A stranger is staring at me.
I turn and pretend to peer out the window, as though concerned with the tram that hurtles past, five faces behind its dirty windows, or with the beckoning storm cloud above it. Two women hurry across the street, arms linked at the elbow, hitching their skirts up from puddles and horse dirt. By the bridge, a boy picks a pebble and flings it into the river’s liquid shrug and rush. The frothing surface absorbs the stone with a gulp.
I sneak another glance back, and yes, she is still staring at me. Everything else is as it always is here in the ladies’ reading room, the air warm and lively with whisper-murmurs, the swish-which of magazine pages in Gentlewoman and Lady’s Pictorial, and the occasional dull thud from the General Reading Room.
Still, from behind her glasses, she stares.
She is almost familiar: about my own age, her hair a dark red, wearing a green dress. A hat lies next to her book and there’s an umbrella folded at her feet. Maybe I’ve seen her before, but I’m sure that we have never spoken. I always sit alone here, while others huddle and whisper loudly of doing their bit for the war effort, knitting socks or organising fêtes or fundraising gymkhanas. Late afternoons such as now are quietest here, as most of the ladies have made their way home to attend to evening duties. I have no such responsibilities. I sit with a book in my lap. I linger.
I can’t bring myself to look directly at the watcher, so I try to act nonchalant, letting my gaze dawdle around the room on its way to spy on her. The library counter is un-manned. A stout woman waits there, drumming her fingertips on the counter, and sighing crossly. The windows darken. Beyond the glass, a blinkered carthorse shudders and takes three skittish sideways steps, steaming flanks trembling, shoulder muscles moving like an ocean in storm. The driver hops nimbly from his perch, grips the animal by a cheek-strap, and leads him away.
I glance over my shoulder. Yes, she is still peering at me. On catching my eye, her gaze darts downwards to give the impression of being engrossed in her reading. I feel myself blush, an itch tingling across my skin like a premonition. Maybe she sees through me, past the respectable plot told by my clothes of young, neat wife, past the blank, pleasant face that is the only hope of a childless widower, past the dutiful smile that said Yes Mother, if you think it’s for the best, I will marry Father’s friend. Perhaps this woman sees what the cat saw — that I am a fraud.
For months, I tried to befriend my predecessor’s cat, bribing her with breakfast sausages. Tibby always grabbed the greasy meat and padded away to gobble it in sideways mouthfuls, watching me from the corner of a green eye. Whenever I try to play ‘lady of the house’ with her, whispering, Here kitty, here kittykit, she only glares at me, licking her paws and swiping them over her face. Tibby recognised instantly that I am a fake; she shuns me, she shames me. Once, I caught her and forced her into my lap with heavy hands, she let me rub her fur but she did not purr. Instead, she watched me through cold eyes, clenching and unclenching her claws into the soft flesh of my thigh, until finally I let go and she scampered towards the door, turning at the threshold to regard me for a slow second before stalking away. Horrible creature. Her long unembarrassed gaze somehow reminds me of this lady who — yes, still — watches me now.
I pretend a glance towards the door and peep at her again. I do know her! I saw her here before, she is one of Susanne Day’s ladies. Kathleen, I think, or Katy. I remember her putting fresh copies of ‘Votes for Women’ on the tables. When she offered me a pamphlet I shook my head, but she pressed it into my hand so I took it, sheepishly, then threw it in a nearby bin, even though I could feel her watching me as I did it. Yes, it’s the same woman, fiddling with her hat pin now and glancing at me again. A wonder she hasn’t taken off to nurse soldiers on the front, along with her mistress Day. No doubt she thinks me a ninny. Before she has a chance to goad me into taking more of her rally pamphlets, I gather my things and leave.
~ ~ ~
I am home earlier than usual, so I sit in the front bedroom with a novel plucked from the shelf, one of my predecessor’s. It’s only four o’clock but storm clouds darken the city to a shadowy dusk. A log spits in the fireplace, and the room feels cosy and complete; so much so that I can almost convince myself that I belong here.
Her books still fill the shelves, all romances and happy endings. I find these stories so tiresome. I’m always distracted by imagining some minor character’s story, the hag to whom the heroine hands a farthing, or some scullery maid sighed at in exasperation. If I were in a book, say one about that Katy, that watcher, she’d be the heroine of some beautifully illustrated novel of suffrage and courage, where I’d be no more than a background silhouette in the illustration of her library scene, someone so minor that the book’s artist doesn’t even bother to fill me in, an outlined shoulder, probably, or the back of a head.
