Chapter One The Whitehead Bramble
My skirt is a hand-me-down from my stepmother, Bridget: mud brown, linsey- woolsey, scratchy, and so long the damp and the sandy peat never leave the skirt tail, no matter how many nights it drips and steams by the fire. . . .
On feast days and after school, my brother, Tom, and I gather seashells and cockles on the shingle of the Island Magee. The flat spit of land seems to stretch a welcoming arm from our Irish shores toward Scotland. On rare sunny days we can see across the North Channel to the purple tops of the Highlands. Today there’re others on the shingle as well, in the soft rain and fog. We’re all looking for something to sell or to eat.
Shipwrecks between Ballycarry, Ireland, and Ballantrae, Scotland, are plentiful. For centuries the Irish and the Scots have sailed from one shore to the other, looking for fortunes, or fame, or freedom. Something of one or another almost always washes up. After our noon meal of oatmeal bread and apples, it begins to rain a bit harder. The puffins, gulls, and auks fly out to sea. That means the storm is blowing in from the Lough Neagh, from the west. “We’ll take them into Belfast and sell them tomorrow.” My older brother is always full of ideas for making money. “We’ll take them to Donegal Quay and sell them to our own Mr. Kelly for four a penny.” I kick my wet skirt tail out from under my boots. “Mr. Kelly sells them for four a penny, Tom. He’ll buy them from us for a twelve a penny.” Tom turns over an empty cockleshell.
The smooth inside is the same solid, dark gray as a Belfast winter sky. “We’ll sell them all, just you wait. A thing of beauty, isn’t it?” I hold out my skirt so Tom can pile our treasure of cockles into it. “How many do we have, Jennie? How much have we made?” I run the cockles through the fingers of my right hand while Tom pours them in. “Forty, maybe fifty. At twelve a penny that’s. . . .” I look out to sea while I do the figuring in my head.
For me, figuring numbers has always been easy as breathing. “That’s three pennies, Tom. Maybe four.” “Four pennies! We’re rich!” It’s raining hard now. My skirt is heavy with the wet and the pouched cockles. The waist cuts into my back; the sodden cloth pulls me down. “Run!” Tom shouts. He bounds over the sand dunes, the rocks, and the boulders with the other boys, as easy as a Knockmealdown Mountains stag. I stagger along with the other girls, my soggy skirt a dead weight against my lower half. It brushes against the wet sand, picks up seaweed. Our brothers and sweethearts, drier than we, are waiting for us girls under the roofs along the shoreline. “What took you so long?” Tom grumbles. “Tom! I’ve lost the cockles!” I cry. As I hurried to get out of the wet, the cockles bounced and jostled right out of my skirt and onto the shingle again. The wind picks up.
Blowing sand and rising surf bury them faster than we could ever hope to find them. The rain spills out in sheets.
“Girls!” Tom says. “Useless creatures.
Can’t even carry the cockles that will bring us fame and fortune.” “It’s not the girl. It’s the clothes.” “Aye.” Tom sighs. “We might as well wait for the weather to clear.” “And you’ll have to cross the ocean for fortune, fame, and freedom, Tom.” A mistake. As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I wish I could snatch them back.
“Across the ocean—that’s where fame and fortune are to be found,” Tom proclaims. Several of the other boys turn to him, their faces lit up in agreement. “Boston!” one boy shouts.
“Nay, New York. There are more Irish there than in all of Dublin town,” another boy shouts. I recognize him from school.
“My da got work on the Baltimore docks,” another boy says. “Soon as school’s over next year, I’m leaving to join him.” “Fame and fortune!” Tom shouts again. Our schoolmates go on, boasting about America, how there’s plenty of money to be made for a man who’s not afraid of hard work. As the weather fairs, my brother starts to run, as though he’s on his way to the rich cities of America right now. I pick up my water-laden skirt to follow. “Boston, New York, or Baltimore, Jennie.” Tom’s voice floats behind him on the freshening wind. “Or Savannah, where the coconuts grow. The gold’s just lying there on the streets, waiting for those with the pluck to pick it up. There’s salmon, beef, butter, and bread on every table. Puddings so thick you must cut them with a knife.
