Lara Ní Chuirrín is one of our two highly commended runners up this year in the scholarship. The panel of judges found this years choice the most challenging so far and stressed the fine quality of writing of both of our runners up.
Lara was born and raised in the Gaeltacht in Connemara, and has lived in Cork for the past five years. She writes poetry and short stories that explore states of grief, love, stagnation, and metamorphosis. She has a background in Fine Art, and is currently studying History of Art, and English. Her poetry has been published in a number of local ‘zines, most recently in Bloomers Magazine, a publication of emerging Irish artists, and she has performed poetry at the Sling Slang poetry event in Cork, as well as at various fundraisers and open mics around the city. She has also recently had a short story accepted in The Quarryman, and is working toward self - publishing a ‘zine with fellow UCC students.
After His Own Heart
Martin awoke, as he so often did, at dawn. He woke naturally, roused by the sun spilling through a gap in the curtains. He pulled on his deep blue dressing gown and yellow slippers, and shuffled his sleepy limbs out to the kitchen. He looked out the window as he waited for the kettle to boil, watching the clouds’ mottled shadows move across the fields. He stretched gently, hoping to enliven his weary muscles. At 65, his body was showing signs of being past its prime. His mind was still sharp as a tack.
‘Sharp as a tack.’ He said to the empty kitchen.
He poured some cold water on the spider plants hanging in the window, and put on a slice of toast. Martin liked to call his small home his ‘bachelor pad’, though it was far from what one might imagine upon hearing this phrase. It was the last house on a small road that led to the sea, surrounded by trees and with a bright turquoise door. The window sills were crowded with makeshift flower pots in the form of boots, china cups, teapots, and old buckets. Wedged amongst the flower pots were sea shells and fragments of glass, smoothed by the ceaseless tossing of waves and offered up along the shore, glinting green and indigo treasures that caught the morning light.
Milk and one sugar in his tea, butter and marmalade on his toast, Martin shuffled over to the back door, and opened it onto the yard. Warm sunlight poured over his balding head, welcoming his body to another day. In the yard was his car, a red Toyota that had seen better days, and parked right beside it, his brand new caravan. Well, it was a second hand Burstner caravan, but it was in great shape, and was brand new to him. It was a magnificent shiny white beast, with a blue stripe and a red stripe that ran all the way around its middle. Its logo was a blue and yellow tiger’s head, snarling from above the handles on each door.
‘You’re a thing of beauty.’ Martin raised his tea in salute.
Meeeoowwww. A gentle nudge against the back of his leg.
‘Oh hello Felix, my friend. How are you this morning?’ said Martin through a mouthful of toast.
“Did they feed you at all today?” He dropped his crusts to the ground for the cat, who sniffed them curiously and flexed his claws, before skulking off to sit on the bonnet of the car.
‘Suit yourself.’ said Martin, and he turned back inside.
He made a cup of coffee, and sat at the kitchen table, or his work table, as he liked to call it. He surveyed his latest project, and guessed at how much work was left to do. Most of the structural work had been completed. The houses and pubs had been carved from Styrofoam, painted and varnished before being arranged just as they appeared in the photographs he had tacked to the wall. He had also acquired maps from the local council, just to be certain everything in his model was as it was in real life. The town sloped down to the sea, hugging the coast from the clifftop to the sand. It was not quite a uniform sloping, though, as the topographical map had made clear, and Martin had had to mould the land with papier-mâché before he arranged the buildings. Papier-mâché had made the cresting waves of the sea, too. Martin figured that he was down to the finishing touches now. The sea needed a second coat of paint, to add a sense of texture and depth. The beach needed some seaweed strewn here and there, some gulls fighting over a chip, perhaps. A few more people in the town, maybe, to bring it to life a little more. About three more days’ work. He poked through his shoebox of paints, picking out tubes for the ocean, lining them up along the edge of the table. Cerulean Blue Hue, Phthalo Green (Blue Shade), French Ultramarine, Cobalt Blue, and of course Titanium White and Cadmium Yellow, to highlight the waves that caught the sun.
He was just preparing his brushes when he heard a loud thud, over at the kitchen window. Craning his neck, he peered out the window. Nothing. Clouds gathering on the horizon. He was about to return to his work, when he heard the tiniest sound. A high pitched chirping, coming from outside. Martin rushed out the back door, and around to the kitchen window, and there on the ground beneath the sill, was a small bird, with an orange belly and a blue back and a wing sticking out at a funny angle.
