Imperfect Manikin

Editor’s Note: Readers might want to consult this link for a relevant note on “The Diamond” as it relates to Irish history, and the geography referred to in the story. 

They were on the strand, a brisk August day with a stiff wind off the Atlantic hammering into Irene’s ears. She was carrying her sandals and splashing in the shallow water. A gaggle of seagulls screaming into the gale dove down onto a shoal of fish, and one gull then another rose up with their wriggling silver catch, swallowed, circled, then darted back down again. Robbie, four at the time, was out in the junior breakers trying to jump through them but each time the force knocked him off his feet and white-gray seawater surged over him. Undeterred, he picked himself up, coughed out the brine, faced off the next wave and down he came again. His father had taught him to swim and was good with the boy, spending more time with him than many. Skirt pulled up above the water, Irene paddled out till the swell reached her calves. The water was cool.

A wrecked Spanish galleon lay out there maybe five hundred feet from the shore, mostly buried now although you could see an outline of the ribs when the tide was unnaturally low. Once every three or four years. She and Jim had walked out there the last time it appeared in those anxious days before Robbie was born and was laying heavily inside her. “Perhaps that’s where you get your dark looks from Jim.” Jim’s hair was jet black, his eyes the deep slate of the water in the rock pools once the sea receded and his skin olive. He stood out.

“From where?”

“From some poor Spaniard crawling out of the water nearly four hundred years ago.”

He’d heard that before. Spiteful schoolyard taunts lacking the gentility of his wife’s good-natured joshing. “That was some storm, Irene. I doubt many made it out alive.”

Now the galleon lay covered up, out of the way so no one need think about it, beneath the shifting sands and the sea.

She shouted into the wind. “Come in Robbie, enough time in the sea. Don’t want you turning into a seal.” She turned her back to the wind, walking briskly toward the shore. Seaweed caught between her big toe and the one next, and she pulled it out. As a girl she’d eaten it raw off the strand. It was salty and tasted deep green, resilient and crunchy. These days she cooked it for Jim, sautéed with a little butter, although Robbie wasn’t that keen.

He was padding toward her, kicking the water up as he walked. He loved the sea and couldn’t remember not being able to swim. And then it popped out, “Ma, can I have a brother?” The wind snatched the words away.

“Again, Robbie.” She cupped her hand around her ear as a sign that she hadn’t heard.

“I want a brother, Ma. A younger brother. Can he be called Jim, like Da? He has to be one year younger than me.” The gulls screamed into the void.

Evidently the child had little idea about how siblings were made. Irene gazed over the dunes toward the cottage, hunkering down behind the windswept sand webbed together by Marram grass. She could make out snatches of the faded thatch, the color of a wheat brew, and the thin steel ribbing holding it in place. “A brother Robbie, you’re sure?”

“Yes Ma.”

It was an ideal time for Ilene to reveal the knowledge. They’d been waiting for the moment. This was it. The wind picked up, slamming into them. “Well Robbie…”

“Well Robbie what?’

“Well let’s be getting you dry. Bring your wet head here. Let me towel you down.” She rubbed the mop of brown hair with the beach towel. “You can wash the sand out before bed, Robbie.” They were proud of the new shower Robbie’s grandfather had installed. “We don’t want sand in the sheets.”

She wiped the sand from her soles and wiggled into her sandals. She saw Mr. Murphy near the top of the dunes inspecting his traps and waved at him and he waved back, a little unsteady. Murphy held a brace of inert rabbits by their hind legs. Sometimes he’d leave a rabbit or two on their doorstep. And she might gift him some eggs.

“Come on, I’ve got tea to make. Race you home, Robbie.” And she took off scrambling up the dunes, the wind behind her thudding in her ears and giving her extra lift, then down the lee side to the stone cottage and the barns and the yard that spilled out onto the single-track country road with a long thin grass ribbon down its center. So calm in this little sunken nook that you could almost pretend you were miles from the sea and the roaring wind. She turned to watch her second born run down the sandy hill, trip and fall and roll over, burst into laughter and pick himself up with resilience just like in the water. It was another world, a hushed one, down here sheltered from sea and wind. Irene wanted to tell the child. Maybe not today. There’d be another time.

