This is a short story prequel to my novel, Breakout From Sugar Island. It features the novel's main character, Michael Redferne, at a time in his life before the larger story begins and sets the stage for what is to follow. Here he takes the first fatal steps that launch him on an odyssey that will put all of his physical and mental powers to the test. A test he must survives if he hopes to see his native land and his loved ones again. Hope you enjoy it.
Western Ireland 1773
The red flame loomed in Michael Redferne’s cottage window like an angry genie daring him to come out and dance. He paced the dirt floor, glancing through the open window at the giant bonfire. Everyone had come to the farewell celebration for Maureen Kelly at the crossroads. Everyone except him.
At thirty-nine he was still vigorous. Although married with a wife and son, he was the focus of attraction, especially at country ceilis. Tall and handsome with shoulder-length brown hair, he was unblemished, at least on the outside, except for a fading scar on his upper lip. It was the legacy of a bottle cut from a tavern fight in his younger days that almost severed his lip from its moorings.
His wife Grace sat staring, wiping away tears. Music and laughter echoed up the lane. The bonfire’s guttural roar and the hiss of boiling sap invaded the house as tongues of flame leapfrogged up the pyramid of oak stacked at the confluence of the four roads. Dancers, arms linked, cut a rhythmic circle around it keeping time to the strains of uilleann pipes.
He threw up his hands. “Grace, she’s going to America, she’s never coming back. It’s my Christian duty to see her off.”
Grace dabbed her wet cheeks with the hem of her apron and narrowed her eyes. “Don’t you go pious on me, you scoundrel. It’s your Christian duty to look after your wife and child first, and not go gallivanting after that bitch with your tongue hanging out.”
He hung his head. “It's all over. She’s leaving. Forever! I have to see her one last time.”
“Forever? You have disgraced me and our son. That’s what’s forever.”
Blood rushed to Michael’s face. He started to respond but bit his tongue. Instead, he lifted the latch and stalked out into the twilight swearing, “Jesus Christ, it’s like trying to talk to my mother,” he shouted over his shoulder.
“Don’t you dare compare me to that conniving shrew,” Grace screamed through the open window.
He heard her crying all the way to the bend in the boreen. Guilt roiled his belly like sour milk.
Arriving at the crossroads, he viewed the crowd with an anxious eye. A mixture of small farmers, linen merchants, weavers, and landless laborers, as well as the hedge schoolmaster and the local priest. Peals of laughter and raucous cheers mingled with the lilting conversations of people scattered in twos and threes around the periphery; some resting on the grass verge under the trees, others, mostly the old folk, sitting on three-legged stools watching the dancers circling the bonfire.
A wind gust sweeping the surface of the four roads sent eddies of dust and debris into the bonfire causing an eruption of sparks and flame.
He approached Maureen’s kin, but they turned away. For them the celebration was bittersweet since they were unlikely to see their daughter again this side of the grave. When he went to the table with the earthen jar of home-brewed ale, many welcomed him but others threw hostile stares and whispered behind his back.
“The priest says they might cast him out.”
“Ah shure, he couldn’t give a tinker’s damn. He’s a rough ticket.”
“That scar on his lip, tells you he’s no altar boy.”
“There’s them that done a hell of a sight worse, strutting round like peacocks.”
“Aye, the ones with money and acreage.”
“It’s said he talked to Parson Stack. Might be considering becoming a . . .”
“Protestant? May he roast in hell ’til the trumpet blows!”
“Hold on now. Could be tolerable if the red-haired lassie ended up there with him.”
“Jaysus, now you’re goin’ too far.” An undercurrent of snickers rippled through the group.
If Redferne overheard, he didn’t let on. He raised his cup to no one in particular. “May we all be alive this time next year.” He spotted Maureen in the circle of dancers, her long red hair trailing behind her like a flame. A large cast iron pot of stew hung from a tripod over a fire off to the side of the road. More people it seemed crowded around it than the ale table. A horrible sign of the times. After the famine of 1770 many lived hand to mouth, with images of bloated corpses strewn along the roads seared in memory. The majority was probably here tonight to get a good meal, and since the occasion had attracted a substantial number of linen merchants and well-to-do farmers, the food they brought was more varied and nourishing
So, while the communal stew had a good helping of potatoes, it also had meat and vegetables, something many of the less fortunate hadn’t tasted in months. And that wasn’t all. A table filled with homemade cakes of wheaten bread, slabs of cheese, and tubs of country butter sat in the shade of a beech tree. On an adjacent table were bowls of colcannon, a traditional dish of boiled potatoes and cabbage mashed together, flavored with onions, shallots, and butter.
