John Walsh sat easily upon the damp, grassy hillside overlooking the muddy streets of Tullamore Village. A light breeze caressed the lad’s face, tousling his dark hair wildly into the deep-set blue of his eyes. The sound of thunder rolled faintly in the distance as the dark clouds roiled heavily just overhead, threatening a soaker at any moment. Another grand day, he thought sullenly, looking wistfully up into the frenzied grey canopy above him.
It had become his custom to escape the confines of his family’s cottage every Sunday morning. After all, it was his ‘Christian duty’ to observe the Sabbath and rest from the back breaking labor he had been so unwittingly born into. At every opportunity John found it necessary to retreat into a time of solitude. A father, a sister and two younger brothers stuffed into two small rooms under a leaky thatched roof could get all too close for most anyone, especially a twenty year old young man who was just trying to find his own way.
The beleaguered lad scanned the misty countryside from his soft perch, noting especially how the clouds completely obliterated the mountains that stood but a few miles away. Another soft breeze stirred the oak trees lining the dark waters of the river that ran through the middle of the village. He could barely see where the swelling stream slipped silently though the town and out into the bog to the west.
Nothing stirred under the anvil weight of the mist laden air. Even the brightly colored buildings of the Town Centre seemed somewhat diminished in the gloomy shadows of that early spring morning. His stomach suddenly growled loudly, reminding him of a delayed breakfast.
In the distance, a small procession of his neighbors filed out of St. Catherine’s Church after attending the early Protestant service. They seemed but a line of ants from his vantage. The tall spire of the cathedral disappeared surrealistically into the rolling clouds. Poor suckers, he thought, trusting in a God that either did not exist or just did not give a damn.
The sky kept its promise as a light rain began to escape from the dark, burgeoning clouds. Running his fingers through his dampening brown hair, John stood slowly to his feet and ambled down the slickened hill towards his family’s cottage. He slipped nimbly through the patches of purple heather that grew raggedly from the spongy, peat covered hillside. Reaching the narrow lane that connected the farming country with the village, John turned his back to the town and slowly continued toward the family homestead.
The lad strolled through the steady drizzle, passing plot after plot of small tenant farms. The young barley was just emerging from the hand plowed rows in many of the fields. Yet, so many of the fertile plots stood lifeless and unplanted, a testament to the trying times facing not only the village where he lived, but the whole of Ireland. A few acres of grain just was not enough to pay the exorbitant rents required by some of the landlords who owned the land. Too many people were being evicted from the farms that their families had originally occupied for centuries.
Greedy English landowners, who had never seen the shores of Ireland, found any justification they could to seize land from the poor tenant farmers. The same tenants who now lived in squaller, on tiny parcels of land were descendants of the original clans who communally shared great acreages. Those clans had been systematically subdued, outlawed and their leaders killed or imprisoned. The ancestral lands were then forcefully seized and divided amongst the Gentry who were sworn to the English Crown. All this in the name of civilization, progress and the unjust system of a laissez faire economy.
John stopped silently before a weed infested field, which stood alongside a small stone cottage with darkened windows and a damaged thatched roof. Amidst ominous rolls of thunder, he stood staring at the empty cottage as the rain gathered strength. Small muddy puddles were collecting rapidly on the sides of the narrow lane.
He leaned his thin, wiry frame heavily against the ancient dry stone fence which lined the narrow roadway. Reminiscing, John plucked a small stone from the top of the fence, tossing it absently into the unplanted field. He sorely missed his friend Ciaran O’Doyle. Did the poor lad’s family ever make it to America? he wondered. How could anyone, even a brutal landlord, ever strip such a grand family of their pride and land, then leave the fields barren and useless? John looked disgustedly toward Heaven. His stomach grumbled once again with hunger almost simultaneously with another loud clap of thunder, sending the lad racing toward home.
“There you are,” bellowed Joseph Walsh, John’s father. “Where in the name of the blessed mother have you been? We have got potatoes to be getting in the ground.” The tall, red faced fellow held up a large bag of small seed potatoes. Joseph, like both his older sons was thin, but tall for an Irish tenant farmer. His back was strong and straight from a lifetime of hard work, and his eyes were crisply blue. Everyone listened when Joseph spoke. He was a man of few words, yet, he made each and every one count.
“But Da, ‘tis Sunday!’ John whined. “And ‘tis raining like someone released the hounds of hell!’ He watched a large drop of water fall from the thatched roof and splatter on the dirt floor. The lad moved slowly to the small wooden table that sat against the edge of the little fireplace.
“Bah, a little rain never hurt a hearty soul! Today is the only day we got to get these spuds in the ground. We have but a short supply left. You know the blight got most of our crop last autumn. And if you intend to eat for a more’n a couple more months, you better be getting your arse out in the potato field and start a digging!
“And you too!” Joseph directed at his daughter Eileen as she shuffled out of the second room of the tiny cottage. “Ain’t no lass in this household beyond working for her dinner!”
Eileen glared at her father with all the fury of a banshee, her dark red hair as wild as a March wind. “Is it never going to stop this infernal rain? This is the third day now in a row!” she complained. Her hazel eyes smolthered like emerald fire in the shadows of the poorly lit house. Dancing reflections of the small turf fire played at her lean, tanned face as the silence of an eminent storm fell over the group. “I be eighteen years old. I should be out raising my own brats with a husband to support me, not taking care of the likes of this group of helpless whelps!”
