To my mother, Barbara Charbonneau, in memory of my father, Robert Charbonneau, and to the entire Charbonneau, Finlan, Beecher clan.
Special dedication in memory of my undergraduate professor of Irish history, the late Alwyn Fraser, without whom the idea for this novel would never have been conceived.
There are more people who helped bring this book into being than I can possibly mention, though they all deserve my heartfelt thanks. Among them are, first and foremost, Eileen Charbonneau, author and editor extraordinaire. This book would have sat in a drawer forever if it weren’t for you, Eileen. I can never thank you enough for your help, guidance, patience, and mentoring.
To everyone at BWL Publishing, Inc., especially Jude Pittman. Thank you for the chance to make my most cherished dream come true!
To my always supportive and enthusiastic family: My mom, Barbara Charbonneau (91 and still going strong – you are amazing), my dad, Robert Charbonneau (I miss you so much, Daddy), my sister Cindy Kazanovicz and her husband, David, my niece Jen and her husband, Michael Bragg, my niece Rachel and her husband Chris Bergman and my brother-in-law David Benoit.
To my dearest friend and favorite research historian, Tom Kelleher, as well as all my former colleagues at Old Sturbridge Village, all of whom taught me so much about historical research and some of whom were kind enough to read early drafts of chapters and offer feedback: Lynne Bassett, Shawn Parker, Frank White, Nan Wolverton, Ed Hood, David Lee Colglazier, Meg Hailey, Kathy Pratt, Theresa Rini Percy, the late Jim Bump and the late Jack Larkin. I had the time of my life working with all of you.
To Cynthia Kennison, facilitator of the Worcester Writers Workshop, where most of the first draft of this novel was written and to all the WWW writers. I miss you all!
To the members of my current writing workshop who I sincerely believe will see their own work in print some day: Pam Reponen, J.D. Roy, James Pease, Cindy Shenette, Lee Baldarelli, and Rebecca Southwick.
And finally, to everyone who has inspired, supported, encouraged and rejoiced with me: LaVerne Bertin, Rev. Father Tim Brewer, Deacon Tim Cross and everyone at St. Mary’s Parish in Jefferson (the Place to Be!), Alan Derry, Father Henry Donahue, Father Charles Dumphy, Father Ronald Falco, Stephanie Goodwin, Janice Hitzhusen, Katie Kelley, Tammie Kent, Kathy Leal, Father Michael Lavallee, Father Brice Leavins, Sister Mary Daniel Malloy, Sister Marie Therese Martin, Father Paul T. O’Connell, Heidi Pandey, Monsignor F. Stephen Pedone (best boss EVER!), Linette Provost, Sheila Rosenblatt, Myron Wehtje, Liz Woods, St. George’s Book Discussion Group, the monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, everyone at 49 Elm Street, the Adult Degree Program at Atlantic Union College and the Pastoral Ministry Program at Anna Maria College.
A special thank you to the folks at Computer Central, especially David, for keeping my laptop up and running so I could write this novel.
Undoubtedly, I’ve missed some – the omission is unintentional. I thank you all!
August 30, 1846
“Thank God the Bishop is gone,” Father O’Malley whispered to himself as the first strains of music floated over the late summer night air.
“What? Oh. Didn’t realize anyone was near.”
“Sorry, Father. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
Though he could barely see the young woman in the diminishing light, he knew by the voice it was Meg O’Connor, the eldest daughter of the O’Connor clan.
“No bother, Meg,” he said. “It happens to the old. We talk to ourselves. Lose a bit of our minds along with our eyesight.”
Meg laughed. “You’re not old, Father!”
Father O’Malley guessed that Meg was on her way to meet her intended, Rory Quinn, for a moondance held in a field by the edge of the sea. In the distance he could hear a fiddle and a concertina tuning up. He thought of what Bishop Kneeland would thunder out. “Night time dances are a sin. They must be abolished!”
But the ancient tradition was one of the few pleasures known to Kelegeen’s cottiers. As much as Father O’Malley believed in obedience to his bishop, he also believed in keeping his people’s culture intact, whatever harmless remnants were left of it. Their land was no longer their own, their language had been outlawed, their system of government dismantled, and their religion barely tolerated. A few endearing customs were nearly all that was left. The British had stripped away everything else. The young people of Kelegeen kept the moondance tradition alive. He had no desire to take it from them. His Excellency had not been able to find fault with the condition of Father O’Malley’s vestments, chalices, altar cloths or any part of the church itself. All had passed grudging inspection, including the proper behavior of his parishioners during Mass, thank heaven. But Father O’Malley’s attitude toward his people was not quite to the bishop’s liking.
“You coddle them! Strict obedience to authority is what’s necessary. How else will they respect the perfect authority of God?”
“Aye, Your Excellency, and does that include obedience to the British as well?” Father O’Malley hadn’t been able to resist the question.
Bishop Kneeland’s face purpled. “Indeed! They are in power, like it or not. Our clergy are tolerated now and are no longer deported nor executed. We will be grateful for that and acknowledge British authority if we wish to continue.”
How can you defend them when the words be like to strangle you? The question remained unvoiced. Father O’Malley was tired of lectures.
“Now then, Father, I’ve yet to see a wake or any superstitious behavior, but sure as I’m sitting here, these people are still at them. It’s obvious the way they go on about faery folk and such. These things are not to be tolerated anymore.”
Father O’Malley tried to keep his face from showing his anger.
“If ever you’ve wind of such goings on, you are to put a stop to them immediately,” Bishop Kneeland continued. “I’m tired now so I’ll retire. We will speak more on this subject tomorrow.”
Speak more on it he did. It was nearly all Father O’Malley heard for the rest of the bishop’s visit. Each night he thanked God and all His saints that they’d heard no music starting up in the distance, come across no group of pilgrims circling a sacred well on their knees, and especially that no one had died, necessitating a wake filled with frivolity as the mourners sent their loved one off in fine fashion to an eternity so much better than their earthly life. No, his good people had behaved unwittingly British enough to keep them all out of trouble with the bishop for the time being. They had pleasantly waited until tonight to have their moondance now that Bishop Kneeland had gone home. Father O’Malley was eternally grateful.
He continued to stand in the twilight, gazing off in the direction of the music. What would happen, he wondered, if he was forced to choose between obedience to the bishop and protecting the last remnants of his people’s culture? He was a priest through and through. To him that meant serving his people, caring for their souls. And wasn’t their identity part of their souls? It seemed so to him.
He was tremendously fond of his little flock in Kelegeen. Being their spiritual leader gave purpose to his life. He’d once lost his sense of purpose and nearly lost the will to live. The priesthood had given that back to him. He feared he might flounder if it was gone. Just as long as the bishop’s visits remained few and far between, perhaps he would never have to make the choice.
“Such a cowardly thought, but I can muster no better at present,” he grumbled to no one.
In the distance he could barely discern images of whirling couples. Laughter and music wafted gently through the air. Moonlight drenched the dancers and they became ethereal. The sight conjured memories of another moondance thirty-five years earlier when he’d been sixteen.
That night long ago he’d heard a sound so full of exuberance that he’d followed it to its source—a field where a group of merrymakers danced in the moonlight. A figure standing on a rock played the fiddle while long thick tangles of hair bounced with every energetic movement of her body.
“God be between me and harm. ‘Tis a cavorting band of faeries,” he’d muttered and crossed himself. He’d watched a moment longer, then his curiosity had propelled him down the hill into their midst.
“Welcome!” exclaimed one of the males of their tribe.
“Have a jig with us,” called another. He gave up all inhibitions and danced their wild dance with them.
Once close enough, he determined the fiddle player was the oddest but most beautiful sight he’d yet seen in his young life. The moonlight revealed a gypsy-like creature. She hopped from one foot to the other in time with the rhythm. Her arms jerked wildly as they carved the music from her instrument and sent it flying through the air. Her long curls bounced, performing their own frolicking dance. By the moonlight Brian could see that her hair was red, but with each movement it appeared a different shade. It would take the light of the sun to show him the real richness of its color. The sound of the fiddle was enhanced by her laughter.
When the tune ended she leaned forward. “Do you like my playing?”
