First and Worst – Heikki Hietala

[a huge thank you to Heikki for being the first to share his earliest work]

The Shepherd

The taxi driver’s prediction was half an hour off. Usually Dublin taxis know exactly when it is going to rain, but this time he gave me a time half an hour too early for the big pour. I didn’t mind; I got a lot closer to the hotel before the skies opened and I only got slightly wet. At the hotel I went through my material once more to make sure the Donnelly brothers could not resist my sales pitch, and then I returned to far more interesting matters.

Working for Electronics International was a good job, because I got plenty of business trips all over Europe. I had ample time to investigate interesting leads before embarking on trips, and I usually stayed at the location over the weekend before returning to pursue my hobby. You see, I’m a Knights Templar buff. I have collected every scrap of information I have been able to find, and all my data is neatly cross-referenced and stored on a removable hard disk that spends far more time in my laptop than does the sales material disk. I have seen the ruins of Megiddo (well, that was not really just Templars, more of a joint venture of them and the Hospitallers), tracked down Jacques de Molay – one of the head honchos – to the place where he was burned at stake, and visited the Chapel at Rennes-le-Chateau, where the famous Templar manuscripts were found.

I have read every book in the market and dug through numerous antiquaries in pursuit of sold-out books. I have even submitted an article on the subject of Templars to “Medieval Studies”, published by the Oxford Historical Society, but since that one is still pending, I cannot really brag with it yet. This time I was in Ireland, where I had visited the Trinity College Library to read an article in the Royal Irish Society’s Proceedings, vol. CXXXVIII, 1913, entitled “Templar Holdings in Ireland”. This was an extremely interesting lead, since very little is usually attributed to Templars in Ireland, although most places containing ‘Temple’ in their names can usually be tracked to Templar influence. Mr. Cyril W. Wharton, the author of the piece bound in a venerable calfhide book, was of the opinion that there was one major place of interest to a Templar aficionado, namely Dimwood Castle in Connemara. I had looked it up on my reliable Michelin guide and booked flight tickets to Galway for Friday evening, because Dimwood certainly appealed to my taste.

I went for a walk before retiring to bed. Dublin is full of delightful little restaurants and pubs, and I settled for a Guinness at the Duke on Duke Street. A small supper at the Judge Roy Beans proved tasty as always, and I had a couple of beers on the side. As I walked down Nassau Street I noticed a curious graffiti on the wall of the Trinity College. It read

For a second I pondered upon it, because not only was the message a bit more informative than the usual tags of graffiti artists, but also because it had been crafted with a deliberate type style. But, as usual, rain started coming down and I had to speed up my return to the hotel.

In the morning I took a taxi to the Airport Industrial Estate. After negotiating with the Donnelly Brothers, who are tight-fisted and tight-lipped (surprisingly enough for Irishmen), I managed to sell them twenty-five thousand motherboards at a pleasant price. My boss was so overjoyed to hear that the sale was complete that he promised to pick up the tab for the whole weekend. Luckily for me, Aer Lingus runs a very tight network of internal flight routes. My whole journey to Galway only took twenty-five minutes, and then I took a taxi to a place called Leenane up in the back woods of Connemara. I booked into the Stag’s Head, which appeared to be the best place to stay, and so it was too. There was traditional music, good pub grub, and plenty of jovial and talkative Irishmen to keep me company. I had a large dinner and sat down to a Guinness and struck conversation with the nearest old geezer.

“I hear there’s a castle here nearby?” I said.

“Yer better not go near Dimwood, sir, you better not,” my driver said.

“Why is that?”

“You don’t want to meet the owners of the place, the Sheppards.” I persisted.

“I just wish to go see a place on the castle grounds, you know, a cenotaph they have there.”

“A what, sir?”

“A grave of an ancestor of theirs, from the 13th century.”

“Ah, that would be the Shepherd’s Mound, then. It’s up on the road to the castle alright, inside the wall but not close to the castle. You can see that from the main road. Mind you, the castle gate is open all day but they close it at six and all trespassers have been roughly dealt with.”

