About the Author
Colm Tóibín is the author of seven novels, including The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; The Testament of Mary, and Nora Webster, as well as two story collections. Three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.
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Testament of Mary The Testament of Mary
They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell. But I am not being hunted now. Not anymore. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched. They think that I do not know the elaborate nature of their desires. But nothing escapes me now except sleep. Sleep escapes me. Maybe I am too old to sleep. Or there is nothing further to be gained from sleep. Maybe I do not need to dream, or need to rest. Maybe my eyes know that soon they will be closed for ever. I will stay awake if I have to. I will come down these stairs as the dawn breaks, as the dawn insinuates its rays of light into this room. I have my own reasons to watch and wait. Before the final rest comes this long awakening. And it is enough for me to know that it will end.
They think I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world; they think I do not see the point of their questions and do not notice the cruel shadow of exasperation that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices when I say something vague or foolish, something which leads us nowhere. When I seem not to remember what they think I must remember. They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.
I like it that they feed me and pay for my clothes and protect me. And in return I will do for them what I can, but no more than that. Just as I cannot breathe the breath of another or help the heart of someone else to beat or their bones not to weaken or their flesh not to shrivel, I cannot say more than I can say. And I know how deeply this disturbs them and it would make me smile, this earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all, except that I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I had no further need for tears. There was a time when I thought that I had, in fact, no tears left, that I had used up my store of tears, but I am lucky that foolish thoughts like this never linger, are quickly replaced by what is true. There are always tears if you need them enough. It is the body that makes tears. I no longer need tears and that should be a relief, but I do not seek relief, merely solitude and some grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true.
Of the two men who come, one was there with us until the end. There were moments then when he was soft, ready to hold me and comfort me as he is ready now to scowl impatiently when the story I tell him does not stretch to whatever limits he has ordained. Yet I can see signs of that softness still and there are times when the glow in his eyes returns before he sighs and goes back to his work, writing out the letters one by one that make words he knows I cannot read, which recount what happened on the hill and the days before and the days that followed. I have asked him to read the words aloud to me but he will not. I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw. I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.
I remember too much; I am like the air on a calm day as it holds itself still, letting nothing escape. As the world holds its breath, I keep memory in.
So when I told him about the rabbits I was not telling him something that I had half forgotten and merely remembered because of his insistent presence. The details of what I told him were with me all the years in the same way as my hands or my arms were with me. On that day, the day he wanted details of, the day he wanted me to go over and over for him, in the middle of everything that was confused, in the middle of all the terror and shrieking and the crying out, a man came close to me who had a cage with a huge angry bird trapped in it, the bird all sharp beak and indignant gaze; the wings could not stretch to their full width and this confinement seemed to make the bird frustrated and angry. It should have been flying, hunting, swooping on its prey.
The man also carried a bag, which I gradually learned was almost half full of live rabbits, little bundles of fierce and terrorized energy. And during those hours on that hill, during the hours that went more slowly than any other hours, he plucked the rabbits one by one from the sack and edged them into the barely opened cage. The bird went for some part of their soft underbelly first, opening the rabbit up until its guts spilled out, and then of course its eyes. It is easy to talk about this now because it was a mild distraction from what was really going on, and it is easy to talk about it too because it made no sense. The bird did not seem to be hungry, although perhaps it suffered from a deep hunger that even the live flesh of writhing rabbits could not satisfy. The cage became half full of half-dead, wholly uneaten rabbits exuding strange squealing sounds. Twitching with old bursts of life. And the man’s face was all bright with energy, there was a glow from him, as he looked at the cage and then at the scene around him, almost smiling with dark delight, the sack not yet empty.
• • •
By that time we had spoken of other things, including the men who played with dice close to where the crosses were; they played for his clothes and other possessions, or for no special reason. One of these men I feared as much as the strangler who arrived later. This first man was the one among all those who came and went during the day who was most alert to me, most menacing, the one who seemed most likely to want to know where I would go when it was over, the one most likely to be sent to bring me back. This man who followed me with his eyes seemed to work for the group of men with horses, who sometimes appeared to be watching from the side. If anyone knows what happened that day and why, then it is this man who played with dice. It might be easier if I said that he comes in dreams but he does not, nor does he haunt me as other things, or other faces, haunt me. He was there, that is all I have to say about him, and he watched me and he knew me, and if now, after all these years, he were to arrive at this door with his eyes narrowed against the light and his sandy-coloured hair gone grey and his hands still too big for his body, and his air of knowledge and self-possession and calm, controlling cruelty, and with the strangler grinning viciously behind him, I would not be surprised. But I would not last long in their company. Just as my two friends who visit are looking for my voice, my witness, this man who played dice, and the strangler, or others like them, must be looking for my silence. I will know them if they come and it should hardly matter now, since the days left are few, but I remain, in my waking time, desperately afraid of them.
Compared to them, the man with the rabbits and the hawk was oddly harmless; he was cruel, but uselessly so. His urges were easy to satisfy. Nobody paid any attention to him except me, and I did because I, perhaps alone of those who were there, paid attention to every single thing that moved in case I might be able to find someone among those men with whom I could plead. And also so that I could know what they might want from us when it was over, and more than anything else so that I could distract myself, even for a single second, from the fierce catastrophe of what was happening.
