Outside the airport windows, in brown and brutal June, little vehicles ran attendance on the tarmac. They were dizzy as bullocks in severe afternoon heat, moving fitfully and stopping with sickening brusqueness. I was watching it all from the edge of a crepuscular trench that passed for a bar-restaurant. Alchemically cool air circled my ankles, sedulous as an old farm-cat. A massive bag came loose from one of the trailers, fell hard, bounced dead. I jumped at this shock to the logistics, and I’d swear the bag pulsated, out there in the throttling hour of three o’clock EST. After all, people sneaked creatures across borders all the time. They drugged cubs and jammed turtles into lunch boxes. They wanted secretions from foetuses for their eyelifts and erections, they wanted tigers walking chained and stoned inside their big kahuna fences. And if a creature were in that fallen bag, would it have a chance at getting free? An enterprising puff adder might flee for the pipes and rise a week later in a Florida toilet. It might regard its ceramic surrounds optimistically and wait to bite the nearest low-hanging thing. I was departing a country where a fugitive snake could become a celebrity. My luggage was packed tight as ten years of exile. During those years lots of people had died, and I hadn’t travelled in their honour.

I had passed through security in hotshot style, lights popping and voices raised high as weapons. I wore zipless, unriveted garments, and a pad that if soaked through in an hour I was to call an emergency. Anything could happen in the latter stages of menopause. My face was more estranged each day in the mirror, steamrolled and fuzzy like one of those Renaissance painting restorations gone wrong. Beast Jesus, I’d come to address myself. Beast Jesus, what’s on your docket today?

Ma’am. Ma’am. You’re going to have to take out whatever’s in your pocket. 

A young woman in a toy sheriff’s badge.

My pocket bulged with a mega-bottle of supplements. I rattled my flaxseed at her serene and honest face, I brandished my wild yam, ginseng, and dong quai.

See? Is that enough for you?

She flushed and apologised poignantly. It was in the nature of her generation to believe in natural healthfulness and wellbeing on a cosmic scale. All I had to do was place my herbal enhancements in the tray with shoes and bag. I did so with showy care, as if handling undischarged ordinance. She thanked me for my cooperation, and I spent my time in line recalibrating the drinks I’d have time for before boarding.

I liked what you said to Little Miss Robocop over there.

A man bellied up to the bar beside me and pistoled two fingers at the security gates.

I’ve all sorts of things in my mind to put to them, he said, but I always bottle out. In case I’ll be taken behind the scenes for a trouncing. Under which conditions I’d probably say something even stupider.

He had the rapid-fire shyness of a Clareman and the mariner build of Tom Crean. For a time, an empty, lonely Arctic season, I used to think Tom Crean the ideal domestic partner. Away for months at a time, he was a dependable hand in the heroic age of exploration. He wore a hat fangled from the sleeve of a jumper and his arms held litters of pups. After all his Polar escapades, Tom Crean got buried in Annascaul, the anklebone of a southern county and not the white washbasin of the world. A sexy, self-effacing life well-lived.

Like what? I asked. What stupider thing?

I was waiting for my drink to be shaken and then I’d budge away to one of the dejected tables near the back.

Oh, I’ve lied to them before, just to get a rise. I said my wife and child weren’t my wife and child and they were holding me against my will. Jesus, their faces. I had to!

I said it wasn’t funny. Stupid, yes, but not funny. He said I took no prisoners.

I knew it when I saw you rattling the meds. Life’s too short, isn’t it, to take prisoners?

He asked if I’d take a drink.

I’ve a lovely one on the way, I said, shivers of ice and a pimento olive.

At the end of the bar a young waistcoat was titrating gin as neatly as a Borgia preparing a snifter. I said I had to get on my laptop a bit before the flight.

Fair enough, he said. And we might be here for a while longer. They stopped a raft of planes going out earlier because the noses were overheating. It’s like the planet Jakku out there!

He waved his hands at where he thought the airport windows were. Jakku, I tell you!

Dunes and desert badlands, I said.

He granted it had been hundred and ten, more or less, and no relenting. I told him people insisted I saw more of America once they knew I was leaving it. Such an immense and varied place! Really, seriously, they counselled, you should take in more coastlines before they vanish. They had made peace with the blasted future and spoke of their landmass like a wedding buffet about to be taken away.

Have you seen the heat map of Australia, though, he said with a shudder. Continent’s utterly fucked.

He cracked his knuckles and went looking for Australia on the phone.

Behold. Purple to black in the middle. Magenta round the coast. New tones for when it hits 140 or more because they ran out of oranges and reds.

He lamented that he’d never get to see the Red Centre.

I heard the indigenous dot paintings are meticulous. Beautiful, he mourned. They’re supposed to hold secrets, like where water could be found.

