Their mother, Heleen O'Leary, had believed in reason, in spite of her faith. Reason told her that the fire in?aming her joints after her daughter Moira's birth was a warning. Her second delivery a year and a half later and the premature birth of yet another girl, achieved with forceps that left the child's skull permanently misshapen, reminded her that faith was more useful than reason, particularly when she had no choice in the matter.
"A boy?" her husband wanted to know.
"The rooster will do as he fancies," she replied, not unkindly.
Although she had never taken to the rural farm life of the Beare Peninsula, Heleen O'Leary was fond of explaining herself in terms of animals. A city girl from Cork, she had grown up poor in the long wake of the potato famine. If there was one thing Heleen O'Leary didn't hate about the farm, it was that there was food. She was unsympathetic when the children complained between meals, and told them that the hunger in their bellies was the work of wolves. Heleen O'Leary's reticent nature left much of what she said distinctly open to interpretation. Moira and Julia grew up having remarkably little in common, save for a highly animated view of the world, sharpened over time by the memory of their mother gripping the bedposts feverishly one night, a rag clenched between her teeth, and the singularly distressing howl she let out as the midwife reached a hand up into her, feeling for life. Heleen O'Leary died of complications one week after the birth of her third daughter, Ann, who, rejecting the efforts of a wet nurse, nearly starved herself to death. She was brought about on sheep's milk eventually, bottle-fed like a runty lamb.
To Moira and Julia, aged twelve and ten in 1921, the act of mothering made particular sense indeed; they would rear their sister not at all in the way that Heleen O'Leary had raised them, but rather as they wished she had. A curly-haired, lavender-eyed baby with a hot temper, Ann O'Leary was pampered and coddled from the start. It was no surprise, then, once the school year resumed and the job of keeping house full time fell to Moira -- as Julia was seen to be the one with scholarly promise -- that Ann should make her sister's life miserable. Perhaps they had been too quick to pick up their baby sister when she cried. Ann hollered now whenever she desired attention. Moira was helpless against her. She lifted Ann from the cradle and paced mulishly about the room, on the verge of tears herself. She climbed with the baby into her mother's wardrobe and pulled the door closed. In the muf?ed darkness, Ann's cries died and she took the bottle.
Moira rocked back and forth on her haunches, the cotton skirts against her cheeks, a painfully familiar smell -- mother herself. Gone five months now. Gone to God in heaven, she ought keep in mind. Her empyreal soul perhaps looking down right now -- and yet it made no difference to the gaping hole Moira felt. Forsaken, alone. She could cry her eyes out for the unfairness of it all. But for the life of the babe in Moira's arms, Heleen O'Leary would still be living! She gazed down at Ann, contented now, lips fixed on the nipple. It disgusted her, a creature so needy. Nonetheless she held Ann close, burped her when the time came.
Kicking free the wardrobe door, Moira stepped into the light of the room and stood at the open window gazing out longingly. She could not see him, nor a trace of his herd, but her father was out there somewhere. She inhaled deeply the moist air, fragrant with apples. Some answer to be found in nature, wasn't there? Where survival was everything and one did what one had to? Yes, certainly. Even if it meant you were heartless sometimes, unkind. She took comfort in the green landscape.
Matty O'Leary came unhinged when his wife was laid in the ground. Nothing too disturbing to begin with; he was forlorn, after all, and the white ?eece was a refuge. A good shepherd did not disrespect his animals. Up at four to move the band as usual, but no longer home like clockwork, washing up at the well come dusk, Matty O'Leary stayed out nights with a bottle on the hill-side, counting his pearls. The tiny ones, the new lambs, were depending on him. He should wait for the quarter moon to castrate or else they'd bleed to death. He should watch the edge of the wood for predators because the ewes would not protect their
young from danger.
Heleen had been a mystery to him. Her silence, her taste for books, her preference for coffee over tea. Looking into her eyes never put him at ease. She would have been a schoolteacher if she hadn't married. But it was Heleen who'd said, time and time again (as if she herself needed convincing), that it was their differences that made them loving. She had had a knack for assuaging Matty's worry. At lambing time he'd be a knot of nerves, too anxious to sleep, pacing the house at night. She'd wander out in her nightgown, a candle in hand, her face aglow. "A little something for luck, then, Matty," ?ashing her eyes. Right there on the hearth they'd lie. He lost sight of his ?ock in her skin, soft as a baby's. Her hair shining in the firelight. Holding her with an urgency that was unsettling. "Please, Heleen." A son, he was always thinking.
