Claire Loader was born in New Zealand and spent several years in China before moving to County Galway, where she now lives with her family. She blogs at www.allthefallingstones.com and is currently writing a memoir. Her work has most recently appeared in Crannóg, Dodging The Rain and Pendora.
On the 10th of August 1316, hundreds, if not thousands of men loyal to Felim O’Connor lay dead or dying before the walls of Athenry. Little is known of the battle itself, but it sits not alone in the turmoil of history. There was the destruction that preceded it, there was destruction in its wake and as always, there were those stuck in between.
They had gathered their fears and ran, over rock and tree and stump, and gifted them to the darkness, in the hope they would be safe. But you cannot silence children, even in the face of the devil. You cannot silence children, and so the devil came.
Light penetrated her stinging eyes, the whispers of the day sliding about her face like loose strands of hair. She opened them slowly, painfully, each lash like moving a mountain, but the light, the memory, snuck in too quickly, and instead, she closed her eyes again to the world, in the hope that she would never open them again.
“This is the work of Ruairi’s men. It seems they care not even for the scraps of war.”
“Aye,” Colm said, eying the dark blades of charred grass, the dark stains and the dark remains that lay there, “nor their own souls once it’s done.”
“You and I don’t walk about with clean hands either.”
Colm squatted, pushing aside a branch, averting his gaze from what rested underneath. “Maybe so, but they are clean of the soot of women and children.”
“Colm, look. This one’s alive.”
She wondered at times why they hadn’t just left her to the forest floor, to rot there in the leaves. At least then she might have been taken up into the trees, to float on the green of springtime.
They had fled and they had hidden, but children cry and babies whimper, and then the fires had begun. One right and one left, one behind, one in front. They had trapped them in the trees, the tinder soft and dry. Encased by the parched wood of the forest, no god could save them there. Their hands had parted, in the heat she had gotten lost. Then suddenly a gap, a space between the rocks, before the world turned to black in a haze of smoke and screams.
A spoil of war, and she was that, spoiled. Her arms barely healed, her neck still red and rough. But of war, such a term seemed redundant. She couldn’t remember when there wasn’t a fight, a vie for power of this land or that, an enemy to fear. She heard them talk, they blamed Ruairi O’Connor’s men for her scars, but it could have easily been the foreign men, all men looked the same to her, brandishing sword and fire.
“What is your name?”
“Well, girl who belongs to April, now you belong to me.”
She slept as close to the entrance as her body would allow, as far from the fire as possible. The smoke ebbed up and into the hole in the roof like a taunting spectre, memory in smoke she wished she could forget. She would scratch her arm and her neck, scratch at the scars, the tangible remains of her nightmare, before opening her eyes to the morning and remembering she had simply stepped into another.
They had been herding cattle when they found her, herding the vast wealth of those few in the West who could keep it. Loyal to Felim, he had recently returned from battle in the north, to battle now his cousin who vied for the land they had ignited. It was a fight she didn’t understand, she was merely a woman who had gotten caught in the way.
She often saw their faces in the trees, their eyes screaming out from shadow and from nook. The pale lights of dawn and dusk a haven for unwanted memory. The scurry of a hedgehog, the slinking of a fox, her nightmares alive in the sounds of the forest.
“Have you seen much death?” She asked him, as the thrush and the wren sang their evening call.
“More than I would care for,” Colm said, studying her face, hair soft around her neck.
She turned to him, searching. “How do you un-see it? How do you calm the spirits of the dead?”
“I fear we must simply learn to live with them, for it won’t be long until we take their place.”
Is it a sin to sleep with another man, when you know not if your own man still breathes? Is it a sin to lie with another man, when your own breath is dependant on the act? And is it a sin when hard hands are on your body, when sweat forms between skin, to enjoy it?
She woke screaming again, unearthly cries spilling out to fill their sleepy surrounds, before large hands found her mouth, muffling her nightmares, until the smell of smoke slowly faded back into the realms of sleep.
Her people had never forgotten the old gods, the gods that lurked in wood and in earth, that played in the water and in the air. The One God had come and built his churches and towers, had taught them of heaven and of hell. But those were realms only reached in death. The old gods danced in the daylight of life, and she found herself still praying to them, still pleading with them. She found herself stringing bones around her neck in the hope that life would not take hold, that the fear of living would stop with her.
Aibreann sat in the fading dusk and looked out across the valley, as the dimming light softly touched the tops of the trees, slinking over their smooth tips before falling to join the darkness of the land. She watched as the evening birds spiralled and cooed, watched as shadows mixed and danced, until grey touched every corner and she could no longer make out the trees.
“You shouldn’t be out here alone.”
“I don’t fear the darkness.”
“It’s not the darkness I’m afraid of,” he said, his rough hand grasping her shoulder, his fingers touching what she sought to keep hidden.
“Why do you wear this?”
He pulled the bones from around her neck, his rage swift and strong. And she cowered before him as he made to strike her face. His clenched fist stopping mere inches from her skin, his eyes sharp, like blades, ready to disembowel.
“This world is not a place for innocents.”
“And it is not your place to choose.”
She looked at him then, defeated, her features lost to the grey. “Save your anger. It didn’t work.”
The messengers came in the night, stealing in to excite the very forest floor, the leaves rustling in anticipation. William Liath de Burgh was gathering an army, soon there would be war.
“But I thought Felim was allied to the foreign men?” Aibreann said, touching her belly as they lay then in the darkness, the news sinking in around them like a heavy mist.
“Such pacts are held with but a smile, this is our chance to take back what was stolen.”
Aibreann’s voice trailed up into the wattles above as she stroked her stretching fear. “I wonder sometimes, what it would be like, to gather men, like you would gather sticks. Knowing they will be crushed, knowing they will be burned. Men fight for fickle lords, while we women busy ourselves at the task of making more for them to slaughter. So much fear and pain for a swarth of grass, for a hill, when I cannot tell the difference from one rise to another. I wonder how it is they find sleep.”
Colm’s voice came low and strong. “You don’t know what you speak of, the thirst that takes a man. That courses through his veins, that drives him to fight for what is rightfully his.”
“Maybe,” she said, her breath a soft kiss amidst the darkness, “and it seems I will never know. For I simply fail to see how one could desire so, to lord then, over ash.”
Aibreann watched as the men readied their weapons and their skeins, watched as the women readied their breath, soon to hold it close until their men returned. And she felt again the sickening weight of fear drive deep within her belly, to sit below her unborn child, as Colm’s hand slipped from hers and the men, they travelled south.
It was not a feeling alone to her, to feel the weight of life so heavy in her stomach, to feel so powerful to bring it and yet so helpless against it. It was not a week and her waters broke. The warm tide slipping between her skin like the tide of history, of men, and she let herself go with it, let the pain take her in its rhythmic dance. She laboured and she pushed, the searing heat like knife wounds, like swords clashing until the air rippled with her screams, to then meet with the cries of a baby. And as tears and sweat mingled over her flushed face, the baby suckling noisily at her breast, quiet descended on the blood-soaked earth at Athenry, and the crows, they began to land.
© 2018 Claire Loader