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The dust of 100 dogs, p.8
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       The Dust of 100 Dogs, p.8

           A. S. King
 
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  “I’ll ask Aunt Mary tomorrow.”

  Happy birthday, Mairead said, in a voice now gone sad in Emer’s head. I miss you.

  “I miss you too, Mammy,” Emer answered.

  She propped herself up on an elbow. Was that my mind, she wondered, or really my mother? Why did she sound so disappointed? What does she think I’m capable of out here in this barren wasteland of rocks and wind? How does she know about Seanie? And if she can speak to me now, and know these things, then does it mean she is surely dead? Though she’d given up thinking her mother might still live, Emer took this confirmation with much sadness. She thought again of Cuchulain, and tried to remember the whole story as she fell to sleep.

  The next morning, she approached her aunt’s sewing basket. Trying to draw attention to herself, she rattled it and then placed it on her lap.

  “Don’t touch that, Emer. Those are my things.”

  Emer beckoned and Mary came to sit beside her.

  “What are you trying to say? You want to learn?”

  Emer opened the lid and pulled out a bunch of thread and a needle.

  “Careful now, you need to know what you’re doing. That thread is valuable and expensive. Oh. You’ve done this before?” she asked, watching Emer thread the needle on the first try.

  “I’ll give you a small scrap to practice on, if you want,” Mary offered, pulling the basket from Emer’s lap and digging to the bottom. “Try that one. And no more thread. You have to learn with one color. I don’t want you wasting my thread on practice.”

  Emer made a few stitches and then made a few more. Mary watched, realizing that the child had done this before.

  “Emer! You’re very good, you know. I tried to teach Grainne how to embroider when she was younger and she hated it. Said it was boring, poor thing. Whatever they say about us grown-ups being sent out here to suffer, I think it’s the children who’ve suffered most. My own child telling me that making pretty things was wasteful. Imagine!” she babbled, still watching Emer stitch. “Why didn’t you show me this before now?”

  Emer shrugged and continued pulling the needle in and out of the scrap of fabric. Soon her aunt could make out that Emer was making the cross.

  “Mary, where’s the damn girl now?” Martin yelled through the door. “The bloody trough is empty!”

  “I’ll send her now,” Mary answered, taking the scrap from Emer’s hand and hiding it in the basket. “Go and fetch the water.”

  Emer threw her a look, as if she were about to cry.

  “I’ll let you stitch when your chores are finished. Just do as I say.”

  She got up and secured the two buckets on her shoulders. Passing her uncle on the way out, she looked at the dirt and braced herself for a slap that didn’t come.

  When she arrived at the narrow river next to the spring, Seanie was there and he gave her their secret signal—two fingers raised in a wave. He smiled and she could feel herself melting. He was just so handsome! How could her uncle and aunt not want her to be happy? Her mother was right! The minute she saw him, she knew it. He was the one, and there would be a way.

  He shuffled over to stand next to her and brushed his fingers across her hand. He helped her fill her buckets and lifted them onto her back. Emer returned to the house and filled the trough, but abandoned the buckets by the door and walked back to the well.

  She and Seanie had a secret place, a shallow cave beyond the rocky hill. It wasn’t a big spot, but it was private. Other kids knew of it, but there was a myth of a monster who lived there and how he ate children, so no one bothered.

  They sat for a while, silent as usual, and held hands. Seanie looked out over the small valley, and Emer focused on the rock face beside her until she found the courage to do what her mother wanted.

  “You’re my best friend,” she whispered. Seanie jumped a bit, startled.

  He looked at her. She was mortified—now he would hate her for playing mute.

  “You’re the only boy I’ve ever liked, aside from Padraig, my brother. He’s dead now.”

  He continued staring at her, not frowning or smiling, but just staring.

  “My parents are dead, too. That’s why I’m stuck with Martin and Mary. Mary told me yesterday that I wasn’t to spend time with you anymore.”

  He smiled.

  “She said that I can’t marry some dumb boy.”

  “I’m not dumb.”

  They stared at each other, wide-eyed.

  “I knew it!” she squealed. “I knew it!”

  He looked serious. “I just don’t have much to say. Well, I didn’t.”

  “Me neither.”

  “Until I met you.”

  “What will we do? Will we tell them now that we can speak and that we’re in love and that we’ll marry in spite of what they say?”

  Seanie laughed, and Emer felt stupid for saying such childish things.

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just scared because my uncle wants to marry me to whoever he chooses. I know you probably don’t want to marry me.”

  “I do.”

  “You do?”

  “I do.”

  “Well, what will we do, then?”

  “We’re too young now. No one would believe us, anyway. The people here are so busy with work, they don’t believe in love anymore. That’s what I think.”

  “I believe.”

  “Me too.”

  They sat in the cave for an hour holding hands and exchanging looks and a few words. Before they got up to leave, Emer leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “I’m so glad you’re not dumb like they said,” she said.

  “I’m glad, too.”

  As they walked back over the small hill, Emer felt like her mother. It was a small feeling, not yet filled with the confidence of a grown woman, but it made her feel happy and beautiful.

