The Unborn Versus The Undead
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"Then Lugaid threw the spear, and it went through and through Cuchulain's body, and he knew he had got his deadly wound; and his bowels came out on the cushions of the chariot, and his only horse went away from him, the Black Sainglain, with half the harness hanging from his neck, and left his master, the king of the heroes of Ireland, to die upon the plain of Muirthemne.
Then Cuchulain said: "There is great desire on me to go to that lake beyond, and to get a drink from it."
— Lady Augusta Gregory, The Death Of Cuchulain, 1902.
"We will give you leave to do that," they said, "if you will come back to us after."
"I will bid you come for me if I am not able to come back myself," said Cuchulain.
Then he gathered up his bowels into his body, and he went down to the lake. He drank a drink and he washed himself, and he returned back again to his death, and he called to his enemies to come and meet him."
Chapter 6: The Death of Setanta
Rush was informed by Paddy’s ‘automaton’, which was in reality a tiny antiquated Dictaphone that had appeared in his pocket, that no one really knew where Cuchulain was or what had become of him. While most of his fellow folk heroes became co-opted into popular culture and tourism or diversified into more modern archetypes and made guest appearances in different forms on various trendy television shows, he had remained uncontrollable, noble and violent and whimsical, his warrior spirit sustained and made increasingly bitter by the continued occupation of the greater part of his beloved Ulster. It was believed that his influence on the psychic plane had prolonged the troubles in the six counties for at least ten years more than their natural span. The Good Friday Agreement, due to what he saw to be its tacit acknowledgement of the claim of the enemy to his land, was what had finally tipped him over the brink of madness. His insanity raged with such ferocity that he inadvertently discovered within himself the ability to tear open great wounds in the fabric of reality. A few days later he passed into one such hole, roaring a vow never to return to the common psychic ground of Ireland.
Rumours were heard of him in distant planes, and it was said that his form was changed beyond all recognition; no longer the fair-haired boy Setanta, or even the massive man of his prime, he had allowed his madness — and his ability of old to call the earth-energy into his body — to warp his proportions past any previous limits. A wandering monk searching for a lost manuscript reported that he had passed through a land that was a perfect replica of Ulster, full of mountains and rivers and even cities, but entirely depopulated save for a gigantic and terrifying being whose body was so distended that it had been divided up into independently functioning pieces, each housed separately. The heart, a massive, seventy-chambered balloon occupying the sitting-room and dining-room of a pleasant semi-d with a conservatory, pumped thousands of gallons of blood through Kevlarreinforced veins a yard wide which were strung quivering between the other dwellings. The great dark liver was spread upon a divan thirty feet long in the function room of a hotel and stank with an intensity that destroyed all organic life in its vicinity even down to the microbial level. The brain initially drew such a quantity of electricity from the city’s power grid that the thought required to perform motor functions caused blackouts across the land; in an attempt to contain its rampant hunger for power it was sectioned according to the diagrams in an old phrenology textbook, the result being that the vast creature was bereft of all higher cognitive functions except jealousy. Enormous quantities of ale, milk and tea sluiced constantly into a gullet that was encased in an industrial chimney, and another chimney received prime beef, fowl and pork together with cress and cabbage by the truckload, all supplied by an ingenious system of conveyor belts, cranes and digging machines operated by those parts of the body which had been given freedom of motion, such as the hands, which shoved themselves around at great speed on wheeled vehicles and only occasionally fell foul of the miles of extended veins, arteries and nerves dangling from the wrists. It was agreed that the existence of such an egregious and unlikely organism represented an expenditure of too much power to be anything other than the mad hound of Ulster, but when investigators were guided back to this plane by the monk they found nothing but a gigantic, smoking crater, as if from a meteorite strike.
