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Shopping Cart Soldiers

About The Book

Shopping Cart Soldiers is a modern day Odyssean tale of the atrocities of war and its even more appalling aftermath. Set against the brutal realities of the conflict in Vietnam, John Mulligan tells the story of Finn MacDonald, an eighteen-year-old boy who is drafted soon after he emigrates with his family from Scotland. Upon returning from Vietnam, Finn is plagued by the terrible memories of all he has seen and is pushed into a haze of self-destructive behavior that tests his will to survive. Shopping Cart Soldiers chronicles Finn's painful and remarkable journey -- and his triumphant path to spiritual renewal and recovery.


It is dark and a light drizzle falls on Paranoid Park, a small park stuck in the middle of North Beach. The name lingers on long after San Francisco's hippies took their last bad acid trip. Nowadays the park is living room and bedroom to many of the city's homeless. At the edge of the grass, next to the bench where he sleeps, a Shopping Cart Soldier dances wildly as if his feet were on fire. His name is Finn MacDonald. He is an Albanach, a sick Albanach, withdrawing from alcohol against his will. He grabs and pulls at his clothing, and beats himself violently about the face and head until blood trickles from his nose. He crouches behind his shopping cart hiding from demons he can see but cannot touch. He's familiar with the demons, knows them by name. They've visited him often over the last twenty-five years or so, ever since he left the war behind.
"Get away from me!" he screams. "Fuck off, ya bastards."
The fear in his voice makes me want to scream myself. I try to console him, but I just make him worse. After all, he still can't see me. I wonder if he ever will. All I can do is watch him suffer. When I'm about to despair, Arkansas, an old pal of his, now dead, comes running towards him. Arkansas's been sheltering in the nearby bushes, but when he hears Finn's cries he leaves his blanket beside his own shopping cart and runs to help his friend. Arkansas knows what's happening; he's seen it so many times before. He pins Finn's arms behind his back; he doesn't want his friend to hurt himself again.
"Is it the voices, Finn?" he asks. "Are the voices at it again?"
"Aye," says Finn. "It's that bastard Madman. I don't know what he wants wi' me. Do this, do that -- he's drivin' me outa my goddamn mind!"
Arkansas knows all about me too. Madman, that is!
"Here, have a swig at this," says Arkansas, offering Finn a half-empty bottle of vodka.
"Arkansas!" says Finn, "You're a darlin'! I didn't know yae were in there," he says, referring to the bushes.
Arkansas chuckles. "I'm always in there, you know that!"
Finn takes a long pull at the vodka bottle then sits down on the bench.
"I was nearly sleepin' myself," he says. "Then it started! That nigglin' voice tellin' me I'm killin' myself, tellin' me to get it together. Screw it, Arkansas, gimme another drink I'll drown that bastard yet!"
That's about as much credit as he ever gives me. All he seems to think about is how to drown me with his stinking booze. It breaks my heart, because I do everything I can to keep him alive. He should've been dead a million times, but I always manage to keep him holding on another day, just one more day. Because I do love him so.
Arkansas isn't the only one to hear Finn's cries of withdrawal. The police hear him too. They show up a few minutes later, flashlights flashing, nightsticks in hand, wondering what the hell's going on. Arkansas scarpers into the bushes again. They catch Finn, vodka bottle raised to his lips, chugging for all he's worth in a last desperate effort to get enough booze inside him to still the shakes. They handcuff him and, as they escort him to the patrol car, he shouts over his shoulder: "Take care of my shopping cart, Arkansas. Put it in the usual place." Finn is lucky; Arkansas's loyalty is beyond question; he stashes Finn's shopping cart safely in the usual place. But Arkansas's own luck ran out a few days later. A park attendant found him dead among the same bushes he slept under most nights, as rigid and stiff as a railroad tie. His killer had caved his head in, caved it in as if he hated Arkansas, and the contents of his shopping cart were scattered around on the ground beside him. The same miserable bastard stole his boots too. They were good boots, black boots with thick, leather soles. Arkansas was fond of his new boots.
On his way to jail Finn is in a panic. He doesn't have enough booze in his system. It'll be a long night in jail. The withdrawals will get to him. He'll have an alcoholic seizure! DT's!
"Fuck this bullshit," he mutters, straining against the too-tight handcuffs, sick and tired that it's happened again.
Some men aren't meant for war; their souls are far too old. They've seen it all before. The Albanach is just such a man. I knew it and he knew it the very first moment we stepped onto the red soil of Vietnam. I can say this with some certainty, with some impunity, for I am his soul, his spirit. I do know that much at least, though I don't know everything! But Vietnam's a million miles away now, and Finn's busy looking for his shopping cart.
He finds it, safe and intact, where Arkansas left it behind an abandoned building, a safe place they used whenever they needed to.
Finn lives in a small, compact world about ten city blocks or so in diameter. His world is centered at the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Stockton Street. He stops to paint and panhandle there every day; it is his favorite spot, his moneymaker. Only rarely will he make a foray into the world beyond; it doesn't make much sense for him to wander anywhere else, because everything he needs exists within the perimeter of his circular world, a world so like the one he lived in while fighting the war. He doesn't have to guard the perimeter of his present world, but he doesn't venture beyond its boundaries either.
He likes to paint, but because he doesn't have a home, let alone a studio, he paints out of doors whenever he gets the chance. He simply ties a canvas or a piece of wood, or whatever other flat surface he might find, to the top of his shopping-cart, takes his brushes and paints in hand, and goes to work as if there were no tomorrow. Today he's working on a canvas given to him by a sympathetic student from the Art Institute. He rarely experiences such kind gestures in the harshness of his shopping cart world.
"Why, thank you, kind sir," he says, with such a condescending tone the student raises his eyebrows questioningly.
"Do you want it or not?" asks the student, his feelings hurt, his hand still gripping the stretcher bar.
"Oh, I do, I do indeed!"
"Then why are you being such a prick? I don't have much either, you know!"
Finn looks hard at the student, then smiles grimly, already regretting his condescension.
"Sorry, buddy," he says. "Maybe I just ain't used to such kindness. But at least yae acknowledged me, saw me; most of the time I'm invisible. People don't see me, y'know, an' they sure as hell don't see my shoppin' cart. I'm what you might call an Invisibility," he says with a throaty chuckle.
The student smiles too, and I burst out laughing myself when I hear Finn talking about being an Invisibility; it's an unusual term certainly, but an accurate term, though not usually applied to the still-alive.
Long ago Finn grew accustomed to the stares and the snide remarks of the commuters, and there are many snide remarks these days; his shopping cart home and his appearance, though threatening enough in themselves, are nothing compared to the intimidating images he paints. Everything he paints is bizarre and disturbingly unreal. He feels sure that most of the commuters are threatened by his presence on the corner, and when they tell him to "Fuck off!" or "Go back to where you come from!" he puts their bellicose barbs down to fear, fear that they themselves may be just a paycheck or two away from the same fate, then he'll shrug nonchalantly and go on about his painting.
He enjoys painting the people in his head, the Visitors he calls them. He's now busy painting a rather frightening image of me with chalk-white skin and a separation at the waist which looks both brutal and painful as if I'd been pulled apart, ripped in two by some awful force. Why the separation I don't know, but he seems to think it's important. He's got my body right though, for I am small, even my breasts, though they're plump and full. Blossoming, if you will, for I am young. He doesn't know who I am of course, since he hasn't seen me anywhere but in his mind; all he knows for certain is that I enter his mind, that my image keeps recurring in his dreams, and that he feels compelled to paint me.
He's putting the finishing touches to this latest painting when, out of the unusually overcast sky, another alcoholic seizure slams him to the ground without mercy, without even a nod or a tip of its hat in warning, his canvas and brushes flying wildly, his arms and legs askew, his head jackhammering against the cold concrete.
The commuters try to ignore Finn and walk around him as he lies on the hard pavement shuffling and shimmying around in his fit. A small pool of blood gathers under his head. When the convulsions subside he reaches out, shaking to his bones and, grabbing onto the end of his shopping cart, tries to pull himself up off the sidewalk. But he falls back exhausted, shattered. He feels as if he's just been stung with a cattle prod, for his body tingles head to toe, and a dull thumping pain pulses in the back of his head. He's pissed all over himself, and for a few long minutes he feels disoriented and confused, not knowing whether he's in San Francisco or lying on a sandy beach on the other side of the world.
"Are you okay, son?" an old woman asks. She stands before him wrapped in an old rag of a coat as worn as Finn's.
"No, missus," he says. "But I'll be fine."
"Should I call an ambulance; you look like you need an ambulance."
"No thanks, missus; I'll be fine, I really will! It's a seizure! Just another damn seizure!"
He feels like weeping. He's been on the streets, homeless and miserable for more then twelve years now, ever since Mary Quinn, his wife, left him, her own heart nearly broken at her inability to help him. When Mary leaves she takes their son with her too. Many a time, in his dreams throughout the years, Finn sees Mary leaving their home with their son, Finn Johnny Quinn. She always carries the same heavy suitcase in her hand, her head bent low, tears streaming down her face as she trudges along the street, away from their home, away from him, the child hanging onto her sleeve, wondering what the hell's become of his quiet, safe life. The look on his son's face when he turns to see his father in the window of their home is etched upon Finn's heart forever. Not even in his wildest dreams could Finn imagine Mary leaving him. He is ultimately filled with wonder when she does, because his most far-out dreams of her have been so fantastic, so poignantly intimate they tell him only that they're meant for each other and that nothing in the world could ever come between them. Then the alcohol does, and so too does Finn's consequent withdrawal into himself.
"You're swallowing yourself whole," Mary tells him as she stands before him, hands on hips, her dark eyes ablaze with anger.
"Bit by bit, feet first, past your gut, and now you're up to your neck. One more swallow and you'll be gone. I don't want to see that, Finn," she told him. "I don't want to see you disappear inside yourself."
Then she left.
She was right too, because I saw the swallow coming myself. In truth, I do the best I can to help him allay the inevitable, to make the inevitable less destructive; it's a hard thing to watch a man swallow himself whole, feet first, all the way up past his stomach to his neck and the last fatal swallowing, gone forever into the hole of his retreat into himself.
He's lost all of his old friends too, and he hasn't been back to Alba since that first time after the war. He hasn't seen any of his family in over twenty years and none of his American friends can take his self-abuse any more either. Their love for him is so much they can't bear to see him continue to kill himself with booze. Not even for one more day. It's too painful by far, because they know that, ultimately, he's a decent fellow with a strong urge to live peacefully. It is too great a burden for his loved ones to witness his destruction. Nor can Mary and the child continue to watch him die so slowly, day after day. He finally leaves all of them behind. His struggle will have to be gone through alone. All that keeps him from swallowing himself whole is his need to paint those wild and bizarre images he loves so much. The painting seems to keep him rooted in something resembling life. He took up painting just after the war and it seems he must paint his life story on those flat surfaces. He knows intuitively that there's something beyond himself which compels him to paint, that there's a reason for his existence after all. He paints for his life, from the inside out, needing somehow to communicate. It's all that's left and he holds onto it with a quiet desperation.
