All the Sheaves to Bind
I’m walking too-slow up the main aisle of the church; Granny – on her cane – setting the pace. The open area before the seats start – where mass-dodgers like to stand of a Sunday – is full of cranky-serious men, in long-dark-wet-coats; men that I know from around town, but don’t know. The back half of the seats, and maybe more, is as full as a sack of potatoes of elbowing schoolchildren from me and me brothers’ and sisters’ classes. The rest of the church is filled with gazey-eyed-neighbor-mothers, in rain-stained-grey-brown coats, lips moving in breathy-prayers and whisper-gossip; and straight-backed-decent-praying men, white shirts cut in two be dark ties. There’s seven-hundred of them – all jammed into the Church of the Holy Rosary. I know that number, ‘cause Father Pat – he’s not really a Father, just a Pat; but he knows everything there is to know about the church – told us that’s how many you can jam into the church. Seven hundred. And every one of them seven hundred have a pair of staring, glad-it’s-you-not-me, eyes.
Granny – with a halo of a frizzy-white-hair, blue-bony hand squeeze-leaning on the cane – is wrangling Aunty over who owns her left arm. Granny’s been crying for days now. Aunty snapping at her to “stop, stop, stop, sure crying won’t bring her back;” then heading off into the kitchen to scald more tea, and cry herself. Now they’re both crying, and wrangling, and walking too-slow; leaving me under the pitying stare of seven-hundred pair of eyes. Even on a good day, Granny wouldn’t walk fast, not with the busted hip and them swollen-ninety-year-old-legs. So she jabs her way up the main aisle on the yellow-brown-wooden cane that’s as stiff as the way she takes everyone. I don’t know why she’s like that – it just is. Granddad, he’s so long gone that he doesn’t even turn up in funny stories. And so I’m stuck here, looking for a safe place to pass, but knowing I can’t pass; everyone has to stay behind Granny.
“Everyone” is us: Nine children – aged nineteen to seven, me little sister is the youngest, I’m next at eleven, then the rest are all sorts of different ages that change all the time: Da – he’s forty nine, kinda tall, but not too tall, a slight lean-forward-hunch, hair Brylcreemed-back-so-hard-it-hurts, and sky-blue eyes – that I only seen actual tears in once. Holding Granny be the arm – like one of them’ll drown is she lets go – is Aunty: A too-tight-hair-bunned-never-married-teacher, who can burn for hours with banging-around-the-kitchen-pot-slamming-anger, only to cure it all with a way-too-much-cake-and-ice-cream-lunch-dessert. She and Granny are fighting a dirty-war – like as if it’s Northern Ireland – over Granny’s left arm: Silent, bitter, no one backing down.
The walls of the church – as big and tall and far away as they seem – all get closer, pushing the elbowing-children, the snarky-teachers, and the gazey-neighbor-mothers in on top of me. I never look at them – but I can tell they’re all pity-staring at me – as I fake-dilly-dally, nearly bursting inside, toward the altar. All my uncomfortable new funeral clothes – white shirt, navy blue pants, black shoes – pinch and scratch and grate even more than when I was forced into them. A drop of sweat trickles down from beneath my left arm.
Another half-step forward: When will we be there?
Three months before this slow-painful march up the main aisle of the church, I came home from school at dinner time of a Wednesday – just like any other Wednesday. Kinda-sorta raining, excited for the Wednesday afternoon football-beating match. Me and the lads ran-walked-mock-fought-cursed-and-yelled – like the “pack of wild animals,” the neighbor-mothers called us – our way home from the six-slaps-on-each-hand-ear-wigging-world of fifth class. I burst in our never-unlocked front door, took the front hall in three leaps, and I’m in the kitchen.
But that Wednesday it’s not the regular kitchen; with the table set, and the smells of a dinner all cooked.
The white tiles of the kitchen floor is a lake of vomit.
A pair of pink-gummed-white-teethed dentures is a disgusting-island in the middle of the lake.
