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In Ireland, names mean everything. Mams will wait days to name their children because the name weighs heavily on their image. We're also a brutally honest people who will name a child the name that fits them; be it good or bad. Thus far, I've lived up to my given name, Baethan, which means “foolish” and my surname Brennan, or “sorrow”.
In my mind it was the right thing to do; purely logical. We argued about it, and I should have listened. Deirdre had never argued like that before. With tears, and pain. And for the first time, her smile didn't have a presence in her eyes. Every day, I'd come home and she'd stare at me, worried.
I can't recall any half-decent day that didn't include Deirdre in some way. I was teased by my classmates for that very same thing. It was always “Oi, Baethan, is that your girlfriend?” or “Baethan, just kiss her already!” It was embarrassing. But she'd just smile at me like she new something I didn't. It frustrated me, seeing her smiling secrets at me.
She was the best person I had ever met. The prettiest, too. Her crimson hair, and wild green eyes made it hard for me to unfix my gaze. The other boys only looked at her. That's a shame because she was the most peculiar person in the entire world. Smart, and sweet, with soft-hands, and a smile that radiated from her entire body. It didn't much matter to me that she was a Catholic and I was a Protestant. She seldom spoke, never complained, and always made people feel warm inside; like a pint of beer or shot of whiskey.
One day in secondary school, Eire Boyle, a boy two years our junior, approached us and snickered “Don't you know, Baethan? Only Protestants are allowed in school. Best get your little pikey girlfriend out of here”. He had the Devil's glimmer in his eyes. I clenched my fists until my knuckles turned bright white and the skin spread tightly over my hand. Suddenly, I lurched forward and saw my boney fist make contact with the first year's gelatin red-flushed cheek. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Deirdre shaking her head, disappointed, but still with a glimmer of light in her eyes. Eire's legs buckled beneath him, his crystal blue eyes dilating, and his clammy hands grasping for his disfigured jaw. I stood over him as he curled into a pathetic heap of blubbering sobs on the cold pavement.
Deirdre grasped my hand lightly, and led me away to the shadows behind the arts room. It was a peculiar place for a first kiss, but it didn't particularly matter. Our math teacher, Mr. Connoly found us and dragged us by the collars to the headmaster's office. We were expelled on the spot. According to the school, punching someone and being Catholic were equal offenses.
That day she came home early from school, Deirdre broke her father's heart. He grabbed his ragged coat and last wages and didn't return home until he was in a drunken stupor. He was no longer angry, but he wore an absent complexion. He stumbled through his stone house seemingly lost. He was in a different moment than the rest of the family entirely. From that day on, Grady Powers was no longer a bright, light-hearted, good-humored man for he had realized the last flame of promise for his family had been extinguished.
Deirdre's being a woman was bad enough, but being Catholic on top of it made it impossible to find work. She was reduced to working on her mam and dad's potato farm along side her brothers and sisters. They reaped just enough money and food to keep their growing family alive. At one point, the Powers family owned a large and prosperous plot of land. However, as time went on, the amount of arable land the Powers owned was continuously reduced by the ruling Englishmen until they were forced onto the least fortunate lot they owned. The Powers family's bellies tightened, their feet went bare, and their clothes were riddled with holes.
This might have been expected from a family who's name means “poor man”. Joining this family would mean being condemned to living an austere life full of arduous work and little luxury. It seemed the harder they worked, the poorer they became. They wanted so badly for Deirdre to finish school and to become a nurse or teacher. She had more wit than any man and could have easily been a doctor or professor. Albeit she was born in an unfortunate form for such great potential.
I was able to get a job at the pub in Monaghn. She came to visit me in the morning before work. And her father came to visit me every evening while I was at work. After so long, I had to ask. So one night, before I poured him a drink, I confronted him.
“Mr. Powers, I've something to ask you, Sir” I shifted my head around awkwardly in order to make eye contact with him as he stared at the counter.
He looked up, obviously irate, “I'm a good multitasker, son. I can drink and listen”.
“It will only take a moment, Sir.” I promised.
“Well, get on with it then” he huffed impatiently, pinching and rubbing his double chin with his rough, weathered hands.
