by Leah M. Van Vaerenewyck [easy-media med=”7981″ mark=”gallery-ZXd147″]

You never think you’ll leave your home, but then something happens that splits you, like you’re Ireland herself, and you think well, fuck this. You fight with your mum, saying things you’ll regret for a long time. Things that aren’t even all the way true to you when you say them, but your anger is immense and wild. Either you don’t sleep at all, or you sleep too much. Mercy on anyone who interrupts you, like your mum, who pleads with you to help with the chores. Your uncle pounds on the wall from the room next to yours telling you to wake up. He came from the city two springs ago, when your dad went to work on the windmills. It’s springtime. The sheep need shearing. He tells you to stop being selfish. You’re no princess, no city girl.

You herd the sheep into the barn, close it up tight, laying a two-by-four across the doors. Before dark, you’ll go in through the back door and do the same from the inside to keep the Donaghue boys from breaking in and painting the lambs at night, ruining their fleece. They smeared some lambs last year when you were still in compulsory. Rumor is your uncle got the boys ticked off by chasing them down the road on his tractor, calling them Nancies after a night of whiskey drinking. You can picture him, shaking his freckled forearm at the young boys, his dark eyes liquid from drink, lit with hatred for the school-boys’ capacity for delight. You can picture mud from the road spraying up from beneath the tractor tires, splattering on the boys’ faces.

Once you get the sheep sheltered up, you set to taking down the fencing, piling it piece by piece in the bed of the maroon truck. The wire links are not heavy, but are hard to carry draped over your forearms, because they were cut too long. They are flimsy and curve down toward your shins, the newly rusted edges sometimes catching on your pants, piercing through to the skin. The grass inside the pen you dismantle is eaten down to the root, the entire plot more brown than green. You consider this – the change from green to brown, the shift from verdant to withered – while you knock loose a fence post with a mallet that feels heavy and dangerous swinging in your arms. The dirt opens to your force, the posts release from the earth, a dank odor flowing forth. The plot up the hill close to the barn is untouched. Lush. Fertile. Prime for grazing. You’ll rotate the pen there. The sheep will fuss around their new space, amble to the outer edges, noting the bounds of the pen you reconstruct. The ewes will know what’s soon to come. They might know already, feeling the damp barn air on their faces, remembering what that air feels like on their naked bodies after their wool is shorn, bare to the world. You see now that they’re never exactly the same after. Their steps become hesitant, their bleats sound devastating. You see the panic in their eyes when you approach, because you’ve shorn the ewes. You’ve had their skin flakes caked with lanolin beneath your nails for days. You’ve had their greasy smell in your nostrils while you sleep. You’ve answered their protests with your low singing voice, rubbing their small ears between your thumb and forefinger, while you stared into their black faces, black eyes. But never a lamb. Your uncle shears the lambs, claiming you’d mar the maiden fleece.

The ewes with their lambs will be kept in the barn for a few days while you build the new pen, just long enough to settle down before you uproot them again. You want something new so bad, something so new you won’t feel bad. You ask your mum for money, with the idea of heading into town. She tells you she doesn’t have any. You know it’s the truth, but you call her a lying cunt anyway. You slap the bowl of potato stew that she prepared onto the floor and storm out of the kitchen, hitting the hallway wall hard with the palm of your hand. In your room, you knock books off your shelf, forgetting in your fury about the delicate bindings of the antique collection your father gave you. Tissue thin sheets of paper litter the carpet. You look at what you’ve done and collapse face first into your bed, shaking hard and breathing in the aged yarn of the afghan. There’s a wooden box next door in your uncle’s room that you can’t stop thinking about. You asked him once, years ago when you were visiting him in the city with your parents, what it was made from, and he told you bog wood. When you asked what was inside, he said it was none of your business. You forgot about it until last week, when you found yourself staring at it for a long while, examining the carving.

