(And Who Am I But The Quarter Child?)
And a day ago or two or three, or weeks ago, a girl in white came round her mother’s side and hung a thread of shells upon the thing that should by right have been my shin.
And on the breeze they gentle chime, and tell me tales of far away, of seas beyond the fields of here, and take away the sounds of prayers, and hide them from me for a time.
And they lie with braids of beads along the lower branch and polished stones and feathers there and weathered photos of the dead and dawn is when Simnell comes to have me shaved.
And his ladder left against the tree and blade to scrape my belly cleft he laughs and says to me: “You are their Child, and their hope for better things. They have not come and queued for days to see black hairs growing in your naughty place.”
And I smile for him because he likes to see me try to smile and he says that he’s an old and worn-out thing, but with his eyes and nose and mouth complete he is very beautiful to me and Mister Gough is watching from the booth down by the gate and Mister Gough is always busy.
And who am I, but the Quarter Child, a slip of hip from branches hung and jaw a tongueless heft of bone half-slung, and sallow with the pale of hake despite the sun, despite the branches bare and lacking shading leaves and night is when Simnell sits with me and tells me tales of far from here.
And the girl in white turns eyes on me and prayer dies in her open mouth and I bring tears to sting her eyes and I’m left long to whisper: sorry for your horror fear and all the wrong you think of me but my half-jaw opens only in a moan.
And Simnell takes the picture from her hands, pins it for her to my bark— “Her father,” Simnell murmurs, “A cancer of the throat. Two months, if nothing’s done,” and the mother leads her weeping down the slope and there, so many gathered, so many com e to see the slip of hip and half-hung jaw that is the meat of me.
And faces red with tears in lines and hands are held up clasped in prayer or open flowers hoping to receive and what have I to give them, and how am I to know their needs?
And they wound me with their prayers and pain.
And what am I to do with stones and coins and bones and all these pictures of the dead?
And who am I but the Quarter Child?
“And every day of her life,” Simnell says, “she prayed. And what came of it? Nothing; not a word, and not a second of release. But they took her here to see you, little one. And the next day she was on her feet. And you wonder why I do this? You gave us three years. Three years, and the best years.”
And he cleans his blade and kisses where he kisses whenever work is done and says to me what he always says:
“You’re a miracle.”
And on some days or in some weeks are when the heaven rains, and crowds disperse along the lanes in long lines led by Simnell in his plastic hat and cape, hurrying to hurry them along but his leaving leaves the desperate to me, and no-one there to stop them laying hands upon my lengths and pressing wet distressing faces to the places where my pieces should have grown.
And their prayers are knives and I have not a single thing to fight them silent with—
And we had a fight that morning and so he chose to walk to school but no, he never got there…
And they’ll take everything, everything I’ve fought for, everything I’ve grown and own…
And the fire should not have spread like that—I never meant for—forgive me, only the eldest should have died…
And memories, I have my memories, and sometimes I remember things of when I wasn’t here but they are dim and distant things… and then there are stories as dusk comes down and Simnell settles, sets his back against the trunk that lightning struck the day I came and split in twain and killed it dead and tells me of the things he’s seen, the woods and hills and fields and seas and once when rounding Malin Head he saw the sky alight and on the night she died he saw a pheasant on his lawn and Simnell smiles.
And sometimes when I cannot sleep I make a list of what I lack but I’d be sooner counting stars and Simnell says that I have all a body needs because they’d never had their own and “No-one needs a lying tongue,” Simnell laughs as the blade works down my belly cleft but still—a single shoulder, single arm and single eye and who am I but the Quarter Child?
And nine hundred days ago or fifty four to come, a farmer by his cattle crushed, is laid to rest in roots beneath the burned boles of the tree and I am begged for mercy though none have I to give and when the body breathes a last his widow looks to me and says I took his pain away and says he passed in peace and who am I to bring her grief and turn her laugh to tears?
And food is a pap of milk-soaked bread, for nothing tougher can I chew or force between my palate and my jaw and lip, and so I blink my amber eye:
Once, for rolled in sugar.
And twice, for rolled in salt.
And Simnell rolls the bread for me and skewers it upon a stick and crowds are coming close to laugh, and cheering there to see me fed, to see me pluck with half a lunge and roll the pap in half a mouth and half a tongue and trying to smile for Simnell’s sake but swallowing has always been an agony to me.
And memories… remembering a softness on my half a mouth, the yellow cloth I failed to hold and faces from the yellow folds and I was held and someone crying held me saying “Take it away—we’ll try it again,” and I think her hair was brown or gold or both and Mr Gough was standing in the hall.
And a yellow scrap remains to me, remains to me my memory, a yellow rag around a branch and when it gets too cold for me Simnell wraps me in a blanket of the softest blue, and scattered stars of darkest blue and sleep comes slightly easy then and hands are stroking me to sleep and dream.
And Simnell wipes me when I mess myself and tells me how his old bones ache and now his fingers won’t go straight and how it’s only growing worse and his voice is soft— “You’ll never let that happen. I know you’ll never let that happen,”— and he kisses where he always kisses— “After all we’ve done for each other— you’ll keep the pain from me.”
Prayers are knives.
And they’ve made for me a crown of flowers and children come to sing for me, to sing at me, and they mock me with their movement and their beauty final forms, and I am visited by bees and closing eyes I hear the soft and nuzzling things and free, they scatter as the prayers come with feathers, shells and strings of beads.
And Mister Gough doesn’t speak to me, but watches from the laneway gate and once I’d like to see his face and Simnell says I’ve answered all his prayers but how I have he does not say and what they were I do not know.
And up the lanes comes lines of them and please, there’s almost too much love— and all of it the same as grief.
And I am just a helpless thing.
And I am powerless to help.
And Simnell tells me stories, and I listen, and listening I try to smile…
But I have stories of my own.
But have no voice to tell them.
But if I had, I’d say:
And once I saw a dog in flowers, that didn’t come when called, but bounded on unleashed and free and that to me was happiness.
And once a boy looked up at me and didn’t pray when told, but smiled and waved and turned away and that to me was beauty.
And I have prayers of my own.
And I have dreams and wishes.
But I have no-one here to listen.
And I have no-one here to make them true.