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Out of Ashes
“Son…This is all that was left after the fire,” Mr. Brians said, handing Samuel the burnt stack of papers. The short, stocky man nodded his sympathies and left him standing in the rain. Some were bills from the mainland, but a few papers that survived the fire were letters addressed to Samuel.
Samuel held the papers with shaking hands. His eyes glazed over, tears forming. Tears he had suppressed for months. He looked up to the sky as he sunk his teeth into his bottom lip. The young man gently placed the papers into his coat, shielding them from the weather. The tears running down his face mixed with the rain.
“Brians! Mr. Brians!” Samuel called after him, his mud soaked boots splashing through newly formed puddles in the dirt road. The man turned, squinting through the rain.
“Anything, sonny, anything you need.” Mr. Brians said.
Samuel’s chap-lipped smile reached his ears, but his sullen eyes betrayed the deep sadness within. “Just…just a fire to read by.”
“Would you like some tea, lad?” Mr. Brians asked, standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room of his small home.
“Thank you, but I’m fine. Really.” Samuel said, his eyes glued to the stack of papers lying on his lap. The fire cast warm shadows about the wood furniture lined room. He took a deep breath and began to read the first letter, the one addressed to him from his father.
We are now, as you know, five months into the famine. Do you remember back in the beginnings of Autumn, back when everyone was still ignorant, when everyone was still trying to farm? Well after you left us, things got worse. It seemed as if the good Lord had up and left, leaving this land to its own greedy malice. At first it was only the poor, those unfortunate folk in the big cities who were always on the hungry side. They began to steal more and more often after the crops began to fail. But then it wasn’t only the beggars. Then it was the desperate, those good farmers who depended on the yearly crop for their well being. Those desperate ones are what made it so much worse then what it had to be. You see, I don’t blame them, but they’ve doomed us all. Since their livelihood depended on them selling their potatoes, many of them sold their potatoes, potatoes that had been infected with blight. This may seem strange, as blight turns good tators a devilish black color. But there are many that are only sick on the inside, only on the very inside, so deep that those poor folk already eating the cursed vegetable didn’t realize it was infected until they had already eaten it. Many died that way, many died. And that is how it spread to those places in Ireland that no blight had reached before. You see, the government had very strict rules even before that time. They had tried to get as many farmers as they could to stop buying potato seeds, and to keep their food for themselves and ration it. The government had seen this storm brewing. But you see, son, the Irish are a hard people to control! My point is that the folk running the cities couldn’t simply say “Stop farming your potatoes, stop buying seeds, there is a plant disease out there!” Mind you, they tried, but no one would listen. And when they decided to listen it was too late. Too late for all but the frightened few who had listened to the government from the start, and the government had stopped all but the most perfect looking potatoes from going to the towns full of these individuals with non-infected fields. It worked early on, but people became so desperate for food that they stopped checking the inside of potatoes. So you see how that turned out. Desperate starving people sold infected potatoes that looked just fine on the outside, to get them enough money to eat. People in non-infected parts of the country bought these potatoes, and in their desperation did not check them. They eat them, become infected. The blight spreads. And now I, a simple bartender, must suffer along with my family for this. God has left us, Sammy. People are shooting, killing one another! For the smallest bits of food! Half the damned town has been burned to the ground by these people, these barbarians! They are killing their neighbors! For what, food? Food that could be found some other way, somehow! But not this, by God not this! And oh, you should see Drake. That filthy British b******! He has gathered a gang, the town’s “militia.” Some militia! They do their half arse rounds guarding the town, then go over to Riley’s Tavern and get so drunk they can’t tell each other apart from the sinful women they are indulging in! The only reason they are around is because there’s nobody here to stop them. All the real soldiers have either fled or died. Everybody else is dead, except for people like us, the survivors that our still holding on, the lucky ones. And those poor sick folk who are already going to die. Don’t even get me started. Drake has spread a rumor among the survivors here that the people already infected can spread the sickness. That they are carriers of hell’s plague. Nonsense, of course. But nonsense that scares people. And then Drake’s gang gets to show off their power by slaughtering the sick in the middle of town, in front of a crowd of people. Then he makes a public announcement on why it was necessary, says his prayers-how dare he speak to God! How dare he act like he is justified! Never mind…well, then he pours oil over the bodies of the sick, and lights them aflame so “their filth cannot spread.” All because of his own twisted method of gathering power by feeding off the weak. Ha! He is the sick one, that b******. I am sorry to lay these troubles upon you, my son. I do honestly hope you are faring better in America than we are here. Do not come back, no matter what you think about abandoning your family, you are giving this family hope! Find a wife, live out your days happily, DO NOT RETURN. I love you son.
