This story was originally published in Hidden Youth: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, an anthology from Crossed Genres Publishing that focused on sci-fi/fantasy stories of adolescent protagonists from historically marginalized communities from before the 1920s. This story was loosely inspired by the tragic discovery of a mass grave at an Irish nunnery for single mothers, and thus involves pretty much all of the horrible things that might relate to that. Consider that your content warning.
35 Days Before Termination
Caoimhe had been raised amongst the Irish Travellers, who despite their nomadic nature did instill in her a deep piety. This is why she would not skip on the debts she owed the Church for taking her in when she was with child. This also meant living after Christ Himself, providing for the meek and leprous — or at least, that’s how she justified stealing from the stock house underneath the Bon Secours Home and selling the supplies out on the streets.
Sure she wasn’t taking straight from the Lord Himself, like.
Caoimhe waited for the cover of darkness before she made her way down the crooked cellar stairs that led beneath the Home. The dim light of the moon shone through the barred windows, and illuminated the room just enough for her to see a large gate standing locked and chained between her and the healthy stock of canned food and pills that stood upon the shelves.
Strange, she thought, for Sister Maire Cahan had never locked the supplies before. The space between the slats was too narrow for her to fit through, so she tried to stretch her arm out as far as she could towards the quinine on the shelf. Her fingertips just barely grazed the bottle.
In the two years that she’d run her black market deals, the nuns had never let on their suspicions. Caoimhe couldn’t understand why they would start now. Had the pig-faced girl gone and squealed after catching her in the stable with the club-footed man? Caoimhe didn’t think the Proddy had it in her — not that the nuns would have believed her if she did. That girl was sure a pity case if there had ever been one.
Then Caoimhe heard the sound of creaking wood behind her. She turned and saw Sister Maire Cahan descending the stairs with a belt in her hand and a stern look on her face.
“Looking for a bite?” she said as she stepped out from the shadows. “Take as you’d like, but I’ll be adding to your credit.”
“Of course, Sister.” Caoimhe stepped away from the gate with her head bowed and hands clasped before her. She turned to the nun and spoke in reverence. “Forgive me. I did have some pain in me gut. Thought perhaps some quinine would help.”
Sister Maire Cahan remained standing at the base of the stairs, her stone grey eyes staring into Caoimhe like a falcon about to strike.
“It was just a dram,” Caoimhe muttered. “Seems it’s settled anyhow. Best be heading back to sleep then.”
She made as if to leave, but Sister Maire Cahan blocked the way. And though her nausea was a tale, the dank and musty stench of the cellar was indeed making Caoimhe ill. She caught a fetid waft coming from behind the door past the supplies, where the stillbirths and cot deaths all were stowed, hidden from their mothers and the townsfolk alike and left to rot away in isolation.
“A dram would be fine, had you asked permission.” Sister Maire Cahan stretched the belt between her coarse brown hands, testing it for strength and tension. “It’s hard enough with the Tans blocking our supply routes. It seems we have a thief now as well.”
The auld nun frowned. She took a long, slow breath and said, “Lift your shirt, Caoimhe. And don’t you be tinkering about me things again or I’ll have you right back on the streets where you belong.”
Caoimhe steeled herself with thoughts of freedom, of returning to the Travelling community with her beautiful baby girl. Not that she’d seen the child in the two years since her birth, but the thought of it was nice, until the lashings came and ripped her from her dreams.
53 Days After Conception
Aisling was hardly eight weeks along and still looked near to burst. The thing that grew within her was flailing and kicking and burning up her insides, and she wished nothing more than to tear it from her womb. But she had no means of termination — and even if she did, such a thing would be a sin.
When she asked Sister Maire Cahan for help, the wicked nun just laughed. “Are you bleeding?” she asked, and Aisling told her no. “Right, so. Supper’s held at six. Meantime, you can fetch your water from the pump like the rest.”
But the water from the well flowed in shades of yellow-brown, and it was a good day when there wasn’t something slimy swimming in it. On worse days, the same things got stuck between your teeth. Such was hospitality at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home.
And so it was that Aisling made her way through the desolate hallways, past the rows of beds like funeral plots to the stable out back for a taste of brisk winter air. Despite the mulch and rotting wood — and the fact that the outer gates were locked to keep the women from escaping — Aisling knew that the stable offered better ventilation than inside the Home, where the stale air was tainted by the filthy functions of its residents.
