By Ann Gilligan Bond
County Roscommon, 1879
In one corner of the Mullen cottage, half-past two in the morning, Shawn’s grandma, Agnes Mullen, lay on her cot, unable to sleep. Creaking wheels in the distance grew louder and louder until they came to stop in front of the cottage door. There was a soft knock then, and Colly exploded out of the house. Voices volleyed back and forth. Colly sounded excited, but perhaps there was nothing special in that, for Colly often sounded excited. Grandma tried to put faces to the shuffling of feet entering the kitchen. After a few hushed questions and answers, the footsteps retreated. The creaking resumed as the wagon pulled away, so that the old woman couldn’t tell whether the wagon had brought something into the house or taken something away.
The next morning Grandma Mullen woke to the sweet, tarry smell of carbolic acid. Leaving her narrow room, she found her Shawneen sleeping on the settee with a large bandage wrapped around the gunshot wound in his right thigh. Her daughter-in-law was on her knees in a far corner, scrubbing the floor, sanitizing the cottage.
Colly was not in a good mood. At the same time she was telling her mother-in-law not to wake the boy up because he needed his rest, Colly was hoping that the boy would wake so that she could let him have it for getting himself shot. The men who had brought her boy in during the night told her Shawn had been shot at Thaddy Clogher’s farm where some rowdies burned the barn as payback to the land grabber who leased the farm after old man Clogher had been evicted.
While Colly was scrubbing, Grandma shuffled around the room, looking for something that needed her attention. To one side of the hearth, she noticed a basket of some tangled yarn with a few completed rows her granddaughter Mary had knitted before she took off for America. Looking down at the abandoned knit work, thinking that Mary would have no further use for it, Grandma picked up the bunch of wool and headed toward the back door intending to throw it on the rubbish heap. Annoyed that Grandma took it upon herself to dispose of her daughter’s handiwork, Colly jumped on the old woman. “What do you think you’re doing?” Colly demanded to know. “Put that back.” And Grandma put it back.
Shawn slept into the afternoon. When he awoke, his mother took off his bandage and washed his wound with a few drops of carbolic acid in water, causing the boy to yelp from the sting.
“What in the world were you doing up there with those hooligans?” his mother asked.
“I only went to warn Thomas that Jimmy Noon’s gang was going to raid his cottage,” the boy answered, in all innocence.
Later that afternoon Shawn’s brother Conny came to tell his mother that there was a woman coming up the road making the rounds of all the cottages, begging for food. “She looks like she’s about to have a baby any minute,” he said. To which Colly snapped, “Never mind, I want you to come in and close the door, Conny. And pull the curtains closed. And stay away from the window. We don’t have any food to spare for any beggar woman. We barely have enough for ourselves.”
And Grandma watched her daughter-in-law close the front door, draw the curtains, and blow out the lamp. The old woman heard the first knock on the door, and the second, while the little family circle sat still, allowing enough time for the woman to pass on. Colly sent her youngest son out the back way to see if the woman had gone, and he came back nodding yes. Colly re-lit the lamp then and opened the curtains. And grandma remembered times during the Hunger when good people closed their doors to those in need.
That night in a dream, very much like the one she had been dreaming for thirty years, Agnes Mullen was back in her childhood cottage. Images of her young mother and sister Molly rose up out of her dark sleep.
Molly is talking to Mama. Molly is telling Mama she wants to give some clothes to the half-naked children she has seen down by the brook. Molly is holding up a small sweater for Mama to see. The sweater is only half-made. The rows are uneven and the end of it is unraveling, with a long piece of yarn hanging down. Mother says, “No. Those children are tinker children. All those people have the fever. I don’t want you going anywhere near those tinker people.”
Now I am alone with Mama. I am asking Mama if me and Molly can go to the fair. At first Mama says no. She says that she does not want us traipsing all over the countryside, for there are a lot of paupers about, sick with fever and desperate from hunger. She relents though, even though she does not want us to go, remembering how much she loved to go to the fair when she was young.
Mother is pouring a pot of boiling water then, into a bucket to wash out the lice she has found in our brother’s hair. She is taking down the blue bottle of carbolic acid from the shelf to add to the boiling water.
