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Familiar

By Colin O'Sullivan

I am not allowed out after seven in the evenings. I am not allowed in any of the kids’ houses anymore and no longer even tolerated in their yards. It’s like there’s a general ban on me all over the neighborhood. Nobody wants me near them after the incident. My mother thinks it an awful shame that I’m a pariah at only 13, but she said if a boy is involved in any kind of misdemeanour, expect people in a good neighbourhood to be quick to hear about it, and slow to forget. That’s the way it is all over, she said, it’s got nothing to do with family history and the prejudices people have.

Pariah is one of my new words.

I probably deserve my exclusion. Fr. Jeremiah was lecturing about this kind of stuff on the altar one Sunday, how we reap what we sow; though at the time I thought he meant sew and I didn’t quite get the point, thinking it was only women who would suffer in this life from shoddy needlework. Life, and the right words to comprehend and use in it, can be terribly confusing, growing up, in any neighbourhood, and maybe all the odds were stacked against me from the onset. It was well-known that my Mom’s relatives were weird, though she shielded me and my sister from them, refusing them visits. Some of them had been in a circus and had peculiar tricks they could demonstrate, and one or two had been committed (yet another word that needed time to make its meaning clear to me). I didn’t know much about my Dad’s lot, didn’t know much about my Dad even, him having fled when I was a baby, but I never heard a good word about that side either.

My recent trouble began when I met Nora, a batty old bird that all the kids joked about. Nora wore men’s clothes, thick sweaters or cardigans and rough pants, big boots like you’d see on a construction site, and was never seen in anything resembling a dress or skirt. She had a wide, oval face, full of fissures and cracks like a desert planet somewhere, Mars maybe, the red hue arising from the whiskey she liked to sup in the evenings. If a boy kicked a ball over her wall there was no way he’d attempt to retrieve it, for despite all the jokes levelled at her, the real deal, the children knew, was that Nora was engaged in the black arts, witchcraft. Now, I had my doubts, I’m sure there must be such a person in every neighbourhood everywhere, some old dame or gaudy geezer the kids can’t resist whispering about. And just because a woman dressed herself strangely and had a few cats, well, that didn’t necessarily make her a wanton witch (wanton: a new addition, Mr. West had it in our vocabulary test) . I asked Fr. Jeremiah about all this during one of our religion classes, and he said that indeed no, having cats did not make one a witch, but he did use the word familiar, and I knew a dictionary needed consulting, again. He told the class, thirty of us sitting in a semi-circle around him, loving the mention of dark rituals and macabre goings-on, that a witch did have these familiars, those close to her, like a cat, like the way a devil has bats and snakes and wolves and stuff. That was the gist of it; my mind was spinning with all this wonderful new information. He warmed up considerably with talk of cauldrons and the fires of hell, changelings and imps, talk of temptation and the occult and sinister folk that could trick you into doing what you didn’t even want. He talked about the blues and the men who sold their souls to play guitars and that all modern rock `n roll evolved from that rotten apple. I thought about my sister Gemma’s CD collection and knew she was bound for an eternity of flames. Fr. Jeremiah, surely the oldest being alive, looked at me during a lot of his talk; maybe he was expecting me to back him up, as if being a descendant of a circus family meant that I had the low-down on all this and could bail him out should he trip on a fact. But I was just listening, and loved the words he was using: consecration, brimstone, purgatory, and when he eventually found his way back to the subject of the familiars, he said that the main thing was that we should not become too familiar with our own bodies, or anybody’s body at our age. He said this with a snort, but he wasn’t joking, his eyes ferociously serious. Someone behind me giggled, quick to cotton on to what he was getting at, and the wise old priest left it at that. I think I was less educated when the bell went, had only grown more and more confused from all the words, ideas and images he used, but I was hoping it’d all work itself out in my head someday soon, somehow.

