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Apr 192013
 

by Graham Tugwell

 

This is a story of love.

 

St Fintan Giles…

St Barnabus…

St Catherine of Pypes…

What was at work in the minds of the men who built this place?

“Build me a home of shadow and brick.”

“Take away warmth and softness and sweet.”

“Leave me a lingering thirsting for salt.”

Go deeper— take away walls and windows, strip away the matt-gloss floors and stiff unlovely furniture and find the child inside at prayer, kneeling under portraits in browns and cream and gold, one from each wall looming in frames of burnished brass immaculate:

The toddler drowning.

The man melting into mule.

The woman speared.

The voice of the child, addressing each in turn.

To the infant serene, loving the water filling lungs: “I love you for showing me what to abandon.”

To the man and beast loving the flow of self into self: “I love you for teaching me how to give in.”

To the woman loving each spike driven in: “I love you for showing me what shouldn’t be done.”

He blesses himself with bended hand, rising with the crack and creak of knee and takes a side-step to the right, to the next group of three—

The day is young and there are corridors of portraits still to see him kneel.

*

Today is a day of salt.

He can hardly catch his breath with excitement.

Sitting in bed he counts the hours, he counts the minutes until the door opens and she comes in, bringing the tray, laying it softly on top of his legs.

Three slices of dry white bread, unbuttered, laid out with angular precision.

“You may choose one,” she says.

A finger hovers, trying to find difference in these identical things.

He picks the middle slice of bread.

She smiles, taking the cloth from the top of the silver cruet, sliding her fingers down its smooth cold neck, taking a pinch of salt from its belly and dragging it out. Working her fingers against each other she sprinkles on the chosen slice.

Grinning, he watches each white speck tumble, embedding themselves in the weave of the bread, falling to glisten the clean crispness of snow.

A sacrament of crystal.

And he lifts the bread up to his face—a ragged breath expectant blows a grain or two to tumble— he bites—and the taste—the exotic taste—it sends a thrill and tingle through him—

Once a month, but oh, how these days of salt are longed for!

Count the days until he tastes again!

For a second she cups his ear. “You’re a lucky boy,” she says.

With folded cloth the cruet is covered until the next day comes.

“Lucky to get this at all.”

He nods, he nods, his mouth widened into a grin engulfing bread and salt.

“All over the world. All of those starving children. Millions would die for this.”

Swallowing, savouring, he can well believe that.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there?

“Water,” he croaks, making a crab of his hand cross the sheets, “Water. Please.”

“Ah,” she says, her finger a wag of warning, “Prayer first. Give thanks.”

So he puts his hands together, twitching into interlock, and forces the Saltire of St Angela through his parched puckering lips.

Blunt and unwieldy, the words tumble into place.

Scattering across the bedsheet.

She nods as he finishes his dull and laboured “Amen.”

“And why do we love St Angela?”

Words are gasps of drought and gravel: “We love her… because… she teaches us there are…”

“Yes?”

“Some things… we shouldn’t… be allowed to have.”

“Amen,” she says and hands him the glass and its splash of water.

He gulps the mouthful down, half of it thrown down his pyjama top, soaking into the sheet—

(He will have to sleep in it.)

Bit by bit the racking thirst fades, soon becomes a memory forgotten, leaving just the taste of salt.

She pinches the corner of his mouth so hard it hurts and goes without another word.

He says “Goodnight Ma,” to her back and settles down to sleep.

In the dark there is only noise: first the creak of her descending stairs; when that ends the slow thrash of trees in wind, a whistle in the empty chimney, coming curious into his room.

Stormy tonight!

Say a prayer to St Fintan Giles, flung into Lough Neagh to appease the Lord.

Ask for him to intercede.

To take him safely through the night.

The eyes of the boy are too heavy to keep open for long.

They close.

Dreams are twists of dark and word and faces saying soundless prayers and the silver of his mother’s rings through the dark gaps of her lap and the slap of cloth on cruet sets and he knows it’s the day they saw the squirrels scatter, the five planes crossing the yard in formation—the roar!—

And the portraits are towering, towering, towering— one each a wall and him loving them all as much as anyone’s meant to— kneeling beneath their browns and creams they grow—the drowning, the melting, the spearing—

They breathe with the creaking of wood.

Shrug from the wall with the creaking of wood.

He pulls his eyes open against the sleep.

Comes back to himself and the here and the now.

And still there is the creaking of wood.

Coming into the room from the wild outside.

The sheet a softness across his mouth he listens as it gets louder, grows from a creak to the crash of sundered timber—

Night, he thinks, taking it out on the trees.