“Indeed. Do you dance?”
“I am dancing.”
“Without the fiddle, I mean. Or are you the only one who can play?
“My brother can play. He taught me.”
“Ask him then, please, and have a dance with me.” Brian smiled broadly, surprised at his own boldness.
“Quentin!” she called, and in a second a grinning giant took the fiddle from her hand. He was the only youth Brian had ever met who was taller and broader across the chest and shoulders than himself. Before he could offer his hand to the lass, she leapt into the air, her dress revealing a flash of sculpted muscle in her calves as she landed easily on the ground. Quentin, the dark-haired giant, took her place on the rock and played. Brian and the girl whirled and jigged. Two more dances before a woman’s voice called name after name from the cottage door.
“That’s all,” said Quentin.
It was like being rudely awakened from a splendid dream. The music stopped and the enchanting revelers became youths again, responding to their mother’s call. “Quentin O’Toole,” the giant said, coming down off the rock to shake his hand.
“Brian O’Malley, from the neighboring farm.” He’d pointed in the direction of his family’s cottage. “You must be new here.”
“We’ve only just arrived. This is my sister, Siobhan.” Quentin indicated the red-haired gypsy-like girl.
“I’ve not heard of a lass playing the fiddle before.”
She’d laughed again, that lovely laugh that he would hear for the rest of his life.
“Siobhan O’Toole, you come home now!” her mother called louder from the cottage door.
“I’m not like most lasses,” she whispered before breaking into a gallop for home.
* * *
“Not at all like most lasses,” Father O’Malley whispered, coming out of his reverie. He turned his back on Meg O’Connor’s moondance and headed for his cottage across from Saint Mary’s Church. The music and revelry receded further into the distance. He fought the urge to turn around for one last glimpse. In his head he heard Siobhan’s voice urging him to run down the hill and join the dancers.
“I’ve Mass to say and families to visit in the morning,” he admonished, chuckling to himself. “So no more of your nonsense tonight, my dear.”
* * *
“Come on Meg, you let me once before,” Rory pleaded.
“But I won’t again. Not until we’re married,” she told him, pulling away from his embrace.
“Because I’ve decided that’s the way it’s to be. Let’s go back and dance now. I’ve no wish to miss any more before it’s time to go home.”
“You aren’t being fair, Meg. It isn’t like we’ve never kissed before and none can see us here. There’s no one will know of it.”
The last time they had moondanced, Rory had guided her away from the other dancers to this same spot behind a high stone wall. She had let him take her in his arms and press his lips against hers in a long, ardent kiss. She had enjoyed it immensely. That was the problem. Powerful sensations rippling through her body had taken her by surprise.
This time he had taken her away earlier. She knew what he wanted and she’d decided not to give it to him. After that first kiss, she knew their wedding night would be a night to be savored. Surely they deserved one night of pure, glorious physical joy. She would not have either of them deprived of it through lack of resolve. If she gave in now she would never forgive herself.
Almost as strong was the fear of being found out. Her mother thought she was taking an evening stroll. If ever it was known that she was dancing with a lad, her intended or not, that she had gone off alone with him, that she had allowed the unthinkable act of letting him kiss her, it would bring permanent shame upon her and ostracism would be her future. Her stubborn nature and need for adventure made her defy the rule. But loyalty to her family and respect for herself put limits on how far she would go.
Meg and Rory had known each other all their lives. A childhood friendship had grown up into a courtship. Everyone had expected it. They planned to be married the following year when Rory would be twenty-one and Meg nineteen. Once they were married they would be recognized as adults in their community. That was nearly as desirable as any other benefit of marriage.
“We might as well go back,” Rory motioned towards the others and started to walk away.
“Wait,” Meg called out.
He turned back. She watched, bemused, as a look of hope flickered across his face.
“My hair’s coming undone. I want to do it up again before we go.” Carefully she re-wrapped her hair which had started to come loose from its perfectly braided coil.
Rory leaned against the wall, watching.
“How long is your hair?”
“What are you about now?”
“When you were a wee lass your mother put it in braids. Now that you’re grown it’s on top of your head. Are you hiding it from me? Do you keep some secret wrapped up in those coils?”
“Aye, but you’re daft. I put it up to keep it out of my way.”
“Take it down for me, Meg.”
“I will not. I’ll only have to put it up again.”
“You could do that in your sleep. Please take it down, Meg. You do love me enough to do one simple thing for me, don’t you?”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” She unwrapped the coil she had just finished securing and ran her fingers through the braid until her hair hung loose and free.
A mild breeze lifted her long hair, making it billow around her. She watched, fascinated, as Rory stared at her. She relished his hunger for her, matched by her own for him. It would be harder than ever to go back now, but she knew they must.
“Are ye done gawking?” she asked, breaking the spell. Meg pulled a wooden comb from her pocket and quickly ran it through her hair.
Rory smiled broadly. “I’m glad to see that gets good use.” He had carved the comb himself and presented it to her the day he’d proposed.
Meg returned it to her pocket, then began braiding and piling the thick mane on top of her head. “We’ve been gone long enough for people to wonder. I don’t want anyone going on about us.”
“What does it matter? Everyone knows we’re going to marry.”
“But we aren’t married yet. I won’t have my reputation ruined just because you wanted to kiss me. And here you be not even thinking of our wee ones yet to come. Is that the life you wish for any bairns we have—being shunned all for the sake of stealing a kiss from me now, Rory Quinn?”
“I suppose not.”
They walked toward the field where the dancers were winding down their activities. Rory looked so dejected that Meg was suddenly overcome with the urge to tease him into a better humor.
“‘Tis a task to put my hair up every day. Perhaps I’ll shear it off.”
Rory stopped walking and stared at her, horrified.
“It would be out of my way then and I wouldn’t have to worry about it.” Meg broke into laughter. “I’m teasing you.”
His look of relief made her laugh all the more.
“Seems you’ve been doing that all night,” he muttered.
She gave his shoulder a playful shove. “I’ll run ahead. Give me a few minutes to get there before you come so no one can say they saw us returning together.”
“No one here will care. Why don’t we just race back?” he suggested.
“We already know who would win.” She winked and ran off ahead of him.
* * *
The moon was high overhead when Meg approached the door to her family’s cottage. Just before she reached it, it cracked open and the slight figure of her sister, Kathleen, emerged, her long wispy blond hair almost silver in the moonlight.
“Was Kevin there?” Kathleen whispered.
“Aye, he was.”
“Did he dance with anyone?” Kathleen’s voice was desperate.
“Of course he did. What else would he do?”
Kathleen looked pained.
“If you’re so interested in keeping the likes of Kevin Dooley from dancing with another lass you’d best come and dance with him yourself.”
Kathleen frowned. “Did you speak of me to him?”
“What did he say?”
“He asked why you never come. I told him ‘twas because you’ve no suitor to dance with.”
Kathleen drew a sharp intake of breath. “What did he say?”
“He said nothing.”
“Nothing at all?”
“Aye.” Then, leaning forward, she brushed Kathleen’s shoulder with her own and whispered, “But he did grin from ear to ear.”
Kathleen squealed just as the door was flung wide and their mother stood outlined in its frame.
“Margaret Mary O’Connor, do you think you could come home from a simple walk at a decent hour for once in your life?”
“Aye, Mam. Sorry.”
The two girls scooted inside and took up their sleeping places on the floor by the fire. Just before they drifted off, Kathleen inched up to Meg and whispered in her ear, “I’ll come with you next time.”
Deirdre O’Connor’s hands moved rapidly as she braided her youngest daughter Brigid’s hair.
“Morning, Deirdre,” Father O’Malley called through the open cottage door.
“Good morning, Father. Come to see my Denis, have you? He’s out back working the potato bed.”
“I saw him and Brendan breaking their backs there as I came up, but I thought I’d stop inside first and have a bit of rest before your mister puts me to work.” He took a seat on the only other chair in the cottage.
“You’re not afraid of a might o’ work, now are ye, Father?
“Not at all, but I must say I’m better at saving souls than potatoes.”
Brigid darted away, squealing with delight as she chased the pig across the cottage floor.
“Outside with ya, now,” Deirdre commanded. Brigid and the pig darted out the door and into the yard.
