“Know what?” Eileen giggled at her two older brothers while she dug at the root of a small weed with her hoe. “I am going to have a suitor this Saturday night.”
John halted his digging and looked curiously up at his sister. “And who would that be?” he asked, leaning heavily upon his hoe. A heavy gust of wind whipped an oily strand of hair into his face and rustled the growing barley leaves noisily.
Peter looked disgustedly at his sister and shook his head. “I thought there were not no lads around here with enough gumption for you.”
“Brothers!” Eileen huffed exaggeratedly, looking between the young men in mock frustration. “I have a mind to just shut me mouth and not be saying another word.” She returned exaggeratedly to her chore.
“Okay sister, tell us who is this lad that the angels of Heaven smile upon with their glorious fortune!” John snickered, toying with his sister. He really did love her and felt more than a little responsible for her well being. Yet, teasing a sister was a brother’s right. Especially since she had doled plenty of agony upon him. This lass was a master at that.
Eileen did not utter a word. She scrapped at the dirt with her hoe, pretending to give no mind to the two curious lads. She looked across the field to her baby brother who gathered the weeds they removed. “James,” she shouted sweetly, “will you come here, lad, and take these weeds away for your favorite sister? That is a lad!” The youngster immediately weaved his way through the rustling grain, heading directly to his sister’s side. “At least I have one good brother!” she teased, looking into Heaven with a serious look on her face.
“All right, you have got us begging now!” Peter cried. “Give us the bugger’s name or we will roll you in the dirt and spit in your ear!”
“Bugger is it now?” Eileen toyed with her brothers. “If you would ask like a civilized lad, I just might give you a hint.” She looked blankly away toward the distant mountains. The wind blew a furious gust, tossing her hair thickly around the lass’ face.
Both older brothers looked disgustedly at their sister. Peter dropped his hoe and took several steps toward her. John quickly followed suit. Eileen squealed and laughed aloud. Her voice seemed to carry instantly away with the prevailing gust into the thick, broken clouds above. A brief ray of sunshine fled across the small field, disappearing almost as quickly as it appeared.
“All right, you bloody fools!” she screamed as her brothers approached her. “Himself is Brendan O’Toole. There, you have it. Now, off with you, back to work!”
“For the soul of Saint Brigid!” Peter exclaimed teasingly. “Has not there been enough sorrow in that family?”
“Enough. . .” the lass began, then stopped, instead running at her brother, grabbing his head under her arm and twisting him to the ground.
“Watch where you are going!” John cried out, seeing several barley plants knocked over. He ran to his brother and sister, grabbing both under each arm. “For the love of Saint Michael, will you two stop your fighting here? Go out in the road and twist each other’s heads off, but do not tear down the barley!” Both siblings squirmed briefly, laughing and poking each other behind their brother’s back. John let them go.
Eileen looked around, reached down and straightened a barley plant that had been rolled over in the fracas. “Nothing harmed,” she giggled.
“Nothing, indeed!” John bellowed. “And what is this about an O’Toole coming around here for a courting?”
“You heard me,” she replied mockingly. “Met him at his Uncle and cousin’s wake a couple of weeks ago. No harm in making acquaintances when you can.”
“He is but seventeen years old, if I recall!” John replied then teased her more. “Picking them green off the vine are ya’?”
“Himself is but a year my younger, brother!” she defended a little more seriously. “I have met no lads older who would be as good a prospective husband. Besides, we have met but twice!”
James scooted up and tugged on his sister’s dress. “Are you marrying, sister?” he asked seriously. “Are you going to leave us?”
The three older siblings laughed heartily. James turned his eyes to the ground and backed away a step. “No, lad,” Eileen responded tenderly to her little brother. “Not as yet, leastways.”
James smiled at his sister and hugged her around the waist. She was the only mother he had ever known. Eileen had cared for their youngest brother almost as if he were her own. From his birth, she would finish her own chores, then spend hours with him, caring for his needs. It was a lot of responsibility for a ten year old girl. Now the youngster was very close with her.
“Let’s finish hoeing this field,” John suggested, “then we can take little James to the Grand Canal and watch the boats float by.”
James’ eyes brightened. The young lad loved to watch the transport barges pass by and navigate the locks of the waterway. Maybe it was time to at least attempt to know his little brother, John had been thinking. Sometimes even children die.
“Hi ya’, John. What is on with you?” the familiar voice of Seamus Mallon called to the group of siblings walking down the main village road.
