Nothing about the morning of September 4, 1969 stood out when Fionnuala Murphy woke for the day. Her husband Liam had already left for work, and she roused her two children with little issue. Not until night fell and Liam still hadn’t returned did Fionnuala realize anything was truly amiss. When numerous calls to his work turned up nothing, panic set in. Liam hadn’t even, Fionnuala learned, turned up for his shift that morning, and they’d not heard anything from him since he left yesterday.
With a young child on both hips, she phoned the police, her voice trembling. The Dublin police proved to be little use. The officer sent over to help seemed to be under the impression her husband had just had a late night drinking and would be home by morning.
“He’s not out drinking,” Fionnuala insisted. She did her best to keep her voice level lest she upset the children anymore than they were. “We can scarcely afford for him to go drink away our money what with the wee ones here. Is there nothing you can do?”
“Sorry, ma’am,” the officer said. “Your husband’s only been gone since morning. Can’t do nothing until you know for certain he’s missing. Give it a few days, and if he doesn’t turn up, we’ll look into it.”
“But-” Fionnuala watched in disbelief as he turned and walked right out of her house before she’d even begun to protest. Her little one, Sean, began to fuss and Fionnuala absently hushed him as she stood frozen in her doorway. She felt the cold dread set in then, and just knew something terrible had happened to Liam.
Never, not once, had he ever been this late coming home without phoning. Something awful had happened. Fionnuala just knew it. And with no other option left, Fionnuala phoned a man she’d only ever met a handful of times and barely knew any better than that rude officer. Within three hours, Liam’s older brother Dominik was sat opposite her at the small kitchen table, bouncing her daughter, Fiadh, on his knee as stared at Fionnuala pensively.
“Is there someone who can watch the wee ones, Fionnuala?” He asked, looking pointedly at the clock. It was just past one in the morning and none of them had gotten any sleep. The children, sensing their mother’s distress, had refused to be put down for the night. And truth be told, the thought of letting either of them out of her sight made Fionnuala’s blood run cold.
“I- I suppose I can ask the neighbors…” she clung to Sean even tighter. “Look, they won’t be up now anyway. Let’s just take them with us when we go out.”
“Fionnuala, it’s late,” Dominik said in a halting voice. “It’s dark. We stand a better chance of finding anything in a few hours come daybreak. Why don’t you and the youngins go off to sleep and we can start fresh tomorrow?”
“No,” Fionnuala said firmly, standing. “We need to go now. He’s been missing since this morning. Last night, technically. I mean, that’s the last time anyone definitely saw him. There’s no use sleeping now. Please.”
Dominik sighed deeply but nodded. So, Fionnuala gathered up a few blankets for the children and the four of them piled into her brother-in-law’s car.
They drove for hours. Up and down the streets, down the coast, across the entire city. They both waked into countless pubs and other seedy establishments, but no one had seen Liam. Hopelessly, Fionnuala rested her head against the cold window glass. The children had long since fallen asleep out of pure exhaustion, and for that Fionnuala was thankful.
“We could try the docks,” she murmured, tiredly rubbing her eyes. “I don’t- he’s got no reason to be there, but then he’s got no feckin’ reason to be missing either.”
“We’ll find him,” Dominik said determinedly, staring ahead. “And if we don’t, we’ll go back, get a few hours rest and try again when it’s light out.”
“It is light out,” Fionnuala said, pointing to the light that had just begun cresting over the horizon. “What if we don’t find him?”
“We will,” Dominik repeated as he drove along the docksides. They scanned the parking lot for any sign of his car. It was this ghastly shade of green and stood out like a sore thumb. And finally, parked at the very end of the lot, Fionnuala saw it.
Silently climbing out, she peered into the car and felt her breath catch in her throat. Hanging from the mirror was his rosery, and in the ignition sat the keys. The door opened without resistance and Fionnuala carefully rifled through the compartments for any explanation as to why her husband had just left it here like this for anyone to take.
“Fionnuala,” Dominick said, gently touching her shoulder. “We should telephone the police again. Maybe now they’ll listen.”
Her knees felt weak, but she steeled herself and nodded. Taking his beloved rosery beads, she climbed back into the car. And didn’t take her eyes off her children until hours later when they were safely tucked into bed.
After three days it became apparent Liam either could not, or would not return home. With no body or any evidence of a crime, the police were unable to determine if he was even dead or alive. The not-knowing ate away at Fionnuala’s insides until she could hardly breathe.
“He would never have just left us,” she rationalized, more for herself than for Dominik who had remained at the house despite her feeble protests. “Not without saying goodbye. And he would have never left the children. He was such a proud father. He wouldn’t do this to us.”
“Fionnuala, have you given any thought what you’re going to do now?” Dominik asked gently. “Because I talked it over with Cairrean and we want you to come stay at the farm up north. At least for now until we can figure this all out.”
“That’s very kind of you, Dominik, but we couldn’t,” Fionnuala protested. “Not with how times are. I couldn’t ask you and Cairrean to take in three more mouths to feed. And- and if Liam comes home I need to be here. We’ll make it work somehow.”
“You’re not asking,” Dominik said. “We are offering. You can’t stay here all alone, and the children will be with their cousins. It’s no great burden, and there’s plenty of room.”
Which was how Fionnuala found herself packed into Dominik’s car with all of her and the childrens’ earthly belongings on their way up north. Fiadh and Sean were both still so young that they didn’t understand. And how could Fionnuala explain to them their dad had left them, or gone missing, or been taken? How could she hope to make them understand when she didn’t even understand herself? And now they were all on their way to a strange land she’d only ever visited on one occasion three summers ago when Fiadh was barely three months old.
“It’s all going to be okay, Fionnuala,” Dominik said grimly. “It’s going to be just fine.”
Fionnuala checked to ensure the children were fast asleep before saying, “how can it? He’s either been kidnapped and murdered, or he abandoned us. How can either of those things be okay? Lord, what sort of trouble has he gotten himself into?” She ran a hand through her red hair and tried not to think about it too much. She felt like she was going to fucking explode and did her best to shove it all down. Dominik had no answer for her and they didn’t speak for the rest of the drive.
When at last they arrived at the farm, three little ones were out in the yard waiting for them with an older man watching over them. The last time she’d seen the oldest two, they’d still been small enough to swaddle.
“Murphys in a line,” Dominik said in a mock-serious voice. Immediately, the three little children scrambled to line up, giggling all the while. The youngest was just barely upright. The older man, who Fionnuala remembered as Liam and Dominik’s Uncle Jakub, also snapped to mock-attention, grinning. “May I introduce half of the Murphy clan. My oldest, Rowan. And these two here are Saoirse and Oona. Children, this is Uncle Liam’s wife, your Aunt Fionnuala, and your two cousins, Fiadh and Sean.”
The children all peered at each other curiously until Fiadh, who had never been shy, marched right up to her cousins and stuck out her hand.
Fionnuala smiled in relief as the children quickly grew comfortable and were soon sitting in the grass tossing marbles about. It was the first smile on her face in three days.
“My dear, I’m so sorry we couldn’t see each other under happier circumstances,” Uncle Jakub said, patting her on the back. “But you’re family so it’s only right you’re here with us. Come on, let’s get you all settled in.”
He and Dominik insisted on carrying the bulk of the luggage into the house and up the rickety old staircase, despite Fionnuala’s insistence she could manage on her own. It wasn’t as though they’d brought more than two suitcase’s worth of things. The house’s furniture had all been part of it, and now that the rent would have to lapse, Fionnuala realized just how little they had. They’d come to this farm with nothing.
“Don’t you worry, Dominik,” she said. “You just tell me what needs doing around here, and I’ll be sure to pull my own weight. I’m sure your wife could use all the help she can get what with the little ones all growing up like they are.”
“Let’s worry about that tomorrow,” Dominik said, stowing the children’s little bag of things in the largest room. There were three little beds and room for plenty more. “Mine all sleep in here. Soon as I can, I’ll make up beds for your little ones too. They’ll all be right happy here together.”
“Oh, there’s no need for them to be taking up so much space. The three of us can all fit perfectly into one bed,” Fionnuala said.
“Well, now that might be harder than you think,” Dominik said. “See, we’ve got Uncle Jakub downstairs in the other bedroom and Aunt Macha in a little room that used to be for sewing off the parlor. No other place to put you except in the last bedroom just over here. You’ll be right close to the wee ones, but I’m afraid there’s not much room for the three of you all together. You’ll be sharing with my sister, if that’s okay. She’s gone to town to pick up some groceries we need, and she does most of the work round the house. She’ll be glad for the help, I wager.”
Fionnuala peered inside the tiny room. It looked just barely big enough for a wardrobe and bed as it was. Two beds would be awfully close. But then, beggars couldn’t be choosers and the sheer amount of gratitude she felt far outweighed any misgivings.
She told Dominik to do the children’s beds first and if he didn’t get to hers for a few days, she wouldn’t mind at all. Then, after placing her small suitcase near the wall, she turned to head back downstairs.
“You haven’t slept in three days, Fionnuala,” Dominik said, stopping her. “Lay down for a while, why don’t you? Jakub and I will keep an eye on the kids. And I’m sure watching me make up a bed and chop some wood will keep ‘em entertained for a few hours.”
Though she wanted dearly to protest and return to her children, Fionnuala felt exhaustion in her bones. So, with a nod, she turned back to the little bedroom and carefully toed off her worn shoes.
It felt more than a little uncomfortable to sleep in another woman’s bed without her permission, not in the least because the bed was much too short for her long frame, but exhaustion hit and she fell into a fitful sleep soon after her head hit the pillow.
In her dreams, she saw Liam dead. She saw him bleeding out and dying. She saw his body facedown in a river somewhere. In her dreams, he never came home. In her dreams he left her and his children behind.
When she woke, barely an hour after falling asleep, she had tears rolling down her cheeks and a painful ache in her chest. Fionnuala had been so worried about the children, and so consumed with being strong for them that she hadn’t allowed herself to fully process what was happening nor let herself cry.
But asleep, her body hadn’t been so reluctant and once she started, the tears refused to stop no matter how she tried to force them back. It hurt. The not-knowing, the fear, the uncertainty of what would happen to her and her children. She felt sick and angry and pained all at once.
Sitting up, Fionnuala buried her face in her hands and just let herself cry. Her body shook with the force of her sobs as it felt like half her world had collapsed around her.
“Who the fuck are you?”
Fionnuala jumped as a voice from the doorway shocked her out of her pity party. She stood so quickly she only just narrowly avoided smacking her head on the low slanted ceiling. In a panic, Fionnuala hurriedly wiped her face, knowing it was a futile effort.
The woman in the doorway just raised an eyebrow expectantly until Fionnuala managed to get herself together enough to stutter out an explanation.
“Oh.” The woman’s face softened and her body relaxed and became instantly less hostile. “I’m sorry, Fionnuala. I hadn’t realized- well, never mind that. You sit right back down and have yourself a good cry. I was about to get supper started, but don’t you worry about that now. I’ll bring you up something nice and warm. You must be exhausted.”
The woman firmly pushed Fionnuala back into a sitting position and slipped out the door once more. But before Fionnuala could so much as blink in surprise, she poked her head back in and said, “oh, I’m Tiernan, by the way. Dominik and Liam’s sister. If you need anything, just give me a holler. I’ll be back up later.”
And with that she was gone, leaving Fionnuala more confused than when she’d started. Liam had never had any photos of his family, and the few times they’d come to visit, Tiernan had never been present. Fionnuala knew Liam had an older sister, of course, but he’d never mentioned anything about…well…about her appearance. He only ever reminisced about Tiernan’s wit and candor. Because of that, Fionnuala had just assumed all these years that his sister looked just like the rest of the family: tall, light brown hair, pale skin like the rest of Ireland. But from the little she’d just seen of Tiernan, the woman was none of those things.
The size of the bed now made much more sense as Tiernan couldn’t have been much taller than one and a half meters, if that. And she had jet black hair and light brown skin. No one in Ireland had skin darker than a sheet of paper, much less the pretty color of Tiernan’s. And she was, well, Tiernan certainly looked as though she had a much different lineage than her brothers.
But who was Fionnuala to comment? Frankly, she thought to herself, it was none of her business and she had other things to worry about. Like the disappearance of her husband, the father and provider for her children, for one.
As she curled back up onto the bed, she winced. Crying had always led to massive migraines and exhaustion. Soon enough, she drifted back into a restless sleep.
When Fionnuala awoke, the room was dark, the sun having already set for the night. She crept downstairs, mindful not to wake any of the house’s sleeping inhabitants. She could hear hushed voices in the kitchen.
“…fool of a brother would never have left them like that,” Tiernan was saying as she paced the room anxiously. “I swear, Dominik, if those bastards have anything to-”
“It’s not about that,” Dominik said wearily, holding his head in his hand. “Look, I know as well as you do that Liam was a lot of things, but a coward was never one of them. He loved those kids more than anything in the world.”
“What about her?” Tiernan asked sharply. “Would he have ever left her? Poor thing was up there sobbing earlier. Oh, I swear I’ll ring his neck if I ever get the chance.”
“Gonna stand on a chair, are you?” Dominik asked, trying to tease but falling short. “Good lord, what’s happened to him?”
“Never mind about Liam,” Tiernan asked. “What about her? She’s got two kids and about as many coins to rub together. You and I both know if your Cairrean ever lost you, it’d be the end of the whole lot of us. Least that one’s strong.”
“Seeing as you only ever saw me bawling my eyes out like a babe, I find it hard to believe you think that about me,” Fionnuala said, finally coming out of the shadows. Tiernan jumped, and Fionnuala caught a slight flush on her face.
The two women regarded each other cautiously for a long moment. Dominik looked between them in confusion and eventually excused himself to bed, but they paid him no mind. Finally, Tiernan pulled out a chair and motioned for Fionnuala to sit.
“S’true I might not’ve met you before, but I know my fool of a brother would never have fallen for a weak woman,” Tiernan said, sliding a plate of food in front of her. “You birthed them two little ones, and are still up on your feet. No shame in crying after what you been through this past week.”
“Thank you,” Fionnuala answered, picking listlessly at the plate. “What am I supposed to do? I don’t know…I won’t be a burden on your family. Me and the children can make do on our own just as soon as I figure something out. Might be able to work at-”
“This is your family,” Tiernan said, reaching out and grasping Fionnuala’s hand. “It’s as much yours as any one of us. And it’s no burden. We need the help round here. What with both Macha and Cairrean being poorly and Dominik and Jakub having to do all the work on the farm, I’ve got my hands full with the little ones and don’t have a moment to think. Now, you eat that, and make sure you don’t just pick. We’ve got an early morning.”
Fionnuala knew better than to argue. Tiernan seemed like the type of woman who got her way more often than not. Something Fionnuala knew a thing or two about herself.
It wasn’t until they both returned to the tiny bedroom upstairs that they broke the halted silence.
“I’ll just put on my nightclothes then and get out of your hair,” Tiernan said, rifling through the sparse wardrobe. “I’ll see you in the morning then, bright and early.”
“Oh, no,” Fionnuala protested. “I couldn’t possibly put you out like this. I don’t mind taking the floor. Wouldn’t be the worst place I’d ever slept.”
