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Best of Irish Poetry 2010
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Songs of Earth and Light
Barbara Korun poems translated by Theo Dorgan
Done Dating DJs
by Jennifer Minniti-Shippey
Winner, 2008 Fool for Poetry Competition
Richesses: Francophone Songwriter Poets
Edited and translated by Aidan Hayes
Munster Literature Centre
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Jeremy Castle has been writing on and off for many years. His story “The Smallest Window in the World” was commended in the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition 2011; this was his first entry for any competition. He is currently working on a second draft of a novel and a collection of short prose and poetry.
The Smallest Window in the World
Commended in the Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
As well as the sign for Krasnaya Street, which in summer is covered with the creeping blue flowers of ipomoea, there is another sign on the same building. It is high up on the corner of the house which stands at the town end of Krasnaya. The corrugated roof comes down over the army-coloured wood of the walls and there is no gutter. In spring, when the snow begins to melt off the roof during the day and everything freezes up again at night, then for a few days or a week even there is a row of icicles in front of the sign so that only parts of the black and white lettering can be seen behind the curtain of ice. This sign, in these spring days at the end of March or the beginning of April, seems to be trying to fool people by proclaiming only -e-s-o-o Street, but of course no-one is fooled. The sign should tell passers-by that they are in Nevskovo. Everyone except strangers knows that Nevskovo Street leads to the main square where the statue of Lenin still stands; and there are never any complete strangers in town. So no-one even notices. Half the time they don't know the names of their streets but only where they are going and where they come from. After all, this is all you need to know in order to go about your business.
The only one who notices is a girl who notices everything, a girl whose gaze is as clear and deadly as that of a diving gannet. And the long searching gaze comes out of eyes that no-one can describe, eyes that seem to vary with the time of day, the seasons, so dependent are they on the light and her mood. They are amber, those eyes. Or are they? What about the streaks and splashes of brown, honey, green, grey? Some time there will be nights when other eyes stare into these multicoloured pools and drown.
Ira stands in front of the curtain of icicles, saying the word 'icicles' over and over in her head just because she likes the sound of it. She might even say it out loud if no-one is around, just to hear the word in the clear air. As she stands there, she hears the ticking of the ice as it melts, listens to the minute sounds which seem louder than the background noise of a crowing cock, little kids shouting in the playground or the banging somewhere of a hammer against metal (is it the mechanic’s place over in Matrosova Lane?) Intermittently the ice ticks and the drops of water from the ends of the icicles slowly lengthen and fall. Although she strains her ears, she has to admit that the drops of water fall silently through the unresisting air. As they hit the wet skin of the frozen ground at the base of the wall they make a satisfying splatting sound.
The icicle roof and the half-obscured sign are on what should be a direct line from her house to school; well, direct if you allow for the up and down of the footbridge over the railway and the diagonal path from the end of her road towards the bridge. She has only to get to the end of Nevskovo and go another hundred metres or so to School Number 1. She would be there without any more challenge to her imagination. She would be into the shouting, clattering din of the school corridors. Sometimes though she chooses to cut between two houses, along a narrow muddy track open on one side and with a pale blue wooden fence on the other where in summer the curling branches of raspberries poke through and you can feel free to pick a few if no-one has got there before you. At these times, in the hot summer, in her thin cotton dress, the red one with the tiny orange stars on it, she feels like Alice in Wonderland and wishes that the raspberry canes were giant trees towering over her and each berry so big that she needed both hands to pick it.
Just after the blue fence there is a very small old wooden house that looks as if it belongs to a village rather than a town. The house is tiny, like a garden shed and Ira goes this way so she can see the smallest window in the world. At least, this is what she calls it because she reckons it must be, that no window could be smaller and still serve the function of a window. She has heard, it is true, of windows in times gone by that were mere openings in the wall covered with dried fish skins, the scales scraped off or blown away by the wind, but this is a real window divided into nine separate panes of glass, each one smaller than the tiny notebook she always carries in her pocket. Inside the window, at the right time of year, she can see the scarlet petals of a geranium; or maybe it's a pelargonium, which would be a much better name for Alice in Wonderland. The extraordinary thing is that when she passes the smallest window in the world and pauses and looks in, then behind the nine panes of glass and the thin strips of glazing bars with their white, flaking paint, and beside the red petals of the geranium, some of which are pressed with their grey-tinged scarlet backs against the glass, there she can see a face. It is the face, she is almost sure, of the oldest woman in the world. She can see some yellowy, leathery wrinkles, one eye that is either lumpy or warty or both, the side of a deep-lined nose, some stray wisps of yellowing white hair. More amazing than all this (even to Alice) is that somehow she knows that the old woman is pleased to see her; she imagines that the mouth of the old woman, which is hidden by the geranium, is creased into a smile, the two wrinkly lips parted with a thin dark gap between them and in the darkness, glinting, a couple of gold teeth. Probably beside the smiling mouth the old, gnarled fingers of one hand are curling involuntarily as if the old woman would like to lift the hand and return the wave to the girl outside on the lane. Perhaps the old woman hopes that the girl will not see it as a dismissive wave of the hand, as if the old woman were trying to shoo her away, as if she believed that the girl were hanging around with some bad intentions in her head as people do, as young people these days often do.
