Fiction: Ruins by Gerry Breen | Cassandra Voices

Ruins

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Over the treetops, along the edge of the upper lake, a merlin hunts a starling. Isolated from its flock, that starling fights to avoid the clutches of a small falcon. Fallen memories of past murmurations dance on the surface for a moment and then perish in the peaceful water below: it looks inevitable and only a matter of time, before the old wizard sinks its claws into the imperiled druid.

While the two brothers approached the water’s edge below, I dropped from one spent thermal; drifting in the sky, lazily looking to let another warm current lift me a little higher above the tree line to stalk their predestined path.

The lake stretched up the valley in a murky rectangle, darkened by peat-rich soil from the surrounding steep hills and cliffs. Although the minerals obscured its muddied depths, the lake’s surroundings reflected flawlessly on its curtained surface until a rare whisper of air turned the portrait of a fine day into a shimmering jewel, before still perfection returned once more: blue to silver to sky blue again.

Opposite the beach, through the valley, and over the mirror, a river cracked their impending trek in half. A high ridge overlooking one side of the lake followed all the way back, descending through trees, returning to the shore where the siblings stood.

Sporadic shadows of uneasiness splashed across my consciousness when sometimes the trees and dirt glistened like the vast liquid ornament, sitting ancient where only it could ever belong, in the middle of the upper glen.

Separated by six years, they stood close together now at the lake’s edge. Sailing in the void above the brothers, I watched them move together, trading gestures and pointing at the surroundings. I heard their voices bouncing back and forth and sometimes blending in unison as they overlapped and interrupted one another without hesitation; a complex, instinctive, fluttering dance; only possible with two people who have served an early life sentence in each other’s company.

Laid out before them in a glorious widescreen feast, they took a breath and surveyed the land. Paul, congratulated himself on the idea of coming to the mountains for the day, “Not a terrible way to spend a Tuesday afternoon Cormac, huh?” Trying to downplay it for as long as he could before falling short, arms outstretched, he blurted, “How impressive is this?!”

Cormac was kicking himself for not thinking to bring swimming shorts or a towel. He regarded a couple of Scandinavian backpackers. The sun turning the girls’ faces into shining beacons, their skin almost transparent, as they floated in the water. Any initial signs of shivering distress rapidly turned into cool relief. On this April day, a revitalizing dip was an enticing prospect. Best not get all wet before the hike, he thought, before responding to the brotherly bag of enthusiasm beside him, “It looks fucking magnificent, Paul, yeah.” Squinting up the valley in the distance, “I hope your itinerary for the day includes the top of that waterfall…”

Although neither of them had been here before, Paul, the eldest of three boys, assumed responsibility as rookie trail-guide for today’s excursion, perusing all of the hiking options before embarking, he of course felt obliged to select the most spectacular. “Yeah, we’ll follow the river right to the top, halfway around, I think”

Concerned Cormac might be put-off by the expedition’s wingspan, Paul added, “It’ll only take three or four hours to get the whole way round.”

“Good stuff.” Unperturbed Cormac scanned the way forward, “Which way are we doing it?” Glancing left and then right, but before Paul could answer, Cormac was already marching for the trees and the path counter clockwise around the lake. He turned his head back, “This way okay, yeah?” They moved off the beach leaving the bathers and picnickers in peace.

It felt like two lifetimes ago since I had last seen them together. The sight of the pair walking side-by-side was the harbinger of a misty solace. Still young men, one in his mid-twenties, the other in his early-thirties, they ambled between the trees in a familiar rhythm. It struck me as an extremely rare occurrence, like two celestial bodies lining up for an instant, with a third eclipsing, in the middle. Each one on their own, otherwise lonely orbit. A photon of bliss stretched out supernaturally; they carried on in concert along the path where time stood still and the planets ceased to spin; drawn together once more, not by gravity but by blood and time.

In tandem footprints left in their wake, was an unexpected gift. A whole spectrum of emotion swung heavily into my gut. Sadness to joy; plunged down into deep cold darkness before regurgitating into the light and warmth of the shallows, safe. As I watched and listened, I was drawn a bit nearer to them, getting closer to the tops of the trees and the earth below.

Sheltered in the woodland, still on the first segment of the ellipse, their voices were not completely clear; the conversation cutting in and out, almost like the leaves and branches obscured their voices as much as they shielded the light of the Spring Sun.

