Excerpt from 'In the Forest'

book.jpgIn the Forest

By Edna O'Brien

Houghton Mifflin Company

Copyright © 2002 Edna O’Brien.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-618-19730-3

Chapter One

Cloosh Wood

Woodland straddling two counties and several townlands, a drowsy corpus of green, broken only where the odd pine has struck up on its own, spindly, freakish, the stray twigs on either side branched, cruciform-wise. In the interior the trapped wind gives off the rustle of a distant sea and the tall slender trunks of the spruces are so close together that the barks are a sablebrown, the light becoming darker and darker into the chamber of non-light. At the farthest entrance under the sweep of a brooding mountain there is a wooden hut choked with briars and brambles where a dead goat decomposed and stank during those frantic, suspended, and sorrowing days. It was then the wood lost its old name and its old innocence in the hearts of the people.

Ellen, the widow woman, did not join in the search when the men and women set out with their dogs and their sticks, clinging to the last vestiges of hope. Yet she dreams of it, dreams she is in Cloosh Wood, running back and forth, calling, calling to those search parties whom she cannot reach, the tall trees no longer static but moving like giants, giants on their grotesque and shaggy roots, their green needly paws reaching out to scratch her, engulf her, and she wakens in a sweat, unable to scream the scream that has been growing in her. Then she gets up and goes into her kitchen to boil milk. She looks at the sheen of dark beyond her picture window, the plants, geraniums and cacti, limp in their sleepiness, looks at her big new brass lock, bright as a casket, and then she comes fully awake, and as she tells it again and again, Eily, the dead woman with her long hair, walks towards her and says, “Why, why didn’t you help me?” “The Kinderschreck,” she answers back. “The Kinderschreck,” and with her raised arm tries to blot out the woman’s gaze, the light of the eyes a broken gold, like candles puttering out.


The kinderschreck. That’s what the German man called him when he stole the gun. Before that he was Michen, after a saint, and then Mich, his mother’s pet, and then Boy, when he went to the place, and then Child, when Father Damien had him helping with the flowers and the cruets in the sacristy, and then K, short for O’Kane, when his hoodlum times began.

    He had been a child of ten and eleven and twelve years, and then he was not a child, because he had learnt the cruel things that they taught him in the places named after the saints.

    He was ten when he took the gun. He took it so as not to feel afraid. They put him away for it. It was his first feel of a gun, his first whiff of power. It felt heavy. When he stood it up, it was taller than himself. He did not know if he would have the guts to fire it. His hands shook when he loaded it, yet he loaded it out of a knowledge he did not know he had. Then he cuddled it to himself and gave it a name, he called it Rod. I didn’t mean to kill, only to frighten one man. He wanted to say that, but he was not able to say it, because they were beating him and shouting at him and dragging him off. There was the guard, the sergeant, his father, and Joe Mangan, the bad man that threw the shovel at him and blamed him for cycling over his wet concrete and destroying it. It was not him that cycled over it, it was Joe Mangan’s own son Paud, but they blamed him. No matter what was done wrong, they blamed him, and there was no one to stand up for him, because his mother was dead. They said she was dead, but she wasn’t; they buried her alive, suffocated her. They brought him up flights of stone stairs and into a cold room to show her lying on a slab with no colour in her cheeks and no breath. It was snowing outside. It was the snow that made her white and made the world white. She was not dead. They only told him that so as to trick him, because he was her pet. They were jealous, they were. They put her in a coffin and buried her. He stole out at night and went and talked to her, and she talked back. He crept out through the window and ran across the fields to the grave at the edge of the lake. He was a cross-country runner and had won a medal for it. He scraped the earth back and made a hole where he could talk down to his mother and where she could hear. She promised to come back and save him when she was less tired. His plan was that he would run away until then, live in the forest and eat nuts and berries, and in the winter go from house to house to beg for food. He would give himself a secret name, Caoilte, the name of the forest.

