"The Good Farmers"
“Right then,” Father announced at breakfast about a week after mother and I returned with the new baby. “The hay’s ready to bring in and the forecast is good so no shilly shallying and dawdling about the jobs this morning. The men will be here soon to bale and we’ll borrow Harrington’s trailer. And you,” he said gesturing towards me“, will drive it.” He pulled on his wellingtons in the back kitchen and downed the usual half glass of whiskey my mother left on the sink for him, and then strode out to the yard.
My father was a tall, heavy-set man with bushy black eyebrows that practically met in the middle. His favourite saying was he only expected to say a thing once.
The grass in the top field and the lower meadow had been cut the previous Saturday and watched and turned, and turned and watched, until it was dry as autumn leaves, ready to bale and bring in. Hay smells of summer-blue skies, white scudding clouds, bottles of milky tea in the middle of the field and the sadness of time passing.
On a small holding like ours, with too little land and too many mouths, we all mucked in no matter how big or small the task. Each of us had designated work, even Maria, who was just seven. Driving the trailer was the worst job, as my progress along the rows of bales was always either too fast or too slow to satisfy Father.
My father had not spoken to me directly since I’d come back. Peter, my infant son, was to be raised as part of the family but I must never lay claim to him, with either my siblings or any friends or neighbours.
“Take it or leave it,” Father had said. “That’s all there’s to say.”
Instinctively, I kept an eye out for the baby irrespective of what work was on hand. Maria liked to wheel Peter and a selection of her dolls round the yard in the pram. She enjoyed making him laugh and coo. She read to him from her Ladybird books. At times, he interrupted with his ohs and ahs, and grunts. When she got fed up playing with her dolls, she put them to bed: “Go asleep and don’t be bothering me,” she’d sing out in her queer high-pitched voice. “I’ll only say it the once.”
Maria was a short chubby child with foxy-red hair and piercing blue eyes. There was an ethereal sort of strangeness, a streak of weirdness in her. She was not likeable. Those eyes always bored right through me. As if she knew more than she should. Her skin was pearlescent as if she was never in the sun. Probably too busy eavesdropping in shadows, ferreting out bits and pieces of information.
That hazy-blue morning mother stayed in the kitchen to bake the brown soda bread and make the dinner for the agricultural contractors. She was a slight, grey haired woman, a permanent crease between her eyes and puckered lips as if she constantly swallowed something bitter. Sometimes she spoke in eloquent shrugs and sighs. She left most of the talking and orders to my father.
“Your job is to keep the baby quiet,” she told Maria, “I want him out from under my feet. I’ve only got the one pair of hands and there’s enough to do on a day like today. Don’t be calling on me for every whinge and whine.”
The blue haze dissipated quickly, the sun was hot, and the swallows circled high. Beyond the gate, were heat-warped fields where cattle cooled underneath gnarled sceáchs.
I heard Peter whimper. But I continued mixing the mash for the pigs. Maria knew how to soothe him; made funny faces, or gave him his dummy, or shook the pram from side to side. I watched Maria from the piggery door, distracted by the baby’s cry. Once or twice, I’d seen her pinch the baby though she always denied doing it. I wasn’t altogether convinced that she’d taken to him as well as everyone claimed. It was a respite to stop for a few minutes, my arms ached from hauling, and dragging buckets back and forth across the yard. Deep in that inner place with no name I had a different, more primordial ache from which there was no respite.
One minute Maria cajoled, the next scolded Peter but he refused to be placated by her antics. She rocked the pram from side to side and wagged her finger in Peter’s face. She glanced in my direction, a tentative smile sneered her upper lip.
“This. Time. You’re. Going. Too. Far. I’ve only got the two hands. For crying out loud stop it this minute. I’m warning you or you’ll have good reason to bawl.”
Maria looked at me again, noted me watching. Purple-faced, she stamped her foot in time with each threat. It seemed I watched through a distorted window pane, yet registered the needle-pricks of sunburn on my nose and the sharpish stone of the piggery wall against my right shoulder. A corner of my mind niggled thoughts I couldn’t quite grasp, as if clouds parted only to fill in again before the mountains could be glimpsed. There was something I should do but remained paralysed, propped against the rough wall.
Maria flung the pram to the ground consumed with rage. Dolls sprawled everywhere in the dirt and muck of the yard. Sun glinted on the chrome handle, one wheel spun round and round. Stunned by her own tantrum, Maria plumped down beside the dolls. The navy pram-hood obscured my view. It was eerily still. No sound came from the baby or Maria.
My scalp tightened, my skin crawled, and my stomach lurched. Bile and tears choked my throat. I remained where I was, watched events unfold. Enthralled.
My mother ran from the house, alerted by the sudden quiet of baby and Maria. Her apron flew shield-like before her in the breeze. My father appeared from the milking parlour, a heavier protective apron tied at his waist. At the same time, the large green tractor towing the canary yellow baler hovered into sight. Chugs of dirty smoke from the exhaust pipe scribed black exclamation marks on sky the colour of a robin’s egg. I watched the tractor’s slow progress as it back-fired its way to the top field.
