By R.H. Hildige

 

Our cottage sat in the saplings, between Coonagh Woods and Coonagh Plains. We were brothers then, and our older brother Diarmuid was with us, and times weren't always kind but our brother and us laughed at unkind things and made rhymes of things that scared us. Our brother said laughing and rhyming made scary things disappear, and it worked. 

We were the sons of a forester named Shane, and we lived with him and our mother's mother, and Diarmuid. Shane was tall, thin and bald as a blade, and he loved blades himself. He had a collection of different sized axes he kept in the axe-room that he'd sharpen every evening for two hours. We could hear him in the cottage's other room. He'd hum, and smack his tongue, and sing snatches of half remembered nursery songs.

He wore through four whetstones a year, and his hands were thick palmed and blue from their use.

Our Nan would listen to him hum 'The Selkie's lost pebble' to his favourite axe, Eoin Og, her wearing a face that slanted her brow like a pitched roof. At the end of every line he´d smack his tongue and Nan would clench herself up.

"There's somethin' not right 'bout dat man. I think he's sick" she always said, and we always agreed.

"Sick men sing songs to blades, and use blades to straighten braids" my brother sang, and we giggled as he pretended to comb his curly hair. The steady screech of metal on stone stopped. We stopped giggling until it returned. 

Our father dragged home trees in the evening and lay them behind the cottage in long piles that frogs lived in. Travellers would pass our cottage, and sometimes stay for a night, paying us pennies for a corner of our kitchen and a bowl of soup. Sometimes they'd push more pennies, and get a bottle of the clear our father made in the woods. 

If we were lucky they'd tell us stories while my father lulled and prettied his axes in the next room. Our Nan would sit with her eyes closed, her lips parting like a dreamers while the traveller told his tale, and she could recite them ever after hearing them once. Our father would leave for the day, and our Nan would roll out 'Fionn and his Fish', or 'Medb and the Great Cow'.

We asked her to teach us to remember like a Nan.

"Oh, I have a quiet place in my head. In between the cupboard and the wall is a space I slide my stories for later" she said, winking and tapping her temple like it was a little treat she indulged. "Its good to have a quiet little space in your head for yourself". 

We asked her how to find our space to slide stories, because we could never remember them after hearing them even twice.

"I found mine while I was running from something. Something noisey. It was chasing me and chasing me, and I slipped and fell into the space ´tween the cupboard an' de wall, and I fit right there, so I stayed and kept it" she said.

We tore through the room and the saplings, looking for our own quiet places under the stools or at the bottom of the cupboard. We even went as deep into the forest as the whitethorn bushes father told us not to pass. We dug around in their sharp leaves and found pricks of blood on our hands but no quiet place. 

We pushed open the door between our room and the axe room. There was no windows or doors, only a stool and an empty bowl. On the walls were a dozen axes. The shiniest were closest to the door, and glinted at us like they were winking at someone they knew. The ones hanging at the far, darker side of the room didn't wink glints, but hummed rustily at us to come in. We closed the door and never returned to the axe room, and stopped searching out quiet places. But we kept our eyes out for one, and relied on Nan for stories. Except the one she wouldn't tell us.

A big man from Kerry came to our house for a night, and told us of the Banshee, and her night wailing to let you know of kin's death. Nan didn't close her eyes and whisper to herself, but pitched her eyebrows like a roof and waited for it to end. The next day we asked for the story again.

"I won´t, we have no Banshee up here. No´ one. Did you e´er hear a Banshee when anyone died?". None of us had, and Diarmuid shuffled sadly, shaking his brown curls. 

"I only remember mam dying" he said "there weren't any banshee screamin'. Maybe someone talkin'".

"Of course not. In the saplings in Coonagh all we have is the Banshee's groom. He's called Slincin, and he hates noise. He likes nice, quiet things, outta the wind. Sometimes, in my quiet place, he'll leave me notes" she said, tapping her temple again. "If you make your own quiet place, he'll leave something for you too" she said, rubbing Diarmuid's temple. Diarmuid's blue eyes grew round.

"Oh I don't want that" he said.

"Ah, someday you will" she said.

"The Slincin leaves notes behind my door, I don't know if there's space for more" Diarmuid sang, and we all giggled, Nan the hardest of all. 