“How is Meg this morning?”
“Fine. She and Kathleen are over at the Quinns.”
“Did she tell you I bumped into her last night?
“She didn’t mention it. Did you speak with her long? I wondered why she was so late getting home.”
“Only a moment. She was eager to get to the dance.”
“The moondance in the field last night. You knew, of course?”
Deirdre looked him in the eye. “The lass will be seeing you shortly for confession, Father.”
Deirdre took up the needlework that rested on her chair. “Meg and Rory are to marry in a year. I pray for them.”
“You’re not worried about the match, are you Deirdre?”
“They’re both strong willed.” She laughed. “Like mad bulls, sometimes. And they’ve both got tempers. But they’ve been together almost since birth so ‘tis nothing new to them. They’ll find a way to manage that part.”
“What troubles you, then?”
Father O’Malley caught a wary look pass over Deirdre’s face. “Just a feeling,” she said.
“About the marriage?” He pressed.
“No, about life. The weather this year’s not been good for growing. There’s worry about the potato crop. I hate to see Meg and Rory start off with that against them.”
“Last year’s crop was a poor showing, but not the worst we’ve ever had.”
“As I said, Father, ‘tis a feeling.” She leaned toward him, a strange look in her eye.
“What is it Deirdre? Please, tell me.”
She hesitated. He nodded for her to go on.
“At certain times in my life, Father, I’m certain sure that something bad is coming.”
“And you have that feeling about Meg and Rory marrying?”
“About them marrying within the coming year,” she corrected.
In his head he heard Bishop Kneeland’s voice. Admonish her for superstitious nonsense. This was immediately drowned out by the voice of Siobhan. That woman’s got a gift from God. Who are you to stand in its way?
Father O’Malley couldn’t contain a smile at the argument brewing in his head. Deirdre stiffened. “You’re laughing at me, Father,” she said. “I suppose you think I’m foolish.”
Father O’Malley forced his face to behave. “Not at all. I believe some people have a stronger intuition than most. Perhaps you’re one of them.”
“I’m not saying I can predict the future or anything of the like.”
“I understand, Deirdre. So would you have Meg and Rory put off their wedding?”
Deirdre shrugged. “There’s no saying when a better time will come. I don’t want Meg to wait forever.”
“She’s your eldest. Do you feel as though you’re losing her?”
Deirdre shook her head. “She’ll not go far. The marriage will only pull our families closer together.” She sighed. “There’s nothing for it, I suppose. They’ll marry no matter what the crop is like and they’ll get on as best they can like all the rest of us.”
“Don’t forget how much they love each other. Their love will give them strength.” Father O’Malley stood. “Speaking of crops, I’ll go see how Denis is faring. Good day to you, Deirdre. I’ll keep Meg and Rory in my prayers. And you as well.”
He left the cottage, skirting the manure pile outside. Before shutting the door behind him he heard Deirdre mutter, “Love don’t grow potatoes.”
* * *
“How’s the work going?” asked Father O’Malley, coming upon Denis and his son, Brendan, standing over their potato bed, the family’s main sustenance for the coming year.
“If you call hoping and wishing work, then it’s going very well,” said Denis.
“I’ve missed the physical labor, then? Good! I’ve come at the right moment.” In truth, he loved to work with his hands in the earth.
“Do you know a prayer for potatoes, Father?” asked Brendan. “Da’s been worrying over them since way back when we planted. Mam says if he don’t leave them be, the potatoes are likely to die of being bothered to death.”
“Better would be a prayer to keep the rain away.” Denis looked up at the sky. “If it storms one more time I fear it will wash away all I’ve planted. As it is, I’ve got more of a mud pit than a potato bed.”
“‘Tis a wonder, the amount of thunderstorms we’ve had this summer,” remarked Father O’Malley, following his skyward gaze. So far the weather was holding. “Are the storms keeping you awake? You look tired, Denis.”
“Aye. They disturb Deirdre something awful. If she doesn’t sleep, neither do I.”
“Truly? I’d never have pegged her as one to fear thunder storms.”
“It’s a curious thing. They never bothered her until this summer. All of a sudden she’s turned timid as a mouse at a crack of thunder. The wind picks up on a storm and she’s about sent for. She says they give her a bad feeling.”
“Indeed. I will be praying for you and your potatoes, Denis.”
“Thank you, Father. You’ve got lots of families to visit so we’ll not hold you up. Come back at suppertime. We’ll be happy to share what wee bit we’ve got.”
* * *
Father O’Malley made his rounds, visiting as many of his parish families as possible.
“Do not put yourself on their level,” Bishop Kneeland had instructed him just two days ago. “You must make them respect you. How else do you expect to lead them?”
“But Your Excellency, I feel that as their friend—”
“Friend? They will walk all over you. Command their respect. Generals of armies are not friends with common soldiers.”
“We are not in the army.”
“We, Father O’Malley, are the leaders of God’s army and you will behave accordingly.”
He wondered what Siobhan would say to that. Well, Bishop Kneeland was not in Kelegeen today. Father O’Malley continued on, caring for his people in the manner of his mentor, Father Francis Coogan. Father Coogan had saved his life long ago by being his friend rather than just his priest at a time when he’d needed a friend more. There would always be some distance between Father O’Malley and his parishioners, but he did the best he could and his people knew he cared.
At suppertime he returned to the O’Connors’ cottage. Knowing he would be joining them, Deirdre had mashed up the potatoes, adding a dollop of buttermilk and a few slices of onion for extra flavor. The cottage was hot from the fire and so many bodies crowded into one small space. The family sat on the dirt floor to eat. By all rights it should have been an uncomfortable ordeal, but being included in the O’Connor clan—Denis, Deirdre, Meg, Brendan, Kathleen, and Brigid—made him feel welcome. Memories of his parents, long since dead, and his brothers and sisters, some living, others not, came flooding back to him, as comforting as wrapping himself in a warm coat on a winter day.
Denis gave his wife a kiss on the cheek. “Deirdre, that was wonderful as always.”
“Exceptional,” agreed Father O’Malley. “My thanks to you for such kind hospitality.”
“You’re quite welcome. Now, off with the two of you so we can get on with the cleaning up.”
Denis and Father O’Malley went outside, walking around the cottage toward the potato bed.
“It’s going to rain again,” Denis said in disgust, holding his hands, palms up, as if he could feel the rain coming.
“I’d better get home before I’m drenched.”
Despite the coming rain, Father O’Malley took time to inhale deeply as he walked. The smell of the earth just before a storm was sweet. He might get caught in a downpour, but it made no difference as long as he could feel the land under his feet, breathe the air and hear the sea lap in the distance.
Look at all the incredible beauty the good Lord has created and I am blessed to be a part of it.
He hurried his steps as he watched the puffy clouds tumble end over end down the hills, entering his cottage just before the first drops fell. No sooner had he closed the door behind him than the thunder let go with a mighty crack shaking the walls. Within seconds the rain became a pelting torrent.
Thunder boomed again. He looked up in time to see lightening flash through the only window. Once in bed, he stared into the darkness. Usually he enjoyed a good rip-roaring thunderstorm. He loved listening to the fury without while he was tucked safe inside. The sound of tonight’s storm, truly no different from any other, unnerved him though he couldn’t explain why. He wondered if Deirdre felt the same.
When he opened his door the next morning and stepped outside he was immediately engulfed in white fog. ‘Tis uncommon thick, he thought. Like I’ve wandered into a sea of cream.
As he walked to the church, he thought he detected a strange, unpleasant odor in the air. By the time Mass ended, the fog had begun to lift. Stepping outside, that same smell hit his nostrils. Only now it was so powerful it turned his stomach.
A voice called his name. Meg ran toward the church. It dawned on him then that Deirdre had not been at this morning’s Mass.
Dear Lord, what has happened?
Together they headed back towards the O’Connors’ cottage, Meg relaying her story as they walked.
“Da went out to check the potatoes early this morning just after the fog lifted. There was something white all over the stalks. He called us all out to help him. We dug up the stalks. They were covered with ugly sores. When Da cut into one it was black and the smell nearly made us all sick.” Her words scrambled as fast as her hurried steps. The fog was now gone, replaced by an almost tangible sense of foreboding.
