She woke from a dream of whale song to a choking blackness full of sound. She struggled to breathe and to swallow. The saliva gathered in her mouth. Boiling darkness pressed against her eyeballs. Something seemed to be weighing her down. As consciousness returned, she reassembled herself – head, limbs, name...? Emer wiggled toes and fingers for reassurance. One hand was outside the covers, numb and stiff with cold. She lifted it before her face and realised that she couldn’t see it. You couldn’t see your hand before your face. She tried to turn the experience into a story, the more clichéd the better. Take the harm out of it. The word ’blind’ formed in her mind. The blind girl crawled along the forest floor to the safety of the woodcutter’s cottage. Shite. Fairy tales were full of forests and anomalous women – witches, virgins, step-mothers. Widows. Woodcutters were not to be trusted. The gleam of the woodcutter’s axe sliced through the story. The wind teased the slates, slapped branches against the walls. Light. She needed light. To switch on the bedside lamp, she would have to brave the icy expanse of the vacant half of the double bed. Her fingers inched across the taut, virginal sheet and suddenly encountered the warmth and texture of flesh. A sobbing scream was strangled in her throat when she recognised the rubber of the cooling hot water bottle. Emer trudged on for another mile across the snowy waste and encountered the acorn switch. The golden pool banished the dark demons to the corners of the room. They waited, humming, biding their time. Old-fashioned flowers bloomed at the window. Her watch said 2 am. She shook it in disbelief and reached for her phone to confirm it. Sleep had fled and was consorting with the demons in the corners. A book would help. She picked up the murder mystery she had been reading before sleep and remembered why she had put it down. The floor on both sides of the bed was paved with books.
The woman – Emer, I’m Emer – stood shivering beside the bed, wrapped his skin twice around her, knotting the belt of the raincoat. His identity. Where was her own? She slipped her feet into shoes, slopped down to the kitchen, and flicked the switch to highlight the clutter and grease. She made tea and cradled a mug. It was still only a quarter past two, six more hours before the winter dawn. The wind was a presence, rampaging and howling its pain. Ears strained to hear any other sound—was it something metallic, something dull and heavy, a shriek of even higher pitch? She imagined armies on the march, hungry predators waiting to shred her flesh with rapacious teeth. A song he used to sing. Éamonn an Chnoic. Éamonn of the hill. On the run. Memory fused with the violence of half-heard music. The ferocity of the elements mirrored the relentless machine of her grief.
The voice of her sister-in-law, Maureen, his brother’s wife, muttered in her head.
‘Sure why would you want to stay on in that big, gloomy oul’ house on your own? You could get a snug little place in the town. There’s grand new bungalows above at the bridge. Liz Dunphy bought one for her mother. Anyway, remember we’re only across the field if you need us.’
‘As if I could forget,’ Emer said aloud to the silent kitchen. ‘Wouldn’t it make a fine farm if you could get your hands on this place? And I could be in a snug bungalow with Liz Dunphy’s mother for a neighbour! At thirty-seven. ‘
A widow moves up a generation.
A beast was roaring. The urgency of its cries recalled her to the present, to the need to intervene. She slipped her feet, without socks, into the gritty coldness of Wellingtons, pulled a raincoat over the dressing gown and went out. She picked up a torch and a stick in the back porch, a good ash plant with a rounded top like the head of a femur, smoothed from years of use. The wind took the back door, slammed it against the wall, brushing her aside in contempt. She struggled with it, already drenched by a squall of rain. Her hair streamed over her forehead, blinding her, but she
succeeded in closing the door and the minor victory gave her confidence. The small yellow cone of torchlight seemed pathetic in the vast darkness. A bucket clattered across the yard. She wished she had a dog. His dog had been a man’s dog and now narrowed his eyes in contempt before disappearing across the fields.
She followed the bovine sound towards the road field—one of the heifers, then. The avenue was rutted and pot-holed. He would have been ashamed. The thorn bushes on the bank bent and screamed. Semi-human shapes came and went. The eyes of a fox flared briefly from the darkness, stopping her breath. He loped away, merging with the shadow shapes. The torchlight seemed weaker, so she turned it off and stumbled her way through the flooded pot-holes. The wind-driven clouds were shredded enough to allow a weak wash of moonlight to penetrate. The white face of one of the cattle was briefly visible. Other heifers joined the roaring.
