County Donegal, Ireland
Henry stood next to his father surveying their largest
field. He longed to say that the seeds might yet sprout, that
there was still time to yield a return, but the undeniable truth
lay right before them: drought had come to Ireland. Their
investment in imported flaxseed was lost.
“A hundred days, Henry.” Father’s face bore the pained
expression of a man whose hope was as withered as his crops. “A
hundred days was all we needed, all that stood between us and
prosperity.” He kicked a clod of dirt, and it turned to dust.
“It’s all gone, gone along wi’ the horse that harrowed the
A lump rose in Henry’s throat. He ached for his father, and
he missed their horse. Paddy was a fine animal purchased ten
years ago after a bumper crop of rye, when Edward McConnell’s
luck was good and Henry’s only chore was to stay out of his
mother’s hair. Elizabeth McConnell moldered in the ground now,
and Paddy plowed another man’s fields.
“We will pray, Father. God will help us.”
“God?” Father kneaded his forehead with calloused fingers.
“God’s groping in our pockets right along wi’ your Uncle Sorley.
Praying did nae pay our tithes or the hearth tax, did it?”
Surely he didn’t mean that. Everyone knew Edward McConnell
to be a godly man.
“We’ll get more seed, Father. It’ll grow next year.” He
squared his shoulders and tried to look confident.
“Will nae do us any good. Your Uncle Sorley plans to
decrease our tillage in favor of pasture.”
“Wi’ no cut in rent, I’ll wager, and early payment again
Father spat on the parched ground. “He stopped by yesterday
looking for it. Said he’ll call in after services on the
Sabbath.” He ground his teeth together. “I’d gi’ anything to see
the look on his face when he finds our empty hoose.”
Henry’s chest tightened. Were they moving again? He rubbed
the back of his neck and looked across the rolling patchwork of
fields to the northeast, where their last home rose above a
copse of ash, and where his mother’s daffodils still swayed in
the Ulster wind. Four years ago, the cattle plague put them out
of that house and into the windowless shack they now shared with
Phoebe, their only remaining sow. The hut contained a hearth, a
curse necessitating the payment of tax despite the fact that it
never contained a fire.
With no peat left and no horse to haul more from the bog,
the McConnells relied on a moth-eaten blanket and Phoebe’s body
heat for warmth.
They had room to fall; many Catholics lived in the open,
bleeding cattle and boiling the gore with sorrel for sustenance.
Perhaps his father intended to join them.
“Are we moving again?” he asked.
Father slipped two fingers under his brown tie wig and
rubbed his temple, something he often did when puzzled.
Henry followed his gaze to the ruins of Burt Castle, which
sat atop a knoll, just above Uncle Sorley’s grand plantation
“Nine years we’ve suffered bad luck, Henry. E’er since I
buried . . .”
Buried what? Maw? She died five years ago, not nine.
Father sunk his head into his hands, muffling his speech.
“I . . . I guess it’s time to . . .”
Henry stepped into the hard, hot field, directly in front
of his father. “Father, what in the name of heaven is it?”
Father tilted back his head and whispered to the sky,
“Forgive me, Elizabeth.” He looked at Henry. “I buried
something. Your maw insisted on it, said it was pagan and she
did nae want it in her hoose. I did as she asked. A woman can
talk ye into cutting off your own hand, Henry, remember that if
Henry nodded, not comprehending, wondering what pagan thing
lay buried. He’d never heard it mentioned before, and he was a
skilled eavesdropper. “What was it? What did ye bury?”
Father inhaled deeply, removed the worn tricorn from his
head, and tucked it under his arm. “I’ll tell ye the whole tale,
but first, we have to dig it up. We canny do that until after
dark.” He turned without warning and headed for home.
Henry followed him, volleying questions against his back.
Father said nothing until they reached their hut. There, he
stormed past Phoebe, flung open the door, and nodded toward a
worm-ravaged chest sitting next to a heap of rushes that served
as their bed.
“Gather up our claithes and shoes. Use my good cloak for a
sack. Bring the dried nettles.” He grabbed the peat spade, the
only tool left from his once abundant array of implements, and
used it to prop open the door.
“Why bring the nettles?” Henry hated the bitter leaves.
“There are more nettles than rocks in Ulster.”
When his father offered no reply, he lobbed another
question, desperate for clues as to their destination. “Will ye
not wear your good cloak, if we are traveling far?”
“My auld cloak will draw less attention.”
So, they were going to some populous place where good
cloaks were bad.
Henry spread the cloak across the dirt floor, careful to
avoid Phoebe’s manure. The cloak was long out of fashion, but
still a quality garment that Edward McConnell could not afford
to replace. He threw their scant belongings into the middle of
it, brought the cloak’s corners together, then tied them
together to form a sack. Excepting Phoebe and the clothes they
wore, the sack contained everything worth saving.
He sat on the rickety chest to watch his father pace.
When Burt Castle became a silhouette against an amber
horizon, Father donned his hat and cloak and ducked outside.
Henry followed him to the stone wall separating their field
from Uncle Archibald’s.
Father began to tumble a section of wall.
With his perplexity and fear mounting, Henry assisted until
there was enough of a breach to push Phoebe through the wall.
She trotted away, grunting and wagging her curly tail,
while he helped restack the stones to prevent her from
He could no longer hold his tongue.
“What are we doing? Why are we putting Phoebe in Uncle
Archibald and Aunt Martha’s field? Are we going somewhere? Where
are we going? Why are we taking nettles?”
In his frustration, he grabbed his father’s arm.
Father whirled around and gave Henry’s shoulders a fierce
shake. “Get hold of yoursel’, lad, or I’ll cloot ye upside the
noggin. No more questions. Just do as ye’re told.”
Henry stared at his father, who had never once laid a hand
on him, nor threatened to.
“I’m sorry, lad. Go on in the hoose and get the bundle.”
When Henry returned with their belongings, his father was
holding the peat spade.
“Get a good look around ye, son. It’s the last time ye’ll
clap eyes on your hame.”
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