“Good afternoon, Seamus,” John called back to his friend waving happily. The fellow stood in the middle of his barley field merrily greeting the group. Seamus was a tall, thin, middle-aged man that John had met on his way back and forth to his Sunday morning getaways. Though more than ten years John’s elder, the two men had many things in common. On rare occasions, Seamus would even accompany the lad to his hideaway. Other than a couple of pretty young lasses, Seamus was the only friend of John’s to do that.
“Have you met me brothers and sister, Seamus?” John asked his friend.
“You know, lad, in all the years I have known you, I have never had the pleasure. You have talked of them plenty, but never brought them by,” his friend answered politely.
John quickly introduced everyone to Seamus. “Where you off to?” the fellow asked cheerfully.
“We are taking a bite to eat down to the canal to watch the boats.” James spat out excitedly. “We really like the boats!” The young lad looked between his siblings with a grand smile.
“Sounds gorgeous!” Seamus replied to James, tousling his hair playfully. “Me wife, Patricia, just baked up a few blackberry scones. Why don’t I go and get a couple for you to share with your meal?”
James’ huge smile got even bigger. “Blackberry scones?” he asked wondrously. “Oh, I love blackberry scones!”
John’s jaw dropped. “Seamus, we could not. Your offer is so generous, but, we cannot take such a rich offering from you!” he stammered shyly.
“Nonsense, lad,” Seamus returned with a grand smile. “Patricia picked some early berries and used a wee bit of her flour stores and baked up a few scones. I am afraid they would go bad before we had them all. Really ‘tis a good thing you came along! Hate to waste any food, you know!” He turned toward his tiny cottage at a brisk gait, waving for the group to follow him.
John and his siblings waited at the entrance to house for the man to return. Patricia Mallon quickly appeared, followed closely by her husband. “Here you are, lads and lasses. I have put two beautiful scones in here for you now. Try to keep them warm, now, and enjoy them!” she instructed with a brilliant smile. The lady handed Eileen a small bundle wrapped in a little square of cloth. “Off with you, now.” she continued with a laugh, “we cannot have the boats waiting around for you.”
Everyone offered profuse thanks. James jumped up and down, almost unable to control himself. “Grand,” he shouted gleefully, “today is just the perfect day!”
The whole group chuckled at the excitement of the lad. The siblings turned back down the road toward the canal. “When will we get there, John?” James asked.
“Soon, lad, soon,” the eldest brother responded, placing the packet of scones with the rest of the food.
James skipped down the lane, kicking up dust as he spun, ran and jumped from side to side. They crossed the little bridge just before the rise leading to the O’Tooles’ ruined cottage. “This is where the soldiers passed me the day they burned out the O’Tooles,” John informed his brother and sister quietly. Both siblings seemed disinterested, so he dropped the subject.
Topping the low rise, John scanned the small dale. Several ruined cottages were visible across the green fields. A small herd of cattle now wandered amongst the tumbled stone walls and fences. Cattle had not been grazed through this countryside in generations. This is tillage country, John thought, his curiosity piqued. Did the landlord perhaps push these families off their land just to graze cattle? No, could not be, that does not make any sense.
John continued through the small valley, fighting tortured memories as they neared the tumbled cottage of the O’Toole family. The lad could almost see children staring at their smoking cottage, a mother kneeling at the side of her dead son. His eyes were locked on the old structure. The bellow of a nearby bull brought him back to the present. The lad forced his eyes up the road and toward their destination.
The family bypassed the town center, undesirous of too much contact with the villagers. Instead, they left the roadway and followed a small pathway to the edge of the Grand Canal They then turned down the waterway toward the old bridge and lock system. The canal was empty of traffic so far. Other than a few waterfowl and a kingfisher diving here and there, the channel was empty. James stopped often, taken with the colorful birds inhabiting the waterway. Eileen even paused to pluck a few wildflowers and tuck them gaily into her thick, rusty hair.
Nearing the old arched stone bridge over the canal, John found a shady spot to stop. The wind had eased and the sun peeked periodically through the broken clouds. The Slieve Bloom mountains had trapped a thick layer of darker clouds, decorated by an occasional bright flash of lightening visible near their peaks. ‘Tis a grand day for an outing, he thought as he lay back into the thick grass at the channel’s edge.
James rolled up his pant legs and sat on an exposed tree root with his bare feet hanging into the cool water. Eileen soon joined her youngest brother. Peter produced a short length of twine and a piece of thin wire from his pocket. Fashioning a crude hook from the wire, the lad tied it handily onto the twine and began a short search for a suitable stick for a fishing pole. With his search accomplished, the middle brother then put the components together captured a handy earthworm and slipped his line into the clear waters of the canal. “I am going to get us some meat for dinner,” he informed them matter-of-factly.
