The baby didn’t even have a name, too young. They hadn’t even thought about any of that yet. The woman had shown it to him before they took it away, he had looked, out of courtesy, though he was half-convinced it wasn’t a human baby at all, something more like one of those bald little puppies the stray dogs had out back, size of a rat about. Looked like one too, with its skin all glistening like pink jelly and pulled tight and shiny over every tiny bone and socket. It eyes had never opened, too small for that, they were just an smudge of purplish liver under its eye-lids. And it hadn’t a speck of hair, not a single one on its face or its little domed head.
Norah had been like this then, not crying exactly, she never would have any of that, she just sat there and stared like something in her brain had stopped working the moment the baby was gone. She’d look out the window, even see the kids there but she didn’t even change her expression. Just switched off. He had to lead her around and put food and water into her mouth otherwise she would have just died there, sitting and staring like there was nothing else important in the world but her baby. Only thing she did for a while was rub that little jumper she had made it between her hands. At least she hadn’t gotten that out again, not yet anyway.
Helping her now, all he could really think of was how it wasn’t fair. He’d been through a lot too: no children, a wife who tells him what to do, a wife who everyone said had gone insane for a bit when she wouldn’t move. At least from the women she got sympathy, all he got was more work to do and a whole lot of men telling him he should have married the other daughter while he could. She had children now, he’d heard, though nobody knew who she’d run off to marry in the end. Having no children was hard here, most people his age had ten, twelve, a few girls to marry of to get more land and at least a few boys to choose from to inherit their farms. The Callahan’s didn’t, he supposed. Just one girl, they had, and she was the one who went off to join the Guard. No husband, nobody to take over the farm after Ronan Callahan died, and that would be soon too with his illness and all.
He thought, with more than a bit of bitterness, if he’d had a son he would off made sure he took responsibility for the farm, he could even have married Callahan’s daughter and built up some more land for himself, he could have had a good future for sure. He could have stopped working by now and had some rest in his life. Can’t believe that daughter of Callahan’s would abandon her family for a job in the Guard, letting her mama look after the farm all by herself. That wasn’t the kind of people we Gokheya folk were meant to be, family was supposed to be everything especially in times like these. These young people who band together with the empire were nothing but as bad as them, worse, maybe, because they know that we’re not the simple folk the Empire think we are. We’re families, farms, communities, and we’ll stick together and fight no matter how strong they might get. Sure, we’re lying low for a bit, but our day will come and the empire won’t forget it in a hurry when it does.
He drew her up and away from her chair, grunting a bit as he did, and put his hands under her armpits so she walked in front of him like a child. It was difficult, for she was a big woman and he was a rather large man, but he had built up enough muscle working in the fields every day so he could drag her along well enough. He walked her to the base of the stairs, the dog noticing as they passed through the corridor and running, barking, around their as they did. He kicked his foot up at the thing, which it avoided with irritating ease and proceeded to howl at him with its stumpy little tail wagging as if he was playing.
“Get away, you horrid thing!” He yelled as it dodged between his feet and almost tripped him over with an almost purposeful glint in its eyes. As he stumbled over it’s form, one that was somehow perfectly situated beside his feet to trip him up, his wife twisted from his grip, resulting in him falling with his face on the first step of the staircase and his wife sidestepping him and remaining upright at his side.
“Norah!” He spluttered in surprise as the breath was knocked out of him and the dog squirmed up to lick his face.
“What are you doing, you look a right fool.” She crossed her arms and glared down at him. This was familiar territory, the normal Norah and, though maybe it was just the angle as he stared up at her square raised chin and the sharp cut of her nostrils, she looked even more like herself than ever. “Don’t just lay there, get up, you idiot.”
He scrambled to his feet, pleased to have orders to follow once again. “We have to go to the wake, Norah.”
“Remember, Mahoney said it had to be on Sunday so the Guards would think we were just headed to Church.”
“I know why it’s on Sunday, I’m asking why we have to go.”
“Well, everyone’s going.” He blinked blankly. Simple he was, she could have married a clever man like Deidre did, then maybe she’d have some money now and left this town. Then she might never have been involved with this monster, she wouldn’t have to know that anyone died, she could live in her castle in the sky like her sister and never have to worry about looking after her own husband and being childless at her age. Many had suggested she adopt but there was something shameful about it, especially now where it would be so obvious that it wasn’t hers. She only knew one family who had done it, or who everyone suspected had, and look how things turned out for them. Every one of them dead, their fields lying to waste as nobody wanted to take them, house only a few bits of rubble no one will touch because they think they’ll be cursed for it. Certainly, she felt cursed now. Nothing had gone right, maybe it was them who made her life fall apart this way, after what she’d done.