Finn is tall and thick as an oak, yet, at the same time, he's nimble on his feet. He has coal-black hair gone grey, and blue Keltic eyes. At best, he looks ten years older than his forty-five years, though he feels older even than that.
As he picks up his brushes and paints, he wraps his tattered coat more tightly about him. He still has some pride left, and his incontinence embarrasses him. He stinks. Stinks of piss! Piss is a death smell. Dead bodies smell of piss. "I smell of death," he mumbles through a resolute grimace. He's been trying to stay away from the bottle, trying to quit drinking, but without medication a seizure is inevitable. Nowadays at least. He knows that to be true because it's happened so many times before, but he wants so much to quit drinking that he feels the risk worthwhile. Maybe now, he thinks, I'll be okay; I've had my seizure. Then he thinks back to the jail cell.
He remembers having one, probably two, seizures in jail. And he remembers the hallucinations and DT's setting in during withdrawals. Another seizure is certainly possible too, though he's never experienced a doubleheader before, let alone three in a row. He wonders whether his brain will remain intact if he has another seizure. Maybe this time he'll have a heart attack or a stroke, maybe his mind might snap.
But, no, it's just the drunk-tank again, arrested once more, dead-drunk in public, arms and legs shackled to the wall of the cell, his head hanging low, wondering why he can neither live nor die, wondering why he can't stop drinking, why he has to be arrested again and again, marriage broken, life a shambles, drunkdrunkdrunk! Overwhelmed with fear!
I'm there in the cell beside him, filled with grief at my inability to help him. Everything he experiences, I experience, though I see only the pictures, hear only the sounds; I never feel the pain he feels, though my breasts ache knowing what he's going through. I become angry with him at times. "Take me back, damn you, take me back!" And though there's a stirring of loss somewhere inside him, a feeling of something not quite right, he refuses to open up his thick, fat heart.
As I watch him, a cockroach moves across the floor, turning first this way then that, searching, searching as Finn is searching.
He looks up and, seeing a Grotesque walk into the cell, screams with all his might. He can't believe his eyes. She is tall and thin, a hag, as ugly as sin, whose single breast droops to her navel and drips an ugly, green putrescent liquid; her lipless mouth shows long, sharp teeth. Yet even though she's lipless, she can still smile in a chilling sort of way, which she now does as she walks over to Finn who has fallen silent, petrified beyond speech or even sound. The hag smiles her grotesque smile. It is a calm and determined sort of smile which makes it all the more chilling. Then he notices her eyes. They are red, malevolent red, and almondshaped.
She approaches him in a demonically sexual way, first sticking her dripping wet breast into his mouth trying to make him suckle and, failing that, kisses him passionately with her lipless mouth. Then she begins to rub his cock as if it were her own, slowly, softly, arousingly as Finn, screaming silently, stiff in his shackles, knows he is about to die or go to hell. The Grotesque loosens his shackles one by one and, terrorized, he finds his voice again and screams as loudly as his lungs will allow. As soon as she has untied the last shackle, the Grotesque picks the Albanach up in her long wiry arms and backs off toward the door of the cell.
Finn becomes even more rigid and screams harder than ever, but to no avail, for the Grotesque holds him ever more tightly, determined to take him from the cell; with each step backward she takes, he grows stiffer, struggling for his life. When the redeyed bitch Grotesque reaches the door of the cell, it flies open with a loud crash, but no matter how hard she tries to pull him through, he won't budge. He remains as stiff as a brick and the Grotesque pulls and pulls, battering him against the doorjamb. For long minutes she batters the brickstiff Finn against the doorjamb, growing angrier by the minute until, at last, in a complete rage, she throws the Albanach to the floor where he lies weeping and sore, thankful he's still in the Land of the Living, thankful that his will has somehow been stronger than that of the bitch Grotesque.
When Finn first notices the walls and floor of his cell moving he thinks it might be an earthquake; when he sees a number of Grotesques, both male and female, climbing out of the crevices created by the movements, he knows his mind is slipping or that it is indeed time to go to hell. He scuttles, crablike, into the middle of the cell floor, but these Grotesques are many, and they look just like the first Grotesque, red eyes and all; they grab every part of him they possibly can and, as he screams and kicks, they pull him down into the hole in the floor -- the magical Saigon City in the Maygone month of June long-gone as down and down he goes into the hole.
All I can do is go with him.
Many of these Grotesques are naked too, and of those that are naked, their genitals have been horribly mutilated. The rest of them wear silky black pajamas. They are strong, and they carry Finn high above them as they travel through the dark, dank places of the jungle until they reach an encampment of sorts, surrounded by trees, lit with bonfires. In the middle of the encampment sits a bier, upon which they place him. When they've tied him down they dance around him, chanting all the while.
I am helpless, unable to interfere directly, though as I always do, I try to go inside him, try to fill him up.
As an Empty who became so through no fault of his own, Finn has an opening through which he can still receive messages from that of which he is empty. But, though he's open, he is more closed than open. He trusts nothing; he trusts no one. He manages to receive just enough of my signals to save him from complete and utter destruction.
The Grotesques continue their ritual of dancing and chanting around him. He has now calmed down somewhat, resigned perhaps to whatever fate might befall him. Wide-eyed, he watches a small group of his adversaries dance towards him, wide grins on their faces, their red almondshaped eyes bright and malevolent. He feels sure he knows those eyes the Grotesques all have in common. He's seen them before. Images of the dead soldiergirl in the jungle come back to him. He sees again her head being lopped off by Romeo Robinson's cleansweeping machete, and he sees again the bewildered look on her face as the life leaves her. But he knows those eyes from another place too, from somewhere in his far and distant past. Another life perhaps. He knows intuitively that those red, malevolent eyes belong to He Who Walks Only At Night, and that these Grotesques now surrounding him are the disciples of that very same Redeyes. Finn has seen Redeyes before. He knows him! And when he notices the mutilated genitals of the naked Grotesques he knows he's seen them before too.
Tied down as he is to the bier, he is a prisoner. They've caught up with him at last. Payback time has come for sure! Ivy league, Johnny Quinn, Frankie Chen, Tommy-up-front, Romeo Robinson and all the rest of the youngdead soldierboys he knew in Vietnam will forgive him at last; he is about to join them. Perhaps now he can rest, find some sort of peace.
He stares up through the treetops at the vast, unfamiliar sky with its countless unfamiliar stars, and he's afraid. The treetops frighten him. That's where snipers live. Maybe they're still up there in those treetops, he thinks. Maybe they've been up there all this time, waiting for me. "Help me. Oh, God, help me," he whispers through half-closed lips. He hopes the Grotesques won't hear him, won't see him looking so terrified, won't hear him beseeching his God. But they don't seem to be too concerned with what he feels or that he is afraid. They just do things to him. They take off all of his clothing and smear him with a foulsmelling oil. The oil smells like piss, like the smell of a newlydead corpse. And they touch him. They run their hands all over his body. All of them touch him. Over every inch of his piss-smelling body, all the while chanting their strange incantations. Perhaps they rub him with their oil because he too will soon be dead. Perhaps that's why they touch him.
They touch the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands; they run their tongues over his belly and his balls and down the inside of his thighs. A female Grotesque takes his cock into her mouth and Finn becomes aroused as his enemies make love to him underneath the countless unfamiliar stars. I'm making love to the enemy, he thinks. "They're fucking me," he murmurs. "They're raping me, for chrissake!" Then the youngdead soldiergirl with the lopped off head walks over to the bier and holds her head just above Finn's face. She lowers the head, and her cold lips, smiling faintly, find his and kisses them, her now-red almond eyes burning with a fierce passion. She kisses him, kisses him passionately, lovingly, then slides her tongue deep down into Finn's throat. Tears fall from the Albanach's eyes and the huge heaviness of impending doom wraps itself around his insides. He closes his eyes and waits. Nothing happens. On and on goes the droning sound of the unintelligible chants, hypnotic and spellbinding. On and on go the mesmerizing dances. Finn can smell the fires now, can smell them now more than ever. What's that? he wonders, then realizes it's diesel fuel. I can smell diesel fuel. They're gonnae burn me. They're gonnae burn me like a lamb. Then he shouts as loudly as he can: "I AM INNOCENT!"
The youngdead soldiergirl, now busy licking Finn's balls, looks up, momentarily startled, then her disembodied head smiles. A number of the Grotesques gather around Finn and untie the ropes around his limbs. Soldiergirl barks a few loud commands to the Grotesques who then grab Finn more tightly, more violently than before. At Soldiergirl's command they drag him over to a huge boulder lying near the funeral pyre. His fear is all-consuming, suffocating and terrible, like childhood fear, but he daren't make a sound lest he anger his captors, lest he goad them to worse violence. The Grotesques each take a separate limb and pull Finn's naked body across the rock, belly down. That done, they tie his arms to stakes hammered into the ground, then do the same with his legs.
The Grotesques begin a hypnotic dance around the rock. They begin again their strange chants, but this time the chants have more of a musical quality to them. Some of the Grotesques hold candles; some hold hollow pieces of wood with which they beat out a dance beat. Finn watches them, too terrified to move. Then suddenly the dancing and chanting stop. He is certain his end has come. Quietly, the Grotesques sit in a circle around him. They sit there for a long time whispering to one another, pointing from time to time to the wide-eyed Finn. A hush falls over the clearing so suddenly he can hear even the insects in the grass nearby. Then a loud, throaty, gurgling scream rips the night apart, followed at once by a choir of nightmare voices mumbling unintelligible sounds. The Grotesques directly in front of him break the circle and part to either side of a small path leading out of the thick trees.
The ropes around Finn's wrists and ankles are so tight he thinks he might rip apart at the waist. Struggling is out of the question. It occurs to him that the image he often paints of the splitapart woman is similar to the way he now feels about splitting apart himself. He wishes the Grotesques would just let him go, let him go back to his jail cell. Anything would be better than lying here trussed up like an unholy offering. He feels helpless and, naked as he is with his bare arse sticking up in the air, more vulnerable than he's ever felt in his entire life. Why are they doin' this to me? he wonders.
In a moment, more hair-raising screams. It's an animal, he thinks. It sounds like an animal screaming. Then out of the jungle steps the female Grotesque who came to him in the cell. She is naked still and her single breast continues to drip its horrible putrescent liquid. But this time her whole body is adorned with golden chainwork, and in her hand she holds a golden cord. Three feet behind her, attached to the other end of the golden cord, walks the biggest Billy goat Finn has ever seen. His coat is shiny and jet black and he stands fully three feet high. The horns upon his head are nearly a foot long. The Billy goat has been brushed so that his coat has a beautiful sheen to it, and his horns and cloven hoofs have been manicured until they shine like polished ivory. The billy goat's eyes are red.
