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by Pat McDermott

Dusting Off the Whistles

When Ben walked Gemma home from the pub, she told him she would have liked to stay later, as she really loves the music. She described her family’s musical history and said she wished a bodhran player had joined the session. She loved the beat of the circular, hand-held Irish drum.

“And I wish they’d had a tin whistle or two. The whistles are my favorite. My father and uncle played them so well.”

* * * * *

A quick twist popped the top off the beer. The tip of Ben’s shoe hit the pedal on the trash can; the bottle cap vanished in the debris mounting inside. Andy usually took out the trash, but the job had fallen to Ben for the summer. For now, it could wait. Beer in hand, he left the kitchen and retreated to his bedroom.

The original marble hearth still dominated the room, but the furniture Tina had picked out was long gone. After she died, his mother and sister had bullied him into replacing it. A new bedroom would help him get over his grief, they’d said. He hadn’t needed new furniture for that, though he hadn’t said so. No need to speak ill of the dead. He’d let them pick out the mahogany bedroom set, and they’d dressed up the room with a dark blue bedspread and matching curtains. After all these years, the curtains had faded. He didn’t care. He didn’t entertain in here, after all.

And why was he thinking that? He had never violated his home by bringing a woman here, not with the kids in the house.

But the kids are grown…

Go-Go, the orange cat Maura had adopted from the animal shelter last summer, lay between the pillows, which she’d rearranged to her liking. Though he wouldn’t admit it, Ben liked Go-Go. He said hello, and she yawned, stretched her front paws, and got on with her nap. Accustomed to her feline indifference, he gulped a mouthful of beer and set the bottle on the night stand.

The big armoire loomed before him. His feet seemed stuck to the carpet, but he willed them to move. The ache in his heart grew with each step. He opened the bottom drawer and ruffled through blankets he never used until he found the old red towel.

His grandfather’s steady hands had often caressed the tattered terrycloth. Warmed by the memory, Ben brought the towel to the bed and unfolded it.

His whistles were inside. Would they forgive him for neglecting them?

He ran his fingers over the broken D, his grandfather’s best brass whistle, horribly maimed during one of Tina’s rabid tantrums. She couldn’t stand the noise, she said. As the ugly scene flooded back, he both hated and loved her all over again.

For years, he’d despised himself for failing to stand up to her when she ridiculed his passion for the music, even as she accused him of forgetting how to have fun. When she wasn’t home, he played for Andy and Maura, hoping they’d want to learn. They never did, but they’d loved hearing him play, as he’d loved hearing his grandfather play.

Ben picked up the C whistle, larger than the D, though his long fingers easily covered the extra ground. The metal felt cool in his hand, its black finish rusted in spots, the gold paint around its six holes worn. A few gold stripes adorned the bottom. At the top, a large gold oval contained black letters that spelled Clarke, the maker’s name, along with the whistle’s key, though he didn’t need to see it. Only the C was black; both the lengthy Bb and the second-hand D he’d bought to replace the broken whistle had green mouthpieces and brass-colored metal.

He laid the C on the bedspread and raised the D to his lips. His fingers settled over the holes, and he tried something simple, a tune he’d sung as a child. The first note came out as a high-pitched shriek. Go-Go bolted from the room.

Ben roared with laughter. “Now I know how to get rid of you, you bowser!”

He tried the tune again. Better this time. Closing his eyes, he summoned his grandfather’s gentle coaching.

Cover the holes and blow into the fipple, Ben. See what happens. Blow easy for low notes, harder for high. Play the scales till you get a good feel for the whistle. This is a D whistle. Most Irish tunes are in D.

Why, Gramp?

Because D stands for dream, Ben. Dream when you play, and after a while you’ll see how it makes the music sound happy or sad. ’Tis a trick the fairies taught us, y’know.”

Ben’s inner vision streamed through his fingers. He imagined his grandfather nodding, approving, and then Gemma Keenan was smiling at him. The child’s song turned to a waltz, and he saw himself dancing with her. She reached for him when the next tune began, and he played to keep her in his arms.

"That was lovely, Dad. What made you take the old things out?”

He jumped and turned, and then he smiled, glad that his dark-haired, blue-eyed Maura looked more like his mother than hers.

“Only a whim,” he said. “Jimmy asked at the pub tonight when I’d be playing again.”

“He’s been asking you that for years.” She cocked her head, sending her long straight hair cascading over her shoulder. “Whatever made you do it, I’m glad. It’s grand to hear them again.”



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