Friday, September 25, 1940
Not even the constant wailing of the three newborn babies in the next room could shake the darkness settling over Sean Clancy Shaunessy's soul as he gazed down upon serenity found in his wife's face.
It wasn't that he denied Maeve the peace and contentment she seemed to have found. He knew he'd been less than the ideal husband to her these past five years. Yet, he'd provided her a home, if not wealth. And while he might have a slight proclivity to allow chores at home to slide while he visited the other boys down at the pub, at least he'd never beaten her the way some of the boyos bragged about how they kept their wives in line.
Sean slid down into the chair, sitting next to the bed and recently vacated by the sawbones doctor from the village. Worrying the brim of his cap between nervous fingers, he gazed down at Maeve.
It just wasn't right. He hadn't known. Then again, she hadn't known either. Three babies. After five years of suffering the pitying looks of her friends, Maeve had been so surprised and happy when she'd finally caught a child in her womb. She'd worn the months regally, like a queen, as she'd proudly strutted about the village to shop for necessities or to go to Mass.
That she seemed to balloon to incredible size in the waning months of her waiting hadn't seemed that strange to Sean, but then again, it was only after she'd mentioned it to him that he'd really noticed. Neither had expected that she was carrying three babes at one time. When God answered prayers, he seemed to really answer them in a most dramatic fashion.
Either that or it was the mischief of the fairies. Anxiously, Sean made the sign of the cross quickly with his callused, thick fingers. Everyone knew that the fairies were thick between Kenmare and Killarney. And here Sean sat smack dab betwixt the two, a haven for all sidhe.
He tried to think of anything that he might have done to offend the wee creatures. It was said that those not retiring early enough might incur the ire of the fairies. He and Maeve hadn't stayed up late at night, just in case they wanted to convene a meeting in their house. Besides, there was Old Puss, their cat, and cats were supposed to warn their people if the fairies were stirring near the house. And Old Puss hadn't stirred much at all except when Sean came in a wee late from the pub and had accidentally stepped on her tail.
Maeve had also crushed all the eggshells in the house into tiny pieces as soon as she'd broken them open. So, no fairies could have hidden in the shells. And they'd always left a few morsels of food, no matter how scarce that might be, in case a passing sidhe needed a wee bit to eat.
Sean shook his head. It was too late now to speculate just how three babes had arrived all at once. What was he to do now?
Maeve had seemed well enough that noonday when he'd come in from the fields to eat a bit of bread and butter. Of course, she'd complained of the odd aches and twinges, but then she'd been doing that for weeks. He'd told her to have herself a bit of a laydown during the afternoon, and she'd agreed readily enough.
What ever had come into her mind after he'd left? What made her so impatient with him that she had to start whitewashing the small room they'd planned to make a nursery for the baby? Sean corrected himself-babies. She'd moved furniture, lugged that heavy pail into the house, began slapping the thin white paint on the walls and that's where he'd found her, writhing in pain on the floor, with the brush still in her hand.
He'd managed to carry her to their small bedroom, ripping down the curtains that surrounded it in his haste to make her a bit comfortable. They lay where they'd fallen, only instead of the crisp white, bleached by the sun, they were covered with the prints of cobbled boots and speckles of blood.
Maeve had seemed in such torment that he'd rushed from the cottage and ran to the village, bypassing the midwife and heading straight for the doctor's door. Of course, the sight of him dragging the man from his supper and through the streets of the village while he still was pulling on his coat must have caused quite a consternation. They'd no more than arrived when the first of Maeve's friends came to the door. They shooed him outside while they saw to the doctor's needs: boiling water, tearing strips of muslin, shushing her screams of pain.
Sean had paced back and forth in the small path in front of the cottage, begging God to let him bear the agony his beloved was enduring. Paddy arrived quickly, pulled from the pub as news spread that it was Maeve's time. Sean couldn't even bring himself to take even a small pull from the fiery whiskey that Paddy had brought, not with Maeve's screams echoing in his ears.
Then, there was a silence, followed by the wailing of a babe. Paddy had clapped Sean on the back, congratulating his good fortune. Sean stuck his head inside the door, watching the women crowding around Pegeen, Maeve's best friend, who held a small bundle in her arms. He was just about to step back into the cottage when the screams from the bedroom began anew. He watched Pegeen shove the bundle into another woman's arms and scurry to help the doctor.