The Grotesque walks over to Finn and lets the Billy goat stand there looking at him. Then the Billy goat licks his face, almost making him collapse with fear. The billygoat's foul breath reminds him again of piss and some kind of hellish decay. The stench is so bad it conjures up images of pus, open sores and feasting maggots, as if he's stumbled upon a week-old battle scene in Vietnam. He heaves, but nothing comes up, except more horrible memories, each heave bearing with it another grisly picture.
The female Grotesque kneels beside the Billy goat and rubs its cock arousingly. The Billy goat snorts and grunts with pleasure and the Grotesque drools dementedly. Some of the other Grotesques become agitated and excited while moving toward Finn. They massage him with more of their pissoil until he is covered with it and dripping once more. Then they spread the cheeks of his arse wide and apply the oil there too, all the while chanting and moaning to the hypnotic beat of the drums and the sounds from the other Grotesques. Finn stiffens when he feels objects enter him. He begs his lord God in heaven to please help him and don't let this happen. He continues to heave up memories, and as the remainder of the Grotesques dance in front of him, holding onto their mutilated genitals, Finn's mind roams somewhere up in the trees of a Vietnamese jungle twenty-odd years before, It is all so familiar.
At last, the female Grotesque leads the Billy goat away. Finn feels a sense of relief wash over him, and he is thankful. He is so afraid, so exhausted, he can't scream any more. Then he hears the snortings and gruntings of the Billy goat louder than ever. He can hear the drooling of the bitch grotesque too, and he becomes terrified all over again. What are they doing back there? he wonders. What the fuck are they doin' back there? The grunts and snorts of the Billy goat grow louder still. Finn hears and feels the Billy goat clamber up onto the boulder, its forelegs resting on the rock on either side of him. He knows then what they're up to back there. He struggles, but to no avail. His greatest fear is realized when he feels the Billy goat force itself into him. Finn is sure his insides are burning, and he can feel the Billy goat all the way up in his stomach as it rips and tears into him, filling him with its vile, demonic expulsion. At long last he is able to let out a long, heartripping scream, and all the birds in the jungle for miles around rise into the air all at once and beat their way frantically away from the hellish clearing in the jungle. Finn, mercifully, gasps and collapses into unconsciousness.
After the Billy goat has had its way with him, and after the Grotesques are done with him, they untie the Albanach and throw him down onto the ground where they clean him and attend to his wounds. They are most gentle, and treat him with respect as if he were a prince or a god, or even one of them. The Billy goat is nowhere to be seen, although his smell permeates the clearing.
When the cleaning is completed the Grotesques help Finn dress, then they hoist him once more above their heads as if he were indeed being carried along, alert and alive, on top of a funeral pyre, his own funeral pyre. They walk back through the dark places of the jungle. They continue to chant their mad sounds as they enter the pitchblack places again, and when they reemerge once more back in Finn's cell they throw him into a corner, done with him. Waving cheerfully, the Grotesques disappear back down into the crevice just as quickly and as suddenly as they came. When the last Grotesque jumps into the crevice, the floor closes up and becomes as solid and flat as before. Finn sits in the corner shaking and crying, and knows he has lost his mind, that it has slipped down that very same crack in the flatagain floor.
He remembers every detail of the experience, from the Grotesques and their chantings and ravings to the clawing and sucking of his genitals, to the Billy goat buggering him. All of it. Even the smell of the diesel fuel and, worst of all, the smell of piss -- a sure sign that a newlydead corpse is close at hand. He is wet too. He reaches down and feels the wetness at his crotch. I've pissed myself, he thinks. Goddamit, I've pissed myself. Maybe it's blood. Nah, I've had a seizure. He feels numb, exhausted, his mind fuzzy. He wonders how long he's been lying there in the drunk tank. There are no windows; he can't be sure. Must be hours, though, if I've had a seizure. He hears the sound of wood being pulled across the bars of the cells, accompanied by a loud, brash, official voice, dripping with sarcasm.
"Rise and shine, gentlemen. Time to go home to your nice cozy beds!"
Finn smiles, thinking of his home. He wonders whether his shopping cart is safe. He remembers telling Arkansas to hide it in the usual place, just a few hours before, when they were taking him to jail.
Dragging himself up off the floor, he stands by the cell door, shaking and trembling for want of a drink. He waits until the jailer lets him go, lets him go out into another day of shopping cart madness, in search of his ever-elusive bottle of peace and tranquility.
Still trembling for want of that same drink, he holds his shopping cart tightly lest he fall and crack his skull again. He trudges along Columbus Avenue toward Paranoid Park. As far as he's concerned, it's the safest park in San Francisco. "For a no-hoper like me," he once said, his voice thick with irony, and a strangely rebellious smile, childlike, creasing his face. He repeats his dictum as he walks, pushing his shopping cart, all the while noticing the distasteful and sometimes menacing expressions on the faces of the people who pass him on their way to work.
"The hell with them," he mumbles. "They don't know a god-damned thing about life anyway."
And so he truly believes, for Vietnam taught him, in a twisted sort of way, everything he'll ever need to know about life, about living. It's funny, he thinks, how death and killing can teach us about living, even about how the hell we ought to live. It has made him more honest with others, less able to hurt another human being. But at the same time, the war did something to his very being, something inexplicable and mean.
He came back from Vietnam feeling empty, unable to smile, unable to mix with people for very long. Crowds of people in particular. Mary stuck by his side for as long as she could. Far longer, perhaps, than any other woman might have done, but she burned out too; she couldn't take it anymore either. Not even Mary who was always staunch and strong. It didn't matter that he'd known her more intimately than he'd ever known anyone. Or that he'd known her for such a long time too. She left him because she had to.
Shortly after leaving her in Hawaii, Finn saw Mary in a dream and, as soon as he wakened, wrote her a letter describing the dream. When he was sure Mary had read the letter, Finn called her in Boston where she lived with her family and asked her to marry him. She accepted immediately, as if she'd been expecting his call and his consequent proposal.
Ever since their first meeting, Finn had felt as if there had been some sort of inevitability to their relationship, and his dream had confirmed this. They were meant to be together in a strange and inexplicable sort of way. But the dream had been beautiful after all, and the resulting letter equally so.
Pushing the rattling old shopping cart in front of him, he thought back to the day he sent Mary her letter, a wry smile creasing his face as he remembered the dream. He stayed up most of the night trying to make some sense of the craziness he experienced in the dream. And it was craziness, but a craziness of such beauty and wonderment it shook him to the core. How could he have known they once loved each other in such a far away place, and in such a distant time? Later in life he would laugh at how ridiculous his dream had been, and how hopelessly romantic they were to believe it, to fall for it.
"I saw you in my sleep," he wrote. "You were beautiful then too. We stood inside an old, old cottage with a thatched roof. Perhaps it was in ancient Ireland, or in the Highlands of Alba long ago. I'm not sure. We stood at a long table covered almost completely with herbs and potions of various sorts. We mixed and measured them as if we were apothecaries. The people of our village came to us and gave us things we needed in exchange for the potions they needed. We were healers or we were wizards; I'm not sure which. Every time I looked up at you as we worked, you would smile knowingly at me and I would burst out laughing. I remember in my dream wondering what it was you knew, what wonderful knowledge you had, that made me laugh so much. We were happy, Mary. I do remember that much at least."
But that was the crazy part of the dream. He actually felt he knew her in some other life. He keeps a beautiful picture of Mary in his head, and an overwhelming feeling of love for her in the pit of his gut. Still, to this very day. After meeting her in the world of his dreams, he came to feel for her a love reserved only for impossible stories and poems too good to be true. He now knows differently, knows that loving Mary is possible because, in the dream, he experienced Mary's passion, her passion for living, and for him. He felt her love for him, so strong back then when they were young.
That's all he thinks about now as he trudges along Columbus Avenue pushing his damned shopping cart ahead of him. And that's how it's been for the dozen years they've been separated. Hell, he thinks, I don't even know if we're divorced. His hands, unclean from days without a decent wash, tremble and shake as he grips the plastic handle of his cart, and tears roll down his bewhiskered face. "Fuck off," he mumbles to the world about. "I'll cry when I need to. I'm cryin' because I'm thankful, thankful that I'm still alive in some sort of way at least."
"I even love you!" he screams, scaring the daylights out of a Bureaucrat hurrying along on his way to work.
"Oh, Mary," he says. "Where are you, because I miss you oh, so much!"
He stops and leans against the wall of a shop. From his shopping cart he pulls out a small package, neatly tied with a thin red ribbon, wrapped in a covering of soft purple velvet. The picture, the picture of his darling Mary within. He kisses it and looks briefly at the letter inside, all worn and stained from much reading. But he knows it, word for word, by heart. And he remembers mailing it to her, after making love to her in Hawaii, knowing that his love for her is his to keep forever. His first love letter to Mary, naive and true as all first love letters must be, full of such high sentiments. Do you remember, Mary? he wonders.
But there's no need to ask; Mary remembers the letter too, though more vaguely than he. More comes back to her the longer she lives with Finn, the Albanach; more comes back to her as the years pass by. She loves him for being such a dreamer. But he lives less and less the more he drinks his awful potion, his awful anesthesia. Mary gives the letter back to him when she leaves.
In spite of everything, Finn won't die. He refuses to die. Some kind of hope, some kind of faith, holds onto him and refuses to let him go. He knows this, he knows there is some reason for his continuing to walk the face of the earth, even if he is homeless and mostly drunk. But he truly believes he can kick the alcohol and return to life. There is something about his past, something about his Keltic ancestry, that nags at him constantly, unfailingly, and keeps him from completely destroying himself.
The grass is dewdamp in the park, for it is still early morning. Various groups of Chinese people are up and about as usual, practicing their taichi exercises. Groggily, Finn looks around the park and, finding a quiet corner, pulls his sleeping bag out of his shopping cart. His old, filthy sleeping bag. Kinda like a bodybag, he muses. Just jump into it and zip it up. Simple! He calls it his hotel room. But with a suddenness that astounds him, he feels another electric shock hit him as if he's been whacked across the back with a thick piece of wood. "Oh, God," he moans as he drops like a stone to the mercifully soft grass.
I'm as helpless as usual in that moment. All I can do is kneel beside him, send him messages of comfort, and hope that someone will come to his aid. He shakes and rattles around on the ground as he did on the avenue, but his head, mercifully, jackhammers against the soft grass rather than the terrible concrete of the sidewalk. My heart splits in two at my helplessness, but as I watch him suffer I notice that more than just a few of the Chinese grannies and grampas doing their taichi exercises have begun to notice Finn's shaking. They walk toward him until a circle of half a dozen or so have gathered around him.
"The poor man," says one of the grannies. "Help him; his spirit is dying."
Little does she know!
One of the grampas kneels before Finn and tries to comfort him by moving his hands over Finn's shaking body.
"There's blood," he says. "From his head and from his ears. His heart is in trouble."
Amidst the ensuing gasps and groans from the taichis, we hear the slow creaking sound of wagon wheels turning. The grannies and grampas part the circle and I see coming torward us, slowly and deliberately a water buffalo, a bull who is huge and whose head is bent as if in prayer. I can't help but notice the bloody bullet holes encircling the water buffalo's neck.