With a roll of her eyes, Tiernan pointed sternly at the bed. Fionnuala stood her ground, easily towering over the other woman. They stared at each other until finally Tiernan sighed and grabbed Fionnuala’s arm. “Come on, we can squeeze together if you like.” And Fionnuala was just too tired to put up much more of a protest. They undressed with their backs to each other and climbed in hesitantly.
Fionnuala did her best to take up the least amount of space possible, but it was difficult considering she was 185 centimeters tall. Thankfully, Tiernan seemed to take up an astonishing lack of space and they easily fit together.
“Sleep well, Fionnuala,” Tiernan murmured, and Fionnuala was just too tired to answer.
Somehow, despite promising her an early morning Tiernan had seemingly decided to let Fionnuala sleep because when the redhead woke, the sun was just beginning to rise. She hurried to dress and raced down the stairs, nearly running headlong into Tiernan.
“Goodness, slow down before you burst through the wall,” Tiernan said, easily sidestepping. “You’re up late. I’ve already got breakfast going. The others will be up soon enough and Dominik’s already out in the barn working on another bed for our room.”
Our room. Fionnuala tried not to seem as pleased as she was to hear that. They’d barely said a handful of things to each other, and already Fionnuala liked her very much.
“Late? The sun’s barely up,” Fionnuala said, tying the apron Tiernan handed to her around her waist. “Did you make this all already? How feckin’ early do you get up?”
“Too early. Here blow the horn for me,” Tiernan said, doling out several bowls of food. Fionnuala blinked. She turned the bugle around in her hand, trying to understand just what to do. “Oh, for heaven’s sake. Put your lips round that part there and feckin’ blow. We’ve got a houseful of little ones who need waking, and that includes yours. Now blow.”
Not two minutes later, a stampede of little feet trampled down the stairs followed by two sets of slower ones from the direction of the parlor.
“Morning, Tiernan,” Uncle Jakub said, waving at them. “Morning Fionnuala. Feels like rain.”
“Yet there’s not a cloud in the sky,” Aunt Macha said, plopping down heavily at the table. She waved her cane in Fionnuala’s direction. “Ah, Fionnuala. Pleased to see you. Wish it was under better circumstances.” Fionnuala gave Aunt Macha a quick kiss before helping the older woman to fill her glass with water.
“Oona, enough of that now,” Tiernan scolded, grabbing the youngest Murphy’s hand. “That goes in your mouth, not your hair. Saoirse, help me with your sister.” The oldest Murphy girl huffed in annoyance but wrestled the spoon out of Oona’s hand to help her.
Fionnuala watched in amazement as Tiernan raced about the kitchen, somehow everywhere at once. Within the span of just half an hour, she’d given Jakub his shave, cleared the table, and scolded each of the children in turn, including Fionnuala’s own, all without batting an eye.
“Get your things together, you two,” she said, shooing Rowan and Saoirse up the stairs. “You’ve got school and don’t think you’re going to play sick, Rowan. C’mon. Ah, ah, ah. Where do you think you’re going, missy?” She caught Oona just before she tried to follow her older siblings. “I’ve got you for at least another few years. Come on. You’ve got your cousins to play with now so you don’t get lonely.” She put Oona back in her chair.
Despite being in the house for less than a day, Fiadh seemed to take it upon herself to be the authority in the absence of the older two children. Fionnuala placed a kiss on all three children’s heads and did her best to complete whatever Tiernan threw at her.
Soon enough, Macha was dozing in the parlor, the three youngest were toddling about in the yard just in front of the window where they could be easily seen, and Jakub had gone out to the fields.
“Is it like that every morning?” Fionnuala asked, collapsing into her chair in exhaustion. “I thought wrestling the two of my own was hard. How do you feckin’ deal with all the little bastards?”
“Hell if I know,” Tiernan said, grabbing a load of laundry from the side room. “Washroom’s just down here if you want to get cleaned up. Meet me in the yard when you’re done. I could use a tall person to help me hang the wash.” And with that, the small woman hefted a basket bigger than she was with ease and was out the door.
Fionnuala kept herself busy for most of the morning. Focusing on the work in front of her was easier than allowing herself to think of Liam. She felt a great deal of gratitude for Tiernan who didn’t tiptoe around her and wasn’t afraid to give her kids a little swat when they got a bit rough with Oona.
Lunch was only just barely less chaotic than breakfast. The children, now fully awake, had trouble staying still and eventually Tiernan had to threaten to withhold dessert at dinner for them to settle themselves long enough to eat their food.
“You’ll have that second bed you need by tonight,” Dominik said, shoveling the last of the food in his mouth. “Might need a bit of help getting it up there though.”
“Give me a holler when you need,” Tiernan said, loading the sink with dirty dishes. “Aunt Macha, careful with that. You’ll slice your finger clean off. Give it here.”
“More of a job for Dominik and I,” Jakub said, brushing crumbs off his pants. “Wouldn’t want you ladies getting hurt now.”
“I can lift more than you’d expect, Uncle Jakub,” Fionnuala said, rocking Oona on her hip to get her to quit fussing. “Have too what with two little ones growing up and still wanting to be held. I’ll help you out soon as you need, Dominik. Here, let me do that, Tiernan.”
“I’m almost done anyhow,” Tiernan said, waving her away. “Here, can you take this upstairs to Cairrean? Make sure she actually eats it.”
Fionnuala did as she was told. From what she gathered, Dominik’s wife Cairrean had an illness of some kind and rarely came downstairs. She knocked and a quiet voice told her to come in.
“Um, Cairrean? I brought you lunch,” she said, carefully balancing the tray on her arm. “How are you feeling?”
“Oh, Fionnuala,” Cairrean said, sitting up. She was a frail blonde woman who looked entirely too breakable to have given birth to three children. And judging by the tiny baby bump jutting out of her nightdress, she was going to have another soon enough. “I’m so sorry for what’s happening with Liam. Oh, thank you. This looks lovely, but I’m just not feeling very hungry.”
“You’re eating for two, Cairrean,” Fionnuala said, placing the tray on her lap. “Got to make sure that wee thing gets all the nutrients it needs to grow. Um, can I get you anything?”
Though she never claimed to be any sort of doctor, Cairrean didn’t appear to be sick to Fionnuala. Other than her overall frail appearance, that was. But Fionnuala had only just arrived, and decided it would be better to keep her mouth shut for once. And after she was satisfied with how much Cairrean had eaten, she brought the tray back downstairs to a mercifully quiet kitchen.
It took several weeks of learning the routine for Fionnuala to finally find the time to ask Tiernan about Cairrean. She figured out of all the questions she had, this one would be the most likely one her sister-in-law would answer. Not in the least bit because Fionnuala clearly saw the tension between the two women.
“It’s not her fault,” Tiernan said, which was not how Fionnuala expected her to start. “Everyone says it’s a virus that has her down, and even Dominik finds it easier to believe that than the truth. But it’s the sadness. Depression. We don’t like to talk about it, especially in front of the children, but you have as much right to know the truth as anyone.”
“When did it start?” Fionnuala asked. She’d met Cairrean several times before her marriage to Liam and couldn’t remember the other woman being anything like this.
“After the first baby was born,” Tiernan answered. “She started feeling listless. Couldn’t even muster the energy to feed the poor thing half the time. And the shame and guilt over it all certainly didn’t help.”
“So, that’s why you’re here then,” Fionnuala said thoughtfully. “I hope Dominik appreciates just how much you do around here.”
“The moment I turned sixteen I left the farm for the big city,” Tiernan said. “I’d never wanted to stay here when I was young. There was just something about being out there where no one knew me that I loved. Lived in Dublin, actually. Funny enough, it was maybe a month or two before you and Liam moved there that I moved back home. With our mother having just died like she did, and no one else to help care for the house and the little one, I decided family was more important than having a bit of fun.”
“That’s very admirable,” Fionnuala said, looking at Tiernan from across the little room. The smaller woman didn’t seem nearly as exhausted as she should have given the trials of the day. She sat cross-legged on her bed and was carefully braiding her hair for the night. “How do you do it? How did you raise three children and keep a house by yourself?”
“Not by myself,” Tiernan protested, seemingly embarrassed at such praise. “Everyone pitches in. And now that you’re here, it’s a huge load off my chest. Of course, mothering five little ones…sorry.”
Fionnuala wasn’t quite certain why her sister-in-law felt the need to apologize, but didn’t press the issue when the other woman trailed off awkwardly and didn’t say anything more the rest of the night.
Well, it was one less Murphy Family mystery solved at least. Only several hundred more to go, it seemed. She wondered if it would ever feel like she was part of the family instead of just some strange intruder looking in.
But little by little, Fionnuala and her children became a staple of the Murphy farm. After watching Dominik toil away in the field with only a few hired hands to help only to return to the house and take care of several repairs, Fionnuala marched out and demanded he show her how it was done.
“Look, I’m not exactly a dainty princess,” Fionnuala said. “I’ve got the strength, so show me how to do some basic repairs and it’s one less thing for you to deal with every day.”
Dominik put up a good fight, but his brother had never had a chance in hell of talking Fionnuala out of anything, and he proved to be no different. Within the hour, she’d learned how to wield a hammer without looking like a complete fool, and could successfully manage a few simple things without making it worse.
“So, what you’re gonna want to do is make sure the wrench is perpendicular,” Dominik explained. Fionnuala nodded and was about to move even closer to him when she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Glancing up, she could have sworn she saw movement in the window upstairs, but no one was there. So, shaking her head, she refocused on Dominik and got to work.
Having a purpose, whether it was making lunches for nine other people or clambering up onto the roof to patch a leak, helped Fionnuala stay grounded. But living in a house of people who looked so much like her missing husband took its toll. Everyone, from Jakub and Macha to Dominik to the five little ones, they all looked so much like Liam. None of the children seemed to have inherited either of their mother’s looks, and if Fionnuala didn’t know better, she might not have been able to tell which one came from which uterus.
The children seemed to have easily adjusted within moments. Young ones were always so resilient. It helped that, in the months that ensued after she and her wee ones moved into the farm, Tiernan hadn’t seemed to distinguish between Fionnuala’s two and Dominik’s three in her treatment of them. And following her lead, neither did Fionnuala. Somehow, in five months, she’d lost a husband and gained three children. And a family like she’d never experienced before.
Gradually, she uncovered more and more secrets only a Murphy deserved to know. How Aunt Macha was slowly but surely losing her wits. How Uncle Jakub spent his time with one hand on the bottle and the other on some bible verse.
But the most riveting mystery by far had to be Tiernan. All those months later, and Fionnuala still hadn’t figured out how to ask about how she’d come to be a Murphy. No one, not even Cairrean, ever acted like she wasn’t every bit the sister of Dominik and Liam that they said. And certainly Fionnuala wasn’t going to say otherwise. But she was just a wee bit curious how a woman who looked so different from the rest of the Murphy family, and the whole of Ireland really, ended up under the farm’s slanted roof.
In the end, Tiernan volunteered the information herself when they were alone in their room just before bed.
“It’s not like it’s some big secret no one can ever know,” Tiernan said as she braided Fionnuala’s hair for her. “The story is that my mom and dad found me when I was maybe two or three. Might have been older even, but I was just this little bitty thing. Well, the Irish were wary even then of people who looked different and just showed up out of nowhere. And I’d been in some basket on the side of the road. But I guess my parents didn’t have the heart to abandon a toddler on the side of the road because next thing they knew, they’d taken me home. At first, I’m sure all the neighbors had a thing or two to say about it, but pretty soon I was just a staple of the Murphy family and no one ever treated me different.”
“That’s…how could anyone just leave a baby on the road?” Fionnuala asked. “And your parents. I’m glad they took you in.”
“So am I,” Tiernan said. “And even though I’m basically the opposite of what a Murphy looks like, I’m still part of the family. My brothers are still my brothers. These children are still my nieces and nephews. Even if I know it’s only a matter of years before they become as tall as the rest of you lot and leave me in the dust.”
Fionnuala laughed. She had a hunch she’d have been able to lift Tiernan up and whirl her around as easily as she did the children. If she didn’t think the smaller woman would stab her if she even tried.
“Thank you for trusting me enough to share,” she said, turning her head just after Tiernan tied off the ends of her braid. “And for the braid.”
“Best get some sleep,” Tiernan said, easily stepping from one bed to the other without touching the floor. Fionnuala knew if she attempted that she’d have slammed her head on the ceiling. “Feels like snow is coming…”
It was a Thursday and the oldest two were off at school, so Fionnuala and Tiernan had bundled the littlest three up and driven off to the nearest grocery store to stock up. There was supposed to be a storm headed their way and the stores were packed with farmers’ wives trying to prepare before the inevitable power outage.
They’d just managed to find the last item on her list when Fionnuala heard a man calling her name from nearby. She turned, startled, to see Declan McGinnis, the butcher’s son jogging over to her, nearly knocking into a little old lady who took a swat at him with her purse.
“Mrs. Murphy, Miss. Murphy,” he said, tipping his hat to her and Tiernan. “Glad I ran into you here.”
“What’s got you all up in a tizzy, Declan?” Fionnuala asked, shifting Oona to her other hip.
“Erm,” he shifted uncomfortably. “Maybe it’s best I don’t say nothing in front of the wee ones…”
Exchanging a concerned look with Tiernan, Fionnuala carefully handed Oona over and followed Declan over to the side while Tiernan checked out. She folded her arms, waiting expectantly.
“Been doing okay, there, ma’am?” Declan asked awkwardly.
“Declan, I haven’t got time for this,” Fionnuala said briskly. “Say what you’ve come to say. There’s a storm coming on and we’ve got to get the little ones home.”
“See, I’m not completely sure, but I think- I mean, I’m pretty sure- see, I haven’t seen Liam since I was a wee bastard, but I was out in a pub in Galway not three days ago and I ran into someone who looked an awful lot like your husband…at least, from what I remember of him. Was the spitting image of Dominik, so I just thought…” he trailed off, seeing the fixed look on her face.
“Thank you for telling me, Declan,” she said, refusing to betray emotion. “I appreciate it. Now, I’ve got to make sure we all get home, so if you’ll excuse me.” And, not waiting for him to say another word, Fionnuala fled.
It had been like he’d ripped the linoleum right out from underneath her and flung her out into the cold. Fionnuala couldn’t breathe. She blindly fought her way through the stifling crowds and into the chilly winter air.
Declan had seen her husband. The spitting image of Dominik. It had to be him. Galway. What in hell was he doing in Galway? And if it truly was him, it meant Liam was alive somewhere. He wasn’t laying in some ditch somewhere. And for all the relief that brought her, she didn’t know if that was somehow worse. Because it meant he’d left them. It meant he’d left his children and wife and entire family without a single word.
“Fionnuala,” Tiernan said, suddenly appearing at her side. She touched the redhead’s hand in concern. “Love, you’re freezing. What did he say to you? No, never mind that just now. Let’s just get you into the car and warmed up. Fiadh, Sean, say close to me, darlings. That’s it, just hold on to my coat.”
Somehow, Tiernan managed to get them all into the car along with the groceries without Fionnuala noticing any of it. She stared ahead out the windshield and the darkening sky, unseeing. It wasn’t until they were all inside the house and the children passed off to Macha that Fionnuala blinked and came back to herself.
