7150 words, short story
The Miracle Lambs of Minane
It was midsummer when I arrived in Corcaigh from Sadbhsfort, and the famine parties were in full swing.
I don’t know if you remember the posters for them—in a vibrant shawl, a red-headed woman stands, holding a twin in each arm. Around her is a lush green and golden valley, and her back is to the distant ocean, its waters boiling with the mechanical monsters that had closed the seas and caused the famines.
Underneath, lettered in a white, art deco font: “The country needs people.”
That much was true. You couldn’t walk the city without crossing streets keening their loss through curtains flapping against broken glass, where little lived within the moldering papered walls but feral cats and rats, one feeding off the other.
The parties were the brainwave of a local Bishop. The generations following a famine usually produce more female children than male, they said, but in Corcaigh the problem was more severe and durable than in Dublin and Galway. The parties, correctly chaperoned, of course, allowed solid rural women to meet observant city boys. Apparently, what the country needed was the right kind of people.
More on the hunt for work than for love, I had been to a few such events, but it quickly became clear that the carbolic-scented men they attracted would struggle to score in a brothel, and the women were not to my taste. In any case, the ever-present chaperones meant any chance of a frolic was low. Hands above the table, nobody standing closer than a paperback’s length apart, awkward conversation accompanied by bad, state-issued food. There is only so much turnip mash, potato cakes, or German noodles, basically potato by another name, that one can eat.
Having left one such evening about six weeks into my stay in the city, I bumped into a compatriot of mine, Creedon, who twisted my arm until I agreed to attend another party. We could always bribe a guard for breaking the curfew, there may even be work in it for me, it was on the way home, I was told, and sure to be good, as the chaperone, an American woman called Mrs. Weber, was “a friend.”
We walked up from the river, past the burned-out ruins of the old art college, to a fine, yellow-fronted house just beyond the cathedral, buttery light gifting itself from every window.
We were in the door ten minutes, bramble gin in hand, when Maura Verane made her entrance.
A short woman with a tanned, lined face and untamed hair the color of a slumbering coal fire, her “coatigan”—a vast garment composed of differently sized mohair panels, one more garishly colored than its neighbor—flapped about her, snagging on chairbacks as she waded through kisses and handshakes. None of this attention moved her to smile.
“Can you believe that one is a farmer,” said Creedon, who professed to know Moll and told me she was something of a celebrity around the city.
“She was one of the first to stop growing potatoes and turnips. She was a bigwig in the university and as soon as the worst of the emergency was over, she started growing herbs—dill and basil and the like. Now she supplies fruit and veg to the best restaurants, the best houses, the Bishops. Sure, they’re only throwing money at her.”
Moll circled the room as she deposited jewels—chilies, tomatoes, yellow bell peppers so perfect they looked injection-molded—on the large dining table. We had enough calories by then, of course, if never quite enough booze, but Moll brought something of the spice and color of the pre-famine years to a crowd not quite wealthy or powerful enough to acquire it themselves, and they loved her for it.
As a coda to her entrance and a signal that she had blessed the dinner to indeed start, Moll finished with something special.
Creedon was fizzing with excitement: “Once, she brought lemons.”
Moll’s finale was a corker. She reached into the deep breast pocket of her vast woolens and hefted in her talons a heavy bottle of oil, its contents shining through the thick glass walls as if squeezed from sunlight itself.
“From our Sicilian friends at the golf course,” she announced, holding it up for all to see. God knows what it cost her.
“The Sicilians” was how almost everybody in Corcaigh referred to the Mediterranean refugees, regardless of their actual nationalities. Driven from their homes by the migration north of murderous African summers, they had settled in the hills and largely deserted suburbs to the south of the city, colonizing the parched golf courses of Douglas and Mahon with olive groves and citrus trees.
Moll’s performance over, we sat, the few elders at the tables, the rest of us cross-legged on the floor or perched on the piano or a sofa’s arm, and we talked and ate for pleasure rather than mere survival.
I first tasted a tomato that night. The flesh had an earthly perfume, but it was the skin that amazed me most, the texture of something so slick on one side and so rough on the other, parting with a click when I could maneuver it between my teeth.
