Colm McDermott was born in 1988 and grew up in Clane, County Kildare. In 2010 he completed a degree in Pharmacy in Trinity College Dublin and worked for a time in the pharmaceutical sector. In 2014, his short story ‘Absence’ was shortlisted for the Davy Byrne’s Short Story Award and was subsequently published in Davy Byrnes Stories 2014 by The Stinging Fly Press. His work has recently been published in Southword and his stories have been longlisted for the Fish International Short Story Prize and the Bath International Short Story Prize. He is currently undertaking an MA in Creative Writing in UCD.
BEFORE THE MIRACLE
By Colm McDermott
It was Halloween night. A fingernail of moon drifted through the lower portion of the sky, and Deirdre was in her mother’s room stuffing magazines into a binbag.
They’d been lying in a heap beside the radiator, under some rags, for months, and their pages were warm to the touch and slightly faded. Something about them made Deirdre think they’d been asleep, probably because they’d gathered a sort of dusty, pillowy smell, like stable bedding, and yielded easily to her touch. The headlines were full of people stripping nude in stupid places then acting surprised and even outraged when pictures of their privates surfaced on the internet. Debris, Deirdre thought, pleased that she’d never heard of any of these so-called celebrities.
She shoved a wedge of Argos catalogues sloppily into the binbag’s mouth and looked at the room: dusty newspaper clippings were piled three feet high against the wardrobe; dozens of electricity bills had been splashed slipshod like WANTED posters across the walls; even a few yoghurt pots lay crowded along the windowsill. They’d been filled with compost and were being used now to house a clutter of tiny sunflower seeds. On the bedside locker was a book by the name of Padre Pio: The Irish Connection. A hardback. Someone had bought it for her mother in town last Easter, though until now Deirdre hadn’t given it so much as a second glance. She picked it up and examined the cover. On it was a picture of a thin, veined hand touching a crucifix; a circle of blood showing on the back in precisely the spot where the nail would have entered Christ’s skin. Or at least, Deirdre reasoned, that’s what the devotees would have you believe. She’d read online somewhere that the depiction of Christ’s wounds was now widely contested, and what was far more probable was that the nail had been sent through the gap in the wrist, between the radius and the ulna, making it far easier to hold the body up for the long period necessary to perform the crucifixion: a shiver went through her at the thought.
As Deirdre sifted through the pages she noticed that certain phrases had been underlined, vague fragments that spoke of miracles, belief, and the supernatural: their words floating off the page and filling the air. She imagined her mother’s red biro furiously slashing across the paper, branding their meanings into her mind. What had she been looking for? she wondered. Hope? A cure? Whatever it was, Deirdre thought, it hadn’t worked.
The chapters were separated into the various miracles and some of the pages had their corners folded, from which Deirdre gleaned that her mother had spent some time poring over them, studying their mysteries. She supposed they had been some comfort to her, near the end, but it seemed that for the most part they were nonsense. There was one about the baby whose sight was restored after being blessed with one of Padre Pio’s gloves. And the woman who, two years after a failed leg operation, abandoned her crutches at the Friary in San Giovanni Rotondo and walked. Deirdre pictured her mother’s blackened feet sticking out past the candlewick bedspread: two angry-looking welts on both soles. What had Padre Pio had ever done for her? Her mother prayed to him until her mouth was thin, yet he’d never shown an ounce of interest in her. According to the writer, shortly before each miracle people reported that the air smelled strongly of roses, and Deirdre couldn’t help remembering her mother’s own smell, that stale, earthy rot, and whether Mr Pio had anything to do with it.
Something fluttered out from between the pages; Deirdre picked it up. It was a receipt from Bobby Byrne’s, a cafe in Limerick, for a latté and a slice of passionfruit cheesecake. The date on it read April 2012 and Deirdre felt a twinge of sadness knowing that her mother would almost certainly have remembered a thing like that. It was a significant event, for her, something she would have taken out in her mind and savoured during moments of silent contemplation. That was before the diagnosis, of course, before the years of rationing and the measuring of blood-sugar levels, during which time the only treat she had to look forward to was a single shortbread biscuit on a Friday afternoon.
Deirdre folded the receipt and felt the sadness ebbing from it at the smallness of her mother’s joys. So meagre, she thought. And prudent. Always the kind of woman to choose the modest thing over the immodest. And for what? So that people would say she was sensible, as though that was all that mattered. And who knows, Deirdre thought. Maybe she was right. Maybe that did matter, but it hadn’t done her much good. She’d gone off like anyone else, painfully enough, slipping out of life and with a few loud, vulgar gasps, and that was that.
Deirdre tore up the receipt and let the scraps fall on the bed. Just three weeks past yet already her mother’s death seemed vague to her, as though a gauze had been pulled over it in her mind. All she really remembered now was her thin, yellowed fingers smoothing the lip of the bedspread, over and over, afraid even at that stage that someone might comment on its creases.
She decided to look under the bed for some more clutter. A dark jumble stared back at her: strange, lumpen shapes. Something glinted at her from the darkness and it took Deirdre a moment to realise it was the eyelets on a pair of her mother’s old brogues. Clark’s. She hadn’t seen them in years. Pulling them out she recalled the shopping trip to Dublin, how they’d gone up on the train, into Clery’s and Arnott’s and Brown Thomas, handbags clutched in against their sides, and how she’d shuttled her mother from shop to shop from aisle to aisle, explaining to her about the different makes of shoes and which ones were better than others. Her mother just nodded, meekly, soaking up every detail like it was her last great excitement and she was hoarding it against some future scarcity.
