She came out of the peat like a sixpence in a barmbrack, her face shining like wet iron between the spade-edge and the turf, the bright rusty plait of her hair broken like a birth-cord around her neck. Jimmy Connolly swore, and Dan Wall crossed himself, and thin-faced Sean MacMahon gaped like someone had shoved him by the scruff of his neck to a keyhole, all consternation and wanting to see more. And me? Mid-cut, I stopped with my spade half-stuck in the green-tufted earth and stared until my back hurt, forgetting to step forward into the slice or straighten up to save myself the pain. The sky was a racing grey, the land brown as strong tea and talkative with water all around us. The bones of her arm and shoulder were clean as bronze hairpins where Jimmy’s spade had stripped off the fragile tissue, wadded it like old tin foil against her breastbone. Otherwise she might have been sleeping, tucked up in the pillowy bogland with the sedge snug at her chin.
“Oh,” Sean said then, recovering, “Roddy’s found his sweetheart,” and all of us laughed, jokers at the graveside. Her eyelids were their own silver pennies, closed.
After that it was talk of museums and universities, while we peeled the peat from her wounded shoulder and the crushed hollow of her throat. She was twisted in the black slices, squashed in on herself like a discarded paper bag; exposed to the scudding summer air, she gleamed like an elver in an eddy of mud. Even flattened strangely under the tarnished skin, her features were peaceful, long-eyed, her lips sealed in a dreaming curve. She would not stay that way for long if we left her to dry with the rest of the stacked sods—and God knew if packing her in peat again would save us much time. Bolder in defense of a dead girl than I had ever seen him on his own reluctant behalf, Sean was all for ringing the National Museum as soon as we got our day’s pay, no matter whether it was an archaeologist or a policeman they sent from Dublin, anyone who could disinter her from the bog without ruining the frail preservation of her body further. “And tell us where she came from, maybe, who—killed her,” and we heard a click of half-swallowed words before he went on with the sentence, as though it were impolite to mention it out loud.
“Sacrifice,” said Jimmy laconically; he had done a little reading, he explained, some years before when turf-cutters like ourselves turned up a skeleton in County Galway that was not a recently missing person, but an accidental drowning nearly five thousand years old. “To the heathen gods of ancient Ireland, for luck in the harvest and fine healthy children. She’d have been a beauty in her day, back before the Romans, that was. Anything less than the best and they’d have been cheating their gods. You can think a moment how kindly their gods would’ve taken that.”
He sounded like a professor even in his sweat-banded collarless shirt and mud-streaked dungarees; looked like one, tall and black-haired, his harsh-cut face planing itself down to bronze with the lengthening days. Sean and I were nodding when Dan Wall, who I would never have guessed read a book unless it was full of bets and long shots, snorted and spat deliberately onto the turf.
“Ballocks, Connolly. She was a whore. An adulteress, and her man caught her at it—he pinned her down in the bog to punish her, see?” We could see the leather twisted into the silver-black of her flesh when he pointed it out, tanned as foxily as her hair and tight as a garrote. He scratched a little at the peat over her breast, carving the butter-black sod away: it was not bone arching under his fingers, above her ribcage, but slim withies of some water-stiffened wood. “Tell me that’s an honor, dumping a pretty girl like a sack of shite out in the middle of this mire. He had to hate her. He couldn’t bring himself to break her face, but he made damn sure not another man’d see it after him. Cut another yard and we’ll find the man she did it with, I know that.”
Sean was bristling, but Jimmy only looked over mildly, once at Dan and once at the girl with the curve of one wrinkled breast just showing under the muddy tines. “Sure, you should be working for the Gardaí,” he said, and then Sean was arguing again about the National Museum, or anyone within a day’s drive of Croghan who might know about the ancient strangled pagan dead, and Jimmy was half-listening to him, having plainly already made up his mind to agree, and Dan was gazing angrily down at the tar-cast dead face beneath us, as if he were the man she had hurt.
I was ignoring all of them, even the girl under her bedspread of peat. I was thinking about sacrifice and murder, scholarly words for the torque of a man’s hand grinding into the nape of my neck, choking a knot of leather deeper and deeper into the hollow of my throat until I felt rings of cartilage break inward and small bones give way and my breath snap in on itself, blacking out the long, burnt-green line of bogland, the skylarks flicking across the dawn-eye of the sun—whether it was done in hatred or love, my hair waving in the cold, whisky-colored water as the willows staked me down. She looked so calm for the results of so much violence, abrupt and final as a bullet to the head or a billhook to the throat. Executions and reprisals, I thought, anyone who had lived through ’22 had seen those. And do you still think she died for something as lofty as God’s honor or her lover’s wounded pride?