Months went by and then, “I want a brother, Ma.”

Irene was at the stove cooking supper, about to crack an egg into the skillet. The egg slipped from her grasp and smashed onto the stone floor. “Why d’you want a brother all of a sudden?” She picked up a kitchen rag, scooped up the spill and dropped it into the scrap pail. “What brought this on, Robbie?”

The boy had not long ago started at the national school and seemed happy there. Each day when she picked him up from the schoolyard he showed Irene something from his morning, a picture in crayon or his letters or numbers or a book his teacher had given him. He had already made the connection between books and stories and could recall a memorized story word for word and turn the pages of the picture book as he “read” to her even though the class had only just started to sound out letters. She guessed the other kids had been asking him about brothers and sisters. Having large families was the tradition in the cottages down by the strand and he might be the only only child in his class.

“My brother can sleep in my room. Da can build him a bed.”

Jim had crafted all their furniture. When his father had bought the cottage for shillings it was an empty shell, an abandoned famine cabin with walls and chimneys in place but not much else. Father, with son withdrawn from school early to help, and with assistance from the village, restored the cottage to its current snug self, white-washed walls, red trim and tight thatch clamped down with steel rods to hold it in place from the Atlantic gales. Jim soon after apprenticed to a carpenter in the Diamond, a Protestant master craftsman eager to pass on his skills since he had no son of his own. Jim’s first solo piece was the thick-topped kitchen table with the butcher’s cleaver marks. Jim had found the heavy wooden slab in the basement kitchen of the great house that the landowner had abandoned decades ago. The house was collapsing but the basement rooms were shielded by the upper floors. It took four men to remove and carry the thick worktop out of the big house and down to the cottage by the strand.

“He can sleep in your room, can he? And Da can build him a bed?” Again she wanted to tell Robbie but how would he react? “Let me think about it.” She suspected by now that the child knew where siblings came from, kids in school talk.

Robbie had been a mistake. The church-sanctioned method had let them down. Jim and Irene didn’t want to take another chance. They lived close to the border and Jim drove through the British army road block with its concrete towers and blast shields and young Scottish squaddies with trigger-loose fingers and into the North where he bought condoms. “No more risks, Irene. I don’t care what the church says.”

Irene had wept deeply. In those days she believed in God and railed against Him for His lack of justice and compassion, for His recklessness. His Goddam fucking stupidity. Jim had kept a stoic facade and never shed a tear. Instead, he retreated to his workshop and imagined an original piece inspired from designs he’d noted in a glossy magazine and improved upon, and crafted specifically for Irene. He gifted her this piece. Which she loved. But he did not cry. And did not say, “Let’s see the child. Let’s think about… Let’s see if… Let’s learn how to… Perhaps with some support from the state we could…”

Jim had impatient hands. When Irene was pregnant again he worked tirelessly whittling small manikins from off-cuts, each crafted from a person in their orbit, the priest with the stoop, the well-fed farmer’s wife who sold cheese and butter door to door, the pinch-faced postman who called on the cabins down by the strand, and the eager young man who delivered turf briquettes. It gave him something to do while waiting for the birth, dealing with his anxiety. Irene guessed it was his way of asserting control, by crafting something whole and not marred by a clumsy creator but proportionally sound, that worked as intended.

Robbie was born without defects. Celebratory dark beers were downed. With the fiddle and dancing and singing.

“Please Mammy. I’d like a brother with brown eyes and brown hair like me.”

“Jim, we should tell him?”

“We should.”


“Not just yet. We don’t know how he’ll take it. When he’s a little older. More mature. When the time is right.”

“Will the time ever be right?”

