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NEW YORKER Stories

Claire Keegan

"Foster"

February 15 & 22, 2010

One could draw up a long list of important details that are not mentioned in Claire Keegan's lovely story. But for the most part they're details that would be important to the adult readers of The New Yorker, not to Ms Keegan's nine year-old protagonist. That, or they're too important to be imparted.

Written in the present tense, the story is an account of a summer that an Irish girl spends on the prosperous dairy farm of distant maternal relatives. The reason for the sojourn is, like most reasons, withheld. Did her impecunious parents need to ease their household of a hungry mouth for a time? Was the girl invited by the white-haired man and his tall wife to take the place of their dead son? The girl knows nothing of the son until well into the story, but we have already figured him out from the wallpaper in the bedroom where the woman puts the girl, and also from the boy's clothes that she wears for the first ten days or so of her stay. The white-haired man becomes "Kinsella" at once, but the woman, even after we hear her referred to as "Edna" as well as "Mrs Kinsella," remains "the woman": that is how the nine year-old girl thinks of this rather kindly person who is not her mother. 

The story is set in the stillness of a haunted idyll. Nothing important happens in front of us. What the girl cannot understand, she simply slips into a pocket while moving on to more familiar, discussable matters. There is only one terrible statement to interpret and absorb, and it comes late. 

And that is when he puts his arms around me and gathers me into them as though I were his.

His what, though? We know our narrator well enough to know by this point that nothing more nor less is signified than possession. By this time, Kinsella has insisted upon kitting the girl out with proper girl's clothing, and, later on the same day, he has dandled her on his knee at a wake. This has prompted his wife to suggest that the wake is no place for the girl.

The people drift in and out, shaking hands, drinking and eating and looking at the dead man, saying what a lovely corpse he is, and doesn't he look happy now that his agony is over, and who was it who laid him out? They talk of the forecast and the moisture content of corn, of milk quotas and the next general election. I feel myself getting heavy in Kinsella's lap. "Am I getting heavy?"

"Heavy? he says. "You're like a feather, child. Stay where you are."

I put my head against him but I'm bored and wish there were things to do, other girls who would play.

"She's getting uneasy," I hear the woman say.

"What's ailing her?" another says.

"Ah, it's no place for the child, really," she says. It's just I didn't like not to come, and I wouldn't leave her behind."

That very night, Kinsella takes the girl on a walk to the strand, and that is where he puts his arms around her.

It is not stated how much time passes before it is found to be time to return to her parents' damp house in another county, but that is the next thing that we are told, after the night on the beach. We are not to imagine that, whatever Kinsella does to or with her, it causes the girl to shrink from him. Quite the reverse. Nevertheless: "Now that I know I must go home, I almost want to go." There is a heaviness about staying that prompts the girl to ask Kinsella to take her home that very day. But for a sudden crisis at a neighbor's farm, Kinsella would grant her wish; he does take her home two days later.

When Kinsella and the woman, having deposited her at home, drive off, the girl tears down the drive after them, and catches up to their car at the gate. She jumps into Kinsella's arms.  

My eyes are closed now and I can feel him, the heat of him coming through his good clothes, can smell the soap on his neck. When I finally open my eyes and look over his shoulder, it is my father I see, coming along strong and steady, his walking stick in his hand. I hold on as though I'll drown if I let go, and listen to the woman, who seems, in her throat, to be taking it in turns sobbing and crying, as though she is crying not for one but for two now. I daren't keep my eyes open and yet I do, staring up the lane, past Kinsella's shoulder, seeing what he can't. If some part of me wants with all my heart to get down and tell the woman who has minded me so well that I will never, never tell, something deeper keeps me there in Kinsella's arms, holding on.

"Daddy," I keep calling him, keep warning him. "Daddy."

What is going on? That's always the question that people ask when confronted with such densely clotted and troubled circumstances. They ask and ask until a satisfactory answer is forthcoming. Readers of this story may be tempted to ask until they have quieted themselves with a plausible "interpretation" a translation, really, of what Claire Keegan has depicted on the page into some sort of chargeable offense. A reduction of complexity to liability. The girl, clinging there to Kinsella, is too young, and far too swept up in a relationship that she cannot understand, to formulate explanations. Later, when she grows up, she will probably ask "what was going on" herself, but just now she hangs in a specific untranslatable present. It doesn't matter what happens next. 

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