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Little Kathleen and Little Terence

Irish folktale

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The next morning John O'Brien was sitting alone, when there was a knock at the door. Then Peter Sullivan opened it, said "God save all here!" and came in.

"God save you kindly!" John answered.

"It's distressed we are," said Peter, "to hear of the death of poor Kitty. Ellen would be here with me to tell you so, only bein' in bed herself and not able to stir, and what'll come to all of us I dunno. I'm that disturbed about her I dunno what I'll do at all. I left her with one of the neighbors and came to see your mother about her. But sure it's you has the great grief on you already, whatever comes to us. It's not only you I'm thinkin' of, but it's the child, left with no mother. Oh, it's a terrible thing."

"My own mother can bring up any child," John answered. "Have no fear of that. It's us that knew Kitty that'll feel the loss of her."

"And how is the child doing, anyway?" Peter asked.

"She looks fine and healthy, glory be to God!" said John.

"It's a girl, they tell me."

"It is."

"Do you know yet what you'll call her?"

"We'll name her Kathleen, after her mother," said John.

"Then you'll be calling her Kitty, like her mother, I suppose."

"No—no," John answered, slowly; "I don't think I'll call her that. The child will be always Kathleen. I dunno if I can tell you how I feel about that. It was a name for a child, more than a woman—Kitty—and yet, now that she's gone from me, I've a feeling like it was something more than the name of a woman—like it was something holy, like the name of the blessed Mother of God. When I think of that name now, I want to think only of her, and I wouldn't like to be calling even her own child by it. It's Kathleen I'll call her—nothing else."

"You're right about all that, no doubt," said Peter; "but I can't be staying here, and Ellen and the child at home the way they are. You have your child left, and you say it's healthy—thank God for that same!—but it looks like I might have neither wife nor child."

"Don't say that, man alive," said John; "what's the matter at all then?"

"I can't stop discoursin' here," Peter answered. "I came to ask would your mother, being a knowledgable woman, step over for a bit and see can she tell at all what's the matter with Ellen and the child. There was a doctor there, but he seemed to do no good, and Ellen said your mother would know more than all the doctors, so I came to ask would she come. And if you care to come yourself, I'll be telling you how they are as we go along, but I can't stay here; it's too long to be away from them."

"Mother is with the child," said John; "I'll speak to her."

He went into another room, where the baby was sleeping and his mother was sitting beside her. He told her why Peter had come. "Step downstairs," said Mrs. O'Brien, "and ask Mrs. Mulvey will she sit by the baby till I'm back. Then I'll go with him. And you'd better come, too, John; the air will do you good."

John went down to another of the tenements in the house and came back with their neighbor, Mrs. Mulvey. "If you'll be so kind," Mrs. O'Brien said, "sit here by the baby till I'm back, and I'll not be long. And mind you keep everything as it is, unless she wakes, and then you'll know what to do as well as I, for you've children of your own. But don't disturb the pair of scissors that's there beside her, and don't take off the horseshoe nail that's hung round her neck."

"And what's them things for?" Mrs. Mulvey asked, with wonder in her eyes.

"Why, to keep the Good People from stealing the child," Mrs. O'Brien answered. "Did you never hear of those things? Don't you know the Good People can't stand the touch of iron, or even to be near it? And especially a horseshoe nail they can't stand. And the scissors, too, they couldn't come near, and then leaving them open they make a cross, and that keeps the child all the more from the Good People."

John and his mother left Mrs. Mulvey with little Kathleen and went with Peter. "And what's wrong with Ellen, then?" Mrs. O'Brien asked.

"I dunno that there's so much wrong with herself, as you might say," Peter answered. "I think it's more than anything else that she's worried about the child."

"And what's wrong with the child, then?"

"There's everything wrong with the child," said Peter. "It's not like the same child at all. Last night he was as healthy a boy as you'ld wish to see—quiet and peaceable and good-tempered and strong-looking, for his age. And now this morning he's thin and sick-looking, and there's black hair all over his arms, and his face is wrinkled, like he was a little old man, and he does nothing but cry and scream till you can't bear it, and twist and squirm till you can't hold him. It's like he was fairy-struck, only I don't believe in them things at all."

"Did you watch him close last night?" Mrs. O'Brien asked.