So it was that I was trying to unstick a large piece of tomato skin from an incisor when Creedon guided Moll to stand in front of me, raising eyebrows to one or the other of us as if to say “This is who I told you about.”
Moll looked me up and down and said, “so I hear you’re looking for a job?”
Like a fool, I kept my mouth shut and nodded.
Moll’s “farm,” on the hills above Minane Bridge, was one-and-a-half acres of raised beds, with plants and herbs of every color and shape, plus about eight acres of grazing land, a smattering of large greenhouses, and a dozen polytunnels. A few goats gave milk and she kept hens for eggs.
The farm had probably been there in some form during the “Great” Famine, more than two centuries earlier.
Some of the farmhouse walls were stone, some badly mortared rubble, and a few just rammed earth sloshed with whitewash, but it was dry and it was solid. The structure was split in two—Moll lived in the main part of the house, surrounded by overstuffed furniture upholstered in embroidered silk, a curious combination for a woman with such a reputation for a hard edge. A one-room section at the northern end was mine, with a window, a fireplace, a kitchen table, and a low bed hidden behind a curtain.
Across the courtyard were a couple of long-empty milking sheds, crammed with troughs, flowerpots in resilient clay and crumbling plastic, and farm and garden implements that looked like they were drawn from a dozen cultures and as many centuries. Harrows so old the wood had petrified to near stone lay interlocked with spiral ploughs in shining stainless steel and a collection of corroding scythes and sickles, in a teetering, tetanus-riddled puzzle.
Sniffing the rust in the air, I wondered how much of this kelter had been assembled before the famine, how many of these implements had been hauled and swung and driven by one of Moll’s ancestors, and when I would get to use them.
I needn’t have bothered—for the first three months of my “apprenticeship,” I was weeding, or mixing “nettle tea” to feed the plants, or moving barrows of fertilizer, dug from three large mounds of manure and human excrement buried in the east field.
After that, I graduated to harvesting. This mostly consisted of pushing a battered shopping trolley of equipment up and down the paved lanes of Maura’s raised beds and grow houses while she barked instructions at me.
“Basil, mint, lettuce—tear them. Chives, dill, rocket—cut.”
If her work was done and the evening was mild, she would sometimes break off from instruction or admonishment, sit on a bucket, and reminisce.
“A long time before the famines,” she once told me, “my grandfather lived in a fishing village further down the coast. When he was a boy, if times were tough, his mother would cook lobster for them. In those days, fishermen would give them away on the quays—they were unsellable sea vermin, but they were the only protein a lot of families had.
“So he said she would boil them up and then dribble a precious little bit of melted butter and a bit of wild garlic over the top. Very tasty, he said they were.
“But then, after the family had eaten, his mother would have him bury the shells in the back garden rather than put them out in the rubbish, for fear the neighbors or the binmen would see how poor they were.
“Years later, by the time my mother was a young woman, my grandfather was a prosperous man in printing in the city and the family ate out in restaurants—Greens and the like—and lobster had enjoyed something of a re-branding. If it was on the menu, my grandfather would laugh his head off at all the nobs paying through the nose for something his mother found as shameful as eating rats. He never ordered it, though.”
Below the farm, in the village, a phone line ran to Tom Buckley’s bar. Tom’s surviving grandmother, apart from helping Moll out with harvesting or canning, took calls on her behalf from clients in the city. Four mornings a week, I would do the rounds of the lean-to’s and polytunnels, snipping and tearing, until my orders and my panniers were filled.
Before nine, I would set off. Moll had gifted me a bicycle, which, by its weight, must have been made of meteoric iron, and by its age, her grandfather had forged.
Around the city, I quickly became known as “the Rocket”—with Corkonian efficiency in piss-taking, this referred to my cargo as much as my limited uphill speed.
Corcaigh sits in a drained marsh at the bottom of a cloud-topped bowl of hills, so there were inclines to be conquered on any route from Minane and back again.
The safest route ran alongside the fence of the old airport, by that time mostly given over to rescue ’copters and lumbering cargo aerostats. Sadly, it was also the biggest hill and Moll’s antique bike would develop a precarious wobble as I crested it, straining myself out of the saddle to make anything faster than walking pace.