They have no interest in my fear and the fear all those around me felt, the sense that there were men waiting who had been told to round us up too when we sought to move away, that there seemed no possibility that we would not be held.
The second one who comes has a different way of making his presence felt. There is nothing gentle about him. He is impatient, bored and in control of things. He writes too, but with greater speed than the other, frowning, nodding in approval at his own words. He is easy to irritate. I can annoy him just by moving across the room to fetch a dish. It is hard to resist the temptation sometimes to speak to him although I know that my very voice fills him with suspicion, or something close to disgust. But he, like his colleague, must listen to me, that is what he is here for. He has no choice.
I told him before he departed that all my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty, but it is foolishness that I have noticed first. He was waiting for me to tell him something else and he sat opposite me, his patience slowly ebbing away, as I refused to return to the subject of his desires: the day our son was lost and how we found him and what was said. I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him “him,” “my son,” “our son,” “the one who was here,” “your friend,” “the one you are interested in.” Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.
He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food towards me as though he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit, he could have done anything, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent. And he used all of it, I said, so he could lead a group of men who trusted him from place to place. I have no time for misfits, I said, but if you put two of you together you will get not only foolishness and the usual cruelty but you will also get a desperate need for something else. Gather together misfits, I said, pushing the plate back towards him, and you will get anything at all—fearlessness, ambition, anything—and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.
• • •
Farina my neighbour leaves things for me. And sometimes I pay her. At first I did not answer the door when she knocked and even when I collected whatever she left for me—fruit, or bread, or eggs, or water—I saw no reason to speak to her as I passed her door later, or even pretend that I knew who she was. And I was careful not to touch the water she left. I walked to the well to get my own water, even if it left my arms strained and sore.
When my visitors came they asked me who she was and I was glad to be able to tell them that I did not know, and had no interest in finding out, and did not know either why she left things for me other than that it gave her an excuse to hover in a place where she was not wanted. I must be careful, they said to me, and it was not hard to reply, to say that I knew that better than they knew it, and that if they had come to give me unnecessary advice, perhaps they should think of staying away.
Slowly, however, as I passed her house and saw her at the door I began to look at her and I liked her. It made a difference that she was small, or smaller than I am, or weaker-looking even though she is younger. I presumed at first that she was alone and I believed that I would be able to deal with her if she became difficult or too persistent. But she is not alone. I have found that out. Her husband lies in bed and he cannot move and she must attend to him all day; he is in a darkened room. And her sons, like all the sons, have gone to the city to find better work, or more useful idleness, or some adventure or other, leaving Farina the goats to tend and terraces of olive trees to watch over and water to carry each day. I have made clear to her that her sons, if they ever should come here, cannot cross this threshold. I have made clear to her that I do not want their help for anything. I do not want them in this house. It takes me weeks to eradicate the stench of men from these rooms so that I can breathe air again that is not fouled by them.
I began to nod my head when I saw her. Still I did not look at her, although I knew that she would notice the change. And out of it came more change. It was difficult at first because I could not understand her easily and she seemed to think that strange but it never stopped her talking. Soon, I began to follow most of her words, or enough of them, and I learned where it was she went every day and why she went there. I did not go with her because I wanted to. I went because my visitors, the men who come to oversee my final years, had outstayed their welcome and asked too many questions and I thought that if I disappeared on them, even for an hour or two, they might learn greater civility, or, even better, they might go.
I did not think that the cursed shadow of what had happened would ever lift. It came like something in my heart that pumped darkness through me at the same rate as it pumped blood. Or it was my companion, my strange friend who woke me in the night and again in the morning and who stayed close all day. It was a heaviness in me that often became a weight which I could not carry. It eased sometimes but it never lifted.
I went to the Temple with Farina for no reason. And as soon as we set out I was already enjoying the thought of the discussion when I came back about where I had been, and I was already working out what I would say to my visitors. We did not speak on the way and it was only when we were close that Farina said that each time she went there she asked only for three things—that her husband be taken by the gods into death before he suffered more and that her sons be kept in good health and that they might be kind to her. Do you really want the first, I asked? Your husband to die? No, she said, I do not, but it would be for the best. And it was her face, the expression on her face, a sort of light in her eyes, a kindness as we entered the Temple, that I remember.
And then I remember turning and seeing the statue of Artemis for the first time; in that second, as I stared at it, the statue was radiating abidance and bounty, fertility and grace, and beauty maybe, even beauty. And it inspired me for a moment; my own shadows fled to talk to the lovely shadows of the Temple. They left me for some minutes as though in light. The poison was not in my heart. I gazed at the statue of the old goddess, she who has seen more than I have and suffered more because she has lived more. I breathed hard to say that I had accepted the shadows, the weight, the grim presence that came to me that day when I saw my son tied up and bloody and when I heard him cry out and when I thought that nothing worse could happen until hours went by. I was wrong to think that nothing worse could happen, and everything I did to stop it failed, and everything I did in order not to think about it failed too, until it filled me with its sound, until the very menace of those hours entered my body, and I walked back from the Temple with that menace still pumping through my heart.
With the mon...
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