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A Wrestling by Katharine Tynan

 

Mike Sheehan tossed awake in the moonlight. The gulls were quiet, and there was no noise in the night save the sound that had rocked his cradle—the Atlantic foaming up the narrow ravine before his door, and withdrawing itself with a loud sucking noise. The cabin was perched on a bleached hillside. A stony, narrow path went by the door and climbed the ravine to the world; a bed of slaty rock slanted sheer below it to the white tossing water. A dangerous place for any one to pass unless he had his eyes and his wits well about him; but Mike Sheehan was such a one, for he had the eye of the eagle over Muckross, he could climb like the mountain goat, and could carry his drink so well that no man ever saw him less than clear-headed.

Mike, with his six-feet-six of manhood, was well in request at the country gatherings. But of late, said the folk, the man had turned queer: in that melancholy, stately country by the sea, madness—especially of the quiet, melancholic kind—is a thing very common. A year ago a wrestling match between him and Jack Kinsella had gathered two counties to see it. No man could say which was the champion. Now one was the victor, again the other. They kept steady pace in their victories. Jack was captain of the Kilsallagh team of hurlers, Mike of the Clonegall. No one could say which captain led his team oftenest to victory. The men had begun by being friends, and their equality at first had only made them genial laughter. The wrestling was on Sunday, after mass, in a quiet green place at the back of the churchyard. The backers of the two champions took fire at the rivalry long before the men themselves. That would be a great day for the men and women of his following, when either champion should decisively lead. But the day seemed ever receding in the future, and no one could say which was the better man. June came, when not only the hurling, but the wrestling, had its thin fringe of female spectators perched on the low wall of the churchyard—girls mainly, with little shawls over their soft hair, and their little bare feet tucked demurely under their petticoats.

The country people scarcely guessed at the time their two champions became enemies. Indeed, it was a secret locked in their own breasts, scarcely acknowledged even when in his most hidden moments each man looked at the desires of his heart. It only showed itself in a new fierceness and determination in their encounters. Each had sworn to himself to conquer the other. The soreness between them came about when by some sad mischance they fell in love with the same girl. Worse luck, she wanted neither of them, for she was vowed to the convent: the last feminine creature on earth for these two great fighters to think of, with her soft, pure eyes, her slender height, and her pale cheeks. Any girl in the country might have jumped at either man, and she, who wanted neither, had their hearts at her feet. She was shy and gentle, and never repelled them so decisively as to make them give up hope. In the long run one or the other might have tempted her to an earthly bridal; but she made no choice between them; and each man's chance seemed about equal when she slipped from them both into Kilbride churchyard. When she lay there neither man could say she had distinguished him by special kindness from the other. And their rivalry waxed more furious with the woman in her grave.

But six months later, and their battles still undecided, Jack Kinsella fell sick and followed Ellen to Kilbride. Then Mike Sheehan was without an equal for many miles. But little comfort it was to him, with the girl of his heart dead, and the one man he had desired to overthrow dead and unconquered. He secluded himself from the sports and pastimes, and lived lonely in his cabin among the gulls, eating out his unsatisfied heart. Somehow it seemed to him that at the last his rival had cheated him, slipping into the kingdom of souls hard on the track of those slender feet he had desired to make his own. At times he hated him because he had died unconquered; yet again, he had a hot desire upon him, not all ungenerous, for the old days when he met those great thews and sinews in heavy grips—when the mighty hands of the other had held him, the huge limbs embraced him; and his eyes would grow full of the passion of fight and the desire of battle. None other would satisfy him to wrestle with but his dead rival, and indeed he in common with the country people thought that no other might be found fit for him to meet.

Kilbride churchyard is high on the mainland, and lies dark within its four stone walls. The road to it is by a tunnel of trees that make a shade velvety black even when the moon is turning all the sea silver. The churchyard is very old, and has no monuments of importance: only green headstones bent sideways and sunk to their neck and shoulders in the earth. A postern gate, with a flight of stone steps, opens from Kilbride Lane. Here every night you may see the ghost of Cody the murderer, climbing those steps with a rigid burden hanging from his shoulder.

But as Mike Sheehan ascended the steps out of the midnight dark he felt no fear. He clanged the gate of the sacred quiet place in a way that set the silence echoing. The moon was high overhead, and was shining straight down on the square enclosure with its little heaped mounds and ancient stones. Some mad passion was on Mike Sheehan surely, or he would not so have desecrated the quiet resting-place of the dead. There by the ruined gable of the old abbey was a fresh mound unusually great in size. Mike Sheehan paused by it. 'Jack!' he cried in a thunderous voice, hoarse with its passion. 'Come! let us once for all see which is the better man. Come and fight me, Jack, and if you throw me let Ellen be yours now and for ever!'

The blood was in his eyes, and the sea-mist curling in from sea. His challenge spoken, he swayed dizzily a moment. Then his eyes saw. The place seemed full of the sea-mist silvered through with the moon. As he looked to right and left substantial things vanished, but he saw all about him in a ring long rows of shadowy faces watching him. Many of them he knew. They were the boys and girls, the men and women, of his own village who had died in many years. Others were strange, but he guessed them ghosts from Kilsallagh, beyond Roscarbery, the village where Jack used to live. He looked eagerly among the folk he remembered for Ellen's face. There was one who might be she, the ghost of a woman veiled in her shadowy hair, whose eyes he could not see. And then Jack was upon him.

That was a great wrestling in Kilbride churchyard. The dead man wound about the living with his clay-cold limbs, caught him in icy grips that froze the terrified blood from his heart, and breathed upon him soundlessly a chill breath of the grave that seemed to wither him. Yet Mike fought furiously, as one who fights not only to satisfy a hate, but as one who fights to gain a love. He had a dim knowledge of the fight he was making, a dim premonition that the dead man was more than his match. The ghostly spectators pressed round more eagerly, their shadowy faces peered, their shadowy forms swayed in the mist. The ghost had Mike Sheehan in a death-grip. His arms were imprisoned, his breath failed, his flesh crept, and his hair stood up. He felt himself dying of the horror of this unnatural combat, when there was a whisper at his ear. Dimly he seemed to hear Ellen's voice; dimly turning his failing eyes he seemed to recognise her eyes under the veil of ashen fair hair. 'Draw him to the left on the grass,' said the voice, 'and trip him.' His old love and his old jealousy surged up in Mike Sheehan. With a tremendous effort he threw off those paralysing arms. Forgetting his horror he furiously embraced the dead, drew him to the left on the grass, slippery as glass after the summer heats, for a second or two swayed with him to and fro; then the two went down together with a great violence, but Mike Sheehan was uppermost, his knee on the dead man's breast.

When he came to himself in the moonlight, all was calm and peaceful. An owl hooted from the ruined gable, and from far away came the bark of a watch-dog, but the graveyard kept its everlasting slumber. Mike Sheehan was drenched with the dews as he stood up stiffly from Jack Kinsella's grave, upon which he had been lying. It was close upon dawn, and the moon was very low. He looked about him at the quietness. Another man might have thought he had but dreamt it; not so Mike Sheehan. He remembered with a fierce joy how he had flung the ghost and how Ellen had been on his side. 'You're mine now, asthoreen,' he said in a passionate apostrophe to her, 'and 'tis I could find it in my heart to pity him that's lying there and has lost you. He was the fair fighter ever and always, and now he'll acknowledge me for the better man.' And then he added, as if to himself, 'Poor Jack! I wish I'd flung him on the broken ground and not on the slippery grass. 'Tis then I'd feel myself that I was the better man.'

 
 
 

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