Blast | November 23, 2020
“If It’s True, It Must Also Be Beautiful” by Jacqueline St. Joan
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Jacqueline St. Joan’s story “If It’s True, It Must Also Be Beautiful” takes as its subject a young woman pregnant from rape, a distant time and place, and a life-changing decision. The story is infused with rich historical detail drawn from the author’s research into her own family’s history–research that has inspired a collection in process.
If It’s True, It Must Also Be Beautiful
Jacqueline St. Joan
Glenties, County Donegal, Ireland 1819
I pray I’m not breaking the sacred seal of the confessional to tell you that the townspeople think Nancy Boyle is a bit strange—but lovely. Of course, they don’t say so to her face, as she already has pride aplenty and doesn’t need a drop more. The general opinion is that Nancy’s vanity is due to the sad fact that she is an only child, which is her mother’s sorrow—and now that sorrow is turning to shame, what with Nancy being with child, but unmarried. When Richard Moore confessed to me his willingness to wed Nancy Boyle and take her to America, I asked her parents, Peter and Margaret Boyle, and Nancy herself, to meet me at the rectory. And, later, to join Richard Moore in a cup of tea at their house so we could discuss what was to be done. As the town’s only priest, I knew it was my duty, even though this kind of thing should be the Lord’s doing and not mine.
I plan to say little or nothing at our meeting, and I am a bit late, snapping the horse’s reins as we ride through County Donegal, a vast landscape of stubbly fields where stumps and roots from the old forests are scattered here and there. Cloud formations broad as the fields reflect off frosty lakes, run pink to red in the late winter sunsets; and just before evening, all the colors fade like dried blood. The Boyles’ home at Glenties is more than a hovel but less than a farmhouse. Once inside, I feel a bit trapped with curtains of gray rain closing in, and for a moment I long for a sight into the distance, but the few windows are foggy. Before I take a seat, I make the sign of the cross and bless the house.
“May the Good Lord bless the four corners of this house. Bless the door that opens wide to stranger and to kin. And bless them all who come within.”
“Amen,” says Margaret, getting up from her knees, leaning on her husband’s arm.
The house is a thatched, modest place improved largely by Margaret’s sense of organization and her insistence on cleanliness, as well as Nancy’s pencil sketches that adorn one corner. Peter Boyle, in his fresh white shirt, sits with the young couple, Richard and Nancy, lighting his little clay pipe. Margaret, with her unwashed hair pulled back tightly into a bun the size of a biscuit, stays behind her husband. Nancy is silent in what must be her best dress, moss green and modest, around her neck, a tiny cross from St. Patrick’s Day. Richard, in his common linen shirt, waistcoat, and heavy black boots, is telling Peter about Europe where, four year earlier, he fought with the Irish 44th Regiment in the British Army at Waterloo and then joined the occupation of Paris. Peter interrupts Richard and looks my way.
“Something for a rainy weather, Father?” he asks, already starting to pour from the old jug. Recently Peter has become an old man crippled by life. “Will ya take another drop?” Peter asks Richard. Richard squeezes his lips together and shakes his head. Peter leans forward, craning his thick neck toward the window, wiping the glass with his fingers. His face makes a shadowy reflection, the chair rocks, and he fumbles. “Looking for me hound,” he says. “Did ya see her out the door, Father?”
“I didn’t,” I say.
“That dirty dog is not coming into my house,” insists Margaret, sniffing in Nancy’s direction.
Peter looks at Margaret, who refuses to return his gaze. “Well, it looks like rain, so she’d best be coming in.” He strains to stand, and Richard reaches to steady the old man. Don’t bother,” he says, slapping Richard’s hand away, making light of his injury and its unending pain. “Ox got the best of me . . . long time ago now.”
Margaret sits behind her husband with her needles and patches in her lap. She runs her palm across the handiwork and relaxes back into the chair. Her nose is red from a head cold or from crying, or maybe both. She takes a white handkerchief from her dress pocket and blows her nose. Margaret’s political opinions are well known, and she is not at all sure about this Richard Moore. She does not cater to Irishmen who take up arms for the Protestants to fight Catholics—even Catholics who are French.
“Sure and it must be a mortal sin, Father,” she said to me at the rectory when I mentioned Richard Moore as a husband for Nancy. Margaret is old enough to remember when it used to be hunting season for priests in Donegal and the Holy Mass could only be celebrated in hiding. Once, the English arrested her own kin for not paying their taxes and their tithes. “They were screaming for help to us—we were also the helpless—as they carted them away.” Whenever she tells that story, she cries like the child she was when it happened. Margaret cheered with the others when a landlord was shot after evicting a dozen families. She said it did her heart good to know there were those who opposed the tyrants. And she still can speak what was our own Irish tongue, before it was outlawed by the English and forgotten by the people.