    The first time he spent nearly a night there he was dead scared and dead excited. There were spots before his eyes and shimmers, different colours. He got on his hands and knees and broke sticks, building a sentence around the totem words: “God hates me, Father hates me, I am hated.” In the wood that night he saw things no one else saw, not Joe Mangan’s sons, not anybody’s sons, only him. He climbed into a tree and hid. A fox, a she fox, let out a sound that scared him. It was like a woman having her throat slit, only worse. The vixen was calling for her mate, her husband. She was in a bad way and so were the pheasants that were letting out cluck-cluck sounds to warn each other of the danger. He heard a badger barking and he ducked well into the branches because he knew a man that a badger bit and the man said it was worse than any dog bite. He swore then to live in the wood, to make a log cabin up in the trees, with a floor and chairs and a rope ladder leading up to it. He and his mother would live there, away from his father and everyone else. While he was thinking it, a princess floated by, flying. She was wearing a long white coat and had very long hair down to her ankles. She was carrying slippers. His mother was still in the house, his father attacking her with a poker. She shouted at him to run out, to run off to the woods, and she stayed behind to take the blows. He’d got one blow. There was blood at the side of his mouth that had run down from his ear, and he put a fob of a pine branch on it to stop it. The thing was to keep awake, no matter what. There were noises and there was silence. The louder the silence, the scarier the noise to come. A cock pheasant was warning all other pheasants of an imminent attack. He was waiting for his mother to come, but he was afraid she might be dead.

    There was a full moon and it was walking across the sky, and in places the light spilt onto the ground, where there were no trees. That was called a glade. He knew that from school.

    When his mother came he was fast asleep. Mich Mich Mich. He wouldn’t let on he heard her and wouldn’t let on when he came awake. She lifted him down and tweaked his nose and said, “Sleepyhead, sleepyhead.” One of her front teeth was gone and she didn’t look nearly as nice. He put his finger into the hole and felt the damp of the blood and tasted it and it was warm. His mother and he were not two people, only one.

    “I saw a beautiful lady.”

    “Go on.”

    “She was on her way to her wedding.”

    “How do you know?”

    “She had silver slippers.”

    His mother carried him back to Glebe House through the scrub, and the moon was a lamp to show the way. She said he was a brave boy to stay all alone in the forest and not scream like that silly vixen. She said he was a true son of the forest. Next day he wrote that in the front of his copy book at school: I am a true son of the forest. They jeered at him, called him a liar, a bluffer, said that he’d run scared from his own shadow, he that had to have his mammy walking him to school and waiting for him out in the cloakroom and sometimes having to sit in the back of the classroom because of him bawling. A mammy’s boy, a patsy, a pandy, a sissy, and a ninny.

    Soon after that, they had to leave Glebe House and went to live in a cottage far from the woods.

His father and the guard and the sergeant and his sister, Aileen, and Joe Mangan and Mrs. Joe Mangan are all in the court, and the judge is sitting at a big brown desk, higher up. The sergeant is telling the judge the terrible thing he’d done. The German man is on the other side, nodding about the terrible thing he’d done. His sister, Aileen, is beside him, holding his hand. His nose is streaming and his eyes, and he has no hanky. The sergeant is describing how he stole a bicycle from the doctor’s shed, then rode it over the wet cement that Joe Mangan had just put down, and did it on purpose, and then rode and got the groceries for his sister and left them on the windowsill and ran off in search of an empty house where he could find a gun. The sergeant got very wound up when he came to the bit about breaking into the German man’s house and finding the shotgun and the belt of cartridges and then painted the picture of him creeping back towards his own house, hiding in a ditch at the end of the garden and waiting for the opportunity to shoot. The sergeant told how he himself and the boy’s father were behind that very door that had been shot at and were lucky to be still alive. There was more and more about his aggressive behaviour from a very young age, from the innocence of stealing apples to the non-innocence, the evil, the knowing evil of stealing a gun. He was listening to it all, but he was not allowed to speak. He had not cycled over wet cement, another boy did that, Joe Mangan’s son Paud did that, but he got the blame and they called him dirty names at the time and told him what they would do to him. They would carry him off to the Shannon and drown him, and he’d never be found. He ran to his own house to tell his sister that, but she wouldn’t let him in because she had a friend of hers there and she was ashamed of him. When he asked for a glass of orange, she poured it and put it out on the windowsill and told him to drink it there. That was when he ran away, because no one wanted him and no one believed him and he had no friend.

    When the judge gave the sentence he didn’t understand it. A detention centre. What did that mean? The judge’s voice was very low, but his face was very red. The sergeant thanked the judge and they trooped out. His sister told him outside the court that he was going to be going away to St. Malachi’s and it was lucky that there was a vacancy as it was a very nice place. He cried and screamed and ran down the street, but they caught him in a car park and lugged him back.

