The Long Journey Home
The sound of a laughing girl and her bleating lamb permeated the air on a wet, chilly, autumn afternoon.
"Fiona!... Fiona Farran Adair!" a woman's voice shouted. A slight, red haired child wearing a worn, woolen, grass stained dress came running up the hill to her small, weathered, cottage.
"You'll get sick tryin' to keep up with that creature, out there in that wretched bog," her mother tousled her long, unruly hair.
Fiona smiled, her green eyes sparkling, "But I just love Pete," she sighed, thinking about her favorite lamb from the spring birthing. He was only one of two in the litter that the Adairs could afford to keep.
"Come on, Girl, let's get ye washed up," she frowned. Mary sometimes worried about her daughter's sentimentality in the harsh reality their small family was facing. Just keeping the family fed was becoming hopeless, as the crops were looking weaker than ever. Fiona's father, John, was off to the coast again, scouting for work in the fishing trade, fearful that they would have to give up working their small, barren farm. It was very bitter luck that Mary had lost their second child to the perils of childbirth, limiting their family to just three.
After washing up, Fiona slipped into her warm wools and seated herself in her rocking chair by the fire. Her mother brought over a thick book that Fiona had started to read the week before. While many in their village were illiterate, Mary felt it was important that her daughter have some education. She herself had learned to read during her years as a servant girl for some wealthy English landowners in the next town over from their current home in Cloonlara in the Parish of Kiltonanlea.
Mary fondly remembered Edward, the kind second son of Master Carlisle. Edward would try to sneak up behind her when she was working and whisper, "Come Mary, let's show you a new book." She always heard him coming, though, as he was quite heavy of foot and body. While she was an earnest student and learned to read and write well, she was often distracted by his round form, stealing glances at his soft middle protruding over his lap.
The fire crackled as Fiona read and Mary prepared supper. As usual, there wasn't much, and Mary worried that John would once again go to bed hungry. He had grown thin and disheartened, far less of himself than the hearty man she married ten years before. John's withdrawal from his family increased with each inhospitable season on the farm.
Often Mary felt alone, quite so since her brother's death from cholera. She often longed for her sister Bridget's company, trying to keep in touch with occasional letters when she could afford the postage. With no opportunities for work or a good marriage, Bridget had departed five years before and survived the long journey over to America.
A knock at the door interrupted Fiona's reading, and she jumped up and raced for it. It was Brendan McGowan; the only farmhand remaining with the Adairs since the hard times had fallen upon their crops. He was a tall boy, not yet 16, with dark features and broad shoulders. He had been robust and grew quite corpulent in his youth, but long work hours and lack of nourishment had lately left him quite lean.
Brendan stayed on with the Adairs, partially for survival and partially for kinship. His father had been killed in a rebellion when the boy was seven years old, and his mother died in childbirth soon after. His closest relation was his second cousin, a priest in a neighboring parish, where he stayed for a couple of years before finding work on the Adair farm.
Fiona grabbed his hand and led him to the table, "Mother will have supper on the table soon," she smiled up at him. Although only five years older, his dark, almost black eyes and black hair made him seem as old as a man to her. When she was smaller, Brendan would humor her with stories of old Ireland. She felt a connection to the plight of the Celtic warriors fighting against Norman armies and marauding Barbarians. She would listen intently, as his animated style, fine-looking face and jiggling belly never ceased to captivate her.
"Fee, Girl, ye waste your time with those books, ye should be helpin' your Mum with the cookin," Brendan always teased her about her fascination with books.
"But there's not much to cook," she sighed with a slight frown.
"Ah, that's okay, it keeps me firm," he sighed, rubbing his flattened stomach.
"I liked ye better fat!" she yelped, and pinched his skinny arm, running back over to her chair by the fire.
Just then, Mary came in, carrying some peat in for the fire, "Ah Brendan, don't mind the little thing, she's just tired and silly after rollin' around in the bog with her pets," with a laugh.
