Squinting through the deepening evening shadows, John pulled the flickering candle a little closer to his newspaper. The fluttering of the unsteady flame made the letters seem to vibrate uncontrollably on the shadowy page. He felt fortune had been with him that day, for though the ragged paper was several weeks old, it was still something new for him to read. After all, there was no extra money to buy such luxuries as newspapers. He just had to keep his eyes open for any opportunity he could to ‘acquire’ such things. And that very evening, while walking through the village, several sheets of this very periodical seemed to materialize right out of Heaven itself and blow across his path. He chased them down, folded them up, and hid them under his sweater. Most of the local authorities frowned upon the son of a tenant farmer learning his letters. That art was to be left to the upper classes, primarily the English.
Though he struggled with some of the more uncommon words, he was doing well in his self initiated education. Most of his basic skills had been taught to him while still an early teen by the local Parish Priest, through a brief, basic course outline. However, after but six months of study, the unfortunate Priest had been accused of some outlandish devilry and tossed unjustly into prison. Everyone knew he was just being chastised for practicing the Catholic religion and educating the unfortunates in his diocese. After the unjust demise of his mentor, John had been left on his own to teach himself.
The lad had become a voracious reader, completing the only two books he had been able to acquire numerous times. Any time the knowledge starved lad could sneak into one of the village shops, he would scan the periodicals to the best of his ability. On more than one occasion he had been chased out of a market by an irate shop keeper wielding a handy broom.
John’s favorite subject was reading about the people who lived around him; who they were, how they viewed life. Events all seemed so cut and dried. But people, now that was the changing face of the world around him.
“Listen to this, Da,” John broke the silence of the darkened cottage.
Joseph looked up from the britches he was mending. “What’s that you say?”
“Paper here says there is sign of the blight again in the northeast. Says several farmers in Ulster already lost their crops.” John lowered his paper to look over it at his father who sat at the fireplace stitching.
“Serves those squattin’ Protestant Scots bastards right.” Joseph responded quietly. “Only it probably was not them that gets to suffer. Probably just our own kin having to give more of their family lands over to the marauders.” He resumed his patch work, moving a little closer to the hearth with a glowering face. “Peter, the fire is going down.”
Peter struggled off his hay pallet in the far corner of the room. Picking up several pieces of dried turf, he placed them absently on the fire. The sweet smell of the peat fire wafted through the room as the flames gathered brightness with their new fuel.
John looked worriedly at his father, “The story says that signs of the blight have been seen around Dublin as well.” He squinted in the dim light to see the date line on top of the paper. “This paper was written almost two weeks ago.”
Joseph’s attention seemed to perk up with the latest news. “Two weeks ago, huh? No sign of the blight here. Pray to the good Lord above that we are spared that plague around here this time.”
John squinted at the shadowed paper once again, shifting it in several directions to catch a better light. A loud rap on the rough wooden door startled the lad. It was not often that they had visitors after dark.
“Who in the devil could that be?” Joseph queried worriedly. He motioned for Eileen to answer the door.
The lass rose from her stool, looking hesitantly at her father. A second loud knock caused even more hesitation. “Hi ya’, Joseph, let me in. I am catching me death out here!” a familiar muffled voice called through the thick planks.
“‘Tis but your Uncle Brian,” Joseph announced relieved. He motioned for Eileen to hurry and open the door.
John folded his newspaper and slipped it out of sight under his chair. Eileen unbolted the door, swinging it wide for her uncle. A gust of chilled wind greeted her. “Hi ya’, Uncle,” she greeted with a smile.
“Good evening, lass,” Brian responded cheerfully. He slipped past his niece and into the warm room. Looking around in the dim light, he greeted everyone. “John, Peter, Joseph.” Looking around once again he asked, “Where is little James?”
“He has been feeling a wee bit poorly the last week. He is back in my bed. Been turning in early the last few nights, he has,” Eileen responded.
“Sorry to hear that. I hope he heals quickly.” A bright devilish grin suddenly spread across Brian’s face as he turned his gaze toward his brother. “I got something for you, brother. This should make your tongue sing!” He reached into a hidden pocket inside his grimy overcoat and produced a flat, hand sized flask.
