Her mother named her after a saint, but in truth Annie was not a saint; neither was she a devil. She was just…different, in a time when it was dangerous to be so. The year was 1653, a time of great unrest, when the shadow of Cromwell’s forces moved over the land leaving death and destruction in their wake and bringing untold suffering to a once peaceful nation.
Annie Ryan knew all about suffering, though hers was of a different kind. Her home was in the hill country, and too wild and desolate to attract the invaders. Still, her pain was intense.
The wind whipped about her, and she gathered her two sisters closer to shield them from its touch. A shuffling beside her made her reach into a hidden pocket in the folds of her skirts, and she withdrew two coins. These were dropped into the dirty, outstretched hand of the gravedigger. Grunting his thanks, he pocketed the money and walked away. She never looked at him; as her eyes were fixed on the twin mounds in the earth, the place where they had just buried her mother and father. Annie, despite her knowledge of herbs and healing was not able to save them, and they died within hours of one another, victims of a plague that was raging in the village. It had claimed many lives up to now. The elders spoke of witchcraft, of a curse being put on them, but Annie knew it was not so. It came from the earth and from the rats and other vermin that abounded on it. There was nothing sinister about what was happening. The summer was long and hot. The meat grew putrid in hours, the milk soured, and the air was filled with flies that landed on the food leaving disease behind. She had no idea how she knew of such things, but she did. She had the power to see things others could not. Her sense of hearing and smell was more heightened than others, and she could hear the flapping of bee’s wings or smell the blood of a trapped rabbit, as it struggled to get free from its snare. Of course, her mother warned her never to speak about it, but word got around, and it was whispered she was a witch and in league with the Devil. She had been amused by the stupid talk and the women who made the sign against the evil eye, when she passed, but it was no longer funny. She had to be both mother and father to her sisters. Dora, the baby of the family had turned six and Rose, just three-years-older at nine, were all she had left in the world.
Annie was seventeen and used to her job as big sister, but it was under the guidance of her mother. Now she must stand alone, raise them as best she could and keep the promise she made to her mother on her deathbed.
Ushering the weeping girls away from the graves, she started towards home. Their cottage was on the outskirts of the village. It was hidden by the tall trees surrounding it and she liked it that way, it felt safe. A dark, thatched roof covered walls made from stone and mud. From a distance it looked quite picturesque and enchanting, but the truth was something else. It was cold and damp inside, moss and weeds grew between the cracks and crevices, and no amount of cleaning could keep it away. The few clothes they had felt wet against the skin, even though they hung from a rope stretched over the fire. The cold seeped into the bone, and it was easier to work outside than in. Her father farmed the large plot of land beside the cottage and this kept them in vegetables throughout the year. He was also a woodcutter and as well as supplying half the village with firewood, his carvings were everywhere. From the ornate arms of chairs, that would not have looked out of place in a manor house, to the small wooden dolls he made for his girls. He was truly gifted, everyone said so, but not in the way Annie was.
There were few enlightened souls in that dark time. Religious practices were frowned upon. It was a time of mistrust and grave superstition. When the dark deities who walked the land and circled the air found it easy to gain power
Annie sighed, as she sank into a chair, exhausted in both mind and body. Her sisters stood before her, frightened and unsure, so she held out her arms and they rushed into them. They felt warm, their touch familiar against her skin. They sniffled and burrowed even closer and she wanted to cry with them. The cottage was quiet. It was an after the funeral quiet, when one is alone with one’s thoughts, and the grief, the sense of overwhelming loss hits.
“Come now,” she roused them. “We’ll have something to eat. It’ll make us feel better.”
They nodded, and while Annie set about preparing the meal, they laid the table. She had already made a stew of beef, carrots, and potatoes, and this only needed to be reheated. The comforting, mouth-watering smell soon invaded the small kitchen, but she had no appetite. She stirred the food, glad of having something to do, and not wanting to turn and see the look on her sisters’ faces. The clatter of spoons and plates being put on the table seemed hollow and unnatural. Even the soft birdsong drifting in angered her.
She wrapped a cloth around the handles of the stew pot and brought it to the table. Taking a wooden ladle off its peg, she dished the steaming food onto the three plates. Her father carved this for her mother. Its large, deep curve narrowed up into a handle with the most intricate and delicate shapes of the trees growing in abundance outside the cottage. She fingered the wood for a moment and realizing her sisters were watching her, hurried the pot back to its place by the fire. They had their hands joined and their heads bowed when she sat down and were waiting for her to give thanks. Thanks for what; for being left frightened and alone with two small children? She could not bear to offer up a prayer. She was angry with both God and man.
“Will you say the blessing, pet?” She asked Rose.
“Please, God,” Rose whispered. “Please keep my Mam and Dad safe in Heaven. Bless me and Dora, but especially Annie. Do not let her get the sickness and die as well. Amen.”
The sobs Annie tried so hard to contain bubbled free, as she listened to the child’s prayer. Pushing her plate away, she put her head down on the table and howled. The days and nights of careful nursing had left her exhausted. There were a few times, when one or the other of her parents showed signs of rallying and her heart soared. But her hopes were dashed again and again, until finally they succumbed. She cried until she felt sick; big tears ran into the grooves and notches in the table wood forming tiny pools. She did not hear the soft crying of her sisters as they stroked her back, or the opening of the cottage door.
“Annie Ryan, you stop sniffling this minute.”
