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Towards Dawn

Rose Malone

The forest was a ship with four thousand masts. The wind sighed softly in the rigging, lifted the ravens to smash into the blue arc. Their finger bones spread and groaned against the evening light. Shudders passed through needles, reverberated through our vertebrae. The needles were sharp and brittle. They sifted and spiralled in aerial whirlpools, wrapping themselves around the ghosts of all the beings who had ever lived there. The roots of the trees mirrored the world of light in their subterranean kingdom and hosted millions of silent, scuttling things. These roots pushed upwards in the shallow soil, wrinkling the surface like the varicose veins in my legs. My breath came raggedly from my unaccustomed lungs and my body felt as formless and slack as a half-filled hessian sack. That taut, athletic body that had completed the Lug walk – thirty miles across the Dublin and Wicklow mountains, twenty thousand feet of climb – had been stolen from me. Along with its capacious lungs. It must have been oxygen deprivation that made me have such fanciful thoughts about trees and ghosts and body thieves. I watched enviously as Sorcha’s slim, muscled legs settled quickly into an easy loping walk.

It was dusk when we got to the bridge – a midsummer dusk, where the light did not so much fade as grow granular, made of particles, not waves. We stopped in the echoing centre of the bridge and grasped the rail to steady ourselves against the dizzying effect of the churning water below. The water had grabbed as much light as it could and amplified it, turned it into sound, threw its whiteness against the stones. Children’s laughter threaded itself through the aging voice of the river. I could catch the precise tones of Cliona and Finian – the thieves of my body - and knew that they were leading Ben a merry dance. The sound of his feet on the stairs echoed against the deeply cut banks and in the planks of the bridge. Sorcha dropped twigs into the river and watched them swirl in the peat brown, beer brown pools. The overnight walk had been her idea.

‘You need to get out, Deirdre, get your old self back’, she had insisted. The implication was that four years of child-bearing and maternal murk had extinguished my identity, along with my fitness. I hated sentences that began “You need …”. It was for me to say what I needed. There was also an implication that my current lifestyle made me a bad feminist, as well as a bad friend. Allowing one’s body to lose fitness had become the secular equivalent of a mortal sin. Sorcha had implied that an overnight walk on a mountain trail would grant me absolution and begin my rehabilitation, physical, personal and political.

Now she turned to me, smiling, and the last of the evening light bounced off the whiteness of her bleached teeth and the clarity of her eyes. My laboured breathing and flushed cheeks seemed to disappoint her, and she turned away towards the trail with a small sigh. I had to physically pull my hands away from the rail and drag my leaden feet from the bridge. I could hear the children’s laughter growing fainter, but still pulling at the small of my back.

The trail went steeply uphill, its sharpness moderated by looping zigzags. Sorcha climbed easily, her breathing only slightly quickened. Tall trees of spruce and pine crowded on either side of us. They huddled their heads together and webs of darkness filled the space between them. It was very still, and the air thickened and vibrated with particles of blackness, an insubstantial black pollen. There was a heaviness in the crowding presence of the trees - all that weight of wood, woven out of air. I found it hard to breathe. Sorcha’s sturdy, rhythmic legs became dimmer as the distance between us grew. She stopped at a bend and turned to look back, tactfully pretending she was looking at the last remnants of the sunset, rather than waiting for me. I willed her to wait until I’d had a breather before continuing, although I knew she must be getting chilled. She slipped her arms out of her backpack and took out a bottle of water which she offered to me.

‘Thanks’, I said and sipped carefully. I poured a little water into my hand and washed the neck of the bottle before handing it back. She shook her head ‘No, thanks’, and took a sweater out of the backpack.

‘I thought I was fitter’, I said. ‘After all, Finian is two and a half now. I’ve no excuse and I’ve been training for this. I’ve been out walking every day.’ Why did I sound defensive?

‘This stretch finds everybody out’, she replied. ‘It’s a tough pull up from the river. Probably the steepest bit of the whole trail, or at least the section we’re doing tonight.’

