“The Biggest Bluest Eyes” by Mary Healy

The Biggest Bluest Eyes by Mary Healy                                                                         

I both resented and admired that wild look in those creatures’ eyes. Resented their freedom of spirit, admired them because they had such natural dignity. It was a look past instinct, past intuition, as if they were tuned in to the sound of some ancient reality that only they could hear. I felt the shadow of that existence in the wide span of the hawk’s wing, in the shrill scream of their primeval cry.

 

There is some strange satisfaction about controlling the life of another, something about power. I understood this  when I saw it in the men who visited our site, officials who walked away diminished in the presence of a people who have never been controlled, a people who are proud and defiant. Yet there is cold fear in me that my generation will be the last of an indigenous people. A people slaughtered, not in honest blood but by the genocide of silent suffocation in sheaves of dusty paper.

 

My grand mother had that same wild look in her eye, a look I saw more often near the end of her life, lying in that bed where they nursed her, patronised her.

 

“You have to get up now Maggie”, they said, their tone wheedling at first,

then commanding. My grandmother had been a queen in her day, the queen of a wild people. But all they saw was an old woman waiting to die. As they spoke to her, her eyes were on the sky outside, her ears tuned to the wind. Her heart beating in time to a quiet powerful rhythm that only she could hear.

 

“Is the May flower out yet alannah?”

 

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She asked, the day before she died,

“I can go so, I’ve waited long enough”

 

And she slipped away, closed her eyes and left this world. Just as the hawk did, he too refused to be contained in the small cage I made for him, when I failed to recognise this free spirit of the sky. I still bear the guilt of that moment to this day.

 

 

I liked where we lived, liked it when trucks pulled up to the warehouses and the silver doors pleated up, the ground vibrated as they drove into the dark yawning space. Sometimes the lorry drivers would blow their horns when we yanked our elbows to them, other times they drove past,  and the smell of diesel would sweep over us, a warm oily dragons breath, released by glass enclosed gargoyles. In the evenings we had the wide yard free for play. When we heard a van coming we hid and watched the uniformed men. They seemed to think that the railings kept us out. But we always knew how to get in.

 

On the other side of our house was Noman’s land. I never saw Noman but I pictured him like the land he owned, wild eyed with straggly hair, a wind swept beard and gap toothed. There was a large house with boarded up windows surrounded by a copse of tall weary trees. Even on the coldest winter days there was a warm quietness about that place, as if a fire still glowed in one of the empty fireplaces. Someone had pulled out the surrounds so they looked like one of Uncle Mick’s eyes after a fight, a black eye, sadly watching us come and go. Before they boarded it up, we played in the

 

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sunny front rooms where the windows were open to the floor. The rooms had high ceilings and worn floorboards where people had once danced .We knew we could escape from there at any moment, scattering like startled birds at the slightest sound. Sometimes we crept down stairs to the kitchen where a heavy stove sat glowering in the centre of a flag floor. We didn’t spend much time there for we had a fear of being locked in. My grandmother said that once she heard the sound of a piano playing, tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, an eerie sound in a house that had no piano.

 

Now and again dusty trucks would roar onto Noman’s land, the trailers would rear up into the sky like a horse on its hind legs, leaving small sliding mountains of rubble, wire and bricks. Some times there were bits of plaster backed with flowery wall paper, bits of bedrooms and parlours from places where people no longer lived. I brought a pretty piece home to my grandmother one time. She told me, as a child, her bedroom ceiling was canvas and the wide open sky wallpapered where she slept, her parlour music was the call of wild birds backed by the patter of rain or the keening of the wind.

In summer time she grew restless, there was a distant look in her eye, she longed to be back on the road again but in winter she was glad of the shelter.

