In a small Irish hovel on the peripheries of Charlestown, Massachusetts the shrieks of a pale woman called Alice punctuated the midnight quiet. The woman was young, in her twenties and even in the throes of labour with her face contorted in pain and her sweat matting her fiery red hair you could tell that she was once strikingly beautiful. She was no less beautiful now, but then she had grown paler, and she had dark circles ringing her eyes.
She writhed about almost delusional in the modest stack of hay resting in a corner in her hamlet. A midwife comforted her, giving her sips of this concoction or that remedy to soften the excruciating pain of childbirth. It was when her torn rag like the dress was completely drenched in blood from waist below, and she was pulling out sheaves of straw from the haystack beneath her, in almost unbearable pain that she birthed a daughter.
Exhausted, she collapsed on the straw bed as the old Irish midwife scurried about cleaning the baby and wrapping her in soft fabric. She was still shrieking when her cries were joined by those of a little infant. She instantly reached for her daughter and clutched her from the midwife to examine her. The child took after her father, she thought as she saw a tuft of black hair and her deep grey eyes. Her husband Thomas had gone on a sea voyage promising her that he would see her in six moon’s time. Six moons passed then another two moons passed, but nobody had heard from anyone who had been on the ship
Alice Young cooed a single word to the infant at her breast. “She will be called Brona” she whispered to the housewife who heaved a sympathetic sigh.
“Brona” meaning “sorrow” in old Irish
Chapter 1: Luck and Talisman
In many ways, Brona was an aptly named child. Just a few days after her birth, Alice Young formally received the news of Thomas’s death in a shipwreck. The ship had capsized in a storm, and the tumultuous waves took weeks in conveying their wreckage to the nearest shore. Horsemen were sent at once, but they were delayed by a fortnight. It wasn’t like Alice did not foresee it before but there was something about the formal announcement that, something vague to do with the confirmed impossibility of Thomas making it back to embrace her mixed with the realization that Brona would never know the man her father was that kept her from getting out of bed every morning. On those occasions, she was beside herself with grief, and she could not even look at Brona because her smoke grey eyes reminded her of Thomas. That was when a self-appointed team of neighboring Irish housewives, old midwives and young girls took over the household.
Thomas had left a lean sum of money behind that ran out after a few fortnights. That was when Alice Young took over and began to work at the millers. Alice Young was in the prime of her youth, and she attracted a lot of attention from the men at the millers. They whistled and catcalled as she went by her chores. Alice, with her sparkling yet sad blue eyes, fiery red mane of hair was, after all, a poor Irish woman who was powerless against their advances. Alice stayed quiet and returned home with a few potatoes, bread and butter on most nights and found her toddler fast asleep in old Esther’s arms. Esther, the midwife who had been present at Brona’s birth usually tended to little Brona during Alice’s absence.
Time went by, and Brona turned out to be a very unusual child. She remained quiet, contemplative and wide-eyed most of the times. From a very young age, she started to pick up on her mother’s moods and whims. Brona was three when she figured out that there were nights her mother came in late more exhausted and broken than usual. Those were the nights Brona learnt not to bother Alice Young. Brona never knew what Alice endured on those nights.
It had all started when the Miller visited the granary and spotted Alice Young, standing aloof and looking beautiful even in rags. The Miller was a resourceful man, and Alice Young learnt that soon. When the lusty Miller first saw her, he stood behind her and deftly snuck his hand under her petticoats and pressed a coin against her rear. For a moment Alice Young stiffened, feeling the cold metal against her skin. She could instantly tell two things; first that it was a shilling and second that he wanted something in return for his shilling. She relented, following him into the storehouse where he clanged the metal door shut, ordered her to lift her petticoats and clawed at her body ruthlessly. After he was done, he slipped a shilling into her corset. Brona noticed that her mother always returned home with a slice of cheese or butter on the nights she was more exhausted.
Time went by, and the Irish woman grew accustomed to the Miller paying her frequent visits. Sometimes he would come with his breath reeking of liquor and stay till daybreak with her. Those were the nights she hated him the most and those were also the nights he would lock her inside with him. The abuse she suffered was worst on those nights, but she would always bargain over the shillings, asking the Englishman for two instead of one. On most nights, he entertained her, but on others, he drunkenly shut her up with a wave of the hand and a muttered obscenity or a tight slap.
It was because of these irregularities that Brona spent her formative years with Esther. As a toddler, she observed Esther the midwife keenly, and as a child, she began helping her in various chores including the collection of herb and berries from the forest and the preparation of medicinal brews, pastes and other remedies to various ailments that people in Charlestown were suffering from.
A sixteen-year-old Brona stood near the sooty hearth of her sagging hamlet. In a corner on the only straw bed, they owned laid a feverish Alice Young. Her forehead was beaded with sweat, and her breath was uneven. Brona crushed berries and roots hurriedly to prepare a fever breaking remedy when her mother shrieked out in pain. Brona rushed to her bedside and saw that her mother was slipping into delirium. She was murmuring gibberish, and Alice thought she heard her mention the miller and shillings. Brona did not have a lot of time to make sense of her mother’s fragmented speech in any case. She ran out of the cottage, barefoot and fetched Esther who came at once.
“Dear me,” said Esther “soak a cloth in cold water” she instructed Brona “Did she eat since mid day?”
“Only a few morsels and a little broth”
“Oh dear” Esther mumbled to herself. “Did the fever break, child?” she asked Brona.
Tears sprang to Brona’s eyes as she got an awful feeling at the pit of her stomach. She shook her head, and Esther knew that Alice Young’s fever was fatal. No remedies could break the fever, but she did not have the heart to tell the child that her only dear one in this world was going to die soon. “Can the town apothecary help?” Brona asked desperately “Yes child,” lied the midwife, fetch the Englishman. Brona ran barefoot onto the freezing pavements of town and entered the apothecary’s store sobbing and out of breath. The man was hesitant at first, but he took pity upon Brona and accompanied her to the cramped neighborhood of Irish cottages.
As they entered, Esther took Brona’s hand and led her to her mother’s side. “She’s delusional’ said the apothecary ‘the fever has taken over’ he said soberly. Just then, Alice opened her eyes, looked deep into Brona’s eyes and said: “Take my talisman off and wear it, your father and I will guard you still”. Brona took off the pendant which had once belonged to her dead father and wore it, reaching out to her mother’s cheek. Before she could even touch her, Alice Young slipped into delirium again.
Brona cradled her mother, soothing her and easing her pain. She heard her mother’s mumbles, trying to make sense of them. She looked at her mother’s tired face, feeling terribly afraid of losing her only loved one. Alice Young breathed her last that night in the arms of her daughter.