Jack Sheehan



When the weather is dry I sometimes sleep with the chickens. People will tell you they’re stupid, and that’s as may be, but they know well enough when something is the matter with you. They’re kind, and I’d rather be kind than smart.

            It’s October now, and looks like an early winter. The summer was wet, for once. I had flooding in the back barn, but I’ve nothing in there now except a few rusty aul bits of a combine, and I’m not getting that thing out again in a rush. The main house stayed dry enough, as did the henhouse. I’d enough wood from Michael Sullivan to put on a few fires to keep the place heated, and I’ll have turf from the Robinsons for January and February.

            The rain’s held off this morning, for now, so I’m out in the garden doing the herbs. We used to have a polytunnel until a few years ago when lads from the town burned it. There’s a sheltered enough spot behind the lean-to that works alright for coriander and a bit of miner’s lettuce. Tough things. I’ve barely got my hands dirty when Pierce Talbot comes up the way, leaning on the fence with his dirty fatigues and those threadbare gloves on him.

            ‘Well,’ he says. I nod back at him and keep digging. He was here two weeks ago, and isn’t due back for another two. ‘How are ya keeping?’

            ‘Grand. Same as yourself,’ I say.

            ‘Grand. Here for a few more.’

            ‘You’re not due ‘til November.’

            ‘Sure I know that, Maeve. But as I say, I’m here for a few more.’

            ‘Getting through them fast, aren’t you?’

            He’s picking his nose while he talks, and his voice goes funny. ‘We’ve a lot of lads up there, if you get me. Lot of mouths to feed.’

            ‘Dunno why you bother.’

            ‘For everyone’s sake, Maeve.’

            I put down the trowel and sigh, getting to my feet and brushing the heavy clay off my knees. ‘Well, ye might have a lot of mouths, but I haven’t much to give.’

            ‘Have a look, will ya?’ He follows me to the door but stops there, like the salesmen you used to get. In the pantry I have two trays of eggs, brown, speckled, with a stray feather on two. I take them out and hand them to Pierce.

            ‘Forty-eight should do ye for a while. It’s all I have.’

            He frowns. ‘All ya have?’

            ‘I’ve one for my dinner, or do you want that as well?’

            He does a fake smile, his teeth all yellow and brown from the cheap military tobacco. ‘Ah now, do ya think I’m that bad?’

            ‘I’m only wondering if you’ve sugar or anything to pay for this?’

            He opens his satchel and drops a heavy rectangle on the table, wrapped in wax paper. ‘A pack for yourself.’

            ‘You normally do salt or sugar. I’ll take petrol if you have it?’

            ‘That’ll do now,’ he says, and walks out. I follow him out the door. From our porch you can see the lake open up in front of you. It’s why we bought it in the first place.

            ‘Bit of rain on the way,’ he says.

            ‘Could be.’

            ‘Wouldn’t want to be out on the lake.’

            ‘Depends. Wouldn’t want to be swimming in it now.’

            ‘I was never a big swimmer.’ He leaves, down the lane to where he’s left his bicycle. They used to come rumbling around with their jeeps and motorbikes, tearing up the mud or the dust, making a racket, scaring people. Now it’s just Pierce and his bike, balancing the eggs on his basket like a little French girl.

            I give the radio a few dozen cranks and set it up on the kitchen table. A young man sings through the static. A lady in Cong has set up a broadcast station and you can hear it as far out as Cleggan. It’s nicer to listen to than any of the government stations, but sure wasn’t that always the way?

            I’ve built up the fire in the range and a pot of water is simmering. Earlier in the year, myself and the young lad from down the way, Crossan, we cleared out the last of the shite they dumped in the well. So we don’t have to use lake water any more. We still boil everything, mind. The Robinsons lost their daughter two years ago with the Cryptosporidium.