"Yes, I witnessed that today," he smiled, glancing over at Fiona, immersed back into her book.
"John should be comin' in moments; we'll eat then," she smiled and returned to the kitchen.
Brendan sat down next to Fiona, "So Lass, how's Petey fairin'?" he smiled.
She laughed, "Oh, Pete's getting big! I don't know what he's eating, but he keeps on growin'!" She laughed. "Today, I tried to pick him up, but he grunted and stuck firm to the ground," she continued to laugh.
"Keep him healthy, Fee" Brendan laughed with her, "we'll need him for the spring shearing. By next year you'll grow a foot and need new woolens."
Fiona paused, "Ye think I'll finally grow?" referring to her diminutive size.
"Sure, Girl, you'll grow into a fine woman," he smiled. Fiona blushed, imagining that he would grow into a fine man with some extra weight back on his body.
Just then, John walked in with his head down, and seated himself at the table. Mary brought out the meager dinner, just a few potatoes and a small loaf of bread.
The room was silent, awaiting John's mood. He finally spoke, "The rot's ruinin' more men," he sighed, "it's a matter of time before it hits us." They ate slowly in silence, knowing things were not going to get better.
Brendan soon left, feeling the heaviness of the family's mood. He slept in a nearby barn on diseased land left vacant by owners that fled for desperate travel across the ocean.
Later that evening, John spoke to Mary, "We must leave the land or we'll suffer the fate of the others."
"But John, with what? How?"
"I've not said anything yet, I don't want to upset the girl," he knew Fiona's love for the farm. "I've been working the docks, and the fish have been biting lately. I've got almost enough to get two of us over. I just need a little more and the three of us can charter passage to Philadelphia in the springtime with enough provisions to get us through the voyage."
Mary stayed silent about John's plan, worrying what was to become of their farm. The family barely made it through the winter, when John finally told Fiona, "Girl, we're moving away from here, or we'll starve to death like the Boyle family next door."
Fiona wanted to protest. This news hurt every bone in her little body, but she had already seen too much misery and starvation to question her father's purpose. Each Sunday, the walk into town for Church left her less blind to the town's suffering and the bleak position her father faced. "But what about Brendan?" she gasped.
"Brendan is a clever lad, he'll be fine," he reasoned with her, but she scuttled off to bed crying for her friend and her family's beloved farm.
When the day came to leave on a cold, damp, April morning, Brendan took the Adairs to the transporting dock. He fixed up a wrecked wagon he had found along with a thin horse in the deserted that became his home. "Brendan, lad, be good and make do with what little we've left," John told him, referring to the Adair's farm and the few livestock left there.
"Oh Brendan, please take care of Pete," Fiona hugged him tightly. She then whispered, "Come over and be with us when ye can," she kissed him on the cheek.
Brendan wiped the tears from her cheeks, "Oh, doncha worry, Lass, we'll see each other again," he smiled.
The two months spent on the ship were the worst Fiona had known. She witnessed wretched filth, starvation, and even, at times, death. It was much worse than the misery she had seen developing in Cloonlara. Even her mother fell ill for about a week, and Fiona filled her feared thoughts with desperate prayer. She would try to remove herself from the suffering by reading the two books she smuggled on board, telling the other children Brendan's stories of Viking barbarians and chivalric knights, and thinking up new adventure tales of her own.
When the Adairs arrived in their new country, they found residence in a tight house outside of the city with friends of Mary's sister, Bridget. Life in Philadelphia was not what the Adairs expected, with few opportunities for work, especially for recent immigrants. John took day laboring jobs when he could find them, which kept the family fed, but it wasn't steady enough work to improve their meager situation. Mary and Fiona cleaned, cooked, and sewed to help pay for their lodging and avoid the almshouse.
As the months wore on, she wrote lengthy letters Bridget at her new home on farmland many miles west of Chicago. Bridget was a feisty girl. She wasn't content to marry any one of the many poor farmers in Cloonlara who paid far too much rent to English landlords for wretched, meager soil. Against her family's wishes, she struck out on her own to America.
