Fiction: Finbar’s Novena
By Caitlin A. Quinn
“How would you kill the bastard that’s been shagging your wife?”
Emmett’s question jostles inside Finbar’s rusting Cortina like an unruly third passenger, just itching for a fight. Finbar’s hands tighten on the wheel as the car’s lone headlamp casts a murky light on the Derrylin road. He miscalculates how close he is to the hedgerows that partition the narrow road from someone’s field and flinches when he hears the scrape of branches against his broken side-view mirror. Taking a drag from his cigarette, Finbar blows the smoke out in two huffs, punctuating the last one with a cough.
“I thought you promised Siobhan you’d let it go,” he says, casting a sideways glance at Emmett, who stares ahead at what the headlamp shows them of the pock-marked road.
“Could you let it go?”
Finbar scratches his cheek. The lit end of the cigarette feels too close to his eye, and he lowers his hand back to the wheel. “Likely not.”
The Cortina rattles over a patch of rough road while Emmett takes a drink from his can of Harp. With the back of his hand, he wipes at the lager that’s spilled down his chin.
“I still love her. After all this time. Even after...this.”
“Aye, Siobhan’s a good woman,” Finbar says, trying not to think how her name feels in his mouth.
“Aye,” Emmett says. “You know, she only did it so’s I’d wake the fuck up. Realize how good I have it. Finally give up the drink.”
A stone rolls in Finbar’s stomach. Sure, what else could she have said? He worries Emmett can hear something cracking in his chest as he thinks about the last time he held Siobhan. The time they agreed would be the last time. The feel of her breath on his skin.
You’re the one I should’ve married, Finn.
“Is that what she said?”
“Oh, aye. And here I am,” Emmett says, raising the Harp, “only at the lager. Haven’t had a drop of whiskey in three weeks.”
Finbar begrudgingly slows the car around the next bend, then hits the gas. He wants this drive over. To see Emmett only in the rearview mirror, crossing the road to his and Siobhan’s cottage with its broken fence and empty flower boxes. Finbar knows he’ll spend the rest of the night alone in his flat, wondering what Siobhan looks like asleep. Imaging he hears her breathing next to him.
“You’re a good mate, Finn,” Emmett says. “You stood by me through all this, when I thought I would lose me fucking mind.”
An ash at the end of Finbar’s neglected cigarette falls on the Cortina’s dash. He tosses what’s left of the smoke out the window.
“Sure, you’d do the same for me.”
“I would. And I’d try to stop you.”
Finbar’s eyes meet Emmett’s in the low light of the car’s console. Emmett’s are glossy, and Finbar tries to remember how many pints he had at the pub, before they got in the car.
“Stop me from what?”
“Something you couldn’t walk away from, like. Something so bad, that even if you got away with it, you’d be staggering under that guilt for a drunken mile.”
Finbar’s throat goes dry. He lowers his window. The rush of night air brings the scent of fuchsia, sweet and tart. Deora Dé, God’s tears. Siobhan knows the Irish for everything. It’s because the red flowers look like tears of blood.
Does everything beautiful have to be so fucking tragic?
Emmett sniffs. “Smell that fuchsia. God’s own perfume.” He finishes the Harp and crushes the can. The sound puts Finbar’s teeth on edge.
“Did I ever tell you about the perfume-man me granda worked for?” Emmett asks.
Finbar shakes his head. A well of nausea builds from the shrubs’ cloying fragrance, so he
rolls the window back up.
“Me granda stayed in Paris for a bit after the war. Fucking fell in love with the place. He took a shite job cleaning floors in a perfume factory.”
Drunken prattle, Finbar decides. His pulse slows.
“So, there was this bloke. Strange fella who only showed up to the place at night, when no one but me granda was about. Would talk for hours about the importance of scent. ‘Olfactory perception,’ he called it. Said you can tell everything about a person by the smells they give off. Smells they’re not even aware of, but that you can learn to mark out, like. Fear and guilt—those, he said, are the big ones. They make people stink.”
There’s a knocking in Finbar’s chest. It turns into a pounding blow when the Cortina angles around a curve and rushes into a sudden flash of red. He hits the brakes behind a Volkswagen sitting in the road with its parking lights on.
“For fuck’s sake!” Finbar hears the explosion of anxiety in his voice. He counts four cars, including the Volkswagen, halted on the road, with two police vehicles up ahead. He’s only starting to breathe again when a policeman shines a flashlight through the windshield.
