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Catherine Stark

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At some point in the years following her daughter Rose’s death Catherine Stark lost her name. After she found the girl crumpled by the stream, a crochet hook clutched in her right hand, she began the transition, moving steadily from being Catherine with a C to being Katie with a K. And as that capital C slipped further and further into the dark she began to wonder if there was something in a name. Perhaps some names do not fit and, if they don’t, how do you know? Is there a sign, a way of telling that a name doesn’t fit? If it doesn’t fit and it is not changed, then it is there permanently on your shoulder – glowering, restless, gathering its own dark – like the heart of a caged crow. Maybe a well-fitting name, the right name, is like a scapula, warding off evil, turning danger at the gate, making you feel more at home, more right. Like Peggy had. Her great aunt, an amulet of skin and bone, had clung to life like a cleg in order to keep her niece safe. Had the name been the problem all along? Could she have been tempting fate? She should have known this was no country for roses.

Laid out a single bed the girl was waked in the room. The room is a small low ceilinged windowless pantry off the kitchen. In one corner of the room there is a glass churn and a bag of hen meal; the walls of the room, painted a long time ago, are a faded, flaky, powdery blue. Empty glass jam jars are sitting on a shelf. There appears to be words etched on the wall behind them; one looks like hedge; one seems to have letters missing. Catherine Stark is waking her daughter in the small pantry because it is the only place the girl ever spoke. Never a word said in the half loft, the field, the classroom, the playground; the only place she ever uttered a syllable was in the room. She is sitting silently by her child’s side and will stay there for two days, periodically shaking the hard bony hands of neighbours, her head nodding when they say ‘I’m sorry for your trouble.’ She knows, slipping out the door, they will whisper to each other: ‘it’s a bad business; it’s powerful, powerful all the-gether.’ The girl on the bed is fifteen. She is wearing a brown pinafore and heavy dark stockings. Her face is small and pale; her thin lips are tinged with navy; her light brown hair is in two long straight braids; her hands are thin and white. There is not a mark to be seen on her body apart from a rag nail on the forefinger of her right hand. This break in her daughter’s skin is troubling her mother. She rises, climbs the narrow ladder to the half loft and comes back with a cotton handkerchief; there are tiny blue flowers broidered in one corner; she wraps it round her daughter’s finger. The handkerchief has never been used. It is a good thing. Good things are not used. 

The morning of the funeral she is lifted from the bed and placed inside a coffin of plain boards. A tall woman with silver shining like threads of starlight in her black hair walks into the room and reaching into the coffin slips a few small bones beneath the girl’s left arm. A neighbour inquires if they are bird bones. The tall woman does not answer. Catherine Stark adjusts the handkerchief on her daughter’s finger and taking the girl’s face in her hands kisses her forehead.  Her legs are melting; the tall bone woman sees and helps her from the room. She is waiting at the door when the sound of nails being hammered into wood reverberates in her ribs, her breasts, her veins. Although the boards are light and cheap they have been fashioned with great care by the carpenter James McGill. With James Torrens, and two other local men, he helps to carry the coffin the short distance to the road end before turning left for Drumagarner Chapel. After the service Catherine watches as her daughter is lowered into the grave beside her great aunt. The grave is close to the road. Now under a path, you may well have walked over it.  If you stand on the footpath and lean over the low part of the wall you can touch it. Once the coffin is in the grave her mother leaves; she will never return to that spot, not even in death. There will be no marker placed at the grave, no stone nor yew. No one will place a flower there. No one will ever linger at the grave of Rose Stark.