In the morning, you get up early, thinking maybe it’ll piss your mum off when she comes to nag you about sleeping and you’re out already working on the new pen. You can’t help but want to make her angry. She’s so quiet. You barely heard her protest that time you knew she was in your uncle’s room, then she hurried out, hiding her face from you, and he slammed the door after he called her an ungrateful hussy. You know what he was after, and you want to make her holler. You go to the barn, pick and toss some hay for the sheep who are still sleeping, the lambs’ noses buried beneath their mothers’ wool that blankets delicately folded legs. You lug out the posts you dismantled the day before, stacking them in a pyramid beside the barn. You unwind the measuring rope cut to the length of each fence link, and set to work marking out the spots where posts are needed.

It feels good to drive the wooden fence posts into the earth, the moist soil yielding to your strength as you pound the square tops again and again with your mallet. You catch your rhythm, feeling like the mallet is an extension of your arm, an instrument of violence and power. You picture your uncle’s face, hear his voice in your head: you’re no princess, no city girl. You’ve got nearly half of the perimeter marked out. The morning breeze cools the trail of sweat curving down the backside of your ears. You look down the hill to the brown plot where you worked yesterday, and beyond there to the lane between your family’s land and the Donaghue’s. Their daughter went to study in Dublin, and you wish you’d been able to do the same. You recently came to wish harder, yet you have to stay, toil on the family land while your dad spends his days hauling the materials for building those windmills you can see rotating above the tree line past the Donaghue’s field. Building the future of Ireland is what your Dad likes to say. Meanwhile, you’re suffering under the rule of a tyrant, and the whole Irish history is repeating. You swing thinking this is your father’s fault – this wouldn’t have happened if he was here – and the mallet catches the post on the edge. The wood splits halfway through to the center.

“Damn,” you say to yourself, wiping sweat from your forehead with the backside of the filthy working glove you wear. Inside the barn, you climb to the loft and look for extra posts, but you know there aren’t any. Last year, when your Dad sent money for lumber to replace the old weathered posts, the size of the pen had to be reduced. The cost for the wood was too great. The old wood was burned in the stove over the winter. You search in vain, tossing aside hay forks, pulling back mildewed tarps, exposing ancient crates and scurrying critters. You do not want to go into the house and admit what happened.

Your mum is sweeping the kitchen. There’s chicken boiling on the stove. You linger in the doorway for a moment, leaning the split post against the wall. You listen to her hum the same song she always hums, that’s really no song at all, just some rhythm from her head, her body’s pulse vibrating on her lips. Her back is to you, rounded down from years of being hunched over a broom handle that’s too short, a stove top that’s too low, a sink that’s too full. You feel sorry for her. You stand there watching her until she turns around and says, “Christ, Mara. You’ll give me a coronary. What are you doing standing there watching me?”

You don’t want to say.

“What is it?” she wants to know.

You pick up the post and show it to her. “There’s no more.”

“We can use one of the old ones as a stand in.”

“There’s no more,” you repeat.

She wipes her hands on her apron, trying to hide her frustration in its fold. “Christ. Tell your uncle. He’ll have to go in town.”

“I’m not telling him anything.”

“Don’t be foolish. Whatever you two are fighting about has to be gotten past. There’s work to be done. We’re a family, or have you forgotten that?” she asks you, leaning her broom against the wall.

“I must’ve forgot,” you say “when my dad left me with a filthy uncle and a mum who’s too afraid of her own sorrow to admit to it. You’re pathetic, letting him come in here, acting the way he does.”

“Lower your voice. He’s here to help. We need him.”

“Stop yelling at your mum, you spoilt hussy!” your uncle hollers from down the hall. That’s his favorite word, hussy.

“I’ll smash the side of your fat ugly head in with this post!” you threaten, launching the piece of wood at him. It lands with a heavy thud on the plank floor about a meter from his feet.

“Mara!” your mum says.

