Claire O’Connor


Claire O’Connor is an educator who has worked with students of many ages in New York, California, Idaho, Morocco, Malaysia, Greece, South Africa, and Scotland. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New American Voices, Fiction Circus, Gravel, LEON Literary Review, the Southern Indiana Review, and Shenandoah, and she has previously won The Missouri Review’s Miller Audio Prize for prose. She lives with her wife in Scotland.


Home From the Wars

When Mother came home from the wars, she made porridge for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She always added protein: peanut butter, or cubes of cheese, sometimes a raw egg that cooked as you mixed it in, like a strange carbonara.

“Give her time,” said Dad.

Sometimes she held us so hard our ribs ached. Sometimes she disappeared without a word.

“Her car’s still in the driveway,” one of us would say, and we’d split up and search the house.

When someone yelled “Found her!” the rest of us would run to find her curled up under the sheets next to the laundry hamper or nestled in the narrow space between the living room sofa and the wall. We’d collapse on her, giggling and stroking her hair, enjoying the tickle of her breath on our hands.

One night Dad made dinner, not to prove that we didn’t need her, but just to give her a break. “You’ve done so much for us already,” he said. “For our family, and our country.”

The roast chicken glistened in the candlelight. Mother had taken a shower for the occasion, and brush strokes were still etched into her damp hair.

“Would you do the honors?” asked Dad, holding out a carving knife. Our stomachs grumbled. Mother dropped the baby carrot she had been inspecting. Dad looked at her looking at the knife.

“Never mind,” he said. “You sit back and relax.”

Mother cleared her throat. Dad handed it over.

“Did you know chickens can fly?” she said. We looked at the carcass, its crispy haunches enormous next to the wings. “Not very high, and not very far, but they can clear a fence if their wings aren’t clipped.”

Mother ran her finger along the knife’s edge.

“Chickens move their eyes when they sleep, like we do.” A drop of blood beaded on her finger. “Do you think chickens dream?” She sucked her finger and looked at each of us in turn.

She sliced the chicken expertly and let us eat what we wanted—white meat or dark meat, skin or no skin. She ate the gizzards, no sense in letting them go to waste.

We fought over the carrots and peas and hid chunks of uneaten chicken under our mashed potatoes. We all volunteered to do the dishes, and we took turns disposing the evidence—we were the chicken's nightmare—washing and drying our plates clean.


Sometimes Mother slept outside in the backyard. No tent, no sleeping bag, she just pushed together a pile of leaves. If the night was warm, we might try to join her. We knew not to get too close—if we startled her, we would regret it—but we would drag our sleeping bags to the edge of the patio, where we could still watch the glow of her phone screen.

At first light we’d wake, stiff from the concrete, or if we had rolled into the softer grass, wet with dew. Mother would already be awake, her eyes trained on a line of ants or a spider weaving its web. She would press oddly shaped stones into our hands and say, “You know I love you. Don’t you ever forget it.”

Dad would come out to the patio with two mugs of coffee. He would sip from one and leave the other on the arm of a deck chair for Mother. He would wave and watch us for a while before going back inside. Only then would Mother retrieve her mug and drink her coffee as we watched the sunrise.

“The sun won’t last forever,” Mother said one morning. “Did you know that?”

We shook our heads.

She must have sensed the fear on our faces. “It will last longer than you.”

We didn’t dare ask how long that would be. We fingered our stones in the palms of our hands. We knew the sun wasn’t moving, but rather the Earth, carrying us with it. Still, it was hard not to believe our eyes as the red orb of the sun peeled itself from the horizon and began its ascent. We had to close our eyes to imagine ourselves spinning—along with the ants and spiders, our neighbors and classmates, even our enemies across the sea—in the dark infinity of space.


When we spent the night at friends’ houses, their mothers served us pancakes and bacon for breakfast. “Pigs are as intelligent as dogs,” we would chirp. “On some tests they perform as well as chimpanzees.” We still ate the bacon, smothered in maple syrup. The pig was already dead, and we shouldn’t let it go to waste.

After a while we weren’t invited to other people’s houses very much. We roamed the woods that bordered our house, catching grass snakes and climbing trees. When Mother was at war, Dad had worked hard to ensure we were clean and our rooms were tidy, and we followed a schedule of homework, sports, piano practice, etc. Now he let us come and go as we pleased. We’d come home late, covered in scratches, brambles in our hair, and he’d line us up, ready with a towel doused in antiseptic. After a quick wipe-down, he’d send us to collect our nightly porridge.

Teachers started asking us if everything was okay. “Why didn’t you tell us,” we asked, “that the sun won’t last forever?”

