Tuesday 19 March 2024

The Two Dead Men

A short story by

Garry Kilworth

‘There are several stories about encounters with the two dead men, but this one involved a friend of mine, so I can repeat the tale with at least some sort of veracity. One thing is certain, if you do happen to see a pair of hunched figures in a lonely place arguing hotly, especially at night, do not stop. They will be nebulous forms at first, perhaps sitting on tree stumps on the edge of a woodland or standing on a peat hag deep in a moor, somewhere you should not be when the darkness is like thick black dust, the clouds are obscuring the moon and there is a vague smell of iniquity rising like brume from the ground. 

If you are foolish enough to go closer you will see that one of them has a cleft skull, the murky-yellow brains visible in the narrow crack: the other a sideways tilt to the head caused by a neck that has been snapped by the hangman’s noose. A cursing and swearing comes out of their mouths in a harsh stream of vindictive accusations. They are each blaming the other for their circumstances. There is ferocity in their voices, but any threats are empty, since as I have said, they are already dead men. They are but two sacks of bones and rotting flesh. Still they insist, as they will until time comes to an end, that they are each to be pitied for their dreadful state and that the other is responsible.

My friend, I will withhold his name for the moment, was crossing what is termed as a blanket bog in the Knockmealdown Mountains between County Waterford and County Tipperary. He was alone. The moon, such as it was that night, was swimming between dark clouds like a fish between clumps of reeds. He was not lost, but he was taking a dangerous path over unfamiliar ground. There was a light in the far distance, a window cut in the shape of a cross, which was an illuminated wayfarer’s guide. So long as he kept this beacon in line with his trek, he would eventually arrive at the hamlet of Kilcraggy. 

There was a heavy mist hanging low over the bog and he needed to tread carefully to avoid any pools of deep sludge where a man might drown in the sucking mud with none to hear his cries. He had just pulled his coat close around him for the night’s atmosphere was damp and miasmic, when he heard two men arguing hotly with one another. It would have been wise to have circumnavigated the area, and he would have done, except that he heard the names ‘Euripides’ and ‘Aristophanes’ in amongst the curses that were growled and spat into the darkness. That someone should be out in the middle of a bog quarrelling about two ancient Greek playwrights naturally intrigued my friend and he foolishly but determinedly kept to the path he was on. Shortly after, he was to curse the fact that he was a scholar first and a wise man second.

As he approached the combatants a cold mountain stream trickled down the hollow of his spine. He saw that one of them had a skull cleft so deeply there was a channel running through his head. The other man looked unharmed at first sight, but then my friend noticed that the fellow’s head was at an odd angle and it flopped back and forth when the argument became heated.

‘Yes,’ snarled Cleft Skull, ‘they put the plays of each on weighing scales and Euripides works were the heavier. Therefore, his were, in a literary sense, the deeper and more serious of the works.’

‘Ha,’ retorted his opponent. ‘The only reason Euripides’ plays tipped the balance was because he’d soaked them in water before the weighing. He cheated. Aristophanes on the other hand . . .’ Broken Neck came to a halt there and stared through the mist at my friend, who was now quaking with fear. 

Being Irish my friend knew he had come upon a scene that was to be dreaded. Here were the two dead men that he had heard about. Neither of the pair had any chance of leaving the earth for some ethereal place. They were both doomed to spend eternity in each other’s company, quarrelling about a multitude of subjects to save what shreds of sanity remained between them. 

Cleft Skull now also turned, to see what was so interesting on this dank moorland where he found himself still battling with the man who had murdered him and had rightly been hung for his terrible crime.

My friend might have taken to his heels and run away, but he was in a quagmire, which stuck to and sucked at his boots. He believed he would not have made five paces in such a panic before he fell flat on his face. The situation was desperate and in the back of his mind he realised the only way he was going to get away alive was to talk his way out of it. He made a supreme effort to get his faculties in order and to calm his racing heart. Any sign of weakness or fear about him and the dead men would be on him tearing his limbs and head off, searching for the prize they believed they needed to escape from purgatory. There was no logic to their thinking. A live man stood before them, probably an honest, God-fearing man. He had what they wanted.

‘Well now,’ said my friend, stepping forward, smiling, his hands open in greeting, ‘what would you two gentlemen be doing, quarrelling over Greek literature on a foul night like this? Euripides and Aristophanes? Why, you haven’t even considered Aeschylus or Sophocles yet! Now, Aristophanes, wasn’t he just a comic? The Frogs and all that? How could you call a play with a title like that, serious? And Euripides. Didn’t Dionysus call him merely clever, while saying that Aeschylus was to be admired for his wisdom. But I don’t want to interfere or upset either of you two gentlemen, so I’ll just be on my way to that church in the distance. You see the fiery cross? That’s where my feet are taking me, so I’ll bid you good night and be on my way.’

