Chapter One: Quaye
There's no love left on earth
and God is dead in heaven
In the dark and deadly days of
Irish folk song
It's easy to halve the potato where there's love.
Connall McGandley trudged wearily across the haze-shrouded countryside, his arms crossed at his chest, his pace pressed against the receding twilight. The chill air smelled sweetly of a distant peat fire and he willed himself to not think of its warmth. Dusk brought a bite to the fog and he had pawned his coat in the last town for the paltry measure of maize he carried in the sack flung across his shoulder. He had walked hungry since dawn with hope of securing relief for his family. There was no labor for hire and his coat had fetched only a couple handfuls of Indian corn from a shopkeeper who chased him out of his store after the transaction. He had encountered few on his journey, just the quiet, deserted bogs and abandoned hovels of a dying nation. The music of Ireland, the land of song, was silenced by famine and the only strains now that filled the air were the occasional piercing wails for the dead -- the keening of the banshee.
To the side of the road, behind one of the heaped limestone walls that serpentined across the countryside, a woman crawled on hands and knees through a dank bog, gleaning what had been missed in the last picking, chewing anything that was edible: raw turnips, nettles, and charlock. He turned away. The scene was all too familiar -- men and women in the final throes of starvation, their mouths stained green from the grass they ate in a vain attempt to survive. It no longer held curiosity. It no longer held even emotion. It was just the way it was. It would not be long before his own family would be evicted from their hovel, to burn with the fever and madness of starvation or die of exposure. His only son already lay hot with typhus.
It had been two autumns since the mist rose from the sea to cloak Ireland. When the fog lifted, the first signs of the distemper appeared, the stalks bent in the fields, a harbinger of a nation's fate. The blight hit in full the following year, destroying nearly the whole of the island's potato crop. The potato was everything to the Irish poor and the Celts could make anything from the tuber, from candy to beer. The potato was as much heritage as subsistence, but even in the best of times, the potato culture was a precarious existence.
It was shortly before the last harvest when McGandley first discovered the blight on his own meager crop of lumpers -- the first lesions on the curling leaves, bruiselike markings that had dropped him to his knees in fervent prayer to St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate circumstance. The family immediately harvested, pared off the diseased portions of the crop, and ate or sold what they could, feeding what they couldn't to the pigs. Then they devoured the pigs themselves. But even the swines' bones which they had boiled, reboiled, then gnawed in hunger, were now gone, replaced only with desperation.
Fifty steps ahead, emerging from the screen of fog, a wooden horse-drawn cart was mired in the mud to the side of the road. A squat, dun-haired man stood calf deep in the mud in front of the horse, pulling at its lines and cursing the animal. It was a curious sight, more so as most farm animals had already been slaughtered for meat. The man saw McGandley and raised a hand to him.
"You, there." The expulsion appeared before him in the frigid air.
As McGandley neared, the man grimaced at McGandley's appearance, surmising him a madman. He had encountered many on the day's travel -- men and women, often naked, lunatic with hunger.
"Have ye anything to eat?" McGandley called.
The man frowned. "Not outside my belly." He motioned to the cart. "Can ya lend a hand?"
"If yer wanting to get somewhere, man, ye be better off riding yer buggy on the road, not on the side of it." He stopped an arm's length removed and stared somberly at the stranger. "Are ye English?"
"Bonny for yah. If ye were an Englishman yer throat likely be cut by now. Likely do it meself."
The American studied the man. "The English been sendin' money to the famine aid."
"Oh have they now? I tell ye, caskets be of more use. There's no famine where there's food. The Brits have stolen it all." McGandley's voice dropped to a more ominous tone. "It is well for ye yer not an Englishman."
The American set aside the horse's lines and took a step toward McGandley. "I have money. Help push me from this and I'll pay ya. I must be to Cobh harbor. My clipper sails at dawn."
McGandley's interest was piqued. In the wake of the famine, more than a million Irish had already emigrated, some to the fever camps of Liverpool or Wales, but mostly to the new world, stowing aboard nearly anything that floated. "Coffin ships" the seamen called them. There were times that such vessels arrived with Irish aboard but not life.
"Ye be sailing back to Americay?"
The sailor realized McGandley's intent and regretted the divulgence. McGandley did not wait for an answer. "Take pity on our pathetic lot and take us with ye."
"Ya got money?" he asked.
"Not a bleedin' pence."
The American shook his head. "There's no room."
"But, in the steerage, man."
"Along with your typhus and cholera? There's already a million Irishmen at the dock."
McGandley scratched at the lice on his scalp.
"Ye could stow me girl. She's a wee lass."
"I can't, man."
"Ye could if she were yer wife."
The American spit near his own feet. "I don't need no wife," he said, then he turned back to the horse. "Be a good man and lend a hand. I'll pay ya for your trouble."
McGandley stood resolute and the American glanced about helplessly. He had already been delayed the better part of an hour and was no closer to liberating his cart. With night falling and his pockets full of money from the ship passages he had brokered, it was no time to be stranded in Ireland -- the horse a banquet, he a bank. The hungry would find him.
