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Short Story Prize 2022 1st place prize winner: AOIFE - Trahearne Falvey


Illustration by Rebecca Cottrell // https://rcottrell.com/

If she is telling the story to her mother, Aoife does not have a cigarette between the index and middle finger of her right hand, but otherwise she does. Cross-legged among the trees behind the grotto, with the residue of late summer leaching up out of the dirt, she inhales, closes her eyes, exhales, while around her needles drip, crows cough, and sunlight struggles through, just. She is not lying, exactly, when she says she is visiting the Virgin. Usually, she drags a fingernail down the folds of the statue’s veil to scratch at milk-green lichen, or smooths a palm over pursed lips and blind eyes to clear away cobwebs; she might even rush through a hushed Hail Mary. Sometimes, her second cousin Caoimhe is there ― and here the story starts to break down, or break up, because in Caoimhe’s version of the story she is there, reaching out to take the cigarette from between Aoife’s fingers in the moment that it happens, whereas in Aoife’s version she is not.


Part of the story is this: across Europe, people are praying less, or fewer people are praying. Perhaps this is happening in this country, in the margins of Europe, which, when the sun sets over a white ocean crushing and grinding, can seem like the very edge of the world, but if it is, Aoife doesn’t know. When they are instructed at school or at mass or at home to kneel and pray, she has no idea what those around her are doing in their own private darknesses, she doesn’t even know what she is doing ― feeling hungry, mostly, noticing the vibrations her body makes as it tries to contain a nothing. Does that count as praying? Does it even count as thinking?


So she is alone, and thinking or not thinking about her breath containing and then not containing smoke, with the knuckles of her left hand worrying the ground and finding a hazel leaf to crush in her palm. She is probably thinking about Donal Kelly’s cousin James, and about her older sister Brigid, who has begun coughing blood, and about how the schoolteacher Miss Creagh kept Aoife behind to tell her about the life and long, slow death of Keats, the poet. Her voice was quiet, as though she were offering an apology, when she told her that Keats’ medical training meant he recognised the blood he coughed into his handkerchief as arterial blood, and called it his death warrant, and lived then for another year in its shadow. He was, Miss Creagh said, forbidden by his doctor to read or write poetry, and given a daily diet of a single anchovy and a morsel of bread. Sitting among the trees behind the grotto, Aoife lets the word morsel hover in her mind, wondering how a person could divide a loaf of bread into slices, and then divide the slices into pieces, and then feed a sick man only one of the pieces each day. This is what she is thinking when she hears something that is not a twig snapping, or a leaf crunching, or a cow groaning, or a bird screaming, and she turns around.


*


In one version of the story, the Virgin is crying the blood of Christ and holding out her arms to Aoife, who is also crying blood. In another, John the Baptist is there, holding his own head under his armpit, neck dripping, eyes to heaven, while in a third, St Patrick is holding a headless snake next to a silver hind. Stephen Gleeson, who runs the general store, is certain that Christ himself is there, in the form of a lamb, while Sean Carrick speaks of a beam of golden light burning through the cloud and engulfing the grotto, visible from where he tends his sheep on the hillside. In this story, of course there is a shepherd tending his sheep on the hillside.


None of these versions are Aoife’s.


*


When Aoife is much older, she will read a book by the philosopher William James, in which James states that ineffability is a defining feature of religious experiences, and what James means is this: the experience cannot be told. No one can make clear to another, he writes, who has never had a certain feeling. In 1939, though, Aoife has not even heard of William James, so she tries to tell the story.


She returns home in the quickening darkness and finds that she needs a towel to dry her face and lap, and then, without saying anything to her little brother Jonjoe or to her mother peeling potatoes at the table, walks to the house next to the church where her uncle Peter, the priest, lives. She is shaking at a table with a mug of tea in front of her and Peter’s grey eyes on her, speaking of light and then not-light, of blood and then not-blood, of pleasure and, simultaneously, terror. A sheet of paper has appeared on the table, and her words are punctuated with the scratching of Peter’s pencil. At one point, she tells him it was all just a trembling darkness in her body, and at another that she felt as though she had floated free of hunger, forever. Everything, she said, felt closer: the mud and the pine needles and the salt in the air: the ants rubbing their little legs together: the wasp hymning at the helix of her ear: and the statue itself, singing in silence, and then she asks him to cross out everything he has written. He asks that she compose herself; she finds that she can’t.