Now Nancy—her only surviving child—first raped by a stranger while she was salmon fishing at Lough Anna and now having to make the devil’s choice—bear a child unwed or marry a traitor like Richard Moore. That’s how Margaret sees it. “God forgive me,” she pleaded to me, “but I pray He takes that child back, so I may have my only daughter again, or I’ll raise that baby for her! Who knows where this fellow might take her—India or Canada or some wild place called Ohio?” Margaret does not want Nancy going away at all, especially not so far away. It will be a kind of death for her, another endless ache. Still, she is a practical woman and knows there is a big problem and a task at hand: to nab a good one for Nancy—quick, before her star fades.
Richard Moore sits, wicker chair by wicker chair, next to Nancy Boyle and the glowing fire. He holds out his cup so Peter can pour the whiskey. Maybe the drink will help with the talking. We say what we do know how to say:
Take another drop?
That’s a fine hound ya got out there.
Oh, it’s not worth a cuckoo’s spittle.
Richard is a tall man, lean and straight-backed with ruddy skin, sandy hair, and soft, lidded, pleading eyes. He is the kind of man who lives in the future—planning, dreaming, saving today for tomorrow, restrained—like a real man should be. He’s a bit of a snob, bragging to me that he understood the “peasant mentality” and all; but, to be fair, Richard’s had lots of experience with it since his return from the British Army—mean looks, challenges to fistfights, dirty names and curses that follow him on the street. It’s another reason he plans to get away—plus the intoxicating idea of being landed. The look he’s giving Nancy says to me it’s more than land he craves. And not just her beauty, he told me in private, but it’s something else in her that he needs.
“Not the way a drunk needs a drink, Father,” he explained, “or the way a child needs a mother, more like a sinner needs a priest.” We laughed about it then. Still, we all agreed that everybody in the room must consent to a marriage and a voyage to America. Richard knows he has the advantage, given Nancy’s condition, but he senses Nancy’s uncertainty and her mother’s outright disdain.
Nancy pours for her mother and herself from a china teapot—chipped and cracked in several places but repaired and painted with delicate bluebells and catmint. Her long black hair is tied up with hemmed strips of cloth she saved from her mother’s old dresses. Several long wavy strands refuse to be confined.
“Our Nancy brewed that tea from chamomile she picked herself,” Peter says, pausing, pointing up at the tied bunches of dried wild plants suspended from the rafters—nettle leaves, dandelion root, calendula flowers, and thyme. “Not a lazy bone in that girl’s body.” He smiles, then looks away, grimacing. The mention of Nancy’s body causes the embarrassing memory of its condition to rise in all our minds. Margaret blushes, but Nancy does not. It is not clear whether Nancy will accept Richard, but her dark eyes shine when she looks into his. It is a bold step for a young woman—to let a man know she will look that directly and deeply.
Peter is at the window with his cane, acting like he’s checking for weather, but we all know knows he’s hoping to catch sight of the dog. He has a chicken bone in his hand.
“That hound ought to be catching her own birds,” Margaret shouts to Peter, which starts her coughing fit. Nancy turns away from her parents’ squabble and faces the raindrops catching on the windowpane and offering their soothing soft sound.
Richard is nodding too much, talking too fast, as he makes his case to Peter, when it’s Margaret he should be convincing.
“Our sergeant saw the broadsheets outside the American Land Office in London, and he told us all about it,” Richard is saying. “Best financial opportunity in history—lots of land for very little money, rich land with water and forests full of deer and game of all sorts. They are wanting people along the Ohio River.” Now his hands and arms spread open and his eyes include us all. “You only have to put a quarter down and build a small cabin within two years, they give you a loan, and it’s yours, on the installment plan. ‘Land is freedom,’” he quotes the land company brochure. To Richard, America is a giant step away from being an Irish cottier and a tiny step closer to becoming gentry.
“I hear there are savages in Ohio,” Peter comments, leaning forward, placing his elbows on his knees for balance, and getting just that much closer to Richard. He is asking the questions he thinks Nancy must be mulling.
“Savages are everywhere,” Richard responds quietly, “like what happened to Nancy.” Everybody knows it was rape, and as it was a stranger who’d done it, and the officials caught him, too, and jailed him quick. The man rushed to confess like a sinner on Good Friday, so they don’t fault Nancy. Still, there is some unwarranted shame, plus nobody knows what will happen to a bastard child like that, God love him. “But you don’t have to worry,” Richard is explaining, “the Americans have fought off most and made treaties with the others. They’re only selling land where the Indians have moved far away.” He pauses, uncertain whether Peter is convinced. Margaret signals to Nancy to pour her another cup and clears her throat to be heard. She does not look up or speak to anyone in particular.
