We're delighted to present a short story from Ireland's newest literary journal, The Tangerine, a Belfast-based magazine of new writing.
Published three times a year, The Tangerine covers culture and politics, and includes features, reportage, commentary, fiction, poetry, illustration and photography. The (rather excellent) first issue is available now.
From The Tangerine issue one, we present Bury My Heart, by John Patrick McHugh
Ada listened. To his howls, his yappy snarls, his claws – unclipped and black – as they hacked at the splintered door. The stable was hollow and so these sounds came to her as intimate things, gossipy whispers. She knew there was no reason to head out, that scolding or smacking him would do no good. Only rally, turn the scut that bit more desperate. She kicked a leg from under the twisted blanket, tossed her body from one side of the bed to the other. It was about twelve. She still wasn’t tired. From the bay window, the moon’s zincky light drifted in like smoke, stencilling her shadow and the shadows of the wardrobe and dresser onto the cool plaster wall. For a moment, Ada engrossed herself in these coaly shapes and humps, how they settled cloth-like, how they could quickly shift in length. She ran her nails hard from her neck to her chest. She should go out to him. She shut her eyes and listened.
The sheepdog gave in at half three, a hoarse bark his final objection. Ada left her cot only once during the night, to refill her glass of water and look out the kitchen window. At the moon-paled stable, at the metalscrap shrubs.
After their evening walk, she led the sheepdog to the rickety tap at the side of the house. She wrenched it on, hearing the pipes clank and rumble, and stepped away when the water spat out in fat gushes. She rubbed her hands clean of rust and watched his tongue slap in and out. Once satisfied, he smacked his lips, peeked back at her and then began panting his way towards the front door, ruffling his snout from side to side. She whistled. The dog tilted his head. He was old now, with frost hairs jutting through his bog-black coat, and well aware of routine. She whistled again, clicked her fingers. Without waiting, she moved steadily round to the back of the house.
The stable was the last skeletal evidence of the tenants who once farmed this land, before they hedged their bets on coffin ships. It was newly roofed with slanted metal sheets, but its white paint was mottled, flaking like dried skin on the stone. Inside, there was the musky stench of hay, a laddered upper section, a bird-nested roof beam and, up high on the right wall, a slit window that let in a scrawny shaft of light. ‘Rustic charm’ was how it was put to them five years ago. Mick had lapped it up. He told her that the stable would act as a kind of office, allow him to get out of her way. So you’d have peace from me. As always she was swept along by his strawberry-faced enthusiasm and agreed with a bitten lip to buy the house and land, though she harboured doubts that it was too isolated, too cramped.
He finalised the purchase that same afternoon, and in the evening, after one too many fiery whiskeys, he drove them back up to the house. They hopped the gate, sniggered along the fenced perimeter of the fields and, with cupped hands, peered through every murky pane of glass – blindly pointing where they’d put the bookcase, the coffee table, the leather recliner. On the way back to the car, Mick kept blabbering about how set the two of them were, that the good times were all ahead. He had found his Eden in the gunky soil and the stupid, ever-shitting sheep.
Eventually she would discover a quiet happiness tangled within his happiness. A cosy routine. The juicy smell of cut grass. The stillness. The summer hay laid out on hills like beached whales. She now treasured those first June evenings in the house, when the sky was violet and he’d sneak out to the stable with a mug, the dog slithering behind, to tinker with his bits and bobs or read about the horses in a day-old paper. From the kitchen window, she could see the dog standing guard and the reflection of his lantern against the red wooden door. For hours then, she’d be alone in the bungalow, reading or on the phone or flicking aimlessly through the telly. But always, without thinking, she would find herself returning to the kitchen window, to make sure the shine still bounced on the door, that the dog’s eyes glinted in the blue shadows.
Since his death, she hadn’t set foot in the stable. There was no need. Mick’s brother, Emmet, had a root around after the funeral and shifted anything of value. ‘Piled with crap,’ he said, supping a cup of tea. ‘Piled with useless crap. Typical of him really. Did you know he kept a fridge in there?’
Now as she entered, she saw how mistaken Emmet was. The stable was cluttered with him. The two mugs on the shelf above the workbench, the scuffed boots and green wellingtons that hung from a series of nails, the cushioned stool pushed underneath the bench. The smell. Oh God, the smell. She groped for the door. A bad taste in her mouth. Something scrambled by her feet and there was an echo. His voice, she thought, laced with that excitement, telling her about this or that new plan for the lower, sodden fields. How it was all coming together.
Overhead, a bark-feathered wren skittishly flapped its wings. The dog barked. Ada watched the bird flit for the window. Hearing his voice. Finally, it was all coming together. The sheepdog circled and barked again.
She kicked the dog, shushing him, and took a breath, filling her lungs until she felt a scald on her throat. Concentrate. Concentrate and think only of this. She gathered the coarse blue rope. ‘Good boy, good boy.’ She noosed one end of the rope, looped it over the dog’s neck and then brought the slack rope through the ring handle of the door, knotting it there tight. The sheepdog stayed still, his head cocked to the side, his rust-brown eyes tracking her movement.
She knew he wouldn’t settle amongst the cold draughts of the stable. Spoilt for too long by Mick, the dog expected the blanket and the nightly graunch of turf fire; much in the same way she had grown used to the lump beside her in the morning and the smack of wellington outside the front door.
She fetched a can of food from the house and slopped its mushy contents onto the stable floor. While he was distracted, she latched shut the door. A rotting screwdriver acting as the bolt for the hasp and staple lock. The dog scrambled, scratching his front paws against the wood, his breath clicking. She leaned her weight on the door, listened as he whimpered. She told him she’d be back in a minute, good boy, good boy.
She woke at dawn. Her eyes blinking to adjust to the sharp glare, which slipped through the curtains, whiting the dresser and the drunken dust motes. It was in the mornings, when she lay suspended somewhere between yesterday and the new day, the blurry in-between, that she felt him the most – could hear him snoring or prowling the house searching for his phone, his wallet. For as long as she could, she’d try to stretch out this intermitted time, fool herself, not stirring until she’d hear the bark for food. Until she had to rise, had to begin. This morning she didn’t wait and quickly wrapped herself in a lilac dressing gown and headed to the kitchen. The heat wasn’t set last night so her breath snaked about her like a veil as she opened the blind, retrieved the milk and bread. Out of habit, she switched on the radio - twiddling the volume a little higher. She tightened her dressing gown and padded to the front door.
It was a pleasant morning. The yolky dandelions and grass were glossy and the hedge wall, behind the front-garden, rustled like it was being searched. The air smelt of tinny night-rain and the sun was clumsy and bright. On the front step, she cuffed her hands behind her back and studied the fields - sixteen hectares of uneven and unused land, trout-brown in patches - that somehow were all her own. Further to her right, a tractor was burping along a back road. In the morning sun it gleamed like a gaudy ruby. She guessed it was Jack Masterson on his rounds. She watched it for a moment and then waved, fully aware there was no chance of him seeing her.
After dressing and breakfast, she headed out to the sheepdog.
She counted her steps and got to four and a half before he clocked her. In an instant he was savage. He shoved his calloused snout under the toothed end of the door, yelping, snorting. Spraying up dust and red paint pigment. She rattled the fastened screwdriver; shouted for him to settle, for God’s sake, settle down, before shrugging it free from the chain.
He lunged at her but the pull of the rope choked him back. He went to bark but was winded. ‘Settle,’ she said. He stumbled about, retching, dewy spittle falling from his mouth. She tried to hate him. ‘Will you settle.’
She removed the blue rope from his neck. It was slobber-oiled and at random seams the rope was tattered from his biting. She placed the rope onto his workbench. On the bench’s raised top, she spotted some stray sawdust. Like pencil shavings. She frowned and swept them away slowly, thought where could they have come from?
The sheepdog watched her, his tail proudly thumping the gapped stone, his pink tongue layered with pools of white. She pointed and the sheepdog scurried out to the yard.
He died during Sunday lunch. Early that morning they had driven to Ballina to return a faulty lamp and have a gawk around the shops. They sorted their business, bought things they didn’t need, and before heading back to the Island, she suggested food. Mick remembered a hotel they had been in a couple times before. A nice joint. Clean.
They sat at a corner table, shopping bags between their feet. Never know, she said. He grinned, his face softening. He got their food from the brass carvery, taking his time to chat to the chef while she ordered drinks from a passing waitress – a glass of white wine and a rockshandy.
She would later tell the priest, her sister, anybody who would listen, that he was in great humour that day. Happy doing his bit of shopping. That he was healthy. There had been no suggestion of anything. They had even met an old friend, Dan Crowley, during their travels, who remarked upon how mighty Mick looked. The fucker isn’t aging at all, he said.
