BOY AMONGST SPARROWS
He recalls Tony’s hay benchknife that carved halfmoons
and a white-beamed sun over wintry boughs
on a hurley Sunday his cousin Michael did not come.
They were the days of family and grain farms,
of oats tall in the stem lodged by a rogue shower
the end of August when the first gale blew,
when crows and pigeons glided down in flocks.
We children were dispersed to scatter them.
Each midland house with its own tilled ripe cornfields,
grain scattered freely in yards of rhode island red and sparrow,
grain fed to pigs and calves and ground in a barn where the new
electric grinder spread a fine white flour dust even out the door.
Contesting the troughs with turkeys, ducks and geese
untameable, domestic, close and yet distant, the birds
held assemblage over him, as a child in the yard, up in the great elm.
Sparrows battling with wyandottes for the evening victuals.
Their cheeky skulls are long fallen into nettles, mosses of the dyke,
covered in the ground like fathers, mothers,
freckled cousins let loose in the back meadow
where sparrows of the air rose up for them in flocks.
Sparrows no strangers then in blue changeable skies.
. . . and the young calf dying.
I do not recall what malady left him prostrate kicking,
made him bawl so. It happened all the time.
Half a century before, children fell down in swathes
from diphtheria. Staring at us, through us, we cradled
his head with an armful of fresh straw.
Whether fattened animal or old man,
Westmeath was a county where death
. . . called like the postman.
And after supper, they’d bury you
sorrowing one to the other for you never bothered sheep.
All the late sunlit afternoon you lay, my brothers’ collie
by the garden hedge, but out on the south-facing riverfield,
your white teeth bared in little ivories for your tongue,
glossy bluebottles tinkling one open almond eye.
(Late August or so for sweet pippins with magpies
up in the old tall apple trees ripened red and unseen
the orchard side of the hedge with the bitter crab,
your bushy tail rigid, your thin legs, too).
Corn was on the noisy mind of reaper and binder.
Gold barley bearded me like an older brother.
And I who loved to raise up my two arms
cross them round your ruff neck, rub your slender nose
touch the black-tipped ears that looked forward
hurried past you in the hot sun. Bluebottles lit all over me,
magpies in the apples cackled for your other eye
and I was so afraid in my heart of the dead.
No bawling as the nose ring gripped. Orgy of kicking of a sudden went numb. The
sawing of horns started in dusk, and my mother thought mist was mist falling or midges
grasped vainly in the bloody fist (hot water to wash she left on a shed window sill for
fear the beast lunged). Sawing through horns sounded poor, like sawing a hempen sack,
or sacks together as the bullock peed. Crows cawed eternally towards Lynch’s and the
pine plantation. Water splashed as she lashed milky water on sliced flesh. Head runny
with blood to be dry before morning, and the flies, the bullock unchained staggered off
shaking his hornless skull all down the long garden. Then the next bullock, and the next,
eyeing us through torn galvanized. Outside, below the elm tree, thin bracelets of hair
adorned horns piled in a heap at the gate post into the long garden. In the kitchen as men
sat down to a meal, a faint odour of blood on overcoats hung in the porch.
Always on the dusty summer roads
after mealtimes when the men had left
they’d call at the kitchen door. Males in flight,
they knew the short-cuts parish to parish,
said little. Sometimes word travelled (de-frocked
and priest, another lost his farm in poker).
Sussed out the sheds for a doss
as they sat at table for a bite of bread.
Once sawed a whole panloaf for one
till our eyes met over first names.
Something wrapped for them,
a little pep then in their step,
their stained windy greatcoats filling out like Suibhne’s wings
they hit the road to put down some other house miles away
where they might expect the same
no questions asked.
. . . that whirr-whirr-whirr of wing
. . . that high-pitched honking in the sky
passing over, mostly sideways wild geese
like a correct tick on a copy at school
from the north west south south-east
across November trees gone bare.
In their long necks a virility of ice-ridden times,
a promise of snow for us in their grown-up plaints.
Their wings like the arms of ballet dancers grown dancers’ wings in the now musicless
heavens, but we heard them on their skies to the green sloblands, no nuisance to cattle or sheep-intense acres to peck and peck long intervals within ease of flight and the sea. At
school, history caned our arms and legs in short pants with dates old finger-gnarled Mammy
Burke said were important and she breathless in her chair by the fire.
Neighbour met neighbour stopped on the road,
their legs crooked over the bars of bikes
looking up too late to the empty heavens.
As kids, we wished them like foreign cousins back
till they were specks lost on the sun’s horizon.
Look at them, look at them, we cried
You, high up, stretching to each fruited twig
a rising October moon east of our damson tree
a nip, then, in the freshening east wind from Murtagh’s
you, shirt-sleeved, up the branches after the tartiest
your fingers nimble as talons
closing on the velvet harvest
gathering the last of the damsons
the indigo sky at your back.
Balanced on a hook
from a trusty bough
the galvanized pail filled,
or nearly so, with tangy fruit
goodly-sized and wild;
you reached out to whet your tongue,
Tony, spit out the stone.
A pale and placid midland moon
rose higher with a blackbird cry.
With ease of limb
you lay horizontal on the boughs you loved
on branches you could depend on
to gather your knees round
lowered a full bucket
to a boy in corduroy.