“God punishes those who take land from the ones it truly belongs to—the ones who had it first,” she says. We know she is talking, not about America, but about Ireland.
“I hear there’s a Petition to the British Parliament for Catholic Emancipation,” Richard says, changing the subject.
“Pray God,” she replies, and we all mutter agreement.
“But there’s lots of Irish in America already, so we’ll stick together,” Richard laughs. “They say that’s why they call it O’Hio.” Peter and I chuckle, as expected, but the joke falls flat. “Plus I’m pretty good with a pistol and a musket,” Richard adds, and thunder cracks. Nancy startles at the mix of it—the thunder, the pistol and the musket. She must want his promise of protection.
Richard is from nearby village of Ardara. He and Nancy were childhood sweethearts of a sort as youngsters in school at St. Brendan’s, and, when I asked her, she said she’s always carried what she called “a feeling” about Richard. She did not say just what the feeling was, and I did not ask. His family is respectable—good Catholics and hard workers; they even own cows, pigs, chickens, and goats. In the early days, before the incident with the ox, Peter cut turf with the Richard’s family for the church when it was being built and mixed the limestone too. Margaret tatted lace for the altar cloths and the curtains. Nancy was only three years old when they buried their firstborn son, taken by brain fever, in a tiny grave behind the church, so St. Brendan’s is a place precious to them. Nancy and Richard grew up, and he went away to war. Now Nancy is a grown woman, not one to fancy a man’s pity, but she must wonder who would marry her. What will happen to her? Will she remain a spinster at her wheel in her parents’ home? So when I told them that Richard asked to visit, to ask for her hand, her father said to her at the rectory out loud and clearly before God, “Nancy, I want ya to have a new and better life. Love him,” he said, “and let him love you.”
Peter opens the subject a bit. “Have ya saved enough money for the down payment and all that?”
“I have, sir. Plus enough for the voyage, and the carriage travel, plus the things we’ll need—a one-room cabin to start,” he adds, looking around their one-room cabin. Richard glances at Nancy, and she smiles, looking excited. “We’ll have to work hard and send crops to market to pay for the installments,” he says. Nancy nods her understanding of the hard labor he is asking of her. “But we’ll get land along the river, so we won’t have far to go to market.”
Peter interrupts. “I’d like ya to have all the money before ya go. If you’re wanting to take our girl all the way to Ohio, you’d best have all of it.” Peter’s words draw Richard’s eyes toward him. “I’m afraid there will be no dowry,” he says plainly. “Crops have been few.”
“And the landlord takes most,” adds Margaret, “and the King just keeps placing more and more debt on us.” She pauses when she sees Peter pour himself yet another one. She’s used to counting them, and lets him know it with a side glance. She brags, “Why, Peter used to make horse collars, but no more now that the English replaced ours with their own.” She told me she wonders what ideas Richard picked up from the English while he was in the Army? She wants him to know that her husband is not lazy. She gets up to put on the kettle, turning her back to the fellow who intends to take her Nancy away, and she reaches for a dishtowel so fresh she must have put it out just before he knocked on the door.
“Of course,” says Richard, pouring himself a small one. “None expected. Not in America. A dowry is an old-fashioned idea anyway. And there’s no rush to sail. We can live in Donegal and save for the rest, if that is your wish.”
Nancy is squirming in what Richard is weaving—I imagine her drawing the line of his profile down the center of a page, a kind of a heart-shaped face, a pouty mouth, always a little bit open, and shining light eyes. But what moves him inside, she wonders? She hungers for real contact, not an imitation of it, and she may be terrified, but she looks completely calm. Richard is a handsome, traveled, God-fearing man with some money in his pocket and big dreams. Nancy has dreams herself—to make a home, of course, but she also dreams—she told me—to cross the ocean and find a new place to be, new lakes and skies to draw with her colored pencils, new earth in which to plant seeds she would take with her to this Ohio. Is Richard the best opportunity in history or just another English speculation? Is she a fool to go with a man whose soul she does not know? Or is she the luckiest girl in the county to have Richard Moore at her parents’ hearth asking for her hand?
Nancy is a dreamer. Oh, she does her work—about half, anyway—and then she appears in the woods with her herb bag or by the river or the lake with her fishing net and the pencils and paper she must have. She scrubs floors at the manor and cleans shit houses for the shillings to buy them. But the pictures Nancy draws can break something open inside you. And Richard has not even seen any of them up close. Margaret silently rearranges the baskets and the pans near the stove. Nancy brings her the old teapot and stands close enough to her mother to listen to the rhythm of her breathing, and I realize that Nancy will be homesick for this old woman.
