Rites of Passage
Half way down the field there is an oak. A dog, the colour of sea weed, is stationed beneath the spreading ark of its branches. Eyes fixed on the boreen which cuts across the mountain, muscles stretched tight, she sits and waits. When, at last, they emerge over the jagged crest of rock, she unleashes a deep barrel-chested bark that rings out across the valley.
The bark makes the woman stir. She rolls onto her back, free floating and spacious in that brief instant before consciousness kicks in. Then, no doubt, she will think of the move; the distance she’s put between herself and the glow of streets lights, the ease of supermarket shelves. Her mind will flit to the boy, wondering how he will adapt to this pared down, elemental existence. If, indeed, they’ve done the right thing taking on the renovation of this old family home.
The bark takes on a frantic, high-pitched note, half yelp, half whimper.
‘You go,’ she says, nudging the man at her side.
‘What?’ he says, ‘What is it?’
‘It’s the deer,’ she says. ‘She’s obsessed with the deer.’
Mumbling something incoherent, he burrows deeper under the covers.
‘It’s no good ignoring her,’ she says, slipping her feet into a battered pair of clogs and making her way down the stairs.
I wait for the pooka creak of the middle tread and when it comes, I bless myself.
The back door swings open. ‘Tiger,’ she calls, her voice shrill in the cold bite of May.
‘Tiger! Get in here!’ Relieved of duty, Tiger flops her big body in front of the stove. When the kettle boils, the woman prepares two mugs of tea, carrying them upstairs with the weekend paper.
We meet head on and she walks through me without so much as a flinch or a backward glance. This, in itself, is not so unusual. An old house like this, you never know who you might stumble across.
Later that morning they venture out along the dark boreen. A blanket of mist hangs heavy over the mountains softening the jagged silhouette cut into the skyline. Weaving and drifting between them, I listen to the plaintive bleat of a new born lamb, the tramp of their feet on the path.
‘This wind,’ says the woman, raising her voice as an easterly gust flattens the reed grasses, ‘they call this wind the Scaraveen.’
‘Who told you that?’
‘Maureen in the post office.’
Scaraveen. It’s a good word, an old word. I say it slowly, watching as the scar-ah-veen whips tendrils of the boy’s hair across his face. Standing here, amongst the bracken and the furze, his seven year old body is stick thin, frail as a willow bough. He stoops to rub the dog. I used to have a dog. The memory catches me off guard. Once I had a dog then something bad happened to the dog. I do not care to remember any more.
As the path winds around an outcrop of rock, the dull thud of hammering makes the ground shake. Some way ahead, a farmer is driving stakes into the stony soil with a mallet. On our approach, he swings around, all craggy eyebrows and jutting chin.
‘Excuse me,’ says the woman, ‘we’re looking for the famine village. Someone told us to follow this track?’
‘You were told wrong, ma’am,’ says the farmer, sizing her up the way he might a heifer at the mart. ‘There’s nothing up here, only bog and rock.’
‘Next time, we’ll have to check the map,’ she says, making an attempt at a laugh as they turn about.
He calls after them as a few bedraggled sheep emerge through a gap in the fence, ‘Put that dog on a lead,’ he says, ‘there’s sheep lambing.’
When my dog died, I wrapped her in a flour sack and buried her by the river. An image of that small, sad grave flashes before me, catching my throat like a handful of gravel.
As evening falls, they sit together. Her head rests on the man’s shoulder. The boy is sprawled at their feet, trundling a toy truck along the dog’s behind. It makes a pleasing scene, timeless in its own way.
I take up position, mid-way on the stairs, registering the tick of the clock, fire-light glinting on the gold of her ring.
The man gets up to stoke the fire, selecting a mossy log to rekindle the fading blaze.
‘Wait a sec,’ she says, peering at the log, then knocking off a creeper with a deft flick of her fingers.
The care she takes as she effects this small rescue puts me in mind of Mhamo.
Mhamo had fierce respect for the creepers, never allowing us children pull off their spindly legs or stand down on top of them.
‘T’was the creepers,’ she said, ‘kept the people alive in the time of the hunger.’
Then the fire spits out a warning and I catch myself on.
‘May the souls of the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.’
There’s precious little rest for the souls remaining and that’s for sure. The new people have the house turned up in a heap. All the presses emptied; the Sacred Heart taken down from the wall; the settle cast out in the hen house with the black bags of rubbish.
By way of protest, I throw myself down on the floor, remembering that day long ago with the relations all gathered. Men filing through the door, cap in hand, muttering to my Father, ‘Sorry for your troubles, Pat.’ Mhamo laid out on the settle, small and brown like a withered flower and me sat waiting for her to lift off the seat and ascend up to heaven.
I picture myself as I was back then, a skinny runt of a lad with crooked teeth and scabby knees. The youngest of ten children all born in the upstairs room. ‘Last but not least,’ as Father would have it. Mhamo’s little pet.
Though I took a share of ribbing for that, the older ones all looked out for me when I followed them across the water. Pattie found me a job. Louise took me to mass. She was a good girl, good and steady. We weren’t a bit surprised when she went off and joined the Poor Clares, even though it was a silent order and she had the laugh of a navvy. It fell to Joe to show me the bright lights and the razzle dazzle.
