The Drowning

A short story

The row from his usual fishing spot to the shoreline edge of the path was longer than he was used to. After pulling his boat onto the rocks, he walked up and down the path several times, first making sure no one was near, and then beginning to scan the thick woods for any sign of the body. The killing had been in the dark, he assumed, so perhaps the instructions were confused. The day had become brilliantly crisp, and he couldn't see anything human amid the play of shadows and light. Alphonsus stepped off the path and walked broad circles, searching, pulling up the hem of the cassock so he wouldn't get muddy. He kept his eye on the path, too, in case someone came. He wouldn't have an answer if asked what he was doing.

After an hour he sat. He unfolded his sandwich from its greased paper and ate, thinking. He had, in his estimation, covered nearly every possible spot where a body might be. He wondered if this was a hoax. He was too exhausted and tense to fish, and the winds beyond the woods seemed to be picking up. Had he been fishing, he might have been in dangerous waters. He wished he didn't have to return to the village, to the confessional. Bad things were to happen, and he had no idea how to stop them. If he didn't find the body, someone else would: the absence of this constable would eventually become known. Though some constables deserted, slipping away to the north or across to Britain, Alphonsus reasoned that only proof of a desertion would curb the Black and Tans' impulse for destruction.

His calling was powerful, but an unwillingness to absolve the man in the confessional was stronger, a mixture of revenge and principle he couldn't shake free of. He didn't know if that man had been an O'Neal, but he was certain the man was like the O'Neals, someone embittered with his lot and perhaps too willing to blame everything on the British. But he had to absolve, to heed his vows. When his sandwich was gone, he walked down to the lough and drank at water's edge from cupped hands. Back up the path, but now not as far from shore, he plunged into the woods, again searching.

The body was half hidden with wet leaves, the accumulation on the windward side like dunes overtaking a pyramid. Alphonsus knelt, put his hand on the shoulder, and gently rolled the man on his back.

"Hello, Thomas," Alphonsus said.

He hadn't considered the possibility that he would know the deceased. The body was that of Thomas Shanahan, a royal constable stationed at the RIC barracks on the other side of the lough. Thomas had from time to time come to mass at Alphonsus's church. Alphonsus had made a point of welcoming him, for he believed that all were equal in the eyes of God. Thomas was also a fisherman, and after mass they had often talked of their favorite spots. Thomas's face was clean, his clothes neatly straight. He wasn't in uniform but in thick wool trousers and shirt, as if off duty. Alphonsus turned him again, and now saw the crust of hardened blood on the back of his head. As he removed his oils and stole from his fishing kit, Alphonsus scanned the trees, ready to become prone should he hear footsteps.

Thomas was middle-aged, a bachelor who, Alphonsus sensed, was as private a person as he. Thomas lived in the RIC barracks, but in his conversations with Alphonsus never spoke of any of his mates. But of course one couldn't, in the same way that Alphonsus understood he would hear no mention of the Black and Tans and their tactics. Alphonsus, as he daubed the oils upon the cold face, assumed that Thomas had deplored all this, and Alphonsus didn't care to know different.

When he finished the last rites, Alphonsus sat for some time on a rock, looking at the body. How had Thomas come here? Had he been ambushed fishing? No rod or kit lay nearby, but those might have been spoils for the killer. He could go on speculating, but he couldn't avoid what he now planned to do. From his own bag Alphonsus extracted his trowel, the best he had been able to manage without being noticed. He walked in a circle around Thomas, looking for the softest and highest ground, and then knelt and began digging.

This act, he knew, transformed him. He had no business doing this. The dirt did not give way as easily as he'd imagined; he'd felt, coming out in the boat, that he could be back at the rectory by dusk. But the soil was choked with rocks. Hours into it, he stood back and looked at the pitiful rut he'd clawed out, and he laughed in despair.

"Tommy," he said to the body, "I damned well don't know what to do with you. This just isn't Christian, is it?" Tommy, on his side, stared out onto the lough.

Alphonsus peered up through the trees, not able to shed the sense that he was being watched. He had the feeling that the killer might come back, to see that the body was still there. The IRA wanted the body to be found, surely, so that a bloody raid by the Tans was inevitable. The killing of a fellow Irishman like Tommy would create doubt and ambivalence unless it was followed by the necessary retribution by the Brits. Was he being used in this? Did someone expect that Alphonsus himself was going to report the death? Or would the killer return, having thought things over, to put Tommy in a more conspicuous place?

His plan had been to bury Tommy, but Alphonsus now saw that he wasn't capable of finishing the job. The hole was barely two feet deep. Alphonsus recalled his grandfather's stories of the Famine, of skeletal men burying cloth-shrouded friends as packs of starving dogs gathered at the periphery, yelping with hunger and bloodlust, set to dig as soon as the living moved on.

"Forgive me, Tommy, but I can barely move now," Alphonsus said. "I thought my gardening had made me fit enough to undertake this."

A wind was picking up on the lough, making the water choppy and whitecapped. The row back would be dangerous if he didn't go soon. He felt a rising panic. He would have to drop Tommy into the deep waters-he saw this. He'd not be back until well after dark, but his midnight confession awaited. He'd have to be there or the killer would certainly have suspicions.

Down by the water he searched for a way to weight the body. Rocks were all around, but no means of attachment. His fishing kit could be loaded with them, but the top was loose and the ballast might fall out as the package sank. Alphonsus saw one way to do what he needed to do. Standing above the body, he removed his cassock, and then pulled off Thomas's pants and shirt.

Getting the cassock onto the body was easy. Thomas was a bigger man than he, but the cassock was loose. Alphonsus adjusted the braces of Thomas's pants and rolled up the pants and shirt cuffs so that he was clothed for the stealthy trip back to the rectory. In a pocket was a purse with Thomas's papers and a sizable bit of money. Alphonsus was surprised that this hadn't been taken.

