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The dust of 100 dogs, p.7
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       The Dust of 100 Dogs, p.7

           A. S. King
 
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  “My father called this morning from Argentina,” I said to him once. “He said to tell you that when he gets back he’ll pay you the full amount we owe. He got caught up down there. His mother is ill.”

  I think that winter was the hardest time in the history of my family. My father began taking pills of all descriptions, and no longer stuck to the ones he was prescribed. My mother claimed migraines and stayed in bed during the day. They never talked to each other. And as they came to the end of any money they had saved, my father clearly held my mother responsible, claiming any money ever given to Junior (even as little as five dollars) had led to this.

  They never turned the gas off, and I remember thanking God because it was the coldest winter I’d ever lived through. Between the snow and sleet falling outside and the chilly reality engulfing our life—appliance by appliance—I found it hard to believe in anything but blind faith until spring came.

  Emer didn’t sleep that night, as she lay curled in the cold den listening to the terrible noises of war around her. She could hear animals suffering, people screaming and crying, and wounded men moaning. Some of the injured were Oliver’s and some were local men, but they didn’t sound any different from each other. The gurgling of bloody throats all sounded the same.

  By dawn, the village was silent but for the sound of hungry livestock and distant artillery. A cock crowed. Emer wanted to look for her mother or father, but no one was moving yet on the knoll, so she lay for over an hour watching a dying blue bottle fly instead. It spoke to her, pushing tiny, barely visible circles into the dirt.

  Bzzz. Bzz. Bzz.

  On its back and helpless, the fly went round and round while Emer could do nothing but watch and listen.

  Bzzzz. Bzzz.

  Bz. bzzz.

  zzz.

  She felt as helpless as she had when Padraig fell, but this time, she watched until there was no more life left. She didn’t pinch her eyes shut.

  bzzz. bzz.

  zzz.

  zz. z.

  A man appeared on the road in a fancy uniform and chest armor, smiling. In the dull morning light, Emer could barely see him, but she saw his large teeth reflecting the rising sun.

  The man walked confidently to the tall castle tower and looked up its high, blackened wall. He turned to a smaller man in a less-fancy uniform. “That will have to come down,” he said. Then, the sound of a giddy child playing. Emer looked out and saw a wandering little boy, no older than three, giggling to himself, seemingly oblivious. The armored man ordered him killed without a second’s thought. “Nits breed lice,” he said, and then walked out of her view toward the remains of the church.

  Emer heard footsteps, and turned to see a pair of boots blocking her tunnel. Her heart pounded as she held her breath and stayed quiet.

  “Emer?” someone whispered. Her heart leapt at the sound of a familiar voice.

  “Daddy?” she said.

  The man crouched down and looked through the tunnel. It was her father’s brother, Martin, the serious one.

  “How did you know I was here?”

  “Padraig told me yesterday in case we got separated.”

  “Padraig is dead.”

  “Yes.”

  “Mammy and Daddy?”

  He shook his head. “I’m so sorry.”

  “You’re not,” she said, pouting. How could this be? How could everyone that mattered be dead?

  He beckoned. “Come on.”

  “No.”

  “But before the soldiers wake up, we have to get out of here.”

  “Go away.”

  He reached his thick hand into the thorny tunnel and swiped for her, but couldn’t reach. She feared him then, and flinched into her corner even tighter.

  “We have to go now or else we’ll never get out of here. Your parents had a plan.”

  “They’re dead. Besides, their plan was to have me burnt up in the church with all the others.”

  Martin sat down, hiding behind the well wall. “We didn’t know.”

  “The man on the horse told you, long ago. I heard him. That’s why Padraig and I agreed to meet here. You didn’t let him.”

  “We thought it was best.”

  “Go away. Leave me alone.”

  “Emer, you have to come now, or else I’ll leave you here.”

  She thought about it. How did he know for sure if her mother was dead? How did he know anything? And what was he doing still alive? Every other man was dead.

