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Basia J Wolf

Writer

The Hungry Grass (an Irish ghost story, part 3)

This story was told to me in London by a very well respected Irish journalist and writer. There is a deep, desperate human tragedy behind it. What happened to those in the story could quite possibly be disregarded by skeptics, but the cause of the rise of stories like this, can never be denied. This is the story of the Féar Gorta, or the Hungry Grass.

The events occured in Cork, Ireland and happened to the journalist’s father Padraig, and uncle, Hugh. His father was a young lad and Hugh, his brother was heading off for the priesthood, as all eldest sons did in those days. It was their last weekend together and they went hunting for rabbits. After a successful afternoon, they were heading home when young Patrick spotted something moving in a thicket .

“One more!” he called to his elder brother, but Hugh shook his head and said “No Padraig, not in there, come on home now. There is nothing in there but hungry grass.”

Padraig, it would seem, did not either hear what his brother said or was not aware of the significance of his words. He went on ahead anyway. Inside the thicket, he looked for the animal that had made the rustling sound and as he did so, a pain gripped his abdomen, a pain so intense that he could not describe it without tears, not even when telling his grown up son, many years later. The pain was so sudden and so vicious, he fell to the ground, unable to move, unable to even make a sound. As an adult, Padraig could only describe the sensation as “living evisceration”. He passed out with the pain just as Hugh lifted him off the ground and carried him home.

The doctors could find nothing wrong with him. Within a few hours he was as right as rain. Hugh explained that where they had been was a place where hundreds of thousands of people had died of starvation. They lay where they fell, in a mass grave, to this day.

“What you felt, Padraig,” Hugh said, “was how it feels to starve to death.”

Padraig told the story only once, to his son. To him, so many decades later, it was as real as the hour it happened.

Between 1845 and 1852, over three million people disappeared from Ireland. Through death by starvation and through emigration to escape the horrors. Thousands more died on the coffin ships to America. An English landowner recorded in letters to England about arriving in Ireland to bring food to those living on his land and on stepping off the ship was confronted with dead bodies littering the countryside, the stench of rotten potatoes and corpses filling the air everywhere. The cash-crop grains that the British could have used to feed the starving were instead loaded onto ships and exported.

It was not really just a famine. It was genocide. As cold and as calculated as any other from history. Who is anyone to say the Hungry Grass is just a story?

FamineMemorial

The Irish Famine Memorial, Dublin

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The Day Everyone Heard The Banshee (Irish trilogy part 2)

The Irish love of a good yarn, one embued with equal amounts of mystery and magic (with a little fear thrown in for good measure), is a dying art. Anyone’s grandparents used to be able to send chills up and down your spine before bedtime with some tale or other they swore was the truth. This was a story my grandmother told us. She said it was in the newspapers of the day, and although there are indeed reports made in the papers about people hearing a banshee’s scream in the same area,  I can’t find this one. But no matter, everyone in the towns and villages where I grew up knew about this event and everyone knew about the banshee.

Let’s be clear: banshees do not cause harm, they are predictors of great tragedies, loss and death, but I suspect that if you ever had the (mis)fortune to hear one, you might be inclined to think otherwise.

It’s the late 1950s, early 1960s and it’s summer, high summer, not a cloud in the sky and the air is heavy with heat, it rests on the skin like warm silk. The noise you can hear is a children’s sports event, held in the beautiful gardens of a former stately home, once owned by a High Sheriff of Antrim, who had been knighted. The grounds hold a large lake, lush rose gardens, woods and paths for meandering, and on the day in question, it is full of happy, boisterous children and teenagers, as they compete for medals in a boy scout competition.

Around 3 o’clock, in the middle of the swim competition, an oppressive silence descended over the park, followed by a mist, a cold, swirling mist. The birds scattered into the sky.  People dragged their eyes away from the boys swimming in the lake to the mist that was gathering all over the water, wondering where it could have come from on such a perfect summer’s day, a day of uninterrupted blue skies and bright light.