Cormac had just returned from Vietnam. He was paying a long overdue visit to family and friends for the next couple of months. After travelling around Southeast Asia for a spell teaching English, he’d settled down in Saigon with a local and had been working in a school there for nearly two years.

In an effort to try to reconnect with his baby brother, Paul took the day off work so they could get away from the city for a few hours and loiter in each other’s presence. He worked primarily in Dublin, where they grew up. Just after sloshing out of a long distance relationship, he felt the connection with his brother was also beginning to evaporate.

“They’ve chosen areas across the country where they’ll have a chance to thrive.” Paul had heard about a project that aimed to reintroduce wolves back into Ireland. They’d all been slaughtered centuries ago. “They’ve selected this place as one of those territories.”

“Apparently, once the Brits rid themselves of all their wolves, they decided to rid us of ours too.”  Cormac stated matter-of-factly. “Thanks very much, Lads!”

“So where will the new wolves comes from? Russia or somewhere?” Cormac wondered aloud.

“Did I tell you about the wolf we saw in Colorado?” Paul inhaled and continued, “We woke up, before the alarm clock, in a motel in Pagosa Springs. We wanted to cover a lot of ground on the longest day of our road trip, so we surfaced at 5am. Ten minutes after we’d set off towards Durango, this giant wolf lumbered across the road in front of our car. Steam rising from its frame, we gave the smoldering demon a wide berth. We were still in shock about a mile down the road, when we see a deer, its demeanor faster to react, and flighty. We wondered if it detected the danger looming just up the road, in the morning gloom.”

The brothers were now halfway up the length of the lake, when on the opposite side, through the grey sessile oak trees and across the water, they spied a lone cave. In the middle of the day, that black hole stood out in its surroundings. Its main purpose, perhaps, to destroy any light that dared enter. On this brilliant day, it remained in constant shadow. Once glimpsed, it drew the eye to stare into its belly and locked their gaze.

“When he was a monk in the monastery, down at the lower lake, St. Kevin used to go up there for days on end. It’s known as St. Kevin’s Bed.” Patting himself on the back, Paul was again pleased with himself for researching the locale.

“Jesus, what was he running away from? Was the monastery not bad enough?”

“It’s the whole religious seclusion thing.” Paul started to ramble, “Like, didn’t Jesus spend some time in the desert on his own, sacrificing and praying and what-not…”

Neither of them had a considerable handle on religious history.

“I think that was Lent,” recalled Cormac, “Forty days and forty nights.”

“Sometimes I feel I’m doing my own forsaken religious sacrifice, but not by choice.” Realizing he was feeling sorry for himself, Paul swerved back onto his tour guide script, “There’s not supposed to be much room inside, not big enough to stand in.”

“Some of the most beautiful temples in Vietnam are in very unapproachable locations. Both Buddhist and Catholics have solitude in common. The whole way of life seems extremely bleak to me. I get that retreat is beneficial to a certain degree when life gets a bit too noisy and there’s no access to a volume button but to spend your time cramped in a damp cave for days on end could be taking it a step too far, no?” The Cu Chi tunnels popped into Cormac’s head. Just north of Ho Chi Minh City, he’d crawled through them, and saw the booby traps. In that light, he reassessed St. Kevin’s cell on his bleakness scale. “I’m not sure if I understand all that monk stuff. The never-ending stillness is hard for me to grasp.”

“At least the monks, whether Irish or Vietnamese, had their own pack to fall back to, even in all of these beguiling solitudes. I heard about a group of people in Japan, the Hikikomori, they completely isolate themselves from everything because I think they feel like they don’t belong in modern Japanese society. These people are living solitary lives whilst being suffocated by their own flock living all around them in massive Japanese metropolises. Locking themselves away in their tiny rooms – a refuge within four walls; the only place they are not totally lost. Now to me…That sounds bleak”

“We should try and get up here again before I fly back,” inhaling the earth around him, Cormac’s content demeanor reinforced his suggestion, “Bring the folks with us next time. They’d love it.”

“I was telling Dad that we were coming up, and he said he used to do drills in this valley when he was in the army. He mentioned a famous soldier, I can’t remember his name, he swam across the water under the cover of darkness and crawled up to the cave where he evaded capture. Perhaps the wolves should have tried something similar.”

