Cover
RATSY

Emblem
By Corky Robert

Illustrated by Cory Jasper


Copyright © 2014 by Corky Robert



ISBN: 978-0692290095


Printed in the United States of America.


Robert, Corky


Ratsy / by Corky Robert 2nd Edition.


1. Fictional Scottish-Irish autobiography - curse - revenge

2. 1845-1941




This novel is a work of fiction. Names of characters, certain places, and certain incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual eventsl or persons is entirely coincidental.



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written prior permission of the author.



Cover, map, and illustrations by Cory Jasper



FOUR GENERATIONS

OF A CELTIC STRUGGLE

CAPPED BY THE DECEITFUL

PUNISHMENT OF A HORRIFIC

AND HIDDEN CRIME– A TALE OF

EXILE, BETRAYAL, COURAGE, AND

THE ENDURING CURSE OF THE SEA ...




HIDEOUS AND HIDDEN CRIME
RECEIVES DECEITFUL PUNISHMENT, A MAGICAL TWIG OPPOSES A SEA-
DEVIL'S CURSE OVER FOUR GENERATIONS





















































CONTENTS


Prologue


Chapter 1: Genesis 1

Chapter 2: Lying 25

Chapter 3: Plan 39

Chapter 4: Contract 53

Chapter 5: Conspiracy 77

Chapter 6: Crossed 89

Chapter 7: Smuggling 109

Chapter 8: Voyage 119

Chapter 9: Jimmy 131

Chapter 10: Landfall 145

Chapter 11: Revelation 153

Chapter 12: Harbor 163

Chapter 13: No 171

Chapter 14: Undone 181

Chapter 15: Turning 191

Chapter 16: Cursed 203

Chapter 17: Community 235

Chapter 18: Growing 261

Chapter 19: Learning 277

Chapter 20: Dying 289

Chapter 21: Kevin 307

Chapter 22: Arran 323

Chapter 23: Paul 339

Chapter 24: Again 357

Chapter 25: Luck 369

Chapter 26: Ireland 379

Chapter 27: Meggeen 393

Chapter 28: Kateen 413

Chapter 29: Buffaloed 433

Chapter 30: Prelude 453

Chapter 31: Plotting 463

Chapter 32: Revenge 475

Chapter 33: Witness 493

Chapter 34: Lovers 525

Chapter 35: Birth 533

Chapter 36: Lost 543

Chapter 37: Therese 561







Foreword





The characters in this novel are inventions, thrust into real history, recorded customs, and actual socio-economic conditions of their period, e.g. my wife's Northern Irish ancestors who seasonally labored on Scottish farmland, and sometime married Ayrshire Scots. Indeed, a cleric who 'rescued' my wife's grandparent went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. To separate our fictional characters and their origins, I invented stylized period brogues, each intended to identify a unique North Channel or Celtic Sea voice, Irish, Scottish, sailor, landsman, or a blend, frankly avoiding the academic accuracy that obfuscates text and repels readership. Period northeast coastal Irish speech varied widely. It was not Synge's, O'Casey's, nor Joyce's, while the nearby Ayrshire Scottish was often close to JM Barrie's 'Thrums'. And then Scottish and Irish would mix! Regional pubs still exist where local patter, analogous to the Geordie tongue of northeast England, mystifies Anglophones sharing a pint. Hence, I adopt certain colloquial conventions and vernaculars, e.g. passive instead of active voice; omission of connectives; universal present tense; local custom, e.g. "nor" instead of "than", "'tis" for "it's"; "no" for "not", "noo" for "no," and such slang as conveys the period 'feel' or differentiates the speaker. Common literary devices, e.g. rhythm, rhyme, and phrase inversion, lyrically embroider speech patterns that persisted for real emigres to the colorful Old First Ward of Buffalo, New York, where the story begins and ends.







Dedication




Of the hopeful legion that urged me onward, I must begin with my wife, D. Elizabeth Randall, who kept the boat of authorship afloat, endlessly returning the oars to the rowlocks, and my hands to the looms, while providing all the sustenance and comfort that the wayward writer needs to press onward. And especially, she kept and continuously renewed the faith.

There were also my literary beacons on stormy seas, Jerome Fuentes, Laurence Shine, and above all, Gary Earl Ross, and then the critics within my literary groups and elsewhere, especially Veronica Hogle, Tom Keenan, Marsha Mann, Matt Murphy, Phil Nyhuis, John O'Donnell, Catherine Roussel, John Tighe, Amy Rosan, Max Rosan, Suzy Solomon, Matt Taylor, and Barbara Willis. And a host of others. Finally, enormous thanks to Cory Jasper, who illustrated this book and piloted its form, for without his patiently ingenious sense of Gothic mystery and facile navigation of the Apple computer, it would be a far lesser part of what it is.



––rcr





Portrait of Ratsy
Map



















PROLOGUE

Ye say ye're searching for the spot? Ye'd lift the clods what filled the hole, and sift the paltry rot for mouldry bones? Ye'd roll away the stone and resurrect the fiend what all forgot? Then God be wi'ye, friend! 'Tis me what knows it all, the Ancient Wan, half-Scot, half-Irish Maggie-Bawn, half crazed from forty years of Easter Sundays since this villain laid his fatal blow---- that awful Fall it was, the year a crackpot's plot and pistol shot brought doon McKinley and the Exposition here in Buffalo. Yet never could there be an eejit anarchist begins to equal Ratsy's sins, nae Bean Sidhe sprite nor Holy Ghost begins relieving Maggie's howling grieving. Divil mend the monster's awful crimes, and Divil hurl his like into the searing pit to die a hundred deaths a thousand times, and Divil toast his treacherous soul wi' fiery breaths, and turn and roast him on the burning spit, and scour his bowels----
until the dead shall rise and then again he dies.
Meself it is revealed the facts, meself, the hunchback, shred the shroud, meself what knew the godless sleeveen's acts---- meself, the Auld Wan, Maggie-Bawn, ay, Scotland's child what grew on Irish sod. Meself concealed that horrid truth in County Louth longgo; meself, it is, what drank the tears, endured the years, meself what hurted, faced that malcontent, destroyed his sinful plot, avenged a death, and blurted all what shoved the aging knave into his rancid grave; it was me rage for love that led to lies of how and why and when to twelve guid men. 'Tis forty years his shadow fled, and yet ye'll find nae mossy Celtic cross to mark his loss, nae misdeeds carved on stone, nae name where festered weeds have grown ...


and noow Auld Maggie-Bawn, she mourns alone.


Ye grieve anither Easter Sunday stained wi' Irish patriots' blood? 'Tis Erin's 'Rising' floods yer emerald heart wi' greater pain than Ratsy wrenched from me? There's martyrs slain upon this day whose brutal end drenched more in tragedy? It canna be. Let tend my tale, the truth itself, reborn this Sunday, 1941, and it begun almost a hundred years longgo: a liaison, a lover gone, a seaborn curse, a banished foundling's life, a happy wife, a hungry wave, a sailor drowned, an empty grave, another storm, and love again in Arran's Lamlash town, the Divil's sign and worse: a starving time, consumption's scourge in County Louth, a twisted spine, a loathsome urge, virtue betrayed, a venial lie, a stifled mouth, two deaths, and then across the sea to Buffalo, and a bespoken child, a broken brain, a scoundrel at his trade again, an accident parlayed to mortal sin, a verdict passed by tears and clotted blood and fears, a noose the hangman knotted,


and only then the end begins.


Meself, the Auld Wan, Maggie-Bawn, alone survives, the last alive to know the past of harm and who, the last whose blood still flows: Auld Maggie-Bawn, ould as the mist and oulder by two, the sorrowed hag what holds the truth, the crazed ould bag, the mind undone, living in this den of ghosts. It's top of the stairs to ye, me friend, the place, the space, the room where crime consumed a lie and earned the Divil's gaol: it's this here broken brain recalls the time in that there dusty tomb. 'Tis soon enough I'll sleep wi' them I weep for, them what faired away so longgo, the Heavenly Hosts commend their souls. Let bend yer ear to hear a tale begins in lust... and sin...

and justice at the aching end.



Hark! Grandfather Clock, it is, dong-doongs the very hour these darkling halls beheld foul Ratsy's blows what tore me heart three times, the years of tears, the star-crossed boy, the throttled joy in them so dear, all lost, all gone, meself bereft, and aught but falling roses left, and mouldring memories to store, and empty graves to kneel upon, and no more Aves to say, nor biding stones to bless. Let draw the cartain on the stage, the lighting dim, unsartain, actors cloaked in love or rage, a stark and stirring story guid for ill and lechery, of iron will and treachery of her and him, the final act a blur of triumph, grief, and purgatory ...

until

the

stage


gone



dark.




Illustration the first

1

CHAPTER ONE: genesis

Dias Muire duit, stranger, God and Mary be wi' ye. And do ye no come in from away, ay, let ye come up the porch and sit yerself doon for a bit of the craic, och, tales of all what's to tell. Let ye be welcome here, and tell me howanever ye ben, for naebody is a stranger longtimes to the Auld Wan. Here: tuck in for a sit, and it's a friend ye be from this oot. Draw yerself up to this here ketttle. Sugar? Milk? Settle in to yer pleasure; never mind too much me scrooched-over spine and me hump, mebbe slow down trips to the kitchen. Ay, 'tis me Ma machree---- angels in Heaven watch over her!---- said, "Yer back is crooked, Maggie-Bawn, but yer brain is straight."
Ahhh, it's donkey's years passed, yer saying, and it's Francis Xavier Rathlin yer wanting me brain to remember? Say ye, "Francis?" Memory! Musha, 'tis a heavy job, so it is, all them years laying weight on me the like of seventy-eight elephants. Sure and sartain, friend, the breeze yer feeling, 'tis the good Saint Francis turning in his grave the like of a windmill, to have his name so awful desecrated. Och, it's his ten thousand converts praying past the second coming canna bleach the stain of this one cursed fiend. For ye mind, 'tis Ratsy done that.
And noow ye're saying, friend, Francis Xavier Rathlin, he'd no be able for that? Nae, never, no in the light of God's bright day, yer saying, nae, never, noo, him so wee and gnarled, no him wi' the twitchy nose and whispy moustache curled round the gravy ladle, nae, ye're saying, nor the pale beady eyes, and the shifty looks, and the plastery scalp, and the wrinkled skin the sheen of a consumptive candle, nae, never, no wi' the buck teeth and a chin 'tis no a chin at all, run away to his windpipe. And him a narrowback lacking the courage of wilted cabbage? Glory be, it's the Scot in me by half and the Irish by the ither half says, 'tis sartain, friend, ye didna know himself at all.
Ay, Ratsy! Didna ye no hear tell, the ould fowk of the Ould First Ward--- 'tis Exchange Street to the Buffalo River, and Hamburg Street to Michigan Avenue---- never mentions his da's name afore him? Always it's "Ratsy" up and "Ratsy" doon, and, "Ratsy! Bugger off!" at the bottom of it, and the ould boys snickering, "Divil the Rat, the spineless narrowback!" It's never so craven a craytur crawled oot the slime of the Erie Canal, and amongst the Beachers and the squalid layaboots squatting by Lake Erie's shore. Howsomever could it be, ye're asking, himself was such a trial in me life---- ay, mark, trial!---- and yet afeared of seeing his own shadow? Whisht yer tongue and perk yer blessed ears, friend, and I'll spin ye a yarn blister yer brain if ye will but listen, for it's yer Auld Hunchback Wan, Maggie-Bawn, the scuttling Scot, knows more aboot that there gobshite Rathlin rodent nor ye're knowing aboot yer hand. So I'm saying tonight on this here porch, and so I said in Buffalo at Judge O'Malley's court in the yesteryear. And if ye'll hould yer chair doon and leave off the interrupting, I'll tell ye three turrible secrets, and howanever a curse brought sins that riz or fell afore a magical blackthorn twig, until a horrific disaster would put the archangel Michael to flight and ruinate his feathers too.
Whisht! Is it yer saying meself didna be there for all them rich details I'm to tell? Och, 'tis noo artistic invention yer Auld Wan spins, 'tis noo warm words on a cool evening. 'Tis traditional Irish truth haunts me brain-pan; 'tis right as rain, in the way of, "If only I coulda been there, I woulda been and, if then, I shoulda heard such-and-such." And so it's the four horsemen of the apocalypse, "Coulda," "Woulda," "Shoulda," and "If," makes me story. And it'a many a time along the road to longgo ye'll be hearing their hoofbeats, thanking ye kindly, Och, there's truth and near truth, and there's the Auld Wan's tale, Maggie-Bawn's, the truthiest of the lot, so I'm bending yer ear in the bargain. Howanever can ye say it went anither way? Musha, it's word-of-mouth is the Irish way of telling history since afore the crown of Tara, and afore that to Cormac Mac Art. And the Druids, and Poets of the courts, God keep us all in the hollow of His hand. Memory, methinks, is the like of sheep in the meadow, and meself the shepherd herds them to the shearing, and cards the wool for to make the threads of the story. Och, it's me brain spins the yarn. It's me heart weaves the warp of "then" and the woof of "when" in the twisty tapestry of yesteryear, of one life done and anither undone. Aint I ben weaving that and a' that in this ould house half of forever, them oulden days, them blessed faces sleeping under the grass?
So listen close, friend, and hear me tale. And whensomever ye do, sure as Fintan, the Celtic salmon of knowledge, swims upstream from the sea, ye'll gain a salmon and a half. Rest yer sitter aisy-like, and there's yer warm tay in the ould way, wi' milk and sugar, in't. And aint this a lovely ould rockie chair for ye? Come from the ould country, one stave at a time, so it did. Ay, wi' the cushion from true Arran cloth, 'tis a McInnnish plaid for ye to settle yerself, me great-granma's clan.. And do ye mind yer frock no get caught in the rockers. Och! And do ye remember the ould songs? Do ye remember, "If You're Irish, Come Into The Parlor?" I ben hearing it in me head this Easter Sunday, same as them sung so longgo, doon at Mary Flannery's Place. Do ye know it? 'Twas meself used to listen, and chimed in through the upstairs window of me shut-in room round the corner, on Sandusky Street---- afore it become O'Connell. Och, Mary's Place in the Ould First Ward, used to be Tim Flannery's ... that was something!
Ahhh, so I'm taking ye back to Ratsy's Buffalo in the late 1890s, I am, along Louisiana Street, at the end of the Erie Canal. Do ye noo be smelling the ould Ohio Basin, houlds rotting canal boats and festering sewage in equal measure, and hearing the bang and jangle of the freight cars, and the steel rails screeching, and ye canna sleep for the chug of steam locomotives tootling and clanging below yer window? And the waterfront a stink away, chockablock wi' ships and paved wi' canal boats, and swarming wi' dozens of wark gangs, all Irishmen hired right oot the saloons. Godamercy, it's in thirty-six square blocks of the Ould First Ward, there's sixty-nine saloons and sixty-three is hiring halls the like of Tim Flannery's. Each saloon-keeper is the boss of his wee waterfront territory, each taking the contracts for wark from the runners, each sending crews of handpicked saloon regulars for to scoop the grain, or unload the bricks, or shovel the coal, or cut the ice, or whatsomever needs doing on the wharfs. It's each boss hands oot the pay, sets up the loans, and pulls it all back on the cuff or at the bar. Musha, it's Timmy's crew against the ither crews, saloon against saloon, boss against boss in a mayhem of payoffs, threats, beatings and blackmail. A man's waterfront job is worth his life, sold oot cheap as spit at the snap of the saloon-keeper's fingers what hires him. Six bits is half a day's wages if he gets wark at all ... and then come Fingy Conners, putting his spoon in, extorting his two bits.
God save all, who is Fingy Conners, the villain? It's oncommon few alive here in 1941 recalls that scalawag and his saloon at 446 Ohio. That there's the fake boarding-house address of Fingy's imported goons hired oot the Five Points slums in Manhattan. 'Tis them hooligan strike-breakers what casts half the Erie County votes for Fingy's Democratic puppets. And it's him terrorizing the waterfront business, no just Buffalo, but the entire Great Lakes. What'll ye gi' me, Fingy's saloon is three doors from Tim Flannery's bar. Come a hullabaloo wi' Fingy's hoodlums, and it's Tim flung snake-bit and busted into the Commercial Slip, for the wee sin of bossing his own crew of scoopers. Poor lad, he's dead afore he's pitched into the canal, and never able for his acts of contrition. That sticks a spiteful unforgiveness against Fingy in the craw of Mary, Tim's wifie. Mebbe she canna hire the wark gangs like Jimmy did but, by Holy Trinity, she aint gonna close doon or sell oot to Fingy. She changes the name, used to be 'Timmy Flannery's Saloon,' to 'Mary's Place.' Dint of raw moxie, she stays in business. Fingy, he dinna have the bowels to cross an angry Irishwoman, what I'll be telling ye. And Ratsy? He's a scab on Fingy's coattails.
Fingy does become the lakefront's graven idol. Ones call him "Emperor," first of Lake Erie, then all five Great Lakes, Duluth to Buffalo. His Majesty's after cutting the workers' pay in half, from hour wages to bushel wages, and warring against the Ould First Ward's champion, Bishop Quigley, God rest his holy soul. In 1899, 'tis the Bishop wi' the strength of three leads the union scoopers on a grand brouhaha for their rights, them making a fist of it ----brass knuckles and shillelaghs too!---- on to Fingy's goons. A huge donnybrook it was, and the Bishop leading the march by Saint Bridget's. Bridget? What'll ye gi' me, aint it her name says "flaming arrow" in Celtic? Och, 'tis sad, yer young sprouts today, they're loath to fight such monsters as Fingy, aint got the bowels for what our boys did beyond, nor the quick fists, ye mind. But Mary, she was all gumption: "Whatanever Fingy's doing, 'tis me wifie's duty, to carry on me dear Timmy's name, so it is. Ay, Divil tuck a red-hot diamond stickpin up Fingy's arse! Just let his blackguards try to shut me doon, the dihrty villains. I'm carrying on me bit for Timmy. God bless 'Flannery.' 'Tis a grand ould name." So she says, and so she does.
Noowadays, ye canna mention Fingy's name---- nor Ratsy's!---- in Mary Flannery's saloon, lest she take the rickets and pitch ye oot oncommon quick on yer ear, she will. Ay, the last eejit had the bowels to do it, he's locked away ever since for the head staggers in the Lunatic Asylum over to Forest Avenue. 'Tis Fingy and Ratsy we despise and Mary we love. And naebody canna hould it against Mary being a Norther from Patrickdoon---- sure and sartain, no meself, is half County Louth, and half Arran Scot. Anyways, Fingy does try to close Mary doon. Divil the bit! He stirs up his goons and, come the night after Timmy's passing, there's Fingy's men slipping aboot for to destroy Mary's Place. Bedad! It's on Flannery's boardwalk an angry bunch of grim-lips Ould First Ward boys shows up, locked arm-in-arm, jaws set. Och, there's many a blackthorn cudgel---- ay, County Wicklow noggin-crackers!---- poking oot from behind a leg, and them boys roaring, "It's the Same Ould Shillelagh Me Father Brought from Ireland." Noow comes Mary, ye have to see her, short like a stump and a bit tall around, prances through the swinging doors, waving her mop handle. Here's Fingy's goons mills aboot for a minute or three, considering the rewards of action ... and then they're after turning sullen for to walk. Mary bids them brutes guid night and guidbye, ay, raises her mop and hollers, "Ye've not been and left yet! It's good riddance to bad rubbish. We're thanking ye fer removing the smell of it." Ratsy's in hiding.
After that there showdoon, Mary takes her courage in her two hands and 'wakes' Timmy, God shine His light upon him, right there in her saloon's Public Room. Fingy canna challenge a wake. And so the saloon come Mary's Place. Herself runs the bar, fills the whisky kettle, pours the shots, taps the bungs, makes the loans and collects them, the whole jimbang of it, same as when Tim was alive. Ay, and juist how clever she's keeping the saloon I'll be telling ye more beyond. She brooked nae nonsense from the boys, nor allowed women of a sartain reputation across the threshold, front or back, ye mind. Godamercy, yer axing, what ither class of female is it sashays into a barroom in them longgo times? Mary---- Holy Angels guard her soul!---- she changed all kinds of everything aboot it. 'Tis for that, she come near famous as our Father Baker today, God rest his blessed bones! Crews traveling east on the Canal, or west on Lake Erie, or north to Canada, spreads the astonishing news aboot the ladies' doings at Flannery's Saloon, used to be, spread it the like of fire on oil. And Ratsy become a game there.
"Here," says Mary, whilst she's making a 'snug' in the back of Flannery's for the neighborhood warking-girls like me sister Kate, "I'll be having this room oncommon safe for ya, away of the boys. Och, something new, and it's only at Mary's Place, Divil take the ither sixty-eight saloons. Where else is it a decent Catholic warking woman can meet her lady friends over a bit of the craic?" And Mary smiles her phony teeth: "Let that Fingy sonuvabitch scratch his arse about this one, and him after doing me darling Timmy in. By Holy Trinity, let him try me. He'll be in the soup, so he will." And she puts a private room for the ladies in the back of Mary Flannery's Place. Noo such place has ever ben afore.
Godamercy, it causes a tremendous stir, this snuggery does, aboot The Ould First Ward, ay, many a hollering match 'tween husband and wife, and grumbling at the mills, and wheresomever men get together. What'll ye gi' me, five will get ye ten, all that there boys' noise only prods Mary's pride. She's fierce bollocks, she is. Quick enough, the startling news upsets the Women's Christian Temperance Union and their fossil Protestant biddies. Ye mind the kind, rich stuck-up wifies has antimacassars and all indoor plumbing, wears silk bloomers, and noo enough children to keep them busy. What's Mary to do? She stretches her full five foot two, snorts a runnel of snot on the Temperance Union tract, and hustles them hussies to the door. Heaven save the hindmost!
And then she turns back to her ladies at the snug: "Ya'll be safe this place, all of ya, for to get on wi' the palaver, and take a sup. Me Timmy, if he coulda seen it, God bless his soul, woulda loved it. 'Tis noow, and shoulda been, an Irishwoman's right---- and not be sneaking round the like of a mouse behind yar own kitchen door." Ye'll understand, me friend, it's Mary, she didna be nae class of mouse. "Ya can take me vote away, but ya'll never be closing me snug. That's a hare gonna sit, and noo hound aint gonna hunt, God save the Green, ladies. I'm mighty made up in me mind aboot it."
Come one overheated evening, she shuts the snuggery door on Patrolman O'Halloran's red-flushed face, taunting him: he canna close her place doon. Godamercy, it's that very night, his missus, Rosie O'Halloran herself, she come trotting in to Mary's snug, jaunty as sin. 'Tis single-malt Mary serves to all that night, ay, the best, fair better than bathtub brew in the broom-closet. And when Rosie gets home, she sets her tongue to whipping aboot, mind ye, until noow it's every night guid Patrolman "O" guards Flannery's from Fingy's thugs. That puts his beat often near me house---- and ye'll be contriving to put that useful bit of news in yer pocket.
It's Mary Flannery's snuggery revives a weary Irishwoman still wearing her wark frock, on the way home from a Delaware manse-servant's drudgery to a rackety family, a hungry brute, and a boiled cabbage supper wants warming on a bockety coal stove. Ay, friend, the snug is a refuge for gossip and craic, and a drop taken for to ease the drouth after twelve hours slaving for the uptown swells. And I'm no counting one hour riding the trolleys up and walking over, and anither doon. Och, Holy Angels save the horses, but who's for the women? Mary Flannery, that's who.
"Thank God for Mary!" the women cheer, sipping the dew of freedom, relieving the ache and wear of knees skint from scrubbing doon the uptown castles. "And it's noo thanks, ladies, to them aint saying one decent word aboot us being together in Mary's lovely snuggery, them Prottie highheejins, and them lazy layaboots clutters the docks. And Ratsy, Divil take it!" they smile, the one the ither.
"Let them buck eejits whisper," says Mary wi' a grand guffaw. "Us girls knows better," and the ladies sigh aboot their feet be swollen and the awful state of doings at home, slaps from the old man and sass from wee ones.
God love a fool, and all them eejit men whispering aboot the snuggery---- the ould ones grousing it's degrading Irish women-fowk and an insult to the Green, Ratsy beating his wife aboot it, the young loafers asking whatanever this world is coming to? But Conners' goons doon at 446 Ohio didna know what to do aboot Mary, and sits on their hands. The baffled news reporters at the Courier-Express, they're after playing it on their front page banners---- Fingy's mouthpieces, such as they are, mind ye. The priests, they're railing against the curse of drink for respectable Irish women and the risks of impurity. Ay, Bob's yer uncle, them in their turned-around collars sipping more than the Communion cup, and the mitred Bishop thundering aboot sin from his pulpit whilst he's never doing aught aboot the slimy friars meets the choir boys in the sacristy for "lessons." And there's the Women's Christian Temperance Union hates Fingy, and ashamed to come doon hard upon a woman, partikilerly Mary.
"Mary, she's a piece of wark. Who needs the Bishop's intentions for to protect us warking girls when Mary's aboot," the snuggery ladies giggle.
God rest her soul, I'm seeing Mary, broad, squat, and busty, tipping the brew into her ladies' mugs, and them clinking one toast after anither for a day uptown wi' the mops and pails. And them bonnets and kerchiefs bent together in, "Heaven Will Protect a Warking Girl," the like of barber-shop harmony, what I hear through me open upstairs window on Sandusky Street. And the greenhorn boarding-house men up and doon Lousiana and Sandusky craning oot the window to hear it all. Och! Auld Maggie-Bawn was young back then, for the thirties and forties looks young to me today. And there was them Wobblies doon at Mary's Place singing: "There's a welcome here for you ... I'll sing you a song, and I'll make a fuss," and all the guid ould union songs, lifting a mug, clacking the spoons, tilting back for to wet the drouth and loosen the tongue, ye know, and talk a little treason. Times, one of the boys cracks open the snuggery door and peers in to see what mischief the ladies are at. "Whoever you be, ye'll be one of us," the ladies sing, teasing at them till the ould boys is in red welts to their toenails. Godamercy, me friend, seeing ye smiling here at all them high-jinks, it's one of us ye must be, for there's a look to ye stirs a stew on me brain-pan.
Me sister Kate and them girls had their cozy snuggery and the stout, sure, and John Jameson, and the single malt. But 'tis meself, friend, was the pride and joy of Mary's Place, meself, the wretched ugly shut-in living pure as The Blessed Virgin---- what'll ye gi' me, friend? God warm the brains of yer mind, whatanever's the chances at sin for a scuttle-gaited hunchback wi' a curlicue spine? Faith, after Ratsy's trial, come any payday Saturday night---- God save the Green and all debts settled!---- here's Mary Flannery's mob of gossoons marches oot the swinging doors and doon Louisiana Street and turns at Sandusky and over this very porch, and lets a yell oot of them, and up these here stairs, to where me heart is singing and me hands is clapping for to hear them oncoming. Then it's a knock and a shout and them storming the door, ay, that I meself slyly unlatched when first I heared tell their racket five minutes since. And them boys lifts meself up, och! chair, hump, curlicue spine, scuttling feet and all, tender as I be a bubble of foam. There's meself laughing the like of an eejit bairn at the circus, and them careful as if I be the crown of Tara, passing me overhead. Canna ye see me wee gnarly body leaning back in me chair, and it overing hand over hand, and them boys advising the one the ither, carrying me doon, doon, doon the stairs:
"Easy boys!"
"Care, noow, Mike!"
"It's our good Auld Maggie!"
"Give it a lift, Pat. Watch yer arms!"
"Nah, ye bleedin' Mick, 'tis Ould Maggie!"
"Ay, Jack, a fragile package and the best of Erin!"
" 'Tis no Erin, ye fool! She's Arran to her toes. And we love it."
Glory be, it brings me oot in red welts, till I don't know what way to turn.
"Hey, Scottish lass, ye ben gang wi' the gang for a bit o' Glen Live-it?"
" 'Tis Erin's gain and poor Arran's loss, so it is."
"How is it we're doing, Maggie?"
Next ye know, we're oot into the brace of night, and it's them heists up me chair and passing me along, until I'm leading from above the like of the Bishop's crozier at the fore. And it's us filing away doon the street, over the cobblestones in the general noise and parade, and me arms waving on high such as flags on the Fourth of July. Ay, friend, close yer eyes and what should ye see next on Flannery's boardwalk? It's the mob of us sallying into Mary's Place like some class of Roman legion. The air is a blue muck of cigar smoke and beer stink able for to choke Saint Michael and his angelic hosts. Och, this cooramuch of celebration, 'tis the like of the crowds at Donegal Square on market day, filled wi' cries of, "She's here, boys," and, "Hurrah for Maggie-Bawn!" and, "Make way for our Maggie!" And that there's a signal to swizzle doon yer jar on the spot.
Did ye no hear tell of the toasts and boasts and clinking and drinking? It's usquebaugh! and slainte! and the boys riz me up over and again amidst the happy hooley, and sets meself flying from shoulder to shoulder on me throne like Jamie's banners at the Boyne, me wee crooked feet never touching the floor, me heart encircling the raucous mob of them, me ears drinking in the fierce cheers, and it's all the ones I know by name, singing and shouting and tilting a schuper for to settle the drouth and, faith and troth, come a drammie or three handed up to me every noow and then to wet me whistle. And the ladies in the snug opening the door a crack to peek, one face over anither, all wi' put-on frowns and the mock disapproval itself. Ay, what'll ye gi' me, that there was times, then, so it was!
"Maggie-Bawn," ye'll be hearing me sister Kate holler, "yer on the Divil's side of the door!" And it's general laughter to that, and the boys in the barroom boistering back, " 'Tis yer darling mither machree calling all her wee angels back home," and more cackling and hollering from the snug: "Och, yer father's moustache!" And back and forth wi' the taunts. There's aught to be seen the like of the snuggery north of New York City. It's Mary's Place is the talk of Buffalo.
All this come since Ratsy's trial and didna never let off until the turrible day in May, fourteen years later when---- and I'm choking on that part, friend: let it rest and more of it beyond---- 'tis too much grief for noow. Ahhh, but at Mary Flannery's, it was rough and ready, och, me and the boys and all in the oulden days. At the end of the hours, it's after Mary accounts for all the IOUs and all the drinks on the cuff, herself slides oot from behind the bar, and bats the ould brass bell and sings oot, "Time, gennlmen and the rest of ya, 'tis time! If whisky didn't cure ya, get home to ya bread and butter ... Settle up and get up, boys! ... Hurry on, noow! Away oot wi' ya!"
Noow is the hour the boys carry me home wrapped and swaddled the like of the manger's Child. Up the street and then up me stairs we march, a wee bit more wobbly nor when we went doon, and it's again the rough hands suddenly tender, gentling me the like of a sparrow's egg, until I'm perched in me sitting chair by the window. Last come the leave-taking, the kisses blown and the latch turned---- and meself broke out in red welts again!---- and ay, it's them kisses to catch in air and store in a hunchback's keepsake box. There's the boys staggering home, singing in the streets and puking on the cobblestones, and meself alone wi' the spinning walls and dancing dreams. Ay, friend, 'tis only the Virgin Mary Herself knew the ways of Mary Flannery's boys better than Auld Maggie-Bawn. And there come a later day wi' the fat in the fire, a hard day wi' the cursed Ratsy, and I found oot how much more them guid ould boys really cared. Nae, that there's all I'll be saying aboot Ratsy and saloons and snuggeries and ladies and Mary Flannery, and me sister Kate, and the boys, until beyond.
Here, I'll be putting anither kettle on the boil and aint it sweet, we'll have ourselves anither nice cup of tay and a bit more of the craic. I'll be after the doing of me story, then, for I see ye chafing to get on, whosomever ye be, God hould ye in the hollow of His hand. Och, there's so few stops by these days, dinna ye know. 'Tis the lonesome life of a shut-in I've led, Auld Maggie-Bawn, the scuttling Scot, standing on me little small hind legs in the turrible great pain of it, though the doctors mended me a wee bit and I can get on wi' a cane for a bit, as ye see. Ay, this here cane. Howsomever it was this cane come to that, I'll be telling ye by the bye, for it's aboot the horrid Ratsy and his deeds... musha, one sugar or two? And a drop of the milk? And aint it lovely here, though the air be peevish and damp wi' fog? Get yerself aisy, then, and hear me song, and yerself mebbe joining in the chorus here and there. And a biscuit ... is it yer hungry? Do ye be up for a wee bit of this here boxty, put some flesh on yer ribs, whilst I tell me story? It's a haunted life I'm biding in this creaky ould house and a lengthy tale I'll be telling, mebbe worth the boxty and anither kettle. So here's how it all began for me, and me Ma, and me Da.
Margaret Paula Houlihan I was christened, but Maggie-Bawn is what they called me when I was a wee Scots bairn in arms and me back was straight---- the broth of me Da and the spit of me Ma. 'Maggie' was after me Ma, ye'll understand, and 'bawn' from the ould hedge-school Gaelic talk for a fair-haired wean canna do wrong. For ay, amn't I twice what youse ootlanders calls Gael, wi' the blood of two clans bleeding in me creaky old bones and the maudlin brogue of two lands, more bristly than a Scottish thistle-patch and sweeter as Irish shamrock honey, on me immigrant tongue, so: O'Neill Scot by me Ma and Houlihan Irish by me Da, them passing in the Ould Country afore the twentieth century come round, God bless their souls. And it's fifty some years this Auld Wan's living here in The Ould First Ward. For it's, 'auld' and 'ould,' and me brogue the way I never been to school, Scotland, Ireland, nor America ... O! What's ye be saying, friend?
Nae, friend! Nae, nae, NAE! never ever be calling Auld Maggie-Bawn by the nasty name of 'Scotch-Irish,' Divil take it! Nae, nae, never! Stop in yer steps and never be calling me that name, for it's the like of Ratsy who was that and did that, and all them despicable Orange trash: plantation finaglers, squeezing landlords, gobshite carriage-trade, turncoat Peelers, heathen Covenanters, soupers ... the worst of the Orangeys, God forbid. It's a crying shame, me scoundrelous great-gran'da, Hugh Robert O'Neill-the-depraved, he was the very spit and image of that wicked Orange tribe. Musha, to the everlasting fires wi' the lot! Pray the Guid God in Heaven makes me shut of great-gran'da's evil blood, for his name is a mockery of Saint Columba, what was an O'Neill, and the brave Hugh O'Neill, the Ulsterman what outwitted English armies in the bloody centuries beyond, so he did. Noo, me yellow-bellied great-gran'da, Hugh, was a rascally O'Neill and naebody's hero, rotten from appetite to arse-hole. Och, may the flags of Hell rise against him and all his 'Scotch-Irish' hooligans, and their Orange entrails be skewered through eternity! Meself didna never do business wi' them backslid renegades. The seven curses upon Hugh's sins, what ye'll be hearing soon enough aboot them. And Divil boil him in his own skin till the day after Judgment Day, plus three. It's worser yet, if yer brain can stretch that far, to tell ye aboot Ratsy, what I'll be telling ye soon enough.
On me better side, 'tis partikilerly O'Neill's runaway wife, me great-gran'ma Laurie Jane---- Sweet Mary save the guid woman's soul!---- put decent Scottish blood in me as suits her Highland clan, for her fowk be honest MacInnish Scots. It's soon ye'll be hearing more on Great-Gran'ma Laurie Jane MacInnish O'Neill. Och, ye'll be asking, then, howanever on earth did her granddaughter---- me own Ma---- and me Da meet, each biding on the ither shore of the Irish Sea? God love ye, get a close grip on yer taycup and we'll get anither kettle on the boil, for it's first I need to tell ye aboot me father, Paul Michael Houlihan, Sweet Mary rest his soul, himself born in wee County Louth at a no-name crossroads, a piece beyond Drogheda, hard by the River Boyne.
It's after we come over from Scotland, Da takes me doon to his birthplace. " 'Twas CuChulainn, our grand Irish hero, born here by the Boyne. 'Twas CuChulainn the Milesian poets praised: '... the bull of the seven combats, ay, the vulture waiting on the rock, ay, the tusked boar in valor, ay, the spear-point of battle ...' " Mark, it well, friend! God moves in mysterious ways, for by and bye, ye'll see that very Milesian verse warking a miracle in me hour of need. Anyways, "Maggie-Bawn," says Da, "ye be proud as any Irish lass, knowing we come from the land of Cuchulainn, ay, himself and his caman stick and his sliothar ball." And Da tells the tale, howanever our hero swung his caman and hit the sliothar so far, and runned after it and catched up and caught it. And mark! Ye'll contrive to remember that ball and stick.
Da sighs, " 'Tis the Boyne where yer ancestors bled for King Jamie and the True Church. And 'twas here, anither Jamie and two Charlies after," he points towards Drogheda, "here come Oliver Cromwell, dog gnaw the butcher's bones, and Divil eat the dog! Slaughtering the innocents, ay, skewered an entire clan of Houlihans, and Ireland's freedom lost." Da's jaw sets. "Ay, Cromwell, the hateful hand of Hell!" Then, Da tells me of the longgo hero I mentioned afore, Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, the only Irishman to win in battle against the treacherous Cromwell: " 'Twas too little, too late." And how Cromwell's massacres fanned the green flame of hatred, so it did, over two and a half more centuries of English oppression until, here's Da's own da, me Daideo, Padraig Houlihan, died for the Green.
"Howanever did Daideo Padraig come to die?" I'm asking Da then, whem it's me eight-year-ould brain first begins to understand death.
" 'Ye no be crying, mavourneen. Sure, yer Daideo never let the black-hearted beasts what hunted him doon to see him cry." Da is grim-lips, telling me howanever Daideo's right forearm was blown all to smithereens and him bleeding the way of a slaughtered pig. "And the brutish English hauling himself away wi' the rest of the dying lads, stacked like logs on a creel car, so ones said, and his broken body carried away to England, never to be seen nor heared tell again in all Ireland, North or Free." Da canna say, "Ulster," only, "North." He wipes the bitterness of his tears wi' his hand. " 'Tis our sorra everlasting, yer fearless Daideo has no stone for to mark we didna know where he sleeps, nor the sweet sod of Ireland for to warm his bones. But he's in heaven with the Saints and Martyrs and glory, feeling noo pain, for he's a martyr too."
So it come, Da says, he riz up a Catholic widow's son, then. His ma ben a starving weaver in the way of many aboot wee County Louth---- and Scotland too!---- in them longgo days. Ay, all over the countryside, them poor crofters suffering the hunger, for spinning wheels and home looms with hand shuttles and foot-pedals canna ever compete wi' English steam jennies and chintzy English cloth---- that shoddy stuff what snuffed oot the Irish trade, bedad, and made empty bellies of skilled hands. The pride of Erin what weaved flax and wool was starved oot, plain and simple.
"Howanever did that be, Da, English cloth sold so cheap?" I ax the next year, meself nearly nine, in me second year on Irish soil, learning the ways of injustice.
"Ahhh, Maggie-Bawn, my dote, 'tis the cloth made by ha'pence wages of young ones the like of yerself, cruelly chained to mechanical looms in the cotton trade. There," Da points east, across the Irish Sea, "at Leeds and Manchester and a bunch more grimy Midland cities. It's them wee ones never in this world seeing the light of God's day, only through a high-up grimy clerestory. It's them," Da's struggling, "pays for cloth with their stolen childhood in the mills. O, Maggie-Bawn, canna you see them little ones in the horrific thrum of the vast halls, with the shuttles flying like gunshot and the whirling bobbins burn your hands to touch, ay, and no a breath but chokes on the lint in the air? It's all as Mister Dickens says," Da wags his head. "Sure, 'tis the little ones lost to the looms what pays for the ships to rule Queen Victoria's waves. Ay, ships made on the banks of the Clyde, three jumps from the Island of Arran, where ye were born, Maggie-Bawn. Och, Divil the hateful parliament, what let languish the lanes and boreens of Irish homes and crofters dying for want of trade."
"Ye make it oot a turrible thing, Da."
"I do believe, Maggie-Bawn, it killed Ma. Ay, for the people in the townlands, they put their heads doon on their looms wi' naething of wark to do, and the shepherds in the hills the same. The weaving of the woolens and tweeds and linsey-woolsies, and the knitting of ganseys and shawls, and all their care and pride, their honest living, was all gone---- if no to the cotton trade, then the wool from Australia---- and all to the bloody humming and thrumming of the Midlands machines ... and the wee laddies and lassies, them little small spinners ... ." A brooding sadness come doon on Da when he speaks oot the like of that, God save all, worser than tears it is, if the most wretched melancholy in the whole world was drawn upon his face.
Long after Da passed, Heaven bless him, I hould the English for the suffering of me own times, so I do, and for flooding the countryside wi' the tears of idled men and women and frail children, and filling the warkhouses wi' the destitutes, and the graves wi' starvation. Truth, after our family's good seven years in Scotland, for the nineteen years we be biding in rural County Louth, the only Ireland I know is a land of poverty and want.
"In my dreams," Da waxes sad, "I see the hordes of Irish the like of ghastly skeletons, their noble bellies hollowed, homeless heroes all, trudging the weary roads, facing the wind in every weather, sleeping in the furzy ditches and the rotting fields." He looks at the sky and riz his fist, hollering: "God save Erin!"
"Aint them the noble descendents of Fin Mac Cool and CuChulainn, the like ye told me? And aint us?" I ax Da, and I didna know why I cry.
"Aint them the spinners of an honest skein, and the crofters of an honest cloth, and the stitchers of an honest hem?" Da asks in return. "What a weeping for the Green, bedad. Shed doon yer tears for all that was lost! And for what? And for who and for why?" Da grieves, dabbing at his eyes.
The next year, when I can understand more, Da explains: "Och, 'tis the English hauled half the slaves oot of Africa, them what warked the American cotton fields for the whip and fatback. And 'tis the English armed the slave states during the American Civil War, for to haul that cotton to English mills. And after the war, 'tis English ships with English crews, hauled American cotton to English mills for to make cheap cloth whilst the Irish goes aboot in rags." Da's face flushes and the veins in his neck stand like ropes, for he's mighty made up in his mind. " 'Tis the Queen, the like of all the damned royals afore, grinds doon the Green. Ay, piecemealing yer poor gran'ma, her withoot me gran'da, and me, her boy, withoot the bread, and our hovel in County Louth the like of Uncle Tom's cabin at a cotton field in Georgia. And wi' that and 'a that in the wide world entirely awry, my Ma ben a wee smudged cipher in the book of tears at Saint Vincent de Paul's charity. It's the ould story, so it is, didna ye ken, child, the English boot in the Irish arse."
And so me Da, he suffered his own da's disappearance and then he's after seeing poor Gran'ma gang paltry wi' the selling her hand-woven stuff at pennies to the yard, or mebbe farthings, God save her, on the odd day when the market's in it. And there was herself, dwindling into the grave the way of silence at her loom, faith! never more her shuttles jumping and the rustle of the heddles, and the harnesses thumping and the bustle of foot-pedals, nae, nae, never. Nor the needlepoint lace she knew from childhood at a French nun's knee, she's noow too blind to stitch. Come the end in all that silence, wi' charity barely enough for one and hardly for two, it destroyed Da's young soul. He worried over whatanever to do, afeared of his Ma passing in the warkhouse on thin gruel, and himself left for a miserable dying in the orphans' home. It was a time of many a motherless child, as so often it is in Ireland, and little brains making big decisions to live free, or die in misery.
And so Da run away of it, a wee lad of eleven years gang doon to the sea, and himself growing to manhood at first as a crooner, him dyddling the tunes learnt at his ma's knee, him wi' a reedy voice, an Irish harp, and a creel filled wi' rhythms of his ma's loom. Soon, he ben a fisherman oot of Clogherhead, a port for Drogheda, south of Dundalk Bay, and also oot Newcastle Port and Dundrum Bay in County Doon, what's all Orange land noow, and I'll be telling more of Newcastle soon enough. Always, Da's sending money to Gran'ma machree, och, but money canna have arms, and her lonely sadness gnawed worser than starvation, until if a crust be on her plate she never touched it at all for the sorra in it. She become a dauncy skeleton took to her rockie chair, and when the rocking stopped, the fever carried her off. Ay, and there's Paul is fourteen, and alone wi' himself in the wide world. Afore his years, he's learning his way up the ropes, as the fisher-fowk say, himself always facing the light, his brain crunching on all what he encounters, and his fingers never still.
Ahhh, mind ye, learn he does. Ashore wi' harp and tales and tunes, he finds favor in the dockside public houses of Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales. 'Can ye sing us a tune?' the men ask, tilting back, mug in hand. At sea, dint of courage and a clever brain, he makes his way from fisherman's boy on the oars, to hand at the nets, to skipper at the helm. "Sail wi' us, Paul," the men say. Soon he's a roistering steed of eighteen, captaining his own fishboat---- a class of 'hooker,' the Irish style it. The treacherous North Channel, the Strait of Moyle, the deadly Mull of Kintyre, the firths and salting loughs itself from Malin Head to the Isle of Man---- all the dangerous wark of the great Irish sea-god, Manannan Mac Lir---- finds Paul fearless. Faith, it's in the proper doing of sweat and guid slog, bowing neither to man nor god, brings Da a romping young seaman's life and wark what prospers him. Whatsomever is rough, Da is rougher, sailing wrathy seas, defying boistering storms, battling the turmoil of the North Channel on his way to herring runs beyond the Ooter Hebrides. Aint once he didna come home, aint once he lost his ship, nor a man overboard. Surely, it's every skipper on the Irish Sea and the angels of the four winds knows Paul Michael Houlihan, wi' his brown blowy thatch all curled and ringleted, his steely squint, and his steady hand at the helm. Aint a body in the trade winna jump to wark for Paul Michael Houlihan. One of those hires is a Mick sailor doon on luck and up on drink, by name Jimmy Callahan. Mark! It's him ye'll be contriving to remember, for I'll be after mentioning more of him in later times. Anyways, wheresomever Paul wanders, never does he find the will nor the place for a hearth nor a woman of his own. Until the day, and I'll be telling ye, howsomever he barely slipped the Divil's grasp---- a wild windy tale to come, so be houlding yer chair doon.
Ay, it's in me brain I'm seeing Da clear as I see yerself, him plucking me heart-strings when he's picking at his harp. These here tears ye see, friend, it's me eyes still smart from watching his flying fingers by the smouldering turf of our hearth, and me ear's hearing his tuneful verses and, ay, me one small head filling wi' ballads of queens and kings and poets and Druids and magical spells, and Manannan Mac Lir, and CuChulainn, that mythical Celtic hero of Louth at hurley wi' his caman and his sliothar---- surely ye contrived to remember them things too, for to make the sense of me entire story. And do ye ken the ire of Mannan Mac Lir upon the Irish Sea, and the rowdy and jealous ways of Emer, CuChulainn's stalwart wife, and the traitorous turncoat Ferdia betrayed Emer's husband, so he did. To meself, Da become the very like of CuChulainn, a tower of a man takes his ease on land and sea, a man of strong views, and strong hands ... and never a one to suffer the drouth. And it's a power of CuChulainn's tales I yet hear Da singing to his harp:

" ... the goblins and the spectres and the airy sprites did mutter
for terror of the strengthy shout that CuChulain would utter ... " *

*adapted from,'Tain Bo Cuailnge',
translated by Kinsella, T: "The Tain," 1969

Noow, aboot me Ma, Margaret Bridget O'Neill Houlihan---- blessings upon her, and all praise to the Immaculate Heart of Mary!---- Ma machree was riz an orphan child, true Scot and Irish she ben, a bastard bairn born of a young a plantation shepherdess from the North, God rest her soul, ay, a fiftenn-year-old Presbyterian O'Neill lassie, in the year of 1845. 'Twas in in the ninth glen by Glenarm, beyond Doonpatrick City, in County Doon, that there lassie lay doon wi' a villainous tinker and made me ma. Ye're wanting to call oot the snake ruinated the lassie, and stole her purity? Whisht, for it's to come beyond, if ye will but listen.
That there babby become an orphan riz by one godmother in a Scottish Catholic foundling home. Mind ye, forty virtuous Sisters didna make one decent father at all, nae, and I'll be telling more of that. Ay, take anither sup of tay, me friend, and let yer ears be hearing more of this bastard babby sent beyond ken and view of her natural home, and how she come a young girl at Saint Maundie's Community, scrubbing holy hearths wi' fingers worn, and carrying stinking chamber-pots and filthy washing-up basins, and yet asked to the carrying of sartain messages amongst the young holy ones in the dark of the night. And all times, the miserable foundlings the like of herself arriving, wriggling like herring in a basket and the great lot dying the like of May-flies in July, so they did. But never did Ma falter, she sturdy as the cairns of Arran at Torry Linn, unyielding as the blue granite bluffs at Ailsa Craig, a girl become a woman of clear eye, clear mind, and clear voice, proud as Mary Stuart, bold as Emer. and the guidness flowing from her soul more strengthy and wider than the Irish Sea: that and a' that, Ma was. And what'll ye gi' me, she run away of Saint Maundie's, so she did!
Ay, stretch yer legs and come inside, friend, to the sitting-room, and I'll warm the kettle again, then, whilst ye bend an ear. It's a grand tale to come of howanever that there runaway lass come a maker of fishermen's nets, wife and widow and wife again, in lonely Lamlash town on Scotland's windswept wild Isle of Arran, on the Firth of Clyde. Faith, a grim story for herself, and them she loved, and many a twist too, bedad. And there's a blackthorn twig in it ye'll contrive to remember: mark it well, friend, for it's to arrive twice on Arran. Och, me Ma and Da together told those tales and sang them tunes of their early days in Scotland, when I was yet the glint of an eye, and Ma digged and boiled the spuds, kept the hearth, sewed the patches, plucked the wild glens, and made the garden whilst Da fished in the sea and the loughs of the sea, and harrowed the soil, and planted the seed, and spaded the turf. And hunted the hills, for 'Arran of the Many Stags' was their island's calling.
God watched kindly over the life they lived: up at the door of dawn to draw the water, and the hoeing and the plowing, and the hive to make, and the sow to settle and eggs from the hens and the goat to milk, and mending the thatch and scraping the chimley and sweeping the flags, that and a' that even when I come along and Ma's belly clumsy swollen, Lord sustain her gentle soul. For to feed her Maggie-Bawn, wi' me Da being at sea, she'd take and put me in the creel car, and us plodding to the north of Arran, on to Brodick Castle and round to Lochranza, or south to Laggs, to market all she harvested and me suckling all the way. Or when I was toddling, it's then Da, Saints preserve him! sailed us to the great markets at Ayr, across the Firth of Clyde---- holidays for me, those days were, on the crowded wharfs and streets. 'Twas in those very markets that Ma and her first husband first met. Och, ye'll be hearing more beyond, friend, of Arran and Ayr, and a certain seaman's church on the wharf, if ye'll hould yer chair doon. And would ye be having a bit more tay? 'Tis no a mansion here, but do ye be hungry, there's yet a bit of stiraboot left of the morning, and the odd bite of soda bread or two I'll be freshening for ye, and here's the butter and a fine dubliner cheese? Or the biscuit? A scone, mebbe?












Illustration the second

25

CHAPTER TWO: lying


'Tis me great-gran'da on me Ma's side, that scalawag, Hugh Robert O'Neill-the-depraved, Presbyterian Elder and bone-brained Calvinist of the Covenanter Kirk, Hugh' mighty made up in his mind aboot God, man, woman, and the royals. In that, he's the spit and image of his hateful Lowland clan, an only son inherited what his father stole, ay, that there County Doon plantation. Afore Hugh crosses the Irish Sea, he is a miserly lowland Scot, never pays the King's taxes, saying it aint his king, nor his Queen Victoria. After, he ben a ruthless Orange scoundrel against the Green, twisting the King's law for to fill his own purse, och, the like of his da wi' the swindling and dispossessing decent Irish Catholic fowk---- and himself still cheating on the taxes, bedad!
That and all that brings turrible dishonor on the name, "Hugh O'Neill," what I did tell ye, friend, was ancient of times a great patriot of the Green across the counties of The North, himself born on Irish sod in Dungannon, and riz up to make war doon in Kinsale against the English oppression. But noo me great-gran'da Hugh-the-depraved O'Neill, for he is a lily-livered toadie in the King's pocket.
"Ullans," is what we call Ulster Scots the like of great-gran'da, cursing them roundly for finagling the spit from our Irish tongues and putting such penury on our righteous holdings. Back then, 'tis the Orange grinds Green underfoot the whole land over, bedad, the toe of the King's boot and the heel of his Parliament, och, the Anglican left foot trampling the South and the Calvinist right foot in the North, ay, the parsimonious, sanctimonious Ullans. It's thin stirabout and an early stone in the churchyard to us Irish, for wheresomever we turn, heartless English gentry and miserly Ullans stealing the sod we ben born to, ay, where we tread, what we plant and harvest, the very hole where we bury our dead and the earth to cover it, so it is, for to make us Irish pay rent on our own toil. Ay, rent for bog-land houldings hardly feed a meager goat or a starvy cow, rent for rockbound drumlins canna grow a single spud, rent for naething a man can plant that will feed his wife and bairns. 'Tis nae rent, 'tis robbery.
Mind ye, 'tis little the love lost between Brits and Scots, for the Scots be Celts the like of us. It's the Church of England did never lose its Anglican arrogance for to kick Scots aboot like cur dogs, long beyond the murder of Mary Stuart, and the disemboweling of Catholic patriots, and the bloody fashion for drawing, quartering, roasting and the rack. Great-gran'da Hugh Robert O'Neill-the-depraved, he hates Catholics, from brain doon to pisser and up from arse-hole to appetite, partikilerly the back-slid Presbyterians renegaded over to Popery. Calls them, "perverts," so the hateful Covenanters do, and themselves never counting it sinful for to ambush a pervert souljer or warden, nor to set a cowardly fire upon a pervert's hayrick in the black of night. But O'Neill hates the English even more than the Irish.
Hugh Robert's vile temperament and Covenanter's intolerance falls worser upon his family than his tenants, ay, worser nor his sow in the sty, nor his lambs at the slaughter. 'Twas noo class of female suits Hugh, neither bitch dog, nanny goat, ewe, cow, hen, nor woman, and in this matter, hates Scottish, English and Irish women alike. The cruelties he brings against his genteel wife, great-gran'ma Laurie Jane MacInnish---- ye'll contrive to remember that name, friend!---- knows no an end, yet she a Highland woman of quality, and her lineage tracing to King Malcolm, The Third. But Laurie Jane canna be safe O'Neill's house and afore eleven married years, runs in terror, so she does. And when she flees, she's after leaving her six-year-ould daughter---- ay, that's me Gran'ma O'Neill, friend---- behind in evil throes. 'Tis that there poor child, alone by her self, Heaven claim her soul, suffers Hugh's undivided ill temper, ay, his rigid Covenanter ways and shameful abuse. Ye mind, friend, herself is one fiery filly, what riz up measure for measure against Hugh's spiteful sins of depravity, and heaps bitter cess on himself until the time of her blood come, when she rebels entirely. Och, she tells herself, she'll find a lad and run away, so she will. Godamercy, afore she can run, that there motherless shepherd lass what I never knew, she lay doon a virgin in purity and riz a mother in sin, Saints and Martyrs bless the lass, and in her belly me own Ma, . And what manner of snake did that deed, friend, and where?
A helter-skelter Catholic tinker oot of Glasgoow it was, Divil the sleeveen, corrupting young Gran'ma's innocence in the Maytime of the ninth glen of County Doon. Worse and worser, me friend, for the lassie never having the joy and comfort of tinker for husband, nor babby for child. The wee one was snatched from her by the evil Hugh O'Neill-the-depraved itself---- ay, that there babby what become me Ma, never in this life knowed whatsomever of her own true father nor mother: a mother up in Heaven, Godamercy and say yer Paters, in't, and a roving father drownded dead on the way to wandering back to Glasgoow, and in the---- ahhh, Saints and Martyrs look doon on eejits. But I'm afore meself, ay, and that there's a part of the tale must wait beyond.
And noow let ye settle yer taycup, friend. For here's the surprise, the bitter and the sweet in one taste, Blessed Virgin Mary in Heaven pray for us sinners, the wonder to end all the wonders on God's green island. What'll ye gi' me, the bastard babby, me own Ma, she was fifteen years as near to her true gran'ma, Laurie Jane MacInnish O'Neill, as me to yerself this night, yet naething the child knew of it! Howanever did all that tangle come to the light of day? Meself, it was, what traced the details oot long after, when it's in her grave Ma was sleeping ... whisht! 'Tis anither part of me story to tell beyond.
But noow, ye must close yer eyes for the story of the lassie and the tinker, and let ye inhale the soft spring scents of The North, and let see afore ye a green meadow, and swollen ewes grazing amidst the poet's gentle hills of Ireland, and yonder a glen, and in it a great white oak, and sun dappling through the leaves. And let open yer ears to the twittering of bluebirds nesting above ... and the rustling of garments below, and the beginning of begats in the heat of bare flesh. Ay, it's the tinker and the O'Neill lassie at sport ye're hearin, and the mischief is the Divil's doings itself.
"Ay, darlint sweetness," the tinker's swearing, mebbe, into the O'Neill lassie's embrace, "it's the Holy Angels singin' luvly I'm hearin'."
'Tis since the sun rolled past noon, hinself been teaching this here simple shepherdess the sins of the excitement, and them in the shadows of the great oak, himself keeping a weather eye for wanderers and watchers. And poachers and Peelers. 'Tis herself at last wi' frock and petticoats hiked, and then, this wary Scotsman, he didna take his trousers doon but a wee handspan. Canna ye see them rolling from scrub to scruff and back again under the whispering boughs whilst, in the meadow oot beyond, the ewes in lambing season wi' sagging bellies and the munching and the black eyes staring, and the odd new lamb softly bleating?
Joyful noises rush oot the fourteen-year-ould lassie's throat and she's pulling her tinker doon upon herself again, whispering between breaths. "One more time ... Ooooo, 'tis luvly ... Ooooo!" she gasps, for the passage of the tinker's poker what raked her virgin hearth in seary pain the first time, and less the second, the third time aises a sudden torrent come a flood of pleasure. "One last time, me own braw fella, one last time," she calls again on him. And when he falters---- as a thrice done lad will! ---- she's pausing to nuzzle his limpness the like of a lamb to its ewe's tit, and that rogue at the ecstasy, in't, till he's all swollen and stiffer nor a cucumber.
"Ahhh, that's luvly," says he in greatest passion. "And where did ye learn the likes o' that, ye being such a young lass and all, my luv?" And he whispers she's his linnaun sidhe, his fairie sweetheart.
"When I was six. And I'm noo ya fairie sweethearts. It's flesh I am, ya blathering eejit," she laughs.
"Ay, a sweeter heart never was ... Six, nae, yer sayin'? A toty wee lassiekie ye were?"
" 'Tis me Da teached me, after me Ma mitched oot."
"Yer father teached ye?" his jaw agape.
"It's gospel, ay, me Da, used to. Told me it's a secret thing a lass should learn, the way of being a richt guid wifie some day. 'It's needing practice to perfect it,' so he often told me. Ay, and come the day, two years since, and me blood started. 'Enough is enough!' says I, and fetches him a grand gnash. Och! He bat me beak, and then I says, 'Next time, a body's member will be bit in twa halves!' And that was last of it," the lassie's staring straight into the tinker's face, and she saying that and all that plainly wi' nae a single blush. "Ay, bloody well, ya know," and there's the fire in her voice.
"O, it's well ye've learnt, luv, yes, very well," himself alarmed, and grabbing at her haunches and poising for to thrust, and swearing in his heart never in this world to cross her for aught.
She's leaning back, looking up into the wide green eyes of himself and making his saddle, saying, "One for ay, luv, and ay for one last time." And she's licking in his ear again.
"Ay, one last time, my luv," grunts himself. And she's on hands and knees, and he's huffing and puffing, warking the like of a Connemara stallion on a high-toned filly.
"What can be sin," she gasps, and him a piston cranking, "when true love swells our hearts? Ay, one last time, me bonnie boyo, for the luv and the luck ... and the wanting of it. Ooo, me luv!" whilst overhead a green plover flits and chirrups amongst the boughs. "It's the luck in it, ones say, seeing such a bird, and it flying a great length from the shores of the sea ... Ooo ... Oooo ... Me heart's fluttering too ... Ooooo!" and she's on top of him and oot her brain entirely.
"Luck in luv, me sweetin'," he pants his blather whilst, truth, he's hearing aught of her words at all, himself cranking the like of the smoky locomotive on the night mail, and then a yell oot of him the like of a steam whistle at the crux of it. They collapse in a heap, roll over, and noow it's him on top.
Shock and surprise! She makes a sudden great shriek and a grand upward thrust of her bottom what's tossing him gobsmacked onto the scruff. He sits up, astonished, irked, and irritated.
"I didna know ye had the gunpowder in there," he sulks, nursing his prong tenderly.
"Ay, sweets, 'twas nae yar luvving at all. Nae, 'twas a thorn." She rolls sideways, reaching cautiously where her naked bum had been.
"A thorn?" He's wearing the grimace of a tuppence circus clown.
"Aye. This here blackthorn twig, this kippeen, it pricked me arse." Smiling, she houlds it away an arm's length, for to survey it the better.
Instantly the sulk of his lips bows upwards, his whole face lighting up in a grand and toothsome grin. "Ohoho!" he snorts. "Aw, 'pricked,' is it? In yer arse, is it?" And he's rolling aboot, shedding doon tears of laughter.
" 'Ohoho,' is it? I'll 'ohoho' ya," she giggles, grabbing the kippeen, whacking and poking at him. At the next moment they're clutching and tumbling on the scruff, and aught for the twig she casts away, each licking and tickling the ither in grand abandon.
"Ya're the gean-canach, the love-talker itself, tempts poor shepherdesses like me," she whispers.
And again, their tongues meet, and again they clench under the great white oak, until it's all given over they are, oot of breath, lying back awhile in the stillness of the gloaming, listening to the bells tolling for 'eventide meeting'---- Protties canna bend to call evening prayer, 'vespers,' mind ye---at Saint Peter's Presbyterian kirk, a great length doon by Glenarm Town. Ay, they're knowing the clock, so they do, but keeping the time for themselves with the fluttering of the leaves and the waving of the wild grasses. In the thick sweet gloaming of the ninth glen of County Doon, the pungent scent of love juice is the like of drink to the drunken, stopping ears and blinding eyes. And binding souls.
" 'Twill bring us luck, the blackthorn twig? A body says ya must take and scratch a faerie circle by the full of the moon in the shadow of a great white oak ... mebbe this here one, luv? And keep turning right whilst ya look upon the angels of the four winds," she whispers to him, looking up at the greening branches overhead. "Ooooo, luv, be ya fair or near, there's aught else in the wide world," she lilts.
"Ay, aught else but you for me," he sighs.
"It's ya green eyes I luv, and ya freckles ... it's more freckles ya have nor stars in the sky. And ... and when ya come back, I shall kiss every one. Ay, and that there luvly grand birthmark, aside of ya neck. I shall lick it off entirely. Juist ya wait and see," she's rolling her tongue slow across her lips.
"Och, it's bringing me oot in a wheen o' red welts to hear ye."
They listen to the Roman bells tolling in Doonpatrick, but they have nae want for the saints lying there: Patrick, Columcille, and Bridget between, all surely turning over in their graves at the notion of the sinful lovemaking. The scalawag Glaswegian strokes the lassie's hair and croons from his kinsman:

" 'So fair art thou, my bonnie lass, so deep in luv am I,
And I will luv thee still, my dear, till all the seas gang dry.' "

"Divil the sea, me boyo. Will ya luv me long as there's a bill on a crow? As many years as freckles on ya face? Grains of sand on the beach?"
"Lass," says he fondly, though he canna recall her name for the blood left his brain-pan and sluices over his cucumber, "I'll luv ye till the sun rides west to east and the stars of heaven fall into the sea."
"Oooo, let ya carry me away, then, me brawnie boyo, ay, carry me a great length, the way we'll have a wee snug hoose on the brae of a bonnie blue lough." And she sighs, "We'll settle ourselves like we are noow, two entwined into one, the like of vine and tree, for the blushing turf-wood embers to look upon." She's gazing up at the limpid clouds and licking on to his ear. "It's meself will be the joy and comfort of ya heart, and the light in ya eye," she's whispering on to his tongue, rolling on to him, and the two of them molten again in the excitement, ay, for the one last time didna last. "And we'll never, never come back to this hateful place nor the scruffy glens of County Doon. Nae, me love, never, never, never."
At the speaking of the tongues of Saint Peter's bells again, there's the speaking of the lovers' tongues, each mouth ardent over the ither, and a body on a body, until at last the parting come. He make-believe kisses the blackthorn twig and handles it to her were it a rose, and takes his leave slowly, times over time, and she left by her own lonesome self. At the last of it, he's ambling doon the dusky road singing:

" 'And fare thee well, my only luv, and fare thee well a while,
And I will come again my luv, though 'twere ten thousand mile.' "

That night at the full of the moon and two hours since, and her heart thumping wi' passion, the lonesome O'Neill shepherdess creeps back to the scruff by the oak in the glen where the two lovers dyddled. It's under that brightness, entirely carried away by passion, she dips a quill in her bloody maidenhead, as do brides in the custom of her clan, for to write her wish into her diary: to cross the Irish Sea wi' her tinker on a journey to Glasgoow. Godamercy, she's dreaming dry-eyed of the feckless lad and the heat of his embrace, whilst next she scratches a circle wi' the blackthorn twig, steps into it, and makes her wish. She turns right, searching the air for the angels of the four magical winds in the four corners of the earth but, in a horrendous mistake, starts her first turn to the South and so, unbeknownst, summons the Sea-Divil and his fallen angels what thwarts all magical powers and granting of wishes. 'Tis in ignorance of her enormous error she points the blackthorn twig, unawares of its misbegotten power---- nae longer to bless but to curses. She shoulda started East for the Child of Nazareth, Who makes all things possible. Ay, West is of Heaven, and North is of Mary. God help us for 'shoulda,' 'woulda,' 'coulda,' and 'if,' and the surly Sea-Divil surely plagues the South, so he does.
Noow it's all the lonesome weeks come and go and never a tinker's word does she hear tell, until it didna be only her heart what swells ... and himself noowhere to be found. She is destroyed. 'Tis nae, "the seas gang dry," at all, but first the dripping of her tears, and then a river shed doon, and noow a lough of tears flowing into her lonesome sea of misery. And still her poulticed belly swells, bedad! Divil the tinker! Divil his beguiling words, hardly the worth of a tinker's dam! He didna come never one inch of the ten thousand miles he so glibly lied. Divil the sweet lie of a gean-canach! He's crossing Ireland east and west, north and south, looking for new country lasses, God shelter them, to beguiled by the sinful ways of his kind. Whosomever knows how many the hearts and bodies coupled wi' him along the Irish high roads and low? The fiery pit be that tinker's bed! Ay, and the diary pages---- I've yet to tell how I come by it, friend!---- stained wi' her tears of grief and the blood of her whippings, for it's our pitiful lass alone by her own mournful self, and her monstrous da, Hugh O'Neill-the-depraved, charging aboot. And the tinker? What'll ye gi' me, ye'll meet him again, so hould yer chair doon.
"Lord God, I'm but a wee lassie has a turrible trouble. Let me oot, Lord, I've nae the want for a babby," she prays. And it canna happen that Heaven hears her, for the error of circling the power of the blackthorn twig to the South first and worst. Divil take it, and Divil took it! And mind ye, friend, 'tis more to come, och, the struggle of the curse of the Sea-Divil of the South upon the power of the blackthorn twig. It come my story and Ratsy's too.
The fifth month since the sin of the shepherdess come and away. Life is quickening and kicking at her bowels, and desperation squeezing at her brain. She bathes naked on a seaweed saddle in a moonless spring tide; she dowses a ring of green acorns in a young cock's blood; she snares a magpie on the feast of Stephen, whirls three times, wrings its neck, and bleeds it dry; she eats vinegared rye seedlings till her bowels run wi' the skitters, but all the magical rings and spells, and the prayers she offers up, they fail, and the life inside herself squirming and swelling. She's praying to Finn Mac Cool and all his pagan idols; she's making lengthy incantations for courage the like of Dierdre, the Gaelic goddess dashed herself against a rock to escape dishonor and debasement wi' hands bound in back, bedad! The lass puts her hands loose in front, and come the moment to knock her own head off her neck, Divil the powers slipped from her arms, and the red veins of her courage flowed but a yellow trickle. It's guilty tears stains her diary that night, and every night. She canna undo the error of the blackthorn twig. She canna stop her sin from becoming more and more obvious.
Poor lassie, God save us all, she didna have brother nor sister to protect herself from the wrath of her vindictive father, the hot-tempered fiend and Presbyterian Elder, Hugh Robert O'Neill. Saints and Martyrs! The monster horse-whips the truth oot her, and then it's himself raging abuse upon her more foul than upon his wife, Laurie Jane, the lassie's Ma, what run away eight years since----- as I told afore. Och, he beats his own head against the wall, thinking aught of his sinful past, but only his daughter's impurity, though it's Hugh Robert O'Neill-the-depraved what thrust his seed between his daughter's lips, yet it's himself swirls in smoking wrath against the tinker did the same between her thighs.
"You're the same worthless hoor was your Ma, you wretched sow!" Hugh howls at his daughter. "What way she didna run away afore you were made? Och, the stings and the stain, Lord, I canna bear much more," and he wrings his hands and prays, and levies blasphemy on her, and more whippings. "Is it a salt pillar I'll be, for looking back on Scotland and taking up this cursed Irish soil?" More and bitter there surely was to come.
On a wild Friday dawn and the biting rawness of March blowing, the lass feels the pains of her time coming on, so it is, and then the caul split, and her water spilt. 'Tis time for the midwife---- and Hugh having nae the notion this here woman herself a Roman!---- galloping under the breezy sky to attend the birthing. The labor come a torture for the damned: all that day the lass wracks wi' tearing pain and shrieking struggles and moaning sweats, and the skirling cries oot of her for God and all His Holy Angels. And anxious midwife beseeching Mother Mary, and fervent praying after Saint Irene, guardian of hard labor, praying after a lassie green in years and a wee birth canal. And O'Neill-the-depraved pacing in the fairmyard beyond, shredding the air wi' Protestant curses on what he names Roman blasphemies, whilst here's midwife urging upon the lassie anither squeeze, and anither.
"Poosh doon, lass, let you poosh! Clench my hand! Noow, a mighty breath ... ay, that's the way of it, and ... noow! Poosh! And again! Poosh!" the midwife's grunting over and again. "Saint Irene give ya strength!" whilst the frightened lassie's screaming that she's hurted more nor ever she can bear, and clenching midwife's hand wi' a grip to choke a Clydesdale mare. Ay, wi' the lassie's girth too young and tight, her hips oncommon narrow, and the bairn overly large to issue.
"Saint Columba aise yar labor, lass !" bawls midwife, and she's falling to her knees, praying one by one to a clatter of Saints and Martyrs.
Och! In this way the forenoon, then noon passing, then night, and mighty struggle withoot end ... and then the lassie remembers and cries oot to fetch the blackthorn twig, and circle it once again. Midwife grasps it, touches it inside the lassie's bloody loins, and traces a circle around the birthing bed. She's facing the angels of the East, West, North, and South, all in proper order, each time crossing herself. She rolls her sleeves, rubs the twig's tip into her own limber palms that's last mebbe shoveled dung from the barnyard. It's the first time midwife reaches those bare hands into the birth canal, tugging and stretching, all amidst turrible screams and shrieks; she's busily warking wi' the bairn, pulling and heaving. Faith and glory! At last comes the head crowning past the lassie's torn flesh, the forehead molded, the chin, the shoulders turning, and the slimy wee bottom squeezing oot to show its sex.
" 'Tis born! 'Tis born! Praise God and Mary! Allelujah! Praise His Holy Angels! Allelujah!" the midwife shouts. All plastered the like of bloody gobshite, the babby brings up entire upon the birthing bed, trailing its twisted cord, and squirming and squawking a great noise. "Ay, a girl! 'Tis a girl!" the midwife announces, grasping the babby by the feet arse-up, admiring its energy, draining the caul muck from its mouth, wiping its face doon wi' a corner of her apron, and the wee bairnie bawling like a piper at a clan reunion. "And a bonnie lookin' girl 'tis. Ay, pretty as rose petals in rain-drops ... Divil a crown, I iver seen the like of it." Aisy milk, for the old shill had said the same say at a thousand births afore, so she had, for to swell her purse by that very crown. And in a very little while, she's dropping the bloody pie of afterbirth in a bucket. But the Divil was to come soon, ye'll be understanding.
The exhausted lass lies soaking in the gory cloth of the birthing bed, the sweat of her face pouring doon and, for the while, the fierce horrors of her labor entirely forgot in the fondling and kissing of her newbairn. "Ay, a wee rose," she smiles. "O, wee rose," she tells the cuddlesome pinkness in the crook of her arm, "O, me little flower, me doteen, me precious rose, mavourneen," her murmurs curl warm about the babby, the like of a a smoky flame blown to the wick. "Ay, me bonnie mavourneen, aroon."
The midwife gang aboot her business, pulling from her apron pocket a white thread of horsetail hair.
"Plucked for luck," she explains, "from a romping young mare at the full of the spring-tide moon." By the birthing bedside, the thread itself is dipped three times in poteen, and the cord tied wi' Saint Brendan's knot, and then it's, snip! "Och, it's parched I am," says she slyly. Swigging the whisky wi' one hand, reaching the babby up in the ither, midwife sighs a grand sigh, and lays the child doon again to her exhausted mither's breast, and smiles doon upon the two of them nestling, cooing, and bubbling.
"It's the drouth I'm suffering for the wark I done," midwife says, afore anither drop taken.
And only then she looses a horrific great gasp oot of her.
"Och, nae! NAE, NAE, NAE! Mother of God, shield my eyes! Six toes! Nae, nae, nae! Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph, and all ya Holy Saints in Heaven! Save us all! Patrick and Brendan and Bridget! Nae! Six toes ... Ay, six! Nae!" she's shrieking and beating her breasts. "Both feet! Saints and Martyrs, save us! The mark of Death, the curse of Balor, the one-eyed One! Divil mend her! Six and six ... O! O! And on the sixth day born! The sign of the Beast that was and is! The Guid God shield all in this house!" Midwife's shrieking madly, she's crossing herself again, she's cowering against the bedside in curdling fear, she's whispering, "Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph protect ya, dear lass, Holy Trinity shield all here!" over and again, she's kneeling and whimpering in the new mother's ear, and wringing her hands and sobbing and thrashing herself like a mad penitente. And beside her, there's the poor lass, spinning from the summit of joy into the boiling depths of the Divil's abyss.



Illustration the third

39

CHAPTER THREE: plan


'Tis himself fomenting in the room next, amidst the echoing birth-pangs, ay, the shameless Hugh Robert O'Neill, the depraved Presbyterian Elder, all drawn up in torrid indignation, his soul accused by a runaway wife, his daughter birthing the seed of a Roman renegade oot of wedlock and, for the forty weeks past, himself gnashing and gritting over this oncoming bastard grandchild. And here's the ruction of six toes, the like of tinder heaped on flame, putting his blood on the boil, blistering his brain. Never in this world do the newbairn's yelpings bring one wee granule of gladness to Hugh's rampages, nor an end to his burning torment. Overing and again, it gnaws at his miserable spirit for the sire being a Catholic rover and noow, from beyond the beyonds, the Divil adding the curse of six toes. His heart brims wi' venom against this blot upon the O'Neill name and all what's his: house and plantation, cattle and swine, tenants and crops, on this day oot and the years to come. God and glory, ye mind, he canna know it's to be oncommon more dark, in't, and nae long coming.
"Divil a girl!" he laments furiously, flinging open the door to the birthing room and in horror gazing upon the infant. "Lord, where the joy of this cursed Roman bastard, this six-toed freak, brings to blight my every living hour? What use any girl-child, puny to harrow nor plow the sod, nor plant nor harvest, nor spade the turf, nor provide for myself in my ould age? And six toes! Ay, six ... six!" he chokes. "The Divil's gift itself! Divil roast her!"
In a blaze of rage, Hugh takes up his dung-fork for to pitch the after-birth into the pong of the pigsty, wishing the babby itself he's impaling. He's stomping the bloody lump into the dung pile, he's kicking the sow, mauling her farrow, and hollering into a bleak blowy sky, he's roaring back into the birthing room, the bloody mud spattering his boots, he's red-faced and fierce of eye, jaw thrust and all a-tremble, howling great scorching blasts, ay, all what he's put by for forty weeks, all the never wanting to think of the seed growing in his daughter's belly, all the hoping for it to die of sin inside her.
"Nae! Nae! Never!" bellows Hugh O'Neill at his cringing daughter, and she destroyed. "Never that wee wretched six-toed sinner suckling your craven nipples, blinding my own two eyes, strangling my heart, and my blood steaming in it! Nae! Nae! Never!" And Hugh-the-depraved is a maddening dog, wi' the Divil grating millstones in his ears, and the taste of the Satan's red-hot iron spade scalding his throat. "Ay, it's the stink of Popish after-birth oot back in the pig's nostrils," Hugh spits. "Nae more the Divil's doings under my roof! Nae more!" He sinks to his knees in despair. "O Lord, what way will I live this year and a six-toed curse set upon me---- what way, O Lord, and not get my death?"
Cringing under the shadow of the Divil's cursed sixes, fearful for his years on earth and his soul in eternity, lacking the bowels himself for to wrench the wretched babby by the neck, he contrives a plan. He pries the nameless thing from his daughter's breast, and sends after a sartain tight lipped and copious wet-nurse for to feed the bairn. Ay, truth, he's wanting only to shut his life of this accursed babby entirely. And he canna bring himself for to touch the blackthorn kippeen.
"Woe is me, in the curse of the sixes, and that damned twig. 'Tis one or the other the sign of my death this very year," he rightly worries again.
And so his brain's crunching a plan: no baptize his granddaughter, nor register her wi' the town, nor the kirk, but banish her in swaddling clothes away of all, her birth-cord knotted on her belly, ay, she carried on the back of night to some foreign place that the scandal and disgrace on the House of O'Neill-the-depraved never be blabbed aboot in County Doon, nor the O'Neill bastardy ever known in Patrickdoon townland. And he's mighty made up in his brain at all of this. Truth and faith, ye mind, friend, 'tis as I said: the ancient O'Neill namesake, the noble Irish hero, Hugh O'Neill, Second Earl of Tyrone, he's resting unaisy in his grave, put to shame by this slimy business of this here vile Lowland Presbyterian namesake. God forbid, and the first O'Neill of all, Saint Columba.
"The day will come, mebbe, my daughter will bless me, Lord, for the bleaching of this black stain upon her soul. Divil the baby that turns my life to a pillar of salt. Thou Who ruleth, save me! Whether and what my daughter will do and whither her will, I must act now, for it's the later, the worser," he grits as he snatches the newbairn away and sends for a wet-nurse.
Hugh preaches smugly at the woman. " 'Tis the suffering of this curse will lift my soul to grace, and may the Almighty God help us," himself welting a noisy groove in the floor for to nourish his wilting courage.
Wet-nurse smirks to herself and settles on the babby's comforts, whilst the wee thing clings to her nipple wi' the power of three, suckling the like of a thirsty leech. Heaven forgive her, the loss of the newbairn is breaking the lass's heart. On her father's blasphemous rants impaled, and thinking constantly to the betrayal by her bonnie tinker, and destroyed entirely by her struggles in childbirth, yerra, yerra! she quakes in the wrath of God, and the fearing she's brought forth the Divil's issue. She's wanting only to die. It's the curse of the south-pointing kippeen, the curse of the Sea-Divil.
She calls on wet-nurse to bring her the diary, and writes doon of the pain in her belly where bloody commotion rules, and in her swollen breasts nae suckled, and in her heart broken in three, and in her soul abandoned by God. The third day, she takes the puerperal fever and a turn, she a wretched lass noow fifteen, eight years since abandoned by her own ma, hurted wi' sadness, scourged of body, tortured of soul and brain. When wet-nurse leaves the babby for to sponge and soothe the lass, she tells wet-nurse where the diary is hid, and makes her swear to save it for the child. Then, blinded and delirious at the last and feeling the cold of eternal night drawing doon, the new mother is secretly instructed by wet-nurse to call for divine help in her hour of need, ay, that Roman help derided by Hugh's kirk. The lass cries oot to the Holy Virgin, Mother of God, to Holy Trinity, and Saint Lucia, and the Heavenly Hosts, and many a Catholic saint and martyr. And at the end, she riz and stretches her sightless arms for her stolen babby snatched away in such cruelty, herself cursing and denying against her own faith and damning all the Covenanters in it, and a last lengthy curse on to the Elders:
"Damn ye! Damn ye, Hugh O'Neill, ye ben nae father of me," she's shrieking to the empty room. "Ay, double damn yer villainy to the bottom of Hell, the Divil wi' all his fiends damn ye, and yer godless kirk and yer scoundrelous evil Elders, consign them to the everlasting rack, and knock the head of ye into the pit, and the heart of ye through yer bowels ten thousand times! Ay, the seven angels throw the seven plagues and the seven curses upon ye, and Satan's red-hot harrow seven times doon yer wicked throat!" She's falling back, consumed of the fever and there's aught noow can save her nor show her soul the way. At the last of it, exhausted, hopeless, and the shadowy veil closing aboot, she murmurs, "The blackthorn twig ... me babby ... for to keep the blackhorn twig." She grasps at the kippeen and gouges three marks in it afore it falls from her hand. It's when her life is flickering away and the six dark angels fluttering, and her soul issuing from her mouth, and she uttering one last string of curses and a Pater, there comes the seventh angel afore her eyes, has one foot on the land where she lies dying, and one foot in the sea for to save the new life she has delivered. And it's in the sound of the seventh trumpet she takes her lonesome death, clutching again the blackthorn.
Musha! Hugh's ears are the like of two bricked-up windows in a lengthy stone tower, never listening to the one of her tirades nor curses, whilst for the magic kippeen he has the ears of a hare and a dread of the Divil. 'Tis the lass's corpse yet warm and there's himself, the depraved, hurriedly digging in the pigsty, ay, blaspheming all as he shovels a mucky pit oot the blackness of night. In rageful bitterness, he tumbles her into that narrow hole wi' only the earthen clods below and the moon above to bear witness, so dreadful a deed unfit even for the burial of a sow, and him shedding doon never one tear, never a jot of prayer, and the corpse withoot a coffin but swathed in a shroud of cheap sacking, dowsed in quicklime, covered in swine dung, stuffed into that lonesome hole under a wee bockety cross of rotten poplar wood.
It's when Hugh is tamping and trampling that there grave, come the hoofbeats of the headless horseman, the Dullahan, the haunt of death and evil, him who has cursed the O'Neill clan since forever began. Godamercy, Hugh's blood is too hot in his ears to listen, whilst his self-righteousness puts doon any thoughts of the OtherWorld's punishments, and so he never hears the hoofbeats. Afeared of the power of the blackthorn twig, he wraps it in seven turns of heavy muslin, keeping it next the babby. The birthing room quickly become an empty tomb, colder than the grave's sod. Hugh turns anxiously to wet-nurse for help, knowing aught of his daughter's diary this wily woman possesses.
---- Canna you tell in confidence, what way for me to be shut of this here six-toed bastard?
The milk of her breasts is warm but wet-nurse's avarice is cold, for she knows what's mouldering under the muck in the pigsty.
---- Ooo, sir, yer grandchild, is it? Surely it's aught sinful ye're wanting of me? dooncasting her eyes slyly at his feet. Canna the telling in it be worth a few coppers for a richt and guidly grandfather? Yes? Thank ye kindly, and God hold ye in the crook of His arm, sir, and The Holy Saints between yerself and all harm ... sir.
Wet-nurse mentions an ould witch, trades in dark matters at the brushy edge of the townland. Hugh must say aught of who sent him or to what purpose.
"A desperate looking one, he is," the wet-nurse thinks.
She turns her palm up, whilst she's wondering how much more the worth of the secret diary, and decides to stash it for blackmail later.
---- Three shillings will do, and God be wi' ye, she tells the vexed man.
Hugh argues weakly, pays off for that and then again for the nursing itself, and he's doon for the long ride to meet the witch, grousing to himself and afeared.
He is startled to find the old hag waiting at her hovel door. He gives her a phony name.
---- God save all, sir, says the tousled-hair ancient, beckoning Hugh to her blackened hearth. Surely ye're wanting aught sinful of me? She signals him to sit whilst she stands, whirls, crouches, squats, glares wildly into his stricken eyes.
---- Nae, Hugh trembles, only a simple smuggle across the Irish Sea for the odd wee package of a certain value. It's wi' the back of his hand he's wiping the sweat from his cheeks and brow, whilst the pulse thumping his ears puts the dread on him.
She inspects his clothes, the style of his hair, the clean smooth skin of his hands, and the slick of his boots. She turns her back to him, bends over the hearth, and sirs up embers from the grey ash.
"Whatanever can an anxious gentleman, and he surely is that, be wanting to smuggle to Scotland?" the old crone wonders. "Aisy milk," she tells herself, guessing the answer, yet saying aught of it.
Wizened one fans the turf into fire, and scatters the smoking ash wi' crooked stick. Glazed of eye and rocking on her haunches, she is, crooning off-key and staring into the smouldering turf, and the smoke curling, and on the walls, eerie shadows dancing the like of fiends and goblins.
---- Blessed visitor, will ye be putting doon a bit, does it plaise ye: thruppence for the hard living of a poor ould woman? Yes? Ah, bless ye, for three will bring ye luck. And no be showing the back of yer hand in this house, sir, lest the Wee People see it and cast a mischief upon all.
She's staring into the curly smoke again, wi' never a sound out of her for a lengthy time, and she's still as the hearthstone itself, until turning in grey pallor and raspy whisper to O'Neill.
He bends an ear.
---- Is it the like of a curse ye're knowing? Ay, anither bit, sir ... thruppence, willya no?
Hugh's shuddering, wi' the picture of six toes graven into his brain-pan, yet he's saying aught of the babby.
"A mighty curse it is, a power of a curse, and a greater burden than a man can lift," she's thinking. "Where to send him next? So great a curse, is it one outlaw monk cannot confess him?"
She's scattering a handful of dried cinnamon bark on the embers and staring into the fragrant smoke.
---- There's a body ... ay, one bleeding ... and noow I seen ... lying across anither body the like of a ... of a cross, it is! Christ be wi' us! And Yer mercy, Sainted Virgin! Mercy! I see the puddling and muddling of blood ... Anither thruppence for more's the dangers in it, sir ... Ay, bless ye, sir ... and I seen it again! Blood! I see blood! With two ither bodies ... anither cross! Sacred Heart of Mary pray for us all in our hour of need!
He wonders, does she be a Morrigan, a harbinger of death? Whose death? He cannot hear the words of Revelations scudding 'round her brain: "He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword."
---- Godamercy, I know aught of yer doings or yer kirk, Mister O'Neill, but ye best be seeking the blessings of all the Holy Saints, and the Holy Trinity! And thruppence for that ... and ye be doing yer business wi' care and prayer, and avoiding shadow ... and thruppence here, me dote.
She trickles the coins from fingers to palm for to weigh them, having nae the teeth for biting.
---- Ay, Holy Trinity protect us! 'Tis honest metal, mister. In the threes ye'll find yer way best.
Hugh's shuddering and the heat drained from his heart faster than the money from his purse.
---- It's turrible things I'm after seeing, sir, nasty ... ay, the maw of Hell itself! 'Tis a grisly sight! Beware, sir, beware ... gruesome. Ay, something more. A bit of bushy tree, a wee branch or what, I canna see it plainly ... a ... a twig, a kippeen wi' thorns. Anither thruppence the way of it, sir.
Her looks freeze between horror and pity whilst she stares a long spell at the shadows on the wall. It's the headless horseman, the Dullahan, she sees. But the ould witch canna mouth the sight of it aloud. Noow she's throwing her magic salts on the hearth, muttering and incanting whilst tongues of blue and red lepp and spit and sputter, and the sharp smell of sulfur. Noow come a long silence amidst the crackling, until she's after turning to O'Neill and wordlessly drawing wi' stick upon the hearth a map, a path through a sartain glen to a hidden cave by the sea. At last, she turns her seamy face to him. The toothless jaws quiver and lisp, whilst the bony finger traces on the map.
---- Ay, in that there cave by the rolling of roiling sea waters bides a faithless monk might instruct ye, mebbe. And anither thruppence, sir, if it please ye, and ye be on yer way, God and His Heavenly Hosts protect all, and the road rise afore ye and His wind at yer back. Ay, and do ye stay away of wee branches, do ye know. Lord between ye and harm ... And do ye be sartain to stay wi' the threes in all matters, for the twos will bring ye grief. God bless!
Hugh goes riding doon the glen, a hatful of thruppence lighter, and a heart of lead, in search of the holy man, and still knowing aught of the Dullahan that come to the birthing room and noow follows him. The air is salted wi' the taste of sea-foam and, in Hugh's ears, the thunder of tumbling waves.
---- Ahem! God's mercy upon you. From the hidden hole in a bluff by the beach emerges a genteel voice. Surely you're wanting aught sinful of an honest servant of the Lord, and may God and His holy angels be wi' you in your hour of need.
The wee decrepit figure, clothed in tatters, bearded to his waist, and leaning on a gnarled staff, hobbles to Hugh.
Hugh whispers his own name and his problem under dooncast eyes, words halting, tongue trembly, himself barely heared above the booming surf doon the beach. He canna speak of "babby" but only a class of package needs be delivered in greatest speed and secret. The monk beckons Hugh into his cave, a small and simple place wi' a low ceiling, wee hearth, and hewn platform bed.
---- Is it the blessed O'Neill has sixpence for the guid wark of missionaries and the starving supplicants in fair-off lands? Yes? Ah, may you live in the light of God's eye, sir.
This celebrant of mendacity mentions a sartain shebeen, a shambling wee public house to be found by a sartain crossroads in the valley of the River Bann, and the mistress of the place, one Meggeen Mike come up longgo from the west country, from Connaught, so she did. At this shebeen, lives a fearsome horseman calls himself Christy Mahony, the publican, och! a soul so serpentine and fraught, 'tis said---- nae, known---- to be the equal of the most slaughterous rapparee in all The North. And himself, they say, ay! is one who murdered his own da, and next, dispatched Meggeen's own husband, Sean. Ay, the two! And each wi' one mighty blow of a spade, halved the skull to the brain-pan.
"Two!"
---- Ahem! Anither sixpence here, sir ... And this fright of a horseman---- the like of a Dullahan, but has a head!---- long of silence and short of speech, he is renoowned by his great affection for Meggeen Mike. God deliver us, this knave is known to one and all by the green parrot-feather he keeps for a pen-quill, himself clothed always in a black gansey knitted to the wee County Louth pattern, surely you'll be knowing, by that same Meggeen Michaela; and his quill-pen sticking through the yarns over his left breast. It's the pen signifies he does be in the contract business, and you must sign in blood wi' him, or ... or this apocalyptic vision carries, ones say, a hilted knife longer than the quill itself and sharper than a serpent's tooth, ay, and the way he shoves it into a body's neck faster nor the Divil's cat can wink, leaving his victims to meet their Maker speechless at all, and gory wi' the blood spurting ...
---- Ahhh. And? O'Neill breaks into a cold sweat at his prospects.
---- And for these details, anither sixpence, sir.
Thinks Hugh, turning to see through the cave mouth the surf swirling over the shingled beach, "Such a rogue horseman lives by his contracts howanever he survives, for the quill is surely his true sword, and his word is his life."
---- Ahem! And anither sixpence, will it not it please you, kind and noble sir? ... Ah, so it is. Let you come away from the doorway and sit by the fire, and be warming your boots, then. And will you not be taking some tea? The ould gnome gums a ghoulish snaggle-tooth grin, and his voice takes a strange and musical quality.
---- And for your "package," kind sir, he startles Hugh, you must send it to the Foundling Home of the Calced Order of Saint Maundie ... shod, the Sisters are ... at Ayr, in Scotland. 'Tis a community of good religious, nae a convent, and will surely know how to care for it.
Hugh slumps in dumb horror: "By what evil means does he know?"
But the monk's face is a study of beatific remoteness. He sits cross-legged on the sandy floor, the way his eyes focus on the visions afore him, and his mind traveling beyond the back of beyonds, and never a sound in him. Hugh hunkers in silent discomfort and slowly sups his taycup. At the last, the monk warks a wee placid smile and stirs himself into the world, and soon enough he's crouching on all fours, beckoning Hugh to his side.
---- We are here, says he, scratching a bony finger in the sand, and this the way to the River Bann, not the Boyne, you see, the Bann, this side of the loch, and you will be traveling upstream, and these fords to be crossed. And the monk scratches a mark for each town and settlement, and adds wi' a wink: If you lose the way, it's many a bona fide in the valley knows the shebeen, for its plank sign and it set beside a stone cairn and two hitching rails ... and the poteen. 'Tis fiery stuff: 'tis Lough poteen.
---- It's never in the world I'll be be lost wi' so grand a plan, says Hugh, drawing from his riding coat a wee pointy leaden stick and a length of white muslin for to copy the map.
The monk creeps up. He peers over Hugh's arm and names the marks again. Hugh nods.
---- Ahem! Anither sixpence, if you please, kind sir. God be wi' you. And may your horse be sure of hoof as Saint George's against the dragon, and the road rise afore you, and the wind at your back and the shadows fall behind, and the Holy Angels singing in your ear wi' every step. Hugh watches him making the sign of the cross for his blessing, in ootcast falseness.
Hugh wonders: "Saint George! How does the man know I am Orange?"
The monk slips back into reverie. He never looks when Hugh puts doon his coins on a clay platter and stoops his way oot, nor hears Hugh's mumbled blessing over the rumble and tumble of the surf on the beach nearby.
---- God shine His light upon you, holy man, and Sainted Angels in Heaven prepare you a place in yer hour of need.
"And may it soon come to pass," Hugh braces himself against the briny breeze stings his eyeballs and whistles in his ear-holes. He's afearing the hermit knows too much. "For your acts of contrition, false monk, God let the tides and hours that never wait give good measure of their nearness to you."
Hugh pauses, watching wave on wave of white crests thumping the beach, and tide pools glittering underfoot like Divil's drool, the gulls swirling overhead, and their sharp cries knifing into his brain, for the coarse skirling of their calls is the like of dead souls shrieking, and their fleeting shadows on the surf ben the wraiths of the damned. He shivers, seizes the pommel, and vaults to the saddle.
---- Go boy! Hugh yells, digging in his spurs.
Canna ye see his horse lepp into action, and Hugh posting madly into the spumey murk? And hear the thud of hoofs galloping doon the shingled beach, to the rhythm of his own soulless heart? Ay, and the Dullahan galloping after.
And what'll ye gi' me, friend, howanever miles beyond, at the witch's hovel on the brushy end of the townland, on that very night, wet-nurse brings up wi' the dead lassie's diary.
---- Here is a mighty oncommon secret, wet-nurse confides. Couldya send it to follow the bairn wheresomever she goes? So's when the wee one's of age, and mebbe the ould tyrant be dead and roasting in Hell as surely he will, she would know where her home does be, and her fowk do live ... if there be any of her fowk should live.
---- Ay, dearie, what price for the doing of this? The bony fingers reach toward the diary.
---- 'Tis richt and guid I do it for the love of the bairn, ay, and me sorrow for the poor dead lassie borned her. And it's here wet-nurse's voice turns hateful hard: Let this sin be forever on the soul of O'Neill-the-depraved, Divil take it, and nae so much silver for me, old woman. The Guid Lord knows, I'm loath for the profit, in't. She starts to hand the diary over.
Faith, mind ye, friend, 'tis no the wet-nurse feels the weight of charity in her soul, no at all; 'tis the wages of sin she's afearing noow, and punishment in the life to come if she profits from the diary. She feels a trickle of cold sweat between her breasts. Mebbe she hears the Dullahan. Mebbe the witch will put a curse of the Divil's pence upon her. Mebbe the Morrigan what took the lassie will take her. She sees the flickering hearth-light glow crazily in the witch's eyes. A long silence passes. Wet nurse exhales and looks aboot, her pulse drumming in her ears. The ould hag fingers the diary and whispers.
---- 'Tis thruppence I'll be offering ... say ye so?
---- 'Tis sour milk, thruppence.
The wee sum carves an insult in wet-nurse's brain. Anither silence, longer still. Musha! her avarice drowns in a flood of fear.
---- Thruppence and nae a farthing more, commands the witch, sensing wet-nurse's hesitant heart.
"Naething more?" The thought shifts the brain of wet-nurse from uncertain to resentful. "I'm to be selling my soul for a wee miserable bit ...and God knows what this cranky harridan will profit from it?" wet-nurse thinks indignantly. "Thruppence? Nae, if I'm to be condemned for the sin in it one way or the other, then Divil cast the die. I can drive a better bargain elsewheres. I'll not damn my soul for thruppence ...'tis anyway only a venial error, hurting no one, to confess on any day," she reassures herself. "Divil the bit!"
Wet-nurse seizes the diary from the bony fingers, and rushes into the night, the wind pressing her blouse against her sweaty breasts. Behind her, the witch cackles an incantation, stirs the embers, and cocks an ear for the sound of the Dullahan's hoofbeats, what follows the diary and the wet-nurse.






Illustration the fourth

53

CHAPTER FOUR: contract


'Tis the midst of March, the third day on horseback for Hugh Robert O'Neill-the-depraved in his search for the wee shebeen, himself still grumbling at the loss of five times sixpence to a renegade religious, and that after seven times thruppence to the worrisome witch. Unseasonably torrid heat, the like of a breath from summer's oven---- or the Divil's firepit, mebbe---- has oppressed the inland districts of The North two days since, sweltering sweat from man, wringing horse, broiling the hills, boiling the turfs, starting buds on the leafless trees. In fretful humor, Hugh tracks the ould hermit's landmarks on the muslin map of the River Bann, riding the rutted roads upstream across waterless fords, past roasting hamlets, through scorched villages, and over hot clots of fresh-turned soil the like of new-baked brick.
All that there afternoon the threat of thundery weather builds, ay, enormous towers of turreted cloud wrung from the simmering land and mounting one upon anither, their bases tattered black and shredded grey, and the lot of it blowing oot the west into the face of man and horse. Noow come the half-light at day's end, and torn red gashes of sunset bleeding through a lowering cloud bank, whilst behind Hugh the fall of night unrolls an inky black curtain. Here and there, noow and then, lightning slashes colossal jagged streaks across the deepening gloom and, from beyond, is ominous rumblings in the sky. In those gusty swirls and the damp coolness, Hugh's heart beats the like of a bodhran, and his sweat runs cold.
" 'Tis the fallen angels and the horned legions of the fiery pit assaulting God's heaven," Hugh tells his guilty soul.
It's near this here day's end, fraught and fearsome wi' oncoming tempest, and whilst the last gleam of the gloaming flees, Hugh spies the thatched roof of a daub-and-wattle cottage by the banks of the River Bann. Beside it stands a stone cairn, and two hitching rails afore---- two! all as the monk foretold. Yellow light struggles through a splintered seam in the battered front shutter. Hugh draws up, weary and saddle-sore, and he's after squinting in the dark at the weather-worn sign-plank nailed over the Dutch door:

PUBLIC HOUSE
C MAHONY, PROP

"Haloo! Haloo!" O'Neill lets a shout oot of him, leaning from the saddle, and raps upon the upper half-door and then the shutter, hollering betwixt: "God's grace upon all! And is nae your sign tells of drink wi'in? Dia duit!" His mount backs and paws the parched earth a step or three. "Amn't I an honest traveler here?" The cool breeze whirls wee dust divils aboot his horse's hooves.
"Haloo! Yah publican wi'in, haloo!"
From inside, it's the scuffling of a chair on flagstones. Hugh pats the purse of coins at his belt, smooths his riding frock over it. He steadies his horse, what whickers and whinnies against anither rumble in the sky comes closer nor the last. 'Tis at this instant the upper half-door swings back, and oot pops a lace-capped face, followed by a sleeved arm pokes a flickering cruizey into the dusk, and then the lower half-door swinging open. A shapely woman in country frock, shawl, and apron steps oot and moves forward, framed by the yellow cast of her lantern. She be a score and ten, mebbe, firm of jaw and wary of countenance, houlding her light aloft, inspecting rider and horse. Hugh urges his nervous mount a step closer. The woman settles her lamp, sniffs the animal sweat, and looks up at Hugh.
"Dia duit ... God protect all present this daunting night," he mumbles, bending doon graciously from the saddle.
"Dia's Muire duit! Failte is cead! A hundred welcomes! God hold ya in the palm of His hand, Mister Harseman." She eyes him up and doon. "Ahhh ... and now tell me, sir, what's the name of ya. And yar purpose Mister, pray, what does that be?"
He hears the edge of her County Mayo brogue, and determines to answer it in kind, a notion is interrupted by a forked bolt of lightning, and a few seconds aftercoming, a louder roll of thunder nor afore. When his horse bucks and whickers, Hugh whispers into its ear and pats its neck.
"Och, God save us," the woman mutters undeterred, " 'tis the Little People spahrting at bowls again ... Yaself is one I've never, ahhh, laid the pleasure of eye upon." She's swinging the lantern higher for to shine upon his face, and his horse skittering again. "Is it fearing the Peelers itself? A safe-house ya're after needing? And at this unholy hour, Saints in Heaven protect us!"
Hugh shakes his head, nae.
"Let ya step down nimble, Mister."
"With those fine gaiters and expensive leathers, he's not the look of a going-about body."
"Hugh Robert O'Neill, that is my name, God and His Holy Angels bless all. Ummm ... have ya shelter here? I be frazzled after a hot and lengthy ride. Musha, it's the gripe of a thundery night coming on."
Large drops of rain splatter into Hugh's upturned palms as he signs his innocence. He dismounts, reins in one hand, the ither stroking the damp flank of his horse. Horse and man turn their heads from the breeze.
" 'Twill lay us low, this commotion in the sky. Pray, have ya no a bit of dry rag for my harse?"
A flash of lightning smokes the air, and when their two heads abruptly jerk up to search the black roof of cloud, comes a crackly drumroll hard by. Hugh steadies and collects himself.
" 'Pon my soul, 'tis late fahr a drying-rag. The rain will dowse him," she points at the sky.
Hugh smooths the wet mane. The woman moves a cautious semicircle aboot him.
"It's meself ones call Meggeen Michaela Mahony, is mistress of this house," her voice riz against the increase of wind, "and they do be calling me Meggeen Mike nowadays ... God save all, yes, 'tis late for a drying-rag ... How is it ya be, pray tell, and how is it ya come here?"
" 'Tis a monk, a holy man by the sea, sent me. And I be in good spirit but some wahrn."
It nestles in Meggeen's brain, "Ahh, 'sent.' This be far from the first time that same defrocked apology of a holiness sent us a horseman, yes, a troubled one with a slippery tongue, and a certain shady purpose. And, ay, a body might pay a gilded guinea for the tackle this horseman rides."
"Let ya grant me the kindness of a sup, Mistress of the House Meggeen Mike Mahony," he pleads, "fahr I be destroyed by the wind, and dry as bleached bone by the sun's glare, Godamercy, it blazing from the crossing of the vaults of Heaven, och, and burning from the cock's crow to the cow's milk. Until even my spit ben---- is crunching." He sighs. " 'Tis not yet spring, and the heat of the Divil's pit upon us." He pastes a smile on. "And I do have a penny or three in my purse."
"It sounds a turrible scald ya suffered, Mister," she offers cautiously, lowering her lantern and backing slowly inside the lower half-door. "It's been the like in these parts, God save all, ay, fever in the sky and the sod all turned to dust."
Anither brilliant jaggedness of lightning and then a terrific thunderclap.
"Saints and Mahrtyrs save us!" she shouts above the din. "Ya be welcome this house, for ya'll surely fry to death, standing out there wi' the lightning and all. Och, if ya don't be drownded first."
Whilst she hoists the lantern up, Hugh takes and fastens the reins to the hitching post.
"Ay, and let it please you, I'm after asking ... if I didna---- ummm, if I do not fry first, ummm, have ya porter ... pahrter, Godamercy? It's a power of thirst the heat raised in me, anyway." He hawks a wad of phlegm on to the dirt and rubs it in wi' his boot-heel. "And something for my harse."
"Ya never did a deed, Mister MacNail?" Meggeen wi' a squint in her eye and a frown on her face, and she lowering the lantern.
"O'Neill. Hugh Robert O'Neill. Never. By Holy Trinity and all the Heavenly Hosts: never."
"Take care with this Popish lot," Covenanter O'Neill thinks, "for a body never knows what offends these heathens."
He's loosing the bridle, untackling his mount, turning his face away from the lantern into the shade, ay, and the shadow of his daughter's death creeping across his soul.
"It's the curse of the six-toe babby itself killed my daughter, and none of my own doing. And this storm, it is but an argument amongst angels, and holds aught of Holy Roman cess for me," he tries to convince his white-feathered courage. He turns away from Meggeen to mutter a Presbyterian prayer against the haunts in his soul, whilst it come thunder above. "Godamercy, it's a Papist lot afore me."
A sudden rush of enormous raindrops pelts the two again. She ducks inside the doorway whilst, quick as it started, the spatter stops. "Best ya come in now, Mister McMail," herself raising the lanern and retreating behind the lower door, "fahr ya soon be wetter than a fish in the sea. There's a great flood to fall from Heaven this instant. Ya be welcome at our houseen," she concedes anxiously.
Oot the black night and into the swinging shadows of the yellow cruizey Hugh stumbles along the uneven gravel path, cursing under his breath.
"Care, Mister, ya do be looking where ya're going if ya be going there," she says curtly. "And be after coming in limber unless ya do swim."
He turns towards Meggeen, his boots crunching, she framed by the doorjamb. She swings open the lower door and retreats whilst a bearded, tall, broad-shouldered figure moves up from the room beyond, and fills the frame of the doorway.
"Let ya come up in our houseen, Mister O'Mail, and God shine His countenance upon all," she calls oot, setting the lantern on a ledge by the half-door. "And do ya hobble ya friend, lest he come a runaway at the next great noise in the sky." She steps inside, wooden shoes clacking against slate flags. "I'll fetch some fodder by the bye." The tall figure disappears into the room.
Hugh glimpses the woman setting her cruizey on a battered table. He steps back and busies himself hobbling his horse and undoing the leathers. Then, wi' his tack in both hands and himself jostling against the doorjamb, he crosses the threshold, swiveling his head aboot.
"O'Neill," he calls after her.
She turns to him and houlds the lantern overhead again and, for an instant as the light swings across her face, he catches the glint from two spirited green eyes.
"Ay, a splendid fellow, and ya wi' so brave a brow," she smiles at him, circling aboot him to latch the door. "Let hang ya tackle on yonder rail. 'Tis too wahrm for fire, but let ya be drying ya boots by the hearthside. Och, stretch ya bones, and rest ya weariness. The March winds do be sharp and this stahrm brutish. And it's the heavens casting down drumrolls for the fallen angels, God save us all."
A flock of candles are scattered aboot on tables and ledges, and here's Meggeen clacks and clogs aboot wi' a fire-stick, lighting one here and there.
"This be a great kindness of ya, Mistress of the House ... Divil take the fearsome creatures of the dark, oot---- ay, ummm, out and about this dreadful night!"
The bearded and chesty figure Hugh seen earlier standing behind the doorjamb, noow moves past the hearth, turns, and faces Hugh.
"For sure and certain, 'tis the like of the one what the mendicant monk described," Hugh decides, "wi' that there lengthy feather run through the yarns of his gansey. And over his heart. Ay, a feather for a shield, and it my target," Hugh schemes.
Hugh beckons Meggeen to a corner and whispers, "The way it was a long dusty journey from that there monk's cave by the sea, and a hot wide country and a winding lonesome road fahr to find this grand place. Ahhh, Mistress Meggeen, to the point, in't? 'Tis Christopher Mahony I've come fahr to see. And that there one, mebbe, is himself, over there," he inclines his head toward the large man whilst still whispering to her. "Do I have the right fahr to speak to him, I'm thinking?"
Come a series of horrific thunderclaps, and the rain beating doon in sheets into the thatch overhead. Meggeen rushes to bar the shutters tight, talking to Hugh as she warks, her green eyes widening.
"God save all here, Mister ... MacNeill. And Saint Michael thrust the stahm divils ... over the ends of the earth. It's my husband," she fastens a last shutter and faces him, "ya're searching fahr Christy?"
Hugh nods. "Ay, a while since."
She walks over to the bearded one and tips her mouth up to his ear, grating, "Grace of God, Christy, this here fellow is Hugh MacNail, come searching after ya."
"After me?" the large man smiles.
"Ahhh. So he says."
"O'Neill. Hugh Robert O'Neill," himself pricking ears like the fox afore the hounds.
She sets oot a pair of buckets, each under a steady dripping from the thatch overhead.
"Two!" he swears silently at the buckets. "Two!" he swears again, eyeing the Mahony pair.
"Myself? I'm not acquainted." 'Tis a broad-chested baritone rumble.
"And what could be the doing of this at all?" Meggeen says loudly, cocking her head at one man and then the ither, and then moving to Christy. "Mebbe that renegade monk sent him?'
" 'Renegade? Monk?' They know him?" Hugh is stricken.
Anither long peal of thunder is away beyond the last drumroll whilst, in the thatched roof, the driving rush of the doonpour gusts doon to a steady shush. The leaks to the buckets plink and plonk a slower rhythm, and the rain steadily and rapidly lightens.
"Let ya draw him a jar of pahrter, Meg," Christy bores a hard look into Hugh. "Grace of God be wi' ya, sir, and ya be welcome here. How is it ya be ... Mister O'Neill?"
Hugh nods, and looks aboot the rude premises and the crude, oot of place, scattered parquetry sections inset in the slate floor.
"Ay, it's myself," Christy proclaims, "is Master of the House, the one a body calls Christopher Mahony. 'Tis some class of a business ya're bringing here, Mister O'Neill, some sahrt of a wark ya're mebbe wanting?"
"There's ones tell me of it."
"Ones? Come at it, Mister O'Neill. Will yarself not tell me?"
Meggeen brings a single pewter mug of porter, foaming over the brim. Hugh's taking a sup, then anither, then the back of his hand across the foam and then across his mouth. Smacking his lips, arching his head back, he gulps the lot. Meggeen carries the mug back to the barrel and taps it again. Hugh, saying aught, knocks the second jar back as quick as the first. All wait silently whilst Hugh's courage bubbles up wi' the foam, and the spirits stiffen his spine. Hugh belches.
"I'll waste aught for ... ummm, for I'm in great passion to return faster nor ... than I come ... Let me get doon---- umm, down right upon it, umm ... Ay, the way of it, ahhh ... Och! The wise one told me ya're a Pope's Swissman to protect a cahrgo," he lies, "and, ummm ... the way of a Druid to keep a secret. And it's that I'm needing and no a body ... naebody in it but you and me, and one makes three ... Ahh, yes ... another body ... ay, a wee one, let us say."
" 'Let us say?' Tell it right, mister, for the sake of all what's holy, sir. No riddles. And come out from behind yar shield!" Christy growls.
"It's between us, then, and never another?"
"And Meggeen." Christy furrows his forehead.
"And Meggeen," concedes Hugh uneasily across the lantern.
"And the purpose, O'Neill?" Christy drums upon the table. "A grand one? Guns and bullets fahr to flaunt the Queen? Mebbe a patriot to return---- arra, a welcome cause, that! Do you be an O'Connell man? Or mebbe a man for, ummm ... anyway, let us talk a little treason, mister. Hot lead? Cold steel? How do you declare?"
O'Neill seems ill at ease.
"Let ya come to the doing itself and not be foostering about, nor overing every stile in the county, Mister O'Neill." Christy rasps: "We be honest folk, and this our lawful public house. There be no thieving magpie here."
"I'm entering in league with this bird and he's a vulture," Christy grouses. "I'll not forget to sharpen my dirk."
" 'Tis not some grand purpose I have, no, sir, 'tis a wee one," whispers Hugh, "sahrtainly wee, for ... 'tis ... 'tis a ... ummm, a babby. Ay, a babby I'm after sending a ways off, and aught of the mischief nahr thievery in it."
"A baby?" exclaim Meggeen and Christy one upon the ither, one mouth wide and the ither wider, four eyebrows up, in staged surprise, for this is a slippery stream of skullduggery they have crossed afore. "Speak up! There's safety in this house, and none to overhear our parley."
As if to remind of Heaven's ear, a fairaway and lengthy rumbling.
"Ay, a babby. A babby what's sheltering at my house. A babby to go ... go faster than the wind to ... to ... Godamercy, let us make a contract. Ones say you do that." Hugh's reaching inside his riding coat and pulls oot his wrinkled hand-drawn muslin map, turns it to the blank side, and smooths it upon the table. "And let me to trace the path to my ... my home, my plantation," he mutters, sketching rapidly on the blank side. "As I have shown, Master of the house."
Christy's finger follows Hugh's along the penciled roads. " ... Here yar shebeen ... here the house of myself, Hugh Robert O'Neill, ahhh, the plantation boundary line, and between with ... hmmm, hmmm, and so, hmmm, and here," and himself naming the towns and the waysides: ".... This road ... Hmm ... That road ... Here the docks at Newcastle Part ... The bairn to go to ... This way from my house ... It's here the boats goes out on the Irish Sea, in't, Mister Mahony?"
"Yerra, anyway, pray tell, where is it ya baby goes?'
" 'Tis nae ... 'tis not my babby!" Hugh's voice hardens indignantly. "Scotland ... Ayr, Scotland."
"Scotland?" Christy hisses through a phony mask of bafflement.
"Ay, it's Scotland I'm wanting." Hugh's voice has the strength of yestermorning's boxty.
"Lord in Heaven!" Christy's aback in fake surprise. "Scotland! Praise God and all His Holy Angels! Have you lost your nut, sir?"
"Ay, Scotland."
"Didna the monk tell me Mahony does such things?" Hugh is confused.
"Howanever do ya say Scotland?" Christy's voice levels, his shoulders hunch, his fingers interlock. "Are ya thinking my harse gallops upon the crests? Swims the Irish Sea? Sprouts wings?"
Christy's thinking, "When did I hear tell, 'Scotland,' afore, and the trouble in it, from right bashtoons, too, would pinch the taste from your tongue, or the threads out your shirt. And now, this O'Neill rascal."
"Naething of wings," says Hugh. "Aint it that wizened leprechaun of the cave let on howanever the Master of this Public House, Christopher Mahony, knows the docks at Newcastle Port? Godamercy, 'tis yarself, then, in't? Ay, yarself what knows a deal of fishermen and ... ummm ... smugglers? Surely more than one body has a boat in Newcastle Port, and wants a crown or three to line his purse."
" 'Tis true."
"Ay, and to the point, Master of the House, exactly, a body what knows the Community of Saint Maundie at Ayr ... The Foundling Home, so it is."
"Is it Ayr ya be talking, or air? Ay, all's to be had, but at a price, surely, Mister O'Neill," Mahony's after leaning back in his baritone purr again. "Yea, at a price. And what'll ya gi' me? For I am most agreeable to ya plan."
"Faith and troth, 'tis more of oil and less of assent in Mahony's tones," thinks Hugh.
"God bless ya, there's a decent price, in't, Mister Mahony. Two crowns noow, two crowns after ya deliver the babby to the dock, and ... and the worth of half a catch of herring to the fisherman carries the bairnie to Saint Maundie's." He searches Mahony's face. "Alive."
"That has a grand ring to it," Christy smiles broadly, "ay, 'alive.' And good metal to the doing, sir. Let me take quill to yonder corner, and write down a contract to all this. And meself and yarself, ummm, agree to ... ummm ... to what we agree. Contracts? It is in the, ummm, nature of the things I do ... Meggeen, dear love, ink and paper. No, pahchment. Good as good does. Our best for Mister O'Neill. The best black ink. And a bit of rag for blotting." His baritone is smooth as butter.
"Ay, for this mercenary knave, the best mulled blackenings of the hearth is all at one with the blackness of his heart, so it is. If there be anither worser, who willl tell me?" Hugh worries.
Hugh watches, curious whilst Christy removes himself and settles across the room at anither ancient oaken table. Meggeen places the materials afore her mate and she's hovering close by, houlding the cruizey aloft, for the candles aboot are no light enough. Wi' a flourish, Christy extracts the great green quill from his gansey, and dips it slowly in the ink-bottle, withdraws it, looks at Meggeen and then at Hugh, stares into space in crafty absence, strokes his cheek wi' the feather, and he's after burying himself in mock thought. Comes a series of lookings and dippings, wipings, and flourishings, mingled wi' strokings and starings, and still never a written word. Hugh studies the room; then he's shifting and twitching, aggravated on to tenterhooks. 'Tis all the Divil's wark in this world, to Hugh.
Christy surveys Hugh's growing discomfort and smirks. At the last, when Hugh's anxiety burns the like of August sun at high noon, Christy slowly, deliberately puts quill to paper in an irregular rhythm of short scratches and long pauses, accompanied by, "Hmmm ... Ahhh ... Hmmmm ... and so ... this, mebbe ... and ... that there," and the like, as if never afore has he done such thing. "Ahhh ... and that ... yes, yes. Hmmm. Perfect." And he's wiping his pen on a rag wisp, and dramatically sliding the quill into his gansey, and traces a parquetry square wi' the toe of his boot. "All as is written, nar change a word of it," Christy announces. He gets up, stretches, crosses the room, and he's placing the agreement afore Hugh. "Ya mind, 'tis not a load of sods ya're sending."
Hugh nods, spreads his arms apart on the table.
"As all is written in the contract," Christy smiles his lizard smile.
"I must see for myself," Hugh insists.
"And the doing, faster than hounds on the fox, in a single day's riding?" Christy enquires.
"Nah, never the sun riz nor the window of day open fahr ya. It's one night's riding, surely, from sunset to break of dawn on a lengthy March night, ay, from my house to the docks. The fewer sees ya, the better for that. You must be the fox, stealthy-like, and never do the hahrns of the hunters nor the yapping of the hounds put a dread on ya ... "
"Howanever so?"
"Never a 'find' for them, ye ... ya ken, and surely not a 'view. Ya must set the hounds all gone to baying on false scents. Ay, whilst yahrself moves cloaked in shadows, clever like a fox. And never, never do ya allow yarself to see the light of dawn!" Hugh grits.
"Then I must be changing that there," says Christy, his forefinger on a line of script, "fahr to charge one crown more." He takes up the contract, walks across the room, places it by the ink stand, extracts the quill again in a deliberate flourish, dips it, makes the correction, "Hmmm ... there ... ahhh ... that. Yes ... yes," very slowly cleans the quill, and in a sidelong squint gauging O'Neill's squirming, recrosses the room, one crown and two notions richer.
"And it's myself to arrange for the boat, in't?" Christy volunteers.
"He does be too eager for my liking ... . Ay, no flies in his bowl," Hugh frets, evading Mahony's gaze. "He's squeezing me at every turn, the rascal."
"Nae," Hugh tends his second thoughts. "Hold yar hahrse. That I've changed. The choice is mine. Ay, mind ya. Mine."
"As God has witnessed, sir, amn't I used to knowing my way amongst the sailormen, ay, and knowing the mountebanks from the honest ones? Look from ya to find another knows them so well. It's anyways, I've written in the contract who does the choosing." Chris stares doon hard into Hugh.
"I'll hold my horse and that crown too," Mahony vows.
"Then ya must make amends. And whisht yar voice, for it's in myself makes the choice." Hugh twists his head and shoulders, and glares back.
"An eejit's bargain, myself trusting Christy Mahony in too many matters. Howsomever is he safe to choose the boat or her master, and leave a trail, mebbe, of wagging tongues where he's known? Nae, it's to Newcastle Port I'll be riding next, and it's myself will choose the fisherman, and let it be some close-mouth skipper at that. Ay, let naught be left to aught for the doing of this rascally Mahony, nor the knowing of that mendicant monk, that's the way of it. It's myself to be the one choosing, and telling the skipper how to hang lanterns, and it's Mahony for to be finding the boat I have chosen."
Christy's unblinking: "Ay, it's a thing I can do. Grace of God, I've no care for yar regrets to come, Mister O'Neill ... hmmm. At a price, Mister O'Neill, at a price. Money speaks with a silver tongue, Mister. And how do ya find it at all?" Mahony's leaning over Hugh, splaying his hand on the parchment, and a notion on his brain. Hugh looks up at the bulking chest behind the quill, looming over him.
O'Neill stares at Meggeen and then at Mahony, and again the witch's words flame up in his brain: "The twos will bring you grief."
"Four crowns for you, Mister Mahony. 'Tis the fair offer, the one written afore us. A prince's fortune. Fair's fair." O'Neill pushes Mahony's hand and the contract across, showing his crude map again. "This here," Hugh says whilst tracing by finger again, all pretense of his false accent fled, "is the road from yer shebeen to my hoose, and that there ... from my hoose, the way to Newcastle Port, never more plain nor yer eyes see it here. And afore the window of dawn, for ye to find the quay and meet the skipper. It's a proper spring-tide he'll be needing, and the ebb started, do you nae see?"
"Agreed. Ay, for a fifth crown.'"
O'Neill ignores the gouge, grimaces, slows his pace, and hardens his voice. "Ye must be on the day and clock exactly, for it's the book of tides speaks of that partikiler time, so it does. Exactly, do ye hear? And it's myself improves the babby for the traveling, and supplies the carry-sling and the goat's milk. And it's you, Mister Christopher Mahony, lugging the babby itself. And it's me paying ye the like of a prince for that and a' that. As it says here," pointing to the contract. "And a fifth crown," Hugh relents. Mahony stares at him.
"By Saint Joseph's beard! There's a task to challenge a prince with a platoon of henchmen ... Mother of God, ay, a regiment," Christy's wagging his head sideways. "Ay, for the blessing of the Virgin Mother Herself."
Hugh bridles, ignoring the Roman edgings. "Ye'll ken the boat by the twa lanterns hanging on her foredeck. And ye do be getting the skipper's mark on the contract, so's I know ye done the deed ye're getting paid for."
Christy sits a lengthy sit, staring at the hearth, feigning great reluctance.
"I must draw O'Neill on, though the pay is better than is my custom."
He turns to Hugh, his fingers drumming upon the table, his brow wrinkled, his tone yet unconvinced.
"Hmmm. Hmmm ... Hmmm ... Two crowns more it is, then. Meself, I'm in for it ... if it's paying well. If, Mister O'Neill, if ... . Well that. Show yar coin."
"And yet more crowns! Truly, he is a slaughterous highwayman," Hugh sighs in resignation.
"Guid, then. All as written, and this for ye," says Hugh. And he slides a crown across the table withoot looking into Christy's face. "This one afore starting, and anither ... and one again after finishing. If the babby lives."
Meggeen looks aghast at Christy. "Surely the baby must die the way of that rough trip!"
"Surely the babby must never die," Hugh vows, "for the weight of that and all that on my soul will destroy me in this life and curse me into fire everlasting in the next. Divil a trip! Ay, the Divil at all this, and his six-toed doings beside."
" 'Surely,' of two things, Mistress Meggeen, and you, sir, Master of the House," levels Hugh. "The bairn must live, one, for I canna put the dying on my soul," and he stares first at Meggeen and then at Christy, "and twa, nae a single body in all Christendom to know the doing of it. Aught---- naething of it! From this out. Do you nae understand that?" And Hugh slides anither crown across the table to Christy. "That's one more nor we bargained, for to give ye proper spirit," says Hugh, and Christy biting the coin.
"The mettle of the metal and of the man. It's wee trust I have for Hugh O'Neill, nor any Protestant, and his accent a pretension," Mahony tells himself.
Hugh is fed up. "Seven crown he's wanting noow, when at first his contract said, four. He draws like salve on a festering wound."
Barely suppressing his anger, Hugh reaches in his purse for a last crown, houlding it thumb and forefinger afore the cruizey. And slyly tucking it back to his breast lest Mahony grasp it. "As I say, that and anither beyond what the contract agreed for the task well done," and Hugh's entirely forgot his false accent, his mouth slit in the toothsome smile of a weasel amongst hens, "All as written in the contract itself, so it is. Fair's fair for a prince's ransom. And as I say, two crowns beyond, for yer---- nae, for our success."
Hugh tilts his head for to drain anither porter, to raise his valor, and to settle his fretful brain. Mahony takes quill to parchment. Hugh pushes his mug acrosss the table and signs for Mahony to stop.
"I'm aboot saying agin," O'Neill pronounces slowly, "it's meself for to find the fishing smack and her skipper, Mister Mahony, for I'm in guid heart aboot that part of the plan. Ay, the choosing is mine. And ye'll know the proper boat from the two lanterns ben hoisted on her foredeck," he repeats. "The fisher fowk of Newcastle Port hoists owny the one lamp when they ben moored ... if that. A body wi' any sense at all knows it." Hugh gives his words the impress of authority and finality. " 'Tis the way of us Scots, ha'pence wise is ha'pence earned. And yerself, Mister Mahony, let the fisherman to endorse his mark on the contract and return all to me, the way I'll be knowing the twa of ye did the deed, and he surely started his voyage. Ay, and mebbe there's still an extra crown oot of it when I see ye next."
Meggeen Mike looks at Mahony. He shrugs and she asks again howsomever O'Neill come to their road. Hugh shows again his muslin map and then he's speaking wi' Mahony and showing the contract again. Wi' Mahony's quill and ink, Hugh himself inscribes the changes. Meggeen draws a needle from a leathern patch on her frock. She passes it through candle flame, asking for Saint Michael's blessing and Saint Christopher; each man pricks his finger and making his sign upon the parchment wi' the green-feather quill dipped each in his own blood, afore the witness, Meggeen Mike. There's porter for all, and a power of time slipping by in small talk and mug on mug, until Meggeen brings oot a clay bottle of raw Lough poteen come from a back-country still, for a drop taken. Or three.
An hour passes wi' drink, and anither.
"Beir bua!" They raise their cups again. More of that lawless and fieriest whisky.
"Usquebaugh!" More, muckle more. More time passes, and Hugh mauldlin wi' fiery stuff.
"Ay, a contract," Hugh repeats, in hoarse and tipsy solemnity after a lengthy silence, "by yer name, what'sh Mahony and my name, what'sh O'Neill, in blood, ye shee, and all what's Chrishtian and holy ... a contract fer a canter by thish here Chrishtopher Mahony," Hugh points unsteadily at him. Anither swig and O'Neill pushes himself upright, the veneer of his fake accent entirely a memory, himself waving his jar whilst the porter slops over. "A toasht to the mosht, ay, the mosht fearshomely ferocioush messhenger thish half of Ireland, didna ye ken, ay, to be carrying the namelessh ... ay, the motherlessh bairn from the plantation of thish here Hugh Robert O'Neill, loyal shon of Shcotland," he points to himself, repeating, "to that there fisherman shwinging them two lanternsh on that there ... hic! ... herring boat at that there quay in ... ," he waves his arm aboot and belches, " ... in Newcashtle Port, at the aforeshaid hour ... ay, it'sh all aforeshaid, and nae a living body to know. Nae one ... toty ... wee ... shmall ... teeny little one." Hugh stares into the hearth. "Ay, I didna care over muckle for the bairn, ye ken. I didna care at all." He puts his thumb and forefinger together as if grasping a coin, points them at Mahony, wipes his drool wi' the ither hand and hiccups again. "Ye'll be twa day'sh time to my fairm, ye will, and it's from there to ... hic!... Newcashtle Poort. I have it all reckoned, Mahony, my man, ye shee, in shix days to come ... the shpring tide will shtarting on the ebb at the dark afore dawn." He nods to Mahony, and lurches into his chair. He didna notice Meggeen in a dark corner writing a copy of the contract.
"Faith and glory!" says Meggeen Mike loooks up, speaking slowly, staring at O'Neill. "Some paid-up secrets die hard and one there is, mebbe, that hardly dies ... ." She pauses, searching O'Neill's face. "And mebbe there's a body what's dying hard for the knowing of it, and mebbe another for the wanting." She's furrowing her brow at Mahony. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I'm praying for ya, my bonnie Christy." She turns and faces O'Neill again. "What are you bringing down upon my Christy? What are you up for?"
Hugh looks away and farts. Meggeen shakes her head, steps back angry, whirls to face Christy and pinches her nose in disgust.
"A secret messenger alone by himself," thinks O'Neill in his slow befuddlement, "is the like of a mouse in the meadow to an owl on the wing. And howsomever does an unsuspecting beastie hear the silence of an owl diving, afore the claws snatch it up?"
"Ya be staying here till the window of dawn?" Christy asks.
"He'll roll out the saddle in his stupor," Christy thinks. "I don't care for his safe riding, but I do like his money."
"Nae, God blessh ye. It's a shoft shaddle and me horshe an aishy gaiter ... and I fasht ashleep in the shaddle ... many a time. Och, we'll be lolloping home, for there'sh a, ummm, ay, a ... a woman vishiting and here'sh thish wee babby and them left alone by ... hic! ... themshelvesh. Divil the mishchief shlipsh in when the man of the hooshe ish away, and a shtrange woman aboot," his mauldlin grin turns lewd and dribbles. "Do you nae ken, Mishtressh of the Hooshe?' his crooked mouth digs at Meggeen, himself riz and wobbling wi' his saddle and leathers, staggering to the door, farting and belching, tripping on the sill and bouncing off the jamb.
The sudden thunderstorm and the drizzle after have long since blown away, and it's a cool moisture squeezes the odors of newly furrowed sod and the green scent of wetted meadows into the air. It's in that clean fresh dark, an unsteady Hugh O'Neill puts the tack to his horse and takes his leave, hoisting saddle on the third try, and bidding a shaky God bless and guidbye. When Hugh's a-riding east and surely oot of earshot, Meggeen Mike takes a copy of the contract made in her own hand whilst the men courted the craythur, pricks her finger for two drops of false witness, and hides the parchment under a slate flag, at the west wall of the shebeen.
That night passes wi' Meggeen and Christy in embrace the like of vine and tree. Three days of ordinary times pass. On the fourth day, she's up and aboot since the cock's crow. 'Tis a cold cloudy March dawn and the late sun creeping over the shebeen and sifts through the shutters, slatting it's wake-up on to Christy's face. He riz and walks to the public room. He's making tender looks at her sitting across the table, he's cupping his mug of tay in his two hands, slowly sipping, watching the curly steam. It's in thick silence he stands, finds his riding cloak, trousers and boots. He dresses slow. He slides the rolled up contract into his saddle bag. He takes his leathers and all doon from their hooks and he's oot over the threshhold, and after tackling his horse what's hobbled behind the shebeen. He hoists into the saddle. Meggeen runs oot the door to him. He leans over, he's kissing her teary face to a fare-thee-well, and she reaches up to touch for luck the green quill fixed in the black gansey she knitted longgo.
"Take a care, my love, take a care!" she whispers, heartsore in her tears.
And he's away, waving a brave hand, cantering doon the road to Hugh's plantation.
Meggeen Mahony watches from behind the open half-door whilst the mud clods jounce doon the road after her Christy. It echoes in her brain, him saying again from the saddle howanever there's yet more to be wrung from whatanever the contract brings itself. She runs a decade of the rosary in her apron pocket and shudders.
"Ask thy soul if we should part," she sings mournfully after him.
Christopher Mahony, Irish citizen, publican, scofflaw, and contract mercenary, canters off to the plantation grounds of Hugh Robert O'Neill, Scotsman, arrogant landlord, Presbyterian elder, sinful grandfather, smug Scot, for Christopher to set aboot the carrying of bastard Babby Six-Toes to some shady fisherman of O'Neill's choice, on a fishboat shows two lanterns in Newcastle harbor.
And do ye mind, friend, howanever does O'Neill choose this partikiler boat and boatman? He slips alone and in disguise doon to the docks at Newcastle Port for to search, what I'll be telling ye in a cat's blink, friend. 'Tis there in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne, and the great peak of Slieve Donard looking doon, it's O'Neill is arranging the flight of Babby Six-Toes to Scotland, och, to where River Ayr meets the Firth of Clyde, to the Foundling Home of the Calced Sisters of the Community of Saint Maundie. In the brutish pleasure of Hugh's brain, it's only wet-nurse---- and she well bought off!---- as much as suspects what lies rotting in the muck of Hugh's pigsty.
"My bonnie lassie," O'Neill-the-depraved frowns doleful-like to his guileless neighbors, "runned away. Ay, wi' a tinker, do ye believe? Divil take it! God save her miserable soul, she ben the same runaway hoor her ma was, noow nine years since. Pray tell," he sobs his crocodile tears, "for what reason does a juist and loving God suffer a pious Kirk Elder all such painful mischief?"
Divil roast his soul! Hugh has a plan to shut Mahony's gob, what in Hugh's dark brain canna be bought off even by a king's ransom. Och, mebbee if Mahony coulda known, he woulda agreed to a different course. Or shoulda. And wheresomever the O'Neill goes, the Dullahan trailing.
That very spring of 1845, ye mind, friend, wi' Christopher Mahony gang galloping aboot, is the beginning of Ireland's Great Hunger, in Gaelic, "An Gorta Mor," and to the world, the Great Famine of the blighted potato. In the four years next, four million Irish will emigrate, or die of starvation or the epidemics, mostly black typhus, and the bloody flux; and the survivors putrefy in scurvy or rot wi' consumption. Och, God pity the skeletal ones dying in the roads and the fields, nor priest to onfess them, and naebody to bury them where they fall. In those cursed years, it's the stars become the tears of Heaven whilst pestilence, hunger, and death stalk rough-shod over the land, scything the multitudes like dried-up grain---- that and all that, ye'll mind, friend, to haunt me story to come. And the suckling babby starving at its dead ma's breast, until it come a swarm of them abandoned, sick, and dying babbies descending the like of a cloud of locusts upon foundling homes everywhere. And the English? Them ben clinking French brandies in the comfort of hearth and home, all bloated wi' the business of Queen Victoria's empire, and the export of grain and farm animals from Ireland.










Illustration the fifth

77

CHAPTER FIVE: conspiracy


In Newcastle Port, Hugh sets aboot making discreet enquiry after one fisherman and anither, never revealing who himself be nor where from, disguising his brogue, asking after this boat and that, taking care to describe aught of the task itself but that it be kept secret. And all them he queries, be they dockside greybeards or raggedy citizens of the ale-houses, give him but one and the same answer:
---- Look ye, Mister, Belle of Newcastle is yer smack, and Jimmy Callahan yer man. Ay, Jimmy's yer skipper, and anybody wi' any sense at all knows it. This voice oot a grand thatch of beard.
----- Jimmy? Ay, if it didna be the poteen and the horses, 'tis Jimmy'd be earl of the plantation.
---- Jimmy? one ould gaffer confides, three sheets to the wind: ah, Jimmy ... a dab hand in the shmuggling trade and shlicker nor a wet eel. This speaker's scraggly beard comes to his belt-buckle.
---- Jimmy? He'll pinch the Queen's nostrils, Mister. Never a Revenoo man catches him, grins anither ould salt, and sips on his Mourne Mountain dew, whilst Slieve Donard looks doon and smiles.
---- Never a bad word on the docks aboot Jimmy, says this layaboot, scratching his head for lice.
---- Jimmy? Never a soul knows Jimmy's business, says a grizzled foredecker. Nae. Nae. Never. Nor Belle's. And that ancient mariner blows a cloud of smoke, keeps the lice at bay.
---- Jimmy? Why, he can smuggle a king's ransom. Mebbe has. He's a cock doesn't crow, that one winks wi' his one bloodshot eye and the ither in a leathern patch.
---- Wot's it worth to ye? A slitty-eyed vagrant pipes up from the shadows.
---- Jimmy? Didna ye know, Mister, Jimmy will die for truist? a weasely one whispers darkly.
---- Ay, Jimmy's one o' them Protties, and nae a man seen him near his kirk, only to baptize his boy, three years since. It's each of these words puts the waxed ends of that moustache to wiggling.
---- Jimmy? Come here a poor lad, ay, a ship's 'boy,' twenny, thirhty years since, from Dundalk Bay, and the Feerth of Clyde beyond, so he did. This from a potbellied tale-teller more wrinkled nor Methuselah.
---- Jimmy? Hear tell he's a Louthman, he is, oot of Dundalk, born with a fish in his mooth, so ones say ... A wet mooth. That disagreement told wi' the wink of a rheumy eye.
---- Jimmy? Married Irene Gwynn over to Bute, up the Firth of Clyde, and the two of them biding here for donkey's years. Hidin' from wot? It's lewd smirking from a skinny ancient mariner.
---- Jimmy's boy? 'Tis nae his natural son aboard, 'tis a foundling. Ay, the bloodshot eye again.
---- Jimmy? Och, that's himself and the boy, away doon there, Mister. Ay, and that there's Belle of Newcastle, that there middle one o' them five luggers, do ye ken? That long-bearded one turns and points.
---- God bless ye, cap'n, says O'Neill at this last, looking doon his nose from the saddle.
It's a fair piece of trot along the pier to reach Jimmy and Belle. Both stink of herring, and Jimmy as sparse of talk as if he ben a fish itself. The boat's hull is ould and weary, but her rig is whole and strong. The boy makes himself scarce. Hugh brings his parley to a quick point.
---- Dia dhuit.
---- Yer nae o' me Kirk, are ye, Mister? Jimmy's grim-lips.
---- God bless us all. Are ye Mister Jimmy Callahan? And this grand ship, Belle of Newcastle, yer own, Mister Callahan?
Jimmy's mouth relaxes.
---- It's the way of my business, Mister Callahan, I canna ... will nae tell ye my name. Does that hare sit for ye?
Jimmy nods.
---- God bless ye. And I'll come right to it. They say ... Do ye, umm ... take, ummm ... deliver, ummmm ... are ye ... is yer Belle of Newcastle ... I hear tell she's a a hire boat.
Jimmy nods.
---- It pays well, Hugh eases, with a conspirator's sickly grin.
Jimmy nods.
---- Yer price, Mister Callahan, if it were Belle's hold, say, half-full of silver darlings?
Jimmy signals a single finger and touches it to his head: one crown.
---- Ye ben saying? Ay, then, that's what I give.
---- For what? Jimmy shrugs his silent question.
---- For a babby a sartain horseman will bring to ye, whispers Hugh.
---- A babby ... hmmm. Jimmy's palm itches whilst his gullet runs dry.
---- Ay, a toty wee babby. Hugh, still whispering, surveys the crowd about them suspiciously.
---- For where? It's Jimmy's looks ask the question.
---- The Calced Community of Saint Maundie. The Shod Sisters. At Ayr. Do you ken the Foundling Home at Ayr? He searches Jimmy's face. Jimmy nods.
---- For when? Jimmy gazes oot to sea.
---- Spring-tide next, afore dawn.
---- Yerra, 'tis but a crown, never a king's ransom. Jimmy speech is slow and wistful-like.
---- Then two. And there's more to it, Jimmy ... err, Mister Callahan.
---- An' juist how does that be, Mister Hare?
---- It's a horseman comes to Belle wi' the bairn, and yer to show him two lanterns up for'rds. Ye be sure and sartain, endorse the contract he's carrying. And afore he leaves, take one lantern aft and ye blows it oot. And he's after leaving and the bairn's aboard, ye goes forward and wave the ither lantern.
---- An' what's all that to ye, Mister? Jimmy picks at his teeth.
---- Ye see, Callahan, it's myself will be watching, for to know I get what I paid ye for ....
"Ay," Jimmy scowls, "I do pray you'll get what you've paid for, by Heaven, ay, all what's coming, for you be a slimy and cheap class of snake. Musha, it's your miserable kind Saint Patrick cleared out Ireland. And calling me by my family's name, like I was a going-about vagrant."
---- Divil the job! 'Tis more wark needs more pay. Pay or nae, Mister? Jimmy cracks dryly, looking straight into the O'Neill's weasel eyes.
---- Anither half-crown for to tell me it's done and over, Hugh concedes.
---- Nae. One crown entire. When it's done, Mister Hare, whoever ye be.
"If this stranger's come so far to be choosing a skipper, what use the horseman at all, and why not himself for to bring the babby? He's about some foxy plan," Jimmy shifts uneasily.
---- Never ye mind who I be, juist do as I say. Hugh offers no a ha'pence more, whilst he lairds over the instructions for the two lanterns again, the like of instructing a buck eejit. And again how Jimmy must endorse the horseman's contract, as if Hugh is instructing a pin-headed child: ye see for yerself, friend, 'tis again Orange snottery over Green slog. What'll ye gi' me, aint that forever the way of it? Troth, it's little more Jimmy knows to write but his own name, and mebbe a clatter of numbers. It's no by count but by smell he knows that Hugh will pay-off.
Hugh rides back to his farmhouse, thinking, "Surely, I'll be shut of the cursed Six-Toes ... and yet ... and yet ... there's the chance of Mahony's blackmail. I did not ltke the glances he shared with Meggeen Mike. I'll shut his gob, so I will."
The more days pass, and Hugh time and again making the climb to his fairmhouse roof, restlessly searching doon the road for the hired henchman of the green quill. One day afore spring-tide height, Christy Mahony appears on horse, gaiting aisy oot the sunset. The men exchange greetings. Christy untackles, waters, grooms, and hobbles his horse, and didna make lengthy talk. Hugh shows him to the hayloft, for to bed himself. At the fall of night, Hugh brings Christy a sup of lamb stew, a bastable bread has a lucky thruppence within, and a drop of the wicked poteen craythur from The North. By the bye, it's Hugh's gullet joins Christy's at the flagon. Then it's Hugh a drop taken and, within the hour, his loosened tongue flapping like Aunt Jane's knickers on a breezy clothesline, wi' the lurid history of Babby Six-Toes. It's the two of them wi' the craic and the palaver and the drink into the wee hours, and finally a ribald Mahon staggering up to his hay-loft bed.
Hardly three shakes of a lamb's tail since Hugh stumbled oot the barn door, Christy hears a woman's voice calling guarded-like from the dark below.
---- Mister Horseman ... Mister Horseman .... Mister Horseman ... Sir!
---- Who goes? The fiery poteen sears Mahony's voice to a croak.
---- Dia dhuit! It's meself, the babby's wet-nurse. Her lantern is shrouded, and there's the urgency in her whispering.
"Ay, she's wanting a roll in the hay, and the heat of the poteen wilting my shaft like fire softens candle-wax. Ah, well ... an ungainly wench anyways, and smells of breast-milk and nappies. No great loss in it."
---- Dia's Muire duit! On with you! It's aught I'll have with a woman this night. Away with ye!
---- 'Tis nae a woman's business brings me, sir, 'tis the babby. She raises the lantern.
---- Godamercy, woman, I'm to carry the babby away the morrow sundown. Good night! And be kind to hurry on, Madame Wet-Nurse.
Christy crawls to the open hatch in the hayloft floor and looks doon the ladder. He makes oot a ruffled Irish lace cap and two eyes turning upwards.
---- 'Tis the babby's ma that's dead, Heaven protect her ... I did up this night to tell ye ... I knows a thing or three.
Wet-Nurse looks overhead nervous-like, hardly seeing Mahony's face peering doon at her in the dark. He jaws at her:
---- Ay, it's ma's dead. 'Tis known, 'tis known. Noow on your way.
---- I have ... I have her ma's wee book. 'Tis the diary she wrote.
"Something the babby's ma wrote? Perhaps of value?" Mahony's besotted wit sparks into wakefulness. "A body needs be cute here."
---- A diary? In her hand? The lassie? He's licking his lips.
---- Yes, yes ... ay, in her hand, Mister. I was there ... I seen her doing it. Wet-Nurse's whisper is strained.
---- And you offer this to me, is it?
---- Nae, sir. I did not offer. I ... I didna offer it to ye yerself. It's to go wi' the babby, I'm thinking, wheresomever the babby goes. God and Mary protect us all, I'm afraid Mister O'Neill finds this, and he'll burn it, so he will ... and no long afore he burns me, in't, sure as God made green pippins.
---- Ay, O'Neill's the brute, so he is. Surely, he'll be in a fury to grab it if ... if he knows of such a thing. Does he? Christy tries to clear his brain. His head is pounding.
---- Methinks nae.
---- I cannot see reason here.
"She's too anxious ... she's afeared O'Neill will catch her with it," and Christy'seeking howsomever to take advantage. But he waits her next move.
---- The babby, it's the ounly child of an ounly child, and it's oun gran'ma longgo fled, didna ye know? Noow the woman's breathing seems louder.
"She's pressing more than afore," he thinks, his tone shrouding his interest in disinterest.
---- Woman, howanever do these begats be serving my business?
---- When auld Sour-Puss dies, Wet-Nurse explains, and it aint for naething a body calls him, "The Depraved," Divil scour his mangy heart! the babby is the ounly soul has a claim on his fortune and land. This here diary is all the bairn has in the whole wide world ...
"Ahh, I can see down that there road. The diary is better blackmail than the babby, I do believe," He smirks in the dark at his brightened prospect.
---- It puts to pen and ink the lassie's da being Hugh Robert O'Neill, the landlord himself. It tells O'Neill's wife is the lassie's ma, name Laurie Jane MacInnish, run away and never back. The poor lassie has nae of brothers or sisters, and her ma and da the same and ...
---- Nae a one at all?
---- Nae. Nae. Never the one. The whole clan all dead of the bloody flux, och, wiped oot clean, and the black fever taking them what held on. Troth, when it come time to stretch auld clap-and-thunder ... and Holy Trinity bless the day the Guid God judges his sins ... then, mebbe it's Babby Six-Toes be the ounly O'Neill left of the clan at all ... the last one. Godamercy, she can claim the land.
---- Land? It's holdings the O'Neill has? Christy's no surprised. O'Neill had bragged on his size of his grant.
---- Ay. Half a county, some say. A grand plantation. 'Twas his family's royal grant. Ay, that hoose and this barn is juist wee potatoes to him. And as fine a dowry that winna be?
"Arra! 'When it come time to stretch' the old man. Hmmm. It's a juicy sound that one makes." Mahony's brain is crunching devious thoughts.
---- And what will you have me do with it, good woman? in softened tones.
---- Carry the diary wi' the babby.
"Bedad! Babby, swaddling, diary, blackthorn, milk-flagon, contract ... it begets much of muchness. Next do I know, I'll be hiring a Victoria and a pair of pacers," he smiles to himself.
---- Ay, woman! Hand and deliver.
---- I will nae.
---- Shall I no come down, then? What she canna see, but feels it in the dark, he's smirking the like of the fox at the henhouse door,
---- Ye will nae. A hint of fear edges her voice.
---- What is it, then? his tone feigns annoyance.
---- Ye knows very well, Mister Mahony. 'Tis yer business to know at all, sir, "What is it?"
He stays silent, listening intensely. thinking, "Shall I wait for the sounds of impatience?"
There's a pause, and a munching sound from a cow tethered below.
---- 'Tis drivel on paper you bring, woman ...What is your price?
---- One crown here and noow, sir.
---- Faith, Madame Wet-Nurse, two shillings. I do not be Queen Victoria's traveling treasury.
---- One crown, Mister Horseman. Her voice stiffens.
---- Three shillings.
Away in the barn, anither cow shuffles restlessly.
---- One crown, or I be walking. Quick, if you please sir, lest the O'Neill villain waken.
"This obstinate bit of sauce does test my patience. But a crown tonight is a hatful of sovereigns tomorrow, and O'Neill to pay them all. Ay, gladly. And my hilted blade will surely encourage his charity." Mahony feels about for his clothing and purse. "All is going better than I dared hope."
---- Agreed. Noow show the book.
---- Nae. First, ye be handing doon if ye plaise, sir. She puts down the lantern, climbs four rungs up the ladder, reaches overhead, and turns up her palm on the rim of the open hatch.
Mahony grasps her wrist like a manacle, then lets loose of it, thinking to the horrific deeds done by his grasping hands. "Mother of God, never in this world can I be taking a garotte to this woman and O'Neill will find me out."
---- Hand up the diary, wench. And let you dare not cheat, Mahony rumbles, him houlding the coin over the rim by two fingers.
---- I will nae. But I must study the coin by the lantern, and take a bite.
She snatches it away, steps doon the ladder and disappears into the dark. He pokes his head over the rim, sees her shape against the barn door, and then bending over her lantern. Three hops of a sparrow, so it is, she's back and ups the four rungs again. Herself hands up the lassie's diary:
---- Well and guid, sir. Here ... take it. Let God and Mary protect ye from this oot. And mind, I be nae here, Mister Horseman, and this didna happen, if ye know the side your bread ben buttered ... Holy Angels guard ye and the lassie's wee book. Ay, and bless her what died withoot priest nor Sacrament, and the poor wee bairn nae baptized, and has nae ma nor da nor name.
Wet-Nurse stands on the dirt floor, staring up. Mahony looks down:
---- I've heared aught, and slept the like of a tombstone this night of great silence, he volunteers to her, peering doon the ladder.
---- God hold ye in the palm of His hand! Beir Bua! she's after croaking from the barn door, and latches it behind her.
Mahony kneels over the hatch and pisses into the air, amused wi' the splattering sounds below. He creeps back to his lair in the fodder and buries the diary in his saddlebag. Sodden wi' poteen, the further night passes through his brain in dreamless blackness.
A blaze of morning pours through the seams of the barn planking, and pounds on Mahony's temples until he lies still as death in the pain of it. At forenoon, it's O'Neill, the fog of drink blown off his brain, and knowing aught of diary nor conspiracy in the night afore, swears wet-nurse to secrecy, and dismisses her wi' a handful of shillings and a frightful leer to seal their bargain. At sunset, he milks two goats into a wooden bucket and pours all into a leathern flask. He packs the squalling babby away in swaddling clothes, whilst in his one ear his dead daughter shrieking like a cat on embering turf and in the ither ear the bastard itself bleating for its ma. When Mahony is at last horsed, Hugh hands up the swaddled babby in a leathern carry-case, and then the goatskin flask, and a handful of sucking rags. And a package, perhaps a handspan around, and thrice that in length, wrapped in muslin sacking---- the blackthorn kippeen.
---- It goes where the babby goes, sure as the guid God made green pippins, and I'm a happy man to be shut of it. And the babby.
At Mahony's insistence, Hugh gives up anither of the seven crowns agreed upon; anither's yet to come, if Mahony returns wi' the contract endorsed. Hugh never in this world suspects that the crafty ould witch, Jimmy Callahan, and Christy Mahony have done such business many times over the years. Nor will he ever in this world learn of the lassie's diary in Mahony's saddle bag.
---- God ride on your shoulders, Hugh offers.
"Ay," Christy thinks, "God and the babby and the blackthorn and the diary and the milk and the contract ... and in my brain the plan to extort every farthing you own, O'Neill, you serpent's tooth."
Come the full moon of the oncoming spring-tide, it riz like a grieving ghost, so it is, ay, a face pocked in sorra for the banished bastard newbairn and its dead ma. And when Mahony pulls away his horse for to canter doon the lonesome road to Newcastle Port wi' his wee human burden, and the flagon, and the blackthorn, and the diary in his saddle bag, the lonesome stars watch wi' horror.
Yerra, it's the O'Neill making ready to saddle up, for to trail Christy Mahony in the secret dark.
Ay, didna the witch say, "It's the two's will bring ye grief." Ay, them two.
And what's this galloping after? What'll ye ye gi' me, there's a wraith trailing O'Neill? Holy Trinity protect us, here come the headless horseman, the Dullahan, the haunt of death for clan O'Neill since the ages began.
I see yer leaning forwards, friend. Is it a bite of biscuit you're wanting?




Illustration the sixth

89


CHAPTER SIX: crossed


Imagine, friend, that misty raw March night at Newcastle Port and, spread afore ye, the harbor at the ebb wi' its flock of fishboats settled dry and high on the hardened mud, wings folded, heeled over at this angle or that, asleep on their flanks, awaiting the full of a veiled moon for to pull the spring-tide under them. Let look yer eyes careful at this here one partikiler two-masted 'smack' leans against the quay, a worn sea-bitten craft stinks of fish, weary of weather and water, stretching thirty-two feet from pointy stem to transom stern, shaped by splintery ribs of English oak, cloaked in worm-holed Swedish pine, bound up by tarred seams that leak the like of Mary's tears at Calvary, and there's the black rot gobbles her innards. Faith and troth, she's the like of many anither two-masted smack in the herring trade, a class of fishboat called a "hooker" in these parts. Belle of Newcastle, her scarred name reads.
Hark! Unlike the ither smacks, our Belle shows the glow of two lanterns from her foredeck, whilst a grizzled fisherman of middle life and his sleepy ship's boy of ten years, mebbe, huddle in her sternsheets. The ould salt sucks on a blackened, traditional, clay dudeen, wreathing himself in circles of tobacco smoke what hang in the still mist. It's after a while, he knocks the dottle from the pipe-bowl and puts his head doon, this dab hand, this Jimmy Callahan, fisher, skipper, smuggler, sailorman for all seasons. The salty ones agree, what'll ye gi' me, himself knows the ways of 'hookers' like the back of his hand, and he's more able nor any Irishman in the smuggling games---- babbies, whisky, or what ye have---- for to give the slip to Queen Victoria's Revenooers. Bedad! It's this very night, whilst the misty wisps of moonlight bathes the drowsy laddie and his anxious skipper, Belle awaits a horseman bringing so hard a chance to her. Mind ye, the boy nodding off, he's innocent, understanding aught of the entire renegade affair: no the horseman galloping to meet them, no the illicit cargo coming aboard, and nae, noo, never! the sinfulness of it all.
Jimmy is longgo half-blind from cataracts. He canna see any class of detail past Belle's bowsprit. It's all the features beyond, even in clear air, to him is blunted shapes seen through a fog dimly. Aint he become the cunning one for that and a' that, God save him? For there's naebody learnt these waters the way of Jimmy Callahan them forty years afore his vision went rotten. And noow, it's wee need he must settle on weak eyes when his nose smells Belle's distance offshore---- and from what earthy landmark! And when his tongue knows one port from anither by the taste of the mud under Belle's keel, when his ears know to trim Belle's sails by the sound of wind in her rig, when his arm knows to move Belle's tiller against the tug of the wave, when his feet feel the tilt and pitch and heave of the deck. Himself has sailed at the right hand of Manannan Mac Lir from the Isle of Man to the Ooter Hebrides and both coasts of the Irish Sea and North Channel. For 'tis that and a' that he learnt years ago when his sight was sharp as a sea-hawk's, and his gaze measured the miles to the fairthest horizon. Jimmy imprinted and filed it all in his brain better nor any Admiralty sea-chart. Saints and Martyrs! Blind or no today, he'll stitch, splice, knot, haul, hand, reef, or steer, better nor any sharp-eyed skipper. And there's his young lad's eyes, bright and clear, for to con and ken whatsomever's wanting or waiting to be seen. Och, Jimmy-the-legend bests all the ither skippers at the herring nets or the smuggling game alike.
Canna ye see Belle of Newcastle this chancy night, leaning against a battered stone rim of wharf, and her two masts raking into the murk? And there's the two lanterns up on her foredeck, whilst it's patiently she waits, her crew of two gone asleep. Here come the first tendrils of the flood-tide creeping over the harbor sill, stirring the mucky bottom and, within that hour, the silent sea starts to lapping quietly against Belle's barnacled bottom, setting her old oaken bones astir slow and steady, freeing her keel from the stenchy ooze of her berth. The March air is cool but the sea is colder, and it's a thickening belt of fog rolls the tide under Belle of Newcastle.
Jimmy Callahan's snoozing soundly in his snoring snuffles, when his sleeping nostrils sniffs the first makings of the green seawater slipping under Belle. Come two more hours until the incoming flood's at the rush, floating her body, and sits Belle like a proper lady, in't. It's the half of Jimmy feels when Belle's leveling unsartain under him, and the ither half thrusts sleep aside, blinking the crusts from his eyes and bending his ears to the creak of her weary hull, whilst she uprights. It's all putting him wide awake, noow, wi' the yawning and stretching, until he's pissing over the rail. Then, as night's end nears, comes the haloed full moon riding over the befogged harbor, slowly pulling the sixth, last, and least hour of spring-tide high under Belle. Whensomever that high water starts to ebb, Jimmy and Kevin know Belle will be craning the like of a perched bird for want of spreading her wings over the curly waves. Noow is the time for to be tying up the last of their last loose ends, whilst there's still two more foggy hours of safe ebbing afore Belle will be scraping the bottom again. Och, friend, God save the two smugglers from the griefs ahead, them waiting in the moment, waiting in the thick water-borne mists afore dawn, waiting the oot-going tide anxiously for a horseman carries a living parcel in a leathern sack.
"A turrible year for the herrin', Belle, an' nae rest for the weary, nor peace for the wicked. An' there's yer empty fish-hold. Faired better when I warked for Paul Houlihan, used to," sighs Jimmy Callahan, fisherman, talking to his drift-net lugger in the night, left hand grasping her mizzen mast, his right wrapped aboot a filthy clay flask of poteen. He's thinking to the past day's fiery sunset. " 'Red sun at night makes a sailor's delight,' " he says to the boy what dreams naething of decent weather or fair winds that redness brings, but of fairaway horizons, strange landfalls, and smuggled gold, ay, all grand fortunes denied to Belle and Jimmy by the Orange heel grinding the North Irish into poverty. 'Tis Kevin dozing this night away, and the foggy sky an overturned bowl of porridge. The stink of shell-crusted piers sinks slowly into the deepening harbor waters, whilst the moored fleet of fishboats bows and curtsies one at the ither, and peers silently over the dark lapping wavelets.
Jimmy Callahan, fisherman, takes a lengthy swig, smacks the mizzen-mast again, the like of a seaman's shoulder in an ale house, and muses aloud: "It's Manannan Mac Lir brung the mist up the Irish Sea from his throne under the Isle o' Man, dear ould Belle, ay, an' himself riz from the sea like a fish. Or soars like a hawk, if he wills." Jimmy tilts the poteen doon his gullet, and talks at the sleeping Kevin. "Come the morning watch, he'll show us the way, macushla, an' mebbe do great battle against the Atlantic rollers at the Strait of Moyle." He peers oot towards the open sea, muttering. "One day, I'll be a feeble ould man, aint it, and here come Mac Lir an' his woman, Fand, aboard Wave-Sweeper, come for us, Belle, takin' us to the Western World, och, up the North Channel, past the Strait of Moyle, past Rathlin Island, to the OtherWorld o' Peace and Promise, och, to Paradise." He takes anither swig. "Ay, where's the peace an' promise tonight, crossin' the sea for a handful o' shillings and a Revenooer's chase," he sighs. "When trout in the pan's better 'n salmon in the sea, och, then, well the watch,"
Hark! The quiet shatters in a clop-clopping clatter of clippety hooves on cobblestone. The fisherman wakes the boy and peers blindly into the fraying fog of night. The boy's whispering what he's seeing: a cloaked and cowled horseman appearing out of the belt of mist, pulling up, dismounting, hitching reins, and gingerly taking a large bundle doon from the pommel, and walks quickly toward Belle.
The fisherman watches, slitty-eyed, and didna stir a sound. He's studying, best his poor eyes do, the shadow striding oot the low-lying layer of fog, mind ye. The boy's a-sweat, lying hidden in way of the boat's bulwark, sucking his breath, his pupils wider as hawse-holes. A dozen paces from Belle of Newcastle, the horseman stops, shuffles aboot, looks her up and doon, and he's puckering a low whistle of astonishment. He knows that smack. This boat, this fisherman have many times smuggled for him: French guns to Irish patriots, Irish whisky to Scotland, and inconvenient babbies to Ayr. The horseman looks aboot unaisy, steps up, raps a furtive knuckled knock on Belle's gunnel.
"Dia dhuit. God be with you and hullo, Jimmy Callahan ... Mother of God have mercy on you, Mister," the horseman rasps. Even in the foggy dark, it's Mahony's knowing howanever to put his limbs for to climb board Belle of Newcastle.
Jimmy cons the voice. The pit of his belly turns sour as pickled clabber. Aneath his fierce ways, Jimmy didna have bowels for the babby trade though it pays him well. He sidles oot the gloom. Oot the leathern bundle trickles a wee but distinct whimpering sound. The startled boy hangs back afeared, for he's never afore taken part in the like of such dealings.
"Hullo yerself, if ye be Christy Mahony, ye Roman rascal! An' it's dipped in the soup ye'll be if it's any of yer cursed whistlin' aboard our Belle. Nae curse is worser on crew or craft 'n a whistling curse," he says, innocent of the prophesy in his words.
"I'll forgive Mahony when he's dead. If then," Jimmy complains to himself. "For it's every man-jack sails on the salted seas knows whistling brings a boat aught but curse and trouble."
He turns to the Kevin-boy. "Hup, hup, boy! Be takin' them lanterns doon an' stow that there one in the starb'd shrouds up for'ds. An' then do ye be stiflin' t' ither one an' carry it aft. An' be careful as yer gang aboot."
Kevin does his bidding and wiggles forward until, eyeing the leathern parcel slung on the stranger's shoulder, he slips back to 'midships. The horseman eases aboard.
"It's noow yer here, surprisin' me wi' yerself, ay, an' a God-forsaken fog ye've brocht ... an' tell me, whereanever's yer Popish Mother o' God this lonesesome night?" Jimmy grates. Their faces close to a hand-span. "Oooo, it's yerself, is it ... Ay. Hmmm. Yer the one, Mahony. Be done wi' it an' quick aboot it. Put yer thievin' mercy an' yer seven sorrows on the bairn." Jimmy opens his hand and taps the horseman's arm. "A bit for a' that. Tuppence anyways."
"It's hardly I'm aboard ould Belle, and here you're putting the touch on me," Mahony complains.
Jimmy sneers. "Ye're havin' me on. Ye've the luck at all to be findin' an honest body does this nasty business for ye. Away off wi' yer finaglin'."
"Honest is it? Divil the luck, Callahan, and I'll be taking the babby to another skipper, so I will."
Jimmy softens. "Nae, nae, ye oul' goat. Amn't I yer man? Aint we always done a nice business afore? An' aint I got a scorchin' drop o' the craythur waitin' for ye? Ay, Scotch, the best, Johnnie Walker's over to Ayr. Ay, Kilmarnock," he lies. "Beats Irish John Jameson, arse over taykettle. Ummm, it's juist a few coppers I'm wantin' for me an' the boy here' ... an' I'm ... ahhh, there's me woman back home, ye know." And Jimmy craftily riz the poteen flask to his mouth, taking a sip, eyeing Mahony, smacking his lips ... very slow.
"All I know, Jimmy, you're the thief." Mahony feels a discomforting parch starts his throat.
"The same as afore, in't?" Jimmy tapping Mahony's arm again. "We'll no be sailin' withoot it. Ye canna beat a Louthman wi' his own caman, Mahony. Yerra, anybody wi' any sense at all knows it."
"And do you be having me on? You didna be any class of Louthman, you miserable sea-going fraud. And when's the time you'd offer any but poteen? It's smuggling Johnnie pays your debts."
Jimmy recoils, smirks, takes a swig, but didna offer his flask ... yet. The horseman scrambles aft, his throat scratch-dry at the thought of a sup. The boat's motion stirs the babby in her leathern pouch. The boy hears it coo; he's begun to understand the full of the haggling at hand. There's his heart skipping wildly whilst he's inching forward, craning to see a babby in the dark. The men huddle. The lad's very soul freezes at the hearing of the next words.
"Callahan, let it die, and rightly so, and there never be the blood on our hands. And you'll not be keeping the pouch. 'Tis good leather, rots at sea."
Which is anither of Mahony's lies, friend.
"Mahony did not consider," the boy thinks, "the Holy Saints looking harshly down on them what condemns a poor newbairn, and it mebbe stained by whatanever Heaven only knows, and unshriven."
Crafty-like, Mahony's reaching into his purse. He surely knows O'Neill already paid Jimmy. And he surely knows Jimmy's habit for extracting more coppers afore leaving shore.
"The bairnie ... it's cursed. Ay, Jimmy, cursed, I tell you! Baby has six toes! Both feet!" Mahony croaks hoarsely. "And born on Sixth Day."
The astonished boy, his teeth already sunk into his lower lip, he's clapping one hand across his mouth and crossing himself wi' the ither. He crawls to the fishboat's bow, his brain near to bursting. Never in his life has he even imagined six toes on a human being.
"Divil the trip!" Jimmy blurts, himself adding a round Gaelic curse for the six toes, and swings his lantern away of the horseman's face, extending his ither hand. Mahony drops the dull coppers one by one into the fisherman's leathery palm. "Yer heart ben harder than the coins ye're squeezin' at me," wheedles Jimmy, "for I canna say, 'nae,' against the dwindlin' bellies o' me own weans. But it's nae I do say, for it's a pittance ye're offering here, ye swindlin' sleeveen."
The fisherman didna have weans. The horseman knows it.
"An' did ye say who owned the bairn?"
The horseman shakes his head but didna withdraw his hand: "Nae. I did not. Its ma's dead ... Not a farthing more, you rascal. You're cutting my share."
"Bedad, an' for the ma an' the bairn an' the love o' the true Lord ... an' yer Holy Mother, mebbe ... an' want o' the damned herrin', anither tuppence, Mister Mahony, nor sidesteps nor shenanigans," Jimmy scowls. "It's nae aisy milk in the smugglin' these days. It's if ye make one wrong ripple whilst yer rovin', there's the Revenooers broadside 'cross yer bows. An' noow it's shipmates I'll be wi' a cursed six-toed circus freak to boot? Ye've a black heart, Mister Mahony."
Jimmy didna say Hugh O'Neill, what he didna yet know by name, already paid him, much less the future crown he wheedled and still expects. And Mahony has aught to say of his plan to extort O'Neill for sovereigns. Grumbling and mumbling, backing and filling, changing tacks, and their colloguing riz against the night, and them bargaining like mendicants at the Temple, and still Jimmy didna soften his demand. And didna offer the poteen. And the bargaining drones on.
"In for a farthing, in for a crown," Jimmy goads Mahony, staying his own reach for the bairnie.
"Godamercy, you're boiling the same cabbage again," Mahony objects.
But Jimmy insists, and anither tuppence it is, and anither, and anither, parleying over the future of me Ma like it's a herring, mebbe, she is. At the last of it, up heists the babby, and changes hands, and doon into the foul damp fish-hold belly of the creaky leaky lugger. In the shadows, the boy's head swivels on the scene, and his jaw sagging in disbelief.
"Damn the tuppence!" Mahony thinks, remembering his night in the drunken O'Neill's barn and the tale he told of the witch and her saying, ' 'Tis the two's will bring you grief!' "
"Here's to a wee drop o' the craythur taken, an' six toes counted for sixpence ... twice." says Jimmy Callahan, sullenly producing two chipped mugs. He lifts his battered flask to seal the bargain, dourly measuring oot the poteen to a craving Mahony.
"Ay, Jimmy, never be saying, 'twice!' Never the twos! 'Tis cursed No, nae, never no more! And here's the contract to you for safekeeping," Mahony reaching under his gansey and surprising the fisherman. "It's wee need I have for it, and great risk for the burden of it ... . The Peelers, Jimmy, the bloody Peelers is it," he rolling the contract tighter and handing it for Jimmy, "and if Queen Victoria's souljers find this on me, I'm good as stretched, ay, drawn and quartered too. Musha, the royal villains are always out looking for Christopher Mahony." And he's smirking: "Mind ye, Jimmy, I'm not fearing this man coming after me, for he has not the bowels to squeeze me." Mahony says aught aboot the copy of the contract he's sure his Meggeen hid. It's that one he'll be using to blackmail O'Neill, wi' counterfeits of O'Neill's own mark, and soon to be, Jimmy Callahan's mark too, in Meggeen's blood.
"He's fearin' o' yer strength, is it?" Jimmy winces wi' those words, saying aught aboot knowing O'Neill's face, suspecting the worst of O'Neill's avarice, and cold in his marrow to be seeing Mahony so smug in confidence,.
"Ay, and my blade for to ride him down over his debt," sneers Mahony, "and to squeeze yet one more crown ... mebbe more. It's surely a sovereign or three I'll be taking when he feels cold steel tickling his Prottie neck, God in Heaven be wi' us, whatanever the contract."
It's noow Mahony, wi' the fiery craythur oiling his brain, tells Jimmy all he learnt at the fairmhouse on the night O'Neill's tongue loosened in drink---learnt aboot the lass, the Roman tinker from Glasgoow, the midwife, the burial in the pigsty, the wet-nurse, the witch, the monk. But of the wet-nurse's visit in the barn, or of their conversation, or of the lassie's diary in his saddlebag, he says aught. 'Tis naething for to interest Jimmy. Or the Revenooers.
"It's a sovereign in your purse, Mahony, for every tuppence in mine," Jimmy foments. But he suspects something unsaid and puzzles upon it.
" An' winna this bit o' parchment be a richt contract," Jimmy speculates, "for the Community o' Sisters to know? Some day to come, an' wee Babby Six-Toes is o' age an' oot in the wide world ... to Ireland, mebbe. Ay, is it the contract be bringin' a bit o' her da's land to her some day, yer thinking?"
'Some day, mebbe. It's not for you and me to say, Callahan. Nor for to care.' Mahony stares into his mug, swirls it, lifts it, takes a long sup, happy he gave Jimmy the risk of carrying the contract.
Noow it's the fisherman measures his words, sucking and puffing a wreath of smoke from his dudeen and fingering his mug, shifts in his seat, himself staring oot over the quay, weighting his thoughts as if something's to be seen amongst all the fog-shrouded warehouses and alleys, as if his weak eyes could see it were it there. Mahony smiles to himself, making secret still of the contract's copy he knows Meggeen Michaela hid in the shebeen wall.
"Callahan," Mahony wags his head, " 'tis a useless dream. Come in out of that. Musha, it's the way of foundlings to be dying faster than moths in the flame. Anybody wi' any sense---- "
"Time will tell all, yer Mother Mary willin'. Or do ye mebbe have a talkin' archangel, Mister Mahony?" Jimmy mocks, looking aboot for the Kevin-boy. "Hey, boy! Get yerself over here an' read this here writin' to me."
Jimmy's cursing his failed eyesight whilst the lad moves beside him and unrolls the parchment. Jimmy grabs it away, houlding it stretched between his two hands, as if he's reading. Mahony houlds the lantern close. The boy leans in over Jimmy's shoulder, tracing the words wi' a finger, murmuring into his ear. Jimmy's no too much listening. He's weighing the risk of carrying the contract onboard.
At the end, Jimmy nods, "It's all what's been said afore, so it is. I'm wantin' to hear tell nae more of it." And says aught of learning O'Neill by name for the first time. 'Tis a name for a face, and that will help form his own blackmail scheme, bur he says aught aboot it. The boy stands, waiting. "Away off an' chase yerself, boy. It's up to the fo'c's'l wi' ye, an' find ye some o' Belle's wark needs doin'."
The two men sit long and quiet until Mahony raises his cup: "Slainte," the horseman offers a toneless Gaelic toast, fearing whatsomever the traditional curse of six toes will bring, and himself remembering again Meggeen Mike back at the shebeen. And O'Neill's debt.
"Slainte mHath," the fisherman begrudges, fearing for his voyage and already himself homesick for the wife and hearth he left behind, and thinking dark thoughts of the Irish Sea, and Revenooer gunboats, and the Mull of Kintyre in its evil ways. "Swear blind, Mahony?"
"Ay, by the faith of our four fathers ... swear blind," says Mahony.
"It's mostly blind I am, Mahony," Jimmy grimaces, " 'an' yer Saint Lucy didna help me at all. Where's yer Divine Grace when I be needin' it?"
"Musha, it's dig, delve, and drudge I be doing if it wasn't the herring," Jimmy tells himself, wagging his head. "And smuggling the bairns, when the herring run dry ... and the guns when there's no bairns been born ... and the whisky ... Godamercy, there's them that wears the Green who bears the bairns what eats the herring that grows them up to buy the whisky to give them courage to shoot the guns ... and go home to beget more bairns," he muses. "Mebbe that's what all them magic circles are about, them round forts and earthen humps and towers and all."
"Och, Mahony, 'It's the Poor What Takes the Blame,' so it is," Jimmy feeling the welcome scorch of the poteen and bursts oot his reverie, starting a verse or three of the ould lament in a whispery melody, that's bawled and bellowed in seamen's pubs the seven seas over: " 'She was juist a parson's daughter, pure an' simple was her name ... ' " His tuneless voice finishes on the chorus: " ' ... An' aint it all a bleedin' shame?' Aint that the way of it, Mahony?" Jimmy jabs a finger into Mahony's side. "Aint it all a bloody blooterin' shame? Och, you wake up thinkin' the world's a goat's beard, an' ye pops yer clogs knowin' as ye pass, 'twas but a horse's tail ... an' all what comes oot o' there."
Mahony's brain is a counting house, and he didna be side-tracked.
"Would you be warking for some damned English landlord, Callahan, and you mebbe a cursed 'emergency man' on the crowbar brigade? Mebbe the Marquis, your Honourable Mister Dennis Edward Rathlin, Esquire, and all his thieving family, paying you for to beat down some wee insect of a tenant? Divil the chance!" Mahony scowls. "Godamercy, beating some miserable farmer and his starving wife and six runty kids out his right wee tenancy---- house, goat, kid, sow and farrow on mebbe one-quarter of a fair lot? Unless he's starved dead already by them heartless highheejins. Or carried away by the bloody flux. Or the scurvy. Or the consumption. Ay, Callahan, 'tis not for you. Fishing's for you. Fishing for babbies. You're a rover, is what you are."
Jimmy,what has a wee tillage to fairm for himself and Irene, he looks steady into Mahony's face.
"Beir Bua!" Mahony salutes in Gaelic. "To your success, Callahan!" and he's raising his mug and clinking wi' Jimmy. But the tone of his voice has no the heart.
" An' yers," Jimmy says level-like. And he pours a wee drop. " An' the babby's."
"And one last bit, Callahan. You'll be finding a wee bundle wrapped up in the babby's swaddling ... a bit of blackthorn that its ma touched ... mebbe bring the innocent wretch better luck than it found since. And your Belle, whilst she carries it. Will you not give it over with the babby when you get to the Sisters at Ayr, then?" Mahony appeals, staring fierce.
Jimmy stares back for a bit. "Sure, an' I'll give it over, ay, on me heart's blood I will. An' as yer sayin', Mahony, here's hopin' it gets us luck against the Queen's Revenooers the whole way across. An' Belle's breeze the better for it." Jimmy farts. "That there's the Revenooer's wind," he grins.
The two conspirators sit in the soured sipping silence of a smuggler's last night ashore, the poteen scalding their throats. Their talk of bairnies and babbies begins again, then shifts to memories of the grubby harshness of their youth. Mahony speaks of glens and fields and hills of Munster and Mayo, Leinster, and Connaught and the West Country, and Galway. Jimmy speaks of Bute and the Firth, and the rocky shores of The North, and the Mountains of Mourne, and the fields and glens of County Down, and wee County Louth. They banter of horses and home rule, and spuds and sport, and herring and haddock, coasts and curraghs, land and landlords, of weather and whether, cabbages and the Queen, voyages and fortunes and chances to be taken or never taken, desperation and the Divil. They didna know that this here year of 1845 will start The Great Hunger in Ireland, the suffering untold, the broken lives and broken families, the countryside abandoned, the nation prostrated, millions dead or wishing for death and millions emigrated. And them that emigrates, ye'll see, gets waked as if they too died, for they will never again be seen on this green Irish sod, so it is. But for Jimmy Callahan and Christopher Mahony, they canna know also to have fear for whatanever was coming for to pass into the life of Babby Six-Toes and themselves, mind ye, friend.
Midnight draws on and they fall silent. Christopher Mahony, slaughterous horseman of the valley of the River Bann, tips his mug, drains the dregs in a great gulp, belches, puts doon, says aught, climbs Belle's gunnel and on to the quay, unhitches his horse, looks aboot, and mounts.
"The Lord upon yer shoulder blades, an' His voice in yer ear, Mahony," Jimmy grates after him.
"Ay, and hope it does be all what's shoved between your shoulder blades," Jimmy thinks darkly.
"Go gcoinne Dia thu! God keep you and your roving!" Mahony's tongue is thick and hoarse, his grasp of the reins unsteady, nor is himself easy in the saddle.
"Away off wi' ye!" Jimmy bellows, expecting there's a body oot there is listening in the dark. "And the bright shield o' Lugh shine upon ye!"
Christopher Mahony, blackmailer, proprietor, mercenary, deliveryman, he's horsed and trotting, cloppety-cloppety, across the cobbled wharf in a low belt of fog. Christy Mahony, lonesome rider, dinna look back, nor the fisherman up. Christy Mahony spurs his horse to a canter. Jimmy Callahan moves on to Belle's foredeck carrying the shrouded lantern, unmasks it, and he's hoisting it over his head in a momentary wigwag motion, the like if someone ashore might could see that; then he fixes it on the rigging boards and sits on the bulwark. And it's Jimmy Callahan puffing on his dudeen, listening, waiting, tensing. He uncorks the poteen.
Jimmy tilts the flask: "Here's to you, O'Neill, you scoundrel, ay, the life of a salmon: long in years, full in heart, and a wet mouth, you rogue---- and bring yourself to Belle with more babbies and crowns tomorrow! And pay off your debt today." Jimmy licks the whisky taste from his lips, and another drop taken. "And here's to you, Mahony, may you be halfways to Heaven afore the Divil knows you're gone." And he corks the flask.
Christy Mahony's horse clatters across the cobblestones, echoing loud in the deserted night. Christy Mahony's thinking of Meggeen Michaela and the cozy shebeen by the banks of the River Bann, and the rich earth of the land they own aboot it. And a mug of porter foaming, and a rude chair by a carven oak table, and then later, wi' Meggeen pressing on to him amidst the cozy shadows of their bed. He thinks to the warmth of her naked skin, her breasts, her loins, the heights of the excitement they will know, squirming and wrestling across the night, the like of salmon writhing to the spawning ground. Christy Mahony's thinking of hard-drinking Hugh Robert O'Neill, and the aisy milk of blackmail to come, wi' Meggeen's counterfeit signing of the contract copy. And the grand blackmail to be had wi' the dead lassie's diary-book. Christy Mahony's thinking of his own fearsome reputation, and the power of gold to be extracted at the cause of a bastard babby, and what gold will buy. Christy Mahony eases his reins to a trot, patting the dirk in its scabbard and the quill tucked in his gansey.
Christy Mahony clop-clopping through the dark misty streets of Newcastle Port didna see Hugh O'Neill on horse, Hugh O'Neill peering through the silent wet thickness toward the dim yellow halo of a single lantern swinging across the bow of Belle of Newcastle, O'Neill lurking quiet and owl-eyed, neck craned, ears cocked, crouched and hidden behind the shadows of a twiggy yew tree, in the dim foggy side-alley of a quay-side warehose, Hugh Robert O'Neill leaning forward in his saddle. And a pistol in his belt.
Mahony rides by, clippety! cloppety! O'Neill's steed springs from the shadows, himself oncoming wi' pistol noow in hand! Here's O'Neill ranging alongside afore Mahony fairly knows he's there---- and then, Divil take it! An unexpected stumble! In the dark, Hugh's horse trips a forefoot on a rut amongst the cobblestones! And whatanever do ye know but O'Neill suddenly rolling in the saddle wi' a bucking and a bounce and all. The gun barrel he's aiming at Mahony's head jogs astray, and the ball splats instead into Mahony's throat, piercing his voice-box and ripping a neck artery in two, until he's tumbling from the saddle still alive, thudding into earth, and spouting a fountain of blood. Near fast as the ball itself, O'Neill pounces upon him, pawing for the contract---- what's unbeknownst already in Belle's locker. O'Neill canna see in the black shadows the slashing edge of Mahony's hilted blade and the dirk's last swipe. The like of an owl's claw it is, raking a sardonic smile under O'Neill's chin, ear to ear and through O'Neill's windpipe, near severing his head. And it's O'Neill's scream stifled by his voice box flooding wi' blood.
Mother of God! A ghastly hush come over all for a body fallen across a body, it making a gory and unholy cross, so it is, and the pool of blood spreading a circle round their bodies, the gruesome like of a Celtic gravestone. This one is dead, then that one, each felled voiceless and covered by the blood of the ither. And here noow come the Dullahan galloping oot the sky, the ancient O'Neill curse, splashing noiselessly in the puddled blood, prancing and trampling and shrieking soundlessly. And there, fair above the fog belt, 'tis the grieving full moon of spring-tide looks doon upon that grisly hour like a veiled and ghastly mourner, and draws up a last slowly thickening shroud of mist upon the dead, whilst the bloody Dullahan dances off into the fitful murk of midnight. Godamercy, dear friend, didna the witch's prophetic thought come true: if a body lives by the sword, he shall die by the sword.
Ay, and didna the ould hag warn, " 'Tis the twos will bring ye grief."
Doon by the wharf, the sea is placid, a flat black mirror where dense drifts of cold mist silently wet Belle of Newcastle, she huddling oot of sight for the murderers' hideous end. In Belle's hold, Babby Six-Toes, swaddled all pink and warm, barely stirs in her sleep. Amongst the rope coils and hanks and bundled gear, Jimmy and Kevin-boy start into action, Jimmy mumbling to himself of expecting his payoff any minute, urging the boy to make sure all is at the ready for casting off soon as O'Neill appears. It's whilst the moon what bridged the land begins her long slide into the sea, they wait ... .
At sun-up, comes Constable Kenney of the Port Corporation, roused by a group of shocked drovers and jarveys to see the two dead ones in the filth of a Newcastle street, sprawled and disheveled on the cobblestones in a circle of blood. Thieving blackguards of the waterfront night have already rolled the corpses and stripped away pistol, dirk, purses, riding coats, belts and boots, and gone galloping after the runaway horses---- for tack, and saddle bags bring a pretty penny at Gypsy markets. Nae a body on the docks owns to recognizing Hugh in death, only as the mysterious stranger spoke a Patrickdoon brogue, what come to the wharf and bargained secretly wi' Jimmy. And of Belle of Newcastle, Jimmy, Kevin, and Babby Six-Toes? Fled longgo in the night, and the where, what, and why, of their voyage and cargo a mystery to all. But ahah! It's the whole wide world knows who is the murdered publican, Christopher Mark Mahony, seller of contraband, hire thug, dealer in shady contracts, noow lying dead and disheveled in the street. Constable Kenney recognizes at once that mercenary face, and calls to mind a barrow more of its reputation for the pressing and corruption of the law.
" 'The God that looks after dupes and drunken sailors," thinks Constable Kenney, "has His justice, for now 'tis Christopher Mahony himself be stretched."
All the guid constable finds on the men is one small book of handwriting slung into the blood, discarded mebbe by the thieves for having noo value, addressed: "To my Baby." He arranges for Mahony's body and the wee book to be sent back to a lonesome Meggeen Michaela Mahony, waits unknowing at the daub-and-wattle shebeen by the River Bann. The stripped and unclaimed body of Hugh Robert O'Neill---- origins, name, family, and clan unknown to all at the docks of Newcastle Port---- is shrouded in cheap sacking and dumped wi'oot ceremony into an unmarked potter's grave, and lime slaking poured after. Och, and trampling on that there grave 'tis again the Dullahan, the headless horseman what revels in the gore and blood of the O'Neill clan since the beginning of time.
Afore I'm saying, friend, howanever Jimmy, Kevin, Babby Six-Toes, and Belle left Ireland that grim night, should I no be freshening your tay a bit? And a bit of the sugar? Here's the last wedge of buttered barmbrack ... the Little People must of seen ye was coming. Ay, and didna ye know I'm still flogging the boxty, if ye'll have it:
"Boxty on the griddle, boxty in the pan,
If ye canna make guid boxty, ye'll never get a man."
Yerra, yerra, mind ye, friend, it's me curlicue spine keeps me by the hearth, and it's staying by the hearth howanever I learnt to make the boxty suits a prince. But me prince didna come, nor footman, only the wee mouse under the chair. And didna ye ken, it's never in this world a good man looked at me half of twice. God help me, it's staying by the hearth brought me more misery than ever a decent human being should suffer, and a life of grief I've yet to tell. Ay, knowing the Dullahan too well.



























Illustration the seventh

109

CHAPTER SEVEN: smuggling


'Tis here at Newcastle Port, a peevish mist clabbers aboot Jimmy Callahan and his boy, them two bustling and hustling, making ready for to sail, waiting impatiently on the laggard O'Neill. Canna ye see them in yer brain's eye, friend, man and boy making all tidy in the ghostly mists, whilst the ghastly scene they canna inagine oppresses the wharf? There's the boy, sitting cross-legged on a coil of rope up for'ds, bent over his seamanlike chores by sieved moonlight, in his left hand the frayed bitter end of Belle's hempen jib-sheet. The right hand's 'whipping' a spool of marling-line round and round the unraveled strands of it, him cinching each turn, then stitching all of them closed. And pushing a Sheffield steel needle wi' the stiff socket of a leathern 'palm' through the spiraled yarns of rope. Didna ye sniff in the milky gruel of fog, the patched flaxen sail, stenchy of fish oil for its water-proofing, and tanned of ochre? And canna ye smell Jimmy hard at wark in the darkling damps, in his sweat, stink, and tobacco smoke, and at the last folding his weariness doon in way of the helm, thwarted of sleep by Belle's rough timbers? Ay, in the dank of darkness, even the veil of silence has its partikiler smell and feel.
Suddenly, a single high-pitch rap! The snap of a plank, is it? Or the crack of a whip, coulda been? Or does it be a single pistol shot from a lengthy distance, punctures the thick stillness?
"Cap'n," the boy stammers, "what d-d-did I hear?"
"Ye be hearin' the tumble of a timber, mebbe, or the flip of a fish floppin'," Jimmy's irritated voice drifts up from the sole boards aft, where he wrestles wi' sleep. His thoughts overflow wi' Christy Mahony; the shot echoes in his brain until it's become the sound of a coin dropped on a cockpit bench.
The boy canna contain his growing anxieties.
"I d-did not hear the splash, and ... and the horseman, m-mebbe? What could it be, sir?"
"Hey, boy! What's the bother? What's the mischief yer doin'?"
The minutes struggle by, and never the sound of a hoofbeat approaching or fading, never a hail from oot the brooding fog.
"One shot only. Hmmm. Mahony's dead, mebbe, and it's myself Hugh owes over the signaling of Belle's lantern, ay, Hugh, the treacherous villain. He'll pay mightily, he will. Ay, a sovereign to me, a sovereign to stay my telling the world if he's a murdering liar. God forgive me, I never truly believed O'Neill would shoot. And Mahony carries but a hilted knife."
He calls after the boy again. "Doin' what, ye wee chiseller?"
"Whipping a fray, sir, and there be nae mischief to it at all, sir," the boy's fingers circling a sixth turn of marling-line round yet anither frayed rope end, his mind ill at ease.
Half the hour-glass trickles doon, and still noo sign of the O'Neill. 'Tis soon half the ebb-tide's runned oot, and Belle be aground again. They must slip their warps for to gain the open sea.
"Where in all of the Divil's doings does the O'Neill be?" Jimmy frets.
"Is it something we're waiting on, Cap'n?"
"I've wee will for waitin', boy."
"Ay," the boy's thinking, "Devil the six toes! And mebbe it's a pistol shot, and will ever we see Scotland at all? Ones say there's monsters in the North Channel makes Loch Lomond's Nessie look the like of a pussycat, and tides at the Strait of Moyle founder a four-masted clipper ship. And now we've a curse to carry in cargo, God between us and harm."
It's the vision of six toes sticks like glue to the boy's brain, and troubles his heart more than the sounds his ears heared. He tries to drown his divils in his wark. He's finished whipping six turns and cinching a seventh on the bitter end of his last rope in the dark: stitching the marling-line across the turns and into the lay of the rope, securing the job. But his brain is crunching.
"Cap'n, the babby's six toes, faith, a curse is it? Must it be of the Divil? Could it never be the sign of an angel? A guardian angel, mebbe?"
"Ever ye heared tell of an angel has six toes? Did ye hear tell the like, ye wee eejit? Nae, noo, an' never. Noow heed yer whippin', er it's a whippin' ye'll get, boyo, an' put yer idle thoughts away of it. There's aught to be had wi' angels an' Divils when it's Belle yer for lookin' after.
"Juist making talk for to hurry the dawn and light the dark. And ... and raise the fog, Cap'n."
"An' ye never in this world be troublin' yer wee head over fog. The sun's riz to worser nor this." Jimmy remembers his hard chances at sea. "There's Divil enough in the sea itself, ay, an' it's pure Hell when the wind's all fury on an open ocean. An' 'tis worser for a meager breeze on a lee shore."
"Ay, it's Hell, is it! Where in the belly of the Divil is the O'Neill? Mebbe it's down on the cobblestones he is. Nae ... Mebbe halfway down the highway to Patrickdown itself. And himself with my payoff. Divil take it!"
He barks at the boy: "Yerra, whisht yer gob wi' talk o' dark an' dawn an' fog, boy. We've troubles a-plenty in what ye can see in yer eyes an' feel in yer hand." Jimmy sucks on his dudeen, then blows a great blue cloud. "We be needin' aught from fire an' brimstone crayturs lepp round yer brain-pan, nor ye conjure some eejit spirit wi' horns an' talons an' claw-tipped wings."
"Howanever Mister Callahan denies The Lord," the boy puzzles, "and believes in his pagan gods and this world only, yet it's often enough he calls out the Divil. And I've seen himself kneeling in the dark ... and then that one time beyond, himself sipping of the Eucharist." It's with every stitch the boy cinches into the bitter end of his rope, his mind returns to the way of Jimmy cuddling Babby Six-Toes. "Mister Jimmy Callahan is lonesome," he concludes.
Yerra, the boy knows lonesome when he sees it, mind ye, knows it like the back of his hand, for he's remembering three years since, when himself was a woe-begotten waif wandered these very Newcastle docks, the lonesomest child on God's green island. Ay, there was he, starving and beggared in the desperation of his abandonment, and never in this world a charitable body to say one soft word nor shed doon one pious tear over him, nor a single angel singing comfort to his soul. That and all that, and the pangs of fierce hungers biting his belly.
---- Only a crust, sir, take pity, he would implore, beseeching from one to anither scornful stranger, and all them passing him by on the wintry dock if he be a wooden block.
"Yerra, all the cold and heedless ones, and me answering to any name at all or no name, or a curse or a kick, even, and still never a body calling after me," he thinks back to those horrific times. "Ay, it was the most lonesomest of all, worse than the worst of pain, the dying alone by myself."
The fisherman interrupts Kevin's thoughts: "An' it's frayed poor Belle is, wi' runnin' bairns from trouble to pain an' back again, an' try whippin' that p'tikeler rope, boyo. An' six toes? That there's a bargain wi' the Divil, mebbe, an' that aint never a bargain at all. Do ye let me worry for the voyage, boyo, an' let yerself mind the bailin' bucket."
The boy stitches again into the turns of the bitter end. Every push at his marling needle pierces all what's filled his worried ears and eyes this night, and pricks his brain, and stabs his heart, and sews enormous disquiet into his soul.
"He does be after believing something out there, at all," the boy thinks, and he's again recollecting how he come to be recued by Jimmy Callahan. "Mebbe thinking of my lucky day will help the jitters."
It was Advent, three winters since, Kevin remembers, and the countryside scourged. First come the bloody flux, they say, and then the black fever cutting doon them what's left. And then this here same fisherman, Jimmy Callahan, finding him, a starveling of seven years---- "Ye can tell by the teeth, like a colt, mebbe," a body said---- the lad wandering the icy docks of Newcastle Port, rooting wi' vicious rats amongst offal, and never a kindly body to lay claim upon him but a blow or kick. He's near on to dying, and his belly hollow as the new moon, he remembers, the night when Jimmy chances by.
"Godamercy! Another orphan roams the roads," Jimmy rails to himself, laying eyes on the wretched child cowering in the snowy doorway, with the rats looking for to nibble him, and scrapping with him over rancid rations. Jimmy chases the rats away with his hands. "God in Heaven, is there no end in it? Ay, what else can be in this cursed land, with the mitred bishops preaching, 'Muliply!' And it's the plagues, and droughts, and cruel landlords thrusts armies of these orphans abroad to scavenge what the land will never provide, and the withered children falling like brown leaves of autumn, so it is ... and now this here one." A flicker of light from the starveling's eye goes through Jimmy's eye, and lances Jimmy's soul. "God save the motherless wretch! Poor laddie, turned out-of-doors to struggle over the byways and the turfs and the barren fields. And what way, then, should I not walk on when I'm able?" Jimmy asks angrily of a sight he has seen a hundred times.
Mind ye, friend, that and a' that what bothers Jimmy's soul, it's the boy himself knows to be the dismal life and casual death for many a child all over Ireland. Like Jimmy, he has seen the bloated dead of every kind and age lying unburied across the land, the corpses reeking under the pitiless sun and rotting under desolated stars. Noow the boy is beyond hunger, and waits his turn, wanting only the rats to finish their gnawing, to make an end to the pain of his life, his lonesome misery. And it's when Jimmy bends to pull the boy into his arms, 'tis the like of God reaching oot to touch Adam. Jimmy's afeared the fragile bones he lifts will crumble in his arms, and fills wi' pity for the lightness of the burden he carries to home and safety. Och, it's in this way, the guttering candle of the laddie's life sputters into bright and sudden flame, and he first come to know the warm hearts and glowing hearth of Irene and Jimmy and the Callahan home. It was Christmas-time, and them gifting one the ither.
"Myself knowing aught of where I come from, nor him what made me, nor her what brung me to this earth ... God forgive them, whosomever they be ... I was the like of that Babby Six-Toes asleep in the hold," the boy's thinking, "banished and a-wandering, put away of all what borned me, mebbe, to die, God forbid, on this very quay. Some dark-cloaked horseman, was it, mebbe abandoned me at this very place?" he wonders.
Fisher-fowk say, starve a child beyond a sartain point and, friend, what'll ye gi' me, it's his brain pan is swept as clean as a sand-scoured seashell. So it was to the laddie Kevin, his childhood a blank and clueless void, him remembering aught at all afore the roaming and begging amongst the docks of Newcastle Port---- and the near-death that cold and lonesome December night.
"And then, Godamercy, Mister Callahan finds me thin as the winter twigs and surely dying," the boy marvels, remembering the way of it, the way of looking up from the doorway where he lay in rags, the way of searching the cold emptiness, surely giving up the ghost itself, the spirit of him sucked into the cruel gullet of night. And there come out of the soulless gloom, fragments of a seamy face slowly assembling above, the two worrying crinkled eyes staring down, the two hands gentling his shivers, a pipe glowing the like of a hearth, a voice filled with the sound of warmth, two arms lifting him, a stairway to heaven.
And what come of all Jimmy Callahan's charity, friend, ye'd never think. Himself brings this here lost lamb home, so he does, and his wife enthralled. Och! They ben twenty years man and wife, and herself barren. Or so a body says. Put that in the corner of yer brain, friend, then, and see the true picture: it's nae herself canna conceive, bedad. Nae, noo, and never! 'Tis Jimmy has the problem wi' the excitement. Musha, Jimmy hears in his head the Divil under the marriage bed, the very Divil he didna believe in. And then? Och! Jimmy's an anxious soul awash in worry, needing to bring his musket up for to discharge, when he's wanting bullet and powder and canna anyways find the trigger. Musha, it's a right rigid class of Presbyterian is our Jimmy, avoids the Kirk, but still in all it's his morals stiff as his skull bone, but 'tis all of him soft flesh in the marriage bed. The Divil's hex, it is, friend, and if yer ears nae ben red and welted shut wi' the hearing of a' that, I say Jimmy has a cock canna crow. Howanever, the Holy Angels didna look after poor Irene, for it's aught in the village knows 'tis Jimmy's problem itself. Poor Irene!
"Didna ya know, it's Jimmy's missus is barren," a body tells a body, all glib wi' untruth in the market place, so it is. "God save all, 'tis a turrible curse on Irene Callahan for her wrongdoing," the gossips smirk, and Saint Peter looking to hide his key from them venal liars and their venial sins.
"Whatanever's the wrongdoing Irene done?" The smirkers purse their lips and canna name the dark mischief for, as ye heared tell, friend, there's aught to say. "God forgive the poor sinner," says them cacklers, wi' the false clucking and gobbling for "poor Callahan" and his "bewitched missus."
"O," says them liars, "start with she being, ya know, a guttersnipe Scot from Bute. And then she married himself. Sure and sartain, Jimmy's a scandralous reprobate," they say, and noow them dwells on to the falsehoods and looseness of fact. And when those fraulds be overed: "Och, willya tell us the last ya seen the ould curmudgeon himself in Kirk?" And on and on wi' this and a' that. So it come to pass this lost and found child ben the only child the Callahans ever had.
The boy is rightly baptized Presbyterian by the name Kevin O'Donnell Callahan, for there's clan O'Donnell in Jimmy's Bute blood. Ay, me friend, and wasn't it an O'Donnell, stood beside our grand Irish hero, Hugh O'Neill, at the Battle of Kinsale? 'Tis God's complexity! The Callahans give Kevin love but didna spare the rod. They nourish his body, and narrow his path, them and the boy never knowing the mystery of his origin, nor any ither name nor family. And howsomever Kevin is the lad's new Christian name, aboard Belle of Newcastle Jimmy the fisherman calls him aught but, 'Boy,' same as any ither class of ship's lad. And makes strict of his services after the lad's schooling ends at ten years. Which is in the custom of the times, ye'll be knowing.
Noow, at this moment, mind ye, it's the innocent ten-year-old Kevin-boy on his first trip offshore, ay, his first night 'going foreign,' and here's Belle burdened wi' that there six-toed human contraband itself. Canna ye see the laddie curled asleep on the foredeck, covered wi' the jib-sail, and his brain dreaming stormy scenes of smuggled bairns, his wakeful heart in knots wi' seeing Six-Toes sold like packaged herring, and his soul bewildered. And unbeknownst, Christy Mahony's ghost flitting away, away of Jimmy, and Kevin, and Belle, and away of Six-Toes too, and there's the ghost of Hugh O'Neill beyond, fluttering after. And the ancient curse of the Dullahan chasing yet anither O'Neill.
A turn of Belle's sand-clock passes and Callahan, the hard-nose skipper, is after creeping to the foredeck for to tuck the sleeping boy snug wi' a corner of jib-sail canvas. The fog softens Jimmy's gaze a heartbeat or three whilst he steps back to the helm, lights anither pipe, and props himself on a bench aft.
"That's the way of it, the ebb-tide starting, and here's me and my lovely Belle, spends half my life and most of hers waiting for the tide to turn in our favor. Musha, where's O'Neill with my share? Ah, the thieving villain's gone off with it," he rues. "If there be no God in heaven for the likes of him, there's a Divil in Hell, mebbe. Sure and certain, O'Neill shot Mahony, and rode off."
But Jimmy knows, time and tide and Belle canna wait.
And is it yer wanting a nice biscuit, and I'll be freshening yer tay?













Illustration the eighth

119

CHAPTER EIGHT: voyage


"Come high water, and to Hell with waiting if it be the Holy Ghost Itself," Jimmy decides, watching the ebbing spring-tide start its run down to mother sea. He takes up the darkened lantern for to carry it aft and hang in the mizzen-mast shrouds, and still he's hot with cursing. "Damn Hugh for a traitorous mitching sleeveen." And cursing himself for his lame-brain trust of Hugh: "A fitful wee breeze is it, hardly wanting to fill a sail. We'll be riding the turn of tide outbound, so, and barely enough way on for steering. O'Neill, where's my share? Now or never, Divil fire your soul!" He looks down at the bairn. "You roast him rightly, Six-Toes, ay, by the magic you're bringing ... mebbe." Useless nursery rhyme doggerel floods Jimmy's brain: "'Babby Six-Toe's gang t' sea, Babby Six-Toe's blessing me, hey! Babby Six-Toes!' Ay, sweet babby, the good Lord save all."
It's if on cue, the babby starts bawling. Jimmy's alarmed.
"Hush yer wee gob, wee mavourneen, lest a body come upon us this night."
He lifts her into his arms and tickles her face wi' his beard. He shifts her to the crook of his arm, reaches for the leathern pouch of goat-milk, stuffs a scrap of dried sea-sponge into its spout, squeezes the pouch for to force the milk into the sponge, and he's after offering this for a nipple to the babby, until she finishes her squalling in a whimpery slurp. He keeps rocking and feeding her, humming tuneless chanteys for to calm her fright until at last, in the midst of a suck, she falls asleep. On the cockpit bench, he unwraps her swaddling for to replace wet wi' dry. As he loosens her poop-cloth, and rinses it in the harbor water, a package the size of the babby's forearm and wrapped in layered muslin tumbles oot the swaddling. He sets it aside. He's after nestling Six-Toes carefully in the center of a rope coil. She's all squirms and wiggles, until she fastens a gaze on to him the way of quiet cooing whilst he tucks and ties.
He turns and there's Kevin almost at his shoulder, still as a post, tensed and all a-gape, his boat-boy chores forgot entirely, completely fascinated by the unexpected motherly talents of this grizzled babby smuggler. And so it's Kevin-boy continues staring whilst his skipper watches him oot the corner of an impatient eye. Until Jimmy's temper rasps the silence.
"Shame on ye, boy, peekin' upon a wee nekkid girl! Away off wi' ye! It's Belle of Newcastle makin' to sail, lad, nae some jackass an' jarvey an' his jauntin' car! Let yerself haul sail! Shake yer duff! Haul, me boyo, doon halyard ... haul, me boyo, up spar ... haul an' hop to it! Hup! Move yer carcase," hisses his skipper, " an' haul!"
The boy blinks himself alert, shuttling quickly aboot the boat, throwing off the ties that furl the foresail. He binds doon the tack---- the lower front corner of the sail---- to a shackle at the bow, then stretches the sail's foot, as he's rushing back to tauten the "clew" on the sail's hind end to the mainsheet. He moves up to the foot of the foremast, gaining a two-handed purchase on its mainsail up, whilst feeding to Jimmy the slack bitter end. Away they hoist, boy and man grunting together, in't. Rough hempen rope it is, Jimmy pulling hard, leathery hand over hand, grasping the tail of the halyard, cleating it, and the boy singing low through his teeth and the fiery softness of his young palms:
"Bellah Bellie reach, pull ... ugh! Bellah Bellie, reach, pull ... ugh! Bellah Bellie reach, pull!"
Each verse, the boy's stretching up, grasping the halyard over his head, swinging his feet into the air, dropping his weight onto the rope, jerking doon to a sit; then he's overing the whole trick, reaching up, stretching and grasping anew, chuffing great breaths into the silent fog. Once, twice, mebbe two score of times, he repeats this, whilst the halyard he's yanking doon one side the mast laboriously squeaks the lug-spar and its droopy spread of foresail up the ither. There's Jimmy, standing at the stern, hauling the slack bights of the halyard, pulling wi' two arms, cleating off, and coiling the excess as the boy feeds rope to him. A-top the foremast the weary wooden block groans its panting chorus, whilst the lug-spar scrapes and scuffs and slowly ups to it.
"Bellah Bellie reach, pull ... ugh!" the boy gritting his teeth, strains in his whispering.
All the way, it's wooden spar rubs and riz against wooden mast, and it's stiff and stenchy fish-oiled flaxen canvas unfolding, and the lot of it chafing and knocking until, at the last, man and boy make tight the halyard chockablock. The boy looks up the foremast, thankful at the lug-spar swaying round at the misty top, and the ghostly sail hanging from it, and he crows oot on the crest of manly triumph. The skipper makes a final tug, cleats a final bight, turns a final coil, and hisses sternly in the boy's ear:
"Let you nae be the brayin' o' the ass," Jimmy rasps, clenching his pipe against his own guidwill. "Ye'll nae be awakenin' the whole bloody world to the fact we're leavin'."
Faith and troth, friend, in the dark, Jimmy is proud of heart and after admiring the pluck of so slight a lad---- a birkle sort, as Scots do say, and surely a lively one. Sartain, it's Jimmy does the larger wark but there's sweats a-plenty in the sharing of the task. Come the end of Kevin's labors and here's him gang day-dreaming again of voyages to come and wondering aboot the looks of Scotland's shores he's yet to see ... and here's Belle takes a sniff and raps her foresail round the wispy breeze oot of the west, leaning into it, straining at her dock-lines. The boy wakens, rushes round for the mizzen sail, it being much the smaller so's he does up it by himself. He sets its yard to swinging and gazes up through the mist, inspecting.
The fisherman's in hoarse whispers, hastening the boy: "Cast off spring lines, lively noow ... breast spring, noow ... bow line, step lively there! Smartly! Smartly, boy!" he's spitting. At the end of it, Belle's hinged by the stern, inching handsomely away of the dock, until she's turned east towards the harbor mouth, and Kevin hauling the stern line aboard joyfully, hand over hand in a wee capful of breeze, whilst Belle slowly gathers way.
"Free as she goes, Cap'n," the boy chants under his breath whilst Jimmy watches Belle's lug foresail fill wi' misty shadows.
"Well the set," Jimmy Callahan approves, and anither weak puff after rustling against Belle's heavy canvas. "We be fair away to fetch Scotland, an' pray the seas be kindly."
'Tis near night's end, and the shadowy sail shape noow swelling, noow flapping in fitful air, and the trapped fog-water in it trickling doon, dropitty drip, into Belle's bilges.
"Hurrah ... ," the boy starts a cheer for Scotland's shores.
"Whisht yer gob, me boyo," the fisherman interrupts, trying to hould Belle's luck in his Presbyterian smile, " an' nae let wake the Revenooers, nor be ye never whistlin' up the wind if yer wantin' to stay on board ... Step lively. Hup the fenders, boy. Hop! HUP!"
The boy scurries aboot, pulling up Belle's slimy coir fenders, throwing loose hanks of mooring rope over the bitts fore and aft, making fast the odd bitter end, whilst Belle slowly continues towards the harbor mouth. Yerra! The lad falls again to daydreams of Scottish shores, until he's no watching the sail nor feeling of the wind, and so comes a fretful moment: the fickle breeze swinging round afore them, the lugsail laid aback in a contrary draft, and Belle lying unsartainly ----"in irons," as sailor do say---- drifting backwards arse-first against the lazy ebb, not knowing what tack to take, groaning in her planks. The fisherman curses into his beard, and furiously warks the tiller like an oar to move their lumbering smack forward again, whilst he sets his jaws against the boy in a profane but silent flow.
"Divil the wind, boy!" Jimmy finally explodes into the boy's ear. "Was it yer brain lepp ashore? Is it barnacles roostin' on yer brain-pan? I canna feel the wind back here, I need yer eyes seein' an' yer ears feelin' an' yer gob talkin' up on the bows to tell me, in't." himself complains, loosing anither string of seaman's curses. "Let you get aboot it, boy! Grab an oar! Hop! HUP!"
The boy crawls to midships, puts oars in hand, thrusting them into the forks of the thole pins, standing and rowing futilely; he's squeezing his heart into his brain, and at red welts to his toes for neglecting his duty. There's aught to do but row much as a young laddie can, and pray or curse. Pray earnestly he does. A tense moment envelopes them: Belle's sail caught the contrary way, and she helpless in a hard chance, drifting backwards into calamity against the rock-ribbed margins of the quay. And that there's a young laddie too light on the oars. On the wharf, onlookers what Jimmy didna know was there, mind ye, they scrambles oot the ghostly mist, rushing wi' boat-hooks and hawser ends to fend them off, and a gaggle of them harrying the lugger's plight, and jeering her skipper.
"Hey-o, Cap'n Muddler! Is it yer Ma callin' her wee Jimmy back, ye coward?" a body hoots.
"Ay, here's for yer arse or is it Belle's, Jimmy?" jeers anither, happily wielding a thick metal pike.
"Jimmy, me lad, can ye nae point the bottom of yer bottle at yer bow?" one howls, and himself tipping his head back for a drop taken.
"Jimmy-o, is it somethin' trickling doon yer leg, bedad?" the first one belittles him, noow wi' rope coil at the ready to throw.
And then from noowhere suddenly ... Ay! It's a breath of breeze swinging Belle's spar round, so!
"'Tis the magic of the blackthorn twig!" Jimmy starts a breath whilst his grin reaches his ears.
And noow a second puff of providence! Belle's sail bellies oot in a rattle of rigging and a crack! of canvas. She lurches forward, gathering way on, and making on to her tack, stepping sure-footed away from the mob and the danger of the stone-ledged quay. The breeze houlds. Midships, the boy lifts his oars vertical, thanking Saint Nicholas and Saint Christopher, and sucking the air in relief. At the tiller, the fisherman steering sticks a wet thumb overhead for to feel the next puff, and himself sneering righteously at the motley crowd ashore what his clouded eyes canna see, and shaking a prideful fist.
"Boys-a-boyo," Jimmy shoots back triumphantly over the widening gap, "yer fairtin' in the wind," himself standing on Belle's taff-rail, grasping a mizzen shroud, steering the tiller wi' his bared foot, boistering at the chagrinned crowd, gleefully shoving two fingers of his free hand up his nostrils for the mockery of it, then putting his palm flat against his mouth and blowing rude noises.
Noow it's Belle ghosting amongst the scores of sleeping boats moored in the thick of the Newcastle harbor mist. In her fish-hold, wee Six-Toes is at herself, comforted and cooing wi' the easy rocking of her thirty-two foot cradle, whilst it weaves through flat water in the light pre-dawn breeze. The boy's pulling or loosing the mainsheet on command, the fisherman continually playing the tiller, and Belle zigzagging a course to keep herself oriented to the erratic wind. And it's whilst in this way wending amongst withies, boats, buoys, and moorings, Belle comes upon the hulking silence of a gigantic black hulled square-rigger, whose four enormous masts pierce the foggy predawn, ay, a magnificent ship for seven seas and four winds. Flying Roan, she's named: East India-man, mebbe, Chinaman, coulda been, tay clipper to Sydney, possible, Johannesburg, Rio, mebbe Honolulu bound, or San Francisco, mebbe, surely built by the fabulous shipbuilders on the Firth of Clyde, a handful of leagues from the docks at Ayr---- Belle's destination. Och! Do ye contrive to remember that there name, Flying Roan, friend.
Seeing the shadowed clipper sets the boy's brain on to tay chests and barrels of rum, and storming Cape Horn, and in his dreamy ears the cries from the crow's nest, "Land ho!" Ay, and coconut palms on exotic islands, and chanteys and sweat round the captsan, all what he heared tell from the toothless layaboots and syphilitic lunatics on the docks of Newcastle Port. He's silently promising himself some day he must see those sights, must sail on that ship. Contrive to remember that, too, friend. Noow, Belle's after slipping into the grey afore-dawn, and Flying Roan's grand shadow left to loom in their meandering wake, until they float quietly over the tide-sill at the harbor's mouth, and enter the Irish Sea. And it's behind them, the Mountains of Mourne roll down to that sea.
"Faith, we're away of it, an' it's fair for Scotland," Jimmy chuckling and cuts into the boy's daydreams. "Och, tis a wee breeze blowin' free and a bonnie voyage promisin'." Jimmy's fingering the coins in his purse, he's neatening the coils of hempen rope, he's testing the halyards, making taut the shrouds and stays, until all finds it's rightness. The old lugger's foresail puffs oot at a full hoist, her mizzen drawing yet little. "Oc, we've fish-hold enough for a thousand o' silver darlin' an' what's aboard but one wee cargo. Angels guard her! Kevin, me laddie, she's hardly bigger nor a single lonesome herrin'," he surveys, lifting his clay bottle and another wee drop of poteen taken. "Lookie here, me boyo," he points at Belle's tiller. "Ye be watchin', do ye ken, boy, howanever I'm finding the set so's Belle's steerin' herself, she is, 'full and by'... full sail an' by the wind."
Anither wee drop taken and he's corking the flask. He points at Belle's stern, to a row of notches grooved into her taff-rail, and lowers the tiller into one, fixing it there wi' a 'slippery hitch' of codline. "Ye be takin' o' the mainsheet," he's saying, snatching the same from the boy, " an' playin' the fiddle wi' it, an' then ye're after tweakin' her mizzen till she's dancin' steady on the course ye've made for her to steer by tiller." And he cleats the mizzen sheet off, instructing, " An' ye let look yer eye upon the wake---- turn yer head, boy!---- streamin' straight aft from her rudder as her bows is straight afore ... it's yer sign, so it is, writ on the water, plain as the back o' yer hand, howanever yer knowin' ye've fixed it right, an' she'll steer herself. If yer wake's curlin' left or right, ye put it wrong entirely, an' ye play the mizzen." Bubbly froth streams straight behind Belle. "Noow ye've seen how it's done proper, store it in yer noggin an' it's off to yer duties, boy," Jimmy manufactures a false hard look. "I'll be showin' ye how to use the mizzen, mebbe, when we're makin' upon the breast o' the wide sea." And he's after uncorking the flask again.
The boy nods as if he's understanding of all of it, ay, all what he's heared tell afore, but the exact way of Jimmy's lesson, the feeling of wind and water, is a seamanlike skill yet fair beyond his years. Withoot a word, the lad walks the length of Belle's bulwark from stern to stem, houlding on to aught, till he balances on the heel of the bowsprit. That there's a bonnie skill for a seagoing lad, mind ye. Next, wi' one hand grasping the jibstay, he's calling oot the dangers in the oncoming dawn, whilst Jimmy sits in the stern wi' a cloud of cataract in his eyeballs, and the set and size of mainsail spreading oot a wall of canvas afore him. He needs the boy for to tell him. He lifts the tiller from its self-steering groove and he's after playing it according to what the boy calls.
"Here, hard to port, Cap'n ... buoy tight off the starb'd bows, Cap'n, sir, hunnert fifty paces ... withie showing broad off the port bows, two hunnert paces ... wee lugger crossing our port bows, up there forw'ds and away, Cap'n." The boyo's after measuring the depth aneath their keel; he heaves the lead-line: "Five fathoms three, sir ... ," he calls, looking sharply aboot whilst feeling of the wee rags tied into the line at three-foot intervals, counting them off in his head. He eyes the lifting mist, it warmed by an unseen sunrise; he's hauling up the tallow cup of the lead-line blindly to hand, fingers touching lightly upon a wee nest of sharp edges mixed into to it "... And cockles, sir," he smiles, knowing that Belle is sailing confidently doon a mid-channel marked by the broken litter from two hundred years of them fishermen as rakes up shellfish ootside the quays of Newcastle Port. He smells the tallow cup, licks the mud. "Ay, cockles," he repeats. "And, mmm ... tastes of pop-weed." Kevin picks a red strand of dulse for to chew away lonesome hours. On the chart in his brain, Jimmy locates Belle to a boat's length---- over the pop-weed bed, by the edge of a dulse thicket that Irene plucks when the spring-tide is on the ebb.
It's southern zephyrs carrying sun-up into the sky, and the rugged coast of County Doon sliding by, and the sunrise rolling the shade doon the Mountains of Mourne behind them, and Belle moving secure and stately upon a calm Irish Sea. Anither heave on the lead, and in the tallow cup the boy brings up only sand: the taste and smell of it tell Jimmy the ancient dredging grounds are safely past, and it's the open waters noow, so it is. The boy coils the lead line and then he's grabbing and tugging along the main lug-sail's foot, shaking oot the crinkles still bound tightly into the heavy flax canvas from the many misty nights all a-furl at the quay. He sets to neatening the mooring lines what strews the deck, whilst the murk of daybreak spills like clotted milk doon the glens and over the beaches and inshore waters. Noow Belle leans into her journey under a press of close-hauled sail, wi' the breeze in the south, steering east wi' the ootgoing tide, and then turning northeast, broad-reaching whilst she hugs the County Down shoreline. It's in vain the boy looks back for an invisible Quinin Castle whilst the Mountains of Mourne wi' their bulking Slieve Donard and the rugged County Down coast drift slowly into the sea behind them. And then they are northing along the great eastern curve of County Antrim's rump. The boy straddles the bowsprit, staring his dreams into the emptiness spreads to starboard.
Belle starts to wander, wanting an adjustment in her rig. Noow it's Kevin after trimming the mainsheet, and gives the mizzen a tug or three. It's never a sound oot of man nor boy exchanging glances and gestures for Belle's proper set. Jimmy moves the tiller in a notch, knocks the dottle from his pipe, opens his tobacco pouch, packs anither wad, shields a match, puffs, watches the smoke, judges the breeze, moves the mizzen sheet again. The sparkling sea is littered wi' wee whitecaps, and them breaking under Belle's bows, herself furrowing towards a day and a night afloat, and then the gold of dawn over Scotland's shores.
"Ay, she's the Belle o' the ball, and she's after dancing a sprightly reel, so she is," the boy smiles, feeling the gladness of wind brushing his face. "We're a-roving, Cap'n!"
"Whisht yer gob an' set to the bailin' bucket, ye wee chiseller," his master says, wi' smokey dudeen clamped in one corner of his jaw, and commands squirting oot the ither.
Babby Six-Toes senses a change in motion and complains. Jimmy bends, scoops her up and nuzzles her wi' his beard same as afore, until she's burbling into the near-giggles. He arranges a sucking cloth again, and when she's taken her fill, he sits wi' her a lengthy time at the tiller, burping and tickling her, letting her poop naked on to the floorboards, humming his tuneless chanteys. Later, at Belle's transom, he snoozes fitfully whilst the poteen warms his bones, and Babby Six-Toes is at herself, swaddled and damp wi' soiling in the rank fish-hold, wriggling and cooing to the rock and sway of Belle's¬¬ motion.



















Illustration the ninth

131


CHAPTER NINE: Jimmy


In the eye of this Auld Maggie-Bawn's brain, friend, it's a clear day, near end of March, 1845. 'Tis a brilliant Scottish sun squeezes oot from a great circling of horizon, at the first of it peeking warily, and then riz faster, it casting a million sparkles upon the sea aboot the ageing lugger. Up ahead lies the mouth of the North Channel, wi' its Godforesaken tides, its Strait of Moyle, the unforgiving headlands of Kintyre, and the Mull. Astern lies empty sea all the way to the Isle of Man, where lie the grottoes of Manannan Mac Lir, lord of Celtic waters. To their left, portside, the rugged hills of The North, and faraway to their right, starboard, the craggy coast and tidal rocks of Scotland. Here's Belle pushed by gobbetting four-foot crests swishing forward aneath her, there buffeted by foamy cross-seas what thumps doon from Kintyre peninsula and the North Channel, pounding her flank. Her bow wave rises and falls, sloshes against her gunnels, and disappears into a furrowed wake, whilst she sways and shoulders the hours stretching aboot them. It's on they plow alone under the lonesome sky filling wi' the sun's growing blaze. No a bird flies nor fish leaps. The Kevin-boy sits astraddle Belle's bowsprit, shouting his book-learnt lesson joyously into a heady rush of air and spray:

" ' ..The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free,
And we were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea ... ' "

Jimmy laughs the omen away. "It's herself, Belle of Newcastle, she's the one ben singin', ye wee chiseller." He picks up Babby Six-Toes for to play fingers and toes until she starts to fussing and whimpering for her sucking cloth again. Faith and troth. it's Belle romping over a rollicking sea at what rhythm she knows better nor her grizzled skipper, and fair better then his boy. It all quietens the babby:
... lean and sway, pitch and splash ... lean and sway, pitch and splash ... lean and sway, pitch and splash ... lean and sway, pitch and splash ...
Jimmy Callahan's after a drop taken again and nodding to the creaky song of Belle's rig, and the cadenced swoosh of bilgewater Kevin-boy hurls over the lee rail, bucket on bucket. Jimmy plans shrewdly, playing the changing winds and tricky tides, never contesting them, for to steer his Belle on a great arc, first northing up the coast of Ireland, then easting across the Irish Sea, and at the last acrossing the Firth of Clyde to fetch her Scottish harbor at Ayr. Noow is the northing part, them carrying the tide whilst a light breeze swings in and oot the south, or backs into the east---- here blowing their way, there heading them on their course up the coast. They helm along on the ebb, noow before the wind, noow beating ino it in this way until, by a compass point on a chart conjured in Jimmy's brain, Belle turns to Scotland on a south-going tide. It's all the while, County Antrim's bulk stands between them and the stormy barrages of the North Atlantic. Them'll be fetching the bottom of the North Channel and into the Firth of Clyde, aiming to leave Arran in their lee, to port. Whensomever the wind steadies, Jimmy puts Belle to steering herself wi' lug foresail and a scrap of mizzen lugsail to balance her tiller, the like he showed Kevin. Over the voyage, mind ye, there's aught squandered of chatter between man and boy, them leaving conversation to the swish of the seas moving aneath them, and the plenteous squeaking of timber joinery, and the ropes squawking, and the swing and thump of the lug spars overhead, and the breeze thrumming in the rig:
... lean and sway ... pitch and splash ...
The babby comes awake every three or so turns of the sand-clock. Jimmy tends her wi' a wet sucking-cloth or bit of sponge, and his tickly beard and whisky breath and wiggly fingers, and noow and then a scrub and change wi' a poop-cloth, and humming and singing tuneless but colorful sea chanteys.
" 'Tis truly a poop-deck," he jokes to the babby, and sings more doggerel, and tickles her again wi' his beard.
At Belle's start in Newcastle, Jimmy wrapped the leathern milk-flask in muslin, and tied it to a hemp-rope sling. Noow he trails it in the cold March sea, for to keep it from souring. Or it lies damp in the shade of the sternsheets, where evaporation from the wet cloth keeps it cool. When its time to feed, he tips a dram of milk into an old poteen bottle and warms it under his stenchy armpit.
The lad stays busy wi' the bailing bucket, stopping here and there to gnaw a crust or a fruit leather, or piss over the leeward rail. Once he squats on the lee bulwark to squeeze a sausage of turd, whilst the cold wave-tips wash his arse. Each time he turns the hour-glass is a signal for to be heaving the log what measures Belle's speed. It's a wood-chip on a length of codline, so it is; and the boy casts it overboard whilst he waits for it to draw taut, ticking the seconds aloud, tripping them off his tongue quick as he can:
"One, N'wcastlep't, two N'wcastlep't, three N'wcastlep't, four, N'wcastlep't..." And then abruptly the slack jerks tight. Thirty-three feet in four seconds exact. He does a quick arithmetic in his head. "Five knots and cat's whisker of a half, steady as she goes, sir," he sings, watching the sun glinting on the white horses of the wave tips, and here's the gulls and gannets wheeling and screeching and plunging after the leavings of his bailed buckets. He shades his eyes, stares ahead.
"Lonesome sail I see, ways off, cap'n, hull doon, fine off the starb'd bow ... she's making for the east, mebbe." And he's back to his buckets. "Hull doon," tells Jimmy it's only the sails of the stranger peeps over the horizon.
"Take a gander. Is it ye see any color in her sail, boy?" Jimmy gives a thought to hiding the babby, and worries of it crying oot if they be boarded.
"A bit of red, so it looks, sir."
"If she's a Revenooer, she be wearing naething but white."
The boy shades his eyes: "Naething of the white, sir."
"Red. Hmmm. Hmmm ... An' it the wide o' daylight. Well that, laddie. Reckon her to be the Clogherhead packet, she is, mebbe filled wi' eejits from Drogheda an' 'roond aboot wee County Louth. 'Tis cheap 'hire labor,' hungry Irish men an' women, didna ye ken, for to plow an' plant Scotland's rye an' oats an such. Och, 'tis for the highborn lairds o' Ayrshire. It's a great wheen of them sorra Irish aboot Maybole town. Ay, it's all The North's crofters an' tenants starvin' for want o' wark comin' over, an' all the wee County Louth townlands after dyin'. Divil the Scots!" Anither wave of Gaelic curses for Jimmy's discomfort, being born a Scot.
"And the packet, she's away to Ayr, is it, Cap'n?"
"Ay, she'll be savin' our time into Ayr, an' poor ploddin' ol' Belle after makin' landfall on the tide next, mebbe, or the next after. It's the length o' the waterline an' tall o' the mast makes a red sail packet into a Connemara stallion, an' our Belle an oul' grey ass." Jimmy gums a sour smile. "Ay, oats fer English horses an' the porridge for Scotland's wee ones. An' we have one o' them kind right here."
"And the rye, Cap'n?"
"It's what breeds the fire in Highland gullets, me boyo. Och, an' the barley,' Jimmy sighs.
'The single malt if I can find it," Jimmy's mouth watering. "Or mebbe Johnnie Walker's, what I can smell in Ayr on a decent wind comes out of the hills of Kilmarnock, where the distillery sets."
"Guid the packet and Divil the Revenooer, Cap'n."
Belle of Newcastle canna ootrun a Revenoo cutter, bedad, but she surely does ootfox them. In his smuggler's cunning, Jimmy didna have need of charts. It's his mind's eye more knowing of these waters than the fish swims here. Jimmy's learnt every hidden bolt-hole and every secret cove, Cobh to Orkney. He kens every deep-water lough hurrying doon to the sea, and the run and time of every tide, every rip, race and reef, every rock covers and uncovers. And every hiding sandbar passage too, as ye'll be learning, friend, if ye hould yer chair doon. Belle's little small keel hops over shoals gouge the bottom off a Revenooer. Jimmy knows it like a bird knows flight, and all the young Queen Victoria's frustrated Revenooers and royal tax collectors knows he knows it.
Jimmy's years are still in the prime, yet he's grizzled by the life and habits of fisher-fowk. It's a welter of incised lines marks the skin of his face, the like of those charts in his brain. When the herring run fails, it's the like I told ye, friend, he's a bitter tongue and a leery view, and a hare's ear for the orphan trade, or illegal whisky, or gun-smuggling for the sake of Erin. Or the patriots itself. Never a body knows them trades better, and the North Channel, than Jimmy. Noow he's squinting at the horizon his weak eyes canna see, noow studying the leeway in Belle's wake for what he can see. He watches his compass, feels and smells of the wind, tastes of the sea, listens to the pitch and tune of the breeze in Belle's rig. And between, he tends Babby Six-Toes, the like of many an infant he has smuggled across the waters, blow high, blow low.
"Salt to salt, musha! Aint the Irish Sea is the tears of Saint Bridget, ay, herself the savior saint of wee County Louth," thinks the fisherman, and him knowing it's hardly a month since her feast-day and the joyful promise of Spring and the rebirth of Easter to come, and against that hope all the rueful times and the sorrowful voyages he's made the like of this one, ay, a crowd of foundlings he brought one by one across the Irish Sea over the years, that they might die shriven. "Jesus was a fisher of men, and Paul a sailor on His mission. Ay, Divil take it, whatanever is Jimmy Callahan doing here?" It's the salt flowing over the corners of his mouth sears his wounded soul. He looks down into Belle's fish-hold where Belle rocks Babby Six-Toes in swaddling, och, her wee self unclaimed, unnamed, unbaptized, asleep in the rancid herring-oil stink. "Not your time to die, wee babby, not yet," he prays---- though he knows aught of to whom. " 'Tis soon we'll be in Scotland and you'll be shriven. 'Tis! Ay, soon. Surely a landfall in the morning." And he dries his eyes with the back of his hand.
The dark in Jimmy's brain started unrolling when the solid headlands of County Doon melted into the sea, and worser when the Mountains of Mourne sunk below the western horizon behind them---- the thoughts of return to his wife coming doon upon him so desperate. 'Tis soon enough Jimmy's heart canna contain the weight of his tears, and so he fights what he canna leave off by thinking of the tiny dote what's swaddling where the herring ought to be. Here he's adjuisting the self-steering, and riz the wee pink thing from the hold. He nuzzles her flailing hands against his beard wi' furry gentleness, rocking her as if Belle herself didna already be aboot that. The boy watches intently as Jimmy picks up the muslin-wrapped package, what's been lying beside the babby all the hours since they left harbor. The boy canna hould off his curiosity.
"What could that be, sir?"
"It's a bit o' luck what come wi' the babby." Jimmy carefully puts the child into her nest, unrolls the muslin, sets aside its packing, and inspects the blackthorn twig.
"A bit of the luck, sir? I do not ken." The laddie cranes to see.
"Mahony, Divil take him!" Jimmy mutters, looking right through the Kevin-boy. " 'Tis a lucky bit o' blackthorn twig, what every eejit has any sense at all knows is bound to bring the guid faeries," himself waving it aboot. "Ay, 'tis! An' whatsomever did ye think brought the breeze when Belle was aboot to crunch the dock, and all them buck eejits on the quay cacklin' like colicky jackdaws?"
"O, I see, yessir, it surely did. And how does that happen on land?"
"Ye takes this here kippeen in yer right hand, an' ye scratches a circle under a full moon in the shadow of a great white oak, an' ye turns yerself in the cardinal directions." He tickles the lad under the chin. "First, ye turns to the right, do ye ken?"
"Cardinal, sir? Can that be birds or ... or is it Roman priests, sir?"
"Ahhh, ye wee chiseller. Nae the red-coated flock in Rome, nor o' any type o' red-birds roosts in a tree. A body wi' any sense at all knows it. Ye take yer blackthorn in hand---- an' care ye didna prick yerself!---- an' ye turns right to the four main points o' the compass," Jimmy demonstrates, "an' at each there ben an angel houlds a wind. An' ye canna be knowin' when the faeries come, but come they do. Noow, let ye leave a nice biscuit an' a sup o' milk by yer doorway, so ye do, and plant a wee cross, lest ye set some angry leprechaun to be puttin' the curse on ye. Or, God forbid, the Morrigan comes. Or the Dullahan. 'Tis a power of conjury in a blackthorn twig, me boyo. For good or for evil."
"O, I ken, yessir ... hmmm." The boy pictures himself gingerly grasping the twig and turning. He considers how to perform this rite. "And in what order must you turn right, captain?"
"East first, for the Child if ye believe, an' that's for good, an' then west for Heaven an' them what's saved, then the north for Mary's star, day or night, an' south last, for to keep the snakes in the Garden away o' Irlande. An' if ye turn south first, 'tis the Sea-Divil's curse on ye, an' that's for evil. An' at night, ye can always tell o' that star where is yer north. Do ye ken Mary's star?'
Well the boy knows that for, if by night Jimmy sees naething more nor by day, yet the way the chart of the sea is stamped into his brain, so too the chart of the night sky. He has taught the boy his constellations and their movements wi' the Earth and the night and the season.
"It's the big dipper tells the way of it, sir. You line up the two stars on the fair side of the bowl." The boy fixes his gaze on the swaddling over the babby's feet.
"Ay, an' the big dipper, that's the way of it." He watches the boy's face. "Noow, what's it yer ganderin' at this time, boy? The six toes yer lookin' for to see, is it, boy? An' yer thinkin' she be some class o' cowerin' beastie?" Jimmy's face screws into mock disgust.
"Aye, sir.. Ummm, nae sir. A gift to see, uhh ... if you will, sir, what I've never seen the like afore." The boy stares at the deck. "Only oncet, on the forepaws of a tawny cat."
"No a single body in the whole damn Newcastle Port has seen such. An' it's no a furry kitten ye have here. Do ye count guid, boy?" the fisherman moves from gruff to tease, knowing the answer from hearing the boy at his school warkbook, and from him pitching the lead-line and the log aboard Belle.
"Yessir, and all the way to the hunnerts." The boy knows the fisherman knows.
" An' sartain to six, then?" Jimmy's eyes twinkle.
"O, yessir. To six as quick as a tawny cat's wink."
"Ah, the toes, at last!" Kevin-boy's excited.
"Well the count, boy," the fisherman shifts the bairn in his arms. He carefully unwraps the bottom of the swaddling, and he's lifting one wee chubby pink foot into view. "Touch yer finger. An' mind yer gang lightly. 'Tis no a tawny cat."
The wee toes are plump and round, the like of rosary beads.
The boy sucks on his breath, his index finger moving deliberately from toe to toe the whilst he's counting: "First one ... two, three, four, five ... ." He takes a grand sigh. "And six. Uhh, that there number six looks like it wants to be number five, sir." He starts to cross himself.
"Quit oot, ye wee chiseller!" The fisherman reaches oot an angry hand for to stay the boy's right forearm. "It's nae the babby born o' woman wants for the Divil, boy. Yer a richt decent Presbyterian lad, an' proper baptized, in't. Ye've no the need to be makin' eejit motions across yer heart the like of some rascally Roman, nor heedin' some pious Popish pitchman, nor thinkin' thoughts as bends the Bible, an' ... damn it, boy, get yer ship in order, an' count again." Jimmy jostles the swaddling and protrudes the ither foot.
The Kevin-boy counts again.
The fisherman stares at him. "Look sharp aboot ye, boy. Do ye see the sun shinin'?" Jimmy shouts. "Do ye feel o' the breeze blowin'? Do ye see the waves pushin' at us, an' the way to Scotland fair afore us?" Jimmy's hollering ups a note. "An' do ye feel aught of a curse in that an' a' that, boy, do ye? Nae, it's a blessin', them toes, so it is, from this day oot an' for all time. Ay, if there's a curse one place an' anither surely, an' it aint on six toes. Or seven. 'Tis on the black hearts of them what done a helpless babby so foul, in't," he fairly roars. "So it is!"
"And for Hugh O'Neill, the conniving blackguard!"
The boy's bowing his dumbfounded head.
Jimmy Callahan spits his words angrily at the sea, and the breeze arcs his spittle leeward, doonwind. "To Hell wi' them what counts sixpence an' six toes the same!" he tells the boy, for the weight of the coins in Jimmy's purse is a great leaden anchor on his soul, and the prospect he caused a dreadful deed for the promised pay-off grows greater wi' each turn of the sand-clock.
"As you say, sir," the boy's voice quivers, him turning away and looking for quick business amongst the rope coils and belaying pins.
"It's no yer doin', boy," the fisherman's voice softens. "Noow, that there's enough o' that an' a' that. On to yer bucket, an' look lively. It's half the damn Irish Sea's wantin' for to come aboard, an' the Firth o' Clyde waitin' for us beyond, in't." Jimmy rocks Babby Six-Toes in his arms, swaddling the wee feet, then coiling a hempen hawse-rope for to make a new nest for babby in the stern-sheets.
The boy clambers into the hold, and soon after comes the sloshing music of the bailing bucket, and the swoosh and splash of bilgewater swishing overboard. And here's Belle steady on, under a press of sail. Jimmy watches the laddie's two hands grasp the bailing bucket, dip below, straighten, and hurl, tirelessly, over and over.
'One and two, lift and do ... uhhh, heave!---- One and two, lift and do ... uhhh, heave!---- One and two, lift and do .... uhhh, heave!---- '
The boy makes endless rhythm at the flung dollops arching a-glitter in the sun, over the lee rail. He starts a chantey aboot Spanish gold, and Jimmy joins in. Noow and again Kevin's resting, staring out to sea, hands grasping the bulwark, until Belle's ancient planks seep a new bilgewater pool aboot his bare ankles, enough to make profitable anither round of bailing and song.
Times, Babby Six-Toes stirs and cries, and Jimmy raises her to his chest, warming her in the reek of his oil-stained fisherman's smock, and humming to her in the rhythm of the sea and the bailing buckets, all the while safekeeping her from wind and spray. Noow and then, he's snaking a wee foot oot the swaddling, playing his pinky finger against the sixth toe. He's reaching for the leather flask chocked under the bench behind him, dipping a torn strip of canvas rag in the goat's milk, and houlding it for Six-Toes to suck. He's twiddling wi' the lucky twig. So they sail, Jimmy wi' one hand for the boat and one for the babby, one eye for the compass and one for the sea, and the Kevin lad pondering the mystery of it all and how he himself come to be. And so there's man and boy, each wi' his heart in its own way of two halves, ye mind, friend.
"Ye'll be shriven, mebbe, an' if ye fly to heaven, wee little dote, it's a sorrowful trade, in't," Jimmy Callahan mourns to the babby again, this time aloud, looking doon at the sleeping cherub face, himself tormented wi' the knowing of Ireland's turrible toll on orphan newbairns. And in the upwellings of his conscience, he's wanting to fling Christy Mahony's coins into the sea, and there's the pistol shot echoes in his brain. Instead, to calm his fraught soul, his mind turns anither way, seeking justice and penance in his act of betrayal, trying to squelch the gnawing doot and guilt. He thinks to a reward waiting in Newcastle Port.
" 'Tis mine, and well earned, at the least a half-crown for instructing Hugh O'Neill where in the shadows of the quayside alleys for to lurk, and howanever Belle's lantern was to swing as a sign Christy be soon riding by ... Mahony was but a highwayman with a murderous history. If O'Neill rid the countryside of him, it was a good thing ...and if he did. Jimmy, my lad, you are not Judas."
It gives him noo rest. His mind's parrying his soul, and his brain harrying his heart.
"Mahony mebbe shot dead, is it the worth of even a hatfull of crowns? Ay, a half-crown for to see in blood the secret of Babby Six-Toes, to save her life? 'Tis no sin," he concludes. "More's to be wheedled beyond for me and my Irene. Faith, it's a business, murder, same as the smuggling or the herring or the guns, and it's pitched me against my own lights. Godamercy, 'tis my family needs the money."
Mother Mary, help us in our need! Jimmy canna know 1845 will bring a profitless spring for wee County Louth, when the spuds mysteriously rot in the earth, the herring forget to run, and the English lion swallows Ireland's exports whole. He canna know the Callahan garden will brittle wi' drought, the sow die a-farrowing, the larder swept bare, his wee family weep for want of the odd shilling. He knows only noow, only his yearny wistfulness, only his Irene walking too many evenings the four miles into Newcastle Port, herself fretting his return, staring anxiously east from the deserted quay, huddled in her shawl in the chill March sea-wind. His brain squints into the fiery Irish sunset behind her, behind the blackening bulk of Slieve Donard, sees her searching the darkening horizon for Belle's pennant, pacing the sands, looking oot to sea the one day and then the next and all the nexts, waiting on him and the boy and Belle, watching the cold purpling water at dusk for his return. Waiting.
Nightmarish images of O'Neill's payoff haunt him, shillings a-glitter the like of serpent's eyes. He hears a coin tapping sharply against Belle's bulwark, tastes it riling his tongue in metallic bitterness, smells it stinging his nostrils wi' fumes of the Divil's hot forge. He flees doon the dark alleys of his soul, pursued by Mahony's face as it changes into a fiery blood-red half-crown. He didna want to think at all. He canna rid his brain of the guilt, nor his soul of the sin, though his heart seethes in anger, and his want of the coin ben as real as his sin, and solid as the metal itelf. Against these cold shudders within, he tilts his flask for anither drop taken, lights anither pipe, and stares at the waves thrashing by.
"Christopher Mahony was an evil one, and himself one step shy of a murdering highwayman ... Ay, and wee the difference, mebbe. A man killed his own father and then did slay the husband of his own wife---- how does he have call to ripen in his years, whatanever be his cause?" Jimmy justifies his own offense. "Surely it's a better Ireland without him. Did I not earn my half-crown and more? Ay, more! Fair and square. And who's to say other?" But he cannot stop his conscience gnawing on his soul.
"One, two, lift and do ... uhhh, heave!" the boy's after repeating over and over, bailing like Sisyphus against a hill of water. And the hours drift by.
Jimmy's hoping after a peaceful crossing. Ay, and there's the lonesome return waiting. And there's the Divil in the Mull of Kintyre grinning each way of it, and the Morrigan, harbinger of death, at the Divil's shoulder.