Paddy had to hold Sean, whose only thought was to fly to Maeve's side, away from the door. "Leave it to the women and the sawbones, Seano," Paddy had said, forcing the jug of whiskey in Sean's hands. "Take a sip. It'll help, I guarantee."
Instead, Sean collapsed against the wall of the cottage, dropping helplessly down to the ground. It was only as he set the jug between his legs that he noticed he was sitting on the scraggly red and blue flowers Maeve so tenderly nurtured by the doorway. As if they were hotter than the flames of hell, he jumped up and away.
In anything, the screams of pain seemed to intensify. Clapping his hands over his ears, Sean ran. He ran as fast as he could and as far as he could until he felt his legs collapsing beneath him. He turned and looked down the hill at the cottage below. Though he had attempted to escape Maeve's banshee howls of pain, it seemed he could still hear it echoing in his ears. Yet, looking down at the cottage, it seemed as if it were any other day. Light smoke poured from both fireplaces, the one in the kitchen and the one in their living room. The whitewashed sides of the cottage and its green-tiled roof stood in stark contrast to the gathering darkness of the night. Light danced in the front windows, happily beckoning to him.
Helpless. Hopeless. He sank to the ground and waited. Surely Paddy would come and get him when it was safe, when it was over. When Maeve would be smiling and jolly again, as she'd always been since the day he'd met her six long years ago, when he'd traveled all the way to Carrigaline to look at a fine bull that would improve his small herd of dairy cows. Maeve, the farmer's daughter, all of sixteen with a mop of red curly hair and skin as pure and as smooth as the petals of a rose, greeted him and bade him to have a cup of tea while waiting for her father.
If there had been such a thing as love at first sight, then the fairies contrived to cast an equal spell over both of them. Sean had stayed but a week, and when he'd returned to the little farm that he'd inherited from his father, he brought with him both a bull and a promise for the future. He hadn't seen her in the weeks while the banns were called and all was prepared for the wedding, but he'd used the time to prepare their home. It was a sturdy cottage, but Sean whitewashed it all, inside and out. Painted the shutters a deep green. Swept and tidied. Maeve deserved only the best.
And the best was what he'd wanted to give her, but he'd failed at that. He'd wanted to give her the world in a jeweled case, but instead, he'd barely been able to scrape enough money from the dairy to pay the rates and keep a bit of food in the pantry.
Yet, even when the optimism of a bride faded from Maeve's face and she bent herself to the task of helping him with the dairy as well as keeping their house, she'd never failed to support and encourage him. He loved her for it, but in his feelings of failure, he'd too often sought comfort in a glass of ale and the company of other men, away from the reminders of his failures at home.
Well, he'd make up for it all. He prayed to God to stop her suffering. Asked God to bring her peace and contentment. And God or maybe the fairies answered the prayer too well.
Sean barely felt the tears falling from his eyes and down his cheeks. He only knew that as he sat there watching Maeve, at peace at long last, that his vision of her was growing hazy. Perhaps it was the fairies, come to escort her away from him and the death he'd brought to her to her shining mansion in heaven.
Well, they couldn't have her. Sean threw himself from the chair, down upon her lifeless body, sobbing uncontrollably.
"Leave her, I tell you! Damn you fairies!" he screamed, grabbing hold of the linen sheet that covered her body tightly in his clenched fists. "You can't take her. Not now. Not ever. Not unless you take me, too."
A hand rested on Sean's shoulder. Through the tears he glanced up at Pegeen. Gently, she grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him into her arms.
"Shhhh there, there, Sean. You're doing her no good now. Leave her to her peace," Pegeen crooned softly as she held him. "You've three wee ones who need you. Go see to them. The hours have past. More than two hours you've been sitting here. Go see your girls. Let us take care of Maeve."
Sean felt himself passed from woman to woman until he was out of the room. Another failing, he'd allowed them to do it without even raising a defense. He'd let them do it, the weakling he was, because it was just too painful to see his failure all over again in the placid face of his Maeve.
