An excerpt from Deirdre Shanahan’s Carrying Fire and Water
The swamp of tea bags near the sink grew with each one she threw on. Almost the end of her trip home and she’d dropped scraps of meat and packaging into the same bin for two weeks. Either the council’s refuse collectors didn’t care or her mother didn’t, but pale chicken skin slid against tins and plastic containers which once held tomatoes. She wanted to delve into the slush, remove each item and divide the lot as she had done in Japan: a separate container for refuse to burn, food, and everything else.
You ready, Yolande? her mother called. Let’s go while the day’s still good.
The sun glimmered on the lake as they drove west. The lingering warmth was unusual at this time of year. Everywhere people claimed she had brought the fine weather with her. She hoped so, hoped landscape might be medicinal for her mother. Anyone undergoing tests deserved it.
The shortcut took them through the bog, lumpy rustland with a hush of heather. Mustardy tones she hadn’t seen for years. Out on the main road, leaves glowed like embers in fires. Studs of orange berries in the trees, strands of tiger lilies running wild. Soft pink briar roses. She realised hadn’t been around to see these things since leaving for college. She’d gone this way with Mickey when she had started at the secondary school and he’d offered to drive her to the bus in town. They’d taken a ride in his van, windows steaming, as the days shrugged away from summer. Ropes swished in the back and his toolboxes rolled around. She’d rubbed at the vapour to make a hole to see out.
By the pier, with the Cloughmore mountains sliding against the sky, Yolande stopped and leaned over to release her mother’s door. A light breeze caught it as it swung open. Her mother sat in profile against a cliff edge, her pale skin drained of blush and her cheeks having lost their roundness. But her eyes were the same sharp blue as always and she wore lipstick in case she met a neighbour or someone important: the doctor, the priest.
Revives a person, doesn’t it dear? Getting out. Her mother’s hands lay clasped in her lap like a closed purse. And you’ve been lucky with the weather.
Her mother, once strong, had been able to walk for miles over rocky paths and hills. But in the past month, since treatment began, Yolande had come to see her mother’s internal systems churning with medications and radiation, crumbling inside. The things hospitals do to you, her mother had said.
They sat on a bench, an orange scarf concealing her mother’s throat. How many more drives might there be before Yolande would have to return? With the span of oceans between continents, there was little she could do, but while she was still around she’d drive her mother anywhere she wanted to go.
Far out, the sheer cliff nipped into the sea. Clefts and eaves of rock, ridged with gorse and heather. Seabirds scrapped, their squalls rising. Waves broke in flips, charged at the coast in steady rolls. Far out, surfers rode the swell and slipped over the surface like tiny fish. Matsuko had told her he had walked in the alps north of Tokyo. When she’d asked him about sea cliffs in Japan, he’d laughed and told her most of the coast was too unstable for footfall. Instead they had lounged over long weekends in cities and smaller towns inland. He had introduced her to Onsen, his favourite, a traditional one by the sea, and she had sat on a boulder by a warm pool as steam rose from the mineral water and the women were glazed with light and she had supposed the same was happening to him, in his section.
We’ll call on Mickey, her mother said. You should see him before you return and he might be in. She gestured towards the garden road whose little houses stretched beside long fields.
Would you like to? Yolande asked.
Oh yes. He’s been low. He’ll be glad to see us.
How d’you mean?
The poor fella’s not been right for months. Down in himself.
Unsure what her mother meant, they returned to the car and Yolande drove on. Mickey hadn’t been mentioned in phone calls or emails. A reedy man, her father’s younger brother, he was the only one besides her parents who hadn’t joined the others off to England or America.
She had wondered, while at school, did Mickey not know? Could he not see she wore a dress and not her old jeans? She had thought his brushing fingers on her thigh were a kind of mistake, how as an uncle he hadn’t realised. Until again. When he came to visit on a Sunday afternoon. Her parents were in town. His hand rising. The nub of his thumb at her knicker edge, until she shifted off the chair at his table and stepped away. The third occasion, at the back of his house, he was eager to devour her and caught her shoulder, pulled her so she had to kneel. She’d told no-one. Let it choke.
The way he is, no woman’d put up with him, her mother said. Smoking and reading the papers till all hours. Only ever going to market and town.
He’d been bright. At school until he was sixteen. He should have known. Must have known. She stopped the car at his house, reluctant to go inside. In Japan, she had been shy to enter shrines and temples, fearful of stepping into a sacred space. On the new continent, she had tried to put the past behind her and for the most part, in the tight streets of Tokyo, in the rush of catching trains to work, in the work itself, she had managed to do it. The very tautness of daily life had freed her.
