Thursday, July 08, 2010
Is mise Saoirse.
I am Freedom.
June 20, 1857
First day in our new home we buried my brother Aidan in that hard, hot, Texas ground beside my uncle's fresh grave.
I was twelve years old.
Only my cousin Jack and myself were present for the service. Sweat dripped down our backs as the sun beat down on us with a fury I had never felt before in Ireland. Jack wasn't so much affected, having been born in that hell, but I wilted long before he finished the burial.
Aidan's grave was covered, full. I felt naked and empty.
Jack carried me inside the house, gave me water, and went back to work outside. All without saying a word. I spent the afternoon on the parlor sofa, crying into one of Mam's needlepoint pillows while the house mocked me with silence.
Later that day, my brother Declan tried to take his own life.
Jack found him retching near the dried-up creek bed next to an empty bottle of laudanum. As he dragged Declan inside, he met my eyes, and I knew I'd just lost another brother. But Jack told me to fetch the physician, and I did. I managed to saddle up the old mare and drove the poor dear three full miles into town, even in my skirts and all.
By the time we got back to the farm, Declan was hardly breathing. That fool doctor claimed he could do little else but pronounce my brother dead, and I cursed him for that. I climbed up onto the bed beside my brother and pressed my warm palms against his clammy cheeks. His cloudy eyes stared unfocused past me as I leaned over him.
"You aren't going anywhere," I whispered. My tears splashed against his blue lips. "I'll not be losing both of my brothers Declan, I won't! So you pull yourself together, now. I need you."
He didn't even blink in response.
Jack tried to pry me away. As if I hadn't already seen what death looked like. But I would not
I never heard much of anything about the good Lord before I met Jack, save the stories Aidan told me at Christmas about the baby Jesus. I'd never given Himself any more thought than I did to stories of Oisín and the land of Tír na nÓg. But when Jack said later that 'twas the Lord that saved Declan's life, I believed him.
Declan was laid up in bed for almost a fortnight afterwards. Mam never came to see him. She was still bound up in her grief, locked away in her room. Da came in once. He said nothing. Wouldn't even look me in the eye. He hadn't since the day before Aidan was murdered.
It fell to Jack and myself to nurse Declan back to health. I stayed at my post throughout his recovery, fetching him water and soup, and reading to him. Even when he told me to leave.
“Get up and make me,” I said, voice catching in my throat. “I promised Aidan I would take care of you. And I—I mean to do it.”
Declan only glared at me and fell back asleep.
Watching him gave me some comfort. A momentary serenity settled on his countenance which reminded me so much more of Aidan. They were twins. Same auburn hair, same olive eyes, but there had always been a peace and cheerfulness in Aidan's expression which was ever vacant in Declan's.
Mam used to remark on it, on occasion. Far too much seriousness in a boy of fifteen, she said of Declan the morning we arrived in New Orleans. At fifteen, you should still be more than a little silly. Declan had ignored her while Aidan proceeded to play a game of jacks with me.
As I sat beside Declan in his sickbed, a whimper escaped my lips. A fearful, childish whine. Aidan's name. I needed him to reappear, come through the bedroom door and tell me that it was all a cruel joke. I'd pretend to be cross with him, but ‘twouldn't last long. I never could stay cross at Aidan. He would then hold me, and sing to me, and tell me everything would be all right. Then he would tell me about all of the beauty and adventure we would find in our new home. He would keep Mam from crying, and Da from drinking, and all of us from fighting. He would keep us living.
Mam once told me that Aidan's name meant little fire. And that was what he had been for me. A bright, lively wisp of a boy who made my heart glow whenever he was near. But he was dead. My fire was gone. And my heart was cold.
All I had left was Declan, and he hated me.
"You killed him, you know."
I sucked in a shuddering breath and glanced down.
Declan scowled at me with red-rimmed eyes. He coughed weakly. "It's your fault he's dead."
Those words, hardly more than a pitiful croak from his raw throat, made my stomach twist. I wanted to look away, to shove my fingers in my ears, but I couldn't. Because he was right.
"If you'd only done as you were told." He clenched the quilt in his hand as he struggled for breath. Tears streamed from his eyes. "If you had stayed put, and not run off in a tantrum—"
"And where were you?"
