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Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual writer based in Cork. Her poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in The Irish Times, Poetry (Chicago), Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Examiner and elsewhere, and her writing is frequently broadcast on RTE Radio One. Among her awards are the Ireland Chair of Poetry bursary 2014-2015 and the Wigtown Award (Scotland) ​for Gaelic poetry in translation. Two of her poems are currently Pushcart Prize nominated (USA).​ Her most recent book is Clasp (Dedalus Press, 2015).





In Water, Flight




In the final hours of the city, thousands of girls slept, but of them, only one lay alone in an abandoned cinema; only one girl dreamt of crows. In the two years since the girl had gone missing, she hadn’t seen daylight. The only things she still longed for from the world of light were black—the crows. Through long-ago school windows, she decided that she preferred the crows to swallows or starlings. She adored their grotesque glamour: the sleek shine, the fierce glint of the beak, the ugliness of their gnarled claws… but now that her days were all nights, she only saw crows in her sleep.


Waking into this last night, her dream lingered, where she had been winged, soaring high over rooftops and clouds, watching the city grow smaller and smaller under her until it became a flat map and she tore it with sharp talons and shoved shreds of it into her beak, feeling the city move inside her body, squirming horribly. Hunger shook her awake.


The girl laid her torch on a cistern, sat on the toilet and then washed her hands. In the harsh roar of the electric hand-dryer she watched the heat change her, watched her veins grow blue and branched as a narrow river rising over her body, blood moving both inside and over her. Something about the sight of her own veins jarred her. She thought of the last flood, river-water engulfing the culverts, gushing out of the underground tunnels that snaked under the streets, rising over banks and paths and laneways, the sound drawing her up to the roof of the cinema. From there, she had heard the skittish squeals of girls far below, saw lanky boys shoving each other into the water, all their small screens tilted towards a man in a kayak, a blade of plastic propelling him over the street-water.  She remembered how the low hum of pumping machines scraped through her dreams all through the following day, bringing her vivid images of her mother’s hoover, her own child-legs lifting from the floor, her gaze never breaking from the cartoon, while her mother vacuumed just out of view.


The girl loved the old cinema: the greasy popcorn machine, the moth-eaten velvet curtains, the tall white screen, but still, she wouldn't allow herself to name it Home. She slept through each day in the lobby, her face protruding from a cocoon of coats and sleeping bags.  The cinema had electricity and the heating clanged to life sporadically, but more often than not it was a cold, dark space. The building had been empty for years, the lower façades planked up with cheap plywood. City people walked past every day but no-one wondered what lay beyond the hoarding. 


On this last night, the girl shrugged into an old brown coat, pulled up the zip and stooped her shoulders. She had found the coat slumped in a shop doorway, abandoned by the old woman who sometimes stood there, mumbling abuse at passers-by. She hadn’t seen that woman since, but the coat’s green lining reeked of her still: spilled spirits, sweat. The girl had perfected a shuffling, stooping gait and that, coupled with the stench of the coat, always got her to and from the supermarket without attracting strangers. She checked her mother’s watch: 3.04. All night, city-people moved in tides. At this time, the nightclub crowds would have thrown their half-eaten burgers into the gutter and staggered home. She pushed herself under the plywood hoarding into a narrow laneway and moved, head down, between electric doors and into the fluorescent glare of the all-night supermarket. 


With a basket hooked into her elbow, she silently repeated her list to herself like a prayer: cocoa, milk, hobnobs, two chicken sandwiches, apples. At the self-service machine, she pulled a crumpled plastic bag from her pocket and scanned her items through, beep by beep. €12.21. She watched one of her mother’s old twenties slurped into the machine; in the metallic clatter of change, the tearing of another small thread that had once connected them.


In the chipper, the drunks had already eaten and fought and puked and left. A waitress was mopping the same small patch of floor again and again, eyes on the TV where a shiny man smiled at a cheese grater, his joy hypnotic as he transformed a lump of cheddar into a thousand orange worms. The girl ordered a double cheeseburger, tucked the brown bag inside her coat, hunched herself again and headed back out on to the street. At the lip of her alleyway, a woman crouched over a thin stream of liquid. The girl ducked into the doorway of a shoe-shop and counted the various shapings of shiny leather, rolling wet mouthfuls of burger-meat over her tongue until she was alone again.


Stomach full, she vaulted over a low side wall, squelching through a narrow wasteland of wet weeds and broken beer bottles before clambering in through a side window of the pet-shop. The room was silent, illuminated by orange streetlight. Chests rose and fell in sleep. Each column of stacked cages held a different animal: coiled snakes, lizards half-hidden behind plastic rocks, tarantulas tucked into weird nests, leg by hairy leg, their cages littered with the brittle corpses of crickets. A bank of aquariums held hundreds of slow-swimming goldfish. Dropping her supermarket bag, she touched her fingertips to the glass near the latest death, where a handful of fish bustled around the floating, disintegrating corpse of one of their brothers, mouths tenderly slurping flesh from his body until all that was left was a frayed thread of a white spine. She remembered her beloved crows when she peered at the budgies and canaries, their small sleeping faces tucked neatly under wings, and the majestic cockatoo breathing deeply under his cloth curtain.


