I am eight.
My Mammy tells everyone I am eight and a half. None of the big girls use halves. None of the grown ups use halves. Halves don’t count. I get cross when Mammy tells people I am eight and a half. Because I’m not. I am eight and the number doesn’t change till I am big. I want to rip out Mammy’s hair with my fingers, one hair at a time, when she says eight and a half.
I like school.
I get to make-and-do at school every Friday. Today, I made Mammy an Easter bunny card. Maybe if I give it to her as a surprise she will French plait my hair. I like French plaits. Big girls at school have their hair done like that.
I don’t like the others in my class.
They make fun of my clothes. Of Mammy’s limp. Of our house. Of the roof, ‘cause it’s made from tin. I don’t like being made fun of. It’s not nice. Once when I told Teacher about the trees in the Forest, the others laughed at me. They laughed so hard that Billy Thompson made snot shoot out his nose and later, he ran after me with a hanky saying he was going to wipe it in my hair.
I told him I’d tell Teacher.
After that, they all started calling me Snotty Suzie. Maisy Buchanan made up the name. Last week they chased me to the bicycle shed. They all made a ring-a-rosey around me and started yelling ‘Snotty Suzie’. I pretended, in my head, that my fingers were made of glass and that I was shredding their faces.
I don’t like Maisy Buchanan.
She has long blonde hair. It reaches down to her waist. It’s always shiny. I think its cause she washes it every day. Mammy only makes us wash in the big tub once a week. The other days we rub ourselves down with cold water from the barrel in the yard. Maisy probably doesn’t have a barrel in her yard.
She comes to school every day in pretty dresses. And white socks. They are always clean. They stay pulled up to her knees all day long and don’t ever fall down. I wonder how she keeps them from doing that? I bet she glues them on with glue stick.
My sister Lucy ate a tube of glue once.
She’s three. She smells of old cabbage. She is always sticky, either with left over dinner, or dirt from the ground or snot from her nose. I don’t like getting sticky. Especially if Mammy has done a French plait in my hair. She only does them sometimes and I have to be careful to ask Mammy at the right time to do things, like plait my hair or allow me to go to the Forest.
I like going to the Forest.
Before The Missing, I used to be allowed to play in the Forest after school. There is a wall around the Forest made of big grey stones. It’s really high except in one special place where a tractor had an accident last year. The tractor hit the wall and broke it and it hasn’t been fixed yet.
When I’m with grown ups and they want to go into the Forest to collect apples we always have to walk around to the gate and go in that way. It takes forever to walk all the way around. Normally I am with Mammy and have to be good and quiet because of her headaches. She never lets me skip or jump or hop like a frog. I have to be quiet and walk beside her like her shadow until we get to the gate and then I can push it open and run over to Big Oaky.
I like Big Oaky.
He minds all the trees in the Forest. He is like their Mammy. He has massive arms and big roots, like feet, that burrow into the ground. Sometimes if it starts to rain when I’m in the Forest I go over to Big Oaky. I sit underneath his branches and he hides me from the rain. It’s nice, like being in a cocoon, like the baby butterflies.
Since The Missing, Mammy won’t allow me visit Big Oaky. She says the Forest is too far from the house. Sometimes I disobey her. She doesn’t know about the broken place in the wall and how I can get in that way. And I’m not going to tell her. It’s my secret.
On those days when she is having a special sleep, I can hear Lucy crying in the cupboard under the sink. Mammy puts her in there sometimes to keep her out of the way. If she is having one of her headaches, she takes special bottles of medicine. They put her to sleep, sleep that is really hard to wake her out of.
On those days, I go out on the porch and run across the yard, down the road to the stone wall that wraps around the Forest. Big Oaky will be waiting for me.
Snotty Suzie, Snotty Suzie, Snotty Suzie.
These are the words that are playing to a tune in my head as I skip down the track way to the Forest. I hate that the words are there, in my head. So I yell at my head to shut up but it won’t.
The Forest is a special place. It smells sweet, like fizzy cola. It’s always bright. There are lots of pretty trees with soft, green, twirly leaves that fall to the ground when the wind shakes them. Sometimes the trees say hello and whisper funny tongue twisters. I asked my Mammy once if she can talk to trees and she said not to be silly, so I think that means no.
Most of the trees are friendly but some, near the river, are loud and prickly. They say nasty things. Old Tree lives there. I try not to go down there much. I don’t like it. It’s dark and they don’t have leaves like the other trees. They have needles which stick into you if you sit on the ground for a rest.
I like sewing.
At school, Teacher is showing us how to do a different stitch each week. I got a big piece of crispy white material. It has little boxes on it and you sew an ‘X’ in different colours into the boxes. You can make a whole pattern. I made a pattern into the shape of a house, a big square with four little squares for the windows and a rectangle for the door; a house like ours, with Mammy and Daddy and Lucy, and Dead Dog.
