The hare wasn’t ten feet away, the closest he had ever come. He was bigger than Siobhan had realised, legs stocky, white tail cartoon-fluffy. In spite of his heft there was a lightness in the way he flumped about. He paused, held himself very straight. Siobhan fancied he was looking at her, though it was unlikely he could see her. The back garden was shaded by a dense grove of sally trees and the winter light was thin.
‘He’s there again now. You told me they only come out at night.’
‘You’ll often see them at this time, or in the evening,’ said Sid. He leaned into her back, pushing her against the sink, and banged the kitchen window with the heel of his hand. In a single leap the hare cleared the beech saplings Sid had planted in the autumn, ears making a V sign, and took off in the direction of the House.
‘You frightened him.’
‘Cheeky bastard’s after tipping my new hedge.’
‘He? It, you mean. The thing’s a pest, Townie.’ He lifted her hair and rubbed his chin across the nape of her neck.
‘You know you want to.’
‘You’re not funny.’
The Pajero puttered to a halt outside. ‘I’m gone,’ she said and made for the bedroom. Sid caught her wrist.
‘Say hello at least, don’t be ignorant.’
Siobhan pulled her fleece across herself, wishing she had put a bra on. Paddy let himself in and stood on the hearth rug in his boots. He and Sid wore* *identical camouflage hunting jackets in shades of russet and olive and brown. It was the last day of the shooting season. Siobhan and Sid rented the gate lodge of the country estate owned by the Fitzroy family that was known for its wild game and salmon. Paddy was the gamekeeper, Sid one of the beaters. They had been friends since school.
‘Well,’ Paddy said. In one hand he had a bottle of poitin that he gave to Sid. Two small dead birds dangled from the other. He offered them to Siobhan with a sidelong look at Sid. Both men laughed when she shrank back. Paddy followed Sid to the kitchen. He had parked so close to the porch diesel fumes were panting into the sitting room. Siobhan went to close the front door. Dogs were yelping from the back of the jeep, and a slight girl was in the passenger seat, limp dark hair framing a small face. She was wearing a waxed jacket that was too big for her and a man’s tweed cap. Siobhan gestured at her to come in. The girl raised an eyebrow and a shoulder and looked the other way. Siobhan left the door ajar and went into the kitchen.
‘Who’s the young one?’ she asked Paddy.
‘Rachael. The girlfriend’s daughter.’
‘Should she not be in school?’
‘She’s in Transition Year. She was at me to bring her dog with her to train it.’
‘Bring her in, sure.’
‘She’s grand where she is.’
‘I’ll be late this evening,’ said Sid. He kissed her forehead. ‘Champagne and canapés with Lady Muck, and a few scoops in Dolan’s.’
‘Well for you,’ Siobhan said, backing towards the bedroom. The previous morning Paddy had kissed her goodbye too. And sniffed her. Like a dog, she had told Sid. Sid had just laughed.
‘Paddy’s a hunter. A man’s man.’
‘He’s a creep, Sid.’
She stood on the porch and watched them leave. Rachael answered her wave with a stare. Paddy reversed onto the lawn and took off towards the House; on his spare wheel cover there was a faded silhouette of two rhinos, one mounting the other from behind. For a second the lake glinted beyond them, a silver line in the distance. She and Sid had come to live here the previous Easter, yet she was still moved by the place, by the pastoral sweep of parkland that stretched to the right of the cottage, how it changed every day. This morning the copse of oaks before the bend was crisp with hoarfrost.
She ladled water from the rain barrel at the side of the house and sloshed it around the cyclamen she had potted on either side of the door, taking care not to let the icy water touch the leaves. She thought the lodge beautiful. It was a scaled down model of the House, generous in width yet only one room deep, with four small Grecian columns holding up a miniature portico. Vanessa Fitzroy had had it painted in Farrow & Ball colours and hung Liberty print curtains. Now it was winter, though, white mould bloomed on the walls and several times a day Siobhan blotted condensation from the windows with an old towel.
She went back inside and through to the kitchen. The dead birds were on the draining board. She flipped one of them over with a wooden spoon, saw a flash of jade at the wing tip, the fine, tiny nib of its beak. It was a teal. She put the kettle on for a cup of tea. Sid said they should buy local produce, and was keen for her to drink a herbal infusion made by an English woman who was living off the grid near Drumshanbo. Siobhan thought it smelled like silage, that Barry’s of Cork was local enough.