Another report had it that he was training a crack squadron of ancient vampires who he had discovered languishing in the dreams of a Romanian immigrant suffocating with his family inside a metal container that had been unloaded and forgotten in Dublin ferryport. The grief and horror of the man’s mind had given these monsters ample energy, and Cuchulain, it was said, had broken open a door in the man’s dying dream that had allowed them out; his intention was to create a team of savage undead warriors who would leave such scars on the minds of his enemies in Ulster that they would flee the country rather than fall asleep on its soil one more time. However, one day (it was reported), in a fit of anger at the vampires’ inability to speak Irish, or even English, his battle-madness swept over him and he consumed every last one of them, cramming them into his grotesquely leering mouth and crunching their bones until, their limited powers of immortality notwithstanding, they chose utter death rather than an eternity digesting inside the mad hero’s guts.
These tales aside, the truth was that his whereabouts were unknown, and no one had tried terribly hard to find him, for obvious reasons.
This information was related to Rush by a tinny rendition of Paddy’s voice which played over a background of the Irish national anthem. At one point the anthem began to skip and there was the sound of a fist thumping a gramophone followed by the tearing skitter of a stylus scraping across vinyl, after which a Daniel O’Donnell song started halfway through.
He listened to this recording while seated on a three-legged stool in a picturesque barn in which sunshine washed across golden hay through open windows and an old two-pronged pitchfork leaned in relaxation against the wall. When he flicked off the switch on the Dictaphone he could hear cattle lowing in the distance and there was also a stream nearby conveying soothing noises of flowing water to his ears. He breathed deeply and sat back into the haystack, enjoying the rustling sound it made.
The lowing sound from the cattle became a bellowing scream of such loudness that it shook the walls of the barn. Rush scrambled to his feet out of the haystack and rushed to the door, grabbing as he did so the shotgun that had been leaning against the wall. He could see nothing wrong outside except that there was a hole in the sky where the sun had been. Without the sun it should have been dark all across the land, but the same light and shine remained as if the sun still shone in its allotted place. The edges of the hole in the sky were ragged and fluttered in a cold wind that blew from the darkness outside. He looked closer at the fields in the distance and as his focus narrowed he saw that they did not gain in resolution; they remained impressionistic blobs. I’m in a painting, he realized.
He let the axe fall to the ground and walked across the golden field towards the hole in the sky, which grew with extreme speed as if he was moving far faster than he thought. Soon he stood before it and was feeling one of the ragged edges with his hand. It was nothing but canvas. Beyond the twenty-foot-high tear in the fabric of this place there was nothing he could see but a vast moonlit ocean undulating softly.
He took a deep breath and remembered how he had reached this place. I am searching for Cuchulain and when I find him I can come home again. He considered the ocean with trepidation. All his life he had been afraid of the sea, especially at night. When he was a child he’d been snorkelling in crystalline water about fifteen feet deep off a sandy beach in Mallorca when he’d happened to glance out in the direction of the open ocean. The sea floor had sloped sharply downwards from where he swam and the water was so clear that there was no way to gauge distance other than by the way that the light faded from white to pale blue to deep blue to navy to blue-black. The impression of age and silent vastness had submerged his reason and primal fears had risen in his mind of creatures swimming towards him out of that blackness like monsters woken from the depths of the world. He had kicked frantically for the surface and never again felt comfortable swimming in the sea.
Now, though, there was nowhere else for him to go but through that hole. It might be dangerous but at least it was real; the horror of remaining behind in a painting was greater than his fear. He stepped over the torn canvas of the hole in the sky and dropped like a stone. Wind whipped up through his clothes and over his face and the surface of the sea accepted his plummeting body with a frothy splash. He sank into the dark water, forcing his eyes to open, and to his surprise the salty water didn’t sting him and despite the lack of light he found he could see all around him. He was in the middle of a great migration of brightly-coloured fish whose shoals parted around him and whose collective wake swept him along. He found that he was able to breathe the water, and a smile broke out over his face as his fear of the sea dissolved. Energy filled his body and he swam after the fish with a powerful stroke. He saw sharks circling in the water below, hammerheads and blues, and he felt no fear whatsoever because of the current of energy running through him; he felt that even if a great white shark threatened him he would be able to break it in half with a single kick.
