Life... What otherwise is taken for granted by many, days wished away by the young that are restless; for the opportunity to be an independent being even the weary, and old wished for death, but she clung to each day- Ireland’s plagued soil granted its reprieve. Over a year had passed since Mary-Kate donned the second-hand, black flats her Da had managed to buy. Ireland’s soil squished through her feet imprinting her presence as she traveled over the hills, in the glen. The child had outgrown her shoes years ago. What should have been a nuisance made her feel safe; when the mud slid in between her toes she felt alive!
On the banks of Killarney, in the province of Kerry, Mary-Kate searched the glen for her brother, Riley. The once flourishing motherland every Irishman held dear had transformed from a field of wildflowers heavy laden with clover into a barren lady crying for the lost child it would never hold.
Instead, weeds had replaced the shamrocks and flowers. The annual display provided an enchanted home for the fairy folk, leprechauns and the life of the glen was in their care. The appearance of spring quilted the soil in a pattern that many believed to be hand sprinkled by its occupants.
Mary-Kate’s thoughts returned to last summer. A child’s life in “The Emerald Isle” was still intact. Her world had lacked the complication that now existed daily, and in which she had become intertwined. She longed for the day watching cloud animals and crafting fairy crowns accented with clover had been her only concerns.
As the seasons changed the only constant that remained were the rock walls. To any stranger they all looked the same, but to Mary-Kate each had different characteristics...memories. After one had been successfully scaled, it would soon transform into a stage for a ballerina or a tightrope walk in a circus. Hope, imagination, and playtime had once belonged to her and Ireland’s walls her playground.
She pretended to belong to another world, a new life that did not include a little brother for which she was not responsible.
Her true world was failing. The grass had lost its luster and Mother Nature had refused to bring thriving life to “The Emerald Shores”.
Ireland’s luck was slipping away into an abyss of no return. Mary-Kate scaled the nearest wall to wait for her moppet to return.
She pulled her thin gangly legs to her chest and slid her knees beneath her chin. As she lounged, Mary-Kate gazed into the ocean. A familiar sight lay ahead: a coffin ship. The wooden ship looked too small for the hundreds that would risk a trip to America. The continent welcomed most, but each was desirous of more.
A leprechaun’s hollow - hearted greed hovered and tried to blanket the passengers, but all the Irish luck required for the journey would never fit into a pot of gold. The land that lay across the ocean held a curiosity to the lass, but Ireland was her home and she was needed by her family.
The rattling of wooden wheels brought the child out of her trance just in time to see a vague outline of the upcoming visitor.
A flat bed buggy had just round the last curve and was racing at a faster speed than the old mare cared to be pulling. Mr. McIntosh had bought his pint for the day and the dark ale had put enough fire and courage in his belly to race his buggy like he was a youngster ready to impress his girl on a walkabout.
He stopped abruptly after seeing the small waif near the road side, which startled the horse almost as much as the unwanted jaunt.
“Looking for Riley again?” the man inquired, “I think me seen em a little ways back.”
“I think he be skipping stones.”
“Thank you, he slipped away again.” “I need to check on Da and Ma.”
“Is the boy speaking?”
“It’s been almost a year if in I remember right,” said Mr. McIntosh.
“The doctor isn’t sure if he ever will again. I think he is hurting too much on the inside to talk about the problems on the outside.”
“I know what he wants without him telling me”, Mary-Kate told him in her soft spoken voice.
“I just wish I could hear his voice.”
“Goodbye”, said Mary-Kate.
The old man tipped his hat in her direction and to his horses’ dismay continued the unfinished race. Mary-Kate walked in the direction Mr. McIntosh had pointed and soon found Riley playing downstream.
“Riley it’s getting dark we have to go home,” said Mary-Kate.
As usual, Riley had heard her command but was choosing to ignore his sister. The grimace on his face was a clear indication that he wasn’t finished rock collecting and she was squashing his ability to catch a rather unwilling frog.
