He searched her eyes for something, anything that would show him her thoughts.
“I love you, Tess, I love you so very much. You know that don’t you?” He held her in his arms. She smiled, and stretched her body against his.
It was his signal.
Smothering her smooth skin with butterfly kisses, he worked at showing his love for her. Tessclasped him to her, letting her sharp, manicured nails dig into his skin, piercing through the patchwork of yellow, green, and purple bruising that peppered his back. Her fingers working deeper, making the old scars juicy with new blood which dribbled down his sides onto her, splattering the sheets.
Satisfied, she cast him aside and swung her legs out of the bed to stand, cutting their lovemaking short.
“You bore me, why I bother… you’re not even that good.” Pausing at the bedroom door, she glanced back and laughed.
The morning came and Tess pulled her overnight bag behind her as she went to the front door. Work was taking her away for two nights, and she would return on the fourteenth.
Standing in the shower after she left, the warm water soothed the cuts, washing the dried blood from the night before. He ached. A swelling appeared where the rolling pin had caught him on his forearm before dinner last night. His feet were marked in different shades of blue, where her stilettos had stomped on them. Wrapped in a towel, he returned to the bedroom. The soiled sheets screamed at him, he would need to wash them before the blood dried in too much. They needed to be crisp, white, pristine – until the next time.
He needed Fiona.
“Hi, Can I speak with Fiona please?”
“Hello, I’m sorry, but she’s on another call. Can I help? My name is Bruce.”
“Will Fiona be long?” he heard the panic in his own voice, yet he knew he was alone in the apartment.
“I can’t say. You seem to have phoned in before, so you know calls are as short or as long as needed. Why don’t we talk while we wait for Fiona, would that be okay?”
“I love her. I love her a lot, but she doesn’t seem to believe me. I’m kinda tired of well, just tired.” His back hurt when he sat against the soft pillow.
“How often does it happen?” Bruce’s voice was calm, non-judgemental, understanding.
“Fiona knows. She and I are like best buddies.” His laugh was weak, sad. Was he weak? Sad?
“We’re here anytime, no matter how many times you need us. Would you feel better if you came in and shared a cup of tea with us? No pressure, just like a phone-call, just a chat.”
“I can’t just drop everything, I’ve only two days and so much to organise, Valentine’s Day is almost here.”
“Think about it, please.”
“Say hello to Fiona.”
Once the door was opened, the aroma of a lamb stew drifted in, greeting her. She smiled. He was an excellent cook. Unlit candles were placed on the table, rose petals strewn on the floor,a trail leading down the hallway. She followed it, pausing to kick off her high heels. Music at the level she liked was soothing in the background. Peeping into the bathroom, a basket of body cream, bath-foam, chocolates and a rich red wine, the one she liked, sat on a small mosaic table. She undid the buttons of her blush silk blouse, and stepped out of her navy pencil skirt.
The stream of rose petals led on to the bedroom. He was waiting for her then, she smiled. The thought of his ripped, strong body longing for her, was exciting. She called out to him as she reached the bedroom door, her bra slipping to the floor, ready to join him.
But it was empty. A dozen red roses lay against the pillows, a note propped against them. Picking up the note, she read his words,
Dinner is in the slow cooker. I should have done this before now, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready. I love you, but love shouldn’t hurt. Love is two people being equal, wanting to do things together. Love isn’t lying to the doctor, over and over, about how I got my bruises.Fiona and Bruce are right. When someone loves you, you don’t shiver when they walk in the room, or at the sound of their voice, not knowing if you’ve done something wrong. Love is a million things, Tess, but you haven’t shared any of them with me.
Goodbye, Tess. It’s over.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help and advice for any kind of abuse – mental, physical, or sexual – please contact your local services, doctor or the Gardaí. Never suffer in silence. There is help available.
“If I were alive today, I would be scraping the hood of my coffin.”
This is what’s written on Rosalia Becker’s gravestone. A ghastly epitaph indeed. She lived only twenty-four years, until 1615.
My name is Theodore Quint, and I was dispatched to the town of Monroe, Louisiana, by my editor, Mr Cronkite, to delve into the strange goings-on in the area.
