from the lament of the wind, there was silence in the gloomy kitchen.
Cassie ’Connor, looked across at the silent figure of her mother Ellen,
huddled over the dying embers of the fire.
"Will I get more sticks?" she asked. Her
mother nodded. Cassie didn’t really expect her to answer; in fact she
hadn’t spoken since her father drowned three weeks earlier.
She emerged from the low doorway, and hastily glanced
at the little huddled houses, showing stark against the bright blue sky.
She was small and skinny for her ten years, with a shock of unkempt black
curling hair, and a small pinched face making her round green eyes look
too big, giving her a haunted appearance.
She climbed up the slope to the whin hill, and began
breaking off the dead thorny branches. When she had broken off an armful,
she straightened her back, and looked out towards the ocean. The sun was
dropping on the far horizon; it’s last beams making a blood-
across the turbulent Atlantic waters. The pangs of hunger made her stagger,
as she bent down to pick up the sticks. The stormy sea meant that the
fishing boats wouldn’t be out, and that meant no fish. She went to the
port on calm evenings in the hope that one of the fishermen would take
pity on her, and give her a couple of herring, or whatever was spare.
And they mostly did. But unless Johnny Molly brought them some milk, she
would have to go to bed with the pains of hunger again. Cassie recalled
that she had been hungry since her father died. When the potatoes failed,
he had to give up his job as a teacher, and become a fisherman. The fish
he caught kept them fed; until three weeks ago. The memory of him came
to her now clearly; strong, safe arms reaching towards her in a thankful
grasp. She saw his laughing green eyes, so much like her own, and the
strong gentle reassurance that made her ache with love for him. But the
memory always slid away when she tried to catch it.
She stumbled back down the hill, with her burden of
sticks, held by skinny, scratched, and blood stained arms. As she rounded
the gable of the house, she saw the two horses. A man in a red coated
uniform stood silently between them holding the reins. Dropping the sticks
at her feet, she stood watching, her face, as pale as death, mirroring
the terror in her soul. She could hear a man’s loud voice coming from
within. She ran inside, distraught. "Please, don’t put us out...please,"
she added, in a near whisper. He turned around to face her, and heaved
a deep sigh.
"I have a job to do. If you pay the back rent
you can stay."
"We have no money. My father’s dead, and we’re
famished," her small voice trailed away. Going over closer to where
Ellen sat, he looked down at her for a while in silence.
"If you’re hungry now, then there’s no chance
of you surviving the winter. Go to the workhouse. That’s all’s for you."
Ellen stared at the dead fire without comment, her pale thin face, and
tragic eyes making her seem barely alive. It was a sight to appeal to
the better instincts of any man, but this was not permitted to sway John
Brown, in pursuit of what he called his duty. Then swinging around to
Cassie again, he asked, "why won’t she speak, for God’s sake. I haven’t
all day to stand around here."
"She hasn’t spoke a word since my Daddy was drowned."
"Look, either you go to the workhouse, or you
pay the rent."
"No we won’t. We won’t," cried Cassie in
a half sob.
From the door he turned again to face her, before adding, "you have
one week from now."
When he had gone, Cassie slumped down to the floor, and listened to the
sound of the horse’s hooves fade into the distance. She sat there rocking
to and fro, with strange small sounds, coming from her throat.
was still sitting in the same position, when Johnny Molly came in ten
minutes later. Bending down, he took her small hand in his and gently
pulled her to her feet.
"What happened? Are they going to evict you?"
she nodded. "He gave us a week to get the rent. He says we will have
to go to the workhouse. Said we would be fed there."
"Damn him to hell. Damned bastards." Nodding
towards her mother, he asked, "has she spoken yet?"
"Not a word."
"Poor wee Cassie, poor wee Cassie," he repeated,
rubbing her head. "I brought some milk, and a bit of bread. We’ll
get the fire lit and see if we can’t get some life back into her, eh."
When she had eaten her
own bread and drank the milk, she looked across to where her mother sat.
