Mary Gertrude and the Paycock Rug
Short Story by Anne K. Kaler
The summer storm caught the sisters unaware so that the dripping rain from the grape leaves in the arbor drove them both inside.
“I swear, Molly, them are the same storms that just bounce around off them mountains from side to side, just waiting to pester us with all this heat and humidity.” Lizzie thumped the tea tray down on the oil-clothed kitchen table.
“Ah, get on with you now and your Irish accent. It only shows up when we get a storm.” Molly steadied the cream pitcher and pulled her chair closer to the table.
Still grumbling, her oldest sister paced the floor. “Never did like lightning. I should pray to St. Barbara, her in her tower and all, like Mam taught us. For the life of me, I don’t remember storms this bad in Ireland.” She stopped to open the pantry door and peered in. “Where’s a decent closet we can hide in until it passes? Mam always took us into a closet so that’s the safest place I know. Or the basement.”
Molly laughed as she poured the cooling tea into their teacups. “I’m not hiding in the basement, Lizzie. If I am not safe in my own kitchen, then no basement will protect me. The good Lord can find me even if I am hiding in a basement. That’s what Father Dugan would say, isn’t it? Besides, your wandering around like a lost banshee has already given me a headache.”
Another burst of thunder almost covered the noise of the eight-year-old Mary Gertrude skittering down the stairs and into the room, barely avoiding a collision with her aunt.
“Watch out, Mary Gertrude, you nearly knocked me over,” Lizzie said.
“Come here, child.” The girl dove onto her mother’s lap, burying her face in the security of her mother’s shoulder and sobbed. Molly crooned softly to the child. She caught a sour look on Lizzie’s face.
“That child’s too old to be sitting on your lap, Molly. She looks ridiculous there, that almost grown-up hulk clinging to you.”
“She’s just fine where she is, Liz. She’s just frightened like you are. Let her be.” Molly smoothed the disarray of her daughter’s hair until the sobs subsided a bit. “She’s like you, you know, afraid of storms. If I baby her a bit, who’s to know or who’s to care. I remember Mam holding me close in storms like this.”
“We never had storms like this in the old country, just gentle mists falling around us.” Lizzie insisted, twitching with every stroke of lightning and rumble of thunder. “And it was so green…not cursed with all this black devil dust from the mines and slag heaps.”
Even after the storm had passed overhead, the pelting rain streaked the coal dust on the kitchen windows into grey ribbons. The two sisters talked in low tones over cold tea. Mary Gertrude slowly unglued herself from her mother’s shoulder, squirming to face her aunt across the table.
“Here, child, have a sip of my tea and one of Aunt Lizzie’s famous oatmeal cookies. Lizzie, I don’t know why your cookies always taste better than mine. I use the same recipe that Mam used but mine are always ordinary tasting.”
Mary Gertrude snaked her hand out for the cookie, tasted it, and turned to her mother. “I like yours better.”
Molly’s black eyebrows rose an inch. “Do you now, Mary? Well, it is alright to prefer your mother’s cookies to your aunt’s but it is not polite to say so, now is it?” The child mutely buried her head again in her mother’s shoulder.
Lizzie stifled a chuckle into a cough. “I confess that I dabbled a tiny bit with Mam’s recipe. I use real vanilla – real imported vanilla that Father Dugan orders from Philadelphia special because he got used to the flavor there.” Lizzie paused to drain her teacup before adding, “I don’t imagine that you can afford to use real vanilla and the child can probably taste the difference because it is strange to her.”
Abruptly Lizzie stood and carried the teacup to the sink. “The rain is slowing up so I’d best be going now. Father Dugan needs his dinner on time storm or no storm.”
Molly rose also, displacing her daughter. “Not until you see the fine new rug my Marty bought me for my fiftieth birthday. He had it delivered last week. I know we can’t really afford it but it is a pretty thing with a gorgeous bird on it. I’m keeping it in the parlor to try to keep it free of the coal dust.”
Lizzie brushed imaginary dust from her black skirts. “Even Father Dugan, bless him, can’t keep the dust off his cassock. I have to brush it every day and it still looks gray in the sunlight.” She tugged her purse off the table. “So let me see this rug you are so proud of.”