  One morning two weeks later, while working on her small embroidered scrap, Emer spoke to her aunt.

  “I think I’ll need another scrap. This one is full up.”

  Mary stared.

  “I’ve done my chores and my lessons. Can I have another bit of twill?”

  “I can’t believe it.”

  “No, really, come and look. If I stitch this piece any more, it will fall apart in my hands.”

  Mary sat beside her and hugged her. “I can’t believe it. You’ve come out. You’ve come out! Martin!”

  “Shh,” Emer hissed. “Don’t tell him. He’ll only start hitting me again.”

  Mary hid her shame and went to the door. Martin was nowhere to be seen.

  “What brought this on?”

  “Things.”

  “What things? It was the embroidery, wasn’t it?” Mary was already inventing a bragging story for her friends about how she’d cured a mute girl.

  “Yes. And something else.”

  “What?”

  “I can’t say.”

  “Why not?”

  “If I told you, you’d get very angry.”

  “Then you should tell me now and get it over with.”

  Emer thought about it. “Okay. It was my mother. She talked to me in my sleep.”

  Mary deflated. Mairead had always got in the way before—even dead she could win credit, while Mary was left with simple earthly work.

  “She told me that I should find some thread and start to stitch again.”

  “Well, anyway,” Mary interrupted. “How will we tell the rest of the family? Will we tell them tonight or will we let you surprise them?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “I can’t wait to tell Mrs. Carroll. She’ll think there’s hope for poor Sean yet!”

  Emer went back to her sewing, and Mary didn’t know what else to say.

 
; “Can I have another scrap today?”

  “Certainly. You can have whatever you want today, Emer.” She smiled and found a large square of wool twill in her dresser.

  Emer set to work immediately, still working in only one color, to regain what she’d lost after seven years with no practice.

  That night at the table, Emer asked for the salt. Her cousins were shocked and her uncle was angry. It was always that way with Martin. He could find a reason to be angry about anything, even if it was something that should have made him happy.

  “Since when can she talk?” he asked Mary in a threatening tone.

  “Since this morning.”

  “That’s odd,” he said, staring directly at Emer. “I heard that Sean Carroll spoke today as well. Does he have anything to do with it?”

  Emer nodded.

  Mary grabbed Emer’s arm. “Tell me you haven’t been seeing him since I asked you not to!”

  “Only a few times,” she lied.

  Martin leaned toward his wife. “I told you, didn’t I?”

  “Oh Martin, they’re children.”

  “He’s no child,” he boomed. “And you,” he continued, pointing at Emer, “you should be smarter. I made a promise to your father to mind you, and mind you I will. Come to me after dinner.”

  That meant a lashing, and Emer knew it.

  “Why are you punishing me for—”

  “Don’t get smart with me now, girl. You know damn well why. You put us through all these years of silence, all along able to talk? Do you know at all what we’ve done for you? How we worried?”

  “Worried?” Emer yelled, figuring she’d get a slap anyway. “You’re the reason I stopped talking! You and your lashings and slaps! Don’t you remember the day you dragged me from the well into the hedge? Don’t you remember what you did?”

  “Stop that, Emer,” Mary said, fearing she would hear things worse than she was prepared for.

  “I will not!”

  “You stop now or I’ll—”

  “Or what? You’ll hit me and beat me and what? Kill me? I don’t care. All these years you lied and blamed it on Cromwell’s army, when all along you knew!”

  Mary looked shocked. No one ever yelled at Martin.

  He pushed himself from the table and walked with heavy steps to her, grabbed her by the arm, and pulled her from the chair. Before his hand made contact with her skin, she screamed.

  “If you hit me, I’ll run away and you’ll never see me again!”

  He slapped her face.

  “I hate you!”

  He punched her in the chest.

  “It was all your fault! Now look at you!”

  Her cousins watched in horror as their father leveled punch after punch at her abdomen and sides. Mary tried to stop him, and he lashed out and slapped her too.

  “Don’t think you have any control over me! I can do what I like!” he said, slapping her again—this time a swipe to her head, which pulled several hairs from her plait and splattered them across her face, now slightly bloodied from a bleeding nose.

  “Yes! You can do what you like!” she said between blows. “Because you lived! Because you were too much of a coward to fight the English, so now you beat little children and your own wife!”

  He stopped at that and held her tightly by the arms. He was close enough that his spit hit her in the face as he replied. “I fought hard in that battle, girl, and you’ll spread no such lies about me!”

  “Tell me,” she answered, staring into his cold eyes. “Tell me—if you fought so hard, why are you alive? My father died at the Carabine Bridge! My mother fought until she fell! You’re just a coward with clean hands, probably spared in a deal with Cromwell himself!”

  By the time Emer finished her sentence, her uncle was shaking her body so hard that her head was lashing from side to side. He punched her one last time, in the belly, and let her go. Mary picked her up and carried her to the bed.

  She yelled two things before she fainted completely in Mary’s arms. “Traitor! Bastard!”

