Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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Bleeding Among the Briars

She knew it was the priest’s car by the gaudy-yellow tint of it. Like a tin dinky car. She watched it swerve around the corner. Gone. Nobody else would have the brass neck to be driving around in something that colour. The strange lucidity the pain gave her. Fine thoughts to be havin’ when you’ve been put through a hedge into a ditch with both your legs broken under you, you silly bitch.

Oh mama, the eldest said when she finally reached the door after having hauled herself the two miles to the house on bleeding shins and ragged elbows.

Will you go back up for my bike, she said. I came off it.

Oh my god Mama, what happened?

Are the pigs fed? I fell off my bike, I told you.

The girl nodded, helping her up from the ground.

Put me in my seat by the churn. And stop the waterworks, there’s a good girl.

Lying on the bed for four days with her knees burst and her ankles purple. Trying to hide the wounds and the pain when the younger children were in the room.


He was in the lead with the dogs ahead of him and he followed them down into the dry, crumbling muck of the ditch and then climbed up on the other side. He lifted the barbed wire for the Sparrow to climb through the fence after him.

Thanks, the Sparrow said as he ducked past, the rifle on his back.

Tell it again, Eugene said.

Which one?

About yer oul fella’s hair.

Isn’t anythin’ to that one, the Sparrow said.

Well tell what’s to it.

He was coming through a ditch there like we was, or climbing a sty. I can’t remember which. Anyway, it was raining and that and didn’t he slip and fall and whatever way he landed the barrel of the rifle was pointed right at his face. It was dark by the time he came home. When he came into the parlour his hair was silver. Like he’d turned old overnight.


On her wedding day, standing on the church steps while the other one watched from across the road. Standing amid the well-wishers with the tears running down his face. That was her last day in Sligo. She came up after the wedding. She never saw him again, nor saw again the broad Atlantic horizon of her childhood. Only sometimes in muddled dreams did she stand beside him on the shore.

The oak panel slid to one side. A face hung on the other side, veiled by the darkness. Her confession whispered into that darkness.

The children’s father was a lot older than me.

Go on.

I was still young when they’d us paired to be married. And sure we hardly warmed to each other in the years that followed. He was always quare and contrary. Then he went and did what he did. And me still with a babe on the way.

Yes, the priest said.

She told the neighbours it was the T.B. and the night that she found him she can only remember running barefoot, running with her feet bleeding on the stones beneath her, running without hope, only running toward the doctors.

Of course, word got around, she said. People hear things. Say things. One to your face, another to your heel. They fill me with hate. They’re the same, whispering the country over. Must it be the same in the ever after? It must.

The priest sighed. That’s not for us to know. Are those your confessions?

They are Father, she said.


Their uncle arrived to the door three days after the funeral.

My brother is dead, he told her. The children will need a man around the place.

They will, she said.

That was the last they spoke to each other. The children would never hear a word spoken between them.

Their uncle was no millstone upon them, for he paid the widow his share of the rent and the stores. Neither was he another pair of hands to help with the farm work. He merely existed. He would wake and dress and eat and sit by the wireless until the sun was down and then he would go visiting or return to his room like a monk to his cell.

In the night he would be at the bridge again firing into the first mass of fusiliers as they raced forward under moonlight and then he would be woken by his own screams, crouched in darkness, sweating at the end of his bed.


The two of them stopped at the bend in the road and laughed and staggered around by the ditch, swinging one against the other, singing bursts of song and then shadow boxing, wrestling each other hard to the ground and both laughing mad, drunken laughter.

Mattie was smoking on the ditch, panting from the fighting, when he noticed the light in the window had been put out.

Here, he said. Here. Look.

His brother looked and laughed and uttered something unintelligible.

Yer fuckin’ bollixed, Mattie said.

The other man laughed and approached, jabbing and lurching.

Stop it, hang on now. Mattie waved him away. I’m smokin’, will you fuckin’ stop.

His brother advanced, tripped, and fell in the road. Streak of blood on his chin. Aw fuck, he said. Me fuckin’ face.

That’s what y’get for chasing yer fuckin’ pints. Mattie flicked the butt of his smoke into the ditchwater. Yer a mess Gene.

’Tis not for thee to sing of meeee, Eugene whined as he staggered to his feet.

C’mon and sit up here. Mattie caught his hand and hauled him up onto the bank of the ditch. You’ll be alright. Sit there now. Just sit. I’ll go up and see Mammy’s gone to bed. I’ll come back. G’ya the nod.


He lifted the latch and stepped into the stifled air of the room. Coals dying in the hearth, lifted to life by the draught from the door.

His mother slumped, snoring in her chair, her knitting across her lap.