They rambled on in silence for a time, breaking from their shelter of trees to approach the stony plateau of the Glenealo river; gushing towards them, in abrupt steps, from small bubbling rapids higher up, to man-sized waterfalls on the way down, until finally at the mouth, it all blurred into the stillness of the upper lake.

Before their ascent, they stopped at some old scattered ruins on the land between the lake and the falling river: an abandoned miner’s village from a time long forgotten. Paul stopped in the shell of one of the houses and started plastering sun cream onto the back of his neck. Cormac, although having fair hair, had no interest in sun protection, his nose already beginning to turn pink; another freckle materializing every few minutes, one after the other around his eyes and forehead; he was wandering around the broken house feeling the stone: Artefacts of an era he endeavored to visualize, but couldn’t quite render, no matter how hard he squinted in his mind.

Hanging drone-like, overhead, I could see them working hard as they began the steepest uphill section of the hike. As I meandered closer, through the air above, I could see the river was stuck in the same exact frame of motion. From far away, the cloud of motionless foam and spray deceived the beholder into thinking it alive. No sound emanated; stuck in one, ongoing split-second, the constant cacophony of slapping water with subtle gurgles was lost for the moment. Walking slower now, those two young men zigzagged up their hill, taking little notice as they followed the water’s previous beginnings. The ancient determination of the river to flow downhill was quenched somehow by a moment in time when only the brothers continued to move. I drifted down a bit closer.

They talked about other people instead of their own lives. Paul spoke of an old school friend, who was back home after finding out his mother had been in a car crash.

“I didn’t bump into him but he was over last week. His mother is in a very bad way. It was some guy driving a flatbed truck in front of her. Something fell off the back, on to the top of her car. One of those nightmare freak accidents. They reckon she’ll never fully recover. He only stayed a couple of days with her and then scurried off back to California with his mam a complete vegetable.”

“What the fuck is that about?” Cormac was wrestling with the thought of one of their parents getting sick while he was over on the other side of the world.

“I’m not sure what his work situation is over there, but you’d think he’d be able to take a bit longer off. Anyway, I’m shocked that you’re confused by this. I haven’t seen you in two years. Barely heard a peep since the funeral. Like a magician, now you see him, now you don’t … have a fucking clue where he is.”

Both of them were moving with deliberation up the slope where the trail was at its most arduous.

Cormac batted away his brother’s unexpected jab by continuing as if he hadn’t heard, “I ran into Sarah in town a few weeks ago and she’s convinced that he’s on heroin, hiding somewhere outside of Los Angeles. I wasn’t sure, like, he’s always been a bit of a dozy cunt. Looking back, didn’t he always seem to have problems with people? There was always some trouble stalking him from the near distance.”

Cormac hesitated before speaking, “I know this sounds awful,” he knew he wouldn’t be able to recapture the words once spoken, “But wasn’t he an altar boy for a few years?”

Paul’s body felt a little heavier. The day turned a shade darker although not even a wispy cloud existed to tarnish the sky’s fine blue covering. His first thought was, not a chance, but once sparked, the idea continued to crackle, like kindling in his mind.

Cormac continued, “It’s not out of the question that something could have happened. You hear all the stories, and it’s not farfetched. If something despicable happened, maybe it messed with him. Maybe that shit stuck to him like one of those nasty parasites. You know, one of those monstrous things that you don’t even realize you’re hosting. It just feeds on you and makes you sicker and sicker.”

The upper lake prospers on secrets and rumors. Shadow and light dance over the surface; old whispers long spoken and nearly forgotten, ready to plummet to the bottom at any moment. Some rumors remain, and with them an unbreakable tension.

Paul, stopped to take a breather, “You would think, in that situation, you’d say something immediately. But I appreciate it’s hard to put yourself into a specific circumstance like that”

“The act of crying out for help can be almost impossible sometimes…But fuckin hell, that’s a terrifying thought.” Cormac was trying to think of the exact reason why he was living half way around the world. He thought about the snippy comment Paul made about not seeing him since their brother’s funeral. Cormac didn’t think he harbored any guilt, leaving when he did, but thought he heard some resentment in Paul’s voice. Excess thoughts were flapping around in his head. “It would make sense that somebody, weakened by an experience like that or under the constant reminder of trauma would turn to drugs or run away from that completely, to another country.”

