Hollow-bellied Jack

by Tom Conoboy
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Jack is a farmer, an Irish poet who has never written a poem. His farm, little more than a few fields with a house and a byre, is down a track that no-one walks but Jack. It is a ghost road, some say, a bridge between the us and the them, and Jack, in the middle, is neither one nor the other. He is a poet with hands the size of spades, hands which have never held a pen.

He hears the birds sing in the wet trees and it reminds him of his mother, of his father, of the house they shared so many years before; of fires and woodsmoke, of songs and stories, Crookback Jack, Jack’s lamentation, The seven travels and seven troubles of Red-haired Jack; and the old man cries, he cries tears of crystalised salt, he shakes his head and kicks the soil he can never relax under, not even when his time has gone.

Once, sixty years and more before, he saw a deer, a white deer, female, standing across the river watching him. “Come to me,” the deer said.

“I cannot swim,” the young Jack replied.

“And I cannot speak, but you hear me.”

Jack nodded and pulled off his boots and his trousers and shirt, and plunged into the cold of the River Fearne. The current was strong but so was he and they battled, the water and the man, and gradually the man prevailed, beat the current, made the bank. The white deer’s black eyes watched him.

“Summer is nearly over,” she said. “And your harvest is poor.”

“It is, aye. Too much rain and scant sun.”

“You won’t survive the winter, perhaps.”

“It’s possible, that’s true.”

“I can help you,”

“You can?”

And the deer settled on her side, kicking her legs. Her teats were heavy. “Drink,” she said. “And if you drink this milk you’ll never grow hungry again.”

Jack hadn’t eaten for sixteen hours and his stomach was calling for food. He got to his knees and bent towards the white deer, smelling her odour, the animal power of her scent. He took a teat and started to suckle, and her warm liquid filled his stomach. He suckled and suckled, transfixed by the taste in his mouth, like nothing he had ever known. It was sweet and strong, musky, and the feel of it sliding down his throat, viscous and warm, almost alive, was a sensual, almost sexual pleasure.

“Enough,” the white deer said.

“No,” Jack replied, “more.”

But the white deer got to her feet. She looked sleek, she looked younger, like an animal in the prime of her life. Her eyes shone. She bucked her head and ran off into the forest. Jack felt a loneliness that was as wide as the world and as cold as the moon.

The young Jack went home, his stomach full, his soul empty. He sought his parents, shouted to them from the yard but, instead of his mother, an old hag appeared at the door to the cottage.

“Who are you?” said Jack.

“What do you mean?” said the hag.

“Where is my mother? Where is my father?”

“What’s up with you Jack?” said a voice from behind and Jack turned to find a wizened old man, bent double and feeble, holding an axe like it was the weight of gold.

Jack looked at his parents, for he knew they were they, the hag and the wizened old man. “What have I done?” he said. “What have I done?”

They came towards him, the husks of his parents, arms outstretched. “I love you, mother,” he said and kissed her and she turned into a deer and ran, frightened, slack-legged for the woods. “Father,” he said, “I don’t know what I’ve done.”

“But do you love me, my son?”

“I do,” he said and kissed his father and his father turned into a stag. He pawed the ground, lowered his head and bellowed. The young man caressed his father’s antlers and animal and man both had tears in their eyes. The stag bellowed again and turned and ran to the woods.

For sixty years, Jack the farmer, the poet who speaks no words, has dinnered each day on a blade of grass. His stomach, bloated still from the milk of the white deer, can accommodate no more. On his farm he grows no crops. He grows grasses and heathers, a steady turn of saplings, replaced each year before they can mature. He watches as his flock of deer grows, year by year, his brothers and sisters, and wonders how ever he can feed them all. The weight of his work bears down on him heavier each year.

In the distance, every night, he hears the calm, deep bellow of a faraway deer. It may be the white deer, it may be his mother or father. Jack, the poet, sings in his head a paean to each, in the hope that one of them might one day come back.

One Response to “Hollow-bellied Jack”

  1. Douglas Bruton says:

    I liked this… quite an ache caught here… A recogniseable story, full of the enchantment of Thomas the Rhymer… I also liked some of the writing.

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