nan rachadh e ri athair

POSTED: Fri Jan 31, 2020 11:21 pm

1137 words.

News of an outsider's arrival traveled quickly among the xenophobic clans of Eilean Cù.

When his aunt’s smooth muzzle peeked into the homestead, the boy glanced up from where he’d been sharpening shears, the blade scraping against the whetstone in his hand. He was worried for a moment that the woman had come back for the blades before he had finished, but her amber eyes passed right over him as she called out, her voice loud and cold in the stone cottage.

“Och, Ailsa — there’s a mannie trespassing oan Murchadh’s dock.”

A beat, and then his aunt deigned to glance at him. “Yer maw hame, lad?”

“Ah’m hame, Seònaid, Ah heard ye.”


His mother descended from their curtained loft, motes of dust dancing down with her. Ink stained her white fingers; she must have been writing in the ledger, counting bales of wool and noting the trade of young rams. Her brown eyes alighted on her sister expectantly, though she did not frown or cross her arms — only her gaze was needed, as sufficed for the flock of sheep grazing the homestead.

Seònaid’s expression grew tight for a moment, as tight as the dark curls in her fur, but she sniffed and said, “‘Tis yer Irishman, Ailsa.”

It was, he would recall later, the first time he’d seen his mother truly startled. Her mouth gaped, her blackened fingers clutching at a small wood-carved pendant around her throat as if the twine that held it might strangle her. Her gaze flicked toward the boy, and this seemed to bring her back to reality. Her jaw clicked shut, and she fixed her eyes back on her now-satisfied, smirking sibling.

“Thanks fer tellin’ me. Ye can go noo.”

Seònaid sniffed again, then glanced at the boy. He met her gaze like he always did, a stare bordering on insolent, before Seònaid stepped back out of the cottage.

He tossed the whetstone aside (though he didn’t quite dare do the same with the shears; his aunt would cut his ears off with them if he damaged them) and turned to watch his mother, who’d gone silent again, fidgeting with the pendant and staring outside. After a moment, he rose to quiet feet and padded to her side.

“What’s wrong?”

She bit her lip. “‘Tis nethin’, lad,” she said at first, then glanced at him, reaching out to brush a lock of straight, dark brown hair from his cheek — darker than her chestnut curls, tamed into a side ponytail that draped over her shoulder. Loose strands coiled around her face, framing an expression grown thoughtful.

“Come wi’ me,” she bade him.

“Come wi’ ye whaur? Auld Murchadh’s dock?”

***

A small crowd blocked the view of the old fisherman’s dock by the time mother and son arrived, voices raised in excitement and insult — a stir that caused the hackles to rise on the boy’s nape. Ailsa ordered him to stay put, then strutted toward the gathering of barking dogs, parting them like she did her flock. As she did, shouts followed her.

“She ought te skelp him!”

“Ca’ canny, hen, Ah wouldnae trust th’ sleekit bastard!”

“Tell that crow-faced fandan tae get aff mah feckin’ dock!”

“Aye, git tae fuck!”


Curiosity piqued about the source of the clan’s ire, the youth crept toward the docks, keeping to the back of Murchadh’s little fishing shack. He peeked around the corner, spotting his mother as she walked to the forefront of the gathering, her hand lightly brushing the shoulder of the old grey poodle to calm him. The fisherman curled his lip, moustache twitching aside, but said nothing as Ailsa faced the trespasser — a dark-furred man standing on a little skiff rocking in the water.

The mongrel was black as a crow and lean, with half-pricked ears and, the boy noted, straight coarse fur. He’d never seen fur like his own before.

The stranger flashed his mother a winsome smile, even as he raised his hands to appease the forming mob. “Well, if it isn’t de lovely an’ fierce Ailsa Douglass,” he greeted, his coin-colored eyes twinkling. “Come t’ convince de lads I’m not ’ere t’ twist hay?”

Ailsa placed her hands on her hips, tilted her head. “Why are ye here, O’Brien?”

The black dog laughed, though the rough edge to it was almost nervous. “Would ye believe me if I said I came ’ere t’ see ye?”

“Away an’ dinnae talk pish!”
woofed the elderly Murchadh.

“Ah wid,” Ailsa replied, “ye dafty.” What she said next, the boy couldn’t hear, her voice falling low after the bold barks she’d confronted the Irishman with. It was lost amid the growling and grumbling of the clan, many of whom began to disperse — leaving the youth without the cover he needed when he crept closer.

The coin-colored eyes flicked to him, and the smile disappeared from the stranger’s face as his ears slowly pricked to full attention. Noticing his change in posture, Ailsa turned her head then sighed at her son. “Ah told ye tae stay put,” she admonished, and the boy shrugged his shoulders moodily.

“Ye told me tae come, too,” he pointed out. Why hadn’t she just left him at home, if she didn’t want him to see what was going on?

His chestnut eyes — the same hue as his mother’s — appraised the newcomer quickly, intrigued by his coat. Isolated from the mainland, their heritage cultivated over generations, the waterdogs of Eilean Cù were of a singular landrace. Some lost breeds had trickled down into talents like his mother’s herding, and they were an array of colors and builds, but all had the same curly coat that shed water and burrs effortlessly.

This stranger was a different type — purely doggish, but lean and wild-looking.

The man stared at the boy, too, and counted other similarities. He looked up at Ailsa again, his charming brogue softened into something trepidatious. “Is ’e—”

“Aye.”

“Ye sure?”

Look at him, ye loon.”


The boy shifted his feet, suddenly aware that the remaining few waterdogs were silent, their gazes burned into the back of his neck. That the sensation was familiar did not make it any more comfortable.

The Irishman laughed, suddenly, and hopped from the skiff onto the dock (ignoring Murchadh’s warning snarl). He approached them, mother and son, smiling again — warm and earnest. The boy could feel his heart race, his posture straightening, as the black dog offered his hand to shake, his movements careful. The boy took it, his tail waving tentatively behind him as understanding dawned.

“M’name is Cormac O’Brien,” his father said.
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