Nowadays I meditate. I sit with a group of Buddhists on Sunday evenings and I breathe in the white walls, the silence, the immense space. I try to exhale the old fears, anxieties but, too often, memories of Medina intrude.
I was born and raised ten miles from Dublin, Ireland. My father was one of the first to build on the fog-covered summit of Howth Head, now an exclusive suburb with mansions overlooking the steep cliffs. He wanted to escape the confines of his family home, where he lived with an alcoholic father and a pub-owner mother. Swept away by the exotic location and design of their new house, my parents named it "Medina."
When I was four years old my mother dropped dead outside the hedge skirting our garden while we little ones dined on fish and chips at Auntie Maura's, a neighbor four houses up. With five young children and no emotional support system, my forty-five year old father abandoned himself to the rites and rituals of the church.
Prayer and service punctuated our weekdays. At 7 a.m., neatly dressed in our school uniforms, we would disentangle ourselves from the back of the family Volkswagen beetle and stumble into Stella Maris Convent, a private chapel for the Sisters of Charity and devout churchgoers. The nuns would tiptoe around the creaking wooden nave and vestry, preparing the altar and the altar boys for mass. Two of my brothers, frocked in stained cassocks and surplices, would dreamily ring the sacring bells during the service, sometimes at the wrong time. My father always knelt in the front row, loudly reciting the liturgical prayers, his black missal bulging with mass cards and handwritten petitions to the saints. Half asleep, my sister and I would bow our heads beside him, afraid almost to breathe.
After tea, served on the dot of 5.30 p.m. we would rush up the backfields with the local gang, the O'Callaghans, the Cooneys, the Fitzgeralds, the McDonaghs. On the rocks we would lose ourselves in territorial battles, but on the dot of 7 p.m. our father would bellow from the back garden "Rosaryeeeeee, Rosaryeeeeeeee," his voice echoing through the neighborhood. We immediately would take off, aware that our friends were laughing behind our back but petrified of being late. We knew that one step out of line, one false step away from 'Daddy and God' rule and we could be whelped. On one occasion I stood in the dinette with my sister, helpless, watching my brother's legs turn red and purple under the persistent whack of my father's leather strap.
Our rosary beads dangling from our fingers, we would kneel in the sitting room and recite five decades of the rosary, each child leading a set of ten "Hail Marys" sandwiched between an "Our Father" and a "Glory be to the Father." I first recited the prayers alone shortly after my mother's death. Fraulein, our sixty-five-year-old Viennese mother substitute that year, handed me her pearly white beads. Before I got to the end of my part of the chant, I started to giggle, overwhelmed by the seriousness of the occasion and the silence of the others. Moments later I found myself empty handed and locked behind the high-handled doors of the breakfast room. It was a full year before I was given the chance again.
Weekends gave us even more time for religious pursuits. In the gray church at the base of the hill we chanted the "Lords have mercy," "Christs have mercy," "Lords have mercy," at Sunday afternoon devotions, our second service of the day. Huddled together on the cold pews of the nearly empty building, we'd sway to the motion of the swinging censer.
On the first Saturday of the month we'd pack into the gray beetle to visit Mammy's grave, our five bodies squashed so tightly in the back that it was hard to say where one of us ended and the other began. Five decades on the way there, five decades on the pebbly pathway beside her tidy earth mound and five decades back, past the playgrounds, the shimmering water, the trawler boats and up the misty hill to home. At the end of one rosary, filled with the never ending litany of "Hail Marys" I yelled out "AAAAAAAMMMMMMMEEEEEENNNNNNN." My father, his ears and bald head purple, brought his chubby fingers to my naked shin, pinching the flesh tightly.
Fergha McDonagh started it all that day. We met around two o'clock at the Summit shop and, in between blowing one-penny gum into pink bubbles, she ordered us to sit on the small brick wall. "We better get the seagull's eggs today or Neil will think we're a bunch of sissies." She stood before us, her wavy blond hair tightly pulled into a ponytail, ready for a fight. Aine Riordain, Fergha's best friend, looked at me with jeering eyes. Would Harman rise to the challenge or would she run home? We made our way to the very top of the hill, stolen cigarettes and matches from Auntie Maura's kitchen in our pockets.
The sun broke through the clouds. We sidled over the cliff edge and started the steep descent. The fern heads stuck to our clothes and shoes; prickly brambles pierced our light cotton dresses, scratching our hips and thighs. We fell, got up, walked, and fell again. Rocky recesses of cliff glimmered below, whitened by seagull feathers and excrement. Halfway down, we made a bed for ourselves in flattened ferns. We dawdled, basking in the afternoon sunlight, scared to go beyond the green-covered incline to the sheer crag. Instead we puffed our purloined cigarettes and giggled.
Finally, I broke away. I ran all the way home, knowing that it was almost time for Sunday devotions. I stopped dead at the wrought iron gates of Medina. An empty driveway stretched to eternity before me. No Volkswagen. For the first time in my eleven years, I had missed the family exit to devotions. With a heavy heart I slowly entered the vacant garden and slid in the back door of the house.
Standing inside the door for a long long time, I thought of the whack of my father's strap. Fear choked me. When the front bell rang I jumped, my face flushed with guilt and confusion.
A worn-out gray gabardine hung loosely from the stranger's distorted body; dirty black Wellingtons rose to meet polyester-covered knees. I stood transfixed at the barely opened door. He drew closer, forcing his large foot into the small gap.
"Yesssssss," he murmured, smacking his lips together. Yesssssss. He pushed against the door and I, heart in mouth, pushed back. With my tiny frame fighting against the dead weight on the other side, my hands clutching the edge of the staircase, I succeeded in getting the door shut. I bolted the door, ran to the back door, drew the lock, and collapsed on the cold vinyl.
When my family arrived home, I said nothing. I did my two hundred lines of "I will never be late again for church outings" in silence.
Even after all my wandering years, I can still see him sometimes, his lopsided face peering at me, saliva dripping down his sharp chin.
Did he exist or was he like the little man on the yellow bicycle that my sister swore she saw riding nightly around the heather-covered moors? Was the old face there to haunt me, to show me the consequences of missing devotions on Sunday, of running down forbidden cliffs? Is he my guilt at slurping down fish and chips at Auntie Maura's, at defying my father, at not believing in the "one only true and apostolic church?"
Within the nurturing white walls of my Buddhist retreat I hear his "Yesssssss" and I yearn for sun-soaked pews on Sunday afternoons, for squashed encounters in the back of a gray Volkswagen.
Ruth Harman was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. She teaches in the Language and Literacy Department in the UGA College of Education. She writes fiction and essays in her spare time.