“I just wish to take a few photos of the place. Would you show me there tomorrow?” I asked.

“Not for a million punts, sir, not for a million I would not. I just say that you should drop the thing from yer mind.” My friend closed up like a Dublin Bay clam, and I could not extract another word from him. He sat there gloomily with his trusty Guinness, and stared into the fire for an hour before leaving for home.

I retired to my bed at eleven, but not without having a further look at my records. The mention of the Shepherd had struck a note in my mind, and I found my reference pretty fast. Apparently John Winston, a 13th century Templar had been called ‘the Shepherd’ by friends and foes alike. He had been instrumental in many a campaign on the mainland, and in the process he had gathered substantial wealth. He retired to a remote corner of Ireland late in his life, but his manner of living had been a source of a wealth of folk tales in the area.

Apparently even today small children were still chided with the sentence “The Shepherd will get you if you do not eat your parsley,” or whatever their current mischief might be. The Shepherd was granted the dominion of Templar holdings in Ireland, and he ruled them with ruthless efficiency. His wealth amassed so that it began to arouse suspicions of otherworldly help in his doings, and very few ever visited his castle.

When he died, he stipulated in his will that his nephew and his family take over Dimwood castle, but his body was to be buried in a stone cenotaph modelled after that found in Southern France, in Rennes-les-Bains. No tombstone was to be carved, just the outline of his sword on the top stone slab of the cenotaph. This was done after the custom of the Templars, and as the Templars were disbanded in 1314, it was rumoured that the cenotaph held the key to the mystery of the vanished Templar treasure.

This was to my mind, of course, pure old wives’ tale. Still, I wished to see for myself the cenotaph, which was truly said to be an exact replica of the one in France, which is depicted in Poussin’s ‘Les Bergeres d’Arcadie’, a famous painting among historians. Another side to the story was that the Shepherd had run his own law in Connemara. Many a poor peasant, accused of this or that misdemeanour, had felt the sting of his Templar sword, and not all of them had been given that fair a trial.

His reputation was that of a very strict shepherd: be a good white lamb and you’re in the herd, but tarnish your image and you are eight inches less tall. He was hated by many, but they also say that in his time Connemara had less than its share of trouble from robbers. I resolved to get a taxi up to the castle before noon to make good use of the day.

In the morning I had a most pleasant breakfast and after that I collected my field kit: a Polaroid, a Leica (a real gem – bought at a huge discount at a Bratislava marketplace back in the good old commie days), a measuring tape, a notepad for sketches and of course, the laptop. All of this fits neatly in a backpack, which I slung over the axle and then I was off.

In the taxi we chatted away as most Irishmen are prone to do at the slightest bidding. The driver was not at all surprised to hear I wanted to go see the Dimwood castle, but when I mentioned the cenotaph he became very silent. I heard him mutter under his breath, “Ceann amháin eile don aoire”. My Irish is not that good, but I could state with certainty it meant something like ‘Another one for the Shepherd’.

When I asked him what he meant, he would not go into it again, but tried to steer the conversation into more pressing matters such as the clouds on the western horizon.

Before we reached the Castle, the driver stopped the car and told me to get off. “The mound is just behind that knoll over there. You can reach it from the right if you pass through that gate, but be sure to close it behind you. And if you see someone coming, don’t even stop to pick up your stuff.” With this he turned his battered old VW taxi around and sped off towards the village. I was left in the middle of nowhere, but I could see the gate he referred to. I went to the gate and opened it with considerable difficulty.

After entering I was surprised to see the gate swing close all by itself (it appeared) and without any sign of the jarring I had experienced in opening it. I deemed that to be a result of the slight tilt in the posture of the gate and took a look at the surroundings. I could see Dimwood Castle on the right, some eight hundred yards away, and the cenotaph on the left, almost hidden by bushes and trees. I started towards it.

At the cenotaph I booted my laptop and dug out the measuring tape. I entered the dimensions into the database and ran a comparison. The dimensions of the cenotaph were accurate to one tenth of an inch when compared with the one in Rennes. This was remarkable, because in those times it was next to impossible to make exact copies of anything that required measurements.

