The Irish Girl
My 87-year-old mother’s eyes flip open after a night and day unconscious in the hospital, and she speaks as if answering one of the family history questions I asked as a boy: “Oh, the Irish girl, the Irish girl saved me.”
“She’s awake,” says my father with disappointment as he grips the rail beside her bed and leans his ice blue eyes over her half-alert brown ones.
“Were you dreaming, Mother?” I’m eager for an exchange. I call her Mother because I like its formal remove from her suffering more than my usual Mommy. My father slides his eyes up to me, looks threatened by her revival. His silence is a labor of patience as he peers into the eyes that watch the ceiling. Her body barely moves under the covers. Her breathing is weak.
“Remembering,” she says, her German accent rolling through the word.
I press: “What Irish girl, Mother?”
“She’s sleeping again,” he snaps. “Don’t bother her. Maybe we can get out of here and get a decent dinner. I’m starving. ”
And her eyes are closed. Eyes open. “I’m not asleep. I’m with the Irish girl.”
I ask, “Where? The soldiers dance? Art school?” I’ve heard these stories.
“Not a dance. London. Those cobbled old streets. I’m lost. I’m what the English call a bloody foreigner but she sees me and asks, ‘Where are you going?’ I tell her, ‘The street of bookshops.' She says it is Charing Cross Road, and asks, ‘What book do you seek?’ ‘The Three Musketeers in English,’ I say. I tell her I know it in the French, but I want to read the English to learn better English because I’m going to America. She throws back her red hair and says,‘How brilliant!’ I say, ‘What a treat!’ I’d learned that whatever an English person says, I say, ‘What a treat!’ We both laugh. She says she loves The Three Musketeers, takes my arm and yells, ‘One for two and two for one!’ And she leads me through streets so narrow they are dark even on a sunny day, to a street of bookshops where wooden signs hang from delicate chains. I can see it still.”
Mother’s mouth stays open, a gaping black oval, as she stares with meticulous focus into the air. Talking has tired her, but her face floods with rage. “It makes my blood boil,” she says, stretching out the last word with a shudder.
“What does?” I ask.
“How the Nazis bombed that street. The Blitz!” Her face twists toward me with intensity. “It was famous, that street. People bought books there for centuries. I was safe in New York when I read how they bombed it and it burned in a fire storm they couldn’t put out for days because of all the…” She catches a throat full of air, which she blows out in a huff, shaking her head.
My father’s narrow eyes flash a look at me that says he’ll be furious if I urge her on. Never get between him and a meal. The sharp square of his ruddy face looks extra-sharp at the claim that her dying—almost twice this week—has placed on him to listen, to be here instead of at the table with the maid pushing through the swinging kitchen door with his dinner and his wife watching to be sure he likes it.
He checks the fine watch he’s put on because he planned to have this evening’s dinner at a French restaurant. Good eating always helps him forget the war with her. An hour ago, in English remarkably unaccented, he said, “I hope you don’t mind if we just stay an hour and make a quick retreat.”
I stand here an hour later and tell myself I won’t leave until she finishes her story or her eyes close again. It’s like standing on a ledge and waiting to be pushed off, even if he isn’t speaking yet. Weeks before this battle, she and I were alone in another hospital and she said plainly: “He’ll cry crocodile tears when I’m gone but he’ll be happy.”
I said I didn’t believe that but admitted, “He’s not built to be a caretaker.”
“Oh, that’s a fact,” she said. “Never depend on him to do anything unless there’s pleasure in it for himself. You know his beloved saying, “Wer opfert nicht lächelnd, opfert nie.”
“Who does not sacrifice with a smile does not sacrifice at all,” I said.
“Ja voll,” she said, with Germanic emphasis.
“Is there such a thing as cheerful sacrifice?” I asked her that day.
“Only for saints,” she said. “It is his excuse to keep on living just for himself, which he’ll soon do with no trouble from me.”
In this white bed, she yawns, shakes her head again, and forces her strained voice over the last edge of memory: “How often I think of those books burning. I have the fine translation I bought that afternoon with the Irish girl somewhere at home. You will find it when I’m in the boneyard.”
Her eyes turn distant but do not close. I follow the gaze I know lingers on burning pages that flames pull into the sky.
“I wonder if she survived,” she says.
Allan M. Jalon lives in New York, where he writes poetry, fiction and articles. His poetry appeared most recently in The Brooklyn Rail, and he has had fiction in Manoa, the Southwest Review and other journals. His journalism appears in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere.