Geraldine McCarthy lives in West Cork in the Republic of Ireland. She has been writing short stories and flash fiction for almost two years now. Her work is published in The Fable Online [July 2016, June 2017], The Incubator Journal [December 2016], Seven Deadly Sins: a YA Anthology (Gluttony) [November 2016] and (Wrath) [August 2017], The Scarlet Leaf Review [January 2017] and Brilliant Flash Fiction [June 2017].
As Kathleen held the pot high to strain the potatoes, the baby started to kick again. She banged the saucepan down on the sink, steam rising, and pressed her hand to the small of her back. The relief was minor and temporary. Still, it was good to feel the little one moving.
Light footsteps sounded on the lino.
"Mam, what's for dinner?"
Kathleen turned and smiled. "Can't you smell it?"
Tessie scrunched up her face. "Bacon and cabbage," she said with resignation, her head hung low.
"Where's your little sister?"
"Don't you remember? She's gone over to the O'Shea’s to practice the school play."
Kathleen tucked a stray wisp of black hair behind her ear. "So she is."
Ciaran keened from the other room, and Kathleen went to check on him. He was still safely out of harm's way in the butter box, but had thrown his teddy out on the floor.
"Okay, baba. I know you're hungry. Two more minutes until I put out the dinner." She called to Tessie, "Will you pick up your brother's toy for me? Good girl!"
Tessie did as she was told, and sat on the floor to babble at Ciaran.
Kathleen padded into the back kitchen to pile the plates with food, and set them on the table in the main room. She stooped awkwardly, bracing herself to haul Ciaran up off the floor, and flopped down on the settle, positioning the toddler next to her.
"Why are you sitting in Daddy's place?" Tessie asked, picking the fat trimming off the bacon.
"I need to rest my back against the wall."
"He's still outside. There's a cow down. Now eat your spuds! How was school?"
Tessie never carried home tales and Kathleen liked this about her.
"Pet, have you many lessons to do tonight?"
“Just my favourite.”
"Writing down a story?"
"Yes. You tell me an old story. I write it in my own words. The Master prints it in his special copybook and sends it to Dublin to the folklore ’mission."
"You mean the Folklore Commission?"
"Yes, that." Tessie agreed impatiently. "The Master said I had the best story last week, the one about the fairy fort that you heard from your Nana."
"It's a wonder they're interested in that ráiméis up in Dublin." Kathleen mashed potato with milk and began to spoon-feed Ciaran. "What's the topic this week?"
"What?" Kathleen's spoon stopped mid-flight.
"The famine, Mammy." Tessie put down her knife and fork.
"We've no stories about the famine. None. You can tell the Master that."
"But, Mammy, how will I go to school without a story?"
Kathleen wagged her finger, her voice as sharp as the carving knife. "That's my final word on the matter."
Tessie's lips trembled.
"Eat up your dinner. I've to go out next to bring in the clothes."
Kathleen finished feeding Ciaran and played with her own food. She might have another bite of it later, when Patrick came in from the field. Pushing back the table, she heaved herself off the settle, and lay Ciaran in his pram for a sleep.
The fresh air felt good after the heat of the range. She plucked the clothes off the bushes, folding as she went, holding them to her face to savour their newly-washed scent. Her back was cracking, having stood over the bath all morning, scrubbing the garments with carbolic soap. She eased herself onto the low wall by the back door for a few minutes, catching her breath.
Images of Nana on her deathbed came to her unbidden. More sounds than images: Kathleen’s mother had ordered her out of the room, but Kathleen stood outside listening.
“Where is Father McCann?” her Nana wheezed to Kathleen’s mother.
“He’s on another sick call. He must be delayed.”
Nana gave a loud sigh. "Child, I'm tormented. I'll have to tell someone."
"What is it?"
Kathleen held her breath as she waited for the answer.
"It's about the time when the blackness came on the potatoes."
"You don't have to talk about that," Kathleen's mother said, a softness in her voice.
"But I do. My sister Kitty and her husband lived in the next cottage. The fever was sweeping through the town land and it came as far as them. We used to put a mug of buttermilk on the blade of a shovel and give it to them over the wall, keeping our distance.” Nana’s voice broke. “But they were getting weaker and weaker. We knew if we stayed we'd be next. We abandoned them, ended up in the Poorhouse. What kind of a person leaves her own flesh and blood there to die? What kind of a person?"
The room filled with sobs, and Kathleen stole downstairs on tiptoes, before she could be discovered.
Crows began circling overhead. Kathleen gathered up the laundered clothes before the birds had a chance to decorate them.
She placed the bundle on a chair in the back kitchen and went to check on the children. Ciaran slept deeply, his face flushed. Tessie wiped tears from her cheeks.
Kathleen sank into an armchair by the range.
"Come here to me, pet."
Tessie didn't budge.
"I'm sorry I got cross. Now get your copybook and I'll tell you a story."
Tessie ran to get her schoolbag from the porch and perched on the edge of the armchair opposite her mother.
Kathleen rubbed her belly and tried to get comfortable. She looked to the picture of Pope Pius XI for inspiration. Then she looked to the picture of De Valera. Neither of them a whit of help.
“ A blight, a disease, came on the potatoes. It came with the rain. People had nothing to eat. They were starving. When desperation overcame them, they went to the Poorhouse. It was a sort of hospital, where people were housed and fed.” An idea came to Kathleen. “ My Nana was a nurse in the Poorhouse. She helped people.”
Tessie seemed to take this in.
“It was a horrific time. That's all I can say."
"Mammy, when I'm writing that in my own words, will you help me?"
"I will, pet. Go out and play with the dog a while. I'll have to heat your father's dinner."
"Okay, Mammy." Tessie scrutinised Kathleen’s face. "Thanks, Mammy."
The child met her father on the way out. "Daddy!"
"How's my girl?" He didn't swing her around, as he usually did, but went straight into the room.
"How's the cow?" Kathleen asked.
"We lost her," he said, his voice hoarse, eyes focused on his mud-spattered boots.
He raised his head to look at her. "You're gone very pale, love. Look, we'll survive. You'll be able to get groceries on tick from Molly for a while? Until we sort ourselves out."
"I will. It's just bad timing."
"But it's not that, Patrick. I'm scared. For the baby."
"Are you feeling alright?"
She picked at the pocket of her cardigan. "Yes, tired, but okay. No, I'm worried that something will go wrong. That our luck is changing, running out."
"Why would it run out?"
"I don't know, Patrick, it's just a feeling I have."
"You and your intuition."
"Yes, it's probably a thing of nothing.”
He helped her rise from the chair, and she went to the back kitchen. The food for Patrick was heaped on a Pyrex plate, which she put over a pot of simmering water. While waiting for the meal to heat through, she whispered an Act of Contrition over and over - on behalf of herself, on behalf of her mother, and on behalf Nana.