Nest Building

Mary stands outside her kitchen door and screams. Inwardly, because she’s afraid the pregnant cows at the fence will startle from the frost-bitten February grass. Her clenched fists bang against the door behind her injured back, scattering birds from the pine into a washed sky. Cawing as they take flight, their feathers criss-cross over her head like a net trawling for the morning sun. A thin smell leaks from the cattle barn into the stillness of the day.

She has thirty minutes at best. The dim outhouse with ancient spiders has the step-ladder she needs. Pulling it across the yard she pushes it against the barn wall and goes back for the roofing-ladder. Rung by rung her feet ascend the wobbling steps. It takes effort to drag the second ladder with her, splinters pricking her palm. It is heavier than she imagined, awkward too. One clumsy movement and she is on the roof, the flaking grey slates rough beneath her fingers. Her knees shake and in a moment’s hesitation she cares how she will make it down again.

Mary’s legs straddle the ridge tiles, warm between her thighs, last night’s wet hope still inside her. Her brown hair spirals like the tail end of a wave and her eyes sweep the horizon. Beyond the small stone walls, too far for her to see, is the coast where she grew up. She swings the lump hammer at the metal chimney cap, hard, striking it again and again until it buckles. Patrick and his father, the boss man, put it up two years ago.

‘A weddin’ present,’ the boss man said, ‘it’ll keep the feckin’ ‘daws out of the chimney.’

Then the tumble in the car leaving Patrick’s parents dead and Mary’s back damaged. It took a year of worry but now she is certain, inside her crooked body there’s a perfectly shaped womb waiting to be filled, waiting to turn this house into a home.

There’s probably a better way of doing this, of letting the birds back to their nest, screwdrivers and things but the hammer suits her mood. She looks up. The neighbours’ farms are visible, the village in the distance, the church and graveyard where his parents lie, the school roof and roads like threads knotting them all together. Two jackdaws alight some distance from her and tilt their soft grey heads and intelligent eyes at the chimney. Their beaks are filled with moss and twigs. They hop along the ridge tiles and rise in fright when she hits the chimney cap a clanging blow. They drop sticks that clatter down the slates like dry bones and the cows brown eyes flutter towards the sound.

A bird floats by, wings hovering on a flourish of swollen air. The gable end of the roof reminds her of the pier end Nuala and she jumped off every childhood summer. Sister screams of delight as they hit the seawater, hand-in-hand.

The metal grid crumples under her hammer and a hole is made in the side of the chimney cap. As she climbs down the roof, an overwhelming sensation that this was the right thing to do, that it might be lucky, comes over her. Unhooking the roofing ladder she makes it to the ground in time to see Patrick’s jeep turn the corner at the end of the lane.

‘Them ‘daws are dropping sticks down the old barn chimney again. There’ll be chicks right enough. Another generation of bloody ‘daws in this place,’ Patrick says at supper.

Mary looks him in the eye and smiles her mysterious smile she knows still puzzles him. Her fingers reach out to touch his and he takes her hand into his own.

‘What’ve you been up to?’ he grins.


About the author:

Caroline Sutherland writes from the experience of growing up in the countryside in Ireland. Her interests include new life, death and the messy bits in between. Her work has featured in The Novel Fair (Ire), the anthology Moths against Glass, short listed in Myslexia and Retreat West. She is the winner of the Crediton Short Story prize and will be published in Riptide (UK) in 2017.