There was a gang of us led by our cousins. From them we learned to keep away from the nearby graveyard. At night when dark was settling the grave stones became a sombre city of silent people who gathered in wait for dawn. Some stones were tall, others small, some had angel’s wings towering above sad faced figures; these were

 

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the ones that featured most in my dreams. These were the ones that tapped with death darkened nails on my window on cold wintry nights. The wind carried their voices,

crying words I did not want to hear. My grandmother heard them too, for she blessed herself with a frightened look in her eye when she heard them.

“Stay away from that place,” she said. “Time enough we’ll all be there.”

 

My father and uncles kept horses on Noman’s land.  This was how they spent their days; this was what they talked about at night when they gathered on the patchy green area in front of the houses. Over time there was word of a motorway being built. Early one morning we woke to the vibrations and roar of machines. We watched men open the doors and jump to the ground; they took off their hats and beat the dust from their overalls. They were big men who had broad faces and fair hair. Even their skin seemed to be a different shade of white. One of them was called Kris and he was fromPoland. Sometimes Kris let me sit up in the cab with him and I rode the world in wonder. He could move mountains of earth in minutes. Revving the engine up, he would ease the loader into the open side of a hill, the clay split and became sand, the tightly knit roots of grass ripped and shredded into straw. Kris had a photograph in his cab of a little boy with hair the colour of ripened corn; he had the biggest bluest eyes I have ever seen. I pointed to the photograph one day and saw the smile fall from Kris’s eyes, he put his hand on his heart and I knew not to ask him any more.

 

 

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Around this time the mare was on the point of foaling. She was beautiful with a shiny conker brown coat and gentle eyes.  One morning there was the stillness of Sunday in

the air, and I could feel the excitement of something different. Following the sound of voices I found the mare standing over a newborn foal. On hearing my approach the men quietened my whoops of excitement.

 

“Shhh, don’t be making noise; let them get used to each other.”

For the next few days I hardly ate, I watched the mother and foal together, saw her nuzzle him and whinny at his awkward vulnerability. He didn’t seem to know how to manage himself, didn’t seem to know how to fold his legs so he could lie down. His coat was the same colour as his mothers but dappled with white piebald spots like summer meadow flowers. His eyes were like melted chocolate and the day he put his velvety muzzle into my hand I felt my heart clutch with warmth. I named him Pi and I think Pi thought me another foal. A slow ungainly brother that soon learned to gallop past with elegant playful ease, but I knew from the way he ran to me in welcome, the way he flicked his tail and nuzzled me possessively that I was his, as much as he was mine.

One day my father handed me a red head collar, even Pi seemed to like it though he baulked and skittered when I first eased it over his ears.

Soon a rope was attached to the collar and Pi took this in good humour too, allowing me to lead him. Sometimes Kris stood and talked to me as we came and went to the ponies.

“You have new friend,” he said, “he is very lovely.”

I nodded my heart so full I couldn’t speak.

 

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Around that time Kris went back toPoland. Another man was driving his machine and one windy day I found Kris’ photograph fluttering near the bushes. I picked it up, put the little blue eyed boy in my pocket and kept it for him. When he came back he was different. Someone said his son was sick. I found he didn’t talk to me anymore; he always looked away when I was near him and I never saw him smile again.

 

One day another work crew arrived on Noman’s land; they had rolls of wire and bales of tall stakes that pierced the carpet of straggly grass. These men wore hard hats and they looked out from under the brim with dark suspicious eyes. At night they locked everything into galvanised sheds with big locks. I heard my uncles laugh and one morning the men arrived to find the shed doors open, all the tools were neatly stacked where they had left them, but they still seemed annoyed. We were warned to stay away from the field that day but we didn’t need the warning, we saw it on the men’s faces. A few days’ later men in yellow coats arrived and they spoke to my father and uncles, there was a lot of noise and shouting.

 

“They’re going to take the horses to the pound.”

 

I didn’t understand what the pound was but I understood they wanted to take Pi.

 

“What is the pound?” I asked, “where is the pound?  Can we go see them there? Will they have grass?

Why can’t we leave them here?

