“Warp-spasm” is translator Thomas Kinsella’s word for ríastrad, the distortion Cúchulainn undergoes when he falls into a battle rage:
The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of… His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front… He sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn’t probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat… The hair of his head twisted like the tangle of a red thornbush stuck in a gap… there rose up from the dead center of his skull a straight spout of black blood darkly and magically smoking…
The warrior’s “red rage” or battle fury seems to be a tradition of great antiquity in Northern Europe. We find it in Beowulf, where the hero’s anger in battle conflicts sharply with his normally cool and level-headed persona. Scandinavian “Berserkers” seem to have thought themselves transformed into bears, wolves and boars during battle.
The Roman poet Lucan wrote of furor Teutonicus, the barbaric fury of German warriors. But the best evidence comes from the Irish sagas, where the warrior’s rage propels his performance in battle and gives him superhuman strength.
By the time Tabitha and Rúairí arrived at Heathrow, made their way through customs, collected their bags and arrived at the hotel, a small budget affair in Bloomsbury, it was well after noon London time. Tabitha felt grungy, so she took a shower in her microscopic en suite bathroom to revive herself before setting out with Rúairí for the promised Irish pub. They weren’t expected at the British Library until the next day, and she wasn’t in the mood for sightseeing. Her body was racked with conflicting sensations left over from the vivid dreams she’d experienced on the flight. She felt arousal, and sadness, and delight, all mingled with a tinge of nausea.
The kitchen at Filthy McNasty’s Whiskey Café was closed, but the draft Guinness was perfection, rich and cool with a thick, creamy head. They sat at a slightly sticky table in the cozy pub with its Roman red walls and music posters. “We’ll have a jar or two here,” said Rúairí, “and if you get hungry we can go elsewhere.”
“One thing I’ve noticed about people from the Atlantic Isles,” she said, “is that you love to drink. And you can almost always drink an American under the table.” She recalled with amusement the look in Lester the Lecher’s fishlike eye as he succumbed to Galen’s superior staying power.
Rúairí only chuckled. His “jar” was already half-drained.
“It’s funny,” she told him. “I know all the Irish monks, Columbanus, John Scotus, Sedulius. Once in a while monks put Irish notes in the margins of their Latin works, so I’ve even learned a word or two, mostly to do with calendars. And I know the Irish saints. Columba, Brendan, Brigit. But I never learned the pagan mythology of Ireland.”
“Some would claim it’s history, or mostly historical, like the Icelandic sagas,” observed Rúairí. “It’s very much tied to specific places in Éire.”
“What part of Ireland are you from? And how did you end up moving from there to the US?”
“If I were telling an Irish saga, I’d begin by asking How did Rúairí come to the United States? And I would answer myself: That is soon told. But it would be a lie,” he said.
“I’m listening.” She signaled the barman for a second round.
“My family are from County Down in Ulster. But we moved to Lusk, just north of Dublin, in my great-grandda’s day. It’s known as the Garden of Lugh, and it’s where Cúchulainn’s wife Emer was born.”
She studied his face as he spoke, noting and appreciating the strong masculine nose, the high cheekbones, the fine black brows and eyelashes. His gaze was absent, as though he was picturing another place and time. “My Da was a musician and poet, a bard of sorts. He used to sing for his supper. It was my mother who had a bit put by, and her brother who really called the tune. He was a Commissioner in the Garda, and a number of the men in Ma’s family were Gardaí too.” Noticing her blank look, he explained, “The Garda, that’s what we call the police.”
“So your uncle had a lot of influence in your family?”
“Oh aye, not one to trifle with, was Uncle Liam. He took after his mother’s brother, my great uncle Cian Curran. Another Garda man. The Garda began in 1922 with the Irish Free State, and it was a matter of pride to serve. In fact, I was meant to join as well. I started my training in ’89, right after they switched to the new two-year program. That’s how I really learned Irish. We had a bit in grammar school, but as a member of the Gardaí, you have to know enough to get by.” He drained the rest of his pint, then got up to visit the bar. She went to the ladies’ room, and when she returned, there were two glasses of whiskey at their table.
“Redbreast 12-Year Old,” he said. “You’ll love it.”
She laughed. “Yes, I’ve had a chance to try this before. Now, the Irish police, they don’t carry guns, do they? At least I don’t recall seeing them, from the few visits I’ve made to Dublin.”
“No, we were trained to use firearms and they’re needed in certain situations, but” —here he seemed to be reciting from memory— “The Garda Síochána will succeed not by force of arms or numbers, but on their moral authority as servants of the people. That’s what we were taught. After living under the yoke of the English, the last thing we wanted was a violent, armed police force.” His expression was darkening now. “If you’re thinking that something went terribly wrong, and that’s why I’m not an Assistant Commissioner today instead of a bean farmer, you’ll not be far off the mark.”
“You don’t have to tell me, Rúairí. I’m interested, but I understand the need for privacy. And after all, we’re practically strangers.”
He looked her in the eye. “Hardly that. Hardly that, Tabitha. I feel I already know you quite well. I feel as though I’ve always known you. And before you say it: No, it’s not Arthur Guinness talking.”