“Fine, we’ll go.” She conceded then without look at him instructed, “You can’t possibly go looking like that. Go upstairs and get changed.” He did. She didn’t even need to look at him anymore to see that he was wearing clothes unfit for the occasion. He’d never understood what social occasions called for smart attire, or even exactly what smart attire was. She knew he’d be wearing his old mud-caked boots and some form of brown flannel right now, it’s all he ever wore so it wasn’t really that difficult. She wondered what Deidre’s husband wore, probably a uniform like the Guard, something well-made that probably cost more than all her dresses put together. Sure, they weren’t particularly nice dresses but she had brought some of them along with her from home, meaning they were better than most of the people’s around here. She looked down at the dark material of the one she wore now, stiff and starched so it lay in severe folds. It might have looked okay if she had some jewellery or a nice hat but she had nothing to wear it with so it just looked plain. She convinced herself that she liked it that way, after all she didn’t have to put so much effort in like Maureen with every outfit on every day. She wore her dresses in order so all she had to do was lay it out the day before and she was done. Less washing to do too, and that was always a good thing. Still, she brushed her hands down the skirt to straighten its non-existent creases and waited for her husband to come down. Then she smiled, it was suddenly funny to her that her everyday dress was somehow perfectly appropriate as funeral wear. A bit ironic, she must admit.
Feeling in a far better mood than before she bent down to the little dog that was staring up at her with patience at her feet. It was always better behaved for her than her husband, he disliked it and therefore it loved to torment him. She, on the other hand, was indifferent to the beast. They’d got it for ratting and guarding the house but it was useless at both, too soppy, a playful thing that’d be more likely to lick a burglar’s hand than bite it. It just stared at her all the time with round eyes, about as unsettling as a cat. Usually she’d just stare back until it looked away but she felt maybe she should be nice to the thing sometimes. It wasn’t like it had done anything wrong and maybe it would do its job better if they paid more attention to it. It wouldn’t look away, she reached out a shaking hand and reached around its little neck. The beat of its heart under the thick fur of its neck was slow as its breath, slower than hers that was becoming increasingly short as she watched it. She squeezed, feeling the icy shivers brush over every uncovered inch of her skin, but still the thing did nothing. There was something wrong with it, eyes empty, unblinking, even her tightening grip was having no effect. Had it lost its brain somewhere? She’d always known the thing was stupid but this was like there was nothing in there at all, what was wrong with it? What is wrong with everyone?
Then a clutter from upstairs brought her back. It was him, fumbling around, dropping things. He would be down stairs soon. She loosened her hand and stood up, simultaneously stepping back whilst keeping her eyes on its strange, still ones. He did come downstairs then, thumping down the steps with infuriating slowness that made her clench her jaw and deliberately keep her eyes down on the little animal.
“Well, let’s get going then.” He huffed, pulling his tie tight around his neck. As soon as she looked up her eyes fixed on it.
“You’re not wearing that thing, are you?” She questioned, disparagingly, as she stared at the bright tartan tie.
He looked down, at least as far as he could over the band of fat around his neck. “Why not?”
“It’s a funeral! Of course you can’t.” Bright red wasn’t her idea of a funeral colour. The man was a baby! He just fiddled with the end of it and carried on looking down. She gave up, what was there to do? “Fine, just wear it. I don’t care.” She twisted around with a wild gesture of her hands and started for the door.
“Wait.” He called, she paused with her hand on the door latch. “Are you bringing that dog?”
“Yes.” She growled, without turning, realising that the thing had latched on to her dress, growling and pulling at the material, and was being pulled along behind her. Looks like she had to bring it now. She opened the door, listening to him hurrying to catch up behind her. At least he had actually put on a suit for once, luckily, he had always been this fat otherwise the suit might never have fit.
“You can’t do anything without me.” She muttered as she stepped out onto the street before him.
A gust of air hit her face and sent the hem of her dress swirling around her ankles. She lifted her face to the sky, dark again, the days were getting colder too, winter was on its way. She stopped just a few steps onto the dusty street as her eyes met those of other people on the street, they were walking in silent pairs or groups, misty fog clinging to them as they made their way to the Church. There were Guards there too, one directly in front of her and another further down the street, just watching. The one before her turned towards her. It was the girl, the Callahan’s girl. Of course, it was, just her luck. The girl was looking at her with her wide-set eyes, she was fixing them on her like she wanted to speak.
“Mrs O’Connor.” She muttered. “Good day you’re having?” The girl put her hand to her hat with an expressionless look.
