We’d only just entered Miss Lynch’s classroom the summer after Johnnie died. Mister Lynch left, mid-funeral, on a boat. On the Atlantic too, but not face-down. He got on a boat and left. We thought Miss Lynch would do the same. Or be let go from the school to spare her the torture of our easy continuation. But she didn’t.

In Cliften town, she swapped her wedding ring for a Border collie that could fetch rabbits for supper. You can teach a Border collie sign language. How to tie a tourniquet. How to separate the dill from the fennel. But you lot? She wanted more from us. We wanted more to give her. We made a bonfire on the beach of Johnnie’s desk and chair. Splinters festered in us. The dog ate a feast of deadly web-cap mushrooms in the field and died. Are there snakes in my hair? she asked, on her ragged knees. It wasn’t our place to act, besides rising above her expectations.

Death billows out like a stone plonked in water. We knew that. But we didn’t know if the safe thing was to step back out of its ripples. We surrounded Miss Lynch like a net seven souls wide. She taught us from the east side of the room to the middle to the west. Shifting at the start of each year – 4th, 5th, 6th. Three years, three metres lateral movement. The walls are a freeze-frame of slanting rain: the pencil evidence of our growth spurts. She logs our depth and breadth and height without saying what the figures add up to. We equal greatness. We are not quantifiable. We know how to be dealt an inch and to make a mile of it. But today is our last day. Out the window is the only lateral movement left.

 

We hear the wind whine at the glass. It lifts the whispery hair of our forearms. Our legs jiggle beneath our desks. Wild garlic Tara brought in for a Thank You bouquet stinks out the room from the sink at the back. The stuff grows rude and rampant in the graveyard soil so we all know where it came from. The spirit emits a smell as it leaves the body. The white-petalled bursts are the freeing of souls. Miss Lynch teaches us such things. Things that are difficult to know.

Out in society, she says. Out in the wide world. Light rain begins to sound like the rustling of someone drifting around a big empty house in a wedding dress. You should all know by now that mercy is an artificial flower. It looks very convincing and nice. But it has no nectar. Her eyes skim over us to the window panels. Don’t assume mercy to be real.

Out of the seven in 6th class, she knows some won’t bother with secondary school and will head straight for the till or the tractor or, for Liam that looks old enough, the quarry. Tara might sweep floors in the hairdressers in town if her auntie’ll have her. Queer sort of hay baling.

We bought Miss Lynch the biggest sunglasses on the whirly rack in the shop when she came to work after the funeral. When she put the glasses on, she asked if the insect they made her resemble (a big-eyed bug whose Latin name flew in one ear and out the other) was winged or not. Was it predator or prey? It made us ashamed, to see how fast and sloppy we did things. She wasn’t trying to shame us. She was grateful for us. Today, she lifts the glasses from her marram-grass hair, folds in the arms and sets them on the desk. The sun’s off gallivanting in another galaxy, we notice, so it’s good to see the glasses: it means there’s still light getting in that she wants to temper. Her eyes are bloodshot.

By the blackboard, the laminated What To Do In Case of Emergency is on the floor alongside its thumbtack. We try to be observant. Anything and everything can be symbolical and significant – can go to show how order isn’t always the way of things. The centuries-old stone wall doesn’t come natural to the farmer who wants the fertile soil on its farside, away from the rocks. To want such a thing all your life and never to get it because of paper. Deeds. Death certificates. Olden customs. The challenge is to see cruelty and kindness not as opposites, she’d said, but as two sides of the same coin.

Crystal.

Yeah Miss?

Could you take the wasp that’s on your copybook outside? Miss Lynch smoothens her homemade clothes over her no hips. She’s the shape of a long, straightish banana, so the main challenge of dressmaking is cutting straight lines in the curtain fabric. Avoiding moth holes. Her winter coat is made of carpet. When hems fall, she staples them up. Oh to be a choirmaster! she says, as the dulcet tones of Mister O’Malley’s disciples come through the rear wall. [Jesus saw something inside me that I didn’t see inside myself . . . ] The commotion of our skittering stirs the wasp and it flies around berserk in this world of chalk and flesh and varnishes.