The dancing stopped for the meal and a strange silence descended on the gathering. They whispered as they ate, as if talking might be irreverent to the sacrament they were engaged in, somehow making them look ungrateful. Most went back for seconds. When the eating was done, the musicians started up again and the dancing resumed with renewed vigor.
“Come away with me tomorrow, Michael.”
His breath caught at the sound of her voice. “I cannot Maureen, you know that.” He fixed his gaze on the bonfire.
“It would take courage. We could start a new life away from all this hunger and misery.”
“That’s the kind of courage I don’t have.” He turned around. She had moved back under an elm tree, beautiful in her blue skirt and petticoat, high-heeled black boots, and saffron blouse. Her hair cascaded around her shoulders illuminating her face in the firelight.
“Will you dance with me then?”
His heart raced at the scent of her perfume. “For God’s sake, Maureen, don’t do this.”
She backed away and rejoined the other revelers around the bonfire. He stood there for a long time, oblivious to the goings on around him, until someone nudged him. Rory Blake, the hedge schoolmaster, handed him a cup of ale. “You look like you could use this.”
Redferne took the tin cup and sauntered over to the wicker basket full of cut tobacco and small white clay pipes. He filled a pipe and lit it with a flaming ember from underneath the three-legged pot. Blake sidled up beside him and did the same. “They say she’s leaving because of you. If you know what I mean.”
“Rory, what is it you want?”
“Your help, Michael.”
“You know right well, for what.”
Redferne raised the cup to his lips. Taking another swallow, he gazed into the bonfire. “Indeed I do.”
“Well then, can I have your answer?”
“I don’t believe in the Whiteboy creed of terror. You should stick to school mastering, Rory.”
Blake clinched his fists. “We’re protecting our people from Prescott and his crowbar goons.”
“That’s what you call it, eh? Maiming cattle and throwing neighbors naked into thorn pits?”
“None got thorned that didn’t deserve it and hadn’t been warned.” Redferne expelled a blast of smoke through his nostrils. “A rock through a window in the middle of the night wrapped in a gun-and-coffin notice is more apt to harden a man than get his cooperation.”
“Good neighbors don’t covet the houses of them cast out on the roads. Can’t you see that?”
“Maybe so, but acting like the Prestons won’t get you sympathy.”
“Like the Prestons?” Blake stabbed his index finger several times in front of Redferne’s face. “You’ll come running when you want help, but know this, by God, we don’t take kindly to malingerers.” He whipped the pipe from his mouth, flung it into the bonfire and stormed away. Redferne struggled to control himself. At six feet two, he had the look of a fella who saw the inside of too many taverns. Few dared to pick a fight with him unless they were drunk. Rory Blake came close to doing that. He wasn’t drunk neither.
The dancing and singing went on through the wee hours until it was time for the keeners, who intoned the doleful lamentations for the dead.
Redferne wanted to leave before this happened, but when the time came, he couldn’t pull himself away. They placed Maureen on a chair at the mouth of the road down which she would travel in the morning to catch the boat to America. They set a garland of flowers on her head while her immediate family, friends, and neighbors ranged themselves in two groups, one in front of her and the other behind, starting the “Ullaloo.” Each group alternated the chant that waxed and waned before joining in chorus.
Maureen looked straight ahead. If she was upset, Michael couldn’t tell. He couldn't see her face since the bonfire had dwindled to glowing embers. When the chanting finished, first her mother, then her father, followed by her brothers and sisters went up and embraced her.
“May you sleep between God and his right hand.” Her mother kissed her and released her from her embrace.
Grainne Dysart, a woman fierce in demeanor and eccentric in dress, who wandered the roads offering her services to the bereaved in exchange for food, came last as chief keener. When Grainne took centre stage she was in fine fettle.
“Silence prevails and it is an awful silence, ullaloo, ullaloo,” she wailed and moved as in a trance. “Yes thou art going, O Maureen, but Grainne Dysart will raise the song of woe and bewail thy fate. Thy beauty was brighter than the sun, which shone around thee, O Maureen, but thy sun is set. Thou didst not fall off like a withered leaf, which hangs trembling and insecure, no it was a rude blast that brought thee down, O favored one . . .”
Redferne took one last look at the dark silhouette, rigid in the chair in front of the whirling dervish, before turning up the road to his cottage with a lump in his throat. He wondered if old Grainne Dysart was right in the head, blathering on as if Maureen were already dead.
Next morning, he waited at the crossroads near the black stain where the bonfire had been. When the trap carrying Maureen to the stagecoach in Athlone came into view, he waved. She ignored him, looking straight ahead as if she was already traveling on a distant shore.