"Sean Clancy Shaunessy, I'm ashamed of you," Pegeen scolded, turning round from table where she'd been bathing one of the babies. "It's been six months. There's no need for the women of the village to take on this extra work any longer. They've work enough in their own homes. Surely, if you're not capable of tending the lasses yourself, then you can hire some day help to come in while you're tending your chores. But eventually, Sean, you're going to have to see to these babies yourself. You're their father. Or have you forgotten that?"
All three babies decided that was the most appropriate moment to send a hue and cry of indignation, opening their tiny mouth and wailing loudly. Sean clapped his hands over his ears.
"They're not my children, Pegeen," Sean declared, shaking his head. "I tell you, my children are out in the hills somewhere-with the fairies. These bawling brats could never be mine."
"Not the fairies again. Sean, how could the fairies have switched your babies for theirs? And why?"
"They weren't baptized proper in time. And there was no one to put the salt in the bag tied around their necks to keep the fairies from taking them. You told me yourself no one thought of that," Sean accused, reaching a shaky hand for his cup of tea. "And you know the truth of it. I cursed the fairies that black day. And it was a Friday. The fairies are the most powerful on a Friday and they can hear everything a mortal says on that day of the week. It's revenge for me cursing them, I tell you."
Sean settled back into his chair by the fire in the kitchen and nodded his head solemnly. Pegeen was a fine woman, and a good friend to Maeve to take on so much of the babies care on her own shoulders. But, Sean knew as well as he knew his own name that he'd been cursed.
Pegeen picked up one of the babies and carried it to Sean, ignoring his attempt to shy away and placing the baby in his arms. Immediately, the baby quieted and looked up at him, cooing softly.
"Take a good look at that baby, Sean Clancy. Is that not your black as midnight hair? Are those not your emerald green eyes? Is that not your nose and your mouth? You are stamped over every bit of your girls," Pegeen railed at him. "And if you're too blind to see that, then you don't deserve the fine gift that Maeve left for you. For that's what these babies are the best gift Maeve could ever give you."
She had a point. They did resemble him a bit, if he squeezed his eyes shut just a little bit.
"And what thanks do you give to Maeve's memory for that blessed gift? You've hardly held them. You haven't even named them."
Honestly shamed, Sean hung his head, peeking up at Pegeen as she turned back to the other two babies, lying together in a large rocking cradle. Cautiously, he poked one finger at the baby. She grabbed it and smiled, a tiny drop of drool forming at the corner of her mouth.
"I'll name this one 'Treasa.' That's strength in the old language," Sean decided, smiling just a bit as the baby began spitting little bubbles at him. "She's strong she is. Got a grip on my finger that could break bones. She's the middle child, isn't she?"
"Aye, she's that. And here's the youngest," Pegeen said, settling another baby in Sean's lap.
Sean looked down at her. Yes, she had his black hair and round chin, but her eyes were a fair blue and her mouth was a replica of her mother's. "This will be Fiona-the fair. She's a wee thing, isn't she?"
"That she is. Room for one more?" Pegeen asked softly, as she laid the third baby in his lap.
The baby took one look at her father and began screaming at the top of her lungs. Sean cooed and shushed, but still the baby bawled.
"Aye and this one we'll call Bridget. That's strength in the old tongue, too but a different kind of strong. Oh yes, this one's bound to give me trouble." Sean sighed, juggling all three babies in his arms. He looked up at Pegeen for help, but she folded her arms across her chest and shook her head.
"Just try, Sean. Let her know her da loves her."
Sean closed his eyes and muttered a small prayer. He looked down into little Bridget's eyes. "I love you, Bridey, me girl. Love you."
The baby stopped crying and looked at him. Sean could have sworn there was both a look of skepticism and a gleam of mischief in her emerald eyes.
"See, I told you, Sean. Live up to what Maeve would have expected of you. Take care of your babies," Pegeen sighed, smiling.
Hesitantly, Sean smiled at her. The smile, though, soon turned to a look of dismay.
"Pegeen, I know you just changed the babies, but it seems they're baptizing me. What do I do now?"
Pegeen laughed, turned back to the table and grabbed a pile of cloths. She tossed them at Sean and laughed.
"Why change their nappies, of course."
Sean shook his head. All three, all at one time? He'd say no more of it to Pegeen, but he just knew there was fairy mischief afoot here.
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