But no—the wind has dropped; the breath down the chimney is gone—what sort of wind could wrench a tree from soil like that?

Slowly he gets out of bed and crosses bare boards to the window. Curtains come a slow aside in his hands, showing the stage.

Out there—

The moon is a slice, appearing, disappearing, behind feathers of cloud, turning the garden into a painting of navy and grey and blocks of deepest black.

Something huge is moving out there in the night.

There between the trees, making them bend from root to leaf.

Breaking them.

Watching in the window, he says a prayer to St Lorcan de Paor.

The patron saint of indecision.

What to do?

There is no question— walls of martyrs nod and suffer; he must do his duty.

Feet into slippers and lightly down stairs, following the clatter of steps through the high and empty house, threading an arm through a dressing gown sleeve, pulling it tight round himself in the hall.

Taking a breath at the front door.

And out!

First a pattering angle of rain cuts across his face and leaves him for a second blind, blinking he’s down the gravel drive and across the lawn, the moon doing nothing to illuminate, just making shadows of different grades; here a slant of deepest blue, there a hole of darkest green—

He runs to the edge of their property, to the stand of trees where lawn gives way to field, gives way to bog, where from the window he saw—

The thing.

It rears, unshaped, blocking stars, black against the grey of cloud. Branches snap as it flails and kicks and through the rushing black the moon slice silvers a length of wire—

The boy sees it— the unknown thing is ensnared, caught on the barbs of the wire fence. He swallows the fear, keeps it down and hidden.

The air is bludgeoned by the anguish of bark but the thing itself makes no sound—the boy throws hands around his mouth to funnel words up to scatter in night: “Don’t struggle,” he shouts, “Don’t struggle—you’re just making it worse!”

Those thin words are lost; the rearing thing—whatever it is—continues to thrash, the barbed wire continuing to work its way deeper and deeper into the shadowed bulk.

A bough crashes down beside the boy; he shields his face but he can feel the scrape on brow and cheek—lines of stinging heat.

He stumbles away.

Back to the house, to the kitchen, pulling drawers open, leaving presses to yawn, he finds a pair of scissors and throws himself through the door and back across lawns. Breathless now, with spit almost solid under his tongue, he finds a leaning post in the dark, pressing the jaws of the scissors around the metal coils.

He tries to close them, straining with all his might, placing hand over hand, but—

No use.

Too weak.

Throw the metal a moon-flash into the field beyond.

Give a growl of frustration.

Then into the shed for some pliers and back across moonlit lawn again, another gust bringing a scatter of drops, and the boy can’t find the post again until it finds him—tripping him, sending him onto his knees.

Grab the wire—put the snout of the pliers in place—

And this time—

Snip!—one length of wire snaps back in a curl.

Snip! Snip!—two others join and now ducking a branch and rounding the bulk to the other side—

Snip! Snip! Snip!

Free—the great black thing rises a kick in the air, meeting the grin of the triumphant child, knocking the boy onto his front—hands over his head, pressing his face into foul-tasting soil.

He feels the world in rush above him, a terrible, titanic disturbance, rending the very elements. An abyssal pressure, half a hair’s breadth away.

He prays—

Sentences trip and stutter, breaking down into a slush of words, melting into stretching vowels that lengthen, becoming a howl lost in the crunch and the tearing of trees.

He screams into the grass and the muck.

In time the noises lessen.

Face still down, exploring hands test and probe and find that he is unhurt, and fingers come further up, to neck and chin, to wave like fronds around the rim of his lips.

Because the taste there—

The taste filling his mouth.

Like nothing he’d ever tasted before.

And so he lies there.

Just tasting.

Tasting…

The sun comes up and burns away the last of the dark.

*

It is the next morning now.

Dew-soaked slippers and dressing gown have been neatly put away; he’s dressed himself in new pyjamas.

(They’re the only clothes he owns.)

The seven rounds of morning prayer have all been done and now he looks out of his bedroom window, down at the churned mire of lawn, the torment of trees beyond, rows bending back alarmed from their broken brothers.

She is out there with the workmen, directing the cleanup from the gravel path. He watches her admonish and point, imagines the bandsaw sharpness of her words as workmen scurry from right to left, left to right, cleaning, lifting, cleaning again.

She turns and catches him looking.

The swish of her finger calls for the closing of curtains.

Step out of the light.

His skin is weak. He’ll burn.

He does as he is told, retreating to sit in half-light at the foot of his bed.

And he wonders:

What could have caused all that destruction?

