THE SIDE DOOR OPENED, NARY a whine from its well-oiled hinges. Six-year-old Clara emerged, prodded forward by her mother.
“Can I go out with Kevin in the dory, Mommy?”
“Can I go out with Kevin in the dory, Mommy?”
“‘Tis me you’ll be spending your time with today, Clara Kerrigan.” Mommy pulled the door to and grabbed Clara’s hand. Clara winced as Mommy dragged her and plopped her on a tree stump near the woodpile. “Can’t be leaving you to your own devices, child.”
Clara watched, silent, as Mommy picked up the axe with one hand, a small log with the other. What were devices anyway? All Clara knew was she wouldn’t be chasing no more chickens. It was not her fault they tore into the kitchen. Kevin left the door open and he was supposed to be the responsible one. Some big brother. Tattletale. ‘Guess what Clara did?’ he announced at supper just after the boiled dinner and just before the bakeapple pie. It worked out fine for him ’cause he got two pieces of pie and she got none. And this morning, she was parked on a tree stump, still as that dead mouse on the woodpile, while Mommy split and stacked. No devices here, that was for sure. Her whole body was bivvering something fierce; she burrowed into her itchy, wool sweater. Summertime was supposed to be warm. At least the sun showed up this morning; most days, all she saw was fog. Mommy said that Argentia gets two hundred days of fog a year. Two hundred was bigger than she could count. Too much grey.
Clara yawned and stared at the mouse. She had to poke that brown fur ball once to be sure it was really dead. She slid to the edge of the stump and planted her feet. Just then, the biggest, blackest bird she ever saw swooped out of nowhere, grabbed the mouse in its claws and took to the sky, its wings shushing the air. Her body tingled all over and she turned to Mommy. But Mommy was busy. Didn’t even notice. Shrugging, Clara took a deep breath and blew it out. It formed a fog of its own so she did it again, trying to make a ring like Daddy always did with the smoke from his pipe. It was harder than it looked. She abandoned the effort, leaned back, and watched the glint of the sun on the blade of the axe.
She was a strong one, Clara’s Mommy. She could swing that axe as good as Kevin and he was fourteen and nearly as big as Daddy. Clara rocked, forward, back, forward, back with the rhythm of the axe. It made a steady pounding noise, like the way the ocean smacked the landwash, only with a thump instead of a swish.
Kevin did all the chopping until Daddy went away to the Great War; now Kevin jigged for cod like Daddy used to do. Clara tried to go with Kevin many times; once, she sneaked into the dory and curled up like a snail in its shell in the bow of the boat. She didn’t know why they called it a bow; it wasn’t like when she bowed her head at Mass. When Kevin fished her out of the sea that day and took her home, he said she had to stay away from the dory. Yesterday, she tried to go with him again, but Kevin had a keener eye. She was mad, so mad that she took after the chickens and look where that got her.
Clara stilled herself and eyed the ocean. She could see the yellow dory bumping up against the wharf. But where was Kevin? Maybe he was gone to the shed to claim the oars. Nice day in the dory. No wind. Barely any waves. She focused on the ripples and followed them to shore. There were lots of smooth stones down there on the landwash, just waiting to be picked up. White ones were her favourite. She collected them all the time and plopped them into a jam jar that Mommy put on the kitchen window sill just for her, right beside her St. Joseph’s Cloak plant. But there would be no collecting today. She could be picking berries or feeding dead flies to pitcher plants, but nooooo! Clara stamped her feet, making dirt and pebbles dance. She sighed, loud and whiny, like the world was over. Mommy cleared her throat. Clara let her body slump because she knew she was going to get a talking to. Darn chickens.
Sure enough, without missing a beat in her chopping, Mommy started in. “Her name was Clara, just like you.”
A story? Clara straightened her back. She tucked her feet up under her skirt and hugged her knees. Goosebumps slid down her spine. Good ones, not scary ones.
“She was your great grandmother and you were born on the anniversary of her birthday.”
Clara opened her mouth to ask about that anniversary thing, but didn’t want the story to go away, so she clamped her lips tight.
“Your great grandmother had nine children and the lot of them lived in a mud hut that had only one room. The chickens and their pig lived with them, too, if you can imagine the likes of that.”
Clara lowered her chin to her knees and curled her toes inside her boots. Chickens in their house? Maybe she was in for a talking-to after all. Maybe not. She never chased the pig. She stayed away from the pig. Last year they had one that she named Tom. Then, when she was munching away on her pork chop and Kevin told her she was eating Tom, she bawled. No, first she threw up—a slimy, pea soup mixture of mashed potatoes and carrots—and Tom. Then she bawled. Her eyes were stinging now so she shook her head to get the memory out and looked up at Mommy.
