Schira Lane is a graduate of English Literature from University of Limerick and In May 2014 she was selected to attend the writing workshop with Trinity College Dublin Writing Fellow Declan Hughes for her novel and in July 2014 she was longlisted for her flash fiction in the Swift Satire Festival/Battle of the Books. She has just completed her first novel.
By Schira Lane
The year began in November when my husband and I lost our son. It wasn’t something we were expecting. But apparently Charlie was planning to go for a while such was the firm way the rope was attached. He was afraid of failure and always wanted one crack at everything, so it was no surprise even at the end he left in a single snap.
It was the squeak off the pulley wheel Higgins said, he’d never forget. Hell on the ears as he lifted his head to my wide-eyed boy. That dangled in a synchronised trapeze with bats. Almost reverent, he said the bats were, like they were keeping him company. But I’ll be damned if the bats will claim him.
I wonder did they dart in an attempt to stop him, fill the air like dragons as if to scare him off. And what about the dog; where was Casper when we were still asleep? The dog would have sensed something was wrong and barked, and we would have woken, leapt through the yard and brought him back with mouth-to-mouth. I’ve thought of it often and I’m sure it would have worked if only we had known.
But we didn’t and as often in winter we were deep in sleep, and I don’t understand why we didn’t hear the latch on the door downstairs. It needed oiling so it would have creaked as the bolt flew up and it would have scraped as he pulled the door back. The latch was clapping on the wood when I came downstairs so I know it was his exit from the house. But at the time I didn’t wonder. I simply screwed it back and closed it over. It was only when Higgins came to tell us did I make the link.
We were only just awake and I was making porridge. Listening to the weather forecast and hating it was dark at five to eight. I hadn’t opened the blinds but yet if I had Higgins would have crossed the yard in front of the window and I would have seen him leave the barn with his ashen face. And of course we didn’t believe Higgins when he came to tell us, as Charlie was:
“Still asleep in bed.”
In the yard the galvanised door screamed in the wind, thrashing and banging like a great brass band and as the sun cracked it danced from the wall like knives. The hurricane roar that came after crashed like the sky was falling in. I remember it well, the last misery, as I knew them then. The hens made a sympathetic approach through mud and a bird was singing somewhere, the song so odd. I stalled at the entrance and turned away. I wiped my hands in my apron as if fighting with cotton would change the outcome. Maybe I wanted to see the mountains for one last time. As a mother you see, when I knew in my gut that status was gone. But I couldn’t trust my gut, not then. They were lovely mountains, purple and deep, the plots like a comforter as the world turned yellow as corn. Such was my denial, I’d have found yellow in black. It was then I heard a shout and Higgins took my arm.
How my husband took him down I’ll never know. But somehow he was able and so steady underfoot as if the boy was weightless and hollow inside. Like a hatched egg after the animal had left.
“Would you do me a favour,” he even said, “will you hold his head?” But I couldn’t hold his head, or even look. The rigid angle of his legs was enough.
“Take the pulse,” someone said, as if we were just in time.
The day was appropriately frozen with an early frost that the sun refused to melt. And I spent much of it brewing tea until it went cold too. Twenty cups I must have made, before I drank one; taken up with tannin rippling through the water and staining the side of each cup. When I did I couldn’t swallow and I spat the cold milky sauce straight into the sink. My husband spent the whole day in the barn, so he never had tea either. And Higgins – I never found out what he did that day. The dog sat at the door, ear cocked, like he was expecting someone. And when Casper went missing for three full days I knew he was searching.
It was with droopy ears, a squat snout, and the tail tucked away that he returned in a storm. It was the night before the funeral and there was so much right with the howling wind and flash flooding rain. At the cemetery when a blue sky seared, all I remember is whispering like a tailwind and Casper’s golden coat as it shed on the grave.
In the spring my husband said, “We need to get on with our lives.” That it was bad all this sitting and wearing black. I wanted to shout and ask him to stop being cruel. How could a man so cold have a son like Charlie? Charlie who was so sensitive he had to get out of this world.
There he was but twenty, life in the palm of his hand, and by his very own arrow he cut it because of mood. But for all his delicacy he had no sentiment. He didn’t even leave a note. Was it to hurt me he did that for; something I said or didn’t say? The nurse in the coroner’s said it was no one’s fault.
“Treatment might have kept him going for a while,” she said, “but when there’s real intent they win no matter what.” I never thought of it as winning, but there you are.
It’s the only thing that makes me think there’s something after. That he’s standing on God’s podium with his victory cup in hand. So we went to the beach to find him with his trophy. As if he’d be smiling out from heaven onto the sea. My husband brought me and we trucked the water’s edge as the sand chapped my feet and the wind my face. The terns were out, and as each swooped down I craned my neck to check on the beaks. But nothing came out of the spray that was Charlie. And my husband coughed and spluttered his way to the car. Like an angry jackdaw was the flapping of his coat.
I never touched Charlie’s things, wanting to save the wonderful smell of manure that filled his room. That’s gone now too. Higgins says, we should clear the space and make it a sitting room with a chair and a lamp where I could read. Higgins can do it if he wants, for it is no shifting of his elements, of a jumper or boot or spade or ball will bring him back.
