Fallmore

By LAURA NAGLE 

Mairéad knows what she will say if her husband asks why she has been filling their eldest daughter’s bowl to the brim with porridge at every meal while taking less than a full serving for herself. She will talk about how much she hates oats, has always hated everything about them: the thick smell of the fields when the rain has been too heavy, the ache in her left hip each day of the harvest, the gluey texture of oatmeal porridge, the taste of it like dirty air, the way it sticks in her throat when she tries to swallow it.

She imagines Thomas’s response. It’s by God’s grace we’ve oats again, she can almost hear him saying. God’s grace there’s enough for the likes of us after the livestock are fed. This time last year, all they could get was Indian meal, and the whole village was sick for the better part of a week before the women figured out how to prepare it properly.

Mairéad imagines him asking a second time why she is giving half her rations to Honora. She will tell him the girl is having her monthly courses and is in need of greater nourishment. In the unlikely event Thomas suspects she is lying, he will not challenge her on this, lest he learn things he’d prefer not to know.

But Thomas does not ask, not even once, nor do the boys.

It’s the youngest, Mary Catherine, who notices and asks Mairéad about it one day after breakfast, when the boys are out in the fields with their father and Honora is preparing the lesson she’ll teach for the handful of young children whose parents can still spare a few pence for them to learn reading and arithmetic at the hedge school.

“You’ll understand in a few years,” Mairéad says.

“Tá go leor tuisceana agam cheana féin,” the girl says. She lets her broom fall to the ground and stomps out the door. Such a cheeky girl. But it’s true, what Mary Catherine said: she does indeed understand a great deal for a child not yet ten years of age.

When Thomas’s uncle fell ill and the family came to take over the plot of land near Blacksod Bay the old man had been working half his life, this was Thomas’s greatest fear: his children speaking Gaeilge. He doesn’t speak a word of the old language—never needed it in the plains of Tipperary, where he was born and bred. Even here, where many of the neighbors speak it in the privacy of their own homes, he can get by just fine with only English. But he won’t have his children speaking a language he does not understand in his presence, making a fool of him under the roof he provides.

Mairéad, on the other hand, gets a little thrill from her daughter being impudent in their ancestral language. If she is happy to have left County Tipperary, where her husband’s involvement in the so-called “outrages” was known to the constabulary, for a quiet community in Mayo where they can live without fear of the authorities, she is happier still to find herself in a place where people speak her grandmother’s tongue.

Thirty-one months they’ve been living on this peninsula, and the old words are slowly coming back to her. She could understand Gaeilge quite well when she was a girl, but her parents discouraged her from speaking it. They baptized her Margaret, not Mairéad. They weren’t the type to make a fuss, to stand out, to cause trouble; they thought it best to give their children names that the authorities, who came from the land across the water, would consider pronounceable.

Those old words, her grandparents’ words, keep coming back to her these days. She has only her cúpla focal, the word or two she can conjure here and there, grown stale from disuse. All her children speak the language better now than she does, and she’s too ashamed to speak it in their presence, but she says the words to herself. She repeats them under her breath, even when she lacks the energy to employ her voice. Some days they are the only sustenance she holds in her mouth.

Little wonder, then, that most of her vocabulary has to do with food. That was what her grandmother liked to talk about: growing food, preparing food, eating food, nourishing one’s growing family with food. The crop her husband and sons are tending now, the one she turns into porridge she hates, is coirce. The crop she wishes they were tending is prátaí. Back when they had all the prátaí they needed—sular tháinig an dubh, before the blight came, before every last tuber turned black with rot—they used to have prátaí at every meal, or nearly so. Nothing else was as economical, as filling, as versatile: prátaí bácáilte, prátaí rósta, brúitín prátaí, prátaí ar im.

Im: butter. She salivates at the thought of it. The landlords take everything away and carry it across the sea: the wheat and the barley and the peas and the butter, the precious butter! What a person could do with butter! She could feed all these children, help them grow strong, if only she had prátaí, im, arán donn. It wouldn’t take much buttered potato or brown bread to keep a person happy, and even less to keep a person alive.

She has heard of farmers in communities to the north being required to attend services at the landlords’ churches in exchange for a bit of soup. Her husband is afraid that will happen here too. She doesn’t think it would be that bad; pretending to have faith in a god and his goodness in one building or another doesn’t make much of a difference, as far as she can tell.