And then it began. A skin crawling noise, a terrible, demented screaming, the like of which no one had ever heard before, wailing over and over, the sound of a soul in perpetual torment. Puzzled panic bloomed on people’s faces until the screaming ended, and it ended as suddenly as it had begun. The mist lifted, swirled away in the heat, the birds returned to song and a child lay drowned in the lake.

At once everyone knew what they had heard and they had all heard it, man, woman and child, believers and unbelievers.

Years later, in Belfast, reports were made one evening of a woman’s hair raising scream that split the air in half. A week later, Northern Ireland was officially engulfed in ‘The Troubles’.  In hindsight, people said, it had been an omen.

 

lakedixon

The supposed location of our story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Irish Trilogy – part 1 (or an Irish ghost story)

This story was told to me by my mother, and it is a true story –  it happened to a friend of hers.

Lizzie’s brother Bobby died suddenly.

Bobby was what everyone called the oil man. One day an oil tank he was filling exploded, killing him instantly. A few days later, he came to visit Lizzie.

She was in the kitchen, doing dishes. It was dark outside and deathly still. It was a new house, a new build, surrounded by fields and trees. The kitchen window faced onto the back garden but she could see nothing in the glare, just her own reflection, staring out. A loud rap at the window shocked her out of her thoughts. She thought it was maybe her husband come home and forgotten his front door key but as she stood there, there was another rap.

Lizzie fell to the floor, paralysed with fear. There was only one way around the house to the kitchen and it was a gravel path. She lay on the floor waiting, waiting until she heard footsteps crunch their way back around the house again, but no sound came. Nothing.

Her husband came home half an hour later and found her in the same position too shocked even to cry.

But Bobby wasn’t done. The next night, he came again, this time as Lizzie slept. She woke up to find him sitting on the bed beside her, in his oil man overalls, his face pale and sweaty.

“Lizzie,” he said, “Lizzie, I’m awful cold.”

Then he got off the bed and went out the door. The eiderdown on which he had been sitting regained its shape after his weight left it. Lizzie said she sat and stared at the space he had occupied for quite some time.

Sudden death, when you don’t even know it’s coming, they say, leaves so much unsaid. People still want to say their goodbyes, but it’s difficult to find a way. Bobby said goodbye after his funeral, in a phone call where he said “Lizzie” twice in ghostly static. When she spoke his name, the line went dead.

My mother said she had narrated Lizzie’s story to her own mother, a woman who grew up in a world steeped in myth and mythology. My grandmother knew Lizzie, knew her well enough to know she wasn’t prone to making up ghost stories, but instead of being as wide-eyed as my mother, she snorted and carried on doing whatever it was she had been doing.

Eventually she admonished, “Well, what did she expect, building her house over fairy trees?”

 

 

(Note: A Fairy Tree, in Irish mythology, is a hawthorn tree.  This is deadly serious stuff, a whole motorway was re-routed in Co.Clare to avoid destroying a Fairy Tree. )

fairy1

 

 

 

White Water Rafting

You can’t drown in frozen water. The only way to do that would be to hack at the ice and submerge yourself. But that’s very difficult and rather time consuming, it’s much easier to sit still and let the numbness take over. If you sat still long enough you’d get so numb that wouldn’t even know you’d frozen to death.

Grief is a predatory bird, sleek, black and oily, perched on the branch of a stripped tree. Only the eyes move, a reaper watching in thin crystalline winter light, waiting for a slight melting, an imperceptible yet discernably delicate cracking in the hard frozen shield upon which you have placed yourself and which surrounds you, you choose to believe, like holy light, guarding you from pain, tears, anger, longing, despair and all the other things a human heart suffers from in the clutches of grief. The raptor grips you by its talons and though you try to avert your eyes, knowing you should fight, it’s easier to play dead.

