Celler, Teller

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Chapter 10

Ironically, despite growing depression and scarcities, the town appeared busier than ever. Daily a frantic bargining fight for supplies swam through an ever growing monster of heaving limbs. Families increased overnight as another truckload of broken furniture, torn curtains, a calf, anything that could be crammed in within the rush of saving three kids and a toddering grandmother, turned up only half unexpectedly. There were men also, bustling about, drinking seriously, looking stern, indiscreet bulges clutching their waist bands: shadows subtle in their disappearance whenever the troops crossed the bridge. As outlining villages smothered, their smoldering remains poured into Dollic.

“Will you do me a favor?” Cousin Patty asked one evening as the sun crawled home.

“Aye, of course,” Sonnyjo mumbled automatically, unloading the firewood, waiting to be told.

“Do you know the Mason place?”

“Where?”

“The Mason’s. Out the Northern road, up into the woods, that land nearly grown over, hasn’t been used much for years, about fifteen kilometers beyond YoungJed’s back yard.”

“Aye. Think I do. Long way out though. Haven’t been that way for years.”

“Well, will you do me a favor?”

Sonnyjo wasn’t used to being asked twice. A helping hand never needed pleading. Sadly, he realized that times had changed, that he himself had, had become doubting, had started fumbling for hidden intentions beneath silken inquiries. The logs crashed awkwardly, a nugget of panic clawing the rhythm from musclular arms.

“Can’t do it myself. I’ll be away for a few days but they need the firewood,” terminated Cousin Patty, inspired. “Would you take it up?” he continued as there was no reply beyond the sludgy ramming of mossy log to mossy log, the faint haze of damp dust. “Would you take it up for me? It’s ready and packed, in our yard, well down the field a bit. You know the grove. All you need is the tractor, hitch it up, take it over and you’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

“And can you not do it yourself?” Sonnyjo was surprised at his own hesitance.

“I told you I’m going away.” Even Sonnyjo could sense annoyance tinging the strained patience of cousin Patty’s words. Should be happy to do something, finally, he was muttering to himself. “Listen, half a day’s work at the most. I’m not asking much.”

No he wasn’t. Sonnyjo knew that. He’d never refused a favor before and now it was too late to begin. Although, it couldn’t be firewood he reasoned slowly: what would they be doing with firewood and trees all around. He didn’t want to know. A favor was a favor, a helping hand, the least a neighbor, cousin, could expect. You didn’t ask questions.

Mulling it over after his Cousin had gone, he felt afraid, then halfelated in the memory of his father. Maybe he should do something after all. It wasn’t much. He couldn’t refuse now anyway. Sonnyjo found it hard to judge what Sinead would think. She didn’t have much time for Junior these days he reflected, and they used always be chattering there together like two little children. Better not mention it he confirmed.

“Don’t go annoying my mother now!” were Cousin Patty’s final instructions. “You know where it is. And you know where to take it. Don’t piss around.” It sounded less and less like a favor as Cousin Patty rapped out the instructions. “You’ll be stopped when you get there. Don’t worry.” A smile of conspiracy. “We take care of our own.”

Heart grumbling, unusually out of time with the swaying tractor, Sonnyjo throttled along the sloping mountain road.

He wondered suddenly if there were checkpoints out this far. They stay their own side of the town he reasoned. Don’t know the countryside up here. Too dangerous. And most of them look like that Outsider: all shining white hands when the’d killed that chicken. Townies. Shopping hands. They’d be too scared to hit roads this narrow. He ducked a branch as it bowed too low from overhead. Sonnnyjo took a deep breath, pushed his foot into the clutch, creaked into gear, let one foot up, the other down, shuffled in the hard metal seat for a better grip, then tugged forward, smoke pelting unevenly from the exhaust, birds whistlin gin fright.

He began to feel a little easier as the distance grew. He’d picked up the trailer no problem. No questions. He’d been fearing Aruny T at the window, and still wondered where she had been, not realizing that her endless curiosity had finally been converted to a nervous twitching from the fireplace.

He passed YoungJed’s. No one around. The gate was closed. Off somewhere again. No sign even of Marissa, not a hint of smoke off the roof.

The trailer behind bumped unfamiliarily over the rutted surface. Sonnyjo was vaguely worried that whatever was underneath the freshly green tarapulin would fall off.

His foot began to ache. He hadn’t driven the tractor so far in years.

Light glimpsed through the leaves, galaxies of speckled flickerings. The air beneath grew cooler as branches entwined closer in loving deep embraces; a shell closing inward, encasing into solitude the growling roar of his stuttering tractor. Even the birds appeared to have gone quiet, the wind stilled.

The turning was easily found. Sonnyjo had even begun to remember the track as instinctive directions replaced the unnatural strain of fear. He’d been up here a long time ago with his father, one time they’d gone shooting a wolf. They’d never found it. The neighbors had laughed. “Long time since there’s been wolves around here Sonnyjo they joked. “Ah sure, just wanted to give the boy a day out,” retorted his father: “Make a man out of him. Teach him not to be afraid. Not many of you boys here ever been out shooting wolves. Eh?” and that famous laugh curled in collusion. “Only man here aren’t you boy! We’ve hunted wolves.” Sonnyjo had held his head low before the gazes, yet his cheeks were still red with the fearful thrill and growing pride.

Chucking along in this fog of scattered memory blown through the growing darkness overhead as branches stretched ever tighter over the trail, from either side, to embrace above his head, Sonnyjo was startled when they jumped from the bushes.

Rifles clicking, nothing like the old shot guns he was used to seeing, eight or nine of them were suddenly pointing all around.

“Stay where you are!” someone ordered.

Hands were fumbling at the back. Unhooked, the trailer quickly hid somewhere within the grouse, its dark green covering swallowed whole by the scrub all around.

“Right. Go.”

“Eh?”

“Go. For fuck sake go and keep your mouth shut!”

Sonnyjo twisted the tractor into an awkward turn, then accelerated off as fast as he could from where he’d just driven.

He kept his head down but human curiosity swung his eyes from side to side. He spotted the trailer he’d just brought; well concealed already. You’d hardly notice it if you hadn’t been dragging it for three hours. And others. Bigger and smaller. The muted spark of sun off metal. A wheel. Or dots of them, chained together with a track. A monster type excevator, the sleek poke of a giant barrel told him otherwise. He’d seen enough. Keep your eyes on the road, he echoed their unspoken warnings. Keep your mouth shut, they had said. He would. He would.