I cast back and hear the drum of feet on the sprung, wooden floor. See myself turning up night after night in Joe’s old suit, hair slicked back, hoping to catch sight of Kaitlin. Only asking her out for a dance, weeks later, after steeling my nerve with a good nip of whiskey.
‘What took you so long?’ she said that to me afterwards. ‘I thought you’d never ask.’
The boy purses his lips and whistles a tune. In the light of the fire, he is delicate as fine bone china. The frame of his glasses press into his blue veined skin marking the bridge of his nose. He gives them a rub with his sleeve. His fingers are long and slender like my brother Pattie’s;: the sort of fingers that might thread a needle or play a piano.
‘What’s that you’re whistling?’ says the woman.
‘Dunno,’ he says with a shrug.
He rubs the dog with those long piano fingers and continues to whistle the song I sang to her:
“I’ll take you home again Kathleen.
Across the ocean wild and wide.”
A picture of Kaitlin swims in front of me. Dark hair tied back from her face, the smell of apples on her breath. Kaitlin wrote me long, lonesome letters when they sent me home to father. Twenty seven years of age, my chest too tight and full of phlegm to sing another note. The memory of Kaitlin shoots an arrow through my heart.
A car drives past the house, slowing down on the approach to the bend, then shutting off the engine. At the sound of footsteps on the gravel path, the dog jumps to her feet, tail thumping the back of the seat. There is a rap on the door, then another louder rap.
‘You go,’ says the woman, ‘my hair’s a mess.’ Patting down the mess in case the visitor is brought inside, she strains to catch the mumble of voices.
‘What was that about?’ she demands, when the man returns.
‘Nothing,’ he says, flashing a sideways glance at the boy.
‘Tim,’ she says, ‘time for bed.’
The boy takes the stairs, two steps at a time, still humming the melody he plucked from the ether.
‘It was the old fella we met earlier,’ says the man in a whisper. ‘Apparently, there’s a fox’s den somewhere along our stretch of the mountain.’
‘So?’ she says, ‘What’s that got to do with him?’
‘There’s a gang of them coming to dig it out.’
‘No,’ she says, her colour rising. ‘They can’t do that. We’re not going to let them.’
‘Kate,’ he says, ‘He wasn’t asking. He was telling me. He reckons this fox has taken a good few of his lambs.’
‘She’s a mother!’ she says, clasping her two hands like this fox is the blessed Virgin. ‘What’s she meant to do? Let her babies starve?’
Her eyes dart across the room and I have the odd sensation of pins and needles prickling my etheric body. I pull myself back into the shadows.
Don’t ask me craythur. I don’t care to venture an opinion.
The man lets out a sigh, ‘I know this is hard but you’ve got to look at it from their point of view. They’re trying to earn a living.’
‘I can’t believe you’re taking their side,’ she says. ‘This is our land. Are we just going to let these people come and kill the wild animals?’
‘Kate. These people are our neighbours. We can’t afford to fall out with them.’
‘I see now this was a big mistake,’ she says, eyes glistening as she stomps out the room. ‘Country life is too hard, too cruel. We never should have come.’
Drawn by a light on the landing, a moth bashes its fragile body against the window pane, falling stunned onto the ledge then bashing itself again and again.
Given the obstacles in its path, such single minded determination strikes me as heroic.
On the chime of the hour, a jeep pulls up to the iron gate field. Three men proceed in silence along the boundary fence, stiff in gait, stumbling in the rough grass. I look on with some degree of trepidation. Wild as we were, not one of us children would have dared go near the dark boreen of an evening, for fear of lost souls rampaging down the valley desperate for the want of food.
Emboldened, no doubt, by the shovels slung across their shoulders, the men make their way to the Cathairin. Someone strikes a match and the smoke from his cigarette spirals up into the starry sky. He takes a few deep puffs then pinches out the burning tip. Someone else coughs, a wet protracted rattle, then retches up a gob of phlegm.
The cough catapults me back to that last night I spent with father. Gasping for breath as the fever took hold and all the while the old man sat and mopped my brow.
‘There’s few of us left, Teddy,’ he used to say that after a jar on a Sunday.
It would have broken my heart to leave the craythur here alone.
‘Which way, John Joe?’
The old fella beckons them to a waterlogged ditch then points with his stick.
‘Up there,’ he says. ‘The bitch has her hidey hole made between those two rocks.’
Two fields away, a vixen slips through the undergrowth on dainty black sock paws. Rising over Knock Stumpa, the crescent moon spotlights the narrow point of her muzzle, the bush of her abundant tail. Hunkering down, she releases the floppy carcass of a hare from her jaw and drinks from a pool of water. From the shelter of a thorn bush, a barn owl screeches warning to his mate. The vixen raises her head, paw held aloft.
Run. The word forms in my head and I long to call out.
‘Run little fox and hide yourself away.’
