My granddad was a bare-knuckle boxer. Behind English pubs and in night-muted limestone quarries, he fought all comers. His face bore the cragginess of fractured cheekbones and a shattered nose. He learned his craft from the gypsies that camped on his land. They earned their pasture keep by tending to his draft horses and his pit ponies. And each time they came, they took his measure in fights that marked his face anew and crippled his knuckles.
Granddad spoke little; was sparse with affection. But, in his taciturn manner, he played guessing games with me about what the weather would bring, or on which side of the oak tree the moss would grow heaviest, or how many kittens the old she-cat would have (fewer and fewer each year). He once took my hand and we followed and watched as one of the old, lame gypsy dogs wandered into the forest, laid down after turning and turning – and quietly died; its legs stretching with toes like starbursts and its lips curling back from its teeth. Granddad’s world, and what he showed me of it, was secluded but brimful, meagre but exquisite.
My granddad came out from the stone barn. His hands were bloodied and small drifts of tender fur clung to his hair and his clothing. When his back was turned, I peered hesitantly in at the door of the barn. Several small, bloody carcases were piled on a bench. Next to them was a pile of skins. In the pens lining the walls, rabbits thumped and bumped and wiggled noses at me.
Over time, I had learned the measure of my granddad. I knew him to be a hard man, aloof, a hard and constant drinker, a man of puzzle and contradictions. He went about the job of slaughtering his rabbits with skill and speed – a perfunctory chore in the course of his day. But I had hidden in the hayloft once – consumed by a morbid curiosity. I watched as my granddad selected the rabbit, as he lifted it from the pen; how he sat with the rabbit facing away from him. I was prepared to squeeze my eyes shut and cover my mouth so I didn’t scream. But gently, Granddad lifted the rabbit to his lips and kissed it, tenderly and sadly, on the top of its head. Then, so quickly that I missed it, he snapped the rabbit’s neck and laid it limply across his lap. All I heard was a faint ‘click’.
Over and over, Granddad did the same – every rabbit kissed, killed, and skinned. Both rabbits and death mute.
Night, and the gypsies in their camp danced with the fire and played their sweet, wild music to the moon. And on this night, I crept from my bed – drawn by the music and the swirling shadows made large and dreadful by the firelight - and hid in the loft of the barn. Granddad had gone to the pub, I thought, as he did every night; striding along the rutted road, his long arms swinging at his side, his fight-scarred hands like hammers at the end of them. I knew he would not return until that hour of the early morning when the wind quickened and owl-hoot turned to the twitter of wrens that hid amongst the gorse and sang the sun up.
But at this hour the night was warm, the dark of the stone barn was soft as velvet and as close as my own heartbeat – beating hard with the pulse of the leather drums, blood racing through it with the searing wail of the fiddles. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, as my excitement calmed, I was able to savour the details of the scene before me - the leaping flames, the soft-lit lanterns hanging from the ends of caravans, the two dogs tussling over a well-gnawed bone. My eyes saw the old man playing the fiddle, the broken horsehairs hanging from the frets like fine thistledown. I saw a woman serenely spinning around the fire, a baby in her arms and a small naked child clinging to her skirts. I saw a group of men passing a large, ceramic bottle amongst them, and amongst themI saw my granddad.
He was hunched over himself, his arms draped over his knees. His head drooped as though it were too heavy for his neck and his maimed hands twitched. The bottle continued to be passed back and forth. A man rose and stood in front of Granddad. He stared down at him, took the bottle from him and drunk, the liquid dribbling down his chin. He was an old man, with dirty feet and a weeping, rheumy eye. He grabbed Granddad by the neck of his shirt and pulled him to his feet with an unexpected strength. My granddad rocked on his feet, stumbled forward towards the old man, fists clenched, his eyes hardening.
The others around the campfire started clapping, the women ululated. As the drums slowed to a blood-paced beat, Granddad started swaying – the old man released his hold and stepped away. The swaying took on purpose, the movement started to understand the music. Granddad raised his arms and I thought of the willow down by the steam, its dangling arms stirring eddies into the stream, just as my granddad’s fingers stirred the stars in the sky. He started taking mincing steps around the fire and, now and then, dipped towards it – close, close – then reared back and spun away. Then he stopped and weaved with his arms raised. A young girl, with bare legs and a gold tooth that shone in the firelight, poked his ribs and stroked his face. His expression never changed – his face stone and rigid, deep frown lines between his brows. But eventually he closed his eyes, swaying and turning, and he looked . . . peaceful.
And I knew dismay sharper than that of dead rabbits.