“Ah, here we fucking go,” Emmett mutters.
The policeman moves to the driver’s-side window. Finbar rolls it all the way down, his eyes on the black glint of the gun holstered on policeman’s hip, and tries to force easiness into his voice. “Evening, Constable.”
The policeman ignores Finbar and shines his light on Emmett’s face. “Where you boyos coming from?”
““Tá muid díreach tar éis teach ó ag shag do mháthair,” Emmett calls out.
On the wheel, Finbar’s hands go numb. The policeman’s lips straighten into a hard, impassable line, and Finbar prays he hasn’t a word of Irish.
“What was that?” the policeman asks, shining his light in Emmett’s face again. Emmett puts his arm up to shield his eyes.
Somehow, Finbar finds his voice. “He said we’re coming from just over the border in Cavan. From out in Ballyconnell for a bit of plastering work. Heading back home now to Derrylin. Sure, is that a problem?”
A second policeman circles the other side of the Cortina. He shines his flashlight into the reaches of the car’s empty back seat.
The first policeman takes a step back from the driver’s-side door. “Turn off the vehicle, get out, and open the boot.”
“Right, so,” Finbar says, cutting the engine.
Emmett’s hands form fists. “Jesus, can you believe it?”
“Not another fucking word,” Finbar hisses through his teeth.
Finbar and Emmett watch as the policemen rummage through the tools and dirty workboots in the Cortina’s trunk. Finbar sees the muscle twitching in Emmett’s cheek. Shoots him a warning glance.
“There’s reports of guns being smuggled into Enniskillen on this road,” the second policeman says, slamming down the lid of the trunk. “Would you happen to know anything about that?”
“Not a thing, Constable,” Finbar says.
He recognizes the slow-boiling rage in Emmett’s voice when it comes. “Aye, not a blessed thing.”
“When can we get moving?” Finbar asks.
“When we say you can,” says the first policeman.
Inside the Cortina, Finbar lights another cigarette. He hates the way his hand shakes.
“Will you look at that?” Emmett says, turning his head to watch the two policemen approach the car that has just pulled up behind them. “Bastards. Think they have the right to stop us taking back what’s been stolen. I wonder if the perfume-man knew what arrogance smells like, because this whole fucking place reeks of it.”
“You told him we’d just been shagging his mother! Did you want to get us killed?”
“It’s not like he understood.”
“What if he had?”
Emmett shrugs. Stares ahead.
Without the hum of the engine, the press of silence inside the Cortina fills Finbar’s lungs along with the cigarette smoke, making them ache.
“I’d use a knife,” Emmet says.
An exasperated noise rumbles in Finbar’s throat. “They have guns, Emmett. Or haven’t you noticed?”
“On the fucker who shagged Siobhan. A gun’d be too quick. It’s a crime of the flesh, so flesh is the payment owed. And I’d take it one bloodied hunk at a time. Make him scream for hours.”
Finbar rubs his eyes with his palms. He’s done this, he knows. Brought his best friend to this dark and violent abyss. In this moment, he despises himself. He wants to turn the Cortina’s ignition, rev the engine to drown out Emmett’s voice, but he knows that would bring the police on them. And only Jesus knows what Emmett might do then.
“I’ve got the fucker’s name.” Emmett turns to him, and pulls from within his shirt a long leather cord with a silver oval dangling from its end. “It’s right here.”
Finbar’s tongue is suddenly heavy, too thick.
“What do you mean, Emmett?”
“I wouldn’t stop asking, so Siobhan wrote the name down on a piece of paper. She folded it up and put it in this.” Emmett holds up the silver pendant. “It’s her Saint Raymond locket. He’s the patron saint of childbirth. Of secrets, too.”
Cold dread settles in Finbar’s bones. He’s not sure he can move. “You know, then?”
Emmett stares out the windshield again. “She’s given me the name, and I’ve promised not to look at it. It’s all part of rebuilding the trust, she says. How the healing has to start, so.”
“Jesus, Emmett. You really haven’t looked at it?”
“She’ll leave me, if I do. Take the children and go to her sister in Philadelphia.”
Finbar knows the seeping sensation of relief he’s feeling is only temporary. He hears Emmett’s breathing grow heavier.
“If she leaves me, I’ll fucking top meself, I swear to Christ.”
“Come on, now.” Finbar can’t think of anything else to say.
