The Host, a new short story by Deirdre Sullivan
A ghost story from the author’s debut collection I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay
When we were small, we would visit my great-aunt Nóra’s cottage in Spiddal, outside Galway. Nóra didn’t live right beside the village, but when we sent her postcards from our holidays in France the address said Spiddal above the Galway, Ireland. Nóra’s house smelled like turf, and dough, and old warm rock. I would run my hand across the bumpy whitewashed walls and feel the shape of the stone beneath. The roof had once been thatched, but it was slated now. It looked odd, a box with the wrong lid.
I spent time there one Sunday in the month, sitting on the floor while my mother made conversation and my brother tried to sneak as many spoons of sugar into his tea as possible. We would eat bread. Or Rich Tea biscuits, smeared with proper butter. Spread so thick a yellow layer of it took on the irregular shape of encroaching teeth. She was a baker, and she was plain-spoken. My mother often said those things together. As though flour made you frank, something in the mixing, pouring, kneading.
I found out what rape was inside her house, an article I read in Woman’s Way. I read another one about dolls that were possessed, and shoved all of mine right inside the wardrobe when we got home. You never know. Your doll can be a doll, but something happens, and all of a sudden you have to care for it, just like an infant. And it yells things at you, swears and bites and scratches. I would think of jagged plastic mouths upon my skin and shiver in the night.
Nóra was a houseproud woman and she kept a little garden round the back. That was for flowers; there were garden gnomes that stood around with little fishing poles beside the monkey puzzle tree. She didn’t have a pond. I used to wonder. Ponds were very cool to me back then. They were what girls in fairy stories had. I loved to watch things that weren’t human. I liked people, I did, but I was an awkward mix of precocious and strange. It didn’t go down well with other children. I found myself reading more and more, and trying less. It was a strategy that served me well. My mother hated it. She liked me to be loudly, proudly clever, and didn’t get why all the things she loved about me were resented.
I didn’t want to be the best or brightest. I just wanted a friend.
Some years later, my parents were going through a rough patch in their marriage. They shouted a lot, at me and at each other. Sometimes they would try to keep it down, and I would listen to the low hum of hate in their voices and think of all the words I’d heard them spit and wonder what would happen. I didn’t know that parents could split up. Before, I hadn’t thought to worry, really. Things were the way that they had always been. I did not know that a family could shape-shift, like a witch into a hare when the thirst for milk was on her in the night. I had been told about shape-shifting women. They never scared me. Hares were only rabbits, or very like them. I had touched a rabbit on the back in Turoe Pet Farm. I knew that they were nervous and so soft.
‘Prey animals are never fully calm,’ the man in the polo shirt who took us round had said. I looked at shining berry eyes and recognized the panic. I worried that my touch had made things worse. I didn’t want to hurt the little rabbit. But at the same time, I loved rubbing things.
My mother’s patience was very short, because she was in pain. After my brother. I didn’t know that then. I thought there was a badness in me. Something that the other children recognized as well. And I think back to that time, to being locked inside the hot press, nose pressed to the keyhole for the light. Counting to a hundred five times. Five more times again. My beating heart. I had a light beside me when I slept, but in the little room, the heat. The smell of warm, washed fabric. I think maybe because it was the daytime she didn’t realize the dark was there. I do not think she had the space to think about it, really. When I had a nightmare, wet the bed, she would curl my little frightened body into hers, would stroke my hair. Would wash the sheets and put them back on the bed for the next night.
I come from kind people. Dinner in my mouth. Shoes on my feet. They loved me. They were trying. My parents ended up going off on a plane for several weeks to solve their problems. No one else was free, so Nóra took me.
Nóra was old then, but still sprightly. She kept the house clean and was famously good with money. My mother’s sister was in hospital. My father’s family lived overseas. But she was glad to take me. She’d tried to raise my mother, years ago. Back then my grandmother got very sick – they thought that she would die – and Nóra offered to take the baby. She couldn’t have a child. This was back before her husband, my great-uncle Tom, got sick and died. Tom wore a flat cap and he was very tall. His skin looked soft and dry and when I felt his cheeks there wasn’t stubble like my grandad had. Just all smooth. He wore a lot of brown and green and grey, and his voice was low and soft. They loved each other. When he went, she missed him. It was pneumonia, sneaking in behind some other things. I thought back then that it was just a cold, and when I got one I was fascinated. There was an importance to the fever-heat, the stuffed-up nose. As well as missing school, this thing could kill me. Even then, the thought attracted me.