Catherine Stark goes home alone after the funeral. She does not want Kate Meenan or Sarah Thorn to sit with her, make her dinner or, even if they’d known how, to say a rosary with her. She wants to be alone behind a locked door. She draws the bolt and, without taking off her coat, lies down on the room floor. She needs to conjure Rose; she wants to feel her hand wrapped round a mitten of small bones on a frosty morning; she wants to see her daughter’s flickering unsure smile; she wants to hear her recite the poems of Robert Burns to her jars of sprickly-backs. But she can’t. That Rose will not appear. The only Rose she can see is lying beside their stream with a pool of black blood spreading around her wet heavy hems. Soon she can’t even think of another Rose. There is only one; the wounded one, the bleeding one, the one bleeding thick black blood into the stream, the stream taking her away. Until the end of her days she will never see another Rose. She will pray – something she has not done before – to see her girl. She will offer up prayer after frantic prayer in the vain hope that she will see her girl’s face one more time, just for a minute, just for one minute: ‘God, let me see it, even in a dream, let me see her face in a dream, just once, let me see her face in a dream just once.’ But the god of dreams does not live in Drumagarner. Her daughter’s face is gone. All that remains is that little bundle of pain lying by the stream. And soon that image makes her angry. She is angry. Her anger is a torrent, a raging torrent that leaves her weeping and exhausted on the room floor. She is angry at herself for getting sick. If she hadn’t gotten sick and taken to the bed, missing work on Graham’s farm, it would never have happened. It would never have happened. None of it would have happened if she had been there. This thought begins to revolve round her head from morning to night. She berates herself. She should have been there that day. If only she had been there it wouldn’t have happened. After trying so hard for so long to keep her child safe, she had let her down when she needed her most. This thought never sleeps; it will not leave her; it will not leave her mind. It is there working, spinning – a relentless and implacable force. Her guilt is the colour and shape of a little pool of black blood. It does not take a break. It is like having a new organ, a new body part. The only time this new organ becomes a little less noisy is when she thinks of him, then for a while some of her loathing is directed outward.


From her thirty-ninth year, every time she thought of him the smell returned. It would come like a dank yellow fog, seeping into every crack and crevice, into her mouth and nostrils, draining the colour from her cheeks, leaving her dry-retching on the hearth. Then the frenzied clean: her and Rose lugging their scraps of furniture outside, scrubbing them with stream water and a slippery remnant of green soap.  Then she would scrub herself. Now there is no scrubbing; when the smell comes it hangs from the walls; it hangs from her hair, but there is no scrubbing. Heavy and damp, it mingles with the other smells gathering on her body, gathering in her home. And it stays. Now it stays. All that has happened, everything changed; Rose dead, dead because he was coming back. And he didn’t come. He must have gotten wind of her death. All that he has done; all that has happened, and to think he still has cronies in the Lower End. An icy wind is blowing across her small fields, blowing round and round her head, blowing through her long lank grey hair, blowing through the hollows and bones of her face, blowing through the wild dark hollows of her eyes.

Catherine Stark was never heavy, but after Rose died the weight slipped off her bones like snow off a roof. Now, she seems to be surviving on air. Her hens have gone. Neglected and living in filth, some mornings she remembered to let them out; some evenings she forgot to shut them in. Soon they were picked off by a streak of russet slinking through the dusk. She doesn’t care. She can’t care. She can’t care about a hen. She can’t care about the vegetable garden she so desperately depended on, and so meticulously tended since childhood. And she can’t care about a cow. Left un-milked her Shorthorn is ill. Noticing its udder bruised and swollen, James Torrens tells her it looks like mastitis. She doesn’t answer. Desperate to be milked the cow is getting worse. Kate Meenan notices, climbs the stone stile into Stark’s field and knocks the door. There is no answer. Peering through the one small window she sees Catherine using the tattered hem of her dress to hold a handle-less pot. She taps the window and smiles. Catherine sees her, turns and scurries into the room still holding the pot. With her head against the cow’s warm flank Kate Meenan relieves the terrible pressure the animal is experiencing. She leaves the bucket of milk at Catherine’s door; it is still there the following evening when she comes back. She continues coming back.  She continues milking the cow and continues leaving its perfect white offering at the door. 

Other neighbours also leave what they can at that door, a soda, a potato, an egg when one can be spared, but never is there much to spare. Some days she eats, some days not. She rarely feels hunger and never warmth. The cold gnaws her; it gnaws through her thin taut skin; it gnaws through her bones to the marrow.  It doesn’t matter the season, she is cold. She has stopped working her turf bank. She can’t face it, being there with the rest, working close at hand with other people, having to speak, having to thole that glitter of eyes. She cannot bear to meet another eye; she is drifting further and further away, deeper and deeper into the dusk and the longer she stays there the harder it will be to come back. A creature of the shadows she has started wearing a black felt three-quarter length coat draped over her head. The empty sleeves swing by her side as she walks-half-runs to the hill head, her wind-filled ribs light as oose. Gathering sticks by night she becomes one – a stick used to frighten children: Katie Stark’s out and about, oul Katie Stark’s out and about, the Stark’s out, the Stark’s out get in before it gets dark. After her death that capacity to frighten would greatly increase.