He pulls behind him an old wooden-wheeled cart inside of which is a bed of fresh straw. The water buffalo is driven by an old man whose hair is long and silver. He wears a saffron robe tied at the waist by a simple cord. The robe is short enough to show off his spindly, hairless legs. He holds a whisk in his hand with which he gently coaxes the water buffalo. Finn is quite still though he bleeds now from his mouth as if he's bitten his tongue.
When the cart pulls alongside the prone figure of Finn, the old man with the silver hair steps down from the cart, and he too kneels in front of the Albanach. Gently, the old fellow takes Finn's hands in his and strokes them lovingly.
As I watch them, I see tears rolling from the old man's eyes.
He picks Finn up off the ground as carefully as he would a newborn lamb and, walking through the quiet and still crowd of old taichis, places him gently onto the bed of straw. When he has once more mounted his old wooden-wheeled cart he turns to those gathered around him.
"He is one of us," he says. "I will take him to the Land of the Truly Alive."
Then he looks at me and smiles. He knows me and I realize I know him too. He points to Finn and beckons me. I step up into the cart and sit beside Finn. I can no more leave him than the fish can leave the sea. I sit there beside him in the cart, cradling his painfilled head in my lap, as the water buffalo, the bull, pulls us across the soft green grass of Paranoid Park in search of the Land of the Truly Alive.

The miles have tumbled headlong one into the other. We've climbed hills, descended down into dales, and traveled through wooded areas. We've forded rivers, too, until the park and the old taichis are many hours, many miles, behind us.
Traveling on the old wooden-wheeled cart feels like journeying through a dream. A sense of lightness and unconnectedness fills me. The trees and the roads and the rivers appearing before us somehow don't seem quite real, though they are there nevertheless. At times we hear the noise of life all around us; at other times, quiet prevails. After a while we cross a long bridge over turbulent water. We wander through a thick forest of fragrant eucalyptus trees for many long hours, taking a great many turns, mistakenly it seems; the old silverhaired driver doesn't mind, isn't in any sort of a hurry at all. From time to time he looks back at me and smiles. Eventually, with the steady plodding steps of the water buffalo, we arrive at a house made of thick, strong stone such as might be used to build castles. The old man steps lightly from the cart, walks over to the water buffalo and speaks a few soft words into his ear. The bull bellows and shakes his head. Silverhair turns to me and smiles a big, toothless smile.
" is it he calls you? Ah! Madman is it not? It's grand to see you again. Aye it is, grand indeed!"
"I'm sure I know you, too," says I, "but I don't know what you're doing here."
He chuckles. "No matter," he says. "All will become clear in time. But this is where he must begin the real work. This is the beginning of the road to the Land of the Truly Alive. I'll leave him by the door. Yae must continue to guard him and guide him as yae have done all these years."
He picks Finn up again, so effortlessly for such a skinny old man, and lays him down on the topmost step. He looks comical standing there with his spindly legs sticking out below his saffron robe.
"Watch him well, Madman," he says, as he boards the old wooden-wheeled cart. "He'll recover sooner than yae think!"
I sit beside the Albanach and hold him, though he can't feel me. I look down at him for a long, long time.
Our relationship is strange at best. I don't feel things the way he does. I know he's exhausted after all those years plodding through the mudsludgy streets of his Shopping Cart Soldier's life. I tag along beside him, trying to direct him, to guide him as best I can. I keep telling him I love him. I must; I have to keep him going. He is, after all, my body, my shell. Wherever he goes I must go too, though my footsteps grow heavier, my heart more sore as the years fly by. He still can't see me.
He does recover quickly. He sits there, bewildered, on the top step of the entryway. He knows he's had a seizure, because his body still feels as if it's been jolted by a cattle prod. His surroundings look vaguely familiar, and his bewilderment stems mainly from his inability to understand why he isn't still in Paranoid Park, But, trembling and shaking, he pulls himself up onto his feet and enters the grand house. He doesn't care whose house it is; nor does he care who might be inside. He needs a drink and that's all that matters, that's all he cares about. When he enters the huge kitchen, he sees a bottle of whiskey sitting in the middle of the kitchen table as if it's been placed there by someone expecting his arrival. It sits there like a chalice, splendid upon an altar. With careful deliberation he puts the bottle to his lips and swallows the liquor in great gurgling gulps. The relief from the shakes and tremors comes almost immediately, the possibility of another seizure no longer a consideration. He takes a few more healthy gulps from the whiskey bottle just to make sure, then wanders about the huge house. Exhausted from the seizures, he collapses onto an empty bed and falls deeply into a drunken stupor.
He wakens disconcerted from a sleep inhabited by more of his Grotesques. They always come after a hard night on the booze; though they frighten him, they are still unable to send him completely over the edge. Yet, in spite of his strength, a familiar fear hangs cold over him, as if he were wrapped for the crypt. There are times when a fear such as this makes him laugh. Laugh and laugh and laugh, as if he doesn't give a damn, as if he doesn't care. At other times, the same fear grips him with icy talons. He wipes the sleep from his eyes and looks up at the ceiling.
Catching sight of the grey stone high overhead, Finn feels as if he's in his old home, the same home he left when he began his Shopping Cart Soldier's life. At the same time the grand house feels unfamiliar. Perhaps even dangerous. Something isn't quite right, isn't quite as it ought to be and that, as well as the creatures of his dreams, throws him wildly off kilter.
He lived in the house for a long time back then, before his breakup with Mary Quinn. It's a huge house, a grand house. The floors are made of dark, grey slate and are always dusty. Mary sweeps them often. Nowadays, many people live in the house. It isn't his house any more. Not any more. It doesn't even look the same. It's been gutted on the inside and instead of rooms there are now a great many plateaus on three different levels. It is on the plateaus that the inhabitants keep their bedding. Many people live in the house now, and Finn doesn't know any of them, can't possibly know any of them. There's usually a lot of business going on in the house, a great many comings and goings, but tonight it's quiet and he's alone. Alone, out of sorts and frightened.
It is late evening and the house is dimly lit. He gets up and wanders from one plateau to the next, stopping from time to time to stare through the windows at the darkness without. Windblown rain beats wildly against the windows. He shudders and wonders again why he feels so fearful. He finds some discarded clothing scattered about the house. Though it's cold, he wears only a pair of jeans and a red velvet robe hangs loosely about his body. Dark leather slippers fit snugly on his feet. He wraps his arms around his body in an attempt to ward off the chill and whatever else makes him feel so ill-at-ease. With downcast eyes, he continues to trudge through the uncomfortable house. Up and down the stairs from one level to the next he wanders, dark thoughts pestering him.
Bed, he thinks, I'll go back to bed. I'll sleep an' I'll dream again. Whether good or bad he always enjoys his dreams; they tell him things he might never otherwise know. He feels them as if they're as real as living.
When he reaches the plateau he claims as his own, he throws his robe down onto the stone floor beside his bedding and slips under the woolen blanket, still wearing his jeans. In a moment or two he's as warm as he could wish to be, and for the first time that day he smiles, anticipating the adventure of his dreams, looking forward to meeting those who people them. Outside, the rain continues to beat against the house and the wind howls, happy at the havoc it causes. Drifting, he wonders at his fear. What causes it, what makes his heart feel so leaden and heavy, what makes his chest heave with anguish and his eyes fill with tears? Soon he sleeps, and dreams.
He sits on top of a grassy knoll, leaning against an oak tree, a very old oak tree. He can feel the age-old wisdom of the tree coming through the bark, from the skin of the oak through his own skin. The sensation from the tree feels comfortable. Night has fallen, such a beautiful night too. The sky is filled with uncountable twinkling stars. The moon sits among the stars smiling and bright, as huge as happiness. Finn can see for miles and miles. He's astonished at the beauty surrounding him. The sky blazes with silver light and all around him are flowers whose bright and vibrant colors would set any painter's heart on fire. There are poppies and anemones, and violets are so abundant their perfume hangs heavy in the air. He sits there ogling, taking in all that natural beauty, all that natural loveliness. Then he sees a movement in the trees beyond the knoll. He sees a Shape move toward him, the shape of a man, a very old man, stooped with age, whose hair is long and thick and as silvery as the moon. The years show in the old man's wrinkled and weathered skin. The stories in his eyes speak not only of peace, but also of pain and tribulation. He wears a long, flowing saffron robe. It is the old man of the wagon. From the moment Finn sets eyes on the old man, he knows he looks upon a seer, a visionary. A strangely-colored stone hangs around the old fellow's neck, attached to a leather string.
I look once more at the driver of the wooden-wheeled cart, and I know instinctively that his name is Silverbright.
Finn and Silverbright smile a warm greeting to each other. The old fellow sits beside Finn, leaning as he is, against the comfortable old oak tree. It seems they talk for days. They talk of Alba, and they talk of leaving it, for Silverbright is an Albanach too. They talk of the flowers around them; they talk of abstractions such as love. They laugh a lot, happy at the beauty surrounding them. Finn can't help but laugh, for when Silverbright opens his mouth all he can see are the old man's gums. He doesn't have a tooth in his head, but that doesn't seem to bother Silverbright, and his carefree manner makes Finn laugh all the more. Laughing makes him uncomfortable. He isn't used to it, hasn't laughed like that for a long time.
Suddenly, without warning, the toothless old fellow turns to Finn, a vicious smirk stretching across his face. He slaps Finn resoundingly on the mouth. The old fellow stands and, shaking his fist at the astonished Albanach, he speaks.
"Come to my cave," he says, in a tone belying any thought of refusal. "Yae must go back to Alba," he continues. "Yae must go back. That's where you'll find your salvation, your peace of mind. I'll show yae the way." Then he turns and walks off back along the way he came.
Finn awakes rigid and stiff with his now-familiar fear. He rubs the side of his face unconsciously and looks around the room, half-expecting to see the old man, but he's disappeared. What he sees instead is the prone figure of Mary Quinn lying in bed beside him. Why is Mary in my bed? he wonders. She left such a long, long time ago.
He watches her pack. He sits on the edge of their bed, devastated, literally filled with dread. Young Finn is standing in the bedroom doorway, leaning against the jamb. He too is devastated. He doesn't understand why his parents have to go and fuck things up. Finn's leaning on his knees, his head in his hands. He just woke up, woke up to find Mary packing a huge suitcase. He's hungover, blearyeyed and sick from the drink.
"For chrissake, Mary, don't go!" he says. "Don't, goddamit, just leave!"
Mary throws a last piece of clothing into the overloaded suitcase. She angrily closes the flaptop then snaps the locks into place. She looks at him with determined, steadfast eyes.
"By this time tomorrow," says she, "Me an' Finn'll be back in Boston. If you get a grip you can call me at my ma's. But don't call me unless you're sober."
There's an imploring tone to Mary's voice as she continues.
"For God's sake, Finn, get some help. Go into treatment or somethin'. You're gonna die if you don't."