One rainy day, Dad was in the garage, making another side table. The garage was full of sawdust that made us sneeze. Every room in our house already had a side table, sometimes two. We searched the house, twice, but Mother had done a particularly good job of hiding. We worried that she had figured out how to disappear altogether. To distract ourselves, we went into our parents’ bedroom and snooped in all the drawers. We laughed at Dad’s white underpants and pulled his argyle socks over our hands and up our arms like ladies’ gloves from black-and-white movies.

At the bottom of one of Mother’s drawers we found a lipstick and a tube of mascara. We flung the socks aside. We smeared the mascara around our eyes and smudged it with our fingers: war paint. Then we took turns stabbing each other with the lipstick, imagining it was blood.

We didn’t hear her coming. She didn’t yell. She didn’t take us by the cuffs of our shirts and drag us to our rooms.

“You want to know what war is like?”

We didn’t move.

She picked up Dad’s socks from the floor. “War is not destruction, not really. It’s an angry kind of birth. It just gives birth to more and more destruction.”

The word birth made us feel guilty.

She put the socks over her hands, like puppets. We shivered as she stroked our heads, as it was her, but also not her, touching us.


“Are you sure?” said Dad. It was a school holiday, and Mother was packing a cooler with sandwiches and oranges. Dad was dressed in a shirt and tie, headed to work. “Call me,” he said to Mother, but looking at us, “if you need me.”

At the beach we raced to the wet sand in between waves and dug up fistfuls of sand crabs. We ran heavy-footed in the softer sand, dragging pieces of driftwood behind us, carving lines in the earth. We scrunched up our noses when we neared a pile of kelp, but the smell didn’t stop us from popping the kelp buds. There were no rock pools here, no sea anemones to poke until they squirted you. At last we charged into the sea, choking on the waves until it was deep enough to swim without bumping our knees on the sand.

When we couldn’t feel our fingers and toes, we swam back and collapsed on the beach towels Mother had grudgingly brought, at Dad’s urging. Even though Mother gave them to us, the sandwiches felt like a transgression. It was strange, to chew our food. She refused to peel our oranges for us, so we hacked away at their rinds until we unearthed the sweet wedges. When a stray beach ball landed in our midst, Mother squeezed it until she found a weakness in the seam. If we stared at it, we couldn’t see it shrinking, but if we looked away and looked back, it grew smaller, and smaller still. When its owners came to collect it, we pretended not to see them.

We lolled and complained that it was hot, so Mother nudged us with her feet until we scampered back to the sea. The water was murky, and we jumped whenever we brushed against a clump of unseen kelp. We swam until we were past the waves and floated on our backs, listening to the distant hum of boats. When one of us yelped in pain, the rest of us felt it within seconds. Something was stinging the backs of our legs, our arms, our necks. Jellyfish. We twisted away, our tears mixing with the salt water as we swam back to shore.

“Crying isn’t going to make the pain go away.” Mother knelt down to inspect our wounds. “You have to own the pain. It’s yours, and yours alone.” She looked at the sea. “Are you done?”

We nodded, gulping down our sobs.

“Look after the car keys.” Mother walked into the sea without looking back. She plunged under a wave and surfaced meters away then made steady strokes towards the horizon.

Our wounds throbbed. We compared each other’s welts and searched the cooler in vain for snacks. We limped around our towels and made a sandcastle, mixing seawater with the sand to drizzle elaborate turrets. Mother was gone a long time. We looked out to sea, scanning left to right, but we couldn’t see her.

We picked up the car keys. We flung them into the sand.

A cloud covered the sun. We dug a moat and a channel to the water’s edge, but the angle of the beach was too steep, and the moat remained dry. When our pain began to ebb, we felt a sense of loss. We probed the stings to make the pain flare.

Mother returned, dripping, breathing heavily. When she asked for the keys, we bowed our heads. She brought a clenched fist to her mouth.

“Well, then.” She put on her sunglasses, lay back on the sand, and stretched out her legs. “I guess you better start looking.”

We said she should call Dad.

“The phone is in the car.” The sunglasses hid her eyes. “And the keys didn’t disappear.”

We stomped over where we had flung the keys and began sweeping the sand. The cloud moved on, and the sun came back. Sweat ran down our faces and into our eyes, stinging. Own your pain, we thought. But how? The sand was never-ending. We pictured ourselves on our hands and knees, digging through the night, for days and weeks, for months, a lifetime.

When one of us yelled, “Found them!” we were relieved but also annoyed. Mother had been right. They didn’t disappear.

Back at the car, no matter how much we rubbed with the towels, sand clung to our ankles and the crevices between our toes.

“I’ll hose you down when we get home,” said Mother. She put the keys in the ignition but didn’t start the car. We leaned our heads against the window, breathing in the humid air. “Did you know?” Mother said. “Life began in the ocean.”

