By Thomas Sigafoos
WHICH SHIP WAS
NEAR THIS ISLAND
22nd SEPT. 1884
~Grave Marker, Tory Island
21 March 1884
Ruairí knew the path by the way it felt under his feet. The grassy walkway from East Town curved up through the sloping fields toward the cliffs on the north shore. He could see dim outlines ahead where the grass ended and the granite began. He had been out on the cliffs on other nights when a bright moon and stars lit the way, but the light had made the cliff-birds restless. It would be better, he knew, on a night like tonight when the clouds covered the stars like a wet wool blanket.
He heard Eoghan following close behind. He knew that Eoghan couldn’t see well in the dark – his shins were scarred from running at full speed into the rocks and iron ploughs that littered the fields of Torraigh Island. He could hear Eoghan breathing heavily. Ruairí wondered if his brother realised exactly where they were.
The grassy walkway ended, and he felt the narrow dirt footpath begin. The path ran along the narrow granite ridge at the eastern end of the island, inches away from the sheer cliffs that dropped straight to the sea on both sides. He could hear the waves washing up against the rocks hundreds of feet below. He shifted the bag of straw from one shoulder to the other. A gull flapped by, its sound disappearing in the darkness.
He saw a flickering light on the path ahead, and he kicked the ground in anger. He’d wanted to be the first one down, but Pádraig had beaten him.
“Hey, look,” said Eoghan. “Pádraig’s already here.”
“Yeah, the gobshite,” said Ruairí. “That’s twice tonight he’s beat me.”
Ruairí was tempted to snap at Eoghan, but he didn’t want Pádraig to hear them. “Don’t you remember? In the game?”
“The football game?”
“Remember when you got the ball away from him, and you broke away up the field?”
“Yeah, I scored a goal then.”
“That’s the time. While you were up there at the goal, he clipped me from behind. I still got a sore rib.”
“I didn’t know that, Ruairí.”
“Nobody else did, either.”
“If you’d told me then, I’d have got him back.”
Ruairí stopped and turned to his brother. “That’s why I didn’t tell you. This is just between him and me.”
“Well, sure, Ruairí…”
Ruairí stared at Eoghan without saying anything. Eoghan fidgeted and said, “I’m sorry. I mean, I know you can take care of yourself. I just want to help…”
“If you wanted to help, why didn’t you come up here faster with me?” Ruairí said, surprised by the harsh edge in his own voice. “I could have beat Pádraig up here if you hadn’t wanted to piss around back there after the game.”
“I didn’t even know we was coming up here.”
“Didn’t you hear what he said? It’s a good night for eggin’, if anybody has the nerve. Didn’t you hear that?”
“No, I didn’t…”
“He’s been pushing me since I can remember. Don’t you see it?”
As they walked along the ridge, Ruairí could feel Eoghan trying to decide what to say. He didn’t like to boss his brother around, but there were times when he ran out of patience with Eoghan’s slow thoughts.
They approached an ankle-high pile of rocks where a dry, long-abandoned bird’s nest smouldered. A rope was looped around an outcropping of stone, trailing over the edge of the cliff and down into the darkness. Far below, they could see Pádraig dangling at the end of the rope, holding a burning stick in one hand and a cloth bag in the other.
“Hey,” said Eoghan. “I’ll grab that rope and scare the shite out of him.”
“No, don’t do that. I got a better idea.”
Looking down the cliff-face, they watched Pádraig shove the burning stick into a hollow in the cliffside. Two puffins came flapping out, and Ruairí could see a flash of their bright red beaks for an instant before they disappeared into the dark air. Pádraig reached into the hollow, pulled out an egg, and slipped it into the bag over his arm.
“I want to go down tonight,” said Eoghan.
Ruairí put down the bag of straw and looked at his brother in the firelight. Eoghan was swaying back and forth, mimicking Pádraig’s dangling dance at the end of the rope.
“Ah, now, Eoghan,” said Ruairí, “you know what Aunt Eithne said. She’ll skin us alive if she finds out we was eggin’ up here.”
“She won’t know unless you tell her.” Eoghan was still swaying, imagining the pull of the rope and the rock face under his feet.
Ruairí tried to size up his brother’s mood. It was impossible to talk sense into Eoghan when he got one of his stubborn ideas, but sometimes he could be distracted. And he liked it when people confided in him.
“Come here, Eoghan. I got an idea.”
Eoghan grinned. “What’s that, Ruairí?”
“He don’t know we’re here. You rig me up and lower me down. Not right beside Pádraig.
Over here.” He stepped away a few feet along the cliff-edge.
“Sure, Ruairí.” Eoghan unslung the coil of rope from his shoulder and wrapped it around
Ruairí’s chest three times. Ruairí watched while Eoghan tied the bowline knot.
Sometimes he got it backward, and it could slip.
Ruairí looked up at the dark sky. It was the time of year when the nights grew shorter and the days longer – Aunt Eithne said that the winter and the summer touched each other twice each year as they passed. She always lit a candle on the night when they touched. Ruairí imagined a boy and a girl walking toward each other on a path, too shy to look into each others’ eyes but close enough to let the backs of their hands graze each other.
Eoghan wrapped the rope over his own shoulder and once around his chest. Ruairí picked up the bag of straw, and Eoghan’s face clouded. “Why do you need the bag if you just want to scare him?”