Most afternoons after school, Robbie asked Irene to take him to the shore. It was only four hundred feet from the cottage, the far side of the dunes, but was a different world. Even though he was an able swimmer, she insisted he not go into the sea without her present. Oblivious to the chill of the water, he waded through the breakers. When the tide was out they walked along the strand to the looming cliffs with natural pools at their base, depressions in the rock, where the salt water collected as the sea retreated. Afternoon sun warmed the pools and they became Robbie’s own private places, just deep enough to submerge himself and wide enough to do two or three strokes. Their residents changed with every tide, depending on who got left behind. In the warm salt water ponds, Robbie came face to face with unique ecosystems and observed life eye ball to eye ball. “What’s this Mammy? Why does this one glow? Look how he hides when he sees me. I’ve never seen this one before. This little man’s nibbling my foot.” Life fascinated him. And she loved that he looked and asked, investigated.

Like the other women down by the strand, she’d usually go out in a housedress and a frayed cardigan, with a windbreaker if it was raining, and yard boots. What’s the point of dressing up to milk the cows in the parlor? But every two weeks, she would dress up and walk into town where she visited the library to borrow two books that she had ordered ahead of time by phone. She kept up with reviews in The Irish Times and yearned for new writers, men and women who could help her navigate the world and its changes. When Robbie wasn’t at school, he’d spend her library day with his grandfather up in the fields above the bay with his sheep and the dogs, obedient to the whistle as they herded and grouped and wheeled and protected the flock from predators. “I’ll teach you, Robbie. Make a shepherd of you yet.” And he’d hand Robbie the whistle.

But today she’d told her father-in-law she’d be taking Robbie to town. At last it was the right time to tell him. She removed the pink plastic curlers that gave body and bounce to her hair, and ran her hands through the curls freeing them and they responded with a gleeful release. She ironed a white shirt for Robbie and the collar was crisp, still warm. She tried to button it but it was too tight at the neck. She pulled on his Startrite sandal strapping it in place. He winced and she let it out a notch. “You’re growing fast, little man. You need to be comfortable. It’s a long walk for a wee fella with short legs.”

She slipped on a pair of fire-engine red heels. Robbie touched her sweater. “Cashmere,” she said. “Wool from up in the mountains where it snows from autumn onwards. Soft isn’t it?” She wrapped a paisley scarf around her buoyant curls, taking care to hold them in place but not flatten them, held Robbie’s hand, and picked her way with elegance around the cow pats and out of the yard onto the narrow country road, her stilettos ringing out on the stones. Irene was a movie star walking with great command over the ruts and around the potholes through the wet meadows into the damp village and thence the town.

After the library she ordered a one-person pot of tea in Sandfords, a quiet establishment with dark wood-paneled walls and neat round tables, while Robbie sipped a coke with a slice of lemon and an ice cube. This was his first time in a cafe and he was feeling very grown. He was proud of the two books he had picked out and couldn’t wait to show his classmates his new library card. “Why did you choose those books, Robbie?” After an extended pause he told her. And she loved that he had really thought about this and revealed something of himself in the choosing and the telling. It was a wondrous thing to have a complete child, a thoughtful child.

“We have one more stop before home, Robbie.” This was the time. She was ready. It was such a relief to have the words in her head and to know that the time was right. Like the galleon under the waves, the secret will be revealed. Their table was private and should the child become emotional there were no others close by. “Robbie there’s something I want you to know.” He looked up from his Coke. “That your Da and I want you to know. Both of us.” It was so easy, why hadn’t she done this years before? “A secret we kept from you when you were small. Now that you’re grown, well growing…” The words stopped, dammed up in her vocal cords. Her face flushed. She struggled to breath in and exhaled his name, “Robbie, Robbie…”

“Yes Ma.”

She searched her bag for a handkerchief and mopped the sweat from her cheeks. Dabbed at her eye. “Ellen, may we have the bill please. Lovely tea. And thanks for the ice cube. Robbie felt very grown.”

Irene hurried Robbie out of the café, walking down the pavement at a faster than normal clip.

He had seen the convent from the outside many times. It rose high over the Diamond, stained glass windows elevated so passersby couldn’t see within. Coated in white stucco, it projected a Heavenly sheen in the weak August sunlight. His first time inside, he marveled at the quiet. So close to the bustle of the Diamond with its cars, mid-day shoppers, the county bus, hectoring Jehovah’s Witnesses, the voluble drunk on the corner, yet here all was quiet. The unnatural hush was disturbed only by the click-clack of his mother’s heels on the polished tiles.

