“We are so sorry for your loss, Joseph,” Maggie O’Toole relayed, standing red-eyed beside her husband Angus. “James was always such a lovely little lad.” She and her husband slipped past the diminishing family and into the church.
Joseph placed his arm lovingly around his daughter’s waist. He stood quietly at the doorway, waiting for the rest of his family to arrive at the funeral for his youngest son. It was a tough time for a father, losing two sons in a week’s time. He had watched Peter float by, out of his life, but six days ago.
Father O’Casey approached the family from inside the church. “Come Joseph,” he invited softly, “Come to the front of the church with me. ‘Tis time to lay your son to rest.” He placed a hand lovingly on the grieving man’s shoulder and nudged him gently toward the alcove at the front of the cathedral.
John and Eileen followed their father slowly to the alter. Each family member followed the Priest’s example and stopped to kneel and cross themselves before the Blessed Virgin that stood beside James’ little wooden coffin. John gasped, fighting to hold back his emotion at the sight of his little brother lying in the rough wooden box. They each took their seat on the small pew at the front of the cathedral.
Father O’Casey stepped behind the little casket, decked in his ceremonial robes. “Our country,” he began his homily, sounding more like a political statement than a eulogy “has reached a point of crisis. Far too many children have died.” The priest swept his hand over the small body in the coffin. “Far too many families are torn apart. Twelve women and their children are currently lodged right here at our church, their husbands and fathers killed or imprisoned for attempting to put food in the mouths of their loved ones. And if not for the gracious actions of this very family, at least one of those families would probably no longer be alive themselves. Little James, himself, was a part of that unselfish act.”
John shifted uncomfortably in his seat, turning a deaf ear to the droning pontiff. The emotional images toying with his mind were all too recent to set aside. A trickle of a tear slipped down his cheek. Quickly, he mopped the moisture off his face with the back of his hand.
He gazed disinterestedly around the inside of the ancient stone building, trying to keep his feelings muffled. Halfway unconsciously, he heard the priest begin to recite something in Latin. Maybe that would help alleviate a bit of the distress, he hoped. Unfortunately, that hope did not come true. The lad became unable to force himself to even watch the ritual, hot emotion boiling just below his skin. Desperately trying to shift his attention, John studied the details of several old coats of arms embossed into the stone walls.
Joseph and Eileen slid forward, crossing themselves and kneeling onto the rough wooden planks built into the low partition in front of them. John followed along blindly, absently mouthing a prayer along with the rest of the congregation.
A light tap on his shoulder by his sister prompted the lad to look around and see the rest of the people back in their seats. He blushed slightly, sliding back quickly into the pew. John closed his eyes and wished all the horror would just fade away. Unfortunately, it all remained when he reopened them. The suffering lad went on automatic, unconsciously following the tenets of the rest of the ceremony.
The Clergyman finally completed his rituals and motioned for the family to come forward. John followed his father and sister to the side of the casket, reluctantly looking in at his little brother’s shriveled face. He choked on the emotion gurgling in his throat. They took their places as instructed at the ends of the coffin and awaited the last respects of the rest of the parishioners.
John then took his place at the side of the casket and grasped the wooden handle protruding there. His father stood directly before him, carrying the front of the box, while his two uncles supported the opposite side. Eileen followed closely behind, sobbing heavily, as the escort moved slowly through the side exit of the cathedral toward the graveyard in the rear.
The party sat the little coffin on the grass at the side of a fresh grave next to the dead lad’s mother. Eileen fell to her knees over the top of the box and wailed hysterically. The remainder of the mourners filed in around the family, those behind Eileen consoling her lovingly.
John gazed around at all the fresh mounds of earth piled over the new graves in the cemetery. He agreed with the Clergyman, far too many people have died needlessly. There were far too many families like his, and worse, populating this country. Unfortunately, he saw no end in sight. The grievous lad crossed himself and knelt beside his little brother for the last time.
Joseph stood in the middle of his barley field closely inspecting the grain heads. John watched disinterestedly as the memories of the morning’s funeral dominated his mind. The partial warming of the morning sun had faded behind another thick cloud cover. John shivered as a sharp gust of cold air sent a chill up his spine. “Its going to be cold tonight,” he commented to his father.
“Aye, ‘tis,” Joseph answered absently. He plucked at a couple more stalks of grain. “Tomorrow we will start the harvest,” the man continued, engrossing himself in his work.
“But, Da, would not it be best to wait another week or two?” John asked worriedly.
“‘Twould be best, ‘tis true. But, we might not have that long,” Joseph responded, looking back at his last son. “The Honorable Lord Winfrey,” he proceeded sarcastically, “will, surely as the pits of Hell, have a new agent here soon to collect his rent. I have lost enough of me children. I intend to lose no more.”
John found wisdom in his father’s words. “Tomorrow we harvest,” he agreed. “Will we have help from anyone else?”