I was always careful with my cargo—it was worth a lot. But I was not so careful that I did not enjoy the barely managed terror of the descent into the city. I did not slow until I reached the river and even that I crossed while maintaining as much of my momentum as possible.
Many of the bridges had fallen, either in the emergency or its aftermath, but between Union Quay and Morrison’s Island, there was a pontoon bridge that would knock at least half an hour off crossing the city. If I had been walking, I probably wouldn’t have risked it—the Laoi is brackish even this far from the sea and squid sightings were still reasonably common.
Empowered with a feeling of invincibility from my high-speed descent into the city, I would race across the bridge and up the wooden ramp on the other side, the wooden slats beneath shaking my brain in its pan and the stink of the undredged river condensing in my nostrils.
The other reason for my haste was so I could spend more time with Grace, the chef at Gamble’s restaurant.
The front of Gamble’s faced the Mall, but deliveries were made to the rear, on Phoenix Street, across a void in the city like a pulled tooth.
The day I fell in love with her I signaled my arrival by dropping my panniers onto the stainless steel kitchen table and in she walked, slender and considered in her chef’s whites, her hair tied in a bun behind her head. She made straight for a little aluminum percolator and produced two perfect coffees. God knew where she got the beans from, but it alone would have made my three-hour round trip worth it, so I sat and sipped and waited for her to finish her inspections.
First she smelled each bunch of leaves, tucking a stray, black coil of hair behind her ear. The faintest whiff of rot or smear of leaf slime and she might have dismissed the whole batch.
I raised my cup and smirked. “I cut them myself, this morning.”
“That’s what you always say,” she said, but without malice. She walked to a shelf and returned with some bottles. I knew the drill. Oil, probably rapeseed, a vinegar, cider this time, sea salt shaved so fine you could glaze windows with it. A minute’s blurred whisking and she speckled some rocket leaves in the emulsion. She rolled them deftly with her fingers and popped the neat bundle into her mouth.
“It used to be considered an aphrodisiac, you know, rocket,” I said, glancing away as she chewed. “Monks were banned from growing it in monastery gardens.”
“Well, nobody wants horny monks, I suppose,” she said, licking her lips.
Moll referred to one of her tunnels as “the lab.” Creedon was right, she had been a bigwig in the University medicine department, but in her lab, Moll applied that science to propagation. She wasn’t secretive about her work or the space, but she made it clear enough that she didn’t like being disturbed when she was in there.
However, as I passed one evening in early March, I was beckoned in by a clearly excited Moll.
“I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough,” she said. “Come and have a look.”
Down one side of the tunnel, beds with soils of varying colors and richness were marked out in square-foot blocks using sticks and twine. At the center of each square, one plant grew, protected and mulched by a thick coil of straw drawn from a large stack kept between the lab and the next tunnel.
On the other side of the narrow path, benches held a dozen or more large green crates that had been repurposed as growing trugs. From the stenciled codes on their sides, they had clearly once held weapons or ammunition of some type. But now they were filled with pale and puckered earth, from which an ugly, scrawny plant poked through at fairly even intervals.
“A couple of years ago, a fellow called Furio, one of the Sicilians, brought me something, a curiosity really, that he wanted me to see if I could grow.”
My first thought was it was weed or tobacco. The Bishops would not be pleased if the Monks on Garnish Island lost their monopoly.
Reading my expression, she said: “It’s a kind of fodder crop. Very old, very rare, but just a herb really.”
The plant was not much to look at, a lanky yellow weed such as you would see poking from any of a hundred ditches within a mile of the farm.
“And I’ve bloody done it. Twasn’t easy, it’s a very finicky plant, loves its own soil and nothing else and harder than a huckleberry to take viable cuttings from.”
She pointed to the crates.
“You know how embassies used to say ‘you are now on American soil,’ or British soil, or whatever, but it was just a metaphor? This soil is straight from Cyrene, in what was once Libya,” she said. “Libya’s gone 30 years and Cyrene a lot longer than that. Up to now, in these crates is the only place we know of that this stuff grew. In that dirt.”
Among the tools I had seen in Maura’s milking shed was a slean—a spade for cutting turf, with a long metal channel, L-shaped in cross-section. It was used to slice a long cake of turf from the cutting face of a bog, which the turf-cutter would then sling onto a pile to dry.