Not a ruddy potato as far as the eye can see.” “Watch what you say about the potatoes.” I’m panting. “Remember the blight.” “The blight’s over now, and I’ll be long gone ere it ever comes back.” “Wait for me! Please.” Tom stops, then guides me under the roof of a sweetshop, closed for the day. “If you weren’t a lady, I’d lift your skirt and wring it out for you.” “Lady or no, wring it out anyway. I’ll never get home before dark without crawling. This skirt weighs a ton.” I stand against the sweetshop door.
Folks are hurrying home, paying no mind to a colleen and her fourteen-year-old brother. Tom wrings my skirt tail out as best he can. The cold wind against my bare legs makes me shiver. I study a toffee box in the window and try to forget how cold I am. “If there’s gold just lying there in the streets, why do people in America have to work?” I wonder aloud.
”Americans shouldn’t have to work at all, then.” “Females!” Tom’s voice is full of scorn. “They don’t understand about a man’s life.” “There are no coconuts in Savannah, Tom.” My voice is full of scorn too. “You’re thinking of cotton.” “A treasure in cockles!” My father laughs, not unkindly. We sit at table while the rain drums against our window. The rain doesn’t clear the window of greasy soot. “Never mind, lad. I have good news. I can put you to work helping me shepherd the bishop’s flock this summer. He’ll pay you a penny a day.” Tom pulls a face, then quickly looks to the peat fire. “I saw that face, m’ boy,” my father cries out. “You’ll not turn up your nose at a penny a day, not from the bishop of Belfast.” “Aye.” Tom’s shoulders sag. “I like sheep, Da,” I say eagerly. ”I like the bishop, too. I’ll watch his sheep. I’d like a penny a day.” “He’ll not pay you that much, Jennie.” Da scowls at Tom. “Not when there are grown men about, looking for work to feed their families.” “But I’ll be feeding our family, Da.” “Jennie, you’ll not be wearing your Sunday skirt out roving the bramble.” Our stepmother, Bridget, sits by the fire, stirring a pot of potatoes, leeks, and mussels. “You’ll not wear your second best, either.” “That settles it then. Skirts aren’t for shepherds. Tom—” my father raises his voice-—“a penny a day, that’s six pennies a week. The sheep are in the fold on Sundays. When school starts again, you’ll watch them after. I think I could get you three pennies a week for after school.” Tom juts his chin out at the peat fire.
There’s more money to be made selling cockles. I know he’d rather spend his afternoons on the shingle of the Island Magee, trading stories about America with his mates while someone else counts his cockles and does his figuring for him. I speak up again. “Nothing’s settled.
Tom’s got a pair of old trousers that no longer fit him. I’ll wear them for roving the Whitehead Bramble.” Tom, my father, and Bridget sit there, stunned. “I’ll not lie to the bishop!” my father cries out at last. “I’ll not be passing off a daughter as a son.” “No one’s lying to anyone, nor will they,” I shout back. “Bishop Bannock knows me as well as he knows Tom. My brother is a businessman.” I wink at Tom and he grins at me. “I like sheep, Da. It’s only till the summer.” “Tom’s old trousers need mending; then they’re a gift to my nephew,” Bridget says. “My brother in County Kerry needs all the help we can give.” “I’ll send him three pennies a week,” I reply. “I like sheep, Da. I’m old enough. I’m strong enough.” My father sighs. “He’ll not pay you a penny a day, m’ girl.” The next morning, instead of my damp skirt, I pull Tom’s old trousers over my legs. He shows me how to roll up the cuffs so they won’t get wet. I practice moving about a bit in front of the fire. It’s disconcerting. When I stop, I just . . . stop. I don’t have a heavy skirt trailing after, always playing catch-up. Tom’s old pants are bone dry and much lighter than a linsey-woolsey skirt, damp all the time. Bridget rolls up my hair and stuffs it into an old brimmed hat of Tom’s. “It’s no use ruining your complexion out on the bramble,” she cautions me. “A woman’s face is her fortune. And you’ll thank me later for protecting your hair from the briars.” “Thank you.” I gasp at my reflection in the mirror. Surely my fortune is in sheep and cockles, for under Tom’s hat, I look too much like my brother for my own good. With no hair around my face to soften it, I have the same broad cheekbones and jutting chin as Tom. Da and I sit down to a big breakfast of eggs, bacon, and oatmeal bread. I’m not used to eating so much food in the morning.
