Irish Short Story Month Year Ten
In March 2013 during Irish Short Story Month Three I posted on The Scattering, the debut collection of Jaki McCarrick. The Scattering - A Collection of Short Stories is an amazing body of work, with shimmering and incredibly entertaining stories that go deep into the heart of many of the issues facing contemporary Ireland. This book deserves tremendous success and a very wide readership. It both confirms and rises above the common elements of the Irish short story I have spoken upon: the weak or missing father, the presence of the stage Irishmen, the uneasiness of the relationships of men and women, the heavy reliance on alcohol, the temptation toward arrogance as a way of dealing with the humiliating consequences of colonialism, the obsession with death, and the false rebellions of posers of all sorts.
Today I am very pleased and honoured that she is allowing me to share with my readers one of her stories, The Emperor of Russia. (She is the sole owner of this short which cannot be published in any format with out her approval.)
Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer of plays, poetry and fiction. Her debut short story collection The Scattering was published by Seren Books and was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. The collection includes her story The Visit, which won the 2010 Wasafiri Short Fiction Prize and was included in Best British Short Stories (published by Salt), 2012. On the basis of her debut collection, Jaki was longlisted in 2014 for the inaugural Irish Fiction Laureate. Her play LEOPOLDVILLE won the 2010 Papatango Prize for New Writing, and her play THE NATURALISTS premiered in 2018 in New York to rave reviews: "Impeccable, a gift to its actors" New York Times; "Beautifully performed" The New Yorker. Her play BELFAST GIRLS, developed at the National Theatre Studio, London, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. It premiered in the US in Chicago in 2015 to much critical acclaim and has since been staged widely internationally with recent premieres in Australia and Sweden. In 2016, Jaki was selected for Screen Ireland's Talent Development Initiative and has recently completed the screen adaptation of BELFAST GIRLS. She is currently working on her second collection of short fiction and her first novel, The Family Wolves. Jaki also writes critical pieces for the Times Literary Supplement, Irish Examiner, Poetry Ireland Review and other publications.
The Emperor of Russia - A Short Story by Jaki McCarrick,
(The Emperor of Russia story comes from the 2019 Willesden Herald New Short Story Anthology
I could hear my father singing in the lower field. In between the lines of the poorly-sung Joe Dolan number he would call for me, each time more demanding, though he did not bother to draw near to where I actually was, which was at the back of the house, pegging his newly-washed clothes to the line. I knew I’d give in eventually to his calls, but I wanted him to hurt his voice as much as possible with the screeching. ‘Rose! Come down to the big tree,’ he said, finally, his song ended. When I finished the laundry, I sauntered towards him. Course it was me who let out the loudest screech of all when I got to the lower field, where he stood by the eucalyptus tree in his brown pinstripe suit with its shiny stains and frayed cuffs, leaning on his pellet gun. Hanging from a high branch of the tree was a crow, plump and stiff, and I knew straight away by the white in its feathers that it was Hermione, my brother’s pet, and that my bastard father had killed her. I fell to my knees and cried out, worse than any time when he’d left us first and gone to England.
‘Crows are a dime a dozen, wee one, and you better stop with that whining,’ my father said. There wasn’t an ounce of remorse in his voice.
‘You’d no business doing that,’ I said.
‘I told you what we’d be doing to stop the crop getting took off us from under our noses, didn’t I? A certain measure your mother would have none of. But she’s not here now is she?’ He was right, of course: he had told me what he planned to do to a crow, and yes, my mother wasn’t around to protest. She’d died in the years he was away, and here he was now, as he’d been this past while, acting as if he knew everything about how to run our farm, when truth was he knew next to nothing about farming. He was just as he was before; all he was good for was guns and shooting and everyone knew it.
Hanging a dead crow from a tree is a practice they used do in the country, in the border areas especially, to ward off other crows from the new barley, wheat, spuds. The belief was that crows, being sensitive, intelligent birds, would spend a week ‘waking’ their fellow (dead) crow, and in that time the crop would be harvested. I’d seen it once before, years ago, a pair of crows hanging from blue rope off the gate to a backwoods field in Omeath.
