A funeral in Ireland is never a small thing. Your neighbours would line the road waiting for your hearse to come by. Passing cars would edge past slowly and with respect. Afterwards the wake would be numerous and lengthy: three days would not be too long. Some people made it their business to attend every wake for miles around, and even before you’d died they’d be there in the house trying to pay their respects.
All this happened when Maeve O’Hagan died, only her horse was there as well.
It was a sad story, and it ended for her as the horse, Noah, came up from the field to the bungalow and put his head in through her open French window, and found her where she lay on the bed that had been moved into the lounge. As he whickered his final greeting she put her hand to his muzzle, turned up her eyes, and took her last breath. He knew, you see.
She was only fifty-four, Maeve O’Hagan, and even though she was young, she was survived by none of her family, so it was Noah that followed behind the hearse, and stood nodding his head at the graveside with a few of the neighbours as the priest intoned the prayers.
Noah was said to be half human, and on the night he had been born a great tragedy had befallen Maeve, that had been born of another great tragedy, altogether too much for a woman to bear. It was her husband that died, you see, as Noah unfolded his spindly legs in the straw, and Vincent’s tormented soul, incapable of rest, went into the soul of Noah, so that the foal was never as others.
So, the story of Vincent was, that he was a mostly good man, a good neighbour certainly, and a tolerable husband who was mostly kind to his wife. If he had a fault it was that he was lazy, and if he had another fault it was that he was over-fond of tractors, and other agricultural machinery. When Maeve asked him one afternoon, because she had to take a neighbour to the hospital, to mind little Michael, who was only four years old, and the light of his mammy’s eye, he took their son to Cash’s yard.
Now Gerry Cash lived in a caravan behind his own council house and his yard was full of all kinds of old scrap and junk. He could get you a lovely camper for a keen price, or several hundred yards of electric fence, or ratchet straps and doormats, or any kind of ironmongery. He had half a dozen tractors of all vintages and a cherry picker that looked a bit like a sleeping giraffe with steel legs lifted up in the air. Mikey loved the tractors, just like his father, and Cash’s yard was his idea of heaven. The two men would smoke and stand there looking at the tractors and he would get to play. Sometimes Cash’s kids were there as well, and Mikey and little Margaret, who was about the same age, would race around the yard, jumping over the machinery, until their fathers told them to leave off.
Only, one day, one golden sunny afternoon, Vincent’s life was blighted forever.The children were playing on the cherry picker when Margaret tripped on the lever that released one of its feet. A ton of steel crashed down on Michael. He didn’t have a chance. What Vincent remembered forever of that day was how he held his bloodied, still-warm son in his arms as he stammered out to the staring face of the paramedic:
After that their minds were never at rest. What if Maeve had not taken the neighbour to her appointment? What if it had been raining, so that he had kept Mikey indoors? If Margaret had not fallen over the lever at the exact same time that Mikey ran under the foot? If only Cash had stored the damn thing with the feet on the ground instead of up in the air, although of course it was easier to move it around if you didn’t have to raise the feet beforehand. And if Vincent had been minding the boy properly, instead of smoking and talking fecking shite to Gerry Cash.
The grief of it, and the guilt of it, and the silence in the bungalow where the little boy had lived, ate away at them both, and they never had another child.
Soon something else was eating away at Vincent, for his hatred of himself and his cigarette smoking together made a rotten lump in one of his lungs, and within a year the doctors at the hospital were after telling him they could do nothing for him, and within two years he was dead.
So Maeve was left alone in her bungalow, with her bit of land, and the foal Noah soon followed her about as much as he did the brown mare that had birthed him. Once Noah was weaned Maeve took a small bit of delight, amongst her grief, in feeding him kitchen scraps: the tough parts of vegetables, potato peelings, celery that had wilted in the fridge, and especially apples, were eagerly gobbled up. She bought him the bags of the little apples that are meant for children’s lunchboxes, and as soon as she came to her french windows he was waiting outside. She never rode him, and she’d explain to you, if you wondered why, that he was ‘just a pet.’ And the love between those two was the kindest thing that you ever saw.
One spring, when Noah was seventeen, Maeve went away for a few weeks and the neighbours minded him. She had to go to the hospital for treatment and when she came home she was not the same – well, you know yourself how it is. Her lovely brown hair, which had not even had a single strand of grey, was all gone, and her pale and careworn face was fat and red. As her neighbour wheeled her up the drive she heard a whinny and Noah came up from the field and right over the gate and headed towards her. She put her arms around his neck and wept.
She had not long to live, and spent that summer sitting in the garden when it was fine, the field gate open, and Noah cropping the grass nearby. He knew that she was dying, and was never far from her side. By the time the apples reddened on the trees in the orchard, she was too weak to move from her bed, and they put her by her French windows in the lounge so that she could still watch her horse, and enjoy the swallows soaring and diving. When the swallows marshalled for their last farewell Maeve was herself departing this earth, her hand stroking, one last time, her beloved horse’s nose.
So when the gravediggers had finished filling in her grave Noah still stood vigil. He refused to eat or drink, you see, and finally lay down on his side, his legs across the freshly turned soil. The neighbours called the vet, but the vet said nothing could be done and he had seen this happen before.
Noah’s funeral was not a small thing. The neighbours lined the field where he was buried and passing cars edged past slowly and with respect. Afterwards the wake was numerous and lengthy: three days was not too long.