‘Oculoterra’ by Aideen Henry

Kieran’s home is full of traps, things forgotten, like homework and brushing teeth.  Having the wrong answers to questions, like ‘Do you think I’m an idiot’ or ‘You don’t really hate your sister, do you?’  All the good stuff has hurdles he must clear first.  ‘Four more weeks of not cursing and Dr. Octavius will be mine’.  Kieran sticks out his tongue, pulls his lower lids down so they look like his grandfather’s bloodshot droopy eyes and in a gravelly voice says

‘You’re a grand little fecker.  Aren’t you?’

He flushes the toilet and lets the tap run as if he is washing his hands.  He sniffs his fingers.  He needs longer thumbnails for opening knots on his fishing line.   Then he pulls the navy towel off the wooden rail and wraps it, scarf-like, around his head.  He puts on his mother’s no-time-for-any-of-your-crap face, squashes his nose against the mirror and screws up his eyes to make them bulge like two black golf balls.

‘You’re just like your father, you little bleep, selfish to the bleep, and all I bleeping do for you.’

Kieran’s real home is a faintly visible satellite of the moon, best seen on a cold, clear November evening.  Oculoterra is a freckle seen in the white of the eye of the dying moon. There, his mother is a warm bath that never overheats or cools.  He steps in and out of her whenever he pleases.  He bathes in her while he sleeps.  And even when he leaves, he can still smell her like perfume on the inside of his wrists.  His father is a talking goalpost.  When Kieran scores, his father cheers and tells him how many miles per hour each ball travels and the odds ratio of Gawky Lydon saving it. Kieran’s sister is the jittery feeling he gets when jumping off the top diving board or catching his first mackerel on his new three line hook, on a wet summer’s evening.

He opens the bathroom door, switches off the fan and lip-syncs his mother as she shouts,

‘Did you flush and switch off the fan?’

Without answering he runs out the door, the tips of his new football boots gripping the lino.  The door slams behind him, shaking in its frame.  He slows down as he gets to the green.  Jonathan, a fair-haired boy with a cowlick and deceptive brown eyes, is driving the go-kart his father made him, with PJ standing on the back.  PJ is taller with buckteeth, a slouch and matchstick legs.  Kieran stands on the kerb, chewing the cuff of his sleeve staring after them and then at his boots.  They spin the go-kart in front of him with a handbrake turn causing him to jump back.

‘What’s with the gammy boots, Kieran?’ Jonathan says.

‘Want to play football?’

‘Well, PJ’, says Jonathan, imitating his voice, ‘Are we playing football with this retard?’

PJ giggles, his lips uncovering a gummy smile and they speed away, Jonathan shouting back,

‘Try the Brazilians, gay boy, they’re always up for it.’

Kieran watches them leave the estate and joins Romero and Juan on the next green, relieved they don’t speak English, just football.

Mornings in Oculoterra are spent building go-karts from the architect’s plans. Each go-kart has a detachable throne with a self-inflating balloon to the rear and pedal steering on the front wheels.  He leads the trail of go-karts down the steep burnt-orange tartan track that runs into the purple helium sea.  The trick is to pull the chord just before the front wheels hit the gassy water.  The go-kart launches into the air suspended from its balloon; he spends hours gliding and tumbling, rolling and sliding in the thick air over Oculo Bay.  His balloon is a playful puppy.  It refuels by diving into the bubbling bay then blows him out of the water like whale spray.  He takes turns to lead and be led in the dance with the balloon.  When he tires the balloon swings around and scoops him up like a giant palm with his hands and feet spilling over the sides.  It carries him back to his cushioned pod in the palace where he naps.  When he awakens a book opens and reads itself to him while his eye drifts out the window to look at clouds of taffeta.  There are no rules so he can pick his nose, curse or hold his willy whenever he pleases.  There is no school so no need to plot skirmishes and counter attacks against Patrick O’Toole in the yard.  No bruised shins or scratchy lice either.