Declan blinked at me. "What?"
"You saw me run away that night, and you didn't stop me." My face burned. "Aidan was the only one to come looking for me, and you let him go out alone!"
Declan paled. "I was asleep!"
"Liar! You're a liar and a coward. The least you could do is admit it."
Declan turned his face away. His breathing worsened. Mam had a meaning for his name, too. It was an older name, older than the river Shannon, she declared. But as she understood it, it meant full of goodness.
She must have been mistaken. Or else missed the mark something terrible when she named him. Full of something, to be sure, but 'twasn't goodness. Was there an Irish name for full of—
"Why are you still here?" Declan spoke through his teeth. "Go and be useful, for a change."
I tumbled off the bed and stared at him, clenching my fists with rising guilt and fury. Wanting to run from the room in a huff, but determined to stay at his side. He was ill, that was all. He needed me, even if he didn't want me. Even if I didn't want him. He was hurting. But then, so was I.
Declan grabbed one of my books from the nightstand and flung it across the room. The effort left him wheezing.
But my pity was just as spent. "I hate you, Declan Callahan! You're a sniveling coward. And you can be getting your own soup, now."
I whirled and ran from the room before I burst into tears. I stopped at my mother's door, but it was locked tight. She cried softly behind it. No one else existed in her world of grief.
I glanced at the stairs to the attic, where Aidan and my Uncle Brendan's trunks were stored. But I was forbidden to go up there, and the dusty old room scared me, anyhow.
Downstairs was no better. Da was in his study, but I caught a glimpse of him through a crack in the door. He was slumped over his desk, pouring another glass of whiskey.
A heavy weight pressed on me from all sides. I couldn't catch my breath, couldn't see through my tears. My head pounded like my skull would split at any moment. All as badly as the night Aidan died.
One bullet was all it had taken. One bullet, and any chance for my already tattered family to become whole again was destroyed. One bullet had killed them all. I was utterly alone. And it was all my fault.
I know very well what my own name means. 'Tis the Irish word for freedom. Saoirse. Da always said Mam was half-mad when she named me. Most days I agreed with him, because I felt anything but free.
The sound of a hammer echoing across the yard broke into my thoughts, and I welcomed the noise as if it were a symphony. I bolted towards the back door.
Cousin Jack was wrestling with a post near the stables, trying to mend the damage from the storm last spring. 'Twas the fiercest he'd seen, he said. Splintered fences, blew a wall out of the barn, and killed three of the sheep. Even ripped half the roof from the main house before claiming the life of his father.
Uncle Brendan's grave was hardly cold before Jack made the trip to New Orleans to fetch us. Since he returned to Brookfield, Jack spent every spare minute of daylight he could restoring the farm. 'Twas grueling work for one man alone, much less a boy of sixteen, no matter how fit and strong he was. And yet Jack did it all without complaint. But as I watched him from the porch, I couldn't help but noticed how alone he was, too. There we were, falling to pieces, with only Jack to pick them all up, while he was struggling with his own broken heart.
He was my uncle’s only child. And though he was but a year older than Declan, he already looked very much like a man. He had the bearing of my father—tall, broad-shouldered, and strong-jawed. And he had the same pale green eyes. But he took after his mother and her people the most, with his russet complexion and black hair. She was a native woman from the Choctaw tribe, as he told me. He couldn't rightly say how his parents had met, since his father’s story apparently changed each time he'd told it. But she passed away when Jack was a young boy, and now Uncle Brendan and Aidan were both buried beside her, too.
Jack sang softly as he worked. The words made no sense to me, but they sounded like a lullaby in his mother's tongue, from my reckoning. I strained my ears to try and make sense of the pretty little song. But Jack stopped singing abruptly to curse and kick the obstinate fence post. He slumped on the ground beside it, taking off his hat to run his hand through his raggedly shorn hair before burying his face in his hands.
I froze by the garden. I didn't have the heart to go to him with my own pain. I was about to turn away and retreat inside, when a sweet southern voice called out for my cousin.
Abigail Lewis emerged from the shadows of the stables to kneel next to Jack and hold out a canteen of water. She was one of the most beautiful girls I'd ever seen. About Jack's age, tall and graceful, with ebony skin and gentle brown eyes. She did the cooking and the cleaning for the house, and tended after my mother. But Jack didn't let her tend to Declan. That was probably just as well, for her sake.