Illustration the tenth

145

CHAPTER TEN: landfall


"Och, yer asking, friend, howanever does this Mull of Kintyre be the nightmare it is? Then let find yer mind in the dizzy height of a tea clipper's 'crow's nest,' and let look yer eyes upon the North Channel, where its roil and boil pinches at the Strait of Moyle, dividing Ireland from Scotland by a barrow of narrow miles. 'Tis here the furious Irish Sea, slung as from David's sling, catapults in brutal commotion against the icy Goliath of the Atlantic Ocean, thrashing and surging, crashing and merging. 'Tis at this Strait the Sea-Divil creates from dire turmoil the maelstrom called the Mull of Kintyre. God save the unshriven and unschooled drownded, for the sea charts plainly outline the Strait and the Mull and, hard by, the turgid cock of Kintyre peninsula thrusting rapaciously at Ireland's northeastern flank.
'Tis here at the Strait, that Manannan Mac Lir, monarch of the Irish Sea, Holy Trinity preserve us, rushes up from his royal grotto aneath the Isle of Man, wi' his minions of the salting loughs and firths and bays to combat the uncoiling three thousand miles of North Atlantic monster. 'Tis here he tilts at that dragon roaring up from the watery abyss, the seven-headed beast whose tail strikes stars from the sky and fire from the sun. 'Tis from this contested Strait, by the headlands of Kintyre, that whirlpools of the Mull's warring torrents overwhelm the shrieks of the drowning, and the splintering of stove-in timbers. And it's in the howling rips and races and rollers of these whirling waters that them screaming souls bubble down to Limbo.
In ancient times, God save all, it was from that there grand cock of Kintyre that Viking dragonships thrust fire and sword at Erin, impaling our men, raping our women, butchering our children, och, enslaving Patrick and his believers, Heaven be their bed. Godamercy, plunder and pillage was the lot of every Irish village from that oot, friend. Let pass the centuries, and still it's Kintyre was a convenient gathering-place of many a parlous Brit and his gallowglass mercenaries for to avoid the Mull and cross the Strait, and murder our Irish heroes. Bedad! King James ransoming Con O'Neill for half of Ulster, and Cromwell against Hugh O'Neill, massacring half of Drogheda, and Catholic Ireland choked and provoked for 250 years more. So were the strings ripped from Erin's harp and her powers usurped, and the brave bull of Druid ceremony castrated, and Gaelic tradition uprooted, and the Gaelic tongue stilled. Yet, let ye right all those past wrongs, it's still today at the helmet of that great Kintyre cock by the Strait of Moyle ye'll find the infamous Mull of Kintyre, ay, more deadly nor the deadliest dragonships, more evil nor the second James' worst intent and, God help Erin, crueler nor Cromwell's most depraved Round-Heads.
Our half-blind Jimmy Callahan, be he awake in awareness or shivering in his nightmares, he hears the wild water thrashing and the call of the Beast from the depths of the Mull. Every passage he makes to the north or to the east, oot of Newcastle Port or returning, for the herring, or smuggling the guns, or the whisky, or ferrying babbies or patriots---- every such passage, Jimmy's brain hears again the dreadful chaos, his heart quaking aneath his breastbone, and his soul clamoring in his mouth. It's the Divil's voice following him, so it is, riz oot the waters at the Mull of Kintyre.
"I'm coming for to get you, Jimmy Callahan, Ooooo, I'm coming ... "
"You'll never get me, you'll never, you damned Sea-Divil! You'll never, never!" Jimmy strengthens his courage with a swig or three of poteen. He reaches for the bundled blackthorn kippeen, unrolls the cloth, takes the twig, circling it, pointing its magic to the angels of the four winds. He starts with the Angel of the Child of the East and, when he finishes, his brain swears again, "You'll never!"
"One night, Jimmyyyy! From out of the depths, I will come for you, Ooooo, one night, Jimmy Callahan ... You cannot hide ... I'll be waiting, Ooooo, Jimmyyyy, one night ... ," the voice howls, and the waters thrash amidst the whistling wind---- God forbid! Whistling! and blown spray. "Ooooo, Jimmyyyy, out of the depths, I'm calling for you ... " And then it begins again.
Jimmy shuts his weary ears and opens his half-blind eyes to the wary course he's keeping. Noow it's the southeasterly breeze what afore scudded Belle 'full and by' up the Irish coast, noow his wetted finger overhead feels it change, och, veering into the southwest, letting them tack toward Scotland. On shifting winds and tidal streams, Belle sails her course close-hauled and true, heeled well over. The seabirds circling her wake cry oot coarsely at each heave of Kevin's bilgewater bucket.
"Ay," Jimmy worries, "it's the foul tide we must avoid, brings the nearnness of the boiling Mull to Belle's flank."
And noow it's a treacherous change of wind comes on, sou'westerly backing into the south southeast, pushing Belle further north, toward Kintyre, as she steers across. She'll surely be blown doon upon the Mull's overfalls if Jimmy's vigilance falters, if he miscalculates the magnetic error of his compass, if his sail rips or his rigging fails, if he underestimates leeway carrying him north, or overestimates when the change of tide will push him south, or the fickle wind. Behind them the lowering sun slides golden ingots into its flaming cauldron, and puddles the melt on the western waters. Night comes too soon and wi' it, the souwesterly again but wi' a useful change of tide. Belle charges on, foresail swollen full and by, drawing like a Connemara stallion, self-steering to a scrap of mizzen, prow cleanly cleaving the rising seas, bow wave rolling up her flank and dipping by her belly and rising again to fuse into her bubbling wake. And there's Babby Six-Toes, through it all asleep below.
"In the season and the damned herring running," fumes Jimmy's brain, "a fishing smack south of these here parts spends the night hove-to under short canvas, adrift upon the fishing grounds, nets spread over the bow. Or mebbe it's two smacks with a ring-net between. It's that we'd be doing, Belle, not fetching Ayr a half-crown short, and us the like of a seagoing cradle with a cursed six-toe freak below. And the Mull drawing on our lee. Faith, nae, it's nets set and dragging is what should be, and us fair distanced of the Mull, and come the grey window of day, us gathering a grand power of fish. Ay, for them days! Divil mend you, Hugh O'Neill! 'Tis the Divil's seam to pay and no hot pitch to caulk it."
Howanever he rants, it's Babby Six-Toes rides safe as pearls in an oyster, mind ye, whilst Belle sails on in the season that herring forgot. Never in this world has Jimmy pause nor cause to reef canvas or drag nets. It's this here babby is Belle's precious catch nestling in the hold; and it's surely her lucky blackthorn twig carries Belle safely away of the fearsome Mull and into the Firth of Clyde.
Kevin straightens from his bailing to watch the skies over Scotland dim and the evening star climb. He steps aft for to turn the sand-clock and sing the time to his skipper. He's after pitching the log, measuring Belle's speed, and sings oot again. It's Jimmy's brain multiplies speed by time, for to measure the miles Belle's logged, how fair she's come, and compensate for tidal drift and leeway, and plot her course by compass on the chart in his mind, and mark where she tracks on trackless waves. The sea turns dark and then the sky, and a glittering spangle spans a horizon's rim they canna see.
The boy picks a star and mounts it in Belle's rigging, and for one full sand-glass he steers by it, then to pick the next star. Noow and again, he's breaking watch to toss the chip-log or to bail, marking all doon, and again and next again, until Jimmy comes on watch. Jimmy's weak eyes canna see a fairaway star; he steers by the compass in a candle-lit binnacle. Jimmy too bails in the hours, for the boy must sleep. Sturdily they sail into a night of a breeze sometimes chancy, sometimes fair, the boy by his star and Jimmy by his compass, taking turns at watch and sleep. It's in this way the blessed burbling of Babby Six-Toes in the rocking fish-hold finds them safe passage whilst the silent magic of the blackthorn twig searches oot the lanterns of sleeping fishboats athwart Belle's course. At last, the wind stays in their favor, slowly veering, and by dawn boxing the compass from south southeast to south, then settling close on west. Here's Jimmy's brain tracking their path, turning Belle by an invisible signpost in the sea. 'Tis in his brain, friend, for here's Belle slanting across the wide waters of the Firth of Clyde and there's Scotland and the hills of Ayrshire waiting over the dark horizon.
"Ay, such a wee scrawny package and nameless too, and who's to be worrying after your future on earth, macushla, or above or below, mebbe." Jimmy unwraps the blackthorn twig in the dark, and feels the three notches of it. "Three," he thinks, unaware of howanever thsee marks were gouged, nor the cursed lass who carved them. "Three. Like a shamrock. A holy number warrants our safekeeping."
To port and astern, Campbelltown and the dangerous south coast of Kintyre peninsula recede slowly behind them. The treacherous blue granite cliffs of faraway Ailsa Craig have long crept abeam and then slid by to starboard, invisible in the dark under a blanket of ten thousand perching gannets. Favored at last by a steady breeze, Belle shoulders on for a lengthy while until, between drifting patches of fog at the window of day, glimpses of a distant rockyy profile rear up to port. 'Tis the Isle of Arran. Afore the first of sunlight falls upon Goatfell peak, the fire of Pladda light on the island's southern tip snuffs oot. Then, crowned by the early blaze of the orange dawn, Goatfell's neighbor, Mullach Mor, appears. Belle turns east and, after a long while, fine off her starboard bow, the first of Ayrshire's brighteninglopes slowly riz into Kevin's sight. "Ayr, ho!" he shouts. Jimmy Callahan shakes himself alert, and looks his rheumy cataracts across the water, recollecting the welcoming sight of it. He allows himself a smile of relief, turns, bends, and gazes doon tenderly upon wee Babby Six-Toes.
"See there, somethin' new under the sun," he points her to the shore that neither can see. " 'Tis yer new home, babby. Yer safe an' sound an' homeward bound," he sings over and over, jouncing and bouncing her, and she laughing the wee burble of the newbairn, clinging her tiny fist aboot his finger. He lays her oot in the rope-coil bed and changes her swaddling for mebbe a last time, the rough leathery hands crinkly dry against the petals of her skin. Gently, he lowers her into the fish-hold, where she lies quietly awake, whilst her eyes search the dank shadows.
Noow Belle is creeping forwards at walking speed, hardly trailing a wake, coming slow upon Ayr's roadstead, where she encounters a mob of fishboats---- nobbies, Fifies, hookers, slap-dash luggers, scaffies, wee rowboats scattered afore the town breakwater, awaiting a favorable breeze to carry them from whence come Belle, the whole lot lazily lapadaling aboot like a grand wheen of water-bugs. It makes a moving labyrinth for Kevin's piloting, his boy soprano singing constantly through scores of happy repetitions, "... noow for your port ... noow for starb'd ... noow straight on ... a wee bit a' port here, Cap'n ... ."
Jimmy describes landmarks and the boy sets aboot identifying them, calling oot dangers, shading his eyes by hand from the glare of the rising sun, and between calls undoing the coils and hanks tidied the morning afore ----doing backwards all that was done forwards leaving Newcastle Port. Jimmy cautiously swings the tiller one way and the ither, over and again, crouching when the mainsheet passes overhead, whilst they slowly tack past the flotilla. The boy lowers and furls the mizzen lugsail, and readies the rough coir fenders for to slip overboard, to protect Belle's sea-sodden plank when she brings up against the wooden buffers of the quay's stony ledge.
"Up pennant," Jimmy calls for their grand silk banner, "to the hoist, boy, hup, hup! An' mind, let ye hand those mooring lines smartly," Jimmy commands. They drift past more ootbound fishboats, them splayed aboot, sails droopy in the contrary light airs---- all moving at snail's pace or creeping like flotsam wi' barely enough wind for steerage, the odd one even arse-aboot. Jimmy unwraps the blackthorn twig, makes it to circle in the air, points it to the four cardinal directions in turn. Starting wi' East.
"Show me yer magic," he commands.
And I see, friend, ye're hanging on the story, are ye? I'll confess, ye do remind meself of something or someone I knew longgo. Ay, I'll let it rest. And winna ye be wanting the nice boiled egg, or a bit of fried barmbrack, or the bannock and butter?








Illustration the eleventh

153

CHAPTER ELEVEN: revelation


Let draw yer mind's eye upon Ayr harbour, Scotland, in the mist of early morning, midst of March, 1845. See the River Ayr, halves the town and twins the city, and empties into the ruffled vastness of the Firth of Clyde. Noow, let stay yer gaze doon-stream, upon the city's breakwater at the river mouth. Look beyond, to the distant horizon where the last lonesome stars trickle silently into the Firth of Clyde, behind Belle of Newcastle. Then let turn yer eyes up-river to the brightening east, where the grey tide of first-light rolls down the dark hills, and sleepy shepherds awaken to assemble their ambling flocks, so they do. Here come the sun, cast oot the furnace of dawn, and there the twinned city, shucking off its blankets, and stirring sleepily into the new day. Let stew yer brain, then, upon the still quiet shadows spread across the gritty waterfront and along both riverbanks, teeming in the crannied lanes, the crammed boreens, and crowded quays. Do ye nae sniff the curly smoke riz from the forest of chimley-pots in the grey March chill of a winter dying hard, and spring barely on its way?
Noow picture the countless smouldery hearths itself, and afore them the yawning fishermen as stuffs their waking legs into stenchy boots and thrusts their grizzled mouths at steaming taycups. Squint by the wharfs, whilst drovers unbolt their stable doors and let waft the odors of cattle and dung and fodder into the streets, and jarveys lead clop-clopping horses snuffling over the cobblestones to their harnesses and traces. See the shopkeepers stocking their stands the way of foodstuffs, wares and cloths, under the patched canopies of their yet silent storefronts; faith, smell the fragrance of fresh-baked bread drifts oot the bakers' moonlight moiling into the bright of morning toil. And let set yer eyes on the shawled women pulls hampers of soiled clothing to the riverside, that the early drubbing give a sunny day's drying entirely. Let ye listen at the child gobbling her morning porridge, and there's her ma scolding, "Finish it or Cromwell will get ye!" And here's the cunning calico kitty rubbing up and purring for the milk.
And noow, friend, do ye ken again the River Ayr runs northwest through the twinned City and then between the grand North and South Piers for to flow into the Firth, and there's the brawny breakwater at river's end divides sweet water from salt? And do ye see by the great beacon on the tip of the South Pier a lone figure cowled and habited? It is the guid Sister Therese Bernadette, of the Calced and Holy Order of Saint Maundie. Mind, the calced, the shod, are an open community, and never ben a convent.
Thrice over, at dawn, day, dusk, and dark, facing breeze and calm, rain and fog, sun and shadow, Sister has walked the South Pier and the southside docks, and noow, she's standing under the snuffed street lamps burnt the length of her third night. Ay, it's her pleasure for to walk as God and the Abbess ask, in robustly leathered shoes cleverly shaped to her own last, cunning vamped and soled in the Community cobbler's shop, strengthy stitched by loving hands. Mind, it's blessed and anointed shoes ben a solemn and holy part of every Sister's initiation into Saint Maundie's veil, och, a comfort and joy from the first day oot. For it's amongst the Sisters of Saint Maundie, the feet must be shod---- calced, a body says in Latin---- and modest at all waking and public times, same as the face is wimpled and the body shrouded. To be shod is to serve God. It's Sister Therese Bernadette alone has yet anither reason for to be shod, and her naked feet hidden to all aboot her.
'Tis curious irony: Sister 's first namesake, Saint Teresa of Avila, made lifelong conflict wi' the calced Carmelites what she abandoned, and started her own discalced order for to live barefoot. Mind, 'tis the same Saint Teresa in her passsion danced the flamenco---- barefoot. It's Saint Maundie insisted on shoes from the start, 600 years since. Even in the clabbered muck of spring soil, tilling and planting, Saint Maundie's Sisters want nae naked feet, God forbid! but wear their leathern shoes, with clogs fits over. Och! Who's to say that a postulant on the edge of decision is no moved toward a life dedicated in obedience, charity, and purity by the prospect of such shoes? Faith, the shoes and shoemaking skills of Saint Maundie's Community are famously known, and worn, sold and resoled from the Hebrides in the north to the Scillies in the south. But still the Sisters must defend their calced way against the jibes of the Hierarchy's religious ... all men, them are, sure.
Indeed, 'tis one week since, Mother Superior, their restive Abbess, kissed the Cardinal's bared foot in ceremonial fealty, and asked her Community, "Does His Excellency not at all other times cover his feet? Does not a naked foot---- in particulars, a woman's naked foot---- tempt to thoughts of the flesh and impurity? Did not our Saint Maundie teach the special meaning of our Lord washing the feet, that clean feet improve the soul in the body? Does not a shod foot protcct and purify our labors in the fields and warkshops of our Lord? Is it not our own Saint Maundie of ancient times we follow, she who taught the Seven Holy Sacraments to priests of all persuasions, and corrected even mitred prelates of their errors? And have we not been her shod lambs and in the fore to lead the faithful with God's banners these past six hundred of years? Then, howsomever shall we cover our arms and legs and heads, and not cover our feet? For modesty in dress pleases our Lord in all aspects, ay, all. God love us, All, dear Sisters, all."
When the red-sail packet arrives from Clogherhead, her captain tells Sister Therese, it's for sartain he saw in his glass Belle if Newcastle is plowing the happy seas to the fair northwest and, he reckons they will arrive in two or three tides. Noow Sister Therese knows 'tis Jimmy Callahan himself oncoming, already oot the Irish Sea and in the Firth. She plays all this in her head, whilst treading the docks and quays, looking doon at the secrets of her shod feet, and wondering fretfully, whensomever Belle and her precious burden shall arrive? She taps her foot, impatient and oncommon anxious for the smuggled babby she nae yet knows.
For to wait at the docks of Ayr is an endurance Mother Superior assigns to Sisters in turns; one must always be on patrol. Therese in her turn walks waiting, walks praying, feels the wind on her face or her back, catnaps daytimes in the hay of her creel car, sleeps a restless night there, and walks again. She's countimg the decades of her beads over and over, blushing from the rude talk of sailors and longshoremen, praying Mary to intercede for their improvement, recounting silently the details of the tides of the Firth in the almanac at the Community library.
It's the waiting casts spooky shadows on Sister's brain, stirring memories of awful tides and horrific seas she knew eight years since. Godamercy, a harrowing escape she endured then, her voyage to join Saint Maundie's community. It blights her mood today, to remember that longgo sou'westerly gale, the wee fishboat listing into lurching chaos, its lee rail awash, the crash and crush of waves boiling doon upon them from the angry Mull of Kintyre, and an angrier Morrigan endlessly shrieking and moaning in the rigging. And Sister, sorely tried the like of Ulysses, and seeing the Divil's maw reaching up from the waves, she knotted herself to the mizzen-mast, so she did, lest the reeling vessel hurl her into the sea. 'Tis engraved on her brain the way of a Satanic liturgy, them chancy hours, herself offering up frantic prayers against the furious water, and then the Bean Sidhe screaming in the tempest, and she binding her courage wi' images of Saint Paul steadfast in his trial by storm. Herself implored God and His Holy Angels for to oversee the safety of them gang doon to the sea in their fishboat and noow in peril, and laboring to survive so desperate a passage. Sure and sartain, it was the intercession of the Virgin Mother, Stella Maris, warranting the skill of the skipper commanding the wee craft, and the nimble shipwrights built it, what saved them. So also for the benevolence of the Saints and Martyrs, and the Lord giving Sister safe passage to the headlands at Ayr, praise All in Heaven--Allelujah! Sister believed that and a' that. And didna ye know, friend, Belle of Newcastle was the very boat, and Jimmy Callahan was that very skipper, took a care of Sister Therese. Ye mind, friend, that was then.
Noow in the unfolding dawn, Sister remembers those dangers and the lengthy trip what old Belle and her fragile like must always sail, and the babbies smuggled from Ireland under dark skies, over hungry seas, and past the perils of the evil Mull, whatanever the winds or waves. Truth, whilst it's many the fishboat and Irish fisher-fowk of Sister's acquaintance, there's none she knows better, makes more devotions for, and prays longer over, nor Belle of Newcastle and Jimmy Callahan. And so Therese's straining wi' the worry for to see Belle's silhouette and Jimmy's bright pennant, what she knows well as her Paters. Her worn face, it belies her thirty-four years. Her prim starched white cowl shades a worried brow and wind-bitten cheeks and two straining dark blue eyes, and her white gorget frames a strong chin and an ever-dooting mouth. Her fingers clasped in prayer or saying her beads are chafed and callused wi' Community wark, God save all. And for them beyond the Community's pale, it's herself is the face and hands of care and hope, and the life in Grace. But the way hands and face is all the flesh a body ever sees of any Sister at Saint Maundie's Community. And never the feet, as I told ye. Och, but more's the hide of shoe benefits Sister Therese's darkest secrets, what she never told Jimmy, and what ye'll be hearing, if you will but whisht.
As ye heared tell, one or anither religious from the Community is after waiting all the days and nights of the year on the docks of South Ayr, never knowing the hour nor day still anither foundling will arrive from Ireland, nor if it died unshriven in the passage, nor gang puny, nor yet thrives. Truth, aisy times find squalling babbies landed every day, strengthy of spirit, and lungs the like of of the trumpeter when the dead shall rise, ye mind. Hard times, it's day on day of the dolor of silence and the pallor of death, yea, no even one lonesome babby surviving to answer the Order's prayers, and all them little ones falling instead into the impenetrable penalties of Limbo. Howanever, Belle of Newcastle and Jimmy Callahan, they seem singularly blessed, renowned up and doon the Firth of Clyde and across from Kintyre to Ayrshire and even to Glasgoow for a score or more of safe exchanges, ay, safe of the sea, the Mull, the Revenooers, God save all! safe of the Sea-Divil and his unholy appetite for the unshriven.
It's the cock's crowings what dowsed the moon long since, and Sister's vigil reawakened to the search for Belle amongst the welter of fishboats drifting in the wispy airs of Ayr's roadstead. At morning devotions, she's after fortifying her heart against the qualms crawls under her skin. Riz from her knees to the sunlight dappling the Ayrshire hills and the faint breeze of the harbor, she sighs, touches the crucifix dangling from her neck, kisses it, murmuring a promise of intentions to Saint Christopher and Saint Nicholas. She pleads long of the Virgin Mary, Stella Maris, that and a' that for the fifty-first time. Under the South Pier's beacon-tower, it's the doot pounds at her pulse and the damp of panic wets her forehead and beats the like of the sea against her heart. She balances upon the lip of the cobbled seawall, leans on the rail, squints past the faint breeze, past the sun-up glinting off the water. Her left hand overs her heart, right hand fingering the beaded decades and mysteries, and the hope for Belle and her skipper and burden. Ay, but the last mystery unfolds in her prayer, a devotion made in the secrecy of her own soul each of the many times she has waited here, as noow, me friend, I shall tell ye.
Sister's cause for secrecy, and guilty doots of God's intention, lie within the folds of her black homespun and starched white linen. She is a soul wrung by pain and a history known only to one longgo confessor at Drogheda: howanever herself, a Highland beauty, at fifteen given wi' dowry in Presbyterian marriage to a brutal Calvinist Scotsman, himself a dishonor upon the heroic name of Hugh O'Neill, Erin's ancient protector; howanever she submitted afore this monstrous menace, this evil Hugh-the-depraved. Ay, and him a Covenanter and kirk Elder itself, ay, yet the soul of iniquity, as ye heared tell afore: howanever Hugh kept her under whip and chain, worser than a pig in a pen on his father's purloined plantation in County Doon; and howanever herself survived eleven years of rapine abuse under that sadistic brute; and howanever herself in despair for her life, mitched from hearth and home, abandoning her six-year-ould daughter for to escape her persecutor; howanever she fled to a beggar's life and unspeakable sin amongst the dregs of Drogheda. Ay, howanever starving there in rags and worser, she was rescued from the infected disrict and the kip houses by the officious Magdalenes, and herself cruelly indentured to their heartless and avaricious warkhouse.
And then conversion, and baptism as a Catholic, and a dispensation for annulment. And once again flight, this time from the inflicted pain of the selfrighteous Magdalenes, she drifting finally to the wharfs at Newcastle Port and discovering there Jimmy Callahan, and by his mercy, on Belle of Newcastle crossing a tumultuous Irish Sea. Ay, and at the last, herself standing at the gates of the Community of Saint Maundie until she swooned from hunger. And in charity, the Order taking her in for a postulant eight years since. Faith and troth, never a body showed more fervor nor toiled more diligently in the wark of the Order, nor labored more to purify herself of sin. Nor in the secrecy of her cell mortified her flesh more. Her ascendency in two years to novitiate, then three more to her vows, and two more to the veil was never in any Sister's doot. Och, in the years since first she arrrived, never has any Saint Maundie religious dooted herself as much, nor trembled so in the fearsome night, for the secrets of her body and soul.
This morning, Sister canna yet see Belle in the offing, Belle riz mote by mote over the horizon, first the mast-head, then the main topsail, then the black hull until, at the last, the wee dots of sailors' bodies. Ay, it's the Belle of Newcastle oncoming, puff by puff in the light air, shielded from Sister's view amongst the motley crowd of boats swarming Ayr's breakwater. Sister canna hear the Kevin boy is Jimmy's eyes searching for landmarks, shouting to Jimmy from the foredeck, perching astride the bowsprit. She canna see Belle closing at last wi' the harbor, and Kevin searching for her singular cowled and habited figure. She canna ease the dread in her brain, that her past sins will curse the breaths of the bairn they bring, and throw harm upon Belle and her crew.
Silently she wrings the past out her heart: "Blessed Mother of God, pray for me, Your miserable penitente, let come Jimmy and Belle of Newcastle safely to shore. O, Sweet Mary, Blessed Virgin, grant your humble servant the right to implore Your intercession, I that lived in sin with the cruelest of men in the false marriage of the Divil's kirk, him who flogged me like a beast and burnt my hands and sodomizd me with sticks and beat my breasts and kept me chained with the pigs, him whose rapine assaults I suffered, him whose child I bore, him whose house of horrors I abandoned, and left there alone my own dear beloved child, brought forth out of the pains of my womb, abandoned and foresook! O Sweet Mary, You know of womb and Child and abandonment and foresook! And myself, this miserable sinner, left my child and run away to the streets of Drogheda, and abased meself in beggary and thievery and the darkest of unspeakable acts.
Forgive, Blessed Virgin! I beg You! Mother Celestial, let my sins be forgiven only this precious hour, let Jimmy and the bairn he brings come safe to harbor. O bless the child's soul, O Queen of Heaven, Stella Maris, Twelve-Starred Sovereign of the Skies, hear my plea, I beg of you, hear me!"
And she's up from her knees for to search the sea again and again, amongst the meandering fishboat flotilla. Half a sand-clock trickles by, Belle slowly wending her way unseen by Sister Therese until, from the forward masthead in the low-angled morning sun, Kevin unfurls their enormous pennant of brilliant green, Belle's own banner it is, the finest and lightest of smuggled Lyons silk, known the length and breadth of the Firth of Clyde, riz like a kite, fluttering like a butterfly, overing the swarmed fleet. Therese Bernadette, Sister of The Shod Community of Saint Maundie, sucks her breath, trembles, blinks and crosses her heart, and she's squinting again at the fluttering green silk. 'Tis her rover come home from the sea.








Illustration the twelfth

163

CHAPTER TWELVE: harbor


"That pennant! That one! Over there!" Sister shouts oot as astonished passers-by crowd the pier. "That there! Juist come into view ... Green. There! Ay, there. Can it be? Can it be himself? Ay! 'Tis Jimmy! 'Tis! Jimmy Callahan! 'Tis Belle! 'Tis! Dear Saint Christopher, dear Saint Nicholas, Sacred heart of Mary!" she's exulting whilst she's riz her hand, praising God and the Holy Spirit and Mary's power over the waters, and all the Saints and Martyrs in Heaven.
Faith, and it's whilst she does this, a small knot detaches from the crowd to gawk at her. She flushes, turns away, stares at her leathern shoes, and makes a lip-service for Manannan Mac Lir and his legions itself, and all the pagan keepers of the Irish Sea---- ye'll understand, what she and all the fisher-fowk knows, as well as their Paters. She crosses herself, stricken wi' guilt, whispering Aves, and waits. The onlookers move on, puzzled. Sister turns back for to search the fleet, for to track the grand green pennant.
Slowly Belle draws doon upon the three miles between horizon and pier, tacking to and fro at snail's pace, oncoming amongst the fleet of fishboats, fluttering her silk. Sister sees the blur onboard move, take form, she sees a boy, and then a man's waving arms, in't. She's waving to them, the boy shouting lost words from Belle's fairaway bowsprit, and Sister feeling the joy in her heart lepp to her gullet, and her blood rushing in her breast, and thanking again Stella Maris, Virgin Queen, Star of the Sea, for safeguarding the bairn she hopes to greet, and the boy, and the fisherman, and Belle, and the voyage, and thanking God for absolving if only for this moment her own sins, and Mary for interceding.
It's in happy patience she cloaks herself, so she does, watching Belle slowly drift in under full sail from behind a flotilla of small craft, the boy balanced two-footed on the bowsprit and cheering, one hand gripping the jibstay, and Jimmy, he's waving at the tiller. Sister watches it all unfold afore she steps her Community shoes quick as strides will do, up the long South Pier, back to the city's fish docks, doon to the barnacled wharf what waits for Belle. A horseman sees her running, her habit blowing, her wimple a-tilt, her crucifix joggling; he motions to her, calls, comes to her side, glances doon wi' a smiling offer, touches his cap. She looks at him in mouthed agreement, he swings her up, she sitting sidesaddle behind him, craning backward for to watch Belle, noow wi' lug foresail and mizzen struck, topsail drawing the wee breeze above wharf level, the boy at the ready on lifted oars, and all drifting up-river slow on slow, drifting past the stenchy fish docks, drifting towards Sister. Bedad! Amidst the brightening sunlight, dark thoughts range Sister's brain, and though her soul sings glory to God for the safe voyage and this joyous reunion wi' Jimmy, yet the dark persists, the like of a shuttered moon on a troubled sea.
"It's the knowing in my marrow and afearing in my bowels makes me swoon, Lord, for the innocent bairns landed unshriven in the coolness of death, and their voyage to Ayr only a passage to Limbo." And she reflects. "Dear God in Heaven, more's the pity for the wretched live ones that's shriven, Lord, give them breath! Ay, poor babes, dying afore the passing of their first day christened, or first month, mebbe, or first year. Sweet Mary. it's them that's living is the like of them that's dying. And who can tell the dead, one from the other, though the marked and the unmarked lie in rows under the earth, some in the chapel yard, all of the other outside the gate. You, Lord in Your infinite wisdom, now You send us another child, and howanever will it go for this wee helpless bairn?"
Belle of Newcastle knows aught of shrive nor live, yet her topsail of lightest linen swollen as if herself ben wi' child, all borne along on the last breath of west wind. It's the end of the 'tween-tide gentles the River Ayr waters, and here's Belle, Jimmy, Kevin and their precious cargo drifts steadily up-river whilst, from the east, the morning sun pours upon them the like of golden wine from a heavenly ewer.
"Yerra, making towards the light and the shadows fall astern," Jimmy gloats to himself at the glare glancing off the water afore them. "You're the mischief of all Erin and half of Alba," he tells the twig, fondling it to his breast.
It's the breath of a broth of the magical breeze continues Belle's course up the long fairway between the North Pier and the South Pier, she scarce ruffling the water, gliding past the two lighthouses at barely two knots, past the Pilots' House, smoothing into the river proper, and on both banks the early morning flurry and hurry of harbor commerce whilst Belle makes under easy topsail, and slow becomes slower.
Jimmy strokes the kippeen again. He can hardly believe the way of his luck, taking the wind. "A power of conjury in that," himself holds it up, then strokes it afore rolling it in the muslin wrapping. "Aisy milk," he smiles.
Belle is the lone craft sailing upstream against the oot-bound traffic. Kevin unships the oars, laying them into their tholes at the ready, if the air turns fickle. Comes at Belle hungry fishermen rowing doonstream into the meager breeze, a lengthy procession in clumps and ones, sails furled, straining at oars against the limpid water. Kevin watches keenly each approach oot the sun's blaze, draw abreast, and slide away doon-river, to the flat windless calm of the Firth beyond.
"Come anither, and here's a gaggle on the way doon, Cap'n," Kevin announces.
"Fish an' shillin's a-plenty to ye, and God bless ye, every one," Jimmy shouts, his poteen flask riz for a drop taken as each ootbound crew draws abreast in a sour reek of sweat, fish oil, salted plank, damp canvas, and stenchy bilgewater, all wafting lazily over Belle's bow.
One boat closes, hailing Belle as she passes an oar's length away.
" 'Tis light on the waterline ye be," a weatherbeaten ould salt comments to Jimmy, his oar leathers rhythmically squeaking against the placid river. "Didna ye find any o' the silver darlings oot there?"
Jimmy's shaking his head and smirking in return. "Me hold is full, me heartie, but I nae be fishing. It's the fall o' night an' one day we ben on the water, an' our nets is dry." In the twin cities of South Ayr or North, it's every man-jack of a sailor is a smuggling master, and knows this here class of code talk like the lines on his palm.
Kevin's looking aft, watching the fishboats row one by one doon-river, each turning the fair corner by the breakwater, breaking oot a saggy sail, and slipping on to the windless Firth. The boy tells Jimmy all what he sees. Jimmy's irked.
"Hey! Look ahead, boy! It's no astern Six-Toes is travelin', ye wee buck eejit. Look to it!"
Kevin-boy's face fills wi' chagrin. He turns his eyes up-river, tells of the shoreline slides by. "Ummm ... There, the ould watchtower ye tould me ... There, umm, Dawson's quay, says it is, fine on your starboard bows ... mark Ferguson's Livery, umm, over to south of that there steeple ... Saint Gregory's, is it? Captain, juist there ... MacPhail Cotton Guids ... And so many signs, Cap'n ... Tom the Chandler's sign ... And D Malone, Farrier ... Ay, there's George Gorman, Grain Storage, ay, Capn, it's three storeys high and eight windows across, ould George is, the way you tould me ... Ay, all here's what you tould me ... R Malachy, Wagons & Cars ... it surely makes a right bonnie shoreline," the boy's head spinning as the River Ayr's wharfs and depots slide past in a grand bustle of warehouses, drays, pulling cars, ale-houses, and shops. And people! Knots and couples and loners and crowds of people and more people. "And our mark! I see it noow, Cap'n. The Auld Brigge ... There! Ay! There! and the Twa Brigge ... there!" he points.
And so it's the two cities of the River Ayr wakens to morning, and Belle passing between, and all a fascination to Kevin, his head swiveling this way and that. Jimmy's cautiously feathering his tiller a wee slow slant one way and anither, them slipping along a few boat-lengths from the shore, and at less than walking speed. Under his breath, Jimmy's blessing the boy's eyesight and cursing his own, and still the light air barely giving his helm steerage, Belle dawdling towards the fish-docks and her berth.
"That there," says Jimmy, waving at a crooked row of tumbledy shacks across the River what blurs in his sight, " 'tis the kip houses and the infected district." His mouth curls doon in disgust. "It's the nostrils o' Satan breathes within, boy, an' if ye gang that length, yer surely doomed in the next world an' ruinated in this one."
"I do not ken, sir."
"Ken or nae ken, I'll knock the head of ye if ever I learn ye gang the way of it, do ye hear?"
"Aye, sir," says the boy, looking the opposite way.
"Ye be too slight to be knowin' o' it, boy. An' hey! Look lively! Turn round, we're mebbe bearin' doon on Belle's berth." And Jimmy sniffs. "I can smell it! Let ye be on the ready, boyo."
The boy's at jigs and reels, running excitedly along Belle's bulwark from stem to stern and back again. In the sternsheets, Jimm'sy grinning the like of a jack-o'-lantern and squints his weak eyes again into the fierce dazzle of sun glanced off the mirror of river water. The boy settles at the bow, squealing and shouting wi' joy, his heart squeezing his gullet. 'Tis an eighth of mile ... a hundred yards it is ... and noow ten boat-lengths more to the dock ... seven ... four---- two! Here's Belle's homecoming, she's drifting toward her berth, and at the end nae breeze at all, and Belle one step off a stand-still. The skipper wiggles a wee last ever-so-cautious wag of her tiller. Kevin is enthralled.
Jimmy shouts, "Yerra, me boyo, it's loose the halyard, and all at the ready." Kevin pulls all but one turn of the topsail halyard off its belaying pin and holds it, ready to let fly.
"Three hops of a sparrow, we'll ... be ... noow, boy! It's NOOW!"
The topsail yard crashes doon, gathering and compressing its thin flaxen canvas as it thumps to the deck. Kevin ships his oars. Belle drifts one last boat-length and brings up, kissing the dock to the pleasant squawk of her coir fenders and the creaky protest of her oaken rub-rail. The boy noises aboot and lepp ashore wi' both spring-lines in hand, wrapping the dock's cast-iron bollards. The fisherman jumps after and the two tie in stern and breast-lines. Jimmy steps back aboard, lashes his tiller, and clambers into the hold. He smiles his rotting teeth, looks doon, brushes his rough palm over his clatty oil-stained smock, and plucks the bundled Babby Six-Toes into his arms, searching her scronched face and puffy pink cheeks. And he nuzzles her a last time. His eyes are wet.
"Yer home, me wee dotey machree," he whispers, searching aboot for a figure in cowl and cloak. "Livin', breathin', alive, an' home. Safe an' home." And Jimmy's no ashamed of his tears.
The boy has never walked the docks of Ayr afore. " 'Tis a bonnie place, captain." He looks away from Jimmy's tears.
" 'Tis, boy. Noow hurry on wi' it."
Kevin rushes aboot redoing, making fast the mooring ropes fore and aft, all bitter ends ashore tucked into proper Flemish coils.
" An' who will ye be in yer own time, me wee dote? Ay, will ye ever remember himself who brought ye, an' me Kevin, an' me Belle?" Jimmy's crooning, cuddling the wee Babby Six-Toes, stepping ashore confidently over the bobbing bulwark, then across the cobblestoned wharf. 'Tis then he spies the first of Sister hurrying their way. Friend, 'tis a curious story, Sister and Jimmy.
And if it's the tay settling into ye, and ye need the ladies', that's the door beyond, at yer left. Ye've noo need to lock. I'll be waiting on ye. Aint a body bides here but this here one old lady and a clatter of ghosts. Troth, it's mebbe thirty-five years, ye mind, this ould house has indoor plumbing.






Illustration the thirteenth

171

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: no


"Dia duit! God save all, and you here this day and again," Sister cries oot, darting between drays and dockwarkers, running breathless doon a great length of wharf to Jimmy, " 'Tis yourself, thanks to God, Mister James Michael Callahan," she touching her crucifix, "and all Heaven take pleasure in that." She draws up greeting him in breathless Gaelic: "Failte is cead! A hundred welcomes!"
Jimmy houlds the babby afore him. Sister receives it into her both arms, and jumbles her panting brogue. Worn smooth by religious life, there still endures in her speech, like Jimmy's, part of their Scottish birth---- she Highland, he Lowland---- and part of the northeastern Irish coast accent.
"How is it you are, Jimmy? It's anither wee angel, is it, and does it be baptized?"
Jimmy makes a face and shakes his head. 'Nae, Sister.'
"Ay, not shriven, then, and sad, and the sickness on it, and soon wanting to fly home to Heaven? Or is happy and healthy to make the Divil a fool? Dotey girl or doughty boy?" Words tumble on words, and she's whirling the babby and singing to it in nursery doggerel.
Jimmy watches the dust she kicks up. "Ay, me Shod Sister of Saint Maundie," he mocks gently, "and it's fine new boots ye have?"
Sister blushes, knowing what's inside the shoes. "It's ould as my veil they are, and well the care for them, God bless all. Ahh, Jimmy, if you do the same, they last for life," she puns straight-faced.
The warmth of early sun envelopes the little group. Jimmy folds his empty arms across his chest. Kevin leans against a lamp-pole, watching and basking, the motion of the boat still rocking his brain. Sister leaves off the talk to look doon upon her wriggling bundle. Ye mind, a pleasant swell of motherly affection recalled from longgo travels up her throat, and she lifting the infant for to squeeze it ever so gently to her breasts. In the shadow of Sister's cowl, Six-Toes' squint pops open and gazes up into her face. Have you no seen Michelangelo's warks in yer Missal, friend? It's Mary of the Pieta, the like of Sister's head tilting. But it's aching in her heart, Sister is, at her own dry nipples, and she's crooning from the emptiness of her own abused womb. For to provide distraction to her sadness, she prays silently to the Blessed Virgin, beseeching divine intercession against the dooms and dangers awaiting the newest arrival for the Foundling Home.
She walks between the fisherman and the boy, houlding the infant close to her habit, never mind its soaked swaddling. The wee group dodges past the bustling crowds afoot, the cloppitty beasts, the creaking wagons, the lowing cattle, the mouthy draymen. Small talk makes light of their steps. Jimmy mentions the sea and the voyage and the grand luck of the wind, fair and breezy in the middle and the light westerlies on both ends.
Sister inclines her head, "Nae the luck, Mister. It's in the palm of Saint Christopher you were, and Saint Nicholas and Saint Bridget and the guidness of God Himself, and the mercy of Mother Mary, Star of the Sea, you heathen Ullan." Yet there didna be anger nor dislike in it, and they walk in their private silence for a spell, amidst the wharf-side hullabaloo, the boy trailing. "And it's the Guid God gives you the skills, Jimmy," she adds, remembering her own wild voyage wi' him at the helm, and Belle dancing to the screech of the Divil'a hornpipes in the rigging, and the furious sea wi' waves the like of moving mountains set upon them.
"It's Babby Six-Toes I'm bringin", Sister,' Jimmy blurts oot the blue, and thinking to protect himself from anither broadside of holiness by saying aught of the blackthorn twig. "Ay, six toes." And when he looks into Therese's face, he sees the damp shadow flickering.
Sister's eyes lower, her cheeks flushing, her heart pounding, and there's the commotion in her brain. She waits, raises her eyes, stares curiously at him, quickly looks away, shuts her eyes against the thunder that Jimmy canna hear, come suddenly upon her ears.
"Six toes, do you say?" She studies her shoes, cuddles the babby closer, kisses its wee brow, smiles doon upon it.
He reaches over her arms, lifts the swaddling, and steadies the babby's leg for to count six wee pink rosebuds, and his face the like of Guy Fawkes wi' gunpowder when he whispers: "Her Daideo's a right nasty Covenanter, an' he took her to be cursed for sure and sartain, an' snatched her away of it, an' never baptized. An' her ma's tooken her death o' ... o' sadness, mebbe. Or madness, 'tis a week of days since," Jimmy pauses to hould up his fingers whilst Sister's face moves from astonishment to concern. "Ay, an' it's meself has the contract here," he patting the breast of his fisherman's smock, "to tell where born, an' who to, an' how seized, bedad, an' sent away of it. If it's a sin to feed me wife an' that there boy by the like o' the smugglin' money, I've sinned ... an', ay, I'll sin again, Sister," and he seeing her jaw sag. "Oho! Let ye be smilin', Sister, an' pay me nae mind, 'tis but a wee Presbyterian sin, worth mebbe a measly fairthin' in the box. An' half a Pater," he grins broadly, "or three." But there's little smiling in Jimmy's heart as he thinks to Hugh O'Neill and the debt owed himself.
"Six toes! And wanting the Sacrament as them wi'five always do, you say, Jimmy, and never knowing ma nor da?" Sister's throat tightens, and it's lightning and thunder inside her skull whilst she's trying to keep an even voice: "Ay, yet I see wi'my own two eyes she thrives. And God bless you, I do pray for the conversion of your contrary ways, Jimmy." She makes nae speech for the contract. "And your soul, Jimmy. And the life to come." She raises the babby for to kiss its forehead again. "And for the child. And for when she's a growing lass, Jimmy, and the angels watch over the six toes, and God between herself and harm."
"Ay, the luck," Sister reflects bitterly on her own abuse.
Noow she's walking and talking and rocking the infant all at one time, and she's quavering in the cold air flowing off the river's surface.
"Dear Holy Father in Heaven, what can be he meaning of all this?" she wonders. "Ay, in the entire Community, where the viewing by one Communicant of so much as another's naked ankle is a sinful lust---- to viewer and viewed!---- never ever have I let on my own six toes itself, nae. And never will. Never in this world for the priests of Ayr nor the Bishop of the diocese nor the Pope in Rome!" she vows. She holds the babby closer, bends to plant another kiss on its forehead. "I shall pray for you night and day, sweetness, I shall make my every breath for you, wee one, and pray the Holy Saints bless you, and Mother Mary hold you and keep you, and God make His light to shine upon you, my dote ... . And God and The Virgin tell me why we share these ... these toes." Sister's heart overflows in her eyes, and she tastes the salt of it, thinking, "I shall love you with all my heart and all my might and all my soul, my wee mavourneen."
They come upon a stone buttress next a hitching post where a donkey by a creel car chockablock wi' trusses of hay stirs in his traces, him flicking his tail and swiveling his tall ears at their approach. A series of dung heaps shows the length of his patience. Across his back, he wears a crisp and tidy cross-embroidered blanket. Sister Therese stops to lift wi' the one hand the babbling babby to her shoulder, and shoo a cloud of horseflies wi' the ither. She reaches under the hay for to find her apron.
"She's a thriving one, this wee bairn, and it's guid the care you're taking." She praises Jimmy wi' her eyes.
"A tough little one," the fisherman offers for the babby, his heart's love shining in his leathery face, and his weary sourness moulting.
"So I'm praying, sir ... . Do you reach on to the car for a hatful of hay, sir, and put it afore Caligula. He's the patience of a saint, that animal, he is," she's freed a hand again and pats the donkey's flank.
"Have ye many o' new babbies, Sister?" He watches the Kevin-boy trot briskly up to them.
"More than Heaven tells us what to do," she gazing away. " 'Tis a sad business, the foundlings." She hands the babby to Jimmy, and ties her apron.
"Tis. Ay, an' the bringin' too, for the seas do be chancy, nor I can be choosey. And the cursed Revenooers, like fleas on a dog."
The boy has been watching in great fascination, and he asks. "Is it something I should be doing?"
"Ye should shut yer gob," the fisherman snaps.
"Here noow, Mister Callahan, he's but a lad." And she turns to the boy. "Ay, 'tis a 'should,' your wanting, is it? What you 'should' be aboot is your business on your Da's boat and growing into a proper laddie. And you 'should' do the Mass and the confession, 'tis your duty. And sure, all the Sacraments like a proper Christian that Mister Callahan winna do."
Jimmy guffaws. Sister continues, giving him reproachful looks.
" 'Tis living in Grace, laddie, that there's the should-ness and the guid-ness of it," she pats the boy. "Howanever, it's a fine man your Jimmy is," she concedes, "watching over innocent souls waiting to be shriven. And I pray for his soul as well as theirs." She sighs for her trials wi' Jimmy.
"It's no for the lad to lip off when he's no spoken at." Jimmy's irritated.
"As I was saying, I pray for your immortal soul, James Michael Callahan," she stiffens her tone. "That I do, sir, and for your conversion and improvement." And softly, turning to the boy: "It's a guid man, laddie, that one who does guid deeds and kneels afore Our Lord three times a day---- morning, noon, and night, do you see."
Jimmy puts his palms together pointed up, his eyes faking piety and twinkling at the sky.
Sister tries to glare at him and fails in spite of herself. "Mister Callahan, mebbe he's doing the deeds, laddie, but he needs a wee bit of kneeling in his ways. And if a body's any sense at all, he knows it. True, laddie?" She didna look up, yet the fisherman knows she's smiling.
She sits on a stone buttress, spreads her habit across her knees, positions the apron on it, and the squirming bairn on the apron. She produces a muslin cloth and a larger square of homespun from a pocket in her habit, and sets aboot exchanging for new the smelly wet swaddling and last ould nappy of the voyage.
"Here go, laddie," she springs a surprise on the boy, and lobs the stinking wad up to him, for to distract from the temptations of the pink nakedness writhing on her lap.
Yerra! Mind ye, the exchange of cloth didna be the ould for the new at all. Nae! It's the "new" is washed and beaten sun-bleached cloths and shrouds and nappy rags from off the dead bairns of the Foundling Home, so it is. Ay, that there's Saint Maundie's ghoulish tradition of 'new' what Sister Therese pulls from her apron and wraps aboot Babby Six-Toes' bottom. 'Tis in the frugal custom of the Order's teeming charnel house for six hundred years, where the salvaging of threadbare nappies seems to equal the rescue of fragile souls, me friend.
" 'Tis sad on sadder, when dying takes the measure of each worrisome day amongst the foundlings," she murmurs, tying the nappy and swaddling it in a length of homespun. "And, ay, in every sorra season, the gravesides sprout new tablets by the row."
Sister stands, shaking her head, the babby cradled in one arm, she looking doon upon the wee round face, and the wandering blue eyes melting her heart, the dotey wet lips puckering and searching, chubby arms flailing. Sister lifts her hand for to offer a finger to suck. The babby rustles in its new wrapping and fastens on, whilst she moves the finger gently aboot, and then slowly extracts it.
"Middlin' fair hungry, Sister," Jimmy grins broadly.
"The way it was my own wee one all those longgo years since, and myself after feeling the nubbin of its nose scrunching and searching on to my breast," Sister playing her finger across Babby Six-Toes's cheek, "and it after suckling at my nipples." She remembers ruefully, "Ay, the little small lips tugging the like of a leech and making the wee swallowing sounds. Ahhh, that was times there, myself off in a bit of heaven feeling the goodness of it all ... ."
Six-Toes finds Sister's finger again. Kevin-boy looks on at the two, and after a moment, turns, and walks to the waterside and doon the stone dock steps to the river, for to rinse the soiled swaddling he's carrying at arm's length. Ay, and the ither hand pinching his nose.
"Be a bright laddie and do a guid washing," she looks after him, then, and turns to the babby, remembering again her own wee one, so longgo, the like of anither life.
" ... And my macushla making not a sound but the whispering burble of the milk going down. And then us two laying back from a bit of a suckle, and babby all plump and tender, done of its burping, and asleep at my breast, and me emptied of milk, and, the let-down pleasure of it glowing like warm sun at the noon of day, ay, the quiet joy." It's mist welling in Sister's eyes. "Gone, all lost and gone away, so long ago."
She turns her head away, and rubs her eyes wi' balled fingers. When she turns back to look at Jimmy, she's smiling and cooing at the babby.
"It's a bonnie one, she is," Sister says softly.
"Aint they all?" Jimmy wi' a wee touch of cynic in his tone.
"Ay, so they are, Mister Dooting Thomas," she mumbling three apologetic Aves for taking the Saint's name, "but it's only this here macushla has six toes."
"And me," she thinks furtively.
"And only Six-Toes has a blackthorn twig," Jimmy's thinking of survival.

Godamercy, praise all the Saints and Martyrs for the twig, friend, for ye'll be after learning by and bye, it's howanever I'm settled here afore ye this Easter Sunday. Och, would you be having anither scone? And amn't I still flogging the boxty?





Illustration the fourteenth

181

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: undone


"How is it you are, dote? Dry as a backstone, are you?" Sister Therese croons at the babby, it whimpering and rooting round for to suck. "Ah, my wee mavourneen, empty belly get you?" Sister turns to Jimmy: " 'Tis a power of hunger, and a very guid sign," she looks doon upon wee Six-Toes. But her smile wilts and her brow furrows deeply, considering the babby's most likely fate.
"Blessed Virgin, Holy Mother, must my pious Sisters be hoarding the nappies here on earth, whilst Holy Angels gather babbies there in Heaven?" and she looks up at the sky. "Never this one here, nae, never our Six-Toes, Mother Mary, please. I pray you. Please." And she smiles down on the babby. "Ah, my wee macushla, it's the luck of the Irish you'll be needing, ay, and the Holy Spirit providing for your soul."
Jimmy watches, wanting words for to perk up her sadness. "A measure of goat's milk come along wi' the babby, Sister, an' I kept it cold against the clabberin' ... . Hey, boy!" he bellows through cupped hands at Kevin doon by the riverbank, dawdling over Six-Toes' laundry. "Ye run an' fetch the milk sack, an' lively noow, hup, HUP!"
Kevin hurries back to Belle, and it's three shakes of a lamb's tail, he's scurrying forth, and brings up panting wi' the leathern flask still wrapped in wet muslin.
" 'At's a guid lad, an' a richt smart job ye done, ye sea-sodden chiseller. Noow back to yer chores," beams Jimmy, patting the boy's head wi' one hand, sloshing the flask wi' the ither. He turns wi' a wink at Sister. " 'Strict an' stern makes wee brains learn,' " Jimmy cuddling the milk-flask the like of the babby itself. Or a drop of the craythur. "Ay, never clabbered the whole journey, do ye ken?"
Sister giggles. Jimmy's confused ... and then he grins, wide as a harvest moon.
"The milk, no the Kevin-boy," he snorts. "I heared tell, come from a mountainy nanny fed as best a body could ... "
Sister must come to a sit from her giggling, and canna help her head lolling side to side.
"The milk, Sister, the milk," he's roaring silly, "it's aisy milk, keepin' into timothy grass on the south of the hills, away of the turfs ... ." He's laughing near over much to speak. "The nanny, Sister, not meself!"
It's her waves of laughter, and only the wimple and habit preventing a hilarious roll on the dirt.
And then, never in this world a word of warning, Jimmy's funning drowns in a flood of anger surging 'cross his brain, waves of talking images of the hateful Hugh O'Neill. And Jimmy canna shut himself of them. He shuffles aboot, he's after looking at the ground to the right and to the left, it's his ears are stuffed wi' Christy Mahony's whisperings aboot O'Neill's villainy, and his brains hearing tell all those desperate tales again: howanever the wretched Hugh abandoned his daughter in childbirth, ruthlessly snatched her bairn away, the lassie grieving and dying, she a corpse in a pigsty grave, the wet-nurse fled, Hugh squeezing the goat's milk---- all what Mahony learnt, it's on parade on Jimmy's brain-pan noow, all them horrific scenes Jimmy never saw.
God's grace! Jimmy's mentioning never one lonesome hint to Sister aboot Christy's story nor Christy's mercenary contract for to to carry the babby and the flask of milk to Belle of Newcastle. And never a peep of Jimmy's own share, nor the shrouded lamp on Belle's foremast signaling O'Neill-the-depraved for to waylay Mahony. Nor a word from Jimmy aboot conniving wi' the O'Neill to pay off for that there crime. It was murder, Jimmy is sure and sartain.
Jimmy weighs his own betrayal. "I be as vile a wretch as any other in this business. Better I should keep Sister shut of the details. Could she ever be learning the deeds of that swindling swine O'Neill---- or my own Judas act!---- it would surely bring the Divil's mischief itself, Jimmy, my lad. If she does. Ay, 'should,' ' could,' 'would,' and 'if' ... away with that and a' that."
He pauses, kicks a pebble, fumes to himself, considers his plan, and mumbles absently: "Anyways, that's a sorra handful o' coppers to Belle an' me an' the Kevin-boy."
"Ay, that there's the pittance for my woman facing east on the docks at Newcastle Port, and Divil the Mull that lurks between us."
Sister interrupts his brooding "The old sin again? A body put a value on a child?" She knows and despairs: never a babby wants to travel across the Irish Sea, but somehow, somewhere, some way, a body pays. Or the infant dies. Or both. "Howanever's the charity in that?"
"Sin? Again? Value? Charity! Divil take it! 'Tis the bread in my mouth you're taking," he rages silently. "Damn the cheating O'Neill, that snake in the grass! Ay, and whatanever's the worth of Mahony's life or death, or my soul for mebbe arranging his murder? No need to bother Sister with all that; it will get me nothing, and break her heart." He frets on, for somehow Sister's presence makes him sure as never afore O'Neill did Mahony in, and it's that river of guilt again rises against his soul.
He pulls a bright face over his dark brooding, and imitates the trill of Sister's mezzo voice: " 'Freshest striplin' o' the best o' mountainy goats, and guid for the babby, so it is.' " It's when she gives him a squinty grin, he adds in phony baritone, "The way as ye told me, Sister, times enough to test the patience of a saint."
Her smile broadens, and a glance akin to affection passes between the grizzled face and the cowled one, and in it, she forgives that he didna answer her question.
"We'll be praying for you and the laddie, ay, and your fishing," she says after a long silence, rocking the infant. She points to Belle fair doon the crowded docks where Kevin's sitting on the foredeck. "Is that the boy itself you've been telling me, these three years since?"
"He's the one, so. All those many times, every landin' I told ye, ay. It's him I found starvin' on the docks, an' took home to Irene. Anyway, it's him we baptized Kevin O'Donnell, an' a proper Callahan, so he is, the like I told ye in the yesteryear, Sister. Ay," Jimmy wi' a smirk, "in a proper kirk, I'm remindful, yer mitred Pope an' his scarlet-cloaked Cardinals didna be there. Nor yer Limbo waiting by, even if we didna do him holy this an' a' that. An' this here voyage, it's the boy's first trip to Scotland." His face lights mischievously. "It's Manannan Mac Lir showed us the way, keepin' the lad safe. Meself and Six-Toes too."
For a flash, Sister's face turns cross. She looks doon at the babe in arms, and softens, protesting, "Nae, James Michael, ye'll ruinate your immortal soul wi' praying to heathen gods, so you will. It's Saint Bridget smooths the sea, and Saint Patrick saves the Irish. And the Blessed Virgin Mother over all, ay, Stella Maris of the twelve-starred crown. Take up the cross, Jimmy," she tells him firmly.
She walks to a close-by lamp-pole, leans her shoulder against it, wags her head side to side, and droops her chin in discouragement at his lack of remorse. Himself quick wi' anither sly twinkle, he changes the subject.
"Let me tell ye what I be knowin' o' Six-Toes," grinning a riddle's worth, the way he's so smug patting his smock over the hidden contract, thinking for to reveal this, conceal that, and mystify all.
Och! So he starts in broad strokes, mentioning neither names nor places whilst retelling Sister Therese all what Christy Mahony learnt in those few days at Hugh O'Neill's plantation---- an absconding Catholic tinker, the lassie's lonesome pregnancy, a Catholic midwife, a difficult delivery, then Six-Toes' calamitous birth on the sixth weekday, its mother's death of the birthing fever, and the wily wet-nurse. Whisht! He has aught to say of Six-Toes' Gran'pa, the Calvinist O'Neill, wi' his turrible abusive ways and Covenanter harshness, or the crude wooden cross the brute thrust into the muck of the pigsty, and the horror of the grave itself. Jimmy's afearing so much of wee details will make himself oot to be complicit.
"Jimmy, Jimmy," says Sister impatiently, "You tell a cheerless tale of simple sin, ay, but serious, and there's sadness too---- and do you know, Sir Mischief, for that and a' that, it's the likes of the three-shell game at a gypsy circus: all hidden and myself played for the fool."
"Hidden? Nae, Sister, 'tis plain as the green sea, an' open as the blue sky," his face all guileless innocence, and his pulse riz in his throat.
"Whisht, you wily shill, you never in this plain and open world placed a single name afore me, as Heaven is my witness, nor named a single place." And she's tapping her shoe on a stone.
"It's that ye're wanting? Aisy milk," Jimmy's face paints the very image of innocence. "And nae trouble for it's plain to do."
"Nae, 'plain,' Hoop-La Man, 'tis trouble!" There's color comes into her cheeks. " 'Tis blind man's buff. 'Tis 'ex-plain' is wanted. Anyone wi' any sense at all knows it. You must come clean, Jimmy."
"Let you fair, Sister---- "
"Fair? Whisht the butter-tongue talk, Jimmy! Howanever is it I am fair to know the truth of Six Toes? Is it the angel Gabriel for to announce all to Mother Superior?" and Sister flouncing her habit. "The fluff of a yarn you spin, Sir Clamp-Lips! Does there be one wee thread of name or place to it at all? Ay, where's the warp in your weft?"
"The game's up," Jimmy of a sudden impulse surrendering himself. "Aint a tale I can tell but she'll squeeze the truth afore the stroke of noon. Let tell the truth now and not fester my soul."
"Nae so quick, Yer Grace," he gently mocks, 'for it's a gran' an' precious thing I saved for ye," Jimmy extracting the rolled-up contract from his smock. "This here's the writin' set in all partikilers, an' ye'll see for yerself there's the names o' places I didna tell, an' the names o' bodies I didna say, ay, the exact names o' them low rascals did the deed."
"Truthful Jamie, Jimmy?"
"Cross me heart. A body's mebbe dead an' a villain's alive, an' it's the names what's written here. Noow ye tell me weak eyes which is what," himself never saying he canna read---- what Sister figured oot when Belle of Newcastle carried her across a stormy Irish Sea longgo.
"All of it in that there?"
"Ay, there 'tis, Sister. An' the name o' the Daideo, all spelled oot. I thought to hold it away from the babby's family for ... ummm ... hush money," Jimmy in private anger fondling a sweeter word for ransom, considering again the O'Neill's deceit, "but I changed horses."
"Horses?" It's a brittle laugh she gives. "And it's horses pulls Belle across the sea?"
"Ay, in the middle of the Firth," he grins widely. "Didna ye know, 'white horses' is what sailors call little small waves has foam? Noow, for me, this here contract's worser 'n' fools' gold, an' I'm after thinkin' o' the harm it can do me. It's afeared o' ownin' up to it, I am, lest I be marked oot for a hilted knife in the lonesome dark. Or mebbe daylight on the dock an' the Peelers throwin' me to the fishes. Or the Revenooers boardin' Belle at sea. Ay, methinks it will be safest in Saint Maundie's house."
And wi' a wee ceremony he flourishes the contract, stands back wi' a sweeping theatrical bow, and hands it to Sister. Kevin watches closely.
It's her right hand grasps the top margin. She houlds the bairn in the crook of her left arm and, wi' a twist of that wrist, unrolls the parchment to her view. Slowly, she's stretching and straightening it and deciphering the ragged penmanship. She's mouthing the words as she reads.
She frowns, looking up, "It names ... nae, never a father, and didna that always be the way of it wi' foundling babes ... ." She reads along and looks up again. "It's saying here the mother's dead and ... and ... ." She sucks her breath and stares, choking through gritted teeth: " ... and it lets on," she hisses, "it lets on ... nae! Nae! NAE!"
"Hugh Robert O'Neill! O my soul!" A great black wave smashes at her brain. "Himself it is, the serpent that was! The brute of torment ... The beast of torture! Divil take it! O God and Holy Angels protect me."
"O! O! Dear Lord in Heaven!" Her sudden ootcry startles Jimmy. "Nae, nae, tell me nae! Holy Mother of God, help me, help me!" her searching the words of the contract in gasping disbelief, eyes wide and wild, the like of peering into the cauldron of Hell.
"I cannot hold such horror in my hand ... It flames upon my brain, it chills the marrow of my soul! Let the Saints and Martyrs curse the villain's deeds. Ay, let all the horned and fallen angels draw the blade that stabs my heart. O Good Saint Maundie, O God in Heaven, O Sweet Virgin Mother, roll the contract up again that sheathes the Divil's lance."
She's stepping back all trembly, her fingers numb; she drops the wretched parchment in the dirt. It's whilst she gapes awestruck, it rolls back on itself. She watches, thunderstruck, sinking to her knees, hugging the babby to her breast and freeing an arm to cross herself. Her head riz to the sky, her lips a silent Pater. And then she's slowly up and noow, gobsmacked and bewildered, steps away of Jimmy---- who stands stock-still and stunned. When she turns to him, her face is contorted in grief.
"The hateful brute itself, the wicked tyrant of the Covenant, the father of my daughter! What has he done to her? God and Mary save her soul, herself the villain's helpless prey, the victim I abandoned, the innocent betrayed, the unprovided soul consumed in gory childbirth, and her bones gone rotten in a pigsty! And this here babby is my grandchild! And who the sire? God forbid, is it Hugh?"
Sister takes three steps and sags against the lamp-pole, clutching both her hands aboot the babby.
"It's you, wee bairn, God love you, child of my child, blood of my blood, toes of my toes! My tongue is dumb as stone. My ears fill with the Divil's tumult. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Heaven save us!"
She looks up through a mask of pallor at a startled Jimmy, she frees an arm grasps the lamp-pole, sinks to her knees clutching the bairn, her head shaky, mouth a-tremble, voice in whispers, choking, sobbing. Jimmy steps forward speechless, jaws agape in consternation, offering a spread of his arms as if to assist. She waves him away.
"O Lord, do not forsake me! I am the mother of the mother of this wee Babby Six-Toes. O Heart of Mary, I am destroyed! Bless my daughter, dead in the house of the evil monster O'Neill. Bless her living sin afore me, flesh of my daughter, blood of my soul, and bless the wee feet marked for life as mine. Save her, Sainted Mother!"
And then a sudden tide of towering enormity bursts upon her brain, rips open the dammed-up longgo, drowning her in hideous torrents, remembering herself as guidwife Laurie Jane O'Neill trapped in the bestial rages of Hugh Robert O'Neill-the-depraved. A train of monstrous waves it is, the one upon the ither, breaching the walled-off horrors, the brutal rapes, pitiless beatings, helpless entrapments, burning, binding, flaying, and all the vicious whirlpool of spectral terror ... and noow, the unspeakably degenerate possibility of incest upon her own child.
She's staring through Jimmy, her nostrils flaring, gasping fear, her heart pounding like a lambeg drum, she's bending, she's placing Babby Six-Toes on the ground, and suddenly she's tumbling doon on to all fours, puking and panting, gagging over and overing and again. She's leaning back on her haunches, wiping the acrid mucus strings from her lips, her throat afire, dabbing at the vomit wi' a corner of her apron. She gazes upon the babby, gathers it to her breast and kisses it, throws her head back wild-eyed, and through the torrent of tears uttering her howl of hurt:
"Nae! Nae! Sweet Mary in Heaven, nae!"















Illustration the fifteenth

191


CHAPTER FIFTEEN: turning


Sister Therese kneels transfixed, scarce noticing Jimmy leaning doon to grasp after the babby, wi' his two hands extended, scarce feeling him pluck the child up, when it's her brain drownded in a puke of loathsome memory. And beyond, a dreadful haunt: is the depraved O'Neill the sire of Six-Toes?
"Do ye be havin' a sickness on ye, Sister? Here, let me hold the dote." Jimmy rocks the babby in his arms.
And noow, it's Sister's river of tears dammed so longgo streams doon her twisted face. She's crossing herself, and then of a sudden, collapsing into a slump. She puts her both hands to her mouth, breast heaving wi' each quick gasp, praying in a mumbly rush of contrition. She struggles to stand, falls quivery and quaking back on her knees, crosses herself again. And again. And again, whilst bolts of guilt crackle through her thunderstruck heart, and the suspicion of incest fouls her mouth wi' vomit.
Jimmy's hugging the babby to his chest, and steps back in consternation: "Ye're white as milk, Sister---- is it ill yer feelin'? Let ye sit."
Her skin is clammy but her her brain is boiling: "Six toes! The brute! Hugh! I should have known! I should have known the instant! Holy Trinity protect me, Holy Angels surround me!"
Her cheeks pale, her hackles standing, she's looking warily aboot this way and that, sniffing and trembling the like of a cornered hare. She tries to rise. Jimmy shifts Six-Toes to his left arm, helping her up wi' his right. She wavers on her feet, drops his arm, steadies herself against a lamp-post. She's lurching restlessly to and fro the like of a caged beast, stops abruptly, hands clasping and unclasping behind her, regards the babby, steps toward Jimmy, snatches it from him, encircling it tightly within her arms as if to ward off attack, drills a stare into its surprised face.
"What did Hugh do to my daughter? Was it some tinker, some spalpeen sired Six-Toes or ... or ... O! Unspeakable thought! God forgive me," she sobs. "The brute, the evil depraved brute! Angels in Heaven, tell me! Sweet Mary, O, pray, tell me, who is this babby's sire!"
"Sister, do ye be well? Here, let ye take a sit again afore ye fall." She's turning to Jimmy, her face blank. Himself grasps her elbow, repeating more sartain, "For the love o' God, let ye sit, Sister!" prying the babby from her.
He tries to guide her to a stone bench. She shudders, twists away, returns, and sits. He sits next to her, still hugging the babby. Noow she's halfway riz, she's pushing off the bench, noow up entirely, noow walking to the edge of the river bank, Jimmy trailing wi' the babby. Noow she's staring her darkest thoughts into the river waters, her back to him for a long moment. Noow she's carefully composing herself. Noow she turns towards him, returns slowly to the bench, deliberate step on step, eyes red, jaws clamped. She makes a gesture: give me the babby. He hands Six-Toes to her and sits whilst she stands next the bench, tightening her embrace on the infant, looking down at Jimmy. It's through that mask of tears and a put-on smile, she composes her lies.
"What are ye at?" he worries.
"It's a s-sudden s-sprite come upon me, Jimmy," she lies. "Ay, a s-sprite. A wicked w-wee Sidhe, he p-pinched my leg, trying for to ... to, uhhh, ay ... t-to play a nasty t-trick at ... at a Bride of Christ. It's a t-turrible mischief, himself being ... uhhh ... f-familiar like that ... ay, b-brazen ... do you ken, Jimmy?" After a blushing silence, she makes a show of clearing her throat, and there's her voice gaining raspy confidence. "I thought to, umm, get away of it, but the ... the pain of it ... ummm ... the shock, it set me doon itself." She pauses again; Jimmy's unconvinced. "It's a wonder, the strength of the wee rogue's grip," says she, rubbing over her habit here and there. "O! 'Tis sinful upsetting, what he tried," she forcing a tight-lipped and rueful grin at the falsehood, avoiding Jimmy's eyes, so she does. Then she remembers the crucifix dangling from her neck.
Jimmy stands, rooted to the ground, his brain swimming in a puzzle.
"Here, I'll hold the holy cross afore me, and surely that will drive him away, the nasty gnome," she says unconvincingly, shifting the babby to one arm. The ither arm reaches for her crucifix and riz it to her lips. "Mother Superior will have the babby inscribed," Sister says, looking past Jimmy, trying to smother the bitterness eats her heart, "at the registry of the cathedral in Ayr. What Saint Maundie's always does, record a child's baptism. Och, for them what lives long enough." And after a lengthy pause: "Who the child's mother, mebbe, God save her soul! or whereaboots from, or her clan. 'Tis oncommon in this world, a sire is known." Her horrid suspicion erupts again, a sudden silent stream of tears flows doon her cheeks, and she's dabbing a corner of her sleeve. "O, Jimmy, so many times, so many bairns!" she carefully hiding her real concern.
"Ye're fair nae better wi' the Wheel an' the bell in the black o' the night, so," he says.
"I should bring Six-Toes straight to Mother Superior, and never to the Wheel," she agrees, secretly happy to change the subject, only wanting to distract Jimmy wi' a long turn away from her breaking heart.
Bedad! The Wheel they mention, 'tis a circular contraption, friend, a holy carousel for ye, a mechanical Saviour itself wi' the bucketed spokes for abandoned babbies, a great horizontal contrivance pierces the Community wall. Ay, 'tis that there Wheel passes nameless babbies into the Foundling Home, friend, and has a bell-rope right by the entrance gate. And so ye let pull the bell-rope in the black of night, ye let drop yer babby in a bucket, ye push a turn of the Wheel, and ye run like the Dullahan's behind ye. 'Tis of that Wheel sailor and Sister talk, and to what end they argue. To the crime, and for the guilty, says he, them wretched ones what canna bear the cry of new life, ay, there's a sorra lot of them. For the babby and to the baptism, avoiding the peril of Limbo, says she, anxiously steering Jimmy---- and herself!--- shy of the incestuous shoals wrecking her heart. So goes the craic.
Is it yer royal bastard bringing troubles at the court, and the succession in turmoil? Bring that cursed infant to the Wheel. Is it a birth blots the family name, and makes a stain on yer earthly soul? Bring that babby to the Wheel. Or is it a babby from the empty larder of yer rude and roofless scalpeen, or from pestilence and hunger dried the mother's breast, or the deadly agonies of a botched birthing? Ay, is not the Wheel a kind of Grace, for them ben born poor or abandoned, or blinded wi' the clap, or dumbed wi' syphilis, or deformed, or born hearthless and wanting to the hopeless and wandering? Ay, it's for them the Wheel turns, God save all. Bring yer newbairn, and never name yer cause or clan or family, Godamercy, for it's coming to the Wheel all furtive and shrouded like a thief in the dark, ye ben. And what will the Sisters see of ye but ye turn on yer heels and run... run from yer babby, run from yer soul, from yer heart, from yer private perdition, yer faceless faithless condition. Pull the bell and run like hell, the godless ones whisper.
God be wi' ye in yer hour of need, it's the Wheel is all the fashion in them longgo Saint Maundie's Community days. Ay, there's all them cowerts what never in this life want to see their babby again, turns the Wheel, knowing a Saint Maundie religious on the ither side pops up the like of a jack-in-the-box, for to scoop the infant oot the bucket. Me friend, pray the Saints and Martyrs save the wretched lamb rides the Wheel, it conceived in sin by a hapless ewe and a feckless ram, for 'tis by the next half a turn, the Wheel decides the babby's entire life. Sure and sartain, Sister Therese will never submit Babby Six-Toes to the tender mercies of that Wheel. Nae. Nae. Never. Never. And yet ... and yet ... she wonders, what contagion will the Wheel's babbies bring to Six-Toes?
"Ay," says Sister, at once angry and sad, still anxious to distract Jimmy, and watching himself in the corner of her eye whilst her color comes on, "whatanever can be guid aboot the likes of them abandons a mewling newbairn to a bucket in the Wheel? Ay, them very ones who made their sorraful babby, them after sneaking their own meager souls away to some distant lowland or highland, or spit or island, och, them eejits as abandons to our Babby Six-Toes all her wee hapless brother and sister foundlings."
"Surely, it's the Wheel draws the most miserable of the troubled mothers and renegade fathers in all Scotland, them that wants for to pitch yet another foundling into the bucket, swaddled in the black cloth of night, them that jerks the bell-rope, until us Sisters fetch the wretched babby 'round to a cot. Faith! 'Tis straightaway into the pestilences of the other newly born, and too often a quick end under the fresh-turned sod of another wee grave," Sister broods. "God bless them, it's the babbies what's arriving been discarded the like of rubbish in the dust-bin, mebbe alive a few breaths for shriving, mebbe dead for Limbo. Ahh, Six-Toes, your wheel was a boat." And Sister's choler lumps in her throat.
''Tis a long spell, she sits silent, clearing her heart and mind, afore she continues. "Then, we'll be wanting the ... the ... contract safe in our patron saint's Foundling Home. Och, against the day this little one is a grown lass. 'Tis the way of Saint Maundie's, the baptism is inscribed at the cathedral in Ayr, but we keep whatanever is known of the babby at the Abbess' library: ma or family or clan or parish or townland or anything at all, even the warking of lace in its gown. Ay, if it wore one. And da, if we ever do find him," she rues looking away, and coming back wi' a forced smile. "You've a guid soul, Mister James Michael Callahan, you caring for the Kevin-boy and Belle in the way you do, God hold all present in the palm of His hand. Noow, I'll be hurrying back to the Community fast as Caligula trots, and find a cozy crib and a clean coverlet for our Babby Six-Toes. 'Tis straightaway, we'll be baptizing her so it is," Sister's words falling one upon the ither, lest she have pause to think. "And if she lives, Lord give her breath, and the Blessed Virgin protect her, and the Holy Angels hovering over her, a day will come when this contract tells the world who is herself and her claim."
Sister sighs a deep sigh to Jimmy, and them two noow saying aught, both their minds weighty and their hearts overflowing, so far apart in their private worlds, hearing little of the endless tread and roll of traffic on the wharf flowing past, or the River Ayr rippling against the docks, or the squawk of seabirds circling, or the shouts of journeymen.
"A time to come and a time to go," Sister thinks, and there's the faint trace of vomit still on her taste, and the fiery clench still grips her heart: "Who is the sire of Babby Six-Toes?"
She speaks resolutely: "Then it's guidbye, Jimmy, and God bless all, and His Holy Angels watch over you, and be keeping the boy and the Belle and yourself, dear heathen, safe from harm, and the Virgin Mother protect your passage noow and forever." A wee moist veils her eyes. "Guidbye, Jimmy ... Saint Christopher safeguard the voyage and Saint Bridget bring you calm seas and fair winds." She turns away and tickles the donkey's ear. He brays and paws the dirt. "Caligula says his guidbye too, and he warrants he'll guard Babby Six-Toes wi' his life, so he does," she adjuisting the beast's blanket and traces, and stroking his ears.
Jimmy reaches a grubby hand into his blouse, turns, walks back to her side, and she wondering and curious. They sit together on an old stone wall, shoulders near touching.
"This here's a lucky blackthorn kippeen to ye, Sister," himself pulling oot and unwrapping it. "I found it in Six-Toes' swaddlin'," he lies, for he's little want to tell more of Mahony what gave it to him. "Ay, an' it's the mystery itself, the bairn didna get pierced by the barbs. Truly, 'tis lucky for it give life to the Six-Toes, an' smoothed the seas for Belle, an' safekeepin' our voyage an' all." He houlds it up and rotates it in his fingers. " 'Course, wi' Manannan Mac Lir helpin'," he grins.
" 'Tis the sound of pagan magic. 'Tis nae 'luck,' 'tis Heaven's choice. " Sister glowers, standing.
"Nae, nae." he insists. "Aint the best shillelagh a Wicklow blackthorn? 'Tis the power o' guid fortune in the blackthorn tree, what any Irish wi' any sense at all knows, so it is. Take an' keep this twig, Sister, for 'twill bring ye the luck, sure as there's a bill on a crow. An' there's three wee notches is cut on it," he points oot, skipping a finger lightly across each barb. "One for Manannan Mac Lir ... an' here's for his woman, Fand ... an' this one for his magic boat, Wave-Sweeper---- 'tis a sailorman's trinity," he teases, folding the twig gently into Six-Toes' swaddling, and Sister watching ruefully. He looks up at her, his voice choking. " An' I'll be on me way noow, Sister."
It's when he ups and starts to walk, the pangs of parting change her mood. She calls after him, "It's in your soul you're meaning the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, surely, and I'll thank you kindly, so I will. Mebbe I'll be asking the Bishop to bless this wee twig on his next visit," her eyes moisty. "Bless your pagan heart, Jimmy. Och, we do have times!" She forces a weary smile, warily pats the wrapped twig, then turns to watch Caligula munching. "Guidbye, Jimmy. God and His Holy Angels watch over you," she whispers whilst Jimmy walks oot of earshot. She pulls the blackthorn oot cautiously, then wraps it in a bit of rag, and slips it into her apron pocket. "It's the jewel in the crown you are, Jimmy," she calls softly after him. And she's walking back to her creel car, feeling of the twig as if it were a live thing, as if she could hear the uncanny insistence of it calling Jimmy over the widening distance, hear it calling after the lassie, the midwife, the wet-nurse, calling through the black homespun of her habit, calling across the hubub of the docks. Ay, calling for Jimmy, to save his luck and his life.
It's whilst she looks away comes a stab of dark thought, a sudden sucking in of breath, an imagining of the Western Paradise, of pagan after-life, the OtherWorld, shadows flitting over her heart, a fleeting vision of Manannan Mac Lir and Fand. And Jimmy, too, aboard "Wave-Sweeper," But Jimmy is stretched on a rocking bier. And then a split second of creeping cold, damp winds whirling her soul into a vast emptiness, and then a sound, an awful sound, very like the thrash of warring tide. The like of the Mull of Kintyre, it sounds. And over it all, a keening of Bean Sidhe, and then the horrid shriek of the Morrigan. She shudders, touches her beads, starts anxiously, "Our Father who art in Heaven .... ," heavy in her soul, walking a small distance until she finishes. And when she fingers her pocket, she discovers the blackthorn has partially warked its way from its wrappings and enmeshed in her rosary, its barb piercing her skin as she reaches. She withdraws her hand. A drop of blood wells on to her thumb. "Hail Mary ... ." She watches Jimmy turn to face her, waving, already too distanced from her need. And Kevin, boyishly running. And Belle of Newcastle, waiting.
It's them two, Sister and sailor, amidst the wharf's surging crowds and noisy confusion, makes their leave-taking, one waving and then the ither. It's Jimmy turning in sorra here and there, then starting again and again for Belle. It's Sister standing by the hitching post, Six-Toes cuddled in her one arm, the ither waving again and again. She shouts teary-eyed benedictions he canna hear above the tramp of the crowd and trundling of freight wagons. Aboard Belle, the Kevin-boy's already impatient a-straddle the bowsprit. Sister's sucking the blood of her thumb and the babby mewling softly in her arm, and Caligula shuffling his hooves and making yet anither dung-pile.
Amidst of her watching, she sees coming to Belle of Newcastle a tall fellow wi' the build of an ox, houlding by the hand a wee skinny laddie, them trotting oot of the waterfront crowd. The little small one wears Sunday cloak and a great cap shading his face; he's carrying a carpetbag. Kevin comes ashore. The ox-built man hails Jimmy, what turns and faces the two peculiar strangers. They seem to talk, huddling close. Jimmy stares a long time at the wee lad, and then motions Kevin back aboard Belle. The wee one reaches inside his carpetbag for something and hands it up. Jimmy puts it to his mouth, shakes his head, yes. The wee one reaches again. Jimmy mouths again and nods, pointing at the boat.
" 'Tis surely two coins Jimmy bites. Will it not please you, Sweet Mary, a half-crown at the least to the good heathen, and surely another to benefit the incorruptible Kevin-boy," she prays silently, adding three mindful Aves. "I should have liked to have had a lad like Kevin," it suddenly strikes her.
She sees the wee guest clambers aboard clumsily, the like of a laddie unaccustomed at being to sea in so small a boat. Jimmy steps next aboard, whilst on the shore Kevin frees the mooring lines afore he too scrambles over the bulwark. The three settles in. Ox-built man turns away of Belle and disappears into the crowd except his bobbing head, and there's the wee laddie still waving at him.
Sister shifts Babby Six-Toes, cups the ither hand to her mouth, hollering a last fairwell at the boat, the Kevin-boy, the wee new passenger, and Jimmy. But the dockside tumult drowns her loudest yell. She turns, walks up to Caligula, blots her bloody thumb against Babby Six-Toes' old swaddling, and then she's cuddling the babby in her two arms. A great length of silent prayer floods her soul, marred by the upwelling revelations and horrid suspicions of Hugh Robert O'Neill, and then her ghastly imaginations of Six-Toes' conception and birthing. She makes a grand sigh, trying to squeeze the hurt from her brain. But she canna stay the worms of worry. She gives a last long glance afore she looks after Caligula, whilst Belle makes ready to cast off and turn doon-river.
"They'll not be spending the night in Ayr," she sees, "and so Jimmy will not be visiting the market square tomorrow for to bargain cargo, nor traveling out to Kilmarnock for Johnnie Walker. Must be a power of urgent need in that wee laddie, makes them leave good Scottish whisky on the spur of an outgoing tide. And don't we wonder, Caligula, where are they going?"
Murmuring devotions, she turns again toward Belle, and gladdens at the sight of ould pickle-puss throwing his arm across Kevin's shoulder, whilst the peculiar wee stranger hunches over in Belle's 'midships. She frees a hand from the babby, to be again trickling the rosary through her fingers whilst watching Jimmy takes the oars and Kevin the helm. The wee stranger settles in Belle's bow, his great cap shading his features. He seems to be conning the river afore Belle.
"Mebbe," herself telling Six-Toes aloud and smiling to think of Jimmy, his scruffy clay bottle, and his never ending thirst for one more drop of the craythur, "when Jimmy returns, they'll stay longer, for to bargain a nice cargo oot of Kilmarnock. 'Tis three hops of a sparrow from here, Jimmy has the nose for it, and come a wee breeze on any morrow's morning ... . Aint it a queer business, Caligula, howanever the Irish smuggles Jameson to the Scots, and the Scots smuggles Johnnie right back to Erin? God love us all, little Six-Toes, let you and me forgive all them sailors their wee sins, all them hungry hard-warking ones what curses and smuggles and drinks. Pray, let it please Your Sainted Heart, Stella Maris, to make fair winds and calm seas for to carry Jimmy and the boy home safely to Newcastle Port. It's that I'm praying for, Jimmy. Go gcoinne Dia thu, Belle and all. God go wi' you."
Caligula scuffs his hooves whilst she announces, "I'll light their candles for a month, nor leave off till I hear tell he's safe, and Kevin, and Belle. And two extra ones for the corners of Jimmy's mouth." She's fondling Caligula's muzzle, and mumbling into a twitchy ear, "Ay, it's a sour trade he's in, aint it, our poor Mister James Michael Callahan, and a bitter soul he's growing, ould Grim-Grin, and his face will crack afore it thaws. He needs a guid loud hee-haw, Caligula. Mebbe some day you'll teach tickle-and-fuss to old pickle-puss, you guid ould beastie. And Jimmy's little small passenger---- do you tell me a thing or three aboot that odd laddie. For sure and sartain," she whispers into Caligula's ear, "such a grand and silky contrivance as yours heared tell a bit of this and that."
She turns, lifts her wee sleeping burden, nestles it carefully into the lumpen hay of the creel car. She inspects the car's two wheels, the axle, tack, and traces, smoothes Caligula's blanket, steps back, gathers her habit in left hand, reins in the right, then pulls herself into the seat. It's a striking figure Sister Therese Bernadette cuts on the creel buckboard, sitting erect in the blackness of her cowl and habit, and her face framed in white. The car weaves amongst the milling crowds, at first slowly, then faster at the fringes of the market, where the confusion thins.
"Hurry on," she urges Caligula.
She's no using a whip, urging instead in sisterly tones of quiet authority, the like of her patron saint, Teresa of Avila. 'Tis this vigor of spirit will help the animal avoid the lash, but noo help her later avoid ecstasies of penitential scourging. In a hurry of minutes, the creel car's trundling by the desolate beaches at the South Ayr City outskirts. Here they slow to a halt and Sister dismounts. She's half-running across a great length of scrub and shingle to a sandy spit uncovered by the ebb-tide. Through her tears, she barely sees Belle cresting sail on the Firth's horizon. She picks up a sand-scoured shell, tastes the salt of it, slips it into her pocket next the kippeen, takes up her beads, kisses them, says her rosary. She makes a short plea to Stella Maris for the safety of Belle and the trio aboard her and then, against the breeze, slowly walks back to the silent car, the sleeping babby, and the quiet donkey.
"Trot me nicely, sir, and I've a juicy pippin for ye in it ... and you're nae Adam and I'm nae Eve," she teases Caligula again, herself making a resolute face against the sadness of farewell, and the anger of her daughter's unprovided death, and the horrific suspicions of incest she will never resolve against Hugh Robert O'Neil-the-depraved.
Heaven save all, it's the six-toed bairnie itself what constantly reminds Sister of her anger and guilt, and leaves little room for forebodings of Belle's voyages, or the perils of Jimmy and Kevin at sea... and her own sinful past, wi' more than a malicious Bean Sidhe sprite biting on her soul. And it's an ocean more of grief she would fret, should she foresee the tragedies in the offing cast by the long evil shadow of the odd short stranger aboard Belle. But such a notion could be naewhere in her sight or in her mind, noow.
"Sweet Virgin," she vows."Be it one day or ten thousand, the mystery of what I am to Babby Six-Toes shall never be known whilst I draw breath."
And that, ye'll understand, friend, come to be a doomful prophesy
Och, will ye be having more tay, noow?