#

Things started to change with the monk and the bowl.

Out of the visitors to the cottage, the one Nan liked best was the quiet monk. Most monks that came to us travelled together. The Laughers of Lugh arrived with bulging wineskins and drooped flesh under their eyes and would drink with father til they were all snoring and draped round the house. Passing priestesses of Morrigan offered dark stories for small bits of food, and wouldn't touch drink outside their Queendom, or sleep in the same house as father.

The monk Nan liked best was red bearded, shaved bald and wore a brown rag sack as garb. He had one grey eye and one wooden eye that looked pinkly splintered and made us cringe. But he didn't seem to mind his splintering eye, or anything else. 

He never parted his lips to eat or speak, and seemed to never sleep. He came every year in August to knock and scratch at the base of our door for a small wooden bowl. He´d fill it with leaf and tree water and sit it out the front of our house in the saplings with him cross legged and curled in front of it, watching the water. We´d wake up in the middle of the night, glance out the door and see him still sat and staring at the bowl. Father shook his head and said 'dumb fool' loudly whenever he passed, laughing at the no response madman monk. 

"Who you even worship with no word in your head? The God at the back of the cupboard?" would ask father. The response would be one eyed and calmly dull.

Nan would only ever smile happily at the monk and his bowl. "That's a man who likes the finer things in life. A nice quiet place" she said. Diarmuid would dance and skip around him like the monk's silent seat was a may pole.

The last time we saw the monk was when Diarmuid asked him what he was looking for. We were standing behind, looking at the monk's sweaty head, and Diarmuid was sat in front of the monk gawking at his face like we´d gawk at new creepy crawlies we found under the ferns.

"You back here to look for somethin', no? You should go in there, I find lots of things in there" Diarmuid said, pointing to the forest. The monk didn't look up from the water. "Its a quiet place you want, there's plenty in there too". The monk, for the first time we could remember, looked up from his water. He nodded. He stood up from the bowl, walked round the cottage, round the logs where the frogs lived, and into the forest. 

Diarmuid had turned white and didn't talk for the rest of the evening. We asked him what he seen, what he knew, but he just stared at the bowl. We asked Nan, and she sighed, smiling sadly, and saying nothing. We didn't ask father, sure he wouldn't know.

In bed that night, halfway between our blankets and sinking into dreams we heard Diarmuid speak.

"He opened his mouth to speak to me. He opened his mouth" he whispered into the straw. We asked what he seen, what he said. "Nothing. Nothing there".

#

Soon after that, on long May evenings, father began taking us into the woods. He took us deeper than we ever went by ourselves, past the tangled whitethorn we stopped at when we played here. The forest was thick and green, and slicked with sweet water. Our pants bottoms were soaked when we reached the clearing. There were twelve stumps here, and we hopped from one to the other. 

"Here, you. Take that. This one's for you, be careful. I sharpened that last night and I don' want it dulled like. Diarmuid" said my father, smiling proudly "I want you to use this. Don't be shy, take him". Father handed Diarmuid Eoin Og. We recognised him because his head had a band of rust near its butt. 

"This is a nice, quiet place" said Diarmuid looking worriedly at the trees ringing the clearing. There was a small bird's song on the edges of our hearing, but nothing else.

"It isn't, it's the place we make wood, so quisht, and get started" father said, pulling out the largest axe he owned, Eoin Mor. He walked over to an oak and bent to notch it. He pulled Eoin Mor back and swung himself into the notch. The head of the axe disappeared into the tree with a sound like breaking bone. Diarmuid clamped his hand over his mouth, and stared at the trees around us. The sound of the blade leaving the tree was fleshy, and almost wet. Diarmuid moaned lowly. 

"Go on lad" said father, louder. Diarmuid walked to a tree, and notched it at knee height. He pulled back Eoin Og, and whacked it, making half the noise our father had, but wincing like he´d stuck the axe in himself. We walked to two, thin ashes, and notched them.

"The Slincin leaves notes behind the grate, I read his notes when its late. The notes the Slincin leaves are long,-".

