the short story project


1  Witness

Story 1 of PIECES, 1986/55

The ambulance is a tight fit and Moira has to sit close to the gurney, where her father lies pale and clammy. She smells urine. He must have wet himself. He’s conscious, squeezing her hand, his palm dry and cracked. She wants to pull away, but his grip is strong.

Blood is caked into the thick, directionless hairs of his eyebrows, and his white curls are matted. She finds it difficult to look at his face, though it has lost its menace. He doesn’t look capable of striking a young boy, breaking his tooth with a blow that held nothing back. His mouth twitches in that enigmatic way of a child in deep sleep. The lips move, as if he’s struggling, trying to tell her something, and she hopes she won’t have to hear it, because his tongue is venomous, no different from when she was a child, ready to spit out whatever pain he decides is warranted. Closing her eyes doesn’t help, because she sees him step off the curb when she told him it was safe, his body lying in the street, the driver climbing down from the cab of the truck. He could have been killed. She swears to herself that’s not what she wanted. But the smell of urine has mixed with something chemical and she can barely breathe, her head hurts, because she isn’t sure.

He squeezes her hand again, more loosely this time, as if something else is taking over, pain maybe. The emergency people suspect something could be broken, but they’re not willing to say more than that. She looks at him, strapped down, immobile, tries to imagine him as harmless, but the distrust is like a reflex now, an assumption that undermines every exchange between them, short circuits any attempt at tenderness. His late-night calls after years of silence—inviting her to remember burying their feet in the sand, teaching Brylcreem to sit and give his paw, the smell of the monkey house at the zoo, dreadful but somehow inviting—made her believe she could start fresh, think of him as no more than a man who had made mistakes, a man who drank. Maybe he loved her after all, this daughter he never really knew, wasn’t able to see.

He doesn’t. He’s just old and alone, and now it’s his turn to be afraid.

“Moira,” he says, but the syllables blur. He sounds as if he’s pleading—more. But nothing follows. Instead, she hears her mother’s voice the way it sounded that night, repeating names and dates once told to her, conjuring faces long gone. “Your great-great-grandmother’s name was Lynch. It was 1849 when she came to America.” Moira had heard the stories many times before, always solemn, respectful, always in the dark, when they were too frightened to stay alone in their beds.

She lay close to her mother that night, burrowing under the ratty blanket with Conor and Bridget, their skinny legs entwined in hers, their eyes and hair a medley of Celtic genes: Bridget, eight years old, with hair the color of sable, matching huge black eyes already haunted; Moira, auburn-haired, two years younger, with freckles on pale skin; three-year-old Conor, blond, with a troubled face. Her mother was only just beginning to go gray, but her burnt-red hair, like her skin, had no luster.  

“That was a terrible time for them, after the eviction,” she crooned, weaving a past unlike the present, strengthening the flimsy threads connecting them to people they wouldn’t have to be ashamed of. “They had nothing to eat, nowhere to live. Before they left Kilrush, she lost her two youngest sons.”

“To starvation,” Bridget intoned, able by then to recite the stories herself.

In the next room, connected by a wide doorway, Moira could see Kate, Maggie, Peter, and Liam—all of them already in their teens—seated at a three-legged card table braced against the wall, where it had blackened the fading wallpaper. Peter, the oldest boy, kept the table still with one knee as he dealt the hand. The flickering light from the Magnavox’s tiny black-and-white picture made their faces jump in the darkness. It was nearly ten-thirty, and Moira knew from the way Kate and Maggie giggled that Milton Berle was dressed in drag.

Her mother’s words turned into song, which pleased Moira because her voice was like malted milk, filling and sweet. She rested her head against her mother’s stomach, and she could hear the song forming there. She sang of green fields and bold Fenian men in a place she’d never been.

Her father’s key scraped the lock. The others must have heard it too, because everyone got quiet. Moira could no longer feel the movement of her mother’s breathing. Someone turned off the light above the card table, and Kate, Maggie, Peter, and Liam rose almost as one and tiptoed into the bedroom, with barely a sound. Scurrying across the room, they climbed onto the bunk beds, tucking themselves close to the wall. Someone giggled, and Moira was sure it was Liam. “Shut up,” Peter hissed.

“Shut up, yourself,” Liam said. “I ain’t afraid of him.” And he might have been right to feel that way, because their father sometimes came home in a jolly mood and got them all out of bed, ready to make smoke rings or sing Perry Como songs from the Hit Parade or get their mother laughing with stories about his great-aunt Fionnuala, who swore he’d wind up a thief because his mother had clipped his infant toenails rather than bite them off. Sometimes he’d want them all up dancing, make them mimic his clumsy jigs. But they could never be sure which one he’d be—the comical man who had them swinging from his outstretched arms, who let them break the rules when their mother wasn’t around, or the stranger who smelled like the inside of a smoky tavern and didn’t seem to understand who they were.

