That’s what’s important this week. Since our father began the shopping list on Sunday night he’s mentioned it at each mealtime. We won’t be shopping until Friday. But he repeats its importance and takes out the list to put three stars beside what Maeve calls the drinkie yoghurt. His pencil is blunt and the stars are thickly scored, looking more like black explosions.
Bifidus Regularis. We need that. We need to be getting more of that into us. It’s the latest fruit of his research. He sits back and slats his hands behind his head. It’s alive when it goes into you. A culture, as they call it. And then it makes sure that your insides are looked after. I know that science will be my favourite subject at secondary school next year because I like thinking about the operations of things that work in anonymous armies inside us. In the case of my father’s new friend Bifidus Regularis, I imagine a sensation of friendliness and triumphant waving as it makes its way through his pipes.
We’re at the kitchen table under a milk spill of light from the bare bulb.
Benny is under the table; it’s his new place. Before this it was behind the long coat hanging in the back hall. You’d think a four-year-old would be a bit afraid of standing inside the heavy folds of a stranger’s big coat. The abandoned coat, like the furniture and other things left around the house that’s not ours, only rented, has its own smell. Something long-ago and lonesome. I suppose it belonged to the old man who’d died and whose daughter rented the place in a rush. You’d think Benny would at least find it unpleasant. But no, he’d stand there for as long as it took one of us to pretend we’d found him and snatch him out. Maeve had an idea that if we told him the truth of the coat—a dead man’s coat with his ghost inside its pockets—he might give up hiding behind it. But there were things that Benny liked to do that seemed unfair to stop him from doing. The way he liked to soften a biscuit in his mouth and then drop it into the palm of his hand and then lick it up again. Just because we found it creepy or disgusting didn’t mean we should make him feel that way.
Benny had his techniques for handling things. He got used to this house much sooner than Maeve or I did. We’d go in the wrong doors, or misgauge the number of steps in the second flight of stairs after the turn, ending up a step short, tripping, feeling cheated by our own feet. Maybe a four-year-old moves through a place differently anyhow. Since they’re smaller, it’s like they swim around it.
In the first week or so, I found Benny sitting on the armchair in the front room looking like a little king, one hand on each of the worn tapestry arms. Gazing out the window so steadily and deeply that my arrival didn’t so much as produce a blink. I found myself suddenly frightened of whatever mysterious thing he was thinking. I sped over and lifted him out of the chair, a clumsy lift-cum-hug. He didn’t appreciate it and kicked his way free. Then I saw that he was wearing a necklace. Pearls. I was ashamed that I didn’t know if it was one of the house’s lost things or something of our mother’s. And so I couldn’t rightly take it from him. He stomped off out the door, and I haven’t seen the pearl necklace since.
While our father is detailing the benefits of L. casei Immunitas and Bifidus Regularis, reciting them like a list of features learned from a schoolbook, Maeve slides the shopping list toward herself and writes something on it. Probably something sweet. Or salty. Both together is the happiest time in her mouth: she loves to follow a crisp with a square of chocolate. My sister is eight. Last year she didn’t make her first Holy Communion. It was during that time when we could’ve gotten away with anything we wanted, anything, and Maeve decided that she didn’t want to eat something that the teacher said tasted like sweet cardboard. Nor did she want to wear a stiff white dress and veil. She didn’t give in even when the teacher was reduced to telling her that she’d get a lot of money from people.
What people? Her face was as bold as ever I’d seen it, chin jutting out and cheeks superbly red. I was brought in to try and make sense to her. I stood next to the teacher feeling both a traitor to my sister and also embarrassed at her resounding boldness. Well, family people. Relatives. Friends of family. Maeve said, There are no such people, miss. That’s when our father was brought into things. A phone call from school one evening. And that’s when we knew we could get away with anything, for he clattered the phone down after saying, If my daughter is opposed to this, then I don’t intend to force her, and neither will I let you.
Sometimes he spoke like another voice was coming through him. A voice from an old radio programme. Low and level and a bit snobby. Something set in motion by a button behind his ear: he always seemed to scratch there before the other voice began. It also happened at times when he was set on edge about something.
A squall in the vegetable shop about the price per pound on tomatoes. Do you mean, sir, that I can’t get these tomatoes for less at another seller? The sir was a man he’d known for years. It was during that time when our father could’ve gotten away with anything, too.
