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© Tom Noone 2008

Donlan stood with his back to the tree, moving gently from side to side in a scratching motion that eased the itch brought on by perspiration and the coarse vest he was wearing. His long frame fitted comfortably to the trunk of the tree and he could feel the tension in his leg muscles easing. He was tired. He had already been walking for nearly two hours but was now nearing home. A short break would put him in good fettle for the last half mile. He had stopped in the shade of the tall birch that marked the northern edge of his small farm. Dropping to his knees, he leant forward and took a long, slow drink from a little stream that bubbled from a spring just feet away from where he had stood. The water was ice-cold and refreshed him greatly. He stood, wiped his face with the sleeve of his jacket, and lit his first cigarette of the day. The meagre ration he had purchased the previous night in town would have to last until after Mass on Sunday.

A sudden movement in the field below caught his attention. The sun was peeping over the heather-covered esker and he had to pull the cloth cap down over his forehead to see. It was a few seconds before he made out the form of a boy making his way across the paddock in a peculiar zigzag motion. The boy too should have felt the sun’s warm caress on his face but, even from two fields away, Donlan could see him hunch his shoulders as if shivering and then stop to look behind him.

But the boy saw no other living thing in sight, nor did Donlan. The cattle, which should have been there, had gone to the high fields to have their morning forage on the sweet grass that glistened in the distance. The boy himself had opened the barn door as soon as he had risen from his bed in the loft under the thatch-covered eaves. He preferred sleeping there to the bed he shared with his brother in the house. As soon as he leapt down to the hard-packed earth of the barn, the cows raised their heads expectantly. They acknowledged the boy’s presence with soft bows of their heads. Their breath came out in great clouds, the first sign that it would still be cold outside. He went to each of them and stroked their foreheads one by one, getting a gentle nuzzle from behind in return. Later on, he would help out with the milking, one of his favourite jobs during the day. But now, he went out before them. The animals ambled in single file across the yard, their noses filled with the sweet smell of fresh morning grass. Down here in the low ground near the dwelling, the shorter grass held no attraction for them. They followed the familiar trail, unfettered by gates or barriers, walking in single file behind the herd leader. Higher up, in the three fields to the west side of the farm where they were headed, growth was lusher and good grazing was plentiful. The grass still had the carpet of dew that would soon rise in lazy swirls of smoke towards the sun.

Further down, where the boy was moving, the ground was poor. The constant grazing of the sheep out-stripped the land’s ability to recreate new growth. But there was dew here too and the boy felt it washing his bare feet. He loved the feel of it and stooped every few paces to brush his hand off the top of the grass. Each time, he licked the cool water from his fingers. He knew this was the time of year for mushrooms and sensed there would be a good crop to be picked today. He would look among the isolated tussocks where the sheep droppings returned to the earth some of the vital minerals removed by their grazing. Mushrooms grew best where there were sheep. He knew that and he would search for some on the way back. He had long ago learned how to pluck a long thrawneen and spike it through the mushroom stems. That way, he could carry up to three or four dozen of them in one hand. They would still be clean and fresh when he got home. That would please the woman. She would fry them in butter, then add some milk and salt and pepper and place them on thick slices of her own brown bread. The thought of her made him realise it was a good thing he hadn’t worn his leather boots. She would give him a clip on the ear if he arrived back with them soaked. “I gave good money for them boots and you go off wearing them in the wet grass”, he could hear her say in that soft musical voice that seldom changed expression. Her reprimands never carried a threat and her smile took the sting from the words, no matter how stern the rebuke. He would be back at the thatched cottage in time for her breakfast of bread and eggs and maybe some mushrooms before heading for school. School. He frowned at the thought. No fun sitting at a desk all day. There were rabbits to be snared and cows to be milked and churning to be done. How could school match that, he thought. And the woman was as good a teacher as either of the two in the small school up in the village. But the sharp pain of the bamboo cane across his buttocks that one time he had decided to give school a miss and go fishing instead served as a sharp reminder of his foolishness. Master Kelly had no tolerance for ‘stupid, bloody behaviour’ and missing school was the greatest sin of all in his book. What kind of demon took pleasure from hitting a small boy across the arse? But he did and they all hated him for it. So what choice had he? You don’t have those kinds of choices at nine years old.