A sister greeted them. A wide circular key ring hung from her waist “This is your younger, Irene?”

“Aye. My baby.” She took off the scarf and her red curls cascaded around her face. She swept them away with a hand and shook out her head.

“Handsome feller. Just like his Da. Does he not like to visit? The Da.”

“He’s a busy man.” The words were unconvincing. Irene wasn’t any longer vested in lying. In facilitating Jim’s absence. His denial. Yes, why don’t you visit, Jim?

“Of course. He’s quite a name now. I hear he has commissions from America. Bespoke Irish furniture must be quite the thing if you live in Boston. Follow me.” The keys jangled.

“How’s he been? The young master.”

“No change. Of course he’s a chatter box. Always was and always will be. Philosopher savant. But I cannot for the life of me understand a word he says.”

“He has his own language for sure. You just have to listen. Attune your ear. Spend some time.”

“That must be it. I’m that busy too. Time is not on my side.”

They stopped outside a door with a strengthened glass window too high for Robbie to peer inside. The sister opened it. “I’ll leave you then.”

Irene guided him into a small dormitory with six beds and a window looking down on the Diamond. Fluorescent strip lights flickered on the ceiling even though it was daytime. Four of the beds were occupied with shadows and Irene moved with purpose to one and sat on the chair next the bed. A screech came from the cot. Robbie saw a child, smaller than him, with an animated face shining with glee and with one arm waving jerkily. “Hush child,” Irene said, placing a palm on the boy’s brow and tousling his hair. The cot had a metal cage around it, a private prison, so the child couldn’t slip out. Irene was leaning over the cage. She stroked his cheek with affection, dabbed a corner of her scarf to his mouth where there was a trace of food. “You’re a good boy.”

Robbie recognized some of his own toys on the bedside table and wondered how they got there. Why would this unfamiliar child have toys that his father had made for him? “Mammy…”

“Hush Robbie.” She said this without looking at him. Not unkindly but she only had energy enough for one needy boy and assigned it to the strange boy caged on the bed. She was stroking the boy’s other cheek now and he warmed to the attention. “I wish I could take you home with us. A fine family we’d make.” Robbie saw that the boy had red hair just like his mother, and a lovely face, in miniature. Handsome. He smelled fresh-washed and powdered, like a baby. He was thin and fragile and his bones stuck out awkwardly and reminded Robbie of the frail sparrow, still alive but unable to fly, the cat had caught and left on the door step as a trophy.

“Mammy who…”

She turned to him. “I wanted to tell you before, Robbie, often, but the words wouldn’t come. They’re here now. Robbie, meet Eamonn. Your brother. Your older brother.”



“I’ve told him all about you. He’s long wanted to meet you. I promised him.”

Eamonn shrieked with excitement and gesticulated with his free arm. The other, Robbie saw, was bound to the cot with a leather strap. Robbie threw his elbow over his face, shielding his eyes from the small trapped boy and ran for the dormitory door. He tried to open the door and run from the room but the handle was too high and he couldn’t even touch it let alone turn it.

“What’s wrong with the boy?” Jim noticed Robbie’s face the moment he came in. “He’s very serious. Pensive. I’ve never seen him like this.”

“I took him to town. He met Eamonn.”

“We were going to talk to him first.”

“Yes. But we didn’t. Repeatedly.”

“We should have.”

“Agreed, Jim. It’s done now. It needed to be done.” There was a new edge to his wife’s voice. An unapologetic assertion.

Robbie became introspective. Jim and Irene missed his easy chatter, his joy and wonder at life, his enthusiasm and cheerful noise. Even his interest in the rock pools waned. He no longer wanted to wade out into the breakers. Privately and individually, because they did not discuss this as a couple, they feared that their inability to be honest with their son had damaged him.

Robbie didn’t mention Eamonn till a couple of months into the new school year. “Ma, when are we going to the Diamond again? To see Eamonn. Can Da make him something new? Something specially for him?”

She was beyond relieved to hear these words and eagerly communicated them to Jim. That night, light extinguished, they touched for the first time in months.