Matty'd saved his childhood hurley stick for a boy. He'd kept up the farm and the ?ock with a son in mind. Lord knew, it wasn't that he didn't love his daughters. But he'd grown up the fourth of five boys -- each and every precious one was dressed in skirts until the age of three to protect against the fairies. It was boys Matty was accustomed to. A boy he had hoped would carry on his name. A boy he could leave the farm to. To be sure, his daughter Moira was apt with a hurley stick. And quick as a whip. More energy in that child than all the fresh air in the world would satisfy. Your spitting image, people told him, although he never did see it. She had her mother's grace. She was a girl, after all. They were girls all three. What did he know of it, for pity's sake? Just sitting at supper with them, just being in the house alone without Heleen, he found disquieting.
The morning Heleen gave birth to Ann she told Matty she didn't have the strength for her faith. It was a Sunday. The kettle sat on the peat like a hen on her perch. Overnight Heleen's legs and ankles had swelled so that it was an effort just to move about. She was pouring the tea when she felt the child inside and lost her hold on the kettle, smashing the cups and burning herself. She was angry then. Pain led her to anger rapidly. She cursed. "It's Sunday," he reminded. She was on her knees picking up the broken pottery. "What kind of God is it who asks this much of me?" Matty did not respond. Again, the baby took her by surprise and she clutched the table legs and shook her head fiercely, "I will not pray today." By which he understood her to mean Mass could wait, he should make haste and fetch the midwife. Five days later, as Heleen lay dying, Matty tried to strike a bargain with the Lord. But as he begged for mercy in exchange for his own eternal devotion, it became clear to him that he would lose, in the way that one admits the worst about oneself.
A shiver raced up Matty's spine. He threw the empty bottle into the sky, stumbled down the hillside and into the cluster of sheep, which parted round him, ?owing by on either side. The sheep began to circle, keeping him at the center, quite unwittingly, it seemed. Yet they would not allow him to burrow obscurely into the fold as he wanted to, as he had witnessed each one of his sheep do, from time to time, spooked.
Matty O'Leary had often said one had to be crazy to tend sheep. This was a boast in happier times. Crazy, full of fury. The silence on the mountainside was that big, that complete; a calmer man could not endure it. Francis O'Leary, for instance, who by right was next in line (Joseph and James both having perished in the war), had married up, and wanted no part of the farm. He and his bride had plans to emigrate. "It's yours, Matty," he'd said. That was five years ago. And now, the silence had become unbearable.
Clouds clung warmly to the mountaintop. Flies buzzed about the ?ock grazing the red clover. Matty was, at long last, dozing off the drink, curled on the ground beside a rock. Heleen was just a girl, wasn't she? With thick, straw-colored hair that fell to her waist. Pointing a finger at him, or was she beckoning? He couldn't be sure. She disappeared too quickly. Odd how her death had even compromised his dreams. To Father Riley, the parish priest, Matty had many times divulged his longing for a son -- as if it were everything. But after seven miscarriages in as many years, Heleen had been too weak to bear a child. Father had warned Matty not to let desire get the better of him. Though wasn't that precisely what one's desires were designed to do? It was his own fault, his own doing: the child, then the blood that never ceased ?owing. Matty shuddered in his sleep, wrapping his arms around himself. The day Heleen died there had been sunshine, giant sheeplike clouds dispersing, and she had begged Matty carry her outside so that she could feel the warmth on her face. She was startling to hold, made of rags. He did remember this: Blood was life. Standing at the edge of the meadow with Heleen in his arms, terrified. "Sunshine shouldn't be this precious," was what she'd said, although it took him a moment to make out her words. Even her voice was weak in the breeze.
Matty awoke to the sound of bells. The collies were barking. His heart pounding. A ewe bleated, brushing past him. He reached out and caught her by the haunches. He pressed his body up against her furiously, filthily. Seconds later, the rain began to fall. He felt the wet drops on his face. He saw what he was doing. He let go the sheep and she scrambled away, shaking her head. He had tied that bell around her neck to predict bad weather.