Mary Gertrude followed them to the doorway of the parlor. Even in the rain-darkened room, the rug glowed brightly with the iridescent blue-green silk of the peacock’s long neck and erect feathers, each one blazoned with a black shiny eye lashed with pale featherings. It was a splendid piece, Mary Gertrude thought, worthy of her mother’s footsteps.
Lizzie hesitated in the doorway, her hands clasping and unclasping her worn purse. “A paycock? A paycock in the house? “
“Peacock. He’s called a peacock here in America.”
“Still, I’ll not come closer to that bird. Fine bird indeed. That showy bird fluttering his feathers all over. A pure paycock he is. Don’t you remember that paycocks are bad luck to the Irish?”
“Alright, Lizzie, I know what you are thinking – that I shouldn’t be as proud as that fine fellow believes himself to be but he makes me laugh. I remember that the Housetons had a painting of one of them at the bottom of the upstairs steps and I’d see him every time I went up or down.”
“God help us, Molly, I’d have felt all those ghastly eyes following me. I couldn’t have turned my back on him much less walk on him.”
Molly’s foot slid over the edge of the rug to smooth down a wayward tuft.
Lizzie fished into her pocket for a handkerchief. “Don’t go preening yourself as better than me because you served in your high and mighty Houseton family in Philadelphia. This is Williamstown and you’re married to a coal miner.”
Mary Gertrude watched her mother’s face go red in response. Careful not to step on the peacock rug, she edged under her mother’s arm.
“Now, Lizzie, don’t be that way. You know that Marty suits me fine. He’s a good man and husband and a great father. And he has great ambitions too. Marty’ll be more than a coal miner someday.”
“Yes, when he gets too old to work in the mines and is crippled over with coughing coal dust out of his lungs until he dies of rot or the wasting disease.”
Her mother clapped her hands over the child’s ears. “Lizzie, that’s an awful thing to say. And in front of the child too.”
“Well, I’d not be having such a fine rug in my house. Nor would the good Father Dugan.”
“Nor would he eat cookies without imported vanilla? Shame on you, Lizzie. You’ve become a hard, hard woman as hard as . . .coal. You and your stories from the old country. I was born here, remember, and I will not be bound by those…traditions, no, not a bit of them.” Mary Gertrude watched her mother’s tears splattered her dress front.
Lizzie ignored the tears as she swept her hat and purse from the hat stand to adjust her hat. “Those foolish traditions, as you call them, have saved the Irish many times. But then, as you pointed out, you weren’t born there. Regardless, I’d best be getting back to the rectory now. The good Father will be wanting his dinner and it won’t cook itself without me. Being Lent and all, not that there will be much to serve him. He’s partial to eggs but even the best cooked egg dish wears out after a time.”
At the door, Lizzie stopped to throw a final question over her shoulder. “You’ll be at the Stations of the Cross at seven this evening as usual? ’’
Mary Gertrude could feel her mother sigh as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I have the beginning of one of my headaches. I think that I will rest until Marty and the girls come home. One of them can cook tonight for little Mary and their father. And we have you and your cookies as a treat, don’t we, Mary Gertrude?”
The child tried to squirm free but her mother’s hand tightened suddenly as if she were in pain. Without hesitation, Mary Gertrude straightened up to provide the physical support she knew her mother needed. “Yes, thank you, Aunt Lizzie for your cookies.”
Leaning heavily on her daughter, Molly followed her sister to the doorway. “Come, Lizzie, give us a kiss and let’s forget about our differences over the rug. You still are my best beloved sister.”
“I can only warn you, Molly. That proud bird of yours will bring only bad luck to this household, God Help you all.”
“Then let it be on my head only and mine alone,” Molly responded.
* * *
It rained the day of Molly’s wake that June. Her casket sat awkwardly in a corner of their parlor as the family prepared for the funeral watch over her coffin and the wake which followed.
Mary Gertrude’s teenage brother was weeping silent tears onto his father’s shoulder. Standing between her two sisters, a subdued Mary Gertrude concentrated on an irregularity of a slub in the pale sateen of the casket lining above her mother’s profile. The textual defect seemed more real than her mother’s still, pale face.
The pale defect also seemed more real to her than the peacock rug whose vivid colors could not offset the scent of a summer death although the bitter scent of pink carnations attempted to do so. The rug lay right where anyone coming up to kneel at the prie dieu would have to step on the feathered bird.
So quickly had her mother been spirited away that the child was left with only the frail promise from the priest that she would see her mother once again in heaven. All of her that Mary Gertrude could remember was the scent of her cookies and the peacock rug.
