Maggie's Door, page 1
The People of Maidin Bay
About the Author
Also by Patricia Reilly Giff
TO HAROLD REILLY,
THE PEOPLE OF MAIDIN BAY
THE RYAN FAMILY
THE MALLON FAMILY
A terrible stench drifted over the land. The potato crop had failed. For the families who lived in Maidin Bay it meant that nothing but a little fish, seaweed, or a few leaves boiled in water was left for them to eat.
They had to leave or starve. One by one they took the road to Galway. Ships waited there, ships that might take them across the sea to America.
Nory Ryan was the last of her family to go. . . .
Nory hadn’t gone far, just over the rise, when she heard it.
“Ocras,” it screamed. “Ocras.”
Nory took another step and stopped. On one side of her were the dunes, on the other the great ocean. A strange place she was in, with wisps of fog drifting across the road. And again that sound.
The wind, she told herself, even though she knew it wasn’t.
Granda had told her of selkies, half seal, half human. When they lived on land they wept bitter tears for the deep; when they returned to the sea they mourned for lost loves on the land.
Was that it? The cry of some poor selkie woman? Such an eerie sound.
The crying stopped and Nory began to walk again. One foot in front of the other. Away from home, away from that empty house with the door banging in the wind. The trip just beginning.
The sand drifted across the road, grains of it sticking to her bare feet. The crying reminded her of her little brother, Patch, and the last time she had seen him, his arms flung out to her from the back of her friend Sean Red Mallon’s cart.
And where was that cart now, Sean pulling its heavy weight while Patch leaned against Mrs. Mallon in back? How far had they gone along that winding road toward the port of Galway?
She quickened her steps.
Don’t think about Patch, or the Mallons, or the rest of the family, all gone ahead to find a ship, she told herself. Just keep going. Nearly at the crossroads.
“Ocras, ocras,” came the cry again, and with it the sound of powerful wings.
That was what it was, then, not a voice but the call of a great seabird.
It swooped down over her head, too close. She dropped her bag and clutched the top of her head with both hands. As the bird rose she saw the snow-white body, the huge wingspan, the curved beak, and eyes that were strangely human.
She had seen such a bird once when she and Granda had walked along the cliff ledge. Granda had thrown it a piece of dulse from his pocket. “Travelers must give the white bird food. It will bring luck until the end of the journey,” he had told her.
“But we’re only going home,” she had said. “Only a few steps.”
Granda. How she missed him!
But what could she give the bird?
She had so little—papers Da had sent that would get her onto a ship, and a coin from her neighbor Anna sewed into her shawl, and what was in her bag, the bits of things Anna had managed to put together for the long trip ahead of her: herbs for illness, a biscuit so hard it had to be soaked in water, a bit of meat, and two pieces of brack, rock hard as the biscuit.
The bird circled over her, higher now. Nory dropped to the ground, scrambling for the bag, and reached deep inside for the biscuit. Anna’s voice was in her ear: “There are only these bits of food between you and starvation. Guard them.”
She held the biscuit in her hand as the bird wheeled over her head once more, but it was too hard to break into pieces. Suppose she threw all of it?
Between you and starvation, the wind said.
“Traveler’s luck,” Granda whispered in her head.
What should she do? Her mouth tingled with the thought of that biscuit, the softness of it when she’d find a stream for dipping, the taste of it on her tongue.
There was no time to think or the bird would be gone.
She took a step forward, reached over her head, and tossed the biscuit high into the air.
Effortlessly the bird swooped to catch it in its beak. It climbed high over the dunes with it and headed out over the waves that broke at the edge of the strand.
“It’s the whole biscuit,” she called. “For my whole family. Remember that.” Her hair blew into her face and she raked it back impatiently so she could see where the bird went. “We’re all of us traveling.”
And that voice in her head again: But you, Nory, are alone.
The bird skimmed over the surf, but then, just before it was out of sight, it dropped the biscuit into the sea.
Nory’s hand went to her mouth, hard against her teeth. Foolish girl, Anna would have said. You needed that food to stay alive.
Nory cupped her hands around her mouth. “Don’t forget us. All of us. Da. Granda and Celia. Patch . . . and my friend Sean Red Mallon. Don’t forget Sean.”
The bird was almost out of sight. “We are trying for America,” she called after it. “We want to stand at Maggie’s door in Brooklyn.”
Up ahead was the crossroad. What had Da said? “The road to the ships winds around like a ball of yarn let loose. Just stay on that road.”