“Do you think you needed to leave here when you did?”

“I wasn’t talking about that. You know, I didn’t run away. There was nothing here for me at the time and I needed something fresh … Something just for me … to be on my own for once. But, yeah, I think he could have thought the exact same thing when he went to America.”

At the top of the route, they collected some water from the rocky froth. A dent in the stream was left unfilled where they had dipped their flasks. Each guzzled while surveying the terrain, trying to distinguish each trail, locate where they had come from and understand exactly how they had arrived to this absolute extremity.

“Certainly easier than staying to fight it and causing a fuss.” Paul probed, “Say, if we got stranded up here, would you want a rescue helicopter coming up to get us?”

Not lingering at the top, they crossed a bridge over the river and kept moving along the ridge back in the direction of the beach that had been their starting point.

“Definitely not an ideal situation, it would be on the news and everything, but yeah, I’d want it to come and get us”

“Sometimes it’s easier to stay silent. Don’t trouble anyone else with your bullshit. It would be too mortifying.” Paul seemed at ease with his position on this topic, but perhaps was testing his youngest brother, playing Devil’s advocate. “You’d never live the embarrassment down, having the helicopter sent up and everything. I think I’d just hole up somewhere and wait for the storm to pass.”

Cormac was baffled, “Why would you do that? It sounds unnecessarily risky to me. I’d say it would get really cold. You’d rather risk death than feel slightly unpleasant … Feel like a bit of a knob?”

“Nah, it’s Ireland, a bit of rain on a hill. Find some shelter easy enough; keep the head down until sunrise.”

“You’re downplaying a potentially disastrous situation where the mountain is the local priest and you have found yourself as the quiet altar boy. Family would be worrying about us, the car would be down at the entrance and we’d never have mentioned a plan of camping overnight…”

“I’d be okay”

“… Never mind in a few years it wouldn’t just be the weather you’d worry about. What about the wolves? What would you do when the howling begins in the middle of the night? You can hear them getting closer, crying up into the abyss, as they relay the exact position of their prey.”

“Maybe I’d shelter in St. Kevin’s bed, like that jammy soldier. It’s probably better in there if there was a big storm out here. Nice and cozy.”

I watched them consider the precarious situation as they tip-toed along the wooden sleepers on the trail high above the lake. Their thoughts becoming less complicated as they were forced to concentrate on each perilous step. Both of their voices were weakening. Cormac’s face was twisted in confusion. Paul’s expression was hard to see. Blurring. I had to go closer to watch, within a stone’s throw overhead.

Beneath them but above the waterline, lurked that cave. What in the world could even be inside that hole? Stones? Moss? Spiders? Some campfire remnants or an abandoned bird’s nest? What about the scrawlings of an ancient druid? Or is there something else living in there – a dying wolf maybe; another artefact, black as the darkness itself.

How deep is it really … If you were to properly investigate? I heard them saying that it’s very small but what if there was a crack in the corner and just enough room to squeeze in? If I had a light, I’d just take a fleeting peep.

I’d keep scraping and scratching at the dirt and keep going further into danger. Are there more ruins in this cave like the fading memories in my mind?

They reached a viewing platform perched all the way out on the edge of the high ridge. A perfect predatory vantage. They peered down at the lake and I followed their gaze. The water’s presence was at first reassuring, but I sensed it knew every thought in every crease of my mind. The shadows growing and retreating on the surface, thoughts and memories. Beware the underwater cliffs.

They discovered a spot to sit, looking down at where they began. An apple each was a welcome boost before finishing the last section of the trail. Crunching into the delicious fruit, they marveled at the fantasy backdrop, in which the lower lake and monastic ruins shimmered behind the beach. There was magic in this land: a mystical ether passed down by the druids before they were swallowed by the island’s monasteries.

“Those monks did have to put up with some amount of shit…And never mind the bloodthirsty Viking skirmishes. No wonder St. Kevin tried to break it up with the odd cave getaway”

“Yeah, it might have been a relief for him at times. Things appear to make more sense up here. The energy is different.” Considering the setting before him, Paul couldn’t resist embellishing – “Or maybe an evil wizard was pursuing the Saint, and instead of endangering the Sanctuary he built, St. Kevin would fall back away, lead the wizard into a snare, out here in the wilderness.”