A week later his father showed him Eamonn’s special gift. In Jim’s design magazine, he’d read about puppets created in Athens for an experimental theater, and how the puppet-crafters captured a sense of magic and agency which they embedded within their creations. The puppets emerged as spontaneous weavers of narrative, co-creating the story with their operators. As Jim crafted the new manikin, he breathed into it a sense of life, of independence.

“Robbie, he’s a perfect manikin. My best yet. Do you recognize him?” Jim handed him the toy.

“Mr. Murphy who traps the rabbits.” The manikin smelled of fresh paint and varnish and was smooth. The paint was bright and his father had captured the rabbit-catcher’s red cheeks. They glowed.

“See how he moves. He’s articulated with waxed wooden pins, perfect articulation. Give this to your brother with my love. Let me wrap him first, keep him snug.”

Irene changed her routine to alternate Saturdays so she could take Robbie with her. Library first, then Sandford’s for the pot-for-one, then the convent. She was hesitant as they entered the dormitory given Robbie’s behavior last time, but he went directly to Eamonn and started talking to him just like he would to any other brother. A brother he’d known for years and grown up with. He had brought Jim’s gift wrapped in tissue paper and carefully stowed inside a shoe box. He took the manikin out of the box and handed it to Eamonn.

“He’ll not be able to unwrap it, Robbie. He only has one free hand and he’s clumsy with it. He’s all fingers and thumbs. You’ll have to do it for him.”

How Robbie knew otherwise she couldn’t tell, but he just stood there watching while Eamonn unwrapped the toy with great dexterity with his one free hand. Jim had taken care to ensure there were no hard edges or splinters that might harm a child. Eamonn gasped when he saw the puppet.

“Da made it. It’s Mr. Murphy the rabbit-catcher. He traps rabbits on the dunes near our cottage. Rabbit stew makes a fine meal, doesn’t it Eamonn? See his red cheeks. Da says that’s from the whiskey he has for breakfast. He looks just like that in real life. And his legs and arms move and his head swivels right round. He’s articulated.” He spoke the word slowly like a teacher might. “He has joints.” He demonstrated Mr. Murphy’s movement by manipulating his knees. “Perfect articulation.” He said those two words in a precise imitation of Jim. Irene had not known he could do this. Eamonn was captivated. “But we can give him our own name. You name him Eamonn.”

“Cluddah.” As simple as that, Mr. Murphy became Cluddah the rabbit-catcher.

Robbie brought in other manikins crafted by their father and animated them for his brother. With his encouragement, the manikins had rich lives. They sang in an integrated Catholic and Protestant choir and danced to jazz and argued about RTE’s channels and went to school on the bus and ran down to the strand to swim in the Atlantic and went to the bar with their Da for a packet of crisps and a lemonade and cooked Christmas lunch with their Ma, and of course trapped rabbits and drank whiskey for breakfast. And Eamonn was the consummate audience, laughing and shrieking with joy. Before long the boys developed their own private language. Irene saw that Robbie understood Eamonn in a way that she never had. When her sons were together they didn’t need her, they were self-contained and she had no role. She stood by the bed, shut out by their play. Maybe she should take a seat in the hallway outside and read her library books.

One day Robbie untied Eamonn’s strapped arm. “No Robbie, it’s for his own safety. He goes into a spasm sometimes and hits himself in the head with that arm. The doctors don’t know why. He might damage himself. He has a weak skull. His protective matter didn’t develop. He’s vulnerable.”

Robbie had a stubborn streak. When someone opposed him, he wouldn’t talk back but he’d just do as he had planned all along. He took out a small bottle of rubbing alcohol from his school bag and with cotton wool dabbed it on the sores on his brother’s arm, then unfolded a bandage and wrapped it around the arm. “Can he come home with us, Ma?”

She had once asked the same question. Often. And had been met with a definitive answer. “I don’t think he’d like that. He’s happy here. This is his home.”