I cleared my throat, adjusted my trousers, and stood up straight in a futile attempt not to seem nervous. Grady Powers stood just under two metres, and weighed somewhere in the one-hundred fifteen kilogram range. He was no small man much unlike my long, gangley, teenage self. For some unknown reason I seemed to believe that having more confidence would keep his mammoth fist away from my face. Then I spoke, “Sir, I would like to marry your daughter”.
He looked me over, took off his hat and scratched his balding scalp, “Right. You do know, boy, that Protestants and Catholics aren't allowed to marry, don't you?”
I nodded, “Aye, Sir, I do. But can I, or can't I?”
He pinched his chins once again, “If you can fetch me a pint in the next minute, you can marry her” I poured the beer so quickly that the stein was almost completely filled with foam instead of the beer itself. I shook with horror that I had just ruined the rest of my life with a lousy pint. Mr. Powers just laughed and said, “Try again, son”.
While times were hard in Ireland, Deirdre and I managed to have good fortune and joy over the following months. Although, when 1845 rolled around, it was difficult staying positive, even for us. The Great Hunger spread quickly and without mercy. As the Hunger traveled all the way down to County Kerry, we became worried. Like every other Irishman, our entire life relied on potatoes. Quickly enough, our crops were plagued with the dreaded fungus and refused to be prosperous. My father- being the mindless bigot he was- cautioned me, “Son, you haven't married. You can still save yourself. I know you love her, but can't you see? If you stay, you might as well sign your own death certificate in advance”. I responded with a dead glare. He shook his head, “foolish git”.
A month after that altercation, Deirdre found she was pregnant. And eight months later, our son was born. We named him Ulliam- Liam for short- which means “protected”. He didn't get my blue eyes, but he did get my dark hair and I was willing to settle for that. As Liam grew older, he resembled his Mam more and more. He spoke very little, and had a flicker of light in his eye in tandem with a simple comely smile plastered on his face at all times. Even on the worst days, Liam and Deirdre combined lit up the household like it was on fire.
County Kerry was desperate for food. At first it was only the sickly who died. Next, the elderly and children. But by the time Liam reached five, everyone else was fair game to death. We were lucky to be alive, especially Liam. But as time progressed our worry deepened. Every night I came home from work and she just stared at the floor. I knew that we would be almost guaranteed to survive if she stopped practicing Catholicism.
When I couldn't handle it any longer, I told her that if this continued for much longer, we would most likely never see it out of the blight.
“Deirdre, I know how important it is to you, but won't you at least consider it?” I pleaded.
She raised her eyebrows at me, then pinched the bridge of her nose between her left thumb and index finger and closed her eyes, “You don't understand, Baethan; Protestants have died as well. And if I renounce my faith and die a protestant, I will surely be sent to hell”.
I gulped air in an attempt to keep the tears pooling in my eyes from falling. I couldn't understand why she would do this to us, “Deirdre,” a sea of teardrops fell from my eyes, “Liam”.
Her eyes closed for a time, and when they opened the glimmer had been snuffed out, the smile in her presence disappeared, and for the first time in my life the cold of the world hit me like a bullet tearing through tender flesh. I would never see that glimmer again.
“Don't do this, Baethan” she sobbed, “Please”.
I could only bow my head and turn my back to her, “Liam! Come on, we're going on a trip” I bellowed to my son outside. I turned my head to the side, unable to face her, “I can't let you kill him. I love you, but we don't have to die. And if not for him, you know I would stay”.
Liam galloped inside with all the joy a five-year old boy. He hugged my leg, and looked up at me, “Where are we going, Dad?”
I struggled to wipe the tears from my eyes, “I don't know, son. We'll see. Go kiss your Mam goodbye. Don't forget to tell her you love her”.
Deirdre knelt on the floor and opened her arms awaiting Liam's embrace. I turned away. This was all wrong. At that moment, I developed a deep hatred for every Englishman on the globe. I could have ripped out the throat of those named “Arthur” or “Cameron”, I swear. It was an irrational emotion, but it was deep, and it was there; and it owned me.
Despite Deirdre's shrieks, sobs, and unintelligible pleas, I managed to pry Liam from her arms. We jumped on our horse and rode into town where I booked us a room in the inn above the pub I worked at. I allowed him to sit on a stool behind the bar while I worked. Because of the Hunger, I was my best customer that night. I found myself staring at my son as I poured myself glass upon glass of whiskey, almost ignoring the men at the end of the bar beckoning me. I knew that at some point I would have to answer his questions and that no amount of whiskey would be enough to tell him we weren't going back.