For a while he forgot that there had ever been anything in his world other than water, and an indeterminate amount of time passed. His clothes disappeared and he swam naked with his arms by his sides and his legs together, twisting and waving his body like a fish. The water changed colours around him with the miles, from blue to green to indigo and even a misty pink that surrounded a coral reef that ran for miles along the coast of a great continental shelf. He stopped then, and gazed into the immeasurable abyss of the deepest ocean from the edge of the reef, wondering at the darkness and the cold density of the water and feeling a current running over the edge that gently coaxed him to descend. He didn’t know if he should.
As he looked over the edge he saw a luminous body drifting downwards at the edge of his vision; it seemed to be the form of a woman in a white dress that shone as if lit from beneath. As he stared downwards it sank so far that the darkness swallowed it, and in a panic to find out who this was he cast himself over the edge and followed the current down into the night. In a minute or two all the light had been squeezed out of the water and there was nothing for him to see except pure blackness, and the faintest of glows hundreds of metres below him, beckoning him onwards.
The faint light grew until it became discernible as a woman’s body again, and the sensations of his body changed subtly. At first he wasn’t sure what the change was, and then he realized. He was upright, and walking through a pitch black hall towards a ghostly woman. His footsteps echoed far above him in what must have been the ceiling. She had stopped retreating and was standing still, her light illuminating only herself and her clothing. Finally he stood in front of her and could see her face; it was Sorcha, as he had suspected and hoped it would be, and she smiled and said “You found me,” and he reached out to touch her face.
What he touched was some kind of fabric, and as he pressed on it her face warped disturbingly, causing him to cry out in shock. His body convulsed, and he found himself lying face down on a bed with a black duvet. He sat up and looked around him – it was his childhood bedroom. There were luminous five-pointed stars on the ceiling in the shapes of the constellations, and the wallpaper was red with yellow stripes. His parents had allowed him to choose all of the decoration himself. There was a huge white chest of drawers overflowing with clean and dirty clothes, and a half-built Lego castle in one corner. It was sunny outside and the light filtered through a plain white blind and diffused into his eyes like cloud-glare, making him squint.
He shook his head, wondering at the strange dream he’d had. There had been a girl in a white dress, and he had been swimming in the sea, he remembered that...when he tried to recall any further back in the dream the images slipped away from him. He had been looking for someone, maybe the girl. He sat up on the edge of the bed and felt something odd in his shirt pocket. He lifted it out and examined it. It was some kind of device he had not seen before, but there was a tape inside and a large red button to press so it was obvious to him what to do. He pressed the large red button and listened to a man’s voice talking over the background of some music.
“You’re looking for the Hound of Ulster. You need to ask someone where he is.”
There was nothing else on the tape when he rewound and fast-forwarded it except a hissing noise. He shrugged, assuming that he’d picked up one of his father’s gadgets and that the tape was for some office purpose that he didn’t understand. He threw the device on his bed and opened his bedroom door and went downstairs to get himself some breakfast.
His mother was in the kitchen, which he found strangely unfamiliar, as if it had been re-fitted while he slept. He had to look around him to find the fridge, and when he opened the cupboard for the bran flakes he found it to be full of nothing but crockery; the bran flakes were in what he remembered as the crockery cupboard. He remembered the cooker as having electric rings on the hob, but this one used gas. He felt a little dizzy.
“Mam, why’s everything different?” he asked plaintively. She looked at him strangely.
“What do you mean? Nothing’s different.”
“You changed the cooker.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He sat down at the table and tried very hard to think. Maybe he was just groggy from his dream, he decided, and ate a couple of spoonfuls of corn flakes. Another thought occurred to him.
“Mam, what’s the Hound of Ulster?”
“That’s Cuchulain, love. Remember I used to read you stories about him? One of the greatest Irish folk heroes. He’s the one who had to fight and kill his best friend.”
Rush considered this for another moment, his mouth full of corn flakes, then swallowed.
“Where is he?”
She laughed. “Nowhere except in books. You have one on your own bookshelf.”
He finished his breakfast and went back upstairs, his mother’s voice following him and saying better get ready for school quick because I’m leaving in five minutes, and he searched his bookshelf until he found Irish Myths and Legends. He looked up the contents to locate the Táin Bó Cuailnge and turned to the starting page where he found an illustration of Cuchulain as a young boy holding a spear and a shield and with a dog running at his heels. The legend said Setanta takes up arms as a child. As he stared at the picture it began to move, and the boy came alive, running through the long grass over the crest of a hill in pursuit of a deer. The sky took colour and clouds moved through it as if driven by a powerful wind, and Rush could hear the sounds of Setanta’s sandals on the earth. It seemed that the child was loved by the land and the air and the sun which all held and beheld him as a son, and even the deer that he slew with a great throw of his spear surrendered its flesh peacefully and wished no vengeance upon his noble spirit.
I’m dreaming, thought Rush. The book began to grow heavy in his hands and he saw that it was growing. He let it fall to the ground where it continued to grow until it was the size of his bedroom door and each blade of grass on the hill where Setanta ran had the size and colour and scent and reality of any blade of grass in the real world. Rush heard his mother’s voice again saying Johnny, are you ready? It’s time to go, and he called back I’m going, and then he stepped into the book which closed behind him with a thud.
He found himself on the hill with Setanta, who was on his knees beside the deer’s corpse, busying himself with the gutting and skinning of it. The power in his young muscles and the sharpness of his knife were such that the flesh parted as effortlessly as silk and the bones seemed to move aside of their own accord. Rush tried to remember what was happening. He remembered that he though he had woken up in bed, but it was now clear that it had only been part of a dream, and this was another part. It seemed strange to him, suddenly, to be aware that he was dreaming, and he wondered if he was about to wake up; but after standing still for a moment or two and looking around at the countryside of rolling hills and green fields and forests, the dream showed no inclination to disappear, so he decided to accept it at face value and explore it.
“Hiya,” he said, and Setanta sprang to his feet, his spear in his hand and shock and anger in his face.
“Who are you, and how did you surprise me? I can hear a mouse move in a field half a mile away.”
“I can track a deer for fifty miles through the forest without being heard,” replied Rush whimsically. Setanta’s eyes widened.
“Have you the skill at arms that you have in hunting? Because if you say that you do then we will have to fight here and now to settle the question of whose deer this is.”
“The deer is yours, Setanta, for I have no skill at arms to compare with yours, and neither am I hungry.”
“That is well, for I tell you that no one has ever beaten me in martial contest and no one ever will. But tell me now, are you one of the fairy folk? For I did not tell you my name.”
“I am not one of the fairy folk, but there is indeed something strange in my being here, for it is my belief that this is my dream.”
Setanta sat down on the ground and resumed gutting the deer, and Rush sat down with him.
“Do you then come from another world?” Setanta wondered.
“I do, and I came into this one through the pages of a book about you.”
“A book about me? That is a very strange thing. I do not expect such a book to be written about me until after my deeds have become famous later in my life.”
“That is what has happened, and I think that the world I am from is the future of this world.”
The boy accepted this with a grave nod and continued with his work. The deer was gutted and cleaned and sewn up with incredible speed and Setanta stood up, easily slinging the carcass over one shoulder. He regarded Rush with innocent awe but no fear and beckoned him to follow as he began to jog down the side of the hill. Rush followed, finding that he could keep up with the boy’s pace no matter how quickly they ran. Hills became fields that flashed by with the speed of scenery passing a train and neither of them became tired or out of breath, and finally Setanta slowed and came to a halt next to the margin of an oak wood.
“I will rest here for the night and make a fire. You are welcome to join me and share my food.”
“I would like that, because you are the reason I am here but I do not know the why of it.”
Setanta started a great fire and broke off a long straight branch from a nearby oak to make a spit which he thrust through the arse of the deer and out its mouth, and then, holding the skewered animal up in one hand like a kebab, he tore off two more forked branches and drove them into the ground on either side of the fire. He laid the branch with the deer between these two forks and began to roast it, turning it occasionally with his bare hands even though the wood became searingly hot.
After the deer was roasted through and he had carved and served it with some cress from a nearby stream, and they had both eaten their fill, Setanta belched with a force that shook the trees and sent the fire into a crazy dance for a few seconds, then lay back with his hands behind his head.