Sid had bought books online about self-sufficiency and foraging. For the month of February they would eat only wild food. It would be a lean month for plants and leaves, he said, but they would manage. The freezer was full of nettle puree and wild garlic pesto. At the summer’s end they had gathered stuff she hadn’t known was food and preserved it. On the kitchen dresser there were jars of pickled alexanders and rowan jelly, bottles of sloe gin. There were powdered puffballs that Sid wanted her to use instead of stock cubes, pots of magic mushrooms suspended in honey. She didn’t completely trust Sid with the mushrooms. Once he had brought home a deadly amanita that was full of small white worms. Later they had pegged chanterelles and hedgehog fungi to flimsy makeshift clotheslines that criss-crossed the spare bedroom. The first batch had rotted in the damp. The next was a success because they had put an electric heater on in the room for a week.
Siobhan put on a green tweed coat and mauve mohair scarf, and fur-lined
ankle boots. Her mad ould one outfit, Sid called it. She drove the three miles into town and parked at the back of SuperValu. Christmas lights, disconnected and dribbling rust, were still swinging over Main Street as she crossed it. The library was housed in a former Protestant church that sat back from the street. The children’s books were just inside the door on the left. A group of small girls were in a ring on the floor with their teacher, weaving Brigid’s crosses from rushes to mark the start of spring. The cross was said to guard a home from evil, fire and hunger. Siobhan might pick rushes at the lakeshore later, see if she remembered how to make one. Maybe it would guard them against visits from* *Paddy. She returned her books and asked the assistant where she could find information about hares.
‘Fifth from the left, third shelf down,’ said a high, quick voice behind her. She turned to see who had spoken. It was Oliver Doody. He was sitting in the study area, two large rectangular tables pushed together. Opposite him, two schoolgirls were giggling over the ‘Out and About’ pages of the Sligo Champion. To their right a young black man was filling in a form.
Soon she found what she wanted. All the chairs were taken except the one next to Oliver Doody. She sat down. Oliver had been in Sid’s class in school. Siobhan had often seen him walking the roads far from his bungalow on the edge of the town. His lawn swayed knee-high, and children threw stones at his windows. Today he was wearing a wide sou’wester and shiny golf jacket. One leg of his tracksuit bottoms was torn from inside the thigh to below the knee. His leg was pale and shapely. Four thick biographies of Elizabeth 1st were stacked in front of him. Siobhan opened an old *Encyclopaedia of Wildlife *and found the right chapter. It had photographs of mountain hares, European hares, American jackrabbits.
Oliver Doody cleared his throat. Siobhan turned to look at him. ‘Lepus
timidus hibernicus,’ he said, eyes bright behind the greasy lenses of his glasses, the Latin words grave and glottal, like a spell. He told her that the Irish hare doesn’t turn white in winter. He told her the Druids thought the hare was an incarnation of the moon goddess Eostre, who we named Easter after. He told her that Boudica once released a hare from under her skirt before a battle, and that the hare was on the old Irish threepenny bit. He told her it had been thought that the young males boxed out of rivalry, but that scientists now know the females box the males away when they don’t want to copulate. He told her the ancient Irish believed hares were shape shifters, related to the sidhe, because a hare screams like a woman when it’s hurt. Around the table, the girls had stopped giggling, the young man had put down his pen.
‘A hare comes into my garden,’ Siobhan said. ‘I can’t wait to see it leaping
round the place in March.’ But the spell was broken and Oliver Doody was quiet. He folded back into himself and picked at a long thread on the open seam of his bottoms. As she went to put back the books, he reached forward and tapped one of them with yellowy fingers. She borrowed it at the desk on the way out.
She went into SuperValu. Her shopping list was short, just milk, eggs and bananas. On her way to pay, a woman stopped her.
‘Well, stranger.’ Nicola Leyden was smiling, baring teeth so white they seemed to luminesce. She was wearing a black and pink kimono with her name on it. Her beauty clinic was above the supermarket. ‘What are you up to?’
‘I was in the library.’
‘Weirdo. Do me a favour, will you?’ She took ten euro from her pocket. ‘Would you ever buy me a box of super plus and a bag of towels?’
‘Do you not want to get the discount on them?’
‘Davy Feeney is over the checkouts today. I’d die if he knew.’
‘You have a kid to him. He must know you have periods.’
‘His wife let herself go. I want to keep the bit of glamour going.’
As Siobhan approached the checkouts, Davy Feeney disappeared through a door marked PRIVATE. The doughy boy behind the counter looked miserably at the contents of her basket and had to scan the tampons three times before the till recognised the code. Siobhan wondered if Sid would like her to spend her periods squatting in a hedgerow with a wad of dock leaves, like Queen Maeve. She sniggered, out loud. The boy fled, knocking against a display of Valentine’s Day cards. Nicola was waiting at the back of the shop.
‘How’s life with Bear Grylls?’ she said, tucking her supplies under her arm. ‘Grand. Last day of the shooting season today.’
