Last week, my family suffered a bereavement so profound, I don’t know if any of us will ever fully recover. This person was actually the second member of our family to pass away since the start of 2020, both of them young people, both of them parents, both of them loved and missed and cherished. It’s been a hard year, so far. A few nights ago, I found my mind wandering back to my childhood, and I remembered this story – one which I’d had published in a now-defunct online zine called wordlegs back in 2013. It’s one I feel a deep attachment to, because it came directly from my memories of being a little girl. Somehow, despite the story’s subject, it brought me comfort; it brought me back to a time when my lost family members lived and breathed and shone with the beauty of their youth. I’m proud of it. The story’s no longer available anywhere online, so I’m republishing it here, with thanks to Elizabeth Reapy, wordlegs‘ editor, who was the first person to see potential in it. Thanks, Elizabeth. (Coincidentally, Elizabeth’s second novel shares a name with this story, though they’re not similar in any other way! I recommend you check it out, along with her first novel, Red Dirt.)
Photo by Christopher Paul High on Unsplash.com
When I was a child, I had an uncle who hunted. He lived next door in what had been my grandmother’s house, which meant I saw him a lot; somehow, though, we never talked much. He had hounds who followed his every move like acolytes worshipping at the feet of a god, despite the fact that all he did was kick them and call them filthy names. Whenever he walked by their cage, they’d eat each other for the chance to get near him, and they’d howl like nothing on earth. Hearing it made my chest tighten up, like I’d suddenly taken a breath of cotton wool. My mother was always asking him to come in and have dinner, just to come next door for a little while and sit with his family, but he never did. He liked to eat with his memories instead, which didn’t bother me.
I thought my uncle was cruel, though people laughed at me for being ‘soft’.
‘Go on, you old eejit,’ my mother would say. ‘There’s many a dinner we owe to that uncle of yours.’
‘But he hurts his dogs,’ I protested.
‘Arragh, now. Dogs are used to that sort of thing. And anyway, they’re working dogs, duck. They’re not pets.’
I knew that. I knew they didn’t sit in front of his fire at night, snoring gently in the heat, like our dog did. And still, I worried about them.
I worried about everything.
About five weeks after my father’s accident, I came home from school to find Mam crying quietly in the sitting room. I stood in the doorway watching her for a while, feeling dizzy and far away. Eventually, she looked up, and she jumped a bit when she saw me.
‘Jesus! Pet, don’t stand there like that. You frightened the life out of me.’ She laughed, a short and hard sound, like a pebble in a shoe; then she hurried to wipe her eyes, rubbing them roughly with the tea-towel she still had in her hands.
‘What’s wrong, Mammy?’ I asked, afraid of what she might tell me.
‘Ah, now. Nothing at all. I just got a bit sad.’ She slapped her hands against her thighs, shoving herself upright in a businesslike, everything-is-great manner. ‘Will we get the dinner on? Are you hungry?’ She messed my hair as she strode past me towards the kitchen. ‘Did you have a good day in school?’
‘Mam, is Daddy all right?’
‘Grand, love! He’s grand!’ she said. But she didn’t turn around and tell me to my face, and that’s how I knew she was lying. She had a thing about looking people in the eyes when she was telling them the truth.
My father worked in a factory that handled heavy chemicals. I didn’t know then, and I still don’t really know now, exactly how his accident happened, but it had something to do with a pressure gauge and an over-filled tank, and probably his own negligence in not wearing his safety gear. He’d often told me he and the other men didn’t bother with things like eyeguards and ear-protectors.
‘Sure, I have to be able to hear if the machines are labouring,’ he explained to me once. ‘How can I do that, if I’m all muffled up? If I can’t hear the motor, it could go, and it could kill the man standing beside it. My ears’ll be nice and warm, but someone else’ll be going home on a shovel.’
But it had been my dad who’d been rushed out of the plant in a screaming ambulance, one which had hit the road in spots as it flung itself around the bends on its way to Dublin. It had been him who’d been burned, him whose flesh had melted. Him who was driven out of his mind with the pain.
