The birth was not a joyous one. Just another little Irish girl born in The Pinch, an area in Memphis next to the Wolf River lagoon, so named for the pinched look of the underfed residents. Mary Elizabeth saw the birth’s blessing, however.
“Katie, Molly, come see your new little sister,” she called as soon as the midwife allowed. “What a precious blessing she is to push the sad shadows from our hearts.” It was exactly five weeks and one day since her husband’s funeral mass. Michael James was buried in consecrated ground at Calvary Cemetery, but there was no money for a marker. No matter. Few outside The Pinch cared for the death of a poor Irishman anyway.
“She can carry her Da’s name since she’ll never know him. It will honor him sure. We’ll be calling her Mary Michael.”
Two-year-old, freckled Molly climbed up on the bed and poked a finger at her sister’s tiny hand. Ten-year-old Kate frowned.
“I’ll be the only one without an M. Ain’t that bad luck?”
“No, no, little worrier. I’ll call you Miss Kate. Now there’s an M for you, lovey. How will that suit you? Now, both of you, give your Ma a kiss and go out with Mrs. Lyden. Me and the babe need some rest.”
Kate had greeted newborns before. It had been five for sure. The Manley’s first-born was Coleen, followed quickly by Kate who never knew her older sister. Coleen died before Kate reached her first birthday. Only Fiona survived of the babes who followed one after the other –one being born, another dying. It was the way of The Pinch. As Kate grew older, her awareness of each little tragedy grew clearer and she grew more superstitious. Mostly the Manley babies died before turning three. There was pneumonia or tuberculosis or measles or some other disease too ferocious for a little one to fight. Fiona was the exception.
Kate was two when Fiona was born. She didn’t remember the birth, but distinctly recalled Fiona’s first birthday and the special cake that Ma made. Other babies came and went, but Fiona and Kate thrived and were best friends. Kate called her younger sister Fee and they were inseparable. They did little chores for Ma and Da, but mostly they played up and down the block with the neighborhood children. Sometimes they’d go in Uncle Patrick’s market and he’d give them a pinch of cheese or a pickle that they’d take to their secret hidey place where they’d eat and spill their hearts to each other. They giggled when someone walked by and couldn’t see them.
Fee was everyone’s best friend. She was adored, and Kate was never jealous because she knew, more than anyone, just how special her sister was. Of all the redheaded children in the family, Fiona’s coppery hair shone the brightest. Her ruddy cheeks were like summer apples. She ran and skipped instead of walking. She moved so lightly that she nearly took flight, but her blue eyes were deep and had the look of an old soul. The air around her seemed to shimmer. She laughed and giggled and was Ma’s little helper, particularly with the new babies. Though he loved all his children, Fee was the light in Michael James’ eyes. She was the air that filled his lungs. A sprite who gave him hope. Fiona ran to him when he came home from his job. They played games, and she danced and twirled in circles when he sang. When the other babies died, it was Fiona who sat in Da’s lap and kissed his tears. Mary Elizabeth and Michael were certain that she was an angel and a great blessing to their family. They quite nearly worshipped the celestial being who lived in their tenement apartment.
In 1878, Yellow Fever made a return visit to Memphis. Because the city experienced a small epidemic in 1873, the first 1878 death attributed to the fever sent thunderbolts of terror throughout the citizenry. Those who could afford it fled the city. Some refugees were refused admission to other towns for fear that they carried the incurable fever.
Collin Hearn entered one of the only pubs still open in The Pinch.
“Connell, I need me a pint over here,” he called out. He stood next to the table where his friend Michael James sat and waved a large sheet of paper above his head.
“Look at this, boyos. This is what the Avalanche calls a newspaper today. Two pages – and most of that is a list of the dead. Looks nearly like 200 to me. Is there no way to fight this plague? Gather round and I’ll read what this reporter says.”
“We are doomed.
It is hard as we write in this dark, dismal night of death, not to realize the full meaning of that brief sentence. It is hard for any man of the few left in this city of sorrows not to take the sentence to himself with a painfully personal application as the sentence of death. Scarcely any are left but those who are crowding down personal care in the noble purpose of others’ good. Seventy dead today and at least one hundred and seventy-five new cases. God help us!”
A few men walked out without word, leaving nearly full pints on tables. There was nothing to say. Most still felt the anguish of lost family and friends. Collin took his pint and sat with Michael.
“The trolley’s no running any more so I walked south out of The Pinch. Everything’s closed. Everyone’s gone. Do you still have work?”
“I do,” said Michael, “but I don’t know for much longer. Who’s left to order work from a tinsmith?” He took a deep swig and wiped his mouth on his well-worn sleeve. “I have a family. What the feckin’ hell am I to do to keep them well and fed? How are you faring, Collin?”
“We’re all in the same fix, I’m tellin’ you.” Collin lowered his voice. “Here’s sumethin’ I want you to know. You can tell your good uncle, but no one else. The supply would dry up if all knew. Go see the doc and get carbolic acid from him. Have Mary Elizabeth mix it with water and scrub the floors. All the floors. It’s said to kill the plague. Do it quick before others ask the doc for it. My family’s still well, thank Jesus. I’m goin’ home and you need to do the same. It’s hot as blazes, but they say to close your windows at night like there’s sumethin’ wrong with the night air. That’s all I know. Go home, Michael.”