She wiped her eyes and stared at the figure silhouetted in the doorway. Meg Matthews stood leaning on her walking stick, her face stern beneath the hood of her black cape. Meg had been in her life as far back as she could remember. She was honorary grandmother to the three girls and Annie’s teacher. Meg had the gift, but hers was not as strong as Annie’s. As soon as she was old enough to talk, Meg took her under her wing and taught her the names of plants and roots. The art of healing came easily to Annie. The art of combining herbs and roots and discovering which ones were poisonous and harmful and could bring about death if not properly handled, was learned with amazing speed. Annie watched, still sniffling, as the old woman hobbled her way towards the fire, her stick tapping on the stone floor.
“Come here, child,” she ordered when she was comfortable in a chair.
Annie stayed where she was. She was numb with grief and her eyes felt sore from crying. With her free hand, Meg withdrew something from beneath her cape and the two younger girls ran to her with exclamations of delight. Annie got up to see what all the fuss was about. A small black kitten stood on the old woman’s lap. It purred and arched its back towards the gentle stroking of the children’s hands.
“Is he ours, Meg?” Dora asked. “Can we keep him?”
“What do you say, Annie?” Meg smiled.
Annie ran the back of her hands across her cheeks, wiping away the last few tears. She looked down into the hopeful, upturned faces of her sisters, and realized for the first time that day, there was no sign of their loss.
“I dare say he’ll not eat us out of house and home.”
“He’ll not be long in growing and filling out,” Meg handed the kitten to the girls. “Take him outside and play.”
They went out, squabbling over who owned the kitten, and what his name was. When they were out of earshot, Meg turned to Annie.
“Sit by me child and listen well. It will do you no good to grieve so. Those little ones need you to be strong. Your parents, God rest their souls,” she crossed herself. “Are safe and in God’s hands. They’d not want you to go on like this, now would they?”
“No,” Annie mumbled.
“It’s not that my heart doesn’t bleed for you and your loss, child. But it is your health I’m thinking of. Grief makes you weak, and in times such as these any weakness can be fatal.”
She knew Meg was right, but she had a right to be sad. The old woman seemed to read her thoughts.
“Of course, you’ve a right to grieve, and they’ll be many times in the days ahead when you’ll want to cry, but all I’m saying is don’t let it overwhelm you, understand?”
“Yes,” Annie rose from her chair and knelt beside the old woman.
The thin arms encircling her were strong and the heavy woollen cape smelt of the woods. Of evergreens and hollyhock, even the warmth of the sun seemed trapped within its fibres.
“I’d have come with you today, child. But my old legs are playing me up again, and I find the walking hard.”
“I know you would.”
“Was there anyone else there?”
“No, no one, just me and the girls.”
“Not even old Mary O Brien and her scrawny son?”
“Well, the curse of God on them and they related by blood to you. The least they could’ve done was show their faces.”
“They might be sick.”
“Sick indeed,” the old woman snorted. “Not even the sickness would touch those two. “Why, they’d skin a flea for its hide. The grasping, miserly pair of them that’s in it.”
“Am I to take it you don’t like them, Meg?”
The old woman laughed.
“I suppose you could say that,” then serious. “Your father took care of everything?”
“Yes, everything,” Annie knew what she meant.
Her father called one of the elders to him when he realized how sick he had become. The cottage and the two acres with it, he willed to Annie, an unthinkable thing in a time when land was passed to the male heir. Women rarely owned anything, and if it had not been for her father’s hindsight, they would be homeless, and the cottage and property in the hands of his distant cousin, Hugh O Brien.
“That’s good,” Meg was relieved. “That keeps you safe for now.”
“Why for now?”
“Ach, don’t mind me child and my old ramblings. Here, help me stand.”
Annie got up and held out her arm. Meg, leaning on it, groaned her way up.
“I’ll need your help come morning. They’re coming to me in droves looking for medicines to ease their suffering,” she stopped on the threshold. “You’ll collect the herbs and roots I need?”
“Good girl,” Meg patted her hand. “We have a hard-few weeks before us. The sickness grows stronger and the need for help greater. You’ll have to take it to those too ill to leave their beds.”
“I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
“I know you will.”
Annie watched her until she was lost from sight. She heard her sisters’ shouts of farewell echoing from within the forest, and the old woman stopped long enough to wave to them. Annie had no way of knowing, as she went inside to reheat the food, how troubled Meg was.
Two acres of land and a cottage might not seem much, but people have killed for less. Acquiring such left Annie open to the fortune hunters, who would do anything to get their hands on them. There was one, Meg thought, as she walked along, that no-good Hugh O Brien. He had never worked an honest day in his life, despite the fact he lived in one of the best houses in the village. Well under the thumb of his scheming mother and apt to do anything on her say so, he posed a very real threat to Annie. She saw the way he looked at the girl. Meg beat at the ferns in her path with her stick and wished all the while each one was Hugh. Still, who could blame him? Annie was the most beautiful woman in these parts. There were few who failed to notice her, with her waist-length auburn hair hanging about her like a thick cloak, and the green, searching eyes that seemed to look into your very soul. But he was no good and his feelings for Annie were nothing but lust. He was not capable of loving her or anyone else. He was best avoided, and she’d see he was kept away from the child, one-way or the other. She shivered remembering the dreams. They came regularly now, disturbing her sleep and making her days as restless as her nights; always the same, never deviating in any way. That was what frightened her the most, they were so real. Each one starting with a low chanting, rising to a scream, and the crackling of burning timber, and red flames leaping high into the darkness surrounding them. She smelt the smoke, even now in the clear air. It was a bad omen. There was something evil in the air. There was talk of a curse being placed on the village, but she had dismissed this as superstitious nonsense. The ignorant folk were always looking for someone to blame for life’s tragedies. It was a puzzle, and as she walked homewards, she prayed her sleep would be undisturbed that night.