Duck, Bríona! shouts Shannon. You’re allergic –

I am not!

 – she’ll go anafletic and even if we drive her to town it’ll be too late!

Bright red Bríona is standing on her tiptoes at her desk in 5th, willing the wasp to sting her. The pale brown wisps of her hair are a net. I said HORNETS! Hornets can kill you!

It’s not your fault if –

Oisín whispers down the back: Shannon has a thing for Bríona. He does bashing scissor fingers. In response, Shannon slips a finger inside her veiny jellyfish cheek and makes a pop like soup in the microwave. Miss Lynch talks quiet so that only us who lean in can hear her: The wasp doesn’t understand this bland nectarless brightness – all this wasteful, contrary movement, not in the direction of the wind.

Miss Lynch should have established order by now. Put 4th class to work so they don’t get cranky. It’s Fathers’ Day in Ghana, she might say. Find Ghana in the atlas then write cards, making no mistake as to where the apostrophe goes in your fathers. Make 5th class play Trivial Pursuit, where each team’s given a set of encyclopaedias and they’re not allowed to pass on any questions and there’s no time limit. (Her father was an encyclopaedia salesman, so we have two full sets.) But today, she seems to be waiting for something. Denying orderliness. Or is she waiting for the hymn in the next room to end?

The fact of the matter is . . . she says finally, not a single child in this school will go to heaven, however angelic their voice. She pauses. Because every single one of you spends three years with me before you leave. Three is the magical number. The devil, though, has no horns. So you needn’t fear him. He has no body at all. Only a shadow.

The whole class hushes. Outside, the cloud-cover thickens. Rain ups the ante. The wasp lands on Declan Quinlan’s hand, which is delicate and lucent as suds in a bath. He shares the front desk in 5th with Bríona who has stiff white snail trails down her face. Others will cry later at the notion of the Shadow Devil. Declan is breathing shallow and fast.

Now, Declan, Miss Lynch says. You have a choice. Don’t mind Newtonian mechanics. She waits and takes a step forward, toward the wasp or the boy, and we’re all too riveted to ask, What?

A THWACK announces a choice made. But it wasn’t Declan’s. The scream is his, though. Piercing and harrowing as a baby banshee’s. Clasping our ears and eyelids tight, we see rocks shattering windows, which is the sound of suffering the consequences. Mister O’Malley is soon stood in the doorway, crying What’s going on.

Don’t worry, Mister O’Malley. We wouldn’t let you miss an exorcism. Miss Lynch doesn’t take her eyes from Bríona, who’d brought her hardback copy of A Wrinkle In Time down with emotional force on Declan’s hand, fracturing a network of bones inside it. The wasp is wasabi. Declan Quinlan has been spared a wasp sting.

Then why on Earth is he bleeding all over his desk?

Miss Lynch turns to her co-worker with a look of beguilement. Was that iambic pentameter, Mister O’Malley?

Is that disrespect, he wonders (readable as a tombstone). He huffs at the mounting evidence that her job could be his. The woman is clearly affected. He regards us like a rock pool full of periwinkles, determining if there’s enough for a seafood linguini. I’ll get the first aid kit.

You’re very good, says Miss Lynch. And would you mind taking fourth class for me, while we clean up here and consider the death of the wasp?

Like ants, unsurprised by the load they’ve been given to carry, the children of 4th pack their bags and file out of the room, glancing sidelong as they go.

No, we inform them with our eyes. You won’t be like us. Not in two years. Not in ten. You weren’t with her in the pitch black times. Through the boxes of what to keep and what to get rid of. By the flameproof wick, through the window, on the dwindling pile of rocks.

 

*

 

God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. Miss Lynch is short of breath from stooping down. Have you ever heard such nonsense?

We shake our heads at the egg carton of her spine as she draws a huge circle on the floor around all our desks in permanent marker. She’d tried chalk but it was useless on the linoleum. Please consider the circle to be done in chalk, as permanency is not the point. Not at all the point. But a lesser point is that you make do with the materials at your disposal, so. And disposal brings us back to impermanence. Every thing in this world is cyclical. You’ll find yourselves at the end of your lives thinking of the uterus, thinking of the buttons on your bed sheets, the conch you brought your ear to again and again like a lover’s chest, and you’ll be wishing, I bet my life on it, you’ll be wishing you’d left a neat and perfect zero in your bank account. She caps the marker and catches her breath. Nothing and nowhere isn’t worth saving for.