"Shut up" shouted father. The trees swallowed his words, and two ravens fled from them. Diarmuid watched them fly like he knew where they were headed. He struck the tree without singing, but mumbled to himself like Nan remembering stories. He mumbled and cut and shuddered and shot glances into the woods like he was trying to catch the trees unawares, to see what they were at. We followed his eyes. He was looking between the trees, at something we couldn't see then.

We leant ourselves into our trees for hours, our arms sore from the axes juddering wood. We juddered until sweat stood on our skins and we could still feel our axes in our grip after we'd put them on a stump to rest.

"Sundown, we can't stay in the woods no more" father said, and we dropped axe again, and made for the path. Father picked up our axes, but left Eoin Og. "Boy, don' put that down there. Pick it up and carry it. Are you tired after a bitta work? The boy's wrecked, is he?". Our father pinched a heft of Diarmuid's cheek between his thick fingers. The red splotch it left on Diarmuid's face was shaded blue, in the shape of father's callouses. Diarmuid picked up Eoin Og and trudged back onto the path. 

Nan was waiting in the saplings, at our door. She smiled at us, but when she saw father and Diarmuid, axes in hand, her shoulders sagged and she shrunk two inches.

"Oh no" she mumbled, turning into the house. Father snorted and Diarmuid stared at his feet. We looked east when Diarmuid looked east, and saw horsemen's silhouette's touch the edges of the plains, their shadows longer and firmer than they looked. Father ignored them. Diarmuid stared. We were closer to the cottage, and followed Nan in first.

She was crouched in the dark behind the door, one eye and three fingers peeking around. We were watching the horsemen. She was watching Diarmuid. 

#

June purpled the sky and softened the rain till the world all opened up, and live things grew from dead things, and something green and sticky fell out of every burst tree and field blister. 

Men came to stay and they were summer softened and smiled and joked with father. They drank our poitin and bought two bottles to take with them. They never looked with hunger at the cottage, like midwinter visitors with numb eyes. 

They took the poitin, dropped their pennies and rode away with their saddlebags clinking like a tongue clucking off the roof of a mouth. Father waved them off, clutched his breaking head together and shook us awake before sunrise to pick up our axes to trudgingly judder our trees down. 

But the poitin bottles came back. We heard the clinking before the four men. But the bottles were empty and their clinks were a sharp warning. We all felt it, except father, who scraped away at the day's dullness too loud to hear even the knock on the door.

They found father sitting in the axe room, and left dragging him along the floor, the poitin bottle smashed around him, or bedded in shards in his gashed head. 

"Tell us this is yours" said the men outfront the cottage, waving the other bottle, smacking father. "Ye sold this to Queendom scum. You have a forester´s contract, but ye've been distllin' in our lord's woods haven't ya, Shane? Keeping the thirst out of our enemy´s mouth". He whimpered and crawled away from them through the tall grass and sapling flowers, till the longest man stepped on his back and pinned him, wriggling and sneezing face down.

The other men took Diarmuid by the shoulder, and pushed him first into the forest. 

The long man hay fever sneezed and spittled on father's head, while birds and crickets filled in the air between the floating pollen. 

Diarmuid came back with the three men, and they were holding Eoin Og and Eoin Mor. Our father shook off the foot with a yell, but the fattest man butted him with the axe handle, leaving a notch on his forehead. 

"We found the still. Its gone now. Our lord said anyone aiding Queendom rebels will have their foresting revoked" said the long man. Our father spluttered on his hands and knees like a choking dog. "You still have the Autumn rights, so wait. We'll be round". They left with Eoin Mor, dropping Eoin Og by our father's side.

We sat silently after that, our father holding together his head, cradling Eoin Og. Nan breathed like a split bellows, not able to fill herself up with even an open-mouthed, gummy breath. 

"Its right there, 'tween the wall, full of notes, 'tween the cupboard, he's writing more, he's waiting outside, I'm 'tween the wall, its quiet here" she whispered to herself after each gulping gasp. 

"Men come and drink our lush, they found it back the whitethorn bush, men swayed and broke the still, opened mouth and took their fill, men sprang 'cross the plain, hope they never come again" Diarmuid rhymed. Nan stopped whispering and her breathing shallowed. She looked at Diarmuid and worried at her wrist's hem. She was looking at Diarmuid, looking at us, at the cupboard, at the floor. Looking everywhere, except the corner where father sat on his stool.

