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Liam O'Flaherty
1896 - 1984

   

The Challenge

by Liam O'Flaherty



   
 

THE FAIR was almost over. The street cleaners were already at work on the western end of the great square. Down there the ground looked like the surface of a flooded bog after the heavy rain that had fallen almost constantly during the afternoon. The slush rose in a thick brown wave before the massive brooms of the sweepers.

Some horses still remained unsold on the high ground at the northeastern corner. There was a little group of meny around each horse. They had the collars of their greatcoats turned up about their ears, as protection against the cold east wind. Jobbers walked briskly from group to group.

A long row of red-wheeled carts stood before the taverns, from which the sound of drunken singing issued in ever-changing volume. Women sat patiently in the carts, waiting until their men were ready to quit drinking and go home. Here and there, a man could be seen lying on his back in a cart, one arm thrown limply across his face. A party of four civic guards stood outside the door of the farthest tavern, trying to pacify two men who had been quarreling.

In the space between the horses and the carts, a large crowd faced the gable end of the little house in which pigs are weighed. They stood in a wide half circle, watching the antics of a tinker couple. The tinker's wife sat on an orange box against the wall of the house. She had a leash to which a white hound was attached in her right hand. She brandished a short stick that she held in her left hand at the people. Five asses, with their heads tied close together and their snouts to the ground, stood facing the gable end to her left. Now and then she struck at the nearest one of them with her stick. Her husband stood a short distance out from the gable end, with his legs spread wide and his clenched fists close to his hips, challenging the people to fight him.

He was yelling at them arrogantly in a hoarse voice. "If there is a cocky man among you," he cried, "e'er a boastful fellow that fancies himself, let him come out here to me on this clear ground. I'll tear the living heart out of him!"

He was a handsome man, even though he was middle-aged and ravaged by debauch. He had no more belly than a hound. His body widened out gradually from waist to shoulder. Like a bull, it was about his upper chest and the base of his neck that he had most muscle. His jaws were heavy and square. His nose was short and thick. His complexion and what remained of his hair were dark. His small blue eyes lay far back in his skull. A piece of his right ear was missing. He wore a black jacket and gray trousers. Both garments were in tatters. The jacket had no buttons in front. He wore only a flimsy cotton shirt beneath it. The shirt also was in rags. It was pulled up from the trousers in front. The thick black growth of hair on his chest was visible between the strips of blue cotton. The peak of his gray cap was turned to the rear.

"What ails the lot of you?" he yelled, as he stamped with one foot and then with the other. "Does the very sight of me strike terror into you?"

The people watched him with amused interest, just as if he were putting on a spectacle for their entertainment. Nobody spoke.

"Come on out here," the tinker yelled. "Let that boastful fellow that has all the talk come on out here, so I can tear the heart out of him. I'll wipe him off the face of the earth."

His wife jumped to her feet, threw her shawl to the ground and swung the stick about her head. "I could lick the whole fair for a shilling," she cried.

She walked back and forth a few steps, brandishing the stick, in the way a boxer acknowledges the salutations of the audience on coming into the ring. Then she stamped on the ground before her orange box.

"I could lick every man Jack here present for one lousy shilling," she cried.

She was very tall and slender. She had scarcely any breasts. Her thin bony face was without color. She had large green eyes like a cat. Her brown hair hung down in disorder about her cheeks. She was much younger than her husband. Her blue skirt, her heavy Kashmir shawl of blue and orange color, her gray bodice and the red kerchief that she wore as a band around the top of her skull were all new and spotless. Only her shoes were filthy and ragged. There were no laces in them and the tongues protruded.

"Don't waste your breath, darling," her husband said to her. "You could lick any man here with one hand tied behind your back."

The wife picked up her shawl, threw it casually about her shoulders and sat down on her box. Then she struck the ass nearest to her a violent blow on the side with her stick.

"For one lousy shilling," she yelled, "I could lick the whole bloody fair without any bother at all!"

The husband walked around the inner rim of the half circle, looking insolently into the eyes of the people. He now held his fists out in front of him. He did not speak until he had returned to his former position before the gable end. Then he yelled ferociously, "There isn't a man from here to Ballyvaughan that I couldn't crucify," he shouted. "I could make mince meat of all the rowdies that were ever pupped in Castlegar. There isn't a gouger in the whole of Connemara that I wouldn't floor with one blow. As for the pampootie men from the Aran Islands, I could send all them cowardly scissorbills off the face of this holy earth with the back of my hand. Come on out now if you have any spunk in you! Come on, you Connemara gougers! I'm the man to tame the lot of you."