“Eat up,” Da says. “A shepherd needs his strength. I’ll warn you again—The bishop won’t pay you a penny a day.” Da and I walk to the bishop’s farm.
After yesterday’s hard rain today is a soft day of rainy fog. As the wind blows, the mist chills my face, but my legs stay warm in Tom’s old trousers. I hop over stones and cairns with no thought to lifting a long skirt before I tread on the hem. I’m as free as those puffins we saw off the Island Magee, flying out to sea to avoid the storm.
The bishop’s farm is closer to Carrickfergus than Ballycarry. It’s a long walk. I see the thatched roof, curl of peat smoke, and stone barn long before I see the house. In the fold are his fifty-six prize merinos, milling about in a bleating sheep panic. The bishop’s sheepdogs sidle and lunge, dashing around the fences, forcing the flock into ever-smaller circles. “Why are they herding the sheep now?” I ask. “They’re still in the fold.” “Jip and Col like to show off,” my father replies. “Don’t you, boys?” Old Bishop Bannock greets us at the door. “Jip! Col! That’ll do. Don’t worry my sheep so early in the morning.” His sheepdogs trot over to the kitchen doorstep and sit, their eyes bright with self-satisfaction. The bishop gives each a pat on the head. “Patrick Hodgers! Good day to you.” “Bishop Bannock, this is—” “I know who this is, young Tom Hodgers.” The bishop grasps my right hand and gives it a hard shake.
“Come to help your da take care of the sheep, have you, m’ boy? It’s a man’s work, and it gets you out of the factories.” I just stand there, stunned, as he pumps my arm up and down. The bishop is not wearing his glasses.
Is that why he thinks I’m my brother? Before Da has a chance to set him straight, I say, ”Thank you, Bishop. Thank you for the chance.” “You watch your father, young man.” The bishop beams at Da. “He knows more about sheep than any man I know.” Da tries to get a word in. “Bishop, this is—” The bishop half closes the door. “I must prepare for matins. Take them up to the cliffs of the Whitehead Bramble today, Patrick Hodgers. The meadow up there hasn’t been worked over since March.” The bishop gives us a cheerful wave. The door shuts.
Da smiles uneasily at me. “We’d best get to work, then.” “Aye.” I grin back at him. “For a penny a day.” Da walks me around to the barn, takes his oaken staff from the hook, and finds another staff for me.
“This will help you walk the hills and dales of the bramble. It’s also to protect the sheep. It’s the wild dogs we shepherds have to contend with. Wild dogs and foxes have a taste for mutton.” Each staff ends in a curve like a fishhook. The hook and stout staff are as smooth as silk. “How many generations of hands have held this staff, do you suppose?” “It’s hard to say, lass. The oaks of Ireland are long gone.” Da closes the barn door as the horses whinny at us. “Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers cut them down two hundred years ago, so the Irish heroes couldn’t take cover behind them to shoot at his men.” It’s beautiful up here, roving the bramble. The sheep are white with black faces and legs. The sheepdogs are black and white as well. The fields are ever-changing shades of green, and the boulders, fog, and fence stones are gray. It’s the same colors—gray, green, with flecks of white and black— wherever I look.
Da sits down on a large boulder. I sit beside him. It too is as smooth as silk. How many shepherds have sat on this boulder? Surely more than a hundred generations. “Smell that air, Jennie. That’s pure Irish air. No Belfast factory soot up here. Breathe it in. There’s no finer anywhere.” “It smells sweet, Da, with a hint of peat to it. It’s so quiet.” “Aye.” We sit there awhile, in perfect contentment. I hold on to my two- hundred- year-old staff as though it were a holy relic. As they graze, the sheep spread out like a fisherman’s net. The sheepdogs run in circles to draw them together again. My father has been watching the bishop’s sheep for years. He started when Old Ben was still running the fields, showing Jip the lay of the land. Now it’s Jip’s turn to teach Col.
Every farm has three sheepdogs: The oldest retired to the fireside, the middle one to teach the youngest.
“When the day’s over, will we go to the bishop’s fireside and give Old Ben a pat on the head?” I ask.