But she did not expect to find the wooden stable door ajar when she approached, open just enough for a sixteen-year-old girl to slip through if she weren’t with child — at least, not the way that Aisling herself had grown these past two months.
She pressed her hand to the door to push it the rest of the way, but stopped herself when she heard a man speaking on the other side. He was joined shortly thereafter by the voice of a young girl whom she recognized as the Traveller girl, Caoimhe, a working resident at the Home who had pegged Aisling as her enemy from the first day she arrived.
Aisling’s father had always warned her to stay away from the Travellers. The Catholics were savages, sure, but at least they could be tempered — unlike them wild knackers. They’d stab you in the back and steal your wallet while they sweet-talked your mammy, he’d say.
Of course, that was before he was killed by Catholic rebels. He hadn’t much advice to give since then, sure as Aisling could use it.
Aisling stayed still and listened to the conversation. Perhaps she could gain favor with the nuns if she had some dirt on the Traveller girl. After all, the Bon Secours had strict rules about men coming up to the Home, and even the townsfolk of Tuam knew better than to risk the wrath of Sister Maire Cahan.
Try as she might, Aisling couldn’t parse what it was that was being said. Parts of it resembled English, though Aisling knew it wasn’t. She recognized a few words of Irish as well; she didn’t have the language herself, though she did know the sound of it. But most of what she heard then was garbled nonsense.
“Thú gloree a’me? Grespan do loorkoag, there’s a slaask on the djigger, nokh? I ukh a shorik! The lub sturth the sloofa is byianniyan and I ain’t grawbaltha fit. The shaykar did catch me when I’s sramaling, and lowber til I had to kuldrum with me graydan ashirth for odd grakhton,” Caoimhe said.
But this time when the man responded, he was speaking directly in English: “Are you going to stand there dropping eaves, like?” There was a brief pause before he spoke again. “That’s right, yourself by the door. Something I can help with?”
Aisling could have fled right then, but found herself compelled by both her fear and curiosity. She pushed her way past the groaning door and entered the stable, where she immediately recognized Caoimhe by the curly auburn hair flowing down behind her like waves of blood, her gypsy flesh looking filthier than usual.
The girl stood beside a smallish beggar man dressed in tattered rags that fell loosely off his hunched and bony shoulders. His snakelike eyes were a sickly shade of yellow, and his skin was swathed in fuzzy black film by the shadows cast from his frayed hood. Aisling made him out to be a sídhe, one of the Good People — which meant the knacker girl was up to something far worse than whoring.
“I didn’t mean to bother. I came out for a breathe of air when I heard voices,” Aisling said as she placed a hand upon her swollen middle. “The little one was throwing quite a fit.”
“Aye, sure it was, so,” said the sídhe, and Aisling caught the jaundiced glimmer of a smile creep across his face.
“Both yourselves are Travellers then, is it?” she asked.
The man in the rags stood upright like a panicked rabbit. “Traveller? Sure, I travel about. But not the way you’re thinking.”
As he hobbled toward her, Aisling noticed that his left foot was twisted up and curled around like the head of a club. He reached a slender, hirsute arm towards her stomach. “And yourself, ma vourneen? You must be, what: five, six months along now?”
As soon as his hand touched Aisling’s blouse, the thing inside her erupted in a frenzy, like it was under attack and hoping to kick its way out through her flesh. But the sídhe kept his hand pressed against her, like he was tempting the beast for a fight. His slitted eyes grew wide, though Aisling couldn’t tell if it was from excitement or fright.
“Perhaps you should be going,” Caoimhe said to the man. She pulled his hand away from Aisling, then moved herself between them. It was the first time the Traveller girl had shown her any sympathy.
A flutter of rags passed by in a blur and the sídhe was gone before Aisling had a chance to know what happened. The thing inside her quickly settled down.
“I’m sorry that you did hear us going on as such. It’s not polite to use the cant ‘round themselves who don’t have it. But it’s the way that we do speak amongst our own,” Caoimhe said to Aisling. “This used to be a vagrant’s home, before the Bon Secours began to bring the women here. Some of them still wander by from time to time, looking out for scraps and like. They don’t mean a bit of harm.”
Aisling knew it weren’t a vagrant with them glowing eyes, or could make himself disappear like that, but she was afraid to say as such. “There’s rules about the menfolk coming up here to the Home. I’ll be having a word with Sister Maire Cahan about this. She’ll put you right out on the streets,” she said.