Illustration the sixteenth

203

CHAPTER SIXTEEN : cursed


Och, noow, friend, is it yer biscuit needs warming? Fresh yer tay? Is it yer wanting the words Sister Therese Bernadette woulda heared if she coulda, when "ox-built man" and the wee laddie bargained wi' Jimmy? Ay, in me muddled brain, 'tis sure and sartain it shoulda went the like of this here I'm telling ye, and none of yer "ifs" aboot it:
---- Dia duit, says ox-built man. Gawd be wi' you. Ah you the James Callahan I heard about, back yonduh on the docks? And this beautiful Belle of Newcastle yaw ship?
Jimmy looks ox-built man up and doon.
---- 'Tis meself is Jimmy Callahan. 'Tis me fishboat, no a ship. And there's naething of a Roman "Dia" here. Yer in what business, mister? An' yer name?
---- Thomas Bahnabas McGawge----
"His accent has the Kentish ring of an English toadie."
---- Ay, and yer laddie's name?
"If it's yer boy, Mister Toadie."
---- Thomas Bahnabas McGawge, money agent faw the Mahquis, Mistuh Dennis Rathlin, at yaw service. Ay ... himself, the Mahquis Dennis Edwahd Rathlin, Esquiuh, Great Heron Lane. In Downpatrick Town, as all----
---- An' what's his name? Jimmy's irritated and pointing at the laddie.
---- This lad hee-uh is Mistuh Rathlin's son, Francis Xavieh. Say, "G'day," to yaw elduh, kindly now, Francis.
Ox-built man lifts the wee skinny boy off the ground by his wrist, the like of stringing up a hare from the hunt. And sets him doon on his feet.
---- G'day, Mister Callahan, and God save all here, says the laddie.
---- An' so? says Jimmy turning from boy to man.
---- And so ah you in the business of ferrying those who pay faw ... to, umm, ferry a lad ... ? Ox built man hesitates, and flashes his teeth. This lad hee-uh, Callahan. The Mahquis' son, Francis Xavieh. Francis Xavieh Rathlin.
Mister McGeorge rolls the name aboot importantly, licking his lips.
---- Dia dhuit. God help us, the laddie interrupts. Hello, Mister Callahan, and can I come aboard?
---- Bide yer time, master 'Dia,' says Jimmy, facing ox-built man, wondering why the boy chose to greet in Gaelic after all.
---- This young Frances hanging on my hand, he's wanting passage to Clogah-head, that's what he wants. Possibly, you'd oblige, Callahan? Can that be?
---- Possible. Jimmy stares at the curious wee laddie a lengthy time, whilst the dray-wagons lumber by and the wharf crowd shuffles to and fro.
A fat black raven flaps and preens a-top Belle's mainmast.
---- Noow? On this tide? Jimmy speaks.
The raven announces himself wi' a raucous call.
The ox-built man smiles and nods.
---- Yer offer? Jimmy motions Kevin-boy to get back aboard Belle.
----- Two half-crowns on the barrel-head faw fast passage to Clogah-head faw the boy, and three maw when you reach pawt.
The raven shifts and cranes.
---- Clogherhead, Mister McGeorge?
---- Aye. Cat ate yaw ears? Did I not say Clogah-head? The boy's fahthuh waits on him and his cahpetbag. And the packet cannot go. Naw myself. Nah. Only the boy.
The raven flaps away, circling and shrieking.
---- 'Tis the red-sail packet is my regular ticket, Mister Callahan, the laddie pipes up, and his voice is swollen wi' his knowledge. But she's laid up yet five days more. For to repair a garb'd plank, gone rotten wi' worm.
---- Is it passage yer wantin', me wee man? Jimmy's leathery smile beams doon at the laddie.
---- Ay. Ox-built man and his laddie speak together.
---- An' it's coin ye've got?
---- As said, Gawd between all hee-uh and hahm.
Ox-built man taps the laddie's shoulder. The boy produces a half-crown from his carpetbag and hands it to Jimmy, what takes it in his right hand, riz to his mouth, and bites. Then anither, and Jimmy bites again, shifting the coins into his left hand.
---- 'Tis right faw me. Pray, will it do faw you, Callahan?
---- The coin's true, Mister McGeorge. An' yer word? Let give me yer hand. They grasp one the ither's right hand in a strengthy squeeze. Mind ye, friend, it's ox-built man lets loose first.
" 'Tis my same hand, the same way, betrayed Mahony," Jimmy shudders.
---- Done, Mister McGeorge. Agreed. That there, an' three more what waits at Clogherhead, says Jimmy, joggling the coins and sternly facing doon at the laddie.
---- Gawd hold you and the boy ... and the good ship, Belle, in the palm of His hand. Ox-built man smiles a servile smile.
" 'Tis a boat, not a ship. The sea-god, Manannan Mac Lir protect us from the likes of Kentish toadies. Something in the air about you makes me ill," Jimmy frets. "Something about all the English."
---- I'll take my leave now, Callahan. I did my duty ... . Gud bye, Frances, and do as yaw told ... and Gawd love you. Thomas Barnabas McGeorge does not seem overly sad aboot leave-taking.
---- G'bye, Mister Mac! And God go wi' ye, the lad sings.
---- Aboard wi' ye, an' welcome to our wee houseen, Jimmy tells the laddie, what sets aboot awkwardly, clambering over the grimy bulwark. Francis, ye be in the bow, tellin' us aboot down-river, for Kevin's on the tiller, and meself, I'll be on the rowlocks, facin' up-river, lookin' aft.
---- Saint Bridget smooth yaw way, yells ox-built man, turning aside.
---- G'bye, Mister Mac! the laddie yells back from Belle's half-deck, Go gcoinne Dia thu: God keep you. And then as he wriggles forwards, the laddie, cool as herring on ice he is, turns to Jimmy.
---- Take me to Clogherhead, Mister Callahan.
For Jimmy, the taste of the half-crowns sweetens wee Francis Xavier Rathlin's arrogance---- same time as knowing the state of the ebbing tide funnels on to Jimmy's brain-pan. They must leave at once. Quicker as a cat's wink, each and every chore aboard Belle is on the do. Jimmy's hands are humming, and Kevin's a-sweat making all tidy for the impatient ebb-tide. Francis swallows his snot and huddles in Belle's bow, watching the flurry of activity, head perking and jerking, beady-eyed as ... as a rat, Jimmy thinks. And wi' each task the laddie observes, Kevin's chest grows more swollen: all jobs what half-blind Jimmy canna do for himself. It's puffed-up Kevin in his pride, making mystery of all what's ordinary for to cow wee Francis Xavier Rathlin. Bent to the wark at each haul of a block or belay of a line, Kevin is, but glancing sidelong from coiling this or that, for to ensure the new lad observes him satisfactory. Times, Kevin melodramatically leaves off his wark for a long silent look what says to the lubberly lad:
" 'Tis the way I do it aboard Da's fishboat. My Da, you cluricaun eejit!"
Half a sand-clock since, and all's shipshape and at the ready. It's Rathlin crowns alone pays for this trip, and Belle nae be smuggling naething.
"Coin in hand thumps profits planned," Jimmy consoles his whisky urge.
---- Casting off! Kevin's shouting whilst he lepp nimbly aboard, wi' spring-lines in hand. Belle slides away of the dock as her topsail grasps the slippery south wind, away of the bearded ones ashore sucks on their dudeens, away of straining longshoremen muscling freight, and black-eyed dray-horses swishes their tails, steaming piles of manure, strutting pigeons, noisy gulls, nosing dogs, the lollygaggers and lapadalers watching Jimmy's oars dipping a trail of little small whorls in the water.
---- Hup, HUP! On the quick, boyo! Jimmy hollers. Make and coil!Watch her bows! Move yer carcase, me boy ...
Himself facing backwards for to row, Jimmy sorely wants Kevin-boy's eyes against his near blindness. Kevin, he lepp to Jimmy's charges wi' one eye on the tiller, the ither eye watching the young Rathlin cluricaun watching him. In this way, on the third and swiftest hour of oot-gang tide, Belle of Newcastle sweeps doon the River Ayr to the breakwater. It's soon enough them ben passing the harbor entrance towers, Jimmy takes the tiller, and makes full sail in the Ayr roadstead. The strange laddie makes a pillow of his carpetbag and curls up on the foredeck.
Fair away, on the sandy spit beside the road to Saint Maundie's, it's Sister Therese Bernadette prays as she watches Belle moving offshore to a perch upon the rim of the Firth of Clyde. And then it's herself, and Babby Six-Toes, and Caligula, gazing a while longer, even as Sister houlds the babby up and waves what Jimmy canna see, and prays her beads what only Stella Maris hears. Noow come a freshening of the southerly breeze and quickly draws Belle below the horizon. When Sister turns back to her car, Belle's already making tracks, leaning, rolling, throwing her bow-wave aside. Whilst Caligula trots on wi' the sleeping Babby Six-Toes, and Sister wrestles wi' her soul, here's Jimmy craftily navigating the wind shifts and the Firth's tricky tides and currents in Belle's favor. And whilst the creel car draws creakily upon the Foundling Home of the Community of Calced Sisters of Saint Maundie, it's Jimmy steers a hug of the Ayrshire coastline: hill and meadow, townland and manor, fairm and fallow, all slipping by one upon anither to Belle's port.
Whisht! Is it ye ben saying, friend, Sister's intentions and Novenas promise Belle and her crew a fair breeze and safe return to Ireland this March day? Ahhh, and safekeeps them later? It's noow and here off the coast of Ayrshire, all is well. But mebbe, friend, ye'll no be so right aboot 'later.' And noow I'll be telling ye, by the bye, of the beginnings to this voyage, and the foul note it sounds, ay, piping the Divil's tune, ye might say, summoning a curse will haunt Jimmy from this day oot.
"Odd fish, this one, calls himself Master Francis Xavier Rathlin," Jimmy's weak eyes survey the details of the new boy close-up for the first time. "God's truth, the looks of a leprechaun and near the size. Needs only a cocked hat, two rows of buttons, and mebbe already has a pot of gold in his carpet-bag. So scrawny a laddie; never did I ken the like afore. It's the wonder of this world and half the next. That pale thin face, the pop-eyes ... and hollow cheeks and ... and no chin at all to it. Hmmmm. Head smoothed bald as a tonsure a-top---- and shape of an egg. Hmmmm. Eleven years, so he says, and the look of eighty."
Jimmy didna ken Ratsy ben born the same gnarled leprechaun he looks near eleven years this day, ay, that skinny build and peaked face when he ben yet a scrawny suckling slurping at his ma's astonished nipples. Ay, and at this wean's birth, all the villagers afeared the wee thing be under some class of enchantment, didna ye know, a sinister trick of the Sidhe sprites, an imposter. Or mebbe malicious play by the fallen angels of Satan.
---- God save our souls, sure, the child's a changeling, ones whisper. Holy Mother, pray for us in this hour! ... Somebody stuff his gob wi' foxglove for to cure or kill him. And him by the name of Rathlin!
For it's "rath," friend, is right Gaelic for a faerie ring-fort. And any eejit wi' any sense at all knows howanever Rathlin Island, fair beyond and to the northern tip of Ireland, guards the pagan gateway to Paradise and the OtherWorld. And the foxglove is good for the dropsy, is worthless to cure a changeling.
---- Didja be seeing the boy's da, going to Mass? His lordship wi' a narwhal walking stick? Arra! 'Tis an evil sign! Beware, ones shudder, throwing salt anxiously over the right shoulder, and scurrying swifter nor a wee mousie popped in a cranny, flees from the sight of babby Francis.
---- Faith and mercy, 'tis surely a spell, ay, a 'pishrogue,' and aginst the parish, is it! Holy Trinity protect us! Ay, it's a changeling, so he is, one busybody nudges anither, crossing herself and scuttling away from the sight of the false child. Juist to be seeing the child in the street, ones fear, brings doon a curse everlasting. Sure and sartain, a body wi' any sense at all shunned him worser nor the like of anither wi' the bloody flux. Or the black fever. And all secretly call him "Ratsy."
Whisht! Changeling? Och, and it's Bob's yer uncle, too, friend. 'Tis all of it a pungent pile of pooka pong! They say all the babby doctors noowadays has a name for whatanever Ratsy is, or was, and it's in the human seed passed doon the generations, God save us all from the like. But back there back then, the invincible ignorance of the faerie tale persisted: Ratsy, ones said way beyond, is a blooded faerie changeling, a shape-shifted imposter of a stolen bairn. And here's Jimmy knowing aught of all this blarney, yet there riz in his brain the same uncanny feeling: Ratsy's flesh and blood are no right. Nor Ratsy's heart nor his soul quite human.
Wirra! Ye mind, friend, sure as God makes green pippins, it all digs a deep pit for Ratsy from the dark hour he's born: no only he ben created in this repulsive image, but ither children mocking and shunning himself for that very reason. That and all that festers a turrible hatred in Ratsy, a black shadow upon the bleak friendlessness blighting his shriveled heart, breeding in him a partikerlerly malicious class of malevolence. And so it's from childhood on, all what he wants of life is to spite and claw and squeeze the lives of ithers. Each day, his brain spins a darker thread, each day weaving a more loathsome warp and a meaner weft for to repay his tormenters against the sting of their derision and, God forbid, the wretched hurt of his ugly image staring back from his own mirror. Heaven grant us leave from the like! 'Tis from these yarns he wove his evil fabric, bristling wi' vicious intent, and noow 'tis this whole cloth he peddles to his oppressors, for to force a payback at the cruelest price he can squeeze. And so wi' the poison cloth of vengeance and hatred, Ratsy throttles them what slings ridicule on him. In this way, he is the spit if no the image of his da, the evil Marquis. Ahh, how crafty he hides the hateful pattern from casual view: God help us, he is no juist a meek ugly lad!
"That there wee chin and them weak blue pop-eyes and the moniker," Jimmy puzzles, "he's Master Rat-lin, so he is ... Behold! Ratsy for the short of it. Heaven and Holy Trinity, ay, and Manannan Mac Lir too, stop me calling that to the laddie's face!" Jimmy concludes, same as the town-folk where Francis Xavier was born. "And pray the blackthorn kippeen cope with his magic," Jimmy worries, "for I'm afeared of the evil that the Divil festers in his soul."
Aboard Belle, the wee wizened laddie is after telling his story his way, and never in this world a problem to Jimmy or Kevin. His people come, says the boy, oot wee County Louth, and he crosses the Irish Sea regular, Clogherhead to Ayr and return, on the red-sail packet. And here's his purpose: Master Ratsy's da makes his daily bread---- 'tis pound-cake, ye'll be understanding in three shakes of a lamb's tail, friend!---- at the migrant warker trade. It's the wealthy Anglican Scottish lairds wants the cheap Irish Catholic labor and Da Ratsy selling it the like of slaves on the block, ay, the unemployed hungry Irish families from all the northern counties.
"Divil call it The North," Jimmy thinks, "when it's all of it is our true Erin. For its our harbors all shoal for want of dredging, its our spuds rotting in the ground from blight, its our quartered farms anyways too small to feed a family, and always it's them Orangey Scots finagling us from our birthright land. God save the Green! The North, it's our misery."
---- These Irish families get hired, for to wark the growing season and beyond in the Ayrshire Lowlands, Mister Callahan. The lairds pays the overseer, and the overseer pays the families, and ....
---- An' yer satchel? Jimmy's curious aboot the carpet-bag, for he's heared this tune afore. Ay, sure and sartain he's heared tell of it, but never heard the words from so ratty a face, never forced to cope wi' the bitter sorra of it from a child of the upper crust.
Kevin surveys the strange boy, the sharp animal features, the snide voice.
---- And the overseer, he give the profits to me. And me own self, I carries the money every month back to Da in this satchel. It's me da is the Marquis of Rathlin, and I'm a Rathlin, don't y'know? The laddie's wee chest puffs oot and he takes a grand sniff.
---- An' that there brute what paid me for to be safekeepin' ye an' yer da's money? Jimmy ignores the brag.
---- 'Tis one of Da's overseer, 'tis Mister Mac, brung me right safe to the dock for the passage.
"And took his cut afore times, sure, the like he does every month. I'lI wager," Jimmy smirks behind his hand.
----- Ay, it's me own self and this here carpetbag. And let a thief come to try my bindle, I gives him my right fearsome evil look---- it's the cluricaun I am, don't ye see---- and bares my fangs, and gnashes a dreadful horrid curse, and keens a great shriek, and waves my arms and rakes my fingers the like of an avenging Morrigan. And the way the gossoon run for his life, he leaves a brown trail behind. The laddie's eyes sparkle, his voice swells wi' confidence, he chuckles meanly, and he makes a more hideous face nor the one God gave him,
---- Yer money's safer as a bug in a rug, Jimmy puns, scratching his head. He's knocking the dottle from his dudeen against Belle's bulwark, tamping a pinch of tobacco and coddling a flame, angrily studying the wee bag-man between puffs.
"Yerra," Jimmy fumes, "The Marquis of Rathlin, he's selling starved-out Irish able-bodies the like of slaves on the block, offed their own birthright tillage in their own country. Musha! 'Tis the evil of Orange turncoats at wark. Your da is a monste. And Divil the Queen!" himself glares at Ratsy
Kevin creeps to Ratsy sitting up for'ds. It's the two lads differing as night from day, and the wind as much in their words as in their faces, yet them craicking on the like of parrots on a perch. Jimmy's eyes are on the compass, but his mind's away:
"I'm wagering Da Rathlin's in league with all them Crown brigands, grasping for the money. 'Tis himself, the Marquis of Rathlin, seizing the property of them what owned it, squeezing them out, and pressing the other impoverished ones, them what rents those sorry patches. And then himself selling all them wretched homeless bodies across the Irish Sea for to be wrung like cows' teats by the Scots. And it's Da Rathlin, the weasel, making a sup of the squeezings both ways."
A great frown roosts on Jimmy's brow, and here's his temper blowing on the hot coals of his heart. He fixes a dark look on Ratsy, stopping the laddie creeping astern.
---- I'm every trip on the red-sail packet, the boy repeats less sartainly, wi' his mouth twitching and his beady pop-eyes nervously, searching Jimmy's face.
It's Jimmy's heat waxes over Da Rathlin's calumny, and it's Jimmy's lip quivering afore he speaks. He beckons the boys aft.
---- It's the Irish sufferin' dandelion stew an' stone soup, an' travels third class, An' it's the Ayrshire lairds feasts on mutton an' wine. Ay, them rabbly Scots what's come down o' blue-painted Picts an' horned Vikings, an' our dear Erin what's heir to jeweled kings an' learned saints, bedad, sufferin' the same oul' touselin' o' the Green. What class of Irishman is yer da, then? "Marquis," ye say? Marquis be damned! he hisses at Ratsy.
Noow, that's peculiar talk, mind ye, friend, for here's Jimmy, borned in Bute on the Firth of Clyde, he's able for Lowland brogue the like of any tartan kilty Scot, yet thinks himself a put-upon Irish after his decades spent in Newcastle Port. The wee Rathlin flinches, saying aught. Kevin sends an imploring glance at Jimmy, and arranges a stumble between the two until Jimmy softens:
---- Whisht! 'Tis no yer doin', laddie. Take yerself off an' talk wi' Kevin, an' he be tellin' ye howanever to tie a bowline an' such. And the two boys creep forward again.
"Jimmy suspects the Marquis of more than graft : 'Surely the bashtoon plays the game six ways for Sunday: first, the poor Irish tenants pay him rent for to safekeep their miserable plots whilst they be in Scotland, and if they come up short, he offs them and makes the land his own. Second, it's the starvelings looking for wark must grease his palm for the finding of it, and again, for shipping their miserable souls over in the season, ay! hungry flocks sold the way shepherds sell lambs. Rathlin gets paid yet again by the lairds in Scotland. And he picks and pays the overseers to be guarding Ratsy and his carpetbag on the docks at Ayr. And Godamercy, sure, the overseer---calls himself, 'agent,' the snivelly mister ox-built man does!---- takes a cut from the lairds afore turning their money over to Ratsy. And them Irish eejits grafting the overseer every time he turns round, for to keep the jobs they already paid for! But in the spring, must be the overseers themselves pay Da Ratsy to give them wark in Scotland. Musha, 'tis a loathesome business, this, from the corrupt start to the rotten middling, and on to the bitter end. It's all of it searing my brain-pan and putting the puke in my mouth. 'Tis howanever a crafty Orange spalpeen, born in a mud-wall cabin, becomes a marquis owns a plantation." But Jimmy's heart has been wrung out too often at the smuggling business for to dwell overly long. "Ay, weasels and snakes squirming in the Divil's sack," he sighs, checking Belle's compass again.
Ye mind, it always happens a few of them Irish warkers settles in Scotland---- even marries Scots lassies---- and Da Rathlin blackmailing such ones for the illegal staying over. For, ay, if there's a coin to clink, Dennis Edward, Marquis of Rathlin Manor, has the ear, the purse, and the hand for twisting the Queen's law, until he's rooting the like of a barnyard pig in his muck of money. Sartain as rain in April, it's howanever he paid off for the Crown's grant of the plantation he stole, and come a man of great wealth and political standing. It's afore this miserly Marquis takes his death, Ratsy and his older brother sups on truffles from Wedgewood china and houlds Limoges taycups in two dainty fingers, away the stench of the rabble, and the sewage in the lanes of their bockety scalpeens. The life of Riley, in't? Och, Divil tumble Da Rathlin from his great stone tower, perched high above his manor house there on the grandest Mountain of Mourne, Slieve Donard, overlooking Newcastle Beach. Up there, he rubs his palms and gazes toward the Strait of Moyle, toward Kintyre and Ayrshire, toward Scotland.
"Bedad! Struggle's but another name for freedom lost, and ever the Crown harrying upon the Irish," Jimmy grouses, whilst images of Babby Six-Toes prey on his brain and, ay, in his ears Mahony's horrific second-hand tale of the death of the babby's mother. "It's the O'Neill, that scabrous Scot and his like, give them half the chance, would be bringing on such squeezing and pinching, same as Da Rathlin. It's them and their uncivil kind in league with the Divil and the Queen and Parliament, and all alike as peas in the pod. Ay, the Divil is Orange."
Jimmy cannot find contentment at Belle's helm,whilst his spleen rises anew: "Master Ratsy says when the Scottish harvest's done, his da's agents comes home to Ireland for to collect rents from their holdings along the River Bann. God save all, 'tis blood money in his purse, summer, winter, spring, and fall, so." Jimmy's clenching his jaws. "It's a busy fellow, this Da Rathlin, looting the Irish in Scotland and other times squeezing the same Irish in Ireland, and selling in Scotland the land he stole from them same Irish. And here's Master Ratsy in this filthy business, and him hardly eleven years so he says, though he's looking ready for a shroud, been raised up by this crooked Marquis. Divil the foul trade, all sleaze and graft ... Howanever ... Howanever, ahhh, well, quit off, Jimmmy, my boy." And he. apologizes to himself. "Never for me to say, nor to spite two half-crowns for Belle, nor whatever else is tucked in wee Ratsy's damned carpetbag. Ay, and the Holy Spirit willing, as the Romans pray."
Comes to Jimmy a cunning plan for to knock the head of Ratsy wi' a belaying pin, snatch his carpetbag, and throw the lad into the sea. But it's fear of the Marquis's outreach and next, Kevin's innocent face, catches his eye. Three hops of a sparrow across Jimmy's brain-pan and his sly envy turns to anger aboot his own greed. He reaches for his flask and a drop taken.
"Some other voyage," Jimmy tells himself.
Belle's at herself, scudding for Ireland afore the favoring wind and happy seas, and yet the sun shining through mackerel skies foretells of troublesome weather a day or so beyond. And then juist afore sundoon, eleven miles and two hours away of the docks at Ayr, the breeze tires and puts itself to bed, leaving the lugger to loaf and creak on oily black waters. Wee Ratsy turns his strange egg-head away from the great red ball sinking into the motionless sea, himself between becalmed and bored, and badly wanting for to hurry Belle's course over the flat water to Clogherhead. Great God in Heaven! For to summon the wind, he starts to whistling a merry clog.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Kevin hears the whistling, drops his bailing bucket, and straightens up in alarm. And Jimmy, he come rushing forward wi' balled-up fist and thrusts his purpled rage a handspan from Ratsy's astonished face.
---- There'll be nae whistlin' up a wind aboard this here fishboat! Nae! Noo! NEVER! ye damned eejit!! Never, never, never, ye wee divil! It's every Godforsaken seaman the wide world over knows the curse comes of whistling up a wind. Ay, anybody wi' any sense at all knows it. Do it again, Ratsy, and ye swim! Jimmy's unnerved and hollering, spitting oot the wee one's nickname in spite of himself.
Ratsy turns white, shaken and contrite, and withdraws to huddle on the foredeck, for to pass the hours alone by himself as far from Jimmy as Belle allows.
"Too late, too late!" Jimmy's howl echoes across his own brain. "It's now the curse will haunt us, you wee misshapen eejit. You Godforsaken fool, 'tis a class of curse cannot die! Damn you, Ratsy! Damn your life, damn your death, damn your da, damn all Rathlins, till the sun freezes and the moon turns black, ay, till the dead rise and you die again in the fiery lake of burning sulfur."
All the weight of it presses against Jimmy, for it's Belle herself is cursed forever, sure and sartain, and all who voyage on her the same, from this oot. There's no taking back; it's forever. And ye mind, friend, unbeknownst to Jimmy, it heaps weight upon the curse of the pregnant lassie what turned the blackthorn twig to the Sea-Divil in the south instead of east for the Child.
---- Put the plug in yer throat-pipe, ye stupid chiseller, and never anither note of it, or by God's leave, it's wi' the fishes ye'll be! Jimmy is livid.
Kevin, too, is furious.
---- Shame, you stupid eejit. Pray on your knees Holy Trinity save us from your hare-brain doings! Kevin spits wi' contempt, each time Belle's business calls him to the foredeck.
Surprise! Whistle or nae whistle, here come fair winds again. The hours speed by, Belle clinging to the Ayrshire coast, broad-reaching rapidly doon the Firth, the breeze steady oot the southeast, Belle slipping easily by Dunur and Turnberry and Girvan and the steeples at Ballantrae. Then they're swinging oot by the dangerous tide-mix off Gorsewall Point, past the last of Scotland, and noow it's the thistle falls aft and port-hand and the shamrock riz to starboard and afore them, unseen beyond a watery horizon. Here's Belle steers across the open North Channel, the breeze still favorable, the waves noow running three or four feet. Here and there, Kevin tautens a halyard, or Jimmy adjuists the tiller into anither self-steer notch. Ratsy lulls to a doze, curled aboot a coil of rope in the forepeak, gentled by Belle's motion, tucked away from Jimmy's fiery wrath and Kevin's hateful jibes.
Comes night, the schedule is again Jimmy and Kevin, watch on watch: bailing the bucket, heaving the log, placing the star, tending the compass. Jimmy's sleepless in his seething, and stanches his anger in poteen whilst calculating the leeway in their wake and the state of the tides, plotting in his mind the reverse of Belle's voyage to Ayr. The wheel of stars turns across the sky and dips into the sea, and night passes in the silence of fair wind and wee waves. There be nae more of small talk wi' Ratsy, for he's banished to the forepeak. It's very few words between Jimmy, on his clay bottle or puffing his dudeen or gnashing his teeth, and Kevin at his tasks, manning the bucket, chomping on a fruit leather or a bit of salt pork, and taking his doze away of the ootcast Ratsy.
In the favor of south-gang tides, Belle swims at her aise, until the wind backs helpfully into the north and carries the first sweet smells of Irish sod into their rig. They make Irish landfall near Donaghadee, and slide down the Irish coast, by Ardglass, under the glowering Mountains of Mourne and mebbe Da Rathlin peering wi' spy-glass upon them, perched in the lookoot of his manse tower on Slieve Donard. And so it's past their home at Newcastle Port, past Kilkeel Harbour, the last port in Northern Ireland, past Dundrum Bay. Kevin and Jiimmy cluck wistful aboot their beloved Ireland, and Irene Callahan's boxty, her cockle stew they'll no be eating tonight, or a festive roast goose and apple stuffing. Or mebbe she waits on them in vain back at the fishing wharf. Mebbe, they tell one the ither, it's this very hour she faces east to Scotland, and the wind tugging at her shawl and skirts, and only the lilties to tell her where is Belle. On they sail, noow nearing the end of the voyage, crossing the mouth of Dundalk Bay and scooting past Dunany Point. Fair away beyond, and off their starboard quarter, the last lazy stars slide behind the Mountains of Mourne. To port, across the North Channel and away beyond, lie the Scottish lowlands they left, and Ayrshire, and Babby Six-Toes, and the Calced Sisters of Saint Maundie. And the harbor at Ayr, Belle's starting point, what Jimmy says skippers call their "departure." The wind veers breezily into the northeast, and they lay an aisy course to Clogherhead.
It's tomorrow a fiery sun will dawn over Scotland, over dark rims of cloudbank, over smoulders of a greying east that forecast the oncoming threat of a great nor'easter blow. But Belle, Jimmy, and Kevin, pressing for Clogherhead harbor, them has yet to see that dawn. They're elated for to have escaped---- so far!---- the curse of Ratsy's whistling, mebbe even benefitting, for it's been all fair winds and calm seas this far, innocent of the grim promise of mackerel skies and red dawn coming tomorrow. At Clogherhead wharf, a couple of idlers steps foreward to take their mooring lines, whilst Belle wi' nae a single misstep brings up in a wee open place along a crowded dock. And noo sooner as their coir fenders touch the pilings, Ratsy's hopped over Belle's bulwark and scuttled ashore wi' his carpetbag and never a fare-thee-well.
---- Guid riddance, ye wee ugly eejit. Jimmy mumbles to himself, still fuming aboot the curse.
---- Da! Ratsy sings, running to a blocky figure stands by a manse fowk's carriage, ay, a fancy Victoria, all scrollwark and gold-leaf, elaborately leathered horses, and a perched-up liveried coachman. Da's in gentleman's day-coat, silk topper, and all. And idling aboot, there's a young dandy of eighteen years, mebbe, foppy dressed in silks and silver buckles, sneering at Jimmy and Kevin's patchwark seaman's smocks.
---- Noow greet your brother proper, Francis, says Dennis Edward, the Marquis of Rathlin Manor, sweeping Ratsy into his arms wi' a hug and a command. And gives Jimmy a scornful leer.
---- Dia duit, Fingal, God be wi' you, mumbles Ratsy withoot conviction.
Friend, 'twill suit ye best if ye contrive to remember Fingal's name.
---- Dia's Muire duit, runt. God and Mary with you, says the fop flatly.
"By what witchcraft did Da Rathlin and Fingal know to be here at this dock for Ratsy, now at this hour?" Jimmy wonders, forgetting about the canceled arrival 0f the red-sail packet at the same place, that same day. A cold shiver rakes his spine. "It's Judgement Day cannot be soon enough to roast one and all of that breed," he glares silently, as Da Rathlin hands him three half-crowns owed.
By the bye, Jimmy learns from the Clogherhead waterfront gossip howanever Mahony and a 'stranger' Jimmy knows was O'Neill murdered each the ither---- Lord in Heaven, friend, bad news travels far and fast! Think on it yerself, friend, and mind ye, Jimmy didna know aboot Hugh O'Neill's intent to kill him too. But here's Jimmy noow, disgruntled and a curse at his lips, knowing he'll nae see the color of O'Neill's promised money tonight nor any tomorrow, and resigns at his loss, and his mind set to wondering aboot Ratsy's whistling pishrogue and whatanever's the evil in it. 'Tis the third night and a day since Jimmy bargained at Newcastle Port wi' Mahony, and sailed for Ayr wi' Babby Six-Toes and the blackthorn twig.
---- Time's come for us to get on wi' settling our nets and rig for the season ahead, and hope Manannan Mac Lir gives Belle decent fishing, God between us and harm, says Jimmy to Kevin.
And so noow Belle of Newcastle casts off from Clogherhead for home and hearth, och, for Irene's stew and spuds, all what lies a short day's voyage north. It's the safety of earth underfoot what's awaiting, they tell themselves. Safety, ye say? God save Ireland! It's 1845, and the whole earth turns treacherous wi' potato rot. It's when April sprouts and May greens, the Callahan spuds rot in the ground. When the June cottage gardens ripen and July's orchards fruit, the curse strikes again, and the second planting of Callahan spuds fails too. Come the fall, their earth cellar is bare for having sold all they grew against the perished spuds shoulda ben their winter staple. Noow this early dusk of late January, 1846, at the hungry Callahan home, desperate for food, here's the stark of winter in a frosty lull, tolerable enough for Jimmy to work. He's making a right smart clinker rowboat, a bonnie skiff for to sell at Clogherhead to them Irish what fishes in tidal waters. Ye'll understand, friend, it's many in wee County Louth and County Doon still has the money, for the great potato rot didna strike doon the entire crop in the north same way as in the south or west. But, 'tis under the weight of Ratsy's curse, added to the dead lass's turn of the magical twig south to the Sea-Divil, the Callahan potato plantings suffer the misfortunes of the damned.
It come a day Jimmy fastens the rowboat's last plank by the last rivet rove. Here's Jimmy, Kevin, and Belle sailing oot Newcastle Port on a frigid ebb-tide for a day's voyage doon to Clogherhead, wi' their future fortune in tow, planning for to sell or barter the wee boat for victuals for the empty Callahan table. Och, so pleasant a voyage, the entire day passing in fair wind, sparkling seas, and white-horse two-foot waves, Kevin wrapped warm and lollygagging or bailing or scanning the shores, Jimmy at his pipe or heats himself wi' a drop of the craythur. Faith, so fine a trip it is, Jimmy's wondering, for all Belle's good luck wi' the winds, did he juist mebbe get Ratsy's whistling curse arse-aboot?
And ....
And then! ... Lord in Heaven! What do they spy in the gloaming, juist beyond the horizon from Clogertown, but a lone careless freighter, grounded all a-tilt on a sandbar, heeled on the falling tide. And whereanever's Belle? She's sailing the all-tide channel in the offing, two miles away---- ye'll ken, friend, exactly close enough for Kevin's young eyes to watch the stranded crew rowing ashore in their ship's gig, Sure and sartain, the crew's away for to arrange a tow. Godamercy, it's them pigheads reckoning nae fool so stupid as to approach their unguarded and stranded ship on a falling tide for fear of stranding themselves. Aha! Aint this the blind luck o' Louth? For it's Jmmy knows these sandbars like the back of his hand, God bless his pagan soul. Thank ye, Manannan Mac Lir, and Divil take Ratsy! Ye mind, it's in his greed, Jimmy forgets the whistling curse entirely.
"Burdened or empty?" Jimmy wonders, his brain choked with images of the freighter's cargo. "It's the law of the sea says, if she's abandoned, I've the rights to find out," him cannily steering Belle into the twilight in the way she can counterfeit passage into Clogherhead, and arouse not a shred of suspicion for his true and piratical intent.
Noow comes the fall of a waning moon's night, and Belle circling back quiet as the dead, God save all. Under struck foresail and mizzen and lonesome topsail, in a faint feathery breeze and never a sound in it, Belle creeps along at snail's pace. Through the shoal and narrow channel, charted only on Jimmy's brain-pan, she's barely making way. Every four boat-lengths, Kevin sounds the lead, fetching up a bit of bottom in the tallow of the leaden cup for his half-blind skipper to taste, and so to know their course. Jimmy's fingertips guide the tiller, whilst Kevin's eyes search their victim's empty deck and scour her struck rig. All seems deserted. At the last, Jimmy takes a quick chance on a friendly puff and, wi' the flood-tide yet hours away, he ghosts Belle close as he dares, och, steering so sharp he could cut himself. They fetch up at anchor, rubbing Belle's barnacles off in a dram of sea at the steep-to edge of a sandbar shelf, sixty yards from her victim.
Glory allelujah!!
---- Ahoy! Do ye be wantin' a hand? Jimmy hollers through crimped palms.
Silence.
Father and step-son clamber into Jimmy's new clinker-built rowboat and slip across the shallows, their oars grazing bottom here and there, and it noow four hours since the first of the falling tide.
Jimmy knocks the loom of his oar on the freighter's gunnel.
---- KAK! KUK!
Noo voice answers nor any echo of his blows.
---- She's no empty. Look from ye: what do ye see? Jimmy whispers. Give a yell.
---- Ahoy! You on board! Need a hand, is it? Kevin stands and hollers at the stranded vessel.
Never a sound is in it.
---- There aint noo "you" aboard. It's come our chance, me boyo.
Kevin nods. It looks safe to reach a-hould of the freighter's weatherbeaten bulwark for to steady and tie their smart new rowboat, safe for to clamber quietly over their own gunnel, safe for to slip silently over the freighter's bulwark. Bedad! Safe, mebbe, for our slippery buccaneers to pry a prize or three oot the stranded vessel whilst she leans on the hard. Whisht! What ye call gentle piracy, friend, aint it what Jimmy calls Belle's private charity? Nae, that and a' that is in the name of "salvage," and Admiralty law, God make his countenance to smile upon ye, friend. Here's man and boy sidles in the silent suspense of the tilted deck. And aisy milk, is it, for our two rogues to crawl 'midships over their unprotesting captive. Noow they're upon her main hatch, and noow after prying it open, noow climbing doon into her hold wi' flickering candle held afore and ... and ...
---- Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!
Whatanever surprise do our heroes come upon under the darkness of a waning moon? Whisky! John Jameson whisky! Erin's best! Twenty-four bonded cases of Jameson whisky!
Kevin marvels in the candle-light, "Let Jimmy's grin go wider and his head will fall off."
---- Faith an' glory! Two hundred an' eighty-eight bonded bottles of it, Kevin ciphers. Near to crowing, he is. Jimmy, he's frozen in position and canna speak for the shock of it.
---- Revenoo stamps an' all, a thief's fortune in drink, an' the very best label, that an' a' that, at the ready for us'ns to be salvagin' ... noow, 'pon me soul, Kevin, suppose juist a wee, "suppose," me heartie, 'tis a power o' guid we be doin', thinkin' to rescue all this useful cargo, ummm ... supposin', as I ben sayin', there's thirsty bodies is able for it, declares Jimmy, making a joyful face, and then his grin open-mouth the like of a shark, himself wi' candle slowly circling the lot, licking his lips, and softly stroking in turn each of the twenty-four crates.
"Let suppose, this here freighter rubs a hole in her bottom out here on this sandbar and let suppose she swamps with the incoming flood-tide. She'd lose it all, ay, all that sainted whisky, every last dram. Pity, pity---- ahhhh, such excellent whisky. Best to lighten her burden and avoid such calamity. And you, Hugh O'Neill," Jimmy reflects on the image never erased from his brain, "Divil mend you! Ay, it's far more a fortune tumbled on to me here tonight than ever I'd see from the penny-pinching thin-lipped likes of you. Worms eat your eyeballs, and Divil eat the worms! And you be happy in Hell when Ratsy and his Marquis and all the other Orange vermin join you."
Kevin revels in his own loss of innocence, him helping Jimmy shunt the plunder by their bonnie new rowboat over the still-ootgoing tide, and muscling the whisky aboard Belle. Doon into Belle's dank fish-hold it's laid bottle by bottle, under the very sole boards once cradled Babby Six-Toes, God bless her. Kevin busies himself wi' cuddling of the bottles one by one in bits of net and rope, covering the lot wi' tatters of a weathery ould sail, and at the last nailing the sole-boards over all. Then he's after hacking the tell-tale wooden cases to flinders, and heaving the splinters overboard.
Tis crowns and pounds and guineas dancing on Jimmy's brain-pan courts his next plan.
---- Ye makin' a right guid fist of it, boyo. We've nae be wantin' any more trade at Clogertown where the pigheaded crew went, for here's our fortune ben nailed doon underfoot. Och, ye've made all snug as ballast, and guid as gold, Jimmy sucking his dudeen. An' it's this here quare smart rowboat brocht the luck, I can sell next her time we come this way.'
All the while, it's Belle squats quiet and solid as a brick on the drying sands of ebb-tide. Noow, it's coming slow on to the flood-tide. Noow, it's four hours past midnight when the high tide's riz halfway to its full. Noow, Belle comes afloat. They weigh anchor quiet as clams, and slip stealthy doon the channel in the sandbar, and then it's on to a shadowed sea in full sail, and the moon down and them long gone afore high tide and the return of the freighter's careless crew .
Comes the tip of the morning sun, and for the flummoxed master of the stranded freighter, 'tis a grand surprise awaits: a prised hatch, a prized cargo disappeared in the mystery of night, a handful of splinters floating aboot, and nae a sign of any piratical 'salvers,' wi' Belle already rollicked fourteen miles up the coast, swaggering her way back to Newcastle Port. Jimmy's at himself in comfort and joy, and sets his gullet to lightening the cargo of Jameson all the way home, himself pissing it oot the same color as went in. So it's Jimmy's got the drink in him, and Kevin-boy's the like of Jack Tar itself, skippering Belle home in a tacking breeze, and him doing the bailing too---- past Dunany Point, oot over Dundalk Bay, past Cooley Point and Ballagan Point until near at the end, and dusk and sea-fog coming on. It's then he complains of feeling under the weather what's been smooth and pleasant seas all the way. In the misty January dark, their treasure darker still and, to all ashore, a mystery grander nor the seventh seal, then it's half-blind Jimmy, agile and silent as a cat, docks Belle at Newcastle Port, Oot the mist strolls a lone fisherman to enquire pointedly howanever Belle's hold seems empty yet she appears burdened some.
---- Ay, Jimmy, she's setting doon in the sea that wee bit, the old gaffer shows wi' his hands.
---- Pray tell, ye oul' coot, whatanever come o' the smell o' the wee fishies? another tavern idler peers into what appears to be an empty hold.
---- I've no the news for ye to be spreading aboot, ye meddlin' misfits. She's taken on half the Irish Sea in her bilge, is why she's doon. Go on wi' ye. Take a stagger as ye wish, ,Jimmy shrugs a smuggler's snicker and waves them off, whilst he quickly arranges Belle's warps.
Jimmy has a bigger fish worries him. Kevin-boy's taking sicker by the minute and fevery, burning hotter nor a pistol shooting uphill. Jimmy's after making a long search for a jaunting car and jarvey will carry Kevin---- ay, for a precious bottle of Jameson!---- to the Callahan's lane. Kevin's hardly through the door and he's all the speckles and mottles, moaning wi' the red measles. Bedad! It's Ratsy's curse begun, thinks Jimmy, contagion brought on by Ratsy's whistling. Kevin can never be able for Belle's next passage for to bail Belle's buckets. Then, who then, and who to be look-oot for half blind Jimmy? And Belle must sail soon lest the ebbing tides leave her high and dry, or suspicions of her hoard travel to any gossoon in Newcastle harbor has a boarding ladder and a stout cudgel. Ye canna doot, it's Ratsy's whistling curse a-growing. But no the worst of it, as ye'll be learning, friend.
"We'll fair across the Irish Sea to Campbelltown, or maybe slip into Carradale or even Claonaig," Jimmy thinking to the lengthy south shore of Kintyre. "I have kin there, and friends. Sure and certain, it's too large a shore for the Revenuers to cover for a rover the likes of me. And with the whisky already stamped, what can be a trouble at all? Yerra, still and all, me and Belle needs eyes."
On the wharf, lack of choice, and in great haste to leave, Jimmy takes in Kevin's stead a sartain wandering landsman begs passage. Who, ye ax? A meandering tinker knows little the ways of wind nor waves, and wanting only homecoming at Glasgoow after ten months in Ireland. Och! A cheeky fellow, this one, wi' green eyes and more freckles nor stars in the sky, and a grand birthmark side of his neck---- a shiftless churchless Catholic rogue wi' a weakness for the nearest cailin, and his wee brain-pan overflowing wi' boasty tales of colleens and conquests.
Glory be, Jimmy's vexed; the tinker's surely tragedy on two legs for to serve Belle. Och! A slick tongue is useless to hand, reef, nor steer, nor even bail the like of Kevin, and a brain lacks the sense of minced mussel for the wild seas, so. God save all, it's Ratsy's whistling curse come to roost noow and it's three-fold---- a curse on the weather, a curse on the wee hours remaining, a curse on the crew, for Jimmy canna find a single able-body willing to ship wi' him against the rising seas and lowering clouds of the whirling nor'easter. Jimmy canna do it alone; he needs eyes. Divil the tempest building oot the Norwegian fjords away beyond. Jimmy's foiled. It's tinker or none.
Himself feels the weather in his knee-joints whilst already counting the whisky smuggling profit to come. "Another blow in the offing ... and how is it worser nor the like of the many nor'easters gone afore? Nae, and all the lovely Jameson down there in the fish-hold. Mebbe even a cork or three be close to splitting, and my solemn duty to tend the lot, and a wee drop taken afore the sea-brine ruins it ... Divil the tinker, him with a thick skull and that thin brain itself. I be needing a tested crew, and he's not altogether at the match," Jimmy curses a string of Gaelic. "Och! A put up job he is, and myself the eejit done the putting. Ay, the Divil's work in this world, so it is."
On a wintry first of February---- Saint Bridget's Day, she the Mother Saint of wee County Louth and patron of her beloved Irlande, herself standing at the right hand of Patrick---- Belle leaves Newcastle Port on the oot-gang tide, secretly bound for the south shore of Kintyre peninsula, mebbe Jimmy's cronies in Campbelltown, God between himself and harm! Holy Angels have mercy! Jimmy's never braided Belle's Celtic cross as all skippers must for to honor Bridget on her feast-day, nor pulled a white thread from his smock as custom says: bad omen, that, wi' the grand beast of wind gathering over the North Channel and its jaws gaping hungry for Belle. Divil take it! Worse and worser, Jimmy didna have the magic of the blackthorn twig, it away ashore wi' Babby Six-Toes and Sister Therese Bernadette. Mind ye, friend, Jimmy canna know the nor'easter to come will be the nastiest to blow in the entire reign of Queen Victoria. Ay, sharks bite off her crowned head and Divil roast the sharks!
At the first of the voyage, Belle's dancing carefree over the foam, the swirling wind filling her swell of sail, and she tack on tack into the strength of it. Wi' evening and it blowing harder, come doon upon them trains of enormous waves. There's Belle between wallowing in the windless hollows and storming up the mountainous peaks, and then she's after charging doon the slopes, sliding and rolling her gunnels under, ay, that and all that overing and overing. She's well off Donaghadee, timing the Irish Sea's tide and turning towards Kintyre, so dangerous near to the rush of the North Channel narrows and the Strait of Moyle. Noow it's an hour since Jimmy's furled the mizzen and first-reefed the main. Half an hour, a second reef. A quarter hour, a third reef. A few minutes, then he strikes the rig, and sails under the windage of her bare poles. It's the most of wind Jimmy and Belle have ever seen. It puts the dread in Jimmy's every breath. And sure and sartain is it to blow worser.
The black blot of night come wi' the tempest tearing at Belle, the wind shrieking incessantly, the seas bursting against her, and all aboot the rolling thunder and shock of breaking waves. The tinker what shut his eyes in fears against the storm in daylight, come the dark and his eyes opens stark wi' fright, and his bowels the like, and him someways blind as Jimmy. Bundling what little rig the wailing gale didna shred, Jimmy drives Belle on, steering her south to run afore the wind, to the Divil wi' Campbelltown, but the terrific current shooting up oot the Isle of Man pushes her relentlessly north into the ferocious blasts---- God save all, tide against wind, the nor'easter heaping gigantic cliff-sided waves man nor boat can hardly survive, and there's Belle once and again lacks the conjuries of the magical blackthorn kippeen, nor the blessed luck of Six-Toes, nor the prayers and petitions Sister Therese offered up. 'Tis the suffering of Ratsy's whistling curse, come doon in all its fury, striking jagged white fire from heaven and black dread from the bottom of the sea. Lord help them in their peril gang doon to the sea in ships, and Belle holding water like a bucket as she rolls, knocked doon on her beams' ends time and time again.
When the ould leaky fishboat splits a garboard plank, Jimmy's pagan soul calls once more on the name of Manannan Mac Lir. 'Tis of noo use when, like sodden flotsam, they carry willy-nilly up the North Channel to the Strait, past the hammering seas off the tip of Kintyre, and thrust into the full horror of the vicious Mull. Merciful Heaven, it's the beast of Revelations itself riz oot those fearsome seas, the serpent of seven heads, ay, the heathen name of blasphemy. Come one tremendous wave, a great wall of water driving Belle's flank into the sea. Away sprawls the tinker, himself tumbling overboard wrapped in his screams, bubbling his way doon to Limbo or worser. Belle turns her keel up and her masts pointing at the bottom until, after an agony of wait, she slowly shakes oot the water and uprights herself. By Saint Bridget's miracle, the whisky bottles Kevin wedged below the sole-boards didna move, and have proven to be a grand ballast in't, mebbe saving Belle for the moment. But the Sea Divil what Ratsy whistled up beyond, he aint skint, and he didna swim away, and he's instead roaring incessantly Ratsy's curse in the breakers.
There's Jimmy left by his lonesome self in those mountainous seas, the rig in flinders, three feet of bilgewater aboard and it mounting, nor can Belle lie a-hull longside the enormous waves nor heave-to by angling into them. Manannan Mac Lir canna stem the enormous combers ripping and raking at ould Belle's mortal wound, and if she didna run, she will die. Filling wi' sea, she canna run. It's the last throes. Jimmy rips up the sole-boards and pitches the contraband Jameson overboard to appease the Sea-Divil, but one bottle for himself. The Sea-Divil didna drink and pays nae heed. At the end, wearied of his desperate struggling against the tempest, Jimmy ropes himself doon to the helm in stoic wait, beaten and exhausted beyond caring nor fearing, hoping at the least he's gang doon in Belle's arms, and on the way to oblivion, or Limbo, or Paradise, or the OtherWorld, or whatanever awaits, himself reaching for to tipple that last drop of the craythur, so he hopes, noble Irishman from Scotland that he is to the end. The last sounds in his brain is a remembrance of Ratsy's cursed whistling, and the sound of the Morrigan shrieking.
Belle of Newcastle founders in the weltering chaos of the Mull of Kintyre. Jimmy never gets to drain that last Jameson. His body drifts up the North Channel to the rocky Ooter Hebrides, his sodden flesh grinding to wee shreds there, a feast for the herring that will run again that year, whilst the Mull gives up Jimmy's soul for to ride Wave-Sweeper wi' Manannan Mac Lir and Fand and the ither gods into the glorious paradise of OtherWorld. It's only the pagan ghost of Jimmy Callahan will ever again meet Sister Therese Bernadette on the docks at Ayr, or coo to Babby Six-Toes in this world. 'Tis a ghost I have seen and heared, friend, walking the halls of this very house, telling meself his story. Ahhh, Godamercy, ye'll no be thinking 'tis the end of the evil Ratsy's whistling curse, in't. 'Tis no the luck.
In Newcastle Port, the weeks pass, buds greening and the sprouting and all, and the tides moving wi' the moon to the end of a blustery March and a rainy April, and no a living soul learnt of Jimmy's fate. Eleven-year-ould Kevin O'Donnell Callahan, boat-boy noow, alone supports his adoptive ma, Irene. Side-by-side, hand-in-hand, them sad hungry ones waits oot the weary gloamings at the water's edge for to catch a glimpse of Belle's pennant. O, God be gentle wi' the poor wretches! For it's on a grey and blowy day, doon at Dundalk Bay by Blackport, a bit of wrack from Belle's wreck washes on to the beaches at high tide, och, a few broken plank and busted boards, in the way Irene Callahan come to learn she surely is a widow. She's blinded wi' shedding doon tears, taking Kevin to the splintered remains of Belle what tell their Jimmy's passed. At ebbtide, Kevin's after walking amongst Belle's remains scattered on the shingle, kneeling here and there to move his fingers prayerfully upon the remnants---- whatanever the beachcombers didn't filch! ----grieving his broken heart oot for all what he knew, the voice, the hand, the half-blind eyes and, God save Jimmy's soul, the heart. And what does Kevin find but a half-drained bottle of Jameson itself, Jimmy's gravestone, mebbe, or his Eucharist, it strewn half-buried on the lengthy shoreline.
"I'll make it up to you, Jimmy, I'll be what you wanted of me," he whispers through his tears, "I'll make a right fist of it, Jimmy." Kevin cups his fingers reverently aboot a shattered bit of board. And there's the sea breeze tasting on his tongue.
It's the last time he says Jimmy's name aloud for fifteen years. But he canna shut himself of the taste of the salty sea. And so, back home, it's nae use for the Widow Callahan try keeping Kevin ashore. Divil Jimmy's passed, 'tis a cool brine flows in Kevin's veins, and it's never the fearsomeness nor the foaming furies of the Sea-Divil itself can keep him away of wind and water. He's soon after sailing on ither Newport luggers for the herring wi' the ould fishermen needs a boy, and coming back wi' the odd pence for his ma, him having times wi' the ways of the ould salts itself and loving the sailor's life. He finds service aboard yet anither lugger at an increase of pay, this time no for herring but a grand Galway hooker, voyaging freight on the run from Donegal round Malin Head to Newcastle Port, and doon to Cobh, and across to Liverpool, and back again. It's in this way he survives at sea all the years of The Great Hunger in Ireland, himself always sending back to his ma, whilst he's warking his way up from ship's cabin-boy, and then at the last, able-body seaman. Irene is left alone wi' her lonesome weeping and rocking and staring at the bit of Belle's splintered plank on a cold mantel, and relayed notes noow and then from Kevin somewheres at sea.
When Kevin is seventeen, in 1852, he jumps ship, stowing away on the great four-masted Cape Horner, Flying Roan, joining adventurers after panning for gold in California. When it's 1858, he's twenty-three years and strapping bronze, wi' a wee precious horde of Nevada silver nuggets sewn into a secret fold of his blouse, for luck. He'll sign aboard the same Flying Roan in San Francisco and sail afore the mast west-aboot, three-quarters of the way round the earth. The winds will be fair and, praise God and Mary, every man who starts, finishes.
"Surely it's aught of Ratsy's whistling curse puts the dread on me these days," Kevin says to himself. "All things must end, even evil." And he pats the hidden bit of ore.
He'll hear endless fo'c's'l scuttlebutt of a lively herring trade on the Firth of Clyde, and he'll fondly recall Jimmy and Belle, Ayr and the Firth. Late of 1859, he's turned twenty five and lands in Liverpool, and making his way to Glasgoow, then on to Ayr. His silver nuggets buy him a sturdy 'Fifie' class of lugsail herring-drifter, and a little small daub-and-wattle cottage on a few acres hard by Whiting Bay, near the beaches of Lamlash townland, on the grand Island of Arran, ay, "Arran of the Stags," 'tis called, what's off Kintyre peninsula. He'll call his boat Fishhawk of Arran, and be selling his catch across the Firth at Ayr harbor. He'll keep Fishhawk near home in Whiting Bay, the finest anchorage on the Firth of Clyde. His last nugget, he sews into his shirt for luck, in't. All this and more, light and dark, is to come, ye'll understand, friend.
Ay, but noow it's back to March twentieth, 1845, and here in rural Ayrshire, the guid Shod Sister, Therese Bernadette of Saint Maundie's Foundling Home, alights from her creel car, untackling and hobbling Caligula, the donkey, and plucking the swaddled Six-Toes and her blackthorn twig from a truss of hay. She rocks the babby in her arms as she walks past the wretched Wheel. The Foundling Home's iron gates swing open. All what this world can see and hear ootside the walls of Saint Maundie's, mind ye, is Caligula in hobbles, munching a crisp and shiny pippin, and the echo of a swaddled infant's squalls, and Sister's footsteps walking through the gate, and then the latching. Concealed within the leathern shoes of this Calced Sister of Saint Maundie is her own blood badge of six toes and, under her habit, hidden from all eyes, a rolled parchment piercing like a flaming arrow into her heart. 'Tis the contract in the names of Hugh Robert O'Neill and Christopher Mahony, what she must give over to Mother Superior, for the nae-name six-toed babby itself. In the secret redoot of Sister's brain, it's the sins and troubles hiding beyond Six-Toes' birth what she must guard from all ithers, and her own six toes she wants aught in the Community to be knowing noow nor ever. She touches the magic bit of blackthorn in her pocket.
Och, me friend, I hear ye axing howanever all this come a long way round the pigsty, to the story of Ratsy. And so it is. But him and his horrid deeds ben waiting doon the lane, God and me years willing ... Do ye no be wanting more tay and anither biscuit? And I've a munch of haggis left in the icebox; noow tell me, dear friend, what sane Irishwoman keeps haggis? It's me heart's ither half never left Arran. Ay, I'll be opening the icebox door and ye'll be hearing the pipers skirl. Dressed in O'Neil plaid, aint it?




























Illustration the seventeenth

235


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: community


Within the Community of the Order of the Calced Sisters of Saint Maundie, the Abbess rules: 'tis Mother Superior, Sister Joan Agnes, noow thirty-two years since she took the veil, and it's nineteen years ben the Sisters' elected Mother Superior. I'm saying the Bishop turned a red rage when this here partikiler calced firebrand, Sister Joan Agnes, was elected by her calced peers. "As it was in the beginning," when priests kissed an Abbess' ring and bowed before her crozier, is the Order's intention. Noo bishop has ever validated an Abbess for the Order: 'tis a chore of a 'regular' from the Holy See itself, begun in time immemorial, and the Sisters never fail to chide their Bishop aboot it. Let His Diocesan Riverence seethe, but no hinself nor Cardinal nor even the Bishop of Rome can make the Order eo listen---- only the rare episodes, under great ecclesiastical stress, to make the women wish they had. And the holy men ben struggling wi' that ever since the span of Saint Maundie herself, God save the Order. And so it is, the Community's avowed Brides of Christ are endlessly tousling tooth-and-nail wi' least priests, blustering bishops, scarlet-cloaked cardinals, even His Holiness in Rome, and them calling the Church the Bride. The like of any Holy Order in this world, the Order's preparation for their vocation honors obedience, poverty, and chastity ... and within that circle, vowing to increase their patron's flame, for believing they are the brides of Christ.
Longgo, during the open rebellion of 'regulars' against 'seculars' across the Church's dominions, and Saint Maundie's Community seeking protection, Cluniac monks in nearby Maybole offered to help to the Sisters. God save us from our rescuers! The monks went wild, and tried to ruinate the Sisters' chastity! And God did save all, for the Community drove the monks away, and the Cluniac Monastery failed. 'Tis ever since, the Brides have suspected the worst of male religious. Didna ye know, the ould Scottish tune, 250 years on and still heard, aboot them mischieveous monks? Sisters teach it to the wee Scottish grawls in their Community schools to this day:


"Had not yourself began the weiris [struggle],

Yer steepilis had been standand yit;

It was the flattery of yer friers

That ever gart Sanet Francis flit [flight].

Ye grew sa superstitious

In wickedness

It gart us grow malicious

Contrair your Messe [Mass]."



There's more, ye mind. At Saint Maundie's, this independent–minded Order sings---- ay, sings at wark! And teaches the practice to ithers, grawl or grown! And whyanever do they sing at the Lord's wark? For them, God loves joy. 'Tis this here tunefulness partikilerly aggravates the dour Scots, and peppers threats upon the Order, and riz against them at diocesan assemblies. Howanever, in the silences of the Divine Office, and the nightly Great Silence from Compline to Laulds, it's never one single note or whisper be heared. Och, Benedictine Cistercians, nor Discalced Carmelites, nor trout in the river, canna be more silent. Faith and troth, it's silence is as silence does, but it's wi' the singing at the ither times Saint Maundie's ben irritating the stuffy diocesan rectory halls for six hundred years and, for the last three hundred, the Jesuit armies of Saint Ignatius. And all them men gnashing their teeth in the frustration. Worser yet, in persuasion, governing, in the fields, or at the bench, in the halls of the community, the kitchen, ay, whereanever two Sisters congregate, the scandralous Shod Sisters do freely talk. Or sing. To make the day lighter, and God closer, the Abbess explains.
---- Singing indeed! The back-biting Hierarchy sneers: all the twittering, they ben no better than habitted magpies. The priests complain one the ither, the like of jack-daws kept away from their dinner: 'tis the tongue, they spite, needs be shod at Saint Maundie, and no the foot.
It's this history embedded in the Abbess' bones, as she houlds council in her forthright queen-bee way on the question of the First Sacrament for the new arrival, Babby Six-Toes. And it's in the apocalyptic threat she's considering, ay, the true four horsemen, ye mind, friend: if the Community should decide to move ahead on its own, would that attract the Bishop's ire and the Cardinal's attention and could that and a' that drop more kindling on the fires of conflict. Sister Joan Agnes has a hare's ear for conflict. Her Abbess part has the heart of a lioness. Her Mother Superior part has nae taste for horses or riders. She is the stubborn like of every elected leader of Saint Maundie's since the beginning, for she didna hear The Hierarchy's nae-sayers, and if she hears, she'll no listen, and if she listens, naething of the matter: 'tis her patron Saint Maundie and six hundred years of holy tradition guides the Community, and less the ecclesiastical threats from a pecking order of arrogant male killjoys.
---- Shall we wait another hour on Father McCandless for the baptism? 'Tis amidst the council of avowed Sisters, yet knowing more of the answer nor she shows, the Abbess asks Sister Therese.
---- As we must do, Therese Bernadette sighs, signaling 'tis less a question of one hostile Jesuit, Father McCandless, or his whereaboot, and more the discomforting rule of Hierarchy over Order.
"His Reverence, the old windbag," Therese chafes, never forgetting her abuse at the sadistic hands of Hugh Robert O'Neill-the-depraved, Calvinist Elder. "Excuse me, Sweet Mary. 'Tis You, Blessed Virgin, mothered our Lord. 'Tis a woman bore each apostle, and every saint and martyr. Ay, 'tis Elizabeth, a woman, bore you in Immaculate Holiness. And it's our womanly kind bore every priest and bishop and every Holy Father." She glances sidelong and says three Aves. "And tell me, Sweet Mary, is it some class of impudence to believe that women, who can conceive cardinals and popes, might serve the Seven Holy Sacraments the like of a priest? Are not we Sisters by holy ceremony and by this, our wedding ring, ourselves Brides of a Mystical Marriage? O, you Saints and Martyrs, 'tis no sin that I do pray for the day to come! Sure, there's Sisters amongst us as can serve the Sacraments better than Old Windy's tribe." She adds three more Aves and a Pater, and starts another decade on her beads, staring her guilt beyond Mother Superior's gaze.
---- It's two days since, and Father McCandless not here. Mother Superior explains in an exaggerated frown. It's now we hear he'll not be coming at all. Then, let us consider our wee Babby Six-Toes. 'Tis only the Good God on His throne and Saint Peter holding the key know how many breaths she has left. Or if twelve toes is enough to raise her from Limbo. And the child needs more name than what's growing at the ends of her little small feet. "Yes," do I hear? Is it yes? And the Abbess, having made a strategy of the murmur what she's heared tell so often afore, says, I instruct you, Sister Therese Bernadette, who brought wee Baby Six-Toes to us, do now prepare us a baptismal basin for our dote.
Musha! Whilst the waiting on Father McCandless flies oot the window, news of the freakish new arrival and the Sacramental plan of the council spreads through the Community like the springtide on the flood. Faith and Mary, and the guid Saint Maundie herself! It spreads in the very motes of the dim chapel air, and oot the rays of the woodwark, and pushes up amongst the flags of the floor, a mysterious power drawing the entire Community---- postulants, novitiates, initiates, avowed, and veiled---- oot from their separate endeavors in amazing great shuffles.
Comes a rustling of habits, of muslin, of wool and linsey-woolsey, of linen, bawneen, and homespun, a great laying doon of rakes and hoes, of spades and pickaxes, of pans and brushes, of shuttles and needles, of pots and ladles, a hurried abandonment of devotions in their midst, a stamping of muddied clogs from the fields and furrows, a scuffling of leathern soles from the warkrooms and benches, a hum and a murmur swelling, and never in this world a body summoned by human voice, but a whispering formed of the very air itself, so it is. Doon streams the Community in a torrent spills into the chapel, Godamercy, as if the like of Gabriel had blown the summons on his golden trumpet for to see this special child. Here's the Community by mystery called, in mystery flowed, in mystery together, to see mystery. They crowd the pews, wimple poking wimple, for to witness the baptism. And for Sister Joan Agnes, Abbess, Mother Superior, Woman, 'tis surely no against the Catechism, but never in Community history since the time of Saint Maundie herself, whensomever a priest could be had, or awaited. And besides, 'tis against the custom of the entire army of male religious and this here diocese from the very beginning. Yet the Apocrypha and certain masked codes in the Book of Hours show that Saint Maundie served all the Sacraments, and Saint Bridget, her peer, was ordained a bishop. The Abbess thinks on that as she turns from the altar to gaze upon her flock. The whispers riz before her like a tide, ebbing here, and there riz again.
---- 'Tis woman who gave life to our Lord.
---- Who baptized our Lord? Nae priest nor apostle.
---- You cannot talk that way! Saint John was a holy man.
---- The toes, God stand between ourselves and harm, the toes!
---- Is it then God's plan, for Mother Superior to baptize the infant?
---- God in Heaven, women shall rise and flourish their spiritual power!
---- The six toes, do they be signs of the Divil?
---- Sister, I do worry for your soul to say such words.
---- Protect us, Immaculate Heart, for we know what we do.
---- Protect us, Immaculate Heart, for we know nae what we do.
---- Protect us, Immaculate Heart, that we do nae know what we do.
---- My immortal soul, I canna bear to see. But I must watch. Sideways.
---- I should give my heart to skive leather for the precious six toes.
---- God save us all! Our Patron Saint, she taught the holy ones.
---- It's our beloved Saint Maundie founded our community.
---- Ay, a Comunity for herself to be teaching.
---- Such as Saint Bendan, for him learnt to serve from her.
---- Teaching the Seven Sacraments, correcting bishops of error.
---- Bringing the Gospels to all, our sainted leader, she surely approves.
The voice of Mother Superior rings oot strident and powerful, she wi' an ear to the waves of doot in a sea of trouble, studies the faces in the pews:
"The Holy See has threatened discipline: I must not, cannot preach. Very well. I shall exhort." And she begins.
---- Did Saint Maundie not teach the priests and the bishops? Is that not written and recorded?
---- Yes, Mother! the chorus of Community peals forthrightly.
---- And did she not teach the acolytes and deacons and the priests and the bishops of the Word and the Sacraments? And in particulars, dear Sisters, all---- all!---- the Seven Holy Sacraments?
---- Yes, Mother! the chorus less sartain.
---- And if she knew to teach the First Sacrament, could she not serve the First Sacrament?
---- Yes, Mother! the chorus in murmurs, brows knit in fervor or in fear, and sartain ones crossing themselves, looking sidways, away from heresy, they hope.
---- And did she not teach Saint Brendan of navigation?
---- Yes, Mother! the chorus, confident but wondering.
---- And did Saint Brendan not discover America centuries afore the cowardly Spaniards, ay, those limber-livered false ones betrayed Hugh O'Neill , and the O'Donnell, and all the righteous Irish at Kinsale?
---- Yes, yes, Mother! the chorus near to cheering.
---- And did she not teach Saint Brendan of the four virtues ... tell me!
---- Faith in God. Pure in heart. Simple in spirit. Charity in acts. The chorus chants in unison, wi' conviction for, ay, 'tis well-practiced in this partkiler response.
---- And does not our Patron teach us still, we, her followers, of God's desires for all? She pauses, bows her head in a silent passion. Then: You, good Sister Florence, come forward and tell us, pointing to the Order's sacrist, its supervisor of precious storage.
A short stout rosy-cheeked graying woman of mebbe fifty years steps forward and turns to face the Community, she brimming and sparkling. It's but a month since, she has taken the veil, and her final vows yet three years to come. She speaks in a Cockney accent.
---- That we stroive, deah Motheh, faw wisdom in ouwa moinds, purity in ouwa hahts, beauty in ouwa eye, music in ouwa eah ... and ... and ... and sweetness in speech. Sister Florence blushes a smile, pauses, clears her throat, and continues. Yes, deah Motheh, and good woiks in ouwa needle. 'Tis God's wish, Saint Benedict tells us, to pray and woik: "Ora et laborum." Her smile widens, for she is the champion seamstress in the Community, and the best advocate for studying the writings of Benedict. A scholar's ink, she says, keeps better than a martyr's blood.
---- And what did good Saint Maundie speak of God's detestations, dear Sister Florence?
---- God does detest this: a scowly presence, a bitteh haht ... and ... and a covetous hand. We shall want only faw othehs, and to be at peace with ouwaselves within and without, and with othehs. For God's gifts ah not to us ... but through us. Sister Florence stares at the rose window and struggles to suppress her pride of place.
---- Dear Sisters, let you pay heed to all you have heard. Mother Superior, observing close, chooses her next words carefully: For as we have done all those virtuous acts that our dear Patron Saint has commanded us, yea, all them, and she sleeps in the earth not so far from Patrick and Columcille and Bridget, and she walks in Heaven amongst the Saints and Martyrs ... and the countenance of the Lord does shine upon her ... and we be her followers who have no cloisters but God's whole wide world in which we walk and wark ... then, dear Sisters, we do but earn ... yea, earn through a life in virtue and Grace, our vocation in the house of Our Lord.
Mother Superior's eyes glint flame as she turns to a bobbing cowl in the front row.
---- And you, Sister Augustine, will you come tell the young of virtue?
A lanky ancient religious, her palsied limbs creaking, face seamy and chin trembling with years, and yet eyes afire wi' the fervor that never dies, struggles to her feet, thrusting her cane afore her. She is the prioress, second in command to the Abbess. Faith and glory, she's the former Abbess.
---- 'Tis my joy and comfort to obey, Mother. The younger Postulants take note of her deference.
---- Ahhh, Mother Superior goes on, and do you, dear Sister Augustine, remind us of the virtues of Saint Maundie, who served the poor and taught the ignorant and converted the pagan. Remind us, Sister, for the sake of Stella Maris, Empress of the Sea, Queen of Heaven, Mother of our Lord.
It's whilst Mother Superior's voice slows and gentles that Sister Augustine gathers herself,
---- Remind us first, Sister, of our beautiful Irlande, and of Saint Bridget who protects it.
This is nae new request. Mother Superior Joan Agnes knows what's to come. Amongst the mostly Irish Sisters, there ben a tug of heartstrings. Partikerlerly them recent Postulant arrivals.
Sister Augutine shrugs off those who would assist her wobbly posture. Let her limbs be weak and her words trembly, yet her accent has the ring and edge of the sword's forged steel.
---- Saint Bridget is all holy things, a life in Grace come down to us and, yea ... to Irlande, our home, that she founded upon the waters, Sisters, yea, and ... saved us from the pagan hordes and converted the unbelievers ... and did not Saint Catherine of Siena confess---- yes, dear Lord! the Sacrament, confess the priests? And Saint Bridget, yea, let us never forget, never, dear Sisters! She was ordained, yea, dear Sisters, ordained ... ordained a bishop, yea, Sisters, a bishop. Sister Augustine licks her trembly lips, and gazes round the room afore continuing in a stronger voice. And Saint Bridget, as God is in Heaven, and all the Saints and Martyrs bore witness, served ... yea, dear Lord, served ... she served the Seven Sacraments, yes. Sister Augustine's palsied tongue suddenly becomes level: Yea, Saint Bridget served the Mass. And we are the Brides of the Mystical Marriage. We are the Brides of Christ. 'Tis our vocation. 'Tis our ring. 'Tis our vow.
---- And is it written, the Abbess asks, in the Gospel or any holy book, in the Apocrypha or any writing of the Saints, or in all the Papal bulls, or deliberations of the Councils, in all that guides our faith in earthly matters, in all the answers to earthly prayers ben offered up these eighteen hundred years, in all the revealed, in all the miracles, howanever a woman cannot be ordained a priest?
A collective gasp riz from the assembly, and then a lengthy moment of thickening silence.
Sister Augustine's head bobs and wags, looking aboot. Faith and glory! She's trembling from head to toe, her lips but not her voice saying, " 'Tis nae heresy but history. God forgive me." And she frowns: "Yea, we have reason, yea, even as our dear Saint Maundie afore us had reason. And Saint Bridget's time will come again." She turns, searches the room slowly, crosses herself, pushes aside the younger Sisters would help her, totters into her pew, limbs shaking, head bobbing, face a study in beatitude, palsied fingers reaching for her rosary. And whispers as she kneels: "Yea ... Lord, You give us reason! The Blessed Virgin give us voice. Saint Bridget give us hope. Saint Maundie give us strength. Ave! Ave! Ave!" And she bows her trembly head.
A tracery of silence embroiders the air. The avowed Sisters heared tell these words afore, and their brains fill wi' the beatific calm of knowing. The Postulates are startled. Them between the two ponder in their hearts. Light of a thousand hues vibrates from the stained glass Stations of the chapel windows, and the slow hush of icons breathing. The Community stirs amidst itself in a rustle of cloth, as if an unfolding lily could make a sound. Mother Superior casts her eyes on this and that Sister, and then Novitiates, and then Postulants, and, at the very last, a gentle smile and barely palpable nod upon Sister Augustine. An unworldly calm settles on the crowd
---- Elizabeth has given us Mary, Mother Superior, the Abbess, says softly, and Mary has given us the Son of God, and we are His vessels. And we here are all descendants of the wombs of those gone afore us, as Mary was the descendent of Elizabeth, the Abbess nae mentioning aught of the uselessness of a womb to a Bride of Christ. And we have the right of our kind, she says firmly. You, Sister Tomasina, what did our Patron Saint say of foundlings longgo, when it is written there was many an impure priest turned from Grace, and many a priest who sought Grace was married ?
---- "Tiny fosterling, I love thee, thou with angels' wings above thee ... "
---- That is our blessed wark, Sisters and all. To bring life and love and Grace, God willing, to them who have no hope without us, no hope when others turn away. Hope, faith, and love. 'Tis our vocation. Ours. For we follow in the holy footsteps of Saint Maundie.
She looks aboot slowly, from right to left, and fore and back, and waits for the silence and the message of six hundred years to grow and ripen. And then she speaks in little more than whispers, yet all hear it clearly.
---- Father McCandless ... I did not tell you at the start ... It's nae of use to wait on him, God bless him ... This morning, I learnt Father McCandless has ... he has died ... God rest his soul.
There is a general shuffling and murmurs.
---- Ummm ... yesterday, it was, fell from his horse. Ummm ... Let us honor his memory and pray for him at Vespers tonight, and I instruct you to meditate upon his soul in The Great Silences of the seven nights to come. She takes a deep breath and her voice grows sharper: You must know, too, there is the galloping consumption seeps like foul miasma amongst the priests and from one to another in the rectories of the diocese. It was this weakness felled Father McCandless from the saddle, so I heared tell. Therefore, dear sisters, it cannot be some scrofulous priest travels to our Community, not for days, mebbe weeks, lest he infect us all. And she searches the faces afore her: Is not that itself a message from God? And so we shall baptize Babby Six-Toes today, for 'tis never God's intent that newbairn innocents in their last breaths must cross the dark river to Limbo ... Come, all, and gather closer. Long since, I have prayed over it. I have fasted over it. I have read the words bequeathed us in the holy books. And we have the right, Sisters and all those who aspire, we have the right to baptize. We have the right to the First Sacrament.
And it's led by their Abbess as celebrant, the Sisters begin their traditional Sacramental ceremony to precede the baptism. And then, after the antiphons and psalms and versicles, after the chants and responses, and the candles lit and capped and lit again, at the place wherenever the form of Saint Maundie's tradition puts the priest's homily, the Abbess speaks again an 'exhortation.'
---- For the six toes itself, dear Sisters, they are a sign from Heaven whatanever we must do, and put our wark towards the six ... six of what? It can mean ... it must mean ... it can only mean ... when we have done the First, the Six Sacraments to come. Of this I am sure. And she pauses until the quiet is thicker than earth and holy as Heaven, saying slowly: I have had a vision! And it was shown to me, by winged angels, nae, dear Sisters, not for today, not for tomorrow, nor tomorrow's tomorrow, and yet it will come! God's Grace, it will come! A time distant, but it will come. And the Grace of our order, the Grace of Saint Maundie, will be blessed ... be fulfilled. Yes, Sisters, let us look forward with humility ... and hope, reverence ... and hope, devotion ...and hope, adoration ... hope, good warks ... hope, charity ... hope, love ... and hope, faith, ay, faith above all ... and hope, the hope that never dies, as He who has risen never dies. Dear Sister and all, longgo a priest must kiss an Abbess ring, and her crozier was equal amongst croziers. It will come again. For whilst the Jesuits follow Saint Ignatius in lock-step, Saint Maundie brings us God's Grace in open community.
The like of these words of Mother Superior, Sister Joan Agnes, Abbess, was never heared in the Community, since the time of the Founder. The religious are stunned. Mother Superior turns and kneels afore the great crucifix, head bowed. No a finger moves, nor a foot shuffles. God protect the Abbess' soul, it's six hundred years since---- that a Sister of her order performed even the First Sacrament, the baptism. And never afore, ye mind, has a special message labeled wi' six toes arrived by a stroke of Heaven at Saint Maundie's Foundling Home ... by anither stroke of Heaven.
---- I cannot bless you as the priests do and Saint Maundie did, but I bless you as your Abbess and Mother Superior. And so she does.
The Abbess meditates, and kneels in struggle and silence, then, thinking to the ceremony waiting. "Saint Paul tells us there is no difference of male and female in Christ. We are equal, and there is no bishop, including the one in Rome, can say we are not. And we were more nearly equal in the past. We must go down that path again. A day, a month, a year, even centuries will come, all but a breath in the life of the Holy Church. Right shall prevail."
The minutes roll by until she riz to recite a lengthy prayer upon the paschal Mystery. And then the Community moves through the remaining serving of the First Sacrament, in order, such as practiced by their forebears but wi' a priestly celebrant for, ay, all those centuries: the reading of the Gospel, antiphons, psalm, versicles, psalm, chants, and responses, all present knowing the hope of which the Abbess speaks and for which she nourishes the courage to pray. After the last hymn, and a single antiphon, then a Gloria and an Amen, and Mother Superior canna gives a benediction but an "exhortation" and says nae more but makes the sign as a "Mother" to her "children" and gives a signal, and bows her head in a lengthy silence, until Sister Therese Bernadette enters, carrying in her arms wee Babby Six-Toes, lying quiet in sleep.
Mother Superior, Abbess, celebrant, she turns to attend the basin and the babby. The assembly stares in alarm and incredulity, breathing oot as one a murmuring fog of doot and unease, watching anxiously whilst Therese pours the Holy Water from the vessel what the Bishop comes by to bless on first Sundays. Faith! The extraordinary baptism hurries along, for it's as Mother Superior said, a body never knows how long the six-toed babby might live. Or lie silent. Sure and sartain, shriven the wee one must be.
---- Holy Trinity save all in this house, murmurs a trembling postulant, crossing herself in dread of the Divil's doings, the ithers following her lead and echoing, houlding their crucifixes afore them, and the lot of them flocking like frightened birds fluttering towards the altar rail and twittering in a riz and buzz of fearfulness and, at the last, the whole community kneeling. Musha! Mother Superior's agile mind is armored in abiding faith:
---- 'Tis a benevolent God sends this mystery to us, Sisters and all. Let you stand and step back to the pews. Ay, for all nor any one, there cannot be doubt. Those six toes are ... ummm, a special message, surely, from the Holy Saints in Heaven for the meditation of our hearts.
And after Mother Superior's single hand-signal, they settle into their tradition and the order of their chants, psalms, responses and antiphons.
---- ... as it was in the beginning and is now, and shall be, world without end ...
"I must give them a task later to take down the idle chatter of the older ones, and quiet the needless fears of the younger ones," she thinks as the women retreat.
---- This evening, in the Divine Office of Vespers, and in The Great Silence after Compline, let prayer reveal to all, six toes is the sign given us by Heaven above that the First Sacrament must be performed here and now, dear Sisters. The priest cannot come. Mass must wait. Confession must wait. But God's Grace cannot wait. We must baptize. Let us meditate upon that and pray.
Sister Therese curls her own six toes in her shoes and turns her head, for to hide the hot flush crept over her face, whilst Sister Joan Agnes continues.
---- Has Sister Therese Bernadette the wish to be godmother? Or am I to search amongst the Community as is our custom? Mother Superior is curious, seeing already the force of Therese's attraction to the child, and it responding, though she didna know the source of the bond.
---- I should wish, dear Mother. This one has caught my heart the like of a salmon to a hook.
---- Do you be thinking of the Holy Saints and Martyrs in Heaven who will guard this special wee one? Then, as I instructed, did you, Sister, learn from our books of saints and martyrs how to call a baby with six toes?
Therese wipes her eyess wi' a corner of her sleeve, unwilling to say for what reason she cries nor what secrets she knows, fearing Sister Joan Agnes, Abbess, will read her brain.
---- Or is it you have another mind? The Lord would find never a sin in that, if you out, and every angel in Heaven knowing how many a smuggled babe you've brought to us from the city's docks. The Abbess is impatient, watching the tears.
Sister Therese Bernadette nods her knit brow.
---- Yea, Mother, I did do it, herself anxious for what she knows of her own toes and canna tell.
From the gold-lettered book of saints, Therese had chosen two guardians for Six-Toes, Margaret and Bridget. No her own Highland mother's patron saint, Queen Margaret, wife of Duncan, first King of Scotland, Sister Therese's birth-land, the Margaret what converted swords to plowshares and court idleness to bread for the poor. Mercy! Nae. Instead, Therese chose the third-order Dominican, Margaret of Castello, the abused and crippled Italian saint born into horrific deformity, lived her life between pain and piety, enduring shame and humiliation, yet always blessed her persecutors, and through her suffering, shone the light of her burning faith on them she served: truly, an illumination. And she lived in the times of Saint Maundie. Let ye mind, friend, it's meself, Maggie-Bawn, I am a Margaret too and named for me mither, what was that six-toed babby. Faith, 'tis no the holy ways of Blessed Margaret of Castello I ever cared to learn for meself---- for it's gunpowder canna purge me soul, nor a thousand suns brighten my spirit!---- nor do I bless me persecutor as she did, for me life lived under the dreadful weight of the villainous Ratsy and his whistling curse. Never can me soul be free. And I give nae thanks to God that I am crippled and alone, nor pleasure in meditating, nor salvation in Grace. 'Tis a sorra I was born.
Ma was second-named for Saint Bridget, the one Sister Augustine told performed all the Seven Sacraments in ancient times. Faith, Saint Bridget is patron saint of wee County Louth and all Ireland, ay, and the city of Drogheda too, where Therese Bernadette foreswore her brutal marriage and confessed her sinful street life. And the Magdalenes abused her. After Saint Maundie, 'tis Saint Bridget, ye'll already be guessing, is first in Mother Superior's adorations. Therese knows that.
At sundoon, here's Therese helping Mother Superior at the baptismal basin, and the playful babe in the traditional needle-point lace and white linen. Och, 'tis the Order's single and only christening robe, washed after each occasion, so it is. Therese's of two minds, stroking the babe's tummy and tickling it and whispering love words, whilst over and again seeing in her brain what she canna say aloud: Hugh Robert O'Neill, the Six-Toes' evil heathen Presbyterian grandfather---- and mebbe father too!---- and Jimmy's tale, of Six-Toes' young mother dying withoot a Roman Sacrament, and Hugh proud of that, and the lassie's brutal burial in the pong of a pigsty. Ay, the ruthless monster and the horror of incest intrude on her every thought. But here noow, aside the plain table altar, the babby is asleep in Therese's arms. The Community finishess an introit from Saint Hildegarde. The baptism starts.
---- Who speaks for this child? asks Abbess and Mother Superior, Sister Joan Agnes.
---- 'Tis Sister Therese Bernadette speaks for this child.
---- And what names do you seek for this child, Sister?
---- Margaret Bridget, Mother.
---- And what in faith does this child seek?
---- I seek holy baptism, the Word of the Gospel, the Grace of Him who has risen, and eternal life, Therese speaking as the child itself. Mother Superior, celebrant, makes the sign of the cross over the child and then Sister, and hurries the lengthy ceremony, noow in Saint Maundie's own forms, as unique to the Community as it has been an aggravation to the celebrant priests and the Apostolic Succession for six hundred years. But withoot the Mass, for want of a priest. It's first the solemn Call, the eight Beatitudes, and then a homily---- nae, an "exhortation," spoke by the Abbess, and a Silence, a psalm, then an Allelujah, and the Jubilate of Vespers, for the fall of night is nigh. Next, three readings from Ecclesiastes: "For everything there is a season ... " and responses, and then three antiphons, and all of it dotted wi' the a melodious chorus of Aves and Glorias between.
"Your mother is banished of Heaven, and I, your grandmother and your godmother, bide on the edge of the fiery pit, little one, but you shall be saved," Therese apologizes, cradling the sleeping babby in arms.
At the last, the Abbess touches the holy candle to the basin, and lights the babby's taper from it, dips her right hand in the holy water, and makes the sign of the cross over the babby.
---- We ask You, Father, to send the Holy Spirit upon this water, and for all those baptized in the name of Holy Trinity, yea, all the quick and the dead, may they rise again into Grace with this child. We pray this in our Lord's name.
Sister Therese Bernadette presses Babby Six-Toes to her breast as the Abbess makes the sign of the cross over the child.
---- To the glory of God and Holy Trinity and the paschal mystery of the Christ Jesus, and the Word Incarnate, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, and the ranks of the Apostles, the Martyrs, the Saints, and the particular intentions of our patron, Saint Maundie, and all the Holy Angels in Heaven, and of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, I baptize thee Margaret Bridget ... and Mother Superior pauses, blessing and sprinking holy water upon the head of the surprised the babby, awakened and fidgety in the midst of the blessing.
When she's a second time at the blessing and sprinkling, Six-Toes lets a lusty squall to the world beyond. A third blessing and a third holy wetting, and then it's Margaret Bridget Six-Toes announces wi' a shriek and a purple tantrum would wake the dead afore Judgement Day, she's wanting a quick end to her First Sacrament. 'Tis then, Therese lays her hand lightly on the infant's brow, and right afore the astonished Community, quick as the touch of a faerie wand, the babby's tantrum stops. Mother Superior puts a dab of holy oil on the stub of the babby's birth cord, and again makes the sign. Comes the ceremony of the chrism, and a celebration of the opening of the eyes and ears and mouth---- ay, has not Margaret already spoken!---- to see and hear and spread the Gospel, then a hymn, final Gloria, three Aves, a Pater, allelujah, an antiphon, amen, and the benediction. And that there, ye'll understand, friend, is the official beginning of the entwining of the hearts and lives of Sister Therese Bernadette, anam cara, soul-mate, and orphan Margaret Bridget O'Neill. Was it heresy here and there, the celebrant's words withoot the celebrant? Tell me, friend.
Babby Margaret Bridget renews her shrieks and struggles. The Abbess turns to Therese.
---- It's strengthy lungs she has, and a power of life itself. And it's soon enough we'll find God's intent for her. Yes, and for us. In the least, dear Sister, He will surely hear her!
---- Ay, all augurs well so far as God lets us see, dear Mother. And Margaret Bridget, do you tone that noise down, my wee mavourneen!
Whilst Sister takes the babby in arms away to her crib in the Foundling Home, the Abbess, Mother Superior, asks the crowded pews to kneel for three Aves and a Pater, and after a silence, They riz up for to do their Rosaries in unison. At the end, their Abbess instructs them:
---- From this out, nae a single word to any but ourselves about six toes. 'Tis nae sin nor subject for confession. Let us all swear to it, on the altar of God, here and now. And the Abbess leads them through a solemn pledge, and then into the Divine Office of Vespers.
Deus, they sing in four parts, "Deus, in adiutorium meum intende. Domine, ad adiuvandum ... Gloria Patri ... nunc et semper ... amen. Allelujah!" Then seven psalms, each wi' an antiphon chorused before and after and a reading at the start and afterwards. It's the Abbess, through the entire Office, puzzling oot the full meaning of the six-toed message from Heaven.
---- 'Tis nae so much I cannot hear the flutter of angel wings, yet the plainsong over-fills my ears, she tells Therese of herself straining to hear the word of God.
Mother Superior allows this private thought: "I have prayed to you many times, Blessed Saint Maundie, but I have always wondered why we never have wet-nurses amongst us. It is good to have goats and sucking rags. But is it so unbecoming for a Bride of Christ to have that thought?"
Therese knows aught of the Abbess' thinking. Instead, she smiles to herself and ties a nappie on the wriggly plump bottom, sartain Mother Superior Joan Agnes is suppressing a giggle when the nappy promptly stains wi' a squish of irreverent poop. Together, the two religious set aboot washing and changing and toweling dry their shriven Margaret Bridget, soothing the indignant bawling what starts up again. They bring softly woven cloth, sweet Sisterly crooning, and a rag dipped in fresh goat milk for suckling, them reciting the Lord's Prayer as they wark, bedad. Godamercy, the scronchy-faced wide-mouthed wailing and flailing continues. Sister Therese is houlding Margaret, then. The assembled Community watches proceedings, their silence shredded by the bawling of the babby.
---- Now, let you up from your knees, Mother Superior directs the assemblage, and let loose of your holy devices, and be scattered quickly aboot the Lord's wark that's never done.
Abbess Joan Agnes is shooing the Community from chapel, consecrated ones and would-be alike, wi' broad sweeps of her arm.
Sister Therese leaves the chapel to walk to the Foundling Home, cuddling the bairn and vowing, "Though my tongue be wrenched from my mouth, dear Margaret, I shall never tell on this earth of you being my grandchild. Yet, I will do everything that you shall live. Ay, dotey Six-Toes, Margaret Bridget, macushla, I shall love you with all my heart, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, anam cara, soul to my soul. In all I did not give your mother I shall give to you, and more." And she tells herself, "Never a body shall know whose candle I light, and whose Novena I say, and whose special intentions I pray, nor for whom I fast, when all's for to rescue the soul of your mother." Sister Therese cannot leave off about howanever she longgo abandoned her daughter, now abandoned this second time by God, denied the gates of Heaven for her dying unprovided in the cruel house of Hugh Robert O'Neill---- and it's mebbe him is the babby's sire.
Glory be! Therese buries her blameful fears for the afterlife of her dead daughter in excuses to visit cuddly granddaughter Margaret Six-Toes amongst the rows of foundling cots. Times, she visits warmly for the cooing and smiles of it; ither times in listless guilt, trying to picture her daughter dying wi' the birth of the wee bairn frets in her arms. Times she is on her knees afore Mary's icon in the Chapel, fervently praying and hoping and hungering for Margaret's survival. Times she flagellates herself wi' the blackthorn kippeen. God love us all, if learning the death of her own daughter was a knife in Therese's heart, then the death of Margaret would be a sword in her soul. Sister canna avoid the recurring despair that so few shriven orphans at all breathe two fortnight's worth in the Foundling Home's festering halls. And of the newbairns who survive at Saint Maundie's, they are like to die afore their first twelve-month or surely the next. Rare are the few who live to their first communion. So few, ay, for near all Margaret Bridget's neighbor infants withering and wasting, fallen like the roses of autumn, and it still three months afore the first summer of The Great Hunger, An Gorta Mor, will befoul Ireland.
Days come and weeks go, the Community dutifully counting their beads, tending their spinning wheels and pruning forks, their cobblers' benches and harrows, their ink-pots and chisels. They teach the letters of the alphabet and sing the lessons of the Gospel to foundlings and village children at Saint Maundie's Community school. They scrub the floors, say their Aves, wark the fields, drive what they grow to market, chant the Hours, pluck the orchards, press the wine, pass through the cycles of Great Silences and Offices, the divine Praises, the Stations. And they sing. They tend the rows of foundling cribs and cots, pray their Paters, and say their beads again. And they sing.
Days come and weeks go. Sad on sad for the meager spirits of all religious, wee Six-Toes struggles for breath and seems destined to die---- one more helpless cipher of the orphan hordes coming by their First Sacrament, only to shrivel in the rows of cribs at Saint Maundie's. Godamercy, the unfortunates live so quick from First to Last Sacrament, and them buried in sorraful rows ootside the walls, ye mind, 'tis the Community's never ending task. Yet they sing.
More weeks come and months go. Faith and fervor! Grand surprise to the Order! Ma didna die that first day, nor the first week, nor the first month, nor any time at all. Nae and nae, and nae again! Glory to God? All praise to the Virgin Queen? Faith and troth, there's more than divine intercession here, thanks to Sister Therese Bernadette, godmother, so it is. It's herself secretly helps her blood child to grow against the Divil's rules, and the bairnie the like of a protected seedling sprouted amongst barren Hebridean rocks. Och, it's more of Sister's efforts, I'll be telling ye soon enough.
"Six-Toes suckles the like of three leeches, and her wailing is louder than the north wind in November," marvel the religious, one the ither, six months later whensomever she has taken root.
And what of Sister Therese's confession longgo to the priests of Drogheda city, of her Protestant marriage to Hugh O'Neill, of her abandoning their home and daughter, of her sinning on the city streets? Sister never confess such again, be she postulant, novitiate, nor after the veil, nor after her final vows, nor ould confessor or new. And never is it she stops her private mourning for her daughter dying in Six-Toes' birth, but harbors it and, as well, the unsartainty of incest in the villainy of Hugh Robert O'Neill. Beyond the inner sorra of her heart, she canna find reason to reveal to her confessor nor the Community her own six toes. So all this continues to pass unbeknownst to ithers in the Calced Order of the Community of Saint Maundie at Ayr, whilst herself wrestles the Divil, solitary in her cell wi' her soul and the tormenting nights. And she, the like of a Penitente, scourging herself wi' the brutality of the blackthorn twig in punishment for abandoning Margaret's mother, herself scraping and slashing her flesh for partikiler sins, bringing forth dark and bright blood from white arms and legs, all of it hidden from the light of day under the iron discipline of the black habit.
By a single candle in her cell, she takes the crucifix from her girdle, places it against a wall and faces it, making herself naked the like of the Figure on the Cross. She kneels, whispers a Pater, and prays: "It is me, your servant, long since confessed, dear Lord." And she closes her eyes. "It's again I humble myself afore Your Son, Holy Mother, again my penance for unspeakable sins, for abandoning the daughter whose name I cannot say for the guilt in my heart, ay, for herself whose death I grieve with all my intentions and devotions, she who died unannointed, without God's office, suffering the lack of the blessed word and the Last Sacrament, nor the soft voices of the Holy Angels, she the dead mother of Margaret Bridget. Pray for her, I beg, Holy Mother!"
And she stands and scourges herself with the blackthorn, and feels the three notches of it---- not knowing whose fingernails clawed them into the twig---- and sinks to her knees whispering a Pater, and prays: "It is your miserable servant, Glorious One, long since confessed, it is again I humble myself afore You, Holy Mother, again my penance for the life of venial wrongs on the sinful streets of Drogheda. Pray for the helpless soul of my daughter, Holy Mother! I suffer my penance, and gladly, ay, joyously do I submit heart and soul, body and blood, yea, to bleed as Your Son bled, and to live, and yea, to die for her born of of my womb. I beg, pray for her, I beseech, Holy Mother!"
Ay, friend, the dying was to come, but not in any way Sister Therese Bernadette thought.
She stands and scourges herself with the blackthorn. Whip! Slash! Rip! She sinks to her knees whispering a Pater, and prays: "It is your servant, Holy Mother, long since confessed, it is again I humble myself afore Your Sacred Heart, again my penance for the sins I cannot say even within the four walls of my cell. I cannot cry for my daughter. I pray You guide her to Heaven. And let burn the monstrous fiend, her hateful father, Hugh Robert O'Neill, by the fallen angels of the fiery furnace."
It's on her knees she chants the lament of Dies Irae, stanza on stanza, very like Revelations set to poetry, so it is, and she prays to suffer for her sins. 'Tis the prophecy of Saint Theresa of Avila she seeks but canna find---- the forgiveness of God in the ecstasy of death.
She stands to scourge herself again, stares at the cross, sinks to her knees whispering a Pater, and beseeches: "O! Pray for me, Mother Mary. Let God fill me with the Holy Spirit, Sweet Lady, let The Lord give me the courage. Let flow blood to punish my sins for to purify my soul," She clenches the sharps of the blackthorn twig, rubs the three notches, gazes fixedly upon the wounded Lord nailed to His wooden crucifix, her soul trussed in iron bands. Slow and deliberate, she slashes one and another stripe on her forearm, watches the bright red wellings, feels the exquisite ecstasy of pain. "It is I, your Penitente," she whispers to her patron Saint Teresa of Avila amidst the sweet agony of her passion, herself gazing as if from another body upon the drawn bloody strokes.
In the swooning exultation of release, so it is, she who canna cry, she drops tears of burning salt upon her wounds and feels the flaming in her heart, as did Teresa of Avila longgo. And the blackthorn twig, ye'll be knowing, friend, what Therese will never know, howanever in anither place and anither time it will draw an evil sinner's blood. But let ye hould yer chair doon. Whisht! Ye're wanting the end of the story afore we've middled it? Go on wi' ye! Let ye hear me tale.
















Illustration the eighteenth

261

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: growing


It's during Margaret's first four years, 1845 to 1849, the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mor, empties the Irish countryside. At Saint Maundie's Foundling Home, it come never enough cribs for the hordes of dying infants arriving, wee emaciated bairnies, cursed wi' each and every contagion of the apocalypse. Faith, there's many a Saint Maundie communicant afeared Margaret Bridget's respite from the grave must noow draw up a ha'pint short a quart; surely, they forecast, she will---- och! she must, die of this blight or that. The Community light their candles and pray their most pious Paters. And it's whilst they be grieving, never in this world does Sister Therese Bernadette harbor a single drop of doot on the ootcome, nor the justice of her own clandestine doings.
" 'Tis for sartain the festering air will infect wee Margaret itself," the younger religious solemnly hew to their grim prophesy.
"In all our years amongst the cribs and the cots, these be the saddest," the older ones shakes their heads dolefully over Six-Toes' wee crib.
"Howanever is the Margaret-bairn to survive this horrific chaos?" the unsuspecting ones wonders and wags their heads, knowing aught of Sister There's secret doings.
"Where will Heaven find a guardian angel for Margaret?" they puzzle, amidst the countless shriven foundling souls after fluttering off for their own angels.
"Tell me if you can, howanever she is to survive?" all seeing the legions of newly arrived babbies, dying of the contagions they spread.
"God's truth, Six-Toes bides only to die," they conclude glumly, for all know that even amongst the precious shriven survivors, it's hardly a handful of them gets past the later plagues scourging crib and cot.
"Ay, 'tis yet the curse of An Gorta Mor, and Margaret, she canna escape," the holy ones anguish.
Faith and troth, friend, it's never a religious from the Abbess to her least Postulant, suspects a morsel of Therese Bernadette's secret doings, never a one aware Therese speaks less than she knows, and knows more than she prays, keeping to herself the confidences of her heart. As sunrise veils the mysteries of starlight and night hides the shadows of angels, she conceals the secrets of her anam carra. From Sister Therese comes no a single clue to Margaret's blood bond, nor Sister's own six toes, nor her own secret scourging. In Sister's confessions to a succession of Jesuit priests, never a chirrup does she peep of such things, for in her heart, none are sins. At the fall of night, after Vespers, and the Jubilate still echoing, whilst ithers banter and loll waiting on the next silence of The Office, Sister Therese is excused for to make safe, so she says, the goat barn:
" 'Tis my humble duty," she smiles her guile to the Abbess, "for the love of dear Sister Jeanne Maria, what wishes to be shut of wee bearded beasts has horns. 'Tis the like, she says, talks to fallen angels, and puts the Divil's grin on a froth of milk. Mother, let me make swift to spare her from all them fears and dreads. 'Tis a sisterly thing I would gladly do." Mother Superior smiles too, and allows Therese to milk the goats at eventide.
"Today, to every cow belongs her calf. And to every nanny, her kid. For yesterday is done, and Margaret belongs to me," Therese justifies herself, patting her favored goat as she readies Jimmy Callahan's leathern bottle---- och, Godamercy! unbeknownst to her, Hugh O'Neill's afore him. "You are in the Lord's service," herself, offering up her Aves silently, urges this special female goat, this 'minseach,' to the rhythm of white spurts splattering against her wooden bucket.
"It's our Margaret will survive," Sister Therese confides into the patient animal's ear, squirting the rich squeezings at the end into anither wee empty pail. "And it's us females makes that sartain."
Alone in the dark and musty goat barn, she transfers the creamy striplings into the old leathern flask, and hoists that on a sling within the concealing tucks of her habit. Later, she suspends it between her breasts, and feeds the babby like a wet-nurse. It's the strengthy silence of Sister's voice and the special intentions of her soul defends her beliefs, ay, all the white lies of venial sin she spins for to flourish Margaret. It's in this way, Sister singles her anam cara from the endless flock of dying bairns tumbling daily into the orphanage, fresh from their cauls.
Thinks Therese, "It's in the chance of a sand-clock, a boat, a voyage, in the choice of day, height of sun, arms of moon, a single Ave, then God showers His mercies or withdraws them, and the window of Heaven opens or closes its intercessions. It's all the days and years of coming and going, and all what dies too soon at sea and on land, and all the souls of them too short of baptism, ay, the blighted seed harrowed and harvested by the Divil's cohorts itself, the souls sinking to Limbo and the bodies mouldering in rows and never a cross to mark the spot of the unshriven. Never such chances for you, my Margaret! Never in this world for you, Babby Six-Toes, blood of my blood! Nae! Never, never, never!"
And of the misfortuned unshriven bairns, none in the Community talk aloud on the righteousness of Limbo, where the Catechism says aught of their fate. The Sisters make themselves busy attending them bairns still breathing, and the newly baptized, yet when these poor babes lie doon in the long crowded halls of the Foundling Home, they have scarce faired better on earth than the unshriven gone to Limbo. It's soon enough their souls, too, fly from the rows of cribs to the left and to the right, in the waste of their flesh, in the inhaled puke from the puerperal curse of birth itself, or the hazardous journey to Ayr, or the imported plagues of An Gorta Mor: French pox, smallpox, consumption, black fever, typhoid, the bloody flux, or mebbe brain fever, or measles, or tetany, or merely want of such strength of heart as safeguards the Margaret. Holy Trinity alone knows whatanever the chances. Some say, it's the luck of the shriven souls to flee from their cribs sooner nor later, spiraling up to heaven like the ten thousand gannets circles up from the blue granite cliffs of Ailsa Craig. Whisht!
Some say, " 'Tis God's wish." Och, some say.
But Sister Therese Bernadette, she says, "Nae so quick for you, Margaret, to fly amongst angels."
For when it's beyond the beyonds of a thousand unrequited prayers and countless thousands of beads unanswered day and night, and amidst the flocks of the dying babes, one supplication is justified again and again. Never is the author of that special intention revealed to the Community: Sister Therese Bernadette cuddling the babby Margaret, the like of Mary holding the Precious Gift Itself. And Sister smiles in her own soul, does her decades, and says aught to break what her Highland heart thinks a magical blackthorn spell. It's after offering up her prayers and her ecstatic penitential slashing each night, she carefully hides the precious twig in a sartain cranny.
The Community marvels: "God and Mary be praised, and the Holy Martyrs and Saints. See how the Margaret-bairn thrives past the shadows!" whilst some look askance wi' wonder on the omen of six toes and ask, does it be for guid and for increase---- or does it be the Divil's secret device, God protect us! for a lurking ill-fortune to come? Och, faith and troth, despite the arguments for and against, the Community itself flourishes as never afore. And the foundlings die.
"Sister, we canna favor one bairnie, even a godchild, among the many," the Abbess, Mother Superior, warns Therese, suspecting something is up time and again. But flesh and blood defeat those Motherly decrees, and the odd incident what might reveal Therese's plot never occurs, whilst the controversial murmurs aboot the true meaning of the six toes riz like the incoming tide.
"Praise God, my wee dote! For as Fintan, the Salmon of Knowledge, swimmed up the Boyne from the sea, you shall have a salmon and a half," whispers Sister Therese over and again, houlding babby Margaret close in fleshy pleasure. Och! Away from the babby, there were painful dreams.
The Boyne! Sister remembers her own fearful crossing of the Boyne in flight from Hugh O'Neill and the thought stabs her heart: "God in Heaven, forgive myself, Laurie Jane O'Neill, mother of the mother of wee Babby Six-Toes, my precious Margaret Bridget," she cries in the distress of her penitential guilt.
Praise ye Sweet Mary, bless ye, Martyrs and Saints, bless ye Heavenly Hosts! For God listens, and the ill fortune falling upon ithers is aisy milk to Margaret, me Ma. She's growing from bawling bairn to wily wean to limber lass, whilst all times the Guid Shepherd stands steady between His lamb and all harm, no matter the pestilence and sorra rages amongst the other cots and the cribs. Ay, friend, she come to be a handsome cailin waxing on her orphan's pittance and Sisterly affections amidst the Order's vows of poverty and obedience. And never a worry in her brain aboot chastity, what she canna understand. Yet. 'Tis in innocence alone she's after carrying sartain sealed messages in the night to sartain persons, and hears the muffled creak of sartain doors and the soft padding of sartain feet and the soulful hush of sartain sighs, and temptation whispering a cloth's width away. She didna look to the right nor the left, keeping the Catechism in her heart, her beads near her fingers, a clear eye in her head, her hands never idle, and her feet, never still---- what come to be shod from the beginning in accord wi' Mother Superior's visions. Shod the like of any communicant at Saint Maundie's, but for Margaret, to protect her magic. At every waning moon, she waxes stronger, and the months grow to years. And Sister Therese Bernadette hovering over, the like of a guardian angel. And yet ...
In the passage of time, an aura of guid fortune weaves aboot Saint Maundie's, a legend 'round Margaret and her secret magical six toes. Faith! Ye'll understand, from the first day of her arrival, the Community's orchards and fields grow heavier in abundance, and the fowl and animals fattening until their skin's near to bursting, noo matter the Divil's continuing carnage and slaughter in the halls of the Foundling Home. Through the whole horrific four years of An Gorta Mor, Saint Maundie's warks thrive, whilst the foundlings wither. It's Saint Maundie's stall at the dock-side markets of Ayr draws the crowds. It's Saint Maundie's cheeses becomes the prize offerings of Glasgoow dairy shops, and known up to Edinburgh and beyond, east and west, in the Scottish highlands and glens, its shores and islands. It's Saint Maundie's woven cloth wanted for tailors of the carriage trade, and the lace for the ladies and Saint Maundie's shoes for the Highland gentry. It's Saint Maundie's leathers wanting for the horses. It's the Sisters thrive wi' implements for the fields and gardens, and tools for the warkrooms, and utensils for the kitchens, all manufactured by these same clever, earnest, singing communicants. And all products sold to the public. Och, when The Great Hunger ends, the six toes' blessings of prosperity continue. 'Tis a power whose origin is known only to Saint Maundie's own religious, a secret silent by consensus and the Abess' decree none in the Community betray, no even one the ither, enclosed as if it ben under the earth within a faerie ring-fort, and then tunneled under guard into the Community holdings.
But noow amidst yet anither Irish potato failure, the Community gathers its swelling resources for to barter over a great bronze bell, ay, and to build a steepled campanile to house it. Their own hands is what digs the clay, fires the brick, hauls the stone, and cuts the timbers for to construct the tower, and hauls the bell a-top at a special Mass begrudgingly celebrated by the Bishop himself. Och, hinself holding his apoplectic envy. It's that there bell rings oot the glory of God across the countryside, up hill and doon glen, to announce every Community Office and every formal devotion. Along the Firth of Clyde and across the Irish Sea to Ireland of the North or the South, from the Isle of Man to the north-most Skerries, the story of that bell, the sight of its steeple---- and the products of Saint Maundie's Community shops and fields!---- become legend. All the while, the bairns arriving at the Foundling Home, even after this second Great Hunger ends, ben dying fast as afore. 'Tis many a hushed and suspicious tongue asks, why do the babbies die when the Community shops and fields thrive, and many a shaking head what answers, whispering again of the Divil's wark, ye mind.
All this come to pass, and never a one communicant's health suffers the Divil's visit, but all wax in strength and vigor. In the halls, on the pastures, in the fields, across warktables, afore the Silence of Offices, after devotions, the religious tell one the ither, Margaret Six-Toes, she brings all this, and howanever it must be she is touched by the Holy Spirit. Mother Superior, the Abbess, has long believed in her visions. 'Tis in her heart of hearts, that the six toes itself truly bring blessings from Heaven, and more to come. Och, she requires for Margaret to be protected all times the like of the sacred ewer in the sacristy. And she marks the length of guid fortune and the growing strength of Saint Maundie's Order, what riz a puzzlement and a challenge to the mitred Bishop, his mystified black-frocked priests, and the red-hatted Cardinal. The echoes spread to the Consistory in Rome, and back to Ayr wi' an ordinary appointed by the Holy See. Still, nae a single examiner beyond Saint Maundie's Community knows the Margaret has six toes.
It's whilst the consumption decimates the diocese, here come Father McCandless's replacement, himself a Jesuit, for to celebrate the Sacraments wi' the Sisters. Over years, he looks narrow-eyed and troubled at the bountiful Community fairm and the flowering of its warks, and he's confounded by them well-fed rosy-cheeked religious singing, industrious, and happy, their larders swollen, their storehouses overflowing. It's in his homilies he has aught to say of the dying foundlings but makes artful references to the holiness of poverty, and Judas who loved silver, and howanever The Child denounced corruption at the Temple. But the Sisters, God bless them, singing as they pray, look sidelong at the Jesuit priest and his order, inhale sharply, and riz their earnest chants to Heaven, and their toil-worn antiphons. It's still the secret of the six toes remains wi' the Calced Order and known to nae ither, even a Jesuit priest. Instead, the Hierarchy concerns its self wi' the shod feet of Saint Maundie's Community, och, to them the next thing to sin.
Musha, the Community's strengthy hearts are set in answer, axing, "Wheresomever are the barefoot Jesuits? Who are the priests or bishops, all wearing shoes, or the Pope in Rome, to say of shod and no shod? Pray for us, Sweet Mary, Blessed Among Women. Heart of Flame, reveal for us who is it on Earth is the fire and who the hearth? Who the mare and who the cart?"
Faith, it's again the ancient struggle between the Brides of Christ and the Bride of Christ---- the Holy Order of the Sisters of Saint Maundie and this here girl-child, Margaret, at the center and Therese Bernadette by her side, against the Holy Church of priests, bishop-men and cardinal-men, acolytes, deacons. Noo the same as 'regulars' versus 'seculars' in the verses of longgo, but the flavor lingers.
"Dare we think of it, dear Sister?" whispers one the ither. "Is it not possible the sixth deadly sin, ay, envy itself, is noow being committed under priestly vestments? Ay, sixth! Is that number no Heaven's message? And six more Sacraments for Sisters to claim? Six toes?" And so they return to their warks of guid labors and charity to the glory of God and the Virgin Mother, still saying naething to the Hierarchy upon their own growing belief in the blessed---- or does it be magical?---- powers of Margaret's toes.
So many times Sister Therese whispers confidences to Margaret over the years, and still never telling the names of boat nor fisherman who brought her, nor of the Kevin-boy, nor reveals a morsel of her own lurid past. And still unbeknownst to Margaret is the contract of Hugh O'Neill and Christy Mahony locked away in the private library of Mother Superior. God shine His face upon all, there's more nor a voyage or a parchment what's hidden, and Sister Therese, all times in the Community's eye whilst concealing the doings of her hands and heart, her never-ending secret intercessions for her granddaughter, her godchild. Sister stanches her hope in secret grottoes of her spirit, keeping her pledge of longgo to her sprouting anam cara, to guard and defend her, for her eyes stay fixed always on Margaret Bridget.
It's a handful of Saint Maundie's ither baptised foundlings survives whole the like of Margaret, wi' two hands to grasp and two legs to walk, and two ears to hear and two eyes can see---- nae the next babby's measles to put them deaf, nor their ma's gonorrhea to put them blind, nor da's syphilis to eat oot their brains!---- in those desperate years. These few, is it, riz from their cribs to walk and talk, and do ye ken their destiny, God save all? It's the Community gates and the Wheel passes the new-bairns in, and the pious Sisters passes the children oot, soon as their fifth year. Oot where to? On to the land they go, for to make room for more babbies coming in. Always the more babbies.
Godamercy, do ye think them luckless children as leaves Saint Maundie's will thrive the way of God's blessings at happy hearthsides? Sorra on ye, friend! They go the like of animals, trundled in traps and cars to market squares across Scotland, there to stand on station frightened oot their piss, whilst the townfowk inspects them the like of colts at the gelding. Whatanever next, ye'll be axing? It's them helpless little ones hauled between humiliation and hopelessness, so I'm saying, into the families of farmers, tradesmen, and fishermen, och, and rogues and montebanks and, God forbid, the bestial brethren to Hugh Robert O'Neill-the-depraved. 'Tis enough to make ye puke yer guts oot this night, friend, but juist a amall piece of life in 1849. And let ye make an honest breast of it, do ye think Fagan is only a villain in a book? It's in knowing all this, the Abbess will never send Margaret away.
Ye mind, fresh hands is what's wanted on the land, and limber legs and bendy backs, and for children to do the wark of beasts and drudges. God love 'em, these tender young orphans shovels the pong and scrubs the floors in their adopted homes, draws the water, hews the kindling, milks the goat, digs the spuds, plants the grain, keeps the hens, and hauls the slops. When they should be learning to read and write, it's them wee innocents bound to the mechanical looms, every breath congested wi' lint, or doon the mines, faces black and lungs choked wi' smudge. It's cheap orphan labor, and often ill used worser than an Irish patriot in the Maze. Do ye no see the injustice, and the Queen's parliament standing idle, and her counselors curling their wigs?
"Glory be," do ye ax, me friend, "for didna the foundlings be after surviving or dying same as the home-born bairns in those parlous times? 'Tis God's plan, in't?" Do ye no be axing then, " Didna Saint Maundie's orphans be doing the wark the like of any ither children in Scotland in the longgo, be it Highlands or Lowlands?" Aint it that and a' that yer meaning?
God hould ye lightly, ye have reason, friend, for on the land it's all the natural family's own babbies be swept away by sickness and death, and near fast as those riz in the foundling homes. A child's life in those times ben a farthing's worth to the crowns and pounds of an able grown-up ... but it's all grown-up a lad be at ten years. Remember Kevin gang to sea wi' Jimmy? And lasses the like, when they be blooded, friend, married at fourteen, wi' child at fifteen. Remember the lass and the tinker? There's no enough sod to cover nor stones to remember the countless young Irish lasses dies the like of Margaret's ma, birthing first time too young, hips too narrow, all torn apart, and suffering the horrid death of puerperal fever. Let labor an Irishwoman ten times in childbirth in 1850, and many do more, she ben blessed to see two lives to the marrying age, and still more the luck to bide that length herself. Nae mystery, so, it's often enough the children of Saint Maundie's Foundling Home what do survive are sent oot into motherless families. And whereanever, I ask ye, is the love in that, God shine His face on all? Musha, our Margaret, never will she be sent to the toil and moil of the countryside. For her, the way of it come truly a different path afore she's toddling. She come a special child different from any ither of Saint Maundie's foundlings.
"We do it for to protect all the blessings of her six toes," says Mother Superior, the Abbess, still knowing only her own visions and aught of the blackthorn twig or the bloody penitential wark it does in Therese's cell.
If Margaret is never ben sent away for adoption, yet at first she's too young to let live in the Community amongst Postulants. Mother Superior surrenders willingly to Sister Therese's endless campaign for to stay as Margaret's special protector, " ... to vouchsafe the welfare of the Community and the protection of God's special gift," says Sister Therese Bernadette. It must be the Heavenly Hosts surround the child, for she gains a place in the sun, privileged to bide in the Main House amongst the veiled and vowed Sisters, instead of in a Foundling Home crib, God bless her. It come to pass, every Bride of Christ takes turns to mither Margaret, or rock her cradle, or play dollies wi' her on the flags of the floor, or spoon her porridge, or juist for to touch the six toes, all the while Sister Thereselooks on and Mother Superior dreams holy visions of blessed toes.
" 'Tis the luck of the Margaret," communicants whisper secretly, crossing themselves, counting their beads, confessing contritely for the basphemy of the naming of 'luck,' but carefully says aught of six toes when the confessional screen slides open, believing there is no sin in the knowing.
"You must say instead, 'blessing,' Sister. Three Aves, and a Pater," from beyond the screen.
Half the way to her second year, Margaret has done wi' nappies. It's in her precocious third year, she first learns to put pen to paper, still having seen aught of the wide world. When she is four, in 1849, she learns to pluck weeds and scatter seed amongst furrows, to drive the geese, catch a weaver's shuttle, and pick fallen fruit for her wee basket. In the season, she treads her shod six toes in the grape vats for winemaking, and dances shod on the grain at harvest. And her wee fists punch doon the dough for to bake bread.
In 1850, and all unbeknownst to Margaret, those three craven rogues oot her past---- weasely wet-nurse, wily witch, and perfidious priest---- what conspired to plot her course to Ayr, they wilt and die, felled by the plagues riding amok following The Second Hunger. It's them three blackguards, ye'll be happy knowing, for to be tried by Heaven's jury and sentenced in the wrath of God's judgement. As for for Hugh O'Neill and Christy Mahony---- them two names unknown to all in Saint Maundie's Community community, nor has little Margaret yet heared of them in this world---- methinks them are after burning in Hell since Margaret's first week on earth. Himself who begat Margaret, the tinker, also dead five years since, is mebbe still fish bait at the bottom of the Mull, what I told ye, and Jimmy Callahan's body ground to atoms on Hebridean rocks whilst Manannan Mac Lir steered his soul aboard Wave-Sweeper to the Paradise of the Western World.
Och, but Margaret? It's in this here fifth year, she begins to read wi' Therese Bernadette in the Gospels, and the Book of Revelations become a favorite for its strange beasts and lurid scenes. She treasures partikilerly the Community's precious Book of Hours, opened on special feast-days and high Holy Days, pairs of colorful pages side-by-side, invested in gauldy icons and brilliant calligraphy, surrounded by mysteriously serpentine Celtic borders. Mother Superior says the intricate designs began wi' the pious ones long afore Saint Maundie's own time, for to preserve in secret the Gospel and the Offices, safe from maraulding pagan intentions, yet handed doon among the religious, generation upon generation. Come Margaret's sixth birthday in 1851, and in that era, it's nae the age for Communion amongst children, for the mitred ones pontificating wee children canna comprehend Catechism, nor Grace, nor the liturgy. Rot! For Margaret does understand. And yet in her heart of hearts she wonders. Ay, yet ...
In 1853, Margaret is seven years ould and puzzling the meaning of the Scriptures, what sews her mind wi' dark seeds of doot. Yet, she puts her blessed and growing toes inside her new Community shoes the like of all Shod Sisters around her, ye mind. When Margaret is eight, six thousand miles away in the dry hills of Nevada come a silver rush the like of a gusher well, that she canna know one day will bring better than gold to her. By the time Margaret is nine, she's after becoming a legend ootside the Order of Saint Maundie, but her six toes still a secret. Lord love her, she grows more strengthy wi' each task and trial at the Community. She finds increasing favor within the Order for the humility of her devotions, and the ootreaching arms of her heart, and a great will to do God's bidding amongst the unending press of the sick, the dying, and the morbid tasks of near daily burials of the foundlings. And yet ...
In her tenth year, it's across the Irish Sea in the valley of the River Bann, come a cursed season perversely unkind to planting and harvests, and the potato fails again. And when that curse ends, the cholera follows, the cow spreads infected milk, the hare spreads infected meat, and them Irish what didna die, they spread the 'Irish curse': consumption. At the shebeen of Meggeen Mike Mahony, it's only the penniless and scrofulous bona fide is left for to beg a drop of the craythur, until the consumption carries them off too. In 1852, it's Meggeen's husband, Christy is seven lean years dead, their Public House rent in arrears and the taxes overdue, and the weight of debt pushing doon further the shebeen's falling fortunes. Meggeen canna resist the cruel power of the vicious young landlord, Francis Xavier Rathlin---- ay, that Ratsy. His rascally da ben dead of the cholera, and his brother Fingal banished, and himself inheritor of all his sire's ill-gotten fiefdom---- it's Ratsy, noow eighteen, calls himself a 'gentleman,' the brigand! And its himself brings the Irish law hard doon on Meggeen. Nae, aint Irish courts a-tall, mind ye, 'tis English law twisted aboot the Irish throat.
Noow come Ratsy's 'emergency men' wi' axe and spade and the crowbar brigade, knocks Meggeen toothless, levels the shebeen, and she driven off, a penniless vagabond to walk the hilly roads facing the wind, gleaning in the barren fields, sleeping alone in the furzy brakes and muddy ditches, begging and worser on the mucky lanes of poverty in wee County Louth. Ye'll contrive to remember that. And Jimmy Callahan in the Western World, or Heaven or Hell, or Limbo, God only knows, he's mebbe pondering that and a' that. and the power of a sixth toe or a blackthorn kippeen wi' three notches against the Sea-Divil. For the whistling curse Ratsy cast on all them what touched Belle of Newcastle, it didna end.
God hould me ma, Margaret, in the palm of His hand, 'tis deep inside herself, the small dark seed roots in her soul, so it is. The sorra and turrible agonies of the dying infants, the horror of those arrives dead and unshriven and their prospects of Limbo, the repeated catastrophes of a second and then a third Great Hunger, the naked starvelings thrust at the Community gates by day or dumped on the Wheel by night, the submission of Christ's brides of Saint Maundie afore this flood of births, pestilence, and death, and the arrogance of the priests, it all tears at her heart. If it's caring for the suffering babes gripes her soul, it's God's grim tolerance for the pointless and tragic, and all lit by the lightning of unsartainty oot a lowering sky of doot.
Come in the nights the beasts of the apocalypse haunts and harries Margaret, clawing and gnawing upon her spirit, shredding her dreams, indelible images from the Book of Revelations, punishments so awful for sins so ordinary, all contrary to Saint Maundie's bequeathal of Sisterly loving-kindness, and hope, and charity. Slowly, notch by notch, from a very young age, there slip aways of Margaret the Community ideals---- the sweetness of wark in God's vineyards, the music of Heaven, the pleasance of piety, the guidness of giving. God hould her in the palm of His hand! It's the Community knows aught of her conflicts. Instead, the Sisters give themselves reason, seeing howanever she grows in trust and labor, walking every road, climbing every hill, overing all the rocks and stiles and ditches, never succumbing to the scorch of July nor the snows of January, no in her soul, no of the day. God between all and harm, for the religious, them sheltered by their faith and protected by their icons, Margaret is whatanever they want for her to be.
Reading, writing and language Margaret learnt from Therese, so they be a northeast Irish part of a Scot's brogue. She keeps a journal, didna be every day, telling her times, and the part of Therese's story she learnt, the growing up of young Laurie Jane. It's from them writings meself put together this part of her story. Ahh, but 'tis a great scuttle for to crab me twisted spine up the stairs where the Margaret's journal stays. Hold yer horse, for it's a week since, a little birdie told me it's yerself was to come. And that's howanever I brought the journal doon to the parlor, so I did. If yer wanting, mebbe, we can let off for to read it noow.
But first, anither cup of tay? It's the agues and plaints of ould age, me spine and me hump too, I canna move so far in this moment. Ye'll find God's blessing and an angel on yer shoulder if ye let walk to the kettle on the stove. And ye'll be saving me great pain if ye bring it oot when it's warm, God bless ye all yer days. And so if it's Margaret's journal yer wanting, I fetched it over there, to the table by the window.