In the O’Connors’ yard they found the family standing over their potato bed, the stalks all cankered and strewn about; a white frost-like substance clinging to them. All stood with heads bowed, as though paying final farewells at a newly-dug grave.
“Denis, might I help?”
Together they dug up what they could salvage. At such an early stage in their growth the potatoes were puny and didn’t look as though they’d feed the family for very long. Father O’Malley helped carry them inside to the storage bin.
“I must tell you, Father, I’m not sure we’ve done the right thing. These few won’t last long. I’ve got to save something for seed for next year. Once these are gone, what will we do? On the other hand, I’d rather have some than none. If I’d left them in the ground who knows if they’d continue to grow or just go to mush like the others?”
“Denis, there’s no way to tell the future. You make the decision you think is best and forgive yourself if it was wrong.”
“I’ll be hard pressed to forgive myself if what I’m doing ends up starving my family.”
Father O’Malley stayed the rest of the morning. Just before noon, Rory and his father, Thomas Quinn, arrived to see how the O’Connors were faring.
“You dug them up, Denis?” Thomas asked. A skeptical look covered his weather-beaten face.
“Aye, we did. And what did you do?”
“Ripped up the stalks, but we reburied the potatoes that weren’t spoiled. For God’s sake, Denis, the canker is in the stalks. If it hasn’t hit the potatoes yet why not put them back in the ground? They may still grow.”
“Aye, and they may not. I’d rather have the few I know I’ve got than take a chance on losing them all.”
“They won’t last long nor be of much good.”
“It’s the decision I’ve made.”
Thomas argued no more, but the look on his face said he thought his friend had made a grave mistake. Father O’Malley had been speaking to Deirdre, trying to keep up her spirits at the same time the two other men were talking, but he heard their conversation. Though Denis would not show it, Father O’Malley knew he was tortured over his decision.
Meg and Rory stood together. Father O’Malley started towards them, but stopped when he realized they were deep in their own conversation.
“Don’t worry, Meg. When our potatoes come up I’ll save some for you, as many as I can. You won’t go hungry if I can help it.”
“And what makes you think your da’s right and mine’s wrong?”
“I didn’t mean to insult your da, Meg. But do you really think you’ll go long on those pebbles he’s dug up? He should have left them in the ground. It was a stupid thing to take them now.”
“No more stupid than leaving perfectly good potatoes in the ground to rot so you’ll have nothing. I’m the one who’ll have to save potatoes for you.” Meg turned toward the cottage.
She went straight inside and slammed the door. Rory started after her, but Father O’Malley grabbed his arm. “Let her be for now, lad.”
Father O’Malley spent a bit longer with the men then prepared to leave. He wanted to see as many other parish families as possible and offer whatever consolation and encouragement he could.
“Denis, Thomas, my prayers are with you and your families.”
“Thank you, Father. I fear we’ll be needing the power of Himself to make it through this one,” said Thomas.
Denis said nothing, just stared at the ground. The sound of a door banging shut made them all look up. Meg emerged from the cottage.
“I was just leaving, Meg, but I will be praying for you all.”
“Thank you, Father.” Meg stood with her hands on her hips, feet firmly planted in the muddy ground. She looked Father O’Malley in the eye. “We’ve had difficult years before, but we made it through. We will again.”
The O’Connors were the first family Father O’Malley had met in Kelegeen and they’d quickly become friends. He remembered quite vividly the night of Meg’s birth. He had only been in the village a few days. Stopping by the O’Connors’ cottage one evening in early January, he had found Denis pacing outside the door.
“What are you doing outside?” Father O’Malley had to yell the question over the wind roaring across the countryside.
“Deirdre’s time’s come. The midwife’s been with her all afternoon. They tossed me out to the manure pile,” Denis had yelled back.
Together they’d stood, rubbing their hands, heads bowed and shoulders hunched. Without warning, the door cracked open and the midwife popped her head out. She spoke, but the wind ate her words and the two men only saw her mouth move. She closed the door as quickly as she’d opened it.
“I’ve had enough of this,” Denis yelled and went in. He’d left the door open behind him, but Father O’Malley felt it was not his place to be in the cottage at such a time. He didn’t want the new mother and baby to take a chill, so he’d leaned in to catch the door handle and pull it shut. In those few seconds he heard two things that set his mind forever on the character of Meg O’Connor.
The first came from the midwife.
“You’ve a girl child. And a wee banshee of a lass she is, too. Not only did she give her own mother a rough go of it, but I’ll be deviled if she didn’t wriggle so hard in my hands, I almost dropped the new sprout.”
The second was the sound of the infant’s cry. It was strong and lusty, and powerful enough to carry over the fury of the raging January wind.
As Father O’Malley walked back to his cottage he thought to himself what interesting characters the good Lord drops down upon this earth.
Now Father O’Malley had a strong feeling that if anyone could fight the awful battle of hunger that surely would come, Meg O’Connor was the one.
* * *
A few weeks later Meg was with Rory, his parents, and brother, Aiden, when they decided to dig up the potatoes they had left in the ground. Thomas was nervous. “I can’t stand not knowing if we’ve got food out there or not.”
Meg knelt in the dirt at Rory’s side while Thomas and his wife, Anna, dug into the ground.
“Oh dear Lord!” Anna gasped, quickly crossing herself when she saw the piles of stinking black mush they unearthed.
Thomas looked at his wife and two eldest sons kneeling in the dirt beside him. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Meg watched the notch in Rory’s throat move up and down. She put her hand into his, entwining their fingers. Dirt from both their hands smeared from one to the other.
Anna rubbed her husband’s arm. “Thomas, don’t blame yourself.”
Aiden said nothing, but stared at the ground in disbelief.
Rory looked at his father. “Nearly everyone did the same, Da.” He glanced at Meg. “Almost everyone.” She gave his hand a squeeze.
“Let’s not tell the wee ones yet,” Anna pleaded. “They’ll know soon enough.”
The family pig wound its way in and out among them, but even the pig would have nothing to do with the black gunk.
* * *
The weeks progressed and autumn arrived, bringing with it a drop in temperature which seemed to intensify everyone’s now familiar hunger pangs. On an evening in mid-October, after Brigid was asleep for the night, the rest of the O’Connor family huddled together in a corner of the cottage.
“That was the last of it,” Denis whispered, referring to the potatoes. That evening’s supper had finished off the year’s meager harvest.
“We’ve still a few eggs and a bit ‘o cheese, though I wish we’d been stingier with the two chickens,” Maeve said. “Other than that there’s some oatmeal. I’ll stretch it all as far as I can, but everyone’s portions will be smaller.”
“We’ve got those turnips that Brendan pulled from the field,” Kathleen offered.
“Do you really think they’re safe to eat?” asked Brendan.
“The gentry’s cattle don’t die from eating them. God knows they don’t think of us as much better.” Denis’s whisper was harsh.
“Hush, you’ll wake the lass,” Deirdre admonished.
“Rory’s mam says you can cook them just like potatoes,” Meg explained. “He says they aren’t too awful if you can forget you’re eating cattle fodder.”
Deirdre stared with disdain at the two turnips she held. “They’ll have to do, I suppose.”
The pig grunted in her sleep, nestling closer to her two piglets.
“At least that will keep a roof over our heads for a while,” Denis said. The animal was to be sold the following month to pay the rent money due on Gale Day. “Thank God she birthed a couple more, may they stay healthy.”
“I suppose it will be a while before there’s another dance,” said Kathleen as she and Meg trudged up the hill toward their cottage, arms full of mending work picked up in town.
“No one feels like dancing. I certainly haven’t the strength for it. Nor the time.” Meg nodded toward the bundle of clothes in her arms.
“I know. I’d just like to see Kevin.”
“He’s friendly enough with Aiden.” Meg said.
“Do you think Rory would help get us together?”
Meg shrugged. “Why are you so sweet on Kevin Dooley? Mam wouldn’t approve. His family don’t go to church.”
“I like his smile. And he says I’m pretty.”
“Is that all? Lots of lads have nice smiles and think you’re pretty.”
“Go on with you! They do not.”