We would sometimes be given old TK bottles full of water from Nóra’s well, what my mother liked to call fíor-uisce, but I had never seen it. I liked the idea of a well. I pictured a storybook thing. A cylinder of stones and moss. A little wooden roof on top. A sprinkling of bluebirds, maybe squirrels.
The first night there, my mother dropped me off and I held her hand, like I was that bit younger than I was. The bed that Nóra gave me had a metal frame; it was from an old hospital she’d got it. It was very high, I had to climb. My mother gave Nóra the rubber sheet ‘just in case’. My cheeks flushed red. I didn’t like my body. It made me do things when I fell asleep. I felt betrayed.
Nóra grunted at me as I brushed my teeth. She didn’t say much. Raidió na Gaeltachta was playing in the background. I understood some words. Cogadh. Búama. Talamh. Gorta. Féar.
That night I stayed awake for a very long time. I tried to play a game inside my head. The kind I made up when I needed to go somewhere else. It was about a crocodile. Avoiding teeth. I counted near escapes like they were sheep, and watched my breath turn to fog. The night was cold, the range was off, the fire dying slowly. Flame by flame. The fog, it could be smoke. I’d be a dragon. But I was just a girl. Soft pink flesh.
The next morning, Nóra got up early. She didn’t turn the television on, and instead of cereal there was bread and porridge. I ate it because I was a little scared of her. She cleaned out the ash and told me where to dump it. I complied. There were some thick dark hairs growing out of her chin. I looked at them, and rubbed my skin and wondered.
After breakfast we went to the well. It was a deep long crack inside the earth. I looked in and could feel the urge to topple. I waited for a warning that never came. Nóra was looking deep inside it too, holding a little bucket on a rope. It felt like it belonged in olden times. The stone the crack carved open was bleached grey, the mottle on it patchy with lichen.
‘It’s not a real well,’ I said, disappointed.
She told me: ‘It’ll do.’ We filled two large containers. Brought them back. The taste of it was something very different. There was a dusty tang, a note of something else. Almost sweet. I wasn’t sure. I wondered what was down there.
Nóra had bought orange squash for me. She poured it onto a cup, filled it up with water. I said, ‘Thank you.’
Manners were important.
Nóra worked all day long: she tidied, and she weeded, and she mended. The radio was playing. And I watched, and helped her when she told me. I’d brought ten books.
No dolls. Of course no dolls. I drank my squash and watched her and felt frightened. I wondered where my parents were, at all. And why, if they wanted to be a family, they would leave me. Surely I was the most important part of their familiness, a visible example. There would be no me without the two of them together. I didn’t know what shape my life would take. I had friends with just a mother, none with just a father. They got new parents every now and then, step-people. I could feel the dread welling in me. I hated strangers. I read my books. I did my jobs for Nóra. Watched cartoons, if she left the house to go somewhere. I don’t think a child the age I was would be left alone now, with the world the way it is. But there I was, and no predator came. Sometimes I would smell tobacco above the turf and I would think of Uncle Tom. It never occurred to me that Nóra would be sad.
Nóra ate the dinner at one o’clock in the day and it was always spuds. I had been trained to clear my plate but my stomach was unused to eating early. I had breakfast. Then lunch, a snack when home from school and dinner with my parents before bed. I ate her spuds, but I did not clear my plate and I could feel the hum of her contempt at the waste of it. I thought of her, going hungry as a child, the way my mother’d told me that she had in bedtime stories. And I really tried. I knew that I was lucky. I felt sad.
There was a tap in the side of Nóra’s house. A brown tap that poked out of the wall. She would boil water for the tea, for the dinner, for the floor on the range in the kitchen or over the open fire in the sitting room. Whatever was free.
