Moonblind by Kieran Marsh


I wake at twelve and slide out of bed. It’s Saturday. Mammy would have had me out of bed by nine, hoovering carpets and washing windows before I’d get out to look after Sheba. But Mammy’s not here.

There’s a starling in my heart; it is asleep most of the time. This morning its wings are fluttering, it’s trying to escape, so I get up.

Dad’s sitting at the breakfast table, staring at the cornflakes box like he doesn’t know what to do with it.

‘Will I pour you some?’ I ask.

‘What?’ He looks at me like blankly.

‘Have you had your breakfast?’

He stares for another moment, then takes up the cornflakes and pours them himself.

‘Do want me to cook you something?’ I try.

‘Not hungry.’

I want to make him better, but Dad’s always been his own man. He’s a farmer, son of a farmer, grandson of a farmer. Farmers are tough men.

‘I’m putting an egg on the pan if you fancy?’

‘Not hungry.’

Not in a conversational mood, then.

‘What time are we going to see Mammy at?’

‘About two.’

‘Grand so, I’ll get Sheba groomed before that.’

‘Horse should be put out of its misery.’

‘Dad!’

‘It’s not right, she’s sitting there, can’t move. It’s not right keeping her alive.’

‘Dad, we’ve been through this. She’s my horse and it’s up to me.’

‘What?’

I leave him be and make do with reading the back of the Weetabix.

Sheba’s moonblind. August two year’s back she ran into a wall and gashed her two front legs. The vet confirmed nothing broken but realised that she was blind. I asked about operations to cure her but he and Dad just laughed.

‘I can put her down now,’ the vet said, meaning well by it.

I screamed at him. The two of them shook their heads and scratched beneath their caps as they tried to comprehend my soft foolishness.

‘But she’s blind, that’s no kind of life for a horse.’

‘I’ll look after her.’

‘It’s not about looking after. She can’t run, she’s a horse.’

In the end I had to threaten them with getting Mammy involved before they relented.

‘If you can’t look after her…’ was Dad’s final word, a soft threat.

I make sure she’s the best kept horse in the whole of Mayo. She gets a brushing down every day. I keep her in the Barn Field unless the weather is atrocious, so she’s learned every hillock and dip. She can now trot by herself around the field and stay well clear of the stone walls. There’s never a scrap of mud on her or else she gets a second brushing or a wash.

And she gets hugs. I can just about get my arms around her neck. She stands there, breathing noisily. I know in my heart she’s hugging back.

‘You still got the old nag?’ Billy sticks his head over the gate to the Barn Field and shouts at me. Billy is two years older than me and born to be the next generation on the farm. He doesn’t want to do his Leaving Cert but Dad says it’s only another few months. Even a farmer should finish his education.

‘She’s not a nag.’

‘She’s good for nothing.’

‘You’re good for nothing.’

‘Ooh, that’s grand sarcasm, now.’

‘Don’t be mean.’

‘It’s mean that you keep her. Sure, she has no kind of life.’

‘Stop it.’

‘And where are you going to put her once I have the farm?’

‘You don’t have it yet, Billy.’

He snorts like a cow, then heads off to the milking shed. The starling is thumping against my chest. I bury my head into Sheba’s course hair and listen to the solid rhythm of her massive heart.

Billy won’t go to see Mammy, so it’s only Dad and me. She’s in Galway Hospital which is a two hour drive each way, and Billy always has some job he needs to do. I have a talking book I got on BorrowBox: Holly Jackson’s A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder. I put it on to try and cheer Dad up, but after five minutes he tells me to ‘turn that crap off’, the only words he utters on the whole journey. We listen to the country-and-western on Midwest radio; at three o’clock, the death notices come on and I wonder if I should turn it off or would that just draw more attention.

I sit in the chair outside the ICU door while Dad goes in. The floor is parquet; there’s twenty-two courses of wooden brick in between the two walls, I know this from many countings, but I count again just to check.

When Dad emerges, he looks pale, like he’s aged another five years since he went inside. He still doesn’t say anything, just holds the door open. I duck inside.

‘Hello, Angela,’ says Delima. She’s been my friend in the ward for as long as Mammy’s been here. She comes from Malaysia, and she sends money home to her family. ‘You look good today.’

‘Thanks, Delima. How is your daughter?’

‘She is studying hard. I hope she will be a doctor.’

‘Oh wow.’

‘And how is your horse?’

I smile at that. ‘Sheba’s great.’

‘Someday I will come and visit you and you can show her to me.’

‘I’d love that.’