‘Julian’s been rearing her since she was a chick fell out of her nest,’ I said. ‘The one white wing, the crack in the beak. How could you do a thing like that?’ I went to the ladder lying in the grass by my father’s feet, picked it up and brought it to the tree.
‘What you doing, Rose?’ he said, as I rested the ladder against the eucalyptus.
‘Going burying this bird that’s what. I’ll not have it swinging around for you to poke and swing, and for to call me down from the house to goad at.’ On the third step of the ladder I winced at the grip of his sizeable fingers.
‘You’ll not be burying this bird today,’ he said. I couldn’t help myself then and looked him straight in the eye and said:
‘Well, aren’t you the bastard Ma married.’ He went to slap my face, as he’d done a few times before, though he stopped due to the stern look I gave him. It is hilarious to consider how much respect my father demands from me and Julian. It’s like he thinks that by virtue of the fact of having conceived us he’s the right to the utmost loyalty and respect. Though from where I stood on the ladder, eye-to-eye with him, I could see I had crossed a line, and what’s more it felt bad to cross it, as I too held some weird store in his having conceived me, if even he had done that.
‘ You kill a crow, it keeps the rest of them off your field, and you know why?’ he said.
‘Because the others will wake him.’
‘The bird was a her,’ I said.
‘Because the others will wake her. They’ll screech and croak and they’ll not eat, just go back to the trees and cry for a day. That’s when we harvest. And we’ll not be robbed blind by them then. You see? That’s how it was done in the old days. It’s the crows or us.’
I got off the ladder and paced about on the grass. What was I going to tell Julian? I had so much hope in his recent sense of happiness with Hermione. I was planning to leave home the following May, you see; I’d a job lined up and everything - in a summer camp in New Jersey - so how could I leave Julian here now with our father, who insisted upon running the farm according to rumour and myth rather than sound agricultural knowledge?
‘Haven’t the crows as much right to the crop?’ I said.
‘What you know about anything?’
‘I know I can’t leave our fella here with you the way you are, going round killing innocent animals.’
‘I don’t care what you do,’ my father said, and looked up at the sky, at the slowly
circling crows, who must have been appalled at the sight of one their own tied to a eucalyptus tree like some kind of offering or ‘strange fruit’. My father was certainly the lynching kind after all, except that this was the Irish border and not Alabama, though bar the weather and accents the two places are twins on many levels.
‘They’ll start up now with their waking, and in the morning we’ll reap this harvest and we’ll have what we reap all to our bloody selves,’ he said. I watched him walk off towards the house. When he was out of sight I could hear the front door open, then shut, though I was sure he would watch me from the window in case I’d climb up the tree and cut down the bird: I thought better of doing that.
The following day, a team of men arrived from Bush to help with the harvest. I’d seen some of them before, in town, or in church; Poles and Lithuanians who’d been hired by neighbouring farms for the potato picking. In the yard, where they’d parked their cars, I met them with my father and shook the burly pickers’ hands as he’d instructed me to do. I gave them a few lines about seeing some of them in town and how I’d love to travel to their beautiful countries, which they must be missing in this hole of a place, etc etc. My father quickly took over then and told them about Hermione. As he stood chattering amongst them, I slipped away and went to the house. I’d not had a chance to talk to Julian about her – not alone at least (my Da had watched me like a hawk the night before) and I was waiting for my opportunity.
I threw stones at Julian’s window, which was open a little. The thick lace curtains inside moved gently in the breeze. Julian didn’t answer, and I didn’t want to go inside for fear of my father catching me talking to him and squealing about the bird. He never likes me talking to Julian. He especially doesn’t like squealing; has some weird ‘code’ about it. So I decided that with my father holding court with the pickers, like a big bear or some clownish figure from a Shakespearian play, that I’d talk to my brother from the safety of the front garden.
‘Julian, did you see we’re to have a big harvest, even with the terrible summer and the rain and all?’ I said, but there was no reply.
‘Can you see that the field is almost white entirely with the potato flowers? He’s a whole team over from Bush today to gather them this year. Listen, about Hermione. I think she’s gone, Julian. That’s what crows do, Love,’ I said. I wanted to tell him about my plan, but thought better of shouting it out in case I’d be heard by the pickers or my father. Julian would have understood though, because he knows the whole history of our farm, which is in the district of Grange, in the Cooley Hills, County Louth. This land is old, with dozens of brown information signs to do with the legends of the Táin, the oldest legend in Europe, about Cú Chulainn and Queen Maebh, dotted about the place.