There was no one but Dovric waiting when he finally swung in home. Sore from the endless bumping, he was anxious to put the journey out of mind. “Where’s your mother?” he insisted, immediately after kissing her cheek in greeting.

“What’s the matter?” demanded Dovric, her uneasy sense of suspicion was growing up even quicker than her father’s. And then, like the majority of the population, she exercised caution and dodged the subject. “Only gone into town to see what they have in the market: what we can afford, was what she really meant.

Sonnyjo calmed down. He’d had a brief tinge of guilty panic when he realized she wasn’t coming out to meet him, and then a flicker of relief as his family loomed before him safely. What he’d just seen was unsettling. Not knowing who those strangers were or where they were intended was jangling his nerves, heightening that sense of powerlessness which had been constantly growing recently, cancerlike, outside the confines of his normal control. Sinead and Dovric. That was all that mattered. Once he knew where they were, he was happy, the perfect shepheard.

His relief grew as Sinead’s momentary absence provided a few minutes to get back to normal, put the tractor away, invent excuses. He didn’t think he should tell her. She’d have had enough problems with the market. They all had enough without sharing.

Dovric, although Sonnyjo would never have imagined, was thinking much the same.

“I’ll make you some coffee Daddy.”

He smiled. “Do. I need some. Long day.”

She went off without waiting for inventions, a long day but no normal day, it was written across the frosting trail of his jagged breath. No normal day. They were becoming increasing scarce.

Her legs sprang with a kick of intention. Sonnyjo watched in grateful admiration. Will be a beautiful woman he decided, just like her mother, while inside Dovric had decided she already was. She was feeling quite a lady today, the mistress of her own silent house almost. This was the seccond time to make coffee for a man, in one afternoon.

Her mother had scarcely left when Pete came. Dovric was surprised they hadn’t met on the road. Came through the fields he explained.

“I love the fields. Nothing like that where I come from.”

“Where do you come from then?” She was strung by curiosity, not having had an opportunity apart from rare giggles of consent or agreement to ever talk to, never mind question, the stranger directly.

As he had described to Sonnyjo, he repeated to his daughter, although with far more zeal. A lilting curl to his lips, flashing grains of selfeffacing humor, the flirting barb of a sable compliment, lent his tattered story shopwindow dressing. “So I’ve never seen anything as pretty as your father’s land,” he summed up awkwardly, “... or his daughter.”

Blushing, Dovric hid her eyes from the necessity of reply, thus failing to notice the equally coloured cheeks scarcely a meter away. The boys down the village were far cruder, or so they appeared that afternoon. She’d never been alone with one of them to go much further but Pete immediately convinced her he was a gentleman. And handsome. Definately handsome, a worthy target for her budding flirtation. She twisted her skirt as she turned, letting her hips roll slightly as they’d practised one night in the shelter of her friend Julie’s empty sitting room.

“My father’s not here either.” She blushed once more, immediately hesitating, afraid she had gone too far, spoken more directly than was decent. “But he’ll be back any minute. I’m not sure where he has gone in fact.” That was better. One thing was practicing with a loose skirt, watching the effect of your eyes on a grown man, another was hinting at indecency with a complete stranger, a Outsider.

She was beginning to loose her initial confidence and fade away to the embarrassment of a child. Fifteen is a quicksand of an age: you’re never sure if you’re sinking or floating; you haven’t learned the parameters to give an indication of progress either way. She was like a young sheep that had been weened from its mother, dying to grow, longing for familiar milk.

They stood, silently kicking the ground. Dovric moved to shoooh away a wandering hen, to do something. Pete watched the backs of her legs as she partially bent over in the whooshing.

“What age are you?” he asked without thinking.

“Fifteen.” The answer flooded automatically.

He laughed. It was his turn to shuffle in embarrassment, wish he had a hen to take his attentions.

“You were here for my birthday. Don’t you remember?” Her face squinted in reprimand, or was it left over reproach from her attack on the chicken.

“I know. I’m sorry, I’d forgotten. Stupid of me.”

“Men.They’re all the same. That’s what my mother says.”

“That’s what they say where I’m from too.”

“Do they?”

“They do. There aren’t that many differences in reality.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing. Nothing.” Pete wasn’t sure how to explain this rather wellworn banality which was gradually becoming arather personal insight. It would make less sense to someone who had travelled even less than himself. “I’ve a younger sister,” he continued unconsciously.

Dovric’s eyes did the quizzing.

Like her mother’s, he noted. Silent. Yet, within their hazel nut demureness lay a squinting line of firmness. Dangerously alert. “She’s only eight though,” he added. “But she’ll be pretty too when she’s your age.”

“How old are you then?”

And far more direct then her old man he noted admiringly. “Twenty-five.”

Not too bad she calculated. Ten years. A lifetime. She sighed. Young to have travelled all this way. “Why did you come?” she asked on the spur of the moment, words skipping away with her thoughts.

It was Pete’s turn to clutch the ground. He hesitated. Then he brightened, flattering a smile. “I’ll tell you another day. It’s a long story.”

“I like stories.”

“I’m sure you do. Your grandfather was a great ranqeur.”

“A what?”

“A storyteller,” he corrected rapidly, “or so they tell me.”

“He was too.” There was a note of defiance, possessiveness.

“Did he tell you many?”

“Yes.”

The abruptness made Pete realize that it wasn’t defense, but hesitance, a gouge of pain which held her answers to monasyllables: they hadn’t told him how long ago the old man had died.

Dovric pointlessly shooed another chicken before it came near. She took special care of them since the troops, as if her protective bossiness would save them in the future.

“Could you do me a favor?”

“Of course.” No one ever refused a favor in a neighbourhood so reliant on mutual resistance; she’d learned that from the cradle, but had still to sense that favours had been twisted, into and by strange new demands.