Joseph’s eyes widened as a huge smile slowly enveloped his face. “Is that. . .is that what I think it might be?”
“Doesn’t take Solomon and half his wives to figure that out!” Brian uncorked the flask and waved it under his brother’s nose. “Whiskey, uisce beatha, the water of life! And I have another jug right here!” he laughed, patting the opposite side of his coat.
Joseph jumped up from his seat and swatted his brother playfully on the shoulder. “How did you come about this wonder of God?” he asked gleefully.
“Snuck it out of the distillery, I did! Old foreman Williams left his post early today so I took advantage. Thought I would never have another taste of this precious concoction, even though I make it!” Brian licked his lips, a huge smile still on his face. “We make hundreds of gallons of this stuff, only to have it carted away without nary a drop for our own tongues. Had anyone caught me with these jugs I would be spending the next few years in a prison cell!”
“You are a good man, Brian,” Joseph commended his brother. “And an even better brother!” He patted Brian lovingly on his shoulder. “But where is Tom? No brother of ours should be without a wet mouth on a night like this!”
“He will be along directly. Had a couple of chores to finish. You know Bridget, a good wife, but herself is a bit of a task master.”
Both men laughed at the comment as Joseph reached for the jug in his brother’s hand. Pulling the container directly under his nose, he took a long sniff of the fragrant liquid. “Sweet Mother of God,” he sighed, soaking up another deep draught of fragrance, “There is some good to you losing your land and going to work in that distillery, after all!”
Brian’s huge grin slowly diminished as he turned his eyes to the floor. “Maybe,” he responded quietly, “yet, I would give it all up to have but ten acres of fertile ground to raise a money crop and breathe the free, clean air.
“But, enough of that!” Brian continued, stretching the broad smile back across his weathered face. “Here is to your health, me brother, slainte!” He turned up the jug, took a good nip and handed the vessel to Joseph. “Ahhh, ‘tis still a wee bit green, but bites just as well!”
Joseph took the flask, licked his lips and turned it up. “Holy Jesus,” he replied with a whistle, “been too long since I had a taste of paradise! Come here lad,” he motioned to John holding out the jug of whiskey, “you work like a man, now is time to live like one!”
Surprised, John stood slowly to his feet and covered the floor to his father. He had tasted whiskey twice before, but never at the prompting of his own Da. He took the small jug, sniffed the fragrance rising from the narrow throat, and turned it up to his lips. A small sip of the virile liquid caused him to cough deeply. He felt as though his throat had just been scorched with hot coals. Tears well up in his eyes and escaped down his tanned cheek. The lad took a deep breath, sighed and coughed once more.
Peter and Eileen had slipped curiously to their brother’s side. Both burst into hysterical laughter as John choked on the stout whiskey. Even Brian and Joseph quietly snickered at his reaction. Both older men then patted the young man on the shoulders.
“That is a lad!” Joseph commended his son. “Go on, have another.”
John turned the vial up once more without hesitation. Though his throat still burned all the way to his stomach, he took the second drink and swallowed. “Aye,” he choked out, stifling another coughing session. “‘tis good liquor!” Eileen and Peter laughed again.
James slipped through the dark doorway of the back room rubbing his eyes. “What is going on?” he asked curiously. Everyone, even John, laughed heartily.
John handed the flask back to Brian, who took a drink and passed it on to Joseph. After a few more passes between the three men, Joseph handed the jug to Peter, then Eileen. This was truly a family affair. Both teens took a big swig, coughed heavily and refused further provocations to take another taste. James had sat himself on his father’s knee, laughing with the rest of the family.
Eileen rose to answer another knock at the door, “Here is Uncle Tom,” she announced gaily.
“Hi ya’, lads!” Tom greeted his family. “Oh, and lasses! I see you started without me. Guess I got some drinking to make up.” He moved toward the hearth to warm his hands and throat.
“Did you bring your tin whistle, Uncle?” Eileen asked excitedly.
“Aye, I did at that!” Tom responded with a broad smile. “I cannot go far without me whistle.”
“Will you play us a tune later?” the smiling lass requested brightly.
