In “Numbers,” Éanlaí P. Cronin attempts to quantify the unquantifiable when she is asked by a detective how many times she was abused in her childhood by her neighbor. Poignant and powerful and original in its framing, “Numbers” was chosen by The Masters Review’s editorial team as a runner-up in the first Reprint Prize. This essay first appeared in Entropy.
Can you put a number on it? The male detective, Irish, kind, well-informed, kept his tone even and steady on the phone. On how many times that man abused you in childhood?
Numbers have never been my friend, I told him. At least I think I said that.
I wanted to veer off into a story about my father, the village schoolmaster, teaching me long multiplication in our native tongue, and for every twist that column of numbers took, my nine-year-old self kept asking my father, “But why?”
To which my father, not often impatient but red now in the face, replied, “There is no why in numbers, pet. They’re just numbers.”
I wanted to share this story with the detective. I wanted to tell him how terrible I have always been at sums. How I needed reasons for things to be as they were—why the cuckoo kicked other birds out of their nests rather than build his own, why Jesus didn’t simply run and hide that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, why possession was nine-tenths of the law even if something was stolen.
Questions, Dadda would say. You have so many questions, but I don’t think the answers will cure you.
Instead I said to the detective (at least, I think I did), Can we put a ballpark on it?
Sure, he said.
Let me get back to you, I said.
Ballpark looks like this. Let’s say it began when I was four and ended when I was thirteen. More when I was fourteen because I have a memory of that too.
Being fourteen and pinned beneath that neighbor. Drunk out of his mind. Or was that thirteen? I was definitely pinned. That much I know for sure.
Let’s say for five of those nine or ten years, it happened weekly. That brings the total to 260. Let’s be generous and for the other four years, make it twice monthly. That’s ninety-six.
So ballpark, on first attempt, is 356.
That’s not a bad-looking number if you’re into numbers and how they look written down. It looks nice. There is a backward C in each number, 3, 5, and 6, like one of those mechanical legs amputees wear, the ones that have such speed and give in them.
Each number has a leg under it, as it were.
Is that terrible to say? To borrow such an image from someone who has lost a limb or was born without one?
Was the man who abused me born without something? A conscience? A moral compass? A particular neuron in the brain that would have told him, Young girls should not be your rape toy? Is there a neuron in the brain whose exact job that is?
How would I go about finding that out?
It is hard to stay on task when talking about numbers. But I like the look of 356. I feel I have accomplished something in coming up with that number. And what’s more, when you look at that number, it is almost the length of a full year. That pleases me. Not all of me but a fair percentage of me. I could give that a figure too and say it pleases 65% of me.
That, too, looks about right.
But something inside, and I can’t say what or who, disagrees with the first figure, the 356. She’s not as interested in the second. We can sort that out among ourselves, she thinks, when the first number has a better ballpark to it. She’s very definite that 356 is not right.
Wrong, she says.
Let’s call her The Counter. She is the one who has kept a tally even when I did not. The one who took out the abacus of our agony and logged each offense in some part of the body I have had great trouble finding. Mind you, my therapist and I have excavated many buried memories. Each one a bead, if you will. I’m trying to extend the metaphor of the abacus with the beads reference. The Counter is pleased we are giving her further scope to sort this out.
These images aren’t half bad, she says.
Maybe she can finally stop screaming at us to listen to her.
Mind you, I don’t necessarily hear her scream. It’s more a gut instinct. A sensation. A very quiet and sometimes fleeting whisper of thought.
A child flitting from one side of the kitchen door to the other when she’s supposed to be in bed. But it’s well past ten, and she doesn’t want to be seen and sent back upstairs where monsters live on the flat roof just outside her back bedroom window, and his house is visible if she peeks through the curtains.
There it is, two fields away.
And who’s to say two fields can’t be crossed in five minutes and that a grown man can’t jump up on the backyard wall and, from there, hoist himself onto the flat roof. After all, ground to roof is ten feet at the most. And even if the child doesn’t know it’s ten feet, she’s seen her older brothers scuttle up there, no bother, to retrieve an alley ball. So it’s all quite possible.
The Counter flits over and back across the mind at the mere mention of putting a number on things. She’s not sure if it’s a good thing to even begin that homework. Because what if she wants to sit in the kitchen for a while, a long while, and not be upstairs anymore while the counting is going on. And what if she’s upstairs and I can’t hear her over the rain clattering down on the flat roof and the news on the television turned loud.
I make a plan.
I say, The kitchen is yours for as long as you want it. No more upstairs for you.
Now she is happy.
She’s on the sofa. Near the turf range. I bring in a coat from the hall. A winter coat. Warm. Heavy. I throw it over her, there in her pajamas. She wants another coat over her toes so no one can pull at them if they slip out. I bring her a second coat, one with a furry inside. Cover her feet. Wrap them like sausages rolls. She laughs.
Now it’s back to the counting.
The coat that memory tosses over each number’s feet is harder to pull off. So many numbers have been lost. How days, seemingly endless in the living of them, become blurred and blended in the reliving of them.
Folks sometimes say, I would never forget that.