I didn’t much like the idea of being found out, found wanting. I had expected to feel the strain in my legs, especially in my calf muscles, and maybe in my lower back but not in my breasts, which ached as though I were still breast-feeding. Finian had been weaned since shortly after I’d gone back to work, over a year ago. It was more than time to have my body back. Sorcha had got that much right. She lived alone in a smart apartment with pale walls and parquet floors, in which there was always white wine in the fridge, spirits and crystal glasses in a wooden cabinet and clean sheets on the bed. She was a member of two gyms and swam regularly. She kept herself fit and in constant readiness. It seemed to me that I was always playing catch-up, behind the movement, behind the beat. Now she looked at me birdlike, head tilted to one side.

‘It’s great for you to get away tonight’, she said. It was an assertion. I smiled a lightless smile with my lips closed. It was the best I could do. I could feel the tug and drag through my whole body. We went on and the trail, although still rising, became less steep. My breathing eased and my steps lengthened. My confidence grew and I began to pay more attention to my surroundings. When I stopped, it was for genuine appreciation of the view, rather than as an excuse. The lights of the city below had blazed up and the orange glow made an alternative firmament which diminished the glow of the emerging stars. The next switchback took us away from the artificial light and towards the growing darkness. Suddenly, a thicker darkness reared up in front of us. The same atavistic, ridiculous reaction leaped to both our minds. Sorcha gripped my upper arm.

‘A bear!’ we said together and immediately laughed at ourselves. No bears in Ireland. We’d seen too many American movies. The strong pine scent told us that there was a tree down across the trail. Darkness tangled in our hair and made it difficult for us to see a way through. Our hands were quickly covered in the stickiness of resin. This upset Sorcha more than it did me, who lived in a world where mess was inevitable and constant. We had to get down on our hands and knees and crawl through a small gap to emerge on the other side into thinner darkness. I wiped my hands on my trousers.

The whiteness of the trail glimmered faintly between the masses of solid blackness. A late homegoing bird passed us with an air of urgency. I was beginning to live in the here-and-now of the world where I found myself. I could still imagine home – the children sleeping in the glow of their night-lights, Ben on the couch, dozing in front of a “boys-blowing-things-up” movie with the sound turned low – but the pull on my viscera had lessened to the extent that I was aware of the pulse of life in the air around me and in the ground under my feet.

When we reached the top of the ridge, a half moon began to slice a silver light through the indigo sky above the bigger hills to the east. I was now in the lead and stopped to throw my arms up to the sky in a gesture of release to freedom. I could see the trail heading downwards and had to restrain an impulse to run. Sorcha’s voice came up to me, slightly ragged.

‘Wait up. The trail branches here. There should be a marker.’

I recognised her superior experience but felt vaguely irritated as though my moment of triumph had been devalued. She arrived beside me and switched on her head torch to study the map. Her face in the torchlight was scrunched in concentration. She turned the map around to face the way they were going, then turned back.

‘There should be a marker’, she said again.

I scuffled the gravel at the side of the trail and shone my torch into the thick heather alongside. I spotted something dark lying on the ground. The marker post had been knocked over. Two faces showed the picture of the yellow walking man, but it was now difficult to say which way the arrows had pointed when the post was standing. Just over the brow of the hill, the whitish path that seemed to be the clear trail, plunged sharply downwards and then seemed to narrow. A second path, made of a darker shale, diverged downwards to the right, but then seemed to rise again. Sorcha had turned several times through 360 degrees. She was chewing her lower lip and muttering to herself. Up till now I had been content to follow and defer to her knowledgeable leadership, but I felt my confidence and assertiveness growing. It was simply too dangerous to acquiesce without question.

‘May I look at the map?’ I said, reaching for it.

‘I’m pretty sure it’s this way’, Sorcha replied. She began to stride confidently in what I suddenly realised was the opposite direction, back the way we had come. I called her name and she stopped, almost concealing her irritation.

‘We’re heading back. Look at the sky – the lights of Dublin’, I said. She seemed to be about to contradict me, then suddenly realised I was right. She turned back to me and shook the hair out of her eyes.

‘Thanks. You haven’t lost it, your ability to navigate’, she said. I recognised the generosity of this and also what it had cost her. I felt a rush of affection for her and an appreciation of her concern for me. Maybe I did need to get out more and reclaim some of my old life. We re-read the map together and picked out the distracting trail that led up to Glencullen Mountain. It was a mistake that we’d never have made in daylight. We quickly recognised the correct direction and passed through some boggy ground before beginning our easy lope down to the next glen.