It was the one to the right, the one that hugged the sea all the way to the port of Galway. Every year Da had taken it to find a fishing boat. But the other road, the small winding muddy boreen, led only to Patrick’s Well, up and up, and the well almost hanging off the edge of the cliff.
How could she leave without one last look?
She had been to the well a day ago to say goodbye. But this was forever. She’d never be back. She’d never see it again, not any of it.
She stood there hesitating, then shrugged off the bag she carried over her shoulder. Tucking it into the high grass where no one could see it, she went past the small cemetery where Mam had lain since the week Patch was born, and up to the well, where she could look back and see her house. There the wind blew itself fiercely across the wide stone flags, and far below, the sea spread itself out like a great gray plate agai
Above her head the tree branches rattled in the wind. She closed her eyes and it seemed she could see the faces of all her family:
Da, deep lines around his eyes, squinting as he waved goodbye on his way to fish last year.
Months later Granda and her sister Celia leaving their small house desperate to find Da, to tell him the potatoes had failed.
And Patch. Back to Patch again. Only a few days ago she had put him on Sean Red Mallon’s cart. “You must go,” she had said as he tried to hold on to her. “You must have that chance.”
How strange it was. A year ago it had been only her big sister Maggie who was going across the sea to America with her new husband, Sean’s brother Francey. Now the whole family was going, one by one, trying to escape the hunger that gnawed at their stomachs and even their bones.
Nory opened her eyes, remembering the bonfire they had lighted the night of Maggie’s wedding a year ago. Great flames had leapt up against the sky, sending shadows against the stones of their house.
“Dance with me again, Nory,” her friend Sean Red Mallon had said, his red hair as bright as the bonfire, his hand out to her.
“Do you think you’re the only one I’ll dance with this night?” Her feet had tapped to the sound of the fiddle.
Sean had leaned forward, laughing. “Then you’ll have to dance with your granda, and I’m better at it than he is.”
Better than Granda perhaps, but still Granda, tall and thin and white-bearded, had danced the night through, danced with Maggie, who wore Mam’s wedding dress, danced with Nory’s second sister, Celia, danced holding little Patch on his shoulders.
And Maggie, glowing, happy: “Don’t be sad, Nory. Da will come home from his great fishing trip. And sometime you’ll all join me at 416 Smith Street, Brooklyn, America.”
“It will be years,” Nory had said. “It will be forever until then.”
The wind howled around Nory now, and birds screeched as they flew over the well and out to the sea. But not the great bird with her biscuit.
Nory sank down on the rough wall, and it seemed that a terrible smell rose up around her, though it had been carried off months ago by the wind.
The smell that had changed their lives forever.
She turned to look back over the fields that curved down to the sea, fields that in some winters were covered with a thin blanket of snow, and in the growing season a riot of purple potato blossoms.
But not last year.
Not this year.
The blight had turned those potatoes to mush, to ooze, leaving everyone hungry. Starving.
Still now over Patrick’s Well hung bits of cloth, prayers that people had left. There was one of her sister Celia’s shifts.
Ah, Celia with the turned-up nose.
“I will stay alive,” Celia had said when she and Granda left, her dress huge on her bones. “Granda and I will get to the ships. We will find Da and send for you and Patch. Together we will get to Maggie’s door in America.”
Another sound now.
The fall of a rock behind her. Not a bird this time. She spun around. “Anna!”
Anna Donnelly, her neighbor. Anna, who had taught her about cures and healing, and who had taken her in with Patch when everyone else had gone.
Anna stood there in her white cap, her skirt ruffling in the wind, her face as wrinkled as the potatoes had been. She put her hands on her hips, angry. “What are you doing here, Nory Ryan?”
Nory slid off the edge of the well. “A last look.”
Anna’s eyes were fierce. “And where is your bag?”
“In the sea grass below. Safe,” Nory said, glad that Anna didn’t know about the biscuit.
“You are wasting time,” Anna said. “You must go now and never look back. Take that road.”
Nory looked down where Anna pointed, at the same road that Da and Granda and Celia had taken, that Patch and the Mallons were following.
Patch, her little brother, stick-thin legs dangling from the back of the cart, fine pale hair flattened to his head by the spring squalls that spat across the road.
“How can I leave you, Anna? You have been so good to me.” Nory reached out to her. “How can I go alone?”
“I belong here.” Anna’s mouth was a thin line. “But you must save yourself.”
For one quick moment Nory held Anna to her before she went back down the boreen to reach for her bag and sling it over her shoulder.
It was only a moment to the crossroad.
