A Giant’s Tears
This story was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
You never thought it possible, but in this moment you feel like your father isn’t yours. You are not part of him and he is not part of you. This journey home, with the familiar scratches of twigs and bramble against the windows and doors, the jump in your tummy as you slip from pothole into pothole, it all feels different. Untravelled ground. The road seems narrower in the fading light, and you almost swear the twigs and brambles are trying to stop your course; turn around, stop, no, don’t go home. Home. Outside the shadows are stretching out, marking their territory for the night that lies ahead. The shadow of the mountain should be waiting on your doorstep when you arrive back, waiting to be let in. You watch as the world skims past the window, cold and quick against the glass, but the air inside the car is slow and sticky. It’s funny how, in some moments, time can be slow and sticky too, like that last little bit of honey hanging onto the end of the spoon, slowly, slowly, dripping. The silence in the car has slipped from seconds into minutes, and you wonder if you have ever felt silence before. The weight of it. That heavy press against the back of your neck and that hushed buzz of words that should be said, all tingling at your ears. Pushing and pressing. The weight.
Perhaps it was the weight of words that pushed your old man into silence. Tipped him over the edge and left him dangling. Scrambling for reason. And perhaps it is your response, your need to run from him and his words, that has left your own mouth dry as bone. You weren’t made for the fields, not really. Not now. Another little truth you are now brave enough to wave at. Your mother’s death was the first truth you faced, small and tired with eyes rubbed raw you stood in the shadow of your father as they lowered her into the earth to sleep. Sleep easy, mum. Sleep tight.
“I won’t forget you.” Your whispers, caught up in the wind as you let the forget-me-nots drop down with her. Powdered blue faces peering up at you for one moment until covered by soil. Damp and hard and brown. So brown. Dig. Dig. Dug. Do not disturb me. Dig deeper. Everything has disturbed you. Your father’s hand pressed deep into your little shoulder, a weight you never knew would unbalance you; it has. The toxic truth that seeps from man into man was burning in the sun today and as you stood there, listening, it seeped into you. The truth of the earth rose up through your legs and you’ve lost your balance. Thirteen years later and still standing in that same shadow, he told you the truth. An ugly thing, the truth. Out in all its glory this afternoon.
Thirteen years and a day since her funeral. It has always been the day after that you go to visit her. It was supposed to help with the grieving process; an idea of your father’s that somehow made life a little easier. And today, the day after her thirteenth anniversary, the two of you sat in the car and drove to your mother. To say hello. Hi. Mum, it’s me. I’m here. Sorry I’m late. The sun came out as you stood above her, gently spilling from between the boughs and needles of the old and knobbled yews in an effort to warm up the morning. You lay the forget-me-nots down despite the knowledge that they would be taken away by the end of the day. Everyone is equal on this ground. Holy ground. That’s why you asked him. Feet on holy ground and you only just a man. You asked. You asked about that bang and slap of flesh on flesh; that moment, that secret that you had locked so deep within the earth itself that you forgot. You almost forgot. But it came back this morning with the press of his hand on your shoulder. Not as strong as it once was. His fight is gone. Old man. He answered. Falling to his knees and head thrown backwards. No tears. There’s no longer time for tears in a world so cruel. Just numbness. A static in your mind that hums and hums, never dimming. Simmering away until the end. Until nothing. You feel nothing. Your whole life has been built upon the foundations of fabrication; nothing feels safe or right or real. Memories and feelings have escaped and for the second time in your life you feel betrayed by love. Love died when you were five years old but you and your father built it back up. Piece by piece and heart on heart. You were scorching in the sands of his love and that love has betrayed you. You are eighteen now. Too much love is never a good thing. Never.
You first noticed your mother’s absence on your fifth birthday. Your parents’ room was always dark, there was always something hanging in the air. Death smells. You had to find your way through this darkness, the scuttle of your bare feet across the hard floor was the only thing you remember bringing light to your mother’s face. You can still trace those wet cheeks and thin lips, those long and curling eyelashes that always seemed to be closed and dreaming of something. Far away but always close. That morning though, the morning you turned five, you ran inside and you didn’t meet the darkness and dust and that perfumed smell of her. You ran into your parents room and your mother, with her wet cheeks and thin smile, was not beneath the covers. Even at that age you knew that something was not quite right. You knew then that the world did not play fairly and here, now, in this car, you’re reminded of it. Tears were spilled as both you and your father retreated into the depths of your own minds. It was you who filled his void. You didn’t really understand, not until now. Not until now.
