John laid another block of turf on the fire and slid into bed waiting for Johannah to finish with the little ones, then wrapped himself around her to warm her chilled body. The children deserved the warm fire, he thought as he drifted uneasily toward sleep.
“John, do you hear that.” She struck him in the chest. “John, wake up. I hear summat.”
Fighting his way through the heaviness of a hard sought sleep, he answered her, “What,” and he listened, “What are ye talking about?”
“I heard a noise, a sharp noise, then a hard breathin’.”
“Well,” he waited a moment, turnin’ his ears toward the steps, “there’s nought now, so go back to sleep,” and he rolled away from her.
“There it is,” and throwin’ back the rough blankets, she rose from the bed. “It’s the bairns, coughin’, it is.”
“Then go on with ye,” John called from his side of the bed, and as quick as he let the words fly, it came to him. Coughin’ was not a good thing. Too many children, too many old folks were dyin’, of the cholera, some said. And of the bloody flux and typhus. But his children were not yet starvin’ and they were not livin’ like those that been dyin’, piled on top of one another, spreadin’ the evil about the house. With those thoughts, he could sleep no more.
He found Johannah sittin’ in a chair now pulled close to the fire, wee Bridget in her lap, the lads huddled at her knee, holdin’ their blankets around their shoulders, the three of them coughin’ into their hands as if they could capture the pain and make it go away. “Build the fire up John. They’re all sick. Hear them workin’ so hard to get some air? And they’re hot.”
Hearin’ his mother’s words, Patrick corrected her. “We’re na’ hot. We’re cold now, we are. And our head hurts and throat hurts and we canna breathe,” speaking for them all.
Fear painted Johannah’s face white, even in the dim light of the fire. “It’s the fever, John, the fever that’s got our bairns.”
“So what do we do now? Do we call for the doctor? Do ye want me to chase after him, to run to Moyne?”
“Ye must,” she called to his turned back, turned to hide his tears that started with his wild imaginin’s as he climbed down the steps to them, his own fear that his bairns could be in one of the boxes laid there in the road waitin’ their turn for the buryin’ place. He grabbed up his woolen jumper and was out the house before she could say it the second time, all the way fingerin’ his rosary as he ran.
Relieved he was, that the doctor offered his buggy for the return trip home, and after he told the doctor what little he had seen that night, what little he knew, he lapsed into an exhausted silence as they bumped along the road and then the lane back home.
“Aye, it’s the fever,” the doctor told them after he had looked at the children. Have they been around other sick bairns?”
John thought, and hated the words he was about to say, “Aye, the boys went in to Moyne to try standin’ in the line for corn, and I saw the crowd what was there. Poor folk they were, wrapped in rags, a bony bunch they were, and none of them looking a bit well.”
“Well, that explains it,” the doctor offered. “You can take them to the fever hospital if you would,” and his voice grew quieter, “or mebbe you would all be content to keep them at home, to care for them yoursels. Whatever you choose, there’s nought much we can do for them. Keep them warm and quiet. And if ye keep them at home, put them off in a corner where they’ll not be sharin’ it. Aye, as some other bairn shared it with them.”
John looked at Johannah, and she over Bridget’s head at him, the child now too still after a bout of sharp coughin’ that had all but shaken her from her mother’s arms.
. “What’ll ye will? Shall we keep them here or be off to the hospital, while the doctor’s still here with his buggy?”
She held the child tight, then eased her grip as Bridget struggled to breathe, the air comin’ hard whistlin’ from her wee chest and Johannah whispered the terrible words. “We’ll keep them here, if ye think it just. If ye think there’s nought they can do at hospital.”
“Just keep them warm. Keep others away, and if ye can, get them to drink some buttermilk and to eat something, perhaps some soup. It seems the starvin’ die the sooner.” The doctor turned to the door, and lifted his cap in sad farewell.
One day, one night blended into the next as John nursed the fire, milked the cows, and held the weakenin’ children in turns with Johannah. She moved from the side of her sick bairns to cook the cherished taties in water over the fire to make the thin broth they begged the bairns to eat. Word spread quickly about their misfortune and the fever, and it wasna long before Andrew’s Mary came knockin’. She passed an onion through the door, cracked just wide enough to slip the onion through, “Cut it into the soup,” she called above the wind. “Me ma told me onions were good medicine,” before fleein’ to the safety of her own cottage, never tellin’ Johannah her boy Philip was sick too.
It was the boys first, that eased up with the coughin’, the fever leavin’ them at last, though it was two weeks before they wanted to leave the house. But for wee Bridget, the evil hung on more tightly. Finally after too many long nights, the child growin’ no stronger, John said the words Johannah didn’t want to hear, “I’m going for the priest. I’ve been sayin’ me rosary over and over, and you see where it’s got us. The boys are better. Mebbe it will take the priest to pray our Bridget back to us.”
Not just any fall, this one had been blowin’ bitter winds and freezin’ rain about, like never in Johannah’s nor John’s memory. She cracked the door a wee bit from time to time, hopin’ to see John acomin’ down the lane with the priest in tow. But his steps had disappeared into the darkness of the storm, and soon t’was only black she saw.
Father Peter was the first to knock the door, John carin’ for the buggy, lashin’ the horse in with the cows. The priest scarcely looked at the children, in such a hurry he was, layin’ out the holy cloth on the table and the candles and the holy water, askin’ Johannah to pull the crucifix down from over the door. “Bring her to me,” he whispered at last, and Johannah picked Bridget up from the settle next to the fire and held her out to the priest.
The priest prayed, and John prayed and Johannah tried to pray, tried to have the faith needed to make God answer their prayers. It flashed through her mind that she and John had been praying for two weeks. Would this one more prayer make the difference? Then guilt struck fear in her heart. Would her doubt be bringin’ an end to wee Bridget’s life, like the lost babies before? Would her weak faith be the cause of all that pain? Father Peter tipped the holy water onto Bridget’s forehead and the three of them made the sign of the cross and kissed the crucifix. All the while Johannah silently begged the Virgin to understand since she surely knew how hard it was to lose a child.
As quickly as that, Father Peter began to gather up the vial of holy water and the candle into the white cloth. “Thank you Father, thank you for comin’ all this way,” and tears of exhaustion and finally a bit of relief streamed down Johannah’s cheeks. “Would you have sommat to drink, to eat, before ye go out in the snow?”
“No, but thank ye,” he whispered over the now sleepin’ child. “They’ll be others what need me this evil night.”
John readied the buggy and the priest disappeared into the dark. Inside the cottage, Bridget slept on, quietly slept on, for the first time in two weeks.
turf fire photo from http://irishology.ie/55-turf-fires/