By Paul Anthony Corbett

 

Town meetings were a rare event in the town of Kilquinn, but Cliona Mangan had been quite insistent that all those who were of fair health and good conscience should attend. 'Herself just back from abroad,' the townspeople whispered, 'already calling the shots.' For it was the oft-heard opinion of many a Kilquinnian that those who idled more than a few weeks overseas would inevitably return with notions and Cliona Mangan, no more than a month back on home turf after a decade away, was considered to have more notions than many who had gone before. Worse yet, Cliona Mangan was a single woman deep into her thirties with not a whisper of courtship on the breeze. Her singledom was taken as a personal insult by the women of Kilquinn, who tended to marry young and waste little time before bearing children.  

Despite these misgivings, curiosity spared few cats on the soft early summer's evening in question. By half past seven the church hall, the only space large enough to accommodate the town's populace, was jam-packed. Packed like it hadn't been since the days when an empty space on the pew would not go unnoticed. For much to the consternation of those most invested in their faith, the pews had emptied over the years and the spaces never refilled. Kilquinn was, after all, one of many ancient little towns of Ireland catapulted into the 21st century, and religion was no longer the only distraction to be had.

The meeting was not called, as some had speculated, to address the recent spate of disappearances amongst the local pet population. The real reason the townspeople had been summoned on that balmy evening was concerning the remarkable changes which had swept across the townlands in recent years. For Kilquinn had flourished in the time since the complete lack of work and any form of entertainment beyond a greying pub had lit a fire under the feet of Cliona Mangan and her like. Those, like Cliona, who had returned were startled to find those familiar fields, gently rising from the flat ground of the town as if in a no-hurry ascent to heaven, now full of the noise of agricultural bounty. They discovered the town itself, once a slanting, creaking array of shabby charity shops and greasy-spoon cafes, now a hive of organic markets, hair salons and gastro-pubs serving fancy chips with tomato relish in place of ketchup.

To the people of Kilquinn, the source of this newfound prosperity was as clear as the lake-waters to the north. Look at any boomtown and you will always find one single driver, one catalyst for a miraculous blooming in an otherwise luckless place. But there was no gold to be found in the streams which veined through the town and on toward the river. What they did have was Dominic 'The Dom' Hubrity and, more specifically, his miracle fertiliser Hubrifert, which had transformed the once dreary produce of the townlands into the envy of rural communities throughout the nation. Supermarkets battled for the rights to the now renowned Kilquinn rooster potatoes. A host of craft breweries threw their profits behind the superb barley from the flatlands to the south of the town. Local farmers had even begun diversifying into fashionable organic food crops, some of which they had barely heard of before these times of change and plenty. They grew kale, alfalfa and rocket and, with a decent helping of Hubrifert, each foray into new arenas of boutique agriculture proved a resounding success. 

The man behind it all, the man himself, arrived to the town meeting last of all. Heads turned as The Dom Hubrity eased into the church and gifted his smile to all present. 'A family man,' they thought, 'patron of the local Gaelic Football club, brother to the Minister, one of our own.' Hubrity took a humble seat at the back, all handshakes, nods and shoulder-pats to those within reaching distance. To the people of Kilquinn, The Dom was, in many ways, the opposite of the likes of Cliona Mangan. He had refrained from gallivanting in foreign lands. He had married local, stuck with his people, and been richly rewarded with the success that he and, by extension, his community were currently enjoying. Which is why it stuck in the fickle craw of many when 'herself just back from abroad' announced that today's gathering had been called to address a problem which, she claimed, was directly attributable to The Dom Hubrity, the Champion of Kilquinn.

'People of Kilquinn, there is a menace amongst us,' Cliona said, with a pinch too much hysteria some thought. She took a standing position in front of the steps to the pulpit as murmurs spread like Chinese Whispers through the pews. Heads twisted, cheeks were scratched. What possible problem could there be in these times of good fortune?

'I'd like to introduce you to Professor Marcus Fitzpatrick, who has kindly taken time out from his work at the university to speak with us. He will explain things better than I ever could.'