It must be kept in mind that back them “fixing a lawful rood”, or unit of length, meant putting thirty men of good reputation in a tight line and measuring the combined length of their right feet with a string. With the Polaroid I took some preliminary photos of the area, surroundings, and the cenotaph. I climbed onto the stone structure to see the engraved sword, and sure enough it was there, eroded by centuries of Irish weather. I took a snapshot of that too.

I jumped back on the ground to type some notes. While doing so I became aware of the rustling of leaves around me. I could see the bushes shivering, which was a bit odd, because all around it was still and the leaves of the trees were not moved by any wind. The polaroids developed in a minute and with those I planned the actual photo shoot. Especially the one of the sword was good – the engraving was very visible.

Having completed the notes I took out the Leica and climbed back on the cenotaph to record the sword on very fine grade Kodachrome slides, but as I glimpsed at the sword I was amazed to see the sword not engraved, but level with the slab. The outline was still there, but there was no depth whatsoever in the sword.

This amazed me a lot, and I touched the outline of the sword. It felt hot, which was impossible in the cloudy weather. The rest of the stone slab felt cold to my hand. Even as I held my hand on the stone, I could feel the stone sword rising from the slab. Now the sword was at least as high up on the stone as it had been engraved deep in the slab. I reassured myself of this by looking at the polaroid image, which showed the sword in the stone, not on it. I stepped back and took two shots of the sword, which was now rising visibly.

Another thing was that at the head of the cenotaph, I could make out the outline of a stone face forming where the head of the buried Templar would be. Then I could see the hands, the feet, and finally the whole front of the man in the tomb. I was frightened as hell, and I jumped back on the ground to get my stuff. I looked back to see the cenotaph once more, and by now the stone man was fully visible on the slab.

The edges of the sword were beginning to gleam as cold steel, and I could see the sword’s handle adorned with gold and gems. This really freaked me and I hurriedly packed my things while the bushes around started bending as in high winds. I started towards the gate, but out of the corner of my eye I saw the stone man turn into flesh and get up on the cenotaph. I ran like crazy towards the gate. Upon reaching it I found it was not open as it had been, but locked.

Terrified, I tried to scale the wall but it was extremely well built and offered no handholds to the unlucky would-be wall climber. I heard heavy footsteps behind me, and as I turned I could just see the steel sword approach my neck with surprising speed before I passed out from fright.

When I came to, I was on the other side of the wall, sprawling on the ground with my things around me in disarray. I touched myself to see if I was hurt, but I could not find any broken bones or cut throats. The only thing I did find was an itching scratch on my forehead. I looked at my reflection in the lens of the Leica to see that it was in the shape of a sword, stretching all across my head. I must have hit my head on the gate hinge when I fell, I thought.

I cursed my crew-cut hair style which afforded no cover for the scratch. Not knowing what I should think of the whole affair, I gathered my stuff and started towards the village. I was passed by many cars, the drivers of which would not stop so close to the Castle. One car did stop, but when the driver saw my forehead he sped off like a madman.

This boded ill, I thought, and when I reached the inn, I found my baggage neatly packed and waiting for me in the reception. The proprietor would not hear of me staying on for another night. In fact, he would not even hear of me staying for another minute, but he called me a taxi and packed me in it without requesting payment for my stay. The driver was instructed to take me to Galway airport with all speed, and when he saw my head, he was very willing not to tarry on the way.

Before we reached the airport, I asked the man what was this all about. “You see, sir, you went too close to the Tomb, too close indeed.” “What do you mean?” I asked him. “No one should interrupt the sleep of the Shepherd, and of those who have done that, few have made it back to this side of the wall. You made it back, but you are not clear of the danger yet. The last time someone went to the Tomb I heard he was spread around the Tomb in fist-size pieces, so there must be some reason for you to be alive anymore. Whatever you do, do not try to remove the sword from your forehead. It’ll go away if you manage to appease the Shepherd somehow, but otherwise it’ll stay there and you’ll be employed at his service when you pass away. God help you – no one else can.” With this he dropped me at the airport and took off without asking for the thirty-two punts I owed him for the ride.

