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June 1850, Castleville, Ireland
Lilting over the roar of the ocean, the haunting notes of a flute raised goose bumps on Maeve's arms. There were no men in the Murphy family to carry the plain wooden box holding the remains of their father on their shoulders, so she and her two older sisters followed behind as the men of the village proceeded from the small stone church up a grassy incline to the cemetery.
The gathering reached the crest. Here the sound of thundering waves far below the cliffs grew to a crescendo, nature's hymn as familiar as the expansive sky and the salty tang of the ocean.
Beside Maeve, her sister Bridget wept into her handkerchief. She'd worn a somber secondhand brown bonnet, fashionable some ten years ago, yet still serviceable. "What's going to become of us without Da?"
Maeve comforted Bridget with an arm around her shoulders. "Shush now, ma milis," she said, calling her sister my sweet in their native Gaelic tongue.
"We'll come up with a plan." The eldest of the three, Nora, always had a plan. The sisters were stair steps in height and age, Nora being tall, Bridget in between and Maeve petite.
Most of the simple graves were marked with stones, others with weathered wooden crosses. Goat's-beard grew in thick patches throughout the grass, the yellow blooms a cheerful contrast to the mood. A hole had been dug in the rich black soil, and Maeve had only to glance about the crowd to note which of the young men's hair was damp from exertion. She spotted two familiar heads of curly red hair. She would thank the Donnelly brothers later.
Reverend Larkin had prayed over members from every household represented at the graveside today. The famine that had taken its toll on their countrymen had spared no family. Hunger, sickness and poverty were all these people knew, but the believers of Cas-tleville clung to their faith. Now the reverend stretched his hand toward the pine box as six farmers dressed in their Sunday clothing lowered it by ropes down into the earth.
"Jack Murphy, your daughters long for one more day spent at your side. When we lose someone we love, it seems that time stands still. What moves through us is a silence, a quiet sadness, a longing for one more day, one more word, one more touch."
The ache in Maeve's chest threatened to cut off her breath. Security had been whipped out from beneath her with the death of her father. The pain of never seeing him again, of never hearing his thick brogue, was almost more than she could bear. She worked to hold back the grief and fear bearing down on herand to steady Bridget, who swayed on her feet.
Their female friends and neighbors wept softly into their handkerchiefs and shawls. The men stared at the ground and worried the brims of their hats as a red-billed chough flew in a lazy circle overhead.
"We may not understand why you left this earth so soon," the reverend continued. "Or why you left before we were ready to say goodbye, but little by little we shall begin to remember not just that you died, but all the days that you lived. We will see you again some day, in a heavenly place where there is no hunger or sickness. No rocks in the fields. Now, Lord, bless the daughters of Jack Murphy. Keep them safe from harm and provide for them by Your bounteous grace and mercy."
Reverend Larkin turned and nodded at Nora. "You first, dear."
Maeve's oldest sister seemed taller than her already admirable height while she kept her back straight and stepped forward. She wore her chestnut-brown hair fashioned as she always did, in a practical bun, so not even a single strand of hair caught in the breeze. Kneeling, she picked up a handful of earth and dropped it into the grave. The clods hit the coffin with a dull thump. Bridget followed, her dark wavy hair hidden by her bonnet, with Maeve going last.
She performed the task quickly, without thinking, without gazing upon the pine box, but still she imagined her father laid out in his frayed suit. He wasn't in that lifeless body, she reminded herself again. He'd gone onto glory and was right this moment looking down from beside her dear mother. They were together now in a place where there were no potatoes to dig or mouths to feed.
Scully and Vaughan Donnelly rolled back their sleeves over beefy forearms and shoveled dirt upon the casket.
Maeve watched for a few minutes until Mrs. Donovan, who'd been a dear friend of her mother's, pressed a coin into Maeve's hand and hugged her soundly. "I'll be prayin' for ye, I will."
