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Thomas O’Malley

Maundy Thursday

Once her illness was in full sway my mother stopped going to church of a Sunday. Instead, she walked the fields or the glen or made her way down to the river at dusk, or, if she’d made the tea, she’d wait until after twilight when mist fell upon the low pasture, and wander the chary-lit fields in her nightgown. But she made us go, especially during the Lenten holiday, although it was the last thing we wanted to do. Only on the Thursday before Easter, the feast day on which Christ bathed his disciples’ feet, was my mother eager, excited even, to attend church, and we knew it was for the Maundy footwashing. She wanted to see Father O’Brien bent over someone’s foot, and washing it with water from a white porcelain basin. The big face on him turning red with the effort, the spittle caked at the edges of his mouth, as he stroked the wrinkled and callused, corn-encrusted foot of some poor country woman or knacker with the gout.


That morning I’d seen her lugging the lavatory bucket from the outhouse down to the bottom of the field where she burnt the waste. She was wearing her wellies and the yellow rubber gloves she wore when she went mad cleaning the house. Her small body swayed from side to side with the weight of the toilet. Cows came closer to the fence thinking she might have something for them. I could hear her voice from the top of the field, filled with good humour. Go on, out of that, Pat. I smiled, she sometimes called the cows the names of old friends, she would say, now, will you look at the gob on that one, it’s pure Willie Ryan, and that one there, sure it might as well be Brid Long standing there herself. I never saw people in her cows no matter how hard I looked but I was glad that such a fancy might take her away. She was in a good mood to be playing with the cows so relaxed, and I went to get the mop so that the shed would be clean when she returned with the lavatory bucket.

From the shed she was a small bending figure in wellies and a housecoat; I saw the yellow gloves in movement and then a spark, paper and tinder igniting, an orange flame, and smoke began to rise from the pit pale and ashen into the low grey sky.

On the day she made her way into church she removed her shoes and walked the whole way through briar and gorse, through muck and dung, through cow pasture and sheep meadow, staying at the edges of the road when she got closer to town, waving at the people who passed in their cars, so that her feet picked up all the strew and sluice of the ditches. The sedge and the bloom and the hedgerows were thick and bursting with colour.

Molly and I walked in the road, at the edge of the macadam in our clean Sunday clothes.

She’d made me polish and wear my good shoes. She shooed us away pleasantly when we came too close and smiled and told us to stay out of the muck and to watch our clean clothes. It was the happiest I’d seen her in some time.

By the time we got to church her feet were black as coal. She walked into church barefoot, laughing like a young girl. Her eyes shone. The slap of her bare feet echoed on the tiles. A few of the men standing by the font blessed themselves and turned away.

Molly and I shifted restlessly in the nave, watching our mother in the queue before the altar. The line moved forward slowly and then it was her turn. Father O’Brien looked up and paused when he saw her, his hand poised over the wash basin. I won’t wash your feet, Moira Mcdonagh, he said, and his voice was firm.

My mother smiled. You’re showing yourself for the hypocrite you are, then, Father. Her voice carried across the tiles, echoed off the cement. The line behind my mother staggered and shifted, bent and twisted as parishioners sought for a better view. I took my sister’s hand and led her into the pew; together we sank down on our knees and bent low and small. I lowered my head on my hands and pretended to pray.

Father O’Brien poured the water quickly and I knew he would have liked nothing better than to heft the bucket and dump its contents over my mother’s head but even as she genuflected and bowed she continued to stare at him and smile—and such a smile! Father O’Brien lifted the ladle and quickly doused her feet, once, twice, three times while rapidly reciting the prayer as Jesus had done for his disciples near the end, and then he was done. He took her foot roughly in his hands and she leaned back and raised it to his face so that she could watch all of him as he towelled dry one and then the other. Behind them, people shifted and murmured.

Father O’Brien’s face was brightly flushed; sweat streaked his forehead and poll. His stole seemed to be choking the life from him. When he was done my mother held her foot raised for a moment and then slapped it hard down upon the tile with a damp smack. She looked down at her bare feet approvingly. Now that they were clean and shone white, she took her shoes from her bag, placed them upon the floor, and stepped into them.

