All short stories submitted to the 2022 AISAA Creative Writing Competition have now been read and assessed since the deadline for entries passed on Sunday, 9th January, and a shortlist of eight Scholars has been devised.

Each of the eight selected have distinguished themselves in terms of the quality of writing, the structure of story and the originality of voice.

Like last year’s Competition, the general standard of the longlist of entries was wonderfully high. The judges were impressed with the diversity of subjects and styles that this second year of the Competition has uncovered.

Once again, we have noted that there are some really talented, creative writers among our All Ireland Scholarship winners – many of whom submitted for the first time – with stories full of honesty, compassion and intelligence.

Their entries strike at the heart of what it is to be human, they reveal a depth of perception and insight that is simply breath-taking, and a real inventiveness of approach and language that is hugely impressive and exciting.

Below (in alphabetical order) is the shortlist of eight Scholars, whose entries will be reviewed by our award-winning judging panel of acclaimed authors, with the overall winner set to be announced on Tuesday, 1st March.

The Finalists

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Graduation

Graduating during a global pandemic has been an underwhelming and generally disappointing experience. There were no official ceremonies to mark your achievements, no parties to mark parting with friends and no long-awaited holidays before stepping into the scary world of full-blown adulthood.

I was anticipating an exciting soiree in the extravagant Shelbourne Hotel and I simply couldn’t wait to introduce my parents to the five star luxury of Dublin 2. It was to be a marker of a brighter future, a hint of what lay ahead in my career, a reward for five years of long, dull nights spent in the glass-walled library. I pictured the photographs of my friends and me, laughing in floor-length gowns, holding flutes of bubbly, golden prosecco. My parents dressed in their best. My excited mum, showing off her new well-fitting outfit, proud - having successfully completed her weeks of Weight-Watchers. My dad, having finally gotten a decent haircut, in a black rented tuxedo, with a pressed snow-white shirt, looking more dapper than on his wedding day.

My plan to bid farewell to my mundane college years was to fly to Central America. Eat tacos in Mexico, bus through Belize, climb volcanoes in Guatemala and drink rum in Cuba. Instead, I was left looking at the refunds in my bank account. A reminder of thoughtfully spent four hundred euro, for the flights I had spent countless hours researching. In my email, a travel note from a Colombian air company, for flights that I would never avail of. What became my only memories of that trip were the google calendar notifications for flights that never departed, shared documents with maps I never traversed, and plans which never transpired.

Graduating could only have been made worse by becoming a ‘baby’ doctor amid a global pandemic. For the Medicine class of 2020, exams were hastily brought forward and my classmates and I became interns (aka very junior doctors) a whole two months early. Instead of travelling and partying to mark the end of college, we remained isolated in household bubbles, never setting foot outside of our 2km radius. We eagerly socialised during ‘Zoom’ quizzes and shared sourdough starter recipes. We were terrified, but somehow obliged to do our part in “levelling the curve”.
Excited and ready to “fight on the front lines”, we emerged onto the long corridors of a tertiary hospitals, fearful of the unfamiliar reality that lay before us. Medications which we had only read about in my lectures, suddenly appeared in drug charts in our handwriting, with our signatures beneath them. Needles, which during college we excitedly poked into plastic arms and cushions, were now being placed in forgiving frail ladies with tiny veins. Placement attire - suit pants, shirts, skirts and blouses - were replaced by blue surgical scrubs and stethoscopes were finally hanging heavily around our necks.

The busy weekday ward rounds were overshadowed by the long, restless hours covering the hospital wards at the weekend. The on-call junior doctor gets called to rewrite medications, replace IV cannulas, take blood samples, insert urinary catheters, review blood results or examine sick patients amongst other things. As much as I loved my new job as a doctor, being “on-call” was something I dreaded and longed to avoid. Fear of the unknown, new levels of responsibility and sleepless nights enthralled some adrenaline-seeking medics. For me, they caused a throat-clenching panic. While tossing and turning each night before “call” I reminded myself that I could always seek senior help.

In July, during a long 24-hour Friday shift, I was called to review a deteriorating patient with Covid-19.My heart thumped in my chest. My hands were tingling. I ran through emergency scenarios in my mind, trying to settle my nerves. I hurried down. The long corridors which during the day bustled with life, at night were dimly lit and ominous. The usual calming chatter of teams was replaced by the irregular snoring of a sleeping patient. At the end of the corridor, I met a cacoethic bald man in the prime of his age, who had newly developed difficulty breathing. He was gasping for air, and a chilling panic radiated from his bright eyes. I appeared anonymous, hiding behind a protective shield. A daunting faceless figure, wearing a floor-length white gown. My features were hidden beneath a duck-beak mask and plastic visor, hair tucked safely into a blue hairnet and fingers covered in tight, purple, nylon gloves. I remember my name was almost inaudible amongst the screaming machines. He appeared brittle and defenceless, manically swallowing pockets of air. I noticed he sought reassurance from the nurse at his side. He squeezed her hand until his knuckles went white.

I needed to take a painful blood sample from his arm - an ABG. Using a long silver needle to penetrate the skin on the inside of the wrist. I perilously sought a hidden vessel carrying oxygenated red liquid. He bravely endured the trauma, distracted by his struggle for air. The goal of the arterial blood gas (ABG) sample was to assess the effectiveness of the oxygen-carrying clear plastic tubing in his nose. I worked quickly, aware I needed to adjust the settings, but simultaneously stalled, trying to provide faint consolation to a man who was alone and afraid.

I returned to the single room numerous times during that night, terrified as his condition continued to worsen with the non-intensive ventilation. I observed, as the tight-fitting mask encircling his nose and mouth was forcing gusts of oxygen into his lungs. In reality, I knew, the air was simultaneously finding its way into the stomach, causing waves of crippling nausea. He sat courageously, his belly quivered rhythmically with each tide of air expelled by the machine. The dry, cold air leaked ferociously from under the mask, spilling out into his eyes. Tightening the thick plastic device caused more bruising and discomfort. His once panicked eyes were weighed down with fatigue. He was starved of oxygen, drowning, becoming less alert. More senior people became involved in his care, but I remained. Dogged, desperate, I continued to seek more of that crimson blood, fighting to make him better. Poke, poke, poke. His wrists were bruised and tender. I sheepishly apologised for the darts of pain I continued to cause. He looked at me with trust. “You don’t need to apologise, I need to apologise, I must have done something terrible in my previous life to deserve a death as bad as this one”.

When my shift finally ended, I cried myself to sleep. As I drifted into an uneasy slumber, my phone calendar pinged softly, beaming out a mocking reminder of a previous life - “Graduation Day! @ The Shelbourne Hotel”.

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Daughters

1994
When my sister was little, she looked exactly like our Mom looked at that age. A small pale face, a delicate mouth and nose, with wide blue eyes, surrounded by a head of light brown curls grown just to her chin. Her smile was the same too, never showing teeth, just a small twist of her lips to let you know she was happy.

1995
My Mom often tells the story of how my sister found out about Santa. She says that when my sister was very small, only 6 years old, she looked up while Mom stood peeling potatoes at the kitchen counter and asked her outright if Santa was real. My Mom says that with my sister’s small, determined face looking up at her she simply could not lie and so told her the truth. I wonder if the reason she could not bring herself to lie was because it was like looking down at herself as a child.