John hoped his brother was right. He had not had a taste of meat since their dinner with their neighbors. Though potatoes were filling and provided all the meal they required, a change on occasion was very desirous. A nice fish would be just grand. “Best of luck to you, brother,” he replied.
“Look, James,” Eileen called to her brother pointing down the canal toward the bridge. “There is a boat coming this way!”
James jumped to his feet and stared under the bridge at the narrow craft that was silently approaching them. “‘Tis beautiful, ain’t it?” he cried with joy. The boat reached the lock beneath the bridge and slowly navigated through the gates. The young lad ran toward the bridge, eager to get a closer look. He waved happily at the pilot, never taking his eyes off the vessel as he ran.
John smiled. ‘Twould be really lovely to be young and curious again, he thought lovingly. He watched his brother draw near the bridge at a trot.
Unexpectedly, two small figures popped up into John’s view from the tall grass of a drainage ditch behind where James was running. The youngster paid no notice, his eyes were intently trained on the boat. The figures looked to be children about the same age as his brother or maybe a little younger. Someone else must have had the same idea, he thought with a chuckle, I wonder where their parents are?
The sound of the children’s movement suddenly caught James’ attention. He stopped dead in his tracks, seemingly unable to take his eyes off the others. Staring at the two, the lad’s arms drooped limply to his side and he made no sound. John found his brother’s reaction odd, as he was usually very gregarious with others his age. It was not uncommon at all for him to go directly up to a strange child and immediately become friends with them, lad or lass.
All at once, James spun and bolted back toward his siblings. As he neared, John could see terror in his eyes. All three siblings stood at once and rushed to meet their youngest brother. Peter dropped his fishing gear almost into the water and stopped momentarily to retrieve and place it on the bank.
“What is wrong?” Eileen shouted fearfully.
A long low scream began to erupt from James as he ran closer. The two small figures in the background never moved. They just seemed to watch the lad as he ran from them. James continued to just scream and run away from the figures.
“What is wrong?” Eileen screamed again, this time in complete terror. She reached her brother first, taking him tightly in her arms. The lad’s screaming ceased, though he quaked mightily in his sister’s grasp. Eileen pulled him tightly to her breast, stroking his head and whispering in his ear.
John and Peter reached their brother at the same time, both asking what was happening. “You look like you have seen a ghostie, lad!” Peter commented at the first look of James’ face.
“‘Tis!” he stammered fearfully with a quick look over his shoulder. “‘Tis a pooka! No, two pookas!”
John’s jaw dropped. He thought pookas were fairy tales, meant only to frighten children and keep them in the house at night. These creatures looked like children to him. The lad looked back to where he had seen the two figures. They still had not moved, just stood in place staring back at them.
“Tell me what you saw, lad,” John instructed his little brother. “Describe them to me.” He wanted desperately to know what was standing out there, but a small grain of fear of the unknown kept him from just marching up to the pair.
A third figure rose slightly from the grass as he peered toward the figures. It looked to be just a head, looking their way. Then, once again it vanished. “What in the name of St. Paul and all the disciples?” John questioned no one in particular.
Looking impatiently down at his little brother, John decided it was urgent he go investigate. Slowly and carefully, the lad struck out toward the unmoving pair. He looked quickly over his shoulder toward Peter, motioning him with a nod to come along. Peter shook his head no. Then with another prompt, he reluctantly set off to follow John across the grassy field.
As John cautiously approached the pair, it became evident that his first impression was correct. Two young children stood just a few feet in front of him, their wispy frames nothing but skin and bones. Their bulging eyes were huge in their gaunt faces, lacking the fire usually seen in the eyes of children. Both children’s jaws were slack, holding their mouths halfway open. Nothing but the barest of rags were on their shoulders, not enough to keep them warm on a chilly night.
John’s heart sank. He quickened his step toward the two children. Reaching their side, he knelt before them. They were a boy of about six and his sister of maybe eight years old.
Peter stepped up behind his brother. “My God,” he muttered. “What in the name of Heaven is happening here?” The lad looked horridly down on the emaciated youngsters. “Who are they?”
“I do not know,” John responded quietly. He gently asked the children their names. They gave no response. The pair just looked at him, empty eyed and energyless. A low moan in the grass nearby caught John’s attention. That was where he had seen the head of the other person peek over the top of the grass. He rose and moved toward the sound.