“So, stranger, after placing good meat in your belly do you still say that this is your dream?”
“I do still say that, Setanta, because I know who I am and I remember my life before I stepped through a doorway in a book on to the hill where you slew this meat.”
“And what is your name and what was the nature of your life before that moment?”
“My name is John Rush, and I am...”
Rush paused. He had been about to say, I am a schoolboy in Dublin, but something was not right about that statement. He looked down at himself and saw that he was a man, dressed in a man’s clothes. He tried to remember what had happened but he could think no further back than his waking face down on his black duvet after a strange dream. He was silent for a long time, his mind lost in disconnected images without a story, until finally he looked up and met Setanta’s eyes. The child was smiling.
“Setanta, I know my name but I do not know who I am or how I came to be in this place. I thought that this was a dream and that I had been awake before, but now I think that I might have been dreaming before, and so I do not know if this is the real world or a dream.”
Setanta nodded and sat up. “I say to you that this world is real and that you are a spirit or one of the fairy folk under an enchantment of forgetfulness, for there is no living man who can approach me without my hearing, or run apace with me as you have done.”
“That may be, Setanta, but you are a legend in my world and I cannot say that you are real either.”
They both sat in silence and stared into the twisting flames of the fire as it consumed the wood and the bones of the deer and cast embers and ash far into the night sky. Finally Setanta shifted his weight slightly and spoke again.
“You say that you came to me through the pages of a book, and so, dream or not, there must be some reason that you wanted to meet with me. Can you say what that is?”
“I did wish to meet with you, Setanta, but I cannot remember why.”
“Perhaps the scroll in your pocket contains the answer.”
Rush looked down with surprise to see that there was indeed a small scroll of black paper sealed with a blob of red wax in the pocket of his tunic. He took it in his hands and broke the seal and opened the scroll, inside which was written in the old Gaelic:
If you meet the boy Setanta, ask him to tell you about the end of his life.
He handed it to Setanta, who read it without expression and then returned it solemnly. They regarded each other for several moments.
“Now I know that you are a ghost or one of the fairy folk, or perhaps even a lost god,” he said, “because I have seen a vision of my own death but I have never told it to a single soul.”
“Will you tell it to me, Setanta?”
“I will. Listen to me now, ghost, for I have sworn to tell this dream once only.”
Setanta told the story of his own death in a quiet tone without perplexity or bitterness or pride. He painted images in Rush’s mind of a terrible battle with his own son, ending with the child pierced through the belly by a spear that moved upon the water; of a legion of cyclopean goblin women with stumps for arms who flew on the wind; of a gigantic wave rolling off the sea towards the house of his family, the horses of Manannan playing on its crest; how, wounded and exhausted, still he girded and armed himself to ride out against an army; he, alone, light blazing from his forehead and his weapons, fighting hopelessly against an endless host of warriors and demons, stamping a deepening circle into ground that became a bloody swamp; and three cursed spears, full of a breathing and shuddering darkness, that slew one by one his horses, his charioteer, and then himself; and how at the last he bound himself to a stone and surrendered his spirit to return to the land of shadows.
Rush had closed his eyes to hear the melodious sound of the young boy’s voice, and the images had risen inside his mind with a peculiar vividness, as if he himself were Cuchulain in his last extremity, the hero-light shining from his own forehead. He felt the fury and love and power that burned in his sinews and ached in his brain. He felt the spear that pierced him, the slickness of the blood underfoot and the awful thirst that drove him to the bank of the river to drink for one last time; and when his body was broken and poisoned and beaten at last, he was the spirit that withdrew itself from the flesh with an exhalation that split the stone that held him upright.
John Rush, the spirit of Cuchulain, stood back from the stone to regard the body, riddled with wounds and smeared all over with gore, seeming so much smaller without the god-energy of Lugh screaming through its veins and throbbing hotly in the skin. The hosts of the men of Erin stood all around in hushed silence and the river itself ceased to flow. Birds on the wing overhead held themselves still in mid-flight and only the spirit moved; the spirit was outside time. The spirit bade farewell to the flesh and the beloved land and the memory of the beautiful wife, and retreated from that place, opening a hole in the air behind and stepping through.