The light lunch was long finished but they lingered, looking at the lake; pure beauty reflected.

For Paul, the day had many purposes. The main one was to spend some quality time with Cormac, before he headed back to the other side of the world. He missed his company, his mannerisms, and the scrunched-up expressions on his sun burnt face. He said to Cormac before he left the first time, to come back before making any big permanent decisions. Paul had been away for a stint on the continent, and it’s only when he came back, he realized how much he loved his home.

The other main purpose was to sell Ireland to him; give him an image to look back on and to remember fondly. A picture to clutch onto, that would not fade as quick as a few drunken nights out, down the local. He was desperate not to lose the only brother he had left.

Like boys, they skipped and swirled their way down to the bottom of the valley on wooden steps fashioned from recycled railroad ties which had been built into the slope.

Though Cormac’s only long-term plans involved making a life in Vietnam, he didn’t have the heart to break it to Paul just yet, because he needed to keep that connection. Thinking about the stones in the miner’s village, he didn’t want their relationship to exist on old memories, and promised himself that he’d make more of an effort with both Paul and his parents.

“Mac Tíre,’meaning wolf in the Irish tongue, translates as “Son of the country.” Sometimes, through no choice of their own, the sons of this country may feel they no longer belong to its soil. Ireland’s children have always had to keep moving, be on the go. They’ve thrived and prospered in other parts of the world. Our generation have been culled like the wolves before us. Leaving for better opportunities elsewhere or all too often, leaving this world forever.

 

So do I keep scratching and scraping at the dirt until I find something? What happens if something finds me first?

 

As they neared the beach, the terrain levelled out. I watched them ghosting through the trees close to lake level. Cormac stopped dead in his tracks, making Paul echo his sudden movements. Paul’s whole body was almost invisible now. It was a silvery liquid form, impossible to recognize anymore.

I drifted in closer, my toes nearly touching the soil. I strained to hear Cormac, his voice a faint whisper. “You nearly flattened it.” He paused, pointing around the base of a towering Scots pine tree. Then he looked up the trunk and spotted an old woodpecker hole. “It won’t survive.”

The baby starling lay waiting to be trampled on the forest floor between them. Very still, it was a ball of fuzz in an alien world, pink and exposed. Two varieties of feathers scattered around the baby signaled a frantic scrap. Its brooding mother attempting to lead the predator away from the nest. Cormac picked up the starling and stood at the base of the tree. Handing the pre-fledgling druid to Paul, Cormac freed his hands so he could climb on his brother’s back. Using the tree for balance, he managed to clamber up and stand steady on Paul’s shoulders.

I blinked my eyes until they hurt. I saw the foggy outline of Paul, hunched with the weight of his brother. Raising his arms he passed the bird up to Cormac, who took the starling into his tender hands, and steadied himself again, before reaching up to the nest to place the hatchling back into its home.

The beach was busier than before. The unexpected spring heat drawing opportunist paddlers to haunt the cooling shallows. I could just make them out in the crowd. Yes, there they were, together. The fine grains of sand barely reacting to their footsteps.

I touched the earth for the first time and they began to rise. Each soul on the beach lifting into the air around me in a slow steam. The sand was warm between my toes. Standing alone, the world started spinning again, with everyone who was left on its surface still hanging on to their delicate existence.

Above the lake, my brothers took towards their final tranquil passage. I was left alone on the earth, without them, no longer in the middle. I watched them leave: diving upwards, soaring over the valley back towards the source of the river. Both shapes dancing together. Two birds nearby, entangled in furious battle, threatened their cosmic journey. The brothers glanced a glint of magic upon the mid-air tussle. The merlin opened its talons and took off into the horizon. As my brothers vanished over the river, the valley held its breath while the liberated starling flew towards the tree line where her hatchlings nested in the old woodpecker cave.

And under the water, memories swim in a frenzy, not on the lakebed, but bubbling, murmuring just below the surface.

Feature Image: Adrian O’Carroll

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About Author

Gerry Breen

Gerry Breen is an engineer from Dublin who loves stories. 'Ruins' is dedicated to his two brothers.

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