“Aiden thinks so. Rory told me.”
“Rory’s family is like brothers and sisters to me. Marrying Aiden would be like marrying my own brother.”
“So it’s marrying you’re after?”
“Make sure you pick the right lad. Marrying is for a lifetime.”
“I could look at Kevin’s smile for a lifetime.” Kathleen laughed.
“How do you know he’ll always be smiling?”
“Every time I see him, he is.”
“Might not be so if you saw him more often.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s more to courting than him smiling at you and saying you’re pretty. You need to know the way of each other. See if when one or the other of you is sad or angry or has gone and done something stupid and you still want to be together. If so, then you can start thinking about marrying.”
“You’ve known Rory your whole life. I don’t know why you don’t feel the same about him as I do about Aiden.”
“Well, I don’t. I love Rory. It’s too bad you don’t feel so about Aiden because I think he’s sweet on you. But if you don’t feel right about him, then it wouldn’t work. But that’s what I’m saying. You’ve got to know how you really feel deep down inside. A smile and a compliment won’t tell you that.”
“I’ll never know if I don’t get to spend some time with Kevin.”
Meg sighed. “I’ll talk to Rory.”
“Will you, Meg? Thank you!”
“Just heed what I said. Don’t hurry.”
Brigid opened the cottage door when Meg kicked at it.
“This should keep us going for a bit, Mam.”
“The Lord has blessed us,” Deirdre said looking over the clothes the girls placed on the table. She sorted them into piles according to the degree of expertise necessary to mend them.
“There’s not much light left of the day so let’s get the easiest done now while we can still see.” Deirdre and her two eldest daughters huddled together near the cottage’s one window, using up what was left of the daylight.
“Brigid, stir the pot for me,” Deirdre instructed.
Brigid swirled the spoon in the kettle.
“Is it thickening?” asked her mother.
Brigid scooped up some of the contents then let it splash back down.
“More water than porridge,” Deirdre muttered.
“Better than nothing, Mam,” Meg answered.
“Nothing’s what we’ll be down to soon enough. I still wish we’d held onto those chickens a little longer.”
“There were only two. It wouldn’t have made much difference, would it?” asked Kathleen.
“Every bit matters.”
“We’ve been hungry before,” Meg said. “Besides, all this sewing will get us something.”
“That it will,” Deirdre agreed.
The cottage door banged open. Denis and Brendan returned from helping to repair a section of thatching that had come loose from the Quinns’ roof.
“How did it go?” Deirdre asked.
“All fixed,” Denis answered. “Anna sent you this.” Denis offered a dish with a handful of chopped chicken meat.
Deirdre pushed the bowl away. “We can’t take that. They’ve more mouths to feed than we do.”
“I know. It was from the last of their chickens. I told Anna we couldn’t accept it, but she said they’d no other way to pay for our help.”
“They don’t need to pay. We’re neighbors.”
“I said that, too, but she insisted. She said their roof would have come clear off with the next good wind if not for our help. She wanted to give us the whole chicken, but I talked her down to just this handful. If I hadn’t taken it I think she’d have cried.”
Deirdre threw the meat onto a pan to cook over the fire. “Poor woman. I’ll thank her tomorrow.”
“Couldn’t Mr. Quinn, Rory and Aiden fix the roof themselves?” asked Kathleen.
“They could, but seems Rory’s not at home.”
Meg looked up. “Where is he?”
Brendan stood near the fireplace breathing in the scent of cooking meat. “Ah, but that smells good,” he said.
“Went into town to sell something. I didn’t get the all of it. Brendan, what did Aiden tell you?”
Brendan turned to them, sucking thin gruel off one finger.
“He carved a bunch of stuff and took it to sell in town.”
“He didn’t tell me he was going to do that,” Meg said.
Brendan shrugged. “Aiden said he came up with the idea a few days ago. Been spending all his time carving away like a madman. It figures he’d pick today to go to town, the day the roof nearly blows off.”
“No one realized the roof was that bad until the wind picked up during the night,” Denis said.
“Still, he could have stayed around today and helped.”
“Didn’t need to. We were able. Rain’s coming in soon, you can feel it. If he’s got a chance to bring in some money with his carvings then he was right to get to it as soon as he could before he’d be stuck at home waiting out the weather.”
Rory possessed a genius for carving; a talent he discovered by accident. Meg remembered the story he’d told of when he was nine years old. He had stolen his mother’s one sharp kitchen knife. He’d taken it out to the field behind his cottage and begun to whittle away at a chunk of wood. When his mother went into the house to cook supper, she realized that her knife was missing. After searching the cottage, she’d come back outdoors. It was then that she’d seen Rory sitting on a rock in the middle of the field.
“What the devil is that lad doing?” she had whispered as she’d watched his hands make small jerking movements. Sunlight struck the metal blade and with the flash of its reflection, his mother had known he had her knife.
With as much nonchalance as she could muster, she’d crept forward trying to be both quiet and obvious so as not make him slip with the knife. Only when she’d seen that she would not startle him did she allow her temper to flare.
“What do you think you’re doing with me best knife, Rory Quinn? Will you be after chopping all your fingers off so’s you won’t have to help your da digging potatoes? And did none ever tell ye taking things without asking is stealing?
By the time she’d finished her tirade she was standing right over him. She grabbed the knife handle from his grasp with one hand and gave him a swipe on the head with the other.
“Sorry, Mam. I was making a pig.”
Anna Quinn stared blankly at her son.
He held up the block of wood. Taking it, Anna nearly threw it into the trash heap when a carved swirl spiraling upward on the rounded end caught her eye.
“Well, I’ll be if it don’t look like the arse end of a pig!”
“Can I finish it?”
She looked at him uncertainly. “I suppose if the good Lord gave you the gift to make something with such life in it, I’m no one to stand in His way. But you’ll be doing it after supper. I need the knife now.”
* * *
“Is he back yet?” Meg asked her brother.
“Not when we left,” Brendan answered.
“Supper’s ready,” Deirdre announced.
Though there was barely enough meat for each to have more than a few bites, it seemed like heaven to taste it. The last of the daylight had disappeared by the time the meal was over. They cleaned up by firelight.
As she was putting away her sewing box for the night, Meg overheard her mother’s whisper. “I’ve got the feeling again, Denis.”
Deirdre’s hearing the wail of the banshee the night before her mother died was a well-known family story. But Deirdre also got what she called a feeling like something creeping in her bones. Whenever it came it meant trouble. Meg’s stomach fluttered at her Mam’s whispered words.
“About what?” Denis asked.
“I never know the details. I only know something’s coming. We shouldn’t have eaten that chicken. It wasn’t right.”
“That’s just you feeling guilty. But what was I to do? If I’d refused, Anna would have been insulted. That little bit wouldn’t have made much difference.”
“Everything makes a difference now.” Deirdre still whispered, but the conviction in her voice made Meg uneasy.
* * *
Rory knocked at the cottage door early the next morning.
“Meg, I’ve something to tell you,” he said as she ushered him in.
“And I’ve something to ask you,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to sell your carvings?”
“That’s what I’ve come to say. I got the idea a few days ago. I didn’t want to tell until I saw if anything would come of it.”
“So, did you sell any?”
“I sold all! I got enough to buy bread and cheese. Mam sent me over to tell you all to come and have some with us.”
“You sold them all? Rory, that’s wonderful!” Meg wanted to throw her arms around him, but her parents were awake now so she didn’t dare. Instead she grabbed her shawl.
“We can’t, Rory,” Deirdre’s voice stopped Meg.
“Why not, Mam?”
“We’ve already taken some of your family’s last chicken. We’ll not be taking what you’ve worked to earn.”
“But I’m going to make lots more and keep selling. The closer we get to Christmas, the more I’ll sell, I’m sure. There will be bread and cheese and more than that, too, so don’t worry.”
“I hope you’re right,” Deirdre said, “but we can’t count on anything being for certain these days so we’ll not take from you what’s not a sure thing.”
Rory’s voice changed to a plea. “But my mam and da want to celebrate. We think we’ve got a sure thing or at least the closest we can come to one. For a while, anyway.”
Denis put a hand on Rory’s shoulder. “Your family should celebrate, Rory. But we don’t want to take from what you’ve been able to gain.”
