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Siobhan’s Gathering

By Doug Brown



 

The front door burst open as Conrad Doherty struggled to restrain the chocolate lab long enough to unclip his leash from his collar. Conrad turned to hang up the leash and grab a dog treat according to their routine, only to find himself waving a biscuit in thin air. The dog, once free, had trotted off purposefully toward the back of the house, his nails click-clacking as he progressed over the tile of the entryway and then along the hardwood of the center hall. Shrugging, Conrad put the unwanted biscuit down on the table by the door and sifted through the pile of mail. Finding nothing of interest, he turned to the right where his wife, Meg, was setting up the living room for company.

“Book club night already?”

“Yup.”

He nodded with raised eyebrows. “What’s up with Ziggy? He headed off like he had somewhere to be?”

“Your mother’s room probably.” She stood up, appraising the seating, the availability of coasters, the supply of napkins, dessert plates and forks around the boxed cheesecake, and a hard-cover copy of East of Eden on a plate stand with paperback copies directly under the table. She seemed satisfied with the preparations. “You know, it’s the strangest thing. First thing this morning, I brought him in from his morning walk. He headed off to your mother’s room and just stood at the door for a minute and then he pushed it open with his nose. He went in, sat down next to her bed, and put his head in her lap. Right in her lap.” She cocked her head as if for punctuation, or perhaps demonstrating Ziggy’s motions. “And he just stayed like that. For. Hours.” She raised an eyebrow and paused, waiting for reaction.

“So?”

“I thought he must have smelled food in her room. I peeked in to check. No food. Your mother just sitting up in bed, stroking Ziggy with one hand. With her other hand, she was, like, waving it over the bed, like she was casting a spell or something. Very strange. Very. Strange.”

“Why d’you say strange?”

“It was your mother,” she said, pronouncing each word. “Your very... opinionated... mother.”

“So?”

“I stuck my head in politely and asked if she needed anything. ‘No, dear.’” Meg shook her head emphatically as she stepped closer to Conrad. “Then she said the strangest thing. She said, ‘Look. Charlie came! And his leg is all healed! Like new.’”

“So?”

“Connie, there was no one there. And she said it like I could plainly see Charlie and his miraculously healed leg.”

Conrad turned, looking off at the fireplace. “I think she was referring to Charlie, a spaniel she had as a child.” Turning back to face Meg, Conrad continued, “My mother and my aunts used to tell this story about Charlie, this little dog that my mother loved. One day he got loose, ran off, they couldn’t find him. He ends up getting hit by a car—or a wagon or trampled by a cow, depending who’s telling the story—shatters his hip or his pelvis, and he makes it home dragging his hind legs. He goes to the front door yelping, and by the time someone came to the door he’d lost so much blood that he died there on their front step.”

The doorbell rang. Meg moved to answer it, saying as she walked toward the door, “Now you’re the one not making any sense.” She opened the door and ushered in the evening’s first guest.

Conrad ducked out and headed to the first-floor bedroom that Siobhan occupied. There he found Ziggy just as Meg had described.

“Is Ziggy begging for food from you, again?” he said as he gripped the door jamb, leaning his upper body into the room.

“Oh, Connie!” Siobhan looked up and smiled. “No, Zigs is just sitting with me. He’s been sitting with me all day!”

It struck Connie that he hadn’t seen his mother smile so brightly in quite a while—perhaps since his father passed five years earlier. “So, you’re having a good day? Need anything?”

“A lovely day. No, nothing. Thanks, Connie, dear.”

Conrad looked down at his mother’s smiling face and thought to himself, This is not my mother. No complaints. Not one pointed observation about someone else. Since coming to live with them, Siobhan had been a prickly tenant, a chore, a trial. He felt as if he were looking at the mother of his youth, of fond childhood memories, not the mother of his adulthood, not his widowed, arthritic, emphysemic, complaint-ridden mother of recent years. As he was about to leave, he noticed Siobhan’s left hand, twisted with arthritis, prone to shaking—now floating just as Meg had described, held out to her side, over the bed, moving steadily, steadily, as if resting on something, hovering over a small swirl in the bedspread.