Indicating the bag on his shoulders Pete qualified his question: “Could I leave this in one of the sheds for a couple of days. Anywhere. Out of the way. In the back where it’ll be no trouble.” He moved closer, swinging the load off his shoulder, into his hand in readiness. Now he’d braved the subject he wanted it over with, out of the way; might as well take advantage of the fact there were no further complications around to see. “Don’t want to bother your father or mother, just drop it somewhere where it won’t be a nuisance,” he repeated, hoping he was shrugging it off as being as unimportant as forgettable as another stJunior chicken.

“Of course.” Dovric repeated the oaths she’d heard so often. “In there with the chickens. There’s a shelf halfway up the wall, at the back. Nothing on it but dust and the odd feather. Father never uses it. No one goes in there now but me ...” and the troops she remembered, a shot of angry adrenaline shooting through her lungs to flood her throat.

“Shooooh! Shoooooh!” she waved ad the scuttling creatures as they clucked tto a recognized figure for their food.

“They’re all right. They’re all right. No problem.”

She controlled her temper. Behaving like a chicken herself. “There!” she pointed.

“Where?” He was stumbling in the dull light, grazing his forehead off a supporting roof post in the effort.

Dovric hissed like her mother. “Here! Give it to me!” and she stepped in behind him , grabbing the bag. For a second time their hands met. Hairs prickled. They paused briefly before the electric tingle, before she grabbed the bag firmly, slowly now, and heaved it up onto the shelf. Turning to face him in the dark, she stood panting, hand on hips, radient with determination and achievement.

Pete was wishing it was another world. “Thanks,” was all he could mutter.

As they approached the sagging light of the door she noticed the slight gash over the eyes.

“You’ve cut yourself! Tell you’re not from a farm. Gimme a look.” Once more they were leaning close through the forced proximity of mutual aid.

Instinctivelly, in deference, defense, sheer pride, he brushed aside the blood roughly. “It’s nothing,” he declared forcing his head from her gaze. “It’s nothing.”

“It’s an ugly scratch. Come inside and clean it off. I’ll make some coffee.”

How could he refuse such a determined female.

Dovric led the way feeling old again, mistress of her own home as che clucked and ordered. “Here’s a bit of towel and the toilet is down there. There should be some crude alcohol somewhere above the sink. Clean it out good and it’ll be fine.”

For a moment Pete thought, or hoped, she’d do it for him, then rebuked himself and followed her instructions uncomplainingly. The same image of tender caring had crossed Dovric’s mind before canceling itself with a spurt of panic at the thought of her mother’s return, fuelled with fear of youthful inadequacy fumbling proximity in the small bathroom appeared suddenly indecent along with threatening.

The romantic flutter of hearts strapped back under control like the blood from his cut, they drank their coffee like adults, in the pained silence of a long suffering couple almost. It could rain they both agreed. Did it rain where he came from? A little. “Not all that different then,” Dovric mused.

“Ah, but it is!” he assured in a burst of passion. Similar, he’d just convinced himself, yet at home a scene like this could lead somewhere; here there was only the rewards of a desperate fight. “Very different,” he mouthed silently. Neither of them had the longing to explore the details. Both seemed to recognize that the gap was too wide to be bridged in the short time they were permitted. Dovric, like any good host, showed him to the yard gate.

Should he mention it one more time he wondered; ask her to keep the bag just between us two? He didn’t, but wished he was in a position to on the road back. A whistle bit his tongue as he caught her twisting hips again, those taunting eyes above gentle lips. Hearing a rustle, he controlled himself quickly and dived off the path into the fields. If they all came out of this all right he’d search for her when it was over. When times were better and the bloody fascists gone. And she’d be older. Another reason to fight on.

Dovric was going to but finally served the coffee instead: no need to tell him about Pete’s visit. He hadn’t been looking for her father anyway and besides he had one of those distant looks in his eyes. Wouldn’t listen to a word she said. She served the coffee and ruffled his hair. “Going bald,” she reminded.

“Aye. Am indeed,” he muttered abstractly as the coffee turned cold.

She didn’t see any need to tell her mother either. No one was in a mood for listening, or talking. Her mother grumbled about the crowds, half of them outsiders. “Can’t be good, not natural,” she was saying. “I don’t mind at all if they’ve no where else to to to. I mean we’ve given all we can to the neighbors who suddenly had extra mouths to feed, done it all our lives. It’s just that. I don’t know.” She struggled to express the tension creeping inside.

Sinead sat fidgeting with the remains of their supper, eyes wearily prodding the scarce food into untouched bundles on her fork. “Listen to me Sonnyjo!” she said. “Make the coffee Dovric!” she snapped with another breath. “Listen Sonnyjo.” and her voice lowered to a twisted hiss. “Why have they come here? It’s not just the women you know. There are lots of young men too and I think they’re up to something more than sheltering. Are we going to be safe or will us too have to find somewhere else if the troops come back and I don’t mean in fives and sixes, I mean, whatever has happened in those other towns, like Junior says?”

Sonnyjo had no answers. He sought her fingers but she was too agitated to be so easily soothed.

“I’m serious.” she reiterated.

“I know. I know.”

“But they frighten me. Hanging around in groups. Not natural. They’re starting something Sonnyjo, to ... to I don’t know what. But I’ll tell you something: if the troops weren’t coming here anyway those boys will bring the lot down on top of us.”

“But we can’t turn them away,” was all Sonnyjo could plead. “Look at Aunty Johanna with family members turning up with all sorts of stories. The cousins swore they ahd seen awful things not all that far away. Only natural you take them in.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” fussed Sinead, exasperated with Sonnyjo‘s fuddling, her own lack of reason. “There’s always a house for those with none. You know that. This not the same.” She gave up. “Make the coffee!” she urged Dovric, noticing she hadn’t moved from the doorway. “Those cousins of yours should stay at home. Driving poor Aunty Johannna up the wall with their comings and goings.”

As daughter yielded Mother stumbled on the path of further concern. “And that’s another thing. That Outsider. He’s up to something. No journalist. Don’t know rightly what they are but he’s too quite to be one. Hardly ever seen except around here.”

From the kitchen Dovric knew she couldn’t speak now and only hoped Pete was equally capable of keeping a secret, their secret. The coffee boiled over as she whispered the last words once more, letting her lips touch her thoughts: how sensual just a couple of words could be, fluttering across her thoughts, rising a heart beat, their scent brushing her eyelids. Their secret. She could almost feel something soft lap her mouth.

