I drove through the sticks over the thick ice and frozen muck that gripped the backroads. The countryside was pitch black, abandoned, with lonely houses spread out like rare driftwood amongst the ditches. My mother was wrapped up in the passenger seat. Her nose poking out from her head scarf as she eyed the road. Her fingernails dug into the seat and she took a deep breath.
‘Mind your speed Gerard.’
My hands were loose on the steering wheel and after she spoke I clasped it firmly and gazed out at the fog that hung like static clouds in the headlights before disappearing into the gloom of the night.
‘I’m crawling mammy.’
‘There’s fierce ice about your father said.’
‘I know. I heard him at dinner.’
Christmas trees glowed in the dark windows, desperate light illuminating the frosty glass of each house. After the creamery we passed Delaney’s with lights on an apple tree that twinkled in the bare branches.
‘They’re always out to put on a show,’ my mother said.
‘It’s just outdoor lights, hardly a show.’
‘They think they’re better than everyone. ’
‘You’re in a right mood.’
‘We should have left earlier. I hate driving in this weather.’
‘I’m driving and I’m driving slowly so stop giving out. We’ll be there in no time.’
I took the sharp bend just before the bridge and the wheels spun for a few seconds before catching the road again.
‘Oh slow down, we’ll turn over and end up in the river.’
‘Mammy I’m only doing ten.’
‘Oh god this is the worse,’ she said. ‘They’ll find us frozen to death.’
‘Ah whist up will ya.’
She looked at me and fastened the seatbelt around her chest.
‘Don’t be having a go at me.’
‘I’m not having a go. I’m trying to get us to mass.’
She remained silent then began rubbing her hands together. I turned up the heater and the fan hissed.
‘You should have kept your gloves on.’
‘My hands always end up sticky. I hate that.’
‘We could have waited until tomorrow. He’ll be going in the morning.’
‘Father Marshall does a nice evening mass.’
‘So you don’t enjoy his morning mass?’
‘You know I like to have the dinner half going for when your father gets back.’
‘He’s spoilt of a Sunday.’
‘He takes it easy now. Likes to put his feet up on a Sunday afternoon.’
‘Day of rest.’
She turned down the heater and the car fell silent.
‘I think we should park at the cross. I don’t want to chance the hill.’
‘If you don’t mind the walk.’
‘I don’t. You’ll watch me.’
I drove around the turn after the convent entrance and pressed the brake. The car slid then came to a stop and my mother jolted forward in the seat.
‘What’s wrong?’ she said her voice quivering.
‘Mammy there’s something on the road.’
She removed her hands from her face and looked. A fox stood in front of the headlights. Its eyes dark and hidden within its long thin face. Its body a dense rug of matted fur. It blinked then blinked again but it did not move.
‘Oh holy God Gerald.’
‘Don’t panic mammy. It’s just stunned by the headlights.’
Steam rose off the bonnet of the car and vanished into the dark air. I changed to the low lights. The fox’s narrow snout sniffed then its face contracted and it sneezed.
‘That’s the life frightened out of me.’
‘A right cheek. I could have ended up hitting the wall.’
‘You could have. Right under the nose of our lord,’ she said as she blessed herself.
I beeped the horn but the fox continued to stare into the swirling fog. It moved its head slightly and its eyes glinted then it sat on its back legs and panted showing its dirtied white chest.
‘The sly head on him. Not a care in the world. You’d think he’d just go and let us get to mass.’
‘Say a little prayer mammy.’
I beeped again, holding the horn in but the fox only yawned with its fangs protruding from its widened mouth and then back inside again as its face relaxed.
‘My ears are ringing Gerard.’
‘Maybe its feet are froze in a pothole?’
Its head tucked into its chest and its long tongue casually skimmed the rusty hairs on its belly.
‘He looks like that fox who ate the kittens.’
‘Molly’s kittens. She had them in the shed and I went out and there he was eating the kittens. Their little blind squeals for help. Bloody fluff all over the straw.’
She moved her face closer to the windscreen and focused her eyes.
‘It’s him. I’ll never forget his ears. One of them was half bitten off. Like his.’
I looked at the fox’s ears. One stood intact and stiff, the other half bitten off, loose flesh flapping in the breeze.
‘It’s hardly the same fox.’
‘She was never the same again. How Molly cried for those kittens.’
She took a tissue from the inside of her sleeve and dabbed her eyes.
