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The dust of 100 dogs, p.5
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       The Dust of 100 Dogs, p.5

           A. S. King
 
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  So far, in each town that Cromwell took, he tried his very best to cleanse every Catholic—even the children. Some escaped death, and were moving west to a designated place for Catholics. Many had passed through their parish since Christmas, headed for the Shannon River and what lay beyond it, warning that no village would be spared.

  It took a bit of life from everybody. Emer noticed that grown-ups never smiled anymore, her mother most of all. Most days she had to help Mairead in the yard with the stock. Several hens weren’t well, and Emer minded them along with two orphaned ewe lambs. She was still allowed to look out from the tower, but it had proved less fun with adults around. She wasn’t trusted to watch on her own anymore, and in a way, she didn’t want to see what was coming. Every day, after one look at the smoke, she retreated down the staircase to her animals.

  Her father was on duty at the Carabine Bridge a mile away, and when she climbed the tower that morning she waved to him and he waved back. He gave an additional hand signal to the man in the tower and went back to standing his watch. There were a few other men with him. They would hear far in advance if the soldiers were coming, because there also were men on horses posted on every road that led to their parish.

  It was a special day. Though the usual Candlemas celebration was cancelled, Emer knew that her father would come home early and they would have a small celebration themselves, because it was also her birthday. She nursed her sick chickens and fed the lambs and returned to the empty house to see what else she could do to help her mother. Padraig’s maturity had rubbed off in a way, and Emer felt a lot older than six, which was the age she would turn that day.

  After tidying the fireplace and the dinner table, she set to work on her secret project. She pulled out her half-made emergency bag, a project she’d started to keep her worried mind busy. In her daydreams about the dragon coming, she always had this bag over her shoulder, filled with food to tide her over and an extra pair of stockings.

  In ten short minutes, she finished the seam, tied a knot, and bit it with her teeth. Turning it right-side-out and smoothing it, she leaned back and squinted. “It’s perfect,” she said to herself, and pulled out a long, thick plait from her pocket. She began to sew it on as a strap, but heard someone coming and hid the whole lot under her thin tick mattress.

  “Emer?” Mairead called.

  “Yes?” Emer answered, smoothing the mattress back to its position on the bed frame.

  “Where are you?”

  “I’m here,” she said, and walked into the kitchen.

  “Happy birthday!” her mother said. “How does it feel to be six?”

  “It feels old.”

  Mairead laughed. “It only gets worse, Emer, the older you get.” She picked her daughter up and squeezed her. “Have you fed the lambs yet?”

  “Aye.”

  “Well then, we’re off to get your gift from Mrs. Tobin.”

  “Mrs. Tobin?” Emer wondered why a decrepit, gnarled-up lady like mean old Mrs. Tobin would have anything to do with her birthday.

  “You’ll see, Emer. Just get ready. I want you to wear your other dress, the longer one. Do you know where it is?”

  Emer nodded.

  “Good girl. Hurry now.”

  Emer was ready in a very short time, still wondering about her gift and not thinking about the lookout or Oliver and his dragon for the first time in weeks.

  They walked past the church to the cross in the road and continued down toward the mill, where Mrs. Tobin lived with her son and his wife, Katherine. The day was damp and cold and Emer found it difficult to breathe through her nose without sniffling and snorting. It wasn’t raining, which was a relief after three weeks of solid downpour, but it wasn’t sunny either. A gray mist seemed to swallow the valley from the sky down, and Emer felt it touch her toes inside the thin leather. In the distance, the hedgerows were painted just dark enough to make out the taller trees that grew within them. There wasn’t a bird in the sky, Emer noticed, not even a rook.

  They met several men who were on their way to relieve other men on watch, like her father, who had been working since an hour before daybreak. The road had been filled with traffic of this sort every day since the cannons arrived—armed men heading this way or that way.

  By the time they reached the old thatched mill house, Emer was tired.