Cleft Skull said, ‘He wants us to look at the wayfarers’ cross, which he knows will blind us for a while and send us to our knees in prayer.’

‘Yes indeed,’ replied Broken Neck, ‘he believes us to be fools.’

They stared at him through pitted eyes, sneers on their faces.

‘How could I think two learned gentlemen like yourselves to be fools? Why, to be sure I believe you must be rival professors of Ancient Greek history, or perhaps your area of expertise is literature, about which you seem remarkably informed . . .’

‘Shut it,’ snapped Broken Neck. ‘You know who we are.’

‘There was a professor in the wrong place just one week gone,’ said Cleft Skull. ‘He passed on his learning to us. We sucked the knowledge out of his brains.’

‘Shared it, fifty-fifty,’ added his murderer. ‘We share everything.’

My friend did not falter with his bonhomie. This was a life-or-death situation and he could not afford show weakness.

‘Ha! Ha! That’s wonderful indeed. It probably took the old fellah half a lifetime to gain that learning and you swallowed it down in a few minutes. Sin iontach.

Broken Neck started forward. ‘What’s that? If it’s a prayer, you are a dead man, like us.’

‘No, no – it just means “that’s wonderful”. Erse, you know.’

‘What kind of language is that, eh?’ snapped Cleft Skull.

‘Well, you are in Ireland, so I thought you’d understand. So, you’re tourists? There are better places to be than in an Irish bog, sirs. You’d be better down in County Cork’s Kilworth Hills, or up at Antrim’s Giant’s Causeway. Those are prime tourist spots. Would you like me to lead you out this quagmire and on the road to more pleasant surroundings? Lough Neagh or the Shannon estuary? Galway Bay? There’s a beautiful piece of Ireland for you.’

The ugly pair ignored this speech entirely.

Broken Neck said, ‘If there’s so much as a hint of “Our Father” comes out of that mouth you are dead man.’

‘Oh, I’m not one for praying, sir. I don’t believe in all that stuff. A pack of old fairy tales, if you ask me. Life after death? I think not.’

‘You’re quite right,’ came back Cleft Skull, ‘what there is – and we are proof of that – is death after death.’ Now he raised his voice. ‘I am here because of him. He struck me with an axe . . .’

‘For betraying me! And I hung for it.’

They started shouting above the wind.

‘Your fault, you bag of festering bones!’

‘Your fault, you rotten sack of shit!’

There was snarling and spitting, shrieking and squealing, hands flailing, eyes rolling as the two dead men faced each other and bellowed curses and threats, each accusing the other of being responsible for their terrible fate.

My friend crept away, into the darkness, his eyes fixed on the wayfarers’ cross, hoping against hope that he would not be missed for a good while. It was forlorn. The two dead men ceased their argument immediately and came after him. One of them took him by the lapels of his coat. The other by the elbows. One in front the other behind him. The stink of their rotting flesh made him gag and he cried out into the night in terror as they shook him back and forth until his teeth chattered. 

This only encouraged his two assailants. 

Cleft Skull pointed over his shoulder in the direction of the distant cross. ‘You’ll never get there,’ he croaked into my friend’s face. ‘Not with your soul inside you. We are going to wrench it out of you, one way or another.’

‘Wait. I told you. I’m atheist. I don’t believe in all that claptrap about eternal life. I have no soul. You’d be looking for what isn’t there.’

‘I say we kill him and pull him apart. Then, if there’s nothing there, what have we lost? Not a thing,’ growled Broken Neck. ‘I’m told the soul is buried in a man’s heart. Let’s tear it out of his chest and then share it between us.’

My friend gathered all his reserves of moral strength.

‘Even if there was something in here. A spirit perhaps, the essence of my being, my psyche? It can’t be shared. It’s not a loaf a bread. It’s invisible and indivisible. You’d have to agree who should have it – or fight over it until one of you is nothing more than scattered limbs and bones on the marish.’

They ceased pulling him about and considered his words, then Broken Neck said, ‘You see what he’s trying to do? Set us against each other while he makes his escape. He’s expecting us to knock each other to bits while off he goes, tripping across the bog to the holy cross and safety. Well it won’t work, will it? We won’t fall for such a deceit. As soon as we turn our violence on each other, we’re finished. You agree?’