We have come to Gullfoss, a place that you loved with every heart beat, an assassinous waterfall in a chasm violently knifed into the heart of Iceland, frozen power suspended in time. My hands hold a box containing what used to be you, for it is here you wanted to be for eternity. You once told me that waterfalls are symbolic of life and all that that implies. Like waterfalls, life moves too fast. It’s dangerous, it’s unpredictable, there’s often no symmetry, but the magical part is that the river you see one minute isn’t the same river the next, it can never stagnate or grow tired or stop being dazzling. You said, everyone loves a waterfall, in spite of all the unknowns and the dangers, everyone is addicted, just look at it. But I can’t.

Wintry frozen Gullfoss is a thousand times more intense. The longer you watch water that is frozen in motion, frozen even as it falls from a great height, you begin to see that what is happening is the slowing down of time, the slowing down of the breath, the easing of a bereft soul. Frozen falls are the encapsulation of the seasons, the eternal turn of the Earth around the Sun, the endless cycle of birth, death, rebirth.

Sometimes in chaos there is calm. Life is like going over a waterfall in a life raft, a terrible leap into the void, adrenaline at full throttle. How else, you said, could anyone possibly live? Underneath that glassy beauty is a life-force waiting to return to this life, waiting to ooze out of its icy confines, drop by drop, drip by drip and there will come a day when the tree buds return, the lurking spectral grief will fly away and the numbness will melt into a hopeful spring. The life raft is ready for the thaw, and when the moment comes, I’m going over.

Did you do it?

What interests me as a writer is the cold slice of life, the against the odds, the grief, the pain, because it is in those moments, often kept hidden from the world by a façade of I’m-okay-look-I’m-smiling, that we discover who we are and just what we are capable of doing.

Leonard Cohen sang, “Everybody knows the fight was fixed.”

You know it, I know it. Everybody knows it. But do you remember when you realized that the fight was fixed and not in your favor? Because that’s the moment that defines you.

Here’s another one: Bobby Womack sang, “You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure…”

Put any human being up against the wall with no way out, down for the count, the deck stacked against them, let them know right there and then that there’s no easy exit first left, that the fight was fixed and that the House always wins.

You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure…

And some of us have a hell of a tester.

 

What did you do?

 

Don’t You Know That You’re Toxic?

This is the hardest piece I’ve ever had to write, but if it wasn’t for a man, I’d never be writing it. It started with the actor Terry Crews on Twitter, although in all actuality, it began with brave Rose McGowan outing Harvey Weinstein as Hollywood’s predator in chief. For those of you who don’t tweet, Terry wrote how he was sexually assaulted by an elite member of the Hollywood producers club, in public. The man called him the next day to apologize, but the damage was done. Terry Crews is no wimp, neither physically nor mentally. But he was sexually assaulted.

And the floodgates opened. They opened with a force of rage and hurt and anger, all over the world, all over social media. A million women, more. There isn’t a single woman on my Facebook friends list who hasn’t written #MeToo. Men got shocked, men got into denial, men got nasty, men got sisterly and supportive. Men get harassed and sexually assaulted too.

Rape culture and the toxic male centered society is alive and well. It allows men to make rape jokes and everyone laughs, even though rape victims might be in the same room; it allows men who would never rape to refer to women as bitches and whores; it allows male society to view women as nothing more than sperm receptacles; it allows men to be predators and women to be treated as liars if they try and take a stand against it. Ask any woman who has been in a courtroom while the defense lawyer holds up her underwear as if to say, you were wearing these, you deserved all you got. It allows young girls to be denied abortions and to take their own lives rather than go through pregnancy and life after rape. Who made this toxic society? You did. Who keeps it alive? You do.

If you are a man who has listened to another man denigrate women, tell inappropriate jokes, or behave in a sexist manner, you are contributing to the toxic male society. I wonder why men are so afraid or do not care enough to stand up to other men on this? Maybe someone will tell me.

