I sat alone in the dark, feeling the boat rock from side to side. The hollow sounds the boat made as the waves hit it told me how deep the water was beneath us.
What was that noise?
“It’s nothing,” I told myself. “It’s nothing.”
But it is something: the sound of a woman, starving in the hills, begging by the road for a coffin for her dead child. The sound of a man pulling blackened potatoes from the ground.
No, that was in Ireland. We weren’t in Ireland anymore. We were thousands of miles away, in the middle of the ocean. Ireland was where Ma, Da, and Nealy were. They were definitely not here.
“Creaak, Creaak.” Ireland was where there was no food, where people were starving. I shifted slightly. Where my family is, I thought.
I got up on my knees. “Good God, help me, I’m so hungry.” I grabbed my empty dinner plate and threw up into it. The boat swayed violently back and forth and I leaned back against the hull, feeling my stomach twist like a blade of grass in the wind. “Oh,” I moaned.
I threw up again, this time on the floor. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.
I remembered when I ate grass once. It was on the way to the boat when I had been so hungry. I had taken a handful of grass and shoved it into my mouth, trying to push it down my throat. As I chewed, I was crying. If I had been home I would have eaten potatoes around the fire with my family. We would never have eaten grass.
But that was gone now. The potatoes had died and Ma, Da, and Nealy were buried in the empty harvest field outside the house. My brothers were gone, too. They had left for America before me and I didn’t know exactly where they were.
“I miss them,” I whispered. “I wish they were here.”
I left Ma, Da, and Nealy behind when I closed the door to the house. I walked along the path, past fields of dead potatoes, past families taking refuge in the shadow of stones and dirt dugouts.
I began to cry. I remembered how this had all started the night the potatoes had died, how the wind moaned softly through the fields as we all got down on our knees to start an early harvest.
* * *
“Maggie, wake up,” Da said.
“What’s going on?” I wrapped my blanket around my shoulders.
“Nothing; nothing at all. We are just going to have an early harvest this year.”
Ma waited outside quietly. “Come children, get down here with me.”
“What’s going on?” Nealy asked.
“Hush, Nealy. Please help me.”
Nealy and I had pulled up potatoes while Da, Barrin, and Cahan collected them in their baskets. We worked hard until slowly the sun began to rise over the hills.
“Smell your hands,” Nealy told me. “They smell horrible.”
“Keep quiet,” I whispered. “We were told not to talk.”
Inside the house Da dumped his potatoes on the ground.
“Get me a knife,” he said.
One by one he opened each potato. “No,” he would say, “no, this one is not good either.”
Cahan picked up one of them. “Look,” he whispered as he ran his hands through the slit, “it’s black.”
Da looked up. “Yes,” he said. He put down his knife. “They are black. They are rotten.”
* * *
I remembered it was then that Da first went out to ask for food. He walked everywhere, to every house in Killala Bay, asking if they had any potatoes left. Some did have a few and some were like us and had lost their whole harvest this year. Those who did were unwilling to part with the potatoes they had, so Da came home empty-handed each day.
I dried my eyes. Now, I thought, even those who had potatoes before have lost them. They are all starving now.
Somebody coughed. I could hear a few more creaks as people stretched along the floorboards of the ship.
It smelled horrible in steerage, like waste and death. Yes, death has a smell. I had smelled it before when I had taken care of Nealy that night she had been sick and when Da and I had buried Ma. Every night I would fall asleep in the ship, lying in someone else’s filth, and every morning I would wake up to darkness.
There were long days that I spent sitting alone, listening to the sounds of people getting sick. I could feel myself get weaker and weaker, slowly fading into the other hundred people who were crammed below deck. I no longer strived to keep myself alive; now I just wanted to get off the ship.
I wish it would sink, I thought, then I would hold onto a piece of driftwood and float to America.
Or back to Ireland.
I could feel my stomach start to churn again. My mind went back to the third week Da could not find any food.
* * *
“We can live off the remaining potatoes from last harvest,” he said. “It will pull us through the winter.”
“But what about after that?” Ma asked. “What will we eat then?”
Da looked at the ground.
“We’ve lost everything,” said Ma. “What will we do?”
“I have asked everyone; nobody is willing to spare any potatoes.” Da put his hands up to the fire. “People have suffered losses, too. There is no harvest this year.”
