The One That Got Away

It was a new moon when they came, that June night in 1631. The tide was in and the waves could be heard lapping gently against the shore and the harbour walls. Almost silent, but not quite, there was the muted sound of creaking timber and rope as the spars strained gently and the canvas of the sails flapped lazily in the inshore breeze as the ships rocked at anchor. With oars muffled, the longboats slipped gracefully through the water while the villagers slept in their beds, unaware of the fate that was to befall them.

The boats landed silently in the sand of the cove and the occupants poured out, their scimitars held ready to strike. The men made their way up the shore to the village, moving from house to house. Bursting down the doors and roughly shaking the occupants who woke with a start to the sight of the raiders, dressed in fine coloured silk clothing and turbans, brandishing swords and muskets to quell any resistance. Almost as soon as it had started, the raid was over and just over a hundred Irish men and women were bundled down to the waiting longboats to the accompaniment of musket shots fired from the local militia who responded too late to be of any effect.

The boats were rowed vigorously by their crews, taking them away from the cove to the waiting ships and eventually to Africa where they would be sold in the slave markets. These pirates came not for gold and jewellery, but human booty.

And there was nothing I could do. I watched, trembling in the shadows to where I had fled.

***

“Okay, you can come back now, Muireann.”

I opened my eyes and blinked a few times. “Oh, my God! I was there…”

“You were. Once. That’s what past life regression does. It shows you what once was.” Jemma paused and looked at me. “So the pirates came, but you got away.”

I shook my head. “No. There’s more to it than that. I was there”

She arched an eyebrow. “What? That’s what I said.”

I struggled to vocalise what I knew deep in my soul. “I was there. They are still looking for me. There were only one hundred and eight taken that night. But all the records show one hundred and nine. I’ve checked. They are missing one soul. Mine.”

“Impossible. Past lives are just that. Past. It was Rosie O’Shea they came for that night, not you. Not you now, but you then, when you were Rosie and you got away.”

“Then why do they come for me at night?”

Jemma narrowed her eyes, for we had talked of this before.

“Muireann, they are but shadows, memories locked in your mind. The past. Nothing more. Shades of what once was. They cannot come back for you, for they are long dead.”

Oh, if only she knew…

***

I woke. Pale moonlight cast eerie beams of light from the window onto the bed. The rest of the room was dark but in the shadows, darker still, something lurked and the atmosphere was drenched in the putrid odour of rotting flesh. I gagged as the stench overwhelmed my senses along with terrifying fear.

“Rosie O’Shea, I am come for ye…” The voice came from something dark and dead, lost somewhere in the nine circles of Hell and not of this world.

“I am not Rosie O’Shea, I am Muireann O’Connor.” I strained to see in the darkness, for he stayed out of the beams cast by the moon.

“Ye are Rosie O’Shea and I should have taken ye.” As he spoke, the words filled my head as if they were spoken out loud, yet they were not, for it was all within my head and the room was silent to the outside world. There was a movement in the darkness of the deepest shadow and a low moan emanated from it and he took form, a cadaverous figure, wearing brightly coloured silks, a turban and sash. At his side a scimitar. The flesh peeled from his face, leaving the mouth little more than a lipless maw full of rotting teeth from between which maggots crawled and wriggled, writhing and squirming as if in their own death dance, while the lidless eyes stared through the darkness, boring into me and filling my soul with dread. There was pain, too. Pain from what, I wondered?

“Ye are Rosie O’Shea…”

“You said that, already,” I snapped, my irritation momentarily overcoming my fear.

“I should have taken one hundred and nine, but ye fled. Ye should not have fled. ‘Twas not your destiny…”

The apparition moved closer, his stench washing over me, reaching out a bony hand to grasp my throat. Yelping with terror, I sprang back in the bed, catching my head against the wall, cursing with the shock and sharp pain and flash of red and yellow light behind my eyes as I reached out for the bedside light. Frantically pulling the cord, I flooded the room with light and I was alone. The stench had gone, too. I sat there for a moment, my heart pounding and my breath coming in gasps. Vaguely, as if in the distance, I could hear the echo of his sonorous, mournful voice resonating through the mountains and valleys of time itself. “I am come for ye, Rosie O’Shea…”

“He is right, you know.”