The gate of the road field was always kept padlocked. Emer swore loudly when she remembered that she hadn’t brought the key. It was difficult to climb the gate in Wellingtons and she skidded in the muddy gap on the field side. More swearing as she righted herself. Turned the torch back on and headed over to the heifers clustered by the far hedge. She was glad of the stick as she shouldered her way through the group. They slipped and snorted as she moved them out of her path. The small black heifer was still bawling. She was halfway down the muddy side of the ditch and was enmeshed in briars. Emer slipped and scrambled as she beat at the vicious tendrils, at the thorns hooking into the heifer’s flesh. The animal was sweating in panic. The whites of her eyes and the foam on her black lips were visible in the dim torchlight. Emer’s hands were torn and bleeding but after a few minutes of concerted effort, she broke the biggest branch. The heifer struggled and with a groan, managed to tear herself free and scramble clumsily up the bank. Emer followed her, muttering soothing words, ‘there now, girl. You’re ok. You’re safe now.’ It recalled to her the useless words that had barely penetrated her numbness after the funeral.
The heifer allowed her to come close and she saw bright blood on the small udder. Her hands rummaged in the raincoat pocket and found a small tube of ointment. He had never gone out without it--‘a quare name, but great stuff.’ She cautiously approached the heifer, murmuring all the time. ‘Now don’t kick me. There’s a good girl. You’re all right now. There’s a good girl.’ She managed to smear on a bit of ointment before the heifer trotted away to re-join her sisters.
The torch died now, but thin moonlight showed Emer the way back to the gate. She climbed over and walked slowly, knees trembling, up the avenue. A rectangle of light shone across the yard from the
kitchen window. She felt a clutch of fear. Had she left the light on? A heavy, wet mass lurched against her legs. The panting breath of a dog echoed her gasp of alarm. Sounds came from the kitchen. She sensed a male presence in the house. A hoarse voice cut the silence.
‘Who’s that? Who’s out there?’
His voice. So, he was alive. She must be the ghost then. Even so, he’d be pleased with her rescue of the heifer. She opened the kitchen door. The dog followed her into the kitchen, sat down
beside the man and put its head in his lap.
‘Jesus, Emer! What the fuck?’
Shane, his younger brother, was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a mug of tea. The shock melted her knees and she sat down opposite him. Her voice stuck in her throat like cold porridge. He spoke first.
‘What were you doing, girl? Rambling round the place in a storm?’ He seemed more scared than she was.
‘I’ll make more tea,’ her voice managed to say. She took off her wet raincoat and hung it in the porch. The hem of the dressing gown was wet and muddy. Bits of vegetation clung to it. She went to put the kettle on and caught sight of her own reflection in the blackness of the uncurtained window. Not a ghost then, after all. Wet hair was plastered across her forehead. Her face was streaked with mud and blood. Her hands were dirty and full of thorns. She nearly frightened herself.
‘One of the heifers was caught in the ditch,’ Emer said.
‘Why didn’t you phone us?’
She shrugged. He drank from his mug of tea. Feet under the table. Back in his ancestral home. The dog continued its adoration of him. Emer ran her hands briefly under the tap and made a pot of tea, reached for the sliced pan and put two slices in the toaster. Simple domestic tasks. Mistress of her own kitchen.
The wind strengthened again and threw a handful of cold rain at the kitchen window. She drew the curtains to keep the dark shapes at bay. The toast popped up in the toaster and she put the slices on a plate and took them over to the table, along with a pack of butter and a jar of jam. She realised that she was humming as she worked –Éamonn an Chnoich. She sat down again.
‘Do you want a hot drop in that?’
Shane looked up and knotted his face into a questioning frown.
‘Emer ...,’ he began. She shook her head and poured more tea into his mug before filling her own. The dog got up and began to prowl around the kitchen. His old bed was still under the dresser. He went to it, sniffed it and got into it. He turned around three times and settled with a groaning sigh. He propped his muzzle on his paws and looked quizzically from one to the other of the hu-
mans in the kitchen. The smell of wet dog massed in the air.
Shane drank some tea and buttered a slice of toast for himself. He looked at Emer again and seemed about to speak. She kept her eyes on her plate and traced patterns in the toast crumbs. He stood up, took his wet raincoat from the back of his chair and shrugged into it.
‘I’ll see you soon,’ he said. ‘Don’t be a stranger.’ Emer looked up briefly and stretched back the flesh of her lips to reveal her teeth. He headed towards the door and stopped on the threshold to look back into the room. Emer rummaged in her pocket and produced a tissue. She wiped her face and dropped the tissue on the table. She looked down at her clasped hands. Shane cleared his throat.
‘I’ll come over in the morning, and help you clear up when the storm passes.’ She lifted her eyes for a second and gave a tiny nod. He went into the porch. The back door opened on a sudden blast of wind. The door slammed shut. Emer stayed sitting at the table. The dog slept.