"A woman to watch over ya on such a journey would be a blessing," McGandley pressed. "Me girl works hard. Harder than them slaves ye got chained in Americay."
The American still did not respond and McGandley's stomach knotted. He eyed the sailor. He was an ugly man with a wide, ruddy face spiked with stubble, younger than himself by at least a decade, and shorter by a hand.
"What do they call ye, lad?"
The sailor spoke slowly, reluctant to give anything up to the Irishman. "Jak."
"Well now, Jak, she's a lovely lass. A regular colleen. You can do with her what ye like." He gazed at him darkly. "A real man wouldn't pass the offer 'fore he saw the lass."
The sailor stomached the challenge to his manhood and rubbed his forehead as he considered his prospects. A woman would be a blessing on the voyage, even if he were to just abandon her in the waterfront slums of New York. In the darker venues of the city he might even turn her for a profit.
"She's not got cholera or typhus?"
"Healthy, she is."
"If she's homely I'll leave her dockside."
Ignoring the threat, McGandley lay down his sack and moved forward to the task of liberating the cart, his shoes filling with the black mud as he plied his way forward. He rubbed the lean colt's flank to calm it, dropped to his haunches to inspect its breast collar and tugs, then looked to examine the cart. Its wood, iron-banded wheels were buried no more than a half foot in the muck.
"She's a fine pony," he said, patting the horse. He rose, took up the leather lines and stepped off to the side of the horse, then brought the lines down like a whip against the horse's hip.
The horse's muscles rippled as it strained forward, tearing its hoofs from the mud. The horse advanced with ease from its confinement, pulling the cart straightway from the mire. When the cart was settled on the road, McGandley retrieved his sack of maize, then returned to the cart, offering the lines to the astonished sailor.
"Why wouldn't the blasted beast pull for me?"
A sardonic smile crossed McGandley's face. "Well now, man, if ye be standin' in front of her, where's the poor animal to go?"
The sun was not yet below the horizon when the cart crossed the stone wall boundary of McGandley's clachan. The hamlet, once alive with the voices of children, was mostly deserted as one by one its families were evicted by hunger or landlord. The American halted the cart in front of a thatched-roof cottage and McGandley lowered himself to the ground. A woman, pale and gaunt, with deep wells of eyes, emerged at the sound of their approach. At her side was a young woman who smiled at the return of her father.
McGandley did not respond to his daughter's call, and at the sight of the stranger she moved behind her mother. She stared anxiously at the men, instinctively fearing her father's distance and the coarse, leering man who accompanied him. The mother did not ask who the man was who looked on her daughter, but watched silently, as if she were a spectator at a play-act tragedy.
"Come, lass," McGandley commanded.
The girl timidly obeyed, lowering her head as she stepped forward. She was nearly fifteen years of age, fresh in young womanhood with emerging breasts and full lips, her high cheeks ashen with hunger; her long, copper hair spilled over her gaunt and freckled face. She was barefoot, clothed in a high-necked muslin dress purchased two springs previously from the cast-clothes hawkers. The crimson dress, now faded and threadbare, fell crumpled to her forearms and left her long legs exposed. She was, as her father had claimed, pretty, more so than the sailor had expected or hoped for. No such woman, young or old, had ever looked on him favorably. She glanced up fearfully at the man, then moved toward her father.
"What do ya call her?" the sailor asked.
The girl looked to her father, fearing his reply.
"Quaye," he said gruffly.
The man wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "If she was hung for beauty she'd die innocent. What do ya want for her?"
"Passage to Americay for the girl." McGandley looked down at his feet. "Whatever coins yah got jinglin' about for us."
The sailor reached into his trousers pocket and brought out a handful of coin. "What do ya know? Thirty pieces."
McGandley did not look up. He did not share the sailor's amusement.
"I could buy any woman in Ireland for that."
"She's eaten well till recent," McGandley growled. "She'll serve well enough."
The man said nothing, tossed the silver at McGandley's feet, then motioned to Quaye. "C'mon, girl."
Her mother turned away her tear-brimmed eyes, but there was no disagreement. Either way her child was lost to her. Quaye looked to her father in disbelief, but his countenance was hard and resolute. He squatted down next to her. Looking into her eyes, he said softly, "If ye will remember who ye are, ye will find yer way through it." He looked over to the sailor, who watched impatiently. "Now go 'long with the man, Quaye. He be yer husband now."
"Just a moment," her mother said. She pulled from her spindly finger a silver band then stepped forward and placed the ring on her daughter's ring finger, lovingly clasping Quaye's hand in her own. She said softly, "May ye find love to turn it right someday." Then she kissed her gently on the cheek. "Go well, me girl." She breathed in deeply as she stood. As she rose, the sailor stepped forward to claim his chattel, led Quaye by the arm to the cart, and lifted her in, while her parents watched silently. Without another word the man flailed the horse and started off into the darkness with their child, the cart vanishing into the damp fog and blackness.
"A mhathair ta me norbh," McGandley muttered to the night air, then he slowly turned to his wife, his head falling with his words. "Mother, I am killed."
Quaye did not turn back as the cart carried her away from her home.
Copyright © 2001 by Richard Paul Evans