His laugh that time, like a sigh coming out of a graveyard. He’d earned it somewhere far away from anything I knew. If I hadn’t heard it, I wouldn’t be telling the story.
I saw him first on a cold February day in 1988. He wasn’t Ryan then, nor Dempsey. He had names he put on and took off like coats according to the season. He was something else at the time, maybe the name he was born with, though what that was I didn’t know. I was with him for an hour and a half and he never said a word.
I was in a farmhouse in the Monaghan hills waiting with a few others around a table to leave for the funeral of Generous McCabe, a man renowned in the district for his wildness and his wealth and who was at the time of his death as old as the century we were in. I was seventeen and still at school. The men and women at the table were taking it in turns to tell stories about Generous. My uncle was there, the pharmacist from Scotstown, and Alice Dean who had grandchildren my age. I had a story too, young though I was. I’d been running it through my mind to get it right and was just about to tell it when the door opened and a cold wind blew in. We felt it move along the floor and then over us in our chairs. It seemed a different order of cold, made away in the north and carried to us on the wind.
We heard coats being removed in the hall, some lines from a song. Then two men unknown to us came in. The first was round, red-cheeked, with a jacket and tie and Wellington boots, his hands fluttering before his chest like pennants in a gale as he half-whispered his song. He looked like a priest not long out of the seminary and that he’d a horde of jokes and songs we’d hear if only it weren’t a funeral we were going to. But it wasn’t him I paid attention to. It was the second one. He was tall and gave off colours of blue and gold that came, maybe, from his clothes, his skin, his thick thatch of unruly hair. I couldn’t quite place it. There was a clod of mud on his boot, a lightness in his step. He came in after the other with his eyes to the ground as he walked, silent as mist. It was as though he was looking in the grains of the floorboards for the answer to a mystery. I followed him every step of the way as he crossed the room. I had to, somehow. He walked as though no one else were there. He had something, I could see that, and it made me feel small.
The round one nodded to each of us and sat down at the table, but the other kept walking. He pulled a chair over to a corner by the window. When he looked up, the winter light fell on his face and I could see that his eyes were a turquoise, Pacific Ocean blue and that a small piece was missing from his front tooth. Were the piece still to exist, I thought, it would form a perfect Pythagorean triangle.
No one said anything. They all just turned towards me, as if they were connected by a system of strings, and waited for me to begin my story. I wanted to tell it, for it could surprise them maybe, but I was wary of the strangers, especially the one by the window. Would they listen to a story told by a boy? How would I feel if they didn’t? I’d heard it a few years back, late one night at home when Generous came in with my father and some other men. There’d been a cattle market and they’d been in the pub since, drinking whiskey. I was up in bed in the darkness, with Generous’s voice coming up the stairs to me from the kitchen.
The story was about how Generous killed a man in Dublin in 1919. I couldn’t get every word of it up in my room, but I got enough of it to know it was about a killing and I’d never heard anything like that before from someone known to me. He was a boy himself when it happened, not so much older than I was.
I decided to tell the story to the people in the room that day of Generous’s funeral, for it would have been worse not to. I told them about how Generous had gone out with two others to the house of an Englishman who bred dogs and had a horde of guns, about how it was his first time out as a Volunteer and how he’d never shot at anyone before. They waited in a hedge for the whole of the evening and when your man finally came up the path to his door they pushed him through with a gun at his back. They put Generous in charge of guarding him while they searched the house. He was huge, Generous said, six foot four with the power of a bull and drunk that night on top of it. At some point Generous heard a noise out in the road and stood up to have a look. The Englishman saw his chance then. He jumped out of his chair, got around behind Generous and grabbed him around the chest. He squeezed all the air out of him and roared that he’d kill them all.
When Generous came to this part of the story I heard the sound of breaking glass. I got out of bed and went out onto the landing. I saw him standing in the middle of the kitchen looking over at the wall where a trail of whiskey was running down. He’d sent a glass flying there with a swing of his arm, my father told me later, showing them how he’d fought with the Englishman. I saw the men staring up at him from their chairs. There was a terrible silence, and they all frozen where they were. Generous looked frightened, and like he didn’t know where he was. “I never saw such a look on him, neither before nor since,” I told the people at the table. They were all turned to me like children listening to a ghost story, all but the one at the window. Did I have him too? I didn’t know and it stalled me for a beat. Then I went on. “He could be wild in drink,” I said, “we all know that. But this was something different. He was breathing heavy. His hair was pointing in different directions and his tie was twisted around to the side of his neck.”
