TO RIDE A WHITE HORSE excerpt
The old woman lifted the child into her arms as they reached the edge of the bluff. Below them, the sea crashed upon a shallow beach; its waves white with foam, splattered on the rocky face. Holding her granddaughter close to her chest, she pointed to the great white swells galloping across the sea, and in hushed tones told the young girl of the white horses of the Tuatha dé Danann, the Irish gods, traveling between the faerie and the mortal worlds. Of the white mare that carried the faerie princess, Niamh, and her beloved, the mortal Oisin, across the waves to the island of Tír Na nÓg, the Country of the Young, where they lived in happiness for 300 years. Of the white steed that took a homesick Oisin to see Ireland once again, then charged away when the mortal turned into a withered old man the moment his feet touched the earth. And of the white horse that appears in the waves along Ireland’s shores when the moon is full, a milk-white mare carrying a heartbroken Niamh as she searches for her lost love, Oisin.
County Cork, Ireland, August 1846
Kathleen dug her fingers into the loose soil beneath the dying plants and pulled out the unripe potatoes, recoiling as they turned to mush beneath the light pressure of her grip. Rot oozed over her palm, the smell so foul she gagged and fought the urge to retch. Dear Lord, she prayed, please don’t let the whole crop be blighted again. We’ll not survive another year.
All morning there had been shouting and wailing as people awakened in the darkness to the sulfurous stench of rot and rushed from their cottages to find the potato crop dying. On every hillside as far as she could see, families were working frantically, tearing off cankerous stalks, hoping to prevent the spread of disease even as the green leaves blackened and withered around them. ‘Twas as if the fields had been ravaged in the night by some unholy creature of darkness.
The gray stone fences bounding each tiny patch of land suddenly felt like prison walls locking each family inside to await the death sentence laid upon them this morn.
Kathleen shoved her hands deep into the earth beneath another stalk. She pulled a fistful of potatoes from the ground and watched in horror as they decayed in her hands. Her breath came quick and shallow. Crawling in the dirt beside her brother, Rory, she dug beneath one plant and another and another in a frantic search for healthy potatoes. There must be some. Faith, they could not have lost them all. Not again. Ireland could not starve a second year.
A vision of Danny filled her mind, her betrothed, waving goodbye, dark curls and a jaunty grin, as the ship set sail five months ago for the cod fisheries in Newfoundland. Thank God he and her brother, Sean, had gone across, for the pay they brought home would help the family in the winter to come.
She glanced at her father where he dug nearby, one foot pushing a rusted spade deep into the black soil, shoulders hunched with the effort. “Da, have you found any without the blight?”
He straightened and drew a callused hand across his forehead. The dirt from his palm left a smudged trail as it blended with the sweat on his brow. She could see fear in his eyes. “A few lass, but a precious few.”
Beside him, Kathleen’s mother unearthed potatoes with a smaller spade, each thrust bringing forth another putrid mass of vegetation.
“A long winter again it will be,” Rory murmured. “And mark me words, this time the English will watch us starve before lifting a hand to help.”
Their mother shook her head slowly. “Ní thuigeann an sách an seang. The well-fed does not understand the lean.”
Despair coursed through Kathleen and she curled her fingers into fists in the dirt. “The English!” She pushed herself to standing. “Six hundred years we’ve lived with their heel pressed to our throat. May they be damned for what they have done to Ireland. Our land is stolen and given to their gentry, our wheat and cattle sent to feed England. And what do they leave us but rotten potatoes. ‘Tis Irish land—not English. And we’ve grain aplenty to feed all of Ireland. So tell me now why we must starve as the English grow fat on our crops?”
Her only answer was the keening that echoed across the fields, growing in intensity as one family after another joined in to mourn the destruction. The eerie sound, carried on the breeze along with the putrid odor, sent a shiver through Kathleen and she crossed herself.
Hell had returned to Ireland and there was only the hunger to come.
County Cork, Ireland – October 1846
She heard the shouting long before she could make out the words. ‘Twas a woman’s voice, at once urgent and excited, floating over the fields from the road to Cobh. Drawing a breath, Kathleen froze on hands and knees in the dirt of the garden and tilted her head to listen, straining to make sense of the syllables rising and falling and scattering on the breeze.