“How could you possibly know what I’m like?” Her tone was skeptical, though it was true that she felt comfortable around Rúairí. Whenever she was with Mark, she half-expected him to do or say something irritating. But with Rúairí, it was the opposite. Instead of driving her away, everything he said and did drew her closer.
“Right, then. I’ll tell you three things about yourself, and you tell me if they’re true.”
This surprised her. “You’re on. If all three are true, I’ll buy dinner. But they have to be things that aren’t obvious. And nothing you could have found online,” she added self-consciously.
“Damn! I didn’t think to Google you,” said Rúairí. “Well, now I’m for it. Give us a look at you first.” He took the opportunity to stare her up and down, his eyes lingering on her chest a bit longer than they should have. Finally he said, “You like to play chess.”
“That’s true,” she admitted. “Though my opponent is usually a computer.” Mark wasn’t interested in mental battles, and she didn’t have many friends willing to sit for an hour over a chessboard.
“Ha!” he crowed triumphantly. He propped one arm on the table and rested his chin in his hand as he gazed thoughtfully at her. “You love olives. And blue cheese?”
“Yes… how could you know that?” she asked, surprised.
“They’re things a lot of people don’t like, but you’re different from other people.”
“That’s not an explanation.”
“It’s the only one I’ve got. They say the women of my family have an dara sealladh, the Sight, but it’s never been known to abide in the men. And now for number three. I’m showing off,” he explained, “because blue cheese should have won me the bet.”
She waited, and he finally said, “You sleep on your side, all curled up, don’t you?”
Warmth rose in her cheeks. “Yes. I suppose you could have deduced that from the way I slept on the airplane. I couldn’t get comfortable. Usually I get a window seat so I can curl up against the wall.”
“You’re on the hook for dinner, me lass,” he said happily. “There’s a place called Caravan near here. Lots of small plates. You’ll love it. Or we could try Dans le Noir. It’s a restaurant where you eat in utter darkness. Everything is experienced by taste… and touch.”
The look he gave her was unmistakable, and she hastily answered, “Caravan will be fine.” She pulled out her wallet to pay her share of the check, but he waved her off, saying teasingly, “I’ll get this… even though I didn’t make you guess three things about me.”
“Here’s Number One. You’re a flirt. Two: you’re heading for trouble. Three: if you don’t put a stop to this, I will.”
“All right. I’ll be good,” he said, tossing a few bills on the table. “I don’t want you to think I make a habit of playing away. I don’t, you know. Somehow you bring out the divil in me.”
Caravan turned out to be a bustling place in Exmouth Market, but they were a bit early for dinner, so they didn’t have to wait for a table. Rúairí insisted on ordering the green olives and blue cheese-peanut wontons as starters, but she was relieved to see that his manner was more serious now, and less teasing.
They selected several small plates and a bottle of wine. When the food arrived, she said, “Tell me the rest of the story. About how you came to the US.”
He looked out the window for a moment, gathering his memories. “I graduated in the Spring of ’91, and began active duty in Dublin. That was before they had a dedicated drug unit, but where I worked, most of the crime was drug-related. It was a terrible time. Heroin everywhere, children playing with needles littered in the street. Plenty of guns about; most of the dealers had them.”
“I’ve only been in the touristy parts of the city,” she said.
“Some parts of Dublin are grim even now, but Jaysus, it was bad then. Sherriff Street, Summerhill, Dolphin’s Barn… I’m told that The Liberties have been cleaned up, but when I was there, they were full of derelict buildings, burned out cars, poor sods dying of hepatitis and AIDS.” As he spoke about Dublin, his accent became more noticeable.
“My God. That sounds horrible. And you were how old?”
“Twenty-two.” He ate some of his falafel with apple-pepper relish and cilantro, a dish she’d been tempted to try herself. She calculated that he must be forty-two now, a few years older than she. Then he said, “One day I went into a flat full of prostitutes. I needed to have a word with one of them about a dealer. A couple of pimps were there, and one was a bit worse for drink. He started threatening the girl: ‘Saunter off, scag, or I’ll knack yer melt in.’ I told him to stop, and he says, ‘Are ye startin’? I’ll bate the bag outta ye.’ Before I knew it, he belted me a couple of times, and then the other one joined in. My partner Ned was downstairs talking to some lads, asking about the dealer. So I defended myself.”
“I don’t see what choice you had,” said Tabitha, horrified at the scene he was describing.
“You’ve heard the expression ‘I saw red’? That’s what it was like. A mist of red fell over my eyes. I remember a… an energy flowing through my body, and my fists and feet connecting with the two men, hard. One of them must have legged it, because when the mist lifted, Ned was holding me from behind, yelling, “It’s me, it’s me, Rúairí lad,” and one of the pimps was there, laid out on the floor. Then the girl says, “Jaysus, ye’ve kilt him,” and Ned says, “Jaysus, Rúairí, what’ve ye done?”
“He was dead?”
“Oh, aye. Quite dead. We called in, and they sent an ambulance, but he was gone.”
“My God.” She thought of Mark, and his fantasy of fighting another man to the death. “What did you do then?”