“What are you doing Dovric? Don’t you start daydreaming like your father. There isn’t room or work out those fields for the two of you.”

Nerves grating, they all went silently to bed that night mulling personal secrets, or from the kinder pillow of sleep, gentle omissions.

Sinead had had her own brief foJunior which would never be retold as it never had. Even though he never said, she had always suspected that Junior too also attended their mothers grave although it was Sinead who kept the weeds off it from time to time. She’d diverted to visit it today because, she reasoned to herself, she hadn’t been for ages. Squatting beside the chipped slab, fading green along the mossy sides, she remembered her mother’s presence in those first months of marriage, then later, after the miscarriage, and then, close to tears, she was praying for its comforting closeness once more. Huddled quietly she wept in silence before distance generated the shame of necromy as her steps forced her back into town. Behaving like a child she rebuked. Glad Junior wasn’t there to see her.

Two days after the nervous trip up the mountain Sonnyjo happened by YoungJed along the lane, near the town. YoungJed stood in on the edge to let Sonnyjo and his tractor pass. They hadn’t managed to see each other for what seemed like years. Guilt surging unconsciously, Sonnyjo saluted generously but couldn’t look him in the face, seeing only the glazed barrels of destruction huddled over the mountain.

YoungJed rose his own hand in response, first tentative gaze fixing all the more firmly as it spotted Sonnyjo’s avoiding reply. Even Sonnyjo was behaving strangly. Odder than usual. There was no escaping the heaviness of his boots. The past months had clogged them fast, a weight he could scarcely lift. He’d grown used to dodging eyes but refused to bow away. Nothing he could do. Not his fault his lannd straddled the river. He wasn’t the only one. And the deepest sore. You’d think they’d at least respect Marlene.

Stumbling homeword, Sonnyjo’s reluctant greeting set YoungJed worrying about Junior again. He’d seen him as well, only the day before, after months of absence, on this same narrow path. They’d both been walking and YoungJed received the usual response at first, a halfsalute bathed in shying eyes. YoungJed didn’t care. Himself and Junior seldom behaved any differently if not forced to. Then, to YoungJed’s surprise, Junior stopped, as they were both about to pass. Staring YoungJed straight in the face their eyes held, instinctivelly frozen.

“Go away. Get out of here while you can! Take her.”

He was gone before YoungJed’s mouth closed. He couldn’t move forward with the shock. Junior hadn’t said so much to him for years and finally this. Untidely rolling the words over and over, YoungJed slowly recognized that they weren’t a threat, but advice: the agetorn love in those eyes were sparking a final plea, one last gesture. Having grown used to unsubtle warnings the directness of Junior’s words struck a stake of fear directly through YoungJed’s heart. The mad pleading of love in those eyes, one last scream for forgiveness.

YoungJed was shaking as he walked in home. Pace lengthening with each stride, his fright grew quickly to anger. What was he supposed to do? What had he ever done? They wouldn’t leave their land so why should he be forced off his? If they fought for theirs it was only natural he should do the same. Curses flew like buckshot through his brain. Fucking idiots. Couldn’t they leave well enough alone. He wasn’t any better off than any of them. So some big shots down south made money, there were others up north doing the same, and they weren’t the ones loosing their land, were they? Nonsense was all they were shouting. Didn’t know what they were talking about. And the land grasped your soul no matter which side of the river you were supposed to lie. He was staying. No one would fight him away. Marlene, however, was another worry.

“Listen, I think we should think about it again.” Without mentioning his encounter with Junior, YoungJed attempted to resurrect the old argument over supper that same evening.

Marlene banged her cup. “I’m not leaving you here alone and you’re not going anywhere, you know that. We’ve done nothing. Have as much right to remain as anyone.” Face clenched in age she grabbed her knife firmly to release the stress. “We can’t!” she repeated. “Only makes things worse to run away. Making it too easy. Telling those ruffiant, barbarians, they’re right, that we are secretly guilty of some unspoken sin.”

“But even your father,” The admonishment ran dry, spluttered to a halt.

Wrestling with cold food they let silence calm aching spirits. Her father had left two weeks earlier, finally broken by more shattered windows and a sprinkle of, fortunately unlit, petrol under his door. “Barbarians. Hooligans!” Marlene had bravely screamed at anyone who would dare listen, oblivious to which side of the bridge she was on. Women comforted her but eyes were all too hard to trap faithfully these days; everyone was afraid of real committment. Her father has insisted she go with them and Marlene had refused point blank, scarcely allowing YoungJed to voice his doubts. “I’m not going anywhere!” She did, however, send their youngest son further South to their grandparents, where nothing had yet happened, where they were told life went on as usual. She wavered over the other two boys. “We’ll hang on another bit?” she wavered. “A lot of work to be done at the moment. Then, maybe.” the loss of her family bit into mother’s guts, the fear of selfishness ate further. “Ok, definitely, in a week or two’s time if things don’t improve,” she promised YoungJed the night of Junior’s warning. “But I’m sticking it out with you.” She insisted. “to the end,” snd she hugged him.

YoungJed was proud of her, and panicking. She wouldn’t leave without him. But they couldn’t all stay put. They’d just have to send off the sons as soon as they could and keep their heads down. There was no point being foolish.

Undaunted Marlene continued hassling and criticising where ever she went, occasionally blasting Junior directly, then quickly backing down as she realized all too quickly that people would belittle the injustices she underlined as the ravings of a still spitefull woman. Don’t personalise the issue she warned herself, people will be quick enough to jump to such assumptions themselves.

She called to the forge once but he wasn’t there. Peering into the darkened shed she was startled by a pair of strange eyes. “Who are you?”

“A friend of Junior’s.”

“Where is he?”

“Don’t know. Be back tomorrow, the day after.”

“Well,” she tried to sketch a face through the shadows but failed. All she was allowed notice was the strange accent. “Well, just tell him Marlene called.” Despite a tingle of nervousness in her knees, her voice rose in determination. “Tell him Marlene called and he knows what I want.”

There was no reply.

“Have you got that?”

“Yes.”

“Exactly as I said.”

“Ok. Don’t worry.”

She went slowly home unaware it was too late for demands, that Junior had already risked more than he should have to save her. She was angry with herself afterwards for having given in, to her fears, to him.