What could have left that taste in his mouth?

Guilty he runs his tongue, that illicit sliver, around his mouth; probing the depth of jowl, the soft rungs of palate.

There’s still a hint of it.

Just a hint.

Sweetness.

But that is enough.

*

The rest of the day is evening prayer in corridors by portraits and chores and lessons in his room, framed by the clunk and cry of workmen taking away the wounded trees.

And night is prayer and restless sleep.

And the softest noise at his window—

Tap

Tap tap

Kick away the blanket, ignore the cold of wooden floor causing toes to curl and wrench aside the curtain, hoist the window sash—

The boy looks out upon a bright and frosty night, sharp and still and brittle.

Or would, if a looming bulge of darkness wasn’t in the way.

Tonight, the boy has a visitor.

Melt a head into shoulders, making the chin and neck a pulp that mounts the shallow slope of face and closes mouth and nostrils under lava flows of brown.

Leave only the slants of silver eyes, the melting shape of setting suns.

Leave only their cold and their sadness.

In silence they hold the gaze of the boy so long that he must look away or drown in them. Leaning out, he peers past the windowsill into the night.

It is so tall it has to stoop to look inside this first floor window.

Melt the legs into pillars of featureless stuff, swamp the toes in pliant folds, crust shin and knees in twigs and leaves and other gathered rotten things.

Leave two fingers on the left hand; they grip the brick of the window frame.

Leave one finger on the right; long and sharp it cuts words across the caramel chest.

U SAVE

ME

The cutting hurts—tiny silver tears trickle from the edges of setting suns.

The child reads the distorted words, mouth moving, and as they are read they are wiped away in a smudge of sticking brown.

The breath of the child is pinned, a cloud, to hang in air. “What are you?”

CAR

A

MEL

He looks into the weeping silver. The silver looks into him.

WANT U

HAV GIFT

The pottery clink of breaking brick: slowly the massive two-fingered hand rises, coming past the open window to grip the shoulder opposite.

The boy watches the fingers tighten; the slow pressure and silent force of them, recalling the jaws of terrible machinery— vices closing, the pulping teeth of garbage trucks, car doors buckling like foil.

A sudden crack is a curve in the brown and bracing against the outer wall the creature pulls and pulls until a lump of itself comes away with a snap—

A shard or two tumbles down and disappears.

The hunk of stuff is dropped into the child’s outstretched hands.

Words are clawed in caramel, to be read and wiped away.

EAT ME

UP

One side of the piece is smooth, the other jagged where it cracked away—a thumb could be cut if he’s not careful. It feels like glass but already it is growing warm, melting between his fingers.

IM GOOD

In lamplight it’s honey brown and dense and heavy.

And it smells.

Sweet.

“Thank you,” whispers the child, “Will you… will you come back?”

Silver tears thud the window sill.

YES

A creak, a rush, an absence sudden, the depth of outside pulling at him, and the light of the moon in its halo of frost.

The thing is gone.

He takes the piece to bed with him.

How to store it?

Under the pillow it will melt, under the bed it will grain itself with dust.

It must be consumed.

In the dark the boy licks the shard—electricity between his teeth, the blood draining from his head, leaving it a bubble to pulse on the meat of his neck.

So light—he could float through the window, he could soar like St Mario of Bobbio!

He licks and licks, leaving tackiness on fingertips

A chew would stick his teeth together.

Forever.

But he’s tempted.

He’s tempted.

And from that point on the days of salt hold nothing for him.

Nothing at all.

He rushes through prayer; bended knees click like the tick of the clock, but always too slow! Pray for the night and the light of the moon and the taste of the caramel giant!

So he’s restless this evening, only half-listening as she sits on his bed and shows him this week’s portrait.

Brushing away the cloth he sees a blithe figure in browns and cream and gold, suffering eyes turned to the sky as stripes of dark blood stain his thighs—

“Can you tell me who it is supposed to be?” Her smile is a little shyness.

He looks—

The stringless lyre and crowding auks, the girdle of thorns and spray of wave on bone-white rock.

The butter of bird’s foot trefoil, coming up through grikes.

He puts the pieces of the puzzle together and whispers: “St Pascal Shortt of Ballyvaughan Bay. The patron saint of shutting up.”

“Very good,” she says and takes his hand. He’s surprised at the touch and blurts “It’s one of your best.”

Something in her smile freezes.

“You know that’s not why I do it.”

Her hand tightens on his.

Her voice is very soft. “Not for myself. Not for any praise or reward.”

In her grip his fingers grind against each other, whitening.

