Mercuryrisingsday’s Childe

Swelter. The dial reads 89 degrees. March? Spring? Madness. Classroom is overheated, the kids are overheated, and the teacher is overheated. Books from a distance arrive in purple paper—sepulchral, magisterial, and important. Reading Homecoming, Marilynne Robinson’s quite spectacular book. God, some of the passages are so beautiful, so rich in language, so perfect, as to make one’s head spin. Reading such a book raises such questions about my own writing, about how seriously I’m taking the endeavor of revising a novel, of whether I’d be better off consigning it to the gutter. Last night I slept poorly, the second night in a row, and was up four times at least. Sometime around 5:30AM a skunk was close to the bedroom window and sprayed the garden as the stink came on pungent and overpowering. The dog barked not at all, raised not an ear, simply slept on. All the time we sleep there are movements and motions in the world. Across the continents planes fly, plunge into mountainsides, land, and still we sleep on. There was a “wind event” yesterday and the breeze picked up to quite a forcible level, sending trashcans flying, spraying blossoms everywhere. Brittle leaves rose to hundreds of feet high and spiraled to earth again. This is a good reminder of the world being in constant motion, always turning and always unpredictable. In San Diego someone tried to abduct a child from a school. Here in Santa Barbara the sun shone hard and a cruise ship berthed in the harbor. Tea in a cup, green pottery, the sweat on my wrists where they rest on the kitchen table as I type. Easter approaches, a week off work, or a week off school, for there are plants to be put in the earth, houses to be cleaned, stories and reviews to be written, and ideas to be hatched. All in motion, all in some haphazard way worthwhile.

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Swelterintheskysday’s Childe

The heat is oppressive. 80s, turning toward 90s by the end of the week. Winter is a phantasm that visits only in restless dreams. An old Irish Times is on my desk—faded pages containing some kernel of an idea for a set of stories—the print smudged by sweaty hands. Shoe polish and an El Corazon box are there, too. Detritus: broken sippy cup, iPhone plug, hand-made bookmark, rubber duck night light, and a sand dollar. Random. Hats, too. Always hats: trilby, straw boater, baseball, Irish tweed. A red-tailed feather from someplace nearby waves gently from the slight breeze coming in the cracked window. Trucks rumble along, flowers and palm trees their cargoes, bound for Los Angeles, or points farther away. So many deaths on the page. I’m not sure it’s a sustainable project. How to find the shine of possibility in the tarnished plots of paupers’ graves. Take a number. “Language is a form, not a structure.” Inside the silver heart six ducks perspire, feathers stuck together, far from fresh water, destined for suffocation.

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Waterintheboathullsday’s Childe

The laundry sits unfolded on the sofa and the little one asks me to go see a plant in her garden, a tiny patch of ground created for her 2nd birthday. Milkweed. She loves plants of all hue and variety. Our house smells of sweet peas, picked from her grandma’s garden. The writing is not flowing lately, most of what gets written finds rejection in various places. My novel is in tatters, edited to death, forced to conform to a framework I cannot recognize. No matter how much I try, I cannot free the story from the weeds of narrative chaos. Unknown birds call from the upper leaves of the oak tree—flickers and finches, crows and red tail hawks. There are too few birds in the novel, and perhaps that’s its failure. The writing group began and ended in a puddle of… well, a puddle I can’t quite make out. Invitation to read in San Francisco on St. Patrick’s Day got turned down due to work commitments, administering the CAHSEE (CA High School Exit Exam), so instead I’ll be in a small room with thirty to forty students making sure they’re on task and focused on the thing. I’m unable to read much right now, finding little but dissatisfaction in the novels I’ve attempted to read. Maybe it’s Mercury, or the moon, or the drought. Yes, the drought has dried my well of creative energies. Renewal, rebirth, reaffirmation. Last week I sat in the Vedanta temple and listened to the musical chanting, the non-Catholicness of it all seeming more comforting to me than my own faith, which I sampled yesterday at the Santa Barbara Mission. Crisis of confidence, of faith, of belief, of having to hack my way through the vines, only to encounter even thicker ones ahead. Holdfast. The sphere moves at a dizzying rate. Goats are raised for the annual fair in Killorglin. My temper is short over the inconsequential. Sitting in front of a gray wall, the steady tick of an unseen clock, this is meditation. My mother did not remember my father’s birthday the other day. He’ll be dead fifteen years this April—she is allowed, she is fading from the world. Flowers bloom in the center of my spleen, hidden blossoms with wavy, orange-tipped stamens. Perhaps they bloom because I neglect their care. Perhaps they are the flowers of my writing life. Perhaps they are my fears. In any case, I envy the marbled godwit its freeform plunge into air, the sunsetted tint on its body as the water crashes down on warm sand.

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Tuesday May 8th 1912. One hour’s burial in the poor ground of Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.

(Originally published @ Blue Fifth Review)

Carpenter’s child—the child of John and Mary Kenny—Convulsions

Mary tried to drown herself in the Poddle, but was rescued by a passing cyclist

Dairyman’s child—the child of John and Jane Larkin—Measles

John’s tears soured the milk for all of Sheriff Street for a month

Labourer’s child—the child of John and Ellen O’Brien—Scarlatina

Ellen drank rat poison and died in the gutter

Servant’s child—the Illegitimate child of Margaret Maguire—Diarrhoea

Margaret’s employers gave her a shilling extra in her paycheck

Labourer’s child—the child of Edward and Elizabeth McDonald—Gastritis

Edward blamed his wife’s poor constitution for the child’s death

Labourer’ s child—the child of Peter and Sarah Clarke—Premature Birth

Peter and Sarah lost twelve previous children

Bookseller’s child—the child of Joseph and Teresa Finegan—Diptheria

Teresa followed the child a week later and Joseph destroyed his bible


Flash Fiction International

April sees the publication of W.W. Norton’s anthology of short fiction, Flash Fiction International. My story, “Skull of a Sheep,” which originally appeared in The New Orleans Review, Issue 37-2, is featured under the listing for Irish writers. You can pre-order a copy of the Norton anthology, HERE.

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Aging–A Meditation (Recently published by Prime Number Magazine)

Recently at Prime Number Magazine::
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.
Dripping Shower
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.
Cigarette Burns
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. 

Skunkinroadsday’s Childe

Batteries on desk: 3

Hats in office: 4

Days to Santa Fe: 2

Eyeglasses on desk: 3

Hawk feathers on desk: 1

Books to read: 3

Parent phone calls made: 1

Chapters of novel on desk to edit: 1

Pints of McConnell’s ice-cream bought: 1

Deer seen this evening: 1

Skunks in middle of road coming home: 1

Non-stop lecture time tonight by instructor: 100