I kept the question back, even while my throat tightened in useless sympathy, watching the wind stir her rusted iron hair. Likely Dan had the right of it, sour as it sounded. If I wanted to touch her with gentleness, it was because she was a woman who knew the taste and the price of transgression. If I was trying to imagine the tint of her hair and the texture of her skin before the acids of Móin Alúine cured her to a folded pewter shell, it was because I was an adulterer, too.
Katharine Morgan’s husband had left her for the wars, but she never said which ones and I never asked again. If it was the Great War, she would have known by now if he was coming back; if it was the civil war in Spain, it felt like anyone’s guess whether he had signed on with O’Duffy’s Brigade or the Socialists or just gone to make trouble out of the local authorities’ reach. She called him a blackguard and a lying bastard, she said she had never known a man so deft with a woman’s body, she missed him like the Devil and she prayed God to keep him away and she invited me into her bed one afternoon near the heathery start of May, an offer of confidence that was not quite a threat curling as provocatively on the air as the clean-washed smell of her heavy, jet-pinned hair.
I’m sure you understand me, Mr. Mathews. Or is it Miss?
It’s Mathews, ma’am.
Then it’s Katharine, Mathews.
Eventually she came to call me Roddy, but she always greeted me as Mr. at the door, just in case a lifetime of careful habits proved unequal to the powers of village gossip. She had come to Croghan as a bride and stayed there for all she knew a widow and I would take my reputation with me when I left at the end of the summer; I was not so complacent as to think that hers was so self-contained. She was a handsome woman, thirty-three to my thirty-five, decorously pale everywhere but her high-colored cheeks and the flush that faded across her breasts after making love. She had more English in her voice than Irish, though she never spoke of any home before her marriage, and she must have lived on more than her spendthrift husband’s savings, if he had been gone as many years as she hinted. I was not the first lover she had entertained since sweet-talking Desmond Morgan disappeared—I never fooled myself that way, either. But I did wonder, sometimes, if the others had only been women or men.
“Oh, Jesus have mercy,” she would say, twisting under my mouth, “sweet as a boy,” and I knew then that she loved me for the simplest part of myself. She liked my broad shoulders under their brown coat, my hair always falling chestnut-slick into my eyes; she liked my wind-rawed cheeks and my mulish jaw, the work-hardened span of my hands with their popped knuckles and old roughened marks of sacks and crates and shovels and drystone walls. She never touched my breasts, brown-nippled beneath their linen bindings, or my hips, cradled wide to take my long-striding weight, or my cunt, clenching hot and slippery as a heart behind the travel-worn corduroy of my trousers. Never once reached after my pleasure, as I worked my hand to the wrist inside her and she screamed, gloriously tight around me. Afterward, she would pull me down to the bedsheets beside her, skin pink as the lip of a whelk, and fist her hands in my hair, taste her salt sweet in my mouth and straddle me, laughing, but never with me as naked as herself. She wanted the shape of a laboring man and the spark of a demon lover—the security, too, of knowing she would never fall pregnant by me, no matter how many times she called me up from the parlor to the white curtains of her bedroom and her deep-pillowed bed. She wanted road-tramping Roddy Mathews and I was that, I was never anyone else from the time I was old enough to know my own skin, but I was the pieces of myself that she never touched, just as much, and the hunger that went with them. At most, she would watch me as I sprawled in a chair, my belt unbuckled and my own fingers busy in the folds of myself, but I thought it disappointed her that she could never see me spend, groan or gasp as loudly as I might. It ruined the illusion, spoilt the spell—
I tried not to think unkindly of her. The lovers of mine who had known me entirely, I could count on the two fingers I gave the rest of God’s earth for wanting me to be one thing or the other, like the flick of a switch of an electric light. Katharine Morgan was expressive and affectionate and she did not stint herself in desire; she was a cleverer woman than she advertised with her wide, apple-green eyes and a sadder one than she liked to let me see; she never asked me a question beyond my employment and my health and the next time we should see one another, if a man of the world could find enough to say to a woman of her house, content in her quiet life. All the times she heard me say that I loved her, I was not lying. When I left, I did not think she would tell stories of me.