I remember the sound of water beating the bottom of the bucket and in my head it’s mixed with the gush of the boil, the beat of my heart. Something heavy and dangerous. Closing my eyes so tightly that the black turns almost red. Thinking about the blood inside my eyelids, things ebbing and flowing and making my body tick, grow strong and sturdy. Sturdy was a word that people used to describe me then. Sturdy body and a pretty face. I was bigger than the other children in my class. And they knew it and so did I. I don’t remember when I first began to feel a hulk, I do not know if it came all at once. Nóra liked the size of me. She would call me a fine fat thing. Or a strong little ox. I didn’t like it and I didn’t like the smell of flour and tobacco that was on her. I would eat her soda bread and sit beside her as she smoked and looked at the fire and listened to the radio and I would wish I had another book, another life and I’d be very tired.
I would go into the garden and pick out the weeds and put them into a basket to be burned. I would dust the shelf with all the little statues on it. Virgin Mary, Padre Pio. On the wall there was a picture of Jesus and his mother. A red light underneath it. Their chests were opened and their hearts exposed, it was a miracle. Sometimes on my little wooden stool I would reach my hand out to touch it. Nóra hated that. She always knew. I didn’t know how, but looking back it must have smeared the glass. Children’s hands are always slightly sticky. Even the clean ones have a sort of patina. Only with goo not gleam. I hesitate to hold their hands or touch their skin myself now.
Everyone had told me Nóra loved children. But she didn’t. She would have loved her own, I think. But she did not love me. I was a favour she was doing for my mother who she loved. I was an unformed hot thing ploughing through her tidy little house. I would walk to mass with her. I would walk to the shop and back again. My legs would get tired and I would whine, but she would never listen. Eventually I stopped. There was no point. I counted my steps. The beat of my legs against the gravel road. I looked at the flowers in the hedgerow. The pink ones were my favourite. Clover, herb Robert, heather. The odd foxglove. Those were the best kind. I loved foxes and was very interested in anything having to do with them.
After a while, when Nóra walked with me to the well, my feet didn’t hurt until the way back. I was getting stronger, used to labour. She made me hold the bucket and I was worried about what it would feel like when it filled up with water. That it would be heavy. That I would spill it and she would look at me like I was disappointing. She expected adult levels of competence from me. When she was growing up, children were little workers. You had them and they helped you on the farm. They didn’t have the crusts cut off their toasts. A potato in their fists and out into the field with them. She stopped at the stony patch of earth.
The bucket lowered down. I lay on my stomach, looked deep into it. All I could see was darkness. The smell of wet stone. Moss. It still wasn’t very impressive. There was no glamour to it. It wasn’t the kind of well that princesses sat at, combing their long blonde hair and singing songs. I did not have long blonde hair, or a good singing voice, but I identified very strongly as a princess. I hated boys, but that was just because I hadn’t met my prince yet. Clearly.
The water when it came was cold and heavy. My hands had a white line through the pink from the handle of the bucket when we returned. Nóra did not thank me for my help, I remembered. Though I had never thanked her for her hospitality. I was a child, I had always been cared for and considered it my due. In bed that night, I thought of the deep crack in the rock, the ash inside the fireplace softening to grey from orange-bright. I felt like Snow White here, tending to the cottage in the woods. I had carried a bucket, I had swept the floor, dusted the vases and the photographs. My legs and hands were tired. I missed my parents. It had been too long. We were settling into our own routine; I was becoming used to living in a version of the past. My Irish was improving. I could understand more of the radio now, the guttural rhythm of it. The ‘nuchuda nuchuda’ my father had called it once, for what it sounded like. It was turning into words. I did not know how.
The sheets were cold when I woke up, and I was shivering. I felt the creak of movement on the floor, but I was curled inside the sheets and quilt.
‘Nóra?’ I asked, and my voice felt small and loud at the same time.
There was no response.
Of course there wasn’t.
