Fiction: Last Words by Patricia McCrystal

See the lamb lying in the field, head bowed, beard of red blossoming earthward. See the lamb raise her face toward the sea, blinking into the salted breeze, opening her mouth as if to suck the low sun off its gray mantle of ocean. Hear the lamb’s stilted wail, summoning her mother where she stoops, unhearing, nose buried in a patch of pale maidens. Wonder if the lamb knows she has no tongue.

***

1987

It is a delicate thing, lamb’s tongue. It’s tender with possibility, the flesh floating apart in winter stew, lumps of sinew soft as stratus clouds atop a bed of chopped lettuce. Mutton tongue stays tough even after two hours of boiling, the muscle stubborn from decades of ruminating on acid grass and wiry tussac pulled from peat like fistfuls of hair.

It is a problem here on the Falkland Islands: lambs’ tongues going missing, eaten out of the thin underside of their jaw by Johnny Rooks and other winged bullies that peck and peck until fragile flesh tears away, beaks burrowing and unrooting the muscle from its home.

See the predator perched not a stone’s throw from the lamb, stretching the sinewy tissue between its claws and beak: a crass parade of feat, a bloody triumph.

***

My home is the last on the East Island yet to be converted to the new way of things. Earlier this year, on the first day of summer—marking five years since the war between Argentina and the motherland—two government stooges showed up in a white van and started screwing in telephone poles and stringing up wires across the road from the farm. I managed what I could to keep the men away from mum’s house (now my house). I loosed Duchess and Duke into the front yard after first inflaming the ill-tempered geese by trailing them through the house with a jaunty march and rousing chorale on my harmonica. The pair promptly closed in on and chased one of the men up his ladder. The next morning, I walked to the mailbox wearing a cap made of tinfoil, and told the men the hat kept me from hearing those violent extraterrestrial commands that singed through the wires. By the end of the week, the men and their van were two specters on the horizon, a possessive wall of fog pilfering the poles and wires away from view. I considered undressing completely and using the cover of fog to my advantage, bare skin camouflaged by the milky air, appearing with a sudden reaper-like flourish and cutting the men down with a sickle. Indeed, I pursued this cause until I reached the end of my driveway, where my bare foot found a shard of glass and forced me to abort the charge, bloody footprints following me all the way into the house.

***

They say things are better since the war. We now have rights to plumb the deep Atlantic off our shores, to fill our own nets with Toothfish and squid and no longer stand by helplessly (or drown in illegal, capsized boats beneath the moon’s gloating gaze, as my father did) while the Russians and Taiwanese line their pockets nightly with our ocean’s wealth. Roads now spread like veins from farm to farm, ferrying cars to every corner of the island from Stanley to Bleaker while our horses grow rust in the wind. I see the Bodens’ doughy faces through the windshield of their new red Ford nearly every Sunday, neighborly sightings previously a thing as rare as the equinox. I wave from the gate as they pass. They don’t wave back, but I assume their foul mood is a symptom of the old man’s enduring gout, though he belittles the doctor’s advice to quit the red meat and ale.

They say a boat carries cars across the channel to West Falkland from sunup to sundown, islanders traversing land and sea as we once only moved through our fields, herding our sheep. Rewards that were reaped through toil are now offered up freely, painlessly. Even on my mother’s deathbed—the bed I’ve now given up to Duchess and Duke, as I don’t have the heart to rid of it, but cannot abide the itch of the blood stains—her hands were rough as peat and strong, no fragile maiden’s hands. Even now, as I grip the radiotelly to my ear, Duke’s beady eyes boring pity and condescension into my back, my own strong hand fits perfectly where mum’s did as she sat by the window, the doctor telling her what she already knew, which was that she was dying.

