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O’Toole hasn’t moved for two days. O’Toole is our dog and she is the best looking dog in our bit of Ireland. The bit on the map with the pin stuck in it in Mister Doherty’s classroom. Everyone at school says so. She’s fat with pups like Mammy was with Tricky, and they’re going to be the most beautiful pups in the whole of Ireland. She’s going to have them any second now so me and Tricky are on stand-by to make sure everything goes OK and they make it out just like Tricky did, red and chubby and in one piece.
Tricky is my little brother and I’m his Big Sister. We call him Tricky because it rhymes with my name (Micky; short for Michaela), and because Mammy had awful hassle trying to have him. First there were other little babbies that never made it out, and then when she got really fat with him he caused her nothing but problems, right up until the day she popped. I was there. I saw it from the crack in the window. You should have seen my mammy’s face.
‘Let’s go and check on Willy,’ I tell Tricky. We’ve been lying in the sun for a few hours and I’m sticky on the insides of my legs. We go around the side of the house to the back. We have a little home for all our patients out the back where our mammy can’t see, with old papers for a floor and a jumper of mine she forgot about ages ago.
Willy’s lying down – her real name is Wilhelmina – wrapped in my jumper. Her wing is bloody and jagged from where a fox must’ve got her. We decide she needs food. We go into the kitchen to get a glass of milk and gulp it down until Mammy goes back to getting the dinner and when she’s not looking we pour some of the milk into an eggcup we took when we had our first patient, and run outside.
I still have bread crusts from this morning so I feed Willy milk and breadcrumbs with my fingers, gently pushing it into her beak, until it’s dark and we have to go in. We say goodnight to O’Toole on the way. I tell Tricky she’ll be ready to pop tomorrow, absolutely, definitely, maybe.
The next morning we get dressed in forty-two seconds, run downstairs and grab some bread and milk on the way out. There she is; hasn’t moved. We go around the back and check on Willy. We kneel down and I reach into the little hole we’ve made for her and unwrap the jumper and rub her feathers as light as I can, but they’re stiff and cold so I know she’s dead. She’s our fourth patient. We haven’t managed to save any of them so far. I tell Tricky that she’s gone and give him a hug. ‘At least we tried,’ I tell him, and he nods, sniffing.
We hold a ceremony like we always do when a patient goes. We dig a hole where the sun falls early in the morning and gently put Willy in, cover her over and get into our places. I clear my throat and make my voice deep and husky like Father Grady’s and I bless myself the way he does on Sundays. ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.’
‘Amen.’ Tricky stands with his back straight, head down like he’s praying.
‘Good morning, everybody.’
‘Good morning, Sister,’ he says.
‘How are we today?’
‘Very good. I have a little story,’ I say, but I don’t really have one. That’s just what Father Grady says. ‘I got up this morning and, well, I didn’t know our little friend Wilhelmina here was going to leave us, but sadly, she has.’ I say she, but then I wonder if maybe she has been a he all the time. I look at Tricky but he hasn’t noticed so I go on. ‘Let’s say the Our Father and put this little animal to rest, shall we?’
We eat bread and butter and boiled ham, my favourite, and a glass of milk to wash it down. Then we go out the front again to sit with O’Toole. We take it in turns to rub her fluffy white belly gently, and under her ears where she likes it. It always makes her nudge her head into your hand, wanting more. Mammy comes out and looks at us and calls us little terrors but we know she’s codding with us and we laugh.
When it’s Tricky’s turn to rub her she jumps up and starts twirling around and around.
‘What did you do?’
‘I did nothing!’
And then I know the time has come. ‘Mammy!’ I shout. ‘Mammy!’
She runs out. ‘What?’
‘O’Toole’s having her babbies.’
O’Toole is doing circles and sniffing and licking and Mammy takes one look at her and says that I’m right and I smile a little bit because I’m right.
‘Run and get your father, good woman.’ She calls me good woman sometimes and womaneen because I’m the second woman of the house and she says I’m growing up and soon I’ll be a heartbreaker.
I jump up, brush the dirt off my hands and run in the direction of the hayshed, where Daddy is working.
‘Daddy, come quick,’ I shout. ‘O’Toole’s having her pups!’
He comes out before I get to the door and starts towards me, and we run back to the house.
When we get to the front yard, he walks up to O’Toole and rubs her belly until she lies down. She turns to him, like she knows he’s there to help. I bite my lip because I’m afraid it will hurt and I’m afraid I will cry. I remember my mammy’s face and I know it hurt her a lot.