Thirty-one months they’ve been living on this peninsula, and nine of those months with nothing to eat but porridge.

*

Mairéad remembers her mother explaining how babies come into the world: that it works the same with people as it does with sheep, except men, if you’re fortunate, are sometimes gentler than rams.

When a second month goes by that Honora does not require any rags, Mairéad thinks only that the girl needs more to eat and perhaps more rest. The hedge school, even with no more than a dozen pupils in attendance, is too great a burden for a girl of seventeen to handle on her own. But the teacher here in Fallmore died of the fever last year, and the one in Belmullet has sailed for America. The children need a teacher; Honora’s family needs whatever money she can earn. It is a source of shame to Thomas, seeing his daughter obliged to contribute to the household income. And the children’s Latin assignments glare at him from the kitchen table, mocking him, for he can do no more than scribble his name and identify some of the letters in the alphabet. But to everyone else concerned, it seems a blessing that one need can satisfy another.

Then a third month comes and goes, Honora still showing no sign of her monthly courses. She is aware of what is happening to her, Mairéad is sure of that; she can see the burden weighing down the girl’s cheeks. But they do not speak of it. Some words are dangerous. Some words have a way of carrying on the wind.

Mairéad knows there are ways of putting an end to this condition. When she was Honora’s age, she observed her own mother concocting a drink to help a neighbor bring on tardy menstruation. But she does not know which herbs to use and in what combination. There are women in this parish who might be knowledgeable about these matters, but Mairéad cannot risk asking the wrong women and having them gossip about her inquiry or, worse still, tattle to the priest in an effort to gain his favor. And she cannot give poison to her daughter unless she is certain it is the right poison.

One day when the weather is fine, Mairéad walks down to the strand and looks across the bay, where the hills of Achill stand like sentries in the distance. Beyond those great mounds rising out of the sea, Mairéad knows, there are villages; she likely has relations there, distant cousins whose grandparents would have left Donegal decades earlier, just as hers did. She hopes they were not so desperate as to part with their fishing gear in the first season of the blight, that they do not blame themselves for their current circumstance, as Thomas and the other men of this peninsula do. But how were they to know, when they bartered their nets at the market in Belmullet in exchange for enough grain to last the winter, that the potato crop would fail even more catastrophically the following year? How could they have conceived of a season like this one—the third year of the Drochshaol, a word that sounded as harsh as the conditions it described—when not one seed potato was to be had in the county at any price?

Mairéad walks past St. Deirbhile’s Well on her way home and recalls how the site got its name. A suitor, it was said, had pursued a young noblewoman from province to province and cornered her here on the peninsula, at land’s end, and she, desperate to be rid of him, plucked out her own eyes. And God approved, apparently. No sooner did the fellow get a look at her bruised and bloodied countenance than he bolted back to Meath, and when the maiden Deirbhile washed her face in that well, the holy water restored her beauty and the gift of sight.

An awful lot of bother, Mairéad thinks, if all God wanted was for Deirbhile’s suitor to leave her be.

*

That evening there is a letter from one of Mairéad’s relations in County Donegal. She sits at the table and reads it silently, with Honora looking over her shoulder.

Her cousin Anna, the letter says, has died along with her husband, a fever having run through their village. It has fallen to Anna’s brothers to tend their land, in addition to their own and a plot belonging to another recently deceased neighbor, for the rest of the year, lest the landlord be angered by an insufficient yield and use that pretext to order evictions over the winter. They are writing to ask if Mairéad can spare her two boys—even one would be a great help—until the harvest is over.

Thomas asks what the letter is about.

“My cousin Anna,” she says. “And her husband, John. Ar dheis Dé—”

Mairéad does not realize these words are leaving her lips. Before she can finish the blessing, Honora has clasped a hand over hers: a reminder, a warning, not to speak the old language in Thomas’s presence.

“Dead,” Honora says.

“The both of them? Awful,” Thomas says. “It’s awful what’s become of this land.”

“The husband is dead,” Mairéad says, a plan taking shape in her mind and the words coming out of her mouth all at the same time. She turns to Honora before continuing. “Anna is alone. And with child.”

Honora lowers her gaze and retracts her hand, which hovers almost imperceptibly over her womb before coming to rest in her lap.

