Ghost: a lesson of love and loss
The boy awakened to the sounds of the morning: his mother calling the hens, a rain of oats on a tin tray, a scamper of claws, the tapping of beaks as the grain was gobbled.
He had named the hens. Robber was first to the grain. Brave feared no rat that raided for eggs. Scratch was a hungry hen. Black was proud. Peck was the one that drew blood from their mother's hand. Speckled nested out in the shed, 10 yellow chicks under her wing.
After breakfast he built a house of bricks and knocked it down again and pumped his humming top until he tired of it. Then cupping his hand into the oats, he carried the grain to the end of the yard and squatting, scattered it at his feet. Then, imitating his mother's call he summoned the flock.
From every end of the yard the hens came running but, on seeing him and not his mother shied and stood with their heads on one side eyeing him with suspicion. All but the young chickens. They rushed about. Chirruped. Sprawled. He stretched out his hand to touch one but it fled, Another did likewise and a third.
He remembered the black cat on the windowsill pretending to be asleep and the rats that never learned. From the ditch bounding the corn field they emerged, took stock of the cat, waited, watched, waited and then made a burst for the grain house door across the yard.
Black Lightning, the boy's father called the cat. Claws bared, she sprang. A loud shrieking, and a rat was dead. And a second. A third likewise. Rats never learn. More would die tomorrow.
The boy, a chubby 4-year-old, lay on the ground pretending to be asleep. Eyeing the grain, the hens advanced, stood on one leg, muttered and fell silent. The boy scarcely breathed.
With a sudden thrust, the foremost hen snatched at the grain, backed off, snatched again, and stood blinking.
Unafraid, the chickens advanced. Quick as the cat he had one in his grasp. The downy body was soft and warm. He could feel the frantic beating of the heart. Tenderly he stroked the head until the struggling grew less and the bird nestled in his hand.
The sun was warm. A pheasant shrieked in the field beyond the yard. Butterflies fluttered in the nettle bed.
The speckled hen led her flock to the end of the yard where she scuffled a nest in the dust, the chickens burrowing under her.
"She's forgotten you," he whispered to his new friend that rested cupped in his hands.
He knew what it was to sleep in a room alone, the cot that has stood by his mother's bed now banished to the loft.
His mother was his, day and night. He riddled flour as she baked bread, punched pillows when she made the bed, ran for the jug when the milkman arrived. Shopping, he held her hand. He drowsed in her lap when she read by the fire, losing himself in her lap to awaken in the morning to crooning of hens.
In the name of the Father, she taught him, and of the Son and of the Host Ghost. In his bedroom stood a picture of Holy Ghost, a dove with outstretched wings, from which fell rays of light like sunshine breaking through a cloud - God's love, she explained, falling on the people of the world. His mother was his dove. When he prayed to the Holy Ghost, it was to his mother that he prayed.
Next day - or it may have been another. Long summer days were all alike - shoe laces to be tied, buttons buttoned, not to stray from the back yard, a spin on the crossbar of his father's bike after he returned home from work, pumping his top till it hummed like bees and motor cars and the airplane that drew people, waving, on to the street. On such a day the little chicken came unbidden to his feet.
"It's you," he said. "My little hen."
And picked it up. And stole for it a ration of grain. And held it in his hand, his fingers open, the bird content and unafraid.
Each day the chicken waited in a corner of the yard. How clever she was, he told his mother and when his sister, Lillian, would not believe him she must stand at he kitchen door while he scattered the grain and the flock came running, all but his chicken who hung back waiting for her special share.
"We have an animal trainer in the family," Lillian said, and his father, too, must be shown the freakish hen who dined alone.
"What name did you give her?" Lillian asked.
"Hen," he told her and, in the firelight, he fetched an old penny and rubbed the image of a hen and her chickens on his jotter. Their father flapped his arms and stood on one leg, squawking. Lillian could not squawk with the laughter and the boy, too excited, lost his balance and fell. Horseplay, his mother said always ended in a crying match.
Throughout the late spring and early summer, the chicken grew and soon the fluff turned to feathers. A red comb sprouted from his crown. Tail feathers curled.
"A cock, begod," his father said, "You'll have to call him Cocky."
"Her name is Hen," he said.
"A cock called Hen," scoffed Lillian, "A queer sort of name indeed."
He made no protest, but after rain he baptized the bird with water from a pool, naming it with a secret name he disclosed to none but the bird itself, and when his father raised his voice in anger or his mother went tightlipped about her chores, he chanted the secret name until it ceased to be a name and was a lullaby of comfort.
The house where the boy lived did not look out on a street as other houses did. It stood on a square, enclosed on three sides by high stone walls. At the rear was a yard and, separated from it by an open ditch, a cornfield where hens and ducks strayed and fell victim to a fox. In front, grass, weeds and mud, slimy after rain, had ravaged a gravel drill yard and the flagstone pathway from the hall door to the rusted bars of a massive gate, reminders, his father said, of his years in the trenches.