Then he turned suddenly and struck one of the asses a mighty blow in the side with his right fist. "I'm the best man in the whole county of Galway," he shouted.

His wife yelled and rapped the ground with her stick. "True for you, treasure," she cried. "You're the best man and I'm the second best. Barring the two of us, treasure, there isn't the makings of a middling man here present. There isn't even the makings of a man among the lousy lot of them."

A young man spoke in the center of the crowd. "Make way for me, good people," he cried.

He shouldered the people to right and left and made his way to the center of the half circle. There he stood arrogantly on widespread legs, with his arms folded across his chest and his back to the tinkers. He was no more than a stripling, of slight build, tall and very handsome. Indeed, his face looked rather effeminate owing to the expression of girlish conceit in his large blue eyes. He had full rosy cheeks. A large mop of curly black hair showed between the top of his forehead and the peak of his gray cap. He wore a new serge suit, a knitted white jumper and elegant English shoes with pointed toes.

"I heard some man here talking about Connemara gougers," he cried, with his head thrown back to one side in conceited fashion. "That's an insulting word. As I happen to be a Connemara man myself, I'll stand here to see will that man repeat it. If he does there will be a fight. I'm a quiet, well-behaved lad. I never pick a quarrel with any man. Neither do I run from a fight, though. Where I am, I stand."

There was silence for a little while. Then the tinker's wife jumped to her feet and swung her stick about her head. "I could lick all the bloody gougers in Connemara," she cried.

The tinker leaped clean off the ground and struck his buttocks with his heels while in the air. He struck the ground on descending with the flat of both feet simultaneously. Then he yelled mightily and threw off his jacket in haste. He took the wretched garment by the end of one sleeve and let it trail upon the ground behind him. Then he walked briskly around the young man from Connemara. "I double dare any man to put a foot on my coat," he cried, as he walked around. "Who dares to face me puts his foot on my coat."

When he had returned to his former position, he threw down the jacket. "There it is," he cried. "Let the man that has courage put a foot on it."

The young man took off his own jacket slowly. He folded it neatly and laid it down on a dry part of the square out in front of him. Then he resumed his former position and folded his arms across the breast of his knitted white jumper. "If any man puts a foot on my jacket," he said, "there will be a fight. I never start a fight, but I never funk a challenge. Where I am, I stand!"

The tinker's wife ran over to the young man's jacket. She stooped and held her stick over it, within a few inches of the cloth. Then she spat very deliberately on the ground at four points around it. "That's what I think of the Connemara gougers," she cried as she straightened herself. "I spit on the lot of them."

She went back to the gable and struck the nearest ass a sharp blow on the side with her stick. Then she sat down on her orange box. "I spit on the whole of Connemara," she cried. "There isn't the makings of a man in the whole bloody place."

The young man shrugged his shoulders contemptuously and said to the people, "It's a cowardly man that sends his wife to offer a challenge."

The tinker leaped into the air once more clean from the ground and struck his buttocks with his heels. Then he rushed around in all directions shadow-boxing, with his teeth clenched and growling in his throat like a dog. Finally he went to one of the asses and struck the animal in the side several times. "That for the gougers of Connemara," he cried as he struck the poor beast. "I challenge the whole of Connemara from Leenane to Rosmuc."

He ran out to the young man's coat and leaped over it, back and forth, as if he were executing a sword dance. He spat on the ground at each jump. When he had finished, he raised his fists high above his head and struck them together. "I challenge the whole of Connemara from Maam to Clifden," he yelled. "I challenge all the gougers that were ever pupped in Lettermullen, Letterfrack and Carraroe!"

The young man walked over very deliberately to the tattered garment of his opponent. He leaped over it, back and forth, spitting on the ground with each jump. Then he returned to his former position and struck his clenched fists together high above his head. "I challenge all the tinkers from here to County Wicklow," he cried. "There isn't a tinker now living that I couldn't crucify!"

The tinker screamed and began to tear the strips of his cotton shirt from his bosom. His wife rushed to him and caught him by the arms. "Give me a hand with him, neighbors," she cried in a tone of agonized entreaty. "If he isn't held, he'll murder the young lad!"

Several people from the audience came to her aid. They laid hands on the tinker, who made a pretence of struggling violently to escape from their grasp.