    “If ever you try to escape, I’ll hunt you down like a dog until I find you,” Sergeant Wiley said to him, and there was hate in his eyes and in his spit.

    His sister said that it was only for a little while and that it was a nice place and had a swimming pool, just like a holiday camp. He would be let home at Christmas and he could write letters, so he mustn’t cry. “I didn’t mean to kill, only to frighten one man.” She told him to shush it or they’d murder him for thinking such a thing, and anyhow, they had to hurry home to start washing and ironing and packing his things. She borrowed a suitcase from Mrs. Joe Mangan.

    When they arrived there he wouldn’t get out of the motorcar but clung to his granny’s knee. She was the one nicest to him, along with his mother and his sister. The car drove past iron gates into a yard with big high walls. The sergeant sat in front and he in the back, refusing to get out, because the place was not a holiday camp but a big dark creepy castle. His granny kept telling him to be a good boy and do as the guard said and walk in there like a man. The sergeant lugged him out by the ear and led him past a whole lot of boys, boys his own age and boys younger and boys older, gawking and jeering. The sergeant passed him over to Brother Finbar, and Brother Finbar took him in and shut the door and bolted it. Brother Finbar had a long brown robe on him and a pair of rosary beads that swung in and out. They walked fast, with Brother Finbar telling him they would put manners into him. He was brought to a cloakroom to be fitted with clothes. He and Brother Finbar fought over his jumper, the one his mother had knit for him when she was sick in the hospital. It was purple and red, with navy cuffs and a multicoloured tassel at the end of a zip. It smelt of his mother, and when he wore it, he could feel her soft hands and her kiss. He would not part with it. He would not raise his arms to have it pulled off. Brother Finbar dragged and dragged, then found a loose thread in the waistband and started ripping it. He could see the colours breaking up, navy blue and purple and red; it was like his mother was being ripped up, and the threads were in wormy coils on the flagged floor. He was fitted with short pants, a jacket three times too big for him, and nailed boots. “You will wear our clothing whilst here,” Brother Finbar kept shouting. Whilst here. Whilst here. Whilst here.

Out in the yard, boys cuffing and roughing each other. He stood apart with a group of boys studying him, making a ring around him. Where’s he from? Ask him. Ask ’im. Down the country. Where’s that? Where’s down the country? Ha. Ha. Ha. A bogger. Has he got a cigarette? Hey, Rambo, got a fag? He doesn’t smoke. Eejit. Bogger. Give him a hook. Test his mettle. Show your mettle, Bogger. Clinging to his mammy’s knee. By the time the bell went, they had him down on the ground, kicking him, until a boy called Bertie pulled them off. The tea was in mugs and the thick slices of bread were streaked with lard. Brother Finbar stood at the head of the table as if he was an iron figure with iron rosary beads and an iron beard.

    “Eat your tea, boy.”

    “I’m not hungry.”

    “The boot is on the other foot now . . . there’s no guns here to scare people.”

    “I want to go home . . .”

    “You’ll go home when the boldness is gone out of you, however long that takes.”

For two weeks he was assessed so as to be sent off to the other place. The Castle it was called, and it was run by the same order of Brothers and was miles from anywhere. The woman that assessed him sat him at a table and asked him questions, asked him if he had three wishes what they would be. He said he wanted to go home. Other boys told him he’d better get rid of the notion of going home. They said that once a person went to the Castle over yonder, they never got home. No use hoping. No use.

    The Castle had the same big gates and the same rules and the same cabbagy smell. The boys were older, rougher. On the first evening he was late being brought over in the van and he had his tea alone with a young Brother. He couldn’t swallow.

    “I have stomach cramps,” he told the young Brother.

    “Drink a drop of hot tea, ’twill help you,” the Brother said. He was a nice Brother and one side of his face was a raw red and he said that was called a strawberry face. He took different pieces of cutlery to draw a map of the country, and then he put the sugar bowl down to show where he came from, a scenic place with mountains and a famous lake. He missed it. He said he was very young when he joined the order, but they were a family of fourteen and with his face and everything there were no other chances for him.

    “How long will I be here?”


    Brother Anthony ran off then, saying he had something for him. He thought it was a slice of cake, but it wasn’t. It was a prayer that Brother Anthony had copied and that he read out to him: “Jesus said to them, When you make the two one and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner, you shall enter the Kingdom.”