“Course.” Norah muttered back and looked away, glancing back to see her husband hanging somewhere behind her, shuffling around like an impatient child.
“Mrs O’Connor, where you headed?”
“Church. It’s Sunday.”
“Of course, of course.” Small talk, she already knew that, the girl was obviously trying to get at something.
Norah sighed and spoke, had to hurry this along. “And what about you?”
“Oh, I’m just on duty.”
“Yeah you are.” Norah said, unable to disguise some of her hostility. “And on Sunday too.”
The girl winced visibly, looking down at the floor past Norah. “You have to when you sign up to the Guard. I didn’t have a choice.” She whispered, like it hurt her somehow.
“Yeah. If you sign up to the Guard.” She gave up trying to sound courteous. Well, she supposed it was good for today, if she had been at Church today they wouldn’t have been able to bury the body. She could have reported it to the Guard. Couldn’t trust her now, not anymore.
“Listen, I know there’s still some hard feelings…” Her forehead wrinkled as she spoke, trying to garner sympathy no doubt.
Norah cut her off quickly, beginning to turn away and gesturing to her husband to follow. “No, you should tell this to your ma not me. I need to go.”
“Wait!” The girl grabbed onto her shoulder and then leaned in to whisper, glancing at the other Guard from the corner of her eye almost too quickly for Norah to catch. Norah could see that he was watching and she itched to look, though something in her kept her head straight and away from those staring eyes. Like if she ignored it, they might look away. As if the compulsion to look was nothing but a stubborn itch, though it got harder to resist with every second, even painfully so. “Remember, you can tell me if anything happens.”
What did she know? “What are you talking about? It’s Church, you know what happen. It’s always the same, even when you were there.”
The girl shook her head. “No, not Church, I mean in general.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then opened them again and looked hard at Norah. They were so dark they shone even in this dull light. “Just remember, I’m one of you even if I’m in the Guard now. You can trust me. Tell me first if something happens, okay?”
“I don’t know about that.” Norah huffed back and shook of her hand. Her eyes flickered to the Guard in the background, it was him: the boy. He looked at her as blankly as the little dog had earlier, must have not remembered her. He kept watching her for a bit and then his eyes dropped down to somewhere near the hem of her dress, she followed his eye line and saw what had caught his attention. That stupid dog! Why had she decided to take it with her? It was having its best attempt at ripping her dress, pulling with jerking movements of its muzzle with a little, rather unintimidating, growl reverberating in its throat. She felt her cheeks redden. Now she felt foolish. A whole conversation and she hadn’t even realised what it was doing. She bent down and roughly grabbed it by its sable ruff, the loose skin hanging from her hand like a sack. It yelped sharply but she ignored it, tucking it under her arm like a bag and looking up again. He was gone. Well, at least she didn’t have to see his face laughing at her.
She bustled away into the cold fog and silence settled back onto the street. Lahel watched her leave, a terrible, uncontrollable feeling like falling through air in her stomach. Something was going to happen. Something bad.
The squat steeple of the Church floated, baseless, half-disguised behind the low clouds that haunted it. Underneath, its large door loomed in solid oak, the lion’s head knocker on it glaring with open jowls at whoever reached out to open it. The children had always been scared of it but it was a tradition to have one and at least it meant none of them went in on their own to go exploring as they often liked to do with other empty buildings around the town.
She stretched her hand towards it, finding herself shaking as her fingertips touched the cold bronze. A low sound made her jump as she did, for an instant she thought it was the beast itself but she could feel the squirming under her arm and soon realised it was the little dog again, acting up. She tightened her arm around it and grasped the handle, feeling the gasp of wind as she entered the Church.
Maybe a hundred faces looked back at her as she entered, all pale and round and in perfect rows from where they sat upon the old Church pews. And all silent. She shook of the unsettled feeling that squeezed its hands on her shoulders and held her chin up with confidence. As her husband fumbled trying to close the door behind her, she marched down the lined pews until she found one with some space. They were still watching her. They must know, she thought. They know who found the body. And she knew who must off told them. She let her eyes search the congregation until she saw that ridiculous feathered hat that stood two-foot-taller than anyone else’s. Maureen. She tried glaring at her back for a bit but the woman refused to turn so she gave up, that could wait for later. The woman had no heart, still Church was not the place to point it out.