The dentures – without a mouth to hide them!
I gag and freeze all at once.
“Ma!” I yell, my stomach coming up, fingers pinching hard on my nose.
I back up into the still okay space of the front hall.
I go back to the front door, and look out to see if anyone else is arriving home for dinner: No sign of anyone yet.
I start slowly up the stairs; one creaking-step at a time.
“Ma? … Ma?”
Then I see her: Lying on me little sister’s little bed, eyes staring at the ceiling – like that’s all they want to do.
“Ma,” the word gushes out my mouth with relief.
Her eyes keep staring at the ceiling.
“Are you all right Ma?”
My breath comes fast.
A drop of sweat runs down under my arm.
I stare for a minute, take the stairs two and three at a time, and burst back out the front door.
In spitting rain, I wait for the cavalry.
For the next few days everything is wrong, and confused, so confused my stomach is always sick; I don’t eat much; I have a headache all the time. My normally-always-home Ma is disappeared from the house. Neighbor-mother’s come and knock on the door, and Da grits his teeth and shakes his head; “don’t answer it.”
They knock and knock and knock.
Then Granny and Aunty invade. Aunty cooks and cleans like mad. With each sweep-whack of the brush and pot clanged onto the cooker, she gets madder and madder. Eventually she lets go in with a red-faced-long-roar at our “ungratefulness, and I’m only doing me best for ye.” Then she disappears, crying, into the kitchen and bakes. She bakes three different cakes – all delish! – and I’m sent for three blocks of ice cream; too much for our fridge – all has to eat! In the corner of the living room, sitting in Ma’s chair, Granny nervous-knits a cardigan big enough, that – as Da says, shaking his head, gritting his teeth – “it could slung over a sick cow.” They pretend-sleep on the sitting room couch – a contraption that magically folds from a sitting couch into a sleeping bed; something Ma forbids us to do! They’re both cranky-sleepy drinking tea, in the kitchen whenever I get up; the first one up, and so the one gets the how-are-you-feeling-now interrogations. I give away nothing; only name, rank and serial number.
Whenever Da comes home, the three of them huddle in the front hall whisper-talking too loud. With my ear pressed hard against the busted-hollow-door, I understand nothing; the words are all too big – hemorrhage, rupture, neuro-something-or-other. The front hall goes quiet: I imagine Da glaring them into silence, and I back up double-quick from the door. The three of them come in with fake half-smiles. I read Granny’s wet eyes, Aunty’s topped-up-anger, and burrow down deeper into my confusion. Da, who on a good day – and there hadn’t been one of them for a while – wouldn’t finish a full answer-sentence, trailing off with a don’t-ask-me-anymore-grit-teeth-sideward-head-nod, gives nothing away with his body; his blue eyes settle just above mine, on the forehead: We never meet.
For weeks I never see Ma. Instead, I keep fresh in my head – by “rolling the tape Colette,” over and over again – that last sight of her staring at the ceiling, laying on my little sister’s little bed, her nostrils flaring with hard breathing.
One day – unannounced – Grannie and Auntie take off back to Leitrim; both of their teary-sadnesses crowding out the front seats of the chocolate brown Fiat 127 – with the new Leitrim reg: DIT 141.
They threaten to be back any day – unannounced.
The house gets so quiet, that I miss their snapping at each other.
The next day, a school day, at dinner time seven of us – aged seven to seventeen – arrive home hungry. Da is in the kitchen kinda-cooking, looking weird in a sports coat and apron, the Brycleemed-hair perfectly in place.
“Sit down there now,” he says, when I stand in the doorway staring at him.
A few minutes later, sitting on my hands at the table, everyone else there now, he serves up fish fingers and beans. Starved, I stick a fork in a fish finger; it’s black-burnt on the outside. The fork barely gets in. Suspicious, I slowly put it in my mouth. It’s still frozen in the middle. I force back a fishy gag and spit it back onto the plate. My eyes find everyone else’s one by one. No one is willing to be first. He sits down to eat with us. Eight people eating in weird silence, seven of them chasing orangish-blackish things around their plates.