They discredit and disbelieve some witness account. A rape victim on a stand, handing over the contents of her insides to perfect strangers. Each of them has his or her own walls of memory that keep them locked in whatever state brought them right there to that moment, where they stare at a shivering woman, and she is either too old or too young, too pretty or too ugly, too thin or too fat, too articulate or too uneducated, too calm or too hysterical, too ashamed or too proud, too well dressed or too white trash, too forgetful or too precise.
It is an impossible task to answer questions that begin with the supposition that you remember clearly, speak unequivocally, or not at all.
Put a dog behind a door. A vicious one.
Place yourself in front of that door.
Get someone to ask you the most important question of your life while they open the door to a snapping killer.
Traumatic memories are the dog. In case you haven’t followed.
The question is: How many times did that man abuse you in childhood?
And there you are at the door, the dog snarling behind it, the detective’s hand, even a kind hand, right there on the handle. And all you can think is: I am about to die.
Again I wonder if I can round up to 365. I’ve been toying with that idea.
But now 356 is stuck in my mind, and because it seems like a fair number, it seems fair to stick to it.
Do I get another go at this? Do I get to do the sums again? Figure out a different way in?
Maybe The Counter won’t mind. She’s asleep on the sofa. The first round did her in, and the dog metaphor exhausted her.
Here is the next theory of time, specifically the how many aspect of my childhood.
Let’s keep the starting point: four years old.
Let’s keep the finishing line: fourteen.
Let’s consider boarding school from twelve to fourteen. Much less happening in those years. Thanks to being away. In a convent.
There I go trying to be fair again. But it’s not fairness. It’s fear. It’s the fictive jury in my mind, and his barrister in a High Court in Dublin, which is where this case may go. So the detective says. But first I have to say, Yes, please go ahead and investigate. Turn my life upside down. Go to everyone I know from my past. Question them to corroborate my memories. To augment the timeline with evidence.
But back to the fear. It’s them I’m afraid of—jury, barrister, judge, newspapers, locals. And I haven’t even thought about him sitting there in his suit and tie—all eyes on me, his too, behind those jam-jar glasses of his, the ones I always hated. Everyone searching for cues and clues to my poor sums.
And if my sums are poor, my memory is unreliable.
But let me put all of those spectators out of my mind or let me pretend. They’re never far from my mind. They’re never far from any woman’s mind. We live in a paradigm where women and girls walk this very line every day. In countless ways. Misogyny as woven an ingredient into our days as knuckle into bone. So yes, countless.
Still, let me try.
This time make it more often because it was, for many years, more often.
So let’s say three times a week for three years. That’s 468.
For the other six or so years, let’s even out the peaks and troughs of the graph to once a week. That’s 336.
Now I have a new total of 804.
A big number. That’s two years and some few months to spare. That’s a bit like a paper cut every day for 804 days. Can you imagine the state of your skin if you did that?
Now imagine my soul.
And please stay quiet. The Counter is still asleep.
If she’s asleep, then I’m closer to the mark than before.
And she’s just rolled over. Turned her back to the kitchen. This is significant. It means she’s in a deep sleep. Hypervigilance dictates you keep your back to a wall and your eye on a door. Always. And you always, always sleep with one eye open.
Her eyes are closed.
Her back to the door.
Now, I could be wrong. It may very well be that she passed out when she heard mention of dogs and doors. But I don’t think so. We’ve done a lot of door-opening in therapy. It’s safe there. In therapy. Much safer than when someone we don’t really know has their hand on the door handle. Like the detective.
Still, I’d put money on the fact that this ballpark number of 804 is a lot closer than the 356. Plus this one has our mother’s favorite number in there: 4.
That’s a sturdy-looking number to end a ballpark estimate. It has a solid central beam. And these things make a difference. Solid beams and things to hold onto, even in the arena of ballpark figures and how they feature on a page.
And who’s to say that if I like the look of that number, that the detective won’t too. And honestly, right now I don’t think he cares if I ever come up with a number. I’ve already told him to assume it was weekly for at least half of the decade from four to fourteen. And all he could say at the end of our conversation was: You’ve just described a heinous monster.
Heinous is a very good word. It deserves a good number to go with it.
And you are probably wondering, if the detective has already been given a kind of ballpark, why the math? Why am I still stuck on this one question? I have already been asked many in a sequence of careful phone conversations and then a two-hour evidentiary interview.
It’s like this: Even as I write, I may have misconstrued the detective’s question: Can you put a number on how many times it happened? He may simply have asked: How often did it happen? But my mind automatically went to prove yourself. From there it’s an easy hop, skip, and jump to numbers.
They matter to me.
They matter to you.
We like numbers. All of us.
The baby was born at 3:45 a.m. I was.
The baby was twenty-two inches long. I think I was.
The baby is the sixth child of seven. I am.
The mother was thirty-three when she gave birth. She was.
The father will have five heart attacks while this baby grows into her teens. He will.
There are twelve steps to the top of the old stairs. That’s true.
The neighbor hands her two pence to buy her four-year-old hymen. That, too, is true.
A lollipop costs two pence. It does.
