The big boys opened fire first. The hoarse rattle of automatic shooting sped from a bewildering haze of early morning angles. Surprised looters fell arms dropping precious goods as they sprawled to stave off the ground.
Sneaking a peak through the window encased higher up the wall Scottyboy heard some one groan, out of sight. He wouldn’t shut up. In the monotonous frequeny of a church bell before service the choaking throat issued a fresh croak every twenty seconds.
The big boys initial foJunior lost its regularity and precision as victims drew up and sought caregully marked shelter. Down the street the first two stories of a building collapsed as Scottyboy gaped. Then the sound shock rang. Then smoke curling form the remains. A screech from the roof as it collapsed beneath a sniper. Artillary from beyond the street was awakening to revenge, to wither the final throes of sniping resistance.
“Fuck sake!” Little Jim Bob joined him, eyes just above the sill, as the fumes billowed the scene to obscurity. Another boom in the distance blotting out the thinny crack of a bullet from a partly demolished window.
“Get down.” Jimmy snarled. “Time enough for them to find us. Wait a bit.” Let the boys higher up do their work forst. Then when they feel safe and slip out from behind corners. That’s what we’re here for. Catch the stragglers unawares. A little goodbye present.”
Even in the light of morning his chuckled unerved but the brotheers were impressed by the plan. Trying not to elaborate it’s implications they obediently slipped down the wall beside Jimmy.
Ten to fifteen more minutes he promised through the crash of another heavy mortar, the supporting fire of a machine gun. Scottyboy fingered his shotgun nervously.
Little Jim Bob felt his pockets for the box of catridges. In less than five minutes the men down the street had emptied ten such boxes. Little Jim Bob noted his own wasn’t even full. He wished it would stay dark and no one could see his tearrs; then uncaringly, he slipped his hand onto Scottyboy’s knees as he used to as a child, a token of forgiveness after they’d had an argument. He wished they hadn’t met Seanie. Scottyboy returned the gesture. Unabashed they sat, back to the outside mayhem, like lovers, entwined fingers sensing only eath other’s familiar breath.
Jimmy ignored them lost in his own pJuniorers. Outside there was a brief lull.”Our turn.” he decided suddenly. He sneaked to his knees edging eye over the ledge. The windows stretched almost to the roof, latticed with over twenty small panes each strung between a worm infested wooden frame. The majority of the glass had long been blown away in neglect. It wasn’t hard to find an empty square. Back flexing, gun barrel slipped over the ledge through a vacuent eye. The room thundered with recoil, the stink of spent powder. Jimmy’s eyes flashed, then blinded as they retreated to the darkness of the floor. “Got him!” he swore. “Almost certain.”
The boys knew it was their turn. Jimmy was already replacing the empty shell.
Scottyboy moved first, Little Jim Bob close to his side.
“Not the same fucking window!” warned Jimmy. “Spread out. No point making it easy for them.”
Little Jim Bob moved further aloong the wall to find his own slot.
Fingers slippery on the triggers they eased themselves into sight, barrells first. Jimmy had released another shot before either of his support team had braved themselves for a rrecckie. Despite their size and speed rabbits were suddenly easy prey compared to the hulking shadows of human flesh dodging from corner to corner, sulking in doorways, beginning to panic as they realized the boiler house held its own bitterness.
“Load!” Jimmy was shouting. “Get that doorway before they get any closer.” Scottyboy sought Little Jim Bob’s eye. His stomach churned with nerves, but also guilt for having lead his brother this far.
Stern faced Little Jim Bob stared back: he never was one for emotions, always hidden under a shield, refusing to be the baby all his life.
Together they rose, easing themselves up the shelter of the wall. They lost each others gaze as focus sought another target.
Confusion reigned outside. It was difficult to spot anything for long enough to squeeze. A wild dog scattering, hushed bodies darting, hidden before an eye could train. The frustration of finding a target, however, served to obliterate the realisation of what they were aiming for. Shadows became rabbits as the need to prove something pounded the brain to a senseless pulp.
