Tell Her I Am
In that place, tunes were memories. Their notes traced simple, modal refrains, small stories that looped and changed with each retelling, the bones of them worked into the body by ear, ornamented and varied anew each time they were played. They could be recalled only by also becoming.
A banjo player I met in that place told me once he was the seventh son of a seventh son. I never told him his name was the same as my brother’s middle name, the same as my mother’s first brother’s: a small boy, overexposed in the photographs left in my grandparents’ house. Influenza closed the small boy’s throat a few months before my mother’s seventh birthday. She heard it happen through the bedroom wall.
Seventh. The pitch that longs to resolve. Seventh of a seventh. A pinnacle of bad luck. But where had the banjo player said that? Had I seen his garden yet on the Ballyhooley Road, the overgrown grass stirring tassels in the air, ganja plants hidden under trees? Was it in the rickety van that sometimes shook us down to the late Friday session on the city’s south side? Or had he said it in the pub across the table christened a thousand times with Murphy’s and Beamish till the wood blazed and breathed with malt?
In that place, tunes were a yardstick to measure skill and inebriation, the ability to play matched with an incapacity to walk, fingers racing on strings and keys but speech slowed down like a stretched-out tape reel, the way one of the flute players turned to me leaving in the dark and slurred, “Is dana gach madra i ndoras a thí féin.” Each dog is brave at the door of his own house. Which was to remind me I was far from home. Which was to say I could not hope to be brave enough.
I went to the banjo player’s house to prove that old saw wrong. I took the bus out of the city, away from the green arms of the river and into the hills above. On the table was a trout he had caught in one of the west county lakes and dusted with dill beside potatoes so perfectly round they looked like small golden planets. It was a meal like swallowing the land. Like imbibing a country.
I had come to this place skeleton thin from some illness no one could find, jeans slipping against the spurs of my hips, cheekbones like blades. This had been my story since I was born too early, the first of the month in which the small boy had died so many years ago. There was colic, then asthma, hospital trips in the middle of the night, weeks of school missed, my mother trying to keep me alive, to keep the past from repeating, and me not so much living as trying not to die. The two of us shrinking the world down into a circle that might protect us.
In this place, tunes were a legacy. The best players were able to play and recite the names of hundreds of tunes, many of which carried the names of past musicians who had written or made them popular. Sean Ryan’s. Christy Barry’s. Martin Wynne’s. Others conjured the country’s landscape, its history. The Cliffs of Moher. The Plough and the Stars. The Home Ruler. Every title was some kind of picture, some kind of yarn. A Fig for a Kiss. Tell Her I Am. Bring Back the Child. Some tunes had lost their names entirely over time, colonization, emigration, famine. Most tunes had multiple names, many of them false. And then a number of tunes were really all just one tune, a phrase swapped here, a time signature shifted there, but the architecture of it, the trajectory, still the same.
This was an old story. The years the banjo player had on me were two times seven, the same years I had on the son he talked about but whom I never saw. He told me I could stay, I could sleep in his son’s empty room if I chose. There were things he wanted from me, things he knew he couldn’t ask for. I still had someone else across the ocean, someone who wanted only to grow old in our green valley and keep me close, keep me safe and happy. By now that life was just another circle, perfect and endless, when for once all I wanted was to be mortal and adrift.
The years I’d had were also two times seven when I’d found a whistle in a drawer and stolen it up to my room. When I breathed for the first time into the fipple, my lungs gauged the golden body with ease, the way they knew to push peak flow meters, to suck down nebulized mist. Within weeks, I could measure how well I was by this light, brass instrument, by whether I could breathe enough to play it, or whether I gasped for air.
Every player must remake a tune to fit the limits and range of their instruments, to fit the limits and range of their bodies, the speed of their fingers, the depth of their lungs. Whistle and flute players must find places within the melody to breathe, they must decide which notes to leave out and whether to hide or flaunt the gap. Beginners often do not yet know how to accept the empty spaces, to see them as anything other than flaws. They struggle with the idea that absence is a thing that might be allowed, and not a thing only to be filled.
A child standing in place of a child lost is a fractured thing, unable to be itself, unable to become what it is not. As children, my brother and I knew our mother’s parents were cold in their grief. We knew our love for our mother was a kind of divine compensation against that longing, unrequited love her fractured child self had borne unstaunched for them like a wound. But we could also feel the stencil outline of that lost child. We could feel the pattern meant to keep us protected and adored. Any misstep against that pattern rekindled the original sin of loss and love withheld, even as we knew it was not meant, even as we knew we could never fill a space we were not made for. The space was gone before we even existed.
