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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1092

An Old Man and his adolescent son stand before a ruined old house, behind which stands only one bare tree. The boy complains of long wandering carrying a heavy pack while having to listen to his father’s talk. Ignoring the complaints, the Old Man instructs the boy to study the...

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An Old Man and his adolescent son stand before a ruined old house, behind which stands only one bare tree. The boy complains of long wandering carrying a heavy pack while having to listen to his father’s talk. Ignoring the complaints, the Old Man instructs the boy to study the house, which once was the scene of camaraderie, storytelling, and jokes. He is now the only living person with such memories. Although the boy scoffs at these reminiscences as pointless, the Old Man continues with his moonlit reverie about the cloud-shadowed house. He had visited the site one year earlier when the tree was as bare as it is now. Fifty years earlier, before lightning had struck it, he had seen the tree at the height of its beauty, ennobled with luxuriantly green leaves just as the house had been luxurious with intellectual life.

At the Old Man’s direction, the boy sets down his pack and stands in the ruined doorway, squinting to see the person the Old Man says is still inside. He sees no one. The floors, windows, and roof are gone; the only recognizable object is an eggshell that a jackdaw had dropped. Unbelievable to the boy is the Old Man’s insistence that souls in Purgatory return regularly to reenact their still troubling former transgressions. Since they are dead, insists the Old Man, the souls can understand the consequences of their failings. Those who had been made to suffer from the soul’s earthly actions might eventually offer forgiveness, but those whose transgressions were self-inflicted must render their own forgiveness or rely on God’s mercy.

Disgusted, the boy tells the Old Man to tell his fantastic story to the jackdaws if he must but to leave him alone. Forcefully, the father commands his angry son to sit on a stone; the house belongs to the boy’s grandmother and is where the Old Man was born. Caught by this revelation, the boy sits and listens to the Old Man’s tale.

The Old Man’s mother owned more than the house; her property extended as far as one could see. Kennels and stables had housed prize animals; one of her horses raced at Curragh, a nearby racetrack. There, she had met and quickly married a lowly groom; after this, her mother had never spoken to her again. The Old Man shares his grandmother’s condemnation of his mother’s impulsive passion. The boy disagrees, for the groom, his grandfather, had won both the woman and the wealth. Seeming not to hear the boy, the Old Man repeats his description of his mother’s hasty mistake, that she had merely looked at the groom, then married him, but that she had never known her bridegroom’s true character, for she died soon after in giving birth to her son, the Old Man. Thereafter, her husband had squandered all her wealth.

Exciting memories of the great house animate the Old Man: Military officers, members of Parliament, governors of foreign lands, and Irish patriotic heroes had lived or visited the house, loving the ancient trees and profuse flowers. Then the husband had laid the land waste, felled the trees, and ruined the house. “To kill a house,” the Old Man curses, “I here declare a capital offense.”

Ignoring the Old Man’s bitterness, the boy envisions his father’s grand childhood with its horses and fine clothes. Ignoring his son’s covetousness, the Old Man sneers at his father’s ignorance. The Old Man had been forbidden to attend school, so he had learned to read from a gamekeeper’s wife and learned Latin from a priest. In the great library, fine old books were plentiful. What of that education had the Old Man passed on to him, the boy asks. Since the boy is only a bastard conceived in a ditch with a peddler’s daughter, he receives only what is due his station, replies the Old Man.

When the Old Man was sixteen, his drunken father had burned down the great house, destroying all the treasures in it. The boy suddenly realizes that he, too, is sixteen years old. Tentatively, he asks if the rumor were true that the Old Man had killed his dissolute father in the burning house. The Old Man confesses that he had, but that because the body was charred he was never convicted. Threatened by his dead father’s friends, however, he had disguised himself and fled, to return to his father’s low station by becoming a wandering peddler. He boasts that he still uses the murder weapon to cut his dinner meat.

Suddenly, the Old Man hears hoofbeats and remembers that today is the anniversary of his mother’s wedding night. Although the boy cannot see anything, the Old Man sees and describes a vision of a ghostly young woman, the Old Man’s mother, inside the ruined house awaiting her husband’s late return from a drinking spree. The spectral husband stables the horse, and the woman leads him to her bedroom. Entering the dream scene, the Old Man shouts in vain to his mother not to let his father touch her to beget him. Then he realizes that the scene must be repeated because his mother’s remorse for her marriage was the cause of the reenactment.

While the Old Man is fantasizing, the boy tries to steal his inheritance from his father’s bundle of money. Halting the boy, the Old Man justifies his stinginess by asserting that the boy is like his dissolute grandfather and would have squandered everything on drink. As they struggle for the money, the dream lights up a vision of the ghostly grandfather pouring whiskey. The boy threatens to continue the family murders by killing the Old Man, then pauses, horrified, when he, too, sees the Old Man’s vision of the man and woman, his grandparents. Quickly, the Old Man repeatedly stabs and kills the boy, then sings a lullaby to the young corpse.

The vision fades and is replaced by moonlight on the bare tree. The Old Man assures his dead mother that his murderous act will finish the cycle of repeated scenes and that his killing his son will stop the family’s generational pollution. He will now wander in distant lands, far from the nightmare. Then he hears approaching hoofbeats again and realizes that the nightmare is about to begin anew. Dejected, the Old Man pleads with God to rescue his mother from her cycle of remorse.

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