    “A child and his mother are one.”

    “Ah, yes . . . but that’s secular and I am talking of being with God.”

    “Will I not be going home for Christmas?”

    “It’s not for me to say. Who’s at home?”

    “My sister and my pet fox . . . I didn’t get to say goodbye to it.”

    “No use crying over these things . . . these losses.”

    The rain was sliding down the window and plopping onto the flat roof.

He tried. He tried to keep awake so as not to wet the bed, but he always fell asleep and he always wet the bed, and he wakened with the smell of ugly wet and Brother Jude putting his hand in under the blanket and dragging him out by his mickey. You dirty thing, you dirty thing you. He brought him to a room that led off the dormitory. The strap was kept in a refrigerator there, to keep it cold and hard. It was a leather strap with studs down both sides of it. He was beaten on both cheeks of his bottom and on his legs and on his arms, but not his face. He was just punched on his face. When he got back to the dormitory, boys all came around his bed to know what happened, asking if Jude did any bit of fly-fishing or fiddled with his yoke. Lazlo led the interrogation. Lazlo was leader and they were all afraid of him because he was a schizophrenic. A schizophrenic meant that he heard voices and he could attack any boy if the voices told him to. Lazlo said that Jude was a wiggledy-wiggledy wanker. Lazlo trained boys to be tough. He took them into the lavatory and made cuts on their wrists with a flick knife so they’d get used to the pain. Lazlo said a boy had to teach himself one thing, to hate them with a worse hate than they had for him. The flick knife had a wooden handle with a picture of a Labrador on it.

    In the morning he got another beating from the prefect on account of the plastic sheet being wet and smelly. That beating was with the back of a lavatory brush. At Christmas his granny would come for him and bring him home and he would tell her everything and he would never have to come back. In the letters to his granny he had to say that he was a good boy and learning his lessons and getting a star for his subjects. The Brothers made them say that, made all the boys say it. He would not tell her about the beatings when she came to fetch him in the car, he would tell her at night when she tucked him up in bed.

A psychiatrist saw him twice a week and asked him what he was afraid of. He said that he was afraid his grandmother would die, because he had dreamt it. He had dreamt that his mother would die and she did. He didn’t say that he was afraid of Brother Jude or Lazlo because that would get him into a big mess. He was given the same three pretend wishes. He wished that his mother didn’t die and that he could go home and that he would never use a gun again. Other times he wouldn’t talk at all. Or he’d say funny things. He said, “Big fish eat little fish and little fish eat littler fish. Kangaroos have their own courts.” Out in the fields where he and other boys worked digging potatoes or pitting potatoes, he ate them raw to show how tough he was.

    One morning it was a priest that rang a bell for breakfast. Father Damien. Boys said that Jude had gone crackers, had gone into the fields and stripped himself naked and run off. His brown habit was found in the field and his beads and his sandals.

    Father Damien was home from Africa and had a tan from all the sunshine. He was not cross over the wet bed and called him Child— “What is it, Child, what is it, Child?” Father Damien gave him a toffee. It was a white toffee with ground nuts in it. Lazlo and the other boys made fun of him. “Lick arse” they called him for playing up to the priest.

    Father Damien told him one day that he was a lucky boy, he was going to be let help in the sacristy. He wouldn’t be an altar boy yet but he would train to be. He would fill the glass cruets with wine and with water and get the vases ready for the flowers. They were the first flowers he had smelt in months. They were white with bits of yellow, the colour of egg yolk, and they grew wild at home. At home they were called bog lilies.

    One evening after Benediction they were in the sacristy and Father Damien was wearing a white garment, like a gown, with big pockets in it. “Put your hand in my pocket, child.” There was a sweet in the pocket. Father Damien told him to keep his hand there until he was told not to. He felt the swellings, his own and the Father’s, and his cheeks got very red and he was hot and damp between his legs and Father Damien clung to him until he was finished. Then he said, “Good child, good child,” and warned him not to tell.

