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Reprint Wednesday: Ethel Rohan’s “Corruptionists”

[Editor’s Note: Each Wednes­day, FF.Net will fea­ture a reprint of our favorite flash­es that orig­i­nal­ly appeared in print.]


by Ethel Rohan


While Moth­er lay in the hos­pi­tal dying, my aunts gath­ered in our dirty kitchen and brewed tea, cried and laughed togeth­er. My mother’s woman parts hadn’t worked right since her first baby and still she’d gone on to have five more. With The Change, Mother’s parts gave out alto­geth­er and she couldn’t stop bleed­ing, but that wasn’t what was killing her. The surgery to stop her hem­or­rhag­ing went well. It was after­wards her blood poi­soned.
I crouched on the stairs above our kitchen, cold in my night­dress and sick in my stom­ach, and repeat­ed ‘sep­ticemia’ till I couldn’t hear the whis­pers any­more. I won­dered how some­thing that tast­ed so love­ly could kill.


Dad stayed at the hos­pi­tal through the night. Some time in the deep dark, Granny shook us awake and urged us to pray. She said Moth­er wouldn’t see morn­ing. My lit­tle sis­ters and I clung to each oth­er in our par­ents’ bed. Mother’s pil­low smelled of her hair­spray and face pow­der, of her yeasty drool. We fought for our turn to hold the pil­low, to bury our faces deep inside. Every time I closed my eyes I saw God pull Moth­er through a black hole in the sky.


“It’s God’s will,” Granny said, like there was no point to our promis­es and pleas. “Pray for her safe depar­ture.”


I hat­ed how Granny said ‘safe depar­ture.’ As if there could be any­thing safe about dying. As if Moth­er would wait with suit­cas­es alone in the dark on a fog filled plat­form for Death. My sis­ters and I dis­obeyed Granny and con­tin­ued to pray for Moth­er to get well. Moth­er made it through to the next morn­ing, and the one after that, and the one after that, until, recov­ered, she came home. A mir­a­cle.


Only Moth­er wasn’t the same. She looked thin­ner, her skin and hair gray­er, and a smell rose off her like clothes singed by the iron. I thought maybe the doc­tors had some­how switched her at the hos­pi­tal or tak­en too much out of her. She took to taller and taller glass­es of brandy and was often joined by invis­i­ble friends—laughed and sang with them. Some­times things turned ugly and the imag­i­nary guests argued and smashed fur­ni­ture. Then Moth­er cow­ered, and begged us, her chil­dren, to get rid of them.


Once, for no good rea­son, one of our dogs bit an old man in the meati­est part of his calf. Prince tore the man’s skin and drew blood, left holes like BB blasts. That man’s face was a dark tan­gle of feel­ings. Prince licked his lips and seemed to smile. Ever after, I was a cam­era car­ry­ing around those pic­tures. I loved Prince so much, and he loved me, but it was hard to feel the same way about him after that, all the rules changed. That’s how it was with Moth­er too.


Moth­er should have died that night in the hos­pi­tal. My sis­ters and I had ruined God’s plan. We’d prayed too hard to get our own way and had brought Moth­er home when she should have gone into the ground. Only we didn’t get her back. Moth­er was stuck out there some­where, caught at the fork in the sky. We had the smell of singed clothes.


Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Pear Noir! Issue 4.

Includ­ed in Hard to Say (PANK, 2011)

Appears here with the author’s per­mis­sion, © Ethel Rohan


Author’s Bio


EthelRohan.jpgEthel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say (PANK) and Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Books), the lat­ter longlist­ed for The Sto­ry Prize. Her work has or will appear in World Lit­er­a­ture Today, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, The Rum­pus, The Los Ange­les Review, South­east Review Online, and else­where. Raised in Ire­land, Ethel Rohan now lives in San Fran­cis­co. Vis­it her at ethelrohan.com.

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