Meg shivered and hugged her shawl closer to her thin shoulders, hoping to find warmth within its folds. But, in truth, the cold seemed to emanate from within her. She got up, and taking the steel poker from beside the hearth, stirred the dying embers. She watched and waited all through the night. Now, it was almost dawn and still there was no sign of Annie. The children had not slept well, especially Dora, who cried out numerous times during the long, cold night.
Walking to the window, Meg opened the shutters. She would wake the children at the first sign of daylight. The forest lay shrouded in mist, and the trees that once seemed like friends, now towered over the small cottage, menacingly. Their dark shapes a hiding place for any watchers. She shivered again and admonished herself for such foolish thinking.
Throwing open the door, she stepped outside as the first rays of light were filtering through the branches. The forest lay in a deep stillness. Meg held her breath and listened for the usual sounds that heralded the start of each new day. There were none, even the birdsong was missing. She walked to the small gate dividing her home from the forest and laid a trembling hand on the lichen-covered wood. Moving her head from left to right; she strained her ears trying to pick out any sign of life. There were no scurrying shapes in the hedgerows or sounds of animals foraging for food, nothing, just the sound of her own breathing. She was about to turn back towards the cottage when she heard it, an indistinct cry from far off in the forest.
She spun on her heel, almost tripping over her skirts in her haste. Walking as quickly as her aching back would allow, she went to the children’s room and woke them. They fussed and groaned at being woken so early, but she ignored their pleas of “just a few more minutes” and dragged them from beneath the covers. They stood for a moment rubbing sleep from their eyes, and Meg shouted at them to put their shoes on. As usual, she allowed them to sleep in their clothes, and it was only a matter of getting Rose and Dora ready. Lily and Paul, like many gypsy children, went barefoot. Not even the cold of the damp earth bothered them, as the skin on the soles of their feet hardened to form a protective barrier.
“Get your shawls,” she called to Rose and Dora. She had two knitted shawls lining her basket and these would do for Paul and Lily, when they started to feel the cold. Trying to make them wear these now would be a battle and only waste time. The children wandered in from the next room and stood bleary-eyed watching her.
“Take one each,” she pointed to the small, cloth-wrapped bundles of food she prepared during the night.
“Where are we going?” Rose’s eyes followed Meg, as she lifted each sleeping cat from its chair and threw it outside.
“We are going to the town to find Pat and bring him back with us.”
“But where is Annie. Why is not she here?
“She has been delayed, but sent a message saying we are to do as she asked and that is to go to the town.”
“Who brought the message?” I didn’t hear anyone.”
“A man. A man from the village came late last night. Now, will you do as I ask?” She pointed towards the waiting bundles.
“It seems very strange to me,” Rose scooped up her bundle and the others followed suit.
“Well, life can be like that sometimes,” Meg pulled the jackdaw from his hiding place and laid him in her basket. She knew he was helpless without the ability to fly and would fall prey to some animal. The cats and dog were natural hunters and they would easily find food.
“Come along,” she herded the children towards the door. “And not a sound now. I want you all to be quiet as a mouse.”
Rose turned a baleful eye at her.
“It’s a game,” Meg assured her.
“I have to use the pot,” Dora started to jump up and down, hands held tight between her legs.
“You can go in the forest,” Meg turned to close the door, but the child scurried past her and back inside the cottage, her voice echoing.
“I cannot wait. I will wet myself.”
“Christ give me patience,” Meg scanned the trees for signs of life.
Her heart was pounding, and her breath came in small gasps. Rose was watching her again. She had never seen Meg so upset and annoyed.
“Ready now,” Dora ran back out, and then realising she had left her bundles behind, ran back in.
By now Meg was on the point of screaming. But, finally, they were out among the trees and making their way towards the road.
“Stay well behind me,” Meg warned. “And not a sound until I tell you.”
They nodded and followed her in a line, each one more aware of how serious she was. She looked back from time to time to check they were all right. Her hip and back ached as she navigated the uneven forest floor, but it was her mind that was sorely troubled. The cry she heard was the voice of Annie, warning her to take flight. She could not be wrong, for she had felt in her heart the strangeness of the sound, and the stillness that followed, told her the child was in the gravest danger.
They were well clear of the cottage and hidden by the trees. Once they reached the road, they could walk through the giant ferns bordering it and remain out of sight. If quarantine roadblocks were set up, as it was rumoured, then they would return to the depths of the forest and get by them. She was so deep in thought, she failed to check on the children. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Rose was right behind her, Lily and Paul were walking with their arms around one another whispering, but Dora. Where was Dora? She stopped so suddenly Rose collided with her. The jackdaw cawed loudly as she dropped her basket.
“What is the matter?” Rose asked.
“Dora, where is Dora?” Without waiting for an answer, she pushed by the children and searched among the trees.
“She was here a minute ago,” Rose’s eyes filled with tears and she tried to run back the way they had come.
“No,” Meg grabbed her arm. “I will go. I need you to look after the others.”
“I am faster,” she tried to wriggle from Meg’s grasp.
“I need you to do as I ask,” and taking her out of Lily and Paul’s hearing, she whispered. “Annie is in terrible trouble. The only one who can save her now is Pat O Mahoney. You know Pat, do you not?”
