John leaned heavily on his hoe. It was a back breaking job to keep the weeds out of the young barley. Break the soil with a hoe, pull the weeds, making sure to get the root, then replace the clean, fertile ground around the tender shoots of newborn grain. It was a job no one liked.
Fortunately, the day had turned out beautifully. After a drizzly start to the morning, the sun had broken out brightly. The warm afternoon sunshine set beads of sweat on the lad’s forehead, making him pause every few minutes to wipe the salty moisture from his stinging eyes.
The only consolation for John was that his whole family was working diligently beside him. Everyone put in their part. Although, many times it was not without complaint. But, what else was there for a poor farmer’s son to do with his days but work in the fields?
“Hallo, Joseph,” cried the familiar voice of Angus Mahoney, their neighbor. The man waved briskly over his head as he walked toward the working family members.
“Good day to you, Angus,” Joseph greeted in return. “And what would you be stepping so brightly about this fine afternoon?”
Angus smiled broadly as he approached the group. He stepped nimbly over the final three rows of young barley plants and stopped in front of Joseph. “I did myself some angling this morning, I did. Caught two gorgeous salmon.” His bright eyes sang his excitement. The man held his hands two feet apart. “They must be this big!”
Joseph eyed the man suspiciously. “And what would you be about to do with them fine fish?” he asked rather sarcastically.
“‘Twould be why I am here, Joseph, to invite you and your young’uns to have supper with us tonight,” the neighbor replied graciously. “Kate would be preparing the fish as we speak. Herself said to tell you they would be ready just before sundown.”
Joseph’s jaw dropped. He was expecting another one of Angus’ fish stories. The man could spin quite a fishing yarn given half a chance. Only rarely could he show the results he so often boasted of.
“Why, we would be honored to sup with you this evening,” Joseph stammered. “Is there anything we can do or provide?”
“No, not a thing, Joseph. Unless, that is, you have a touch of whiskey hidden around here somewheres.” He looked quickly around the small acreage, like he was expecting a bottle of the golden liquid to suddenly appear out of the barley patch.
“No,” Joseph shook his head sadly, “not a drop to be had. I have not tasted that particular nectar for months, myself.”
Angus’ eyes dimmed slightly. “Same with myself. But, we can always hope now, can we not?”
Joseph chuckled. “Aye, neighbor. That we can still do. Unless, of course, the English have passed a new law that we have yet to hear about.” He laughed once again.
“Aye, but isn’t that the truth?” Angus replied, laughing aloud and slapping Joseph on the arm playfully. “Well, I am off now. Going to see if the Keneally’s on our other side would like to join us as well. And maybe Samuel has a touch of whiskey, himself to share with us!”
“Or maybe a drop of poteen?” Joseph added wryly.
“Aye, ‘twould be nice as well,” the neighbor echoed, turning quickly and heading back toward his cottage across the field. “See you just before sunset.”
“We will be there,” Joseph promised.
“Salmon!” Peter exclaimed, unable to bridle his enthusiasm any longer. “We have had no meat for months. Why do we not fish, Da?”
Joseph scowled at his middle son. “I have not the patience nor the liking for such,” he replied sternly. “Neither do we have the proper equipment. We are farmers, lad. Not fishermen.”
Peter looked rather disappointedly at his father. He was as rambunctious and exploratory as any other seventeen year old, but he showed that he knew when an answer had to be good enough. Still, a taste of fish on occasion would be a welcomed thing. He smiled, looking as if he were almost drooling as he turned back to his hoe.
“But,” John started, tentatively, “did you not say that you fished with Angus many times since the two of you were but wee lads?”
Joseph glared at his eldest son with fire in his eyes. “That was long ago,” he spat simply and turned back to his weeding. “We have work to do.”
John, as well, had learned when a subject was complete. There were so many things he could not figure out about his father’s past. The man was a stone sometimes, when dealing with some of his more delicate issues. Someday, maybe, he would open up. However, the lad had decided long ago that his life would not depend on his father’s admissions.
Eileen kept quiet as she watched the interaction of the men of her family with a smirk. She pulled another weed from the soggy soil and handed it to James to be tossed on the pile outside the garden. “That is a fine lad,” she praised the youngster. “And you will grow to be a fine man, as long as you do not follow in the footsteps of your brothers.” She snickered again quietly.
James smiled lovingly back at his sister. His frail body was not in very good shape for any amount of physical toil. Eileen hoped with all her heart that the wee lad would eventually grow out of his sicknesses.
“We will have salmon tonight!” Peter whooped again unexpectedly, kicking his heels high up into the air.
“‘Twas a fine taste of fish, indeed,” Joseph congratulated Kate Mahoney. He took a sip of cool water and stuffed the last morsel of boiled potato into his mouth.
John looked curiously at his father. He had not known the man to be so complimentary since his mother died. His father was now usually fairly withdrawn and silent. Even when the neighbors got together for their monthly barn dances, he would only chat with a few old friends and his two brothers.
“Aye,” Peter chimed in brightly, “‘twas the best thing we have had in months! I love fish!”
