My toenail has blackened, and I have to pull to get it off. You’d feel it, so you would; it’s painful enough. I douse my foot in water, and I leave the nail by the side of the road, and on we go.
This road, this hungry road, eating us up.
We’ve been walking already for a long time, the three of us together.
Where are the trees and stone walls? Where the abandoned cottages and burned-out bridge, where the waterfall and the hidden skiff? Where the signposts to lead us back home? I mark them, scraping old metal with jagged rocks, an X that’d mean something only to Maeve and me, one line a little longer than the other for direction. I go over it, making sure I’ll remember, while the muscles along my neck and in the small of my back swell and creak with pain. I keep watching all around me.
The blisters I got on my hands from rowing to and from the island fill with fluid, burst, fill again.
When we rest, I take leaves of mint from the herb pouch. Mam’s herb pouch. My eyes are tired from the glare of the sun. My feet are sore from the too-hot road.
Around us the landscape changes constantly. The road shifts beneath me, twists and slopes, and every time I look up, the world presents me with something new and I feel fresh too. Despite myself, despite everything. The world ended a long time ago, but it is still beautiful.
We are moving.
Looking at her lying slumped in the barrow makes my chest feel like it’s collapsing in on itself. She is so small—“scrawny” is the word. She never used to be small. I look away, and twenty paces later I’m at it again, watching the closed-up face with the sweaty sheen.
We move. We rest again. The dog beside us, the nails on his paws clacking against the road. I can feel the hesitation off him. He’s asking me do I know what I’m doing and don’t I want to go home.
I do, I tell him. But I can’t.
Maeve’s lined skin is being burned by the sun underneath its grayness. I take off my hat and put it on her lightly, so most of her face is in shadow. I can pretend she’s asleep. I stop again and rearrange her so she’s facing forward, facing into whatever’s coming at us. She’d feel better that way. I feel better. Maeve wasn’t one for looking too often at me anyway, unless for a fight.
I’ve a new pain, then, the sun pounding down on one spot at the top of my forehead.
We move. My fear so big, so palpable, that it could be an animal walking beside us. I try to make friends with it.
* * *
We pause to drink. I shadowbox to show that maybe we’re on the road now, but I can keep to my training. I nearly feel that I still have some control over what’s happening to us, with my fists in the air. I stare at my map, guessing how far we’ve come from the beach, from home. My eyes and ears are strained long past comfort, waiting to catch the first sign of a skrake bearing down on us.
We get going and we keep going.
I keep an eye on her.
Our road joins a bigger road, and that joins a bigger road again, a straight road, and we see more houses, and the villages begin to clump together. The road curves upward and the land thickens into hills. The trees are getting bolder and greener, the landscape transforming every few clicks into shapes and colors I’ve never seen before. I leave Maeve in the barrow to walk off the road, my back giving out as I straighten, and pull some sticky pine needles to make the tea. It’s cooler in the woods, the air smells more the way it does on Slanbeg. Cleaner. I rub the needles in my hands and breathe in deep, letting my eyes stay closed a moment.
Vitamin C, Maeve says in my ear, so clearly that I start, take in a sharp breath. I go quickly back to the road.
Her body is prone in the barrow, her lips closed in a disapproving line.
Every now and then, there’ll be a tree growing right up in the middle of the road, and I have to unpack the barrow and carry everything round. Food, blankets, the chickens squawking. I try not to breathe when I lift Maeve. I try not to feel her bones.
Progress is slow, slower even than I thought it would be. Danger lies down to watch me and pant in the shade of a stone wall standing all on its own. He waits till I’ve slogged past him, and then he gets up and shakes himself and lollops along again.
It’s viciously hot till the sun starts to sink, then suddenly it’s cold. The clouds come down on us, obstinate and dour.
When the storm comes, it lights up the darkening sky with violent intensity. I stop and lift my head to watch, my hands in the small of my back to stretch it out. It feels dangerous, pausing, but I linger and even let my stinging eyes close, and when it starts raining, I take the hand-wraps off and hold my palms up and offer them to the deluge.
* * *
We’re moving east, striking out opposite to home, but sometimes the road takes us north or south or even west again for a while. I don’t know if we’re going along the path we should.
I look to Maeve and ask her again which way. She has nothing to say to me.
* * *
I think about food; I think about Mam’s old way of saying it: The hunger is on me. That’s it. I’ve lost condition, and the dog was skinny enough starting out. The chickens are subdued in their makeshift crate. Around me the sky crackles and combusts.
I do nothing but walk, and we get nowhere. Sometimes we pass road signs that are still legible: DOOLIN, LISDOONVARNA. I tick them off the tattered map. I’m not watching out around me enough, I know that without Maeve telling me, and so every fifty steps, I take one careful look in all four directions. It’s good to stretch out my neck, to take in the landscape, a balm for my eyes still. Then I’m back watching the top of her head, and I begin the count again.
I make lists as I push—of all the things I’m afraid of. Going back to the island. Never going back. Skrake. People, especially men.
While we walk, and then when I can walk no more, I try to get my brain to linger over home. In case I haven’t another chance at it, I try to think of Mam. Her smell, like warm herbs. She used to sing. I hum to myself, trying to remember a tune. The noise that comes out of me sounds nothing like her songs, and I should be keeping quiet. I don’t want to be adding to the noise my feet are making on the road, the roll of the barrow’s wheel, the racket of me pushing and pulling through trees and over debris. Skrake are attracted to noise. Noise and fire and movement. Their vision is good and their smell is exceptional, and they’re afraid of nothing. And they’ve a taste for us, so they do.
I wonder instead what Mam’d be at now, if she were me. She wouldn’t have stayed on the island either. Mam would be proud of me.
Wouldn’t she, Maeve?
My throat is dry, and all I want is to stop and drink and then collapse and lie still for a long time, days and nights. We press on. Danger lags so far behind, his lithe black-and-white coat a dark smudge against the horizon. I wonder if he’ll bother to catch up at all.
It is the first day of our walk.
Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Davis-Goff