Poor Higgins. He hosed down the yard the night Charlie was born like it was his son was expected home. I never saw the yard so clean again. And since Charlie’s gone he’s been talking of angels, that I’ve an aura on my shoulder. It’s a nice idea but I know it isn’t real. My husband doesn’t think so either, preferring to work off his grief with shovels and spades. And he’s grown so thin because of it. Every week there’s less of him and his eyes aren’t like they were. I married him for his eyes and Charlie got them. So now I have two sets, flat of life. And nothing I say when I bring him lunch will make them sparkle. All that passes is the brush of two hands as they collide on the tray. And when it rains in that field, there’s something right about the sound on the tarpaulin.
We still go to mass like the habit will bring us a miracle, and the gap in the pew hangs like a broken clock. When I’m there I look at the Virgin Mary and I wonder why she gave me only one. If he just had siblings he might have been able to cry; expel whatever it was. He had his friends but that’s not the same. They had their own rooms to go to after dark and at the funeral they were as confused as us. Funerals are all about too much, too late and if I’m frank I wanted to hit them all for just being alive. One poor lad continues to call but all it does is increase the absence like an ill-tuned band, amplifying that Charlie never gave us a sign. So I send that boy down to my husband, and I watch them with that male affliction, hiding their feelings below. My husband creased over a spade and the lad uneasy with his eyes diverted and his hands. They twitch on the fray of his denim, the leather of his belt. I wonder do they talk at all with the way my husband has his head down. And if they do, is it Charlie they speak of?
And about the siblings; is he there wherever the unformed nothings we tried to give him are? Maybe they are together in a swarm of midges. Or skimming over the ocean as the terns I couldn’t see. But I’m inclined to think if they collided in the stratosphere there would be no recognition to link them genetically and they would have drifted on. That’s what happens when twenty meets zero; unequivocally different the soul that lived from those that didn’t. And the twenty might be crying. The amorphous ones wouldn’t know what it was about and I can’t imagine they’d ask him in the air.
It’s hard to understand where he was going with his bright idea. Did he really think it was the answer or where was his at all in his mind when his neck snapped? Was there regret at that last second and was there me? But I think if I was on his mind, he would have left some declaration of his love on a page somewhere. And how did he think his father would manage with all those fields and the animals too? Higgins has to do it now, and he’s hardly able. Two old men left with so much can’t be right. But maybe that’s what he wanted, using the barn. The shed belongs to Higgins, and it might have been Charlie’s way of asking him to take his place.
I was searching through the cupboard, looking for a torch, when I found my son’s hat. It was blue and a knit I did when I was pregnant and he was a squirm. It was too big when he was born and when he was two the hat sat on his tawny curls without flopping in his eyes. The blue in the wool brightened his green set and his face was most alive under that hat; running in the yard, hunting back chickens with a big stick and yellow boots. And he wasn’t laughing, just intent. He never laughed, so I should have known. Maybe if he’d chuckled, seen the funny side, been cynical even, it might have aerated the spirit and the damp and the place into which he was born.
I found the torch eventually, about an hour after twirling wool and keening with the hat. It was an orange flashlight, for search and rescue, spot beamed and a battery that would go on all night. It looked so strange at the door. The rope there too, all set for the anniversary. The day had to be passed somehow and the last hours of that first year drifted like lead as the moments floated oddly. By nightfall I was up in bed but not asleep.
My husband was the bubbliest he’d been; snoring like an animal and the shrill whistle after as he exhaled. I longed for such vigour for what I had to do. I had asked Higgins to leave the barn door open and he seemed to age with fear at my request. Conscious of the date, I’d say he was.
As I peeled back my side of the bed, my legs were lit by the light of the full moon and they grew to silver limbs like prosthesis. Did Charlie’s shine like that? The creak on the stairs was eerie and opening the door downstairs, the wind sighed through. I remember how cold the latch was on my fingers and how my feet were bare and numb. Like his would have been. I drifted to the barn, the balls of my feet hopping on the silver ice as if he was with me rein-acting with a metallic conduction. And the mountains were sinister tomes, lifeless and black. A low-beat whine fell from the hinge when I pulled back the galvanised door and as I stepped inside the torch threw a spot on the beam where he died. Casper woke but didn’t move, preferring to watch me with secret implication and just one eye. And a fetid smell rose like someone was rotting.
I think my chest distended then.
The rope fell from my hand like a snake to the ground and something was breathing. When I peered to the beam beady eyes peered back. Water raced into my mouth, a bubble, and a vacuum emptied as air left my lungs. My shoulders rose and my arms went out and my fingers seemed to reach before me like those of another. But they found nothing and when they shook and I couldn’t hold them any longer gravity brought them down. I swallowed then, gulped and chewed back what it was he might have felt at his final breath.
My knees roared as I hit the ground and my head lifted as I tore strands of hair from my scalp. And the shaking and rocking with hardly a breath went on for a while; my mouth wide, eyes pained, my purple face. I don’t remember but the evidence suggests it was way before dawn when Higgins came to see what I had done. And he sat with me then, a blanket on me, a coat on him, silence but for the fall of animal breath, the odd shuffle under chaffing and my feet – kicking in two fat boots, until the sun rose and lit the second year.