There are wells and souterrains all over, too, old traps and holes like the ones that’d be in Alice in Wonderland. Only they’re not Wonderland. They’re dark and cold inside, sometimes lined with stone but more often than not it’s just the bog down there, which is much worse, as it’s darker and weirder than stone when all around you. And if you were ever to get stuck down one of those traps or holes you’d never again get out, especially if someone were to block the entrance. The bad thing about our beautiful fields, of course, is that they are so lovely, full of clover and all manner of flowers, the harebells in May, the foxgloves in June, so that you’d never know they are also full of such dangers, such holes. And a person, a man for instance, who’d been away, who’d fecked off, left his wife and children fending for themselves in these hinterland fields with all their hidden dangers, might not be so used to them holes and wells and tunnels and traps, and one day when he’s … But I digress. I did not discuss my plan with Julian, nor had I the heart to tell him the truth about Hermione. Julian was housebound, and unless he stuck his head out his window he’d never see the crow hanging from the eucalyptus tree, so I hoped he would believe me that Hermione had flown away. My father called out. ‘What you want now?’ I said.
‘We’re starting. Lads are ready. Not a living crow in sight neither. All cleared off into the hazel wood. Stop slacking now, Rose.’ I felt the usual rage at him rise up in me. I wondered why it was he bothered me so much. He should not have had such a hold over me (I hardly knew him after all), but he had. I returned to the window:
‘Julian? I’m serious. I need you to get well and strong and not leave me to that stranger we’ve let back in the house. Treats me like his slave. Like Ma.’ And as I said those words I thought I could hear Julian crying and I began to feel ashamed.
‘Ah sure, I know you loved him. Wasn’t he a funny old Da when we were tiny? Swinging us round the place. But he’s not the same. He’s not. And I need you to get strong, Julian, so we can take steps. Because that’s what we need to do.’
He doesn’t know this, my father, whose name is Dan, but I keep a photo of him when he was in his teens, maybe my age now. I keep it under my pillow. He would be very surprised to find it there, that’s for sure. It’s black and white and as old as Methuselah. In the photo he’s holding a greyhound puppy, and there’s a smile across his face as wide as a sea. One that exudes gushing unadulterated joy. His eyes water with it. His love for the puppy is all over that photograph, like a good sort of stain. Yet whenever I asked him about having a pup or dog as a boy, he would shrug and say he’d never any time for animals when he was young, that he’d never any pets. So, I believe something happened him after he joined the Republican ‘war’, as he calls it, which he joined when he was fifteen. He not only put away childish things, as they say, but he put away the child, and any memory of him. There is something about the photo that helps me exist in the same house as my father, that makes me think he is not a monster. Even though there are others in the vicinity of the border who think differently.
‘You’re taking long enough with that grub, Rose,’ my father said, like the greatest nag that ever lived. I’d made the sandwiches earlier that morning. And I’d been very careful and precise about making them, measured you might say, though I lied to buy time at the window with my brother.
‘I’ve to make it yet,’ I said.
‘Well hurry up about it. Come on.’
‘Coming Da. Coming.’
When I got back to him with the grub, I invited my father to eat with me, away from the pickers, who were gathered now round a long table we’d set out in the yard-cum-car-park. He liked seeing I’d taken care with his lunch and that I’d packed it in a picnic basket along with a check tablecloth. He always likes to be treated nicely, my father, delicately even, like bone bloody china, such is the man’s vanity. I guided him to sit at the edge of the field, where the land is flat. I laid out the cloth and placed the sandwiches and flask and teacups on it. He tucked in immediately. ‘That’s a fine lunch you packed us, Rose. You not having any?’ he said.
‘You’ll make some fella a fine wife one day,’ he said. Did he not see I was far from being interested in men, having had him as a father and therefore a good reason to hate the entire male species?
‘La-la-la-la-la …’ I said.
‘What you la-laing at?’ he said, and stuffed a hunk of bread into his mouth.