“Not while I still owe her debt, she won’t,” said Caoimhe with a sigh. Then she walked back through the stable door and went inside.
4 Days Before Termination
It was after services and near a month from their last council when Caoimhe came again upon the club-footed man.
“Your Holy Man has a way with words, he does, going on about the Tans like that in sermon,” said the man standing as he was near the bushes at the backside of the church, his brown rags blending in with the dry brush underfoot. He brought a cigarette to his lips and sucked in air to light the tip of flame at the end of the roll. His voice gave Caoimhe quite a start and shook her from her brisk, determined steps back towards the Home. It was a Sunday, and though it was the one day she was allowed to walk to town unescorted, she still had food and linens to prepare for the resident mothers-to-be.
Caoimhe collected herself. She straightened out her skirts then stood upright and said, “Father Connell is an honorable man. He spake on the Lord’s behalf, and so I’m right inclined to take him at his word.”
She glanced hesitantly at the man’s clubbed foot, all gnarled, grey, and calloused like a swine’s. The tattered flaps of broken shoe that fell around it did nothing to protect his sole from weathering. The sight of it alone made her stomach wretch.
The club-footed man exhaled, and the smoke did sting as it blew in Caoimhe’s eyes. When he spoke, he switched to Gammon, the cant of the Irish Travellers. Caoimhe found comfort in hearing that familiar language of her people, even if the man’s accent did seem a bit off.
“You missed our last two meetings. I waited hours for yourself in the usual spot, but you never did show.”
“I’m sorry,” Caoimhe said. She reached behind herself, gingerly stroking the scars left behind by the nun’s lashing. She hadn’t slept on her back in a month. “It’s as I told yourself: Sister Maire Cahan was onto us, and she built a gate to keep me from the food and medicine. I can get your money back if you — “
“Keep the cash, lackeen; you’ll be needing it yourself more than I.” The man took several hobbling steps towards Caoimhe then stroked her cheek with his rough hand and said, “I’m here to offer you a different bargain. A simple favor, like. And when it’s done, you won’t hear from me again unless you will it.”
The club-footed man let his shoulders drop, and pulled back the moth-eaten hood that hid his face in shadow. While Caoimhe had recognized the strangeness of his eyes before, she was still surprised to find how the rest of him did match. His face was covered all in fur with a small button nose, and his jagged teeth had more in common with a fox than a man.
For all those years he hid his face, and only now did Caoimhe recognize him as a púca, one of the Daoine Maithe, and she felt all the more foolish for it. On top of all her sins, she’d been conspiring with faeriefolk. She had truly carved out her own spot in Hell, but hadn’t realized til then how deep it went. But there was no coming back from it, so she thought it best to comply and extend her mortal life while she still could.
Caoimhe clenched her fists at her side to fight back from the trembling that swelled within her core. “What is it you need?”
The púca dropped the fag to the ground and stomped out the flame with his bare clubbed foot, and if the fire burned his skin, then he never let on as such. “The Protestant girl with the straw-colored hair — Aisling, was it?”
“What about her?” Caoimhe said, though she was like to ask why he’d remarked upon her hair and not her upturned nose or cherub face. Perhaps Aisling had something in common with the púca’s bad foot; they did look similar enough.
The púca reached into his rags and after some shuffling removed a small glass bottle containing a translucent yellow liquid. He was leaned in close enough to her that Caoimhe could see the spiderwebs of brown tobacco spit that spread across the gaps in his crooked teeth when he smiled.
“There’s something special about the gawthrin grows inside your wan,” he said. “Its well-being is of interest to some. I’d like for yourself to give her this — St. Anthony’s Fire — and be sure she drinks it all it all. Do you understand what I be asking of you?”
Caoimhe nodded. She’d been around the Home for long enough to know about St. Anthony’s Fire. A small amount could help to stop a mother’s bleeding after birth. What the púca had given her was at least four times as much, and Caoimhe couldn’t know what such an overdose would do.
But the púca made his offer before she could inquire any further: “When that’s done you have me word. I will help you leave the Home forever, and show you where to find your little girl.”
And so of course she took the deal.
31 Days After Conception
Sister Maire Cahan tossed the dented tin bowl onto the table. It landed with a solid clang, and Aisling watched its curved edges warble in oblong rings until it found some sense of balance on the askew surface of the unfinished wood. The tawny slop inside of it remained motionless.
“Eat,” she said, her thin black lips moving just enough to accentuate the shadows in her wrinkled face.
“Not particularly hungry,” Aisling said. They were in the nun’s office, a square and windowless room that stank of mildew and poitín. She glanced down at the food before her, and couldn’t stop herself from scowling at the sight of the brownish carrots sticking out of the mashed potato sludge like petrified trees in a swamp. “If I were, I’d have lost whatever appetite I had.”
The nun let slip a smile like the crack in a rotted stump. She adjusted herself, standing upright to fix her posture, then folded her hands in front of the off-white apron she wore about her waist.
Aisling wondered if the nun did ever clean the thing.
“It’s for the good of yourself, and the child as well,” said Sister Maire Cahan, the crackle of her voice sounding suddenly sweet.
“I never asked for any child,” Aisling said. “Particularly not a thing like this.”
“The same could be said for Mary, could it not?” The nun draped her lithe fingers on the table, letting their tips trace the rough woodgrain. She began to circle around Aisling with precise, controlled steps that clicked in ominous rhythms upon the concrete floor. “There is something special about the wan inside yourself. I made a solemn oath before the eyes of God Himself and on behalf of the Republic that I would let no harm befall the two of yous so as long as you remained in my care.”
Aisling was startled by the sharp snap of the woman’s shoes right behind her. The cloth habit that fell upon the nun’s head grazed the back of Aisling’s hair as she leaned in close and whispered: “I will let nothing harm you. But I will hurt you if I must, to protect both yourselves.”
Then Sister Maire Cahan took her bony hand like the edge of an axe and chopped it against Aisling’s throat, cutting off the airflow to her windpipe.
Instincts took over and Aisling’s mouth shot open, gasping desperately for oxygen. The nun used her other hand to bring the bowl up to Aisling’s face, shoveling the rancid meal into her mouth until the slop filled her throat, bringing Aisling near to choking. Then the nun cast the bowl aside and used her two free hands to clamp shut Aisling’s mouth.
The bowl hit the floor with a clatter that echoed in the tiny room.
Aisling couldn’t stop herself from swallowing, desperate as she was for air. But she couldn’t get it all down in one gulp, and Sister Marie Cahan still forced her jaw hinge shut. Aisling took in deep breaths through her nose and let her cheeks swell with the excess meal, its rotten taste teasing at the vomit in her gut.
“Not until it’s done,” said Sister Maire Cahan with her hands still clamped on Aisling’s mouth.
Though it took her some time, she swallowed down the rest of it. And even then, the nun still waited, like she was calling Aisling’s bluff. Between the spinning of her suffocated head and the adrenaline pumping angrily through her veins, Aisling couldn’t tell how long she waited for the nun to free her face.
“The child that you carry is of utmost importance to the cause,” said the nun. “I would be most pleased if both of yous came out of this unharmed. But if you force my hand, I will make these eight months miserable to ensure the child’s safety. I promise I will never let you die — but if you push me, I will make you wish you could.”
With that, the nun released her hands from Aisling’s face and walked out of the room, calm as a Sunday morning after mass.
1 Day Before Termination
Caoimhe lay awake on the cold, hard cot, the lone Traveller amongst a sea of expectant Irish mothers, each one writhing and groaning in her own time, and reminding her of the child she had long since given up. But it wasn’t just the pain in her back from the nun’s lashings that kept her up that night; Caoimhe’s thoughts had been running wild since last she’d seen the púca. She wondered how the creature did know about her child, and was he acting on behalf of the Tans or the Rebels — or if it all were a trick of the Diabhal himself.
Not that Caoimhe had much stake in the war. She’d been raised to stay out of the affairs of Settled People, excepting for cash, work, and supplies as needed. She only became aware of the conflict when she first met Diarmid, who himself did then go off to fight, leaving her with their unborn child in the care of the Bon Secours.
She reached a hand into her skirt pocket and rolled the bottle of St. Anthony’s Fire in her hands as she called a silent prayer out to the Lord. But her communion ended swiftly when her eyes caught a motion through the darkness.
It was not so uncommon, an expectant mother getting up to piss in the middle of the night. Caoimhe vaguely recalled doing so herself. But the high moon outside was casting out its rays through the barred windows at the top of the eastern wall, and when the girl passed through one of the broken beams of light, it was enough to illuminate her straw-colored hair and her squat nose.
Aisling. And she wasn’t making her way towards the toilets.
