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Excerpt from 'The Canal Bridge'

"The Canal Bridge" by Tom Phelan (Arcade, April 2014). Credit: Arcade Publishing

Kitty Hatchel

The heart in my chest jumped when I heard Sonny Mack shouting in his thin voice from the Bridge.

"Kee-teee. Kee-teee. Kee-teee."

It was a Saturday afternoon. I was just after dipping the scrubbing brush into the basin to start on the last chair outside the back door. There were soap bubbles on my knuckles and fingers.

"Kee-teee. Kee-teee. Kee-teee."

Even though I knew for a certainty it was Sonny, even though I knew for a certainty why he was calling me, I still ran to the corner of the house and looked. And Sonny was there, exactly where I knew he'd be, standing on the parapet in the centre of the Bridge, his two hands cupping his mouth, his head bent back and he throwing out my name with all his might.

"Kee-teee. Kee-teee. Kee-teee."

Sonny on the Bridge was a Russian wolf howling at the moon, its pewter hide inlaid with a streak of moonbeam from nose-tip to tail-tip; he was a caribou of pure silver with its mouth open at the end of its taut-stretched neck, its tilted antlers touching the strong shoulders behind, and it baying at the world from a high crag; he was a calling child carved from shining marble, the sun sparkling off the polished stone like light coming out of God's hands when he created the world on the green cover of the catechism.

I thought I'd have a heart attack.

The instant Sonny saw me seeing him, saw me jumping up and down like a mad frog with its front legs over its head, he shouted, "He's this side of Cork Corcoran's." I waved, and he waved and stepped off the parapet, disappeared, and I knew Sonny was already on his way, running barefooted, betattered and bespattered back along the Towpath to the Harbour so he could tell everyone in school he was there when Matthias Wrenn came back to Ballyrannel after walking home from the War, that he'd been on the lookout for a month and that Kitty Hatchel had paid him tuppence with the promise of another tuppence if he got word to her before Matthias reached the Harbour.

Fourpence, lads. Fourpence.

And I came back to myself and found myself standing there, my finger in my mouth and Mammy at the kitchen door asking, "Was there someone?"

"Mam, he's home! Matthias. Oh, Mam." And I burst out crying and fell down on my knees beside the rosebush and put my hands to my face and bawled as if I'd been told that Matthias had been killed in France, sobbed like I did when the army letter came about Con. I bent down until the top of my forehead was on the ground and my hair got caught in the rosebush, but I didn't know that till Mammy started lifting me to my feet, and she had to run into the kitchen to get the scissors to cut the strands in the thorns. She brushed the flower-bed soil off my forehead, told me to wash my face before I put on the dress that Missus Hodgkins gave me so I'd look nice if Matthias came home on a Saturday afternoon or on a Sunday and I wouldn't be able to use the dress she had hanging for me in Enderly if he came home during the week while I was working there.

I fled in through the kitchen and into the room, and ripped off my old work apron. I was pulling on Sarah Hodgkins's dress, the color of beastings with drops of blood in it, when I realized Mam had followed, that she was wringing her hands and crying and I knew she was crying for Matthias being home -- and for Con not being home. "Oh, Mam," I squeaked out and I put my arms around her and the two of us sobbed and sobbed. And we kept sobbing even when we heard Daddy shouting from the yard, "Did you hear? Did you hear?" And when we heard his boots in the kitchen, Mam pushed me away and said, "Kitty, you have to wipe your face before you let Matthias see you, before you let Dad see you."

"Did you hear?" Daddy called from the doorway.

I dipped into my wash basin and scooped cupped hands of water onto my face. Mam was holding the flour-sack towel for me, she after wiping her own face in it before Daddy saw her.

"It looks like you heard," Daddy said.

Mam waited until she had cleared the sticky strings of crying out of her throat before she spoke. "Run your fingers through your hair," she said to me, and to Daddy she said, "Get out of the door, James, or she'll knock you down."

But I didn't run past Daddy because I had to bring him into my happiness. I put my arms around his neck, my head on his chest. "I'm terrible glad, Kit," he said, and he stroked my hair. But then he couldn't help himself. "Poor Con!" he blurted out in a shower of tears, and I felt the pain in his heart. Then he whispered, "Poor Con, poor Con. Run, Kit. Run, Kit. We'll be all right. Run," he said, and he pushed me away, turned me toward the kitchen door.

And I ran and ran and ran, but Con's tears kept up with me and Daddy's and Mammy's tears kept up with me, and I knew they were holding each other in a whirlpool of sadness and gladness for Con and Matthias. With my face full forward I ran along the Canal bank, and I heard the keening sounds of Mam-dog running to her hungry pups; heard the sounds of a bewildered sow looking for the place where her piglets squeal in fear of a knife; I heard the fierce clucking of a hen when she sees a remembered shadow in the sky and her chicks are scattered all over. And all those sounds of fretful Mamness were keening out through my own tight lips.

I ran onto the coping stones at the Harbour still keening the sounds of an anxious animal, searching for a glimpse of the family member it believed had been lost forever.

Excerpted with permission from "The Canal Bridge: A Novel of Ireland, Love, and the First World War" by Tom Phelan. Copyright © 2014 by Glanvil Enterprises, Ltd. Published by Arcade Publishing. All rights reserved.


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