Their turf roof sunk into the sides and the hut staggered like a drunken soldier. It stood out from the others because it lay on the knob of earth called the dog’s leg that rose behind it, and on a good day Sullivan caught a glimpse of grey smoke coming from the blue slate roofs of the market-town of Ballynafail. A glen, and a rapid torrent from the mountains, cut them off from any semblance of a paved road. His eighteen-year-old wife, Mary, crooned as she lay in the dirty straw and tried suckling their dead son, Seamus. Her hair fell over her face, crow black as her dark eyes that had once shown brightest, and promised all kinds of mischief. The only crop now was diarrhoea and fever. Because of their position the autumnal sun sloped west passing the open door and was lost in the gloom. She shivered. He did too, let his head rest against the earthen wall, and shut his eyes.
Summer had been sunless with ceaseless rain—day after day, week after week—but there was still hope the potato crop would grow into healthy lumpers.
Father McGonagle, who’d married them, a small man with sandy hair and a cough, came to sprinkle Holy water. He blessed the inshots and outshots that made up the dog leg that stretched off from the more fertile land, but told him of prophecy and payment for the sins they’d committed:
‘An eagle will be sick, but the bed of the sick eagle is not a tree, but a rock. And that rock is the Irish faith. An’ there, he must suffer till the curse of our heavenly Father is removed from him. An’ then he’ll get well, an’ fly over the world.’
The potatoes already gone, the stench overpowering. Even in the rain, and under cover of the trees, the priest covered his nose with his scarf.
‘Ask yourself, isn’t the Almighty in his wrath, this moment proclaimin’ it through the heavens and the good airth? That’s Saint Columba. Everywhere we look the mark of God’s displeasure.’
Sullivan shook his head and avoided his grey eyes. He’d nothing to offer the priest but water. There was plenty of water. He watched him squelch up to his ankles and over his boots through the mud of the dirt track to the foot of the hill. Holding a hand up in farewell and blessing with the sign of the cross. He too was carried off by the fever, days later. And Sullivan wondered if the priest had brought the fever that had killed Seamus. And if he hadn’t asked for the priest’s blessing, his son would still be alive and his wife not gone mad with the grief.
She’d prayed the rosary and called on the Virgin Mary’s protection. He’d muttered along the responses and they’d argued, until she fell into numbed silences. She looked at him with expressions of eagerness and anger which was worse when she tried to feed Seamus.
Three days had passed since oatmeal had passes their lips. Their peat turf lay oozy in neglected heaps. Not enough sun to dry it and nothing to cook with. They’d chewed it like sinners, washing it down with cold water. Mary chewed it and spat it into Seamus’s mouth, like a bird feeding its young. When Seamus howled and spat it out, she held his mouth shut, rubbing his throat until he swallowed.
Donnelly came at them unawares, standing at the doorway with that grin on his face. He’d his father’s long coat on for he’d long since died, but was no match for its width and height and he’d took to wandering inside it. He swept off his battered hat in greeting and his red hair lit like a flame as he made as if to enter, but stopped.
‘Have you the fever?’ he asked. He looked across at Mary, his eyes dropping from her breasts and a redness creeping into his cheeks as he looked to Sullivan for an answer.
Sullivan raised a hand to cover his mouth. ‘We have.’ He stirred and sat up a little straighter to get a better look at Donnelly, ‘But you’re a sight for sore eyes. I thought you and everyone—gone?’
‘They are, apart from me,’ he spoke with some relish, smacking his lips. ‘And you.’
His bones hurt like an old man’s as Sullivan tried to rise. ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t a bite to offer you.’ He’d heard things about Donnelly that no man should hear, but they’d been more than friends, more like brothers.
Donnelly stepped inside and held his hand out, underneath the dampness there was an animalistic stench. His grip was still strong as he pulled him close and helped his stand. ‘We must go,’ he said.
‘Go where?’ Sullivan asked.
‘Columba’s risen again. Up at The Dang. He’s feeding the people loaves and fishes and anointing the sick.’
‘Well,’ Sullivan wetted his lips. ‘We’ve have a hard reckonin’. And we thank you for the news. But we’ll stay here a wee bitty longer.’
Matted straw stuck to Mary's dress as she crawled out of the corner. She clutched Seamus to her covered breasts and flicked a finger through her matted hair. ‘Indeed we will not. Don’t you understand? He can cure him. He can cure our son.’
She stumbled towards the door. Donnelly grasped her wrist and smiled, keeping her from falling.
‘Hurry,’ Donnelly said. ‘There’s no tellin’ how long he’ll be here. May my tongue rot like a Protestant’s in my mouth if I’m tellin’ you a lie?’