“Of course I would be happy to play a happy jig for such a fine young lass! Just let me wet my mouth first.”
Joseph handed the jug to his youngest brother. “Too bad John is no longer with us,” Joseph lamented, speaking of their recently departed eldest brother. “No party could be the same without him. Himself was always such a corker. And we could have some fiddle with your whistle, like old times!”
“Aye, ‘twould be a brilliant time!” Tom replied reminiscently, “but the pox is a ruthless reaper! Though I miss him sorely, the almighty smiled on us when he took but a few.” He held the jug toward Heaven, “Here’s to ya’, John, me lad. May you keep Saint Peter busy while I sneak through the Pearly Gates!” He turned up the flask again as the whole room chuckled.
“Speaking of parties,” Tom continued after swallowing the last swig of liquor, “the Grady’s are having a Barn Dance next Saturday night! ‘Tis going to be a brilliant affair with a fiddler and all the liquor you can drink!”
“Sweet Mother of Jesus!” Brian whistled, “How is ole’ Seamus pulling that off? He was six months behind in rent.”
“Heard his landlord forgave his back debt and is not asking for more until the crop comes in this year.” Tom replied incredulously.
“Forgave his. . .,” Joseph stuttered. “Holy Peter and all the Angels of Heaven, we need more landlords like that around here.”
“You sure that ain’t some English trick to run them off their land?” Brian questioned seriously.
“Says he has got a writ from the fellow, all legal and all.”
“The lucky bastard!” Joseph chimed in. He took the bottle from his brother and had a long swig.
“How ‘bout that tune now, Uncle?” Eileen begged once again. “My feet feel like dancing!”
“Just for you, lass. Just for you.” Tom answered with a smile. He pulled his old, dented tin whistle out of his belt, placed it to his lips and started a lively jig. The whole cottage seemed to lighten up.
A smile erupted on everyone’s face and their feet began to tap to the rhythm. Joseph reached above the fireplace and removed the ancient bodhran drum from where it hung on the wall. He took the beater between his nimble fingers and set a furious beat for his brothers flute.
Eileen and Peter jumped to their feet and began to dance laughingly to the furious music. The brother and sister squared off, danced around each other, then linked arms and twirled around the tightly packed room. John tapped his feet and slapped his knees with his hands until he could stand it no longer. The elder lad bounced to his feet and alternated with his younger brother, spinning their sister around the room. Even little James began to high-step around the wee cottage. Brian laughed aloud as the tune reached its climax, swatting his knees loudly.
The whistle and drum stopped simultaneously, leaving everyone out of breath. The three siblings laughed roundly. “Another!” Peter shouted breathlessly. “We need another tune, Uncle!”
“Once more, then!” Tom responded happily, taking a good hit off his bottle and returning the whistle to his lips. The room was filled with glee. Time was forgotten and troubles seemed to vanish. The music seemed as thick and tangible as the room around them. Music was the blood of life and the steady thump of the bodhran, its heart. Nothing could be remiss with a happy tune floating on the air.
Finally the group began to wind down. Tom caught his breath and began blowing a soft, gentle song to dispel the excess energy in the room. Brian began to sing a song, in Irish, along with the flute. The words were unfamiliar to John, never having the opportunity to learn his native language. The melody, however, calmed all their hearts and almost brought tears to the eyes of the siblings, even though they did not really understand the words. Eileen, yawning widely, closed her hazel eyes and smiled as the sweet melody ended. James had already curled up on the straw pallet in the corner of the room and fallen asleep. Peter soon joined his little brother on the mat. Eileen gave her thanks, bade goodnight to everyone and slipped through the doorway into the second tiny room of the house.
Being left alone with his father and uncles, John suddenly felt a part of the men-folk now. And, even though his head was beginning to spin from an occasional sip of the alcohol, he was not about to leave the company he was feeling so bonded with. Family, nothing is more important than family. They can take our crops, our lands, and even our lives, the lad thought, but they will never take our hearts!
Brian absently passed the nearly empty bottle to John. The lad turned up the jug and drained the few remaining drops. He held the bottle upside down and shook it over the dirt floor to accentuate its emptiness, then handed it back to his uncle.