“Jaysus!” I gasped, grasping my beating heart – not that it would beat for much longer, I reflected, if these frights were to continue.

Sitting nonchalantly on the chair on the far side of the room, a skeletal figure watched me. His ‘eyes’ were glowing balls in the sockets where there should have been eyes, had he any flesh to hold them in place. His dark cape covered most of his form, but the hands that caressed the scythe lying across his knees were devoid of flesh and this visitor at least appeared to exercise some semblance of personal hygiene as he didn’t smell of rotting flesh. And there were no maggots either, I noted, for which I was relieved.

“I know who you are.”

Oh, jolly good.”

“The grim reaper.”

“Less of the grim, please. Why do people always say that?”

“What are you doing here?” I asked, ignoring his entreaty. Then the thought occurred to me. “I shouldn’t be able to see you. Am I dead?”

“So many questions.”

“Well what do you expect? Showing up here in the middle of the night, hot on the heels of some apparition from the pits of Hell?”

Death let out a sigh, a long, low moan that echoed through space and time, causing ripples in the multiverse. “It is because of him that I am here. He is right, you know, you are Rosie O’Shea.” He put up a hand as he saw I was about to protest. “Were, Rosie O’Shea. And you escaped the raid in 1631 – or was it 32? I forget, time is such a funny thing. I mean, for me this could be yesterday or it could be tomorrow. So hard to keep a track of it all. For me, time is not linear at all.”

“You’re rambling,” I said.

“Quite so. Have you been doing any more research since you went to see that past life regression woman?”

“Jemma? Yes, a little.”

“And?”

And, here there was something odd going on, to be sure. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but try as I might, I came across conflicting figures. “Some say that one hundred and nine were taken that night, but the more I look, they are saying it was one hundred and eight. That’s the trouble with these Wiki pages, people go in and edit them.”

Death shook his head. “No. Time is editing them.”

I folded my arms and he cocked his head at my demeanour. I could have sworn that he was smiling – but, Jaysus, how does a skull smile? He fished around inside his cape and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a zippo. He arched an eyebrow. See? How did he do that? The ugly bastard had no eyebrows. But he raised one anyway. I shrugged. Made no difference to me. He put a tube in his mouth, flipped the zippo, leaning the tube into the flame and inhaled before blowing a plume of smoke at the ceiling.

“Bad habit, I know,” he said. “People say it will be the death of me. Got the taste for it in the trenches. Or is that, I will get the taste for it in the trenches? I can never remember.” He waved a hand airily as if dismissing the idea almost as soon as he voiced it and drew deeply on the cigarette.

“Get on with it,” I snapped.

“Patience, my dear, we have all the time in the world. I can do with it as I please. Couldn’t do this job if I didn’t. Now, where was I?”

“Time.”

“Ah, yes, time. Our pirate captain carried out a raid in 1631. He took one hundred and nine captives from your village in Ireland to sell in the slave markets of North Africa. Unfortunately, one of them got away, making it one hundred and eight.”

“Rosie O’Shea?”

“Indeed. Well, this shouldn’t have happened. Rosie was supposed to have been taken. She spent the rest of her life in a harem. She did better than the men, who spent the rest of their short existences as galley slaves. Her life was relatively good compared. She grew up and was treated well enough…”

“For a slave,” I reminded him archly.

He nodded, conceding the point. “For a slave, yes. Her children grew up as good Muslims. You, my dear, are an aberration. You see, not only were you Rosie in that past life, you are her descendant – but not from her African life but another life, one that should never have happened. Muireann O’Connor, you should not exist. At least, not as you are now.”

“I…”

Death nodded. “Something happened. I don’t know what, but time has, er, how shall we put it, dropped a…”

“Goolie?”