Sean MacMahon was waiting over the girl in the peat when we got there, hunkered down at the edge of the cutting with the wind stirring the edges of his sugar-fair hair under his cap. He looked so forlorn, I had to remind myself that he was nearer my age than coltish, touchy Dan Wall, whose round, dark-freckled face would have looked cherubic if he were not constantly scowling. “It’s the coroner they’re sending from Tullamore,” he said without preamble. “In case she wasn’t put in the bog by heathen priests after all. The museum won’t want her if it’s murder.” The sun shone out again in the milk-blue twists of sky and he looked unhappily at the black-stepped levels of earth, the woman dreaming under the damp sods we had packed her in at the end of the day.
He must have called the Garda station, whether we had agreed on it or not; Dan looked for a moment as though he was going to shout at Sean for it, then said only, sullenly, “And what are we supposed to do until then? Lose a day’s wages waiting for the man with the little black bag?”
“Dig around her, idiot,” Jimmy said with his blunt, impatient authority, before Sean could bridle or I could start an argument of my own, and so we did, leaving a little bier of peat beneath her and a shroud of it above, so that she lay like an effigy among us as we worked, turf-veiled eyes turned to the sky. I was sweating with my coat off, well-worn báinín sticking to my shoulders; Dan kept taking his cap off and scrubbing one hand through his hair, spikily dark as treacle. He was closest to me with his barrow, spreading the sods I cut, and I tensed a little: I had guessed the day we met that if anyone was going to give me trouble in Croghan, it would be this angry half-boy, angling his way into manhood with his shoulders swaggering and his hands fisted deep in his pockets, waiting for someone to clip him in the street so that he could throw them a punch in return. He was religious and ashamed of it, better-educated and defensive of it, and I thought he was lying about most of the women he claimed to have had. But he said nothing more dangerous than, “Hold up, Mathews, give me a chance! It’s a job, not a race, for Christ’s sake,” and because we did not have another barrowman, I slowed. It took looking up at the edge of the bank for me to realize how doggedly I had been working.
“When’s he coming, this coroner from Tullamore?”
It did not sound anything like as casual as I had meant it to, an idle question to while away the time spent slicing and spreading and stacking as the sun climbed and the wet ground warmed, white-starred with bog cotton and the aniline-flowered lures of butterwort. Behind me, Dan blew out an aggrieved breath and bent to lift his barrow.
“Day after tomorrow,” Sean said, blinking a little. He was blue-eyed almost to silver; it made his direct glance disconcerting. “Rafferty said it would disturb work, policemen and coroners coming round in the middle of the day. Reporters, too, likely as not. And tomorrow it’s raining.”
I thought of her foxed-mirror face, swirled in a slick of mud; her cedar-chest hair dissolving like tobacco shreds. Mold splotching her breast, long-sheltered, like slime on a stone. Before Jimmy could speak, or Dan, or even Sean, catching up to his own thought as he heard it leave his mouth, I said, “We’ll need a tarpaulin over her, then. She won’t stand the rain.”
“Oh, what, are you studying with Connolly here now, too? Are we opening a turf-cutters’ university—final subject, murdered adulteresses from before the birth of Christ?”
“Oh, shut it, Dan Wall,” I started. “You wouldn’t know the birth of Christ from the hole in your—” and that was when Jimmy stepped in, before Dan swung to hit me. It would have been worse if he ran at me, caught me around the waist to bull me down; but his color faded and he trundled his barrow away without a word, its slats piled high with drying sods.
“We’ll find you a tarpaulin, Roddy,” Sean said into the silence. “Better yet, we’ll thatch her. Stack the sods over her, like a gróigín.” At my stare, he shrugged with the spade still in his hands, a pale, slight man in canvas trousers, lashes and brows nearly invisible in strong sun. “She’s your lass, Roddy. We’ll take care of her.”
When I dreamed of the peat girl, she was always dead, though she walked out of the bog at night to meet me. Her skirt was patterned in bilberry-blue, her shawl red as cranberries, and the garment next her skin looked most like a sheepskin with the fleece side in, but her face and her arms and her ankles above the leather lacings of her shoes were as opaque as old silver, her tied-back hair a springing mat of rust. Her nails were tawny parings, translucent as horn. Open between their metallic lids, her eyes were honey-amber, their pupils ochre lights.
