Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award winning entries

Horses by Sally Jubb

Inspired by Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ (1930)

Word had it Pastor Manton once said a woman with eyes like hers could have no soul and that it wasn’t possible for a woman with a mouth like hers to enter the gates of Heaven.  Word had it too, that the Pastor, then only twenty-six himself, and hare-lipped, one sickness visitation had put his hand on to her place and tried to kiss her.  

Word had it by my mother’s sister Martha who always speaks to truth.  She’d been bringing coffee in slipper feet, spied through a crack in the door and seen the whole event.  As he laid his hands upon my mother, before she squealed and ducked his mouth, he spoke her name real low.  Awful low, Martha said, like it was hurting him somewhere terrible.  Lamorna.

They say beauty forgot this house the night I was born, giving me a slit mouth like Pa and an egg-plain face, so much that people would say out loud, at the store and in the pew, ‘She’s all his and that is the truth’, as if the fact might somehow have been brought into question.  Only the colour of my eyes belong to her, but even then, dilute.    

Mother used to like to paint.  I’m not talking about the front porch, although she would have painted that if Pa would have let her have a brush big enough and permission.  A woman standing out front porch for no good reason wasn’t right.  A woman some place indoors with an easel and spriggy cotton apron was a pretty sight to behold, if she had time and luxury to do that kind of thing.  A woman with three children and a hard working husband to properly tend should consider closely her priorities.  Such a woman, who put frivolity and vain fantasies above these things, was not a pretty sight, however contrary her sapphire eyes may plead.

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Mother always painted the same picture.  A dark slate sky above an emerald mountain, with a wild horse galloping across it.  It was always the same mountain, rising to the sharpest peak, like something she’d seen one time in a children’s book.  She painted, lips parted in concentration.  When you watched her you could see how she loved to squelch that wet blackness onto the palette and poke her brush straight in it.  Sometimes the horse might be piebald or white, or pinking grey, but the tail and mane were always the same.  Black and impossibly long, the wind dragging at them, as though the horse was in a never-ending race, with the wind determined to keep it tethered.   

If you asked her where it was, she’d say faraway, and that one day she’d go and find that place, then come back to fetch us, and we’d all live there together in a little brick castle by a pretty stream so melodic, and that sound would be the last thing we heard each night, and the first, as the sun climbed over the emerald mountain.  The we in question was my elder sister, little brother Abe, and me.  I was never sure if it included Pa.  One time when Martha asked her why she’d married him, she said because of his velvet eyes, how she’d seen poetry in them, sadness too, and Martha had called her a fool, as mother wept.  Mother often wept.

Word had it there’d been another sister, worn two-tone shoes, cropped hair and moved to the city never to return.  Sometimes they said they dearly wished they’d the courage to follow, but wed at seventeen, as their own mother and her mother before her, they could only dare to imagine another world beyond the begonias, board and batten houses, and drudgery, where the only thing to distinguish one house from another was the curtain in the upstairs window.   Downstairs, the windows were shuttered, and most believed only fancy types would string up curtains where there were perfectly good

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shutters.  Martha reckoned when mother tacked Chantilly lace below as well as up, Pa had pulled it down.

When he came from the field and dinner was not immediately before him, he would say in a hush voice, ‘Your husband is home, Lamorna.’  Then he’d sit, eyes closed, until he heard his plate upon the table.  We had to wait in silence with him.   Silence thick as the grime beneath his broken nails, the pores downside his nose.  We had a notion what he was thinking.  Had his wife had been wasting precious time again?  How those horse tails were pretty enough, but the legs were all wrong and looked like they was going backwards.  How he’d told her as much, and was glad of it.  

So she laid those plates down swift as she swept them up.  Then set to washing dishes, and later, when she’d finished darning, scrubbing the stove, sweeping, polishing the knives and all the other things she had to perform, through those paper walls we’d hear the muffled choke of Pa before he fell asleep.

When Abe was twelve Pa took him into the fields.  Mother said he was too clever for ignorant stuff and he could turn his hand to some profession but Pa said she’d been filling people’s heads with fancy ideas too long and it was time for Abe quit book-learning and turn his hand to the machines.  