“Ah, yes, a goolie. It happens sometimes. A little tear in the fabric of space time and things all go off on a different tack – and our dear departed captain that you just met, is no longer departed, which leaves a little conundrum for me, don’t you see?”

“I see no conundrum,” I said. “As far as I am concerned, I exist. I have always existed. I can recall my childhood. I’ve grown into a woman, I have a career. I am who I am. I do exist. How dare you tell me that I don’t!”

“Yes, but this timeline should not have happened and we need to put it right.”

“So what do you want me to do about it? It wasn’t my mistake. Besides, I do exist now. What are you going to do? Murder me? Is that what he is trying to do?”

Death shook his head and I could see that he was troubled. “No, he is trying to die but he cannot until he has put right the inconsistency. We are where we are,” he conceded. He stood then and hefted the scythe across his shoulder. “You must set this right and there is only one way you can do it.”

“How?”

For an answer, he reached into the folds of his cape and pulled out a business card, placing it on the bedside cabinet. I frowned, because it was blank.

“In time,” he said, smiling to himself at his joke. “Take a holiday. I hear that the Ring of Kerry and the Wild Atlantic Way is now finished – or is that will be finished? Anyway, I believe that you would enjoy a ride through that part of the country. Revisit the land of your youth.”

Then he was gone. And all I had was a blank business card to show for it and a vague qualm about my very existence.

***

It has been said that if you want to ride the Wild Atlantic Way – the coastal road that wends its way along the west of Ireland, with the mountains to one side and the sea to the other – then the BMW F800GS is the bike to do it. As mine was the GT model, I figured it would do – small and light enough to cope with the terrain and powerful enough to make progress where needed. I loaded up the panniers and set out for the ferry at Pembroke, some three and a half hours from my home near Bristol.

The M4 traffic was lighter than I expected, so I made good progress, arriving in Pembroke for just after one in the afternoon, so time for a bite to eat and a coffee. Then followed the usual wait while the vessel was loaded, but they put the bikes on first, so I made my way to the passenger lounge and rested while the ship prepared for sea. I dozed fitfully for a while during the crossing, but I saw no ghosts, nor Death.

We arrived in Rosslare at about half past six, so I found digs for the night, eating at the first pub in Ireland – or the last, depending on which way you are travelling. That night, for the first time in a while, I slept soundly through the night without any disturbance. The pirate captain stayed away as did my latest visitor, the Grim Reaper. It was almost as if they were biding their time.

The following morning was bright and clear, so after breakfast, I packed the bike and prepared to set off for Cork, planning to drop south to there via Waterford before heading west towards Skibbereen and Bantry. I needed fuel, so stopped in the first service station I found. I was paying for the petrol when something fell out of my purse. I stooped down to pick it up. It was the business card that Death had given me. It was no longer blank. “Paidrig O’Shaunessey, Emporium” it announced in emerald green ink along with an address in Cork. I turned it over, but there was nothing more that it could offer me beyond that – not even a telephone number.

“I suppose,” I muttered to myself, “I’m taking a detour in Cork.”

“That’s the general idea.”

I looked around but could see no one and the cashier seemed not to have heard anything so I assumed that the voice was in my head – as if I didn’t have problems enough already.

Paidrig O’Shaunessey’s emporium was squeezed between two larger buildings – as if an afterthought where a gap needed filling. People passed by as if it wasn’t there at all. I parked the bike and walked up to the door. The windows on either side were filled with what looked like junk – although maybe there were precious antiques amongst the bric-a-brac. To me, heathen that I am, they are all the same.

A bell rang somewhere within as the door closed behind me. In the semi darkness of the interior, the jumble of items seemed to be a motley collection of odds and ends cast off by previous owners with nary a second thought. It seemed more of a junkyard than a shop with layers of dust settled upon the discarded items. A small hobgoblin of a man appeared beside me causing me to start. Wisps of hair grew on an otherwise bald pate and dense beetle brows protruded over sunken eyes and a hooked nose. He smiled, showing yellowed, broken teeth.