He takes a bite, looks around, eyes narrowing to slits.
“Give them back to me,” he snaps. “Sure they’re not cooked at all. Couldn’t ye say something – for God’s sake.”
I can hear everyone’s breathing, as we heap all the orangish-blackish things back on his plate for some more burning.
After a few weeks, I’m brought up to the hospital. Older ones have gone, but when they come back, they don’t say anything useful. Mostly they lie like Da does – “don’t be worrying, sure that doesn’t do any good …” trailing off with their own bad versions of his don’t-bother-me-grit-teeth-sideward-head-nod. The hospital is in our town, which is good, and bad. Good that it’s not a car-sickness journey to Galway, with Da checking the water in the radiator, double checking the petrol tank (“the gauge might be broken!”) and wondering again how long the brake pads have left in them – with me recording everything, studying hard how to over-worry. And bad ‘cause sometimes I walk past the hospital – a building that seems to go on forever, with bits of it sticking out every time you turn a corner – on the way to the playing field behind it. Inside the hospital, it turns out, all them bits add up to long-confusing-corridors.
The only time I’d ever been in the hospital before was when I was nine, and the dentist sent me to get knocked out so he could pull ten of my rotten teeth all at once. By then, he was well sick of a few attempts in his office fighting with my mouth, that wouldn’t stay still, even with his black-rubber-stopper jammed between the few good teeth left. I’d be sitting, stiff as a terrified-plank, in his torture-chamber-chair, all sorts of pain-making-tools on shelves and hanging be chains on the cracked-white-tile wall. My father, sitting cross-legged-bored somewhere behind me, chatting with the dentist.
“Any salmon this year Joe?” he’d ask my father, in his soft-smooth-this-might-hurt-a-lot-voice.
“Aragh, nary a one. Them bloody Germans have it fished out.”
I squirm and moan under the pressure of the metal pliers on a crumbling tooth.
“Sit quiet there now,” says the soft-smooth-this-might-hurt-a-lot-voice.
“Aragh, do it fast, sure he’ll never notice.”
In my head I see him throwing a grit-teeth-sideward-head-nod to encourage the dentist.
“I would, I would, but honestly there’s really nothing left of the tooth to grab a hold of. I wonder if these teeth ever met a toothbrush.”
A few weeks later, Ma takes me, early one morning, to a hospital ward with eleven hanging-grey-skinned old fellas staring cranky from their beds. I’m given a sort of a big-baggy-pajama-shirt to change into, and pushed-walked toward the only empty bed. A curtain swooshes around me.
“Hurry up now,” the nurse says. I hear the lip-sucking-sound of her taking a quick pull of her cigarette.
I hurry, but when I come out from behind the curtain, Ma is gone. I look around at the old fellas – ready to puke with fear.
“Now,” the nurse says, smoke gushing out her mouth and nose. “Fill this for me.”
She hands me a shiny metal container that looks like a jug without a spout.
I take it from her, because she handed it to me, but I don’t what to do with it.
“Go on now, like a good lad, fill that for me.”
I look at the crazy-jug, then at the nurse – smoke curls up off the cigarette dangling from her too-lipsticky-mouth.
“Here, let me help,” an old fella with grey hair, and skin nearly the same color, slides off his sheets, and pads over in his bare feet, pajamas kinda-sorta hitched up on his hips.
“Put on a pair slippers would you,” the nurse snaps, her hand shooting for the cigarette. “Jaysus, would you look at them bloody nails on you; I’ll have to send for a blacksmith to pare them.”
“Be quiet you, with your old talk – ‘tis an ancient Irish sign of good health, how thick a fella could grow a toenail.”
He takes the crazy-jug from my hand, and then immediately hands it back to me.
“Lookit,” he says, breathing out heavy.
“She wants you to, you know …” he tosses his head back, “fill this thing.”