We don’t doubt it. We don’t question the circle. It is very comfy sitting inside it. Rain on the windows sounds like rice thrown in a pot. Sure to swell.

On the other side of the room, 5th class is cloistered around a Guinness Book of World Records with the task of coming up with five of their own breakworthy records, each. Miss Lynch had asked them to give us space. Next year it will be their turn, they tell themselves. And that future – in which they will be her luminaries – is only one metre away. They could spit that distance.

Chewing on her cheeks, Bríona finishes administering first aid (the verb ‘to administer’ is part of their lesson) and Declan’s blood-heavy dressing sits in a bucket (from the kiddies’ sandpit) so as to contain the mess. (The verb ‘to congeal’ is a part of their lesson.) The bucket is in his lap and he’s resting his head on his other arm on the desk, whimpering. He may go home if he so wishes, said Miss Lynch, who once relocated her own shoulder. He’s staying put and his classmates are being gentle. They are offering him the low-hanging world-record fruit.

Liam, Shannon, Crystal, Tara, Oisín, Macdara, Stephen . . .

The rest of the room fades out now. All there is is Miss Lynch and the inside of our circle. Her teeth are an open matchbook, the front two twisted as though she’d thought of teasing them out and setting fire to something, but had changed her mind. I’d like you to close your eyes.

It’s a kaleidoscope, the smashed mirror shards of our shut eyes. The crackle of readiness, listing and the whirr.

Envision an outdoors place, where you feel calm and content. A beach, a forest, a field of baled hay, a country lane, a currach in a still ocean, sitting perched on a cliff edge like a cormorant – an imaginary place or a real one, but you must be willing to be there alone. A place where you are self-possessed. Where you can take a measure of yourself. Away from people and duties and belongings, the external ways you understand your social standing. Are you there?

Humming. We are on rocks, connecting one beach to the next. It is our shortcut. We rockrun. Slant across the granite like the Milky Way across the universe. Like a Milky Way inside a Milky Way inside another one. From the band of us flashing to the freckle belt on our cheeks to the silver ways we alight in the rare sun. Outsiders go the long paved way. The road way. Only we know how the submerged stones keel and slither. We know where to step and where to jump.

Remember, you’re alone.

How does she know this? That we’d been together in our heads?

You are alone and contentedly so. Aren’t you?

We hear the stir of nodding over the rain.

See your place. With every breath, become immersed in your place. With every exhalation, it surrounds you. You are there. Where you need to be, for now. Your destination is very close. You have to move towards it. You can see up ahead where you want to go. The path is just wide enough for walking. It’s unpaved. As you move slowly through it, you’re a duck in water, leaving a V channelling behind you. That’s your effect on this place. You’re calm and the place is grateful in turn. Because you’re so relaxed, you move easily. Your arms swing by your sides. It’s cool but comfortable. You admire the scenery. It’s calming. Nothing surprising. As you approach your place, you see a small wooden box, in a clearing. You continue walking through your place, keeping an eye on the plain wooden box. It has no keyhole or latch. There are no barriers here in your place. There’s no need to keep any aspect of yourself out. You keep walking, approaching the box. The ground is springy as moss and you leave footprints. If there are trees, you smell bark, sap, lichen. If there is water, you smell salt. If salt had no smell, how would dogs know not to drink seawater? You smell oxygen. Oxygen smells very clean and good. It is what keeps us breathing. Any aches in your body disperse. You’re cosily tired and heavy and glad to arrive at the box and to take it in your hands and, without thinking at all, to open it . . . Without thinking at all, you see what’s there. You look at it. If you need, you may take it from the box to examine it, but there’s no real need. It is what it is. You don’t question it. Only see what’s there. No need to change it. Do not change it. It’s what you were meant to find and it is all that you’ve found. Now open your eyes.

