Winter in Arcadia
by Katy Finnegan
The bare trees split the cold, grey January sky like a broken pane of glass. I was walking down Feather’s Hill when I saw the mist drifting in the valley below, slow moving and eerie. Strange, I thought, furrowing my brow beneath my knitted woollen hat as I took in the view. It wasn’t until Dara, the wolfhound, began sniffing the air that I realized it wasn’t mist I was seeing – it was smoke.
Then, I began to run.
I had left the house in a huff that morning, abandoning the task I had set myself. Although it was still early in the year, I had been trying to do some spring cleaning. The place had had a sad aspect about it for the last few months – months spent trekking back and forth to the hospital, eating thrown-together meals at the kitchen sink – as all the while dust piled up on things we never noticed, things only she cared about or touched. We had been in a liminal space then, a kind of purgatory, but I couldn’t bear the hollow feeling in the house any longer.
I had decided to do it this morning when he was out, knowing he wouldn’t like it, and although I felt bad, it had become clear that the burden of making executive decisions for the family – or what was left of it – had fallen on me. I stepped into the shadowy musk of their room, drawing the curtains and surveying my task. The bedroom was messy, magazines and dirty socks littering the floor, a half-drunk cup of tea with a filmy surface on the dresser. I focused on these items, pretending I was cleaning the room for her, imagining how happy she would be that I’d gotten rid of so much clutter. With trepidation I tore one black bag off the roll, the plastic cracking cruelly as I shook it out into shape. Into this bag I put her socks, her tights, her underwear – her most intimate things rendered into a shapeless mass of beige, black and white fabric, tumbling into the bag as if into an abyss. To examine any of it too closely would be an indignity, and god knows she had suffered enough of that.
Next I moved to the closet, opening it up to see the left side stuffed with an impossible amount of jackets, dresses, and trousers, while on the right side my father’s clothes hung spaced out, lonely – more empty somehow than hers. I ran my hand over the fabric of these clothes, all of them, moving from his tweed and polyester to her silk and even occasional velvet. My hand alighted on something; her grey cashmere coat, soft as a freshly slaughtered lamb. I eased it off the hanger and put it on, looking at my reflection in the long mirror on the opposite wall. If I squinted my eyes, I could kid myself I looked like her, my skin pale, my hair dark and cropped in a bob as hers had been before she lost it.
‘What are you doing?’
I swivelled around and saw my father in the doorway, his eyes cold.
‘I was going through mam’s things,’ I said, taking off the coat and laying it on the bed. He walked in, fingering the rustling plastic bin bags on the floor.
‘Throwing away her things. Already.’ His voice was thin, his mouth twisted into a bitter expression.
‘Dad,’ I said, trying to keep my voice gentle, even as inwardly I blistered with rage at his accusatory tone. ‘We have to do it at some stage. We can’t just leave all this stuff hanging here as if-‘
‘As if what? Don’t you think I know she’s gone?’ He sounded angry now, his voice harsh and somehow discordant with the surroundings.
‘I know-‘ I sputtered, furious tears pricking my eyes.
‘We know now she’s not coming back, thanks to you.’
His words hung in the air, violent, irretrievable. I didn’t wait to see if he regretted them, I simply left.
Dara was grew excited as we made our way down the hill, panting and looking back at me as she ambled on ahead. My feet squelched on the moss, and although I tried to move quickly, I had to be careful not to slip on the steep path, which was slick with rain from the night before. Hedgerows rose on either side of me, draped with briars like tangled nests of witches’ hair, and my heart began to beat faster, sick with a fear I couldn’t name.
I had walked this path too many times to count, and since I moved back to the valley I had taken to walking it again, the dog striding along beside me with energy and delight pent up since my mother had gotten sick. It always felt refreshing to come up here where the landscape never changed; sometimes I even forgot that I was 23, forgot the circumstances of my being here again, and idly imagined that when I returned home things would be just as they were when I was younger. Of course, they weren’t. Returning is a strange thing.
My father and I had never gotten along particularly well, and my teenage years were a reel of shouting matches, slamming doors, tense and silent dinners. My mother had always been the mediating influence between us, Seamus, don’t raise your voice, you’ll only make things worse – and Roisín, you’ll get nowhere with that attitude. Even when she wasn’t weighing in directly, her presence was calming, the household held in balance by the sound of sweeping the floor, or talking on the phone, or humming to herself as she gazed out the window, a tranquil expression on her face.
