The first night after her parent’s burial was the longest in Annie’s life. Unable to sleep, she lay awake and listened to the steady, rhythmic breathing of her sisters. Twice during the night, she thought she heard sounds coming from her parents’ room, but she knew it was not possible. They were lost to her forever. Crying silently, lest she awake those she loved more than her life, she watched the window, and it was a relief, when the first rays of sunlight crept into the room.
There was freshly baked bread ready when the children woke, and she gathered eggs from the hen roost behind the cottage. Rose and Dora ate with gusto, scraping the shells in search of the last remaining bits of egg. It was amazing how well they had adjusted to their loss. After washing up and straightening the rooms, she got ready to leave. The children would have to come along with her, as she could not risk leaving them alone. Throwing a shawl around her shoulders, she set off for the deepest part of the forest. Here the berries and herbs were plentiful and untouched by the scavenging birds. It took a few hours to find all the plants she needed, and she arrived at Meg’s cottage with two hot and irritable children in tow.
After a cool drink, they settled down to play with the assortment of animals Meg had rescued over the years. There was a jackdaw, whose damaged wing made flight impossible and who had become as tame as all the other animals. A dog and six cats made up the rest of the menagerie. The squirrels nesting in the trees beside the cottage came and accepted berries from the children’s outstretched hands, and the odd deer with her fawn in tow stopped by on her meanderings through the forest. All of them, from the smallest creature knew they were safe with Meg, and as she often said, an animal like a child, has to be taught to fear.
While the children played, Meg and Annie got down to the more serious job of mashing and grinding the plants and berries. When the right consistencies were achieved, they placed spoonfuls of the mixture in small pieces of cloth and tied the top of each piece. There were many callers to the cottage that morning, and all were seen by Meg, and given one of the little bundles.
“The sickness seems to be getting worse,” Meg shook her head. “There have been four deaths in the village overnight and many more are at deaths door.”
This information came from the last caller. Once all the bundles were ready, Annie loaded them into her basket and with a list of names; she set out for the village. Despite their protests, she ordered the children to stay behind with Meg. There was no sense in exposing them to the very real danger of the sickness.
The roads were deserted as she walked along. There was no trundling of farm carts as one might expect, and it was with heavy heart she approached the village. The lack of children playing in the street was a good indicator of how bad things were. She knocked at the first door on her list and was surprised by the hostile greeting she received. The bundle was snatched from her hand without thanks and the door slammed shut. She stood gazing at the wood for a moment before shrugging her shoulders. Maybe the sickness was making everyone cranky. The reception she got at each house was much the same and she was glad when there was only one more to go. This was the home of Jane O Regan. Jane was a widow with four children and had been a lifelong friend of Annie’s mother. The welcome she would receive here would be quite unlike the others. Annie tapped on the house door. A feeble voice bade her enter and she lifted the latch and walked into the gloomy interior. A makeshift bed lay in front of a blazing fire. Jane was sitting in the centre of the bed surrounded by all four of her children and each one was in the grip of some terrible fever.
“Annie, thank God you’ve come,” Jane brushed a lock of sweat-drenched hair from off her forehead.
“You should have sent word,” Annie put down her basket and hurried to check on the children.
They were burning up. What little clothes they wore stuck to their skin and had to be peeled off. She ran and fetched water from the well. Dousing the fire, she opened the windows as wide as possible. The heat was a breathing ground for the sickness, and despite Jane’s protests they had a chill, Annie washed down each one of the sweating children. Iris, the youngest child, seemed the most stricken and after mixing the herbs with water Annie spoon-fed her. The child fussed and tried to pull away, but Annie managed to get the spoon between the chattering teeth, and the child was forced to swallow. Each of the children was dosed in the same way and Jane accepted the liquid gladly. Pools of dried vomit stained the blankets, so picking up the children, Annie carried them, one by one, upstairs to their own room. Jane was helped to sit in a chair beside the fire, and Annie gathered up the soiled blankets and threw them outside.
“God bless you, Annie,” Jane caught her hand. “I don’t know what we’d have done without you.”
“I’m glad to help, but I wish I’d know sooner.”
“You had your own troubles; child and I didn’t want to add to them.”
“Well, I’m here now, and here I’ll stay, until you’re better.”
“Thank you, child. You’ve no idea what it has been like here. I have not had the strength to walk as far as the well. We would’ve died without you.”