I look from his yellowy eyes down at the crazy-jug.
There’s no sound for a minute, just the rustle of red-ash eating the cigarette’s white paper.
“Ah, sure it’s not that hard, for God’s sake,” he says, starting to sound cranky. “Will you just piss into the fucking thing!”
I go into the toilet and piss into the crazy-jug, and all over the toilet, and on the floor too, but I’m too scared to care. Outside the nurse takes the crazy-jug away.
Then I lay on the bed listening to old men complaining about anything there is as can be complained about. Later, I’m wheeled into an operating room, feel a pinch on the back of my hand. The next thing I know, I’m waking in a bed. Everything is weird: My mouth is all different and raw, the ceiling above me too low; curtains too close; lights off.
But when I turn, I see Ma there, sitting turning the page on a Women’s Own.
“You’ll be all right now,” she says, standing up and squeezing my hand.
Now I’m back in the hospital for the second time ever, and nothing is all right – for either of us.
I walk down the long corridors behind Da – ready to puke again. His face tells everyone not to stop and talk. Doctors walk by fast, folders tight to their chests. They give Da a quick nod of their this-is-actually-the-way-life-goes faces. Nurses start toward us, hands held out as if they were going to give a hug, see Da’s face, and collapse into you-poor-ould-divils faces.
A bead of sticky-sweat runs down under my arm.
My mouth is dry.
We turn another corner: The Children’s Ward – where children are sent to die! Their parents cry; their schoolmates cry; the neighbor-mothers cry; everyone says “it’s a terror indeed,” and asks “why would God do that?” Then you never say their name again. There’s big letters cut out of colored paper, and pasted sideways to the Children’s Ward windows; a poster of Mickey Mouse forever fake-smiles out the glass door; the colors in the corridor leading to Mickey brighten – a wee bit.
Finally, sweat running under both arms, we stop outside a ward.
“Wait here,” Da says, and goes for the door.
“Don’t wander off,” he barks over his shoulder, as he disappears inside.
I look back down the corridor: cream painted walls, dark flooring, nurses in bright-white uniforms talk-walking fast, beds getting wheeled slowly along by dozy-looking fellas in stained-white coats. If I took off running, I could never find my way out of this maze; no matter how many you-poor-ould-divil faces tried to help.
Then Da’s back.
“All right, now listen to me, you’re going to be shocked, I’m telling you now, shocked,” he runs his hand down his face; thumb and forefinger squeezing the top of his nose.
“She had an operation, you know what that is?”
I nod – barely.
“A big operation. A really big one.”
From under my eyebrows, I can sense him moving his right hand, flat and slow, down his face.
“And she might not recognize you.”
I can feel him staring on me.
“But listen, don’t let on anything if she doesn’t.”
I look up. He has a tear gathering in that pink-triangle-space where your eye meets your nose.
I look away.
Suddenly there’s a big white handkerchief there, and he wipes both eyes in one fast swish-swosh.
We walk into the ward. I’m full wet under my arms; a big drop runs slowly down my back.
The ward is the same as the teeth-pulling-ward, except this time it’s eleven grey-hanging-skinned old women staring at me from the beds.
Ma is in the far back corner, the green curtains pulled all the way around her bed.
We’re a few steps away from the curtain, when Da yanks me back behind him by the arm.
I wobble under the force of his grip, but get steady again.
“Aragh, would you look at who’s here,” Da chirps in bad-fake-happiness, as we walk in the curtained opening.
I don’t know if that’s supposed to me or not, but I try to fake-smile just in case.
Ma is sit-lying on the bed, propped up by pillows along her right side. The right side of her head is shaved all the way down to the grey-white-trout-belly skin that hides under our hair. There’s a long scar – red raw and prickly with stitches – running down the side of her head.
I can’t look at the red-prickly-scar, so I look up at the ceiling, then turn to her eyes. It’s those same ceiling-staring-eyes, but now they straight-ahead-stare. Then they flicker, first at Da, then me, but go right back to straight-ahead-staring.