Our eyelids flicker, like a song that wants to keep playing through the skips. Our cheeks radiate. Waiting for the words that should have come – the gentle carrying out and away as a stork lifts an infant: Notice the feeling of your clothes against your skin; turn your attention to the sounds of your environment; only when you are ready to leave this peaceful place, the awareness of your surroundings increases; as you reawaken, as you wiggle your fingers and toes, keep with you the feeling of calm and relaxation. She hasn’t said this. But we fill it in. We open our eyes just a sliver, to see if those words will come. If her mouth is moving. If her wreathed teeth show. She has lead us to such places before, toward the bonfire for getting rid of things. But she’d walked us away, after. She’d lead us very far away. Slow and sure, she ushered us, until we no longer tasted smoke.

Miss? Tara says.

Liam, Miss Lynch says. You may go first. You mustn’t lie to your friends or to yourself.

Liam frowns, glances at Tara. He does not yet individually understand, but we can help. She wants you to say what you found. Liam doesn’t speak – not since. He writes things down. Our parents lose their minds over him. A sturdy, capable young man, voluntarily mute. Miss Lynch says it’s a means of differentiating what needs to be said from what doesn’t. She says it engenders something in him but we can’t remember what because part of the lesson was the word ‘to engender’. While we wait on Liam’s report, Miss Lynch lingers over each of us, watching for alteration – signs of our brains doing the heart’s work. We don’t like having to tell her what we found with 5th class within earshot. But it’s our last day and we know how we could hurt her by withholding. She is angling for a part in the rest of our lives. Beyond this room. Liam scratches dry skin from his jellyfish-stung arms. He washes in the sea when there’s no rain because the Heffernan’s only have a water tank. This distresses Miss Lynch. Tara calls for attention again, pointing at Declan, who’s begun to go a bit wan. Leave him be. We scowl at 5th. The loud rain makes the room sound like a tent.

Tara, says Miss Lynch. Did you find a microphone, by chance? Or a mirror? Tara lifts her pointy chin. Refocuses. No. It doesn’t matter. Make no mistake, Tara, your deepest concerns matter. But there’s a reason I’m not asking you first. I know you understand. Miss Lynch’s closed lips stretched across her teeth resemble knuckles. We’ve seen how neatly her index finger goes there, in the philtrum nook. Key to lock.

Liam wrote down what he found and the note is travelling the tables. Miss Lynch carries a chair to sit among us. After soberly considering the note, we hear her swallow. Bunged guttering after a downpour. A roll of them? She asks Liam: How big of a roll? Did you unspool it and count how many cards there were?

No. This big. He makes the sign O. Smaller than a clam, bigger than a cockle.

What sort of cards come in a roll, we wonder. When it became clear he’d found scratchy cards, we were more buoyed than envious, because Liam deserves good things and because of what worse things it could have been and wasn’t. We didn’t understand Miss Lynch’s expression. She seemed to be searching the note for something plain and ordinary. A naggin. A fillet knife. We suddenly recall her telling us: Being fortunate is not the same as being lucky. Good fortune has to do with providence, but luck is a fluke. Is luck a sin, then? We hadn’t braved asking. Are we better off with no chance at all?

Miss Lynch is making us nervous with the intensity of her focus. If it was a boat’s radar, it would be too narrow and she’d thump rocks. She explains that one card represents one year of his life. One for every year. This line reminds us of the Seamus Heaney poem she taught us, where the brother (who is Seamus because poems are real) finds out while he’s at school that his small brother’s dead and when he gets home there’s a four-foot box, a foot for every year. ‘To toll’ had been part of the lesson. And how a hyphen is not the same as a dash. Our school has no bell though. Our church has no bell either. But before dinner at home we dip our heads and move our lips saying Hail Mary for the four-foot box and the boy in it. That’s what we pray for. Providence. We try not to think of worms, but it’s hard. But Liam’s healthy as can be. If he’ll only live as many years as there are scratchy cards, then he probably misjudged the size of the roll. One or two of us look across at him and smile. Let him see a small bit of our envy. It’s nice to feel you have something that others don’t and we want to let Liam have that because it’s our last day and we might not get a chance again if he heads to the noisy quarry where there’s no use for a voice. Gestures will do. We’ll run along the limestone lip and wave.

