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Shadow Silhouettes

Shadow Silhouettes

A young girl remembers growing u[ with first generation Irish farmers.

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Literary fiction


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Mary Fox (United States)


Shadow Silhouettes
By Mary H. Fox
mfox@umbc.edu
410-404-0667
May 15, 2016



Shadow Silhouettes

To say that our Mom and Dad were different would be to liken a living human face to one of those silhouettes made of black and white paper. Dad could do anything with his hands. He could take apart and repair a cistern, build a barn, tame a stallion, pull a stuck calf from a birthing cow. He was meant to become a master carpenter like his father, but left the trade to farm on rented fields with only himself as labor. Dad loved farming and he loved his life. Our mother, however, having a miserable soul, never forgave him for this good humor.
They had one son, whose job it became to tend the livestock so that Dad could spend the daylight hours of summer on his tractor, plowing long furrows, or hewing weeds into bits with the angular plow blades. Up, down, circling the ends in a wide arc. His two daughters, my sister and I would sit in the dirt gullies closest to the house, waiting. As he rolled closer, we would dance and wave until he looked at us. Sometimes he’d tip his hat, revealing a dust line across his forehead, his balding skull white and bony beneath the hat that protected it from dust and sun. The lifted hat was meant as gallantry, but when I saw the defenseless head uncovered, I held my breath until he snugged the hat back in place.
Somehow I knew that one day he would die from the sun or from all that swallowed dust. If he had suspected too, he would have shrugged his shoulders and jumped back on his tractor. He loved this dirt — the way it looked, the way it crumbled under the metal. He loved its taste and its smell and how it felt in his hands.
Before long, we had learned to love it too. My sister and I drew things on the ground, using straight sticks to dig the outlines of our play houses, sketching in the furniture and then walking through the rooms, enacting little one-act plays. Dad once refitted a little tool shed to make a wooden playhouse for us but we soon abandoned it in favor of our earth versions, our ranch houses and Victorian mansions drawn in the driveway. You can’t explain to outsiders about dirt as treasure. Like with horses and alcohol, it’s an addiction that defies logic.
Mom spent her time cooking and sewing and scrubbing at the never-ending dirt that shrouded everything. Sometimes after Dad finished his meal, he would reach out to touch her as she picked up dishes and swiped at crumbs. As she felt the touch, she would shrink back as if his hands were claws bent on her destruction. Occasionally, he would convince her to come and sit on his lap for a hug. Within seconds she’d be shivering, like a raccoon caught in a trap and contemplating chewing off her own arm to get free.
Dad’s good humor burst from him in the form of tunes, which he sang, whistled or hummed. He sang in the Church choir, when he plowed, and as he walked to the barn, his hands swinging our hands, one little girl on each side. He sang at the kitchen table, waiting for his dinner.
He was always just a tiny bit off key. Our mother had a voice like an instrument but she never used it for music. Having heard she lacked perfect pitch, she had quit singing in her teens, dreading the unpredictability of the human voice. She preferred to hammer out semi-classical Hal Leonard arrangements on her piano because they sounded the same way every time. I asked her once to sing me something Irish and she said she wouldn’t because the old country hadn’t been good to her.
“All the potatoes turned black and the children had no milk.” Years later I discovered that this story was told by her grandparents, not something she had experienced herself. In fact, she had never gone to Ireland and never would. Her anguish ran deeper than her own life. She got this from her mother, who spent summers on our farm.
Grandmom McBride would sit in Mom’s black painted rocker with the gold decals, its rails creaking against each other as she rocked. She fingered a lace handkerchief, pretending she was blind. She said, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” over and over, sometimes adding a guttural, anguished sigh. We used to think it was her way of singing.
Hers was a scene trapped in a loop, playing over and over. Her eyes never focused; her hands never rested. When she grew tired of rocking or when she was alone, she sometimes smiled, her teeth bared, no longer prisoners of her tight, drawn mouth.
She wasn’t living with us when she died. It was winter, the time of year she spent with my aunt, who outmaneuvered her by admitting her to a nursing home for the blind. There were no longer any witnesses to Grandmom’s rocking or her prayer to the holy trinity. She died holding her rosary beads in her noiseless hospital rocker.
I’ve forgotten all the faces of my childhood friends but not the face of my grandmother. I can still see her empty gaze, her efforts to seem unseeing while my sister and I darted around the room in a macabre hide and seek, hoping to trick her into following us with her eyes. I remember how we crept up close enough to count the tiny flowers of her dress, how we almost touched her hands on the skirt as they slipped along the beads of her rosary or fiddled inside the square, pockets, over-stuffed with crumpled hankies. If she’d been really sightless, she’d have asked, “what are you girls up to?”
Perhaps she sat this way out of habit or so that she could practice her blindness for when adults were present. Maybe we were meant to be witnesses who would remember her face, or maybe it was that she had really come to believe she couldn’t see us. Maybe she saw only backwards in time to blackened potatoes and starving babies, her grandparents’ children left in the fields to die, while nearby, fat British cattle stood grazing, their milk and meat forbidden to the Irish tenants under pain of death. Or maybe she saw the homes abandoned, families coming to America with only ship’s passage and not enough food or water to survive the trip.
Whatever it was her eyes had recorded was now too big for ordinary words and her prayer to the trinity wasn’t as much a request as a warning. Beware of blight, of fungus that hides all day, then comes out at night to rot out the heart of your summer’s labor, to fill your mouth with dust, to take the air from your lungs, no matter how much you sing or try to fool monsters in the dark.


Competition: Friendly feedback, Round 2

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