Thursday, October 17, 2002

House of Memory (Cissy Speaks), monologue rev.


Note Bene: This monologue is an offshoot based on the original play, “The Steward of Christendom,” by Sebastian Barry (1995), a story is about a Dublin Castle policeman Thomas Dunne who is going senile; his wife and son are ghosts. Two of his three daughters have abandoned him. Only Annie, whose back is deformed by polio, visits him. The play is set in Baltinglas, County Wicklow, Ireland, circa 1930. Barry recounts the story from Thomas’ point of view. The main conflict is that Thomas, a Catholic, was a chief constable for Dublin Castle, was considered to be a traitor to the Catholics because he worked for the Crown. The poetry of the script resonated within me. But I kept thinking about the poor wife Cissy who died in childbirth ca. 1904.

This monologue which came from a small poem I wrote while attending the play reading in Sept. at the Irish Historical Society. I imagined another version of the story his dead wife might speak from the grave. I wrote a lament, and later went back to glean scant biographical material from the play, there wasn’t much. Then, asynchronous time became an issue for revision. Cissy’s story stops in 1904. The play takes place in 1922 and 1932. How much does a ghost know? How does it learn new material after death? Hamlet’s ghost is cognizant and seems to be able to learn new material after death. Then I found out that this is based on a true story—Barry’s family—and that there are a couple of books out on it. So that complicates things a bit. I didn’t know whether to jettison it or adhere to what little biographical facts I do know. So I felt I had to rewrite it to fit the facts as Barry’s still very much alive. I’m at that stage where I wonder if it’s wise to continue with this character or to move onto fresh territory. But I can hear her speaking to me. She won’t shut her gob. However, the actor who read Dunne’s part, knows Barry, so I’ll try and get the books, do some research and see if this is something worth pursuing. For a possible rewrite, I thought Annie could also be present with the mother talking to her, but Annie, not hearing her, has her own monologue about life treating her unfairly, being a spinster, wanting a family, feeling abandoned, feeling guilty about committing her father to the asylum...

The events recounted are of W.W.I. Willie is their dead soldier son. Dunne’s wife, Cissy, inn a cottage in the Wicklow Hills, is speaking to Annie’s photograph.

CISSY: (Seated at the kitchen table, she is talking to her daughter’s photograph.) Ach! Annie-girl, your father, he was out walking again in the lunatic meadow after telling me you mustn’t be talking to shadows... and there he was conversing with himself, the trees, and God Almighty—for all I know. The ginger cat was following him like a dog, her tail curled in a question mark, as if she attended to every word he was saying. Stopping to sniff the flowers like a large hairy bee with whiskers and mewing as if to answer. Silly creature. I wonder what she said to him because soon enough he quieted down like a lamb. And the birds singing by the hunter’s moon. It was all wrong I tell you. What were they saying I wonder and when did we forget the language of birds? Was a time we knew, you know.

I don’t blame you for committing your father to the hospital. Really I don’t. Imagine him brandishing a sword over your head like that. You’re absolutely right. Something had to be done. It scared the living daylights out of me and I felt so helpless because I couldn’t even comfort you. What use are these arms? All I could do was watch. My penance, for I don’t know what, reduced to nothing but a shadow myself I am, ’tween worlds. I couldn’t bear it seeing his arms raised up to the night sky and the watery stars weeping. And him keening like Absalom. Thing is, as he railed and ranted, I swear the moon coyly paused behind a cloud as if to listen.

Maybe it was the Kiltegan witch’s curse taking root after all. Took a long time ripening. A sad harvest. That field belonged to the witch was next door to theirs, you know, and her washing the milk buckets in the same well always made them a bit queasy. A sudden chill. Again! Uisht! Do you hear it? Sure, I shivered. And who was busy walking on my grave? There’s been enough of that lately. And the way they paraded round and round that meadow until I was dizzy with grief. Even the small fingers of sunlight couldn’t banish all the fear rising up from the dark eye of the well.

Funny how the mind plays tricks. Even now. I kept thinking of Hamlet chatting up his dead father like that. No, I said, Thomas, you come in from the cold. Willie’s not coming back. He’s dead. Sure it’s your nightshirt all wet from the dew, I said. Sleep, that’s the ticket. But the grief began anew each time as if it was the first time he heard of it. He turned his face to the wall. Then the awful silence. No. I don’t want to hear that speech. To sleep no more...

Talking to shadows he was. I don’t blame him. But I do blame the hawthorn he slept beneath all the next day, and the bees breaking their hearts over the closed flowers in the stillness of that late afternoon. And I was so afraid. I wanted to bring him some tea but it was no use. I thought to myself, if only we could catch the honeyed words. Put them in a jar for some creature comfort later. Ach, I could kill for a good cup of tea. Make it strong enough for the mice to skitter across it. Give the cat something to do to earn her keep.

You remember what they say about sleeping under the hawthorn? I’m sure that’s how it all began. His mind wandered to all sorts of strange and fantastical places. Once he said he was with Hannibal crossing the Alps. Imagine that! Poor lummoxing beasts climbing mountain passes with no more understanding of snow than the man in the moon. Him worried about the elephants trembling at the sight of snowflakes. Wanting me to knit them all sweaters! Imagine that! Me, a knitter of elephant sweaters for creatures more ‘un 2000 thousand years dead. I thought to humor him but I’d never hear the end of it in the Hereafter. Should I use the popcorn stitch or a cable stitch like Aran sweaters, dogtags for the drowned fishermen lost at sea.