A tear burned into Samuel’s eye. He had just left them, left his homeland in the middle of the worst crisis it had ever faced! He had abandoned them. His family, his country, his life. What had he expected? Oh, he remembered. Remembered thinking of himself as a hero and an adventurer. When he left he was still afraid of the dark, didn’t even know how to skin a rabbit!
He thought he would just ride over to America, make a fortune in the promised land then return home riding on a white horse, his family’s savior. His fists clenched.
As if on cue, Mr. Brians spoke: “It wasn’t your fault, lad. If you were here you would have been dead too.”
Samuel nodded and politely smiled his thanks, then picked up the next paper addressed to him, from his brother James.
Father specifically told me not to write to you but hey, that’s never stopped me before. I know you’d agree with me. You always want to know the truth, and nothing but it. So dad said not to go into detail about what was happening, that he would tell you everything. Yeah, well, I guess he told you about Drake. And about how he’s killing everybody who is sick. What he probably didn’t tell you is about Darina. He doesn’t even talk about it. Neither does mum. And whenever I bring her up, whenever I want to talk about my own little sister, they tell me to be quiet! And that I shouldn’t trouble my young mind with such things! Can you believe that? But it didn’t get to me. Ya’ know why? Thanks to you, Sam. Whenever I disagreed with mum and dad you were always there. You would always say things like “He is entitled to his opinion.” It’s funny, Sam, I never knew what that meant. But I’ve been reading, and learning. I should’ve listened to what you said about books a long time ago! The stories, the adventures written in the simple characters of books! In these dark times, when dad and mum are arguing and you try to hold your nose to keep from smelling the people’s bodies burning in the town square, even now those books that you left behind let me be free in their adventures.
Well, you probably want to know more about what is going on around here. Mum wants to go to her relatives in Dublin, she says it’s safe. Their last argument about it went like this:
“Your fear, Cara, your fear is going to get what’s left of this family killed!” Dad would say as they argued behind the bar in our tavern.
“I am afraid!” Mum would scream, “I cannot lose another child! If something happened to James…”
“Shhh!” Dad hissed. “Don’t let James hear you,” He said, not knowing that I was lying at the top of the stairwell listening.
“Robert!” Mum said, raising her shoulders and opening her hands. “There will not be food here forever. How long, how long Robert! How long before we become like everybody else out there! Stealing and fighting for bread!”
“We will not come to that.” Dad would say. Mum never believed him. I never believed him. But he would go on.
“I will get seeds. That huntsman, the woodsy one who lives by the ridge. He has a garden. If I can just get to him, and I had something to give him, we could buy tomato seeds and beans and other small food stuff. We could grow it in the window upstairs.”
Mum would look around, shaking her head. “You can be such a fool Robert. Such a fool. What if you died on the way to the huntsman! He lives at least two days walk away!”
“You are suggesting we walk to Dublin! Dublin, Cara! That is weeks away!” He would snap back.
“I am sorry, Robert, truly god damned sorry, sorry that I have hope! Sorry that I believe that things will get better. Sorry that I have a goal, to get to my relatives, to get this family to safety!” She would say. The way she said it always made me feel better.
“Okay,” He said. My eyes widened. He had never even considered it before. But now he was agreeing. “You’re right. We can’t wait here forever.” He nodded, and then looked out the window thinking about it. “I will gather food and drink from the cellar. We will leave after dusk next week on this day.”
And well, that was that. Dad told me the plan in the morning and I had to try to act surprised. I am hopeful, Sam. It’s like an adventure, from those books. But I’m also scared. I wish you were here. It seemed like when you left that everything was going to be better. You said the next time I saw you that you would be riding down the driveway in a carriage made of gold, with lions pulling you along. I knew what you meant. When are you coming back, Sam? How much longer do I have to wait?
It’s just…I don’t know…things seemed to make sense when you were around. Like it was safe to dream and imagine. But now it feels like holding onto hope is childish. Almost like the only way to get through each passing day is to think of nothing.
Well, you are probably wondering what happened to Darina. Our little sister, only seven years old. Dad won’t tell you what happened. Mum will burst into tears if it’s brought up. But you deserve to know…and you shouldn’t have to find out on your own like I did. Well…I needed a little guidance that day, and I went to the cemetery to pray, like I always do, over Seanathair’s grave. What do they call that in England? Grandfather, I think. That’s what I was thinking about as I kneeled over his grave. This was about two weeks before father agreed with mum that we should go to her relatives in Dublin.
I was angry that day. Some days here you’re angry, some you’re scared, some you just pray all day waiting for God to extend His hand and save you from this misery. That is exactly what I was hoping for that day. I squinted my eyes, trying to read the faded writing on the grave. As I concentrated, thunder rumbled in the distance. I twitched as a raindrop hit my eyelash. A few more landed on my bare arms. Giving up, I looked to the sky, cursing myself for not bringing a coat. The clouds were large, making the land unusually dark that early in the day. The rain fell lightly but quickly, obscuring vision but not falling hard enough to make me want to wait it out somewhere.
I looked around. The fertile green hills went on for miles, broken only by a stretch of bogs or patch of woods. While taking in the landscape and imagining more peaceful times, I noticed black smoke rising from behind a hill about a hundred meters northeast. Fascinated, I began to walk in that direction, towards a hill topped with trees with smoke rising behind them.
It took me a while to get there. Longer than I had expected. I guess it was about two hundred meters from where I started in the cemetery. Now I was far away from the cemetery in the hills. When I did reach the hill with the woods around it and I climbed up it, I smelled something really bad, like burning hair. The smoke had been reduced to small white wisps joining the rain in the humid air. I moved eagerly through the trees, catching sight of a small pond through the branches of an elm tree. I slid down the remainder of the hill, finding myself just feet away from a deep, muddy bog within a grove of birch trees. What I saw before me twisted my stomach in a knot. I knelt over and threw up. As I emptied the contents of my stomach there was not much but stinging yellowish liquid, probably because I hadn’t eaten in two days. I fell onto my arse, staring through wide eyes at the bog in front of me. Before my feet was the upper half of a woman, her torso, arms and head lying out of the water, the rest of her body from the waist down submerged. She was like charcoal, she looked like a log that is left after a camp fire, all ashes and black twisted skin. All throughout the bog, burned arms and hands reached out through the water, attached to the bodies of the dead. They were all motionless, lifeless, burned to a crisp bodies floating about in the bog. Despite their obvious lifelessness my childish fear overtook me. Or no, not childish. I think anybody would have found it unnerving to be alone in a misty bog with dozens of smoking human corpses. So I turned, and I was going to run, but something shiny caught my eye. It was attached to a small, burnt arm that rested on a fallen birch trunk within the bog. I recognized the bracelet on the hand. Tears flooded my face, wincing noises coming unintentionally from my throat. I leapt into the bog, finding that at the shallowest point the muddy water was almost up to my knees. I trudged through the mud, sobbing. My sloppy movements were intensified by the blur of tears in my eyes. I felt cold hands brush up against my legs, chilling me to the bone and increasing the intensity of my sobs. Before I knew it the mud, water and weeds were up to my torso. I was near the middle of the bog, and within arms distance of the log where the burnt arm with the bracelet rested. I hesitantly grabbed onto the arm. I pulled. Lightly at first, but when the mud wouldn’t give and the body remained stuck, I had to pull harder, stop my crying for a few seconds and tug. In one quick instant I pulled the rest of the body out of the water. Darina’s seven year old little body was on top of me, her face contorted by the burns, hair burnt off, skin peeled by the fire. I screamed, and erupted into sobs. The bog water splashed into my mouth as I tried to keep my sanity. After many minutes of uncontrollable flinching, sobbing and coughing I gathered up enough sense to pull her body out of the muddy bog with me. My own baby sister.