The machines had arrived the year before.  The men were always talking about the machines, how they were the future, how in time they would make them all rich.  Pa said that want would be a thing of the past and, with diligence and the co-operation of the whole family, a man could see his family have some dignity restored.  Alongside the new steam tractor, with its huge steel wheels, there was the thresher some of the men

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had managed to buy between them.  Still there were those who carried the pitchfork, and Pa was one of them, but he held it now more out of custom, a thing to use to stand his ground.

As time passed, Abe would come in end of day and sit waiting for mother to lay his plate in front of him, same way Pa.  He never kissed her cheek now.  It was not manly, he said.  Sometimes when she cried, she’d say she wished she could just fly away. Often times she told Pa that if anything happened to Abe with those machines she would never find it in herself to forgive him.  

That following year came the hired-hand.  He got little money, but his food and a crib outback.  He worked the machines with the rest of the men and helped out with the birds.  Poultry was women’s work, but mother hadn’t the heart for wringing necks.  She said plucking feathers made her itch.  Some days my sister and me would pluck and draw twenty chooks apiece and Pa would take the wagon into town.  

Soon my sister was sweet on the hired-hand.  He told her that chipped tooth would bring her luck and had she dyed her hair or was it naturally the colour of pure spun gold? Sometimes, mid-summer, we’d go wading through the fields, bare shoulders, dresses lifted high, corn like a mighty rustling sea up to our necks.  Then she’d talk about the Prince of Bohemia, as she’d taken to calling the hired-hand.  She reckoned his great-grandfather had come over from a distant land, where they’d all been princes and poets.  He’d sung her song about an orphan donkey, in some foreign tongue, so sweet, she said, it made her cry.  Her plump bottom lip sort of quivered, like it was a thing apart, reminding me of mother’s mouth, and by comparison, my own mean slit.

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*

It happened in a storm.  The kind that comes late summer, when the clouds are so bruised and sore they ache to burst.  My sister and me were tending new-hatched chicks in the shed.  Above the brawl of wind and rumble-clap, you could hear the machines.  For some reason, I don’t know why, I thought of mother alone in the house, imagined she was crying.  I wanted to be with her as the storm went over, just the two of us.  My sister said, ‘Shut that door stupid, if these chicks get soak they’re goners.’  

The house was quiet.  In the kitchen, clock ticking, the throb of carcass bubbling on the stove, her worn shoes by the door.  

I called out softly, ‘Ma?’

A faint scuffing from upstairs made me wonder if she’d dragged her easel from the barn and was onto painting again, despite what Pa called his last and final reckoning.  I sort of hoped she had.  From the landing window I saw the men and the machines, dust throwing up pinkish dirt clouds, those great steel wheels turning, turning.  

Through the crack in the door I saw her, her pale blue skirts pulled high, her legs wide open to the hired-hand, him moving himself about.  Him moving himself about with her arms clinging round his neck, and her face towards me with a distant look in her eye like a stranger.  My hand touched the door.  When her eyes met mine, the stranger disappeared.  She mouthed my name, Clara, and softly shook her head as the hired-hand kept on.  And the storm kept on, and the sound of the machines.  

 

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Back in the coop my sister said, ‘Glory be, if this storm don’t destroy everything for miles around’ and started up with singing.  

Then the rain began to fall.  Minutes later, we heard the machines stop and the dreadful holler.  My sister said, straight up, ‘If that’s Abe, mother will surely kill him.’

Before we got beyond the yard we were bone-soaked.  We ran across the fields, chaff blinded and sticking in our throats, making us cough and splutter.  We could see the men clustered round, the tractor still hissing, and Pa, a little way off, on slump knees.  

My sister started screaming.  

I looked back to the upstairs window to see if she was there.

*

Twelve years since.  I still feel that hard rain on my face and my legs going from under.  Hear Abe shouting from somewhere for someone to bring the wagon.  See the pale cornflower gauze of her dress, the way it hung in shreds, as someone else, I don’t know who, carried her across the fields, orange-red blood lacing his bare legs.  

