County Fermanagh, Ireland
April 25, 1847
Th’LahrdismyshepherdIshallnotwant…His Da had loved Father Laughton for the way he got through the Sunday Mass like a Protestant wit’ an overflowin’ bladder. That was always the kind of thing Da would have to say about the Father, even when his Mam’d go on about something the Father said in one of his three-minute sermons in the weekday Mass, Da would always say, t’ank th’Lahrd we’ve got de only priest in Oireland that doesn’t run at th’mouth, or something like that. Seanny and Aislinn and Ethan’d laugh, and Mam’d slap Da’s shoulder and tell him, in fronta th’children? And he’d say, sure they’re waitin’ t’get outta there as much as meself, and they’d laugh some more and Mam’d hit him again, only this time pressin’ back a smile of her own, tough as it was for her to stay mad when her family was laughin’ so.
But this service was a different matter and Ethan knew his Da wouldn’t be happy about the Father’s bladder today. Fer Chroist sakes Fadder dat’s my little girl in dere, he’d say, wouldja slow it down a little? Or maybe Aislinn’d say, All due respect Fadder Laughton, but would ya please read wit’ some inflection, an’ make th’words come aloive? That’s what she was always tellin’ Ethan to do, and she’d say it to the Father in such a way that it wouldn’t be a mortal sin, and the Father’d laugh and say, Yer right Aislinn dear, lemme give it anudder go, and he’d smile and pat her on the head and go back to readin’, slower this time, and with more meaning. Ethan wished he could say something in his sister’s place, but he’d just sound like an insolent little boy, and he didn’t want to go sinning like that, placin’ his immortal soul in jeopardy and givin’ his Mam something else to worry about. So he stood quietly, thinkin’ of what a shame it was that the last words spoken for Aislinn’d be like this.
He stared down at the hole in the ground and admired the precision of its edges, cut perfectly straight and square to one another, with the displaced earth stacked in two neat pyramids at either end of it. He knew that had his and Aislinn’s places been switched, and the fever’d overtaken him instead of her, she would’ve appreciated the craftsmanship, too. But it was his sister’s undersize coffin layin’ comfortably inside the hole, not his, and he tried not to think about how they’d had to bend her legs at the knees then fold them back behind her so she’d fit in the four-foot-long box made for a child half her age. At least it’d keep the dogs off her better than one of those government-issue wool sacks, the ones the poorest families were left with, the ones they’d later have to see torn from the ground and ripped to shreds as the dogs and rats got at what was left of their loved one. There’d be none of that for Aislinn, because the eight and sixpence his Da and Seanny had sent from America, the money that was to go for food until the new potatoes in July, bought the coffin and the slate and the Mass to be said in her name, instead.
When The Hunger claimed the first of its victims, most of the village turned out for the services after the Sunday Mass, but now it’d just be family members and perhaps a few friends. Still, Ethan counted forty-one, not includin’ Aislinn, here this mornin’, a testament to his sister’s gentle and encouraging nature and the dozen or so children along the Lane she’d taught to read in the past few years. Even Old Mr. Hanratty was here, standin’ alone, perhaps fifteen feet behind the Bresnihans. Ethan knew this was as close as he’d been to the inside of a church in thirty years, so he nodded his head to him in confused gratitude, and Mr. Hanratty, tight-lipped, nodded back.
Aislinn’s service was done in ten minutes and the two gravediggers began to spill the neatly piled dirt on top of her coffin as his Mam and Aunt Emily wept. Ethan looked away after just a moment, not wantin’ the water to get in his eyes the way it was in his Mam’s and Aunt Em’s. He noticed how most of the older graves had tombstones that stood upright while the newer ones were marked with about what Aislinn’d have, a one-inch-thick slate, fourteen by ten inches, lyin’ flat on the ground. That was all there’d be to tell anyone who might be interested that she’d been here for almost sixteen years, and that she wanted to be a teacher, and how, for the last two years, since it was just her and him and Mam livin’ at Aunt Em’s, she and he would put on shows every Saturday night, and oh were they gettin’ so good at it. No, none of that at all. Instead all it read was…
…as if a few numbers said anything about her, like it was some sort of achievement how long a person lived, and when they’d died young, like Aislinn, people fifty years from now could look at the numbers and say, Oh poor lass, just sixteen what a pity, what a tragedy, musta been The Hunger. Most of the stones that were laid flat across the graveyard were covered over with grass and weeds, and Ethan vowed that he wouldn’t let the same thing happen to her. He wouldn’t let her fade away like that.
