Hennessy New Irish Writing: June 2018’s winning story – Smoke
By Michelle Coyne
Father Seán opened the censer and tried to steady his hands enough to allow the altar girl to spoon the incense in. Her face an ocean of freckles, her football jersey glowing red through her white cotton alb. He let the heavy brass lid slide back down the chains, which he wrapped around his right hand twice. Oh Lord, if only he could get through the next 10 minutes, he might survive the day. Turning to the steps, he steeled himself, let his gaze glance across faces of the congregation and fall on the coffin, lilies spilling from the arrangement splayed on its lid. Brendan lying unseen within.
The cloying incense billowed from the censer as Seán swung it carefully next to the box. He’d spent his whole life going from smoke to smoke to smoke. He could never escape it. The crossroad turf fires celebrating local weddings and local wins. The industrial burn in the air of Sao Paolo streets. Smouldering rubbish and feathers of slit-throat chickens in Malawian villages. And now back here, drowning in thick incense. Home again. Where the heart is, or where it was at least.
He kept his mind on the smoke and how it swirled and dissolved in the draughty chapel as he repeated the prayer by rote. He had kept the service simple. The same old gospel, the same old liturgy. Sticking to words in which he was fluent. Letting the deeper meaning get lost in familiar sounds. He would allow himself time later, when the eyes of the parish were not upon him, to study his loss. He would permit himself that indulgence. The smoke faded from the censer, and he let his hand rest for a moment on the lacquered pine lid before returning to the altar and resuming the service.
Brendan’s eldest daughter, Léann, provided the eulogy. Black shoes, black dress, hair as black as her father’s had once been. Seán could see her tremble as she stood at the lectern. The sort of shake that comes only when a person is drowning in emotion, the body too weak to sustain the fervour of the soul. Seán was well acquainted with that particular tremor. It was there the first time he visited the malaria hospital in Mozambique and witnessed all the pointless suffering and preventable death. It was there when he bent to sanctify the corpse of a young pregnant girl found in a Brazilian dump. And it had been there on that Sunday afternoon in Scanlan’s Lounge 56 years ago, watching Brendan’s long fingers folded together, almost in apology, as he confessed he was to marry Breda Cullinane.
“Dad loved his family,” Léann said, gripping the lectern at either side. “But he wasn’t a man for words. He always told Úna and me that we were to judge people by the things they do, not by what they say. And in everything Daddy did, he showed us that he loved us.”
It was a lie, Seán knew, or an exaggeration at least. Brendan, in his later years, treated emotions like cancers, to be hidden, suppressed, not even whispered about. He knew from a visit Léann made to the confessional some years ago that she doubted her father’s affection for her, or for any of them. He never embraced his children; he was never seen to embrace his wife. Two daughters were the only evidence that he ever had.
But Seán knew he was capable, or had been long ago. Before he joined the Missions and put continents between himself and Brendan, there were moments. Moments that he curated in his memories, keeping them vivid and fresh lest they become shadowed by doubt. There was Brendan in short trousers, heading up the lane to school, glancing back over his shoulder, no front teeth in his seven-year-old smile. And there was Brendan swimming, fishing for sprat in Boland’s stream with a jam jar, offering his catch up to Seán on the bank, the sun gleaming on his wet shoulders. There was Brendan at Seán’s mother’s burial when they were both 14, with his arm around him, keeping him from falling.
And on that Sunday night when they were almost 20, with the news of Brendan’s engagement still ringing in the silence that had followed its telling, their soles had scuffed the stones on the dark road home. Seán, with his head dropped, hadn’t seen Brendan turn, but he heard the scrape of his shoe, and felt their two chests collide and Brendan’s arms come violently tight around him. Seán’s fists had unfurled at his sides, all thoughts gone up like wisps to the night. But there was Brendan holding him. Holding him for a long time, too long for it not to be a sin. And with his nose crushed to his collarbone, he could feel the crying rise in Brendan’s chest in the moment before he let go and walked away.
Léann had finished the eulogy, Seán realised, looking up to find the lectern empty and the congregation’s heads bowed. Gathering himself, he stood and completed his duty.
The hearse took the body to Dublin to be cremated like Brendan had wanted, and Seán stayed in the chapel rather than watch it drive away. He’d leave that for Brendan’s children and for his brother. He removed his vestments and sat in the front pew to say a few decades of the rosary in private.
Seán looked up to see Léann standing next to him, nose red from the rub of tissues. He gave her a watery smile.
