Doreen Duffy – Etta and the snow

Profile Doreen Duffy Live Encounters The Christmas Special December 2017

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Etta and the snow – a short story by Doreen Duffy

Doreen Duffy studied creative writing at Oxford University online, at University College Dublin & has a first class honours certificate in creative writing from National University of Ireland. She’s a member of Platform One Writers and Tutors on Creative Writing Ink. Doreen has been published in, Live Encounters, Woman’s Way, Irish Times, Circle and Square Anthology, Winner of Carousel Aware Prize 2017, Ireland’s Own Anthology, South of the County, New Myths and Tales. She was broadcast on Doreen was longlisted in the RTE Guide/Penguin Competition and longlisted for the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year 2017. She won the Jonathan Swift Award and was delighted to be awarded the Deirdre Purcell Cup by Maria Edgeworth Literary Festival. She was recently shortlisted for The Francis MacManus competition and was broadcast on RTE Radio; you can listen to her short story ‘Tattoo” by clicking on the link –

Doreen Duffy The Christmas SpecialI popped another tablet onto my tongue, the last one out of that blister pack; I take out another pack, hold it in my hand, ready. I put my hand against the window the cold creeps up through my palm; my skin looks even darker against the vision of white outside.

I can hear the song again, in my head, his voice so deep like it’s reaching inside me; the music barely matters, just his voice telling me the story. My father always sang the stories to me in the evenings when we lived back home in Kenya; the fire beside our hut would show pictures, the scent of bay rum high on the wind while the orange sky turned black.

I shivered. The snow outside the window made things look pretty. I could feel the silence; even the pile of wood in the corner of the yard was mostly covered now. Everything looks better, cleaner, covered in a layer of white.

“Etta, Etta, where are you?” Alice’s voice was getting fainter, she sounded sick, like breathing was hard to do. She couldn’t reach me here; she can’t make it upstairs, not anymore anyway.

Last night when she decided to tell me all the things I could do, I made my face look like I was listening; she might have still been strong enough to lash out a slap.

“You could grow that out you know, there’s all sorts of straighteners these days and lotions that could iron that out.” I put my hand to my head as if I was considering what she was saying.

I wondered why it still mattered to her how I looked. Was it so she would have something to keep him here?

I keep my hair short, so tight to my head there’s nothing left to straighten out. It feels wiry but strong. I get some kind of strange comfort when I run my fingers over my skull, up and over the scar at the back. I know who I am.

She was still talking when I went out to the kitchen to check on the stew. I could hear her voice but couldn’t make out the words. I shook the tablets out into the tea towel and ran the rolling pin over and back until they were just fine powder and then I folded it gently into the stew and stirred. Round and round the thick brown liquid churned and swallowed up every last bit of white. The metal spoon was scraping in circles on the bottom of the pot a horrible sound but it was something else to drown out her voice.

I remembered the woman in the store ages ago, her face screwed up in an expression of pity and curiosity while she looked me over.

“I don’t know how you do it,” she’d said to Alice. It must be so hard, especially when they’re so different to us, sure they must barely understand us as it is.”

“Oh it is,” Alice said taking a long slow breath, “but it’s rewarding and sure you know yourself even if you take in a dog off the street you grow to love it once it belongs to you.”

Then she lowered her voice but only a little, and said

“Some people say they can be damaged goods though, you know, like they make up stories and that, even about the people that have taken them in and done their best for them, it’s odd but I suppose we don’t really know what they’ve come from or what way they lived before we got them”.

Her eyes slid over me as she spoke.

The woman went on,

“You’d think they’d be grateful to get a home with a good family wouldn’t you, a chance at a brand new life, a better life.”

She had laid her gloved hand on Alice’s arm patting it gently. She went on and on about how great Alice was to take in another desperate child.

I whispered the word desperate to myself all the way home in the back of the car, it felt like it fitted, it was right for me.

