Ger Galvin was born in Passage West, Cork in 1960 but has been living in Dublin for many years. He works as a primary school teacher and holds both B.Ed. and M.A. degrees from St. Patrick’s College of Education (a College of DCU). He has also taught on the M.A. in Children’s Literature course in St. Pat’s. He's particularly drawn to the short story form and tries to keep in mind Raymond Carver’s twin values of ‘brevity’ and ‘intensity’ in his writing as much as he can.
Shortlisted in the 2014 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
On the last day Aiyana gave us our Crow names. She dipped her fingers in the colours and drew whorls and spirals and circles on our faces. She went around the whole group. I was last. She considered me for a moment and then she spoke. You will be called Sea Eagle, she said, and your sign will be the fish,because I had told her about the great haul of mackerel I had caught with my brothers on Tony Connell’s boat the Saturday before. How many did you catch yourself, she asked. Hardly any, I said. White for honesty so, she said, making rapid wave marks on my forehead. Did you have your own fishing rod, she said. Yes, I said and she drew quick red spirals on my cheeks for bravery. Finally, she ran a black line down the middle of my face. When I asked her what this was for she whispered that black was the most mysterious colour of all and that it stood for the knowledge of hidden things. Her fingers were warm. The paint was black and salty and wet and cold. When she was finished she held her hands over my head and sang a song in the language of the Crow. The song was sad and strange. Her skin was white like the waves above my eyes and and her eyes were black like the paint on my face. There were tears on her cheeks. I wanted to ask her what was wrong but her lips were red and smiling so I said nothing. Fly, little Eagle, she said. I went back to my seat.
In the yard Riordan and McCarthy were crippled laughing. Riordan cornered the ginger kid from third class and chanted in a stupid girl’s voice, You will be called Shit for Brains and your sign will be two brown lumps of sticky crap here and here and slashed the kid’s cheeks with mucky fingers full of clay from a puddle. McCarthy put his arm around another boy and said, You will be called Horse’s Arse and your sign will be a black hole and slapped him hard across the backside, leaving a full handprint. They left me alone. I sat in the farthest corner, watching them, lightly testing the colours with my fingers to see if they were dry.
Each of them wore different colours, Aiyana told us, coiling her long glossy hair through her fingers. Remember, the Crow could neither read nor write. They knew each other by signs and symbols. They decorated their faces at times of great importance and their horses too, with whorls and spirals and circles. Each had his own mark. We are remembered, she said, by the marks we leave behind. Because it was her last day she was wearing her Crow costume, as she had promised. The teachers came to peer around the classroom door. They smiled but they did not come in. She sat in the circle we made around her in the grey afternoon sunshine. She told us that her dress was made of buckskin which was the skin of a deer and that the coloured cords and feathers she had plaited through her hair were for special ceremonies. Her feet were bare. Her skin was the colour of light dust.
Touching the marks on my face I whispered to her in my mind. Aiyana, I said, I am not little. I am the oldest of my family. Next year I will be in St. Malachy’s. My black hairs have begun to grow and if you could see the whorls and spirals and circles, you would know that that I am no longer a child.
After school we stood waiting in the shadows under the trees. She went by in the front seat of Leo’s car for the last time, her black eyes still smiling at us as she waved goodbye. Some of the boys cheered. Some clapped. Someone called her something dirty. Someone said shut up.
She showed us a movie called Jeremiah Johnson. It was about a man who angered the Crow by crossing their sacred lands with some soldiers from the US Cavalry. To do this was a great insult to her people, she said. She asked us if we had ever heard about the Crow or about the mountain men of North Dakota or about the trappers in Canada or about the crazy man she called Liver Eating Johnson. We said that we did not. She asked if we had ever heard about the Battle of Little Big Horn or the massacre at Wounded Knee or about Mary Crow Dog who was famous among the Sioux. We said that we had not, so she taught us about the Crow and the Sioux and the Arapahoe. She taught us about Red Cloud and Geronimo and Crazy Horse. She taught us about the reservations and the Christian schools and Ishi of the Yahi people, who was the last Indian to give up the old ways. He was still hunting for game in the scrublands of California with stone-tipped arrows while the generals in France and Germany were planning the Battle of the Somme, she said. So it’s not so long ago, you know, boys, she said, since all this happened. Your grandmother’s grandmother and my grandmother’s grandmother were children then.