With a chill, I made my way to a Motel 6, where the keeper of the establishment, a Mr Wilbur Wingate, had arranged to meet me. He was a portly fellow who smelled like a wet dog. I inquired into the history of the town of Monroe and the brutal killing of Rosalia Becker, the last woman in the then American colonies convicted of witchery. He was more than obliging.
“Well, Mr Quint, Rosalia was not mercifully burned in the sticks, she was buried alive. Before internment, her nails were plucked to stop her from clawing her way out. The helpless soul never stood a chance. Some folks say they can still hear Rosalia scraping the bonnet of her casket with the bones of her dead fingers”.
With a whiff of cynicism, I asked, “Her wailing, have you heard it, sir?”
“I have, Mr. Quint. I drowned a cat in a stew pot last fall. Who could have thought an animal could cut steel so deep? That gnawing, that screeching, that scratching; that’s Rosalia Becker, Mr Quint, so you hear that squeal, you best give Rosalia a wide berth.”
I observed that Mr Wingate did not have nails of his own. “What happened your nails?” I asked.
“We have a saying here in town: fingernails short, sleep sound, sleep well; fingernails long, well, Mr Quint, you best prepare for hell.”
Shaken, I decided to pay a visit to a relative of Rosalia Becker, a Miss Emilia DeVille. Bearings, which Mr Wingate was so kind to impart, led me to a dirt road. In the season of complicity, leaves had shrouded my route, and I sank ever deeper into a blend of mud, leaves, and water. I approached Miss DeVille’s house, and I was soon met with a yelp of derision.
“Don’t you bring that shit on my porch, boy, or else you’ll be feelin’ a pocketful of lead.”
With vigour, I removed my shoes. As I ascended the staircase of this rustic bastille, Miss DeVille was sitting in a rocking chair, stroking a Winchester, as you would a cat. Dressed in her morning gown, formerly white but now a sickly yellow, she took on the appearance of Dracula’s grandmother with ominous ease. I was not perturbed.
“My apologies if I startled you. I lost my way in the foliage. Mr Wingate told me I could find you here. I’m a reporter from the city. I’m investigating the death of Rosalia Becker. Do you recognize the name?”
“Sure, I do. I can also mark an accent when I hear it. That ain’t Louisiana, by damn sight.”
“Irish? My third husband was Irish. He’s buried out back—along with my first and second.”
“I understand, according to Mr Wingate, you have a journal belonging to Miss Becker? I would dearly love to see it.”
“You would, would you? Well, it’s upstairs somewheres. I haven’t been upstairs in thirty years, on account of my hip. Up yonder, second door on the right. Should be in the armoire.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“And don’t take nothin’ else, you hear, or I’ll cut your pecker clean off”
With that in mind, I climbed the heavily dusted treads. Each step diarized the way back. I left the door ajar and entered the scantily lit room. The curtains were drawn. Beams of light shone through the gaps, and in these beams, dust danced like a gathering of mayflies. There were more rods of light, filled with the dregs of the dead days gone by, and they blazed from every corner. One of these light-bars perched on the armoire. With haste, I rifled through an open drawer like a hound in search of game. To my horror, a gust of wind forced the door shut. I lunged, speedily, toward the door, but my gaucherie threaded my swiftness, and I straddled the floor.
“What are you doing up there? What’s all the racket?”
A muzzled thud stirred the floor, no doubt from the stock of her Winchester. A misshapen pool of light blinked on the ground; it blinked again. “Is there someone there?” I said. The air bred a stinky acrid scent; it burned my nostrils. The thumping of my heart echoed in my head. “Does my scent poison thee, Mr Quint? Does yourblood flow thicker?I shall peelyour rind first. I should think.”
With pace, I lunged for the door, pulling the handle from its moorings. As I descended the stairs, I glimpsed a second set of footprints in the dust. They were not whole and distinct, but dented and furrowed.
“Did you find it, Mr Quint?”
“I did not, Miss DeVille. Thank you for your hospitality. I must be off. Feeling unwell.”
“Oh, yes, her rank can do that, Mr Quint! You take care now. And keep those fingernails nice and short, you hear?”
