Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

Matamoros, July 1846

First place in The London Magazine Short Story Prize 2022

For weeks, the leaflets had been littering the encampment like broken birds, flapping in the wind, lodging in the twisted pine trees. When it rained, they landed in the puddled mud to be torn and buried underfoot. Nobody was sure who was distributing them on this side of the river, but everyone knew they’d been sent by the Mexicans. The men had been warned to take no notice, which only served to excite the silent curiosity that swelled among them.
      Not everyone sensed it.
      ‘Those filthy pamphlets would only be a worry,’ one complacent corporal had boasted, ‘if the wretches could read.’
      And yet, the propaganda was taking hold. Soon, desertions – to be expected of course, just not in such numbers – became the cause of some disquiet. By the glow and crackle of campfire, the murmurs began. Disloyalty was infectious. And there was something about the Irish boys: a change, a shift. Threat, discipline and punishment had failed. Perhaps faith and devotion were the only solutions now.
      Jimmy Mangan was the first to have news that priests were being sent for. But by the time Fathers McElroy and Rey stepped onto the ragged ground of the encampment, it may already have been too late.

Charles Dwyer and Corby Sullivan were among the first to disappear. Though some claimed they’d been murdered by rangers, Jimmy had a different story. ‘They’re after landing on their feet over beyond,’ he insisted, describing in glossy-eyed detail how they’d clung like limpets (as if he could have known) to the stolen horse that had carried them across the rolling waters of the Rio Grande, how they’d been welcomed like kings by the Mexicans. If his elaborations were to be believed, Charles and Corby
were now drinking Tequila in sunlit plazas and eating their fill in that land of smooth-skinned women with eyes the colour of chocolate.
      Lured by the same stirring rumours, Stephen Brooke was the next to quit camp but returned of his own accord before anyone knew he was gone, the steel of his nerve having left him somehow. He stood defeated and soggy, emitting his peculiar high-pitched laugh, the river water still dripping from his hair. In a halo of orange firelight the other men chewed on hardtack, drank their bitter coffee and watched Brooke, who with slow surety and the hint of a smile, pressed his weapon to his temple and pulled. Most of him crumpled to the earth. Some of him rose in a gunsmoke cloud of tiny stars, twisting and sparking into the sky.

Martin Lydon did not attempt to remove from his superiors their presumption of his illiteracy. Since his enlistment, he’d never been asked for details of his education nor had he any occasion to insinuate the fact of it. In Ireland he’d read speeches and pamphlets out loud for others to hear, could still recite some by heart, for all the good this had done him.
      Early one morning at the camp stores, from behind the bandage boxes he had plucked one of the crumpled Mexican leaflets, shoved it under his jacket and waited until first light of the next day before straightening it out and reading for himself. And the day after this, at Matamoros Creek, less than a mile south of camp, Martin strode into the river up to his waist. A strong swimmer, he would have easily made the crossing but for one Timothy Gander, an eager volunteer from Philadelphia who had been stalking the riverbank on self-appointed patrol. Gander heard a splashing, saw the glint, and with the breathless speed of a man who expects immediate reward, ran to the water’s edge only to find this Irish whippet, wading towards hell. As Gander chivvied the renegade back to camp, Martin had the sense to stay silent.
      The company sergeant had reacted to the news with unseemly leniency. It had been a hot night. Matamoros Creek was not known to be a place of escape. Decent soldiers went there simply to cool down, breathe the air, watch the sunset. Not all immigrants were bent on treachery.