Davey was his new friend. Davey was older, but not like Lazlo. Davey was fourteen, nearly fifteen. He ran the disco. They had discos one Saturday a month and Davey danced with the best-looking girls, “motts” he called them, and he steered them down to the back of the hall, where it was dark. The girls were delinquents like them, they came in a bus from a convent ten miles away and two nuns stood up on the platform next to the player so as to keep an eye on what went on. They couldn’t see into the back of the hall where Davey and the big boys were lifting up girls’ jumpers and blouses. He danced with the small girls. Boys danced with girls their own age. The girls knew the steps better than he did. The big girls were motts, and they had lipstick and fishnet stocking. Davey went in for the slow dancing and said he went through the girls like butter. “This is me new mott,” he’d say of whatever girl he was dancing with. Once Davey had kissed a girl, it was on to the next, because the more girls a lad had, the greater his status. Status was a new word. Davey was his mentor. He said that. Davey said learning in class was only a small part of a man’s education, fiddlesticks. The other thing Davey said was to drop a girl like a hot cake once she showed interest, got clingy. Hot cakes and hot crumpets were two different things, crumpet meant a girl’s pussy.

    The night of the Halloween dance he got his first drink, cider. A lot of the boys were dead drunk and gassing outside in the yard. Two boys broke into a factory not far from the school and siphoned cider from vats into lemonade bottles. It tasted of apples. Davey called him aside; he had a plan and it was thus: Davey said that every Saturday there were games in the grounds, hurley and football and handball, priests and Brothers and boys, all running in all directions, pandemonium. Davey said that young Mich would go into the chapel the next Saturday and open the back door that led out into a field and on down to the river. He wouldn’t be playing hurley that particular day because he would have a nosebleed. Davey would pay a rough jackeen with a cigarette to give him a few punches and a humping nosebleed, dead easy. Davey said that they would probably find a boat or a canoe down by the river, and they would drift out for miles and miles until they came to the city. Then they could be stowaways on a ship or go into town, whichever. He seemed to favour the town on account of having mates there, criminally minded like himself. He said it was brilliant crashing a car, either doing it alone or with a crowd; it gave a great buzz. Best of all was doing it with girls in a car, because they lost their marbles on account of having such a big fright.

    He left the games field with a handkerchief to his nose and went into the chapel and no one paid any attention to him. He unbolted the back door and then hid in the confessional box until Davey came.

    Once out that door, they ran helter-skelter, down the fields to the river and along the river and over gates and fences and across fields, all the time hoping there’d be a boat moored at the next bend or the next, but there wasn’t. He was proud of how fast he ran in the nailed boots. By the time it was dark they had come to an estate with a whole lot of houses and ponies in a paddock. There was a bonfire with kids around it. Davey said that they’d best chat up the kids. They were smoking and having a singsong. They were enjoying themselves, and then a boy said, “Jesus. Look.” A car was coming into the field, the headlights full on. Someone had grassed. It was the white van from the Castle. The head Brother and two other Brothers and Lazlo and a boy jumped out. He ran to the river and jumped in, clothes and all, and he could feel the current pulling him along and he was happy because he was going to drown and he would never be going back to the Castle again. The boy that caught him was Lazlo, who got his own back on him for having dropped out of his gang and joined Davey’s. Lazlo held him under the water until he nearly drowned, then brought him up and shook the water off him. Then he put him down again and held him, and he was smothering and his head and his brain were all water, and Lazlo wouldn’t let him up until he nearly died. “Lick arse, lick arse.”

He was put in solitary and had to write down how bad he was. He had to write it hundreds of times. Christmas would be soon, but he would not be going home. He didn’t cry much anymore. And he could take the beatings. He stoppered the tears up, like putting a cork in a bottle. It got that it was just as bad between the beatings, waiting for the beatings. He never knew when they were coming for him. He was due a hundred lashes. He only cried when it came to Christmas, because he was not let home. Most of the boys were let home, even Lazlo. His sister sent him a card with silver salt on it and he licked it and it tasted gritty. She said the family hoped he was well and that they missed him. They had been told about his running away and his aggressive behaviour, and they were all praying that he would turn over a new leaf. She put kisses at the end. He cried at Midnight Mass because of the singing. A woman sang, but he couldn’t see her because it was on tape. It was like hearing his mother singing in the kitchen, hearing her but not seeing her. Father Damien called him aside after Mass and asked him what he would like for Christmas. He said he would like a guitar. Father Damien gave him a teeny box of chocolates and a holy picture. He ate the chocolates on a garden seat and wondered if it would snow. The plants were all lying down, as if someone had beaten them and they had no strength to get up.