‘You’re like death.’
‘Come up to me later and I’ll do your tan.’
‘You’d want to be lightening yours. You’re the colour of a brick.’
‘I couldn’t give two shites. Fake is fake. Have you time for a cup of coffee?’ Siobhan wanted to go home and read the library book before Sid came back.
She made an excuse. They hugged and said they would see each other soon.
Oliver Doody was by the bottle bins, flicking curry chips into his mouth with his fingers, hunched and feral again away from the library. She paused to say hello but he didn’t lift his head. Sid said Oliver Doody had been persecuted at school. Siobhan wondered if Sid had been one of his tormentors. Before the Garda station closed, Sid’s father had been the Sergeant. Sid, the copper’s kid. Considering he knew everything that went on in the town, Sergeant Hennigan had been oblivious to his son’s drug peddling, to his fighting and thieving. Still, surely Sid would have hunted more artful prey than Oliver?
On the way home she called in to Great Gas for diesel. She bought a chicken fillet roll and a diet Coke too. In three days she would be living off the land and the prospect depressed her. When she pulled up at the lodge, she could hear* *shots in the distance. Sid had been home. He had left a change of clothes across the back of the couch. She brought them out to the car and drove towards the House; otherwise Paddy would drive him home to get them, and Sid would ask him in again.
It was only three but already the sky had dimmed. To the left of the house the dark lake lapped against the reeds and rushes. The gunfire was getting louder as she turned right towards the coach yard. Jeeps and trailers and small white vans were parked along the lane, the Pajero at the end. She left her car around the corner and followed the shouts and shots and barks.
They were in an open space in the field that bordered the hazel wood. Ten men were standing at posts positioned at regular intervals in a row. Paddy and Sid and the other beaters were beyond the coach yard. Suddenly pheasants flew up, a little flock of ten or twelve. They seemed to Siobhan to be disorientated, flapping weakly. There was a shout and the men at the posts had time to raise their guns and fire. Six birds fell and the dogs ran to retrieve them. A seventh bird, which Siobhan had seen take a hit, flew on towards the lake, sinking into the horizon as it struggled. She waited for one of the beaters to send a dog after it, but they just stood there. She started to walk towards Sid. She hadn’t thought to put her wellingtons on and the heavy ground sucked at her heels.
‘One of the birds is wounded. You need to bring a dog over to the lake,’ she
told Sid. Paddy whispered something to Rachael that made her smirk.
‘They can fly half a mile like that. We’d never find it,’ said Sid, without looking at her. She pushed his clothes at him and went back to the car, her righteous gait hampered by the wrong footwear. On the way down the lane she had to brake hard to avoid hitting a stick legged bird with no plumage, just tufts of thin white down. Vanessa Fitzroy was behind it, swathed in cashmere the colour of heather, swinging a blackthorn shillelagh. Siobhan wound the window down.
‘What the fuck is that?’ she said.
‘Henrietta is a rescue hen, poor thing.’
‘They’re slaughtering healthy birds up there. Why would you rescue that yoke?’
Bridie, the cleaning lady, had told Siobhan that Vanessa spent her days lying on the couch eating chicken nuggets and Face-timing her friends in Cape Town. Vanessa had invited Siobhan to the house for coffee a few times, but by the look on her face now, she was unlikely to ask her again. Siobhan closed her window and drove too fast towards the cottage, wanting to get away from the House, too angry to stop by the lake for reeds.
Inside, she lit a fire. The twigs and shoots Sid gathered were always damp so the room grew smoky. At the sink she washed the breakfast dishes, trying not to look at the little dead birds, or think about the wounded pheasant flitting away from the men’s guns. Sid’s copy of Richard Mabey’s *Food for Free *was propped open on the window sill. He had bought it a few months earlier and already it had begun to yellow and curl. It occurred to Siobhan he had aged it on purpose. She made another cup of tea and brought it to the sitting room. The fire had caught and was spitting brightly. She took out the book Oliver Doody had recommended. It was an anthology of folk tales collected by Yeats, with faded art nouveau illustrations. She began to read a story called ‘Bewitched Butter’, about a magical cow in Donegal.
Sid came home after seven, with Paddy and Rachael. He hadn’t changed his clothes.
‘Drink!’ he said. Siobhan went to the kitchen after him. ‘What’s the story?’
‘Relax. They’re only here for one or two.’ ‘What age is that girl?’
‘Fuck knows. Will you have one?’ He waved the poitin at her. ‘Lighten up, will you?’ he said when she didn’t answer. He brought the bottle to the sitting room with three shot glasses. Rachael was on the couch beside Paddy, flushed. Siobhan forced a smile.
