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Moronic Ox Literary and Cultural Journal - Escape Media Publishers / Open Books
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Novel Excerpt

I stand in the darkness of the room and watch the street as the day turns to night. I have been watching for a long time, upright for hours until my limbs are deadened and my entire body is without feeling. One group of businesses shuts down for the evening and another opens its doors. A new set of characters arrives and the most ancient trade of all becomes more visible. Every day, layers of life interweave. The whores and pimps are so well painted into the background that the eye takes them for granted – you see them and you don't. In summer, amongst the mass of tourists, they mingle well, but when winter comes and the street is barer they peck the pavements like hungry pigeons searching for crumbs; they dare more, hustle more and show more. Alongside them, sometimes through them, addicts and abusers are drawn to the sellers of foul chemicals and substances that erode the mind. I do not understand them. Why make yourself sick until you can no longer function – until you die? The dealer is easier to understand than the user, just as the pimps and the whores are. I even understand Pierre and know what his enjoyment is. One does not forget what a fruity glass of wine can bring; but a second glass strips and erodes what is most important to me. It interferes with my senses – the skills of survival. It would have been better had I been born an animal; I am an animal – almost.

About the author

Born in Ireland in 1964, Kathleen Curtin grew up on a small farm in County Limerick. Later she attended University College Cork, where she graduated with a PHD in Geography. At the age of twenty-three, having been awarded a scholarship by the National University of Ireland, she went to Paris to continue her studies at the Sorbonne. She has been living in Paris ever since, although she does get back very regularly to Ireland.

Kathleen says: "Nothing compares to growing up on a little farm deep in the Irish countryside—except maybe getting to fulfill one’s dream of living and working in Paris. Nobody could ask for a more satisfying job than helping people to communicate in the English language; and in that rich exchange learn about life and lives. Throughout, I have been fortunate enough to be able to spend every spare moment putting pen to paper and fingertip to keyboard, making up stories. Writing is my greatest passion, and sharing that with others is the most precious gift that one could give or receive."
Pierre is satisfying himself at the café. It is too late to change a man whose mind is numb from years of smoking and drinking rich Bordeaux. His eyes are drawn to the street corner. That whore is older than the others and weathered by years of service. He will take his pleasure there as often before and cannot be blamed for that; I have certainly never sought to restrain him. He will spend all that we have, and tomorrow I will have to earn again. Pierre holds little interest for me, and yet, he is difficult to shake off. Have I really tried very hard? It is not my desire to be cruel, for I have seen his lifeline fading.

America goes down the street. Jane Moore is a simple immigrant resident and not part of the game. Though carrying many bruises from life, she has hopes and dreams but for now must bide her time as a bar tender. My fear is that it no longer matters what America does, for she may never fulfil her dreams.

Jane will come here soon. I rarely receive people anymore but will make an exception. It is because of the other eyes that are watching. The words come to me like a bad dream and will not go away. They are telling me that America is living out her last days. Tonight I am confused: it is not like me; it is her life, not mine. It is not my business. I have never concerned myself with anybody else's business. There is an explanation and it lies in those postcards in my hand. It is not the written words, but what the pictures show. Those cliffs and that sea speak to me. I press the cardboard to my face and can almost the smell the seaweed and taste the salt and iodine. Jane’s friend has forced her way into my life, awakening a sensation that has been long dormant. Something deep inside stirs and compels me, and I fear it will carry me on a journey that will cost me dearly.

The wallet is empty and the cupboards are bare. Damn Pierre, he has blown it all, and not just at a café terrace or on a whore; he has also taken money for his son, Dimitri. I should have known – he cannot say no to him. I would have given Pierre’s son something, but not that much. Dimitri is not my responsibility, he is not mine. When I came into Pierre's life, his son was in the hands of his alcoholic mother. By the time the boy was a teenager, he was following in her footsteps. It is not all Pierre’s fault; he did his best by him. However, Pierre is weak, has always been so; he has never been able to stand his ground and will cushion Dimitri to the end. I have passed that boy many times; crossed his haunts around the city, found him drunk and begging. He has never tried to talk to me, and I have never had a conversation with him. His mother died on the streets and Dimitri will die in the same way.

I curse Pierre once more, then swallow my words; I am not his provider, nor his doormat, but will have to go out again, for we have not made enough to see us through the week. Still, I forgive him, because many years ago he was good to me and provided the essentials when I was unable to do so. Pierre took me in and accepted me when nobody else would have. It is for that reason I forgive him for all his deceit and lies. I do not know if he has ever understood my silence or my mangling expression. I do know that he understood my words when it was important not to pry. There is that between us. So, I leave him to his whore and he knows my limits. That whore has been trading for years and takes no risks; I trust her, rather than Pierre.

If there is more in me, I have never shown it to Pierre. However, those seaside pictures have made me remember what I wanted to forget. They take me back to the child racing across the sand, running from the breaking waves. The child is no longer there; in her place stands an old woman who cannot run fast enough from the tide of memories that are sweeping in and flooding her mind. 

