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Two Birds, One Stone

Two Birds, One Stone

28 April 21
 | 21 MINS

Elaine Feeney has published three collections of poetry including The Radio was Gospel and Rise. Feeney teachers at NUI Galway, where she is also Creative on the Tuam Oral History Project. In 2017 she wrote the multi award-winning drama piece for the Liz Roche Company, WRoNGHEADED. Her debut novel As You Were (Vintage) won the 2021 Kate O’ Brien Award and shortlisted for Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, The Rathbone Folio Prize, Dalkey Literary Awards and was an Observer Best Debut of 2020.

Two Birds, One Stone

Jack Mahon was born in a house with a tin roof to woman who is seven years dead. He cannot remember the details of his birth, nor did his mother enlighten him on such matters while living. She has yet to come back to him in death, though he waits.

The cold is back, Jack says.

Tis, shut the door, his father replies.

Jack kicks the back door shut as his loose woolen sock slips along his leg until his narrow ankle is exposed and he is up now and filling the silver kettle under the tap in the corner of a small scullery. Jack’s body is cumbersome for a scullery like this, he has his mother’s hips, her awkward turn of waist. A cat with one eye sits outside on the windowsill. He puts the kettle on the range, bustles about making tea. Black cat licks herself, belly, hind-leg, hole. She knocks over a marmalade jar that they use in summer to catch wasps, as they suck on the remnants of the orange sticky mess, they slip into the water. It smashes on the concrete yard. He passes his father a cup and Vincent spills some on his jumper, curses.

Jack is birthed arse first in the small bedroom of the old house that’s now a horse’s stable, empty once again, for the pony died and the burial is tomorrow – out of necessity and not formality. The moment of birth, he is slapped hard then swaddled in a blanket, wrapped tight in a hessian sack and handed to his mother like a warm shoulder of pork. It is unknown as to whether it is a good idea to swaddle a baby tight in some form of wrapping upon its birth into the cold of the world, warmth can be mistaken for reassurance which leads to reliance into adulthood. And given that one of the most luring things about the life of a baby is the splaying of the body, that freedom that must lead to spatial independence. After a dozen months, Jack now walks upright and unsteady, and is always going forwards, (until lately). As he grows, he is left alone about the farm as other children come along, all girl children. Soon there’s work to be done as he’s old enough for the ferocious labour that comes on west of Ireland farms. His mother is putting on a lot of weight, and is all sweaty and flush, heavy about the ankles and slow to move, and chase the boy like she did once. Soon, her entire life is stood at the small sink in the scullery and she forgets the boy. He grows stubble in round patches where his cheeks flush purple, just above his jaw bone, wears his father’s hobnailed boots and long pants. He drinks with the seasonal threshing workers, the bog workers – men from Connemara whose brothers are drunk and lonely on the Kilburn High Road and will never return. They can’t decide which life is worse, but wherever their brothers are, they work hard. Jack goes to the local school for a while, but the teachers look about him, or sometimes right through him. It is rare he was noticed, rarer that he is asked a question at all, and eventually he slips away. The workers’ pay him attention and soon his chest is out. In the evening they sing for Ireland, women who left Ireland, men who left the world for Ireland. Jack stays out all night most nights now, bare-knuckle boxing and rolls around in the yard on his return home, cursing loudly for Ireland. Both houses stand beside each other now, nothing is knocked, live things sold, leathers stitched, buckets glued, cows milked and slaughtered, boots nailed, pigs killed, cabbages pulled, eggs laid. Everything has a price.

Jack and his father are passing the seven-year dead itch that comes with loss. It’s mid-winter’s end. Jack split from the wife after being thrust into the middle of the night by her many brothers and he is developing nervous habits. He’s not sleeping and at night he sees the dead at the end of his childhood bed. Especially during winter, an old hag, she kisses him, sometimes she tries to choke him. The doctor says it’s Sleep Paralysis. He hates winter now – hating everything he fears. Vincent bruises his left thumb with a hangnail into the belly of the remote control. TV on, then off. He dials up the transistor radio by his angry red ankles. A yellow weather warning, talk of the dismembered body of a young woman, husband held for questioning. He turns it off – click – looks out past the kitchen window to the cattle crush, half door of the empty stable and into the evening where trees move like old haggard men waltzing.

Will we be dragging her to the end?

We will.

Should we not put her up on the cart instead of dragging her behind it?

No. Vincent says.

The next morning, they are going about their business of burying the dead pony.

Tie her tighter at the hocks. Vincent says, waving his hand at the back of the box cart. Jack ties quick release knots on each of her hind hooves, though he is questioning the rationale of a quick release knot for a dead horse. Both eyes of the pony are sucked out by shiny crows and swallowed whole, two pink eye sockets remain and her belly is thick with air.

Are we burying her in the famine plot?

We are.

Among the famine plot are one hundred and twenty-seven skeletons of people who once lived here, buried with them are carcasses of dead sheep-dogs, horses, cows, chickens, lambs, cats, pigs and rats. Crows circle over-head. They untie the hooves, and they carry her to a hollow that Jack has made in the rocks. The rain lashes like a circus whip, again again, it cracks.

