This very fine short story by Emma Devlin was the winner of the 2019 Patrick Kiely Prize. Emma joined us for A Leap in the Dark last night to deliver a wonderful reading from her home in Bangor, Northern Ireland.
The artist and author Sara Baume was the judge of the Kiely Prize and shared her thoughts on the story,. Sara also spoke about her latest book handiwork, a marvellous account of that it means to be a creative artist and the environment within which creation happens. It's published by Tramp Press in Dublin, and emphatically recommended.
Here's the story in full, rich and strange:
Home, Sisters by Emma Devlin
This is true:
When the girls were 3 they found a pale blue egg in the garden. They broke it and stuffed the halves of it in their mouths and bit down so hard that the pieces got stuck between their teeth, and when they smiled they shone like china plates.
This is also true:
There are no more birds. The girls are 16 and when they smile now – and it is rare – I wonder if they are only baring their teeth.
The dog likes to stick his snout through the gates of the abandoned house, the one on our street, in the garden where the girls once played. This is the one-eyed, broken-toothed, sober and sure-footed Ms Audrey, who appeared in our garden one day, amid the heat and rain, half-drowned in a hole he’d dug beside the shed. I toss cheese to him when he’s good – and when he’s bad, and even when he’s simply walking, because I like the look in his eye, or the shake of his tail, or how he sits. I have deliberately dropped his lead once or twice in the past to let him go through the gap in the gate, so I can see him leap like a gazelle through the weeds and tussle with the dry, leafless branches that sweep down from the trees.
Lately, there have been changes to that house. At first, scraping sounds coming from inside, and singing, and a tap-tap like many tiny things – things which shatter and things which rustle – being driven into the walls. Then, once, I saw a man. He dashed between the front door and his van, carrying a cardboard box that had already started to melt in the rain. Like he owns the place, I would say, but who owns the place? The man was David and he took the house and now he is painting it pink from the ground up, despite the rain. It was by himself at first, and then a few weeks later there was a woman, and then another.
What I’ve heard about him:
He’s a minister.
No, he’s a doctor.
But he’s very, very nice I’m sure.
People like that show up in a crisis.
I pause to let Ms Audrey smell the plants, but I don’t let go of his lead. I think he misses leaping through the garden. I glance into each window and study the movement of light inside, and move on.
Animals are dying. It started with the birds. I think it started with the birds, because that’s when we all noticed. But I suppose it could have started smaller, in the spiders and the worms and the caterpillars, but we didn’t see them, didn’t notice them. In the spring it was so hot that when Ms Audrey stepped off the grass onto the pavement the skin on his paws got burnt, so I carried him in a little bag. We sweltered under this unending blue sky, not a drop of moisture anywhere, except the sweat running down my temples, down my back. He’d leap out and come back with a finch in his mouth, or a wren, or a robin, dug out of the hedges, the verges, among brown hedges and wilting grasses. The grass burning our legs. Those birds were already dead when he found them, I think, and he wouldn’t drop them. I only managed to prise them out of his mouth when we got back home. I left them to the side in a pile, and day by day they became only feathers. Then there were other piles. Other houses, other driveways. Other people finding them, until they stopped turning up. It’s still on the news sometimes, but not very often.
It is August now and it’s raining every day. It never stops, it only rains less. There are problems with the cows and sheep on nearby farms. Something happening in their feet, their hooves splitting and flaking, with whatever it is getting into their blood. Nothing, yet, seems to have happened to the pets although there are some people have found them in holes; digging and then drowned, maybe, in the soil that shifts in the rain. I think about that and then think about how we found Ms Audrey. We walk despite the rain. We walk every day; we haven’t found a bird in weeks.