From the front row pew, a musty cardigan of a man shifted forward and turned to face the townspeople. Cliona nodded to him to begin, and Fitzpatrick cleared his throat before speaking.

'So, as Cliona mentioned, I've come down from the university where I lecture in Environmental Science.'

A yawn worked its way from the back of the church like a virus transmitting at the speed of speech. 

'My specific area is invasive species and a few months back I was asked to come here to Kilquinn to study a peculiar infestation of a previously unknown vine-weed, which hasn't been officially named, but which I understand you have been referring to locally as chokers.'

Chokers. A ripple of discomfort spread through the hall at the voicing of the word. For all present had had their struggles with these cursed vine-weeds. Chokers had sprang up in the fields, up the walls of the farmhouses and barns and, eventually, upon the houses and shops of Kilquinn town itself. The vines grew with remarkable impatience, wrapping around any object that would lend them a leg up towards the sun. In response, Kilquinnians busied themselves hacking down the troublesome weeds from their properties each morning, just as Canadians would shovel snow from their porches in winter. Out in the fields the weeds were particularly aggressive and farmers eventually swallowed local pride and brought in outside help in the form of immigrant workers who, for an informal wage, would man the machinery needed to protect their tormented crops round-the-clock.

'I'll spare you the boring details,' Fitzpatrick continued, perhaps noticing the yawn surfing through the room, 'but the gist of my findings is that the arrival of these chokers is a direct result of the use of the local synthetic fertiliser known as Hubrifert.'

The church sprang alive with human voice. The Dom Hubrity, however, was calm as ever. He kept his arms folded and stared without expression at the two figures standing in front of the pulpit. 

Janet O'Sullivan, Kilquinn Bridge Club President, leapt to her feet. About her sat her six children all under the age of thirteen, each tranquilised by a distraction of a varying degree of technological advancement. The youngest with her delighted face in a single sheet of yellow paper, the eldest head buried deep in the glare of a mobile phone. She shushed one of her young lads before addressing the professor.

'Hubrifert has been a god-send to this community, Mr. Fitzpatrick. How can you be so sure that it has had anything to do with these wicked chokers?'

The professor glanced at the red folder he held in his hands.

'Well, the timelines for the appearance of the weeds seemed to closely match the widespread use of the fertiliser in the community, so I…'

'Coincidence!' Malcolm McDaid, one of the townland's most prosperous farmers, barked from the back, and rumbles of agreement spun through the room.

'Of course,' Fitzpatrick continued, after silence had been restored, 'matching timelines alone would not be sufficient to deliver a conclusive answer. So I ran some tests back at the university and…'

Jeers erupted at the mention of the word university, for although few present had sat in a lecture theatre, they knew well enough to know they did not enjoy being lectured to.

Cliona stepped forward and raised her voice above the din.

'Please, all, listen to the man,' she pleaded, and waved her hand in the general direction of the professor. 'The tests they ran in their labs, each time the place was crawling in chokers. Believe us, there is no doubt.'

'You're all welcome to review my findings,' Fitzpatrick added, and waved his red folder above his head.

An almost spiritual silence befell the church hall. Kilquinnians may have been innately distrusting of outsiders, but they certainly weren't so naive as to dismiss the cold, rational hand of science. For throughout its long history, it had always been the application of science, of new technologies, machinery and medicines, that had hauled the town up from the mud of poverty and ignorance. An air of admission descended on the gathering. They knew it was true. Hubrifert was directly to blame for the invasion of chokers in the town and the fields beyond.

Colm Duffy, bank manager and all-round purveyor of common-sense and propriety in the town, was next to speak up.

'Professor Fitzpatrick, I don't doubt for a second your integrity or the veracity of your findings, but perhaps we needn't be too alarmed. Surely all that is needed is an alteration to the chemical make-up of Hubrifert. There must be some form of fix we could implement.'

Murmurs of agreement rose up from the congregation. Colm Duffy was well-respected in the town, a man of solutions.

