From the shortlist of ten for this year's RTÉ Short Story Competition: read the winning story, Flower Wild by Shane Tivenan below, and listen to it read by Ingrid Craigie above.
The imagined testimony of a certain Irishwoman and an incident in Rome...
I was taken here to Northampton after I shot the Italian. Il Duce, they used to call him. I shot him one morning in Rome, and my bullet took the tip off his nose. I shot him when they were all still mesmerised by him. They'd sit around in the parks and walk the country lanes idolising images of him. Il Duce, they would say to each other, long live Il Duce.
I shot him many years before they shot him, before they lynched him, before they hung his dead body upside-down from a streetlamp and danced around below in celebration. Italia, they sang to each other, long live Italia.
I’ve been so long here now that the new arrivals tell me I’m mad to have invented such a story. I’m an old Irish hag, they say, who has never even been to Rome. They tell me my wish for a burial in the Catholic graveyard will never be met, and no one will come to my funeral. I don’t deserve it, they say. And perhaps they are right. They seem pretty sure of themselves.
I have one friend here — the gardener. He spends more time outside my window than he does the others. I pushed out 100 pounds to him yesterday. He placed it in the front pocket of his overalls and he kept working. He didn’t look at me or the money.
A good headstone would be nice, I said, but the Catholic graveyard, that’s the important part. Even if they bury me in the pigsty. Do you understand? He nodded. He understood.
The one thing you cannot incarcerate is spirit, I told him, and I pushed out another 50. Front pocket of the overalls. The Catholic graveyard, I said. Are you with me? He nodded. He was with me.
He never says anything. He knows better. He’s been here as long as I have.
I watched him walk away to the next window. I’ll see you tomorrow friend, I whispered, when he was well out of sight.
I was taken here to Northampton after I shot the Italian. I arrived early that day to Piazza del Campidoglio. Is he here yet? I asked the people. Is Il Duce here yet? I got no response. I didn’t need one. I could see from the eyes that he was near. Their eyes. The black suns. Their pupils had been pinched open by thoughts of him, and a toxic ink spilled out in all directions, filling the eye. No whites to be seen. And the black suns all stared blindly up to the large wooden doors of the palace.
Excuse me, can I pass through? I want to see Il Duce.
The crowd allowed me to move through. They became my accomplices as they helped me get closer to him. It took very little effort on my part. Nobody saw me, a little emaciated woman. They no longer had any use for me. No man wanted to touch me with my wrinkled skin and my grey hair. No woman wanted to bother with me in case I became a burden. So I squeezed through them all. I was only small after all.
And I was always small, and very frail. Even as a young woman I always looked older than my years. So just as I had moved through my life, I moved through that crowd. Quiet. Not looking to attract attention. Peaceful. Walking slowly with my shawl over my head. Pious. Mouthing a decade of the rosary under my breath. Ready.
Fingering the trigger of my Modèle 1892 revolver under my shawl.
I was taken here to Northampton after I shot the Italian. The convent of Santa Brigida was my refuge when I came to Rome. A sanctuary away from the prison of home. I came from a family of privilege and I always had material things, but I was more restricted then than I am now.
Every part of me was trapped. A prison built out of female skin. My thoughts were not even my own things. I was allowed to read, but only what I was told I could read. Memoirs of men my father felt most suitable, some religious texts, not the good ones — not the Catholic ones — and no novels, ever.
I was allowed to socialise but only with people of my father’s choosing. I stayed very quiet and I tried to accept that life but my body wasn’t so compliant. Bodies will speak truths for quiet mouths, and my body told monstrous tales of a misled existence. It began to rebel long before I did, and gave me years of sickness until the day I started to listen.
As a young girl I was tormented with pleurisy, and I experienced great pains when trying to breathe. I suffered from scarlet fever more than once. My body would break out in a red rash, my tongue would swell up like a malignant strawberry so that I couldn’t speak, with a fever so high I thought I would burn up and die. The words I couldn’t say and the things I wasn’t doing were choking me up from the inside out.
And later in life the rage. I would wake in a red anger and lash out at whoever was close to me, with no explanation for the fury. And then the trances, the epileptic seizures, the twilight states, the paralysis, the atrophic disorders — my young body wearing itself down before its time.
Has anybody seen him yet? I asked the black suns. Has anybody seen Il Duce? Please let me pass through.
The medical doctors, the hypnotists, the people who were said to have had the cure — none of them found the source for my pain. They had answers, but no remedies. The Christian Scientists said that my pain came from sin, and my mother agreed wholeheartedly. The psychiatrists told my family that I had female hysteria, untreatable, and my father was relieved to have the case closed.