Scottyboy finally released a shot.
Little Jim Bob watched it miss, transfixed as the target lept behind a burnt out car. Angrily, he aimed at the same dark overcoat, through the ugly snarl of what had been the windscreen. The car appeared to move closer along the lines with the concentration of a firing range dummy. It was almost directly in front. The torn coat could be clearly glimpsed. Not as safe as it thought. He couldn’t miss. His shoulder tumbled, barrell twisted. A trembling current of power left tickling his finger.
Recharged for a second attempt Scottyboy saw it wasn’t necessary. But now there were scuttling targets plying the street between every doorway. In panic he fired again. The remains of the butcher shop window crackled. Did the shadow behind fall? He didn’t wait to see.
“Take it easy!” roared Jimmy; there was no need for further whisperings. “Don’t waste the fucking ammunition.”
Overhead something whistled until ears cringed. Little Jim Bob released another shot through the empty meat hooks. Reload. Figures moving closer down the street. Too many to hid all at once. A video game at the highest level. The back wall shuddered as the overflying shell tore out the yard behind. Dust choked their aim. Scottyboy’s shotgun was smoking. “They’ve targeted us!” Jimmy was shouting. Another cackle of fire. Chips of decaying mortar spJunioring through the windows. They ducked. Then remerged with the fury of fear. Fire. Hold back the emergingg shadows. An arm twisted from behind the tattered red door barely meters away. Scottyboy spotted the movement and attempted to sight. Through streaming eyes Little Jim Bob too unconsciously caught the spinning elbow, the flying object. The thud landed behind them. They turned around in disbelief: how could anyone have managed to get something through the fine netting of their protective windows. Luck or what. “Jesus!” shrieked Jimmy. Were their eyes deceiving them? How could he have managed that. The street collapsed inwards on top of them. They’d never seen a granade before, never thought it could take so long to watch one ticking away.
“Go on. What do you think? Doctor, nurse, plastic surgeon. They keep talking about the wonders they can do with mutilations on the radio.”
“No, I’m serious.” But Dovric was giggling. It was so easy to tease her father. He was taking it all so seriously. Watching the ragged eyebrows flush into arrows of doubt, she softened her laugh to a comforting smile, teeth bright, eyes soothing. “A teacher. Maybe a teacher. Too much blood. Don’t like it. A teacher would be good.” Her hand glimpsed his wrist. “What do you think?”
He sensed the child in her seeking his approval. “mmm” was all he managed.
“But, really, what do you think?”
“Good. Fine. Good job. Secure wages if you get your place.”
“Even now?” She watched him sweat. She wasn’t being perverse, simply tickling the strings of his unmusical mind. She never knew how much he understood. How much he allowed himself to absorb. His skins seemed so thick on occasions, a shield of illusive innocence. She snapped her fingers before his eyes. Flicked his fringe, then patted his cheek. “Even now? What do you think?” She didn’t think it fair he could always be so evasive. Nobody could pretend to be uncommitted any longer.
Sonnyjo cleared away sweat with a brusque rasp of weathered fingers. His two women had always brought him frustratingly close to emotions he could rarely grasp and seldom express. He fumbled for her hand and held it briefly. “Good sound job,” he repeated, voice fading as his hand slipped back to the comfort of his knee, fingers finding shelter in the entwinement of mutual discomfort. His thumbs curled around each other, clinging together. Dovric sighed silently. That was her father. She did love him. He could be so frustrating.
“Is it really? Will it really be?”
His whiskers whistled unrest. He hadn’t been shaving regularly she noticed.
She didn’t really need a reply. Just making conversation. She had grown enough to know she would have to sort the future out herself. He’d be there when she came home at the weekends.
Jesus Christ, they were all the same. Could he not see she was busy? “I’ll make it in a minute.” He couldn’t hear her sigh. He’d been missing them all his life. Like so many other signs he had chosen to ignore. So many ideas he had brushed aside as irrelevant. So many decisions he had taken carelessly: easier than thinking them through.
