Literary Journal – Spring 2016
The Bird House Builders
Short Story by John McCabe
Just before spring, my mother began to suffer from frightening blackouts and dizziness. With all the signs of aging, she became old and unhealthy. Before long she required surgery. Soon she was in Jeanes Hospital in Northeast Philly, the same hospital that had been practically a second home to my father. With the exception of one overnight scare from uremic shock, she recovered with impressive ease. She had turned seventy that year. The prescribed inactivity that followed placed her somewhat out of shape physically. When her doctor and personal judgment permitted, she began to apply herself to the regaining of her strength and mental health. It was during her first few days of her recovery that I responded to an unusual desire to visit her in the middle of an afternoon on a work day.
I saw her through the windshield of my car. She was in the garage and had walked out to see who drove in. She relaxed when she saw me and the objects in her hands must have moved a bit catching my attention. She had a small board in one hand and a saw in the other.
“Hi, Jonathan,” she said, turning back into the garage.
“Hi Ma. What’s that, oh, a bird house.”
We studied the assembled parts she had been working on and then those boards still in need of work. I said nothing about the crudeness of her work, but it was obvious she was doing everything the hard way. I couldn’t believe it, but she had somehow burnt out the entrance hole on one end of the birdhouse. Now she was pushing an ice pick into a board to create a screw hole. I picked up the wood she had been trying to saw into roofing slats. I discovered she was attempting to get a hacksaw blade through it. She always did things her own way and made her handyman accomplishments mostly through determination.
Selecting the least rusty of the old saws hanging nearly hidden on the wall behind us, I picked up the parts for the roof and walked out across the yard. There was an old steel worktable out there and it offered more workspace than the cramped little garage. I sawed the first board to the size she had designed. Reaching for the second, I noticed that the late afternoon sunlight was identical to the lighting on the day my father died. I remembered leaving the hospital after he died and walking into a church under the same afternoon sunshine. For an instant I saw the church and then the huge tear that dripped from my eyes onto the church floor when I got up to leave. It was so strange to watch a tear fall all the way from your face to your feet. She came up beside me to observe my progress as I sawed the second roof plank.
“Do you see that sunlight?” I asked.
“It reminds me of the day he died.”
“Yes, I have been thinking of him all day.”
“I haven’t felt him around me in a long time…How’s this?”
She said, “They should overlap the sides to keep the birds out of the rain.”
We walked back into the garage.
“When I see him, he’s young and muscular.”
Her words surprised me. Only she could think of him as a young man, it was her own private memory. I became convinced that somehow he had sent me over to help her with the birdhouse. I suddenly remembered he had a saber saw somewhere that we could use to cut the opening on the other end nice and round.
“He has a saw for cutting holes. Do you know where it is? The saber saw?”
“Oh yea, the saber saw.” She emitted a short humming sound while trying to think where it might have been left. I had the feeling he was instructing me the way he used to when he was alive. I began to hear his commands.
“Use the saber saw. You need a small round hole. Do it slowly. Don’t force the blade. It’s on the little shelf on the wall. That’s it. It’ll work. Don’t worry about the old blade. Start the cut in that crack she put in the wood. Turn it slow. Keep up the speed. That’s it.”
“That’s perfect, Jonathan,” she said.
I still hadn’t said a word about the oversized burnt out hole on the other end. It was too great a struggle to criticize. I examined the old rusty saw blade wondering why it hadn’t snapped under the strain.
“What are you going to use up on the top of it here to keep out the rain?”
“I got a piece of wood for that. It’s down there.”
I picked up a piece of broken corner molding and sawed it to the same length as the roof. She was forcing screws into her ice pick holes. The birdhouse was taking shape. She tested its strength by pushing against the walls; it looked firm. I was surprised. She was quite pleased. I knew she would prefer to finish it herself, so I left and went back to work. My father was already gone.
I went back a week later and as soon as I turned the motor off in the car, I noticed the new birdhouse hanging in an old hemlock at the head of the driveway. It was freshly painted barn red. I liked it, and walked under it to examine it closer. I felt myself smile wide when I noticed a small piece of screen had been placed over the big hole she had burnt out and that the proper sized saw hole had been chosen and set in the tree as the front end. She had framed the screen in tiny, popsicle-sized sticks. The whole thing was simple and sturdy looking and cute actually. Nothing could describe it better, except maybe that it was the only birdhouse in the world with a screened window.
