Ten Green Bottles

by Jan Kaneen 

It’s everywhere tonight. In the murmur of the trees and the hush of the wind, in the plainsong hum of my brothers and sisters as they make me clean, in the very flesh and bones of me. Strange to think it started as a lullaby. In Cork City, in that dingy bedsit above O’Reilly’s bar.

Me and Mammy were all alone back then. She used to sing it to me soft and low, and when she’d finished and I still couldn’t get to sleep, she’d say, now don’t you worry my wee sweetheart nor be frightened neither, just keep on with the singing and I’ll be back before you know it. Then she’d tuck my blanket up under my chin and go to the mirror and paint her lips scarlet.

And when she was gone, that’s just what I did, sang it under my breath like a rosary or a penance, again and again to conjure my mammy back. And when the faded roses on the wallpaper changed into scary faces, I’d look at the real green bottles lined up empty against the wall, shining green and gold in the neon bar-light outside the dirty window, and I’d keep on singing.

It changed into a lament the night she didn’t come back. I wailed it for days. And when they buried her body and sent me to live in the mud of Banteer with my Mammy’s mammy, it changed again. Into a mantra. There was nothing could touch me with that mantra inside my head, not the jibes of the school kids when they called me Dirty Murphy, nor Sister Bernadette’s pity when she saw the bruises; not even the sting of my grand-mammy’s piety, waspish as it was.

I was sixteen when it changed again.

That June was the hottest ever and heavy with the flies. Swathes of them covered the sheep field and droves of them came into Grand-mammy’s kitchen circling slow, making her almost mad. She swore and swiped, shouting feckers and hoors—but they rode the air and dodged her harm and I was glad that something could.

The spray worked better. She bought it in McGinty’s Wholesale and shot peppery plumes of it up to the ceiling. I watched as they bounced off the whitewashed walls and flagstone floors, fizzing and buzzing metallic green as they whirligigged themselves to death. Grand-mammy looked nearly pleased as she crunched over them on her way out to feed the chickens.

‘You know where the dustpan is,’ she barked, closing the door.

They were still and dry when I swept them up, but out in the stink of the dustbin I caught a movement—an emerald abdomen shining gold, and gauzy wings glinting back to life. It rose up into the air, one greenbottle hanging in my eyeline. My heart raced with the strangeness of it and the low hum of its wings caught the mantra that was rolling around my head. I felt a flicker of something like recognition.

Grand-mammy’s stick took me by surprise; knocked me clean off my feet.

‘In the name of the saints,’ she screamed, ‘Are you singing to a filthy shit-crawler?’

She raised her stick again and the air moved. Gathering above her was a great swarm, glittering and green, a great sheet of pulsating light, droning, humming, buzzing. She followed my gaze and her face twisted as she turned her stick upon them, slicing fast and frenzied. But they split and lifted just out of her reach. And still she swiped, carving the air again and again until she was breathless. She bent over to catch a second wind, and they shoaled lower like a single thing, their music loud and low, then quiet, before they dropped, as a blanket might, over her head and hair and skin and clothes until she looked like something new—a shimmering green ghost made entirely from flies.

They must’ve sensed her heart stopping because they rose before she fell, hovering in the heat for a few long seconds, ordinary again, humming quiet like ordinary flies, then scattering—green smithereens shooting away, and in a second it was as if they were never there at all.

She was dead by the time she hit the floor, I’m sure of it. I tried to tell the Pruntys as I ran breathless into their yard. I tried to tell Father James too, and the Sisters when they came to make the arrangements. But they shook their heads and said I was in shock, which was no wonder at all what with the terrible heat and the biblical swarms and seeing my poor grand-mammy drop dead right in front of my eyes.

But that was a lifetime ago, a good lifetime I like to think. Two years at boarding school is a time best forgot but I’ve been content enough scratching out a living here in the mud of Banteer. And I made it my business to learn all I could about Lucilia sericata and how they recycle the dead, but even when the internet came along, the entire digital knowledge of the human species couldn’t explain what happened to my grand-mammy.

Only now, right at the end, do I start to understand.

What the living can’t know about greenbottles is that they absorb everything.

Everything.

Ironic to think that when someone finds me here, they’ll think I died alone—when the echo of Mammy’s love is still humming in the heart of the swarm. Grand-mammy’s too, even after seventy years. Less god-fearing and not so judgmental, but it’s definitely her, inside them, inside me, inside us, and we are legion.

It’s changed again now—into my requiem, I suppose—soft and low, echoing in the murmur of the trees and the hush of the wind, in the plainsong hum of my brothers and sisters as they make me clean, in the very flesh and bones of me.

Jan Kaneen is a self-identifying weirdo with an MA in Creative Writing from the Open University. She lives below sea level in the drained flatness that is the Cambridgeshire fens worrying about climate change. Her memoir-in-flash (yes that is a writing form) The Naming of Bones is forthcoming from Retreat West Books in 2021. 
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