Sleep was beginning to loose its grace over Hillstown. Twisting on the spits of secrets, fears, more barbed than normal, countless eyes remained open, scarcely flickering, avoiding contact as they stared blindly through the darrkness for a pin prick of relief. There wasn’t a star within sight.

The food was crumbling dryly over their tongues, to struggle untasted down constricting throats. Sonnyjo was thinking of the sheep. It would take all afternoon to move them he moaned, only semiaware that he would enjoy the silent hunt, enjoy it even more if he could be certain of it never ending.

Dovric was equally removed. Chewing noiselessly, her eyes flittered magpie like over the food, across the table, out through the window into the buckling branches of her first fantasies.

She’ll become worse than her father swore Sinead inwardly, slapping down more rice on the table, her own petty vengeance for their lack of appetite. They weren’t leaving until they’d finished it all, she promised, ignoring the fact that her own indent had been far from successful. “Times like this can’t afford to waste food,” she muttered aloud, then returned to the kitchen in search of an errand. Hidden over the comfort of the sink she rubbed her eyes fiercely, pride aware of the lines, the bags underneath. The winter seemed to have aged her, them all, even Dovric, a child forced through the Spring into womanhood. So young yet suddenly required to be old. At this stage they should be allowed a certain laxity, the reward of growing stiffer naturally rather than this isolating fear of the unknown, the sharp remarks of the worry. It had never been easy perhaps but the events of the past months, the bitter tension of the air around, was adding lines faster than the northern frost. The women in the market that day had scarcely spoken. Shy glances of aimless conspiracy, what food they could find or afford stockpiled roughly into torn bags. Unaware of what was really occuring, the women, intuitivelly, sensed the coming winter was looming colder and closer than ever, a black beast panting from high up the mountains.

Sinead glanced back in at her own family. What were they thinking? The two of them munching fitfully, Dovric’s childish mind floating in a woman’s body, Sonnyjo taunt elastic in a vacuum. Well if they didn’t eat it she’d just take it down to the hall where they were trying to feed all those outsiders with no relatives to go to. Sinead took them anything they could afford, which wasn’t much. She didn’t enjoy the visits, hated the efford, the lost hope of their blank eyes, the anger as they turned bloodshot with exhaustion, the despair of inactivity. And while this silence haunted, their words were worse, their stories gorged from the depts. of hell itself. People of the town gave what they could, clicked around these victims as if to reassure themselves they were lucky afterall, that the town was doing all right; while those same consoling breaths nestled, prey for these phantoms to disappear for fear that the hollow eyes and parched throats, whispered curses and pityifying stares, painted the future in the vivid colours of abstract fate.

A muffled thud shook them out of their inner minds.

Sonnyjo twisted in his chair, semirising in the movement, instinctively aiming for the kitchen.

At the same moment Sinead reached the door, questioning eyes signalling it hadn’t been her.

Dovric hovered from one to the other, a child waiting for parents to explain and reassure while the sprouting adult mind hinted, like a devil’s temptation, that she had outgrown such easy comforts.

As the family began to mouth questions a second shock cracked the air. A rolling roar of heavy defiance echoed wistfully from a distance as the table shook briefly under the force. Stiffened in surprise they paused in pleading expectancy for a lightening bold of clarification.

None came.

Sonnyjo fumbled to the door, Sinead on his heels, Dovric scampering behind.

“Look!” the child was the first to point, younger instincts having raced ahead once they were outside. From the yard gate the slight of her trembling finger etched forward across the sky. “Look,” she breathed once more voice husky over the choking winds.

Across the hills, down over the trees, rising above them arrogantly, reeling up to tickle the trembling sun, rose a snaking spiral of smoke. Tantalisingly hazy, blue streaks twisted skyward, to be eaten up in a curling swoon of darker foam, an initial prettiness swallowed in a fearful black haze. Defiantly it hung, down the gentle sloaps, over the town, to the right, slightly off centre. Worldessly Sinead and Sonnyjo stared in unison as gradually the steam thinned slightly, stray strands of inkiness blowing away on the wind, fading to blue yellow, then wispy white until they bled into the natural air higher above. Nevertheless, despite its weakening, the solid black mass clung to its position, meters above the trees, the devil perched to one side of the two church spirals. A balloon which no one dared to pop.

The initial boom had brought a silence. Birds had hidden. The wind stood still. Even the trees didn’t dare to sway under the gaze of this unnatural cloud, until, ghostlike over the meadows, shouts slowly clattered with the brittle ringing of pebbles in a tin can.

Sonnyjo and his family remained inert. The black smoke was gradually dispearsing, sunlight attempting bravely to eat the mass to further shreds. Sinead was the first to step further, feet gaining pace as they reached the gate.

“Wait!” Sonnyjo mumbled but the syllables floated away unheaded.

“You stay here!” Sinead shouted more forcibly over her shoulder.

Dovric feigned deafness. No way. Nimbly, despite the jelly sensation above the knees, she trailed after her father’s fumbling gait. Her heart was beating silent adrenaline. She wasn’t staying by herself, whatever was waiting down below. Her mother neglected to look back and confirm her orders.

Their pace as they hit the road and found others following similar instincts. “What was it?” Sinead shouted at YoungJed up ahead. Face half turning, shoulders shrugged noiselessly in reply. Marlene’s arms flapped more wildly in confusion before she turned to shout “come back!” veinly after her two sons who were racing on in front.

The town was throbbing as if the the great banging grumble still echoed through the thick air. Mumbling whispers of admiration, shock and awe, slouched like spitting rain, a misty shower of fragile thoughts clogging the atmosphere with damp perspiration, uncomfortable pin pricks.

As it disappeared gently, the smoke balloon’s origin swam shakily into clarity. From further down the town, breathed from the river itself.

Cafes tumbled empty, doorways spilled their contents, the refugee hall exhumed its guts as the crowd knotted together along the river bank, clattering closer in the shudder of collective impulse, voyeuristic machisism.

The throng thickened as the fumes dispearsed. Sonnyjo and his family drew nearer the vortex then slowed. They stopped, clutching the rubbery comfort of damp wood, slippery shakiness of well worn fence along the river. There was no need to go any further.

