His mother’s yelps of pain could rip open the sutures of an otherwise uneventful day. “There are lots of different ways to dream”, she had told him as her hunched frame pulled itself through the bathroom door. He had listened to her nausea and felt it jostle his insides about too as if they were an upside-down purse bleeding filthy coins. He had worried that something he had done had caused their world to become overspent. How could they be shortchanged like this? Her diaries would reveal to him that cancer unearths the rhythm of your life – embraces the baseline, tidies away the addictive drop beat and strips it back to the instrumentals.
“The skylark’s song is sung under clear skies but darkness whistles its own melodies.” His mother was his compass, her words didn’t need to hike too far for him to believe they had reached a summit. Her humour was a heat source as bold and brave as an open flame. Coiled in her arms, he had laughed and laughed.
She told him too that the dominant stag does not retain its dominance for long. There was a special conversation that prefaced the showing of the flimsy black and white picture and the education that having something can be worse than having nothing. They had nothing and that was why his mother had worked overtime, clenched her teeth into the padding of her pillow and cried. Now they have something and somehow that is worse. Much worse.
He does not accompany her on hospital visits. Instead, he goes to the library and sits with his favourite novel ‘The Alien Who Was Allergic to Outer Space.’ As for the subject matter of that novel; maybe it’s allegorical or maybe it’s as real as the moonflower that blossoms for just twelve hours every year.
She didn’t lecture but his mother gave the best advice “listen to people’s stories, really listen, hear it all – even the sneaky harp rushing back and forth in the background. The how and why of the narration will tell you all you need to know about them as works of art.” He reported to her that when he encountered lies he heard a break in the tempo – this had pleased her greatly. For the rest of that day, she’d called him “her little man who needed to stop growing up so fast.”
His favourite librarian is bespectacled, a cardigan-lover of historical fiction with a vaguely lemony scent. She’s also a fulltime cage fighter whose most feared opponent is noise. She has shared sporadically some details of her life. She was abandoned as a baby on the steps of a beautiful monastery in Verona. She attests that she can still hear its bells chime. He treats her story like the others – they form a wonderful patchwork quilt in his mind. The silent disco starts the minute his palm plants itself across a page.
Visits to his grandmother remind him of the sprightliness that can form part of old age. They agree that cancer is a noisy, attention-seeking monster and opportunist capable of the most arrant wickedness. They never address it by name. “The sun is the only source of light in the solar system” and she understands that for him that’s his mum. She worries about her grandson, his mind twinned with his mother’s. She sees the fine library it houses but she can also see that it is archiving all the tragic montages that are happening right now. Grandma is wise and says things like “I’ve known that joy too” when he describes how rambunctious they are, how books serve as amulets against needless sound.
Catherine O’Brien is an Irish writer of poems, flash fiction and short stories. Her work has most recently appeared in Comhar, Splonk, Fractured Literary, Flash Boulevard, Firewords and Bending Genres. You can find out more about her and her work on X @abairrud2021.