    He was put working in the fields, after school, as a punishment. He and other boys were taking potatoes out of pits and putting them into sacks. Lazlo was in charge. When they’d finished they told him that they had some business with him, and they went to the opposite end of the field away from the school where there was an old plough with a car cushion on it. They knew what he’d done with Father Damien and they said they were going to cut it off. He screamed and held on to it and begged, and Lazlo said, “Okay okay, off with a caution.” They put him facedown on the cushion and pulled his overalls off and they took turns.

    He could hardly walk back because he was so sore. And he was bleeding.

He dreamt about running away because if he dreamt it, it would happen. Himself and another boy were sent to the top gate every other morning to collect the milk. One morning, the other boy was sick, so he went down alone. The routine was always the same: the driver got out the full crates, took the empty ones, and set off. When he was found out in the next big town, the driver said, “Holy heck.” He told the driver that he’d been kept prisoner there, and his grandmother and himself made a pact that he would run away when the opportunity came up. The driver didn’t believe him, but he knew the bastards they were, so he let him go.

    He ran towards home, but he was not going home. Three nights on, soaked and scared, he was knocking on the door of Mr. Cleary, a man he knew. The man couldn’t believe it, but he let him in and they dried him and gave him hot cocoa, and he slept in the room with two of their sons, who were afraid of him. He knew they were afraid, because when one went to the toilet the other went as well, so as not to be alone with him. The man had gone to the guards, because there was a warrant out for him to go back to the place he ran away from. He got a reprieve for seven days. Then he got sick and the doctor came, and he was going to be allowed fourteen days in all. He helped the man bring in the cows and do odd jobs in the fields.

    One evening the man was milking the cows and he stood beside him in the cow house and told him the things that happened to him in the place and the man asked him several times if it was true. “God’s honour,” he said, and the man hugged him and stopped milking and the dribbles of milk went over the floor. The man said he would talk to his wife and that they would take it up with the authorities. He was in their house then, part of their family. They had their dinner in the evening and the woman ladled out meat and vegetables into soup plates. They had apple pie or jelly after. Then the man opened the door and made some sort of cluck sound, and his pet rabbits came out of their hutch and into the kitchen and ran around. The favourite, Dustin, climbed onto the man, onto his knee, and then up onto his shoulders, and nibbled at his ears. The others perched on the tiled kerb around the fire. Everyone laughed. He laughed, too. This was home, a dinner, apple cake, a calendar on the wall, and a record put on for the rabbits to waltz to. In bed, the sons would try to get him to talk, to tell what it was like in the Castle, but he wouldn’t. He knew things that they didn’t know. Then one night he boasted about getting a blade and slitting his wrist and being in the ambulance, hopping along the dark road to Casualty, and the twenty stitches he had. He told them how he bit the stitches and spat them out. He told them he was a head case and that Lazlo and the gang were scared to death of him. They knew he was sent away because of trying to shoot his father and the sergeant, everyone knew it. There was a hole in the panel of the door for everyone to see, for proof.

    One day after planting cabbages the man sat him down on a wooden seat in the front garden to have a talk with him. He thought it was about going back, but it wasn’t. The man asked him if he would like to be part of their family, one of them, a son. He said he didn’t know.

    “Would you like me to adopt you?” the man asked.

    “I don’t know.”

    “Legally adopt you.”

    “Can you?”

    The man said it would take time, that he would have to go through all the correct channels, but he felt confident. His father had given the permission. His father didn’t want him back and his sister was gone away. She was gone to live with her granny. He’d seen her on a bus; she’d waved to him from the bus window and he waved back, but the bus was moving. It was evening. The man asked him if he’d like a different name and he said he would, he would like to be called Caoilte, the name of the forest.

    It was about a month later that it came over him. He began to hate the rabbits and the attention they got, the fussing over them, the cluck-cluck and oats put down on the kitchen floor for them, their supper. He hated other things too—the sons, pretending he was their brother when he wasn’t. He knew the movement of the rabbits, the time of evening they came out and frisked around the fields and nibbled at grass, same time as when the crows cawed, and then the cluck cluck cluck and their trooping in to be petted. He went out to the field that bit earlier and took oats in a bit of cardboard and funnelled it out in little heaps. Several came across, but there was one in particular that he decided he would like to kill. A namby- pamby. A weakling. He struck the shovel down on the nape of its furry neck and it fell sideways like a glove. No one saw him. Next morning the dog brought the carcass and flung it on the step. No one said anything.