C’mon Mammy, he whispered. C’mon, I’ll put you to bed.

She patted his back as he lifted her and helped to her room.

You’re a good boy Matt, she muttered sleepily. A good boy.

He had gotten her to the door of her room when there were three loud knocks on the front door.

Jaysus Christ, he said.

Who’s that Matthew?

I’ll go now and see.

Put me back in my chair. I’ll wait with you.

Ah, now let me put you to bed, Mattie said.

There were three more knocks, louder than the first.

Mattie smiled at his mother. I’ll murder the bastard.

I’ll wait, his mother said, fully awake. Put me down.

Mattie put her in her chair and then he opened the door. A policeman was standing in the doorway, holding Eugene by the neck.

Good evening, the sergeant said. Does this fella live here?

He does, guard. I’m very sorry.

He was lying in the road when I passed. Singing his little heart out.

Jaysus Christ, Mattie said.

Who is it, Matt?

Just Gene.

Evenin’, Maeve, the sergeant said, leaning across the threshold. I brought this fella back home to you.

Eugene began to sing. Mattie put an arm around his waist.

Cheers for that sergeant, Mattie said. I’ll put him to bed. Very sorry ‘bout this.

See that you don’t lose him next time. Goodnight now. Maeve.

Mattie shut the door and crossed the room with Eugene like a drooling ragdoll at his side.

The gardaí at my door, she said. The fucking gardaí. Get him, take him to bed, just get him out of my sight. I’ll deal with him in the fucking morning, God forgive me for the swearing.


It was just daybreak. She was up, hobbling on the crutch. She whacked on Eugene’s bedroom door. I’ve a drop of porter here for you, Genie.

Silence on the other side.

I said I’ve a drop of porter for you.

Awh Christ.

Will you have a drop of it now?

Awh God no. Oh Jaysus no.

The girls tittered from the kitchen.

Ah leave him be Mammy, the eldest said. He’ll be suffering enough today.

He’ll know the meaning of suffering by the time I’m done with him. He’ll wish he was a ditch digging coolie.


Have you seen Shep about?

No, I’ve not, Mattie said. Not since yesterday.

Gene looked at the uncle in his corner, nodding to the wireless. How ‘bout you?


Shep, Eugene said. Have you seen him?

The dog? Ara, he was about the place there today or yesterday.

Today, have you seen him today?

No, the uncle said. But sure wasn’t I in here all day.

Ya surely were, Mattie said. Ya lazy bollocks.


It was the Sparrow told them of it in The Harp the following Sunday.

I heard ould Reilly shot your dog, the Sparrow said. Says he was afraid for his lambs.

Mattie shook his head. There was no fuckin’ need for that.

Eugene was silent, sipping from his pint.

C’mon, Mattie said. Finish that up. We better show our faces in the Mass.

After the priest had finished the Mass they shuffled back into the bar with the other men. They stood in silence after the Sparrow ordered them a round.

Reilly had been watching them from a corner and he approached them at the bar. Hello lads, he said. How are ye?

Alright, said Mattie.

Gene, Reilly said.

Eugene grunted.

Lads, I’m sorry about the dog. If it’d make a difference, I’d like to stand you a couple of drinks. His hand fumbled at the inner pocket of his suit.

Eugene laughed. You couldn’t buy what that dog had with your money, he said, and then he took his cap from the bar and headed for the door.


The sow clucking in the muck as it gorged itself on the soft potatoes. She slung another handful down to it. Bought for one and sold for six. They grow so slow and the bloody first of the month comes around so fast.

She was feeding scraps to the hens when she heard the gate opening. She turned on the crutch and saw the officious looking man crossing the muddy yard. A tweed suit under his apron and unworn Wellingtons. He had a clipboard in his hand and he tapped it against his flank as he walked. Pink face and pink hands.

Good morning, he said. Are you Missus Harrigan?

I am.

Hello Missus Harrigan. I’m from Donovan’s creamery. I’m here about the last order of milk we received from yourself.

Oh, she said. And what about it?

Well now, he said. It seems there was quite a bit of water added to the milk.

It must’ve rained before the delivery fella took it.

We’re talking a good few gallons of water here Missus Harrigan. Substantial contamination. I see your tanks there covered over anyway.

It’ll have been the bloody children, she said, forcing consternation onto her face.

I see, he said, and he pencilled something onto his log sheet. Well if it happens again now, we won’t be taking delivery of any more milk from you. And it’ll be made known to the other creameries as to the exact reason why.

Don’t you worry now, she said. I’ll make certain sure it doesn’t happen again. She smiled until he turned away. They’d break your heart any way they could, anything to stop you getting yourself ahead.

