Cynthia J. McGean
Excerpt from Mrs. O’Leary’s Torment
a short story
Oregon Writer’s Colony Award-winner
by Cynthia J. McGean

    On a black night in old Chicago, a sulfurous wind whirled around the street lamps, grasping after the blue flames that danced inside.  It whistled and leapt up and down the alleyways, winking at errant scraps of newsprint, running its fingers through the leaves, tickling the backs of stray dogs and cats.  An elegant shadow with top hat and cane loomed up across the house fronts, blotted out the fragile gaslights and slid across the pock-marked face of one particular house.  There it stopped, waiting.    
	A lean horse-faced boy clomped back and forth on the cobblestone street in front of the house.  He spat on the pavement and let out a territorial howl like one of the goblins in his grandmother’s tales.  This was a night of wild exhuberance, a night for riding the wind.  As he waited for his mate, his fingers danced across his thighs, itching for action.
	Inside the house, an old woman pulled a blanket tight around her shoulders.  The boy’s  footsteps across the pavement were like hammers on her bones.  Why had he come tonight?  Why could they not leave her in peace?  Hadn’t she lost in the fire, too - the cows and the calf and the brand new wagon and all the hay and the coal  for the long winter...  The devil take the gossips that branded the fault hers!   
	Time was the old woman would have chased the boy away, but all her fire had turned to ash when her husband Patrick died.  Now she merely rocked in her chair and tried not to wake the sleeping demons.  To keep her fear at bay, she hummed a lilting tune that summoned the image of a young girl, willowy and light, dancing with the rakish Jack Murphy whose hair fell across his eyes as he tossed her around the dance floor.  It was her own image dancing there, at the age of fifteen, a beaming rose of a girl.  
	Outside, a cat howled, its ears flat, and raced under an old wooden cart.  The horse-faced boy whistled half a melody and left the notes hanging in the air like a taunt.
	I am no longer that girl, the old woman thought, and a great sadness swept over her.  I am not that girl and this is not that night.  She stopped rocking.  The fiddler had played that same little tune on that other night, the night whose memory kept her prisoner.
	Outside, a lad with a crooked grin whistled back to the horse-faced boy, who galloped over and clapped him on the back.  The dry wind ruffled their hair and they fell to conversing.  
	“Hot night in the old town, eh Dan’l?” said the first, winking into the unseeing night.
	“Like breathin’ in the fires of hell itself, it is,” his friend replied.  The two of them laughed.  “Have ye brought the chains then, Mike?” 
	There was a heavy rattle of metal.  
	“Good lad, good lad!  Always up for a bit of fun.”
	“Had to be right clever about it so’s not to startle me ma,” Mike explained.  “She don’t want to know what I’m about at this hour, out on the streets.”
	“We’re not up to anything that don’t deserve doing.”  Daniel had a gift for propping up the sagging spines of his mates.  “You know it’s the truth and so does yer ma.  Isn’t it she who wishes the plagues of Egypt on the whole O’Leary clan every time she tells the tale?  Isn’t it she was left an orphan in the street on account of the fire?”  
	“True enough,” answered Mike.  He reached into his jacket and pulled out a flask.  “To giving the devil her due,” he laughed.  He raised it, took a swig, and passed it over to Daniel.  Then he handed his mate a thick length of chain.  Mike stood at the old woman’s door, while Daniel crouched by her window.
	The old woman watched the shadows slither across her curtain, pause, and slither back.  The clock ticked.  The teakettle let out a weak, hissing whistle.  The shadows glided past the window again.  
	The woman’s papery fingers clutched at her blanket.  The memory of the fiddler’s tune had pulled her back into the hungry vortex of the past, back to that other night.  She could hear the raucous laughter of the boarders’ party nearly three decades ago.  No longer a blithe lass then, she was a workhorse mother of two score and more, but the music of the fiddler still called to her.  She was still strong and healthy then, still ached for love.  That night she took an oil lamp and crept out to the barn, just to listen, remembering how she had danced as a girl of fifteen.  
	But he was there, waiting for her, her old lover Jack, waiting in the barn.  She remembered her gratitude when he looked at her and the years fell away.   She remembered how they came together, in the hay and wood shavings that she and Patrick had laid by for the winter; how Jack took her in his arms and brought back her girlhood while the fiddle music played in the house; how he left her there with the softest of kisses, buttoned up his trousers and pulled on his black calveskin gloves, tilted his hat and wished her well before slipping out the barn door and into the night; how a sudden noise called her to herself and she stole back into the house, clutching his love to her breast, planning to keep it warm there and carry it into her dreams.  But, ah!  The lantern.  Had she left it behind in the barn, lit and untended?  
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MRS O’LEARY’S TORMENT copyright 2008 Cynthia J. McGean.  All rights reserved.