“Can I?” she asked, gesturing at the space next to him on the pew.
She sat with her small hands, her mother’s hands, folded in her lap and said nothing for a long moment. There was a change in her, she was no longer trembling, or if she was it had wound up even tighter. When her words came, they came all in a rush.
“I sat with him a lot the last two weeks. Me and Úna, we were taking turns, but she has the little lads, you know, so it was just me a lot of the time. Me and Daddy.” She stilled the nervous hop from her leg. “He was asleep mostly.”
“Aye, he was asleep when I was up on Tuesday to give him the last rites,” Seán said.
Brendan lost amongst the bedclothes, his forehead hot to the thumb, the smear of anointing oil left over on Seán’s thumb circled into his own palm rather than blotted with a cloth. There was so little of him left. Black hair, strong shoulders, wry smile. All gone. Just the fading embers remained beneath the laboured draw of breath which sounded so much like snoring. Dying so much like sleeping.
Seán swallowed. “He went gently in the end, didn’t he? Úna said he hadn’t woken all week.”
Léann’s hands tightened. “My mother was a good woman, Father. A kind woman.”
Seán blinked and stared at the single candle flickering on the altar, at the stained glass figure of Our Lord ascending to heaven. “I don’t doubt it. I didn’t know her very well I’m afraid. I already left for the seminary in Galway before your parents were married.”
“And you decided to come back when she was dead.”
He turned in the pew to look at her. Her eyes were trained on the statue of the sacred heart by the altar, her mouth hard, troubled.
“The diocese asked me to come home from the Missions when Father Keane retired,” he said.
He remembered the bishop’s phone call on the crackling line in Maputo and how he’d been so reluctant to come back home, for fear the stoking of old embers would be too much to bear. But he found friendship kindled instead of pain, instead of passion, and in the end he was grateful the phone call had come when it had. Before it was too late.
Léann turned to him at last, and her gaze flitted between his eyes, searching for something in them. “Úna was wrong,” she said.
“Úna was wrong about Daddy not having woken all week. He was awake when I was sitting with him on Tuesday in the morning, only I didn’t tell her.” She stared off into the mid-distance. Remembering. “He knew me. For the first time since Easter he didn’t mistake me for his mother. He held my hand.” She shook her head. “God, I don’t think he ever held my hand before.”
“I’m glad, Léann. I know how you fretted about how he conducted his relationship with you all. I hope it gave you comfort.”
“You gave me comfort,” she said quietly, almost to herself. “That time when you first came back and I went to you for confession. You helped me. You listened.”
Seán swallowed, and Léann thumbed tears from her eyes.
“He was all talk about you on Tuesday morning, you know?”
That cursed catch of the heart. “Oh?”
“He said to me… He told me how you were friends since you were both little boys, since you were babies being pushed in your prams by your mammies. He said about how much you helped him after Mammy died, how you’d phone him and visit him and take him out of himself. And-” Her eyes flew up to the statue again, its naked heart exposed, bleeding with compassion. “Oh, God help me.”
He curled the rosary beads deep into the cradle of his palm. “It’s all right, Léann. Whatever it is, it’s all right.”
She breathed slowly in. “He said that he didn’t want to go without having told you. He didn’t want to leave you in doubt. He said that he was never able to show you in his actions, and that he was sorry for that.” Tears drove down her cheeks, clearing paths through her make-up. “He wanted me to tell you, that he always loved you, the same as you loved him, and that he was sorry.”
She put her hand up. “I don’t want to know. Please. I just promised him I’d tell you, and I’ve done that now.” She got up, swiped the tears from her cheeks, and hurried back out of the chapel, her heels echoing in the emptiness.
Seán sat for a while, absently passing the rosary beads between his finger and thumb, and thought about Brendan until the lump in his throat went away.
Then he stood and went to the altar to put the candle out. He cupped the flame with his palm, and paused for a second before extinguishing it. A wisp of smoke spiralled from the ember, and Seán waited with it until it turned from red to black and the smoke stopped coming.
Michelle Coyne is a Galway-based writer. She was winner of the 2016 Short Fiction Journal Competition, and the 2015 Listowel Originals Short Story Award. She placed runner-up in the 2018 Penguin Ireland/Sunday Business Post Short Story Award, the 2016 Doolin Writers’ Weekend Short Story Competition, and was highly commended in the 2017 Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award. She has had stories published in the likes of Crannóg, wordlegs, Silver Apples, and Ropes.