The Human Form Divine
By Aiden O’Reilly.
There is a library, at the corner of Eglinton road and the park: you may have passed it on the way to the credit union. It is a dull squat building, with sky-lights visible on the flat roof as you approach from the avenue. You enter through an iron gate and mount five steps to a brass framed glass door. Immediately facing you is the librarians’ workspace, with one channel leading left and one to the right. Left is for entry: there is no sign, but such things are understood.
Close under the librarian’s eye is the children’s section. It is given a little alcove of its own, with miniature tables and stools. Colourful books lie ready to look at on the tables. The Book of Why, The Book of How, The Book of When.
You can picture the library. It is a haven of reflection. Now picture this: it is a small boy, sitting on one of the foot stools which are used to reach the top shelves. He is rapt in concentration, oblivious to the old men seeking out their hobby books, the older pupils who come in cliques to cog their homework.
Although Nicholas is not yet fourteen, no-one prevents him from wandering freely through the building. He reads the books and understands them. Yet he does not know where these books have come from, why they were written, why they are hoarded here together. Between philosophy and science there are five paces, from these to the sports section another two.
What happens then, when he is not reading? You may be familiar with the round. There are alarm clocks, school gates, breakfasts going cold on the table, neighbours dropping by for a chat, strict teachers and easy teachers. There are cheese slices, rooms to tidy, radio pips, bangs on the fence, football training, A to Z.
The boy thinks: a life is constituted of events. These events, quickly or slowly, all pass away. A person is the events he has lived through. The real events can be numbered. Over the past six months he can list them, meagre as they are, too thin to hook a life on to. It seems if he were to live a thousand years they would not add up to much.
1. In a class at school my teacher said it was not good to read too much.
2. I saw a dog run over by a car, and it crawled to the edge of the road. It didn’t bark or howl.
3. A different teacher was sacked for alcoholism. He was a nice man.
4. Bubbles were rising from the bed of the river where it rounds the sweet factory. I saw a rat there.
5. I wanted to rob a mini-globe from the shop.
6. I saw Treacy walk up to Foyle in the school yard and threaten to break his arm. Then I knew anyone can say what they want, it is only the consequences they have to bear.
the girl thinking:
My garden then was peopled by my minor gods, nymphs and wood-sprites, taking the forms of floppy dolls and shapes of leaves; places of atmospheres that held my moods, mossy places cool, like a cellar, where my thoughts were stored. My head was too small for them. A tangle of shrub and twig does not force the eye along its lines, there is nothing to decipher or understand. When you look at it for too long you begin to notice only motion, a waving leaf, a startled spider. To me, at that age, it was possible to get lost among the undergrowth, be sidetracked down a corridor of green, behind another tree, and another, across the rotted remains of the fence without noticing it, and away beyond earshot, out in the wild country. Follow me, quickly, a pebble dash of birdsong, quick now, the spider’s web will not deceive, the slug’s trail is not there to make you slip, the thorns are not vindictive, follow, there are places where your moods have been captured, they hang in clusters like bitter hops, here, under the low branch, the smell of mushrooms that can kill and out to green-glow again, the shuddering fronds, the clinging stickle-balls, the brambles copper-stained and crinkly dry, to the edge of the thorn wall, here, at the decayed toy windmill, here.
It was a boy. A boy? There in my kingdom of goblins and voices. I had no experience in dealing with humankind, and consequently no embarrassment about staring at the wax candles of his arms, the white lamp of his throat. His face was shaped of eyebrows. I liked him and he said, “I lost a ball and came to look for it,” and with the infinite wisdom of a ten-year-old girl I knew that he was drifting into the world of humans, paying his respects to them by saying what he would be expected to say. He had shiny black hair and a face with cheeks. A face is not like a spider’s web or whorl of leaves. They draw you in or draw you out. But I just continued to stare, and he chose to understand, or not to understand, and said goodbye when I liked him. My uncle said he had climbed in to pick the raspberries.
The mother at the sink, looking through the window to the heavens. The bird song of children at play. The creamy softness of detergent, the joy of gleaming ceramic slipping out from the congested water. There are a thousand things to do to nail this day into place.
The sister skips in, coming through the front door no less, mammy mammy, and trailing after her a horde of kids all giggly and gaggly and bold as brass. She stops and sniggers and is strangely silent, standing on the kitchen step, swaying in her skirt. Like a chorus the horde of three take up the giggle and then also stop. The girl looks sideways: she is thinking hard. She thinks a second too long and the others collapse in laughter again.
“Guess what weeee saw,” she says. The mother shakes the water off her hands briskly. Mothers have their roles and positions, their curls and creams.
“What is it?” she asks curtly.
“Weee sawww,” she twirls from side to side until her sneakers squeak tracks on the lino and her skirt flares. The mother concedes her modicum of patience. A gust of outdoors air breathes through the house. The front door slams in the distance. One child tugs another, pulling him back towards the hall door. Patience is probed to the limit.
“What have you to say?” The sister hesitates. At the moment of saying, it seems too ridiculous to begin to say.
“We saw Nick kissing Charlotte,” and she laughs. The mother listens with a keen confusion, accepting the bare words. She has a strain of that adult wiseness which yes even adults yes have their own ways and wiseness.
“Young Charlotte, over at the allotments.”