“I’m going to find them, all the people I love,” she called to the wind as she turned, and to the bird that had long disappeared. In her mind suddenly was a picture of Sean Red Mallon, her friend since they were younger than Patch. She thought of Sean’s blazing red hair, and his height, and the way he smiled when he looked down at her.
“Dance with me, Nory.”
What would Sean say if he knew she was just days behind them?
She began to hurry.
Sean Red Mallon pulled the cart slowly, the wheels grinding over the stones. As the road turned away from the sea and back again, the things they had taken with them—Da’s stool, one of the great hooks that his brothers Liam and Michael used for fishing, Francey’s boots—slid back and forth. His mam and little Patch leaned one way and then another.
How long could he pull that cart without food? The road shimmered in front of him, almost fading away, and he had to blink to find it again.
“Sean,” Patch called. “Do you have a bit of dulse in your pocket? Just a wee bit of the seaweed?”
Sean shook his head, even though Patch faced the back of the cart and couldn’t see him.
“You know there’s no dulse,” Mam said. Her voice was rough, as always, and Sean felt sorry for the boy. How old was he? Four maybe?
“Nory always brought me dulse,” Patch said, “brought it right out of the sea.”
“There’s no hint of it out there today . . . ,” Sean began, and stopped. It was too much effort to say that they didn’t even have the strength to wade in and drag the seaweed out. Too much effort to say that if the smear of purple appeared along the water’s edge, people lying along the strand or at the edge of the road would scoop it up long before he could get to it.
Sean took his hands off the cart posts. Long ago when he was Patch’s age, they had had a donkey to pull the cart. It was a small irritable animal with thick yellow teeth who turned to nip at them once in a while. Sean’s older brother Francey would jump back, scooping Sean up in his arms away from the donkey’s mouth just in time, laughing. But no wonder the donkey had been irritable. He’d tell that to Francey when they reached Brooklyn. He tried to grin but the skin around his mouth was loose and didn’t even move.
He stopped then, dreaming about the times when there had been potatoes growing strong in the fields and they’d had enough to fill their stomachs. He brushed away the memory of the potatoes failing, the plants sinking into a mess of ooze, everyone starving.
Sean unwrapped the bits of cloth around his fingers and looked down at his hands. They were purple with bruises and raw with blisters that had broken. Something was wrong with his wrist as well . . . not only from pulling the cart but from the fight the second night they were on the road.
“A great cart,” someone had said, and two boys had come around in front to try to take it from them. They were small and thin and no match for him even though he had never fought before, just mock fights with his brother Francey, wrestling on the earthen floor of the house or on the gritty sand below the cliffs.
Sean had pulled the cart away at last, leaving both boys gasping at the side of the road. Since then he had watched, barely sleeping at night, barely stopping during the day, so afraid that someone bigger, stronger, might come along and take the cart from him. Without it, Mam and Patch would never make the port.
“Go on now,” Mam said. “The road is long.”
Sean wrapped the rags around his hands again and reached for the cart posts. Ahead of him the road took a steep drop. How could he hold the cart against it?
He could see it in his mind, the road beginning its slide, the cart behind him, his hands backing along the posts as he tried to stop it. The front of the cart would push up against him, rolling faster. The wheels would tilt, his legs caught, his toes crushed.
His thoughts were so terrible that he hardly heard the sound of the man’s feet moving along next to him, and when he did it was too late to get out of the way.
“Paddy,” the voice called out to him.
Sean looked up, squinting, the sand in his eyes. An English gentleman like Lord Cunningham back in Ballilee. His boots were high-shined even though mud had come up to spatter them here and there.
Sean’s mouth went dry. “Yes, your honor, sir,” he said.
“Stop the cart.” The man spoke in English, the words sounding strange. He glanced down at his boots, irritated, and flicked at them lightly with the small whip he held in his hand.
Francey always said that Englishmen and trouble belonged together, and that was why Father Harte had taught the people in his parish many of their words. “It is good to know as much as you can,” the priest had said. “To be prepared.”
“I didn’t steal the cart, sir,” Sean told the man. “It is ours.”
“My house is over the hill,” the man said. “My horse went lame a mile back. Ask the groom to send me another.”
Sean opened his mouth. “I can’t leave the cart, sir,” he said, but said it softly. “Someone will surely take it.”
“I have no time to waste.” The man’s face was coarse, the teeth almost like their old donkey’s. But Francey wouldn’t have laughed at this donkey; he would have been angry.
“It won’t take you long,” the Englishman said. “Once you’re up there, the cook will give you food.”
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