A bawdy romance from the author of Angela’s Ashes.
When he awoke that morning Mordecai O’Callaghan found himself in such a desperate state of tumescence he immediately thought of Nora Moynihan down the road.
Nora Moynihan, down the road, awakening at the same time, found herself in such a desperate state of lubriciousness she thought, “Dear God, I’ll have to be put out to the Sahara Desert to dry or, God help us, I’ll have to give myself at long last to Mordecai O’Callaghan up the road.”
Mordecai lifted the silken sheets to study his risen manhood. Tempted to interfere with himself, he desisted. The Jewish part of his heritage warned him not to cast his seed upon the ground or, for that matter, the silken sheets, lest he wind up with a millstone around his neck, cast from mountain top to bottomless sea. He thought of what an old wandering rabbi had said, “Cast not thy seed lest thou be cast.”
The Irish Catholic in him concurred but had to go a step further in warning that touching yourself was a betrayal of a grand and ancient tradition of not touching yourself, a tradition for which men had gone forth to die while women waited, lamenting by the fire.
So there was Mordecai, 23, up the road, frustrated, and there was Nora, 20, beside herself, the two of them of an age to be fruitful and multiply but victims of history, dogma, economics, and class distinction.
Consider the beds in which they repose: Mordecai lolls in a four-poster built along the lines of a major Spanish galleon, a construction of oak and mahogany, knurled and carved so closely there is hardly an inch of column or canopy untouched by chisel. To get into bed Mordecai must climb a five-step ladder thus elevating him above common concerns. The sheets are of silk, the bedspread of damask, the blankets of virgin wool, sheared from sheep that graze the fields of the little village of Oola beyond.
Sometimes, on cold nights, snug in blankets, he smiles when he thinks of those sheep, how they yielded their wool for his comfort and he delights in the memory of how they gave themselves to him while yet a boy, how they might have bleated a little at first touch but how they rejoiced in a relationship that was essentially delicate, fragile, spiritual, sartorial. Wasn’t it sweet to think that one day you might be loving a sheep, next day wearing her?
Ah, but that was long before he knew Nora down the road who, in circumstances humbler than his, reclined in a bed that was hardly a bed, a few boards hammered together and propped against the wall, a mattress of straw dragged in from the haggard beyond. No sheets for the lovely Nora. No money for sheets for the lovely girl, not with the father she had, Barney Moynihan, a man whose thirst was so powerful he’d lap the sweat off the brow or belly of a virgin.
For the drink Barney would sell his own mother or, indeed, his own daughter. Not a living thing was safe on the bit of land he owned. The very rabbits trembled in their burrows till they were sure Barney had passed out on the kitchen floor above. Nora’s poor mother, Bridey, spent all her days by the fire saying rosaries, offering up her sufferings, begging God to take her from this vale of tears.
Up the road it was a different story, up the road in the O’Callaghan demesne. Peter O’Callaghan, Lord of Oola and Fields Beyond, thanked God every day for the gift of a Jewish wife. “It isn’t every day in the middle of the eighteenth century an Irish man is lucky to be blessed with a Sarah Radofsky from beyond in Poland, a woman with a clear head and an eloquent belly.” He would often tell her, “Sarah, my love, you bring out the pagan in me. All I want to do is take you to the fields and roll with you in the haystacks, all times of the year, Chrismas, Succoth and bank holidays not excluded.”
Sarah gave him the glad eye. That’s what it’s called in Oola. The glad eye. It showed she was ready and even if he was 55 he could never resist the glad eye and what it promised in the sweet green meadows of Oola. “Do you know, Sarah,” Peter would say, “’tis a lucky thing for me I went to Dublin that day in 1737 to the International Sheep and Turnip Exposition for ’tisn’t every day you’ll find such an exposition. ‘Tis not the class of thing you would normally find in Ireland – sheep and turnips lumped together. No Irishman would ever think of it, only a Polish Jew like your father, God rest him this day.”
And there they flourished in those early years in a state of bliss – Peter O’Callaghan growing giant turnips which were exported all over the world, turnips so popular that the name O’Callaghan was synonymous with turnip supreme. There Sarah O’Callaghan tended to the sheep and made a fortune from wool. It wasn’t long before the happy couple collaborated on a recipe, the Casserole O’Callaghan, a mutton and turnip concoction so tasty it swept the world. It was said, indeed, that young George Washington wouldn’t start his day without his Casserole O’Callaghan.
Then came little Mordecai, their pride, their joy, their heartbreak. Needless to say, Mordecai had to be circumcised. Peter was horrified but Sarah insisted and, in Peter’s life, his love for Sarah ranked far above Mordecai’s tiny prepuce. But who was to perform this delicate snipping?
