“The Understanding” by Lana Citron

The Understanding

The day Fergal took me into the woods my parents were fighting. He’d knocked on the kitchen window, causing an unintentional ceasefire. Mum shouted up to me, ‘your friend is waiting on you.’

‘He’s not my friend,’ I answered, pulling on my new red hoodie and heading out the door.

No one liked Fergal. I only played with him because now there was no one else.  Cara used to be my best friend. The last time she’d come over, she’d said she’d outgrown me, what with the arrival of her monthly visitor and the fact some people mature faster than others; not to mention she wore a bra. I had nothing.

Back then she’d said I was being babyish. Said we could still be friends but not best friends. I’d focused on the sunflower patterned wallpaper in my bedroom. Abstract representations of the real thing. Petals disconnected from seed discs, leaves detached from stems, vibrant oranges and yellows, dark and pale greens. Cara had been putting on eye-liner, she’d looked over at me and said, ‘you understand, these things happen’.

Fergal said he wanted to show me something in the woods, something special. ‘You coming?’ I nodded and went to get my bike. Fergal rode a silver chopper and I had a second-hand Rayleigh ‘Heather’. 

It was the end of summer, a long nothing summer, spent mostly with my grandparents. Second year of secondary beckoned. I was an August baby, youngest in the year group. We hadn’t had a holiday. Mum said money was tight. Dad lost his job in the power plant and my baby brother was teething.

We left the housing estate and cycled up to Laughlin’s Cradle. Fergal said to follow him and not ask questions. We cycled in silence, set our bikes by the edge of the road in a ditch and crossed Blakey’s field, the one with the well. Mum said Blakey put it there on purpose and every year he’d hoist up a bucket full of misplaced wishes. The woods lay on the edge and we ran through the dry furrows. The last of the hay had been harvested and a few bales were dotted round. If Blakey saw us he’d threaten to set his dogs on us.

Fergal walked ahead. He found a stick almost the size of him. He stopped and looked at me, like Moses with his big staff. ‘You scared?’ he asked, jamming the end of the stick into the dry, cracked earth.

‘Not too far now,’ he said, but it felt like ages. We went in deep. The outside world peeled away, everything became muffled. Finally, we came to a small clearing with stones in a circle, burnt logs, fag ends, empty coke cans and crisp packets. Fergal told me this was where everyone came, Martin, Diarmid, Jonno, Paul, and Nuala. Said he’d even seen Cara. ‘I’ve watched them,’ he said, ‘do it.’

‘Do what?’

He raised his brows and spelt it out, ‘s, e, x’.

Nuala was Cara’s new best friend. They wore big baggy jumpers and shortened their school skirts to their thighs. Nuala wore black eyeliner everyday and then Cara started wearing black eyeliner too.

We walked further until Fergal slowed down and pointed his stick toward a bush. ‘It’s in there,’ he said crouching down, ‘D’you want to see?’

I shrugged my shoulders and offered Fergal a stick of gum. He unwrapped it from the silver foil then rolled it up before biting into it. Fergal didn’t think like other people.

He had red hair except for a patch of white, a circular white patch like a fairy ring. Everyone knew he ruined his mother. Tore her apart on his arrival. He was stuck for ages and that’s why he was soft in the head. He was kept back in school, the oldest in the year. His mother never had another baby after him.

I remember when Cara said being a woman was hard at times and I wouldn’t be able to understand until I became one myself. Then she’d said I’d stinky breath, showed me how to catch it in cupped hands and test myself. Now, I chew gum, spearmint flavoured. We were in my bedroom, Dad had rapped on my door, ‘how are the girls getting on?’ I’d been chewing the inside of my mouth staring at the wallpaper pattern.

Fergal said he’d found an alien up in the woods, ‘Aliens’ heads are bigger than their bodies. That’s a fact.’  I would be the second person in the world to see it. His Uncle Roddy had sent him books from America on extraterrestrials, and swore to Fergal he’d seen a UFO. 

‘Reckon it fell from the sky and splat’. Fergal pulled a tiny body from out under the holly bush.

‘It’s a baby,’ I aghast, hands clamped to my mouth, looking from the body to Fergal and back again.

‘Looks like an alien to me.’

‘Fergal, it’s a baby.’

‘Do you want to touch it?’

I shook my head, I was trembling all over.

The body was blotchy with blue and purple marks, smears of white, the cord still attached, eyes closed. It lay – the baby lay motionless. My heart was pounding.

 Fergal was poking it with his stick.