Rory straightened his back. “We’ve been neighbors and friends for years. Meg’s to be my wife. That will officially make us all family.” He looked at Denis. “If you don’t come, my mam and da will take it hard.”
“Mam, don’t you think it would be all right if we don’t eat much?” Meg asked.
Brigid held out a small jar. “There’s still a little oatmeal left. We could bring it to share.”
“What do you say, Deirdre?” Denis asked.
Deirdre sighed. “I say it won’t do to offend Meg’s future in-laws.”
A smile spread across Rory’s face.
“We can’t stay long.” Deirdre nodded toward the pile of mending. “The days are getting shorter. We need to work while we’ve got the light.”
“Bring it,” Rory said. “Mam will be happy to help.”
Before anything more could be said, Meg and Kathleen scooped up the clothes. “Brigid, carry the sewing boxes, please,” Meg directed.
“I’ll take them,” Deirdre said. “Brigid, you carry that jar of oatmeal and mind, don’t drop it.”
The women sat in the corner of the Quinn cottage nearest the window, sewing. The O’Connors merely nibbled, though it took great restraint. They were held in check by Deirdre’s steely-eyed gaze whenever a hand ventured toward an extra piece of cheese or bite of bread.
Thomas, Denis, Brendan, Rory and Aiden lounged on the other side of the cook fire conversing about the weather and speculating on the possible cause of the blight. Rory, sitting closest the fireplace for the light, had his carving tools out, working while they talked.
The tiny cottage was even more crowded than the O’Connors. Rory had six brothers and sisters. With the exception of Aiden they were all much younger, Anna having miscarried several times between Aiden and Aisling, the next oldest child.
Loreena was eight, the same age as Brigid. The two girls who shared a love for pigs could be heard outside the open door, cooing over the newest piglet. Unlike the O’Connors’, their pig had only one surviving baby, but it was enough to get from the coming Gale Day to the next.
The other Quinn children, Darien, Lizzy and Seamus weren’t much more than babes. They busied themselves playing with a few toys Rory had carved for them as they crawled or toddled about the cottage. Only ten-year-old Aisling showed any interest in what the women and older girls were doing.
“She wants to sew,” Anna explained as Aisling sat with them eagerly watching the deft movements of their hands. “I’ve been teaching her on some old cloths. She’ll be good at it one day.”
“I wish I could help,” Aisling said.
“I know you do, a stór,” Anna said, giving Aisling a hug, “but this mending is for pay. It’s got to be done just so. Why don’t you get some cloths? You can practice while we work.”
“I wish Brigid would take an interest,” Deirdre complained. “I’ve tried to teach her, but she’s more of a mind for animals than for sewing. I’ve started her on dishcloths and such, but she gives up halfway through.”
“She’s no patience,” Meg observed. “She can’t get the stitches straight, but instead of starting over she drops it to go off with the pig.”
“She’s young,” Anna observed. “She’ll likely grow into it.”
“I hope,” said Deirdre. “She’ll need a skill to trade for food or money and I don’t think there’s much call for pig chasing.”
Meg nudged Kathleen, then jutted her chin slightly in the direction of the men. Kathleen looked over and saw Aiden smiling at her.
The sun rose higher and late morning approached. “This is a bit better,” Anna observed. “I can see more clearly. I thought for sure it would rain today.”
“I think it will,” said Deirdre, “but at least it’s holding off for now.”
Aiden topped a slice of bread with a hunk of cheese and brought it to Kathleen.
“Thank you, Aiden,” Kathleen said, taking the food.
A shadow crossed the open doorway. Kathleen gasped. Kevin Dooley had just stepped into the cottage. Aiden’s smile faded, but he moved to welcome his friend.
“What brings you by?” he asked.
“I’m going fishing. Wondered if you’d want to join me.”
“Since when do you fish?” Aiden laughed.
“Since right now. We ran out of food.”
“Aye. There’s nothing left. Da said to take the curragh out and see what I could catch.”
“Is it even in shape?” asked Thomas. “That old curragh hasn’t seen the water in years.”
“Might need some work first. That’s why I came. I was hoping maybe I could get some help from Aiden to make it seaworthy.”
Aiden glanced at Kathleen. “Of course, I’ll help. Not sure I know much about curraghs, though.”
“Can’t your da fix it?” Deirdre asked, her voice sharp.
Kevin looked at the women as if he’d just noticed them.
“My da’s a bit under the weather this morning.”
“I see.” Deirdre and Anna exchanged glances.
Meg looked at Kathleen who couldn’t take her eyes off Kevin. Kevin must have noticed, too, for once she’d caught his eye his mouth widened and his eyes lit up. She’s right about his smile. ‘Tis a grand one, Meg thought.
“So Aiden, shall we go?”
“What do you say, Denis? I’ve a feeling those two lads would be more likely to drown themselves than fix the boat if we leave them on their own.”
Kevin’s face reddened. He turned his back to the group of women.
“Why not? We’ve nothing else to do. Brendan, why don’t you come, too. You could stand to learn something about fixing a curragh. Maybe someday you’ll even learn to handle one on the water.”
“Aye, the three of us could go into the fishing business. What do you say to that, Kevin?” Aiden clapped his friend on the shoulder.
“Suits me fine. You coming, too, Rory?”
“No. Seems you’ve got enough help and I’m busy.”
“Making toys?” Kevin laughed.
“Rory carved a bunch of wooden animals, boxes and such and sold them in town yesterday,” Aiden explained. “Made enough money to buy some bread and cheese. He’s carving more since he did so well.”
Kevin picked up a trinket box Rory had just finished. Flowers tied with a flowing ribbon were carved in relief on the lid. “Fancy,” said Kevin. “I guess we’ll leave you to your lady’s work then.”
Rory glared at Kevin, but said nothing.
“Seems to me providing food for a family is the work of a man,” Meg said.
Kathleen jabbed her with her elbow, but Meg took no notice.
Kevin whirled in her direction. “That’s why I’m fixing up the curragh.”
“Not by yourself, I notice.” Meg’s face felt lit by fire.
“We all need a little help at times. Let’s be on our way,” said Thomas as he steered them toward the door.
“Wait,” said Anna. She grabbed the end of a loaf of bread. “Take this to your mam,” she said, handing it to Kevin. “Tell her I’ll be looking in on her soon.”
“Thank you.” Kevin said, stuffing the bread in his pocket.
After the men left the cottage, Deirdre asked, “Why’d you give the last of that bread to him?”
“You heard him say all their food is gone.”
“I’m not surprised. That family’s lazy. His da does nothing but drink himself into oblivion. They don’t plan nor save. It’s no wonder they’ve no reserves. ‘Tis their own fault. And that Kevin’s so full of himself. As if he’s anything to be so proud of.”
Meg and Kathleen glanced at each other.
“Still, I hate to see anyone in need. His father’s drinking is not Kevin’s fault. He’s got no brothers. His Mam ain’t got much in the way of brains nor skills, but that’s just how she was born. I don’t see their hurt as her fault nor certainly that of his two sisters, poor lasses.”
“You’re a good woman, Anna Quinn,” Deirdre said. “God love you, you put me to shame sometimes.”
Deirdre glanced at Kathleen, “What child?”
“Don’t you think it’s good that Kevin is going to fix up the curragh and take it out fishing?” Kathleen asked. Doesn’t that show he’s trying?”
“I suppose. But I’ll reserve judgment until I see how far he gets. If he’s anything like his father, he’ll start, but won’t finish. That’s the way of it. Children learn from their parents, be it good or bad.”
Meg nudged Kathleen. She shook her head to warn her off further discussion of Kevin or his family.
“Meg, can you take a break for a moment?” Rory asked. “I want to show you what I’ve done.”
Meg crossed the room, picking up baby Dairen on the way, settling him on her lap as she sat next to Rory.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Meg looked over the assortment of carved pigs, sheep, and dogs. Darien’s hand reached for one.
“Sorry, lad, that one’s for sale,” Rory said leaning over to retrieve an old wooden horse from the floor to hand to the baby.
Darien grasped it in his chubby fist, the head disappearing into his mouth. Drool slid onto Meg’s hands. She laughed. “He’ll be getting teeth soon.”