Another head appeared around the door. He could hear the chatter and potter of pans, multiple hands at work, organizing, diluting, frying and boiling. Sonnyjo shrank further into the hard wood of his chair. The kitchen, like their emotions, had become an open house. There were no longer the familiar barriers which had propped him up, given him a scaffold to work within. The fences had gone. The sheep were wandering free. Not even marked anymore, many of them.
“And the sheep, how are they?” Dovric thought it time to try and return him to normal.
“Fine. One or two missing again. Search them out tomorrow.”
“Mmm.” He sighed. His hands planed the table top. It would be hard to make it any smoother. “Need potatoes as well, don’t we?”
“Very few left”
“I’ll get them from YoungJed’s tomorrow. He’ll still have some. Doesn’t seem to be anybody taking care of them any more. I’ll do what I can with his land until he comes back.” His daughter tried to catch an eye. “Don’t know what they’re up to letting it all go to waste.” She decided to let it go. Let him keep his harmlessness. Even at her age she realized it was best for them all. “Might be some up at the cousin’s as well.” She nodded absently, arm sweeping inexistent crumbs from the tabletop as it refused to bend beneath her strokes. She wondered how the Outsider was doing, his arms far more pliant than the wood she now stroked.
Sonnyjo stood there, heaving slowly from toe to toe vaguely beginning to realize his daughter was becoming as effective at manipulating his as her mother; or simply covering his tracks.
“Any chance of a coffee?” Dovric wasn’t even sure who the newcomer was. Huddled in the doorframe she recognized his as somebody up from the town. Three sons gone missing over the river they had told her a couple of weeks ago. A daughter. No one was sure.
“Of course.” Sinead was sharp, soft in her firmness. “Sit down and we’ll see what we can get you.” Bustling, face reddening under the stove, she added to Sonnyjo: “And we need potatoes you know. Too many of us her now to live off what we can find down the yard.”
“I know I know. Get down to YoungJeds tomorrow. Get them before they rot away. Don’t know what that man is up to.”
“And a bit of meat would do none of us any harm. Those sheep will be the end of us if we don’t start using them soon.” Sonnyjo bristled under the scorn of her tongue. It was true. They hadn’t much left to eat themselves. He might have to kill them. He just couldn’t face it right now. He wandered out the door into the night, a bout of fresh air, acrid powder, gJunioring puffs clouding over darkening sheep shadows flowing down the back paddock. These intrusions in his own home were becoming increasingly painful. Once his grandfather had gone, the loving silence of how family had gradually been eaten away by a constant influx of greedy hearts, empty stomachs, vicious circles. He snapped a nettle with his stick. Wished he still had a dog to whistle. He’d go and shoot one of those fucking sheep.
“Should have taken it with him.” Sinead was eying the shotgun the newcomers were propping against the table.
“Why did you have to bring that in here,” hissed Dovric as the older woman returned to her kitchen.
“What?” Exhaustion had dulled their senses and their sense of irony.
“The fucking gun. Aren’t there enough of them around?” Dovric could feel herself boil, not sure of the temperature or consequences of hitting the final point.
“You can’t go far without one nowadays.”
“You could at least have brought some meat with it.”
Blood shot eyes grew in surprise at the elderly bitterness of such a young body. Dirty hands wiped mouths, lips sipped cooling coffee. Anything to avoid words.
Comander Toffy was well pleased. Local enthuasism had achieved its aim. Let them go home and calm down until they’d be rounded up officially over the next few days to serve elsewhere. This village was only a patch in the growing quiltwork of their flowering state. For the moment it was time to rest and regroup. Canon Hopsman’s obscene funeral march had been a lucky stroke in paving the way for the order Commander Toffy had started attempting to enforce, the ceasefire Junior had been demanding since midmorning. Junior knew they’d done enough after watching Marlene. If Canon Hopsman had generated a communal attack of stiffling remorse Junior had already collected a personal picture of fuming agony.
Boiler house. School. Out the back. Marlene lost herself further in the turmoil. Something roared behind her back a swoosh over her shoulder. She didn’t hear it. Her body forced her to duck. She forced her body on, legs hobbling over stones, nose snorting the grime. The boiler house. Deep breath. Slow swivel on her heels. They drove her to the left, around the back of the bakers, long closed. Across the front of the old butchers. She had them now.
Outpacing her brain her feet were heaving her forward, one slipper long lost in the fray. Oblivious to the rising gun fire all around she tattered through the ruins. An elbow chipped skidding the last corner. Blood trickled over a lip. She didn’t notice. It was sucked up in the bile: there was nothing sweet left at this stage. No surprise. Knee skipped a finger. Stumbling she saw the door open, hung from a dislocated hinge, wavering in the breeze, the fumes of another spent shell. Their names rolled off her tongue, extolling the air in a chant of a mother’s voice to the baby in her arms. Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob, Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob, Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob.
There was no need to push the door wider open. It collapsed as she stared. Fire bit her lungs as she stepped over the frame. Eyes blinded in the smoke. Crying with the hate. On her knees, she crawled forward through the rubble another rocket blared overhead. The back wall cracked into submission, crumbled even as she recognized the blood spattered across its broken stones. Her lips kept moving. A tattered cap sucked her eyes. A stretch of familiar cloth hanging from a shattered window frame. Blood all around, still hissing, burning like envy, seeping into rock and wood to stain for years to come.
Creeping, sobbing, collapsing she remained in the wreckage mindlessly collecting pieces of her sons, pasting them together as if she were god, pJunioring that a mother could sell her soul for one last miracle. Time had exploded, shattered in a big bang. The remains of her sons glistened on her paling skin, clinging one last time to their mother’s skirts. She broke daylight. YoungJed and Marlene were running in search of each others arms, unseeing, conscious only of the other, their mutual need. One more effort. A faint effort. One more mad woman would make no difference. Let her past. People shrugged aside. Hair fleecing the fumbled back over the bridge. They couldn’t be bothered. Let her past. Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob, Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob . Through the massed disinterest her eyes swiveled slowly to bear down on a guilty stare. Watching her stumble, catching faded eyes in a flash of recognition, his arm raced out to catch. Steps gather in strength she reeled towards him. A sudden burst of energy propelled her into his arms. Through the racked, the torn jacket, her teeth bit through his arm. A squeal. He couldn’t hold her as she dragged him to the rail. She flew over leaving him behind as her fingers lost their grip. The rusty spike took her heart as her lips muttered the names once more John James Junior. As if cursed she caught his eyes with a last breath. Then her body sank lower onto the stake to fade just low enough for the river to lap her tears. Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob.
Tragic. Barbaric. Suicide. Never. Despair. Tragic. Barbaric. Junior couldn’t her the comments. Age old words of horror hissed around meaninglessly as she faded form his arms. She had deserved one final wish. She should have taken him with her.
And the day wore on into a further night. Thus the storm disappeared showering some with fleeting gain, others with a personal nightmare and the majority with a collective ghost. Canon Hopsman would continue to float down the street, a dream of a nightmare while Junior would forever avoid Marlene’s sightless eyes as she tried to pull him overboard. Images roasting slowly on the spit of unforgiveableness, symbols of a confabulation that burnt holds in the toughest off soles. Inescapably, the images would weave together until they intermingled into the leaves of a tattered book, intermingling until it was no longer possible to separate one page from the next.
The bloody work done he shook with the recoil. A generation apart, they stood face to face. “Thank you” his daughter muttered. She moved closer to stroke his chin under the rising moon. He hadn’t shaved in days. A strange quietness was blossoming. The scant moon made it harder to snipe. Mortars missed their targets. If they dared it was the innocent who died as darkness played foul aim.
Sonnyjo could hear more people arriving to be fed, bandaged as he lay into his daughter’s touch. “Would you really use it?” He knew what she meant. Knew he couldn’t answer. The flickering massage of his daughter’s nails on his neck, the spatter of a dead sheep, the twilight of a dawn yet to come: his brain was withering, a leaf helpless before autumn, unsure spring would ever return. “Maybe. Maybe.” He clasped her tight. Through the raucous smell of never ending coffee, every cup a little weaker, the unavoidable whiff of blood seeping too deep, Sonnyjo could see his father emerge from the kitchen, voice trembling in humor, the vibrant assault of a character forever young. His aunt followed behind, berating, voice hoarse under the strain of keeping so many men in line. The lines had wavered. Guns cocked, the lines fell back, broke apart until the laughter ceased and his daughter brushed his cheek as only she could. He’d never thought about it that much but had never imagined her as a cooking nurse before she’d reached an age to enjoy her youth. Or maybe she had. He had wondered a bit about that Outsider. A bit too young himself. “Come on now. We have things to do.” He left her and headed out the door again.
He would have used it if they had let him. Unfortunately, sheep have a will of their own. Sheep are notoriously stupid yet they’d appeared to have sensed what no one else had. Not just the usual one or two, three or four, but a whole flock had fled during the night. It was Sonnyj’s sole priority. An excuse to escape. I’ll go get them he promised the women. The yard was crowded with men limping, women heaving, the air cramped with gushes of steam from the kitchen the smog rising from the town, the rasping shots of gunfire stroking the sky into flames that appeared to be closing in as Sonnyjo headed into the woods in search of sheep who should have known better, that within the trees they would be lost forever.
A rushed knot above the pans and ointments and the women turned back to their duties fatefully faintly hoping the foreign doctors would finally send them supplies even as they knew the roads were no longer open and that short of a parachute there was no way in any more. And, if there ever had been, no way out anymore either. Two months since the last convoy had hit the mountain. No one complained. It would have divided the united front they showed when faced with pain, anger, the bloody remains of a day that was stretching into night, that had lasted too long already. No one bothered with the television any more. Bloated generals had faded back into black and white, to the hissing spots of a signal no one could any longer pick up. No one really listened as Sonnyjo mumbled his excuses. Dovric managed a quick grin as his shadow leapt through the frame and then turned back to her copilots and the safe landing of another day’s shortages. The remaining doctor wiped tired eyes on a dirty cloth and began another round of amputations: field surgery had changes so little over the centuries. Bloody mindlessness created the same wounds weapons developed, human misery stuttered through a familiar mire. A short wave radio cackled, the illusion of reaching briefly outside and belonging to something larger, which might make sense, until the rattle becomes garbage, familiar taunts, faint promises, wrapped in a bandage already seeping deathly pus.
Sporadic shelling hit the air waves, blotting out the moon. More viciously accurate, deliberate sniping made the rounds keeping lights shaded, faces blinded and occasional shadows a crawling lump. A vague hope that it would remain like this. That the occasional gunshot, the occasional corpse would save them all. That it wouldn’t grow further. That the smoke would clear with the dawn. That sporadic shelling would prevent the onslaught of permanent shortage.
Dovric made more coffee. She dipped her hand into a pocked and pulled out the glass bottle the Outsider had given her, one secret night cuddling in the barn, when the lack of lights was a comfort rather than a sole aching fear. He’d pushed it to her chest, fingers taking slight advantage of the occasion. It smelt so fine. She brushed it to her nose one more time, to cut out the dreariness. He smiled back. For a moment she too smiled. What would you like to be he had asked. She no longer knew the answer. Maybe she just wanted to be, or maybe she didn’t.
The shot clattered through he trees, rising sleeping wildlife, snapping a couple of dead twigs. “Got it.” The sheep lay, then stopped flaying. He could still do it with a single bullet. Reassured he stood before wondering how to drag the animal back to the house through the undergrowth and the blackness of night, while avoiding the occasional blares of light signaling another incoming shell. After the bark of his shot gun the silence haunted with a tinge of reprehension.?