Fast in my hayloft bed, I watched her blink, but not breathe; lay her palm against my chest, though no pulse ticked at her wrist. She was cold as groundwater, her smell of wet earth and fermenting wood. Her full height came barely to my breastbone. Each time she kissed me, I choked on the darkness that lay behind her tongue, a sunken, welling sourness—peat-smolder, leather-tang—that trickled like meltwater from the corners of my mouth the fiercer I kissed her back, striving for some living, human response, involuntary as a gasp. With her small, creased hands, she unpinned her woolen shawl, unlaced her skirt and pushed me down on the bright-checked, soft-scratching bedding, unwrapping the sheepskin from her shoulders so that her low breasts gleamed in the overcast light, heavy as hematite. And she touched me, with those fingers that had steeped for centuries in black veins of the bog, till my nipples stiffened like beads and my skin buzzed like tram-rails and my cunt swelled wet as a tarn, hungry for the dead cold of her. She stroked me and bent over me, searched my roughed-back hair with her mouth as if scenting me like a cat and tugged the tight linen from my breasts until she could trace the blanched red marks where the edges cut in; she slipped hard, tiny fingers inside me and I shouted with the freezing shock and jolt of pleasure, bucking as the soft ground swayed beneath us, a heather-plaited moss-tick.
And we’ll find the man she did it with, Dan had sneered, nineteen centuries from now when these silver-sheeting meadows were rush-spiked straits of turf, but they never would, not unless I laid myself down at her side like two lovers in a song and waited. Her ribs under my hands were light as a kestrel’s, her dull hammered-foil skin sail-taut across them. Even dreaming, I had the nightmare fear that she would open up around me like sodden paper, bog-soaked bones splitting free of her flesh like the rags her clothes had gone to ages before our clumsy spades brought her to light— Her cry was the only sound I heard her make, sharp as a curlew. Her weight dropped onto me and for a moment the heat of my own skin was enough to blunt her chill, hip and breast and shoulder and chin all interlocked like the twining of an ancient brooch; I could close my eyes and imagine her live in my arms, the unknowable woman she had been before the cord-choke and the drowning. Close to, the amber of her eyes was flawed with fern-seeds and tiny inclusions of dust or air. Her teeth were black as bog oak. She was smiling. I woke in a sweat of sex, my hair plastered to my forehead and my thighs slicked with their own wet; the dawn stars were shining in at the window. I never dreamed that she dressed and left me.
It did not rain the next day, after all; it misted in the morning and the streets shone like snail-tracks between the plaster-sided houses, the thatched edges of their roofs glimmering with refracting beads, but the heaviest clouds burned off before noon and we went out to the turf-cutting beneath a soft-watered sky as grey as a horse’s back. Rafferty had shifted us to another plot, fruitlessly trying to steer gossip away from the murder victim, the heathen sacrifice, the dead queen of Ireland coffined in the bog with her scarlet comet’s hair streaming away into the dark earth, the gold and bronze torcs and bracelets of her warrior’s hoard slowly pushed apart from one another by the forming peat, like planets by time… Even Katharine had asked if it was true, if a woman’s body had been found in Móin Alúine, and I told her everything but my dreams. Braced to temporize if she asked if the dead woman was beautiful—more beautiful than Katharine herself, resting in my arms as we looked out the parlor window onto the green steep of Croghan Hill, the stone-walled patchwork of the village tumbling away to the foot of the peat fields—I had no ready answer when she asked instead, Does she look unhappy?
I had not thought about it, any more than I had asked myself if an ash-tree looks hungry or a wash of limestone tired. She looks dead, I said truthfully. You can see the bones of her, dyed like bronze from the bogland. She doesn’t— and I hesitated, but Katharine’s expression showed neither fear nor disgust. She doesn’t look like a woman who died in pain, if that’s what you’re fearing. She’s a calm face. Closed eyes. Peaceful. You’ll see for yourself; they’ll have to let people see her before they take her away, and she leaned her head into the hollow of my collarbone and said no more, the dark coil of her hair fragrant with lemon and musk.
She was slighter than the peat girl for all her greater height, more slender at waist and bust. I looked at her sometimes and thought of a slim dark-haired man, dandily barbered, with a watch-chain in his waistcoat and a well-knotted necktie; I said nothing. Not everyone saw themselves with double vision: wanted to know they could be so seen. I kissed her temple and she pushed me away, rising in a China-silk rustle. Her voice trailed off on a sigh, wry as one of the reasons I loved her.