Kieran sleeps in the box room.  If he lies on his bed with his arms overhead, his fingertips can touch one wall while his toes touch the other.  His wardrobe door is covered with pictures of Chelsea footballers. Stuck to his mirror are pictures of Transformers, toy warriors that can be twisted to make cars or tanks.  By his bedside is a box of all his scary plastic characters from wrestling, Batman and Harry Potter.  He just needs Dr. Octavius to complete the set.  His mother has called him twice for school but he has a few more minutes before the high-pitched screech is due, the one she uses when she really means it.  Just as his face finds a fresh cool part of the pillow to rest on, she surprises him by sitting on his bed.  She never comes into his room.  She looks around just the way he does when he is in the aquarium, watching turtles stroke the water.  Something’s up.  She’s not screaming.  She’s not in her there-could–be-ten-mammies-in-there-dressing-gown.  She’s wearing her very-important perfume and using her serious conversation voice.  This is trouble.  What’s he done?  Fuck.  She starts stroking his face.  It must be bad.  She starts talking in grown-up duck and dive.  She is staring at the duvet, her left eye blinking while her right stays open, looking glazed.  He looks over her shoulder at Ronaldinho, pretending to be listening, waiting it out.  Bet he wouldn’t talk and talk like this.  Just plays, speaks with his feet.  Kieran waits for the meaning.  It usually follows after a pause, a deep breath and a ‘So…’.  Here it is.

‘So, we have decided that it’s best for everyone if your father moves out.’

‘He’s Dad.  Don’t call him “your father”.  Why?  What happened anyway?’

‘But I’ve just explained, dear.’

She has that patient look she gives the really thick kids she teaches in her remedial class.  Kieran used to sit into her ‘special’ class when he finished school an hour earlier in babies.  Why do they call them special anyway?  They’re just thick or not listening.  Then he gets a terrible thought and starts crying.

‘Ah, now, now. What is it?’ she rubs his cheek.

‘Does this mean he’ll dress like a girl and we’ll never see him?’

‘Now why would you say that?’

‘My friends will think my dad is a gay.’

The moment of sweet sadness when his mother holds both his cheeks in the palms of her hands and looks deep into his eyes is broken by Sly Susan, his sister, slithering at the door.

‘He’s getting Tootsie crossed with Mary Poppins.  Poor kid.’

His mother laughs, and then checks herself when she sees his face.

‘Ah, no, Kieran.  You’ll see your father every weekend, no problem.’

‘So how long is it for anyway?’

His mother and Sly exchange looks.

‘It’s for the moment.  For the time being.’

Sly moves into his room, pulls her hair back, ties it in a ponytail, stands in side view to the mirror admiring her new breasts and high curved bum.

‘Out.’ Kieran roars, ‘Out of my room.  Now!  I want to get dressed.’

‘Well, that’s good to hear.’ says his mother, standing up.  Sly smirks as she slopes out.

In the evenings, after marbles, he goes hunting or fishing. Hunting is great because it is real.  He can choose whom he will hunt and they always show up.  He carries one spear while two Irish wolfhounds, Fite and Fuaite, carry his spares.  The forest is a breathable green liquid he swims through, undulating his body, head first, with his spear at his side.  The trees are black seaweed with eel-like leaves and branches moving like hair under water.  When he spots his prey he shouts ‘halt’; they freeze.  Then he shoots them.  The spears pinch as they go through, like needles through silk, then return to his hand until his prey says the magic words;

‘Kieran, you are king.  I am your humble servant.’

Sometimes they are so thick he has to give them hints.  The boys are quicker than the girls.  The girls scream at him not to touch them.  As if.  Once they have said the magic words their pinprick wounds re-seal, they unfreeze and he can go on hunting.  Sometimes he hunts the same person all evening.  Other times he goes fishing.

This broken-home craic is pretty good; his father does stuff with him on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, like going to football matches and teaching him how to play pool.  And his mother rubs him on the head more and on the backs of his shoulders.  Her hugs last longer too.  Sly has wangled an iPod out of Dad.  She just has to sulk and say she’s having a bad time at school, Dad’s chin puckers and his eyes look up over their heads to the place where the family was before it broke up.  Kieran doesn’t care as long as Dr. Octavius is on the way.