I was moved by his ardent attention to a lost Australia, but my olive was being lanced, my glass softly wiped for overspill. I asked if he’d seen that big bag come off the luggage cart.

Was it blue? he yelped. Any chance blue, with an orange bandanna on one of the handles? Was it?

No, red, I said, a hard-shell the size of a wardrobe.

I’ll sort that, he said to the bartender, who had placed the glass before me. I’ll sort this lady’s drink with my own.

No, I said, don’t be daft. No need whatsoever.

We won’t argue, he said, and patted my hand. You can get the next one if we’re stuck here longer.

I left for a table with my drink and laptop bag. He chuckled. Mind the blue light doesn’t give you seizures.

I set up at the back of the trench and latched onto wi-fi. I sat close to the screen in a sacral hunch. The martini gave off good sillage like an enduring perfume. The live event happened five months ago and the link to the recording was private, family and friends. I’d been married to the man for three years of our artless and indigent youth, during Dublin, throughout Cork, and/or including an aborted effort at New Zealand. I was sent the details by someone I didn’t know who said she found me on social. She thought I ought to know, no matter the interstellar length of time that had passed. She was sure he would want me to know.

At different times I’d logged on to watch the recording, always tussling with the password and all the better things there were to do. I kept the password written on bits of paper, my wrist, the flyleaves of books. It was a vulgar combination of upper- and lower-case letters, not one poetic number among them. I smeared my wrist and closed the book and kept fending off the funeral. But here in this gap between one realm and another, I swelped some extra-dry off the top and pressed Play. Bits and packets slowly downloading, I raised my glass to the man at the bar. He turned and stepped forward, but I put my hand in the air. I pointed to the screen, as if it held the most urgent and confidential work in the world. His mouth pouted an acceptance and he turned back to the pond-coloured beer in his stein.

The funeral’s opening moves had the cheap, jerky speed and severe light of a daytime soap. The setting was a long, blue-carpeted conference room. Before things got going, the cameraperson hissed orders to someone very nearby, and that person huffed and made staticky sounds. People straggled in and headed for the front rows. Some turned abruptly and sought back seats, like students who don’t want to get asked any questions. I knew nobody. Then two young men who had his profile took the first row. Surely sons. They were massive and alien in black polyester. A young woman in a pencil skirt and pin-combed hair was tending to them. She pointed out people, whispered names in their ears. She adjusted big petals on the flowers that said FATHER. She was deft and pretty at her work, deferential to one son more than the other. I paused on them to wonder what kind of child they might make.

Two small elderly women navigated the bar tables, assessing them for cleanliness until they settled on the one next to mine.

Mind? one of them said. Mind if we do?

They looked like twins, with the same ice-white long hair and fluttery, British mannerisms.

We have a nice rosé coming our way, said the other. Though I expect it will be crudely ruddy, not the pale shades of Provence.

The bartender brought their bottle in a silver bucket. He set glasses before them and poured with the correct twist of his wrist to stop the flow.

To your good health, the first maiden said to me. To your safe travels, said the other.

The first maiden’s hair was whiter, more evenly, expertly shining. The second maiden’s hair had a very faint nicotine stain. She had been the less pretty one back when it must have mattered, when both of them still enjoyed the attention accorded to redheads. I nodded, raised my glass to their good fortune, and went back to the funeral.

In the row behind the sons was the woman who’d been my mother-in-law for the course of several Christmases. She was prone to theatrical rig-outs. I’d recognise the hat anywhere, a big, grey-netted confection like a beekeeper’s bonnet. Every dog she’d ever owned was the size of a teacup and all of them had kidney stones. She tolerated me in a cold manner, the kind of taciturnity that got people vying for her attention. I called her the Rings of Saturn and counted down every minute survived in her orbit. Whirling rocks and debris, place of freezing death. Now she dabbed a lace-edged hanky to her face.

At the table next door, the ice-maidens had changed their seating arrangement. Now they sat shoulder to shoulder, parallel with me, and they couldn’t help themselves.

It’s a funeral, isn’t it, dear? You’re attending a funeral, poor thing. How sorry. How very sorry we are.

They pushed their glasses of rosé a few inches away, out of respect. I thanked them and insisted they didn’t take it on.

Thin sawing strings struck up. One of the maidens muffled a cry, so I found the earbuds and nestled them in. Now the man from the bar was scanning for a table too. Adagio for Strings. Samuel Barber was devastating in an ancient, quarrying way. Who had picked this? The young woman, maybe. Young people often overegg already plangent situations. I wanted to tell whoever would listen a Samuel Barber story. The man had taken a wobbly table and gone to his knees, sliding a bunched paper napkin under the one perfidious leg. Driving somewhere in America, Samuel Barber turned on the radio. Adagio for Strings. Changed the station. Adagio for Strings. Another station, again Adagio, encore Adagio for Strings. JFK had been killed and Adagio was scoring the whole country’s grief. Samuel Barber didn’t have a clue. I loved him in the middle of his road trip, his confusion and not knowing that America’s heart was shocked and broken.