“There now, don’t take on so,” Annie patted her back. “You’ll feel better when you’ve eaten something.”
“There’s not a scrap of food in the house. I haven’t been able to do a decent day’s work in months, and to tell the truth, child, there’s not much call for my services now.”
Jane was a seamstress and people were more concerned with saving their money for doctors and medicine, than worrying about their appearance.
“Never mind,” Annie assured her. “I have some money. I’ll go and buy food.”
This small act of kindness made Jane cry, and Annie was glad when she was once again outside in the fresh air and away from the cloying atmosphere in the house. She bit her lip as she walked towards the only shop in the village. The seven shillings in her pocket was all the money she had in the world. She was well able to farm the land, but without her father’s income from the woodcutting, they would be penniless. Her father was so proud he was not tied to any landlord and his land was his own. He had sworn none of his children would be bonded into service. But that prospect seemed possible now, and Annie was thinking of looking for work in one of the big houses in the area. A position of governess would suit her, having been taught to read and write by her mother. Her education though limited, was enough to secure such a position in this wild area of the country. The only thing holding her back was the fact she was catholic, and anyone rich enough to employ a governess would surely want someone of the protestant religion. Still you never know, she thought, as she swept into the shop, stranger things have happened.
“Good day to you, Miss. Ryan,” Pat O Malley, the shopkeeper smiled.
Annie felt herself blush. Pat O Malley was always winking at her, when they passed in the street, and she tried to gather her thoughts and ignore his cheeky grin, as she ordered only the basic ingredients she needed. Flour, milk, and some scraps of mutton. The potatoes, carrots, and eggs she could fetch from her own store at home. She would have to go back to Meg’s anyway and ask her to care for her sisters until Jane was well enough to cope. Although she hated leaving them alone so soon, Jane’s need was greater than theirs.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she blushed again, as she realised Pat was speaking to her. “I was miles away.”
“I said I was sorry to hear about your loss.”
“Thank you. You are truly kind,” she started to load her purchases into her basket. “How much do I owe you?”
His cheeky grin had returned, as he answered.
“I’m afraid the prices have gone up a lot. I’ll have to charge you…” he mused. “One kiss.”
“Why, Mr O Malley,” she pretended to be shocked. “Nothing could be that expensive.”
He laughed at her reply and putting her hands on her hips, she stamped her foot.
“Pat O Malley be serious for a moment and tell me what I owe you.”
“Miss Ryan, the very sight of you has made all such thoughts vanish from my head.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, and he held up a hand to still her protests.
“Take it, with my blessing.”
“I take nothing for nothing.”
Annie Ryan had the same proud streak as her parents.
“Well, bring me half a dozen eggs the next time you’re passing.”
“A half dozen eggs for all this?”
“What can I say?” he held up his hands in mock horror. “Eggs are as rare as fairy dust around here.”
Snatching the basket from off the counter, she retorted.
“I’ll bring them in tomorrow morning. I’d not like to be beholden to you.”
Aw, now,” his laughter followed her. “Is that anyway to talk to your future husband.”
She knew he had walked to the door and was watching her. Her mother always teased her about Pat, and Annie knew despite the fact he was incredibly old at twenty-eight, that her mother hoped they would make a match. She was still grinning when the voice startled her.
Good day, cousin. It’s nice to see you and in such good spirits.”
Mary O Brien smiled at Annie’s stunned expression.
“Why, child, you’d think you’d just seen the Devil himself rather then your own cousin.”
“Sorry,” Annie managed to stutter. Mary O Brien never passed her the time of day and here she was calling her cousin!
“I was so sorry to hear about your poor parents passing,” Mary bristled. “And I’d have come to the funeral I assure you. But I have been quite ill myself, and dear Hugh has been such a comfort to me. Why,” her grin was wolfish. “I wouldn’t allow him out of my sight. You understand I’m sure.”
“Yes, Mrs. O Brien. I understand.”
“Now, now, dear. You must call me cousin. After all Hugh and I are all the family you have left.”
“If you’ll excuse me,” Annie tried to walk past her.
“Yes, of course, my dear.”
Annie could see she had insulted the woman, and she knew Mary O Brien made a very bad enemy. She had heard many tales of her trouble causing in the village.
“I have to attend to Jane O Regan,” she offered as a token of appeasement. “She and her children are very ill.”
“Very well,” she seemed to accept this “But I’ll call on you soon.”
