Snow blew in around the door and the windows froze over so they no longer served a purpose. T’was not an ordinary Irish winter, this one. Snow was a rare thing, a time for the kiddies to play about in it, but then that was when they were rosy and fat from eatin’ their taties for breakfast and lunch and dinner and sometimes some oatcakes too. But this winter would not stop. The snow froze the land, laid a thickening cover of the white stuff frosted with ice makin’ even a trip to the outhouse worth some consideration.
Johannah carried a pot of boilin’ water to the well, risking what water she had to break the ice to get more. She stood there shiverin’ in the wait for the hot water to crack the ice far down below. When she heard the sounds of the well ice crackin’, she let the bucket go hittin’ the larger surface of ice with a thud. For a moment she feared the water wasted, and then she praised the Jesus, Mary and Joseph in one joyful utterance when she felt the bucket grow heavy with water. Glad she was to be carryin’ the full bucket through the snow into the warm house, a very warm house she thought compared to the bitter cold she left behind her when she pulled the door tight.
She poured the pot full and hung it over the fire wonderin’ how much longer the turf would last, another fear that had come home to roost with the blight. The autumn rains, pourin’ down week after week, had soaked the turf makin’ it hard to dig out and cut, and then harder to store and then harder to burn.. And like the taties, Johannah and all the others feared neither the taties nor the turf would last til the spring. At least in the spring, they might find some roots and early berries and grasses to stretch their dinners and some sunshine to warm their tired bodies. But there was no diggin’ for anything now, not through the snow that reached their knees.
John would be home soon, exhausted she knew, and hungry and perhaps angry. Glad she was the English had opened up these public works projects, diggin’ canals here and layin’ down stone roads there, but there was no justice even in that. If a man, she sighed, or a woman or a half-grown child even couldna work the whole day, there was no pay, or hardly any. That’s what John had said. He told her how sometimes he had to step over the body of a man or woman who dropped right there in the road of the hunger. And not just the day’s hunger. The hunger that leaned out a man or a woman, that showed their bones, that stretched the skin tight around empty bellies and then draped the skin loose around their eyes. The kind of hunger that starved not just the body but the soul till they all just sat down or laid down and died with scarcely a complaint.
Andrew’s Mary told Johannah Sunday about the cousins in Limerick who told her about the cousins in Skibberdeen who died in their house, one just waiting on the others to die, just sitting in the house without a word when the Limerick people came to check on them. The air was filled with stink and when Kathleen’s husband Peter asked what poisoned the air so, the mother had pointed to the dead on a pallet in the back corner. Starved to death they were, and no one left to put on a wake for them. No women to keen over the wizened bodies. No men to drink whiskey and sing and tell stories and remember. No way to mourn them when mourning had worn itself out. Andrew’s Mary told her the landlord had just ordered the men to set the cottage alight with the dead still in it. Not even a proper buryin’ because there was no one left to see to it.
Still for the now, John went to work every day, and worked the day long, carryin’ rock from one place to the next for the road, they said, to build a better road they said. But John was not so sure about that.
She heard him long before he was about rappin’ on the door. He was singin he was, his weary voice dancin’ him up the path, callin’ out the children’s names, singin’ “Oh Bridget, did ya miss your da? Oh Patrick, wee Patrick, did ya miss your da? And oh Timothy, did ya,” and she heard his voice deepen, “miss your da.” Then, and she knew he was standin’ nose to the door, “Oh Johannah, don’t ye miss your hoosband who loves ye like the sky loves the sun?”
And with that, he swung the door open and the bairns wrapped themselves around his snow-covered body. Though he was too weary to grab them up, he was more than ready to kneel down to them.
After a bowl of thin soup and a bit of oat cake, the children were sent off to bed, the three of them to sleep together and keep each other warm. Patrick reached over Bridget to poke Timothy in the back, “I’m still hungry Tim.”
Timothy rolled over to face his wee brother. “Pat, ye must be glad for what we had and be glad we are three, three to keep each other warm. I been thinkin’ about the O’Neills. They got but one child now that Sarah and Elizabeth died of the bloody flux. Henry must be cold all alone in his bed. So be glad we have each other.”
Before he could roll over, Patrick asked, “Do you think Henry can sleep with his ma and da? They would keep him warm.”
“Of course, he’ll sleep with his ma and da. Now, you will be keepin’ Bridget awake, so go to sleep.” Then Timothy rose up on his elbow, “And don’t you be tellin’ our da that you’re hungry. He knows that already,” and the boys willed themselves to sleep wrapped around their little sister.