I met her at the back door. We said hello from opposite sides of the locked screen door. For a few seconds, she just stood looking at me until she realized the door was locked. She flipped the latch with pinching fingers and a squint. She came out talking enthusiastically about her cleanup work in the big yard, and we walked together to see what she had done.
I said, “Whose idea was it to put the piece of screen on the big hole you burnt out on the bird house?”
“Mine,” she said with embarrassment.
“You knew it was too big, didn’t you?”
“But it looks great.”
“The birds are coming around and looking at it,” she said with that tone of promise people use about good things that might happen soon.
“I cleaned up the whole yard,” she exclaimed.
I looked over the place for her benefit. All the fallen, dead branches from the heavy snows that winter were neatly stacked except for the ones too heavy for her…
“I sleep well at night from this work and my muscles are coming back.” She said. You could hear it in her voice; she was dedicated to her recovery. The surgery was behind her now. I had walked off with the big branches, and after throwing them down into the woods, I turned, and looking across the untilled garden, I saw her standing in the yard under the new bird house. She looked sweet to me. She had been to the hairdresser and the sunlight was doing something unusual to the true color of her hair. As I came closer, I discovered it was the amount of gray in it that the sun was playing off.
She led me into the house and stood behind me talking while I washed my hands. When I turned around, I put my arms around her saying, “I love you, Mom.” I walked out of the kitchen and reached for the back door knowing the rest of her life had begun and wondering if it was really possible for him to be looking after her. It suddenly occurred to me that affection, like what just happened, had not been practiced between us since my early childhood. It was some kind of Irish trait.
That evening, I took an unusually long walk. I was on the quiet block where no houses faced the road. As I passed out of the illumination from a streetlight, I began to think of my children playing at home and my wife’s great desire to have their father play with them. I walked in the dark, and saw my Mother’s gray hair shining in the sunlight that afternoon. The red birdhouse was hanging in the tree behind her. I was home again and I felt strange to think I have kids of my own who may one day learn how it is that people get cared for.
Pearl S. Buck Writing Center
Literary Journal – Spring 2017
By John McCabe
Polis Service o Norlin Airlan
The sun setting with its golden yellow light lay against the trunks of hardwoods and flickered in the windblown deep lobed leaves of the Hawthorn trees and melted across the grass and rocks. The lake, Lough Neagh, Irish Loch Neathach, beyond the grove of trees was rimmed in a kaleidoscope of brilliant, revolving flashes as impressionistic reflections, as if being brushed by a visiting, invisible Claude Monet. Sunsets, day’s end, were treasured daily as if pre-ordained comforting embraces as nature was tucking her children into their beds.
To the Irish, twilight added divinity in supernatural graces to the landscape. Its strange illuminations beamed off the cloud banks and caressed all human senses. Lillian’s face was adorned by the light. The Irishman looked on her and the evening as his gifts that day and all the days he spent with her. He had the most profoundly Irish name in County Tyrone, Brendan E (Eamonn) McGrath, and the spoken voice of that country, with crisp diction, those inflected phrases, and tones clear, soft and strong. Twilight embellished the evening in its softened glow, while gentle breezes across Lough Neagh blew onto the shores of County Tyrone.
The British claim the lake is owned by The Earl of Shaftesbury. The Irish know it to be a treasure of a great Irish God, The Good God, and the Creator gave it to a certain Finn MacCool. The British may shun that belief, if so the Irish have a full take on the ownership; they say the famous warrior Finn MacCool caused the creation of Lough Neagh.
Legend has it that Finn was chasing a Scottish giant across Ulster when he picked up a large piece of the Irish earth and hurled it at the giant. It missed the giant on the run, and fell into the Irish Sea forming the Isle of Man while the massive crater left behind became filled with water and formed Lough Neagh. With that said, it seems the Earl never owned any of that, at least he wouldn’t own up to that truth.
In addition to those brief Irish cloudbursts of straight-down, pouring summer rain, twilight was the Irishman’s most welcomed environmental condition. However, when in the rain Brendan E. would stand under the lintel of his cottage’s open door staring out over the water in spells of peace, his tobacco smoke was all that escaped into the waiting damp air.