When she first arrived in Philadelphia, she found work as a servant girl for a wealthy textile industrialist. While in service at the tycoon's city house, she developed a flirtation with an Irish-born police officer named Michael, whom she met making trips to the market.
Michael had dreams of leaving the city and returning to the farm life he knew as a child in Ireland. He improved his position by taking work that involved providing "protection" for the city machine. While there, he developed contacts in the General Land Office that helped him get on a waiting list for homestead land to the west of Pennsylvania. When his land opportunity came up, he offered himself in marriage to Bridget, and she agreed to accompany him on his adventure westward.
After months of investigating and many months more of being waitlisted, Bridget and Michael arranged for a land opportunity for the Adairs, also in Illinois. Bridget longed to see her dear sister again, and she sent them enough money for their travels west. They made some of the journey via the new railroad lines in the east, and then by stagecoach from the end of the rails. It took a couple of weeks to cover the 800 miles west, but they finally arrived on Fiona's 14th birthday.
At the outset, the Adairs had a difficult time adapting to the new land in a small community called Driscoll's Grove. The soil was not like what they knew in Ireland. The weather was hotter and drier in the summer, and much colder and icier in the winter. John and Mary had to re-learn how to survive on this new farmstead, but eventually they adapted, and after a couple of years, the land began to prosper.
The relationship between John and Mary improved as well. John seemed much healthier and put back on weight with Mary's rich cooking. Fiona was still a slight girl, but slowly began to flower into a comely young woman. Her wild, crimson hair darkened to a rich cascade of auburn curls, her ginger freckles faded a bit into her creamy, ivory skin, and her lithe shape added some slight but noticeable curves.
Mary wanted more for Fiona than servitude, as was a customary living for young Irish-born girls. She enrolled Fiona in the small school in nearby Mayfield, and dismissed some attitudes that education was only for the intelligent sons of prosperous shopkeepers and a waste of time for an Irish farmer's daughter. Yet Fiona stunned her schoolteachers with her advanced reading ability, and her quick mastery of writing skills.
Fiona had a thousand stories in her head, stirring from the old days in Cloonlara with Brendan's wild tales. She had contemplated many more to fill the endless hours of travel over the ocean and then later over land to the new farm. She begged her reluctant father for a fountain pen and a supply of paper so she could spend her evenings writing. "Ah, the cost of ink alone, Lass, you'll break me yet with these silly notions about yourself."
But Fiona was his pet and he eventually allowed her the indulgence. She wrote reams of stories and recited them in the evenings, amusing her tired parents after a long day's work. She also found an excellent audience with her father's farm help, entertaining them with enchanting, heroic stories of medieval Celtic chieftains in battle with invading English soldiers. Her father enjoyed it most when the English were beaten back over the Irish Sea.
She continued her habit of voracious reading, borrowing books from the church and her school. She even resorted to pestering neighbors, requesting their old pamphlets and penny press newspapers. The variety of new material inspired her to write different kinds of narratives, adding mystery stories, journeys into the western frontier and children's adventures to her collection of narratives.
Talk of Fiona's yarns spread through town. A Chicago newspaperman named John Scripps was passing through Mayfield on a return trip from Iowa, and stopped in the local pub one evening. He heard some laborers talking about a pretty young red-haired girl who could spin a story into gold. Intrigued, he stayed on overnight and made a visit to the Adair farm the next day. There he found Fiona, in the barn, reciting her latest chronicle to the workers' willing ears. Mr. Scripps was entranced and offered to pay her per story she submitted to his fledgling newspaper called the "Chicago Tribune."
The caveat in the agreement was that she would use a male pseudonym for her works. She understood that a young, Irish, immigrant girl would not get the respect of readers looking for an adventure story. Using her initials, she came up with the fine Anglo-Saxon name of Franklin F. Allen.
On the cusp of her 17th birthday, she began her new profession, writing and re-writing, submitting story after story. Within a few months, she had received enough pay to buy her father a new plow and her mother a spinning wheel. The pretend Mr. Allen began to receive notoriety for his increasingly popular sagas, yet know one knew who he was or from where he wrote these stories. With her wits about her, she soon negotiated a higher price per piece to keep her stories flowing and her identity secret.
Fiona was soon earning quite a bit of money and forging acquaintances with some progressive newsmen in Chicago on monthly visits the city. She was able to contribute more earnings to the farm, which was already becoming among the most prosperous in the area. Her father was able to buy out his farmstead early. When he received his land patent, he renamed his property, "Clare," after the county they had traveled away from, so many miles ago.
Fiona also saved quite a bit of the earnings in anticipation for a greater adventure. She grew restless, tired of those old stories of warfare and conflict. She longed to express other things brewing inside of her. She knew she needed to see more of the world to be able to write about it with any authority. What she learned in books was no longer enough to quench her curiosities.
On her 19th birthday, she told her parents of her plan to see the world. They were obviously concerned about a young lady traveling on her own, and initially her father forbade it. But after much discussion, Mary convinced John that he needed to give Fiona the opportunity to widen her world. Mary believed that the opportunity for a good marriage to a solid man lay in her daughter's talents and beauty, and she secretly felt they were being wasted in their little farming community.
Fiona had long dreamed of visiting New York, and mixing with its community of writers and journalists. She imagined there were many portly and handsome men there she might have intelligent discussions with. Of course, daydreaming about portly, handsome men always returned her thoughts to Brendan. She often imagined him, still in Ireland, on a big piece of rich, fertile land, looking plump and healthy again, holding Pete in his arms and waiting for her to return.
Her dreams of Brendan inspired her to write a different kind of story than she was used to writing. She wanted to develop characters finding romance with their long lost loves. She imagined tales of fat, rugged men wooing handsome young ladies with their physical strength, bulky size and poetic sentiments. Her stories were both triumphant and tragic, but she could not bear to end any of them on a bitter note. Her heroines always found their lost love in the final chapter.
Through a well-connected acquaintance in Chicago's writing community, Fiona made arrangements to stay at the Greenwich Village town home of a New York correspondent and his wife. When she set off for travel eastward, she was accompanied by her father's old friend Henry. Henry had joined the Adairs to work the new family homestead, having fled the same black rot that sent many from Cloonlara over the ocean.
Fiona always enjoyed Henry's company. Although his disposition was a bit gruff with most people, he dutifully answered Fiona's many questions about Ireland and Cloonlara. Henry also had been acquainted with Brendan's family long before his parents passed, and she often quizzed Henry about the McGowans. She never wanted to forget her homeland and the happy childhood she enjoyed before the famine devastated their lives.
Fiona and Henry traveled by coach to Chicago, and then boarded a train to New York. While at the train station, she saw a young couple looking very much in love, "Perhaps newlyweds," she thought. He was a very stout, attractive, dark-haired boy, and she was a tiny auburn haired girl, much like Fiona herself. She observed the girl, sneaking her hand under his coat to give his large frontage a slow caress, which made Fiona blush. The love in their eyes for each other inspired her to fill her travel time writing a story about a lonely, immigrant boy and shy, native girl who find romance with each other while traveling across the western frontier.
Fiona had nearly a novel in her hands as she exited the train in New York. Henry made sure she was safely at the Washington Park townhouse she would make her temporary home, before he made the return trip. "Henry, be sure to give Mother and Father a big hug from me, tell them I'm well, and I'll write them most days as I can," she smiled.
"Take care, Lass, have your wits about ye. Stay close by... don't go into the gates of hell south of this neighborhood... And remember that men are all filth," he winked and waved goodbye.
She spent many days writing and re-writing her western romance novel. She felt good about its content and had high hopes of publishing. Yet this time she would do it with her own name. She was a woman of the world now. And it helped that it was easier for a woman to credibly publish a romance adventure than a war adventure.