Thank you father, she said, and when she bowed she gracefully lifted the hem of her skirt, a curtsy more than a genuflection. All eyes followed her as she made her way to our pew, all except Father O’Brien’s. He rose to his feet, pulled the stole from his neck and handed it to Father Keene, his assistant. His hands were shaking and I noticed for the first time that he had palsy, that he was actually an old man. He stared at the ceremonial bowl, at the foamy, muddied water there, then at the wet footprints upon the floor. Absently, he wiped his hands upon his chasuble. He turned and walked towards the sacristy, and the door closed slowly behind him.

One of the altar boys returned with a bowl of clean water and white towels draped over his arm. The sound of Father Keene’s rich Kerry accent travelled on the stone, his voice soft yet sonorous with the words of prayer. He worked patiently and tenderly, it seemed then, and his face had the look of all the apostles I’d ever heard of in scripture. Late sunlight spilled through the stained glass, bathing both priest and penitent, so that they seemed transformed somehow: the swollen veins, the blisters and calluses, the deep dirt entrenched beneath the nails, the wrinkled flesh, and Father Keene’s smooth white hands moving the soapy water gently over them.

I turned to my mother. She stood at the end of the pew watching, a smile upon her lips. And it was not cruel as I’d seen before. This was content—tender even—as her eyes traced the way Father Keene’s hands graced the people’s feet. She turned back to us, raised her eyebrows so that her eyes were large and caught all the roseate light in the vestibule. Shadow submerged to the edges of her, into the reaches of the church, so that her face seemed to occupy all.

Are we right then? She asked. Shall we go? And she strode up the side aisle to the back of the church and her feet passed across the tile with barely a sound. I rushed my prayers asking God to bless our mother: Go mbeannaí Dia ár mháthair, then crossed myself, and my sister and I stumbled as we climbed from the pew, and raced up the aisle after her. At the top of the church she turned, genuflected, took water from the holy water font and blessed herself before she opened the wide wooden doors and stepped out into the fading light.

We walked home slowly; there seemed to be no hurry now. Cars slowed for us but she waved them on, calling out pleasantly. Vesperal birds were calling from thickets and the fields hummed with the peaceful reverberations of a Sunday. My mother began to hum some tune or other, and I watched her calf muscles tensing and tightening as she strode.

I wanted to ask her about the foot washing and why the need to shame Father O’Brien in such a way, and how could we ever face going into the church again? I wanted to ask her what it felt like to have her feet washed by him, the man she hated and despised. I wanted to know if she felt closer to God now or if she believed the washing had taken away all her sins. I wanted to know if she thought she might truly be better.

And then she looked back at me, and her gaze was that of watching Father Keene bathing the parishioner’s manky feet. Her eyes were tender and caught all the fading light. I smiled and almost expected her to reach out her hand and gather both of us into her arms. But suddenly she turned and walked quickly on.

Mammy? I said and I looked at my sister but our mother didn’t slow or look back. Her pace quickened, urgent suddenly, so that we rushed to keep up. Mammy? I said again but she was no longer listening. She began running through the ditch, through gorse and thicket, her calves splashed with muck. Brambles tore at her skirt, scratched her pale legs until they were flecked with blood.

We rounded the bend and the fields curved towards us. Cows leaned against fence posts and, at the sound of us on the road, turned from rubbing their crusted shanks. My mother called to them: Pat! Deirdre! Willie! Shay! The cows, pushing their hard straining faces between the barbs of wire stared at her, no spark of recognition, or even affection in their eyes—and my mother, oblivious to that emptiness, still calling: Matt! Oh Sheila! Deirdre! Pat! Oh Shay! I’m home, I’m home, I’m home! And my sister and I holding tightly to each other’s hands watched from the far side of the road as our mother rushed forward to embrace them.

Thomas O'Malley was raised in Ireland and England. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been a Returning Writing Fellow and recipient of the Grace Paley endowed Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. His fiction has appeared in such magazines as Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Shenandoah, Blue Mesa Review, Crab Orchard Review, and New Millennium Writings. "Maundy Thursday" is from his forthcoming novel In the Province of Saints (Little, Brown & Co.)

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