Her voice was soft, half American, half something else. She asked us questions. If Columbus visited our homes would that mean that he had discovered them? Was discovering a place the same as finding yourself there for the first time? Kevin Gillespie said that he had been in Paris once but that didn’t mean he had discovered it. He didn’t even speak French, he added and Riordan and McCarthy cackled but Aiyana ignored them as if they did not exist. Think of it, she whispered, her black eyes glittering with fire. Men came to the land of the Crow and they thought it was theirs because it was their first time to see it. Because it was new to them they thought that it was theirs to take. Do you think that they were right? We looked at Leo. He was leaning on the bookcase under the statue of the Virgin Mary, gazing at Aiyana like she belonged to him.
She’s his girlfriend, you langer, Masser said as the blue Ford sped up the hill past Clerke’s field. I stared after it, willing it to stop. She’s not, I said, touching my face. The white waves were dry but the red spirals were still wet to the touch.
All of us standing in the shadows had crazy painted faces. Aiyana’s fingers had decorated us with blue, yellow, purple, and green, in whorls and spirals and waves and strings of stars. I was the only one with a stripe, black for the knowledge of hidden things. She’s a Crow, I told him, and you’re a fool if you don’t believe it. She’s gonna be on the TV tonight, just like Leo said. She’s gonna be on the Late Late.
Loser, he said.
She gave us something, I said. I want to give her something back.
Stalker, he said, laughing, and Riordan and McCarthy laughed too.
I want to give her something, I said again, not knowing what I meant.
Pervert, he said. I pushed him and walked away.
The red paint stayed wet. I dragged my fingers through it in the end, streaking it and scoring it with my nails it until everything had smeared into brown streaks like the muck that Riordan had scrawled across the ginger kid’s face. When I was finished all the colours and the patterns she had made were just a meaningless mess but I didn’t care. There was no colour for what I felt. I was not honest or brave. I had no knowledge of hidden things. I stared back at Masser and Riordan and McCarthy and the fools on the wall who had yelled at her going by and I hated them all and I hated myself too. As the blue Ford turned the last corner Leo blared the horn. It’s going to rain, Masser said, squeezing his eyes up at the sky. In fact, I’d say, it’s going to piss. Thirty-three crazy painted faces followed his eyes into the black clouds.
We went to Hegarty’s shop and asked for Crow Bars and Jeremiah Johnson’s Fruit Drops and Aiyana Toffees. Mrs Hegarty fumbled through the shelves for them, whispering the unfamiliar names to herself and saying, Let’s see, let’s see, now. We robbed her blind, tumbling Mars Bars and Flakes and Aeros into our open school bags and twisting with laughter at her faded back and thinning hair. Still fumbling, she asked us how our parents were and we said they were fine as we pushed through the door and fell onto the path outside. On the way back to the Terrace, Masser told me that yellow skin was a very bad sign and that Mrs Hegarty would die soon so taking stuff didn’t matter all that much.
We went home by the Quay. The gulls were squawling and Billy Canty’s boat was pulled up beyond the high tide mark. He was dragging long grey pollock from a box, slicing quickly with his knife and flinging heads and tails and strings of blue guts back into the grey water. Masser looked at me with eyes that were flat and greyer than the water.
You’re a donkey, Wiz’ he said, you know that? She’s twenty-one, at least, boy. You’re like twelve or something. You’ve haven’t got a clue. What the hell goes on in your head?
She’s was real, I said. A real Crow. It wasn’t what wanted to say but it was all I dared. I could not tell him about how warm her fingers were or about how just for one moment all the colours had been in their proper place before I’d dragged them apart, ruining everything.
The rain came on like he said it would, full and cold. Fat drops hissed across the mud of the strand and soaked us through. Billy Canty climbed grunting into the cabin of his boat and we ran for Sutton’s coal shed. We ate the chocolate we had stolen from Mrs Hegarty. Masser found a squashed cigarette in his shirt pocket. We took turns smoking it in the darkness and tried to blow the smoke out in neat circles but the air was moving with the rain and our circles were torn to rags. Smoke signals, Masser laughed, doing a stupid dance. We raided Mrs Hegarty’s again on the way home for mints to disguise the smell. The heavens were open wide by the time we reached the Terrace.
You haven’t a clue, Wiz, do you know that, he said again, leaning on his gate. The rusty hinges were squealing with the fatness of him. You really haven’t, he said. Aiyana was Leo’s girlfriend, man, but she was no more a Crow than you are. She was from the teacher college in Limerick. She dressed up for us, that’s all. It was just a story. All that Crow bullshit, she made it up and everyone knew. Everyone except you. Jesus. They’ll eat you alive in Malachy’s next year.
I know, I said, but I didn’t say it out loud. I dragged the rainwater from my hair and smeared the last of the black stripe she had drawn there into a slippery dark stain. As I turned away to walk back up the Terrace I knew I would not speak to him again.
©2015 Ger Galvin