"Part of the time," Peter answered, "but I dare say we was both asleep other times."

"Was Ellen careful about her prayers last night, and were you so, too?"

"I can't say about that," Peter said. "We might be letting some of them go, such a time as that, you know, and make it up after."

"Yes," said Mrs. O'Brien, "make it up after by losing your child! Was there any iron anywhere about him?"

"I don't know that there was."

"And did you make a circle of fire about the place where he was lying?"

"I did not."

"The child's not been struck," said Mrs. O'Brien; "not the way you mean. It's not your child at all, but one of the Good People themselves, that's in it. They've stolen your child and left a changeling in the place of it."

"It's the same way you always talked, Mrs. O'Brien," said Peter. "I don't believe them things."

They had come to Peter's door by this time. They found Ellen lying in bed, looking frightened half to death, and beside her was the baby, or the fairy, or whatever it was. It was not crying loudly now, but it was keeping up a little whining and whimpering noise that was quite as unpleasant to listen to as a good, honest cry. Its face looked thin and pinched and old; it had a little thin, wispy hair on its head where no baby of the age that this one was supposed to be has a right to have any. Its arms and hands were thin and bony. It looked weak and sick, but it was rolling and wriggling about in the liveliest way. It would give a spring as if it were going straight off the bed upon the floor, and when poor Ellen caught at it to save it, it would roll back toward her, stop its crying for a second, and seem to be laughing at her, and then it would do the same thing again.

"It's plain enough," Mrs. O'Brien said, as soon as she saw it. "It's one of the Good People. But it's quick enough we'll be rid of it and have back your own child. Bring me some eggs."

"I'll have nothing of the sort now," said Ellen. "It's bad the poor child is with some sickness or other, but it's my own child, and I'll have nothing done to it that's not to do it good. If you know anything that'll help it, Mrs. O'Brien, tell me that, but don't be sayin' it's not my child."

"I'll not hurt the child, whatever it is," said Mrs. O'Brien, "but there are ways to tell whether it's your own child at all or one of the Good People. If you find it's one of them, then it's easy to do more, but in the meantime it's not harmed."

"I'll not have you trying any of them things," said Ellen. "I'll not have you saying it's not my child, and I'll not be thinking of such a thing myself. You see how poor and sick it's looking. If there's anything you can do for the child, do it, but don't be talking that way any more."

"Ellen," said Mrs. O'Brien, "you don't know what you're talking about at all. Wait now till I tell you what was told to me when I lived in Dublin, and I think that it was not far from there that it happened. It's about a woman that talked as you do. A sailor's wife she was, and there was a child born to her while her husband was away at sea. She thought he'ld be home soon, and so she wanted to put off the christening of the child till he'ld be back. So she waited and waited for a long time, and her husband did not come. The neighbors told her she was doing wrong to wait so long and she ought to have the child christened before anything would happen to it. But she wouldn't listen to them.

"So it went on for a year and a half, and still the father didn't come home. But the boy was healthy and happy, and the mother never had any trouble with him. But the trouble came. One day she'd been working in the field, and she came home, and as soon as she was in the house she heard crying from the bed where the child used to sleep. She ran to look at him, and he lay there, looking sick and thin and weak, the way your boy does, and crying that he was hungry. He was like her child and he was not like him. He'd grown so pale and bad-looking that she thought he'd had a stroke from the Good People. But she went to get him some bread and milk, and she asked her other boy, that was about seven years old, when it was and how it was that he began to be sick.

"'I left him playing near the fire,' the boy said, 'and I was in the other room. And I heard a rushing noise, like a great flock of birds flying down the chimney, and then I heard a cry from my brother and then again the noise, like the birds were flying out at the chimney again. And then I ran in and found him there the way you see him now.'

"Well, if the poor woman had never had trouble with the child before, she had nothing but trouble now. Crying and squalling it was all the time, and it nearly ate her out of house and home, and yet it seemed always sick and weak and thin. The neighbors came and they told her it was not her child at all, but one of the Good People that had been put in the place of it, and it was all her own fault for not having it christened in the right time. But not a word of it all would she listen to, and she said all the time that, whatever was wrong with it, it was her own child and she'ld hear nothing to the contrary.