Da stands there, all busy without moving. His hands rise up and fall. Then they’re back up again. His eyes dart around. I’m watching him, ‘cause watching anything else inside that curtain will empty my stomach.
“Aragh, would you look at that, someone brought you the paper,” Da says, even worse bad-fake-happy, grabbing the Irish Press off the bedside table.
He waves his hand fast for me to push the wheelie-tray-thing in over the bed. I do it, ‘cause I have to. I try to keep my eyes only down, but the wheelie-thing sticks somehow, and when I look up to say ‘sorry,’ I see the trout-belly flesh, the red-rawness of the wound, the stitches, all in a kinda-sorta line, but sticking up like badly tied laces. I pant, taste some here-comes-puke-water in my mouth, gulp in air and spin around to look out the window.
Outside is grass, just grass, rich-green grass, looking like it hasn’t a care in the world, as it leads up to the high stone walls of the mental hospital next door.
“Look at who’s there now?” Da says – a bit too loud.
I imagine eleven pairs of yellow-watery eyeballs turning toward the green curtain that hides us from the rest of the world.
“Do you recognize him?”
I half turn, eyes down. He’s pointing at the front page of the Irish Press. There’s a photo of a bald-grumpy-fella looking up off the page.
“Isn’t that George Colley?” Da says, nodding his head, his finger tapping the bald head.
Ma’s left hand reaches across the paper, and takes the top corner of the front page. She lifts it, but then folds it, flattening the front page with her arm into a triangle, showing some of the page behind it.
“Oh, that’s not how you … ,” Da starts, but stops, ‘cause she’s doing the same to the next page; folding it over, flattening the top half of the page into a triangle that folds back on itself. She busies herself at this. I watch her left hand work – her right hand always stays still; it never even twitches – folding, folding, folding until the whole paper is folded over the bald-grumpy-fella’s face. Then I sneak, what I promise myself will be my last ever, look at the fish-belly-flesh, the red-raw scar.
Even Granny’s too-slowness, and the dirty war she and Auntie fight all the way over her left-arm, can’t keep us from finally getting to the front seat of the church: The one on the right side of the church that Father Pat sets aside for the family at funerals.
When me and the lads were learning to make our First Communion – and all full of holiness – we’d sit in that front seat at mass; there was no one between you and the priest; no chance to daydream at all. In regular seats, with people to hide behind from the priest, the back of the seat in front of you had the kneeler and the slanty-hymn-book-holder for you to lean your face into your hands when the bell rang: ‘Twas said by the bigger lads that if you looked up too many times with the bell ringing, and the priest holding the stuff up, sing-songing “this is the body of …” – you could end up below in hell. The front seat had no seat in front of it, so the kneeler and the slanty-save-yourself-from-hell-leaner were all attached to a thin-flat bit of wood that sounded like a drum if you dared bump your feet against it. For the funeral – with Uncle, Ma’s brother saying the mass – I’d be jammed between that thin-flat bit of wood and the seven hundred pairs of pitying eyes.
No hiding today.
More people fill up the church behind me. There’s that hushed-people-standing-sitting-slow-walking-whisper, until finally there’s silence – except for Granny sobbing. Then the undertaker is there; grey-white-boney-faced, stringy-hair that even Brylcreem can’t keep across his fish-belly-baldness, hand-on-chin-worried-serious. Then his fat-bald-as-an-egg worker is standing next to him; black suit jacket bulging; squeezing and un-squeezing pudgy hands together, as he waits for orders. They roll the coffin trolley across in front of our front seat until it’s in place, in the middle of the center aisle, directly in front of the altar. The black metal over-and-back-X’s that hold the trolley together shake sideways under the weight of the shiny wood and brass and Ma.
Six altar boys, important-serious faces, hair-at-the-back-of-the-head watered flat, march out onto the altar. Uncle flows out behind them in purple vestments, with a too-serious-don’t-talk-to-me face. The sound of seven hundred humans standing up at once, necks and knees cracking open, clothes straightening out, standing-sighs, fills the huge space of the church: For just one second I feel like we’re all one.
