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Coal Scuttle by James Claffey

"You look like the cat that ate the cream,” Mam said, the knitting needle clenched between her teeth, and the yarn unraveling row by mistaken row on the carpet. “Go on now, and fetch in some more fuel before the sleet starts again.”

Instead of saying a word, I rose from where I had been lying in front of the fire and took the coal scuttle to the backyard. Threaded webs hung down from the timbers of the coal shed, their occupants tight in the corners, shiny-eyed spiders with nasty tongues. The Old Man had departed for the North Sea again, and I was the man of the house, my job to fill the scuttle with coal and slack when the fire needed it.

The blade of the shovel chipped shards from the black lumps and when the scuttle filled it felt as if it were filled with cement. “It’ll make you stronger,” he said before he left. When I complained of the knot in my shoulder he sneered at me and asked, “Are you a man or a mouse?” No point responding, so I accepted my lumps and felt his thick fingers poke bruises in my ribs so as to make me less of a complainer.

I couldn’t tell Mam why I was so happy, because I was her little soldier, and if she knew what I was up to she’d skin me alive.  Our meetings had started in August, awkward things, walks in the suburbs, away from either of our neighborhoods and fear of discovery. Your mother was a lady with a sharp tongue and a quick hand, and you said you’d often gotten a palm across the face for your trouble. That was why we snuck about, walking in the shadows of the tall trees by the cottages in Irishtown, where we’d never be spotted.

Your hand was in mine like glue, delighted to be with me, away from everything. We had a connection from the start, a way of “getting” each other that surprised us. Even when we kissed for the first time, I heard the Old Man’s mockery, “One swallow doesn’t make a summer…” He said that when my report card came from school and I’d gotten an A in English—my first A, ever. But you were a secret, my secret from the cruel cage of the Old Man’s mockery. Still, in the cold night air, shoveling coal into the scuttle, my head is filled with your tongue bulleting around my mouth, frantic kisses, our eyes open and watching for familiar faces in unfamiliar places.

So, in the backyard, with the clinking of the hobo’s whiskey bottle floating across our garden wall from the lane, I watch the neighbor’s cat flop down on their garage roof, a mouse in its jaws, a string of entrails purpling in moonlight. The cat is me and the mouse is you, and my heart does weird flips as I consider the taste of the blood.

James Claffey is an Irish-born writer and educator who lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, and their Australian cattle-dog, Rua. His writing has appeared in various publications including the Drum Literary Magazine, the Molotov Cocktail, Everydayotherthings, the Toronto Quarterly, Shadyside Review, and the Cobalt Review. More is forthcoming in the New Orleans Review, Connotation Press, Artichoke Haircut, and Palooka Journal.