'Well,' the dishevelled scientist replied, 'we did test variations in the composition of Hubrifert, but I'm sorry to say there were only ever two outcomes. Either the status quo of excellent crop growth accompanied by an infestation of chokers, or, if we altered the composition too much, no chokers but poor crop quality.'

'So, what you're saying,' a voice called from the centre of the room, 'is that we've a choice between putting up with the chokers or returning to how things were before?'

Fitzpatrick stroked his bristled chin before responding. 'Well, I'm not suggesting that you halt all use of Hubrifert immediately. I appreciate that this could be disruptive to the local economy.'

'Look,' Cliona interjected, frustrated at the lack of urgency in the professor's words, 'the crux of the matter is if we don't stop using Hubrifert, these chokers will overrun this town and the lands beyond it. This isn't some far off possibility. Look around you, it's happening right now.'

The people of Kilquinn did look around. They looked out the church windows and saw the tractors spraying The Dom's fertiliser across the gently rising fields in the distance. Some looked even closer to home, at the vines creeping up the walls from the shadows of the very hall they sat in. 

As for Cliona Mangan, many present were beginning to see her in a new light. She had spoken on this day with an authority rarely seen in the unmarried women of the town. Perhaps she was not the uppity prodigal daughter they had once thought her to be. Perhaps her time away had gifted her with wisdom beyond the reach of the fields of Kilquinn, and here she was now returning to save her homeland from impending catastrophe.

'I should add,' Fitzpatrick said, 'there are exciting new technologies available which could offer an alternative source of…'

It was at this point that the towering, silver-headed frame of Dominic Hubrity rose to its feet. Silence descended. Even the professor knew instinctively to pull up short on his explication. The Dom strode through the central aisle between the pews, nodding at the many townspeople he knew, before passing Cliona and the professor without greeting and stepping up behind the pulpit. With the air of a feudal king assessing his royal guards, he scanned the expectant congregation before him. He hosted another moment's silence before speaking in a baritone cadence which seemed to the townspeople as if it would be as much at home in the corridors of power as in the local pub.

'As what is being discussed today has direct relevance for my own business interests, but more importantly for the welfare of the people in my community, I hope you will allow me the opportunity to say a few words.'

Cliona and the professor, awkward in their stance below the pulpit, retreated to their front-row seats.

'Good people of Kilquinn,' Hubrity continued, 'when I was a young lad, about the age of my dear friend Janet O'Sullivan's eldest there, I was sent by my father to work in the fields beyond this town. For as many of you well remember, Kilquinn was a tough place back then. A tough place to be a child, a tough place for all.'

Grey and white heads nodded throughout the room, and even those born long after the times The Dom spoke of listened in quiet enthrallment.  

'But see now how far we've come.' The Dom spread his arms Jesus-wide, as if to embrace all present in one fatherly hug.

'See now how our fields flourish, how the bells on our shop doors jingle throughout the day, how our children stay in school where they belong. How they play rather than work in our fields and they play on full stomachs.'

'All of this,' The Dom paused to look out the vine-framed windows at the fields beyond, 'all of this has been made possible through the hard work and invention of the people of this fair land. All of this has been made possible through Hubrifert.'

By now there were one or two tearful eyes in the room, and not all of them belonging to the usual suspects, those one or two Kilquinnians known to all who would grace any stranger's funeral for the chance to wet a handkerchief. 

'You see, my fellow Kilquinnians, Hubrifert is not merely a fertiliser. No. Hubrifert is our prosperity. It is our liberty. It's what keeps our children from the workhouse, the bailiff from your doorstep. It is the very lifeblood of Kilquinn.'

Quiet yeses could be heard throughout the hall. Heads nodded and spouses smiled agreement to one another. All were with The Dom. All but Professor Fitzpatrick, who studied his fingers in silence, and Cliona Mangan, who shook her downward-tilted head. Some of the townspeople looked again at Cliona in reassessment. The ratty red hair, the accent softened by being too long away. What did she really know of Kilquinn? What did she really understand? But of those who gazed again on the deflated frame of Cliona Mangan, not one of them noticed the strands of chokers which had sidled under her armpits, and which seemed to be imploring her back into the wood against which she sat.