Deirdre tilted one of the brogues in the moonlight, and felt a weight shift inside. A brown, furry marble rolled out of the toe into the heel. It had a pair of thin, transparent wings, patterned like the underbelly of a leaf, and two rows of legs that were up in the air, pedalling:
A honey bee.
Deirdre knew this because a few weeks previously she’d come home from the shops to find her mother sitting up in bed, frozen. Her mouth was open but she wasn’t screaming: it was as though her voice had dried up. The reason was that the air was swarming with bees; they crawled all over her mother’s arms and face, near her mouth and eyes. Next to her, on the pillow, their brown bodies trickled downwards in droves, burrowing under the quilt. Deirdre ran into the room, shrieking, and threw her shopping in the air. “Get away from her!” she cried, and, yanking back the covers, she lifted her mother from the bed, and carried her down the hall to the kitchen.
That same afternoon a man arrived from the Banner Bee Keeper’s Association. He had an ash-grey moustache that twitched when he spoke. “We’ve seen a lot of these cases recently,” he said. “Must be the warm weather.” Deidre showed him to her mother’s room and he went inside. A few minutes later he went to fetch some equipment from his van – a veiled hat and stainless steel smoker – donning them before going back into the room. A while later he re-appeared. “That’s the lot,” he said, cinching a cloth bag with a cable-tie. A few bees, survivors, hovered near the opening. “Any problems give me a ring.”
Deirdre looked up at the ceiling at the hole where he’d pulled the hive down. It was about the size of a tennis-ball, only raw, like a sore. Inside was dark, and Deirdre imagined a vast, cool universe floating above, in the attic, and found herself wanting to climb in and see what it was like. She didn’t know why but suddenly she imagined her mother was up there looking down, and she closed her eyes and soon the image fled away.
Back in the shoe the bee was flexing his wings very slowly – they were trembling – and Eve started to pity him. How long had he been there? she wondered, alone, under the bed. All his friends bundled into in a giant sack. She wouldn’t like if all her friends were bundled into a giant sack and killed. Although, she concluded, she would probably get over it, in time. It dawned on her that this little garden-variety honey bee had outlived her mother. And by quite a bit too. Three weeks. It may not seem like much, but how was it long in bee-months or even bee-years?
Decades, Deirdre reckoned, somewhat impressed.
She plucked a tissue from a box on the locker and laid it on the ground, smoothing its crinkles with her fingertips. For some reason she felt it was important to perform this action with great care. She tipped the bee onto the napkin, pulling its corners into a tight parcel, then went to the window.
At the bottom of the garden was the Shannon; its waters coursed past in silence. On the opposite bank, behind a row of chestnuts, a bonfire was flickering and Deirdre saw dozens of bodies buzzing near the flames. Every now and then something squirted up, bursting over the treetops, and coloured light spilled down and drenched the branches. Fireworks. This was followed a moment later by a muffled crack, as the sound ricocheted across the water. Her own patio lit up too and Deirdre saw the four white saucer’s that her sister’s children had been playing with. They’d called over earlier for a visit, all three of them e dressed as witches, black wigs and binbag capes and green face-paint. Deirdre smiled, remembering this, and wondered if they were over there now, watching the bonfire. She felt the parcel move in her hands.
Opening the window, Deidre leaned out over the sill. The air was cold, which surprised her, and she whipped the tissue out sharply. The bee shot from it like a ball-bearing from a sling. He moved so fast that Deirdre half-thought he would keep moving, and use the momentum to get free, but instead he just sailed in a neat arc and plunked down pathetically somewhere on the grass. She closed the window and turned back to the room. Again she saw the shoe; it was like it had been waiting for her. Only now, though, did she see that it was worn – its sides and toe were scuffed – yet Deidre had never seen her mother wearing it. She’d assumed that she was saving the pair for a special occasion, but she realised now that she’d been wrong. She pictured her mother traipsing around the bedroom in secret, at night, perhaps, when no one knew, fashioning the shoes for an audience of electricity bills and old magazines. Her only friends. Deirdre felt something opening in her chest, a wound she’d thought long healed.
It was at that moment she noticed something pouring from the hole in the ceiling. Glossy and viscous. It looked like honey. She’d left the radiators on all afternoon, to dry the air, and, it must have melted. But when she stepped onto the bed to take a closer look she was less confident. That was weeks ago, she thought. Why would it only be coming down now?
The fireworks were still exploding outside, filling the room with blue and white lights which picked out the pair of slender, glistening trunks where the liquid forked above the headboard. Deirdre touched them, and, to her surprise, found them warm; hot, almost. She held her fingers up to the light – bright red liquid juiced over her knuckles, into the cleft – and a twist of pain raced out from the centre of her palm, up her wrists. What was happening? She stumbled against the wall, her handprint staining it red. Deirdre stared at the mark, frightened now. She was losing it, surely. She heard a voice and a splintering noise overhead and looked up, imploringly, at the hole, but the hole was eating away at the ceiling plaster and didn’t respond. She thought she saw something flicker inside, something white, like a face. “Mam?” The room shook. A bit of ceiling fell away then, easily, like a chalk scab, then another, and another, falling like snow on the bed, until soon all that was left was an empty space, a plot of fresh, dark universe, out of which drifted the unmistakeable smell of roses.