Every morning Ira passes that way and the woman is there; then she waves at the window, wondering only if one day, before school finishes for the summer holidays, she will see the old woman sitting on a cumbersome old chair that she has dragged out of the house, with the seat high off the ground so that her toes barely scrape the dust, as if she were a child sitting in the sun, scolded by her mother, her shoes scuffing the ground in anger and disgust at the unfairness of life. And if the woman is there, she wonders if she will have the courage to go over to her and say something and if so, what will she say? If the window were a normal window with normal sized panes of glass which were cleaned once a month or so, the same way the girl’s mother does, cleaning and polishing the glass with water and screwed up newspaper, sometimes adding some splashes of purple methylated spirits which is like a paler version of the gentian violet that the nurse at school painted on her knee once when she fell on the steps a year ago, then in this case the girl would know that the oldest woman in the world had seen her wave and had understood that she was trying to be friendly, because she would see a tear fall from the eye behind the window and could be sure (wouldn’t the falling tear be proof enough?) that by stopping and smiling and waving she had done something that really meant something to someone; which, if she ever considers it, is a rare enough thing.
The objects Ira keeps in her drawers and on her table and under her bed, even under the pillow, are a constant source of wonder to her mother. She talks to her daughter with her face screwed into a picture of despair.
"Irishka, please, please don't do this to me. You are a girl, pretty and intelligent. You are almost a young woman, so why do you behave like a ten-year-old boy?"
Of course, the girl doesn't see it that way. There is, after all, nothing especially masculine about seed pods, crane's feathers, dried leaves. Why should an old buckle be the prerogative of a boy; or a bird's egg or a whistle? Her mother, with a despairing, whining tone, leans on the garden fence listing almost the entire contents of her daughter's room to a neighbour, as if the woman could have any real interest in it— although she must, because they are often there, leaning, one on each side of the fence, for an hour or more.
And the girl snuggles up to her mother and stares at her, her eyes in honey mode, as big and stripy as a bumblebee’s rump.
“But Mama, what’s the problem with pebbles and coins and feathers? You know I even keep them all clean!"
And her mother's rage wafts past the side of her daughter's head, past the fluttering lacy curtain, out to the dusty summer road and the dusty summer day. These summer days are too long for anger. They are as long as a row of raspberries. These summer days are as long as a girl's legs.
She is a dreamer, it is true, this girl. She dreams of faces, of skin like leather, eyebrows, ears as big as teacups cupping whispered words, necks scraggy and purple like cock turkeys, eyes that drift away and eyes that pierce through to your soul. Her mind is awash with arching branches of summer shrubs that brush her shoulder on the way to school, the scent of lilac so strong and intoxicating, leaves that fall on the stillest of autumn days singly from branches, as if they were insects that had died and were floating to earth. Often on summer days, lying on her back, her thoughts fly upwards on currents of warm air to fly with circling birds. But mostly her mind is full of routes and tracks, roads, railway lines going off into the distance or round a bend, paths dusty in summer, wet or snow-covered in winter, turns, short-cuts, long-cuts, fences, gates, houses, roofs, signs, doors, windows. In the last year she has mapped the secrets of her town and, like all children of her age, it is the only town you have to reckon with.