I’m telling Mama that me and Molly need to leave for the fair soon, for it is a long way to Aghaboy and back. Mother puts down the blue bottle. She takes the lid off the rusted tea tin and gives me and Molly four pennies for the fair.
“Stay with your sister now,” Mama tells me. “Don’t let her out of your sight. Make sure the two of you come home together.”
Me and my sister are heading down the path then. Mama’s standing in the doorway watching us go. I know Mama doesn’t want us to go. She’s afraid Molly is going to try to take some clothes to the tinker children down by the brook. I look back and the woman in the doorway looks like Colly, though I know the woman is my mother. A little farther along, I can hear my brother cry out from the sting of the carbolic acid.
Halfway to the fair, Molly pulls out a bundle of clothes from under her cloak. “What’s that?” I ask. “It’s some clothes for the children down by the brook,” she answers. “No, Molly,” I say. “You can’t go near those children. You know Mama said you couldn’t.” Molly looks at me then, seeming to accept what I say, tucking the bundle back under her cloak.
I am alone then. Molly has wandered off by herself. I fear she has gone down to the brook.
The closer I get to the fair, the more excited I become. People of all ages are dawdling among the stalls. But one boy stands out. With dark black hair in his light blue eyes. Whenever I look his way, I find him looking at me. At last he comes over. He hands me a toffee candy, singling me out from the other girls. And a warm contentment spreads through me.
I see the sun is low in the sky then, and I know it’s time to go. I look for Molly but I can’t find her. I think she must have started home without me.
I’m on my way home then. I’m walking on a ridge high above the road that leads home. It’s growing dark and I want to get home before it becomes totally dark. I’m having a hard time making my way down the side of the hill, for thistles keep getting caught in my skirt. Finally, I reach the road already steeped in darkness. Looking up, I see the undersides of the clouds are still sunny. I head up the road, feeling my way over the rough surface.
Off in the distance, I hear what sounds like a slow beat on a bodhran. I can see yellow light flickering through the fir trees and figures moving in the dark. As I come closer I can see the figures are twirling. The beat comes faster then, and the twirling speeds up. Pushing aside some branches I move closer for a better look. But the dancers have disappeared.
Back on the road I continue along, hoping I haven’t gone the wrong way. I come upon a tinker’s caravan, facing me. The horses stand dead still. I can see the bones of the horses under their bluish flesh. The caravan appears to be abandoned. But as I come up to it, a man lifts the front curtain. Though it is quite dark, I can clearly see the man has a yellow face. “Looking for your sister?” the man asks.
“No, she’s gone on home before me,” I tell him. One of the horses snorts then. The man smiles a wide smile that makes me uneasy. I hurry on then, eager to be beyond the man’s grasp.
As I pass the caravan, I see some white markings painted on its red side, a sun, a quarter moon, several stars, and a comet with a long tail. A little farther on, I look back over my shoulder and see a young woman sitting at the back of the caravan, parting the curtain to look out. She smiles at me but doesn’t say anything. And it strikes me the woman is Molly, wearing the bonnet she made out of Mama’s blue muslin, sitting as calm as a queen on her throne. “Molly,” I gasp. And the caravan takes off, the horses’ hooves pounding up the road.
I start to chase after the caravan, tripping more than once on the Rowan roots that rise out of the ground. I reach out my hand as if to will her back. But she is gone. I turn back up the road toward home then, thinking how angry mother will be.
Smelling the turf smoke from our chimney, I know I’m almost home. Starting to run I get my foot caught in some woodbine. I trip then and start to fall…
The old woman Agnes woke up with her leg caught in her sheet. She had shifted over to the edge of the bed in her sleep and was just about to fall onto the floor when she caught herself. She knew she had been dreaming but could not hold onto her dream. It had disintegrated within a matter of seconds. Though she couldn’t recall the dream, she had a feeling it had something to do with her sister Molly.
Unable to sleep, Grandma started to think about her dead sister. Molly had been a lively girl who would likely have gotten married if she had been born in a different time.
Agnes pictured her sister heading down the road the week before she died, in the blue bonnet with the long ties, carrying some clothes to the poor widow who had taken to begging to feed her children. She wouldn’t listen to her mother’s warning to stay away from the contaminated cabin––boarded up to prevent contagion.
