Monday, 1 March 2010

Poison - Brendan Moore

In an attempt to retreat from the morning’s ghosts, Bede allowed himself to knife an extra slice of butter onto his mashed potatoes, pushing it down with the tip of the rounded blade into the center of steaming whiteness. He had burnt the sausages a bit, so there’d be the taint of charring. Countered maybe, by the peas glistening greenly in the rising vapor of the potatoes, but it was difficult for Bede to rouse his appetite as he tried not to notice the sealed envelope, still partly folded, on the checkered tablecloth by his plate.

In the warmth of the kitchen he saw mist rising from his trousers, the shower that had spattered him in the graveyard earlier. The wind had come up suddenly while the priest blessed the coffin, and it had swept a hard, spraying rain against the mourners, sufficient to soak all of them as they angled their bodies away from it.

“As if one was not enough,” he muttered, reaching for his fork.

Jameson, the copper-coated terrier lifted his head from the mat in front of the turf fire, eyes checking to see if he was being spoken to. Then the dog tapped his tail twice in slow rhythm and dropped chin to mat once more. Bede waved his knife over the plate, as though conjuring hunger, listening all the while to the increasing swell of elements against the windows.

“Of all days, for him to do that to me, to himself. I mean, I just don’t know why?”

That was it. He didn’t know, couldn’t fathom how three days ago Matten Galloway could have gone to his barn in darkness, how he had climbed a ladder and tied a rope over the cross beam, the middle one still half covered in harnesses from years ago, and most of all how he had cast himself into space, allowing the vicious loop at his neck to shuck the life out of him. On the anniversary of Maggie’s death, no less!

He scowled at the envelope and then at the chair across the kitchen where Matten Galloway had sat four days earlier. From there his eye was drawn to the picture hanging over the fireplace. He squinted at the image of his dead wife, though in the enlarged and framed photograph, Maggie Callaghan looked nothing like death. An explosion of yellow, her body pushed slightly against the fabric of her dress, limbs spread out in an x against the molten sky behind. He had taken the photograph, and in it Maggie stood in the window of the ruined Dromore Castle, a low evening sun bathing her in bronze. Not young, the evening of her fortieth birthday, he remembered, but she looked young, like a wise schoolgirl.

In the photograph her smile was a renunciation of all the dreariness in the world. Odd, he thought how the light in it seemed different since the last time he had studied it, brighter somehow, making it seem as if Maggie herself was glowing almost; a kind of beacon from another world. What would she say to him now, if she could?

Again, he didn’t know, and now he had no one to ask, to talk to, the hill occupied by the Galloway and Callaghan farms empty except for him. The thought injected a new level of awareness into his veins, and he shivered despite the warmth from the fire.

Bede hadn’t expected to be sitting alone in his home as a man of sixty-two years, Maggie taken by cancer, the flash of a fresh century and the birthing of a strange new nation crackling in the countryside around him and in the town a mile from his door, and now his friend Matten Galloway sealed away forever in the thick, deep blanket of black clay in Graiguetown Cemetery. And only four days earlier he had been here with Bede, eating potatoes and sausage just like these at this very table.

Edgy he’d been, as if he had wanted to tell him something. Couldn’t sit still or even finish his bottle of porter—said it was bitter, poison, he’d said—before getting up to go out into the icy glare of starlight. Was he trying to tell Bede then he was going to end it? Was that it? If Bede had convinced him to stay a while longer that night, would he have told him what he planned to do, and could Bede have talked him out of it? He shrugged.

“I just don’t know.”

This time Jameson tapped once with his tail but didn’t look up.

“I suppose it was loneliness in the end, never marrying—in that cottage by himself. Seemed worse this past year,” he said, swallowing a piece of sausage, grimacing at the taste. Bede knew he was talking to himself, but what did it matter? He had started when Maggie died, and now with Matten gone, he’d be talking to himself even more. He scooped potatoes onto his fork and stared at the protruding tines before turning his head from the food.

The angle of the folded envelope was wider now, opening further in the warmth of the room, as if it were a mouth wanting to speak to him.

Across the kitchen he caught his own reflection in the wet glaze of the gray window. He saw the stoop in his back, his spine looped over like a piece of wire he might have twisted with strong hands years ago to latch a fence post. Matten, a couple of years older than him, had kept himself straight, though. How was that? Or at least he had until a few days ago when Bede had found his friend in the barn.

He pictured again the bare, macaroni-stick legs and the delph-like feet swinging back and forth in the air. The degradation of pajamas and slippers sliding down in the process of tortuous dying, the soiling, the stench, the...

The whole thing would have gutted Maggie is she’d been around. She always had a soft spot for Matten and his odd ways, would sit by the fire with him and talk to him about books for hours while Bede worked at the table on the farm’s accounts. The way she’d become animated with Matten, sometimes over nothing more than a line out of some poem. What was that one she liked so much by Keats, no Yeats? The apples it was, yes.

The golden apples of the moon, the silver apples of the sun. He knew he couldn’t remember another line if his life depended on it. Book learning had never been for him.

Yes, Maggie would be ravaged by it if she were here…

A wind rattled the windows and he shivered. On her anniversary it was. Same day.

A kind of caul seemed to surround him for a minute, as if he were in danger of being born somehow. His head buzzed like the signal from an old wireless radio. He touched the envelope, gingerly as if it were contaminated, pressed down on the top half, attempting to fold it again, making it as it had been when Matten’s brother from the town had pulled it out of his pocket and given it to him. It flexed open again, Bede’s name in Matten’s scribble looking dark in its throat, the jaws speaking to him mutely, mouthing slurs at Bede’s ignorance.

Yes. Bede did not know, but saw that knowledge could be poison.

He pictured his friend in the frigid barn again, and imagined him on the top of the ladder, standing like an obelisk. His legs would have shaken as the cold seeped in through the cracks in the old barn, until finally he’d have begun the rocking motion, not going in one swipe sideways, no. It would have taken a few journeys left and right, the rope already pressing up a bit, the barn shifting in the murky light of dawn. There must then have been one last, lurching pitch, legs shucking out to one side, head hammered down onto the rope’s end, the feet whipping back in a violent pendulum and the loop locking its grip on him.

And then Bede pictured Matten and Maggie by the fire, awkward and content together and a stab of venom tried to mount the crest of his tongue. He spat loudly onto the floor, and Jameson looked up at his master again, the animal puzzled, querulous.

Bede stood, fingers clenching down on the envelope, and crossed to the fire. Throwing it into the flames, he turned his back on the flaring blaze, as if its brightness, like the luminosity of the photograph above the fireplace at his back, had the power to harm him.

Outside, the wind buffeted the house and spun across the fields to the graveyard, where it sent flowers and wreaths scattering like mice among the cold headstones.

- An Irish emigrant living and teaching in Texas, Brendan Moore spends his spare time keeping bees, teaching karate, running marathons and writing fiction. He is currently seeking representation for his first novel Stones on the Water, and he recently had his short story "Shelter" published in The First Line Literary Journal. He lives in the Texas Hill Country with his wife and daughter.

-Photography by Christopher Barrio