The Sicilians looked like they had done something similar, but horizontally, cutting long, deep strips of topsoil, plants and all, and depositing them in the munitions cases.
“What’s it called,” I asked.
“The Romans called it silphium, and Nero himself was supposed to have eaten the last of it.”
Towards the end of my second full summer with Moll, I had established a mostly enjoyable routine. I would deliver in the city three or four times a week and snatch an hour with Grace when I could. Then I would come home and help Moll prepare for our new venture into livestock. Lambs first, but after that, who knew?
Before the animals arrived in spring, there were fences to mend, feed to arrange, and growing tunnels to clear, so that we could plant out more silphium cuttings.
Once in a while, under the pretense of delivering old chip fat for Moll’s biodiesel reactor, Grace would drive out and stay the night at the farm. If Moll was surprised or scandalized, she didn’t let on.
One such evening, I was showing Grace the beds. We weeded while we chatted, just for something to busy the hands, before hearing Moll’s clomping step across the ridged concrete of the farmyard. Behind her walked a couple, difficult to age, but reasonably well dressed, and a young girl of about 15. Led by the girl, on a piece of fraying orange washing line, followed a scrawny white lamb.
Moll nodded a salute to myself and Grace, but the rest of the group paid us no heed as they padded somberly past.
“Who were they?” asked Grace.
I shrugged. I knew Moll was occasionally consulted by other farmers and market gardeners to help with planting plans, and at least one old fella had asked her advice on his daughter’s marriage plans. Visitors were rare, but not unheard of.
“I’d lay you pounds to pence that girl was expecting,” said Grace.
By now, Grace had stopped pulling weeds and sat on the wooden wall of the bed, her gaze drilling into Moll’s front door.
“They didn’t look very happy about it,” she said.
I shrugged again. “She’s pretty young.”
“Still. The country needs people,” Grace said as she worried at a splinter in the board beneath her hand.
I didn’t know what to say to that. Looking back on it now, I suppose I knew what was going on, but while that girl, nor any of the subsequent ones, did not leave in what I would call a happy frame of mind, each left looking a little less ground down by unintended or unwanted consequences.
“Do you ever want children?” she said, after a while.
I laughed, and I suppose she took that as my answer.
Before long, Moll’s consulting party left her rooms and showed themselves to the gate, mother, father, and daughter—their three heads still down, their tread still soft, and minus one lamb.
By the end of that October, we had two full tunnels given over to cuttings of the herb. They would be ready for our stock lambs, due up from Dingle in February for finishing.
But for now, we had that first girl’s lamb. Moll had me feed it barley meal and alfalfa hay, mixed with some of the silphium she had grown in her “lab.” The plant didn’t smell unduly when you cut it out of the soil, but when you crushed it to mix with the lamb’s food, by God it stank. Like a wet woolen sock you had used to wipe up old fish.
After about a month, Moll determined that the lamb had enough meat on it to be worth the pot. Although her experiment was as yet unproven, rearing any meat at all was prodigal enough in those days to be cause for a party.
At my suggestion, Grace would cook. Moll invited Furio, the Cyrenian who had given her the plants, and Mrs. Weber, the chaperone from the yellow house where we had met, plus Creedon was to be there, along with a host of other friends and associates.
The day of the party, work was long and dull, carrying out my normal duties as well as dressing the barn with a makeshift table, some old benches, and whatever wildflowers and oil lamps I could muster. But I was looking forward to the feast, and to seeing some friends.
Everyone wore their finest rig-outs and the tables heaved with food. Goat cheeses from north Cork, farmed trout from over the Crosshaven hills, oatcakes with honeycomb from the apiary on top of the old school of commerce in the city. Everyone Moll had ever fed, it seemed, was here, and everyone had brought something, either to eat or to drink.
This time, Moll needed no flourish to get proceedings started. Everyone knew why they were there. The lamb’s legs and shoulders would be roasted, chops and cutlets grilled, neck stewed, the pluck minced and made into a pudding with oats and herbs, then boiled, like a haggis or a white pudding.
But the first test of our labors was to be a loin fillet, and to make the test fair, Moll had paid for the same cut from a city butcher.
