A Cockleshell to Hy Brazil

The wind keens around the jagged rim of the cliff. In the distance, out over the sea, white clouds pile up, huge snowy mountains in the sky rent by caverns of tumbling vapour rising from the horizon. Seals lie sunning on flat rocks surrounded by the restless sea. Sea gulls flash white over the metallic blue-green water edged with surf.

The old man sits without movement on the worn stone seat at the top, near the edge, his thoughts limpid, tired with the weight of memory.

The sea is calm today; perhaps there’ll be a storm later. Those are thunderheads out there climbing in the sky. My shoulders ache; there’ll be a storm later.

It may be calm but the sea’s still restless. Waves pass through it like souls, while the same water beats against the cliffs, always the same water, different waves but always the same water.

Except during storms. Then the water and the waves are leaping and snarling halfway up the cliff like hungry animals, biting and tearing out the rocks, shale and seagull’s nests. They would eat anything, me if they got the chance, though poor pickings from these old bones.

Not today though, gentle as a lamb she is today, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth the way she’s calmly lapping the edge.

That sun is warm here in the shelter; I must have dozed. The wind is starting to rise, coming down from the mountains by the feel of it. I hate the mountains, the snow, the cold, the icy sleet and the white wailing wind. I’d never go back, never. Even if I could now, I’d never go back. It’s hard up there in the snow where bottomless crevasses devour a man for taking a false step, where a man’s hands and feet turn white, then blue before blackening in pain.

The sunlight on the peaks, majestic, golden, white shifting snow clouds across the ridges, huge, impassive, mountains of snow and granite, bigger than anything, bigger than the midges of men like ants on her back, tempting the unnamed spaces, the treacherous traverses.

It seemed to go on forever, trekking across the ice, through the whirling snowstorms. Frostbite on that finger there and on the little one, the skin still dead white, like the ice, no feeling there, dead skin, some part of me died up there, not much considering. Others died up there, all of them. One fell from an ice cliff, we saw him slipping and sliding on the ice on his way to die. We didn’t see the others, but they died too.

I’d have died too if it weren’t for Kenso, big Kenso, built like a barn. He pulled me out of a crevasse, my hands were slipping, I couldn’t get a grip, couldn’t stop slipping down the ice. Save me! Save me! Help me! My voice whipped from my throat by the wind and he did, coming like a shadow out of the swirling snow and hauling me out by the scruff of the neck. I wouldn’t be here now if it hadn’t been for him. A good man, always laughing and cheerful. He died up there too, the last man across an ice bridge. He should have been one of the first on account of his size but he hung back. Perhaps he was afraid, just that once, like everyone else. He didn’t make a sound, just disappeared.

It’s all so long ago now, long in years, long in longing. The years go like leaves on trees but how long ago was it really? It must be nearly eighty years ago that we first came across the mountains. No one alive now from that time, even the little children from the last emigration are gone. I’m the only one left who remembers the other side now, only me and not for long. I’ve been saying for many a year, ‘not for long, never see another Christmas.’ Heh! Heh! Not long now. Heh! Heh! Heh! Though not for long now, there’s a touch of snow in the wind, unusual for this time of the year, the season is still early and the sun is warm on my shoulders.

They say there are Celts in the high passes, the odd roving band spotted by the patrols, more recently. Soon they’ll come in number, like insects across her back, Slieve Aragot, mistress of the mountains. She’ll take some of them, many of them if she listens to me. She cares nothing for those who die on her icy ridges.

The Celts always made a finer show of it than we did, their shields burnished, their hair plaited. Their discipline was better than ours too. They are no better fighters, not so brave as we, none as brave as we, but more cold blooded, uncaring, or so we thought at the time. Their weapons were better too, made of steel, harder than the bronze, stronger.

I’ve tried to tell them but they know it all. “Why would they come over the mountains to attack us? You old men are all the same, thinking of war all the time. There is more to life than fighting and killing, that’s of the old times, finished now. They’ve got no reason to attack us and we’re certainly not going to attack them.” Oh yes they know it all, but there are Celts in the mountains passes. They’ll never know, until it’s too late.

Just like the Tuatha. Ah, there was a strange lot. Ugly people I suppose, we thought them so, mean too, always digging and scraping. They’d forgotten how to stand up like men. They learned fast, but by then it was too late. Their women were fine though, strange that, how they had such lovely women, red-haired with fair eyelashes over green eyes.

 I knew one well, loved her well, Driea, daughter of old Tarit-Og, village chief. She was lovely, a fierce fighter who knew how to take care of herself but gentle in love, even after the soldiers she could still be gentle. We killed her father early on, all of her family bit by bit. She would have died too if not for me. She was mine, personal servant and concubine. She stayed with me in the tent and came with me on the marches during the war before our people followed us over the mountains. Before my wife and family came and I had to gave her up. I should have kept her and let them all go hang; Colly and the rest of them with their councils and orders of “no exceptions.“ I still see her, the bewilderment in her eyes when she found out, when they came for her the morning of the sixth Asta.