            I unwrap the package Pierce left, it’s greasy and grey, like soapstone. I break a third off the bar and drop it in the water. ‘Packs’ everyone calls them. Awful stuff. Condensed vitamins and starch that you boil into this desperate soup. While it slowly dissolves in the bubbles, scum rises to the top. I fry an egg, very slowly and carefully, without butter. Ran out two weeks ago. The McHughs have the only cows in the area and they’re mean as anything. I have the egg on a bit of dry flat bread with a sprinkle of pepper, then choke down the pack soup as the radio fades out.

            Pierce comes again on Friday, just as I’m getting ready to have a wash. I’m filling the tub with water I boiled on the range when he does that knock-knock on the window. It gives me a fright and I splash a bit of hot water on my wrist.

            ‘What in God’s name is it now?’ I ask him through the window. He has his gun with him this time. An ugly old shotgun he took from a farmer and lopped the barrel off. He’s got a Sam Browne belt on like he thinks he’s Michael Collins.

            He smiles again. ‘Catch you at a bad time, did I?’ I’m only wearing a nightshirt and a dressing gown gone stiff from washing it in hard water.

            ‘What do you want?’

            ‘Few more things, I’m afraid.’ I cross my arms across my chest.

            ‘I’ve nothing more in the pantry, as you well know.’ I’m rubbing the red splash mark that’s appeared on my wrist, and I remember that there’s no more Sudocrem left in the cabinet.

            ‘Might be time to get it from the source, if you get me.’

            I close my eyes. I took every egg laid this week to Martin McGuire yesterday evening for a bottle of potato vodka and a bag of golden wonders.

            ‘You won’t get many,’ I say. He purses his lips in a crushed little smile.

            ‘Suppose we couldn’t have a bit of chicken then?’

            I notice his neck then, stringy and wasted. Everyone’s just trying to get a bit of protein, and I can’t imagine he’s exactly top dog back at the base.

            I pull on my trousers, boots and jumper and push the boat off the lakeshore. Pierce doesn’t follow me. He’s looking at the lake water like it’s hot lava.

            ‘Don’t take too long now.’

            The island is a little scrap of trees and a scrubby beach. It had a name that I’ve forgotten. Chicken Island is all I think of it as now. And wasn’t I against it? Ross got spooked a few months before the big stuff happened, moved all our chicks out there. No one owned it, and there was space to build a henhouse and a run. No foxes, no minks, no cats to frighten the poor things. I thought he was stone mad, but he was right. When they came through, the squaddies took all the sheep, the pigs, our goat, everything in the house smaller than the kitchen table. I built every little bit I have back up from those eggs. Those starving birds never stopped laying, even when I couldn’t afford feed and had to give them my own scraps and the gleanings from stripped fields of grain that I gathered up in plastic bags in the early days of those winters.

            I try not to kill any. It’s the least I can do. I remember I cried when I ate one whose name I knew well. But I can only find six eggs laid since yesterday. There’s an aul hen I’ve kept by herself for a few months. She doesn’t lay anymore, but she’s gentle, and she’s a survivor. She doesn’t give out when I pick her up in my arms, or when I wring her neck on the island shore, and pluck her feathers to put in my satchel. It’s not for his convenience. It’s for her dignity. When I give her over to his greedy little fingers, she’s just a piece of meat, not her own proud self.

            He hands me a billfold of hundreds of euro.

            ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’

            ‘I’m not taking anything for free, there’s your payment.’

            ‘I can’t eat paper,’ I say, but he’s already half gone. The water in the tub is cold by the time I get back inside. I don’t have the strength to heat it again, so I sit in the old chair in front of the range with the fire stacked up and a rough horse blanket around my knees.

            Ross retired early, on a full pension. It was his idea to move out here. Jackeen loved the countryside. This is my home place, and I could never stick it really. I like noise and people. Or I did, anyways. Sure if we’d stayed put in the city we’d both be dead. I know that for certain, don’t ask me how.

            I’m ready for him the next time he appears, late on the Sunday, when he should be with his God, or anyone else but me. As ready as I can be, anyway. I’ve no weapon. Wouldn’t know how to use it if I did. I’ve never shot so much as a spud gun, and I’m not about to learn. Nothing fits me anymore, so I’ve had to cut down one of Ross’ old denim shirts and take in his heavy jacket. Makes me look bigger. I’ve shrunk so much I’m like a bird myself.