“What nonsense are you telling me,” she frowns, dismissing it, and in the same breath, “what do you mean by kissing?”
“He was kissing her, everybody saw it,” the child insisted, though this had not been the question. The children leave, the incident exorcised from memory without taking any place in the scheme of things.
What to think? A twelve year-old boy. A ten year-old girl. An untended allotment, a kiss. Things that once remained hidden are now exposed and explained. We join hands in the clear atomic light, no longer strangers to one another. We know what’s at the back of things. We know.
There must be light shone on this matter.
The parents meet. Tea and biscuits on the table.
“That’s going too far missus Guin. He’s only a small boy. It’s not worth mentioning hardly.”
“I don’t know what kind of messing he’s at. He should be out playing more with kids his own age. I don’t know what kind of ideas he gets into his head. He’s not a very sporty young fellow. Out a bit more he should be. Though there’s kids on this street that I wouldn’t like to see him hanging around with.”
“That’s true. It’s a terrible thing to say about another person’s child, but there’s some on the street that’ll go to the bad.” The mother purses her lips, feeling dark insinuations behind the words.
“Well there’ll be no more wandering around the streets for Nicholas” she averred, her glaring inconsistency going unremarked. “I don’t want him running wild on the streets.”
“No missus Guin, he needs to have his bit of play with the rest of them.”
“He needs an eye kept on him. Honestly I don’t know what’s going through his head.”
The other woman laughed good-naturedly. “Isn’t it ridiculous what young boys can get up to?”
The mother tightened her mouth. “Well I’ll tell him not to be interfering with your little one any more.”
“Missus Guin, not at all, your making too much of it. He’s only a child with no wit. Don’t be saying anything of the sort to him. It’ll only put ideas in his head. It’ll only set him thinking and make him feel bad. Sure it was only some silliness.”
“There’s no knowing what kids that age can get up to. They’re no angels, that’s for sure.”
“Your little lad comes as close as they get. He gives me a wave through the railings when he’s on the way home from school. And to see him with his little books under his arm when he’s on the way back from the library! Such a marvellous little fellow. I’d say he’s good at school, is he?”
“I’ve no complaints in that department, it’s true. He gets good reports, more than I can say for myself. I don’t know who he takes after but it’s not me.” She felt a tinge of pride and reconciliation that things were being brought back into perspective, though she felt a little out-manoeuvred by the other woman. Mrs. Guin felt herself being evaluated by that perky scarved head. Even the woman’s tolerant attitude towards Nick was presumptuous, as though she knew more about the boy than his own mother. Not for the first time she had presumed to pass judgment on how a child should be reared.
“It must be his father so. Let them grow up their own way, there’s nothing much we can do for them. My one now, only a few months ago she got lost in the allotments and we were looking for her for hours. We thought she might be in there but we were sure she’d be crying. We called her name up and down the garden and looked back inside the house and out on the road for her. And then we found her hiding away at the back of the raspberry bushes. She’d been listening to us all calling and never opened her mouth. Would you credit it? What possessed her to sit there and never answer us? I don’t know. For over an hour. Away with the fairies. So that’s the way I see the little incident with your little fellow.”
Mrs. Guin was vaguely discomfited by this sudden resurgence of a matter which both had been dismissed as unworthy of mention only moments before. She felt the return of a dim horror that it would not go away, but the next best thing was not to mention it.
The door opened slowly. The father stood there, looking for a reason to disturb such dedicated study. So concentrated that the head never rose from the page.
“Nick? Your mother is making a good dinner. It’ll be ready in about ten minutes.” A pause. “Is everything all right at school?”
The event tries once more to break into words, where it had briefly, in the voices of children, attained a distorted existence. This time it fails. The door closes. The boy turns back to the pages exultantly. The event relapses back into its own place, among the debris left from the clear white atomic light that sought to expose him in a diagram. He is left alone with his tenderness and graces, the divinity of the human form, the rapture. His momentary invention, an artifice of feeling that has not yet been named, and likely never will.
There are other gardens and other places of refuge. They grow smaller now, and no longer take the form of fronds of leaves and mossy grottos. Now they are the slag heap of a mining station, the oily pool at the bottom of a lift-shaft, the sheds at the back of the abandoned fertiliser mill. There, there is room enough to wander and to hide. The smell of decomposing bonemeal will envelop me. I can feel free to breathe. This is a good place, with burst sacks spilling their rotten contents across the floor and a bare bulb sufficient only to cut a tense puncture in the darkness. The dull grind of machinery is a distant sound, far out there through indeterminable layers of damp brick, through wooden doors hanging off their hinges, scrap heaps of tangled iron and stacks of slimy boards. Dark machine oil, blacker than thought, seeps across the floor. It is here I will meet my lover. Here, beyond the compass of action and reaction, we will intertwine and bring about new forms of being.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aiden O’Reilly spent seven years in Germany and Poland and is now based in Dublin. He studied mathematics and did some research into a QM dynamical system. He has worked variously as a mathematics lecturer, translator, building-site worker, IT teacher, dark-room technician, and technical writer. In the four years since he returned to Ireland from abroad his work has appeared in 3:AM, The Dublin Review and The Stinging Fly and Galway Now among others. He has not done a creative writing MA nor worked in television.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 25th, 2009.