It looked like an upmarket retirement home.
But then I noticed a poor man arguing with himself on the wide veranda of the mansion, and others sleepwalking on the lush meadow beyond the avenue of trees leading to the entrance.
Michael was sitting on a balcony off his room looking out over the trees toward the purple smudge of the Connemara Mountains in the distance. My old newspaper colleague gave me a hug and took a step back, holding me by my shoulders, staring into my eyes. “Now, isn’t it good you’re here?” he said. “Visiting your poor, mad friend.”
I was about to say something, but he put a finger to his lips, and motioned to a chair next to his. A young woman brought a tray with a pot of tea, two cups and slices of apple crumble. I remembered one of my friend’s favorite expressions: “Two rules of life — never pass up an opportunity to talk to a beautiful woman or have apple crumble.” But he was silent as she set the tray down and left.
I was about to begin again, to relate an anecdote about my life on Shelter Island, or how good it was to be back in Galway, anything to stall commenting on where we were, or Michael’s tranquilized but frightened eyes, the moon-pale color of his face.
“It started with the dream,” he said before I had a chance to speak.
A recurring nightmare, plaguing him three or four nights a week for months, and always identical. He finds himself driving on a country road, moonlight flooding the farm fields, headlights cutting the darkness ahead. It’s an unfamiliar road and a sudden panic sweeps over him that he’s hopelessly lost. Around a bend next to a running stream he sees a white cottage gleaming in the moonlight.
Michael parks and approaches the house, walking up the path. He knocks on the door. Through the window of the door he sees a light go on inside and the outline of a figure coming toward him. The door opens. An old man in wrinkled pajamas, blinking, shaking sleep from his head. There is a small, tea-colored birthmark on his cheek.
The old man’s expression when he finally sees Michael turns to abject terror, mouth hanging open, eyes wide with alarm. “Why? Oh, my God, why?” The old man is whining, begging, terrified, pointing a trembling finger at Michael. “Why are you — ?”
Michael comes awake, heart hammering, staring at the ceiling.
“You can’t imagine it,” he said, moving some crumble around on the plate with his fork but never bringing it to his lips. “Always the same — moon on the fields, the headlights, the stream at the bend, the white cottage, the figure shuffling down the hall, the birthmark. And the fear in that man’s face! You see, he recognizes me. And that horrible pleading! ‘Why? Oh, my God, why? Why are you — ?’ But his question is never finished, there’s always something left unsaid before the dream ends.”
Not long ago Michael had moved, quitting journalism and taking a teaching job at a local college. He had called me on several occasions, describing the beauty of the area, his new colleagues and students.
“As soon as I moved, the dream was gone,” he said, looking again out toward the mountains in the distance. “What a relief. Like getting out of prison.”
He turned and stared at me. “And then one night I was out driving. And I was lost.”
The moonlight lay on the fields, the headlights pierced the darkness. He saw the stream ahead, and noticed his hands shaking on the wheel as he turned into the bend. Ahead was the white cottage.
He stopped and turned off the engine. Sitting in the darkness he fought with himself. Do not do this. No, you must. I’ll knock and it will be a young farmer who answers. I have to do this.
Michael walked up the path and knocked on the door. “I stopped breathing, running with sweat,” he said. The light went on and he could make out the figure slowly walking toward him. The old man opened the door. The birthmark, the terror in his face. But this time, the old man finished his question. “Why? Oh, my God, why? Why are you haunting me?”
I wanted to look away from Michael’s eyes, but couldn’t. He grabbed my hand. “I am that man’s nightmare,” he whispered. “I am the nightmare.”
He doesn’t remember fleeing the cottage door. Turf cutters found him the following evening at the edge of a bog near some woods, sitting in the dirt. “I didn’t know where I was. I barely knew who I was,” he said.
“But the birthmark! I remembered — something from the past was unlocked.”
The unlocked memory was a terrible scene from his childhood, walking with his father on a Dublin street and his father suddenly grabbing his hand, dragging him along as he chased a man down the sidewalk — a man with a tea-colored birthmark — through crowds, his father shouted at the man ahead until he stopped, looking furiously around, his quarry swallowed by the crowd.
“My mother had problems, emotional problems,” he told me, looking away. “The man with the birthmark, the man my dad was chasing that terrible day, was a quack who committed her and prescribed a surgical procedure. I remembered her going away and when she returned she was not the same, she didn’t recognize us at all.”
There was an awful grin on my friend’s face when he turned to me. “But now I’m haunting him.”
We had been sitting in silence for ten minutes when the attendant came and gently told Michael it was time to say goodbye to his guest. He didn’t seem to hear. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him I’d come again. He reached up and, for a moment, softly pressed my hand to his shoulder.
At the end of the corridor a small group of people were talking. As I passed, I noticed an elderly doctor in a long white coat staring intently at me. When he turned away I saw a small birthmark on his cheek. I quickly dismissed it as a trick of the light.
The afternoon was vanishing as I drove away. I knew it would be one of those October days in rural Ireland where there would be no evening. The light would go out all at once, and a gray afternoon would become a black night. Something caught my eye at the side of the road, three figures, my headlights catching the whiteness of bones — were they human? — and part of me froze, not wanting to look, but to speed past, and once again put the blame on tricks.
They were kids, dressed up as skeletons, each carrying a plastic bag that read: Happy Halloween!