She dug her fingers into the freshly tilled earth, warm and soft in the autumn sun, and concentrated on the sounds: “Kath—leen.......har.....bor...”
She squinted at a black bug making its way across the leaf of a turnip plant. They’d found old Paddy O’Donoghue yesterday, starved to death by the side of the road, his mouth stained green from eating grass. Fear twisted her empty stomach. Some said he was one of the Good People, trapped forever in human form. Would it be that even the faeries were to perish?
Her eyes widened in comprehension. “Danny!” she breathed aloud. Sean! With a strangled cry, she shoved herself to her feet, throwing aside a fistful of weeds and wiping her hands on her apron as she lifted her skirt and raced across the small patch of land to where her father was working.
“Da—do you hear?! A ship—the ship—is in harbor! Our lads have returned!”
Her father leaned on the handle of his hoe and smiled. He pulled off his cap to push his red hair off his forehead and wipe his brow. “Aye, lass, I hear. We’ll go down just as soon as I finish—”
“Da! I cannot wait for you!” she exclaimed. She turned toward the stone cottage where her mother had appeared in the doorway with Kathleen’s younger sister, Nora.
“Ma, me heart is near to bursting already!”
“Go on with you, lass,” her mother answered with a wave. “Your father is just having fun. Tell your brother and Danny that we’ll be along, just a wee bit more slowly.”
Kathleen nodded and tore off her apron, throwing it to the ground as she raced down the hard dirt road toward the woman who had brought the news.
“Moira, you saw it?” she shouted, one hand waving high above her head in greeting.
“Me brother did. The ship’s in harbor, but not yet at the wharf.”
Laughing, Kathleen threw herself into her friend’s arms, then pushed back and spun a circle. “Danny has come back,” she whispered to the blue sky, her throat tight with joy, arms outstretched as if to embrace all she could see. All would be right now. Her Danny was home.
Moira touched her on the arm. “Kathleen, it’s soon they’ll be docking. Best I not be standing in the road but at the dock so that your brother will not think I’ve forgotten me marriage vows.”
“Pah! How could ye forget with that big belly out in front of you?” Kathleen set out at full stride, then slacked off to keep pace with Moira’s gait. “I canna wait to see Sean’s face when he sees how you’ve changed.”
Moira laughed and drew a protective hand over her swollen belly. “It’s a blessing the boys went to the fisheries this year.”
Kathleen nodded and glanced at the empty patches in the fields, the ground brown and bare where once had grown lush green potato plants, their small purple flowers promising a bountiful harvest. Even now, a month past the blight, she could still smell the rot.
She shook her head to force the thought away. “We’ve turnips missing from the ground near every morning now,” she said. “And beggars at the door.”
“‘Tis begun,” Moira answered. “The real hunger. I fear it won’t be long before the landlord’s crowbar brigade is at work, tearing cottages to the ground and turning families out on the road for not paying the rent.”
Kathleen looked over the fields at the tiny cottages that stood as they always had, their thick stone walls and thatched roofs solid and dependable, giving no hint of the fear and misery that now lay inside. “What else would ye expect from the English?” she said quietly. “Our land, our country, is what they want—not our people. They’ve never wanted us.”
They followed the road as it took a steep slant into Cobh, built a century ago along the waterfront by fishermen with eyes upon the cod and herring that thrived in the deep harbor. But that quaint fishing village was long gone now, replaced during the Napoleonic wars by a British naval base and fine homes for the British officers.
Kathleen refused to look at the houses as they passed. ‘Twas her own small act of disrespect, for she knew that behind the elegant and formal entrances, the wealthy English entertained their friends, while paying no mind to the hunger creeping like a deathly specter across the countryside.
The two women dodged horse-drawn wagons and passersby as they hurried down the narrow street, following the twists and turns that brought them ever closer to the water. Never before had the road to the bay seemed so long.
With each downhill step, the air grew more damp and the odor of the sea became more pungent, until, suddenly, they broke out onto the wharf and Cork Harbor lay before them, hazy beneath a light mist, and obscured in part by the crowd that had gathered to welcome its sons home.