Maeve swallowed the sob rising in her chest and pressed her fisted hands to her midriff. She accepted condolences and pennies from her neighbors. Her fellow countrymen were poor, so these modest offerings were sacrifices they couldn't afford. Their gifts humbled her. The fact that so many had come to the funeral at all was enough to touch her heart.
It was a workday, as was every day in County Beary, except the Sabbath, and the landlord didn't take kindly to a day off.
"I still be missin' your beautiful mother," a long-time friend told her and enveloped her in a warm hug. "Colleen and I were dreamers, we were, as girls, but these times steal a woman's dreams. Don't let anythin' or anyone take your dreams, lassie."
The woman joined her daughter and together they walked through the knee-high grass.
After extending their sympathies one at a time, the rest of the mourners headed back down the green hillside toward their homes and fields.
With the ocean pounding below, the Murphy sisters stood on the lush green crest above the village until they were the only ones remaining.
"Mr. Bantry already has someone waiting to move into the cottage, he does." Nora spoke of their landlord. "We'd better go pack and clean."
Maeve set her jaw. "I'll not be cleanin' the house that ill-mannered tyrant's forcing us out of."
"Our mother kept that cottage clean all the years she lived within its walls, and we'll not be shaming her by leaving so much as a speck of dust."
Nora was right, of course. She was always right.
"What's to become of us, then?" Bridget asked.
"Mrs. Ennis said we could board with them temporarily." Nora showed them the wrapped bundle she held. "She gave us a loaf of bread."
"They have seven mouths to feed as it is." Maeve took off down the hill and her sisters followed. A startled grouse flew out of the tall grass.
"Our neighbors gave me coins." Bridget extended her hand.
The three of them compared what they'd received. The total was pathetically insufficient and would barely purchase a week's food. Their cupboards were empty. That morning they'd shared two partridge eggs Maeve had found.
Maeve led the way around a field bordered by a low rock wall. They crossed a stone bridge over a creek and continued toward the only home they'd ever known. The stone cottage greeted them with a lifetime of memories. Their mother had died here ten years previous, during the worst of the influenza epidemic. Their father had repaired the thatched roof numerous times, and the newest foliage showed up distinctly against the old.
Inside, Nora set the bread on the scarred cutting table. Bridget removed her bonnet. The three of them gathered around and studied the golden brown loaf reverently. "The Ennises couldn't afford to part with this," Maeve said.
"Our neighbors are a generous lot, they are," Nora agreed. "The Macrees brought bramble jam earlier. We could each have a slice with it now."
Bridget shook her head. "We should save it. I'm not very hungry."
"My stomach is tied in knots, as well," Maeve agreed. "We'll want it later. It will last us through tomorrow."
Nora wrapped the bread in a clean square of toweling. She brushed her hands together. "Very well. We'll pack."
"Pack. Where shall we go?" Bridget asked.
Nora placed her hands on her hips. "We must each find a husband immediately."
"And not marry for love?" Bridget asked with a horrified expression. She placed her hat on a hook by the bed they shared. "We should stay with the Ennises. We'd still be near the village and the young men we know."
"No proposals have been forthcoming yet," Nora reminded her. "All the men here are as poor as we are. None can afford to take a wife and work a piece of land on his own. Honora Monaghan married one of the Kenny brothers, and now she has to live with his whole family."
"Perhaps Mr. Bantry will allow us to work this land ourselves," Bridget suggested. "We've worked it alongside Da all these years. We're as capable as any man."
"Mr. Bantry has his own kinsmen waiting to occupy the land," Nora replied.
Maeve picked up her mother's Bible and touched the worn cover. "May God turn Bantry's heart, and if He doesn't turn his heart, may He turn Bantry's ankle, so we'll know him by his limping!"
"Mind your tongue, Maeve Eileen Murphy," her eldest sister admonished. "And spoken while you're holding our dear departed mother's Holy Bible."
"I learned the saying from her, I did." Maeve laughed, the first sound of merriment in this house for many weeks. "We'll simply have to find work," she told them logically. "And you know as well as I there's not a job to be had in all of County Beary. We must travel to County Galway."