“He said he saw Liam,” Fionnuala said blandly. “In some pub in Galway. He wasn’t entirely sure, but…but he looked just like Dominik. It has to be him.”
“Oh, Fionnuala,” Tiernan murmured. She drew the taller woman close and held her tight as she broke down. “It’s alright, sweetheart. Just let it out.”
Fionnuala wasn’t sure how long they sat on her bed just clinging to each other, and she didn’t care. Everything had been going so well. She’d just begun to come to terms with quite possibly never knowing and then this happened.
“The bastard,” Fionnuala sniffed, finally pulling away. Immediately the loss of Tiernan’s embrace hit heavy. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter anymore. He’s gone and that’s that. We’ve got five children to look after and with Cairrean about to pop any day now, I can’t be thinking about Liam anymore.”
“You should rest a little bit before coming down to dinner,” Tiernan said, standing. “Best thing to do would be to let me just bring you something later tonight, but I know you’ll never listen to that.”
“No,” Fionnuala said, wiping her eyes. “No, I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m not going to lay up here like an invalid and just stew on what might or might not be true. And I probably scared the children half to death. No. I’ve got to do something or I’m gonna fucking explode.”
Tiernan signed, but put up no protest. Fionnuala later heard her quietly say something to Dominik, but no one mentioned that incident again.
The months turned to years. Thrice more people about town came up to Fionnuala with news that they’d seen glimpses of her husband up and down Ireland and each time it was like they’d driven the knife into an almost-healed wound.
Dominik and Cairrean’s second son Brannigan had been born during that winter storm, and a little over a year later, Cairrean gave birth to Enya. With seven children running about, Rowan was now eleven years old, Saoirse ten, Fiadh nearly nine, Sean barely eight and Oona coming up on seven. It was as though she’d blinked and suddenly, they’d all aged five years. All five of them were off in school now, bringing home projects and report cards every other day. Their walls had become a collage of art and A+ papers and god only knew what else.
Fionnuala and Dominik had taken several long sheets and a length of rope to divide the attic room into two halves to give the girls the privacy they’d started to want. They’d had a right laugh trying to get that done without slamming their heads on the low-hanging ceiling, and once even Cairrean had come marching up to see what all the banging was about. The look she’d given them didn’t sit right with Fionnuala, but she resolved to ignore it. Even after five years, they still didn’t quite get on very well. Not like Fionnuala and Tiernan.
Offhandedly, Fionnuala asked Tiernan if she knew why Cairrean didn’t seem to like them much. In a rare moment of peace, the entire house was empty save for the two of them. They’d all gone out to church, even Cairrean, but Fionnuala was just getting over a nasty cough and refused to potentially disrupt the entire congregation with her hacking, and Tiernan didn’t go anyway now that the little ones were old enough to keep each other quiet.
“It’s because she thinks you’re in love with her husband,” Tiernan said in the same tone she might have commented on the weather with. “Gin.” Fionnuala choked on her tea.
“What? That can’t be right,” she said, wiping at her mouth delicately.
“It’s as plain as day,” Tiernan huffed, shoving her cards in Fionnuala’s face. The redhead huffed and tossed them aside. She believed Tiernan had won. After getting her bum handed to her for the third time that morning, she’d have been shocked not to have lost bitterly. What she couldn’t wrap her hands around was Tiernan’s ludicrous statement.
“What the fuck would give her an idea like that?” Fionnuala huffed, dealing out another hand. “I mean, for god’s sake, we don’t even know if- and even if it were true – which it’s not, thank you very much – I’d never even consider doing anything about it.”
“Well, you both spend a hell of a lot more time together than he does with Cairrean,” Tiernan said, still not changing her tone. “Not to mention how Dominik does look an awful lot like Liam. If anything, he’s more attractive because he’s at least got a level head on his shoulders. Most of the time. Plus you and he essentially raise each other’s children.”
“Do you believe it too? That I’m in love with him, I mean,” Fionnuala asked. She didn’t care what Cairrean thought of her, but knew she wouldn’t be able to bear it if Tiernan thought poorly of her because of some stupid conspiracy.
“Course not,” Tiernan said, but Fionnuala heard the brief hesitation in her voice. “I’m not closed-minded enough to believe a man and a woman can’t be good friends without any romantic feelings. But as Cairrean sees it, it’s been five years Fionnuala. And it’s looking less and less likely we’ll ever know what happened to my fool of a brother. Less wife, more widow. More woman. And well, you’re a very attractive woman. It’s not such a stretch for Cairrean to fear Dominik might feel something less than sisterly towards you.”
“Right,” Fionnuala scoffed, patting her haphazard bun. “If you consider perpetual exhaustion and a flour-covered apron attractive. No, mark my words. The only Murphy sibling that has ever found me even remotely attractive is long gone. Last we heard, Kevin Carney might have seen him on a boat headed for England, and that’s all we need. A Murphy cozying up with the Brits after everything that’s happening.”
“I suppose…” Tiernan abandoned her cards to aimlessly wander around, straightening up the kitchen as she went. Fionnuala watched her curiously, not in the least bit convinced now. It couldn’t be that Dominik had any feelings for her.
“Tiernan, what do you know?” Suddenly very suspicious, Fionnuala stood but thought better of crossing over into the smaller woman’s personal space. Better not to make her feel caged.
“It’s just…Dominik’s in love with you,” Tiernan said quietly, turning to gaze out the window. Shock went through Fionnuala.
“What? How the fuck do you know that?” Fionnuala gaped.
“The way he looks at you,” Tiernan said, glancing over her shoulder at Fionnuala only to immediately glance away. “Like you hung the moon and stars. When he thinks no one can see he just gets this expression. Sadness because he knows you two can never be. Acceptance that nothing will ever come of his feelings. You can make him laugh, you talk to him. He looks at you and he just sees what could have happened in another fucking universe. There’s just love and affection and lust. And it’s like he can’t breathe sometimes because it just hurts.”
“Tiernan,” Fionnuala said gently, finally crossing over. “You can’t possibly…oh…Tiernan, do you have feelings for me? Is this…”
Unable to look at her, Tiernan seemed to curl in on herself. She didn’t deny it. Instead, she said, “I never much cared for boys. Outside of family, I didn’t want anything to do with them. Still don’t. But I’d look at girls and…” She smiled softly, staring down at the ground. “And then you just…And I had to watch my older brother fall in love with my younger brother’s wife and I…I guess I could see it easier because every look he gives you I do to. And now here we are.”
A huge wave of affection for this woman hit Fionnuala like a freight train. She’d spent god only knew how long with these feelings and never let on. Thinking back, Fionnuala suddenly remembered so many instances where she might have had an inkling on Dominik.
They’d all been at a church picnic or something and someone had mistakenly thought all the children were Fionnuala and Dominik’s even with Cairrean right there with them. And Dominik hadn’t said anything to correct them.
Meanwhile, Tiernan had spent every night braiding her hair. She’d cared for Fionnuala’s children like they were her own. On the anniversary of Liam’s disappearance each year she made sure to draw everyone’s attention to something else to give Fionnuala her chance to grieve again.
“Well, then,” Fionnuala said, turning Tiernan around to face her. “Looks like I’m a lucky woman indeed. How many women can say they’ve managed to attract the entire Murphy set?” Her attempt at levity fell flat however.
“Don’t tease,” Tiernan said pulling back. “I couldn’t bear it. Because I know you don’t. You can’t possibly. I suppose with Dominik I always just thought if ever anything happened, it’d be with him. Him and Liam are the spitting images of each other. Always were, especially when they were younger. And him being a man and me not. Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. I guess you’ll be wanting to put a sheet up in the middle of our room now. Or I suppose there’d be room for my bed down in the little sewing room.”
“When I look at you, I’d always get this strange fluttery feeling in the pit of my stomach,” Fionnuala said, instead of responding to what Tiernan had said. “Whenever you’d give me one of your looks, that exasperated one with the little eye-roll, I’d be wanting to blush like a schoolgirl. When I first came here, knowing you were in the room with me at night, I felt safe. Somehow, me being a head taller and god only knows how many stones heavier, you made me felt safe. I never knew what to call it before.”
Saying it out loud, Fionnuala felt as though a giant weight had lifted from her chest. A tender smile on her face, she took Tiernan’s hand in hers.
Exhaling heavily, Tiernan finally managed to meet Fionnuala’s eye. “So, what then? We just ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after? It doesn’t matter that I’ve been in love with you for years now. Not when we’ve got the children to think of. And god fucking damnit, you’re my missing brother’s wife. Nothing can possibly happen.”
“I know,” Fionnuala said, drawing Tiernan away from the window. “But- but, why shouldn’t we? Tiernan, nothing should be able to stop us from…well, from acting on this mutual attraction just this once. There’s been nothing on Liam for so long, and it’s not as though you’re married. What I’m trying to ask is…would you kiss me? Please?”
When Tiernan didn’t respond immediately, Fionnuala felt her face grow hot. Embarrassed at such a rejection, she moved to step back. But almost immediately, Tiernan grasped her around the waist and pulled her almost completely flush up against her. The smaller woman only came up to about shoulder-height, but by standing on her toes and Fionnuala leaning down, they managed just fine.
Kissing Tiernan was like nothing Fionnuala had ever experienced before. Her lips were so much softer and fuller than any man’s, and though the other woman had a hand around her waist and another against her cheek, Fionnuala felt no pressure to acquiesce, nor unnecessary force. It felt right.
Warmth pooled in Fionnuala’s belly, and she must have made some sort of soft noise of delight because Tiernan pulled back ever so slightly with a slight laugh. She appeared almost bashful, but Fionnuala gently held her in place so she wouldn’t bolt like a skittish animal.
“I’m not sure the kitchen is the most appropriate place for this,” Tiernan said, at last.
“I’d very much like to do this again,” Fionnuala said, pointedly glancing at the staircase. “Care to continue in a more private setting? My neck is starting to hurt.”
“Your neck?” Tiernan scoffed, pulling Fionnuala up the stairs. They stumbled into their bedroom, giggling like children about to do something incredibly naughty. And to be fair to them, they were.
Spilling onto the bed, Fionnuala instantly pulled Tiernan onto her lap. Their first kiss had been wonderful. It brought tingles to her spine, and well…a rather enjoyable feeling elsewhere. But they’d been awkwardly placed, and this was so much better. Impulsively, Fionnuala tugged the ends of Tiernan’s hair free of its tie and deftly undid the long braid until her hair hung loosely down her back.
“Fair is fair,” Tiernan murmured against Fionnuala’s lips. She unclipped the mass of red curls and instantly buried her fingers in it. They both groaned in satisfaction.
They must have kissed for nearly half an hour with hardly a pause. Never in her life had Fionnuala been this aroused, and yet she’d have gladly been satisfied with just this. And though she really did not want to compare Tiernan to her brother, Fionnuala couldn’t help but think how anytime she and Liam had done anything remotely similar, it had always been a precursor to other activities. And she’d seemed to prefer the foreplay more than he did. But Tiernan didn’t try to take things to the next level, nor express any sort of impatience.
“God, you’re so…” Fionnuala didn’t have the presence of mind to come up with a proper adjective to describe just how amazing Tiernan was. “Just wow. I don’t- gosh, I can’t even think right now. Um, I’ve never… but god, I want to.”
“It’s- there isn’t any pressure to do anything,” Tiernan said, leaning back to catch her breath. “We can- I mean, I’m happy with whatever you’ll give. And it’s not as though I’m wildly experienced either. It’s, well, it’s been some time since I’ve done this with anyone.”
“I know, I just…” Fionnuala blushed slightly, fiddling with the end of a curl. “I really want to. But only if you want to, of course. And, um, if we do, could you…um, I’ve always been on top before, but I think I’d rather, um, let you lead…?” She could have kicked herself for being such a stuttering mess, but settled for hiding her face in her hands. “I’m not usually like this, I promise. I just really, really like you and this is all so new and unexpected.”
Tiernan gently pulled her fingers from her face and stroked her cheek affectionately. “It’s perfectly alright, love. I’m a bit of a mess inside right now myself. Are you sure this isn’t moving too fast?”
Nodding vigorously, Fionnuala allowed Tiernan to press her back into the bed. Her dress had bunched up around her hips and she resisted the instinctive move to cover herself even if her plain white cotton panties were mortifyingly damp.
“Do we have time to undress?” Tiernan asked, glancing at the clock. Church usually took the majority of the day, and the children had that picnic after, but one never knew. Once Fionnuala nodded, Tiernan carefully undid the buttons down the front of the redhead’s dress, exposing a plain white, very modestly sized despite having given birth twice, bra and an equally white expanse of skin.
They’d caught glimpses of each other over the years. It would have been impossible to share such a small room and not receive the occasional eyeful. But the sexually charged atmosphere changed everything, and the flush that had seemed to permanently exist on Fionnuala’s face immediately spread lower across her upper chest.
After making short work of her dress, Fionnuala turned her attention to Tiernan’s. When that too hit the floor, the redhead’s eyes nearly fell out of their sockets. It seemed the smaller woman had elected not to don a bra that day because her small breasts fell freely forward. They were so unlike Fionnuala’s in every way. Though neither woman could ever claim to be buxom, Tiernan’s were soft yet still firm, and bore no traces of stretch marks or sagging. Her nipples, small and pointed, were a lovely mauve sort of color.
Seeming to read Fionnuala’s thoughts, Tiernan drew her hands to her breasts and allowed the taller woman to explore to her heart’s content.
“God, you’re beautiful,” she breathed, unable to take her eyes off the woman before her. Everything about Tiernan was tiny. From her wee little waist to her slender shoulders to her unbelievably skinny wrists, she was the absolute definitely of tiny. Had Fionnuala not known better and witnessed her lift things three times her size, she’d have assumed Tiernan to be incredibly fragile.
“So are you,” Tiernan responded, arching into Fionnuala’s touch. “Oh, that’s nice. Can I take this off?” She fingered the worn strap of Fionnuala’s bra and after receiving enthusiastic permission, deftly unhooked the damned thing. And, after a bit more increasingly confident exploration, they both divested each other of their panties too until they were both completely bare.
Seeing the small sparse bit of pubic hair Tiernan had, Fionnuala instantly felt a stab of self-consciousness at the absolute forest she seemed to have growing between her own legs. But Tiernan quickly drew her attentions away as she lowered her head to Fionnuala’s breast.
“Ooh…” Fionnuala whimpered. “I- I just- fuck, wait.” Instantly, Tiernan backed away. “No, I’m okay. I’m just wondering when everyone will be back. Look, I really, really want to take my time with you, but we might not be able to and, um, well, I’m getting a bit desperate here.”
She blushed harder, and glanced pointedly down at her own crotch. It had been a long time since anybody had touched her there, herself included, and with Tiernan looking just so utterly beautiful, Fionnuala couldn’t help but squirm slightly.
“Whatever you want, darling,” Tiernan said, and as Fionnuala watched with impossibly wide eyes, she gracefully slid down between the redhead’s spread legs and gently licked at her wet cunt. Muffling her loud moan with her hand, Fionnuala flung her head back into the pillow and arched her hips up.
