restricted access Belfast, Northern Ireland, Early 1990s
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Belfast, Northern Ireland, Early 1990s

I was reading a book in my flat when the bomb went off. It happened on a perfectly clear evening, and my head jerked toward the window as a double echo rocked the city. Ba-boom! It rattled the glass. The sound was like that of a giant dumpster being dropped, twice, onto the asphalt. The air was full of weight and density, finality and murder. Every cell in my body was jolted awake. I half stood and felt a need to run. But where?

Against all common sense, I went to the window and looked out. I couldn’t see anything, but judging from the number of car alarms going off, the detonation couldn’t have been too far away. Turf Lodge, maybe? Andersonstown? The Falls Road? It happened somewhere in Catholic Belfast to be sure.

Sirens whined awake. The flickering blue lights of an ruc armored police car bounced off the houses as it rushed past. I opened the window and leaned into the cold. Part of me wanted to run down the street, toward the bombing, to help. The other part of me—the more terrified and selfish part—wanted to stay indoors where it was safe.

The radiator in my room clicked and ticked. The moon hung in the sky like a pale coin as more sirens filled up the night.

My mother was born in Northern Ireland, and she emigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. As I grew up in America, I watched her country bubble with hate and fire on the evening news. ira. uvf. uff. inla. An alphabet soup of paramilitary groups hunted each other at night. I had a hard time understanding how such a thing could happen, so when I became an adult I moved to Belfast. I wanted to know more about my genealogy and (if I’m being honest) I also wanted to know more about terrorism. This is how I found myself living amid the slow burn of the Troubles.

As I leaned out my window, I thought about the numbered dead. The Troubles had been raging for more than twenty years, and as I stood near [End Page 48] the angry flash of a homemade bomb—one that had no doubt blasted out windows and ripped flesh from bone—I thought about other bombings in Northern Ireland. The Abercorn Café, Derry, Coleraine, Enniskillen, Magherafelt, Newry, Downpatrick. The list went on and on. I thought of freshly dug graves and empty chairs at Christmas dinners.

I closed the window, lit a cigarette, and lines from Yeats came to mind. A terrible beauty is born I noticed my hands were shaking. Smoke lifted from my fingertips as I thought about the rising smoke of that bomb. Peace comes dropping slow.

A military helicopter thumped overhead. I didn’t bother looking out because at night you could never see them. They turned off their running lights to stay hidden, but I knew the military was high above me, somewhere, cloaked in blackness. The helicopter moved closer, and when it whumped over my flat the windowpane began to rattle again. [End Page 49]

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks has won the Glimmer Train Fiction Award, been a notable mention in Best American Stories, and is the recipient of grants from the Bush Artist Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His work with pbs’s Over South Dakota was nominated for an Emmy in 2012. He is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Finding the Gossamer and This London (both from Salmon Poetry). A dual citizen of Ireland and the United States, he is the writer-in-residence at Augustana College, as well as a faculty member at Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency mfa program. His first novel, The Commandant of Lubizec (Steerforth/Random House), is forthcoming.