Sure enough, Aisling opened the door to the cellar, being careful not to wake the other women by the creaking of its joints — although Caoimhe could hear her groaning as she strained to move the heavy wood. Was it the púca himself that was calling her down there? Had Caoimhe waited too long to act, and he’d taken it upon himself?
Caoimhe cast aside her sleeplessness and followed Aisling down the cellar, moving as swiftly as she could by the tips of her toes. When she came to the top of the stairs, she stopped for a moment and watched the pig-faced girl as she flailed her stubby arms between the holes in the gate that kept her out of the supply room and whatever she was looking for.
“It’s locked for a reason,” Caoimhe said as she came down the stairs, and she could see Aisling freeze at the sound of her voice. “Is there something you’re looking for, or should I tell the nuns that it’s yourself who’s been stealing from the Home?” She glanced down at Aisling’s swollen gut, which seemed near twice the size it was last week, and wondered how the girl was expecting to sneak in anywhere at the size she was.
The pig-faced girl snorted when she looked at Caoimhe. “For a place that’s meant for taking care of us, your kind don’t spare much by way of comfort,” she said, with a flippant laugh. “Do you hear this? I’m after something to settle my stomach, and you threaten retribution. You Catholics have a twisted way of working in the name of the Lord.”
Aisling’s jab made Caoimhe even less inclined to help her. But the little bottle of ergot was still there weighing in her pocket, and this seemed like the best chance to rid herself of its burden.
“Everything’s locked up tight until the morning, and Sister Maire Cahan’s the only one who has a key. Lucky you, I keep a few things in me apron for emergencies,” Caoimhe said.
Then she reached into her front pocket, pulled the bottle out, and handed it to Aisling, who drank it down to the very last drop and made her way back up the stairs without a word of thanks.
17 Days After Conception
The kinder of the soldiers who had captured her — Diarmid, so he called himself — was charged with bringing Aisling to the Home. On the day’s ride from the camp at Lough Corrib, he had made clear his concern for her comfort, asking after how she sat or was she hungry or did she need a rest and such. She’d found herself so taken by his charm that her mind kept letting slip what he had done. He was just three years her elder, with a boyish face hid beneath his unkempt blonde hair and wild patches of fuzz that grew along the hard line of his jaw. She did always have a weakness for rebellious types, much to the chagrin of her father.
And so were her affections for him shattered, when her thoughts came back around and she thought of what Diarmid had done to her father, for no crime but worshipping Christ in what he and his kind had deemed a contrary way that made them sympathetic to the crown. But even that he did explain away sweetly:
“It’s an honor what you’re carrying inside yourself. Though I do regret the way it all did come about. A gift for all of Ireland, you’ll see. The promise of freedom, resting in the womb.”
When they arrived in Tuam, they were greeted by a grizzled old nun whose scars were only hid by the fleshy folds of wrinkles on her black face. But Aisling had made the mistake of letting Diarmid know that she didn’t have any Irish. As such, the boyish soldier was careful to only speak to the nun as Gaeilge, save for a cupla words — something about the women’s league of the Republican Army and what they called the war of independence, though neither came as a particular surprise.
“Sister Maire Cahan will be taking care of you, she will,” Diarmid said to Aisling before he left. Then he removed the flatcap from his head, his nervous hands wringing it between them, and turned to the nun to address her directly. “Before I go, will you tell me — how is Caoimhe?”
“She’s well,” the nun answered. “But you won’t be seeing her, not until you boys put an end to your fighting. I will help you in your aims as best I can, but I have promised these girls to keep them safe. That means keeping them out of your war.”
“It’s not ‘our’ war. It belongs to all of us who’ve — “
“Oh, cop on,” said Sister Maire Cahan with a fierceness on her tongue. “Zealotry is not so becoming on a boy your age, and these ears have heard it all it all. I will support the Sinn Féin until me death, and accept that there are evils must be done, but I wish no part or knowledge of them. That’s no world for a woman or a child.”
Diarmid placed his flatcap back upon his head and tipped the brim as he replied, “Aye, sure, but it’s still a better world than what the Tans have left behind. Pearse himself did say that an Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”
With that, the soldier boy was off, and Sister Maire Cahan escorted Aisling through the cold and sterile corridors of the Home. “Our residents receive the best care we can provide, whether they be Catholic or the Church of Ireland alike,” she explained as they walked. “You’re allowed ten minutes of outdoor time each afternoon, to keep the air inside you fresh. We serve three squares a day, and keep a healthy stock of medicines to ease a woman’s pain.” Though Aisling doubted they could find relief for what she had endured.