The boat rode low on the water with two men in it, the dead one loaded down with stones, the live one weighted by the terror of being caught. Alphonsus had used his fishing line to bind the bottom of the cassock around Thomas's ankles to hold the rocks; the collar was snug at the neck. The last trace of sunlight was nearly gone. Alphonsus stroked hard against the winds, slicing out toward the rough middle of the lough.

He was a sinner now-he could see that. He would dump a dead man into the cold waters as if he were a load of garbage, would grant penance to a murderer. He would return to his rectory, slip past Mrs. Toole so that she wouldn't notice his inexplicable change of clothing, and spend the rest of his life trying to live with this. And all he wanted was for no one to be hurt. So be it. If this body somehow resurfaced or washed to shore, with a cracked skull and wrapped in a cassock, so be it. Or if the Tans correctly interpreted Tommy Shanahan' s disappearance and overran Fenagh anyway, so be it. "So be it, Tom," Alphonsus said. "A week will pass and you won't turn up, and they'll know, they'll know."

He stopped rowing. The moon shone through a break in the clouds, giving definition to the far edges of the lough. To say a prayer at a moment like this seemed crude and sacrilegious, desperate and artificial. But he prayed now anyway, prayed for guidance.

Nothing came to him. He felt that matters were on an inevitable course and he could do nothing but send Tommy to the bottom and then go home. "Do as we must do," he said to the body.

He grabbed the shoulders of the cassock. He crouched in the boat, the balance becoming uncertain, and then he lurched and Tom hit the gunwale. The boat was listing. Water was pouring in. He had imagined a noiseless letting-go of the body, but now Alphonsus was in a fight, and in his panic he wasn't sure whether he was trying to shove the body away or pull it back on board. But neither was happening and now he was underwater, the coldness and dark shockingly sudden. He looked up and could see only a single blurred spot of weak light. He wanted to reach for it, that moon in the sky over on the other side of the surface. His hands were still clenched to the bunched fabric of his own cassock, now weighted with death, and he let go of it, and the solid block that was Thomas grazed his leg and ankle and then was gone.

Alphonsus had been hanging on to the side of the overturned boat for some minutes when he decided that he would not return to Fenagh. That he would survive was not a given; the water was cold enough and his arms were tired enough from the digging that he felt almost nothing, except for the dull pain of the thick muscles along his neck. But he clung on, the wind and waves rocking him in crests and swells, until he was desperate enough to push away from the boat and swim for shore.

His thought, as he crawled out of the water on his hands and knees, was of his hat, his black biretta, floating like an ornate ship far out of reach, its black pompon now a keel. He had seen it from the boat, puffed by the wind and etched by moonlight, unwilling to sink with the cassock. The boat, too, would be found, far off on the lough, known by those fishermen who knew him.

In the woods he undressed, squeezed water from his clothing. He considered trying to light a fire. Naked in the cold air, he plunged into the water again to clean himself, and then dressed in the wet woolen shirt and trousers. His black brogans squished loudly when he walked, but he was moving quickly. In no time he was well up the path and along the rutted highway toward Dublin. By dawn he would find a ride in a chicken lorry, and by that evening he would use Tommy Shanahan's wet money to get a room over a public house by the docks. Three days later, his clothes dry and black stubble making his face lose its delicacy of appearance, he would bribe a dock worker to get him into the steerage of the first ship leaving Ireland. The dock worker would ask, "Why are you going?" The answer would be this: that the stowaway was a royal constable from near Fenagh, that he was running away, and that he hoped no one would find out. And when these words were out, the dock worker's face would be twisted with revulsion and the story of his flight would be common knowledge in Fenagh in a few days' time.

My father, telling this story thirty-two years later in a wheelchair in the rest home where he would die, told me that this is how he came to be a man born in middle age, with a name picked from a city directory. He told me he felt the need to unburden himself, that my mother never knew, and that he was for that reason glad she had preceded him into death. He said this without a hint of expectation that I would say anything to console him, and I didn't. I couldn't. I was in my twenties then, leaning over the man who had hit me so hard and so frequently that I had gone to bed many nights wishing to be someone else, a different child. I should have said something. But I stared at him until a nurse came to us and said he needed to eat.

A few years ago I went to Ireland, for the simple reason that I am a devout Boston College football fan and that year they played a game in Dublin against West Point. I boarded an Aer Lingus 747 packed with alumni, and we sang drinking songs high over the Atlantic. Only on the day after the football game did I think to rent a car and take a drive. Asking in Dublin, I found no one who'd heard of Fenagh, but I set out toward Lough Ree, and on its eastern shore I got directions to the town. There I parked, and walked the length of its primary streets, and stood for a while in front of St. Enda's Church, without going in. At a small shop I talked to the keeper, a man older than I, and he told me he had a niece in Boston he sometimes went to visit. I told him I'd had a relative here, a Father Alphonsus.

"Of course," he said. "I've seen the plaque." He pointed me down the road toward a knoll overlooking the water. There, behind some overgrown brambles, I found an engraved plate, the size of an envelope maybe, mounted on a rock.

"Father Alphonsus Kelly, RIP. Drowned November 5, 1920." I stood on the knoll and looked at the harsh waters where this man had lost his life and become someone else. He was a man who became old and could not aspire to the better part of himself he believed he had squandered-who had come to find, I think, that in his exile he couldn't bring himself to try to be like Alphonsus, who indeed was a specter that floated over all our lives. Standing at the edge of the lough, I said a prayer for my father. I petitioned that he might be delivered from a purgatory of which I had been part.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In