1996
My sister and I went to an all-girls primary school, with all female teachers and only one male member of staff, who was the caretaker. The first two things that come to my mind when I think of what I learned there are; One: while singing my mouth should always be open wide enough for three fingers held horizontally to fit in, and two: if I or any of my classmates were to die it would be very unlikely that we would go straight to heaven.

1996
Joni Mitchell reveals her long held secret about the daughter she gave up for adoption and admits how desperate she is to be reunited with her. After 32 years she said that she cannot stop wondering what her daughter looks like. I google ‘Joni Mitchell as a child’ and I wonder, would her daughter have a face like she had as a child? Long with high cheekbones, curiosity in her eyes, her bright blond hair neatly brushed and pinned in a side parting, grown just to her chin.

1997
Around the same time Kilauren Gibb begins to look for her birth mother who had given her up for adoption 32 years earlier. She says it was Joni’s blue eyes, blonde hair, long legs, and high cheekbones that told her that she had at last found her birth Mom.

1997
When I was growing up my sister and I shared a room. December sixth being both my Mom’s birthday and the feast of St. Nicolas we would put up most of the decorations on that day but, Mom would insist that it wasn’t until Christmas eve that the candles were to be lit in the windows. Every year she would tell us the story of how important it was that these candles be lit so that the wise men could be guided to find Jesus in the stable. Back then I believed in Jesus wholeheartedly. We didn’t light real candles, probably because it was too dangerous, but we had three old electric candles, each on a wooden log, which had been spray-painted white. I can remember one had a little robin perched on the side of the log with a small sprig of holly.

Me and my sister’s room being at the front of the house, one of the candles would be placed on our windowsill. Every year Mom would connect the candle in the window to the main light and the white cable would drape from our bedroom windowsill up to the light socket in the middle of the ceiling. The year we got ‘baby monkey’ from Santa we used the cord as a vine for our new toy to hang from, each of his little hands had a small round pad of white Velcro on the palms so you could stick them together and he would hang with his long arms above his head.

With only the soft flickering light of the electric candle our bedroom was dark, and we knew Christmas was imminent. The shaft of the candle was red, and the bulb itself was shaped like a teardrop, a small orangey reddish light like flame flickered and danced within the glass. When I think of Christmas now, I think of those nights. Our excitement somehow both heightened, yet also contained by the sacredness of that dark bedroom, with only a single flickering light to show us our way.

1999
Every year until the year she died Nana arrived at our house from Tipp with three huge black bags full of Christmas presents for me, my sister, and my two brothers. She would spoil us with clothes, toys, and sweets. She must have wrapped all of the presents before putting our names on them, because often the wrong name would be written on the wrong present. On Christmas morning we would wake at four or five am and run down to the sitting room to the Christmas tree. My wide eyes scanning eagerly for my name on wrapping paper, I would be on my knees rummaging under the tree for gifts, I would find one bearing the letters I knew as mine and sit back on the carpet, legs tucked neatly under me, hands already pulling at the wrapping. To my disappointment I would find a jumper for one of my brothers or a painting set for my sister, instead of something especially for me.

2001
It wasn’t until I was 10 years old that I realised I couldn’t believe in Santa anymore.
Lying in my bed on Christmas Eve I could hear Mom and Dad going up into the attic to retrieve our Santa presents. From the cocoon of my bed, I could hear the clatter of Dad climbing up to pass the presents down to Mom. I already had my suspicions, and this confirmed it. I was trying to keep my eyes closed and I was willing myself to sleep but it was impossible, I knew now, and I couldn’t unknow. My sister could have spoiled the secret for me many years earlier, but she kept pretending until I was ready to grow out of the story myself.

2004
This is the first year my sister needs to stay in Cork University Hospital. I am so worried about her.
I become convinced that I am her. It is not just that I fear we are very alike, it is much stronger than that. After days of this terrifying feeling, I break down and cry to my Mom about my fear that I am my sister. I feel my thoughts are her thoughts, my body doesn’t feel like mine. When I speak, the voice in my head sounds like her. I feel so freaked out, I can’t seem to find where she ends, and I begin.

2014…
I move out of home after music college. I move into town. I move to a new place in town. My housemate moves back home to New Jersey and my sister offers to move in. I move home again. I sleep in my old bed, in a shared room with my sister. I move to Limerick to study songwriting. Anxieties come and go, coming now more than they go.

2019
I move back to Cork city in September and work full-time as a piano teacher until Christmas time. One Wednesday evening I am teaching two little girls who are both six years old. I envy how innocent they are, and I notice how the brightness and joy in their faces has become alien to me.

My last lesson for the day done.I use my phone as a light to illuminate the slippery cobbled hill as I hurry down to the bus stop. The bus is late again, and I wait in the dark, wet night.

Brief moments of relief keep me going, keep me knowing that I am on the right path even though everything feels so wrong.

The one thing that helps me to feel that I am present in this world is putting my hands on my belly. I drag my fingernails along my waist, again and again, from one dip, to the other across the swell of my stomach. It is as if this repetitive action is a physical manifestation of the path I am trying to find in my mind. I want to pull at the skin of my middle until a groove forms revealing the soft clod of the deeper layers of my belly, like a path in a field where the grass has been trodden on by people so often that it forms a path of earth that is soft and bare. The soft and bare earth shows you the best way to go.

I am twenty-eight and I am lost. I don’t have to go to hospital but in the following Spring I am diagnosed with OCD. The doctors build up the dose gradually from 20 to 40 to 60mg of Prozac every morning and the darkness begins to lift.

2020
My sister spends Christmas in the mental health unit of the CUH. On Christmas day Mom sends me a picture over WhatsApp of my dad and my two brothers standing outside the hospital window looking in at my sister, with my sister standing on the other side looking out, dressed in her pink pyjamas.

2020
We don’t put up our Christmas tree until December 21st. We put it in the kitchen and to me it looks small and bare without the usual glut of presents underneath.

2021
In November my sister, my mom and I rent a cottage in West Cork for a week. Mom and I stay up late one night and it finally feels like the right time to tell her about my OCD. She starts to cry and tells me she feels like she has lost me. I reassure her that she hasn’t but internally I think “maybe you have.” Not because of me having OCD but because I took so long to confide in her, and that I rarely do anymore.
This feeling that mom does not know me anymore sometimes leaves me angry, but it mostly makes me sad, both for her and for me, because that love we had for each other when I was little feels contained in the past, preserved in the memories I have but unable to evolve and become something that can help us now. It strikes me that it is the opposite of mom giving me up for adoption as a baby. Thirty years ago, I was kept and held close, even breastfed until I was a toddler. And it is only now at the age of 30 that I feel estranged from my mom. I feel that I do not know how to show her who I am now without her being devastated that she has lost the little girl she loved.

2021
In the evening I go for a walk through the town with my partner’s mam and sister. We want to see the Christmas lights. The air is cold, and it turns our breaths into puffs of soft cloud for a moment before they disperse into the night. Before we reach high street, we pass the florist’s and stop for a minute or two to admire the angels, the poinsettias and the holly in the window display. I spot a little pot of bulbs, already sprouting and I hang back for a second to read the little white label stuck into the soil. I read crocus and am reminded of Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Little green’ where she sings to her baby whom she gave up for adoption that there will be “crocuses to bring to school tomorrow.” The tender, rising melody plays in my head as we walk on.

