“Will you pipe down outta that,” Dilly says. “I said will you pipe down outta that Dilly says.” Demon of a crow out there before daylight, cawing and croaking, rummaging in the palm tree that is not a palm tree but for some reason misnamed so. Queer bird, all by herself, neither chick nor child, with her omening and her conundrumming.
It gives Dilly the shivers, it does, and she storing her precious bits and pieces for safety’s sake. Wrapping the cut glasses in case her husband, Cornelius, is mad enough to use them or lay one down before Crotty the workman, who’d fling it on a hedge or a headland as if it were a billy can. Her little treasures. Each item reminding her of someone or of something. The bone china with the flowers that Eleanora loved, and as a child she would sit in front of the china cabinet rhapsodizing over the sprigs of roses and forget- me-nots painted with such lifelikeness on the biscuit barrel and two-tiered cake plate. The glass jug a souvenir of that walk in the vast cemetery in Brooklyn in the twelfth month with the tall bearded man, searching the tombstones and the flat slabs for the names of the Irish-born and coming upon the grave of a Matilda, the widow of Wolf Tone, and pausing to pay tribute to her.
She is asking her possessions to keep watch over the house, to mind Rusheen. Asking her plates with pictures of pears and pomegranates, asking the milk-white china cups with their beautiful rims of gold, dimmed here and there from the graze of lips, a few cracked, where thoughtless visitors had flung them down. That raver for one, who ate enough for four men, raving on about Máire Ruadh, whoever Máire Ruadh was, some lore that Eleanora was versed in. Books and mythologies her daughter’s whole life, putting her on the wrong track from the outset.
The suitcase is already down in the hall, secured with a leather strap because one of the brass catches is a bit slack. Lucky it is, that Con had to go miles away for the mare to be covered. She wants no tears, no sniveling. Amazing that he had got softer over the years, particularly in the last nine months and she laid low with the shingles, often walking in her sleep, anything to quell the pain, found by him out at the water tank, splashing water on herself to ease the ire. “What did I do wrong?” he kept asking, putting his cap on and off as he loitered. “Nothing, you did nothing wrong,” she answered, canceling the tribulation of years.
Insisted that he take Dixie the dog with him, knowing that at the moment of leaving, Dixie would also lie down and whine with a human plaint.
Dilly thumps the armchair cushions in the breakfast room, talks to them, reckons that the swath of soot at the back of the chimney will stop it from catching fire. She knows Con’s habits, piling on turf and logs, mad for the big blaze, reckless with firewood like there was no tomorrow. The big note she has written is propped up on the mantelpiece: “Be sure to put the guard over the fire before you go to bed and pull back the sofa.” For some reason she winds the clock that has been already wound and lays it face- down in its usual place, ticking doggedly.
Out in the dairy she scalds basins, cans, and milk buckets, because one thing she does not want to come home to is the aftersmell of milk gone sour, a lingering smell that disgusts her and reminds her of sensations she daren’t recall.
Madam Crow is still squawking and Dilly shouts back to her as she goes out to the clothesline to hang a few things, his things, her things, and a load of tea cloths.
A cold morning, the grass springy with the remains of frost and in the hollows of the hillock a few very early primroses, shivering away. Funny how they sprouted in one place and not in another. They were the flowers she thought of when she thought flowers, them and buttercups. But mostly she thought of other things, duties, debts, her family, the packets of soup that she blended and warmed up for Con and herself for their morning elevenses, comrades at last, just like her dog, Dixie, and Dixie’s pal Rover before it got run over. Poor Dixie pining and disconsolate, off her food for weeks, months, expecting her comrade back.
The March wind flapping everything, the clothes as she hangs them, the shreds of plastic bags and silage bags caught on the barbed wire making such a racket, and tears running down her cheeks and her nose, tears from the cold and the prospect of being absent for weeks. Yearling calves plastered in mud and muck where they have rolled, dung everywhere, on their tails and on the grass that they crop, the two younger calves frisky, their kiss curls covered in muck, playful, then all of a sudden mournful, the cries of them like a bleat as their mother has sauntered out of their view. No mound or blade of grass unknown to Dilly, all of it she knew, the place where her sorrows had multiplied and yet so dear to her, and how many times had they almost lost Rusheen, the bailiff one day sympathizing with her, saying it hurt him to see a lady like her brought so low, the bills, the unpaid bills, curling up at the edges, on a big skewer, their names that time in the Gazette. Yes, the poor mouth and fields going for a song, and her daughter, Eleanora, her head in the clouds, quoting from a book that all a person needed was a safe and splendid place. Still, her visits were heaven, a fire in the front room and chats about style, not jumping up to clear away the dishes at once, but lolling and talking, while knowing that there were things that could not be discussed, private things pertaining to Eleanora’s wanderlust life. How she prayed and prayed that her daughter would not die in mortal sin, her soul eternally damned, lost, the way Rusheen was almost lost.
