The stains of death still mark me. I mean, I'm only 15, I'm supposed to be, you know, flirting with boys, not floating about like Casper the Friendly Ghost. Mom is still mourning. She thinks that she's at last put it behind her, that her passion for cooking has saved her. She's going to compete, you see. Masterchef. A long time ago, that other lifetime, she wrote off to apply. Dabbled away at custards and petits fours. Then, just after... Well, after I died, the date came through. She panicked and gave up completely, then started fervently cooking, and she's been flopping between extremes since then.
'Oh, to hell with it. I shouldn't be doing this, Isabel. What kind of bloody fool...'
She talks to me all the time. I like that, although she can't see me and I can't talk back. I like it even though she can be such a whinger.
'My sweet, my little Isabel, this is just stupid. Why do I not just stop?'
Hey ho, I can say nothing to help, that's what you get when you're dead. I stroke her forehead, but she feels nothing, not even the tiny breeze that ruffles the loose hair hanging down over her face. She is befloured, like she is about to deep-fry herself.
'Forcemeat? Am I mad? Yes, yes, totally fruit loops. But that's why you love me, right?'
So she's done all her techniques, like, you know, the sauces Hollandaise and Béarnaise, gutting fishes and boning chickens; now she is focusing on some signature dishes. I mean, signature dishes? Like she's a proper chef? Okay, she is a proper chef and I love her and I should be encouraging and all. Except that I can't be discouraging no matter how I try, since I'm dead. Did I mention that?
It's become too much, I think. What do they call it? Obsessive compulsive or something? Mom listens to BBC radio a lot, Women's Hour and all that, and they talked about people trapped in cycles of behaviour. She nodded wisely as she listened but couldn't see herself in it. Seven hours she's been in the kitchen today; pies, tarts, a delicate consommé have all been produced. Who is going to eat it all? Dad and Pete and Barry just want burgers and chips, for God's sake. It has consumed her, or consomméed her perhaps, and I worry. I'm only 15 and I shouldn't worry, but I bear the stains of death.
The door bursts open, almost explodes, and a bundle of boys rolls in. What's the collective noun for boys? A mess?
'Hiya,' says Dad, grinning.
'Mud!' Mom points her finger-of-power at the three of them, then at the floor she's washed twice already today.
Dad shambles forward, trailing dirt. 'Give us a hug.' He approaches with arms spread, she pushes him off but he enfolds her in a sweaty embrace. She thumps at his back, playfully, and he lifts her, ook-ing like a chimpanzee. Barry, who is 12, turns his head in disgust and slouches out the door.
'Upstairs, the lot of you, shower, now.' Mom is serious again.
Pete looks up at me, with his inside eyes.
'Hiya, sis,' he says. Pete is only five, so he knows I am there and we can chat, which is brilliant, but it is sad too because he is already growing too old. Sometimes he does not see me for days.
'Hi, Petey. Do anything good?'
'We kicked ball, and Dad fell in the mud and said don't tell Mom.'
'Better not tell Mom then.'
I laugh, he laughs, and for a moment I feel what life is like, but that isn't for me, not my gift any more. Hey ho!
'Is Dad doing okay?'
'Oh, you know. He's sad sometimes, but he pretends like he's not.'
'He's trying to protect you, I guess.'
'Grown-ups are silly.'
'Oh, Petey, you don't know how silly.'
The meat makes a smacking sound as Mom drops it on the cutting board, like a cadaver on a slab. Three hares, naked, skinless. No pelts, no heads, no claws -- brutal, real, visceral. I look at Mom as she inspects them. There's horror in her face. She saw them already, of course. She bought them from a man she met at a farmers market. He owns a farm in Tipperary with good hunting on it, apparently; trying to source direct from the supplier, you see, very posh and Masterchef-y. So he insisted on bringing them to the house, very interested in helping her, he said. Brought in half a dozen and made the poor woman pick out the best three, giving his advice on the leanness and age of the beasts. She could barely hold herself together while she pointed.
Today, she loses it completely and she's bawling. There's snot and tears as she lets it out. I hug her; I try to hug her. I cannot feel her or she me, but I just need to believe I'm reaching out to her.
'Oh, look at these things, Isabel, these lifeless... bloody...'
The ugliness and brutality of the dead beasts is overwhelming for her, while for me, it's part of the cycle, the game we all play, life, death. Such stark words from one so young, but that's how things are when you're dead.
I feel the creature's fading memory, its mark on mind. It sits in a glade, a broad swathe of bushes and straggling trees surrounded by wintry scrub grass. I feel its vitality as it sniffs at the air, nose twitching. Something alien is coming. The hare stiffens.
Immeasurable moments pass. Still, be still. Something comes in sight, sniffing the undergrowth, a dog. The hare bolts.
