They barely knew him, this man whose wavy red mane was now frosted over and unruly, with the permanent indentation of a hat pressed into it. All he said was, “Ye’ll be livin’ with us now.”
The letter was still folded in his shirt pocket from Wednesday’s post. The simple powerful expression of hopelessness played over and over in his mind, yet those few scribbles gave way to this foretold journey and the outcome of his brother and sister-in-law’s short lives.
“Colleen is dead and buried and I don’t have the means to keep them. The sooner you come get them the better.”
His brother’s wife’s mother, the grandmother so named to these two blameless beating hearts, turned them out without so much as an empty apology. She didn’t even have the decency to wait with them until Dan arrived. She barely had enough humanity left to send two sentences to save their lives. Dan dug deep for either pity or some shred of understanding for how blood kin could leave two small boys alone on the side of the road but could find neither. Over the years, he’d seen his fair share of malice. He’d walked the earth long enough to have witnessed much worse in people than this, yet regardless of the amount of times he’d beheld the reprehensible acts of human beings, he didn’t grow blind to them. Once he laid eyes on the boys again, and the state in which they were, any chance their mother’s mother had of absolution in his prayers turned to ash.
His voice was low and it rattled a bit. He sighed after he spoke, emptied his chest, then took a deep breath and yawned. He’d traveled an hour in the dark to fetch them and the sun had yet to make even the slightest peek over the horizon.
“Where’s yer thin’s?”
“We haven’t any thin’s. Someone came and took…” Patrick attempted to explain.
“Figured that. Off we go then.”
Their uncle’s heavily lidded eyes never met theirs when he lifted their weightless frames into the flatbed of a cart, pulled by an aged yet sturdy black horse. His words were few but well heeded. His calloused hands barely clasped the reins when he clucked his tongue in his hallowed cheek at the horse to move.
“More orphans,” an old woman grunted as she shook her head and sneered when they passed her on the road. Dan repeatedly glanced back over his shoulder at his cargo to observe the going’s on. Dillon sat in a ball, staring at the road behind them in complete silence. Patrick sat up and glared at the woman in what slight moonlight was left in the darkness, causing her to look away. When she turned her head and met his eyes again, she sneered and shouted at him, “What are ye lookin’ at?”
Dan wanted no part of this confrontation, regardless of how petty it was and barked, “That’s enough. Sit down.”
Dillon pulled hard at his brother’s arm to sit back but he resisted. As the woman faded out of sight, along with her went the place he was born. Patrick’s blank expression and dry eyes told perfectly that he gave no care of loss to either.
“Uncle Dan? Are we orphans now?” asked Dillon, the younger of the two brothers.
“Aye, lucky ones.”
“Ye have kin, don’t ye? Ye coulda ended up in a orphanage instead of comin’ ta me grand estate,” their uncle answered, never moving an eye left or right.
“Ye have an estate, Uncle?” Dillon asked with childish naïveté.
Their craggy uncle just laughed to himself and never looked back.
“Thank ye, Uncle. We’ll earn it. I swear it to ye,” Patrick remarked, giving his younger brother the eye to be quiet now and leave their uncle be. Dan understood in those first few minutes how important it was to Patrick that they not be considered a burden and would never expect anything from him.
Patrick was older by a few years, although his mature and somber demeanor made those few years seem double the length. Uncle Dan knew they were being freed from living hand to mouth or worse, begging in the streets. Patrick’s words of gratitude were spoken on behalf of both he and his brother, the same as all of his words up to this point. Had it not been for either the kindness or obligation of their uncle Dan Flynn to take them in, they’d have been left to suffer the hard shell that life would shroud them in over time–if they survived at all. How bad could it be to live in a real home, even if they’d have to share a bed with their cousins? They’d moved from one dirt floor hovel to another, only to be cast-off in the end to the dirt road. Whatever their uncle’s motivation, they’d have a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, which was more than two homeless and scrawny lads from the outskirts of Old Kilcullen could hope for.
“How far is it to Uncle Dan’s grand estate, Patrick?” Dillon asked, hunkered down almost into a ball opposite his brother with his knees pulled tight to his chest.
“I don’t remember. Now shush, will ye?” Patrick answered, folding his arms with a hard frown.
“I’m missin’ Ma,” Dillon said, and began to weep.
“It’s not far. We may be there by breakfast but don’t get yer hopes up,” their uncle said over the pipe in his teeth, followed by a phlegm-filled cough and a wad of spit that hit the dirt road with a whack.
“Why can’t we talk? I want to talk, Patrick, it helps me some.”
“Alright then! For cryin’ tears, what do ye want to talk about?” Patrick scooted closer to his brother.
“Uncle Dan? Is it alright if Patrick and I talk?”
“Talk all ye want! Why the devil should I care?”
“See? Uncle Dan said…”
“I heard him!”