The book lies in my lap as I watch lamps lit in drawing rooms and kitchens all over the valley. The storm clenches a slow black fist overhead. A first rumble of thunder could be mistaken for a cart rolling down Military Hill toward Victoria Road, but it is followed by a faint flicker at the corner of my eye.
I lay my brow against the window-glass and wonder where my husband is, whether he too is watching the storm, whether he cares for storms at all. I have never asked him about his fondnesses, whether he prefers storms or sunshine, tea or juice, cats or dogs. Instead of asking, I imagine his preferences to distract myself from the tangled mess of questions I cannot bear to ask of myself: whether accepting a betrothal out of simple obedience is in fact a sensible decision, for example, or whether it is vanity for a girl to yearn to be a wife in command of a household, or whether love is just another frill in fairy-tales designed to lull girls into the world of men. I try to quench those questions as soon as they spark, yet still, like this lightning, they flash at the boundaries of my thoughts.
The second rumble rolls longer: I feel it build behind my breastbone, sending a sheen of goosebumps over my arms. Another flash yellows the sky, and the whole city is transformed, eerie bright, and then flipped back to black.
Hail, sudden and hard, rattles the window. I count the tiny white grits at the heart of each drop as they roll down the glass, melting as they fall. The city cowers in the valley below, where I imagine the streets emptying, doorways filled with men seeking shelter, collars muffling their mouths. Katy might be there, I think, strolling through rainy laneways, her hat soaked, drops running down her neck, her arms swaying freely. I see myself walking with her, her friend. She smiles and nods as I speak, although I can’t imagine what intelligent thing I might possibly say to provoke this happy response. When we approach a puddle, she slides a gloved hand over my elbow and clasps my arm lightly, our strides suddenly matching, our feet moving together as we cross the street.
I shiver. The third grumble is a roar that jolts me back to the room and sets my whole body humming. The sound of the hail is louder now, and I realise with a cold rush why — I must have left the window of the back bedroom open this morning.
In I run, and see the sash still high, the sound of hail amplified where so many hard drops ricochet off the frame and spit into the room. The inner sill is already dripping onto the rug, where my diary sits, face down, and worse, much worse, in the garden below where everything is lush and green and quivering in the storm, I see something move. Something is twisting wildly from the branch of the cherry tree.
I sprint down the stairs so fast that I stumble, scraping my spine over the last six steps and thumping my head hard against the banister. Tears of pain quiver my vision as I turn the cold doorknob and run out into the garden. Water soaks through my stockings, and hail stings my face. I run to the tree.
She perches on a branch just out of my reach, tail swiping wildly, her fur drenched. She yowls long and hoarse. I call to her, rubbing wet fingers together, Oh Tibby, oh Tibby, here kitty. My God, I cannot let him lose her as well.
The lightning again. I cry, Oh please, Tibby, but the cat just yowls a low mournful howl, the slits of her eyes engorged into fat black moons. My mistress is dead, her eyes say, and I am a clever beast, I could never trust a child to save me from such horror.
Thunder again. Tibby holds herself at a slant, her tail fuzzy and peculiar. I reach both my hands up over my head, stretch on wet tiptoe as high as I can and beg her, beg her — imagine begging a cat, but I do, I implore her — both of my hands stretching high up into the black sky, where enormous clouds stagger into each other and roar overhead, louder, louder than anything I’ve ever heard, and my dress and underskirts are soaked through, my hair loose, two feet in a deepening puddle, every inch of my skin drenched and every tiny hair on my body quivering, and my mouth open as though in prayer, and the last words that come from my mouth into that electric air are — O come to me, o come to me, o do, o please, and I will be better, I will, I — and those are the words that bring it down.
The light. The lightning. The lightening.