It was now fully dark and clouds hid the stars. My sense of sight was no longer of prime importance. Other senses began to assert themselves and the living things around us began to assume a reality and validity that I hadn’t taken in before. A sudden waft of coconut scent suggested that there was gorse in bloom nearby. That dark, silent flicker above our heads was probably a bat. Suddenly we heard a sound in the trees that sounded almost like the wail of a human baby. It had a strange, unearthly quality in the dark emptiness.

‘A baby!’ Sorcha said and clutched my upper arm. We couldn’t explain this away as we had done with the imaginary bear. There was definitely someone, or something, there. But I wasn’t convinced it was a living, human baby. When someone, tragically, abandons a baby, they usually leave her in a place where she is relatively safe and, crucially, will be easy to find. I forced myself to remain calm and avoided arguing.

‘Hello?’ I called, the question quavering in my voice. The sound came again, reverberating against the great piano keyboard of the forest, making it difficult to establish its location. It was certainly somewhere to the left of the path.

‘Definitely a baby’, Sorcha said. We both turned on our head torches and, in their light, our faces were ghastly pale with dark lakes of shadow at eyes and mouth. We looked at each other and agreed wordlessly that decency demanded that we at least investigate. We headed into the denser darkness of the trees. The thing about a managed forest like this one is that the trees are planted along ridges and, in the dark, everything looks like a path until, suddenly, it doesn’t. We needed constantly to divert around obstacles and in doing so, lost the sense of where we had originally been heading. Only the direction of the slope gave us a clue and even that could be deceptive, because of boulders and depressions imprinted on the fabric of the hillside. Our clumsy progress around trees and through undergrowth seemed to generate ridiculous amounts of noise – branches snapped under our feet, bushes rustled, our quiet voices made a discordant, raucous music. We found ourselves whispering and listening to sounds from things we had disturbed. A bird flapped heavily overhead, something sprang up and bounded through the undergrowth. The white rump of a deer disappeared almost silently into a forest ride line. Our whispers seemed to go on echoing and mingling with the wind noise in the trees.

Sorcha suddenly stopped and pointed wordlessly at something. My head torch picked out drops of blood on the bracken, which continued, forming a track, then a rivulet on bare ground. We stopped and Sorcha called out again. The cry came again, weaker this time but very near. I saw something soft huddled on the ground. A scarf? A shawl wrapping a baby? I turned my head torch in its direction and crouched down. It took a minute for me to reassemble and reinterpret the sense impressions that had led us here. The soft material on the ground was not a scarf or shawl, but a fox’s brush. The sounds we had heard were not human, but came from a fox, a vixen judging by her size, whose hind leg was caught in the steel jaws of a trap. The vixen turned her head towards us, and her eyes were lightless, dark with pain, the black lips drawn back from her clenched teeth. There were white hairs in her face. This was an old fox, a survivor. In the light of our torches, we could see the mangled tendons of her leg and the jagged edge of white bone penetrating her fur. I can deal with mess and chaos, but I’m no good with blood and internal organs. I grabbed on to a tree as my vision blurred and my knees buckled. Sorcha slipped out of her backpack and knelt down beside the injured animal. I found my voice.

‘Be careful,’ I said. ‘She could still bite you. That could be serious.’ I wasn’t sure if foxes carried rabies. Sorcha turned back to me, and my torch caught the glitter of tears on her white face.

‘We have to do something’, she said. ‘We can’t let him suffer.’

‘Her’, I corrected automatically. ‘We should put her out of her agony.’

It seemed to me that Sorcha was still thinking about the fox as though it were a human baby. I’d grown up on a farm and found it hard to let go of the idea that foxes were vermin. City-bred Sorcha was filled with wonder at the incursion of foxes into the suburbs and thrilled to see one in the landscaped grounds of her apartment block. Her mouth opened in a dark “O” of shock at my callousness.

‘We could bring her to a vet surgery’, she said. ‘They might have to amputate, but it could save her life.’

‘It was a horrible thing to do, to set a trap like that’, I said. I was pretty sure it was an illegal trap, but I didn’t say that. ‘But think for a minute. How could we manage it? How could we carry her down the hill to a village three miles away? How would we find a vet in the middle of the night? We’d be laughed at, in a place where foxes are vermin.’

