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A Beggar in the Time of Hardship by James Claffey


In another life I pushed a handcart about the streets of Dublin, selling scarfs and bags of animal hair from discarded pets. Those days, my hair was long and braided, and the only trace of caffeine in my body came from kissing the coffee-seller I fell in love with on a snowy day in April.
     We lived for a while in a canvas tent beneath the abandoned tramway at Milltown, and warmed ourselves by the heat of the fire we made from the bones of dead pets. The tram tracks above were still there and narrow enough to straddle with both feet. In the mornings I pushed the cart along the tracks, past tall nettles and dock leaves, and hunted for dead animals along the route.
     For the coffee-seller’s birthday I bought a set of old horseshoes from a saddler in Mount Tallant, and later embellished the shoes with feathers I’d taken from the belly of a dead fox I stumbled across in the undergrowth adjacent to the tram tracks. That night she kissed me softly on the mouth and we stripped naked inside the tent as the animal tallow candles flickered and sang to us of love.
     We hoofed it to town the following morning, her ahead of me, wearing a coat with a fur collar, and me in my grimy gabardine number, the one I hung on a wire hanger from an overhanging branch outside the tent. As the right coat-tail moved with her stride, then the left, I allowed lunatic notions to pass through my head, of opening a bank account with the few bob I made selling furs, of finding a flat in Rathmines, or Ranelagh, of affording electric light and a second-hand television set. Lead me not into temptation, I thought, as the full range of my love galloped ahead of the cart I was shoving along the abandoned tracks.
     I walked; she sang, a merry tune, her red hair shining in the early light. I knew the word from childhood, from the Chambers Dictionary my mother kept in a biscuit tin to ward off damp. Sanguine. Yes. The coffee-seller’s hair as blood. And the map of her skin on the canvas sheet beneath me, her moles cities on a barren plain, connected with roads by the licking of my tongue.
     We parted ways with a kiss on the parapet of Charlemont Street Bridge, and I plowed ahead through the slush for my usual spot at the corner of Stephen’s Green. I paused a minute to watch her go off towards Leeson Street and the coffee cart we’d met at the previous day. Thanked my stars I’d gone home the long way because of an accident between a horse and a lorry on Harcourt that caused me to detour down Adelaide Road. Between the bright sun and her red hair she receded into the distance, her head a flash, the embers burning in the crisp morning air.
     Normal service resumed and the few bags of marmalade cat hair sold to an apothecary from Goat Alley. She said it was the sure thing to ward off the galloping diarrhea, and who was I to argue? If I had more she’d take it, too, she said. Leave it with me, I told her, and did a quick mental calculation of how far afield I’d have to hunt to catch a few more marmalade cats. The ones I got the hair from had been drowned in sacks in the Dodder a few weeks back, and it looked like there was a scarcity of those cats about the place.
     Along by Trinity, I stopped at Greene’s booksellers to browse the barrows and see if there might be a few poems I could read to my coffee-seller. A little volume of Tennyson caught my fancy and the old man behind the counter took a penny for it, being that it was a dreadful day outside, and wasn’t I the vagabond with poetry in my soul, he said.
     The Tennyson book safe in greaseproof paper, we lounged on the floor of the tent, the pock-pock-pock of the rain hose-piping onto the sloped canvas roof, and the guttering candles lit the inside like an old daguerreotype, as she cast the flapping bird with her hands. How the wings moved in the light, yet not exactly light, and how her fingers morphed into a strange creature with a seed trapped in its mouth. We laughed, tore into each other, the clash of teeth as our mouths met. As the rain increased and condensation fell on us, a creature shrieked somewhere close. Joined by another, then another, the committee of barn owls caterwauled as our bodies twisted, a sweating knot of energy.
     After, we slipped down the tracks to the all-night shop where we bought a bottle of Nash’s Red Lemonade and a couple of Crème Eggs, long past their sell date. Under a streetlight, we each nibbled one end off the egg and tongued through the soft center and the outer shell collapsed in our mouths. By the time we’d reached the campsite again we’d drained the lemonade and were stained with rings of reddish pink.
     While she slept in our canvas nest, I tossed, fascinated by the weavings of a small spider near the tent-pole. I crawled outside and looked into the night where a cloud shaped like a dolphin swept across the otherwise bare sky, the wind gusting hard and the ivy-covered trees around me soughing. In moments the dolphin turned into a single-humped camel and a night heron flew by. From inside the tent, the shifting of the coffee-seller reminded me how lucky I was to be a beggar in this time of hardship.
     
     
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James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. His work has appeared in the New Orleans Review, Word Riot, Metazen, Necessary Fiction, FWriction and many other places. He is the author of the short fiction collection, Blood a Cold Blue, from Press 53.