It happened to me. An editor, my superior, walking me to a train station after a night out drinking in the way journalists do, with the whole team, pulled me into a dark alley beside the railway tracks, slammed me up the wall and shoved his fingers down my jeans and into my underwear. His strength and weight against me was something I will never forget. Yet, somehow, I managed to suffocate and erase what happened, something I learned to do a long time ago at the hands of my psychologically abusive mother. The sickening sensation I feel typing these words is physical. It hurts, physically. There is a massive painful knot in my throat and I can’t even get the tears out.

Like Terry Crews, I received a shower of apologies. The trouble is, this man told me all the time what a brilliant writer I was. After that incident, I doubted every word I wrote, and sometimes still do. That’s part of the legacy.

I feel guilty I never said anything. I feel guilty that now I’m saying something. That’s how it feels to be a victim of toxic society. Patriarchy hurts everyone, no one is immune. Men are silenced, women are silenced, children are silenced. But no more, it’s over, we will never be silenced again.

This piece cannot be finished without saying that I have been also nurtured by men that I’ve worked with. Good, honest men who only wanted me to succeed on my own merits and who would never have abused their power to abuse me. I have been nurtured by women that I’ve worked with. Good, honest women who haven’t been jealous of me and who wanted nothing more than for me to succeed. This is what toxic society hates. Solidarity between the sexes. In reality there is no us and them, there is us and we.

Somehow I managed to not let the monster choke me. Revenge is best served in the pages of the novel I’m writing. Thank you Rose and thank you Terry. Thank you everyone who stood up and said #MeToo, male and female. To those of you who are still choking on your silence, I’m holding your hand, whoever you are, wherever you are. You are not alone.

 

 

The Eternal Debt

The high Andes. I cannot go any higher without oxygen and crampons. Humahuaca, Purmamarca, the Salinas Grandes. We waver between 9,000 feet and 11,000. I have been reborn here, because here in the high sky of an intense cerulean blue, a corona wrapped around mountains that command you to worship their magnificence, is the reason that I came to Argentina in the first instance.

I was never a child.

There is a film, Veronico Cruz: The Internal Debt. Except for Argentinians, I do not know anyone who has seen it.  In one searing scene, a boy, a poor indigenous shepherd boy is running across the huge expanse of white salt flats high in the beautiful Andes. A scene and a child I fell in love with and longed to see, a little brown speck moving across the dazzling white sea bed, a sea bed on a mountain range thousands of feet in the thick, heavy, drugging air.

I am addicted.

The Internal Debt was a film that rocked Argentina. Based on the story Veronico Cruz and the poem, Yo Jamás Fui Niño (I Was Never A Child) by Indigenous musician and poet, Fortunato Ramos, it tells the story of an idealistic young school teacher in the dark days of General Galtieri’s dictatorship, sent to the Andes to teach poor indigenous children, one of whom is Veronico Cruz. Years later, the teacher returns to this other world of grinding poverty and hardship and finds that Veronico has joined the navy and is serving on the Belgrano.

Ah. The Belgrano.

In the South Atlantic, on a boat in the Beagle Channel, I met a man who had been on the Belgrano that fateful day. He painted a picture that sank me, of how he listened to 1,093 of his colleagues cry and drown in the dark. As he spoke, I stared down into the same black waters that took them and thought of Veronico Cruz. Galtieri enforced conscription in his drunken war with England over a set of islands and he sent for the cannon fodder, the boys of Humahuaca, Purmamarca and the Salinas Grandes. They had never even seen the sea, never mind the assassinous swell of the South Atlantic.

Gotcha, said the scum British press. I will never forgive them, parasites.

It was time, time to go to the high Andes and look for Veronico Cruz. I took a shared taxi to Humahuaca with Enrique, a local man I’d met in a tourist office. He swarmed everywhere, belly first, loud and knowledgeable, full of pride in San Salvador de Jujuy. I wanted to visit the Quebrada, the Andes of Humahuaca. His car was a land yacht, a geriatric American Chevy. Get in, he said. The car also contained a woman and her daughter, a daughter with mental problems who yanked on my hair for an hour until I gave her a crumbling, wax paper wrapped cookie from the bottom of my bag. If truth be told, I did not expect what happened in Humahuaca to happen.