Maggie’s head appeared above the railing of the top bunk, thick hair wild, escaping its barrettes. She peered down at Moira, as if from a rickety lifeboat, and pressed her finger against her lips, a needless warning to stay quiet.

“Maybe he’ll go right to sleep,” their mother whispered. She stroked Conor’s sweaty hair, but the gesture didn’t soothe, because Moira could feel him trembling. She wanted him to stop. She wanted to put her hand over his mouth, because he might cry out, signal where they were.

The door slammed shut, and her father’s broad, callused palm slid along the living room wallpaper. Then stillness. He didn’t turn on the light; it was useless to him. Since the accident, his eyesight had steadily worsened. He was going blind.

Moira strained to hear the direction of his footsteps, bit the edge of her mother’s nightgown, tasting the perfume and soap that had become part of the cotton. Bridget took her mother’s Virgin Mary—the statue Peter won at the parish fair—from the bedside table and held it to her chest. At last the first guttural mumbles broke, at once a fright and a relief. He wasn’t within reach. The springs of the couch creaked and Moira lifted her head above the rampart of her mother’s hip to watch him slowly remove his shoes. A nasal voice beckoned from the television screen, “Call for Philip Morris,” but he waved it away, as if annoyed, then sat quiet.  

She prayed he’d go to bed, retreat to the bedroom off the parlor, but the mumbling resumed, turned into slurred shouts. “Where are you?” he called, but her mother didn’t answer. “Get out here,” he commanded and Moira closed her eyes. “Get out here,” he repeated, shouting it differently this time, like a drunken actor testing his inflection, and when she opened her eyes again she saw that he was on his feet. “I’ll tear this place apart, Maureen. I’m warning you.” He began to make good on his threat, smashing the card table to the floor. The TV lit up the hearts and diamonds as they scattered.

Moira felt her mother’s body stiffen. Maybe some resolve had formed. Her father shuffled toward the wide doorway. “Where are you?” His silhouette blinked on and off in the TV light. She smelled his drunkenness, heard her sister’s frightened cry catching in her throat. Bridget reached for her mother’s arm, but she was too late to stop her. She was out of bed now, on her feet. His arms flailed in the air, a comedian running in place before the flickering light of a movie projector. He couldn’t connect.

“I’m right here, Pete. Right here,” her mother taunted. Moira knew the challenge was foolish, dangerous.  

Conor cried louder, and Bridget held him closer, their sobs indistinguishable. But Moira watched her father’s hands as he reached for her mother’s voice. They were huge, unpredictable, within reach now, and as the broad palm smashed her face, her head jerked back. But she regained her balance and let out a sound, a moan that came out like a warning. Her mother became her song then. “No more,” she told him, sounding as if she was changing the rules. “That’s enough.”

Maggie called to her—“Mama, don’t”—because she knew what would come next. Moira knew it too, but she didn’t want her mother to stop. She wanted her to take a stand this time, like those people in her song. It was the right thing to do, the only thing. She stood up, her footing wobbly on the bed, feet tangled in the hem of her hand-me-down nightgown. To her father, she knew she was a shadow. He couldn’t see her getting out of bed, couldn’t see the whitened knuckles as she clenched her mother’s statue.

He struck again, and this time her mother fell. A discarded baby doll squeaked beneath her as she hit the floor. He leaned over her, reaching down, his hands patting her shoulder, her hip. “Oh, my god, Maureen,” he said, as if bewildered by how she got there, and though the statue met his skull with surprising force, the Virgin Mary didn’t break. It opened a bright red gash, and it stunned the girl to see that she had done such harm.

Peter’s voice was the loudest, shouting her name, but she heard Bridget screaming and Maggie calling to her as she climbed down from the bunk. Her father straightened up, and Moira wasn’t sure if she should run. But he moaned, seemed dazed, and she sensed her body returning, her heart pounding in her chest, the sharp urgency low in her groin, the fear she might wet herself. Her mother struggled to her feet, her mouth slightly open, as if unable to find words for what she’d seen. She grasped her husband’s forearm, which steadied them both, and he put his hand to his head. “Maureen?” he said, as if she could explain this to him.

When she touched the wound, he winced. “Oh, Moira,” she said, turning to her daughter, “what have you done?”

But he put his arm around her mother, quelled her fussing, and Moira saw that it was safe to breathe, that they would all be safe now. She looked down at the statue, still in her hand. The bottom, where the snake and the globe rose out of the base, had blood on it, so she took it into the kitchen, turned on the tap.

Blood mixed with the water, pooling pink in a saucer that had been left in the sink. Here and there, at the base—unpainted and porous—the statue had dark spots, where the plaster had absorbed the blood. Moira could hear her parents talking. They weren’t yelling anymore. “You’re going to need stitches.”

“It’s nothing,” her father grumbled. “She barely touched me. It’s all right.”

Moira rubbed the spots with the sponge, trying to clean them off, but this was new to her, mystifying, the ways that blood behaved, and her hands trembled with the power of what she’d done.      



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