‘How did you get on today, Rachael?’ ‘It was cool.’
‘I was thinking about that poor pheasant,’ Siobhan said. Sid glanced at Paddy. ‘There was a rake of them hit like that,’ Rachael said, raising the eyebrow and
‘That ould Yank only half hit most of his, the fucking eejit,’ said Sid. ‘All the right gear and he couldn’t kill shite.’ The others laughed.
Siobhan took her book and went down the hall. Sid would tell her later it was all her own fault, that she wasn’t on the same buzz as them. She lay on top of the bed and tried to ignore Sid flicking through tracks on his iPod, Paddy’s voice, slow and careful, Rachael’s sudden laughter. Siobhan knew Sid would settle on ‘Kashmir’. Still, when she heard the opening bars she felt a lurch of something, of fury almost, that surprised her. She would avoid him for the rest of the evening, have a long bath when the others left. The volume went up a couple of notches, bass thudding in the walls. If she asked them to turn it down there would be a row, so she stayed in the bedroom, the book in her lap unopened, and waited.
Outside in the garden the sensor light came on. The music stopped, truncating a guitar’s long waang, there was a clattering of feet and furniture. A car door slammed, barking dogs were hushed, feet crossed the oak boards again. For a few seconds all was quiet, then from beyond the bedroom window a whisper; Sid’s voice, thick with drink.
A brisk click, then Paddy said: ‘Now.’
A single shot sounded, followed by a woman’s scream, long, dreadful, full of anguish. At first Siobhan just sat on the edge of the bed, her mind skittering. She went to the window, wiped her sleeve across the condensation, but could see nothing. Another shot, and this time the cry was a thin shriek that faded to a fearful gurgle. What had they done? Siobhan left the bedroom and went along the hall. The sitting room was empty, a draught coming from the open back door. Outside a wisp of gun smoke curled in the damp night and near the beech hedging a patch of grass was stained dark. The sensor light went off and, for a moment, Siobhan couldn’t see. She heard a whisper, a gasp, a tiny giggle. Paddy and Rachael were beyond the kitchen windowsill. Paddy’s right hand was flat on the wall, his other on the handle of the gun he was twirling into the ground, the girl looking up at him through a straggle of hair.
Siobhan went back inside. The house reeked of shit and iron and offal. She
sidestepped the dark blobs on the floor and followed them to the kitchen. Sid turned from the sink and stood back. The hare was laid across the draining board, ears flopping backwards, once-white belly muddied and matted. He seemed huge, hind legs reaching beyond the kettle. There was a treacly hole at the front of his head, his eyes were hazel and still. Sid took a hunting knife from his pocket and drew it across the animal’s throat, turning him quickly to catch the blood in a mug in the sink. Siobhan stumbled out the front door and steadied herself against one of the pillars. He followed her, the knife still in his hand.
‘You killed him.’
‘Her. It was a female. I told you this morning we’d have to get rid of it.’ ‘Jesus Christ. You shot her and brought her into the kitchen?’
‘Rachael shot it.’
‘Hit it first time. Clean. Never saw anything like it for a young one.’
‘She has drink on her and you gave her a gun. She’s a child.’
‘Paddy said it was okay.’
‘Are you mental? What is even going on with Paddy and that girl? Is he planning on driving her home?’
‘He’s had fuck all to drink.’
‘Get them out of here or I will.’
‘Fine.’ Siobhan went out the back. Paddy and Rachael stepped from the shadows as the light came on.
‘I’m sure your mother will be wondering where you are, Rachael,’ she said. Paddy nodded at the girl and she went to the jeep without a word. Sid stood on the doorstep, smiling, furious, Paddy beside him.
She went to the bedroom and closed the door. She thought of the hare, how it had taken nine or ten visits for her to come as close as she had that morning, how she had come back that evening. She pictured her near the kitchen window, pert yet timorous, hazel eyes widening in the sudden electric light. She picked up the book. It opened on the first page of a story that Yeats had written. She could hardly believe the illustration, the close thicket of trees, the candy floss tail and meaty hind legs clearing a hedge, ears in a V sign. She read the story three times. It was about a man who is led astray by a mysterious hare and is never seen again.
Sid opened the door and stood slack shouldered at the foot of the bed, in a
stance of remorse.
‘Look, I cleared it all up.’
‘I don’t want to talk to you.’
‘She didn’t just die.’
‘We’re in the countryside. I thought you got it.’
‘I thought you weren’t a prick.’ The book was still open in her lap.
Sid knelt on the floor beside Siobhan. He put a strand of her hair behind her ear and dragged a thumb across her cheek. His hand smelled like slaughter.