It comes from the clouds. My words are an accidental invocation, maybe, some secret spell to an ancient deity, but when I wake, everything is changed. Everything. Or maybe it is only I who is changed, but when I open my eyes to the world of this wet garden, and the three stories of red-brick rising to a vast sky, everything, everything feels changed and I am lying on the ground, blinking at the lush opening of the world: by my eye, the puddles brimming, filling with sky-water, each drop an o growing to O, rippling to swelling edges, and the world all falling water, all o and O and o and I am full of awe, I will lie here forever, my mouth filling with the tang of rust, of licked metal. There could be nothing to stand up for anymore, for everything is alive here, and so close, all these perfect dripping O’s and, and,
something touches me, something sudden and cold against my arm, and there is Tibby, her eyes narrow-slitted again, touching her nose to my skin, prodding me to return to the waking world, for no woman should lie in puddles, this is not behaviour that her mistress would tolerate.
She pushes the side of her face against my leg, wiping her feline saliva there as though marking me, and mewling, although I don’t hear a sound. My ears hiss. Her open-mouthed face is a question mark at the end of an animal sentence that I can’t hear. I roll onto my side and see her tail vanish over the wall. I am alone, lying in this wet garden, alone and shivering, watching all the countless grasses shivering too.
Hauling myself up sets the whole garden spinning. I drag myself to my bedroom, peel off the singed, wet dress. I sink into cold sheets and a dreamless sleep.
~ ~ ~
When I wake, the room is dark and I am both cold and clammy, my sheets thrown aside. The drapes have not been drawn. The lamp is unlit. On seeing me so dishevelled, the maid must have wanted to preserve my dignity. To my surprise I do not feel my usual cringing embarrassment. Pain runs all down my arm, to where my wedding ring has burned a blistering circle around my finger.
Knees trembling, I move to the wardrobe and fumble in search of a nightdress. When the wardrobe door creaks open to reveal its mirrored inner gleam, I see myself, skin luminous in the dark. My temple has swelled pink and tender, my cheek and neck are mud-stained. A thin, red mark had webbed itself from under my ear, branching all the way down the length of my arm. It is unlike any burn I had ever seen. Blisters bloom along its length. I lift my hand high and turn around, peering at my reflection over my shoulder. The mark spreads itself over my back too, crimson, delicate and branched as the fronds of a fern.
My face in the mirror is unmarked. What would my husband think, if he visited my room now? He only ever visits in night so black that I can’t see him, so that I can only feel him, his hands opening me and the push, the gasp, and the long warmth of his body against mine in the seconds afterwards, the hot ticklish trickle of his tears on my neck. Silence, then, and the click of the door.
With each month, I puzzle over what I am doing wrong. When we married, they all watched me with such expectation, his family, his colleagues, even his servants, they watched me into summer and autumn, but I remain as skinny as ever. I haven’t changed as they had hoped: into a plump mother, birthing a bright future for them all to live in. My face greyed under their gaze, the pink paling from my cheeks. I felt myself relieved when they began to avert their eyes.
Now, this strange twisting burn marks me as ugly and as fraudulent as I truly am, and now, strangely, I no longer care. Now, in this scorch-pain, I bear only light.
~ ~ ~
For days, I stay in bed, claiming a cold. I rise only to dab the translucent, fluid-filled sores that bustle around the wound. Once the blisters begin to heal, I return to my daily business, such as it is. No one asks any questions.
Today, I choose this dark afternoon to button my coat and return to my seat under the library window. At one end of a long, low table, a knot of women huddle, heads close together, whispering over a copy of The Illustrated London News, and at the other end, the red-haired watcher, Katy, who stared at me weeks before, engrossed now in a thick novel.
I let my eye linger on her, daring her to look up, but she does not notice me. I am almost disappointed. Yet why would she notice me? To the world, I am dull as ever; only I know how the lightning twitches inside me now. It is impatient, this inner blaze, it demands revolution, threatens to take over me if I don’t change. Its twitch makes me long for Katy to see me again, but why, and what would I do if she did? Would I challenge her stare and her silly pamphlets, or would the lightning ignite me to say something else entirely? Do I want to entice this stranger to become my friend or my enemy?
Nearby, a lanky girl, face speckled with pimples, sits in a high-backed chair staring intently at the periodical in her lap. I watch her gaze dart to the empty counter as she slowly tears a fashion plate free of the page. The others ignore the ripping sound that cuts through the hushed whispers of the reading room. I tilt my head towards the window and draw a sharp breath. I recognise the clouds that are beginning to darken the city again. The library lamps seem brighter than before. Thunder rumbles in the distance. I shudder.