The doctor let his hand slide over the softened table, top now slippery with blood. They’d have some clearing to do to prepare it for morning breakfast. Dovric hastened out eyes avoiding the missing leg. Sinead returned and began to organize, eyes faded into sockets that no longer saw what was to be seen. The doctor wouldn’t be wanting breakfast he decided. He would like come Verdi. It didn’t seem likely. Even the radio had given up. Once more the night wept, tides rising. Old father still floated, bloated, until the end. Those who could rowed, those who couldn’t stumbled. Those who couldn’t do either urged someone to wave a flag and plead innocence, a red cross finally flew over the house, a plea for understanding, the honesty of attempting to survive without being more barbaric than killing a sheep. A cowardly attempt at camfaulage or a crude deceit it hung there limply, without the breeze that would make it speak in tongues. The doctor flung the radio aside, pushed his way from the dining room back into the kitchen and then out the door. No more coffee. Not even a cognac at this stage. He couldn’t bear the clatter any more, the steam and hissing. The chatter of the women was blinding his ears. And the men fumbling with broken limbs when they should have been more acute with their previously shattering words. He heard the shot and thought he might go help poor Sonnyjo bring that sheep back. He might recover his appetite in the process.
The flag meant little as the shelling approached. The plane flew close enough to write on the damn thing but all it did was buzz fear, whine anger the dry throat of anxiety. Screeches of ravaged footsteps clung to the reeking air like mosquitoes snapping off burning coils. The river hissed in anger as once more it churned to choking point. From the hills Sonnyjo watched the clouds fill with tears and started his stumble back. Sheep forgotten, gun cocked beneath his armpit, he had begun to realize that he could of course do it. Sinead and Dovric filled his eyes as he brushed through wild branches and found his feet among the devious clay, gun cocked beneath his sweaty armpit.
He hadn’t been given a chance to fire and now he never would. What would you like to be? Aimlessly, knurled hands stubbed through the last page in search of an ending. A click. Creak. Clack of aching metal. Down the steps Dovric ran towards his, form him. Into his arms what was left of his hands. He could no longer hold her, brush her hair over her ear as he’d bee doing since those first brown locks reached for him from the cot. They forced her away, cloth ripping, skin screeching. Choking on the entrails of history they were no longer alive but vampires sucking the poisons blood of victory scored by tradition fueled by treason, goaded by the past into the caves of a future nobody would yet want to share. The masks still clung but so did the familiar brush of rough wool, the glinting flicker of a nervous hand returning to an ancient scar. There was no hiding. Sonnyjo grasped instinctively for his school tie but it was hung out of reach. Teasing. Glittering in the coal dust, the rising damp. Sonnyjo had seen the church spire shudder as he’d run down the mountains. A final blast of blasphemy. But Sonnyjo knew it meant hope. The river was rising and would eventually blot out the church again. The damp walls let the dribbles seep through the walls, down the metal steps, silently, gorging on emptiness.
The pages were not too soaked to be separated. Blood and water, their words only existed in the blessings of those who had faith. Sonnyjo no longer bothered. No need. It was time for a cleansing. Waiting, patiently, the present was slipping away gently, along well oiled vices. Maybe he should have shot earlier. Mad sure his aim was different. As the water gurgled to muffle a freshened click Sonnyjo sagged into omission. No more heroes. They’d only ever existed in the stories, hidden behind words, raucous laughs, sullen masks, embittered hearts. He’d come down the hill to see them both his daughter and wife lying in tatters, clothes stripped from the bone, legs stretched in pain, the domination of victorious men, failing even a last grasp, they had given in on the same table that had served his family for generations. They’d taken him aside, held him in his cage. What kind of hostage could he make with nothing left to bargain: Sonnyjo was no longer steeped in remorse but the silent recognition that they were all nothing more than some kind of people and went the river finally reclaimed its own they would all float off harmlessly into the arms of a distant cloud. As the watery shadow deepened he remembered them once more. The stairs creaked. Revenge was as empty as victory. They could take as many fingers as they liked. He wouldn’t be needing them any more. There was no body left to touch.
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