“They had one straw bed for the lot of them, on the floor in the corner. No shoes, no socks. Hardly a bit of clothing.”
No clothes? Clara put one hand over her mouth to stop a snigger, but a tiny one slid out. Mommy raised her eyebrows. Clara switched her scoff to a cough and lowered her hand. “Didn’t they miss having clothes and beds?”
“Can’t miss what you never had, child. They were a happy bunch, living on faith, love, and potatoes. Just potatoes. Nothing but. Boiled them up in the fireplace; no chimney mind you, so the place was black with the smoke.”
The squeal of gulls and swoosh of sea got loud now because Mommy stopped the talking and the chopping. She set the axe down and stretched to one side and then the other. Just like the song—Ha, ha this-a-way, ha, ha, that-a-way. Mommy stacked the splits, grabbed another log and, soon enough, was swinging the axe again. “Now, where was I?”
“...black with the smoke.”
“Indeed. They sat around a huge basket full of boiled potatoes and ate the skins and all, using their hands. Too poor for any dishes.”
Clara widened her eyes. “No forks or spoons?”
“Nary a one. Not in them times. Not in Ireland. The only people who had forks and spoons were the lords who came from England.”
Clara folded her hands, the way she did every night when Mommy led the Lord’s Prayer. “Did they pray to the lords?”
Mommy smiled big. The sun got brighter.
“The Irish only rented the land, me darlin’,” she said. “The lords were men who lived in big houses on hills and told the Irish to raise cattle and grain and potatoes. All the cattle and grain went to England. The only thing the Irish ate was potatoes, because there were so many potatoes. Until the blight.”
“What’s a blight?”
“It’s a sickness, a disease, but not for people. Only for potatoes. Caused by a tiny germ that hid in the ships that travelled to England from America.” She paused, leaned on the axe, and wiped her forehead with the sleeve of her old, blue sweater, the one with the hole in the elbow. “Remember the time you couldn’t find your kitten but, as soon as you opened the root cellar door, she popped right out?”
Memory gushed. Clara grinned.
“Well, ships have cellars called holds. As soon as the sailors opened the holds, the blight jumped out, just a tiny seed it was, that grabbed on to the first bit of breeze and danced right across the Irish Sea. When the wind got sick of doing the jig, it dropped the blight into a field outside Dublin. From there, disease slid like night time across Ireland. Just a brown patch on the leaves at first, but it slithered down the stem into the roots. One third of the potato crop died that year—1845. A sad time.”
Clara scrunched up her face. “What’s so sad about potatoes dying?”
“They couldn’t grow them again.”
“But what did the people eat?”
“Nothing. There was a huge famine—the great hunger, they called it.”
“Why didn’t they just make bread like you? Or go fishing, like Daddy and Kevin?”
Mommy turned her head toward the ocean. The wind was picking up now. It played with Mommy’s hair and she brushed away the stringy bits that blew into her face. When she spoke again, her voice was soft, hard to hear. Clara slipped off the tree stump and sidled close.
“The grain all went to England, remember? As for the ocean, it’s big and powerful and can feed the world, if it’s got a mind to. But the shoreline in Ireland was mostly cliffs, too dangerous to fish and they had no boats. The people had no potatoes to eat or sell so they couldn’t pay their taxes.”
“Money that people must pay to the lords.”
“But the people had no money. What did they do?”
“Nothing they could do. Starving in the streets, they were. The whole countryside went quiet. No children playing. No dogs barking.”
“What happened to the dogs?”
Mommy shrugged, and in a tiny whisper, said, “The people were hungry.”
Clara’s whole body shuddered. She pushed the meaning of Mommy’s words down hard. “What happened to the people?” she asked, her voice sounding so strange that she looked around to see who squeaked out the words.
“Like my great grandmother? She sailed away, didn’t she?” Clara gripped Mommy’s heavy skirt.
“Yes.” Mommy placed an arm around Clara’s shoulders.
“Did she go in a dory?”
“No, she went with hundreds of others in big ships.” She sniffed. “Coffin ships.”
Clara’s mind raced. “What…”
Mommy drew her close. “They called them coffin ships because people got sick with the fever and died when they were crossing the Atlantic. Your great grandmother said that they threw so many bodies overboard that the sharks followed the ships, waiting for their next meal.”
