Ethel Rohan

Back to Main Page Header

True South

By Ethel Rohan

Inside the Dublin restaurant, my husband Noel saw a red fish inside his palm, saw its mouth open, heard coo-coo-a-choo. He repeated coo-coo-a-choo at the top of his voice. People turned and stared. My parents looked across the table at me, Ma’s napkin over the horrified hole of her mouth and the shake in Da’s head seeming too much for his neck. I shushed Noel and he quieted. The customers’ banter resumed, and the candle burned, wax dripped.
Noel started up again, his voice climbing above the chatter and the piped music. He wouldn’t stop shouting at his palm. We moved outside onto the street, our meal left unfinished.
You can’t stay with him, Ma said. Her fingernails left white crescents in my forearm.
You’ve done your best, love, Da said.
Noel’s latest hospital appointment, the doctors said he would improve once they got his cocktail of medications correct.
I drove, listening to Noel bark and tell me he was a walrus. He had suffered a psychotic break, the doctors said last year when he first presented, likely brought on by a mix of genetics and stress. He didn’t know anymore what was real and what wasn’t. I wasn’t sure I could tell either.
At home, I fed Noel his pills, telling him they were for his ulcer, and coaxed him up to bed. On the stairs, he wouldn’t let me take his hand. Not my fish, he said. Later, in bed, he turned his head on the pillow, like a stone coming toward me. He told me to move out. You don’t want to be saddled with a walrus for the rest of your life. Sleep, I told him. Sweet dreams, I said. Coo-coo-a-choo, he said. I closed my eyes and swore I could hear his mind winding round and round, like a helicopter about to takeoff. I pictured myself sitting on the bed, watching him lift up into the sky, and both of us waving and getting smaller, until we’re faraway dots.

Ethel Rohan’s second story collection, Goodnight Nobody, is forthcoming September 3, 2013. Her work has or will appear in The New York Times, World Literature Today, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, The Rumpus, and Post Road Magazine, among many others. Visit her at