  “Why aren’t you dirty?”

  “I’m not asking you again, girl.”

  “You’re sure Mammy’s dead?”

  “Yes.”

  “You saw her?”

  “I saw her.”

  “Will you take me to her if I come out? I want to see her.”

  “Of course. You can see for yourself.”

  She crawled from the den and through the tunnel. Martin grabbed her hand and dragged her behind a hedgerow where no one could see them, then delivered a slap across her blackened face. “Don’t you ever disobey me again. I’m your guardian now, and you’ll do as I say.”

  “What about Mammy? I want to see her!”

  “Don’t be silly, girl.” He slapped her again, this time with his fist closed, and left a welt on her cheek.

  Too shocked to answer, she followed along behind him and rubbed her face. They arrived at a small paddock with a horse. He mounted first and pulled Emer up by her right arm, nearly ripping it from her body.

  “Ow!” she yelled.

  He secured her in front of him, then kicked the horse and took off toward Cashel, where he had a small abandoned cottage already prepared. Her three cousins and Aunt Mary were waiting for them.

  It took the whole day to get there, and when they arrived, Emer’s bottom was sorer than it had ever been. She hadn’t talked to Martin all day, not even when they stopped twice to eat and pee. He preferred it that way and said nothing. She relived that slap repeatedly, and she decided to hate Martin forever. Even when she arrived at a comfortable bed once in Cashel, she didn’t utter a word. If it took silence until her dying breath, she vowed, she would make him understand that no man strikes a Morrisey woman.

  As she fell asleep that night, it all seemed like a dream—the attack, the fires, the screaming, the killing, and the circling, suffering blue bottle fly—all in a far-away place where her parents were, where her brother was, where it was her birthday.

  Cashel was already in the hands of the dragon. The walls and churches were in ruins, and each road was manned by soldiers in different uniforms. Emer felt owned there. She was sure no one was to be trusted. And she was old enough to know, when she caught Aunt Mary sewing the family’s few gold rings and trinkets into the hems of different garments, that their future held more danger.

  From Cashel, they traveled to north rural Limerick, where Irish people still lived in fear of attack. Emer felt the stares of villagers. She used to be like that, gawking at every empty survivor who passed through. They settled for some time on a farm there, and then moved on west before autumn. She’d discovered in those six months that Martin slapped his own children, and Mary too sometimes, whenever he was in foul humor or they said something he didn’t like hearing. She said nothing to her cousins, but lost respect for them since they never tried to do anything about it.

  “Your mother was a bad woman,” her cousin said one day, a week before they left the farm.

  “Are you just trying to get me to talk or do you really mean that?”

  “That’s what my father says. He says she was a bad woman who didn’t teach you or Padraig any manners.”

  “She fought at the battle more than your father did. If I were you, I’d be ashamed that my father can only hit women and children but can’t fight for the fr
eedom of his country.”

  “What do you know? You’re just a little girl.”

  “I saw the whole thing happen. Ask him.”

  Her cousin looked at her skeptically. “Your mother fought?”

  “I saw her kill two soldiers and steal their horses.”

  “No you didn’t.”

  “Yes I did. And I saw Padraig die.”

  “You did?”

  “I went to the top of the castle and watched the battle at the bridge. But then they burnt it down.”

  “The bridge?”

  “No, the castle, dummy.”

  “Oh.”

  “I miss Padraig,” Emer said. “He was killed when he attacked the first soldier he saw. Uncle Martin sneaked away like a coward.”

  She got up and walked away. It was the first conversation she’d had in six months, and she felt like a traitor.