What will Richard say next, to sign off on this contract? He’s not hearing any objection from Margaret; if she feels one, she is keeping it to herself. And Peter is with him. Anyone can sense that. Richard turns to Nancy, who is moving away from her mother and stepping into the corner where her bonnet hangs on a ten-penny nail. There’s a small statue of the Virgin Mary, and Nancy’s sketches are tacked to the wall.
“Come,” Nancy says, gesturing for Richard to take her outstretched hand, and I can imagine her gesturing to him like that through the years, allowing him to be closer and closer. He draws himself up next to her. Margaret looks pleased. She tries to catch Peter’s eye to share their knowing of what Nancy is doing—she’s putting Richard to the test. They trust that Nancy knows how to get to the heart of the matter. Peter opens the door to let the hound in from the cold. There is a quick, electric scent in the air, and then the door shuts. She’s a skinny brown thing and she smells like a barnyard. The dog goes straight to Richard, sniffing his boots suspiciously. Peter upends his cup of whiskey, then limps to add a chunk of peat to the fire. When he stumbles, Margaret is there to catch his arm. There is a shift of light toward evening. Margaret reaches for candles while sheets of rain drench the fields of Donegal, the lake overflows its banks, and the young salmon hide in murky water under a darkened, colorless sky.
Nancy and Richard stand in front of her three drawings, their backs to her parents. Nancy points to her sketch of Lough Anna. It is a large drawing, the size of a side table, and it is tacked to the wall. It shines in silver shadings with such detail that I swear I can see wrens in the distant trees beyond the water’s edge, the flat hills at a distance, the burly cloudbanks of winter. Richard tilts his head, reading the corner date.
How can this drawing be so beautiful when something so terrible happened to her there? There is no trace of pain in it, but neither is it a pretense; it is more like a place that has held so much for so long that it has incorporated all of that into itself.
Nancy watches Richard’s confused response to her work and points to the second sketch. The thick paper is creamy and rectangular. It is a colored drawing of a faceless soldier. Richard’s eyes widen; obviously, he recognizes himself in it. There are no marching lines of young men in their bright stockings and red coats, no fifes and drums. No, none of that. It shows a lonely man sitting on the ground, his back to a wall, his bare head thick with reddish, matted hair and resting in his hands. Bones on bones, muscles on muscles. Against the wall is a musket, and on the ground, a three-cornered hat and an old rucksack. The soldier is crying; he is crippled by war, but will not let it show, and the artist is kind enough to respect that. Richard takes a sharp breath, and I know what he is remembering. He once described to me his pal, Paddy—how he’d abandoned Paddy on the field to die alone—and he is thinking of the stunned eyes of the French soldier who cried out to God, “Mon Dieu,” when Richard’s saber cut open the boy’s guts. Richard doesn’t look at Nancy, who must know all these things that are broken inside him.
Nancy reaches for the last drawing. She removes the slender nail and places the paper in Richard’s trembling hands. It is another black-and-white pencil sketch of a gray, shimmering graveyard where a little girl stands, looking up at her mother, whose face is soaked with tears and whose thin body is heavy with grief. What could be a worse sight for a child to see? And its weight is doubled by being recalled on the page and now tripled in the seeing of it. A single tear appears in the corner of Richard’s eye. Nancy’s gaze follows the tear as it reaches the peak of his cheekbone and falls onto his boot. She bends down, takes the drop with her finger. She places it on her tongue, and drinks his tear.
Richard and Nancy Moore were my great-great-grandparents. This story is part of a collection of short historical fiction I am writing—what I call “family fiction,” as it is based on deep research into my own and my former husband’s ancestry. Richard and Nancy arrived in New York in1825 from New Brunswick, Canada, on the schooner Lady Hunter, accompanying an unnamed girl. With my cousin’s help, we identified and visited the seventy acres in Salineville, Ohio, (about twelve miles west of the Ohio River) that Richard Moore purchased from the US Government as evidenced by a deed signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1831—one year after the Indian Removal Act forced the native people of that area to migrate west of the Mississippi River. Research for this story included a visit to Glenties and Ardara in County Donegal, as well as research in museums, churches, and other historical sites in Ireland. In writing this family fiction, I tried to rely on documented facts, and the rest I had to imagine.
Jacqueline St. Joan is writing a collection of family fiction: short stories based on deep research into her extended family’s ancestry. She is the author of the novel, My Sisters Made of Light (Press 53), a book of poems, What Remains (Turkey Buzzard Press), a letterpress, hand-stitched chapbook, Restitching the Sky, and coeditor of the anthology, Beyond Portia: Women, Law, and Literature in the United States (Northeastern UP). She lives in Denver, Colorado.
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