"Let me at that gouger," roared the tinker, as he struggled with mock violence. "I'll tear the living heart out of him! I'll put murder on my soul because of him!"

The young man suddenly gave rein to simulated rage on his own account. He yelled with startling force and began to remove his knitted white jumper. "I'll crucify that tinker," he shouted. "I'll make a pancake of him!"

A group of people came from the crowd and seized the young man by the arms. With his jumper half removed, he struggled to free himself from their grasp, while he continued to insult his opponent in a loud voice. "Neighbors," he implored, "for the love and honor of God let me at him. I'll drink that dirty man's blood before the sun goes down."

Suddenly there was an interruption. Voices were raised demanding passage for a horse.

"Make way for a horse," the voices cried. "Make way, there."

The crowd parted to make way for a yellow pony that was being put through his paces. A very tall and bony man dressed in a black frieze coat that came to his heels led the pony by a halter. The animal was so tiny compared to the giant size of the man who led him that he had to trot at full speed in order to keep pace with the man's enormous strides. The man kept yelling at the minute pony and striking him on the haunches with an ash plant as he paced him. "Twous, you devil," the man cried. "Go on now!"

The yellow trotting pony and the striding frieze-coated man went between the challengers, who were still struggling to bridge the gap of five yards that separated them. The pony and the man went to the gable end of the little house. Then they turned back and passed once more between the yelling, struggling challengers. "Twous, twous, you devil," the frieze-coated man yelled at the pony, without even glancing at the challengers. "Go on there now."

When the man and the pony had passed, the challengers increased the pretended frenzy of their efforts to break loose. Those who held each man now joined in the challenging. They shouted insults at those opposite. The crowd pressed forward on all sides, so that it became impossible to determine who were the chief actors in the spectacle. Dogs began to bark.

Suddenly there was another interruption, at the very moment when a general encounter seemed on the point of beginning.

"The guards!" somebody cried. "Here come the guards."

Silence fell on the crowd almost at once, as four civic guards pressed forward to the center of the throng. The people drifted away quickly to a short distance. The tinker couple and the young man from Connemara were left alone once more in the center of the arena.

"What's going on here?" said the sergeant in charge of the guards.

He towered over all present. He was of enormous girth. In spite of the flesh that weighed down his body on all sides, there was no doubt about his fighting qualities. He had a hard face and he protruded from the ground like a rock.

"Holy God!" said the tinker woman. "It's bloody Sergeant Heffernan himself."

"The very same," said the sergeant, glaring at the woman, "and may I tell you that he's spoiling for a fight." The sergeant held out his two great hands in front of his chest and added, "There's nothing Sergeant Heffernan would rather do at this very moment than take a couple of tinkers, one in each hand, like this . . ." He pretended to pluck two tinkers out of the air with his hands, which he then struck together. "I'll make mince meat out of the two of you," he yelled suddenly, "unless you get out of here at once. Be off now."

The tinker and his wife turned away without saying a word. They went to collect their hound and their asses.

"You run along, too, sonny," the sergeant said to the young man from Connemara. "It's time for you to go home to your mother."

The young man from Connemara had already put on his jumper and his jacket. He was standing with his arms folded on his chest and his head thrown back in conceited fashion.

"Where I am, I stay," he said insolently to the sergeant. Without seeming effort, the sergeant took him by the back of the neck and walked off with him to the nearest cart. He carried the youth in the way a puppy is carried. He threw him onto the cart.

"Get out of my sight," he said, "before I lose my temper with you."

The lad lay down on the bottom of the cart and said nothing.

"Move on now, the lot of you," the sergeant said, as he walked back to the little house where the pigs are weighed. "I don't want any trouble with anybody. I'm not in a good humor. I wouldn't be responsible for myself if anybody crossed me."

The tinker and his wife glanced at the sergeant as they moved west along the square. The man went in front leading the five asses by a single halter. The woman brought up the rear, leading the white hound by a leash. They took courage again when they reached the western end, where the cleaners were at work with their massive brooms. They began to shout insults at the people.

"I could crucify any man in County Galway," the tinker shouted. "I'm a terrible man! I don't know my own strength."

The woman began to flog the asses in the hindquarters with her stick, while she insulted the people.

"I could lick the whole fair," she cried, "without any trouble at all and I wouldn't ask any more than one lousy shilling for doing it."

The cleaners never even raised their heads to look at the passing tinkers, as they drove the mire before their massive brooms in a thick brown wave.

 
           

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Last updated:
July 18, 2008
   
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