“Well, alright then. I was only sayin’…”
“Just talk if ye want or I’m gonna turn my back to ye right this minute and pretend ye ain’t even here,” Patrick growled, balling a fist and drawing it back before catching a glimpse of his uncle, glancing over his shoulder for the first time since they’d crossed the bridge over the Liffey.
Patrick unclenched his hand and put it away. A second later, the cart wheels stopped turning and the hoof beats fell silent. When their uncle turned to face them, they cowered in the corner of the cart and clung together under his lowered brow and flattened lips, waiting for the whip.
“That’s better,” he said with a hard rattle, and then coughed and spat again.
“Sh-sh-should we shut our mouths now?” asked the naively bold and curious runt, buried beneath his brother’s arm pit.
“Ye can beat the tar outta each other for all I care!” He paused a second, peering at them, now more visible in the faint dawn glow. His ice blue eyes peeked out through slits of wrinkled skin. “Ah, I see ye now in the good light,” he said with a wink. He nodded his head and a half-smile grew on his mouth before he turned back in his seat and clucked his tongue again.
They sat quietly huddled in the few inches of pressed hay, pulling their hats down hard to shield their eyes from the risen sun now warming them through their ill-fitting clothes. They separated as the temperature between their bodies rose into perspiration and became uncomfortable.
“Give me some air to breathe, will ye?” Patrick said, pushing his brother an inch or two from his side.
“I’m scared. I want to go home.” Dillon began to sniffle again.
“Well, we ain’t got a home no more–as if we ever did. Wherever this cart stops and he tells us to get out, that’ll be our home for now,” Patrick whispered, pointing at his uncle’s back.
Once they’d finally found a settling spot in the hay, they both went silent but glanced at each other every so often, as if to make sure the other was still there. The journey would take them north to Naas and then onward to Caragh and their uncle’s home, and what an uncomfortable but lovely journey it was. In the course of an hour, it seemed a whole new world was opening up to them. Passing through Naas had them hanging out over the side of the cart to get a good look at the people and the scenery that was completely foreign to them.
It was Thursday, one of the Naas market days. They could smell the fresh baked goods and see the rows of fat corn and lush greens. They popped to their knees when the cart pulled to the side of the road and Dan climbed down. Believing they were next, they stood at attention, and lined themselves at the road side of the cart for him to help them down, only to find him walking on alone, turning only to wave them down to take their seats and wait for him.
“Have ye ever seen such a place, brother?” asked Dillon.
“Not in me life.”
“I’m puttin’ all a this in me memory for later, to dream of in me sleep. I’m wishin’ I had me one of those pies over there.” Dillon leaned over the side of the cart, his arms dangling and his head resting on the edge. “Oh, I wish me stomach would stop this rollin’. He has to feed us, Patrick! I mean, he can’t just starve us to death…can he?”
“Get back! Here he comes,” Patrick ordered as they both fell into their places in the hay.
“Here,” their uncle said, tossing them each a flour sack with a piece of bread and butter and a small chunk of cheese.
“Thank ye, Uncle Dan! God bless ye!” shouted Dillon.
“Thank ye, Uncle,” Patrick said, as he turned his back, slid down into the cart and began to devour his meal.
“Here, take this,” Uncle Dan said, handing them a container of water he’d filled at the market.
They quickly chewed and guzzled and within a few minutes, they’d dozed off to sleep. The hour didn’t matter because the exhaustion of grief and the long night’s lonely anticipation of their uncle’s arrival, combined with their full bellies, had drawn them each into a ball in the hay.
* * *
The cart creaked along at a steady pace. Before long, Patrick opened his eyes and nudged Dillon awake. A woman was bent down in her garden pulling greens and stuffing them in her apron. When she caught a glimpse of them, she straightened up and waved high above her head. “Da’s home,” she called, and several children came running.
“Da! Do ye have them, Da? Did ye bring the cousins?” an older boy asked as he leaped into the air to see into the wagon.
“Aye, I’ve got them. Come on now, boys. Time to rise and shine,” Dan told them as he climbed from the wagon and kissed his wife on the cheek.
“Ye’ve been up nearly all night,” she said to Uncle Dan. “I’ll keep the children outta yer hair. Now go get some sleep.” She patted him hard on his back.
“Noreen, take these two and I’ll be off to work. I’ve lost nearly half the day already.”
“Surely they know what kept ye away this mornin’. They’re not expectin’ ye, are they?”
“Doesn’t matter, the horses are.”
“Hmph. Well, be gone with ye then. We’ll see ye at supper.”
“Thank ye for doin’ this,” Dan muttered.
First Patrick and then Dillon were set hard to the ground before their aunt Noreen and their cousins, now lined up like a flight of stairs. Neither raised an eye to her until she took them each by the hand and pulled them toward the house.
“Where’s yer things?” she asked them.
“Don’t have none, ma’am,” Patrick muttered.