Peaceful when she’s dead. Every woman’s dream!
We walked into wetter ground, boots whistling and sucking with the sponge-mat and the damp; Dan kept pointing to pools and soft, shaking ground, calling to the rest of us.
“Put a sléan in here, Sean, we’ll dig up Patrick. Here’s where Oisín aged three hundred years when he touched the earth, only he touched Allen water and kept on falling, through land, through time—never mind, we’ll never find him. Keep on, boys.” I wondered if he had ever written poetry, and if he was ashamed of it, too. “Sure, we can’t leave the queen of all Ireland with no king, even if she was unfaithful to him. Here, Roddy, you know her best—where would she have left him? Here? Or here? Know her like Adam,” he added when I did not answer. “Where would you have bedded her, if you were a king of the pagan land?” He kicked at a grey blink of water, cataracted with the reflection of the sky. “Don’t cry, Sean, you can send the next one to the National Museum.”
But it was Desmond Morgan we found instead, floating on his back in a slurry of looseleaf water and moss as palely green as his widow’s eyes.
He was not beautiful. The bog had not had the centuries to work its alchemy on him, tightening him to the leather of himself: he was loose on his bones, and dingy, and soft and slack as meal when we hauled him up, swearing at the rank sluice of liquids that poured from his rusted tweeds, the flopping cavity of his body, his bonelessly dangling bare feet. His eyes were too soft for amber. His teeth were hard in the gape of his mouth, peat-flecked porcelain ringing the sky. His head rolled like a kicked-in football. All of his pockets had been sewn closed and stuffed full of stones.
At that Sean was sick and not even Dan had the heart to mock him, gill-green as he looked himself. “Bloody hell,” he repeated, “bloody fucking hell, fucking Christ in hell,” like he could curse the man back into the earth that had so incompletely assimilated him. Jimmy watched silently, his bronze mouth a hard-braced line, Sean coughed and retched in the sedges, fumbling a handkerchief to wipe his nose with, Dan blasphemed on through an audible knot of nausea and I tried to ignore the feel of the water the dead man had left on my hands and keep the thought down, choke it: which of them would say it first? How long? Was Katharine Morgan’s sporting wastrel of a husband so gratefully forgotten that they could not piece together who he must have been, this lanky string of joints whose long, moss-infested flop of hair would have combed back jauntily from his rake’s profile, still cocked for a fight beneath the perished rubber of his face? With a gold ring on his left hand and a wallet in his draining jacket, the vegetable materials of his papers and his money—if she had left him his money, God knew he had taken enough of hers—long since pulped by the acids of the peat? I knew what I would find if I knelt and worked the ring off his finger and the watch off his wrist, the small initials I would read there incised in the gold. I had seen the photograph on her dressing table, hand-tinted so that I knew the color of his brilliantine hair before the bog stole into it. Other men had seen him alive.
“Christ, it’s Morgan.” Jimmy’s voice had a thick, disbelieving sound; his eyes were dark as doors. “So she did it after all.” He had spoken more easily of human sacrifice.
Sean hacked into his handkerchief and I could have kissed him, because it was louder than the noise of my breath. He said uncertainly, “He left her. With her savings, everyone knew that. Said he was off to look for work in London and good riddance to him.”
“And changed the money for stones before he went?” Dan’s voice was raw, his face flushed as if someone grappled him. “Lost his way in the bogs, instead of catching the bus to Tullamore and taking the bloody train? Is there anything you don’t believe, MacMahon? Desmond Morgan drowned himself and God save the King? Jesus, but you’re a fool—”
“And the coroner’s coming.” For the first time all summer, I heard Sean MacMahon laugh, a clear pealing snicker at himself or the circumstances, like something out of a detective magazine or a play on the stage. “Tomorrow. Oh, Jesus. Me and my museums. That’s all of us fucked, then,” and even somber Jimmy snorted at that, standing over a corpse.
“Aye, Rafferty’ll love two investigations for murder on his land.”
There was a beat of silence, just long enough for me to hear as clearly as if we were all thinking it, Maybe we should just roll the old bastard back under his pool, maybe we’ll tell Rafferty the ground was too wet for the turf-cutting, maybe in a year we won’t be lying when we say we don’t know what became of Desmond Morgan, who’ll say we ever did? Who knows what becomes of a body once the bog has hold of it, before I heard someone speaking and I knew it was me, because the rest of them looked like I was talking French.