The figures on the battleground grew smaller and less real, until he realized that he was looking at a painting that he was holding in his two hands. The title on the frame was The Death of Cuchulain, and there was a hole in it now, right below the hero’s heart, where the canvas had been torn and a small piece removed completely. He looked up, and saw that he was in an entirely different place. He was standing alone at a crossroads with not four or even five choices, but an entire forest of possible roads that converged at that point in a hyperdimensional array that only Dali or Escher could have painted. There was a signpost that contained words and arrows indicating so many different directions and dimensions that looking at it made him feel dizzy.
Faint sounds could be heard from all directions, carried along the roads as echoes and vibrations, and there seemed to be a music underneath it all; drums like a heartbeat and a simple melody of five notes, and barely audible chords that followed one after another so perfectly that each emotion that rose in him as he listened was immediately followed by its perfect complement and answer; each feeling was soothed and each thought negated by its opposite; each sound was bound to the next by love, and the entire universe of possibility resonated to it and waited for him to choose which way he would go. He stood at the crossroads, unable to remember who he was and for the moment not caring, as an ecstasy of homecoming overtook him.
This is home, where the music is always perfect but never the same and every road is a path of love. O god how terrible the battle was, how much blood was shed! But here outside time every enemy heart is balanced by the heart of a friend and every life taken is a gift given of return to this place. My beautiful wife, how lonely I was all my life. All I remember is your hair, and the softness of your limbs, and how only you out of everyone understood me and spoke the language of my spirit. My god, I fought so hard, there was so much rage in me, a rage for this place. My mother told me there was a light in me that came from god and that when I died it would bring me home. When I was high with the spear in my arm the light would burn like a star on my brow and the god-energy would fill me and in my mind the whole universe would shatter down to dust, and all of that was only a taste of the music and peace and freedom of this place. Blood was my drug, the drug in my blood. I made my own death. Only, and only, I wish that I could have spoken to my beloved when my mind was clear of the fury and the madness, and told her before I rode to my end how much I loved her. I was witched and poisoned and lost in dreams. I was only trying to find home. One day she will meet me here face to face and we will laugh at how it all went wrong and how it did not matter.
As he stood there a crow came to light on his shoulder. It did not caw, but tapped its beak peremptorily three times on his collar bone. He turned his head and its beady eye and black head filled his sight. It had a red crest on its head unlike any other crow he had known.
“Birdie,” he said.
You can’t stay here, it said in his mind.
“Why not? I like it here. I’ve been trying to get here all my life.”
Still. You have work to do, Hound.
“What could I have left to do? I fought and frenzied to my very last breath and now I want to rest.”
You feel rested, the bird said, and it was true; he did. His arms and legs were as light as if he had slept and healed for a year in a gentle bower full of damp moss, ministered to by maidens, and coursing through his veins was the god-energy again.
You have to find John Rush.
“Who is that?”
The crow didn’t answer, but took off from his shoulder and flew to one of the shadowy paths leading away from the hyperdimensional crossroads. Go here, it said.
“What happens when I leave this place?” he asked, not moving.
You will go mad again. But you’ll remember John Rush, and he’ll bring you home at last. There is a great battle to be fought, one fitting for you; desperate and utterly hopeless, against a sea of foes.
He strained for one last drink of the music; he was thirsty for it, as if it was the only thing he had ever needed.
“I don’t want to leave,” he said again. “Why can’t I stay here?”
Because I am going to take it away from you. You must follow the road behind me or chaos will take your soul forever.
Then he knew that the birdie was his enemy. As he felt the ground disappear from under him and the cold blackness yawn around him, with his uttermost strength he flung himself at the black crow, bellowing Medb, but the bird was gone and he found himself plunging down the road it had chosen, the blood-mist descending on his sight, his battle-fury obliterating everything in his mind but the name that the bird had planted there: John Rush.
The Unborn Versus The Undead
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