***

The private phone lines are yet another part of the islands’ unprecedented growth spurt, all of us tasked with adjusting to the sudden economic upturn like a beggar awakening in his bed with a pecker made of stacked gold coins. All our houses have been coded, assigned a fleet of numbers for the new phone lines that I can hardly remember. My sister, the last time I saw her—stomach ballooned with yet another baby, leading me to suspect that she’s part ewe, gestating for only five months before giving birth, an observation I believed I had said privately in my mind but which by the look on her face was not the case—has been goading me to get a telephone so we can stay in touch. Her face—mimicking the state of her breasts—sagged when I told her my radiotelly works just fine. There is nothing about the Earth Station outside of Stanley that is of this earth—that huge, hideous disk that feeds the phone lines, pointed skyward like a beacon for otherworldly interference. Besides, I told her, I can still listen to mum’s doctor calls with the radiotelly. My sister put her hand on top of mine then, the same cloying look of concern that I recognize in Duke’s eyes. She asked if my girls had been hurting me lately. I pulled my hand away, but not before noting how soft her fingers were, like silk ribbons tethering her to endless pies that need baking and diapers that need changing, new telephone sitting silent in the living room, refusing to ring.

***

Lambs born in a winter gale are the lucky ones. They are ushered into the world under the fierce protection of stinging rain and sleet, embraced as kin by howling wind. The feathered heathens stay hunkered down in the shrubbery or huddled between sea rocks, offering newborns a few days to keep their tenderest parts intact, allowing their wet eyes to see their mother, their pink tongues to taste her milk.

Winter lambs understand that the texture of the world is not the smooth patina of polished wood but rough, raw grain that will splinter in the untrained hand.

 

The tongueless lamb is taking to the bottle, able to swallow nourishment though she can no longer suckle or bleat to tell her mother of her pain and hunger. The warm, still summer mornings that served as her cradle were a cruelty in disguise. She could not see beyond the lushness of lady slippers and silver buttercups, believed the flashes of feathers in the brush were more delights grown ripe in the sun.

Nock ‘im on the ‘ead. I think of last summer, the Scottish farmer I sometimes brought home from the pub standing beneath the barn light, thumb foraging lazily inside his red nose, thin blonde hair like straw stuck into his roughly-hewn skull, horse flies spinning mad helixes above his head. A maimed lamb lying in the hay at my feet, bloody mouth gumming air like a fish out of water.

Do it next time yer pissed. Him grinning, removing his thumb from his nostril and rubbing the side of his head, fingers covering the purple wallop I’d given him for saying I cheated at Gin Rummy.

You don’t have to come back. Me crouching, pressing the bottle to the lamb’s mouth. The farmer nodding slowly.

Well m’ dear, a knock on the head’s bettern’ an empty bed. Him braying, turning toward the moonwashed field. Now let’s find you a proper rock.

***

When I put my ear to the radiotelly that night, I wrongly assume that it’s Doctor Harris’s voice I hear. The signal has grown mossier since the private phone lines were strung up between the farms like an electric spider web. Mum used to sit at her letter-writing desk beneath the east-facing window and tune into the doctor line clear as day. Now, to listen in on the medical line, I must climb the ladder to the loft of the barn and stand on the fifth rung—no higher. My elevated state agitates Duchess and Duke mightily, sending them into honking, flapping figure eights beneath me, which does not make it easier to hear.

We’re lucky to be living in the time that we are, the doctor says, voice too wafer-light to be Harris. It’s the new doctor, the one mum called High Tea, who we presumed was from Knightsbridge or Kensington and must have poured tea all down his dainty frock every morning as the boat bucked and dipped on the voyage across the Atlantic.

Half a decade ago, we would have said a radical mastectomy is prudent to containing the metastasis. But trials are showing less extensive surgery is equally effective for most women with breast cancer.

I hear mum clear her throat on the other line, as though trying to eject the lump that’s spread from her breasts to her neck. I reach overhead with my free hand and grab a fistful of hay from the loft and drop it down upon the gooses’ heads. I watch a few of the strands liberate themselves from the clump and spin and sputter on their way down, collecting between the birds’ shoulder blades as they rush back and forth beneath me, wings half-spread.

If they don’t take ‘em, what’ll they do? Mum’s voice like a handful of river stones rolled together. In the first few years of her diagnosis, I imagined her coming home from surgery with a paper bag, two gelatinous orbs like peeled hard-boiled penguin eggs lying inside, the opaque outer layer murky as dirty bath water, the cancer curled in on itself like dark orange yolks suspended in the center.