The crowd quickly dispersed with only a few people comin’ by and nodding their sorrow or placin’ a hand briefly on his Mam’s shoulder. Father Laughton was one of the last to approach. He may not have read with much inflection, Ethan thought, but the Father’s pain was written on his face in deep creases that led to sunken eyes, and Ethan realized then that the Father’d seen more death than any of them.
Mayth’Lahrdcomfortyou, he said to the three of them, and waved his hand in a downward line and then across.
He was gone before any of them could say a word, though both his Mam and Aunt Em blessed themselves and curtseyed. And then it was just the three of them standin’ beside the gravesite, with a few stragglers a little farther away.
Jaysus, me hands’re just about tahrn up from all dis rocky soil, one of the gravediggers said. It’s loike shovelin’ bricks.
Ahh yer always complainin’, the other replied. Yer hands can’t be bad as me back.
They were strangers to Ethan, men who traveled constantly, earning a shilling here and there, plyin’ their morbid trade like vultures in the Irish countryside. He could hear every word they said, and regardless of what a fine job they’d done diggin’ the grave, he wanted to take the shovels from them and cover his sister’s body himself. If his Da and Seanny were here, they’d probably want to take the shovels and bash the gravediggers over the head, he figured, so he felt a little ashamed, less of a man, for not wantin’ to do so as well.
Mam and Aunt Em closed their eyes as the coffin disappeared beneath the dirt, them without an extra penny for the gravediggers and so forced to hear more about various aches and pains as the men carried out their work. Ethan felt the anger grow within him until Mr. Hanratty walked up to each of the men and handed them a coin and whispered something to them while noddin’ toward Ethan’s Mam. The men continued on with their work in silence, and Mr. Hanratty glanced over at Ethan and his Mam and Aunt, placin’ his gray woolen cap against his heart and nodding his head slightly. Then, without a word, he was off.
When the coffin was completely covered and the tombstone set in place on the fresh dirt, the three of them walked quietly home. To Ethan, the lustrous green fields were now gray as a winter sky, and their cottage seemed as vast and hollow inside as a fourteen-by-sixteen-foot space could ever seem. There’d be no grand funeral dinner, as was the custom in the Old Days. There’d be no reveling, no cousins runnin’ about in the fields as the men and women sat inside by the fire and drank a few pints Old Man McGeary’d supplied from his pub down the Lane. There’d be no stories told of the person who’d passed, no fiddle, or singing. No laughter. And Ethan realized that it was exactly one week ago, when he returned home from the Mass with Aunt Em, that they were told by his cryin’ Mam that Aislinn was gone.
Now, as he’d done then, he bounded up the stepladder to the loft he’d shared with his sister since they moved in two years earlier, once Sean and Da were off to America. He sat on his bed, two five-by-one-foot wooden planks raised just off the floor by corner posts. Aislinn’s bed was across from it, the two of them separated by their collection of eleven books stacked neatly on a small plank, held up on either side by painted rocks used for bookends. They called it the Library. The first six volumes’d been given to Aislinn when she saw them piled beside the trash bin in the Brodericks’ Library and Mr. Broderick caught her skimmin’ through them. Since that time he’d given her five more, and she and Ethan had read them all several times, though she generally had to help him with some of the more challenging ones like Paradise Lost and a collection of the Shakespeare.
Every Saturday night, until two weeks ago, the two of them took a scene from one of their books and acted it out for Mam and Aunt Em, often taking what Aislinn called poetic license with the tragic scenes, much to the approval of their audience. Loud applause always greeted them when Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet, or other doomed heroes were spared in the end. But even the happy memories brought the water to his eyes now, so he left the books in their place and took a minute to fully compose himself before going back down the ladder.