She never said a word in reproach though she was waiting for me to speak up, to save her. She stayed silent, her eyes looking sadly at me, first in hope, then in sorrow before she hid then within her long red hair. She was the fourth to go that morning and after she took her place in line never looked back at me. They rarely screamed or cried, not a sound, just a silent fall to death. I knew she wouldn’t cry but I did, afterwards. It had to be done, I suppose, though now, I don’t really know. Will the Celts do the same? The cliffs are still the same height and the sea won’t say no, even to my old bones.

The young men these days don’t know the Celts, not the way I do, not from up close in battle. I fought them on the other side, in Chamoux, in the forests and valleys, in the flower-filled green meadows. I was a young boy then with the others, and Colly too. He was big for his age, Colly, even at twelve, strong too, like a young bull. He became a chief before he was twenty-one, the youngest ever. He could lead us anywhere and we’d follow. A great fighter. He’s dead now; they’re all dead now.

Not many even near my age. Young Cormac would be the closest but he’ll never see it, too henpecked by that harridan of a wife. She’ll blacken him like a saucepan before she’ll go first. A terrible scold of a woman who won’t let him smoke indoors and he gets rheumatism if he stays long outside. He always was a sneaky little bugger, even as a kid, hanging back when we’d go marching past, me in my first year colours, proud as could be and all the other children running along behind and cheering. Not him, jealous little sneak. I suppose I was the only one who noticed, the others had more to be thinking about, war with the Celts, defending the frontiers, battles and skirmishing, advances and retreats.

That was the year of the Bridge when Colly was made youngest ever chief. A bloody fight that was, nearly saw the end of me before I’d a chance to get properly started.

We were camped alongside the river, resting after two days of retreat, two days of running with their skirmishers snapping like dogs at our heels. Just before dawn they came charging out of the forest, overwhelming the pickets, making towards the bridge where our sentries were patrolling. The suddenness of their attack took us by surprise. We were so tried. Fiercely through the resistance on the other side, they quickly gained the bridge. Colly grasped the situation at once and led the counter charge, shouting at us to ‘Follow on! Follow on!’

Without thinking we were running behind him, our feet pounding across the wooden bridge. And then we were into them. It was hot and heavy and dirty and bloody. God almighty I must have been mad, hacking and cursing in a berserk red mist. I lost all control of my self in the savage heat of it, yelling and cursing, cutting and hacking. I never fought like that before or since. We held them, fought them and threw them back to the opposite bank while behind us the others destroyed the bridge. There were twelve of us at the finish, shoulder to shoulder against an army. Only two of us made it back, Colly and me, swimming downstream for our lives, more dead than alive. The others died, cut to pieces. Me too, if Colly hadn’t picked me up and thrown me into the fast flowing river and held my head above water until we came ashore a long way downstream.

 So I know the Celts, up close, more than these know-it-alls. They think everyone’s like the Tuatha. Hah! The Tuatha were nothing compared to the Celts, as they’ll soon find out. There are Celts in the passes now I hear, attacking stations and the patrols. There’ll be more too before long, only this time there are no mountains behind us, no fastness into which we can escape. Now there are only the cliffs and the sea.

This sea, lovely and calm as it is now, green coloured except out there near the horizon where the clouds come down. It’s raining out there; grey slants of cloud joining sea and sky. That’s a storm brewing. God help the men on the boats tonight. I could never feel easy in them, poor fragile things made of skins and slats of wood, no more than cockleshells, good for close in fishing, but damn all use on the open sea. That’s all the young talk about now, going further and further out. They pretend it’s to do with catching fish but that’s nothing to do with it, they get little enough fish beyond the banks. It’s for Hy Brazil.

All the talk in the towns is about Hy Brazil, if it’s there at all. They say it is, a green country of lakes and woodlands like Chamoux, with milk and honey, beyond the horizon. Lots have tried and have never come back, drowned or safe, who can tell? Either way they’ve gone to Hy Brazil. There may be something in it after all, out there beyond the horizon in a cockleshell. Not for me, thanks. I’m too old to go about learning new tricks, never catch me in a cockleshell. I’ll wait out my time on these cliffs, even if the Celts are coming.

And if they do come, will I be tossed over the cliff too, the same as Driea? What simple justice that would be. Lovely Driea, I’ve been thinking of you a lot lately. Sitting here it’s inevitable I should remember you. They don’t want me in the councils any more so there is plenty of time for sitting and thinking. They reckon I’m too old, too cranky, always talking about the Celts. They could be right, of course. All the same, they don’t know the Celts like I do, from up close.

Spear and sword we were at the bridge and afterwards in the battle of the Valley Pass.

There were armies of them, golden-haired giants of men with loud voices and hard faces. I can still remember their banners fluttering on the hillside and their cheering and shouting and banging sword on shield, singing war songs and stamping their feet until we could almost feel the earth quiver beneath us. I was afraid then of the coming battle, waiting in the long silent line for it to begin. It was different from the time at the bridge, then I was in the thick of the fighting before I realised what was happening. But this was different, standing in line waiting, watching them across the valley.