"Ah never asked for this, Mary, you know that. Ah don't know what the hell's wrong wi' me." He is naked but for his underpants. He walks over to where young Finn is standing and grabs his robe from a hook behind the door. When he's tied the cord around his waist he walks over to Mary and takes her into his arms. "Don't leave me, Mary," he says, quietly, holding her tightly. "Ah'll go absolutely mad if yae do. You're all ah've got, you an' the young fella!"
"Oh, Finn, Finn," says Mary, pushing away from him. She holds him at arms' length. "I have to go. Don't you see? It's the only chance you have! You have to do it on your own. For the love of God go back to the VA!"
Finn pushes Mary away, angry now.
"Screw those fools! They don't do nothin'. Same old shit every time yae go near them. Forms up the yin-yang, some young-arsed, trainee psychiatrist takin notes for his latest research paper. Don't know sweet fuck-all about the war, what it was like. Screw the VA, Mary Buncha goddamn lazy-arsed Bureaucrats makin' sure they don't lose their comfy wee jobs workin' for the government. We're nothin' but guinea pigs out there us vets."
When he hears the sobs he turns to his son. He kneels before the boy and takes him into his arms.
"Ach, don't cry, young Finn," he says. "Ah'll be okay, ah really will. Ah'll fight like hell, ah'll get some help somehow!" He turns to Mary. "Tell him, Mary, tell him ah'll be okay."
"Don't drink any more, daddy," says young Finn.
"Christ," says Finn. "Ah'm so scared, Mary. Ah don't know what's happenin' to me. Ah'm scared to death!"
"I'm scared too, Finn. We're all scared." She kneels beside Finn and puts her arms around him, the boy sandwiched between them. "We're all scared, Finn," says Mary, as a single tear begins its crooked, fitful path down her cheek. "Scared to death."
Mary opens her eyes and looks at Finn, surprised to see him lying on her mattress on the highest plateau. Her eyes pop open wider when she recognizes him. She springs from the bed, naked, and flees from the plateau. Mary looks young, as young as on the day she left him. To Mary, the Albanach is an old man. But why does she flee, her eyes so full of terror? Does Finn, in his sleep, touch her thinking she is still his wife, someone he might have touched that way? Does he touch her thinking they are still together? He thinks again of the old man who slapped him, and the word Alba tapdances behind his eyes, bothering him like a troublesome dream.
He feels fearful again, but this time he recognizes the source. He sits up as rigid as a doorpost.
"What the hell?" he mumbles. "I've lost somethin'. What is it I've lost?"
In a panic, he springs from the bed and pulls his robe about him. What have I lost? he wonders again. He searches his pockets, one after the other, and chuckles when he realizes that what he has lost can never be found in any pocket. Frantic, he flees from his plateau, but stops abruptly when the house fills with people, happy smiling people, champagne glasses in their hands. It's a celebration. Everyone is singing and dancing, roaring with laughter. Finn is terrified, his eyes as wide as Mary's. He looks across the crowded room and there she is. She's wearing one of those print frocks he always liked to see her in. She stares at him with those terror-filled eyes of hers. Frantically she sweeps the floor. He can't for the life of him understand why his wife is so afraid of him. As the house fills with people he becomes much more afraid himself. Amidst this sea of happy people, Mary and Finn are terrified. Then a tiny young man with an east coast accent walks over to Finn. He wears dirty, worn jungle fatigues soaking wet at the crotch. The young man's left hand is clasped around his balls, his right hand held over his heart. Bright crimson blood spills through the spreadout fingers of both of his hands.
"I'm leakin' like a sieve, but I'm goin' home!" says Frankie Chen, a joyous smile spreading across his face.
The Albanach stares at him.
"Where?" he asks.
"Home!" Frankie repeats, then slaps the Albanach on the back in a comradely fashion.
"Aye, in a bodybag, Frankie. Yae never made it, buddy!"
Then the Albanach walks away from Frankie, repeating over and over again the word home. "Home, home, home!" Where is home? he wonders. Is there such a place as home? "There is no home," he says, quietly, as he stands trembling by the window wondering again why he feels so goddamned numb.
Frankie stands motionless for a while looking after Finn, deep in thought, his brow creased deeply. He shakes his head. "Fuck you," he says, pivoting. He walks away from his old pal, his hands still clutching at his heart and balls.
Finn stares through the window at the darkness beyond. An armless black man whose face is covered in blood, walks over to Finn. He pushes a battered shopping cart ahead of him. There's a large bundle inside the cart, covered by a crimson cloth. The bloody-faced man has splints tied to the stubs of his arms and these, in turn, he slips into holsters fastened to the sides of the shopping cart. Looks like he's dead, or should be dead, thinks Finn.
"Fuck you!" Romeo Robinson screams into the Albanach's face, splattering him with spittle and blood. "I am dead!" Then the crimson cloth is pushed to the side and a soldier with bluewhite skin looks up at Finn and grins knowingly. A huge syringe, filled with blood, sticks out of the soldier's arm. The blood runs down his forearm and forms a pool in the cup of his hand.
"Hello, Finn," says Ivy League. He throws the cup of blood over the Albanach before covering himself once more with the crimson cloth. Romeo resumes his journey, pushing the shopping cart ahead of him.
Finn, dripping with blood, screams. Like Mary, he flees. He recognizes the dead soldiers. He can't remember Ivy League's real name, but he remembers shooting up with him in his hootch over there in the jungle. A little bit at first, then huge amounts. He watches Ivy League become consumed with the heroin. He also remembers asking Ivy League to change the music one night when they were both high. Ivy Leagues too stoned to hear. He doesn't answer. Finn gets up and taps him on the shoulder. Ivy League drops to the ground. He turns blue. Finn runs from the hootch, not wanting to become involved in an overdose death. All that's left after that is the memory of his old soldier pal turning blue. Another grunt from a different hootch finds Ivy League and Ivy League lives to catch the unlucky flight on the night of The Leaving. He is one of the dead twenty-six.
For a long time Finn wanders about the house among the happy, laughing people. He's confused. He wonders how much madness one man can bear. Then he recognizes Johnny Quinn sitting among a group of people on a lower level of the house of stone. He feels safe; Johnny is his old pal and the Albanach loves the curly-haired man like a brother.
Poet Johnny's words often saved the Albanach from a scrape he couldn't cope with. The words often save him from death itself. Johnny also saves Finn in the jungle when Finn tries, without awareness, to kill himself chasing the need to be a hero. Whenever Johnny and the Albanach meet they hug one another, smile as if they have a big secret, and kiss each other on the cheek like Europeans. Sometimes, when they're stoned, they would kiss one another full on the lips and slap each other on the back happily. That's just the way of them. Many of the other grunts think the two are queer, but they simply love one another as only one man can love another. Like brothers. Like soldiers struggling together on the battlefield.
The Albanach shouts down to Johnny, his friend.
"Johnny Johnny, I've lost somethin'!"
Johnny laughs with the people he sits beside. But Johnny always laughs, is always happy. Perhaps that's why the Albanach loves him so. Johnny looks up at him.
"Don't bother me, Finn; I'm reading them a poem!"
Finn turns to walk away. Johnny rolls his eyes resignedly.
"What is it you've lost?" he asks.
"I don't know," replies the Albanach, "but I've lost somethin'!"
"Well, when you've figured out what you've lost, maybe you should go look for it!"
Then Johnny bursts out laughing again and slaps his knee; the people among whom he sits laugh too. The bloody, armless man who looks as if he should be dead comes back toward the Albanach.
"Fuck you!" he screams again into Finn's face, again splattering him with spittle. Again, the needle-armed corpse flings aside his crimson covering and smiles knowingly at his old pal.
"Hey, Finn, how ya doin', buddy?" he says.
Screaming like a stuck pig, Finn flees from the house, grabbing his old coat as he runs. Mary watches him with her terror-filled eyes. Outside, in the darkness, the wind howls like a banshee and the rain, which once beat wildly against the window, now pounds Finn as if it means to punish him. In his haste, he's forgotten his shoes. Barefooted, he runs along the street toward the sea, his instincts alone prompting him. The wind grows stronger, pushing violently at his back. The sea beckons, "Come closer, come to me!" He loses control as it pushes him faster than his legs can move. He feels trapped, caught up in a wild, frenzied concert played by the strings of the wind and the brass of the sea, and he can't for the life of him figure out who the mad composer might be, who it might be that wants him so badly to become a part of the wind and the sea. "Don't let me drown," he cries, but the wind picks him up as if he were as light as lint and hurls him toward its cohort, the beckoning sea. With luck, or perhaps with the help of the old man of his dream, he manages to grab onto the branch of a tree and hold fast. Presently, the wind dies down a little and the Albanach clings to the trunk of the tree crying with happiness and gratitude.
Little does he know that it was me, me and my umbilical cord that has saved him.
"No' this time," he says. "Ah'm no' gonnae drown just yet."
He pulls his worn, old overcoat about him and walks, headbent, into the wind. He has no idea where he might go, but he has to find whatever it is he's lost. He trudges on. The rain continues to beat down on him. The wind continues to howl to the tune of the raging, crashing sea below. The Albanach hears a woman screaming in agony. He looks toward the sound. On the hill above sits an enormous, prison-like building surrounded by a wall. The agonized woman lies on her back on top of the wall; it seems her back is broken. The wind has blown her there. She looks young. She wears a nurse's white uniform. A huge red cross hangs around her neck.
"Help me. Oh, God, help me!" she screams. "Help me, I'm dying!"
Tommy-up-front stands over the nurse, looking down at her, an expression of disdain contorting his face.
"Shuttup, ya damn fool," he says. "If ya don't shuttup the gooks'll hear ya!"
Then Tommy picks the nurse up and throws her into a rickety old shopping cart; the pushed and the pusher disappear into the darkness amidst the screams of the broken woman. The astonished man from Alba shouts out to the retreating figures. He doesn't recognize them in the darkness.
"Hey, you, hold it there! Who are you, what are yae doin' with that broken woman, where are yae goin' with her?"
Out of the black night he hears a loud and piercing laugh. A voice speaks out to the Albanach in a strange, singsongy voice, sending a chill up his spine.
"I'm a hero, so is she. She's finished and broken. I'm taking her to the garbage dump; nobody needs her any more; nobody gives a rat's ass these days!" Then all is quiet.
The Albanach continues his journey feeling fearful, overflowing with his terrible sense of numbness. He knows he must find whatever's gone astray, but knowing what he fears makes him less fearful. He crosses a railroad track and looks up to see a strange-looking engine emerge from the train station a few yards along the tracks. The engine is unlike any he has ever seen before. It reminds him of a pod, a giant, transparent pod. Inside the engine, a single word dances a mad dance as if in time with a tune crazier even than that played a short time before by the wind and the sea. As the engine pulls out of the station, the Albanach notices a train of smaller, podlike carriages, each with a word inside, being pulled by the mother pod. The words are dressed gaily as if on their way to a party. The words smile happily, but Finn is unable to read them.
"Yae shouldn't be goin' out on a night like this," says Finn to the word inside the mother pod. "The wind might blow yae into the sea! The wind and the sea are hungry tonight."