“We’ll have to tell Mrs. Morgan.”
There was another silence, and I could not tell what any of them were thinking at all. Jimmy said carefully, finally, “A woman sends her man off with that much weight in his pockets, she’s not looking to see him again.”
“Sure, but she didn’t foresee us digging him up like a pack of bloody dogs.” Angry at myself, knowing there was no reason for it, “She has a right to know.”
“If she wants to turn herself in?” The anger had gone out of Dan as abruptly as it had blown into him; he only looked as young as he was, and sickened, and hollow with thinking, as we all must have been, how calm-eyed Katharine Morgan, so coolly composed, could have killed her husband. Poison, maybe, if she had left no mark on him. Or she had cracked his skull, stabbed him, shot him, even, and the bog had soaked the wound away, run itself through him in place of blood until there was nothing to see but the split and swelling of decay and who could say when that had happened? I saw no noose in the slack of his puffball throat, no crushed bones under his ochre-stained shirt. Perhaps she had only drugged him and left the bog to do the rest. I could not imagine her dragging a body out of the house, mile by patient mile, each hardworking breath loud in the bat-flickered night and no one in Croghan noticing. “Out of her hands now, isn’t it—”
Heavy as bog iron, Jimmy broke in, “He used to beat her, Danny-boy, did you know that?”
She had not told me. Those bruisy hands wilting at his sides, snapped bladderworts with the knuckles barely visible in the soft wet skin—dead as they were, I wanted to break them, twist the fingers like chicken bones until they cracked, maim him in the afterlife like the mutilations Jimmy had said our ancestors cursed their failed kings with, so that even if his ghost came staggering home down the wet roads of Allen, sleek-haired, shark-grinning, it would paw helplessly at every door with blunted sockets of bone that could never again put their pain on anyone.
I thought of Katharine in the half-light of her bedroom, saying, There wasn’t an inch of me he wouldn’t touch, and I had misconstrued her, jealousy-flicked as I knelt to prove there was nowhere I would not go for her pleasure. She had not misdirected me.
I said again, hoarsely, “She’s a right to know.” Not caring what they knew or guessed or had known already, which way I was giving myself away as I dragged my gaze away from Desmond Morgan to stare at all their faces, tight as rope around a woman’s neck: “Even if it’s just so she can finish drowning the fucker herself.”
That night I dreamed of the peat girl walking through Croghan, one foot in front of the other as carefully as though she walked a tightrope on the beaten road. She carried her heavy-braided head with the pride of a coronet and her hands closed at her sides, the color of a well-thumbed shilling beneath the blood-bright hem of her shawl. She held an iron knife in one, a glinting break of white quartz in the other; I could see them as clearly as if she had opened her palms to me. In the bright grey day, the amber in her eyes shone like a cat’s in the dark.
Far away down the paths into Móin Alúine, I saw a man walking, so small against the cloud-pearled horizon that I could have blotted him out with a blinked eye. He moved like a sleepwalker or a puppet on sticks, unwavering as machinery. He was hatless, his stiff hair wind-snatched; the swing of his pockets clacked with each step like a creel of stones. He stepped from the hummocky, heather-edged ground and was gone.
I saw Katharine Morgan, a dry-eyed weeping girl, with the sloe stains of bruises around her cheekbones and her hair hanging half-plaited as she knelt beside a man’s body, the oil-light glimmering on the dark pool that haloed him, smooth as a mirror of spilled ink. I saw his bursting face and his stone-blue tongue, his torn shirt and his slashed, empty hands. Reflected by the lantern, Katharine’s own face eddied in her husband’s blood, a marsh-fire fetch from the other side of death’s glass. Her hands left bog-black smears on the knees of her nightdress, her bare shoulders set as taut and fragile as wings.
The peat girl stopped beneath my window; when she looked up at me, her neck made the quizzical tilt of her body wrung by the weight of compacting time. At her feet lay Desmond Morgan, dead without decay, his head flung back on his broken neck and the knife-cuts on his arms gaping bloodlessly as bread slices, his heart’s blood stiffening on his shirt like tar. He had been blue-eyed before his sight clouded like Roman glass; his butter-gold hair was darker than his picture and flecked with chaff, grass-seed, flower-heads of meadowsweet. I called down to her, I heard my own voice echoing from the street, but I could not remember the words as they left me, only the taste of her, myrtle-sharp, moss-dank, spade-cold. She laid down the knife, its clean blade pointing east; she put the white stone in the dead man’s hand that could not grip it. Already the earth beneath them was hollowing with water the color of beech leaves, the sticky-tipped red hairs of sundew curling around his bare ankle. Quick and gently, she smoothed a hand over his flower-stuck hair; she laid his shirt open, the skin beneath as white and bruised as violets, and with her sharp thumbnails, red as roe deer, she cut the nipples from his chest.