‘It’s okay,’ I say under my breath. ‘Daddy’s here now.’
Seven pups slide out one after the other, straight into Daddy’s big right hand. They come so quickly that there’s a pile of tiny breathing bodies, each one of them covered in a layer of something gloopy. O’Toole nudges her nose into one of them, bites off the thick film and licks off the gloopy stuff. All the time the others are wriggling inside their little bags of gloop and they’re squealing non-stop.
‘Can they breathe?’ I ask Daddy because of the desperate way they’re squealing, like they’re suffocating. One by one, O’Toole peels off the sludgy stuff and reveals tiny babbies with skins that are wet like the seals I‘ve seen on TV, nudging their noses into each other. Two of them are as still as Wilhelmina was and I know they haven’t made it.
Daddy calls over to Mammy to get a bag from the storeroom.
Me and Tricky stand silently, watching, and I keep my hand around his shoulder because he’s scared but because I’m scared, too. The ones still in the see-through bags are squealing and I don’t know if they can breathe and Daddy hasn’t said anything.
Mammy goes into the house and comes out a minute later with one of the turf sacks that she hands to Daddy.
He picks up one of the dead seal-puppies and puts it in the bag, reaching his arm all the way and placing it at the bottom. He takes his arm out and Tricky twitches when he sees the blood shine on his hand. He goes for the second dead one and drops it in the red-stained sack.
When he picks up a live pup that writhes in his hand, my head reels.
It’s O’Toole who cries when he picks up a fourth; she whines and paws at the ground.
The words are thin as a blade of grass when they come. ‘Daddy… Daddy, wait.’
‘I’ve got to drown them, Micky.’
‘What?’ The tears scratch my eyes.
‘We can’t have all these pups, we have to get rid of them.’
‘But Daddy, you can’t.’ My voice goes squeaky the way Daddy hates but I don’t care. I clutch Tricky’s shoulder hard when he cries out.
‘We have to, Micky. Now go over to O’Toole’s head and turn it around, and hold her snout or she’ll bite you.’
‘Don’t do it,’ Tricky says, rubbing the snot from his nose, his two eyes like little puddles of water.
‘Thomas, go into the house now. Michaela, do as I told you this very minute.’
I think about telling him to feck off. Feck off. Feck off. But I kneel down beside O’Toole and rub her wet, slimey nose and hold it in my hands. The tears tickle on the way down and drip off my chin, and I watch him put the wriggling little babbies into the sack, one by one by one.
‘Let’s keep one of them,’ calls my mammy from the doorway, ‘they keep the rats away.’
When Daddy stands up and walks away with the sack bulging and vibrating in his hand, there’s one shiny pup left lying in the empty pile of blood, squealing.
‘Don’t let her go until I’m out of sight, Micky,’ he says without turning.
Tricky runs out from the house and for a second I think he’s going after him, but he runs over to me and O’Toole, kneels down and cries into her bloody fur.
I go hungry rather than sit and have dinner, watching my daddy eat, the whole time thinking of his gloopy red arm that he’ll have washed with hot soap and water.
All night I wake to the sounds of the pup squealing, squealing like it’s being drowned, and even with the door closed and the pillow over my head I can hear it. I’ll have to listen to it cry and think of its little brothers and sisters that looked like hamsters, they were so small, all bundled in a sack and left to fall to the bottom of the lake. And I’ll have to think about the other little Tricky’s I never got to meet, that never got to live in our house and eat boiled ham sandwiches and drink cold milk straight from the fridge.
The next morning I get up when it’s still dark. I feel my way to the door, stepping on my tiptoes, following the length of the wall, the dresser, the wall again, with my fingers. I find the handle on the door and turn it slowly so it doesn’t make a sound.
O’Toole is lying in the corner of the kitchen by the back door, curled up on a sack by the wall, the puppy lying beside her belly.
I pick it up. It’s warm and fluffy. It’s stopped squealing now, but I know it will squeal again and keep me awake all night tonight. Its fur is so black it could still be covered in blood. I rub my fingers together but they’re dry.
O’Toole looks at me, cocks her head to one side, and settles her nose down again.
I close the back door gently behind me. I go over to the big tank at the back of the house, and climb up the ladder using one hand. At the top, I can see the flies settling on the shiny silver water’s surface. I look over at the trees, see the opening where Willy is buried and the cross of branches we stuck in the ground after the funeral. We never managed to save any of our patients. They all die in the end.
The puppy is shivering in my hand. I dunk it into the water and the flies scatter in the air like black birds. I hold it under until it stops wiggling, even though the water is freezing cold.