Taibhse
by Terry McGarry


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he pub was alive.

         
Its stained and dart-pocked paneling breathed, its brass bar rail was warm to the touch, its scuffed hardwood floor shifted and stretched. Never enough that the customers consciously noticed it, beyond a nameless thrill when they walked in, or a tendency to say, "Yeah, O'Donnell's, that spooky old place." Never enough to make them understand why their courtship rites were so primal and sexual here, why their business deals took on the brutality of tribal warfare, why they always came here after seeing a relative or friend consigned to the ground.
          But Declan knew. He had been here the night it happened, here behind the bar the night the earth woke up—half-woke, really, mumbling in its sleep far below this tiny plot of Lower Manhattan. He had heard the music that had stirred it, seen the transmutation of the session players, seen the preternatural glow infuse the garnishes, the grain alcohol, the oakwood under the bar's lacquer—every organic thing in the place. Denial had long since proved a waste of time.
          The pub breathed, and he breathed with it.
         
Didn't bother him much, day to day. When a shadow detached itself from the wall and slithered across the bar he was wiping down, he found it companionable, like a dog playing tug- of-war with his rag. The shadows mostly stayed in the rafters, hanging quietly like bats asleep, but sometimes they would drop down to flit about the room. Music, in particular, stirred them—the live music of the traditional Irish sessions held here almost every night.
          The shadows liked to dance.
          Declan came from a land where the divisions between this world and the next were not drawn with sharp chrome edges and religious science. The Celts were a hardheaded folk, stubborn and practical as any peasantry, and urbanization had paved that stolidness; but the most rough-and-ready Dubliner still had an instinctive sense, deep within, of the truth of things.
          Yet there was no one for him to share this with, this moody place; he lived alone in a furnished bedsit as he had done for two decades, and began his life in earnest only when he came to work. He tended bar and managed the business, ordering supplies, hiring and firing the lads on the day shift; he worked seven nights, and came in three afternoons a week to do the books.
          There was no one for him to go to when things began to seem wrong.
          Jackson was a rangy guy who came in to clean up and stock the bar for the day shift, lugging cases of bottled beer up from the basement, carrying deliveries back down—crates of fruit and juices and tabasco and Worcestershire and Rose's lime. He returned in the late afternoon, to do the same for Declan.
         
He knew his job, and followed directions. But Declan never understood a word the man was saying. His speech was some rubbery Harlem dialect, spoken faster than County Kerry's drumroll English; it sounded like an auctioneer speaking Ubby-Dubby.
          So when he came storming out of the cellar door in the back, Declan was unable to unravel his angry, frightened shouts. The man wiped at his sweat-beaded brow with a trembling hand, then waved the damp hand at the basement stairs, spraying salt droplets. When all he got was baffled looks, he swore at them—"fools" was the first, and would be the last, word Declan ever understood him to say—crossed himself, and stalked out.
          "What got into him?" asked one of the two regulars sitting at the bar.
          Declan took the baseball bat from under the speed rack, glanced at the phone, hesitated, then strode to the cellar door. "Whoever you are," he shouted down, "the cops're on their way, so whatever hole you crawled in, crawl the hell back out."
          From the depths of the cellar came a panicked scrabbling. Declan held both ends of the bat, feeling the hum of life in the smooth wood, and raised it before him defensively, taking a step back as whatever was down there came tearing up the stairs.
          Minnie the bar cat streaked through the door and between Declan's legs, ears flattened, huge tail held straight behind her, and disappeared under a back table.
          Declan released his breath, then waited to hear the scuffling of human feet below. But there was only silence.
          "Should I call the cops?" asked Danny, who played guitar in the evening sessions and came in early to stoke up on hot whiskeys.
          Declan shrugged. "Dunno what Jackson saw. Maybe a shadow." He didn't elaborate on that; the patrons didn't understand about this place, not the way he did. "But he scared the bejeezus out of Minnie there."
          In the end, he went downstairs with one of the regulars, leaving the other to watch the bar and sending Dan out to check the side window to the cellar. There was nothing down there, except the humming walk-in refrigerator, the stacks of crates, the dust-moted shaft of late-autumn light from the unbroken, barred window. Declan made a joke of it and stood everyone a round for their trouble.