They came into a large hall with vaulted ceilings and barred windows high up on the walls. The room was lined with neat rows of off-white cots that reminded Aisling more of cemetery plots, and she followed the nun to a bed in the far back corner where a homely girl with olive skin and auburn hair was tending to the linens. Aisling could still make out the yellowed indentation of a pregnant woman’s body pressed into the sheets, and she wondered if they at least cleaned for the Catholic girls.
“This is Caoimhe,” said the nun. “She’s been with us three years now. Any questions you have, she can answer.”
“Dia dhuit,” said the girl.
But there was something strange about her accent. When Aisling finally placed it, she turned to the nun and asked, “She one of them knackers? Aren’t they all thiefs, like? And you’re expecting me to trust her?”
In truth, she had never met a Traveller before, though she’d certainly heard stories of their kind, full of magic and deception and wandering ways. Time was she was more afraid of them than she had ever been the IRA.
Sister Maire Cahan peered down at Aisling, her upper lip curling into a snarl. “You mean, is she a Traveller? You can ask her that yourself, you can.”
The nun then excused herself with swift, stern silence, leaving Aisling alone with the Traveller girl who, by the frown on her face, had already marked Aisling as an enemy.
A terrible howl ripped through the Home, tearing Caoimhe from her slumber. She was quick to find that she was not the only one whose ears were pushed to bursting by the sound, as the other girls were likewise rousted from their beds, setting each of them in a dour mood.
But it weren’t the bean sídhe’s wail that’d come calling for a mother’s child — it was Aisling herself that did be shrieking so.
Sister Maire Cahan was already knelt attending to the girl, so Caoimhe bolted out of bed and rushed into action beside her, weaving her way through the narrow rows of cots and the pregnant women huddled in horror at the sight of such a wreck.
This was hardly the first time she had seen a miscarriage. But Aisling’s pig-like squealing made it clear that this was different.
And by the time Caoimhe reached her cot on the opposite end of the hall, it was already too late. The girl was gone, the ecru sheets beneath her soaked through to a wet and rusty red.
Sister Maire Cahan ran her hand across the girl’s face to close her eyelids. Caoimhe always did admire the nun’s attempts to calm her girls, no matter the tragedy. For all the pain that she’d put Caoimhe through over the years, there was an uncanny softness about her when it came to birthing traumas, like the only time her maternal instincts did appear was when a girl was after suffering through labor pains. Did she know firsthand the ills of forcing out a child through the space between your legs? Or did she merely accept that the tortures she inflicted were nothing compared to the all-consuming ache of creating life inside yourself, and the glorious absolution that overcame when your wan did make it out into the world?
The nun then pushed herself up from the floor with calm deliberation, her auld bones creaking as she went. She crossed herself in the name of Christ, then folded her hands in prayer and dismissed the other girls, begging privacy for the passing of their dear departed sister.
Caoimhe waited until the crowd of shaken women had dispersed before she stepped up to offer her assistance. It was then that she did see the inhuman monstrosity that Aisling had expelled from out her womb, sprawled amongst the sanguine sheets.
It was near a half-meter in length — hardly a premature size — with drab green skin that had flushed to grayish-blue from loss of oxygen, and an elongated muzzle for a face with lips that did not move. Its unformed limbs looked more like flippers and hooves, and Caoimhe felt ashamed for thinking how it did resemble its own late mother.
Then Caoimhe heard a mechanical click and felt the cold tip of a pistol pressed against her head.
Sister Maire Cahan leaned in close to her, and spoke softly. “Did you think I wouldn’t recognize the signs of Traveller magicks? It was your poison killed the mother and her child. The girl herself did tell me so,” she said. “You knacker scum are nothing more than savages and sinners, and I was wrong to think that you could live among the civilized people without your Pagan ways raining Hell upon our lives.”
Caoimhe swallowed. “I mean no disrespect, Sister, but you do be speaking madness. I have served the church for all these years, still owing a debt for — “
Sister Maire Cahan jabbed the barrel of her pistol into Caoime’s temple, which sent a shock of dizzy pain spinning through her head.
“The Church forgives your debt, child, but it will not forgive your sins,” said the nun. “And the Republican Army will not share my mercy. They’ll be after you for what you’ve wrought this day, and they do not take kindly to traitors.”
This last part left Caoimhe baffled, even moreso than the freakish stillborn on the cot before her. But Sister Maire Cahan held the gun as such that Caoimhe dare not turn her head, or inquire any further after the role that the rebels did play in it.