Illustration the nineteenth

277

CHAPTER NINETEEN: learning


It's in the year of 1854. Margaret is nine, and in her heart, it's dark seeds of unbelief taking deeper root. She understands for the first time howanever herself bides in a community of answers, whilst her brain is a clatter of questions. Exactly who will be cured at Lourdes? Whatanever is Limbo? Wherenever precisely is Hell? Howsomever does the moon but not the sun go 'round the world? Does God pee? Are there snakes in Heaven? Whatsomever is it sours milk? Why do colors fade? Where is my soul?
Times, the young Postulants speak of the world they come from, worlds she never seen, filled wi' people she never met, doing things she never imagined. And men! Times, Sister Therese takes her to the docks at Ayr and Margaret watches the men aboot the market, it's wi' a fresh eye. Men big and little, young and ould, strong and frail, farmers and drovers and woodcutters and smiths and tailors. Goat-herds, jewelers, merchants, farriers, storekeepers, longshoremen, sailors, dray-men, fishermen of this class and that, men of guid will and bad, evil and gentle, ruffians and dandies, soldiers, tinkers, layaboots, stalwarts, laddies, geezers, going-aboot vagrants ... and her brain starts to question the world in a new way. All these men, were they were once bairns in cribs? Do them and Joseph and Jesus and all the male saints have that ridiculous billy-goat sausage they hide below? Ay, it's everything at all in her journal becomes why? and what? and when? and where? and how? And more and more aboot man and woman, and a' that. Here, friend, hand over her diary---- let these ould rheumy eyes focus and ye hear me Ma's faded words of longgo. Here's pages in her ninth year.
"May 11, 1854 Asked SrT tell about her at 9, She learnt All 69 St Theresa m-a-x-i-m-s &
not say 69 any more. wont say why. 44 never c-o-m-p-a-i-r self wih others. Compairisons are odius. lived in a grand house. Her Da Captin Duncan M-i-t-c-h-e-l-l O'Day,
ship of line 4 masts
Servints cooked & fed horses weans not put out own chambr pots. a good life have servints when I grown up. Sr's Ma died when 4th bro born."
"Jun 15, 1854 SrT says sentense ends in stop & begins wih Capital. Also names & Ma and Da. Sr 7 sent 2 carmelite school. Not home oney 6 times
a year & summer 1 month. Learnt reading, writing Latin & french & sums & divide. Dance. Eat off fine chiena called etaket wih sturling service
& spinning & stiching & make pattins & simpull lace. Play spinet. Sr plays pumporgan in chapel. Her Da always on boat sailing 2 Oshuns. So he marryd her off
when 14. SrT nevver tells on marrige. Oney bad. She leff. What is bad?"
"Jun 19. SrT tells me c-o-u-r-ting for yung ones. Lads call on lasses. It havs many rules & regalations. they must be pesented one 2 an other. First the boy. The 2
families name each child then they face. Lad must bow. Lass mus kurtsy. Lads mus be p-o-l-i-t-e. & not pull hair touch oney hands & & &
never let a lad to pinch my bottom."
"July 5. Lasses mus learn 2 speak with eyes they waer peticoats & may be when Ma dont see you show him wee bit of peticoat, Named f-l-i-r-t-i-n-g. Some games maybe play in garden. Hide behind bush & he finds you. What happens? May be an other day."
"July 22 1856 St Theresa says Lissen to ill of no one & speak ill of no one oney yourself. When you begin to like yourself did this you made
p -r-o progress."
Skip a bunch and two years and then it's this here page, a sunny "Augus" afternoon. The Margaret lass is eleven, and them in the Community orchard wi' Therese, culling apples. And Ma's brain mebbe wanders again the way of Sister Therese's marriage. Let me tell the sense of the page, och, let me speak for Margaret in her longgo brogue:
"If ye were happy in yer marriage," she's axing Sister, "and ye had a wee boy, what would ye call him?"
"O, Margaret," Sister's saying, "I didna have a boy, and I ben fair from happy in marriage, but if God gave me one, I should call him, 'Duncan,' after my da. For it's a grand auld name. 'Twas the father of Robert the Bruce. Ay, but long afore him, och, noow seven hundred years since and counting, Even afore Saint Maundie, Margaret, little dote, was a Duncan first King of Scotland, didna ye ken?"
"I know from my history. And MacBeth slew him."
"Ay, and Mister Shakespeare's ink, I'm afeared it's to be smelt longer than Duncan's blood. Truly, King Duncan, he died by a foul hand---- martyred the like of a saint, he was---- and mebbe didna be MacBeth, the traitor, what Mister Shakespeare made such a villain. God forgive Mister his stage, for it's nae all the world. Heaven save us! The English do so often decline in error, and we Scots, how we ha'e suffered through history for the like of it! But true bluid rights all wrongs, lass, and Duncan's grandson Malcolm, God bless him, the third Malcolm he was, avenged his dear Daideo and reigned twenty-five years, mebbe. To Scotland's glory it was, Margaret. Never forget, Irish child, it's Scotland's yer home ... And do ye ken who was Malcolm's wife?"
"I didna, and ye shall tell me."
"It was Saint Margaret herself."
Canna ye hear, friend, Sister Therese Bernadette's Highland burr in the "R" of Margaret?
"Saint Margaret ... was Macolm's wife?"
"Ay, lass. Herself it was tamed her warrior man, till he made peace in the land. And the courts of Scotland to do juistice for the low and the oppressed, ay, blessed Margaret did that and a' that. And founded churches for all, east and west, north and south, and hospices for the sick. And gathered alms, mountains of alms. Saint Margaret is the reason a body canna wark on the sabbath: she made it so." And Sister says another of Saint Theresa's maxim to explain what Saint Margaret did.
"53. Saint Theresa says, 'Make acts of all the other virtues' "
"Then, it's so, Sister, my christened name, Margaret, 'tis after that holy one, amn't I? O, I see, Sister. She is the one I have always asked for intercession, and the name day I celebrate."
"Nae, child. Your celebrant in Heaven is Blessed Margaret of Castello, the one born too soon, too small, wi' a curlicue spine, all gimpy and blind, fair away beyond in Italy. That Blessed Margaret. Ay, herself who was given away at birth ... given away the like of you, macushla. And I have never said this to you afore."
"God's love protect me! Then, Sister, it's all this time, I always asked ... prayed to the wrong Margaret. And celebrated the wrong name day. The wrong feast-day. I didna be lame; my spine is straight. Ye never told me! And I do see very well, I do. What will God do to me? Did I sin?"
"Nae, God will love ye, dote. 'Tis invincible ignorance, my lamb. Ye see for yourself the babbies in the cribs, and how often they die, or struggle wi' this affliction and that." Sister Therese's face grows serious and her eys gaze beyond. "I prayed to yer Blessed Margaret, herself born deformed, and knows all what pain and lameness can bring on this earth, and the loneliness of being sent away ... she would protect ye from whatanever herself suffered. Protect ye, she did. For ye suffered none of that and a' that the wee bairns in the Foundling Home suffered."
"I see," says Margaret.
But she dinna see. She's wanting her name day for to be the Scot. She dinna like to think of Blessed Margaret, ben dwarfed, hunchbacked, lame and blind, shuttered like a prisoner in a dungeon cell, banished even from a convent, Godamercy---- 'tis a shadow forecasts the turrible tribulations meself, her own child, would learn more sorraful nor words can tell. God save me, the whistling curse passed doon from Ratsy to Belle of Newcastle, to Ma, to me own hunch back and curlicue spine. And all those years, Ma asking the wrong Holy Margaret. She shoulda thought on it. Mebbe if she woulda prayed the right Saint Margaret, it coulda gone better for me. If!
"Macolm's-wife-Saint-Magaret had eight children." Sister's smile disarms Margaret's pout.
"Eight? Eight ... Hmmm. That's half a row of foundling cribs, Sister."
"Your brain is faster nor falling water, lass. Surely, Saint Margaret had slaves, for Malcolm was King. But she made him for to free them. And her eight children, the lot all grew up to virtue."
Margaret thinks a space and her brow clouding, "Sister, if ever God gives me a boy-child, I shall name him Duncan." But already the lassie knows from Postulants giggling in the night, 'tis no God plants the seed makes the belly swell.
"Well and guid, Margaret, and surely ye shall write me a letter," Sister smiles broadly, "for ye do write a dab hand."
And canna ye see them warking the orchard, Margaret picking the culls amongst the fallen leaves, and Sister after reaching wi' forked pole for the rosiest to show at the market.
"Put by some of every harvest, child, and never will ye starve. It's Scots biding on the land and puts by the like of ants, saves against hard times, keeps a pocketful of farthings and counts them every night. And it's Irish grasshoppers saves aught and goes jigging at the crossroads and pays the publican. And sports the like of glow-woms in the gloaming, and must come across the sea to Scotland for to wark hire labor in the seasons."
Ay, mind ye, after 1849 and An Gorta Mor wi' its four years of suffering hordes and them starving Irish fleeing their homeland, yet still there come on Erin one and then anither potato disaster, still the starving and dying, the raging consumption, the bloody flux, the black fever, the sorra of it all, God have mercy! Still a full bowl of the ither contagions, pus, pox, chancres, buboes, diptheria, jaundice and all. And still the deluge of dying Irish babbies upon Saint Maundie's Foundling Home.
"It's the Irish grasshoppers plants only potatoes and puts aught by but spuds for winter, and never in this world will change," Sister believes. "And if there ben noo spuds, the Irish starves whilst sending what they winna eat to England, ay, the barley, the oats, the wheat, the Indian corn, it's Erin has a-plenty." Sister shakes her head sorraful. "And the pigs, the Irish fatten all such on spuds too. If the spuds fail, them sells the swine for to pay their rent. And starves next winter."
Naebody afore told Margaret one single word of sense aboot it. Saint Maundie's bakes its daily bread from wheat flour and rye, makes soup from barley, porridge from oats, boils Indian corn. And, never tell the Hierarchy, sells a wee bit of the barley to Johnnie Walker in Kilmarnock. Rye too. Margaret learns howanever naebody in Scotland wi' any sense at all pays a pig to his landlaird, nor eats spuds all day, seven days. It's from the threshing floor and the miller's dust-bin, the Sisters glean straw and leavings to feed the Community sows. And when the piglets grow, they smoke and pickle and salt the meat, and make haggis from the belly and stuff sausage for winter feasts. It's every Scot has a stash of ha'pennies or more, for naebody will trade away all the wark of his back in barter, as the Irish do---- so says Sister. Saint Maundie's ben thrifty as the best in Ayr, for let sit a Sister on a coin, and she'll tell ye the face is up or doon, and who's face, and give its value in the bargain.
Noow Sister Therese reaches for anither pippin, and anither, and then a final plump beauty. "Nae more of this, and shall we hurry on, child, and this ben our last basket afore Vespers." They gather up their haul. "It's God makes the green turn to red, and it's an apple tempted Adam, and if'n ye bite one of these luscious ones, it's for to know why," Sister smiles doon, offering such a one to Margaret. "Ay, it's Caligula will tell ye, if you canna tell yerself."
God save us all, it's to come, howsomever poor Caligula's grand love for pippins makes the most turriblest tragedy of young Margaret's lfe. But for noow and here, friend, I'll turn a few more pages of Margaret's wee book, and let see what she says of those times.
"August 22, 1857 Sat on grass. 8 apples mine juicy skwurted on my apron. Put nice 1 pocket."
That night, Margaret's diary complains bitterly of running bowels from too many luscious red beauties, and howanever she doots God's mercies. And Adam's desires, don't ye know? Shall I no turn another page, friend?
"September 6, 1858 Mops n bucket 2day. Postulants do nt know God loves a orderly mind. Tattery book in straw of Mary-Clare bed. Story of Sr Benedetta longo. Surten page marked says Sr B stirs with Sr Bartolomea. M-C snuk in. Yeled get out let my bed alone. I wo nt sweep M-C cell ever. Even if Mth Sup says. I am not a theif, do nt yel at me."
"September 7, 1858 Axed SrT what does it mean, stir. Where I learnt word she axed. Ax when older. I b 13 bt not bleed. SrT shuld tell."
Sr says, " '44, Do not pander to your curiousity by talking or asking questions about things that do not concern you.' "
"Stir = Sin? Venial or Mortal. Wich one? Sr Ethel snuk last night 2 M-C's cell bt not a Monk. What does pander mean?"
Noow it come in that thirteenth year, Margaret's able for Mother Superior to send her on Saturdays wi' Sister Therese to do the business of the Community at the great market, hard by the docks of Ayr. Them two is after selling the bread and cakes of the Order's ovens, and the fruits and vegetables of the Community fairm in one season, and the salted meats and preserves of the Community cellars in anither, ye mind. Me Ma's spritely pleasance brings profit to the Community stall, yet from the beginnings, she stands firm against hard noses and warks firm against sticky fingers and slicky ciphering. Dint of toil and shrewd bargains, Ma brings back bonnie spreads for feast-days, and grand clinking in Saint Maundie's purse all times, to great pleasure at the Mother House. And so the Sisters never suspect the hardness growing in Margaret's heart against the piety of the religious 'round her. Nae, it's the ither way, it is: Therese Bernadette's cell become a wee library for Margaret, and Mother Superior wanting Margaret to learn all one small head can hould, believing Margaret specially chosen for a grand future as blessed leader to spread the Communities of the Order.
" 'Tis our blessed Six-Toes, touched by an angel, brings to Saint Maundie's the gift of Heaven," Mother told herself, and the ithers as well. "If I should send Sister Therese and Margaret in a bockety creel car for to market a truss of last year's mouldy hay on a rainy afore-dawn," Mother Superior smiles in admiration, "if I could, they would return in brilliant sunshine aboard a filagreed Victoria filled wi' crowns and pounds, and Caligula prancing in gilded traces and a blanket of Lyons silk," Mother Superior smiles. Och! Ay, friend, 'tis shoulda, coulda, woulda, and if: the four horsemen again. "It's Jesuits themselves say, 'Poverty of means need not be mean poverty,' " says the Abbess. " 'Tis chaste we surely are, Sisters, and all obedient to Saint Maundie's teachings, following the precepts of our blessed Patron in the charitable warks of our Community. 'Tis that and a' that swells our coffers. God in Heaven knows how hard our labors, and earnest our prayers! And it's through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, if we wark well and keep our vows, our blessed Six-Toes will bring to us the gifts of prosperity. Let us praise God." And they sing.
Faith, in 1859, never in this world is an ear up and doon the length of the Firth of Clyde didna hear of the cleverness of the Margaret Bridget, the orphan lass minds the market stall of Saint Maundie's Community. And mind ye, friend, none knowing aught of the six blessed toes. It's the year Margaret turns fourteen. Her arms and legs grow brains of their own, and she discovers blood on her nightshirt. She axes Therese Bernadette how is it wi' the sows and cows and nanny goats that never bleed ... and next spring, furtive waiting for results, after herself secretly unlatches the gate so's the billy is in the nanny's pen. Och! She comes one morming upon four wee squeaking kids, and herself watching and fingering her own nipples and wondering. And shuddering with pleasure.
God protect us! What shillings canna buy nor merchants sell, Margaret brings back from the market, so she does. It's her brain-box fills wi' sayings of the wide world spoke by them lives and travels there, them what come those days to linger over tempting bargains at Saint Maundie's stall, where a sparkling young lass serves, as sailors say, all and sundry. It's beyond the sisterly plainsong Margaret hears of grand business, even earthly pleasures in Ayr-town, what she never read in Therese Bernadette's library. Ay, beyond the antiphons of Hildegarde, beyond the life of contemplation, the Offices, the soulful devotions, the silences. And beyond the endless calamities of bairns dying in their cribs and cots. Nae 'Revelations,' but revelry, och, wild diversions in the way of Sister Benedetta, 'stir,' and beyond, in the hustle-bustle at Glasgoow. At Saint Maundie's, Margaret wonders aboot the waves of Irish would-be Postulants: shy lassies from the filthy boreens and muddy cross-roads, wan shop girls, bleary lace-makers, cow-eyed country cailins, some canna read nor write, some canna spell nor cipher, some hedge-schooled only, all clothed in invincible ignorance. It's Margaret's desires dinna be the like of theirs, herself having little spirit for piety and adorations that ensure a life to come, thinking more and more aboot life on earth ... and an earthy life. Secretly, she studies the naked victims in a copied Bosch painting of Hell, hawked by a tatooed tinker.
It's from this here ootside world the singing Sisters of Saint Maundie didna understand, she hears of discovery and science, a hurricane of knowledge blowing doon infidel and religious the same, and the seven seas become one grand contested highway for the nations. She listens to the endless arguments of political conflict, the bitterness and bloodshed of it, Irish against Scots, Scots against English, English against Irish, Irish against Irish, Catholic against Protestant, Parnell against Fenians, landlords against tenants, Parliament against all. She is fascinated by tales of travel, be it across great seas to strange lands, or to London by steam train. Come shutting-down time each afternoon at the Order's booth, her brain is brimming wi' what none in the Community dare imagine, and Sister Therese's books canna print. 'Tis Saint Maundie's obedience, poverty, and chastity she carries quietly to Saturday market, and exchanges on the sly for a brain-full of romance, adventure, and free-thinking 'tis her secret cargo on return. By candlelight afore prayers, she devours the pages of yet anither book from Therese Bernadette's cell. And in her bed in the black of night, during The Great Silence, she's touching the mysterious changes in her body, shivering in delight, that and a' that learnt from overhearing Novitiate Mary-Clare talk aboot candles what make fire in anither way.
Faith! Each time Mother Superior asks Ma, when does she think to become a Postulant, Ma didna answer but conceals her heart in downcast eyes. And Sister Therese secretly supports Margaret in her wavering, herself instructing Margaret in the mysteries of her changing body, and the moods that toss like tempests one upon anither over her opened mind. Therese sees all this and thinks to the wide world and howsomever Margaret can make a safe place in it.
"She'll surely leave afore she's sixteen," Therese Bernadette believes. " 'Tis not blasphemy but reality." And Sister makes plans: "Margaret is so filled with the joy of life! She is of the world, and the world is of her. Soon, I'll tell her who her godmother really is, and of the contract, and howanever she can find the place of her birth and make a blood claim upon the land."
Och, winna ye be wanting a fresh cup of tay, and anither biscuit, noow we've found the way of it in Ma's journal? And whilst yer nibling, mebbe thinking aboot Sister Therese's lovely plan for Margaret in the world.
And howanever it bumps---- unbeknownst to Sister---- against Ratsy's whistling curse, and the poulticed lass longgo turning a blackthorn kippeen south in place of east. Godamercy, the very kippeen of Sister Therese's scourging.


Illustration the twentieth

289

CHAPTER TWENTY: dying


'Tis late on a frigid November day of 1859 in Margaret Bridget O'Neill's fourteenth year, Sister Therese Bernadette brings to Caligula in his stall a pulped pippin, for the aise of his rotted teeth. And what do ye know, the crotchety beast, noow ould, tottery, and near blind, he is, nudges hard into Therese. She loses her way, and next ye hear a wee shriek and she's fallen into the beast's dung pile. A wee clod of it slips up her sleeve and rubs into yesternight's wound of yet anither blackthorn scourging---- and it not yet healed. In the next days, it scabs over, the like of any common scrape. On the tenth day, Sister awakens unable to open her mouth, and her leg muscles after being too stiff to walk. She has greatest difficulties to dress, and barely manages her habit when she falls to the floor in a spasm. God save all! 'Tis lockjaw, what neither the Bishop's crozier, nor a Papal bull, nor all the holiness in Heaven can cure, nor adorations diminish, nor hope reverse.
And so noow comes relentless upon Therese Bernadette the ghastly gripe of tetanus, first at her one arm, then neck, then jaw, then spreading over her entire body cramp by spasm, spasm by cramp, merciless catastrophe the like of an iron shroud, arching her back, racking her limbs, a Divil's design for dying. Holy Trinity save her! The Community watches in helpless despair, and as well the misfortuned physician attending her, and the useless priest called to annoint her. The Sisters pray over her cot or in chapel or at Mass, in a multitude of devotions, adorations, and intentions that choke the halls and overflow the Order wi' the crying oot to Saint Maundie, and louder to God and Mary, and longer to all the Saints and Martyrs, and deeper to Our Lord. To noo avail, all of it. Never a martyr died a more pitiless and horrific death for, most brutal of all, Therese hears all what goes 'round her, hears every helpless whispering visitor, every useless prayer by her bedside, every futile chant drifting in from the Community chapel, whilst her flared nostrils sniff the ghostly flickering of the multitude of candles. God save us from the like! It's amidst the awful pain and paralysis of it, from the first spasm to the last breath, ye mind, friend, Sister Therese Bernadette's brain remains able in this world same as yer own.
For Margaret, it's afore her eyes, catastrophe beyond the beyonds of her most desperate nightmares, more dreadful nor ever she imagined the seventh level of Hell, och, Therese's tortured breath upon breath, and the sometimes of noo breath at all, Therese's jaws clamped in sardonic rictus---- and the Divil itself grinning through her bared teeth, whilst drool drips the like of Mary's tears at the Cross, spills upon the cot, and wets the flags. It's Therese's unblinking eyes wide wi' terror, Therese's torso wracked one time by obscene pelvic spasms hammering upon her cot, or anither wi' neck bowed rigidly back, spine a fixed arch, limbs drawn in hideous rigor.
Sister's craw canna open to any class of nourishment. Her voice canna bring forth a single word, but only gutteral utterances, or retching chokes of phlegm. For to touch her wi' a feather, it starts anither spasm. Faith of the damned and the fiendish Morrigan hovering! It's Margaret unconsoled in her tears, times and again kneeling in prayer beside Sister's cot, drenched in anxiety lest a tetanic seizure end Therese's life, yet hoping it will come. In chapel, and in the Community's market stall, and in the long narrow halls, and in her own cell, 'tis Margaret prays walking, prays sitting, prays kneeling, and her soul a weighty burden of intentions and devotions, her lips dry upon her crucifix, her Novenas the starting links of an endless flaming chain searing her soul, her rosary wearing smooth in the despair of weary fingers plucks decade upon decade. Herself riz sleepless in the night to kneel for hours afore the Sacrament, her Aves withoot end, Paters overing and overing, her soul a torment of questions and guilt for her lost faith. And she canna know, ye mind, 'tis all of it the long reach of Ratsy's whistling curse turning the Divil's wheel of fate again. Tears of the stone Pieta!
"How, why, for what purpose," Margaret implores the blue-and-white cowled icon of Mary, the Pieta, "does the guid God visit such insufferable horror upon my Therese? Endless, endless, O Saints and Martyrs, God in Heaven, endless!" Ma's kneeling in chapel, her agonized voice asking again and again of her Lord, "Do I no feel the nails? Do I no feel the terror and the pain?" And she sobs, extending her hands to Heaven. "Do I no feel the misery of the mourners at Calvary? Do I no see Therese, that lived the life of her vows, suffering the death of abomination? O my Lord, worser than the barbs of Sebastian, arrow upon arrow, worser than Catherine on the spiked wheel, turn upon turn, worser than Christina boiling in oil, worser than all the demons of Hell come upon her! Lord of life and death, God of here and hereafter, I pray You, aise Therese's way---- Holy Trinity, a breath, a heartbeat, a moment of peace, a path, I pray you! Sweet Mary, Divine Mother, help her, make an end of it, as God made an end for Your Son. Let her to go, please, let her to go, Sweet Mary. Help her to go. O God, why have you foresaken her?"
And it didna come to pass, didna change a jot, a speck, a mote.
Ma stares through a streaming ribbons of tears at the image of the Crucifixion stretched overhead in the apse of the chapel, and the crown of thorns---- ay, thorns!---- her heart broken and her mind a pit of agony. It's in her darkest moment, she sees the cross-piece bend doonwards, and the shoulders of Our Lord sagging in resignation. All the ither sicons aboot the chapel, they none of them talk to her, nor tend the gaping wound in her soul, nor mend the shredded cloth of her world and the awful images, the wordless endless horror of Sister's agony. And Therese Bernadette herself, her brain awake to all, it's the tides of her torture overrunning the rock of her faith.
Margaret visits Therese's cell, and wonder of the world! She finds the blackthorn twig hidden in a scooped-oot cranny. Yet suspecting aught of their purpose or history, she strokes the three notches the dying lassie clawed, and touches the barbs that flayed her beloved Therese. For nae conscious reason, she impulsively scuffs loose a flag aneath her feet ... and glory be! a hollow place! And in it a tin box what a tinker might solder---- a freckle-face tinker, the year 1837, in a lane of Drogheda townland, mind ye, friend, for God moves in mysterious ways!---- and in the box a diary. Margaret clasps it to her heart, too distraught to read, and secretes it in the chest at the foot of her own bed. That diary and the O'Neill lassie's diary and Margaret's own diary, them being me Great-Gran'ma, me Gran'ma, and me Ma, those passed doon years and years since, helps meself make sense of the horror ye ben hearing, friend. But it's aboot Margaret, nae me. So it's noow, ye must let yer brain again imagine yerself at Margaret's side.
Margaret looks into her heart. " 'Holy,' what does that mean?" she asks, adrift in the sea of her tears. "Is this consecrated building holy? Does 'holy' help Therese? Is it this wee Community chapel is the body of our Lord, and is also the exalted cathedral in Rome from the beginning? How can that be, in one place and at the same time in all places, in such humility and such splendor? How can it be Sister Therese is elected to assist the Bishop's Mass and dies the like of a soul in Hell? How can it be that she has given her life to serve the most helpless lambs on all God's earth, and dies worser than any lamb at slaughter, denied an act of contrition. By You, Lord, by You, God Who was and is and will be, Lord without sin, Lord Omnipotent, Lord of the Catechism! How can it be Mother Superior wears black homespun, and the Bishop has linen vestments threaded in gold and silver, and the Cardinal has vestements crusted with jewels, and a Pope can do no wrong and his magesterium is awash in all what's precious in the material world?"
"How can it be the Sisters of Saint Maundie wear the ring of the Bride of Christ, and the bishop proclaims the Holy Church to be the Bride itself? How can it be, by destroying the Sacrament, by swallowing the wafer, I create a holy mystery within me? How can it be that my digestion, what ends in a pot in my cell, is the Holy Ghost? How can it be the wine of the drunkards on the docks makes the blood of The Lord?" Margaret's brain is awash in a swirling surf of doubt and distrust. But the like of traditional Gaels, she falls back on magic, the magic of blackthorn. "If the twig would keep its power, my anam cara should not be dying, and this could never happen." Ahh, woulda, coulda, shoulda, and if! But Margaret cannot give up on the twig, saying, "Her touch on it, her soul of it ... I shall keep it close as long as I live. In the night, whilst the Community sleeps, I will drag the twig in a magic circle about Therese and pray to the angels of the four winds."
But she does not have true faith in it, and starts wi' Mary's angel-wind of the north, and aught comes of it, or so she believes, and hour upon utterly helpless hour, Margaret kneels, head bowed, beside her stricken Therese. Near the end, wi' useless entreaties weighing on Ma's spirit, and her mourning jarred by the throttled shrieks from Therese's gritted jaws, Ma's hands noo longer pray, but clasp as if to contain some elusive truth. God in Heaven, is it not that very shriek the cry of Morrigan issues from Theres?
"O, Holy Saint Theresa of Avila, how can it be what you say: 'Death is ecstacy!' 'Tis torture."
It's noow Therese wants to tell Margaret of the O'Neill's contract, and it sealed in Mother Superior's library. But she canna speak one single word, nor is it worser if she ben on the moon. And Margaret, in those last hovering hours of's lament, she canna make the lightest touch nor tenderest hand, lest Therese's paroxysms start. Ay, and for that reason, in the entire ordeal, it's Sister's shoes remain on her feet, and the secret of her toes locked away of all. God help us, it's unbeknownst by Margaret and unsuspected, howanever inside Therese's wakeful brain the rock of faith is slowly sinking in a sea of torment. For, 'tis no a single breath of Heaven's mercy intercedes in the drawn brutality of Sister Therese Bernadette's dying, nor her relentlessly excruciating pain, nor the ghastly brutality of it, nor her wakeful awareness of all its dreadful dimensions. God save us all, it's a death measured by the pitiless slowing of the Divil's clock. But Therese's brain didna fail until her last grisly breath, and by then her body torn on the Divil's rack: her tongue bitten through, jaws clamped shut sartain as welded by the smithy, spasmed hands clawing the air, backbones cracked by the strength of their own arching, legs disjointed by the force of bending, all beyond the most brutish beyonds of the worsest of nightmares.
"My soulmate, my anam cara," Margaret sobbing to herself, waking and sleeping. "Oh, my Lord Jesus, was that the way of it on Calvary? Sweet Mary, the seven last words ... they burn in my heart. I am consumed! They blaze in my brain, they flame in my ears. Help her! I beg of you, Blessed Virgin, help my Therese," and so goes Margaret's every hour, herself kneels praying at the bedside, so like a bier it is, and she begging for an end, and Heaven to come---- and that holy place, more nor ever, foreign to her own heart and mind. "No more of death, neither sorrow nor crying shall you suffer. No more pain, my beloved." But Margaret does not believe.
Divil the impenetrable wall prevents Therese from any way of a sign! Divil the indescribably hideous dying, slowing hour by slower hour! Divil the unintelligible shrieking through Therese's cracked and ground-down teeth, and the wretching on vomit, and her conscious mind stretched inch by gruesome inch on a cruel and sadistic rack! Divil the last, most horrid day, herself choking on her own phlegm, rigid yet convulsing, dying and never able for to tell Margaret of the contract in Mother Superior's library ... and consternation! A priest naewhere to be found, and snow has begun. 'Tis of little account, for Therese canna receive her viaticum. Naething can touch her person. Naething can touch her lips. Naething.
It sears Therese's soul, burns in her brain, rises moment by brutal moment, hour by dreadful hour, until her last thoughts before the dark veil descends: "There can be no God Who allows this death. There can be no Heaven for my good works nor Hell for my sins. And there can be no priests who would confine me or mine to Purgatory, and deny my daughter the golden staircase and the silver trumpets, but confines her to Hell everlasting for her mortal sins. Ay, what Chrisian justice is it weighs our souls against a feather and finds us wanting? Where is the merciful God Who punishes me with the agony of death by inches? I gave my soul to Him Who suffered, ay! grim irony, Who 'suffered' me to dying a death so hideous no human soul should endure. And Margaret to witness it. Keen for me, Morrigan! Ride for me, Dullahan!" For Therese's rock of faith is sinking finally and entirely to the bottom of the sea.
"Nae! Nae!" she rallies. "I shall descend to no Purgatory, climb to no Heaven, nor touch the flags of Hell. Nae, I sail to the Western World for it's pagan paradise I'm wanting, it's to Jimmy I'm going, and Kevin, and Manannan Mac Lir and Fand, to CuChulainn and Emer, to the land of my people, the Celts, the Druids, the Poets, the Seanchai. It's clearly I see 'Wave-Sweeper' come for me, see her glide on the incoming surf, see her bow-wave curling, the burble of her wake, see her beckon, turn broadside, rolling in wait on the outoging tide. I taste the salty spume of the god's sea, I splash through surf to him, I sniff the breezes perfumed with immortal flowers of that sweet land beyond the western horizon. I grasp the sturdy bulwark, ready to board. And you, Margaret, my anam cara, let you take courage in your doubt, for it's in your hour of need I shall wait for you in the OtherWorld, on golden sands under a brilliant sun. Then shall we be together in the haven of Paradise, and we shall be immortal! Yes, anam cara, we shall be immortal. Keen for me, Morrigan! O death, be ecstacy!"
And how do I know these thoughts, friend? Whisht and wait, for all comes to them who do. But noow for Sister Therese Bernadette of Saint Maundie's Calced Order, it's come the moment of her mortal time.
Margaret walks from the dark bedside into the snowy November night, walks alone amongst rows of wee stones, here marked where the shriven bairnies lie, and over there unmarked, the mounds of the unshriven ones. And she walks amongst the lettered stones where Saint Maundie's Sisters sleep in columns, and she walks and she walks, and her heart like to burst from her breast, and her grief-red eyes drowning in tears. And the thick soft snowflakes, one by one, they circle doon and touch her face.
"Keen for me, Morrigan!"
Again, she hears Sister Therese reciting from the maxims of Saint Teresa of Avila.
" '68. Remember that you have only one soul: that you have only one life which is short and has to be lived by you alone; that you have only one death to die; and that there is only one glory, which is eternal. If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.' "
"Nae, 'tis not so!" shouts Margaret's brain. "For my beloved Therese, not one death but a hundred, nae, a thousand, in these long horrific hours! Why?" she cries out of her breaking heart. "Why, why?" And her misery huddles unanswered in her own arms. "What can be the glory of insufferable pain," her mind screams at the Cross, "for us who are human?" And she hears no answer. She feels the threaded beads beneath her fingers hard and impenetrable, the consolation of her Aves and Paters cancelled. "Why?" come a silent shriek out of her, and curls wretchedly aboot Therese's body. And for Margaret lying on the cold flagstones, no answer but the keening pf a Morrigan.
In the pre-dawn, Margaret walks amongst the gaunt snow-laden apple trees and the memories of Therese: "I see the years stretch afore me, not short but long, crushed of joy, empty of promise, and what do I care about death or glory in Heaven? God has abandoned me. The Saints and Martyrs, the Blessed Mother, all have turned from me. I am alone, alone as the day I arrived at the docks of Ayr. Here in Saint Maundie's Community, the icons and the prayers and the sad faces of the Sisters will not console me. The candles, the incense, they will not soothe me. O Therese, be with me in the long, long night! For, though I see the sun rise this morning, it radiates only darkness." And she hears again the Morrigan's keening.
When Therese is cold as the snowy November beyond, and the vigils of the living finish, the Community's ancient ritual begins. In a tradition of silence, the three eldest Sisters strip their beloved naked and wash her, and so come upon her scourges, countless slashes on arms and legs and back and belly and breasts, ay, wherever the blackthorn might reach. When they wish to break the bones of her spasmed limbs for to fit her into the narrow wooden coffin their warkshop made, they discover the tetanic spasms itself broke her leg bones in life where she lay. They stitch closed her ulcerated eyes, smooth away the sardonic grin, straighten the arched neck. It's only when they finish these deeds in lovingkindness for their dead Sister, they speak of what they have seen.
"Saints and Martyrs look down upon it! Striped like the American flag, she is. Ay, red for new, blue for ould, white for scar," they marvel at her body and limbs, whilst untying her shoes.
God be wi' us in our hour of need, 'tis then they are the first ever at Saint Maundie's to see Therese's six toes. And them three startled Sisters who witness, they vow amongst themselves to breathe aught of the stripes nor of the toes to any within or withoot the Community, ay, aught at all, fearing a curse to shine the Evil Eye upon themselves, or threaten the good warks of the Community.
"A thing not said, it's deader than the dead," they pledge one the ither. " 'Tis no a lie nor sin of omission, but a beneficial secret," they smile sadly. Sister Therese Bernadette's past behaviors towards Margaret noow make sense. "Does the Margaret know?" they ask, one the ither. And they decide if Margaret knows or nae, they will say aught to her. "Mebbe Therese didna say. Then, whatanever's the good to come of our telling against her will? Saints and Martyrs help us, if Therese did say, no need for us to tell."
And so of Therese's stripes and toes, discovered from her corpse, never in this world was aught mentioned, even to Margaret. Surely it was wi' wisdom, this decision, for in the near coming years 'tis Saint Maundie's Community continued to prosper. Yet seven years beyond, when the eldest of the three who knew at last confesses all to the Bishop, that very next day, their beloved Abbess and Mother Superior, Sister Joan Agnes, dies of a stroke ... whilst assisting at the Bishop's Mass. Bedad! And in the seventh year, the drought lays waste to their gardens, their vineyards and fairmland.
But here and noow, come Therese's wake, the nuns settling her open coffin on four chairs for to make a catafalque afore the chapel altar, and a chair beside it for the sitter, Margaret. The freezing November air fills the unheated chapel the like of gloom made solid. The hour-glass is brought oot, and the pendulums of the clocks are stilled, the bell in the campanile muffled, and the Community's three mirrors turned to the wall, that Therese's soul never be afeared from seeing itself and fly up through the open trap in the vaulted groin overhead. Lit by ceremony from the paschal taper aside the altar, two candles flicker near Therese's feet and two near her hands, and three around her head, so, and her own crucifix covering her heart, and her own rosary in her hands. And after three-times-three turns of the sand-clock, the trap in the roof is shut so her soul canna return. The Sisters ben assigned in trios to keen and chant and pray for their beloved, whilst Margaret, rigid as the dead itself, sits desolated, night after day in the icy gloom next her anam cara, sits until the wearies of grief overwhelm her, until she collapses into sleep on the icy flags of the chapel floor beside the catafalque. 'Tis then the Sisters slip in wi' blankets for to cover her troubled dreams. And at night afore Compline, and dawn nearing when she wakens to Laulds, and after sundown wi' Vespers, new keeners attend and join her to recite the rosary and the beatitudes, and to say their Aves and Paters, and pray for clemency in the gloomy stanzas of Dies Irae.
" 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.' But I am not comforted."
It's three days of flickering tapers, the Sisters 'wake' Therese: a carven cross at her head, her body cloaked in veil, wimple, frontlet, and a snow-white threadbare linen habit handed doon by the Sisters from ancient times, death to death. And her feet ever shod. Each morning, noon, and midnight, the Sisters gather in chapel for to pray the order of service wi' chants and antiphons and responses, and each sunrise after Laulds, Mother Superior leads Saint Maundie's ritual for the dead. Each evening in chapel is a requiem Mass for the Dead, led by the haughty Jesuit priest, and the echoing chants and the shivering messages of Dies Irae mist the frozen air. But Margaret will no leave the catafalque. Part of every Office in the Liturgy of the Hours, the Community offers up Saint Hildegarde's plainsong for the dead and, after three days, tolls the campanile bell. And they be marking anither day of the Novena for to safeguard the soul they hope has risen. At Great Vespers of the Vigil, on the third day, Sisters in sack-cloth and ashes take the chairs away of the mourning room; if the soul still be there, it canna find where to sit and must leave for Purgatory. And Margaret canna bring herself to read Therese's diary, but makes it sewn into a pocket of her frock, and the blackthorn kippeen bent in hot water and sewn into the hem, and she walks alone, shunning consolation.
" 'Blesed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see Heaven.' 'Tis a prayer that brings no solace."
In the mysterious still of that third night, in The Great Silence between Compline and Lauds, between Margaret's lonesome waking and dozing, and all the Community fast asleep, a Presence visits the chapel, neither angel, neither formed ghost, but a thickening of the dark, so it is, a soothing balm for her troubled spirit, enveloping and soothing Margaret, stanching her bleeding heart. It touches uncanny upon her brow, the same calm she had felt for fourteen years by Therese's hand. In the frigid darkness, Margaret warms to think of Therese drying the tears, and Therese binding the torn world, Therese bringing peace and healing, the divine behest, Therese whispering serenity. Margaret's hearing the smell of roses and seeing a fluttering sound when a blinding shaft of light penetrates the dark, and the world falls away. She's watching herself floating, leaping, soaring through a vast and tranquil sea of air in the great brilliance pouring doon upon her, and she hears the unmistakable rolling shush of surf. A deep sleep overtakes her and, when she awakens, ineffable peace floods her heart entirely. She feels joy expanding within, even ecstacy for the rising of Therese's soul to ... to where? It comes upon her: to a brilliant foreign shore her brain never imagined afore. Ay, Margaret feels within her own soul a great wish to celebrate Therese's triumph. But the Community traditions are a weighty anchor for her ship of joy. Herself, it is, stranded on their endless communal beach of sadness and lament, she alone in her sunlit joy, a castaway amidst a crowded Community of mourners. And she longs to see anither shore. That ither shore.
Of special intentions, prayers offered up, and chants sung, the Sisters make many and countless. And of burial, 'tis a sorraful procession through the great gate, past the mournful Wheel, winding in wispy fog over the snow and into the icy evening and finally amongst the serried inscribed stones. And never a sound is in it, until the Sisters form a circle of tears round the graveside, and then the rosary murmured together and then each separately wi' shovel hacking through the snow to the brown leaves of autumn and then the frozen soil. And Margaret, heart-broken and sobbing on her knees at the coffin's head, suffocating under a great pall of sadness, wishing to hurl herself into the pit, for her soul is dying too. And of closing Therese in her grave, the Abbess intoning the Order's ancient messages of mourning, Ezekial, the Apocalypse, the Beatitudes, Saint Augustine; and the new Bishop what never in life met Theresa, himself smelling of drink, arriving unkindly late for the Mass amidst the grumpy Sisters, and sprinkles holy water over the crucifix atop the coffin. And then a last Pater, a last Gloria, a last Allelujah, a last Amen. Och, it's seven days later, the Abbess, Mother Superior Sister Joan Agnes, administrator, not knowing what is what, commits all Therese's papers and belongings to the everlasting ignorance of flame---- including the contract from Jimmy Callahan for Babby Six-Toes' voyage to Ayr.
" 'Tis our tradition of Saint Maundie what we Sisters follow," the ithers tell a puzzled Margaret.
So is it Ma learns aught of the secret of her own birth. Next to last connection, it was, of Sister Therese Bernadette to Margaret Bridget's origins; only remaining, the unread diary sewn in Ma's frock, and in her hem, the blackthorn twig. For Margaret Bridget O'Neill, there noow ben noo earthly sign left of Therese but a marked gravestone, and it's Therese in Heaven, she's wanting to believe. Och, noo ither sign. Or so a body might think, friend. Godamercy, or so! Let ye put that in yer bowl and make stiraboot of it! But for noow, I must to go on wi' Margaret's tale.
"Thy will is done," thinks Ma in the bitterness of grief, for her heart is in revolt against her soul, and her brain against her spirit. The Community has become the like of a prison.
Bedad! Sister Therese's dying didna interrupt the business of the Order. All times, the wards of Saint Maundie's Foundling Home swarm wi' the doomed arrivals, the dying, and ever the Divil's dead. And God forbid! Always the furtive caller at the Wheel. All times come the newbairns smuggled by fish-boat across the Irish Sea, or hidden in a truss of hay on a Highlands jaunting car, or horse and trap from Glasgoow, or in hands from 'round the Scottish Lowland, or simply laid doon in the Wheel from God alone knows where, come on the bosom of a darkling night. It's the foundlings, ever more the foundlings ... ever more foundlings. It's ootside the Community wall the rows of little gravestones of the shriven and of the mounds of the unshriven grow.
Margaret Bridget O'Neill seems never again in her own skin, never again at herself. Whilst the religious watch her mourning month on month, it's unbeknownst to them that her heart grows apart from her soul day on day. It's the guid Sisters consoling themselves and didna ken they canna console Ma. And yet they speak more and again of herself taking vows. Yerra! They canna imagine the boiling and bubbling aneath Ma's streams of hot tears, nor Ma secretly wanting away of the Community for to join in ither ways of life entirely. 'Tis the rigid traditional mournfulness, yea, by Saint Maundie's own rules, weights Ma wi' so heavy a shroud and lonesome a pall. She wants for the happier ways she hears tell at the fish-market: the joyous climbing of the ladder to Heaven, the glad celebration of victory withoot sting, ay, Saint Teresa's "ecstacy of death." If the Sisters of Saint Maundie could sing of joy, then Margaret would be consoled, and that should send her down a righteous path. If. Friend, ye'll understand, 'tis the four horsemen again. It's no the sadness of loss itself; Ma is able for that. It's the ghastly horror of tetany allowed, ay, inflicted! by a cruel Heaven, it's the straitened chasteness, the rigid sadness, the holy calm of mourning at Therese's wake---- it's that and a' that changes the visions of the young Margaret entirely. The Order's greatest sorra is learning too late howanever it was the agonies Therese suffered what blighted Margaret's heart toward Saint Maundie's traditions and Holy Catechism. Mind ye, friend, it's all the while the Sisters thinking howsomever time will come to heal Margaret's wounds. Heal indeed! 'Tis time rips the scab and rends the scar.
Faith of the faithful! Margaret Bridget's brain overflows wi' strange ways of mourning learnt wi' fresh ears on the docks of Ayr, wild yarns of wakes she heared tell whilst Theresa is yet alive, of jolly boistering, drunken bedlam, roistering uproar, wi' the carousing, the rude toasts, the tears and tumult aside the corpse, the Ceilidh sets, Godamercy! days, nights, a week, or until the body stinks, and the dead one steeped in Scotch whisky and West Indian rum, asleep on a plank---- waiting for to greet Heaven wi' beer soaked roses stuck on their dead lips, God save all, mebbe for to wake the dead mouth to the taste of drink, and so it might come a want to breathe in this world again! Yerra, the lusty singing and the rafters ringing, the pipes skirling and dancers whirling, drums thumping and jars bumping, and the fiddles fiddling and spoons clacking ... Margaret Bridget canna drink wine only at Holy Eucharist, nor her six toes have ever yet twinkled, and all her tuneful voice remembers is Saint Hildegarde and Saint Gregory, and the deadening rites for the dead within Saint Maundie's Community walls, and the Catechism. And here at Therese's wake, the singing Sisters singing joyless dirges aboot absolution, clemency, and obedience to God's will.
Ay, all them romping dockside tales of wakes, the celebrations of dying and death that Margaret hears, she thinks they surely ben common partners to the fisherman's hard life, howanever he burst from the drudgery of his mortal caul. It's in Ma's brain, the wake as a jubilee for the end of life, so it is, to celebrate reaching harbor after the trials of voyage. Ay, and a time to provision the soul of the dead wi' joy and support for the next and happier passage, the flight to Heaven. Or mebbe crossing over aboard the Wave Sweeper, sailing to the Western World, the OtherWorld, the Paradise of golden sand; Ma canna put her thoughts away, of Death as triumph, the release from trial and care, from pain and trouble. 'Tis for that and a' that the fishermen's tales instruct herself, of wakes happier than lonesome candles in the dark, or plainsong in chapel, or black cloth muffling putrifying flesh, so it is, and all being the happy hooley, nae the hapless holy, in't.
Margaret takes to a silence. Mother Superior admires her for it and avoids asking Margaret the 'why' of it. Truth, me Ma is nae finding reason, only the dreary Sisterly future spread afore her, and its poverty, penance, and prayer. The worldly buying and selling at the wharf market and tales from adventursome sailor-men finds herself more and more afeared of a Community lifetime in desperation. Every morning come darker to her than the last. Spring brings longer crueler days. Summer arrives, wi' the noisy trading on the docks, and the harbor crowded wi' boats come and gang, the bantering shouts of their crews, the smells of barnacle-caked plank and Stockholm tar and wet hemp rope and fresh caught North Channel herring. September comes, and the season turns again, the leaves red wi' the blood of dying hope, turning brown with the scab of spiritual death. That and all that drives new boldness into Margaret's soul, boldness to carry herself into the wide world, ye'll understand. She's wondering more each autumn day if the years of her toiling at Saint Maundie's stall in the fish-market will ever bring her into a guid man's eye. All thanks to God, she prays her hopes.
Faith and troth, Margaret has secretly pondered since her first blood the wily courting games amongst the market shadows. Noow it's herself bursting her stays amidst strengthy wishes to study the comely arts, exploring more nor Holy Scripture in the seclusion of her cell, practicing less to the glory of God, ye mind, whilst Mother Superior thought else of her. It's Sister Therese Bernadette in Margaret's brain as confidante, confessor, and informant in all these matters. Och, it's Laurie-Jane-Therese-Bernadette in the history of it, run from the horrid O'Neill-the-depraved, and sold her nights in the streets of Drogheda to put bread to her mouth, or she dies. And learnt at pain to her body and sin to her soul, the secret advisements she told Ma. Och, man-traps beyond the wildest imaginings of the pure and pious Sisters of Saint Maundie---- even those reading furtively of Sister Benedetta.
Therese alive in her bones knew, never in this world did Ma have the heart of a novitiate. Many a confidence the two had conspired of wee interest to their Holy Order, talking instead of the world ootside whilst traveling together for the Community, to or from market on the docks of Ayr. Noow Therese is dead, and Margaret must endure lonesome nights, and days traveling wi' one or anither unknowing virgin Sister to market, her own thoughts locked inside her brain, nor ever confessed at the screen. Whisht! And so 'tis become a matter of time that Ma's innocent fantasies betray Saint Maundie's teachings, and the Catechism of the Hierarchy dries and blows away. Ma does hunger so, to embrace her own means of deception! And hopes for the chance of it, ay, when a body meets a body. And the blackthorn twig? Margaret keeps it close by, ay, in the hem of a frock, the fold of a cloak, the roll of a shawl. It become part of her, the like of an arm or leg.








Illustration the twenty-first

307

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE : man


"A sartain Kevin O'Donnell Callahan, an ocean fisherman of Ayr, he is," the lasses said. And it's to the commotion in her soul, Margaret heared tell of that and a' that, of him.
"It's a right noble sailorman you are, Mister Kevin Callahan," she's thinking, afore a brisk October sun-up at the crowded fishmonger's market on the Ayr River South Wharf. Och,'tis the sixth time Kevin appeared afore Saint Maundie's stall this young day---- she counting three times coming, three going. It's each time he passes in bashful silence, Margaret's cheeks flush, and her fifteen-year-old heart thumps, and her brain turning to warm jelly. And so it's there and then she sets her bonnet boldly for him. "Nae more your sail-past, Mister Callahan, and me blessing the fleet that's following you," she scolding herself. "Ay, time for the wiles of a lass," and then she's after remembering Sister Therese Bernadette's instructions. She furtively loosens the neck of her frock and the strings of her bodice, the like she's seen giggling women of the market do for to jiggle behind the stalls and spark the lads' interest, in't. All the while, she's thinking, "Good to you, blessed Sister Therese, anam cara, telling me of this device. Oooo," she fills with hope, "it's cleverly enhanced I'll be. Ay, his seventh sail-past will be his last. Oooo, he'll see I amn't the stripling lass myself was once upon a time," and she smoothes the cloth away from her throat, and parts it deeply.
"Kevin O'Donnell Callahan," she practices silently, "You are a fisherman makes his market shares in every weather, never mind you being so shy and handsome a lad ... and so green in matters of the heart." She pauses, surprised to hear her own words. "Wait, Margaret, what pride have you to think Kevin's heart less free than your own? The first of deadly sins is pride. Och, let go that one afore a fall, Margaret, and yourself is close to venial sin. Ay, 'tis more than one sin. For there's lust ... Mmmm ... Ay, yes, there's lust ... O, he does cut a handsome figure. Howanever did Sister Therese instruct your brain in these matters? For you learnt aught of men and their wordly ways from the piety of other Sisters. Forgive me, Blessed Virgin." But she says no Aves nor Paters.
Kevin O'Donnell Callahan drifts again afore Saint Maundie's stall, the sail of his soul blown aback and his tongue anchored in need, whilst it's bedlam's breeze blows through his brain. From the shadowy dark deep in the stall, Ma spies upon her sailorman: O! the strapping chest, the squinty sea blue eyes, the curly red beard, the wild hair flaming---- O! a regular Viking, unkempt in his filthy fisherman's smock and, O! such forceful hands, scarred, and calloused, and O! ever so strong!
"Himself, it is," and her pulse throbbing in her ears. "Himself, it is," her lips dry and her eyes sparkling moisty. "Himself it is," whilst he pulls up to study the stall, and it all a-brim with luscious grapes, succulent pippins, and plums plump with the blush of hidden flesh. "Himself, it is," her heart pounding against her blossoming bosom, her mouth gone dry with the taste of want.
Slowly she walks into the early morning half-light and curtsies to him, nae primly but deep and deliberate. Slowly she riz, her nipples hard and hot, though it's a cool breeze slips under the cloth. Slowly she straightens, and his face an arm's length away, an arm aching for to hold him. Seared brown leaves crunch under his mud-caked boots, and the breeze swirling. The two shift in a silence of need, whilst buskers and buyers and pickpockets crowd the noisy lane. Ma speaks first, lest his brain drown his heart, every wee inch of the scene pressing on herself, the riot of market scents, the fishmongers' cries, the scuff and chatter of the crowd, every taste of sea breeze.
"The cut of yer rig is pleasant to me, Mister Kevin O'Donnell Callahan," she stares at his boots, saying aught of howanever she studied fisherman's lingo for to talk wi' him, aught of how she learnt his name from fishmongers' scuttlebutt, how she heared tell he's an orphan lives lonesome.
God look kindly on our foostering! In the chatter of fish-market lasses, there's many a covetous mention of the name, Kevin O'Donnell Callahan. He gives them reason. It's his young brawn grasps their brains, their visions of his fabulous voyages, stories of himself circling the world afore the masts of bold square-riggers, och, climbing half-way to heaven for to tame flappy skysails and thundery topgallants, scudding breakneck in the roaring forties, braving the brutal winds of the turriblest tempests, daring-do amidst slippery spars on lofty man-ropes, rounding the great capes against overwhelming seas ... such a power of courage, the overheated wide-eyed young lasses tell one the ither. They dream of him wi' his silver nuggets from Nevada, and carven bones from Madagascar, his batiks from India, and mebbe the arrowhead from the quays at Rio ... and him wi' noo lass of his own to hear tell aboot any of it. Ay, so shy a man, in't, beyond the beyonds, unless a swaying hip, or is it a roguish hike of petticoat, or a wee sly wink, will flame his cheeks the color of his hair, until he's in red welts from his crown to his man parts.
Amongst the fishermen on the Firth of Clyde, ould and young, Kevin's known as a dab hand for his daring ways and teeming nets wi' Fishhawk, his Fifie herring drifter. Godamercy, it's knowing this sets the lasses off more nor afore. How many a covetous eye has watched him cruising the market aisles, how many a mischievous tongue has called him oot as he drifts by! Faith and troth, this here didna be the first day Kevin set his course for the stall of the Calced and Holy Order of the Sisters of Saint Maundie---- and Margaret Bridget. Nor 'tis the first day of himself casting off well, setting a right fine tack and then, as if becalmed in a dying breeze, all ill at ease afore Saint Maundie's stall. Dint of his dumb tongue today, Margaret carries on the conversation wi' herself.
"Ahh, sir, ye've the roving eye, Mister Kevin O'Donnell Callahan, that's come nicely to light on me," she lilts. "Ay, nicely, so it is," leveling her tune. She bends slowly in her loosened neckline, picks up a ripe apple, comes up slower still, pauses provocatively half-bent afore him for to improve his view, dawdling the moisty pulp against her wetted lips, whilst he wonders how she knows his name.
"A light, ay, a light. Very like the grand tower light they say Mister Stevenson built at Eddystone, you are that light, Kevin, a grand light sees to the safe homecoming from beyond far horizons. Cannot myself be the one you shine upon, the one you're wanting to bring safely to harbor? Dear Therese, make his light to shine upon me and not another."
"Och," says she so softly that he must draw closer, "I didna find yer light painful at all, sir." She houlds the apple arm's length and admires it.
"Amn't I following your instructions, Sister Therese, and it's hard to hear you in my ear when my heart's making such a tumult of it. Then shall he be my Eddystone?" she hopes.
Yerra! His jaws are clamped shut the like of a Clyde clam. She licks the apple pulp and rolls it against her mouth. He watches the wet pink tip of her tongue curl, slow on slow across her lips. He stands still as one riveted. She flashes a smile. His heart mounts to his throat.
And then she's chiding, "Do I have the right to say, Mister Callahan, yer steering past this stall seems a wee bit overing the same course. Yet ones tell me yerself is a master helmsman. Ay, it's an entire cargo of seamanlike virtue ye be," her eyes twinkling, heart fluttering, " ... so a body says."
She bites the apple, crunch! and a runnel of juice spirts oot and dribbles doon the opened neck of her frock, making a cool wetness between her breasts. She lifts a corner of apron to pat her chin dry, smiles, and walks into the traffic of the lane, circling slowy to the four winds, turning at the last to look up into his confused face. Aneath their silence and the crowd's noise, their two pulses are hammers pounding. She rolls the apple round her mouth again. He lowers his gaze. Her lips glisten wi' juice. She licks them again, slowly, deliberately. Inside her blouse, the skin tingles.
"Ay, to be his compass," she wishes. And her breath catches at the thought. "Nae, he does not be a tower; 'tis a ship he is, a grand and brave ship, and a more fit one for the rough chances of a voyage through life cannot come by me. Ay, to be his compass and stand by his side and weather the worst and make safe harbor... that is where my heart wants to go. But himself must learn to clean his boots of soil, and I to pound the fish-oil from that filthy smock upon a soapy rock."
They stare past one anither. Ye mind, his boots are caked and restless still, but it's his heart is doing the jigs and reels, until he turns away in confusion. She backs slowly into the stall, putting the apple doon. He takes a great suck of breath, shortens his sail, and drifts aboot, shuffling, murmuring, and stammering, nor taking flight when she stands wi' arms akimbo. He canna back doon: his rump presses against a great timber propping up the stall roof. She pushes the stall's baskets aside, wipes her hands on her apron, and takes a wee step in his direction. His skin is in prickles to his toes.
"Margaret Bridget," he half-croaks, for he's knowing her name from overhearing the crude speculations of rude fishermen on the docks, "I've a lugger, ay, a sweet Fifie a b-body calls Fishhawk, and she, umm, b-brings me guid weal ... Ahhh, a b-body could do fair less than b-break bread with me." More than this he intended but it all issues helter-skelter. His face flushes crimson, embarrassed by his unacustomed stutter. He flees into the market crowd.
Margaret didna call after him nor try to stop his flight, herself caught in a rushing flood overflows her heart. The whole of the next week, amidst her daily Community rigors---- Silences, Hours, Offices, Masses, Novenas, Rosaries, Sacraments, kneelings, crossings, candles, intentions, chants---- she sees only his flaming hair and ruddy face. In dreamless sleep, it's himself she's aching for in mysteries she has yet to know, whilst her waking hours pulse wi' formless raptures. Over and overing, she beseeches the faith she lost to keep between Kevin and harm, praying that Fishhawk and her skipper might never sail toward danger. Or withoot Margaret to pray.
Here's the start of the next market day, it wrapped in a shredded black blanket of sunless dawn, and noow, through a pelting spatter of rain comes himself, walking direct to Saint Maundie's stall. Shifting, scratching, and clammy wet, he waits anxiously for the place to empty of strangers.
"Mebbe it's the rain got in the clockworks," his impatience mounting until at the last, they leave.
"Guid to ye, and the Holy Angels bless us, Mister Callahan," Margaret turns and smiles at him, parting her lips as she meets his eyes, as Sister Therese Bernadette's instructions advise.
He licks the corners of his mouth and clears his throat, where his thoughts clot his voice.
"Since I learnt your name, your face haunts me, and I ... I am hurted in my heart." he whispers.
"In the morning mists of raising sail and at the dusk when Fishhawk glides home, it's your face I see, Margaret, your voice I hear. Such a face I have never seen in the four corners of this wide world and shall never see again, ay, never a one the like of you. I must learn to tell you."
"It's one of God's servants, you must be," his voice more firm, himself surveying the booth, "in the Community House of the Sisters of Saint Maundie, in't?" He says aught of the sleaze and slander he heared tell from vicious gossips on the docks, aboot Saint Maundie's ripest peach. "I see it by this stall. Are you to ... umm, to take vows?" 'Tis a brave stroke of impudence, this.
Nae, she shakes her head, saying aught, her palms sweaty, as if grasping the edge of her future. Then, softly, come the first time in her life to speak her intention aloud: "Nae."
"Ay, that where you go, I be there also, forever and ever," his heart begs. But this time, his gaze does not bow.
They stand quietly until her melting looks encourage him to begin his speech: "I---- I see your love of virtue from the holy beads aboot your neck. And, umm, I am a lamb of the ... the Guid Shepherd of the Covenant, but He does not provide for the ... the lonely nights of a fisherman." A pleading creeps into his stammer, whilst he looks away. "My Fishhawk canna k-keep the embers glowing nor make the shadows dance." She studies his open face. He feels encouraged, more resolute. "I do struggle with the ither fishermen in the herring trade, but my wee lugger is braver, ay, more nor any hooker, and my strength, my will, it can make a way," his cheeks flaming redder than his hair though he has rehearsed this speech a hundred times. "Ay, Margaret, a way for two ... for you and me, our way," he near whispers, the tenderness of want swelling in his craw.
She crosses her arms over her breasts and cocks a gentle smile at the lovelorn lad. His mouth opens and shuts soundlessly. She raises her arms slowly, fussing wi' her bonnet, and looks into his face, again in red welts. She puts her bonnet on a bench, and shakes her head to free her hair.
Mind ye, friend, 'tis naething a lass of the times would or could or should ever do in the open air, partikilerly in a public market, if only for fear of reprimand. 'Tis a sign to Kevin, so it is.
"Ay, Mister Callahan, ye sail a bonnie wee lugger, and 'tis trim to me eye, so she seems. And if I meet a body on the docks, he says Fishhawk's well used. They tell me she scrapes the sea-bottom away from all ither boats where ye cast her nets, and I see wi' me oon two eyes ye bring a fair catch every market day, in the season and oot." He opens his mouth again to air his drowning brain, whilst she continues. "And yer speech ye fill wi' flowers, though ye smell unlike a rose. But how is it ye bide, Mister Callahan? Is it ye eat and sleep and swim wi' the fishies too? Ummm, I do think so, or ye'd smell a different way." Her eyes shine for an instant, then come moisty.
He's more after watching the fascination of her lips and less of an ear to hear the northeast coastal Irish accents she learnt from Therese Bernadette. Seeing him stand like a deaf and dumb eejit, and thinking her voice to be the cause of it, she repeats her question, giving her smile some jot of tenderness, ye mind. It's a moment he didna know which way to tack.
"Amn't I having the right to go this way, Sister Therese?" she wonders.
He thinks of his sweet Fishhawk and himself and the lonesome nights at sea, and the dawn breaking, and stringing the nets over her bows, and the day's catch of squirming life in those nets become the writhing silver flashing in Fishhawk's hold, and returning from the sea, or Kyntire Head, or the Kyles of Bute. Or Kilchatton Bay where multitudes of herring mysteriously wandered this year. He thinks of homecoming. the striking of sail, the mooring of the boats, shoveling oot of the herring, and totting of the ledgers, and gruff talk at the dock. And this here at the last, sailing back to his mooring off the island of Arran, himself alone, and the lonesome way of the deserted beaches, himself trudging the lonely path, his empty one-room sod scalpeen, ay, and the lonesomeness of the night breaking against his
"Am I to spend the years the like of a going-about body, alone wth my own self, wandering and loveless, without a woman to hold, one who will hold me in the night, who will care whether I be living or drowned? Will there never be one waits for me, one waiting to share my heart and hearth, one to pray for me, and greet my return from green waves and wild winds?"
He pauses a painful longtimes afore answering her in his rehearsed and stilted way. "I have a wee house, ay, hearth and a bit of earth by the sea. It suits the life I live, though the wee cottage is little more than the grand hearth within. And my smell? 'Tis the truth of the herring itself: a silver darling canna be a rose. And a fishermen's life, it can smell only of fish." He clears his throat. His turn to smile, so it is. "I canna swim in the sea, nor any true fisherman can. 'Tis the way with every fisherman, and Divil the luck! For if even one fish in the sea sees my face in the water, it would lay a curse on me, and Fishhawk, and her nets. Och, my trade would dwindle. You'd nae have that, in't?"
"If I could see your face so near, Kevin O'Donnell Callahan, I'd never never ever think to curse it," she promises herself.
She didna smile, speaking softly. "The nosies and the slurry on the docks make ye oot to be an orphan child, like meself. The Sisters taught me many things, but I disappointed them," she lies, "wi' the needle and cloth, and the lace pillow and bobbins, and the spinning wheel, and the shuttle and loom. I was hopeless," she giggles. "But when they taught me to knot fish-nets, I learnt that."
"O, that where I am, you be also." His very soul is yearning.
"Ay, and a skill you learnt too well, Margaret Bridget. For you netted me, you did, and an able cast that was." His wee fleeting smile melts her.
"O, that wherever I am, you be next to me," her body a-tingle and she not knowing why.
She lowers her eyes, staring at his boots again. "Is it yer houseen so wee small, a woman ... ummm, och, yes, a woman ... didna have space within to knot yer nets?" She looks up. It's never afore she spoke of herself as a woman. Her face flushes. Her sudden shyness fills wi' hope.
"Ay, 'tis room enough for Robbie's beasties and a woman. Faith, forget the grand hearth, and remember the grander fire in my heart," he mumbles to his boots, for her eyes capture his tongue and this speech he has never rehearsed. He's turning a great blush to his toes again, and stumbling away into the market crowd, his plan in disarray, his resolve laid low.
Friend, put yerself past anither noon in the marketplace on the Great South Wharf at Ayr, and come their third meeting. It's in one magnificent breath, Kevin rushes in, gathers his courage, and stammers,
"Will you ... Margaret, will you ... will you wed?"
And here's Margaret wi' never a moment's wait saying, "Yes." And her tears run for joy.
Eight words from him, and one more from her. 'Tis done. She glances at the astonished Sister alongside, warking their stall, turns wordless to Kevin and, grasps his hand. Wi' never in this world a single glance back, never a doot, they rush into the heavy drizzle and hurly-burly of the fish-market traffic. Like the shut of a door, or the drop of a coin. Juist like that. Margaret carrries her shawl wrapped in a bundle, and in it a tortoise-shell comb she always brings to market. And the blackthorn twig stitched into the hem of her frock. And Therese's diary, sewn into a secret pocket. 'Tis all.
Come a moment the rain turns fine. The black clouds blowing unsteadily up the Firth of Clyde lift into raggedy grey, overing the two lovers walking to the edge of the fish-market tumult. Under a swooping swarm of gannets, they encounter a gaggle of children dumping buckets of chum into the river. Amidst the wheeling and flapping and ear-splitting din, they pause. Margaret's soul is flying too. She gazes into Kevin's eyes, squeezes his hand, her heart near to bursting. He points to a steeple far up the river, the tip of a wee chapel Kevin knows from dockside craic. Their looks alone tell where their steps lead and what needs to be said. It's straightaway they walk.
One mile from the fish-market, at the Seamen's Rescue Protestant Chapel, the floor is thick wi' the oil of fishermen's boots, the air flavored wi' tales of ten thousand ocean crossings. The smells of faraway seas and tarred caulking and wet canvas linger like a mist. The battered pitchpine pews and kneelers are the weathered planks of a China tea-clipper, salvaged from the ship-breakers. Hanging overhead, it's the crossed and splintery spars from an ancient Revenooer, blown down the beach at North Ayr. Higher in the rafters, a pair of green plovers twitter amongst shredded herring nets. Margaret and Kevin stand sweaty and anxious afore an altar oak-built from ancient shipworn timbers. By a sagging rail of old hawser, the two bend their hands over an enormous antique Bible, rests upon a worm-bitten lectern. The breeze sifting doon the aisle from the open chapel door stirs their aching passions. They face each ither afore the holy man, a grizzled ould mariner wi' the curl of voyaging in his scraggly beard, and a glint of unnumbered suns in his crinkled eyes.
"Will ye marry us in the name of God?" Kevin axes this chaplain.
It's a sea-salted preacher-man this one is, spending the ebb of his life amongst the ships and sailors of the harbor he makes home. Longtime, he once thrust himself upon the grace of the four winds, and did the day's business in chancy waters. Longtime, he once scraped Heaven's floor from the foot-ropes of cloud sails, and faced the Hell of boarding seas on breaking decks. Longtime, he learnt in those trials the simple mystery he calls God. Ay, and earned the right to dump overboard supercargoes of ecclesiastical intricacy. It's his God will sanctify the union of Kevin and Margaret, and will need but one plain bond between the two lovers, for this ancient mariner sees at a glance the pure, straight, and forthright, ardor of one for the ither. And so, quicker as it takes to tell, the wee ceremony makes an end to the couple's beginning.
"Tell me in your own words," says the wise ould salt gently. "Tell me about yes and forever."
"Yes," says she in hoarse voice, "I will take this man for to be husband. Yes, I shall love him, noow and forever. Yes."
"Yes," says he wi' glistened eyes, "I do take this woman as wife, for to hold in my circle of love. Yes, noow and forever."
"Then do you, Margaret and Kevin," says the minister, placing their hand together, "repeat together after me, this here vow ... . Look into the eyes, one the other. You'll be saying this promise, the promise of the ancients who walked the decks of a thousand ships and waited by the light of a thousand hearthsides, so you will. Do you chant together, after me, noow:
"From this day---- "
" 'From this day, ' "
"Let it be your name only, I cry out in the night---- "
" 'Let it be yeur name only, I cry oot in the night, ' "
"And into your eyes only, I smile in the morning---- "
" 'And into your eyes only, I smile in the morning.' "
"And that where I am, in this world or the next, you be also. "
" 'And that where I am, in this world or the next, you be also.' "
"Ay, then," the ould salt beaming so grand a smile through his beard, "Margaret and Kevin, you are before God, now man and wife. And do you write your names in the chapel register. I'll have your marriage inscribed by the authorities of the town tomorrow." He fetches the ould, yellow, tattered registry, a dipping pen, a blotting cloth, and an inkpot. And they sign.
"Tell of yourself and where from and who born to ... if you know."
And they write.
'Kevin O'Donnell Callahan. orphan fisherman of Lamlash town Isle of Arran. Adopted son of James and Irene Callahan of Newcastle Port County Down. Ireland. dont know birth Ma or Da.'
'Margaret Bridget, foundling servant girl, Holy Community of Saint Maundie, South Ayr Town, Ayrshire, mother and father and birth place unknown, North of Ireland.'
The couple walks oot the Chapel wi' small talk for to put their hearts at aise, talking one the ither of boats and wharfs and docks afore them, and the gulls and terns. They walk past the seawall where Sister Therese Bernadette waited fifteen years since, past the stone pier where Bell of Newcastle delivered Babby Six-Toes once upon a time. God hold the newly-wed in the palm of His hand, it was when Margaret was Babby Six-Toes, but neither Kevin nor Margaret knows of it at all. They continue walking, doon to the common docks of fishing luggers where Kevin's Fishhawk of Arran waits amongst her like, bobbing ever so little. A favorable ebb is running. He helps Margaret aboard, and shows her aboot the boat, explains the spars, the halyards pulling them up, the sails they hold, the breeze what moves the boat, the sea what rolls under her, the keel holds the course, the taff-rail notches for to make her sail herself. Kevin sits Margaret in the sternsheets wi' a fruit leather to nibble, as once upon a time Jimmy did for Kevin---- wi' Babby Six-Toes in Belle's hold! He goes aboot making ready to sail, and then casting off. At the last, there's Fishhawk turns down river, bound across the Firth of Clyde for Arran, Whiting Bay, and Lamlash townland. It's after they fetch the ooter buoy of the Ayr roadstead, Kevin sets full sail in a whisper of fair wind. The seas swish by. He reaches into a wooden locker under the tiller and brings oot a horseshoe.
"It should hold the luck for crossing the Firth," he explains. "Ay, that would be a blessing for newlyweds the like of us ... if the bride could keep it upright all the way to Arran."
"Ay, and I'm in the way of upright myself," Kevin thinks of bedding her.
"Mebbe, we'll be wanting the luck," he adds, thinking to 'would,' 'could,' 'should,' and 'if.' And it's after making a wee dark silence, he's adding oot of the blue, "There's this to say."
Slowly, he unfolds the evil day longgo when a careless wee laddie brought a whistling curse doon on a boat he crewed. But never does he say a date, nor names the names, Belle of Newcastle, nor Ratsy, nor Jimmy, nor the bereft widow Irene passed of a broken heart. Nor tell of any six-toed babby at all, sailed to the foundling home in Ayr, All he says of that and a' that, it's of a nameless boat, her nameless skipper, and a nameless supercargo tinker, all lost in a nameless sea on a nameless day.
"Any eejit with any sense at all knows, 'tis stoking the Divil's hearth to tell exactly the who or when or how or why aboot a curse," he explains the lack of details, crossing his fingers. "It's all these years, I've told noo tales and said noo names, nae the most wee bit. And all these years ben aught but good luck for me and silver nuggets to prove it. Ay, I've escaped the curse," he smiles.
'Tis true, Kevin's lived the charmed life, as ye seen, me friend.
"We'll be making the luck the like of yers all our own, we will," whispers Margaret, smiling tenderly, sliding over for to snug against him. She grasps the horsehoe firmly, promising for to stay it upright the entire crossing. It's when she leans against his shoulder, and she searches into his eyes, he's feeling her shiver.






















Illustration the twenty-second

323

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO: Arran


Ma machree, God save her soul, she told me only the most wee part of it, the heartbreaking tragedy of herself, fifteen-year-ould Six-Toes, sewed a magic blackthorn twig in the hem of her frock, and she run away of Saint Maundie's to elope wi' Kevin O'Donnell Callahan, twenty-five-year-ould twice orphaned fisherman of Arran, himself accursed by Ratsy she dinna know. So aching a story is it, so mad wi' grief, so sadly brief, as beautiful things too often be. Och, friend, let walk yer mind amongst the fleeting joys of their doomed and damned passion. Let ye hear tell me tale of bliss ends in silence and a clouding brow, and let yerself know all a body can come to know of the pain wrapped Ma's heart, the shadows over her life, the substance engraved upon her soul.
Faith and troth, friend, it's meself alone shared those bits and pieces from Ma's lips in her unguarded times, gives me the right to imagining her secret hours wi' Kevin. 'Tis me brain breathes life into the wilted hopes of her broken dream, and mourns an empty grave. Meself, I'm thinking Ma's heart never again held the wont to fly so high, nor the breadth to hould such passion. God and Mary bless Kevin and Ma, friend, it's noow I'll be telling the story of what she woulda, coulda, shoulda told, but never did. Ahh, if only Ma---- Holy Angels guard her soul---- was here!
But wait, did ye say, and ax, for what twisted pleasure do I be guessing Ma's secrets? Whisht! Amn't I cursed the worst by Ratsy, friend? Aint it in the hideous wrongs and endless pain of me hunchback life, there grew 'round me own bruised heart a thicket of thorns, and never a single rose to flower? Ay, God be the roof of me house on earth, 'tis only by the imagining of those softly brilliant times of Margaret and Kevin so longgo fills the emptiness inside me. It's the comfort and joy of imagining their two souls voyaging together pure and free over their jeweled hours one by one, and treasure once dreamed becoming pleasure undreamed, and naething in this world but each ither. 'Tis this here fantasy whereanever still I bide today. Truth of Trinity, friend: if Kevin O'Donnell Callahan could stroll tomorrow amidst the market-day tumult at Donegal Square, it's me what's never seen his face afore should recognize him in the crowd at first glance. Yerra, and would swoon the like of Margaret Bridget machree for impetuous love of him. God hold us all in the palm of His hand! If, friend, could, should, would, and if.
And so, do ye noow understand, I ben the like of a wraith arrives aboard Fishhawk alongside Margaret and Kevin, sailing on their wedding voyage from Ayr into the harbor at Arran, mooring there in Whiting Bay, climbing wi' them into Kevin's little small skiff for to row ashore, wi' Margaret on the one oar what she insists, himself on the ither. I hear the oars stroking, and the tholes squeaking against leathered looms, and the wee whorls of water whispering and, by the bye, the skiff grinding onto the shingle of the beach. I watch them shipping their oars, I feel the wetness of wading ashore and underfoot, the pebbles. I smell the wild brake by the shimmering tidal pools. I see the path and it curving away over the beach, and through the cat-tails, I see far away, Kevin's wee single-room daub-and-wattling houseen. I watch as the two lovers walk the path, hands on waists, each lost silently in worry and hope. I see them come noow upon Kevin's hovel, she still carrying the horseshoe. And noow, he hangs it upright on the door. I see aside the hearth wheresomever a single lonesome rush-light waits, its flame yet unlit, the like of their passion to come. Noow, Kevin reaches in the larder for a loaf of bread, cutting off the end for to carry wi' them. They walk back to the path.
I see sundoon settle in, red wi' promise, and in the gloaming, the gentle quartering moon-up. I look upon them doon by the beach at Whiting Bay, sitting side by side in a sandy place, breaking bread together for the custom and the luck, watching fishboat lanterns the like of fireflies flickering across the Firth. Hand in hand under ghostly clouds and a half-hidden setting of the moon, they walk the foamy surf-line on shingled strand. They turn and kiss, clinging passionately---- standing barefoot in a cold tidal pool. And in the raw quiet of that October night, they shiver to an owl's hoot, listen for the luck of a cuckoo's cry, and hear the wee breeze whisper amongst the crisp quivering leaves in the glens beyond, whilst it's doon by the sea the marshlights dance and wink.
Time wears into the night, and the moon slipped the like of a silver scythe into Manannan Mac Lir's silent grasp: time the lovers straggle home. Ootside their wee houseen, she looks quietly on him and he on her, in their knowing and hoping and not knowing. Wi' a thread he plucks from her frock, Kevin adjusts the horseshoe he hung at sundoon, for to hould more luck. He breaks off two twigs and, wi' anither thread, ties them into a wee cross he plants aside the door for to fend away the impish wee people, the Bean Sidhe, would torment their wedding night, ones say.
"It's we'll be safe this place, noow?" she watches and smiles in the dark.
He kisses her next words away, seizes her into his arms, and whirls her across the threshold, ducking the low doorway. In his circle of strength, she reaches to close the door. He sets her on her feet, goes to the hearth, and blows last ember into life. From that, he lights the one lonesome rush-light: 'tis a bundle of waxed reeds. In its flare, peeking shadows awaken for to dance silently across the wattled walls and leap into the thatch overhead. Kevin takes a boiled egg from his wee pantry and settles it, crumbled upon a clay plate, ootside the threshold for to soothe the michieveous sprites amongst the Little People what do not fear the twiggy cross. He slides the door-bolt, and turns.
"Dote," he says, "if you heave the piss-pot in the night, you must first warn the faeries."
"And ye must look the ither way, Kevin machree," she in the shadows pulling on her skirt, and feeling anxiously for the comfort of the twig in the hem, and Therese's diary sewn into a pocket.
"Ay, and Margaret macushla, you must turn your eyes too," him fumbling wi' the square knot of his rope belt.
They make themselves naked back-to-back, a handspan apart in the flickering half-light.
"Amn't I closer to the settle," she says, a wee wavering in her voice, a dry thickening on her tongue, "so I shall get in first. And ye didna be turning to spy on me, ye burly ... "
The uncanny sensation of a close and warm Presence in the dark interrupts her. For an instant, the rush-light flame bends in the stillness. She feels the night fluttering aboot her, and the Presence same as she felt afore at Sister Therese Bernadette's wake, it pressing in the dark, enveloping and surrounding her. Whisht! The like of a warm touch on a fretful brow, it is, the comfort of a hand Margaret knew well as her own for fourteen years.
"I cannot see you nor hear you, Therese, anam cara, and yet I feel the warmth of you close, and your spirit enfolding me, and it calming my fears. 'Tis your soul guides my heart, aroon, and your closeness soothes me."
" ... Ay, me big burly brute," Margaret's continues, her voice smiling again.
"Only an owl could see so much as the wall in here," Kevin pretends to complain, unaware entirely of the Presence come over Margaret.
"O, mmmm, ay, 'tis dark as ye say, so it is. And, mmmm ... what way to the settle, dote?"
"Walk in the way you face, slowly three paces afore you."
"O, ye wicked laddie! Ye cheat already! Mmmm ... Howanever do ye ken the way I face? And meself a poor innocent lass fresh from the convent of virtuous ladies," her voice flounces.
"O, dear lost and surely virtuous maiden, 'tis your sweet voice tells me what way the honey flows," he gentling his mock.
"One step ... two ... three ... and me hands are---- ahh! It---- it has the feel of a tannery, this settle. Well, then, I shall snuggle meself and pray that all them wild ones what owned these hides crossed over to the OtherWorld. Och, long since."
Kevin didna have a proper bed but 'tis called a 'settle,' a great wide straw-laden pallet, and on it a grand wad of sealskins piled, to sit by day and sleep by night. Yerra! All as he told her this cold October night, the way of the crossing from Ayr. Noow it's them skins and their toasty warmth Margaret's tunneling. She fidgets aboot, arranging them, fashioning a pillow. 'Tis noo aisy task for her trembly hands and quickened pulse
"Did ye sail beyond and to the Faeroes for yer pelts?" she tries to level her voice.
"Ay, longgo on Wave-Sweeper," his tone boastful, "with Manannan Mac Lir, to the Western World, and back, so we did. And I helped him. Did you no hear tell at the fish-market, of the marvelous Kevin-the-sealer?" he puns.
"Ye lie like the snake in Eden. Mmmm ... For it's a tribe of them furry ones itself I'm amongst here. Come, tell me more, ay, lie in me ear. Och, lie beside me," and she full length under a single skin, extending her arms towards him.
"Are you burrowing to China, dote?" he bends and searches for her hand.
"I am here for ye, Kevin O'Donnell Callahan," she whispers in nervous longing. "And I'm looking away at the hearth. The embers are, mmm, all grey, and the fire does hide itself well."
"O, I'm wanting you Kevin, and it's the fire in my heart cannot hide itself, and I do not know what that means ... Do not be leaving me, dear Therese!"
"Dote, must your face turn and look away, when it's your eyes I'm wanting on mine?" he truly begs.
"Do I be, mmmm, yer wee kelpie this night, riz oot of the sea?" she giggles anxiously, pulling a sealskin aboot her like a chemise, and beginning the ancient faerie tale of the seal and the sailor. She stops and stands, holding the sealskin between them the like of a shield. Behind it, she sways to the kelpie song, that one so much sung by children of harbor towns, herself changing some words to meet their occasion:


"I'm a lady from Heaven
Who lives in the sea.
Come down, Mister Kevin,
And married we'll be.
Silver plates and gold dishes
You'll have, and you'll be
The king of the fishes
When you marry me."

And it's himself chuckling in the dark and takes off his shirt with the nugget sewn in, singing:

"I'm here for you, Margie,
For gold dish and plate,
To sup on your bargie
And dine in great state.
But as your da's daughter,
I'm sure you'll agree
That drinking salt water
Would soon ruin me."

She drops her sealskin and they seize each the ither's hands in the dark, and tumble wriggling and giggling on the settle in a jumble of arms and legs until she sits, and himself ups and sits beside her.
"This night and tomorrow's day, and from this oot, 'tis you in my nets, my dotey warm kelpie, and you canna go back into the sea at sunrise as the other kelpies do, for did we not wed?" he whispers, and they be pressing close, spoon-like. "And have we not by that sign broken the kelpie spell?" He's sliding his callused hands, gently the length of her child-woman body, cuddling her to him, pressing here and there, over and again, and she slowly, bashfully, turning to him. "And you'll noo be needing nae furry skin if you be human," he says softly, smoothing her bare body in the dark.
She runs her fingers lightly amongst the curly bristles of his beard, and over his lips. "And meself, mmmm, by the marriage I canna go back to the sea," she pretends to grieve, "and so amn't I yer human wife, then, this day oot, forever and ever?"
"Not to be timid, Margaret, not to shrink," she steadies her thumping pulse. "I must teach him to gentle me and we shall wed good, and love well and, ay, forever. Do you say, Therese?"
"Do ye squeeze the herring like this too, dote?" she whispers licking his ear, and crinkling the hairiness of his chest, whilst his arms circle her.
"Dear Sister Therese, do not abandon me now. Let my body be his harbor this night, and make his love to sail joyfully into my heart, and our souls entwined together like vine and tree."
"Not so solemn, wee mousie, or Kevin-the-cat will pounce upon you ... . Grrrrr," he growls.
"Be pouncing slowly, love, for I, mmmm, didna do such things afore," and she hiding her unaise, pushes his beard aside and kisses him a lip kiss. "Ones tell of pleasures I didna hear at Saint Maundie, love, I should like, mmm ... O, like very much. Yes, I'm thinking, mmmm, very much." And they kiss wi' tongues, longtime, and again. "Oooo, very much, my grand and dreadful cat." And they kiss again, and he rains scratchy, beardly kisses upon her face, her neck, shoulders, and breasts. "O, it's a hairy Tom ye be, tickling meself there." And then he sticks his tongue in her ear, setting all her skin a-shiver.
"And as the cat must play with his mouse ... ," he says, moving a rough palm over her bum, squeezing one cheek, then, and under her knees, and sliding the ither hand under her shoulders, and then rolling on to his back and pulling her to a sit atop himself. "Ay, and now you squat there, my little mouse, and I'll have some tasty toes to nibble," what he learnt longgo at a sartain house of women in San Francisco. "OOO! Nae, dote, nae, nae, nae, never to sit on that there!" he croaks. "That is the loaf I am saving for your oven. Now, do you be a good lass and move up and sit upon my belly."
She sweats her wonder: "Gloria Patri! Does my oven be so large? He is enough for a Clydesdale mare! Therese! Help!"
She slides astraddle him, and bends from the waist for to make her girlish breasts swell, and in the dimness he sees the candle-light reflected in her eyes, whilst she guides his hands to her hips, and makes her fingers to play aboot his face and into his hair. He reaches up and cuddles one breast and moves lightly one finger upon the firmness of her excited nipple. He reaches the ither hand to her near foot and starts playing wi' her toes one by one, gently clenching and unclenching his finger-tips on each.
"One-zy ... two-zy ... button my shoe-zy ... ay, giggle, will you? ... three ... when you laugh my belly bounces ... three ... O, you shall get the tickling business, you wee mousie, and then you'll know good and proper what laughter's for ... ahhh, three-zy, four-zy, yes, for four ... O, a goose canna cackle more-zy, you see ... open the door-zy ... " and he slides his free hand between her legs and into her pubic hair. "I'll show you what's at and where's when," he pleased wi' his cleverness. He moves his hand up from her thighs and across her breasts and then doon again until he captures her foot in his both hands. "Ye'll surely be at yourself in knots, and yelling, 'nae.' and I'll be tickling your plain and fancy," himself grinning in the dark wi' word-play, "and five alive and ... and---- Oh! Oh! And ... Mercy! Holy Father! Six! Saints and Martyrs! Six! Patrick and Brendan and Holy Trinity! SIX!"
She recoils in panic.
" SIX!" he gasps again.
She feels a prickle of crimson spreading over her face and body.
"You have six toes! Six!" He bolts into a sit, tumbling her off his body.
"And ye ben telling me six times! Canna ye respect yer mousie?" she wi' full heart mocking him. "I, mmmm ... ," and she snuggles alongside again, and slips her fingers to his groin, "I like this better nor toe talk," putting her hand back upon his and guides it to her breast, fingers on fingers, teaching him to massage gently. 'Tis a trembling in her voice gives her away.
He worries, "Is she to be so angry, and ruin our beginning night?"
"Your furry tom, umm, didna get to kiss them mousie-toes, my love," he tries to soothe her.
"Ye be kissing here instead," she rubbing his thumb across her nipple. "The toes will always be there, me strengthy Tom. But not this first night." And then, when he tries for to lick her breast: "Godamercy! Do you carry all of Lamlash beach in yer beard? I should be pleased wi' juist the tip of yer tongue, me dote." They lie uncomfortably beside each ither, the gasp of his surprise still echoing in her brain as she, desperately seeking calm, tries to distract herself.
" 'You must call your man, "love",' Therese told me." Margaret nervously rehearses the word, now afeared of Kevin entering her body, the coarseness of him, distracting herself with repetitions of the word, "Love ... Love ... Love ... Therese! You said, the 'excitement' will be grand pleasure, ay, pleasure exploding the like of fireworks. 'Rapture,' you said. 'Better than "interfering" with a candle,' so you said. 'Halfway to Heaven,' you said. 'But not the first time,' you said. 'Or the second.' Help me, Therese! I fear the pain. I fear my ... my love ... yes, my love ... his clumsiness. And his 'loaf'!" She feels her pulse thumping, she gulps air, she swallows hard. Curls her six toes.
"Love," She looks for the face of him in the dark. Indignantly: "I amn't noo freak!"
He slides gently alongside her, puts an arm aboot her waist, pulls her close, lowers his voice.
"Tell me, how ould is it you are, Margaret Bridget. Exact."
The sudden seriousness of his voice in the night, it surprises her. She senses great change, tension, something gathering, strange, uncanny. She trembles, pulls a sealskin aboot her, peeks up at him, wets her lips.
"Fifteen. And come March, sixteen. But I didna know the day. Never. Only my name day." She reaches for his hand.
"Fifteen. Fifteen ... And how is that?" The pitch of his voice, it seems higher and there is a strange cold sweat on him.
They slide again under the sealskins, herself on her belly, him on his back, his arm under her neck, and she a hand upon his furry chest.
"It come a time, love, the Sisters, they were whispering and didna know I heared them tell of it: an Irish fishboat, they said, brocht me to Saint Maundie's, and it come, ones said, when I was a wee suckling fresh from the caul. On the twentieth of March, love ... and ... and that there year was eighteen and forty-five, ones say. Ay, a fishboat, and an auld fisherman long longgo. 'Tis strange, the Sisters do still pray for that skipper's soul---- they loved him, so they did. I heared tell his name is Timmy or Jimmy or such. And the boat sounds the like of 'Kell,' Or mebbe, 'Bell.' Ones thought mebbe I'm of a Highland clan gone to County Doon, but I never seen it written naewhere."
She pulls up beside him, thinking, "Therese would be surprised to learn what I pieced together, spying on other Sisters ... and that's besides the sinful usefulness of candles. And how one can 'stir'."
Kevin sits rigid, still as stone, gobsmacked in the night. Margaret rests her head against his chest, and puzzles aboot his heart beating so hard and fast. He stays his astonished silence for a lengthy while, until his voice comes oot mall shaky, and his tears welling doon his cheeks.
"Margaret, it---- it's impossible. Call me eejit, looby, lunatic. Is it my brain got the staggers? Nae. Nae! It's a miracle. Eighteen and forty-five! March! Margaret, I know you. I ... I was a lad, a skipper's 'boy,' on that boat ... your boat, 'Belle,' her name, 'Belle of Newcastle.' You---- you were in swaddling. You were Babby Six-Toes, fresh from the caul! My first voyage it was, to, ahh, to ... ahh, ummm, to smuggle babbies. And the babby was you, Ay, the ould fisherman skippered the boat, that was my Da. My da! He was Jimmy Callahan, God bless him, and he never saw you again." It's the first.Kevin mentions Jimmy's name aloud since finding the wreck of Belle of Newcastle on the beaches of Dundalk Bay, fourteen years since. "And the Sister who took you at the dock, let me think her name, it ... it was ... it was---- "
"Therese. Sister Therese Bernadette, God bless her." Softly, "Me godmother." And wistfully, "Me anam cara." And at that mention, Margaret feels again the Presence filling the room, something more than ghost and less than flesh. And a hint mebbe of incense permeating the dark. Yet never in this world does she give Kevin a clue to it.
"I feel what I cannot hear, the way of fluttering wings in this room, and the air thick upon my tongue with a honeyed sweetness, and, O! I feel the scent of roses I cannot smell." She peers into the crannies and nooks hiding in the dark recesses of the clay walls. "I know you are with me, dear Therese, anam cara," Margaret whispers throught the tears in her heart, "Acushla machree."
"And what come of your godmother, dote?"
Kevin's voice is level, but his brain is exploding: "God save me! I just gave up the secret details, gave up all that guarded me against Ratsy's whistling curse these fifteen years. What have I done, O Lord, what have I done!" An enormous wave of fear crashes upon him: " 'Tis a grievous wound. It will frighten Margaret into the grave. I must be on my guard, for it's sooner than later the Sea-Divil will try me. I cannot tell her." And he asks the silver nugget for an extra dollop of luck.
Margaret knows aught of the quaking in Kevin's heart, only her own grief for Therese.
"Nae be asking of my godmother if ye love me. I canna speak of it, Kevin, noow nor ever. It's the pain. I canna stand the pain of it." She turns her face slowly to his and kisses his cheek, deciding to tell him this much: "By the Sacred Heart of Mary, ye muist believe she is here tonight."
"Help me, Therese, make me to be the light of his eye. All times. Forever and ever, from this out, Therese. Help me."
Kevin hugs her to him wi' both arms. She bends her head into the crook of his neck.
"The dead are always with us, in this lonesome wide world. Is it Jimmy's here too, in this room?" Kevin thinks back to Babby Six-Toes, and Belle of Newcastle, and their voyage to Ayr, and a crowd of Jimmy-thoughts flooding his brain. "What's to do?"
"Tell aboot the babby," Margaret begs, mouth trembly, eyes moisty. "Tell me aboot sailing a wee motherless newbairnie to Saint Maundie's. Tell me, love," she houlding his face in her two hands, and kissing it over and over. "Tell me all of it." She reaches her hands for his.
He starts to speak of Babby Six-Toes and the blackthorn kippeen that came wi' her, howanever the twig bore thorn-sharps, and was marked wi' three notches---- gouged into it by the dying O'Neill lass---- unbeknownst to Margaret, her own mother.
"Godamercy! It must be! Three notches! 'Tis the same kippeen I found in Therese's cell ... and it's wi' us, Kevin. I sewed it into the hem of my frock. Ma! From me own ma!"
"A talisman!" Kevin slumps into relief with a great long sigh. The blackthorn twig against the Ratsy's curse! Magic against the Sea-Divil! 'Tis our chance. "Has it not protected her for fifteen years? Ay, surely a strength to potect both of us from this oot." He sighs again.
"Why does he sigh? It is only a twig in a hem." she puzzles for a moment, staring at him. "Therese's scourge. But he cannot know that."
"I should be lost withoot ye," she says suddenly, putting her hands aside his face and pulling his mouth doon upon hers. "Ye found me then." She kisses him. "Ye found me noow." A longer, deeper, more passionate kiss. "I do love ye. Doon to my sixth toes," she smiles forgiveness in the dark, and wonders on the twists of fortune that brought them together this second mystical time.
"It will go well now," Margaret tells herself, feeling her blood warmed and her spirit calmed, "for surely these are things that Heaven intended."
And mysterious as it came, the Presence is gone.
"Nae, it's you found me. And me without you, I am lost. I do love you, Margaret, and more than that cannot be in this world." And his kisses speak, for all else falls silent.
Slowly and patiently, the rough brawn of him makes love to the slender softness of her, and she endures the burning hurt wi' wee lies and pretended passion for the wonder of his excitement ignited. Then, arduously and rapturously she learns, and makes slow cautious love to him, and her pain is nearly equal to her pleasure, and his excitement greater than afore. They blaze like rockets in the sky, and curving doon to lie exhausted, entwined, enthralled. The guttering candle dies, and the room goes black, and in the dark their eyes softly devour the face each of the ither, and the stars trickle one by one into the sea. Comes the half-light afore dawn, and stirring tenderly, body against body, they be floating up from the bottom of deep sleep to make half-wakened love, fragrant, delicious, together. And her pain is a wisp when the fire lights her soul.
They lie in the clasp of their damp bodies, murmuring withoot words and kissing and caressing, whilst the pulsing power of their effort slowly fades. She feels a pleasance swelling within, a warm wave of contentment and peace flooding her entirely. It is new, she has never felt the like of it afore. It come to her the physical mystery of lovemaking, and the strangeness of the hairy man-creature beside her and his man-parts, and the comfort of this odd new way of being wi' anither so unlike herself. An ending, so it is, to a kind of empty loneliness she didna know there was. It come to her the ridiculous design and arrangements of human parts, and then she is a wee fifteen year lass giggling softly beside a grand hulk of sailorman faired away on his sea of faerie dreams.
"Dear Therese, thank you for teaching," she thinks mischievously, half covering his body with hers, "a wee sensible practice at interfering with oneself does help bake a most excellent loaf." She moves her cheek against his bristles, thinking, "Therese, you said aught of lying next a broom." She puts his sleeping hand upon her breast, wraps her two legs aboot his one, and feels for the limpness of his loaf. "How can it be, Therese, neither muscle nor bone? I cannot do that with my nose nor ear," she wonders. She pictures the violences of stallions and mares, and dogs with bitches in heat, and yowling cats and toms coupling. Her arm draws under his and her breath whisks softly over his furry chest. "I love you ... love," is her last thought, afore Sister Therese Bernadette's presence vanishes again, and Margaret too begins to dream.
In the morning, Kevin watches Margaret extract the blackthorn twig from the hem of her frock, and listens to the story of Therese's scourging herself and, ay, the sorra and misery of her horrific death by tetanus. And then he tells her of watching Jimmy unwrap that very blackthorn twig from her swaddling on Belle's voyage from Newcastle to Ayr, fifteen years since.
Kevin considers his danger. "I must take the blackthorn twig aboard whenever I go to sea, for to make certain Fishhawk defeats the curse and brings us safely home. Ay, every time." And he pats the wee nugget sewn into his shirt. "I told her of the nugget but not where I hide it. For luck."





























Illustration the twenty-third

339

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE: Paul


"Canna ye see, friend, the bleeding red eye of a doom-full dawn drenches the beach at Whiting Bay, and here's Margaret leans into the blowy breeze, shouting, "Godspeed!" and waving to Kevin at Fishhawk's mightiest test of weather in their three weeks together. Do ye ken, friend, Kevin and his crew weighing anchor and himself at Fishhawk's tiller? And Margaret, do ye see her, skirts flying, shawl tightly wound, herself straining in sand-whipped squint to see them past the offing?
"Take a care, my love, take a care!" she's cupping her hands and yells into half a gale.
Ay, and there's Kevin blows his ardent kisses across the widening waters, Kevin steering Fishhawk into a rising thrash of wind-against-tide, Kevin's courage in the grace of God's embrace. And the magical blackthorn aboard. Ay, for it was at the coldest of early dawn, Margaret pulls the twig doon from its place on the mantel, and kisses it, and asks God's grace upon it, and reminds Kevin for to put it aboard. So he does, and that lucky silver nugget she knows aught where, he sewed into his shirt, and noow he's away, rushing Fishhawk wi' tautened rig, swollen twice-reefed mainsail, mast-head pennant whipping up auldacity, them sliding below the horizon, bound for the North Channel where the silver herring swarm this season. O, friend, pray the Holy Angels surround us, and do them shed doon tears for the mournful calamity of fond farewell, and for true love become misery in the endless wake of Ratsy's longgo whistling curse. For that fraught morning, as Fishhawk sails oot the Firth and into the tumultuous North Channel, Kevin takes up the twig and points it south. To keep the contrary currents at bay---- he thinks. Cursed south!
'Tis a dreadful omen Margaret finds after trudging the lengthy lonesome path home under the tattered cloudbanks, the door blown open, the horsehoe gone upside doon and spilled its luck. She makes ill aise aboot her helpmeet's wark, busier as busy does for all and everything and a dozen more. For too keep the dread off her brain, she resets the horseshoe, milks the goat, repairs the door latch, knots a net, sews a sail, mends a smock, and starts the dough. Near twilight, she steps outside for to rake the garden, shovel the pigsty, collect the fowl ... Wirra! And failing all times to stop her ears of the ghoulish fury blowing doon the sky. God take a pity! 'Tis the shriek of the Morrigan, harbinger of death! Dusk brings a chill of rain flung coarse and hard as sea sand, soaking Magaret to the quivers. And what's lost upon her ear in the teeming doonpour, ay, drownded, dear friend, is the foreboding toll of the Angelus in the Roman parish church beyond.
Come the bleak of night, spinning a thousand howling Divils doon Arran's glens and crags, and Margaret hurries to herd collected geese and hens inside the wee houseen, away of the rolling thunder and crackling lightning; then goat and sow. Whilst she's after barring and wedging the shutters, the walls of the wee daub-and-wattle cabin quake and the stone gables sway wi' the crash of combers two miles up the beach. The windy chaos smashing against the houseen, it stirs the sour of her bowels into her gullet, and ruinates her ritual bedtime sup of tay. When she can find naething more to snug, batten, inspect, nor test, she kneels in terror, palms clasped over the sealskins, crying oot to God and Mary and the Heavenly Hosts she abandoned at Saint Maundie's. At the last, weary and heart-sore, she shivers into bed, twisting sleeplessly, hugging herself. Whilst the half-light of a lonesome stuttery rush-light pushes against the dark, the smouldery hearth smokes uselessly up and doon the moaning chimley. The animals move aboot from wall to wall, afeared and restless but, withoot Kevin, it's the room's emptiness presses her brain. She grasps the sealskin coverlet as she would life itself, shaking from hackles to toes.
Oot the flickering darks it comes, the stroke of fate it comes, wi' a dreadful surety of hammer blows it comes, thudding upon the anvil of her soul it comes, the horrific truth itself, ay, oot the murk, it forms---- Ratsy's curse on Belle of Newcastle and all what knew her. Margaret canna see waves the size of houses batter the shores of the North Channel and the Firth. She canna hear in the Mull of Kintyre the throes of Kevin and Fishhawk and his crew gobbled by the cruel and hungry sea. God save us, she canna hear nor see, but body and soul, she knows. It's Kevin O'Donnell Callahan, Heaven be his bed, she knows he's taken by the angry waters of the Mull.
Pray to Mother Mary in Heaven, friend, for God's mercy on them what sails the salted seas and for their souls in their hour of need! Never is Kevin's body cast up though Margaret searches the shores of Arran from Brodick to island's end, and from Lochranza in the north to Torry Linn in the south, and asking of those as sails the coasts of Kintyre. Never is there news from ones mebbe seen him in distress, for in the wild tempest, none did, nor ever wrack nor wreck of the man nor boat appears, searched from Malin Head to the Isle of Man, and completely round Kintyre. Nor one plank, nor shred of rope, nor thread of sail come ashore. Margaret didna need an augury. She didna need the legendary nightmare of some Celtic virgin come to tell her Kevin and Fishhawk have been swallowed entire by the Mull. She knows the truth itself: ay, the sea must have its due.
And Ma is overwhelmed, thinking, " 'Maun dee!' 'Tis Scottish dialect for, 'must die!' "
Godamercy, her hopes to find a remnant, a keepsake, didna wither, noo, didna, never in this world. Wirra! But 'tis aught she finds, though her desperation ben clothed in Roman ritual, and her heart in the pagan rites of the Arran islanders. Over weary hours she rows from Kingscross Point, and across Whiting Bay to the shrine of Saint Molaise at wee Holy Island, for to find an answer and pray. In and oot wi' the tides she is, and safer by the grace of God Who makes flat water on feast days. She prays in the saint's tiny cave, kisses the stone bed where his shadow lingers still, touches the runes and prayers cut into the rock. She asks of the saint to intercede for Kevin's unprovided soul, and their sinful marriage beyond the Sacrament. Where the holy well trickles unevenly into a cistern, and her withoot a ha'penny for to spare in her blistered palm, she drops instead a scrawl of prayer. She walks three circles, "sunways," as a body says in Scotland---- clockwise---- round the well, she withoot the blackthorn twig, and makes the sign of the cross to the four winds and the four angels. She goes 'round again for the Trinity, three times slowly, saying her rosary each round. 'Tis this well, she believes, connects the spirit world of the Little People below to the daylit world of tragedy above. 'Tis into the cistern her hot tears drop, and oot from the well the coolness of calm rises, but the salmon of knowledge, he didna appear in the water, nor even one of the five splashes for any of his five senses. 'Tis the well connects her to the grottoes of Manannan Mac Lir, and when she listens longtime, it seems to be Lir's voice to the trickling waters, telling her Kevin has gone to the OtherWorld and canna return. On a nearing bough she hangs a wee tag of homespun---- a "clootie," ones call such a patch---- it stained wi' her monthly blood, ay, in a yew tree leafed by the clooties of countless ither widows of them swallowed by the Sea-Divil, God save us, och, swatches of blotched fabric gang back donkey's years. But Kevin didna return, nor a single splinter of Fishhawk, nor a smidgin of a silver nugget. Heart, hearth, and hand, she is destitute.
Of a sartain night afore the solstice, she's purifying herself in the ritual of the waterfalls at Glen Ashadale, gone naked in the mysterious mists of dark, wearing a garland of sacred sea grass aboot her head. And Kevin didna return. Anither night, the moon no yet up, she treads barefoot over the terrifying back paths crossing Arran from her rude houseen to Blackwater, casting shamrocks to the four winds as she walks, her flesh torn by brambles, her feet bruised and weary from the unyielding rock; and reaches the great stone circles of Machrie Moor, noow wi' a full moon riz. Ave! Ave! Ave! Holy Mother, mend her tears! But Kevin didna return. The next morning, the first bird she sights is a magpie---- what anybody wi' any sense at all knows is the bleakest omen. In horror, she turns herself round three times wi' Aves and Paters to counter the Divil's blow. All comes to aught, for it's never a trace of Kevin nor Fishhawk is found. And as for Kevin's silver nugget, though she trenches house and grounds the like of a mole's paradise, it followed Kevin into oblivion. The evil Sea-Divil has swallowed man, boat, and fortune whole, and the longgo curse of Ratsy's whistling on Belle of Newcastle haunts again all them sailed on her.
Ma's after coming to Mass of every evening, and making in one Novena upon anither all amends to the Twelve-Starred Queen of the Sea, Stella Maris, and Saint Nicholas for fishermen, and Saint Christopher for voyagers, and Saint Maundie who vouchsafed Margaret as a foundling, and Saint Bridget, guards the Strait of Moyle. Ma draws wi' elmwood stick upon the beach Wave-Sweeper, the Ocean-Boat of Mananna Mac Lir; and from her apron pocket pulls a wee hempen effigy of the god, and sets himself into his boat. She waits for the magical half of a sorraful moon to set the boat upon the tide-line, watches it disappear into the foamy surf what hisses and laps at the beach's edge, all for to search after her Kevin.
And Kevin didna return.
"Gi' over, child," counsels the frustrated parish Dominie. "The will of God, is it, and nae for us to doot. Ye must take yer faith in both yer hands and yer heart, for we are but poor sheep and canna ken the Guid Shepherd's plan. Let His lamp licht yer way in the darkness of yer soul, ay, turn yer face to Him, and let the shadows fall beyond. Pray on yer knees for forgi'eness child."
"Ay, Father," she sobs, " 'tis aisy milk in yer cup, whilst in mine, it's sour clots and black clods. Wherenever will I find anither helpmeet, and me spirit and me hope drownded? Didna God be in His Heaven and His Holy Angels having ears? Canna the Holy Spirit come doon upon the water same as on the land?" she cries in torment. And she says aught of wedding Kevin in a Protestant Chapel, and them having never a scrap of the Marriage Sacrament, what the Dominie well knows. And she speaks no a single speck of the lost silver nugget.
"Tread no near blasphemy, child," himself gazing askance at her after Sunday noon Mass, "and pray for yer soul gone astray, I say, and the hope of invincible ignorance for yer errors past. Let start yer slate clean and be of pure heart, and hew to the Holy Catechism," bringing his palms up together afore his cassock. And after instructing her tears wi' unctuous pronouncements, this harsh finality: "Whither Kevin, 'tis God's will," spoken smooth as chrism, for the weary priest has served more tragedies amongst the unshriven fisher-fowk of the Firth than he has fingers and toes. Ay, that and a' that for the hardy pagan souls bides by the whim of the sea. And he turn his face to the ither parishioners on the church steps.
Ma's ears are stopped wi' sobs. Godamercy, she canna let dreams die. Despair takes her to Arran's great stone cairn at Torry Linn on the magic of anither new moon, and there she scatters her precious crusts for the Gentle People, and treads the lengthy lonely miles home on an empty belly. Och, the pity and the piety! Kevin didna come back. Despair takes her to Doon Castle, seeking there the ghost of Robert the Bruce, herself walking the fearsome paths alone through the densest thickets of the blackest night, for to rescue Kevin's body. All gang for naught.
Ye'll be knowing, friend, howanever the slitty-eye townlanders spy on Margaret, her wandering in rags or worser all hours, up the fells and doon the glens, hair strung in the wind, face the like of a carven mask, tears all drained from eyes wild wi' grief, and herself as lonely as a loon's cry. And ye mind, in all Lamlash townland, it's never a single voice riz for Ma, neither Catholic nor Kirk.
"God's justice, the Roman hoor reaping what she sowed. Aint it a fine come-uppance for the slut?" Covenanter women-fowk clucks prudishly, one the ither, of stain and sin. "And Kevin, ay, surely he will roast in Satan's eternal fire." They hide their arrogant Calvinist beaks behind their hands, whispering of witchery and ignorant Irish ways, and reeling in prim horror of Ma's pagan rites, what'll ye gi' me for the murmuring of the malicious, and muttering of the self-righteous in the lanes and behind the doors: "Och, herself shameful born, and raised in a Popery, and then that ... ugh! Ain't that a marriage? Ootside Our Lord's kirk," them blathering eejits smirk, getting their petticoats in a knot and taking a scunner at Ma. "Is it nae God's turrible judgment over them Pope-heads as worships idols and incense?" They make grim countenance upon their children, and their tones strike like flint on steel, for 'tis answers they speak, no questions.
Godamercy, and the Catholic women of the parish? They give wee comfort to Ma, for they didna dare show their snouts, being petrified of the prejudice will be visited against the markets they tend, and afeared of rigid Covenanters warking an arrogant conceit of thistle over shamrock, och, and over their own loved ones. Or, Heaven forbid! Landlording them into exile. And it's in all these matters the parish Dominie has never a sound in him, for his spine roosting in his throat, and himself wanting only for his bread to fall butter-side up.
Mind ye, me friend, there's me Ma alone in her sorrafulness, her soul taxed, and her heart a leaden melt, herself come to be a widow withoot a last viewing of the body, nor wake to serve, nor coffin to bury, nor gravestone to grieve. Ay, and the blinding joys of their pitiful few marriage days still branded on her brain, and the heat of passion still overflowing her senses, in that one room of darkling emptiness. She canna sleep for the tears she canna swallow and the ache of emptiness in her thighs. One time and anither and anither she turns to nestle against the hollow beside her, and reaches into the cold shadow, she but a lass of fifteen years and her Kevin lost forever.
"Yerra, yerra! Shed doon yer tears. Gone, all gone!" 'Tis the keening of the Morrigan, riding over the beaches on black wings of despair she hears.
"Ay, gone," Ma grieves silently to the four silent wall. "Gone the singing grace of my Kevin's rollicking returns. Gone the bounding into view, the tune at the turn of the path. Gone the red blaze of hair, gone the tread of boots running to the threshold, gone the flung door, pur four arms stretched and entwined in the bright flame of passion, the sweet dreams by the flicker of burning turf. All gone, all, all."
Alone she struggles in her loss, one empty night upon anither.
"Gone," Margaret cannot bear to think, "gone the clasping amongst the sealskin covers, and the breathless tension, and the magic of the excitement, and the ecstatic cry, and the press of his kisses upon my seeking mouth, and his eyes on my eyes, and the soft fur-framed tongue licking upon my neck and breasts, and myself looking up from under him, and the murmuring night beyond, and the numberless stars counting our hours of joy to come ... Pity, I pray you, grant me pity, Sweet Mary! Let me to die of my bleeding heart! Ave! Ave! Ave ... ." And she who lost her faith prays.
Ay, never again the sight of Fishhawk scooting across the horizon, running for harbor, her chesty sail swelling in triumphant homecoming, her pennant flying the message of a grand catch wrested, her hull low wi' the tithe of silver darlings from the plenteous sea. Nae, noo, never nae more. Divil a gravestone for a name, Divil a splinter for remembrance, Divil a shred, a wisp, a word, a whisper to echo. And all the months of loneliness like spectres looming, so it is. And every month waxing on the hope carried in the arms of a crescent moon, and then the shrouded flight across the sky night by night to sackcloth again, and the glistening tears of the sorra stars dripping upon a black horizon. Ay, Divil a soul to comfort Margaret, herself shunned by all what dwells aboot Lamlash townland.
Yerra! It's the ould ones shake their heads sadly and say: "The sea must have its due."
Sweet Mary protect Kevin's doomed and unprovided soul, left Ma wretched poor, lonely as a castaway in that wee watling cottage by Whiting Bay. Och, a broth of a lass wi' a grown woman's grief and the love-hunger too, and Kevin's lucky silver nugget gone, God knows where. Margaret has only her net-making to put a few stale crusts on the table. But the sea is never done wi' taking for Ratsy's curse, and it added to the curse of the O'Neill lass, Ma's dead mother, and Kevin both pointing the blackthorn twig south. And so the months roll by, until it come in the way of anither enormous catastrophe for them what does business in great waters.
It's in a turbulent April, seventeen months after the loss of Fishhawk, the greatest storm of 1862 wallops the North Channel and its source from end to end, that and a' that wi' hardly a single tide's worth of warning. From Dundalk Bay and across to the Firth of Clyde, half the boats afloat tips into the Divil's brew, and many a helpless sailorman tossed to the nibbling fish, then, and never those brave faces seen again, for the sea is wanting its overdue. Musha! It's forlorn black clouds lower upon the horizons like a torn pall, one squall-line on anither, stomping upon them fishboats the like of the Dullahan's hoofs itself. Aboard Paul Houlihan's lugger, the dreadful Morrigan come to take all, wi' the Bean Sidhe whistling and moaning in the rigging. The men canna bring their nets in but must cut rope, tackle, and all, lest it drag their burdened boat to the bottom. Wicked ootgang tides of the Irish Sea, crashing in the Strait of Moyle against the mighty oncoming Atlantic, thrust waves higher than their masts, and troughs too deep for wind at all, and wave-fronts the shape of cliffs. Blown doon into the fearsome maelstrom at the Mull of Kintyre, it's Paul Houlihan's heroic lugger is overwhelmed and capsized, and casts him into the gnashing waves. And his two crewmen? Never to be seen again, ye'll understand, gone to meet Kevin Callahan and Belle and the Glasgoow tinker at the bottom of the Mull.
Holy Saints and Martyrs! Paul didna sink but thrashes in the sea, clinging to a splintery plank, and his sodden voice calling upon the Heavenly Hosts, when he spies an empty curragh drifting doon upon him. He grasps a trailing rode and pulls himself closer. After three tries of looping a bowline aboot his waist, wi' the briny seas dowsing up his nose and smashing his face and the salt burning his craw, he vows dead or alive he'll never ever give over.
"Paul," he sputters to himself, gagging and puking, "you must tip the curragh to you and throw your arm over the gunnel and pull yourself in." And that at last he does, splaying himself oot in the puddled bottom, too exhausted to move even one finger more. His brain goes dark and, in a wave or three, he's entirely oot, knowing aught more of the awful conflict of wind against tide.
Lord of hosts! Amidst the chaos of the waters and the blasts of the gale, come the Holy Angels over Da, steering his curragh south and east across the stormy Strait of Moyle, ay, safely past the crashing overfalls by the Mull of Kintyre, a right course hard by the turrible granitey cliffs and ten thousand gannets of Ailsa Craig, and then turning the curragh again to roar up the foaming Firth of Clyde toward Arran. Amongst the multitude of the doomed shrieking to Heaven, and the grinding flotsam and jetsam of countless fishboats, Da gurgles his lonesome Acts of Contrition. And the Blessed Virgin bends in Her twelve-starred crown to hear his confession riz over the booming combers, and bears him onward, cradled in his curragh the like of Brendan, blown thither and yon, half-dead and tossing in this watery purgatory. And then ... and then come the tolling of the Angelus in Lamlash town and wi' it an ebbing tide, and the Holy Mother casting him ashore. On to the rock-bound beach of Whiting Bay he pitches at sunrise, all broken and bubbling brine, dying a lonesome death, and the storm blown itself oot. What can come of that, ye'll be wanting? Whisht!
Into Ma's wee houseen four miles up the beach, in the pre-dawn, glides a fluttering from beyond, and then the unearthly Presence as afore, noow filling the dim damp air wi' silence, and oot of it, a voice, the echo of a whisper come a great distance ... the voice, Margaret will swear in later years, of Sister Therese Bernadette, and it instructing her fingers to lay doon their net-making on the day itself, then, and Ma's feet to walk the winding windy miles from her hovel, and Ma's arms to rake cockles cast up by the storm amidst those same restless Whiting Bay tides where ... what ... Saints and Martyrs! What .....
'Tis! A body!
'Tis! All ye Citizens of Heaven, blessed be this day and place! 'Tis! Glory to God and all praise to Thou Who causes the widow Callahan to chance upon this body. Kevin? Is Kevin? And she turns the body face up. Nae, 'tis no Kevin, O breaking heart, no Kevin. Nae, 'tis a stranger stranded amongst the wrack, him daft and dying on the shingle. Ay, a battered gift from the sea, or mebbe brought by an angel, so it is. 'Tis then she sees from the sartain design knitted into his woolen gansey, what is the custom amongst the Celts who go doon to the sea, the stranger hails from ... from Newcastle Port. From Kevin's home. From The North. Ay, from Ireland, the land of her birth.
Yerra! Do ye nae see me Ma, the young orphan widow at Lamlash townland, the shunned and destitute child-bride net-maker, remembering in bitter tears her Kevin what drownded the long lonely months since, and herself noow bending over this nameless one, this dying Irish fisherman? Canna ye see her crouch beside this shred of life blowing in the wind, and knowing what must be done to save it? And wondering how all this come to be? But strutting amongst the shoals, the herring gulls screech coarsely at her, and the turnstones pecking their pebbles amidst the driven spume, they eye the widow sidelong, and the curlews writing Divil words upon the spindrift, ay, and the piping wind, the never ending whistle of Ratsy's curse.
"Evil on them as rescues the prey of a hungry wave!" the birds shriek.
And she remembers Kevin.
"Let come Whitsuntide and you too shall drown," they screech. "Caw! Caw! Caw!"
'Tis past the last of the ebb, whilst the cruel flood-tide churns in wait offshore, and the fingers of surf gathering to collect their debt. She feels the thundering shock, the bursting breakers battering the beach, and watches the foaming shoals, and the sliding skim of the water's edge. When a sting of spray come spurting into her ears, she strains to listen for Kevin's voice, but in the tumult of the sea, it didna come, and she hears instead the cruel whispers of the ould ones, and them ithers, Catholic and Protesant, what savaged her soul since Kevin's gone away.
And then she hears the Sea-Divil's voice.
"I claim my due," hisses the seven-headed serpent in the swirling surf. "Ye must give way. 'Tis mine! 'Tis mine!"
She sees the Divil's face in the cavorting wave-faces, his horned beasts snaking madly in the roiling rollers, barb-tailed angels at diabolical play in the spindrift, she hears the maniacal rumble of their laughter from the fiery furnace, ay, beyond the ninth wave itself.
"Out of the depths, I call to you," howls the doomful voice. "Kneel and deliver!"
And still Ma is not moved.
"Listen to the sea!" shriek the gulls. "Listen to the sea!" screech the curlews. "Listen to the sea!" shrill the turnstones. "Beyond the ninth wave! See it rising! See the seven-headed beast ascending from the bottomless pit, him that is and was and is not, strikes lightning from the sky," they scream.
And Ma winna listen to the omens, for she's remembering Kevin. One man she's lost and noow God's grace has sent a soul for to save. Nae. Her mind is made. She winna listen.
"Nae the phantom army of a circle-fort, nor the power of Holy Trinity, nor aught but a single blackthorn kippeen save him!" curses the sibilant sea.
"And Kevin lost with Fishhawk and the twig," Ma rues.
Faith! Ma didna have ears to be hearing evil whilst her own voice calls oot this way and cries oot the ither. But them townlanders peeping behind their crannied shutters crosses themselves against the curse of the sea, and shuts their eyes. Divil a one walks oot upon that barren shore to help her.
"Nae," the Protestants whisper, turning their eyes and hearts away, "nae, never the likes of our kind to lift one grain of sand for a lubricious convent hoor, nor crouch beside an icon-worshipper on a cold and perilous beach. Nae, noo, never for us to warm that shivering Roman wretch, nor pluck his withering Irish body from Satan's watery grip." The townland Protties remember angrily the starving Irish hordes overrunning Arran in the Great Famine of years past, Irishmen the like of Vikings in oulden days, despoiling Scotland wi' begging, thievery, drink, and idolatry, stealing their wives by day and corrupting their daughters in the night, talking to beads and icons, and finally, worser of all, the deadly Irish curse of consumption, a class of miserable slow death by torture. "Let the ninth wave roll!" ones cry.
"Not my doing," the Romans whisper wi' equal venom, one body to anither. "Not my soul wilting, not me or mine to drag a dying Irish beyond the righteous grasp of a hungry tide. God give him over! Let the sea have its fill of Irish villains! The seven curses upon the crazy Callahan witch! She's nae Christian, but a backslid sinner, a convent runaway, and she's after doing her nut. Ay! Anyone wi' any sense at all knows it," these stalwarts declare, whilst Ma flings her 'Hail Mary,' again and again, and all the decades, against the wind and spray. God save us all, Catholics of Arran fear reprisals of the Sea-Divil and of Protestants alike, and so it's once again the Papists do aught for her. "Let her to drown in the ninth wave wi' the Irishman!" And the aught they do, here and noow Ma wills herself to do.
"Thou be here beside me, Sweet Mary," Ma shouts to Heaven, grasping her courage in her hands as the sands fly, "and make me soul itself for to become a ring-fort against the Divil's hordes."
Comes on to Ma a vision of The Blessed Virgin spread across the heavens, clothed in the radiance of the sun, under Her feet the moon nascent, upon Her head a crown of twelve stars, and in Her arms the horizons, and from Her heart, flames which burn the sky, and then come the Spirit filling Ma, and moving her to act, and she breathing her own life into her countryman's mouth.
"What The Lord has given me," she gasps, her mouth on Paul's [puff!], driving great breaths into him, one upon another [puff!], whilst the gritty sands scour her knees, "I'll never help the hateful sea [puff!] to take. Never!" And she screams again above the roaring wind: "Do Ye nae hear me, Lord? [puff!] NEVER! Damn the Divil and his ninth wave [puff!], his OtherWorld, ay, damn him, ye Heavenly Hosts, forever [puff!] and ever!"
She pauses a heartbeat or three here and there, each time to start anew, again clamping his nostrils, again binding her mouth to his, again blowing air down his windpipe, again, again, time on time, furiously driving life into Paul. It's whilst she crouches over him, she hears from beyond the rush of the running surf, the grinding edge of Saint Michael's sword cleaving the Sea-Divil itself, the heavenly clamor descending, the fierce struggle of the horned angels brimming up from the stenchy rim of Limbo, until ... until ... until abruptly the struggle ends in Paul's first gasp, then ... anither and ... anither, choking, rasping, gargly, all such beautiful sounds to Margaret she has never heard afore.
"Nae, 'tis not the dark angels of Hell, but this here dead wretch shall rise," Ma's soul cries out whilst, from the brink, Paul draws life.
He stirs, turns, sputtering into the world and ... and ... there!
O God!
Clinging to his tatters!
What is this thrusts into view?
Ma's face goes white. Holy Angels! Her heart thumps into her throat. Her brain spins. Glory be to God in the highest! She squeezes her eyes, looks again. Allelujah! On the sixth----the sixth!---- of April, seventeen months since Kevin's death ... God in Heaven! Can it really be?
A blackthorn twig with three notches!
"The blessed luck of me own six toes!" she murmurs incredulously.
Kevin's gift from beyond! Ma plucks it up, and draws a quick circle in the sand round Paul. Reverently, she houlds the twig towards Heaven, then points first to the east, then north, west, and last, south, then lays it over Paul's heart, whilst her spirits soar and her soul sings. In exhausted triumph, she sprawls on the damp sands alongside his splayed body, and watches his breathing. Surely herself knows 'twas she saved his life, and never the magical twig nor heavenly intervention; for withoot the pumpimg of her lungs into his, he is dead, and the curse of the Sea-Divil fulfilled one more time. But filled wi' gratitude, she's making her Aves and Paters, and again, and again. She stops to scissor Paul's legs, rolling him on to his stomach.
She reflects on the twig. "Sure and certain, it is the very blackthorn of Therese's scourges, given by me to Kevin Callahan. See the bend, the point, the three notches? The notches of my own dead mother, Kevin said. Does it not tell the world the soul of Kevin lives on this beach today? That it lives in this lonesome wretch afore me? Is it not the circle of life come round again? The circle of the Celtic cross! Praise God from whom all blessings flow," she tells the unconscious one, whosomever he is. And pockets the twig. " 'Tis the magic of the Gentle People that good fortune is to come, 'tis the full circle. 'Tis a sign from Therese. 'Tis!"
Alone she lifts Paul, and staggers the lengthy path under his burden to the wee daub-and-wattle houseen, one labored step urging anither, from noon until near sundoon, herself resting worn and breathless here, then up again there, then doon, and up again, and overing, stumbling past the shuttered cottages of the spineless naysayers, past the white-feather Protestants and yellow-belly Catholics, past all them lily-livered able ones peeking oot, what canna lift a single finger for Paul's burden. The lonely courage she calls up over and again drives her until, reaching home and spent entirely, she lurches across the threshold and puts the stranger doon upon the settle amongst Kevin's sealskins. Wearily, she's after covering him wi' the skins and rags, and sets a glowing turf hearth. At the last, she falls into a deep swoon of sleep, beaten to the bone, only to wake in a sweat at moon-up for to watch him again. And when he at last wide-awakes, she composes him wi' willow tea and whatanever soup she can spoon into him. He mentions his name, Paul Michael Houlihan, from County Down, and aboot the loss of his boat and crew.
It's after offering up her prayers under a bright rim of new moon, she scratches a circle aboot the houseen wi' the twig, as she will every moonful night from this oot. It's within the magic of those circles, Paul come slowly back amongst the living. Ma is exhausted, and knows naething of what more to do. She turns to The Holy Church, then, for to help in this delicate matter of man and woman. She says aught of the blackthorn twig to her fat Dominican confessor, nor Therese's penitence, nor the diary still sewn into a pocket of her frock and never opened in fear of goblins; and aught of the nightly circles she draws aboot her houseen wi' the heathen twig. All whatanever she keeps to herself, she wonders upon the meaning of it, of the gift from the sea, come from the land of her birth, and the magic twig entangled in a stranger's tatters. What future will it bring?








