James Mulhern – Dark City

James Mulhern’s writing has appeared in literary journals over one hundred and fifty times and has been recognized with many awards. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was granted a writing fellowship at Oxford University. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 for his poetry. Two of his novels were Finalists for the United Kingdom’s Wishing Shelf Book Awards.

Dark City

My only memory of you—
in the dark hallway of your Boston house,
just off the sunny kitchen.
I was two and you sixty.
Tall and thin, wispy hair, light-blue eyes
illuminated by a slant of kitchen sun.
“You don’t know me?”

I couldn’t speak,
but I understood what you meant when you rubbed my head
and walked down the shellacked hallway towards the parlor.

You died in your sleep a few years later.
Years of hard work behind you—
a gravedigger during the day,
hauling bags of mail onto the trains
at South Station every night.
Raising five children.

Close to your age now,
I visit your homestead in Ireland.
Cars whizz by where once was a dirt road.
No one lives in the tiny stone house.

I hear birdsong and smell cut grass.
The air is cool and damp.
Sheep amble in the fields.
The sun moves into clouds,
and then lightness comes again.

What were you thinking as you exited this door?
How conflicted you must have felt.
Twenty-one-years-old, off to America,
leaving nine siblings and parents behind,
knowing you would never see them again.

From Athlone on the Shannon River, dead center of Ireland,
you walked and somehow made it to Southampton, England,
where you boarded the ship Adriatic, a word that means “dark city.”

You knew no one in the promised land of your imagination,
but you had courage and a dream.
Just a few belongings, I’m sure, and not much money.
Mostly you had hope.

I press my palm against the homestead wall,
just as you touched my head so many years ago.
I see you move from light into darkness and beyond.


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