“Look at the lad,” Brian teased, “invite him to drink with you and he finishes the bottle!” He laughed quietly, pulling out his second jug. “Good thing I got a spare.”
Joseph looked curtly around the room to see where his younger children were. His face tightened as he addressed both his brothers, “We got something serious to be talking about.”
Brian’s broad smile vanished immediately and Tom sat forward on his stool. The flickering peat fire had dimmed and the single candle shed little light on the small room. Joseph stood, fetched a few more sticks of turf and doled them out into the hearth.
“Come on, man, what is so serious?” begged Tom. “Don’t tell us something like that then leave us hanging by our necks!” He looked wide-eyed between Brian and John.
John, too, was stunned by his father’s unexpected statement. A chill zipped up his spine as he sat up to attention. His previously spinning head even seem to clear somewhat as he watched his father feed the hungry flames.
Brian took another shot off his jug and joined in. “Tell us, Joseph, what is on with you?”
Joseph returned to his stool and took the whiskey from Brian. He took a quick sip and looked worriedly between his two brothers. “The boy here tells me there is word in his newspaper that the blight has been seen again up north and around Dublin.” He looked toward John, “Show them lad. Show them what you read me.”
The request surprised John. Usually his father did not have much use for books, newsprint and the like. He was much more a realist, concerned only with what he could see and touch himself. The lad reached under his stool, fetching the folded paper and opened it to the story he had relayed to his father.
The attention of the three brothers was intently upon John. He could not recall a time where he was the center of a conversation with the elders in his family. “The story is right here,” he replied, sitting upright on his stool and pointing to a section of the printed page.
“Read it to us,” Tom requested with great interest. He looked seriously over at Brian and leaned forward, resting his stout arms heavily on his thighs.
“This paper was written almost two weeks ago,” John started. “It says that a large portion of the potatoes up in Ulster have been found with the blight. Large black spots showed up on the plants almost overnight. When they dug up the roots, they had already started to rot with the young potatoes already turning black.” He adjusted his paper to gather more light from the candle. The alcohol had not helped his sight any, either. “Goes on to say, whole fields were wiped out. Not a single plant survived in the infected plots. It says that acres of potatoes in whole regions were wiped out. And it all happened in just a couple of days.”
All three men sat in silence for several moments. Finally Tom whistled, “Holy Mother of God! Go on lad, what is more?”
“The story goes on to say that several farmers even around Dublin had noticed some black spots on their plants the day before this was written.”
“What do we do, Joseph? What will we eat?” Tom asked seriously.
“What can we do? Pray to the good Lord that the spot does not spread this way,” Joseph answered, taking another drink from the flask.
“Nothing has been seen as yet around here. I planted a few weeks ago and got good healthy green leaves sprouting on my spuds. At least they were today when I checked,” Brian offered.
“You know I lost a big part of my crop last year. I cannot afford to lose this one too.” Joseph ran his fingers through his dark, thinning hair. “I got hungry mouths to feed.”
“Aye, so do we all. At least you have got a paying job at the distillery, Brian. You can buy food if need be. My barley will not be ready for months, and almost all that will be used to sell for my rent.” Tom added worriedly.
Brian looked at his brother out of the corner of his eye. “My job hardly pays me rent,” he commented gruffly. “I have but a half acre of spuds to feed me wife and six youngsters. I am not in any better shape than you, brother.”
“No need to quarrel, here,” Joseph said, trying to ease the growing tension in the room. “Is there anything else in that story, lad?” He looked back to John.
“No, sir,”John responded, still scanning the ragged paper. “Nothing else about the blight, anyway.”
“We have just got to keep our heads and our faith, lads,” Brian interjected. “We are family, we have survived storms, invasions and landlords, we will get through this. Hellfire, that is, if anything at all even does happen.”
“‘Tis true, brother, ‘tis a wise and honorable statement. We will dance in the playground of the Devil if so be the need, but we will survive!” Joseph promised. He took another drink of whiskey and passed the jug to his son. “But, enough of Hellfire and damnation, we got good whiskey to drink and the Devil take me if I am going to let some wee problem spoil its grand effects!”
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