We all avoided that corner, like not seeing it would make the look on father's face not exist. 

#

Diarmuid started waking in the night. We felt him leave the bed, the straw rising around us as he slipped out the door. We clutched our blanket, and rolled together for warmth. Father slept in the axe room since the men came, but we listened for his snoring first. Diarmuid would come back, his mouth muttering little words. 

We put our faces in the straw, and scratched loudly and rolled over each other, but we heard him the same.

"He waits behind the trees, he goes where he please. He only goes the quiet place, under frogs, behind rook face, inside empty bone, outside he goes alone, Slincin goes where he please, Slincin lingers behind trees. What does he say to me?". Those were the only rhymes he said now, and we listened and saved them, and tried to mutter them into our heads like Nan.

We got hungry as July lengthened, our cupboard's oats and roots disappearing as the evenings grew too long, and our stomach had more day time to ache and moan and trouble us. We liked sleep, and would wait all, long, purple evening for it.

We'd always be woken by Diarmuid leaving us at night and returning before dawn, and wait in the dark listening to the saplings chirrup, Nan mutter in her sleep, and father snore. 

A night came in July when a soft rain was pattering on our house as Diarmuid rose. We clutched at the blanket's  hem, and wriggled our fingers in warning at Diarmuid, but he didn't turn to see us, and didn't pause to hear what we heard. 

Under the rain there was no snoring. As Diarmuid left quiet screamed from the next room till our heads hurt, but Diarmuid didn't hear it, or was listening to something else. 

A small dark stretch after Diarmuid left, our father followed him out the door.  

We clamped our eyes shut, and ignored the hinge squeel and the torch light that reddened the space behind our eyelids.

We lay in silence for a long dark stretch, before we drew ourselves out and crept into the morning. Father was outside at the edge of the saplings. He was sharpening Eoin Og, for the first time since the men took away his forest rights. He was turned from us and shirtless. Every bone stood out on his back like it could break his skin any second. When he stroked his whetstone over the blade, four bones would pop and click and we could see them rubbing in his back. 

Nan rose with us, and we watched our father's grinding bones through his skin, waiting. When he was done, he walked back inside humming, put Eoin Og in his room, and mushed up some turnip, giving it to us with a smile. Nan picked at it, eating a piece before sliding it into our bowls. 

None of us spoke, just ate our mush, and waited for Diarmuid.

Waiting didn't work, so we slipped into the forest at sundown, our bellies swollen and stiff out of lack of practice. We hadn't been full in weeks. 

We searched the undergrowth and overgrowth close to the clearing, searched the long grass, and only found one thing sitting on the stumps. We kept our eyes on the spaces behind the trees, in case we saw a brown curl among the sticky greens.

Father didn't look for us, but was sharpening another axe when we came back, sitting at the edge of the saplings, looking at the plains, and whistling.

 

Diarmuid didn't come back, and Nan didn't eat again, and four days later, just before August put us back in the forest, Nan didn't wake up. Father spoke the first words anyone spoke in four days.

"I'll sharpen the shovel" he said, and he did. We dug her hole fifty steps from us, ripping up seven saplings to make space for it. We marked her grave with a stone on which we scratched a drawing of lips with one crossing finger, and what the runes for 'ssshhh' probably looked like. It would be a nice, quiet place under the rock in the loam, and we put back two of the saplings we ripped up. They looked like they were taking.

"Come on then. Long faces won't wake her up" he said, touching us with consoling in his tone. When he touched our shoulders with his hands we could feel his bone rub against ours, not enough fat on our flesh to pretend differently now. "She's buried, and they're coming tomorrow to pick up the wood. Take it. Don't be shy, I'll use another one" he said, winking like what he offered might fill us up with happiness. We took Eoin Og and a smaller axe into the forest, up the path to the clearing. 

Our father whistled and joked as our axes struck or bounced off the trees. The judder before reached our shoulder and stopped, but now our bones lay exposed on our chests and arses and tighs they all ached and shook in us when we landed a blow. We said nothing, but muttered to ourselves, looking for something between the trees. Our father's tree cracked and fell.