It wasn’t long after her visit to the cabin that Molly came down with the fever. Her mother and father had guessed what it was right off. Mother closed all the windows, so that none of their neighbors would know there was fever in the house. Papa thought they should send Molly to the dispensary, but Mother said that no one who went into the dispensary came out alive. Afraid the fever would spread to the other children, Mama and Papa set a cot out for Molly in the old milk shed at the bottom of the yard where Aunt Peg took charge of her care. Where Papa forbade the other children to go.
A week later they brought Molly’s lifeless body into the house and laid her out in a coffin on the kitchen table. Mother dressed her in the blue bonnet she prized so much. A priest came to bless her. And a cart came to carry her to the cemetery. Agnes remembered the sound of its creaking wheels as she walked alongside it.
Her whole life, Agnes was sorry she hadn’t tried harder to stop her sister from going to see the poor woman in the boarded-up cottage. Though in her later years she chose to forget the circumstances of her sister’s death, she still felt uneasy whenever she remembered Molly.
Lying there, Agnes became aware of a light rain outside and a cool, damp draft coming in the window. She lay there awhile deciding whether or not she should get up and close the casement window. A breeze blew up then, and she decided she better get up and shut it.
With one hand on the window, she looked out into the dark yard. All she could see were the vague outlines of the bushes that bordered the road. Standing there, staring out into the night awhile, she thought she saw something moving in the distance.
All of a sudden, she could see a white face, as if illuminated by lightning, glimmering in the dark. To Agnes’ old eyes, a female form seemed to be hovering above the bushes. The apparition seemed to be looking directly at her. Nodding her head, the figure extended one arm, pointing to the old woman, as if she had showed up in the Mullen yard that night expressly to see her.
An image of her sister’s face flashed before Agnes’ eyes. For at that moment she recognized the blue bonnet her mother had dressed her youngest in when she laid her in her coffin. Mesmerized by the specter, Agnes could utter only one word, “Molly?”
Unknown to Agnes, a midwife from Derrintober, a little slip of a woman, was returning home along Bog Road after a difficult delivery, wearing a shawl over her head to protect herself from the light rain. Covered in black, she would have passed the Mullen cottage unseen if the rain had not let up. For when the rain stopped, she paused at a spot in a direct line with Grandma’s window. Taking off her shawl, she shook out her wrap to shake off the rainwater, holding the shawl away from her body so she wouldn’t get wet. It was at that moment that Agnes got a clear view of the woman with her one arm extended, seemingly pointing to Grandma’s open window. What Agnes believed to be a blue bonnet was actually a white bonnet that looked blue in the dark. With her legs hidden by the bushes, the figure appeared to Agnes to be suspended above the ground.
Leaning against the windowsill to get the best view, Grandma knocked over the white enamel bowl that Colly had set there, and the bowl banged down on the hard flag floor with a loud clang. The clatter seemed to shatter the spell, for the apparition vanished. Startled by the sudden noise from the cottage, sensing someone might be watching her, the midwife hurried on, disappearing into the dark.
Thinking the figure might still be within reach, Agnes decided to go after her. Out the cottage door she went, leaving the door open in her haste. Though the ground was full of puddles, she trudged on.
Inside the cottage, the cool air from the open door blew directly on Colly who was sleeping on a cot near the doorway to be close to Shawn. She woke then, noticing the door was open. She didn’t have to go far to find her mother-in-law standing up to her shins in the wet weeds.
“Molly,” the elder Mrs. Mullen asserted. “I saw her––right over there.”
“Come in woman,” Colly grunted, “I’m not in the mood for this. You were dreaming is all.”
The next morning, the Mullen household rose later than usual. With Shawn being carried in late at night with a gunshot wound in his leg and Grandma Mullen milling around outside in the middle of the night, the Mullen family was exhausted.
Ann Gilligan Bond has always enjoyed writing poems, particularly using forms such as the pantoum, the sestina, and the terzanelle. Her poem “In the Small Yard” has appeared in The Innisfree Poetry Journal (Innisfree 14). Recently she’s been concentrating on writing short stories with an emphasis on place. She has been to Ireland and Italy a number of times. Her latest travels have been to Rome, Siena, and Venice. Visual art has been a large part of her life, especially painting landscapes out of doors. For over a decade she has played the violin with the Waltham Philharmonic Orchestra. She has a Master’s degree in English and has taught both high school English and art.