          But inside, he felt a chill. Something is wrong. Something is coming. He didn't know where the thoughts originated, but he knew they had the right of it. Something is already here.
          Jackson never showed up for work again, and Minnie stopped ratting in the cellar.
          Customers began to complain about the temperature. Declan was forever turning the heat on or off, adjusting the ceiling fans, the smoke-sucking air filters. He gave up entirely on the little fireplace, though he missed the smell of slow-burning peat. A machinist padded with muscle swore that this dive was colder than the grave. An anorectic secretary asked for three glasses of icewater in a row, fanning herself with a bar napkin; a futures trader mopped sweat from her neck and brow, pasting her hair against her corpse-pale skin.
          The musicians said their fingers kept cramping.
          One night a pennywhistler grew deathly white under her freckles, staring straight at Declan. But not straight at him, he realized when he felt her gaze and focused on her, frowning; she was looking through him, or past him, to something else, and her instrument dropped slowly away from her lips. She started to point—Declan saw the finger twitch and begin to rise in his direction, saw words form on her slack mouth, and he looked quickly from side to side, up at the rafters, down at the rutted raised boards under his feet—but there was nothing, and as he looked back at her, a question in his eyes, the tune crested to a resounding finish, and she snapped free of whatever had bound her. She shook her whole body, as a wet animal will, then rubbed her shoulders as if her circulation had failed her.
          At closing time, he asked her, "What was that about, earlier?"
          She blinked and rubbed her eyes, fingering a silent melody of weariness. "I don't know, Dec. There was something here, something that reminded me— Oh, hell, I don't know."
          "Reminded you of what?" he persisted.
          "It reminded me of the thing that used to live under my bed when I was a little girl. An old nightmare. Just a feeling, really—except that I saw—I saw—"
          She shook her head hard, zipped up her knapsack, and exited with a terse good-night. She had never been sharp with him before, never abrupt.
          What were they sensing, these people, that he couldn't sense in his own pub?
          He had never been afraid here. But when the last patrons had been swept out the door like the tailings of the day, Declan faced the dark room, felt its thick, stagnant air press into his skin, saw the stale cigarette smoke curl into drifting, hollow-eyed, gape-mouthed faces, and nearly grabbed his coat and ran for the door.
          The pub was alive. But it was sick. Something diseased had gotten into it. Declan had dealt with rats, with termites, with roaches, with dry rot. He did not know what to do about this.
          "What's happened to you?" he asked the walls, the shadows. "Are you ill? What the devil is wrong with you?" He paused, waited; they did not answer.
          "Aw, for fuck's sake," he grumbled. "I'll just have to figure it out for my bleedin' self, will I?"
          Then came response, if not answer.
          In the doorway to the basement stairs, a shimmering, a soft lambency. An overwhelming sense of confusion, of despair--Declan thought they were his own feelings for a moment, reeled against the onslaught of unfamiliar emotions, then steadied himself against the bar, the rubber spill mat slimy under his hand. He stared hard at the doorway, but the apparition had faded, leaving the maw of the stairwell an impenetrable black.
          Something in the corner of his eye, toward the front--just a flicker, and then gone, straight down into the floor, leaving a smear of half-remembered glare across his retina.
          Over the farthest table in the back, a pinpoint of light, growing steadily larger, suspended in the air—a pulsing globe. How could light radiate such malevolence? It hated him. With every swelling and contraction, the sphere emitted waves of purest rage—
          Declan backed away a step as it moved toward him, hovering; he threw an arm up as it rushed his face, and twisted his head aside only to see it plunge through the floorboards with the viciousness of a stabbing blade.
          "Holy mother of God," he whispered, looking at the hard wood, then his own soft flesh.
          Taibhse. The Gaelic word for ghost insinuated itself into his mind like someone else's memory. He hadn't thought of Gaelic since he was in school, since he lost a job as a mechanic because he'd failed his Gaelic exams. Sometimes customers spoke a few words to him, when they were drunk, after a few lessons at the Irish Arts Center. He'd try to accommodate them, try to hide his distaste. And yet this word had the power of the ancients in it—their belief, and their knowledge, and maybe some of their power.
