You can blame the government for all of this. For me lying awake here half the night, kneading my pillow. For the loss of my best milker. For the endless clicking. Oh Christ, it never stops. Maybe there’s something wrong with my ears. Mary can’t hear it. Says she can’t. But if I was seeing something, clear as day in front of me, you wouldn’t suggest there was something wrong with my eyes, would you?
The government interferes. A man should be free to manage his own stock. If I want to butcher a few pigs, a few animals I raised myself, I shouldn’t have to apply for a license, or cart them into town for McMahon to take his fat cut of my labours. I certainly shouldn’t have to pay for a government man to come here and look over my shoulder. Some stranger for whom I have to unbolt gates. And offer him tea afterwards, probably. After paying him to come. Just so he can stamp a form after telling me I’m doing things properly. Jobs I’ve been doing since I could hold a sledge. That’s the government. They’d watch you tying your shoelaces with a pen in their hand.
So that’s what I’ve been doing. For years, now. Managing my own. I know how to kill a pig, I know how to do it nicely, cleanly. I know how to use a sledgehammer. Butchering’s the easy part. What gave me the little bit of trouble is dealing with the bones and innards. Can’t sell them without paperwork. Haven’t the machinery to mill them for fertiliser. Can’t burn them without drawing attention to the yard. You can’t light a fire these days without Mr. Government asking you what it’s for.
This makes it sound like a great problem to be solved, but the first year I barely gave it a thought. It’s only lately that I’ve been wondering what I might have done differently. The first year I simply drove over to the quarry and slopped it all into the lake. Food for the fishes, I thought then.
The quarry’s been over the road since before I was born. A great bowl of cut granite with sheer walls a hundred and fifty feet high. You can bring your van right inside, still, and as you do the echo takes over, nearly louder than the engine that caused it. Without the motor running the place is very peaceful. You can whoop and it comes back clear as if your double was shouting at you from the other side. In the centre of the clearing is a black lake with no visible feed. There must be moving groundwater, though, because it always seems fresh enough. Thousands of pinkeens everywhere you look. In past years, at least. It covers a good half acre, three quarters of the quarry floor. Deep enough to drown in, right from the water’s edge. Not like a natural lake. You can stand on the huge, flat rocks that border it and see the water drop down into blackness beneath you. No way to tell how deep it is. Deep enough to swallow the long sticks I’ve put down there. There’s enough space around the lake to skirt the whole thing on foot. I often used to walk round there with the dogs, before the place started giving me the willies. A copse of birch trees grow in the corner.
So the first year, after finishing the job. I put the whole mess on a tarp in the back of the van and drove it over. Backed right up to the edge and just dragged the remains of four pigs into the water with a digging fork. The majority of it sank slowly out of sight. A lot of bits of fat remained floating, and the pinkeens went straight for it. By the time I looked again the next evening it was all gone. Wasn’t it well for all those fishes?
I can’t rightly remember if I noticed the crayfish that first autumn. Maybe it was the second. Little red lobsters delicately walking the crevices of the rocks. How did they even get in there? I don’t think there were crayfish when I was a boy. I swam in the lake through many summers, though my mother warned me off it. I never noticed crayfish at the time. ‘You could eat those,’ Mary said to me when I described the creatures. ‘They eat those in Spain.’ I watched them dance over the submerged rocks. Their eyes are little black balls on sticks. Staring endlessly. I didn’t want to touch them.
Mary is shifting in the bed beside me. Maybe the clicking is finally waking her up. I don’t want to have to keep asking her about it. The first time was the worst, me standing in the kitchen asking her if she could hear noises, like some lunatic off the telly. She was slicing cabbage, and she stopped and just looked at me. The knife paused in her hand.
A few more autumns went by after the first, and a few more pigs. Sometimes two, sometimes three. The lake never suffered. Seemed in better health than ever, judging by the number of pinkeens. The deep freezer was full all winter. Mary salted ham in the basement. We gave some to friends at Christmas.
We don’t own a lot of books, but I like the ones we have. I sit by the hearth with a small bottle and open something on my knees, once I’m finished with the paper. My favourite is the Guinness Book of Records. I must have a dozen years. It’s the old ones I like best, though. The ones my father bought. The new ones are too shiny. They’re full of awful junk altogether. “Most people dressed as a clown in one place.” What’s that supposed to mean? The oldest one I have, from ’67, it’s more serious. More like an encyclopedia. Oldest man, tallest woman. Real measurements. The black and white pictures feel more honest than all the bright photos in today’s version. They should have stuck with the basics.
Did you know that nobody knows how long lobsters can live? Nobody knows how big they can grow, either. They moult their shell every year, bursting out larger than before. There’s a picture in the book of the biggest one ever found. It’s mounted on a wall in some museum, with a normal lobster next to it for scale. Like a monster, it is. Ten times the size. Could take your arm off. I often think about that lobster. Lying in the dark, cold ocean for fifty years. My whole life. They don’t age like people do. It could have lived down there forever if we hadn’t gone looking for it.
