Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Chapter 1
The air felt cold and damp as Eily stirred in her bed and tried to pull a bit more of the blanket up to her shoulders. Her little sister Peggy moved against her. Peggy was snoring again. She always did when she had a cold.
The fire was nearly out. The hot ash made a soft glow in the gloom of the cottage.
Mother was crooning quietly to the baby. Brid get's eyes were closed and her soft face looked paler than ever as she lay wrapped in Mother's shawl, her little fist clinging to a piece of the long chestnut-colored hair.
Bridget was illthey all knew it. Underneath the wrapped shawl her body was too thin, her skin white and either too hot or too cold to the touch. Mother held her all day and all night as if trying to will some of her strength into the little one so loved.
Eily could feel tears at the back of her eyes. Sometimes she thought that maybe this was all a dream and soon she would wake up and laugh at it, but the hunger pain in her tummy and the sad ness in her heart were enough to know that it was real. She closed her eyes and remembered.
It was hard to believe that it was only a little over a year ago, and they sitting in the old schoolroom, when Tim O'Kelly had run in to get his brother John and told them all to "Make a run home quick to help with lifting the spuds as a pestilence had fallen on the place and they were rotting in the ground."
They all waited for the master to get his stick and shout at Tim: Away out of it, you fool, to disturb the learning, but were surprised when he shut his book and told them to make haste and "Mind, no dawdling," and "Away home to give a hand." They all ran so fast that their breath caught in their throats, half afraid of what they would find at home.
Eily remembered. Father was sitting on the stone wall, his head in his hands. Mother was kneeling in the field, her hands and apron covered in mud as she pulled the potatoes from the ground, and all around the air heavy with a smellthat smell, rot ting, horrible, up your nose, in your mouth. The smell of badness and disease.
Across the valley the men cursed and the women prayed to God to save them. Field after field of potatoes had died and rotted in the ground. The crop, their food crop was gone. All the children staredeyes large and frightened, for even they knew that now the hunger would come.
Eily snuggled up against Peggy's back and soon felt warmer. She was drowsy and finally drifted back to sleep.
"Eily! Eily! Are you getting up?" whispered Peggy.
The girls began to stretch and after a while they threw off the blankets. Eily went over to the fire and put a sod of turf on the embers. The basket was nearly empty. That was a job for Michael.
Both girls went outside. The early morning sun was shining. The grass was damp with dew. They didn't delay as it was chilly in their shifts. Back in the cottage, Mother was still asleep and little Bridget dozed against her.
"Is there something to eat?"
"Oh, Michael, easy known you're up," jeered Eily.
"Go on, Eily, look, have a look," he pleaded.
"Away outside with you and wash that grime off your face and we'll see then."
The sunlight peered in through the open cottage door. The place is dusty and dirty, thought Eily.
The baby coughed and woke. Eily took her and sat in the fireside chair as Mother busied herself. There were three grayish leftover spuds. Mother sliced them and poured out a drink of skimmed milk from the large jug. It was little enough. No one spoke. They ate in silence, each with their own thoughts.
Michael began to talk…to ask for…but changed his mind. Time had taught him a lesson.
The first few times he had asked for more, his father or mother had lifted the wooden spoon and brought it down on the palm of his hand. Later, his pleas had been met by a sadness in his father's eyes and his mother bursting into tears. This he could not take on top of the pinches and squeezing of his two sisters. Things were better left unsaid.