An Exoskeleton of Fear by Catherine O’Brien

That night I shed an exoskeleton of fear. It happened as a sweet pulsation overlooking the river. My body crackled with suspense as, like an exhausted sprinter, I was overlapped by a clear and gracious winner. There was no creaking or moaning as it wrenched itself free. It left quietly and with all its dignity. 

I’d been gifted an excuse, a chance to reclaim my wilderness and that’s the end of my story.

The start is far more mundane. It was my grandfather who introduced me to the well. He always suggested our walks, which ended when he had stared bleary eyed and whispered into its depths. His words were like an incantation thrumming gently against the repetitious walls of that ancient circular shaft. He told me tales and warned me in a thin voice not to call them that. He said that folklore was not a child’s game to be toyed with and made me promise with my hand draped across my doubter’s chest. Grandfather always watched me, even when he didn’t know I was there. When I was younger, I wondered why his face would become so strange and detached. My mother was useless when it came to answers and sometimes, I thought she didn’t even know herself. She would reply by drawing me nearer and ruffling my auburn hair. There were other times, when I would enter the kitchen unannounced, and she would be studying the garden intently. I could not figure out what she found to interest her out there. 

To summon me, he would rap his walking stick on the wall using his self-devised morse code and wait for me to decrypt its murmurous tonal beats. He called me “Boy” even though that wasn’t my name. He linked arms with me on our excursions to keep himself safe. There we were, two not so wise men, stumbling across water-logged fields which sucked and slurped at our wellingtons. I remember the globules of polishing wax that followed our gifts as they slipped through his greasy fingers. The very innards of my ear would strain for what seemed like an eternity until we both heard the gentle splash from the murky deep and could straighten our aching backs. The practice did not cease until my mother, bemused and later appalled, conducted an emergency inventory of her silverware. 

I worshipped him because he never held the fact that I was a child against me. He told me things without restraint and only threw me a life buoy if he was certain I was going to drown. I used to worry that I would never be enough to pique his interest. My anxiety was foundationless as he had never refused me entry to his world – quite the opposite. 

That night was bitterly cold. As we walked, thoughts tried in earnest to latch onto the complex geospace of his fizzling mind. I pulled my jacket close and the wind tossed my hair about, all filthy and wild. He warned me in advance that I wasn’t allowed to cry. 

“You. You’re the only one.”

“What?” I was unsure about both what he’d said and what it meant.

“It’s you.”

“I don’t understand, Grandad.”

“You do”, he growled, his voice crashing from crescendo in harmony with the wind’s ballad. 

I waited for an encore but there was none. We trundled on. 

“Halt here, Boy.” I don’t know why he bothered, we found ourselves in our usual spot.

“It’s approaching the time for you to learn the rest”

“The rest of what?”

“The folklore of your people”

Then he spoke in long unravelling sentences. He told me of the necessity of midwinter, summer days could be fickle and lie to you. He spoke of how he believed it all to be true, holding a clenched fist against his failing heart. He said he would be there to demand for my life. 

When he finished, his words hung around naked under the endless sky. 

I knew it wasn’t a kid’s game as I waited. My limbs liquidised to the brink of unimportance and I remained as just a presence. My breath issued in icy plumes leaving little crystals in the air. I was shocked when I heard my communiqué begin. I heard the words siphoning wisdom through my parted lips to a captive audience. I saw them, my present company, flickering through the interstices of twin worlds to me. They looked and looked, and saw my cornered fear rejoice in the new fringes of light. 

When the transformation was complete, he emerged from a thicket of trees looking small and frail. He took me by the elbow and grinned into my face.

“Everything is yours now, Boy. Everything is yours.”

Grandfather died in mid-April. They lowered him into the ground as crocuses sought partial shade. Fire swept through my heart as I tried to scaffold my mother who leaned against me in the greatest darkness she’d ever known. 

That night as the house lay in readiness for sleep, he thumped upon my wall with his walking stick. This time his message was nothing close to a riddle. It was pure fact. 

“Take advantage of your precious life knowing I’m always rooting for you, just out of sight”. 

Catherine O’Brien is an Irish writer of poems, flash fiction and short stories. She writes bi-lingually in both English and Irish. Her work has appeared in print Iris Comhar (July) and online Six Sentences. Her work is forthcoming in Janus Literary, Five Minute Lit and Free Flash Fiction. She tweets @abairrud2021.