The curtains are always shut in my grandmother’s bedroom, the air camphor-thick. She kneads the rosary beads, and mutters, “Hail Holy Queens,” and “Our Fathers,” and never ventures outside, save to be driven to Sunday Mass by Da. She looks like one of those old women in the Grimm’s Brothers’ stories, ready to lure me into her lair.
One day, Mam knocks on the bedroom door and comes into our room. Your grandmother is dead, she tells my brother and I. Say a prayer for her with me. We kneel by the bed, Mam, Donal, and me. For the repose of her soul, Mam says. Hail Mary, full of grace…
Da drives us all down the country to Granny’s funeral in Athlone. I’ve never seen a corpse before. In the parlor of my uncle’s house before the undertakers take the coffin to the church, she lies, dried out–the rosary beads entwined in her right fist and the picture of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux in the other.
In Coosan cemetery, the coffin rests on two planks of wood as fists drop clay onto the shiny lid. By a chain link fence several old women shuffle toward the grave, rosary beads clutched in their hands. Ravens pick at the side of the road in solidarity.
After her death I begin to see and hear her ghost. It’s at night she scares me the most. The mumbled groans from behind her bedroom door. Granny, lying there, rigid, arms by her sides, her watery eyes fixed on the ceiling.
The luminous hands of the alarm clock point to 3 a.m. and I swear I can smell her rosewater perfume, and hear the dry bones cracking in the next room. This is stupid because she’s dead, and I saw them put her in the grave.
The floorboards creak on the landing and I pull the sheets up to my chin. Another creak and I slide under the coverlet.
I emerge from my hiding place an hour later. Only my brother Donal’s snores can be heard. I creep out of bed and search for my slippers in the dark. I shuffle to the door and put an ear to the wood. Nothing. I can’t open it. My bladder strains. I need to pee. She might be out there on the landing. I can’t do it. Instead, I open my cotton pants and let the yellowish pee leak onto the wallpaper. I shake my mickey and creep back to bed and cry into the pillow.
That’s the beginning. The nightmares. In some of them she beckons me from her deathbed. The picture of Jesus. His staring, mournful eyes. The beating heart. Bloodstained walls. I wake, saturated with sweat.
Afterwards, lying in bed with the hot-water bottle cold at my feet, the weak odor of wetted leaves wafts under the door, the bathroom too far away from the safety of the bedroom.
Night after night I recreate this shameful ritual. In the mornings I try to forget everything. Instead of skulking in the dark and dribbling pee down the wall, I know I have to face my fears. So, one night, I open the door, inch-by-inch, and sprint along the landing, stumble down the three steps to the toilet, the presence of something behind me. I pull the bathroom door shut and slide the deadbolt across to save my life. I’m comforted by the sound of my pee trickling into the water. Breathing heavily, I pull the door open and run back up the stairs to my bed and fall into a deeper sleep.
A few weeks later, walking home from school, I stand on the same spot we found Granny that one day she disappeared from our house in her nightgown. The house is a big, abandoned Edwardian, next-door to Lahart’s Garage. A force draws me toward the house, the corrugated iron over the front door filled with graffiti and torn posters advertising Fossett’s Circus and Christmas pantomimes of years gone by. I hoist my schoolbag higher and enter the overgrown front garden, the air full of spilled motor oil and rubber tires.
Long shadows from the horse-chestnut tree in the front yard trail up the red-bricked walls. Virginia creeper crawls everywhere, all the way up to the eaves where a sparrow bobs in and out of a wood-knot, almost hidden by the ivy.
At the side of the abandoned house lay broken ladders and ancient paint buckets covered in dribbles, the same blue-royal as the eaves. The smell of the paint is omnipresent. I hug the wall as if at any moment the entire house will consume me. Beads of sweat collect on my forehead. A tight fist squeezes my walnut-sized heart.
Swallowing hard, my chest still hurts. Inside, a giant hole in the floor exposes the basement twenty feet below. A few planks of flooring and ceiling fragments jut out from the walls. In the web-strewn corner of the room, elevated four feet above the broken floorboards, my grandmother floats, her white hair shines and her crooked finger beckons. Something gives way and my pants dampen. I sprint home, run up the stairs, into the toilet, bolt the door, slump to the floor, and sob.
About the Author:
James Claffey writes at www.jamesclaffey.com and contributes to The Nervous Breakdown. A native son of County Westmeath, Ireland, James lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, and their Australian cattle-dog, Rua. He holds an MFA from Louisiana State University, and is the winner of the 2011 Kent Gramm MFA Award for Non-Fiction at LSU. His work has appeared in CaKe, a journal of poetry and art, The Bicycle Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, A Bad Penny Review, and the Shady Side Review; and is forthcoming in the New Orleans Review and Palooka Journal. His novel-in-progress, The Motion of Souls is a finalist in the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Novel-in-Progress competition.