Grace indicated two plates. Each of the loins was perfectly cooked, seared to the color of teak. Grace had cut each into nine or ten mouthfuls, showing the contrast between the colored bark and the intimately pink flesh inside.
“This is the normal lamb, come up from Dingle a week or so ago, it ate nothing but Kerry scrub. This is Moll’s lamb, fed with her wonder herb.”
Moll glared at her as if she were sharing industrial secrets, but we were among friends and I thought no more of it.
By sight alone, I couldn’t tell which was which, but taste did the work of the other senses here. I elbowed my way to the table, forked a piece of the Dingle lamb and put it in my mouth.
It was delicious, and if that was where the treats ended that evening, I think I would have been happy.
Then I tried a piece of Moll’s lamb.
I would call it indescribable, but everything is describable. I just lacked the vocabulary then.
If you asked me now, what I would say is that there is always a gap between a review, or a critique, or even just an honestly expressed groan of delight at eating something, and that food’s honest, naked taste.
Fresh cheese on warm bread, blood sausage and onions, a trout still a-twitch with life as it hits a pan of hot butter. The taste of all these things is wonderful, but describable.
With Moll’s lamb, that gap between expectation and actuality was so big as to render me temporarily dumb. The flesh was meltingly sweet, but not one-dimensional sweetness like a finger dipped in sugar. This was the honey of a just overripe mango, it was a flavor distilled from fragrance. As the tongue probed beyond that, there were earthy notes, an almost decayed saltiness, like fish sauce or miso.
But back then, in Minane, my experience of those tastes and my ability to put all that into words was still a continent and a decade away.
Sitting in the mundane, functional surroundings of Moll’s barn, all I could manage was: “I don’t think I have ever eaten anything quite as wonderful as that.”
I was not alone. Wordlessly, Moll bade Grace and Furio try it.
Furio’s face was illuminated as if by a spiritual fluorescence, but he said nothing. I attributed his silence either to him being overwhelmed with the survival of some small part of his birthland or the knowledge of how much money he would get for meat of this quality.
Grace pronged one of the remaining pieces of meat and I expected the chef, the trained palate, the perfectionist, to critically and dispassionately fill the gaps I could not. Instead, she resorted to simple blasphemy: “Jesus. I mean, Jesus.”
After the taste test, the evening followed the normal trajectory. People ate and drank, and were merry and rambunctious and talked of happier times, either behind us and how we missed them or ahead of us and how we may get there.
At such evenings in the city, Maura rarely showed any interest in this chat and this was no different. She sat and grimaced in boredom at the politics, the endless plans, and picked at the toughened skin of the mallet finger on her left hand, but never volunteered a word.
Grace, feeling secure in alcohol on what she should have known was treacherous ground, would not let such passivity lie, however.
“Do you not want to join us in rebuilding our country, Maura?” she asked, her tone too smug, too expectant.
Moll looked at her coolly, a teacher sizing up a student, unsure whether or not she was worth the time it would take to educate.
“I suppose I don’t,” she said eventually.
Moll blinked, eyeing the assembled as if a buzzard choosing gobbets. She continued: “Although I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘rebuild’ and who you mean when you say ‘our.’ I just want to look after my farm in peace. I have friends and I have food and that is a vast improvement on the times I had neither.”
This was Moll at her most magnanimous. These days, I could have read the strain in the faces around me and the mix, in Maura’s face, of resignation and a feral delight that somebody was pressing the issue, forcing the lethal gunslinger out of retirement. But I didn’t have such diplomatic senses then. Nor did Grace. She had been offered a final “nobody has to get hurt” way out, but she lacked the sense to take it.
She tried earnestness, almost always a mistake with Moll: “Do you not understand, Maura? We need people, Maura. We need them to rebuild.”
Moll looked straight at me and all I could think of was a girl leaving without her lamb.
“That may be true,” she said, holding my gaze, “but you can’t just be forcing people to make more people, can you, Grace?”
Grace persisted: “Well, I just wonder what you’re growing all this wonderful food for, if not to feed those of us at least trying to repopulate our wonderful country.”
She interrupted Grace at volume, and the happy drone of the party withered into silence.