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Traffic

The noise of the traffic on the road outside seems louder on the nights I can’t sleep.

I lie in bed, looking up at the ceiling. I try to imagine the passing cars as waves in the sea, rolling and crashing. But the roar of the engines is too harsh, too artificial; it sounds like a swarm of angry wasps passing by my window. I inevitably give up and get out of bed, sighing as my body aches with the movement.

On those nights where sleep escapes me I sometimes sit at the window and look out at the passing vehicles, imagining the passengers inside, giving them narratives to distract from my own. Other nights, I go outside, pass by the other apartment blocks and the cars and the glow of the street lights, and walk into the park. The park isn’t lit and so the darkness surrounds me. It is quiet there too, and the dark and the quiet envelope me, drown me.

I know that many would say that the park is not a safe place for a young woman to be in the middle of the night; that the shadows might hide a dangerous predator who only comes out when the sun is down and the moon is high in the sky. What they don’t consider, however, is that the young woman might care little when the time she has for worrying about such dangers is running out.

It was early Spring when they told me.

“Three months,” the consultant said. “Six months at best. Unfortunately, there’s no further treatment we can offer. I am very sorry.”

He was a tall man with greying hair and glasses and had a troop of younger doctors who followed him around the ward when he did his rounds. I often wondered why he chose to specialise in an area of medicine that dealt with a reproductive system he had no lived experience of. Once or twice, I was tempted to ask him, but I never did.

On this day, he had left his troops outside except for one more senior member of the troop, and they were joined by the nurse specialist as they called me in to a meeting in their family room. They called it a family room, but none of the people in the room that day were related by blood. We were a different kind of family, bonded by disease and the fight for survival.

“We will ask the palliative care team to come and see you,” he continued. His shirt sleeves were rolled up, his arms bare below the elbow, save for a gold wedding band on his ring finger. I wondered what his wife looked like. “They can recommend medications that may help you feel more comfortable. Pain medication, for example.”

“We know this is difficult news to hear,” the nurse specialist added. She was a small woman who wore a pristine blue tunic with navy trousers. She had kind eyes. “Do you have any family or friends nearby?”

I’d already been asked that question during the previous three weeks I’d spent on the ward. But I guess spending that long in hospital with non-responsive advanced cervical cancer and having no visitors was bound to beg the question again. I could tell she was genuinely concerned.

“I have a brother who lives nearby. He can give me a hand if I need it,” I replied. My brother lives in Australia and at that time it was over six months since we’d last spoken.

There was a slight pause. The room we were in suddenly felt smaller. The duck-egg blue of the walls which I assumed had the intention of being calming instead made me feel nauseous. I had lost weight and my hip bones jutted out, exposed now that the padding of muscle and fat was gone. I shuffled, trying to get comfortable on the cold, hard surface of the leather.

The consultant cleared his throat. “We’ll aim to get you home by the end of the week.”

I haven’t spent the time since then ticking off a list of things to do before I die. In truth, I can’t think of anything I want to do.

One night after I was discharged from hospital, when the traffic was too loud, I walked to my mother’s house instead of to the park. I stood at the little wrought iron gate while I tried to catch my breath. She lives on a quiet side-street – the sound of the traffic from the main road a faint whisper. There is a street light just a few feet from the house. That night it cast a warm glow on the bricks, gently illuminating the pansies in the boxes on the windowsills and in the hanging basket at the front door. I looked up at the top right-hand window; the room I knew was her bedroom. The curtains were drawn, closed off to me. We live only a mile apart, but in that moment, it felt like we lived on the opposite sides of the world to each other. I considered opening the gate, walking up the short path to the front door and ringing the bell. Maybe now that I was at the end of the fight against a disease that was stronger than I, she would change her mind. She would make me a cup of tea in the red mug I always drank out of when I lived with her and we would sit and watch the soaps she loved and I hated but watched anyway. I put my hand on the gate, almost lifting the latch.

I thought back to when I first told her about my diagnosis three years ago; when I thought that the hugeness of the news, the devastating present, would take the place of the past. That we could forget, because I was afraid of what lay ahead and I didn’t want to go through it alone. I didn’t expect nor want forgiveness.

I called her on a Sunday. My words were met with stony silence. Eventually I heard her sigh at the end of the phone.

“Maybe it’s God’s will,” she said. I could almost taste the bitterness of her words. “A penance for what you did.”

I didn’t say anything more; didn’t correct her for mistakenly using the term ‘penance’, as if this was something I had inflicted upon myself as repentance for my sins. I never regretted what I did. I just regretted ever confiding in her. For confessing to her that I’d decided that I wasn’t ready to give a life to someone when I’d barely started living myself. That it wasn’t the right time; that I was too young; that I wasn’t ready, because I didn’t have my degree yet or a decently paid job or a house or even a car, and that it wouldn’t be fair on either of us. My mother disagreed, firm in her belief that all potential life deserves to live, and so I left home. That was over fourteen years ago, and I hadn’t seen my mother since.

I snatched my hand back from the gate, as if the metal was scorching. I turned and walked away.

The weeks go by, merging into months. I sit in my apartment, hearing but not listening to the radio and absently flicking through the pages of old magazines. I take the palliative care doctor’s opioids and the laxatives to help treat the constipation the opioids cause. I look in the mirror and see a ghost. A ghost with pale skin and sunken eyes that are dark windows into a short life. I try to ignore the sound of the traffic outside.

I get weaker. The GP and the public health nurse come to see me, but with every visit I know there’s less they can do to help and soon I’ll be too weak to look after myself at home. Most days, I stay in bed until the early afternoon and return just after the sun sets. I try to eat little and often, to sip strawberry flavoured energy drinks that are thick and leave an aftertaste in my mouth, to dress myself and go for short walks each day. Some days I barely have the energy to get up out of bed and go to the bathroom. I don’t know if it’s because my body really isn’t able or my mind is telling my body that it isn’t. My thoughts are sometimes strange and I wonder if my mind is playing tricks on me.

One afternoon I wake up and something is different. I look around the room. The blinds are closed. The cream walls stand solemnly. The framed print of a seascape from the west coast of Ireland is hanging slightly crooked on the wall. The door is shut. My blue woollen jumper is draped across the chair in the corner. Nothing out of the ordinary.

I heave myself out of bed, trying to shake off the feeling of unease that has now settled into the corners of my mind. I pull on black leggings, socks and the blue jumper. I think it seems colder, even though it’s Summer, and the earth is hotter now than it’s ever been. I walk into the kitchen, looking around but not seeing anything unusual. I fill the kettle. The weight of it feels heavier than a sack of potatoes. I put a slice of bread in the toaster.

I wonder how long I have left.

I make a cup of tea, sit at the kitchen table and look out the window. A gentle breeze blows through the trees on the green outside the complex. The sun is high in the sky. Every now and then, a neighbour passes by my window. Each of them looks as though they have somewhere to be, a purpose. I sip my tea, trying to warm myself. I can smell the scent of toast filling the room, but I have no desire to eat it.