“You must go on without me, take them,” she gestured towards the others. “Find Pat. Tell him what I said about Annie. About her being in trouble, understand?”
“What about Dora?”
“I will find Dora. You must not worry about us. We will catch up with you later. Stay far away from the road; keep to the forest and out of sight. No matter what happens you have to find Pat.”
“I am frightened, Meg.”
“I know you are child, but you have to be brave, for all our sakes. There is enough food to last you and the trees will give you shelter by night.”
“You mean stay alone in the forest, at night!”
“There is nothing in nature that will harm you and anyway, I will probably be back with you by nightfall. Go now and God keep you safe,” turning to Paul and Lily, she ordered. “Do what Rose tells you and be good. I have to look for Dora.”
They nodded and exchanged furtive looks.
“Do you know where Dora is?”
“She went back to get Blackie,” Lily whispered.
“Go on,” she motioned to the children.
When she had walked some way, she turned and saw they were still standing, watching her. “Go on,” she called to Rose, her voice stern, so the child turned and continued her way with her two little charges trailing behind.
When she was sure they would no longer try to come follow her, she set off. Her back ached and she was limping from the pain in her hip. The basket weighed heavily, and she stopped and searched for somewhere she could safely leave it. The long dried-up husk of a tree proved to be the answer. It had been struck by lightening. The force of the blast struck even to the roots, and it now stood bleached white by the elements. Only two stout branches remained, one on either side. These were thrown up towards the heavens like arms spread-wide in bewilderment at what happened. A long-abandoned hollow in the trunk was a safe place to leave the jackdaw, so scooping him out of the basket, she placed him in the hole.
“You will be safe there until I get back,” she assured him and he cawed once fluttering his good wing in answer. The basket was hidden behind the tree before she set off once more. She moved a little faster now it no longer banged against her hip. Still, it took some time before the cottage came into view.
She approached it from the side and at first glance nothing seemed amiss. Fearing someone might hear, she had not dared, in all the time she was walking, to call out to the child. It was not until she reached the pathway and the little wooden gate, she saw the carnage. The bodies of her cats lay butchered in the grass. Their heads lay beside them, the fur matted with blood, mouths wide in a scream of pain.
“Sweet Jesus, protect us from all harm,” she spoke aloud as she crept towards the open door.
The interior was a shamble with every jar and bottle smashed on the floor. Even the rags she used as stuffing for the cushions was pulled out and scattered about. The air reeked of blood and excrement and she picked her way around the table in search of the source. Her old dog lay beside the fire and for a moment she thought he was sleeping. It was hard to make out in the shadowy interior, and she called to him in a whisper.
“Here dog. Good boy, come here.”
The closer she got the worse the smell became. Using the table as support, she reached out and nudged him with her foot. He never moved and she saw to her horror the toe of her shoe was stained black. Groaning, she eased herself down, holding one hand over her nose to block the stench and almost retched when she realised what she mistook for a shadow on the floor, was in fact a pool of blood. She reached out a hand and stroked the rough coat of the animal. The dog’s head fell to the side and she saw his throat was cut. Blood coated the hearth and sprayed up the wall; she saw also the reason for the smell. His muscles loosened in terror and the floor was covered in the waste that pumped from his body.
“I am sorry old friend,” she whispered, before leaning on the table, she managed to stand.
She was so caught up in the horror of it all, she forgot for a moment her reason for being there, Dora! She hurried towards the only other room in the cottage, the bedroom. This too was in total disarray, even the bedcovers were pulled free and the thin horsehair mattress split down the middle in the searcher’s fervency. But this was not the work of a man. No, this had all the marks of the beast and now, by all accounts, he had Dora.
She rounded the side of the cottage to her tool shed. There she picked up a shovel and carried it back to the front. Crying, she scooped up the bodies of her cats. A couple of times the heads fell off the shovel and she was forced to follow them, as they rolled along the path. Blinded by tears, she placed the cats beside the dog and taking a tinderbox from above the fire she walked outside. Lifting her skirt, she tore a piece from her undergarment. This she lay on the windowsill and struck the flint against the box until it sparked, and the cloth caught fire. She flung the blazing cloth on to the roof and within seconds the thatch was ablaze. Her animals were good and loyal friends and this funeral pyre was the only way she could repay them. She would never have returned to the cottage, not after what she witnessed. It was tainted by his presence, no longer holy ground. Things would be changed forever; she knew this as sure as she knew night followed day. The straw crackled and hissed in the quiet air. Small tufts flew from the roof and set the grass alight. She watched until the roof caved in and the small fires in the grass died down, and she was sure it would not spread to the trees. Something brushed against her skirts and she looked down in amazement at the black cat circling her legs. Bending down, she stroked the soft fur on Blackie’s head. He had somehow survived, and she called to him to follow, as she moved back towards the shelter of the trees.
In just over a day she lost her home, her child, for in truth Annie was as dear to her as any she might have borne, and little Dora. Her world was filled with wickedness and evil and yet there was no sign of the hand of God in all of this. Had she been right in her first assumption? Had the time come once again for a sacrifice and would it be, as always, the most precious and innocent of his children who would suffer the most?
She was crying in shock when she reached the lightening tree. Retrieving the jackdaw from his hiding place and set off in the wake of the children. The basket held firmly by her side and the small black cat running along beside her.