Even though Eamonn was three years older than Robbie, he had stopped growing long and was pounds lighter. By the time Robbie was studying algebra, he was strong enough to lift his brother out of the cage and carry him to the window where there was a special seat with a guardrail to prevent him slipping out and he placed him there on a high cushion. Immediately a new frontier opened up, and Eamonn leaned forward onto the rail to more closely observe the magic outside. With the help of Cluddah the rabbit-catcher and in Cluddah’s special voice and in their own language, Robbie pointed out the people and the places and the Diamond lit up as a new world ripe for exploration and full to the brim with tales and escapades and characters and dramas. From that day the manikin became Cluddah the story-teller.

Robbie wanted to tell his friends at school that he had a brother but was afraid they’d mock him. Accuse him of inventing a brother out of thin air. To them, brothers were robust entities that smelled of sweat and you fought with and chased and competed with and stole clothes and cigarettes and girlfriends from. They wouldn’t understand the frail, fresh-washed child in the bed with the leather strap to protect him from self-harm so Robbie remained the one child in the school with no siblings.

“The boy is doing the world of good for his brother,” Irene told Jim. “I marvel when I see them together.” Recently she had increased their visits to once a week as Robbie was gloomy when he couldn’t spend time with Eamonn. “Eamonn seems more like a, I don’t know, more like a child. Happy. Glad to see his brother. He looks forward to the visits. And they talk. They understand each other.”

Jim and Irene gave Robbie a metallic blue bicycle for his birthday. It was a huge expense well beyond their means and money was borrowed at a fantastical rate but they wanted to reward him for the time he spent with his brother. Robbie relished his new mobility as his world expanded beyond the strand and the village and the school. Within days he had bought, on the slate, the rights to a paper round from an older boy. Each morning before school and on Sundays, he’d pedal the route delivering the news. The pay was small but from time to time he’d get a good tip, usually on a Sunday when the readers were feeling pious. Small sums added up.

There was a women’s wear store on the Diamond and he commissioned the store’s seamstress to sew two padded sleeves made from washable cotton, one blue and one red.

Now that he had his bike, Robbie could visit his brother every day. One time the sister at the door had been less than welcoming. “Does your Ma know you’re here? You’re an unaccompanied minor. People can’t just walk in off the street like they own the place…”

Robbie walked past her without a word and with great confidence, an authority beyond his years.

Once the padded sleeves were done, Robbie untied the leather strap and threw it into the waste bin. “See if you like this, Eamonn.” He slid one of the sleeves onto Eamonn’s hitting arm. “Fits a treat.” Should Eamonn go into a spasm, the cushioned arm would cause no damage. Robbie changed the sleeve daily.

By the time Robert, as he now insisted everyone call him, was studying pre-calc, his life was more complicated. He was thinking about university, his grades were strong, and he found himself devoting more time to study and less to Eamonn. He tried to study at the convent, sitting beside Eamonn’s bed, but his brother was demanding. He was trying out for a team and that would take even more of his time. And of course there were girls, although Robert wasn’t quite sure how that worked but he couldn’t help looking and sometimes talking with a girl he fancied. Not even a furtive kiss yet. Sometimes he skipped a day. Sometimes he skipped two days. Once, during exams, he skipped three days, the longest time he’d been away from his brother in years. When he arrived at the dormitory after school he found his brother with a black eye. The sleeve was gone and Eamonn was strapped to the bed with another piece of leather. “Eamonn, I’m so sorry I didn’t come. Never again. I’m taking you out of here.” He threw the strap onto the floor and picked up his brother.

Robert didn’t notice the confusion in Eamonn’s face. Eamonn cried out, but it wasn’t his usual cry of glee. Robert carried him down the stairs and along the hallway toward the exit. Eamonn struggled. “I should have done this years ago.”

“Put that child down! Father, call the guards. He’s stealing a child.”

Robert carried Eamonn onto the street to the taxi rank. Eamonn shrieked and kicked. He drooled wet saliva. He was in a panic.

“Are you mad?” Irene’s face was a map of questions. Contours of disbelief. “What do you think you’re doing? Why is Eamonn here?”

“Ma, pay the cab please.”

“Answer me Robert. What are you doing?”

“The cab. Pay the driver please. It’s three pounds.”