            ‘I’ve nothing left for ya, Pierce,’ I shout from the fence as his bike pulls up. He has no smile on his face now, real or fake or whatever. Very grave. He shakes his head.

            ‘Serious problems above in the town, Maeve.’

            ‘That so?’ He pushes open the gate and walks straight past me.

            ‘Afraid so. And we’ve a lot of people need a lot of stuff, so a bit of cooperation would be great.’ He doesn’t stop until he gets to the shore, where the boat is flipped over from the rain last night.

            ‘What are we talking?’

            ‘Ten at least,’ he says, flipping the boat over and pushing it to the water.


            ‘I know you’ve a load out there, Maeve, ye don’t think I’m stupid?’

            ‘I try my best not to think of you at all, Pierce, but you don’t make it easy.’

            He puffs out his stomach, that ugly slab of metal on his belt rocking with the thrust. ‘Now, I’ve been polite with you up until now, but I’ve a limit.’

            I think about his short little fingers squeezing the trigger, putting a slug in me and leaving me to bleed out right here in the long grass. I sigh. ‘Alright, but you’re coming with me.’


            ‘Unless you want this to take all day, get in the boat. It’s ten minutes.’ He steps in awkwardly and the boat rocks. ‘Will ye sit down, the thing will tip over.’ He’s pale and sweating, sitting at the stern, his knees together like a boy on the naughty step. The lake is fierce quiet. Still and cold and black right to the depths. My strokes are steady, and the boat glides away from the shore.

            ‘Always wondered why you had them on an island.’

            ‘To stop the likes of yourself from taking them.’

            ‘That’s very unfair, Maeve, we’re friends.’

            I laugh, the first time in a long while.


            ‘I was a great friend of your husband.’

            I stop rowing for a second, and the water settles around the boat as the ripples fade off. ‘My husband? My husband was shot like a dog by your fellas.’

            He holds up his hands. ‘I’d nothing to do with that. Now, he shouldn’t have argued over a few pigs, but I’d nothing to do with that at all.’

            ‘No, you didn’t, if I remember right. Nothing at all.’

            There’s silence for a few seconds, then I start rowing again.

            ‘I suppose you’ll be back tomorrow.’

            ‘Look, I’m sorry, we’ve all had a hard time of it.’

            ‘And next week I’d imagine. Lots of mouths to feed.’

            ‘As you say yourself.’ We’re halfway to the island now, and the mist has settled in. We could be in the middle of the ocean.

            ‘Never see Sergeant O’Neill around anymore,’ I say.

            ‘Very busy at the base.’

            ‘Or Ronan, ah, what was it?’

            ‘Ronan Manning.’

            ‘No, him either. Just been yourself this year. Never got an official req order either. Ye used to love those.’

            ‘I have ah, I have one here somewhere.’ He fumbles with his satchel.

            ‘I’m sure. I’m sure ye do.’ I stand up and put a foot on the side, just one. The boat tips and dumps him out into the water, head over feet. I steady the ship and row a little away. It doesn’t take long, and afterwards I pull his heavy body to the back of the boat and tie it there. I drag it to a corner of the island and leave it under a few stones with a prayer. I take the satchel and the clothes. They’ll be good to someone again. The gun I leave there to rust and rot.

   It’s getting dark. Ross used to look out of the blinds on evenings like this and say the gloom’s getting gloomier than ever, and then he’d smile, and pull them down for the night. I’ve spent too long out here, and I don’t want to row back this late. I settle in to my spot in the corner of the henhouse. The birds are a bit restless, but they calm down after a bit. I put my fingers in their feathers and close my eyes.

Jack Sheehan is a writer, historian and photographer from Dublin based in New York. You can find his work in The Baffler, The Fence, LitHub, Lonely Planet and Tribune Magazine. He holds an MPhil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin. He lives in Harlem. You can find him on Twitter or Substack.

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