A gun came into my possession and I turned it on myself one day to see where God’s hand would take the bullet. It entered and left me without barely a mark, and I understood the message God was giving me.
As I got closer to the palace doors, I sensed Il Duce. The grip on my gun tightened, and the sicknesses in my body loosened, began to wane.
I was taken here to Northampton after I shot the Italian. On my way to the palace that morning, I went into a little chapel. I spoke out loud with the Irish tongue that God had put in my head. God spoke back. For my glory you are going to shoot him, God said to me.
Have you seen him yet? I said as I got close to the front of the crowd. Excuse me, can I pass through please? I want to see Il Duce.
Invisible to the black suns, one by one, I moved through them. Their whole world had been eclipsed by Il Duce’s. The place was infected by his presence. Even the rats in the sewers unfurled their flags of allegiance to him that day.
Arms were raised towards the heavens, blind stares were fixated on the double doors as they began to creak open. And when he stepped out into the glare of midday, Il Duce looked out over his herd and his madness ran through them like electricity. He walked straight towards the crowd, just as I passed to the front row. When he came within range, I fired.
My bullet was never meant to kill anyone. God's hand made that clear. It was a warning for Il Duce, for his type. It was showing the black suns what needed to be done. The same black suns who set on me like a pack of animals, they themselves would finish off my mission many years later. And as they rained blows down on top of me that day, ripped clumps out my hair and tore my clothes to pieces, I closed my eyes and made no resistance. Inside I was transported to a painless place and my heart was filled with a great love.
I was taken here to Northampton after I shot the Italian. For three decades I have sat here and watched madness move itself through this asylum. For three decades I’ve felt its pull. Breathed it in and out everyday. I couldn’t accept the cross God had given me when they first took me here. How had God let this be?
I let God go and I saw madness come and lift me up from my bed, float me high in the air and force screams from my mouth in a voice I’d never heard before. I saw it raise my hands from my sides and reach out to choke the neck of a young nurse. I saw it hug me tight as I was put into a fever box for two weeks and almost burned to death. I saw madness tie a roped sheet around my neck to try and take the breath away from my body.
To be aware of it. To get to know it. To respect it. That is what it took. So I sat with it. Accepted its presence, and watched how it operated. I saw madness crouch and wait for healthy minds to crack open from the isolation and the loneliness, and I saw it sweep in like a greedy landlord moves in to take over an abandoned home. In the eyes of the young who came to visit their mothers, I saw madness kindling. In and out through the eyes it moved between them. And no one here is immune. Some of the worst I have seen were the ones giving out the orders and dispensing the medication. Those who think there is nothing wrong with them are often the ones upon whom madness has its firmest grip.
The doctors explained that the madness was a sickness of my body and my mind, and I agreed. You’re right Doctor, of course, I would say to them. But I knew that it was neither. It was a spirit sickness, this much I am sure, a blackness that enters you and pushes everything else out.
Will I be seeing you tomorrow Doctor? I used to say. Would there be another cup of tea in it Doctor? I played along, and they always came back. I wouldn’t be left on my own again.
Madness showed me that your surroundings will eventually get inside you, so I placed all my solace in God. I surrounded myself in God’s light.
I was taken here to Northampton after I shot the Italian. I hear the gardener’s hoe break soil outside my window. Keep a watch, I say to him. It’ll be soon enough. I feel the movements inside my body already. I push my last 50 pounds out the window to him. Are you with me? I ask him. He nods. He’s with me.
Wherever they put me down, I tell him, leave the headstone there. The wooden box as well. Just take me up, wrap me in my white shawl, and bring me on my own to the Catholic graveyard. Put me down underneath the tree surrounded by the violets. Let me grow up through the soil. Let my memories flower wild. Let them spread themselves for miles around and let them pollinate the air so that the people will breathe in my truth. They will slowly realise that I did the right thing. They will see that there is no pain except in the hesitancy to accept your cross.
And do it at night, I tell him. That way I’ll have true peace.
That way they’ll never find me.
Shane Tivenan is an Irish writer based in Madrid where he teaches English. He has a BA in Anthropology from NUI Maynooth. He began writing fiction in 2018 and was shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Prize in Spain in 2019. As well as short stories, he is currently working on a novel.
This is one of 10 stories from the shortlist of the 2020 RTÉ Short Story Competition. Read the rest of the stories here, tune into an Arena special at 7 pm on Monday 28 September when the judges will announce their overall winners, and listen to a story from the shortlist on air every night from Monday 28 September to Friday 9 October at 11.20 pm on RTÉ Radio 1.
Flower Wild will be read on air by Ingrid Craigie.