Read Saints and Sinners Online
Authors: Edna O'Brien
Tags: #Short Stories (Single Author), #Fiction, #Short Stories, #CS, #ST
The hooligans in their camouflage have returned. They have come by a back route, through the dense woods and not up the front avenue as we expected.
They are in the kitchen, laughing and shouting in their barbarous tongues. Fear starts to seep out of us, like blood seeping. If we are taken all together, we might muster some courage, but from the previous evidence it is likely that we will be taken separately. We stand, each in our corner, mute, petrified, like little effigies, our eyes fastened to the knob of the door, our ears straining beyond it, to gauge which step of stairs they are already stomping on.
How beautiful it would be if one of us could step forward and volunteer to become the warrior for the others. What a firmament of love ours would be.
A deathly emptiness to the whole world, to the fields and the sacked farmyards and the tumbledown shacks. Not a soul in sight. Not an animal. Not a bird. Here and there mauled carcasses and bits of torn skins where animals must have fought each other in their last frenzied hungers. I almost got away. I was walking towards somewhere that I didn't know, somewhere safe. There had been no soldiers for weeks. They'd killed each other off. It was hard to know which side was which, because they swapped sides the way they swapped uniforms. My mother and later my brother and my two sisters had been taken. I was out foraging, and when I came back our house was a hulk of smoke. Black ugly smoke. I only had the clothes I stood up in, a streelish green dress and a fur coat that was given to my mother once. It used to keep us warm in bed, and sometimes when it slipped onto the floor I would get out to pick it up. It felt luxurious, the hairs soft and tickling on bare feet. That was the old world, the other world, before the barbarians came. Why they came here at all is a mystery, as there was no booty, no gold mines, no silver mines — only the woods, the tangly woods, and in some parts tillage, small patches of oats or barley. Even to think of corn, first green and then a ripening yellow, or the rows of cabbage, or any growing thing, was pure heartbreak. Maybe my brother and sisters are across the border or maybe they are dead. I moved at dusk and early night, bunched inside the fur coat. I wanted to look old, to look a hag. They did not fancy the older women; they wanted young women and the younger the better, like wild strawberries. It was crossing a field that I heard the sound of a vehicle, and I ran, not knowing there was such swiftness in me. They were coming, nearer and nearer, the wheels slurping over the ridged earth that bordered the wood that I was heading into. The one who jumped out picked me up and tossed me to the Head Man. They sputtered with glee. He sat me on his lap, wedged my mouth open, wanting me to say swear words back to him. His eyes were hard as steel and the whites a yellowy gristle. Their faces were daubed with paint and they all had puce tattoos. The one that drove was called Gypsy. That drive was frantic. Me screaming, screaming, and the Head Man slapping me like mad and opening me up as though I was a mess of potage. They stopped at a disused lime kiln. He was first. When he splayed me apart I thought I was dead, except that I wasn't. You don't die when you think you do. The subordinates used their hands as stirrups. When I was turned over I bit on the cold lime floor to clean my mouth of them. Their shouts, their weight, their tongues, their slobber, the way they bore through me, wanting to get up into my head, to the God particle. That's what an old woman in the village used to call it, that last cranny where you say prayers and confide in yourself the truth of what you feel about everything and everyone. They couldn't get to it. I had stopped screaming. The screams were stifled. Through the open roof I saw a buzzard glide in a universe of blue. It was waiting for another to be with it, and after a time that other came that was its comrade and they glided off into those crystalline nether-reaches. Putting on their trousers, they kept telling each other to hurry the fuck up. The Head Man stood above me, straddled, the fur coat over his shoulders, and he looked spiteful, angry. The blood was pouring out of me and the ground beneath was warm. I saw him through the slit in my nearly shut eyes. For a minute I thought he might kill me, and then he turned away as if it wasn't worth the bother, the mess. The engine had already started when Gypsy ran back and placed a cigarette across my upper lip. I expect he was trying to tell me something. As children we were told that why we have a dent in our upper lip is because when we are born an angel comes and places a forefinger there for silence, for secrecy. By degrees I came back. Little things, the air sidling through that small clammy enclosure and the blood drying on me, like resin. Long ago, we had an aluminum alarm clock with the back fallen off that worked on a single battery, but batteries were scarce. Our mother would take out the battery and we'd guess the time by the failing light, by the dusk, by the cockcrow and the one cow, the one faithful cow that stood, lowing, at the paling, waiting to be milked. One of us would go out with a bucket and the milking stool. When she put the battery back the silver needle would start up and then the two hands, like two soft black insects, crept over each other in their faithful circuit. The lime-green dress that I clung to, that I clutched, that I dug my fingernails into, is splotched with flowers, blood-red and prodigal, like poppies. Soon as I can walk I will set out. To find another, like me. We will recognize each other by the rosary of poppies and the speech of our eyes. We, the defiled ones, in our thousands, scattered, trudging over the land, the petrified land, in search of a safe haven, if such a place exists.