We’d still have been standing there waiting for them to come at us if it hadn’t been for Colly, brave Colly. His whole life was lived for that moment. Hoisted up on a platform of shields in front of our ranks he faced us.

“Are you ready to fight?”

“Aye, we are,” came the answer

“Are you ready to fight like men of Bolig renowned for their valour?”

“Aye, we are,” back came the response.

“Are you ready to battle the Celt and fling him back from our hallowed ground?”

And again, “Aye.”

 He worked us up, good and proper, until we were rearing to go, pounding spear butts against our shields, drowning out the sound of the Celts. And then, “Charge!” We flew at them, running swiftly, trying to keep ranks, fired with a lust to get to blows. We met at the bottom of the valley like two waves colliding. I remember the noise mostly, the shouting and the screaming, cursing and bellowing, the crashing of weapons, shield against shield, sword against spear, battleaxe and armour, all melding into a great deafening din like the noise of huge flocks of ravens beating the sky with their wings.

Aye, that was a battle, the last of the big battles on the other side of the mountains. We won the field, drove them back, and captured their standards, even the Black Eagle, pursuing and hunting down the remnants of their fleeing army. We were the victors and the possessors of the field filled with dead and gore. Yes, we beat them sure enough but we were beaten too. We had lost too many dead and maimed, half the army and more were strewn among the trampled bodies and the moaning cries of the wounded. The cries of the lamenting women were louder than any battle cry heard that day.

The next morning Colly came to me and told me to find a way across the mountains. I’ll never forget his eyes. He knew we were beaten then, in spite of our victory, or possibly, because of it. We had to get the people across the mountains, he said. The fighting is over for us here. There must be a new land across the mountains. Poor Colly, it broke his heart to leave Chamoux. Afterwards he was a changed, embittered man.

It was all such a long time ago now, too long. The last sacrifice on the sixth Asta saw an end to it. That was ten years after we first came over the mountains. There were no soldiers left then, only old people and children and Driea. One at a time to the edge and over, to appease the Gods they said. Cruel superstitious fools.

You were never afraid, Driea, not of me, not of us, not of anything it seemed. The first day I saw you when we marched into your village you fought the soldiers, kicking and scratching like a wild thing, without making a sound. That was what drew my attention to you, this silent fury. Of course when I saw you and knew you, I had to save you from them. At first you treated me the same, as just another conqueror. You rarely spoke but something grew between us. Nights together with the tallow flame flickering reflections in your eyes, the wars forgotten, we would lie together as lovers, not as master and slave. Then you would speak softly, gentle words in a strange language, the cadences of all lovers.

I never loved another like you, not in that way, not my wife or any of the others, only you. But when the time came I didn’t stop them, couldn’t perhaps or didn’t try hard enough. It was small comfort that you were saved until nearer the end, no comfort at all. You went from that rock over there without a sound or a backward glance. You held my arm for a moment when they came but you were always proud and unafraid. I thought your fingers would break with the strength of the grip but when your turn came you let go easily enough.

But there was nothing I could do, nothing anyone could do to stop Colly and the others at that time. Mad they were, mad as jackdaws from too much blood, death and fear. They wanted the land for us, all of it without hindrance. You were part of the hindrance.

Wrong? Yes, of course it was wrong, and stupid and evil. All of that and much more.

The God of the Cliff, what rubbish! I wonder did they believe it, any of them truly believe it? They couldn’t accept what we were doing, clearing the Tuatha from the land without dressing it up in mumbo, jumbo. Asta! Rubbish! Colly knew all about it, a cruel, hard man by then with none of the young hero left. It had come to him in a dream, he said. The Gods needed sacrifices, he said. The Tuatha were unclean. He knew it all and if he didn’t then he does now.

Is it ten years ago today? It doesn’t seem that long, more like last week or yesterday. He came to see me, hobbling around like an ancient, a stranger. We were almost the last of the veterans, even then. We hadn’t seen one another in ages. We didn’t speak much, just sat here together staring out to sea. He had a far off look in his eyes. The old murderous rage had burnt out from them.

“What do you think, is there Hy Brazil?” he asked, but not as though he expected an answer. As if I would know. He’s the one who gets the dreams. He shuffled over to the rock of Asta, to stare out at the horizon. A peculiar place to stand for one so old and unsteady, with his back to me, on the same spot where Driea died.

He knew, I suppose, had always known about Driea and me, knew I’d sworn revenge. I got it, for all the good it does me. Now there’s only me and young Cormac left. All the others have gone, dead on both sides of the mountains, Colly with Driea at the bottom of the cliff.

The wind is getting colder now. Snow is falling on the lower slopes of the mountains. There’s a storm brewing out to sea, and the clouds are growing darker. The Celts are in the mountain passes.

And the cockleshells will never make it to Hy Brazil.

Back to The Climber