Later, when people reading the story are not Irish, they will pronounce her name AY-OH-IFE in their minds, to rhyme with knife. It will reach a point, some years after the story, when she will give up correcting people and try, for a while, wearing the name Eva, like an elegant, but ultimately ill-fitting, jacket. Uncle Peter spells her name I-F-F-E, not because he is not-Irish, but because he is dyslexic. Aoife doesn’t know this word in 1939, but she does know that her name is not the only thing he has got wrong and also that she doesn’t blame him. When she has finished speaking he covers both of her pale, small hands with his much larger, red hands, and says that he has tried to give her words some shape, that is all. His version of the story will be sent to a clerk of the Diocese, and it is possible that a Commission of Inquiry will be sent.

‘Now listen,’ Peter says. ‘It is important that we are in agreement on what has happened, yes?’


*


Sometimes when she tells the story she is not sure if she believes herself. It is plausible, as some have pointed out, that this is how it really goes: a young girl hears about an event at a grotto in another village in another area in the same country, with a different young girl, and she thinks that it would be a good way to get attention. Does she want attention? Aoife in 1946 certainly does, and Aoife in 2001 certainly doesn’t, but what about Aoife in 1939? Probably?


*


At Mass on Sunday, Aoife walks down the aisle to Peter in his vestment holding out a thin white moon of wafer and feels the eyes of Jane Byrne and Eilish Ryan and Lena Moriarty from school on her back. As she stands, closes her eyes and tilts back her neck, it strikes her for the first time that the circle of bread is just a dry, dissolving moment on her tongue, barely-there and then not-there at all. After swallowing, she turns around, neck erect, meeting the gaze of the girls as she walks back to her place on the pew, and finds a green leather-bound book with a note from Miss Creagh: For Brigid. She means to deliver it, she does, but after the final prayer is uttered and everyone files out, Peter’s housekeeper Moira Harrington takes her arm and leads her to the grotto, and suddenly her ears are full of questions fired from thin, fast voices. Moira wants to know everything and so does Maggie Carrick and Sinéad Carrick and Mary Walsh, and the air rises and rises with the sound of them trying to be heard over each other. Jane Byrne and Eilish Ryan and Lena Moriarty are there, silent on their knees in the dirt, palms together, eyes wide and on the statue, until all the noise makes them flicker over to Aoife and scowl. Caoimhe is there, too, staring at Aoife, leaning against a tree, a cigarette between her lips. There is a moment in which Aoife is not sure if something has come between them, but Caoimhe’s eyes shift to the girls on their knees, roll upwards, and she smiles.

‘Tell me,’ Caoimhe says, once they are alone.

They sit under the trees behind the grotto and pass the cigarette between each other, but Aoife doesn’t want to tell the story, so instead they talk about Miss Creagh’s bad hair, and Donal Kelly’s good hair, and Donal Kelly’s cousin James’ chest and shoulders and arms, which Caoimhe once saw when he emerged from a swim and shook himself all over like a dog on the shingle.


*


On Wednesday, Peter receives a letter informing him that the Diocese will send two priests. They will stay in the house next to the church and Moira Harrington has told everyone she will bake farls in the shape of the Virgin to greet them. Peter has straightened out the story and made Aoife repeat it to him again and again until the memory of its shimmering, shifting strangeness has almost slipped away from her, but she doesn’t mind so much because now there is talk that she will go to Dublin, and maybe Rome, and maybe America. At school the next day, she either attracts or repels, there is nothing in between.


In the lunch hour she is meant to pump water from the well and help her mother with the laundry, but instead she and Caoimhe walk the track down to the strand. The air is dense and warm, alive with clouds of midges. Fuchsia and montbretia drip their pink and orange among the green. It has not yet rained. Donal Kelly and his cousin James are there, stripped to the waist, holding lines for crabs over the edge. Water yearns in and out against rock.

James takes a scrap of anchovy from a bucket next to him, threads it through the end of a line and hands it to Aoife.

‘Here,’ he says. His skin is close. It smells of salt and oil. Beads of sweat gather in the dark hairs on his chest and below his navel.

‘What now?’ she asks.

‘You wait.’

At the end of the school day, Miss Creagh asks again about Brigid, and Aoife remembers she still has the book in her bag. She tells her that Brigid is getting better, because she thinks she must be, only she doesn’t want to go anywhere near the bed in the stone hut at the edge of town to find out. Then, Miss Creagh asks about the miracle or not-miracle, and, before Aoife can speak, she tells her in a low, hard voice that makes her words sound like a warning, about William Blake, the poet, who said he saw an oak tree filled with angels in Peckham Rye, somewhere in England.


*


Two priests arrive from Killarney: one with wet eyes and a red web of blood across sagging cheeks, the other young and pale, with a thin nose and a small, twitching mouth.

‘Ignatius!’ Uncle Peter bellows, slapping the old priest’s back. ‘How are ye?’

‘Father Francis,’ the young priest says, holding out a stiff arm.