The men that night knew Generous’ stories, but they didn’t know that one. My father stepped up and asked him was he all right. This seemed to bring him back to life. It was like someone had tripped a switch. From the landing I watched him swing his arms back and forth to show how the Englishman had him. Then he showed how he hooked the man around the ankle and brought the both of them down. There was a fight on the floor and the other two came running in as the Englishman tried to get to his feet. They had their guns out, and so did Generous. I saw him show the men how all three of them put their bullets into the Englishman, his arm stretched out like a plank. His eyes went wide and his hand began to shake as he lived again through the killing. It passed up along his arm and into his body. I thought he’d fall to the floor. It was like he was having a fit. The men went to him and got him down into a chair. I stayed on the landing watching him, for I’d never seen anything like that.
But the story I wanted to tell the people in the room was not about the killing, nor even about hearing it the way that I did. It was about something else that happened later, just a year before Generous died.
I told them about how one day some people came down to Bough townland from the television in Dublin to get Generous’s memories of his time in the I.R.A. My father heard about it and went to the producer to tell him to be careful with Generous and especially not to ask him about the time he raided the Englishman’s house for guns, for he didn’t want him to go through again in front of strangers what he went through that night in our kitchen. My father was a countryman and hadn’t an idea of how television worked. He thought he only had to say that to the producer and it would be all right. We all found out about it when we sat in to watch the programme and saw Generous talking about the day he shot the Englishman. He was in his own parlour, hair combed, tie on, very concentrated and sure.
“It was solely and simply a raid for arms,” he was saying. “We offered him a receipt for the guns. He’d be paid when we got the Republic. But it was no use. He attacked us and we had no choice but to deal with him.”
“How did you do that?” asked the interviewer.
“We shot him,” said Generous.
“You killed him?”
The interviewer stopped for a while to let that sink in for all the people watching while the camera went in close on Generous’s face. Then he asked him, “Does that event haunt you, sir?”
Generous looked straight back at him.
“Not at all,” he said. He didn’t flinch.
The people at the table leaned back in their chairs when I finished the story. I could hear them letting out their breath.
“Queer, isn’t it?” said one of the women after a while.
“Aye, queer all right,” said the red-cheeked man.
Then I turned back towards the window where the man with the chipped tooth and the blue eyes was looking away towards the hills, for I heard laughter there, that laughter that caught me then and never went away — a strange, sad, chilling laughter, soft as the beating of wings. It was as though his body were a prison that contained it and even then it hadn’t been released. There was knowledge there too, but of what I couldn’t say.
I heard of him through the years. A cousin kept him in her attic. A schoolfriend drove him somewhere through the night. A neighbour’s son died next to him in a field. He moved around the country, sleeping in cars and hedgerows and the houses of strangers. No one, though, could say where he was. He worked alone, mostly. There were people who took heart from men like him. I heard his name too, maybe even his real name. But I won’t say it here.
I left Monaghan not long after the funeral of Generous McCabe. I went to Edinburgh, Barcelona, and London, each city revealing the next to me as I moved through my studies. In time I had a degree in architectural theory. In Ireland, I heard, they stopped sleeping in hedgerows and dying in fields and shooting at the strangers. Sometimes I design, sometimes I talk. The talking has brought me to Mumbai, Tel Aviv, Jakarta, and Rio, among other places, and more recently to New York, where I lecture about architecture at Columbia University. I write this now in soft light on a walnut table on the twenty-fifth floor of a building just to the north of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. My twelve-year-old daughter is working out algebra problems in her room with Judy Garland songs as background. My wife is doing stretches in her bare feet on the living-room carpet. I see through my window the gentle pulse of the city lights and the darkness of the rivers around them.
In April of this year I went to San Sebastian in the north of Spain to look at the Plaza de la Constitución, an ovoid in the city’s old part with tiers of numbered doors rising from a floor that had at different times been the site of bullfights, a food market, and open-air masses. I was to write about it in an issue of a scholarly journal that was to be devoted to multi-use urban spaces. On my last night I went from bar to bar with a group of the city’s architects. Beaming epicurean men with hooked noses over their thin lips and aprons tied around their girths poured glasses of sparkling txakoli from green bottles and pushed plates of smoked cod and lamb brochettes at us with the fluency of casino dealers. We finished in a basement watching a woman with feathers in her hair singing Spanish pop songs from the 1960s. After that I went around the corner to my hotel. It was nearly light. The morning paper had been put under the door. I got into bed and almost fell asleep trying to read it, but just before I did, my eye was drawn to the surprising word “MONAGHAN” in small bold letters in a little box in the city’s events column. “Pinturas Nuevas,” it said beneath it, and gave the address of a gallery.