Sex had never felt this good before. While Fionnuala loved having a thick cock inside her as much as the next girl, she’d never been so close to getting off in such a short time before. With the two male lovers she’d had in her life – one being her current lover’s brother, and that was something she absolutely did not want to think about just then – they’d always seemed to finish before she’d even gotten warmed up properly. But god, for the first time in her life, Fionnuala had complete confidence they’d end with her being incredibly satisfied.
And, just a few short minutes later, she slumped bonelessly into the bed as she recovered from one of the best orgasms in her life.
“God, is there nothing you can’t do?” Fionnuala asked, at last finding her voice once more.
Tiernan laughed quietly and moved to lay next to the still-sluggish redhead. Though she knew they only had a limited amount of time left, Fionnuala turned to her with a mischievous smile and reached between them to the apex of Tiernan’s thighs.
She found the smaller woman cunt absolutely soaked and quickly focused on her clit. To her chagrin, Tiernan seemed to have a much easier time keeping quiet than she had, but even she couldn’t stay silent as her body trembled with pleasure. Never had Fionnuala found someone look so utterly attractive as they orgasamed.
“I don’t think I could bear it if this happened just once,” Fionnuala confessed, as Tiernan snuggled into her embrace. “But I understand if you feel it can’t happen again.”
“I think,” Tiernan said slowly. “That the Murphy family can be incredibly oblivious at times. And I think we deserve any happiness we can get.” Fionnuala’s response was to kiss her senseless.
Fifteen minutes later, when the rest of the Murphy clan came rolling home in that noisy truck of theirs, the children found their aunts and mother playing a spirited game of Go Fish which they gladly interrupted.
“Aunt Tiernan,” Oona complained, sticking her leg in her aunt’s face. “Rowan ripped my stockings!”
“I did not,” Rowan said. “You fell.”
“Because you tripped me!”
On and on they went, each seeming to have something they wanted Tiernan and Fionnuala to fix. Cairrean stole away back up to her bed, and Uncle Jakub trooped up the stairs with little Enya asleep in his arms. Macha set herself up in the parlor next to the fire, and Fionnuala and Tiernan exchanged exasperated little glances. Because although everything had changed, it had also stayed exactly the same.
And once more, the months turned to years. Outside their little farmhouse, a battle raged on. One that incensed most of the town and even had Dominik agitated. When the bombs killed those British aristocrats and soldiers, Fionnuala didn’t know what to think. They’d seen worse this decade alone, but two of the dead had been teenagers, practically little children, and another had been an elderly woman. There couldn’t possibly, Fionnuala thought, be any honor in the slaughtering of the innocent.
The conflict had been going on for as long as she could remember. She’d still been a teenager when it all began, and it had seemed for a while that the worst of it was over. What that horrible explosion happened back in ’72, Fionnuala thought for certain Uncle Jakub would go marching all the way down to England himself to reap vengeance. But things had been calming down and she just knew the British wouldn’t take this latest attack lightly.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Tiernan said one hot summer night as they laid together in bed. “I just pray to God our older boys don’t get any bullheaded ideas what with all that IRA talk Jakub keeps bringing into the house. I mean, Rowan’s nearly a man grown already, and between Sean and Brannigan looking up to him like he hung the moon and stars, I half-worry we’ll all wake up one morning to find the two older ones gone.”
“Rowan would never let the younger boys tag along to something he knew was dangerous,” Fionnuala reasoned. “And he seems to take after his father so maybe he’ll have a level head on him.”
“You didn’t know my brother back then,” Tiernan said, rolling over to face her. “Sometimes I thought he would have burned this house to the ground with everyone in it if it meant a free Ireland. After Cairrean started coming down with her viruses, and the children started growing, he put all that IRA business behind him, but Rowan reminds me so much of Dominik when he was that age. I worry.”
“If we have to physically restrain him from leaving, we will,” Fionnuala said, kissing Tiernan gently. They were so engrossed in each other that they failed to hear the soft knocking on their door. But nothing could have kept them noticing the shocked gasp of outrage that came from the open doorway.
Panicking, Fionnuala scrambled away from Tiernan and nearly fell completely off the bed. Though they’d only been kissing, and hardly in any sort of lusty scandalous way, it felt as though Cairrean may as well have caught them with their hands up each other’s nightgowns.
“What are you doing up so late?” Tiernan asked, drawing her knees up to her chest.
“I thought I might’ve heard the baby crying and came to tell you,” Cairrean said, stepping into the room and closing the door behind her. “But I see I’m interrupting something. How long’s this been going on, then?”
“Why does it matter to you?” Fionnuala asked, not bothering to keep the hostility out of her voice. “Shouldn’t you be happy you don’t have to worry about me and your husband? We’re not doing anything wrong, so don’t look at us like we just murdered your firstborn.”
“And does anyone else know about this?” Cairrean asked, folding her arms across her chest. Neither Fionnuala nor Tiernan failed to notice how Cairrean didn’t react to the comment about Dominik.
“No,” Tiernan said. “And we’re going to keep it that way, Cairrean. What we do in the privacy of our own bedroom is not up for discussion. And you need not worry about this affecting anything. We’ve been…it’s been some time since this began. If you have a problem with it, you may as well come out and say it then.”
After expressionlessly regarding each woman for a long moment, Cairrean wordlessly turned and walked back out the door, leaving Fionnuala and Tiernan to stare after her. They exchanged glances with each other until at last Tiernan reluctantly moved back to her own bed. Being caught once that night was more than enough.
Throughout the next several weeks, Fionnuala and Tiernan moved cautiously, each afraid Cairrean would let something slip on the nature of their relationship. But if anything, Cairrean seemed to thrive on this newfound information. For the first time that Fionnuala could remember, the frail woman made it to dinner at least three times in as many weeks, and though the redhead noticed how wary the children seemed around their absent mother and aunt, she thought it best to hold her tongue for once.
“I guarantee it’s because she’s got another one cooking,” Tiernan said one night when she and Fionnuala were alone in the kitchen. A bottle of half-drunk whiskey sat between them and they took turns sipping at it. Fionnuala more readily than Tiernan because the smaller woman could only handle so much before she went completely off her ear. “Jesus, we got eight children running us ragged, Immaculata is still hardly off the teat and them two just insist on breeding like Seamus McGinnis’s rabbits. I swear, if they think they’re gonna bring another one into this house, they need to think about who’s taking care of the feckin’ thing.”
“It better not be another little one,” Fionnuala said, taking full possession of the bottle. “Christ, imagine having babies for almost fifteen feckin’ years straight. And Cairrean’s so feckin’ frail it’s a miracle she’s even made it through so many pregnancies like she has.”
Right on cue, the baby started wailing from her crib on Tiernan’s right. With a long-suffering sigh, she cradled Immaculata in her arms and rocked her back to sleep.
“You ever think about what it would have been like if you’d had little ones of your own?” Fionnuala asked, watching her lover expertly calm the child without even blinking. “I’ve never seen someone as good at it as you.”
“Would you believe me if I said I never wanted children growing up and hated the little buggers?” Tiernan said with a grin, gently lowering Imma back to her crib once more. “What with me having no use for men and all, I just never thought I’d never have kids. And now here I am with eight. They didn’t have to come from me to be mine, you know.” And wiser words had never bene spoken.
Their suspicions on Cairrean’s pregnancy turned out to be true, and less than nine months later, little Patrick Murphy was born.
“Well, looks like you’re no longer the baby of the family,” Saoirse said, bouncing Immaculata on her knee as she heard the cries of a newborn mingle with her mother’s ear-piercing shrieks. “Oona, go find Fiadh, won’t you and let her know the baby’s here. Rowan, take Imma for a moment while I bring the Aunties something to drink before they pass out from exhaustion.”
Though she and Fiadh had spent a good month begging Fionnuala and Tiernan to be in the room when the baby came, they’d forbidden it which had led to Fiadh storming off in a huff the moment Aunt Cairrean had gone into labor.
As the oldest girl in the family, Saoirse got saddled with the most responsibility and she tried not to resent it, knowing how hard her aunts worked while her mother lazed about on her arse. But Jesus H. Christ, being the oldest was hard.
When Saoirse peaked her head into the “birthing room,” as she liked to call it in her head, the sight that greeted her was unlike anything she’d ever imagined. There was just so much blood. Why was there so much blood? Feeling a bit queasy, Saoirse stood frozen in the doorway.
“What are you doing standing there?” Fionnuala asked harshly, immediately blocking Saoirse’s view. In her arms was a bundle of bloody cloths and a squirming newborn that looked very much like a troll. “We told you to stay downstairs. This is not place for children. God, can’t you listen for once?”
Immediately, Saoirse felt angry tears prickle at her eyes and she flung the plastic pitcher of water to the ground where it cracked and spilled across the wooden floor.
“You’re not my feckin’ mother,” she screamed and fled back down the stairs and out the back door, slamming it for good measure.
Blinking rapidly, Fionnuala felt as though she’d been punched in the stomach. She knew she shouldn’t have shouted at Saoirse like that, but the labor had just been so difficult and more than once she’d been almost certain either mother or baby wouldn’t make it.
“Give me the baby,” Tiernan said gently, holding out her arms. “Go after her before you both go to sleep with regrets. I can clean up here.”
Wordlessly, Fionnuala nodded. She handed over the baby, and hurried after her niece. After a decade, Fionnuala knew where each child went to spend some time alone and escape the hustle and bustle of the Murphy house.
As she slowly climbed the rickety old ladder to the barn’s loft, she could hear Saoirse angrily kicking at a haybale and cursing under her breath.
“Saoirse? Can I talk to you?” Fionnuala asked, stopping just before her hand hit the top rung. “Please?”
The teen shrugged, and heavily plopped down on a haybale. Fionnuala took that as about as much of an answer as she would get and slowly sat down next to her niece. For a long moment, neither said anything as they both awkwardly picked at the hay underneath them.
“I want to apologize to you,” Fionnuala said at last. “I should never have shouted like that. I know you were only just trying to help. Look, it was a hellish day, but that’s no excuse for how I acted. I’m sorry, love.”
“S’okay,” Saoirse muttered, shrugging. “Didn’t think adults knew how to say sorry, though. No one else around here ever seems to. Not even Auntie Tiernan.”
“I know,” Fionnuala said, leaning on her forearms. “We all get old and forget that just because we’re grown up doesn’t mean we can do and say what we want. And as for your Aunt Tiernan, it’s not because she doesn’t care or thinks she’s perfect. Adults can be prideful, and that’s not a good trait to have. Your father and aunt and I have tried raising all you children to be humble enough to know when you need to apologize, and it’s high time we started leading by example.”
“I’m sorry too,” Saoirse said, not meeting Fionnuala’s eye. “For saying what I did. Everyone knows you and Auntie Tiernan were the ones who really raised us all anyway.”
“You shouldn’t say that, Saoirse,” Fionnuala said, blushing. “Look, sweetheart, it’s not your mother’s fault. The viruses-”
“We all know there’s no viruses, Auntie,” Saoirse interrupted. “She’s up there in bed every feckin’ morning while you and Aunt Tiernan do all the work. And I love my little sisters and brother, I do, but if she keeps popping babies out it just makes things even harder around here.”
Explaining depression to a teenager when even adults didn’t want to understand seemed entirely too difficult for how exhausted Fionnuala felt at that current moment. But Christ, she knew if word got back to Cairrean that all of her children over the age of one – and likely the ones under one too – thought of Tiernan and Fionnuala as their real mothers, it would be an entire ordeal to deal with.
“I won’t have you speaking of your mother that way,” Fionnuala said, reluctantly becoming the bad guy to defend a woman who still seemed to dislike her despite knowing she had no interest in Dominik. “Look, it’s been a day for all of us. Just know your mother loves you all and the sadness has got nothing to do with you.”
“Yeah, sure,” Saoirse muttered, hopping off the haybale. “Fiadh and I can put everyone to bed tonight, Auntie. You and Aunt Tiernan should get some sleep. You look like shite.” And with a smug little grin, she scampered down the ladder, knowing full well Fionnuala couldn’t give chase.
Little Patrick Murphy was the last baby Cairrean and Dominik had, thanks god. Given that Fionnuala had raised six of the nine Murphy children from birth and had more than enough experience to draw from, she could confidently say Patrick had to be the absolute fussiest one of the lot. It was as if he knew he’d be the baby of the family forever and wanted to take complete advantage of it because he somehow simultaneously had every single one of them wrapped around his finger and cursing his existence.
For the first two years of his life, Patrick made sure no one got more than four hours sleep each night, and he stayed on the teat for a good four months longer than any of his siblings did. Not that Cairrean seemed to mind at all. She appeared to be at her happiest with Patrick nestled against her chest.
But for once, Fionnuala, Tiernan, and Dominik were sat round the kitchen table at four in the morning for another reason than the youngest Murphy. Today, soon as the sun came up and it officially became a new day, marked the day Rowan Murphy became a man.
“Gin!” Fionnuala said, suddenly having an epiphany.
“That’s the wrong game, Nuala,” Dominik pointed out, staring at his cards in concentration. “If you’re that on your ear, you got no chance of winning.”
“I feckin’ know that,” Fionnuala said, rolling her eyes. “I was just thinking aloud about wanting some. I’m tired of this shite you call a drink. And you can stop staring at them cards. We both know this one over there’s got us beat again. Just look at that smirk.”
“You know me so well,” Tiernan said, plucking the leftmost card from Fionnuala’s hand. “There, I win. Fish that, why don’t you?” She placed down the pair of sevens and sat back in satisfaction.
“What do you mean, you’ve won?” Dominik asked, flabbergasted. “You just feckin’ cheated, is what you did. If we’re going to play Go Fish, we’ve got to do it right.”
Paying her brother absolutely no mind, Tiernan gathered up the cards and began shuffling. He threw up his hands in exasperation and loudly declared if she could only win by cheating then what was the point. They all knew Tiernan had somehow looked at Fionnuala’s cards in order to win.
“Don’t need to cheat to know I’ll always hand your arse to you,” Tiernan bragged. “Fact is I can beat you using pure feckin’ luck o’the Irish. Go on, Blackjack then. And just to shut you giant feckers up, I’m not even going to look at my own cards. Someone else deal. Gimme that scarf there, Fionnuala.”
Scoffing at their antics, Fionnuala tossed the scarf Tiernan’s way. Then, because Dominik insisted on wearing one too so Tiernan couldn’t complain about him cheating either, she too joined in on the fun.
“Hit me,” Fionnuala said, not knowing what kind of hand she had. She felt a card smack her arm and she blindly grabbed at it.
“Hit me,” Dominik said, more for procedure as he was dealing.
“Stay,” Tiernan said confidently. “And don’t bother picking up any more cards cause I’ve won.” Immediately, both Dominik and Fionnuala put up a protest. There was no fucking way she could possibly know that. “Believe what you want, but the fact is I’ve won and you two’ve lost. Bet you a pound each on it too. Fact, double it says Dominik didn’t even come close, and Fionnuala soared right over the mark.”
“You’re on,” Dominik said. “There’s no fucking way you’re right, T.”
“Don’t call me that,” Tiernan said. “Now, let’s take off these damn things and see that I’m right.”
“Wait!” Fionnuala put out both arms to stop them and ended up hitting someone in shoulder. “I know she’s feckin’ right. If we keep these things on, we don’t have to pay up and we can pretend we might’ve won for just a little while.”