“The animals are fine for the wee ones, but I can set a higher price for a piece like this, don’t you think?” Rory held up the trinket box with the beribboned flowers Kevin had mocked.
“Rory, that’s beautiful. How much will you ask for it?”
“I’ve no idea of a fair price. I suppose I’ll have to dicker though I fear I’ll be cheated. Still, whatever I can get will help.”
“To be sure.” Meg bounced Darrien gently on her knee. “But you’ve put so much work into it. Something like this takes more time and effort than the little animals. I hope you’ll not be cheated too badly. Do you have more of these?”
“I’m working on one now.” He showed her a half-carved piece of wood.
“What’s it to be?”
“Another box. But this one will have the moon and a few stars on the lid.”
Meg watched Rory’s hands as he worked. She was amazed to see the crescent shape of a moon emerge.
“It’s like seeing magic to watch you work,” she remarked. “When I look at my comb I wonder how you made those hearts and roses stand out from the wood. I could look at it forever and never figure it out.”
“You like that comb very much, then?”
Meg smiled at him. “It’s the most treasured thing I own. Sometimes I can’t believe I possess something so beautiful.”
“I’ll never make another one, Meg. That will be forever one of a kind meant only for you.”
“Oh, Rory,” she sighed.
They gazed intently into each other’s eyes, everyone else in the tiny room forgotten. Darien squealed, raising the wooden horse in his fist between them. They laughed at the baby’s gesture, realizing they had moved very close and now pulled back.
“Chaperone,” Rory whispered to Darien, chucking him under his chin.
Meg kissed the top of Darien’s head, then cradled him in her arms. Taking the wooden horse she marched it up and down his little body making him squeal.
“Just wait till we have bairns of our own, Meg. You’ll make a great mother.”
Meg smiled. She held the baby tightly against her, wishing that day was here and that this was her and Rory’s child. “Soon,” she whispered.
When Meg looked up, she caught sight of Kathleen gazing at her.
“Rory, what do you think of Kevin Dooley?” she whispered.
Rory shrugged. “Not much. He’s friendly enough with Aiden, though. Why do you ask?”
“Kathleen likes him. She asked me if you could find a way to get them together.”
Rory stopped carving. He looked at Meg. “You know Aiden’s hoping to court her.”
“I’ve spoken to her about that, but she says Aiden’s too much like a brother to her. She can’t think of courting him. She’s set on Kevin and no mistake.”
Rory shook his head. “It would be a mistake to set her sights on the likes of him.”
“Why do you say that?”
“His da’s a drunkard. I know that’s not Kevin’s fault, but he takes after his da in other ways. Both are terrible lazy. Kevin’s da used to be a good fisherman, but he ain’t fished since the drink took him over. Why do you think they have to fix the curragh before they can take it out? Nobody’s kept it up. Kevin could have taken care of it, could have been fishing right along, but he’s as lazy as his da. He waits until there’s nothing left and looks to it as a last resort. I’m not wishing it on him, mind you, but I’ll be surprised if he don’t end up as much a drunkard as his da. Tell Kathleen to find another.”
Meg sighed. “I wish she would, but she’s determined. He’s gotten into her heart.”
“I’m sorry for her, then, as I fear he’ll break it.”
Meg looked at her sister again. Aisling was showing Kathleen her practice work on the dishcloth. Kathleen leaned in close to examine the stitches. “You’re doing well, Aisling. Your stitching is nice and straight. Looks like it will hold well, too,” Meg heard her say. Aisling beamed at Kathleen’s praise.
“She’ll make a good mother, too,” Meg whispered to Rory.
He nodded his agreement. “Too bad she won’t think of Aiden for the father of her bairns. Though she’d not believe it now, I’m certain she’d be a sight happier with him than she would ever be with Kevin Dooley.”
It was late in the day when Father O’Malley wound his way down the side of a hill. He came up behind a small girl peeling the inner, fleshy bark from an old oak tree. Her scrawny arms, draped in a tattered black shawl, moved in quick spidery motions.
“What are you doing, child?”
Startled, she jumped and turned, flattening her back against the tree. She relaxed when she recognized her priest.
He forced himself to smile but it was difficult in the face of a ten-year-old girl whose ragged shawl appeared too heavy a weight. “I’m sorry, Biddy. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“I’m getting supper, Father.” She looked at the ground.
He noticed a small pile of tree bark at her feet.
“Is this your family’s supper?”
“Aye, but I only ate a little, Father. I was so hungry.”
He noticed the crumbs of bark around her mouth. Biddy came from one of the poorest families in his parish. They and a few others like them felt the suffering most keenly.
“Please tell your mam I’ll be by to see her in the morning. I think I can bring a bit of something to make a better meal than this.”
“Thank you, Father. We’d be most grateful.” A shy smile exposed gaps where two teeth were missing.
Father O’Malley continued down the hillside. Waves of green spread before him, dipping and rising with the shifting of the land. Tips of rocks jutted from the earth, scattered across the field as though a giant hand had sprinkled the ground as a confectioner liberally tops his cake with powdered sugar. Bushes sprouted up making knobs of darker green against the lighter shade of the grass.
Below him a band of boys combed the field. He saw only empty hands and sullen, sunken faces
Heaven help them, poor lads, he thought.
* * *
Upon entering his cottage Father O’Malley built up a fire then dropped into a chair. He had a bit of food but he was too tired to bother cooking so instead placed it into a small sack to take to Biddy’s family in the morning. His head ached. He rested it in his hands. The heat from the fire warmed his face making his eyelids grow heavy. He thought back to a day long ago.
Siobhan stood before him again—alive, vibrant, and radiant. It was a warm summer afternoon and she had come to visit him while he worked the small patch of land behind his family’s cottage.
Intent on his work, he hadn’t heard her approach until she spoke.
“Would you care to walk with me, Brian?”
With the sun at her back, her red hair blazed. She was barefoot, her dress tattered, torn and patched, but her glittering emerald eyes overshadowed her clothing, adorning her better than the finest jewels.
Hand in hand they walked across the field and up the side of a sun drenched hill. There Brian lay back, reclining on his elbows. Siobhan sat looking out over the water.
“What?” Brian asked, wondering at her dreamy smile.
He glanced at the sea. “So?”
“It’s dancing with the sun. Doesn’t it look happy?”
Sparkles of sunlight played off the gently rolling billows, making the bay a patchwork quilt of varying hues, in some spots so bright it hurt to look.
“None other than yourself would think of it that way.”
“Go on with you now,” she said, giving his shoulder a playful shove.
“Siobhan, you told me the first time we met that you weren’t like other lasses.” He pulled himself up and faced her. “Unless, of course, the lass be a faery.”
“A faery!” She’d laughed. That musical sound that he loved so much.
“You have enchanted me now, haven’t you? Admit it.” He moved his face closer to hers until they nearly touched.
“I shall never tell.” Her whole face smiled. He leaned in the fraction it took for his lips to touch hers. Her eyes now burned with passion. His heart beat hard in his chest. He gently stroked her cheek and traced her jaw with his finger.
“I love you,” he said, his voice a deep husky whisper.
“I love you, too, Brian.”
In his mind he’d practiced what he wanted to say next over and over again. Now the words froze in his throat. He closed his eyes in concentration.
“Are you praying?” she asked.
“No, but perhaps I should be.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I’ve something important to ask you.”
“And what might that be?”
He opened his eyes to find her glistening green ones fixed on his own. What if she refused? It would be over and those eyes would someday belong to another man’s gaze.
“I was wondering, Siobhan, if you would be at all agreeable to…” He was making a terrible mess of it.
She laughed. “Brian O’Malley. What bewitches your tongue?”
“Indeed. ‘Tis not easy to be asking so lovely a creature as yourself to be my wife. Do you wonder at my befuddlement?” What was wrong with him? He could speak anything he wished to anyone but he could not say plain and simple ‘will you marry me?’ to her.
“Your wife?” She’d put a soft hand against his face. “Truly, do you want me for your wife?”
“More than anything on earth.”
“Then, aye, Brian O’Malley. I will be your wife and gladly.” She threw her arms around his neck, pushing all her tiny weight upon him.