I stay sitting at the kitchen table. Hours pass by. The sun lowers itself towards the horizon. It gets colder. I go to bed and listen to the traffic passing outside the window. The noise is almost unbearable; the engines roar; horns beep; brakes squeal. I pull the duvet over my head, trying to drown them out.

Suddenly, I hear a different sound. Musical, almost, but artificial. It is high pitched and piercing, and it cuts through the noise outside, demanding attention. I realise it’s the sound of my doorbell. I try to ignore it but it rings a second, third, fourth, fifth time. Listening to the chiming is worse than listening to the traffic. I give in, go out to the hallway, and pick up the receiver that connects to the intercom outside the building.

“Hello?”
“Hi, love,” a familiar voice answers.

I don’t say anything.

“Can I come in?”

I remain silent. I press the button to unlock the door outside and wait. When my mother appears in the doorway, she pauses and looks me up and down. I know that she sees the woman she gave life to; a life she decided deserved to live. A woman who has her eyes and who should look younger than her but somehow looks much older. Our eyes meet and I see that hers are shiny.

“I know,” she says, and her words hold the weight of the time we’ve missed.

The traffic outside roars, but I don’t hear it.

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Smoke Break

More often than not, breaks in the middle of seminars last around ten or fifteen minutes – depending on the attitude of the lecturer, the attention-paid by the class, and the number of smokers in the room. In this case, the lecturer is a relaxed Norwegian poststructuralist (so definitely a smoker) and the class are overall less engaged this week than the last. So, we’re given 15 minutes, in the hope that the cheap Columbian coffee will re-ignite interest in foreign trade: the subject.

The lecturer watches the students leave, weighing his dedication to answering questions against his desire for a break from explaining the requirements of essay topics that his personal political philosophies self-reportedly despise. I can’t tell if my walking up to him relieves the tension of his waiting or adds to it.

“I’m really sorry that my submission was late, I sent it to you last night. I’m sorry for my unprofessionalism, and I know I don’t really have a good excuse this time.” As a child, I was told I apologise too much; whereas, as an adult, I’m told I fuck up too much.

“Look, I get it.” His tone told me that he was more in a process of trying to “get it” than actually getting it. “You know that I’ll have to take points off for late submission, which is a shame because, so far, your essay is really interesting. If you need help with anything, feel free to email me. I don’t want to see you fall behind.”

“I’m sorry”

I should have said thank you, I guess.

Leaving the lecture hall, I walk through the near empty hallways – facemask on. They stagger the breaks to avoid over-crowding. The few students I pass shoot nervous glances at me. I can never tell if the glances are cordial, reflective of some anxiety they have about encountering someone, or some anxiety they derive from something I’m doing. I try to walk calmly, an effort that naturally worsens the desired result.

As I walk past one of the coffee machines, I see that a group of students from my class have congregated there. Among them are a German anarcho-capitalist and a more frighteningly functionalist German neo-communist. They frequently engage in what could be called debates, though are more realistically confirmations of their belief that the other is ever the more detached from reality. Though they still seem to enjoy each others company. I wish I had their conviction, though I don’t think it would suit me. Often, when in discussion groups with the two, I find them extremely entertaining – and they seem to think the same of me – but I never really talk to them outside of class. I usually blame that on the fact that they’re not smokers, but its not like I’m buddies with the myriad “nico-teens” either.

The bizarre architecture of the university building, one of extensions upon extensions, was not made any more navigable by the one-way system adopted to help fight contagion. It takes me around five minutes to walk down three flights of stairs, up another one, down yet another, then past several more coffee corners until I can reach open air.

Throughout the building they have various exhibitions of student paintings, with QR codes and email addresses alongside prompts to submit artwork for display. I’ve considered doing that a few times, but I haven’t painted in several months – and my paintings tend to have a bit too much nudity, too many curses, and a bit too much of my own mind in them for me to feel comfortable doing so. That’s without even bringing up the quality, or lack thereof. A former dorm-mate of mine who studies art history told me that she likes the roughness and “child-like spirit” of my work.
I should have said thank you, I guess.

Finally getting outside, I quickly make my way to the smoking area. The university has a somewhat enforced policy against smoking on premises, so the smoking areas have been formed over years of students pushing their luck. I sit myself down on a waist-high wall, just inside the claimed smokers’ oasis, facing away from the university building.

I’m not alone out there, various groups of students stand on either side of me, at a slight distance, chatting with one another during their own smoke breaks. I don’t recognise any of them, though I do try and recognise what languages they’re speaking. This has always been a habit of mine – though I understand that it may constitute eavesdropping. Disappointingly, the group to my left are speaking Dutch – hardly a novelty in the Netherlands, though those to my right appear to be speaking a romance language.

I take a drag from the cigarette as I try to identify it. It’s not Spanish, because I should be able to recognise that easily, given I study it. Nor is it French, though the odd nasal sound and overall rhythm could have fooled me. I settle on calling it Portuguese and accept this may have been another round lost of this time-wasting game.

As I sit there, puffing away, I begin to ponder whether or not I actually enjoy smoking. I mean, I certainly enjoy the practice, but I’m not so certain about the smoke itself. Part of me thinks that I use the habit as an excuse to go outside and take deep breaths without people finding it strange. Normally, I sit looking at the sky, or looking up into trees as a quick dose of nicotine takes the edge off whatever I just came from doing. I sometimes wonder if anyone ever traces where I’m looking, trying to see if there’s anything notable that I’m looking at – and upon seeing that there’s not, they probably just assume I’m high. The smoking would hardly discourage that assumption.

The wall I sit on separates a courtyard of the university from a cobblestone path that leads from the street of restaurants and bars in front of the university to a network of houses behind it. I look at my feet on the cobbles, instinctively positioning them in a way that avoids gaps, and wonder why a country full of cyclists has such a taste for cobblestone streets.

As if confirming my point, the clicking, clacking, and thwick-thwacking of a few bicycles coming down the path rings along. A group of students speaking Dutch, immediately recognisable, go by – seemingly ignoring the loud inconvenience of the path’s texture. I unintentionally lock eyes with one of them, and recognise her.

A Dutch girl, that I believe studies English language and culture and, who is involved in the same theatre society that I am. She quickly looks away, and seems to adopt a stoic face as she passes. I know for a fact the glance was neither cordial, nor due to her own anxieties, but due to me. I start to panic, I start to worry she’ll confront me, I start to think that the second she parks up her bike she would text the others in the theatre society that I was lying to them about not being okay, because I was sitting at the university, smoking and looking at fucking clouds.

I hadn’t been to a meeting of the theatre society in a while, nor had I responded to texts. In fact, I signed myself up to work on a production and have since not been able to find the energy to participate – despite the responsibilities I took on. When I did an interview with the director, a Romanian girl, to work as producer in an upcoming play, she told me that I had good ideas and that she looked forward to having me on board.

I should have said thank you, I guess.

Instead, I fucked up – I fucked it all up by being late, being shit, and being selfish.

And smoking, always smoking and staring at the sky.

I stomp out my cigarette butt, due to the lack of ashtrays or bins in the immediate surroundings, put back on my facemask, due to the perennial anxieties that I have something that will harm someone else, and begin my trek back towards the lecture hall. Back to where I started. Upstairs, downstairs, then the long climb to where I’m supposed to be.

I need another cigarette.