Lillian was always nearby. In the twilight, like this evening, he studied the land, its trees and hillsides, the shapes it presented and the green, yes all the green. This green was life that touched his psyche. Both of these visual and visceral natural elements were entwined in his racial learning born to be a communion in the spin of his chromosomes.
He lived the Irish green in this mellow twilight and the drenching rain when it came, as if he were born to be both the guest and host of his own country. Lillian was his magic in all things. Tea was warmth and the nectar of thoughtfulness, and alcohol brought forth his fire without a match. For Brendan McGrath, Lillian, his linked companion, fit into all climates and events, and especially the unexpected.
All the time Lillian knew him, she didn’t really, as is the pre-ordained cosmic plan for male and female of the same planet. Of that knowledge, Lilian was always instinctively informed and aware, except maybe when they were both drinking, cheered by the intoxicant they shared. He was a quiet man and she was one to make sounds; laughter, and merriment and playful rejoinders. While she was supple though small in frame and body with classic features and lips that smiled even when they were not, he was tall and broad shouldered. His arms were taunt muscle, wide bones; his hands, large and calloused.
She often studied the sense of sorrow on his brow; that sadness found even deeper in those ink blue eyes. She knew also that his was a person rich with humor and the intelligence of a nevertheless tortured race. Like all his countrymen, he was the traveler from uprooting and great distances. Losses and judgments tolled in his memory to a point where what he was in youth and what he is now became chambered in his quietness.
Yes she knew him, but not really. Everything about him was masculine, most of all in the expedition of his gait and long stride. Perhaps all men have a natural scent and his was also that of the open hearth fire, always accompanied by his habit of carrying tobacco. When drinking their whiskey and beer, the aroma of pleasure encircled both of them lingering like warm flowing syrups.. She was his because of his Irish ways, his mysticism, wit and his charm for her. They never became quite as intoxicated by their drinking, or not nearly as much affected as they were by each other.
They were to sail out of Belfast, suitcases packed and the lorry motor running that was to take them along the River Bann and there to the old Quays of Belfast Harbor where the ocean liner, Sea Star was anchored. There was a berth below decks assigned to Brendan E. McGrath. It was a sea voyage for them as it has been for centuries with those leaving the country. Sadly, departures were more common than staying in the homeland for most single, not yet married individuals.
At that moment a dark green van with British markings and the words, ROYAL IRISH CONSTABULARY on the roof and rear windshield, pulled up blocking the path of the lorry. Three uniformed police got out and stood bold as trained pit bulls before the seaside cottage of the McGrath family; a McGrath tenant’s dwelling for well over one hundred years.
One of the police tweeted persistently on a chrome whistle waving to the lorry driver to shut down the diesel engine. When the motor was silent and sea gulls with their plangent calls became the predominant sound around them, the alarming physical struggle for freedom and civil rights began, as it always did when the North Ireland police went into action. One of the police yelling in McGrath’s ear and only inches away bellowed, “Brendan D. McGrath, you are being arrested and you’re not going anywhere, you son-of-a Catholic bitch.”
McGrath moved between the police and Lillian. At that instant, the smallest of the uniformed intruders hit McGrath with a black baton injuring the area of the cerebral cortex which bent McGrath’s head down for the next crushing blow into the cerebellum behind the right ear, a forceful clubbing that would disturb some of McGrath’s abilities for the rest of his life. McGrath had one policeman’s hand clenched in his own two hands and he was yanking the man’s fingers apart. When the biggest of the Policemen pushed Lillian to the ground to stop her flailing fists, McGrath broke the fingers of the adversary in his immediate grip.
While McGrath and the three men fought, Lillian lay on the cinders of the roadway, twilight in its glory was tar brushed by darkness. Lillian was up on one knee, her chin jutting in the direction of the now rumbling police van, black as a hearse as it drove off. She tossed her hair back off her face and rose up defiantly to her feet. Gathering her soiled shawl from the ground, she pulled it over her head and shoulders, and unconsciously trotted, with child like hesitations, after the sound of the police van.
With her footing on the ancient roadway giving way to lose stones and slippery pebbles she finally halted alone in total darkness. The van could no longer be heard on the lower coastal road. With only the glimmer of moonlight, she turned and ran back and down the hillside to the old priests cottage along the eastern shoreline. She used a stick to tap on his door, yelling that the Constabulary had taken Brendan, and that they had the wrong man.