Like last week in the teashop when a woman said something about Benny. She thought she wasn’t heard, but she had one of those loud old-person whispers. Would you look at the state he brought the child out in. Out in: it sounded strange. I concentrated on it to avoid my father winding up. The woman’s tea companion tried to pretend she hadn’t heard. Will we take another cup, maybe? One of Benny’s dungaree straps dangled for want of a button. For want of a button the horseshoe was lost. I could see what the woman saw: the slack and stained dungarees, the haircut our father had given Benny that morning. Benny had tough, thick, fair hair, the kind of hair that’s fun to mess with and easy to twist into horns. It had been dampened from the kitchen tap for the cutting. Once cut and dried it sprang shorter than we’d anticipated. His blunt stunted fringe made him look like Friar Tuck.
Missus, I’ll thank you to keep your opinions to yourself. Your opinion, should I say. I imagine that you have only the one. The tables were already close, so he didn’t need to move in order to be heard. In fact, he didn’t even turn his head to face her. But the way the woman looked at our father, alarm making her mouth open on half-chewed yellow cake, you’d think he’d pushed his face into hers like bad guys on television do when they’re threatening people.
Poor Benny had gone under the table. He knew the trouble was about him. He had a fierce ability to gather embarrassment to himself and nurse it for all of us. He sat on our father’s shoes and wouldn’t come out until he’d seen the woman leaving the teashop. When he did I could see that he’d tried to tug his fringe down, as Maeve had done that morning to stop our father from cursing at himself for being a stupid bugger, useless bugger with a scissors. She’d licked her fingers and applied them to Benny’s hair, just like she was wetting a thread before sending it through the eye of a needle. This gave a temporary improvement. And there was Benny, out from under the table with his fringe damp and spread flat to his skin.
D’ye think our small boy here would take some of that yoghurt with the activopolous Bifidus in it? Our father produces Benny from under the kitchen table like a magic trick. Benny curves into his arms like the baby of the koala bears Maeve still has in her room. I think he’d do well on it. Which worries me, for it reminds me of two months ago when he had all of us “on” juice he made from crushed cabbage and spinach and a pile of other green things. He stewed it in batches in the biggest saucepan we had. The house smelled like something I remembered from a seaside trip: sewage coming from a pipe poking out of rocks. But it was good for us and it would prevent us from bad health. Being on something meant eating or drinking rotten stuff by a schedule, lining up, no excuses. Down the hatch, do you the world of good.
Our father’s getting more afraid of the world’s random dangers every day. And more determined to make us immortal.
Maeve reads the list and thinks that her father should get one of the copybooks with the red and blue lines that teach junior and senior infants how to write. Maybe it’s the stubby pencil, but his letters are a stampede, then a chaotic collision at the bottom of the piece of paper where he ran out of space. She makes out butter and milk and thinks that these are the things that should be at the top of the list. The ordinary stuff that lives in fridges week in, week out. But he’s got the Bifidus Regularis up there, and fennel (what?) and mackerel. Some time back she heard the weather announcer sounding very happy to tell everyone that they could enjoy a beautiful mackerel sky each evening for the next week. Her father sounded even more pleased to shout “altocumulus” at the man standing as if propped by his elbow placed on County Clare. Altocumulus. Wouldn’t you at least use the proper term as well as the poetic one. Mackerel. Nothing like it, I always thought.
Maeve knew that she could learn a lot from her father, but it would be information that she would have to put into hibernation until she was older and it would be of use in some upper-level conversation or in a quiz like the one on television he watched all the time. Final answer? Arragh, come on now, missus, are you that big of a dope that you don’t know the capital of Colombia from your behind? Bogotá, for Jesus’s . . . He shouted at the people in the quiz chair like he shouted at the players in football matches. Maeve imagined that one day they might hear him and turn to look out and show him their middle fingers. Or, better still, come kicking out of the television like the soccer player who threw himself at someone in the crowd who said something horrible. Maeve remembered how he jumped feetfirst with no thought about the fact that he too would fall down, and hard.
So every time she felt strongly about discovering an historical date or the name of a disease she worked to stash it like squirrels did with nuts. Coming back for them when they needed nourishment.
Now she’s cross because there’s no room left for her to write her items on the list, and if she keeps fiddling with it he’ll notice and take it back. So she turns it and writes marshmallows along the side. Like a word that’s climbing up the wall of the other words. She tries to make her writing look like his. But that’s pointless, because her hand holds the memory of the teacher tightening her dry ringed hand around Maeve’s hand when she went above the blue line for her small a‘s and c‘s and e‘s. That was three classes ago. The teacher, Miss Hyland, had a hand that was more like a hen’s foot, red and rusky and with nails that looked like you would need garden secateurs to trim them.