The tourist train goes merrily up the hill; the passengers shout out, HURRAY! Their joy cannot lift the shadow that I see. It grows darker and darker and is cast by a creature that thrives in darkness. There is a monster out there watching those girls as they walk Rue Lepic or sit on the café terrace. He has chosen America to be his sacrifice, but they are bound and intertwined and my fear is that she who brings the sea, the Irish girl, will have to fall too. I am chilled to the bone as never before.

The weather has turned; the autumn wind is howling through the cracks and keyholes. The flat is draughty because it is not insulated. The rain lashes down as I lay on the bed and think about having to go out in a few hours. Sleep does not answer to my commands. The blankets over me are warm, but I am touched by neither warmth nor comfort. The elements rage outside and the sleeping hour has passed. I am coming down with something, maybe the flu, but I must not give in yet. I have to get up soon and try to find the rent money. It is important to stay one step ahead. How much longer will this body be able to run? The child is before me again, racing away from the incoming tide; her little legs carry her as quickly as they can. If she stands still, the water will catch her, swell and swirl, and eventually take her under. Would it be so bad? It might be a relief – giving in – giving up. What difference would it make to anybody? It is not for now, it is not the time; I have to stay one step ahead of the tide.

It is morning, my morning, it is four o' clock. My body is hot with a burning temperature. I push my heavy legs onto the floor, Move, old woman, move! My limbs obey slowly; a weary set of bones shake and ache so much that it pains me to shower. I make some coffee and let the liquid enter my system. My throat is dry and it hurts to swallow. 
The rain has stopped. Would that I could stay at my window today, but Pierre has left me with no choice. He has had a good night and knows not to come home for several days. I will say nothing, I never do. 

I have many words but they are all in my head. Speaking is not my strength, listening is. I have listened all my life; it is one of my main sources of knowledge. There is a fear of words in me because I do not master them. My own words when expressed are not pretty; my tongue does not sculpt the sounds well – they are alien, hostile sounds out of control. Once they have touched my tongue, they splinter off and recite something unrecognizable, even to me.

I return to base, dissatisfied; my pickings have not been enough and I will have to scour my own district to make up what we need for the week. Everything has come alive. An accordion sounds from Place du Tertre, the artists' plaza. The player is not French and is bluffing his way through the tune. Nobody is bothered; Paris is supposed to sound of accordion music. 

Even the young mount the steps with difficulty to Sacre Coeur basilica. Age is telling on me. I do not often think about that and rarely count the calendar years, but today no pretense is required to embrace the body of an elderly woman. My clothes are not fashionable, just ordinary; the aim is not to stand out in any way, one must never to stand out. Ordinary people go unnoticed.

​The basilica is before me, aloof and haughty. Some people call it majestic; I do not know if it is. The scent of incense and candles draws me inside, along with scores of visitors, cameras and accents – a collage of different countries. Silence is called for and for the most part respected. It is easy to follow the shuffling invasion of this sacred monument. I make my way to a pew and kneel, bowing my head in prayer. It is wise to stay on my knees for a while before sitting up and staring straight ahead to the main altar, yet ever watchful of the movements of people in the aisles. Watch, old woman; watch until you find what you are looking for; wait for the sign. The sign comes instinctively from a lifetime of experience. I fix my eye on it, slip out of the row of seats and synchronize my entrance back into the crowd.

​By the time the crowd takes me to the main door, a day's work has been done. It is the moment to drift outside with the impatient tourists. I walk back down the steps, dally in the artists' plaza to observe the posturing and posing of artists and subjects, and witness money being spent on air.

​A bench awaits me. It is not good to do what I have done, or to go against what your body is telling you. I will sit for a while and try to recover enough energy to walk again. The flu must run its cycle. It is not the flu that concerns me; there is another sickness in my stomach – an intense nausea. It is not caused by a fever, but because I have seen his shadow again and have watched him watching. I have tried to ignore it and cannot. It is impossible to rid myself of it, no more than a fox can forget the presence of the hunter. I see him, though he does not see me; I am not what the monster is looking for or looking at. 

I make her understand that she is to leave the money in the bowl on the table.
She does as I bid, though is puzzled when I do not check it.

Her coming here is my doing, a force pushing against my will; she is the one I was drawn to see first and to lure here. It is my own fault for putting Mme Lune's number in her purse. Following my usual routine I did not answer the telephone personally, but listened to her message then got Pierre to ring back to arrange the appointment.