‘Making me sick with that kind of talk, Da,’ I said, and sipped on my Diet Coke, watching out of one eye in case any of the pickers came upon us.
‘Only I suppose he’d have to cut your tongue out in order to get through a day in peace,’ he said, and threw back his head and laughed. My father’s jokes are always laced with cruelty, but, annoyingly, they are also told well, and with expert timing.
‘Lovely thing to say to me, Da,’ I said, and sat back on the grass, my feet on the cloth. I looked at him directly and nearly blurted out there and then exactly what I’d put in the sandwiches.
‘Well, it’s true,’ he said. ‘You’ve repelled every fella came gathering spuds and barley here this past two years.’
‘Me and fellas is not your concern,’ I said. There was a period of silence between us then and I felt myself dying to tell him what I’d done but stopped myself in time. ‘So, you like my sándwiches do you?’ I said. He grunted something and nodded. Seeing as he couldn’t speak with the relish leaking out of his gob, I decided to make it even more difficult for him. ‘Which one do you like most?’
‘Most, I like the beef,’ he said, and licked his lips.
‘Ah, the beef,’ I said. ‘Well the beef I knew you’d go for. The beef I knew you’d like. So they’re the ones I paid most attention to.’ I watched him as he sucked carefully each of his fat fingers, probably thinking the only reason I was put on this earth was to serve him, like he was some sort of king or emperor. He’d been the same way with my mother.
‘Well, you’re a good cook anyways. That’s something,’ he said. He swallowed the food, wiped his mouth with his sleeve and made an almighty burp. Then he began to snigger. ‘ I suppose if the fella was deaf you’d be all right,’ he said. ‘Deaf, and fucken half-blind maybe.’ And he rolled about laughing, slapping the tablecloth rapidly as if he’d said the funniest thing.
‘Ah that’s it, you go right ahead. Entertain yourself with your own jokes,’ I said. ‘I’d say you’re very good at that now, entertaining yourself. Seeing as you were gone out of this house almost twelve years roaming the streets of places, sure you must be a grandmaster of entertaining yourself by now.’ He knew where I was going with this, where I always went: berating him for leaving us, all those years before. He lit up a cigarette without offering one to me.
‘I came home not to see you reared without a mother. Because I care. Because I’m your father. And what went on between her and me is not your concern neither,’ he said, sniffily. He stood and looked towards the pickers, who were already back at their work in the fields. We could hear their voices coming close, their fractured laughter floating on the air. ‘ You ask them lads to go from the drills that side?’ he said, perplexed.
‘I did,’ I replied. ‘That’s how we’ve done it all these years. Left to right.’
‘Good to split the work up I suppose,’ he said.
‘I thought we’d start this end now you’re finished eating,’ I said, and showed him the sacks I’d brought for the spuds we were yet to pick.
‘Just this is the rough side, rolls down to ditches and all, and I would have thought you’d have preferred, you know, an easier go of it,’ he said. I shook my head.
‘If you start left we’ll meet the lads coming halfway, you see? I’ll go right,’ I said. We stood and put the picnic things away. We folded up the tablecloth, corner to corner, and I was surprised he remembered how to do it. As we met with the folding of the cloth, I felt a pang of guilt in my heart and tried to shake it off. He saw it of course, the confused flicker of love in my eyes.
‘ I thought of you all the time wee one. When I was away. You and Julian. You been talking to him?’ I nodded and felt the burn of his eyes on me.
‘What does he say now?’
‘Not much. He wants to forget about it. The accident. Who wouldn’t want to forget a thing like that, nearly took your life, made you a ghost of your former self,’ I said. My father nodded and looked out at the land. Before us was Carlingford Lough, blue and flat. I would miss the sight of the Lough in America. The day was bright, the heather on the hills turning a soft aubergine colour. My father seemed fixed on the road towards Carlingford.
‘Down there,’ he said, ‘the road North. I remember it well. Men in uniform. “Papers, Paddy” – and me not yards from my own farm.’
‘I’ve no memory of those days and I don’t want to have either,’ I said.
‘Well I do,’ he said, and I felt a little ashamed for offering him no understanding on this subject.