Something was amiss. Moira noticed immediately. "Trouble with the ?ock, Da?" she asked, and saw how his eyes dodged hers. He walked over to the basin. "Water's cold as ice," she warned, and would have offered to set the kettle but he'd already plunged in up to his elbows. He bid her cut a wedge of soap for him and began to scrub like mad. Moira looked on uneasily, until it dawned on her to bring a towel. "Before you drown yourself," she said, urging it on him.
She would have assumed he was home only to replenish -- feed the dogs, fill his belly, change his socks. Then Ann began to cry and Matty reached into the cradle. Moira stood and stared.
"Supper's coming, is it?" Matty asked.
Moira shook herself, hastened to fill a bowl of stew for him. She moved the lantern to the table and set down his stew. She took the baby, who just then spat up. Moira wiped Ann clean, remarking, "I'm afraid I haven't the knack for mothering." Matty looked at her, his eyes glistening. Her heart skipped a beat. Biting her lip, she met his gaze. "Perhaps I ought come herd with you instead, Da? Couldn't you use the company?"
He scratched his whiskers. "Bottle's no help," he admitted.
"No," she said, "I wouldn't think so."
"Long day's work running sheep," said Matty.
Not near as long as a day spent housekeeping, she was thinking, but she said only, "Yes. I won't complain."
Moira wandered down the road to meet Julia coming home from school. "There's been a change in plan," she told her. "You're too smart for school. You're a fox in a chicken coop." Julia allowed herself to be convinced. The school yard had become unbearable without Moira there to protect her. Julia's oddly shaped head and shy demeanor made her an object of ridicule, and her effortless good grades never came as much relief. A house to hide in, a fire to stoke, and the chance to read her mother's old books while Moira worked in the fields with her father and Ann was napping: Julia could fathom it.
As for the demanding task of child rearing, Julia shared none of Moira's anxiety. She simply knew that she was doing Ann an enormous favor. The fact that Ann took the favor completely for granted didn't matter, since Julia reveled in her martyrdom. She'd cut Ann's fried bread into perfect squares, spreading the jam smooth and clear to the corners, and serve it on a tin plate that invariably would be sent sailing across the room. Julia'd listen for the clang of the plate against the hearthstone, indicating that Ann had had her fill. She'd leave whatever it was she was doing to wipe up the jam stains -- on her hands and knees in the grit, tiny pebbles embedding themselves.
If she wasn't a martyr (at times, it did get tiresome), she was her mother. Heleen O'Leary pushing the rickety pram through the mud. Julia tried to picture how it must have been: Moira toddling alongside, shoelaces untied, and she, herself the baby, struggling to hold a bottle of sugar water steady. Impenetrable gray sky, a sudden glimpse of her mother's placid face (purple scarf blowing), and the sound of her own, infant voice protesting the wet, the mist in her eyes.
To O'Rourke's for meal and sugar, then on to the butcher's for a bit of ?itch. Julia fit the groceries in around Ann's sleeping body and wheeled home again singing "Dance to Your Daddy," "Shelly Kee Bookey," and "Three Gray Geese," nothing so dreary as her mother used to sing. She learned to collect the morning eggs like Heleen O'Leary -- at daybreak, in her stocking feet, so as not to disturb the princesses. She slipped her hand beneath the feathers, holding her breath, always amazed at how the hens just slept. Back outside in the growing light, she counted brown and white, and felt glad when brown won out, since brown eggs came of a peaceful hen, her mother'd said. Julia also shed the skin from the turnips in one fancy spiral, though it would take some time before she could do so blind, the way her mother used to, gazing out the window, barely aware of herself.