The sad old priest stepped out into the night air and said to her, “Tis our heavy cross to bear Lillian,” and then he hunched his back and turning to the her tearful eyes he said, “My dear Lillian, lovely as you be, you will never convince the authorities to believe you, nor will any of those ruffians care to find the whereabouts of the true criminal if there is one, dear.”
She blinked back her tears and said to her prelate, his age and white hair like a relic to her, “The idiots called Brendan, Brendan D McGrath instead of Brendan E; they got the wrong man, Father. Can you not lift a voice to defend one of your own, your flock?”
“My voice is like a broken reed blowing in the wind to the likes of them brutes.
McGrath was an unconscious body moving with the bumps on the coastal road in the lock-up of the dark green police van. Far behind him now, Lillian fell against the priest and stumbled from his arms. Brendan D. (Damon) McGrath on British record as a Belfast fugitive was hiding all the while, according to British intelligence, someplace, in or around, Coalisland in County Tyrone. Hours later the Sea Star vessel left port with an empty cabin reserved by a Brendan E. McGrath.
The Royal Irish Constabulary police would take Brendan McGrath and other captives to the North of Ireland and imprison or execute them. It was 1921 and no one of authority in the North who could intervene, would do so. When the South of Ireland became the 1922 Free State of Ireland early in the following year, small groups of political prisoners held in the North where gradually released.
One man, when the legalese of a pardon was concluded, came through the border check point outside the Belfast prison walls in a horse drawn prison wagon with a gaggle of other Irishmen. The driver carried an official pardon that read, “Province of Ulster, County Tyrone, Ireland of the United Kingdom – Sentence suspended by order of His Majesty – 30 January, 1923… ” The name, Brendan D. McGrath was listed on the pardon sheet giving at least temporary political freedom and freedom of movement but not to Brendan E. McGrath from that day forth.
Yes she knew him, but not really, because when her Brendan McGrath arrived back home and was telling her his story he said to her, “There has always been much necessary mystery coming from the bog lands of Northern Ireland, and some will forever say the really toughened Irishmen come from deep within those ancient bogs.”
“And what do we do now?” she said.
He answered with a most earnest voice, “My release papers are of great value Lilian. I want to deliver them to that Irish, bog land soldier Brendan D. who has fought for our freedom at great pearl. Surin I uncovered where he’d be found while I was behind those prison walls.”
It was that day that the two of them went to meet the alleged rebel Brendan D. McGrath, a bartender using the name, Patrick Smith and working in a popular pub near Aughnamullen Ireland. Brendan D. was clearly well informed of Brendan E’s captivity. The real Captain Brendan D. McGrath was a Northern Bog Country Catholic, Provisional I.R.A. officer and combatant, successfully hiding for years. The two men took a drink together with a very quiet but curious Lillian looking on.
Brendan E. passed the official British Pardon paper to the real Brendan D. The two McGraths never met or spoke to each other again. Lillian and Brendan sailed, finally, out of Belfast, leaving forever the yet embattled six counties and the Free State of Ireland bound for New York and another life. While they settled in the American city of Philadelphia, Patrick Smith vanished from Aughnamullen, He stayed openly in the Bog Country under the identity of Brendan D. McGrath a pardoned ex-convict of the British Crown.
Twilight evenings were uncommon in Philadelphia but whenever one appeared, Lillian would gaze ruefully at her husband, occasionally asking him, are you not the Captain, or that devil Damon? She had a cautious habit, in the company of their American friends who happened to have English sounding names, of referring to him safely as, he’s the Irishman. If the drinks they were sharing became intoxicating, it was more often, he’s my only Irishman.
Irish matters of great import to any McGrath happened everyday in the Bog lands of Northern Ireland, never to be betrayed. Often words and names where changed or made over cleverly as opportune to cover identities in those Bog Lands. False or true IRA developments were expected to be optimized by the oppressed and suitable for any other purpose, especially those occurring at just the right time. Often such schemes were mistakenly taken by the baffled British authoritarians to be just, the dumb luck of the damn Irish.
“Brendan, Pat, Damon or Eamonn, or Papist Pig, what’s the difference in your identity when it’s being with you here Lillian and free, or being Pat Smith safe once more to come and go on the Bog Lands of the North,” said The Irishman, while sitting on their front porch during one of those uncommonly hazy lit summer evenings in Philadelphia.
