No sleep so refreshing to one whose devotions are obligatory as the Sunday morning sleep, or so it seemed to me when I was obliged to join the group of early communicants treading their shivering way to the village church while the mist still hung in layers above the sodden earth: the schoolmistress, two elderly sisters who lived half-a-mile from the church, that Protestant constable who was slated for duty during the more reasonable hours of Divine service, pale redhaired Miss Fegan, the sexton and redbearded Mike McLean who, because his still-born baby had a tumor on its head, tried to kill Doctor O'Regan.
Although my father always wakened me before he creaked downstairs to cut Saturday's loaf into wafers and then squelched down the footpath that wound through the meadow to the church, my flesh often proved as unwilling as my spirit was weak.
And why had I not been at early communion? he would ask when he got back, while I rolled over in bed, eyerubbing. And in the most surprised tone I could assume I would inquire the time. Once he remarked that if it had been cubhunting instead of the Holy Communion, I would be up and dressed in the dark. He warned that the next Sunday morning I slept it out I would find myself ringing the bell for 11 o'clock service, and that would teach me.
The next Sunday I was up and out before he was, for I had no wish to ring the bell for eleven o'clock service with all the parish, including Bertie Biddulph and Doris Drought, looking on. But the following Sunday I slept it out again, and by 11:30 was pulling on the wire loop attached to the church bellrope. And I was pulling it to the beat of one—two—three, one—two—three, one—two—three, and then nine, which was the way they rang the bell in the Catholic chapel. And that was enough to let loose all the hell in the hearts of the Kinnetty Protestants and give Mezzim a belly-laugh. Half the congregation were on the point of quitting the parish and driving to a rival parish four miles away.
"The next thing you know," cried Miss Cricket Manifold, waving her umbrella, "our rector will be putting a cross on the communion table!"
"Or inviting the parish priest to preach!" said her cousin.
"Idolaters he'll be trying to make of us next, he will!"
"And that son of his, you never clap eyes on but what there's a priest or a papist with him."
"Plays tennis of a Sunday, I understand," said Mrs. Allen, "and with those O'Mearas in Birr—shopkeepers and Roman Catholics."
"Been let run wild, that boy, since his mother died," said Mrs. McGill.
"And running around with that little fairhaired girl who works in Rafter's grocery shop. I often wonder what they're up to when they go off in the woods together," said Mrs. Drought. "A fine upbringing. That boy will come to no good!"
An ominous air have those circular treegirt mounds called raths, which are supposed to have served our remote ancestors as forts. One of these raths overlooked our village, not a very big one. A path through the eighth century graveyard led to it. This rath differed from other raths, for within the belt of twisted trees, a pyramid raised its triangular peak above the branches. Pyramids call for a desertic setting, with skies that break blue from the flush of dawn and stay blue till the flush of sunset, and for the accessory camel or sphinx. The cramped circle of a rath cramps their style, which requires the ensemble to be taken in at a glance. No Egyptian handiwork, this pyramid, against whose humid base, moss and toadstools replaced the encroaching sands, and whose iron door gave forth an eerie hollow sound when you struck it, which I always did three times when I visited this vault, raised in the year 1872 A.D. by Her Britannic Majesty's Lieutenant for the King's County, Colonel Barnard, over the casket containing his dead hand. The mortmain legend says that the colonel, having received a gunshot wound in the left hand, insisted on doctoring it himself. When gangrene set in he realized that only amputation of the putrifying member could save the rest of him. Anaesthetics were unknown in Tipperary in those days, so the colonel blue-penciled a bracelet around his wrist for the local sawbones, and held out his arm.
"Saw away," he ordered.
But the colonel's repertoire did not include a knowledge of anatomy. His blue line circled the wrist an inch above the joint.
"An inch lower, Colonel," said Sawbones.
"Do as you're told, damn your eyes!" shouted the colonel.
And Sawbones did.
Ten years later the colonel visited the vault he had built above this sawed-off hand. Already mosscovered the sides of the pyramid, already rusty the iron door. When the colonel, his agent John Ashton, and the grave digger got it unlocked and unbolted the colonel went straight to the casket where his dead hand lay and fumbled at the hasp with his living one.
"Damnme if I can open it," he exclaimed. "You try your luck, John, you have two sets of fingers to my one."
And then as he looked, between him and his dead hand a mist floated, and the colonel, who had smoked so calmly while they sawed it off, keeled over quietly....
"It was the shock, Colonel," said Sawbones. "Twotyping error in original. much for your nerves."
"Nerves be damned. I had a stroke!" cried the colonel.
"No," said Sawbones, "if it had been a stroke—" but before he had finished the colonel's remaining hand had him by the throat.
"A stroke I tell you, you mountebank!"
When Sawbones got his breath and was out of earshot, he said to John Ashton (who passed the story on to me fifty years later):
"He's wrong again, John, but thank God this time!"
And all this is apropos of the pyramid, for it became for me a kind of fetiche, and the rath the scene of rites which, in spite of me, I would find myself performing. At the most inconvenient times I would be impelled against my will to push my way through the undergrowth that choked the path leading to the tomb. Once there, I would walk three times around it and knock seven times on the door, or walk seven times around it and knock three times on the door. And I was always afraid the door might open and the dead hand emerge to drag me by the throat into the tomb—which I dreamed once. Even after these rites were consummated it took me a long time to get out of the rath. Certain twisted trees had to be touched, and I could never leave in a straight line, always in a zig-zag. Once I thought I heard more than the echo after I had struck the door the fifth time, and ran away. But I had to come back for the two remaining knocks for I was afraid of offending the hand. To keep my courage up and prevent my hearing anything inside the tomb, I sang at the top of my voice the words of Mr. Steede's solo in the anthem:
Seek ye The Lord where He may-ay be found....
But in time I outgrew these practices, which continued for nearly a year after my mother's death. Though I still touched wood to avert an omen, or a drinking glass that had clinked against another, that the drowning sailor might be saved.