Of course it is the most important town in the world, with the oldest church, the longest single-span footbridge over railway lines, the silveriest statue of a dancing woman, which is in front of the railway station, the tallest brick chimney, the angriest dog (called Typhoon) behind a rust-red paling which faces onto the road with the widest pot-holes, the cosiest cafe, with the best ice-cream. As well, there is the smallest window in the world and the oldest woman with the most wrinkled face and probably the most gnarled and twisted hands. And maybe, too, (let's say certainly) there is also the girl with the longest legs in the world. And somewhere above the legs, in the pit of her stomach, between her hips, somewhere around there and sometimes higher up, is the longest ache or the deepest ache or the most mysterious ache in the world. An ache, or a void. And this void has the largest capacity for despair in the world; and also for longing and urging and pleading and fear and love and misery and joy. And something else that is completely indefinable. And with this void, this ache, she tries to transform the secrets of her town into words, the secrets that only she knows, the words that only she can think of. She builds these words into poems and writes them into a grey-green hardback copy book, writing each word with a pencil that needs sharpening every five minutes and soon wears down to a small stub. On the stub you can see the lettering in gold that tells you that the pencil cost 5 kopeks.
Snow came early that winter and her father was taken to hospital.
In the mornings Ira lies in bed, watching the grey snowy light come to her window. She hears her mother in the kitchen or outside feeding the hens. In that grey half-light of the mornings she has no desire to get up, to eat breakfast, to go to school. She has no desire, no yearning in her heart. Her legs, she is sure, are not growing any longer, nor her hair. She is static, lifeless, as a small child again in the room she has always known. She is in hibernation.
Just sometimes something stirs in her. Sometimes she gets up in this half-light, this yellowy murky snow-sky light and writes at her desk. She writes quiet dark words, hangs them on the page as once she had pegged feathers onto a line that stretched from above her bed to the corner of the wardrobe, each one carefully selected and preened, each meticulously chosen to match or support or clash with its neighbour, always aiming at perfection, a line of feathers or a poem that could not be altered, in which no one word could be moved without destroying the perfect whole. She calls them, this small collection, 'The Half-Light Morning Poems' writing the title at the top of the first page, feeling a satisfaction, a fullness.
The year turns. Her father is allowed home for two days to celebrate New Year. Then he is back in hospital and on January 18th he dies.
During the weeks that follow she and her mother go around the house, finding things that conjure his presence—the ashtray he kept in the porch, his boots, an old shirt that there was no point in washing. The surprising thing is that there are so few of them and Ira sees that the mark he left on the house, even the house where he lived all his life, is so slight. A good spring-clean and he would be gone entirely, as if he had never been.
These days her mother is distant most of the time. It’s like she is trying to be someone else. It’s like she is someone else. She either slops about the house in old clothes or dresses up, with loads of make-up and she often goes out after they have eaten. To Ira it feels like she is slipping away from her, getting smaller and lighter, becoming something insubstantial.
One night she comes home late. It is late Spring but the light outside is like a summer evening.
"You know that old woman in Bogdanova Lane? You know, the one you talked about. Well, I wouldn't go that way any more if I were you. She killed her husband. At least, that's what Mrs Kamaeva told me."
She says it in an off-hand way as if it weren't that amazing or important.
"That's what they say. Of course, nothing was proved. Well, her husband died some years ago, we know that. He was found frozen to death in the root cellar. They said he was frozen blue. Must have been there all night, and it was January."
Ira feels cold at the back of her neck, shivery.
"There was talk of poison at the time. That's what Mrs Kamaeva said. Or maybe she pushed him. The neighbours said they had quarrelled for years."
All this is spoken into the coat-rack and mirror in the hall as her mother takes off her scarf and straightens her hair. Then she turns and looks at her.
"Well, there's no need to look so shocked. She isn't about to bump you off. Just don't go near her any more, that's all."
Later that night Ira goes out into the road and walks barefoot on the hard sandy soil. There are no streetlights but she can see quite easily. She thinks of the old woman. She probably pushed her husband down the steps of the root cellar. She probably asked him to get some apples. He was found with an apple in his hand, that's what Mrs Kamaeva had said. Frozen in his frozen fingers.
The sky is clear with a half moon and on the northern horizon a faint light, a sliver of pale green under the dark blue starry canopy, the sort of sky that doesn't allow any illusions. Everything is clear to her now. There is no oldest woman with the most wrinkled face. No smallest window. There are no such things as best parents. The only best things are the starry sky and the words in her head. Just now, at this moment.
As for her legs, she supposes that has to be false too because they couldn't be the longest legs in the world. But they are pretty long. They poke up to nearly eye level when she sits down on the stone under the Kuzmich's cherry tree.
The fruit would be ready soon.
©2012 Jeremy Castle