Miss Hyland taught her how to write well and steadily, but she did so in a forceful way that Maeve was afraid she’d live with forever. Would her hand cramp up when she was writing a love letter to a boy? Would she sense Miss Hyland’s dry chalky finger pads pressing on her knuckles? For now, she thought of it only in a scientific way. She liked to play with boys—was one of the few girls in third class who still did—but there was none that she’d want to kiss.
Not like when she was five and she couldn’t get enough of tasting Danny Connors’s face. She’d made a complete show of him and herself when she’d sit down on the play shelter bench and plant a smacker on his soft fat cheek. It was only ever Danny. Maybe because he looked a bit like a seal: he had no chin and his face seemed smaller and higher on his neck than other people’s. In the end Danny’s sister had to ask Maeve’s sister to sort it out. Laura Connors and Eva were in the same class. You wouldn’t want to mess with Laura Connors, but it was easy enough to placate her. Eva said it to Maeve on the way home from school, shortly after she’d nabbed Danny in a headlock and kissed the top of his head. It was to be their last one. Eva wouldn’t stand for any more of it; Laura Connors wanted it to stop; it was totally embarrassing. After the little speech was finished, Maeve began to recite, My mother and your mother were hanging out the clothes, and ran on ahead and threw loudly over her shoulder, MY mother gave YOUR mother a PUNCH on the nose!
Maeve imagined her sister and Laura Connors dressed in two aprons pegging knickers on a line and then slapping each other on the shoulders and necks.
She knew what Laura and Danny’s mother looked like: like she wasn’t their mother at all, but some dainty little fairy woman who followed them around with permanently surprised eyes and trousers that billowed like parachutes in the wind and ended in tight cuffs at her ankles.
It didn’t seem fair to put her own mother into the drama of the punch on the nose. And anyway the business was carried between Eva and the large motherly Laura Connors. When she ran in the back door panting and tasting acid because she hadn’t wanted Eva to catch up with her, she collided with her father, who grasped her by the shoulders and told her to take it handy. What’s all this sprinting for, hmm? Are we running from the hounds of hell today, is it? She gulped in the soupy air of the kitchen. He was cooking with a host of saucepans again.
So kissing boys had ended and her handwriting had improved and she had behaved herself quite well for a good while.
The business about the Holy Communion still hadn’t been fixed. Maeve writes the word pink before the note on marshmallows. She has an idea for an experiment. She will melt the mallows and then mould them to her face in the shape of hideous scars. She will frighten Benny, and make Eva angry at her cleverness, by putting sticky ruckled skin all down one side of her face.
Under the table Benny studies everyone’s shoes.
He himself is barefoot. What nobody knows is that today he reached up and dropped his shoes into the barrel under the drainpipe at the side of the house. He even tied them together so that they would drop to the bottom together. And live down there forever. He couldn’t see the top of the water. But when he tossed the shoes in, some lapped out to thank him and ran black-green down the side of the barrel.
There is something about hiding things, burying them mainly, that he likes the feeling of.
Eva has been looking for the necklace, he knows it, but she’ll never find it. It’s coiled in an empty shoe polish tin—he rescued it from the bin after seeing his father toss it there—and it’s under the sand. Not the part of the sand pile that looks like a place to hide things; not toward the front. No. Benny went round the back of the sand as far as he could get before the briars hanging like hair over the wall clutched and stabbed him with their thorns. The sand on that dark side was damp and colder. Easy to dig because it came out in solid chunks, not like the powdery falling-back-in of a dig at the front. It stuck to his hands and he thought if he tasted it it would be like thick black salt. He put the tin in at a good depth and clotted the sand back around and over it. He thought about marking it. But there was no need. If he wanted to go back and dig it up he’d just look for the farthest spot he could get to under the briars.
That’s where it would be. And Eva would never get to it.
He fixes on her shoes. They keep crossing and uncrossing. It’s like she doesn’t know whether to let the left one or the right one lead. This might be why she’s no good at dancing, even though she practices in the kitchen with Maeve all the time. Benny thinks he never wants to learn dancing. His sisters seem so afraid of getting things wrong. Sometimes they include him. If they need to practice turning and going back to where they started. They tell him to stand still, don’t move a muscle, Benny, and they move around him and in and out through each other. One time they had him cross his arms so that he looked like he was hugging himself and they took a hand each and danced down to the back door pulling Benny between them. Because they were laughing so much he started crying. It wasn’t funny to pull him along like he was tied up. It gave him a scary feeling, like he’d fall any second and never be able to get up.