Sure, I didn’t know what to make of it. There he was, ranting through the ages, a fine white snow covering him. Petals drifting down on him from the hawthorn until he was blanketed white as snow. I blamed the hawthorn, I did. We were told never to pick it or invite trouble into the house. Thorns into the bed. Or a changeling. And that he was. A changeling.

Annie, your father was like Hannibal all alone in Abyssinia, he was leaderless after he turned over Dublin Castle to them. A loyal servant of Ireland and the Crown he was. The Crown was good to us. I remember when the king came to visit. It was after Queen Victoria died. Your father called her the Flower of Christendom, he did.

Did you know that King Edward he praised my beautiful hair? Blue-black as the barrel of a rifle it was. It was 1903. I wore a polka-dotted dress. All the little teacakes staring up at us like Christmas presents. Oh! How I loved to dance. But your father, he stood like a great tree in the middle of the dance floor. I was afraid he’s take root right there. They began to whisper and laugh. Shame spread like Brigid’s red cloak. I had to coax him off the floor with the teacakes. And them laughing.

Annie, don’t be so hard on your father. There was a time when he was a different man, he wore his invincibility like a cloak but after he turned Dublin Castle over to Collins and the like, he was a different man. After that, he was always after dreaming candlelight into song and questing for distant horizons. The glory of Rome. He admired Michael Collins, you know. But they called him a traitor. Blamed him for Larkin’s death. And the others. He never even carried a gun. Just the billy club was enough. He kept Dublin orderly and safe. It was his job. Ach, it was terrible the way they treated your father. There was some trouble with his pension, with the new government, and him chief constable of Dublin working for Ireland and the Crown 45 long years! And they called him a traitor.

There’s always betrayal at the heart of it. They should look to themselves. And who was it gave the order to kill the Big Fella? Themselves alone. How he wept when Collins died. There was real hope for the Big Fella, you see. Not for “King” de Valera, him with the stone heart of a mathematician leading us back into slavery with rings through our noses like cattle to Rome. Dev, the called him, more like devolution. Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. Soldiers of destiny they called themselves. All it brought was more civil war. As if there wasn’t enough bloodshed.

It all began with your brother Willie’s death, it unsettled your father something terrible. You know, he was never quite right in the head after that. I swear he saw God in the face of his newborn son. That settled him down right enough. But why is it fathers and sons never see eye to eye until it’s too late? Poor Willie! All he wanted was a kind word. And your father like a big lump of a stone. Poor tyke. He was only six when I was with Dolly in the childbed, my own blood racing to meet Lough Derg. Such a long night it was. And I couldn’t stop it for the life of me. When the candle failed, the birds began to sing, it was my father came to me, but it was so queer, he was my husband with my father’s face. I didn’t know who I was talking to. He began to keen. Hush, I said. But the candle guttered. Him crying like his heart would break.

’Tis a pity I never got to hold Dolly. My arms and breasts ache for her. Where is she now? America? And your sister Maud? She never comes home. Only you. Why do you keep returning to this house empty of memory with no family of your own to fill it? Poor Annie. Your poor back curving like a riverbend of hammered pewter at dusk that no man would ever set sail on.

Poor Willie. He gave his young life to save Europe, so proud to be in the Rifles. Caught in the crossfire. But you can’t lose a son without blaming yourself, your father said. You can’t fight a battle without spilling some blood. They said it was a whole generation Irish blood—not English—that fed the fallow fields of the Somme. Fodder for the Crown. That’s all they were good for. Fodder, that’s what your father said. They say there’s guns and war medals enough rusting on uniforms in the shadowed back rooms in every country of the world. But in Ireland even more so.

Willie. Named after a heroic warrior, Willie he was our only Finn MacCool. We called him William after your Gran’Da. But the others, they thought it was King Billy we were referring to. And they shunned us at the market. Painting the door orange. Calling your Da a spy for the Crown. We were good Catholics, we were. Sure it was the Crown who put the food on our table during the Troubles when there was little to be had. What else could we do? They were jealously counting all our Sunday roasts stacking up into eternity like a leaning tower of Pisa. Accusing us of putting a little something aside for purgatory. But jealousy is ever the traitor’s mistress. The Have Nots hungering after the hard-earned good fortune of others. I told him it was enough to make any man crazy serving two mistresses, Catholic Ireland and Anglican England. But he couldn’t hear me. Not a single thing I said. ’T’was a pity I was only talking to the shadows.

‘T’is such a pity the old man completely went off his mind babbling in the waving grasses like a babby wanting his mother. Annie, I swear he wouldn’t have harmed a hair on your head. The sword was a symbol of the power he’d lost. ’T’was the grief of only his wounded pride speaking in the graveyards of betrayal. The crows diving at him like banshees. When the candlelight fails, when they’ve killed the heroes, and the potential of the father’s only sons lies buried in the cold clay, when that stony love slips down their cheeks into the glittering face of the well, what loyalty was left for there to crown? There’s a good girl now Annie, put the kettle on the hob for some tea?

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