"Mind your own damn business," says the word inside the podlike engine, then she laughs and chug-chugs along the railroad tracks into the night. The man from Alba thinks he hears one of the pod-entrapped words telling the mother pod to stop, but he can't be sure; the wind and the sea are roaring so.
He continues his walk, dripping wet, and soon realizes that he doesn't know where he's going. He chuckles. "It's a goddamn guide I need," he mumbles. He has no idea of his whereabouts or of his destination. He wanders aimlessly through the dark, wet night.
After a while, the rain finally ceases its punishment and the wind dies to a mere whisper of its former self. On and on he walks until he comes to a well-lit street where he meets a kilted Albanach warrior. The warrior's hair is long and sandy-colored and his thick mustache sweeps across his cheeks back towards his ears. He looks fierce this warrior. But at the same time, he seems peaceful and has a look of wisdom about him that's unmistakable. Instead of the targs and claymores or other weaponry of ancient Alba, the warrior carries a set of bagpipes slung across his shoulders. Finn is shocked, not only at the unusual sight of the Albanach himself, but also because he wears the colors of Finn's own clan, the Sons of Donald. In his formal and colorful attire, the Albanach looks as if he's just returned from some festivity or another, for the bag of his musical instrument steams hotly in the cold night air. When he sees Finn approach, the Albanach stops and looks at him curiously. As Finn passes, the warrior stops him.
"Hello laddie," he says, "what's wrong with yae, have yae somehow lost your way?"
"Aye, but more than that," Finn replies, breaking into the speech of Alba. "I've lost something else too, but when I came abroad to look for it I became lost myself."
"When I came abroad to look for it...." The words are music to my ears. At least I know now that he's looking for something. He doesn't really know what it is he's looking for, but at least he's looking. When he discovers he's been looking for his soul all this time he might throw a fit, he might become more angry than he has been, more determined to keep fighting me. But I'll just have to take that chance. I'll just have to keep hoping that he'll learn enough on the way to help him realize that without me he's doomed. I'll do everything I can to keep him going towards the light! It's all I can do.
The warrior studies Finn for a moment then casts sideways glances up along the road in both directions as if he expects someone to walk along the path towards them.
"I can tell by your speech that yae're an Albanach like me. But tell me, where are yae goin' on such a foul night?"
"I'm no' sure," Finn replies. "I'm just no' sure!"
"Then where d'yae live?" asks the man.
"I live in a big house made of stone, strong stone the likes of which is used to build castles. Our house has grey, stone floors and they're always dusty. Mary Quinn sweeps them frantically, but still they are dusty. A great many people live in our house." Finn looks down at the ground. "But it's no' my home any more."
The Albanach looks at Finn more closely, more curiously.
"I know of such a place," says the man. "I'll take yae there, though I don't for the life of me know why yae would want tae go there. It's a strange place, a strange place indeed."
"Why would yae do such a thing for me?" asks the man from Alba. "Why would you help me? Yae don't even know me."
"Och, I know yae well enough," comes the reply. "I understand such a one as yersel' for I'm searchin' too. An' like me, yae're a warrior. Warriors help one another. Come on, I'll take yae to this place yae call home." Finn smiles, hearing himself described so, as a warrior.
The warrior looks off into the distance as he speaks these last words and he chuckles at the mention of the word home. Finn seems disconcerted all the more by the strange humor, but when the Albanach marches off through the well-lit street Finn follows right behind him happy, at the very least, to be moving again. When they move off, the Albanach warrior strikes up a happy marching song and Finn, feeling considerably cheered, smiles as his spirits rise. Perhaps, he thinks, when I find my home I can begin again my search for whatever it is I've lost. They march for a very long time before Finn finally sees his house perched high up on a cliff by the seashore. It is the same house where the old man and the water buffalo dropped him off earlier.
"That's my home," he says. "I had a feelin' it might be!"
The Albanach looks at him with curiosity once more.
"I was happy to help yae," he says. "But if yae want to find what yae've lost, laddie, yae must first know what yae lost." He has a voice like a whispering wind.
Finn thinks of Johnny Quinn just then. He thinks too of a warning he heard as a child and, when he looks again at the Albanach, he remembers where he saw him before. The Albanach turns just then and walks back the way he came, gaily playing his pipes. Before he's gone more than a few yards the warrior turns once more to face the man from Alba.
"Look for Silverbright, the auld man of your dream," he shouts. "He lives in a cave by the sea. Go to him!" Then he turns again and begins once more to blow on his pipes. This time, though, he plays a dirge, a mournful tune of loss. Finn recognizes the music. It is the same mournful lament he heard as a child when he went out running through that long, misty night such a long time ago during his childhood when he first saw the Albanach warrior.
Finn appears stunned by the words of the warrior and wonders how a stranger could know of his dream. When he looks up at his house he feels comforted at the sight of the thick, strong stone. Enjoying the moment, he looks through the picture window at the front of the house. There stands Mary, naked once more, her eyes closed rapturously. Romeo Robinson, who looks as if he ought to be dead, has his splinted stubs wrapped around Mary's waist. He's naked from the waist down himself and Finn notices that he has artificial legs. The armless, legless man nibbles Mary passionately around the earlobes and humps and bumps his body into hers. The blue-white soldier pulls the syringe out of his arm and a geyser of dark, black blood rains over the happily coupling couple. As Finn watches, the drug-addict corpse drops his fatigue pants to the floor and, holding his huge erection proudly, hobbles over to Mary. He stands behind her and, timing himself to the rhythm of the lovers, takes Finn's wife from behind, all the while pouring blood all over them. The Albanach's heart races and his old fears return. What is this place? he wonders, and the odd chuckling of the Albanach warrior becomes clear to him.
"This isn't my home!" he screams into the turbulent sky.
Behind the passionately kissing lovers stands Johnny, hands on hips, head flung back, laughing heartily. But Johnny always laughs. Poet Johnny, the Albanach's brother, finds humor in the strangest places and is always happy. Turning, the Albanach walks off toward the sea, his old wet overcoat clinging to him like seaweed on a rock. He walks the walk of the dejected, he walks the walk of one who has had the wind, the gumption, kicked out of him; as he walks, he looks up to the high promontory between his old home and the sea.
There stands the girl who tried to kill him in the jungle such a long time ago. She stands looking out to sea, her head held high in her hands. A look of abject hatred creases her once lovely face as she tries to find Finn. She blames him for her beheading. Finn's despondency at what he's just seen at his old home is so great he barely cares what happens to him. A small light penetrates the dark veil around his heart and spurs him forward.
Little does he know that it is me, his Madman as he calls me, who has spurned him onward. He knows that if anything happens to him nothing will be resolved, that none of his questions will be answered. For some reason, he thinks, I've been given a chance to see things through to some sort of conclusion, and that's what I must do. To feel him think like that makes me smile. Though his heart is filled with dread, he trudges on toward the shore. I plod along with him, holding on tightly to the umbilical cord.
When he reaches the sandy shore, he sits down by the now calm sea until the sun comes fully up into the sky. On the horizon, far out to sea, a line of transparent pods bobs gaily in the dark water. The warmth of the sun dries Finn's robe and he feels better, more hopeful, though he wonders, with a terrible sense of loss, of betrayal, why Johnny laughed at him. He thinks of what the Albanach warrior said. What is it I've lost? Shouldn't I first know what I've lost before I can find it? For hours he thinks, as the waves lap upon the shore. He thinks and thinks and thinks until it comes to him as naturally, it seems, as breathing. In knowing, he realizes his deepest fears. He finally knows what made him flee from the house made of strong, castle-like stone, from the house filled with happy, laughing people, out into a night made in hell.
He looks out to sea once more, but it is quiet and calm and the waves lap lazily against the shore. The horizon looks as straight as Truth, clear of gaily-bobbing pods, and he feels just then like a transparent pod himself, though without the words to fill him up inside. Had Mary seen his emptiness when she looked into his eyes? Had she seen through his transparency? Is that, perhaps, what terrified her so and made her flee from her plateau? And the sea, what of the sea? Had the sea not beckoned him in the night, had not the wind pushed him toward the roaring, crashing sea? Why does the sea want me so badly? he wonders. He chuckles. Back to the beginning? Maybe it wants to start all over again with me. Maybe it realizes it fucked things up the first time when it sent me up onto the sandy beach. He chuckles again.
He gathers his overcoat tightly about him and walks toward the waves below. Gulls shriek and swoop all around him, shouting, screaming, mocking. The sun shines brightly, warming him. And the sea, the ever cold sea, splashing lazily against the shore, with all the time in the world, whispers in his ear and calls to him once more:
"Come to me, come closer."
The Albanach walks, smiling, toward the beckoning waves, holding in his mind the knowledge of what it is he's lost. Putting one foot in front of the other, he begins his search for Silverbright, the old seer who intruded upon his dreams, he with whom he laughed and talked in his vision.
And the sea says yet again, "Come to me, come closer."
As he walks along the shoreline, Finn thinks about Alba. He knows he has to go back, that something calls to him, but he knows neither how to get there nor what it is that has called to him. Nothing makes sense. He just knows that getting to a place called Alba means more to him than he can imagine. He hears the prolonged scream of a train as if it's passing in the night on the outskirts of town.
"Johnny, Johnny, Johnny," it screams. "Frankie, Frankie, Frankie!"
The sound is awful. He doesn't understand the words. They remind him of something, but he isn't sure of what. On and on scream the words. They don't stop! He looks high up over the coastline to a distant hilltop and sees again the same podlike train he saw before drawing closer, filled with words and letters, emerging over the crest of the hill. It moves slowly, chugging along contentedly, forming new railroad tracks as it goes wherever it has a mind to. It draws abreast of him. Then the pods concertina, piling one on top of the other, until all the podlike carriages break loose and the words escape from the pods and lie scattered on the wet earth alongside the gleaming railroad tracks. The Albanach notices how many of the letters from the broken words have fallen in such a peculiar way that they form new words. The newly-formed words jump up angrily into his face. "Romeo!" "Tommy!" "Frankie!" they say. Terrified, he clamps his hands over his ears and screams his own familiar, silent scream.
For a long time the names attack him and he screams so long and so quietly that every animal in the woods nearby hears him and becomes frightened, as if they feel an earthquake beginning its preliminary belchings and rumblings. Then, as suddenly as the names came, they pull themselves together, jump back into their pods and chug off back along the railroad tracks, their task completed. The mysterious and vindictive names disappear over the crest of the bare, black hilltop. Just like that they are gone -- like magic! Finn has a good laugh to himself as he continues his walk, as he continues his long journey: magic, that's it! He hears again every word spoken in Silverbright's vision, that and other strangely significant words. It all comes back to him. There's a cave, he feels sure, near the spot where he now stands, the very same cave the Albanach musician spoke of, the same cave Silverbright mentioned when Finn saw him in his vision. And he knows the old man still guards the entrance to this cave looking over the ocean. He just knows, can feel it. He feels too that the cave is inaccessible, But there sits old Silverbright, cross-legged, holding onto a piece of driftwood with the words For Madmen Only, For Magicians inscribed upon it.