I had known that it would not be Nóra. I closed my eyes tight and felt my breath pierce my nostrils, lungs. Ice in my throat, so cold it could have burned me, could have numbed me. I felt something heavy and small clamber up and sit upon my bed. I did not move. I stayed the way I was. It stayed there for a long while, and when it left the cold took time to lift. I woke up early and I left the room. I sat on the small brown chair by the window, and stared out at the garden, at the little ornaments, the coloured petals of the different plants. Shop-bought ones – geraniums and busy Lizzies. I saw them and I did not look at them. I stayed there, at the window for an age, until Nóra was up and out and fed me.
I asked her when my parents would be back.
She said ‘Soon’, but did not give a timeline.
I wanted more but didn’t care to ask. I sat and thought about the cold weight that had visited me. Was it Uncle Tom? But it was so small, the small thing on the bed. The cold of it.
It came again that night, and this time I could hear a low gurgling breath emerge from it, a sweet milky smell I did not recognize for what it was until much later on. It stayed where it was, and I stayed where I was. Eyes closed, breath held, until I fell asleep or it left. I would think of the water in the crack, the rush of it, the blood inside my body. It felt slower than it should have felt. The first time that I ever cut my leg I was both surprised and delighted. I hadn’t realized that we could open up like envelopes, that there was so much to us. Blood excited me. It was so unexpected. Such a vivid shade under the pale.
The geraniums in Nóra’s garden were red, and their petals looked a little softer than they were. I peeled them off and rolled them into little balls when she wasn’t looking, and pulled off the buds from the fuchsia and popped them till the baby flower was open. It never looked right, but it was the sensation that drew me. The opening.
After several nights of little sleep, my skin began to smell not like my skin. It smelled of Nóra’s house and something else. A mixture of the night-thing and the water I was drinking every day.
One night, the weight on my bed was wiggling slightly, little pointed shifts, and I felt worried that it would skitter up upon me like a spider. It did not. Its movements were more definite than that. For some reason I felt a different emotion course through my blood, a quickening this time. I was angry. This was my bed in Nóra’s house. I kicked out my legs, trying to dislodge it, and my foot met fresh cold air. I did not know where I was. But it was not my room. I lifted up a corner of the sheet and saw the black of the country night. The stars like pinholes pricked into dark cloth. The moon like when the priest at mass broke the host in two. One of the bits. My family left mass straight after Communion, so I hadn’t realized that there was more to it, until I stayed with Nóra. I hadn’t made mine yet, and thought the people walking up and down looked silly, eating their little full-moon bits of bread.
I placed my foot on the grainy earth. I felt it pitted and almost warm against my feet. Like the skin of a lizard who has been lying in the sun, or the carapace of a turtle.
The night was cold, but not as cold as the bed was. When I poked my toe out, it was a relief. I wanted to be away from the thing in the bed. I did not want to look at it. To see it. I felt that if I saw it, I would know it was there, and it would somehow be able to hurt me more. My eyes would make it realer, more tangible and threatening. I may have been confusing ghosts with bears. I was a child. I hadn’t yet learned that, in certain circumstances, nothing helps.
I placed my foot on the grainy earth. I felt it pitted and almost warm against my feet. Like the skin of a lizard who has been lying in the sun, or the carapace of a turtle. Rough and bumpy. Firm. The stones felt decidedly alive that night, as though they were about to pulse, to beat. They did not do those things. I was not in fairyland, or a parallel universe or anything I had read about or seen in cartoons. I was in a place I knew. Beside the fissure deep inside the earth. Nóra’s well. I remember telling myself to hold on to the bed, because I did not want to slip into the crack. I thought of the news. Of signs I had seen in town of people who got lost. Their flat smiling faces, fresh from the printer. Ink smudging in the rain. I felt something brush against my leg. It was about the size of a cat but it had skin instead of fur. Soft, cold skin. It moved clumsily. It smelled a little like my mother did when I snuggled into her neck at night, and of something else as well. A bit like me, perhaps. I startled, then. I could not help myself.
Later she said that I had fallen in, but at the time, I remember thinking I was being swallowed. Large rocky pebble teeth, a limestone tongue, wet and porous. I can recall the fall but not the landing. I must have landed in the water, because I was wet through when she found me the following morning. I was lying on my back, beside the crack. My fingertips were raw and I had large black rings around my eyes. Nóra looked at me like I was a child and not a stranger.