They walked north from the brambled ends of her fields to the pebbled beach of Annagh Bay. The way was messy and not their usual route. He wore no leash – Mick had trained him to come to a whistle – and as soon as they cut from the road, he dashed ahead to sniff at tracks and piss on the spiked leaves of giant rhubarb. Every few minutes he doubled back – wedge-shaped ears perking as he scanned for her figure.
The beach was a bumpy crescent, separated from flanking fields by partially collapsed barbed wire poles. It was a maze of inky streams and pools that hid sulking crabs. At the entrance, the dog slinked back to her side, cowering for effect. ‘Go on,’ she said and he rushed to explore the boulders and the stranded, bubble wrap seaweed. Already his coat was tangled with briars and soggy petals, and soon the lower threads of his bushy fur became freckled with sand. Spoiled by the sinewy fumes of the ocean, the dog was wild, his hind legs finding the spring used to pounce upon unruly sheep. He skirted through the stones and the froth of the teal-black sea, happy out, his tail flapping as he nosed dumped bin bags. ‘Get out of it,’ she shouted. He glanced back guiltily, black lips smiling, before dancing away into the foamy tide. The sun had been snatched by clouds, the air moist, and she remembered his delight when Mick used to feign throwing branches into the sea - the dog’s squeaked barks alongside Mick’s laughter - and she remembered her own giddiness when Mick carried the dog into the surf for their evening swim, the dog like a baby in his arms. She closed her eyes and began to massage her tired muscles with her thumb. She could hear his splashing, the ebbing crush of the Atlantic, the baaing of rams, guttural and toneless like drunken singers, rams who were left weathered and forgotten out here.
When she turned to make the trek back, she didn’t whistle. Instead, she kept her head down and hoped that this time he was ensnared by the waves or caught under the wheel of a passing tractor. But as she made her way through a laneway, her gait urgent but unsteady, he hopped from a hedge and faithfully limped up beside her. His dew-wet paws stepping in time with hers, his wagging tail buffing against her leg. When the dog licked her hand, she swiped it away.
Mick sat down with a mahogany grained tray, loaded with two plates of food, a bunch of napkins, and a stainless steel gravy boat. They ate in silence. Occasionally he would gesture for the salt or more gravy. When she laid down her knife and fork, she offered him the remaining strings of chicken.
‘No. No,’ he said, coughing and lowering his head to wipe his mouth. ‘I’ve more than enough.’ He fisted his chest, cleared his throat, continued. ‘Why don’t you go get a bag? To have it for the dog, and we’ll feed it to him later? He loves the bits of chicken.’
His last words. The last words of the man she met on a scorching hot day in Strandhill, the man she followed through his clerk jobs in Cork, Limerick and Dublin, the man who she scampered off to the west with to become make-believe farmers.
In the long hours and weeks and months after, those words were a constant murmur, a humming. She wanted nothing more than to change them, fix them, wanted madly to forge somewhere in his talk an admission of their happiness, their shared happiness, and scour away any mention of the fucking dog.
Ada locked the dog in the stable, not rigging the blue rope around his neck this time. She forced the screwdriver back into its makeshift bolt and walked inside.
A voice rambled from the radio and she knocked it off. She flipped through yesterday’s paper, the supplements, even the free magazine, but nothing soothed her. She binned the papers, glancing out the kitchen window. She checked her watch, poured out and then refilled the kettle – spilling water across the counter. While the kettle gurgled to the boil, her eyes strayed again to the window. She could, or at least she thought she could, hear his scratching. She wiped her hands on a tea towel, though they were dry, and then, after a moment, she plucked the cordless phone and moved to the front door.
In the neighbouring field, the tractor was now parked. Near it she could make out the lanky shape of Jack Masterson. He was bent, cutting spade into earth, straightening his back every three or four strokes. On his forehead, there was the blush of sweat and she wondered if he sang while working like Mick used to. A silly thought. They had got on, the two men. Jack being classed as a decent gentleman on account of him helping Mick sort through the piles of paperwork needed for the vaccination of sheep – Mick didn’t know there was such a thing as paperwork in farming. She remembered that. She smiled. They had lost money each year bar the last. But it didn’t matter. Soon it wouldn’t matter at all.
She had offered the land to Jack. Last week he had paced the fields, back to front with a digging fork and the giddy sheepdog by his side. Later, over the front step, he told her that it was in good nick. That it was tidy and a credit to himself. She had blushed and heard herself say: ‘He’d never let me hear the end of it if he heard you spouting that nonsense.’ Her price was deemed naïve by her brother-in-law but Jack said he’d mull it over and let her know within a fortnight. One way or the other.
