We're delighted to present an new short story from Katherine Duffy, extracted from the collection Best European Fiction 2018, published by Dalkey Archive Press.
The Frankenstein Tree
I first got wind of Éamon’s news from the front page of the newspaper. I was mooching about in a souvenir shop in a resort town abroad. Tere was a motley collection of holiday stuf on display— snorkels, T-shirts, cigarette lighters, ceramic vases. I was handling a nice little wooden chess set, wondering if Oisín would like it, if he would say it was "cool," when the words on the newsstand caught my eye.
It wasn’t a headline but one of those teasers they run in a sidebar, letting you know what stories are inside. Te accompanying photo was small and blurry, but I recognized him straight away. I put down the chess set and went to buy a copy.
On the terrace of the café next door, I took a seat in the muggy shade of a large parasol, a view of the placid, yacht-cluttered harbour spread out before me like the wares of summer. Éamon had won a big international prize. Honour, glory, a jackpot sum of money—the works! From now on everything he did would bear a seal of approval. His name would have a ring of greatness. He could go where he liked and do as he pleased.
"Where the hell were you?" Jo wanted to know, when I got back to the apartment. "I was afraid you’d been knocked down by a car! Did you get the bread?"
"Sorry, love." Te original purpose of my walk had slipped my mind completely. "I was looking around the shops, thinking about what to get for Oisín . . . "
Tis was our frst time away without our son since he’d been born. Nothing would do him this year but to make the break with us and attend an outrageously expensive basketball camp on the 152 outskirts of Dublin. Neither of us was keen on the idea but he pestered so long and hard that we caved in.
I don’t know why I didn’t tell Jo Éamon’s news there and then. Because she’d spoken so abruptly when I’d walked in, maybe. But even that wouldn’t explain why I had left the newspaper behind me on the table in the café.
The evening sun has painted a bright path for me, out over the water. I make my breathing strong and steady, and put my heart into every stroke. From time to time I raise my head out of the water and clamp my gaze onto the little island, as if it might otherwise get away from me. How far out is it? A mile? A couple of kilometers? A good bit, anyway.
It’s really nothing but a big cluster of rocks. I don’t know why I’m so cracked on reaching it. I kept looking at it from the beach, during the first week we spent here. The thought that I should swim out to it popped into my head and, although I knew it was a silly idea, I just couldn’t let go of it.
My crawl has improved a lot since we got here, and I’ve been working hard on my breathing pattern. I wouldn’t dream of using fins or a wetsuit or any other props. All I need to travel through the water are my own limbs and heart and lungs. But towards the end of our second week here, as the time to go home drew nearer, I knew I wasn’t ready to attempt it yet. I’d need to practise longer and harder if I was to get to the island safe and sound. By then, the notion had really taken hold of me.
I suppose Jo must have known there was something odd going on. Even so, she was gobsmacked when I told her I was going to stay on for a bit, a week or a fortnight more, however long it took. She froze, her eyes searching my face. Words usually flock to my wife on any given occasion but right then they seemed to have deserted her.
I could see her weighing up what I had just said, sifting for the sense of it. I’m the sort who enjoys going on holiday but who, by the end of it, is generally looking forward to getting back. Nobody knows that better than Jo. Her expression was a jumble of emotions: worry, fear, but mainly sheer astonishment. I didn’t mention the island or my swimming plans. I had no wish to add to her anxiety and anyway it would be too hard to explain. All I said was that I had enjoyed my time here immensely and that I wanted to extend it for a bit.
In the end, she accepted my decision quietly. I thanked her for that when we said goodbye at the airport a few days later. At the boarding gate she gave me another piercing look but still kissed me warmly when I hugged her close. I don’t think there’s any major damage done. I suppose she’ll tell Oisín and her friends that the whims of middle age have descended on me. I don’t mind what she says. I’ve no wish to hurt Jo. All I want at the moment is this freedom, the sea, the setting sun, the island in my sights.
I’m gliding through the water at a nice, steady pace but the island doesn’t seem to be getting any nearer. The tangled cries of gulls streel across the sky, as if protesting the coming darkness. It’s a lonely sound.
To look back at the kind of work Éamon used to produce when he, I and Jo were at art-college together years ago, you wouldn’t think that he would ever come up with the stuff he’s doing now. He was always very talented of course, a consummate draughtsman and a skilled painter. But he took a conservative approach, nothing like the great groundbreaking artists that I worshipped and tried to emulate at the time. At college, while the rest of us were flinging buckets of paint at canvases and straining to be innovative, Éamon laboured away quietly at his landscapes and portraits.
He would pitch in with his friends, though, helping out with whatever mad project we had lately dreamed up. I remember a piece of sculpture I made: a big travesty of a tree assembled from wood and papier mâché. I gathered fallen branches in the woods, driftwood from the shore, and pulled offcuts out of skips. Then I pasted and hammered and cobbled it all together. "The Frankenstein Tree," I called it. From its branches lemons, mirrors, bicycle wheels and I forget what else dangled. I was sure it was a work of genius.
Éamon would join us and the three of us would make raids on various parts of the city, trawling for materials. Jo had the wildest imagination of all of us. She liked to mould and weld metal to make large-scale, twisted, fearless pieces. She was always inveigling us into dragging lumps of iron and steel around for her. It’s a wonder none of us was killed the night she persuaded us to break into an old factory to steal sheets of tin she’d spotted through the windows. I thought my heart would stop when a security guard we hadn’t realised was in the building let two vicious-looking dogs loose on us. The three of us made a run for the wall and scrambled up over it in a blind panic. I still have a scar on my shin from the jagged glass embedded along the top. Needless to say, the sheets of tin were abandoned. Once we recovered, we had weeks of fun recounting our exploits in various hostelries around the city.
