Famine Fever – Helena Mulkerns


He pulls me out of the cabin near the beach, and tells me the tide is alive. He says that out in the blue night a million tiny vessels are flowing along the current off to somewhere else, and he wants us to go with them. I say no. I am too scared. The hut near the beach is all we have, where we can rest in relative safety, considering the times.

His eyes are shining, like I haven’t seen them in a long while now. And there is more to him that has changed. He seems whole again, not weighed down with the horror, the filth, and the fear of this plague. He is like he was before, when there was never fear on him. Nuair nach raibh eagla riamh air. He fought hard through the hunger, but for all his handsome strength, he faded to a shadow like the rest of us in the end.

Yet tonight, here he is now, like a child with his talk of boats – and the sky coming down on us black as a grave, and something in the back of my mind shrieking loud and long like a storm. He is telling me that the moon will soon be out and I will see the boats. It is true he has me laughing – I see no boats yet, but I do see the moon, scattering milky and gentle down the beach like a dancer. I begin to walk with him into its wake, except that I have a terrible pain at the same time, dragging me backwards into the hut, and I am tormented by this shaking in my bones and this fire over my skin, and I am looking at him, but remembering too deep for the sea to wash it from my head …

In Dublin and London, they said it was God’s will for the lazy, teeming Irish, stricken for our own good, and they couldn’t interfere with God’s will. Our own said it was a judgement on our sins, but I never could quite work out what they were to deserve this. The first year, there was fierce talk of the blight coming westwards. Then one morning, I woke up to fearful screeching coming across the fields, as the Kelleher’s found their crop in the ground stinking black and mushy, like devils’ spits, the flowers fouled. Since then it went from bad to worse.

I smell the salt, crisp in the air. It is strange, this sea – the soft sucking swirls of surf curling like cats around the rocks, and the biggest space in the world under the sky. Tonight, a silver mist seeps around him as we walk down the strand, and he says, “listen: the bay is humming”. It occurs to me that it is the fish, the ones out in the deep we could never reach, singing to us. Then I shiver. Maybe it’s the dead-already, moaning from the night vapours. My mind keeps pulling back and forth between his light and my deepest horror, I am restless and dithering. But then I concentrate on my bare feet sliding gently into the sands, and it comforts me.

We weren’t as bad off as some. We had sub-tenants, and a decent cottage and animals. But like the rest, we paid the landlord in grains and produce, and kept the potato for living. Oats, butter, barley, eggs, all went to him, even though we’d never seen him in all our days, an absentee. He only sent his bailiffs to do his dirty work. But still, the potatoes did us well enough, and the rents had to be paid.

I was married only a few months then, and Liam was letting on of course, that it wasn’t a serious thing. So just to be sure, we kept the seed potatoes and sowed even more for the next year, and less grains. We thought we might even make some money. We were wrong. But nobody believed it would happen again, let alone a third time with the few seeders we had left for the ’47 crop.

“So,” he says to me, with that grin on him. “Are you coming?”

I peer out into the dark sea, pearl-speckled under the moon, and sure enough, he is right. You can just about distinguish an odd flurry of activity beyond the shore’s crashing wave line. I glimpse crafts tiny and majestic – some with lone mariners, some with groups, some with masts and riggings fit to cross the ocean altogether, some just curraghs. They are all heading in a westwardly direction. The light is tricky, sometimes they seem not to be boats at all. But it is beautiful, and terrifying at the same time. “Why are there so many?” I ask. “And where are they going?”

I glance back towards the village, empty now. Where once was crowded and bustling, now is dead to the world, and for a moment, the huddle of bothies look like so many ancient burial mounds, from centuries gone. But his shining tempts me. Now he is unmooring a curragh from a stone on the beach with a ring in it, and he begins talking again, the voice low, smiling in that old way of his. I can’t hearing everything he is saying, and I think of just letting him go, and returning to my son, when it strikes me like a blow that of course, the child is gone. They took him away for fear of the fever, and because I had dried out like an old hag – without nourishment for myself, there was nothing to sustain my milk. I sink into a kind of paralysis, and he lifts me into the boat.

After the second year, we had nothing really. We survived awhile on savings and things put by. Then after the second crop failure we killed the sheep, then the smaller animals. Then we ate carcasses of cattle, rabbits, birds, even dogs for food. We made soup from dandelions, nettles, docks, charlock and when we could find them, we ate mushrooms. Through all that, we kept the holding, since to leave the land was death. You could see that in the eyes of the beggars that were coming to my door every day, bands of them. Those who’d been thrown off the land, drifting souls whose families were dead, children orphaned and widows taken to the roads. The country was haunted by them, and if it wasn’t the road fever with its relapsing fits that got them, it was the famine fever, that rotted and roasted a soul alive – tormenting them with visions and nightmares, until it emptied the body out like a putrid fruit, a human blight.

Then there were the dreaded corpse men coming round the houses to take away the bodies and throw them into the mass graves in the bogs away up from the roads. Worse: if a family couldn’t afford that, or were too weak, they shoved the remains of children or parents into bog holes or ditches nearby, a shame never known before.

In the Spring of 1846, the fever hit the West, and I stopped giving to beggars, or even opening my door, The fear was terrible. The authorities had some schemes going, projects to employ people who could hardly stand, or soup kitchens where you had to give up your land for a bite. In the end, it sounds funny, but we ate the rent. That was the simple tragedy of it. I would not see us starve while the good grain was being shipped off to a landlord in England. The bailiff gave us an extra month, and then one day they just arrived with an eviction notice, and burned the house to the ground.