It wasn’t because I kicked my ball into her yard, I didn’t even have a ball, no, it was because my mother sent me to take some queen cakes to her as appreciation for something-or-other and that I should also ask nicely to borrow her clippers, that our hedges were simply out of control. My mother was one of the only people who gave Nora any time; they weren’t friends or anything, I’m not sure they even liked each other all that much, but maybe once a year or so one did the other a favour, borrowing something and paying it back, that kind of arrangement. It was one of my mother’s ideas: that you should often call upon someone in the neighbourhood to get a loan of something, even if you didn’t really need it, just to stay in touch, and that you’d be sure to return the item soon after, with a little thank-you gift, it was all about community, she insisted. So there I was knocking on her door and waiting. I must admit my heart was hammering; this was my first journey to her house— the other times my sister must have done it—I had heard so much about this evil old lady and that she could summon ghosts and call spirits and that she held séances regularly. Pearce Bennington, a year above me, said that she was able to levitate, rise up on her bed without doing anything at all, though I wondered how Bennington would know such a thing, how he had ever seen her on a bed. The door didn’t creak open that day, there was no fog, no mist, it just seemed like a regular old hallway when I entered, and Nora was happy to receive her gift and invited me to sit and have some juice. The place didn’t smell bad, just of cat; other than that it was as normal as any place I’d ever been. I was taking mental notes for when it’d be my turn to hold court in the school playground and tell of my big adventure, put Bennington in his place, but so far the story I was planning to tell was pretty short. There was Nora all right, craggy faced and wearing an old man’s sweater. I could see at least three cats and heard a few more mewling about upstairs, but I saw no inverted crosses, no satanic symbols, no magic potions in vials and no cauldron, unless the pot on the cooker could be called that. I was, I guess, a little disappointed.

She asked me if orange juice was ok, and I said sure, but I didn’t want to delay too long, my mother would be expecting me.

We sat then, at the kitchen table, and Nora asked if Mom was ok and how Gemma was doing at the University. I think I knew what was running beneath all this, the fact that we were Dad-less, she didn’t say of course, but I was aware. I said everything was ok, fine and dandy. She then asked about school and what kind of things I was learning and I told her some stuff about science and geography and how we’d be going on a school trip in the autumn. I wanted so much to talk about Fr. Jeremiah, her arch-nemesis, and see her reaction, whether she’d frown or get angry and cast me out of the house, or whether her cats, her familiars, would rear up on me and claw me to death for bringing the mention of one of God’s soldiers into her house. But I hadn’t the guts, I just said that the orange juice was great and she told me that she had squeezed them herself. She said that she remembered my grandaunt, Lady Martina, who had been a wonderful trapeze artist and wore beautiful costumes and was like an angel flying through the air. She was a very sexy woman and there wasn’t a red-blooded man in the whole country that didn’t want to be with her. Nora’s eyes were wide and glistening as she reminisced. I was happy to hear all of this, praise for my family was lean enough, I’d take any that was on offer. She seemed happy to chat, glad of the company, and I didn’t fear her at all; I was still maybe in shock at just how ordinary she was. She looked huge sitting near me at the table though; I hadn’t ever seen her so close, always just in passing on the road: her shoulders were large and her head was large and her voice was sometimes soft and gentle and other times it would crack and fall deep all of a sudden. Her breasts looked full and heavy under her sweater and I wondered if she had ever had a husband or children, though I guessed not, sadly, immaturely maybe, unable to picture anyone falling in love with her. She offered me some cake and I refused, dinner was soon and I knew my mother’s rules. Nora said she understood, and that I was a sagacious old soul, and I tried to contain the word in my head for later. It was only then that I remembered the shears and asked if mother could borrow them, that our hedges were completely out of control, and naturally she obliged. She got up slowly, sighing, rubbing her back, saying that she had pain all over recently, that until the operation was over that she certainly wouldn’t be doing any clipping, the bushes could run wild for all she cared. I felt sorry for her then, she looked like she had terrible backache, and I should have offered to clip the hedges myself, but I didn’t, I just took the tools, thanked her for the juice and left. One cat rubbed its side against my legs as I said goodbye at the door. It wasn’t a mangy old moggy, but clean, with soft fur, and bright, shining eyes.

My mother was pleased that I had spent some time with Nora. She was pleased that I had ignored the foolish chatter of young people and their wild imaginations and was sensible enough to have a civilised conversation without feeling awkward in her presence. I told my mother that Nora was very kind, and that she seemed lonely and all she needed was someone to talk to. Mom brushed the hair out of my eyes and kissed my forehead, telling me that I was a great lad and that all I needed was a decent haircut. I was going to tell her that all the guys had long hair nowadays and that it was fashionable, but I let it go, she’d forget about the issue soon enough. She said that I’d be even more wonderful if I cut the hedges for her the following day, and seeing as I had no other plans for my Saturday, I agreed. There was going to be a bit of extra cash in my pocket too if the job was done well, so all in all my days were turning out just fine and dandy.

I oiled the blades of the clippers. I knew it was best to keep them lubricated so that the rust wouldn’t settle in and stiffen the action. I didn’t need a father around to tell me some stuff, some things you can just work out by yourself. The hedges were no longer out of control and I was happy with the job I had done. I knew my mother would be happy too and was thinking of what I would spend my extra money on. Maybe some rock CDs, devil’s music! Maybe I could even make copies on my computer for Fr. Jeremiah!

