For some of our neighbors, Michael represented a kind of reaching above that made them uneasy: his skill as a piper, his victory in the Galway Races, the breeding of Champion and selling her foals, his dream of a forge. But John Joe Gorman, the Tierneys, the McGuire brothers, and even Neddy Ryan understood what it took to set a ridge and bring forth a ton of potatoes. And no one cut turf in the bog faster or piled it more neatly than Michael. The men of the townland appreciated Michael's skills and looked to him as a leader-an accomplishment for a fellow here only six years. And this year we'd have our biggest yield ever. But the potatoes were ready now. They could go mealy if left in the ground. The next morning, a fine drizzle broke up the fog. "Come on, Mam!" said Paddy. The boys stood at the door, eager to start the digging. "Where's your da?" "The great giant Finn McCool's off to take his morning piss, Mam." "Paddy!" "That's what Da told us." He and Jamesy started to laugh-were still laughing when Da, Granny, Mam, Joseph, and Hughie arrived. Dennis stayed in Bearna with Josie, near her time now. "God bless all here," Da said. The other families from the townlands had started toward their fields, too, and called out to us-"Good morning, missus!" and, "God bless-a decent day for it, finally!" And the sky was clearing. We should get a lot of the potato crop in today. "I'm running ahead with Joseph," Paddy shouted. "He's giving me a go with his hurley." At eighteen, Joseph was still five feet nothing. Paddy's nearly up to his shoulder, with the height he gets from the Keeleys and Kellys both-muscled already. A sturdy lad, halfway up the hill, with Jamesy puffing behind. Hughie, good boy that he was, swung Jamesy up on his back and took off after Paddy and Joseph. More like brothers than uncles to my sons. I walked between Mam and Granny, carrying Bridget. Da and Michael were just ahead, deep in talk of some kind. They get on so well. Michael's part of the Keeley men now, with his own fine children, his loneliness filled. I took Granny's hand. "Our own pratties," I said. "And nothing to do with Jackson or the Scoundrel Pykes or anybody but us. Michael says they keep us safe." "They do," Granny said. I heard Joseph and Hughie shouting down to us, but I couldn't catch their words. And then Paddy and Jamesy were shrieking, "Da, Da, Da!" Michael started running. The boys sounded frightened. I saw Michael reach them, then fall down to the ground. What's he doing? Where's that awful smell coming from? Has something died up here? The stench seems to rise from the land itself. Mam and Da and Granny and I were at the ridges now. Paddy ran to me. He lifted up his hands to me, covered in black muck. "The pratties, Mam," he said. "They're gone!" Michael and Joseph and Hughie were tearing at the ground. "Here, Mam, take Bridget," I said, and knelt down next to Michael. "Where are the potatoes?" I said. "Where are they?" He pulled out a great stinking glob and held it out to me. "Here. This." He shook the filth off his hands, wiped them on the grass, and kept digging. The stalks of all the plants, green the day before, were black and blasted, with slime instead of potatoes under the ground. "This can't be!" I said. "How could they all die in one night?" "Here, Michael, here's a good one," Joseph called, "and another, and another-five solid potatoes up here." "And a sound ridge over here!" Da shouted. "Look, green patches among the black." Michael stood up. "Dig the potatoes from the green ones-fast, fast!-before whatever's doing this spreads. Hurry! Hurry!" Paddy ran to Michael. Mam knelt next to me. Granny carried Bridget a few steps away. Jamesy came to stand at my shoulder. "Mam, Mam, listen." "I can't, Jamesy. I'm digging. Help me." "Listen, listen!" "What?" Now I heard it-echoing from glen to glen. . . . Galway "Keening," Granny said. Wailing voices came from every hillside-the neighbors-their potatoes dead and dying, too. The sound stopped us. We were frozen, kneeling in the muck and mire. Michael recovered first. "Dig! Dig! Dig!" he shouted, heading for the high ridge. I crawled to another patch and plunged my hand into the foulsmelling mess. I felt a hard lump-a good potato. But when I grabbed it, the potato fell apart in my hand, oozing through my fingers. "We must dig faster!" Michael yelled. "Get any whole potatoes out! Carry them to the stream, scrub away the muck." "Michael!" It was our Joseph. "Up here, at the top! They're all sound!" "Get them out! Get them!" Michael shouted. Granny took Bridget and Jamesy away. A hard rain started. Rivers of evil-smelling mud flooded the ridges, soaking us through. We dug and dug, gagging on the smell. We stopped only when the last of the light went. We carried any whole potatoes to the stream near our cottage to wash them, then rubbed them dry on our clothes and stacked them in the pit. All that we had saved barely covered the bottom. We staggered into the cottage. Granny had boiled up some of the early potatoes, dug up last month. Michael looked into the pot. "Sound! These were sound! And the fields were healthy yesterday. . . . What could have happened? What blight could have hit so fast? How could the potatoes rot overnight?" "We must eat and sleep," Granny said. "Take one prattie each." Michael usually eats ten. We ate. I put Mam, Da, Granny, and the children on the straw pallet, and the rest of us collapsed on the floor. I lay down next to Michael. "The ridges behind the long acre might be sound," he said. They weren't. Two days of digging and the pit wasn't half-full. Only the potatoes on the very highest ridges-the ones Michael and Patrick had planted first-had survived the blight. Not enough. Not near enough. "Galway Bay" is published by Grand Central.
No Irish Need Apply? Not anymore