IMRT is the hottest thing in cancer treatment right now, Doctor High Tea said. Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy. We can improve the radiation dose distribution—

No radiation, I say in harmony with my mother.

I’m fine with the old way. Mum continued. You can have ‘em both. Cut ‘em off.

The cancer is spreading too quickly, Melissa, High Tea says brightly. The old way just won’t work.

***

My sister’s oldest daughter, Angelica, has learned to swim. The first in the family. Last winter, in a flamboyant display of one recently come into money, the government dug out the first pool in the Falklands, right in Stanley. My sister used to dream about the island getting a pool back when we were just lambs. She’d flip through magazines stuffed to the gills with celebrities winking from poolside lawn chairs, in far-flung climes like Greece and Spain and California. The Atlantic offered no calm, tepid water for swim lessons. Angelica sulked her way through lessons, older than the group of five-year-olds by ten years, but now she can hold her breath underwater, kicking and stroking and floating and sinking at will.

“Imagine that,” my sister says, tipping a tiny finger of whiskey into her teacup. “In 1987, Falklanders finally procure the means to stop drowning.”

Mum’s house—my house—is on my sister’s way home from church. Her husband stays home and watches their gaggle of little ones, not one to value rumors of fire and brimstone more than tending to what’s right in front of him. Can’t say I blame him.

She passes the bottle to me and I lift it to mum and dad’s wedding picture above the mantle, squinting one eye and holding the bottle in a way that makes it look like dad’s body is the bottle, his head the cork. “Fitting,” I breathe. My sister sips her tea then shakes her head, blowing through puckered lips.

“All that water,” I say, nodding my head to the window, “but too goddamn cold to learn to swim. All that fish, but you die trying to catch any.” I slap my hand on the table. “If thas’ not the summation of the workings of God or the government, I don’t know what is.”

“Don’t take God’s name in vain.” My sister sips her tea. Her cheeks are flush, a clump of hair on the left side of her head going rogue. “Anyway, dad wouldn’t have drowned if he wasn’t breaking the law.”

“Stunning impersonation of the Chief of Police, that is.” I suckle the bottle. “And the priest. You should ‘ave given the eulogy.”

My sister stares out the window, both hands wrapped around her cup.

“Things are finally changing,” she breathes. The dull light reveals crow’s feet gathered at the corners of her eyes. “We’re catching up with the rest of the world.”

My sister looks so much like our mother from the side. I swallow what feels to be a swell of hot saltwater washing up my throat.

“If only mum would have been of the same mind. Embracing progress.” She looks at me. “But you don’t have to make the same mistakes, Tabby.”

I slam the bottle down on the table. My sister screws up her lips. I open my mouth but she squawks, eyes wide, and shoots to her feet. Her pregnant belly springs onto the table and chair clatters to the floor. Beneath the table, Duke honks and flaps his wings, delighted.

“Goddamn bastard goose!” My sister bends to rub her calf. Duke ducks his head and hisses.

I lean back and hoot, tears springing to my eyes. My sister kicks toward the goose, herding him into the living room. Duke waddles away, wings half spread, throwing daggers over his shoulder.

“Watch that devil tongue in my house,” I cackle and make the sign of the cross. My sister rights her chair.

“Mum would never have let that filthy beast in here.” She sinks back into her seat. I pour another splash of whiskey into her cup.

“Guess tha’s jus’ another thing mum wouldn’t do.”

***

Dr. Harris tells the young bloke with the bad hemorrhoids to keep using the cream. The young man says it isn’t working, that he had to miss his shift at the post because the pain backed up his plumbing, so to speak. I recognize the voice on the other line. John McMahon speaks in a whisper, like he’s hiding in a closet or in the loo, no doubt doing his best to maintain some sense of mystery in his marriage.

I prop the radiotelly against mum’s old baking book, which I’ve lately had half a mind to hide in the back of the pantry if it’ll keep the farmer from asking me to whip up something from it. I turn off the burner and sip a spoonful of the warm goat’s milk before filling the baby bottle. It’s so fresh you can taste the clover and alfalfa from the goat’s last meal. The lamb is getting spoiled.