“Wonderful country? What would you know about that, without a child or a parent buried? I’d rather have more food and fewer people than the other way around. So would anyone with any sense. In any case, you seem to be doing your best to repopulate this wonderful country all on your own. Is the food better at this party, chef, or do you miss your German noodles?”
At this point, a few people broke into nervous laughter, catching Moll by surprise. She holstered her tongue.
I could say nothing. If this was true, how did I not know? Why had Grace not told me? Or Moll, for that matter? And if it were not, how could Moll try to hurt me like that?
Mrs. Weber, ever the host, walked over, smiling sweetly, and touched Maura on the arm: “That’s all right, Moll.”
With considerably more menace, she turned to Grace: “I’d like to talk to you outside for a moment.”
I followed them both out into the courtyard, incensed, although unsure where to direct it.
“So you’re another one happy for this nation to wither and die, are you,” Grace said, viciously indignant at the entitlement of the elderly, who had known a country measured in millions rather than thousands.
Mrs. Weber held up an imperious hand and waited for her to stop spluttering.
“Moll lost her sister, her daughters and her mother in ’36 and her husband a year or two later. Maybe lay off the ‘glorious repopulation’ stuff, OK, chef? Or fuck off back to town.”
Her gracious smile returned without effort and she left me, standing in the moonlight, gaping at Grace.
“Tell me she’s lying,” I said.
“You’ve been going to the famine parties?”
“In God’s name, why?”
“Because I want children, I want my mother to have grandchildren, I want a future, I want to be safe. You can’t give me all that, can you? I’m not sure you would even if you could.”
I said nothing.
Grace kissed me once, on the cheek, but my hands stayed firmly at my sides.
“I’ll see you,” she said.
By April, the word was out. “Minane lamb” was being ordered from as far away as Kilkenny and orders were such that I had graduated from prehistoric bicycle to prehistoric van to make my deliveries in town. Rather than call at Gambles first to see Grace, I made that stop the last of my day, in the hope that she would be on a prelunch break. In any case, the vehicle made such noise pulling into the yard behind the restaurant that she had ample notice of my arrival and I had not bumped into her in months.
As the orders had increased over the late winter and early spring, so too did the frequency of families with young girls, or sometimes lone women, calling on Moll for advice. The price of this advice wasn’t always a lamb, of course—that’s just how the story went afterwards. It was often a hen, or a pheasant, or a fat salmon that somebody brave or foolhardy had pulled from the River Ilen. Sometimes, the advice and the treatment were free.
Between the increased activity on both fronts, I suppose it was inevitable that somebody would show up asking questions.
On my return from the city one morning, two middle-aged men stood casually above the crossroads on the road up to the farm. The elder and better dressed of the pair raised a heavy walking stick, as if to hail a passing traveler.
“Well, you’re not Maura anyway,” he said cheerfully when I stopped. The accent wasn’t local, but I couldn’t quite place it. “We’re only after some lamb.”
He walked over to the van, the lack of a limp marking the stick as a weapon rather than a crutch. He was meticulously clean-shaven, a neck scrubbed pink with cheap-smelling soap and where his hand rested on the open window, I could see his fingernails were cut meticulously square. His associate was scruffier and altogether more nervous looking, and the pair of them screamed “policeman.”
What could I do? I was already on the road and the gate was chained in front of me. A narrow boreen led off to the right, but the van would have struggled up the hill even without the prodigious undergrowth.
“Follow me up so,” I said, hoping that if they were policemen, they were looking for a bribe—some free chops or, at worst, a cut of the proceeds.
They were only seconds behind me as I reached the gate. I hopped down from the van to unchain it, and they were next to me before I could think.
“I’m afraid if it’s the Minane lamb you’re after, we’re sold out.”
Leaning on his stick and with his bottom lip stuck out in an expression of crestfallen insincerity, the elder man said: “Oh that’s a shame, but I hear Moll is a woman who can help a girl in need of a miracle.”
“I don’t know about all that,” I said as confidently as I could, struggling with the lock.
“Well, it’s not the lamb I’m after, really,” he continued. “I suppose what I’m really after are the people who are bringing ye the lambs.”
“Oh, like our suppliers, you mean?”