A young woman came into view. She was even more emaciated than her children, if that were possible. It looked as if the few tatters still draped over her body had been torn apart to make clothing for the children. The woman could hardly lift her head as John approached.
“Lass,” he started quietly, “are you all right? Is there anything I can do?” He knelt down beside the woman in the thick grass.
She rose shakily onto her elbows. “Food, can you get some food for me children? I fear they are both starved near to death. They have not eaten in days,” she responded weakly. “Please, lad, feed me children.” She then closed her eyes and laid back down. John feared she had died.
Looks like she had not eaten in weeks, John thought, looking at the bones showing through the pallid skin on every part of the woman’s body. “I have some food,” he said tenderly, not sure if she could even hear him. “I will give what I have to your lad and lass, but, you must eat some yourself.”
“Just take care of me children,” she responded unexpectedly with a small sigh. “I will have some if any is left.”
“I will be back momentarily,” John promised, standing quickly to his feet. He turned toward the place where he had set their package of food on the shore of the canal. Peter knelt with the two children, still trying to talk with them. Setting off at a trot, John spotted the tree he had just left and headed quickly for it.
Eileen shuffled slowly toward the two children with James grasping tightly to her thigh. Fear still covered the lad’s face as he approached the other children. He had never experienced anything like this before, being rather sheltered by his sister.
John passed his siblings, quickly making his way to the food pouch. “What is happening?” Eileen questioned as he trotted by.
“I will tell you in a few minutes,” he responded, not breaking stride. “They need food, terribly.”
Grasping his small bag of food, John made a direct line back toward the starving children. He watched from the distance as Eileen knelt beside Peter taking a hand of each of the youngsters tightly in her own. “Holy Christ in Heaven,” John heard her say as she let go a tiny hand and crossed herself. James stood behind his sister, holding onto her shoulders.
“I have food,” John announced simply, arriving before the small group. “‘Tis not much, but it will be filling.”
The eyes of the children seemed to light up just a bit. Not a word yet escaped their hungry mouths, however. Eileen drew the two youngsters closer to her while John fetched a couple of boiled potatoes from his packet. He offered the spuds gently to the two youngsters who quickly snatched them up. They virtually inhaled the potatoes, as a small smile brightened their pallid faces.
Peter looked compassionately at the two children. John had never seen his brother so interested in the welfare of another. He pulled tightly up beside his sister and brushed a lock of hair out of one of the youngsters’ eyes. Taking a second offering from John, he presented it to the hungry siblings. “They must not have eaten in days,” Peter responded quietly. His ruddy face looked on the edge of tears.
“Seems so,” John replied, watching the children make small work of their meal. The elder brother handed two more small potatoes to Eileen, then stood slowly to return to their mother.
Arriving at the woman’s side, John knelt, placing the lightened packet beside her. “I have food for you,” he announced gently with a small smile. “Your children are fed, now you need something for yourself.
The woman’s weak eyes looked up at him. “Please, sir, save the food for me children,” she pleaded quietly. “I fear ‘tis too late for me. I have not the strength to chew nor swallow.” The lass again closed her eyes and lay motionless in the soft grass.
“Come on, lass,” John pleaded with the woman. “You must eat. Who will take care of your children if you give up?”
With that prompting, the lass rose weakly upon her elbows. John reached carefully behind her back and helped the struggling lass to a sitting position. He could not help notice that she seemed to weigh almost nothing. The tattered rag that had been draped over her body slipped to the ground, revealing the fleshlessness of her emaciated body. Every rib was visible, as were the bones making up her narrow shoulders. The starved lasses stomach was no more than a pit in the center of her body.
The lad retrieved the rag and tried haphazardly to place it over her bare shoulders. He then handed her a small potato and held his hand tightly against her bare back, bracing her as she sat and bit into her morsel. The woman even struggled to bite into the spud, finally allowing John to mash it slightly and break the tough skin.
After a few bites she paused. “‘Tis all I can take at the moment,” she whispered. “Do you have any water?”
“We will get you some,” John replied, a wave of dark emotion flooding through his veins. “Peter,” he called to his brother, “fetch us some water.”
Peter turned to John, a streak of wet down one cheek. He stood slowly, looking back at the children. John had never seen his brother so moved. Normally he was a quick witted, stand-offish lad who showed little emotion, other than a quick fit of anger on occasion.
John rummaged through his food pouch once again and produced a small tin cup for Peter to retrieve the water with. The middle brother seemed to make an effort not to look at the woman sitting unsteadily beside John as he arrived to take the vessel. Instead, he turned pertly toward the crystal waters of the canal, cup in hand.
