Strange Flowers

Donal Ryan

June 15, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Donal Ryan's latest novel, Strange Flowers, an exploration of loss, alienation and the redemptive power of love. Ryan is the author of several books, including The Spinning Heart, which won the Guardian First Book Award, the EU Prize for Literature (Ireland), and Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize. He lives just outside of Limerick.

All the light left Paddy Gladney’s eyes when his daughter disappeared; all the gladness went from his heart. His days had always been so full of peace. Before Moll went he pedalled round the parish in the mornings with the post, and he herded and foddered in the afternoons on the farm where he was caretaker, and he walked the fences and checked the gaps and gates, and his wife Kit kept house in their small tidy cottage and she did the books for a few local business people, and his daughter, his only child, went to school and learnt her lessons, and they knelt every night before bed for the rosary, all three of them. And they had a radio and a dresser and a yard of hens, and a green and yielding world around them in every direction: the Arra Mountains behind them and, beyond the brow of Ton Tenna, the shallow valley that dipped across to the Silvermines Mountains, which stretched away as far as the eye could see, to the ends of the earth, it seemed, on a bright day. And the main road and the village below their house at the end of the lane, and the Shannon callows, soft and lush below the village, and the river running through the callows to the lake, glinting always on the low horizon, no matter what the light.

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But the world turned cold when Moll went, and what light was cast was dappled dark with shadow. She left no note behind, just made her bed and packed her few things into her mother’s old leather valise and went through the door and across the yard without a sound, and she walked down the lane to the village and she took the early bus to Nenagh and the train to Dublin. She’d withdrawn what bit of money she’d had in her post-office savings account the week before. That was all they were able to find out. Frankie Welsh the bus driver said she’d seemed happy enough on the short journey in along the Esker Line. Quiet, though, like always. She’d said hello to him getting on and he’d said he thought it was going to be a fine day and she’d agreed with him and that was about it. It was only herself got on the bus in the village, Frankie said, and he’d been surprised to have to stop. He’d nearly driven past her, she was so small. The rest of the passengers that morning were the factory boys from Portroe. She’d sat at the front just behind his shoulder, well away from the factory boys, but he couldn’t see her in his mirror and he didn’t like to be turning around in his seat, he said, and he didn’t like to be asking anyone their business. He’d wondered about the valise all right, and the early hour of her journey, but that was the kind of wondering that a busman kept to himself, the unasked questions that filled his days.

It went around the village quickly. No one really knew what to do or say. Still, Kit and Paddy were kept busy with the visitors those first few days. People climbed the lane up from the main road in twos and threes and walked the fields down from Jamestown and Bunnacree to sympathize and speculate and reassure. Kindnesses were carried from distant hills and up from the lakeshore and laid at their door; novenas were pledged and envelopes containing handwritten petitions to Christ and to various saints, with clear instructions on timing and frequency of incantation, were left on the countertop propped against bottles or crockery the way they’d be seen. NEVER KNOWN TO FAIL was printed large on the outside of one of the envelopes and Kit folded that one away into her apron and she patted it now and then to be sure it was still there. 

All the light left Paddy Gladney’s eyes when his daughter disappeared; all the gladness went from his heart.

Things were gone funny lately, people said over and over; the world was changing fast. Everything was gone to pot. All that new talk and people’s hearts and heads being turned, and the way they dressed now and the terrible music. And wars going on everywhere. Vietnam and the Middle East and only up the road in the godforsaken North. Young people were being given terrible notions and the world was a fearful place. People living together and having children before they were married at all and married people roaring for divorces and birth control, whatever the hell that was, and every kind of carry-on you could think of and plenty more you couldn’t. But Moll had sense. She’d turn up, as sure as God. She’d land back any day. And Paddy and Kit stayed composed through all the talk and the heavy silences, and they turned deaf ears to the things that were whispered that they weren’t meant to hear, and they were grateful to their neighbours for the help. 

Kit had a cousin married in Dublin and she wrote to her to ask if Moll had called to her maybe, but the letter back was full of questions and sympathy and empty of any knowledge of Moll or her whereabouts. Moll had not been seen by anyone. Or if she had, she hadn’t stood out, a plain girl from the country with a brown valise and simple clothes. What could be done? Nothing, it seemed. Prayers were promised and a mass was said, or at least Moll’s disappearance was alluded to by Father Coyne, obliquely and embarrassedly in a short homily invoking Saints Anthony and Jude, patrons of lost things and hopeless causes, and the small drama was absorbed quickly into the village’s store of small dramas, another of those things to be remembered now and then, reminisced about, sighed over. Moll Gladney and where she could have gone. God only knew. 