Brian wrapped his massive arms around her waist and stood up, swinging her round. Her legs flared out, making her half supine. He’d slowed his spinning, bringing her gently in, feeling her legs toss lightly against his. Then set her down.
“You said ‘aye’!” How had he, Brian O’Malley, claimed the love and devotion of this faery creature?
“Why wouldn’t I? I could nay possibly love another more than you.”
They tumbled together on the lush green hillside, laughing, hugging and kissing until they were spent. Then Siobhan had leaned her head against Brian’s shoulder as they watched the afternoon sun dance with the water.
* * *
“Ah, Siobhan,” he whispered to the fire. “Those were fine days. But now? What are we to do?”
Thoughts of Siobhan faded, replaced by Biddy and the boys in the field. There were some, like them, the most vulnerable who would not make it through. It always happened during times of famine. The weakest were culled. A heaviness settled in his heart at the thought. Another feeling followed, one that had been growing since they day at the O’Connors when he’d seen the rotten potatoes. Sure enough there’d been famines in the land before, but something about this one felt different. He couldn’t explain it. He only knew that a feeling of dread unlike anything he’d ever felt washed over him. He believed the culling would go deeper this time. The idea of watching the deterioration of those who would normally scrape by depressed him more than he could bear.
“You look fine, Denis,” Deirdre said, smoothing the front of his one good shirt.
“I don’t know why I let you dress me up like a doll. What I look like won’t matter to Blackburn.”
“Maybe not, but it can’t hurt. ‘Tis an important conversation you’re to have.”
Smiling, Denis kissed Deirdre on the cheek. “I’d best be off. Thomas’ll be waiting.”
“Is it a very long walk, Da?” Brigid asked.
“A few miles, lass. The landlord don’t care to live too close to us.”
Deirdre huffed. “The landlord lives a mite further than a few miles. I can count the times I’ve seen him cast a shadow on the soil of Ireland.”
“Aye, but his agent is here. Blackburn takes care of business for Stokes so he’s the one to see. Wish me luck.”
“Da, do you truly think he’ll change us and the Quinns to indenture?” Brendan asked.
“Won’t know until we ask.”
“What’s indenture?” Brigid asked.
“Just a different way of being in relationship to the landlord,” Denis answered.
“Different how?” Brigid persisted.
Denis sighed. “You see lass, right now we are what’s called tenants at will. It means Stokes can decide he no longer wants us on our land at any time, rent paid up or not, and make us leave. With indenture we sign a contract in which we agree to work the land for him and he, in turn can’t simply remove us if the whim takes him. Provided we keep up with the rent, of course.”
“The very idea of indenture makes my blood boil,” said Deirdre. “This land is ours. A king there was in your own family, Denis. He owned and ruled this land.” She pointed at all her children. “You remember that. Remember where you came from.” She turned back to Denis. “To ask for indenture and serve a Prod like a slave. Shameful, it is.”
Red splotches crept up Denis’s neck. “‘Tis true, a ghrá. But right now, with no contract, we can be evicted any time Stokes takes a fancy to do it. With indenture there’s a bit of security.”
Deirdre couldn’t meet her husband’s eyes. “I know,” she whispered. “You’re doing what’s best. It’s the damned land thieving Prods got me in a fury.” Deirdre took a deep breath to calm herself. “Dia dul in éineacht leat.”
With that blessing from his wife, Denis left the cottage.
Deirdre stared into the fire.
“Mam, you don’t look well. Are you alright?” Meg asked, squatting next to her mother.
“‘Tis the feeling, Meg. It grew strong in the wee hours of the morning. Woke me out of a sound sleep. I can’t seem to shake it.”
“Is it that you don’t think Da will be able to get us changed to indenture or just that you don’t like the idea of it?”
“Neither. I don’t need the feeling to know Blackburn won’t bother to ask it of Stokes and Stokes wouldn’t change a thing if he did, but your da needs to ask to know he’s tried every way he can to take care of us.”
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know. I only know that something is going to happen. The feeling gets stronger every day.”
Deirdre wiped her hands across her face as if using them to change her expression. “Let’s not talk about it. There’s no sense in getting everyone into a fright.”
“Shall we get on with the sewing, then?” Meg asked speaking in a tone meant for all the cottage’s inhabitants.
“Aye. Sun’s up enough to see by.” Deirdre looked at Brigid. “And you, lass, are going to help. No pig-chasing today. ‘Tis time you got serious about learning to stitch a straight line.”
Brigid sighed, but joined the others near the window.
“What’ll you be doing today, Brendan?” Kathleen asked.
“Don’t know. Aiden’s going fishing with Kevin. I suppose I could join them, if Kevin will let me.”
“Why wouldn’t he let you?” asked Kathleen.
“Kevin doesn’t like having me around. Just because I’m a year and a half younger he treats me like I’m a wee lad. I don’t like it, but I could put up with it if it would get us a fish or two.”
“I’m sure he’s only teasing,” Kathleen said.
“It’s a teasing I don’t like. He knows it, but he keeps right on anyway.”
“Does Aiden tease like that, too?” Deirdre asked.
“No. Aiden and I always get on well.”
Deirdre smiled. “Aiden’s a nice lad. Don’t you think so, Kathleen?”
“Aye, Mam,” Kathleen studied her sewing to keep the annoyance from showing in her face. “All the Quinns are nice.”
“He’s especially so, though, isn’t he?”
Kathleen shrugged. “I don’t see much difference between him and the others.”
“Perhaps you should look a little harder.”
Brendan got up. “I think I will see if they’ll take me with them today. It would be nice to have a fish for supper.”
“How well do they do with that curragh?” Meg asked. “Those take a lot of skill to handle. Kevin’s da was an expert fisherman, but Kevin was too young to have learned much from him before he quit and Aiden’s got no experience at all.”
“Not to mention, from what your da said that boat was in poor shape.” Deirdre added. “It took them days to fix. A hole right through the bottom and all.”
“It’s patched well enough to stay afloat,” Brendan answered. “Though ‘twas Da, and Mr. Quinn who did most of the work. None of the rest of us knew how to fix it. We watched and helped out as we were told.”
“And where was Kevin’s da, the great fisherman, all that time?” Deirdre asked.
“In the cottage, I suppose. We never saw him. Kevin said he wasn’t feeling well.”
“Sure it is he felt well enough the night before,” Deirdre muttered. “Right up until he felt nothing at all.”
“What does that mean, Mam?” Brigid asked.
“Nothing, lass. Just you watch your stitches. You’re beginning to lose your straight line.”
“I hate sewing!” Brigid said, ripping out the stitches that had begun to stagger.
“Does Mr. Dooley ever fish anymore?” Kathleen asked.
“Not that I’ve seen,” Brendan answered. “‘Course Kevin won’t let me come with them much, so I don’t know for sure.”
“You’ve still not answered my question,” Meg said. How well do they handle the curragh?”
“Well enough. They keep to the cove rather than taking it out in the open water. It’s not so rough there. It’s hard enough to keep it upright and fish at the same time.”
“They’re smart to stay where it’s fairly smooth until they’re more experienced,” Kathleen noted.
“The cove’s filled with jagged rocks,” Deirdre said, almost to herself.
Meg noticed a far-away look pass over her mother’s face.
“They’ve caught some fish so they must be doing well enough,” Kathleen stated. “I think it shows that Kevin’s not just like his da. He’s willing to do what it takes to help feed his family.” She sat up straighter, a satisfied look on her face.
“He should take over the fishing since his da’s apparently no longer capable,” Deirdre stated. “He should have started before this, rather than waiting until there’s a famine upon us and he’s got to learn the hard way. If he was really a worker he’d have learned the handling of a curragh and the ways of fishing by now. His da’s not the only fisherman around. There’s others would have taught him if he’d a mind to ask.”
Kathleen put down her sewing. “Mam, why can’t you see anything good in Kevin? He’s got to be the man of his family now. He’s doing what he can.”
Deirdre eyed her daughter. “Don’t think I’m a blind fool, Kathleen. I know you’ve feelings for that lad. I can see why. He’s good looking and a sweet talker when he wants to be.