Just before closing, a rugged older man sat across from me. He had obviously not shaven in months and reeked of rotten cabbage. The smell caused me to gag and snap out of my melancholy trance.
“Can I help you, Sir?” I managed, trying not to breathe in too deeply as not to absorb the smell.
“Aye, Lad, I s'pose you can. I'd like a cup of tea... coffee perhaps” said the man, stroking his beard which vaguely resembled a mangy, unwashed, mutt-dog.
“Irish coffee, Sir?” I asked. Not many men came in just before closing asking for coffee.
He laughed boisterously, “No, Son. Just some coffee; black” He gave me a once over, “Perhaps you should have some too”. I fixed a pot of coffee and poured a cup for each of us.
The man had a cheerful way about him, which made me want to punch him square in the mouth. I wanted to break his rotten smile. He cocked his head at me, “What put you off, Lad? You almost smell worse than me”.
I was aggravated, “What's it to you old man?” I shot.
“Fair enough” He leaned to the side to catch a glimpse of my son. He waved slightly and flashed a quick smile, “What's your name, Lad?” My jaw clenched, but I said nothing.
“Ulliam Brennan, Sir. But most just call me Liam, Sir” the man nodded.
“It's a pleasure, Mr. Brennan. My name is Seamus O'Connor” he paused. “Is this man your father, or do you sit at pubs purely for fun?”
Liam let out a brief giggle, “Yes, Sir. That's my Dad. Usually I'm not allowed in the pub, but Dad and I are on a trip so it's special. We're staying in the inn upstairs”. I let my head slam into the oak counter top. I could feel the man's eyes inspecting me, surely with a smile on his lips.
“Is he always this put off, or does he have a handsome smile he keeps hidden from strangers?” The man asked.
“No, Sir. He's a happy man” I could hear Liam smiling in his voice. It made me want to throw up.
The man let out a prolonged hmmmm, “Mr. Brennan, does your father have a name?” He couldn't see it but I clenched my fists and rolled my eyes. What sort of useless git uses a five-year old boy to get information about a grown man?
But of course, Liam answered, because I told him to always be polite. “Baethan, Sir”.
The man let out a deep, genuine laugh out of that, “Baethan, aye? Lad, your Mam must've thought a lot of you” he continued to laugh as tears of exuberance streamed down his face. I only looked up and glared arrows into his shining eyes.
“Oi, Baethan, don't be so sore. A man such a yourself has a quite unattractive mug when you're angry” I rested my head back on my arms. “Liam, where's your Mam, then? She didn't want to come?”
“She's at home. She was sad when we left, but she'll be glad when we come back”.
I heard the man mumble, “And the' plot thickens” under his breath. “I'm sure she'd be real glad if you returned. Don't you think, Baethan?”
By now I had quite enough with the man. My heart raced and face flushed red as I grasped my glass of whiskey and threw it at the man. It hit him straight under the eye, the remaining whiskey dripped from his jagged features. Before he could react, I grabbed him by the collar of his dirty green jacket and pulled him only a few inches away from my face. “Don't you talk to my son. And don't ever mention his mother to either of us again. Now get your useless arse out of my pub, before I have to beat you further, old man” I growled.
I released him and as he left he looked back at my son and said, “Ulliam, I highly doubt you're going to see your Mam again”. I pounded my fist on the counter and the man walked briskly out of sight.
Behind me, gentle sobs grew into violent wails. I rubbed my eyes and sat back down at the bar.
“Dad,” he choked.
I didn't answer for a moment, “Yes, Liam?”
“Is it true? We are going back, right?” I sat in silence, tracing the rim of my coffee cup. He continued in choked out sobs, “We're just on a trip, yeah? We'll see Mam again...”
I let out a deep sigh and ran a hand through my dark musty hair then pulled it. “Ulliam, someday you'll understand why. I made a very hard decision today. You won't like it now, and probably not for a long time. It's okay to be mad, I'm mad too”.
I walked over to him and picked him up. He put his boney arms around my neck and cried until he went still in my arms except for light breathing. I closed up the pub and carried him up the stairs to our room. I watched as he slept and wondered if he would hate me in the morning, and if even a little bit of him would understand. But he was a five year old, and he only knew that I took him away from his loving mother. I burrowed my face in my hands and cried until my eyes couldn't produce tears anymore.