Riley knew by her tone that any patience his sister possessed earlier was no longer present and her green eyes warned him to be compliant.
Reluctantly, he followed at a purposefully slower pace not even trying to keep up with Mary-Kate.
Even without the aid of a pair of shoes, her long strides carried her at a faster speed than Riley’s short ones allowed. He bounced from rock to rock using them like stepping stones. Defiance was the only communication the child ever used.
He didn’t want to speak of things in the present; Riley was content and safe concentrating on the past. A realm of self denial was his creation, where the child was safe, loved, and cared for by his parents. If he spoke, his place of happiness would be destroyed and that safe place was all the eight year old child had left that was his alone. Although it had taken longer than it should have, they were finally home. Their respite from reality was quickly ending. Childhood... at least what was left of it came to an abrupt stop when they reached the worn warped door of their home.
Before they could enter, there was work to be done. Chores had been pushed aside for an afternoon of play. Mary-Kate trudged ahead reminding herself that buckets of water weren’t going to appear suddenly by themselves and the creek was a mile away from home.
Compliments of the moon, enough light still shone down for a dirt path to be slightly luminesce.
During the day, the trek was a tiresome chore but the night time task challenged her slight framed bodies’ strength. Rocks scraped against her feet making small slashes into her skin, grazing the topmost layer leaking blood onto the ground.
Tears were forced back into her eyes. Mary-Kate knew from experience that crying was not going to solve anything. Pain was an everyday occurrence in her world and like most of the trials in her short life this would be over soon. Da and Ma needed her to be strong, brave and reliable. Tears were for babies and she had outgrown crying a long time ago.
Complaint was not an option and the return trip would be harder than the one she now endured.
The temptation to soak her feet before returning home had been hard to fight but Da and Ma had been alone for far too long already. Two buckets had been fetched from the creek but by the time she reached home each were only half full from traveling the rocky scattered path. By the time she finished the quest , the moon’s glow was absent and its light no longer a helpful friend.
With her chores finished Mary-Kate went on her last quest for the day to find Riley.
The moon cast a glow on the entrance of the small weather- beaten barn.
She glanced at him and the sleeping sheep. It should have been dinner when Da brought it home; Riley had rescued the ball of fluff and proclaimed it a member of the family.
Da never had the heart to kill the sheep and no matter how hungry Mary-Kate felt she couldn’t find it in her heart to take the life of the small animal with trusting eyes.
Charlie had been given a reprieve. She often wondered what secrets the little animal had been entrusted.
“Mary-Kate I need you.”
“I’m coming Ma.”
Mary-Kate had answered her mother’s call but inside she knew it was her mind playing tricks on her. The call had been barely a whisper; she was too far away to hear the faint plea. Maybe...
She had been praying to the saints that either Da or Ma would awake, but Mary-Kate never dared to request a motion to be gifted to them. Ma hadn’t spoken seven words in more than three months. Mary-Kate gently lifted her head into the palm of her hand as her Ma drank the glass of water.
“I’m cold,” said Ma.
“I’ll get another blanket.”
It was the last word her Ma had said before drifting off to sleep. For how long there was no telling at least she had been there. Even if it had only been a few words that drifted from her Ma’s voice, for a moment Mary-Kate had been given hope.
The sick woman forced the tattered blanket to her chest.
Mary-Kate tucked blankets in the same manner she had received as an infant, and replaced the rag on her head with one that was cool. She knew Ma would want the blanket removed in about ten minutes, but if it made her feel better for a short time, then fetching one was worth it. Her chills were getting worse and she was fading away.
She looked nothing like the mother she had known for fourteen years. Her weight was gone as was her outspoken personality. Da lay sleeping unaware that the woman he loved had just woken from sleep.
Each had turned into small shells of their former self.
Mary-Kate instantly felt guilty and childish. Her parents had needed care while she had played in the glen. As they played, the chill returned. Healing their illness wasn’t possible and at that moment she realized each day would be different. The plague was taking over their bodies and death was calling.