On Saturday afternoon Kieran stands as usual outside HMV.  He looks at the beams of white light shining skywards from glass discs in the ground and wonders are they lights coming from an underworld where all is bright and cheerful and where scatters of light escape through its sieve-like roof, into the floor of his grey day.  Dad’s late.  He’s smiling too much, leering and slurry too.  He smells bad as he presses his lips to Kieran’s forehead.  Kieran ducks away from him and checks that no one has seen.  They go to the big screen in Fitzers and Kieran sips a coke.  Dad is scary.  He stares at the wall below the screen and doesn’t seem to hear Kieran when he tells him he has to go early.  Kieran runs home, not stopping as he usually does to peg stones at the upturned Tesco trolley in the canal.  There’s a blue BMW in the driveway with a baby seat in the back.

In the kitchen there’s a big thing sitting in Dad’s seat.  It’s got a wide face, too many teeth, sticky short hair and shiny tanned skin.  It’s got its hairy paw on his mother’s bottom as she stands beside it.  His mother jumps when Kieran comes in.  The thing starts talking,


Spit flies out of its mouth, landing on Dad’s armrest. Kieran watches a ladybird walk over the back of his father’s chair.  After the thing’s paw has mussed his hair, the same paw that was on his mother’s bottom, it sits back in Dad’s chair again, its mouth still making lots of noises.  Kieran’s mother makes tea, glancing from Kieran to the thing and back, pretend-smiling.  Kieran escapes with a basket of wet laundry out to the clothesline.  He grabs his sister’s iPod from the key hook on the way out and puts in the earphones.

He stretches the heavy cotton towels taut, overlapping two corners under each peg, while looking in the kitchen window.  His mother is jumpier, all girly.  He can see Sly in her.  Her clothes are all different.  Kieran gives every briary and pair of sockwoks a peg each.  He stretches two cardrigeens over three pegs.  His underpunders look lonely so he puts two to a peg.  From behind the sheets he spies on the thing again.  It’s wide, not tall.  It has tree trunk legs and swirls of hair on its bare arms with hair tufts creeping out over the top of its shirt collar.  Maybe it has goat’s legs.  Kieran wonders what its roar is like.

His mother looks nervous as it paws her again then it takes its covering from the coat hook, sticks its tongue in his mother’s mouth and leaves.  Kieran stands over the empty basket, his two hands on the washing line holding it below eye level.  His Adam’s apple moves up and down behind the sheets.  He has nothing to swallow.  He looks up at the grey sky.  Cloud covers it like a crochet skullcap; fluffy holes of blue visible through it here and there.  A plangent love song plays in the middle of his head, resounding in the soft flesh of his chest and stomach.  ‘Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.’ he says.  He kicks the empty wash basket against the wall, runs inside and upstairs to his bedroom locking the door.  He pulls out the earphones and throws himself face down on his bed.

The best place to fish is Lake Gratitude.  He uses a line with a hook the size of a clenched fist.  There are no fish in the lake but he always catches something.  He stands astride the limestone shelf and whips his rod until his line shimmies across to the centre of the lake where it drops deep, making the sound of a coin landing in an empty tin can.  He begins to reel it in.  Sometimes objects like a leather handbag or a white car surface, other times a fur hat or a velvet couch.  Once the object surfaces it looks around for him and rushes to tell its story.

‘I belonged to a woman once who…’

Every story is different but they all have the same pattern; something awful has happened to each of the owners.  Once the story is told the object submerges again.  Kieran can ask it two questions before it disappears.  He always asks the same two.  What football team did the owner support and did she or he have beautiful hands.  Once the object has answered it disappears completely.  Then the sound of a clacking sewing machine fills the air.

Biographical Note:
I was shortlisted for the Hennessy XO Literary Awards, Emerging Poetry Section. My first collection of poetry, Hands Moving at the Speed of Falling Snow, was published by Salmon Poetry. I am currently working on a second collection of poetry, due for publication in Spring 2013. A number of my poems have been published previously in literary journals and magazines including, West47, Crannóg, Stony Thursday Book, Revival, The Shop, Ropes, Southword Cúirt Annual, The Sunday Tribune, Ourobouros Review, Ulla’s Nib, Molloch. I am currently completing a first collection of short stories. My Short Story, Saibh, was shortlisted for the Francis McManus Award in May 2011 and read on RTE Radio 1 in June 11.

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1 Comment

  1. Pearse Murray

     /  March 21, 2012

    Once I started to read this story I knew I was in for a treat-a most imaginative, well paced story and set “a hard act to follow” standard for the rest!. It is is so good a story that the author has the obligation to give us more-the price of this creative act.
    Thank You!


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