The light is dying and I’m cycling as fast as I can, west towards the Gap and the frosted bulk of Annagh Hill. I’m whistling to myself, soon to meet my friends who’re going to sign my autograph book for my fifteenth year, tomorrow. Standing up out of the saddle, to pedal harder towards the brow of our hill, I’m half expecting my brother Lar to spring out and start firing sticks at my tyres, when I remember about his finger. He’d hurt it a few days ago and was still suffering yesterday, with a nasty, dirty-looking wound.
I wheel in at our own laneway and hear a lorry coming behind me on the Gorey Road, loaded up with Black and Tans. After the recent ambush, the area’s crawling with them. I push on, hearing the lorry come to a halt and park up at the start of our lane, to block off the main road.
In home, my daddy is sleeping in his chair by the fire. Two years now since my mother died and he’s never been the same. His nerves are still at him; more so lately when he’s after being up several nights with the calving, a souvenir stubble blackening his jaw. Like a mouse, I set down the messages.
On the floor, Lar is kicking his legs and playing cards. I notice the yellowy-greenish stains on the bandage around his little finger and ask if Daddy changed it lately. Lar shrugs. ‘Nah, he was too busy with the cows last night. And forgot again this morning!’
I remind him the nurse warned if it gets infected, he’d need a doctor. I do not relay what I overheard her telling Daddy, about blood poisoning and how he could get his end.
Scrubbing my hands raw, it’s only when I go to remove the bandage, that the foulest smell hits me. Kinda like the foot rot some of the ewes had last winter, when I helped Daddy trim the bits of hoof that were oozing… Peeling away the wet bandage, oh my Jesus – gangrene. I can see the wound is swollen and there’s a glistening discolouration of the skin tracking upwards. Already it’s gone beyond the first joint and passing the second, spreading towards the join of his hand.
‘Joan, stop holding my hand. I’m playing cards here!’
I clean off the pus, put on a new dressing and send Lar upstairs for a jumper.
He jerks awake and I explain about the gangrene, that he has to bring him to the doctor in Gorey, right away. Appalled that he forgot to look after the child, he’s pulling on his coat to go, when I think of the Tans blocking the road and warn him. Devastated, he stops in his tracks saying there’s no chance they’ll let a man through. That’s when my father takes my hands in his, saying they might let a girl out, if I’m willing to risk it?
Did you ever feel your mind close to splintering? I steer up the lane in semi-darkness. Himself on the carrier behind, complaining his finger is paining him. Up ahead, I can see figures lurking on the verge. ‘Turn back!’ Lar implores. I want to. But I can’t.
A wiry-looking man, must be close to thirty, he halts us, saying nobody in or out tonight. Special orders. I plead about the doctor, strip off the bandage. The Tan shines his lamp and immediately withdraws his hand, wiping it. Says he saw too much of that in Flanders. Moving close beside me and swivelling so Lar can’t see, he mimes chopping the finger off and waves me on, quick.
I’m not fast enough getting out onto the Gorey Road. A Senior Commander blinds me with his torch. He cuffs and boxes the younger man, bellowing and kicking at the bicycle. I’m told to stay indoors for the night. We fly home, Lar clinging on to me.
He goes bounding up to his bedroom. I seize the bottle of whiskey from the press. My father’s hollow face is before me. He knows the finger’ll have to come off. Morning could be too late. His face blanches but he steps outside, to fetch the little axe we use for chopping sticks. He douses it in boiling water and follows me upstairs.
I lay out the clean cloths and bandages the nurse left us. Lar doesn’t look up from his tin soldiers, when Daddy hunkers on the threshold, sorrowful.
‘I can’t hold it steady Joan. Tis you’ll have to do it.’
Wrapped in a tea towel, he slides the axe across the floor. And he goes. And I’m cursing him. And Lar is crowing, jigging up and down on the bed, repeating every juicy swearword.
Lar is made up and wastes no time pulling out the cork with his teeth.
I allow him one sup. He hates it but won’t let on. I grab the bottle and take a glug myself. He says I’m turning pea green. Crying-laughing, half-hysterical now, I cover our heads with a blanket, making it all a big game. Tell him to hush and wait for my instruction to drink again. He winks, he can only do the two eyes together, his cheeky face grinning back at me. And I leave him under his woollen tent.
Settling, I picture the ruthless technique my mother had for dismembering poultry at Christmas. Placing his little hand, palm down, on the chest of drawers and splaying out the baby finger, I tuck the rest down below the edge, out of harm’s way. Picking up the axe with my right hand, I tell Lar this time he can have two big sups! My hairline is a lather of sweat. ‘Now pet.’ And I raise the blade, listening for the first gulp. Then, just as I hear him take the second sup, I bring the axe crashing down.
My brother roars. I scream. And blood spatters my eyes, all over my pale green dress. Lar attacks me with his good hand, shouting in hysterics. Our father races in and begs him to be quiet, for fear the Tans will hear and swoop down upon us. Lar catches sight of his severed finger and swoons.
I go to work, raising his elbow onto the chest of drawers. I cover the wounded stub in clean cloth, putting pressure on with all my might. I feel the blood bubbling and pulsing. Daddy is on his knees in prayer, his quiet mutterings the only sound.
Minutes pass and the flow finally begins to staunch. Blood and whiskey are streaked all over the bed with Lar, curled in the middle of it. My father takes over then, pushing hard against the gash. I go and soap my bloodied fingers in the basin. Washing my two hands, I stop and look at them. They seem different to me now; no longer the hands of a child.
© Sylvia Cullen
This short story was written as part of Words & Deeds, a project which was funded and supported by Wexford County Council in partnership with the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media as part of the ‘Decade of Centenaries 2023 programme’.