The Dom Hubrity looked out once again to the fields beyond the town. Perhaps he searched for Kilquinn House, his stately home which once belonged to the local English landlord before this young nation was caesareaned from the belly of a waning empire. How proud was he and many for him that no foreign master enjoyed the view of the town that he, a son of Kilquinn, savoured each morning from his balcony. He brought his gaze back to his people before continuing, his voice bolstered with yet more heft than before.

'Who,' he proclaimed, while looking directly down on Cliona and the professor, 'who would deny the children of Kilquinn the comfort and prosperity we can provide through our use of Hubrifert? Through our use of this miracle we've been blessed with? And yet, Hubrifert is no manna sent to us from the gods. No, Hubrifert is the fruit of our invention, our toil, our spirit. Who would deny the mothers and fathers of our fair land the opportunity to pass on to their sons and daughters this, this culmination of everything our forefathers strived for? Who would deny our children their future?'

At the very moment the Dom finished speaking, spontaneous applause exploded throughout the church. A single cheer rose from the back of the room igniting a chorus of acclamation from the townspeople. Tears streamed unashamedly down the cheeks of even the stoniest of Kilquinnians and all present, all but Cliona Mangan and the professor, basked in the rapture which filled their hearts.

It was loyal Janet O'Sullivan who first thought to rise to her feet. To give the Champion of Kilquinn the standing ovation he so richly deserved. But as she began to rise, she felt a force drawing her back down. Dropping her clap, she pushed her hands down on the wooden bench to offer some leverage, yet found herself rooted to the spot. For hidden from sight below her, the vine-weeds known in these parts as chokers had wrapped their spindly arms around her ankles and calves. 

Had the other townspeople present tried to stand, they too would have met with the same unbreakable resistance as Janet O'Sullivan. Had they muted their applause for just one moment, they would have perhaps also noticed the unusual absence of the barks and bleats which usually accompanied a summer's evening in Kilquinn, which may have led them to ponder why so many of their pets and livestock had been disappearing in recent times. Indeed, had they looked away from the orator behind the pulpit to the walls of the church, they would have witnessed the rapid assault of chokers climbing to the ceiling, as if being fuelled by the euphoric applause which filled the room. Yet no one present seemed aware of the scourge which swept around them. Even Janet O'Sullivan gave up on her struggle to rise to her feet. She instead re-joined the thundering, all-smiling adoration, and neither she nor anyone else noticed her six children, in order of age and size, being dragged down to the cold stone floor.

One by one the townspeople fell. They fell holding their clap as long as they could, until the tentacles of the chokers wrenched their hands apart and back behind their backs. They fell with adoring eyes fixed on The Dom Hubrity, even as he too was tugged down behind the pulpit by the snaking claws of the chokers, which sped up his tall frame before sliding down his throat and blocking his windpipe. 

As the rumble of applause began to drain from the room, those who remained standing, with rapturous smiles carved into their faces, watched on as their champion was dragged to the floor, and they followed the gape of his bloodshot eyes out through the gaps between the vines which now covered the church windows. They followed his gaze out to the homes beyond, the humble terraced houses of the town, the prouder farmhouses in the distance, the majesty of Kilquinn House itself, all now blanketed in swarms of chokers, all equal at last in their capitulation, and as the final writhe bolted from The Dom's defeated body, they followed his terminal gaze out the window to the fields beyond, fields now wholly silenced of man and machine, of bird and beast, fields known so well to every son and daughter of Kilquinn, to farmer and labourer, to banker and shopkeeper, to those who never dared to leave and those who couldn't wait to flee, fields they thought would last to the end of time, fields they always saw as rising gently from the low ground of the town, as if in a no-hurry ascent to heaven, fields which could also be viewed as sloping downwards toward the town from the hills above, as if in a creeping descent into hell. 

 

 

---

 

Paul Anthony Corbett is a writer from Dublin. He was short-listed for the 2015 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year award and his stories have been published in Anomaly Literary Journal, Incubator Journal, and Carried in Waves. You can follow him on Twitter @pacorbett.