          He knew his mind was offering help. He knew he should face that dark doorway. Take the flashlight from the cabinet and walk down those stairs, root the thing out of its lair, find out what it was and why it was here—where it did not belong.
          But he couldn't bring himself to do it. Not now, not sapped of spiritual fortitude by terror. His legs were shaking, his fingers were numb. Only a fool would venture into the mouth of hell in a state like this.
          "Amárach," he promised it, in the ancient tongue unearthed from his youth. "Tomorrow, I'll come back for you. You will not have this place."
          He donned his coat slowly, feigning scorn at the thing's menace, as if a pretense of bravery could exonerate him of cowardice. Then he tucked the folded plastic night-deposit bag into an inner jacket pocket, and tried not to look at the cowering shadows as he unbolted the front door and left.
          Abandoning his post.


          "Another one, fellas?" he asked a group of aging construction workers the next evening.
          He had come in early—empty-handed and alone. Unable to sleep, he had spent the day in libraries and records offices, digging up what he could on the history of this building and its site, but had found nothing noteworthy. He had thought of ducking into his local church and arming himself with a vial of holy water, asking a priest to come with him; but the solace of that wine had turned to vinegar in his belly long ago, and confidence, trust, were things no priest would ever inspire in him again. And so he had descended those dim stairs fueled by only indignation—and the sense of protectiveness that had surged through him when he walked through the pub door and felt the sickness and dread in the wood under his feet.
          But by day it was quiescent, whatever lived and walked down there. Maybe Jackson could see it through the light, maybe the cat could sense it; but Declan had stayed for three hours, taunting it, cursing it, and had been treated to no manifestation—only the puzzled call of the day barman from the top of the stairs when he was ready to knock off.
          The men accepted another round boisterously, made jovial by their own tales of the old days, when the Irish were building New York. "More than a wee bit of history in this old pub," an old sandhog was saying.
          Declan's ears pricked up.
          "All those tunnels we dug, for the trains, for the cars going to Jersey," he said. "Bucket after bucket, load after load, truckloads of silt dug from the bottom of that river. Makes you wonder sometimes, doesn't it, what they did with all that silt?"
          He sipped from his glass, and over its rim his eyes, a penetrating blue, met Declan's.
          "The silt from the Steinway Tunnel dig went to Queens," someone offered. "Half of Woodside is paved-over East River."
          The sandhog nodded, and sipped again. "There's a fair bit of the Hudson right under your feet, right enough, lads. Just think of it: the bones of the drowned, the suicides and murdered...the flesh of their eyes and lips drifting down in the bellies of dying fish...the bits and pieces of men blown to kingdom come. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust...and silt to silt. The great cycle of life, brought to rest right there below you, a bit of time pressed under concrete. The spirits of the fossils, like flies in amber. It sure does make you think."
          One of the younger men put in something about floaters, and another said no, murder victims were weighted so they'd never be found, and a retired foreman launched off on a story about how the whole body of one of his men was trapped in a poured-concrete bridge piling, and someone else asked when the hell the session was supposed to start, because jaysus this conversation was depressing...and Declan stood them a round of drinks, out of relief at having the answer at last.
          Relief, and terror at what he must do, and anger at what had infested his pub—infected it, like some kind of virus getting its hooks into a living, healthy thing.
          And self-pity. When the music ended, the customers left supporting each other, singing and laughing out into the night—and Declan was alone with the cringing shadows, and the paralyzed cat, and the thing that had emerged from the building's foundation when the bedrock beneath it was roused from its ancient, geologic sleep.
          It didn't show itself, as it had last night. It was waiting for him below. It knew he would come.
          He should have asked the musicians to stay. Some of them would have scoffed at him, sure; some of them would have been too afraid. But one or two would have stood by him...wouldn't they?
          He closed his eyes briefly against the throbbing pulse in his temples. None of them would have stayed. This was between him and it. Tears squeezed out from under his lids, his loneliness made liquid, his terror distilled into saline.
          I don't understand this, his mind cried, and I don't want to die here.