My father scooped up Peter. A tiny, still, white-faced thing in his thick hairy arms. My brother grabbed the dog by the collar and locked him in the shed. Mother yanked Maria up from the ground. Father carried the baby into the house. Within minutes, he re-emerged.
“Take that, fill it with water and scrub the yard there, and don’t come back inside till you’re told,” he said, as he handed Maria a bucket. He turned to me, “Get inside— now”. I followed him back into the house. “There’s a number beside the phone for the priest”, my father spoke without looking at me. “Ring and ask him to come with Connolly as soon as they can. Then get out to the top field and tell Murray to leave the hay for a couple a more days.”
Connolly had the funeral home in the town.
The hay-men looked at me in open-mouthed disbelief, silver snail-tracks of sweat on their dusty faces.
“Something’s happened, something bad. He’s dead. The baby’s dead.” I blurted out and ran back towards the house. On the way I passed Maria in the yard as she scrubbed at a rusty-brown stain, the soapy water caught rainbows as it trickled down the yard to the shuck, the sun drilled down on the back of her neck. She ignored me as she hummed in rhythm with each brushstroke, her upper lip still curled in derision.
The cold hit me when I went back inside and my eyes took some minutes to adjust to the indoor gloom. A good cloth, only used for the Station Mass and Christmas, draped the table in the parlour. Peter lay on his back, miniscule against the starched white, his few strands of foxy-hued hair the only colour in the arctic tableau. A dark brown stain flowered near his right ear. In the distance the sound of tractors as they made their way back down the boreen. No one spoke.
A sleek black funeral car purred into the yard. The priest and doctor arrived soon afterward. In the parlour, the three men blenched and were strangely quiet. They shook hands with my father and ignored mother and I. Connolly swaddled Peter in the Station-best white cloth and cradled him against his chest to the car. He placed the bundle on the passenger seat and drove off. A smell of bacon and cabbage bubbled through the house.
Over the next few days neighbours swarmed in from the surrounding farms and further away villages. My parents were well liked, known for miles around as good farmers who always got the hay saved on time. People offered sympathy, pats of ‘sorry for your troubles’ to my parents and shuffled past the rest of us, unsure what to say to teenagers. They moved into the parlour where a different good cloth adorned the table. They talked in muted voices, experts on another’s tragedy, secretly relieved it wasn’t theirs. Phrases like, ‘They’ll never get over it’, or ‘what a terrible tragedy it is to lose a child’ grazed my ears. As if Peter had been put down somewhere and, for now, no one could quite recollect where. As if the lost baby would turn up at any moment and life would carry on—feeding pigs and saving hay. As if his life, or death, had nothing to do with Maria or me.
My parents received the hundreds of pressed handshakes and the condolences in stoic silence. Lilies and incense fragranced the church. Our family squeezed into the front pew. The priest looked towards us when he gave a short homily. About how it is god who gives and only god can take away, as if he addressed me alone. I wondered how much he knew, speculated what sorts of stories people shared in confession, and clasped my secret shame close.
Mesmerised I watched the small, white coffin borne along the grey gravel path that led from the church to the cemetery. The maw of the grave loomed large in proportion to the tiny casket it yawned to receive. No sounds, apart from blackbird song and shuffled feet, followed by a lilted susurrus murmuring five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. And then more handshakes and more moist eyed mourners mumbling in low voices about an accident and the mysterious ways of god.
After the burial, everyone returned in silence to the stilled, hushed house. The kitchen table was weighed down with sandwiches, casseroles, cakes, bottles of Powers and black porter: hospitality proffered as consolation. No one ate much— everything sawdust in throats ached raw with unshed tears. The visiting women sorted and cleared away the food. The men stayed in the parlour gulping stout from bottles dwarfed in large farm-worn hands.
At breakfast the next morning no one spoke. My mother looked as if a drawstring tugged her puckered lips tighter than ever. She sat and stared out the window. My father tucked into porridge and butter-slathered soda bread as usual. Maria hummed in between mouthfuls and swung her legs in time to a tune she alone knew.
The Murray men arrived to bale the hay which still lay in the top field and the meadow. It had the musty smell of grass about to rot but would make good enough fodder for the cattle during the long winter ahead. Both fields were baled and brought in on the one day. A few neighbours lent a hand. In silence, backs bent and hefted the dense loads onto the slow moving trailer. That night the clouds opened and poured rain. It proved Father correct. Again.
Mary Rose McCarthy has been awarded The Golden Pen, The Kenny/Naughton Prize, and The Amergin Prize. She’s twice been long-listed for the RTE Guide/Penguin short prize. Her work has been published in Crannóg and Boyne Berries. Mary Rose McCarthy is a freelance journalist regularly contributing to The Echo, cover features for Ireland's Own and for The Opinion, west Cork's biggest selling monthly magazine. She’s an award winning short story writer and a regular contributor to Fiction at the Friary. She’s written two novels not yet published and is working on a third. Having gone round in circles living in Dublin, London and Sierra Leone, she's now back where she started in West Cork, along Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way.