‘Why d’you go to England then if you hate it so much?’ I said.
‘We all run back to the colonizer, to the one that hurts us – eventually. Do you not know that, Rose? Didn’t your mother teach you how that game worked? They take something from you, a part of your heritage, your identity, that you need so as to know yourself, and you go always looking for that thing.’ I knew there was something in what my father said. To do with our history here, perhaps. About how the border area, all three hundred twisty-turny miles of it, had been ravaged by the Troubles. How it had formerly been plagued by checkpoints and police and soldiers. My father knew things. And if I could have removed the bitterness I felt towards him from my heart I might have learned some of them. There was a moment then between us; in fact it was the culmination of many moments, when I felt he was the grand figure, the giant I’d made him into when I was a child. He felt awkward then, I could see it in him, though he quickly lapsed, purposefully it seemed to me, into the crow-killing coward I’d become more used to, as if this were a mask, one behind which he felt safe: ‘Well, the spuds won’t be lifted by themselves,’ he said, rubbing his hands together. ‘And we better get into it before the crows stop caring.’
As he picked along his drill, I slipped away from him and went back to the house. The window was again open in Julian’s room at the front and I threw stones against the pane for my brother to show himself, but as was his way he did not come. I directed my voice to the window: ‘Julian. You remember when he was gunrunning? Hiding guns all over Ma’s land? Putting us all in danger? Well, he was a bad egg then and he’s bad egg now. So you better hang in there, and stop moaning, sounding so lost and sad.’ I said. ‘Hermione’s a fucken stupid name for a crow anyways. As if I didn’t know where you got it. Look, buck up. Because we’re to be free soon, the two of us, of the stranger we let back in this house when we shouldn’t have.’ I sensed Julian would know what I meant and what I was planning now to do.
When I got back to the meadow I saw my father retching over the white potato flowers. I’d brought another sack with me, flung over my shoulder. I went to him and asked him to lean on me so I could bring him back to the house. ‘Into the meadow here, by the crocus. That’s it, Da,’ I said. I took a few paces with him and stopped. ‘Rest here on this big stone a while. Sit, and I’ll see if I can find you some wild mint that’ll settle your stomach and then we’ll go home,’ I said. As he sat on the stone, clinging to his stomach, I rummaged around in the grass, not for mint at all, as you can imagine. Eventually, I found what I was looking for. My father whined with pain and I did my best not to pay any heed.
‘Oh Rose, I’ve something to tell you, love,’ he said, as he wiped down his sweaty brow.
‘Too late for talk like that, Da,’ I said. ‘I’d save it for Julian. He’s the young one now.’
‘Isn’t it about Julian,’ my father said. He looked about him, his wide eyes darting from rock to bush. ‘This bit of your mother’s land. Ah, we would walk here many’s a time. Looks very familiar. During my “political career” perhaps. Aye, I’m sure this is a place I’ve been to and hidden certain things in.’
‘Much good your politics did you. Much good it did any of us. Had to go to England in the end, left us half-starved most of the time.’ I stood him up and walked him towards where I’d rummaged. He sort of half-hummed, half-sang as he walked: ‘Oh me oh my, oh me oh my, you’re such a good-looking woman.’ I pressed on his shoulder and urged him to stop.
‘Now where’s that mint?’ He said. And with that I pushed him into the hole that had been hidden all these years in the grass. He let out a roar as he fell. I knew all about the holes and souterrains on this land, as I’d farmed it for years without my father’s help. As he cried, I pulled Hermione from the sack I’d brought with me, and threw her down on top of him.
‘There,’ I said to the mouth of the hole, ‘the crows can mourn the two of yez now. Because I won’t, nor will Julian. “Crow’s wake!” This is modern Ireland and we don’t string up crows no more! And if anyone comes looking for you, Da, I’ll say he fecked off to England, as he was wont to do. And I’ll be believed. I’m a young woman with prospects, off to America for a job that’s lined up already, a brother, half-dead from a joy-riding accident, and a feckless father who has nothing to do now there’s peace in Ireland only to tell me how to work my own farm. No one will come looking for you here, Da, because no one will fucken miss you.’
