Another excerpt from The Boys of Barr na Sráide
“Don’t do it; I beg ye to stop,” said Cathie.
He kept walking, and the fire in her grew stronger at his opposition. She ran in front of him and walked backwards at his pace, putting her hands up, but not touching him.
“Conor! Please, I beg ye. Don’t do it.”
He didn’t look at her, but focused his dark brow on the town in the distance. “Stop it, Cathie.”
“Ye can’t - ye won’t - I refuse to move.” She skidded to a halt in her tracks, and he almost ran into her.
Without aggression, he merely side-stepped to the left, but she walked in front of him. He moved to the right - she moved to the right. His anger surged. “Get outta me way,” he said, swiping his hand in the air, sounding cool and deadly.
Cathie swallowed. “No,” she said, ready to take what came. “Don’t go. Please, Conor.”
He tried to go around her, but she blocked him again. His frustration mounted and his inhibitions were faltering; if she were a man, he could strike her aside. They danced a bit more, she repeating, “Don’t do it,” and he skirting her in a lively match, until suddenly in desperation he viciously bolted, striking into her and past, but to his shock, she grabbed onto his coat as he went by and he was jerked back just as viciously as he had lunged. In maniacal rage, he whirled around to wrench her hand off but she leapt in front of him and threw both her arms around him as a human padlock. She laced her fingers behind his back and he could not move without dragging her along. Her face was pressed against the roughness of his jacket and her throat was choked with salt. He tried to throw her but Cathie’s arms only tightened. He thrashed about, but she held on. He got a hand free and gripped her arm so hard they left marks as he tried to pry it lose. “**** it, Cathie, get off me!”
“That’s right! Curse, do whatever ye want, but I am not movin',” she sobbed. “Ye’ll be walkin' to Cahirciveen like this and they’ll be shootin' ye through me. So beat me, knock my head on the ground - but I won’t let go. Break my neck and kill me, but I won’t let go. I won’t let go, I won’t let go, I won’t let go.”
Conor lost all perception of anything, of courtesy, or chivalry, his reason and brain clouded by sorrow and rage, and the only thing that filled his mind was hatred for this girl who stood in the way of soothing his grief. He forgot he was fighting with a woman. He violently threw himself onto the grass by the road in the dark, in an attempt to shake her hold. Cathie landed hard, but her arms did not lessen their grip. She trembled in fear of his violence, for this was a Conor she had never seen. She was terrified of what he would do next in this state when he got up, but her faith did not falter in the true man inside. The real Conor, good and noble and kind, was what her iron grip held onto.
And Conor seemed to be losing willpower. “Get off of me,” he said shakily, stumbling to his feet and dragging the human padlock up with him…but his voice sounded more futile this time, even to himself.
Cathie changed her tactic. “I told ye - what did I say? I beg ye…I beg ye...” Her voice got tender, and she felt instinctively that she had gained ground. Conor seemed unsure of himself after his failure to shake her and unwilling to do something even more violent. Her physical persistence, what she could not win in words, seemed to make him think there was something in it to heed. This human being - whoever she was - was being so fierce, so strong. Maybe he should listen to her.
They stood on the road together, his arms hanging limply, hers still tightly around his ribs and laced behind his back, her face scratched against the wool, her right shoulder blade throbbing where a rock had cut it. She would not let go. Breathing heavily, she knew she was winning. She dropped her voice to a whisper, in the cunning way women have, more persuasive than thundering force. “Conor, if ye do this, we will be so sad. It does not matter, though, if I am sad, or yer mother is sad, or yer father. What matters is…ye have a life to live. And love to give and things to live for.”
Something in Conor that was drawn so tight to breaking point, snapped. He face suddenly grew red and his eyes flushed with tears and grew red-rimmed and Cathie let go of her grip. He tried to keep it in. “Let go of me - let -”
“I am lettin' go,” she said gently, her voice like honey-balm to a wound.
“My brother is killed,” he said, in a higher-pitched voice than was wont. “He was fifteen.”
“I know,” she said.
He slid down to his knees, helpless and defeated. She had never seen Conor in a position other than dignity.
“Ye can cry if ye want,” she said softly.
He did not look up. In an instant he brought his brown hands to his face and started. She could see the wrinkled brow behind his fingers… Just as immediately she reached for his hair, the back of his head, the impulse of a million women strong from ages past surging through her and telling her hands how to caress without her intellectually knowing how. The current was so strong and warm and instinctual, and Conor responded to it as immediately as if he had been touched by a live wire, moving in and allowing himself to be pulled in simultaneously to her body. There was nothing immodest in this moment. In the great, raw form of this exchange, so tender and open, there was no Wrong and Right, only Sorrow and Comfort.
They stood on the road thus as he wept deeply into her ribs and her shirtfront became wet from his tears and mouth and nose and she held his face against herself, never moving her hand away from his long scratchy cheek, taking each sob into her belly and palm, to show him that it was accepted and to keep going, dear, keep going. She was not without discomfort; her conscience was serene, but for a girl who was unused to any caress, it was somewhat new and electrifying and overwhelming. She had very little experience with the feel of another human body, other than babies. His sobs were deep and uninhibited, and sometimes he spoke.
It was not like he was speaking to Cathie. Cathie did not entirely exist for him at that moment; at that moment she was Life to him. She meant Sweetness. She was Hope and Healing personified in a bare-headed woman standing on a deserted Irish road.
“How did it happen…how did it happen… I want to die, I’m in so much pain. My stomach is going to explode. There’s a bomb in it. But I shouldn’t be talkin' -”
“Shh,” soothed Cathie gently. “Talk it all out.”
“This be the worst…the worst, the worst…of all the bad things that have happened in the world, in all history, to all the people that ever existed… this be the worst. O, Jonny, o, Jonny, o, Jonny.”
He wept his name over and over again in lament, the word holy and sacred and necessary for him to say. “It’s real…it’s too real…
“I want to die,” he wailed. “There is nothin' to live for now on earth… If this be what the earth holds and is like for me, I don’t want any part of it. I don’t want to live here.”
“No, dear,” she said caressingly, in opposition. “Ye will be living again. Life will not seem so bad. The hurt will be lessening. Ye will love and be glad again. Truly - truly - ye will.”
Her words seemed callous but he did quiet, and as his sobs settled, out escaped a few shuddering sighs against his will that say, in a child as well as in an adult, that the creature is comforted. And as soon as he quieted, Cathie was surprised to see how quickly he got up. He sighed and stood and stumbled back from her, and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “I feel embarrassed,” he said.
“Don’t,” she said.
“Thank ye,” he said simply, and sniffed long and hard and wiped his nose with his shirtsleeve and then turned and quietly walked down the road in the same direction he had been headed before. This time Cathie did not interfere. The fiery poison of revenge had been drawn out of his wound.
She wished she could stay with him all night, to hold him. She wished he had a wife who could be with him and keep him warm through the hours as the moon would rise higher above his grief. She wanted to tighten her hold on his hair and face again. She wanted to do something, show him something, that would keep him on the earth and glad to be alive. But she knew this was something she could not do for him. She could be a human padlock and keep him from going to Cahirciveen and getting shot in an attempt at revenge…but she could not make him happy on earth again. Only he could do that.
Cathie went home that night feeling nothing but pain at another’s pain. She could not sleep for being so heartbroken and lay awake thinking of Conor all night long. Where was he? What was he doing right at this moment?
But in later days the sweeter sensations arose, and merely thinking of the memory of reaching for his head and drawing it softly, and he coming so willingly, against herself, made her feel the most warm, beautiful, feminine, satisfied feelings she had ever felt.