Across the square stood an abandoned barracks, slates fallen, doors ajar, windows without glass.
"Never go there," his mother warned. "The place is falling down."
A harsh, triumphant crow of victory and feathers in the air drew the boy, panic stricken, from the kitchen. The old rooster had blood on his beak. The young cockerel was wounded. He raced in, dividing them, running off the older bird, scooping up the cockerel into his arms where he lay, his heart pounding violently.
"Excluded," said Lillian, with some delight, "Like Adam and Eve from Paradise."
"A traitor to the cause," his father said. "During the War, traitors were shot."
"Like us all he must learn to fight his corner," his mother said impatiently.
From now on, everywhere the boy went the cockerel followed. But it must not come into the house, his mother said. Hens provided eggs; they were not pets like a cat or a dog. A cock was a dirty thing that would mess up the kitchen. It grieved the boy that she could not share with her his delight to waken on a sunny morning to the pecking of a beak at is bedroom window.
Early in August the cockerel disappeared. The boy was distraught. He called and called. Lillian also. His father led him around the edges of the cornfield, now turned to gold, calling as they went. The flock gathered but not the cockerel.
"The bird has flown," his father said.
But seeing the boy bite his lip, Lillian added that he would come back.
At night, the boy cried. In the morning, he raised his blind inch by inch, hoping, hoping.
On the fourth day after the cockerel disappeared, he remembered that place where none had searched and, waiting for his mother to go upstairs, slipped out through the kitchen and around the gable of the house.
Running quickly, he crossed the barracks square. The long grass pulled at his knees. Nettles stung. But he paid no heed. When he reached the other side he was out of breath.
Above him towered the abandoned barracks, huge and desolate, like the ruined mansion in the ghost story Lillian read aloud. Sheeted with steel, the entrance door sprawled from a single hinge. At any moment it might fall. Holding his breath he squeezed inside.
The sun that dazzled on the barracks square did not shine within. Dampness reeked from every side. The walls oozed a greenish slime.
The boy trembled, as he did on the night his father kept on shouting until his mother brought his sister and himself to the bedroom and said their father has not been the same since the war and locked the door until the shouting stopped.
"Ghost," he called. "Where are you, Ghost.?"
From afar came the lilt of children playing in the street, and close by, the scamper of rats on rotting boards. Had not a lost bird waited to be found the boy would have fled home in haste.
Ahead of him lay a passage lined with countless doors. Dark. Grim. Picking his way over fallen plaster, excrement, wild oats sprouting through rotting boards, he came to door after door opening into abandoned rooms he could tell had long been robbed of living and of warmth. Into each he cast a fearful glance, dreading of what it might disclose.
"Ghost." he whispered. "Ghost, where are you?"
The next door was closed. Tight. Like the door of a prison cell. Forbidding. Silent. Silence frightens. Better a hated sound than threatening silence.
Holding his breath he grasped the handle. Turned it. Pushed. Pushed again. The door stood firm.
Tears flowed. Had he tried to stop them he would have run away.
With all his might he pushed the door, gaining an inch. And once again. Suddenly the door flew open dragging him inside. Rats scattered. The stench of rotting flesh made him cover his mouth and nose. On the floor lay his cockerel. Or what remained of him.
He did not hear the crash of the steel-sheeted entrance door knocked to the ground nor the footsteps racing down the passage. When his mother found him he was backed against the wall, hysterical.
"Fix him," he begged, "Fix him for me, Mammie. Please."
Before he slept his father said that when the next flock of chickens was hatched he could pick any one he liked. Lillian said he shouldn't have gone to the barracks alone but wasn't he a brave little soldier all the same to go there on his own. The boy said nothing. He wanted them to go and leave him alone with his mother.
She sat on his bed. She said crying would not bring back his pet. Soon he would be going to school and boys who went to school had grown too big for chickens and tears.
"Now, say your prayers," she said. "And go to sleep."
She lit a lamp so that he would not be frightened in the dark and left the bedroom door open so that she would hear him if he called. But he did not call. He had longed for her to share his grief, to let him cry in her arms, but she had not loved the bird as he did and he was desolate.
He turned his eyes to the picture of the Holy Ghost that hung above his bed, but it was not to the Holy Ghost that he prayed but to a dead cockerel devoured by rats. And when his prayer was said he chanted the secret name, "Ghost," over and over until, weeping, he fell asleep.
Mary and Joe Clinton own Woodview Farm bed-and-breakfast north of Dublin near Skerries, Ireland. Pioneer Editor Molly Miron and her husband, Doug, stayed there in October.