Call it serendipity.

The Catholic church, the authorities, all tried to quell the indigenous spirit but they never managed it. Not entirely. They could not rob the people of their music, nor their dead in their sky palaces, nor their love of the sky and the earth, the Pacha Mama. A band struck up during lunch, (Enrique had acquired a table right in front of them), a group of local men, with pipes, charangos and drums and one with an accordion. An accordion, of all things.

Go, said Enrique, talk to him. 

The musician was selling CDs of his music and some thin poetry books. He was humble and polite. And words fell from my mouth that I had no intention of ever saying.

Call it serendipity.

I came here, I said, because of the Internal Debt, because of Veronico Cruz. And he smiled and said, “I am Fortunato Ramos, I wrote Veronico Cruz.”

Six thousand miles, ten thousand kilometres, years of dreaming. The reason I had come and breathed in thin air was telling me he was the one who was honored that I, a writer from Ireland, felt all of this enough to come to the Bolivian border. Could he please, please give me one of his poetry books, it would be an honor, he said.

I let the kid pull my hair the whole way back.

Argentina (and the world entire) owes a huge internal debt to its indigenous people. I have an eternal one, but I don’t know who I owe for that.

Love?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Belfast Child Sings Again

I’m afraid to say that I’ve been afraid half my life. I have PTSD. To be honest, admitting this publicly is quite embarrassing because so many of “us” do and so many of “us” have done what I’ve done, smother the fear down and let it choke us. Some have let it cause cancer in their hearts and minds and bodies, because that’s what it does, that lingering spectre, it poisons. We have let it turn our hearts black and we wear our negativity as a shield. No light escapes, nothing can get in. This is how we lived and how many still do.

I escaped. At the age of 18, I stood in a sunny room of a London university and saw light. It streamed over the Thames and bounced off the buildings in my line of vision – The City skyscrapers, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster – and it glowed. It was my salvation, my freedom. This is what I believed.

But no matter where I was or where I went, I had to locate the fire exit and sit as close to it as possible. I cracked jokes about going into the pub through the door and coming out through the wall. We all did, black humour kept us from thinking too much. I was instantly suspicious when I met other people from “back home” and they asked for my surname or what school I went to, what part of Belfast did I come from. I ran from them, heart thumping, blood on fire and choked down all the emotions with spliffs and booze and really bad behaviour at music industry parties.

The PTSD confronted me, many years later, in a head on collision in the unassuming, gentle idyll of the Somerset countryside. Rounding a corner into a quaint English village in my friend’s car, after a carefree day at Lyme Regis and its now famous The Cobb (from the French Lieutenant’s Woman), I was confronted with a sea, an ocean, of red, white and blue. There was bunting everywhere. Kerbs were painted in red, white and blue blocks. Union Jacks hung from every window, streamers festooned streetlamps and pub signs. To this day, I still find it difficult to summon up the word that describes how I felt. Terror doesn’t even come close. I recall gripping the dashboard and almost vomiting in relief when my friend said, “Oh, I forgot, it’s the Queen’s jubilee!” or some other valid reason why this little corner was done up in Union flags and that we hadn’t just innocently driven into the wrong side of town at the wrong time.

Later, much later – long after I’d stuffed those emotions down the well of fear and chained them into submission – it dawned on me that my reaction was a form of PTSD. So was randomly remembering a spate of car bombings and hiding, hiding, the cowardly schoolgirl that I was, in my bedroom, the farthest room in the house from the driveway, where I would wait, terrified, for my father (a mere businessman) to start his car. If someone had planted a bomb under it, he was going to take the blast without me. I never, ever confessed this to him. Or to anyone. I weep at the thought of it all. It is also a form of PTSD to randomly remember that I know how a bomb blast sounds, I know how the air changes in those nanoseconds that follow. I know too much.