‘Rose, Rose!’ my father screamed. I went to the stone and began to roll it towards the mouth of the hole. It was tough going as over and over I rolled it.
‘I’ll be rolling the stone over now, Da, so you’ll have to shut up,’ I said.
‘Rose, Rose!’ he continued. What did he want to say? That he was sorry for the life he’d made us all lead? The hard work and the poverty, that had undoubtedly caused my mother’s early death? It was too late for apologies.
‘What is it, Da? I can’t let you out. You go stringing things up that people love; you go slapping me and me eighteen years old. You’re no good. And no good for Julian, who is my only friend here at all.’ And then he said the words that deep down I knew were true:
‘Rose, Julian’s dead this two years.’
‘ What are you talking about, you mad bastard?’
‘After the accident, sure you went demented. What with your mother and all.’
‘You started talking to him six months later. And I always thought that somewhere in your mind you must have known Julian wasn’t in that room.’ I cried out then. My hands shook and I retched into the grass though I’d eaten nothing.
‘What about Hermione?’
‘The crow! The crow down there on top of you. Who reared it from a chick if it wasn’t Julian?’
‘He did. But that was long ago. If this is that bird, it’s come back after a long time away, just like myself. Julian’s dead, daughter, and you better believe it. So, you go rolling that stone over this hole you’ll have no one at all. No Ma, no brother, no Herm…’
‘And no Da! You’ll be an orphan entirely.’ I knew then he was right. Wasn’t he
always? Though I wished he’d said something about Julian before. I was embarrassed to think he knew all along I’d been talking to a ghost.
‘Oh Da,’ I cried, ‘why’d you have to kill that crow?’
‘I’m sorry about it. Oh me stomach.’
‘That’ll be the strychnine,’ I said.
‘I poisoned the beef.’
‘Oh Rose. Why d’you have to do a thing like that?’
‘You shouldn’t have gone away, Da. That’s when, when it all started.’
‘What Rose, what?’
‘Oh, didn’t I miss you, Da?’ I said, and felt something inside me begin to shatter. What had I done? Bad enough I’d poisoned my own father, but now he was at the bottom of a cold deep pit. I thought about screaming out to the pickers for help. I heard him laughing. I drew closer to the edge. There was the sound of a chest or trunk of some kind being opened, of creaking, rusty hinges, and of the clatter of metal within.
‘What is it, Da, what’s down there?’ I said. I could hear him talking away to himself.
‘They don’t make them like this anymore. Look at the spin on that.’
He shouted my name up at me, his voice full of sorrow and sincerity, like the old Da, the one I’d idolized before he left:
‘The bird, Rose. I’m awfully sorry about him,’ he said.
‘Her Da, her.’
‘Where’d our fella get that name anyways?’
‘He was studying Shakespeare at school. And I was helping him. A Winter’s Tale he took that name from,’ I said, as tears streamed down my face, the memories of our once vaguely-happy family flooding my mind.
‘Right,’ my father said.
‘”The Emperor of Russia was my father.”’
‘What’s that, Love?’ he said.
‘You mustn’t call me that, Da.’ I said. ‘You’re a stranger to me now.’ His voice got quiet then, like a whisper, thin as a goose feather, and I concentrated intently as if it was the last time I might ever hear the tenderness in my father’s voice, which had always been there, I realised, had I bothered to listen for it.
‘Come here to me, Rose. Come to the edge and I’ll see your face just one more time before you roll over that stone, and say again to me the sweet-sounding thing I just heard you say.’ So I did. Who could resist the way my charming father could ask a thing? I went close to the hole, my face hanging over its dark mouth, and whispered:
‘”The Emperor of Russia was my father.”’ It was a line from A Winter’s Tale that I’d always loved. And I meant every soft-sounding syllable.
‘I know, Rose. I know,’ he said, and swiftly he lifted up the long contraption in his hand, and pointed the dark metal end straight at me. His hands shook. Our eyes, which were similar, round and slate-grey, locked for a second, his betrayal of me and mine of him suspended momentarily outside our eye contact, allowing for this rare exchange of pure familial love, before he fired with his trademark expertise.
End of guest post
I hope to follow the work of Jaki McCarrick for a long time. I urge anyone able to attend a performance of one of her plays to do so.