Mammy’s eyes are closed when I get to her, so I get busy arranging the cards on the bars at the end of her bed where she’ll see them. I’ve made three since last week; I’ve drawn them sideways to hang on the bars.

‘Angela.’ Mammy’s voice is as soft as a hummingbird but she makes me jump. She’s looking at me, her eyes glowing like the moon.

‘Mammy!’ I give her one of those careful hugs, not disturbing the cables and tubes that sneak in and out of her bed.

‘How have you been?’

‘I’ve been great.’

‘Are you doing your homework?’

‘I do it every evening before I go out to Sheba.’

She smiles, though it’s a lopsided smile. ‘Billy didn’t come again.’

‘He’s doing a great job on the farm, giving Dad an easy time.’

‘He’s a good boy, but he shouldn’t be working so hard.’

‘You should see him though, he’s proud as punch like he owns the farm already.’

She makes an odd fluttering noise which is the nearest she can get to the happy laugh that used to float through our house. ‘So, your father is finding it hard?’

‘I don’t know, he won’t talk about it, but he’s like a lost puppy sometimes.’

‘And you look after him too?’

‘I try to cook stuff for him.’

‘You’re a good girl. Don’t let it take over your life now, being a mammy to them.’

‘Don’t be silly. I can do a bit of cooking and a little cleaning but I’m not their mammy.’

She makes the laughing noise again. ‘I know, but you all have to look out for each other. Promise me you’ll do that. That you’ll always be there for Billy? And Dad?’

‘Of course, I promise, Mammy.’

She takes my hand, much tighter than usual, like she’s found a new strength. She pulls me in close. ‘You have always been so beautiful. I want you to know that I will always be with you.’

‘I know you will, Mammy.’

‘You mightn’t think it, but I’ll be there with you. I will be close by.’

‘I know,’ I say. The starling is chattering and I’m trying to stop Mammy from hearing it. ‘Sure, you’ll be home soon with us. Delima’s looking after you and she needs the bed back.’

The radio stays off for the drive home but I hardly notice. I watch the hedges and the dry-stone walls spinning past. I look at the fields rolling away, the old ruins of cottages and the modern mansions that are replacing them. I look at anything outside the car, so I don’t have to look at Dad hunched over the wheel.

When I get home, I put on some beans and spuds, and I cut a bit of bacon off the joint I boiled yesterday. Daddy and Billy are watching the football. I put a plate in front of both of them, Billy’s plate piled high and a meagre portion on Dad’s. Billy eats without even looking, Dad ignores his.

I go outside to Sheba. She nuzzles into the side of my neck as if she knows that I need her support today, that I need something extra. She’s eaten all the pony-nuts I left out earlier so I pour some more and put out more hay.

I get the brush and start on her neck, stroke after stroke, down through the hair, through the mane, scruffing out the dirt and the dust, moving onto her fabulous shoulders.

I start hearing a noise, like a keening sound. It is my starling, suffocating, screaming for release, a lonesome wail. I try to quieten it in case Billy hears, if he ever drags himself away from the football, but it just keeps coming.

I drop the brush and grab Sheba around the neck, use her to hold me up, stop myself from falling over as the wailing turns into a deep retching, a horrible low groaning. I can feel Sheba trembling. She takes a step forward, then another, dragging my feet through the mud. I hang on till my arms ache; I stumble as I let go and she skitters away, looking full of bounce.

I walk to the gate, to the stable. Her tack is still hanging up where it was left after I discovered she was moonblind. Saddle and blanket, halter and bridle, I carry them out to put them on her. She waits patiently, not putting up any fight. As I tighten up the noseband, she looks at me with her moony eyes… But she’s looking at me. How can that be? She can’t see anything, but she’s looking.

I climb up onto her back. I’ve not been on any horse in nearly two years so it takes a moment to get comfortable. I give the slightest of kicks and she starts at a slow walk. The walk turns into a trot, and I try to ease her by pulling back but there’s an energy in her, I can feel it in my legs. I start to steer her as we get towards the hedge but she knows already where to turn. The trot breaks faster, and suddenly she’s in a canter. I pull back hard on the rein, but she whinnies and shakes her head. ‘I’m stronger than you,’ she’s saying. ‘Strong for both of us. Hang on.’

She knows again where to turn, trotting up the Barn Field and back down again and then, with a sleek turn, around towards the gate. I wrap the rein around my hands. I have no control. She is at a gallop now and running for all her life directly at the gate.

She jumps. We clear the gate with feet to spare and she’s away. The starling breaks free from me, rising up and soaring away from us. The house disappears behind us, then the farm, then the village. We race along roads and across fields and through forests. I cling to her back as she laughs at me, an odd fluttering noise.

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