Last Footprint Upon the Soil
Annie Quinn Hodgdon
June 10, 1847
Cork Harbour, Ireland
I wanted to hold tight to her hand, but I thought that it might break. I remembered when her cheeks colored up, and her eyes sparkled. She was soft and round, as a mother should be. Even when I was eight years old, I climbed up onto her lap to draw in her scent and take shelter in her fullness as she sang to my brother and me.
To my sorrow, it had been months since she rose up to sing. There were few songs to be had, although Daidí still played his fiddle, but never again like before. Nothin’ was the same. Together, we had shifted into a minor key. We sang and danced to remember who we were, clingin’ to a faint ray of hope when the cries of anguish were unimaginable. The howlin’ that came after dark continued to echo in my ears on many a long night.
We spent the previous winter huddled together with three other families in what was once a lovely rural cottage, much further away from the shore than what we were accustomed to. Daidí was a fisherman and did us fine until the trouble came.
We were not rich, but we were content, imperfect, and lovingly frayed around the edges. Like the other fishermen, Daidí fished along the shores in his currach, where it was safe, for the deep waters were much too perilous for small cowhide boats. The fish that he caught were bartered daily for our needs and were enough to pay the rent, and in spite of it and like the others, potatoes were our primary source of nutrition.
Had he not sold his tackle and nets to settle with the landlord and obtain food, we might have found a way to stay in our own cottage a bit longer, for he could have continued to fish. It had become a devastatin’ riddle, choosin’ between rent or food, because of the risin’ cost of both, Daidí could afford neither.
There was nowhere to turn. Knowin’ that ships filled with home-grown oats, barley, and Indian corn were berthed in Cork Harbour, and off-limits to us all, caused our hunger to deepen and tempers to flare. If we were not careful, the last of our strength would have been consumed by our fury, further strippin’ the meat from our bones and stealin’ the will to survive. We had quickly become like the ones that we saw at crowded soup kitchens or standin’ in lines to enter the workhouse, in the fields—animal-like and feral.
Daidí even risked his life by joinin’ an uprisin’, which did not help. Some were wounded, and others died, makin’ us a little more afraid. The ships stayed in port, not intended for the ravenous folk with empty bellies and rattlin’ bones—until the cost of the food was finally lowered, but we hadn’t a shillin’ to our names. Therefore, the fully loaded ships set sail for England, or the provisions sat in warehouses within our sight, resultin’ in death from abandoned hearts and famished souls over hunger and disease.
Mam urged Daidí to stay away from the fights, to find work layin’ down black rock for the roads that led to nowhere, but Daidí couldn’t hear a word that she said. It wasn’t that he was unwillin’. No, the art of genuine hearin’ had been lost. He might have tried. At another time, he would have heard her, but his ears no longer took in words like they used to.
He said that if they could only confiscate one ship—one boatload of oats—that we would survive another few months. Livin’ on nettles was not enough. His main bent was to save his family and, of course, himself. He tried to make the bitter choice between life and death, for there was not enough food for both. If he starved, he was too weak to work. If he ate, we starved.
People talked about how the ones workin’ on the roads just died right there along the way, only to end up in a shallow grave, not quite deep enough to keep away the rats and dogs. Who had the strength to dig a proper grave beneath the green sod without layin’ down in it as well?
Daidí was a fighter. He would not succumb. He would raise a fist and join any uprisin’ that he could, even if it meant throwin’ rocks, yellin’ into the wind, and maybe even bein’ shot, wounded, or worse. He would die tryin’. That was Daidí.
After months of seein’ people dyin’ of road fever, layin’ in the fields, and sittin’ on the edges of the fences in front of their hollow gardens, before bein’ driven out of their cottages, Daidí thought it best to accept kindness from Father Tierney. We stayed at the lice-infested dwellin’ of the O’Sullivan’s.
Winter came and went. God had turned away from us, as the winter before our departure was the worst one that anyone could ever recall. Relentless blizzards buried us so deeply in the snow, it blocked the windows and reached the roofs. The icy winds from the Southwest howled at night, bringin’ frigid gales of sleet and hail that froze onto the surface of the snow, makin’ it so hard that it was impossible to leave a house that had become more like a prison with each passin’ day.
I had reached a point where bein’ unfed, cold, or with fever, was not my greatest concern. We lived with it, unless of course, we died, and then it didn’t matter. However, I could not bear to see another mother carryin’ her dead infant in the street, beggin’ for money for a coffin.
We stood together in the long line that led to the medical inspection required before boardin’ the ship to Liverpool. My feet became heavier with each step. By the time I left my last footprint upon the soil of my native homeland, I was barely able to walk. I stopped and closed my eyes as the fresh northerly breeze cooled my cheeks. I turned once more to look at the majestic shoreline and clear blue skies that hardly resembled the blackness that threatened to consume all that remained.
Yes, Mam had become fragile, but I trusted that she would not break. I finally took a chance and squeezed her hand.
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