I know that when you go to bars and pubs, you hug the fire doors and watch everyone like a hawk. I can spot suspicious behaviour like I’ve been trained by the FBI but I’ve just learned to read the signs in people in an instant.

There is more. There is always more. This side, that side, them and us, tarring and feathering, punishment beatings, Black & Deckering knee caps, disappearances, murders, bombings, shootings, being stared at down the barrel of a British paratrooper’s rifle; finding out from whispering teachers while sitting exams that someone I knew had been killed in a bomb blast; negotiating metal security barriers like we were in some post-apocalyptic movie, bags and clothing searched by soldiers before they’d let you in to buy some make up or a new pair of shoes. This, all of this, was a daily normality.

But there was nothing normal about it. It was a war zone. Forget ‘The Troubles’, that misnomer invented to make it sound not-so-serious. It was a war zone where almost 4,000 people died and we were the original walking dead. Some still are, their battle scars run deeper than mine.

Some like to think they escaped. Some of us have let the emotions bubble up to the surface and we have embraced them, singing hello darkness my old friend. And there are cracks in the defences and some of us, some of us have even let the light back in. The Belfast Child might be singing again, but she won’t return.

 

 

And hell followed with him

Once upon a time in a land not so far away, a land where evil reigned, a soldier of a foreign army tried to intimidate a girl in a car by staring at her down the barrel of his semi-automatic rifle. There was no reason for him to do this, except to be obviously threatening. The girl held the soldier’s stare – she was determined not to show fear – for what seemed like a day and a night until the jeep in which he was travelling turned off up another street.

That girl was me.

I never told anyone about this until many years later. Anything could have happened, people exclaimed in righteous anger. What if the jeep had jolted and the rifle had gone off? They had so many questions and I had no answers. What if, I suggested, he’d just wanted to fire his gun, maybe shoot someone? No, they said, no way.  If you think that would never, could never happen, you should ask Majella, she knows all about it.

Majella was another girl, just an ordinary girl like me, from the same land where evil reigned. We did not know one another and we could never have known one another, for many reasons, but the truth is time and space separated us. I don’t know what it was but something tied me to Majella and tied me forever, because years later I’m still thinking of her.

Take a walk with me, Majella, down the country road to the church. It’s Sunday, it’s hot and there are glorious white blue August skies. The countryside is dreaming in peaceful greens and blues and yellows. The pollen is high, the air heavy with wheat. Look, watch the heat shimmer on the road ahead, beckoning, leading the dance.

Majella’s in the middle, she leans back a little to wave to her father who’s working in the churchyard. He waves back at us and we start humming, what’s the name of that song that’s Number One? None of us can remember, but Majella sings it anyway and we laugh cause she’s out of tune.

Light travels at high velocity; in half a heartbeat it hits Majella hard in the back and blooms out her front, rose red. While the two bullets are mushrooming in her,  the sound splits the air around us in half. Majella’s father hurdles the fence and cradles her, there on the blistering tarmac. The summer air shrouds us in oppression.

Bleeding, dying, the blood runs out of her Sunday dress and the birds stop singing. She is 12 years old.

It could have been me, Majella, but instead it was you.

 

 

Majella O’Hare was shot and killed by a British paratrooper in Co.Armagh, Northern Ireland in August 1976. The soldier claimed he had seen an IRA sniper but witnesses told a different story. At his trial, Majella’s mother asked him why he had shot her daughter and he just shrugged. He was found not guilty by a judge who always ruled in the Army’s favor. The judge was subsequently murdered by the IRA. The O’Hare family received an apology from the British Government in 2011 in which they amended the paratrooper’s testimony saying his version of events was “unlikely”.

‘No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…’  Sir Terry Pratchett

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