RESIDENT, ORANMORE NURSING HOME PORTSTEWART, NORTHERN IRELAND
8 SEPTEMBER 1968
Anna. You're the spit of your mother standing there - Florence, God rest her - and you have the light of her sharp wit in your eyes. Give me your hand till I see you better. There's not much change on you, apart from what we both know. Ah, you needn't look at me like that. Sure, why else would you be here? I know by the face of you there's a baby on the way, even if you're not showing. It's an odd thing, isn't it, the way the past has no interest for the young till it comes galloping up on the back of the future. And then they can't get enough of it, peering after it, asking it where it's been. I suppose that's always been the way. I suppose we're none of us interested in the stories of our people till we have children of our own to tell them to.
You couldn't have known it, but you've come on my birthday, of all days. At least, it's the day I call my birthday. When I was born, Daddy went to register the birth but not having had much schooling he wasn't sure of the date. If it's not the exact day, it's not far off it. One thing's certain: within the week I'll be ninety-two. If you stay for your tea you'll get a bit of cake.
Sit down, Anna. Can you smell that? Gravel, after the rain. You must have carried it in on your feet. Metallic tasting, like the shock you get when your tongue hits the tine on a tarnished fork. I'll never forget that smell, that taste in my mouth: it's as strong as the day, nearly eighty years ago, that I was made to lie down on the avenue with my nose buried in it. Your grandmother was a hard woman, Anna, brittle as yellowman and fond of her "apt punishments." This was to teach me to keep my nose out of the affairs of my betters, she said, and in the dirt where it belonged. Oh, don't look so shocked; I survived that and many another thing. And, hard as she was, I think I understand her better now. I know something now about what it is to feel trapped and though it's a strange thing to say, with all the money they had, I think that must have been how she felt.
She suffered for what she did. I bear no grudges against the dead. There's none of us blameless.
She was such a presence about the place, there's days I half expect to meet her on the landing, standing up, straight as a willow, her thick auburn hair tucked up tight, her face like a mask, never a smile on it. She went about her business indoors like a wound-up toy, everything to be done on time and any exception put her into bad humor. If the gas wasn't lit or the table wasn't set or there was a spot on a napkin, you'd feel the beam of her eyes on you like a grip on your arm. She was like a dark sun and all the rest of us - the servants and the weans and the master - all turned round her like planets, trying not to annoy or upset her in any way, trying to keep the peace.
I'll never forget the first time I saw her in evening dress. I wasn't long started at the castle, and I came up the back stairs to dampen down the fire in the drawing room because Peig, the housekeeper, said the master and mistress were going out to a ball. When I came back out, she was standing at the top of the main staircase, the master at the foot, and she was in a black satin cape, all covered in black cock feathers, tipped at the ends with green. She looked like a raven about to take flight, half bird, half woman, like she'd sprouted wings from her shoulders. I couldn't see where her arms ended and the cape began. It was stunning and scaresome all at the same time. I've never been so frightened of a person in my life! She stood at the top of the stairs, her arms spread out, waiting for the master's opinion, and when she peered down and saw me she looked the way a hawk might look at a sparrow. I wouldn't have been one bit surprised if she'd raised herself up on her toes and flapped those great feathery black wings and taken off over the banister, swooped down through the house and picked me up in her beak. I went into the kitchen shivering, and Peig looked at me and asked me what was wrong. I told her I thought the mistress might eat me, and she laughed till her eyes streamed and she had to wipe them with her apron. When she finally recovered she said there was that many animals had gone into the outfitting of her that I could be forgiven for wondering if there was any portion left of the mistress that was human!
Excerpted from The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill. Copyright © 2011 by Bernie McGill. Excerpted by permission of Free Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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