After dinner the banjo player taught me tunes. He plucked the first line, then waited for me to repeat it by ear before plucking the next, measure after measure building one after another until we repeated it all the way through, slowly at first, then a little faster and a little faster until we could tap our feet in time. The tune became then what it always was in the pubs, contrasting timbres lifting their web of over and undertone, ornaments and improvisations and breaths matched and woven until the tune became a seamless thing, sewing all the air around itself so the world it held became for a brief time whole.
There were some things my mother and I could exchange in equal measure. A tendency to pick up things hidden away, underwater, in the woods. A hunger for and aversion to sleep. A rage we could hurl at each other till the whole house shook. Only her studio at the top of the house was a place apart. The shelves there overflowed with strange gatherings, birds’ wings and wrinkled shards of rust, bones and shells and brittle stars, pieces of past things revived and reshaped under her brush, which meant somehow that we could also speak ourselves for each other anew, as if we might still become what the other wanted. Unselfish. Unfractured. Well.
More than a tune itself, the transitions between different tunes will cause a pub to erupt, to yip and shout, “Go on, girl! Go on, boy!” There’s a joyous sense of coming back from the brink, a moment of suspension when instead of repeating, one tune attains its last possible note and the next tune nails the downbeat in time with all the bar’s tapping feet. The best players learn to judge how tunes should follow one another, how to pull every listener to that brink and back. They might choose tunes all in one key or all in different keys, but they will seek a dance of distances, an exchange of near and far.
After dinner the banjo player and I walked through the darkened housing estate.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “You didn’t have all that Catholic guilt beaten into you growing up.”
“No,” I said. “But part of my family was Catholic too. And you absorb certain things growing up. Mostly without knowing it.”
Months ago, he had told me my name wasn’t just an old name for his country; it was the kind of souvenir carried only by someone born elsewhere. I thought of summers as a child traveling west, of spades and rakes we kept hidden from family who couldn’t bear to remember the small boy whose stone we cleared of withered grass till we could read his name again.
While the banjo player turned and snored, I folded my limbs into a chair under the sill. I was not supposed to be here, but the only circle was this room I would see just this once, the windows cold and open to the city sweeping its wave of twinkling lights below. I shivered and tucked my arms against my thighs. A year of hills and potatoes had made my legs strong again, able to keep me warm as I watched the light rinse into the sky again and spin gold down every edge of every building below till all the city glinted like one vast, faceted stone. It was only the smallest kind of recklessness, but this morning, this city, this life that was mine but not just mine, they were all so many things and yet all one thing. Everything wrong and beautiful happened at once. Some of it was there to choose, and choose wrong, and still live through. The wind blew harder, jingling the glass. I perched there for what seemed like a century, silent on that brink.
Tunes are made to be repeated. If a tune is written down, a repeat sign almost always marks the final measure, the ending assumed or created as the tune is played. Most tunes are brief, two or three eight-measured parts, but they can have as many as four, five, even seven parts, each one dovetailed into the next. But endings are also left unwritten because every tune is made to follow others, to unreel and telescope, with no end in sight.
The day I left that place, rain lashed down the shuddering bus windows on the way to Shannon Airport. The city was all but hidden in the grey. I had moved my flight up, just in time for my mother’s birthday. I’d smuggled through customs for her studio the wings of a butterfly lifted from the corner of a church window and saved in an expired pill sleeve. I passed the almost weightless thing from my hands to hers. How many times had we done that already, had we passed something between us? Was there any way to become without recalling? Was there any way to tell her I am because she is?
These days when I am lost in one of the banjo player’s tunes, I might still forget to breathe, and the notes dissolve into the air. It is another emptiness, a small one that does not repair the others but recollects them, sets them humming against one another like tuning forks struck all at once. When I catch my breath, the space is something vacant and full. The only name for all of it is living.
Erin Calabria grew up in rural Western Massachusetts and currently lives in Magdeburg, Germany. She studied literature and writing at Marlboro College in Vermont and radio documentary at the Salt Institute in Portland, Maine. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net 2015 and selected as a winner for The Best Small Fictions 2017. You can read more of her work in Sundog Lit, Third Point Press, Five 2 One Magazine, and other places.