Illustration the twenty-fourth

357

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR: again


Ye'll smile a wee bit, friend, for 'tis oncommon odd, that there quare first night of the stranger and Margaret in Kevin's wee hovel. Do ye nae see the rescued one on the settle, sleeping the like of the dead whilst, on the ither side of a hasty sealskin curtain, Margaret on a pallet pieces her night between strange exultations and anxious wakings, straining to know only that he still breathes. And, friend, what'll ye gi' me for the ghost of Kevin Callahan flitting aboot the dark corners? Come morning and she's after composing the stranger wi' goat's milk and stirabout. Yesternoon, the knit design of his sweater told of his home port, Newcastle harbor, and a Saint Christopher medal told her of his Roman church. And today there's a few more words passes between them afore she leaves him a bowl of porridge, a clean set of her drownded Kevin's clothes, and a piss-pot by his bedside. And she's oot the door and doon the path for to seek counsel of the parish Dominie. The lengthy miles march by, hardly noticed in her turmoiled mind. At the rectory, she steps unsartain slow to the door, takes a grand breath, pauses a lengthy moment, and yanks the bell-cord if she would pull the house down. A straight-lipped old woman opens the door. She's all in black silk, with silk-ribboned white Bruges lace cap, and starchy white linen apron embroidered in Antrim needlepoint.
"His reverence rides on the hog's back," Margaret marvels.
"Dia duit," Margaret says at the threshold. God be wi' ye.
"Dia's Muire duit. God and Mary be wi' ye. And ye wish---- ?"
"To see His Grace. Father MacPheerson, if it plaise ye, ma'm, God protect all here." Margaret riz her eyes. The woman's face is stern as stone.
"God bless ye, child, himself ben awake and at his aise a spell noow. Ye ben in guid time." The lips purse, get straighter: "Follow me, if ye plaise."
The Dominie, his cincture loosened 'round a swell of belly, receives her over honeyed scones and Darjeeling tea in the damasked privacy of his stuffy sitting room. He motions for her to take a hard armless chair. It's by some malicious tongue, he aleady knows of the scene on the beach, and of Paul dragged to the young widow Callahan's home.
"Ahhh, my child, umm, aboot this, ahhh, delicate matter, this ... this man ahhh, in yer, umm, cottage... "
" 'Tis Paul, Your Grace. His name is Paul. Paul Houlihan. Ay, Paul Michael Houlihan, is it, Your Grace ... . A man of the sea. He's Irish, Yer Riverence. And I'm no a child."
"And his faith?"
"Baptized in the true church. And ... and sailing from Newcastle townland, he ben, ay, County Doon. A guid man, Father."
Ma canna be cowed. For all her fifteen years at Saint Maundie's, the men of the diocesan clergy visited aught but conceits and arrogance upon the Shod Sisters. Ye've heared tell, friend, howanever that and a' that blew tinder on the flames of Sisterly community---- ignited and fanned by the Abbess, Mother Superior Joan Agnes---- aboot the prejudices against women religious in the church, is it. And noow it's Ma ben seventeen and her spleen's riz, and she after hearing the priest's voice between the pulses in her ears, and his words butting against the courage the Abbess had built in her.
"Ahhh, yes, Paul," Father MacPherson murmurs, oily smooth. "We must sartainly give thanks, I say, to the Blessed Saints for bringing Mister ... Mister Houlihan life---- "
" 'Tis God held him in the hollow of His hand, and God and Mary threw him upon the beach. 'Tis me own self pumped him oot and blew the breath into him, Father."
"Ahhh, yes, that They did, and that ye did, so it is, and guid to ye, Missus Callahan," says he archly, reaching for to munch anither scone, "for 'tis, ahhh, umm, a precious gift o' life the Saints brocht ye."
"Thank ye, Father, and thanks be to God and the Virgin Mary he ben wi' the living. And for the Holy Spirit guides me heart and hands. I'll be composing him wi' tay and porridge and barmbrack, and a bit of stew to stick to his bones, as I can. I think himself will be on the mend from this oot."
The priest stares, takes a grand bite, irately cheeks it, and mumbles into his cud, "Pride, my dear child, is the worst sin of all. Do not, I say, do not risk yer immortal soul."
"It's nae the pride I have, Yer Riverence, it's truth. If I didna care for him, and feed him, and nurse him," she on the edge of tears, "he's dead, so he is. The gossips and the nosies, they all times have their barrows of filth and slurry to shovel aboot meself, Paul or nae Paul. And I nae ben a child, Father."
"It's that I'm after worrying," says he during a lengthy chew. He smacks his lips, and wipes his face on a corner of his cope.
"Ye've nae the need for worry, Father. I'm nae the hoor from Ayr. It's straight and true the Sisters at Saint Maundie riz me. I'll be making a right guid fist of Paul's care."
The Dominie has reached his fill of scones and Ma: "And it's today," he bellows harshly, his chin thrust and his cheeks flushed, "ye'll be making, I say, a richt guid division in yer cottage, wha' ye will," he elevating Kevin's daub-and-wattle hovel.
"Yer Riverence---- "
"For to hush the malice o' the loose tongues in the parish, Margaret."
"Father!"
"And let ye say nae more. Noow, let us walk to the cottage and do wha' must be done."
And from that there oot, nae a word passes between them until they arrive at the wee clay-daubed houseen. Himself goes first inside, yerra! one hand stuffing his nose against the animal stench, the ither houlding the hem of his cassock against the droppings, for the lonely woman brung goat and sow and hens in against the fearsome night, or if herself is away. Paul is too weak to rise and barely speaks. He's clothed in Kevin's clean homespun, and lying on a fresh truss of hay Ma laid upon the settle. The priest blesses him and the home and the dubious sealskin curtain for to mark off Paul's private place: him on the settle, Ma on the pallet, and the hides betwixt, as Margaret first arranged.
"It's every morning I'll be waiting for to see yer face at confession," the priest glaring straight into Ma's stricken eyes, "and may God gi' ye nae pardon nor peace in yer mission."
Come nine o'clock Mass on Sunday, and it's fat Father MacPherson, happily inspired by a drop of communion wine, and it's his reticent townland flock bobbing from kneeler to pew and doon again in waves of doot, the like of the wee buoys mark their fishing nets. It's an endless buzz of gossip aboot the scandralous doings in Kevin's houseen, ye mind, friend and there's the hypocrites basking the like of snakes in the sun, in't. For rotund Father MacPherson, overflowing the pulpit in his brilliant red and gold chasuble, he sets himself aboot pressing The Word upon whatanever snickering ears still ben open.
"This stranger in our midst, thanks to Almighty God, he is flesh of our flesh, I say, the same as each of us," he shouts oot his homily, "and the Lord calls on us to heal a stranger, I say, as the Samaritans were called," the priest reading Holy Book and chapter. "And who, I say, yea, who amongst us will be that guid Samaritan?"
"Ay, flesh," the parisioners think for themselves, "and its temptations with that young whore run away from Saint Maundie's, and herself flaunting us with yet another sin."
It's when the priest clears his throat and gazes amongst the pews of Lamlash parish, the meager crowd looks the ither way, and many a Levite covering a smirk or guffaw wi' the back of a sneery hand. And when the priest is after cloaking his lesson in a sermon on Moses rescued from the bullrushes, still no a single offer comes to take in the suffering stranger. And at the cup and wafer, the parishioners again avoid the Dominie's glance, fearing the curse of the sea when themselves already ben dining on poverty. 'Tis no the body and blood of the Lord in their hearts, but the bodies of Paul and Margaret, and the cess of sin on their brains. Divil a one to stand up for poor Ma!
On the church steps after Mass, the back-biters mumble again of the stranger being Irish, and of the hard life on Arran since the ither side of beyond, and worser since The Great Hunger drove multitudes of Irish into their lives, and for donkey's years, it's ben the Irishmen filching Scottish sheep, raiding Scottish granaries, netting Scottish fish, seducing Scottish women, cheating Scottish men of their land and labors---- and noow the sinful exhibition of Margaret and Paul. At the public houses, and around the turf-fires at home, and on the docks or in their fishboats at sea, ones crow against the fat priest and his seditious sermons, this one on the sly, that ither wi' beak warbling: ay, some timorous, and ithers wi' temerity, mind ye, and endless buzzy gossip aboot the scandralous doings in Kevin's cottage, and the hoor from Ayr.
"These events are a sign, I say, a message from Heaven!" pronounces the portly priest, ringing his plea like a steeple bell. Faith and hope, but nae charity wells up from his flock. He mentions a parable of Our Lord washing the feet of His disciple. "God commends this gift, I say, to yer care," he pleads, "if yer ears ben open to it. Tak' advantage for the guid of yer immortal soul."
The wee parish didna consider anither mouth to feed any class of advantage, ay, partikilerly an Irish mouth. Nor do them find the passion to care, wi' the curse of the sea frailing their hearts and the scarce times squeezing their bellies, and the hoor from Saint Maundie's committing malodorous sin under their nostrils, so they tell one the ither, until the pews fidget in disquiet.
"Dearly beloved," he begs, "it's nae the bother, I say, nae, 'tis a guid wark to yer account in yer hour of need, I say. Ye be doing the Holy Angels' wark and tak' the poor man in. 'Tis all innocence and licht wi' Paul and Margaret, and no an apple nor a snake in sicht. And it's nae the bother for one o' ye to step up and say at all, 'I ben Paul's brother. I ben The Lord's servant. I will tak' him in, feed his body, and protect him from temptation.' "
Friend, pray our Dear Saviour be your guardian in time of need! 'Tis no a bother at all? No when the entire parish breathes, "Nae!" Howanever, they bow their heads and shut their Christian hearts, them nae-sayers leave their farthings, their Aves and Paters at the confessional booth, and have naething to say of their guilt. Ay, and pray the Mass, wherenever they eat of the wafer in deceit, and sip the wine in guile, and make amends to God but no amends to man. Partikilerly about Paul.
"Our Father who art in heaven ..." them parishioners pray. Yet didna one single body wanting bread riz one wee pang of doubtt in this nae-nae-land, mind ye. " ... Forgive us our trespasses ... "
" ... but Lord, we cannot take in an Irishman ..."
"Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil."
" ... and Scotland for the Scots."
"Amen."
On second Sunday, the Dominie gives over, then, himself thinking if he couldna win, he wouldna lose. He should find his way past these brick-heads and hate-mongers, he figures to himself. And still the lips of the faithful are glued shut, the like of their hearts.
"Ye'll say never a word against this gift from Heaven," he rules. "Ye'll nae harden yer souls against a God-fearing widow, I say, and her years be few and her burden large. Ay, think o' the Marys' burden at Calvary, ye reprobates! And our widow Callahan after carrying charity to a broken man, I say, a gift of Heaven, to her fireside, ay, charity! do ye nae be hearing that holy word? 'Tis in charity, I say, she's after mending him. Ay, there's faith, and the widow has that. There's hope and the widow has that. And there's charity dwells amongst all of us," he thunders. "Here's a man near drowned is the gift o' the Holy Angels, and for it, The Lord commands us to charity, and I say ye must answer," he calls oot, making wee mention of Ma's lonely heart, and adding like a fox, "staying close, I say, to the rule of Holy Scripture in all these matters."
"Charity? Scripture?" the people ask, one the ither. "In Scotland, Father MacPheerson, God does for them what does for themselves," and there is general nodding to that answer, for amongst the faithful there didna yet be a body willing to break a crust wi' a feeble Irishman or the whore of Babylon when the horseshoe hangs round-side-up by his own door and the curse of hunger hangs over his own threshold. Ay, his own nets bare as his larder, and his children dwindling for lack of a decent feed. Who would be for Ma, her withoot husband or family, ye'll be worrying, friend. And who would no suspect a moving cartain of unsartainly blessed sealskins, divides a godless hoor from a going-aboot seaman in a one-room daub-and-wattle hovel?
And so, wi' the sign of this gift upon them, and Paul and Margaret being but one sealskin apart, ye mind, in that wee earthen hovel, and the Dominie making raids upon the church pantry for them, and the winds chuckling between the chinks, that and a' that---- and the parish chockablock wi' smirking tongues hinged in the middle, shoveling pong the like of a spade wi' two ends!---- soon enough the Dominie speaks again and come to marry them. What do them clucking gossips in the pews say then, them snotty eejits looked doon their noses, never seeing fair beyond? Paul and Margaret in patchy rags make their pledge wi' a wee fishing-net shackle of iron for a wedding band, and the fat priest celebrating the Mass. Whisht! On the wedding day, it's Patrick and Bridget and all the Heavenly Hosts a-smiling doon upon Lamlash townland. In the entire parish, the way Paul and Margaret come man and wife, no a one God-fearing body says a single word to make an ass bray nor a hare's ears bend.
And whatanever come of it? The first week of the marriage didna be an aisy time. At the beginning, the ghost of Kevin Callahan walks Ma's brain waking and sleeping, and herself feeling little comfort in the night next to Paul. She canna forget what she lost; Paul canna forget what he found. Whisht! 'Tis no in happiness they dwell but drudgery, and the silence of warking side by side in the field, and at night two far-apart beds of tenterhooks, though it be one settle. Paul learns of a wee derelict fishboat, and sets aboot patching it on the beach. Ma gathers flax and spins for to tie his nets. 'Tis in name only they be man and wife.
There come the sixth morning of them ben together, himself afloat in the skiff and she alone mending his nets. It come to her oot of noowhere thoughts of Sister Therese's diary she's never opened, still sewn in a skirt pocket. Come a day she sets the skirt oot and she's after pulling the threads. She turns the yellowed pages, sits a long time wi' clutching it to her heart, until she finally turns to reading. 'Tis no a diary in the common word, but a string of broken phrases and one-line entries, a few separated by days, many by months, two by a year, telling of abuse by Hugh Robert O'Neill, flight to Drogheda, street life there and worser, then the Magdalenes, Jimmy and the trip to Ayr, Community life from Postulant to the veil and vows. Thirty-two pages in all, and fifteen aboot Margaret: entries aboot Jimmy, Belle, the contract, the blackthorn twig, Margaret's infancy, and Therese's times at Saint Maundie's, until tetanus stopped her pen. The contract!
"Sister Therese Bernadette is my gran'ma!" Margaret is astonished. "And Mother Superior," she realizes, "when she burnt all of Therese's belongings, that must be the contract, too. Ay, a lost piece of the puzzle that is myself, lost forever."
Margaret reads slowly, again and again. She feels a hand upon her shoulder. She turns to empty air, and the sudden faint scent of blackthorn flowering, wee white flowers where there's aught to see. All day she ponders, the meaning, all day wrestles in her soul between 'was,' and 'is.' She takes the blackthorn twig oot from its wrappings, studies it, feels the three notches her ma, the ruinated lassie, made. Ay, the same notches notches Jimmy Callahan felt so longgo. And the barbs that scourged Therese in her penitence and, in the end, they killed her. Margaret picks up a torn net, and the twine she had spun that morning.
"Your days are the like of the net you are knotting," she tells herself. "And where it is torn, that is where you must make it whole, and cast in the sea again. Your Gran'ma would tell you that."
That night, she dreams of kneeling by a gravestone wi' Kevin's name, and saying Aves, and Therese beside, sharing her tears, and pulling her up by the hand. And then her soul afloat in a strange warm flood of calm. In the morning, she awakens to a lightness unlike aught she has known since Kevin is gone. She looks at Paul and it's a ray of the sun slipping through a chink in a shutter lights on his face, and of a sudden her heart like to burst, as if she lepp over a great river, from one bank to anither, as if she never seen his face afore. She slides doon beside him and takes his chin in her hands and kisses him. He blinks into wakefulness and stares at her in puzzlement.
"Ye're me true love noow," she bends to him, "and it's in this world I'm living, and there's naething else but you," she whispers, stroking his hair so that the ray of light falls on her hands and her fingers trembling.
He is silent for a long time searching her face, afore he speaks.
"Margaret, I did not know but half of Heaven, and waiting the like of forever beside you. Ay, the ither half is you. Let you be wife to me and I will be husband to you ... " and he wriggles upright.
"And lie together?" the edge of anxiety in her voice.
"If you will have me." He stands. She moves an unsartain step away.
"Howanever will I not have ye?" she touching the shackle-band on her finger.
"You will not be against me?"
"Nae, Paul, I can never in this world be against ye. 'Tis me breath blows in ye, and yers what must return to me." She edges closer, facing him.
"Then you will lie wi' me?"
"I have done such a thing ... what ... what ye know." The edge moves and she blushes mightily.
"I hold you no less, Margaret."
Silence.
"Och, Paul, if I didna cast ye back into the sea, I must be wanting ye."
"Only the small half of me wanting you." He circles his arms aboot her waist.
"Do ye be small, ummm ... there?" she teases him, and himself blushing. But she already knows from tending him when his brain was hardly alive.
"And it's you ben wanting for to know?"
Margaret faces him, puts her hands on his shoulders, and puts her eyes upon his.
"And ... and ... ummm, we cleave together and our lives be one," she says, and him pulling her doon to sit at the foot of the bed, and she flexing in his arms. She lifts a sealskin coverlet wi' one hand, and looks at him. He puts his hand over hers. They sit side by side, hips and shoulders touching, his hand across her lap. She presses against him, and turns his face to her.
"Ye're me Paul noow, and noow ... noow is forever," her voice low and sure, her cheek on his and she putting his hand upon her heart and he taking his fingers away, and sliding them, guiding them, under her shift and up the smooth of her inner thigh.
And so it starts, me ma, Margaret Bridget O'Neill, what brought me da, Paul Michael Houlihan, to his breath, noow she's after bringing Da to his spirit, whilst the sun and moon go 'round, and they make love in all the seasons. She knots the nets and he casts them in the sea. She sews the sails, and he steers Fishhawk II. They till the soil and side-by-side scratch bread from the earth. And in the night, they cleave together, God bless them, at the first in anxious caution, and then in ever warmer desire until, at the last, the pleasuring of the excitement lights their nights the like of flame. It's at each ither in joy and contentment, so they ben, and in this way a year of guid fortune passes. Yerra, 'tis a guid farmer plants the seed, and come the twelfth month of marriage, Ma is expecting an event: me own wee self it is, swelling her belly. Come her time in an aisy forty weeks and I squeeze oot glowing like an aureole and bawling like a calf: their firstborn, perfect, whole, and fair. And I have five toes on each foot.
Howsomever, some townland fowk complain, 'tis an event fraught wi' worrisome omen, them islanders looking away wi' wind-bitten faces---- for ye mind, us Houlihans still ben ootsiders looking in, Irish in the land of Scots. But there's some ither Arraners calls me, "Maggie-Bawn," the fair-haired one, saying I ben born a blessed one what brings the luck. Still ithers say they must wait and see. God hould ye in the palm of His hand, friend, and whatanever could ye be considering, mebbe, that I would indeed be the lucky one? Och, if I had the choice, I should never ben born.
Godamercy, 'tis 'woulda', 'coulda,' 'shoulda,' and 'if' again. Divil the luck!



Illustration the twenty-fifth

369

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE: luck


In the year of me birth, 1863, Heaven stands netween Lamlash townland and harm, and the Holy Angels have no the ears for nae-sayers. And so the luck begins, seven grand years wi' the richness of earth in bloom, and the scent of heather swinging through the soft air the like of the censer at Bishop's Mass. The Firth of Clyde thrives wi' fish thicker as ants in a hill, and the beaches from Bute to Laggs and the south shore of Kintyre paved wi' cockles. On the wee Arran fairms, patches of rye bend the like of breaking waves. Nanny goats graze the sunshiny sides of the glens and, at the fall of night, wander home to give the milk sweet as honey. At the Eucharist, the crowd turns from the Host to glance askew at Ma and Da, and their brows knitting at me, staring in wonder, and the wee qualm of a wink betraying the puzzlement of howsomever all this bounty come to be.
" 'Tis a wonder what the child brought," a body tells a body, picking the lush apples and plump plums to wicker baskets, and threshing the golden rye on the barn floor to the piper's tune at step dances, whilst the nets teem wi' the silver flash of herring. And there's tales of Saint Maundie's Foundling Home flowering when Ma herself was a child, and noow gossips spread the word to the north and south of Arran, and up and down the Firth, 'tis Ma's own child, come to the same magic.
"Ay, the wean's the like of the Little People bringing the luck," some nod.
"Howsomever ye ben saying, 'It's the luck!' 'Tis a blessing, 'tis a bit of Heaven the child brings.'' And Bob's yer uncle, there's noo talk of six toes. Or five.
"It's the guid faeries brocht Maggie-Bawn to Margaret and Paul. Ay, a bright wean she is, talking wi' the Little People what brocht her, the way of talking to her dollies, didna ye know? She ben the like of her ma, they tell brocht blessings to Saint Maundie's," ithers say, when April blooms into a brilliant and blossomy Spring.
"Some's saying Maggie's dollies is faeries, what comes to life when the auld moon is lying in the arms of the new, some's saying," whispers one, throwing salt over his right shoulder and, after that bountiful spring, goes to Mass every evening the clock strikes six. Even the laziest summer day.
"Happy days," them Arraners sing oot, driving to market wi' bulging sacks of grain, and them after selling the fatted calf and their harvests of rosy fruit for good money. "Happy days," they greet one the ither, coming home from market wi' pockets a-jingle and the lopsided grin of a drop taken.
"My woman ben salting and pickling three weeks on," anither brags that September, "and our wee cellar crammed the like of a Roman catacomb. Ay, and herself sending for more salt."
"It's my shelves sagging from the burden, so it is, until I'm wondering the way they'll burst," a body mocks his blessings, come November.
"Ay, 'tis a gift, the land and sea and all between flowing wi' milk and honey---- the gift of the Maggie, it is," the auld ones joke come Christmas. Godamercy, from the glut of rye, a river of raw cheap Arran Island whisky flows at the merry public houses, for all to lift a cup that New Year, singing, "Auld Lang Syne" for to toast Maggie-Bawn's year. And never a Constable nor Revenooer to be seen, for mind ye, friend, that there was her "luck" too.
Ah, friend, noow it's even Covenanters prays to Brendan and Patrick, Bridget and Maundie, praying to keep Arran golden as it is noow. God save all, in Scottish highlands and lowlands away of Arran, the fairms are falling to rot and dross and a struggle wi' mean conditions, partikilerly them as planted spuds. In the west of Scotland, the people's burdens are worser, multiplied once again by the hordes of starved-oot Irish crossing the sea to escape the stench of their own potato rot. It's again them same Irish eejits ben too ignorant to be planting a different crop for sustenance, Divil take it! 'Tis An Gorta Mor overing, For it's still spuds and aught else an Irishman will eat, nor his wife cook it, all what ye learnt beyond, friend. Yerra, whilst her people starves and dies, it's again Erin sells rich crops of rye and barley, wheat and Indian corn, and the cattle and swine to the English what swims in plenty. Once again, it's the four riders of the apocalypse: 'woulda,' 'coulda,' 'shoulda,' and, 'if', whilst pestilence, hunger, and plague curse the Irish countryside, whilst The Heavenly Hosts, they ben looking the ither way.
We Houlihans ben Arraners noow, and stand for our island only. We didna want them vagrant Irish vermin on our shores! We ben joining the townland mobs, shouting threats, waving shillelaghs and worser for to welcome them Irish---- and for Ma and Pa, God save their souls, it's walloping their own kinsmen. Ay, it's ones the like of us what settled here joins the home-born Arraners, and sets hostile 'welcome' teams upon them Irish ootlanders for to thrash them proper. It's us Houlihans assisting best we can for, in Da's brain, Newcastle where he once lived, and the wee County Louth of his birth ben dead cows. It's thistle battering shamrock on the beaches, and turning the Irish boats 'round, Divil roast the hindmost.
And Ma? She's learnt from Therese's writings howanever it was an Ullan plantation where herself was made and born. Godamercy, noow it's those same Northern Irish Orangeys is all steeped in misery, and seeks Scotland as their refuge. Noow and then, come a great wheen of such Orange across the sea from Doonpatrick townland, och, them what loathes its Roman cathedral and hates the sod where the three saints sleep. And it's mebbe there's one amongst them mebbe ben knowing the ninth glen, and mebbe seen the same oak tree whereanever the tinker and the lassie lay doon in sport, och, where the young daughter of Laurie-Jane-MacInnish-O'Neill-Therese-Bernadette, and Hugh Robert O'Neill-the-depraved longgo entwined wi' that rascally freckled Glasgoow tinker. Och, 'tis that frightened lassie whose father was Protestant and mother was Catholic what died birthing Ma. Think, friend, of Ma's Protestant blood, from the Protestant tinker and the dead lass---- who cursed her own church at her death!---- and her bastard daughter raised in a Catholic order. It leaves meself wondering aboot blood against blood, shamrock against thistle, Orange against Green, on the beaches of Arran and howanever the paths of them we crossed in violence is darkened by shadows of ourselves. 'Tis no for Heaven to say, nor Ma nor Pa shoulda known, but if they woulda, mebbe we coulda avoided the apocalyptic visitation to come.
"Divil the newcomers! Send them back," Da shouts. "We choose for Arran and Alba. Away wi' them buck eejits from across the Irish Sea! We didna be them rabble, we didna want them here. Oot!" he barks. "Let them starve." Bedad! We ben knowing more aboot starvation soon enough.
Faith and glory, it's seven fat years gone by for us three Irish Houlihans on our island paradise, and then, mind ye, friend, comes the paying back. Howanever was that, ye ax, that we ben cast oot of our Eden? 'Tis Ratsy's whistling curse added to the lassie---- and Kevin!---- pointing the blackthorn south. We wake, bedad, for to face the awful price of running wi' the hares and hunting wi' the hounds.
The year of 1870, I turn seven. The summer is a decent harvest, but autumn ben a wet blowy harbinger. Come that winter, Divil the seven; better I stayed six. The second Sunday of Advent is a blizzard, and we didna ben dug oot when here come another. God save us, a worser snowstorm starts Christmas day. Ma's making tay-water of melt and keeping us wi' the warmth of sow and goat, and two hens and one goose what didna blow away nor freeze, all rubbing together day and night in our wee single room. Snow piles against the shutters till we canna tell dawn from dusk lest we burrow a hole by the door, and anither for the chimley. When night does come at last, Da lifts me up under the thatch and Ma come climbing. The three of us stoops in our cramped garret-room, thanking Kevin in Heaven for his hoard of sealskins and cuddling together for warmth. We're after leaving the animals in tethers below so's they didna bump us when we come doon in the dark for the piss-pot. Meself, it is, cleans the animal mess in the morning, for me back is not yet the curlicue curse it come to be today. By the bye, our skimpy larder is empty and our turf supply dwindling, and us after eating flatbread crumbs and root-cellar bits. God help us, it will be twenty years more afore I bide again in a thatched garret-room, and it will be for worser pain ye canna believe.
January is colder nor ice and longer nor time, and for a week come every day a fury of snow, until the weight of it splits our roof-ridge and buries the neighbor's cow in its barn. We feed our last nanny whatanever we glean from nooks and crannies for to make her milk, and then straw from the settle, and at the last wee handfuls of thatch, until we're afeared for our roof. When her milk dries up, Pa butchers her and we gnaw a raw bit each day, for there's precious wee turf left to burn. The whole room, it is, reeks wi' the stink of animal piss and pong seeped past the flags into the gravel aneath. And though we ben tunneling oot the door to dump the piss-pots and the pong in a muckle pile, it's a turrible smell if the stench warms up. Here's Da puts oot the waste one night and the sow breaks free, knocks him doon, and she bolts oot the door. 'Tis an enormous tragedy. We run after, near freezing in the search, and the snow up to me chin, and canna find her. When the hens gang too meager to lay---- we ben eating the feed---- Ma butchers them into morsels for to store frozen against the icy shutters. It's a single wee bit of raw chicken after sun-up prayers each day, all bone and gristle, and naething of flesh.
February come a spell of weeks we hardly budge from the cottage for the blizzards, Da's chest has the look of a corduroy road, and Ma's cheeks sunk and eye-sockets hollow the like of a skull. We eat the goose a wee bit by bit till she's gone. I'm juist skin and bones and elbows sharpened to a point, waking up hungry and put to bed the same way. Then, I'm no hungry any more. Mebbe we ben dying.
God bless the season, winter come suddenly upon early spring. The first week in March, it's the like of resurrection, and us riz from the tomb. Under the snowmelt is green leaves and buds; we eat the buds and suffer the runny bowels for it. Divil the spring! And then the Houlihan house become the like of a cave, dark wi' the sickness on us, as if God thrust doon and rolled the rock back over the hole. 'Tis by Easter of 1871, the whole earth runs freshets, and the roads flooded the like of rivers, and the meadows all mire and mud. And the blackthorn twig what didna never help us in winter, loses its magic at all.
"It takes a power of holiness for to make a magic circle 'round such a cooramuch." Ma tries at it wi' the blackthorn twig. "Saint Margaret help us this day," she complains, calling on her patron, "Tch, tch ... see howanever the guid sod flows into the crooked ditches, and all ben lost to the spring planting, and even the furze gone under, and the foxglove and the gorse drownded."
Amidst the calamity, the fat priest brings brings us new horrors. "The Holy Spirit wha' moved in yer child, 'tis gone," he says to Ma, "and the sheep of my fold in nae mood for the prattle wi' her dollies." He speaks a roundaboot way of the Divil, of curses and witchery. "There's them in the parish, they fear demons in yer doings, ay, an evil spell, a pishrogue, from yer Maggie-Bawn, I say, so they do." And he grim-lips a grating hoarseness, "They ben afeared she's possessed. And mebbe it's wanting exorcize."
Ma and Da recoil in hurt and shock, no hardly believing their ears for whatanever Father MacPherson says, afearing the way the irate parishioners might do, ay, them ignorant townland eejits aroused at all, and talking aloud of us being warlocks and witches and worser. And from that day oot, we didna go to early Sunday Mass, but only in the evening when few attend, and them no caring if we be there. Still the Divil follows us; whatsomever we manage to plant that muddy spring is cursed wi' an ocean of rain until the seed swims up and the topsoil itself floats beyond. Come summer, the curse takes a contrary way: the handful of seed what did root noow shrivels of summer-long drought: June is an oven, July glows the like of embering turf, and August is the sixth level of Hell.
"What use to light the candles," Da questions the His Riverence after evening Mass, "when the rocks itself is burning, and the earth broiled?"
That and a' that makes a foul autumn, and a sorra Michaelmass. 'Tis an empty Christmas, and a bitter Epiphany follows, ay, a desperate winter though the chills be mild and the snow slight, for our hollow bellies must make kitchen of an empty root cellar. The whispering against us grows day by day, and the dangers over our home and ourselves flit and swarm the like of bats oot the cave.
Come spring, and the growing season the same as last, an April deluge and again a summer oven. There's aught for falling back; the larders and cellars of last year's thin harvest ben long empty since. The luck of Louth what Da brought longgo, and Ma's secret six toes, and meself ben born the blessed Maggie-Bawn, 'tis all of it wine turned to vinegar. The markets in Ayr and Glasgoow fall belly up. The herring leave the Firth and the North Channel, and flee beyond the ninth wave. There's paltry few ither fish and them still swims have noo patience for weary fishermen. There's our leaky fishboat the like of many anither, wi' the heat shrinks the planks and the drought spreads the seams.
"It's the light of day streams through the hull," Da complains at the caulking hammer.
The hopeless townland women, they knot the nets and stitch the sails for the fish didna run and the boats canna float. And if they rake for shellfish, the sea curses their taking: the limpets and whelks go scarce. Whatanever their men do these parlous times, yer axing? They brood and anger, until us Houlihans, we canna hardly get to Mass against the silence of them glowering ones what block the door. Yerra, the blackthorn magic didna make nae stand at all against Ratsy's accursed whistling pishrogue of 1845. God save us, 'tis two years on of hard times and never an end, in't. The shadows of the blackened moon turns horseshoes round-side-up, and they fall from the doors, and copper nails go green in a single night. In the dark of the lanes, there's great increase for the whispering against our wee family, more horrid accusations of sorcery, demonic deeds, evil magic and, talk of the parish, mebbe a Bishop's interdiction for Ma and Da, and meself the most. Mebbe a public exorcism, for hunger flies like locusts over the land.
"We must be pilloried soon, or hounded oot this distressing country, one way and anither," Da tells Ma; for it is mentioned over and again by the villagers afore empty larders, howsomever the Houlihans brought the curse of the sea, and it's lying heavily upon their falling land, so it is.
"Silent lips be sweet to hear," Ma says wearily.
'Tis the angry Sea-Divil hounds us, mind ye, friend, and the goad of it ben Ratsy's whistling on Belle of Newcastle twenty-five years since, added to the south-pointing twig. And didna ye be thinking this here curse of the Sea-Divil ben the worstest Ratsy's pishrogue calls forth when there's the hot pitch to come. Ye get a firm grip on yer chair, friend, whilst I tell the depth of the blackness in Ratsy's heart. And that. For it's darker Satan does be whensoever the chance arrives.
More tay, friend? Here, let me.







Illustration the twenty-sixth

379

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX: Ireland


"Let drive the Houlihans away, the lot of them!" the villagers conspire. "Ay, the wee scrawny witch and her vile spells, and her Irish Ma-the-hoor, and her Irish Da, himself what brocht the curse of the Sea-Divil and shoulda drownded! Ay, them Houlihans, they're all complicitors wi' the Divil," a body tells a body between the market stalls, or over a foam of porter, or behind his hat, or the ould men pissing against the shady side of the church wall, nae knowing of the cursed Ratsy's whistling nor of the southing twig. "Let save ourselves from yet worser times, and put that family of divils on their way back to their damned Ireland."
Come one grim July sunrise, and us finding a pile of bullrushes and twiggy branches smouldering against our house, and Da's wee rowboat stove in to flinders. Next night wakens to a dance of the Divil's shadows twitching across our cottage walls, and the dark of Lamlash Bay lit in lurid flickering and hellish reflections off the rippling water: 'tis the flames of Da's fishboat burning to the waterline at her mooring, and us watching in horror. Godamercy! Never in this world one single fisherman of the parish volunters for to row oot and throw a single bucket into the baleful glare. Noow Ma and Da is afeared the villagers do be marching to our door soon enough wi' spades and axes in hand, and wrecking rods, and a rowdy red eye.
"We'll fair away, Maggie-Bawn," Ma smiles at me. Da didna smile.
Da finds a waterman has a wee fishing skiff to take us across the Irish Sea to Clogherhead, a seaport lies a little distance to Drogheda. 'Tis close on to where he was riz. Och! It's Margaret, Paul, and Maggie-Bawn Houlihan flee Arran packed as cabbage leaves into a little small cockleshell of a sailboat wi' the fisherman owns it. God forbid, the like of thieves in the night, wi' the clothes on our back and less in hand as church mice, for to scratch a new living on Irish soil. All's I remember is desperate seasickness the entire voyage, and the sour taste, and stringy mucus when the puking is all gone by, and the rib-sore wretchings for hour upon hour. Upon hour.
Until: "Look, Maggie!" Da sings oot, "Ireland!" and the wee skiff closing the land off Ballagan Point what Dad remembered from his Newcastle fisherman days. A sudden breeze and away we go, fair, fair away, and then scudding across Dundalk Bay, and our skipper tacking our sturdy wee craft bravely in contrary winds and a foul tide. Noow it's tack on tack, over and overing, dancing this way and that way on the waves and, all the while, Da telling us tales of fishermen and voyages he's remembering, times and adventures from Clogherhead to Castle Hill afore he met Ma, and his ould friends and their families. Och, howanever he's exulting for the pleasure of their company to come after all these years! His eyes blaze wi' the scenes, and his tongue wags tirelesly wi' the stories, of what was.
"We'll make merry with them soon, Maggie-Bawn," he grins, whilst Ma wonders, here in awe, there in joy, aboot the green sod of her birthland wheresomever she never walked afore.
"Merry," I think. "Ay, merry. A merry mess, so it is, to make merry with only the clothes on our back and no land of our own, and hardly two crowns to our name. No matter they say the island be green the like of emerald. And my gut in my throat, and my tongue sour with the puke."
Da is at himself and Ma in a power of song, and the two having times, then, and them cheering and tickling me for to laugh, until the monotonous commotion of making to windward in so small a boat dwindles their joy and drowsies me troubled guts to sleep. The hours drag by, day into night against wind and tide, and time the like of an upset anchor dragging through mud. At the grey window of dawn, we cross Dunany Point whilst Ma and Da search in vain for the smoke of Castle Hill chimleys beyond. We make landfall at Clogherhead on the ebb tide of a sunless noon, and clamber up the dock on a barnacle crusted ladder. Da leans doon and Ma stretches up, handing me along the twelve rungs, pushing and tugging, until I tumble over the dock edge the like of an upside-down turtle. Da pays off our skipper, and we ben doon to a hatful of shillings. Ma gathers up our scarce belongings, whilst I look aboot. It's rows of half empty berths along a bleak wharf, here a boat, there a boat, all tatty and forlorn, the sea tang mixed wi' the smell of dead fish, mouldering rope, and rotten plank, the harbor quiet and boding the like of a graveyard. The odd fisherman shelters in a doorway or sits on a pier stone, puffing his clay pipe, and staring of the like of one looked over the brim into the cauldron of Hell. Da finds a wee ancient wark-worn barrow, and into it goes meself and all we own, himself pushing the burden along.
After we walk a distance into the desolated streets of Clogherhead town, Da finds an ould jarvey dozes by his jaunting car, for to carry us and our barrow by post-road to Barnhill Cross. He agrees for thruppence, this geezer, shaking his head in silent disapproval all the way, and lets us doon by the wilted garden of a lane what Da knows in Barnhill Cross. The neighborhood is quieter nor dirt, and ... and bedad! our dumbfounded dreams tumble into the dustbin, God protect us! For the place is barren of any sort of life.
It's Da pushes the barrow whilst me and Ma walk along, past the silent streets and sorra lanes one upon another, past flapping half-doors, disjointed shutters, gaping windows, and ragged thatch. We trudge and we trudge and we trudge, and wheresomever we turn, no a living soul to be seen. When Da goes bone weary of walking and pushing, we sleep in a bare abandoned shed, the like of all the many we saw this eerie day in that place of ghosts and wraiths, ay, villages took their death, and the dead fled. Whisht! Mind ye, friend, 'tis to this very hour, in all me seventy-eight years, I never seen again the like of Barnhill Cross that spooky day. Shades of the Morrigan!
Strange on strangest, Godamercy! Times, it's the neat arrangements of some households gives a cottage the air of a body juist left for a breath ootside; ither times a lane of houses, each bare to the four walls, the like of empty coffins in a row; still ither boreens and ither hovels, the panic and disarray of helter-skelter fugitives run from catastrophe, God bless them. Once in a rare while, 'tis a stinking leathery corpse stretched in a hasty coffin, a child, mebbe, or an old woman. Never do the chimley pots show of smoke, for the hearthsides ben deserted, and their ashes cold. We walk anither day's long tiresome way to Termonfeckin, and 'tis more of the same, more desolation, more death, more misery. Noow and then, we meet the odd wayside wanderer tells us what's doon the road and over the hill: aught different, God shield us, all as afore, a land abandoned, lifeless, desolated.
"Termonfeckin strange," Da mutters under his breath, as Ma looks at him sharp-like. "God save us! Och, 'tis the seven-headed dragon itself has blown serpent-fire across the land," Da's voice is breaking, and his head shaking in disbelief.
"Saints and Martyrs, what has tragedy shed doon?" Ma asks in return, staring this way and that. " 'Tis the four horsemen of the apocalypse."
"Heaven give us faith!" Da's perplexed. "Whatsomever lane we search, all those poor souls I knew from youth, yea, all them what survived The Great Hunger---- and it's donkey's years since the last of a' that---- all, all gone. Gone where? Howanever gone? Here this day, one and all?" Da canna make sense of it to save himself. "Ay, it's the like of shadows disappearing when the door of night opens ... Great God in Heaven, as if they never were! How? Why? What?"
At the last of it, we come upon a decrepit ould man sits on a lonesome stump in the rain of his tears. He has the look of a skeleton overly clothed in rags, a rotten smell, and the anguish of one returned from Calvary. And tells us the story.
"The first of evil set upon these lands," his voice halting, "come the curse of the 'Irish disease,' the galloping consumption, and it raging the like of waves on the sea, endless, again and again, worser since Patrick drove out the snakes, scourging all ages, Mother Mary help us, down to the cradle---- times, slow as the turn of four seasons; ither times, quick as the turn of the sand-clock. And we cannot burn the dead so fast as they fall ... droch shaol, hard times." And his choked voice wracked into a train of sobs.
Better, we're thinking, pay heed to his heart cracking, and flee the cursed place then and there. But we didna know yet, friend. We squat and listen to his dirge.
"The second curse," he sighs, "gnashed doon afore this very Spring, ay, the raging typhoid, it setting upon the fallen countryside, ones cut doon like the wheat afore the scythe ... and for them who survived it, come the bloody flux third, ay, and then, O God! the Dullahan! The black fever ... 'twas all of it nae one, but four horsemen! The maw of Hell! Droch shaol! The worst of times! God save the hindmost, it's amidst all the horror and the never ending grief, of a sudden night the scrawny wretches yet living ... they gathered themselves in the streets and lit torches and marched their forlorn tatters away, and from that day oot, never in this world a living soul staying to share a crust or a roof, ay, never, never ... ." The ould man's story canna finish for the sorra wracks his voice and the sadness knots his throat. There's aught in this mournful land for to mend his spirit, and nae healing in Heaven for his pain, ay, naething east of Eden to fix what's broke.
We sleep in an empty hayloft, and next morning we sip dandelion tay and no a mouse's morsel to sup. Then, we oot into the countryside for Da to push and trudge and Ma to seek sustenance, and all aboot us a landscape of crumbling hovels and fallow fields. And mebbe the odd wandery hound, in't, spavined and rightly afeared his like will be our next meal. Half the morning passes afore we meet one single live human at all, and him tottering---- destroyed, so he tells, by stone soup and root tay. Musha, we travel the high roads and low, facing the wind, sopped by rain, baked by sun, looking for food and shelter, destroyed by skimpy rations, and rotten fruits, and barren fields, eating what grows in ditches and meadow the like of sheep and cattle ----what are noowhere to be seen---- and afterwards we be puking. We didna speak of the curse of the sea until our bones is stuck against our skin. Ay, it's worser as Arran and the starvation we left. On the ninth day of walkaboot famine, we riz ourselves to get on, afeared if we set doon that night, never would we up again. Da canna push the barrow noo more, but he can yet walk. I wish to die, so their burden be less.
At sunrise, Ma says a Pater and boils clover tay, and we make kitchen wi' rotting turnips filched from an abandoned garden, cooked over firewood dug out wattled walls is black from smouldering. Ma takes the blackthorn twig and scratches a circle in the dirt where we squat, turning to the four angels of the four winds, starting east, each wi' three Aves and a Pater, the like she has done each day; but for the first time she strokes the twig's notches. And on that ninth day, God smiles.
Da leaves for to explore, and comes back in the forenoon wi' some good news. He heared tell of a live settlement close by a near crossroads. Could! Ay, and wi' a vacated cottier's tenancy on a wee plantation. to wark for shares. Da must swear to be the like of a planter. Should! And it be our new luck, a guids wagon trots up the road wi' a tipsy drayman in charge, what takes pity on the wee cailin---- 'tis meself, a child has her grace!---- and says he knows the place and he'll haul us to the very door of the empty cottage. Would! If Da will take over the reins whilst it's himself a drop taken. If! So starts our new life in Ireland, in an abandoned mud-wall cabin wi' nae a mouse's morsel aboot, an armful of rags for to cover us, and a blackthorn twig for to bring a better day ... and the drunken drayman's gifts: a wee roll of muslin and a swatch of chintz. And him refusing Da's shilling.
"God bleshya!" he hollers, whilst his wagon rumbles doon the dusty road.
Faith and troth! There are people roundaboot no destroyed by pestilence and plague. They make welcome wi' what little they have, dividing a meager table were it a feast, and warming a cold hearth wi' kindness. It's strengthy of heart and seeing past today makes all the difference for the poor souls same as ourselves, worried the hungry grass will cover us all and hurry our souls to Heaven. God be our shield, everyone's afeared the like of another Great Hunger mebbe lurks over the horizon. And then good news! Da gets a turbary, a permit from the landlord to harvest turf in his bog-lands, ye mind, friend, and it seems for a bit the Holy Saints welcoms our little family of newcomers there in the hard scrabble of wee County Louth, so it is. Come the evening Angelus, today is put by and tomorrow is hope. And then, Divil the Ratsy! The whistling curse come over us again. It's the Irish disease.
At winter's end, 1873, we start the plowing and harrowing and planting on our wee tillage. Me tenth birthday come, and I'm studying me Catechism by candle for Communion two years hence. God save us, it's here at the edge of spring, the horrid galloping consumption never left but strikes upon our parish, come over, people say, wi' me Temonfeckin school friends. Divil the curse of Ratsy and the Sea-Divil, beating us doon again! Bedad, the consumption eats awful into me spine, and wi' each week it's after warping me back more turrible until, at year's end, I am curled the like of the bishop's crozier. It wracks poor Ma wi' coughing of blood, and Da come a skeletal wraith, pale and all time breathless. One day, it must be the end of them, yet by holy Saint Jude, still they carry on, up early and doon late. And amn't I called upon too, though I become the likes of the gargoyle, Quasimodo? Ay! The doctor names me spine 'Pott's disease' and says, what'll ye gi' me, I'm already lucky, me lungs are good, me spine didna collapse, and it I scratch up a smidgin more of the luck of the Irish, it will get worser but slowly. Mebbe try the blackthorn twig, methinks, but Ma tries time and again and still me spine corkscrews more. She carries the twig by day and sleeps wi' it by night, saying a child might ruinate its magic. And the days of the weeks, and the months of the years, they go by.
Whilst Ma and Da wark the land, me wi' me hump and corkscrew spine, I canna till nor plant nor go to school. It's scuttling aboot our one room on all fours I am, or crouched over a cane, staring at the floor. I sets me twisted spine to sweeping the flags, washing and mending such rags as we wear, chinking the cracks, ay, keeping the house entirely. The garden, I manage that wi' Ma oot in the fields alongside Da, or himself off to sea for the herring. 'Tis meself scuttling aboot safekeeps the sow and the hens, and makes the churn, and talks sweetly to the beehive. The turf Ma and Da slane, I spread and cock and stack in low ricks, and when a 'log' burns to embers, I bake bastable bread in our old iron pot. The reeds and furze grows aboot, I weave and bundle them for to make thatch against the weather, whilst I sit scronched up as me hump and curlicue spine allows. I canna do a spinning wheel, but it's the lace-making and the sewing I learn, partikelerly the knots.
Yerra! I complain aught of the pain that pierces me labors by day and shreds me sleep by night, nor the shriveled ugliness that keeps me from the children of the townland at play. More nor ever afore, I have me dollies of straw and rags, and me books and the adventures in me brain. Never do I see a schoolroom nor anither child nor travel the dirt road past the garden gate, only if Da carries me on his shoulders to Mass on a Sunday noow or then, or on high holy days the like of Christmas and Easter and sartain of the Saints, or to Confraternity, or mebbe me name day, and himself thinner as a straw wi the consumption. Musha, 'tis noow I start to have this dream, and it comes again and again: I'm alone, crossing our village bridge over the wee stream that runs below. 'Tis some way I stand, ay! Stand! And then ... I throw me cane into the stream and walk away. It's many times the dream comes back, and the worser my crooked spine becomes.
Howanever, for meself in this world, all that I do and the doing of it alone in the cottage fills me heart, mind ye. Yerra, I am after pleasing Ma and Da, that and a' that, naething else and naething more wanting in this life, helping as I can wi' a singing kettle on the backstone when they return at dusk covered wi' the dirt of the fields and hard worn by the rocks, bone tired, the consumption glazing their eyes, and their bloody phlegm spat into the hearth. When we sleep, the angels keep the turf fire glowing, and noo evil scatters it, and God is the roof of our cottage. Come the dawn, and tomorrow's day, and the seasons pass, and the red roses in our garden bloom and fall.
By the odd candle, at the fall of a night when the digging and delving in the fields didna play Ma oot entirely, she tells me of the oulden days when she was a lass in the Community of Saint Maundie. A grand bushel of stories it is, aboot her six toes, and Sister Therese Bernadette is her anam cara, and their joys together, and Sister's horrid passing, and the blackthorn twig, and finding Kevin and all what Kevin told her, and losing him, and learning Sister Therese is her gran'ma, and finding Da on the beach, and life on Arran when I was a wee one. And she tells me of the curse. And all times, Ma's coughing. 'Tis that and a' that I'm telling ye today, ye'll understand, friend.
Times I'm by meself in the wee cottage, and I learn aboot the world, for I read the newspapers Da sometimes comes by on trips to town, aboot Parnell, and the Irish struggle, and the Queen's Parliament. I read the Bible. I like best Saint Paul, braving the menace of the sea the like of Da afore Ma found him. I read the Book of Revelations, Mary standing in Heaven wi' twelve stars upon Her crown, and I read the everlasting fires of Hell, and the tortures of the damned. But I didna find a single body cursed wi' a humped and twisted spine. Must be, I tell meself, I am no one of the damned. Cursed, aye; damned, nae. And the worser the gibbous hump of me twisted spine, the stronger me will against Ratsy and the curse of his whistling at sea.
I read of the infant Jesus in swaddling, and Ma tells me how she come that way on Jimmy Callahan's boat, the like of Moses in the bulrushes, from a place she didna know in The North, but only the name which is clan O'Neill as Kevin told her, and mebbe she has blood from Hugh O'Neill, the great Irish patriot in longgo times. And mebbe the royal blood from her Highland MacInnish gran'ma, what come to be Sister Therese Bernadette. I read of forty days and forty nights and a power of rain, and animals I never seen in pictures, and I paint them in me brain. Salome that danced wi' Saint John's head on a tray, I read it knowing meself would never in this world dance, wondering how would it feel to have feet what jump and jig again. I read of the three Marys, and then of Judith, Ruth, Naomi, and Bathsheba, and all the ither women in the ould part, remembering how it feels to have eyes what didna be bent over and fixed on the floor. I make new dolls of bits of rag and rope, and them become my new shut-in playmates for never do I see laddies nor lassies of flesh and blood. Musha, I baptize my dollies wi' names from Da's stories and the songs he sings wi' the harp, the like of Emer and Oona and Fand. And Maundie. Me tunes and tales I enact wi' the Scottish burr, och, that same mixed and muddled brogue ye ben hearing this fall of night for, ay, friend, I never forget the good years on Arran. Nor wish to remember the bad ones. And that there is my world until a great thing happens.
It's on a warm sunny afternoon, a raggedy seanchai---- a class of traditional wandering minstrel goes beyond to the Druids, ye mind---- come to our door.
"Dia duit," says he.
"Dia's Muire duit," says Ma.
"Do ye be knowing this tune?" he axes, spying the cold leavings of our dinner by the hearth---- smashed potato wi' the butter in the middle and scallions. Straightway, he picks his harp oot his bawneen sack, and starts the "Colcannon Song." Ma sets him a place and serves up the colcannon and a jar of buttermilk, for I didna make the churn that morning, and he digs in the like of a man been to war and didna eat since. Then, he ups and picks his harp again, and there's Da joins him on the pennywhistle, and they be having a bit of the craic between. Soon enough they be singing the songs, and it's Da playing his own harp, and well he does. The poet's after reaching into his sack and pulls oot a pennywhistle for me, God knows who blew afore, and the three of us roistering on aboot it, and the two men here and there a drop taken of Da's County Louth dynamite. And whilst we're doing the ould songs the like of, "Ould Lammas Fair," and, "The Legend of Stumpie's Brae," and, "The Croppy Boy," here's Ma riz off her sit, and herself slipping quick behind our mat screen and into her one set of church clothes. Oot she comes, light as dandelion fuzz, jigging a Scottish jig, pulling her petticoats away of her flying feet I never seen afore, her head gang this way and that, did ye ever see a lassie, and the poet saying, noow, do an Irish clog for the Green. It's that she does, ay, "Barney's Goat," and, "Gary Owen," and, "Lepp Up," until she lepp up one time too many, and a spasm of coughing draws her breath, she doubling over, spitting bloody clots, and a wee puke.
And ups again, saying, "God save all, ye pay nae mind, 'tis the price of the piper, and better a bit never was seen." And she's flying again.
The piper grins, "I've a touch of it meself," he coughs, but he's plucking and singing slower noow, " 'The minstrel boy to the war has gone .... ' "
And then it's them three ones marching a file, circling aboot the room, and Ma beating a pan for a bodhran and me scuttling and spinning in the center, playing on the pennywhistle. And there's more singing and dancing, and the poet dancing wi' Da, and then wi' Ma, and then all in turn picking me up and whirling me like a top, and more poteen and the poet's voice more strengthy nor afore, and reaches in again and brought oot of his sack a bockety worn-oot book what he called faerie tales, by two brothers, says he, name of Grimm.
" 'Tis a quare name, methinks, for to tell happy endings," I tell him.
Ma trades him thruppence and I has meself a new worn-oot book. An enchantnent, it is, stories of kings and queens, and spells on swans, and tailors become warriors, and a princess in a round tower and herself wi' very long hair, and charms and curses and little people called dwarfs, and a handsome prince seeks a beautiful princesses, frogs what kiss, ugly witches and mean stepmothers and a scullery girl gets a glass slipper, and a magical clock. And whilst Ma and Pa and the poet dance and sing and laugh, I creep into a corner and read of times and places canna happen ootside a child's brain. The faerie tale book become the joy and comfort of me shut-in life ever after. It's many a lonesome evening by a candle's flicker I sit in the corner on me wee three-legged creepie and read it, overing and overing, so I do, till me eyeballs wear doon the print on the paper. In the years, the pages flutter loose like the leaves of autumn itself, and Da makes glue from boiled horse-bones for to wark up a new spine for the book, one time and anither.
"God love ye, Da." Seeing him do it so well, I ax, "Could ye do the like for me curlicue back?
Musha, for every character I read, I make a new wee doll, and give to each a new grand room in me brain, and for each room I invent a new story. After me chores is over, I make castles of turf, and heroe princes of rag and straw come galloping on gallant steeds of little sticks to rescue lady royals in jeweled tiaras of rye seeds, pretend silk gowns of homespun remnants, and the lace I make meself. After me offering up bedtime prayers, Da lifts me to me cot where there's hardly room amidst the dolls. 'Tis here I dream beautiful dreams, ay, that I dance wi' all me dollies come to life, dance through faerie-tale lands and Bible lands, where Saint John bows to Snow White, and Salome does Ceilidh sets wi' the Admiral of the Seven Seas. And princes, yes, they court and escort me. And O! how I dance! In those years, the wee cottage fills wi' the throngs of me brain and the adventures of a winged soul, and the silent music of shut-in dreams. And every noow and then, here and there, the ither dream didna ever leave me, the one where I cross the bridge in the village and I'm throwing me cane away.
Mind ye, friend, the seanchai, he's no our only visitor.









Illustration the twenty-seventh

393

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN: Meggeen


It's in the summer of 1874 when I am eleven, in the mid-morning August sunshine of Lughnasa, 'tis on Crom Dubh Sunday, so it is. Ma and Pa in the fields, and I'm at meself, humming along, on me knees, whisking the flags, scuttling aboot---- and what should appear but a bockety ould beggar woman rapping her stave upon our garden gate. Once, twice, she raps, then a pause; and when I ben laggard to answer, more the louder. Our three hens flutter aboot, squawking nervous alarums amongst themselves. So decrepit she is! I wonder if she be a haunt, or, horrors! a Morrigan?
"Haloo!" the ould hag shouts. "Dia duit. God bleth ye. Ith it a body ith at home?"
I crab-wise me hump and twisted spine across the flags, pulls meself up, and I'm slowly swinging open the top half-door and looking oot, cautious like. A wee breeze wafts the garden. The sundial says, halfway of noon. The hens say, cackle and scurry. The sow says aught, and sniffs a snuffle, and lifts her head for to gaze at the curious stranger. I looks her up and doon.
She be a gaunt ould beggar lady, is dirty and bent and clothed in patchwark shabbiness, her hair all stringy and matted, her cheeks bony, eyes haggard, nose crooked.
My brain runs wild: "If she were a doll in my make-believe land, I should call her a witch, a 'cailleach,' and would make of her knot-pocked stave a magical wand. Her long bony fingers could weave the spells only a handsome prince could break, and she'd tell OtherWorld tales of Little People and leprechauns, mystery and enchantment. And one like meself, a poor crippled cailin wanting rescue."
"Dia's Muire duit. Heaven's blessings on ye, ould woman," says I, all wary. "And whatanever is it ye be wanting of this house in God's own morning?"
I inspect her raggedy clothing: "Certain, she should mend her tatters."
"Ith it ye have a thup of tay for a weary old woman, for will it noo pleathe God and Mary? Ay, and to retht my aching ould bone-th for the wee few minute-th," she grimaces.
Up close, it's meager and leathery she is, surely dint of donkey's years in wind and weather, and a smell to match.
"Then pull the gate-latch and enter, ould woman. It's God's plan I have the scuttles, and it pains me for to go beyond. Yerra, I am anyway forbid to go oot," I lie. "And do ye mind the hens, if ye please."
"She will tell a tale, I hope. Maybe the four swans and the thousand year curse. Or instruct me howanever to make a witches' brew. Blessed Virgin, I am bored of dollies and shadows on the wall. She must hear many stories in her travels."
The crone grins a weary gap-toothed grin---- "manntach," Da would sayin Gaelic for the like of that mouth. She totters closer, clutching her stave.
"It's a blackthorn, same as Ma's magical twig!"
"Child, have you not thomething, for an empty belly'th been grinding againtht the dryneth of earth? Ay, and a tongue tatheting the duth-t of every road to the north and the thouth a week thinthe?" she calls oot from the threshold.
"Is it ones is following ye, ma'm?"
"Nae, it'th even a field mouthe hath not the hunger to follow, for my thack ith more empty than my belly." And anither wan smile gummed. "Better for me to follow the mouthe." She searches hungrily aboot, licking her lips.
"What is the name of ye?" we say, each at the ither in the same breath.
I ups meself tall as me curlicue spine will go, and lean on me cane. "Margaret Paula Houlihan, I am, God save this house. But me name is after me Mother, is Margaret, and ones call me, Maggie ... Maggie-Bawn." I force a smile.
"Musha! I did not put in place my Ma's O'Neill, and what is the why of that, Maggie-Bawn?" An uncanny feeling quivers in my chest.
"Then, g'day and God bleth Maggie-Bawn," 'tis a horrid toothless grin. She leans wearily on the sill of the half-door. "I am surely a Margaret too, and would never harm a flea. God thtand for Thaint Margaret, though I be Irish. And Heaven between thith houthe and harm." She surveys wary aboot again, the like of an oft-kicked cur, and then points at herself. "Oneth call thith Margaret, 'Meggeen' ... Meggeen Michaela Flaherty Mahony ith all of my nameth, an it'th Meggeen Mahony they call me. And you, child, you can call me 'Widow Mahony.' Ay, 'Widow,' it ith, for I be that many a year now." Her sunken eyes rim wi' tears, her puckery lips wi' trembles.
"Let ye rest aisy for the moment in here, Widow Mahony," and I'm slipping the half-door latch. "But ye're for to be gone afore Ma and Da come from the fields at noonday, ma'm. They warned me, never give way to strangers. Never." 'Tis one lie and a half-truth.
She sags wearily into the straw bed of me pallet in the corner: "And I did not thpeak like thith ... twenty-two yearth thinthe, wath it? I cannot track the hateful yearth. It wath when I had all my teeth ... Doth there be a wee drop of tay in thith pretty houtheen, Mithtreth Maggie-Bawn, or a thcrap to gnaw? I am weary of the thun and the rain, and dethtroyed by the roadth that alwayth rithe, and the hardneth of dayth, and the night-th fraught with fearthome crieth."
Me heart is oot for her. "We've only a wee plate to share, Widow Mahony, but I will find ye more nor a crust. Ay, we've fresh bastable bread, baked this very morning. By meself. A nice boiled egg, mebbe, for we've them three hens a-laying, as cackled at ye. We call them Shelley and Yoyoke, and the broke-footed one, Josephine. Or, mebbe, I know to make a tasty boxty."
The Widow Mahony didna be listening.
"Ay, 'tith wortht of all," she continues in a sour puss, "the fearthome haunt-th of the lonethome night, the voithe writhing out the ditch, the ghoul flying acroth the moon, and the tree-brancheth reaching out for to clutch me ... ay, the Blethed Virgin Mary pray for uth all." She sits bent over, noddy head in quivery hands, a study in despair.
"Och, a sup of goat's milk too," says I, "squeezed this very break of dawn. Mebbe 'twill stick to yer bones better nor tay, ma'm." I scuttle over to pat her shoulder.
She looks up. She didna have far to look; meself wi' me corkscrew spine, I am so tall trying to stand on the flags as she is sitting on the pallet. The sunken green eyes soften and look me all over. The pursed lips smile.
"You be a thkillful cailin, little Maggie-Bawn. I should love that I had one the like of you."
I hide my face, for I am in red welts to my toes at the thought: "Nobody on God's green island ever said afore she would wish a child the like of me. Ay, Maggie-Bawn, the hunchbacked gargoyle with the crooked spine."
"Saints and Martyrs bless ye, Widow Mahony."
And whilst I put bread upon the table, and milk and tay, and boil Josephine's morning egg, she slowly tells her story. There's Christopher, her dead husband, and their shebeen by the River Bann, and how himself died twenty-nine years since, ay, murdered, in a bargain for to carry away a bastard babby. It was in the year of 1845, she says, a contract for to bring a six-toed newbairn----
"Six toes!" my brain wakes.
" ... to thmuggle on a fishboat---- "
"Smuggle! Fishing-boat!"
" ... to the Foundling Home of the Thisterth of Thaint Maundie in Ayr. "
"Saint Maundie! Ayr! O, Lord God in Heaven, open Your golden gate for me!"
I'm sitting on me hands, pretending to look oot the window, for to avoid her gaze and she canna see me chest heaving. And I say naething at all whilst me brain spins and me soul swoops and soars.
"Och, Maggie-Bawn, thtrange to tell, I knew of another thikth toeth afore, yeth, nine yearth afore Chrithty died ... God love him! Yeth, nine yearth afore he died ... ." She left off to dabbing her eyes. "Yeth, a frightened beggar come by the shebeen in ragth, ath I am now. And barefoot, she wath; I counted ath she talked, she had thikth toeth. She cried she wath from The North, but born a Highland Thcot, and run away from her cruel man what chained and whipped and burnt her like a common beatht until she fled for her life. She came to our shebeen door for to beg refuge. Thaint-th and Martyrth protect her, O, Maggie Bawn! She'd left her wee daughter behind, she thaid. Thickth yearth old, she thaid the wean wath."
"Six years old and her ma runaway, Widow Mahony? Poor wee lassie!" I clench me jaw and bite me tongue. "What come of this wee one?"
Widow Mahony didna answer but goes on, "Yerra, never would the woman give her name, nor thay her village, her filled wi' the fear-th of being found, and made me pledge to tell naebody, not even Chrithty, God bleth him, who wath away to Limerick ... And I fed and clothed thith poor wretch and found shooeth from a good woman down the lane, and at thun-up I put her on a goodth wagon bound for Drogheda. She surely would be thafe from her wicked huthband, with the Magdalene-th."
"Tell me more, if ye like," I try to be casual. "Godamercy, six toes! All so, umm, curious."
"And when she left, she gave a bit of thealed foolthcap, she thaid it told who she wath, and what plantation land she would claim when God took her wicked huthband, for all hith clan were dead. And I to thafe-keep it for her return."
"I turn my back to count on my fingers: nine years after the woman ran away her wee daughter would be ... hmm, nine and six is mebbe fifteen, and that would be, hmmm, the year of 1845 ... Ma's birth year! And the year she came to Ayr ... that makes ... would have ... could have ... should have ... Holy Trinity! If that runaway was the lassie's ma ... that was Ma's gran'ma! That was Sister Therese Bernadette!" I can hardly breathe. " 'Tis the same story Ma learnt from Sister Therese's diary-book after she married Kevin. Ahhh, all except the foolscap!"
"And what come of this poor woman, Widow Mahony?" Me heart must burst oot me chest.
"I heared but the one time by potht, in 1839. She wrote from the dock at Ayr, on the Firth of Clyde, and thanked me for keeping her alive, and told of a fraught and thtormy voyage, and the clever Shod Thithters of Thaint Maundie, and herthelf hoping to take the name of Thaint Teretha of Avila for the veil. And she would alwayth have shooe-th for to cover her thikth toeth, and the wicked huthband never to find her."
"And the foolscap?"
"To guard the foolthcap until her return. Ahh, Maggie-Bawn, I never heared from her again. And then Chrithy died, and then The Great Hunger come," her voice trailed off, "and then that villainouth Rat-thy ... Divil take him!" she cries through gritted jaws.
I hear Meggeen's words puddle in my brain. And it comes up the like every time: "The runaway become Sister Therese, herself being Ma's godmother and also her gran'ma, all in one, at Saint Maundie's; 'tis the same story Ma discovered from Therese's diary, the same story she told me." My brain is afire. "Nobody talks of Therese's wicked husband, Hugh Robert O'Neill. But if he is dead and the foolscap should exist, Therese's granddaughter could own a grand plantation. That's Ma! What's to say? What's to do?" I answer myself sharply. "Say aught, for when Ma and Da die soon of the consumption, the land would be mine. Yes! 'Tis repayment for Ratsy's curse on all them knew Belle of Newcastle. Ay, them. Not me! I was not there. It's my due, the whole jimbang! The Good Lord should pay to my account. Mine! All mine! 'Tis God's justice for all my pain and ugliness, all the loneliness, the scuttling, the faerie tales. Let Holy Trinity be my witness: 'tis for all the lonesome wretchedness I suffered yesterday, suffer today, and will suffer every tomorrow until I take my death. O God of justice, is not this windfall my reward for a life of misery? Lord, I am not the Blessed Margaret of Castello, to live a life of torture repaid by good works, or put with a bowl to beg, the like of poor Meggeen. And this windfall she has hid, it is for myself, the cursed Maggie-Bawn, under the pishrogue of Ratsy, the evil cluricaun."
Widow Mahony canna leave off talking aboot Christy for the tears raining doon, and so she's never noticing me shocked face at all: "O the thorrow, my Chrithty never coming home again, he never. And I dreaded it to happen that way, I did, felt it in my boneth. Yerra, afore my Chrithy rode away, mythelf thquirreled a copy of the contract," she dabbing her tears to look aboot cautiously, "under the thlateth, the flagth, you know, the shebeen floor. And the foolthcap ith there too."
"It exists still!" I can hardly hold myself.
Her voice takes a turn, goes uncanny hollow. A fixed gaze come upon her. The green of her eyes deepens, and her face slowly transforms as if lit by inner fire. Me heart sets to thumping, and me brain teeters on an eerie edge, me mouth warked dry, me ears singing. The very air seems to thicken.
She totters to her feet. "And I never in thith world tould thith thtory afore, but thomething in your fathe ... ." She stands, pointing a gaunt and crooked finger, the look of the cailleach aboot her more nor ever. "I can thee in my heart that long ago, magic wath given to you, Maggie-Bawn, great power to put right to wrong, greater power than them who walk upright. Mark! It will be again. Ay, it will be again, you will right a great wrong ... You will live to right my wrong and yourth," her voice choking wi' passion, and her face is a mask of grief. She stares fixedly at what I canna see, and then bursts into tears, whispering through her sobbings, "Dead! Lord God in Heaven, dead, my poor Chrithty, dead! Ay, howanever wath that? Pray, tell me, Blethed Mary, howanever wath that? Tell me, God in Heaven, how wath that?"
She makes a long quiet, and her face become herself again.
"And when they thent hith body back for a dethent Chrithtian burial, there wath a thmall book come with him, the like of a diary. But it wath not in Chrithy'th hand and I never theen it afore in thith world. And tho I buried the book along with the contract and the foolthcap."
"Buried, ma'm?"
"Yeth, little one, buried. In the thame plathe. And over the yearth thinthe, it come to me that book ith the diary of the ma of wee Babby Thikth-Toeth."
I canna hardly hould me curiosity one jot more.
"Six-Toes' birth must be in that diary---- it's Ma! My ma! Ay, and it's Ma's ma, my gran'ma, writing about Ma!" It like to burst me skull, singing it over and over.
"Pray tell, dear Widow Mahony, for though I be small and crippled, it's Ma and Da says me heart is strong," I offer, and me hackles riz. "Whatanever do ye know of the villain's name, the blackguard made the contract wi' your Christy?"
"It wath the thame what murdered him, I am thertain, a terrible Covenanter, a hellish kirk elder, name of Hugh Robert O'Neill. I canna forget hith name, never, never, hith evil fathe, nor the Divil'th glint in hith eyeth."
Me own eyes open wider. Me heart pours white-hot irony upon the furnace of me soul.
"God and Mary! O'Neill! The very O'Neill, surely runs in my blood!"
I clap me hand to me mouth and make a show of coughing.
"And the two of them found dead together of a thun-up in amongtht the warehoutheth by the wharf at Newcathtle Port. Ay, dead." And her voice gang dead as her Christy. "Ay, the one thtrewed bethide the other," she shudders. "My Chrithty'th hilted knife gone, and hith boot-th and coat, all robbed by thieveth in the night and the Gypthie-th thtole hith horthe away. And it wath the droverth at thun-up found them lying dead. The conthtable thaid they mutht have been lying like a croth, the one on the other, when the thieveth rolled them. Ay, a croth they made, in a thircle of blood. A croth, God thave uth all," she cries oot.
She totters slowly to the half-door and looks oot. "A Celtic croth, for the love of God and Mary!" Come anither flood of tears, and she back on her truss of straw in the dark corner. "And all the other they found ith that writing book from the Babby Thikth-Toeth mother, come back on a creel car with Chrithtopher'th body from Newcathle Port. When I wrote Conthtable Kenney to tell me who killed Chrithty---- wath it truly the O'Neill?---- he wrote back to tell the body ith gone thomewhere, he did not know where, in an unmarked grave in a potter'th field, for nobody knew it-th church, and nobody claimed the corpthe. Mebbe thome kind of a rapparee, they thought. Ay, and what come of the babby with thikth toeth, nobody knowth to thith very day."
"But I know, Widow Mahony," my brain crunches. "I know sure and certain the what-all and the who-all. I know, and I know I know, and nobody else in the wide world knows what I know. That babby is my Ma. And Hugh Robert O'Neill is dead. And we ... I have a claim to a plantation."
She sits quietly a spell, and then starts her story again: howanever she lost half her clan in The Great Hunger started in 1845, and the ither half in the consumption, black fever, scurvy, and the bloody flux what followed in 1846. And in the devastated aftermath, herself left to tend the lonesome Mahony public house wi' a young pot-boy. And then, she says, in 1849, the last year of An Gorta Mor, the full weight of catastrophe fell on the shebeen.
"God forbid, and there wath never traveler nor bona fide left for to buy one thingle jar of porter, ay, the whole countrythide emptied, the goat and cow run away, not a human being but dead and thpralled on the road, nor another to bury him, and the fieldth abandoned for lack of man or woman to work them. And at the latht, my poor pot-boy dead, runned off the bloody fluk-th from hith bowelth. Not Chrithty nor a body in all County Doon to defend me ... and here come the horrid 'Emergenthy Men,' come when our shebeen rent wath owed for but four monthth, them thcoundrelth armed with their pickth and thpade-th and ackth in the broad light of the day it-thelf." She looks away of my face and into the corner of the room beyond, and she's dabbing at her face wi' a raggedy hem.
"Ay, led by that young gobshite, Divil take it! Franthith Thavier Rathlin, ay, what a body calls 'Rat-thy,' a changeling, oneth thay, a wee broth of a lad, shriveled ath bark and short ath a thtump. Ay, hith fatherth agent, Divil the name, and may himthelf and hith kind be roathting in Hell afore the Divil knowth he'th there, the villainouth leprechaun. Beyond all cruelty, in't, howanever Rat-thy called our pretty shebeen an infected thethpool, and them thtruck it down, thaying it killed the poor pot-boy. God thave all! And when I thtood againtht them in the door, they thtruck me down too. The horror and the pain! Them blackguardth knocked my teeth out! O God! And them horrid cut-throat-th left not a board thtanding. Ay, the theven curtheth on them turned me out by mythelf on the lonethome road for to live dethtroyed and die in the clothe-th I wear," fingering her rags if these are her shroud.
"O, ye poor lady, was there noo relief, noo constable to call?"
And Widow Mahony goes on the like of a trance, hearing naething, if I didna be there at all.
"And after Chrithty rode away, it wath that very night I hid the copy of the O'Neill'th contract," and her eyes darting aboot, "where I hid the foolthcap. Och, where later I hid the dead lathie's diary. Ay, a time will come, mebbe, when thome dithtant couthin of the O'Neill clan will lay a claim upon the ould land. They mutht look inthide the north wall where the ould shebeen thet, ay, all theethe yearth, a wee bit of the ould thtone thtill thtandth bethide the River Bann, in't. And below that wall, under the flagth, a copy of the contract in my own hand and witnethed in my own blood, thealed in a clay flathk, ay, a great bottle of a flathk," she smiles wanly, "what one-th held the betht of Wetht Country poteen. And under it, the foolthcap. And the writing book. And all be there thtill. But I would never travel with thuch paperth and then to be nabbed by Peeler-th or poli-the, and thrown into thome filthy debtor-th jail for the grand pile of rent-th I thtill owe." She stares at her feet, "Ay, and baby-farming too. Never. Never."
"There in the ruins of the old shebeen hides the copy of a contract with the names Mahony and O'Neill, that tells where is Ma from. And my own Gran'ma's words on paper, afore she died! And Great-Gran'ma's foolscap to lay claim upon the land!" The thoughts whirl and tumble jn my brain. "Land! Godamercy! We own O'Neill land! A plantation! Ma and Da will be dead. I'll be rich."
"And what of that nasty, the Ratsy villain, Widow Mahony?" I fake a coughing spell.
It's again she didna hear me. Her voice returns to that spooky hollow tone, and she draws herself to standing, green eyes flashing, boney fingers waving, voice between cackle and crow. "I have theen it in your eyeth, Maggie-Bawn, that you have the powerth to bring juthtith to all thith. I have never theen thith afore, on God'th altar I thwear, never in anyone ... Ay, it mutht be not by chanthe I came here today, child. Mutht be forecatht by the godth on thith Lughnatha what you will do."
"She never answered my question." For a second or three, in my brain she really is a witch.
"Ye tell a grand story, Widow Mahony," says I, pretending a deaf ear to talk of God and gods. "It is to burn into me mind, and find some day mebbe an O'Neill clansman what is the true owner of the land. We didna know of any O'Neills here." I canna look at her.
"It's smooth you lie, Maggie-Bawn," I tell my brain. " 'Tis only venial," I tell my heart.
"God keep us, Widow Mahony, there be some truth in the way of it, as ye say," I tell her softly. " 'Twas once upon a time, across the Irish Sea, in Lamlash townland on the island of Arran of the Stags, many fowk did hould I had the magic. Musha, ones believed I flourished the land and the growing things, so they said. But after seven years, me powers died, if ever it was in me. ... Ahh, is it ye're saying ... is it ye're saying, it will come back?" I wriggle in difficulty wi' sitting in a chair, as chafes at me hump. "Howanever can it be ye know such, Widow Mahony?"
" 'Twath in you but there came a ... a thpell ... a clath of curthe come againtht you. It ith given in me to know all thith and to wander."
That stops me in a freeze.
Her voice come more and more sartain: "God did not put my brain out my head when Rat-thy'th villainouth hirelingth put my body upon the road. He gave me a great power, the power to foretell, to thee the future, if I would but thtay in poverty and wandering."
I knot my brow and stare. I want desperately to believe.
"Yeth, He did, in eckthchange for all that I lotht. Ay, my wee bonnie Maggie-Bawn, I can thee beyond the beyondth, into what hath been and what will be." And she rivets me wi' those flaming green eyes. " 'Tith no acthident, it be Lughnatha, and I thtand here and you there, child. But you mutht tell no one, not even the clothetht oneth, what I have thaid of the thtoneth of the shebeen. And if you tell nobody, one day will come," she says, searching the cottage crannies wi' the glint of her glances, "when you are long grown, and your greatetht wish will come true. Ay, you will do great thingth, child, for I have theen that in dreamth of time to come. Great deedth of thudden thtrength."
"O, God and Mary! I will tell naebody, you be certain of that. The land will be mine, ay, this gargoyle will be rich, and the pain in my curlicue spine bought off!"
And then me brain come ablaze in curiosity. "Sudden, is it, Widow Mahony? Howsomever sudden? And what is to be me greatest wish? To walk? O, to stand again on two legs? And the greatest thing, Widow Mahony? O, to dance! Tell me, plaise, plaise, ma'm, tell me! O, glory to the Virgin Mary! Tell of me strength, howanever will I be strengthy? Will it be me legs? Me spine? Plaise tell me!"
'Tis my old "bridge dream" is running riot on my brain: I see myself, crossing the stream, throwing my cane into the waters, turning away to walk erect, striding purposefully.
"No, no, child, I cannot tell. 'Tith a broken thpell if I do. No, today ith not for Meggeen to tell nor Maggie-Bawn to hear. 'Tis for Lugh to know and to tell," and the green burning eyes lower.
"Howanever shall I ever know? Pray, when will it be? Where, where! Plaise, ma'm! Is it Lugh will talk to me?" The fervor in me blood boils over.
"Do you thuffer never a pain, all doubled and thcronched like that?" Meggeen asks in a low and tender octave, avoiding me questions, looking away, making it plain she will predict naething more, howanever I beg, nor talk today of Lugh, nor spells, nor sudden strength.
I push me creepie by the hearth, and settle meself on it.
"Many ask. There's no a way me pain can be hidden."
"Ay, a body says three things cannot be hidden: a thirst, an itch, ay, and the love of a lover. That there's three. And a twisted spine makes four. But I will never know about lovers," I grieve.
"I meant no harm, child."
"There's guid days and there's the ithers," I answer. "God does never give me more of troubles nor I can endure. For if He did, I should be in the ground wi' the stones of the field. And see how quickly I go," showing her howanever I crab on all fours aboot the cottage. "Meself can tend the garden, and stack the ricks, and keep the sow. And sweet-talk the bees," a wee bit of pride swelling my heart. "I like yer story, Widow Mahony, but we ... O, Divil a body here to listen. Och, they are all in the fields and no expected afore noon, as I said. And noow ... and noow ye say I canna tell them. And I say to ye, I shall tell nae a one naething. Aught! 'Tis me right to keep silent. Och, 'tis. Ay! Ye do say 'tis, in't?"
"Yeth, wee Maggie-Bawn, 'tith your right, though you be but a child."
"Plaise, one wee last thing, Widow Mahony. It's over and again, I have this dream, a dream of crossing a sartain bridge and throwing me cane away, and standing tall. What does it mean? God bless ye, tell, plaise, Widow Mahony, do ye no have the power? Is it ever I be walking again?"
"I cannot tell, Maggie-Bawn, what will happen. Only that you mutht keep your tongue and tell no one. And I cannot thay more." She smiles a secret smile, and it gives me great heart. "And noow, let me lay down my head for a little while, for I am tired."
I give Meggeen an hour by the sundial to doze, and when she awakes, a grand loaf of bastable bread wi' a ha'pence baked inside for luck from me secret cadge, to go in her sack. I find a needle and a hank of thread for her rags, and a scrap of Louth ribbon-lace from my dollies to make a pretty necklace. And all I learnt hides in me heart and never a soul to share it, for to keep me promise. And mebbe protect Ma from the shames and shuns of bastardy, ay, shield her from cutty tongues and sneery interdictions of the self-righteous religious. And meself to inherit a grand plantation. To this day, I canna say what way I told naebody, but to keep alive me hope for to walk upright, and for to keep me promise made to Widow Mahony on that Lughnasa, and hers to me, what I never forgot.
The years of days pass and I am at meself, then. The wark is hard but the earth is guid. Our sod hovel slowly become a true wee cottage, two more rooms, daub, framed in oakwood. Musha, wi' me mind rightly spinning fine tales and me fingers nimble for Ma and Da, ours is a wee plantation, in't. Whilst they sow the fields, I sew on cloth. By twelve years, I become a clothier. I measure, pin, and stitch the garments, turn the hems, patch the rips, scutch and spin a fine yarn, do needle-point lace, and knit ganseys. It's a steady trickle of pence and shillings comes to our door for me services. Yerra. the jaunting-car journey is too painful on me crooked spine and I didna be traveling to town. It's fine enough to see Ma and Da smile over the telling of me hand-skill: howanever at Mass the Houlihans be styled and envied round the parish, and all admiring the dab hands of a crooked-back wee tailor fair doon the lane, for the doing of that and a' that. Faith and troth, give me leather and awl and a knife for skiving, I'll be making ye shoes too, as me Ma did at Saint Maundie's afore I was the light in her eye. 'Tis herself taught me all of it, ye'll understand, friend.
And this here is me whole world, Ma and Da, and the cottage, the handwark, the mending, the garden, the animals. It's the garden where being on hands and knees suits me better nor yer everyday body, it's the cooking and baking, and ever cleaning the flags and washing the clothes, mind ye, friend. And caring for sow and goat and geese and hens. And the bee-hive. Times, Da takes the skiff to sea for to fish or sets pots for the crabs, it's me and Ma alone. Teaching me a new stitch, mebbe. Times it's Da and me sharing the pickling and salting, the smoking and bottling, and Ma in the fields. Times it's the two of them harrowing, planting, harvesting, or whatanever they do and it's meself alone, sewing a shirt or a shift, or straining the cheese, or chasing the ants and spiders. And mice. Or churning the butter or making ready the noonday dinner. Or eggs and scones and the tay at supper. Ay, friend, 'tis a wonder what a Houlihan's power of will can do wi' a hump and a curlicue spine, and an O'Neill plan. Ye mark those words, friend, for ye shall see more of it, ay, more than more. Ye'll see it come to grand effect in that. Whensomever we get there,
And so it went, me years up to twelve, and each year me spine twisted worser and the Houlihans living better, and the dream that never dies, of me, the bridge and the cane. And then, what do ye know? In the next summer, one year past me Communion, and the crickets singing under me window and the scent of the green fields drifting in, come a night I wake to a peculiar cramping in me belly like aught afore, and the discouragement of wetness in the bed.
"Oooo, 'tis disgusted I am with you," I tell myself, "pissing the bed or worser, you wee eejit, you didn't do such eleven years since," and I'm after wriggling out my nightshirt. Even in the dark I sniff, and O! 'Tis not piss at all but a curious smell to it, blood and sourness too. "Mother of God, save my soul! Ma said there are some years afore me, but it's now. Now! Godamercy, but it's now! It's of your womb, Maggie, and your time, and your sex, and you're on to being a woman ... a womb-an! Imagine that: a woman like ... like your Ma ... like Saint Margaret and Saint Theresa ... and O! the Blessed Virgin Mary. Surely, She did! And now it's your own private curse, another pain to go with your crooked spine and your hump. Like the other Saint Margaret." My brain goes all in parts and pieces. And brinks and deeps. God be with me, roots and ... and ... twigs.
I lay awake wondering the rest of the night, and oozing, if it be that, into the crumpled chemise between me legs. At the tippy top of the sun's rim, I'm blotted and into me shift, scuttling oot the garden, and inspecting. Ay, it's bloody blotches on the nighshirt. I draw a bucket of water, and plunge the nightshirt in it, and I'm rinsing, squeezing, and wringing, and overing the job, drawing, rinsing and wringing, again and again. In the grey light, the stubbon stain turns brownish. I reach for the lye soap from last week's rendering---- 'tis anither skill Ma learnt in the Community, and showed me to make. Must be she heared the pump groaning, for she's at the half-door, staring.
"Child, whatanever's into you?" Ma sings oot, "Yer pallet's empty and the sun's hardly up. And what in Creation do ye be doing in the bucket?"
"I started oot of sleep thinking, ummm ... the gate .... to hear the gate was mebbe open."
"The gate?"
"Ummm ... I forgot the latch, mebbe. Mebbe the sow or the geese---- "
"Latch? 'Tis your brain-pan needs latching."
"Ye'd no forgive yer sow-keeper if yer sow gang a-wandering, her being wi' farrow and all."
"And in the washing-up bucket?" She walks oot quick and looks doon curious where I crouch, wringing the nightshirt. "Are ye wi' brain fever, child? Whatanever is it ye're at?" she inspecting me up and doon and all 'round, like I ben a cabbage at market.
I blush mightily, saying aught. The insides of me thighs feel damp under me shift, and me crooked spine pained sharp by the huddling this new way.
"Do ye be ill, child? Wet the bed? Och, did ye?" she puts her palm softly upon me brow. "A wee bit warm, ye be."
"Nae a sickness on me, Ma," I glance into the eyes of her. "It's me time, Ma, whatanever ye told me." And I look at the stained wet bundle in me hand.
Ma stares at me for a second or three. "O, Maggie, me wee mavourneen, macushla," Ma sinking to her knees and puts her one arm round me, and tilts me face up where she knows me spine is able, and kisses me.
We stay entangled like that saying aught at all, until Ma starts a lullaby. Toora loora, slowly she's rocking me, and it's for a lengthy time, we're murmuring the minutes to each ither, ay, until the entire round ball of sun blazes over the horizon. Ma says it's a magic moment, to see the whole great glowing disc of the sun-up from one rim to the ither, and I am to make a wish. She kisses me again, and then she upside-doons the pail, and sits on it.
She shows me how to take a rag and bind meself, and tells howanever it is wi' her and how it might be wi' me, the starting and stopping, the willow-bark tay for the pain of it, and the dark moods for to do me beads. Ay, and the pain and growth in me breasts what started seven months since, and the wee pelt, and not giving in to all the changes, but doing what the day asks. And to make anither wish upon this, me first day as a woman. Musha, I say aught of me true wish---- a little sister, a babby I can never have meself. Me dollies canna love me back. Me heart wants filling.
'Tis noo great wark of keeping my secret for there's only the sow and the goat to tell of it, then, and the dolls of rags and straw, and me lonesome shadow---- what is in me heart the princess locked away in me castle. Ay, in me real world of pain, there's nae prince nor tinker wants squeezing the breasts of a hunchback, so it is, nor tickling me pelt. Ma and Da rise at the dawn and oot to the fields each day, leaving me to wonder how had it had been for the Blessed Virgin: when did She start and what did Elizabeth say afore that, and on that day. And Her pelt.
Musha, for the most part, I'm vexed, and thinking: 'What reason can You tell me, God in Heaven, You brought blood to a humped and gimpy girl with a curlicue spine and a scuttle gait? She will never find a handsome prince with a magical kiss, but only a frog. ' "
I need something to love.












































Illustration the twenty-eigth

413

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT: Kateen


It's afore prayers one night, that same year, and I'm on me creepie, reading Grimm's faerie tale of the enchanted swans to me dollies. And what should I notice oot the slant of me eye, what'll ye gi' me, but here's Ma and Da nodding, the one the ither in a secret way. I stay buried in me story, and me ears cocked at them whispering aboot, it's time to spread the news.
"News? What could be the news?" I'm wondering, "Us ones living in the quiet of the countryside, and a cock's cackle at sun-up is news."
"Uh-hmm," Da clears his throat. "Maggie-Bawn, your Ma has something she ... ummm, wants to say." So I sit up, fair as me crooked spine allows.
"Is it some terrible sadness they be hiding?"
"The Blessed Virgin," Ma says to me, looking funny at Da, "She's tooken a pity on yer lonesomeness, Maggie-Bawn, and She's sending me a ... a bonnie wee babby for us to love." And she breaks oot a grand smile.
"A babby! A babby!" My heart leaps into my throat."
"Yes, a babby. To me, dote. And ye'll be helping, Maggie-Bawn. We'll be needing it."
"Godamercy, what do I know of help?" I'm excited and afeared together.
"For all of us to love ... ummm, to all of us, for the family."
"I do not know laddie parts ... I hope it's a girl."
"What class of a babby will it be, Ma?"
"We'll be knowing that when it arrives, dote."
"I didna think it could happen," and Da's face turns red.
Ma says it's all the fault on last winter's early blizzard: "Yer Da, he didna put oot the milk and treats, nor a cross for the Little People. Makes, ummm," she looks at him, "mischief in the night."
I wonder, "She did not tell me what is the mischief."
"Yer Ma canna count after the moon comes up," Da says sly-like.
" 'After the moon comes up,' 'tis after the sun goes down. What does that mean?" I puzzle.
Ma counts good enough, for herself says: "It's twelve weeks since, and then it's twenty-eight weeks me belly's swelling, ay, 'tis then the babby will come. Och, ye've never seen a real babby."
"Ma did not say, 'since' what. But I seen the billy doing the nanny, and my brain aint dead."
"And you'll be able for your Ma," Da looking serious. "She'll no be riding aboot the country, the like she did when you puffed up her belly. She'll be in the fields wi' me. And after the babby comes, she'll be there still, and the babby here daytimes, and you'll be looking after."
Mind ye, friend, I never helped a body is pregnant afore, nor a babby is new unless it be a piglet or a kid, and I'm wondering what class of help comes of a humped back and a curlicue spine, and howanever does a crippled gargoyle canna bear babbies be able for a wee bairnie? Is it Ma really be oot there wi' Da?
Yerra! Whatanever is it I learn but Ma carries on her warking in the fields 'longside Da all day, every day, singing up the sun in the morning, bringing home the moon in the evening, herself warking the like of a plow-horse in traces. More's the wonder, the pagan blackthorn twig and Saint Jude warks together to shut doon Ma's consumption. It's slow on slow, week on week, her belly swells the like of a great melon ripening. In her fifth month, it's a grand thrill for to lay on hands and feel a babby squirming aboot. In her sixth month, it's me busy by the hearth on me creepie, sewing patches to the windows I cut in Ma's shifts. She's knitting wee booties, and tiny smocks, and tasseled caps no a handspan wide. And every day, getting taller around.
One evening in her seventh month, she points to her belly is drawn tight wi' stretch-marks, saying, "The wee angel, it's the kicking and jostling and all, turns me belly-button inside oot." And I can see Ma's skin rippling. "We'll name her Caithleann, for Saint Catherine of Siena, ay, a holy woman confessed the priests, didna ye ken," Ma grins widely at that. "She prophesied the Pope, so 'tis written, and tell me ever a Jesuit did that, Maggie-Bawn?" Ma didna say how she knows 'tis a girl in her belly. "I should want for her to be the like of Saint Bridget and Saint Maundie, in that way. Me godmother always believed Sisters at Saint Maundie's should be celebrants to all the Seven Sacraments, so she did."
It come a mystery to me in the eighth month, howanever the great bulge of babby didna topple Ma on her face if she stands, and where does herself put it when she sits, or howanever she stoops in the fields to weed and seed and no fall on her nose. Surely she must burst, for the rind of the melon draws tighter than the skin of a bodhran. Bedad! She didna make one peep of pain, but herself warking every day in the usual way to the last day, bending, hauling, digging, pitching, ay, that and a' that. And more.
Noow come a warm summer's noon amongst the beanpoles, and Ma says it's mebbe the sun's got to her, 'tis best if she gets doon on a bit of meadow, for to aise a cramp---- and what do ye know, her contractions start the one upon anither, fast and fierce. Grand surprise, wee Katie's popping oot the like of a cork from a bottle. Aisy as our sow has piglets, Da tells me later. It's hardly the time to cry oot Ma has, it being all so quick, juist a few big shoves, and the midwife---- ye can forget aboot her. Whisht! Da tells me howanever he cut the cord wi' his vine knife and tied it wi' bean-vine, and buried the afterbirth under a lucky oak tree. Ay, where a green plover come from the seashore sang three days since! And here's Da struggling across the furrows, puffing and coughing, pushing Ma home in a barrow wi' the babby at her breast---- and a sack of beans he finished culling whilst she rested from her labor. 'Tis at Tuesday morning Mass, five days later, they christen me babby sister, "Caithleann Pauline." God save all, Ma is back in the fields longside Da at sun-up, that very next morning.
Och, such a joy and comfort come into me life from that day forth! For it's me wee acushla machree the bairnie become, me dotey Kateen, Heaven bless her. I care for me wee darling wi' all me unlocked love, ye mind. I guards Ma's breast milk for Kateen's noon feedings, and dandles her on such lap as a gargoyle has, and croons her lullabies to ease the crabbities, and swaddles her against the damp, and makes bairnie-talk to her prating, and bends a snug berth in me arms, and rocks her cradle. And when Ma's after done wi' the weaning, it's me wi' Kateen all times, and Ma and Da in the fields. It's meself boils up the stiraboot and meself spoons it into her to compose her stomach. Great is me heart for Kateen aroon, and she the same for her Maggie-Bawn and our love for our cozy cottage what come to be the grandest pleasure of me life. Och, and when she's old enough to be dumping her bowl on the flags, I scold her sweetly:
"Eat yer porridge or Cromwell will get ye!"
Bedad! 'Tis Kateen's first summer is near to Eden lost, och, that and a' that, for the evil Ratsy's whistling curse is never more than a stone's throw fair, and noow the consumption wearing doon anew against Ma and Da. And meself. Wi' me, it's me spine the Divil gnaws and twists. Wi' Ma and Da, 'tis the lungs he carves oot in bloody phlegm. But wi' Kateen, aught at all, since the Little People come a night whilst I slept, and at sunup I wake to a magic circle scratched round her crib wi' the blackthorn twig lying acrosst it. The Divil sees that there mark and all Kateen's blackthorn marks what follow, so he does, and the consumption skips by her door, ay, the like of the children of Israel in Egypt. Meself never knowing what magic might come to me twisted spine, it come a night I slip from me cot and steals the kippeen. In the morning, Ma gives me quare looks but says aught. It all starts me to thinking aboot Meggeen and what's buried in the rocks where the shebeen omce stood, and whatanever powers she promised---- to do what? When?
Godamercy, me back grows more gnarly, me arms stronger, me hands more willing, me knees more calloused, and me will-power, the like of Ma's, become a cairn of hard stones. Some say of Maggie-Bawn Paula Houlihan, her backbone's a twisted column of plowshare steel. And some say, her Da's Irish temper makes the half of her more snarly than a tusky Connaught boar, and her Ma's Scottish wits makes the ither half sharper than hedgerow thorn. And all agree, from both come the tongue to shovel curses upon the Divil's agents in two brogues, the like ye ben hearing for yerself, friend. But still, Meggeen's prophesy of magical power, naething of it come on me.
Bedad! Yer axing me, amn't I remembering howanever I begun this story wi' Ratsy and that? And yer waiting on it, are ye? Ahh, I needed all me O'Neill wiles and Houlihan tempers to be doing aboot that if I was to catch the Divil's helper, och, the skill to tie the netmaker's knots and then the luck what guides the fisherman's nets. And the wits of the Scots to instruct my brain, and the joy of the Irish to dance at the villain's undoing. This here, then, is the finishing of me story, the tale of Ratsy and the abominable whistling curse, and the Sea-Divil, and the horrific crime of that, and the never forgetting nor forgiving, and it always festering in me brain. Ay, and me all times safekeeping the blackthorn twig. So hould yer whisht, and fasten yer chair, and let listen close.
Dotey Kateen grew to a bonnie lass, hardy as a Connemara mare, what ran the way home to hug me at day's end. And then she come a strong young woman wi' the broad back and legs sturdy as a Clydesdale, and a man's way at a plow. Ay, and her Da's thirst. Her face canna make time stand still for the dandies, but what the spalpeens smirk beyond her ears, it will stop a clock. Katie's Irish ugly, all the lads joke, ay, the north end of a south-facing sow, they whisper, homely as sin---- Ma tells me what they say. And many the ootlander or bona fide passing by on the quick and sees her tending the fields, thinks "her" is "him." But us two were wi' each ither, for it's meself knows her better half, her tender heart and the softness of her touch itself. And it's the two of us makes those our green years, her warking the fields and me keeping the cottage, and each at the ither in the evening, around the turf-fire. And later, when the embers burn low, wi' the goblins and lilties and Sidhe sprites flitting abroad, it's us in bed at each ither like time has noo end
"Let gossips talk," I'm thinking. "I have my dote and my dote has me."
I didna hear the gossips nor their slurry. Faith and troth, what'll ye gi' me, amn't I the gimpy hunchback never able for to leave the cottage? But I do learn of Sundays wi' the lads and lasses in their finery gathering at the crossroads after the noon Mass, and His Riverence on the snooze at the rectory, for it's then Kateen leaves me side and she's, " ... gang a-dancing," so Ma's burr says. Och, to hear tell, she steps such a storm, until the fiddler's bow is near to rubbing sparks from the strings, and the pipes be skirling smoke. The lads be after bringing oot half a barn door, their slurry smirks, for her twinkle-toes and stampy feet to fly upon, until the whole shebeen sounds like the Battle of the Boyne. Och, at sundown, she's after coming home a wee bit tipsy, wi' tales of handsome spalpeens and Ceilidh sets, and lads and lasses flushed wi' laughing and singing and step-dancing, then, and a few drops of Louth lightning taken on the slip, or a sup or three of stout, all what we'd see in her wobbling. But there's noo lads for to pair wi' Kateen, and all her jigging is by her lonesome self, for the plainness of her face, and her waist so man-thick, and the ox-broad shoulders. Och, if beauty canna boil a pot, nor homeliness canna warm a hearth.
'Tis only a wee wizened leprechaun of an ould, ould man, richer nor Croesus, and friendless as a stump---- and as high!---- talks wi' Kateen and clinks her jar. His name? Francis Xavier Rathlin, ay, that Francis Xavier Rathlin, the one yer wanting after, friend: the whistler. His ould Da died the wealthiest landlord in County Louth, and it all went to Ratsy. And by the bye, didna ye know, that hideous cluricaun, come a-calling for to escort me darling to the crossroads, or mebbe a rambling house. Howanever them two got started, noo even the priest knows. What she never minded, ones say, was his looks watching at her dancing by herself. Haha! the wee monster, he canna dance one step withoot he trips on his own feet. Yerra! Her always after coming home to me, and Ratsy always after fetching her home, och, himself, the elfin ould man, ugly as a pig's arse wi' warts. Bedad, he's forty seven years oulder than Kateen, he is, and there's herself is his last chance, and him is her only. Nae Kateen's 'last,' ye'll understand, friend. 'Only,' didna ye hear?
Odd, ye'll say, friend, for ould Ratsy being wi' young Kateen, yet didna be so odd in the Irish countryside in the 1880s, herself a homely lass looks like a man, and naething for a dowry. And himself a shriveled antique nae woman would eye, if he sat on the right hand of God. Och, looks like a wee dried-oot corpse, odd as an ass wi' three ears. And haunted by the changeling rumors.
And howanever it didna be quare oncommon, such a match? Whisht! An Irishman married late or never; 'twas the custom of the land. The eldest son inherited the whole fairm or the fishboat, or whatanever it ben. But the fairm often enough be near the size of a fishboat, didna support two goats. And so, it was aught for the second son and all the daughters: oot on the road wi' them. Faith, beyond fairming and fishing, whatanever's a body to do in the North amongst the shamrocks and field rocks? Musha, it's many a decent Irishman won noo wark at all, takes the boat to America for to find what to do, howanever to do it, and a wage supports a marriage. A man the like of Ratsy, wi' a fortune and an empty bed, was oncommon rare in Ireland, the like of a four leaf shamrock on a shingle beach. Or a pig wi' two arse-holes.
And it's worser for women. It's many a virtuous Irishwoman gang away off to the convent, och, the like of Saint Maundie's or mebbe anither more cloistered, for to find bread and the pleasure of women's company, and more oot of life than a lackaday spinster in her da's house. Or the house of her ouldest brother what inherited all the fairm there was, and has a wife of his own and noow it's a bird wi' three legs. And howanever to leave her da or brother, when there's noo wark for a guid woman wants life in the townland. Mind ye, me friend, then it's Ratsy and Kateen is no so odd a couple. Nae, them's near a commonplace of the times.
And so I'm gnashing me teeth the way he's taking her from me and whatenever's to come, and I'm smiling the like of the village eejit when our cottage is shed of him. Faith, whensomever he's at last away, here's Kateen and me playing by the flicker of the hearth, she setting her hands to dance a clatter of shadow figures on the cottage wall, and then bringing me to her arms, and whirling us madly aboot the floor, the like of two flies in a bottle. Troth, those brawny arms lifts me the like of a feather, and we're swearing blind we'll be at each ither forever and ever, so it is. And Kateen's crooning and kissing me under the ear until we tumble in a giggling heap, and saying she'll carry me away to her rambling houseen on the brae of a bonnie blue lough. And 'tis noow Ma comes awake all vexed and yelling, "Shut up oot of ye! Leave off wi' yer foostering and say yer prayers and off to sleep wi' ye ... noow!" And it's her consumption hacking again. "Afore I gives ye something to pray aboot!" Wi' the pair of us plotting like thieves in the dark.
Then it's us ducking under the coverlet whilst we catch our breath, all knackered from nestling and wrestling and some things on the quiet, when Kateen whispers again of the one called Francis Xavier Rathlin, and hinself being years oulder than the ither boys. It were no so much, says she, for Ireland ben the land of crusty boys---- as I told ye. And him never having wife nor children, och, such a wee ugly man, ay, doonright repulsive. The lads and lasses at the crossroads call him "Ould Ratsy," faith, near to doddering he is: didna drink because his stomach is weak, didna dance for never having learnt, didna learn for lack of teaching. And naebody teaches for ugliness. Musha, it's Ratsy and Kateen each has nae anither and only themselves, and a quare couple they make, herself a young ox and him the like of a little small ... ay, rat, mebbe. But for them two, it's a body meets a body. And a body needs a body. Next ye know, it's 1891 and Kateen turns marrying age, for she's to be fifteen and, in all of Ireland, there didna be a matchmaker find anyone for Kateen but Ratsy. Faith and troth, himself aint the worser part of me times. I'm an old maid, soon on to twenty-seven
This here is the year the consumption wastes Da into the grave. Ay, the year the Divil's whistling curse come again to our wee crossroads in County Louth, this time finishing the swipe of his deadly scythe begun upon our family eighteen years since. This here is the saddest year. Nae juist our family. Luicifer slashes through the whole village, cutting doon the man here, the woman there, the child everywhere, and then he come to Da what he had first visited so longgo, and this time he destroys Da entirely. Heaven grant poor Da peace, ay, himself what had death tunneling in his chest all those struggly years of hacking and wracking. O ye Heavenly Hosts, give us relief from the stabs and thrusts of Ratsy's whistling curse causes it all!
On the day, Ma come running over the ridge, canna speak for the huffing and puffing, screaming and sobbing: "Me Paul is struck doon ... in the south corner by the hedge---- we was spading praties and ... he fell oot and he canna ... he ... O God! Help! Help me! Lord! He canna rise! Holy Trinity, help us! ... Come quick!"
Me curlicue spine canna run, and so I scuttles to the garden, seizes a walking-stick and the goat's water pan, and beats and bangs the like of King Jamie's bodhran at the Battle of the Boyne. It's Ma running from cottage to cottage and calling for the neighbors to bring Da home. They find him on his back in the field wi' the blood drooling oot his mouth. Ones said his eyes showed only white and glazed all over, and them afeared to touch him, wi' the consumption and all, so he come home on a plank. An hour since and, Mother of God! Ma spoons the soup into him, his spirit riz and he come 'round like some grand miracle. He gives me a kiss on the cheek and a wee weak hug, and turns over for the night, telling me to pray for him at me sleep-time, and do all what Ma says to do.
Come the morning and he sits oot from his pillow, himself whiter nor his muslin sheet, and says, "I feel the cough coming on," he says, and spews a tremendous bloody gollier, ups his eyeballs, and dies right there, never the one last word. Afore anither second, Ma run to a neighbor for to carry her by horse to fetch Father Lenihan. I watch Da lay there, his eyes stared up at the turf-loft under the thatch, his skin after turning even paler and bluer nor afore. A great burden of time drags by till Ma and Father Lenihan arrives by horse and trap. God save his soul, Da's cold as a herring in the sea.
The guid Father, he didna dare touch Da for afearing the consumption but says, "He's still warm, he is, Missis ... ummm, Houlihan, and aint that a pulse in his neck?" Father puts an ear a handspan from Da's chest and declares, "There's still a beat heared, ay a beat, very faint it is," and starts the Sacrament of Last Rites whilst the neighbors look the one at the ither in ashen disbelief. And it's, "Through this holy annointing ... ," he begins, and here's the chrism drip off his thumb on to Da's stone-still brow. "I do think he's murmuring," says the priest, and makes the sign over Da's nose and then over each hand, and hurries through the rite, pours wine over Da's face, crumbles a wafer on to the wine, and makes a viaticum. " ... May the Lord Who freed you from sin save you and raise you up. Amen." The guid Father's consoling hardly lasts the length of a cock's crow and, quick, he's leading the Lord's Prayer, then a blessing, and a hug for me if I be a frog. Noow he's after mentioning this is a lovely time for to feel charity and give alms. " 'Tis fit, for to honor yer Da's memorial," says he, oily as chrism. "For the services of the church, my children, and unity in Christ." And he's oot the door, his purse fatter than when he came in. Faster, too.
It's in the great fear of contagion from them takes their death of the consumption, Ma canna stretch Da for his wake. Yerra, even if most of the people at our crossroads ben consumptives themselves.
"It will be feeding time when Kateen comes in," says Ma, and takes up the spuds and the knife. "Noow, Maggie-Bawn, stir the hearth and we'll be getting supper, for 'tis our time too. Ye put some praties on the boil, and we'll smash them up guid wi' cheese and buttermilk. Scallions too. A prize colcannon, yer Da's best dish; we'll make it for the peace of his soul. And ye warm the bread on the backstone." And she's hacking again.
It's far into evening, Kateen's back from the field where she's been away most all this day of rush and tragedy, for our cottier's wark must go on though Da be dead and Ma tending the arrangements. I canna swallow smashed spuds for the lump in me craw.
"I'll make ye a proper wake, Da," I sob, after prayers is done at sleeping time. I gathers me straw dolls and rag puppets aboot him, and I'm closing me eyes so the dollies can dance in me brain. Ay, as they have danced since the day the seanchai give me Grimm's faerie tales, eighteen years since. I watch if Da's soul issued oot his mouth, but it canna come, and if it does, I should never see it for the tears I'm shedding doon.
I put a wee rag CuCulainn by the cross on his chest, afore Ma takes and wraps him careful, the like of a porcelain icon, on our one table,. At once, as if they be signaled, come the grave-diggers and covers him head-to-toe in a rough canvas shroud, and sews it shut wi' twine and enormous needles. Musha, they'll no be digging a proper grave but rolls him into a slide-box coffin, a rude narrow thing has nae the fixed bottom: 'tis a necessary of the times, wi' the corpse is slid oot and burnt for to avoid the contagion. The coffin carriers take and dump him on the pyre. The women wraps rags round Da's feet, careful they dinna touch him, and settles him square by the ankles. Along come the men wi' more turf-wood and timber scraps and, as they must, they're after burning him that very night. The wind turns foul, drifting the awful stench of Da's burning flesh through our shutters. Ma will no be consoled. She lifts me to see the flames she canna watch from our window. I tell Ma, it's in the flickering night and the circles of ghostly smoke and the leaping flame, mebbe I see the Holy Angels carrying Da's soul to Heaven. But she looks away. God bless her, if she does look, she wouldna see for the tears. Like Ma, like daughter.
"Praise the Lord, he didna suffer more," Ma sobs.
This night, I dream of the bridge, and Da taking me cane away, and me standing full height.
The neighbor's jaunting car takes us to Da's Mass, meself cuddling me crooked spine and me hump in a nest of hay. Bedad, I hardly know the church, for I showed me face poorly after the consumption come upon me spine, 'tis donkey's years since. The car is jolting me bones all the way in the tortures of the damned. A grand oak of a man ones say is the blacksmith, he carries me up the church steps and doon the aisle to me bench ... first row. When all the flock is done shuffling and snuffling through the Eucharist, Father Lenihan and his acolytes makes a parade of coming to me wi' cup and wafer. Wine is a quare taste to me, for it's still on me tongue where I used to kiss Da's face. I want to believe the Host, but the blood and the flesh, it didna come upon me heart.
"Stale, that wafer ... 'tis not pride, Queen of Heaven, for I bake a better one ... who will eat my bannocks and drink my tea, Da?" I ask of the empty air.
The priest's head poking over the pulpit has the looks of a bee on a brown lily. His lesson is all echoes, sounds jumbled together, aboot Jacob's ladder and howanever a soul climbs to Heaven. I canna hardly climb one rung, nor me crooked spine genuflect, nor bounce up and doon on the kneeler. I stops me ears from responses and prayers, trying to remember Da. Och, we had times! Ma canna leggo me hand the whole service. The blacksmith carries me oot and lays me on a fresh truss of straw.
"All the many enchanted circles I made with the blackthorn kippeen in the dark of night, all of them, they did not save you, Da. And did not cure my spine. It's a powerless twig any more. Widow Mahony was wrong about myself doing great things." Those thoughts haunt me in the days and nights what follow, but I keep the twig.
Unhappiness covers me me like a mourning shroud, and it's month on month drags by afore I am at meself again, if ever I am. Howanever, Da's passing didna put noo kind of a lid on Ratsy. Himself having found Kateen's eye, noow he come calling and a-courting at our cottage on many a later day. Ma says, ay, he has the few years, ay, a few! and a wee gnarled gnome he is; Kateen should spoon porridge from his head. Glory be, he hardly casts a shadow, and him past his fifties, and she waiting on fifteen, but they say he's quare smart---- the bees' knees, Kateen promises. And she has nae the hope of anither, noow nor ever, says Ma again. And again.
" 'Tis for the better," says Ma, "for his Da was a rich man disinherited his oulder half-brother, as anyone wi' any sense at all in wee County Louth knows. Francis Xavier, he's got it all and our Kateen will be a lady of leisure."
"The better?" thinks I. "He's a nervy one, handsome as a lizard, smelling of his years, and the look of a divil steals spittle from an orphan's tongue. It's aught of Frances Xavier Rathlin fits my way of liking at all."
Truth, there's times he be reaching doon and touches me nape, or be stroking me hump, and me blood after freezing and me skin ruching the like of dried currants, me hackles up like quills, and me bowels giving me the skitters. Any day he come 'round is one too many for me.
Sacred heart of Mary! I'm thinking, "Maggie-Bawn, be holding your tongue, for you be knowing what anybody with any sense at all knows: your dotey Kateen, let her wait on the second coming, and she will never do better ... Ratsy, go to Hell or Connaught! Anywhere far from here, very far, anywhere at all."
Beware of what you wish for, the ould ones say.
And then, Kateen's future is changed forever. Unbeknownst to us, Ratsy's older half-brother, Fingal-the-fop---- what they say ones call him at the Belfast gaming tables---- he has hotly contested Da Rathlin's will. It's himself, says Fingal, nae Ratsy, is the entitled son, by Crown law. It's since their Da's wake, Fingal ben advancing his suit, he is. Bedad! The courts have finally settled it: Ratsy loses every farthing he has! Ratsy, ye'll understand, will be needing real wark, the first time since forty-odd years or so, when he was a laddie carrying a carpetbag on Belle of Newcastle for his da. So it seems. Nae more him telling emergency men to beat down the homes of helpless widows whilst he idly buffs his fingernails. Bedad! That there notion of wark mebbe aint his best point. What do I know? He ups and doon to the railhead and hires himself for to be a grease monkey aboot the steam engines, where he's so wee for little mechanical crannies noo ither can fit.
And hardly we swallow that and a' that, wi' our own Da passing and Da Rathlin's will broken---- and mind ye, Ratsy at wark! the next thing is a more tremendous surprise, the actual like of the dead rising. A letter from Buffalo in America, it is, two pages of shaky scrawl front and back. First page, in one corner at the top is a picture of a loaf of bread. In the ither corner, it's printed, "Padraig Colum Houlihan, Irish Baker to the First Ward, Victualer to Buffalo Harbour, New York." Last page at the bottom, it's signed, "Your loving daideo, Grampa Houlihan.'"
JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH!
And on those four sides of paper, in a wee cramped and scrawly script, Grampa's story.
Our Daideo, me Da's da, he was taken prisoner in that Orange ambush of 1836, and stashed wi' the dead and dying. It's surgeons chop off his pulped right forearm, and the hateful English lock him away for to die, "incommunicado," ones call it, at Tobermory on the Isle of Coll, off the remotest northwest coast of Scotland. 'Tis near the sacred Catholic places at Iona. Close on twenty brutal years and he didna die nor sicken, come a brazen break-oot wi' a hatful of Irish patriots, over the wall into a stolen skiff---- seven years afore I ben born. He bides and hides the way of a Highland fox, crag by cranny, cave by nook, amongst robber bands and ootlaws wi' the poaching and thieving, for five years. Then he's slipped south in Scotland and thence England, village by village, lane by lane, month by month, hop, skip, and jump, and here's himself a shadow in the night, a one-arm gang-aboot man, Godamercy, spends two years in plain sight dodging the Midlands authorities. Bedad! He slips into Liverpool, covered in bolts of gingham on a goods train; gets by at dock-side hostling and hustling; finds an American schooner, ben blown off the Grand Banks by a hurricane; stows away in her fish-hold, crosses the Atlantic, slips over her side of a Cape Cod night at Hyannisport and floats ashore, scrambling by his one arm up the barnacles and muck. Godamercy! 'Tis the year I was born and he's in America! It's in a sailor's mission he holes up, then, and he's a hobo on a freight train to Boston, anither to Albany, and panhandles his way up the Erie Canal from work-gang to work-gang, hearing aboot greenbacks lines the streets of Buffalo.
On the Lake Erie waterfront in 1872, he canna keep the pace, shoveling coal nor scooping the grain wi' one guid left arm, and himself ben on the near side of sixty years. Bedad! He talks his blarney way into baker's helper, learns the trade in jig time, and it's a few cents saved for to bet the horses. One day, and his first year gang by, God bless all and Divil take the hindmost, his nag come in. 'Tis wi' them winnings himself sets up a wee hole-in-the-wall shop in an empty rail-side shanty, and taps a handy gas line. And so it's bread, bannocks, and barmbrack for Irish immigrants, scores of them arriving by rail and canal boat six days and Sunday, all hungry as Celtic beasts. And whatanever do these sons of Erin see parading aboot but spunky lads in sandwich-boards, says, "Lefty Houlihan, The Best Irish Baker," in large green letters. And there's ither lads carries Houlihan's dime size samples on trays, marching the taste o' Houlihan aboot the markets, the trains, the boats, the mills---- God bless Grampa! wherever the Irish go. And they go everywhere. Grampa bakes so well and spreads his name amongst so many along the Erie Canal, come 1880, it's the grandest Irish bakery in Buffalo, near where we be noow, me friend, in the Ould First Ward. In Irish-town, so it is. That there bakery has a grand sign, says, "Lefty's Irish Bakery," wi' an enormous painted hand pointing at his door, what's open summer and winter to let curl the bakery scent aneath every passing nose. He didna need for to advertise "Houlihan" any more on the sign---- 'tis beyond famous he become.
In America, he's nae our "Daideo." We must call him "Grampa." And he's after sending Kateen for to help him. He says he never afore wrote from America, afeared the way he has nae the passport nor papers, but noow he has paid a forgery; and he didna write for being locked away on the shelf all those years wi' the worsest of the worst, one step from the gallows, saved mebbe for having the one arm---- and the lost one his writing arm; and he didna write on the run for all the running, in't. Ma frowns and says he never wrote for shame of his wife, Gran'ma Houlihan, dying destitute, and me Da, Paul, his only son, grown up and noow he's passed withoot his Da.
Ma says, you write the best, Maggie-Bawn, so it's me writes back to Grampa in Buffalo, telling how Da died of the consumption, slipping away at home after years of wracking cough and clotted spittle. Ma agrees for me to tell gentle white lies to Grampa aboot the dying, inventing acts of contrition for Da, magnifying the last rites, and a made-up story aboot Da being waked guid and proper, and neighbors brought planks and trestles and whisky and cakes, and I must name the songs we sang. And howanever in the shadows of the turf-wood embers, all stepping Ceilidh sets to bodhran and pipes, and ither happy things what never happened. Truth, it's aisy milk wi' all the embroidering but noo great pleasure. Och, but never do I lie aboot meself, aboot me crooked spine and me hump, and howanever I canna walk nor wark the like of himself has one arm. By the bye come Daideo's letter says he's sorra, but joyful to know his son's leaving this earth went so well, and the tickets for two, ay, a ship to New York. Two, says I? And Ma says, it's Kateen and Ratsy. 'Tis a hole in me heart, and I'm gnashing me teeth in the sleepless nights.
There's the sending-off "wake" for Kate, for mebbe Ma being wi' the consumption, they'll never meet again. 'Tis an Irish thing, the wake didna be for Ma but for Kateen. Ma makes her a tiny linen purse for to take a pinch of wee County Louth sod. Yerra, such a sorra wake it is, all tears and keening, and then Kateen and Ratsy disappearing in a borrowed jaunting car doon the road on the way to the railhead and the start of their journey, bound for America, where a body says there's wark for men and women and the streets ben paved in silver and gold. Ratsy says he will surely find something pays. A real job? It gives me head the staggers. Anyway, they're by lugger from Dundalk to Cobh, and then third class aboard a grimy English steamer three weeks to New York, and then the train overnight to Buffalo. Musha, it's Kateen writes back every scrap of it, one letter every day and two on Monday, but the shipboard ones come in a bundle two months later. Godamercy I'm hoping for a gale and the wee Ratsy washes overboard wi' the ither jetsam. If that didna happen, I'm praying Kateen and Ratsy didna stoop to an impurity afore the marriage sacrament, them being alone on the boat and all. I didna know there's noo need for to pray, howanever; it's never two bodies ben alone in the teeming third class zoo on a 'coffin ship,' what ones call the horrid English boats for Irish immigrants.
And I'm griping, "Ratsy's near as ould as Daideo, ain't he, Ma?"
"Nae true," Ma says indignantly. "It's your Daideo's mebbe, we think, short of seventy-six, but we canna know exact, God bless him."
Her sums aint so good.
And then anither enormous surprise, bigger as any ye'll be wanting ever for to hear. Scarce three months beyond Da's passing, and it's nae eight weeks since Daideo's letter, Ma says she skipped three monthlies thinking it was the change----
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! She's pregnant!
Nae mistake aboot it. And when it's thirty-nine weeks beyond Da's passing, all the townland learns Ma has a bonnie babby boy. The newbairn is baptized name of Duncan Paul Houlihan. It's Duncan after Scotland's hero what Ma learnt from Sister Therese Bernadette in her Saint Maundie Community days. Aint it Ma herself is named after Duncan's wife, Saint Margaret? So she's been claiming since the consumption curlicued me spine. An immense crowd, they say, half the parish, mebbe, attends babby Duncan's baptism and the Mass. Nae me, for the pain of the traveling, and so I study the baptismal sacrament in my Catechism to figure out how it goes.
I canna think whatanever next grand thing could occur in me life. There's Ratsy's disinherited and our Da passed. There's Daideo---- ahhh, Grampa! back from beyond the beyonds, There's Kateen and Ratsy away off to America and one day soon to marry. Here's Ma wi' babby Duncan. Holy Trinity! What's left to happen in this world?
Well, there's Ratsy finding wark, mebbe.