Julia was a better cook than her mother had been. Matty said so. He was home for supper every noon now. Moira and he traipsing dirt into the house. Julia grew to hate this hour -- the sound of their spoons in their bowls, their bottomless cups of tea, smell of the fields in their clothes. To say nothing of how they talked while they chewed. Or her constant fear that their conversation would wake the baby. It was shearing time; they'd clipped half the ?ock that morning, which meant Julia would spend the coming days carding and tolling the wool. A job she near enough hated for the odor of it, as well as for her memory of the way the work used to make her mother's fingers swell. Her mother had spun wool, too. She steeped it in turnip juice to color it if she had plans to weave it. Julia sighed. It was never-ending toil, the life of Heleen O'Leary.
rdJulia was in the bog digging turf one morning when she heard a bicycle bell and tires rubbing to a halt on the road. She turned to see Agnes Scully stopped on her bicycle. "The child's too young to be up on her feet," Mrs. Scully called out. She frowned at Ann, who was toddling along the embankment collecting stones. "It's foolishness to let her walk before she's a year. Her legs will
"But I didn't encourage her," said Julia, resting on her spade. "She learned quite on her own."
Agnes Scully clucked her tongue disparagingly and pedaled off. She lived in the next house down from O'Learys'. But Heleen and she had never been very neighborly. Widow Scully wore her grief on her sleeve, Heleen had criticized. The following day, Julia caught sight of Agnes Scully walking up the pathway. She was dragging along what appeared to be a crude wooden cage. Commonly known as a playpen, Agnes Scully explained. She had purchased it secondhand at a church bazaar years ago. "Stowed it away along with thoughts of children when Donald died." she snif?ed shortly. Julia peered at the playpen curiously. Mrs. Scully pushed it into the house through the open doorway. She smoothed her skirts and gazed thoughtfully about the house. It was perfectly tidy, which she found surprising. She eyed Julia guardedly. She did not take after her mother, apparently. Agnes Scully knew firsthand how Heleen O'Leary had kept house, as she and Mary Kelly had been the ones to tidy up the O'Leary house before the wake. They'd scrubbed until the calluses came out on their hands. The dirt had been so dreadful, Agnes Scully grimaced just recalling. If she had not been acting as a servant of the church, she could not have endured.
"Now put the child in the pen and go about your business," Agnes Scully said. "It won't do to have her running about on her own." Julia did as she was told. Ann stared out through the bars. Agnes Scully scooped up a toy and held it out to Ann. Ann batted the toy away. "Suit yourself," said Mrs. Scully, and then to Julia, "She'll come 'round to it eventually." Julia smiled uncertainly, staring at the ?oor. She assumed widow Scully would take her leave now. The kettle began to boil, and Julia rushed off to it. Agnes Scully said she wouldn't mind a spot of tea. Julia brought out the tea tin (giving it a hopeful shake) and one of two china cups, turning her back to rub off the dust. Agnes Scully sat at the table, looking on. She remarked that by all appearances Julia was managing the house quite capably. The compliment pleased Julia. For an extra touch, she decided to spread a square of linen over the table before setting out the cups.
"Your mother, as you may well know, had her head in the clouds," said Agnes Scully, picking up her teacup. She went on to relate how she had once come to call upon Heleen O'Leary and found her sitting on the step reading a book, a basket of wet laundry sitting there beside her and the baby, Moira it must have been, crawling in the dirt and chicken feed at her feet.
Julia could feel the anger spilling into her cheeks. She set the teapot down roughly on the table and a good bit surged up out of the spout and onto the linen cloth she had spread out.
"You'll scrub until you're blue," remarked Agnes Scully. "I my-self would never serve tea over linen, not even to the Pope."
"Soak the spot in vinegar first, before the wash," Julia said quickly.
"Vinegar?" said Agnes Scully, skeptical.
"Works for diapers, as well." Julia went on. "It's what my mother used to do."
"Is that so?"
Julia nodded, although that wasn't the truth. She'd gleaned the tip from a housewife's column on a square of newsprint in the outhouse.
"Well I always felt Heleen was clever, even if she was peculiar," Agnes Scully said, and cleared her throat.
Fishing net, suggested Agnes Scully when she heard that Ann was climbing out, fishing net tied tight across the playpen top. It might have worked, except that in her frustration Ann would rock the playpen back and forth so violently that it toppled over, collapsing in on her. Julia felt it was too dangerous. She returned the playpen and threw away the fishing net, which was frayed from Ann's chewing. As Julia saw it, the problem with Ann walking was not that it would bow her legs (an old wives' tale, no doubt), but that she could hurt herself in a fall. Ann was an emphatic, willful child who resisted having her hand held. There wasn't a cautious bone in her body. She would reach for something and her legs would wobble. Falling on her bottom was startling, but it didn't hurt. Falling down facefirst was something else. Ann's skull smacked the edge of the table and Julia thought of apples. How an apple dropped from a tree bruised instantly. How the worm squirmed its way to that soft, sweet part. Julia picked Ann up to comfort her, saw inside her halting mouth -- the tiny teeth she was cutting, a tongue quivering -- and braced herself for the scream. Too close to say; Julia's heart ached.
