by Dan Sheehan
The death of Ferdia O' Loughlin-Marquez on the eleventh of November 1987 was an unexpected one. At only forty-three years old and in reasonably good health he had retired to bed in order to sleep off what he assumed was a slight cold. It therefore came as quite a shock to him when he woke up dead in the early hours of the following morning. Perplexed by his inability to turn on the shower combined with his bathroom mirror's irritating refusal to reflect his image; he returned to his bedroom to find his cold, lifeless, slightly overweight body still lying in bed. This was unusual. Having never been an exciting or excitable man, Ferdia found it difficult to summon what he felt would be an appropriate reaction. He began to run through in his head all the films he'd seen in which a similar event had occurred in order to construct a suitable response. Unfortunately, by the time he had decided upon one, the moment had well and truly passed and he could do little but stand there and quietly curse his inability to think on the spot.
This type of tedious, inhibited reaction was very much characteristic of Ferdia who had plodded through life in the most unimaginative of fashions and continued in this vein, it seemed, even in death. What would have surprised most people, had they taken enough interest to inquire into his history, is that his parents were as wild and peculiar as the name they had bestowed upon him. In fact, had he ever bothered to recount it, his genealogy alone would have given him a popularity which, owing to the coma-inducing dullness of his personality, was otherwise unattainable.
His father, Donal O' Loughlin, was an Irishman born the seventh son of a seventh son in a small rural village in east Galway. A good natured if slightly unhinged child, he soon developed the faith healing powers that were expected of him from birth. At age four he could be seen in the parish hall, placing his hands on the heads of old men and women from around the county, a mystical air of concentration etched on his small face as he worked his magic on any ache or ailment presented to him. As the years passed the young Donal became more and more adept at his calling, so much so that the doctors of the surrounding area began to leave en masse as their waiting rooms grew dusty and unused. However, what was even more impressive than the sheer number of people Donal cured, was the severity of the diseases he was capable of dealing with. By his twelfth birthday he had eradicated Tuberculosis for fifty miles in every direction. By fourteen he developed the uncanny ability to mend broken bones with a single touch and give sight to the blind. This ascent to the miraculous reached its peak on the day of his sixteenth birthday.
While strolling through the village square, Donal stopped to pay his respects to a passing funeral procession of the late Fr. Thomas Sullivan, the ninety-three year old former parish priest. Suddenly, under the weight of his grief (and presumably the large coffin), one of the pallbearers collapsed leaving the rest in a dangerously unstable equilibrium. Instinctively, the faith healer rushed to take his place, grasping the back of the coffin with both hands and hoisting it back into stability. At the same moment, the greying skies overhead cleared and the brightest of sunlight bathed the group. The coffin began to shake uncontrollably and emit a panicked wail uncharacteristic of both dead wood and dead men. 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph' came the collective response as all but Donal leapt back, sending the coffin crashing to the ground. Out of the box clambered Fr. Thomas Sullivan, alive and well. This was unusual. Not only was the man alive, but he seemed to have regained a substantial amount of lost youth. Indeed, his post death appearance was easily twenty years younger than his pre-death one. The reaction was instantaneous. Screams and roars the likes of which were never heard were followed by silence; a long, respectful silence for the boy who had revealed something of the divine within himself. They all waited on his response which was sure to be so profound and enlightening that it would change all of their lives. This, as you can imagine, was a great deal of pressure to put on a sixteen year old and he responded to it as most would. He turned on his heel and ran towards the forest where he vanished among the trees.
As he sat in a tree, watching the sun surrender, Donal pondered his life. Having never been judged, like his peers, on his personality (which was colourful), his sporting prowess (limited but enthused) or his looks (average); Donal began to feel slightly cheated by his lot in life. Both the honour and the novelty of his position had largely worn off and recent developments had probably done little to calm the situation. Would he forever remain in the noble but tiresome servitude of his community? Would he have to deal with their fawning idolization until the end? These were deep, all-consuming thoughts, so much so that they prevented him from noticing the storm brewing overhead. Now, the top of a tree is not the best place to be in the middle of gale-force winds. Luckily, Donal wasn't blown off. Unluckily, Donal was struck by lightning. That's how it goes.