John returned his attention to the woman. “What is your name?” he asked her tenderly.
“Patricia,” she replied, almost at a whisper. “Patricia Dougherty. Me children are Mary and Jason.”
“Lovely names, all,” John commended. “Do you live around here?”
“No, we are from Drogheda,” Patricia replied, closing her eyes as her energy waned. “No food there at all. People starving. I had to feed me family, so we walked. . . .”
“From Drogheda?” John questioned incredulously. “How long since you have eaten?”
Patricia sat quietly, eyes still closed. “Please care for me children,” she repeated almost inaudibly.
Peter returned with a cup of water in his hand. John took the vessel and held it to the woman’s lips. She took his hand between her boney fingers and drank slowly.
Unable to ignore the woman’s presence any longer, Peter looked down on her frail body. He gasped loudly, bringing John to turn to his brother. A look of horror was plastered on the lad’s face. He stared at the emaciated frame of the human that sat at his feet. His body convulsed as if he was getting sick. The lad spun on his heels and darted away, stopping a few steps beyond the children and staring into the distant mountains.
“Thank you,” Patricia whispered.
“Here, take another bite of food,” John instructed the woman once again.
She took another couple of bites and looked up at John. “You are such a gracious lad. I cannot thank you enough,” she whispered again, a small tear running down her face. She tugged weakly at the rag draped over her shoulder in an unsuccessful attempt to cover her bare bosom. John helped the lass the best he could to stretch the material.
Peter unexpectedly returned from behind John’s back, pulling off his shirt and offering it to his brother to cover the woman. John took the clothing and helped Patricia slip one arm, then the other through the sleeves. He buttoned a couple of buttons and laid her gently back into the grass.
“We need some help,” John informed his brother. “Will you go back to Seamus Mallon’s cottage and get his help? We need to get these people into a warm spot for the night.”
Wordlessly, Peter turned away and set off at a trot down the lane toward the Mallon’s cottage. John picked up his lightened food bundle and walked to Eileen’s side.
“How are the children?” he asked, looking compassionately at the wee pair.
“With a little feeding up, they should be fine,” she answered, brushing a wisp of hair from the eyes of the little lass. “How is their mother?”
“Not very well I am afraid. She has had nothing to eat for a long while. It will take some time before she can recover any strength. I sent Peter off to get Seamus’ help. Maybe he will have an idea.”
“Grand idea,” she replied. “I do not think Da would approve of bringing home more mouths to feed. Our potatoes are running low as well and it will be a few more weeks before any of the new crop is ready.”
John looked away into the distance. “What should we do?” he asked quietly.
Eileen’s face suddenly brightened. “What about the church?” she asked. “Maybe Father O’Casey will help us.”
While the idea might be their best possibility, John dreaded returning to the church to ask for help. He was sure that they would be barraged with more guilt and threats of hell fire. The lad tried desperately to think of a different tactic, to no avail. He looked back at the silent children, then over to their mother who lay motionless in the grass. “If Seamus has no better ideas when he arrives, we shall take them there.” he acquiesced. “I can think of nothing better.”
James, who had wandered off earlier to the canal, returned and quietly moved to his sister’s side. “Are they going to be all right?” he asked quietly.
“I think so, lad,” Eileen answered him sweetly. “Nothing a bit of food and shelter cannot fix.”
“Do you think they would like a blackberry scone?” James asked again. He looked at the two younger children, compassion shining in his young eyes. “I really think they would like them.”
Eileen smiled and hugged her little brother. “We shall see,” she replied thoughtfully. “John, shall we see of the wee ones would like a lovely scone?”
John smiled at his brother and sister. “Of course, we shall” he answered, retrieving one of the scones from his packet and unwrapping it.
He broke the biscuit in half and gave a piece to each of the children. Their eyes lit up as they immediately took the treats. Smiles spread across both their faces when they bit into the tasty morsels. John looked proudly at James as the youngest brother smiled widely at the children’s reaction.
“I knew they would like it,” James replied proudly. “It will make them feel better.”
Eileen smiled at her little brother and tousled his hair playfully.
“May I have some water please,” little Mary suddenly spoke up.
“Me, as well,” chimed Jason.
“But, you can speak,” Eileen responded with a smile. “Of course you can have some water. John will you hand me the cup?”
“I will get it,” James volunteered, taking the vessel from John.
John walked quietly back to Patricia’s side. She opened her eyes and smiled slightly at him. “Thank you,” she responded again very quietly.
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