Perhaps Ann could do with a harness," suggested Matty.
"A harness?" said Julia.
"Like your mother used with you."
"I don't remember a harness."
Moira piped up, "Oh I do."
Heleen O'Leary had fashioned hers out of rags, but Matty suggested scraps of leather, so as to make it more durable. He brought the scraps in from the barn and lay them out across the table. Julia looked on as Matty measured around Ann's middle. Ann was smiling obligingly, tickled. A lump rose in Julia's throat.
"She isn't a dog, you know."
Matty paused. "You said you were at wit's end, didn't you?"
Julia sighed. "It seems strange is all." She watched her father knot the leather together. "I don't ever remember a harness."
"Well then," said Matty, "what you don't remember won't hurt you."
"You didn't like it much," Moira recalled.
Julia scowled. "I'm not a fool."
Ann wasn't either. When Matty went to fit the harness on her, she put up a terrible struggle, kicking and biting with her new teeth. They tried to bribe her into wearing it. Piggyback rides? Stories? Fruit roll? Ann stubbornly shook her pigtails, until, without thinking, Matty suggested, "An ice cream?" Ann, who knew of ice cream from overhearing her sisters' longings in front of the sweet cart on market day, was suddenly eager to wear the harness. She toddled to the end of the line, then back to the table where, she gathered, she would soon see her treat.
"Da, whatever possessed you?" Julia hissed at him.
Moira admonished, "You can't just make her an empty promise."
Matty rubbed his whiskers, looking troubled. There was an ice house in Glengarriff, there even used to be one in Ardgroom, Fisher's Ice it'd been called (until the chimney, struck by lightning, caved in on the adjacent house). As far as Matty knew, the ice manufactured locally serviced the butchers and grocers; there wasn't a confectioner's around for miles. Once a month on market day, an ice man came with a sweet cart from Bantry, selling bricks of ice cream wrapped in newspaper.
Matty began to pace. Ann scampered along after him chanting, Ice, ice, ice! Moira looked at Julia, who shook her head in disgust. Matty wheeled around suddenly. "I'll go to Bantry!"
"Beg your pardon, Da?" Moira couldn't believe her ears.
"That's twenty miles going, another twenty returning," Julia said doubtfully.
"If Macaffrey loans me his horse I'll be home soon enough," Matty replied.
They watched him from the window, walking down the road. Ann, confused, had begun to cry. "Hush now. It's for you he's going," Moira told her.
"Fetching your ice cream," Julia added. "Imagine that. All the way to Bantry for Annie!"
The forms were somewhat spoiled by melting, but it was only Matty who seemed to mind. He had selected each one carefully, amazed by the assortment of molds displayed on the confectioner's wall. Several minutes' earnest deliberation (and the clerk prodding him all the while that the shop was set to close) led
him to point to the hare, the curlicue snail, and the butter?y -- for Moira, Julia, and Ann respectively, spending more money than he'd intended (as well, to have the ice forms parceled in crystals and straw), but surely one daughter wasn't more entitled.
It was their silence that told him they were pleased. Moira and Julia hovered over their bowls with big eyes, delighting in each bite. Ann behaved less reverently. Refusing a spoon, she shoveled the ice cream greedily into her mouth, then burst into tears because her hands were cold. Once she'd licked clean her own bowl, she began grabbing for her sisters' bowls. Matty couldn't help laughing. He gazed with satisfaction out the window, remembering there was the mare still to see to -- a rubdown, to warm up those bones. The horse was fairly exhausted by now. Macaffrey's piebald mare had never so much as had to trot with the milk cart. She wasn't accustomed to a rider and Matty hadn't sat in a saddle in several years himself, but they'd gotten on just fine, spent the better part of a day on the road. He'd dug his heels in -- Giddyap, old girl -- and felt nostalgic for the pair he used to own, a sturdy broad-backed bay he'd called Bobbie and her foal, Two Socks, with splashes of white on her forelegs. The spring before Heleen passed away proved to be a desperate lamb-ing season and, to make ends meet, Matty'd sold the one horse and then the other, splitting up the pair even though he knew it was bad luck to do so.