As a general rule waking up in a hospital bed is better than waking up dead unless of course you wake up dead in a hospital bed, in which case they rate about the same. Donal however did not wake up dead but when he did finally awake, to see a large group of bandaged, coughing, and decrepit people around him, he found himself completely unable to talk. Not a word. Not a hum. Not a cough, not a whistle, not even a clap. He had been struck soundless. He tried clicking his fingers and clucking his tongue but these were similarly ineffective. For their own selfish reasons his neighbours were glad of his survival (the soundlessness mattered little) and Donal was not half an hour inside his front door when they began to arrive. It seems the storm had been so powerful that it had left the village with a substantial amount of injury. Sean McGlacken had broken his nose after being blown over a wall, Des Hogan had developed a touch of pneumonia from the cold, wet winds, and countless others had come with an assortment of other storm-induced wounds and worries. Undaunted, Donal ushered in his first client—a young mother and baby girl. The child was in relatively good health, a slight cold being her only problem. Nevertheless, why take chances with illness when there is a bona-fide miracle healer in your midst? Donal picked her up and put his hands on her head. The baby died in his arms.
In a panic, Donal rushed from the house into the street where, as often happened, an elderly man took his hand and shook it vigorously, commending him on all the good work. Within seconds the man lay dead on the ground. Now, in the same way that having a life-giving touch inspires awe amid the masses, possessing the touch of death tends to provoke terror among them. After trying his hand with several hens, cats and a dog, all with identical results; the worst was confirmed. If his healing powers were God-given then surely this new attribute was the work of the Devil. Something demonic had taken over him when the lightning struck, they reasoned, and with this evil in their midst no one was safe. Donal was banished; instructed from behind bolted doors that he was never to return. Even his own family turned their backs on him and his curse, for despite sentimental notions to the contrary, ignorance and fear are usually more powerful than love. With tears in her eyes, Agnes O'Loughlin watched as her youngest son disappeared down the road, a single suitcase held by a gloved hand.
Exactly two years later Donal found himself, gun in hand, fighting his way up through occupied Italy with an ever diminishing battalion of fellow outcasts, misfits and characters, all of whom had become a surrogate family to the young lad in his time of need. The army seemed like the only logical place for a man with his attributes and Donal felt that killing Nazis might be a bit easier on the conscience than whittling down the population of his local parish. Despite his constant silence, the other men in his company took an instant liking to the spirited Irishman with the mysterious air of death about him. He performed silent, one-man plays, sang soundless songs and was the best poker player the British army had ever seen. Yes, by the end of basic training, any of these men would have gladly stepped in front of a bullet for Donal. Thankfully this was not necessary as for some bizarre reason, he couldn't be killed. Dead-eyed snipers would miss him by millimetres, point-blank shots would swerve off course, and grenade explosions would leave him relatively unscathed. Not only this, but as if by magic, every bullet fired by his inexperienced hand would hit its target. His touch of death, it seemed, was a more deadly ability than first realised.
One particular July night as he ambled peacefully through the winding streets of Naples, which had only days before been liberated by himself and his brethren, Donal came upon a vision so beautiful that the ache in his heart dropped him to his knees. Among the smoking ruins of an old church was a young woman. Standing there in the moonlight, her brown eyes filled with tears, was the future father of his son, his one and only love, the melancholy prostitute Maria Marquez.
Ferdia often thought about his father, his biological father that is, dead since before he was born but alive in the pages of the journals he had for years confided in. In these were the remnants of a man whose life was, to his son, a fantastical journey which he himself had never embarked upon. Brought up by a sombre, middle-class Dublin couple, the type that don't talk at the dinner table and consider politics as being too heated a subject to discuss, Ferdia had lived a life as far removed from curses and combat as one could imagine. Still, there were times when a little voice in his head would urge him to break out of his little forty year rut. It was the little voice that wanted to quit his job and fly away to the other side of the world. The voice that wanted to scream out swears in the middle of Sunday mass. The voice that wanted to turn his whole life upside down, just to see what would happen. This voice, he imagined, was his father's. Needless to say this voice was never obeyed but it was nice to dream. However, one's first moments as a ghost are not the time to be daydreaming and so Ferdia got back to the matter at hand. The grim realisation that this was real had well and truly set in and it was time to consider the next rational step. Given the fact that his bedroom was providing no new information, and that looking at one's own corpse for any prolonged period of time can have an unsettling effect on a person; he decided to leave the house. Opening the front door proved to be too much of a challenge in his new state but walking through it posed no real problem at all and so this is exactly what he did. What greeted him on the other side was, to say the least, not something you see every day. Crowding the street, from top to bottom, in all shapes and sizes, with all manner of different clothing, were hundred and hundreds of ghosts. Some busily hurrying along, some casually chatting, some stretched out on the nearby grass, warming their transparent forms in the early morning sunlight. This, was unusual.