My sister said at John McMahon’s funeral, his coffin was pulled on a wagon by two smoke-colored Dutch Draft horses at least 15 hands high. Was a brain aneurism that did the young man in, when he was bearing down on the toilet, no less. During the priest’s eulogy, in an act of what can only be interpreted as cruel cosmic mockery, one of the horses lifted its tail and took a massively indulgent shit, emptying its bowels with great leisure as the priest went on, manure slowly piling up on the grass behind the beast like apples.

Mum’s call starts just as I reach the barn. I set the radiotelly on the fifth rung and settle down in the hay. Her voice is boisterous and hurried, and my heart swells to hear the edge behind it. I close my eyes and imagine canning day before her final winter. I see her stomping through the house in her green rain boots, radiotelly gripped in one hand, the doctor’s call an annoyance like a fly in her ale, a frivolity insisted on by soft men who don’t know what it takes to keep a farm, men who are paid too much to keep folks overly fixated on their own fates.

“Yes, pain in the tits. Yes, pain in the throat. No, won’t be having any radiation blasted into me. I’ll be sure to leave you something special in the will. Anything else, doctor?”

I smile. The calls looping through the radiotelly aren’t in any meaningful order, don’t mirror mum’s languid, unhindered years of health after the diagnosis that ran out overnight, jarring as the horse beneath you catching sight of its own shadow and tearing into a gallop, hurtling you through space so quickly you can’t make sense of the sky or the earth or your hands outstretched, reaching for the reins.

So many on the islands refuse to see the truth: that no matter how many roads we pave, how many telephone poles we push into the ground, how many pools we dig, cheering swim!, cheering, forward march!, the universe does not recognize our thirst for linear progress, does not reward our pursuit of it. Despite the many resemblances between myself and my mother—the square chin, strong shoulders, lump the size of a quarter beneath my left armpit—there is a code within each of our cells that refuses to replicate a map, to give any of us the wisdom of how to chart what is ahead.

I crouch over the lamb and lift the bottle to her mouth, seeing the scarlet stump in the back of her throat before she wraps her velvety lips around the nipple. It is the same bottle I used to feed mum in the end, when the sores clotted her throat and she could only take warm goat’s milk from the bottle. Her voice was lost to the past for weeks, but I spoke to her like I speak to the lamb now, cradling her head to my bosom.

Sometimes, if you reach out a hand, you can find the fabric of time. Sometimes, if you pull your fingers into a fist, the fabric folds.

***

Mum’s favorite place in the world was Sea Lion Island, one of the southern-most stars in the constellation of islands that stud the sea. She took us there once, my sister and I, after dad drowned. I had just turned twelve, my sister nearly ten. We all clutched each other in the back of the government air taxi, mum’s beating heart pressed to the top of my head, the plane piloted by our father’s Australian cousin who was handsome and a notorious drunk. There were white sand beaches and hulking elephant seals that shoveled sand onto their backs with their flippers, groaning with pleasure as they buried themselves alive, blood smeared on their lips like crude lipstick. The clumps of ancient tussac towered over our heads and we chased each other through mazes of it, shrieking in delight while shearwaters pinwheeled overhead, screeching madly. When it came time to throw our father’s ashes into the sea, my sister didn’t pay mind to the direction of the wind. His remains powdered our faces like a bag of flour unleashed, soot weaseling into the creases of our eyelids and lips, each of us coughing and sputtering and spinning around. My sister bawled and mum curled over her in comfort, shoulders heaving, but when she turned her face to me I saw she was laughing, face red with exertion to stay silent, tears gathering at the corners of her eyes.

I open my eyes to Duchess looming over me, beady eyes tiny worlds of concern, barn light pulsing behind her head like a halo. I push her away and sit up, blinking myself into the barn, the darkness through the window, the hay tangled between my fingers. Duchess stumbles backward, beak parting with offense before she turns and waddles away. My fingers search the back of my head for a bump, a clue. Had I fallen asleep, or just fallen? The lamb sleeps at my feet, curled around the empty baby bottle, back foot twitching as it dreams.

