He had been in the room no more than a moment—not even that, Art Cahill said later, his foot was hardly in the door—when we heard the bullet hit him. Perhaps it was not heard so much as felt, and perhaps what we felt was the messenger’s astonishment, the sudden wheezing puff as if he had hurried here breathless to impart news of his own death. And I saw what brought the bullet, the cigarette mid-suck on his lips and how it fell like burning blood. He sighed then not the sigh of a man but an animal of strange aspect and who knows what sounds we make when we stare into our own end. I looked for the shape of my gun beside me and put my fingers in my ears. And strange how the moment opened then—I remember being glad I was not a smoker, an unexpected thought, for I had dabbled before with cigarettes, and I was aware suddenly of the weight of my empty bandolier, could hear Art Cahill trying to breathe quietly as if that could make a difference. And still in that moment I could hear the bullet’s afterclap diminish in the street below and yet how it still echoed at some impossible level of hearing. And perhaps you can hear it still if you listen, that clapping that is the applause that heralds death and who wants to hear death and its welcome?
The messenger seemed to go willingly to the floor no different than a man going to his bed. He sounded as if he were making himself comfortable. I checked about myself for some unfelt injury. The dying man gasped and fell silent. Art Cahill said, keep quiet. I did not know who he was talking to. I looked towards the dying man but could see little in that dark but for his boot meeting with the dark around it so that what was divisible of the man and night was becoming hard to tell. I became certain I saw the boot wriggle and perhaps that wriggle was the reflex of dying. I must have lifted my head, for Art Cahill said, keep your head down. We knew we were pinned by a sniper. For a moment I tried to imagine what such a sniper would look like, a face greased dark no doubt and a single eye asquint on our position. And the night’s calm about such a man who has in all attitude become the frightening truth of the hunter. And yet this same man surely shared the same thoughts I had, how each man asks himself, how did I get here and what now of this?
Night had become the city. We had watched hours ago the gas lamps flutter and vanish. There was fighting still though it was intermittent, almost forlorn, and it reached our position like a rumour of the day we had been a part of, a detail of some future conversation. Sometimes you could hear their machine- gun fire as a lone and faraway fellow laughs at some afterthought. What to do now? I wondered. The struggling hours in this storeroom above some printer’s shop. The smell of kerosene faint above the sootdamp and the must of old cardboard and mould on the walls. We were out of ammunition and awaiting word. The dispatch had died with the messenger. Of a sudden, the messenger groaned and we watched him resurrect into a sitting-up position. I thought you were dead, I whispered. It was Art Cahill answered. I’m not touched at all. I’m not talking to you, I said, I’m talking to that fellow. I looked again in the dying man’s direction. Who are you? I said. I don’t know who he is, Art Cahill answered again, he just came in, he was shot as he was coming in, I only heard the door, they went and shot the messenger.
The dying man whispered and I could not catch his accent. He said, I do not want to die like this, it is not what I expected. I yearned to see the dying man better but thought about the sniper fixed on our position. Then Art Cahill leaned towards the dying man and said, I honestly thought you were dead. By any chance do you have the message?
Of a sudden the dead man roared, you stupid ass. And he rose to his feet and I saw his fists. How he began then to rage about the room, finding within him some last moment of strength. He kicked his heels at the walls and pulled into riot the quiet of stacked boxes. Smashed them to the floor. Smashed a chair on top of them. It was a wonder he wasn’t shot again. The way he let loose from his mouth unheard-of curses like some djinn imprecating the dark to his bidding and then his breath left him. He stood staring at us and I could not see his eyes. With great slowness he lay himself back down upon the floor and it was then Art Cahill began towards him with matchflame. The carrier of last light held in the hands of the last carrier, I thought, and such are the strange things you think of. I could see the dying man was in civilian attire. Art Cahill said, tell me lad, who are you? What was the message? And I said, be careful with that matchlight or you’ll pull another bullet in on us. Art Cahill blew out the match and in the flame’s abatement I saw enough of the dying man’s face and thought, pity the youth in it. Saw the blooming roseate of blood on his lapel. The dying man’s cigarette still aglow on the floor and Art Cahill picked it up and took a long pull from it, put it to sit on the dying man’s lips. Art Cahill said, who are you then, just so’s we can tell your people? The dying man lay in an increasing quiet. The cigarette burned itself out. For sure, he had stopped breathing. We knew then he had met his death. I blessed myself. Art Cahill blessed himself too, I think, and I listened respectfully because a person’s passing is an exchange of sorts that brings into the world a silence.
I thought again of the sniper as the accomplice of such silence. I was glad again I was not a smoker. I told myself not to raise my head but I did and took a look outside. Keep your head down, Art Cahill said. There was nothing to see of the street. Everything was tight with the same dark and I never felt more alive. I could guess the sniper’s position, a factory building across the way with countless faceless windows. And I saw how the night had knit the building and the dark together so that it was not a building of this city but a building of some endless hell and hell is not what you were told but is a place where nothing speaks to your wishes. I drew with my eyes the shape of each window. I might have beheld the sniper and I might not and he might have beheld me, who is to know. I remember thinking you could find yourself fixed with certainty at one window only to find death from another.