The poor Irish, Italian, German, Jews and Blacks of The Pinch couldn’t flee like the wealthy did. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do to protect themselves. No one knew what caused the deadly disease and no one could cure it. The victims died painfully.
Mary Elizabeth gave birth to Molly that year. She instinctively kept the baby’s basket in a closet as if to hide her from the phantom that walked the city’s streets randomly stealing lives from the unsuspecting. Mary Elizabeth went to church every day, lit candles for the children she’d lost and prayed for the ones still living. On her way, she passed one burning pile of linens after another where families cleansed by flame any item touched by their departed fever victims. The flames, the smoke, the stench of death confirmed that they surely lived in hell.
When she could, Mary Elizabeth shared a spare cabbage or potato with neighbors more desperate than her family. She was grateful that Michael’s uncle owned the grocery store downstairs from their three-room apartment. Although food deliveries to the store were nearly nonexistent now, Uncle Patrick shared what he could, even when grief-stricken at the loss of two of his own children. Another neighbor child weighed on Mary Elizabeth’s heart as well. The little Jewish boy in the building next door was near death from the fever. The Manleys and Cohens were good friends, and Mary Elizabeth’s heart ached for the parents’ sorrow, but even more so for the child’s soul. Without baptism, she believed he couldn’t enter heaven – at least not her heaven. Mary Elizabeth struggled with her conscience. It was not her way to question another’s faith, but she also felt an obligation to the boy who had played with her children. So one afternoon, she tucked a vial of holy water in her apron pocket before visiting the neighbors. When she was alone with the boy, she secretly baptized him and said prayers over him. Helping him into heaven was a more important gift than cabbage soup, she thought. Each family did what it could for its neighbors.
The Manley family wasn’t spared from the ravages of Yellow Fever and it wasn’t baby Molly who was stricken, but their blessed Fiona who fell ill. She told Da not to worry, touched his cheek and tried to smile. Every day he rushed to her bedside when he came home from work – until there was no longer work for a tinsmith. Mary Elizabeth hoped to take in laundry and ironing to offset the loss of Michael’s pay, but few who could afford those luxuries were still in town. While Fee’s health failed, Kate, now solemn and distant, went every day to the hidey place behind the building to cry where no one could see her. Fee was already six, three years beyond the crucial three-years-old curse. Kate thought her sister would be her best friend forever. They would celebrate each other’s weddings to handsome lads with good jobs. They’d have healthy babies and live next door to each other and always keep each other’s secrets. But now, if Fiona could die, Kate was in danger, too. Not so much from the fever, but from the vengeful demon that stole the Manley children.
“Did the doctor say sumthin’ good today?” Michael asked his wife nearly every day.
“He’s no comin’ every day now, love. He says that we’re to pray.”
“Pray to who or what? There’s no a god that would let this perfect child get the fever! The doctor’s desertin’ her, just leavin’ her to die sure. Don’t you talk to me like I’m a slow-witted child. I might no have a job, but I’m no a feckin’ ijit!”
“Michael, your language!”
His boots pounded the wooden floor as he stormed out of the small apartment.
When he wasn’t at the pub with the other out-of -work men, Michael James sat next to Fiona’s bed and wept. He didn’t notice that Kate was missing for most of the afternoons. He forgot that baby Molly was hidden away. He didn’t see that Mary Elizabeth was holding the family together by a string thin as a spider’s silk. She tended Fiona, did her best to locate and console Kate, and held Michael close in the night as he cried. She saw her living children as blessings from the Almighty. Michael James saw them fading away, one by one, before his eyes, stolen by wicked faeries.
Fee lasted longer than most with the fever, but her skin finally jaundiced and she began vomiting blood and black stomach bile, a sign that the end was close. Although she wouldn’t tell Michael, Mary Elizabeth prayed then that God would take Fiona quickly. But even the saints suffered and so did Fiona. When Fee’s breath finally stopped, Michael threw himself, sobbing, across the foot of her bed.
Mary Elizabeth pulled him to her and stuffed back her own cries until she could calm him. “Michael me love, she was an angel loaned to us by our Savior. She wasn’t meant to be here forever. Fee was a gift that God needed to take back to heaven. She’ll sit on the lap of our Lord now.”
“Don’t be talkin’ to me of heaven! There is no heaven and no God, and I will curse that false God ‘til the end of me days. Stay away from me, woman. I can’t stand us without her.”
Funeral bells rang solemnly for Fiona and she was buried quickly in the mass grave for fever victims at Calvary Cemetery. Michael James was nowhere to be found.
The epidemic slowly ended when winter’s first frost came to town, killing the disease-bearing mosquitoes. The residents, reeling from the devastation of the epidemic, didn’t notice the coincidence. The fever came and then it went without telling its secrets. It would be years before the connection between mosquitoes and the fever would be discovered.