 

 

The next morning, Meg entered Siobhan’s room to find Ziggy once again at his station. Meg’s attention to order was drawn to an open bedroom window. “Siobhan, did you open this window?”

“No. To be honest,” her thin voice rose and then dropped weakly, “I don’t really have the energy to be opening windows. I guess they wanted it opened. Maybe it makes it easier for them to come and go.”

“They? Who’s they?”

“Meg, dear,” Siobhan said, nodding her head as if choosing not to answer, as if sensing who was open to what realities. She then looked Meg square in the face. “I want you to know that you’re going to wake up one morning with a sharp pain in your abdomen. Don’t worry. It’ll just be a kidney stone.” She smiled gently. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Siobhan?”

“Yes, dear?”

“What’s our address?”

“Thirteen-oh-two Shrewsbury Boulevard.”

“What’s Conrad’s middle name?”

“James.”

“What month is it?”

“January, dear.”

Meg looked at Siobhan without speaking for a moment and then left the room.


 

Standing looking through the dining room window out over the frost-trimmed front yard, Meg called Conrad’s office. “Connie!”

What’s wrong!” came the thin voice in the earpiece.

“Something’s going on with your mother. It’s freaking me out! Did you leave one of her bedroom windows open?”

Hearing something in the house, she held the phone away from her ear. The tinny voice buzzed intermittently. She tried to isolate sounds coming from the front door. She thought she’d heard the latch. Continuing to listen in the quiet house, she could hear Siobhan exclaim, “Mandy!”

Putting the phone back up to her ear, she whispered loudly, “Connie, who’s Mandy?”


 

The next morning, Meg was seated at the breakfast table. “Once again, after his walk, Ziggy came in, went straight to your mother’s side.” Meg watched Conrad’s back as he poured coffee into his travel mug. She watched as he reached into the refrigerator and pulled out two slices of deli ham and a leaf of lettuce and threw them between two pieces of rye bread that he had placed on the cutting board. He slipped the sandwich into a used sandwich bag that he retrieved from his briefcase. “Conrad... why don’t you—oh, never mind.” He closed the bag, tossed it into his open briefcase, and slammed the case shut, clicking the latches. He sucked on the fingers of the hand that had retrieved the ham and lettuce, and then wiped the hand on a dishtowel. Meg raised her eyes to the ceiling. “As I was saying, apparently Charlie the invisible dog has made himself at home. And Mandy—who the hell is Mandy?—is coming and going at all hours.”

“Well, don’t worry about it. If she’s not starting fires or joining a cult, what harm could she do? And if it puts her in a good mood...” Conrad picked up his briefcase, which as usual, contained little more than his lunch and random fast-food condiment packets. He leaned down to kiss Meg on the cheek and headed out the side door into the garage.

Meg heard the slam of the car door, the hum of the garage door opener, and watched as Conrad’s tired SUV backed out of the driveway. A school bus applied its brakes loudly to avoid hitting him. He methodically stopped and then transitioned to forward motion. The bus lethargically resumed its route.

Just as Meg was rising to clear the table, a blue minivan with faded roof paint and New York plates pulled into the driveway and stopped with a loud squeak, a knock, and a rattle. From where she stood, Meg could see two occupants—recognizable as Norene and Lyle—through the glint and mixed reflections on the windshield. “What now?” she said under her breath. Meg walked to the window, folding her arms over her chest, to watch with interest as the two got out of their minivan. They had no luggage, no gifts, nothing in hand. Had they been evicted? Running from the law? There was no telling with those two.

As they walked up the flagstone path to the front door, Meg moved to meet them at the door. Glancing toward the back of the house, Meg noticed—no Ziggy—despite the sounds of the minivan and car doors in the driveway.

“Norene, Lyle! So nice to see you!” She hugged Norene. “Unexpectedly.” And in turn, Lyle. “Without calling first.” They moved on through the entryway.

“Since when do I have to call first to see my own mother?” Norene asked rhetorically, shedding her coat like a molting crab. Norene worked as a “holistic teacher” at a private elementary school whose motto seemed to be “Learning Happens.” Norene insisted it was officially “Where Real Learning Happens—Ubi Doctrina Vera Fit.” But Meg had never seen any “Ubi” or any “Vera” on any school kit as much as she kept her eagle eye out for them. Lots of things happen, Meg thought to herself.