  They came to the banks of the Shannon several days after they’d left the small Limerick farm in two sturdy traps. At O’Briensbridge, twenty English soldiers stood, letting the poor Irish pass once officials at the bridge entrance allowed them through. As they approached the long queue, Emer noticed that some people wore canvas shoes or none at all. Most were bundled in rags, begging for food. A man in front warned newcomers in Gaelic about the importance of producing papers. Two malnourished old women lay on the side of the muddy road, seemingly family-less, next to a makeshift grazing area for confiscated heifers and sheep. Emer couldn’t help but look for Mairead, but all she saw were the war-stained faces of strangers, who couldn’t do a thing to help her.

  They waited three hours to get through, and eventually crossed the river into Connacht, the only territory left for the Irish. Her Uncle Martin smiled at the devilish men, and said something to them in English that allowed him to keep his horses and other belongings.

  They reached an encampment after passing many rocky hills and valleys, where they settled in a tiny stick-and-stone structure and began their fight for survival. Many people died of starvation or disease during the winter. Food was scarce.

  By Emer’s tenth birthday, three years later, she was so skinny her ribs poked out and her eyes had deepened. Her Aunt Mary had tried everything to make her stronger, but nothing had worked. To add to that, she had stopped talking completely. Even Uncle Martin stopped slapping her, he was so disturbed by her silence.

  In 1656, Emer turned twelve. Life was still the same silent, horrible, uphill battle every day, but one thing had changed. Around Christmas that winter, a new family came to live in the growing encampment. They came from Tipperary, and knew of the battles fought in her valley. Emer listened hard as they spoke one night, during a visit to the hut. A mention of the Mullalys, or the Morriseys, details from the battle at the Carabine Bridge. Complaints about what they’d lost and who they would never see again. The worst of their troubles, they said, were with Sean, their mute fourteen-year-old son.

  They spoke of him as if he were a helpless child, even though Emer could see for herself that he was no boy anymore. She found it impossible not to stare at him. Seanie Carroll was a young man with a handsome face, a rare sight in the west, where even the youngest of Irish men were aged with work.

  After the Carrolls left, Emer went to the bed and lay down to think. She thought of the castle and Padraig. She thought of her parents. She tried to remember things her mother had said, repeating them in her head to etch them there forever. She imagined Padraig telling her to find happy thoughts. Since the day Mrs. Tobin’s gift was turned to ash by the dragon, Emer had been void of happy thoughts. But meeting Seanie Carroll changed that. That and the rest.

  On Emer’s thirteenth birthday, she woke up cold. Each birthday since the dragon came was harder and harder—the memories of her home place, and of a life with people who loved her, seemed a strange old lie. With Uncle Martin’s family, there was no reason to speak, no reason to do anything other than what was asked: wash the clothes, fetch the water, do lessons and prayers with her youngest cousin, and help make meals. Aunt Mary was a warm woman, and outside the authority of Martin she treated Emer with a special regard, hoping that the child might one day talk again.

  “I see you’ve been walking with the Carroll boy,” Aunt Mary said that morning.

  Emer nodded a little.

  “I’m glad to see you’ve made a friend, Emer, but you just can’t go around with a boy and not know the dangers.”

  Emer continued to wash potatoes in a bucket of cold water.

  “Boys have powers you don’t know anything about. And soon you’ll be too old to have a boy as a friend.”

  Emer said nothing.

  “There’ll be no more going off in the mornings to meet him at the spring well. You probably didn’t know I knew about that, but I know all sorts of things.”

  Emer frowned. She and Seanie had spent a few mornings beside the well and the adjacent river, looking at each other. He still wouldn’t talk, and Emer didn’t know if he was the same sort of mute as she was. Could he not talk at all, or was he only hiding?

  “Your Uncle Martin will find a fine boy for you in time. You see what a good lad he chose for our Grainne, didn’t you?”

  Emer thought of her cousin’s husband. He was very like Martin, but Grainne seemed to like him. Emer found him brutish and simple.

  “Besides, Sean Carroll is dumb. You can’t go marrying a dumb man. Especially you! That would be absurd!”

  Emer looked up at Mary, who was pretty much having a conversation with herself. Why was she going on about marriage? Why hadn’t she said happy birthday? Surely thirteen wasn’t the age to start talking about marriage.

