Seven-year-old Conall eyed the apple on the window ledge with savage desire. It looked wonderful, as big as his hand, yellow and red, only the one small brown spot on it. The saliva collected in his mouth, and he swallowed hard. He knew he shouldn’t, he had a tender conscience, but it had been a long time since last night’s meager potatoes, and his big sister had back-handed him out of the shanty when he’d begged for a crust to stave off the pains in his arms and legs, the pains of a body trying to grow with nothing to grow on. The ache in his belly gnawed at him.
Looking around furtively to see if anyone was about, he reached up with sudden decision and snatched the prize, thrusting it into the bosom of his threadbare shirt as he lit out for the woods beyond the village as fast as his bare feet would carry him.
Panting from the exertion – though no one had pursued him, or even seen him, as far as he could tell – Conall sank down in his favorite hiding place, a space among the late-summer blackberries, long since picked clean by him, but still good for concealment.
He pulled out his treasure and polished it carefully on the cleanest spot on his dirty sleeve, making it shine, making it last, enjoying the feel of the soft peel under his fingers. Finally, when he could stand it no more, he bit down on it, taking the smallest of bites, carefully cupping his hand to catch the stray drops of juice. He closed his eyes in concentration: he had become adept at memorizing the taste of food, learning it by heart, so to speak. In this way he could fill up the long hours of no nourishment with the echo of the taste.
Conall could eat whole meals in his mind – if he’d had the taste in his mouth once, he knew it. When his mother had been alive, there had been honey once…he still remembered the taste of her milk.
The smell of the apple was almost overwhelming to his senses. He stored it up, along with the smooth texture of the peel, and the taste of it (tart), contrasted with the mealy consistency of the flesh, and its relative sweetness…
He had finished his feast, core and all, and was licking filthy fingers, when he heard the cry from the copse.
It was a baby wailing, down by the spring in the rocks. His hunger assuaged, Conall was curious, though wary, and crept quietly around the copse he secretly called the Loney (because it was so silent there, never a bird had he heard by that spring), and hid in some bushes, watching and listening.
On the flat rock by the spring, a woman was sitting. She looked old to Conall, though he knew she was young, Maggie from the shebeen, hard-mouthed, thin as a rail, with her infant in her lap. The baby was crying because she’d pulled the teat – thin and hard, like the rest of her – out of its mouth. Its tiny arms flailed, grasping, trying to catch hold of her blouse, wanting to root again for the food it sought, but she pushed it angrily away.
Conall knew this baby. While the bigger boys had stared at Maggie as she nursed, Conall had stared at the baby, its little face with the big blue eyes staring back at him. He had offered it his finger, and it had sucked at it greedily. Conall had smiled a rare smile at the squirming thing, thinking of his little brother – the one who had died with his mam, the winter gone. Conall watched Maggie and the baby now, wondering why she had come so far to sit here alone. Not afraid of her, he started to come out of hiding, to greet her, ask to hold the infant.
He stopped dead when he saw what was in her hand, glinting silver in the shaft of noonday sunlight filtering through the trees. His stifled cry was drowned out by the screaming of the baby as Maggie raised her hand…Conall’s mind stopped.
Relief flooded over him when he saw the Tinker Woman, the one who had come through the village a month ago, she with her bangles and twinkling eyes, step into the copse from the other side. He saw her speak to Maggie, saw her offer money for the baby, a silver coin that she held in her hand, a silver coin she would give for the life, saw Maggie give the Tinker Woman the baby, glad to get rid of the burden, saw the Tinker Woman take the baby, safe in her arms, saw the flash of the silver coin as it flew through the air, heard the baby’s cry stilled, heard the swish of the Tinker Woman’s long skirt as she turned through the trees…
There was no Tinker Woman, Conall saw through a lens of tears. The flash was the flash of the knife that cut off the infant’s cry, the swish that of Maggie’s skirts as she fled, dropping the silent bundle of rags to the ground as she ran hard from that place.
Then the place was quiet again, except for the splashing of the spring as it bubbled from the rock. His lower lip trembling, Conall stepped out into the copse and stared dully down at the dead thing.
The baby’s arms were spread in death, stretched out still as if in supplication for the comfort that would never come again in this world. Conall looked at the eyes, once so bright, now dulled over. They would turn from blue to green now, he knew. He heaved a sigh, and choked out a sob. Touching the slack face, he felt the sticky fluid at the temple. He put his fingers to his mouth, and tasted the salt blood.
Suddenly, Conall grabbed a sharp stick and began digging franctically at the soft ground near the spring. Then, when that wasn’t fast enough, he went down on all fours, clawing at the ground, casting the dirt behind him like a dog. The effort made the pains in his limbs come back, but he was past caring. He dug until he reckoned the hole deep enough, and then sat back on his haunches, panting.
He laid the tiny bundle in the hole he’d made, and fetched water from the spring, making the sign of the cross on its forehead, because he didn’t know, he couldn’t be sure, that Maggie had had it baptized. He said a Hail Mary and then filled in the makeshift grave. For want of a marker he placed a small cairn of stones, topping it with a spray of dark pink hedge flowers. He said another prayer, hoping his mother could hear – maybe she had room for another little one where she was.
Afterwards, Conall washed his hands in the spring, and drank deep – the weeping had left him parched.
The waters of the spring were as sweet as ever. But Conall’s heart was bitter as he made his way out of the Loney, the hunger in his belly forgotten for a greater hunger in his heart.