I’d heard of slavery in the Americas. I had all sorts of ideas about what it looked like, awful fantasies of chains and beatings and men and women being used like beasts of burden. But there were no chains 'round Abigail's ankles, no burden upon her back. She did not work under the lash. She seemed to have far more in common with my old governess back in Ireland, though Jack made me swear to tell no one that Abigail knew her letters.
I knew she was a slave, and although the notion itself was rather queer to me, I did not find it so alarming, at first. 'Twasn't as though I thought it was right. More like I didn't know what to think. It simply was. All I knew for certain was that Abigail was my friend, and that she lived in a little shack behind the big house, not altogether worse-off than Da's tenants in Kilkavan. I didn't see her as property, and I simply couldn't fathom how anyone could see her as livestock.
But that was before I met our new neighbor, Nathan Reeves. He owned half of the town of Brookfield, and a large farm to the east of us where he bred fancy horses. A week after we arrived, he came calling, while Abigail and I prepared tea together. Strolled into the parlor looking for my da. About frightened Abigail half to death, he did. He looked on her as if he had rights to her very soul.
In Reeves' eyes, I had found Slavery, and upon finding it, I felt an ember of outrage take deep root inside my heart.
But in Jack's eyes I saw only friendship. They were an odd pair, Abigail and Jack—the strange slave girl who knew her letters and spoke proper, and the Indian-Irish shepherd who treated her as his equal. When I saw them together, I forgot entirely about that dreadful institution.
"You need to take a rest," Abigail said while Jack took greedy gulps from the canteen.
His response was softer than I could hear.
I crept forward, and crouched by the garden gate to listen as they spoke quietly. An strange sort of cricket—Jack called them cicadas—buzzed in the dead foliage beside me.
"I don't care how much needs done." Abigail lifted her chin. "You can't do it all alone."
I pressed my fists into the cracked ground. If my da wasn't passed out in a puddle of drool all the time, he could be helping. If Declan hadn't been so selfish, he could be too.
Jack grunted. He tried to stand, but Abigail gave him a light shove and he fell back onto his seat. I glanced past him at the pile of lumber waiting for him, and frowned down at my slight form. There wasn't much of me, but surely I could be of some use? If it weren't for that dreadful heat.
"Why can't you get some boys in town come out and help?"
Jack shook his head. "I'd have to talk with Uncle Brian, but I don't think we have the money to pay for any extra help, anyway."
"Shame on them! With all the hurt this family has gone through, they should be out here helping for nothing, like good Christians."
I could hear the wry smile in Jack's response. "Did you forget which town we're talking about?"
Abigail smacked him in the arm. "Hush!"
Jack reached up suddenly and grabbed her wrist. "What's that?" He turned her arm over. "That's a bruise!"
Abigail snatched her arm back and rubbed it. "It's nothing. Caitlín didn't want her supper last night. Again."
"So she hit you?"
"No, no. The soup bowl did."
Jack threw up his hands. "You let my aunt get her own dang supper from now on! You—"
Abigail stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "She just lost her son, Jack. Nearly lost both of them."
"It's no excuse for—"
"I'm fine, Jack. She'll be too. Someday. Sooner if I'm here to help her. Only love will bring her out of that dark place she's in. This whole family… I'm worried about them, Jack. I'm worried about you."
Jack said nothing, but I saw his hat tip down again as he stared at his knees. He muttered something I could not hear. I crept closer, disturbing the grasshoppers by the fence. The bushes rustled, but Jack and Abigail didn't notice.
She suddenly jumped back. "Jack, no! If Master Brendan—"
"Don't call him that!" Jack snapped. He coughed and looked away.
Abigail sighed. "If your Pa had wanted me to be free, he'd have seen to it."
"He meant to! He said so. He—he…" Jack faltered. His voice was small. "He didn't intend on dying young, Abi."
"It's all right," she murmured. "Go on, ask your uncle. But don't hate him when he says 'no.' You don't need all that hate again."