Already two steps down the center hall, Norene, walking backward, explained, “I just had to see Mom.” She turned and proceeded to Siobhan’s room. Lyle and Meg stood staring blankly at each other.

“Coffee?” Lyle half asked, half begged.

Meg nodded in resignation and gestured toward the kitchen. Meg deftly laid out two cups of coffee, bagels, cream cheese, a piece of cheesecake left over from her last book club meeting, and, as an afterthought, a two-day-old jelly donut.

“Megrit, you are the soul of hospitality.” Lyle slid into one of the chairs at the table.

Meg smiled at his endearing, if presumptive, familiarity. At least he tried.  

Once seated at the table with hot coffee mug in hand, Lyle reached for the jelly donut and began, “I got home from my shift at the hospital at four this morning. Norene meets me at the door, fully dressed, and says, ‘I have to go see my mother. You can come or you can stay. But I’ve got to go see her.’ I said to her, ‘I’ve got another shift at four this afternoon.’ She says, ‘You’ll be back in time.’” Lyle sipped the hot coffee, closed his eyes, and tilted his head back in deep, almost embarrassing, abandonment. “So, three hours later, here we are.”

As the caffeine hit his blood stream, Meg saw light returning to his tired eyes. Lyle was a big man, not a fit man. A teddy bear. Well able to hoist a patient from a bathroom floor and into a hospital bed. “Lyle,” Meg began, “what the hell is going on?”

“What the hell what? What d’ya mean?” He tilted his head questioningly, showing more animation.

“Two days ago, Ziggy went to Siobhan’s room and basically hasn’t left her side. Then Charlie showed up. And then Mandy, whoever she is...”

“Mandy’s here?”

“Alright, who’s Mandy?”

Lyle settled back into his chair. “Three-four years ago, Siobhan came to visit us the week of Norene’s birthday. Remember that? You guys dropped her off and then the next week we brought her back?”

“Like a bad penny—sorry, I shouldn’t say those things.” She slapped her hand in mock punishment. “Yeah, I remember.”

“One night—it was after Norene’s birthday dinner—I cooked and made a mess of it, but there was wine.” Lyle nodded slowly. “We all got pretty loose. Siobhan starts talking about growing up on the farm and her mother and her sisters—Norene and Conrad’s grandmother, Tatya. And the two younger sisters, whatever their names were.”

“Genevieve Adele and Sarah Lynn.”

“Yuh. Genevvv and Sarrrr. And then she comes out with a bit Norene didn’t know about: after Siobhan’s birth, her mother had one more child—Amanda.”

“And how did she hide this all these years?”

“Well, it was a home birth and the child only lived something like two weeks. And in those days, the state of Vermont didn’t care if a child died in the first thirty days. So, Amanda was lost to history. But with Siobhan’s mother bedridden for several weeks, little five-year-old Siobhan played nursemaid. Apparently, in that short time they developed a deep, deep,” Lyle paused, stifling a burp, “deep bond. But she was so young she remembered very little of it. But with a little talk of the old days and a lot of wine—eh, you know.”

Meg sat silent for a moment before speaking. “Siobhan’s having a ghost party, is that what you’re telling me?”

“Well... they’re coming for a reason.” Lyle, leaning back in his chair, looked at Meg and then down at his coffee. “For the past two years, I’ve been on the pediatric floor, pediatric oncology in particular.” Looking down at his coffee mug, he ran his finger around the lip of the mug. “Doctors rush in and out, but we orderlies, we sometimes hang around and get to see what really goes on with patients. On our floor, we have a therapy dog, Rosco, a beautiful golden.” He slid the last piece of jelly donut into his efficient eating machine. “Rosco knows.”

“Rosco knows what?”