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Leaving

The old man’s head undulated up to and down from his glass at sweet, five-minute intervals. After each gulp, his body arched, momentarily revived within the bitterness of the thick, earthy stout, an ancient smile threatening to crack his lips.

“Don’t you forget about me now. Don’t forget about me mo chailín deas.” My stomach still lurches after all these years.

Then his long neck would slowly bend, his chin tucking closer to his chest as sleep or weariness or dreams caught him, and I would walk out from behind the bar, stand at the very end of the knotted, brown-stained counter just to stare at him. Always, despite the few bottles and pint glasses that lay around him, despite the dim light, the packet of peanuts, the high stools with the ripped leather covers, the overhanging old jars and hand-painted, peeling road signs, I would see nothing but him. Frozen in time with curved, hanging neck, straight back and sunken eyes, he looked for all the world like a lone swan floating among low shimmering reeds.

Tentatively I stepped behind the bar and emptied the drip trays underneath the taps. I never liked cleaning up before he was on his last pint. He drank eight every time he came in over a period of about five hours. “And you will rush me now, will you?” he asked me sloppily. Endearingly.

“You know I’d wait forever and a day for you,” I replied, snarky and playful. There was only the two of us in the pub and it felt nice to not have to independently maintain the dozens of micro-personas I had built up with the different regulars. It felt nice to just be who I was when I was with the old man.

“Ah yeah, you would, you would…” his low, etching voice trailed off. Was he drunk? Yes, but not like the others. He didn’t indulge in the gluttony of revolutionary ideas and plans spawned at the end of an umpteenth whiskey. He didn’t fawn over his own drawling words as others do, the alcohol not embellishing the richness of the spoken fabric itself, but only the way in which one hears it. And one often only hears themselves. How often I saw it; six men at the bar, all talking aloud and to each other, yet each interested in only what they themselves have to say, able to bare each other’s drawling slobber for just long enough that they can inject themselves with their own.

The old man was different. The alcohol warmed him, and he spoke shortly of gritty truths, told stories of soft merit, or of beautiful places caught still in the unclenching of his lips and the click of his tongue. I heard the rush of the same water he did, saw the sun glinting off the same hillsides. When his index and middle finger joined together and momentarily lifted themselves from the slender body of his glass, pointing towards me, I would come to join him as fluidly as his two fingers re-joined the glass.
“And you leave this weekend,” I overheard him say to himself.

It was the first time I’d heard him mention it in weeks, yet it had sat glaring between us, silent and ugly, balancing atop the increasingly thinning thread of our conversation, straining its fibrous roots. I had to say more.

“It won’t all be bad when I’m gone. Sure everything will stay the very same here, please God. And think of me as well. I’ll finally be able to see things I’ve never seen before, and sure then I’ll be able to come in here and tell you about it all. Imagine, you’d be listening to me!”

His thick, once-powerful hand slipped down to the base of the pint he had nearly finished. He drank stout lovingly, gulping and gulping so that the white, creamy tide mark inside the glass would always show a drop of two inches upon its return to the damp, reused beermat. There were only about two inches of stout now left cupped in his blackened hand.

Silence could not have been quieter. He drew breath in long, deliberate draughts, the exhale directed downward in the direction of his hanging head. His eyes were very much open now.

“Can you smell that?” he asked, glancing upward at me, his tongue a weighing scales, his hardened thoughts sifting peace and poignancy onto it. “That is a smell you won’t find when you’re gone.”
It was past midnight in late spring. Only the clock’s hushed chuck pierced its totality. As people left earlier in the night, I had opened a small window tucked in the corner just above the cigarette machine. I had paid attention to the first shy tendrils of new growth and summer drifting through the opening. In it, I felt a fleeting infinity that accompanied such unending promise as the sound of May’s final school bell.

It had changed. It was heartbreak; sweet and plush.

I met his eyes as his blackened hand loosened its grip on the glass in front. My reply was not that which was spoken, but that which passed from eye to eye.
Two inches of stout left. I dropped my eyes as I measured it. He shuffled as if he had just woken up and straightened his back. “We are a strange lot we are.” The mood softly imploded. It was of grief and longing. Even death.

He laid the loose change in his pocket down on the countertop and noisily slid it in my direction. He did this at the end of every night. It was only ever a euro or two. Then he coughed and slid one arm into his jacket, followed by the other. He frowned as he worked at the zip, striking up and down as if to make fire with flint and stone. Eventually, it sank into place, and he turned to go home and leave me behind. I hastened to the door before him and held it open. He stooped lower than necessary and passed underneath my arching arm. I almost wish I’d held it lower, low enough so that he could not pass. But I didn’t. He walked a few feet away and stopped. Between us now even the night did not dwell. A vacuum of everything but the significance of one to the other, of the other to one. He, the man who held the essence of all that was home to me in his eyes, on his lips, entombed in the dried dirt and oil beneath his fingernails. I, to him, was youth and time, departing and not returning. Not like that which hung in the air that night. Not returning.

“And you will leave,” he muttered, drifting out towards the road. As he rounded the low hedge and flitted further and further from my vision, I couldn’t help but notice the pale moonlight brushing white onto his skin. I couldn’t help but notice his head had bowed and his hand had risen to his cheek as if to wipe something off. I could not help.

He disappeared behind the thickening slivers of waving brambles and thorns. I thought they looked a bit like silhouetted reeds, their own black darker than the night’s, their motion sad and slow. Sometimes swans rested among them.

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The Craftsman’s Hands

It was one of the last warmer days of the summer. Some people can’t let go, but others embrace the cool air, knowing very well that one day before too long summer will return.

As the sun set on the mountain top, Giuseppe stood above his workshop table, sanding away a small piece of wood so that when touched it would feel like a fresh pearl. Against his aged, swollen, bent hands, there was nothing – other than maybe a woman’s touch – that felt so nice.

This is what he loved about woodworking: taking something so coarse and irregular, and meticulously toiling until it was a miraculously delicate, beautiful work of art. Who knows how many hours he was in that workshop – he truly loved his craft. As he tidied up, he looked at the intricacies of the wooden picture frame that he had made decades ago – it was riddled with cracks and the paint was peeling off. Inside the frame was a much younger photograph of him and his one other love.

He missed her dearly.

They had met many moons ago when his hands were smoother, less tender and rigid. Giuseppe had just begun to serve as an apprentice with the master wood carver in a small Italian town called Fabrizia– stuck up on a hill and stuck in its ways. He had brought the master’s work down to the valley to sell it in the market.

There were bookcases and saltshakers, animal figurines, flutes and beautiful boxes expertly carved by hand – their recently dried coats of varnish glistened in the sun.

She was from the valley, and stopped by the wood carvers stall – it was a small wooden wine bottle stopper with a figurehead that caught her eye. She smiled when she saw it, and Giuseppe smiled when he saw her. The head of the cork was a painted figure of Pinocchio, with a red hat and rosy cheeks.

She was beautiful and sweet and she didn’t mind the sawdust all over Giuseppe, or the smell of glue and resin and varnish. Her name was Marianna – and despite what people said, she was going to be a doctor.

Their parents forbade them from seeing one another – people from the mountain never married people from the valley.

Giuseppe and Marianna paid this no mind, and after a few years they grasped each other’s hands while they were married at a chapel halfway between their homes.

He worked tirelessly for a month perfecting the gift he would give his new bride. The picture frame was engraved with the mountain and the valley reminding them of their roots. Grape vines skillfully carved around the border represented all of the merry times they had. At the bottom and centre of the frame were two clasped hands – a symbol of their love.

Time passed, in shavings of wood, where hours would feel like seconds in his workshop. Marianna went off to the big city to become a doctor. She was following in the footsteps of Maria Montessori – the first female doctor in the country – who had recently made a big stir in the Italian newspapers. Just like Dr. Montessori, Marianna loved children. She couldn’t have any of her own, so she dedicated her life to helping as many children as she could.

She returned to her small town bringing the latest medicine for everyone. People in the mountain protested – they thought of it as poison. But she carried on, treating the most severely ill children and seeing them grow up to be healthy young adults.

It was the night before their 10th wedding anniversary. As the rain lightly came down on their house between the mountain and the valley, Giuseppe noticed the paint on the picture frame was fading – he picked up a brush and began touching it up.

Every year, he would repaint the frame keeping their love alive and bright.

He woke up early in the morning like any other day, but today there was something unusual. The joints at the end of his fingers felt stiff and sore. As he began to work on his next carving, the pain became worse and worse. He needed to rest his hands.

He went for a walk in the garden, and rubbed his aching hands. After a while the pain subsided, and Giuseppe thought nothing of it. He called his wife over to see the newly revitalized frame.
Marianna was elated, and the two left the house to share a bottle of wine and a meal, hand in hand.

As time passed, again in sawdust and slivers, Giuseppe’s pain got worse. But now his hand wouldn’t feel better as the day went on like it used to – it would get worse. Something happened that saddened Giuseppe deeply. He began to have great difficulty sawing, carving and sanding the wood. Just as his carving knife whittled wood, the bones inside his hand had been scraping against one another, slowly but relentlessly wearing down over time.

It was the evening of their 20th wedding anniversary, and the rain poured down on Giuseppe’s workshop. Marianna, who had noticed a change in her husband, peeked inside and saw Giuseppe clenching his teeth as he touched up the paint on the picture frame. She watched him as he picked up his knife to finish carving a small sculpture-- there was sweat on his brow and he was wincing after each small movement. In his frustration, he threw the sculpture to the ground, shattering it into pieces. He slammed the table.
“My hands! My hands! I am nothing without my hands!” He screamed, breaking down into tears.
Marianna rushed in and embraced him. She grasped his hands and promised him that she would do all she could to help him get better.

Giuseppe never liked medication. People in the mountains took herbs, olive oil, wine and occasionally brandy when they were ill. He had never thought to see a doctor, and most certainly had never taken a pill. However, while working in the big city, Marianna had met some scientists who were experimenting with a new drug. It was called paracetamol.

By this point, after so many years working, the joints in Giuseppe’s fingers had jagged edges, and scraped against one another like a sawtooth. These small shards of bone stuck out like the thousands of wood splinters in his hands.

Marianna begged her husband to try the pill. Although he was reluctant and distrustful of the new medicine, he tried it for his beloved wife.

It wasn’t a miracle cure, and his hands still had some pain. But the strange white pill worked, and after a while Giuseppe was back in his workshop. Giuseppe worked harder than ever, day by day creating new masterpieces. His works now became well known in the surrounding towns and soon, all over Italy. He was eternally grateful for his wife.

Time passed, and as his bones became worse, Marianna kept coming back with new medication that seemed to work just a little bit better each time, allowing Giuseppe to work in the shop and create new works of art.

But Giuseppe would stay less and less in his workshop, and more and more in the house with his wife. Marianna had been slowly losing weight and becoming weaker.

Despite his aching hands, he would carry her from the bed to her seat at the dinner table. He would cook for her, feed her, and bathe her. As she grew sicker still, he took her to the hospital where she would stay. There, he sat by her side and braided her hair – until it all fell out.

It was the evening before their 30th wedding anniversary and thunder clamoured in the sky. Giuseppe looked out of the hospital window at the torrential rain as he touched up the paint on the picture frame. His wife smiled at him weakly as tears ran down their faces, as they held each other for the last time.

The seasons passed and Giuseppe didn’t take his pills. Instead, he turned to a new medication -- wine. Years went by, and he became idle in his house while the wood in his shop rotted, and his tools rusted. Giuseppe’s hands became crooked, swollen and excruciatingly painful, but this pain did not compare to losing his beloved wife.

By the 40th anniversary of his wedding, his hands were so stiff and agonizingly painful that he could no longer paint the picture frame.

As he closed his bottle of wine with a cork, a splinter caught his thumb. The once smooth bottle stopper with Pinocchio carved on the head had become coarse and worn down with time. He took it to his workshop where he found a piece of sandpaper. Although it caused him great pain and took many hours, he sanded away until it was smooth. He gazed at the photo inside the deteriorated picture frame and for a moment, he smiled. He leaned the frame against his stoop and looked at the setting sun as the summer air began to cool.

A soccer ball flew through the air.

It crashed into the brittle picture frame, shattering it into several pieces. Giuseppe flew into a rage, cursing and scolding the child that came to fetch the ball. He chased after him, shaking his fist. As the child ran away in terror, his foot got caught in the cobblestones. His ankle twisted and he tumbled to the ground.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! It was an accident!” the child pleaded, as tears streamed down his cheek.

Giuseppe’s rage was halted when he saw bone piercing through the skin of the boy’s leg. Blood was dripping, and the ankle swelled.
“We need to get you to the hospital,” Giuseppe said, picking him up, and walking down the mountain.

The boy's name was Antonio. He was from up the mountain, and had never seen a doctor before. As his ankle healed, the boy helped Giuseppe around the shop. He began by washing windows, then sweeping the floors. He was sent to the town to buy new tools.

After a while, Giuseppe allowed him to hold the tools. He told him where to strike the wood. He told him where to put the blade, and how to sand. He started to take his pills again, so he could show Antonio with his own hands how to master the wood.

The young boy was fascinated by the meditative process of turning something as coarse as a piece of wood into a masterpiece. After his ankle healed, the boy would work at the shop every day after school – he had developed a liking for woodworking, and under the tutelage of Giuseppe, his skills began to flourish.

In return, the boy cooked for Giuseppe, helped him do chores and taught him how to play soccer. Antonio worked day in and day out in the shop, honing his technique, much to the delight of Giuseppe. Hours would feel like seconds, and soon he was covered in sawdust and smelled of wood varnish.

Time passed in shavings of wood, and the boy was now a young man. As the master woodworker aged, Antonio held his hand, and took him for walks in the garden.

The sun was radiant against the blue sky on the 50th anniversary of Giuseppe and Mariana’s wedding. Antonio smiled as he handed his mentor a gift. He unwrapped the gift for his dear friend – Giuseppe’s hands could no longer function.

It was a new hand carved and painted picture frame surrounding a photo of Giuseppe and Marianna.

It was beautiful.

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Stringing The Bow

When I was seven years old, my father stole me.