"Sonofabitch," mutters the Albanach, "that's it -- magic!"
He's pleased with himself, pleased to connect at least one of the driftwood's words with its source. "Maybe I'm not so crazy after all," he says.
But he wonders what's happening to him, and he needs a drink. For the umpteenth time that day, he wishes he had another bottle of whiskey to chug on. He hasn't had a drink for such a long time and his body has begun to complain vigorously. He hopes old Silverbright's a drinking man; he has to calm his trembling body.
Lost in his musings, the Albanach hasn't noticed a machine cruising slowly along the hilltop as if patrolling the area, as if in search of something or other. The cab of the machine sits perched on top of its frame in the shape of a bullet and the tires are as tall as a big man. The whole contraption has been painted like jungle camouflage. There's a huge cockroach painted on the door panels in black. As the machine approaches him, the Albanach finally hears the drone of its powerful engine. He looks up, surprised and fearful, when he sees Soldiergirl sitting in the driver's seat. The machine stops; Soldiergirl and half a dozen or so Bureaucrats in pinstriped suits step down from the cab, rifles slung nonchalantly over their shoulders. But before the Bureaucrats can use their rifles, the Albanach darts off toward the safety of the sea. One thing Finn's sure of is that Bureaucrats won't go within a hundred yards of the sea; nature and the elements frighten them. The Bureaucrats don't see him at first and when Finn looks closer he sees that they have small American flags stuck into their lapels. It angers him, for it is these same bastards, he believes, who are the real oppressors of the world. It is they who start wars and prolong them; it is they who control the purse strings of the government, and it is they who could do so much good in the world but choose not to. They anger Finn to no end, piss him off till his blood boils. That these same cocksuckers have the audacity to wear the flag he fought for on their lapels makes him fighting mad. His zigzagging run across the sandy beach makes him much more visible. Then they do see him. On and on runs the Albanach, bullets biting into the sand all around him, until he's certain that Soldiergirl and her riflemen won't follow.
I run with him, to be sure, though as an Invisibility I can't be hurt. But I can't separate myself from him either. I have to keep the umbilical cord intact.
He slows his pace to catch his breath before trudging on in the direction he feels he might find Silverbright's cave. He looks up at the sky and marvels at how closely the color of the clouds matches that of the rocks strewn haphazardly about the surrounding hilltops. The rocks look as if they've been thrown there by some frenzied giant or another. Finn takes in a deep breath, filling his lungs with the tangy-sweet scent of the ocean, then he stands quite still and listens to the roar of the waves as they crash against the shore. The sound of the ocean comforts him this time. At least the water's constant, he thinks, and makes his way closer toward it, accompanied by the screams of the gulls who glide playfully among the seaborne winds. He watches the birds, wishing he too could fly, at least for a moment. Just long enough to scan the shoreline for the cave. He presses on for many more miles, looking here, looking there among the crags and crannies, but there's no sign of the cave anywhere. Perhaps it was all just a silly dream! He sits crouched behind a large rock, exhausted. The climb down along the cliffside and the ensuing flight from the rifletoting Bureaucrats have almost beaten him, have almost made him turn back to the house made of thick strong stone. But he didn't see himself turning back in his vision. There is no going back! For whatever reason, he must continue his journey. He feels dejected and lonely sitting there by the rock. Then he hears a strange sound coming out of the wilderness around him. Laughter? Is that laughter I hear? he wonders. He stands and looks out over the water. Sure enough, there's old Silverbright sitting in front of his cave just as he should be. He grips his piece of driftwood with both hands. He still wears his saffron robe, but it's tattered and torn and flaps noisily in the wind. He wears nothing else.
"Must be freezin'," mutters the Albanach. "He's such a skinny wee thing."
Finn the Albanach watches Silverbright intently for a few moments.
"He's laughin', the auld bugger is laughin'. What the hell's wrong wi' him? Nah, can't be! Maybe he's cryin'!"
Silverbright's shoulders bob up and down convulsively, racked with either heartrending sobs or uncontrollable laughter.
The Albanach ducks behind his rock again and tries to make some sense of the situation. Silverbright looks different, as if he's been wrung through a wringer, and he acts as if he's lost his marbles. This isn't good, thinks the Albanach, peeking once more across the water. There has to be a way over there, but the ocean in front of him reaches to the cliff wall between the rock and the cave. Another rock sits in front of his rock, but nothing else. Maybe Silverbright will tell him how to get to the other side. The sea is too wild to swim, too deep to wade. The Albanach stands and walks out in front of his rock. The guardian of the cave can't see Finn; he's too busy convulsing. Finn can now see tears streaming down Silverbright's face, but he still can't tell whether he's laughing or whether he's crying. "Nuts!" says the Albanach. "The auld bugger's nuts!" Then he shouts out to him.
Surprisingly, Silverbright hears the Albanach above the sound of the crashing waves and looks up suddenly, casting wild, staring eyes at the Albanach, who falls immediately to his knees as if he's just been punched in the stomach. Silverbright convulses again and the Albanach looks up at him, a pained expression clouding his face. "Christ, what was that?" he asks, not in the least amused. Silverbright jumps up quickly, waving his piece of driftwood high in the air.
"For madmen only, for magicians," he screams over the noise of the wind and the sea. The Albanach stands, rubs his stomach, and stares at the old man. "Mad as they come," he mumbles, "away wi' the goddamned faeries!" But he can't keep from smiling as he watches the near-naked Silverbright prance around outside the cave, menacingly waving his piece of driftwood in the air.
"How do I get over there?" shouts Finn.
"Are yae mad, are yae a magician?"
"Aye, that's it, mad as a midnight in March."
"Are yae daft as well as mad?"
"No, not in the least."
"Then use the bridge there!"
"Bridge, what bridge?"
"The bridge right in front of your nose, in front of that big rock there," says Silverbright. "Stand up on that stone there -- you'll see it."
The Albanach waits until the waves recede, then he wades the few feet out to the second rock in the water. It's slippery with seaweed and sea creatures, but he manages to clamber up onto it before the waves come crashing into the shore again. When he reaches the top he looks out over the water. Sure enough, there sits the bridge, hiding behind the big rock where he can't see it from the shore. It's nothing but a stone causeway, a thin stone causeway, sticking out from the base of the rock he now clings to. It reaches in a slight arch to the far shore. Silverbright stands, laughing and gesturing crazily. "Better hurry up," he shouts.
"It's too thin," says the Albanach. "It'll break, it'll collapse!"
"It's the only way out here," says Silverbright. "You don't have much time. It'll disappear, an' it won't come back -- it's a magic bridge!" Then he bursts out laughing again, but that merely angers the man from Alba and makes him all the more determined. He scrambles down the far side of the rock and runs across the bridge over the ocean, across the causeway leading to the road to Alba. It is slippery, and he hasn't gone halfway when he skids and falls forward onto his stomach. He lies there for a moment, the wind driven out of him, then he wraps his arms around the thin bridge and holds on tightly. Silverbright is in hysterics at the fun of it all. The Albanach screams and jumps when he sees a multitude of wraithlike faces beneath the waves staring at him and smiling, their almond eyes big and dead, but open and searching at the same time. They too are screaming, but Finn can't hear them in their watery grave beneath the surface. He's thankful at least that he can't hear them. He's quite certain he doesn't want to know whatever it is they scream. As he attempts to regain his feet, a hand reaches up out of the water and tries to pull him beneath the waves. He feels cold, slimy fingers slither over his ankle.
"They want your Alban arse," laughs old Silverbright. "They want to make yae one-a them."
With a shriek, the Albanach jumps up and runs again, though a bit more cautiously, toward the shore. Silverbright brandishes his cross and screams gaily.
"Better hurry up, Madman, only half a minute left!"
I feel a thrill run through me when I hear Silverbright call him Madman. His saying so makes me feel as if he were acknowledging me too.
The Albanach runs on, filled with horror, filled with the fear of being pulled down into the wraith-filled ocean before he has a chance to begin his journey. He jumps the last few feet to the shore and lies on the rocks bleeding from his fall, gasping for air. When he turns to look back at the bridge, it rises into the air and, with a loud snapping noise, breaks into a million pieces and disappears under the waves as Silverbright predicted it would. The Albanach sits up abruptly, his big, wide eyes staring into a misty grey blanket, a misty grey nothing. America has disappeared too. He turns to Silverbright.
"Yae cannot go back now, laddie," he says. "No way to get there, nothin' to go back to."
"Away yae go, ya creepy auld bastard," says Finn, scrambling to his feet.
Silverbright chuckles. "Yae're late," he says, as he moves beside the Albanach.
"Late, what d'yae mean late?" says Finn, rubbing his bruised knees.
"Twelve years late. It took yae twelve years to get here. Yae were too busy drinkin' that bluidy awful booze-a yours. It's a wonder yae still have half a mind."
"I was going to ask yae if yae had any booze by the way. Anyway, what the hell are yae talkin' about? I saw yae just yesterday -- yae came into my dream, remember?"
"Maybe yae don't have half a mind after all. Nah, nah, laddie, that was twelve years ago. It took yae twelve years to get here from that weird house-a yours. That's the truth of the matter. Look! Look at these rags I'm wearin'! That's from sittin' here for the past twelve years. No bluidy wonder I'm angry!"
Flummoxed, the Albanach sits down hard on the ground next to Silverbright. "Christ," he moans, "I'm confused!"
"You've always been confused, Albanach. You get messages all the time. Signals, signs, portents, omens -- call them what you will, but all yae do is ignore them. You never listen to the voices, yae never listen to your Madman, as you call her."
"Madman, who the hell's Madman? Anyway, I listened to you, didn't I? You knew I was comin' here!"
"I finally had to go right into your dreams -- like a sneak. We don't like doin' that."
"Aye, we!" says Silverbright angrily.
"You were a lot nicer in my dream! Well, sort of."
"If I hadn't sneaked into your dream you still wouldn't be here. Too busy hidin' inside your whiskey bottle.
"It gets lonely sometimes."
"Ach, lonely my arse -- you're spineless."
"Here, you, watchit!" says the Albanach, standing once more. "I don't need to listen to your crap. Who the hell are you anyway?"
"Silverbright's fine right enough," he says. "That's what I'm called nowadays."
The Albanach studies him for a moment, then he laughs.
"The Albanach warrior called you Silverbright," he says. "Because of your hair."
"Aye, an' he's called me much worse, believe me," says Silverbright with a throaty chuckle.
He studies Finn for a moment, then walks around him, deep in thought. He looks quite amusing, padding around in his rags, the piece of driftwood slung across his shoulder like the Bureaucrat's rifles.
"Who are yae, an' what do yae want with me?" asks the Albanach finally.