    It was only after he killed the kittens that there was trouble. One of the sons saw him, was peeping from behind the hay shed, a peeping Tom. There were six kittens in all, cleaved together in their sleep, so it was easy; it was just like killing a mat except for the squeal that came out of them and the blood. The son ran into the house yelling and the mother came out and blessed herself and asked him why in the name of God he had done such a wicked thing. She stood above the kittens and asked him what harm had they ever done, what harm had they ever done to him. He said it wasn’t him that did it, it was someone else, a boy that came on a motorbike and then scooted.

    The father broke the news to him in the dining room. There was the father and him and a big jug of artificial flowers. The father held up papers, the documents about the adoption, and said it would have to wait. He would have to go back to the Castle for a while because his head was all scrambled up. He got on the floor and clung to the man’s trousers, but the man said it was out of his hands now, it was in the hands of the state and the social workers and the people experienced in these matters.

    They drove to another place, to where the local doctor had made arrangements for him to go. They’d made a special case of him. He was not going back to the Castle. A secretary took down the particulars and signed him in. The man told him to shake hands with her and say thank you, and he did.

    “We’ve been trying to get him to eat for days, but he wouldn’t . . . he’s very weak,” the man said.

    “We can’t have that,” she said, and went off to see what she could raid from the kitchen.

    When she was gone, a head doctor with a red puffy face came and looked at them, and the man handed him a sealed letter.

    “Hang on, hang on . . . we might have a problem here,” the doctor said, and went off to make a phone call. He came back and said they couldn’t keep the boy, but that there was a place for young offenders about twenty miles away and he would be placed there.

    “Can you make an exception?” the man asked him.

    “I can’t . . . he’s under age . . . someone got their knickers in a twist.” He kept saying that and a Latin phrase: “inter alia, inter alia.”

    “So what do we do?” the man’s wife pleaded.

    “St. Sebastian’s . . . that’s the place for young offenders, and it’s not far. The only snag is, his father will have to meet you there to sign the admission forms.”

    “His father won’t,” the man said.

    “I’ll go and phone him and make sure that he does. He’ll be there to meet ye . . . I’ll tell him exactly where it is.” He went off to telephone his father and came back telling them to drive nice and slow but to keep their eyes out for a big white noticeboard that said St. Sebastian’s, two miles this side of the town.

    They drove, the man, his wife, and himself, without saying much, and when the town lights winked, the man started asking the way. One person said, “Straight on,” and the next person said, “You’ve passed it.” The man had to get out and make a phone call. The woman asked him was he cold and he said no. Then she asked was he sorry for the thing he’d done wrong and he said yes. Yes.

    Two nurses saw him. One took his pulse and another put a stethoscope on his heart because he was shaking and twitching. Then one of them asked him why he had killed the kittens. He said, “I forget.” The other asked him why he had run away from the Castle. He said he hated it. The nurse said hate was not a good emotion, especially in a growing boy.

    His father had not arrived, so they sat in the outer hall and waited and waited, but he never came. Two more phone calls were made, and then a nurse and a doctor came out and had a piece of paper that was a dossier on him. The man and the woman stood with them, and he was standing nearby, next to a big green plant, and he could hear what they were saying. The doctor was telling the woman that it was not advisable to have him around other children.

    “Why not . . . why not?” she kept asking. He held up the dossier again and showed it to the husband and the husband said “Jesus” and said he would rather not show it to his wife. The doctor insisted. He held up the piece of paper for the woman to see, and when she saw it, she screamed and said it out loud for everyone to hear: This boy could kill.

    The man and his wife shook their heads at each other, and then the man came across to him and said that there was no room at the inn and that they would be taking him back to the Castle.

    “Don’t send me back, don’t send me back.” He got down on his knees and shouted it to strangers sitting in armchairs. It was visiting Sunday. A woman came forward with a biscuit and he refused it and shouted louder, louder, “Don’t send me back there . . . I’ll do away with myself.”

    He said it to himself when they drove through the night in the rain. He thought if he said it often enough his prayer would be answered, but it was not. They drove along dark country roads, where there were hardly any cars, and now and then came on a dead fox or a dead cat, outstretched, its fur and its guts strewn there, a pitifulness to it, as if there was something that cat or that fox badly needed to say.



Excerpted from In the Forest by Edna O'Brien. Copyright © 2002 by Edna O’Brien. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.