Her husband shuffled into the pew beside her, inciting a tirade of creaking wood which echoed within the cavernous room, reaching right up to the heights of the vaulted ceiling and the graceful pointed curves of the stained-glass windows. She didn’t allow her cringe to show itself visibly, just as everyone else in the room dispassionately ignored the noise. They remained in insufferable silence until Father Carrick Mahoney stumbled out from behind the curtain he had presumably been sitting behind in wait the whole time and dragged himself, one leg limping as always, towards the altar at the centre of the sanctuary. His legs failing to support him, he gripped the edge of the altar as he began to collapse and pulled himself across it so that he was facing down the aisle. He leant both his hands on the table heavily and looked up at the congregation through the long hairs of his dark brows then, taking a swig from his ever-present flask of mystery alcohol, he spoke.
“I trust you’ve all heard that today ain’t Sunday service as normal.” He paused, she wasn’t sure if it was for emphasis or if he had just forgotten what he was going to say next. He glared at the congregation through his one good eye, the other always seemed to be half-asleep and provided him the honour of looking drunk even when he, surprisingly, wasn’t. He started up again after his eye’s third trip around the room. “I also trust that not one of you has done the unthinkable…” We all thought for a moment if we had, in fact, done the unthinkable, and concluded that no, we could all think of what we had done. “I mean, of course, that no one has been so stupid as to have breathed a word of this to any one of them out there.” He pointed a limp arm straight at the wall of the Church, we all knew what he meant: Guards. This set every head in the congregation shaking with varying degrees of fervour, Norah could even see the great trembling feather of Maureen’s hat as she attempted to outdo the whole congregation with her particularly passionate denial.
“Good then. Now, the nearest Guard is up Two-Brick Lane, so as long as you all file out as quietly as possible we will have absolutely no problems. You just need to follow these instructions…” He hiccuped. “Walk outside, be quiet, and go stand next to the big trees, okay? No wasting time now, hop to it! Godspeed.” He saluted, for some reason, and, with his last words, pushed off from the altar and, recovering alarmingly fast from his previous inebriation, strode back to his hiding spot behind the curtain. As soon as he did so, seemingly forgetting that curtains are not soundproof, the sound of a wine bottle being opened and a huge gulp echoed through the Holy building.
“What is he doing?” Someone whispered after a few seconds of shocked hush.
“I bet you he’s gone and got all the altar wine to drink.” The squawky voice of one of the three old ladies who were the self-designated organisers of the town piped up. “The horrible man, I always said we needed a minister who could stay away from the devil’s drink. Nobody listened and now we have to keep all the sacraments locked up even in this House of God.” She crossed herself vehemently.
“To be fair,” her husband sitting next to her said in a bored drawl, “We weren’t exactly planning to use it.”
“That’s not the point, Sean.” The woman squealed with almost blatant delight at being able to justify her opinion. “It’s that if we can’t even trust in the House of our Lord, what can we trust in at all? It’s through cracks in our faith like this that the devil sneaks in to our communities.”
“Mm hhhm.” The man muttered, obviously not listening. Maybe this was why they could remain married so long, neither of them really cared what the other said at all. They could have talked to each other for hours and still been having completely different conversations. She glanced at her husband, maybe we could do with a bit of that, she thought.
It took a while for the congregation to eventually get themselves going again but eventually they all made it outside, undetected though through no effort on their part. Now that one person had started talking, they all had. As if they had just needed a little insignificant distraction to settle them back into their normal, less introspective, selves again. They were still chatting away about their little lives as they settled in a group by the edge of the forest.
The trees stretched up to almost impossible heights, a great wall, casting a dark line across the yellowed grass of the Churchyard that seemed to mark the boundary between the town and the forbidding wilderness beyond. It was one not many townspeople had ever crossed, only occasional hunting parties and that had all but stopped since Johnny O’Bryan got his leg torn of in there and even the toughest men had gotten too scared.
“Makes you feel like monsters could really just step out, doesn’t it?” Norah head jerked around to see who had said it, she had almost thought they were talking to her before she saw that it was the old squawking ladies husband, what were their names again? He was another Johnny, a Sullivan, and she was called Nanny Lana by pretty much everyone in the town, relation or not. It felt like so long since she had seen any of these people though it had been just days. Already, there existences were becoming something trivial in her mind when she had once made a point to remember every name and know every piece of gossip. It was just like when the baby died and she had closed herself off. She shook her head, she wasn’t going to let this change her. She couldn’t let it scare her either.
She squeezed the little dog between her arms, it was still and quiet, no longer struggling but simply a dead weight that she was holding up. She grabbed it with one hand and held it with two hands in the centre of her chest, its back touching her and its face facing out, towards the forest.
Then there came the boys, carrying the coffin between them. She heard some women choke a sob, family obviously, but she felt nothing. It wasn’t like she really knew him, Finnegan Crowe, the body in that casket. It wasn’t him that scared her, it was what he meant. He was a symbol, something that monster had left her as a message, he was a threat.
