Excerpt: Dillon and the Watchtower

Dillon and the Watchtower – excerpt from An Irish Miracle
by Rob Mahan
Copyright © 2012

The regional road he had chosen was paved but quite narrow and had little if any shoulders. It wound along the rolling curves of the land so he drove slowly and began to enjoy the stillness of the morning. His window was rolled down, but his coat was still on against the damp chill that hung in the air.

Everywhere he looked was a different shade of green, from the lush of the grass in the pastures to the trees that sometimes lined the sides of the road. The sky was still all mottled grays and in places, the hills seemed to be split open, revealing rocks the same color as the clouds above. Cows, brown and white and black, grazed on many of the hillsides, sometimes sharing them with small flocks of sheep, all amid rocks scattered randomly across the verdant, rolling pastures.

Every now and then, he would pass a small farmhouse set back from the road. The houses were often painted in bright colors, whites and yellows and sometimes even pink, with colorful flowers planted in the yards and window boxes. The splashes of color made a pleasant contrast with the muted array of greens and grays in the surrounding countryside.

After driving for awhile, it was time to stretch his legs a bit and do a quick check of his maps. Since there were no shoulders next to the narrow strip of asphalt that wound through the gentle hills, Dillon pulled onto the edge of a grassy slope and turned off the car. The window was still rolled down. When he reached for the door handle, his hand froze. Something was a bit off, but he couldn’t identify what had made him hesitate. Almost holding his breath, he listened for something that might give him a clue. After almost a minute, the strangeness he was hearing—more precisely, what he wasn’t hearing—gradually became apparent.

Nothing. Nothing at all. There were no voices, no music, no cars, no tractors, no airplanes, not even an insect making a sound. He couldn’t remember ever hearing nothing before. A word started to form, just out of his grasp. The odd, unfamiliar sensation begged for a name, but it wouldn’t quite come. Not wanting to disturb the silence, he quietly opened the car door and made his way up the grassy slope. As he topped the hill, the majestic panorama that opened before him could have been a grand fresco hanging in one of the great museums of the world.

From right to left, as far as his eye could see were rolling green pastures, broken with patches of exposed gray rock and strips of dark turned soil. Ponds and small lakes dotted the irregular landscape. The fields faded and met the light gray sky in a distant, washed out line.

Standing starkly alone in the field a half mile in front of him was what appeared to be a deserted stone watchtower. It was covered with lichen and dark green moss and topped with still visible battlements. Dillon stared at the aging structure. Its unknown builders had placed it here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, for some now lost purpose. The longer he stared, the form of a helmeted sentry grew more solid. Lance in hand, the soldier slowly paced the top of the circular tower, surveilling the surrounding lands.

A light breeze brought the heady scent of distant cattle to mix with the fragrance of the damp earth all around him. The breath of the land had been unchanged for thousands of years—for tens of thousands of years. The strange, unfamiliar feeling suddenly named itself. Its name was ‘ancient’.

Dillon started to walk across a freshly tilled field to get a better look at the tower. When his feet sank into the soft soil, he stopped and looked down past wobbly knees. When they threatened to give way, he just sat down.

With a fistful of the dark earth held to his nose, Dillon closed his eyes and inhaled. His grandpa’s presence was faint but distinct, even though he was on a tractor, plowing a field thousands of miles away.

I’ve never been this far from home.

He squeezed his eyes even tighter and took another deep breath. There was a man who looked just like his grandpa, only much younger. The man was smiling and guiding a plough pulled by two small, sturdy horses. They were turning over the fertile soil of the field. They were walking toward him.

I’ve never been this close to home.

Dillon opened his eyes and looked around. He was still very much alone. The pasture was still silent. As he stood and brushed moist dirt off his pants, the looming outline of the stone ruins reminded him why he had set out across this particular field to begin with.

At first glance, the watchtower seemed monolithic and impenetrable. The rough stone wall was unyielding under the thick layers of lichen and moss. Making his way around the base, Dillon could see vertical slits spaced up the wall at regular intervals. Halfway around, he came to a dark opening in the wall and his pulse quickened a bit. Any remnants of a wooden door had long since turned to dust. There were rough hewn steps visible just inside.

Crouching low, Dillon poked his head into the opening and looked up. The crumbling stone steps spiraled up and out of sight, lit ever so faintly by sunlight coming through the narrow slits in the outer wall.

He pulled his head back out of the opening and looked around. There were no signs, no people, no cars, no sounds, nothing. Back home, this ancient tower would be surrounded by a tall fence and someone taking money to let a long line of people in to see it.

Dillon wasn’t afraid of the dark and he’d dealt with enough barn rats to keep that fear in check, but he was curious. What had it been like to be a soldier during the days of this tower? As far as he could see, there was only one way to find out.

With a fierce grin, Dillon looked around and announced to the pasture, “Come on, men. Let’s take this tower!” He crouched and entered the opening, leading a patrol of ghostly Celtic warriors single file up the spiral staircase.

Even though he was on the attack, he carefully picked his way up the rotten stone steps. He paused to look out through each arrowslit in the thick wall and to catch a whiff of fresh air. As the narrowness of the steep passageway made him round his shoulders, Dillon soon discovered that he might be just a little bit claustrophobic. It was easy to see that defending the tower from above would have been a simple matter of killing the first few men up the cramped staircase. Their bodies would have rendered the way impassable for the rest of the attackers.

With a feeling of triumph and relief, Dillon popped out into the fresh morning air at the top of the tower. He took a deep breath. “I take this tower in the name of Clan Connolly!” A bit sheepishly, he looked around to see if anyone had heard him. Only a few cows grazed in the green fields nearby. They seemed not in the least impressed with his conquest.

He scanned the horizon and picked out two distant watchtowers in opposite directions. The blackened stone floor he was standing on at the top of the tower suddenly made sense. Signal fires. He chuckled to himself but at the same time, he nodded approvingly. The first Irish internet had been made of wood and stone.

After carefully navigating down the watchtower’s crumbling steps, Dillon slowly made his way back to the car. The feel of the moss covered stones at the base of the tower, the smell of the damp earth in the field and the myriad shades of green in the surrounding hills came together in a peaceful calm. They were all wrapped in a hush, save for soft whispers of the wind.

From the far side of the field, the young man waved and his ponies tossed their heads. As he pulled back onto the road, Dillon waved goodbye to the quiet, empty pasture.

This land will be hard to leave behind.