The Black Stag.
Our barn loft had swallows every spring, but
I liked to go to Madden’s to watch the pigeons.
My father warned us. ‘ ’Tis not lucky to have
them old pigeons dirtying ‘bout the place.’
I followed the moss path to Mickey Madden’s.
He lived alone and had no family. He always
talked to himself and his little dog Spot.
I saw him on his overgrown grassy street.
He looked at the rusted tractor and
the old Ramford reaper decaying into ruins.
As he snapped his gallouses he gazed ahead.
I asked him. ‘Who owns the new house by Murphy’s?’
‘Son, son. I don’t know. It wasn’t there yesterday.’
His kitchen concrete floor was covered
with ash branches and foggy turf.
He opened a tin of beans
and put them at the fire’s edge.
His Bibby’s livestock calendar showed the
exact dates when cows were to calve.
No new life here and ancient yellowing receipts
hung on rusty nails in the long black rafter beams.
Then he went to the pantry door for milk
and I saw in the distance that picture:
that I have remembered tearfully.
That antlered black stag
standing alone in the frozen snow.
When I was thirteen
My father said.
I needs you to do a wee job.
I had questions. What? Why? When?
He gave his Biblical answer.
Come and follow me.
I held a scouring calf
and gave it a drench.
When he castrated young pigs
I held the geniton violet bottle.
I sprinted with white bullocks to Kilrea fair and
I herded sheep at the lambing, clipping and dipping.
Broke elder sticks along moss paths
to bring cows home from Knockers farm in Mayogall.
Moved calves from Drumghlessa to the Rock.
Steered a roaring heifer to Houston’s bull at Dunglady.
Where are we going? How long will be gone?
I was listening to Saturday Sport on the BBC wireless.
We walk beside the dunghill and past the pig cro.
Cross by the army hit to the highest hill in Drummuck.
I take barbed wire, a pitch- fork and a sledge hammer.
He has sheet of zinc, bill hook , binder twine and nails.
Here only the shake of the head, gestures and pointing.
and then some guldering and roaring of orders.
Holes and gaps everywhere in the hawthorn hedges
and tufts of wool show escape routes for sheep and lambs.
He slashed blackthorn bushes. I took the grape and
forked the branches into spaces in the ditches and slaps.
We made a gate with the zinc and hammered the post
and tied everything together with binder twine.
My father was thirteen when his father died. Both of
them denied the chance to bush gaps and fix slaps.
At thirteen my son knew all about gaps and slaps but
then he was talking about mouthpieces on his trumpet.
When I was a baby people noticed my small fingers and
said I would never have the big hands of a farmer.
Once Maggie Mooney saw at the gap in my front teeth
and said I would be a traveler far away from the hills.
Distance widened space between us all. But now as I
grow older all of these gaps diminish and are no more.
When I was young
men never cried
but once my father did.
For many years
we rented land from Maxwells
our Protestant neighbors
who lived in Carrickduff.
We mowed grass seed
and cut corn, pulled flax
We grazed bullocks to
fattened them for markets
in Limavady or Ballymena
In summer we hauled water there
in a tin bucket for the thirsty calves
My father would drive
his Ford 8 car over the narrow lane
to check and count the herd.
I always remember that day.
but I wasn’t allowed to go
to see what happened.
I saw the Royal Ulster Constabulary
man talking to my father.
Seven big red Hereford bullocks
lay dead in the middle of the field.
It didn’t take much forensic or
detective work to show what happened.
Several recently broken yew tree branches
littered a corner of the field.
Growing yew trees never bother cattle but are
poisonous if cut down. If that was not enough
here was big sign nailed to the front gate
“Fenians Go Home.”
Was this a clue that George Robert Simpson
our one and only Somme veteran
was up to his tricks?. He
lamented no conscription for folks
like my father then would
have to be drafted.
Simpson fought for King and country.
But my father didn’t.
Old red faced Sergeant Paddon
from the Hilltown Police station
looked at my father.
‘You know and I know who poisoned
your herd but try and prove it
in this country now would be more bother than it
would be worth to you’
Then we slowly and silent walked
three bullocks homeward