Have you given much thought to dying? And have you wondered how things will go when you’ve gone?
Your family will take time from their lives to dig through your barns and stack your stuff in piles according to the value they place upon it, scratching their heads because you are why these objects came together in one place. Only you understand why those nuts are mislabelled and there’s only one boot. In a grand rack of rivets, the most commonly used are kept elsewhere, in a coffee cup. It’s no wonder that your system is junk in your absence; you built this nest, tucking each new thing in place with the labour of your busy beak. Now the four winds rise for a grand dispersal;
the next in line will measure your treasures with cool and pitiless eyes. So feel for the broken spade that you liked to keep unmended. And the blunted shears you took in exchange for that work at Killymingan – their days are numbered, just like the muscles and veins that used to make you laugh. Without you to speak for these things, they’re finished;
and forget about that scythe your father gave you, and the first sheep trough you ever made as a boy, more powder now than tree. Forget the benches where you lay beside that old bitch as she died in the kennels and you could never bring yourself to unhitch her chain from the wall. Those byre stalls have been there for as long as you can remember, but your family will break them up and fetch the splinters blinking to the yard, cleaning up behind you. Everyone will see how ugly that wood became in the pox of worm and the crust of cobwebs and pigeon shit, and maybe somebody will think you don’t live longer indoors; you just die slower. Clean up and clean out.
I bet they’ll find things you never meant to share – things hidden for so long you’d forgotten they were secrets. They’ll see all that, your family, and maybe they’ll wonder if they really knew you at all; a man who kept a smutty magazine or a pair of lady’s knickers at the back of a filing cabinet. And all your fucking paperwork because when did farming become a desk job anyway? If they bother to read the accounts you made of yourself, maybe they’d see how close you came to losing it all one year in the eighties, and the contradictory lessons you gave about parsimony and You only live once. Everything will be there to see, with your cheque stubs gone rusty at the staple and heaps of receipts like money from a game. The museum might take one of your ledgers for the record, but they’ve already got three that almost say the same.
Your family will come to claim your prizes, claiming they’ll remember you clearly in a clock or some object that you never saw twice in your life. Then they’ll burn what’s left and it’ll be a grand fire on a clear day, raging so well that they’ll be tempted to throw on things which never stood a chance of burning. Lightbulbs and fuse-boxes; bags of bags and litter because the sheds will never sell with all this crap. When the heat fades, the mass will smoulder on and it’ll still be burning in the morning when they come back and dump more of your things to kinnle it up again. You didn’t leave word to say if you wanted a headstone. I gather there won’t be much left by the time they’ve paid the lawyers, so have this instead; a heap of melted plastic and charcoal where nothing will grow for a decade.
I know all this because they did something like it to my neighbour on the hill. He died and his life went up in flames, and now they’re doing it again in the glen and the stinking, plasticated smoke hangs above the freshly dead man’s byres shouting habemus mortem, and we know you. The wind turns and there’s a smell of burning photographs. Smoke hangs in the night mist, and the oystercatchers catch on and peep towards the spring. Then more junk, and it burns for weeks because farmers die old and they can’t help but heap fuel around their ailing bodies like a bier for the send-off.
We don’t burn the dead these days. Modern bodies are rushed away with tact and discretion, so in cleaning the slate in the wake of a passing, we’re obliged to light a different fire. And your life’s end will come in the dispersal of things which hung together only for so long as you held them. Freed of you, they’ll leave in the breeze like a long-held breath.
I suppose you’ve dwelt on this before. Nothing’s new; and yet reaching for comfort, we each of us reach for the stuff that will burn when our turn comes to go.