We came down from the mountains, then, outcasts ourselves, thinking that maybe the seashore would provide us with some nourishment. You’d want to have seen the state of us, staggering along the boreens like bone-brittle ghosts, aching and red with scurvy. My sister’s children had their bellies swollen out like pregnant dwarfs, and one was blinded with an eye-malady that seemed more to strike the small ones. We found this village deserted and wondered why, probably cleared by the landlord, we couldn’t be sure. Then when the tide ran low, we discovered that the sea was no salvation.

The shore had been stripped bare from end to end, not a sliver of seaweed to put into a pot, not a shellfish or a crab in a pool, nothing. And like the fishermen before us who had pawned their nets to eat after the first year, we had no fishing tools, nor craft to harvest the waters.

My brother-in-law wanted to continue along the coast to the workhouse ten miles away. My parents said rather die out in the winds than lying screaming under two-day corpses, like the stories went. Nobody got out of there alive anyway. In the filth, the fever raged wild, and there was nothing to eat but the brimstone grain they tried to give us instead of potatoes, ground glass to the stomachs of the starving. We decided to rest a little, but then the fever took Liam, and the rest were afraid to stay in the village.

The water gleams silver and its coldness is a shock, I am shivering. On the buoyancy of the tide, once we get out beyond the rollers, the current is surprisingly strong. I have never left land before, and wonder at the waves, filled with enough life as if they were creatures themselves. I see faces under the surface, huddled close beneath the water, and am frightened. My shuddering increases, and I toss my head with pain. They are malevolent, and reaching for me. But then I look at Liam and feel renewed. He is facing me, pulling back rhythmically on the curragh’s oars, and his silhouette is framed in deepest indigo speckled by a crowd of stars, and a growing glimmer from the West along the horizon. Which is strange, I think to myself, since dawn usually comes from the other way.

It was a desolate dusk, as I stood at the edge of the village, watching the others walk away over the hill until they were gone. I gave my child to my sister, since she’d already lost two, and I stayed with Liam. What could I do. He suffered for days with the bloody flux, the fever, seeing angels and devils and only knowing me sometimes, his voice gone and his face withered, until I felt he was almost beyond me. When my weeping wore out, I was so terribly alone, I screamed out loud at the Virgin, asking why I was left here with nothing to give him, only my own ragged arms and the sound of my voice, until I became so weak I lost that too. Only the shore-breaking of the waves answered me.

And now even the waves are far gone, and the humming sea soothes my terror. He is talking low again, that this will be a good journey. Maybe bring us somewhere the pest has not yet taken hold.

Alongside, towering over us, or bobbing lowly, a huge fleet is moving now with some speed. It is magnificent, but sinister, because I cannot make out who exactly it is sailing with us, their faces are all indistinct and black. It seems like we are all related, too. The faces on the boats, and the faces in the waves and even under the bogs.

Maybe it is America we were going to, there is always talk of that. On the estate down the road the landlord paid for all his tenants’ passages to Boston, to get them off his hands. The land had emptied out entirely, and the cottages were razed, those too weak to travel shunted off to the workhouse. Liam said it was a lonely stretch after that.

I am leaning back in the curragh, with my shawl around my shoulders, although it is warm, warm, almost unbearably so. I am looking at all the boats, when suddenly an old woman leans out towards me from another craft, her face obscured by shadow, and inquires, “What are you doing here so soon, girl? Don’t you know where we’re all going?”

The dark stink of her comes wafting over to me, and the moment I realise what it is, I am pulled down into the floor of the boat, and I can’t see Liam anymore, nor stars nor the milky glow across the heavens from the moon.

I am tossed over, gnarled up into a knot of skirts, my shawl flung from me, my body burning again. I am on the floor of the hut, the cramps gnawing my guts, and a lashing pain all around my back and arms and legs, slicing through every bit of me like a fishmonger’s knife. My skin is all aflame, but my clothes icy wet. The fire in the grate has almost gone out and as I get up on one elbow, the shaking takes me so badly I fall back again. Día eadrainn agus gach olc. God between us and all evil.

Not long ago Liam was like this, the sweat on his head and body, the tossing and swelling rash. A new, raw stench fills me up, and with the soreness in my fingers and toes, I know it is me. God, but I hadn’t meant to fall asleep, only wanting to stay beside him.

I am crying for the sea – the blinding beauty of the open ocean, and all the tiny boats there, sailing steady, and Liam with his hands calmly on the oars, I’ll not let that out of my head, I will fight the blackness with this beauty. The pain is battling to take over, it goes from the back of my neck through my eyes, engulfing me. I close them again, I swim back momentarily to the curragh, and he is as I’ve just seen him, blue-bathed, eyes out over the waters, alight with that old look of anticipation.

But this time, I am under the waves, within the pain-wracked hum of the under-creatures, and there is a terrible fear on me that he will be away off again before I can ask him where it is they are all headed, because I know he knows. Pulled down anew, I fall through black waters into a muddy bed, a muddy shack with a barren hearth, earth under me and an earthen roof to fall on me like a shroud.

I crawl, wretched as an animal, across the few feet of ground to where he lies, tangled in his own old coat, skeletal and still. Even through the wracking fever, my heart breaks at the ashen, emaciated face of him, hollow as a holy statue. I start to ask him what place is it out there in the night that we are all off to, but he is already gone.




  • Famine Fever was first published in Wee Girls, edited by Lizz Murphy from Spinifex Press (Australia, 1996), and then in Cabbage and Bones, edited by Caledonia Kearns, from Henry Holt (New York, 1997).  The story was nominated for The Pushcart Prize of that year.