Lying strangled in the waters lay the town’s newest bridge. A little over one third of the way across, not quite in the centre, the once proud metal span had cracked, sagged, hung in a final splintering embrace before knees broke in a final heave of despair to crash through the waters below. With the impact the smallest remaining segment surrendered its rooting hold on the south bank, twisted fiercely upon itself and then collapsed compleatly leaving only the saddened metal of its protective railing lying sideways as it protruded weakly from the river. Like lamp poles in the desert lone pillars of lost strength still stood, naked before the gasping crowd, ashamed as in the space of five minutes they had become as obsolete as a Roman fossil, a column from centuries in the past, a moss ridden memory. The larger span on the other side still clung to firm ground, but was bent terribly, lying dejected in the river it had once crowned, forcing the waters through its tangled metal in a foamy restlesness at this unnatural intrusion. The water churned its anger, hissing, steaming, spiting remorse at the bystanders.

“Saw it myself.” rang the voices around.

“Explosion!”

“Two of them!”

“Bang! Bang!” shouted a child excitedly.

“First one weakened the far side, next blew it right off it’s centre pillars.”

“Right off!” echoed a voice in questioning awe.

“Hung there like a dying horse. Before it collapsed, one side first, then the other.”

“Jesus Christ!”

“Fuck sake.”

Moans of admiring curses rose, hung, drowned in fearfull intakes of breaths smoothered in choking coughs.

Sinead held Sonnyjo’s elbow with one hand, the other flittering to find Dovric’s and pull her closer, into the fold.

Above the rustle of the Dovric’s thrusting through the sagging metal remains, the hustle of explaining voices, questioning whispers, the growing wind as it lifted away the last streaks of the metals’s dark death breath, it was a silence which hung suspended where there had once been a bridge. People huddled faceless in shock, feet pasted to soggy pavement only occasionally stirred in those first minutes by darting spurts of nervous intent.

A youth, face masked threateningly rather than in fear, streaked through the human knob and plunged the north’s ancient banner, red splattered with the black star, into the soil where the bridge had once linked up with the earth. A spittle of cheers, raucous shouts to be taken as approval, rose unidentifiallably from the crowd as those around shrank back, nervously huddling those they knew, avoiding those they were less sure of.

Further down the river, easily within sight, the centre of the town, the ancient stone bridge clattered omniously with darting bodies, eyes hidden as they raced to regain the correct bank as quickly as shaking legs allowed. They were the visible reminder of the deepest, unspoken knowledge: the work of a madman, the carefull execution of the fanatic, the thundering collapse of the masses or simply the perversity of nature, the crooked remains of their once shining metal reflected the grotesque splintering of the town itself. Everyone now knew which bank they belonged to. A darkened puff of afternoon smoke had snapped any lingering doubts. Bound in the groaning spell of crumbled metal, people clung to the river aimlessly staring at the throbbing waters preparing for years of acidic gushing before they would rust the intrusion to silence.

Sinead noticed that the far bank was equally crowded, equally static as both sides faced each other, shamelessly defiant, threateningly questioning. What next? Sinead spotted Junior closer to the bridge stump. As still as the rest. She was glad he wasn’t one of the shouters hurdling faint threats above their heads, across the waters, as yet undirected at specific faces. But they he wouldn’t always too smart to be a hooligan. Slipping her arm from Sonnyjo she stepped forward slightly to view her brother more clearly. She wondered what his eyes saw. Were they proud or frightened like her own. Unmoving, he stood like a statue; an impotent guardian before a lost treasure or a beacon of future glory. His sister stared, no longer hiding her inner instincts: she knew he was behind the explosion. Him and all those outsiders, that Outsider. Would have been far better off without so many outsiders but then it had become harder and harder to define outsiders as the town evolved into new spheres of identity, etched from the threads of their past, the roving hands of the present as the world outside soaked up the isolation which had appeared so secure, so recently.

Gradually, with far more reluctance than the long disappeared black smoke, the crown began to drift apart, aimlessly dispearsing in knots of family, loose friendships, or conspiracy. Groups of men cluttered the cafes again, whiskies burning the imagination as they quenched anxieties.

Sonnyjo’s cousin, passed them as they left flashing a wide smile. Sinead cleared her throat loudly, hoping he’d hear. She’d have liked to meet Junior, challenge him silently but he’d slipped away fugitively. A scornful cough at the cousin was as close as she would get to remomstrance.

Cousin Patty strode by without speaking, fists clenched by his side, mounds of frozen clay. Sinead couldn’t spot Marlene or the boys. Perhaps they’d gone up ahead.

“Come on!” urged Sinead as Dovric dwadled, seduced by a rushed exchange of excited conjecture with a friend. Older generations moved with more determination. The talking had been done.

Sonnyjo remembered his lost sheep and hastened their pace.

Another night of scattered sleep, initial private reluctances gradually interspearsed with external stimulations. Wild shouts floating up from down the town as long flowing whiskey glowed through the dark, St Elmo’s fire on reddened tongues. Then a blast. A further crack. Gunshot through the air. A heavier thud chasing a spearing whistle. Half an hour later another, the dulling bang ringing through their bedroom as a hundred shotguns shattered in one explosion. Holding Sinead tightly Sonnyjo remembered the hollow mouth of the machines up the hills, black holes prepared to spit far from empty shells.

Equally awake Dovric lay shivering, the irregular roars through the silent night flashing bright in her mind, disturbing the rhythm of what she was trying to resolve. She’d seen him sneak away as she put on the coffee for breakfast. Through the dampness of dawn, he’d come back for the bag, then ran off, back bent, like a chicken, without saying goodbye. Only a minute. She’d clung to the window waiting for him to turn. Just a minute. A wave. Smile Pete. He could have looked back for a few seconds, called in for a few more. Wouldn’t have hurt. He’d been so different. Hands so soft compared to the brushing hide of any other boy she’d ever wished to ccome near her. Delicate and careful she imagined them on the small of her back, dancing gracefully. Nothing at all like that fumbling presure from Tito and the smell of undiluted onion from his throat. She fingered the penknife under her pillow. “Men,” she whispered to herself, defiantly muttering up the tone she’d heard her elders use so often. She repeated the curse with force, over and over to block out erratic noises outside, the silence as she waited for another unexpected crash to float across the timeless night.