A couple of days later my mother reminded me to return Nora’s shears. I had no thank-you gift this time; my mother thought my hello would be enough to satisfy the lonely old lady. I crossed the road and headed down towards the house. It was a warm day, getting hotter by the minute, and I could feel sweat between my shoulder blades, my socks too becoming damp in my sneakers as I walked. Nora’s gate gave a rusty squawk and I thought here was another thing that needed a bit of lubrication. Her front door was slightly ajar, perhaps she was letting some air in, and I could hear music playing on the kitchen radio. I called out for her but there was no answer. I was unsure what to do. I was thinking of just leaving the clippers there on the kitchen table, where she was sure to see them, but I held on to them, twirling them in my hot hands, deciding that it would be more polite to hand them back and certain that she’d be happy to have another little chat when she saw me. I could hear something upstairs, some moaning, and not cat-moan, but her, Nora, as if her back was giving her terrible trouble again. I paused for a moment, wondering whether she might be in agony, whether she might have put her back out and was stranded there on the floor, only cats for company, and they certainly weren’t going to pick up the phone and call an ambulance. I climbed up the stairs, slowly, letting my foot falls be heard, calling her name again. But still she did not hear me, just the moaning from her, and the patter of padded feet in different rooms, the radio below bursting into a pop number. When I got to the top of the stairs I knew I had ventured too far, she was a stranger still, after all, I had no right, but my curiosity was aroused; maybe I’d find something up there that revealed more about this mysterious lady, or maybe I’d find only the ordinary and further solidify the fact that there was nothing at all awry. The door at the bottom of the narrow corridor was open, and from there the groaning was coming. I walked down towards it saying her name again and it was then that she heard me and shrieked. I stood motionless at her bedroom door, a sudden shock convulsing my body, and there was Nora, lying on her back on the bed, her hands scampering frantically to conceal, and the white substance dripped off her fingers and onto the floor where a cat ran to sniff at it. It was like we were both gasping for air, gasping for words or meaning, for this to be un-happening, gasping for us both to be un-there. My head spun. Cats were pottering about, coming from different rooms, purring, hissing, scratching about at my feet and I could hear Nora shouting that no, no, I didn’t understand and I mustn’t say. When I turned to leave the room I saw a picture on her dresser, a photo, a circus lady, in a shimmering blue costume, smiling, and Nora’s arms around her waist, and Nora smiling too, dressed in a tuxedo. Before I could make my first step and before Nora could grab my shoulder, I tripped. The clippers flew out of my hand and straight into the side of one of her cats. The scream rang through the house, setting off all the others, a thousand drunken violins tuning up. Blood spurted from its belly, its innards oozed, and as I tried to make my way to it Nora shouted at me to go, go, to get out of her sight. I half-tripped down the stairs, missing steps but managing to stay upright, my head banged against the wall but I was able to exit the house, out the gate and into the sweltering sun. Sweat poured from my temples and my jeans felt wet, from sweat or urine I could not yet tell.

As I ran in the direction of home I thought about what I was running to: Mother? Priest? Dictionary? I just wanted something fast, something that would provide me with answers, anything that made quick sense to a thirteen-year- old. I thought about the tale I no longer wanted to tell in the playground, how I didn’t want to picture that person I saw on the bed, ever again, or see cats or blood anymore, and I didn’t care what Pearce Bennington would say to me or what rumours he would spread.

Bennington did get the word out: That I was a cat killer. A savage using shears to murder animals. Breaking into people’s houses! I could have explained it all, that Nora wasn’t able to levitate, that she was something else entirely, but why bother upsetting any more people; they’d get it in the end, some things you can just work out for yourself.

It’s like there’s a general ban on me now all over the neighbourhood. Nobody wants me near them. My mother thinks it an awful shame that I’m a social pariah at only thirteen, but she said if a boy is involved in any kind of misdemeanour, expect people in a good neighbourhood to be quick to hear about it, and slow to forget. That’s the way it is all over, she said, you can’t kill a neighbour’s cat and get away with it. It’s not all bad though: I score highly in my vocabulary tests, and that person, Nora, has become even more reclusive after the eventual operation, and I’m not entirely sure, but when Fr. Jeremiah grins at me in class, I don’t know whether it’s because he suspected as much from the likes of me and my kind, or whether it’s out of plain fear.

 

Colin O'Sullivan is an Irishman living and working in Aomori, North Japan. His stories and poetry have appeared in magazines such as The Shop, Carve, Dublin Quarterly and Staple New Writing. A collection of his fiction, Anhedonia was published in 2006 by Rain Publishing.

Photo "Cat Jealousy" courtesy of Alex Fong, Tel Aviv, Israel.


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