I come home to the girls after I walk the dog. I say hello and talk to them, tell them about what we saw, what we heard, and what new things Ms Audrey has found (variously: an orange, a ball, a piece of slate). As usual they look at one another, look down, and don’t speak. They stopped speaking to me in spring, when the dog came, when the birds started dying, when the rain and the heat came, and in my head I can’t think of one of these things without thinking of all of the others. The last thing they did – at least, that I remember – is name the dog, and they named him after the picture in the town hall. Audrey, the woman who posed for portraits with her cats all ribboned and bonneted on her lap, who was eventually buried with them, their names in curlicues on her gravestone: Jocasta, Io, Spenser, Mitée. She’s become the kind of thing the town sticks on postcards and names their pubs after. We’ve got Io and Mitée on a fridge magnet, holding up a rubbing from Audrey’s gravestone. Hence, the dog is Ms Audrey. That’s the kind of thing the twins do. Did.
It’s not that they can’t talk. I walk past their room and I can hear past the closed door that they are talking to each other in low, even voices about the rain, the heat, the animals, and – especially now – David and his house on the hill. I don’t know how they know his name. I don’t speak to them. I don’t even open the door. I just listen to their voices, the quiet laughter, and the big gulps of air they take from time to time as if they’ve been running. I have to wait outside their door to hear these things when before they filled the whole house with their noise, and I would wait outside rooms myself and take a breath before going in. They were like their father that way. I watched the three of them together. Loud, stomping, brown-eyed, quick and ruthless, but also, sometimes, my watchfulness, my wakefulness; even if they don’t admit that it’s there, it’s there. They don’t speak now, and if they watch then they aren’t watching me. I walk into a room and their eyes drop to the floor, to their hands, or they stare at the television, and won’t turn their heads even when I say their names. I have asked people about it and most people say the same thing, to give them time, as if I have that to give them, as if they aren’t already taking it anyway. As if, were time a thing I could take and shove into my pockets and screw down into the heel of my shoes, I wouldn’t give it to their father; the terrible thought (that I’ll never admit) of leaving them alone and frozen in their room in exchange for their dad, who would come back and fill in their absence with his great self. I have asked people about it and when they don’t tell me about time, and grief, and the power of waiting, they tell me: it’s bad wiring, bad street lighting, radio waves, micro waves, mobile phones; look at their ears, their heads; it could be flu, migraines, unexpurgated psychic energy, unresolved dream states, a nervous system in revolt. It all amounts to the same thing. My children do not talk to me, or to anyone else, only to each other, and I don’t know why.
This is true:
When they were 10 I saw one of them drop a mouse in the bin, and I heard it squeak and scrabble at the sides. Then, the other, she stamped her foot down in the bin and there was no more noise.
This is also true:
I thought: we have something in common now.
The rain, as I’ve said, never stops. What a thing it’d be to have even a day’s complete break from the rain, to have a day to stand outside our houses and look up without being dusted with raindrops, to see a cloudless sky, and stars upon fields of stars. I think such a thing would bring out the birds again, as if they’re just sheltering, as if it were not the rain and the sun that had killed off their food, beat back their habitats and left them to die. As if, I think sometimes, when the murmurs in the girls room have stopped and I know they are asleep, we are not the ones to blame. We, as in the girls, and me, and everyone we know, and everyone we don’t know, everyone who we can’t even conceive of because of the strangeness of lives in times past, and times still to come – as if time, again, in the abstract, were the problem and not us, our second-by-second thoughts and acts. We sit tightly in our denials, and things die around us. But then I rub my eyes and think, but what can I change?
He came to the house one time. He wanted to see about the girls. His hands were rough that time with paint as he tried to take mine. I opened my door but made him stand in the rain while I smoked at him, held the pack and the lighter in one hand while he eyed it, didn’t offer him one. David’s a healer. He told me this, on my doorstep, but I knew anyway. A healer of the god kind, except not the God kind; his healing is the type with hands and eyes. He has been around. In parks with women, hands on their foreheads. Have faith, he says, have faith, tilting them back slightly as if he’s about to lay them on their backs, and then releasing them, and they skitter, dizzy, and smile. Or simply sitting in bars, in cafés, holding hands, or with his hand on a head, a shoulder, a knee In this way, apparently, obsessions have been lifted, conjunctivitis has been cleared, skin smoothed, hair made to grow. I’ve watched him do this, with Ms Audrey in my bag, sitting on a bench, or in at the bar, or sipping a coffee. This is why I hated his hands on mine.