There was the time, the once-upon-a-time, when the gray limestone wall ran from the lower gate all the way past the cottages to the town, girding their acres. But no longer so, fields given away for nothing or half nothing to pay rates or pay bills, timber taken without so much as a by- your-leave and likewise turf from the bog, every Tom, Dick, and Harry allowed to cut turf, to save turf and to carry it home in broad daylight. How many times had they come within a hair’s breadth of losing it. Still, her pride was salvaged, Rusheen was theirs, the old faithful trees keeping watch and enough head of cattle to defray expenses for at least six months or so to come. Not starving like unfortunate people in countries where rain, drought, and wars reduced them to gaping skeletons.
Madam Crow still in her roost with her caw caw caws, the morning still cold, but not the bitter cold of a week earlier when Dilly had to wear mittens for her chilblains, had to drag the one storage heater from room to room to keep things from getting damp, to keep wallpaper from shedding, her ornaments stone cold like they were frostbitten. And that stab of memory when she put her cheek to the cheek of a plaster lady called Gala and suddenly back in that cemetery in Brooklyn with the bearded man, Gabriel, and the kiss that tasted of melted snow, but God the fire in it. Gabriel, the man she might have tied the knot with except that it was not meant to be. Putting memories to sleep, like putting an animal down.
In a way she was glad to be going, glad that Dr. Fogarty had got a hospital bed for her, after months of delaying and procrastination, he believing there was nothing wrong with her, only nerves and the toll of the shingles, telling her that the shingles made people depressed, that and other bull, how shingles took a long time to abate, and she telling him that they never abated, that they were always there, worse before rain, barometers of a sort. Patsy, who had done a bit of nursing, coming twice a week to her rescue, bathed the sores, remembered a few things from her nursing days, what ointment to apply, keeping watch to make sure that the scabs had not looped around her back to form a ring, because that circular loop was fatal. Patsy giving them their Latin name, herpes zoster, describing how the pain attacked the line of the nerves, something Dilly knew beyond the Latin words when she had wept night after night, as they oozed and bled, when nothing, no tablet, no prayer, no interceding, could do anything for her, a punishment so acute that she often felt one half of her body was in mutiny against the other half, a punishment for some terrible crime she had committed.
“How long more?” she would ask of Patsy.
“They have to run their course, missus,” Patsy would reply, and so they had and so they did and most mornings she would twist round to look in the wardrobe mirror to make sure they had not spread, that the fatal ring had not formed. She’d never forget the moment that Patsy let out a big hurrah and said, “We’re winning, missus, we’re sucking diesel!” because the little scabs had changed color, had got more wishy-washy, which was a sign that they had decided to recede and in time their skins would fall off.
Then the next ordeal, a matter so private, so shaming it could not be discussed with Patsy and scarcely with Dr. Fogarty himself. She asked him to take her word that she was spotting blood and to please not examine her but give her something to stem it, balking at the thought of having to undress and be seen half naked and her insides probed.
“You won’t feel pain . . . only discomfort,” he had said.
“Don’t ask me, doctor, don’t ask me to do it,” she had begged, and he could not understand the fears and eventually her blurting it out: “We were reared in the Dark Ages, doctor,” and he tuttutting that, then opening a rickety folding screen for her to go behind and undress herself.
Before a week, him calling in person to speak alone with Cornelius in the sitting room, and their coming out and telling her that she would have to go to Dublin for observation. Observation for what? As if she were a night sky.
Indoors she pulls on her fawn camelhair coat and brown angora beret, then drags the butt of a worn lipstick across her mouth without even consulting a mirror and listens for the beeps from Buss the hackney driver, who has promised to be there at eleven sharp. Dipping her fingers in the holy water font, she blesses herself repeatedly and says to the house, “I’m off now, but I’ll be home soon, I’ll be home soon.” To her amazement Buss has stolen a march on her and come into the kitchen unawares, and flustered now, because her hour has come, she says with almost girlish effusiveness, “You’re the best man, Buss, and the best shepherd in the land.”
Copyright © 2006 by Edna O’Brien. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.