I don’t recall if my slowness in unlocking the gate was pretense or whether the fellow had me so rattled I couldn’t unhook it, but either my glib answer or my delay in admitting him prompted him to act.
Without warning, he brought the heavy length of ash down on my forearm. I won’t pretend I heard the snap over my scream, but from the sensation of grating wrongness in moving it afterwards, I knew he had broken it.
He was almost apologetic in his tone: “Did ye really think no one would tell a neighbor, that no one would confess to a priest? That Dr. Verane could play god out here on her farm when she knows we need people more than we need food?”
His colleague ripped the keys from my grasp, undid the lock, and chipped in: “So let’s try again without the smart mouth, shall we? Where’s Maura Verane?”
The first one prodded me once in the damaged arm with his cudgel and waved me up the path to the farmyard. Then he handed the stick to his colleague and withdrew a pistol from inside his jacket, marking him out as an ideologically pure “detective” rather than just a nosey and bribable guard.
We walked into the middle of the yard, his gun occasionally poking me from behind.
“Come on out, Moll,” he called. “Don’t make me put a pill in your helper here.”
But no response came.
Again he jabbed me with the barrel. “Where might she be?”
Enough time has passed that I feel no shame now, but at the time I was so terrified that he was going to kill me I would probably have given them anything. He didn’t need me. One can only assume they would have tried Moll and executed her eventually, but there was nothing to stop him from terminating my existence on the spot and dumping me in a septic tank somewhere.
“She might be in her lab,” I offered.
“Ah, the source of the ‘cure.’ Show me.”
He directed his colleague to inspect the far end of the yard as we walked past the raised beds, the cold frames, and most of the silphium-bearing tunnels until we reached Moll’s lab.
The large plastic flap at the front was tied up, usually a sign that she was working, but as the detective ushered me in first, I could see she wasn’t present. Her colored mohair coat hung on the back of her chair, but of Moll there was no sign.
“No Moll, huh? Isn’t this awful altogether,” he said, grinding the gun into my kidney.
“Come on Moll, you’re almost famous,” he called out. “We’ve come all the way down the country to see you.”
“Jeez, she’s very quiet,” he said softly to me. Then he paused to listen for his mate, but there was not a sound from across the yard.
“Ronan,” he called. No answer came.
“Ronan, where in the fuck are you?” he shouted.
With his free hand, he shoved me viciously between the shoulder blades and I stumbled over the threshold of the tunnel and into the farmyard beyond, twisting a foot in a drainage channel and ending up flat on my back. I screamed at the flash of pain from my arm as I watched him emerge.
He stepped out and over the piece of wood that had tripped me up. In that moment, with all of his attention on where he was placing his feet, he did not see Moll rise like some nightmarish, bloody monster from the mound of hay between the tunnels. She took two steps towards him in her bare feet and the first hint the Dublin policeman had of her presence was when the point of the rusty sickle bit into the left side of his neck.
Something vital had been severed and he fell without another word. But Moll, just to be sure, raised the weapon in her other hand, the bloody half-filled bottle of oil that she had used to dispatch “Ronan,” and beat him repeatedly about the head until he was still.
I don’t know if Moll had been planning this specific escape, or always stood ready to flee, but within minutes she had washed in a rain barrel by her door, changed clothes, and “borrowed” the battered old truck from Buckley’s.
On our own van and truck, she had opened up the fuel caps and run rags soaked in lamp fuel into the tanks. She had spread straw and hay in all the tunnels and after we had dragged the bodies into her own quarters, gave them and it a good dousing in diesel. She had a pan of oil heating on the gas stove, ready to kick over and get the whole thing going.
She was loading Buckley’s truck with jerry cans full of biodiesel, boxes of fresh and dried food, and bottles of water. In the open bed, secured between hessian bags of damp compost, were four or five dozen potted silphium plants.
Attached to each pot was a card of instructions in Maura’s simple script.
“Grind up a handful of the leaves and berries, mix them with some apple juice or some brandy, add a bit of honey to take the edge off the stench of it, and swallow.
“Take it daily until the cramps kick in. You’ll know when it’s done. Tell nobody but those who need to be told.”
That was more detailed instruction than she had given me.
“Anyone asks, you fell while having tea with Mrs. Buckley, right? First you knew of trouble was when you saw the flames and I stole her truck. In a few days, go talk to Mrs. Weber about a job. OK?”