I can help your girls.
Who told you about the girls?
I’ve seen them.
They miss their father. They need time.
Let me help.
The way his foot tapped, the splashes of paint on his shirt and his collar, the untidy way his clothes sat on him. Big grinning eyes, and a smell off him of gardens, that is, wet and dripping leaves piled high on stones. I smudged out my cigarette on the wall, crushed the whole packet in my hand, and closed the door in his face. He knocked and kept knocking until even Ms Audrey was moved to bark at him, and he has barked at him since from our living room window as David passes our house to go to town, or returning home with a woman, or a group of women, all clutching their coats to themselves, or hands stuffed in their pockets, shimmering with rain, with cold, cheeks red, smiles stiff and cracked. They stay with him in the house. Ms Audrey and I see them working in the garden, or touching up the pink paint on the walls. The colour reminds me of the girls’ bedroom. They picked out the colour when they were little, and it makes me think of them at that age, and shiver for them, for the girls that hang around David. They aren’t really girls, but they are young, not exactly street-wise, not invulnerable, not surrounded by people who would pull them away. They speak in forced little clusters of words, about the weather, the animals, about the house, and smile little smiles when they catch me looking.
This is true:
When they were eight they went with their father to the pier and came back covered in saltwater, shivering, and talking non-stop about the boats.
This is also true:
When their father died, the youngest turned to me, with her big raw eyes, and held my face and looked straight at me. She didn’t like what she saw, and that was that.
I stand outside their bedroom and knock.
Hello girls I just wanted to say, to tell you, I just need to be clear, I need to talk to you, I need you to talk to me, I need you to talk to anyone, I need you to come out of your room, come out of this house, we’ll go to the pier, we’ll get ice cream, we’ll go the zoo, except the zoo is closed, the animals are sick, the plants are shrivelling up, two-steps, three-steps, things are getting faster out there, it’s so hot, it’s so wet, we have killed our animals, our animals are in heaps, and still I can feel these birdy eyes on me at a distance but when I turn my head it’s only a shadow, empty shadowy holes in the hedges, brown leaves, sopping wet, it’s the things in the news about how, town by town, animal by animal, plant by plant, it’s all going so quickly, and we’re still driving cars, we’re still burning fires, we’re still scrunching up our plastics and throwing them away, there are men who arrive out of nowhere, who take over houses, who are looking for girls and women to follow them, and sit in his house, and paint for him, tidy his garden for him, and listen to him when he tells them he is helping them, and I’m going to tell them, after I tell you, and I’ll tell the police, the papers, every single person if I have to, but now I just need to talk to you, my girls, and you need to talk to me.
But I say, Are you coming for dinner?
There’s no reply.
I open the door. Their lamps are on, the room is lit up in this warm, pinkish glow, the colour of their baby selves asleep, and they look, now, like they should: one settled on her bed, flicking through a magazine, the other one at her desk, scribbling something down in her notebook. Music playing softly from somewhere in their heap of clothes and books. I will do it this time, I know. They will look up at me this time and see me. I will talk to them, and they will listen, and they will talk to me.
I walk into the centre of their room and stretch out my hands, and sigh.
Emma Devlin has an MA in Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre. Her work has appeared in Blackbird: New Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, The Bangor Literary Journal, Honest Ulsterman, The Blue Nib, Cabinet of Heed, and Sonder Magazine. She tweets from @theactualemma
The Benedict Kiely Short Story Competition was founded in 2016 and runs annually in the lead up to the Omagh Literary Festival, Honouring Benedict Kiely. Previous winners are Adam Trodd and Louise Farr. The Omagh Literary Festival takes place from October 11th-13th, featuring Donal Ryan, Martin Doyle, Glen Wilson, Dawn Watson, Shannon Yee, Moyra Donaldson, Mary Kenny, Eamonn Mallie and Martina Devlin, along with the annual Omagh Poetry Slam & plenty of live music. The full programme can be found on the Omagh Literary Festival Website.