Chirrrp! Chirp chirp!
‘Oh dear.’ Martin bent low, examining the wing as best he could. ‘Oh dear, little fella.’
The bird watched him with one eye, the other seeming to dart around in fear. It tried to get into the air, but only managed to hop around feebly in a crooked circle.
‘Ok buddy, don’t worry, I’ll mind you.’
Martin wrapped his hands gently around the bird, careful of its broken wing. He could feel the poor creature’s heart beating in its tiny chest. It felt as though it may burst through Martin’s thick fingers. Once they got through the kitchen door, the bird started to wriggle and chirrp in his hand.
‘Shhh.’ Martin moved the bird slightly so that his right hand was free, and the bird’s eyes were covered. This darkness seemed to relax the creature. Moving quickly and smoothly, Martin strode to the table and upturned the box of paints onto the floor. He grabbed his work towel and lined the base of the box with it. Then he ever so gently placed the bird into the box, and shoved the lid back on.
‘Right.’ His own heart beat hard in his chest. ‘What now?’
In a moment of divine inspiration he remembered the bird cage, and dashed to the cupboard in the hall. Last winter he had been poking around in Harris’s scrap yard, a marvellous place, full of gems, when had found a bird cage; he quite simply could not leave it behind, it was just such a beautiful object, or artefact as he liked to call it. Pulling it from the back of the cupboard now, all misgivings about its usefulness melted away, and Martin commended himself on having such a keen eye. He brought it into the kitchen and tried to clear a space on the table, knocking his cup in the process. The lower half of the town was flooded with thick brown coffee, threatening the structural competency of many buildings. The coffee bubbled and gurgled as it seeped through the papier-mâché. Martin cast his eyes about for a towel, but the closest one had a bird in it. No matter. The cage was one of those old fashioned ones, with thin silver bars and a domed top. At about 3 feet tall, it towered over the model town, like some sort of alien spaceship. He brought the shoebox over, and opened it slowly, wary of his patient fleeing, but the bird was huddled in a corner, its eyes darting and its breathing heavy. Martin picked it up, towel and all, and bundled it into the cage. It looked so small and helpless. He gently pulled and bunched the towel, fashioning a sort of cave around the bird’s small frame.
‘There we go.’ He said. ‘Much more cosy.’
At the sink he filled the lid of the marmalade jar with water, and walked steadily back to the bird, careful not to spill any.
‘Now my little friend. You’re all set up.’
Martin spent the rest of the day painting, casting an eye on the bird every now and then, who seemed happy enough in his new home. For dinner, he made a lovely garden pea-and-parmesan spaghetti, and to the bird he gave some cooked peas, some raw peas, some leftover fried bacon, a few shavings of parmesan, some orange segments, some porridge oats, and a heel of bread. He did not yet know what birds ate. Martin took his dinner at the crowded worktable, his bowl on his lap, surveying his work. As the day faded slowly into night, Martin watched the shadows cast by the little painted people; the couples and the families, enjoying their little seaside break. The young ones eating ice creams while their parents chatted happily. He thought about parking a model of his new van right there on the main street. Outside the post-office, perhaps. The post office had been badly hit by the coffee spill. It’s painted outside had slid down and sat in puddles on the street below. Its Styrofoam centre sat exposed and stained brown. A few coats of paint and things should be back on track. The promise of darkness, combined with the large dinner and the day’s excitement, had Martin in bed by 9 o’clock.
‘Goodnight my friend.’ He called to the bird as he turned out the lights.
The next morning, Martin woke before the sun, and shuffled to the kitchen. The bird was still asleep in its cage, nuzzled into the towel. Of last night’s many foods, all that was eaten was the bacon and the fresh peas. Martin smiled. A bird after his own heart. He made his tea and pulled from the shelf in the corner his copy of Collins’ Bird Guide.
‘Let’s find out who you are.’ Martin whispered into the breaking dawn.
Having passed through fungi and insects, he flicked slowly through pages of birds, stopping whenever he saw flashes of colour.
‘Hmmm...This book seems to think you’re a bullfinch...Or possibly a Chaffinch...Hmmm.’
Martin looked up from his book, and found the bird watching him.
‘Oh good morning friend. Can you tell me what you are?’
