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Authors: Marjorie Farrell

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Desert Hearts

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DESERT HEARTS

 

Marjorie Farrell

 

Prologue

 

Skullyville, Oklahoma, 1847

 

“Do you have a few pennies, Grandfather?”

The old man looked down at his granddaughter. “If it is for white man’s candy, no,” he said firmly, but with a smile that softened his words.

“No, Grandfather, I know how you feel about that, ‘White man’s candy rots your teeth,’ ” she chanted in the singsong voice that their white teacher used when she was teaching them something.

“You are most disrespectful to your elders,” her grandfather said, once again a twinkle in his eye belying his tone. She was his favorite grandchild. “Now what is this money for?”

“Pushmataha told the council about some people, Grandfather. They are starving the way the Choctaw and Cherokee starved years ago when we were made to come here.”

The old man stiffened. “That was before you were born, Little Bird. You were lucky not to be alive yet, for most likely you would have died. Many of the children did.”

“Mothers and children are dying in this other place, Pushmataha says. He is raising money to help them.”

The old man had a faraway look in his eyes. He wasn’t seeing the dried-out, poor acres that he had been straggling to farm for the last fifteen years. He wasn’t even thinking of how much cash money they would need to help them get through the winter after the summer’s drought. He was looking back to the bad time when half of their people had died. He was remembering the white woman who had been watching them pass by, who had seen his wife stumble and fall against him. She had taken the shawl off her shoulders, cold as it was, and put it around his wife’s. She had said something in English and patted his arm awkwardly and then run back into her house. The shawl hadn’t saved his wife. She lay dead in his arms the next morning when he awoke. But it had saved something in him, something that kept him human. A strange woman and a poor one, from the look of her, had shown him that all people had hearts, not just the Choctaw. Up until then he had only seen the way whites let their own people go poor and hungry; only seen their greed for land. But that white woman, in revealing her heart, had kept his alive.

He got out of his chair and went to the stove. Opening the tin can that stood on the shelf above, he pulled out a silver coin.

“Grandfather, that is a lot of money!”

“We will still have enough, Little Bird. More than these people have, it seems. Where did Pushmataha say they were from?”

“Across the ocean. They belong to England.”

“Hunhh,” grunted the old man. “That explains a lot. Now you bring that to school tomorrow mornin’. People who have suffered and survived need to keep their hearts open to others, Little Bird.”

The old man closed the canister. It would be a hard winter, but they had shelter and food. Some of their own people had become fairly prosperous. His nephew could help them if money and food ran out. And maybe one of these starving people from across the ocean would keep his heart soft and alive within him for a day when another’s need was greater than his own.

 

County Mayo, June 1848

 

“They look good, don’t they, Da?”

“They do, Michael, thanks be to God.”

Joseph Burke looked over at his son. The boy was not much more than a walking skeleton. But then, neither was he or any of his neighbors. The miracle was they were alive atall, any of them, after the last two years of famine and fever and eviction.

Whenever he thought of it, he could feel his heart beating harder in his hollow chest as anger gave him a few moments of life and strength. He had been one of the most prosperous men in their village. Had owned a cow and two donkeys. Had never failed the rent, even in ‘46, But the fever had felled him. Taken him down for months, and then taken his wife and their two youngest for good. And then the rest of them were thrown out of their cottage and forced to rent just a small piece of land. But it made him light-headed and dizzy to think of it, so think of it he wouldn’t.

The small potato patch was white with blossoms. It would provide barely enough to get them through the winter, but if they could make it one year with a decent crop, why then things could change. He was hardworking and so was his son Michael. His hand dropped to the boy’s head. He had Mary’s hair, Michael did, thick and black and springy. There were times when he would see the back of the boy’s head and thought he would die of the pain of never being able to ran his fingers through Mary’s curls again or tease her about the gray strands threading through it. It comforted him, though, sometimes, to put his hand gently on Michael’s head, like now, and imagine that he could, by touching her son’s hair, somehow touch her, letting her know that they were still here.

“Let’s tell Caitlin, Da! It will be cheering her up and she’ll maybe sit up today from hearing it.”

* * * *

Caitlin had her da’s hair, fine and brown, but it was plastered to her skull and tangled from her tossing with fever. She was the oldest, and had taken care of the rest of them when Mary died. She had been the longest recovering from the fever, thought Joseph. He had wondered, some nights, would she survive. Would any of them, with no broth to nourish them, only a few oats and rotten cabbage leaves to make “soup” out of. The Indian corn from the relief committee had gone long ago.

God had kept them alive. Joseph knew that. For it wasn’t themselves who could do it and it most certainly wasn’t the damn British.

“Cait, Cait, the praties are bloomin’,” said Michael. “Do you think you could sit up for that news and for a bit of cabbage broth?” he added in a teasing tone.

Cait smiled up at him and pulled herself up on one elbow, although even that small effort made her break out into a fine sheen of sweat. “How is this, Mickey Joe?”

Only Caitlin called him Mickey Joe, like his mother had done. And she hadn’t teased him like that for a long time. She roust be feeling better. The Blessed Mother and his
own
mother Mary must have heard his prayers. He helped his sister pull herself up further against the wall.

“The crop will be a fine one, Cait, and we will have colcannon again.”

She smiled because she knew he needed her to. But she wasn’t very hungry and couldn’t even remember now what colcannon tasted like. But she did manage to swallow a little of the broth Michael spooned into her.

* * * *

Three weeks later, Michael awoke to the sound of keening. It was odd. For the first year, keening and wailing had become so commonplace you hardly paid attention to it at all. Someone else had died; someone was grieving. It was happening every day, everywhere. But by the time of the fever, most of the older women who were so good at the keening were gone and those that were left had no spirit for it.