Once the van was loaded, there were no hugs, no farewells. Moll kicked over the gas stove, waited until she was sure the main house and every tunnel was well alight, jumped in the truck, and was gone.
Mrs. Buckley walked me down the hill “for sweet tea and to ring the fire brigade.”
“Stop the car, I’d prefer to walk in,” I said. The small electric Tata pulled to the side of the pitted and gravelly road, I opened the door and I walked into Minane for the first time in 30 years.
It is still quiet—no buildings had been added, but nor had any collapsed, and many were roofed with the new perovskite panels, so I knew they were lived in, cared for.
I passed the church and its small graveyard, where I recognized a scrubby yellow plant growing between the graves. Like a huckleberry, Moll said, it would only grow in undisturbed earth: “They grow free or they don’t grow at all.”
I don’t know if it was a final “up yours” to the authorities, or just poetic irony, but now, even with better, safer alternatives available out of the east, every churchyard and cemetery in the country still harbors Moll’s plant.
Past the church, I rounded the corner at Buckley’s Bar and wondered what had become of Mary, the first of the two women who saved me.
Above the cross, the outline of Moll’s farm was still there, under weeds and ivy. I had thought it may have been razed and grassed over. The uncovered and blackened hoops that used to support the grow tunnels still ran at right angles from the road, stretching from just beyond the low, roofless farmhouses to the crest of the hill, as if someone had tried to stitch the landscape together with long lines of staples.
Below the small field, where we kept the lambs—the miraculous and the other kind—I stopped.
Nobody I’ve spoken to knows where Maura Verane is buried. In every home from Kilmore to Kinvarra, you will hear a different story about how Moll met her end: She was thrown by a mob from the cliffs in Clare, to be consumed by the mechanical squid that roam the Atlantic yet; the priests burned her as a heretic in the basement furnace of a Galway church; she fled for America in an aerostat; or she wanders the west coast still, planting her “cure” as she goes. I’d like to believe that last one, but it would put her in her early hundreds.
Moll is almost certainly dead. Despite the stories, for most of our time at the farm, we never grew anything much more exotic than coriander. It burned anyway.
But should a pilgrimage be on your mind, that verdant field at Minane Bridge would be a good place to start.
I turned to lean my back against the stone and sod wall, my breath stolen from me, my cheeks wet. Perhaps I wasn’t as ready to sift ashes as I thought.
As I lay there on the ditch, watching the clouds scud past the tree line that marked the top of the hills opposite, a lone boy and his dog walked down the boreen towards me, neither creature anywhere near as rare as they were when I lived here, but still unusual enough for me in these surroundings to put a catch in the throat.
I tried to smile at the boy.
“Good morning. Do you live around here?” I said.
“Mornin’. Are you American?”
“No, but I can see why you might think that. My accent has changed a lot. I used to live around here, actually.”
“Yes, for a while. Do you know whose farm that was?” I said, gesturing to the ruin behind me.
He stopped to consider the question with a suspicious turn to his head. I ruffled the dog’s dishwater pelt while I waited for him to figure out how varnished his response should be.
“I do,” he said finally, puffing his chest out: “Mad Moll.” There is always a pride, a vicarious notoriety, in living close to a famous or infamous person, even if only in location rather than in time.
I couldn’t help but grin. I never knew her as that, however much I had occasionally agreed with the sentiment.
“Who is Mad Moll?” I asked.
“Moll of Cyrene,” he said, as if only a fool would not know, “like the song.” Then in mock exasperation, and with dancing hands, he intoned “ . . . six guards she killed, they’re lying still, at the bridge in Minane town, she found the cure, that cute old hoor, that brought the bishops down . . . ”
Two bad bastards who got what was coming to them had become six policemen. In another thirty years, it may be a dozen.
“And where is she now?” I asked, wondering if I would get a new theory on her disappearance or a pastiche of one I had already collected.
“I dunno,” he said. “Dead, I suppose.”
“You’re probably right,” I said. I extended my hand for help in hauling my carcass off the damp ditch and we began walking down the hill to Minane, to the waiting car and my wife.
“So, tell me, can you teach me this song?”