Before I leave the house in the mornings my mother taps the antique barometer with her nicotine-stained index finger. The needle wavers and then settles halfway between “Change” and “Fair.” I dip my fingers in the wooden Holy Water font and make the sign of the cross. She kisses me on the forehead with her bristly lips and I stride down the path towards the still-wreathed in mist Dublin Mountains. I am nine and the walk to school is fifteen minutes door-to-door. The remnants of a hedgehog sit next to the storm drain by the telephone pole.
Stray cats, whose chorus makes enough of a racket to raise the dead, populate the lanes behind our house. In the darkness I can see their silhouettes on the back wall, sultry creatures steeped in witchcraft and bad luck. The neighbor across the road throws stones at the cats, all the while puffing on his cigarette. Every so often he scores a hit and cries out, “Chalk one up for the good guys!”
Nightly, my mother puts three drops in each eye to keep the dryness at bay. Her kitchen cupboard houses eight kinds of medication, instructions printed in small type on the narrow white labels. I’m not sure how she keeps all of the doses and times straight, but when I ask her if she’s making sure to take her pills, she says, “Of course, do you think I’m daft?”
On the phone the other day, she asked me five times whether I was happy to be back teaching in the classroom. I hadn’t the heart to tell her it had been almost a year since I returned to the high school. “Your brother is leaving for America tomorrow,” she told me five times, also.
When my father was sick, she took charge of making sure he took his medication and when the hospital said they’d have a nurse stop in to change the bandages on his leg, she told them not to bother, that she’d take care of him just fine. He’s been dead fourteen years now and the shoe is on the other foot; only he’s not there to tie the laces.
When I visit her over spring break, I check her bathroom to make sure she’s using the shower. Daddy Long-Legs webs are the prominent feature in the shower stall, the walls and floor dry as the Californian landscape I’ve recently escaped. Indignant when challenged, she says, “I take a bath a few days a week.” Who am I to argue? Instead, I mosey into her bathroom when she falls asleep in front of the television set. The face cloth is damp and the towels dry. Best I can figure is she’s dabbing herself with the cloth and leaving it at that.
At night I lay sleepless, jetlagged, listening to the sounds of the house. Outside, nightjars sing and flit from branch-to-branch of the bare trees. Worry is my name, the second son of the woman asleep on the other side of the landing; her snoring, a symphony. I hum to its tune until I fall asleep sometime before dawn.
The bulb-holder is brass and not securely attached to the lamp. If you time it just wrong you can feel the hum of electricity running down to the wall socket. When I was a small boy I placed a wet hand on a light switch and was thrown across the room. I cried and blamed my brother for hitting me, but my mother said he’d been nowhere near me.
Potatoes & Chicken
The spuds in her downstairs bathroom have sprouted limbs. Lumpy potato monsters crawl across the tiled floor, blind and lost. On top of the gas furnace next to the fridge, a Tupperware of raw chicken sits like one of my students’ unfortunate science experiments. The stench is mighty, and Jesus knows when the breasts were set out to thaw.
I sing the song as I walk down to the shops to buy the newspaper. “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl…” If you see a singleton magpie it’s best to spit on the ground so you’re not dogged by bad luck. The magpies are sheened birds with glinting eyes. Their industry is remarkable and I spend a long time outside the newsagent’s shop watching them go about their business. “Dirty creatures,” my mother calls them. They remind me of undertakers, with their black & white plumage and officious way of bustling about.
The Liffey rushes through the town and beneath the narrow bridge, the water slate-gray and foamy. A heron wades deliberately in the narrows, its slender legs more suited to a child’s construction set than their actual purpose. Out the window of a pub I watch the bird stalk some small creature for its prey. Time does the same thing to my mother; the patient waiting, the unrushed watching as she slowly forgets to take care of herself. Eventually, the heron pierces a mouse with its long, slender beak, the chase over. It feasts. So, too, my mother will succumb when in a moment of stumbling forgetfulness she might miss a step at the top of the stairs, or take too many pills, too many times. Watchful, I am unable to rescue the mouse from the final strike, and unless something is done soon, I’ll be unable to warn my own mother of the waiting predator.
In plastic bags of indeterminate vintage are snapshot envelopes containing thousands of photos going back to the early days of the last century. Dead relatives stare defiant into the lens of an old Kodak Brownie; like the one my mother used use when we were kids. Housed in a brown leather case, the lens extended on a black accordion-style contraption and she would say, “Watch the Birdie!” Some years back I wrote her and asked if she’d catalog the photos as best she could, but the task must have seemed overwhelming and on my last visit the negatives and snapshots were untouched.
She’s smoked for over seventy years, religiously, a devout follower of nicotine. Her fingers are stained the yellowish-ochre color of the most committed disciple. Our house growing up stank of cigarette smoke, our clothes, too, and the car. Ashtrays dotted the landscape of our house, small graveyards of butts, a peculiarly dissonant form of potpourri. Somehow, she doesn’t smoke in bed. Small mercies. Burn the house down. We worry, nonetheless. Her chair, a broken-down armchair that’s been in the sitting room for twenty or more years, is spotted, like a leopard’s hide, with the burns of dropped cigarettes from when she’s nodded off in front of the television. The same chair is in the corner of her room in the nursing home. Has to go outside to smoke there, down two floors and out into the cold. At least she’s exercising.
A box of love letters and cards sent from old girlfriends, a small, silver Celtic knot ring, business cards, and journals. I left these things behind when I abandoned Ireland for the west coast of the United States. I thought I asked my youngest brother to mind them for me, but someplace between flight and his moving house, the box disappeared. My mother is like that box of belongings; her memories and verbal tics soon to fade from memory as the outer shells of her stacked-doll self fall away and reveal a lonely emptiness at the core. Sometimes, I wonder if a stranger in a dump stumbled across all those letters sent to me by now middle-aged women?
The great horned owls came back just the other night. Missing for months, these light-boned creatures flew into the thick branches of the MacArthur avocado trees and reignited their cross-orchard conversations. In the light of the super moon I saw one’s shadow cross the meshed window, a soul in movement, perhaps a message from another place. Late, the hooting quieted, there’s a sudden energy and a frantic thrashing in the dead leaves beneath the tree. Half awake, my fast-beating chest stills only when the talons pierce my skin.