Eventually, the Powers' funds and food sources became depleted and it was only a matter of time before the world went entirely cold. I first heard of Grady's death, and then Deirdre's mother Molly's. On a particularly gloomy October morning in 1852, I just knew, because it was the type of cold I felt the last time I saw her two years prior. It felt like my heart had frozen over, and in an attempt to thaw it, I stumbled down to the pub- like every morning- and shot whiskey until I didn't have dexterity enough to drink any longer. I stared out the window and watched the rain pour down, saturating the rueful land. “ 'Éirinn go Brách' my arse. If this is Ireland I want it to die now, not live forever”. By noon, the town doctor, Clyde O'Keeffe, walked humbly into the pub with the sorriest look on his face. He pulled the rain-drenched hat off his head and rung it out. He couldn't seem to stop fiddling with it; folding it, and straightening it out repeatedly.
He cleared his throat, “Mr. Brennan, a word”.
“Aye. One minute, Clyde,” I shot one last whiskey then sat next to him. “Okay, I'm ready”.
He nodded quickly, “Baethan, it seems as though Dierdre has passed. I'm so sorry”. I didn't move, afraid that if I did I might shatter. “Are you alright, brother? I can look after Liam for a time if you'd like”.
I held my hand up, “Clyde, just go. I can take care of my son. I'm a grown man, you know”.
The sharpness in my voice made him cringe a bit, still he lingered a moment, “I really am sorry, Baethan” then he ducked out of the pub.
I avoided my son for another few hours. He was seven now, and was usually at primary school at this time, but it was a Saturday and school was out. When I felt numb enough, I made my way up the stairs and swung open the door of the room we had been renting for the last two years. My son was accustomed to seeing me drunk. I will always regret that.
“Liam, remember how I told you two years ago that someday us leaving your mom would make sense?” I asked, wishing I had rehearsed what I was going to say next. He nodded quietly; he was so like his mother.
I sighed, “Your Mam passed today, Liam. She starved just like Mr. McCleary, your school teacher. You see, Son, if we had stayed, you and I would have died as well. I would've stayed with her if not for you. But I couldn't live with myself if I let you die”.
I left the room and walked down the hall making my way back to the pub, allowing him space to digest the news. But he chased after me, “I hate you!” he screamed. I stopped and looked down. That made two of us. I balled my fists and turned around, still feeling the need to defend my actions.
“I saved your life, boy. She chose death. I tried to save her. Be grateful I had heart enough to leave or you'd be dead” I could feel my expressions darken, matching my cold heart.
For the first time in his life he reflected me and not his mother. He was dark and angry, “You were just afraid. You didn't love her”. I was surprised that such a small boy would say what he had. I stomped down the hall toward him, stopped a foot away from his nose, and did something I swore I would never do. I slammed my fist into his face. He flew to the ground, tears formed in his eyes and dripped down his cheeks. He stared at me in shock. His face contorted with shame and betrayal. His mouth hung open, speechless. The fury left my body when I realized what I had done. I reached for him, wanting to comfort him, but he scrambled away from me. His eyes flitted back and forth, trying to find reason where there was none. He looked back at me and then crawled to the corner of the room and shut his eyes tightly making the room turn black.
I left. Ulliam means protected, and until that point, he had lived up to his name. I'd managed to both protect him and hurt him. After that, Liam never seemed to light up as bright as he had before. I was left in the cold darkness that was myself without my two sources of light. I drank from morning until night to warm myself, but it could never replace them, because after a little while, I'd turn cold again.
As the alcohol turned me sickly and grey, Liam cared for me. I was hard on him, but he told me it was only the alcohol and that he knew I was good. That and the faint glimmer in his eyes made my hate for myself and his mother grow. I constantly told him he was the worst thing that happened to me. He only smiled. I yelled and threw things, I refused to cooperate, I tested his patience, yet he always just laughed and smiled at me.
And as I slowly, painfully slipped away he held my hand and sang me a popular song at the time, “Death and the Lady”. As he sang the lines, “The grave's the market place where all must meet
Both rich and poor, as well as small and great; If life were merchandise, that gold could buy, The rich would live- only the poor would die” the warmth fled my body for one last time, and for a second I swore I saw him smile.