Oh, Mary — Rose Ruane

Oh, Mary dressed in water. I followed you into the river. There – a seizure. Thoughts vaulted from me like crows scattering at the sound of a shot. I became shocked meat, flooded with sensations: the heart’s sudden clutch, breath, scarce and precious.

There were dangers under the water. Careless hungers that could detain us. All our lives we had been warned about reeds, the possessive caresses of their long, soft fingers. We understood that in the river lurked currents, ready to carry the unwary further downstream than they had intended to go.

But everything which scared me in that river I had walked to the edge of the bank with, stepped in willingly with. It incising my organs like an appetite.

No, it was not the cold skein of river that ransacked the air from my lungs, but the wet gasp of your mouth breaking the surface as we swam.

You swam with the ease of scissors through silk. Sliding under the waterline, re-emerging with your shoulders caped in beads. I was absurd and happy as a duck, trailing in your wake, watching droplets rain from your arms. Oh Mary, mantled in moisture and light; luxurious as a crystal chandelier, shameless as the sun and ten times brighter.  I would have followed you out to sea if you had asked me.

Afterwards, we hauled ourselves out, gasping like a catch. Wearing only weather, we stood, exhausted on the bank, the world around us, still. As fiercely, adamantly still as a church full of congregants praying.

All day, the birds must have been singing. But it felt to me, at that second, as if they had only just, only then, discovered their voices. Suddenly, slender notes, transmitted from tree to tree, like the sharing of a word which will change things: bravery, maybe. Or gossip.

You broke the unbearable moment with a shout, pinched my arm and took off running through the grass. Playing like puppies, we chased each other to the ground. Tumbled, rolled, stayed panting in a pile. Brazen. Guiltless. Of course – it was only a game. Of course, it was only a game, so that safely, in the long grass, we lay laughing, faces cut into fractions by the cool green blades. But then laughter stumbled away, leaving silence,. Quiet confessed the ways we wanted to use our hands.

We closed our eyes.

We pretended to be asleep.

Both of us understanding that there are some desires which only dreams permit.

Kiss came as suddenly as the hypnic jerk of a dream-fall. With tongues and fingers, we graffitied our names on one another’s skins, forging god’s signature on a cheque we had no funds to honour.

But we were so convulsed with life, such utter, utter life then, that we forgot that there were places like the opposite bank of the river. Such things as eyes and everyone.

And Mary, with your mouth on me, I was engulfed, vertiginous. So certain that I was plummeting off the edge of the world, I clenched a fistful of totter grass and gripped the mud with my toes, my whole body arched like a bridge

Like a

bridge between this moment and an unimaginable afterwards.

My whole body


                                              like a bridge

my free hand flails, seeking the long-gone grass,

Mutter above and hands below

Relax. It is better this way.

The head to heel of me plinthed, laid out. Served up, prone as a roast, ready to be carved.

Pincered between electrodes, the tender shell of my skull trembles with knowing, knows it is coming. Coming again, and I beg my body; move. A telephone’s ring floundering around in an empty house. Slight flop like the last seconds of a landed fish. Mutter above and the hands below

Relax, please. It is better this way.

A chilly flood travels through the spiked place in the back of my hand.

Clutch. Bite. Strap between my lips like a forced kiss

You have to push your lips together to say Mary

Light juddering through sealed eyelids. Doll slack body, muzzy mouth calling help.

But my screams have been sewn up inside me.

Clutch. Bite and my body arcs, arches, re-sculpted by the bridge of blue jolt, the travelling spark, leaping through me.

Equal parts annihilation and creation.

Inserted into me like God’s own loving finger

the single bright jump dividing and repeating, from synapse to synapse, dispensing the void and the word

In principio est.

In the beginning there was the word and the river and a sceptre of grasses, quivering in my right hand. Ecstasy betrayed by the shape of my heels in the mud. In the beginning there was the mud and the word, and the word was


dressed in water with her mouth wide open. Like Saint Teresa. I saw her statue once, depicted in a book; the astonishing spasm of her, surrendering herself backwards into space, outrageous mouth wide open, breathing in or crying out, or both,

as if it matters,

since we all know what it means to have vaulted the boundary of modesty and begun to lose ourselves in public like that.

Like a

people will say you are

if they see you that way

By the time we returned to the village, the story of what we had done was everywhere, like handbills for a circus, appearing overnight.

We had been seen; by the river, by someone.



With our mouths wide open, thighs too and hearts splayed. Hers and mine. Pinned back and pulsing. Each of us holding one side of the moment, as if preparing to pull a wishbone. The spell of tension before the magic of fracture

The crack and blue jolt


I am

A spatchcocked laboratory frog, flailing at the touch of a cable, statued backwards into this blueblack, agonyecstasy of seizure, clutch and arch. Skull like a cracked vase, so much blueblackdark between the halves, healed with a seam of gold, I’d read somewhere

Or been told

About a Japanese method for fixing broken pottery. Miraculous to think that the once smashed parts of a now healed thing, could have permission to be shameless in their failures, embellished by all their falling, fastened with a seam of gold and I would like to believe that anything can truly be fixed, or at least the ruined parts decently disposed

But from this side of the river, it appears that everything broken remains that way, that everything is mud and clutch, darkness and seizure, the spreading black rose, a Rorschach flood.