Silverbright now stands directly in front of the entrance to the cave. The Albanach looks up past the old fellow and, though the cave looks dark inside, he's sure he sees a movement within. He blinks to clear his vision and, when he looks up again, he would swear he sees a pair of red, almondshaped eyes look out from the confines of the cave. The eyes he sees are strangely familiar and fill him with dread.
"I told yae who I am, an' I want nothin' from yae," says Silverbright.
"You told me what your name was, but yae didn't tell me who yae were -- nor did you tell me what yae wanted."
"I've known yae a long, long time, an' you're here because yae need me to tell yae how to get to Alba. That's where you need to be!"
"How come I'm meetin' so many Albanachs these days? In all my years in America I've never met so many."
"That's how it's supposed to be. The last person yae see is a countryman an', if yae survive, reach the other side, the first thing you'll see is a countryman -- an Albanach, just like us."
"Survive? What d'yae mean if I survive?"
"Here," says Silverbright, taking the strangely-colored stone from around his neck and handing it to Finn.
"I don't want that," says the Albanach. "Why the hell would I want that?"
"It's yours, just touch it."
The Albanach takes the stone from Silverbright, and sure enough, it pulses along with the beat of his heart, as if it really is a part of him.
Silverbright bursts out laughing at the muddled expression on Finn's face. "We know each other, you an' me," he says, "but more about that later; you don't have much time to waste! You've got a lot of work to do in Alba. But first, yae have to go back to that house. Your guide will take you there."
At that moment Silverbright looks up at me and winks.
"Who the hell's this guide anyway?" Finn asks. "Never mind; I'm not sure I want to go now. Will I be able to come back?"
"You must do what you must do. There's no goin' back. Look!" says Silverbright, pointing into the mist. "There really isn't anythin' to go back to. When yae came here yae set laws in motion that won't be trifled with. Yae must go on. There's nothin' behind yae any more, Finn, except experiences. Yae have to learn from them an' move on. Yae have to put your experiences of the war and of life on the streets in their proper wee slots and go forward. Go on, go!"
Finn hesitates, "I've a really bad feelin' somethin's followin' me. I don't want to sound like I'm a coward, but I've been seein' these horrible eyes starin' at me. Red, almondshaped eyes."
"He's been followin' yae around for many a long day, an' there's more than just him followin' yae. There's always somethin' followin' us, Finn. That's just the way of the world. Somethin's always behind us, prodding us onward for one reason or another, making us run!"
Finn looks up at old Silverbright, surprised that the old fellow would use his proper name. He hasn't heard it in such a long time; it feels strange, though comforting too.
"Who is it that's followin' me?" asks Finn, not quite sure if he really wants to know.
"He's everythin' you're not, Finn. You're a good man in spite of yourself; he's the exact opposite of you. He's also a good part of the reason yae drink that awful booze an' try to hide from everythin' goin' on all around yae. A pained expression clouds Silverbright's face just then. It's him that wants your Alban arse. Him an' no other."
"Now what the hell are yae talkin' about?" asks Finn angrily.
"D'yae no' recognize me, boy?" asked Silverbright, chuckling. "Too much whiskey?"
"Let's have it then. Who are yae?"
Silverbright stares at the Albanach for a moment. "I knew you in another place an' time," he says.
"Oh, really," says Finn, looking at the old man as if he were daft. Old Silverbright was voicing the same thoughts Finn first had of Mary, that he knew her in another place and time.
"It's true, Mary," says Finn. "I dreamt that I knew you in another life, an' the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it was in ancient Alba."
They are sitting in Paranoid Park, then still known as Washington Square Park, for the hippies hadn't all had their bad acid trips yet. They've been married two years, and young Finn is a year old. Finn holds his son, cradled in his arms, and Mary sits on the soft grass next to them. She giggles.
"I don't know if I believe all that kinda stuff," she says, "but it is very romantic."
"Aye, ah know. It sounds crazy, but it was too real to not be true. It was as if I could actually touch you. I felt as if I could actually hear your laughter, as if I was right in the dream itself."
"Did we have any babies then, Finn, did we have any children?" she asks, stroking young Finn's soft, dark hair.
Young Finn starts bawling just then and kicks out vehemently with his arms and legs as if to assert himself and demand that he should be a part of that life too.
"Ah'm no' sure, Mary, but ah've a feelin we were just gettin' started. We used to make love under a tree behind the cottage. There was a stream nearby, an' we used to make love to the sound of the gurgling stream. It was lovely, Mary, an' we made love all through the day an' night."
Mary giggles again, contentedly, and takes her son into her own arms. Goosebumps crawl and prickle all over her arms and behind her neck as she toys with the idea of having known her husband in another life.
"Another place and time," says Finn, astonished all the more.
"Aye," says Silverbright. "You an' I roamed the hills of Alba more than two hundred years ago. That's the truth of it! There was a redeyed devil then too. There's always a redeyed devil! It seems he's taken possession of the woman with the almondshaped eyes, the same young woman who had her head chopped off in the jungle. You've discovered each other again, an' now Redeyes an' Soldiergirl, as she is known, are both tryin' to find yae. They want you, laddie."
Finn sits down on a nearby rock, too stunned to move. How could Silverbright know about Soldiergirl? Finn has tried to forget about what happened to her for twenty-five years. Then again, he has to believe Silverbright; he speaks so sincerely. Finn can't see any reason why the old fellow would lie to him. When he began his journey he knew he would have to face many strange things, many strange ideas and concepts, but meeting someone he'd known in another life, someone who also knew about events in his present life was wilder than anything he could have imagined.
"That's a bit much, Silverbright!"
"Aye, maybe so, but yae better hurry up now. As I said, you're late. Go on, get in there!"
"Don't rush me!" replies Finn, trying to steal time.
"Yae better hurry. You've wasted enough time, an' there's a lot to do. Get in there an' follow the passages. When yae get to the sea pool, jump into it; that's the way to Madman -- and Alba!"
"Jump into a pool!" says Finn, incredulously. "I don't even like to swim! An' who the hell's Madman I asked yae?"
"You'll find out soon enough. You just better get started. Your road might be a tough one, but it's the only road for you, laddie, the only road. Might as well get on with it!"
"What about all my things -- my home, friends, Mary, my son?"
"Now he's got DT's," Silverbright whispers to the wind. "That stuff's all fiddledeedee, an' a long time ago too. You're tryin' to find your soul, boy. Better get on wi' it!"
"Just leave everythin'?"
"You knew that anyway. Leave them all like they never existed. You're fightin' for your very soul. But it might not be as bad as yae think. You'll meet people in there that yae know. Some will see yae in their sleep -- they've already seen yae in their sleep. They'll think they dreamed about yae -- just like you dreamed about me. That's how they'll try to explain it anyway. And others will be there."
"Christ, I need a drink," says Finn.
Silverbright laughs. "Good luck, Albanach," he says. "See yae in Alba!"
Silverbright slaps Finn on the back, then turns away from him. He sits down cross-legged as before. "Go on," he says. "Get on wi' it!"
"By the way," says Finn. "Who were those Bureaucrats up there on the cliff? They had AK47s. They tried to blow me away!"
"Oh, them! They're nearly as bad as Redeyes. They'll steal your soul, your energy, as quick as look at you. They're your mortal enemy!"
"They always have been. Bureaucrats that is."
"More so now than ever. They're lookin' for yae."
"What's wrong wi' them?"
"They're attenuated!
"Thinned out. Most likely newer souls. All they've ever done in their lives is to take, get in the way of, put up obstacles against...everything! When you live like that you can't help but become thin, attenuated. Like a beam of light going out, it finally becomes so wide there's nothing left. It's become attenuated. That's what they've done with their energy, their spirit. By the by, were any of the suits empty?" asks Silverbright with a chuckle.
"Come to think of it," says Finn, "two or three of them did look sorta strange. Like there wasn't much to them."
"The Empty Suits. Watch them! They're the worst, the most dangerous, the most desperate. They're ready to disappear completely. There's not much they won't do to get what they need. Watch your back!"
"Don't you worry, mister, I always watch my back."
"Just as well."
Finn the Albanach then turns and walks toward the cave. As he approaches the entrance, he peers inside, half expecting to see the girl with the red, almondshaped eyes. The cave is dark. "Dark as the devil," he mutters, then shudders. It grows darker outside too, then a voice, as if from the heavens, shouts out to him: "Keep the faith, Albanach!"
Finn turns, but Silverbright's gone. He looks up at the sky and sees that the clouds are lower, thicker and darker, a dark, dark green. A lightning bolt strikes the causeway rock, splitting it in two. The broken halves fall backward into the ocean. Hundreds of gnarled, twisted hands pull the pieces underneath the waves. Rain batters down on the Albanach amidst the crash of thunder and, out of the core of the rock, a voice bellows out to him, "Go!"
As the Albanach dives over the threshold of the cave, a landslide of lightning-loosened rocks seals up the entrance, separating him from the world without. He's never before seen such absolute darkness, such a tangible darkness. He can almost feel it. The thick, musty blackness of the interior swarms over him. He becomes frightened all the more, his gaze searching futilely in the darkness for almondeyes. He's completely aware that within the confines of this cave for magicians or those as mad as he, nothing will be as he could ever have imagined. He knows instinctively that no laws of man govern this place and that all he ever held dear will be of no consequence in a place such as this. This cave, he feels, is a womb, a womb in which he'll find his beginnings. Or perhaps he won't.
Finn has never felt so completely naked in all his life, yet he's convinced that alone in the cave for Madmen only is where he should be. Slowly he turns toward the exit, but he can see only blackness. All sound and light have been locked out with the world as he once knew it. He can only go forward. He turns once more, taking comfort in being able to feel. He smiles, thinking: I'll feel my way through this darkness. I will too -- until I face the madness so hell-bent on destroying me. I must stay here. If I don't face the madness I'll be doomed forever, without hope. If he somehow manages to escape the confines of the cave, without fulfilling his obligations, he knows he'll be doomed to ignorance, that the remainder of his days will be spent in the fear and the pain and the torment born of that same soul-destroying ignorance. No, I must go on, he thinks. If I don't face my demons I'll never know what's beyond all this fear and ignorance. I must go on! He puts one foot in front of the other, as if walking for the first time, and begins his long journey in search of Alba.

Copyright © 1997 by John Mulligan

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (January 20, 1999)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684856056

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Gerald Nicosia The Washington Post Book World If I had to pick three novels that best embody the American experience in the Vietnam War, they would be Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato, Larry Heinemann's Paco's story, and John Mulligan's Shopping Cart Soldiers.

Wally Lamb author of I Know This Much is True and She's Come Undone Simultaneously hellish and hopeful...I was moved and mesmerized by Mulligan's harrowing story.

Kevin Baxter Los Angeles Times An important book, inspired by war but dedicated to each veteran's personal search for spiritual peace.

Maxine Hong Kingston author of The Woman Warrior This book is unprecedented in conveying the mythic truth of war....When I read John's work, I dream about his character....I'm amazed at the power of his writing.

Larry Heinemann author of Paco's Story As dreamy and eerie, singular and compelling a novel as you will ever read. A prime piece of storytelling.

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