“And with you in this lovely twilight, whoever you are sir,” whispered Lillian.
“Trathnona maith duit,” said the real Patrick Smith to his Irish girl.
“Yes and a very good evening to you dear.”
Pearl S. Buck Writing Center Literary Journal
Literary Journal – Spring 2016
Flight to an Orphanage
Poem by John McCabe
Her first plane ride – she flew so far –
hearing first that sound of power,
thrusting metal wings into alien air,
bearing infant girls beside her
from distance half the earth awaiting.
As excited secrets, the gentle sharing
over cold and ancient land, jets of fire,
and the infants two so small, waiting.
Two lives in China nest in sorrow –
one a Blue Jay and one a Sparrow,
flying from where the wind is made –
To pray, to play, to live the newest day
And all to love forever, because of her.
Literary Journal – Fall 2016
A Memory of Hawaiian Butterflies
By John A. McCabe
The white haired, clean shaven man was considerably handsome and his square boned jaw became more pronounced when he spoke, “That is everything you need to know. It is all pre-ordained by our being female or male.” The woman hearing only some of what the man said, thought, “What is he talking about,” but she remained more or less inattentive, slowly stirring her drink.
Smiling broadly, the Hawaiian man said, “Young women are like butterflies. They are so fortunate to be so. The butterfly is the female, the male, the bug. You see, it is that simple.” He rubbed his lips as if drawn to them by his very own words. “She is the one most pleased by flutter and flight. He, on the other hand, would rather grip and sting or keep walking around in circles or up the wall. And that my friend is why you have such differences around us; the silver airplane is like the female and the infantry, the male drudging along. The helicopter, whirling and swaying is her again and the tractor plowing is the man who sits all day going back and forth. The sailboat graceful and windblown femininity and the locomotive solid man on the rails, all matched to the female and the male.” In a whispered voice he said, “That is everything you need to know. It is always simply a matter of her and him.”
She was still not paying as much attention to him as was her husband. Her husband was locked into the enchanting voice of their dinner guest. She noticed the man’s knees, how strong and flexible they looked and how tan his legs were below his Bermuda shorts. Her eyes also made sweeping glances toward his prodigious white hair. Sitting on the opposite side of the table, her husband was grasping the edge of his seat. His grip matched the unanticipated, mounting anxiety he felt about how dominant the white haired man had become.
The restaurant was busy – its patrons talkative, the wait service were moving quickly in every direction. Pahu drums playing in those melodic, rolling notes sensually permeated the ambiance of the evening. Royal palms soared to great heights over the beaches darkened with their charcoal black, volcanic sand stretching out from under the palms and presenting the ocean. Waves in a ballet of synchronization with repeating crescendos of sound poured forth before all those who noticed, and those who did not as well.
A Polynesian girl, beautiful, in a white gown, danced barefoot on a mound of sand. She wore flowers, a showy hibiscus in her hair, and leis around her neck and over her breasts. A sunset was transforming the sky behind her into resplendent oranges shimmering magnificently and episodically in spectrums of multi-colors advancing to reveal the ensuing darkness.
This was Hawaii, and the white haired man seemed to possess it all, as if he was prince or chieftain. His hair, long for a man, completed his imperial image. His eyes, however, in their humbling brown power gave both comfort and mystery to all who engaged them.
Seeing that he now had her interest he said, “Did you know there is a place here, beyond Heavenly Hannah actually, called the Valley of The Butterflies?” The woman’s husband was nodding attentively.
“Yes, and there are banana groves beneath the slopes, and black bamboo along the beach and, of course, it is very Hawaiian, very Hawaiian. I was schooled there. The valley is refreshed by a lofty waterfall. The falling water, and the ever present aerial mist, is hypnotic. And song birds fly about in acknowledgement.”
The woman shifted in her chair, her hand fingering the rim of her glass rested in stillness as the white haired man’s words painted vivid images in her mind.
“There are lovely aromatic, purple and gleaming, sacramental white flowers throughout the Valley of the Butterflies. If you can convince a person to sit perfectly still, not making a move or sound, within minutes …”
He was looking directly at the woman, pausing deliberately while his eyes are focusing on her. He continues, “That person will soon be covered with butterflies, completely blanketed with butterflies. It is beautiful to behold.”