She’d never know how much the Outsider wanted to turn in the hope of catching her there, exactly as she had been. No time for pity, he told himself. Causes don’t wait for people. He’d come back when it was all over and meanwhile dreamt of his penknife bathed in the comfort of those strangly unchildlike fingers as the truck carried him further away with each blood curdling bounce of the unsprung seat.

When they finally dozed off in exhaustion they were woken by banging on the door.

“Can you give us some breakfast?”

“Or at least coffee.”

“What?” Sinead struggled to wrap a shawl over her nightgown.

“Coffee. Anything at all. We’ve been going all night.” Cousin Patty’s reddened face was slurring the words in his haste.

Sinead only noticed the gun slung carelessly over his left shoulder. “What are you doing?” The question wrung hoarsly through chattering teeth. The steam of his breath clung to the frosty air hazing her bloodshot eyes like acrid cigarette smoke.

“For God’s sake woman. We’ve been out all night. There’s no time for nicitie.”

“Who are we?” interrupted Sinead, firmness entering her voice with the freezing air. Over his shoulder, through the looming light of early morning, her eyes squinted, half expecting to glance Junior but catching instead dodging figures of men all around her front gate, hovering about the jagged shadows of heavy trucks, unidentifable machines. Throttling further complaints engines growled across the stillness. Feeling her face heat in the icy air Sinead turned inside to dress. The door hung ajar behind; she knew she had little choice.

Coffee pots slammed angrily, then hissed in spite. Refilled, they glowed hot in anger before a steam of endlessly empty mugs. One tJunior removed, Cousin B returned for more. “Jesus!” swore Sinead. “You out there too! And what are you doing? Have you not enough to be doing taking care of your home and not eating me out of mine.”

“What do you think we’re doing!” was the snapped reply. The time for nicities had indeed passed. All Sinead could find in his eyes was the nervous thrill of excitement. Then they tinged with tears as hot coffee bit his hand ...

“Watch it!”

“You watch yourself!” warned Sinead in a low growl of defiance. She pushed the tJunior at him but his fingers had ground around her wrist before she had a chance to move.

“Listen!” Like a wolf justifying his territory the voice snarled. “We haven’t asked you for much neither you or your huaband. But you’ll benefit like any of us. So don’t be all high and mighty now.”

“Benefit!” Sinead snorted wrist smarting angrrily, twisting her lips into a bite. “Been killing all over the place. You know what they’ve been doing in other villages. See all the people down the town with no homes to go to and even if they had they’d be half empty. I don’t want benefits like that.”

“They’ll do the same here if we don’t get in first. Don’t you see?”

Sinead wreched her wrist free as Sonnyjo weavered into the doorway undecided. “Here!” she prodded the tJunior into cousin b’s belly.

He grabbed it quickly to avoid further splashes of the tarry black liquid. Reaching the door he was faced with Sonnyjo’s wonderment. “Let me through you ...” He pushed past. No point going any further. Idiot! Had they no idea of what was happening. Hiding away here with thir precious land burning before their noses. With bitterness he realized there would never be any thanks afterwards either, people like Sonnyjo would glide on unaware of the sacrifices others made to keep their world sane. Hands trembled under the tJunior, his mind racing with angry nervousness.

They left the final mugs scattered amid the thinning mud around the gate. The heavy vehicles had eaten the earth to a pulp and had struck briars and the occasional tree branch carelessly aside as they mauled their way alond the lane, down the road, to oversee the town below. Sonnyjo recognized the artillary snout he’d seen up the mountains, arrogantly facing forward now without the slightest discression of camaulflage.

The roaring incrased that morning as other lanes submerged, converged under the weight of trundling armor and plodding feet until the roads overlooking the town became a mangled mess of smoking great shells the sniping of anxious young guns. Steamy dust spiraled from the far bank belittling the simple puff of yesterdays explosion in a haze which grew to hang over the town, a blind blocking out the day, hiding shame. Occasionally the north bank also crumbled as the braver or angrier sniped back or when the two tanks found their range.

In stony anxiety Sonnyjo and his family attempted everyday routines. The sheep would need to be found Sonnyjo acknowledged as he finally stumbled over mangled wool trampled into the newly carved track of a heavy vehicle. They’d smashed through his top ditch, eaten up half a field in their rush. It took all morning to round up the straggled sheep and fence them back in. This wreckage of his own beloved land stung Sonnyjo into fearfull recognition that the neat world he’d maintained for so long was splitting into a jigsaw puzzle of lonely pieces. He stumbled home to be with Sinead and Dovric before he sat in the spoiled soil and sank into its gutted entrails to weep.

Towards evening the rattling whistles grew more sporadic as another movement grew to expand the scene.

Trailing unevenly from the far side of the river a jagged ribbon shakily treaded its way out of town, expanding slowly as it stretched from the drips of a loose washer to the steadily pounding stream of an unstoppable flood, down along the highway towards the presumed safety of the nearest southern city.

In the silence which had become the replacement of daily banter, the well practiced words of repetitive ccomfort, Sonnyjo and Sinead stood watching, side by side, Dovric a little behind, faintly out of sight in case it was something else she wasn’t supposed to see or hear: she was tired of being sent to the kitchen or off to feed the hens with each new outburst of local madness.

Through the dying crackle of faltering shots bodies could be occasionally identified in the crowd. Old Mr. Smith the shopkeeper and his wife and kids trailing under the weight of three wheelbarrows and a tattered suitcase, what remained, what could be dared taken of a well stocked shop on the run. In the muddle of bustled refugees, the occasional car chucked through weighed down by the baggage, the unweilding bustle of marching families all around. As the humilating parade lengthened into the distance it thinned, grew weaker. Out of gasoline a couple of cars had been abandoned, pushed over to the side out of the way, roofs still bending under the weight of hastily grabbed, hastily abandoned belongings. Dovric watched one rickety cart trundle aimlessly, pushed by family hands, the grandmother clinging to the back, squashed up beside an old cupboard, clutching her china teapot. A jolt and it fell from the frail old hands to collapse in a puff of dust. Someone handed her up a small child instead. Then another, and another until even the cupboard was disgarded. It was the shattered pottery Sinead glued her eyes to. The puzzle gave her something to focus on and thus avoid the risk of catching faces. She didn’t need to. She could imagine the looks distance wouldn’t hide, see her own face picking through her own house and pile it onto a cart in the space of half an hour. The faint tinkle of discarded china reflected sadly across the growing twilight.