They sit around the kitchen table. Ignatius nods and hums and smiles as Peter tells his version of the story, while Francis stares at Aoife, brow lowered, lips pursed. Moira Harrington enters and unloads a tray item by item: one knife, then another, then a third and a fourth, and the same with each teacup, her eyes flitting between the two priests and Peter, who has stopped talking, so that by the time a plate of soda farls and a butter dish arrive on the table there is only the click of Father Francis’ canines, clenching at the flesh behind his closed mouth. Still, his eyes are on Aoife.

This,’ Father Ignatius declares, splitting a Virgin-shaped farl with his knife, ‘will be very good for Ireland.’ He beams at Aoife, and heat floods her cheeks.

Francis stirs his tea, scraping the spoon around the edges of the cup.

‘We have much work to do before that, Father. First of all,’ he says, striking the cup so a high sharp sound pierces the air, ‘can the girl be trusted?’

When Peter answers, he creates an image of Aoife that she recognises as herself and not-herself: a middle child, yes, and church-going, obviously, but a dutiful daughter of god-fearing parents? She remembers the time her drunk, now-drowned, father pissed against the mattress she shared with Brigid, and how she woke him the next day with a bucket of water from the pump. As Peter talks, Father Francis’ eyes on Aoife become darker and darker until she is forced to look down, where she discovers that one of Moira’s farls has been reduced to a coarse brown rubble between the tips of her fingers.


*


They interview Sean Carrick and Stephen Gleason and Lena Moriarty and Donal Kelly and Jane Byrne and Eilish Ryan and Miss Creagh. They interview Aoife’s mother and her brother Jonjoe, and they interview Caoimhe, too. They stay away from Brigid, but it seems that Father Ignatius is interested, because Aoife overhears him asking her mother how long she has been sick for, and how possible a recovery might be. Aoife doesn’t like this — after all, the story is about her — but later, alone in her bed with night around her, she places her palms together and asks for all the coughing to stop.


*


Again Aoife sits cross-legged in the cool dirt behind the grotto only this time James is here too, Donal Kelly’s cousin James who was out on a fishing trawler last week, and will be out again next week, but is here now, under the pine. There are needles in his hair. He is telling her about Dublin and electric lighting, which has not yet arrived in the village, and about the sea, the way the sea is all endless out there.

‘Kind of makes you feel all queer,’ he says. ‘To look at it.’

A tiny crab scuttles about in the space between their legs.

‘It can survive on land.’ James dips a hand into the bucket next to him and sprinkles the crab with water. ‘For a while at least.’

The edges of the crab are dirt-brown but its centre is the orange of the flowers she will gather to throw at the statue’s feet, later, after James has gone. For now, she looks at him, and thinks that maybe he will be dead next week and maybe he won’t be, and then she tells him to kiss her.


*


When Aoife is older everything in the story will have different shades and colours and intensities, but if there is one constant it is the red of the blood that bursts from Brigid’s mouth, the whiteness of her skin, the sound of her cough as it hacks through the close air humming with the damp funk of fever. Aoife does not want to see the certainty of her sister’s skull poking through her face, so she stares instead at a trail of ants ribboning around an apple core on the swept dirt floor, and tries to hold her breath.

‘Long time no see, little sister,’ Brigid says in a voice of cracked clay.

‘Ah, you know.’ Aoife shrugs. ‘You know how it is.’

‘Sure. I imagine it’s real busy being the second coming of our dear lord Jesus Christ amen.’

Aoife forces a laugh, watching the ants break off fragments of browning apple flesh. She shifts weight from one foot to the other, wondering how long she has been here, then takes out the bread and cheese their mother gave her, places it on the table next to the bed and turns to leave.

‘Do you remember when the house flooded,’ Brigid says, ‘and we moved in with Peter?’

Of course Aoife remembers. She likes hearing Brigid tell the story though, the way its ending is always the same, so she sits on the chair next to the bed, moves her gaze from the floor to her sister’s moon-face, emerging from the bedsheets, and joins in:

‘We were at the kitchen table, and we realised we had no idea where Jonjoe was.’

‘We were always losing him.’

‘But this time was different.’

‘We looked all over Peter’s house and the church and the road.’

‘We asked at the Creaghs, and the Carricks, and the Moriartys.’

‘We were worried that he’d gone down to the strand, that we’d find him floating in the water. We were looking and looking —’

‘Peter was out on visits, Ma was in Killarney —’

‘And Da had just died. It must have been no more than two weeks.’

‘Yes.’

For a moment there is only the crackling and wheezing of Brigid’s chest. She takes a sip from the cup next to her, shifts on the bed, and continues:

‘It gets dark. So we’re back in Peter’s kitchen and Moira’s there by then, making us sit down, giving us stew. I’m staring at the scraps of lamb and that film of fat floating on top, thinking of Jonjoe, thinking how in God’s name am I supposed to eat this?’