  Emer lived one more year in the west with her aunt and uncle. From the night she’d called Martin a “traitor bastard” she was kept in the house or in the yard, not allowed to do chores that would take her more than fifty feet from the front door. But she still saw Seanie during secret nighttime escapes. Her cousins gladly covered for her, in the knowlege that they would have more room in the bed for themselves.

  Uncle Martin had arranged for her travel to France, where an important man was waiting to make her his bride. Emer listened to this plan, always knowing that things wouldn’t come to that, always knowing she would end up with Seanie somehow.

  At night, they would nuzzle in their small cave, sometimes caressing each other’s damp skin, sometimes kissing for hours on end. Seanie was turning into a fine man. His hands had calluses and his muscles were more developed, although he was still skinny and underfed. Emer adored his strong arms, which were now growing a layer of manly hair and bulging with hard muscle.

  She spent her days doing chores, basic English lessons that Martin still insisted on, and needlework. Her uncle hired her out to stitch other people’s clothing, and used the money she earned to save for her future journey and to buy brew for himself. He told her once that he would miss her, but he only meant he’d miss the small change she could make for his nightly mug. He’d been getting lame over the years, slowly limping more and more until he needed a splint on his right leg and a cane to get anywhere. That year, he’d stopped hitting his family. Mary secretly thanked Emer once for facing up to him, as if she’d had something to do with his change of heart. In fact, Martin stopped hitting the family simply because he could no longer win a chase or balance long enough to strike.

  Emer rose on her fourteenth birthday expecting the same old nothing. She’d spoken to her mother the night before, and vowed to follow her heart and run away with Seanie. But, to her surprise, when she woke up the family was waiting for her at the table by the fire, each wishing her a happy birthday. This couldn’t be right. No one here had ever acknowledged her birthday before.

  “How did you know?” she asked, still sleepy.

  “How could we not know?” her cousin asked, now almost a grown man himself. “Since you arrived, Father hasn’t stopped talking about the day he could get rid of you!”

  “Peter, don’t say such things! She’s only out of bed.”

  “Get rid of me?”

  “Now Emer, don’t go getting upset. This is what happens to all girls your age. Don’t be afraid.”

  “Afraid of what?” she asked, hearing something moving outside the door of the house.

  “We’ll miss you,” Mary added.

  “You don’t make any sense,” Emer said, looking around the table. “What’s going on here?”

  “I’ve packed your bag and put a special dress in there for you. You’ll see it when you get there. Don’t peek and ruin the surprise.”

  “Get where?” The door swung wide and collided with a small trunk. Everyone in the house jumped at the sound.

  “Have you her things packed?” Martin barked from the doorway.

  “In the case. It’s all there.”

  Emer tried to run through the back door, but Mary stopped her. “Don’t go being stupid now. You have a bright future in Paris.”

  “I’m not going to Paris,” Emer began, just as her uncle entered. “I won’t leave Ireland.”

  “Oh, you’ll get to Paris. I’m going to make sure of it.”

  Emer looked at Mary, wide-eyed.

  “He’s going with you,” Mary explained, still doubting his reasons.

  Emer started to cry and ran again for the back door. Mary stopped her, but Emer pushed her to the side and ran to the well.

  Seanie stood half
way between the field and the well, and by the time he saw her crying into her hands, Martin had sent his son Peter to drag Emer back to the house. She waved to him with two fingers and blew a kiss, and made a huge scene for the rest of the neighbors, screaming, “I love you, Seanie Carroll!” before she was shoved back into the dark house.

  Outside the front door there was a horse and cart waiting to take them to the docks in Cork. Her packed case was on the back, alongside a few large jugs of the magic brew her uncle could no longer live without. Martin grabbed Emer roughly and pushed her up into the front of the cart. With a length of sturdy rope, he bound her feet and then tied her to the wooden frame.

  As they trotted from the encampment, Emer cried, mostly. But then she saw a group of six or seven little girls playing by the side of the road, and yelled to them.

  “Do you see this, girls? Do you see what you’re worth? Look at me here, tied like a slab of meat to this cart! Remember me, girls! Remember me!”

  Seanie came around that night and talked to Mary. He couldn’t hide the fact that he was heartbroken, and Mary tried not to look directly at him. How many years? she asked herself. How many years have I let Martin ruin my life? And my children’s!

  “My mother told me he tied her to the cart and took off like a man on fire for water,” he said.

  “She’s exaggerating. You know Martin wouldn’t do that.”

  “She saw him.”

  “Well, you know how Emer is.”

  “Yes, I do. I know how she is. She’s in love with me, that’s how she is.”

  Why am I defending him? Mary asked herself. “You’re just a boy,” she said.

  “But I love her.”

  “Then you should be happy for her new life. She won’t have to suffer like we do.”

  “Is that all you want for her?”

  Mary looked at her raw hands. “It’s enough.”

  They stared at each other. Seanie sighed.

  “It won’t be enough to make her stop loving me,” he said. “And I promise you now, as I stand here, I will find her and bring her back where she belongs.”

 
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