Illustration the twenty-ninth

433

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE: bufffaloed


Kateen's biding in America eleven months when Ma says she's afeared the end is near; it's time for to write Grampa, and in me own words:
---- Dear Grampa, You come soon, Grampa & be bringing Kateen. Ma's going down puny with the consumtion, God knows how many days she has hawking gobs of blood soot a horse & sweating the nights like a ship in the sea. We be wanting a body look after wee Duncan him such a helpless one. For I aint able to do it alone when its Ma I must be tending till she passes. When me & Duncan will be needing Kateen help us get to Buffalo. God keep you safe Saints & Martyrs bless Buffalo Your loving granddaughter, Maggie-Bawn.
---- Dear Maggie-Bawn, I can not make leave from the bakeshop so quik. I am any way old for to travel & I still a wanted man in Ireland & Eng & dont have a genuwine passport & all. Grief Maggie-Bawn its me must bide. Kateen will come to you She wont be alone. Ratsy will wach out for her. All be happy I found a job for Ratsy good pay in the grain elavators God hold you & keep you in the Holler of His Hand. Your loving Grampa.
Ay, Ratsy's seen Grampa's bakery and howanever it prospers and all the sweat and handwark to it, God forbid the hard labor! There's more: Ratsy knows the side his bread is buttered, for Grampa will have only two heirs, me and Kateen. And Ratsy's seen Buffalo, 'tis a thriving place wi' guid wark for a body knows machinery and likes to rule ithers. Himself become a throttle man on the chain of buckets, the "leg," what hoists grain for to store from the miserable scoopers shoveling oot the holds of Laker boats below. The throttle man must be wee, smart, nimble, and understand the innards of steam-engines, and no sorra feelings aboot the scoopers below. Aint that our Ratsy? Takes twenty-two anxious days for Ratsy and Kateen to return, and when them arrives, Ma surprises us all and rallies for a handul of time---- I canna believe she is up and doing, at wark in the fields. And I keeping the cottage, the like of oulden times. Ratsy finds lodging near the crossroads and hinself visiting every day when he's nae at the railyard earning a few bits for his grease-monkey jobs. And does that rotten leprechaun be ever bending his back in the fields beside Ma? Himself wark hard? Our Ratsy? Did the snake plow Eden? Kateen, it is, trots into the fields to do whatanever's needed, and a brawny brave girl she is. Dinna her true beauty be in her heart, to hoe the rows and then, when she come home at sunset, help me wi' stirring the pots?
And so it's meself joyfully looking after Duncan for day on day, as once I cared for Kateen in the years beyond. Ay, it's aisy times being alone wi' precious Duncan-dote, juist the two of us. It's all me stowed-up love I pour upon him. I feed him and wipe his dribbles, and keep his bottom and his wee laddie-hose, and us chasing each ither. He's near a year and creeping, and I'm crawling on the flags---- aint it meself does that best, dint of me years of practice, ye mind---- us playing, "I see you," and, "I'll catch you," and, "Gotye," and him giggling and screaming and meself hugging and kissing him until me heart's near busting, for I am loving him all the more nor I can tell ye juist noow. Come dusk, it's Ma and Kateen home from their field labors, and me making ready wi' the flags swept, and a steaming dish, and fresh things up from the garden, all the like of the years beyond. And when Ma's abed, and the Duncan asleep, it's Kateen and me under the counterpane whispering and foostering and at each ither fair into the night. It's green years and oulden times again. Och, it canna go on.
"You mitching oot on me again?" I complain when it come her time to return to Buffalo.
"I do be fond of you so, and my heart is true, Maggie-Bawn, but Buffalo is home noow." And we sit solemnly together, unable to cry, unwilling to think of parting, unhappy in our bones.
"O, would you take me home, Caithleann?" my mind sings. "A wild wide ocean it surely is."
A fortnight beyond, 'tis the expulsion from Eden, and Kateen's packing up herself to leave. There's guidbyes filled wi' tears and worries for them knowing the way of Ma's consumption, and mebbe they'll never in this world be together again, and noow anither 'wake' for Kateen. Ratsy borrows a jaunting car, and it's Kateen and himself to the railhead. Sixteen days later by postmark, Kateen sends a letter from New York City, telling however they had to wait in Cobh for a right berth, 'twas an English "cofffin ship" again this trip, and the filth of a crowded voyage in steerage, and the awful rolling, and seeing wi' their own eyes four coffins slid overboard, and one was their good friend, and the horrific crowded conditions like a pig in a thimble, and there was pigs in steerage, cows too, wi' the vomit and pee and poop and pong roiling the all over below-decks, and at last, then, the relief of seeing the Manhattan skyline, and the great lady with her torch, and the insolent Customs agents at Castle Garden laughs at Ratsy for his size and his ratty face. But I am vexed he didna be slid overboard, nor fall into the sea.
Afore two months, Ma takes a turrible turn wi' her consumption and all. I send a cable by neighbor, from Clogherhead to Kateen: "COME HOME STOP MA TRULY DYING STOP," fot Ma was in gouts of bloody vomit. Two weeks later, Kateen's here and Ma machree is sacramented, dead, waked, burnt, and buried, her ashes next to Da's, Holy Angels guard their souls. And I canna tell ye howanever it went, that and all that, lest I break me heart. Mebbe later. Come the end of the end and then one lonesome afternoon, I am in the churchyard under a brilliant sun, amidst the smell of new-turned Irish sod, hunkered in me curlicue way beside Ma's stone. I'm talking to her, all the times we had together, and the turrible secret things only she and meself knows. Ay, friend, yer wanting to know whatanever is that? Whisht! It's for me to know and ye to take a sup of tay, does it plaise ye. And God save us all, for that what's to be, ye'll be learning by the bye. But noow I'm back at the burying ground, creeping aboot, running me fingers over Ma's headstone and Da's, tracing the letters on to me brain.
"Come the fall of this here night," I'm crying, "and never will I see this churchyard again, nor these stones, nor a single blade of the green grass of wee County Louth. I cannot bend down to say, 'I love you,' for I'm already bent. My heart is bent, too, and my spirit broken. Goodye Ma and here's three Aves and a Pater and God keep ye. Goodye Da and here's three Aves and a Pater and God keep ye. Goodye beautiful green Ireland and all what was, and the pain. And the joy, if there be any."
And then Kateen and me, we're packing up for to leave forever. The leaving scene, 'tis a grieving scene at the end. Here's Duncan, Kateen and meself, and there's the packing and the looking and touching the door and the imprinting of rememberances, and scooping a pinch of Irish dirt for me purse. There's no enough tears to go 'round, and we ben on the way to Buffalo. It's Kateen crying silent, and Babby Duncan confused and fretful, and me broken teary voice singing our farewell: "Guidbye houseen and who's to live in it noow ... guidbye fairm and who's to till and harvest it noow ... guidbye townlands ... guidbye all the ones I never met for being a shut-in, and the lanes I never walked doon, and the roads I never traveled. Guidbye forever, Erin. And Arran." That night I dream the bridge again, empty and dark, and the waters below flow soundless, and when I throw me cane away it comes back, thrusting tip first into me grasp, like I hold an enormous hook. Come the morning, the first I feel for is the kippeen, in the hem of me frock, same as Ma taught me to sew, God and Mary protect her.
There's the jolting pain of the traveling to Cobh, and me spine screaming all the way. Then there's the voyage across an angry North Atlantic, the howling winds, the mountainous seas, the continuous torture for weeks of days and days of hours wi' the rolling and the pitching, and me halfway between dying and wishing to die. Guidbye, ocean, and guid riddance, I cries for joy at the end, but there's noo tears left. There's the getting into New York harbor, and the health inspector come aboard. I must tell him I was born crippled, for if he's thinking it's the consumption in me spine, he'll send me back. And the immigration agents ashore, a rude and foul-mouthed lot. 'Tis worser wi' the shills and the runners and the grimy streets everywhere, wi' the rats, a thousand pigs, then us lost and mired in the filth until, Godamercy! a kind young seminarian from County Mayo, tends the Seamen's Rescue Ministry, sees Kateen wrestling wi' Duncan, and me trying to hobble and he helps us, God bless him. There's the wrenching cab ride---- canna there be nae way me hump can travel and it aint the excruciations of the damned---- to the noisy crowded rail station. The seminarian tells us the way and, when I dinna stop crying, sees us aboard wi' the tickets grampa sent us, and blesses us guidbye. Guidbye, Manhattan.
Come the everlasting train ride to Buffalo, a day and a night wi' the lurching and jerking and banging aboot and me corkscrew spine screaming every inch of it. Me brain is battered by the tumult, and the continual horrific hurt of me back, enough for seven martyrs on the rack. I ben feeling nearly done for, when Ratsy meets us at our pertikeler Buffalo railway station wi' horse and trap to carry us to Grampa's place on Sandusky Street, ay, this very house yer sitting in this night, ye'll be knowing, friend.
And here's Grampa wi' his good left arm, waggling his stump, and he's bear-hugging all 'round, and himself riz up Babby Duncan on his shoulders and parading aboot, and the joy and tears and smiles ear-to-ear, and the babbling, and crying and moving in and rearranging the furniture downstairs and up. And meself gets to rest me turrible pains for two whole days in a real bed. It's the both of them, Grampa and Kateen, feeding and treating me like a royal. But no Ratsy. The days go by and I'm mending a wee bit, learning about America, and Buffalo, and The Ould First Ward, and howanever to start me new life amidst the houses cheek-by-jowl against one the ither and all them jammed against workshops and mills, and the rails screeching day and night, the air ben gloomy wi' smoke, the grime settled oot of it the like of silt on me windowsill every morning, and aught of green grass to be seen but the wee tired lawn patches. And it's the canal stench hangs over all. And what a body calls a 'privvy,' there's one in every backyard.
"God bless ye," them Irish tell us greenhorns, saying one the ither. "Did ye not see the gimpy Arraner woman out of wee County Louth, her with the hump and the curlicue spine and a Scot's brogue thicker than yestermorn's porridge? Maggie-Bawn they call her, lives downstairs in Paddy Houlihan's house. It's himself is her daideo, och, and her wi' her sister Kate, and her sister's baby, name of Duncan. Sure, ye know Kate. It's Maggie-Bawn is a shut-in, musha, 'the scuttling Scot,' a body calls her, moves faster on four legs as your two can walk, so it is."
" ... Her sister cares for her ma's babby? ... Who knew aboot it? Name of Duncan? ... 'Tis not an Irish name ... That there wee leprechaun, Rathlin, he's sour grapes ... "
And noow what, ye be axing, friend.
Kate become Ratsy's wife, that's what. Ay, he took me Kateen from me, the villain. All them ones in The Ould First Ward, they call her Cat and him Rat, that's what come to be. Ay, them seeing her twice the Rat's size she is, wi' her plowman's thighs, the grand ox shoulders and the whisky belly, and so chesty too, and her Houlihan eyes green as the shamrocks of Louth. Mind ye, afore they marry, she's Kate of me heart, but after she come Ratsy's chattel, his house-Cat. And Grampa, Lord bless the ould man! Himself, is it, gets up the marriage in Buffalo in the ould way and give Kateen a princely dowry for Ratsy to marry her. And here's Ratsy smiling the like of a crocodile and the stash jingling in his brain. A month and a day afore her sixteenth birthday, the marriage is. And Ratsy lies, saying he's juist a lad, only fifty-seven, the blackguard. Kateen says he's showed her the part of him is still a lad and no a wee one, and she's interfered for to make a power of its spouting. O, 'tis nae an impurity, says she, them still waiting on the priest to bless a proper ceremony. Thinking of that and a' that makes me bowels in a skitter. Again.
Ahhh! Tremendous is the marriage day wi' Grampa, Holy Angels bless him, ay, himself the Mick bread-monger and famous Irish-town baker seeing to all of it. And he had the money to it, ay! For Grampa's bakery---- Lord in Heaven protect him---- is our family's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's here at "Lefty" Paddy Houlihan's Irish Bakeshop that all of Buffalo's Irishry, every jackeen, every doddering Fenian conspirator, every ould sod and his woman, every crimp and roughneck and boarding-house keeper, buys bastable and barmbrack and bannock and sweet cake and all kinds of everything. Here it is the urchins drops their hoarded pennies, and the housewives their nickels, and it's Grampa's fingerprints, God save him! on every cookie, so it is. It's Lefty Houlihans treasury, his pot o' gold at the end of the stenchy rainbow called the Erie Canal.
On Grampa's one guid arm, and no matchmaker to pay, me dotey Kate machree walks to her wedding day at Shrovetide---- 'tis by our custom the luckiest time of the year for marriage--- all radiant in golden satins and veil and pearls and near busting her stays, ay, and a wee tiny horseshoe sewed into her petticoat for to hould the luck; but it's meself keeps the blackthorn twig. Saint Bridget's is a sea of roses and an ocean of incense, and there's stairs special for the occasion so's the crowd can see the wee miserable Rat. Such a grand show it is, for Grampa, bless his soul, Holy Saints! near spent the fairm, so he did. Even that snaky gnome, Francis Xavier Rathlin, come fitted handsome is as handsome does in morning coat and topper---- ay, if the like of a cluricaun ever ben good-looking.
"Mother of Mary, The Snake looked handsome to Eve," says I to myself. "There'll be no more a table set by Caithleann Houlihan for her sister," and I'm looking at the procession, thinking of her being 'Cat' now. " 'There's no sitting place for Maggie-Bawn by Missus Francis Xavier Rathlin."
Come the grand march down the aisle and up the stairs, and the words and the ring and the kiss and the ceremony and then doon the stairs and doon the aisle and doon the church steps, and the pain in me heart canna get past the lump in me craw. I hear kith and clan shouting and crying in joy and I am after crying a different tune and hearing naething of decent words but only a sorraful silence.
"The lout from Louth," I'm calling him out to myself, "and may he be burning in Hell afore Satan knows he's there, Divil mend him!" And I'm praying forgiveness for the venial error of my mind: "Sweet Mary! I pray You, soothe my wound. The repulsive Rat's shredding my heart, then, and will a good day never come?"
Bedad! The wedding goes on, and it's me own self, the ugly hunchback, who must bless all what's been torn from her heart, and stroke the blackthorn kippeen tucked into the pocket of her frock, and weave a magic circle in her mind, and be all smiles and at the pleasure of the guests, and let the celebrating begin whilst oot of sight I'm dabbing tears on me petticoats.
And so it does begin after church, the grandest hooley, wi' reels and jigs and Ceili sets and flinging and singing, and jars lifted and toasts made and blessings given! Slainte! Your health! Usquebaugh! More whisky! Faith and glory, 'tis a merry hulaballo. One bell to every guest, so it is, and when them all rung together, what a mighty jangle in yer ears, would deafen a stone! Yerra! The pipes droning and the squeezebox squawking, and the bodhrans thumping and the fiddles sawing and the jars clinking and the spoons clacking and the clapping and the whistling! Heel for heel and row on row, welting the floor wi' step-dancing, arm in arm and toe for toe, in't, ay, circles in circles, and the rousing of a guidly company getting on wi' it, wall to wall, and roof-tree to root-cellar! It was, ones boasted in later years, greater nor the Midway Hootchie-Kootchie at Buffalo's Pan-American Exhibition that year, ay, wi' the shirt-tails and frocks flying and the arses wiggling and the feet stamping and jigging and the carousing and swigging. Ay, lacks only a lambeg drum, the Derry Orangeys might say. And noow the crowd's roasting Ratsy, singing, "Maids, When You're Young, Never Wed an Old man," and jostling and sloshing their jars aboot.
Suddenly, in the midst of all the bedlam here come, riding precarious overhead on the hands of four wobbly revelers, an enormous flower bedecked platform trimmed wi' papery patterns of Louth lace. Hurrah for wee County Louth! And for Saint Bridget! Hurrah for Kate! And ... Godamercy! It's teetering in the center of the board, 'tis unveiled a gigantic traditional three-layer Irish wedding cake, ay, a magnificent triumph of Grampa's bakery, trimmed wi' sugared shamrocks, and stuffed wi' tropical fruit bits---- and didna ye know it, sodden wi' Jameson.
Stepping up front of this tottery troop, this here major-domo come prancing, himself uniformed to the nines, and what does he do but scrape a sweeping bow and a wide swing of his plumed cap, and then he ups wi' a grand flourish, and draws an enormous knife from his scabbard. Here's the oohs and ahhs of the crowd for, ay, 'tis a genuine black ivory handle wi' pearls inset, a solid gold bolster, and a lengthy flash of Sheffield steel the like of a sword: truth, it's the ceremonial pride of Grampa's bakery, is it. The crowd cheers like it was Arthur's sword drawn from the stone at Tintagel. Ye'll contrive to remember that one, will ye, friend! And this grand emblem ben privately blessed by the Bishop, didna ye know, for a premium cash penance, and a hatful of Hail Marys, and Paters to match. Ye might reckon such, for Grampa, bless his soul, is in it all the way.
Noow it's the tipsy crowd propping Ratsy to stand a-teeter on a chair and them coaxing the yellow streak in him to wield the great knife and, after each cut, anither plate handled oot, and here the crowd gang wild wi' every swipe. Ahhh, it was times, then! God save all, it's again and again, wi' the jangling and jingling on the bells is wave after wave, and the clamor and the tippling wi' every toast: "To Francis!" up on the chair, and, "To Kate!" And the joining arms, swaying and slurping and cackling and singing. And me heart breaking.
" 'Francis,' indeed, you slinking rodent; let you fall off that chair and skewer your guts on Grampa's knife, Ratsy," I'm choking on me own spit. "Ay, all them toasting Kate and Ratsy and Grampa ... and naething and naebody a toast for Maggie-Bawn what raised Kateen."
Come at last the rosy dawn riz upon the hooley, and there's me darling Kate blootered oot her brain, drunk as a patriot at Parnell's wake, she is, sagging on to Ratsy like a mouldy sack of Great Hunger spuds. It's the two lovers off in Hanlon's carriage itself, trailing noisemakers and ribbon, hurrying bold as brass to their love-nest at the Roanoke Hotel. And him all bollocks, ye'll be sartain. Anyways, I have noo doots Kateen awakes in the morning like the sly slurry says, banjaxed, befogged, her head arse-ways, to be wi' Ratsy in the carnal excitement what she didna do the night afore. And here's me teeth all gnashed at the gossip.
"Ay, Kateen, as you love me, howanever can you get carnal with that there horrid beastie?"
The Grandfather Clock, what greets them tolling in reproach when they wobble home the second night, it's Grampa's wedding gift. Musha, it's always Ratsy after doing wi' her or the ither way 'round, and the clock knowing all of it, marking the moments of their years. And some things I've yet to say, aboot the exact time the old clock kept when that happened. Och, for noow, let me to get on wi' Cat and the Rat, and the telling of their days and howanever they settled in.
Noow, let ye take any payday after her charwoman's wark is done, and Cat's habit it is to get off the Elk Street trolley and walk doon Lousiana---- pausing to snot a runnel by Fingie's bar---- for a drop of the dew wi' her lady friends in Mary Flannery's snuggery. And then wash it doon wi' a sup of stout. 'Tis an ugly habit, this, called, "a pint-and-a-half." Mind, ye'll be wrong if ye're thinking she'll no be wanting anither jar. Noow Ratsy, he'll be settling at Mary's in the saloon section, waiting to see her home whilst Kate feels the drouth. And she'll most often be needing anither drop, as things usually be. Do ye nae see, friend, on one side of Flannery's snuggery door, me Kateen lapping the craythur the like of our Da himself, whilst on the ither side, Ratsy's after slouching in his chair, whining of Cat's curse of drink and twitching his moustache over a lemon phosphate. It's a painful trouble in the Rat's belly come in his early years as I told ye beyond, didna allow him a great swallowing of drink, so it is.
Many the the night, it's Ratsy's cracking the door and sticks his twitchy nose into the charwomen's snug to hurry Cat on. Ay, and ye mind, such a grand uproar that makes, starting the like of this.
"Go 'way, ye ugly midget!" 'Tis the ladies shrieking at Ratsy,
"Can you not let it wait over?" Ratsy ignoring the crowd whilst he gripes to Cat aboot her drink.
"Don't ye be at me, Mister Killjoy," Cat sallies, mebbe half-cocked. "There's never a bird flew on one wing. And if ever ye get in here, be sure ye shut the door on yer way oot," she'll be reaching for anither jar, and Ratsy in conniptions down to his toenails.
Ay, it's the start to the match, so, but no as ye think, wi' Mary's door mebbe noow ajar between the two, and each never sartain howanever the ither one's doing. Anyway, it's Cat blowing the froth off a couple or three jars in the snug, and the Rat sucking his lemon fizzies in the saloon. And sooner nor later, Ratsy, he's an ould man wi' ould plumbing, canna hould his piss nae longer. Yerra, he's fidgeting the like of a cricket on turf embers. That there's the signal to the men at the bar he's after getting up. And noow it is all the mischief in the world begins, for it's "Ratsy-Catsy" is the gambler's game at Mary Flannery's Place, and every Mick in the place is on to it. Any one who's any sense at all knows it, mind ye, friend; this hardly be the first nor last time for such shenanigans.
"Better than the horses," a Kerryman whispers, one brogan on the brass rail, him slyly scanning the crowded line of faces jammed at the shiny mahogany bar for to see who might put doon first.
"Call the cows home," a Derry brogue yells, shoulder to shoulder wi' anither has a fat stogie juts oot his gob, a foamy jar in hand, and a mirthlesss smirk under his derby hat.
"What'll ye gi' me?" anither shouts, squirting, ping! on his spittoon.
"Two bits on the Cat!" a grimy gandy-man hollers back.
"Gimmee odds, ye ould knacker," a Dublin accent booms, and a bedlam of betting breaks oot.
And this is the wagering and the colloguing, used to, putting up some broth of a lad, himself not acquainted in these parts, ay, a body invincibly innocent of their plot, then, to do it---- 'tis howanever they canna do it every night. Do what? Bedad! For a schooner of stout, the gossoon must turn on his barstool and start interrogating Ratsy aboot where is his business taking him, and what exactly is he after doing it wi', and what way is he in such an uncivil hurry to avoid this conversation? Whisht! Let Ratsy mebbe break a sweat in his anxiousness, and then let him make even one fraught squeak at all the tom-foolery, and there's Cat's ears poking up, and she's staggering through the doorway. Mother of God! Cat's noo soft touch, ye mind, herself wi' the shoulders of a longshoreman and the arms of a scooper.
"Who's mockin' Mister Rathlin? Stand up, ye yaller dog!" Cat be yelling.
Saints and Martyrs preserve us! The gossoon is thunderstruck.
"Ay, the poor lad, he's at the match today," them at the bar nod, says one the ither, their shiny spittoons pinging like Gatlings whilst they swing 'round, each cheering for his favorite gladiator.
Sure and sartain, it's all tumult, and noow the hooligans shouting and nudging and new odds given and new wagers laid oot, and the slap of coins on the bar.
"Lay the bugger oot, Cat," a hopeful bettor sings at the bar. "Have a go!"
And it's the men hooting and hollering, och, the like of Market Day at Donegal Square.
"Give 'im a bat in the beak, the meddler!" a longshoreman yells, adding rich dockside language.
"Put up yer fists! I'm comin' in, ye miserable spalpeen!" Cat's bellowing. But she's already 'in.' "She'll tear the kid's goddam eyeballs oot and jump up and doon on them," a drayman murmurs in admiration to his five-cent cigar, and shovels two nickels on to the bar.
"Give 'im a clip in the gob, Cat! For starters!" a hosteler hollers, jostling, forwards and fingering his bet, watching the worried face of the callow lad.
"Ay, it's many a man's tongue broke his jaw," a weatherbeaten old salt snickers into his stout
"Put the dread on him, Cat!' comes a shriek out of a lank and grubby scooper.
Didna ye know, Cat's wanting to pounce first, seize the offending lad by the hair, tip him off his barstool, aim a Clydesdale's kick at his balls, and be clouting a heavyweight uppercut aside his noggin, sounds a turrible knock when she connects. Noow, a blootered Cat might land a mighty blow, and the winners collect their bets, and the lad be next to singing soprano amongst the ladies in the Saint Louis Cathedal choir, but Mary Flannery is quick. So it be, aye more than nae, as it used to ben: it's wee squat Mary and her mop handle arriving first, and she's turning the bamboozled troublemaker back to his jar--- mebbe leading him by the ear. And there's our Cat utterly gone off, staggering on to wait at the swinging doors so's Ratsy can handle her home. And there's the riot of men parting for her the like of the Red Sea itself. A joker full up of himself mebbe takes off his derby and bows, and Cat mebbe turns and him wi' a whisky smirk ducking away from a clout. The losers tilts their derbies, sighs, and turns to the bar and doons their foot on the brass rail again, hoping for anither brannigan and better luck tomorrow. And pays off the next round or two, then. "My shout, and all round stout," they tell Mary. Och, friend, it's all this I'm hearing from Grampa, for Ratsy put the bans on me, and I'm no the guest downstairs at the Rathlin table any time soon.
Never the Cat used to leave off the snug wi' the drink in her, Mary Flannery used to make sure Ratsy's there for to fetch her home. And never the time when Ratsy and Cat get home, it's the like of Donnybrook Fair, himself wi' such a murderous gob on him, all ruffled and wild and barging Cat and cursing the Divil in her drink, and after whaling away wi' the belt, giving her the leather, buckle, and all, the evil cluricaun! There's iron pots flying, and whatever the Rat laid his paws upon, and the kids keening. Mother of God! 'Tis the Whistle-Divil is Ratsy, do ye see, ay, all the Divil's work in the world, ye'll be knowing, and I'm up one flight, the shut-in, alone by meself, hearing it all through the floor and up the stairwell. He'd broke her teeth, busteded her wrist bone, and her thumbs which he bent. Come daylight, Doctor McMurphy's surrey would be hitching at our post. Yerra! Tremendous is the stench of his bay mare, is it, wafting in me window and telling me it's the guid doctor mending me Cat. God save us, it's horse-pong reminding all, Ratsy's batted her again. Ay! It's when the doctor's after seeing Cat, his head shakes sorraful, he mumbles in his beard, he's taking oot a chewed-up stub of pencil and he's writing, "Fell doon stairs drunk," or, "Tripped on threshold," or some sich ither faerie tale. Gloria Patri! I'm heartsore. For never is the story the truth itself, mind ye, no a shred. Divil mend the wee fiend!
"God in Heaven! Look from you, Doctor, and see all what's there to see!"
" 'Tis right quare," the ladies whisper at the snug, "for it's sure and sartain a half o' Kate can make two o' Ratsy in a cat's blink---- haha!---- and twice on Sunday, yet she's laying never one finger on him, noo, not one clout aside his noggin in all their years and years. And him roughing her worse than a stray cur. A crying shame, is what it is." And they nod and cluck in commiseration, and tilt back for a drop. Ay, mind ye, friend, it's an ordinary thing in them longgo times for even a decent man for to beat his wife regular. 'Tis a fault in the Irish. Yerra! The Scot in me cursed it from the beginning, so it is.
And Cat, does she never strike back? 'Tis noo, nae, and never, as a body sings. Och, but 'tis no a one of them gossips knows she takes this here ither way, God help all. Nae, she wi' her great breasts and ox shoulders, she ben putting the kibosh on himself, pressing Ratsy into a corner, and clasping his ratness in her arms and carrying himself wi' all his vile yelling and curses to the Chesterfield, and it's here she ben covering over his wee ratty body wi' herself until he's flailing noo more. Yerra! 'Tis that and a' that, whilst she ben crooning to him in her soft tipsy way. Saints and Martyrs! Come a silence, and then a whispering if they be conspirators at the Easter Rising, and then footsteps staggering, for it's Cat carrying Ratsy rocked in the crook of her two arms, ay, the like she carried me once upon a time, Divil double damn him! And it's away them slips to the bedroom until it's meself wi' an ear to a wee gap amongst the floorboards, I'm hearing the bed after creaking the like of a Highland millwheel in a freshet, and a different kind of yelling and slavering what churns a river of poison into me heart.
All this I've been after hearing since Ratsy and his Cat moved doonstairs two days after their wedding, and Grampa, the Holy Saints preserve his soul! moving me crooked spine upstairs wi' himself. The cursed Rat's knocking a horrid hole in me heart and it's naething of a magic circle, mind ye. And when Ratsy forbids his house-Cat to take the stairs, Grampa's Irish Catholic face cramps in a Presbyterian smile and himself hisses the name, 'Rat-Born,' through his teeth, and says aught guid aboot Ratsy from that day oot. Glory be! Few and hard been any words at all between them after that, ye mind. And meself? It's in sackcloth and ashes me spirit sags from Ratsy robbing meself of me sweet Kateen. Ay! Divil mend him! Me Kate mavourneen, me bonnie dote, herself never again at me. And I'm grieving day and night, herself near as the staircase and fair away as the moon, close as her voice and distant as an angel in Heaven. But worser is to come, friend. Ay, one more thing, more hideous, more hateful, nor any ither, was this.
Kate's coming home all pie-eyed one time too many, and me as oftentimes wi' an ear to the gap in the floorboards. Ay, friend, Godamercy! I canna rise upright, didna ye know, so 'tis an aisy posture for me, lying there. It's this here time, Ratsy's telling her the story howanever he was a boy on Belle of Newcastle, and whistled up a curse, and come to find in later times Belle foundered and Jimmy Callahan drownded, wi' the tinker naebody knew where from. And Ma's marriage to Kevin being cursed and Kevin drownded too for being a sailor on Belle, and Ma and Pa wracked to death wi' the consumption for Ma being a babby on Belle, and me crooked back for being Ma's child, and Duncan's fits for being Ma's child too--- all in the throes of his whistling curse, says he, the filthy braggart. Me belly turns flipflops and I'm puking me supper on the floor. I can see the evil leprechaun in me tear blinded brain, the rotten blackguard pushing oot his little chicken-breasted chest, and his ratty face smeared wi' the ghoulish grin of a Halloween pumpkin.
"My God! My God! Is this true, Sweet Virgin? Can it be? Is it so, all this evil upon evil noow revealed, evils piled on the unspeakable evils I already knew? O, you monstrous reptile, you wicked iniquity! God damn your soul! Divil thrust his flaming fork up your entrails for all eternity, and you die in flames again, die again! Die! Die, monster!" cries my broken heart.
" 'Tis the power o' me whistling," himself hisses, knowing naething of me ear to the floor. In me brain, I see Ratsy puffs himself up to his full five foot two, all bluster and and arrogance, and him beating Cat wi' the belt whilst he threatens still more of his hideous evil.
Wap! Wap!
"Divil double damn him!" the tears runs doon me face.
"Never ever ye cross me agin!" he screeches at Kateen, "or I whistles out me curse worser than afore on yer miserable self." Wap! "Or the kids." Wap! "Or yer sister, the goddamn gargoyle!" Wap! Wap! Heartbreaking sounds of Cat sobbing, and him screeching. "Don't ye be spending no time with that useless bitch upstairs. And noo more at Flannery's, do ye no hear me? Noo WAP! more WAP! of the WAP! snug WAP! ye stupid cow."
WAP! WAP! WAP!
And I'm crying me heart oot between cursing and praying, and I'm beating me breast whilst he's beating me Kateen.
Kateen tells me one time of that and a' that, and never again, for she's afeared of worser nor a belt buckle. I had no the bowels to say I heared tell all through the floorboards, and howanever it struck thunderbolts into me heart, salting yesteryear's cuts wi' today's rage. Never in this world will I forget the day and hour I overheared Ratsy, nor the day and hour Kateen repeated the story, nor the horror on her face. It's every evening I talk to the kippeen, and scratch a circle 'round Grampa's bed and mine, and pray to the angels of the four winds, ay, to the South most of all, that Ratsy be thrust into Hell, and Heaven soon find a way of that. And in me bridge dream, I see Ratsy float down the stream, bubbling froth, and a scream come out of me with never a sound in it, and I'm throwing me cane after him. And the stream carries the two beyond.
Grampa, God love him! understands my grieving on Kateen, for himself has been alone so much of his life, me gran'ma---- Gran'ma machree, his wife, is dear Da's ma, Sweet Mary guard her soul! ben gone so many many years since. She's sleeping in her unmarked potter's grave, God knows where in wee County Louth, herself never knowing what come of Grampa, ay, her dying of the melancholy as I told ye longgo, whilst Grampa was a prisoner of the English and their son, me Da, Paul, was at sea. Grampa never married again. And when Paul passed too, it's Grampa nor Gran'ma never seeing one the ither for comfort, nor their dead son died a grown-up. Sadness is the curtain come doon on every day for Grampa, but he never give in, never give one single day over to gloom. Nae, it's the opposite, so it is, wi' a lilt on his tongue and a song in his heart.
Like fine rain on the drooping flower of me heart in them shut-in years, every day Grampa be mending me tears and giving me reason, and the two of us at each ither, mind ye. It's seven days a week Grandfather Clock strikes midnight doonstairs and it's for six of them, Grampa's rising to dress by a wee gas flame. And then he steeps his tay, and kisses me brow. Here's me reaching aneath me pillow for the blackthorn twig, and himself patting it into in the special shirt pocket I stitched up, and it's a last sup of tay, anither kiss for me, and it's doon the stairwell he disappears. Gang to wark the bakery he is, for to make ready the bread and cakes for the sunrise crowd, ay, them riz and ready to wark the harbor and the silos and the railyards, that and a' that.
"So old a man, so young a step!" I be thinking, watching him carrying his eighty-seven years so lightly on to his gnarled shoulders. "May God keep him in the palm of His hand. Ay, and you, blackthorn, may your magic guard him well, and never ever forget Grampa. Never."
And ye'll hear tell, friend, it never did.








Illustration the thirtieth

453

CHAPTER THIRTY: prelude


"Hustle and bustle for the bread-monger, that's what does it," says Grampa. "It's the hired hands for the baking and the cleaning, and meself for the counting. Ay, Divil take the hindmost! Amn't I the one ould Irishman knows top from bottom, and a dollar from a dime? 'Let 'em eat cake,' the Queen o' France said. 'Let 'em eat bread,' says meself. Ay, Lefty Houlihan's bread, Buffalo's best." And it's many a silver coin he jingles the way home, ye mind.
Here's any weekday and Saint Bridget's Church a minute or three afore tolling mid-day Mass, I'm leaning oot me second-floor window on Sandusky Street, listening for his jaunty song up the road, mebbe, "Rory O'More," or, "The Cruiskeen Lawn." Round the corner strides himself, and bounces up the porch steps---- ay, the ould man bounces! It's profits crammed in his purse and sweetcake in his one guid hand, whilst I ben hustling for to have his tay set oot on the sideboard, in't. Noow he's up the back stairs, and then a hug for me wi' his stumpy right arm, and slipping into his Captain's Chair for a sit and a sup of a steaming hot cup wi' clotted cream and a bit of me home-made scone, and then a smoke of his ould country dudeen amidst deep thoughts. And me wi' never a sound in me, on me wee three-legged creepie crouched beside him, listening to Grandfather Clock tock-tocking up the stairwell until it dong-doongs one o'clock over the solemn peals of Saint Bridget's. One more cup of tay, and oot the dottle, a new pipeful to tamp, and it's the two of us passing the afternoon at checkers, or cards, or a table hurley game wi' dried swee'pea balls and wee sticks himself carved and bent of elmwood twigs wi' his one hand. Come the end of the games, Grampa takes up the ould blackthorn twig and spears anither bit of me scones wi' the pointy end he longgo shaved and sharpened like a blade.
" 'Tis always I keep me battle-spear sharp," he'll whisper behind his hand. "Ay, sharp-sharp, for to keep the enemy at bay," never saying who is that. Then it's a sly-like wink he's grinning at me afore munching his scone doon, content it's nae his baking but me own, what he all times craves. "It's the best of what we bake doon at the shop, ye beat us all holler," says he. "Noo, ours aint never half so good as the ones ye do yerself, luv. Faith, ye're the cat's meow, Maggie-Bawn.'
I'm in red welts to my toes when he's after mentioning me, "Ay, the cat ... What cat? Godamercy, it's my Cat, it's herself downstairs with her brood and that wee monster, Ratsy, Divil take it! And it's myself pining in exile up here, feeling the tortures of the damned, seeing aught, hearing all. 'O, Grampa,' I look silently into his eyes, 'mend my broken heart!' "
Too soon is it supper and catechism and beads and prayers ... but at the last the best, for then it's wi' the bed-time stories, himself lighting a candle to play wi' his one hand eerie shadows upon the wall, a fantastic world it is, of dancing faeries, enchanted princesses, evil ogres, jousting knights, Godamercy, the noble Celtic warriors and gods and all, and there's Grampa jabbing aboot wi' the sharp-sharp of the blackthorn twig. the like of weapons in their battles. And the magic of it is this: the twig is a changeling thing and each new moon, Grampa's turns a new way in the wearing of the twig in his special breast pocket, and tells tales never told afore. Ay, tales of the Green Isle and how it went for a lad in wee County Louth, and legends learnt from his Da and told me Da, of CuChulainn and Emer and their spells and friends and enemies and combats and royal doings, and strange beasts and giants and Sidhe, the Gentle People, and Cromwell, the villain, and the massacre at Drogheda, and the truths of Napper Tandy, and the woe and the winsomeness of Ireland, and the ugliness of Orange, mind ye. Och, it's all what I heared tell as a child from Da and more, noow from Grampa.
And what I remember best of all, and dream again and again, Manannan Mac Lir, and his magic boat, "Wave-Sweeper," needs no wind to move itself over contrary tides, and sails to the golden sands of Paradise in the Western World. 'Tis as pleasant a fantasy as the bridge dreams for a crippled shut-in with a twisted spine, living up the stairs in a saggy clapboard house on Sandusky Street amidst the smoke and stink of the Ould First Ward, .
And stories of the soldiers who chased Grampa, and himself a prisoner, beaten, starved, whiling the hours and days and years; and the prisoners' breakoot and escape, himself scaling the walls one-handed; and living the life of a fox in one hideout and anither deep in Scotland's rugged Highlands; and stowing away across the Atlantic wi' the bilgewater and the rats, and hiding hobo on cattle trains, and the Erie Canal, the low bridges, the hard times, and at the last the raucous Buffalo waterfront, and meeting up wi' Houlihan clan people what takes him in and finds him wark. It's laying me head doon, I am, wi' all his stories spinning round the guttering candle and behind me eyes, and himself slipping the blackthorn twig aneath me pillow, being ever so careful wi' the spear-point sharp-sharp, so he is, "To protect yerself, Maggie-Bawn." The next I'm knowing, Grandfather Clock strikes midnight, and himself again wi' his tay by gaslight, and he's doon the stairwell, so he is, and the kitty-cat scooting afore him, mind ye. Never did I come doonstairs but Sundays, when he carries me on his back, ay, wi' his one arm and Houlihan shoulders, remindful of Da, God save his soul! and we're to Saint Bridget's on a Sunday. 'Tis fair away and longgo, all this come to be, my friend, och, beyond the beyonds, in't.
And then Grampa's great light flickered.
Come a sartain day, God love him! he's seeing the fog over the mirror of his mind and feeling the weight on his weary ould bones, himself closing on to ninety years. 'Tis more and more he's thinking and thinking to the day he'll be stretched ... he sells the bakery and writes his will. Ay, he sells it, lock, stock, and barrel, for a great wheen of greenbacks, and he's after hiding all of that cash back of a sartain wainscot panel up the stairs, so it is. For God save the hindmost, it's after The Great Panic of 1893, eight years since, and himself near lost his shirt, and noow he wants nae business wi' the banks, mind ye.
"Me hiding place is safer as Saint Bridget's burying-ground," says he, thinking to his Maggie-Bawn, the wily shut-in upstairs. "Ay, it's only for the two of ye, Maggie-Bawn and Kateen, and mebbe the kitty-cat, to know me secret panel and what's in it. And the kitty aint talking to strangers. Aint it how many a time Maggie-bar-the-door turned away the tinker or the Gypsy? And what class of Irish rogue knowing aught aboot it climbs eleven steps to press a crippled hunchback woman what never leaves the house?" Musha, and if Grampa doesn't carry me to Mass on Sunday, I'm upstairs seven days a week.
He seals the bargain, God bless him, writes it in his will how much is me share and Kateen's of the cash and house. And for me to inherit his great ceremonial bakery knife, ay, and his favorite rolling pin, what he takes upstairs and stores in the sideboard for me love of baking. And ye mark that there legacy, friend. Faith and troth, 'tis no himself all times admired me dab hand wi' the cakes and the scones and all? And it's the whole Houlihan clan clamored after them too. And so it often ben, the upstairs smells the sweet smells the like of Lefty's Bakery itself, in't.
God keep us all, friend, it's soon enough and next ye know, what'll ye gi' me, Grampa's took the rickets, gang clean daft as idleness will do an ould man, loony as a pig in a barrel of mash, knowing aught of up from doon, nor who is who and what is what nor when it was said, which all of it leads to that, ye'll be hearing. Yerra, he's winding up the cat and putting the clock oot the door. And useless chatter? It's over and it's overing and again, he's telling of The Great Hunger, and the hiking doon to Cobh and the coming across in steerage in an English 'coffin ship' wi' the pigs and chickens, and the sickness and puke and dying all round him. Bedad! It's the head staggers scrambling his brain. He's drawn the truth thin as warkhouse gruel, for there was never a body dying on that there American schooner he sailed. And he never anyways paid his passage; he shipped stowaway. Or so he said longgo. Bedad, he's remembering what's no there to remember. Anyone wi' any sense at all knows it. Godamercy, he was one blessed lucky Irishman, even he ben caught stowaway in mid-Atlantic, mind ye. And let ye talk of today, or what happened three breaths ago, or did he wet his britches juist noow, or take his stiraboot this morning, or move his bowels, or do a deed, or where in which wall the money's hid ... Whisht! Too many flies in his bowl. And the great grandfather clock doonstairs keeps ticking and tocking his hours away.
The three kids are part of it too, then. There's Ma's Duncan, he's near thirteen noow, God bless him! He's Kateen's own child these days, muddled his brain on the Broadway streetcar tracks when he was four. Mister Hennesy was at the tiller studying Bridie Killkenny's upper warks whilst she bent wi' the fare, some say, and didna see Duncan run across, mind ye. Ever since, Duncan has the fits of the falling sickness---- Mother of God! A fright they are, what Doctor McMurphy calls 'seizures,' and he walks like a broken puppet, talking gibberish none but his sister Rita understands. Saints and Martyrs preserve him! It's every night I pray to Saint Jude for me darling Dunc. His looks favor Ratsy, ones cruelly say---- bedad! Some do. Mark that, friend!---- but it's often the villainous Rat lays him aboot and worser; yet the lad didna have the sense to cry oot. The neighbor children and Ratsy too, they call the child Dunce, which he answers wi' how sweet a smile, all what makes a turrible ache for to draw me heart.
His sister Rita, she's twelve and looking the like of twenty. Tall as me Da, Heaven rest his soul, and it's herself already swelling wi' me darling Kate's breasts, the Holy Saints protect us. But Ratsy's no aisy laying an open hand on Rita---- she wi' her rowdy Houlihan temper, she'll fatten his twitchy nose proper. Whisht! Six Christmases since, and it ben midnight Mass at Saint Bridget, so it was, and Rita but a wean of six, she bites the blood oot Ratsy's thumb, she does, for him patting her bottom whilst she's kneeling in the family pew. What'll ye gi' me, here's Ratsy shouting oot to the astonished worshippers---- in the midst of the choir singing, "Gloria Patri!" Faith, for sartain it's the Blessed Mother in Heaven smiled on the child then. And I pray She still does.
Kateen's last-born wee bairn, she calls her Cabbie---- ay, "caboose," from the railroad, no the church, for she ben the precious and the last bairnie, nae matter his Royal Ratness and his precious prong, mind ye. The babby's true name ben Paula Joan, and Kate does love her and shields her from Ratsy's foulness. Kate, Dunc, Rita and Cabbie, that's the lot, and I love them all. Never the Rat, Divil mend him, and strike doon the horse he rides.
Did ye no hear tell of the March blizzard blowed in Buffalo that year, snow falling waist-high and heaping up such drifts could bury a horse, and every wagon rut two feet deep and a ribbon of ice at the bottom? Come that bitter evening when yer breath's hanging icicles on yer eyebrows and yer hand's cold as it died, Ratsy's after burrowing his way through the snow to Darcy's Grain Depot, whereanever he's warking second shift at the steam throttle of the grain buckets. Throttle wark, as I told ye, is for all them the like of wee Ratsy, didna have the muscle nor the bowels but soaks it up bossing ithers. What'll ye gi' me, it's this here very night come the Cat wobbling home from Mary Flannery's snug, ay, herself drunk as a clan reunion. The roads ben blocked wi' the snow, and Ratsy, the villainous leprechaun, he's no there to be houlding her up the way home.
Glory be! Come a slick patch at the Sandusky Street corner, and doon Cat sprawls, tumbling into a horrid rut, and here come Hanlon's Hansom Cab slipping and sliding by and ... Mother of God! Here's me darling Kateen caught under the grinding weight of horse's heels and iron-banded wheels, turrible, turrible, wi' the blood in the snow and a slivery bone sticking oot her calf muscle, ay, God protect us, all what would kill a gorilla---- and herself too happy-drunk to feel one single bit of it. Next ye know, she's hauled away to Sisters of Mercy Hospital, and it's every day it come anither stinking calamity for Doctor McMurphy, wi' pus and corruption and splintered bone and plaster, for five awful weeks.
" 'Tis a horrid compound fracture of the skinny fibulum-thing in her leg," or some such words, the doctor explains, "and only the luck of the Green she didn't break her thigh-bone."
I'll no be naming that and a' that, "luck," mind ye. I'm praying for her.
Great were the doctor's skills, and greater was Heaven's help, wi' Brendan and Patrick pulling this way and the snakes the ither. But the first week, it was Saint Catherine's spiked wheel for poor Cat, herself ben a drunk didna have a dram to drink, mind ye. Holy Mother of God! Day and night, me fevered Kate's gang fierce mad, entirely off her nut and howling like a beast in a cage, she is. And her teeth clattering and all her limbs jerking and trembling, seeing the very Divil himself and all his goblins, and herself burning in the fires of the Hell, all the boozy phantoms of her brain.
Bedad! There's me left alone by meself at the house, ye mind, mothering me darling Kateen's brood what's doon the stairs. Then, and as I can wi' me crooked back, I'm creeping wi' the kitty-cat up the back stairs for Grampa, bless him, the worst child of the lot wi' his daftness and his indecent bowels. Faith and troth! It's meself in Ratsy's house against his ban, looking after his brood, cleaning his floors, washing his clothes, cooking his meals, settling the kids' beds ... Sacred Virgin! The beds! Och, Kateen's marriage bed, and I'm remembering Kateen and me, fair away and longgo in wee County Louth, when we were young and innocent, playing under the coverlet. Dog eat Ratsy's bones and the Divil eat the dog! Divil double damn the dog!
On Sundays, it's the day to wind Grandfather Clock, and me parish friends see to Hanlon's cursed carriage---- Hanlon's miserable penance!---- for to visit dotey Kateen in hospital. Mind ye, friend, there's a dram of smuggled dew in the flowers I bring, along wi' the memories of happy green years on me tongue, ay, the scenes of summer in the meadows of Louth, and the splash of the waters in Dundalk Bay. And I'm after starting still anither Novena in the Hospital chapel, for it's Kateen houlds me sun in the palm of her hand, God's mercy on all! It's me darling sister I'm knowing all me life, and her passing would be the worsest since we left Ireland, more painful nor the passing of Da and Ma together, God and Mary protect all.
Thanks be to the intercession of the Holy Ones, at last me Cat mends enough to come home. Divil the thanks to Ratsy, his walloping starts again. She canna wark her charwoman's job, ye mind, and he curses and bats her upside the beak for being still too crippled even for a bit of her own housewark, then. And Kate, she ben maudlin away from her warking lady friends and their gossip at the snug, and falls into drink again, more nor afore. And so he's whaling her worser than ever.
Come a day she's crutched off to Mary Flannery's, whilst I'm feeding the brood. Next thing ye know, Ratsy's called off his steam buckets for to carry her home. Sainted Virgin! So disgusted he is that he didna beat her, but parks her in the tub so she won't be puking on the carpet again. It's a cold bath for Ratsy's Cat and never the bedsprings that night, nor aught any ither night for two weeks. Noow Ratsy's afoot wi' a darker brow each day, Cat tells me, and his nose after twitching the like of a cricket's leg. She says ye can hear his brain crunching and cranking. She's frightened for here life. And I hear him whistling around the house. Whistling! The kitty-cat hears too, and complains piteously.
"It's the curse he's whistling down on all, and the Divil's thumb pressing on a rat's brow," thinks I. "There's the scent of hot pitch Ratsy's smelling, and the shrieking of the Bean Sidhe he's hearing. Ay, they say a kitty can tell when the Divil's up."
Whistling!
Godamercy, it's strange to say, there's nae more of the walloping. But at a fortnight's end, it come to the beginning of a fearsome thing.







Illustration the thirty-first

463

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE: plotting


It's the remembering sharp enough to cut meself, howanever it come to be, all so clear in me brain noow, och, the grey weight of sooty clouds pressing doon all Sunday, the gloomy gloaming melting into the nearing dark, the lamplighter drawing close, the footfalls fading away along Sandusky Street. And it's exactly in the silent moment after Grandfather Clock strikes the hour of six, come the sudden tromp of Patrolman O'Halloran pounding and puffing doon the boardwalk and up the porch steps, all oot of breath, and knocks great thumps against our front door, yelling:
"Maggie Paula Houlihan! Did ye not hear the news that's goin' round? ... Get yerself down right quick to Mercy Hospital! ... Are ye hearin' me, Maggie? Maggie! MAGGIE-BAWN!"
I sticks me head oot me second-floor front window: "I hear ye, I hear ye!"
"Bring yer Cathy's kids ... and they'll be tellin' ye ... when ye get there. Get yerself quick aboot it!" he huffs.
"Can ye no be calling after Hanlon's Cab for me?"
"Noo, ye be sending yer Rita after him. I hafta get on. Missus O'Bear, she tol' me to tell ye, she got the telephone call. Do ye be needin' help down the stairs?"
The O'Bear pub on Smith is having a banner year; noow they have a telephone at home. The Missus is friends wi' Kateen.
"Noo. Get along wi' ye," I tell him.
Hurry-scurry! I'm coaxing Grampa to his bed, scuttling doonstairs, scolding Rita into proper blouse and pinafore, rushing Dunc's clean pants and shirt buttons in a row, and scrubbing a quick lick at Cabbeen's bottom. And for sartain, grabbing the blackthorn twig. C'mon! C'mon! Rita runs after Hanlon's cursed carriage and whilst I'm doing the ither two, here it comes on the trot, cloppety, cloppety. Oot jumps Rita and helps shovel me aboard. Push, Godamercy, girl! Push! In a heap of hands and knees I thrusts in, and off we rattle over the cobblestones. Get a leg on, driver! Divil the whip! Faster ... Faster! Careening doon Tifft Street like a fire engine! Faster!
Godspeed and Divil burn the hindmost, we're here! Noow it's the fetching me oot of the cab, and Duncan wandering aboot, and Cabby in Rita's arms. It takes two brawny orderlies comes trotting oot a side-door and carries me inside, to a battered and impressive front desk, and sitting behind it a plump dark-eyed nun in a grey habit.
"I'm Caithleann Rathlin's sister, Margaret Houlihan," says meself, "and this here is her kids. This one's Duncan ... and this one Rita ... and that there wee one in Rita's arms, that's Cabbeen. They told us ye said to hurry. God preserve Caithleann, is it a bad way she's in?" I fluster.
"Ah, yes, God bless you. 'For Missus Rathlin,' " she's writing into a huge ledger. "I'm Sister Loretto Jane. It's Doctor McMurphy sent for you." 'Tis a low, steady voice. "No, your sister's not hurt. It's not her at all. It's Mister Rathlin. But he's not bad off."
"Glory be! Ratsy? 'Not bad off?' What in seven nations can it be in such a hurry?" I'm astonished. And puzzled.
"I see you are having problems of your own, Miss Houlihan," she surveys at me hump and me curlicue spine. "Sister Ann," she calls, "will you be bringing Miss Houlihan a wheelchair and a cushion? ... Here, sit yourself down, ma'am, as best you can. The Matron will be right along to help you. Now, will you help me with some information about your family ... " And so I do that.
Sisters of Mercy Hospital frightens us wi' curdled smells of the lame and the sick, the rushing trolleys, and the nuns padding by whispering too low to understand, mind ye. Come a man bleeding through a bandaged stumpy leg, and a shuffling blind layaboot led by the hand, then, and a screechy woman heavy wi' child, trailing her water. Tender mercies of the Sainted Virgin!
"It's a hard life for the Irish makes many an orphan, och, and lays low the breadwinner," whispers Rita to naebody at all.
I'm agreeing, double doon: "Ay, dote, so many crushed and broken ones, and the hungry families." Rita and meself, we jaw on and on like that.
At last come the Matron and sits ourselves doon in anither room and it's soon enough the minutes be dragging, thicker as yestermorning's porridge. Noo sooner I closed me eyes for forty winks, here come Matron again, leading us to a sartain door and swings it open to---- what? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Can this be? Holy Saints in Heaven protect us! It's Ratsy, Divil mend him! All covered wi' cuts and scrapes the like of an eejit lad jigged in a hedgerow, and himself near naked to the waist, sitting upright on a trolley, hollering Cat did all this and that to him! And he wants her put away. And that there's Cat slobbering in a corner, surely believing in her tattered whisky brain she had done that and a' that. And here's Doctor McMurphy standing by Ratsy, wrapping a bandage across his chest. And over there, it's a Sister of Mercy wi' a tray of some shiny metal, painful-looking, doctor things.
" 'Tis abuse! Turrible abuse! From that there accursed woman!" Ratsy's yelling at Doctor McMurphy, what didna seem to listen, but continues careful-like, bandaging him.
"Abuse!" whines he, "And drink! Look at me! Lord, see what she's done! Raking and scratching! It's a Morrigan, she is! For the love of Christ, lock her up afore she murders me!" swears Ratsy, cowering in fakery, crying piteously, as Sister dutifully swabs his wounds. I smell the carbolic acid.
I'm worrying, "Bedad! Ratsy knows too well, the oft-times what Doctor McMurphy has done for Cat in her stupors. To be seeing the size of Cat and Rat, and her stout like an oak and himself wee like a straw, Divil the bit! It seems so fine a story in't, considering the whole picture, the way he surely decorated and bloodied himself." I can hear his brain cranking. "Musha! There's not one particle of truth in what's been said, not a wee granule, zed to zero, being every scratch I see surely come from his own ratty paws," I'm certain, for there's none where he cannot reach.
"Now Mister Rathlin, make yourself easy. You'll not be bleeding to death in my surgery," says Doctor McMurphy to Ratsy, peering up and doon Ratsy's body and bending a few arms and legs to see which way do they lie. "I'll be taking care of these," says he, dropping the limbs, and probing a cut. Sister gets to swabbing the wounds, and it's Ratsy wincing like he hears the pearly gates creaking. "You'll be yourself in no ... there, that ... time ... and that ... and that. Mmm," Doctor says whilst Ratsy shrieks again, " ... in no time at all. Ahhh, Sister, I'll not be needing any more you're bringing for Mister Rathlin. No sutures at all, Sister, thank you." Doctor looks up and grim-grins at me.
Sister moves back a step, places the tray carefully on a white enameled table wi' two wheeled legs, and folds her hands on her crucifix.
"It's her," squeaks Ratsy shaking his finger at Cat. "It's the horns on her head pushing through." Cat sobs up a storm.
"Now, contain yourself, Francis. You'll be safe this place."
I can't bear of Doctor McMurphy calling Ratsy his Christian name. I'm in the fidgets, and me hump's giving me a royal pain.
"It's her," Ratsy yells louder. "It's her Prottie gran'ma showing her horns, the hoor."
"Howanever does he know about Sister Therese Bernadette?" I put that in a corner of my brain. "Away with the sniveling liar!"
Cat bawls louder. Sister moves over wi' a kerchief for to dry her sobs. Cat snuffles into it. Sister puts a hand on Cat's back, and glares at Ratsy. Cat looks up at Sister, then at Doctor McMurphy, then at me, and then a scared glance at Ratsy. Sister puts doon wi' her tray, lowers her head, and walks to a corner. Ratsy starts wheedling and complaining again. The doctor speaks sternly at him.
"Noow let me see what else you've got here, Francis ... Sit still! God's love, now I'm ... done speaking kindly at you: shut your bleeding gob! ... Please."
Ratsy's mouth didna be bleeding.
"A horrid woman! A drunken woman! She set upon me!" squeaks Rat.
"That she did, sure, and will do again, but not in the way this scalawag's telling. Divil mend you, Ratsy! It's all a cod, you evil eejit!" It's hard to restrain meself. "Beyond the beyonds, he is, and black as a boot. Ay, let the Divil have ears for his sinful lies."
Himself being Francis Xavier Rathlin is enough for the testimony, snivels he, thinking to put his Cat oot the house wi' that fortune upstairs stashed somewheres in the wall, howanever he learnt of it. And aught to thwart him but a gargoyle dwarf wi' a twisted spine has a useless secret, and a feeble ould man wi' his brain parked arse-ways for Monday.
Says I to myself, "All times, Ratsy, you scum, you've been plotting a whack on Grampa's pile, and now is the hour. Any one who's any sense at all can see it. Right there on your brow. Ay, in Latin. Divil take it! You're a piece of wark, you miserable sleeveen."
Thanks to God, Doctor McMurphy called us to hospital by reason he does smell a rat, even whilst Cat says aught against Ratsy's malarkey. His Arrogant Ratness didna think Doctor McMurphy would ax a child's word against his blarney, nor ax God's honest truth from a humpback gargoyle, ye mind. Och! There is a God is in Heaven! Doctor takes Rita aside, and meself wi' me ha'penny's worth too, and it's the truth oots itself, then. Whisht! Cat ben blubbering nonsense still---- when in trips the official Volunteer Services Lady. Crepe-de-chine gentry, she is, refined and dainty, the like of a porcelain taycup, wi' her Protestant nose juts like a handle, and a little small thin-lipped mouth sups in sips.
I'm houlding me breath and slowly stroking the blackthorn kippeen in the pocket of me apron.
Whisht! Herself being too refined to approach a bedraggled Roman Cat, she didna start conversation wi' me darling Kate what looks, as the lady puts it, "...very upset... ." And so Miss Dainty didna move to sniff Kate's breath, whilst the wall ben all that's houlding Kate up so she dinna wobble.
"Bless, you, Saint Anthony!" murmurs I, witnessing this little miracle, and hearing Kate's guardian angel flutter by, giving over aught. And I feel in my pocket and tell the twig silently: "By biscuits, you're a power."
God preserve us! Straightaway, that there's Dunc like a snared bird sees Ratsy eyeing him, and flies oot the door dancing and mumbling gibberish and Matron flying after him; and this here's Cabbie all quivers and whimpering like a scared puppy wi' watching Ratsy whilst I try to snug her; and over there Rita like a tiger in the forest glowering at Ratsy; and noow she's pulling the guid Service Lady's sleeve, and noow she's whispering howanever his brutal Ratness bloodied Dunc's nose this very morning, and noow how often so careless wi' pinning up little Cabbie and noow ither things past, fair darker than that---- and besides, yesterday poking her breasts wi' his elbows on the stairwell. And noow, God save us! it's himself spying on her in our new indoor water-closet. That certifies it for Lady Taycup, her blue eyes wide and wider as she listens. and her breath inhaled in snorts. It's Judge O'Malley for Ratsy, says she, to put Ratsy away of our house and schedule him an appearance in the bargain.
"Aha! Here's the Divil's helper be getting a helping of the Divil. I never thought of my Blessed Margaret of Castello doing this way at all. Or was it the twig?" I promise candles to the Blessed Virgin and Saint Margaret. Kateen can do them for me after she comes home. And I start thinking of Meggeen.
Next day, come the news round the parish, and here's Father Magone ups from his Latin texts and marches doon to Union Hall to take his collar upon the scoopers. He ben scolding them proper for hoarding the guilt of omission, them saying aught all those years of Ratsy's vileness. Whatanever, they had to know't, and Father Magone knows they knew, for all the times them gang to the saloons wi' His Ratness after wark. Ay, and even them sick wi' hearing himself brag aboot drubbing Cat.
"Sure they know, and certain they knew, Father," I tell myself, "all them poor scoopers warking helpless, knee deep in grain, day on night, rightly afeared of Ratsy's revenge with his terrible silo machine flailing overhead, ever they say a word against him."
Ay, ye heared me say, it's King Ratsy himself handles the steam-throttle and swivel of the great mechanical contrivance what swings the mammoth chain of buckets into the grain, Godamercy, and swipes this clanking danger whooshing by their ears. And it's them poor divils, between iron bulkheads and naewhere to hide, is scooping the grain into the buckets, all times wondering if Ratsy be knocking their heads off their shoulders. Godamercy, and them already sick wi' the choking grain dust at the bottom of a hundred laker steamboats. Sartain as tomorrow, if it's them have anything to say aboot Ratsy to Father Magone, all of it is two barrows more and a thousand licks worser nor I've told ye, friend. Mind, the guid Father had aught to defend his own deafness, for few are the ears more stopped nor them knows of sin only through a wooden screen. But noow all of it is afore yer nose, wi' the guid Father making homilies aboot a brother's keepers and, in the pews, the heads bowing and the knees bobbing and the tears dropping upon the rawness of Ratsy's horrific abuse. And the menfowk reading their Missal what only read cigar-box labels afore.
'Tis a tidy business at the confession booth wi' the sorra of the guilty, and the clinking in the baskets, and the endless Ave's and Paters ascending to Saint Bridget's steeple, for contrition rubs like lye soap on the soul, mind ye. Those ones who beat their wives and worser, they laid low, and the tipplers noow coming home on the dry, all them feeling the Divil's fiery breath on the back of their neck, afeared the wrath of Heaven---- and the like of Lady Taycup!---- would find them as it found Ratsy. Noow come to our house a parade of their good wives wi' hot dishes for me darling Kateen and me and the brood, and there be aught of their children teasing Duncan, nor calling him Dunce to his face nor in me ear.
"That and a' that," says I to Grampa, us two wishing bad scran to Ratsy, " 'tis a fine cleaning but more's to be had, then."
Ahhh, Mother Mary and the Heavenly Hosts heared me, for at the next it's the guid Father Magone visiting upon his flock, and on the quiet slipping words to Ian McLeister, the boss of all the steam-throttle men at the mill. Ahah! Even an Irishman walloping his wife didna have an Earl's rights wi' a brainless lad. Or a tender cailin. And so Ratsy, he's banned from Mary Flannery's bar. He's afeared of Fingy's crowd, so he didna go there either. Nae, he's biding amongst the Beacher vermin, as foul a mob of layaboots, thieves, drunks, and syphilitic hoors as ye'll find on Lake Erie. I arrange the blackthorn twig for a lengthy time, and it's the very next night Ratsy goes to live with the Beachers. Later, it come to me bridge dream, I'm after seeing meself lean over and, wi' me cane, hooks Ratsy by the leg as he floats by. And then, I lift him up all flailing and floundering. And I'm after throwing him back, along wi' me cane. And I'm walking away upright.
Ratsy gets laid off, hurrah! Hardly it's a done deed, here's Father Magone come round, seeing Kateen canna bend to her knees at wark nor use the kneelers at Saint Briget's, and Grampa's brain gang soft, and meself being crippled up so bad, and there's the three kids and all. And still naebody knowing naething aboot Graanpa's stash in the wainscot. So what'll ye gi' me, the Church will be sending us succor from the pantry in days to come and, if we need it, mebbe a charitable dime or even a half a dollar. If, Maggie-Bawn. If. And here's a bunch of the boys from Mary Flannery's comes 'round and says they'll be passing the hat for me and Kate and the kids, and please tell them what's needed. If, again, Maggie-Bawn. If.
Good Lord! Grampa hears "if," and his mind clears a wee space, until he's irritated to sixes and sevens, and waxes wroth. We're nae the beggars nor layaboots, nae, says he, we're strengthy Irish oot wee County Louth, and we didna need the help from narrowbacks and spalpeens oot Killarney and the Shannon and Dublin and such, and his one guid arm and his bakery will do juist fine for all of us, and nae the ifs nor buts ... and ... and ... and it's nae ... nae, noo, and never, nae this and no that and a' that, says himself, and let the parish take its charity to anither street and Mary Flannery's boys buy their own drink. Nae, me Daideo didna care a runnel of snot for their help ... nor realize Lefty's Irish Bakery is noo more, and gone forever.
"Hurrah!" cheers I, seeing the intentions and prayers I offered up against Ratsy come to roost, and stroking the twig more than afore. And I'm no heeding Grampa's ravings.
Here and there, noow and then, when Kate and me need the odd dime or the dollar, mebbe to pay the butcher or the grocer at the market over to Exchange Street, or Saint Bridget's school for Rita, Kateen's at the secret panel in the wainscot. And doles oot the few pennies to Ratsy doonstairs, if he comes 'round wi' his tail between his legs. Kateen's saying that ye can turn a cur oot o' doors, but ye still canna starve him, ye know. Next, Divil take it! Grampa's got the head staggers worser nor afore. Come a night, I give the twig back to him, saying it will keep the Holy Angels between harm and himself. It's a demented smile he gives, as if he understands.
And then Ratsy invents a tale. Heaven rain birdshite! Ratsy says Grampa is second cousin to his own da, the Marquis---- an enormous whopper never a body in this world heared the sleazy sleeveen claim afore. Ay, the scum knows it's naewhere a living soul can say it didna be, and he's got some of his Beacher liars to say it is so. His deceit claims me Daideo is all the clan Ratsy has on this side of the ocean. Except the Cat by marriage and the kids. So the scoundrel swears. Well, says he, Grampa must be giving him something, then. 'Tis the custom of us Irish, he says. Ye canna find a Mick in the Ould First Ward has the time of day for such tales. He canna wheedle enough from his Cat, him withoot wages and noo prospects, and booted oot Flannery's, and noo ither pub in the Ould First Ward offering a friendly barkeeper's cuff to write on, nor a pal to stand him a lemon fizz. It's all driving himself to creep up the back stairs for the company of Grampa. Ay, a crafty plan to get the demented old man to show him where the stash is hidden, by lying aboot their 'clanship.'
But actually help Grampa? Noo, nae, never the hour come Ratsy gives one tinker's dam since Grampa went mental. Nae, to our Rat, blood's running thinner nor lamp oil until he needs a distant cousin, ye'll understand. And so the slow dying of Grampa' s brain become an ugly thing, wi' Ratsy conniving in the way such creatures do, fixed on Granpa's pile, making daftness the Divil's bride, seeing himself a man of means and after swanking like the gentry. 'Tis the scoundrel's chance to nip those greenbacks hidden, he didna know where, mebbe upstairs behind which wainscot. He's plotting and planning howanever a weak ould man touched by madness canna fight him, nor a wee scuttling hunchback gargoyle. It's every day, Ratsy's slinking up the stairs, girding his betrayal, planning his his larceny, so. And it's every day I'm kicking him oot. Bedad! A gargoyle canna truly kick. Yet. Noow it's all the days and nights, here's Grandfather Clock tocking and ticking, and tolling on the quarters, and counting on the hours what's slipping slowly by like the footfalls of fate. And Ratsy walking impatiently aboot the house, whistling.
"Whistling!"








Illustration the thirty-second

475

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO: revenge


Noow, God bless ye, friend, canna ye see in the back of yer eye that there Easter Sunday at Saint Bridget forty years since? Let ye be listening to the joyful bells and see the crowded men, women, and children in their Easter finery, pouring oot the great bronze-bound doors, and then trickling by the Bishop, stands in a steady rain. Kateen's limped off to Maureen O'Bear's for some last minute stitching on her Easter bonnet; 'tis a pretty picture for the big parade, so it is, wi' roses and shamrocks and genuine Louth needlepoint lace and green grosgrain ribbon. And it's surely riding in the rain many of the ladies will be, wi' all them from the snuggery under a rainbow of parasols, squeezed on to Mary Flannery's wagon, behind a team of hire Percherons and, ay, over a lovely stash of Jameson. And Rita? She'll be away off watching the parade wi' her giggly friends, and mebbe it's later she'll be teasing the boys at the Sodality Sunday School party. And Ratsy? He's smarter nor to show his twitchy nose at Saint Bridget or the parade or this here house. God forbid whatanever's the mischief he's at.
And meself, Auld Maggie-Bawn, the scuttling Scot? Ye'll understand, friend, I'm passing the day looking after Dunc and Cabbie, wi' the scones and tay, games and naps---- och, naps! And the nappies. And the house cleaning and the cooking. It's more nor stiraboot tonight, and I'm shaving spuds, scraping carrots, peeling onions, leafing cabbage, putting the stew-pot on the boil, and sending Duncan 'round the corner to Flannery's tavern wi' two bits and a note aboot his neck for two jars of beer oot the back door, today ben Sunday. It's the one jar of beer soaks the beef, and a jar and a nickel for meself, for 'tis beer aises the scuttling, ye mind, friend. And that nickel, 'tis for Mister Larkin's lady-skin soap.
By the bye, it's the parade long over and Duncan back long since, comes the thick of the gloaming. Noow the drizzle goes to driving rain wi' thunder rattles the windowpanes, and here's Rita runs in, dripping under a borrowed scrap of oil-cloth, saying Kateen's a drop taken wi' the ladies, she'll be late.
Yerra, I'm after scolding Rita: it's the wet shirtwaist so tight on yer nipples, did ye let the boys see that, and is this here stain smells of beer, and, ugh! cigarette stink I sniff on yer breath, and did ye make such a shame of yerself in public, and on Easter Sunday, God forbid. And she's yelling the like of ten wounded Bean Sidhe, she hates me, she hates I force her to dress like a wee child, she hates this ould house, I'm not her ma, ay, ay, ay, this and that again; and come a grand roll of thunder and a tremendous flash, starts wee Cabbie yowling a great gob of grief, it's her smelly brown wetness wants to be dry again, ay, ay, ay; and here's Dunc after clacking the wretched spoons upon the pie pans again, ay, ay, ay, clackety bang, clackety bing, clickety bang, bong, again, and more thunder rumbling and the rain pounding in sheets against the sash and drumming on the panes, and it's getting darker faster, and the cabbage bubbling in the pot, and me brain's aboot to go swimming again, and I'm wishing Kateen's here already, and I'm lighting the gaslight overhead wi' me lamping pole when ...
when----
when of a sudden, it come a squeaky squealy voice from upstairs! Ratsy! Mebbe I musta ben napping when he snuck up the stairs. And then it's Grampa yelping like a hurt puppy, and then a ... a splintery sound! Come a great clap of thunder and a dazzle of lightning and, amidst all, the ceiling starts to thumping and Grampa's snorting turrible grunts!
God and Mary! 'Tis under me breath I grates, "Rita! Take care of the kids! And watch the stove," and quick, I crabs me way across the kitchen. "I gotta see Grampa."
"God save us, what is it?"
And I ups the darkened back stairs, mousey-quiet, scuttling me corkscrew spine fast as fingers and feet allows, cane in hand, bumbling and fumbling, whispering to meself, and here's the kitty-cat lepp up nimble afore me---- c'mon, it's up, Maggie, up! Up the steps! C'mon! StepStep! I'm coming, Daideo! O! Godinheaven! Six! Ugh! Seven!Faster!Ugh!Step! Faster! O! Mother of God, helpme!
"What's that sonuvabitch doing to Grampa?"
... Eight! Hold on, Daideo! O, Dear Lord! Nine. HelpmeGod! Ten. MotherofGod! Eleven and ... last–ugh–step! Noow! All breathless, I aises the door open a wee crack, and---
"ARE THESE MY EYES?"
It's Daideo awry on his back, all writhing 'round and foaming at the mouth in the rainy half-light, jerking his arm and legs, amidst shards of broken china. I'm knowing from Duncan a seizure when I see one; there's aught a body can do aboot Daideo's fit but watch for choking. And whilst I catch me breath, another thunderclap, closer nor the last, an earsplitting drawn-oot rumble, and come a long brilliant flash. I raise my eyes from Grampa.
"JESUS-MARY-'N-JOSEPH! Holy Saints preserve us!"
For it's in that slash of lightning I see Ratsy, the evil sleeveen, he's in a corner, arse-ways to me, all bent over, pawing a splintered wainscot, pry-bar in hand. Noow me eyes adjuist to the light and, aha! there's a stash of Grampa's greenbacks strewed aboot Ratsy's feet ... a lit taper in the corner, and the coal stove flickering and ... and the filthy scum what never brought noo tay afore, I see the sideboard's pushed askew the way a steaming taypot sets upon it. God forbid! For what? For the final softening of an addled brain, God help us, and----
"What's that I'm hearing? What'll ye gi' me! Whistling! The hateful villain is whistling!"
"Divil the whistle, ye wretch," I'm hissing under me breath.
"First the tay, and then the Rat biting on a softened brain. Divil double damn ye, Ratsy!"
I flings the door open, BANG!
The whistling lets off sudden-like. Ratsy straightens and turns 'round, his snivelly mouth agape, and I'm scuttling over the threshold, screaming at the slithery snake, the flame in me brain snorting oot me nostrils: "Quit off, ye damned monster! Noow!"
"Oot, ye stupid cow!" he bellows, his ratty eyes bulge wi' evil. "Away with ye!" and he's starting at me, wielding the pry-bar. "Oot! Get oot!"
Come a quickening of the rage in me Houlihan soul, then, and I'm cursing the wickedness afore me and the pain of the ould secrets aches me heart. Here's another thunderbolt crackling like the voice of God, and it churning the bile up from me belly, and burning into me gullet, and sets me brain ablaze again, until I'm near standing upright as ever I ben, hopping wi' me cane 'round Grampa, trying to strike Ratsy.
It's just then, I swear, out the drumming rain, come the voice of Meggeen Mahony: " ' ... You will right a great wrong, Maggie-Bawn ... You will live to right my wrong and yours.' " I feel a surge of power rising in me breast! God and Mary, help me!
"What's this, ye filthy crook! Gi' me that money! On Easter Sunday, ye swine!"
"Oot! Oot wi' ye, witch!"
"Give it over, ye scum!"
"Noo! Nae! Never! Get away, ye ... ye humpback freak!" snarls Ratsy, raising the pry-bar, baring his buckteeth as cornered rats do, his eyes darting and his moustache twitching like mad.
" 'You will right a great wrong, Maggie-Bawn.' " My brain is whirling like the wind. "It's Meggeen's voice could be near enough, if I would turn my head, I should touch her ... coulda, woulda, shoulda, and if! 'Tis my sign! To right the wrong!" The pitchfork of the Divil, he ben!
"Give it over!" I yells again, stumbling aboot, trying desperately to stay upright, whilst it's doon the stairwell, I hear Duncan at clacking the spoons. And then I'm doon on all fours again.
" 'You will live to right my wrong and yours.' " It's Meggeen's mouth to my ear.
"Ye damned hag! It's mine! Mine! I'm gonna beat the worth oot ye!" But he didna have the courage, for his feet ben moving slower nor his mouth.
"Lord God, help me!" I pray loudly, scuttling arse-ways, glancing along the sideboard for a weapon. Godamercy! It's the taypot I'll throw, and burn his ratty face. "Ye slimy swine! Quit off!"
I hear Rita yelling something at Dunc, whilst I'm scuttling at the taypot.
"Sacred Heart of Mary, send me legs!" A good scald will thwart his foulness.
Divil take it! Ratsy reads me brain, and slips 'round the sideboard first.
"Ye miserable ould twister, ye cannot hide what's mine."
"It aint yers, none of it, ye filth!" Noow stumbling away from him and I'm near standing again,. "Ye scum!"
" 'Tis me blood right!" he lies, dropping the pry-bar, stepping up to the sideboard drawer, jerking it open, rummaging quick aboot, mumbling, "Where in Hell is it?" And suddenly he's snatched up a great lengthy scabbard, and draws oot a flash of steel.
"God and Mary save me! It's the grand blade cut Kateen's wedding cake, the ceremonial bakery knife Grampa gave me. How did he know?"
"I'll shred that hump like a cabbage, ye damned sow!" He's sneering his ratty grin, and swiping the knife aboot in great slashes.
"The gold of the bolster, in the half-light it's glinting the fires of the fiery pit, and the black handle, it's black as Ratsy's soul."
"Scum! Ye bloody snake!" I howl, retreating. "God damn ye!"
Meggeen! It's herself I hear. " 'You will right the wong!' "
"Say yer prayers, ye stupid cow!" And he's after coming at me, poking and prodding the air wi' the knife.
"Quit oot. Away off wi' ye!" And I'm doon on all fours again and scuttling away.
"Lord, come quick, afore he slices me the like of that wedding cake!"
Bedad! He's hacking the air aboot me ears! Mother of God! I'm ducking and stumbling away. Heart of Mary! He's jabbing at me over Grampa's body, it's him on the one side and me on the ither. And it's between me dancing-on-all-fours and I thrusts me cane at his ... sweaty rat-face, and him prancingandwaving that knife, Grampa
starts his fits again ... thumping and bumping and grunting and snorting ... and then ...
GODAMERCY! All at once, it's Grampa's one guid arm flailing ... it's the blackthorn twig in his breast pocket and ... he clenches it and ... and he's thrashing aboot, and he ... and he spears that sharp-sharp hard into Ratsy's leg, right-through-the-cloth----
AND STICKS IT IN THE FLESH! Ratsy he's roaringandshaking and hoppingaboot, He's tryingprying at the twig
QuickQuick, Maggie-Bawn! I turns me cane bottoms-up and ... hooks the handle round that woundedleg, and ... and-I-got-Ratsy-by-the-ankle! PULL, Maggie! PraisethBlessedVirgin, PULL! Grampa is---- flailing at him again! PULLPULL! O! AveMariaOur Father who artGodinHeavenPULLthehook! PULLl! ... O!O!! Ahhh, Ratsy's tripped up. He's---- tottering and teetering over Grampa ... Pull! ... Ratsy's ither foot it-shoots-oot-from-under-him and ... look oot! O! O! Maggie-Bawn! The knife! Mother of God! He's lashing wildly wi' it! It's flashing by me ear...... O Lord! It's He's tumbling doon---- and ...
O!
OJESUSOMARYOJOSEPH
The knife clenchedin his fist ...

it plunges straight into Grampa's chest!!


Ratsy lets loose of the knife wi' a horrid blasphemy and scrambles upright, looking wildly aboot, his eyes wide as saucers, and then crumples to his knees wi' a paw over his mouth. He's crouching over Grampa whilst the blood foams up a glistening bubbly blotch over Grampa's shirt and on to the floor. Ratsy's stricken, unable to move. The knife is buried to the bolster, and heaves wi' Grampa's breaths. Death-light glints off the black ivory handle, and the three inset pearls glistening the like of ... the like of teardrops. And the blackthorn sharp-sharp still stuck in Ratsy's leg.


Ay! Ratsy done that.


"O Lord, Nae! Nae!! Mother of God!" I cry oot and cross meself in panic. "Sainted Virgin! What's to do?" I pulls me cane back.
" 'You will do great things .... of sudden strength.' 'Tis Meggeen again."
And Grampa, he stops his thrashing, makes one long gurgly sigh .......... and the knife stops moving. God save his soul! Whilst I stare, but half believing what I see, calm as Vespers it steals upon me what's next, the like as if I alway knew.
"Maggie," Ma's O'Neill voice whispers, "your back is crooked but your brain is straight! 'Tis all for ay and ay for all, yes, for all the long years, ay, of your pain and your broken heart, yes---- it's now, Maggie, now!"
Must be Brendan and Patrick, I swear, friend, takes me to that same great sideboard drawer still agape, and puts me hand to reaching for Grampa's ither gift, the Houlihan Bakery rolling pin O! I snatch it up, grasp the solid maple weight of it O! I'm upright again on me little small hind legs and noow I'm wi' cane in one hand, roller in the ither and moving gimpy quick behind Ratsy, the swiftness of it never the like in me life O! and here's himself on all fours, his back afore me, scrunching his hideous ratty face to shield his frightened ratty eyes, trembling in trapped ratty fear, sobbing in ratty disbelief over Grampa O! him seeing aught of meself nor me doings.
" 'Nobody's here to know what you know,' " Ma urges.
"Game's over, Ratsy!" I hisses O! into me clenched jaws.
" 'You will do great things .... of sudden strength.' "
"Where's yer whistling noow, ye villain?" I grinds me teeth O!
And it's exactly whilst saying that, I'm standing behind him O! wi' me cane propped into me belly O! and himself still kneeling O! noow he's bent over afore me ... and O! me wi' the rolling pin in both hands O! 'tis Ratsy's bald pate O! 'Tis CuChulainn's caman stick and sliothar ball! O! O! O!

"WHISTLE, WILL YE!

NNNNNOOOOOOOW
DAMN YE!"


KUK!!
Ratsy crumples like a sack of rotten spuds, sprawled crosswise on top of Grampa, them belly-to-belly in a river of blood. 'Tis the sight of the mayhem makes me legs give way. I slides into a heap on the floor, too weak for to scuttle, trembling at the sight, knowing even in the murk it's the dark blood of an evil brain mingling wi' the bright blood of a great heart. I lets me breath oot, bows me head, and hears me own voice whisper.
"Thank You, Lord."
And noow, 'midst the noisy pouring rain, it come a slow thick silence doon upon me, stopping me ears, veiling me eyes, filling the room and covering the crossed bodies and the blood wi' darkness.
It's a minute or three afore me eyes open again to the room's half-light, and the rain still drumming furiously against the windows. I scramble to me knees, watch me own palms come together, and turns me head to Heaven.
"Blessed Sweet Mary, Mother of God," I murmur, "I beseech You, guard dear Grampa's soul in his hour of need."
I creep over to the candle burning in the corner. Amidst anither crackling roll of thunder, I take it up and crawl it doon by Grampa's head. Oot the dimness, it comes upon bright upon me, clear as Ma's voice what's to do next. It's Grandfather Clock strikes the hour of five and thirty minutes, and then come a more distant thundery drumroll, and the rain is pelting the window panes and streaming off the eaves. I regard Ratsy lying across Grampa. It's the O'Neill in me soul plotting and ploying, cranking me brain.
"Margaret Paula O'Neill Houlihan," I steady myself, "hark! Now's your chance! Now come the vile Rat's day to pay old debts, now come the hour for the evildoer to be undone. Now, on this Easter Sunday, an end to the curse of the Sea-Divil! Now, this day and here."
And I sets aboot the doing of all what's needed.
"Soon enough," I tell my thumping heart, "my dear Daideo will be on his journey to Heaven. And the Rat on his way to the everlasting fire. Of that I'll make sure. Ay, 'tis Easter Sunday; the stone is rolled away. You have chosen to deliver me, O Lord," and I say three Aves and a Pater and I cross myself, and pray for strength: "Grant me the power to do what's wanted, O Lord."
It's meself crawling to Grampa's side, noticing aught of the room, or Ratsy, or the painful twisting of me hump, and it's meself lovingly takes his one guid left hand of to make the sign of the cross upon his bloody chest. Poor Grampa machree! I turn to Ratsy, yank the blackthorn twig from his leg, wave it in the four directions, East first, the like Grampa taught me.
"Aint it Easter?" My face comes near a smile.
And juist as I finish South, there come a sudden brilliance pains me eyes shut, and noow come into me ears the rustling of wings and a murmur of voices beyond, ay, comforting Grampa's last minutes, so sweet they are. I am as one transfixed.
'Tis Them.
I'm droppimg Grampa's hand. I'm on me knees, still as stone. I canna turn, I canna open me eyes. All the room comes to a great clot of silence, even the rain drumming. I'm no seeing nor hearing nor smelling nor touching, but I'm knowing the Heavenly Hosts have come for Grampa. Saints and Martyrs protect him, he knows too, for when I turn at last, he's blowing a wee frothing of breath or three until the gurgling softly ends. Come anither stillness so thick I can touch it.
I lay me head away from the blood and beside his face, crying, "Grampa! Grampa! Grampa! Grampa machree! Acushla machree!" and cross meself, whilst beyond me sobs there ticks the tocking of Grandfather Clock. The tears roll like a tide over me cheeks, the salt of it catching me lips. And then I'm very, very still, as still and silent as death itself. And I hear the softer steady rain.
Is it the Presence I sense leaving? Amn't I back on me haunches, staring at Grampa, Holy Angels guard his soul? Is he no sprawling like a bloody rag doll whilst death scythes the last threads? Amn't I here in this here room upstairs on Sandusky Street between these four walls? Amn't I houlding me hand oot to see am I awake? Aint that Grampa's hand clutching the blackthorn twig?
The chime of the three-quarter hour strikes, bringing me back into the world, making meself aware as never I ben aware, awake as never I ben more wakeful. Do noow, Maggie-Bawn, pray later, says Grandfather Clock, ticking the time for what Grampa's wanting. I aise the blackthorn twig from his blood-soaked fingers and I'm on me knees crawling a magic circle 'round himself, barely touching the bloody sharp-sharp of the twig in the pooling blood on the floor. It's careful I creep, keeping me skirt and apron away of it. And then I slide the twig, notched end inward, bloody sharp-sharp ootward, along the stub of his right arm and into the grasp of his armpit. Ay, and noow to stretch his left arm oot and fold the fingers tightly round the rolling pin if it ben a shillelagh, and the O'Neill in me remembering the grip he favors: first finger 'longside.
"Sweet Mary," thinks I, crossing meself, I've gone through life never wanting to be on my knees, and now I'm grateful for dint of it."
One last Ave I'm saying then, and when I leave off, there's aught but the thick silence of drumming rain, marred only by the ticking of the great clock. Grampa's turning blue as slate. God's mercy upon his unprovided soul!
"Macushla machree, my protector, my world, my Grampa, my Daideo. O, Sweet Mary, help him in his hour of need." I pause and let the tears stream. And then I gather myself. "Do now. Pray later," it comes to me. "Stay calm. Don't lose the run of yourself. Follow your plan. Think Irish. Think woman. Think strong. Think Grace O'Malley. Think Finola MacDonnell. And do!"
And it's on all fours I am, scattering things aboot for the while, breaking crockery, pushing over the chairs, lurching on me cane to strew what's in the drawers and on the shelves, making a hurrah's nest of it all, and leaning on the sideboard when I'm knackered, breathing hard and snorting like an angry bull, in't. Only Grampa's Captain Chair, mercy! mercy! survives to stand, and for that I make a plan whilst I lower meself gingerly to the floor one last time, gnashing at the pain of me crooked spine. I gather handfuls of greenbacks where Ratsy loosed them from the wainscot, dipping the bills one after one in the evil Rat's own blood where it puddles aboot his noggin, stuffing the bloody bunches into Ratsy's pockets where he lies there like an axed log. And that from a rotten tree, ye'll understand. At the last, wi' one hand for me cane and one hand for the sideboard, I pulls meself up fair as me curlicue spine allows to look aboot me handiwark. Do noow. Pray later. 'Tis satisfactory, ay, a pigsty of destruction and confusion. And there's great spots of blood drenched the corners of me apron where it dragged the floor, so I didna be so careful after all.
"All's well," I smile, "with a story of cutting the beef stew for supper."
I pull up to the sink, wash the blood from me hands, look aboot. There's the taypot I notice again. Never afore did that scoundrel try to hoodwink Grampa wi' tay. I scuttles over all shaken and quavery. The tay is still warm and steeping. Godamercy! I pour meself a cup, then, and raise a toast.
"You be safe in Heaven, Daideo, afore the Divil knows you've gone."
I let the steeping cup seep calm into me, let it stanch the rage of a Houlihan heart thudding like the hoofbeats of the Dullahan. I hear Grandfather Clock make sixteen chimes slow and grand, and the six majestic strikes of six o'clock, methinks like the steps of fate. It's then I notice, Duncan's no clacking his spoons. Cabbie's left off bawling. Rita's silent. And I'm thinking hard, as how I must get the news to the precinct. Mary Flannery's snug and Kate can wait. Do noow. Pray later.
I hear my sainted mother's voice again. "Be quick, Maggie-Bawn!" she tells me. "The whole parish must know of Ratsy's horrible deed now. God grant us peace. Now! Now!!"
" 'Twister,' did ye call me, Ratsy? The twist's to be on yer neck, Mister Twister. Noow, twist yer story, Sir Horse-Pong, and soon enough ye'll be after twisting at the end of a rope," shouts I, putting my mouth to Ratsy's deaf ear. "Pogue mahone: kiss my ass, you Goddamned sonuvabitch!"
I'm after a long slow breath or three and washing the blood from me hands again. The apron stained wi' the blood, I crush it into the scuttle, and I'm covering it wi' the coals. Forget the pork chops, I'll burn it tomorrow. The taypot and me cup, I smash to the floor in the general hotchpotch, and turn to survey the scene. 'Tis so lovely a cooramuch I canna hardly see for the tears. I aises meself from the room. And then, sobbing and heaving, it's pell-mell I thrusts meself doon the stairs. At the bottom, I make a lengthy pause to catch me panting. and blot the tears into me sleeve. The kitty-cat scoots by, scratching at the jamb. And at last, slooooow as molasses, I crack open the kitchen door and peek in.
Dunc's sitting at the table, scribbling on brown paper. Rita's leaning against the counter if she's expecting me, rocking Cabbie in her arms and crooning a lullaby. 'Tis God's wonder, all the brouhaha up the stairs, and Cabbie's asleep. The gas stove I left on, 'tis off. I didna say a word but looks stern at Rita, me long finger 'cross me lips, and scuttles past to the parlor, and there folds meself on to the floor next the Chesterfield and shuts me eyes, feeling me breath slow and me gorge riz.
Do noow, pray later! It's up from all fours I am, and hobbling gimpy wee quick steps oot the parlor and into the hall and swings the door and across the porch, and bats me cane:
Bap! BAP! BAPAPAP! wi' all me Houlihan ootrage, upon the banister rail, ay, that rail, friend, that there very one afore ye, and I'm after howling into the downpour and the rumbling thunder:
"MURDER! HELP!! MURDER IN MAGGIE-BAWN'S HOUSE! MURDER!! HELP!"
Godamercy, at the top of me lungs, popping off over and over, like a steam locomotive:
"BAP Turrible BAP Turrible BAP Murder BAP Help BAP Turrible BAP BAP BAP Murder! BAP A foul BAP And BAP Wretched BAP Deed!!" And the rain streaming off the porch eaves.
Here come the crowd running and splashing, first by ones, then twos, and then swelling, and then Patrolman O'Halloran turning the corner of Sandusky Street close behind, his arms pumping, his great black brogans clop-splattering through the puddles like a galloping Clydesdale.
I steady myself, thinking, "You cannot fret yourself down, nae, dear soul, it's Margaret Paula O'Neill Houlihan they'll be taking for truth, and it's a grand old name they'll be trusting ... if Ratsy opens his beady eyes."
Divil the wee villain! Open his eyes he did, for his ratty skull didna be broken at all; his scalp, was it, after gaping like a torn sock pulled over a head of cabbage, and bleeding a great pool, as a body says the scalped ones do. And all of this blood come to be the Rat's undoing---- aint I arranged it? Who could tell what blood was which, soaking into the wooden floor? Or into the greenbacks? Against me words, his would be a tune on a pennywhistle he'd no be for hearing when his ears is stuffed wi' dirt.
"Ones will see with their own eyes his guilt written in blood money, and there's the justice to be done," thinks I. "Ay, he's in for it at last, to pay for what's gone by. So here's to a tall gallows, a taut noose, and a windy day. Here's to you, Ratsy, ay, you foul vermin. It's myself toasts you today and Divil roast you tomorrow, and boil you in your own skin through eternity."
Yerra! Ratsy, the wee monster, is clapped in jail, so he is, and sent to trial, Godspeed. The guid jury hears, the guid Judge O'Malley rules, and Ratsy's villainy is bundled in a verdict a fortnight after Grampa's wake. And this here's howanever that come to be revenged, wi' meself the star witness and the benches of us Houlihans filling up one side of the county courtroom and them Rathlin partisans---- Beacher scum to the last man---- on the ither. But first ye'll be needing to hear tell aboot Grampa's wake, God provide for his soul! And a grand hooley it was, what the ould man deserved, sure and sartain, it remembered well in these parts even today.
It's soon after he's stretched in our parlor, God bless him, and the house fills wi' the clatter and the cooramuch of young and ould, and Heaven save the hindmost. Here come first a herd of the turncoat Beacher renegades in their best tatters, for Grampa, bless his soul! never forgot The Great Hunger nor the keeping of yesterday's bread for starvy Irish, nae matter their station nor reputation, friend nor enemy. And here come swanks and sachems and highheejuns and Protestant officials of Buffalo, ay, it's the gentry greeting and sipping, wi' the kneeling and the looking, and the snotty Prottie wives all strapped into their bustiers, wi' puffy Gibson sleeves and indecent necklines near at the nipples, and the phony tears, and the diamond chokers and pearl earrings, and rumps swelled oot astern like so many bumble-bees. Even Fingy Connors sent his scabs, for Grampa, bless his soul! was an Irishman of property and standing, and a body to be reckoned wi', and ones still whispering today of his influence wi' Fingy. It's here today, each and every body, man, woman, and child is wearing a bit of the green, so it is. And the end come wi' merry times, to help a decent Irish soul be happy climbing the rungs of the golden stairs. Meself thinks, 'tis the like of Kate's wedding all again, it is, wi' the singing and dancing and a Ceili band, and the clacking spoons and the bodhrans drumming and the marching aboot, and the clinking jars, and the laughter. Musha, what was the red rose for Kate's luck is green shamrock for Grampa and, all in all, a grand passing.
Ye'll undertand, friend, it's meself presiding over the spread of it, propped in Grampa's Captain Chair, as was me plan for sartain. Yerra, that chair, the very one, and on a dais too, meself grinnning triumphantly doon at the crowd, and mebbe a smirk or three considering it's me own self alone knows the truth of Grampa's death. I'm ruling from that chair like a royal enthroned, I am, bestowing me pleasure upon one and all, blowing kisses, nodding and smiling like a bishop at a baptism. And Grampa sleeping behind the screen, he's smiling at the victory, mind ye, surely happy for me. As I am for him. Ay, a wake should be happy, the way Ma taught me, God love her.
It's near sun-up two days later and the stragglers wobbling home, Grampa stays in that there parlor wi' us anither day, dowsed wi' Jameson morning, noon, and night---- guid Saint Peter welcomes that!---- and the great Grandfather Clock tick-tocking the hours. Come the fourth day, it's the procession to the grave and, as according to tradition, it taking the lengthiest route all aboot the city. At the grave-side at Holy Cross burying-ground, there's the low voices, and the praying, and the gathering aboot the empty hole, and the Bishop himself conducting, and the sprinkling, and the lowering the casket, the holy water, and then the dirt shoveled in, the blessing and the tears, and more praying and later, the Mass ... Faith! A lovely time it was, and lovely sight it is today, wi' a simple and handsome a stone as befits the man and his soul

Padraig Paul Houlihan
1814-1901
He Baked For The People

A fortnight since the burial ceremony, it's the day of Ratsy's trial, Divil roast the villain in the everlasting fire. Tried for what partikilerly, ye say? What else could be but premeditated murder? 'Tis only the kitty-cat and meself knows the secret truth of what happened up the stairs in this house forty years ago---- and the cat's ben dead for thirty. And mebbe ye'll be thinking, friend, ah, guid, guid, here's the trial and that's it, Ratsy's done for. And wi' Grampa's wake and burial and all, God bless him, is it then the end of me story? Musha, it's noo, nae, and never. God hold ye in the palm of His hand, friend, 'tis the end of the vengeance, 'tis no the end of me secrets, no the end of me tears dropping through the steam and plinking into me tay on that day in Grampa's room of death, God be wi' him! His dying before me eyes was a bitter gall to sup, but no so bitter as the two more secrets ye've yet to hear tell.
But hark! Here's you and me sipping and munching away this Easter Sunday evening, and it's us on our third pot of tay, and ye've yet to say what ye're wanting to say, ay! And what I'm needing to hear tell: howanever ye've come to be here in Auld Maggie-Bawn's place, the scuttling Scot of the Ould First Ward. 'Tis a secret of yer own ye're having? Faith, friend, it's under the table I looked when I brought in the tay and the boiled egg last, and I seen yer pretty Easter sandals. Ay, it's lovely they are. And I seen yer toes, all painted so nice. Very pretty. God save us all, and there's six of them. Six toes, so it is.
Ahh! digest what ye're saying. Ye're of the O'Neill clan. Yer the last twig of this branch. Ye already knew aboot Hugh Robert O'Neill's wife being Laurie Jane McInnish, taken by the Calced Sisters of Saint Maundie at Ayr, and become Sister Therese Bernadette? That 'tis me Ma's ma, yer knowing aboot---- it's me own Ma is the love-babby of the wee O'Neill lassie lay doon wi' the tinker, that there same lassie ben the child of Laurie Jane. And ye sat there all this time just listening? And noow yer saying there's nae more O'Neills left alive of this branch in the ould country? Same as Meggeen told to me in the longgo? Ay, our clan, aint it? But do ye know the rest of me story? Methinks not. Hmmm ... Still in all, let me finish it.





Illustration the thirty-third

493

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE: witness


"Come the day of Ratsy's trial, and here's Hanlon sends his hire carriage after us. Himself is doing private penance over Kateen's busted leg till Hell freezes, says he. It's in our best black finery us two sisters ride veiled and all. Along the journey, there's knots of people waves and hollers, and the urchins after scampering and ringing aboot amidst the horse-pies. By the corner of Main and Church, a marching band, old grey-beards from the Fighting 69th of the Grand Army of the Republic, ay, the Irish Regiment, breaks into the "Washington Post March," and then, "Napper Tandy," as we ride by. At the grand grim grey granite Erie County Court House, 'tis a huge crowd swarms over the steps and spills doon onto the street, I think mebbe half of Erie County, the most ructious half, God help us, all but the dogs. There's many is raucous wi' jawboning and yelling and cries of, "String 'im up, Maggie!" and, "Good luck, Maggie-Bawn!" and, "God bless ye, Maggie!" and people fluttering Old Glory and the Green, and carrying signs says, "Trap the Rat," and billboards of topsy-turvy dead rats, and there's the Klansmen in white cone masks parading wi' nooses in hand, and a flock of newsboys hawking 'extras' all aboot.
"God save all, it's a lynch mob today, surely hang Ratsy if they could," I'm thinking. "That's a sight a sore eye might wish. Ay, be still, my soul."
Our cab come slow to a stop, squeezed amidst a clatter of carriages, and here's a milling mob of reporters, cameramen, officials, and police descends upon us. Doon from the cab Kateen steps whilst a liveried coachmen takes her hand elegant-like. Behind her, two footmen carries me sitting on four clasped hands to a wheelchair donated by the Scoopers Union what hates Ratsy wi' purple passion. It's a brass plaque on the chair-back wi' their emblem, declares, "To the unfortunate vicims of crime." A couple of burly coppers lifts me into the chair and ups it over the broad grey stone steps, past cordoned ranks of cheering well-wishers, and under the grand entrance arch. The scoopers mebbe should donate a chair-cushion next time.
It's slowly we ben moving between roped-off lanes is packed wi' shouting men and women in Sunday best: starched cravats and patent leather, Gibson blouses and flowery lids. Noow it's Kateen wheeling meself, the like of the Queen of Sheba on a royal palanquin, rolling carefully through the hullabaloo, past the vestibule at the entrance into an enormous grand foyer, all pomp and circumstance and glossy marble floors. All aboot the vastness is police houlding back good-natured throngs of the noisies jammed elbow to elbow, them buzzing and murmuring one the ither, and blowing their kisses and good wishes to us.
On the paneled walls, there's polished bronze medallions, parquetry inlays, and painted portraits of this and that eminence: mayors and judges and senators and governors and a class of uptown mansion nabobs, peering doon grim as it's three minutes to Judgment Day, but there ben nae cardinals nor a single bishop. For the people what's walking upstairs, there's grand flights of marble steps, ay, and fancy curved marble bannisters wider as yer head, set on squatty marble balusters, and every sparkly speck of the stone polished mirror-bright.
"Sure and certain, it's the like of charwomen from Mary Flannery's snuggery makes their paydays polishing these acres of marble. Yerra, on their knees but they aint praying." I'm awed by the splendor. "It's only needing John Phillip Sousa to come marching in with a Ringling Brothers' Circus to finish the picture, so grand it is."
"Suits Hannibal and his elephants," whispers a detective in me ear, catching me drift, and pointing at the grand staircase.
We ups the elevator cage protected by five of the County's finest, all tall around the chest, and so spiffy I can see me face reflected in their badges. Ay, good Irish boys the lot, their nameplates say. And then Kateen's rolling me past the fancy iron gratings kept the lynch mobs away of President McKinley's assassination trial three months since, ay, for it's that there very courtroom waits on us. In the hall, more coppers keeps the friendly crowd at arms length, a cooramuch of pushing aboot and pressing in and reaching oot and wanting for to greet and touch and hug Kate and me, much as they can.
Noow it's Kateen wheels me slow and stately into that grand courtroom. 'Tis all polished wood panels, a tremendous squared space, and a ceiling so high it might coop a troop of giraffes. Great flat fluted fake columns runs up against the walls, floor to ceiling, mebbe the like of the fateful pillars of Samson's temple. On the right behind a broad low wall, that there's the jury box, two rows of six armchairs faces across the room. The court business stands raised up front and central between draped flags; in the middle, the Judge's throne all polished mahogany and black leather and, beside and below that at me right, 'tis the witness box and the bailiff's roost. At the left, riz up on a dais, it's the court reporter scribbles, and the Judge's clerk. In front of all this is a wide space separated from us by a low wooden balustrade. It's the almighty Judge and his minions on that side, and a row of attorney's tables wi' space between on this side. Meself looks 'round for the effigy of the blindfolded lady falling oot her gown, balancing the pans of justice. She aint here today.
A burly red-nose copper whispering blarney tells us it's the true Irish beauties we ben, and settles us in. Kateen passes me the laudanum and the willow-bark pills from Doctor McMurphy for the pains of crunching me curlicue spine in a lengthy sit. It's an uncomfortable doze slips into me brain amidst the drone and murmur of lawyers and clerks and such passing court papers thither and yon and thither again, shuffling and scuffling the hours away. Kateen wakes me when the jury files in, what was picked yesterweek in arguments lasted till the weekend. There's a pile of speculations running riot aboot choices and challenges and packing the jury, that and a' that for the whole week, reported in the News and the Courier–Express---- "extra" editions near every day, wi' the newsboys hawking banner headlines under yer windowsill whensomever yer wanting sleep. It's Grampa's murder, God bless him, is a perverse public fascination, the juiciest yellow journalism in Buffalo since Grover Cleveland's bastard child by Maria Halpin, never mind President McKinley getting shot. If it's mostly in secret to pick a jury, so it is, even Fingy's boys are for stringing Ratsy up yesterday, there's naething to it worries me aboot crooked jury-men. Anyone wi' any sense in his head knows "crooked" is the word for the Erie County "justice" system in 1901, not to mention Emperor Fingy's empire. I might as well worry aboot sun-up.
I see one of them boys in the jury box is Paddy Cow-Juice, our milkman, hoists me overhead to Mary Flannery's on payday. Today, sure, he's Mister Padraigh Thomas Malone in starched cravat and cuffs, and the shine buffed oot his only suit; he turns his head cautious to me and winks. Anither is Mickey the Melter, our iceman from Smith Street, ay, Mister Michael Benedict Peter John Quinn today, and there's many is whispering aboot whatanever he's after delivering to friendly wifies whilst their men-fowk ben at wark. Godamercy, he delivers to our house, but Kateen dinna be panting for his special extras. He looks past me, and his lips in a frozen grin. The foreman is wee Andy McKenna, drives a goods wagon for O'Doul Cotton & Cloth and sings oot whensomever he passes by me window. And it's himself smiling sweetly at me today is the last I remember, afore the laudanum lilts a lullaby what lowers me lids. By the bye, Kateen nudges me awake: time for court business, so it is. First, it's all standing---- ay, 'tis all, ye mind, save me in me chair.
And noow it's Bailiff Timmy O'Doul bawls, "All rise, plaise! His Honnuh, Judge Williyum Gawge O'Malley!"
In strides The Judge, a steely-eyed icon lacks only the scepter and the halo, jaws grim the like of Dies Irae come to court, himself radiating the power of his black robe. What poet do I remember?

"O, what fear man's bosom rendeth,
When from Heaven the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth."