When the wealthy residents returned to Memphis. Mary Elizabeth got work doing laundry and ironing. Kate was nine now and old enough to be a good worker alongside her Ma. Between the two of them and Uncle Patrick’s generosity, they kept food on the table and a roof overhead. Mary Elizabeth praised God for the blessings of her two beautiful daughters and the gift of work.
Michael never again looked for work. He spent most of his time at the pub. Where else he went, Mary Elizabeth didn’t know. He rarely joined her in their marital bed, so she was surprised and thrilled to learn months later that she was once again pregnant.
Shortly after her discovery, Michael began spending more time at home. Mary Elizabeth hoped that he had spiritually re-joined the family, and she was cheerful and loving to him. He ignored the impending birth of another child. Little Molly toddled close to him and raised her arms to be picked up, but he was weak and couldn’t lift her any more. Kate observed him with skepticism and kept her distance.
Kate heated water on the stove to add to the tub where Mary Elizabeth scrubbed a fine lady’s sheets. “Ma, what’s wrong with Da? He’s no right. I can see him, but I feel he’s not really here.”
“You’re a wise girl, little Katie. Part of him’s not yet here because he’s slow makin’ his way back from the loss of Fiona. We’ll be patient with him.”
“It’s more than that. I can carry a clothesbasket of laundry for ten blocks, and he can’t even lift Molly. She so wants Da to pick her up and love her. He’s sick, ain’t he? He’s going to die now, ain’t he?”
“We can’t be thinkin’ that, daughter. We’ll take good care of him.”
Kate ignored the sound of boiling water behind her. “You think I’m a little girl, Ma, but I know better than what you say.” Her face flushed and tears welled in her eyes.
“He’s going to die like everyone else. Does the Almighty hate our family or does He just hate you?”
Mary Elizabeth resisted the urge to slap her.
“They all die,” said Kate, “and look at you – you with another baby in your belly. How can you keep bringing them to life only to see them snatched away? You birth them, then you bury them.”
“You watch your tongue. Family is everything. I trust the Lord to protect me and mine because He always has. Me folks and me, which was only a baby, came to this country in what they called coffin ships.”
“I don’t want to hear this,” said Kate, but Mary Elizabeth grabbed her arm.
“Yes, you will hear this. You must. Just the only difference between those ships and the ones bringing Negroes as slaves was that the Irish weren’t in chains. Our people were crowded, nearly twice the number of poor souls as should be in the ship. Hardly any food or water, but there was sure the filth and the typhus and dysentery. There were narrow wooden slats stacked three high that went as bunks. When sickness took over one in an upper bunk, putrid waste dripped down on those below. When the ships reached these shores, dozens and dozens and dozens were already dead. If my Da knew how bad it would be, he’d kept us in Ireland where, if we starved, we’d at least starve on Irish soil, where we’d rest under its sod. But he took us on the ship and he and Ma died. I don’t remember them at all. A family that boarded with us in Liverpool took me in. Saved me life.
“Your Da and his family came on one of those ships, too. He was four so he remembers the hunger and the sick and dying. His little sister was there, and they were with their parents. All four of them survived the crossing – the whole family together. What a blessing.”
“I never heard this,” said Kate softly.
“There wasn’t no need,” said Mary Elizabeth still standing defiantly with hands on her broad hips. “Mrs. Casey, the good woman who took me, raised me ‘til I was twelve when she let me go into service at one of the fancy houses over on Adams. And you know who I met? A lovely, sweet lass old enough to show me what to do, but young enough to be me great pal. It was your Aunt Bridget.”
“What other Aunt Bridget do you have? Oh, we were fast friends, still are. Slept in the same bed in our quarters at the big house. When time went by, she introduced me to your Da. He was a good lookin’ fellow. He was full of plans and ambition and was already an apprentice tinsmith. In time, he courted me and we started puttin’ aside money from our wages to help us get started. I was always a hard worker, so I made good wages. The day we married and walked into our own room at Uncle Patrick’s was the happiest day of me life. I finally had a family of me own and soon we’d be makin’ a bigger family, praise God. Katie girl, the Lord’s plan for us ain’t for us to know. I tell you, family is everything and babies are glories. You’ll grow up, have babes of your own. Then you’ll see. You’ll understand.”
“I don’t think I will.”
“You won’t understand?”
“No, I don’t think I’ll be growin’ up.” Kate poured the hot water into the tub and took Molly outside. It was one of those days when no one knew Michael’s whereabouts.
“Play with me; play with me,” Molly insisted, but Kate paid her no mind..
It became easier to locate Michael as he grew weaker and stayed in the apartment, then in bed. The doctor called it liver failure.
Michael James died one afternoon while Mary Elizabeth and the girls knelt in prayer at his bedside. When he exhaled his last ragged breath, Kate leaned to her mother and hissed, “I told you so.”
Five weeks later, the last daughter, Mary Michael, was born. Two weeks after that, the four Manley women walked north on Second Street to St. Brigid’s for the infant’s christening. Ma carried Mary Michael who seemed pleased with the outing. Kate held Molly’s hand and studied her sisters. She looked irreverently at the symbol of her mother’s faith, the towering spire of St. Brigid’s. She knew that soon the malignant hand of her mother’s God would reach down and snatch another one of the Manley children. Which one of her sisters must die so that she could live?