 

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Nobody answered; nobody said a word. My father who had towered tall and strong above me suddenly seemed small and sad. We watched in stunned silence as they loaded the horses and ponies. My mother held me tightly by the hand. The horses

rolled their eyes, nostrils flared wide and tails held high, fearful of the men in yellow coats who led them.

 

I watched as one man caught Pi’s mother, he led her easily up the ramp; Pi followed her closely, scrambling and stumbling. The mare looked over at us, one last look before the trailer sides swallowed her. As the doors slammed shut  my father jumped up followed by the other men and headed towards the van, I ran as fast as I could after them and hopped in the back door before they realised I was with them. We followed the lorries for some time, keeping a distance. Eventually they slowed and we watched them drive through big steel gates. Beside the gates there was a small office where a man in uniform watched us drive by. Later we skirted the compound, climbed over low roofs until we found the horses, they were standing in a yard behind heavy gates and surrounded by high walls.

 

“We’ll never get them out of there, it’s all solid, and that front gate is manned day and night. There’s nothing we can do”.

 

 

Nearby was a series of buildings with the words, Slaughter house, Boning hall, Packing shed. There was a pile of hay in a rack near the corner of the yard, but the

The Biggest Bluest Eyes                                                                            

animals stood close together in a small uneasy cluster. Their eyes were bleak and fearful. Even Pi was quiet, standing very near his mother. When he saw me he whinnied softly, pitifully. It was the saddest sound I ever heard.

“Why don’t they eat,” I asked

“Because they smell the blood.”

And then I smelled it too, a thick iron smell that was unlike anything else. Yet it was a smell I knew and associated with trouble in the night, with shouting and danger and I knew Pi’s fear.

 

On the journey home, the men were silent. I ran out to the field Pi and his mother had grazed, his little red head collar hung on a bush nearby.  I sat in the ditch and cried. I was hegging quietly when I became aware of someone beside me. Looking up I saw Kris, his eyes were teary and his face crumpled.

 

“No cry, no cry” he said, “little boy not be sad.”

 

He sat down beside me and tears rolled down his face. I fell silent in amazement, I didn’t realise that he loved the ponies as much as I did. And I was shocked to see this grown man cry, his shoulders heaved and his back shook as he sobbed. I remembered the photograph I had rescued and still had in my pocket. I handed it to him and watched his face grow dark with pain. Eventually he stood up, wiped his face with the back of his hand and shambled off. It was the last time I saw Kris, and it was only later that I discovered his son had died. Somehow even then I understood that

 

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when you lose someone they will still stay in your heart if you can still picture them in your mind.

 

The night before the horses were to be slaughtered, a great hole was made in the compound wall and they vanished, there was no sign of the horses, no sign of anything, just the enclosure wall tumbled like Lego bricks.

 

I was told my pony and the mares were safe. They were out in the country where they had meadows of daisies to graze and a river with clean water. There was no traffic, no houses, just tall trees to shade them on warm days. It was horse heaven. I slept easy that night, dreamt about my piebald beauty with his mane blowing in the wind. Overhead a hawk flew high and free in the breeze.  In my dreams a little boy ran alongside the ponies, smiling and laughing. He had hair the colour of ripened corn and the biggest bluest eyes.

Biographical Note:

I am grateful to be selected among the prize winners and honourably mentioned and published in the following competitions and publications:

Over the Edge Writer of the Year 2010,

Penguin Eason/RTE Guide Competition 2010,

Limerick Writers Centre December 2010

Creative Writing Inc 2010

Flash 500 Fiction 2010

Fish Writing Competition 2011

Original Sins New Irish Writers .Published 2011

From The Well, Cork County Council Anthology 2011. Published in ‘Winning Story and Other Short Stories’.  

Over The Edge New Writer of the Year. August 2011 short listed

Irish Writers Centre Lonely Voice Competition Sept winner 2011

Alleviate Anthology 2012


 

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