“We made a report. There was an investigation, of course. But the Gardaí, they take care of their own. My uncle saw to it that I was cleared. Then he came to me and said, ‘You’re finished. You’re like a sheepdog that kills a sheep. We can’t have that in the Garda, lad. You’re done.’ That was the end of my career in law enforcement. Liam thought it best that I leave Ireland for a while, so I was sent to some of my Da’s people in Boston. I went to U. Mass. there, and my mother paid the bills.”
“And you studied Classics, and ended up doing your Ph.D.,” she finished.
“Yes, at Boston University, and then Columbia.” He looked sadly at her. “But I never got a real job. I’m over ten years out now, and I’ve published, but it didn’t lead to anything other than a couple of one-year sabbatical replacements, and part-time work. Not many people are interested in the poetry of Ausonius.”
“I am. I love his poem on the Moselle River. But… did the red mist ever happen again?”
“No,” he said. “No, and yet there’s not a morning I don’t wake up and think: will this be the day it comes back? It’s a terrible thing, Tabitha, ending another person’s life in violence. It’s not something you can forget about and move on. It stays with you, forever.”
“You shouldn’t have to be haunted by this forever,” she argued. “Two men attacked you. Your instinct for survival took over. I’m not even sure you did anything wrong.”
“I had an outbreak of mad violence that I couldn’t control. Even in war, you have to control yourself. Self-discipline was big for Roman soldiers. Otherwise they never could have been so successful.”
“But… what about more primitive cultures?” She hesitated. “Isn’t there a sort of battle-madness that happens?”
He gave a grim laugh. “You mean like Cúchulainn, when he goes into his warp-spasm and sucks in one eye and bulges out the other? And the mist of dark blood shoots up from his head? I guess that’s what I felt. But I’d never want it to happen again. This isn’t the first century. We’ve come on a bit since then. At least I hope we have.”
She looked down at her plate. “Did you ever go back there? I mean, revisit the past?”
“No. I’m ashamed of myself, but I couldn’t face it. I’ve never been back. I even missed Liam’s funeral.”
“I’m sorry. But I understand. I really do.” After a moment, she asked, “How did you manage to stay in the States? Are you a permanent resident?”
“Oh yes. I had student visas for a long time, but I got married to someone who had a green card herself, and I was able to qualify. Siobhan, her name was.”
“It didn’t last?” Tabitha sympathized. She knew how difficult it was to maintain relationships while moving from job to job.
“We were a bad fit. She wanted children, and I’ve got two sisters with a cartload of snappers each, so I didn’t think I needed to add any more to the planet. She was always after me to quit Classics and take a course in accounting. Something with earning potential.” He laughed, more heartily this time. “The only thing we had in common was Ireland. But to me, feeling as I did, being with her was like going home. I was desperate to go there, and desperate to avoid it, all at the same time, if you see what I mean.”
“And then you met Snorri?”
“My mate Snorri! Yes, he was at U. Mass. with me, and we stayed in touch. He told me he was chucking it all to become an organic farmer, and asked if I wanted to invest in the business. He had the knowledge, and all I needed was a strong back and $30,000. As it happened, Liam had passed and left me a tidy sum, and I’d some small savings put by. A single man can live quite frugally, if he’s not too delicate about where he bunks,” he observed.
“So you and Snorri are partners. But how did you come to name the farm “Gardens of Lugh”? I’m surprised it’s not a Scandinavian name, since it was Snorri’s idea.”
“Oh, we had a wager to see who would name it. He uses two old draft horses, Njal and Egil. I bet him that I could stand on Njal’s back and not fall off while he plowed a furrow all the way across the bean field.”
“And you won,” she said, giggling at the thought of the tall, lugubrious Swede doggedly plowing the field while Rúairí performed his manly feat. “And you named it for your home.”
They took the Tube and then walked back to their hotel in comfortable silence. It’s almost like we’re holding hands, even though we’re not, she thought. They said good night, and went into their rooms, which were adjoining, with a locked door between. After she brushed her teeth and got into her nightgown, she stepped lightly toward the connecting door and stood there, not touching it. In the safety and privacy of her own room, she could allow herself to think about Rúairí, about how much she wanted him. It was as though some force was pulling her in his direction, not quite against her will, but still in spite of herself. She moved one step closer to the door.
“Sleep well, Tabitha,” came his low voice, close on the other side. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: The Irish sagas say that the warp-spasm was inherited, that it ran in the families of the men of Ulster. Rúairí’s family, originally from Ulster, has several unusual characteristics. The women are gifted with “second sight,” and the men who wield most authority in the family are not the fathers, but the mother’s brother. This is characteristic of matrilineal systems, which may have existed in earliest Ireland.
Dans le noir is a real restaurant in London, where you eat in total darkness. Only in a place like London (or Paris, the other location) could such an odd eatery thrive!
I was inspired to write about Rúarí’s Dublin experience after watching Veronica Guerin, a biopic about a heroic journalist who investigated heroin dealers and was murdered on June 25, 1996. Her death caused public outrage, which led to an intensive investigation and over 150 arrests and convictions.