“I will give you five minutes to leave this place,” the nun said. “And if you ever once look back I will not hesitate to kill you, with the Lord here as my witness.”
Caoimhe took off running, barefoot and all, as soon as Sister Maire Cahan eased the pressure on her skull.
The rebels pulled a bag over Aisling’s head, their rough hands clamped tightly around her arms to keep her from wriggling away. It didn’t matter that she’d already let herself fall limp; they handled her body with the delicate touch reserved for stacking wood, and she was tossed in the back of the covered cart with the same disregard.
Even in the darkness she could still smell the flames that were tearing through her home, felt the heat lick at her flesh and then get washed away by drops of sweat as her body worked overtime to find its calm. Any hope she had that her father might have lived was lost when the cart started moving and she overheard the soldiers speaking in English:
“Did you hear that bastard crying?”
“Aye! ‘Please, I’m only doing as the Tans had asked of me!’ Well that was your problem, wasn’t it?”
“Them Proddies think they’re innocents, just because they ain’ directly killing off their own, like. But their hands are bloody just the same.”
“We gave him a chance, you know? If he’d stood beside us like an Irishman, he could have done some right.”
“That’s the problem, Diarmid. They don’t think of themselves as Irish.”
“Neither do I. That’s why I put a bullet in him.”
The two men talked for the rest of the ride, but Aisling couldn’t bring herself to listen. She closed her eyes — not that she could see out the bag anyway — and tried to rest, to let her mind slip away to somewhere else, but the bumps in the road kept tearing her away from her slumber. Even so, it was easy for her to lose track of time, as she had no way of knowing where they were taking her.
When the cart did come to a stop, and the bag was pulled off Aisling’s head and tied around her mouth to keep her quiet, she found herself at a Republican camp near the Lough Corrib.
It was nearing dawn, and they dragged her to a hollow by the water’s shore where a handsome, muscled man named Murchadh did be waiting. His long black hair was damp and there was seaweed braided through it. He spoke with the soldiers while Aisling stood by, still bound and gagged and unable to hear them.
The soldiers finished up their conversation, and left her there with the dark-haired man.
Aisling watched in horror as he changed before her eyes, fleshy webs spreading between his fingers and his face stretching out like the snout of a horse. His tangled hair transformed itself into a singular mane of kelp that travelled along his back like a plume, and his flesh took on a tone of greenish-bronze like the Ech-Ushkya water sprites in the stories that her father used to tell, that he would never tell again.
Murchadh stepped towards her, his muscles moving with the grace of a stallion. Aisling found herself entranced by his beastly beauty in spite of herself and the trauma she had seen that day. She couldn’t help it. Even when he freed her from the bonds that held her hands and mouth, she still was unable to move or speak, hypnotized as she was by the sight of him. It was something in his eyes that took control and left her passive as he forced himself inside of her, ripping apart her innocence like an animal and leaving her alone there on the shore when he was done until the soldiers returned to collect her broken form.
“They weren’t kidding when they called yourself Travellers. Took me near a month to track you. But then I’m not so well for walking, like.”
Caoimhe awoke to the púca’s voice from her slumber in the shade of an uprooted fearnóg tree, its web of roots stuck thick with dirt to protect her from the rain. For a fortnight she had followed the path of the rail from Claremorris up to Sligo, hoping to find some form of sanctuary in Donegal Bay, where she had last seen her family caravan.
It should have come as no surprise that they were gone these years later, and that all she would be left with was the púca that had gotten her into the mess.
Caoimhe pushed herself up from the dirt. She kept her right hand hid behind her, and groped blindly for the hefty stone that she had kept near her for protection. “Are you here to kill me?” she asked in the Gammons, its now-unfamiliar rhythms strangely soothing on her tongue.
The púca let out a jovial laugh, so much so that his clubbed foot slipped on the wet, dead leaves, causing him to stumble backwards in the forest thick. When he’d caught his balance, he said, “You’re a sweet thing, so you are. But you haven’t a clue what you’re dealing with. Mind if I take a rest then? Me feet are aching something awful, like.”
He plopped himself in the dirt beside her with all the grace of a pig, without so much as waiting for her answer.
“You tricked me,” she said. “I asked your help, so you went and killed a woman and her child.”
