Later we will picture U-boat torpedoes skeeting water,
shattering a ship’s keel, rupturing its hull.
And imagine him flipped into the air, flopped
backwards, explosions splashing the various distances—
shards of hissing metal, limbs of men, bales,
boxes, bags and barrels enough to tide Noah’s ark
over the deluge. And dream of fishes
weaving in and out of his wounds, slick as needles
threading stitches through mounds
of cloth draped across our nanas’ thighs. In games
and quiet reflections he will live on, he will move
again—the dead soldier, ocean currents
spinning him towards us by trouser cuff or coat lapel,
sousing his ear, braiding seaweed in his hair.
But the day he arrives, nudging against the rocks,
all we are able to do is shrink to the reticence
our parents and neighbours wear as a way of life,
the set notions of dignity they expect
from us. He floats, so much a sodden garment
we are unsure at first whether there is a body or not.
A fisherman’s hands gather him up
where we stoop, short-trousered, splay-toed. The sea
relinquishes its grip in surly rivulets emptying.
His face, sky-lit but dull, gives him away.
His uniform, once remarked on, seems no longer
to fit him. An Englishman—the grizzled heads nod—
he must be Protestant, so. Their words
perturb us out of our welling pity. No name found,
no place to send him home to, measures
taken for a decent burial, a graveyard of his own
beyond the shoulder of our Catholic cemetery.
War thunders elsewhere. Echoes reach us, ‘dispatches’
from either side neutrally reported, and he,
a casualty spat by the long-drawn Battle of the Atlantic,
is considered part of the necessary detriment.
But if strafings we suffer seem slight by comparison,
storm and tidal swell still cut us off; we feel
the pang of infant deaths, of kinfolk exiled, of famine
remembered around smoky turf fires,
or forebears grieved as we stare at lazy-bed
residues of old potato ridges skeletally stretched.
Wonders happen regardless, nature
requiring only itself. Birds sing the rinsed air and light,
spiders’ webs glisten on the spars of gates,
tadpoles tickle the ribs of streamlets and loughs.
But what the soldier might give to see a rainbow
spanning the cove, or a school of basking sharks
swimming nose-to-tail just offshore,
or sunlight shimmering a waterlogged ‘fulacht fiadh’,
has faded with him. As for arguing the world
or its wear, or whether the heather painting the hills
is red or purple, orange or green,
we doubt such matters would cost him a thought
if he could live his life over. One house
owns a wireless, and with the ‘big people’ gathered
to hear far-off, bellicose, defiant voices,
we climb the forbidden graveyard wall, embed spikes
of foxglove, ‘dead man’s fingers’, where
we tread, supposing the soldier’s feet, supposing
his head. And climb again when we are older:
courting couples wanting privacy, wanting to feel
our bodies eased away; find ourselves
led—after we bundle and kiss—to recollect him sunken
in the clay-covered dark, to imagine a love
of his own and how maybe she waits, still waits,
the war ten years ended. Ten years, ten more,
the grist of decades anchors and layers us. The wall
stands, and beyond it other walls, each
a front for something—peace, prayer, commemoration,
even the notion that the dead, if permitted
to mingle, might twist, as the living do, old grievance
into fresh feud. He lingers, almost a fiction,
yet niggling us until we must clear the ‘buttermilk’ moss
that smothers his bed. Hold a ceremony,
someone says, find and invite his relatives, but first
knock down the dividing wall. Our shoes bruise
the damp, hillside grass. Politicians and military men extol
the soldier’s sacrifice. An orphan, we hear, born
in Wales; kind, helpful, quick with a joke.
And—the speaker smiles, clears his throat—a Catholic.