With a chill, I retired to my motel bedroom, still quivering from my encounter with Miss DeVille and collapsed on the bed. The wind chimes clanking on the veranda made my slumber a little uneasy. A candle, in the last throws of life, burnt itself out. Before long, a peculiar sound came from the doorway. A skunk foraging, perhaps? My mind scurried after those things the eyes cannot see; it was a tumultuous wreck of ridiculous assumptions. There was no stopping it. Thinking the vilest and most terrible outcome awaited me, I dared not turn about to witness it. A decay then hung in the air. It was as pungent as it was nauseous. Or was it the stench of wet fur? Then, a voice trembled no more than a few inches above my head.
“Mr Quint, I have a telegram for you.”
“Mr Wingate. What a pleasure it is to see you.” Never had I been so relieved to see a two-hundred-pound man share my bed? “God bless you, Mr Wingate.”
Myth, legend, truth or fiction, they all need momentum, and Rosalia Becker’s has four hundred years of hearsay and gaudy opinions. But that does little to stop me from clipping my fingernails, just to keep the cat from the door.
The fragmented phone screen clung together—ice pieces over a frozen data pond. She stroked it, her fingers registered minute fissures. When the battery went flat, a search of his bedside locker, desk, and khaki messenger bag found nothing. Theo misplaced chargers as routine. She considered buying another, instead she stitched a funeral sack for his mobile: midnight velvet, silk cords cinched the shroud closed.
Theo had been a reluctant smartphone recipient. Emma bought it for his last birthday, determined to push the forty-year-old into the Age of Modern Technology.
‘It will simplify your life,’ she said. ‘Bring you to a higher plane.’
He frowned. ‘You know technology and I have a fraught relationship.’
‘It’s super easy. I’ll set it up for you.’
She guided him through the art of email, texting, weather app usage, and uploaded his favourite classical albums. Over time he mastered the basics, yet locking his screen seemed to elude him. Theo’s muffled conversations with colleagues, accented by the sharp percussion of car keys and loose change interrupted Emma’s workday.
‘You’ve got to stop the pocket dialling, Theo.’
‘Is that a recognised term?’
‘I’m beginning to wonder if you invented it.’
Several evenings, Emma pointed out the tiny button at the top of his phone. Theo watched her demonstration, shrugged, and returned to his reading. The next morning or afternoon, she would sigh when she heard the whir of beans grinding, the hiss of steam frothing milk at his favourite café. If she worked late, yaps from their Shih Tzu, Chu Ci, punctuated a gurgle as Theo poured himself a Pinot Noir. She shouted into her phone: ‘Theo, Theo, THEO.’ However his background life chorus continued to pepper holes in her schedule.
She almost didn’t answer when Theo called with his news. That day his pocket dials had disrupted her concentration several times. Emma’s annoyance gave way to excitement as he said that his agent had found a publisher. She smiled at his torrent of broken phrases, pushed back her chair, and moved to the window. Mist fingers rose from the lawn, reached around the office park with a silver glow. She pictured him striding through the thickening twilight towards High Street—gesturing with one hand, the other cradling his ear. Traffic noises increased, he panted between exclamations.
At first, she scanned the office park entrance. The tyre squeals and crushing metal seemed close by, almost in the room with her. Confused voices, muted swearing followed. She pressed the phone into her scalp, called into the black box, ‘Theo, Theo, THEO.’ Hurried footsteps on pavement and a siren replied.
Days and nights blurred. She let others guide her through the memorial service and burial. When the sympathisers melted away, Emma sat for hours on the couch holding Chu Ci. Both of them waited for the measured pace that would not return. She tried to replay her mental soundtrack of that night, struggled to add what she must have heard but couldn’t remember: the heavy thump of flesh to metal, the mobile clattering against asphalt, and the fracturing of glass. Had Theo managed a few final words?
Silent now, the mobile rode in her pocket during the day. It swayed and tapped her thigh as she walked, a gentle weight in her lap when she sat at her desk. She carved out a hollow and placed it on his pillow every night, within easy reach. Chu Ci began to steal the phone, hiding it under cabinets and cushions. When she slipped it into her pocket, the dog growled.