Mass is mass.
Uncle sounds the same as he does when he’s telling funny stories, but he sounds just like any other priest saying mass too; trudging through the different pieces of it.
At least for as long as mass goes on, everyone’s behind me. I can feel the seven hundred pairs of pitying eyes on the back of my head, but I don’t have any force field to put up to keep them away. And so, after the Gospel and after the prayers, after the sermon I never wanted to hear, after the consecration and after seven hundred communions are served to seven hundred sticking-out-tongues, I realize that even boring-terrible-things don’t last forever.
The altar boys swish off the altar suddenly.
There’s a weird silence while everyone waits.
Then they’re back, with all the funeral stuff.
The dusty-golden-brass altar gate creaks open, and Uncle is off the altar, mutter-murmuring-singsong prayers. The six altar boys stream out after him, all with their best sad-serious faces. One stands extra straight holding a tall pole with a crucifix on the top – Jesus looking very sorry he let them crucify him; another has the golden-brown-stained holy water pot; and another swings the smoky-thing, with smoke that smells of faraway-Three-Wise-Men-lands coming up out its twisty-curly openings. The last three have sad-serious-we-got-nothing faces, hands held tight in prayer. Suddenly the boss-man undertaker is back, wringing his bony-grey hands together, eyes on Uncle, who’s now reading-sing-song from a huge red-hard-covered priest’s prayer book. The bony-grey hands pulls and pushes the trolley into the dead center of the middle aisle. Uncle keeps up the sing-song praying. Then the altar boy with the holy water pot is next to him. He switches back to murmur-muttering prayers, and then he fires a few dollops of holy water on top of Ma’s coffin – the holy water shining silver in the light streaming in through the huge windows behind the altar. More sing-song prayer, God and Jesus and the Holy Ghost have the red-of-their-arse-out doing stuff for Ma. Then the smoky-thing altar boy is there. Uncle hands the red-hard-covered priest’s prayer book to a got-nothing altar boy, who sudden-leans under its confusing weight. Then Uncle, sad-angry faced, takes the smoky thing, smoke pushing-and-shoving out its curly-openings; he grabs it by the scruff of its neck, holding the other end way off up in the air, as if it’s a snake that could somehow come to life. He swing-shakes it, surprisingly roughly, puffs of far-away-lands-smelling-smoke gather into clouds at the end of each swing-shake, all the while he’s mutter-murmuring prayers.
Uncle stops praying.
The whole church is silence.
Seven hundred people not even making breathing sounds.
He backs up without looking.
The altar boys scramble out of his way; shuffle themselves into twos; there’s a bit of slobbering to the get the crucifix and smoky-thing up front.
Uncle never moves a muscle, just looks straight, sad-angry ahead.
The boss-man undertaker starts the slow march down the middle aisle.
Then I have to leave the safety of the front seat.
I feel one stiff-new-funeral-shoe touch the floor of the middle aisle, then the other.
Then I have to turn.
Immediately the seven hundred pitying eyes hit me hard.
A big drop of sweat runs down my back. I look down at the floor, then up at the back of Uncle’s purple vestments, Granny’s frizzy hair, then back to the floor.
I take a step, push forward through the crushing weight of seven hundred pitying eyes.
Exhausted, I try another step, searching the floor’s wood tiles – each one twisted at a right angle to the other – for a way out.
Another drop of sweat runs down my back.
The weight of the seven hundred on my downturned eyes grows heavier with each step.
I can’t look up; if I do, I’ll become a pillar of salt, explode like a car bomb, or cry.
There’s no mutter-murmuring from Uncle, no holy water flying, just dribs of smoke coming off the smoky thing; sending up the smell of somewhere far-far-away.
One step at a time, one row of seats – full of pitying eyes – at a time, I sludge down the middle aisle.
Pushing in front of me the rest of my life.