Clara raised a hand to her brow and scanned the ocean. The water glistened. Tiny waves, no triangles. Sharks had triangles on their backs. Big triangles and big mouths and many teeth. Daddy brought a shark home once. Caught in the net, he said. Clara trembled. Maybe Kevin was right. Maybe she shouldn’t be in the dory. She hated it when Kevin was right. She turned back to Mommy.
“But my great grandmother didn’t die.”
“No, she didn’t. But her baby did.”
“But she had lots of babies, didn’t she?”
“Yes.” Mommy dropped the axe, slipped down to her haunches and their faces were so close that her breath slid into Clara’s. “It doesn’t matter how many children a woman has,” she whispered. “It left a hole in her the size of the ocean when little Jimmy died. A hole even bigger than the ocean.” She cupped Clara’s face with her hands. “It’s the saddest thing in the world to lose your child.”
The tears in Mommy’s eyes were so big that Clara was sure they were going to spill over. But they didn’t. And Mommy did not turn away for a second. Thin lines, like knitting, formed on Mommy’s forehead. Clara stood very still.
“I don’t care about the chickens, Clara,” Mommy said. “But you? That’s another thing entirely.”
Mommy tightened her hands around Clara’s face. “You’re too small for the dory. All it would take is a squall of wind or a spit of sea and you’d be gone.” She let out a long sigh. “You got to ponder these things for yourself, child; Kevin won’t always be there to protect you.” Her voice was shaky now. “My grandmother told my mother and my mother told me and now I’m telling you: it’s the saddest thing in the world to lose your child. It’s more than a woman can bear.” Mommy took a deep breath. “You have to stop this dory business, Clara. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Clara blinked.
“You’ll never try to hide in the dory again? Never, ever again?”
“Cross my heart.” Clara traced a line of promise across her chest.
“Good.” Mommy searched Clara’s face and pushed off Clara’s shoulders to stand. She picked up the axe but she didn’t chop, just leaned on the handle and stared at the water. “The saddest thing in the world,” she said again, like she was talking to no one, or maybe to Clara’s great grandmother in heaven.
Clara watched Mommy who was rocking from side to side and resting a free hand on her round belly; the fat teardrops in Mommy’s eyes finally spilled over and kept coming, streaming down her face like a string of glass rosary beads.
Clara wanted to ask more about great grandmother’s little Jimmy, but she knew that breaking Mommy’s stillness right now would be the same as breaking her heart. Maybe Mommy’s heart was breaking anyway. Clara’s chest felt heavy and she looked at the wood pile.
A sudden flurry of movement drew her attention. The yellow dory was slipping away from the wharf, its bow cutting the water. Kevin paused from his rowing, raised his hand, and waved. Heart leaping, Clara waved back. Kevin adjusted an oar and started up again. Soon, he rounded the point and was gone. She stared at the water until it closed up behind him, like he was never there. Was that the way of things when babies died? Did life just close up behind them, like water, and keep on going? She returned to her spot on the tree stump where she sat quietly, waiting for Mommy.
It was the next spring, just after Clara’s seventh birthday, that Mommy had a little Jimmy of her own. The angels brought him from heaven and took him back three months later. Daddy was home from the war then and him and Kevin cut down a spruce tree and used all of Daddy’s tools to slash the branches, strip the bark, and shape the trunk into a tiny white coffin.
Clara tiptoed into the shed to watch Kevin build; she flattened her back against a wall and saw him put a sharp blade into Daddy’s plane. He pushed the tool across the wood over and over again, making a whooshing sound. The shavings that fell to the floor were thin and curly and blond, just like little Jimmy’s hair.
There was a funeral Mass where Father Mahony walked round and round the coffin, waving a silver vase on a chain, making more smoke than a wood fire. The smoke smelled different though, kind of sweet. Maybe they put molasses in it. Father Mahony talked the whole time. Clara didn’t understand a word but she knew it was Latin because Kevin said so. Besides, she had heard the priest talking like that every Sunday for her whole life. After the funeral Mass, they put Jimmy in the ground and everybody went home.
Mommy cried. She lay face down on the kitchen floor, her arms spread wider than angels’ wings, and wailed so loud that the windows rattled like there was a heavy gale. Clara hid under the daybed in the corner with her hands over her ears. She wanted to run, but she was stuck, couldn’t move, couldn’t take her eyes off Mommy. The world is turned upside-down when it’s the mommy that’s doing the crying. And the angels brought no more babies to Mommy. It was the saddest thing in the world. And the sadness never left.
But, after a while, Mommy did.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish