would be she was a delusional young woman, tragically killed while in a fugue state, chasing fairies across the carriageway. Tragically, the traumatised young police officer never had a chance to avoid her.
     It was exactly the kind of story that the man's superiors would want to believe — and if it should be leaked, all the better. She would just be another victim of a backward cult.
     Hannon later found out her name was Saoirse. She was 21. Reports described her as a 'loving daughter', but then how happy can someone summoning fairies in empty houses be?
     The guilt was a weight around his neck. Hannon felt sick not only about what had happened — but also what had almost happened. The promised violence and violation of their chase. It chased him from the town he grew up in to the halls of the Jesuits, from there to Saint Patricks College, and then London.
     The girl had been trying to escape her life, to summon the fairies to take her away — and instead she had met him. Then she died.
     As for Feaney and Harrington, Hannon never saw them after that summer. Ferret-like and quick-tempered Feaney vanished some years later. No one knew where he had gone.
     Harrington was a different story. Power, wealth and the blessings of Jerusalem had been his reward. He was a Cardinal in the armed forces, seen often on the news when a handsome face was needed to put the latest atrocity in context. It was widely believed a juicy political role within the Church was waiting for him.
     If Hannon was ever made aware that they were in the same city, he went to ground. He never wanted to meet Harrington, and his untroubled sense of moral superiority to lesser beings such as himself, ever again if he could help it.
     The guilt was terrible. But it also made Hannon who he was today. It was a price he had been willing to accept.
     The plane shook suddenly. The memories swept away and Hannon found himself beached in a terrible, urgent moment, an inescapable 'now'. Vulnerable and exposed, held aloft in the sky by desperate prayers — it was his nightmare come to life.
     The intercom chimed once more as the voice of the Captain, jovial but officious, announced that they had encountered some turbulence. A slight smattering of concerned chuckles and a chorus of belt clicks followed.
     Hannon's heart dropped. He had never unbuckled his belt, so sat still and pushed his feet into the carpet, as if hoping to take root. He looked to his right at the tinker.
     The man was smiling at him. Hannon felt he should say something, maybe apologize for before. It suddenly felt very important that he speak with the man and make peace.
     Then the plane rocked again. There was a shout of alarm that caused the other passengers to start.
     Hannon realized he had shouted.
     He heard the click of a seat belt. The tinker had unbuckled his seat. The flight assistant from before was approaching, checking each person on board. The plane again took a hit and then lurched to its side, throwing the assistant off balance, landing on panicking passengers. The men in suits began to shout in a chorus of alarm. Hannon was yelling in time with them. He could hear Feaney hooting in the din. He screamed.
     Time stopped. The tinker stood beside him, with his hand resting on Hannon's shoulder. Hannon looked upwards at the man, who was gazing at him with an expression of pure pity.
     From all around came the sound of buzzing-musical, harmonious, but everywhere all at once. A host of minuscule lights, like the tips of candle flames, surrounded the tinker. They settled on his skin and he glowed.
     In that instant Hannon was reminded of the depictions of Saints communing with the Holy Spirit. But whatever divinity was present, it was very old, alien, and estranged from him by two millennia of Christendom.
     The smile returned — the expression of a man caught up in the presence of his god's love — but the look of pity was the last thing to remain as the light embraced him, sweeping his body away.
     Pity for Hannon, for his sins, for the life callously lost, for his wasted faith. Pity, but no forgiveness. Everything certain in Hannon's existence had been a misbegotten lie, his privilege and largesse the product of centuries of cruelty.
     He knew, in that moment of pure horror, that he had been an instrument of evil.
     As for the rest, it was exactly as he had dreamed. He slipped back into time, into the world of screaming men and boys, of death and falling and fire.