Many and terrible are the roads to home.
FLAT, WATERY LAND. Big lakes, little lakes, turloughs that filled up in the rain, and rivers a reddish brown from the iron in the soil. Curly didn't pay much heed to scenery, he was used to it. But he did notice the mist through the window when he got up early, everything blurry, the pots and the wheelbarrows in the backyard, the magpies lined up on the chimney stacks, and the cat, pleased with herself after her fill of mice and bats in the night — black night, people called it. That cat was run over and got renamed Lucky to Be Alive and had a ridge in her tail, like a ponytail. Felim, Curly's boss, collected him every morning and brought him to the hardware shop, in the other town, eight miles away. Riding along, he'd see the mist lift and it was like seeing a grand lady lifting the veil of her hat, gradual, gradual, but he did not say so to his boss or he'd be jeered at.
He disliked his boss.
I dislike this man,
he'd say, sitting as far apart from him as he possibly could. Curly often confabbed with himself in private.
He had a brown shop coat, even though he wasn't let serve customers. All day he was hauling things back and forth from the storeroom, across the yard, over the puddles, crates of paint and filler and wallpaper and lino and mats and carpeting and buckets and bundles of kindling. There was a big high counter of cherrywood and, behind it, loads of drawers for nuts and bolts and nails, which Curly had to keep tidy, because things got jumbled. Felim was pure ignorant towards him and once went so far as to call him a "retard" in front of customers. He was vexed, but he swallowed his pride, because he needed the wages for the rent of his room. The council paid some and he had to pay the rest. When Felim got the hump or had a hangover he kicked all before him and one day he kicked Curly in the shins. He could sue him for that, but he was too afraid of the guards.
The singing in the choir was what kept him going. They learnt the words from a big songbook that took three pairs of hands to hold. Miss Boyce played the piano and conducted the choir. She was a lady. She would make an apple cake and bring it in and give it round. Then she got an infection, was out for a month, and after she came back she slid off the piano stool and fell. She died in a week. They sang for her in the church, sang with all their might— "Here I am Lord, Lord of the sea and sky."
He kissed her in the coffin before they put the lid on it. The other person he kissed was a nun kneeling in the grotto, because she looked sad. They were the two people, apart from his granny, that he kissed. He didn't remember his mother because she died when he was young and his father scooted.
No, there is no romance in my life and that is something I miss,
he would say to himself, believing that it would come, that it was like a little mustard seed and would grow. His granny said he was the best person alive and that made him feel great and not a retard.
His granny loved the olden days, when shops were drapery and grocery and hardware all in one. At the town square on a fair day, every Christmas, she sold her turkeys and was still calling to get her turkeys back. After she lost her husband and was all alone she got a pattern book and crocheted a beautiful white bed shawl. That kept her alive. But she wasn't as clued up as she used to be and dozed a lot in the chair and came awake always saying the same thing, "Oh Curly, you asked for a biscuit and Coca-Cola and I gone and got you a biscuit and a glass of milk."