"We can use Mother's trunk." Nora removed an oil lamp from the top and pulled the trunk into the center of the room that served as their kitchen and living space. "We'll have to sort out all the things we can't take."
They found a few neatly pressed and folded aprons, a piece each of their baby clothing, a bundle of letters and a few daguerreotypes, one in an aged frame.
Nora picked up the likeness of their beautiful mother and caressed the frame with farm-roughened fingers. "What would Mother have done? She was practical above all else."
"Where did practicality get her?" Bridget asked. "She never had a day's happiness."
"Romantic notions won't put food on the table." Holding the frame too tightly, Nora's fingers poked through the fabric backing. She turned over the frame and examined the hole. Peering more closely, she worked three folded pieces of paper from inside. "Whatever are these?"
The younger sisters crowded in close for a better look. The first paper Nora unfolded was a letter, the second some type of legal document and the last a pencil drawing of a house. "How odd."
"Read the letter," Bridget coaxed and reached to take the drawing.
"'May 1824,'" Nora began. "'My dearest Colleen, I know you have made your choice. My heart is broken, but I understand your decision. I've gone to America, to Faith Glen, the village in Massachusetts we spoke of so often. The town was founded by an Irishman. It is just ten miles from Boston, yet I have heard it is so much like Castleville, though, of course it is another world. I have purchased a small home for you'"
"Who's the letter from?" Maeve stepped in closer to have a better look at the handwriting.
Nora waved her away. "Let me finish. 'I have purchased a small home for you on the water's edge. Should you or your kin ever be in need of a place to go, know this house is yours. With undying love, Laird.'"
The three sisters stood in stunned silence for a full minute.
"I told you she whispered the name Laird with her last dyin' breath." Bridget looked up from the letter to Nora's tense expression. "But the two of you insisted she was just trying to say love!"
"We didn't know any Laird," Maeve said.
"Until now." Bridget gave a satisfied nod.
"What's this mention of undying love?" Maeve asked.
"Dated a year before I was born, 'tis." Nora turned her attention to the pencil drawing Bridget held, and the three of them studied the depiction of a home near the ocean. The artist had even drawn flowers blooming in gardens on two sides.
"Mother was in love with this man!" Bridget's expression showed her shock. "He bought her a house in America, but she stayed and married Da? I can't conceive of it."
"There must be a logical explanation," Nora said.
Bridget's hazel eyes were bright with excitement. "The cottage sounds ideal. We should go there."
"They say there's so much land in America that anyone can own a share." Maeve took the deed from Nora's fingers and examined it. "The soil is rich and there's plenty of rain. There are schools and jobs. Western men are hungry for wives."
"That may be so, but it takes more than we have to purchase ship's fare and travel there. Fanny Clellan sold both her cow and her mother's brooch to buy a ticket. We don't even have a cow." Nora snatched the paper back. She pointed to the date. "This deed is over twenty-five years old, 'tis. The house is most likely occupiedor it could have been destroyed."
Maeve went to the coffee tin and dumped out the contents on the kitchen table. Bridget added the coins they'd received that morning, and the two of them tallied the amount.
"This could get us to Galway," Nora pointed out.
"But we'd have no food or lodging," Maeve argued. "We have something we can sell to buy tickets to America."
"Don't even speak of it." Nora gave Maeve a cautionary glare.
Maeve went back to the trunk. "Once we land we could find an inn and secure jobs. We can look for this house in Faith Glen and learn if it's still there. Think of it! We might have a comfortable place to live just waitin' for us." She knelt and took out several objects that had been packed in fabric at the bottom.
Bridget unwrapped one and held up a silver sugar bowl, followed by the teapot. "I never saw Mama use these."
"I never did, either." Maeve unwrapped a creamer. "They've always been in the trunk."
"They've been there as long as I can remember," Nora said. "Da once told me Mama got them from a woman she worked for. He said she had saved them for a rainy day. Even when times were the worst, she held on to them."