We reburied Desmond Morgan with Katharine watching, the wind roiling out strands of her hair like a signature on the streaky speedwell sky. It was unceremoniously done, and unchristianly, but I had begun to think it would not have mattered if we laid him out with candles at head and foot and said Mass for his soul every Sunday of her widowhood: he was damned as far as the bog was concerned and I was not going to gainsay it. None of us said much, not even Dan, who had surely not expected to find himself at arm’s length from a murderess and the lover she rested her shoulder against, her white-sleeved arms folded within a shawl of green and black squares I had not seen before. Sean reached to take off his cap before he thought better of it, straightened it more firmly instead. I thought of a mouth filled with black soil, the quaking illusion of ground slumping and settling under the scant weight of the dead until it had folded itself over the body more conclusively than any headstone. Finally, Jimmy pushed the last soft wedge of turf down, tamped it with the back of his spade, and looked faintly embarrassed, as though he had been thinking loud enough to overhear. He cleared his throat; Sean’s head came up anxiously, hound-scenting for interloping authorities—Michael Rafferty, Gardaí, the coroner from Tullamore, looming large as a judge of legend by now. A wren shrilled and checked in the moss somewhere, the little bird-king.
As accurately as if he pronounced a benediction, Jimmy Connolly said, “Rest in peace, you spawn-hearted bastard, if that means you never trouble another soul more. May God not remember where he put you and the Devil never forget.” And then we piled a green footing of well-spread sods over the damp seam in the earth and Sean MacMahon started talking about the coroner again and Dan Wall stood longest of all over the grave and I could not read a thing about him. Behind them, Katharine lingered, and I went to catch up with her, not knowing if she wanted me to.
Her stride would have been nearly as long as mine, if not for her skirts. We were nearly off Rafferty’s ground before she said, “You promised to show me your queen of the bog. Before the police and the doctors came for her.”
“Aye. I will. There’s still time. Didn’t you hear Sean, fretting he wouldn’t be there to see her unveiling? She’s this way.” And I should have said nothing more, nothing that was not the weather or the time or the scholarly speculations of Jimmy Connolly, but her face was sky-silhouetted beneath mine and she looked younger with her arms crossed in their knot of plaid, her hair wind-loosened on her shoulders, and it was not her fault that I had seen her weep in dreams: “You didn’t tell me.”
“What should I tell you, Roddy Mathews?” She did not glance upward at me, as coolly as her voice lifted; she did not even slacken her pace. “Where I was born? The names of my parents? How I came to my marriage and what happened after I was wed? What did you ask me when first you came to my door that I should have told you anything?” A beat of silence, the ankle-brush of tussocks of sedge and bell-pink heath. How slender her shoulders had felt within my arms, how she had tongued my fingertips and the sun had fired red lights in her undone hair the first time we met by day. “What did you tell me of yourself?”
I bit back, No more than you didn’t want to know; I said finally, “Not enough, it seems.”
Her mouth flicked up at one corner. Her eyes were a ruddier green when the sun scattered out of its clouds, paler when they slid over it again. “There was a woman,” she said at last, very quietly. “What she was like, it doesn’t matter. It mattered that he found us. He didn’t… God’s truth, I believe he didn’t understand at first what he was seeing. When he understood, he broke my ribs.” Her voice was as clear as a clerk in a court of law. “No one would tell me if she died.”
“Was it after that you killed him?”
She looked at me then, with the plumy heads of bog cotton caught in the folds of her skirt and her eyes the color of moss. I could see her hands tarnished silver if I tried, a halter of leather about her crushed throat, her dark hair bleached to bog-rust and her face folded to the peat as if to a long-aching rest, but Dan had been wrong about who ended up in the pools of Móin Alúine, and maybe Jimmy had, too, for all his care and erudition, and I had been wrong about the reasons Katharine Morgan would not touch me. I could still feel a dead woman’s fingers inside me, unafraid as time. If I had opened myself as fearlessly to the living woman beside me, would it have changed anything? Nothing but the summer, I thought: and that might have been enough.