His mood lightened when he thought of the pals who would be waiting for him at the shop across the road from the school. He broke into a quick sprint, which was when Donlan first noticed him. Now the boy was running as fast as he could go, his legs barely touching the ground and his breath coming in short, quick gasps. Ahead, he saw the loose stone wall marking the outer edge of Donlan’s land. Without breaking stride he leapt it easily, his trailing left leg lightly touching the top stone to give him an extra yard on the other side as he cleared the stream from which Donlan had tasted the sweet water just moments before. But he had hit the top of the wall just a little too hard and the big stone rocked back and forth for a few seconds before toppling into the stream. He thought the sound would be heard all the way back to the house. “Frig it”, he thought, “now I’ll have to stop and put it back. Maybe I’ll leave it until later”. He turned to continue his run, but suddenly stopped. The thought of the man’s humour if he discovered a stone missing from the wall brought a sharp frisson of fear. He stepped back into the water and bent to pick it up. It was heavier than he thought and it took him several minutes to get a proper grip. He clasped both hands around the stone, and then locked his fingers together to prevent it slipping. Taking small steps, he inched his way forward until he was standing almost at the base of the wall. Slowly, he raised his arms and carefully replaced the stone, moving it into position by twisting it back and forth until he was satisfied that it would not stir. He had one final glance at it before turning away and continuing his run.

Up on the hill, Donlan smiled. He had been watching the boy, wondering where he was going in such a hurry this early in the morning. When the stone had fallen into the stream and the boy had hesitated, Donlan knew exactly what was going through the child’s mind. He was glad the boy did the right thing. Maybe he was learning, after all.  He took a last pull on the cigarette and, holding the stub between thumb and forefinger, flicked it away into the scrub.

Now, the boy slowed a little. The ground here was rough and covered in thistles. Once, he had fallen heavily when he stepped into a rut and twisted his ankle. He couldn’t walk properly for a week afterwards. The gibes from his brother were worse than the pain. “Go away, ya amadhaun, you can’t even run across a flat field. Jaysus, and you’re the one trying to get on the football team”. He couldn’t have picked a sharper barb with which to taunt him.

But now, he was nearly at his destination. Running at right angles to the boundary wall was a ditch as tall as the boy himself. It was covered with grass and sturdy whin bushes, their yellow flowers fading in the slow death of autumn but their thorns still sharp enough to cause painful scratches when he brushed against them. He followed the line of the ditch for a few hundred yards, picking his footsteps carefully to avoid the deep ruts caused by the daily movement of the neighbour’s cattle going to and from their grazing grounds. Step by careful step, his eyes darting from bush to bush, he continued on until he finally saw what he was looking for. His eyes never leaving his target, he backed away across the furrowed track that ran alongside the ditch, until he felt himself reaching the dyke behind him. He stopped and lowered himself to the ground, then lay flat, his breath coming in short sharp gasps. He snuggled into the longer grass of the dyke, knowing that only the top of his head would be visible at ground level. Within moments, he had become as still as the warm morning air.

Now the only movement came from his eyes, darting swiftly from side to side as he waited. He felt the beat of his heart thumping against the grassy cushion and the sound seemed to roar in his ears. “Please come soon”, he whispered to himself. Then he froze.

A large female cat, as black as the night, had suddenly appeared on the periphery of his vision. He stayed motionless, his eyes unblinking as she crept forward. Her stomach brushed the grass as she slid towards the ditch just in front of the boy. “Oh, God, don’t let her see me” he prayed. But the cat, ears twitching from side to side for any stray noises, was oblivious to him. Inch by inch, she climbed the side of the ditch until she was at the very top. Then she turned and started down, head first, until she was at a point just over half way, inches from the entrance to a rabbit burrow. The opening was no bigger than the boy’s fist and was almost covered by grass. The cat stopped and took up a position facing downwards, the tip of her tail flicking in sharp, jerky movements. Then she was still.

