A short story by Noel O’Regan
I switch on the lamp and a sudden harvest of blue eyeshine appears in the far corner of the field. Just fucking cows, I hear Conor complain beside me as he keeps a firm hold on the leads of his two lurchers, Star and Gooch. I direct the beam of light across the field until, almost obscured by long grass, I find a solitary pair of red eyes. ‘Hare,’ Conor declares.
Conor prides himself on being able to tell what animal it is as soon as the light reaects off their eyes. Different animals have different colour eyeshine, he told me, but he can also judge the animal by the height the eyes are off the ground, the distance between the pupils, the way the eyes move or blink – if they blink at all. I turn the lamp off and in darkness we walk towards the spot where we marked the red eyeshine. My heart smacks against my chest as if it’s eager to break out and run ahead of me. I hear the pant and wheeze of Star and Gooch straining against their leads. Gusts that carry hints of the sea try to shove me back, but this is good, I now know, as it means we’re downwind of the hare.
‘It’s fairly close to the ditch,’ I whisper.
‘Make sure to keep the light on it,’ Conor says. ‘That’ll blind the fucker and give these two a chance.’
‘We’ll get a few turns out of it, anyway,’ I say.
‘We’ll get more than that, I hope. I didn’t drive all the way out here for a few turns.’
Further down the field, Conor puts a hand to my arm. I lift the lamp and flick it on. Red eyes glow in the grass ahead. The few times I’ve lamped I’ve noticed how the animals remain still, as if trans xed, when the light shines. The thought to run doesn’t seem to strike until the danger is on top of them.
Conor lets go of the leads and Star and Gooch spring forward.
I try to keep the light on the hare as red eyes jump up and vanish. I adjust the funnel of light so I can see the hare running away, darting from side to side, the dogs close behind. The ditch is to the hare’s right, but in its confusion and panic it turns towards the exposure of the open field.
Conor whoops. ‘Go on, go on, boys. Get the fucker.’
I join in: ‘Catch it, go on.’
Star’s jaws clamp onto one of the hare’s hind legs. It tries to break away, kicking with its free hind leg, but Gooch arrives and the hunched frames of the dogs hide the hare from view. Walking towards them, all I hear are growls, the rip of skin and muscle.
Conor laughs. ‘We got a few turns out of him, alright, Power.’
As the dogs jostle and shoulder each other, a memory returns of a high ball Conor and I jumped for during one of my early training sessions with Austin Stacks’ under-twelves team. I ended up on the ground, clutching my nose. A whistle blew and when I looked up figures circled me, staring down. The coach, Ger Browne, knelt and swatted my hand from my face. My gloved hand came away bloodied. Before I could stop him, he pressed at my nose with his thumb. I winced. Someone laughed.
‘It’s not broken, anyway, Dermot,’ he muttered. ‘Costello, watch that fucking elbow of yours, will you.’
That’s when I realised that Conor was one of the Costellos, a footballing dynasty in the county. His grandfather, Tommy Costello, had been on Kerry’s first four-in-a-row team back in the thirties; his father, Mickey, captained Kerry to two All-Irelands in the eighties, and Conor’s older brothers, Cillian and Tom, both played for the current inter-county side. It’s said that there are so many All-Ireland medals in the Costello household that the kitchen is tiled in gold. I’d also heard rumours that Conor was shaping up to be the best Costello yet.
‘Sorry, Ger,’ Conor said, jogging away.
He never did apologise to me for the elbow.
Yellow eyes stare out from the next field. A fox, Conor tells me. He’s come across foxes before, but never caught one. Conor scratches behind Gooch’s ear – I can almost feel the shock of excitement from him. I turn the light off and move forward.
Conor continues his rant in a whisper as we walk. ‘And Flaherty doesn’t know what he’s doing in mid eld. How he made the Kerry team, I don’t know – he’d sooner catch gonorrhoea than a clean ball. And that’s the area that’s hurting us. We’re missing a presence there, someone to command the centre of the field and sweep up the breaking ball. Doyle’s too old to do it by himself, you know?’
I grunt an agreement. ‘Who is it we’re playing in the next round again?’ ‘Tyrone, the fuckers.’
‘That’ll be tough, alright.’
Light scans the field. Nothing yellow stares back at us.
‘Fuck,’ Conor says. ‘It must have caught our scent.’
He glares westwards towards the swaying outline of dunes. I hear the leather groan as his hand tightens on the leashes. The dogs’ ears perk up and both stare at the same spot in the darkness. I turn the light in that direction. It finds eyes in the distance, both green, high off the ground.
‘What is it?’ I ask.
Conor hesitates. ‘I’m not sure.’