Worry had glued thick to her thoughts. The land wouldn’t be sold and she’d be shackled here. The half-empty glass was always her line of thinking. He was the positive one, who could make soft any situation. She moved back from the doorway. Her eyelids were tender from squinting at Jack’s shape and so she took a tissue from her pocket and dabbed them. The man had told her sometime in the afternoon. It was too early, but she keyed in his number anyway.
It beeped four times before he answered. In the background she heard the bustle of traffic and then a voice, gruff and worn: ‘Howya.’
‘Dan, hello. This is Ada Grealish from out Annagh,’ she left the space for an acknowledgment and when none arrived, said: ‘The lady with the dog.’
‘I haven’t forgotten you,’ he said, flatly. ‘Out in Newport at the minute. Had to collect some tyres.’ There was a rev, a clicking sound. ‘Look, I say I’ll be up to you around-’ He paused, she heard the slurp of tongue. ‘One-ish, about.’
‘Perfect. Thanks again.’
‘Not a bother.’
The line went dead before she could say goodbye.
The kettle hissed as she walked through to the panelled hallway – naked of portraits, and now so ugly that she wondered how she ever lived with the plywood panels – past the shut-off study, to the living room. It was stuffy with the morning’s trapped heat and she slid open the window. The breeze slipped in and her breath quivered. On the beige couch, where he used to slap an invitation for the dog, was a half-folded blanket. Its wool was braided with black and white hairs. Last night she had baulked at the idea of touching it but now she grabbed the blanket. Fiercely, she jammed it into a cardboard box and fumbled with masking tape. She sealed the box, crimped the extra three inches of tape, and, holding her breath, flung the masking tape across the room. Then she sat on the bare couch and crossed her legs. Her eyes misted and she bit into the corner of her fist, willing to hear the van chug up her road.
Ada thanked the waitress, placed the filled doggie bag in the crook of her arm, and turned to see her husband’s toppled body. His head was flat on the plate, gravy caking his cheek and ear. His knife and fork had fallen, neatly, alongside a crumpled napkin and a wet slab
of beef. She stood there, stock-still, for what seemed a long time.
Then she screamed his name. The chef muttered, ‘Shite. Someone get Kev.’ The waitress pulled her arm, saying that it would be OK. Relax. Voices shouted for a doctor, for an ambulance. A stranger propped her husband onto the floor and squeezed and squeezed his chest. Then blue lights hazed through the front window. Twinkling blue lights. She felt her legs stumble and was held up by someone. The waitress? The chef? Mick was plonked shirtless on a stretcher. His stomach was so pale compared to his sun-pummelled neck that she wanted badly to cover him. Hide him. A mask was tightened around his nose and mouth. From the hotel foyer she watched him being wheeled away, the foil bag clutched to her chest as if it meant the world to her.
She heard the van cresting up the drive – the belchy huff of it. She should have guessed he’d be early.
At the front door, she folded her arms as he swung the vehicle to a standstill. The van rumbled for a moment, its exhaust pipe sizzling. The windows were chalked with so much dust that she could barely see the shape of the him inside. The rear license was missing. When he jumped out, the van shuddered. He rubbed the crown of his head before slotting on a discoloured Liverpool cap.
Dan Heslin was a bachelor in his fifties. He was a builder, electrician, taxi driver or plumber, depending. When she rang him, he had asked no questions, just gave her a date and price. Below his tarry-grey hair, there was the faint linty makings of a unibrow. He was heavy but not fat, and wore an open, battle-worn shirt, steel-toed boots and knee- bald jeans. She wondered did he shave especially.
He rounded his van, smacking the bonnet. ‘A fine day.’ From his breast-pocket, he took a tinsel pack of cigarettes. He half-extended the box towards her but she raised a hand to her mouth. There was a smell of soot. He leaned back against the van and pinched himself out an orange butt.
‘No rain,’ she said, to say something.
He nodded, ‘Not yet anyway.’ He flicked at a cheap transparent lighter. Two, three times before he got a dim metallic spark.
‘The dog,’ she said.
‘I hear he’s causing you some trouble.’
‘He hasn’t been himself recently. Not himself at all.’ She had rehearsed this lie. Recited it. Still, a thirst began to coat her throat. She swallowed and watched as Heslin brought the fidgety lighter close to his mouth. His large left hand like a wattle wall around the flame. ‘He’s old now and doesn’t come when I call him. Growls when I go near his food. Snaps at whoever visits.’