They all watched them carry it and place it beside the ready-dug grave, the one just a little closer to the forest, they didn’t even notice the Father join the back of their group but she did. He must have felt her looking because he turned to watch her, up through his eyebrows, his one lazy eye and single raised eyebrow giving him an unbalanced feeling along with the lopsided way he stood on his one weak leg. He walked over so he stood beside her, they were both a little away from the rest of the group now, hanging back. She purposefully looked back to the group and away from him.
“You brought a dog to my service. A funeral service, no less.” He said, crossing his arms, smugness in his voice.
“I did.” She wasn’t playing along, not today.
“And why would you do that?” He gasped, feigning surprise.”Dogs and death don’t mix for sure.”
She sighed, she really didn’t want to do this. “I don’t know, why did you drink the altar wine?” She jutted out her jaw in challenge.
He grumbled bad-temperedly. “Those old ladies won’t let me do anything. It wasn’t like they were going to use it.”
“What would your mother had said if she’d heard you were stealing from your own Church? ” We had all known Cassick Mahoney’s mother, she was, had been, quite the character. A bossy woman, domineering, Norah knew that she was a sore point for him.
“My mother’s dead, and thank God for that.” He crossed his chest, knocking the huge silver cross that hung around his neck so that it shook finely, catching even the little sunlight that was in the air as bright glimmers on its surface. “That woman would have murdered me one day for sure.”
“Hmmm. Maybe.” She answered, unemotionally.
“She wouldn’t want to be here today anyway. She would have hated it.” There was almost emotion there, something about the quietness of his voice. “We still have our hope though.” He said, shaking of the solemness, “remember our Angel? That poor woman, Ida May? The Angel that she saw and she said told her our hero was coming, the Empire’s child?”
“I remember.” She said shortly. “Heard it enough.”
He didn’t here, or chose to ignore the last part. “That used to give her faith. It gives us all faith, I believe. Just think on that and you’ll feel your strength coming back.”
She sighed audibly. “I don’t need help.”
He glanced at her and waited for her to look back. She didn’t, so he looked back at the fresh-dug graves before them. “Surely, we all need help.”
She said nothing and he took a swig from his flask. Quiet came over the whole congregation once again. Ravens cawed high up in the canopy and some even settled on nearby gravestones, each watching the congregation with a curious cock of their head.
She breathed out loudly. “Father, you going to take the service or not?” She whispered at the man who was still standing next to her and looking at the scene like an outsider. She nudged him and whispered again, “Father.”
“Huh, what?” He said grumpily.
His eyebrows drew even closer together as if he was trying to remember just what that was. “Fine, I suppose I have to do it eventually.”
And he was about to walk towards the coffin when a high, keening sound began to echo through the trees, swirling through the fog like something ethereal, like the primeval voice of the forest itself as it started to wake. Every person near the treeline froze, stumbling forward without looking behind them like leaves being crumpled by a sudden, stormy gust as the voice grew stronger and waned in disconcerting cries, stabbing her with its icy caress until each hair on her arms stood as straight as the bristling spine on the dogs back and, though every thought begged her to turn, assuring her with certainty that she should not. She didn’t listen though, she twisted back and fixed it with too-big eyes which, as they desperately searched for the source, hoped fervently that they would never find it. She explored right into the depths of that darkness fearfully, as if compelled. Maybe she had lost all reason. She sure knew she was scared. Somehow though, as she continued looking the voice telling her to avoid it somewhere subsided, sinking into the back of her head, sleepily, and watching the events play out so that she felt nothing but wonder, only permeated slightly by the numb, yet incessant, sense of dread the whole place perspired. She almost wanted to step closer, but she didn’t. Still, the voice continued, kind of beautiful in its way: wild and wailing and yowling like a cat. Something that spoke of old lands, endless plains, of cackling jungles, of looking up at trees that creaked with age and stretched higher than the heavens, and of the heavy-footed beasts that stalked the earth before humans were even created, the primordial roar of the country. She felt her mouth was open but she didn’t care, she turned her head up to the sky and watched the angry crows so far above, it was their voice too, that childlike caw they made as they dove from the trees, as if they were just as unsettled by the noise as she had been.
She still was. A close of her eyes and a slow, shaky breath was all it took her to fix back onto the forest before her. It was there, full of amazement, she finally focused on what she thought she had seen. It was. It crept out the smog as a smudge of ghostly paleness, crawling around the tree in clawing movements, gouging into the tree bark, it took a few seconds and a blink but she knew, in an instant, that it was a hand.