Bonfires & Ale
He was a bugger of man when he was alive, full of a drink and angry words. I’d spent years dodging his fists only to have to endure his weeping apologies the next morning. No one respected him, not even his own mother. In the village he’d run up debts, verbally abused the grocer and on a good night he’d be so damned drunk he wouldn’t make it back at all. Those nights we slept sound, the boys huddled together next to me on the straw mattress.
There was never money enough to keep hunger at bay. I took in washing to make a few extra pennies, and the boys outgrew their boots so quickly that I couldn’t afford replacements. Often they went barefoot. In winter it was any cut down material I could spare to tie round their feet to keep the cold out.
But in June the bugger finally drank his last drink and was found slumped in a doorway. He’d gone to meet his maker. What a disappointment that must’ve been to him! Maybe the fiery furnace of hell would make him recall everything he’d put us through. I hope he stays there. But the worry hovers over me so I’ve got the boys outside building the bonfire. Make it big, I tell them.
I’m not sure if the boys really understand what happened to their father. They’re only six and eight, though the eldest is out there earning now, running errands. And to be honest we are doing alright, thank you, since the bugger died. At least the money is all ours now the debts are paid. I sleep better, though the boys are restless. They think he might come back. I tell them no, but they also know what day it is today and we’re not the only ones building bonfires.
Just in case, I’m going to leave an offering of ale in the barn, the one he spent more time in sleeping than actually doing anything. I had to sell the horse. Poor thing, it was a bag of bones and had no work left in it. He ran it into the ground, despite my warnings.
I go out and check how the boys are doing. They’re running around chasing one another. Yes, you old bugger, they’re happy without you, and I intend to make sure they stay that way.
We are a strange lot in the village. Most folk stick with old ways and who's to say they're not right about this day? Tonight all the doors will be left open and offerings will be left on window ledges for the souls of the departed. My suspicion is that they don’t damn well come. Why would they? Unless they’re in hell. They’re probably much better off where they are than here in this world where poverty and hunger stunts the growth and morning comes too soon for tired bones. I think, though I never say this to anyone, that someone walks around the village in the night and eats and drinks the offerings, probably some poor soul with no home and hardly a crust for his belly. Or maybe it’s someone playing tricks on us. Even so, just in case, I am covering my back and those of my children.
The evening is darkening. My neighbours have already lit their bonfire. Others follow and soon the sky is ablaze, the air full of heat and smoke. I take a torch to our wooden mound and the boys watch, captivated by the roaring yellow fames licking into the night. I urge them inside and to bed. I follow soon afterwards but I can’t sleep. The flames flicker shadows across the wall and then I hear it. The sound of shuffling outside. Something crashes. I’m too tired to move. But anyway logic tells me it’s my neighbours because for them this is a night of merriment, and the ale is flowing. They wait for a glimpse of their loved ones returning. Fools, I say under my breath. I’ve shut my door. He’s not welcome back here dead or alive.
The noises die down and my eyes are heavy. I can’t keep them open much longer. Just as I fall between sleep and consciousness there’s a sound of wood falling. I tell myself it’s the bonfire. The wood is settling; the sparks are crackling. And then there are heavy steps on the stairs. My heart thumps. He’s back. How the hell do you kill a dead man? I get out of bed and search for something to hit him with. Maybe his bones will break if I knock him down the stairs. The children move in their sleep, murmur, whimper. God, if you exist, couldn’t you have kept the bugger up there in the fiery furnace? What kind of God are you to let him do what he did and then let him out to haunt us all over again?
I push the extinguished candle off the tiny three legged table by the bed and raise it just as the door slams back. I stare into his face and lower the table in shock for his features are wizened and ancient, papery and ashen. His clothes are smoking, his hair singed. ‘Help me,’ he says in a broken voice, eyes black in their sockets. His skin is blistered and flaying. I scream so loudly the boys wake and begin to cry. The bugger looks at them as if he’s just remembered they exist, that he fathered them, but I’m out and past him while his attention is on them, running downstairs. I realise I am still clutching the three legged table. He is now behind me and I throw the thin wooden piece of furniture at him. It passes right through him and breaks on the stone floor. I scream again and charge out of the house to the barn where the glass of ale sits untouched on our last bale of straw. Instead of offering it to him as he approaches I turn and throw the contents over him. In a whoosh he ignites. Flames consume him and he’s become a living torch. His screams thud into the wooden posts and walls of the barn, and all I can do is stand in horror watching him writhe in agony. The heat drives me backwards. Then suddenly he disappears. I mean he’s gone. Poof! All that’s left are a few fragments of burnt cloth and ashes. I stare at the place where he’d been standing. I don’t know how long I’ve been here except I’m cold and the little ones come in bleary eyed and confused.
‘It was a bad dream,’ I tell them, enclosing them into my arms.
‘Will him come again?’ the youngest asks.
‘No.’ I reply. ‘You can sleep easy now.’ I take them back to bed and tuck them in. I hope I am right and that he will never come again. But if he does I’ll have the ale waiting.
©2016 Heather Walker