“They’ve docked already, Kathleen,” Moira cried. She searched the faces of the young men lined along the rail of the ship waiting to disembark. The two pressed into the back of the crowd, stretching up on tiptoes to peer over the shoulders and heads blocking their view.
“I canna see,” Kathleen muttered. “Moira, do you see either of them?” Lifting the front of her skirt, she jumped up. Then she jumped again.
“Stop that Kathleen! Do you want Danny to think ye an idiot?”
She sprang up once more and spotted the lean build and dark black hair of her older brother. “Sean! There’s Sean coming off now! This way!” Pushing through the crowd with Moira in tow, she launched herself into her brother’s arms. “Welcome home, Sean! I’ve brought your wife to you...and your babe!”
She pulled away to let Moira take her place, then let out a delighted laugh as Sean’s expression shifted from surprise to joy.
Up on her toes again, she bobbed her head from side to side in an attempt to see around nearby people. “Sean, where’s me Danny?”
Hearing no reply, she looked over to find him and Moira locked in an embrace, kissing away the months of separation. She exhaled sharply then searched the throng again. A fine sweat broke out across her shoulders. Where was Danny? Surely he was all right.
She grasped her brother by the arm and shook it in fearful desperation. “Sean!”
He tore his mouth from Moira’s. “Aye?”
He stared at her as though struck dumb. Then he moved Moira gently aside. Never before had she seen him look like this.
“Sean?” Panic edged into her voice and her heart began to pound so hard she could hear it in her ears. “Where’s Danny?” Her voice rose a notch. “Tell me.”
He glanced away, then fixed his eyes on her. “I don’t know where he is. He didna come back.”
Her gaze jerked from Sean to the boat and back again. “Didn’t come back?”
Sean took hold of her by the arms. “Our last night on the island, Danny didna return to the boat. We sailed for Ireland the next day without him.”
Her throat constricted so that she could not speak. She swallowed hard and forced the lump away. “You’ll not be fooling with me, will ye Sean? For if ye are, I’ll never forgive you. Not this time. I swear it. Do you hear me? I swear it.”
He shook his head. “‘Tis not a trick, Kathleen. If I could change the truth of it, I would. Danny didn’t come back with us.”
“But did you not search for him then? Knowing he was me own betrothed? Knowing we were to wed this very season?” She pressed her hand against her chest to stop the ache inside.
Sean exhaled. “‘Twas not till morning I learnt he was missing—”
“So ye just left him behind? Perhaps he was hurt—”
“What do ye take me for Kathleen?” Sean snapped. “Sure, I didn’t just leave him there. I asked after him. He went out for a pint with some of the lads, but none remember seeing him past midnight.” His voice softened. “I couldn’t go back to town, Kathleen, ’twas too late. The ship was ready to set sail. Had I gone searching, I, too, would be there still.” He glanced at Moira, her belly swollen with the child she carried, and reached out to take her hand.
The silence pressed like a weight against Kathleen’s lungs. “Did he know of the hunger? That the potatoes rotted again little more than a month ago?”
“Nay, none of us knew.” Sean drew a slow breath as though weighing his next words. “Some of the lads thought he might have met a lass...”
She swung at him then, landing a stinging slap across his cheek. “Shame on ye, Sean. How dare you speak of Danny so,” she said fiercely. “He’s loved me since we were wee.”
“I would never try to hurt you, Kathleen. I’m only saying what I heard.” Sean tried to pull her close but she jerked away.
Moira touched her on the shoulder. Kathleen looked at the woman who was her dearest friend in all the world and could feel nothing but jealousy that the man Moira loved had come home. And then she was filled with self-loathing for even thinking such a thing.
She turned to stare at the ship rocking softly in the light mist of the harbor, its deck now devoid of life. The air stank of fish and sweat.
He hadn’t come back.
All around her was the chaos of reunion—the cries of joy, the laughter, the voices choked with emotion, the tears, the hearty slaps on the back, the fierce hugging...the kissing.
He hadn’t come back.