‘Me too. I was thinking the same.’

‘We’re both just staring at our bowls when who comes running through the kitchen door?’

‘Jonjoe himself.’

‘Little Jonjoe. Completely nude he was, except for one of Peter’s dog collars around his neck. Running and waving around Peter’s incense-burner thing —’

‘The thurible.

‘Yes. The thurible. Running around the kitchen, swinging it on its chain, shouting “Amen! Amen! Amen!”’

Aoife laughs, a real laugh now, and Brigid joins her, and they’re laughing and laughing, warming the dank air, until Brigid’s laugh is a cough that is not caught in time by the handkerchief in her fist. Blood bubbles on the bedsheet. Aoife flinches.

Brigid’s body slows, and stills. A map of bluish veins sprawls across her right temple. She stares at Aoife.

‘Tell me, sister,’ she says. ‘Be honest. Do you believe?’

When Aoife will first read William James, she’ll roll the word noetic around and think it must be to do with a noem, a not-poem, the negation of poetry — Keats’ long, slow death in the absence of reading and writing — but when she reads James again she will understand what he means. If this is a story about a miracle, then Aoife should have gained the kind of certainty that renders the question of belief or not-belief null. She should know. In this town, in 1939, there is no question — just the stories at school, and the Sunday routine of standing and sitting and standing again, while Peter intones about Paul, or Job, or the temptations of the flesh, until hands are shaken and bread is eaten — and Aoife has never thought too much about it all. But when Brigid stares at her with her bloodshot eyes and asks the question, it rears up in her brain, and she thinks not of the statue but of the times the rain stops, and the sun breaks through cloud to play across the shifting waters of the ocean, and so she says Yes.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Yes, I do.’

Brigid laughs again, and coughs again.

‘Aoife,’ she says, with the same sliding intonation their mother uses to tell her off. ‘I went to Mass every Sunday same as you. I did my rosary every night by my bed, next to you. I received Communion every week from the time I was eight years old, just as you did.’

‘Yes,’ Aoife says. Her eyes are on the floor again, scanning the splayed-out spines of books. Orlando. The Playboy of the Western World. Ideas of Good and Evil. They are all Miss Creagh’s, their leather covers out of place against the dirt.

‘So tell me,’ Brigid says. ‘If God is up there, loving his creation, especially the meek and the poor, then why have I been in this bed for months? And why does my whole body threaten to collapse every time I breathe in? Tell me that.’

There is only the sound of Brigid’s ribcage rising and falling.

‘I don’t know,’ Aoife replies, finally, because she doesn’t.


Again and again and again, she will wish that this is how the story goes: she carries Brigid’s disappearing body to the grotto, where she kneels at the statue’s feet, and the statue sings, and what should happen, happens. It could go like that. It might. And if so, maybe Aoife will spend her life married to certainty, spreading the word across the world. Maybe a shrine will be built, and then a church housing the shrine, and then a basilica housing the church housing the shrine. Maybe there will be a gift shop. Perhaps, after her death, there will even be an airport, and Aoife’s body and Brigid’s body will repose in a state of bliss in the ground below it, unbroken by the mouths of moles.

Instead, Aoife sits next to the bed until the day darkens and chills, and Brigid falls asleep, and then she leaves. It is only later, once she is home, that she realises she still has the book from Miss Creagh in her bag: Selected Poems of John Keats.


*

‘There is nothing here,’ Father Francis says. ‘You have wasted our time.’

Father Ignatius frowns at Uncle Peter and places a hand on his shoulder.

‘The accounts don’t match, Peter.’

Aoife does not know why she is there; the two priests do not look at her.

‘The girl is not pure,’ Francis says. ‘We have reports of her going behind the grotto with a boy.’

With their black clothes and distended bellies, Aoife realises that the priests look like engorged beetles, clacking their mandibles at the sky, and that she could not be less interested in what they have to say. She stares at the off-white oblongs under their chins, remembers Jonjoe running naked through Peter’s house, and begins to laugh.

‘Come now, Aoife,’ says Uncle Peter, and there is that voice again — the up and down of it. Eeeee-fer. Ee-feeer.

She is still laughing as she walks out of Peter’s house and into the rain. It is raining. Of course it is raining.


 

Trahearne Falvey lives in South London and writes about precarity, futurity and, increasingly, transcendence (despite being a thoroughly lapsed Catholic). His fiction and criticism have appeared in journals including Lunate, Necessary Fiction and 3AM Magazine, and he was the winner of the 2020 Aurora Prize for Writing. He is on Twitter sometimes, @TrahearneF.


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