Before I was born I danced in my mother’s womb. I pressed against the inside with my flexing feet. I dreamed of the beginning that was the past, I imagined the beginning yet to come. I was attached to my new life with a coil that would in time be severed. And when I knew the time would come to break through the skin into the next world, I said goodbye. I cried where no crying could be heard.
When I arrived here and grew, I loved my mother with the devotion of a small puppy. I pressed myself against her legs and suffocated in her skirts. She was kind, homely and distracted. She made scones in the morning and went to stare at rainbows with flour on her hands. She moved through the house like the ephemeral hint of spring that fades after days. She put the dinner on the table, she brushed lint from my father’s shoulder with the disappearing quality of an exhaled breath. The more he called with menacing impatience ‘Where are you?’ fastening her to the iron of his will, the more she seemed to recede into the fractal chaos of the paisley wallpaper. Many years later she slipped out of life in a November fog, tracing my skin as she passed. Now she roams out there at the side of the hill, skids across the sky on cumulus.
Between then and now I loved a boy and he loved me. He was an ordinary thing, a sort of squat being, like a standing stone with his face carved in with spirals, a smattering of sunlit lichen for his hair. But the taste of him was like cold water from a bubbling stream and the feel of him was swathes of yellow silk, stone in the hot summer.
I am thinking of his skin. The way it sprung back against my young fingertips. I read once about a woman who had no fingerprints. And now when I press against him I no longer make a mark because where he is I am not. He has passed by osmosis to the other side of the universe’s skin.
I am a spirit, not free, not spirited. I slip through gaps in understanding, between the said and the interpreted. Between memory and recollection. But I know this isn’t how you want to know me. You want to recognise me by the colour of my coat, by the height and the shape of me, by the peg you can put me on, the box you can label.
I am a dedicated mother, I am a wife, I am a respectable citizen, I vote in elections and if I don’t it’s because I can’t get a babysitter. I am a church goer. I go there and I sit and I look up and I wait. For grace. For that feeling like balsam on the chest, the clear-headedness, the relieved alveoli.
Where I live is a bowl, a hole in the earth, a smallholding dug out of the bog. I am a hobbit with my hobbit children. I live with a man my father chose for me. An old man. Every morning I gather up the peelings of his dead skin, the gnarled roots from his toes, I give him back his teeth and light a fire to send a glimmer of warmth into his crumblingbones. He is, through the unlikely triumph of dying salmon, the flesh father of these children. But while the old man pushed down upon me the boy was in my head, streaking through the cortical folds, embedded in the cells, like a pebble sucked into the sand. I held my breath then with the old man straining for legacy. I did not want to breathe in that life. But when it was over and the old man returned to sleep I got up and watched the reluctant dawn slink around the lintels. I remembered that my man boy was still out there somewhere and then the sun nudged over the hill and poured its honey.
‘I love you’, I whisper later into the stale sheets as I tear them from the bed. ‘I did love you, will love you, used to love you, will have loved you, have been loving you in the past perfect, the present continuous, the simple future, the simple past, the future perfect continuous, the simple present, the present perfect.’
If it has skin, does the universe have ears?
The old man has me do the farm accounts. He says ‘them bloody computers are beyond me’. He says it with a righteous pride, because he is rooted by his wellington boots to the natural, to earthy manure threaded with straw, to the heady silage, the chicken shit and the fecund coop. And he breathes in first hand air that comes over the fields that have his name on and he is a god, the god of smallholdings.
I make things add up. I create columns down which the money pours and make rows of neatly planted investments. It’s not as bad as you might think, a farm of land here, another there, a harvestable peat bog, a quota of milkers, a herd of good looking yearlings, plenty hens, spare eggs and a flock of daubed sheep strolling the mountain. My father is, as they say around here ‘no fool’ and he bartered me for a man with a plethora of money stuffed under the mattress. I married him on a spring morning, the last Saturday before Lent. And the man boy disappeared.
Where did he go? He was here once, between my fists, flesh and fabric. And now he has dissolved into the universe. There are no stories of him, no tales that have a life beyond their maker.
The old man climbs the slow stairs to bed. But with the speed and deftness he uses when clipping the chain to the milking cows neck I clip a wire we usually use for the phone to the back of the computer. Then I wait for this ambling retrograde version of progress, the slow train to the hub and connection.
More than a hundred years ago men braved roaring seas in ships to set a cable on the ocean bed between Valentia, a stones throw from here, across the Atlantic to a place called Hearts Content in Newfoundland. And so sometimes when it is night and the old man’s sleeping cells futilely attempt regeneration, I surf across the wide divide, cast my nets, scour for evidence to find you newly.
The computer screen is a lit portal. I click and shuttle. And then. I traverse the cyberverse in an instant, coming face to face with the man boy’s laugh, the wide mouth and the tumbling lava. I press my mouth against his in the darkness, in the bright searing light, in the sun’s blast, in the nuclear winter, in the dark side of the moon, in the tangle of cables, arachnoids web, sticky filaments. I am here, I am there, cut adrift in zero gravity in inky outer space where time expands relentlessly or I am skulking in the murk of memory, ghettos of forgetfulness, kicking at newspaper ghosts.
