“The Baby’s Hunger”

Da's stagger did less damage than his swing. He rolled about the kitchen like a boat with a keel hole scattering dishes and clanging empty soup pots, but he broke nary a houseware. The drunken bastard had grown a hunger beating Mary. Two times he had raised his fists to the girl—Christ Jesus, his own bloody daughter and not some punching jack from the pub. Once when she took the flannel blanket from about his shoulders to wrap the body in and the other when she pulled the new baby from the prison of his arms. The one time the bastard had come at her from behind with a gimpy kick as she laid the newborn in his beddy box. The tumble had upset a table and set the little one screeching. Both times the boy bit the bastard's leg to the bone and Mary had fallen away bruised and crying. It had only been two hours since the childbirth fever had sent their Ma's soul to heaven and left her thin body under the sheet, but the family was already in a ruin and Da was to blame.

It was a sorry situation as it stood, but the boy knew it would come to worse. His two older brothers would be riding in from Dundalk tomorrow and there would be hell to pay and then some and no one there to stop it. Their Ma had been the stone in their shoe that kept them on the narrow path. Patrick Joseph was the likely one to do the deed if the hospital doctor could be found, but Da was sure to give his oldest a run for the privilege of seeing the young idiot laid out.

Mary pulled the stitches that held the torn hem of her skirt. Her lips were red-bruised and swollen. A welt was across her cheek. "He'll sooner see us starve than spare a penny away from his liquor," she said tearing away the cloth.

"Aye," said the boy. "He's Godless. We're sure of that."

"It's the drink that does him in," said the girl sadly. She walked to the small bed that held the sleeping infant and pulled a corner of the blanket loose. She rubbed the baby's leg. "He'll be sending ya off as soon as she's in the ground," she told him.

"Aye," the boy agreed knowing it was true. "It'll be to the nuns we'll all go."

"He'll put me out to a house," the girl cried suddenly. She slumped to the floor and put her hands to her head. There were no tears, but her shoulders shook and she made a noise like crying.

The baby stirred, then awoke and whimpered.

"He's hungry," said the boy sticking a knuckle joint in the o of the baby's mouth.

Mary raised her head. She stared hard at the boy. "There's nothing in the house to feed him," she said.

The boy gave a low whistle as he watched the tiny baby sucking greedily at his finger. "We'll fix up a bottle of cow's milk that will keep him," he told her.

The girl gave a hopeless laugh and rose to her feet. "Cow's milk, Jackie, that'll kill him. He's only a babe and not a strong one at that." She stood up and took the infant to her shoulder. The child fussed, but his crying became softer. "There now, darling," she whispered. "Mary's come for you." She stroked the fine brown feathers of his hair with one hand and tucked his blanket about him with the other. "There's not a wet teat in all of Meenawilligan," she informed the boy. "The catarahh saw to that."

"Da will ride him to Dundalk when he sobers up," the boy said. "Katie McGraw has a new one. Its a bet she'll take him on."

Mary held the crying baby out from her chest and looked at his frail frame. "He'll not make it through the night," she said.

"What do ya mean, girl? He's a scrapper. Look at him." The boy took ahold of the baby's leg and pulled it roughly. The infant's face went red and he opened his lungs to cry in earnest.

"Scrapper or not," said the girl looking grim. "He won't be here at sun up without something to tide him over."

"You would know more about it than I, Mary," said the boy. "What's to do?"

"She has milk in her yet," replied the girl looking toward the room where there mother lay.

"Jesus, God would never forgive us," said the boy. He shook his head in disgust.

Mary put a single finger to her bruised lips. "There'd be nothing to forgive and no one to tell," she said turning her head away. "She'd be all for saving her own son. Any mother would." She lifted the squalling infant high in her arms and brought her mouth to his forehead for a kiss. "Come now little one," she said. "Let's go see Ma."

The boy sat in a chair and felt in his pockets for his harp. When he found it, he pulled it out and held it in his hand. He listened as the high pitched crying of his new brother fell quickly into a soft contented murmur. Then he put the harp to his lips and played a tune that filled the house with music

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About Nan Byrne

Nan Byrne’s work has appeared  in Michigan Quarterly Review, Seattle Review, New Orleans Review, Borderlands:Texas Poetry Review, Canadian Woman Studies, Other Voices International, Caketrain, and elsewhere. A former television writer, she is currently at work on a novel.