          But when he opened his eyes again, they focused on his home, on the only place in two continents where he belonged. He knew every bump and crease in its walls, every stain in its ceiling. He inhaled the sourness of drink spill, old ale, the turf and tobacco that had smoked the walls like cured meat, and the scents conveyed life, spun him down a long spiral of transformation, harking back to the grain, the hops, the trees, the plants that were their origins. He touched the bottles on the backbar, felt life vibrate through their melted silicates carrying the memory of the rock and the sand they had been.
          And through them all the thin rivulet of poison, seeping insidiously into all that was genuine, all that was pure.
          "By God," he said, his voice low and hoarse and humbled by the menacing silence, then growing louder, fiercer, "you'll have me before you'll have this place. I will ram myself down your godforsaken gullet. I will be damned if I'll let you have this bar!"
          He bolted the front entrance, took the flashlight from its place between the cash register and the tip jar, and walked through the black maw of the cellar door.


          The flashlight beam died on the third step down, as if smothered in black cloth. No point in backing up to check it; the batteries were new. Darkness here was not the absence of light: it was the eater of light.
          He had left the useless baseball bat, but he kept a hand on the unevenly painted wooden banister, taking what strength he could from its weakening resonance. He tried to keep count of the steps, but he lost track at twenty, and it didn't matter anyway—there had never been twenty treads on this staircase. Tonight it went down forever.
          It was cold here, deathly, bone-aching cold. The air was slimy, like damp hands caressing the exposed flesh of his neck, his forearms. Cold as a watery grave. He shuddered, and at that moment stubbed up hard against the cement floor, his foot expecting another step where there were no more.
          He felt space all around him, no sense of the crates that should fill it or of the bulk of the sealed freezer. The streetlight that should have seeped in through the dusty window, the bar light that should have spilled from the doorway far above him, had been swallowed up, like the incandescence of the overhead bulb he knew was on, the bulb he had replaced this afternoon just to be sure.
          He was blind.
          Should he reach out, fumble until he touched one of the crates and got his bearings? He could not pry his right hand from the banister; of its own, it clung as if to a life raft, nails bending against layers of old paint. Would words, sounds, perhaps laughter or singing, daunt the thing or just provoke it?
          In a spasm of inarticulate terror, he wrenched himself around, his left hand covering his right, the tendons in his arms straining to drag him along the railing and up the stairs. But something that felt like an icy smear of lard crossed his knuckles, and he jerked his hands back with a cry, stumbling a little.
          When he flailed for the stairs, he could not find them.
          He brought himself up sharply. Stop, he told himself. Calm down. Orient yourself. Don't run right into its arms.
          But there were no longer any points of reference. He was a child in a game of pin-the-tail, spun and let loose. Under his feet, what should have been a concrete floor shifted like desiccated oatmeal.
          He stifled a whimper. From some faraway point, its distance impossible to determine in the endless blackness, a misty luminescence began to form. He thought for a moment it was the sparkle in his own eyes, his retinas' memory of light, but it swirled and grew with a life of its own.
          It could have been something huge, yards and yards away, or a glowing, foggy excrescence right in front of his face; the disorientation nauseated him, and he weaved, putting a hand out instinctively to steady himself and grasping nothing but black air.
          It emitted a low sound, rhythmically, almost a thumping, as of someone pounding on a coffin lid—or a heart beating underwater. The sound grew deafening, not a sound any longer but a force against his eardrums, his head; the light grew but illuminated nothing, merely intensified until it filled his eyeballs like some blinding viscous poison, engorging them until they threatened to burst.
          It was his death made palpable. It was his own dying scream echoed back to him as he drowned in a roomful of air—died no more than a barman in a seedy pub, completely and utterly alone—drowned in his own aloneness, buffeted to a shapeless pulp by the untouchable others he invisibly, inexorably served, severed from all connection with life and continuance, from the land that bore him, from the touch of any hand, the breath of any love.
          Declan fell to his knees on the floor that was half humus, half sand, and excreted his self-loathing in a cracked, ragged scream.
