Chapter One -- 1936
Who would have thought it would end this way, with me lying in the street and the life running out of me?
It isn’t fair, is it? Ah, but there’s no use in complaining. Life just keeps moving, like a fast flowing stream, and there’s no good in worrying about what’s fair or not. I did better when I stopped worrying about all that business.
And it’s all in the past, isn’t it? But the past comes rushing back at times like this. I hear the priest saying the prayers above me, but his voice is less important than the pictures rushing through my head, and the voices, and the feelings attached to them. It’s all so clear to me, like it’s happening before my eyes.
It was a good life, even though it turned out so differently than I expected.
I was born in Ireland in 1862, in a little town called Skibbereen, almost at the tip of the southern end of the country, in County Cork. It was a land of great beauty, but great hardship. I remember the mist in the mountains, the glint of the sun on the sea, the green fields, the long rivers running through the valleys, but mostly I remember not having enough. Not enough food, not enough clothing, not enough heat to keep out the cold and the damp. Worst of all, though, was not enough respect.
My family, the Driscolls, had an old name in Cork, and there were stories that some of them went to sea and became pirates. Pirates don’t give authority its due, you know, and I liked that part about them. Those days were long gone, though, when I was a child. It was hard times for us, like most others that we knew. The Great Famine had ravaged the country fifteen years before, and it was a specter that haunted every family I knew. There were fresh gravestones in the churchyard from people who’d died, and we all knew the field outside of the town that had the mass grave, where scores of poor starved wretches had been thrown because there was no time to give them a proper burial.
In all this world of misery, however, my family was near the bottom. It was an old story: a father who couldn’t support his family and fell into the pit of drink, two brothers who’d started down that path all too soon, and a mother who was nearly mad from the grief of losing her only other daughter during the Famine. My friend Rose Sullivan had a mad mother also, worse than mine, truth be told, and we became friends for that reason. Neither had a mother worth the name, and we mothered each other because of it.
From the time I was a small child I wanted to get out. I’d heard stories of this magical place, America, where there were jobs, and money, and people wore fine clothes and had enough to eat. I’d seen girls leave at the age of 18 and come back to visit five or six years later, wearing fancy dresses and looking radiant with health and good fortune. They said they worked in fine houses for rich ladies, and they got to sleep in a bed with a mattress made out of feathers, instead of the moldy straw beds we used.
“We must go, Rose,” I said, when we got old enough. “It’s our only chance. We must go now, or we’ll be stuck in this miserable place forever.”
Rose had a stronger feeling for home than me, and she wavered for a time over whether she could leave Skibbereen, but finally she agreed to go. She wanted to send money back to her family, to help them have a better life than she’d had. I had no such desire -- my family by then had dwindled to my brother Conor and my mother, and I had no intention of giving up my chance at freedom just to stay there and take care of my daft mum. I knew it was a horrid thing I was doing, as I said goodbye to her, probably never to see her again, but I felt if I didn’t leave I would surely go mad myself.
Rose and I had many adventures, and we found a good position finally with a family called the Lancasters in Philadelphia. I got three square meals a day, and I was able to buy some nice clothes, but it was never enough. I had a hole inside me that was bottomless, it seemed, and I couldn’t fill it with the money I was being paid.
So, I started stealing from my employer. It was only small things, you understand, little pieces of jewelry here and there. I started by sneaking in to the grand lady’s bedroom and trying her pretty things on -- a necklace here, a ring there, and admiring myself in the mirror. Then one day I kept one of the baubles. It was a ring, and I thought she’d never miss it. I gave it to a man I’d met, an Irishman of ill repute, and he sold it and split the money with me. I told myself it was only the once, I’d never do anything like that again, but soon enough I took another shiny trinket.
It was bound to end badly, and it did. My friend Rose found some pieces I’d hidden in our room, and she told Mrs. Lancaster. Prim Rose, who pursed her lips and told me I’d done something wrong and she had no choice but to report me. I thought she’d be on my side, I thought she’d understand since we were both trying to escape the same Hell, but no, she refused to understand. I hated her after that, and in the years to come my life took a bad turn, which made me hate her more.
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