Miss Lynch wipes her nose with her mustard corduroy sleeve that was definitely once a pant leg. There are sobbing sounds in 5th and the high pitch of voices competing with reason. We get hung up on a word she said – portent (without the im-) – and miss the conclusion. Shannon’s turn goes quick because she found nothing in the box and even though no one says it we imagine her running her fingers all around the box to see is there a small diamond she missed and then we’re skittering again and Shannon doesn’t give two shites but Miss Lynch looks a bit mauled and then we feel sick because we don’t take this lightly.

Someone robbed you of it, Miss Lynch tells Shannon. Someone took it from you, and you may know who and when. She lowers her voice. How dreadful.

Shannon stops smiling and the blush drains. She holds Miss Lynch’s gaze, turning her head slowly so that she’s offering Miss Lynch her freckled cheek. Ever since Shannon found Miss Lynch taking the short-cut to the beach, facing off with a bull too far down the field to turn back, they’ve been bonded. A calf wobbling around behind the bull. Shannon gave instructions in a booming voice as she hopped the fence to help Miss Lynch out-bravado the animals. No, says Shannon. No one stole enthin belongin to me. There’s no clock on the wall and none of us has a watch. Call it a minute before Miss Lynch says, levelly:

If you say so.

I say so.

And we’re not sure if we want her to be so clipped with Miss Lynch. Anyone can see whatever Shannon’s missing she’ll live without. What was taken might be so worthless she’d never have noticed it gone. Like the dead-ends Tara’ll sweep off the floor of A Cut Above. Like taking clothes in off the line at the first lick of rain and putting out the ashes. Doesn’t she want Miss Lynch to say what it is, for the knowledge of it? The advice she’s doling out as a leaving gift.

Shannon’s defences are up, Miss Lynch says, looking at each of us in turn. As is often the way of the burgled –

Shannon bunches her hands on the table and Tara twirls her friendship bracelets made of catgut as though she’s winding a watch. She blurts out: I found a camera!

We all beam at Tara. But Miss Lynch isn’t done with Shannon – she can’t send her out to the world unadmittedly burgled. Look at me! Miss Lynch says. I’d know! She wears a scooped smile, which she holds out like a bowl . . . then drops. But not in here, with you. There’s no call for defences. When each of you walks out that door, you’ll start to stockpile defences. It’ll be your main concern. Gather gather gather. You’ll hoard them. Cars. Coats. Drugs. Tattoos. Gold Claddagh rings. Perfumes. All shapes and sizes. But don’t let them fool you into feeling safe. They’re worth nothing. Nothing and no one can protect you. That fact is the only defence worth grasping.

The wild garlic stench from the bunch in the sink is giving us headaches. We want to tolerate it, but a break would help . . . If there’s to be no break, it feels like home time should be soon. Someone in 5th pipes up about Declan. He’s asleep and should they wake him. Miss Lynch goes to inspect the hand for congealing. She looks into the blue plastic bucket and tips it to see how much blood is pooled in the bottom. A turret’s worth. Evidently the bandage wasn’t tight enough, so she redoes it and Declan wakes, whining, and Miss Lynch says fixing the bandage will sting but she’ll phone his mummy to come and get him when it’s done, and Would you like a lolly to pep you up a bit? Bríona gets a lolly from the cupboard and we all salivate at the pastel yellow-pink sherbet. When Miss Lynch is done with the hand and the phone-call, she returns, asking Tara: What sort of camera? And was the lens facing down or up?

Immensely relieved about Declan, Tara tells us it was a disposable camera, lens down, that had been all used up – she’d checked by trying to roll the little wheel thing for new film.

Do you think it means I’ll be a photographer?

Do you want to be a photographer?

The rain slants across the window behind, carrying a wet wind in it, as Tara thinks. There’s only so much you can photograph drenched. I want to work at Google.