Laughing triumphantly, Tiernan wasted no time ripping off all three of their blindfolds. “I’m not about to burn off my damn hands taking this cake out with a scarf round my head like an idiot,” she said, holding her cards up between her middle and index fingers. And Fionnuala felt about two seconds away from pitching an absolute fit because somehow the bitch had gotten an ace and a queen and the odds of getting a twenty-one outright had to be two away from nothing. That she’d guessed the fecker too just added insult to injury.
Looking down at her own hand, she decided flinging the cards over her shoulder was better than admitting out loud that she’d gotten a nine, six, and jack, totaling an insulting twenty-five. Glancing over at Dominik’s hand, which he too flung aside, she saw he’d been graced with a two, four, and six.
“Keep your money, Nunu,” Tiernan said, knowing Fionnuala hated that diminutive of her name. “I know of a better way you can make it up to me. As for you. Pay up, brother. Two pounds. And if you just admit I’m better than you, I’ll shave off twenty pence.”
“I’d rather fucking pay the money,” Dominik said, digging around in his wallet. And just to be a sore loser, he paid up solely in coins. Not that Tiernan seemed to mind much. Money was money and Fionnuala had it on good knowledge that she’d been scraping together some spare change to buy herself a nice pair of shoes. The ones she had on now were a good ten years old and nearly worn through.
The timer went off and Tiernan stopped counting her coins to check on the cake. With all the other business they all had to take care of, the only time to deal with the cake – chocolate with a strawberry filling and vanilla icing – was before the sun had even come up. In all, the cake had taken more money and energy than any of the ones before, but a boy only turned into a man once in his life – or so Dominik said; Tiernan and Fionnuala weren’t so sure they ever did – so here they were.
After ensuring it had been baked through, Tiernan set the cake on the window ledge to cool. Once it wasn’t liable to melt the icing clean off, Fionnuala would take over. According to Dominik, the first few years before Fionnuala came and took over the icing part, Tiernan would spend hours getting the decorations just so because she couldn’t abide by a haphazard frosting layer. More than a few pots had been thrown in frustration because despite her need for perfection, Tiernan just wasn’t cut out for that part of cake preparation.
Of course, whenever Dominik so much as started to bring that particular subject up, Tiernan vehemently denied everything and Fionnuala would have to physically stop her from baking a cake just to prove him otherwise.
“I’m not playing with you anymore,’ Dominik said, leaning back in his chair. “You’ve been kicking my arse six ways to Sunday for thirty-eight feckin’ years. Well I say no more starting today.”
“Hell of an accomplishment considering I didn’t even know you for the first few years of my life,” Tiernan retorted, cleaning up the mess on the kitchen table and snatching the almost-empty bottle of whiskey from her brother’s hand. “Enough of that for now. We’re not going to be drunk on the morning of your eldest’s eighteenth.”
“That comes later tonight,” Fionnuala added, plucking the bottle from Tiernan and downing the last mouthful. “Jesus, eighteen years. Rowan’s going to be running this farm before we know it.”
“And hell, with the way Michael O’Grady has been making eyes at our Saoirse, she’s going to be out and starting up her own family before we can blink,” Tiernan said. Which gave Dominik a turn. “Oh, calm yourself, brother dear. She won’t give him the time of day, but she’s just now going on seventeen and the boys are tripping over themselves to win her favor…Now, who in the hell is the idiot pulling up the drive at this time? I need stronger glasses. Fionnuala, who is that?”
The idiot turned out to be Father O’Callaghan which prompted Fionnuala to stash the empty bottle in a cabinet before he walked in.
“Morning, Father,” Dominik said, standing up. “What can I do for you at this time? Is everything alright?”
“Ah, no, actually,” Father O’Callaghan said, looking grim. “I’m glad you’re all here, actually. I’m afraid I’ve got some news. Fionnuala, Tiernan, you both may want to be sitting down.”
“You’ll find we’re not exactly the swooning type, Father,” Tiernan said, crossing her arms and refusing to sit. “We’ll stand thanks. What is it you’ve come to say?” Ever since the incident at a church picnic in her youth, Tiernan hadn’t exactly been the most trusting of the Catholic Church, including any and all priests. Even if Father O’Callaghan had been a friend of the family for decades.
“It’s about your husband, Fionnuala,” he said, and Fionnuala forgot how to breathe. “They found him.”
“Where?” she asked, not trusting herself to say any more than that.
“Along the River Foyle just west of Magheramason,” the Father said. “Just along the border there. Some kids were digging in the dirt and found- well, no need to go into all that.”
“How- how long had he been there?” Tiernan asked, wrapping her arms around her waist to keep from throwing something presumably. “And what in Christ’s name was he doing all the way out there?” She ignored how the Father winced at the usage of Jesus’s name.
“Last we heard, someone saw him in Glasgow across the water,” Dominik said, clenching his fists. “Enough of this tiptoeing, Father. Just tell us what you know. How long has my little brother been dead in some riverbank and who put him there?”
“The- the body wasn’t in the best shape,” Father O’Callaghan said, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “But they found a paycheck in his pocket that survived. He was far enough from the water that it didn’t get to it, I suppose. It was dated September 3, 1969.”
“He’s been there the whole time?” Fionnuala stared blankly at the priest, unable to begin to understand what was happening. “My husband’s been dead all these years? You’re sure it’s him? I mean, if it’s been that long, surely the body’s not identifiable. Could just be some other Liam Murphy or…or…no. No, it’s him. He always got paid on the first and third Thursday of every month. He went missing on a Friday which means he got paid the day before. So, tell me Father. Did my fool of a husband climb in some hole and bury himself or did someone do it for him? How did he die?”
“I don’t think- right. Right, sorry,” Father O’Callaghan awkwardly coughed, seeing the glares from all three Murphys. “A bullet was found lodged in his skull. I’m so sorry for your loss. I just came out here to tell you I’ll be glad to take care of any arrangements so you can all grieve without worrying a thing about it. Dominik, could I speak to you privately for a moment.”
With a concerned glance at Fionnuala, Dominik reluctantly stepped outside with the Father, leaving the two women alone.
“I’m fine,” Fionnuala said, swallowing back tears. “I’m fine. It’s okay. That cake’ll be about cooled by now. I should get it done before this kitchen becomes a fucking zoo.” She blindly moved towards the window only for Tiernan to step forward and lead her to a chair.
“Fionnuala, it’s not okay,” she said, sitting next to her and grasping her hand. “God, this is so fucking far from okay. That cake is the last thing we need to be worrying about. I’ll make a new one for next week maybe.”
“No,” Fionnuala snapped, rocketing to her feet. “No fucking way am I letting those bastards who did this ruin another day for this family. A boy only turns eighteen once and we are not ruining that. No. We’ll tell everyone tomorrow. Today is about Rowen, and if we don’t do this I’m going to have a fucking breakdown so let’s just wait one more day. I’ve been waiting twelve years, so one more day isn’t going to matter.”
Dominik reentered, cutting off Tiernan’s protest. He looked mournfully at them both as Fionnuala repeated her insistence they continue on with the day as planned.
“Go on, out with the both of you,” she ordered, determinedly staring at the cake. “Make sure everything else is ready. I’ll be fine by the time everyone gets up. Go.”
Though reluctant, Dominik and Fionnuala nodded and headed out into the barn. Barely a moment after the door closed, Tiernan rounded on her brother.
“So help me Jesus, Dominik,” she said, glaring up at him. “You are going to tell me exactly what Father O’Callaghan had to say to you, and why the fuck our brother ended up dead twelve years ago when we’ve been getting sightings all along. And if you even think of lying to me, just know your soul is going straight to hell.”
“He’s coming,” Dominik said, warily glancing around the barn. “The Father doesn’t know when he’ll be here, but he’s coming. It’s them, Tiernan. The IRA wants our assurance we won’t be blaming them for Liam’s disappearance and death.”
“Who else are we supposed to blame?” Tiernan demanded. “They’re the ones who fucking shot our little brother in the back of the head, leaving two children without their father and a wife without her husband, and then had the fucking gall to keep the hope alive by making us think he just ran off and abandoned them. I mean, Jesus, Dominik. You and your fucking IRA shit. I told you, I fucking told you back then to leave it alone. A free Ireland meant nothing if it meant our own people would burn by our own hand. But you and Liam thought you were on top of the fucking world when you joined up.”
“What do you know about the IRA?” Dominik said, raising his voice. “You hightailed it off to Dublin the moment Mom and Dad would let you go. If you had stuck around maybe you could have talked Liam out of it. Don’t you think I don’t blame myself for ever fucking saying the word “IRA” around him? Jesus, he was just a kid. We were so fucking stupid to think that by moving away they would just let him go.”
“We need to tell Fionnuala,” Tiernan said, her voice softening. “What’s done is done. But she deserves to know what’s coming. The sooner the better too.”
Dominik insisted they wait until the next day. A plan Tiernan vehemently disagreed with, but the IRA wasn’t her secret to tell.
By the time they headed back inside, Fionnuala had just about finished the cake and looked significantly more composed. Cake decoration always did have some sort of therapeutic properties for those of them who weren’t Tiernan.
“Is it morning yet?” Enya asked, bounding down the steps. “Can I blow the trumpet? Please?”
“Well, I suppose I can make the sacrifice for today and let you do it,” Fionnuala hedged, handing it over. “Go on, then. Nice and loud.” With an excited yelp, Enya scrambled up onto the table and blew.
“How was that?” Enya asked, after nearly shattering the windows with the sound.
“Loud enough to wake the dead,” Tiernan said, helping her down safely. “Go on then. Wipe down this table and get out the plates. We’ve got something to celebrate today. Murphy Family, get your lazy arses down here!”
A loud stampede of feet barreled into the kitchen as all nine Murphy children, Uncle Jakub and Aunt Macha, having been wheelchair-bound for the past three years, and Cairrean entered.
“Oona Murphy, status report,” Dominik said, saluting his second daughter.
“Brannigan Murphy said the F-word,” Oona said assuming the position with her hands on her hips and head high. “Then Immaculata Murphy copied him so Fiadh Murphy gave him a right smack and called him the C-word.”
“Wonder where they learned that sort of language,” Tiernan said, looking pointedly at Fionnuala who sniffed, and pointed her nose in the air. “Right, what else then? Care to enlighten us as to why your older sisters have got faces to match their hair and the boys look like the cat that got the canary?”
“To get back at Fiadh for smacking him, Brannigan and Sean Murphy pulled down the privacy curtain while Fiadh and Saoirse Murphy were still getting dressed and they saw everything,” Oona said, flapping her arms at the injustice of it all. “Then Sean Murphy asked when they were actually going to grow boobs so Saoirse Murphy threw a shoe at him.” Stepping close to her aunts, Oona quietly asked when were they all going to start to fill out.
“Given the genetics of this family, this is probably about it for the older two,” Fionnuala whispered back. “And don’t think you’re going to grow much either, honey. Blame your family tree for that.”
“For your back’s sake, you should be thanking it,” Tiernan said, not bothering to whisper. “Teats are for babies and nothing else, so it doesn’t matter what size they are. Boys, apologize for what you did. Bet you wouldn’t like it if someone put snakes in the toilet while you were in there, would you?”
“No Auntie Tiernan,” both Sean and Brannigan said, hiding their grins. “Sorry Fiadh, sorry Saoirse.”
Just another day at the Murphy farm. While Fionnuala doled out the food, Tiernan gave Uncle Jakub his shave, set Macha up next to the window so she could look outside, and got Patrick all situated for the day. They could almost trick themselves into believing nothing had really changed.
The day turned out to be a joyous occasion, thanks to the indomitable cheer of children. Around noon a few of Rowan’s mates came around and they all had themselves a few beers to celebrate.
“Please, oh please?” Enya begged, tugging at her father’s arm. “Just one drink!” An answering chorus of please quickly chimed in.
“If you let it happen, you’re responsible for watching these wee ones,” Tiernan warned, pointing at her brother. “I’m not looking after six children on their ears plus these two.” She wisely overlooked the entire bottle of hard liquor Fionnuala had taken possession of shortly after lunch and had yet to relinquish.
“Fine, over fourteen, one beer, that’s it,” Dominik relinquished, to a host of cheers. “And don’t be sneaking any Brannigan Murphy.”
While Saoirse had her fill, Tiernan took back Immaculata while Patrick remained nestled in his mother’s arms.
“Let me take her,” Fionnuala offered, seeing how Tiernan struggled to keep the growing child on her hip. “Gosh, before long she’s going to be bigger than you. Hey, little one. Can you believe your big brother Rowan was once your age? Jesus, it feels like forever.”
Sitting on a picnic blanket in the open fields, she watched as the children she’d raised race around with drinks in their hands. And god, Fiadh was sixteen. Practically all grown up already. When Tiernan had turned sixteen she’d moved all the way across the country, and Fionnuala had been just twenty when she and Liam had-
Blinking rapidly, Fionnuala turned her attention back to Imma who just stared up at her in confusion.
“Mama,” Imma said, reaching out. And this time Fionnuala didn’t have the heart to correct her. The first time Imma had mistakenly called her “mama” Cairrean had had a conniption. And while Tiernan was stricter about the children not calling her “mama” when they were too young to know better, Fionnuala sometimes let it slide. Of course, it just made things more confusing for the poor things in the long run, but it just felt right sometimes.
“I’m alright, honey,” Fionnuala answered, pulling Imma onto her lap. “Here you go. I know you love strawberries so eat up.”
She almost missed the days when they were all this little. Just happy little toddlers who didn’t know any bad words, or liked to tease their siblings about their bodies. Of course, it meant a good deal more work which was why she almost missed those days.
“Come here, Imma,” Cairrean said, having heard her daughter call another woman “mama.” Reluctantly, Fionnuala let Imma run over to her mother, leaving her alone. She supposed she should be happy Cairrean seemed to be taking an interest in her children, but today of all days she needed someone to be totally oblivious and adorable to keep her distracted.
To her dismay, Tiernan had been keeping her distance all day. Understandable, considering everything that had happened, but Fionnuala still wished they could have at least talked about it without being constantly surrounded by people.
With a start, Fionnuala realized she’d not even considered how Liam’s two siblings must have been dealing with the news. They’d known her husband for longer than she did, and surely would be hurting just as much, if not more. But Dominik immediately looked away when she tried to catch his eye, and Tiernan, despite her protests, had gone to watch the children after they downed their first beers a little too quickly.
The sun shone overhead a little too brightly for Fionnuala’s liking, and she reluctantly retreated into the shade. Sunscreen only went so far in saving a Murphy’s pale skin, and though she’d made sure the children had slathered themselves in it, she always seemed to skimp out with herself. And not all of them could be as sun positive as Tiernan and her brown skin.
Eventually, the sun went down and Rowan’s friends all headed home to give him some time with his family. Fionnuala had it on good authority that they were planning a more debauched party later that week, but she pretended not to know a thing about it.
“A toast,” Dominik said, before the great feast began. “To my eldest son. To Rowan Murphy who will one day carry on the legacy of this farm. And when the feckin’ government tries to slap him with a stack of bills, may he tell them where to shove it.” Cheers lit up the room and for good measure, the boys even stomped their feet until the floor rattled. “And while I’m up here giving out toasts. To my wife Cairrean. Who has somehow managed to survive seven little ones. Rowan, my boy, may you find a woman as strong as I have. And speaking of strong women, to my sisters, Fionnuala and Tiernan. Where would be without you both? Here’s to you.”