Mam hadn’t let me see him for ages, and when I was allowed to visit all I could think about was mummies in ancient Egypt. We’d been doing them in school. Dad’s bandages looked cleaner and whiter, I thought. Other than that, he’d do in a museum.
‘I love you, Daddy.’ I remember telling the tiny square of scarlet I could see peeping out between the swathes of material. ‘I love you.’ I wanted to kiss him, but Mam told me ‘no’. Dad told me nothing, because he couldn’t talk. Anyway, I don’t think he was even awake.
‘Good girl,’ said Mam as we left the hospital, ready for the long journey home. ‘You did very well.’
I wondered all the way home what I could have done better.
I was at the kitchen table one evening trying to think about my maths homework when I heard the keening of my uncle’s hounds. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Mam, who was sitting at the far end of the table over a cold cup of tea said, ‘He’s home early. He must’ve had a good hunt.Why don’t you go and have a look, and say hello?’
I swallowed as she spoke, my spit tasting sharp and sour. ‘But Mam – I’m doing my homework, I have loads.’
‘It’s Friday, hon. You’ve plenty of time to do your homework. And your uncle’s been so good. Go and say hello, he’d love it. He’s very fond of you, you know.’
‘No, he isn’t,’ I said. ‘He hates me.’
‘Now, that’s just silly.’ She got up, grabbing her cup of tea, and crossed to the sink to throw it away. ‘Go on outside now, just for a few minutes, and I’ll have a treat for you when you come back in.’
‘What sort of a treat?’ I didn’t move from my perch in front of my copy book. I drew a line under my sums, carefully, and kept working. I still couldn’t add up properly without drawing dots beside the numbers like a baby out of Senior Infants, but at least I’d learned to draw them lightly so I could rub them out afterwards. I hated maths, but it was my dad’s favourite thing in the world besides rock and roll. I wanted to show him how good I was at adding and multiplying when he came home from the hospital.
‘God, Claire, I don’t know,’ snapped Mam. ‘A bit of apple tart. I’ll make you some custard. All right? Just go on outside, just for a few minutes, and talk to your uncle. I’ll call you when you can come back in.’
I slapped my copy book shut and shoved myself out from the table, making the legs of my chair stutter and skip along the lino. The sound of it normally drove Mam crazy. Today, she said nothing. She just stood and watched me as I stamped over to the back door and wrenched it open.
‘Good girl. I’ll only need a minute.’
I crept out of our back yard and into the lane, watching my uncle beat his dogs into his garden. It wasn’t a bit like ours, full of greenery and flowers; my uncle had covered his over with roughly-finished concrete after my granny had died, the shed that had been her pride and joy now a falling-down monstrosity beside the pristine dog pen. I hung close to our back door until he’d corralled the last hound, thwacking and slapping at them with a thick stick, shouting until they listened to his voice over the red-misted pounding of their own hearts.
They all had names, these dogs, despite the fact that all my uncle ever did was abuse and hurt them. But he gave them all names.
Over his garden wall, a clutch of freshly-caught rabbits lay. I didn’t touch them, but I felt sure they’d be still warm and supple, their eyes still bright. Perhaps their last breath hadn’t been fully exhaled. I felt a sour taste in my mouth again, and I swallowed hard against the rush of sudden liquid up my throat.
‘Howya,’ said my uncle as he slid home the lock on his garden gate, nodding vaguely in my direction. I returned the greeting, and perched on our back step to watch him. I tried to think about things I could say to him, but he made me scared, so I didn’t say anything.
He started to sing under his breath, huffing out through his nose, as he grabbed his huge knife from its holder on his belt. He wiped the blade once or twice on his trouser leg before severing the twine that bound the rabbits together. They plopped wetly onto the stone slabs he’d untidily cemented on the top of the wall.
Despite myself, I watched.
‘Time to drop your drawers,’ my uncle muttered, taking one of the rabbits in his hand. He held it up, the rabbit swinging gently as he turned it this way and that, appraising it. Then, he laid it flat on the wall and swiftly, as easily as if he was tying his shoelaces, he ran the knife around the rabbit’s legs, one at a time. He worked at the carcass with his fingers for a few minutes, the movement looking almost gentle.