“His handler says the dogs always know. They’ll go right to a child that... that’s about to die.” Lyle took a deep breath. “He says their God’s scouts, God’s front line.” Lyle looked significantly into his coffee and then deeply into Meg’s eyes. “Before working pediatrics, I was on geriatrics for many years. It’s a tough assignment. Well, one time we had a patient who had his rabbi visiting him frequently. I had a chance to talk with him a little. Rabbi Schmuli. Good ol’ Rabbi Schmuli. At one point we got to talking about sitting shiva. He said that the Talmud tells us that the soul of a person mourns over its own body for seven days as well. The soul mourns because the body learned Torah and did mitzvahs in partnership with it, and yet the body’s fate is to be buried in the earth while the soul soars to the heavens. And then he quoted, I think it was Isaiah, who says, ‘He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.’” Lyle paused. “‘May it be speedily in our days,’ he would say. ‘May it be speedily in our days.’”

“What’s that got to do with...” Conrad’s SUV pulled into the driveway. Leaving his car in the driveway, he came to the front door, and entered. “Oh, hi, Lyle!” Without stopping, he proceeded toward the back of the house.

Meg looked at Lyle, mouthing an unspoken question.

Lyle looked off into the corner of the room, craning his neck. “Yeah, I’ve seen and heard some strange things.” He turned to look at Meg. “Often an alert patient within a few days of death will start to look around, turning their head as if receiving guests or recognizing faces in a crowd, turning their head from place, nodding, smiling. In one case, a man—congestive heart failure—was approaching his time. He started staring into a mirror on the opposite wall and smiling. His daughter who was sitting by his side noticed it and looked into the mirror. I saw her just freeze. I asked her later what she saw. She said she saw her grandmother clear as day in that mirror under the fluorescents of the hospital room. Sure, a lot of patients, especially heavily medicated ones, drift off in their sleep. But even they often see people in the days before. I saw one gentleman, comatose for ten days after an auto accident, sit bolt upright out of the blue and shout, ‘Mom!’ and then pass away.”

“Yeah, but isn’t that mostly a neurological thing?” Meg asked meekly. “Isn’t it just the brain firing off a lot of neurons, the electrical charge draining once the supply of oxygen is stopped? Like flipping a deck of flashcards before the lights go out?”

“Yeah, that happens.” Lyle again focused on something beyond the window. “But that’s really a matter of no more than three minutes. I’m talking about things that happen over several days. Something changes in their mindset, their physical being, their pheromones change.” Looking back at Meg, Lyle shook his head. “No, that’s definitely different altogether.”

Lyle reached out and put his hand on Meg’s. “In this life, we have the chance to pour our souls into the souls of others. When that happens, those souls become bonded. When it’s time for someone to go, the soul starts to separate from the body, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. When that starts to happen, those bonds, especially those to the other side, pull in souls who then come to watch over the passing. They will watch until the light comes. It’s a deep bond, Conrad probably isn’t even conscious of it. Norene is.”

“What do you mean, ‘until the light comes?’”

“Patients who have not moved in days will sit up and stretch out their arms. They will say, ‘They’re coming, angels of light,’ or whatever their belief, whatever language they have for it. And then they see Jesus coming to pick them up. Maybe Jews are taken by Abraham, I don’t know. But from what I’ve seen, if the light doesn’t come for them...” He looked off, unfocused again, out the window. He lowered his voice. “The darkness will.”

Lyle put his mug down and looked at Meg. “I think it’s about time.” He rose from the table and nodded toward the back of the house. Looking down at Meg, he said, “Come on. I’ve seen enough of these. It’s almost time. We should go.”

Together they walked to the back of the house. Standing outside of Siobhan’s room, they peered in. Siobhan had just leaned forward, looking upward out the window. In a frail, soft, peaceful voice, she said, “I see them. They’re be-yoo-tiful. And He’s come for me!” Ziggy beat his heavy tail against the carpeted floor, slowly. Siobhan’s body fell back like a husk, audibly exhaling. Ziggy stood and sniffed her still gnarled hand once more and turned to look up at Conrad and then Meg. He walked out of the room and a minute later, Meg could hear him lapping from his water dish.



 

Doug Brown is not your typical fiction writer. After writing a slew of stories and winning the prestigious Katie Lehman Award for Fiction, he fell asleep under a tree and awoke 30 years later ready to write some more. In the past year, his short fiction was published in BarBar and Half and One, and his short story collection, My Bohemian Baptism and Then Some, was released by Serif Press. Doug holds degrees from Carnegie Mellon and Penn State.

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