Sean tightened his braces and pulled up his sleeves. The flicker of candlelight softened the edges of the tools that surrounded him. Hanging upon the wall, they were lined up like soldiers waiting for inspection. The bench at his waist was both solid in stature and space. It consumed the small shed, a testament to the hundred years of work burrowed into its grain. The air was haunted with the faint smell of leather and oil rising from its surface, as did the memories that spun around him. Longing for them to be here, Sean could feel their presence. As he reached for the tools, the sweat stains from both his fathers and grandfathers palms were still visible as he wrapped his fingers around the worn handles.
Dusk seeped in from the gap at the bottom of the doorway. The stretch in the evening brought the promise of warmer days. Across the dust filled window panes, the last faded petals of cherry blossom were caught on a spider’s web. The quietness unnerved him. Sean could not settle. Scattered amongst the sawdust covered floor, toys lay sleeping as were his children. Trembling at the thought of their little heads resting on their pillows, Sean hoped they were full of dreams instead of worries. He thought of herself, a new born suckling from her breast. A burning sensation licked the insides of his stomach, curling like flames up the back of his throat. Swallowing hard, Sean had to be calm yet strong. There was a job to be done with an additional mouth to feed. There was a sense of urgency about his work.
Peter Smith , Sligo Credit Union presenting Helena Farrell with her award for the Short Story of the Year 2019
Primitive in nature, the shed met all his needs. Stacked against the wall was an assortment of timber. Choosing the best pieces, Sean began to measure. Cots were not meant to have lids but this one did. It must be perfect. Nothing less would do. Marking the wood with a pencil he left his mind stray to the events of the last few hours. Sighing deeply, Sean wiped the sweat from his brow and began to saw. Heaviness wore itself upon his back like the sacks of grain he carried to and from the mill every day. Staring at the statue of Our Lady on the shelf before him, he thought maybe as a mother she might understand. Uttering the words ‘My Mother, My Confidence’ he gathered up nails, a hammer, and a chisel.
Hoping the children would not wake, Sean began to bang the nails into the timber. With each one he whispered a prayer until a full rosary was said. Quick, with the assuredness of someone who had done this before, once finished he inspected his work as the last light from the candle died away. He tidied the bench and put away the tools to their rightful place. It was dark outside; a grey mist clouded his view towards the house. Looking at the bundle of pink blanket which lay on the chair to his right, it became blurred through a liquid veil. Picking it up, Sean placed the blanket inside the box. Gripping the sides of the bench to steady himself, his breath quickened, his heart raced. The time had come.
The world lay deep in sleep as Sean cycled through the darkness. Fat drops of warm rain battered his face, hiding his tears. Each push of the pedals felt like he was pressing against a concrete wall. Houses that had accompanied him by the roadside were slowly replaced by ditches and fields. Briars pulled at the threads of his coat, as if dragging him back.. In the distance, after cycling for what seemed like hours, Sean could see a steeple. The closer he got, the more burden he felt. Turning down a narrow laneway, he stopped mid-way and leaned his bike against a gate. Taking a few moments to look around, his eyes focused upon a movement. He recognized the glint of a shovel. The timber box remained tucked under his arm, shielded inside his coat. Sean made his way through the gate towards the tall dark figure, careful to avoid stepping on the large stones and moss-covered mounds. Drifts of bluebells bowed their heads as his boots brushed against them.
The rain turned soft until it eventually died away. A full moon lit up the nights sky like the lamp of a lighthouse. Upon seeing him, Sean’s brother in law Paddy stood back in silence, leaned against his shovel, and removed his cap. A heap of freshly dug earth lay at his feet, next to a hole no more than three feet deep. With an outstretched hand Paddy offered Sean a hip flask. Shaking, Sean took a sip, feeling the walls of his insides tighten. Removing the box from under his arm, the heat of Sean’s body remained in its timber. He stood there for a few moments, lost in thought. As the cry of a fox in the distance pierced through the hedging, Sean longed to hear a different cry.
When Sean took her from the midwives arms she was perfect in every way. She had her mother’s button nose and rosebud lips. Her cheeks were pale and grey. He longed to know the colour of her eyes. He placed his little finger in the palm of her hand and waited for the grip to come like he had done with all the others. But it never came. From the room across the hallway he could hear the whimper of her twin sister alongside the cries of loss from their mother. Both cries swelled inside him with the deepest pain. The midwife reached out to take her back, but he refused. Wrapping her tightly in a pink blanket, he made his way through the back door, down the garden and into the shed.
Startled, he could feel the thick fingers of Paddy brush against his and prise them open. Feeling the emptiness of his hands, Sean’s knees gave way and he fell to the ground. Eyes closed, he sobbed. He did not want to let go. Looking up, his brother in law stood over him with the tiny timber box in his hands.
‘Nora’ said Paddy, reading the name chiselled upon its surface. Both acknowledged with a faint smile.
Paddy lowered the box into the space between his sisters. Falling into a slow familiar rhythm both began to pray as the crucifix of Sean’s rosary beads swayed back and forth between his hands. By the time they had reached the sorrowful mysteries, Sean began to choke and stumble over his words. Here, amongst the uneven ground, the dearest to them lay sleeping. He watched as Paddy began to shovel, hearing a sigh with each heap of earth that landed on the box. As the last of the soil christened the surface, Paddy knelt and patted the ground. Using whatever sod, moss and leaves that lay around, any traces of disturbance had all but disappeared by the time they were finished. It was as if they were never there.
With an embrace, Sean thanked Paddy, holding him longer than he should. Parting, Sean watched Paddy cross over ditches until he disappeared amongst the thick black fields. Pulling his coat up around his neck, the night air stung Sean’s cheeks. Cold and worn, he turned to his daughter for one last time, alone in her earthen bed. He ached at the thought of leaving her behind. There was no comfort to be taken from the day it was, the Feast of the Ascension. The day Jesus paved the way for man to heaven. A day of redemption. But there was no redemption for his little girl, born asleep with original sin. Her path was to wander the world alone, caught on the edges between heaven and hell. A hardness came over him as he looked over the churchyard walls towards the steeple. There were no rites to be performed, no friends stood, no words of solace offered. The church bells lay quiet.
Looking up to the sky beyond the steeple, he imagined was she was amongst the stars. Sparkling at him, Sean began to sing ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’…a song he sang to all his children. He would sing it for his little angel. He stepped towards the grey lichen covered headstone, tracing his fingers over the inscription. He had offered prayers to her aunts Ellen and Nora to take care of his little one. Around him, within the stillness of night he was aware of the nocturnal stirrings of creatures. Life goes on even in the darkest of hours.
Making his way to the churchyard gates, Sean mounted his bike. He continued to sing as he cycled away. The words of the lullaby fell amongst the clover. Buttercups and daisies stretched their necks to listen. Leaves rustled in the trees. Gentle swirls ran through the grass as if coming from the earth beneath. To the symphony of prayers Sean and Paddy had left behind, the shadows of the unmarked began to rise. Wandering over to the newcomer, they surrounded her in silence. Together they rose like thousands of diamonds, into the night sky, each finding their place amongst the stars.
As Sean travelled home through the dark, he noticed the tiniest star above him burn brighter than all the rest, guiding him home. Dawn gripped the edges of the horizon as he finally reached his front door. The cry of a baby stirred deep from within, Nora’s twin sister Ellen. Glancing back at the star, it winked at him as it shot across the sky, disappearing into the first light of a new day.
He made a wish, turned the key in the door and began to sing.