© Jessica Allegra Seigel 2003. All rights reserved.
OISÍN O’FINN MEETS WITH COHEN COHAN
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The screws were bawling. “Get up you bastards. Fall out for roll call.” I went right on sleeping. I was in another place, so to speak, and damned if I’d come back for them. Niamh was dancing for me in the bog–leaping from hillock to tussock, over hollows that could swallow a man whole. Each time she narrowly missed one, the breath went out of me. Then she’d land safely, turn to me, laugh and leap again. They can chain the body but not the soul. My Da said that when he was in here. But what did he know of it? Dugan threw his boot at me and knocked the dream out of my head–bog, Niamh, and all.
“Do that again and I’ll have that boot down your throat,” I growled, still lying in the bed.
“You and what army?” he says, and then, “If I’d known how well you liked the Hole and how anxious to return, I’d not have taken the trouble–”
“Are you in for murder, Dugan?” I says. “Did you talk a man to death?” He threw the other boot.
But he was right. Confinement is hell for a Traveler. And confinement for days in a small dark space is death without deliverance. So I got out of the bed and fell in for the call.
You’d think they’d do it alphabetical, but the man calling out the names had some crazy system of his own, all rhyme and no reason.
“Nolan,” he said. “O’Grady. Dolan. McShay. Mulligan, Sullivan, Collins, O’Day. Lannigan-Flanigan-Dugan-and-Flynn-McHugh-MacEldoo-O’Casey-O’Finn-MoloneyMulroneyMcGraffandCohan–”
Each man of us, myself included, stepped lively and shouted “Sir. Aye, sir!” at the call of his name, until–
“Cohan!” The screw balled it out a second time when the first yell produced no answer. Silence. Then a low voice came from the line.
“Cohen. It’s Cohen.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Dugan says in my ear. “He’s startin’ in again.”
“Right,” I said. “Starting what?”
“That thing about his name,” Dugan whispers. “He tells them he’s Cohen but the screws call him Cohan. It started as a mistake some say, but now it’s a war between him and them. He starts a row over it every time. ‘Cohen’ he says, ‘not Cohan.’ And why he insists on it no one can tell for if you just called him a Jew he’d start a row over that.”
“He’s a Jew?” I stretched my neck, trying to get a good look at the man. I’d never seen a Jew before. This man was big. Almost as big as myself. He was thick in the chest and burly. He’d a full head of dark red hair on him, and a full and bristly red beard hiding his face. “Where’s his horns?” I said.
“Jesus,” Dugan said. He rolled his eyes like I was the most ignorant man on the face of the earth. “They don’t have horns, O’Finn. They’re human like you and me. They’ve just not embraced the true faith. They won’t be going to heaven at the end of things like us.”
“Well I won’t be going there either,” I said, and leaned forward again to get another look.
“Ach, you’re too hard on yourself,” said Dugan. “Sure, there’s time enough to repent and priests enough to confess to.”
“I’ll not be embracing your God,” I said coldly. “I follow the old ones.” That shut him up for a bit.
Dugan said that sometimes the screws gave in and sometimes Cohan went to the Hole. It depended on the screw and his mood that day. This day the screw must have been in a good mood for, after ascerntainin’ that Cohan was there and not escaped, he moved along with the call. Then they sent us off to the work details.
Now, I’ve no fear of hard work, but it would be sweet to find it in the open air with grass below and a bit of sky, a bird singing perhaps, or even the lonely sound of the wind come over the wall. Instead, I was assigned to the laundry. Heat. Noise. Dirt. And not all of it the woman’s work you might suppose. My work was to push the carts forth and back, mounds of soiled in one direction, piles of clean in the other: towels, sheets, trousers, shirts–the lot of them piled upon pile like a moving mountain. You could not see above them or around them or below, and I was pushing blindly along the aisle, whistling to cheer myself, when the Jew collided with the cart. Sure, how was I to see him beyond the shirts? They came down all around us, clean turned to soiled in a heap on the wet floor. I could see him well enough then.
“The devil swallow you sideways,” says he. “Get out of my way.”
“The back of my hand to you,” I replied. “Look what you’ve done to my load.”
“Look what I’ve done?” says Cohan. Then he sneered. “If a man be doomed to bad luck…” And he started past me. But I blocked his path.
He gave me a dark look. “Big head, little sense,” he says.
From the corner of my eye I saw the other men, gathering ’round us. I could hear them taking bets on who would strike the first blow and who would strike the last–this one on the Jew, that one on the Tinker.
“Give a clown his choice and he will choose the worst,” I said.
The Jew grinned back. “Talk about the devil and he will show himself.”
The crowd was getting thicker, and I could see us both in the Hole. But I couldn’t stop now.
“The devil will gulp you so far down his throat that you’ll have to shove your toothbrush up his ass to clean your teeth,” I said.
“All your teeth will fall out–except one–and eternal toothache in that,” he returned.
“The curse of the goose that lost the quill that wrote the ten commandments on you,” I said.
My reference to the commandments of his Book hit the spot where his temper lay. He raised his fists and just narrowly held himself back from their use. “Blast you for a Tinker,” says he, “you’ll be wandering hungry till your ankles wear up to your balls and your mangy dog eats what’s left.”
My own fists were up then. “You Yid,” says I. “I stabbed a man for saying less than that.”
He gave me a murderous look an spoke slow and deliberate. “I beat a man half to death for calling me a Yid. That’s why I’m in here.”
That stopped me cold. As if I’d met with my familiar. I lowered my fists and unclenched them. “Ach,” I could hear the men saying behind us, disappointed, “the Tinker’s backed down.” But I looked in the eyes of the Jew and he in mine, and we both knew the reason.
He dropped his arms to his sides. “Even a fool has luck,” he said, meaning me.
“Aye,” I said. “Even a fool has luck.” Meaning us both.
Then the screws came to break up the fight and found there was no fight. So they bawled at the men to break up their yammer, and me and the Jew cleaned up the mess.
© Jessica Allegra Seigel 2003 All Rights Reserved.