Noow, it's all be seated, and the Judge looking stern over the crowd and puts on his pince-nez, same as President Theodore Roosevelt, on the front page of the Courier-Express at his inauguration three months since. Come a long jumbly court business of walking back and forth from the throne to the tables, handling papers up and doon, and a tittle of a lecture here and there from the Judge leans doon from his mahogany tower, and then a bustle of business and more shuffling of papers, fancy doings wi' the court reporter, colloguing between the Judge and attorneys, that and a' that and more. At the last comes Ratsy's plea, himself wi' head bandaged the like of a topsy-turvy bird's nest, and a grand wrapping aboot his calf where Ratsy dinna have noo memory of Grampa stabbed him wi' the sharp-sharp of the blackthorn kippeen. Meself passing in and oot of me laudanum doze, that and a' that for hours, I try to keep an ear bent for the opening statements, but to noo account. It's the laudanum puts me to sleep ... and the gavel bangs me awake: "Court recessed!" Then there's all standing. Except me.
'Tis to be a quick recess, cigar and brandy for the gentlemen and hatpins and rouge for the ladies. Musha---- today, even a charwoman or a hunchback is a lady. It's Rita wheels me to the Powder Room, where me wheelchair poses a threat to me life. The place is crowded wi' movement and flowery scents, and gaggles of chattering women, all primping and grooming, hustle and bustles, and adjusting bustiers on the exhale. Yerra, there's me seeking a stall, so it is, for a wee piss. Such a regal porcelain convenience I never seen the like afore, and how to flush it, me wi' strings and buttons and the curse of a curlicue spine, makes all me finery a royal pain in the arse---- och, it's for sartain, 'tis me arse. I'm thinking, better I ben home in me shift at our new water-closet under the stairs, even I have to creep up and doon one flight each time. Still better, if I coulda been born a man, I woulda had the pleasure of a quick cigar at both me ends. I shoulda enjoyed that.
Noow it's all gang oot for lunch through a blue haze of cigar smoke, doon the elevator, off me chair, and doon the back stairs into the bright of day, wobbling between Rita and Kateen. Us three oots onto the court-house lawn, wi' fixings Rita brought in a wicker basket: boiled brisket, barmbrack, cold colcannon, scones, jam, and Irish tay in a bottle is noow lukewarm. After lunch, Kateen's worrying aboot Duncan and Cabbie at home, wi' Mary Flannery looking after, and mebbe herself having a nip or three. We ben craicking on aboot it at a grand rate when the great clock at the City Hall tower strikes the sixteen tones of the Big Ben tune, plus once more.
It's up the stairs I'm creaking on me cane between Rita and Kateen, and back to the wheelchair; I'll be needing more willow-bark and laudanum, no doot aboot it and, in the foyer, Doctor McMurphy gives me a wee envelope wi' two 'lauds' and two 'barks.' Then we ups the elevator and past the grating and the crowds and it's soon into more of the dull court-room doings and lengthy shufflings aboot, and endless long presentations whilst I doze in wild laudanum dreams ... until finally, ahhh ... at last:
"Call the first witness."
My groggy brain asks, "Is it my own self called to the witness box?"
"Call Margaret Paula Houlihan."
"That's me?"
Kateen prods me awake. I whisks me brain-pan clean, looks aboot, takes a grand breath, oots me wheelchair wi' contrived contortions ... and I'm thanking the 'laud' for adding a wee bit to the wobbles. God save all, 'tis to Grampa's benefit I'm acting less agile today, slow as cold treacle aboot it, squeezing the tears and wringing the hearts of the jury's wi' sly lurches, careful missteps, and artful grimaces---- whilst at home, it's juist a smile and the one cane I need. Saints and Martyrs, ye're axing, which cane is that? God hold ye in the palm of His hand, friend, 'tis this here very one, forty years on, yerra, the same one as hooked Ratsy's leg and tripped him, och, the very one thrust against me belly for to prop meself whilst I whacked him upside the noggin. This here one. And it the like of the cane in me bridge dream!
"You may sit, Margaret," says Judge Williyum Gawge O'Malley in a low voice, leaning over from his celestial throne, and himself a kindly eye, mebbe, or is it a twinkle. "Bailiff, fetch Miss Houlihan a cushion. Make that two ... You tell me if you're not comfortable, Miss."
The Bailiff is Matthew Timothy John Michael Sean O'Rourke. 'Tis Mary Flannery's second cousin, from Brooklyn.
"Your veil, Madam ... " starts His Honner.
"It's Timmy is---- nae, was, Grampa's favorite fishing crony. God bless me, I'm amongst friends." So I'm smiling nicely, arranging my cushions with particular fuss, until a grand squirm settles me down frowning from pain, eyeing the jury box. "Just wee helpless me," I telegraph to the twelve men.
I arrange me veil coy-like, and give the Judge a shy smile.
"I must remember, the Judge is an Orangey, and I'm not to say 'yer.' And I must do my best North brogue. If not Belfast, then County Down where Ma was exiled, Sacred Virgin bless her."
"Putcha left hand ovuh yuh haht and yuh right hand on Duh Bible," says Bailiff Timmy O'Rourke from Brooklyn.
I makes a grand struggle of leaning forward and moving me chair. Under me left arm, me heart pounds the like of the six-ton steam smithy at the Union Iron Warks.
"Sure and certain, I'll be fetching the wretched Rat his due this day. God fill me with the Holy Spirit to carry on."
"Do yuh swaeh to tell duh trute, duh whole trute, and nuttin' but duh trute, so help yuh God?"
"Ay, God will help me and it's Maggie-Bawn's truth we'll be having in this court, so it is, Timmy from Brooklyn."
"I do, so help me God." I'm after raising me right hand awkward-like as I can from the Guid Book. I look aboot the court-room. "It's the arthuritis in my crooked spine, Your Honner ... "
"You may be seated." I never stood up. "Mister Boyle," says the Judge to the Prosecutor, "you may begin if you're ready."
"The snakey Rat, Divil mend him ... " I murmurs in a fine North accent.
Judge O'Malley eyes me, smiles, puts his finger over his lips, and nods at Mister Prosecutor James Patrick Boyle, himself dressed like a dandy, so sharp he could cut glass, and mincing towards the witness box wi' his hands grasping his lapels. Mister Boyle says for me to tell the court who is meself when anybody wi' any sense at all knows who is Maggie-Bawn, ay, the auld scuttling Scot, shut-in ... born when ... and where ... on and on until: "And now, Miss Houlihan, about your mother ..."
"Ay, Margaret Bridget Houlihan her name was, God bless her. And me ... my Ma come frae ... from The North, Your Honner. She's from the O'Neill clan of Tyrone. Hugh O'Neill, ay, the hero of oulden times, Your Honner. 'Tis a name gang ... O! ... ah, goes back to the Earl of Tyrone-----"
"Object!" grates Benjamin O'Toole Thomas, Attorney for the Defense.
" 'Tis only a wee embellishment polishing my story. Mebbe true, God knows," I smile to myself.
"Overruled. She's only answering a simple question, Mister Thomas. In the custom of The North. Please continue, Miss Houlihan. And address Mister Boyle, not myself."
"Ay, we be O'Neills from The North, from them as moved to Doon ... uh, Downpatrick townland, Your Honner ... uhh, Mister Boyle. I'm so turrible proud of her."
"Ahhh, Good to you, Maggie-Bawn for you remembered: Covenanter's 'townland,' not Roman 'parish.' "
Mister Boyle drones on: "You have the right to be proud, Miss Houlihan; now tell where she died ... And when? Tell me ... who was your Da? Born where? Died where? When? And your sister, she lives where ... and then and then and then ... and yourself, and now ... and now ... and which parish would that be, and what address ... and who lives there?" And on and on. And, am I crippled, what any eejit wi' one closed eye in his head can plainly see, and how long and when did it come upon me, and by what reason, and how do I get around: " ... now, Miss Houlihan, please tell the court about up and down the stairs ... "
Thanks to God, I dinna need to demonstrate aboot the stairs. Howanever and altogether, it's a great lengthy canter Mister Boyle is leading me 'round the barn, and mneself fretting and sweating and prancing at the bit until at last he opens the barn door. Dia duit!
"And tell me," says he, "what do you know of the facts---- "
"Object!" shouts Mister Thomas.
"Sustained. The jury will disregard the word, 'facts.' "
"What do you know, ummm, what do you recall for certain---- remember your oath, my dear---- about this, ummm, ahhh ... " And himself leave offs and stares at the jury a good length, and then in one breath: " ... this alleged happening of Easter Sunday past, on the second floor of your home on Sandusky Street in the First Ward, Miss Houlihan? Tell the jury."
"Heth, Yer Honner," starts meself in fine Orange fettle, glaring straight at Ratsy. " 'Tis no ... ahh, not my home, 'tis the home of my poor dear Grandfather Houlihan, may God preserve his innocent soul ... ." I'm after stopping to blot me eyes, when I straighten up sudden-like: "There's your man, over there!" and riz me arm, and points me finger. "The beast what planned that!" I pause for effect and sobs, looking at the jury. " ... It's him, the miserable toad, murdered dear---- "
"Object, Your Honor!" Ratsy's attorney sings oot. It didna stop me a bit.
" ----ay, murdered my Grampa, Holy Angels protect his soul!" I'm looking up at the judge wi' anither sob or three, dabbing at me eyes again, rubbing to get the tears started. "A deed of blood, the horrid monster ... It's him what ripped up the wainscot, and---- "
"Object!" 'Tis louder.
"Miss Houlihan!" the Judge calls down from the throne.
"It's him stole the money!" I spit the words at the Prosecutor, shaking a finger at Ratsy, and me voice riz. "It's him stabbed my poor Daideo!"
"Miss Houlihan, control your tongue!" the Judge's face glares doon at me, welted red as beet broth, he is.
"It's pure evil, is Ratsy," my gorge boils up into my brain, "from appetite to arse-hole, the slimy bashtoon. God give me strength to see his miserable soul to the flags of Hell!" And the hatred steams out my nostrils
"Object! Your Honor! Your Honor!" Mister Thomas is on his feet, waving his papers aboot.
It's exactly then, I hear Da singing to me the like he did years ago:
" 'The tusked boar in valor, ay, the bull of the seven combats, ay, the vulture waiting on the rock, the spear-point of battle!' " And those ancient Milesian verses ring like the smithy's hammer on the fiery forge of me heart, and the fire in my brain rising here and now higher than ever afore. "By Holy Trinity, I shall set a terrible vengeance upon you, Ratsy. 'Tis the angry gods stokes the furnace in my Celtic soul, in my brain, my heart, my blood, for to inflict the fires of justice on you this day. Scum! Swine!! Villain!!!"
"Ye're gang to Hell, ye scum!" I yells at Ratsy.
"Miss Houlihan!" The Judge raps his gavel sharply:
Dak! Dak! Dak!
And still it didna stop the Da's commotion inside me brain.
"I am the seven-headed beast of Revelation, and I will breathe fire upon you, and tear you limb from shredded limb, Ratsy. 'Tis Meggeen's prophecy! I will burn your entrails to ashes, and thrust them down the maw of your soul! ... Villain!"
"Villain!" I shout.
"Object!"
"Vermin! Vulture!" I'm screaming noow.
And I feel the power of Meggeen's flame leap from me tongue, enveloping my soul. "I will avenge your wrongs and mine," I say to her voice. 'Tis my very soul crying out: "VENGEANCE!"
" ----That's himself, the monster!" Me tone rings oot wi' the clang of swords. "That there's him what did that, the shifty bashtown ... Vermin! Villain!" And I'm screaming louder.
"Object! Object! Your Honor---- "
Dakdakdakdakdak! gang the gavel.
And then I'm up again. "A deed of blood ... MURDERERRR!" I'm at the top of me lungs and looking piteously at the Judge.
Dakdakdakdakdakdakdak!!
"Object! Your Honor! Your Honor!" squawks Mister Thomas.
A gasp sweeps through the crowd, and then a hoarse cry sings oot from the back row of the Houlihan partisans: "Hang the sonuvabitch!"
"Bailiff! Remove that man!" Judge O'Malley's face goes to furious red welts; he's banging his gavel the like of a steam hammer in the steel works.
DAKDAKDAKDAK!!!
And it's holy hullabaloo exploding.
Sainted Mother of God! The Rathlin crowd is all Ratsy's Beacher cronies, ay, them wharf rats and layaboots, lepp on their feet, waving their fists and trying to shout doon the Houlihan bunch, and who's them? It's our clan and all the Ould First Ward stands for Maggie–Bawn, the scuttling Scot: the scoopers and the mill-warkers and and the longshoremen and the gandy dancers and the boatwrights and the iron-warkers, and juist every one as parades me at Mary Flannery's Saloon. And noow it's both sides pushing and shoving against the coppers patrols the middle aisle until, what'll ye gi' me, it's a grand kerfuffle, an enormous brouhaha of loudmouths craicking on, and spit and knuckles and teeth flying, and bodies tousling, and coppers charging aboot, clapping on manacles, swinging clubs, and the worser eejits dragged oot the back doors shrieking and shouting, and ye can hear the yelling and the coppers' whistles ootside where the paddy wagons and all are always waiting, putting the kibosh on the riot.
"Object!" again and again yells Mister Benjamin Thomas, Attorney for the Defense, hollering over the uproar.
It's Judge O'Malley's banging his gavel, yelling "Orderrr, orderrr!" over and overing. Whilst he stands glaring sternly over bedlam, the back doors fling open and a dark blue wave of coppers surges in. "Order! We'll be having order in my court! Hold your wheesht! Or it's away off with you!" He's after reading the riot act to the crowd, adding: "Mister Bailiff, take notice," and muttering, "Divil a bit of decency." He's looking thin-lips at me, and he's stage-whispering hard flat words. "You must use decent language in my Court, Miss Houlihan, and speak only when you're spoken to. Do you not understand? Or it's out you go." He is the Judge. I am the witness. "Dignity, Margaret Paula, dignity and decorum!" The crowd mumbles and calms.
"Awl be seated! Awduh in duh cawtroom," yells the Bailiff from Brooklyn over and over. 'Tis a wee bit late, ye mind.
People mill around in a hot sea of comments until, by the bye, a body's done wi' his pushing, and he's squeezing to his seat and settles fidgety-like, and at the last, the courtroom crowd settles into a fraught and sullen silence.
The Judge surveys the room, jaw thrust, eyes a-glint.
"We'll have order here!" he commands. The silence thickens a minute or three, afore he turns his eyes to Mister Thomas: "Objection sustained. The jury will disregard Miss Houlihan's words, starting ... umm ... starting with ... what was that, Mister O'Mara?"
" 'There's your man,' Your Honor," quotes Mister John James O'Mara, court reporter.
"So." says His Honner to the jury. "You'll disregard from, 'There's your man.' And the proceedings will proceed." He stares doon angrily at me. "I'll have no more outbursts, Miss Houlihan. None. Dignity! And decorum!"
And so the jury's after disregarding, ye'll understand. Ay, noo matter, it's sure and sartain they dinna never in this world forget.
Prosecutor Boyle begins again.
"Murder is an awful crime against God and man, Margaret ... "
"Women too, dear Judge and jury!" my brain says. "Ma used to say all times, 'Always remember, Maggie-Bawn machree, The Mother of God was a woman.' " And I bawl into my handkerchief again.
" ... and you must wait for me, Miss O'Neill," Prosecutor Boyle looks at the Orangey Judge, "excuse me, umm, Miss Houlihan, to ask the questions."
And noow he asks me how I do know Ratsy and the history of it and on and on. And on. 'Tis curious: no a nook or cranny does he leave for me to wax on Ratsy's evil doings wi' Kateen's children nor Duncan, nor Ratsy batting me darling Kate, nor Ratsy stealing her heart from me. Nae, Mister Prosecutor's after the killing, and only the killing, and aught but the killing, and making a right guid fist of it. And he's killing me wi' fidgets from away, until at last he puts the question:
"Miss Margaret Paula Houlihan, tell the jury how did you come to know Mister Francis Xavier Rathlin did ... did, ummm ... that?" He's talking level, looking under his brow at the jury. And it's a noble brow, it is, ye'll be knowing.
It comes to me again, Ma's voice. " 'Maggie, your back is crooked but your brain is straight. Be standing on your own two hind legs as you did for Grampa. Be rising as never afore!' "
When the Prosecutor turns back to me, I'm not seeing him at all. I'm staring at the shameless Rat, mind ye, and the remembering in it clutches at me craw and fires me pulse. Bedad! He's a perished log, and I'm a steel froe ground sharp on the flagstones of a gritty cottage floor longgo. It's hard steel hacking rotten splinters today. Chop away, Maggie-Bawn!
"Did I no---- nae hear tell wi' ... wi' my own twa ... ahh, two ears, Grampa---- Blessed Virgin hold him in Your Immaculate Heart!" I cross meself, "Fighting like the Lion of Judah against Ratsy, he was, ay, fighting the like of CuChulain himself fought Ferdia, the traitor," says I glaring at Ratsy and near forgetting aboot The North and who it was CuChulainn fought, "and the tumult of smashing and breaking? And did I nae in greatest pain of my twisted spine crawl me---- ahh, my ... my ... humpback crawl upstairs, and did not I see wi' my own twa---- two eyes too late, ay! forgive me, Sweet Mary! too late! the very moment of the foul deed!"
"Objection!"
"Denied."
" 'You will right a great wrong' " 'Tis Widow Meggeen Mahony is walking in my brain again!
Chop!
"Continue."
" ... Mother of God! There's the slithery Rat---- Mister Rathlin, on his knees driving his hellish blow into ... into his own clansman! No man can do an Irishman worse, Your Honner."
"Strike that, 'No man, and so,' " sighs His Honner. "Miss Houlihan, stay with what you saw."
"Ay, it's yourself, Ratsy, you stupid sleeveen, lied that Grampa was your second cousin. Faker!"
"And Ratsy wi' two hands on the knife and a curse against God on his slimy tongue." Me voice is choking and I'm turning to Judge O'Malley, licking tears from me lips, repeating, "His own clansman ... his own clansman ... ," thrusting Ratsy's lie at his face.
"Objection!"
"Denied."
Chop!
"Continue."
"Did I no---- nae hear the criminal monster laugh as he's pressing atop Grampa, Holy Saints and Martyrs protect the poor ould innocent man! And didna I see Ratsy doing that ... that turrible deed? Ay, and didna I hear, the blackguard laughed!
"Object!"
"Denied."
Chop!
"Continue. Please, Miss Houlihan, and it's Mister Rathlin you'll be naming the defendant, and no embroidery, please. No, ummm, Louth lace." And he flashes a quick smile at me.
"And did I nae see wi' me own two eyes Grampa, Holy Saints save him! bringing up wi' the knife heaving in his chest, and himself gripping the rolling pin, and striking a mighty wallop aside that blackguard ... aside Ratsy's---- ah, Mister Rathlin's noggin? Och, wi' his very last breath on God's earth." I'm breaking doon in sobs, dabbing artfully at me eyes, and sneak a peek at the audience for me performance ... and what do I see?
I see Rita has a spread of surprise on her face, and suddenly it come upon my heart like the blow of a fist: "Rita, she must have crept up the stairs and ... and the door was open! She must have been intending---- Sacred Heart of Mary! to save me when Ratsy stumbled." Consternation fills my brain. "Godamercy, she's seen everything! Every bit! And saying aught... Thank You, Lord!" And I'm lip-whispering to her whilst the blood drains from my face: "God bless you!"
"Strongly object!"
" Denied."
"Miss Houlihan, how is it you are?" the Judge worries, but he dinna be knowing the reason for my expression. I nod. "You wish to go on with this testimony?" axes he to Mister Boyle, what nods.
Chop!
"You may continue."
"I call your attention to this knife, marked, 'Exhibit A,' " and noow Mister Boyle is aboot it, partikerlerly on meself remembering the same knife at Kateen's wedding. "Miss Houlihan," he ceremoniously picks the black handled knife wi' its inset pearls from off his table, its blade crusted dark wi' Grampa's blood, and first he lays it reverently on the lip of the witness box, and then presents it to me. "Miss Houlihan ... do you recognize this object?"
"That's it! That's it! That's Daideo's bakery-knife ... I seen him, Rat---- Mister Rathlin, I seen him ... I seen him stick it in Daideo!" I bursts into real tears. "I seen it heaving ... " I add a few louder sobs. "The vicious Rat, I seen him doing that!" And I slumps into me chair, shaking so much as I can.
"The jury will disregard, 'vicious Rat.' And we'll have no more of your comments, Miss Houlihan, or you will be removed from this court. Removed and your testimony stricken. Do you understand?"
Contritely, dabbing me eyes: "Yes, Your Honner." I fans meself.
"And is this knife, this 'Exhibit A,' the knife from your sister Caithleann Houlihan's wedding---- "
"Object!"
"Denied, counselor. It's common knowledge."
" ... is this the knife you saw, 'heaving,' as you say, in your dear grandfather's chest?"
"Yes, yes, Mister Boyle, merciful God, yes. That's the knife the foul---- "
"Thank you, Miss Houlihan. Now, tell me, remembering the two bodies, how were they lying?"
"God save al, and what did I see, Yer---- Your Honner. Excuse me. Ummm, Mister Boyle, ay, there was the cross of two bodies itself, God save all, a cross. And was it nae ... not a sign from our-----
"Miss Houlihan, there will be no talk of signs!"
"Yerra! I'm putting weight on a falling man, and it's straight down to the fiery furnace he's plunging. Bedad! North accent, Maggie!"
"Did I hear you right, the bodies were lying ... a-cross ... each other?"
"Ay! It was a sign of the ... the dastardly Rat's evildoing, what it was, ay, a sign of the true cross, sent by our Lord ... the truth itself! In a circle of blood! A circle!"
"Object!"
Wearily: "Strike the religious parts, Mister O'Mara. Again, Miss Houlihan, just say what you saw. Nothing more."
It's Maggie-Bawn's last chop is her mightiest, the Celtic cross, and I'm watching the jury crossing themselves. I'm dabbing me eyes and sniffling. The ould ones in the crowd are sitting on the edge of their seats.
"The Judge can strike it but he cannot erase it from twelve brains."
"Jury will disregard, 'Our Lord,' and all notice of religion ... Miss Houlihan, please avoid religious references in your remarks. Mister Boyle!" Judge wants to see both attorneys. Whispering and agitation afore the throne.
Long interval. Then Prosecutor Boyle starts up again, and I'm answering partikelers, about what I seen and when I seen it.
More of weak, defeated: "Object!" for each answer meself makes.
Noow comes a silence amongst the crowd and the banners of Hell flapping in me brain. I look at Kateen. She lifts her veil, makes a wee smile at me. I look at Rita. Her eyes are shining. For me.
"Have you not another objection, Counselor? Nae?"
"Never your mind," says I triumphantly to myself, "for it's to be denied if you offer it."
"Get on with it, then, Mister Boyle," says Your Honor.
Prosecutor Boyle looks a serious look and turns to the jury box again and he's saying solemn words. He talks aboot the rolling pin, calls it, 'Exhibit B,' and asks me aboot howanever it was I knew of it, and did I use it to bake, and how and why and when, and where it was kept in the room and was it in Grampa's hand. And what did I see? Yes, it was in Grampa's ootstretched hand and his first finger stretched 'lomgside, same as on the Houlihan Bakery sign, and yes, he struck Ratsy after the knife was in his chest, and yes, the roller was bloodied at the other end when he struck Ratsy.
"I did not lie. Mister Boyle did not ask me howanever did it get into Grampa's hand."
And he picks it up, houlding it by the clean end, brandishes it aboot, and shows the jury the blood clots and clumps of hair. He takes it back to his table, and picks up the blackthorn twig.
"Miss Houlihan, I show you this twig, marked 'Exhibit C' ---- "
"Ay! That's it!" I interrupt. "That's Daideo's magic twig ... it's got three notches, didna ... do you not see, Mister Boyle."
"Please, decorum, Miss Houlihan." The Judge cranes over me, grimacing.
"So it does," says Prosecutor Boyle, turning it over the like he's never seen the notches afore in his life. "Mmmm. Seems to be blackthorn, so it does." He's stroking the air aboot the bloody sharp-sharp end.
"Aint a body but myself knows, I dragged it through Grampa's blood and Ratsy's too, for to make my magic circle." I try to keep a straight face, and I'm fiddling with me veil.
"And where did you see this ... this twig last, Miss Houlihan?"
"In Daideo's armpit. It was clenched in Daideo's armpit, pointed doon. Umm, down, I mean. Ummm ... we call it a 'kippeen,' Mister Boyle."
"Of course it was in his armpit. I put it there."
"And which arm would that be, Miss Houlihan."
"The right one, the one aint got no hand."
Noow he's taking me through all of it again, a thrashing sea of iniquity, one fish at a time. For all the world, rotten, stinking fish, ye'll understand. Comes the last of it. He's cutting bait.
"And was there a Grandfather Clock, then, and did you learn the time, Maggie-Bawn? Ummm, excuse me, Judge. Miss Houlihan?"
"Ay, I marked it well, for it struck six just as I seen the blackguard doing his---- "
"Object." The Judge leans over wi' a worn frown.
"Please, Miss Houlihan ... Sustained!"
Rita looks right at me and I think, "Her smile still says she knows, and her eyes still say she'll never in this world tell." I catch my breath.
" ... Mister Rathlin doing his deed. At the very moment of his foulness, was it. Ay, six, exactly." And I'm looking a sour puss at the jury box.
"Your witness," says the Prosecutor.
Mister Benjamin O'Toole Thomas, Counsel for the Defense, rains a baker's dozen of questions on me, or mebbe was it two dozen, and all of it washes by, and nae the strength in it. It's me Ma, the O'Neill Houlihan, I'm become, the like of a tide bound rock, Maggie-Bawn of the plowshare steel will, and Maggie-Bawn the like of the cairn at Torry Linn, her tale canna be moved, too large for turning, too firm for denting.
Comes Prosecutor Boyle again, overing the same ground as afore wi' me, as much as begging the jurymen to ask questions. Each time there's his puzzled look, he picks up that exhibit, and marches it in front of the jury box and passes it aneath their noses. He never says how Granpa might have stabbed Ratsy wi' the twig---- in the leg, mind ye! and then, for some unlikely reason, tucked it in his armpit whilst he fetched up the rolling pin. Mister Thomas never asks. Ratsy has no memory of it. And so it's gone by.
"Step down," says Bailiff Timmy from Brooklyn. That I do, making a great stir wi' me two canes, smiling under me veil at the jury..
Shuffle of papers. Mumbling of attorneys. Stirrings in the on-lookers.
"Call the next witness."
"Call Patrolman Brendan Michael Luke O'Halloran."
Comes the guid Copper, swearing on the Guid Book to tell the truth, and so, and then who is himself, and his six brothers and five sisters and his parents from County Clare, and who is noow buried where or living where, and doing what, and how does he know Miss Margaret Paula Houlihan, also known as Maggie-Bawn, and mebbe a Pope's ransom of useless questions. Patrolman O'Halloran testifies on the brouhaha of busted furniture, splintered wainscot. and smashed crockery, even the shards of cups and taypot strewn aboot, as evidence, in Prosecutor Boyle's re-phrase, " ... to the fury of Paddy's battle." Prosecutor Boyle asks Patrolman O'Halloran to tell aboot 'Exhibit A,' the knife. And describe carefully and accurately the way the rolling pin, 'Exhibit B,' was clutched in Grampa's hand.
"Defensive grasp," inserts the Prosecutor.
"Object!" yells the Defense.
"Disregard," says the Judge.
"Let me digest this," says Prosecutor Boyle scronching his brow. "You, Patrolman O'Halloran, walk up the stairs and find the door open and Mister Francis Xavier Rathlin lying on top of Mister Padraig Paul Houlihan, and himself, Mister Houlihan, with a knife stuck in his heart---- errr, his chest, and a rolling pin in his hand?"
"I did not hear Grampa named Padraig Paul aloud in the light of day for eighteen years. Even the insolent Ratsy called him Grampa, and to the friends who come to the bakeshop, he was 'Lefty.' And I did not remember to close the door upstairs---- howsomever Rita must have peeked in!"
"No sir, I did not 'walk' up the stairs. I run ... I wuz galloping three steps for one. Yessir, Yar Honner, I run up fast as greased lightning," himself saying aught of the open door, thanks to God. "And, yessir, I found the two of 'em right there. Ratsy and Lefty---- I mean, Mister Paddy and Mister Rathlin---- the two of 'em wuz laying in a grand bloody clump and Mister Paddy Houlihan on the bottom and 'im---- Ratsy---- Mister Rathlin wuz on top," says he, pointing at Ratsy, "in a big bunch of blood. The like of a circle, doncha see."
"And?"
"And 'e wuz bleeding---- Mister Rathlin wuz---- from the head like a struck pig, doncha see. They wuz sprawled belly to belly and there wuz that there knife wuz stuck in Mister Houlihan's chest, and a river of blood coming from it. In to the hilt it wuz, Yar Honner. Ay, the hilt, Yar Honner. I cannot forget it."
"This is the knife, 'Exhibit A,' that I show you: was this the one in Mister Houlihan's chest? And blood issuing from the wound?"
"Yessir ... Nossir, Yer Honner, did not 'issue.' Run like a river, ya see, like I said."
A grand groan riz from the auldience. At this, Ratsy looks aboot wanly and puts his hands to the great roll of white linen wraps his noggin doon to the eyebrows, and lays his head on the table. Mister Thomas stares ahead, grim-lipped.
"Address the Prosecutor, please," says Judge O'Malley, weary again.
"The two of them, they wuz laying ... God and all His Holy Angels in Heaven protect me ... they wuz laying across each ither ..." Patrolman O'Halloran's turns drawn and pale, and warking his jaws, "... like a cross," he croaks. And he crosses himself, mind ye.
Mumbling amongst the benches. Banging of the gavel. Voice of the Judge. The Prosecutor's looking straight at the jury whilst he's asking Patrolman O'Halloran questions.
"I show you, 'Exhibit B,' Patrolman. Noow, tell the jury, was there in that room a rolling pin like this one I'm holding?"
"Sure, and it wuz a rolling pin, the like of that there. It's bigger 'n ones me Ma keeps, like this, doncha see," says the Officer, unfolding his arms and stretching them apart and his chest great as the side of a house. "Himself---- Mister Houlihan---- 'e wuz laying stretched out on the floor, gripping it---- gripping the rolling pin in 'is 'and, ahhh, 'is left 'and, doncha see. Cuz 'e only got the one 'and, ya see, Yar Honner. Ahh, Mister Boyle. And one finger straight ... like the finger on 'is bakery sign, lefty, doncha know."
"Object."
"Denied."
"Tell me about his one hand."
"It's 'is fingers wuz all fisting 'round it, 'round the rolling pin, but 'is first finger wuz straight 'longside. He wuz laying on 'is back, domcha see, and the rolling pin all blotches and clots of blood at the ither end." There come a shuddering and a whispering in the court, and a banging of the gavel. "And there wuz 'airs sticking at the end of it, same color as Ratsy's 'air," says he, looking at Ratsy.
"Object!"
"Denied. Proceed, Mister Boyle."
"Faith and mercy. It was but an added decoration I did myself, after I swatted Ratsy's noggin, as the like of CuChulainn with the sliothar. Ratsy's bald pate's the like of a monk's tonsure. I'd whacked only the skin part."
"And is this rolling pin that I show you, this 'Exhibit B,' this rolling pin covered in blood and clumped hair at the end, are you certain this is the rolling pin you saw in poor unfortunate Padraig Paul Houlihan's grasp that awful day?"
"If it plaise, sir, can ya bring it closer ... yessir, yessir. That's it! What poor Paddy wuz 'oulding. Ay, poor Lefty," O'Halloran chuckles and shakes his head.
"And how was poor bloodied Mister Houlihan holding the rolling pin?"
"Objection!"
"Denied. Go on, Officer O'Halloran." Judge has promoted the Patrolman.
" 'Is arm wuz sticking out from 'is body. On the floor it wuz, but sticking out. And 'e wuz clenching the pin the same as I grabs me nightstick, one finger 'longside, doncha see ... like this." He puts his fist oot. "Like I get meself ready to clout a---- "
"Object!"
"Strike that from, 'ready to clout,' " says the Judge
Prosecutor Boyle sashays up to the witness box and hoists the bloody rolling pin for the jury box to see: "And again, was this that rolling pin, this 'Exhibit B,' Officer?"
"Yessir. Like I just said."
Boyle smiles, pulls a wee hurley stick from under his morning coat. There's tittering roils the benches and necks craning.
I'm thinking, "A hurley stick ... it's again the like of CuChulainn's weapon ... God's trick on Ratsy, it is! Have a go, Mister Boyle."
"Show the jury what you saw," says the prosecutor. The Patrolman chases a surprised smile off his face and takes the stick, and shows how Grampa held the rolling pin.
"And the knife, 'Exhibit A,' Officer?" The Prosecutor takes back the stick, and admires the sharp-sharp end long and lovingly.
"It wuz stuck in Paddy's chest and the handle pointing straight up."
"Here, Officer O'Halloran, put this against your chest and show the jury exactly what you saw," says the Prosecutor, carefully giving him the hurley stick again.
Patrolman O'Halloran's body is bigger as a house, wi' a chest the shape of a beer barrel and hands the size of hams. And he's tall around the middle. It's confused he looks, studying the wee stick. He puts both hands around it, opening and closing his fingers, then. He's looking at the Prosecutor. The Prosecutor nods. Ahh! Patrolman O'Halloran grasps at the stick the way he would crush it and rams the shaft straight against his chest. He's houlding it like a flagstaff and the Prosecutor's in noo business to bring it doon.
More murmuring. Sudden crying wi' great wracking sobs. Banging of the gavel and more stern words from Judge William George O'Malley.
"Let us continue, please, Officer," says Prosecutor Boyle, him also promoting the Patrolman on the sly. "How far into the chest of unfortunate Mister Padraig Paul O'Neill, the good and decent left-hamded baker ... how far into Padraig's chest did this sharp blade, this awful instrument go?"
"Object!"
"Mister Boyle, can you not be more choosey with your words?" says the irritated Judge. "Denied. Answer the question, Officer." Judge O'Malley, he likes the promotion.
"If ya plaise, sir, it's not for me to say, sir, 'cuz I---- noo sir, I did not try to pull it out, doncha see. Did I not say, to the hilt, Yer Honner? Sure as daylight, it wuz 'ard in there, noo give to it at all," O'Halloran contradicts himself. "It wuz---- "
"Let me get back to the rolling pin," the Prosecutor interrupts quick as lightning. "Tell the jury again, Officer O'Halloran, in which hand did Mister Houlihan hold---- grasp the rolling pin that was covered with blood at the end and what looked like Mister Rathlin's hair?"
"Divil the bit. 'Patrolman' O'Halloran it was afore, and now the fat's in the fire, it's 'Officer' this, and 'Officer' that. Faith! Meself, I did not 'cover' it with bloody hair. Ratsy has only that wee tonsure. I pulled out a few clumps and plastered them round the end of the pin, was all."
Officer O'Halloran says again, "It wuz 'is left 'and, sir. It's the truth itself. I'd swear to that cuz 'e don't have noo ither, doncha see."
"You already did swear, Officer, when you came to the witness stand," says Prosecutor Boyle, smiling at the jury.
The Prosecutor looks to his desk and he's after asking Patrolman Officer O'Halloran again which hand, saying that every jackeen and boarding-house narrowback in the Ould First Ward, and Grampa's horses too, know he had but the one guid left-handed arm. Come the final blow wi' Prosecutor Boyle calling for Officer O'Halloran and the jury to see the greenbacks---- he calls them 'Exhibit D'---- soaked dark and stiff wi' blood which the guid copper found stuffed in Ratsy's pocket, though he didna rightly know it as Ratsy's own blood nor who did the stuffing. The ones sits in the back of the jury box lean forwards to stare. The Prosecutor houlds a fistful of crusted bills under each juror's nose in turn, and then himself presents the knife to the Officer again. Noow Mister Boyle's houlding the knife between his hands in front of the jury, slowly turning it over, walking solemnly from one end of the box to the ither and back, and again whilst running his thumb above the blade. The jurors squirm. I'm seeing three of them cross themselves. The prosecutor explains how blood turns black with time, and scrapes wi' his fingernail to show the red, first a wee bit of the knife, and then, a clotted bill.
There's fixed attention in the jury box. "Sure, it's the horrid truth itself. That there's poor Paddy's blood," they nod, each to himnself and then to anither.
I know better: "It's mostly Ratsy's blood."
"And was there nothing else, Officer O'Halloran?"
" ... Ummm ... Yessir, there was. I seen a blackthorn twig, it wuz, all covered with blood, at one end and clenched in Mister MacNeil's ... mmm ... under his right armpit. Ay! 'e aint got no right 'and, Yer Honner."
"And what did you make of that, Officer?"
"Sure, sir, I think Paddy knew 'e wuz dying, ya see, and there wuzn't no priest and 'e ... 'e wanted the Little ... the Bean Si ... the banshee, doncha know, the Gentle People to ... to keep 'imself ... 'is soul safe. 'Tis a way of the old country. Iverybody knows it, if ya can't get a priest and a viakitum, youse---- "
"Object. Your Honnor, this has no---- "
"Denied. It is a common custom, Counselor. In The North. And Officer, it's 'Viaticum'."
"God bless us all! The North is riz again; a body can hear the pipes skirling, glen to glen, in Judge O'Malley's voice."
Prosecutor Boyle walks to his desk, picks up the clotted blackthorn twig, twirls it very slowly afore his eyes, and walks to the witness box wi' it.
"And was this, this 'Exhibit' in my hand, is this object the blackthorn twig you saw, Officer?"
"Yessir. Not something I can ever forget."
"And how would you remember it, Officer?"
"Well, sir, it's got three notches and the ither pointed end. Where it's bloody. Sir. There, doncha see."
Prosecutor Boyle houlds the blackthorn twig afore him like a priest advancing wi' a crucifix, walking in measured step to the jury box where he lays it reverently upon the railing. The jurors crowd round the twig like they never seen one afore. Some murmur to themselves. No a one touches it. The ones that crossed themselves afore do it again. The Prosecutor waits a minute or three, and the courtroom's quiet as a grave. He picks up the twig withoot a word and strokes the air above the bloody sharp-sharp wi' his thumb, staring at each juror in turn, and makes a ceremony of bringing the twig back to his desk. It's me own finger-marks all aboot the shaft, and naebody knows.
"Your witness," Mister Boyle turns and says to Mister Thomas.
Thomas gets naething new nor useful oot of Patrolman O'Halloran.
Prosecutor Boyle puts the copper in the box again and reinforces all what he's already said. Along the way, Mister Boyle manages to find more ways to shove the knife, the bloody money, the rolling pin and the twig under the jury's noses, and eggs them into questions for answers waits in the pockets of his mind.
"Step down," sings Bailiff Timmy from Brooklyn.
Officer O'Halloran steps doon.
And then character witnesses aboot what a sweet person Maggie-Bawn is, so truthful and gentle, couldna tell a lie, this and that, wouldna kill a fly. Nor catch a mouse on account of her curlicue spine and hump. Surely no a rat. Rita ben home minding the kids, and Mary Flannery ben called to the witness box to have her say in me favor. The laudanum and the effort of listening put me to sleep.
The next morning, Kateen is in the box a lengthy time, saying howanever she's Ratsy's wifie but didna want privilege, and herself afeared to call the police when Ratsy bats her, and on and on, threats he made, how odd and hostile he is. Ratsy's character suffers; there's no a man jack in town give him a decent character witness, only a parade of Beacher vermin. Against him, it's a crowd from the Scoopers' Union and Flannery's Saloon, hates his guts. And there's laudanum fills me eyes and ears again. It's late afternoon, the second day, and Judge O'Malley adjourns the court, and there's our little family after traveling home wi' plenty of memories for craic.
Come the morning, and we're back wi' the cab and the crowds and me chair and all. Prosecutor Boyle, he's aboot finishing his case wi' covering up the odd parts, quick and sure as a thrown stone makes the ripple in a pond.
The Defense put on its case; it's noo defense at all. Few were the words to be said, and troubled the tongue to say it through a parade of witnesses.
Faith, Ratsy is great in his denial of all his foul doings---- if he could mouth it, Divil take it. Ay, if, as rightly might be, for after me cudgel coddled his brains, he had no the memory of the event to blow off the palm of yer hand. There's his leg bandaged where Daideo thrust the blackthorn sharp, and Ratsy no knowing of exactly howanever this come to be. Ratsy never testifies; Mister Defense Attorney Thomas mebbe worries that Ratsy's villainous behavior wi' the kids, and that weird time in Mercy Hospital, will darken his plea. And whosomever will believe a wee crippled hunchback could lay low a four-legged rat, even less a two-legged one? Never anyone what's any sense at all. Come a jury recall and anither cross-exam, and meself again a cairn of stones, no one pebble moved.
Ratsy squirms in vain. His case is straining belief more nor Niagara Falls flowing backwards.
The next day is more witnesses. Them didna 'witness' aught, but talks up Grampa and me and dinna help Ratsy at all. Kateen and me stay home for that and a' that, and more the like of it the next day.
It's on to the last day when Prosecutor Boyle sends word, be in court this afternoon for Judge O'Malley's calling summations. And so it's away we hurry from house to carriage to wheelchair, and then amongst the clucking whispering crowd, and past the iron gates into the courtroom, front row. And so grand a court-room crowd it is, if Mister Boyle didna hould seats for us we ben standing. Whilst Mister Boyle talks, he pauses here and there, noow and then, to wipe his eyes and clean his glasses as if they ben moist, and to clear the lump he mebbe inserted in his throat. The twelve men in the box pay rapt attention, near mesmerized, whilst he moves them to tears hearing again himself tell how a cowardly Rat killed a frail ould crippled man.
"... God be poor Paddy's witness, och, a calculated, premeditated deed in cold blood, and no chance of absolution for poor Paddy, only a twig to safekeep his soul. And only the one guid arm, God bless him ... "
And still naething aboot how the twig come to be used.
Comes Counselor Thomas to summate for Ratsy and the jury's idling over their fingernails and shifting in their chairs and staring at the ceiling.
I'm worrying, "Aught's been said of Grampa's demented brain, nor his fits, nor any possibility of accidental stabbing, nor the intact Captain's Chair, nor hair on a bald pate, nor the time for blood to clot. So what's the tune? Sure, the jury will have none of it from eejit Counselor Thomas.
" 'Tis a flock of details naebody knows but God. Naebody looked in the scuttle where the coals covered my bloody apron. The Celtic cross of bodies ina pool of blood blinded Officer O'Halloran to the magic circle I made ... with the magic twig what stabbed Ratsy in the leg! That unbroken circle, Ratsy's curse has no power against it! And Grandfather Clock's time was ignored. What the jury's eyes saw and ears heard tell cannot make them favor a slinking Rat against a pious hunchback. And herself with the honest blood of Scotland warming her Irish bones. I'm snug as a bug in a rug."
The jury walks oot for a smoke and comes back in three shakes of a pig's tail, the noose in their eyes, the Morrigan in their ears, the Bean Sidhe wailing, and the Dullahan galloping,
"The Court will rise."
"Gentlemen of the jury," says the Judge to the foreman, knowing there's no one 'gentle man' could live three days in the Ould First Ward, "Have you reached your verdict?"
Rita turns to me wi' that same smile and those same eyes as afore.
In my brain, it's the quavery voice of Meggeen Mahony I hear lisping again: " 'You will right great wrongs, Maggie-Bawn. You will live to right your wrong and mine.' " And I speak to her: "Your wrongs and mine and and those who came before me, Widow, God rest your bones wherever they lie. 'Tis a lengthy way we've come but we caught the villain, so we did."
"Ay, 'tis time, Widow Mahony, to tell your Maggie-Bawn about crossing the bridge, and about tossing her cane, about striding upright. Ay, and about Manannan Mac Lir and his Wave-Sweeper and those who voyage to the golden sands of the western World, to Paradise, to the OtherWorld. And about secrets that lie hidden deep below a certain foundation stone in the ruins of an old shebeen in the valley of the Bann."
But she did not say.
Freshen yer tay, friend?


















Illustration the thirty-fourth

525

CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR


So it come down to this, ye see.
"Judged by twelve and caried by six, two to shovel, and Saint Peter says, 'Nix!' Ay, if there be six that has the bowels to carry the miserable swine," I'm smirking into my palm. "What other verdict can be? Fallen angels, fan your fires! Satan, take your prize!"
At court, its the Houlihan clan filling half the seats takes a breath, and the Beacher rabble fills the ither half.
"Gentlemen of the jury," says the judge a second time, leaning forward in his great black leathern throne, when the jury foreman, the wee McKenna, didna stir, "have you reached your verdict?"
I'm grinning ear-to-ear under my veil whilst it's on my fingers I'm again counting Mary Flannery's roisterers amongst the jury. Nine.
McKenna looks up grimacing a grand sigh: "We have, Yer Honor," and offers up an envelope. And there's Timmy, the Bailiff, he's taking and handling it ginger-like to the throne of justice. Judge William George O'Malley looks at it, opens it, extracts the paper, houlds it to the light, studies it, purses his lips, sends it back wi' one hand, crushes the envelope wi' the ither.
"And what is your verdict, Mister Foreman?'
"We'll be ... we, the jury, we're finding for murder, Your Honor, murder in the first degree," says the foreman softly. The Beacher riff-raff gasp.
"Sure and sartain, he meant to do it, the miserable scum," the Houlihan crowd whispers one the ither. "Hanging's too good for him. Flaying alive, mebbe, or boiling in oil." The murmurs begin to sound like cheers.
The Judge raps his gavel, slow and majestic.
Dak. Dak. Dak. DAK!
More palavering of the attorneys and clerks, more gaveling, and at the end, the jury dismissed, and the judge rapping for a respectful silence, and the laudanum filling up me head until I hear fair, fair in the distance howanever court's adourned.
"It's twelve good men shoved Ratsy towards the gallows. Let him be stretched on a rope, a spit run through his bowels, and him burnt in Hell." I enjoy the thought. And the world seems brighter and sweeter.
Ratsy puts his head doon on the Defense table. Two coppers pick him up by the armpits and haul him away, ay, 'haul,' the like of a sack of meal.
" 'You will do a great thing, Maggie-Bawn.' "
I look over the courtroom. Here comes Mister Boyle wi' congratulations.
" 'Stand on your hind legs, Maggie-Bawn.' " 'Tis Ma's voice this time.
The Judge smiles at me.
My brain is consumed in the dizzy numbness of laudanum and the hot singe of vengeance: "By the Holy Angels, it's dead you'll be, Ratsy, dead and gone, dead and gone and roasting in Hell for the doing of that, you miserable snake. It's for that you'll twisting in the wind. For come Judgement Day, it aint only what you did to Grampa. No, nae, never! There is them other crimes what you did, you scum, what the victims suffered for it all their lives, you wee worthless gobshite! It's for that I curse you! Sweet, Sweet Mary, Blessed art Thou among women, and bless Duncan, and Rita and Cabbie and Kateen. And Meggeen. Cursed be Ratsy forever and ever, and God leave off my bleeding and heal my wounded heart. Ave! Ave! Ave!"
I feel light, giddy, the like of flying ... I'm on my knees, not knowing how I got there ... I'm praying ... I'm looking up at Heaven ...
And then I see, 'tis only the ceiling of the courtoom.
Prosecutor Boyle smiles over me. Kateen smiles over me. Mary Flannery run oot the seats to smile over me, the like of the cat ate the canary, and helps me back into the wheelchair, giving me a grand hug. Rita gives me a kiss. Who's minding the kids? The last thing I remember, I'm in my wheelchair and we're ootside at the top of the courthouse steps, and the bright freshness of the air ... and then, 'tis all that blessed laudanum. Again.
Three weeks later, it's the sentencing. Same room. Same crowd.
"All stand faw His Honnuh. Judge Williyum Gawge O'Malley."
And it's himself, the black-robed icon marching in, head up, jaw thrust, slitty-mouthed, shoulders square, mounting to his mahogany throne, and then it's the buzz of attorneys and clerks back and forth again until all return to their chairs and tables. Gavel rapping. Silence. More silence.
"The accused will stand."
Ratsy cowers.
"Francis Xavier Rathlin, for murder in the first degree, it's a life for a life," says Judge O'Malley, giving Ratsy a stern look .
"Another shove, and no waiting at all. Let the Divil light the fires!"
The Houlihan benches clap. The Rathlin benches hiss and shout.
"Orderrr!" and a banging of the gavel. "I hereby sentence you, Francis Xavier Rathlin, to hang by the neck until you are dead, at such time and place to be determined," says Judge O'Malley, or words to that amount.
"The last shove. Hurrah!" I was not in a way to hear straight, my ears being filled, nae, overflowing with the nectar of joy.
"Lynch's law!" shouts Ratsy squirming against his manacles wi' dint of fright, "She lied, the witch! The Divil's doing!" whilst the Bailiff's coppers drag the blackguard from court.
So they hang Ratsy, which pains me not at all, I thank ye. I canna say how it went. I didna be there. The blindfolding, is it, puts me off. It can come to nae guid for me, him in a hood and meself canna stare into his ratty eyes. I stay home on the day, and rests me spine, ye'll understand and, that night, Kateen and me and the kids have an ould country banquet to celebrate. The next afternoon, we gang oot to pay respects to Grampa, and pray by his grave at Holy Cross burying-ground.
Noow it's never more the Cat---- noow, it's me darling Kateen, me Caithleann mavourneen, and she wi' meself and the kids, and me living on the bottom floor again. Some days, me secrets pierce me like the arrows did Saint Sebastian but, some better days, I feel a great weight lifting. Often times, I'm sitting on the porch swing, craicking on, same as I be gossiping wi' ye this Easter Sunday evening. Today I was all eyes for them ladies after parading their broods doon Louisiana Street and turning here on Sandusky, och, the little small ones decked in their wee finery, and then them school kids showing the Green and clog-dancing joyfully by me porch, och, I do love them. Noow, it's all this Easter day slipped by, and the gloaming too, and roundaboot the mill smell of new-ground grain drifts in from the great towers, and doon along the River, there's the silent silos stands respectful, whilst the bells of Saint Bridget's peal and the ithers across the city ringing oot the message of Him Who has risen.
"Top of the evening to you!' lilt the ladies passing by, as the Buffalo Irish do. And their extraVagantly flowery lids dance this way and that.
"And to you!" sing I, often enough half-standing wi' me belly propped against me cane. That cane.
And meself, I'm after smiling me O'Neill smirk and houlding me tongue aboot the feel of that cane against me belly. Sainted Virgin! Amn't I never forgetting how it felt propped there, when I rung me mighty Houlihan clapper on to Ratsy's bell? Och, 'tis Sweet Sainted Mary watches over them ladies what once was banned from visiting a Rat's house, and noow puts the world right for me. Our garden blooms more lovely by the day, some say, and it's no more Grampa's flowerpots upstairs, God bless his soul, for it's on the porch rail in the sunshine they blossom. And there's Dunc and Rita living upstairs noow. Rita cares for him when Kateen's at wark, and ye'll no be mentioning the name, "Cat," nor, "Dunce," withoot ye ben afeared of Rita's Houlihan wrathful rap upside yer bell, ye mind.
And when was that and a' that, yer wondering? Ay, I'm telling of it like it was today, but it's beyond yesterday, and beyond the back of beyond. Ye'll be excusing me tears that make it so hard to talk. Ay, Kateen and the kids, they ben here in this house amongst all what's in it, and I'm not sure the year, so like a laudanum dream it is. I see them all round me day and night, I not knowing who is who nor what year is what, and the mirror of me brain fogging whilst age smooths oot the folds of me mind, and me skin ruching to wrinkles. And I'm on the porch smiling me sly O'Neill smile at the people walking by, and mebbe there's naebody's there and mebbe there's aught for to smile at. Och, it's howanever the remembering times run up and doon and round and round me mind, and disappear into the hole in me brain-pan. I'm no at the match, no at the gate to the match. I'm no on the road to the gate.
Yet, friend, there's times me brain still warks for me. Come anither Easter Sunday I'm remembering way beyond, yerra, 1902, it was, and the blood cleaned longgo from Grampa's fortune---- Sweet Mary hould him in the palm of Your hand! It's meself at Kateeen, and Kateen at meself, all the day long, and noo more the charwoman for her. For the bank Grampa reviled, bless his soul, 'twas his stash we invested wi' Mister Vanderbilt's railroad what owns the route, Chicago one way, New York City the ither. And that tycoon, he ladled oot the dollars by the pail to Kate and me every month according to Grampa's will, the Holy Saints protect him. 'Tis that Easter I'm remembering wi' Kateen off the drink, and herself looking so grand wi' the roses in her cheeks and her skin clear as ever I seen it.
Noow skip a few years to 1906. I see meself affording the top of a heap of surgeons, and then it's after me third spine surgery, I noo more ben called, "The Scuttling Scot." I'm less moving crab-wise, and more standing withoot a prop, and needing the one cane only for to walk, ay, I'm looking a wee bit more like the shepherdess and less like her crook---- and I'm no forever bent into peering at me toes. Allelujah! And Kateen and me better nor afore.
Sometimes in the cool of evening, darling Kate's stroking all tenderly on the painful scars of me curlicue spine, and houlds me lopsided hump against her great bare breasts and croons softly to me, croons the ould sweet songs of handsome spalpeens come a-courting, and the dreams of a lonely shut-in hunchback cailin never sees nor seen at the crossroads where the lads and lassies play. And Kate sings of the Ceilidh jigging and stepping longgo, and she's crooning and rocking me on her lap as Ma did, loo-ra loo-re, och, and Kateen herself did afore Ratsy took me darling away. Godamercy, noow it's in me brain, she's here and mine, and never again away. Ahh, friend---- me brain is a muddled jumble of memories rushing by the like of spring thaw on Buffalo Creek.
Times, there's the secret way Kate and me play under the counterpane at "Russian hands" and "Roman fingers" until I thrill and shudder the same as when we wuz at each ither in the cottage, and only hot damp skin between us. Yerra, it's when Ma and Da, Sweet Mary save them! were asleep or away in the fields. And it's nae sin what we did and do---- ay, and have done since Kateen was ould enough to do it, for it's me taught her---- Godamercy, the Holy Saints understand the pain of a hunchback lass so lonely wi' ugliness and the pain of a curlicue spine! 'Tis sweetly me Kateen and me love each ither, and we're the way we used to be wi' the joy and the comfort ... but still me sister knows aught of the secrets that haunted me then and haunts me noow. And so it was, and then Ratsy's curse took her away. Divil mend the miserable villain!
"Godamercy," it's going 'round the cooramuch in my brains friend, "howanever do I tell you that you'll understand: Kateen, she aint really here. Aint ben here for twenty-six years. Nor Duncan. Nor Rita. Nor Cabbie. God help us all, let me cry a little and try a little. And then a little more."
Kateen, she's passed noow, wi' the angels in Heaven. Forever and ever, O, Kateen, aroon! Me darling Kate died and still her no knowing me broken heart, meself, the crazy ould scuttling Scot wi' the hump, the crooked spine, the cracked brain. Ay, me, The Auld Wan, Maggie-Bawn, alone in this ould house wi' all those ould haunts, of Arran, and County Louth, and Ma and Da, and Kateen and Duncan, and Rita and Cabbie, and the cottage and the crossroads. It's all them away body and soul, and their ghosts flying 'round me, flesh real as the palm of me hand, until I canna ken wraith from real, nor today from yesterday, nor where one hour begins and t'ither ends, nor years from yesteryears. And me secrets, faith!---- in the dark of the moon, it's me secrets I'm speaking doon the black back stairwell to Kateen. And there's naebody's there. And ye mind, friend, when the sun is doon and the moon is up, it's every night I'm dreaming of the bridge, and peering over the rush of water, and hearing the hurry of it, and tasting the dark dank night.
And standing tall.


























Illustration the thirty-fifth

533

CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE: birth


Sometimes in the late Buffalo spring is it, wi' the warm light streaming amongst the stones and paths and spilling on to the bright green grass of Holy Cross burying-ground----- och, and what year, what spring, what day is that, me friend? And, ay! will it ever again be, meself looking up for the ghost of a green plover, come from the shores of the sea? It's often these times and after mid-day, when such-like confusion haunts me musty ould brain, we visit Grampa's stone, God bless him! Sundays is best, so it is, and it's soft we tread upon his grave and kneel there saying Aves for the repose of his soul, whilst the songbirds warble and flutter across the sunshine and shadows, or watch from their perches on the solemn hands of the sad stone Pieta close by. And there's memories flitting 'round me brain chatters and chirrups the like of wee swifts.
We come wi' daffodils and peonies from me garden, and we picnic by Daideo's graveside. And so pleasant it is on the green lawn---- green, ay! so green, like the soft green meadows of wee County Louth and the restless green seas of Dundalk Bay, and the green years for me Kateen aroon and me, and her great green eyes, and us back in the cottage then. O, the green years come and away, and me mind's turned to yellow crinkles, and all the red leaves falling, and there's the remembering us the way we were, and that's all what it was, for me skull's a mausoleum, mind ye, friend. Ay, for "us."
Ave! Ave!
Ave!
Sometimes I hear the rustle of Grampa's guardian angel, the Holy Saints preserve him! And my brain smiles thinking, "Nobody with any sense at all ever thought the slithery Ratsy could do that. Or would. And naebody at all thought a wee humpback gargoyle could send Ratsy on his way to hanging and Hell."
I picture Ratsy, Divil scour him, penned in his befouled jail cell like a cottage swine gang to slaughter. I see what meself never saw, ay, friend, the rude gibbet, and him shuffling to his ladder, and I'm hearing noo whistling to it. I see them two gaolers as slips the hood over Ratsy's head, and the hangman slipping the noose 'round his neck, I hear the priest's monotone murmur and the rustling of the cassock, I smell Ratsy's cold sweat. And then I watch the trap giving way, and the bound feet dangling, and the flames rushing up from the furnaces of Hell, and I see him roasting, I smell his burning flesh, himself choking forever and ever on O'Neill curses and Houlihan damnation. I see Satan wrenching Ratsy's wretched heart through his bowels ten thousand thousand times, and that ratty face burning forever in fiery snot. I see Saint Peter dangling his key above the flames, afore Ratsy's bulging terrified eyes, through all eternity, forever and ever. Dies Irae! I hear the trumpet, and see the dead rising, and I watch Ratsy die a second time. Mind ye, friend, 'tis never enough, me fill of Ratsy's end, never enough the snap of the trap and the hooded body dropping, never enough the stench of burning entrails, never enough the ratty shrieks from the cauldrons of Hell. Never enough to give me rest nor me soul for to find peace amidst the graveside serenity, whensomever I'm carefully amongst and between the markers at Holy Cross burying-ground. Gods mercy on us all, I'm knowing there's noo divine behest for me, noo rest naewhere on this earth, and naebody waiting for me in Heaven.
Then, let us to sit here and you sit beside me, friend, here at Grampa's stone wi' the ghosts of the family round me, the feeling of Rita's arm steadying me whilst Kateen and I kneel wi' me beloved Duncan, and houlding Cabbie between us, and the ould hatreds what never wanes rummages me brain. And when the Spring sun curves doon, then it's packing up our picnic basket, whilst the shadows drawing lengthy for the trip home, and we'll be hearing the horse clop-clopping across gravel and brick and cobblestone, and the cool of the springtime gloaming drifting in.
And let us takes the longest roundaboot way, and finally doon Delaware, past the faerie-tale mansions of the swells, and doon to Exchange Street, and the smoke and clank of the train yards, and the grain smells wafting from the turrets and towers of the waterfront mills, and the stench of sewage, and the heat of the ironwarks until, at last, we trot into the Ould First Ward. It's this here cab ride warks me anger oot, so it does, in the pain of me curlicue spine that's still there after all the surgeons' cuts and rods and scars. Ay, and it flowing into the storehouse of me hump, for to be locked from the lonesome days passing in this ould house. Lonesome is a curse, and angry lonesome, ahhh! What'll ye gi' me, 'tis the Divil's wark, ye'll understand, friend.
When our carriage ben crossing the rails and into the Ould First Ward, me spirit's already up for a wee bit of smiling, mebbe a neighbor to greet, and a bit of craic awaiting. Around the corner we trot, and doon Louisiana, and there's Sandusky ---- and our clapboard house wi' its arms open wide, and roundaboot, the steamy scent of a thousand First Ward boiled cabbage suppers, sounds of family come to the table, scuff of chairs, murmurs of blessing, clink and scrape of dinnerware drifting our way. Come the evening the like of this one and ye join us, friend, and we'll be after having times, for ay, for didna we have times, back then? Ay, "we," friend. Yerra, 'tis in the remembering what's to remember. But I canna bide like that nae more, friend. I canna.
Ye'll be thinking, "God be wi' ye, Auld Maggie-Bawn, it's soon enough ye've come the end of that, and the mush in yer skull: ye've told a shocker of a trial, and it's on to forty years since. Ay, and yer mind gone seedy wi' age. Whatanever's left to tell, then, here at the end? Whatanever's real and whatanever's in the mirror? Whatanever's no to be told?"
"Left?" do ye ax, me friend? Whisht! "Left," ye say? There ben left the two more turrible secrets that ache me heart, and rack me soul, ay, mine, and mine alone. And never do they bring an aise to me conscience, though me brain's pulped the like of warm porridge, as ye say. Nae, it's doon me bones, piercing every fiber of me heart, etched in every cranny of me brain, stuck in me bowels, that cursed and bestial day, the day Ratsy took me when I was alone by meself in the cottage, and young Kateen, and Ma, God rest their souls! away the day for to say their Aves over Da's stone, himself passing one week since. Ay, them doon to the parish burying-ground, and after Mass. O God!! 'Tis then the slimy reptile gives them the slip, knowing they canna start home afore Vespers. And it's then, O God! the snaky sleeveen slithers oot his lair and puts his filthy paws upon me. O God, where were You?
" 'Deus, in adiutorium meum intende.' Nae, my broken heart, God did not help my soul out of its night or its nightmare. Nae, it will always be night and the horrific lifelong haunting, never a dawn, never a door opens into day, never in this life an end to the pain of remembering. I have been to Hell, for living life is my Hell. And I have not come bck. And for as long as my heart beats and my brain remembers, I will live in Hell.
'And death will be ecstacy.' "
Noo, noo, there's no a single shard of this shattering horror can I forget, for it's over and over it plays in me brain, waking or sleeping, endlessly looping in its foul brutality. Over and over the cruel crunching pain of it, over and over the vile terror of it, the filthy villain forcing me to the gritty cottage floor in the horrific pain of me twisted spine, him pushing his foul ratty mouth on to mine, over and over him worming his slimy serpent's tongue against mine, clamping me in his clawsome ratty grasp, ramming his disgusting ratty cock into me, and thrusting like a maniac and the fiend spurting and yelling in depraved triumph though I scratched and bit like a wild thing, crying oot, "Nae!! Nae!!! I'm hurted, I'm hurted! Let off! O! Yer tearing me apart! O! Stop, stop! In the name of God! Let off! Beast! Divil! Fiend! Stop! God help me!" wi' only the shadows and the goat and the dolls of rag and straw to hear, for God had no name. And then the years of remembering it, scabbing my soul wi' a leper's thousand loathsome scars.
"Saints and Martyrs forgive me, and my greatest sin of all! I cannot say it, I cannot speak through all those tears, I cannot tell aloud how in the midst of the grinding horror come one blinding pang, brief and single, my worst sin of all, one single stroke of lightning jagged on a dreadful dark sea, igniting the fire between my legs that never stops burning. Never, never, never. God in Heaven have mercy on my soul!"
And then Ratsy's bestial threat, "You little witch, you're to say never a damned word of this, for if your darling Kateen learns about how you betrayed her, we'll never marry." And his final foul breath in me nostrils: "Damn, who's to be wanting that cow after myself? And she'll nae have to do wi' you again. Nae, never, noo," him mocking me sobs. "Nae, shut your gob, and ye keep it shut, now and forever," and an evil glint come over his ratty eyes and a sickening sneer upon his ratty face. " ... Nae, open it one more time, so I can shove my horn into it. And doon't you dare be wanting to bite," him binding me hands, fisting me hair, and thrusting me head back and forth like a steam piston, pumping his loathsome slime into me mouth, and me tears shed doon onto his pelt. And then him throwing me back on to me hump in a horrific shock of hurt, and spitting on me naked belly, and kicking me a swift hard one in the ribs, and then anither. And a last stomp, harder nor the ithers, like to stove in me chest and left me gasping for a breath of life.
"You stupid twister," he sneers. "It's Kate and me, and you'll be at the wedding surely, you useless hoor." And he tidies himself and unties me hands. And he's prancing oot the door.
And he's whistling.
I'm cowering in shock and revulsion.
"O God forgive me, Mary and you Holy Angels, pray for my soul!---- ay, pray against the curse of the sea, the ravenous wave, the sea of the South that cursed the lassie pointing the twig, the sea of the West that heard Ratsy whistle up the wind, the sea of the North that swallowed Belle of Newcastle, and Jimmy Callahan, and gobbled the tinker and drowned Kevin Callahan, the sea of the East what cast up Paul Houlihan and made the surf to claw at Margaret O'Neill when she struggled to save him, the cursed sea that laid death by consumption upon Margaret and Paul, the sea that thrust Ratsy's whistling curse upon Widow Mahony, and upon me curlicue spine and me hump, and me shut-in life of pain and torment, and then ... and then ..."
Ay.
"The curse of the sea got me wi' Ratsy's child."
It sticks in me craw, friend, until I can hardly speak of it through these tears. Ay, Ratsy raped me and the whistling curse come worser, a curse no of death but of life, ay, the curse of two lives, me own and the one I might live or die birthing. And if I live, Ay, to love, to look into the babby's eyes, and to know by what torment God gave him life, and worser yet. Better I died.
Yer wanting to learn, friend, howanever was it Ma found I was wi' child? Ye didna know Ma in her O'Neill shrewdness, God bless her. It's on a dull and drizzly spring morning, and Da Houlihan wi' the angels in Heaven three months since, and there's me in me third month, hiding in the shadows, humched over even more nor what God and consumption made of me spine, noow trying for to make aught of me sin to show. Ma stops me.
"Ye're no at yerself, Maggie, wi' Da passed, but this month, ye're worse. Is it something is bothering ye, mebbe, yer back worser and more wi' pain?"
"Nae, Ma. Me back is fine, guid as any corkscrew." And quick, I turns me head away.
"Look in my face, child. Ay, wind yer neck aboot, will ye, and ye look me in the eye."
I canna want looking at Ma. 'Tis me grief will betray me, no me belly. I'm wanting to fall into a hole in the earth.
Ma puts her two hands on me head and turns me face 'round to look at her in the eye. I'm ducking and burying me face between her breasts, and then of a sudden I'm bawling like a lamb afore the slaughter, a hot river of tears it is, drenching Ma's shift.
"O!" says she. "God in Heaven! So that's the way of it?" She pulls me chin up wi' her hand and searches me face, and a trembling come over her voice. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Yer cheeks are puffy, child, Heaven save all ... Mother of God! And yer eyes setting so deep! I'm no the court fool was born yesterday, Maggie-Bawn Houlihan. And if there's a seed growing in yer belly, it's God alone knows how it got there."
God and Maggie-Bawn. Me mouth was clamped and me teeth scraping.
"Maggie-Bawn, ye're all bent up and I canna see yer belly," she says softly, stroking me hump. "But your face, 'tis telling all your Ma's wanting to know. And yer eyes red from crying when there's aught in this house to give a body sorra. I didna have bairns of my own, withoot I know a thing or three. O, Maggie mavourneen," her voice broke, she's wiping me tears, and her own eyes wet, "so will ye no be telling yer Ma who done this to ye?"
I slid oot her grip and knelt on the floor, and covered me face wi' me hands, crying great racking sobs.
"Tell yer Ma who done it. Did ye no bleed the month since? Two months? Three? ... Nae? ... And? ... Nae ... O, God and Mary save us all! Howanever could such a thing happen?" Ma sat doon and her face filled wi' tears, and she dabbed wi' her apron, first at me eyes, then hers. "Who, child, who? A wandery tinker? A slimy knacker, mebbe, a wicked spalpeen, a sleeveen come from the crossroads? Who, child? God's grace, who did the it? Who could do such a deed?"
All what oots me mouth is keening and grief.
"What's to become of us?" Ma wept, rocking me in the cradle of her arms. "Yer Da in heaven will take his death all over again. And Kate in Buffalo! We canna let her know, never in the world." Her voice come hard, "Tell me who, Maggie-Bawn! Tell me who and I'll tear his heart oot his body wi' me bare hands! O my Lord in Heaven, tell me what fiend does this to me poor crippled child? Who done it? Who?"
I was three years shy of thirty, mind ye, and no a child, and I didna say who, though Ma tried cajole and threat, wheedle and wallop, word and whip. Divil the day, for she was asking after the villain a hundred times every morning, noon and night. But never I said.
I cannna say who for the love of Kate who was long bespoke to "that nice ould man, Ratsy," and she never to have hopes for anither suitor wi' herself being beyond homely.
I canna say who, being afeared for the curse of the sea in it, to hurt Ma and worser nor afore, and curse Da's soul in Heaven.
I canna say who for thinking it me own sin, what I shoulda fought a harder fight.
And if I coulda fought harder, and I shoulda, I tell meself, then I woulda ben free of this horror. Ay, woulda, coulda, shoulda, and if: aint it all over again, friend? 'Tis me private apocalypse.
I canna say who for the shame eating me soul and never stopped burning between me thighs.
God be me witness, I didna say to never a body on earth who done it, all these fifty-one turrible years. No a whisper, no a finger pointing.
Until yerself, friend.
And I didna tell in the confessional box the most wee part of it---- ay! is it such a horror has a wee part?---- nor even in me darkest corners of me bleakest hours speak to any but the Virgin Mary what I had felt of Hell and Heaven.
"How was it with you when the seed was planted, Sainted Virgin? What did You feel? And after? And after that? And that? And then, how was it to carry life and feel the pangs?" The questions drove me near mad.
I canna say who, and me belly grows, and I feel the quickening. Ma is destroyed and Da is dead, and Kateeen, away across the wide ocean to Buffalo, she never learnt the first thing aboot it, nor Grampa, God bless his dear soul.
And if ye be a real person houlding that taycup, friend, and this really be Easter Sunday, 1941, it really be this ould house in the gloaming on O'Connell Street, what used to be Sandusky Street in the ould days, and nae more anither trick of me muddle-puddle brain ... then, ye be the first on earth to know what the Queen of Heaven knew all these cursed years since. Ay, friend, that's the second secret only the Blessed Virgin knew---- for She understands that, amongst a parish flock in any Irish town, same as here in the crammed and cramped Ould First Ward, confessional screens have tongues. Ay, ye be first to know, and mebbe last to forget, who done it. Ratsy done it. He done that and he done this. Ay, Ratsy, the foul villain. God's Grace! For it's the worser of all to come.
And did me silence win reprieve, ye'll be asking? Whisht! The curse of the hungry wave was never lifted, nae, never lessened but increased, mind ye, and visited upon Kate and Dunc and Rita and Cabbie, yet Duncan most of all. Ay! It's the sharpness of remembering the horror clears the fog on the mirror of me brain, and the raking edge of it what ruches me skin to wrinkles. Godamercy! It's each new day, a quiver of flaming arrows pierces me heart and impales me soul, and carries me to that cursed island of time beyond, when Ratsy thrust his villainy into me. And more nor that and a' that, it's the sharpness of stones on that gritty dirt cottage floor so longgo, it is, the screams and the ripping pain and the hideous salt of the taste, and it never lets off, him still tearing at me memory and breaking me heart and body anew. The cries of "Let off!" and "Stop!" And the wanting between me legs that never quits.










Illustration the thirty-sixth

543

CHAPTER THIRTY SIX: cursed


After the ... the rape, it's every waking minute I'm thinking revenge. And it's every day in the garret under the thatch in wee County Louth longgo and beyond, the seed of that cursed whistling is growing. Ay, every damned day in me damned belly. Every damned hour, for they all be damned.
"By the fiery sword of the archangel Michael," I vow, "I'll find a way. Your time will come, Ratsy, if I have to sell my soul to the Divil. I'll see you down to the flags of Hell afore I die!"
It's that what I prayed for, and didna himself be stretched at the end of a rope in the way ye heared tell? Surely, when they shoved him into his potter's hole, the dirt was wet wi' the tears of Auld Maggie-Bawn's mystery. But the damp grew dark flowers, and the grave didna end the whistling curse. Ye'll be asking, then, howanever is it the evil lived on? Whisht! Hould yer peace, friend, and do ye try anither sup of tay for there's greater heartache waits. Let travel yer brain back to County Louth fifty-one years ago, and perk yer ears on the news to come, whilst yet ye remember me story already told beyond.
Da is three months in his grave, God love him, when Ma discovers I am wi' child. And I told ye, but I have need to say it again, the way it burns on me mind, all the details.
"God save us all, we canna have this known, child," Ma wrings her hands. "I must think of some way ... some thing."
"Ma, I am not a child. I am twenty-seven," I tell meself again.
" ... O, Lord in Heaven, what's to do? What's to do?" her voice fills wi' pain. "How could anybody ... How could ye ... What's to become of ye ... O, Sacred Heart of Mary, pray for us ... what's to become of us at all?"
I'm shedding doon tears enough to make a lough, and misery shredding my soul beyond the beyonds. And I am afeared of God's wrath.
"Ma, do not tell me aught of 'us,' for what's to become of me? 'Tis my belly and my baby, who will surely kill me in my twisted body---- ay, did not the cursed Ratsy call me, 'twister?' Or mebbe God will kill me at the birthing, the like of your mother, Ma, if not afore, and the sin of it will take my soul straight to Hell. Or mebbe," I bitterly cry the hours away to myself, "it's me and the baby will burn together." And it's often then the rage overcomes me, and it's again through my clenched jaws I promise the empty cottage: "Ay, we'll see you in Hell, Ratsy, and my baby and me, we'll smile and wait our turn and watch your black heart burn."
Hell is the next world. In this world, Ma tells how it will be. Must be. 'Tis anither edition of Hell, so it is.
"From this oot, ye must bide in the shadows, hid away from the light, Maggie-Bawn. Never in this world a single body to know, do ye understand? O, Maggie," she's hugging me to her breast and she forgetting the pain in me spine that canna bend, "What are we to do? What are we at? Saints in Heaven preserve us, where are we to go? What will we do?" she sobs.
'Tis soon enough Ma knows where she's at and what's to do, herself hurrying and scurrying to fasten stick and plank aneath pungent cottage thatch, for to construct me prison cell in the turf-loft between the gables. Och! She's throwing rope over the thatch, for to keep the prison roof fastened when the wind blows. It's for meself to be hid on the shelf in endless guilt, lonesome, and brimming wi' sorra the twenty-eight weeks left until me time, in't, hid in that there wee musty garret-cell, hid in the dark the like of a thief when, troth and faith, it's me been ransacked and paying the ransom too. It's there in the biding shadows I measure a shut-in's shame, ay, in the gloom of the loft, in the stifling darkness pressing upon me soul, each day heavier wi' the grief and the babby, and in the darkness inside me belly where the babby moves, waiting endless on endless for the sinfulness and punishment of birth, and will the light of the guid God never come?
Musha, it didna suffice for Ma to wait and aggravate when there's a grander plan grows in her mind and mends her heart. She thinks of Kate living in America wi' Daideo, God rest his soul, and Ratsy waiting for to marry Kate, and all them knowing aught of me stained belly or what's growing in it---- no the whisper of a whisper do they ken. And Ma thinks on that and all that and says aught of her cleverness until one market day.
On that fine evening, Ma come home telling the way she concealed her splintery heart and the silent sin under our cottage thatch, and smiled broadly upon all the ones she met in the village.
"I be so ould as I am, yet I am wi' child," Ma bragged to the townfowk. "Ay, I'm swelling wi' pride," she joked, "and it's a grand miracle to tell. Ring the bells and beat the bodhrans: I am wi' child! God willing, all what ye will plainly see soon enough," Ma rubbing her belly. "Paul is wi' God in Heaven and his seed here wi' me. Ay, 'tis for the remembrance he planted his gift." And she smiled the like of Elizabeth wi' Mary.
Townfowk look upon Ma in astonishment, and wonder a great puzzle at Da's powers, Holy Angels bless his soul, and the quare turn of events so quick.
"'Tis really Paul himself made a babby? And him dying with the shrivels?" they ax aboot Da. "Him so pale and meager wi' the consumption, him a hank of hair and a droop of skin and the bones knobbing oot, himself dunnit? Howanever did he have the power, and yourself, Margaret, wearying at forty-four years by your own count?" them gossipy eejits wonder, whispering and winking and ciphering to themselves, and asking behind their hands "Didna any of ye seen a man gone doon that way, mebbe a tinker, a stranger in the night?"
And Ma hears all, tut-tutting, "Yer needing to know, me Paul had a dance or three left. Ay, 'tis a power of a man me Paul was, strengthy even to the very end ... a man has an 'end,' didna ye know," she puns upon the crowd of dooting Thomases. And she secretly rubbing her face wi' sand to puff up her cheeks.
"Ay, it's his end ye quicked, ye stupid cow," some snickering into their jars at the public house, "squeezing his power oot, ay, pressing his grapes."
Ma, Sweet Mary be wi' her! didna be moved, and she's after telling one and all of the grand plans to swaddle and baptize her own wee one. And all the while it's meself, alone in the gloom of the loft, bundling a fist in me gob to muffle the crying oot against the babby's kicks, what flames torment into me crooked spine.
Faith and glory, it's the spine Ma's clever brain seizes upon: " 'Tis the consumption at Maggie's crooked back eating away again, in't," she lies to the townland gossips, "and it's poorly I'd be after tending Maggie in me later months, thinking of meself swollen wi' child," she sighs, "and the consumption lurking in Maggie's bones such a turrible danger to me wee precious lamb to come, didna ye know," patting her padded belly again. "So our Maggie-Bawn's to go off to America," she lies, "for to stay wi' Kate and her Daideo. I'll be taking Maggie in the creel car whilst I'm still able, for to catch the packet at Newcastle Port meets the steamer at Liverpool. And it'll be aisy milk for me and me babby, ay, milk," she grins, patting her breast, "withoot troubling Maggie-Bawn's crooked spine." The secret truth, Ma knows, 'tis the consumption trapped in me spine hollows oot her own lungs.
The townfowk listen and wonder. The bad-mouths and slitty eyes whisper aboot, but canna win over the ithers. The gossips and busybodies are put off. By the bye, the myth grows and spreads, our cottage is a den of consumption and it's naebody in the village wi' any sense in his brain will visit us lest them too be struck doon.
"Godamercy," Ma explains, "there's anyways better doctoring in America, Maggie and her spine biding over there, in Buffalo. Ay, it's herself away wi' Kate looking after ... and Maggie mebbe helping her Daideo, Paddy Houlihan, as she can," and Ma's beaming proud. "Himself is the famous Irish baker, first in the Buffalo trade. Sure and sartain, they'll be sending back American dollars in it," Ma adds to her convincing tale wi' the conviction of the converted. "And the dollars coming here for to help me hatch the babby, in't." Ma has aught more to say aboot the consumption sweating her by night and eating holes in her own lungs by day.
She surely does carry me to Newcastle Port for the midnight packet ... ay, and stealthy home again the same night, meself buried in the creel car under a drumlin of hay. Back at the cottage, it's a clumsy climb for a crooked spine and four scuttling limbs into the wee garret-room, me prison cell under the thatch, put away of the sun and the moon, and the green things growing, and the bees and the hens and the pig, and the smell of the earth in season. Sweet Virgin, She didna hear my plea, meself hidden like a ghost amongst the living. Godamercy, like a condemned prisoner in the Tower, hauling the meals up and sending the potty doon. For seven months, I canna touch a toe upon the cottage flags nor cross the threshold to the light of day.
Musha, was I missed by the townfowk? Ye'll understand, friend, it's me crabwise gait and crooked spine, Godamercy, kept me house-bound afore. Never in this world did I stray beyond the garden nor far as the lane. And so there's nae the gossip when a jaunting car come trundling doon the village road didna see me, and Ma saying, "Maggie-Bawn is at Buffalo." Nae; nor the bona fide reeling from a drop taken on the footpath, wonders what way he didna see me aboot, when Ma talks aboot Maggie-Bawn away off wi' her Daideo. When visitors do come to the cottage, amn't I stiller than death wi' me terrified heart knocking me ribs in the garret-room above; and when they leave, I am the like of stretched. And Ma, she's wadding stuff under her shifts, a wee bit more each week, and craftily padding her blouse, and holystones her cheeks to puff them up, and smiling in her village visits.
"Kate and Maggie-Bawn's be having a grand time wi' Daideo in America ... and Ratsy's found wark on the grain thingums the Americans invented." Faith, Ratsy, the vermin, is indeed a throttle man on the steam machinery of the grain buckets.
"Ay, it's the foul Ratsy to marry my darling Kateen," I grieve, "and take her away forever. Divil roast him, what gave me sin and takes away love."
Whisht! I canna smile wi' me lips pressed against the pain, and who will know? For I never be telling nor seeing a living soul but Ma, and me prison a wattle-walled, thatch-covered, bleak black secret naebody on this earth hears, and me shedding doon tears from waking to sleeping ... and canna sleep. Even I never reveal aught of the bairn's sire, Ma---- Sweet Mary bless her soul!---- refuses to be sending a stained babby to an orphanage, for ay, she's thinking, mebbe, aboot a sartain six-toe babby sent to Saint Maundie's Foundling Home forty-four years since.
Ma knows aught of the ould Widow Mahony visiting me. She knows aught what Hugh O'Neill told Christy Mahony told Jimmy Callahan told Sister Therese Bernadette. She knows aught aboot Laurie Jane O'Neill's foolscap, or the young lassie's diary, or Meggeen's copy of the O'Neills contract wi' Mahony---- all of them papers buried in the wreck of Meggeen's shebeen by the River Bann, what Ratsy razed. And it's then and noow, I didna never say. Me thatch-roof prison is me iron mask, and me tongue locked inside. There's Ma getting on wi' her plan and smiling to one and all in the parish, and casting a sour puss on me in me turf-log loft. It's me having all the keys, and naething of the doors, and Ma knows aught of keys nor doors. Me anger against Ma swells in me heart, hotter than the tears in me eyes, and it's glad I am for to have told her never a single word aboot Meggeen Mike Mahony's visit so longgo, and the plantation.
"Two O'Neill bastards and one is a foundling, that surely is all God intends," Ma's muttering to herself when she drills those looks into my face.
Nor one breath do I give her aboot Ratsy ben the babby's father.
"I know about you, Ma, what you do not know about yourself. And it's my baby, not yours," I tell my broken heart in the desolated turf-loft.
A madness comes over me, locked in me solitary prison, seven dark months alone withoot even me shadow. I didna wish to die, but some days I'm wanting the babby for to die, it being Ratsy's seed, whilst ither days, I'm wanting bad for the consumption to finish wi' Ma, the like of Da, and the babby to be mine alone.
"Damn ye, Ratsy," me soul screams at the stifling thatch. "Double damn ye to the end of time! Die! Die! Die!"
Me teeth wear and me jaws ache from the constant gnashing and gritting, and I take to gnawing on the woodwark---- like a rat ... ay, a rat!
"I hate you, Ma, what you done to my life," I complain silently to the empty loft. "The baby is mine to keep, so it is, Ma, 'tis mine! 'Tis not yours, 'tis mine!" I argue with the turf-logs stored about me, and my mind shrieking so loud I can hardly hear myself think. I promise myself, "Ma cannot live forever with the consumption in her chest. And when she passes, I'll be after sending for the secrets buried under the flags of the old shebeen. And I'll take Ratsy to court for ruinating the widow Meggeen Mahony, and then the old shebeen and the land that Ratsy stole will come to me. Ay, I'll be rich and my baby will have a grand mansion and servants, och, the like of Great-Gran'ma Laurie Jane when she was young." All the months, my brain is grinding the like of these thoughts---- the longer, the harder and wilder, and I'm going crazy with the crunching.
And then come to the end, me babby's time for to enter this world. Here's a Missus Finnegan, the midwife, she's the only one in thirty-two counties and this green island is in on me secret. Afeared for the bairn's life and mine, she is, wi' me body distorted so unnatural. Me water burst four days since, for there's noowhere inside me twisted body to hould it, and she's clenching me hands and mopping me sweat and kneading me belly and praying to the Queen of Heaven to save a hunchback's sinful issue. And when she tires, it's Ma steps up the ladder to the turf-loft and helps as she can.
Whisht! By the Sainted Virgin's grace it come to be a live birth. For though I screech for two days and a night like a froe on a grindstone, and all that wi' a rag stuffed in me gob, Missis Finnegan digs the bairn oot, the like of tearing me apart, and there come a babby healthy and squirming, a laddie whole and perfect. Praise God, five toes on each foot!
Come the dawn, Mrs. Finnegan walks doon into the village market to tell all the nosies and gossips at the market, "Margaret Paula Houlihan's borne a boy, but ould as she is, and a touch of the consumption for her years, didna ye know, it was a labor, ay, a hard labor," and she turns to the men. "Ay, such pain as makes Adam's rib the like of child's play." She turns back to the women: "And the little small one," she lies to knots of women at market, "is sickly, ye'll understand why," for she's knowing when that be so, there canna be visitors to surprise meself in the cottage.
It's seven days later, and the wee merry nameless one fattened and "cured" in me abundance of breast milk. Ma takes the babby to be baptized, and I am forbid to make the trip---- for aint I in Buffalo? It's Paul she names the bairn, after me Da. And second name, Duncan, for didna ye remember, friend, in the diary howanever Duncan was guid Sister Therese Bernadette's favorite Scottish ancestral hero when Ma was a foundling lassie in the Community of Saint Maundie? So Ma tells me.
"Call him Duncan," Ma says to all, "for Paul is away in Heaven, God bless him."
In the village, ones say the babby is the spit and image of Ma.
"And whatsomever's the wonder of that, for so is meself," I'm thinking.
And it's here ye're mebbe thinking, friend, "At last! The curse had done wi' its taking, then. 'Tis the end of a sad, sad story."
Think again, friend, for me tub of tears didna yet overflow. First come the whistling curse of the Sea-Divil again, humping and lumping me spine wi' the consumption worser nor afore, and Ma telling me the preganancy did soften me bones, so it did. Bedad! The pains is more nor Catherine on the rack, nor Sebastian's arrows, and me spine growing more crooked by the day until I'm scuttling on all fours from sun-up to sunset. It's only in the contentment of his suck, and the pure bliss of me 'let doons' wi' the nursing of Duncan, I forget the pain, 'tis such a glow to hould him.
"I canna rise," Ma says on a sartain morning, for the consumption all times eating Ma alive, too. "I canna be long in this world, Maggie-Bawn."
What was to become of us? Ma's on to dying, and Da's ashes, God bless him, cold in his grave, and there's wee babby Duncan and all, and me crippled spine worser by the day. It's the angel of death flutters his black wings aboot the cottage, and Ma, God bless her! seeing the end near, she telegraphs Kate to hurry back from America.
"Maggie-Bawn, ye must be ready for Kate, and be weaning Duncan afore she gets here. She canna know he's yer babby. She must know him only as mine, as the whole world does."
"She cannot know it's my babby?" I'm shrieking to myself. "Howanever she cannot know? You say she cannot know? Good God in Heaven, 'tis mine, 'tis mine! 'Tis my Duncan, Ma!"
Saints and Martyrs, Ma's taking Ratsy's curse like a red-hot blade and twisting it, O God, ay, into me soul. Mind ye, friend, I canna recall the weaning times that follow, the days and nights drownded in tears and pain, the howling babby what squirms at me arms and craves so loudly for me breast in every hour, ay, the poor innocent never satisfied wi' his sucking rag. Holy Mother, Lady of Sorrows, mend me, wi' the turrible despair of cake-breast and the binding, and the longing ache of me dry nipples and the most turrible hurting ever of me spine, and the worsest ache of all rending me heart what sinks in darkness and despair. 'Tis a woe empties me of spirit to this day, ye'll understand, friend, beyond the beyonds, so choked with the grief of it until I canna think of tomorrow or yesterday or this hour or that, but only meeting Hell longgo on the gritty flags of that cottage floor. Sweet, Sweet Mary in Heaven, She sees the way me broken soul crawls to the black rim of anguish and looks doon in the night and fog at the depthless horror of it, and plunges into it, doon, doon, doon, endlessly doon. And so it come to start in those years beyond the beyonds, the torture of me whole existence. God in Heaven, forgive me sins!
'You cannot do this to me, Ma," I console myself. "I know from Meggeen Mahony all about you, Ma, more than you know about yourself. You cannot exile my child as you were exiled. And you cannot keep my child from his true mother, to live next to her and grow up in ignorance of her, as you lived next to Therese, your true grandmother, and grew up in ignorance of her. By Holy Trinity and the living God, you cannot do that," I resolve.
Ma canna but she does. And if I tell Kate? She wasn't here. She'll say I'm cuckoo.
So it is, what happened next. Here come Kate on the night train from Buffalo to New York for the next fast steamer to Ireland. Ratsy fetches Kate from the docks at Cobh, and them up the railway to Drogheda, and here they come by carriage to the cottage. And God houlds Ma in His right hand all those nine days, herself paler than egg-white, wi' the hawking and coughing that clogs her throat and the bloody clots of phlegm.
Kate arrives and settles in, always believing Duncan is Ma's babby, for how could I, would I, should I tell her different, or aboot her monstrous Ratsy, and if I did, she'd never believe me. Godamercy! Ma anyways forbid me that. And draws Ratsy aside, telling him aught but to spread it aboot howanever I arrived from America wi' Kate: Divil a body in the townland nor Ratsy knew I was hid seven months under the thatch. Nor does Ma tell Kate, who's thinking all the time she's ben biding wi' Daideo in America, I'm oot and aboot as much as me hump allows. And Ratsy, the monster caused it all, he knows what side of his bread is buttered, and says aught to Kate. Bedad! Me heart says the villain knows in his bones whose babby Duncan is. And the secret was strung up with him.
God bless Kateen aroon, that she come in the quick of time, for it's two days passes amidst the jigs and reels of unpacking and rearranging, and Ma's gouting more blood from her mouth by the minute. It's surely the end, Kateen says, so it is. Kateen has reason. It's within the hour we ben standing beside Ma's deathbed.
Ma looks up and says, "Blessings on ye both, and Caithleann, ye be the strong one takes a guid care of me wee Duncan, and remember me to him."
It stabs my heart like that great twisting knife, worse than afore: " 'Tis Ma's Duncan, and never mine. Never in this world." I want to die.
And Kate vows, "I will, Ma, I will treat yer Duncan as me own. I vow on me life I will, and by all what's holy, so rest easy and God bless ye and the Queen of Heaven watch over ye, Ma."
Ma says between gasps, "Ye be a guid ma, then, Kate, and watch over yer sister."
Kate says, "Yes, Ma, and do ye look down on us when ye can."
And I have aught to say, huddled in a corner in me tears and double grief, though the true reasons never be known.
Kateen's tucking the sheets and I'm bringing the tay. It's during the raspy breaths of sleep when Ma stops breathing at all, the like of a clock stops ticking. One stroke and then silence. Nae the sigh nor the struggle, but never a sound out of her and the peaceful end in her sleep.
"She's gone, God bless her," Kate says.
I am too filled wi' heartache and hate, too vexed wi' loss, too anguished and coflicted in me soul, to say one word, even a blessing. It's in the echo of Kate's words, I'm crouched by the bedside and kissing Ma on her lips, and it's the guilt of hatred suffocating me brain. Then I'm riz wi' me cane propped in me belly, as, mark! I will do again one day, friend---- what I have told ye beyond, of howanever I did against Ratsy and that. But it was all yet to come, and noow it's meself bending doon to hug Ma's frailness to the circle of me arms, and me tears falling upon her blind eyes. And I'm trying to forgive the dreadful sorrafuless of Duncan, but I canna do't. Ever.
Any more of that hour is a blur, until Father Lenihan arrives. Ma's cooled even whiter as she was in life, pale as a ghost when Father says she's still breathing, and brushes us back, and pronounces her Last Rites. On the way oot, he says---- again!---- the parish needs money. And pats me hump.
That is me last clear memory in it, for me brain is shocked numb, overwhelmed wi' grief, and me heart dumbstruck broken. So great is me sorra, losing me Ma and me Duncan, I hardly remember the pyre, or the wake wi' Ma's ashes, or the funeral. Nor the Mass. 'Tis but a turrible dream, people milling aboot, ones coming and away, here and there this one or that one touching me lightly, the grave and the shoveling, and me on the sod so shaken wi' sorra and anger I canna rise. Horrible truth to tell, God forgive me! less is me grief for Ma I loved heart and soul, and more the unbearable pain for losing the joy of me life, Duncan.
Mind ye, friend, that and a' that, 'tis the birth of the living lie aboot who is Duncan's mother, what broke me heart every day of his life. Ay, Ma machree, the Holy Angels protect her, and me in her name! It's Kate knowing Duncan only as Ma's child what she vowed to look after as her own. And Duncan knowing Kate as his true mother, God in Heaven, from that day oot. O sorra! Sorra! Sweet Mary, touch me sorraful soul! Me own Duncan never to know his own ma, me what carried him in me belly in the fires of me crooked spine, me what pressed me hump against the wall and flowed the milk of motherhood into him from me eager breasts! Ay, it's Ratsy's curse that never ends. And when Ma dies and the light near faded oot me eyes for losing her, I'm after losing Duncan too. Kateen never learnt the truth of his birth even to her own passing. Nor did Duncan.
So it come our Ma passes, and we wake her ashes and bury her beside Da, and 'tis soon enough Kate and Dunc and me come over the wild wide Atlantic wi' Ratsy, Divil mend him! to Grampa here in Buffalo. Of their wedding I've already said. It's to Kateen I lost Duncan, yet never lost sight of him. I am wi' Kate ever after, and babby Duncan is wi' Kate, the only mother ever he will remember till his last breath in this world. And hers.
Whisht! That's the last secret, the crime beginning it and the lie gave life to it and the aching end of it, that and a' that what scalds me brain anew wi' each burning sunrise, and every waning moon freezes me blood yet again, the secret of the broken child whose true mother and father nae one living soul ever come to know but Auld Hunchback Maggie-Bawn ... and now yerself, me friend.
That's the flaming Hell for him who did it all, and the doubled blackness of me sins that shivers me heart and thickens upon me soul like winter fog on a still sea, and the whistling curse of that very sea, the very curse that took them all, Da and Ma and Kate and Rita and Dunc and Cabbie, all taken from me, and the tree of me mind blown to the four winds leaf by leaf, ay, and the fire between me legs that never dies, and me living in a cursed circle where yesterday is tomorrow and today never comes.
Och! There's so many stones to visit noow, and Grampa's sleeping under the first, the Holy Mother love him. It's meself alone there to say the Aves and telling me beads, kneeling at his graveside, God bless him. I long for the day I shall sleep beside him, though I know there's nae rest for me waiting in Heaven. I who have endured all to protect Kate who surely lives in Heaven noow, and sweet Duncan, himself who was born of rape and pain, and died not knowing God, I who suffer what's been committed and omitted in silence, never saying what canna be said ...
"I can endure Duncan's pain," I believe, "and my pain, and pain beyond pain, and beyond the beyonds, as I have endured to this day that my sins may be forgiven. And if it come all eternity but one hour, I shall wait for the golden door to open, then. Ay, it's from joyful to sorrowful to glorious I'm traveling with a full life, and here at the end, the grave yawning. The seas, they hunger, and the tides, they roll, and the Divil's wave opens his maw to Ratsy's whistling, what swallowed Jimmy Callahan and Belle of Newcastle and Kevin Callahan and Fishhawk and the sinful tinker. Crave me, the Divil can, but it's never for him to gnaw upon my heart." And so in the flower o innocence I thought those things.
For in the end, the curse of the sea, it was more nor I could bear ... but bear it I did, be it God or the Divil sent it: God for to punish me over me sins I canna speak at the confessional screen. Or the Divil bringing Ratsy's curse.
And how was that, yer asking, friend? God protect us, there's nae a body under Kate's stone, nor Duncan's, nor Rita's, nor poor little Cabbie's. Ay, for it was in that Spring of 1915, I told anyone in the whole wide world---- ay, Kate for the first time---- aboot the ould Widow Mahony. I told aboot Meggeen visiting at our cottage afore Kate was born there, and the story of Ma's being a bastard, and of the contract mebbe still hidden in the ould shebeen wall, and under it, Great-Gran'ma O'Neill's diary book and Laurie Jane's foolscap. And Kevin's silver nugget mebbe still about in the old hovel on Arran. And Kate come excited and talked of always wanting to visit the Ould Country, and howanever it might be noow, mebbe we be owning a grand piece of Ulster plantation, no that we needed money wi' Grampa's bakery cash invested at the bank, what Mister Vanderbilt give over to Mister Morgan.
"A plantation? That and a' that, it's waiting, mebbe."
"Sartain and sure, Maggie-Bawn, we have some class of a claim. All them partikiler O'Neills and their kind is dead noow. 'Tis what the girls doon in Flannery's snug say, God knows how they know."
"And we'll really go over there, wi' the war and all?"
"Aint 'we,' Maggie-Bawn. I'll go first and take the kids so they can touch the green grass of wee County Louth. Rita and Cabbie, they never been there and Duncan, he was just a wee babby, he'll see the village where he was born. And we'll travel up the River Bann to what's left of the shebeen. God hold us all in the palm of His hand, whatanever's awaiting there?"
"Ay, 'born.' What do you know about 'born,' Kateen?" rages in me brain and wets me eyes.
"O, Maggie-Bawn, ye canna be crying. We'll be back," she mistaking the cause.
"And what is it will happen to me? Who will be here for me?" Faith and troth, I didna think I could live alone by myself, knowing where she and the kids were.
"Mary Flannery can come and stay wi' ye till I send word. She's aught to do and too much to do it wi', these days, wi' her son running the saloon and all. There's plenty of life in Mary."
And we talked and talked aboot it. The more we talked, the more Kateen was convinced she had reason and the right plan.
"We'll go back where we belong, Maggie, back to our own country," she's all excited. "We never belonged here in Buffalo wi' all them rough Irish from the stenchy ditches of Muenster and Leinster and the cheap lanes of Dublin and Limerick, and there's few ken our North Sea brogue here in the First Ward. Nae, we belong in wee County Louth, where the River Bann runs doon to the sea, and to Arran where ye were born, and no the thundery fright and forever cloud of Niagara Falls kill a person puts a boat aboot." She sounds ready to flap her arms and fly. "Ay, it's back to the green of Ireland where ye can see the drumlins marching up the Mountains of Mourne, and smell the sweet air wafts oot the glens, and feel the soft sod wiggling beween yer toes ... that's our real home, aint it, Maggie-Bawn?"
"Ay, but the war, Kateen, the war. Aint it a dangerous thing yer saying?"
"For the love of God, Magg vie, aint it Ireland's at peace, in't? Ay, and friendly to the Huns, for to humiliate the hateful English. O, I should hope, Maggie-Bawn! The Germans, they aint got nae call," Kate insists, "to bother boats sails to Ireland. They know we're buttering their bread. Anybody wi' any sense at all knows that. It's the Kaiser will bring ould King George to his knees, and Erin to cast off the yoke and flourish like never afore."
And so Kateen says she'll go and see the place where she was born, and where Ma and Da were born, and across in Arran where I was born and riz, and the Highlands where Great-Gran'ma Laurie Jane lived, and the bit of foolscap says who Laurie Jane MacInnish was, and mebbe the O'Neill contract and the lassie's diary, that and all that, will give us a claim upon the plantation of O'Neill-the-depraved. Kateen says, when things look good, she'll send for me. So she says.
It's great plans are laid by, and sartain as daylight, she says, I canna cross the Atlantic wi' me curlicue spine and aching hump and no knowing what will be what when we get there. I canna be expecting her wi' the kids and all to be helping me on a rolling deck. Come later, she says. There's enough of Grampa's money for Mary Flannery to come wi' ye, she says, and Mary's always wanting to see Patrickdoon where she come from, even when her old man, Jimmy, was alive. And Mary has plenty socked by on her own, for Flannery's Tavern, she calls it noow, it's a winner; and the snuggery's colossal, too, Kateen winks, and she's twitting on and on, never hearing me smallest wee word, her making a goat's beard of a horse's tail, and meself looking up the arse end.
Ay, it come April 28th that cursed year, Kate and her brood leave, waving guidbye to me at the New York Central station in Buffalo, wi' the hugging and kissing amidst the steam hissing, and the cry of, "All aboard!" and the short whistle blasts, and then the pistons chuffing and puffing and the great wheels clanking and cranking faster and faster. It's on the first of May, 1915, they walk up the dock in New York City and board the Lusitania. Second class, they're traveling, on Grampa's legacy. And I'm pointing the blackthorn twig back here on Sandusky Street, east, west, north, and south. And it's the east lurking for them. That there night, the bridge dream come to me again, and this time I'm throwing me cane away into thrashing waters.











Illustration the thirty-seventh

561

CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN: Therese


Let shut me eyes and stop me ears, friend, och, let slip me brain, and I'll be thinking we're no in this here parlor at all, nor at this Sandusky Street house. Nae, we be at Holy Cross burying ground again, treading soft above them sleeps in that there green earth, us walking slow and me wi' me cane amongst the colorful bouquets and wee flags, the tidy headstones and grand monuments. It's here, by Grampa's Celtic cross, God love him, so peaceful in the sweet fragrance of late April, here in the solemn shadow of the carven Pieta, the way we'll lay the flowers, och, the way me darling Duncan did in the longgo. And will ye no be spreading a kerchief and help me for to kneel, friend? For it's on me knees I'm seeking comfort in this holy place. Bless Grampa, all ye Saints and Martyrs. 'Tis soon enough I'll be sleeping by his side, remembering them good times together, in't.
"Dia's Muire duit, Daideo."
Blessed Virgin, howsomever I loved him!
"Here's three Aves for you, Grampa, and a Pater ... and another ... "
Hark! Amn't I feeling his breath in me ear? Amn't I feeling his touch on me arm? Amn't I seeing his face over me shoulder?
"Grampa!"
Be it conjury or no, me heart sings all the same.
"Grampa!"
I'm praying me 'Hail, Mary,' over and again to the Pieta, the marble Mother, Vessel of Grace, blessed among women, mourning Her son as I do me Duncan. I thank Her for the intercession sent Ratsy from purgatory to the flame everlasting. Godamercy, I'm sartain aboot that, though I didna hear tell it so. I'm praying for Kateen, and the kids be safe in Heaven---- if they be there and nae in Limbo.
"Are they not with You in Heaven, Sweet Mother? Cannot You tell me they are there? I pray, tell me of Duncan, and of Kateen, my anam cara ....and Rita, and Cabby. Tell me, I beseech You!"
And O! 'Tis me own sweet Duncan I long for most of all, a wretched innocent plunged into the shivery deeps of the Irish Sea. Tell, Sainted Virgin, a word, a sound, to say You hear me petition. Where is he?
" 'Tis only silence I hear, Holy Pieta, only a marble tongue and then the bubbling track of the torpedo, and the spew of flame, and the screams of the maimed and dying. I see my panicked Duncan convulsing from the fright of it, choking on his own puke, and nae Last Rites to save his tormented soul, Lord love the poor lost lamb, so sorrowfully misbegotten, him in his broken brain knowing aught of Heaven nor God nor Grace, never hearing the rustle of angel wings nor the Sanctus of the celestial choir, never tasting the green of manly years, never seeing beyond the least of what was afore him. And never touching the shores of Ireland again, so close to him that horrendous day. Never knowing who is his ma. Cursed, he was, Cursed,"
Tell me, Holy Mother, for the love of Christ, where is Duncan? In Limbo? In Heaven? O! me blighted son, the never-ended grief of me life, me heart torn in three! Where are you? Where?
"It's my cursed fault, never thinking to pray to the sea-god, never considering the Celtic circle, never doubting the power of beads and the cross, the devotions, the candles the intentions, ... never asking your safety of Manannan Mac Lir, never, my darling Duncan."
Do You no hear me crying oot, Sweet Mary? Do You no feel me grief, sweet silent stone Pieta?
"Ay, Queen of Heaven, I pray for my dear Duncan, flesh of my flesh, soul of my soul, heart of my heart, let his wee sins be taken away and the bruised fruit of my womb be reborn whole, and the rock be rolled away from the tomb of his broken brain."
Do ye no hear me crying oot, Blessed Virgin? O yes, yes, Lady of Sorra, I do love You, yes, and will You noo put the son I'm wanting in me arms? The way of You, Pieta, holding Your Son in Your arms, will You no?
"Did You not say, or I did not hear? Aught? And the dumb silence all there is in it? I should have thought, 'Manannan Mac Lir.' "
O, Sweet Lady, hear me woe beyond want, agony beyond anguish! O! me lost Duncan, never in this world knowing yer true Ma what bore and suckled ye! Our two broken hearts biding in the same house, together and apart, and there's me Kateen, me anam cara, between us ...
And her believing our own mother's lie. O God, O Mary, mercy!
"And myself never thinking to ask the sea-god for help."
Bless Kateen, Sweet Mary! Bless me sister mavourneen, me love, me lover aroon, me world, me heaven on earth, Kateen who mothered me own son, herself who was the spirit of me life, herself who was carried away wi' Duncan and Rita and Cabbie, ay, all cursed by Ratsy's Sea-Divil, drownded in the Lusitania.
"If only I would have thought, 'Manannan Mac Lir!' I could have. I should have."
God have mercy for ye, Duncan, swallowed by the brutal waves, ay, wi' never a grave, a clot of sod, a spot of earth, a stone, a mark, never the shade and thrum of an angel's wing, and only the fishies and the kelpies to mourn ye, and the cold heaving sea for a shroud, and the whispering of Heaven lost in the howling winds and the roiling seas. O! Me lost Duncan!
"If only I would have thought, 'Manannan Mac Lir.' Could have. Should have. O! Duncan!'
What is this Earth if ye're not here, child? What is Heaven if ye're not there? Tell me, Blessed Mary!
"Do you not speak, Angels in Heaven? Do You not hear me, Lord? Can You not send me a sign, Sainted Virgin! A sign, Stone Pieta, tell me my sweet lamb is waiting. A sign! A word!"
O! Duncan! Let the guid God say or no say, let all Heaven be deaf wi' sorra, let the gate to Limbo be shut wi' the seven seals, I shall come to ye, Duncan! Let there be voice or nae voice, or flutter of wings or blast of flame, I shall come to ye, Duncan, I shall come through the icy seas of the Divil and the burning flags of Hell, past the seven-headed beast of Limbo, past the one who is and is not! O, yes! I shall come for ye, me darling Duncan!
I pray of You, sainted stone Pieta: "Sweet Mother, O pity, pity, take pity, Lady of Sorrows, upon the hapless child whose mind God filled with the cursed slag of a broken brain, whilst mine He pleased to charge with the ever-burning coals of vengeance. It's here from between my breasts, Lady of Sorrows, I take the blackthorn twig, whilst I crawl 'round Grampa's grave inscribing the sacred circle of the Druids and CuChulainn and Lugh and Erin's ancient heroes, and I'm praying to You, Blessed Virgin,"
"Tell me, Sweet Mary! A sound from Your marble tongue, a nod of Your carven head to say You hear me prayers, a signal, a sound, a mark, a stain. Yes, a stain of Grace, Sainted Virgin, a stain of blood, the like of the blood spurted from me crushed flesh aneath Ratsy's rapine savagery, the like of the bloody drops of broken joy to see Duncan's head crowning oot me swollen belly, the like of the pulped and bleeding afterbirth, the like of the bloody splatter from the endless red-hot hammering of me broken heart on God's anvil, the like of shattered hope at every bleeding dawn and every clotted dusk and every black scab of night, the like of Duncan living down the stairs wi' the unspeakable wretch who made him, and meself up the stairs, abject wi' desolation, hour after hour, day after day, year after year ... ay, the like of the blood at Calvary. Ay, a sign, Pieta, Lady of Sorra, send me a sign!"
And in a great blaze amidst that lonesome dreariness, it come into me brain as never afore.
"Not the marble Mother, but you, Manannan Mac Lir, dark ruler of the hidden grottoes, you, devourer of the Lusitania, of Kateen and Duncan and Rita and Cabbie, swallower of Belle of Newcastle, guzzler of Jimmy Callahan, and Kevin Callahan and the freckled Glaswegian, ravenous lord of the Irish Sea, pray, will it be you sends me a word, a grain of sand, a scent of bracken, a taste of dulse, a single bead of spray? Let my eyes run with tears as yours seas run with tides, let you scour my brain as you scour the shingle of a thousand beaches, let you send sand and rock, to wall my soul against the heartbreak of Ratsy's curse. Faith and glory! Let you show me Paradise, show me your Western World, for is it not there where Duncan waits? And Jimmy and Kevin and Ma and Da and Kateen and Rita and Cabbie? I pray, tell me, god of the seas!"
Noow is it I should cross meself, and I would put the pagan thoughts away, but they pierce and fester like a splinter in my mind, like a barbed arrow that could never be withdrawn, and I'm rubbing the wound wi' the salt of me tears. I'm on me knees again.
And I feel the damp touch of the god on my crooked spine, and the taste of his sea on my tongue, and the cold mist rising against my face.
Nae, nae! I must take up the cross, put me sorra aside, friend, think to the grand hour when the whistling curse of the Sea-Divil will be done, and the great gates of Heaven open, and the dead riz, and the trumpets call, and the hunchback Margaret Paula O'Neill Houlihan be standing straight, and climbing whole and tall on the golden stairs. Ay, walking!
"And for Ratsy to die again, the wretched villain."
Noow is the time, noow is it all at the last. And noow, if ye'll help me, friend, up from me knees. And me cane, if ye plaise.
"Do you bend an ear, friend?" I'm thinking. "Is it not Kateen I'm hearing, is it not herself reaching about on the kitchen shelves?"
Nae, they're all passed on noow, Heaven bless their souls, and it's longgo and beyond, these miseries happened. And there's noo more remembering to be wanted. It's noo more of that, I'm saying, nor all that, today or in this life, what's left of it, the guid God willing. If ever He was! And may He guide our way from here, and the Holy Saints between us and harm. Whisht! There's Grandfather's Clock, sounding the hour---- may the Holy Angels that hovers in Heaven and never tunnels in the miseries of Earth, be wi' Daideo and wi' us.
"It's the rustle of branches and the wind piping a higher note, och, a wild pagan sort of tone."
Faith, the kettle's off and we've eaten near all the boxty and bannock but the crumbs, and there's a wee bit of biscuit left---- 'tis for the kidsto finish, and the milk for the kitty-cat. Would ye be caring for a last sup of tay, then? Ay, it's the last, so it is, the last of the last, and will ye no finish up the lot?
"Was it just this morning Kateen and the kids slipped away to Saint Bridget's? Hark! Is it them I hear laughing and jostling down the lane?"
Enough. It's aught of me troubled brain any more. 'Tis come the hour for to be saying, friend, I ben knowing who ye are. Godamercy, yes, who and what ye are, and howanever ye've come to this here Auld Wan in this here ould house, ay, since I counted the toes in yer sandals. It canna be Ratsy yer wanting to know aboot at all, nae, ye be searching for the one what did him in, and is it ye've found the prize ye're looking for? And aint the kettle gone cold, friend, and was it no a prince's pleasure, the craic we had? 'Tis so ... Therese! Ye canna be ither. Ye be Therese. And whatanever do ye say, Therese? Ye're Therese, died and gone to the OtherWorld, and ye're come to fetch me.
Is it Ratsy's whistling curse come to an end, ye say, Therese, here this day, and me years be done, and it's away wi' the troubles of this world? Sure and sartain, then it's Therese ye are, friend. Yes, yes, I feel it in these ould bones, so I do, for 'tis me time to go. Do ye say? The grieving and the lonesomeness that's crying in me soul from sun-up to sundoon, is it yer saying it's done? 'Tis me time, Therese, and the pain that marks me every day from rising to sleeping, it's banished?
Then I'm thinking, "I'm ready, ready for the hurrying breeze, ready for a mantle of shrouded moonlight on my shoulders, and the blackthorn twig snug in my hand, pointing west, Therese, west to Paradise. And there will be no pain, Therese, there will be no pain. My broken soul will be healed, and my knees will be done with scuttling and my hump melted to a wee thumbling, and my crooked spine straight and true. It's the sweet scented meadows of wee County Louth we'll see, and the croon and swell of the green seas of home flowing in our hearts. It's you and me, Therese, we're going home. And there will be no pain."
It's you beside me, Therese, guarding and guiding our crossing of the thickening dusk, ay, and into the cool night, under the constellations glittering over western beaches, beyond the fairthest horizons.
"Listen, Therese! Do you not hear their voices in the wafted air, do you not hear my precious Duncan and Kateen and the kids waiting on the golden beach of that Western World, where time is a Celtic circle in the fire of everlasting dawn?"
Is this the way, Therese? Can you yet see and Wave-Sweeper, and Manannan Mac Lir sailing in wi' Lugh and CuChulainn and all the gilded heroes of our blessed island? Is it them come in the blaze of glory, come on the lisp of the waves, and the roll of the tides? Is it them, Therese, lets loose the glee of the Bean Sidhe at the mast-head, and the Poets to strike their celestial harps, and the four-cornered spirit-winds makes the music of our voyage? Say it's them, Therese, whilst I'm looking into the brightness of the sun's eye and welcoming as never afore the spangled brilliance of the night to follow, and me heart overflows in me breast wi' the joy and the wonder. O! I'm ready for to sail! To the OtherWorld, then, ay, to the West, all ye heroes, and the furrow in the sea opening before us and smoothing after, and the course straight and true, and the pilot's noble eye unwavering. It's in the sound of cleaving waters, the murmuring of the gods, and them who waits on the far shore.
'Tis not the trumpets be sounding and the Holy Angels calling us to the right hand of the throne, nor the citizens of Heaven sounding, not the great harmonies above. 'Tis not ourselves to ascend the hill of the Lord, to stand in that holy place with pure heart and hands cleansed of iniquities. Nae, 'tis aught of that.
Yes, Therese, 'tis to the Western World, the OtherWorld, we press, past the mists of magic, onwards to the never-ending adventure, the heroes and legends, the ring-fort on the sacred hill, the shining of great deeds, the endless sea and the timeless land. Take me doon the hill to the valley of heroes, Therese, and across the bridge and over the river, ay, the bridge! Let me stand on the bridge and cast me cane over the rail, Therese, and rise where I stand, ay, stand! And let me eyes to see afore me, and me feet walking, nae, striding across the bridge from this world to the next, past the green meadows and rounded drumlins, past the cairns and towers, to the beaches, the weathered rocks, the pebbly shingle. Take me doon to the sea where Wave-Sweeper bobs in the surf, take me to the gods who wait, take me to the OtherWorld, to Paradise.
I sense the wind whirling, and its notes rising, and it spinning over the land and over the sea, and I hear it singing. I see Wave-Sweeper cleave the waters, and the salt swish of spray rises to my smile, and the briny taste of it.
Duncan! I feel your nearness! I hear your voice in the wind. It's meself, Maggie-Bawn, your Ma, hurries to you, and it's the arms of me heart opening wide for you, flesh of me spirit, child of me heart, blood of me soul. And we will be together forever. Ay, forever.
And on that western shore to which we steer, death will be ecstacy.


The End