Ireland, at the time, was not known for a surplus of mohels. You could wander the length and breadth of the land calling, “Mohel, mohel,” and all you’d get was an echo. No mohel. Sarah said Peter would have to do it himself. Peter quailed. Accustomed as he was to emasculating animals, he could never bring himself to snip the tip of his own darling boy, his son and heir.
Ah yes, he could get Barney Moynihan, the bould Barney who had taken the knife to many a stallion and ram. Sober, Barney’s hand trembled and you couldn’t trust him to carve a leg of mutton, but feed him a gallon of porter and his hand was steady as an oak.
Sarah protested. “Never, never will I entrust the future generations to that drunken lout. One slip of that knife and it might be the end of the O’Callaghan dynasty, the end of my dreams of being a grandmother.” She would have done the job herself but Jewish law does not provide for mother mohels. It is frowned on. She would have sent to Poland for a mohel but time was running out. You must remember this: a bris is not a bris unless performed within eight days of the boy’s birth.
That night Barney tossed back his gallon of foamy porter, took the knife in one hand and Mordecai’ s future in the other. He made a little speech. “‘Tis a far, far betther thing I do now than I ever did before for I hold in my hand here the father of generations – Jewish and Irish.”
And with that he took a swipe at Mordecai’s little thing. The child gave a yelp and went to sleep. But next day, when Sarah examined Barney’s work, she found to her horror he had done half a job. She screamed, she tore her hair, beat her breast, she davened. Peter came running. She showed him the horrible sight – a boychild half brised, a boychild who would wander forever in a twilight world, half Irish, half Jewish.
“Yerra,” said Peter, “it could have been worse. He could have been half English. Besides, half a bris is better than no bris at all.” Sarah cried, “Now it’s too late. This is the ninth day and you can’t have half a bris. Oh, I wish I had a rabbi.” And it was too late.
Mordecai grew up, coveted by all the girls in Oola and regions beyond for his rare genital architecture. Now, as he studied himself under the silken sheets, he felt grateful to Barney, father of Nora down the road, for leaving him lopsided, so theologically complex that priests and rabbis hardly knew what to do with him. Talmudic scholars around the world debated far into the night. Irate Jesuits threw books and bottles of ink and sherry at each other.
Even if he was the wonder and desire of all the girls in Oola and all the way to Limerick City, Mordecai yearned for only one, the fair Nora down the road. Oh, those nights he saw her at Clancy’s shebeen when he dropped in for a glass of that fine poteen her father concocted in deep glens. Nora there serving him, that mass of auburn hair falling to her milky white shoulders, that most exquisite face, the eyes green as the grass in the sheep meadow, the lips so red, so luscious you’d give up all you dreamed of for one kiss, one lingering kiss, your lips on hers, and you knew she’d be fragrant as dew on morning grass and, oh, to have her pressed against you, that bosom, and how it rose when he looked at her, for she knew, so she did, she knew and he knew how he pulsed down there where he was half Irish, half Jewish, and when she served him the drink how her hand lingered by his, her long cool fingers which, oh, Lord God in heaven, which he longed to feel on his body before he went entirely mad for the want of her.
Surely the fair Nora down the road surged with the yearning for him, for a glimpse and a touch of Barney’s mistake? How her heart leaped in her bosom when he sauntered into Clancy’s shebeen! The sight of him – the black curly hair, the lovely olive skin of his mother, the arching black eyebrows over eyes bluer than any sea or sky, the mouth, oh, Mother of God he had that mouth put there to torment her, the lips she wanted on hers forever, the shoulders that wide he had to come in the shebeen door sideways, the narrow hips, the flat belly, legs so shapely the women of Ireland would die for them.
Oh, Mordecai, you’re a walking occasion of sin. Oh, I wish I had you here now on my simple straw mattress, the six-foot-three of you and you lopsided an’ all from my father’s knife.
And she wept when she remembered what the fortune teller, Mrs. Gillen, had told her, that Mordecai would not be long in Oola, that we would be fighting the English, that there would be a price on his head, that he would escape Ireland and do wonderful things in the world. It was all there in the cards, in the tea leaves, the crystal ball, the palm of Mordecai’s hand.
All the portents showed that Mordecai would change the course of history in Ireland, Israel, Africa, and America, though you’d never think so at this moment as he and Nora, simultaneously, let out the orgasmic yelp of desperate people interfering with themselves in the sweet village of Oola. ♦
From a forthcoming novel by Frank McCourt.