  “Come in Mairead, come in,” Katherine said from the door. Old Mrs. Tobin sat by the blazing fire, twisting her hands into each other, warming herself.

  “And hello Emer! Happy birthday!”

  “Thank you, Mrs. Tobin.”

  “I’m afraid we can’t stay too long. It looks like rain. Paudie will be needing some dinner soon, as well,” Mairead said.

  Old Mrs. Tobin gestured to Emer to sit at her side, while Katherine and Mairead stood and talked at the door.

  “You know, I’ve kept my sewing things many years, hoping to grasp a needle again,” the old woman said. Then she looked at Emer and laughed. “But we all know that God can only work miracles when he wants to, and these old hands of mine are far too tired. Your mother tells me you have great talent.”

  “I’ve been working on the cross for a year now, trying to get it perfect,” Emer responded. “I want to put it on a cape, but we haven’t any thread.”

  “Well, you’ll have plenty of thread now,” Old Mrs. Tobin said, producing a timber box about the size of a brick.

  Emer stood up, speechless.

  “I’ve saved this old box a long time.”

  Emer opened it. Inside, there was every shade of dyed thread she could dream of, a dozen needles, and several spools of heavy thread, too. She threw herself into the old woman’s arms and cried for a second, looked back at the box, and then ran into her mother’s skirtfolds and cried some more.

  “Emer, don’t be rude. Tell Mrs. Tobin thank you,” Mairead said, pushing her back toward the fire.

  “I’m sorry,” Emer managed. “Thank you.”

  The old woman smiled and patted Emer on the head. “That’s all right. It was time for you to have it.”

  “Thank you so much, Kitty. It’s very generous of you,” Mairead said.

  “We’re all family now,” she said. “We’re all one family now, girl.”

  After a few brief words and several more thank yous, Emer and her mother started back toward the top of the road. From there, they could see the lookout man on the tower, giving hand signals to whoever stood at the Carabine Bridge. Emer wondered if her father would be home when they got there, and if her mother would finally let her start embroidering the cape.

  As she pondered this, Padraig and Uncle Martin approached on a horse. They stopped, and Martin leaned into Mairead’s ear and whispered something. Padraig stared at Emer and tried to smile, but he knew too much to make it seem real.

  “You can’t go back now,” Martin then said, loud enough for Emer to hear. “You best go back to Kitty’s place and gather the children in the church.” He rode off in the direction of the Tobins’ house.

  “But—Daddy!” Emer cried.

  “Emer, be quiet a minute.” Mairead stood still for a moment, watching Padraig disappear into the gray sky, and sighed. She crossed herself and muttered something beneath her breath.

  Emer began to feel sick and sad again. Forgetting everything about her happy thoughts or her timber case of dyed thread, she began to cry. Her mother picked her up, brushing the hair from her face and speaking softly.

  “We’ll keep going and find Daddy. Just hold on tightly.”

  She began a slow jog with Emer trying to balance on her back, clinging to her neck, nearly choking her. As they neared the crossroads, they heard several explosions and musket fire. Emer felt a legion of horses pounding the earth, racing toward them. In her mind, she saw the dragon. She felt dizzy and blacked out.

&n
bsp; She woke up in the back of the cluttered church, surrounded by familiar women and the rest of the village children.

  “Mammy!” she shouted in a cranky voice.

  “Emer! I hear it’s your birthday,” a woman said.

  “Yes. Happy birthday! Don’t get up,” someone else added.

  “Mammy!” she yelled again.

  Mrs. Katherine Tobin appeared. She put her arm around Emer and half hugged her. “You were dizzy. You need to rest, girl.”

  “Where’s my Mammy?”

  “She and your father have gone to the bridge with the others.”

  “Is Padraig here?” Emer asked, looking around for his familiar face.

  No one answered. Emer jolted to her feet and put her hands on her hips. “I’m going to find my Mammy!”

  Katherine pushed her down on the bench. “You need to lie down now.”