“Aye. He’s always glad to see me. Old Ben and I go back ten years.” “I’ve always liked your stories about Old Ben. Da,” I say after a moment. “What do you think about Tom’s plans? To live in America?” My father smiles. “A young man’s plans, sure enough.” I look at him in surprise. “You wouldn’t go with, then?” He spreads his arms wide. “Is there anything like this view in America?” “I don’t know. Is there really money in the streets? Gold?” “Is that what Tom’s been telling you?” Da stretches out his legs. “I’ll ask you, lass: if there really were gold in the streets, every mother’s son would already be there, wouldn’t he?” “Aye. And you don’t mind, fooling the bishop this way?” “As long as you do a man’s day’s work, we’ll tell him tomorrow.” He jumps down from the boulder. “That’s Jip and Col, barking. A sheep must have gone over the hill and onto the ledge. This is the other part of shepherding, Jennie. Watch me.” Col has run back to us. He circles around, then pretends to lunge at our heels. His lunging cuts us off from the boulder, forcing us toward the cliff. “He’s trying to herd us, isn’t he?” Da grins. “Aye. Away to me, Col! Show me the lost one.” Col veers right, then tears off in a straight line toward the cliff, so fast I shout in alarm.
“He’ll stop, even with all this mud.
Good Col.” Jip and a distraught ewe are waiting for us. As we approach the cliff, I hear a faint cry. Da lies flat, then sits up again. “It’s a spring lamb bleating for its mother.” Tom told me once that shepherds hold on to their mates’ legs as they lower themselves down the cliff.
”Will I be holding your legs, Da?” “You’re not strong enough for that, lass.” Da dips the hooked end of his staff down the cliff. “I’ll try to scoop the lamb up.” Da lies flat again and leans farther and farther over the cliff. I’ve never seen the soles of his shoes before. They’re full of holes. The pad of each toe is open to the air and the same gray color as stone. “Lamb! Come to me!” The bleating sounds a bit louder, as though the lamb is asking for more help than Da can give. His hat blows off and spins toward the sea.
“Come to me, lamb. Your mother’s up here waiting.” I sit down and grasp his ankles. “Let go, Jennie!” he calls out impatiently. “I am strong enough, Da.” I tighten my grip. “I said let go!” Da kicks hard, tips forward, then slides on the mud. His ankles are in the air before I think to grasp them again. I see him flying, his right hand holding his staff, his left hand holding one of the lamb’s legs as he spins toward the sea.
The ewe bleats. Jip and Col look at me expectantly, as though I have a plan for rescuing the two of them from the depths of the North Channel, and all they have to do is wait for it. In the southwest of Ireland fishermen wear their family’s patterns knitted into their sweaters. Should their bodies wash up on the shingle, families can tell who’s who, even after the pebbles, seals, and surf are done with them. But everyone recognizes Patrick Hodgers. We wake him in his own house. The burial society comes around, seals his coffin, and takes it to the churchyard.
The next day Bridget is packing her skirts, blouses, shawls, and hats into the carpetbags she brought to her marriage.
“Where you going?” Tom asks.
“My brother needs me in County Kerry—the blight’s still bad there. His wife has surely died by now.” Her back is turned away from us.
“We can’t go to Kerry,” Tom says. “We have jobs.” “We have school,” I say.
Bridget doesn’t even stop wrapping stockings around her hand. “You’ve always suited yourself, Tom Hodgers. You can keep the skirt, Jennie. You’ve always been kind to me.” Tom stomps into the kitchen, grabs the cigar box and stomps back. “How much will you be needing for your train?” She spins around and eyes the cigar box. “Ten pounds.” “You’ll need two pounds three pence to get to Cork. After that you can walk.” My brother thrusts the cigar box into my hands. They stare at me while I count the coins. All those cockles we sold to Mr. Kelly! All those months and years of Da watching sheep in all weathers! I give the coins to Tom, who throws the Hodgers’ hard-earned money on the bed. Ten pounds would get to her America and back. Two pounds three is enough for a train to Cork, then a stagecoach to Dingle, County Kerry. “That’s five pounds even,” I say.
“There’s enough for some proper food for our stepcousins besides. Thank you for the skirt.” Bridget scoops up the coins, takes her sweet time counting them out herself, and slips them into the carpetbag.
She stands in front of us. “Good luck, then.” Tom raises his chin. “Good riddance, then.” Copyright © 2006 by Lynda Durrant.
Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.