Maria Marquez was the only child of Rafeal Marquez, a Colombian fisherman who settled in the port of Bari in southern Italy. His beloved wife Sofia, whom he had crossed the ocean to be with, had died in childbirth and from that day onwards, Rafeal lived his life under a cloud of sorrow; a sorrow which was eventually absorbed by his only daughter. The constant fear of losing Maria, the last link to his lost love, compelled him to educate her at home, denying her companionship or influence from the outside world. Maria never knew her mother and so she shed no tears for her but the constant sadness which enveloped the household confused the young girl. Peeping out from her window in the dead of night on the side street below, Maria would see the young prostitutes returning home, often with tears edging slowly down their faces. 'With them is where I belong' she mused, 'theirs is a sorrow to rival my own'. For months she stared down at her kindred spirits, her heart sick with longing for their world. Of course leaving her father was out of the question. Another such loss would, for Rafeal, be a death sentence and the burden of guilt would be more than she could bear. Fortunately (depending on your point of view) fate stepped in, as fate usually does, and Rafeal died peacefully in his sleep, leaving his sixteen year old daughter free to find company for her misery.
For over a year, Maria lived among the ladies of the night, finding solace in the family they had created for themselves. Her beauty made her a favourite among the soldiers and sailors who frequented the port and rarely did a month go by when she did not have to refuse marriage proposals from young men infatuated by her very presence. Never fearing for her safety, for who would harm such an angelic vision, Maria roamed the grimiest alleyways sobbing quietly the tears of unexplainable despair. When the war came to Bari in the winter of 1943, she and her sisters in charms fled to Naples but here too soon succumbed to a similar fate. Standing one night amid the rubble of the city, her eyes locked upon those of a young soldier and for both, this was enough.
They were together that very night in her small apartment, two fractured people, healed by each other's touch. The sound returned to Donal and the death vanished, taking with it from Maria, for the first time in her life, her father's dark cloud. For one all-too-brief day they achieved a happiness that few ever come to experience but, as both were already well aware of, life can be cruel and perhaps people with lives such as theirs were never destined for lasting happiness. It certainly seemed this way when a stray bullet from an unknown assailant screamed through the window, hitting Donal in the head, killing him instantly. Such is life.
After the burial Maria remained in Ireland, determined that the child she was carrying would grow up as close to its father as possible, even if they would never meet. Her lack of money, accommodation, language or skills (save for a talent which was largely frowned upon in 1940's rural Ireland) not withstanding; Maria settled into her life with relative ease. From the day of the funeral onwards she re-entered her state of perpetual mourning, this time knowing that she would never emerge. Her small cottage seemed continuously encased in shadow, its black curtains forever drawn. Yet, over the course of her pregnancy it was often frequented by suitors. Each promised unconditional love and security for the rest of her days but, in turn, each was sent away. Her misery ended on the ninth of October 1944 when, only minutes after giving birth to a health baby boy, Maria Marquez bled to death, and rejoined her fallen lover. In the fear that he would inherit his father's deadly gift, the newborn baby was sent away to a Dublin orphanage, out of sight and out of mind.
Much like his reaction to the sight of his own corpse, Ferdia took the sight of thousands of ghosts wandering through the neighbourhood in his stride. Perhaps his ability to become surprised had, for lack of use, simply upped and left. Perhaps part of him still clung to the notion that he was dreaming. Either way he had absolutely no idea as to why things were as they were in the new world he had woken up in but, with a growing sense of determination and adventure, he endeavoured to find out. Finding his way through the ghostly crowd he came across an elderly spirit with an air of wisdom about him. With all the courage he could muster, Ferdia stuttered:
"Ahem, excuse me but could you eh, tell me what exactly is going on? Am I dead?"
"Ah a newcomer!" replied the gentleman. "You are indeed dead I'm afraid but fear
not. The show goes on, albeit with a different cast."
"So . . . is this heaven?"
" Well . . . .not exactly as I'm sure you've pictured it. But this is a place where you'll feel no pain, you'll have no fear of death. Whoever you have lost in the past will be here among you again and all that you were too afraid to try in life awaits you in death. What, my boy, could be more heavenly than that?"
A broad smile came across Ferdia's face. Somewhere out there his parents waited. Somewhere in this world was the life he had never led in the last.
"What indeed" he whispered to himself, "what indeed".
Story Copyright © 2008 by Dan Sheehan. All rights reserved.
About the author
Dan Sheehan lives in Dublin and is studying English Literature in Trinity College where he also writes for the book and film sections of the college paper The Record. He enjoys long distance running, excessive sleeping, late nights and late mornings (essentially going back and forth between intense activity and complete sloth). While waiting for international fame and fortune, he works part-time in a minimum wage, minimum effort job which may one day be the setting for my best selling novel.