Italy, 1998. The sun bore down on empty streets lined with shops shuttered down. Lean dogs panted from underneath cars and café tables. My dad and I, wearing matching straw sunhats, ate oranges leaning against the rental car and watched the dropped peel squirm and curl on the pavement. When he drew a map from the glove box, his hand came away sticky – the fruit drops he always kept in there had melted. Despite my protests, tin and all went into the bin. It was the tin I coveted – it had a still-life of dewy fruit, and ladies in blue skirts trailing a banner with writing that looped illegibly. It was my dad who had taught me the words to describe what I liked about it: embossed, copperplate, cornflower blue.

The museum was the only place he could think of where he could cool me down. Remembering his expression now, I think he found it difficult to look at me inside. The museum had vaulting ceilings that served back footsteps in soft echoes, and smooth floors that seemed to have ice chips trapped in them, forever un-melting. Now see me: my orange plastic sandals, mosquito bites scraped open and weeping on my arms, snot peeking out of my nostril like a snail timid in its shell.

People spoke in hushed voices. My dad pointed out everyone in the paintings by name, like they were his friends. It was as though he had come here and was surprised to find he was the only one that had not been invited to the party. Later, when I was older, and also did not get invited to parties, I looked up these paintings on the museum website. Pastures with goat-men, hands slipped between thighs, cherubs urinating on green pastures, wizened men leaning against trees in bloom, chalices spilling over.

The sculptures were held in a room like a long corridor. My hands were eager to touch the stone pleats in a peplos here, a distended vein in a marble foot there. My dad swatted them away as he talked, but my hands have a short memory. Of their own accord, my fingertips reached out towards a woman throwing something invisible, and a man with antlers growing from his head like branches. My father was lost in the telling of Diana and Actaeon’s story. He saw something he was not supposed to see, crossed an invisible line. A transgression. The tale was interrupted because my own hand crossed another unseen line. The shriek of an alarm, a chorus of harpies circling me. Two old women fanning themselves with tour books turned away from a bust of Athena and all three together frowned down on me. A young boy with both hands safely held in those of his sister and father turned his brown eyes toward me like he knew just how tiring it was, to school your hands in foreign laws.

Back in the car my father told me the end of the story. Pacified now, I ate melting vanilla ice-cream from a cup in the shape of a polar bear’s head, running my fingers along the edges, tasting warm vanilla, my own sharp salt.

‘Actaeon was devoured by his own dogs,’ my dad said, and bit into his cone.

After a pause he continued, ‘Each of them has their own name, their own bloodline.’ In my mind, I saw each dog eating just one of Actaeon’s veins, like spaghetti.

Driving out of yet another city, it seemed like the lowering sun would never go down. My dad kept changing the tapes: gamelan, Django Reinhart, the tales of Beatrix Potter, back to Django Reinhart. He stopped to buy tobacco and peach ice-tea. Outside the petrol station, I sank the toe of my sandal into the tarmac. Who knew the world could melt like that, like sweets left in a hot car?

We inched forward in a traffic jam that reached to the horizon. The ice-tea had left a layer of slime on my throat that clung there, alien-like. At the side of the road, I threw everything up in a plastic bag that was the same flat blue as the sky. My head spun, the sound of cars travelling past like a seashell to my ear. As my dad was throwing away the bag, I stood and stared at the bin, brimming with almost empty ice-cream cups and bright plastic spoons. The wasps and flies hovered around it as though it was an altar, vibrating together as though in prayer. Inside, they teetered through a labyrinth of hundreds of little offerings, drunk on remnants of saliva, of sugar and fruit.

One great feverish beast, the traffic shivered slowly forward. A haze distorted the outlines of the cars, and I wondered – if I put my hand through it, would it touch another world? An old woman tapped a knuckle on my car window, a young man with bare torso behind her. Her teeth like pirate’s treasure, the sound of coins rattling in a plastic tub. My father ignored them, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, but her knock continued in a pattern of twos and threes. I fell asleep then, as though she had bewitched me. The sun was still lowering in the sky.

When I woke up, we were on the autostrada and there was a smell of coffee in the car. My dad caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and smiled at me, reaching back to give me a carton apple juice, the straw already pushed through. Parallel chains of lights moved as one in the cool night. One great migration going north, the other south. We had broken the fever.

I used to act it out sometimes, even a decade later. In the small bathroom in my father’s house, you could see yourself in the mirror from the bath. In the water, I was Diana, washed by her chaste nymphs. In the mirror, I was Actaeon, wide- eyed and penitent.

With great fury, I would throw hot water at my own reflection, the sound of the droplets loud on the linoleum, and cover my small breasts with an arm mottled with goosebumps. Diana had a big bottom and soft thighs, a mouth the colour of cranberries. She wore the moon in her hair. Acteon was only a hunter, someone who had to try, someone who made mistakes. Broad shouldered, hands calloused from holding back dogs frenzied with the scent of blood. I had never felt the muscles of a hunter. I did not know where I would find one, to touch their arms, their calves. I could only touch my own limbs, downy blonde hairs glinting on pale skin. Underneath, though, I could feel the shape of my bones, like bows newly strung.

It was always the antlers that showed first, like in the sculpture. Obscured by steam, my thin legs stretched thinner until my feet fell off into the bath water, and my ankles smoothed into hooves. In the end, the gods always grew bored of me, gave me back the body of a girl. After all, there were no dogs to tear me apart.

I would dry myself off, wipe down the mirror, the floor, my wet fingers melting into the roll of toilet paper. I always took great care making sure not drop of water was left. Not because I thought my father would get annoyed, but because I didn’t want him to turn into a stag. Some part of me feared the bathwater could be transformed by my hands. Imagine him thrashing through the hallway, the kitchen. The explosive bucking of his back legs, putting holes in the walls. The antlers rammed through the window, twisting and splintering through broken glass.

When I was seven years old, my father returned me. He carried me up the stairs to my mum’s apartment, the slight whistle of his smoker’s lungs singing into my ear. She wouldn’t let him past the door, and I rolled into the frame of her arms, half in a dream.

She scrubbed me under a hot shower the next morning, her sleeves rolled up. My hair was combed, and my nails were cut: twenty tiny fallen moons on the bathroom tiles. She snapped the two biggest tongues off the aloe vera plant in the kitchen window and coated the sun burn on the back of my neck, my arms, my shins, until I shone with it. When she told me to tell her everything that happened, all I could remember was the story of Diana and Actaeon. I drew it on the back of electricity bills, on pages torn from the telephone pad. Diana and her nymphs, with skin the colour of ham, eyelashes like spiders. Brown dogs rearing stiffly on their hind legs, the marker tearing through the paper where the stag was bleeding out, his blood seeping through onto the floor. My mum threw all the drawings away, Actaeon metamorphosing under eggshells and apple cores.

My dad never knew where to take me, after Italy. Sometimes he brought me to the park, where swans hissed at me, and all the other children seemed to know each-other. All we could think to do was swing, his fingers leaving imprints on my back that ghosted me on the way up. It was better to stay at home, eating cut fruit and watching nature documentaries. Leopards dragged dead gazelles into bare-limbed trees and aye-ayes tapped tree trunks for larvae, while the disembodied voice of a man explained why, as though the conduit between hands and hunger wasn’t obvious.