Angus smiled warmly at the expressive lad. “‘Twas when your Da and me were about your age that we used to go angling regularly down at the river and the Grand Canal. Do you remember that, Joseph?” He looked quickly over to the father.
Joseph nodded slightly, looking away from the gaze of the friendly neighbor. He wordlessly picked up a large fish bone and used it to clean the remnants out from between his teeth. John wondered why he seemed so uncomfortable whenever the subject of angling arose.
“Will you tell us about it, Angus?” Eileen begged. “Our Da will not tell us of his angling trips.” Her eyes sparked under a hood of thick, red hair.
“Himself will not tell you of. . . .” Angus looked surprised at his neighbor, who scowled sourly at Eileen. “Well we will just have to tell you of your Da’s and my angling!” the man continued, unabated. “But, first I think we should be moving to the hearth. ‘Tis a wee bit chilly in here now.”
Angus slipped off his small stood and carried it toward the glowing hearth. He noisily tried to shoo Bett, the family pig, away from the front of the warm fire. The creature had taken up residence before the warm coals and stubbornly refused to leave her spot. “Go on, off with you now, pig!” Angus ordered loudly, clapping his hands over the unmoving animal.
“Oh, Da, not like that,” chuckled Colleen, Angus’ youngest daughter. The twelve year old moved quickly to the swine’s side and rubbed her behind the ears. “Come on Bett,” she directed gently. “Others want to warm themselves by the fire now.”
The large pig suddenly stood to her feet and ambled slowly toward the door, followed closely by Colleen. The young lass opened the door for the critter and Bett waddled quickly through. “Good girl, Bett,” she praised the pig.
Angus looked stupefied at his other four children who still sat around the tiny table. “And does the creature not like her Da, now?” he asked of them curiously.
“Oh, Da, you are just too rough with her!” replied Meghan with a chuckle. The sixteen year old made eyes at Peter.
Peter pushed quickly away from the table and moved toward the fire beside Angus. “Come on, Angus,” he prompted, “tell us of your angling with our Da.” His face was bright with anticipation.
John was also getting keen on hearing these stories. “Aye, Angus, we want to hear!”
All the siblings of both families quickly gathered around the man, sitting closely at his feet on the hard packed dirt floor. “Come on, Da, tell us of angling,” begged Fergus, the man’s youngest son.
“Well, let’s see here,” the neighbor began. “Oh, yes. There was the time when Joseph and me, we went angling at the river. We musta’ been only ‘bout twelve and thirteen at the time.” He smiled, looking up at Joseph, who still sat quietly at the table picking at his teeth. “Do you remember the time, Joe,” he asked, trying to involve his friend in the story. Joseph looked away, refusing to say a word.
“Anyway,” Angus continued, undaunted. “As I was saying, Joseph and me, went angling at the river.” He looked curiously back up at his old friend, then back to the children. “Joseph was catching fish like the Almighty himself was just putting them on the hook for him. And I could nary get a nibble on my worm. Suddenly, surely as there is clouds in the heavens, a whopper hits me line!” His eyes grew large and bright as he pretended to fight the fish for his own life. “He hits so hard it pulls me off the bank, now! Like this.” He slid roughly off his stool, almost landing in the laps of two of his youngsters. “I fought and I fought until I was waist deep in the river!” He stood to his feet, still pretending to fight the invisible fish.
Several of the younger children shrieked with delight. “What then?” they prompted eagerly. “What then?”
“Well,” Angus continued, sitting gingerly back onto his old stool, “I pulled and pulled until I had the huge creature just up at the shoreline. Then me line snapped and the big fellow swam quickly away!”
The surprised faces of all the children expressed their disappointment. “Awww,” they all sounded at once. “And did you get to see just how big he was?” Peter asked excitedly.
“Aye lad, I did,” Angus answered quietly. “He was every bit this big, if he was an inch!” The man held his arms out as far as he could reach. “‘Twas a sad day indeed. That is just how it went, huh, Joseph?”
Joseph smirked unbelievingly at his neighbor, shaking his head negatively. John looked around at his father and smiled knowingly. But, he does tell a good fish tale, the lad thought with a chuckle.
“Tell us another!” James prodded excitedly. “One with an even bigger fish!”
Angus chuckled heartily. “The lad wants an even bigger fish, he does! All right now, lads and lasses. There is only one more time of angling that we encountered and even bigger fish than the last one. ‘Twas the time when your Da and me, we must have been about eighteen or nineteen or so. Do you remember, Joseph?” He looked quickly up at the scowling man. “‘Twas the last time you and me went angling.”
Joseph just stared harshly back at the prodding man. He shifted uncomfortably on his hard stool, fidgeting with the fish bones. John watched curiously as his father seen extremely agitated. Something was amiss about this story, he could feel it in his bones.
Turning back to the anxiously awaiting children, Angus continued his story. “Aye, ‘twas when we were ‘bout eighteen, I would suppose, Joseph and me were angling in the Grand Canal. This time though, I was doing all the catching! Musta’ had twenty fish that day.” His eyes grew big and bright once again as he leaned in toward the children. “I was watching a barge slip through the locks. What a beauty she was!”