When I finally get to sleep at night, in my dreams, I feel the heat on my back, shade my eyes from the sun and rest under the Olea tree waiting for my father to return. The branches look dark against the orange of the evening sky. I still miss my father there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think of him but even in my dreams my mind won’t let me have this happy memory. Almost like I am between sleep and wakefulness the nightmare rears up again. I always try to wake before the noise begins. The sounds of voices heavy and deep speaking words I don’t understand. The thud of boots against the ground, enough to know there are more than three men, maybe more, these sounds are the first things that frighten me. My heart swells up in my chest fills my throat with a scream that will not get the chance to escape. I feel my ankles kick against each other as I try to scramble to my feet to run, my eyes searching for the safety of our hut but the ground eats me up as they slam my face right down in the dirt and then there is pain, so much pain and noises I will never be able to forget, words in a language I do not understand and do not want to.

I wonder was the ground still kicked up, when my father returned, balls of spit where they’d hawked it up making barking noises like dogs? Were there parts of me left there amongst the dirt? It would have been easier if they’d taken an axe to me before they split me in two.

I thought I was going to be okay here. Alice and he had made it all sound fine when they brought me here. The social worker looked at my room I saw her tick a few boxes on her bundle of forms and then she left.

I didn’t mind the work it was good to keep busy. At first the land all around the house seemed so big. The hills brown and green where one followed another for as far as your eye could see with jagged stones beaten into the earth. It was so different to what I knew.

When Alice got sick he set up the bed for her downstairs but he remained in the room beside mine. He said we’d have to manage between us to do what was needed.

It wasn’t too long afterwards that he began to come to my room at night. After the first night, I started to collect the tablets, bit by bit over the weeks and months until I had enough. The doctor didn’t seem to take any notice of how many she had, he just wrote out a new prescription each time he came. Alice told him she had trouble sleeping and the nightmares were horrific when she did. I heard her whisper to him that she couldn’t trust me that I was making up stories. I kept tidying around the room when she said that. He looked over his glasses at her, he kept writing on his pad but when he scrawled his name at the end I heard him say he’d heard something alright, from the social worker he said.

“Ah you can have too much aul talk alright but you need to get your rest now Alice that’s what you need to do.”

I nodded at him while I slid the bed pan out from beneath her and straightened the sheets under her chin. I’d felt a little burst of hope when he’d said he’d heard something I hadn’t thought that social worker believed me. The doctor gave me a half smile and looked like he was sorry maybe for the things she was saying or maybe because of what he’d heard from the social worker. I couldn’t tell.

When he left I saw him stride out through the back yard he walked up to the first field to where Alice’s husband was bringing in the cows. I could see his face redden while he spoke, he pushed his cap back scratching his forehead shaking his head then he patted the doctor on the back and waited while he got into his car and gave him a big wide wave as he drove out the gate. When he came striding towards the house fingering his belt I was ready for him. I closed the door to Alice’s room and ran up the stairs. I was waiting on turn of the landing I could hear him climb the stairs two at a time until he turned the corner into me. I didn’t look away even when I drove the kitchen knife deep into the centre of his chest. There was a sound, like a sucking sound. I felt the heat of his blood while I held it in him and watched the scared look in his eyes while his knees buckled and his weight dragged me to the floor with him. I bent there over him the sickly sweet smell of his hair blending with his blood as it turned black.

“Etta, Etta.” Her voice crackled.

I felt scared for a moment like she could make it up the stairs to me, like the life could pour in behind his dead eyes again and he could rise up out of his body and strangle me, or worse.

I go back into my room. The cold in this room feels wet around the edges; sometimes the wallpaper feels like it will crawl right off the walls it gets so damp, I wait for the cold to get right into the middle of me and freeze out all the feeling.  I pop another tablet onto my tongue, I try to tune into the song in my head again, it’s difficult. Her voice has scratched in between the music and the words.

I pop two, three tablets this time and try to take them faster but they make me gag and I’m afraid I will be sick and lose all the ones before that are lying sweetly in my stomach. I try to breathe and slow things down to keep them safely inside me. So the little one that has begun to grow there can rest and sleep without dreams, forever.

I find my reflection in the glass; I see my father. He has come home. I see him cut down the Olea tree, the smell of bay rum leaking from its bark staining his hands with its scent forever?

I see the tree now the branches lying dead on the ground, dark against a warm orange sky.

© Doreen Duffy