“You’re a puny brat,” your uncle says, grabbing up the post, charging by you, his rank, sweaty, odor wafting to your nose. He hurls the post out the open door onto the grass, his strength as frightening as your fury. “This is my house while your father’s gone. You’re under my rule. You’ll do as I say, and I say stop yelling at your mum.”

“Calm yourselves, please. We’ll manage a new post,” your mum says.

“You disgust me,” your uncle says.

“You’ve got the money and you know it,” you say, feeling a sneer that doesn’t belong on your face. “In your bog wood box. I know you do.”

You first came to believe this last week, when you were in your uncle’s room. Something in you remained unsettled after you heard your mum arguing with him, after you heard the door slamming. You went searching for clues. Something you could tell your father or send to him so he would see he should come home. When your uncle found you in there, he cussed at you, he slapped your face. He said your mother was ungrateful and covered your mouth with his oiled, calloused hand. You examined the carvings, the many faces etched into the side of the box, reminiscent of Greek drama faces, their eyes slouching down at the edges beneath wide foreheads, their mouths pulled tight by quiet desperation. He was splitting you, and you were staring at those faces on the box wondering what was inside.

It was money. It had to be money.

“Mara, your uncle’s personals are none of your business,” your mother says.

“And I suppose none of yours, either,” you say.

“You’ve got to get the damned girl under control,” your uncle says, knocking the broom over onto the floor. Such a pathetic little act. Useless and cruel. “I’ll go in for lumber,” he says, leaving you and your mother in the kitchen.

You bend down to pick up the broom, hold it out to your mother, avoiding her eyes. Your mother doesn’t take the broom, and she doesn’t say anything when the door clicks shut. She doesn’t say anything when the truck door slams. She doesn’t say anything when the engine turns and the tires crush the gravel beneath them. It’s not until the engine can no longer be heard, that your mother takes four small steps and stands in front of you. You’re holding the broom handle between the two of you, and you have the urge to smash her face with it when she grabs you by your shoulders, stares right into your eyes and asks “What is wrong with you?” her voice as low as the hum that vibrates across her lips.


Hand her the broom. Run to the barn. Grab the shearers from the work bench along the back wall. Seek out a still sleeping lamb. Loath its tiny face, nestled into the warm side of its mother. Kick the lamb’s side. Hear it bleat in pain. Wrap your arms around the thing’s neck and yank it away from its mother. Pin it down to the ground, hold the back of its head, press its chin to the floor. Click on the shearers. Start shaving. Start baring from the butt up. Hear the lamb cry what sounds like human cries. Press harder. Dig the shearer into the lamb’s tender side. Feel the fleece clog the blade. Hear the shearer sputter, stop. Release the lamb’s head. Look into its black face, its black eyes. Remember what you heard about sheep having superior depth perception. Think what it looks like in your deep. Cuss the lamb. Cuss the shearer. Cuss the ewe. Cuss all the rams.

Go inside and ignore your mother when she asks why your face is red. What is wrong with your face? She wants to know. Stride past her, open the door to your uncle’s room. Retrieve the bog wood box from his dresser, to the right of his bed. Set it on the floor. Retrieve the split post from where it lies on lush, green grass beside the barn, and bring it to your uncle’s room. Your mother stands in the doorway, pleading with you to gain control of yourself. Don’t say a word. Raise the mallet over your head, swing it down and smash the faces on the box. Thousands of Euros spill out, covering the carpet like the pages from your father’s books. Your mother is hysterical, her hands twisted deep into her apron. Your mother pleads with you to stop. Just stop. You stuff as many bills as you can into your pockets. You shove them in your bra and down your pants. You’re the thief, you’re the tyrant. You are split, like Ireland herself, and you think well, fuck this.

2 thoughts on “Split

  1. Marilyn Brownstein says:

    I admire the tension between the violence of the narrative and the perfect control of the elements of style: particularly, pace, diction, point of view. Impressively well done!


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