  “You do understand what I’ve told you?” Mary asked, looking down at Emer. “Now that we’ve had this talk, you won’t go off with him anymore, will you?”

  Emer shook her head no.

  “Good. You’re a good girl after all.”

  After finishing her chores, Emer walked to the spring well for more water. She couldn’t help but look around for Seanie. No other person in their village really understood the communication between them. Mrs. Carroll once spied from her door, watching the two teenagers walking silently, holding hands, making words with their fingers. Emer loved holding Seanie’s hand. It was like holding Padraig’s hand, or her father’s. She would squeeze from time to time, knowing that Seanie wanted to say something but couldn’t. His face would go a shade of frustrated pink. She would squeeze then, and Sean would smile a little and let go of whatever was troubling him. His first two months in the west had proved dismal, like everyone else’s there. He had grown slimmer and slimmer, and she could begin to see the shapes of his skeleton through his pale skin.

  What Emer hadn’t noticed was that she was growing into a beautiful woman. Her legs were long and her cheekbones jutted out under her large blue eyes. Her hair, though thin and greasy, fell down her back in a plait, and wisps of it framed her freckled face. She was becoming the same woman who she used to dream would model her cape, the same woman she used to imagine walking around her home place with her mother. Womanhood was something she’d forgotten about since arriving in Connacht; her daydreams of awaiting suitors had disappeared. But Seanie Carroll changed that. From the first time they met, Emer was convinced he was the boy for her. She just knew it.

  On her thirteenth birthday, Emer got no tidings, no affection, and no gift. Her uncle’s family never mentioned how fast she was growing or how pretty she was. There were no Candlemas celebrations in Connacht, aside from a dismal mass for the Blessed Virgin.

  She let the entire day pass without finding Seanie. When night fell, she went to the bed she shared with her cousins. It was there she received the most precious birthday gift of all. Her mother spoke.

  Emer, I miss you.

  “I miss you too, Mammy,” Emer imagined herself saying.

 
You are becoming so beautiful! I knew you would. You were a beautiful child, remember?

  “I remember.”

  And clever! What mischief have you found in the west? Have you found a lookout? Is there a river to play in?

  Emer silently replied, “Uncle Martin doesn’t let us play. He hates me. There’s nothing here but work and death. No mischief. No fun.”

  Emer, you know better than to have an attitude like that. A girl like you can make such dismal things beautiful. Don’t you remember your power? Your name?

  “It means nothing here. No one has ever heard of us.”

  But what of the story of Emer? Do you not remember that day I told you about her? About Cuchulain?

  “I remember,” Emer answered. “But the six gifts mean nothing here, either. No beauty or sweet-talking can change this horror. In fact, I don’t talk at all anymore.”

  What about Seanie?

  Emer lay quiet for a second. “How do you know about Seanie?”

  No mind how I know. What about him? Don’t you think you can find something to say to him?

  “Aunt Mary said I wasn’t to see him again. That Martin has other plans for me than to marry a dumb boy.”

  She did? He does?

  “Yes.”

  Emer, think about the story of Cuchulain. Think about Emer’s evil father. Stop sounding so beaten! You’ve only just become a young woman and it’s your duty now to make sure you’re happy.

  “Happy is a dream of the past.”

  Happy is what you feel when you’re with Seanie, if I’m not mistaken, Emer, and you can’t go ignoring that, no matter how bad things are.

  “I’m not allowed to see him anymore.”

  Neither was Emer allowed to marry Cuchulain. You’ll find a way.

  Emer didn’t answer.

  Have you stitched your great cape yet?

  “I haven’t made one stitch since the fire burned all of our thread and buried the needles.”

  Not one stitch? How do you expect to decorate your cape if you’ve had no practice? Promise me you’ll find something to make pretty, Emer. It used to bring you so much joy. Maybe it will again.

 
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