The coming night launched an eerie glow as shadows stumbled in the halflight, picked up by the occasional headlamp before drowing in the widening dusk. An occasional blaze from the south side kindled the air alive in selfconscious spurts of vengeance filled shame. The whistling of shells had dissipated with the day but the last dregs of a heavier storm continued to fly; cackling automatic fire zigged off old stone, the softness of crushed bone. The roared threats of the victors echoed pathetically through the empty spaces left by the defeated. The shouting grew braver as the bars opened and the other side began to blaze comfortingly: no one there to fire back now.

Hanging speechless before the flickering scene Sonnyjo struggled to understand how people could leave their homes so quickly, scarcely ten hours erasing centuries of perseverance; Sinead wondered who they’d left behind, what horror had forced the tree from its roots. The stories the refugees told, the tales their broken limbs spread silently, rang through Sineads ears even as she watched them spurt alive before her eyes, only meters away across the narrow span of a centuries old bridge.

But there were no audible screams from where they stood, no cries of grief or bloodstained pain, despairing anguish or bitter anger. Perched eagle like in the nest of their farm yard not even the clucking of a loose hen was to be heard. The wind itself was stilled before the scene below. The fields lay bare, the lanes naked. Had everyone raced into town, and out again the other side leaving Sonnyjo and his family alone as he’d always desired, remaining aloof from it all as his critics claimed, a vulture prepared to feed from the wellpecked hands of the brave?

The shuffling line showed scant heroism; the raucous shouts and wildly aired gunfire reflected little more. All remaining courage had been gathered up and shut safely inside their homes, or packed hastily on an old ox and cart.

Another night of waiting, borken windows, the sniff of petrol under your door, whiplash of a bullet biting glass, the scratch of a defamatory pen, the trembling pitch of men turned to boys as untrained power ate pride, kindled it with the confidence of great force, strangled compasion under the blustering ignorance of shame. Unleashed, initial atrocity claimed another as its goal, gluttony the only response for whose who had lost all hope of becoming slim again. From Sonnyjo’s farm it seemed the whole world had turned alcoholic, drunk on the insatiable need not to stop or they’d have to fall down and be laughed at; intoxication forced on everyone because there must be no sobriety, no witnesses as collective guilt exhonerated all blame.

Sinead’s fingers dug Sonnyjo’s as they never had before. His arm tugged her shoulder like a child waiting to be fed. Dovric crept up from behind and pushed her head between them, leaving it caught under their armpits in the protective shadow of familiarencirclement.

The longer they stared the more remote the scene below became, dissolving slightly out of focus to flicker with the graniness of an old film on weary retinas. Forgotten was the fact that down below were no strangers but their own people, that the dying and fleeing were faces they’d known and greeted silently all their lives, that the hands waving in triumph had drunk their coffee that very morning. All such familiarity faded into the comic distance of another world, cruelly twisted out of recognition. Yet, they couldn’t leave. They were glued to their seats; it was easier watch than imagine the ending from within the silent bricks of their home, security eaten fragile by loneliness.

A brief cheer finally shattered the stillness as a deeper rumble floated towards them from the other bank. The faint grumble of tracks eating tarmac groaned ghostlike, a feeble, distant echo of similar vehicles crunching the soft mud of their own doorstep. Night was still a long way off.

The two token tanks and their support were leaving. Isolated they had never been able to offer much resistance. Abandoning the town to its own salvation they began grinding after the last of the days straggling deserters, until catching up they edged them of the road to make way. Unflinchingly the column wavered aside when they passed, then it regrouped, meandering on for the long night ahead as their supposed protectors ground on to a more easily defendable position. It’s not that everything is hell in war, its that everything becomes dispensible.

Apart from the wheezing fires and occasional shout, darkness had blotted out any remaining vision. All further conjecture was forced into the belly of the night.

“I’ll make coffee.” was the limit of Sinead’s response.

Father and daughter followed her wordlessly inside. Dovric to fumble in the kitchen with cups, Sonnyjo to sit at the table, anxiety growing as he noticed how pale his wife had become. “It’ll be all right.” he croaked, then realized he’d said nothing. The coffee grew cold despite its endless swirling between nervous fingers. “It’ll be all right.” he finally proferred aloud.

Sinead turned her eyes away in despair. It’ll be all right he says, she repeated under her breath. It’ll be all right. Is that all he can think of? They were right all those years ago. An idiot. It won’t be all right at all! Her cup thumped with silent frustration. She rebuked herself.

Biting through the tenseness Dovric released a sob, then blowing her nose she fidgeted with discomfort. She knew she was reacting like a child but wasn’t sure if she cared any longer; the necessity of adult comfort ruled more potently than teenage pride.

“Ssssh” mouthed Sinead returning the cradle’s plea. “Come here,” and the sobbing flowed over her arm, tangling in her hair. “We’ll just have to wait for morning and see,” she continued practically, easing her daughter aside to begin shifting the crockery to their rightful place in the kitchen.

Sonnyjo shook his head ponderously, his own mind gaining a certain logic as wandering sheep, the coming harvest, the disruption of familiar work and market routines rang alarmingly in the aftermath of what they’d just witnessed. Wait for the morning and see he told himself.

“Are we safe now?” Dovric blinked under the combined glare of her parent’s startled squinting. She suddenly felt more sobs rising from the bile in her throat.

“What?” whispered Sinead, afraid of her inability to raise her voice to a more convicing tone.

Dovric wriggled uncomfortably against the table leg. “I mean .” their silence forced her to continue. “They said once they’d come we’d be better off.” A lack of contradiction enouraged her on: “They can’d do what they’ve done elsewhere to us here now.”

“We don’t know what anyone’s done elsewhere!” snapped her mother.

“They eat people. They eat people!” was the weeping response repeated again and again through a fresh flood of tears.

“Sssssh.They don’t. They don’t” gushed Sinead, coming quickly to hold her daughter once more in a rush of tendereness. “They don’t,” she reassured. “And of course we’re safe. Nothing will happen to us up here. Sssssh.”

Head nodding in his own feeble agreement and solace Sonnyjo listened and soaked the soothing mutterings as balm to his own heart.

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