Eight or nine of her baby teeth rot out of that child’s head by the time she is seven.
Maybe you are beginning to see how difficult it is for me to put a number on this.
There isn’t just one number. There are many. And I am really worried by one number above all others. Well, one set of numbers. They go like this.
I am worried about the number of years I have gone without reporting him.
I am worried about the number of children he has abused during my silence.
I am worried about the number of times every girl he raped tried to kill herself.
I am worried about how much or how little he paid her because I came so bloody cheap.
I am worried that no matter how many times I try to tally his crimes, I will not give the exact figure.
Because it is impossible to put a number on what passed for life. Ordinary life. Inescapable life. The life of a girl in an Irish village bound by silence and denial so deep as to keep the male of our damaged species upright and intact in his idea of himself as the all-conquering rebel and hero of song and story. That cocky, smug, mother’s pet of an Irish male. The male whose name and reputation would be damaged by the deflowering of his daughter, sister, niece, her defilement only a crime insofar as it brought shame to the male line.
No mention of her lost time.
I am worried that if I cannot put a perfect number on every time he violated my child self, I will leave someone behind. Someone else. Another child.
And I am worried that if I don’t land on an exact number, he will never do the exact time for his exact crimes.
But maybe I can ballpark that too.
Maybe I can ask the detective to ballpark that.
Ask him: What sentence might he be given for what he has done?
But really, what bothers me is that he won’t live long enough to do the time I’ve already done. So, really, when you think about it, is there any number big enough for him?
How do I ignore the tiny numbers doled out to criminals here, there, and everywhere, every day?
Brock Turner: six months. Three counts of felony sexual assault.
Owen Labrie: twelve months. Sexual assault of a minor.
David Becker: No jail time. Two counts of sexual assault.
Brian Varela: thirty-four months. Raped an eighteen-year-old while she lay dying of an overdose.
Robert H. Richards IV: suspended eight-year prison sentence for raping his toddler daughter because the judge feared “the defendant will not fare well behind bars.”
So much consideration given to each perpetrator’s time.
Nothing to truly reflect the loss of life endured by each victim.
No number to accurately depict woman-slaughter and girl-slaughter, which is exactly what occurs from the moment a male perpetrator turns his gaze on a female body and thinks: mine.
Make no mistake: a life is taken with each act of rape.
So tell me, what number best serves justice for each woman’s erased future?
Because, make no mistake, life is never the same again.
The Counter is still asleep. She feels the extent of my rage. She thinks her work may be done. The work of carrying the tally of all that has gone unpunished. More than that, the tally of all the outrage she feared I might never feel. The fury I might never claim in honor of the actual numbers. The uncounted ones. The seconds while she lay on the carpet of the church sacristy beneath him. The minutes she spent gathering herself when he shoved her back out onto the altar while he left through the priest’s back door as though this exit, reserved for the priest, fitted the already absolved and forgotten. The hours in the kitchen listening to the radio while someone inside performed the surgery of amnesia so she might carry on with her sums homework for school next day.
804 pleases her. Pleases me too.
It seems like a number that tells its own story.
Most of the abuse happened daily between the ages of four and eight.
Zero is the amount of times anyone stood up for her, then or still. Besides me. Which, at the end of the day, is all that really counts. The ability to stand up for oneself. Tell one’s truth. Naysayers be damned.
804 also tells the story of the exact time Mass ended each evening. How I walked home with my father after we had helped the priest clear the altar of sacred objects—prayer missals, the paten, the water and wine goblets, the ciborium—storing each one in the very sacristy where, hours before, while my father rested his weakened heart after a day’s teaching at school and my mother exhausted her way through another dinner for an army of children, I counted my way into anesthesia. Backward, backward, backward into blackness.
Maybe the number I truly wish to see will never happen. The number of years that that neighboring farmer spends behind bars, the number of seconds, minutes, and hours he will stare into blackness.
But here is the last number for now, the one that matters most: the first time I said his name to a policeman.
That is the most important number of all.
The first utterance of that name outside this body.
The number of ways it reverberates back into the striated substance of a silenced life.
How it throws open locked doors. Introduces fresh air into every lost molecule.
To hear that name finally reported.
Handed over to the law.
To know, at last, his tally has just begun.
Éanlaí Cronin’s writing has appeared in Rattle, Bryant Literary Review, Agave Magazine, Delmarva Review, Five On The Fifth, White Wall Review, Sweet Tree Review, String Poet, Peregrine, Big Muddy, The Ignatian Literary Magazine, and The Magic of Memoir. Éanlaí has spent the last twenty years attending writing workshops across America. She was long listed in the National Poetry Competition United Kingdom in 2017; a Winner of the Eastern Iowa Review’s Lyric Essay Contest in 2018; a Top Ten Finalist in the Fish Short Memoir Prize contest in 2018; a Finalist in the 2023 Barry Lopez Creative Nonfiction Contest and a recent Honorable Mention Winner in Seneca Review‘s 2023 Lyric Essay Book Prize.
An elementary school teacher for ten years, Éanlaí leads writing workshops focused on trauma recovery and creative discovery in San Francisco’s East Bay.