‘I do. I do.’ replied Cleft Skull. ‘This is a clever fish we’ve caught here, tonight and I’m going to gut him like a mackerel. Now, let’s crack his rib bones and rip out his heart. Later we can argue who gets to keep the prize.’

‘Wait,’ cried my friend, ‘I thought when I heard you arguing about Greek playwrights that you were intelligent men. I see how wrong I was. You think a man’s soul is lodged in his heart? How wrong can you be? You need an empty space for a thing like a soul. There’s nothing but valves, veins and arteries in a person’s heart. The rest is blood. You’ll find nothing but flaps and tubes and blood in there, I can assure you.’

Broken Neck stared at him with sockets where the putrid eyeballs were squirming with threadlike worms.

‘The lungs!’ he said.

My friend shook his head. ‘Full of alveoli sacs.’

Cleft Skull cried, ‘The stomach then. That’s where it is. Let’s tear open his belly and wrench out his stomach . . .’

‘If you do that,’ laughed my friend, albeit a little hysterically, ‘you’ll kill me. I will be dead. And of course, once I’m dying, the soul will fly from my body and join the angels in heaven. It’ll be gone in a flash. The angels will have it and you will not. You’ll be thwarted in your plan to escape one another.’

‘Maybe we’ll be quicker than you think?’ said Broken Neck. ‘See how swiftly we moved when you tried to get away?’

‘Even so, even if there’s something there, it’ll be a stolen soul. You’re hoping, one of you, to use it as a passport to the land of glory. It’ll not get you past the gate, my friends. There is One up there who’s omniscient. You can’t disguise the fact that one of you is a murderer and the other a traitor. I myself am an apostate. My soul, if it exists, is useless to you . . .’

‘I’ve had enough,’ snarled Cleft Skull, ‘hold him down.’

Broken Neck took my friend by the shoulders and forced him down onto the dank peat. With his left hand Cleft Skull grabbed my friend’s jaws and squeezed them hard until they opened wide. The dead man then plunged his right fist into the terrified traveller’s mouth and reached down into his throat, twisting and turning the foul appendage. The bony arm naturally followed, using its decayed flesh as a lubricant, down, down, deep down. There the skeletal hand scrabbled around like a large crab seeking food. Eventually it appeared to grip something which it then wrenched out of my friend’s body. Cleft Skull took it aside to study it in the moonlight. 

Broken Neck immediately released his prisoner and hurried to his murderer’s side, asking to be shown the prize. There they began whispering in vicious, threatening voices, making demands. Each saying he deserved the prize, each querulous, carping, testing with the other. They were like two children fighting over a toy, their voices alternately whining and savage.

My friend managed to get to his feet and he staggered away, weaving through the peat hags, desperate to get to the lighted cross.’

I ordered another whiskey from the bar and then turned and shook my head. ‘That’s an incredible story,’ I said to the stranger who had just engaged me in conversation. ‘I’m not saying I don’t believe you, mind. I’m just saying it’s a little hard to swallow. I’m familiar with the myth, or if you prefer the legend, of the two dead men - and I’ve met one or two others – my grandfather for one – who claim to have seen them. Though I don’t know a soul – forgive the use of the word – who’s actually spoken with them. And your friend, how is he now? Has it turned him mad, this terrible encounter?’

‘Well,’ the stranger said, ‘he’s mad enough to wonder what it was that lay in the mouldy hands of those two foul beasts. He’s wondering whether there was, well something in the nature of an essence of himself in their grasp. What do you think, sir? Do you believe in the idea of a soul?’

‘I’m not what you call a deeply religious man,’ I told him, ‘but I have a belief that something more than carnal flesh and bone exists, either in a man, woman or in the world at large.’

His eyes were wet with misery. His voice full of anguish.

‘What was it they held in their hands? My friend must know. It’s driving him mad.’

‘Who can say,’ I replied, ‘but what drives a human being? What drives life, if not some invisible but powerful force? A life-force that produces hope, even when hope is an imposter. There must be something that brings a person climbing to his or her feet, to carry on when all is lost. It happens many times over. You only have to look at the stars in the night sky, the vast sweep of oceans and landscapes, the innocence in a baby’s eyes, to know there is something more than the science of biology is at work in the universe. Of the existence of an omnipotent creator, I am dubious, but of that indefinable force in the human spirit, I am sure. Call it a soul if you like.’

His brow was creased with stress and concern, when he said, ‘I just worry for my friend, for the fact that those devils might have stolen something that was irreplaceably precious. Something that made him who and what he is.’

The stranger stood up, looking to leave me to my own company.

 ‘You never told me your friend’s name,’ I reminded him.

He walked away saying. ‘No, I don’t believe I did.’