‘Jesus, Fergal stop.’

My voice changed, high and shrill. Fergal looked over at me.

‘This is serious Fergal, we’ve to take the baby home, show someone.’

I tried to untie the Levis’ red hoodie from around my waist. It was only a couple of weeks old, my birthday present. I’d waited ages to have one. I’d made a double knot, my hands were shaking.

‘This is bad, very bad.’

I squatted down and covered the tiny body with my hoodie. Closed my eyes as I tried to roll it up. It reminded me of my dead cat, Ginger. The weight of it.

 I gathered the body into my arms, the head flopped over the edge of my hands.

‘Will I be in trouble?’

Everyone knew Fergal’s Dad beat him. He beat his mother too. He beat anyone he didn’t like.

‘Maybe we should leave it here.’

‘No, Fergal.’ I turned to walk back through the trees – firs and pines, the floor a carpet of needles and cones and careful not to trip.

‘Where you going?’


He called after me, ‘Am I going to get in trouble?’

I held the baby carefully as an offering in my arms and my mouth was twisting from side-to-side striding fast, rushing back through the dense woods.

‘Answer me, will yah… am I?’


‘In trouble?’

‘When did you find it?’

‘Last night.’

‘And you didn’t think to tell anyone?’

‘I thought it was an alien.’

‘It looks nothing like an alien, it looks like a baby.’

‘There were alien noises coming out of it.’

I stopped abruptly, ‘What?’

‘When I found it, it was squeaking.’

I thought of the stick and the prodding.

‘I don’t want trouble,’ he sounded agitated. ‘Will I get in trouble?’

‘Jesus Fergal what have you done?’

‘I did nothing.’

I ignored him, walking forward back down through the wood, past the teenage debris.

‘Nothing, I didn’t do a thing.’ There was anger in his voice, ‘Nothing, you hear me?’ He ran up behind me, snatched my ponytail from the back and yanked my head hard. My arms retracted protecting the bundle, clamping it to my chest, ‘Let go of me Fergal.’ I tried to twist free, ‘let go.’ He didn’t. Instead, he twirled me round to face him, pushed me up against a tree and clasped his hand to my throat, ‘Don’t dare say a word. Promise.’


‘Say we found it together… we found it today…  say it.’


‘Swear on your life.’ His fingers tightened and the breath fractured in my throat. ‘One word … just one and….’ He raised his stick up above my head as if about to crack my skull.

In the distance Blakey whistled for his dog, ‘here boy, here boy.’ He was in the upper field heading down toward us. Fergal dropped the stick and grabbed the baby wrapped in the hoodie from out of my arms. He began running back to the field.

‘Fergal wait! Fergal…’ I kept shouting his name and went chasing after him.

He didn’t answer, sprinting fast toward the edge of the field.

When we were friends, Cara and I would sneak onto Blakey’s field and make well wishes. We’d throw pennies and halfpennies. My last wish was to have her as my friend again.

Fergal raced toward it. I tried to catch up.

‘Don’t Fergal, don’t…’

When I reached his side, he dropped the baby in, as if he’d waited until I was there.

 There was a moment of stillness, then a thud.

Fergal cuffed the back of my head ‘not a word.’

We cycled home in silence.

Mum was livid I’d lost my new hoodie. I told her Fergal had snatched it and threw it down the well.

I told her, ‘Mum I didn’t mean for it…’

But she barked, ‘you think money grows on trees?’

‘Mum I ..’

‘Jesus, I’ve had it up to here with you,’ She was shaking with rage, ‘haven’t I enough on my plate with your father, the baby and now…’ She sent me to my room, ‘and stop your sniveling.’

The last time Cara came to play she’d said, ‘No one plays with dolls anymore. Dolls are for babies.’

Dad had told Cara’s mum on the phone earlier, ‘I’ll drop her home on my way to football practice. Not a bother at all,’ He’d opened my bedroom door, clapping his hands together. ‘Right so Cara, let’s be having you.’

‘Look-it,’ she was squeezing the top of my shoulder as she jumped up, ‘these things happen you’ll understand one day.’ 

I sat on the bed sobbing, the tears kept on till the colours of the wallpaper merged, a mess of yellow, orange, red.

Lana Citron is the author of five novels: Sucker, Spilt Milk, Transit, The Honey Trap, and The Brodsky Touch; two nonfiction works, Edible Pleasures and A Compendium of Kisses, and scriptwriter of the award-winning shorts; “I was the Cigarette Girl” and “Hannah Cohen’s Holy Communion.”