Open Mouths in Ireland


Sisters in Ireland, 1974

The soda bread came with a dish of butter curls, a scattering of perfectly chilled O’s.  When no one was watching I pinched a whole curl right into my mouth.  Even today if a single cold shard of unsalted butter lands in my mouth I jolt around to see who’s looking.  Salmon arrived in red-orange sheets that seemed to glow, with balls of capers nestled on them.   My sister called them mouse droppings and pushed them to the side.  But capers were tiny jade alarm clocks.  The more I ate the more awake I was.  Don’t get me wrong, I love sushi.  But when facing a line of it I’ll sometimes attempt a bit of hocus-pocus, a spell to put my mouth back in Ireland.  I’ll wave my fingers over the pink piles of ginger, willing them to turn into salmon.  And likewise over the wasabi, so it might darken four shades of green and roll tightly into capers.     

My dad, Patrick, pulled trout out of the Shannon River.  Their flashing silver bodies flipped on the line lazily, gracefully, and if you didn’t see the hook you might think he was saving them.   He had pulled me up in a similar way, when I got caught with a hand on the boat and a hand on the dock.  I had been out swabbing the boat decks, and I slipped.  I did not open my mouth to call out for dad, the only person on board.  I kept quiet.  My arms shook and then shuddered.  If I had let go I would have been crushed between the boat and the concrete wall.  But Patrick walked up on deck and spotted me, just in time.  In my memory he pulls me up higher than he has to–he lifts me way over his head.  When Patrick jerked a trout out of the river, sometimes the line sailed so far up the fish appeared to fly.  I kneeled by watching him dress and clean it, to show that nothing alarmed me.  I thought without saying so that it was funny to clean a thing only after it dies.  It was funny to say dressed when you meant taking off its skin.  Every bite of trout required hard work. You had to fiddle away all the tiny bones that were the same transparent white as the fish.  But the taste was rich and when the flavour oozed out you got to sense for a split second how it might be to glide at the bottom of a murky, swirling river.       

We walked into this or that village and got fish and chips, which came wrapped in newspaper.  The grease splotches darkened whole blocks of print and that looked neat, the way the black letters and the white page and the grey splotches all competed for my eyes.  Chips were fries, some cut to large ovals.  You could press a warm salty one against your lips and no one would know if you were smiling behind it.  A dog appeared at our bench and waited for something to drop.  When we left school to go to Ireland I was told to keep a record of my trip, but each page of my notebook just described another dog I met that day.  The donkeys couldn’t beg for food because they were out in the green fields.  They might come over to the edge for a carrot but even as one took it he would butt my hand away with his snuffling nose.  We really just got through the fish and chips for the ice cream cones afterwards.  Creamy was a flavour but also a texture.  Very creamy ice cream seemed to stroke your throat as it slid down it.  Into each vanilla soft serve cone they jabbed a Flake, which was a chocolate wand made by Cadbury.  Some kids with will power used their Flakes as spoons: dabbing up ice cream on them, sucking it off, dipping it down again. But my teeth wanted the Flake—so much that they would already be biting down, chomping into each other, as my fingers tugged it out of the ice cream.  At home I would try to tell a friend about a Flake—how it was a candy bar but not shaped like a bar, how the chocolate flakes of it were all pressed together, but when you bit into it they flew apart again.  Weird, he would say.  Or: Gross.  And oh how I wished that instead of feeble words I had a Flake, to shove into his mouth.

In the pubs we ran free, around legs and instruments, meeting other kids or avoiding them.  No one kept track of how many orange or lemon squashes we drank.  The first time a bartender gave me a glass of black current squash I thought it was wine, and I gulped it down very quickly, before anyone could find out.  I waited and waited to feel crazy.  Once the music started everyone in the pub was  deaf to each other, which I registered as freedom.  On T.V. I’d seen a tiny cartoon figure travelling through a human artery, and when the music filled the room I thought of this.  It felt like we’d been placed right inside a thudding, pumping, flowing bloodstream.  On the break a musician handed me his silver tin whistle with a blue mouthpiece and said I could give it a go. It had a strange, sweet taste and as I blasted wobbly notes I realized what it was.  I was eating his spit.

Patrick let me slurp a little foam from his Guinness.  It never tasted like it should—that is to say, like whipped cream.  It tasted bitter, like something not meant to be eaten.  Would sewage foam taste the same?  I vowed never to sample Guinness again, but by the time his next pint came around it would look just like whipped cream.  Whenever we tied up the boat at a new place Patrick would send me and my sisters to the pub for a pitcher of Guinness.  No one kidnapped us, or said we were underage.  No one asked where our parents were.  Even the youngest kid we stopped could point the way to the pub.  We ran there like it was a race.  But once inside our eyes couldn’t see, and we stepped slowly and clumsily, like we were shy.  It took a long time to fill the pitcher.  The bartender couldn’t just spray it—the Guinness had to hit the tilted glass first.  I always wanted to see a reverse Guinness, with white on the bottom and black on the top.  The bartender took a piece of tin foil and pressed it very tightly over the pitcher.  Then she handed it over to us, saying, ‘Twouldn’t do to get a drop of rain in the Guinness.  Once out the dark pub, we shrieked and skipped.  The sister whose turn it was to carry the pitcher lagged behind.  No matter how thirsty she got, she wouldn’t think of sipping from the drink in her hands.  It was all for Patrick, and it wasn’t enough.  Even in pouring rain we could smell the way back to the river.   We tilted our heads back.  We opened our mouths to the sky.


4 thoughts on “Open Mouths in Ireland

  1. The three of you are the ages when I met you. These are the faces I hold in my memory. I loved your story. Thank you! And Happy St. Patrick’s Day!


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