“You can’t bring him here.”

“It’s his home. We’re his family. He’s my brother.”

“I don’t know how to look after him. He has special needs.”

“Then we’ll learn”

“We? You’ll be off to uni soon.”

“What does that mean? You don’t want to toilet your own son?”

The cab driver was banging on the door. Irene took a note for her bag without checking the denomination, opened the door and thrust it at him. “Go! Robert, don’t you speak to your mother like that.”

“This is his home. He should have been here all along.”

“I understand you love your brother. Once we could have done this. I could have. Should have. But that time is passed. Besides, we don’t have the expertise.”

“And the sisters do? The sisters with their leather strap.”

Robert carried Eamonn to his own bedroom and placed the boy on the bed. He still thought of him as a boy but Eamonn was approaching twenty. Eamonn’s tiny world had just expanded exponentially and Eamonn wasn’t sure about that.

“Robert, this is madness. We need to take him back. He’s a demanding child. They may not even take him back after this violation. The sisters have been doing us a favor. They don’t have to.” She opened the kitchen door and called out to the cab driver but he was already pulling away. Eamonn began to sob. Robert had never seen him cry before.

“Look at the poor child. He’s frightened. He knows the convent. It’s his home, the only home he’s ever known. He doesn’t want to live here.”

Eamonn’s sobs were deep and unrelenting. Robert spoke soothingly in their private language but Eamonn didn’t hear and sobbed more, and his whole body shook with the fear of his new surroundings. Robert spoke as Cluddah the story-teller, “Eamonn, this is your new home. Eamonn hear me. There’s so much I want to show you. The strand. Bet you’ve never been swimming. Anyone can float. I’ll help you. I’ll hold you up in the water. Keep the sea water out of your eyes.” Eamonn wailed. “And the pools under the cliffs. You’ll love them. Just the right size for you.” The wailing increased in intensity. “And the other kids. I want them all to know I have a brother.” In and out of the private language, both Robbie and Cluddah, but his brother wasn’t registering. “I can make a seat for you on the bike. You can go places. See the countryside. You can sleep here in my room. Our room. Da will build you a bed. Da does great stuff.”

Eamonn’s eyes rolled sharply upward in his head and he shot into a spasm. His arm hit his head. Again and again and Robert tried to restrain him but his brother had unknown powers of strength, the nearly twenty-year old man compressed within the deceptive body of a child, and he hit himself again. Smacking his own head.

Irene was on the phone. “You need to come here now. There’s a child in distress.”

Robert tried to grab the phone but she held onto it. “We can do it. We can look after him. Don’t let them take him away. Tell the guards we don’t need them.” As mother and son struggled, Eamonn jerked wildly, slid from the bed and fell, head first, toward the stone floor.

Jim scooped him up before impact. Neither Robert nor Irene knew he was in the room. Jim held the man-child tight and he stopped sobbing and went quiet. He didn’t mind the weight of the child, he was strong, and he embraced Eamonn and whispered to him and kissed his forehead and whispered some more and stroked his red hair and sang a nursery ditty from generations past in the old language that Irene and Robbie had never heard before and breathed in the boy’s clean but scared scent. In his father’s confident arms, the boy became less scared. Jim had curling blond wood shavings lodged in his black hair and Eamonn reached up and plucked them out one by one, dropping each to the floor. One, then another, then several, decorating the stone floor.

Mother and son watched this cleansing as Eamonn made Jim respectable again so he could now go down to the bar in the village should he wish or to the new fish restaurant in Ballyshannon with Irene and their whole son without evidence of his trade messing his hair. “Thank you, son. Thank you, first born.”

An age passed. When Jim turned toward the others they saw tears damp on his cheeks. He spoke very quietly and very calmly. “Robbie, I understand. I really do. But no more of this nonsense. I’ll get the van. You can hold Eamonn.”


Nigel Pugh is an educational leadership consultant working in the US and the EU. He lives in Manhattan and Woodstock, NY. This short story is adapted from a novel he is working on. He has had live theater pieces performed, has written for children’s TV, and published in Adelaide Literary Magazine.