The Hooded Man pushes the wheelbarrow with great difficulty. The ground in this long, sloped corridor is rough and uneven. Large chunks of masonry appear to have been torn out by some sheer force, and in parts the surface is cobbled with jagged rocks. A workhorse would have a hard time walking along this place.
The man exerts himself, huffing, puffing, and cursing as he works his muscles hard, struggling just to keep balance. Hooded Man doesn’t like many things, least of all to have to pick up the wheelbarrow’s cargo from the dank ground again, like last week. Rushing in the dark, he had hit a particularly misshapen stone and the barrow had tipped over sideways. The entire load slithered out and spilled onto the watery puddles all around. His hands had trembled with every one he loaded back, and had felt sick to his stomach for days afterwards.
The barrow makes a loud, squeaky racket as it trundles awkwardly down the corridor.
It’s dark and stiflingly humid down here, in this cavernous, primitive underground passage that runs all the way to the moor. That is where he is heading to.
The barrow hits a ridge covered with brackish water and for a moment it looks as if gravity will claim victory over a badly balanced load. But Hooded Man pulls back hard and steadies the handles just at the right moment, and crisis is averted.
One of them gets knocked out of place and slids all the way down the pile, and onto the ground, where it lands with a horribly hollow and wet sound. There it rests, face up, eyes open and looking, but not seeing.
Hooded Man looks at the squalid, wretched little thing lying on the ground in front of him with a rapidly sinking heart. He swallows hard, and his dry throat clicks audibly. From somewhere further down comes the sound of trickling water.
Hooded Man knows he is now more than three quarters of the way down the corridor. He has made this very same journey at least twice (and on occasion, three times) a week over the last few months, praying to a non-existing God that every time was the last. But the nuns pay well, and times are tough for everyone, he muses. He has a wife and two children to support. Just one more load, he thinks. Please God, let it be just one more. Only God never answers, and in fact, if there is a place where God lives the furthest from, this has got to be it.
Only one more load. Just one. Please.
He sets the barrow down with extreme care. Two more at the top shift slightly, little limbs dangling, swinging over the void. Hooded Man’s heart skips a beat and he moans loudly. The sound carries, amplified by the cavern-like structure. Thankfully, this time the waxy shapes stay put.
Walking around the barrow’s handles, he kneels down to pick up the fallen one. His hand is far from steady as he gently places the small thing back onto the barrow. He does this very, very carefully, lest it or another one falls out down the slippery pile.
Hooded Man walks back around and grips the handles slowly, gingerly, as if to avoid the slightest vibration which might disturb the cargo’s precarious equilibrium. He lifts the handles with sweaty hands, his eyes fixed on the load. It remains onboard, so he continues on.
It was the dark side of twilight when Hooded Man exited through the oak door at the end of the corridor. He had prayed the nuns had remembered to leave it open this time, so he wouldn’t have to set the barrow down to open it. They had, using two large wooden wedges to prevent the door from closing.
There was a chill in the air. Yet, the chill in his heart felt glacial, like a long, thin splinter of ice jabbing at his insides. He pushed the barrow to the edge of the moor, just beyond the tree line, well hidden from view. He doubted that anyone apart from him and the nuns knew about this remote place. His silence had been bought with two pieces of silver, but he had an ominous inkling that these would not be enough to buy him safe passage through Styx, when his time came.
He pushed the barrow up a grassy knoll. Birch trees lined the path on both sides, concealing him from view. He looked at the darkening sky, and his heart sank. Only once before had he been caught out here in the dark, and he could swear he could see things moving within the shadowy, crescent shaped dig opening below his feet. Badgers, he always thought. Just badgers, foraging.
Only these things, if in truth there were such things, did not look anything like badgers. The whispered murmurs rising from this heathen, unconsecrated burial ground, carried across the still air of the falling darkness and spoke only to him. It spoke of this deed. In his nightmares, Hooded Man pushed the barrow all the way to the edge of this open, pustulous wound on the earth’s surface, his heart freezing solid in the horrid, paralyzing power of the profoundest of fears when he realizes that they are all sitting upright down there, slowly turning their small heads to look up at him, and then beckoning.
Hooded Man tipped the barrow over the edge, holding his breath and looking away as the raspy sound of the poor things sliding down to hell negated his sanity. Soft, moist thuds rose from below as they landed.
Hooded Man turned and ran, fighting nausea and tears, eagerly discarding the barrow at the place designated by the nuns, and trying hard to ignore the unholy fluid spilling out from it as the barrow tumbled to a standstill. He just kept running, never daring to look back, his heart racing well beyond its natural rate.
The sun had set over the stone building by the time he got back to his car. A stifling cloak of darkness enveloped this accursed place. If he didn’t get away soon, he never would, he thought.
Breathing shallow and sweating profusely, he started the car and thought please, let this be the last one. Please.
The car sped off and Hooded Man took the first turn to the right, as he always did. The car moved at speed and he nearly veered off the road.
He barely had time to register the rusty signpost to his left, the one with the askew “M”.
Tuam – Town Centre – 2 mi.