Eva’s shoes are blue that used to be navy. He remembers how happy she was to get them. Converse All-Stars, Converse All-Stars! Everyone at school wants these. Dadda, how did you know? The funny thing is, they make Eva’s feet look longer and wider at the toes than her feet really are. Clown’s feet, Benny thinks. But she loves them. He wonders what she would do if he took them to the barrel and sent them down to where his own shoes lay. Thinking about his shoes makes him shiver. It’s night outside now. Benny is very afraid of night. It’s when the boogie things come out. And his shoes are in more dangerous darkness than just night, for they’re under all that dark water. He wants to get them back. Why did he do that?
Eva has drawn a tiny smiley face on each of the white caps on the toes of her shoes. It’s so tiny that you might not see it at all if you were not as close as Benny is. Because the shoes were not new anymore it was all right to do this, he supposed. Their father probably would not say anything if he noticed it. Why did Eva draw these faces on her shoes? Maybe to make her smile when she saw them flashing back and forth when she walked.
Maeve is in sandals and socks. Sandals look strange with socks and the raggedy jeans she is wearing. The sole of one sandal is coming away and it gapes like the mouth of the plastic goldfish he brings to the bath. It looks like she could trip on it if she is not careful. Benny knows this because of the time their father spun forward and against the shelf of bread at the supermarket. He was ready to blame the floor until he saw that his shoe had burst at the front. When they all got back to the car, he pulled off his shoe and tore off the sole, the full sole, with his hands. It gave a nasty sound, lightly screaming as it came free. Benny wondered if to the shoe it felt like tearing off a scab. He knew what that was like: sharp burning, and then pain that fizzled down to pink. Take that, you bugger, said their father. Sounding like he had won something. But Benny could not understand being angry at the shoe and having to show it. For now he had an entirely broken shoe instead of one that he could have fixed with glue or nails or something from the drawer that held all the fixing things.
Maeve does not cross her feet like Eva. They simply sit there on the rung of the chair. Quiet and patient like cats on a wall. She must be busy doing something on the table.
His father’s shoes are the new ones he bought from the table of shoes in the town. Benny was with him that afternoon; the girls were gone up to the shop that sold magazines and sweets. The man that sold them had a van full of shoes and boots behind the table. Benny could see in to where shoes and boots were piled high in the back corner. Their lace holes looked like thousands of eyes. Like the empty eyes of the dead jackdaw under the wall where the sheep came to scratch themselves. He could see that the van shoes and boots were tied together by their laces; this was what gave him the idea before he pitched his own into the barrel. His father lifted him up to scan the shoes on the table. What do you think, Big Ben? He picked up a black pair, sort of more boots than shoes, but not quite fully boots. These’d be handy for work.
Which meant that in a short time their nice black sheen would be disappeared under a crust of dried mud. Work involves walking, lots of it; Benny knows that much. And it takes place after his sisters come home from school, so that they can look after the house and him while their father is out. But next year he, Big Ben, will be off to school. Sometimes he forgets that. Sometimes he wants to forget that such a thing as school is in the world. He would like instead to go to work with his father.
Benny nods yes to the black shoe-boots. And his father buys two pairs of yellow laces. One for his new shoe-boots and a smaller pair—on a second look, Benny sees that they are yellow with a black stripe—for Benny’s shoes.
As he looks at those laces now crisscrossing his father’s shoes under the table, he knows that he must get his shoes back from the barrel. The laces are on them, and the laces are special and unusual: they look a bit like bees. He runs his fingers down his father’s laces, tugging on the parts that seem too tight, and tightening the parts that look sloppy and loose.
Next thing he’s being brought up from the world of shoes under the table, his father rescuing him like the cat he pulled from far down inside the car engine. It is a good feeling, and Benny thinks that the cat must have felt so too.
Mary O’Donoghue, an Irish writer living in Boston and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is senior fiction editor of AGNI and has been part of the editorial team since 2010. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, The Common, Subtropics, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, The Irish Times, Stinging Fly, Dublin Review, and elsewhere. Her short story collection, The Hour After Happy Hour, is published by Stinging Fly Press in 2023. She has published poetry collections with Salmon Poetry and Dedalus Press, and her translations of Irish-language poetry appear in volumes from Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Bloodaxe Books, and Yale University Press. Her novel, Before the House Burns, was published by Lilliput Press in 2010. Her awards and recognition include two Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowships, residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and an Irish Times prize for short fiction responding to economic crisis. She is professor of English at Babson College in Massachusetts. In 2023 she held the Heimbold Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University. (updated 6/2023)