"Summer's been tough, but there'll be more travellers in August, and we'll sell this wood to lord prick tomorrow" he said to us smiling, putting his blue hands on its bark like he was praying. "This is thick no? It'll get a price. Maybe we can have rabbit". He laughed and chopped, but as the day died and we didn't speak, just chopped. His mood grew maudlin and long.

"Go on, say something would you? I let you use Eoin Og, and you're not even using him right" he said, his smile cracking and growing wider. "You're not even using him right and you're not talking to me. I won't waste my breath then". We nodded, and stared into the trees. We stared at Eoin Og, and moved him so his head caught the melting light and shimmered. 

We trudged back with our father in our ears.

"Ye'll talk, ye'll talk in days. After you feel better, and forget ye're Nan, ye'll talk. Don't give me this quiet nonsense" he said, nodding knowingly. We rubbed our shoulders as we went to bed, knowing if we didn´t do something he´d be right. 

When he began sharpening, we stowed our axes under our straw and lay on them with our eyes closed.

We waited till snoring filled the house, reaching every corner. There was no space behind the door for quiet anymore, and the whole house moved in time to his breathing. The door swung in and out, the pots rattled light, the glass bottles in the walls tinkled left and right. Our straw shifted under us. We clung to the bowl and axes in our hands to stop them shaking a warning to father.

We didn't have to wake up. We never went to sleep, so tripped right out the gently swung door. Walking through still summer nights in the forest are like wading into water. The air is thick and pushing, and live things float everywhere about you, tiny things that taste you to know you, then move on. We pushed past the dew sticky ferns and branches, through the air and tiny midgey biters and flying spiders.

We arrived at the clearing to find it lit up by moonlight, bleached white and calm. In between the trees we saw white and black shapes moving. We saw a white flank push between ferns and disappear, and knew we were doing right.

We took out the two axes, and put Eoin Og lyinging across two stumps. With the other we notched Eoin Og's handle, just below the head. The wood broke clean on our first strike. We put the lone head in the middle of a stump and leant into it, smashing the wood and freeing the blade. It was beautiful by itself, nothing but sharp moonlight and one ring of rust.

Its whole face was thin, thin enough to slide into any slim, quiet place. We took out the thing we'd found on the stump the night Diarmuid left, and dropped it on the stump we'd found it.

It was a ruined bitta pulp, something the size of a dormouse. Flattened and beginning to brown and rot, two flies settled on its tip. We looked at it, trying to gather some bouldness to start.

We pulled straw from our pockets and put it in the bowl. We rapped flint together to spark a small fire in the straw, holding the silver axe blade over it. 

We muttered rhymes to put the bouldness in us.

"He waits behind the trees, he goes where he please. He only goes the quiet place, under frogs, behind rook face, inside empty bone, outside he goes alone, Slincin goes where he please, Slincin lingers behind trees. What does he say to me?". The moon moved toward morning. We took the axehead out the fire.

We slid it into our smaller mouth first, moving its sharpness in the wet dark, bringing sharp quiet into it. We bent over the stump and let the dark meat fall out of our mouth. It was born with a black-red afterbirth, spurted from its severed root.

The burning made our head disappear into pain, but the burning faded. With white hands that shook over the fire, we held the axe to the bowl, tensing ourselves. We dipped Eoin into our mouth again, jabbing it with the heel of our hand until the tongue wriggled free and fell onto the ground. We passed out together.

When we woke, the moonlight was gone, and the sun hadn´t risen. We stood up, sick with pain, and felt it. It was in us, in our mouths, in our heads. We had made a quiet place. We saw a white flank push silently through the ferns, deeper this time. We picked up the tongue, dropped it on the stump with the others. We followed the white flank into the forest, stepping silently through the leaves. 

We´re voiceless now, and we walk with the Slincin, searching out the quiet places, a quiet place inside us.

 

---

 

Ross Hildige is a twenty six year old English teacher from Limerick living in Vietnam over a karaoke bar beside a street with two roosters. It’s very loud. He's looking for someone who can draw to make comic books with. If you'd like to make any art for the Slincin, send it to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or draw it and keep it in the bottom of your middle drawer.