          It was like vomiting gasoline onto a brushfire. Extruding from the walls, ascending through the invisible ground, came the shapes of the dead. A leering, howling, hulking man-shape loomed in what must be the far corner. Two others joined it, their reverberating shrieks fracturing into dissonance as the forms of all three burst apart, only to coalesce again. Nearer, on the right, a sobbing waif—all tendrils of subdued undulation, as if draped with luminescent seaweed—rippled in waves of green light and shadow. A thing half water, half misery floated near where the ceiling should be, drifting on eddies of heartbreak.
          And directly on Declan's left, the sphere of condensed malice he had seen before—the thing that had knifed through the floor. Whatever it had once been, all that remained was the hatred, the rage, and the blade.
          The exploded, the drowned, the suicides, and the murdered; those who died in the water or were dumped in it, to settle into the silt like any other sediment. All the river haunts, their watery grave dug up and deposited here, a place they knew nothing of. Revived, or their spirits called back to the fragments of their bones, their limbs, when the soul of the earth responded to the vibrations of ancient music above—coming into a hellish half-consciousness with no idea when or where they were, only remnants of what they had been.
          It was their disorientation that had blinded him, their horror and despair that had washed into him, bloated him, flushed his own demons out of him into the fecund, loamy air. Here, anything could grow, any specter of the mind, any stray fragment of the spirit. Here, in this half- time and half-place, anything was possible.
          Declan's fingers scrabbled, found purchase somewhere in the pebbly mush, pushed his face up and away from it. He got to his elbows, used his spine as fulcrum, levered himself upright.
          They are all alone, he thought, but I am not—and knew that the thought had not originated with him at all, any more than the other stray thoughts he'd had the last two days. He knew now who had been speaking to him—finding the words of his childhood as it found the organic origins of every match stick. And he knew that it was right. He could not see the walls, could not touch any part of the pub that surrounded him—but he drew it around him, and took strength and solace. The pub was his body and his life; he was its guardian. And what haunted it were the saddest of all creatures: the caged and solitary dead.
          His watery self-pity, having coagulated into sticky comprehension, now boiled into compassion and dissipated in a slow, wheeling sparkle that suffused the charged space. He could begin to see the outlines of the crates and boxes, a broom propped against the side of the freezer; the room's proportions offered to realign themselves. But the concrete was still the spectral here—the real room was still the diaphanous reflection—and Declan fought its re-formation.
          Someone had to help them, and he was the only one there was.
          "Death is the loneliest place of all," he began; his broken voice came out a whisper, an echo of itself, not a true displacement of the air but more a psychic resonance that he only hoped they could sense. "And I know what loneliness is."
          The waif raised a hollow face to him, pearl tears depending from where the eyes should have been. The man-shapes writhed; the drifting grief at the ceiling began to quiver. The hate- sphere swelled to nearly twice Declan's size and edged toward him.
          He opened his arms to it. He was not what it hated. What it hated was the knife that had killed it, to which it would be forever wedded through the slices of flesh entombed by the foundation under his knees. That was no way to spend eternity.
          "You're meant to go on, you know, not be stuck like this. This is Hell, forever going round and round in the same hate and terror you died with. You're like birds flown in through a window, battering against the glass, unable to find the way back out."
          They howled, wailed, roared in answer; Declan winced but dug his toes and his knees into the silt, refusing to retreat from the earsplitting mind-shrieks of their combined anguish, the stench of putrid decay. He felt the shadows—the shadows that lived here, returned along with the returning light—gather around him, behind him, lending support with their presence. He kept his voice calm, if voice it was. "Get along with you, now," he murmured, a low parody of a barman giving last call. "Go on. It's well past time. We open the window for you. We set you free."
          Beyond himself, outside himself, he felt the great frame of the building take up his words, his wishes, and make them huge, at once amplifying and focusing, enlarging and intensifying. And something akin to a great wind swept through the vast non-space of the little cellar, toppling crates, rocking the huge freezer, blowing Declan's legs out from under him, and then breaking through the physical threshold so that the things of this world were left heavy in gravity's arms—and the rest were encompassed, and borne away.
          Now they can breathe, Declan thought, as his body fell and his spirit soared, and the concrete welcomed him home.


Copyright © 1996 Terry McGarry


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