“To Fionnuala and Tiernan,” the Murphy clan echoed, raising their glasses.
“To Ma and the Aunties,” Rowan said, standing next to his father, the spitting image. “And to Dad. To them for raising us all with what they had. And. Though we may have all this food here that the Aunties have expertly prepared, let us not forget those who are doing without.”
“Here, here,” Uncle Jakub said, pounding his fist.
“To Kevin Lynch who died yesterday, and the men who gave their lives to fight for justice,” Rowan said, raising his cup. “And to the men still striking who fight for a free Ireland.”
To Paddy Quinn’s mother, was what Fionnuala wanted to say. To a woman who refused to let her son die, Ireland be damned. And from the light that shone in Brannigan and Sean’s eyes, she wondered if she’d ever have to be in that position herself.
“To Bobby Sands!” Sean shouted, jumping up. “To Ireland!”
Those hunger strikers were practically children, Fionnuala thought mournfully. Kevin Lunch was just twenty-five for god’s sake. How long before her own children were right there with him?
“To Ireland,” said a voice from the doorway. They all turned to find three men at their front door, one clearly the leader. Next to Fionnuala, Tiernan tensed, a scowl on her face.
“Can I help you gentlemen? We’re in the middle of a celebration right here,” Dominik said, clenching one fist.
“I just wanted to come here and offer my sincerest condolences for your lost,” the man said, and Fionnuala’s heart dropped into her stomach. Immediately, she stood and tried to get Fiadh and Sean to follow her into the other room, but they stood riveted by the stand-off between the man and their uncle.
“I’ll thank you to leave now,” Tiernan said, moving right in front of the man. “I don’t know who you are, but you’ve got no right bursting in on us like this.”
“My apologies, Miss. Murphy,” he said, looking down at her. “Thomas MacDermott at your service. And on behalf of the IRA, we wanted reassure you that Liam’s tragedy of a death would not go unremembered.”
“Mom? What’s he talking about?” Fiadh asked, turning to her mother. “They found Dad?” Fionnuala ran her hands through her hair, as she watched Sean slam down his cup and storm into the other room. When Rowan tried to follow, she put out a hand. He had every right to be angry. This was what she wanted to avoid. This fucking mess of a way that her children should find out their father had been found dead after twelve years of their lives.
Soon after, MacDermott and his men took their leave. The damage had been done. They’d accomplished what they’d come for and Sean was off somewhere seething and Fiadh refused to even look at her.
With the party effectively ruined, Tiernan wrapped up Rowan’s cake for another day, and they hurriedly ate their meals in silence. But Fionnuala could barely even look at her food and she abruptly fled the table before anyone could stop her.
For as much as twelve years had felt like absolutely nothing when she looked at the children, it meant that Liam had been dead for almost twice as long as they’d been married. And she’d had ample time to think about it, but had Liam decided to waltz through the door one day, Fionnuala wasn’t so sure she’d be willing to go back to the way things were. For one thing, Fiadh and Sean had grown up with seven brothers and sisters and to take them away from each other seemed impossibly cruel.
But if Fionnuala were being honest with herself, it was Tiernan. She and Tiernan had been together, for all intents and purposes, for seven years which was two more than she’d spent with Liam. And though she knew she’d always love Liam; it just didn’t feel nearly as powerful anymore as her love for Tiernan.
So, though it seemed terrible to even think, Fionnuala knew her grief came more on behalf of her children and the family than herself.
Her son always had to be a handful. His spot he liked to run to wasn’t in an easy place like Saoirse’s loft. But it had started to go dark, and as Fionnuala looked, she grew more and more worried when he still hadn’t turned up.
Three hours later, after panicking and having Jakub, Dominik, Rowan, and Brannigan join her, they still hadn’t found him. Only then did Fionnuala give up and let herself break down. If only those kids had never found the body. If only Liam had stayed a mystery for the rest of their lives.
The not knowing had been torture those first few years, but Fionnuala had managed to move on, and the children had a family to keep them from being too affected by the loss of their father. At least, that was what Fionnuala had convinced herself of. In truth, she knew Sean had taken it harder than his sister, and harbored a deep resentment even in spite of Dominik trying to fill the hole his brother had left. Now it seemed he was determined to brood for as long as he could.
Sitting on a half-rotten log, Fionnuala just cried and cried. This family didn’t deserve this kind of tragedy. Not now. And today of all days. God, earlier they’d heard on the radio that Kiernan Doherty had died in the hunger strike after seventy-three days. Longer than anyone.
“We’ll find him,” Tiernan murmured, sitting down next to the other woman and hugging her tight. “Everything is going to be okay. I’m so sorry Dominik and I didn’t tell you sooner. He wanted to wait until we’d had time to process, and I should have insisted harder. It’s my fault this all happened like this. I’m sorry.”
“What if we don’t?” Fionnuala asked, trying to control her breathing and failing miserably. “You know what he’s been like these past few years. Free Ireland, and fuck the cost. And with the fucking IRA coming to our door and framing it like Liam died because of some English shite. They fucking killed Sean’s father, and now he’s got even more reason to be a fucking martyr. And Jesus Christ, I should be with him. I should be with them both, but instead I’m crying my fucking eyes out like a fool.”
“Let’s go inside then,” Tiernan said, trying to pull Fionnuala up. “Look, the boys will find Sean, and Saoirse and Oona haven’t left Fiadh’s side. She’s doing just fine, and only needs her mother and brother next to her.”
Nodding, Fionnuala let Tiernan lead her back the house where immediately four pairs of arms embraced her, nearly knocking the tall woman over.
“They’ll find him, Auntie Fionnuala,” Oona reassured, helping her aunt sit down on the couch. Enya brought her a bottle, and Saoirse and Fiadh flocked her on both sides, refusing to let go.
“Are the little ones asleep?” Fionnuala asked, scrubbing her eyes.
“Cairrean put them to sleep earlier,” Tiernan said, sitting on the coffee table across from the couch. “Never mind them, though. Are you okay?” Fionnuala nodded, leaning her head on Fiadh’s shoulder. At sixteen, she stood as tall as her mother.
“I’m just tired,” she said, resting her eyes for just a moment. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, Fiadh. I just- I didn’t want to ruin Rowan’s day and look what happened anyway. I never wanted this for you.”
But then, Fiadh already knew that. She simply held her mother close and, knowing they both took comfort in such a thing, she began gently stroking Fionnuala’s red curls.
“I just wish-” but whatever it was that Fiadh wished got cut off as Father O’Callaghan reentered the house. Immediately Tiernan stood, blocking the others as best she could. One look from her sent the girls reluctantly scrambling up the stairs, presumably to listen from the top steps.
Pulling herself together as best she could, Fionnuala moved next to the other woman, unsure exactly why she seemed to defensive, but she had her suspicions.
“What do they want, then?” Tiernan asked, hands on her hips. Hesitating, the Father decided the best thing to say was that he thought it best to tell Dominik the message. Which, of course, was the exact wrong thing to say to Tiernan and Fionnuala Murphy. “Messenger of God or not, you’re still a feckin’ man who thinks himself above any and all women, don’t you? If you knew anything about this family you’d know nothing happens without either of us knowing, and we’ve got just as much say as the so-called “man of the family.” So, Father, you better fucking start talking because Dominik is not the only goddamn person affected by those bastards.”
Affronted at such foul language, particularly from a woman given his red face, Father O’Callaghan uncomfortably stumbled through a message that Fionnuala basically understood as the IRA wanting to ensure no one blamed them for Liam’s death and none of them would be going public with any “unfounded” accusations.
“They should have just feckin’ stayed out of it,” Fionnuala said, suddenly absolutely furious. “Liam turned up dead with a goddamn bullet in his skull and maybe Dominik and Tiernan had their suspicions, but no one would have said a fucking thing because who knew any better? But then the bastards show up at my door offering their fucking condolences and thinly veiled threats and how could we think anything otherwise? They killed my husband, and they can just rot in hell for all I care. You feckin’ tell them to leave us alone and let us bury Liam in peace.”
“Please, Fionnuala,” Father O’Callaghan said, trying to reason with a woman who would sooner punch a priest and damn herself to hell than agree to such a thing. “I urge you to reconsider. And Tiernan. All respect, but you don’t know the sort of men your brother was involved with.”
“My brother,” Tiernan said, deadly calm. A voice Fionnuala knew only proceeded true fury. “My fool of a feckin’ brother moved to Dublin with his newly pregnant wife to get them away from those men. He only ever protected them and they killed him for it. So you can just go tell them, and quote me on this, Father, to fuck themselves.”
“I’ll be wanting to talk to Cairrean, then,” Father O’Callaghan said gravely. “There’s something she needs to know.”
“You’ll be wanting to get out of this house,” Fionnuala said, forcing him back. “I know what you’ve got to say to her, and you have no right. If you’ve damned yourself to hell over this, I just hope it was worth it, Father. Now, let me save your fucking soul and allow me to escort you out of this house.”
The visit from the Father left Fionnuala shaking. Unable to sit still, she paced the kitchen until at last the others returned. With no sign of Sean.
“I can’t just sit here,” Fionnuala said, grabbing a light. “I have to find him.”
“Let me get my shoes,” Tiernan said, already reaching for her sweater.
“No!” Fionnuala snapped, stopping both her and Dominik in their tracks. “No. I need to do this alone.” She didn’t miss the way Tiernan swallowed back her hurt and nodded, but concern over her son outweighed anything else, and she hurried out into the night, leaving the Murphy siblings behind.
“Right,” Tiernan said, fiddling with her sweater. “Off to bed with you lot. No arguing. And wash up first! I’m not going to be scrubbing dirt out of the sheets again, you hear? I’ll finish up down here.”
When Dominik offered to help, she too snapped at him to leave her be. And after neurotically scrubbing down the entire kitchen, Tiernan sat up with a pot of coffee and waited for Fionnuala and Sean to come home.
Dawn had just begun to appear over the horizon when at last, fatigued and near-catatonic with worry, Fionnuala stumbled back into the kitchen and collapsed into a kitchen chair. Though she couldn’t even begin to think of sleeping, but exhaustion set in and she soon passed out without even registering how Tiernan, also asleep at the table, stirred.
Unable to even consider carrying her love upstairs to a proper bed, Tiernan instead got a pillow and blanket from the sitting room and tried to make her as comfortable as possible. Then, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she headed out in the hopes that maybe one of them would be successful and find the little fecker.
At her age, one of the last things Tiernan wanted to do was climb on top of the roof of the house, but she’d seen a flash of green up there, and had a hunch. Fifteen minutes later, she was hauling Sean Murphy back inside by his ear. The boy may have been foolish enough to run away and stay on the roof all night despite hearing his panicked mother calling him, but he wasn’t foolish enough to disobey his aunt who looked ready to kill him dead.
“Ow, ow,” Sean complained, practically bent double given how much taller he was than Tiernan. “Aunt Tiernan, you can let go! Ouch!”
Hearing the commotion, Fionnuala woke up and immediately launched herself into her son’s arms. Then, before he could even react, she slapped him across his face.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” she said, trying not to break out into tears again. “You can’t just- Sean, you can’t just go missing for a night without telling anyone. I can’t go through that again. God, I thought…Please. Please, don’t ever scare me like that again.”
Before she could raise her hand to slap him again, Tiernan pulled her back gently but firmly. Not because she felt Sean didn’t deserve it, or because she wanted to stop any nascent violence, but because she saw a car coming up the drive.
“Sean, go upstairs and get cleaned up,” she said calmly. “We’re all exhausted right now. Let’s have this conversation when we’re at least a wee bit more rested.”
“No, Aunt Tiernan,” Sean said, standing tall even under her withering gaze. “We need to have this conversation now. My mother needs to explain why she feckin’ slammed the door in the IRA’s face when Mr. MacDermott himself extended his hand and promised Dad’s murder by those English bastards would be avenged, and you need to explain why you told Father Callaghan that the IRA could fuck themselves. Are you fucking stupid, woman?”
This time, no one stopped Fionnuala from slapping her son once more. “If you ever talk to your aunt like that again you’ll wish you’d never opened your fucking mouth. You were three years old, Sean. Three when your father was murdered. We don’t know how he died. If it was the English or the IRA or some random bastard he got in an argument on the way to work. You are blinded by what you want to see, Sean. And I won’t have your father become some sort of martyr when that is the last thing this family needs.”
His face practically red with both rage and embarrassment, Sean was about three seconds from throwing something, likely the kitchen table, when Dominik descended down the steps and put a restraining hand on his shoulder. Close behind him, the Murphy children all lined up along the stairs. They too had seen the car pulling up and heard the shouting.
Before he could say anything, Mr. MacDermott and his men invaded the Murphy house uninvited for the second time in as many days.
“Apologies for interrupting,” Mr. MacDermott said, not looking at all sorry. “Mr. Murphy, Mrs. Murphy. I was wondering if you’d given any thought to accepting the IRA’s help. Liam was a good man, Fionnuala, and we want to ensure his family will be well taken care of.”
“Dominik?” Cairrean hesitantly drifted down the stairs with Patrick in her arms. Rowan looked as though he wanted desperately to take his mother and baby brother back upstairs and away from whatever was going on. “What’s going on down here? Oh, hello, Mr. MacDermott.”
“Morning, Mrs. Murphy,” he said, inclining his head respectfully. “A lovely family you have here. I’m sure it must be difficult. Watching as two other women raise your weens. Thinking about it, my offer is really a gift to you too, ma’am.”
“What gift?” Tiernan asked, her tone wary.
“A token of good faith to show the IRA takes care of its own,” Mr. MacDermott said, smiling at the youngest children a bit too broadly for comfort. “A flat out in Belfast, all expenses paid for the first year. Two bedrooms and a small office perfect for another room. Plenty of space for you and your two children, Mrs. Murphy. All new appliances, and a wonderful school just down the way. And Fionnuala would be under my…personal care…”
“No,” both Tiernan and Dominik spoke at once, each moving to put themselves between Fionnuala and these strange men.
“Now, don’t be so hasty,” he said, casually walking around the kitchen, looking at each of the children in turn. “Really, accepting my offer may just be what is best for everyone. Dominik, you and your wife can have the space you need to be a family. And I’m sure Cairrean only wants to do what’s right for her children. For Rowan. And Saoirse. Oona and Brannigan. For Enya and Immaculata. And even little Patrick here.”
“This family doesn’t need any help from the IRA,” Dominik said, clenching his fists. “Liam’s been gone for twelve years, and not a peep outta youse. In that time, we been taking care of ourselves just fine.”
But Fionnuala knew a threat when she heard one. The way Mr. MacDermott looked at her when at last he stopped his lap around the kitchen. That possessive arrogance that told her that he thought he’d already won. And of course, he had.
“Now, this might be just the thing for Fionnuala and her children,” Cairrean said, instantly appearing at Dominik’s side, having handed Patrick off to Saoirse. “Why, with such a generous offer. I’d say it’d be foolish not to take it.”
“They’re not going-” Dominik started to protest but Fionnuala immediately intervened.