“Oh, I am sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, Madam.”

“That’s okay… Mr O’Shaunessey?”

“Says so over the shop, don’t it?”

“Yes, I…”

“I know, Rosie O’Shea.” He leered as if party to secret information and was itching to show the world just how clever he was, but was sworn to keep the matter confidential, leaving the internal contradiction fighting it out inside.

I was about to retort, but he held up a hand, silencing my protest. “It matters not. I have what you came for.”

“What did I come for?”

He scampered off among the piles of junk and disappeared somewhere among the clutter and I could hear rummaging and items being moved about accompanied by mutterings and murmurings with the occasional curse. Clouds of dust blew through the gaps in the piles of tat as movement disturbed its slumber. Eventually, I heard an exclamation as he found what he was seeking. He reappeared grasping a sword in a fine leather scabbard, brushing the dust off it with his hand. “This.” He said proudly, holding it out for me to take.

My jaw dropped. I know this because I heard it click as it went way beyond its usual opening point before crashing into my chest. “What the…”

“You will be needing this for the pirate captain.”

“I have never used a sword in my life before.”

“Ah, but that’s not necessary, for the sword will know what to do, won’t you, my sweet?” He stroked the handle and I could swear the thing hummed gently, like a low level purr from a cat.

“Now, how do you expect me to carry that thing on a motorcycle?”

“Ah,” he unbuckled the strap on the scabbard and moved close, threading it over my shoulder and diagonally across my body, pulling it tight, so that the blade hung, handle up, across my back.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine until the first Guard sees me,” I said flatly. Getting arrested for carrying an offensive weapon didn’t figure in my plans.

“Well, as a great man once said, a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.”

I arched my eyebrows. “Really?”

“Really.”

Unconvinced, I said “It’s a bloody great sword, they will see me coming.”

He stepped to one side to allow me to pass. “Tell you what, I’ll bet you a pound to a penny – or should that be a cent to a Euro? – that no one will notice. So, go on, walk outside and see if no one notices yer.”

Scepticism oozing from every pore, I followed his dare and stepped outside the store. Standing in the street with the blade strapped to my back, people brushed by me and not one of them gave me a second glance. One man even bumped into me, apologising absently before hurrying on his way, not noticing the two-handed sword. I walked back into the shop. “Okay, you win. Now what?”

“Now you go. I have business to attend to.”

So, that was it. Dismissed, I walked to the door. I paused and turned back, devilment overtaking me. “It was a man hears what he wants to hear,” I said with a wink.

“Bah! Be gone with you!”

I mounted up and rode west to Skibbereen along the twisty Irish roads, loving every minute of the ride on tarmac that were devoid of traffic and a pleasure to traverse, with a sword strapped to my back as if that is what happens every day.

By the time I reached Skibbereen, the sun was starting to drop in the sky, a blood red orb hanging over the horizon. I stopped for a while to eat. I unstrapped the sword and leaned it against the table and no one saw it – or if they did, didn’t notice. By this time, I was losing my self-consciousness about it. I also took a moment or two to look at it more closely. It was a gallowglass sword with the classic cruciform handle and simple form. The only decoration was a cut-out “E” on each of the guard ends and a hollow circle for the pommel with the tine bisecting the circle. Heavy to hold, it was over a metre in length and weighed in at around three kilos by my reckoning. I wondered how I was supposed to handle it, never having used a sword before. By now, however, I felt that I was merely playing a part set out for me and whatever was to happen would happen regardless of what I did or did not do.

It was nearly dark by the time I reached the cove. To my left, the harbour was silent apart from the sound of the fishing boats rocking gently against the sea wall. The lapping of the waves was soft and gentle, a sigh and a splat as they flopped languidly against the shore. I sat on the sand and waited. What for, I didn’t know, but as I looked back towards the harbour, I knew something was going to happen, for I could see Death, sitting on a large protruding rock, idly sharpening his scythe with a whetstone, a cigarette dangling jauntily from his mouth.

So we waited.

