INISHOWEN CO. DONEGAL
Strictly speaking, it was his dog Liadh that found the body.
During the night a storm rolled in from the Atlantic. It howled around the house, bouncing twigs off the roof-slates and breaking branches from the walnut tree in the garden. With a tinkling exuberance the dilapidated green house collapsed in on itself. The next morning brought a brilliance that graced the fields with an unseasonal warmth. In the distance Lough Swilly, a sullen pewter colour, went quiet.
The dog had been restless all night and growling in her sleep. As soon as it was light Tom Mundy took her out for a walk. Now that he was old, he found that, once he woke, he couldn’t get back to sleep no matter how hard he tried. He got out of bed and made a cup of tea before putting the dog into the boot of the car and driving to the forest. With her at his side he walked along the track in his even, loping stride. The evidence of storm damage was everywhere: his boots sinking in the waterlogged ground; a broken fence; a fallen tree splayed across the path, its roots upended in a vaguely prurient display. He clambered over it with care. Liadh bounded out of the undergrowth, her night worries forgotten and jumped around him as he straightened up.
‘Bad dog!’ he pushed her away, ‘Shoo, shoo…’ and yet, he was glad of her company. He was grateful too, that there was enough life in his aged bones to get him out walking in the early morning air. High with rain, the river thundered beyond the trees. Its song was a rambling commentary that accompanied him as he wound his way up the hill. When he was a child he’d been told about a man and a boy who had tried to cross that river when it was in full spate. Their bodies had been found at the mouth of the river where it emptied into the sea. Afterwards, the forestry men built a bridge and, from then on, local people could cross in safety. It was a well-built timber bridge that withstood the worst of weather. All the same, it had been a terrible storm, powerful enough to destroy any bridge; he thought, better to be sure…
Beneath his tweed cap his bony face looked indestructible. As the forest fell away behind him, he walked out into a landscape of scoured rock and whin.
His instinct had been correct.
Below him, the bridge lay skewed towards one side of the river. It was broken up like matchwood. The long beams protruded out of the water and the cross braces were smashed. Some timbers were caught in among the rocks, others had been swept along on the current. One end of the bridge was still held fast to its foundation while at the other side, there was a cascade of rocks and stones left behind where the bridge had broken free in the storm.
Loose stones gave way under his feet as he scrambled down to get a closer look. Liadh, her tail up, passed him. She leapt into the river and disappeared among the rocks. He whistled. There was no answer.
‘Bad dog!’ he grumbled as he grabbed onto the end of the bridge that was still fixed to the ground. Where was she?
Liadh barked: a clear whistle-like call. Then again, for a second time, as if she had something to tell him. The dog scampered back to jump around him while the man stared across the river, at the bundle of clothing caught up in the pile of rocks. Again the dog lunged forward. Shouting obscenities, the man pulled her back and thrashed her with his stick.
‘Stay!’ he shouted. The dog slunk off to crouch down on the grass.
Suddenly exhausted, the old man staggered on the wet ground. Behind his closed eyes, he saw scattered figures moving forward in a line as they beat the heather and peered under rocks and prodded pools of bogwater with sticks. Nature had succeeded, he thought, where the gardaί and the local people had failed. The thought broke him. His knees crumpled as a tide, foul as acid, rushed up from his stomach and spewed onto the grass.
‘Shoo, shoo…’ the man whimpered, more to himself than to the dog. His head in his hands, he knelt down and a long wail rose from somewhere deep inside.
‘O Sacred Heart of Jesus, give me strength,’ he prayed. ‘O forgive me, Mary, Mother of Christ.’
He blessed himself and struggled up to stand on the bank. Then he waded through the water, until he was close enough to see her bloated hand, half-eaten by fish, the cuff of a red cardigan, and where her face had once been, a spongy mass of flesh already torn away from her skull. He knew at once that it was the girl in his photograph. Unmistakeable.
His young neighbour, Rosaleen McAvady.
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