“To be fair, she was a Protestant. Figured it wasn’t much a loss for you and yours. Not that I’ve a stake in either side but — well, that’s the whole thing, innit?” The púca massaged his gnarled foot. “Besides, if we’re being technical, it was yourself who killed them two. Alls I did was give the means to do it. You see, Caoimhe, there’s three sides to every conflict: them who disagree, and the rest caught between. It’s that third group tends to suffer most.”
“Women and children. Right.” Caoimhe understood what he meant by this, but not quite how it mattered. She tightened her grip on the stone beside her, careful not to let the creature know what she was hiding.
“And oftentimes the Good People, like meself. When you’re after living for as long as I have, you tend to see the foolishness in human squabbles. Sure, this one’s been on for years, but it’s not so different from the ones that came before it, or the ones are yet to come. I’m more concerned for Ireland herself than who it is that claims her.”
“So you killed a mother and a child for the sake of Ireland? You’re full of it. I should have known to never trust your kind,” Caoimhe said, remembering when Aisling rightly said the same of her.
“Here’s the thing, child: for all the wrong the Brits have set upon the land, there’s little the Republicans could do that would be worse than what’s been done to them and theirs. But there’s sins that get forgiven, and there’s deals with the Diabhal that you don’t be coming back from. Do you understand?”
Caoimhe did not.
“The wan that grew inside your friend? It wasn’t human. Not entirely. The Irish have been desperate for to gain the upper hand — and for that, I do not put a fault on them. But I draw the line when it comes to half-breed demonspawn made as weapons for the war. For down that path lies a darker world that none of yous are prepared for. So I made a choice.”
“Sure but it wasn’t your choice to be making!” Caoimhe spat.
The púca just shrugged. “When you’ve lived as long as I have, you don’t much worry on the details.”
But Caoimhe had seen firsthand just how the war could ruin lives. Her choice to get involved with Diarmid in the first place had led her to that very moment, and all the loss that she had suffered could be traced back to that decision.
Now she herself had been turned into a soldier, too. The púca had used her, just as the rebels had made their use of Aisling.
Still seated, gripping the stone in her hand, Caoimhe scooted herself nearer to the weary púca, whose attentions were focused on easing the pain from his clubbed foot.
“You still owe me your end of the bargain,” she said.
The púca looked up with a forced frown, until a small lilt of laughter slipped out of himself. “I helped you leave the Home, did I not? By my count you’ve been free near a month now.”
Caoimhe’s stomach turned. She’d been played for a fool in more ways than she’d known. She had lived a life of cons and double deals, and should have known better than to trust a púca.
The arm that held the rock was primed to swing, but Caoimhe took a breath and regained control of herself.
“And mo chailín?” she asked. “You promised you would bring me to my daughter.”
Caoimhe only ever had a glimpse of her child before Sister Maire Cahan whisked her away, but she had longed for that day when they two would reunite, and felt certain she would recognize her kin even after all these years.
But the hope inside her slipped away as she watched the púca’s shoulders slump. He was no longer laughing; indeed, she could see the pity in his serpentine eyes.
“I said I’d show you where to find her, not that I would bring you to her,” he said.
Caoimhe knew what to expect before he finished his thought, but still could feel her heart sink as the words fell from his mouth: “She’s buried in the cellar of the Bon Secours Home, with all the other cot deaths.”
Blackness swallowed Caoimhe’s mind. By the time that she came out of it, she could already see the jagged bone sticking out from what before had been the púca’s one good leg, his hot blood splattered on the stone still in her hand and all caking underneath her fingernails. She wondered if the Good People truly were immortal, or did they just outlast their natural deaths. She raised her hand to bring the stone to his skull and find out for herself, and in her rage she was deaf to the whimpers of the creature sprawled beneath her.
Caoimhe let the stone fall from her hand. It hit the ground with a soft thud, gathering dirt and leaves that stuck to the púca’s drying blood as the stone rolled off into the brush.
“You robbed me of a choice,” she said. “Made me into a killer against me will. But now I choose to let you keep your life, though it’s not ’cause you deserve it.”
She could hear the púca’s pleas behind her as she walked away, for he had no means to move from where he laid. She paid him no mind. Despite her sins, Caoimhe had sworn to live as Christ Himself, which meant having mercy on the souls of the damned — including herself. And as she travelled north towards Donegal Bay, a calmness overcame her, lulled by the rhythm and the motion of her steps like a newborn in its rocking cradle. Sure as she was travelling alone, but it felt more home than the Home had ever felt.