I found Clancey’s sons swimming in the hole one day, but I didn’t say anything about anything. What’s the harm in a few old pig bones? I’d drink that water myself. It was late evening, I was taking a walk after milking. Nearly dark at nine o’ clock. That’s how you know summer’s ending. One of the dogs stood at the edge of the black lake and barked and barked at the two of them splashing. ‘It’s deep!’ was all I shouted. ‘I hope ye can mind yourselves.’ They upped and waved, and I stood waiting until they came out of the water. As they were drying I showed the younger lad a fat crayfish at the edge of the shore. He didn’t like that at all. Went pale as a ghost. ‘It’s only a little lobster,’ I said. He pulled back, drawing his towel around him like a cape.
It was the third autumn, I suppose, when I first noticed movement in the water. I had climbed down from the van after pushing the pile of leftovers over the edge, and stood at the lip of the lake, watching it disappear into the murk. The gristle sinking slowly out of sight. I once took four bamboo rods out of my father’s barn—now mine—and lashed them together. Twenty-five foot, maybe. I couldn’t feel the bottom. The bones dropped away into the black and something moved beneath them. Something shifted in the darkness. A curved shape. A huge shape. Was it red? Green? It was then I noticed the pinkeens were all gone.
Maybe it’s the fridge downstairs? When the noise first began in late summer, I originally thought it was coming from the gas boiler in the outhouse. Took it half to pieces and put it back together again before giving up. But I know it’s not the boiler. It’s not the fridge. Mary can’t hear it but it’s not Mary it’s calling to.
It’s my fault, of course. I’ve thought of going over to Clancey, who technically owns the land. Not that he has any real use for it. Mary told me to leave him be. There’s some sort of trouble in the family. A sick son. I don’t know them well enough to enquire. What would I say, anyway? ‘There’s a huge crayfish in your lake, and I’ve been feeding him?’ They’d lock me up. I can see Mary’s face. Her cautious concern. Waiting ’til I went down the yard to call the doctor.
Just a little few bones. Nothing more. No trouble to anyone. I don’t deserve this.
Click. Click. I could walk down there now, in the dark. Does it rise to the surface at night? Would I see it, finally? Why won’t it stop calling me? I nearly went mad that first month. I feel better now. Resigned to it. Something has to be done, but I don’t yet know what. Sleep is the main thing. I amn’t sleeping.
It all made sense in the late evening. I’d had a drink with my tea. I stood in the yard listening to the clicking, looking at the pigsty, which had almost dried over the warm summer. All that is left is a ragged circle of churned earth with a little puddle in the centre. I raised no pigs this year. Thought I could get free of the whole thing. Mary kept wondering why. I raised no pigs. But now it’s angry. It’s hungry. That’s why I led the cow down there.
I was going to take a calf, but then I thought better of it. How long would a calf last it? Better to bring a real meal. I can spare a cow. We’re not hard up. I walked her down there and drove her to the edge of the water. She didn’t mind the quarry at all. Not a bother on her. The sun had sunk well below the high walls around us, and the lake was utterly still. You couldn’t see a ripple until the cow’s nose dipped for a drink. I gave her one barrel to the head, and the echo off it nearly blew my eardrums. But still I heard the loose spatter of blood on the water. She swayed dead on her feet, and I put my shoulder to hers and toppled her into the lake. I didn’t wait to see if she’d sink. I just walked back to the house with the dog and went straight to bed.
No noises for almost two days. I thought I was free. I fairly danced Mary ‘round the kitchen. Slept like a baby. Made promises for next year. I’d raise ten pigs, it could have them all. I’d never leave it hungry again. We’d signed a contract. A monstrous contract. It’d stay where it was and I could stay where I was. Nothing had to change. It didn’t last, of course. I’d misunderstood, or it had. We had no understanding. How could we? The noises started again. More demanding. More urgent. It wants food. It wants what’s mine. All of it. I should have invited the government man. I’d have given him a five course dinner.
Does it click its mouth? Its claws? I picked a tiny crayfish out of the lake, held it to my ear. It curled into itself. The cold water ran down my arm and under my shirt. I could hear nothing.
Sometimes the noises seem to mean something. An order suddenly appears. Like morse I no longer have to decode. It flows straight into me. These are the only moments in which I truly believe I might be crazy. The words I hear are garbled. The name of the parish. My herd number. Boys from my school. Parts of engines, parts of animals. I hear the names of Clancey’s sons. I hear Mary’s name. It is repeated, over and over.
The clock in the hall chimes four times. The sun will come up in a few hours, but the noises won’t stop. It’s been two weeks since I offered the cow. Should I try another one? I lie in bed, almost forgetting my troubles as my brain moves through memories old and new. Mary turns over, patting me on the arm in her half-sleep. Some part of her knows I’m awake. It seems impossible that she would not be able to hear the noise if I woke her now. It is a clear, sharp repetition in the room. It does not seem to come from the quarry, like a gunshot over the hills. It’s right here with me. But I know where it comes from. The lake. Stone walls disappearing into the darkness. Through the air or through the ground it reaches me, ceaseless and demanding. My wife’s name, clear as a bell. Three times. Clear as a bell, but not in English. Mary. Mary. Mary. I’ll wake her. She won’t mind. I’ll ask her again if she can hear it. We’ll go down to the quarry for a look. Mary always has an answer. Mary will solve this. She’ll be able to hear the clicking once we get to the quarry. We’ll look into the water together, and see what we can see. It will be alright. I’ll bring the gun. Mary will solve this. Nothing has to change.