Heslin gave a single nod and looked at her briefly. He let the smoke roll about his mouth then, with a jutted lower lip, he blew upwards. ‘They go like that, the dogs, when they start to get on. Had it myself with my own. They start to feel useless and that. So they turn on you. The arm that feeds.’ He spat. ‘It happens.’
She tucked her arms tighter to her chest. Wondered, for a moment, how does this man possibly live? ‘He was my husband’s dog. He could snap his fingers and the dog would nearly dance.’ She smiled and waited for Heslin to say something, but he didn’t. ‘I don’t have that. The control. And the last day, the poor child he went for.’ Heslin shot out a tuft of blue smoke, his eyes half shut. Her voice was a strange instrument she played. ‘We were out walking the beach, and he just went for this child. This little girl. She must have spooked him or something. I don’t know. But I’ve never seen him like that. And the worst was I had no control over him.’
‘For the best so,’ Heslin said after a while. ‘It’s the end of the line when they start nipping back at you. Better off just stamping it out altogether.’
‘We were lucky, you know, to get one like him. Very loyal to myself and my husband. But there comes a time.’ She was unsure if he was even listening. If he cared. Who was she lying to? ‘And you’d hate to see him attack someone - to do something like that.’ Her eyes looked beyond Heslin, to the sea in the faraway distance, where the waves vaguely moved and shone. To herself she added, ‘I’d hate for him to do something like that anyway.’
Heslin tipped a clump of ash from his cigarette. ‘Right. Let us finish this fag so and you can show me to him.’ He clasped the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and took two lippy drags. His chest seized inward as he devoured the smoke. She was cold but didn’t risk going inside for a coat. He slumped a little to crush the butt against the wheel of the van. ‘Lead the way so,’ he said.
The sheepdog was curled like a cub when they opened the door. Startled, he lurched forward, still dizzy from sleep. He tried to sniff Heslin’s boots and was toed away. ‘Get out of it.’ Heslin wiped his hands together and asked if she had anything to tie him with. ‘Makes it easier.’
She retrieved the blue rope from the workbench. The sheepdog, after prancing on his hind legs, shuffled towards the door. She whistled.
‘Good and tight.’ Heslin said.
She squatted, ignored the twig of pain in her lower back, and twined the rope carefully around his neck. ‘Good boy, good boy.’ He yawned, his gums pink with blotches of black.
‘You have a spot to tie him?’
‘There’s a washing line around the side of the house.’
‘Grand job.’ He stepped forward and roughly patted the sheepdog on the side of its stomach. ‘We’ll go get it done so.’
The day had grown nasty. Clouds were spread low across the sky like dragged pencil shadings. Rain was close. Ada grasped the blue rope between her palm and thumb. The dog kept bumping into her knee as they walked along.
The washing line was empty except a few multi-coloured clothes pegs and when they neared it, Heslin reached to seize the rope. ‘I’ll do it,’ she said, feeling embarrassed. ‘It’s fine. I’ll do it.’
He raised his hands, palms showing. ‘You sort it so. No bother.’ He eyed her closely, sniffed his nose. ‘I’ll get the gear. Remember to rig it good and tight, yeah? That bit easier.’
She dragged the dog forward and waited until she heard his boots stomp away. Then she twirled the free end of the rope around the pole. ‘Good boy, good boy.’ She went on her knees and felt his gaze intensely on her neck. The thought raged: she wasn’t strong enough. ‘Shush.’ She knotted together the short ends of the blue rope. The dog panted. Her hands numb as she fastened the chord. ‘Shush. Be quiet, please.’
‘How you set?’ Heslin shouted, a duffle bag slung high on his shoulder.
She leaned forward to check that the main line was sturdy and then she tugged at the noose. As she combed her index finger around his neck, the dog’s breath was hot on her face. ‘One second,’ she said. Her hands shaking, she rubbed his chin and snout. She scratched his wedge ears and the scraggy fur along his neck. The sheepdog whipped her fingers with his tongue.
The duffle bag was dumped at Heslin’s feet. He crouched to unzip it. The dog tried to follow her, but the slack blue rope tensed, the dog rebounded back. He whimpered and she tried to ignore the silver and chestnut that probed the corner of her eye. ‘I better go inside,’ she said. ‘I think that would be for the best.’
Heslin shrugged. ‘Whatever suits.’
She hastened to a trot as light beads began to drizzle down. Only once did she glance back. There was Heslin bucking his shoulders, the gun in his arms. There was the sheepdog ridged, his rust-brown eyes watching her, his tail gently wagging.