When he pulled at the rabbit’s pelt, ripping it away from the body like he was removing a sock, I screamed so loudly that I gave him a fright. He dropped the knife and turned to stare at me. Perhaps he’d forgotten I was there.
It was the redness. The rawness of the flesh. The muscles, clearly visible; the sinews and tendons. The colour, so private and painful. Something I should not be able to see. White bandages flashed into my mind, white bandages and scarlet skin. Scarlet skin and pain, and pain equalling death.
I ran for the door to my house, slamming it, not caring about the noise.
My mother was on the phone in the hall, clutching the tea-towel to her eyes. I ignored her and ran for my room.
‘Claire,’ I heard her say, much later. ‘Come out here, please.’ My closed door muffled her voice.
I was buried in my duvet, my face swollen and sore. I’d cried all evening. My mother’s phone call had been brought to a swift end after I’d burst back into the house, but she’d mentioned ‘doctor’ and ‘treatment,’ and she’d wept, before she’d been able to hang up. I’d stuffed my head under my pillow, trying not to hear, but I had anyway.
‘Claire,’ she said again, knocking gently. ‘Come on, please. I want to speak to you, young lady.’
Every muscle ached. I felt like a piece of paper, crumpled up so badly it could never sit flat again. I stumbled to the door and pulled it open. My Mam’s eyes were full of tears, and that set me going again. I let her wrap me up in a hug, her belly warm and soft. I tried not to wet her jumper, but I didn’t really manage it. My face was soaking, and covered in snot.
‘Your uncle is downstairs, love. He wants to talk to you.’
My heart jolted, and I shook my head, grinding my eyes shut. My mother soothed my sobbing shoulders, stroking me gently. She kissed the top of my head. ‘Shush, now. He wants to say sorry.’
She evicted me from the embrace and stood me back from her, arm’s-length away. She rubbed my clammy cheeks with her rough thumbs.
‘Try and smile, pet. Try and be nice.’
I nodded, two more hot, fat tears spilling out. Mam wiped them away.
My uncle stood in the kitchen, looking out of place. It was like seeing a clown saying Mass. He had his flat cap scrunched in his hands, and something else too. I couldn’t see it properly.
‘Claire, Uncle Paddy has something he wants to give you,’ Mam said.
I glanced up at my uncle’s sun-darkened face. I noticed, for the first time in my life, that he had bright blue eyes. Brighter even than Dad’s.
‘I’m awful sorry, duck,’ said my uncle. His spoke quiet and low and liquidy, like he had a cold. ‘I should’ve thought.’
I felt Mam shove me from behind, her fingers sharp in my back.
‘That’s all right, Uncle Paddy,’ I said. I ran my fingers over my hot and sticky cheeks, wiping away the last traces of tears, suddenly feeling shy.
‘Here you are. Your Da was always saying how much you loved reading. I haven’t a lot of time for it myself any more.’ He cleared his throat with a sound like someone taking their foot out of a cowpat and held out a roughly-wrapped brown paper parcel.
‘What do you say, Claire?’ Mam asked.
I looked up at my uncle again. He had grey in his hair, all around his ears just like dad had, and soft wrinkles around his eyes that were so familiar.
I ran my hands along the jagged edges of the tape he’d used to wrap up my gift. ‘Thank you,’ I whispered.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘I’ll be gettin’ on, so.’
‘Will you not stay for your dinner, Paddy? I’ve plenty in the pot.’
‘Not at all, not at all. Sure I’ve my own bit made, inside. I’m grand altogether.’
‘All right so, Paddy. If you’re sure,’ said Mam, eventually.
My uncle nodded and started twisting his cap again, looking down at his muck-encrusted boots. ‘I’m after draggin’ half the field in here,’ he said.
‘Never you mind. It’s only a bit of muck. It’ll all be grand. Won’t it, Claire?’
I smiled up at my uncle, and he nodded at Mam before throwing me a wink. I clutched my book to my chest as my uncle turned towards the door.
‘Yes, Mam,’ I said, as my uncle slipped out the back door into the evening.