Hold, hold, lift, Vincent says, wild groans dirty cunts them crows.

Jack lifts rocks and throws them over the body. Vincent watches, sips from his hip flask. The pony’s belly deflates as the rain keeps the sucker birds away, once or twice they swoop down, cawcaw, but the old man unnerves them. He pulls his cap over his eyebrows, thick plastic sacks tied along the legs of his trousers, shoosh, and work like a scarecrow. Jack is soaked through and as he casts some bones aside, he stares at one; the jaw of something tiny and narrow, like a bird. Rats are only attracted to flesh. Bones no longer matter, over or underground, but flesh needs to be covered. Vincent always uses a hawthorn stick, but lately since the nurse has started calling, he’s perched oddly now on a silver Canadian crutch with armrests. They look out of place among the stonewalls and the fields and propped on the box-cart. Back in the kitchen, wet, Jack flicks a switch and lights up a bulb that hangs in the middle of the ceiling. There’s red tinsel wrapped tightly around the yellowed flex, it’s been there since the mother died and it smells bad.

Shut it off, you’re inviting the dark. Vincent says.

Jack switches off the light, lifts the lid on the range, throws in some turf, and sits in the wet clothes opposite Vincent. He reaches down, unrolling a woolen sock from his right foot, picks at his toe nail, pulls the softened skin back. Second sock. He hangs the socks on the steel bar of the range to dry them out. He leaves his jumper down. It too will dry by the range. The smell of sheep skin rises. A car outside, hums, the driver switches the engine off. The old man is impatient as his wormhole eyes have lived a life of impatience. Impatient at going nowhere. Impatient to cool in the blood he boils in. The fridge under a warped Formica counter, hums, yellowed tape sticks photos that vibrate gently, a girl on a piebald pony, a young man feeding a lamb from a glass bottle with a black teat, a baby drinking from a pint of stout.

Now, this is cozy, hello you are both at home…so nice, a woman says as she puts her head around the door.

We are. Vincent says.

Come in, Abba, Jack says.

Just thinking I’d drop in some cooking…a pie. How’s the crutches going? Can you manage? Remember bad leg and crutch. Please say for me, she says as she tucks some hair under her headscarf and places the pie on the centre of the kitchen table under the Sacred Heart.

Bit cold for those. Vincent says, looking at her purple flip-flops.

Wexford colours, Jack says, smiling.

What colours? She asks.

Ah nothing. Jusht…jusht nothing, Jack says.

OK, she laughs, my feet are always hot, even though this country is so cold and always it is raining. How do you put up with all the water? She spoons the pie onto two plates, lifts back up her dish, two decorative blue tits fight over a red berry.

Good day to you now Abba, you should be off.

Very well – are you sure you can manage?

Vincent waves his crutch, it’s a sign of agreement.


Night. Goodnight.


Cursed night. Blackened. Night. Thick foggy night.

God bless, she says, waving the dish above her head she leaves and her Nissan

Micra rattles under the railway bridge, there’s a hole in the exhaust.

She went the way of the river…

She did. And it’s late.


She’ll get stuck.

She might.

Nothing surer.

Vincent clears his throat, spits into a wooden bucket with an embossed eagle on the steel rim, misses, rubs his hand off the thigh of his dark trousers. A man on TV is offering tasters of haggis, washing them down with ruby craft beers. The fridge hums again and the photo of a girl on the pony slips sideways as three cats lick themselves on the windowsill. One of them has no eyes at all.

Scotland? Vincent says.

Tis. The Highlands. I reckon they’ll get independence soon…Jack says.

What? Why would they put that bother on themselves?

You’re probably right.

After they eat the pie, Jack fills whiskey into tumblers.

Go aisy with them glasses, Vincent says.

I will.

Your mother bought them in hungry times.

They sup up from crystal glass.

Jack says: It’s time for a stone. It’s silent now, save the fridge humming. It’s been seven years. It’s well time. There’s talk in town.

There’s Talk in town? Vincent says as he is rising up. Who listens to talk? I’ll give you talk. What would have you in town? Women? You’ve given them plenty to talk about. Town. I’ll give them town.

The man tastes the haggis. The cats’ jump off the windowsill, green eyes in the dusk like glow sticks, whish whish.  Vincent takes his crutch and moves across the tiny kitchen, towards the hallway.

I’m going to sit beyond in the parlour. enoughenoughenough. Vincent roars. There’ll be no more said of the dead in this house.

He shuffles out. Good foot. Bad foot|crutch. Hay foot|straw foot.

I wonder did she get caught by the way of the river? Vincent calls out, softer now. Sure, you couldn’t tell her, sure you couldn’t, you can’t tell them a ‘cursed thing, even if it’s for their own good. Caught she’ll be, well caught. There’s no telling them. You’ll have to head out with the flash lamp, as she’s gone the way of the river. Bring the cats. Vincent says, calling out finally. There’s a hessian sack in the yard, you’ll kill two birds with one stone. The river will be fast tonight. But no more talk of the dead now. No more, I said.


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