Chest pains. In the waiting room, a doctor questioned whether her husband had suffered any chest pains recently. Mick had felt some fleeting pain, those were his words, fleeting. The other evening. But it was nothing major, nothing serious. The doctor nodded slowly while she spoke, his pen tapping the chart. He then explained, with hands that smelled of latex, that Mick wouldn’t have felt a thing. It would have been over before he even knew what was happening. Gone out like a flash. This was meant to console her. Meant to grant her the solace of knowing that Mick didn’t even suspect he was dying.
She made the necessary calls. To Mick’s brothers, to her own sister, to a few close friends. She rubbed her eyes, her limbs throbbing, and then rang home. She listened to the beeped announcement that they were sorry, the Grealish’s weren’t home right now. But leave a name and number, and they’ll get right back to you. She wasn’t sure what she expected but she rang home again and again, telling herself that this time it would be different.
The hotel offered her a bed for the night but she declined. Said, with a plastered smile, that she had to get home to the dog. The poor thing had been left on his own all day. He’d be sick with worry waiting.
Ten minutes outside of Ballina, she pulled into a gravelled layby. Her hands bone on the wheel. It was raining mildly, like snow in the headlights, and the flush of purplish twilight glowed along the hills and pointy-headed houses. There was no noise except the heartbeat of the wipers and the shiny zip of passing cars. His velvet sunglasses case was in the glove department, his AA road maps were roughly tucked into the door panel, the comfort beads – that he had insisted on buying – prodded into her spine. She cried then, demanded that he return. Her husband of twenty-two years could not just up and leave without her. She pushed her balled knuckles into her eye socket and felt tears.
‘Look what you’ve left me with.’
When she heard the shot – a piercing boom that seemed to snip through the air in front of her – she placed a hand to her neck. After a moment, she continued stripping away the bed sheets. Working rapidly, she peeled the cover out from under the mattress, pulled pillows from their silky cases. She only stopped when she heard Heslin’s fist thump on the open front door.
‘It’s done now,’ he shouted in.
When she came out he was a foot away, smoking, his back facing her. ‘All done?’ she asked. She grasped a brown envelope with both hands.
He nodded. ‘Quick and easy when it comes down to it.’ He raised his shoulders and dropped them. ‘Not the nicest make of business. But,’ he said, ‘that’s the way it goes.’
The sheepdog was lain on the front grass, like a wet lamb pulled prematurely from its mother. The blue rope was snug around his neck and his tongue flopped from his mouth. The only difference, she noticed, was the stream of pinks and bruise-coloured purples which ran along his chest.
‘All done, and,’ she said, though she had nothing else to add.
She passed the envelope. Heslin took it, and, placing the fag in his mouth, fingered it open and counted. He shoved the envelope into his pocket and gestured towards the dog. ‘What you want us to do with him?’
Ada led the way, a shovel tucked under her arm. Heslin was two steps behind, dragging along the sheepdog, who was blanketed in a woven coal bag. The ground underfoot was muddy and soft and the yellow reeds had darkened to filthy green. Trees rocked from side to side. Neither spoke, though she could hear low complaints from Heslin about the shaggin’ muck getting on his boots.
In the furthest field she instructed him to dig. He moved a hand to his breast pocket but reconsidered and took the shovel. He began to cut into the sloppy crust. The rough elements held no fear for him and there was a kind of beauty to his spadework. He sifted through soil and mud, gouged clean dangling roots and rock, burrowed down while she watched from above.
A round hole was gutted in twenty-five minutes. ‘That’ll do.’ Heslin planted the shovel in the mangy grass aside the hole and, grasping it as a banister, hobbled out. Wincing, he rubbed a hand against his chest and then gathered the dog from under the cover of the coal bag. ‘Up you come.’
He eyed her. ‘Want to say anything?’
‘Just bury it, will you?’ she heard herself say. She was drenched to the bone. Her tears mismatched with the great deluge of rain.
Heslin trudged to the rim of the hole and, bending one knee, let the sheepdog roll in. Her breath faltered. For a second she imagined that this sack of flesh might break into a million pieces like a glass bowl, like a china plate, but no. The corpse slid slowly down the hole, much slower than she expected, and then with a dull clunk, it landed. At the top, the blue rope had snagged itself around the dried root of a rowan. Spotting the rope, Heslin booted it in before wiping his runny nose on a frayed sleeve. Right so, he said, and reached again for the shovel.
John Patrick McHugh was born in 1991 in the west of Ireland. He was awarded the Corsair Bursary at UEA, and his fiction has been published in The Stinging Fly, Granta and Winter Papers.