Curly preferred the bog to the quarries. The quarries were big ugly places, cross places and noisy, flying dust everywhere, showers of it black and gritty, from all the crushing and the blasting. The bogs were more peaceful, stretching to the horizon, a dun brown, with cushions of moss and sphagnum and the cut turf in little stooks, igloos, with the wind whistling through them, drying them out. The birds flew high up in the air, only came down at night to feed and to suck. At school, the master read from an encyclopedia that bogs were a place to bury butter, to take a shortcut, and to dispose of a murdered one. Curly helped in the bog in the summer, because even though turf was cut with machinery it still needed humans to lay it and foot it and bag it and bring it home.
One day his friend Roddy wanted to be alone with his girlfriend and he got Curly up on the tractor, put it in first gear, and said, "Take your boot off the brake and 'twill go." And he did. And he was driving all over the place, slurping and lurching, the wheels sunk in the mire, and he rollicking about, like he did in the dodge-'em cars at the carnival. Ever after in his dreams he was behind the wheel, powerful. When he got on Roddy's red Honda, that was different, that was trouble. Bigtime. Only a few hundred yards down a country road and didn't a squad car drive up and he was stopped and questioned, asked for his driving licence and insurance. He had neither. After ten days he received the summonses, one for not having the said documents and the second for failing to produce them. That day in the local district court, he wore a white baseball cap and made sure to address the judge as Judge. The reason he gave for speeding was because of the carburetor—said it would blow out if he went any slower, that he had to open her up for a mile or so. The judge was furious, boomed that he did not tolerate balderdash and called Curly a
On a document, he was listed as POA, which meant some kind of offender.
A crowd went to the races at Cheltenham in England and, feeling left out, he said to himself,
Curly, why don't you do something really wild.
He had a twenty-pound note and at lunch break he went down to the bookies, looked up numbers, and just went for number thirty-seven. Just like that. He watched the race in the hardware shop, in between doing things, and saw that his horse didn't fall, but didn't see the finish. When he went back to the bookies, Tilda asked him was he going out that night and he said he was skint and then she told him to go down into the little reception area and help himself to hot chocolate from the machine. When she came a bit later, there was a couple there and she said, "Give a guess what this young man has won," and they couldn't and neither could he. Oh, she teased it out, saying what a lucky lad he was and he'd be going places. Then she whispered in his ear, his horse had come in at fifty to one. He was flabbergasted. She gave him the money in the back room. It was one thousand pounds in different notes. He had been invited to a twenty-first that night and treated himself to a new suit, a striped suit, and got a radiator for his granny, one with the dial high up so she didn't have to bend, and a pink feather boa for Tara, the birthday girl. He had his hair cut and then spiked with gel. The life and soul of the party, everybody congratulating him and saying they'd all go to a match in Dublin, make a weekend of it. He sang the song that he always sang— "The Walking Man I Am." With the rest of the money he bought a black mare that turned out to be very bold, but she'd have a foal and he could sell it. The mare was in one of Donie's fields. Donie lived in the next county and was a third cousin of the family.
Every third Saturday Curly worked for Mrs. Mulkearns, who ran a bed and breakfast. He put horse manure around a belt of young trees—maples, pines, and birches that were planted up near the main road to muffle the sound of the passing cars and lorries. Conor was the gardener, always muttering to himself. He said rich bastards were ruining Ireland, poisoning it, the McSorley brothers and their ilk grabbing, buying up every perch of farm, bog, and quarry they could get their hands on. Hadn't they destroyed a sacred wood with its yew trees, bulldozed it, in order to make pasture to fatten livestock. With the mist vanishing, Conor would point to the last wisps of dew on the palings and on the posts, like diamonds, zillions of diamonds. If only they could catch them, they'd be as rich as the McSorleys.