“Both of your uncles and their eldest sons will be here for help,” Joseph responded. “I have agreed to help Tom harvest his grain next week and Brian to repair his thatch some time soon.”
“‘Tis a good thing,” John agreed once more. He followed his father out of the field and toward the cottage. His emotions still haunted the lad deeply. He took his leave, yearning to visit his hill once more. It had been quite some time since he had the opportunity to get away by himself for a time to reflect on his life.
The next few weeks would be very busy. Between the harvesting of their own and Tom’s grain, he would have very little time for himself. Maybe that was good. Working would keep his rambling brain busy and off these trying times. Besides, there were many good times to be had working alongside his family.
Eileen came out of the cottage, her eyes all red and swollen. She brushed swiftly by her father at the doorway as he entered the house. Stepping a few feet out of the entryway, the lass looked into the cloud laden sky, ran her fingers roughly under thickly curled locks of red hair and screamed horrifically at the top of her lungs. John nearly jumped out of his skin.
Joseph ran back out of the house, looking around with panic written on his face. “Are you all right, lass?” he stammered, eyeing his daughter suspiciously.
The young woman stood staring silently into the cloud cover. She muttered something incoherently to herself and turned to her father. “I am all right, Da. I just had to do that to keep my mind sane,” she answered softly. “I saw all this coming months ago and was feared to pay attention. Now the biggest fear is that it still ain’t over.”
John’s eyes dropped to the ground in front of him. How could that be? he wondered. There was nothing left to take. Their crop would be harvested in a few days with money in hand to pay the landlord. Winter was coming and food stores low, but they could manage somehow. The lad walked slowly to his sister.
“Come with me, sister,” he urged. “You need some time away from this house.”
Eileen turned and looked blankly at her brother. She took his extended hand and slowly heeded John’s prompting. “Where are we going?” she asked almost at a whisper.
“To a place I go to get me head together,” was John’s sweet reply. He smiled at his sister and tugged at her hand slightly.
The two siblings passed through the stone fence and down the road toward the village. Occasionally, Eileen stopped at the side of the lane to stare into an abandoned farmhouse. After several wordless minutes the lass would turn back down the roadway.
John had a heart full of compassion for his sister. She had not only lost two brothers, but essentially a son as well. In fact, apart from carrying him in her own belly, James had been more a son to her than a brother. Now, she was lost without that connection.
‘What do you think America is like?” Eileen suddenly asked.
“I do not know,” John responded, taken aback at the question. “Why do you ask that?”
“You think I could find a husband in America?”
John eyed his sister oddly as a fine mist began to fall. “Why all the questions about America?”
“Oh, I do not know, brother.” Eileen answered, her eyes seemingly far away. “But, maybe you could find yourself a good wife in America.”
“I can find myself a good wife right here when I am ready for such a thing,” he defended. “I have just no motivation to be saddled with the likes of a screaming wife and herd of wee ones right now. I am still much too young for such!”
“Nonsense,” his sister returned with a smile. “Many lads your age have several babies at their feet already. I want ten babies myself. The sooner the better, I say.” She smiled largely, reflecting into herself.
John looked at her, happy about her swing of mood. Maybe it did her good to get out of the cottage after all, he thought. “Ten children?” he laughed. “What might you do with ten wee ones suckling on you?”
She laughed, looking up into the misty sky. “Watch them all grow up until I get old and grey,” she responded, stopping to take a long breath of fresh air deep into her lungs. “Then let them all lay me to my rest.”
John sighed heavily. He did hope his sister was all right. She was acting a bit strange today. “There is plenty of time for growing young ones, sister,” the lad added gently. “Now is the time to care for yourself.” He shivered at the chilled, misty rain that collected in his hair.
“I am cold, John,” Eileen responded with a chill blain of her own.
Looking around them, the lad spotted two small cottages that seemed to be standing empty alongside the roadway. One still had most of its roof intact so it would at least be a place to keep dry and out of the wind until the rain blew over. John led his sister through the gate of the old shanty and to the front door.
The portal opened with a creak, exposing the dim interior. Several seconds passed before his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He gazed into the small single roomed hovel, keeping Eileen behind him. His eyes could just pick out four dim figures against the back wall. “Stay here, I have got to check something” he whispered to his sister, slipping into the room alone.
He kept watch of the dim shadows against the wall, none of them moved. Oh Jesus, he thought, do not let this be happening again, not right now! Crossing the small room, he found a young man around his own age, his young wife and two very small children, all recently dead. Turning immediately around, John hurried out the door, closing it soundly behind him.
“This cottage is no good,” he informed his sister, “there are too many rats in there.”
She looked disgustedly at the closed portal. “Let’s just go home,” she replied. “I will be all right now.” Without awaiting a response the lass turned toward the lane.
John wanted to just send his sister home by herself and continue to the Village to inform someone of his find. However, his memories would not allow that to happen. He would have to take her home and then return on his own. He glanced back at the hovel and felt the sickness rumbling through his stomach. When will all this death stop? he wondered sadly.
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