No matter how sweet I smiled to the stewardesses in the plane back to Dublin, they would still cast puzzled looks at my tattooed forehead. Even the airport security followed me more closely than usual because of it. In Dublin I found a shop that sold theatrical make-ups and with their help I managed to cover the sword with some paste, but it felt uncomfortably hot under the paste. I was pretty much fed up with the whole affair and I called Aer Lingus to try and get an earlier plane back home.

They were able to squeeze me on a flight at six that evening, so I had just over two hours to get to the airport. I packed and paid the hotel, and then I hailed a taxi off the street. As the car sped down Nassau Street I noticed something strange in the graffiti on the Trinity wall. I halted the taxi and walked to the wall. It no longer read “Charles” but “Peter”, and there was no sign of the word Charles ever having been on the wall. I felt a chill run down my spine. Peter was my name.

I remembered something and returned to the taxi. The driver looked at me bewildered as I booted the laptop to dig up a reference. A quick query into the database confirmed my suspicion. In the database I had a collection of information on other Templar hobbyists with whom I had exchanged materials and hints, and one of them was Charles de Guinan. He was no longer accessible – he was dead since December 23rd the previous year.

Now it all came back to me with terrifying clarity. I had read it in Le Monde that he had been killed in a mysterious fire the day before Christmas Eve. Not even Sûrete had been able to decipher why his villa in Tarbes had burned down, and the file on his death was still open. I hacked the keyboard to see who had tipped me on the Irish Templars in the first place: Charles de Guinan. Who had sent me the reference to the Proceedings? Charles. And finally, who was it that advised me on the Templar custom of burying knights with just the outline of their sword on the slab? Once again, Charles.

I asked the driver to get to the airport as fast as possible, because I needed a triple Scotch to calm my nerves. I was sure Charles had been to the cenotaph as well.

Today is October 13th. In just 71 days I will find out if I am the Peter in the wall.

~ by yearzerowriters on March 8, 2010.

10 Responses to “First and Worst – Heikki Hietala”

  1. This is a devilishly fluent read.
    Dan

  2. *IS STUPEFIED*

  3. This reads very smooth. It is quite enjoyable. When was it written? Couldn’t have been too long ago, with references to motherboards and laptops.

  4. You surely must have changed it *significantly* since you originally wrote it. I say this not only because of ‘very modern’ references, but also because it does not at all read like a first work. It’s very polished.
    My first is set in Ireland too.

  5. Actually, PD and Anne, this was part of the website I wrote in 1997-98, and I just a month or so ago copied it into a Word file. You see, we were a technical translation office, hence the laptops and boards. But I only edited it for a couple issues of word choice, which you can see if you have a peek at the version on the site. It’s in the other First & Worst post.

    I am very happy if you have such opinions on the first short I have in electronic form. All my (few) youth pieces are lost to posterity (good thing too).

    Incidentally, the Dispatchers was my 2nd shortie, written in 1999. That, I have modified quite a lot.

  6. Agree with the others – I was just going to glance at this, because I was supposed to be in a hurry, but I stayed to read it for enjoyment. Touch of the M.R. James in the way you gain the reader’s acceptance of fantastic events? Like to see what you could do with a novel-length ghost story.

  7. I always enjoy your stories, Heikki. And I loved the Templar references, of course. You do something that I think we modern writers forget to do often — you actually tell us a story. Thank you for that.

  8. *blush* aw shucks Daisy.

    That’s all I can do, to a limited extent. I doubt I can make people really stop and ponder the depths of truths like you and the others can, but I’ll be happy to entertain.

  9. Also, by the way – the inscription about the effigy was really a graffiti on the Trinity College wall in 1991, and it sparked the whole story seven years later…

  10. […] First and Worst – Heikki Hietala « Year Zero Writers […]

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