“It’s my choice, Dominik,” she said, stepping forward. “And Cairrean’s right. We’d be foolish not to accept. It’s just what the children and I need. A fresh start. Why, we’ve spent so many years just waiting, it’ll be good to get out there and live for ourselves for once. And I’m sure there’ll be plenty of job opportunities for me and the children in Belfast, isn’t that right, Mr. MacDermott?”
He nodded, looking more and more pleased by the second. And though Fionnuala wasn’t naive enough to misunderstand his true intentions with her, the look that man gave Fiadh chilled her blood.
Her daughter must have caught it too, because she immediately put up a protest. With only one year left of school, she was loathe to leave her friends and start anew.
“Please, couldn’t I just stay here until I graduate?” she all but begged. Immediately, Tiernan nodded, gripping her arm protectively.
Still with a head full of vengeance and anger, Sean had no such reservations. He stepped forward and shook MacDermott’s hand firmly, clearly trying to make a good impression on the IRA.
“Oh, but I insist each of you join your mother in Belfast,” MacDermott said, and his tone left no room for argument. “It would be a shame to split up such a lovely family, after all.”
Which was exactly what MacDermott was doing, but Fionnuala held her tongue and instead nodded, vowing to herself that she would do whatever it took to keep Fiadh away from him. Her daughter would never be alone if her mother had anything to say about it.
“Well, I’m glad to have been of service,” MacDermott said, shaking her hand too tightly to be friendly. “Now, I’ll be headed back to Belfast by noon. I’d be much obliged if you all could be ready to go by then. If not, I’m sure we could wait a few days, but I do have some important business to attend to and the earlier the better.”
“Of course, Mr. MacDermott,” Fionnuala said, smiling tensely. “You’re doing us such a kindness and we want to make things as easy as possible. Sean, Fiadh, go pack up your things and say your goodbyes.”
Her son nodded, and practically sprinted up the stairs. His sister followed at a more reasonable pace. Both she and Saoirse looked like they might burst into tears at any moment. Never had Fionnuala wished Liam had stayed dead and buried than she did just then. Or that he’d instead abandoned them for a life of English wealth. Anything but what she knew would soon follow.
“Auntie Fionnuala, please don’t go,” Brannigan begged the moment MacDermott and his men left. “Please, please!” The younger ones all immediately flew at her and wrapped their arms around her waist as though they might be able to anchor her to this house forever.
“Now, children,” Cairrean said, trying to tug them away, her smile strained. “Your aunt has her own life and her own family to think of. Come on now, why don’t you all go upstairs and help your cousins pack?”
The last of them to peal away, Enya tugged at her dress and whispered in her ear. “You and Auntie Tiernan are my real moms. Please don’t go.”
“Oh, darling,” Fionnuala said, her eyes watery. “I have to go. Not because I don’t love you and your siblings to death, but because I do. This is to protect everyone, and I know you don’t understand now, but maybe one day you will.” She just hoped it wouldn’t be for many years to come.
Knowing how this would affect the children, especially the little ones, broke Fionnuala’s heart. Saying goodbye to Tiernan destroyed it completely.
Alone in their little room that had been only theirs for so long, Fionnuala felt like she couldn’t breathe. She helplessly watched as Tiernan paced the floors, barely able to take five steps before she had to turn once more.
“There must be something I can do to stop this,” Tiernan said, wringing her hands. “Christ, you saw how that bugger looked at you. There has to be-”
“You can’t save me, Tiernan,” Fionnuala said, reaching for her lover. “I know what’s going to happen and I don’t have to like it, but I’ve got seven other children and the rest of the family to think about. I’ll not have another member of this family shot on account of I was too proud to spread my legs for that bastard.”
“I don’t know if I can stay here without you,” Tiernan confessed, hiding her face in the crook of Fionnuala’s neck. “I just- Fionnuala, I love you more than I ever thought- and Sean and Fiadh.”
“I know,” Fionnuala said, holding Tiernan’s face in her hands. “I love you too. I wish…I wish things could be different, but they can’t. And in a few hours…I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to do this again, so kiss me Tiernan Murphy. Please. Just kiss me and we can pretend for just a moment that everything is as it should be.”
Kissing Tiernan felt like a stab in the chest. For as much as Fionnuala loved her, the kiss tasted of rage and devastation and everything terrible in the world. And yet somehow, it tasted of strength and love and the best things in life.
“There,” Fionnuala said, allowing their foreheads to rest against each other. “Now when I am alone in some strange place, I’ll have something to help me wake up each morning. When everything is dark and there are people in my bed that aren’t you, I’ll think of you and your touch and your taste and I’ll get through it somehow. I love you, Tiernan. And I loved Liam too, but you are it for me. The love of my life, and I wish we had longer, but we don’t.”
“I’m not giving up, Fionnuala,” Tiernan said, kissing her once more. “Don’t think I’m going to just let them keep you there. They may have won this day, but when have you ever known me to lose a war?”
“Just stay safe,” Fionnuala said, reluctantly pulling away to pack her things. “Stay safe and keep this family safe.”
When MacDermott came back with his car to take Fionnuala and her two children away from the place that had been their home for twelve years, Tiernan refused to step outside to see them off. As the children swarmed around their aunt and cousins, she watched from the window, knowing if she so much as got within spitting distance of Thomas MacDermott she’d do something she could never come back from. And Fionnuala had been right. They had the children to think of first.
But the moment Dominik and Cairrean came back outside, the children and Jakub and Macha having taken a long walk down to the creek, she turned on them to let out some of her pent up rage.
“How could you let them take her?” Tiernan demanded, flinging down her rag. “After every fucking thing she has done for this family, how could you throw her to the wolves like that? Are you so fucking small that you would hand that bastard your own sister-in-law and niece just to cure your own goddamn jealousy, you fucking bitch?”
“I did what I had to do to protect my children,” Cairrean snapped back. “You saw yourself how he looked at my Patrick. Fionnuala is a grown woman and can protect herself and her kin. I had to protect mine.”
“She would have given her own life if it meant protecting any one of your children,” Tiernan said, wanting very much to strangle her. “Twelve years of raising those babies, and she never once treated her own any different than yours. Then, the first fucking chance you get, you throw them all off the proverbial train. And you.” She rounded on Dominik who looked to be trying to sneak away.
“Don’t start with me, sister,” he said, just as enraged as she. “You have no idea what she means to me. You weren’t there that night we looked all over Dublin to find Liam.”
“Wanting to fuck your brother’s widow doesn’t mean shit, Dominik,” Tiernan said, refusing to mince words any longer. “Fionnuala is at their mercy, and you just stood there, not saying a fucking thing after your little “family takes care of family” speech fell flat.”
“What do you know of that, Tiernan?” Dominik asked, slamming his fist on the countertop. “You can’t hope to understand-”
“Oh shut up, you absolute bugger,” Tiernan shouted, likely for the first time in her life. “Just shut the fuck up. Are you really so fucking oblivious that you thought you were the only one of us to fall in love with our own brother’s wife?”
“I- wait, what?” That stopped Dominik dead in his tracks as he stared slack-jawed at his sister.
“Even your wife knows, and she hasn’t gotten out of bed for more than seven hours at a time in eighteen fucking years,” Tiernan said, throwing it all out in the open. “I fucking love Fionnuala, damnit, and every fucking day I lived in terror and hope that our fool of a brother would come waltzing through that door because it would mean he was alive sure, but it might also mean I’d lose the only person who… and I don’t…
God, I never wanted this. I never wanted to raise your children and have them think of me as their mother, Cairrean, no matter what you think. I never wanted this life, even if I love those children more than my own existence. But suddenly she came with her fucking brashness, and fantastic work ethic, and every time she even looked at me I couldn’t breathe. And we just let them take her.”
All the fight went out of her, and Tiernan sank to the floor, grief and pain at last taking over. The thought of sleeping in that little room all alone made her stomach turn. The thought of what would surely befall the love of her life felt even worse.
“How long then?” Dominik asked tiredly, sitting down next to her. “I thought you both was happier, but I didn’t think…”
“Enya must’ve been about 3,” Tiernan said, dropping her head to her knees. “You had all gone out to some church picnic and we were all alone. The first and only time in all twelve years, mind you. And seven years later, we thought… we were happy. Nine wee bastards, a tiny little room Fionnuala couldn’t even stand upright in, and food on the table. It was enough, and then everything just…”
Helplessly, she made a vague hand motion. Sitting on the floor would do her no good, Tiernan knew. So she stood with aching knees and turned back to the sink. “It doesn’t matter. Not anymore. They’re gone, Cairrean couldn’t care less, and it’s just over. Right. Out with the both of you. I’ve got to get dinner started and Patrick’ll be back soon for his nap.”
“Here,” Cairrean said tentatively. “Let me-”
“If you both don’t get out of my kitchen I swear I’ll scream,” Tiernan warned, turning her back on them both. “I managed alone well enough for six years before Liam disappeared, and I can manage again. Just leave me be.”
She listened as Dominik silently walked away, shutting the back door with more force than necessary. Which left her alone with Cairrean.
“Believe what you want,” she said, firmly grabbing a cutting board and a bowl and joining Tiernan at the counter. “But I never wanted any of this either. I don’t like you and I don’t like Fionnuala, but you’re family and I love you both. Thinking about what’s going to happen just tears me up.”
“I don’t care anymore,” Tiernan said. “That’s all between you, Fionnuala, and God now. And don’t be getting your hopes up and thinking I’m just going to take off now that she’s gone. You were both right in saying we got seven other children to think of. And someone in this house has to care for them.”
They moved quietly for a long stretch, the silence only broken by the children returning. But seeing to sense the tension in the kitchen, they all hastily scattered.
When Tiernan returned from putting Immaculata and Patrick down for their naps, she found Cairrean resting at the kitchen table, a pot of sauce very near burning on the stove.
“Jesus,” she muttered, taking it off the fire before they all burned down. “Will you be wanting some tea before you go back upstairs, Cairrean?”
“Saoirse and Oona are old enough to mind the wee ones if you were thinking of leaving,” Cairrean said instead. “You’ve been a big help to this family, Tiernan, but don’t think you have to stay.”
“Your oldest daughter is seventeen,” Tiernan said. “She’ll be wanting to get out there soon enough, and it won’t do to have her feel guilty and beholden to this house. I’ve already made my choice. I won’t have them giving up their lives because I decided I wanted mine.”
And really, she thought bitterly. What sort of life could she even have? With no desire for a husband, very little higher education, and her only job experience nearly twenty years out of date, Tiernan knew she would have little hope of succeeding in anything.
Hours away, Fionnuala stepped into her new bedroom for the first time. The small flat’s master bedroom had to be four times the size of her old room, and she already knew which she preferred. Everything looked brand-spanking-new, but the thought of using any of it felt like betrayal.
As the “man of the family” Sean had taken it upon himself to occupy the smallest bedroom at the very pointed suggestion of Mr. MacDermott who said it was his duty to see to his mother and sister’s womanly delicacies now that his father was dead. Had Fionnuala or Fiadh tried to convince Sean to take the bedroom that wasn’t exactly a bedroom, they knew he’d have protested mightily.
In the bedroom next door, Fionnuala could just barely hear Fiadh sniffling as she unpacked. As soon as she was sure they were alone, Fionnuala planned to tell her daughter to keep her door and window locked at all times and to push the dresser in front of the door at night. The moment Fiadh turned eighteen Fionnuala would send her running back to the farm – or wherever she liked – and away from this horrible place.
Her heart never quite settled down that first day as the three of them acclimatized themselves to their new surroundings. Unsure what to do with so much space, Fionnuala and Fiadh kept to the kitchen for most of the afternoon. To Fionnuala’s dismay, Sean was out somewhere making good impressions on IRA members.
When night fell, Fionnuala kissed her two children good night, and retreated to her room until she was certain they’d fallen asleep. Only then did she redress and creep out of the flat and into the one just two floors above.
“Ah, Fionnuala, so glad you could make it,” MacDermott said, welcoming her to his home with false graciousness. She didn’t respond, instead letting him look his fill. After spending twelve years only ever getting herself prettied up perhaps once or twice a week, she’d not bothered that night, though from MacDermott’s critical glance, she perhaps should have. “May I offer you some tea before we begin?”
“I’d rather we just get this over with,” Fionnuala said, fiddling with her sleeves. “I’m awfully tired, you understand.”
“Ah, of course. Well, we all get tired in our old age,” MacDermott said jovially, circling her like a hawk. “You know, your daughter is quite the pretty thing. It’s just too bad she hasn’t inherited your lovely hair.” He twirled a lock around his fingers, tugging harder than strictly necessary.
“Please,” Fionnuala begged, dropping her air of apathy. “Please, don’t bring Fiadh into this. She’s only sixteen. Please, I’ll do anything you want. Just promise me no one will touch her.”
“Well, I’m a reasonable man,” he said mildly, leading her into his bedroom. “You’ll have my word no one will touch your daughter so long as you cooperate. Now, you’ll be expected at my door every, oh we’ll say ever other night at this time. And as pretty a thing as you are, do try to put in some effort, my dear.” He stroked her cheek and it took all of her willpower to keep from flinching away.
“Yes, sir,” she said earnestly. “Anything. Anything at all.”
“Good, I’m glad we came to this understanding,” he said, settling into an armchair. “Now. Undress, my dear. Slowly.”
She’d gone into that flat with a promise to herself that she wouldn’t allow this odious man to humiliate her. Standing naked before him, only her pride kept her from curling in on herself to preserve her modesty. She expected him to insult, to make pointed barbs at her bodily flaws. She thought he might force her to her knees to…service him. But instead, the bastard grabbed her roughly by the arm and shoved her onto the bed where she sprawled gracelessly, on full display.
The sheets, though the softest ones she’d ever felt, may as well have been flames against her skin for all she cared. His hands were rough and too large. Nothing at all like the gentleness of both Murphy siblings.
“On your knees, bitch,” he said, gladly showing is true colors. Without waiting for her to move herself, he forcibly flipped her onto her front and grabbed her hips.
It hurt. To be taken from behind with no regard for…
Unwilling to give him the satisfaction of hearing her scream, she bit at her lip until it bled, and forced herself to think of happier times. She remembered the month where the children were still wee bitty things and their washer had broken down. Unwilling to haul pail after pail of water into a large vat, she and Tiernan had instead taken the laundry down to the creek and made a day of living like their grandmothers had.
Of course, the heat of the summer had addled her brain and Fionnuala found herself unable to resist dropping her disapproving lover right into the clear creek waters. It had been a day to remember, and the ways Fionnuala begged for forgiveness even more so.
It was moments like these, the memory of watching Enya take her first steps, of seeing Oona’s art on display at her school, of falling asleep to Tiernan within arm’s reach, that kept Fionnuala going and still sane.
The months passed, and each morning Fionnuala forced herself up and out of the plush bed to start her early-morning shift. And though a ten-hour workday on an assembly line proved to be far less grueling than raising nine children, the reward hardly compared. But they desperately needed money for the inevitable day when MacDermott’s funding would cease and they’d be left to fend for themselves. What hurt more than the grueling hours was that, on weekends and holidays, Fiadh would be right there beside her when she should have been studying or going out with friends or doing any number of things most girls her age did.