Emmett spreads the fingers of both hands across the tops of his thighs like a blind man feeling his way, then curls them into fists. “Siobhan’s no slag, so it’s got to be someone she knows well. And that means he’s got to be someone I know. So, what I wonder is, would I be able to smell the stink of guilt on him, like the perfume-man said?”
Finbar’s body leaks sweat. He tries detecting any odor in the car other than stale cigarettes and spilled lager. He glances in the rearview, almost expecting to see the perfume-man sitting there, nostrils flaring. He lights another cigarette, wishing he could escape Emmett’s gaze.
“The perfume-man told me granda that every person has their own scent. Something that’s theirs alone. And a good perfume-man can take one whiff and know exactly what fragrance they should be wearing to enhance it, like.”
Emmett makes exaggerated sniffing sounds, and Finbar winces.
“You get vanilla,” Emmett pronounces upon some imaginary subject. “You get rose. And you?” Emmett points at Finbar. “You get pig shite.”
There’s a wildness around the edges of Emmett’s turbulent laughter, and Finbar tries to sink further into his seat to escape it. He stares ahead, hating the police who are keeping them sitting here. Hating the driver of every car that’s in front of him, blocking the way.
The laughter stops, and Finbar looks at Emmett across a veil of smoke. Emmett removes the leather cord from around his neck. Dangles the locket in front of Finbar. “I made a promise to her. But you didn’t.”
Finbar’s legs shake. He stares at the blue police lights. “When can we get fucking moving?”
“Open the locket and read the name, Finn.”
Finbar points ahead. “Come on, Emmett, we’ve got a situation here. And we’ll be moving any minute.”
“I’m asking you to do this for me. Sure, you’re the only one I can trust.”
Something freezes in Finbar. He sucks on the cigarette, trying to think. Would Siobhan have written down his name? Hung it around her husband’s neck like a bomb? Could she be that cruel?
And if it’s his name written there, what will Emmett do? Would Emmett come for him with a knife? He’d a temper on him with the whiskey. And, sure, didn’t he deserve that? To have his flesh carved from his bones?
Finbar tosses the half-smoked cigarette out the window. He doesn’t want to touch the locket, this shining, tiny casket—is certain it will burn his fingers. But if he doesn’t—if Emmett returns the leather cord to his neck, and the unopened locket stays nestled there, burrowing into Emmett like an impossible canker—Finbar knows he’ll never sleep another night in his life.
The locket is warm in Finbar’s fist. The throbbing of his own pulse makes it seem as though there’s a tiny heart beating inside its silver casing.
Does he stink of guilt? Can Emmett smell it?
He hears nothing beyond the rush of blood in his ears as he opens the locket. Inside is a piece of paper folded into a tiny square. His breathing is ragged as he unfurls it. Hands shaking, he nearly drops it. There’s a burst of brightness, and he realizes Emmett has turned on the Cortina’s dome light.
Finbar’s vision blurs against Siobhan’s black pen strokes on this impossibly white background. The marks breathe. Undulate. He’s never been more afraid of anything than what Siobhan has written down here. His teeth chatter. He considers swallowing the paper, unread. But first, he has to know if she’s done this. Condemned them all to an everlasting hell.
“What does it say”? Emmett’s voice sounds far away.
As he reads, Finbar feels the words enter his bloodstream:
Glorious St. Raymond, filled with compassion for those who invoke you,
pray for us and obtain our request.
(Say it 9x, Emmett)
Finbar blinks. Reads it again.
“What does it say?” Urgency crackles in Emmett’s voice.
Finbar meets his eyes. “It’s a prayer.”
Emmett snatches the paper. His lips move as he reads. After a long moment, he says, “It’s a fucking novena.”
They both jump when the policeman knocks on the driver’s-side window. “On you go!”
Finbar looks out the windshield and sees the cars in front are gone, their taillights now distant red stars in a black heaven. He turns the key and starts the Cortina. Shifts into gear. Gives it gas. He checks the backseat in the rearview again, wondering if the perfume-man can smell his ragged relief.
Emmett stares ahead. Silent. The paper buried in his fist. Dropped into his lap, the locket on its cord lies open, like a mouth agape.
As Finbar eases the car past the police vehicles, he says to himself, over and over, Glorious Saint Raymond, filled with compassion for those who invoke you.
He loses count of how many times. Starts again.
Caitlin A. Quinn lives in Northern California with her partner and two badly behaved Airedale Terriers. She spends way too much time imagining conversations between imaginary people. Her short fiction has appeared or is upcoming in the anthology Murder on Her Mind and Blood & Bourbon.