“Watch this,” Ruairí grinned, and he leaned out over the cliff. “Let me down there a little below him.”
Like Pádraig, he kept his feet on the cliff face while he tilted back against the rope. The mossy rock face was slippery, and he tried to find solid purchase with one foot before moving the other. He looked up as he made his way down, seeing Eoghan and the cliff-edge recede against the sky.
The face of the cliff was pocked with deep holes, perfect shelters for the sea-birds. Gulls and gannets, graceful in flight, became puffy duck-like creatures in their shelter-holes, squawking like indignant old women when the island boys raided their nests. He wondered if they squawked and complained at other times. How would anyone ever know?
Pádraig didn’t see him. Ruairí knew what it was like to grow absorbed in the in-front-of-your-nose details of egging. It was a way to keep yourself from thinking about the steep drop to the bone-smashing rocks below.
As Pádraig turned sideways to reach into a nesting-hole, Ruairí pushed himself along the cliff with his feet and snatched the egg-bag from Pádraig’s arm.
“You fecker! Who’s that?”
Swinging away, Ruairí grinned. “It’s myself, Pádraig.”
“Gimme my bag back!”
“Ah, it’s only half-full. You can get more in this one.” He threw the empty bag at Pádraig, who caught it and glared at him.
“Come on over here, you red-headed gobshite!”
“Nah, there’s more eggs over here.” Ruairí pulled the rope sideways, and Eoghan moved along the cliff edge, swinging him away from Pádraig.
Pádraig started climbing his rope. “I’m going to throw your fecking brother over the edge.”
Ruairí put a friendlier tone into his voice. “Hey, Pádraig!”
Pádraig stopped climbing. “What?”
“I’ll bet I can get six eggs before you do. If I can’t, I’ll give you these back.”
“And the eggs you get?”
“And the eggs I get.”
“All right, you piss-arse.”
Moonlight broke through the scudding clouds, and Ruairí could see the silhouette of the granite ridge they were hanging from. The island looked like it had been tipped by the pounding of the ocean, exposing the unyielding layers of rock below a few inches of weedy soil. On the east tip of the island there was no soil at all, only a ridge of bare rocks jutting up out of the sea. The islanders called the ridge Balor’s Army – Balor, the one-eyed king of the Formorians who could kill his enemies by staring at them – Balor, with his bloodthirsty army of mutilated and one-legged men, lined up to repel invaders from the east. Ruairí thought the ridge looked more like a row of rotten teeth.
A squawking pair of cormorants interrupted his reverie as Pádraig raided their nest for eggs. I’d better get busy, he thought. He pushed away from the granite wall and let his feet dangle as he swung back. Pulling himself sideways, he reached into a hole in the rock face. He felt a flurry of beating wings, and the webby feet of gulls slapped awkwardly at his arm as the birds scrambled out of the cleft and flapped away. He slid his hand over the crumbling sticks of the nest and reached inside. He could feel three eggs, still warm from their mother’s breast. He slipped them one by one into the centre of the sack, separating them from each other with the straw. He hoped that they weren’t ready to hatch, because it was disgusting when the eggs contained pink half-formed birds.
“I got three!” he shouted to Pádraig.
“Feck you, Mullan. I got four.”
Pushing himself to the right, he felt Eoghan moving with him at the top of the cliff. He would beat Pádraig if he could find three more eggs. He scrambled toward the next recess in the cliff face, a perfect nesting hole. Reaching into the blackness, he was surprised to feel only dirt and pebbles under his hand. Had Pádraig already been in this one? Not likely – with his fixed rope, he couldn’t have swung over this far. Pulling himself upward with one hand, Ruairí leaned into the hole and stretched his arm into the darkness. The narrowing cleft smelled of wet earth. He began to feel short of breath in the confining space, but he grinned when he felt the twigs of a nest.
Claws tore into the side of his face, and a bird-shriek filled the space like boiling water. He shoved himself out of the hole, swatting desperately at the thing that was digging into his skin. In the half-light he saw the glint of an eye – the eye of a hawk, a hunter – before the bird stabbed its beak into his eye and the world flared into hot red waves of pain.
* * * * *
The peregrine falcon returned to her nest. Her leg hurt. The boy who had invaded her lair had bent her foot-joints when he pulled her away, and they would be slow to heal. With one claw she could capture only small birds. If her two eggs hatched before her foot healed, she would be able to bring back less food, and only one of her chicks would live.
Bits of his flesh adhered to her injured claw. She picked and cleaned the claw with her beak. His blood tasted salty, like rabbit.
Below the falcon’s lair, the cloth sack floated in the water. An incoming wave slammed it against the cliff, smashing the eggs. The loosely-woven cloth snagged against the sharp edges of the rock-face, and the waves tore the sack to shreds.
Short stories and creative nonfiction pieces by Thomas Sigafoos have been published in The Quiet Quarter Anthology: Ten Years of Great Irish Writing (New Island Books), in Crannog Literary Magazine, and in The Cathach Literary Journal. He is the author of Code Blue: A Frank Chandler Mystery. “Egging” is an excerpt from The Cursing Stone, a novel about Torraigh/Tory Island and the shipwreck of the HMS Wasp during the Irish Land Wars.