The moon lifted itself into the velvet sky, casting a pale sheen on the land and sea.

Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, I could hear the sound of oars muffled by rags as boats hove into view, little more than shadows. I stood up to get a better view. The boats grounded on the shore and the pirates leapt to their feet and ran through the shallows and up the beach to the village behind me. They were little more than wraiths, ignoring me as they ran across the moonlit sand, through me and around me as if I wasn’t there.

I turned and watched as they went from house to house, brandishing muskets to quell the villagers. Each home was emptied of its occupants and they were led roughly down the beach towards the waiting boats. Then I saw him, the pirate captain, pulling a small child, holding her firmly by her collar, dragging her as she fought to get away. Our eyes met and he relaxed his grip as he saw me. The child, a girl child of about nine years old, looked both fragile and strong in one mix. Upon seeing her opportunity, she seized it and wriggled free, running towards me where she stopped and looked up. As our eyes locked I saw upon her face recognition.

I was there…

“Go!” I said. “Go! Run!”

Needing no more urging, Rosie O’Shea dodged away, back towards the village and vanished among the shadows. The captain dropped his musket and reached for his scimitar. Likewise, I reached for my sword. Cold, clammy sweat damped my clothing, causing it to cling to my body and I shivered despite the mild night. The sword hummed and purred as it had in the emporium when I swung it through the air. It felt as if it had a life of its own. In the weak moonlight, it glowed electric blue and an aura flickered and danced along the edge of the blade. I swung it instinctively and the two blades clashed. As if alone on the beach we danced the dance of death, each moved to best use their blade, parrying and dodging, the swords crashing against each other with sparks and an echoing ring that could be heard by the demons in the pits of Hell itself, it seemed to me. There was a music to that macabre ballet we performed on the sands that night and Death watched, waiting, for he knew the outcome.

Then, as the pirate captain dropped his scimitar to make another swing, I saw an opening and the blade swung horizontally, with all my vigour behind the blow. Slicing across the man’s neck it severed his head from his body. I saw a brief look of surprise in his eyes before they went dead and both head and body fell to my feet with a dull thud.

Death drew himself up and strode easily across to where I stood looking down at the decapitated corpse. He dropped the scythe down and swept it across the remains and the captain’s shade rose from the corpse, looked around and then evaporated. One by one, pirates and villagers alike also evaporated into fine mist before vanishing completely, until only Death and I stood on that moon bathed beach. Realisation dawned on me in that fleeting moment, something that had niggled at the back of my mind for a while now.

“There never was an alternate timeline, was there? No slave market or harem? Rosie O’Shea was always meant to escape.”

He dropped his cigarette to the ground and stamped it out. “It might have been.”

“That break in the space time continuum, that wasn’t me, though. I was always meant to exist.”

“No, it wasn’t. But you needed to stitch it back up as it were, or you wouldn’t have existed and Rosie O’Shea would have gone to Africa with the other villagers to be sold. Nice work.”

He nodded, lifting a bony finger to his forehead, swung his scythe over his shoulder, turned and walked away, rippling into nothingness as I watched.

“Until we meet again.” The words floated in my head after he had gone.

Exhausted, I sat and thrust the sword’s point in the sand, letting it form a makeshift crucifix silhouetted against the moon. I sat there for a while, watching the calm Atlantic as it rippled on the shore. I must have dozed off because by the time I woke, the sun was warm on my face and the fishing boats were returning with their catch, chased and harried by flocks of raucous seagulls.

I was hungry. Ravenously hungry. I looked about me. The sword was gone. I looked in my purse, knowing that the card would be gone as well. And I supposed that had I decided to return to that street in Cork, O’Shaunessey’s Emporium would be nowhere to be seen either.

I stood and brushed the sand off my clothes. Across the harbour, the hotel was open for business and I figured that a full Irish breakfast would set me up for the day. I walked across the harbour, dodging the fishing crates and ropes, the smell of fresh landed fish filling my nostrils. And after breakfast, the Wild Atlantic Way beckoned.