On Theo’s birthday, she made his favourite meal, setting a place for him. The black pouch lay in the centre of his plate. Emma told the empty chair how much she missed him, the sounds of his moving through daily life. Her phone vibrated on the table: vmmm, vmmm. Theo’s name and face appeared on the screen. With shaking hands, she tapped the green circle and lifted the mobile to her ear.
Static clouded the speaker.
‘Theo, is that you?’
Emma closed her eyes and strained to hear. Soft, muffled voices. The faint tones of an orchestral string section. Laughter.
Chu Ci whined.
‘Quiet!’ Emma pressed her ear to the phone. ‘Theo?’
Silence. Names raced up the screen as she scrolled to his mobile number. It rang out. Theo’s familiar voicemail message began.
A scramble sounded across the table. Emma looked up. The dog sat in his chair, yapping at the pouch. A white feather lay across the velvet, quivering with each bark.
Words by Water, hosted a variety of literary greats with a programme covering poetry, novel, short fiction, local history, and children’s books. UL had a strong presence at the festival. Journalist Sue Leonard interviewed UL’s Donal Ryan on his moving novel From a Low and Quiet and the writer’s life ahead of a packed enthusiastic audience. UL PhD candidate Marie Gethins won the short story competition category with ‘Noah Should Have Read Comics’. Bestselling crime writers Catherine Kirwan, Andrea Carter and Kevin Doyle were spotted perusing The Ogham Stone in the wild.
Hello everyone, and welcome to Autumn 2019 at UL. To kick off work on the 2020 Ogham Stone, we’re holding a university writing contest! Submit your poetry, short stories, and flash fiction to email@example.com. Winners will be published in the upcoming Ogham Stone and receive another secret prize. The contest closes on October 10th,so get your work in as soon as possible!
The competition is open to all UL students. If you are not a current UL student, but would like to submit your work for publication in The Ogham Stone 2020, see our general submission page here:
Laureate for Irish fiction, Sebastian Barry, visited UL last Thursday. He spoke in conversation with head of Creative Writing MA and bestselling author, Joseph O’Connor, at the Irish World Academy of Music & Dance.
The evening involved a reading from Barry’s novel, Days Without End; a historical book full of lyrical language that won the Costa Book of the Year award and was inspired in many ways by his Grandfather. This reading was an intense theatrical performance as he brought the words to life for the audience.
Sebastian Barry has written many novels with the powerful first-person voice, including The Secret Scripture. In adapting or finding a strong voice, he spoke of the importance of listening to the stories of those around us, and noticing how one story can often be told with different perceptions; this divides character.
Barry and O’Connor spoke about how their personal lives can inform but also disturb their writing. According to Barry:
“The first rule of a novel is to be beautiful”.
He claimed knowing too much about something can often be dangerous or limiting with fiction writing as it’s important to also break beyond what we know. Both O’Connor and Barry spoke about the ‘impossible freedom of the theater’ and recalled on their own experiences visiting the Abbey Theater. Growing up, the theater was a dominant part of Barry’s life and thus impacted his style of writing largely.
Alongside his writing, they discussed all he has done in the community since being appointed ‘Laureate for Irish Fiction’ by President Higgins. He spoke of his involvement with migrant communities, as his aim is to bring his stories and book clubs to those who can’t come to him.
He described his experience working with prisoners in Mountjoy, and those in mental hospitals in Dublin. The saddening heartfelt words he heard from one lady were:
“No one knows we’re here.”
This sparked conversation about refugees in direct provision centers, communities Barry aims to share his book clubs with. As discussed, it’s important to know and have access to marginal groups so even if we can’t make a difference, we can have a better understanding.
Melatu Uchu Okorie, author of ‘This Hostel Life’, spent seven years in direct provision and spoke of this on a podcast with Sebastian Barry. Melatu’s book was chosen for UL’s 2019 ‘One Campus, One Book’ and she’ll be visiting the University this Wednesday the 13th of March.
The evening drew to a close pondering today’s young generation and how unique styles and themes are emerging from successful young authors. Both O’Connor and Barry agreed that young people in Ireland have set a high standard for first novels. The discussion ended on the concern that burdens many writers of financial struggle, on which Barry commented:
“How do artists survive their poverty? Mysteriously, mysteriously.”