Late one night, on her way to the moss to gather an armful of turf from someone else’s footins, she freezes at the boundary stream between the Lower End and Drumagarner. Annie McGill, a woman who owns even less than herself, is standing outside her two rooms staring at the new moon. Annie McGill prays to the Moon and the Virgin and the Christ. Tonight it is the moon. As she gazes at that silver crescent, her lips silently moving, the small boy holding her hand stares at her face. He thinks it looks like the moon when it is round and white and soft; staring at her face his lips move silently too. It is a still night; the only sound in the Lower End is the stream. Years later, gathering men and bits of men from the fields of France, the boy remembers that night in Gortmacrane. And remembering it – remembering his mother’s face staring at the moon and the sound of a small stream winding its way through ten thousand stars – his heart breaks. It will remain broken until his eighty-sixth year.  Catherine Stark moves forward. She has a sudden urge to speak to Annie McGill, maybe even touch the boy’s hand. Then she hears something behind her; someone is coming up the road.  Dropping the turf she crawls under Graham’s hedge. Two men are approaching; one is carrying an ash plant; she can hear its sharp swish as he slashes the air. Lying like a small grey animal beneath the hedge, her heart hammering in her chest, she recognises the men’s voices and instantly knows who they are talking about:

‘Aye, so I believe. I heard the wee hoor was back. Any word of him, yet.’

‘Apparently he was up at Moran’s shop.’

‘What was he at the Crossroads for?’

‘Christ knows, but he ran into big Sarah Thorn and says she, straight out, why the fuck are you back here?’

‘Ye serious?’

‘I’m serious. And, says he back to her, because the savage loves his native shore.’

They both laugh loudly then the speaker continues: 

‘She was furious, totally furious.  She said to him if there was a man in this townland worth wan shite he’d knock the head clean off ye.’

The man with the stick slashed the air again and says:

‘Just like that.’ 

‘Aye boy, that’d fairly tighten him.’ 

‘I wonder what oul Katie will think about it?’

‘Christ help us, is she even able to think?  She’s away with it.  Clean away with it?

He was back and already becoming a character. Three years since her Rose died. Three years. And they are laughing at him. They think him humorous. He is on his way to becoming a character. Apart from Sarah Thorn’s outburst in Moran’s Shop there will be no censure, no commendation, no opprobrium. They will take it out on the tree. 

Leaving the turf lying, Catherine Stark crawls out from under the hedge. An old woman at fifty seven, she walks slowly and awkwardly down the road, every bone in her body stiff and sore. In her small outhouse she lifts the ash plant she keeps at the back of the door and, like a woman in a trance, walks down her field past the great rocks, past the begging hawthorn, over the plank bridge and up McEldowney’s field on the other side, the other side of Gortmacrane. She finds him in a lean-to, a rough affair of old posts and zinc, attached to the back of a byre. She runs at him with the stick raised. He grabs it with his left hand, thumping her in the chest with his right. The air leaves her. It is like hitting a child. She hurtles backwards, catches the post at the entrance to the lean-to, turns and tries to run.  But there are deep cart ruts at the mouth of the field. She falls hard on her chest, her face hitting the bone-dry earth.


she can smell the blood she can taste it there is blood in her mouth then that other smell she screams she tries to get up she gets up as far as her knees she is on her knees she has made it to her knees there is a hand on the back of her skull it pushes her face back down her face is in the earth she can’t see she can’t see anything she is trying to turn her head sideways she can’t breathe she needs to breathe the hand is holding her head she can’t turn her head she can’t breathe it is black she can’t breathe it is black a fist hits her between her legs it is a fist between her legs it is a fist it is battering she is being battered she can’t breathe each thrust pushes her face further in it is black the hand is on the back of her head she can’t breathe the hand is pushing it’s black her face is further in her face is further into the ground each thrust is ripping her it is ripping her open she can’t breathe it is ripping her she can’t breathe now listen to me ye fool oul cunt do ye hear me do ye fucking hear me you keep your mouth closed do ye hear me do ye fucking hear me she can hear him pulling up his zipper but she cannot move there is nothing she cannot move her body is broken there is nothing

She would have been easy to miss. That first group of women walking back from early mass, speaking of the shape of the day to come, could easily have walked on past. It would have been easy to miss her. They are almost at the stone stile when one notices something on the big ash tree in Stark’s hedge. 

Dear Jesus … Ah, Dear Jesus … Katie, Katie, Katie …  Ah, Dear Jesus … Katie

She would have been easy to miss, suspended two foot from the ground, an exclamation mark in the early morning mist. 

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