“Is this her, your peat woman?”
Katharine’s hand went out to my arm, stopped me mid-stride. Sean had been as good as his word, laying a mosaic of damp sods from half-hidden ribcage to hairline so that the familiar peat covered her everywhere, molded itself again to her metallic skin like water filling to its own level; when I knelt to unbury her, I felt uneasily as though I was pulling a coffin-lid from a face, not showing off an archaeological find. Her eyes were still closed, her lips curved by their last thought or the workings of the bog. The red of her hair was startling as a wound, penny-bright at the wreck of her throat. Even the gleam of her bones was graceful. I could not answer; I heard Roddy’s sweetheart, your lass, and I knew she had ceased to be anyone’s with the break of her neck.
“She came out of the peat. She’s no more mine…” I said it finally: “She’s no more mine than you are, Katharine Morgan.”
Her smile was an odd, sad crease in her wind-flushed face, very like the silvery expression wried at our feet. Like she was saying a vow back to me, “No more than you’re mine, Roddy Mathews,” and I had never expected anything else, but for a moment I could think only of her mouth opening to mine, the salt heat and slick of her body, the way her fingers gripped briefly and hotly in my hair. The tannin-cold tongue of the girl from Móin Alúine, dead years before Christ and closer to me than the Church had ever been. She had loved me, or I would never have dreamed of her. She had loved Desmond Morgan, too, and shown him to me as a love-gift, to ease my other lover’s mind, before taking him in again for the last time. It was not my place after all to lie beside her all the long, hungry centuries. It never had been.
“Aye,” I said, and it hurt less than I thought it would. Her hand was still on my sleeve; I put my own over it, just as if we were walking out together, and took a breath as deep as if I was going to ask her for an hour of her time after church. “You’d have made a fine queen of the land in Connolly’s ancient days, do you know that?” And before she could make any answer or I could lose my nerve, I added, “A fine king of the land, too, and not the dying kind.”
Her hand was warm under mine, not eel-cold silver, and she was not pulling away. Around us the bog stretched away to the sky, rust-green and tawny and engulfing as time, the thin moment we stood on that at any moment could give way: a kiss, a knife, a new road at the end of the season. The mirror that showed me myself, not just the two misapprehensions I was meant to choose from. The coroner from Tullamore. Rafferty himself would be here soon, and like as not the Gardaí and a trail of sightseers with him. But Katharine was still studying the calm dead face beneath us, and the peat girl still lay half in the wet earth that was hers more than any museum cabinet could be, and I cared less if Rafferty found me idling than if I walked away, this time, before I was ready to be gone. The murderer and the sacrifice, nobody’s victims. We waited for history to find us.
Sonya Taaffe’s short fiction and poetry can be found mostly recently in the collection Ghost Signs (Aqueduct Press) and in the anthologies Heiresses of Russ 2016: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, The Museum of All Things Awesome and That Go Boom, and An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables. She edits poetry for Strange Horizons, lives in Somerville with her husband and two cats, and once named a Kuiper belt object.
Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg – The thing is — and I’m finally starting to admit this to myself — I don’t believe there’s a puzzle here. There’s no way to turn these jagged pieces into a smooth picture of something that makes sense. First you’d have to crack off the extra material and file the edges down, like you’re shaping a mosaic from pottery shards; you have to break away more and more to even get the right shape. This story is like a vase made from other, broken vases. And maybe it will hold water when you’re finished, but probably it won’t.
Red Mask, by Jessica May Lin – Before she jumped, Feng Guniang used to tell me about her suicide, during our cigarette breaks when we danced at the Green Dream, her white-lacquered nails trailing against the web of her fishnet tights. We smoked in the shadowy corners behind the opium dens on Jiameng Street, where the lights from the neon advertising boards couldn’t touch us. The new opium dens are all styled like the old red mansions of the Ming Dynasty, complete with heavy doors twice as tall as we were.
Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde – On her second day studying in the Monteverde, Arminae Ganit stared at damp sky framed by beech leaves and fiddleheads and wished she could photosynthesize. She touched fingertips to the thick loam at her feet. Moist air slicked her cheeks and dampened her t-shirt so her pack’s straps rubbed at the skin beneath. The forest’s shifting clouds dappled Arminae’s hands dark and light. She imagined her fingers exuding roots; her hair, fruit and leaves.