  Emer was sick of hearing about resting and lying down. She looked around to see how many doors were open, and who stood by them. After young Mrs. Tobin had left to mind her own children, Emer waited until nobody noticed her anymore. Ever so slowly, she moved off the edge of the wooden pew and crawled to the aisle, where she could blend in with the sixty other children. And before anyone knew she was missing, she was on the ground floor of the abandoned castle, calling for her mother.

  “Mammy! Mammy!”

  Emer hurried around the ground floor but found no one. She placed her box of thread and needles on the window ledge and climbed the staircase to the tower. The lookout was empty, and when Emer dared peek out, she saw that the dragon was winning. The Carabine Bridge had been blown, and around the scrambled dirt and mess lay dead horses and men.

  On the edge of the scene, men with pikes stabbed horses and riders—most of them killed instantly by the long pikes and pistols Oliver’s cavalry wielded. At least fifty Roundheads on horses were galloping toward the church at full speed. Emer tried to focus harder, past the dead bodies strewn across the road, to find her parents, but the crowd was moving too fast. There was too much to see.

  She ran to each corner of the tower. To the west, there was no one. The farms and houses seemed empty. The smoke coming from the nearest eastern town, Callan, seemed the worst and the blackest. She turned back toward the blown bridge and watched the battle draw nearer—until a huge ball of fear worked up her spine, and she ran.

  On her way down the stone staircase, she heard a noise downstairs and froze. She stayed quiet for a minute, and then heard the crackling of fire and the sound of horses. Then Emer continued down the steps, arriving at a massive fire flaming in the thatch roof of their cottage. The smoke was thick, but Emer managed to push through it. A bunch of burning thatch dropped from above and nearly hit her arm as it fell.

  She squatted down under the smoke and surveyed the scene. The horsemen that had broken free at the bridge were riding from building to building, setting them alight and blocking the doors with whatever they could find. New horsemen raced up the road to the church, lashing at any villager willing to step in their way. Emer watched as one impaled an old farmer who tried to delay him. She pinched her eyes closed as he fell, but she’d seen the worst of it and fought hard not to cry.

  She ran to their secret hiding place, where she and Padraig had agreed to meet in case of any emergencies. It was the same secret tunnel, under a hedgerow, where they’d first heard about the dragon. The old well had dried up before Emer was born and behind it, beneath the stones, was a den that she and Padraig had cleared out.

  As she entered the tunnel, she checked to see that no one was coming for her. By this time, the soot and smoke had settled on her face and she looked like a coal-mine child, dirty but adorable in some sad way. Looking back, she watched the cottage spit flames from its windows and finally cried, leaving trails that showed the white of her skin. She saw the foot soldiers arrive on the knoll and saw the church begin to spit fire as well, each door shut firmly and guarded by soldiers. The screaming of her neighbors and friends turned into white noise crackling in her tiny ears. She watched a brown hen run through the scene, squawking and flapping its singed wings.

  I hope Padraig has landed safely away from here, she thought to herself. Mrs. Morris, a distant relation to her father, ran from the church, on fire and screaming. One of the soldiers hit her on the head with the butt of his musket and then stabbed her with a bayonet. Jamie Mullaly, the Mullalys’ young son, was knocked down by a horseman and trampled to death. Emer watched these and other things from her hiding place, each time pinching her eyes closed with her fingers before the moment of death, each time letting out a little yelp.

  When Mairead appeared on the knoll with her long hair stuffed into a cap, wearing a pair of Paudie’s trousers, Emer braced herself. A horseman approached and swung his pike. Mairead lashed out at him with hers. This went on for a few swings until Mairead ducked once, pulled a short knife from her boot, and stabbed the man’s leg as he turned his horse around. Taking advantage of his confusion, she lanced her pike through his chest and pulled him from the horse.

  “Mammy!” Emer whispered.