She hadn’t touched her bread or drank the milk, she just stared at the whin
sticks as they crackled and flamed, lighting up her pale drawn face. Going
over to where she sat, Johnny stood between her and the fire.
"Listen to me," he said, grabbing her shoulders.
"You are going to eat this bread and drink the milk. By God you are,
even if I have to stay here all night. It’s your duty to live, and look
after your waine. Do you hear me?" he half shouted. Suddenly, she lifted
her eyes to meet his. He handed her the milk, and she lifted it slowly to
her mouth and drank. "That’s more like it. Now eat this bread. I’m
not leaving ’till you do." She took the piece of bread from his outstretched
hand, and began to eat it slowly. When she had finished eating he said,
"I want to help you more than anything else I ever wanted to do before.
But I don’t know how. I have no money to pay your rent for you, and I have
barely enough food to feed my own six mouths."
Before the pangs of hunger began again, Cassie got into
bed, closed her eyes, and let blessed sleep blot out her fears.When she
awoke, her mother was standing in front of the open door, staring straight
ahead. A blast of cold wind made her grab the door to steady her fragile
frame. The light from the door lit up her father’s straw bag of books. For
a moment, she almost forgot that he was dead. Suddenly turning around, her
mother spoke. The sound of her voice made Cassie jump; she had almost forgotten
what her voice sounded like, and the surprise of it caused her not to hear
what she actually said.
"What did you say?" she asked her.
"I said I want you to get up and wash yourself.
We will go to the workhouse while we have the strength to make it."
Jumping out of bed, Cassie ran to her and threw her arms
around her waist.
"You’ve come back, you’ve come back."
"Save your strength Cassie. We have a seven mile
walk ahead of us."Carrying the small bag of books in one hand and Cassie
their few other possessions they set off up the laneway. At the top of the
hill, Ellen stood looking back at the small cluster of cabins huddled under
the hillside. Turning her head to the right, she gazed at the rugged windswept
shore, far below the white foamy waves lashed against the rocks in a fury.
Cassie watched while her mother’s lips moved. But there was no sound.
Three miles along the way, they sat down sandwiching
themselves between the fuchsia hedge for shelter against the biting wind.
Feeling too weak to go on, they became aware of someone standing over them.
"Where you heading for?" a male voice asked.
Looking up they saw a thin bearded man eyeing them curiously.
"The workhouse.... If we make it," Ellen answered
meeting his steady gaze. "You’ll need a bite to eat, or you won’t make
it. If you follow me home I’ll get something in your stomachs."
Getting up slowly, the cold biting wind making them hunch
deeper into their ragged coats, they stumbled along behind him. At the foot
of a rocky hill he turned right along a grass track, that led to his home;
a cave, almost hidden under the rocks.
Inside it was warm with a glowing turf fire.
"Sit down, and get warmed up. When you get
some of this fish soup inside you, you’ll feel revived." They watched
him put pieces of fish and green herbs into the pot, then, hang it over
the glowing coals. "I have lived here for six years now. It’s hardly
a palace. But at least I have no rent to pay; no fear of the dreaded bailiff."
Turning his head around to face them he asked, "were you evicted?"
Ellen nodded. Turning back to stir the pot, he muttered inaudibly in Irish
before turning to face them again. "It’s a bad time that has come on
our proud and noble race. But, our time will come again. The workhouse isn’t
a good place to be heading for. But it will keep you living ’till the spring."
Then he carefully poured the fish broth into three bowls, and handing one
to each of them, he said, "drink every drop. It will put new life into
you." He sat silently staring into space while they drank the broth.
Ellen remembered the last time she had been to this place, and Michael telling
her about the man who lived in the cave who, had been evicted. He had also
told her that his wife and child died in childbirth. As they sat in the
dark cave, Ellen sensed his pain. She could not think of any words of comfort,
so they sat in a rather uncertain silence.They rested for an hour before
going on their way. Along the way, they saw endless deserted homesteads,
here and there ragged hungry children scavenged berries from the bushes
by the roadside. The devastation of the past five years, since the potato
blight first struck was all around them, making their spirits sink even