“Don’t have any, not don’t have none, and what do ye mean, no things!? Clothes and what nots?”
They looked at each other and then at her and shrugged.
“Never mind. Come along now. Let’s get ye in the house and then clean ye up a bit. Poor don’t mean dirty ‘round here! Ye got dirt from yer name day behind yer ears.” She took a good whiff of them and made a sour face.
Noreen called to the children to continue their chores and waved to the eldest son to follow her into the house and show the cousins where they’d be sleeping. “I’ll give ’em the tour, Ma,” said Lochlan, and waved them over to a room off the kitchen with two decent-sized flat beds pushed against opposite walls near the doorway. At the other end of the room were two chests, two small chairs and a modest dresser with a wash basin and pitcher.
“This is OUR room. Ye’ll be in here with us. We’ve already three to a bed and we all have our own spot, so ye’ll just have to squeeze in where there’s a hole.” The elder boy turned away and stopped, turned back and faced them down hard, “I’m Loch. That’s short for Lochlan. Ye best remember that,” he said with his fist in a ball and his thumb aimed at his chest.
Loch appeared to be at least fifteen and already had the voice of a grown man. Dillon trembled which caused Patrick to cringe. The boy had a habit of wetting his breeches when he was frightened but with Patrick’s hand clenched tightly around his for support, he held his water. Patrick was solemn and acted very unimpressed. He didn’t want to give his cousin the impression he thought them all his betters. The last thing he wanted or needed was pity, even though he doubted already that there was any here to be found.
Dillon’s eyes were fixed on the beds. Patrick knew that all he could think about was crawling into one at that very moment and having his first real dream.
From the small bedroom window, they could see the remaining children were still out in the gardens, pulling weeds, feeding animals and filling a horse trough with water. A petite dark-haired girl ran behind a joyful toddler in the yard, which almost caused Patrick to smile.
“That there is me Sister Brianne and baby brother Rory. He’s a handful, that one.”
Loch lead them back out through the kitchen into the yard where Aunt Noreen was waiting for them.
“Over here, ye two!” she shouted.
“Ma’s gonna scrub ye down now. She’s real clean so get used to bathing at least once a week. She read somewhere about germs and the Bible says the cleaner ye are the closer ye are ta God–or somethin’ of the like. Well, some of us have work ta do,” Loch grumbled.
“One more thing!” he added, turning back to them and speaking so close they could smell his breakfast. “Yer not guests here, yer kin. Ye give my Ma any guff, any trouble at all, and I’ll deal with ye. My Ma works too hard to keep this lot in line and I won’t think twice about puttin’ a boot in yer arse if ye don’t do what’s told to ye.”
Loch was at least a whole head taller and a body wider than either of them. Again, Patrick found Dillon pressed under his arm like a baby bird beneath its mother’s wing. They nodded in unison and looked down at the dirt but Patrick eyeballed him as he walked away.
“Well, what are ye waitin’ on? Git!” Loch ordered.
The boys took heed and ran to the barn where Noreen was planted with her hands on her hips. Her ample bosom pushed forward and rested on her large midriff, which made her chins appear almost tucked into her cleavage.
“Clothes off! Toss them here and get into the water,” she ordered, pointing a long-handled scrub brush at them.
“E-everythin’, Aunt Noreen?” Patrick asked softly.
“Did I stutter, child? Oh, for Heaven’s sake, lad! I have four sons and a husband. Unless ye got two willies each down there, there’s nothin’ under those rags I ain’t never seen!”
They peeled off their clothes in an instant, covered their private parts and hopped into the tub of cool water. It was new to them and being naked in the company of a woman other than their Ma felt quite peculiar. The only time they’d been submerged in a body of water for years was leaping into the Liffey in their under breeches on a warm day to cool off, or falling in from a log when they were fishing.
“Soap. Ye wash with it,” Noreen said, taking the bar and running it across the bristles of the scrub brush and then slapping it into Patrick’s hands. He rubbed the soap between his hands, up and down over his face and across the top of his head and back again.
“Ye have no nits, I hope?” Noreen asked quietly.
“None that we know of, Ma‘am,” Patrick replied.
“Good. Well, stand yerself up and let me scrub the rest of ye. After today, yer on yer own but I’ll make good ‘n sure ye done it right,” she declared and shook her index finger at them.
Once what would become a weekly ritual of bathing was completed, they climbed from the murky water and she wrapped them each in a cloth blanket and handed them clean underthings and clothes to wear.
“We don’t have much but we have all we need. These should do. Ye’ll wear these on the work days and on Sundays ye’ll get clean ones. We’ll work on new shoes as well–new to ye, that is.”
Noreen turned and marched off toward the house, stopping briefly to snatch Rory from the ground and toss him squealing on her hip, reaching for Brianne.
“Get dressed and I’ll put ye ta work.”
Loch was standing behind them now with a shovel and pail, and he smiled deviously, turning his head to the stables.