In the morning I brush away cobwebs, I braid the children’s hair before releasing them into the outside. There they tumble into the hollow and make fairytale castles out of great rocks heaved into the valley by ancient glacial ice. The girls, of which there are two, tramp around sedge tufted hummocks becoming knights and princesses by turn, slipping in and out of skins, forging and swapping identities. They ride ghost horses through the heather. They are as blonde as Nordic icemen, as blonde as their father and I are not.
I have one more child, a toddler-baby boy who I steer out the kitchen door into the morning by his compact bottom. I recognise in him a concentrated expression, an intensity between the eyebrows. ‘You’. I think. But perhaps the expression was first mine, until I came across the mirror of you, uttered that euphoric primordial Yes! Knew you.Knew.
When I look out I see the terraced hills, stacked on each other. The approached crests laugh with duplicity, for beyond each achieved pinnacle is another one, spinning another tale of the wondrous summit. So I live in an inverted pyramid incubating my dreams like the Egyptians, waiting for homeless spirits to carry portentous messages between us while we sleep. And I wake in the morning with the sea that was once in this valley on my pillow and the shape of your footprints on the shore filling up and flattening.
But there is a thin skin between this universe and the one beside it. And sometimes I wonder if I can tear a hole in it with all this thinking. Like when the children pick at a loose stitch in a jumper and keep on worrying it until it rips. There was a particular day when the old man had gone to the mart with two Charley yearlings, flippity gibbets of things, flailing with good humour, kicking up their heels with the fallacy of freedom. All day the doors of the rooms I was in were rattling and banging as if someone was trying to get in. And the trees shook with an impatient frenzy and the sky closed and lent back in turns like folding and unfolding paper.
I have a feeling that it is when this universe seems most solid that things can press through it: memories, glimpses, photographs, letters.
And one of these mornings I watch the postman’s van come round the side of the hill. There is nothing to see yet but I keep it in sight, watch it creeping up the laneway of the house on the opposing hill, see the tyres nipped by lunatic dogs, hear, even from this distance the crunch and splutter of gravel under the wheels. And I know there will be a letter and it will be from the man boy and when I open it he will come pouring out, the sense and the smell and the evidence of him and I will press the letter against my face, inhale the cells.
You’ll ask me why, won’t you? Why I didn’t say no when my father made me the price of his vanity. Why I didn’t fashion a flying device from old sticks and animal hide and glide away from the top of the mountain out of his mean reach. You want me to do something. To follow my heart. And take action. But a cliché is a blunt instrument, it cannot tear a hole big enough to see through. You will wonder why I don’t magnetize the fierce coil that spins within and follow the pull, step out of the door and catch the hands of my happy-go-lucky hobbits and run in your direction.
In the evenings I twist the papers into flammable bows and set them into the grate. The old man nods as I crouch and grunt among the hearth’s ashes. This is as it is and all is right with him. He has had his supper and his belly is lined with the fat of other animals. He talks of the price of cattle and he knows how to skin the turf bog and slice it in pieces that begin as moist as slugs and dry out through the summer like crackling leaves. I nod back at him but the slick film that gathers on the mug of cold tea by his elbow separates us. I get up, I pace, I look out of the window, I run my fingers over the cold keyboard of the computer, riding over the bumps like a car on this country track, rattling and shaking, shuttling back to the main road. The old man nods again but it is the nod of sleep, the little death that precedes the one that awaits him. The old man dozes by the warm fire, feels the heat, the lull, the body comfort. He dreams of the womb.
You will ask me. But I sit down and wait. I take up some knitting and the fire spits. Embers scorch the rug, blazing, then collapsing into black holes. I knit to the end of a row, I turn the whole thing round and knit back the other way. I add row upon row and the rows are the generations building on one another – human history – the current and the previous, ancestors disappearing further and further down into the fabric. My fingers fly. I drop a stitch. I go back and retrieve it or maybe not. If I don’t go back I leave the universe unravelling. The old man snorts in his sleep. I put down my knitting and take away the cold tea.
Outside there are a billion stars and the moon rises whole and yellow over the hill. Nothing is moving. I long for the moon but I do not go out. I look at it through the glass, resting my hand on the pane. I wait all these nights as the old man edges to the end of the row where I can slip him off my needle. Breath running out. Because death, like birth tears a hole that a whole person can get through. Then I will slip through the gap in the wall into the passageway that runs between these dimensions. I will tear down the cobwebs. I will sweep my laughter down all the long corridors and find you.
Alison Wells was raised in Kerry and lives in Bray, near Dublin. She is a psychology and communications graduate and mother of four. Her short fiction has been Bridport, Fish and Hennessy New Irish Writing shortlisted and published widely in mags and zines including Crannóg, Metazen, UK Flash Fiction day’s Scraps and The Stinging Fly. Alison blogs for www.writing.ie and is working on a new novel inspired by her flash fiction Eat! www.alisonwells.wordpress.com
–Foreground Art by Lisa Griffin
–Background Art by Sarah Hardy