“I’d rather be here with you,” Fiadh always said when Fionnuala tried to intervene. “Sean’s got his paper route and god only knows what else with them buggers.” What she didn’t say was that she would have rather worked the assembly line than spend the weekend with friends because she had none to spend it with. Of course, Fionnuala knew anyway. A mother always knew. But with little she could do to help her daughter, she was just glad for the time they could spend with each other.
Perhaps Fionnuala’s only regret living at the farm for all those years was that, with so many children running about, she’d never been particularly close with her own. And as well as Fiadh had turned out, she couldn’t help but think if only she’d been more attentive, made more effort to spend time with them and them alone. And now they were all in this mess of a situation.
“Besides,” Fiadh said with a sidelong glance. “I’m not exactly the one suffering the most here.”
Immediately, Fionnuala averted her gaze, tugging at the long sleeve of her blouse. She’d been fanatic about keeping the near-constant bruises on her body hidden, especially from her children, but perhaps Fiadh had somehow seen.
“What do you mean?” She asked lightly, grabbing her purse from her locker and punching out. Fiadh followed suit, shrugging.
“Only, I know you probably didn’t want me to know about it, but I know you must be missing Auntie Tiernan something awful,” Fiadh said, taking her mother’s arm.
“I- um, well, yes,” Fionnuala stuttered uncharacteristically blushing. “Just as you’re probably missing Saoirse.”
“Yes, but Saoirse is a sister to me,” Fiadh said, giving her mother a pointed look. “And, well, you and Auntie Tiernan weren’t exactly sisters… It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it, but it’s okay. I’ve known for years now and I know you must have loved each other very much.”
“How did- do you all know about…about us?” Fionnuala asked. She’d thought they’d been so discreet, that one time Cairrean walked in on them notwithstanding. “Wait, years?”
“It was Saoirse that found out,” her daughter confided. “She saw the two of you dancing late one night and then you kissed. She was so shocked, I was able to get it out of her pretty quickly. But we never told any of the others. Figured if you and Aunt Tiernan loved each other so much, it was no one’s business but your own.”
Against her will, Fionnuala’s eyes teared up. Partially because every day without Tiernan seemed to go on forever, and partially because having her daughter give her blessing and approval meant the world to her.
“When did you get so feckin’ mature?” She teased, wiping at her eyes discreetly. “Well, come on then. Let’s get dinner started for your fool of a brother.”
By the time they walked through the door, they were both laughing once more. And dear god, it felt good to do that. The last time she’d laughed this hard…well, it had to be the morning before Father O’Callaghan came in and turned their worlds upside down. That ridiculous blind card game where Tiernan once again proved she could do just about-
“Tiernan.” Fionnuala stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the small woman perched on her kitchen table. Not at, like a normal person of course, but on.
Not caring that her daughter stood just behind her, Fionnuala ran across the flat, scooped up her tiny lover, and spun her around. Half-crying, half-laughing, she kissed Tiernan for all she was worth.
“I can’t believe- what are you doing here?” Fionnuala at last put Tiernan back on steady ground, but still refused to let her go. “Tiernan, if they see you-”
“No one’s seen me,” Tiernan promised, stepping back. “And if all goes according to plan, no one will. Fionnuala, listen to me. I’m going to get you out. Safely. So no one can touch a single one of us. But you and Fiadh need to do exactly what I say. Where’s Sean?”
“I don’t know, he’s been disappearing- what are you talking about?” Fionnuala asked, grabbing Fiadh’s hand. “Tiernan, you know what will happen if we leave. I’m not putting the others at risk because of me.”
“Do you trust me?” Tiernan asked, instead. And though she dearly wanted to know just what her lover had up her sleeve, Fionnuala nodded. “Good. Now, we need Sean back here now. Alone.”
Almost as though he’d been waiting to hear his name, Sean walked through the open door, stopping dead when he saw his aunt.
“What’s going on here? Aunt Tiernan, what’s this about?” He looked questioningly at Fionnuala and Fiadh, but they just shook their heads.
“I’m getting you all out,” she repeated, opening her bag and withdrawing a few lengths of rope. “What time does MacDermott show up?”
“What do you mean? Aunt Tiernan, Mr. MacDermott has been nothing but kind to us,” Sean said, getting agitated. “He’s given us a home, food on the table, and I’m fixing to become one of the brothers soon. We can’t just leave. Look, just because you and the rest of the Murphy’s are soft, doesn’t mean my Dad and I are too. We want a free Ireland, and I can’t just let my aunt drag me back home. What the hell are the boys gonna think of me?”
“Kindness,” Tiernan all but snarled. “Are you so blind, Sean, that you can’t see your sister is terrified and your mother in pain? The IRA may fight for a just cause, even I can see that, but that man is nothing but evil. And your father never wanted this for you. He took the family to Dublin to get away from this political game.”
“Mr. MacDermott is not evil,” Sean snapped, advancing forward. “He’s a strong man, and more of a father than I’ve ever had thanks to those English bastards. I don’t want to have to do this, Aunt Tiernan, but if you’re going to get in the way of the greater good like this, I’ll have to let Mr. MacDermott know you’re planning to kidnap my mother and sister.”
“We don’t have time for this, Sean,” Tiernan said impatiently, grabbing the neckline of Fionnuala’s shirt and forcefully tearing it open to reveal her pale shoulders and all the handprint shaped bruises to go with them. “Is this what you call kindness, you absolute idiot? Have you not realized what he has forced your mother to do to keep you safe? Would you still defend your man even if he touched your sister like this too?”
It looked as though he’d been struck dumb as he stared at his mother’s injuries, mouth agape. For her part, Fionnuala immediately tugged her shirt back into place, rounding on Tiernan angrily.
“You had no feckin’ right to do that,” she said angrily. “Jesus, Tiernan. It’s my business what I- my children should never have had to see that. I never wanted them to- can you just once let my business be mine?”
“I- no you’re right,” Tiernan said, faltering. “I’m sorry, Fionnuala. I shouldn’t have done that. I just- I’m sorry but I won’t let the boy’s ignorance ruin this. Look, the only thing keeping the three of you here is that man. With him out of the way, you’re free. We’re all free.”
“Mom? Did- are them bruises his doing?” Sean asked, tentatively reaching for his mother’s hand. “Did he hurt you? Fucking tell me he didn’t take advantage of you and then turn around and tell me it’s a man’s job to protect his women. I’ll fucking kill him.”
“You will do no such thing,” Fionnuala said firmly, grabbing her son by the shoulders. “Sean, we can’t. He- I should have told you sooner, but none of this has been out of any goodness of his heart. And if we do anything to retaliate, who knows what could happen to us and to the rest of the family. Your father’s already been shot. Maybe. I don’t know if the IRA or the English are responsible, but it doesn’t matter. Please. Promise me you won’t.”
“The only thing the lot of you have to do is help me turn the place upside down, put all the valuables in this bag, and then get in that corner,” Tiernan said. At their confused faces, she continued. “None of us can do anything to stop MacDermott. But if it’s a robbery, you can leave of your own accord. A man getting shot in the flat…why anyone could see why you’d want to move out as soon as possible.”
Not quite believing what she was hearing, Fionnuala grabbed Tiernan and forced her to stay still. “Tiernan, you can’t possibly be seriously considering doing what I think you are. I can’t ask you to…to kill a man for me. For us.”
“You’re not asking,” Tiernan said insistently. “I’m doing this because I can’t stand this any longer. Now, please. Do as I tell you. And be as quiet as possible. I made sure to cover all the windows and no one saw me coming in. If all goes according to plan you’ll be back home in a few days.”
“But you still haven’t explained the plan, Auntie Tiernan,” Fiadh said, nonetheless moving to shove her few bits of jewelry into her aunt’s bag. “Please, what do we do?”
“We’re going to make it look like someone has come to rob the place,” Tiernan said, emptying a drawer’s contents on the floor. “The neighbors will hear a loud thud moment that bastard steps through the door. The police will come and find the three of you bound and gagged and rule it impossible that you three could have done it.
You’re going to tell them exactly what you saw. Give them a suspect. Tell them a burly man in a mask came. Give them details. Fionnuala, if you’ve got…if there are any fresh bruises, tell them he did it. Tell them details so specific they have to be true. That his breath stank, that he had beady blue eyes. That his accent sounded strange. The police won’t care if he’s English, but the IRA will. They’ll see it as an act against them, and forget all about you.”
“What if they catch you?” Sean asked, throwing his rosery into the bag. “Aunt Tiernan, if they find you here, they’ll know you did it. It would be too much of a coincidence otherwise.”
“By the time the police get here, I’ll be back out on the street looking like any other woman on her way home from work,” Tiernan said, satisfied with the amount of valuables in the bag. “Get in the corner, all of you. And even if someone spots me exiting the building, they’ll just think I’m running from the sound of a gun. No one will suspect a woman of doing this. Now, see? It just looks like I’ve got a bag full of dirty laundry.”
“But…but Aunt Tiernan,” Fiadh said hesitantly. “You’re not… you stand out in a crowd. What with you not being all pale and whatnot. They’ll remember you. And it’ll be too much of a coincidence that they saw an Asian woman leaving the scene of a crime when the kin of the victims is also an Asian woman.”
“Does Dominik know about this?” Fionnuala added. “Surely people will notice your absence at home.”
“Dominik and Cairrean and the two older ones know,” Tiernan said. “Even if anybody asks, I haven’t left the farm in months. No one’s seen me so my absence isn’t anything out of the ordinary. I can’t tell you how much Dominik wishes he were in my shoes right now. And as for me being different than you lot, that’s why I’ve come prepared.” She pulled a domestic worker’s uniform just like the ones Fionnuala sometimes saw around town out of another bag.
Seeing that she’d thought of everything, Fionnuala let Tiernan bind her wrist and gag her mouth. Then, as carefully as she could, Tiernan made sure to rough the three of them up enough to not arouse suspicion. After that, they waited in the dark. Not speaking, hardly breathing even. And then, the door opened and Thomas MacDermott walked into the room
Tiernan had never been one to need validation. She didn’t need MacDermott to look her in the eye and realize she’d won. Nor did she need to gloat about how she would be the one to end his life. Instead, she aimed her gun, complete with a rudimentary silencer to buy more time, and shot.
He fell heavily, blood spraying across the room. From her positioning, Tiernan had been able to avoid it all. Tied up like they were, the other Murphy’s were not so lucky. They would not have to fake the terror and disgust in their expressions when the police came. Not when they’d seen Tiernan Murphy, the woman who had raised nine children and kept house for nearly two decades, kill a man with hardly a wince.
“I love you all,” Tiernan said, and with that, she turned her back, changed her dress, and darted out into the night. She had exacted revenge for the murder of her brother Liam Murphy. For the cruelty against her lover Fionnuala Murphy. The terror against her niece Fiadh Murphy. And the manipulation of her nephew Sean Murphy. And none of them would ever be the same.
Beside Fionnuala, Fiadh began to cry. Partially from relief of it all being over soon, partially from having warm blood across her face and a dead man on the carpet. The redhead could feel Sean shaking slightly too, and she wished desperately they had thought to instead tie her children up in a closet or something so they didn’t have to witness such a horrible sight. Evil bastard or not, watching someone die would mark them for life.
It took the police two hours to finally discover them, and by that time, Fionnuala hoped Tiernan had already made it back to the farm.
And in fact, she had. Once back home, Tiernan nearly collapsed over the threshold as the weight of what she’d done hit like a ton of bricks. Thank god for Rowan who caught her and quickly helped her to the kitchen table.
“It’s done,” she said with brutal conviction, lifting the sack of remaining trinkets onto the table. She’d immediately tossed out most of the non-sentimental items, only keeping what she knew to be irreplaceable. The gun now sat somewhere in the ocean, collecting rust and putting god-only-knew-what into the waters. “The bastard’s dead.”
“Aunt Tiernan, are you okay? You’re shaking,” Saoirse asked, steadying her hands. “Was- did you…”
“Come on now,” Cairrean said gently, touching Tiernan’s shoulder. “Enough of this now. Let’s get you upstairs and to bed. There’s no use dwelling on what’s been done, and we can only wait. Dominik, stop pacing before you wake the little ones, and then how are we supposed to explain the state of you all? Saoirse, dear, help your aunt upstairs please. I’ll be up with some tea soon.”
“I’m alright, I’m fine,” Tiernan insisted, futilely trying to shake her niece off. Stubborn as both her aunts, Saoirse held fast and managed to get her up the stairs without much fuss. Only after she’d gotten Tiernan undressed and into her nightgown did Saoirse finally ask the burning question she’d been dying to know.
“What was it like?” Immediately after opening her mouth, Saoirse’s eyes widened to the size of dinner plates. “I mean…um, I didn’t…”
“I feel…I feel a bit numb.” Tiernan answered, anxiously picking at a loose thread on her blanket. “Scared how much I wanted that bastard to suffer more than he did. I never thought I’d…I let them see me kill a man. How could I let them see that? Satisfied. Yes. That’s it. They’re going to be safe. That’s all that matters. God, don’t ever let me do something so stressful again, Saoirse.”
“Oh Aunt Tiernan,” Saoirse said with a soft sigh. “When have you ever let anyone stop you from doing anything?”
The exhausted woman laughed a little too hysterically before curling up into the tiniest little ball Saoirse had ever seen. And, knowing how her aunt shivered something awful in the night, Saoirse made sure to carefully tuck her in before tiptoeing out and back downstairs. With any luck, she would have all eight of her siblings back with her by the end of the week. And her aunts would finally be allowed to live happily ever after.
The fifteen hours it took for the Murphy family to hear anything had to be up there in the most stressful situations they’d ever been in. Unable to sleep more than two initial hours, Tiernan spent the rest of that time restlessly pacing before neurotically cleaning ever surface of the farmhouse.
“For someone who raised nine children and five adults, Aunt Tiernan doesn’t seem to handle stress very well,” Oona commented, narrowly avoiding tripping over the broom Tiernan was vigorously beating the floor with.
“Well, how would you handle it if youse was the one waiting for your children and the woman you love to finally come home after being in a dangerous situation?” Saoirse asked, before realizing she probably shouldn’t have mentioned that last bit. But Oona didn’t seem to notice she’d said anything strange, and instead just nodded.
Realizing the kitchen probably was not the place to be at the moment, Saoirse ushered her younger sister towards the door. Just as they passed the telephone, it started ringing.
“Saoirse Murphy, you back away from that there phone,” Tiernan said, pointing at her niece just before she touched it. Putting her hands up, Saoirse backed away and immediately she and Oona hurried into the parlor to listen from the other line. Or at least they tried to. The look that Tiernan gave them, despite them being turned away, stopped them dead in their tracks. “Hello? Oh, Fionnuala. How are you- oh, good lord. Are you and the children okay? What? But that’s- I suppose it makes sense with poor Mr. MacDermott being gone and all his generosity wouldn’t remain in play. Gosh, okay. Um, I’ll have Dominik come get you all as soon as I see him. Don’t worry, everything will be okay.” She hung up the phone and stared out the window where Dominik and Immaculata were playing in the yard.
“Auntie Tiernan?” Oona asked, when it became apparent she would not be moving any time soon. “Is everything alright, then? Should I get Dad? Auntie Tiernan?”
“They’re coming,” Tiernan said, and all the tension looked to have evaporated form her body. “They’re coming.”