by Linda Reale-Horvat
The shimmering moon reflected an eerie glow on the water, in keeping with the frosty evening atmosphere and reflecting the coldness she felt to her inner bones. She ran, barefoot, across the frozen ground by the water’s edge, in fear for her life and uncertain of where she was headed. Her heart beat rapidly, coursing the breath from her thin and scantily-clothed body, pushing the bile to her dry mouth. She felt that she could not breathe, yet knew that she had to continue on this path if she and her family were to survive.
She cowered in the bushes at the garden’s edge surrounding the Big House, her heart beating so wildly that she thought it would explode in a thousand pieces and leave her lying dead on the damp grass in a bitter winter’s night. She was cold and desperate. Her bravery overcame her fear and she knew that she had to survive. Her husband had been killed several weeks previously when the landlord’s agents had come to evict his family, baying hounds and bloody-curling shrieks of desperation and agonising sorrow rising to a deaf and uncaring heaven. They were not alone in their panic. She realised that she had no-one to whom she could turn to ensure that her children survived the heinous cruelty which had swept the country the previous two years – genocidal hunger weaponised by a cruel master overseeing the starvation of an entire population while boatloads of food were sent to feed “superior” masters in the Big Houses and that hateful country across the Irish Sea. It was a time of survival of the fittest and nowadays most of the local population were too intent on saving their own skins with no energy to look towards other, equally-desperate and dying neighbours. Those who attempted to help found themselves fighting against the uncaring and dismissive gentry of a laissez faire attitude which had been grasped vigorously by a government seeking ways to enslave an unwilling and indomitable population to their cruel and uncaring ways. No longer was it “to Hell or to Connaught” – now it was “to hell or nowhere.”
She had made the decision to go to the Big House to beg for scraps for her starving family with great trepidation. They had no food, no shelter and had lost the Head of the family in the cruelest of ways which was all too common in this cruel and unending hell never before experienced. It fell on her to find a way to make her family survive. There was no time for panic, she needed to step outside any previously-existing norme of behaviour.
It was the annual New Year’s Eve Party and she knew that there would be plenty of food as had been the case every year for as far back as she could remember: men and women of the ruling class and gentry arriving in their finery to celebrate the New Year. Now, it was the third year of the potato blight : times had changed and desperate times called for desperate measures to save her children. Her husband had been killed when they had come to evict his family and she had no-one to whom she could turn: survival of the fittest and most people were too intent on saving their own skins.
Gingerly, she had approached the back of the house, bare feet on frozen, wet grass, oblivious to the pain and cuts. Hectic activity inside, tables laden with food the likes of which she had never seen and much of which she could not identify. It did not matter. She was light-headed yet determined, a hitherto unknown strength coursing through her veins. She waited in the shadows and when she saw a space in the middle of the activity, in she ran, grabbed something from the table and turned to go, almost colliding with the landlord’s agent and dropping her precious lifesaving sustenance on the slated kitchen floor.
She ran, ran as she had never run in her life, slipping and sliding on the grass, barefoot, raw and cut on the lakeside pebbled ground. Run, Run, Run…… She tripped, twisted her ankle and heard the approach of men, saw the flickering light of torches and heard the barking of dogs; what to do? She ran towards the water edge, entering its body-numbing coldness. She walked/ran further into the lake, the freezing water enveloping her panicked body with a blanket of oblivion. Her children, her children… She sank into the darkness, the end of suffering and life as she knew it; she felt her depleted energy floating towards the flickering lights. But the preservation of her children and the need to make her way back to them overcame the numbness which enveloped her body. She heard their plaintive cries calling her back to be with them and to help them survive. With an almighty strength she had not known she possessed, and in an automated sense of preservation for her beloved family, she forced her consciousness back into her tiny body and swam underwater for as long as she could, emerging a long way from where she had entered the black water, a spot now filled by shouting men, beying hounds and flickering torches. To hell or to wherever she could – she would not let go now. She, her family, her nation had paid ENOUGH. She would ensure her children would survive; they had suffered enough. Tomorrow would see them begin their longest journey to a new life in a new land. The cold dawn would see them head towards the coast and to a ship to carry them across the water’s vastness to survival and a new chapter of LIFE. It would not be easy, but they would survive. Enough was enough. A nation’s survival would prove the indomitable spirit of its ancient race and survive and thrive – and cast aside the cruel chains of a heartless master. Erin go bragh!
(written for inclusion in Anthology of works prepared by Limerick Writer’s Centre after a Creative Writing course I did there in Autumn 2018) (October 2018)