It was only Aunt Lizzie, dressed in her best black dress, who drew attention to the rug. “I won’t walk on it even to see her in her coffin. Marty, if you respect your wife, get rid of that rug, get it out of the house before it brings any more bad luck to your family.”
Mary Gertrude edged around the rug to stand beside her sister Katie who stood rigidly against their mother’s coffin as if protecting their mother from hearing Lizzie’s diatribe.
Her father moved from the casket to take Aunt Lizzie’s arm and pull her to the opposite side of the room. “Lizzie, I know that you are as upset as I am. But this is my house and my family and you’re upsetting us all. Mary Gertrude, Katie, take your aunt into the arbor until she calms down, please. It is cooler out there for her in this heat.”
Mary Gertrude took one arm while her sister Katie took the other to guide their aunt through the kitchen, past the table laden with raisin pies and tea and whiskey, into the misty grape arbor. Katie wiped at the benches with a towel and seated her aunt under the grape leaves. “Stay there, Aunt Lizzie and I’ll bring a cup of tea for you.”
Mary Gertrude sat quietly hands clasped before her while her aunt hiccupped her words into her handkerchief. “Your mother brought this on herself, you know, bringing that paycock rug into a good Irish household. Mind you, never have truck with those birds – those paycocks – they’re all about pride and damnation and bad luck for the Irish.”
The girl unclasped her fingers to reach for a dangling grape leaf. “Why are they bad luck?”
“It’s not as simple as that, Mary Gertrude. I’ve never seen one myself, only printed images of them. They are playthings of rich people. I was taught by my Mam and Grandmam that they were bad luck so I believe it to be true. And look what that paycock has done to your Mam, my baby sister. Took her before her time, it did.”
The girl wound the circling grape tendrils around her fingers. ”Do you really believe that pay…peacocks are bad luck, Aunt Lizzie?”
“I do believe. I tried to warn her, didn’t I, child? I told her, you heard me that those paycocks were bad luck.” Her aunt turned to face the child suddenly. “You look so much like, her with your eyes and soft hair, that it breaks my heart to see you, you poor motherless child.”
Mary Gertrude’s head snapped up at that phrase “motherless child.” She had never considered herself as such, not really, not even after seeing her mother today in her coffin. She had her Da and her brother and her two sisters so how could she be motherless, even though she did not have a mother here beside her, to hold her in comforting arms when the storms came or when she fell and skinned her knee.
“My poor baby sister. What will we do without her? What will I do without her?” Lizzie keened on. “It’s the fault of that rug.” She seized Mary Gertrude’s hand and squeezed it. “Promise me that you’ll never have a paycock in your house, promise me, girl.”
“I promise, Aunt Lizzie, I promise” she cried as the grape tendril and leaf fell to the stone floor.
* * *
After the long wake, Mary Gertrude fled to her father’s side, slipping her hand into his. “Da, am I a motherless child now?”
Her father leaned down so far that his face was on a level with hers. “I suppose you are, Mary, but you have a family and a father and a brother and two sisters who will love you and take care of you. You don’t have to worry about that.”
“But what will we do with the rug now?”
Her father’s face broke into a familiar smile. “Your Mam always loved the rug, didn’t she? Then I think that she should take it to heaven with her.”
The child eyes shot up in wonder. “How will we get it there?”
“Why, we will send it along with your Mam, little one. We’ll tuck it around her to keep her warm and to keep her company when she meets the Good Lord. Just think how splendid she will be meeting all those important saints up there with that beautiful peacock rug wrapped around her.”
The warmth of his long fingers curled around hers just as softly as the grape tendrils had in the arbor. To the eight-year-old, the image of the bird peering over her mother’s shoulders, its tail feathers flapping in time with the angels’ wings, provided enough satisfaction for her.
“She’d like that, Da, Mam would like that,” she said but, deep in her shattered heart, she vowed never to have a peacock in her house, no matter how beautiful he was.
When she thought about it, she could almost see the peacock’s bright feathered eyes peering over her mother’s shoulders.
Anne K. Kaler, Ph.D. As a life-long reader, Anne (always with an “e”) is now attempting to read every book in the universe, while helping to publishing more. Surprised to learn that she was actually a teacher, she persisted in that field for nearly fifty years until she started volunteering at PSB.