The bird tilted its head slightly, watching him. Martin felt that the bird looked sleepy. He had never seen a bird look sleepy before.
‘Ok, well, we won’t worry too much about it. According to this book, your bright feathers mean that you are of the male variety, and that's enough to able to name you.’
Closing the book, Martin stood up and stretched slightly.
‘So, Frank. Let’s have us some bacon, shall we?’
The bird’s eyes seemed to light up.
Martin rang the local vet, who was of very little use. She said there was nothing she could do, and that all he could do was feed him and give him water. The wing would heal over time if it was going to heal at all. The rest of the week was spent at the kitchen table, painting the model town, and chatting with the bird. Frank was a good listener.
“I’m going on a trip Frank.” Martin informed him one day, as he painted lichen on to the gable end of a house.
“I don’t know if you saw it outside, but I bought myself a campervan, and soon I’m going to take it out on the road…” Frank bobbed his head up and down, his azure feathers shimmering in the light.
“I’ll be like all these fine folks here in this town...maybe you could come along, eh?” Frank Chirped loudly. Martin did not light the fires, or weed the flower beds, nor did he wash the dishes. He arranged for a neighbour to get him what he needed in the shop - coffee, butter, marmalade, bacon, and bird seed.
‘Are you not well Martin?’ She had asked upon delivering his supplies, her neck craning as she peered over his shoulder.
‘Ah, erh, no, it’s not quite that, am, thank you very much Louise, I really do appreciate it!’ and he closed the door in her face. A kind woman, Louise, but not someone to have nosing around right now. He did not need the whole village laughing at him again.
For seven days he cared for Frank, watching with delight as he gained strength, hopping and chirping, and to Martin’s utmost joy, singing. On the morning of the fourth day, Martin awoke to Frank’s song. He entered the kitchen to the sweetest sound, a bubbly string of notes, starting high and descending, falling to a long low whistle. Martin applauded, ‘Bravo!’ which seemed to startle Frank into silence. Martin made him extra bacon that morning. On the seventh day, Martin walked into the kitchen to find Frank flying from one side of the cage to the other, his little claws wrapping around the silver bars. All day he flew around the cage, singing. Martin watched him from the corner of his eye as he painted strands of hair onto holiday-makers on his beach. He watched him and his heart sank. He knew it was not right to keep a flying bird locked in a cage. Tomorrow he would set him free. Martin made him a huge feed of bacon that night, and some fresh peas from the garden. For himself, he pulled a bottle of brandy from the back of the cupboard, cleaned off the dust, and poured himself a generous glass.
‘Here’s to you Frank, our last supper eh?’ He raised his glass. ‘It’s been wonderful having you stay.’
Frank looked at him, head cocked to one side, bacon hanging from his beak.
The next morning Martin slept in. When he came into the kitchen Frank was flying laps around the cage. It was a dizzying sight, a blur of blue and orange. His call was shrill now, insistent where before it had been playful. Martin sighed.
‘Ok friend. I hear you.’
He carried the cage to the back door and stepped out into the late morning. The day was overcast, muggy. The cat slept, undisturbed, on the bonnet of the car. The world was silent, save for the whisper of a breeze rustling the hedges, and the distant crash of waves. Sitting on the step in front of the door, he set the cage down at his feet.
“Well, this is it buddy. Best of luck.” He opened the cage wide, and Frank flew right out. He did a small loop through the air, testing his wings, and then landed gently on Martin’s shoulder, where he sat, singing, for just a moment. Martin’s eyes filled with tears.
‘You’re welcome.’ He whispered.
Then Frank left his shoulder, and flew across the yard.
Martin, through the tears in his eyes, saw a blur of black and white. The blur seemed to have pointed ears, and a long tail. The blur moved quickly from the bonnet of the car, to the roof. It jumped onto the top of the campervan, and into the air, claws flashing.
A strangled shriek, piercing the gentle morning air.
A yard scattered with blue and orange feathers.
A blood stain on the roof of the camper.
A smug cat.
These are some things that Martin will never forget.
Martin wandered back into the house. Dropping the birdcage by the door, he put on the kettle for coffee. As he waited for the kettle to boil, he noticed the dry brown leaves of his spider plants. Changing his mind, he turned off the kettle and poured a brandy instead. He brought it to the table and surveyed his town. Sighing deeply, he sat down and picked up a brush.