At that point I had already realized that bog was full of the bodies of the people Drake had killed, and that after he burned them he needed somewhere to put them. So I knew what the place was for. But what I didn’t understand was why Darina was in there. I didn’t remember her getting the blight. But when I thought back, I did remember. I remember her staying in bed all day for a few days, I remember mum rushing Darina upstairs when Drake and his men stopped by. It all made sense. They must have taken her, executed her for being sick and then lit her body aflame. Then they brought it here! In a dreadful swamp full of mud and mosquitoes! How I cursed them. But when I remembered what I was seeing, that this was my little sister, I immediately forgot my frustration. I said as many prayers as I could remember, even the ones that didn’t relate, over her body. I kissed her burnt forehead and slid the shiny bracelet off of her wrist.
And well, that’s how I found out. That is how I was forced to discover my baby sister was killed. That is what things are like here. I really want you to come back. So badly, Sam. I think this helped. I don’t know. Just knowing that you will be reading this in America, in a place where things are better, it…it gives me hope. That things aren’t like this everywhere. And I know it is selfish and unfair of me to ask this…but I need you, Sam. I cannot bear to live like this without you. Please, Sam, please come back. I love you.
Your little brother,
Samuel’s shoulders slumped. Mr. Brians had gone to sleep. The house was quiet. The sound of crickets outside the kitchen window filled the house. The loneliness. The blame. The self loathing. Samuel felt a void in his chest, an emptiness. He looked to the one remaining letter addressed to him. It was also from James. Although it pained him greatly to read the words, he eagerly devoured the last bits he had of his family.
There is nothing left. The only hope I hold in my heart is the hope for a better life in God’s kingdom. We were supposed to leave last night. As we left, however, Drake’s men on watch found us. They pointed their guns in our faces, and took all the food from us, threatening to shoot. They are not soldiers. They do not even wear uniforms or talk in an orderly way. They’re thieves, stealing from the weak. They demanded to know where we had gotten all the food. Father refused to answer. They shot mum in the leg. He told them. He told them about all of the bread, wine and salted meat we had in the cellar. The one stayed with us and bandaged up mum. He was an evil man, even telling us that he was only bandaging her so he wouldn’t have to hear peasants complain about another death. After the man reported back to Drake, we returned home and went to sleep, mum losing a lot of blood during the night.
I awoke to the sounds of Drake’s men taking the food from our cellar. I could hear mum’s crying and father trying to comfort her down the hall. There was nothing I could do but wait. I read. I read for hours and hours, even after Drake’s men had left. I read until a banging on the door brought me back to focus on the real world:
I layed the book down and looked out my window to see none other than Drake and all of his men with him, all armed. Everyone in the town was gathered in front of our house. I heard Drake knock a few more times. I was too terrified to answer it myself. I eventually heard my father’s voice ask what the problem was. Drake unrolled a document and said something about us being arrested for attempted abandonment and not sharing food, I’m not sure, I have to write quickly, I’m sorry I can’t go into more detail. Well he said we were being arrested, and then I heard my father say: “You’ve already taken everything from us!” and Drake laughed. The b****** laughed! Dad exploded, bursting from the doorway and grabbing that pathetic man by his collar and lifting him into the air. I remember these words, said with such primal anger and power that Drake’s men did not interrupt him.
“You are a monster! A leech that sucks everything an already weak people has, and then basks in his own perverted self image. You…you are a filthy b******, and condemning you to hell is not nearly as bad as you deserve!”
I don’t have any time left, I am sorry I could not have described more. But the men shot dad…for…for “assaulting a man of authority” and they said the house will be burnt as a warning for all others who would think to rebel. They are burning it immediately. Drake’s men have whiskey bottles filled with oil, oil soaked rags in them. They are going to light them and burn down the house. With me and mum inside. They are at the back door too…I want to say something meaningful, but my mind is blank…I…I cannot keep writing. I’m sorry Sam. I miss you.
Samuel’s chair toppled and he collapsed into a ball on the floor. He buried his head into his arms and blocked out everything. It was hours before he fell asleep.
When he woke the next morning he was lying in the same place he fell asleep, but with a pillow under his head. His eyes rested on a brilliant red cardinal perched on an olive branch outside the window, illuminated by the warm golden sunlight of the rising sun.