AIDA AUSTIN: Look at us swishing along in our boots, all cotton-eye Joe!

1am in Sligo - and at the kitchen table, my sister’s head is bowed in earnest industry over some sprigged cotton which she’s cutting into covers for her jam-pot lids. 

In the middle of the table, 60 jars of her homemade fruitage are amassed round a pot-bellied jug exploding with the last sweet-peas. On the other side of the table, my head is bowed over a commission for an autumn wedding garland. In front of me are my watercolours, mulberry paper blossoms, blowsy silk roses and dried hydrangea. On the floor are boxes of alder-cones, buds, twigs, rugosa hips and seed-heads, gathered from my back field.

What with the sun bouncing off the lake and winking on the jam jars and the rooster pecking at the kitchen door, the scene is so bucolic that I can’t help wondering what our ancient inner-city selves would say if they could see us now; surely only the Country Sisters singing ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ could be more country than us.

At lunchtime, a bowl of my sister’s poly-tunnel soup puts me in the mood to walk it off. We decide to go through a forest, where a confetti of birds swirls in the sky, settling into the canopy of lichen-covered hazel, oaks and beech above our heads- and out into open fields. Tramping down to the shores of Kilronan lake, arms swinging, we pass through meadows dotted with stone ruins that tell of famine, cold feet and dirt floors; a history much older and harsher than ours, though as we swish along through the long grass, our ancient city selves feel as long-gone. I mean look at us swishing along in our boots, all cotton-eyed Joe! Just look at us!

2.00pm. Eight donkeys appear over the brow of the hill.

“Aah look at the donkeys,” my sister says, picking up her pace ever so smartly. I look at the donkeys and pick up mine; they are standing in a row on the hill-line above us, all lined up like Apache steeds. It’s as if they’re carrying invisible baby-butchering Apaches on their backs- and I never did like Westerns, even as a child. No I did not.

But I am fine because my sister knows all about donkeys. She must do - she’s got two of them. I am fine with the donkeys and their invisible Apaches, even though I’m sure they’re giving us the stink-eye, especially that big Geronimo one out front.

My Country Sister, her pace quickening suddenly to a sprint, screams, “RUN!

I run.

“Why are we running?” I shout after her as she shoots off to my left, where the land falls away to the lake. Maybe my sister’s seen the invisible Apaches too. There’s no answer. I keep running straight ahead. I don’t know where the **** my sister’s got to; when I look behind me, there’s no sign of her bright pink cardi anywhere, just eight donkeys charging down the hill towards me and the sound of pounding hooves.

“Get in the stump,” my sister screams from a distance somewhere to my left. “It’s hollow in the middle, “it’s the one the kids play in.”

I take a running jump onto the tree stump, which is in front a small copse ahead, and bump painfully down inside it, crouching at its bottom.

“WHAT DO WE DOOO?” my sister screams.

“What do you mean, ‘what do we do?’ I scream back, “you’re the one with the two donkeys.”

“I can’t hear you. Are you in the stump?” she screams. “Stand up so I can see you.”

“Where are you?” I scream. “Over here,” she screams.

I stand up, my head appearing above the stump like a sweep’s from a chimney pot.

“I can see your head,” my sister screams.

So can donkeys; they are clustered round my stump. Eight pairs of eyes stare into mine - sixteen, if you include the invisible Apaches. Just before I duck down again, I spot a flash of pink on the far periphery of my left vision: my sister is standing up to her waist in the lake.

“They won’t follow me into the water,” she screams, and then, unaccountably, “my boots aren’t water proof.” And down in the bottom of the stump I try to stay calm- for we are the Country Sisters and no one is more country than us.


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