She went back into the house and watched the girls twirl in their dresses.

Don’t ye look great, she said. Is your uncle gone up already?

He is, the eldest said. He went up after the lads.

You’re to be good now when you go up there, girls. Hear me, Nora?

Yes, Mama. Of course, Mama.

Don’t let me hear of any carrying on.

You won’t, Mama.

I better not. She reached up into the cupboard nearest the range and took down an old biscuit tin. Now come here and put out your hands, she said. She gave out a few copper coins to each of them. And tell your brothers not to be getting carried away on the drink.


Washing the youngest in the tin basin of a bath. Drying her head with the towel. The child’s laughter as she rubbed her hair in the shag of the towel.

Close your eyes, she said. And I’ll kiss them.

But the child laughed and kept splashing her feet in the basin.

Out we get.

She sat the child by the hearth. Her pink hide steamed like something wet and newly hatched.

You’ve the big face of your father, she said. God help you.


The bookies had set up early and the drizzle of the morning had lifted. The odds scratched in chalk. The bookies’ boys scribbling out the slips as quickly as they could, the line of punters watching the odds drop or climb with muted impatience. Horses being unloaded in the back lanes and led down to the starting wire. The point to point with the children all running wild between bales of hay and the men gathered around the bushel of porter handing out great mugs of it to anyone who asked. Small boys sneaking sips from a shared mug behind the tinkers’ wagons, pretending to enjoy the taste of it. Closer to the ribboned course markers families sat on blankets, unwrapping parcelled sandwiches.

In the early afternoon a man with a bullhorn clambered onto a bale.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Ladies and Gentlemen, the race will begin in the next five minutes. That’s five minutes. Five minutes.

The crowd surged electrically at this, surging down as one to watch the riders.


Well Father, was there many about the town?

He looked up from the broadsheet at his housekeeper. Nary a soul Missus Quinlan, nary a soul.

And how’s that motorcar running for you?

Like a dream, the priest said. The motor cracks just like a whip. And as he returned to his reading, seeing a vision of the woman thrown from her bike, legs disappearing into the hedge with a scream and he drove on without even contemplating slowing or stopping, he read on.

The housekeeper tipped the ashtray into her bucket and went away into the scullery.


Mattie crossed between the dancers and staggered out of the tent, crabwalking to avoid the waterlogged entrance.

The Sparrow was leaning against the porter bushel, smoking. Mattie, he said, how’re ye? Fill up a jar for yourself there.

Don’t mind if I do, Mattie said. Have any winners?

No winners, no. Yourself?

Just the one. Just the one.

One is enough, the Sparrow said.

Mattie ladled porter into his mug slowly. Is Gene about?

Gene Kelly, he’s inside dancing up a storm with that redheaded young wan. C’mere now, is your uncle here? I’ve not seen him all day.

Jaysus, Mattie said. D’ya know, now that you say it, neither have I.

That’s not like him to miss the point to point, the Sparrow said.

B’jaysus it’s not, Mattie said.

I was talking to Willy O’Meara earlier. He was asking me if I had any winners. I told him no.

Mattie sipped from his mug. Did he’ve any?

Not one. But wasn’t he standing awful close up to me when he was asking me. And sure didn’t I look down and he had one of his hands in me coat pocket.

Jaysus, Mattie said. For fuck’s sake. What’d you do?

I said, O’Meara, I says, if you’re feeling for money in there will you find some for me as well?

Mattie laughed. Jaysus Christ, he said. Feckin’ chancer.

Some boyo, the Sparrow said. Here, fill that up for me, good man.


He moved slowly through the house until he was certain he was alone. Stepping into the parlour for the first time in his life. When he was satisfied, he signed the note and then he put it in the envelope with the money he had drawn from the bank. He sealed the envelope and put it on the biscuit tin, where he was certain she would see it.

He waited with his cardboard suitcase at the door. He sat with the wireless set turned off, smoking his pipe, and listening. The slow strokes of the clock’s mechanism.

After six he heard the motor pull up. The horn sounded twice. He got his suitcase and walked out of the house for the last time.

Are you headed all the way to town?

That’s right, he said.

Taking a trip into the country? The neighbour glanced down at the suitcase. I’ll be passing the station.

That’ll do, he said. That’ll do fine.

Wet shimmer of puddle lights. The station lit under the blue gaslights. One ear whistling where his head had been close to the grenade. He watched ladies in wet wool overcoats carry their small bags onto the platform.

And the train rounding a slow curve, the distant light dulled by bushes and hedges. Skewed by rainwater. And wet light running amber on the tracks and the lone trackside house. A black train pulling across a blackened land.  

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