Word of her clandestine writing background interested several in Park Row's community of journalists. Her covert identity as Franklin Allen did not offend New York's intelligentsia; rather, it created many invitations to social events and literary salons. Fiona began to enjoy this elite crowd and reveled in a lifestyle that she had idealized from reading the literary journals she in Chicago.
Fiona was soon noticed for her beauty, wit and homespun naïveté. She quickly acquired many gentlemen admirers. As was in her nature, she was attracted to the biggest of them. She particularly liked Aaron Bennett, a rotund young journalist from South Carolina who had a gentlemanly charm she found very sweet. She was amazed by the way he filled a room with comical stories of the antebellum South, but she especially found pleasure in the way he filled a chair with his impressive girth.
There was also a Canadian poet who caught her eye, Evan MacColl, a burly, yet soft and jolly man, who published works saluting his native Scotland. Evan seemed smitten with Fiona's fair beauty and Fiona enjoyed his bittersweet lyrical style.
Yet despite these engaging distractions, her heart was not captured. Rather, it was split in two, half of it living across the ocean, and half of it with her family back in Illinois. She wrote letters nearly every day to her mother, who always replied with news of the farm, family gossip and town happenings.
On the eve of finalizing a publication agreement for her frontier romance novel, she poured over her mother's latest letter by candlelight. She was shocked to read its contents. After Henry returned to Illinois, he received a letter from their old parish priest in Kiltonanlea. It seems that after moving east to Dublin, Brendan found passage to Boston. He found work in security with the city machine there, and was sending money back to starving families with the help of Ireland's nationalist movement.
Fiona was desperate to travel to Boston to find him, yet she remained in New York to manage her affairs. Each day that followed, she dreamed of traveling alone by train, stealing away in the dark of the night to track down Brendan. She wrote letters to Boston's parish priests and inquired among journalists that covered Boston machine politics, but found no evidence of Brendan. Feeling alone and missing her family, she broke down and wrote her mother a letter, admitting her need to find Brendan and see him again.
She waited, with the daily temptation to go to Boston on her own, but stayed put in New York because she feared distressing her family. Her mother finally wrote back, telling her that Brendan had traded in his plow for a pen and was writing tracts on Irish Nationalism for new immigrants. Fiona was stunned by this news. Brendan was a farm boy, not a revolutionary. Of course, she reasoned, "How surprised would Brendan be to have found the wild little farm creature, an unknown like Fiona Adair, in New York, leading a life of leisure among New York's intellectual elite?"
She immediately rushed another letter home, "Mother, I must find him, please have Henry find out how I can find him!"
Another agonizing week passed before a response from Mary. "Fiona, dear, go to St. Joseph's Parish, on 6th Avenue, knock on the south side door, and ask for Sister Margaret. She may be able to help you." Fiona was excited, this was something, but still, no word of Brendan's location in the letter left her frustrated and heartsick. The next day, Fiona walked to the church to meet Sister Margaret.
Fiona knocked at the side door and waited. The door opened and a plump, aged woman dressed in full black, ecclesiastical dress answered the door, "Sister Margaret?" Fiona asked.
"Ah, ye must be Fiona; I've heard about ye," the nun led her in.
"You have?" Fiona was astounded.
"Yes dear, I have," she smiled. "Well, look at ye, ye don't even need a corset for that frock, do ye, wee Girl?"
Fiona blushed, "I've always been a bit stunted."
Sister sensed Fiona's self-consciousness about her small stature and changed the subject "So you're lookin' for someone I hear?"
Fiona grinned, "Yes! Brendan McGowan! Do you know where he is?"
Sister Margaret smiled knowingly and grabbed some papers from her desk and handed them to Fiona, "Take these, dear, and come back to see me tomorrow, about noontime."