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Paddy carried on his morning rounds because there was nothing else to do but carry on. And he herded and foddered and counted the Jackmans’ cattle and sheep in the afternoons and evenings, and he walked the fences of the farm and did his jobs the way he’d always done them, and he called each Friday to their home place for his envelope, and Ellen Jackman said God bless you, Paddy, the way she’d always done, but with a deeper sincerity to it now. And people made the same old small-talk as always, though there was a funny air to it in the weeks just after the disappearance, of awkwardness, and hesitation. What could anyone say but meaningless things they already knew the answer to? Things like, Any sign? Any word from Moll? It wouldn’t do to be sympathizing too much, because that way Paddy might think they were thinking what it was only natural to think: that Moll Gladney was either pregnant or dead, and it was hard to know which one of those was worse. 

Kit Gladney felt betrayed by Christ, but she pushed away her crossness. She needed Him now more than ever, and she needed His Blessed Mother as much if not more, and so she did her best to stay on the right side of them. She walked the lane down to the main road through the village every evening and turned for the long hill and the Church of Mary Magdalene, proud and unsheltered at the top of it, and she knelt on the cold ground below each station of the Cross and she pleaded and promised and implored, silently, her lips moving but no sound coming out, and she held her tears for the nights when she lay in bed, sleepless always until the last hour before dawn, when she’d fall to a fitful sleep, and she’d dream that she was young again, and holding a child to her breast, and the child was looking up at her through eyes filled with love.

She cursed herself for not knowing more of the world. For all she knew, this kind of thing was a regular occurrence. She’d heard stories, of course, of people going off out into the world and never being heard from again, but as a rule when you excavated a little bit deeper it would turn out that there’d been some quarrel over land or money or a house or some kind of inheritance, or that the person who’d gone and left no trace had had a bit of a want in them or a history of trouble with their nerves. Kit didn’t think that Moll had a want in her, and she had no reason to believe that her nerves had been at her: she’d always talked away and bowed her head to prayer and sung along when merriness broke out and laughed at all the carry-on and loud gregarious talk of the people who called to their cottage from further up the fields on their way down to the road. And she’d always been gracious and graceful and demure, proper, unassuming, a good, good little girl.

She cursed herself for not knowing more of the world. For all she knew, this kind of thing was a regular occurrence.

Kit wondered if something had gone wrong with Moll at the time of her birth, if some seed of trouble had been planted then that was flowering only now. She’d had her suspicions at the time but all of her questions afterwards had been answered curtly, with a threat of crossness. No one working on Saint Bridget’s lying-in ward at the county hospital was going to tolerate being cross-examined by the wife of a labourer. She’d been a long time in her pangs at home before the midwife had cycled down from Glencrue, and shortly after she arrived she asked Paddy had he a car, and of course that time they hadn’t, but Paddy said he could easily borrow one, and she’d snapped at him to go do it so, and stop standing over them with his two hands hanging. He’d gone off across the top field to the Jackmans to get a loan of their car, and the three of them had driven in as far as the county hospital, and there was a doctor and a nurse there waiting, and Kit had suffered unearthly pain, and she’d looked in the crucified Christ’s baleful, knowing eyes, and found in those moments no comfort even there. And Moll’s first breath had been a long time in coming, and when at last she drew it, the cry that followed it had been low and weak, apologetic almost, as though she knew the trouble she’d caused and was afraid now of making any more fuss. Now, Missus Gladney, the midwife said, as she placed the still-pink form against Kit’s bared breast. There’s Her Ladyship at last. Didn’t she take her sweet time about it? Didn’t she make us go to great rounds?

And Moll was taken from her again and Kit slipped away to darkness, and her torn perineum became infected, and she found herself lifted from the darkness, and out away from the county hospital, and standing at a garden gate, with her hand on the sun-warmed wood of the top rail of it, and she was about to push it open and walk forward onto a soft grassy path through an avenue of trees, but a breeze was whispering in the trees, a sighing voice saying softly, Go back, go back, you have to mind your baby, and she woke drenched and her wounds seared and her vision was blurred but she could make out Paddy at the far side of the small room, and his cap twisted in his hands and his face white, and her own mother with her beads gripped whitely in her hands and she was saying, God help us, here she’s back to us now, oh, thanks be to God.

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But she didn’t know if any of that was related to this new trouble. It didn’t seem believable that a girl just out of her teenage years who’d made hardly a peep since she’d left the cradle would all at once go off bold and bareheaded without there being some root cause, some reason good or bad. The neighbours and cousins who called had no help to give in that department: some of their stories of disappearances started badly and ended worse, with bodies dredged from bogs or found twined in rushes on muddy riverbanks or submerged in ditches or loughs of water. Why people saw fit to recount these things in her presence was beyond her. To help her brace herself, maybe, for the day the sergeant and the priest would roll up the boreen with dread tidings. She was only a shout from sixty and Paddy was on the far side of it, and Moll had been their midlife miracle, their smile from God, and now she was gone, and they felt on their shoulders the terrible weight of all the things about the world they didn’t know.


Excerpted from Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan. Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Books. Copyright © 2021 by Donal Ryan.

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