I wasn’t going to admit that I partly shared that view. Sorcha’s face contorted in horror at the forbidden word. Before she could say anything, we were startled by the sound of a large creature moving through the trees. Only a human could move so clumsily. I immediately feared that the person who had set the trap had come back. I froze and put a finger to my lips to indicate that we should be silent. The noise continued and I realised that it was coming from several directions. There was more than one of them out there. Sorcha gave a small moan and put a hand over her mouth as though to stifle a scream. The crashing noise resolved itself into footsteps that seemed to move surely and rhythmically. Two sets of footsteps. They advanced towards us, then seemed to retreat, as though in some kind of dance. The sound echoed off the trees. I caught a murmur of low voices. Male. I drew a sharp breath and looked at Sorcha, but she didn’t meet my gaze. The fox gave another cry, weaker this time, and the footsteps seemed to turn and come closer. Two shadows or patches of greater darkness, one taller and bulkier than the other, materialised close to us. The smaller one turned on a powerful torch and trained it on the fox. We crouched behind a tree and concentrated on remaining silent.

‘We have her all right, and all her brood’, the smaller figure said, on a note of unrepentant triumph.

‘The hens are safe for a while and she’ll take no lambs from me next spring’, the larger man said.

We blinked in the sudden light, which revealed the two figures as a heavy-set man and a teenage boy. The man was carrying a hessian sack, which heaved and writhed and made small, cat-like sounds.

‘We’d better deal with her’, he said to his young companion, ‘but be careful, don’t get bitten’. This crude echo of my own words to Sorcha almost made me whimper. The boy handed the torch to the man, picked up a stone and brought it down on the fox’s skull. The audible crunch made me gag and Sorcha could no longer remain silent. Her wail echoed and re-echoed up and down the forest. The man dropped the torch.

‘What the fuck?’ he said. We were revealed in the torchlight, as shockingly as if we were naked. I put my hand over my eyes to shield them from the dazzle.

‘Are ye lost?’ he asked. ‘And ye with all your Goretex and maps and fiddle-faddle! I hope ye’re not some of them rewilders.’ There was no kindness in his voice. I could feel Sorcha’s trembling beside me and wanted to comfort her, but suddenly realised that her white face signified boiling anger, rather than fear. Dangerous anger. We needed to get out of this situation. The boy stooped to pick up the torch and, to my horror, I saw that he was carrying a shotgun. My fear of and aversion to guns verges on the pathological. The boy read the terror on my face and fired a single shot into the air. The enormity of the noise struck us like a blow and the echoes continued to ricochet through row upon row of trees. Instinct made us turn and run clumsily downhill, pursued by a burst of maniacal laughter from the boy. We somehow bundled ourselves onto a precipitous path which brought us slipping and sliding down to rejoin the walking trail. We didn’t speak until we reached the safety of motor road in the glen. We had reached the half-way point of our planned hike. Our brave adventure was irrevocably spoiled. Our bodies felt weak and inadequate against the vast darkness. All our skill and fitness counted for nothing against brutality. We were dirty, tear-streaked and utterly exhausted. That mocking laughter continued in our imagination to underline the bitterness of our defeat.

‘What will we do now?’ Sorcha said. ‘Will we call Ben to come and collect us?’ This was a tempting idea, but I knew it wasn’t really feasible. He’d have to get the children out of bed, and the logistics were too difficult to contemplate. And I hated the idea of asking to be rescued.

‘If we rested a bit, we might be able to carry on’, I said, but I found it hard to believe my own words. Sorcha thought for a minute, then managed a weak smile.

‘We should eat something’, she said, and this seemed like the most brilliant and original idea anyone could have. We crossed the road and picked up a trail that led down to a wide river. Beside a footbridge we sat down and unpacked our sandwiches. Our limbs released their stored tension. Our torches had run down but the clouds had thinned and the moon asserted itself. Its light was golden now, rather than silver, magnified by its reflection in the water. Somewhere nearby, a disorientated blackbird sang a phrase. My watch said 3.30.

‘At half-past three, a single bird’ I quoted.

We drank the rest of the water and ate some chocolate. We could make it after all.

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