After my father left for New Zealand (but ended up first in Laos, then in Morocco), my mother took me to empty his house. I can see her now, the packing tape stretching and then tearing under the sharpness of her teeth, her amber ring flashing in the light straining through the blinds to touch her skin. The stray cats he had been feeding in the back garden watched from the doorstep, poised to bolt. My mother handled his belongings (books about Renaissance painting, old pewter cups, scraps of paper with only a single word on them) with care, as though they were to be interred to be used in another life.

In the empty bathroom, I looked in the mirror and disfigured my face with a hideous expression and opened my mouth as wide as my anatomy would allow. A wisdom tooth was forcing itself up through the gums in the back of my mouth, leaving a fetid taste in my mouth. When I pushed down on it with my tongue, it hurt deep inside my jaw. We need divine intervention to be able to metamorphose in an instant – otherwise, we can only rupture slowly, and even risk becoming trapped in the womb of ourselves. The bath, where I had not practised metamorphosis for some years now, did not look like a vessel from a mythological age. I closed my eyes and recalled how it felt to turn into a stag: the loss of language, the fattening of my tongue, binocular vision narrowing as my eyes migrate to the sides of my skull.

I have never met a hunter with a hunter’s muscles. Another three years later, and my wisdom teeth are still only surfacing. My hands are hungry, and I have not learned to shoot an arrow from the bow of my bones. One day, sitting on the swing in the park, I saw a greyhound run through the open green. Flesh rowing over ribs, paws skimming the underbelly. Travelling in its own pocket of existence, a coat black enough to put a hole in the mesh of the world. Following a blood line.

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Courageous

The whoosh-whoosh of blood in her ears beats in time with the swish-swish of leaves in the trees. She looks up and waits for the heavy blanket of tension to lighten. This sensation is intrusive and intimidating, as if her head is being smothered and pressed down on from above all at once. When she looks up, she feels a corner of that blanket lifting. She sees a white sky full of cloud. Blank, plain, shapeless at first. But as she stares a little longer, images drawn by shadows start to appear – a turtle’s curved back, a rabbit’s pointed ears. Nature is always home to her. A whisper of wind rustles the leaves and brings her attention closer to earth. At the top of the tree, orange nails at the ends of knobbly brown fingers wave a welcome in the wind. She thinks she can see which leaf is the highest, and the excitement of possibility lifts the blanket a little more.

She follows the path of the tallest leaf down, down, until she is looking at her feet. Her knees shake and her hands are gripped tight. The blanket feels heavy again and she feels suffocated by its burden. The previous few minutes come roaring back into her head. Shouted words. Slamming doors. Racing heart. She raises her head again, despite the weight which envelopes her.

Peace. Her mind goes blank but for registering the images she sees. A map draws itself in front of her, from the base of the tree towards that beckoning finger at the top, and she begins to climb. The first part is always the hardest, because the chunkiest bottom branches snake out at her shoulder height. She knows this tree though, her tree, so she loops both hands around the starting branch and swings her feet up, clinging on like an agile monkey playing at home. Her left leg and left arm hook around the branch, whilst she releases her right limbs in order to turn herself around. For a fleeting moment she is suspended sideways, and before gravity can win its dependable battle, she shimmies herself so that she is lying on top of the branch. She barely weighs the same as an adult Dalmatian but the effort causes her to stop and catch her breath. Adrenaline is still coursing through her body, from even before she left the ground. She sits up so that her legs swing off either side of the branch and her back rests against the trunk. She feels supported now, cradled. The leaves are well into their orange season and many have already lost their grip. The big kitchen window is still visible from where she sits, exposed by the lack of leaf-cover she usually relishes when the blanket falls. Glancing towards it like a zebra scans the savannah for lions, she thinks she sees a face, and fear envelops her mind again. The rush of dizziness it brings causes her world to tip sideways and threatens to knock her off balance.

She brings her attention to the cold trunk at her back and the solid seat beneath her, and closes her eyes. She has learned to soothe herself from this familiar, formidable feeling in her handful of years on earth. Go outside, look up, find a tree. If she is somewhere else and an attack comes, she knows she can get the same feeling from sitting with an animal if there is one present – usually a pet dog. The worst attacks are always at home so she loses that feeling of trepidation a little when out in public. Another valuable lesson learned in her short life – other people’s opinions are far more important than one’s own feelings.

If there are no trees or no dogs, she simply searches a hedge for an opening into another world. A window to adventure. A safe space. Everybody has a hedge.

She opens her eyes and looks up again, seeing the two branches where she likes to sit and read. Books are a wonderful means of escape. Books read in a tree are like living in another world entirely. In her imagination she finds freedom, and that is what she needs. These branches extend from the same point in the trunk but move away from each other at an angle, forming a “V” when viewed from below. She wishes she had a book to read in her spot but knows it is too soon to go and get it. If she sits too long without a distraction, the corners of that heavy blanket will batten down around her again. So, she continues to climb.

She stands on her starting branch and uses both hands on the main trunk to steady herself. There are three more branches to climb to reach the point where she can pull herself onto the V, which is about halfway up the tree. From here the trunk begins to narrow, the branches slender and more frequent. Only a few are strong enough to take her weight. She picks her way up slowly, concentrating on the present moment. Once she has steadied herself after each big move, she looks up and sees the tallest leaf. This is her goal. She has spent many years (to her mind) climbing trees, and is now not just content with climbing for the sake of climbing. Perhaps the level of distraction she needs has become greater. Her current personal challenge is to take the tallest leaf from each tree she conquers. A sibling or cousin once dared her to do so, and to prove them wrong she went higher than any of them dared go. Now she does it solo because the intense concentration required allows her to block everything else out. She treasures the pretty leaves in a diary under her mattress. A self-proclaimed trophy.

She has arrived at the point where the main trunk has started to split into its many fingers, the final part of her ascent. She balances with one foot on the last thickest branch that will hold her weight and touches the toes of the other foot on a slightly higher, slender finger. From the torso up she is amongst the leaves and for a moment imagines she is one of them, swaying to the music in the breeze. She leans forwards and upwards to reach her prize, fully extending one arm. The leg that is holding her weight straightens and pushes on its toes to gain the extra height. Her leaf is about a forearm’s length away, so without looking down she transfers her weight to the other foot on that slender branch and stretches once more.

She is still reaching when with a snap the white sky has turned orange and brown and the world is upside down. She free-falls head first towards the ground. Survival kicks in and she tries to grab the branches above her, but gravity is confusing and those branches can’t help. She registers no fear. There is no time.

As if a pause button is pressed on a fast-forwarding video, the kaleidoscope of colours stops still. She looks up towards the sky, at her feet. One foot has been wedged between the arms of the V where they extend from the trunk. Her reading spot. Her safe haven. Her other foot dangles loose in the air. Even in this precarious position she feels safe enough to take a breath. A pause to process not how she will free herself or what just happened, but to enjoy this feeling of weightlessness. To take in a different-looking world. Then she curls her body and arms up towards the branch that saved her, releases her foot and swings both feet down until she is standing on a smaller branch below. She climbs down delicately and sits on her starting branch, cradled once again. The exhilaration of that moment hits her, and she feels euphoric. Her child’s brain has not yet learned to consider the consequences of a different outcome. She looks up through those orange fingernails and sees a cloud-bird taking flight. The back door slams and her name is shouted. Time for school.

It is well over a decade later when she fully processes the significance of this event. The little child falling to her likely death. Her survival. And her silence.