“Love,” he says, “For the love.”

She takes his cheek in her fingers and pinches, pinches.

His goodnight is said to her back again.

*

“What were you?”

The boy sits on his windowsill, letting his legs swing in the cold, the spike of a cloudless night.

“Can you tell me?”

The caramel giant by the gable is a mass of darkest brown; it lifts a hand and the child watches as the finger point goes in, goes deep.

I WAS

U B4

“You were a boy, like me?”

Eyes like pools of mercury catch the moon.

YES

“What happened? What turned you into… what made you …?”

Plough the digit through the chest:

2 MUCH

LUV

And these words are not wiped away.

“I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

Hands slap against the words—

2 MUCH

Slap—slap again—

2 MUCH

Soundlessly the boy shakes his head.

No comprehension.

The thing rests its face in the broad of its palms. It looks like it wants to howl, to moan, to scream in frustration.

But there is no mouth beneath the caramel, nothing to voice through.

The useless words are wiped away.

The boy holds out a hand to console. It sinks into the yielding stuff. “It’s okay,” he says, “There’s no need to…”

But the giant shrugs the gesture away, rising, unfolding to full height.

The boy leaves behind a shallow handprint.

The giant leaves behind a palm webbed with caramel threads.

It moves away and the night shakes with the soft impact of feet.

Scrambling to stand in the window, leaning with a hand on the frame, the child calls “Come back! Come back tomorrow! I’m sorry!”

The stars are hidden, the trees bend, and the dark shape melts into the hills beyond.

And the boy sits in darkness and licks his palm and licks his palm.

*

The caramel giant leaves footprints.

She fusses with the workmen—they repair, they replant, they tidy away.

But it comes back each night and ruins their work and the workmen glower and mutter and give up the job as endless, thankless toil.

Her hands on her hips, she watches their van trundle down the drive and out the gate.

He steps back from the window so she can’t see him.

Because the looks she’s started to give him.

There’s a calculation there…

The footprints always stop beneath his window…

*

Laughing, the little boy covers his mouth, his eyes a joyful brightness, “It’s like—it’s like St Patches and the Man-of-Bricks! Do you know that story?”

The caramel giant shakes his head.

“Blessed Patches was a famous builder in Milan until the day the Almighty Lord chose to take away his wrists—”

But the creature thrashes, slapping the lump of his head with his hands.

He scores a ragged X in his chest

“Not one for stories, are you?”

They sit in silence for a time.

“Can you… can you come visit me in the day? When she goes to work?”

The boy smiles a little guiltily.

“She’s starting to wonder why I’m always so tired.”

The words are deep indentations:

SUN 2 HOT

MELT

STIK

HIDE AWAY

The boy caresses a caramel arm, “You melt in the sun— I burn! See?”

His arm held out is alabaster. “White as chalk! Neither of us can go out in the day! We’ll have to stay night-time friends for now!”

His laugh goes out to perish in cold.

“You know,” says the boy, “You never told me why you came to me in the first place.”

Slow words cut in caramel:

PAIN CALD

I CAME

The child reads the words, reads them again “Pain?” he whispers, “Who’s in pain?”

The silver-eye scoops of the caramel giant are on him. A lone and long sharp finger lightly tips the nose of the boy.

SO SAD

SO A

LONE

The reply is a mumble: “But I’ve got… there’s…What makes you think that?”

I WACH

I FEEL

“You feel?”

U ATE

ME

The boy puts a hand on his belly— is it his imagination or does something move in there?

I TAKE

U FROM

HER

He swallows. In the window, facing the wildness of world, the boy grows cold, he grows pale. “No,” he says, “She loves me.”

RONG

LUV

2 MUCH

RONG LUV

HURT U

SHUT U AWAY

He wrings his hands until they are red. “No you don’t understand! I deserve it. Deserve to be kept away!”

He checks himself—forces the shrillness out of his voice.

“I’m bad. Can’t you tell? I have the mark on me.” His hand trembling, he points at the red clover stamp where his lips come together. “It was put on me to let everyone know.”

Tears in moonlight. “I deserve it. I deserve it.”

Up comes the hand of the caramel giant. One finger curls to cradle the chin, the other traces the leaves of the birthmark.

Caramel sticks to the warmth of the boy’s face

A small sweet melt in the fold of his mouth.

Gathered, instinctive by the tip of the tongue.

While the Salt of tears is left to drop on windowsill.

Pap.

Pap.

The patter of tearfall.

With the point of his digit, the giant stamps itself with an identical trefoil.

