I’d gotten the splinter in church, of all places, pressing my hand against a pew. My mother had pressed me into joining the choir, and I hated every sanctimonious minute of it, shrilling the virtues of a God I didn’t believe in.
I’d sit numbly in my seat, counting panes of glass as vibrant as bowled fruit until I was made to stand and sing my piece. The windows were the only things in that place I liked, everything else an agony of boredom.
The splinter changed me. I’d been thinking a particularly ungracious thought towards the priest, Father Darragh Mulcahy, and sitting on my hands like a much younger child when I touched a knot of splintered wood, yelping into the quiet as a fragment speared my palm. Every eye in the room turned towards me, my mother’s face, heavy with makeup, drawing into the hard look I’d long learned to fear.
“Sorry,” I muttered, as Father Mulcahy Mulcahy raised an eyebrow.
Surreptitiously I picked at the splinter throughout the sermon, finding that it only seemed to edge further in. Blood, red-black, stood out on my palm like a stolen gem. Ducking my head I lapped it away, imagining I could feel the sharp prick of the splinter against my tongue.
As we left the church I showed it to my mother, who pursed her lips and said, “Don’t you go touching it, now. Wash it and leave it alone. If you didn’t act the fool in church you’d not have it at all.”
I told her I didn’t want to go, that I was sick of the place, and always had been. She clipped me about the head, then, and said I should wash my mouth out, too, and that was the end of it. Again and again I returned to St Magdalene’s, raked my eyes over the shroud of cobwebs silvering the rafters, sneering inwardly at Father Mulcahy’s intolled pasalms, and led the congregation into pious song.
The splinter didn’t get any better, for all I cleaned it, and picked at it with tweezers. It only seemed to sink further and further into the base of my hand; I could have sworn that I could feel it, inching slowly into my flesh, like a maggot. My palm burned, and I took to scrubbing my hands with carbolic soap until they were chapped and peeling, and still unclean.
If my mother noticed then she said nothing. There were lots of things she’d pretend not to see, if it served it her, and saw everything I would have preferred she had not.
“You were off with your words, so,” she said, once, after I mouthed my way through a number of hymns. “You’ve a lovely voice, Samuel, you do. I’d like to hear it, once in a while.”
Strange to hear it, from her, when she’d trained me so surely into quiet.
The splinter in my palm was festering, by then, black and yellow as a hornet’s back. Pain began to shoot up the length of my arm, and I wondered if I’d have to have it cut off at the elbow, like a boy I’d seen on a news channel, once. I wore my coat to hide my hand, even in the summer, when the other boy’s picked on me.
“Going to a funeral, eh, Sammy?”
“Not cold, are you, Sam? You soft-arse.”
Better they make these jokes than know about the splinter, so small a thing that hurt me.
The stints in church became intolerable, my hand throbbing like a frostbitten limb. I stumbled over every word I attempted to sing, my tongue swollen, my back pulsing with sweat through my cassock. The windows I’d loved swam before my eyes, their colours like oil pooled on a road, and Father Mulcahy stared at me, often, his eyes like charred holes.
Beneath the skin of my right hand I began to feel the pointed tip of the splinter, having shunted upwards like a Roman spear, pinning my tendons. I could barely form a fist, and my fingers cramped with such intensity I had to clench my teeth upon my pillows to stop myself a screaming out, in the night.
I was ill enough by then that I should have been kept home by my mother,but she sent me to church with an even greater fervor, her smile a sugared plastic. She wanted desperately for things to have been as they were, for the immense strain upon me to fade quietly away.
It wasn’t quiet, to me, but defeaning, the clap of a shell in a muddy trench.
I’d hoped, all this time, that Father Mulcahy wouldn’t speak on my troubles, would only go on pretending, as my mother did, that it wasn’t there. But one afternoon he pulled me behind as the rest of the congregation left, nodding apologetically to my red-faced mother as she marched through the doors without me.
“Let’s take a look at that hand, Samuel,” said Father Mulcahy, gently.
He took my wrist with that same tenderness, and pulled my hand towards him. I uttered a low cry and stared at the dust on the floorboards, each breath coming out of me as sharp as a slap.
The priest’s fingers grazed the back of my hand, where the tip of the splinter now thrust its broken head in a seat of scabs. Each time his fingers brushed me my throat struggled on a stone of gorge.
“Is it so bad, Samuel, something so tiny as this?” he said. “All of us have our suffering to bear. The Lord is our greatest example.”
I snatched my hand back roughly, cramming it back into my sleeve.
“I don’t want it,” I muttered.
I felt the creeping spread of Father Mulcahy’s wet smile turned upon me.
“Would you rather the other boys suffered, instead of you?”
Closing my eyes I imagined rows of altar boys, their palms bleeding, their songs strained into wounded screams.
“No,” I said, and I let the priest touch my hand again.