After I left home for college relations between myself and my father improved, but the house I returned to when my mother became ill was at once the same and terribly, horribly different. We still had petty arguments – whether she would want the blue cardigan or the yellow, who would spend the night at the hospital tonight – while that unsaid thing slept between us, fuelling our frustration and despair. If he wept, I never saw it, and if I did I did my utmost to hide it from him. Somehow I think we both felt that that would produce an intimacy that would unite us against her, prevent us from being the spiky three-pronged family we had always been; and in effect be an admission that there was a possibility of us being left alone. Without her.
I walked on, faster and faster as I reached the bottom of the hill and made for home. His words were still searing in my eardrums, we know now she’s not coming back, thanks to you, and my feet pounded the tarmac with the force of a wild anger, with adrenalin in my veins and a nightmarish slant to my vision. I thought then, as I had at that other, awful juncture, this moment couldn’t possibly be real.
We were sitting in the corridor, the doctor’s words reverberating like white noise. He had left us with a sympathetic, yet serious look, telling us as if we didn’t already know: make the right choice. Neither of us could speak for a minute, and then my father, hands raking down his face croaked:
‘We can’t, Roisin.’
‘We can’t,’ the word sounded plaintive, yet resolute. As if he were stating a fact that gave him no pleasure. I, on the hand, had been prepared. Had rehearsed what would happen when this moment came.
‘She told us, dad, she always said to let her go when the time came.’
‘It’s not the same, Roisin, it’s not the same,’ he shook his head. I reached out to touch his hand, and he flinched. I was ice cold.
‘We have to, you know we have to. I’m going to tell the doctors to take her off, that that’s what she wanted,’ I spoke mechanically, my voice measured. On the inside I was numb, skimming the surface of a well of grief deeper than anything on earth. My father set his jaw and we looked at each other squarely, as opponents, as enemies. He gave in, eventually, and gave the word to turn off the life support.
And so we lost her. I like to think we opened the gates of heaven and let her out of limbo, but the papery lids of her closed eyes, the breathless gash of her wasted, once beautiful mouth, gave nothing away. Et in Arcadia Ego, she had said – had taken to saying – as she approached death, before her body dragged her down into a dark, nauseous slumber. Even in Arcadia, there I am. I said nothing, watching her pray with her eyes closed. Any misgivings about the afterlife I had, I kept to myself.
I think he knew it was the right decision, but he hadn’t looked at me since.
After what seemed an eternity I made it to the top of the driveway and my fears were confirmed – the smoke was coming from our house. Dara started to bark. Part of me wished I could simply keep running up the road, away from here, away from whatever was happening to my father, but I forced myself to turn down the drive, my legs picking up momentum as they got closer and closer to the source of the smoke.
‘Dad!’ I yelled, as I arrived breathlessly into the yard. Before me was a bonfire, a huge roaring mass of flame giving off a strong, acrid scent. A tower of smoke rose into the damp air with a vicious force of its own; an entryway to hell in our own back garden. I walked around the fire as the smoke stung my eyes and obscured my vision.
‘Dad!’ and then I saw him, standing there forlornly, the dog tensed by his side. He was as still as a petrified tree, gazing into the flames deeply with eyes that I saw, when I moved closer, were full of tears.
‘Dad?’ He looked up then and we stood a few feet apart, regarding one another.
‘I couldn’t give them away, Roisin, it wasn’t right,’ he said, his voice stretched thin with emotion. In confusion I followed his gaze back to the fire, and in shock I realized what he was burning.
Her coats, her dresses, her underwear. Even her shoes.
The sight of her things, blackened and withered, looked less like a funeral pyre and more like the aftermath of some horrible crime. I looked at my father in astonishment, but he didn’t look back. I ran into the house then, through the back door which had been left ajar. Has he taken everything? What else has he burned? I sprinted up the stairs and into their room, where I saw the drawers had been pulled completely out of the dresser, and the doors of the armoire left open. I walked up and looked in, breath catching in my throat upon seeing his sad trousers and shirts hanging on the right hand side, and but one item on the left. Her cashmere coat.
With slow, reverent motions I took off my jacket and let it drop to the floor. I put my mother’s coat on once more. I went back outside then and stood by my father. Together, we watched the fire burn until the ashes began to soar and vanish into the grey, empty expanse of sky.
Katy Finnegan was born in London to Irish parents, relocating to Ireland at age 5. She studied English literature and film at Trinity College Dublin before absconding to Chicago to work in media and write poetry on the subway. Her writing has been published in Icarus, Voices From the Cave, Write City Chicago, and on SpunOut.ie and EndangeredBodies.org. She was also shortlisted for the 2018 Bridport Short Story Prize. She currently lives in Limerick where she works as a copywriter.