  She wanted to run to her, but couldn’t move. When she saw the next horseman approaching from behind Mairead’s back, she closed her eyes again. She scarcely expected her mother to be alive when she opened them. But by this time, her mother had mounted the horse and armed herself with the dead soldier’s pike. She and the horseman made several passes at each other, the soldier screaming unintelligible insults each time.

  On their final pass, Oliver’s man looked sure to win, nearly spearing Mairead in the chest. Instead, she caught the handle of his pike and pushed him back and off balance. He pulled unevenly on the reins, making his horse trip up on itself. In that brief moment, Mairead stabbed him in the neck with her pike. She dug her heels into the horse and galloped back toward the bridge.

  Emer wished she were still on top of the castle so she could see where her mother was going. Mairead was riding the long way round, through the thick forest at the bottom of the knoll, and avoided the soldiers still on the road. She disappeared to the east.

  A sound rose to the west—the sound of a hundred horses, Emer thought. She pivoted in her tunnel and peeked toward the crossroads. Over the edge of the hill rose twenty or so familiar horses, each with two men. Some of the men dismounted and ran behind the castle to the front of the burning church, looking for their families and leveling soldiers. The riders continued on, hoping to wipe out the hundred or so Cromwellian soldiers still fighting between the blown bridge and the knoll. Emer recognized her brother as he dismounted, and said her Uncle Martin’s name aloud. Padraig looked directly at their secret hiding place, but didn’t go to see if she was there. Instead, he stared up at the burning castle and the smoldering cottage beside it.

  Emer watched as Padraig scanned the dead bodies for their parents, and then quietly hid himself behind the burning building. He looked again in her direction, but she was too scared to give him a signal or move. He rose and, picking up a stray pike, ran foolishly into a crowd of soldiers. Emer pinched her eyes shut and never saw him again.

  It was cold in the tunnel. Emer felt hungry. It was only then, over an hour after she’d abandoned the castle, that she realized she’d left her gift from old Mrs. Tobin behind, and also the emergency bag she’d secretly stitched for a week and the food she was to fill it with when the time came. Just as Padraig had teased, she was too young and stupid to know how to survive on her own, and she cried about being hungry and dumb. She tried to think of what Padraig would say—and then realized that every one of her happy thoughts had just gone up in flames with everything else she ever knew.

  The psychologist my mother sent me to was a nice guy, I guess. He was about six foot three with a soft, rounded plump in the middle, and he wore a pair of round-framed glasses that he would occasionally push up with his middle finger.

  M
y first visit was the slowest fifty minutes I ever lived through. I didn’t want to say too much, so I let him ask the usual questions between bouts of silence.

  “Why do you think you’re here?”

  “Because my mother is worried about me.” Short and sweet—try not to show too much angst while already popping his fingernails off, one by one, with an awl.

  “Why?”

  “Because she wants me to be a doctor.”

  “And you don’t want that?”

  “No.”

  “What do you want to be?” he asked, realizing how condescending he sounded a second too late. “I mean, what are you interested in?”

  “Lots of stuff.”

  “Like what?”

  I talked about my favorite classes (history and advanced chemistry), but didn’t name any one thing. Then I said, “I know what I want to do. I just want to do it, that’s all. I don’t want to talk about it for months and months before I do it.”

  “But you can’t just go to college without planning,” he said quite seriously. “You have to talk about it with someone.”

  “It’s not college.”

  He smiled at me. He had trustworthy eyes, a brown sort of hazel with a twinkle. They nearly made me want to stop seeing myself whipping him with his own severed forearm. “Let’s talk about school for a minute.”

  “What about it?”

  “Your mother says you do very well.”

  “I do. It’s easy.”

  “So, you’re bored, then?”

  “Yeah. You could say that.” I looked around his disheveled office. “What’s that?”

  He turned around to see what I was looking at. “That’s an eighteenth-century chest brought from Europe by my great grandfather.”

  “Are those brass?” Brass catches like on Emer’s chest.

 
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