The two priests moved from section to section with the devout civility that few men possess. With even tempers they responded to the hoarse cheers of earnest welcome and the whoops of mockery that greeted them, setting about their task of bringing would-be deserters back from the brink.
      Martin had stopped praying a good while back, but found himself soothed by the sound of the priest’s voice. He wondered if Father McElroy was anything to a fellow called Patrick who he’d met in New York and enlisted with, but had not seen since. He thought it would be wrong to ask and in any case he was now to make a fist of his own confession. It had been a long time since his last one. Bless me father for I have sinned.
      Far from hating the Mexicans, he explained, it was his own fellow soldiers he’d grown to despise. Rather than dreaming about killing faceless foes against whom he bore no grudge, he spent a great deal of time thinking of the ways he might put an end to the lives of the men he was fighting with.
      On three separate occasions he’d imagined driving a bayonet into the thigh of Barnabas Frawley who picked at his toenails with a penknife, or into the neck of William Porter who was famous for hawking great gobbets of phlegm from his throat and spitting them onto the ground at people’s feet.
      Most vexatious of all had been Stephen Brooke’s falsetto titter. Martin was sure that if Brooke had not taken his own life with such suddenness, it wouldn’t have been long before he’d have saved him the bother.
      Father McElroy seemed unperturbed. He explained that disproportionate urges and irritations were to be expected in these conditions. Dark thoughts, while sinful, did not belong to the same spiritual rank as murderous acts. Ten Hail Marys and an Our Father would bring such preoccupations down to a simmer, if not banish them altogether – unless there was anything else, any other sin or wrongdoing that might be troubling him.
      ‘I’ve forgotten things,’ said Martin then.
      McElroy frowned.
      ‘What things?’
      ‘Things I didn’t think could ever be forgotten. At home, every day, my sister used to sing. I can’t remember the songs. Nor the notes, nor the words. Nothing at all.’
      The priest only nodded his head and did not proffer further advice or instruction, so Martin went on to confide his greater fear, which was that all compassion and kindness or any other form of goodness that had ever resided in his human soul were gone.
      A flicker in the pale of Father McElroy’s eyes caused Martin to believe this admission had shocked the priest and that the strange look he now fixed him with was one of despair and of pity for the hopeless destiny of his darkened soul. When McElroy asked again if there was anything else he’d like to unburden in the privacy of the confession, Martin told him yes.

‘I have seen with my own eyes the printed words of a Mexican soldier by the name of Ampudia,’ he said, looking into the milky blueness of McElroy’s gaze. ‘I have read his appeal to the most sacred rights of friendship and the duty of decency. I have learned of his claims that America’s ambition is mad and that it is wrong. Father, I am afraid.’
      ‘Of what?’
      ‘Afraid that this army wishes to use us as pawns in service of a hateful plan.’
      Martin pulled the leaflet from inside his jacket and held it up between them.
      ‘Afraid that I’m fighting on the wrong side.’
      McElroy snatched the paper from Martin’s hand and leaned towards him, lips whitening, small teeth bared.
      ‘Listen to me now,’ he whispered, pointing a smooth finger in the direction of the river. ‘Do not believe what you have been told. Those words you have read are lies. The bells you can hear pealing over the water from the other side – they do not ring true. All that’s over there is a poisonous jumble of paganism, a cauldron of superstition. Those are not our people. They would lure you towards sin and suffering. For your own sake, there is to be no treason.’
      McElroy spoke like this for some time, warning Martin that defectors and deserters would be shot, instructing him to keep his faith, reminding him that there was no-one more doomed than an Irish pagan in a foreign land. Then he gave a sign of the cross. The white half moons on the priest’s fingernails made Martin think of his mother. Somewhere in Matamoros a church bell rang.

When the evening had quietened into night, Martin rose again, trudged the mile back towards the bend in the river, and did not stop and there he entered the river, which licked at him in gentle gulps and he was blanketed by the silk of it as he plunged and kicked and pulled his way through the water to make his escape.
      The camp smells faded – the maggoty hardtack, the poisoned fire, the mouldy salted beef, the bitter vinegar. The drag of the river was strong. There was an instant when he was tempted to give in, go under, be done with it. But half way across he was sure he could hear the shouts of Timothy Gander, and for the first time since he’d set foot on this land, Martin began to pray.
      He prayed for the souls of Corby Sullivan and Charles Dwyer who he hoped were still alive. He prayed for the soul of Stephen Brooke who he knew was dead. He prayed he would forget the seething, groaning ship that had brought him to this place and that he would be able somehow to cast from his mind everything that had happened since.
      When he reached the far bank, he stared with stinging eyes towards the shore he’d left behind and at the pulsing glimmer of the now distant fire. The veil of camp-smoke had lifted. He remembered those things that in these violent months, he had forgotten: the bleached cowrie-scattered sands of his recent childhood; his barefoot brothers running on tufted ground towards him. And, clean as the sound of a bow pulled across a fiddle, he could hear again the voice of his sister Nora, and would always hear her now, perfect and clear, every day at this same hour, from then
until the hour of his death.

Sarah Moore Fitzgerald is a teacher, researcher and writer at the University of Limerick in Ireland where she’s part of the creative writing teaching team. She’s the author of seven novels for children and young adults including Back to Blackbrick, The Apple Tart of Hope and The Shark and The Scar. Her fiction has been translated into over eighteen languages and adapted for the stage in London and Edinburgh.

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