Miss Lynch looks to be sucking on something bitter since she gave Declan the lolly. He’s zonked out on his desk and the blood bucket was emptied into the sink on top of the garlic and the wasp-paste: a good basis for some potion. His-mother-is-coming-for-him-and-he’ll-get-looked-after is the wrong message to send us away with. That is why Miss Lynch says what she says.

There is an undeveloped film inside that camera, Tara, and you won’t ever see the photographs. You’ll live with the vague sense of what’s there – the latent rumour – but it won’t ever clarify from the negative into a less-fogged image. Miss Lynch is trembling with energy and 5th class have stopped talking record-smashing and how really long fingernails coil into pig tails. The wind has moved the worst of the rainclouds along and it’s easing, but there’s a shade on the room the colour of damp heather and it feels late. Mister O’Malley’s classroom breaks into a hullabaloo, marking lunchtime, but we are not hungry. Miss Lynch continues:

A box is no use to contain it. You need to go back to the place and to dig yourself a pit, Tara. You need to fill the box with salt water or urine so the film spoils, then wrap the box in good strong skin and stitch it shut a thousand times. You need to bury the box in soil – not peat that would only preserve it – and pack the earth like a suitcase before you stamp on it. Do you get the idea, Tara?

When Tara finally nods, a tear falls onto her desk, where it sits preserved on the lacquer. It reflects all the dots of us around her, like a ladybird.

We insert all manner of bad things onto the film. We feel bad to do this. But we think it’s because Tara was his best friend. Miss Lynch might imagine it’s a film of the friendship and she wants Tara to leave it behind in this room, not to take it with her.

But leaving behind memories is hard to do. We tried it. Some stay with us against our will. The poppy bruise stays. No one’s hand is in the air but Miss Lynch says: Yes?

Macdara is holding two pencils like chopsticks, picking up a rubber. His fringe is a black feather pasted to his forehead. Chocolate wrappers, he says, uneasily, when Miss Lynch asks what he found in the box. His voice broke early when he was in 3rd class, much to Mister O’Malley’s annoyance. And today the depth of his voice sends shivers up our spines because it’s not his voice that’s out of place any longer. It’s us, here. It’s what’s in store.

Quality Street, asks Miss Lynch, or Roses?

The rubber pops free of his pencil-chopsticks and plinks to the floor like a champagne cork at the end of a horse race with money on it. Celebrations.

Right you are, says Miss Lynch. The party is over.

 

*

 

The rain’s stopped and it’s white out. Breaktime’s over and they’re back in class next door, doing quiet lessons. We didn’t eat yet but Miss Lynch sent 5th class to go with Declan to the gate and to sit there sharing their sandwiches till his mam comes. Our tummies grumble but in a good way.

Words that are part of our lesson: To chaperon. To divvy. To soothsay. (Not the same as soothing.) We say to close her eyes. We slot her sunglasses on her, to help block out the afternoon that’s getting bright. We say to think of an outdoors place where she feels calm and happy. A beach, a forest, a field of baled hay, a boreen with grass down the middle, a boat in a lake, the edge of a cliff where a storm petrel would sit with his wings wide. A make-believe place or a real one. She has to be there alone. With every breath in, to become immersed in her place. With every breath out, to be surrounded. She’s there, in our circle. In her place. We grin wildly at each other, giddy at how kind and graceful we wield her, at all the better things an adult imagination will find. When she’s arrived at the box, we bring her slow slowly slow back to her senses and try to sound ungreedy when we ask what she found.

 An egg, hatching.

We all sip on the air. Some of us roll up our sleeves. Miss Lynch still wears her sunglasses but her eyes are open beneath them. She’s searching for an empty chair beside us to rest her concern on but there is none, we make sure. What sort of egg, Miss Lynch?

Ovoid.

Avoid?

No.

A void?

A three-dimensional circle is a sphere. A three-dimensional oval is an ovoid.

O, we say, rolling our heads.

This matches all the things she’s taught us and it’s just as matter-of-fact. A two-dimensional life is a death. She’d said this to explain the sense of choosing ashes over casket: a strange sum of what lies above the earth divided by what lies below. We make our mouths oval. Egg-shaped, Shannon says.