I feel the glory of its pace, all that is exalted and beatific in nature is captured in its stride. Forelegs stretch earnestly, hind legs drive with pure energy. The dog is chasing, but it is slow and clumsy by comparison.
The hare is nearly away. Something kicks it. Something unseen hits it with all the force of creation, throwing it head over heels, leaving it lying prone, paralysed. A moment later, a horrific bang.
The teeth of the dog close about it, but it is still alive. Its slack body is carried to another creature. A man. A hunter. He lifts the hare by the back legs, takes the neck and... Takes the neck and...
...And I'm dead again.
The cooking continues, but Mom's still sobbing quietly. The book is open. Mrs Beeton, for goodness' sake. No level of pretension is beneath her dignity when Masterchef comes calling.
I jest, but I'm not at all happy. There's a shadow hovering about her, a stain, and I look at the stain that marks me. It's growing on her, too. I don't understand, but she loses hope every day, and as she does, that stain deepens.
'Oh, this is no good. Bloody... bones...'
She's struggling with her chef's knife to quarter the carcass, reading Mrs Beeton's advice about where to insert her blade in order to cleanly cleave the breast bone.
Dad and Pete come bounding down the stairs, all clean and shiny. They come in to see how she's getting on.
'Ah, come on,' Dad says. 'Let me see a smile.'
'Just lay off.'
'Let's be having you.' He goes to grab her and squeeze her, but he's misjudged her mood; she twists out of his grip, bloody knife flashing.
'No! Get off me.'
'Get up with you now,' Dad laughs, pulling at her skirt.
'Stop!' Mom shouts. 'I'm just... I'm...'
'You're taking it too seriously, is what you are.'
'Too seriously? Too bloody seriously?' She thumps him. There's no playfulness in it this time.
'Now stop that...' He points a finger as if she's a misbehaving child, she slaps at him again. For a moment the knife is waved, then she drops it and turns, crying.
Pete runs. He goes up to his room, and I follow. He hates it when Mom and Dad snap at each other. I find him on his bed, with his favourite book, The Velveteen Rabbit. He holds it open and I read to him.
I look at the illustrations, the Rabbit with his sad, saggy velveteen skin, and my mind twists back to the echo-memory that is buried in the hare carcass downstairs. Neck freshly broken, the hunter takes his knife to it, ripping skin from flesh. He slices open its belly and, twisting it backwards, flicks the guts out into a tub, making a wet slurp. Blood, pouring from the broken diaphragm, sprays into the tub, a rich hot stream. Blood, flesh, bone and sinew, rough ingredients of life now reduced to ingredients.
I imagine how it would be for my tears to flow on to the pages of The Velveteen Rabbit, but I cannot cry, I'm dry as dust.
Pete joins Dad and Barry watching the footie on the telly. Peace settles. Liverpool draw with Everton, Man U kick off, Mom watches moment by moment as the meat softens into the stew, seasoning with her heart and soul. At last, she's at the final step.
'Add hare's blood to taste,' she reads. 'To taste? What the hell's that supposed to mean?'
She sighs, shoulders slump, like she's ready to dump the whole pot. Then something changes on her face, a candle lighting.
'Be with me, Isabel. Hold my hand. Be by my side, won't you? I know I can do this, but I need you.'
'I'm here, Mom,' I say, soundless. I hold her hand, fleshless. I stay with her, absent, and yet...
She takes a tupperware out of the fridge. The man brought that, too, the blood freshly cut from the hares. She pours it, dark red stain, reflecting the work of the hunter, remembering the moment of life leaving, like...
Like that day on the beach. Pete and I dug sandcastles, we made sand soup, and Mom and Dad laughed. They were tired, I'd been in hospital for a week.
Then it came on me, the bleeding. Mom tried to staunch it with a towel, but it was too strong, too fast, too much. That stain, that flow.
Mom watches it. She doesn't cry. The sauce boils and the blood thickens; like my blood never would. After several minutes, she tastes it and nods.
'It is done.' Christ on his cross, yielding His soul to the Lord. 'It is done.'
Dad comes in to help her plate up, pieces of hare delicately balanced on creamy mash, forcemeat balls arranged in the reduced jus.
'Wow,' he says, 'that smells fabulous. I mean, that's it, restaurant standard. You're gonna knock them backwards.'
She kisses him, he carries two plates to the dining room.
I'm dead. And, some day, she will die too, but not yet. Not yet. Hey ho.
She takes up two plates and, just before she flicks off the light with her elbow, she blows a kiss to me.
'Good night, beautiful.'
About the author
Kieran Marsh's short fiction has appeared in many publications including New Planet Cabaret, Southword Journal and Writers' Forum. He has been shortlisted for the Irish Times' Legends of the Fall competition and other awards. He recently read his story Snow Can't Last on RTÉ's Arena programme. More information on http://gooseberryseason.com