The light is sombre and hides the starkness of the flat. I have tried to create the best conditions to work in. The pieces of furniture are of cheap wood, cast-offs, but have been uplifted with richly colored cushions, covers and quilts. The effect is of deep purple, blues and sweet Fuchsia. Everything is set up and in its rightful place, exactly where it should be. You have to give people what they expect; do not disappoint. I have draped heavy crimson curtains around the séance room and placed a crystal ball at the center of the table. Beside it is a silk purse containing Tarot cards. There is some essence burning in a lamp and angel music playing softly in the background. I am dressed in a long black dress, softened by a mauve shawl, and have adorned myself with cheap jewellery. My head is covered with a veil; it is a glittery dark grey and camouflages the essentials. She must not to know me, they must never know me. My disguises are many; they are my protection and security. Because speaking is not my talent, the words I use have been put down on large cards; they are neither natural nor spontaneous. Pierre, who understands my impaired speech, has always written down what I want. There is a piece of chalk and slate nearby for any sketch I may add during the reading. My approach captivates the naïve and the needy. By staying within the lines that have been rehearsed and learned by heart, I succeed in making them believe. I am not in my skin, but in that of another. Although it is not comfortable, it is efficient.

In the early years when I told fortunes more often, I prepared meticulously in advance for each client and never received more than one or two a day. Now it is a year. I would memorize a system whereby Pierre organized the cards according to a sequence; from the mysterious and dramatic images on the Tarots to the words and handwritten sentences on other cards, and my own drawings. Pierre would sit in the next room in case his services were required. Today, I will work without him.

I point Jane to where I want her to sit.

She is impressed and obeys.

Even the most skeptical are wary of the future. They are unsure: Maybe this fortune teller has a special gift; perhaps she can tell them something... Unfortunately, I see too much and know too much of what is not my business; I have the knowledge of the watcher. This session must not last longer than twenty minutes; she will be shown some things and will leave. Jane will go and will be given back her money; one cannot accept the money of someone who has been condemned. I will not have blood on my hands; the blood is there anyway because I cannot tell her the truth.
I will communicate basic things to her. It used to surprise me how people reacted to such information; it no longer does. She is a beautiful girl and bubbling with life. I see what can be seen in many – a yen for something that I have never understood; a longing for a place, a home; seeking to be someone, to be considered. It is easy to recognize those emotions, but not to feel them. I must have known them a long time ago, I surely must; but now they are far away and difficult to trace. 
It is Mme Lune’s moment; she draws the series of love cards and puts together what is so evident, so obvious to a watcher. There is light in Jane Moore’s eyes; an aspiration and a flame that I have never had. Mme Lune does not explain what is most important – that she is lying because the truly vital information never escapes her. How can you tell someone that they will leave it all behind? It is not for Mme Lune to tell her that. This medium has not seen it in the stars, or in the cards – and the crystal ball is just the way to light up a globe. Yet, I have seen the hunter and where his eyes go and know his quarry.

I look at her and turn tormented thoughts in my head. Your name is Jane Moore, I call you America; you have a beauty inside that does not deserve to die. With your past, you should have been bitter, angry and wretched; you are none of those things. Can it be that you were meant to die young? Will you be another innocent victim of his madness? Can someone walk away from what they know? “God,” if there is a God, “take me away from this and lift the burden from me. My brain is lacking; it has neither the intelligence nor the cleverness to counter him. Do not put that on my plate. Quiet, old woman – who are you talking to? Forget God, there is nobody who can hear you. Your life is not bound to hers or to that of her Irish friend.”

“Hush,” the words are repeated silently in my head; “you owe nothing to anybody except to follow your own path to the end. You must keep going because there is nothing to go back to.” And suddenly it is clearer to me; it is because I could have been like he who stands and watches – a dark shadow of a monster with feral instincts; nothing more than a rodent.

Jane Moore does not understand when I return the money to her and does not want to accept it. I push it into her hand, it is my only escape. It is better to have nothing to do with her or her life or what will end her life. It makes me maladroit and inept; but she does not notice and only remembers that I have filled her mind with the treasures life has to offer her. I wish Mme Lune had not drawn her. It is too late for regrets; I opened my door because something forced my hand. The hurt and wounds of her past are so visible on her face, but Jane has the instinct of survival. She is a creature who has learned to crawl, to beg, and to fight her way. I have a certain respect for her. “Go away, Jane Moore; go back to America.” I hurry her through the door and shake my head when she offers the money once again.

Jane is gone and I stand alone at the window. She takes out her phone and is talking to her friend; to the girl who brought the smell of the sea to my street. It is not just any sea, it is my sea. My eyes go farther, to where the shadows cluster, to where the monster watches. May the eyes that stare from the other side of the street be blighted! The monster is always watching – he sees it all and knows everyone. When night is truly there, he sneaks out again and slinks by, following a trail. I do not know where he goes, but I must find out what draws him into the night. I have rarely been afraid of anyone or anything in my life. Death has not been something to agonize over; it will be and I will accept it when it comes, when it is time. Yet I am afraid of him…

A shaft of gloom distracts me. His shadow is moving, and it burns through me. I do not like that kind of fear. If only I could run; but try as I might, there is no escape. There is no choice – I have to know where he goes.

From the novel
Madame Lune
by Kathleen Curtin
Published by Open Books (2015)
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