The surface of the water is still alight with the sun’s rays but a small circle of darkness surrounds me, moving with me like a cloak. My left shoulder is aching a bit—I’ve noticed a weakness there before. I’ll have to slow down. At least the distance between me and that damned rock has fnally begun to shorten. I must be over half-way there. Nice and easy now. On we go.
It’s odd, considering how close the three of us were, that Jo and I have just the one painting by Éamon in the house. Even that wasn’t bestowed upon us, friend to friend. I bought it at an art auction, a couple of years ago.
Attending art auctions is a big part of my work. I buy paintings and sculptures for banks and other big companies, and for individuals who want to invest in art or simply to collect some beautiful pieces. It’s an enjoyable job and I greatly prefer it to working in advertising as I did before. But it’s a job that sprang from the jaws of that famous tiger which has now breathed its last. The client list has dwindled sharply in recent times and those who remain are buying less and less. Who knows how things will go.
If my memory serves me right, it was around the time Jo and I bought the house and settled down together that Éamon took of on his travels. We got postcards—from Europe at first, then from farther afield—India, Fidji, Bali. His travels left their mark on his work and it began to turn adventurous and strange.
Gradually the postcards stopped coming. I read somewhere that Éamon was living in New York. But Oisín had arrived on the scene and we could barely tell night from day. We were busy with the house and the garden, with getting and spending. The years whizzed by and we hadn’t a thought to spare for an old friend far from home.
The evening is my favourite time to swim. By the time I’m breasting the water, everyone else is straggling inland. Thinking of dinner, perhaps, or a nap, or seeking refuge from the sharpening breeze. I revel in the calm after they’ve gone, swimming in water that’s free of all their stupid fotsam—beach balls and surfboards and lilos. Not to mention the jetskis and sailboards that sully the stretches of water further out.
Ouch! Oww! A cramp in my right calf sears through the muscle down towards my foot. Nothing to worry about, nothing at all, I mutter to myself, soothing panic before it has a chance to rise. I know how to deal with this. I stop pulling strongly and paddle lightly about. I turn on my back and float, stretching and twirling my feet.
I wonder how far down all that darkness below me goes. Miles between me and the seabed, maybe. Who knows what strange creatures are going about their business down there, scuttling and fitting and haunting the depths. There’s a wide, indigo band of water now between me and the homely gold of the beach.
Inland, the first lights are beginning to twinkle. Back in their apartments and hotels people are singing in the shower, or opening the wardrobe, asking themselves and each other what they’ll wear tonight, where they’ll go to eat. Or maybe they’re in bed together, or grappling on the foor (they’re on holidays after all), yielding to the lust that’s built up after a long, hot, half-naked day at the beach.
At home, Jo and Oisín are probably eating dinner right now. She was due to pick him up from basketball camp yesterday. She’ll be doing her damnedest to get out of him exactly what went on, what his life was like during the time he spent apart from us. She hasn’t a hope, of course. He’ll skilfully ward off her every attempt at eliciting information. It’s an old game with the two of them and they’re both adept at it. Later, she’ll check her e-mails to see if any orders have come in for pieces of jewellery. Or she’ll go out to the garden to try to repair the damage her enemies, the slugs, snails, and greenfy, have wreaked while she was away.
She must have heard Éamon’s news by now. She’ll be thrilled for him, and will be trying to contact me to pass it on. Maybe right this minute onshore my mobile phone is ringing out. Jo won’t be worried when I don’t reply. She knows I go swimming in the evenings.
I’d love to be able to reach out and rest my hand on something solid for just a minute or two. The branch of a tree, say, or a friend’s shoulder. At least the pain in my leg has faded, and I’m ploughing on again. The water is starting to feel a bit warmer. I think I’m getting close to the island.
To get out of the sea, I have to crawl on my hands and knees. Then I clamber up the tiny, pebbly shore, my legs buckling and a terrible heaviness clawing at my body. Oh, but it’s nice to sit down! I’ve never before been so grateful for such a hard, rocky seat. Of course, I’ll have to do it all over again shortly. But I’d rather not think about that right now.
The little town across the water is ablaze with lights now. I imagine that they’re winking and flashing congratulations at me. A giddy little laugh burbles up from deep in my rib-cage. But I’d better not rest here too long. After its big show of radiance, the sun is down to its last rays.
Jo wanted to hang Éamon’s painting over the mantel in the sitting-room but I wanted to keep it in my study. We argued about it and she gave in when I said I’d buy another piece for the sitting-room. It’s unlikely I’ll be able to do that now though. The price of his work will rocket now that he’s won the big prize.
So I got my way and the painting hangs above my desk. It’s an abstract piece, but naturalistic images bump and swirl within it. A woman’s face. A tree. A deer. They seem to float to the surface then fade back, or morph into something else. That’s the magic of it.
The painting is full of light but has veins of darkness running through it, like a chunk of marble. I’m so used to looking at it that I can close my eyes and call it to mind at will. Tonight, I glimpse new things in it, details I didn’t notice before. Waves and clouds. Shades of a summer twilight. A mysterious, black mark on an indigo sea. A small, shadowy form approaching it, closing eagerly on it.
About The Author: Katherine Duffy has published two collections of poetry in English: The Erratic Behaviour of Tides (1998) and Sorrow’s Egg (2011), both with Dedalus Press. She writes fiction in both English and Irish. Her work in Irish, including a novel for young adults and many short stories, has earned numerous Oireachtas na Gaeilge awards. She is also an accomplished translator and has translated leading Irish language writers into English. Rambling Jack, her translation of Micheál Ó Conghaile’s novella Seachrán Jeaic Sheáin Johnny, was published in 2015 by Dalkey Archive Press.