He is buried under the porch. I dug him up once and poked him with a stick till his insides came out all soft and gooey. Then lots of maggots crawled out of him. I thought if I left the ground open, if he changed his mind and wanted to come back, he would. But I was wrong about that, he didn’t want to come back.
I’ve been practicing my sewing all week.
I sew a little pattern of criss-cross Xs into the bottom of my Sunday skirt. Teacher wouldn’t let us take home our white piece of material, so I had to practice on something else. I have to do them at the bottom and on the inside of my special skirt so Mammy won’t see. I chose red for the X’s. It’s my favourite colour. I try to make the X’s real small. If Mammy does find them, then she will probably slap me.
I don’t like the night time.
Daddy comes home at night time and the house gets quiet and the bed in Mammy and Daddy’s room get creaky like its crying and sometimes I do hear crying. Daddy doesn’t drink like Mammy, he eats the bible instead. Big pieces of it, fat chunks because Mammy says that he spits out chapter and verse.
Once, he found me in the Forest, sleeping under Big Oaky. I forgot to come home and he was mad. He dragged me by the arm, his fingers making a blue bruise on my skin. He brought me into the kitchen and pulled down my pants and put me across his knee, smacking me with his hand till he got tired. He pushed me off then and sat very still, told me never to go to the Forest again.
I don’t like it when he spanks me.
It stings. I thought about putting the poker from the fire into his eyes when he was asleep for three nights afterwards.
Maisy Buchanan is in the Forest.
She has been there for a while. It makes me mad sometimes to think of her there in my special place. She followed me home one day, calling me ‘Snotty Suzie’ all the way. I wanted to smash her nose in with a rock but she kept running around me in a big circle calling me names and I couldn’t catch her. So I just kept walking. I stopped at the wall where the tractor had its accident. I climbed up and jumped down on the other side, into the Forest. It took Maisy a while to climb over the wall but she did and cried when she landed because she hurt her knee.
I told her not to be such a baby and to shut up. She was whinging and crying like Lucy does when Mammy slaps her. I was worried Daddy would hear us and catch me. So I left her behind and ran through the Forest. I could hear the trees shouting in my head and Maisy calling me ‘Snotty Suzie’. I had to run real fast to get all the voices to be quiet.
I slowed down after a while. I put my hand on some of the trees as I went, touching each of their trunks to say hello. Some of them were weeping tears, red tears and I knew that I was near Old Tree. I could hear him calling. I picked up a red tear and bit into it. Juice ran down my chin.
I walked slowly to the corner of the Forest where Old Tree was and looked at the river. It was a baby river, only small, with tiny fish in it in the Summer time. There are lots of smooth rocks at the edges of the water. Some sharp ones too, if you look real hard.
I sat down and talked to Old Tree. He started saying nasty things about Mammy and Daddy and about me and I got upset as I was trying really hard to be nice to him. Then Maisy found us and she started calling me ‘Snotty Suzie’ again, chanting, jumping up and down on the spot, pointing with stubby, sticky fingers at my face. She started saying it real loud, shouting at the top of her voice. I tried to get her to be quiet. She laughed and laughed and Old Tree laughed and laughed too, calling out to Daddy, shrieking that I was in here, in the Forest, trying to get me in trouble.
There had to be silence.
I practiced my sewing then, on her dress, the bottom of it, two rows of red and blue X’s. I didn’t really like the blue so I tore off a strip of the material and tied it around Old Tree to keep his mouth shut to stop him from shrieking and saying nasty things about Mammy. Telling people about The Missing.
Baby River was hungry. So I fed it.
Caroline Healy is a writer, community arts facilitator and creative writing tutor. She recently completed her Masters at Queen’s University, Belfast at the Seamus Heaney Centre.
She published her first award winning collection of short stories, entitled A Stitch in Time in August 2012. Her work has been featured in publications such as Wordlegs, The Bohemyth, Prole and the Irish Writers’ Centre Lonely Voice, as well as on Short Story Ireland, Five Stop Story and Short Story U.K.
She writes literary fiction and young adult fiction, with her book Blood Entwines long listed at the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair and Cornerstones Literary Consultancy WowFactor 2013. The book has been commissioned as part of a three book deal for new adult readers, due for release in Spring 2014.
Readings on both sides of the Atlantic, in Ireland, the U.K and at The Brooklyn Book Festival were part of her literary undertakings in 2013.
Caroline is completing her second short story collection, The House of Water due for release in conjunction with an exhibition called Fully Booked at the Belfast Book Festival 2014.
You can visit her website at www.carolinehealy.com, Tweet her @CharlieHealy8, and like her on Facebook here.
–Art by Lisa Griffin