In the cold silence that follows, my breath quickens, shallows. Then the air throbs, electric, and my pulse quickens at the sight of it, as if that airborne light has imprinted some internal, invisible mark to match my scar. I watch this new lightning fall over our city, and wonder if it watches me too.
As the storm darkens overhead, I begin to fret. I cannot let the light-pain touch me again. I forced myself to show resilience through the last wound, but I don’t feel that I could ever summon that strength again. Better that it would kill me, this time. Maybe it will. The thunder grows louder. The sound sickens me.
Other women stand and begin to leave the building, huddling in pairs to make their way to trams. I cannot bring myself to walk into the storm, and so, here I am, facing the sky-fire again. My body trembles, my knees weaken, my vision blurs. I worry that I will faint, cause a scene, that a librarian might have to lift me, somehow causing passers-by to see my scars.
A third thunderclap brings a rush of nausea that sends me swiftly out of the reading room, through the hall, past doors to the lending library, the reference library, the newsroom. I lean into the wall, sweat stinging my skin, then push myself onwards again. The sky beyond the library windows is deepening, black-bellied clouds spattering heavy drops. Another flash of lightning and the wall-lamps flicker, until even the particles of marble, quartz and granite embedded in the floor seem to jitter, and I stumble, jarring my shoulder against the doorjamb.
I fall through the bathroom door, crumpling to my knees as everything darkens. Far above, the growl of thunder grows louder, deeper. I fall.
~ ~ ~
When I open my eyes, the red-haired lady is stooped over me, hand on my cheek. I lift myself to my elbows, then sink back to the floor again. I can’t think of her name. “Oh, it’s you. What happened?”
“Seems you keeled over, by the look of things. I wasn’t sure whether to call for a doctor or to stay with you.” She reaches down and touches my neck where my pulse judders. Her brow ripples with concern. I see blue veins on her wrist and suddenly I want to press my lips to them, to feel the beat of her pulse there. I shock myself with this thought, and blush — I blame the lightning, its erratic inner flare, it must be turning me crazy. She doesn’t remove her hand. She touches my face. I feel my cheek redden under her palm. “Let me help. Please.” I shake my head, try to shove myself up again. She leans towards me, extends a hand but I push it away. “Could you give me a moment to collect myself? I’m sure you have more pressing political matters to attend to.” I don’t mean to be curt, and yet that is how my voice sounds, simultaneously tremulous and harsh. She takes a step back.
“Oh. Of course… but I heard the doors locked some time ago. I didn’t want to leave you alone. I’ll check for a key downstairs.” She stands and steps towards the door, so I steel myself and stand too, leaning into the wall. My hands and knees shake and the room quivers, all liquid edges. I fall.
As I fall, she is by my side, holding my elbow and wrist firmly. She manoeuvres me into the hall and gentles me into a chair, one hand still at my arm. The room spins. I close my eyes, draw deep breaths, and try to calm my trembling legs. When I open my eyes, she is still holding my wrist, staring at my lighting-scarred skin. She lifts my sleeve.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, “How rude of me, you must think me so–” and yet her fingers continue to move over the skin of my wrist, tracing the thin tendrils of the scar towards my elbow. Her fingers follow the branching scar, follows the lightning’s path through the thin fabric over my back, to my neck, behind my earlobe. Her eyes widen. She touches my skin as though it is a map that only she can read, the cartography of an unknown territory to be illuminated. Her touch is electricity, it runs through me like a shock, a static flash, like pure light, a gift of sky.
~ ~ ~
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
The Lightning, The Lightening is a story commissioned by the Cork International Short Story Festival and The Farmgate Café as part of the exhibition – Women of the South: Radicals and Revolutionaries. The exhibition highlights historical women involved in the fight for Irish independence, social justice, suffrage and women’s rights amongst other issues. Doireann’s story is directly inspired by the women of the exhibtion, but written from a contemporary viewpoint.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual writer whose work has appeared in The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, The Stinging Fly, Poetry, and elsewhere. Her third book Clasp was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Award 2016 and was awarded the Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize. Among her other awards are the Ireland Chair of Poetry bursary 2014-2015 and a Wigtown Award for Gaelic poetry (Scotland). She writes ‘with tenderness and unflinching curiosity’ (Poetry).