I remember those chicks shivering out back as we carried her in, the smell of burnt-out carcass, her shoes by the door where she’d just left them.  In the morning, the chicks all strewn out across the yard, the way we’d let them be.  And Pa saying, although her legs were done, it was God’s will to let her live.  How afterwards he cried.

She doesn’t speak.  Pastor Manton visits regular afternoons.  He goes quietly to her room.  Often he just sits and reads a little scripture Pa says he thinks she might like.

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Surely He will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.

Pastor says he prays nightly for her battered soul and for us to do the same.

Twelve years since my sister and the hired-hand flit.  And me wearing mother’s apron, starch stiff collar, and learnt not to speak.

Sometimes I try to pray.  

He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge –

But most time holy words don’t want to come, and in the darkness, even though this land is dry as husks, I think I hear a pretty stream, and in the distance, faraway, thundering horses’ hooves across the plain.

***

Variable Stars by Rose Stevens

Chris eases his backpack into a black bin liner and pushes it behind the privet hedge. He shoves his bedroll after it and covers everything with his green parka. There’s no danger of anyone stealing his stuff here, but someone could hand it in to lost property. He’d rather lose everything than have to claim the musty remnants of his life back from the bursar. He takes off his beanie and stuffs it into his jeans pocket. He used to wear it to the talks at first, but his hair has become so matted that it makes a better disguise than his hat. And he barely knows anyone in the department now anyway.

The gravel crunches under his heavy boots. ‘Go to the Army Surplus,’ a skinny man with the shakes had told him one night at the hostel. ‘You’ll get fungus if you wear those trainers 24/7’. He had pulled an oversize military parka over his jumper and asked to wear the boots out of the shop. He remembers the sympathy in the eyes of the woman who served him, issuing the uniforms of the homeless.

He wipes his feet thoroughly on the huge mat. Three metres by two he estimates. The floor of the entrance hall is reflecting the overhead lighting and smells of bleach and lemon. Lucy is directing people to the lecture theatre with the efficiency of every university administrator he has ever known.

‘You’re a regular aren’t you, I don’t need to show you where to go,’ she smiles at him as though he is no different to the other men with unruly beards and jumpers who are dotted amongst the earnest students and greying women. Ironic that in the days when he was a physicist himself he had always been scrupulously clean-shaven.

‘Here’s the list of next month’s astrophysics talks’, Lucy hands him a leaflet and he takes it quickly so she won’t see his blackened knuckles. ‘We’ve still got “Space Weather Beyond Our Solar System” to go this month; you’ll hear more about it at the end of today’s talk. Help yourself to the sandwiches in the lobby.’

The egg sandwiches are neat isosceles triangles. He puts three onto his paper plate and one straight into his mouth. He wraps another two in a napkin and pushes them into his pocket. He hasn’t eaten since yesterday when a drunk teenager tossed him half a bag of chips drenched in ketchup. There are new equations scribbled in dry wipe marker on the glass panels above the teaching staff’s doors. Didn’t they find it ostentatious to show off their working out like that? He is on the wrong side of the glass and the numbers are backwards, but he takes a pen from his pocket and copies two of the equations onto the edge of his plate. They will keep him going on the days when the bins don’t yield newspaper crosswords puzzles.

Number 126 is always his seat, but there’s a golden-skinned man sitting in 125. Never trust a physicist with a suntan. Chris squeezes past him, holding his breath as though that will prevent the man from smelling his jumper.

Lucy is on the stage introducing the speaker who will be talking about variable stars, one of his subjects. The packed auditorium is humming with the love of science and Chris leans back into his chair and feels the habitual knot in his stomach begin to dissipate. It’s quiet enough to think, so different from his pitch outside the old HMV shop, where polished brogues and clacking stilettos speed past him and pushchairs veer in an arc away from his sodden cardboard sign. He likes to think they have seen the campaign posters telling them that their spare change could be keeping people on the streets. But he knows all about natural selection, the survival of the fittest.

Lucy is joined on stage by Dr Julia Taylor, this evening’s speaker. Scruffy ponytail and knee length boots, he watches her smiling at the audience, accepting their applause. She’s young and buoyed with confidence. Confidence in herself or her subject? Probably both.

‘Variable stars,’ Dr Taylor says and Chris’s stomach contracts. He knows that voice. Julia Smithson. The chopped hair and glasses are gone, but it’s her. Even from three rows back he can see that her expression is the same, focussed and intense, just the kind of student he loved to teach. The audience is in darkness, but he tries to shuffle down in his seat.

‘When I was studying for my doctorate here at the university my supervisor, Professor Jenkins, introduced me to variable stars and more particularly, cepheid variables.’ He feels that she is looking directly at him. If she asks him to stand up he’ll have to leave the auditorium. ‘It is these pulsing stars that provide us with the data we need to calculate galactic and extragalactic distance scales. It is these stars which first showed us the true size of our own Milky Way.’

He squints his eyes, is she smiling at him? He tries to stretch his own mouth into a smile but he can feel the chaos of the world seeping through the door of the lecture theatre and into his ears. She is leaning forward on the lectern, projecting her voice: ‘It was Henrietta Leavitt who discovered that cepheid variables provide a distance key, a key which was used by Edwin Hubble to determine that the universe is expanding. It was her work which made possible all of the subsequent discoveries in astronomy of the 20th century and yet where is she in the list of physics greats?’

Chris feels that she is shouting into his face.

‘We talk about modern physicists standing on the shoulders of giants,

but what about all the giantesses?’

Julia sketches a graph on the blackboard and Chris lets out a breath.

He remembers his own lectures on variable stars, explaining how maths is the key to discovering our place in the universe. He had never considered the people involved. He watches Julia labelling her graph: ‘period of oscillation’, ‘apparent magnitude’ and wonders if they have trained her in public speaking. He probably wouldn’t have agreed to the training himself even if they’d offered it to him, just as he had accepted it so meekly when they told him they were making cuts to give way for staff with more diverse expertise. He had quoted Einstein to himself: ‘I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.’ It wasn’t until later that he heard his redundancy had been part of a push to attract ‘younger talent.’ But by then he was losing his house and had other battles to fight.

Julia is asking for questions now, scanning the room with eyes made huge with mascara. He closes his eyes and tries to picture the variable stars, signalling like lighthouses across the universe, their pulsing relating perfectly to the intensity of their brightness. The questions are from the usual pedants and long-winded experts and he scrawls some of them onto his buttery plate, he will mull them over when he is lying in his sleeping bag tonight. The hostel will be full by now so there’s no chance of a bed, but the sky was clear when he arrived and the stars were out.

When Julia blushes at the second round of applause she is more like the girl he knew with the chewed pens and bitten nails. Then she is looking at him, bounding off the stage, skipping up the stairs towards him. His stomach is heaving but he doesn’t move. She’s striding so purposefully, as if she has all the answers.

It’s been so long since he spoke to anyone that he’s forgotten how bad he is at doing it. ‘Hello Julia.’

The tanned man has got up and is blocking his view of her. He has his arms out and Julia hugs him back. ‘How was I?’

‘Brilliant,’ the man kisses her. ‘I didn’t understand a word of it, but you were brilliant. Come on, I’ve got some celebratory champers on ice at home.’

Chris pushes past them and into the gleaming corridor, then out onto the wet gravel. He ducks behind the privet hedge and is alone in the darkness and he pulls out his bedroll and bag and heaves on his sodden coat. He will wait until everyone has left and then walk back into town. He sits down on his bag and eats his egg sandwiches, which are squashed flat into their tissue wrapping. He looks upwards, but the stars are hidden and the sky is thick with clouds, which are condensing and falling as drizzle down the collar of his coat.

***

Aliens Like Myself by Helen Lahert

I am Magda. I’ve been here nearly five years. Most days I am weary, without hope, without any control of my life, but I look forward to Wednesdays, when he comes. Today the sky is blue with little wispy clouds. I sit outside, my face turned to the warmth of the sun. At home the snow will be melting and it will be getting hot. Here the rain and the mild winter send green shoots sprouting from every crack in the concrete yard.

I hear the rattle of his battered van before he turns the corner. He parks and jumps out. He whistles as he opens the back doors, lifts out two large boxes and carries them to the door.

‘Mornin’ Mags,’ he waves.

He has always called me Mags.

‘I’ve brought the sunshine,’ he says, and it feels like he has, with his big broad smile and his orange curls.

‘The first of the carrots, some nice French beans and, hold on a minute there ‘til I leave this stuff in, I’ve somethin’ special for ye today.’

When he has unloaded the vegetables he lifts a small box from the front seat.

‘Strawberries,’ he says as he hands them to me, ‘for you. Have a taste.’

I bite into the flesh and am startled by the bitter sweetness of it.

‘The farm isn’t enough,’ he told me, the first time he spoke to me. He needed to do other jobs, ‘to keep the wolf from the door.’ He talked and I listened. He was fresh air and laughter from the outside world.

Now he sits down beside me, running his fingers through the hairs on his thick arms, kicking the pebbles with his boot.

‘The Ma died last year. It’s just me on the mountain now. It gets lonesome sometimes. Come on out there with me some day,’ he says. ‘Come and see the sea.’

But I must stay here. If I’m gone more than three days I will lose my place and my money and they can deport me. Here I am safe. They can’t get at me, the men who think they own me.

‘Maybe sometime,’ I say.

His sleeves are rolled up and the muscles of his arm twitch. At first he smelled of sweat and soil. To me he smelled of home. Now there is soap, a hint of lavender and I dare to hope that this is for me. I wonder what it would be like to run my fingers over those muscles. I feel the charge in the gap between us but I don’t know if I’m ready to trust a man, to be the first to make a move. I place my fingers just above his arm where I can feel the tickle of his hairs but not his skin. I feel the tremor that runs through him.

What am I to do? As the months have passed I have become fond of this man whose name is even strange to me. Seamus – Shame Us – he tells me and I wonder if it is an omen. Shame on us, I think, every time someone calls his name.

I go with him, in August, ‘for a day out’ he says. The hedges on the roadside are like nothing I have seen before. Montbretia and Fuschia, he tells me, orange and red, ‘aliens like yourself and just as colourful’ he says.

I have only told Seamus what he calls ‘the bare bones’ of my story. I like that phrase. I try to find ways to use it. ‘I’ll have the bare bones,’ I say, when I am not very hungry and I wish for a small portion and he laughs until I forget my worry and fear and laugh with him. He knows that I carry horrors in the depths of me but he doesn’t pry.

‘You’ll tell me when you’re ready.’ he says, but I can’t imagine when that time will come. How can I intrude on his peaceful green world with my despair?

I thought that Alex was the dreamer, that I was the practical one. He promised me the world, convinced my mother, organised our passports. We hadn’t much but I didn’t want to leave my family and travel to a strange place. ‘Go,’ she said, and she hugged me. ‘This chance might never come again. When you’re settled we can come and visit.’

And now, how can I tell Seamus of the nightmare that followed, how Alex changed, brought me to an apartment, sold me and my passport to men with guns. How can I tell this gentle man about that dark place, the men that came and went until my body was sore and spent. They came to feed me, to clean me, to throw me some fresh clothes and sometimes, when they’d been drinking, they would take their turn. How can I tell him any of this? It is my own shame.

I escaped, barefoot and almost naked into the rain-soaked streets. I did not know where I was. A fellow countrywoman found me. I resisted at first. I trusted no one, but I was too weak to fight when she brought me to the police.

I keep a photograph of my mother. My sisters and brothers I must remember in my head. Seamus thinks that she is dead. How can I tell him that she is alive and must worry about me, may even be looking for me? How can I write a letter without promise of money and work, without tickets for their journey? How can I be sure that Alex and the men who paid him aren’t waiting for that letter to find out where I am?

They handed me my papers. I couldn’t believe it. I kept looking at my new card, turning it over and over in my hand, wondering what to do. I am legal. I can stay in this country, leave direct provision, but where can I go?

Seamus comes every week and every week he asks again.

‘Come with me,’ he says.