“I must go to her,” Mairéad continues, “until her time comes. And I’ll need to take Honora with me to help. It’s time she learned how to tend a woman in childbirth.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Thomas says. “Margaret, no. The boys and I cannot spare you and Honora both.”

“Mary Catherine has been helping me in the kitchen these last few weeks. She can keep house well enough.”

“She is a child of eight!”

“Nine,” the girl states flatly, not looking up from her mending. “Almost ten.”

“There are children her age in workhouses,” Honora murmurs, still looking down at her lap.

Mairéad reads self-reproach in the slump of her daughter’s shoulders. Is Honora ashamed of her own condition, or of allowing her mother to lie to her father? Mairéad sees no cause for shame. She sees only an empty house in Donegal and a daughter in need of a safe haven.

For a week, the argument between Mairéad and Thomas never ends; it is merely punctuated by sleep and work.

A neighbor agrees to take the ladies to Belmullet on Tuesday, when he goes to market, and they will make their way from there to Sligo and on to Donegal.

Thomas will not see them off, he says, and Mairéad knows he will not soften when the day arrives. She lies awake the night before the departure and caresses his brow. She thanks him aloud for the early years, for their children. She tells him he was brave back in Tipperary, standing up to the landlords, and she admires him for that. She says she knows he’d admire her, too, if he could understand why this must be done.

He is pretending to be asleep, and she is pretending not to know he’s awake.

*

When Honora gives birth in the cottage Anna and John left behind, in the hills overlooking the south coast of Donegal, there is no scandal in the community, only compassion. The cousins and neighbors all believe Honora to be a young widow. There are plenty of widows about these days. Even her reticence to speak of the husband she supposedly lost is unremarkable; some people express grief only through silence.

In the springtime, when Honora has regained her strength, Mairéad sends word to Thomas in care of the priest at Fallmore.

My cousin Anna, it pains me to tell you, is gone. The baby is a fine, healthy girl. A powerful set of lungs she has. Honora suggested we call the child Johanna, and I agree it is a suitable tribute to those who made her life possible. Honora has been brilliant throughout this ordeal. She is a credit to us, Thomas.

You ought to come join us here, you and the rest of the children. The plot is large enough, and my cousins have helped us secure John and Anna’s lease. With a bit of effort, we could have radishes to ourselves, and seaweed is plentiful in these parts. A master weaver in Killybegs is teaching Honora skills I never could have imagined. Life here is not easy, but there is more opportunity for the children. Do come and join us.

No sooner is the letter out of Mairéad’s hands than she wishes she could take it back. She does not regret lying to Thomas months ago when she needed an excuse to spirit Honora away, nor does she regret lying to people here in Donegal to protect her daughter’s reputation. But these two lies cannot coexist. The pain of separation from three of her children is awful enough; the prospect of them discovering why she left them—the thought of them finding fault with the decisions she’s made—is unbearable. She can only hope that Thomas refuses to make the journey with them to reunite with her and Honora. She prays they will remain in Fallmore.

Two weeks later, the letter is returned, the seal unbroken, accompanied by a note scrawled in the hand of the new parish priest at Belmullet. The bloody flux, he writes, has struck the peninsula. Her Edward, Francis, and Mary Catherine all were found at home; they are buried beside Deirbhile’s church, on the hillside overlooking the bay, with Achill Island visible in the distance. He hopes, he says, that she will take some comfort in knowing they are together. As for Thomas, the priest regrets he cannot be certain of his fate; he can say only that “a gaunt man said to resemble your husband” is among those buried recently at Glencastle, having been found along the road from Belmullet.

All this Mairéad tells Johanna while Honora is out weaving. She tells the baby about her uncles—Ned, who had the best of his father’s courage, and Francis, who was strong and kind—and about her aunt, Mary Catherine, who was the cleverest of the lot. She tells Johanna her grandfather would have loved her, even if he couldn’t know why. She says they’ve all gone ar shlí na fírinne, on the way of truth.

And then she throws the letters, both of them, into the fire. By the time Honora returns home, there will be nothing left of them.

 

 

Laura Nagle is a fiction writer and a translator of prose and poetry from French, Spanish, and Irish. Her flash fiction has recently appeared in Stanchion and SoFloPoJo, and her translations have appeared in journals including The Southern Review, AGNI, Gulf Coast, and Southword. Her translation of Prosper Mérimée’s 1827 hoax, Songs for the Gusle, was published in 2023.

 

Fallmore

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