‘No. No, this is something different.’
‘What, like a horse?’
‘No. Come on.’
I switch off the lamp and begin to follow Conor towards the animal. I struggle to keep up with him; even Gooch and Star seem to have dif culty in matching Conor’s pace. Or maybe, I think, they’re hesitant to move toward this strange creature.
I remember a night shortly after I returned to Tralee, a year ago now. Waiting to be served in The Abbey, I was engulfed in a bear-hug, the air squeezed out of me, my feet uprooted. Released, I staggered against the bar counter and turned around. ‘Power!’ Conor bellowed, his jet-black hair spiked and face burnt with the drink. Behind him, I recognized a couple of my old team-mates, Brian O’ Mahoney and David Bennett. They nodded; I nodded back. I’d lasted up till minor level with the Stacks, but had abandoned football once university started. I’d still heard about Conor’s injury, the rupture of his cruciate ligament, the reconstructive surgery, the intense physio; the second rupture and enforced retirement. The whole county grieved the day they revealed the news. Through minor level and under-twenty-one, his potential had become more obvious.
‘Where the fuck have you been, boy? I haven’t seen your ginger arse in ages.’
‘Just finished my degree in Cork,’ I said.
‘Fair play, boy, fair play. You get a job out of it?’
I laughed and shook my head. ‘Not yet, anyway.’ Since I’d returned home, my parents had been quick to point out the wealth of jobs in Canada and Australia for someone with my degree. When I told them I didn’t want to travel halfway around the world for a job they said that London wasn’t so far, if that was the case. Sure nowadays with Kerry airport it’s cheaper and quicker to travel to London than it is to get the train to Dublin. They seemed to view my desire to remain in the country as a sign of laziness or naivety. There’s nothing here for you, Dermot, everyone your age is leaving. You need to go where the jobs are.
‘And you’re based back here now, are you?’ Conor asked.
I nodded and Conor slung his arm around me. ‘That means you’ll be joining us for a round of Jägerbombs so.’
Underfoot turns springier and drier the closer we get to the coast. At regular intervals, I cast the light across the expanse of fields, the drains and ditches. We haven’t seen green eyes, or any other, in the last half hour.
‘Shit,’ I say, glancing down.
‘Why did you say “shit” then, for fuck’s sake?’ ‘I stepped on it.’
‘Shit. I stepped on cow shit.’
Conor grunts. ‘Make sure you’ve cleaned it off before you get in the car.’ I press the button on the lamp and the field lights up. ‘See anything?’ I ask.
‘No, no, let’s keep going.’
I watched Conor fight outside The Abbey later that night. It’s easy to start a fight in the pot-holed car park next to the pub, where people linger, drunk and loud. The wrong look or glance or leer, a shoulder as you walk past, the wrong pinched arse or a half-muttered insult; the scene is a heap of fireworks waiting for the match. I came to the fight late, and I still don’t know who started it or why. The two were alike in height and muscle, but the fierceness with which Conor fought forced the other lad back. As I watched, I felt that Conor’s every punch and duck and head butt was a pure and elemental form of language; each strike was a statement that rang true.
When the call went up – Guards, the Guards – his opponent staggered into the crowd, bloodied, his left eye already closing. Conor remained in the centre of the circle, his shirt ripped open and chest exposed. His fists were clenched and I could see the raw frustration in his face, the anger at being cut off in the middle of such a speech. I picked his jacket off the ground, the leather cold against my fingers. Then I led him into the crowd.
Green eyes reaect the light three hundred metres to the west. Gooch and Star growl and Conor tugs at the leashes to quieten them. The animal is too far away to tell what it is. I can’t be sure, but there seems to be a slouching movement behind the eyes. At one point, I think I see a tail wave in and out of the light.
‘It’s a quick fucker,’ Conor says. ‘It’s moved a fair distance since the last time.’
He charges forward, an element of desperation in his movements: the way his arms strain forward, the way he plunges into the darkness, not concerned about burrows, drains or electric wire – his gaze fixed on that point in the distance where the eyes last shone. After a while, he says, ‘The light, the light.’
‘Maybe it’s a deer,’ I suggest as I fumble with the lamp.
‘There aren’t any deer in this part of the county; they stick to the woodland over by the Reeks.’
The light finds the eyes about two hundred metres away. Closer than before, I judge the eyes to be at waist height and an emerald green. I feel a sharp twist of apprehension as I meet the green eyes with my own.
Perhaps it’s my imagination, or the darkness, but there seems something blank and pitiless in the animal’s gaze.
I switch the lamp off.