But she doesn’t run. Like a magnet, the draw of her four cubs pulls her closer to the site of the ambush. She skirts past a clump of furze then creeps through a thicket. When she emerges from its protective cover onto the open plane, John Joe flashes a lamp in her amber eyes. Fear sends a last surge of milk to her swollen teats and she pulls back her lips in a snarl.
The woman cries, deep heaving sobs into her pillow at the first crack of gun shot. At the second, she curls into a small, tight ball, biting hard on her clenched fist.
Next morning she wakes early, sitting up against the headboard as the man swings his legs over the side of the bed.
‘Will we go and check the den?’ he says. ‘I’m pretty sure I know where it is.’
‘I wouldn’t go anywhere near that place,’ she says, shaking her head.
‘I’ll go so.’
‘What’s the point?’ she says. ‘It’s too late to do anything.’
‘I don’t know,’ he says, biting his lip. ‘I’d be worried they wouldn’t have finished the job right-that they might have left an animal ….in trouble.’
She is sitting in the kitchen nursing a cold cup of tea, when he returns.
‘Well?’ she says, ‘What way was it?’
He fills a glass of water from the tap and takes a heavy gulp.
‘No sign of any bloodshed. She might just have got lucky.’
‘Yea, right,’ she says, drawing circles in the cup with her teaspoon.
He reaches in the press, pulling out a box of eggs.
‘One thing’s for sure. Your man wasn’t exaggerating about the damage.’
‘What do you mean?’ she says, looking up.
‘There were bones scattered everywhere; a whole hunk of hind quarter ripped apart.’
‘Really?’ she says, ‘Surely a fox would only take what it needs to survive?’
Absorbed by the web spinning business of a long legged spider, I ponder the question. Then, a word floats into my head, drip feeding venom through the string of empty chambers. Strychnine.
Once I had a dog and something bad happened to the dog.
A lovely tan terrier, she was. I picked her myself from the litter. She used to follow me everywhere, darting off to chase the rabbits, then returning to my side, tail wagging. If only I had my wits about me that day, I would never have let her out my sight. Some one of the neighbours had poison laid down, on account of the lambs and the craythur took it.
Mo lear, I do not care to remember the way her eyes glazed over, the cries that came out of her as the strychnine took hold. In the end my father took her out and hit her a blow with the hatchet.
Tiger thrusts her seaweed snout in the space that was my hand. I trace the outline of her head, wishing I could feel the warmth of her breath, smell her musky dog odour.
The boy appears at the door. ‘You’re up early, son,’ says the man.
‘Fancy some pancakes?’
Nodding his head, he drifts over to his mother. ‘The fox didn’t do the damage,’ he says, gazing off across the mountain.
‘What’s that you’re saying, son?’ says the man, tousling his hair.
His narrow, small-boy shoulders sag and he lets out a deep sigh. In the silence that ensues, I register the hiss of the gas ring, the drip, drip of the tap.
‘The men put out the meat to lure the foxes. They have it doused in poison.’
He says this slowly, carefully, like a recitation learned at school.
A look of pure shock passes between the mammy and daddy, not least because he’s not meant to know a thing about any of this.
‘We can’t let anything bad happen the to dog,’ he says, flashing me this gap-tooth smile.
God bless the child and protect him from all harm. He’ll go far.
On top of that rock, with the wind blowing her hair, the woman has the look of an avenging angel.
Despite my current state of remove, I feel a flash of family pride as she swats away a swarm of black flies and sets to work, clearing up the stinking mess of bones and flesh.
‘If you could hold this open, ’she says, handing the boy a plastic sack, ‘myself and daddy will take care of this old mess.’
Fair play to her. Whichever one of my siblings, she’s descended from, she’s surely a credit to them. Pattie, Morty, Mike, Maureen, Louise, Christy, Breda, Joe, Sean. I say their names over and over, wondering what became of them, why I was left linger in this shadow world alone.
When the last of the poisoned meat is cleared away, the man hoists the bag over his shoulders and they make their way down from the rock, across the stretch of bog, back to the iron gate. Their voices carry in the wind, all talk about the garden they’re going to set, the trees they want to plant, the chicken house they’re going to build.
It strikes me then that they’re here to stay and the thought catches me up like a paper bag, lifting me higher and higher in the purest of mountain air.
The next time I look in on them the young lad has grown stout and ruddy. The man is reading by the fire, whilst the woman nurses a child in the upstairs room. Hanging in place of the Sacred Heart is a picture of Father, Mhamo in her woollen shawl; the rest of us gathered around, awaiting the captive flash of the magic box. My eyes lock onto these dear familiar faces, soaking them in like rays of sunlight. Then as I prepare to take my final leave, a volley of barrel-chested barks ring out across the valley.
‘The deer surely have that poor old dog tormented,’ says the woman as she brushes past me.
There are no deer. I would tell her there are no deer; that the deer would never walk the dark boreen but the words have faded clean away.
Marie O’Shea is a short story writer living in the West of Ireland. Her work has been published in The Galway Review, The Blue Nib, Caterpillar, Popshot, Story Radio, Storgy, and elsewhere. In 2021, she was awarded a residency at the Heinrich Boll Cottage in Achill.