The Chriustmas Shop
Donegal, Ireland, October, 1879
Alone. All alone.
Maeve Brennan fought to control the cold shudders as icy wind knifed through her threadbare cloak and jerked ruthless fingers through her hair. Sea spray slashed at her tear-filled eyes, blurring the rocky, fog-shrouded coast.
“Oh, mo croidh. My heart. I thought the worst had come. Though we lost so much, sure, we had each other. Life was still a gift.” She raised her head and gazed to where the jagged cliffs met the sea, the waves a riot of foam. “Now there’s nothing. The sea, that greedy sea ye loved so much, took ye from me.” Her trembling mouth twisted, bitterness scalding her heart. “’Twasn’t even kind enough to send yer poor, lifeless body back to me.” A single, scalding tear slid down her cheek. “I’m alone, all alone, where once I had a husband, children o’ me own. What will I do? How can I survive without ye—without all o’ ye?”
With an anguished cry, she fell to her knees on the hard ground, dampness soaking through her skirts and chilling her to the bone. Dropping her face into her hands, she wept searing, bitter tears of loss as the unrelenting winter wind roared. Seagulls cried overhead, keening with her, sharing her desolation.
“Oh, sweet Mother Mary, what will I do? How can I stay here? The heart’s torn from me and this poor soil will barely grow enough to feed me, let alone the cow and the pig. I’ve nothing but the clothes on me back. Yet how can I leave? How can I leave the only real home I’ve ever known?”
The tears fell faster in a river of grief and loss. Bittersweet memories tore at her. Long winter evenings by the turf fire, the neighbors gathered in her cottage, the stories that always began “’Twas in me father’s time…” Long nights of loving Peader. The children, running up the boreen, the little road, to greet her, their hands filled with wild strawberries, their mouths stained with the juice of them. The hard struggle to raise the praties, and the wheat to pay the rent. The worries when Peader launched the currach in a storm.
A gust of wind nearly knocked her down and whipped the tears from her face. Maeve swallowed hard and rose slowly to her feet. “Sure, ‘tis like an old woman I’ve grown.” Clutching her shawl tight about her shoulders, she turned to the boreen that led to her cottage.
She saw Peader’s satisfaction in the first harvest of their marriage, the pleasure in his nut-brown eyes. “Didn’t I say ye’d bring me luck, mo chroí? ‘Tis a grand harvest, indeed, and no worries the landlord will turn us off the place fer no’ payin’ the rent.”
And oh, his joy when wee Dermot was born. “He’s a bonny wee lad, love, just like his ma.” He touched a timorous finger to the babe’s cheek. “He’ll bring us sunshine and joy.”
“Ah, Peader! Ah, m'anam…my soul. ‘Tis ye were the grand man.”
Her heart pounded. Peader’s arms wrapped her in warmth as he carried her over the threshold on their wedding day. “Sure, ‘tis I’m the fortunate man to have won such a grand woman as yerself, love. We’ll be happy, me darlin’ girl, in our love for each other.”
Maeve’s tears dried. She took a shaky step, then another before breaking into a run. She ran down the boreen, past the little wooden church—empty now, for Father O’Dowd had passed away a month ago—past the deserted cottages and up the cnoc beag, the little hill where her cottage overlooked the sea Peader had so loved.
A sudden shaft of sunlight broke through the mist, illuminating three pure white clouds. Maeve blinked. Like angels they were.
Her children, come to give her heart in what she must do.
“I will not leave this place.” She made the vow in a low, steady tone, her gaze fixed on the three patches of white. “I will stay here, where I loved and was loved. I will plant the praties and the wheat, and when the landlord comes calling, somehow I’ll find a way to pay the blackguard’s rent. I will not leave my home. Not while there’s breath in me body, strength in me two hands, and love in me heart.”