After the fight, it was taken for granted that I was part of Conor’s group. Most of our days were spent in Brian’s bedsit over Galvin’s Furniture Store. We’d watch TV, play computer games, take turns walking to the offy for cans of larger; some days we’d settle in the bookies and waste our money on absurd bets. Man United to lose 5-0 at home to Stoke? Go for it. 200/1 outsider running in the 3.20 at Limerick? Put twenty quid on it each way. Then there was the lamping. The first I heard of it was when Bennett and Conor relived an outing one afternoon in the bedsit: Who’d have thought badgers would be so tough? I know, and then that fox; it was like an episode of The Animals of Farthing Wood. I leaned into the conversation and asked what lamping was. Conor smiled and said I would have to come along next time and find out, wouldn’t I?
Conor often crashes at the bedsit, though he still claims to be living with his parents. He sleeps on the couch; a blanket and stained pillow are folded beside it whenever I call. Brian told me, one night, that Conor’s parents were trying to arrange an appointment for him with a knee specialist in Switzerland. Fucking Switzerland. ‘Can you imagine the hassle he must be getting at home? I hear his dad can’t give up on it. Sure everyone knows you’re not a true Costello if you’re not dominating a pitch at the weekend.’
When I switch on the lamp the eyes are gone.
‘Not a fucking chance. Give me that.’ Conor snatches the lamp and swings it in a circle, the light slashing out ahead of him. He focuses on a point in the dunes. ‘Over there. See it.’ Something reaects the light, silvery in colour.
‘Conor, I don’t think that’s it.’
‘It is alright.’ He flings the lamp back at me; I drop it. ‘That’s why you never made the Stacks’ first team, Power, those butter- ngers. Just like Flaherty. I’m telling you, if I wasn’t, he’d still be picking up scraps for the Crokes instead of playing inter-county.’
The lamp has landed next to a pile of cow shit. The beam of light digs into the shit, illuminating it. White and flaky, it’s clear that it’s been lying in the field for days, hardening. It looks ready to crack into pieces.
‘Hurry the fuck up, will you,’ he shouts.
I shine the light ahead to find out in which direction he’s running. I’m unsure if Conor wants to kill the animal now, or simply catch up to it, so he can grab on and let it take him wherever it’s going.
A sign, that’s what re ected the silvery light. Once close enough, I see a picture of a man swimming among triangular waves on it, his matchstick arm raised mid-stroke. His stormy world is circled in red and a thick red line cuts through him. Conor picks up a rock from the sand and flings it into the darkness. Gooch and Star watch it disappear. I can hear the clap of the break beyond the dunes, the clatter of stones in the backwash.
‘We’ll go back to where we last saw it. It can’t have gotten far,’ Conor decides, each breath a grunt.
‘We’re not even sure what we saw,’ I say.
‘I know what it is,’ Conor says, already retracing our route across the field. I note the slight limp in his stride as he runs. ‘And I’m going to catch it.’
‘Alright, alright, just wait up.’
I begin to follow Conor, but a sudden yelping ahead makes me stop. I switch on the lamp as Conor’s cursing reaches me. The light shows him circle a limping Gooch, the dog’s front leg bent and lifted off the ground. His tail wags, his ears rest flat back against his head. The high-pitched screeching grows loader.
‘What happened?’ I ask.
Gooch hops and squirms and licks Conor’s hand as he attempts to grab the dog’s collar. Star paces back and forth nearby, whimpering. ‘Piece of glass, maybe, or else he’s broken the leg. Fuck it, we’re never going to catch up if he won’t hold still.’ Conor makes another grab for the collar, but misses, and losing his balance, stumbles to the ground. A part of me expects him to fall into cow shit, but of course he doesn’t. When he stands I see his face and know what’s coming. The blow is vicious. Gooch yelps as he falls on his side. Star barks and barks.
‘Conor,’ I say, trying to intervene. But he is laying into the dog now, releasing all of himself into each kick and stamp and heel.
I feel the lamp in my hand. I roll it from one hand to the other and imagine the shattering of light on the back of Conor’s head, the groan and soft thud in the darkness that would follow. I lift the lamp, but turn away from Conor, and instead search with the light until I find what I’m looking for. Back among the dunes, I uncover the green eyes, distant and unblinking. I hold its gaze as Conor rages beside me. Then I drop the lamp to the ground and start to walk inland, towards the orange rash of cloud that gives away the direction of town.
Noel O’ Regan was born in Co. Kerry, Ireland. He is the recipient of the 2014 Sean Dunne Young Writers’ Award and a Leonard A. Koval Memorial Prize, as well as being a prize winner in the Bridport Prize and Writing Spirit Award. His fiction has appeared in journals and anthologies in Ireland and abroad. He is the current Kerry County Council writer in residence.