Mickey ranged the kitchen, tall, unsettled, searching cupboards. He didn’t raise his head to acknowledge them.
Hello. Her mother greeted him while he opened one cupboard, then another.
I’ve no minestrone, he said.
Come here and talk to us.
I won’t. He bent to a low cupboard, opened it, and scanned the shelves.
We were passing.
Ah, passing. Passing.
Yolande drove us.
Yolande, he repeated as if naming a brand of soup.
His eyes, when he stood, were russet dark, and his face had drawn thinner. He seemed taller than Yolande recalled and it took her a moment to realise it was because he’d lost weight. Most likely due to working in the fields, cutting rushes or making silage. His movements were twisty with nerves and he would not sit.
How are you, Mickey? Her mother continued.
Hungry. For there’s the sheep to ready for the show. He opened a tin and poured its contents into a pot. He set the soup to warm on the gas. They let him sit and eat, and drink, though he made no offer of tea. Finally he pushed away his empty bowl. I’ve to get on, he said abruptly. Have to be there by three or what’ll the other fellas think.
He had not noticed her. She may as well have been a sack of potatoes. They followed him out and he opened the gate to the field, tying it to the post with blue plastic string. She should say something. Speak. After so long she must. She wasn’t the confused girl who had feared upsetting her parents. The notion pounded. Reverberant like a hammer dropped in a box. She should make him see the small damage. Before he got older and it was too late. Let him know of the humiliation which had lain with her, trembling and churning, so it was not until she left college she had a proper boyfriend. Even then a sliver of fear. A trace. Until Japan, continents away, where Matsuko’s gentle manners charmed her.
Mickey pulled a sheep from the pen, grabbing its head with a twist. It scampered with shock, the sticks of its black legs skittering in a kind of dance as though it did not know its own weight. Astride the animal, he held the face up and back with a deft flick of his wrist until the sheep calmed and he drew it to the small trailer. He slung it into the cab so it knocked against the tin.
Delaney won last year and I want to beat him.
Mickey rubbed his hands together and surveyed the sheep.
Of course, her mother said, though despite his years of entering he’d never won a thing.
No more than the Texel’s or Suffolk. You can’t beat a black face mountain one. He ran his hands across the back of the sheep and underneath, over the teats. He pulled open the mouth.
Teeth held all, Yolande remembered from when Mickey had bred horses. But sheep, he’d said, had only one set of teeth, so it was vital they met the upper gum in alignment. He hugged and twisted the head and even from a distance she could see the animal’s blue eyes grow shivery with light. He knew the tricks and turns of the livestock and she wondered which categories he’d entered. Yearling or Ram. Open. Restricted. In late August, he’d used to sit at his kitchen table with the floral plastic cloth and a stubby notebook, mulling it over.
You know them well and how to work with them, her mother said. Though a pharmacist’s daughter, she had picked up the ways of the land. We won’t delay you.
Yolande stood near the window, looking onto the field. She should ask. Why had he taken advantage. Betrayed her parent’s trust. And hers. He was not the son of a poor farmer who might have been cabined with all his family, but of one who was prosperous. Had he not known better? It was wrong. All wrong.
Pull up some carrots for yourselves before you leave. Plenty of them. You can bring the rest back to the house.
You had good crops this year? her mother said, and in a lower tone, added, Whatever else, he can stir growth out of the earth.
Okay, Yolande said, I’ll get them. She picked up a small garden fork from the outside sill where it had warmed in the sun.
She would return. When the sheep show was over and he had no distractions. He would have to listen as she spat out words caged in for years. She would challenge. Scald him with the truth.
At the lower field,the brambles were pimply and underdeveloped because of the early summer rain. Thebridge over the ditch was an old door with a few split planks supporting it, though its appearance belied its strength for it had been there through all the years from the time when her grandparents were still alive. Old rainwater sumped the soil around it. Grass and reeds clotted the flow, shimmering gold under the full light of the sky. She had jumped over the ditch as a kid, lost to danger, rather relishing it and not realising ditches developed from runnels and brooks, following the contours of the land. An irrigation, necessary, without which neither her father nor anyone around might have raised their stock. A moisture so present, so plentiful. Part of the air she breathed. Part of what she’d longed for when she’d gone away.
One Sunday morning, after days in the Tokyo heat, she had taken a train into the mountains. During the week the office air conditioning clothed her in coolness, but at weekends the heat left her drained. By mid-afternoon most days, setting out into the city to pick up this or that item, her clothes would be moist with sweat and she’d be done for the rest of the day. Even the dainty hats the Japanese women wore, one of which she’d bought, did not shield her from the sun. The most welcome part of her day had become the bath she’d take when she returned home.