Fiona looked down at the papers and saw his name, "Brendan Hayden McGowan." She raced back to the townhouse and poured over his words. She was mesmerized by his pride, his strength and conviction for the people suffering back in Ireland. His writing revealed his pain over losing his father to the struggle for Irish freedom, and his dream for Irish immigrant success. Fiona began to fall in love with him all over again, but this time as a man with a passionate soul, not just a girlish notion.
She returned the following day, knocked on the door and Sister Margaret answered again, "Fiona again, like clockwork ye' are, Girl. Come in," she took her hand, leading her through a hallway, into the church itself. She led her down the aisle, toward the front entrance.
It was then that Fiona realized she was not alone with Sister Margaret. She saw the outline of a large, dark-haired man in the doorway, his full size silhouetted by the sunlight streaming in through stained glass. Fiona put her hand on her forehead to block the excess light and got a better look. Before she could focus, she heard him speak.
"Aye, it cannot be," he murmured. His voice sounded deep, yet familiar.
Her eyes focused in more, into his face.
"Is that ye little creature, Fiona?" he laughed.
She ran to him, "Brendan?" tears welled up in her eyes as she stopped in front of him. She was in shock, just to see Brendan again, and to see him having gotten so big and fat. He seemed nearly as round as he was tall, with his belly filling his knickers and his vest straining to keep closed.
"I said we'd see each other again, Fee," he smiled, his chin doubled. Fiona knew it was Brendan; those dark eyes gave him away, but she couldn't speak.
"What's the matter, Girl, you used to talk so much?" he laughed more.
"I – I - I can't believe it's really you," she nearly whispered.
"Well, I have changed a bit," he smiled, rubbing his soft belly and patting it to reveal it's softness. "When I got to Dublin, I started eating regular meals again. By the time I had regular work in Boston, I was as big as an ox," he teased himself. "And now I'm even bigger," he seemed both amused and embarrassed.
"You look amazin'," she offered without thinking, feeling like a magnet pulling north to him.
"Well, you're one to talk, Girl, I'm the one that should be amazed. You've become more of a beauty than I had heard. And I've heard plenty about ye," he admitted.
"How do you mean?" She was confused.
"I've kept in touch, Henry writes regularly to Father James from Kiltonanlea - and then I read your stories in the papers . . ."
Fiona cut him short, "You read my stories?"
"Aye, copies were sent over to Father James by your mother. She's burstin' proud of your talent. When I grew tired of the tragedies and injustices in the papers, I would read your stories. It inspired me to learn to write, to channel my ire over the plight into something good," he explained. "When I came over, I wanted to find you right off, but I figured a talented beauty like yourself would have the pick of men and not have time for an oversized lad from the farm."
"Brendan, I thought about you all the time. I worried about you, wonderin' if you had survived, if you were found work. I prayed I would find you healthy, like this," she placed her hand on his side, glancing downward at the soft bulk surrounding his waist, "not like the withered lad we left back in Cloonlara."
"You were always a charmer, Fee, always," he laughed.
"But I was always honest as well," she smiled.
They stood looking into each other's eyes for a few moments.
"Ah, perhaps we should go outside these church walls before I look at ye any longer," he blushed, alluding to the amorous tension between them. They walked outside, and started to stroll down Washington Place toward the park. Yet, the tension did not subside, Fiona admiring Brendan's commanding size, and Brendan admiring Fiona's sweet beauty.
As they walked, Brendan revealed his intentions, "Fiona, I'm thinking of movin' west, maybe back to the farmin' life," he was testing her feelings.
"Oh Brendan, I think it would be wonderful if you came to Illinois, and visited with all of us," she exclaimed.
"You mean you were thinking about goin' back home?" he queried.
"I need to get back to my family," she admitted. "And my writin' was its best back at the farm."
"Well, then, maybe we could travel that way together?" he offered.
And so they did, travel together, on a much longer journey than the tracks of the train anticipated. Upon their return, Brendan took Fiona's hand in marriage. From then, they stayed at the farm, working the land, writing tales and living the story of lost love found.