When I was 14, I knew someone, another teenager, who had a miscarriage and woke her mother for help. She knew she was pregnant but she didn’t know what was happening to her. Her mother left her in the bathroom and shut the door, shushing her from the hallway so others wouldn’t hear. The image of a girl left alone to that ordeal on the other side of a shut door still grips me. And while both that event and the story happen in the 1980s, the shame and hushing still feel very real to me.
That image was the seed of the story ‘A Shiver of Hearts.’ I had been thinking about this story for a long time, about female shame, what we are not allowed to show, how it is ugly or vulgar to reveal too much emotion or pain or desire, or flesh; how quickly people are prepared to comment on women’s bodies, their clothes, their weight, or their shamelessness. Their loudness. It’s as if we are not allowed to have real bodies.
I started the story during the Christmas break last year. One night while I was working on it, my husband was in the kitchen telling the kids about summer jobs he’d had growing up, working in different pubs and odd jobs. He spent one summer working in a religious statue factory painting Virgin Mary’s. Straight away, I knew this was their world, what the two friends in the story would be doing, painting the blank virgins, while one of them is pregnant and making plans to travel to England.
In the story, Dympna says the statues are creepy, how they are not allowed to be real, ‘the way they are painted to be fake.’ They are. Hearts sit outside their clothes. We don’t see rib, skin, sinew. They are painted to be emotionless, as little paint as possible is applied the lips and eyes to minimise expression. Meanwhile their hearts drip blood and are pierced sometimes by multiple swords and their ‘beauty’ seems somehow to be caught up in their silence, in the denial of their corporeal bodies and their pain.
It is the fastest story I have ever written, completed after one intensive week. I later lobbed off 1,000 words. Like Tess, the narrator, I grew up in America and spent summers coming to Ireland. I think some of the emotional weight in the story belongs to her mother who left Ireland in the late 1960s because she was pregnant. She rears Tess on her own and hasn’t returned to Ireland because of the shame she feels she has brought her family.
Like Tess, I am drawn toward the Irish preoccupation with words and language, the texture of place, and landscape. At the end of the story I had this gut desire that the landscape, the earth itself, would cradle all these women, really hold them like a mother would or should, that nature could restore something to them.
I think this is what many of us are left with now, this overwhelming, visceral desire to hold all those women and girls who’ve gone before us, who were rejected and abandoned and shunned, who were shamed. Story seems inadequate in meeting that deep need to amend, to reach back toward them with something like love.
‘A Shiver of Hearts’ is published in Issue Eight of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.
Una Mannion lives in County Sligo. She is the winner of the Doolin short story prize, Ambit Fiction Prize, Cuirt Short Story prize, Allingham short fiction prize and the Hennessy Emerging poetry award. Her work has been published in The Lonely Crowd, Bare Fiction, The Irish Times, Ambit and The Incubator.
© Una Mannion, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.