The cicada buzzed again, but this time, the noise didn't stop. I glanced down to see where it came from, and saw a thick brown snake coiled and rattling inches from my fingers. I sprang away with a scream and tripped backwards, landing sprawled on my back with the sky straight above me. The snake rattled louder. I kicked and scrambled away, never so thankful that Mam refused to let me lower the hem of my skirts until I turned fifteen.
As soon as I got to my feet, I felt Jack grab me by the collar. With one hand, he threw me behind him, and with the other, fired a revolver at the serpent.
I half-stood, trembling behind him with Abigail's arms wrapped tight around me.
"Rattler?" she called out.
Jack inched towards the garden and kicked at the dirt. He holstered his gun. "Dead now."
I slipped out of Abigail's arms and collapsed on the ground, sobbing. She was beside me in an instant, gently shushing me. Even Jack turned around and ran back to us.
He knelt in front of me and began to inspect my leg. "What's wrong? Are you bit?"
I tried to tell him no, but I couldn't form the words.
Abigail shook her head.
Jack's brow furrowed. "What's the matter? Everything all right at the house? Is it Declan?"
I cried harder, and I hated myself for it. My heart was fluttering erratically. I gulped down a breath. Needed to calm down…
"Want me to take you back inside, Honey?" Abigail stroked my hair.
"I don’t," I managed. "I cannot bear that place any longer!"
Jack sat back on his heels and wiped his brow. "Finally got tired of that ass of a brother mistreating you, did you?"
"Jack!" Abigail hissed.
Jack ignored her. "Don't you listen to a word Declan says." His eyes were narrowed, and he stared at me for a long moment. "It wasn't your fault. Do you understand me? Wasn't anyone's fault but the man who pulled that trigger. Tell me you understand, Saoirse."
"I do," I lied.
Jack passed me his canteen and made me drink. I could see in his eyes he didn't believe me, but he let the matter drop. "What were you doing out here?"
I swallowed. "Looking for you."
Jack's mouth tilted in a half grin. "In the bushes?"
"I didn't hear anything!" I blurted.
"Hogwash, you spying little devil!" Jack laughed. He rose and helped Abigail and I to our feet. He folded his arms and looked over me. "If you hadn't been screaming and flailing like you did you'd have heard a little more, too."
Abigail was cleaning my tear-streaked face with a handkerchief and she stopped, eyes wide. "Jack!"
A look passed between them. The smile had gone from Jack's eyes, and an iron determination replaced it. Abigail shook her head once, firmly, but Jack didn't so much as blink. She sighed and dropped her chin, and he looked back down at me as if waiting for me to speak.
"What…" I began hesitantly, "what were you talking about?"
"Meeting," he answered simply. "And I was telling her you ought to come with us tonight."
Abigail looked up again. "Jack, please, we can't involve her in that."
"Involve her in what? It's prayer."
"It's not allowed, and you know it.”
"Meeting?" My toes curled and I couldn't help the smile that began to form. I lowered my voice to whisper. "Is it a secret meeting? Like the abolitionists up in the north?"
Abigail looked as if she were about to faint. "Where ever did you hear about such a thing?"
"From Mr. Reeves."
Abigail pressed her palm to her forehead and moaned. "Heaven help us!"
"Oh hush," Jack said. "It's church, Saoirse. But out here, see, all the men in charge like Mr. Reeves aren't too keen on any of their slaves gathering together, even for prayer. So we have to do it without them knowing. You can keep it a secret, right?"
I couldn't help but see Aidan just then, in Jack. I nodded excitedly. "I can, I will!"
"Even from your brother," he said carefully.
Abigail was wringing the handkerchief now.
I rolled my eyes. "Naturally." But then I bit my lip, eying the pile of timber by the stables. "On one condition, now."
Jack smiled as if he knew what I was about to request. "And what's that?"
"You let me help you with the work 'round the farm. And you teach me how to shoot snakes!"
He pinched my skinny arm and laughed. "Well, I'll take what I can get! Tomorrow, though. For now, you get inside and get yourself something to eat. I'll be up later to feed your ungrateful brother. Miss Abi'll take you on back to the house."
"I ought to lock you up when we get there." Abigail threw a sharp glare at Jack, and steered me by my shoulders towards the porch. "Keep you from getting into any of this fool trouble. Between the two of you, I've a bad feeling my morning prayers are going to take twice as long from now on…"