The woman smiled and said, “Covered?” She imagines him seeing her amongst the butterflies.
“Yes totally. The person like the caterpillar is transformed until a sound, any sudden sound, is made” He swoops both his arms up over his head and lowering them slowly says, “There gone…”
She, her face first in delight changes to concern and a frown forms where her eyes still sparkle. “So being like the butterfly is complimentary and dazzling, not the whimsical, insincere female you were speaking about a minute ago, true?”
“We are all, from childhood, thrilled by butterflies.”
“Do many tourists go to that valley?” asked the husband.
“No, it is still a secluded treasure, but I recommend that you and your bride visit. Go before your departure.”
“Do you think just young women are like butterflies, or all women?” she teases.
“I think all women have their time to flutter and fly about.” He looks to the Polynesian girl in her graceful dance and advises them, “Better to see the butterflies while you still have time for quietude. Leaving Hawaii is a noisy affair at the airports. Remember please, the slightest unexpected sound startles the delicate creatures. Although they are not so delicate, really, they migrate great distances and they have the fortitude to await their own re-birth from that earthbound larvae stage.”
“It is difficult to think of you living anywhere but here with the butterflies.” she says.
“You have such beauty here in Hawaii.” the husband adds with a questioning inflection.
She asks, “Whatever made you leave Hawaii?”
The white haired man turned to the scene of the ocean and said, “When you live on Islands you are beckoned by the sea just as your ancestors were. It is the fate of all Island people to wander.”
“But not you; you are so totally Hawaiian. How did you adapt to other places? How did you leave?
He stood up as if demonstrating the strength in his will to detach and said as he looked to the waves gliding to the beach, “The Japanese made me leave twice; once when they came with bombs and torpedoes and secondly when they made the value of land and property elevate beyond a native Hawaiian’s pocketbook…”
His white hair was moving gently in the sea breezes and falling down on his forehead and over his ears. It changed his appearance to a more natural look, more Hawaiian, more native; as he concluded, the glint of the lost warrior entered his eyes, ”“Then of course the core reason, the colonization and unstoppable encroachment on the culture and us. We were dulled by the Doles.”
He began to sway slightly picking up the rhythms coming off the shark skin covered Hawaiian pahu drums and the dancing Polynesian beauty and the sounds of bamboo sticks clicking in the hands of the other dancers. Studying him, her eyes in fleeting discoveries, displayed her impressions of the gracefully aging Hawaiian man before her. She began to reach out to him emotionally not wanting to miss his thoughts and words all of which had become as sweetened nectar that was also left bitter when consumed. Later in life, the woman and her husband would remember the white haired man calling him, The Hawaiian. She would always add in a whisper, The Butterfly Man.
Literary Journal – Spring 2017
Two on the Railing
By John McCabe
It was surprising to look over at the woman talking to me near the beach at Cape May New Jersey. She was an enormous lady with wild blowing hair, and the very deepest eyes that seemed to own the seashore, matching the rolling waves and low skies over the surf.
At first I didn’t want to pay attention to her, but her voice was more than a match for my indifference. The first words heard clearly were, “The autumn has its stillness that hushed calm.”
I said, “Sorry, what did you say?”
As if she didn’t hear me, she kept talking, whispering actually. She was leaning on the same railing, so she needn’t talk loud.
“It also brings its sounds; winds bringing sweeping intrusions, that rapping on our windows. We know time as a swift current, deceivingly slow when watched all day, but a rapid ghost no less. We are all fast travelers, our flights move against the cosmic grandeur, and tragedies of the universe.”
I was smoking and she looked at my cigarette with regret. I said, “Go on please, what were you saying?”
“Well, we are also what we were, and magnificent in it all. I was young like you dear… tall, stunning. What’s your name?”
“That’s my name!”
“Oh, gheez, that’s remarkable. You enjoy the autumn… Alice?“
“Yes I come here every year, Alice… to watch the migrants, the birds.”
“Always Cape May?”
“Yes dear, and you?
“The same, ‘Wings in Odyssey,’ the pamphlet says, ‘Visitors in magnetic navigation.’”
“Do you think about how their worlds are filled with waiting, calling out to the wind, voices from mysterious eternities?”
The grand woman, like a bird on a rail, rose up and waved goodbye. I never saw her again.