Then some sect of minister in a pressed linen suit entered the screen and took the lectern. He stretched at the waist, left and right like a dancer, and cleared his throat. The camera loved his aged but lineless face and got close.

The maiden nearest me removed my right earbud and said, He’s a dashing type of cleric, isn’t he?

We judge and rank them, said the other. What else is there to do when you go to so many of these bloody things?

I won’t keep you long, the dashing cleric said. The family has asked me to keep proceedings brief, in keeping with the deceased’s wishes.

I can tell he has an unprepossessing voice, said the maiden without an earbud. He won’t make it all about him. Some of them do that, you know.

I let the listening maiden stay tuned in rather than take back a sticky earbud. The other pressed close and got given the earbud every so often. They had an amiable ethics of care that made me think they were lovers, not siblings.

In the twenty minutes that followed, people stood up and sat down and did pompous things in service of the event. Someone read a very long poem, someone else sang a scripture.

I liked the person who read the poem. Seemed like a teacher. And I liked the poem too. Do not go gently into that good night. But that singer! A jackdaw. A crow.

I should think I’ll go kicking and screaming. I shall be a holy living terror! 

The maidens laughed like children plotting dire mischief.

The sons stayed in place throughout, their backs broad and dark and unmoving. Only when the cleric stepped out and onto the carpet did they stand and turn with a military click. They joined him at the edges of the coffin and began to push the trolley out of view.

Beautiful wood, said the first maiden, and she stroked the cheap bar table as if to conjure smooth poplar under her knotty hand. Simply. Beautiful.

The young woman in the pencil skirt faced the camera now and held her hands at half-prayer.

The Irish can be pretty when they’ve a mind to, said the unprettier maiden. That young actress, for example. The one who emigrated to New York.

My ex-mother-in-law was the first out of her row. A congregant offered his hand in condolence, and she swatted it away with a glove.

Gosh! That’s keen, said the first maiden. I wholly admire that kind of character. 

What are we watching, ladies? What’s the big draw in this corner?

The man who looked less like Tom Crean by the minute rocked up before us and craned to see the screen. His ready, unreconstructed smile was grey in the laptop’s light.

We are observing the rites and proceedings of death, said the first maiden. Press Pause, for goodness sake.

She tapped my hand vexedly.

Please leave us to our drinks and our colloquy, said the other, coldly.

Until now I hadn’t noticed the second rosé lolling in the bucket. The maidens had been pouring their glasses with a magician’s sleight. I slugged martini to put some daylight between me and the bottom of the glass. The episode was to be followed by cremation, but the camera wasn’t going there. The cleric had asked everyone to keep the deceased in their prayers.

I wanted to see if this good woman would like another drink, he said, and placed his hand on my arm.

Be gone, sir, said the chillier maiden. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. 

The other burst out laughing.

The door! A door, in this dive!

She calmed herself and lifted out the two empty bottles.

Apologies on behalf, she said. And ours is a Côte du Someplace. The bar tender knows. He has a marvellous name, Vercingetorix or Achilles or something like that. Thank you, my good man. You know what to ask for.

Out in the terminal people ran and rolled their way to their gates. They bickered and fumed, looked hypertense and unready. A small boy ran away from his group, throwing himself into the sprint like Philippides bringing big news to Athens. Joy to you, we’ve won! And then he died.

What’s that? Who died? Sometimes I don’t know what you’re saying!

The man was acting like an insider, as if he and I were travelling together, or at least familiar. I hadn’t known I spoke aloud. He placed a martini within my reach and slid a fresh rosé into the bucket.

Now. Where were we? Who’ll fill me in?

The maidens said we were watching a funeral, though whose it was was highly dubious. They had their private theories, and they certainly had their highlights, but they deferred to me to explain. They turned their flushed faces to me like flowers to sun. Now I saw they had both been beautiful, neither one of them currying special advantage.

I said it was someone important to me at one point and for a short time. 

That’s awful, the man said. That’s very sad entirely. And what of?

The maidens were surprised that the cleric hadn’t brushed the cause of death. At the funerals they attended these days, it was commonplace to give details, or at least enough insinuative material to frighten people.

Rilke, said the maiden who had slapped me with a piano teacher’s quick hand. You must change your life. By which he means it’s not all about achieving the body beautiful, is it? There is much more to extending one’s life chances than having a splendid torso.

I said I didn’t know the cause of death but suspected something sudden. I had no grounds for this speculation, but it might close the case around the table.

That’s the best that can be hoped, the man said. The very best of both worlds.