“I love boats!” James suddenly offered loudly. The rest of the group chuckled momentarily at the unexpected comment.
“Anyways, she came a sliding by so quiet and prim and proper. She must have had a team of eight mules pulling her from the opposite bank.” He shifted on his stool, getting himself comfortable on the hard seat. “When all of the sudden, the hugest fish you ever seen took me pole right from me hand! Musta’ been a whale, it was!”
The children all gasped in unison. Their eyes were wide and bright in the light of the small turf fire. “Da, what does a whale look like?” Meghan asked excitedly.
Angus narrowed his eyes, looking menacingly at his daughter. “They be about as big as this house, they do! And black and ugly as the sins of Judas! And they has teeth this long!” He held his hands out a foot apart.
The children all gasped loudly once again. James buried his face in his sisters bosom. The rest of the smaller children huddled closely together.
“Well, I be telling you, that pole went zipping across the canal, pulled by the huge beast!” Angus continued explosively. “I dives in after the contraption and catches it just before it gets out of reach! Now, here I am being pulled across the canal by a man eating monster!” Another collective gasp from the group.
“What happened, Da? What happened?” several children cried at once.
Angus took a deep breath and looked panicky around the small room. “I takes a deep breath and makes myself sink to the bottom of the canal, I did! Then I plants me feet and tugs on the line. That monster stopped and turned back toward me!” He forced his eyes wide open with surprise. “I lets go me pole and swims as fast as I can to the shore. Just as I am crawling out of the water, I feels the monster snap right at the bottom of me foot!” The storyteller lifted his foot quickly off the ground with a look of terror on his face. “Just barely escaped the wrath of a mad whale, now I did! Ain’t that right, Joseph?”
Joseph still just sat and scowled at the man. “Not exactly as I remembered the day,” he finally responded.
“No, no, you remember the day there, Joe,” Angus replied looking for backup for his tale. “‘Twas the day the Dragoons came for ole’ Liam Sweeney.”
The neighbor’s stern look took John by surprise. The lad looked quickly over to where his father sat. Joseph’s mouth hung agape, a look of disdain etched deeply across his face. The man rose from his seat, still staring heatedly at Angus.
“I would thank you to not be speaking of those times,” Joseph protested adamantly.
Angus’ face showed a look of complete surprise at the statement. “‘Twas but an innocent angling trip,” he offered haltingly.
John’s curiosity was now completely aroused. Why would his father not want to remember a trip angling, he wondered? Had Angus said something about Dragoons?
“Da, who was Liam Sweeney?” Colleen asked innocently.
“He was an old friend of mine and Joseph’s,” Angus answered absently, still reeling from the unexpected lashing from his firend.
Joseph moved swiftly for the door. “Time to go lads,” he called gruffly to his family.
“But, Da,” Peter complained, “we want to hear more about angling.”
“Time to go,” the lads father repeated sternly, as he reached the rickety door.
Eileen and James rose slowly from their seat, followed reluctantly by Peter. John sat in place, watching his father as he whisked through the portal and disappeared into the darkness of the night. Peter looked back and forth between the empty opening and the still surprised Angus.
John searched through the empty door, himself. Seeing no sign of his father, he quickly asked, “Who was Liam Sweeney? I know you said he was a friend, but, what did he do for the soldiers to capture him? Our Da has never said a word about him.”
Angus looked sadly at the curious lad. “He killed a man, an Englishman, or so they said. Liam belonged to some kind of secret society, rebelling against the English crown. He asked me to join once, and your Da as well.” He shifted on his stool and looked to the thatched roof above, deep in thought.
Eileen, James and Peter stopped in their tracks, listening to a history of their father that they never knew. “Did our Da join this group?” Eileen quizzed.
“Not that I ever knew,” the man answered truthfully, “But, there were many times he and ole’ Liam would sneak off somewhere and not invite me along. Did not bother me, I just went angling by myself.”
John stared at his neighbor in disbelief. “What became of this Liam Sweeney?” he prodded, unable to satiate his whetted curiosity.
Joseph suddenly reappeared through the dark opening. “I said it was time to go. I did not mean tomorrow! Now, off with you,” he demanded.
John shot to his feet, looking quizzically toward Angus. His siblings shuffled rapidly toward the door before him. Joseph stood in the doorway staring at his eldest son. Grudgingly, he turned toward the portal, himself. “Coming, Da,” he answered quietly.
Angus looked up toward the lad. “They hanged him by the neck, they did” he answered solemnly. “Hanged him till he was dead.” He crossed himself quickly as he muttered.
“Angus!” Joseph snapped hotly. “‘Tis not a story for the wee ones! I thank you to never bring that story up ever again.”
Without another word, John slipped past his father into the cool, dark night air. He heard the sound of the rickety cottage door slamming behind him. Never, he thought, will I ever mention the name of Liam Sweeney again.
Joseph strode stiffly past John, covering the two hundred yards between the cottages before the lad could get halfway home. Stopping before he entered their own dark cottage, the lad looked up into the broken clouds, wondering about the early life of his father. Eventually, he opened the rough plank door and stepped inside his home.
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