‘He wouldn’t leave the shed, bold as brass. I had to chase him off with a kettle of boiled water.’
‘Poor Molly. Must be nearly thirty years but you cried when you heard the kittens were dead.’
‘I don’t remember.’
The fox’s head disappeared then reappeared with a rabbit between its teeth. The rabbit’s head drooped to the side and its eyes were open and lifeless.
‘He’s got his dinner.’
‘Oh that horrible brazen fox. May he go straight to hell.’
The fox’s body trembled and he looked straight into the headlight then he turned around and trotted along the road, its bushy tail shifting from side to side.
‘Oh thanks be to God.’
She took a deep breath and relaxed letting her head fall back onto the rest.
‘I need a stiff brandy after that.’
‘Are you shook?’
‘Oh I am. I won’t sleep for a week.’
I turned on my high lights and the fox appeared further along the road, its coat gleaming. It jumped onto the wall of the convent, the rabbit hanging from its jaw and walked along the stone edge with its shadow lengthening in the arced light before it disappeared out of sight. She shook her head.
‘I’m glad your father wasn’t driving. He’d have knocked him down and cut off his tail.’
‘Oh he would have. They still make a fair price.’
‘Pity he’s out cracking ice then.’
‘Someone has to crack it.’
I turned at the cross and parked facing home beside the hurling pitch. She tightened up her head scarf and put her gloves on.
‘We don’t mind having you back home. You’re welcome to stay as long as you need, until you find your feet again.’
‘We don’t think badly of you.’
We sat in silence and I looked at my hands on the steering wheels. The blue veins that rushed under the sparse hairs and disappeared beyond the scruff of my sleeve. My mother took a breath and cleared her throat. I got out and walked around the car and opened the passenger door.
‘Watch yourself. It’s slippy.’
‘Thank you. You’re very good.’
I caught her arm and we walked along the grass verge towards the start of the footpath. The Guinness sign burned at the crossroads and I could hear the heavy murmurs from inside Keoghs; the coals cracking in the breast, that smoky air heavy with the sweet taste of porter.
‘Are you going for a couple later?’
‘I might. I’ll drop you home first.’
‘You should get out for a while. Maybe your father would want to go up.’
‘I’d doubt he’d be bothered.’
‘You’re probably right.’
The footpath was thick with ice. We moved onto the road and walked slowly towards the cross.
‘We might be a bit late mammy.’
‘We are late.’
I looked up the steep hill at the parked cars with roofs shimmering and the windows iced up. Someone stood in the fog of the street lamp below the steps of the church and he shouted down at us.
‘It’s deadly. Don’t chance it.’
‘Okay,’ I shouted back.
‘Go up the back lane. He’s only just started.’
‘Hear that mammy he’s only just started.’
We turned around and walked past the butchers with thick pig carcasses hanging in the red of the window.
‘Who was that?’ she asked clutching my arm tighter.
‘I remember his mother used to mend and stitch. God rest her soul.’
We walked up the back lane, along the gravel path. She held onto my elbow. Her tiny fingers digging deep into my muscle. I was desperate for a smoke. The churchyard was quiet. A few cars sat far apart facing the gate.
‘You coming into the sacristy?’
‘No I’ll stand in the porch.’
‘I’ll check if Biddy Dunne is in.’
We made for the back of the church and she went into the sacristy. The bell tower stood above me in the darkness and I could hear the priest as the door swung closed. He was starting the second reading and his voice sounded hoarse over the crackling speakers. I stood in the faint light of the doorway and rolled a cigarette. I placed it amongst the tobacco and put the packet back in my pocket. My mother came to the door and pulled it open.
‘She’s here. Her Peter will drop me home.’
She grabbed my hand and squeezed it, slipping a note in between my fingers.
‘Drive back slowly okay?’
‘Yeah I will. I’ll only have a few.’
She looked at me and smiled then went inside. I climbed the steps to the graveyard and followed the path to the low wall that faced the backside of the village. I lit up and smoked. Christmas trees brightened up the windows of the houses along the street. Reds. Yellows. Blues. Greens. People walked along the road and their shadows stretched halfway up the field. They laughed and joked beneath the thick of the street lamps as bitter drops of snow floated down from the heavens. I flicked the cigarette over the wall and watched it smoulder and choke in the frozen grass. I walked amongst the cold headstones back into the light of the churchyard. I took a last look at the church and blessed myself then walked down the lane to the pub.
Micheal Norton, December, 2014.