Along the railway line, miles of flats gave way to houses as the train left the city. The houses, modest at first, became larger and larger and broken up, spaced apart, by farmland and fields. As the train gained elevation, the fields became greener and were given over, unexpectedly, to plentiful rows of vines. She disembarked at midday, stepping into sunlight so intense it slammed the top of her head despite the baseball cap she wore. But the decreased density of buildings and people made it easier to bear, and at her leisure she wandered the town, followed the main street to the outskirts. At the far reaches, a path led under trees whose canopy was cooling. On a slim wooden sign were symbols and, beneath them, a word: Araiyakushimae.
The shrine at the back of the courtyard was smaller than others she’d seen, but with its red trimmed roof and gold filigree running like lace along the side, it had a gracious quiet about it. In the cool of the temple, one man sat in prayer while others straggled at the back. Yolande wondered if she might not join them and she thought of home. School. How she had been taught prayer was the essence of distilled thought.
She tripped down the steps to collect her shoes. Evergreen trees in the courtyard twisted around each other like people writhing, contorting, trying to get rid of themselves. At the other end of the courtyard, under a canopy, rose a greystone statue of a human figure, no higher than a child. At its feet a man, crouching, ladled water from a spring and poured it over the statue’s head. He wore a grey backpack with a floppy, creased sunhat, and he smiled as Yolande approached.
Hello. I am Matsuko. Of the Language Association Guide Service. His lapel badge confirmed this with a logo like a bunch of grapes. I can give you tour of the shrine? Or the castle?
No. No, thank you. I can’t stay long.
Ah. It’s pity. He went on ladling, water gushing and falling. The statue was somewhat like a Buddha, but also somehow feminine. A wife, she thought, or an acolyte.
Araiyakushimae, she said. What does it mean?
It mean new waters of life. And we need this in the heat. He leant towards the statue and rubbed its head. If I rub — he pointed to the head and waist — and I ill, it make me better. I have bad eyes. Cataract coming. He removed his glasses and blinked, smiling into what he could not see.
Am I allowed?
Oh yes. You try. He handed over another wooden ladle, as long as her arm, and she dipped it into the trough. Drops rained down the figure.
Kneeling on the damp grass, she dug into the soil, pulling up carrots with the garden fork. She knelt as she had with Mickey’s knees in her face at the back of the house, as he undid his trousers until she’d flown up, brushing against his leg, and run.
Florets of light green leaves strayed open as she wrenched and tugged. Soil caked her fingers, ridged her nails, clogged underneath them. The carrots, good sturdy bodies, lay on the ground, an odd glove of seven fingers. She gouged the largest. Scored and struck. Bashed in the lovely flesh. Made weals and gashes. The next and next, until seven were wasted with nice, clean cuts and lay like fallen soldiers, all the goodness out of them.
Her mother was sitting outside the house on a rickety dining chair as Yolande came up the fields. Mickey trudged to the back door. Carrying a plastic sack which once held feed or meal, he’d been down to the stack of turf. Stooped low, as if wizened, he set down the turf from his arms the way he might see a poorly child to rest. He shook his hands in release of the burden, turned and tugged the sack, with a scrape, as he loped along the concrete path.
They drove back in a kind of silence broken by passing reflections from her mother, thoughts on improvements to the road and the growing number of houses. With the views, one could build holiday homes which would repay the cost, and to which anyone from Dublin and Limerick, she was sure, would be eager to come. She leant forward to switch on the radio, unleashing a rush of outdated pop music. The local station still did not invest. No wonder everyone left for more exciting places.
A shame about the carrots. Usually he has beautiful ones. And sweet, too.
No. They weren’t good. The wheel passed through Yolande’s fingers.
A poor harvest, after all. One wouldn’t know what had got to them. A rabbit. A fox.
In the evening, readying to eat at the local hotel, she showered in the bathroom downstairs, kept for visitors. Her father had built the extension years before with the help of Mickey, who even then, as far as she could see, mostly set breeze blocks in place. She would not go back to him. Time with her mother was more pressing. She had grown beyond this place, where the old were shrinking before her eyes. She stood in pools of water under the shower head, slathering creamy water around her shoulders, drops trickling down her breasts, onto her belly, over her thighs, down her legs. The warmth was soothing on her skin. She flannelled down the bruises of encounters, of words and glances, and carefully washed away the hold of the years.