This weekend brings more fiction from past contributor Ethel Rohan: two stories from her little book, Hard to Say. Read them. Love them. Then buy the book and support its small press, [PANK]. “An Irish daughter struggles with her relationship with her mother, who drinks, beats, goes blind, loses her sanity. The stories in this aptly titled book are relentless, full of terror, frighteningly true. Ethel Rohan’s rhythms will get inside you.” —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
My neighbor and I played this wizard game together and at first it was fun. We dressed in sheets, invented spells and curses, and imagined we could time travel. Then Richie let his wand go to his head and pointed it at my middle. He ordered me to pull down my knickers and show him mine. I refused.
His voice dropped to a snivel. “But I’ve never seen one.”
I assured him there was nothing special about girl parts, especially not mine.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I still want to see.”
He was clueless his dad often messed with my bits with his fat fingers.
For weeks, Richie whined and pleaded.
“All the other boys seen one.”
We were in our back garden. I scanned our house and rechecked my parents’ bedroom window. Mother had taken to bed again, hadn’t risen in three days, said she didn’t care if she ever got up. By then, her eyesight was so bad I knew she wouldn’t see us, even if she were looking.
I took Richie into our coal shed. Our feet slipped around on the black lumps, scraped and crunched them. I lifted my skirt and pulled down my knickers, hoped they were clean.
Richie dropped to his knees on the coal and reached out his shaky finger. I said he could look, but couldn’t touch.
“Not even with my wand?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
Then I decided so what. So what he wanted to touch me with his stupid, dirty stick. I said yes.
His wand traced and tickled, and separated my legs so he could see better. It felt fine. It felt nothing.
Richie kissed my neck. Neck kisses that turned me into a floppy doll. No one had ever neck kissed me before. Not Richie’s daddy, not anyone. He promised more neck kisses and chest kisses too. He’d seen pictures and claimed men could kiss women’s nipples, suck them like a baby. Said it made women go wild.
One afternoon Richie, or the Wizard as he insisted, ordered me into his house, into his bedroom. His mother was downtown, at the shops, at her hair. I hated his house. That was where his dad caught me most often, there or in his car, the park. I worried, asked where his dad was.
The men sucked glasses of beer and whiskey together, laughed together. Together, they figured out everyone else.
I walked up the stairs in Richie’s house and felt my insides nosedive. We passed his parents’ bedroom and I started to shake, to turn cold, my bumpy forearms dusted in black soot from the shed.
In his room, Richie played music, fast-forwarded his Elvis cassette until he found “Love Me Tender.” We climbed between his cold sheets and he took off my clothes. I exited my body and hovered above him, watched him and my body, just like I watched his Daddy and my body.
I startled, thought I heard someone downstairs, and made to jump from the bed. Richie grabbed my wrist, reassured me no one was home.
“Why are you always so afraid?” he asked. “We’re wizards remember.”
He stripped and showed me his. I didn’t want to look, but I did. His thing looked so silly, like it was trying to be something it wasn’t. I laughed. Richie’s face darkened. He wanted to know what was so funny. I told him I was thinking of the word my ma used for the gash between our legs.
“Twirlie,” I said.
“Twirlie?” He laughed.
He lowered his lips to my breast bud, to my fat, pimpled nipple, and sucked hard.
He lifted his head and smirked. “You like that, don’t you?”
I liked it so much I felt sick. He wanted me to tell him I liked it, to thrash and writhe and moan. Wanted me to be loud. Wanted me to do more than just lie there like I was dead. I watched my body try to move, try to work, but, wizard or not, I couldn’t get it to do anything.
Disease ate away at Mother’s eyes. A slow killer, Retinitis Pigmentosa took its sweet time, liked to nibble and pick. Her pale blues in grave danger, like two dangling buttons about to fall from a coat and into the gutter.
Retinitis Pigmentosa also feasted on others in Mother’s family, a brother and two sisters. I wondered if someday the insatiable pig monster would also come after my eyes, brown like chocolate. I imagined the slobbery snorting beast would devour my sight in one sitting and couldn’t decide if that was better or worse than slow and steady.
In our house, few things had their place, but we kept stray change on the kitchen’s chipped windowsill. The afternoon reigned slow and hot. At last, from the street came the ice cream van’s jingle, music that Mother rocked back and forth to in her chair. I begged for a cone. Mother gave in and felt along the windowsill for the coins. Her hand met a wasp. I could see clear through its wings, Mother hadn’t seen it.
The startled wasp batted its transparent wings and charged up and out the open window, but not before it stung Mother. She cursed and sucked her finger, tears in her broken eyes.
She rushed at me. “Look what you did.”
“Get out,” she shouted.
I sat on our front step, sunning myself and staring after the ice cream van. The sun looked like it was in water, everything shimmering. I wondered why no one ever talked about the woman in the moon. First chance I got, I’d steal money from Mother’s purse and be ready for the ice cream van tomorrow. I’d also start talking about the girl in the moon, get the idea to catch on.
I sometimes sniffed at money. Mother always secreted notes inside the cup of her bra for safekeeping and had to peel the bills off her breast in the shops at checkout. She told cashiers she had an inside pocket, as if everyone else’s vision was as bad as hers, as if she was fooling anyone. Sometimes, when I got close enough and angled my head just so, I could smell the whiff of warm money lifting off Mother. My brothers sometimes caught me with my nose inside a pound note, inhaling like it was a flower. They laughed and laughed. The last time, I ate that filthy pound note, left my brother in my dust with a big ‘O’ on his face.
I stretched out my legs on the front step and admired my bruises. My mind licked and licked at my imagined ice cream cone, at its chocolate shavings and drizzles of raspberry ripple. The effort brought on a headache, my brain reaching out so far for that ice cream it strained its roots. I closed my eyes tight, blinding myself. It always felt like getting lost, like never getting found. My friends called to me, but I just wanted to be with the sun.
“She’s playing dead again,” someone said.
My eyes flew open, the brightness hitting like darts. I didn’t want people to think I was like my mother.
I played hopscotch with the neighbor girls, my foot not landing on the concrete, but on the moon, not sending up an explosion of chalk, but bursts of space glitter. ‘Moon Girl,’ didn’t sound right out of the other girls’ mouths. The more I thought about it, the moon seemed the easiest place in the universe to go missing, to never find your way home. Everything dulled again. I felt like gravity had broken, like I was falling off the world.
Later, Mother asked if it was the bee or the wasp that died after its one sting. I didn’t know.
“Do you know anything?” she said, more tired than angry.
Insect wings thumped inside my head and against the back of my face. “It’s the wasp, I remember now.”
She narrowed her eyes, slits the color of teeth. “You sure?”
I wasn’t, but I nodded.
“Good,” she said.