We sat around the hearth, all six of us. The hollow silence seemed to echo through the room. There was no harvest; there was no food.
“What will we sell?” asked Nealy. “How will we earn money?”
“Hush.” Mama ripped a piece of bread off the loaf. “We will find other things to sell.”
“I will walk up to town tomorrow.” Barrin rose to his feet. “Perhaps there is a ship there that will bring provisions.”
Ma poked at the fire. “We will do what we must.”
I got up quietly. “Nealy and I are going outside.”
Outside the air smelled bad, very bad, like hunger. Nealy took my hand. “Maggie, are you hungry, too?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m going to faint I’m so hungry.”
I sighed. “It has only been three weeks; things will get better soon.”
She looked at me. “But what if they don’t? What if things don’t get better? What if there isn’t food for many more months? What if there isn’t food for years?”
I didn’t have an answer for her. “We will find some way to survive this. Be strong, Nealy.”
She shook her head. “I can’t. Did you hear that Mary Smith’s family was evicted from their house? They were thrown out into the cold because they couldn’t pay the rent, all eleven of them.”
I grabbed her shoulders. “We will survive. I promise you.”
She began to sob. “Maggie, I’m scared.”
“Hush,” I said, “hush, everything will be all right.”
* * *
I had promised Nealy that everything would be all right, but it hadn’t been. We made it through that year by living off of the last year’s harvest of turnips and wild onions. Da assured us that this year’s harvest would be better. But once again our potatoes were black.
* * *
“We will die if we stay here,” I heard Barrin say to Da one evening. “We must go somewhere else.”
“And where do you suggest?” Da answered quietly.
“America.” Barrin looked down. “There would be money and jobs. We could get food.”
Da laughed. “There is no money to go to America.”
“Yes, there could be if you sold the house. If we sold everything, we could pay for all of us to go.”
Da shook his head. “I will stay here; I will not sell this house.”
Barrin rose. “Cahan and I are going. We have saved up the money from the field work we’ve done and now we have enough to go.”
“You can’t go, how will we survive without you?” Da’s voice was firm. “You must stay.”
“If we stay, we will die. We must go to America. In a few months we will save up enough money to bring you all over. The Smiths have done it and now we will, too.”
Da frowned. “Who will help us get food?”
“Maggie and Nealy will help; they are strong girls.”
Da sighed. “You promise that we will all be together?”
Barrin nodded. “I promise.”
Barrin and Cahan left two weeks later. Da drove them down to Killala Bay in the cart while Ma, Nealy and I stayed home to gather food.
“You will see, girls,” said Ma, “we will all be together again.” * But we never were. Two months after Barrin and Cahan left we received a letter from them saying that they were alive and well.
Dear Ma, Da, Maggie and Nealy,
We have made it to America, hard though it was. Cahan was almost sent back because he had a slight cough and they thought he might have consumption. They do not like the Irish here. I do my best to talk like an American. We live with four other boys in a place on 101 Clark Street. You won’t know where that is, but don’t worry. We’ll find you when you get off the boat. We know some girls who work in a laundry where Maggie and Nealy can work and we’ll all take care of Ma and Da.
Your loving sons,
Barrin and Cahan
By that time Ma had died and Nealy was sick. Enclosed in the envelope was enough money for one ticket to America, but Da did not use it. He put the letter and the money in the jar where we had once kept our money.
I never asked Da about it; I didn’t want to leave. It occurred to me that Da might go to America and leave me and Nealy behind, but as Nealy grew weaker there was no way he would go by himself. The night Nealy died he brought out the letter.
“Maggie, take this,” he said softly, “take this and leave.”
I shook my head. “I will not go without you.”
“I’ll never make it, Maggie. You must go. You must go for both of us. Join your brothers and make a life in America.”
I took the letter. “Will you come later?”
He looked over at Nealy. “I will try.” He gave me a hug.
“I promised Nealy that everything would be all right,” I whispered.
“We can’t always keep our promises.” He looked down. “Now go, Maggie.”
“Let me stay here tonight. I will leave in the morning.”
* * *
And now, I think, I am alone.
I lie back against my cot, thinking of Ma, Da, and Nealy so far away.
“I wish they could come, too,” I say out loud. “I wish we could all be together.”
There is nothing I can do. They are gone.
But I am here. Maybe here to stay.