Shhh, Shannon, with this small talk. Miss Lynch is holding an egg, hatching. It’s our turn to explain it. What occurs to us, at first, is that she’s breaking. Her responsibilities were sent down to the gate. She’s passed the responsibility of herself to us like a bucket to be carried to the sink and tipped. She’d made us ready to handle such stuff. We brainstorm the moment. The image. Take turns expanding the sentence so that it goes all around the circle in a beginning a middle and an end: the meaning everywhere, the vocabulary nowhere.

Miss Lynch.

In the box there was an egg, hatching. Once upon a time there was a mother to lay the egg and tend the egg and hide it from the father who was rash and would break it open early. The father would splash cold seawater on the egg to wake it up. To wean it off what’s warm. Later, he’d splash cold seawater on the boy to make him a man. To make the boy better reflect him. Johnnie sat in our circle and made us complete. There were eight of us and we sat two by two. Johnnie sat with Tara and dipped Ghostbuster toys into her yoghurt instead of spoons and licked the yoghurt off like ghost-goo full of germs. Even though Johnnie was quiet as Liam before Liam went quiet, we loved him. We knew why. The yoghurt was fruits of the forest which is the same colour as a poppy bruise and he had them. There was nothing we could do except to keep him out among the rock pools and streams, away from his father and his head. When he drowned we were down to seven, which is uneven, and it is also a prime number. That cannot be divided except by one and itself. We were only forming and our skin was made of thin shell. But now we are not so thin and breakable. Miss Lynch. You needn’t take our measurements and compare them to his. We are taller. We are wider. Just look at the pencil rain on the walls. It goes halfway up the windows, so we can open them. Johnnie won’t be missing tomorrow because we won’t be here. You won’t see us and count our uneven number and hear plashing in your head. In your box there was an egg, hatching.

Bubbles form in the corners of our mouths as we speak because we don’t swallow or pause for fear of losing hold of the sentence. Miss Lynch takes off the sunglasses and because her eyes are wet and red the silver eyelashes are like slivers of moon. It’s you! we say. The egg. It’s because you’re ready to get out.

Miss Lynch greets our readiness with the look of a fisherman arrived home from a storm. In one piece. Crates empty. Her limbs jut out of her centre like a huge jigsaw piece with nothing to lock into. Mister O’Malley would tell her Sing up! if he heard the vibrato of her good strong voice:

I took it into my hands to watch life break the surface, she explains. I felt warmth there, in my palm . . . A will to burst out into the air . . . but it cooled so fast. The cracking stopped. The fight petered out. There was a fissure large enough to fit my thumbnail into. And I did. I cleaved the egg open. And there was nothing inside? The sunglasses on Miss Lynch’s lap show us enlarged and reversed in their bulbous lenses. Not even dust!

‘To cleave’ is part of the lesson. ‘Peter out’ makes us wonder: Who is Peter anyway? No one knows because he faded away. We each find explanations for the nothingness but our ideas don’t really make a beginning-middle-end sense. It’s just vocabulary. All circumference. To disentangle. To ghostbust. To mince.

From all the talk, we are thirsty. Shannon turns the tap on full blast and we dive our heads into the bunch of wild garlic and drink with our noses pinched, with the sight of a boy’s maroon blood washing away. It tastes stony and cold and good. One of us takes a wasp-wing on our fingertip and blows on it like on an eyelash. What did you wish for? The answer gets gobbled by water and we don’t stoop down to recover the wing because wishes are hard to come up with. To recover. That had been part of a lesson when we were only young.

 

*

 

Outside, we take a hit of sunlight straight to the pupil. A fireball blooming in the void! We know it can blind us but our eyes will water and anyways we can blink. The clouds are on their way to America, like a flock of spooked sheep, and there’s so much landscape to trace we don’t need to think of the ocean. Wild yellow gorse for a road. Across the bramble and rocks, we form circles with our fingers and thumbs for the long-ranging whistle.

Because the sound we send out is real, because it assumes no mercy, all the Border collies in Connemara come pelting our way like a legion of horses galloping for the Somme.

 

 

 

 

Photograph © Danijel Mihajlović

American Journal
The Advent of the AI Co-Author