Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Young Adult

Slán a Sionnach (Goodbye Fox)

by Rachel Lysaght

Author Bio

Rachel Lysaght is a 17-year-old junior attending PALY High School. She was born and raised in Palo Alto and has a passion for animals and writing. She volunteers at Pets In Need and works as an associate at SunLife Organics.


This story is one that touches home for me. I had a special bond with my Grandad, and when he passed away in 2015, writing was my catharsis. I dug up and read my old diary from around the time he died, and all the past emotions resurfaced. I decided to use these feelings to write a tribute to him, a recollection of my memories and experiences after his death. I took a lot of inspiration from James Joyce. He was not only my Grandad's favorite author, but I had just read his book "A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man". Joyce has this amazing ability to capture the magic of Ireland in words. I tried my best to reattempt that ability in my own work. During this time of isolation and insecurity, writing has been a way for me to explore my mind and take a break from the stress. This story has allowed me to travel back to a country that brings me such happiness, to mentally revisit this place of rich culture and charm.

Judge Comments

In Ireland for his grandfather's funeral, the narrator of Slan a Sionnach (Goodbye Fox) recalls a story the grandfather had told him about a friendly fox, and just as he's remembering, a fox appears as though saying farewell to the grandfather, and then runs off. Deft, delightful, and touching.

— Nancy Packer

I remember when I heard the news. Waking up to the absent smell of coffee my mother brews, not hearing the clinking of pots and plates as she puts away the clean dishes from last night. I knew something was off. Walking out through my door and towards the living room, I felt the warmth of the air evaporate before me, my feet feeling the cool tile beneath me. There she was, my mother, sitting on our tan leather couch, tears streaming down her face. I sat beside her, my heart filled with apprehension, and she told me. I leaned back, a ship sinking under the untamed waves of my chest. As if a dull mass of sadness were coming into my body, my tears joined hers. And, just like that, the noise in the room intensified, the slow whir of the refrigerator becoming a thousand insects stridulating against a microphone. As if a vacuum had sucked the saliva out of my mouth, my tongue became a sand mass in the Saharan desert. He was an ocean away, but I could still feel his absence.

I could recall the earliest memory with my granddad. It was one of my first times visiting his quaint home in Churchtown, Ireland. The rooms in his house smelled of must and steel-cut oats. This was his smell. The smell that, to this day, brings this sensation of comfort to my body, a sense of peace to my mind.

My brother had been pestering my mother over the entire trip to take him to the Dublin Zoo. It wasn't too far from Grandad's home, and after days of his ruthless begging, she finally had surrendered. That morning, I had awoken with an intense feeling of nausea. My mother, a self-proclaimed doctor, suspected that I had come down with a stomach bug. She wanted me to stay with my Grandad while she, my father, and my brother continued to the zoo. So, with a bellyful of sickness and anxiety, I stayed.

At that age, I didn't know my grandfather too well. In many ways, he scared me. He was a lofty, long-legged man with broad shoulders that hunched ever so slightly. He had a deep voice with a thick Irish accent that, for some reason, would always make me think of butter on bread or a spoonful of honey in tea. His features were sharp, with a wide and downturned nose but his eyes were gentle; his expression always of serenity. When my family had left for the zoo my grandfather helped settle me into his favorite armchair in the living room. It was an intense umber that had a matching footstool. I could feel the fibers of thick tweed on my arms the deeper I sank down. He placed a blue blanket over my body and positioned a trash bag to the left of me, just in case I began to feel sick. I remember that The Wizard of Oz was playing on his brown antique television. He kept it at a low volume, my foggy gaze fixed on the yellow-brick road. The Irish sun cast upon my face through his aging windows and I could see his fruitful pear tree, encompassed by rich green grass in his backyard. The house emanated an aura of tranquility, which distracted me from my qualms. I have yet to find that feeling elsewhere. He brewed some warm tea for me, strong and milky, with just the right amount of sugar, and he sat beside me, concerned yet composed. We sat there, the two of us, in peaceful silence for a couple of minutes, the rustling of trees sounding over my breath. When I would start to feel queasy, he would hold my hand to comfort me. He told me about the foxes that lived in his backyard. I was fascinated, perking my head up to try and find them behind the juniper-colored leaves and crisp rhubarb. I remember falling asleep to the melodic hymns of his stories, my hand in his palm, his voice soothing me into rest.

We flew to Ireland a couple of days after my mother had told me. The Irish grey sky loomed overhead, its usual rainfall replaced by our own tears. We had come to say goodbye.

The funeral was a two-day endeavor. The unveiling, the mass, the burial, and the wake; all of which blurred in my memory through a murk of devastation and grief. In those moments, although I was surrounded by family, my only focus was on the absence of one; the lacking presence of Grandad, who now was merely a collection of my assembled memories.

A day before we flew back, we revisited Grandad's home. It was no different than before: outside, a structure of bright maroon bricks; inside, an assemblage of relics from his life which carried with it a theme of antique Irish charm. That distinct smell that wafted throughout the space now had more significance than ever before. I sat on that umber chair that offered me such reminiscence. Looking out into his backyard, I saw that same pear tree swaying among the wind. Sheltered in the shade of the tree was a fox, which looked at me with piercing eyes before it fled into the bushes. I couldn't help but smile, remembering how intently I had desired to see one as a young child.

I tried to savor my last few minutes there: to memorize each corner of each room, to etch the image of this home into my mind, to study the smell that had so often kindled this sentimental feeling into my heart. I wasn't sure if we would ever go back to his house. We never did.