Julia was a convert. If she needed to hang out the wash, all she had to do was tie Ann's harness line to the post. If she wanted Ann close, she simply reeled her in and looped the excess line around her own waist. She fixed the supper with Ann in the harness. She gardened and swept the house. She also found that by tightening the line at the right moment, she could offset a fall. Pretty soon she didn't know how she'd done without the harness. So, too, any resentment she felt toward her mother for using a harness vanished. Heleen O'Leary had been smart, after all, resourceful.
Not all farmers' wives of her generation knew how to read and write, but Heleen O'Leary hardly had been typical. Matty used to say that Heleen would rather read than eat. And it was true: she thinned the broth to save pennies for the purchase of books on the rare trip to Bantry or Cork. The books she safeguarded in an old hope chest, which had sat undisturbed at the foot of the bed since her death. Heleen had been vigilant, possessive, letting the lid fall shut on busy little hands. So it was not without trepidation that Julia first muscled up the hope-chest lid. The air was so stale inside the chest she choked on her breath. But surely her mother's books needed dusting! Julia gently lifted out a book, wiping the cover with her sleeve. It was an encyclopedia of knots. She leafed through it shyly, pausing over the pages of illustrations demonstrating various configurations of practical rope tying. She dug out a second book, an illustrated compendium of wild?owers. Then a third, the subject of which was herbal remedies. Feeling more and more certain of herself with each new title. Julia had had no idea that such useful books existed. Lying across her parents' bed, browsing a stargazing guide for the amateur astronomer, she was filled with the power of her finding, a godsend to be sure.
From her mother's books Julia learned extraordinary things: to sew clothes, make and use a slingshot, cure chicken foot rot, cane chairs, and perform simple surgery. Her favorite books tended to be those concerning either medicine or religion, subjects she deemed most valuable to everyday life. She saw no con?ict in their distinctly divergent doctrines; the study of medicine elicited in her a taste not for truth but for mystery, whereas the greatest mystery, the mystery of God, assured her of an essential truth.
Julia left one of her mother's books within her little sister's reach one day and Ann tore out the pages. It was Julia's own fault. Her shame wore the face of her mother, the same way it did when she hesitated at the butcher's block. (She would compensate by bringing down the hatchet more forcefully than was necessary -- and the cats went dashing after the ?ying fish head.) Julia smacked Ann soundly, and one more time to show she meant it. But it only made her feel worse. She gathered up the damaged book, pressing it impulsively to her breast. Ann was bawling. Julia gazed at her thoughtfully. A freckle-faced orphan with pumpkin-colored braids. Ann was going on three years now, and she was clever, everyone agreed. Julia would make it up to Ann. She would teach her to read.
In no time at all, Ann's hostility for books and how they diverted her sister's attention vanished. She became so fond of books and reading that she wanted to do little else. As long as Julia was devoted in her teaching -- for Ann could detect insincerity -- the reading lesson went smoothly. At the end of a long afternoon of puzzling out letters and studying corresponding pictures, Ann began to yawn and gaze distractedly about the room. Julia encouraged, "Tired little lioness," and Ann's eyelids ?uttered. She went off to her nap without a struggle.
Copyright © by Christina Shea
It is 1921 in Ireland. When their mother dies in childbirth, Moira and Julia O'Leary are left to rear their infant sister, Ann, while their father, a sheep farmer, despairs. After Ann dies, Moira and Julia depart Cork for Boston, but the painful secret behind Ann's death haunts their new lives and presages the confusion that will come to trouble the next generation.
Moira and Julia have always been strikingly different, but theirs is a mercilessly dependable relationship -- Moira's boldness is fortified by Julia's quiet inner purpose, and Julia lives vicariously through her sister's impulsive actions. Moira's Crossing charts their shared journey through marriage, children, and life on the coast of Maine.
At once an examination of the troubled intimacy of sisterhood and an inquiry into the meaning of faith, Moira's Crossing is also a story of what we leave behind and who we become because of it.