Annie nodded; she was glad of the chance to get away. Mary O Brien frightened her, and her dreadful son was even worse.
Pat O Malley was still watching Annie and saw what happened. He knew what a dangerous woman Mary O Brien was. He had seen many of her acts of cruelty. Always the first to point the finger, and any woman prettier than she was became a likely target. She had caused more rifts in marriages than adultery ever had. With a tongue worthy of the most poisonous snake, she spread her venom across the village. No one could escape her vengeance once she’d set her sights on them. It was rumoured her late husband only died so he could get away from her nagging. Recently she had been complaining about the gypsies who were camped in the woods.
“They are filthy,” she told anyone who would listen “And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were the cause of the sickness.”
Everyone agreed with her except Pat, who pointed out the gypsies arrived well after the sickness started. His observations were answered with an angry glower. Still, she would never go against him. He was too well off. It was easier for her to pick on the poor and the lonely. Her husband had left her well provided for and with too much time on her hands. Rather than use her hours in more productive ways, she chose to cause trouble, and excelled at her chosen profession. She even converted to the protestant religion in order to curry favour with the gentry in the area. It also made life easier for her son. Pat felt a stab of dread at the thought. If anything were to happen to Annie, Hugh stood in line to inherit. Everyone in the village knew Annie’s father willed the cottage and land to her. What was that woman up to; she had never shown an interest in her relationship with the family before? Surely, she was not thinking of making a match with Hugh and Annie? He would never allow such a thing to happen. Hugh had the same streak of cruelty as his mother, and Annie would never survive as his wife. If he were honest, he would have to admit to the stirring of jealousy. He had always loved Annie. She was as kind as she was beautiful, and he was aware that there were many with their eye on her. He would marry her in an instant, but he knew she was not interested in him. It would take someone incredibly special to capture Annie Ryan’s heart.
After dropping off her purchases in Jane’s house and putting the meat on to boil, Annie set off for Meg’s cottage. There were protests from her sisters, but they were half-hearted, as they were happy enough to stay with Meg, especially when she promised to make fudge after Annie left. Meg was sad to hear about Jane’s suffering and plied Annie with more of the medicine, and a list of things to do to speed up its effects. Stopping off at her own cottage, she collected the things she would need for the coming vigil. She also carried as much as she could of the potatoes, carrots and the six eggs for Pat. The shop was closed and shuttered when she arrived back in the village, so she left the eggs wrapped in cloth, outside the door.
Jane’s kitchen was filled with the smell of cooking. Peeling the carrots and potatoes, Annie added them to the bubbling meat and some herbs to flavour the stew. When it was ready, she handed Jane a bowl. Taking a crude wooden tray from off the dresser, she put four more bowls onto it and carried it upstairs. The three older children were already showing signs of recovery and had cooled down. After helping them to sit up, they were able to feed themselves, but little Iris showed no sign of wanting to eat. She lay as though drained of all energy and burning hot. Annie once again, washed her down and gave her more of the mixture to drink, but she was frightened. Her parents had looked the same way as Iris did before they died. Perhaps, the sound of her mother’s voice would encourage the child to eat. Jane had to be helped up the stairs. Annie sat on the side of the bed and Jane lay down beside her child, fussing and talking to her. She begged Iris to try and eat, but it was hopeless. Her little body had suffered much and though she loved her mother and wanted to please her, she could not fight the sickness. Annie tried to still the fire burning inside the child. She spent the night washing her down and making her drink the mixture, but it was hopeless. By morning, the fire died along with the child. It was left to a heart-broken Annie to wake the mother and tell her of the tragedy. It was also Annie’s job to carry the blanket-wrapped bundle to the graveyard, as Jane was too weak and grief-stricken to carry out the task herself.
Once more Annie’s money dropped into the gravedigger’s outstretched hand. There were still four more patients requiring her care, and she had to be strong for their sakes, but she was weary. She wanted to lie down in the soft grass and sleep. To wake to find it was a bad dream and hear her mother calling to her from the kitchen. Hear the saw and smell the wood as her father worked beside the cottage. She suddenly felt old, old, tired, beaten, and resenting the walk to the village. The houses looked grey in the harsh pink white of the morning light. The streets were silent, and her footsteps resounded in the quiet. The air was much colder, and Annie hoped this would end the sickness. A good few day of frost would kill it off, after that everything would be much better.