A tenderness throbs beneath my sweater. I pull the neck of it away from my chest and look down. A blossom of blood dots the front of my white linen blouse, pasting my nipple to the fabric underneath. I bring my hand to my breast and squeeze gently. The lump between my fingers has grown from the size of a pea to the size of a grape, the pain also doubling in size when the lump is compressed. But I knew this, didn’t I? I’d seen it happen before.

She’ll be wanting grass soon enough.

I look up. The radiotelly is still propped on the ladder rung. It fuzzes lightly as if clearing its throat.

She’s a fighter, that one. Guess that’s what happens when you’ve been to the other side and come back. Right, Tabbs?

I blink. “Mum?”

Her voice sounds so much younger, so clear and unburdened. Another voice, a young girl, whispers something too far from the mouthpiece for me to make out the words.

Not too much milk now, Tabby. Leave her with an appetite. She needs to start fending for herself if she’s to make it.

Mum wasn’t diagnosed with breast cancer until she was nearly 60. This cannot be a doctor call.

Will her mum protect her now? She can’t bleat.

The second voice is mine, still a babe, so close to the speaker that my breath rattles electric, a voltaic tide going in and out. I remember the lamb from all those decades ago, can see myself holding it in my lap, cross-legged in the barn as I am now. When I found that lamb in the field, mob of dolphin gulls squabbling over the pale prize of its tongue, its eyes had already clouded over in resignation. I kicked the hissing, gibbering birds away, scooped up the limp body in my arms and carried it back to the barn. I had just turned 13. Dad had been lost to the sea for almost a year. All the lambs that suffered the same maiming went to lamb chop, even if they survived. It was too much work to keep them fed and safe from infection. I don’t know what possessed me to drip warm goats milk into the lamb’s slack mouth that morning, to run my hand across its fragile ribs, its last breath long lost to this world. I don’t know what possessed the lamb to come back, for air to balloon into its small chest and animation to blink into its eyes, for its soft lips to wrap themselves around the bottle hungrily as though no time had passed since it awoke in the warm hay of the barn.

She won’t need ‘er mother’s dandling anymore, sweets. A lamb come back from the dead—I’d be frightened for the gulls!

My mother laughs. It is a sound too rich and pure for this barn, these islands, this universe. As if in a show of reverence the radiotelly takes its leave: the red light above the speaker flickers, and my mother’s laughter crescendos into harsh static, growing and stretching toward the shadowed corners of the barn and hovering in a sustained fever pitch before collapsing into silence. I grab the radiotelly and twist the knobs, calling for mum over and over. I even call for myself, my younger self, but it’s no use. Salt water washes up from my stomach and into my throat and I am helpless against the rise of it, against the tides that forever spill forth and retreat, offering and taking with unknowable meaning or no meaning at all.

See the woman carrying a box through the field, hair trailing in the wind like a tattered sail, stars and satellites slowly circling overhead. See the sister’s gift nestled inside the box, a new white telephone, sleek as a newborn lamb peering up at the underside of the woman’s throat. See the telephone take flight over the cliff, a ghostly flash in the night, swiftly devoured by darkness.

Hear the sea swallow, indifferent to the taste of technology as to the rotting corpses of gulls or rubbish tossed from fishing boats. Hear the powerlines mourn from the road, a deep electric hum circling the field and farmhouse, a great invisible lasso tightening around the island like a mother’s never-severed umbilical around a newborn lamb’s throat, tongue thrashing in its mouth, first or last words demanding to be heard.

Patricia McCrystal is a fiction writer and poet from Arvada, Colorado. Her short story “All Possible Exits” received a 2020 Pushcart Prize nomination and won the Slippery Elm 2020 Prose Prize. She’s currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at Regis University, and is the founder of VIRAGO, a Denver-based creative writing workshop for women, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming artists. Her work can be found on the stage on PBS, and on the page in Slippery Elm, Heavy Feather Review, South Broadway Ghost Society, Fellow Magazine, Birdy Magazine, and more.

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