I am a practical person. I pack my things and sit in the yard with my bag by my side. Today he is silent. He carries the vegetable into the kitchen, returns to the yard and lifts my bag. He holds my hand and hoists me, his other hand under my arm, into the van. I feel his strength, his calloused fingers. His hands shake as he places them on the steering wheel, reaches towards the gear stick and puts the van in gear. Rain lashes the windscreen and the wipers slash it away.

‘I’ve a couple more deliveries to do Mags.’

It’s the first time I hear his voice trembling. It comforts me.

I hear the talking in the market. The heads of the old men leaning over their gates turn as I walk past.  

‘Fuck them all,’ he whispers in my ear. ‘Shure they’re all just jealous.’

I feel the cool of the neighbours, the women whispering to each other outside the church. ‘Clucking hens,’ he calls them.

I dress for mass on Sundays, walk into church with him. I like the quiet. It stills my brain. Seamus wears his suit. His shoulders bulge and he pulls the collar of his shirt away from his neck, but he walks tall and proud and I can do the same.

The women go quiet as we sit down. He tells me they mean no harm. At first I can’t greet them. I don’t understand what is expected of me. But when I go into the fields to dig the potatoes and when my hollyhocks flower in the garden the women begin to call. They bring soda bread and apple tarts and jars of gooseberry jam. As my belly starts to swell they bring little cardigans and what they call jump suits, clothes that their children no longer need. I learn to offer tea, to always open the door and put the kettle on the gas ring.

Saoirse is born. I ask Seamus to name her and I am happy with his choice. She will be free in this green and wet place. She will never be robbed from her village and sold as a slave. She will never be detained or need to seek asylum. This will be her home. And when Seamus holds her in his strong arms and I see the wonder in his eyes I bury my doubts. A tear dribbles down his cheek. He doesn’t wipe it away. He looks at me, puts an arm around my shoulder and hugs our baby to us.

‘She’s gorgeous,’ he says. ‘A girl, I’ve always thought it would be lovely to have a little girl.’

He teaches me to drive.

‘Yerra, ye can’t live here in this godforsaken place and not drive. Sure ye’d be shtuck in the house day in day out. Come on, ye’ll have it mastered in no time,’ he says.

I work hard and learn fast. Oh, the freedom of it, to drive across the hill into Ballyferriter, to walk along the sand, my bare feet on the fine golden grains, the wind lifting my hair, the sea singing to me. Clouds race across the sky and their shadows move over the hills as I drive back. The sign for Kilmakeader draws me in. I park. I carry the baby. I am drawn towards the archway and into the cold, damp of the ruined church. The ancient stones are calming. Just a year ago he brought me here. I felt it, the silent reverence of the place. I held his hand to ground me, felt the baby kick, breathed the salty clean air. I felt rooted for the first time since I arrived deceived on these shores.

Now the baby whimpers as if she has sensed the dark shadow creeping down from the mountains. I shield her from the sudden hurl of hailstones. I will never get used to how quickly the weather changes here. I find a corner of the church that is sheltered from the biting wind and I sit on a stone, unzip my coat, lift my shirt and settle her to my breast. She latches on and sucks, her one open eye peering intently at me and I see something so familiar and loved. A tear plops onto her cheek before I realise that I am crying. I let it come, oh, the release of it. Here in this private and holy place, I feel protected from all the dark dreams that bother my mind, from the men that may still be looking for me.

The days go by and I watch my baby grow. I stand at the door and wave as Seamus drives through the gate and takes the turn for Dingle. I clean the house and weed the vegetable plot. I feed the hens and collect the eggs. I wash the clothes and hang them on a long rope that stretches from the house half way up the hill. The shirts and sheets billow in the wind. The mountain turns purple with heather. I feed and wash Saoirse and sing her to sleep with an old Romanian folk song that my mother taught me. I fill the creel with turf and carry it into the house. I set the fire and light it when the weather becomes colder. ‘The nights are closing in,’ he says. I think about that. I feel it sometimes as the darkness falls earlier but I am not a city woman. The black night full of stars is home to me. I peel potatoes and chop carrots. I wait to fry the lamb chops until I hear the van pull up outside the house.

I try not to think about when they will come for me.

 

 

 

 

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