Scores the words in his chest:

LIKE U

NOW 4

GOOD

The boy reaches out and traces the caramel mark for himself.

IF U BAD

SO AM I

The boy shakes his head.

“No…no…”

WE ARE 1

WE SHUD

B 2

GET HER

Shakes his head.

“No.”

*

She stands in the doorway. Fingers drum on the doorpost.

She speaks to a back turned away from her.

“I know you’re up to something.”

“I see how quickly you throw away your prayers.”

“How quickly you get through your lessons.”

“There’s something you’re doing. Something you’re not telling your mother.”

“But know that I’m watching you.”

“Eyes are on you, child.”

“Eyes are always on you.”

She leaves in a shush of shoe.

Guilt is a hollowness in his stomach.

A taste on his tongue.

*

He is thrown into waking.

Something is ripping the world apart, the tumble of brick, stone, wood, glass—

The floor drops a foot, sends him from the slant of the bed. He hits the boards hard and sprawls.

Down in the bowels of the house his mother is screaming.

He can’t get his breath back—

She’s screaming—

He pulls himself onto hands and knees, the sheet cording around his waist restraining him— he tears at it, he tears—

A long rattling gurgle and the screaming is killed—

Finally, finally the boy pulls himself out of the room, onto the landing, scrambling down a dozen steps—

He runs up against darkness— it stuns him, throws him down upon on his back.

Sickening sweet on his face and hands.

The boy looks up. Two pools of silver turn and look down.

The caramel giant stands in the stairwell. Pieces of painting are strewn on the steps. As the boy watches he pulls another from the wall.

LIES

2 MANY

RONG LIES

Down in pieces comes St Fintan Giles.

St Barnabus in tatters.

St Catherine of Pypes is split down the middle

(The look on her face

She loves it.)

Feeling the sharp of the step on his spine the child cries “Where’s my mother? Where is she?”

But the caramel thing just shreds the portrait halves in half.

The child beats his fists on the leg of the giant, “Where is she? What have you done?”

The giant ignores him— sticking, rubbing, leaving a smear on his face, in his hair, the boy pushes past the caramel—

He runs, calling, through empty rooms, his feet disturbing dust and the cadavers of flies, catching on shrouds that cover all things.

His calls come back from the shadows, stretched, distorted, mocking ghosts.

He finds her in the sitting room.

Bent over the arm of the couch, her lower half naked, clothing in slivers about her feet.

Her ankles far apart. Toes twisted in. Knees together.

Stripes of blood down the length of her thighs.

A hint of a head, a hump of shoulder, beyond the broken arch of her back.

It’s too dark to make out anything else.

He doesn’t want to.

She’s been…

Destroyed…

And what sounds can he hear?

His breath.

His foot in rocking, creaking a board.

Wind in the chimney.

And the pap.

The pap pap.

He turns— the caramel giant has followed—

It holds it aloft; the bloody spike of its finger, wet red trickling a spiral round and beading at the elbow.

Pap.

Pap pap.

Bloodfall on bare floorboards.

Slowly the point goes in, scores blood in the chest of caramel.

2 MUCH

LUV

And for the boy there are no words.

The arms of the giant come round, lifting him as the saints look on, hundreds of loving eyes watching in blissful pain as the giant takes out of the violated house, through the hole where door and window used to be.

And the child roars, “Don’t take me with you!”

“Please!”

“I was happy!”

“I was happy!”

Thunderous crunch across the driveway, out onto the sweep of lawn.

“Tell me, tell me! What do you want?”

AN

END

“No!”—the boy thrashes, screaming— “No! No!”

Caramel melts to body, to face. Glue; sweet glue—he claws at the stuff but can get no purchase.

4GET

The boy weeps, “She was my mother… My mother…”

B LEEV

IN ME

NOW

ILL MAKE

IT ALL OK

Caramel is spearing the child.

Melting him.

Drowning him.

Weakening, he pushes his hands through the pliant stuff—one sticks fast, the other joins it.

Silver tears mark the face of the child.

“You don’t… understand…”

“I was… happy…”

“I was… loved…”

“What more…what more is there?”

The caramel giant tries to write:

AN

EN—

But the letters written in caramel run.

The heat from their two bodies too much.

Down the curve of lane they run, out onto better-lit and busier roads.

“Stop!”

“I believe in you!”

“I believe in you!”

And the child screams—

Offering prayers to—

Offering prayers to—

Anyone.

Down the slope of the main road, into the blare and blast of traffic—

They run!

Into the lights of oncoming cars.

Into the lights of oncoming cars!