The hamsters were always awake when she visited. The sound of their long, curved teeth scraping on the steel made her shudder. She had once lifted one, surprised by the speed of its heart, flickering fast under soft fur. The hamsters disgusted her; they were brutal mothers who devoured their own tiny furless babies. She stared at the clambering rodents and thought of her own mother, who had given her the keys to see this city differently, to see entrances rather than locked doors, who had taught her invisibility and prepared her well to survive alone, with three thick envelopes full of notes. On each envelope, in her mother’s shaky script, the same name, address, phone number—the details of the man who loved the soft meat of her mother’s dying body so much that he gave his wages just to feel her beside him, to enter the warm, wet room of her, that man who had kept her mother from her on those nights when the girl lay awake and alone in a dark bedroom, clinging to her smallest teddy. Her mother had been sensible about him, pragmatic. Before she left, she explained the details of what he wanted in clear language, added that the girl could contact him whenever she wanted to, If you’re stuck, like, if the money runs out and you can’t find another way.


The girl shuddered at the thought. The idea alone was enough to keep her careful with the money. From the street, the sound of glass breaking, a woman cursing, and the girl jolted back to herself. She shivered. Her feet were wet. The floor was wet, too, water moving around her runners; something must have sprung a leak. She blew a kiss to the animals, grabbed her bag and climbed out the back window.


An inch of water rippled on the street, a liquid tremble. As she hurried back to the cinema, she remembered the strange tingle she’d felt on seeing her veins rise under the hand-dryer. Inside, she flicked on her torch and shivered, her legs all goosebumpy. It was too cold to stand here, she needed to climb into her sleeping bag. Her usual bed in the lobby would have to be moved—the water hadn’t crept up the cinema steps yet, but she could hear a lapping. From outside, shouting, where people tried to block the river from entering their shops.


She lifted her blankets, torch and bag of groceries and jogged upstairs to the old staff room on the third floor. A hot drink would warm her before sleep, she thought. Tap-water rushed into the sink a loud hard gush, knocking the kettle out of her hands. She filled it again and watched steam spiral upwards, dissipating into air.


The sounds from outside were getting louder, and there was a different tone to them now. Not the usual nightclub shrieks, it was too late for that, or too early, too close to dawn… there was an edge to the noise that twisted something in her, set her heart thudding faster. The noise tonight was louder still, and layered, and now there were sirens, a cascade of sirens squealing at different depths and distances.


She remembered a night when the sounds outside had raised to a squealing like pigs she’d seen long ago on TV, a noise humanly wild and urgent. On that night, she had seen a man spread-eagled far below, black blood trickling over the path, and a woman bent over him, screeching at onlookers, refusing to let ambulance staff touch him or her knife.


Now, the siren-sounds were settling and muffling. Muffling? Moving? Something juddered in her. On her way to the roof, small things seemed to assume a certain glowing importance: the dull brass of the dented door handle, the smoothed plastic of her torch, the patch of parquet flooring dulled by the doorway, the particular, familiar smells of each room she passed through. Her knees trembled.


Up the stairs she went, up again, and up the ladder, head scraping against grimy rafters, up and out through the narrow window, poking her head into the night air and then she knew, she understood what was happening, because out there, out on the roof, the whole world was dark.




Truly dark.


She hadn’t noticed it while inside moving through rooms by torchlight, couldn’t pinpoint when the light had been extinguished. Here, in the centre of the city, where night was never dark, the air was suddenly inky black.


Everything felt wrong, askew … it tipped her, tilted her, confused her.


Her eye was drawn up, first, to the sky, and she stared into the black; what had once seemed like a flat black cloth studded with faint dots now had a fathomless depth to it, many thousands upon thousands upon thousands of layers of stars.


Only when the cold touched her legs did she realise that she had been holding her breath, the shock of the sensation making her chest spasm and filling her lungs with air. She pulled her eyes away from the black above and saw it reflected all around her.


The city was no more. It was water now.


Rooftops peaked over the lapping, swallowing blackness that saw the dark sky and mirrored it back. Never before had she seen anything that seemed simultaneously so slow and so fast. The city was silent. The screams and sirens had stopped. She thought of the pet shop: all the small paws paddling, the cockatoo spreading its wings into water, all those small lungs sodden, the thick glass walls of the aquariums splintered by the weight of outer water, the small goldfish shredded, washed away into greater water. She thought of the immaculate displays in the supermarket, the cans sinking from shelves, all the loosened plastic soup packets floating, the fluorescent strip lights shattering.


The water was still rising. Two bodies bloated past, followed by a green hat, and a sodden sheet of newspaper. She thought of her mother’s envelopes below, all her money, soaked now, useless, and she thought of how her mother’s skin smelled of her floral deodorant spray whenever she pressed the girl to her chest. She giggled a little, then vomited into the water. The water numbed her shins, her hips, her belly.


Everything slowed. She felt that she was the last girl left in the world, the last heart still beating between the black spinning overhead and the lurching dark wavelets below. She watched it come up to meet her, not a river any more, not an ocean, but a whole world, a whole world of water rushing up to lift her arms and back and legs, to take her away.  


The whole city was underwater now and the girl floated above it, over the rooftops and roads that still sat below, over roomfuls of beds and bodies and shopfuls of food and small cages full of corpses, over libraries that were now a slow deconstruction of pages, as all the stories of the world fell apart page by page. She felt herself lifted higher, higher on the dark, rising water, the city at her back, farther and farther below her.


This, then, was flight.


The girl rose on that vast black and imagined the wings of a crow growing from her shoulder bones, black from white, feather from bone. The water carried her high over her city, face to the stars. She could feel the cold dissolving her hold on her breath, slowing her pulse. Soon, she would sink.


She breathed of the stars and of the black, breathed and breathed and took them deep into each synaptic gap, each straining alveolus. The girl filled every room of her body with the blackness of stars, with vastness of water and sky, until she was brimming with it, until it became her and she became it: the world, dissolved.


©2015 Doireann Ní Ghríofa



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