What both worlds, said the maiden who disliked him more violently. What are those worlds of yours that sudden death could be the best of them?

You sound like a poet, her counterpart said. You sound like a bleak little poet! 

Her voice was higher now, exasperated.

I hope you’ll not be so rude to the air stewards, she continued. Or our fellow passengers, for that matter.

She looked to the man and me for backing.

That one. She’s a caution and a liability. How else can I put it?

Her counterpart wangled out of the seat and toed the linoleum as if it were ice. Then she began her slow, mistrustful trek to the ladies’ room.

I’m losing her, the first maiden said. She shouldn’t be drinking, not a drop. Not with the time she has left. But I love her too much to say no.

How very sad, I said.

And how very beautiful, the man said mournfully.

With these words he edged his chair closer to mine. Then, in an even lower tone, he said, The weight of the world is love. I heard it one time and I’ve never forgotten.

His skill with vocal registers was chilling.

For a long and wordless time, we sat waiting for the other maiden to return. Flights were announced for the last time, doors were about to close. Names were called, struggles in the pronunciation of some, then called for the very last time. The maiden at the table stood shakily to her feet, but only because the other maiden was finally wayfaring back from the loo. Her eyes were luminous and tearful, as if she had learned something astounding and catastrophic during her dank time in the ladies’.

Now, she said to the man. When do we get to rend you limb from limb?

My dear, my dear, said the maiden in charge. What have I told you, what have I asked you? Remember the kindness of strangers.

No, you old torch, said the other. You won’t silence me that easily.

When I heard some scratchy version of my name across the tannoy, I drained the glass and shut the laptop. I excused myself to forge a path past the tables and chairs. I stopped to pluck lycra from behind my knees, where leggings tend to bunch in the course of a day.

You missed a spot, my dove.

The second maiden, narrow-eyed and satisfied as a detective.

It’s already a sticky old business, flying overseas. Give yourself the best chance, won’t you? Here. Shall I loosen the problem for you?

She advanced a few steps to help with my dishevelment. I plucked between my cheeks.

Dear, she said. You’ve only gotten yourself stuck at the front. Where it always looks worse, don’t you think? Especially at your station in life.

The other maiden sat down heavily, as if never to rise again.

Yes, she said, appeasing and broken in spirit. Yes, let’s tear this man into pieces.

Her voice was emollient as a midnight radio presenter of the world’s greatest love songs. If she continued speaking, I was in danger of staying to join the conniption.

After all, she went on, he did get us quite, quite drunk. We’re no longer compos mentis and responsible for our actions.

The other maiden smiled ravenously and shivered in delight. 

Let’s! It’s very apropos! Let’s!

The man remained stationed. His shoulders were dropped now, as if waiting for the first to fall in a rain of blows. There was a time when the man I was married to went looking in the car seat crevices for coins. He came back to the flat round-shouldered and savage with self-hatred.

I got to the bar and left my card. I told the bartender to tot it all up, whatever might be needed at the back table from here to the end of time. Behind me the maidens had stopped shouting at each other and threatening Tom Crean with dismemberment. Now their voices came dancing after me, importuning me to come back and join their cause. I picked up speed in the rapids of Terminal B. Blood coursed down from my core, and a gust of weakness nearly capsized me. All I had to do was make it to the door and get out of this neck of the bloodying woods.

‘Maenads in the Terminal’ appears in Mary O’Donoghue’s short-story collection, The Hour After Happy Hour, which is published by The Stinging Fly Press (July 2023).

Mary O'Donoghue

Mary O’Donoghue grew up in County Clare. She has published poetry collections with Salmon Poetry and Dedalus Press and translations in dual language volumes from Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Bloodaxe Books, and Yale University Press. Her novel Before the House Burns was published by Lilliput Press. She is senior fiction editor at Agni.

About Maenads in the Terminal: The story’s early concern with smuggled animals is where and how the story got going. I knew it would move elsewhere—security systems, menopause, the ghastliness and emotional convenience of funerals hosted online—while never leaving the tight geometry of the airport. At some point in its development, I re-read William Gass’s essay ‘The Hovering Life’, which marvellously manages to cache a review of Robert Musil’s unfinished, 1100-page modernist novel The Man Without Qualities inside a non-fiction account of being delayed at LaGuardia Airport. Waiting has long been a wellspring of literature, but waiting and worrying weren’t enough for this story. Nobody believes the writer who insists, ‘The character just walked onto the page.’ So, my maenads don’t walk: they’re already stashed at the back of a bar, impatient for action. I imagine them as well-heeled retirees from Dionysus’s retinue, no longer in the business of preparing a god’s wine and gadding around in fox fur. Now, in the static frenzy of waiting, they’re ready to attack the nearest bothersome fellow traveller while being greedily empathetic with the story’s narrator. Like the rest of us, they love a good yarn.