“Well, if you did not scare off every suitable lad around these parts you just might do that,” came a response out of the shadows of the dark corner of the room. The lasses middle brother, Peter, loved prodding his sister relentlessly. “Ole’ Tom Kennedy came a wooing around here for ‘bout two years, howlin’ like a Tom cat looking for his. . . .”
“Oh shut up!” Eileen howled in disgust, cutting off her prodding brother. “Ain’t no man around here got enough gumption to take me home with him!”
“No, ain’t no man around here got little enough sense to try.” Peter trailed off almost under his breath.
“Hush now!” Joseph stepped into the middle of the fray, his rosy cheeks getting even redder in the firelight. “If your mother was here, God rest her loving soul, herself would have all your hides! Now get out in that potato field and let’s get these spuds planted! All of you!” He glared around the room at his children. “Bunch o’ heathens,” he whisper to himself.
“Where is James?” asked Peter, looking intently around the room. “He is old enough now to help with the planting.”
“He is feeling poorly. I laid him in my bed in the back room.” Eileen responded with a sudden note of compassion. “I think he has got some fever.”
Peter glared disgustedly at his sister, “I would wager he has got a fever of work, myself. I will go get the little bugger and kick him out. . . .”
“Peter!” Joseph snapped, “What has got into you, boy? You know you ain’t supposed to be a speaking that way!” He took a couple of fiery strides toward his middle son. Surprised, Peter backed off a step, tripping over the stool he had just vacated.
“I got a mind to send you out to plant these spuds all by yourself now, I do! Then beat the devil himself from your backbone.” Their bristling father glowered around at his children with disgust vaporizing from his nostrils. “I do not understand what has become of our youngsters today! Time was, I would not a never snapped back at my Da! Or if I did, ‘twould be the last time! Go on, off with you now! All of you!”
Peter up righted himself and swiftly exited the dim cottage, followed closely by Eileen. John looked out through the single small glass window across the room to see a steady light rain still falling. With a slight grimace, he picked up a couple of boiled potatoes from the small table, dipped them quickly in the small bowl of salt, and followed his siblings toward the door.
Joseph stuffed the large bag of seed potatoes into John’s arms as he walked by, “You keep ‘em busy now son. I am going to look after your little brother to see if he would be truly ailing. I will be out directly.”
Several steady streams of rain, dripping from the edge of the thatched roof, greeted John, running coldly down the back of his thick, tattered sweater. He shivered involuntarily at a sudden gust of chilled, damp air as he finished the last few bites of his meal. Following his siblings to the rear of the small cottage, they each chose a digging implement from the stash leaning against the whitewashed stone wall.
“OK, let us do this the easy way now,” the elder brother directed. “I will open the trenches with my hoe. Eileen, you take the bag of potatoes and drop them in the trench. Peter you come behind and cover them up.”
Both younger siblings stared at their brother maliciously, then followed him slowly to the cultivated acre of land behind the small stone abode. The light rain diminished as John opened a small trench in the first mounded row of the garden. Eileen, dragging the heavy sack behind her between the rows, reached in, fetched a small potato and absently dropped it into the prepared hole. Peter, leaning heavily against his hoe, staring off toward the cloud obscured Slieve Bloom mountains. Another gust of wind tousled a lock of light brown hair into his ruddy young face.
The trio performed their task in silence. Only the sounds of the gusting breeze in the surrounding trees and their digging implements scrapping into the black muddy ground broke the deafening quiet. Out of nowhere, a large raven flew directly over their heads, alighting with a whoosh of wings on a fencepost nearby.
Eileen stopped her work to stare worriedly at the large black bird. “‘Tis a bad omen, that!” she almost whispered to no one in particular, breaking the silence. The crow cawed loudly, stretching its inky wings to the damp wind. “Something is soon going amiss.”
“And who do you think you are, the old cailleach, the town witch?” Peter prodded. “You may look like one sometimes, but, I think that is about as much as it goes.”
John stopped his digging, looking harshly at his younger brother. Eileen continued to stare silently at the raven without as much as a blink of her eye. Then, with a sudden wail, she hopped across the garden rows, running at the bird with arms flailing wildly over her head. The startled creature shot straight into the air from his perch, losing several feathers that floated gently to the damp earth. The lass wailed once more as the bird turned south, cawing loudly as it disappeared into a grove of birch trees.
Eileen reached the fence, staring after the vanished crow. With an audible sob, she turned her attention to the ground before her. She bent down and picked up four black feathers, holding them close to her breast. “Four months,” the sobbing lass cried. “In four months many things will be a changing.”
Peter and John both stared at their sister. Neither had the inclination to say a word. Eileen had made a few statements in the past that had proven to be true, now might be no different. A chill blain shot up John’s spine, causing an involuntary shiver. He looked at Peter who was still staring, open-mouthed, at his sister. A light drizzle of rain began to fall once again, augmenting the moment.
“Come on,” John finally broke the spell, “these spuds ain’t going to plant themselves.”
Eileen turned quietly from her station, tucked the long feathers into her cloth belt, and stepped heavily across the rows to return to her duties. Returning to their silence, the trio resumed their planting in the gathering rain.
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