Your mother's death was followed by a cold winter. You used to wake up early to make eggs and bacon for your father, standing on a stool and reaching across the AGA with quiet working hands and you used to bring it out to the doorstep he perched on. In your little mind he was awaiting her return. You’d sit and eat your butter-drenched toast, frosted breath unspooling in the air and looking up to those hooded eyes, waiting for something you weren’t quite sure of. She never came. The two of you had gotten into a routine of waiting though; him waiting for her, for his breakfast, you waiting for him to come back home from the fields as the nights got colder and the fire burned brighter. You both just moved on in the end; one morning he wasn’t out on the doorstep, he was the one in the kitchen making breakfast for you. It was okay after that because you had each other, the two of you, and that’s when it started.
It started with a feeling. A feeling that made its way into dreams. Soft and seeping. Swallowed up by soft strokes of fingers and flickering tongue. Between the buttered toast and mugs of scalding tea, you can remember. That heavy hand pressing down on your shoulder; guiding you around the fields, away from the mountain and its shadow, showing you the ways to handle the sheep. That calloused hand that somehow made you feel warm in the pit of your belly, a warmness no fire ever brought to you; a heat. A touch. A squeeze. A tug. Those fingers, always working their way back to you. You can see him now for what he is.
“I’m sorry, son. You don’t know what it was like, losing her.” His eyes didn’t meet yours this morning, they stayed fixed to the sky, as if some sort of forgiveness could be sought up there. The big man looking down on him and that holy ground. Man on man. Man on boy. Sick sick sick. You want to get sick. You want to reach inside and pull your memories and feelings out through your throat. Your world has been slowly falling off its axis, tilting and turning and never quite righting itself. You’re upside down and you’ll never be the right way around.
Rain is starting to patter on the windscreen and in the last couple of hours your edges have hardened. The blur of youth and impish innocence no longer surrounds you. Truth has slipped into your veins and there is no relief or clarity, there is only harrow. Poison. You changed in the summer; the summer you turned six. The evenings stretched into long and warm nights, the sea of navy taking its time to creep into the pink sky, taking its time to litter the swell with its foamy stars. Twinkle, twinkle. You twinkled at the beginning of that summer. Your mother was gone but your father was there and so was that heat in your belly. The two of you working the fields and running the sheep, you upon his shoulders, the shoulders of giants, looking out over the acres of green life. You, exploring the land and the only rule was to be back before the shadow of the mountain reached the front door. You, chasing the creeping shadow, mouth wide open and breath catching in the evening air. Midges sticking to the back of your throat. Tumble. Stumble. Run. Run. You always made it back on time. Back to him.
Summer ended and you returned to school. Winters came and went and you were swept away with the passing of life. At fourteen the taunts began and you could not see the shift that had taken place inside you. Outsiders looked in as months of bruises were buried deep beneath your skin by the fists of Billy Murdock. Chants of ‘nerd’ and ‘freak’ and ‘queer’. Foul words on young tongues and rolling through the air. He was always there. Your father. Waiting by the gate with its curls of rust, waiting for you to hop down from the bus, ready to take your hand and lead you up the drive. To home. To him. You would try to match your stride to his. Thump. Thump. Thump. Fee-fi-fo-fum. It was always your father who picked you up and tucked you between the folds. Safe in the hands of God. Our Father. Over the years those taunts turned to truths and you wonder whether this is because of him and his hands.
How could your father, a man who would shed a tear when the cattle were packed away and sent to the slaughterhouse, a man who still leaves a hot water bottle in the dogs’ bed when the winter nights get too cold to bear, who sang to the chicks, how could he be capable of such a thing? A monstrous act between parent and child. Father and son. A pair. Broken. Mum, I want you. I need you, mum. Mum? You look at him as he drives, you look at the soft and creasing meanders of his skin, translucent in the dimming light. There’s that eye, a bowl of puddles greyed with age and time and everything that lies between. You want to speak but you don’t know what; you want to run but you don’t know where. Pothole into pothole, you keep on slipping. You forgot how long a journey it is back from the graveyard. Thirteen years of travelling this ground and it has never felt so unfamiliar. This is new territory now. Father and son. The air thickens with moths, a black swarming body buffeting against the windscreen as the wipers try to clear the air. You are almost home. Nearly there. You will look back on today and at the silence and space within the car; at the love you lost for a second time, the love that retreated into the shadows and wore a mask for years and years. Hidden. The world tilts a little further. This is the moment you must leave your father and his fields and goodbye will be short, not sweet. The car keeps moving and outside the world is getting a little bit darker and a little bit damper and you have no control over anything anymore. He has made your bed and it’s cold inside. It’s a cold that consumes thoughts and feelings and you’ve never felt this cold before.
When your father kills the car, night is falling and the fog has settled in his eyes. He turns to look at you, and there it is, that sad and silent acquiescence of the truth. You are running and you don’t know where. Whenever you ran before it was always him who was waiting around the corner to pick you up and hide you from the claws of the mountain. It’s your father’s claw you’re escaping now, and the grip feels much tighter. ▲
Rachel Alexander is a recent English graduate from University College Cork. Her love of reading and writing stemmed from an early age and now, after finishing college, she hopes to pursue this love.