The following is excerpted from The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes, available now from Oneworld Publications. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.
The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes
The night the Chief died, I lost my father and the country lost a battle it wouldn’t confess to be fighting. For the no-collared, labouring class. For the decent, dependable patriarch. For right of entry from the field into the garden.
Jurors were appointed to gauge the casualty. They didn’t wear black. Don’t they know black is flattering? The truth isn’t. They kept safe and silent. I didn’t. When is a confession an absolution and when is it a sentencing, I’d like to find out. I suppose there’s only one outcome for souls like us—heavy-going souls the like of mine and the long-lost Chief ’s—and not a good one.
But I’ll lay it on the line, if only to remind the People of who they are: a far cry from neutral judicial equipment. Determining the depth of rot that’s blackening the surface can’t always be left to deities or legislators—sometimes what’s needed is to tie a string around the tooth and shut the door lively.
He was a bright young thing. My brother, Cormac. His mind was a luxury. The face was rationed, it must be said, but there’s not a body with everything. Part t-rex, part pelican. Picture that menace of features! Close-eyed, limb-chinned, skin thick as the red carpet he imagined laid down beneath his wellies. Tall as the door he expected to be let in. When he was twelve, he looked twenty. The mind was ahead too, as I said. The odd girl went in for such a harrow of a fella (the odd girl and not the even) on account of his brains and chesty conduct. Not that he was liberal with his cleverness. But there was the atmosphere of it, knowing at any moment something you’d say would be turned inside out like a child’s eyelid to traumatise you, to show you the violence behind it that you never meant, or maybe you did.
As I say, I didn’t resent him his mind. Early on, its potential was fearsome, but he cached it away too long, until it curdled. He could have his intellect. I had the looks. The Chief ’s mud-coloured locks, yellowing now like a stack of cut grass drying out for haymaking, hey! Square skull, cultured nose, the kind of eyes that might be described as pea and mint soup, best served cold. I was shorter than my brother by a foot, but divvied up as good as David. I’d the emotions of every girl in the County Roscommon over a barrel. A fact he found hard to swallow, in spite of—or maybe because of—the pelican chin. Excepting gobshites, I liked people. And I was well liked—for no good reason, far as Cormac was concerned. I’d zilch to contribute in the way of knowledge or guile or points for the home side, and sure, how else can a person be of use? Sport lent him an absence note for the farm work that needed doing. For the care work. For the life sentence. His absence meant my containment. Stay put, Hart, he was telling me. Stay a mile wide of my circle.
There’s only so many circles in a town the size of a souterrain. What I did and said reflected on him, so he wanted the sticks brushed from my hair, the charm wiped o my face. He wanted me capable of summing sums and changing tyres. To be mad on mechanics—Newtonian and Fordian both. To know a stock option hadn’t to do with cattle. But I wasn’t after his or his boyos’ approval—that panel of experts. Where we’re from, infants get swaddled in hessian sacks. I never bought into an alternative reality, no matter how low the interest rates limbo’d for the new millennium, no matter how you could go the whole way to Dublin on a test drive and, if you weren’t satisfied, no one would lambaste you or demand a tenner for petrol. Cormac did clinch a deal with the new reality. Nothing daft: he didn’t barter his youth, as many did, for a barge on the Shannon or a conservatory extension or an interior decorator or a rotary milking parlour or a personal stylist. No. He wanted a college education. A new way of life, less like subsistence—one that didn’t stink of fear and survival. A challenge that called for grey matter and not gruntwork. He did fast maths on how the island was transfiguring—one of them scenarios like if a train is going at such-and-such a pace in the direction of a stone wall but it’s absolute gas craic on the train, what are your options?
Caoilinn Hughes is the author of The Wild Laughter (Oneworld 2020) and Orchid & the Wasp (Oneworld 2018), which won the Collyer Bristow Prize, was shortlisted for the Hearst Big Book Awards, the Butler Literary Award and longlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and the International DUBLIN Literary Award 2020. For her short fiction, she won The Moth International Short Story Prize 2018 and an O. Henry Prize in 2019. Her poetry collection, Gathering Evidence (Carcanet 2014), won the Shine/Strong Award and was shortlisted for four other prizes. Her work has appeared in Granta, POETRY, Tin House, Best British Poetry, BBC Radio 3 and elsewhere. She has a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and she was recently Visiting Writer at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
Music by Catlofe
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