For several minutes, both boy and cat were motionless, neither of them seeming to breathe. Almost imperceptibly, the cat flattened herself against the ditch, her left paw rising slightly and forming into a hook shape. The boy’s heart was again racing and his throat was dry as a bone. He could sense what was going to happen and his powerful fascination would prevent him from playing any part in it.

Deep in the warren, the family of young rabbits was ready for a new day. The large buck had long since left to meet with the other family heads for the peculiar early morning gatherings of the tribal males. The doe would be the guardian of the litter until all the families living along the one-mile stretch of this special ditch assembled for food and play later in the morning. There was no human dwelling nearby and generations of rabbits had lived here, building new homes in early spring each year to raise their litters.

The youngsters were impatient to be above ground, and the doe had to deliver several short sharp cuffs to the heads of the more boisterous ones to keep them in check. Making sure they were all behind her, she moved forward and upward until the beam of light told her she was at the mouth of the warren. Her nose was her radar, twitching furiously to pick up any strange smells that would spell danger. She detected nothing but the clean morning air and the familiar vegetation scents that told her it would be a good day for grazing. She crept forward until her forequarters were outside the burrow. She felt the welcoming caress of the early morning sun and raised her face to return the greeting. It was the last living movement she made.

Inches above her, the cat unleashed itself like a coiled spring, the powerful left forepaw striking deep into the rabbit’s throat. The long, needle-sharp claws immediately pierced the vessels carrying the animal’s life-blood, slicing open its throat with only the briefest resistance from the unsuspecting prey. Within seconds, the rabbit was dead.

Hunched in the grass, the boy watched with deadly fascination. His long, thin fingers had sunk into the ground, each hand gripping the earth in an unconscious rictus of excitement. His breath, which he seemed to have been holding for an age, suddenly shot out in an almost painful release of tension. The magic, feral spell was broken and the cat looked up, startled for a moment and ready to bolt. Her baleful green eyes fixed immediately on the boy, who held her gaze unflinchingly. She decided he did not represent a threat and, almost disdainfully, she returned to the task at hand. Jumping lightly onto the ground, she grasped the lifeless carcase by the loose skin at the nape of the neck and proceeded to drag it from the burrow. As she did, the first three of the litter ran out excitedly, tumbling over each other in their eagerness. Their frolics quickly turned to confusion at the sight of their mother lying still with the strange creature standing over her. They had never seen death before. But their confusion turned to terror as their natural instincts told them of a terrible danger. Within seconds, they had bolted back into the safety of the burrow, but not before one of them somersaulted over a slower sibling and found itself on its back, staring with terrified eyes into the deadly green gaze of the strange creature who had their mother. But the cat did not seem interested and the youngster dashed gratefully for the safety of the ditch.

The cat had not moved during this interruption but kept one paw placed firmly on the body of her prey, ready to strike again if there was any further movement. When she was satisfied that there would be no more interference, she moved backwards in quick, lithe paces until she had her capture out on the flat of the track. Then, shifting her body position so that she was alongside the rabbit, she again grasped it by the neck. She moved forward, her head twisted sideways with the effort of dragging the rabbit, which was almost as big as her. Slowly gaining momentum, she got up to walking pace, her powerful hind legs driving her in sharp bursts. She stopped every few yards to release the tension in her neck muscles, and then resumed her task.

The boy was still deeply affected by what he had seen. He had trapped rabbits by snare but that was just a job for food. He had never been there at the moment of the kill and, like the young rabbits a few minutes ago; he had never seen death in its raw feral state. He did not move from his position for several minutes. The cat was almost out of sight before he clambered to his feet and moved stiffly along the track. The numbness that suffused his body on rising was soon replaced by his eagerness to get back to the barn. First he walked quickly, then he broke into a trot and soon was running at full pelt until he came in sight of the wall. He couldn’t return the way he had come because then he would not see the next stage. He had no idea how the animal would get its burden through the five-barred wooden gate at the end of the paddock. He thought that was the only way she could go so he ran further along to the right. There was a stile there built into the wall for easy passage to the neighbour’s house and vaulted through it.  A quick glance to his left told him the cat had not yet come into the paddock. He kept a steady pace until the house came into view, then slowed to a walk.

He had forgotten all about the mushrooms.

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This work is the sole property of Tom Noone

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