This keening was low, thought Michael, who was not quite fully awake. It seemed to come from very deep, almost as if the man—for it was a man—was keening for the earth, for Ireland herself. It is Da! Not Caitlin, he prayed as he stumbled over to where his sister lay on the floor. No, she was still breathing. He stooped his head to get out of the scalpeen, and there was his da, covered in black putrid slime, smelling like…oh, sweet Savior, smelling like ‘46. The white and the green were gone. All that was left in their small patch was blackened and withered. His da was rocking and keening. It was a terrible sound. His da never cried, not even when his ma had died. Now his da was bringing up sobs so deep he was wrenching his guts and vomiting as he cried.

“Da, Da!”

“What is it we have done, sweet Jesus, Mary, Mother of God? Haven’t we worked hard enough? Haven’t we paid them, year after year, their damn blood money? Haven’t we lost enough? Our homes, our land? Our sons to their armies? Our daughters to starvation? And haven’t we been faithful to you through it all? This blight is blistering the very soul of Ireland. Who will be left of us?”

Michael thought they both would die from it, right there. His da from his heart giving out and himself shaking to death in the rain and the cold and the rot.

His da became silent at last and then stumbled up. He had cried so much that even if it hadn’t been raining, he would be soaking wet. The rags clung to his ribs and Michael could see his very heart beating.

“I will not have us all die,” Joseph Burke said fiercely, his voice hoarse from his keening. “I might go, and Cait, but not Michael. Not Mary’s Mickey Joe.”

He turned to his son and pulled him close. Michael thought he would smother in the embrace, the smell of the blight was so strong. His father let him go at last and looked into his eyes. “You must get out, Michael. One of us must live. We will get you to Galway, to a ship bound for America.”

“No, Da, no. I can’t leave you. It will get better, I know it will. Maybe it is just our potatoes.”

“It is all of us, Michael. And no one gives a bloody damn. We are lice to them, as we have been since Cromwell. But by God, one of my nits shall live,” he said, laughing as hard as he had been crying just before. “And Mary’s hair shall not be buried with her,” he added, almost to himself as he pressed his boy to his chest again.

* * * *

There was nothing to pack. There was nothing in the scalpeen but one cookpot, one cup, and a cracked bowl.

Whatever clothes they were wearing was all they had. There was only one blanket, which had been torn in half. Half for Michael and his father and half for Caitlin. She made Michael take it, “You’ll be freezin’ yourself to death on the sea otherwise, Mickey Joe,” she said, putting it around his shoulders. She could hardly stand, but there she was, shaking in her shift, giving him the old blanket that would hardly keep a babby warm, much less him.

“No, Cait.”

“Yes, Mickey. I don’t want to be worrying about you.”

“Come, Michael,” his da called. “Sweeney is ready to go.”

His da couldn’t come with him. He had to say goodbye here. He gently folded Caitlin in his arms and kissed the top of her head. “I will send for ye when I make my fortune in New York, Cait.”

“No, ye will make your fortune and then come home to us, Mickey Joe. Promise me that you will come home.”

“I will, Cait.”

He said good-bye and stepped outside.

He wouldn’t have left them starving. He couldn’t have; he would have starved and died with them. But it was as if God knew he would need help to go, and a week after his da made the decision the relief committee announced a small miracle. Money had come in from America. From Boston and New York and, the parish priest added, even from the wild Indians. Even the Indians way out West had heard of the famine and collected money for Ireland. If even the wild Indians on their horses had heard of their trouble and reached out to help, then surely the English would be shamed into it, said Father O’Connor.

Now Cait was stronger and his da looked more alive than Michael had seen him in a year. So he was off to America with one and a half pounds of Indian corn and a few coins in his pocket.

Once upon a time, Bridget McBride’s nephew had sent a book home to her. She’d read it over and over and passed it around the village. It was a book about the Wild West and it had a picture of an Indian on it, his legs wrapped around a piebald horse. Michael had never forgotten it. He had thumbed the worn little book when it came to their house and sat astride their old donkey, his back straight, his toes dragging, imagining a lance in his hand and eagle feathers on his head.

It was hard to imagine someone going out West and telling that Indian about the poor, starving Irish. He tried to picture that handsome warrior reaching into a pouch and drawing out some coins. He was going to America because of that Indian. His da and his sister might live because of that Indian. Someday, please God, if he made it to America, he would go see some wild Indians, before he came home to Ireland.

 

Santa Fe Trail, northern New Mexico, 1854

 

Oh, where is the girl who will go out West with me?

We’ll live in some desired place and happy we will be.

We’ll build a little cabin with a ground for a floor.

And a distance for the window and a plank for the door.

 

Will you go out West, will you go out West, will you go out West with me?

Will you go out West, will you go out West, oh, sa-ay will go out West with me.

 

Her father looked over at Elizabeth Jane while he was singing the song and slapping the reins on the horses’ backs. He had a fine baritone voice, but he had been singing the song since they left Boston. And humming it. And whistling it. Mostly he sang it to their mother, with what she called “that come hither look” in his eye.

Her father must have been wanting to leave Boston for a long time, Elizabeth Jane thought. Why else would he be so happy about being ruined and bankrupted and shamed and disgraced. He hadn’t acted shamed and disgraced. He had acted relieved, even when Grandfather Eliot got on him. He had taken Grandfather’s stake money quite cheerfully and when it was suggested he leave the state, he’d nodded and said, “Indeed, that is just what I plan to do.” Grandfather had only meant for him to move to Connecticut or New Hampshire, Elizabeth Jane was sure. But Papa bought all five of them tickets for the train and then a steamboat to Missouri that very week.

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