Without a single word uttered we debated what to do, whether or not to disobey command and abandon our position. Finally, Art Cahill said, I wonder what his message was. I said, I wonder what his name was, terrible for a man to have to die with other fellows not knowing him, though he died a hero all the same. And Art Cahill said, they’ll know for sure who he is tomorrow. I found myself climbing into the dead man’s mind and his memories opened at the touch. Strange how such a thing happens and yet I could see images of a life, a young man taking tea and toast in a frosty room and I could sense his disappointments and desires, saw sunlight caught in a greasy window, was certain I could see a young man searching for his socks of a morning and I could smell his unwashed feet. And such a thought might have been an intrusion for suddenly the dead man roared out. Jesus fuck! What am I going to do now? He began to sit up again and I could feel him looking at us. This is not the way that I wanted it, he said. I had plans, didn’t I? And what about my children?
Then, impossibly, he was up again on his feet, raging with what was left of his body, raging with what was left of his will. He pulled at the air and smashed what he could find. And Art lit a match and we saw his bleeding was profuse, that his blood raged out of him and covered his chest. I put my fingers in my ears. Then he became quiet and stood over us. Art Cahill asked him about his children and the dying man said, you ass, I don’t have any children. And Art Cahill lit another match as if to evidence light upon the meaning of such words and it was then the dying man spat at us.
I pretended to myself none of this happened. It is a strange indignity to be spat at by the dying. A man on your own side. A man you could hear lying down a moment later to stare into his own end. The thought that a dying man can take with him nothing of such an act and yet I would be left to nurse the grievance. The man laughing in unreachable silence. Slowly, slowly, the dying man stopped breathing. And I became glad. I thought of all the men across the city who will have met their death gladly and with dignity, but not this fellow. I wished him dead for in death you cannot be anything other than what the living make of you and tomorrow we would report the incident and have him conferred a hero. His name would be spoken with reverence at hearthsides. People might even hang pictures of him. And I wished him dead because the truth is he had become an inconvenience. His indignation had become an indignity in itself. I listened for a long time to the night’s silence until the dying man’s silence was held in that quiet and I blessed myself again. Art Cahill cupped another match and we could see the dead man’s body. How many times can a man die in one night I do not know but there are better ways to die. For sure I had wished him dead and now that he was dead I thought perhaps it was regrettable I had wished it. Art Cahill leaned towards me and whispered, if he gets up and roars like that one more time I’m going to kill him.
The hour before dawn is the loneliest hour. I thought again of the sniper and imagined his life, met details I could not know, all that a man hides in the privacy of his mind and yet I was certain of a few facts, that he too was growing weary in this lonely hour and that his elbows were sore and scuffed and that he dreamed of his family, that he dreamed of breakfast, a boiled egg and a kidney perhaps, that he dreamed of something to belong to. And that these facts belonged to him I have no doubt for he was as true to me then as I was to myself. And sometimes you can see it, how all men are the one kind, and it was then Art Cahill interrupted. He said, he never said who he was. Who? I said, for my thoughts were with the sniper. The dead man, he said. And at that, the dead man groaned. Sweet Jesus, Art Cahill said. Perhaps it was the dead man’s ghost that rose again because a man with that sort of wound has no life left in him. And yet how he climbed slowly to his feet and how he raged again though he had lost all his strength. He staggered with his arms out like a drunkard. His roars had become whispers. Finally he stopped and stood to the wall like some fellow soon to become his own mural. And Art Cahill lit another match and pulled him out of the shadows. You could see how he stood holy in his blood. Art Cahill said to him, now that you are up, you never told us the message. And the dying man did not answer. Finally, he whispered, I could have had a life. Wouldn’t that have been something? And then I said, but only out of politeness, because you want a man to meet his death feeling he has contributed somewhat to things, so I told him, haven’t you done your duty? Won’t your people be proud? And he roared out, what fucking use is all that to me? What can I do with it? And he sat down then and bowed his head and was silent for some time, and there are no words to give a man in such a moment. Finally he spoke. And when he spoke it was to answer an ancient question, perhaps the oldest of questions and it was the oldest of answers, the giving of a name for the last time. He said, my name is James O’Malley—but all my friends and family, they’ve always called me Jim. He spoke it twice. Jim. And then he died. And in the silence that opened I understood the man’s rage but did not want to think of it, and I thought about the closing of a man’s mind like that, all that private thought and feeling, all that yearning and sorrow, all that makes a man, and I saw it as the closing of an entire world and how does one world hold dominion over another? Outside came rising the dim light of yet another morning. And I began then to understand and then I didn’t.