We nodded, sun-drunk and groggy. We knew what she meant: single cells, evolution. Fins becoming feet, etc. But we pictured our lives, starting inside of her, swimming and somersaulting in our own private sea. And we wondered, as the car drove and we began to doze, if life should have stayed in the sea. Was that why Mother had swum out so far? Was she trying to go back to where we belonged?


We thought the wars had ended.

We were wrong.

“It’s time,” said Dad.

We hid in Mother’s favorite spaces: the laundry cupboard, between the couch and the wall, and in the backyard, covered with leaves, watching the light filter through their veins. We waited for her to find us. We waited and waited until we couldn’t take it anymore and burst out of our hiding spots and ran to find her sitting on the front steps.

For once, she hugged us gently. It took time for her to remember how to be gentle.

“There, there,” said Dad. “It’s only for a while. Your mother will be back.”

Mother’s mouth twitched. We clung to her arms and legs and begged her to tell us something.

“I love you more than anything,” she said. “But you know that. Or did you forget?”

We shook our heads and begged her to tell us something we didn’t know.

She let Dad carry her bag to the car.

“Some stars are so far away, it takes years for their light to reach Earth. When stars die, their light continues to travel. We don’t know if the stars we see are actually still there.”

We waited for her to say something reassuring, like the light is what matters, or even if we couldn’t see her, she would still be there.

“Well,” she said, standing. “It’s time.”

We waved until the car was out of sight, and then we went into the backyard and threw our oddly shaped stones over the fence into the woods. Later, when we tried to retrieve them, we couldn’t be sure if the rocks we found were the ones Mother had given us, and we cursed ourselves for not memorizing their contours.

We went back to our routine with Dad: homework, sports, piano. But we were more aggressive in sports, terrorizing our teammates when the coach wasn’t looking, and we only played piano pieces written in a minor key. We earned good marks for our schoolwork, but we were always getting in trouble for questioning the teachers’ authority.

The rare times Mother was able to call, her voice sounded far away. At night, we looked at the stars and tried to guess which ones were there and which ones weren’t. Then we wandered all the rooms in the house, kicking the side tables until they broke, to give Dad something to do when Mother returned.

Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks wrote a short play every day for a year, and several of those pieces explore the topic of “Father Comes Home From the Wars.” I recall them as chilling but sympathetic portraits of families struggling to connect when trauma lingers, each scene laced with dark humor that simultaneously diffuses and magnifies the sense of menace. One day I began to wonder how this scenario might look different if a mother replaced the father. As the Covid-19 pandemic raged on, lockdown forced me inside the house more, and domesticity itself began to feel like a threat. Although my home life couldn’t be more different from this story, I wrestle with similar questions. How do we know who we are, especially in wildly different contexts? When should love be tough, and when should it be tender? How can we reconcile the absurdity of existence with the miracle of life? How do we go back to where we belong?

All sound clips used in “Home From the Wars” are licensed by Creative Commons and can be found on The following is a list of sound clips used in this piece and their creator. If I excerpted the clip and/or added any effects to the clip, those edits are included in each entry parenthetically.

1. “flanged war drums 2” by zagi2 (added fade-out)

2. “Chiming Out” by FoolBoyMedia (added fade-in/fade-out)

3. “Success Fanfare Trumpets” by FunWithSound

4. “Wing Flaps” by promete (excerpted)

5. “Chicken clucking” by Breviceps

6. “warfare snare drum” by zagi2

7. “Crickets At Night - Clean sound” by Defelozedd94 (excerpted, added fade-in/fade-out)

8. “Wind Chimes, A” by InspectorJ (added fade-in)

9. ““Calm Synthesizer, B” by Inspector J (excerpted, added fade-in)

10. “drum02” by Taira Komori (looped, added fade-out)

11. “young girls giggling and laughing” by tuhinpaul

12. “Wind Chime, Gamelan Gong, A” by InspectorJ

13. “drums” by xserra (added fade-out)

14. “noisy_seagulls” by mmiron (excerpted, added fade-in/fade-out)

15. “Seawash (calm)” by craiggroshek (excerpted, added fade-out)

16. “Zipper Pad Synth Line” by f-r-a-g-i-l-e (added fade-in/fade-out)

17. “01259 wet sand digging 1” by Robinhood76 (added fade-in/fade-out)

18. “Happy Organ Bell Loop” by f-r-a-g-i-l-e (added fade-in/fade-out)

19. “Clock Chime, Antique, A” by InspectorJ (added fade-out)

20. “twinkle” by 3bagbrew

21. “StarsTwinklingB” by aj_heels

22. “sri lankan Drum” by malakadew (excerpted, added fade-in)