‘Come here to me, a leana,’ she said, and gathered me up in her arms and carried me to the house. She was old but very strong; I could feel her muscles against my legs. I was crying and I worried that I was making too much noise. That tears and snot would stain her blouse and make her impatient with me. But it didn’t. When we were back indoors, she made me a cup of tea with three spoons of sugar in it and asked me to tell her what happened.
I didn’t know how to put it into words.
‘Did it visit you?’ she asked at last. ‘The little one?’
I nodded and sipped the sweet, hot tea. It burned the roof of my mouth and I could taste the little grains of sugar adhering to it.
‘It was cold in the bed,’ I told her.
‘It is, at that,’ she replied. ‘Did you fall in the well?’
‘I remember falling, but …’
‘Not the getting out?’
I nodded. I felt the tears well up in my eyes again. I had cried on the way home and again when she had brought me the tea. I wanted my mother and I felt very confused by what had happened. Even looking back on it now, I remember the sensations as though they happened to another child. I know that child is me, but another version. Another separate self.
‘What will happen now?’ I asked.
She looked at me for a long time, and pulled herself up from her chair to sit on the arm of mine.
‘When I was a child, like you are now, I was in the well for a time too. They found me, like I found you, beside it, wet and there was a terrible scare on me. I wouldn’t tell them and I couldn’t tell them what had happened. I put it from my head. I married Tom. But when I fell asleep, I knew there was a cold thing in my room. The cold small thing you saw. It was what the well took from me. There’s a hunger in that water. It doesn’t hurt you as you are now. But it takes something small from what you could be. Love or health or money. Some small important thing. It took my baby from me. I didn’t know until I wanted it and then I knew. I kept on trying, wanting. But there wasn’t a point to it. The well had swallowed up the future where I got to have a child.’
I looked at her.
‘I don’t know what it will take from you,’ she told me. ‘But you will have a visitor, and soon. And there will come a day when you know what that visitor is or could have been.’
And I did. And there was.
Nóra died, and left the cottage to a distant cousin who wouldn’t live there. The slates grew moss and the walls flaked like dry skin. The garden grew to wilderness, the gnomes covered by the green, the flowers choked by different types of weed. There were some foxgloves. I took you there the day after it happened. We had visited my uncle who lived nearby. And I had felt the soft brush of the presence against my shoulder, cheek. Like a lover’s touch. It was a gentle thing, what haunted me.
I showed you the garden, and the little door. The lace curtains disguised the inside, but I described the peach and brown walls, the Sacred Heart. It sounded, you told me, like your grandfather’s house in County Leitrim. I smiled at you. We went around the side and pulled the little blue gate, looked at the tap on the outside of the wall, turned it and watched it spit brown drops.
‘It would be a lovely place to do up,’ you said. ‘If you had money, you could really make a home here.’
I thought of Nóra’s hands kneading bread. Slapping dough on flour, the yellowing skin and the thick veins. How hard she worked. You never know how long the fall will be. Until you reach the bottom. My parents stayed together for a time, until they didn’t. It changed a lot for me, and very little. I was well taken care of. I never told them about the well. I had no words to share the strange, dark thing. An adult thing, to happen to a child.
You took a cutting of a rose bush in bloom. You tried to grow it, but of course it died.
There was a sweep through the garden, and you gripped my elbow, turned me back to look. Something was moving slowly through the grass. It could have been a fox, a neighbour’s cat. You love animals and tried to stay and watch it. But the wind was cold and I walked back to the car. I waited for you to join me and I thought of the awkward sweep of bush. The soft, cold skin. What even is a memory, in fairness? A little tale, a dead thing living on. You hopped in beside me, and I started the ignition before you’d even clicked the seat belt in. We drove back past my uncle’s, and past the ocean, out the road towards the motorway.
And every tree that moved a little hand.
This story is from Deirdre Sullivan’s collection I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay (Banshee Press, May 2021)