I want you to look at this and tell me what you think it looks like

Whatever do you think you look like?

Whatever did you think you were doing?


With her.


She has a name, you know. One no more welcome in this house, than taking the lord’s in vain, or whispering fuck. Even if fuck, is the only prayer you have left.

For days



days afterwards,

the ward parts around me, as if I am a boulder in a stream.

Other patients roll in like clouds, lean over my chair to pat my hands or hair then drift away without asking how I am.

We partake in the silent communion of those who continue to endure the same catastrophe. Touch is the lingua franca of survivors.

We are the only ones who understand how it feels to be struck by lightning. How the blue jolt vitrifies words in our mouths, turns language into fulgurites. Daggers too glassy, too friable to be grasped. Submerged too deeply anyway, clotted under sediment. And probably lethally sharp.

More days pass.

I sit by the window but there is no clock in the light – winter bundles the hours off in a thick, grey felt and in here, the lamps are on all day. I guess the time by the smell of meals: toast, soup, stew. By the changing shifts of nurses whose names I do not know. The trundling of the medicine cart. The wheels squeak like something small which is dying. Or maybe attempting to live.

On Saturday, a low winter sun advances; crepuscular rays shower fields as shockingly empty as the space left behind when the Mona Lisa was stolen.

So is Mary, now lacunae, robbed. Her face once carried the animal familiarity of my own hands. Now she is gauzed, hazed: shadow. An object I walked into a room to look for and suddenly forgot. The why of it nothing but air in my hands, hemispheres of my brain, open and emptied like ransacked drawers.

In the afternoon, my mother comes, wearing a hat like a smashed pie, importing unvoiced disappointments in the folds of her unspeaking, which is heavy and blank as a winding sheet.

“Villages,” she says after a while, “are too small for memories to be lost in.”

 “He’s still … amenable, you know? Once you are … recovered. He is prepared to overlook ”

But I am not.

 I am not prepared to overlook the fact that he is him.  A man. A man whose own dog flinches every time he moves. A man whose own dog flinches from him, and yet they’d make him the master of me.

A veil of respectability, they said, or a line drawn. More like a janitor’s sawdust on vomit, I thought. I am not so poor that I have to shop in a fire sale, even if he is.

 “Are you better?” asks my mother, “after the … treatment. More balanced,” she answers herself, “they said it would help you feel more … balanced.”

“Perhaps,” I say, “if by balanced you mean I am learning to live life standing on one leg.”

“Pert,” she says, “impossible.”

I begin to filter back into myself, like dawn or a thaw.

And after that, I do not count the days which come and go, like candles methodically lit and snuffed. Each one ends, having only contained itself, neat and finished as a bead.

I stare far out to the distant farms where lambs froth the spring fields like blossoms and then are gone.

I tell my doctor about the lambs. He says I need not concern myself with them, I should not dwell, they are kindly despatched.

And I say there is no such thing as humane slaughter, because there is no decent way to kill something which does not want to die. Just as nothing wild can prepare itself for life in a cage. And when I have finished speaking my face is wet and my throat hurts and he writes for a long time.

In the months that follow, there are moments, when I catch sight of my own face and think I could be anyone. Even my old self, almost, except for the subtle but palpable absence of some vitality, a distance

as if I live far, far away from my face.

 Fugitive consciousness shrunk back inside my skull like a hermit crab in a purloined shell.

I remind myself of someone. Then it occurs to me that I look like any stranger with something important missing behind their eyes. The type people instinctively avoid sitting beside on a bus, whose happened sadness seems contagious. Defiant tenderness toward myself comes abrupt as a cut.

I curl up round the hurt and look out over the fields where the wheat has begun to grow. Wind moves through it like a secret being whispered from lip to ear, the mutter turning the land to water I can almost believe that

I could wade out into them, repatriate my body into the current, like a stolen painting returned to its rightful place.

I will float,

no madder than anyone else who believes in god or love, since they are both a loss of perspective. The river of wheat will

     hold me

like a calyx, like the sepals of a flower, not yet finished with being,

Until my body remembers that it does know how to swim

Hold me.


Oh, Mary, dressed in water.


Mother of god.

Rose Ruane is an artist and writer living and working in Glasgow. Her debut novel This is Yesterday is published by Corsair Books. She is currently completing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, exploring the lives and experiences of those who were compelled to live at Netherne hospital in Surrey during the mid/late C20th and who created The Adamson Collection: artwork produced in the art therapy studio there. Twitter: @regretteruane