"It was an out-of-the-way place where they lived, and there was no priest near, or she never could have kept it from being christened as long as she did. But at last the neighbors themselves said that if she didn't see to it, they would. And they said to her: 'It's not your child at all that's in it, and if you'll have it christened you'll see. And if you won't take the child to the priest with us now, we'll go to him ourselves and tell him all about it. It's not right to keep it from him longer.'

"So with that she thought it was no use and she'ld have to do as they said, and she took the child and tried to dress him, ready to take him to the priest to be christened. But the roars and the screams that he let out of him were more than anybody could bear, and at the last she said: 'Oh, I can't do it; it's too terrible a thing for him; he won't bear it, and how can I make him?'

"The next day when she came in from her work the other boy said to her: 'Mother, it was uncommon quiet he was while you was away to-day. And by and by I went in to see what was ailing him. And there he sat, looking so like an old man that I was near afraid of him. And he looked at me and he spoke as plain as an old man, and he says: "Pat," says he, "bring me a pipe, till I have a bit of a smoke. It's tired of life I am, lying here without it."'

"'"Ah," says I, "wait till my mother gets home and I'll tell her of this."'

"'"Tell her," says he, "and she'll not believe a word from you."'

"'And no more do I believe a word from you,' says the woman.

"Well, soon after that there came a letter from the father, saying that he'ld be at home now in a few days. With that the woman set off to town to buy things to eat and drink to welcome her husband home, and she said: 'Now we'll have the christening, as soon as ever he comes.'

"Then as soon as she was off, the neighbors said: 'Now is the time that we'll be done with that imp. We'll take him and have him christened while she's away, and we'll not give her the chance to put it off again because he cries.'

"So they went to the house and one of the women came up to the bed and clapped a quilt over him and had him wrapped up in it before he knew what was happening to him, and away they all went down toward the brook, on the way to the priest. Well, he kicked and he struggled to get free, but the woman held him so tight it was no use. But when they came to the running water, it was then he began bellowing like a herd of bulls, and kicking and pulling so that it was all she could do to hold him.

"She got her foot on the first of the stepping-stones, and it was then he began to get heavy, as if it was a stone that she was carrying. But she held hard and reached the second stone, and it seemed to her that he was nothing but a lump of lead, only still roaring and struggling; and, what with that and the rushing of the water below her, she began to get dizzy, but still she held on, and she had her foot on the stone in the middle of the stream when plump down he fell through the quilt that he was wrapped in, as if it had been nothing but a muslin handkerchief.

"And there he went floating down the stream, and shouting and laughing at them. For, you know, it's not being in running water that can hurt one of the Good People, but only crossing it, and if they tried to cross it they'ld be in awful pain till they got to the middle, and then nothing could keep them from falling in.

"So they were rid of him, and you know when you're rid of a changeling the Good People must send your own child back. And so the neighbors had not got back to the house when they met the mother running to meet them and bringing her own child, that she had found in its bed, when she got back from the town, sleeping, as well and as sound as ever it was.

"And now, Ellen," said Mrs. O'Brien, "will you let me try, in ways that I know, that can do no harm, whether this is your own child or not? And if it's not, you'll have your own back, as well as it was last night."

"This is my own child," Ellen answered, "and it's not by any silly tales like that that you can make me believe it isn't. I'll not have you doing anything of the sort. If you know anything that can help a baby when it's sick, you may do that, but nothing else."

"I do know one thing that can help a sick baby," Mrs. O'Brien answered "and that I'll do, if you like it or not. If that thing there is one of the Good People, as I think, it's not sick, and it will live for thousands of years after we are dead. We can neither help it nor much hurt it. But if that is your child, it doesn't look to me as if it would live an hour. I'll not try whether it's yours or not, but if it's yours I'll not stand by and see its soul die, that ought to be the soul of a Christian. Ellen Sullivan, that child will be christened before I leave this house."

"Christened!" poor Ellen cried in amazement. "And who's to christen him? We couldn't get a priest here in an hour—maybe not to-day."

"There's no need of a priest," Mrs. O'Brien said; "I'll christen him myself. Bring me some water there, Peter."

"But sure you can't do that," Peter protested. "Nobody but a priest could christen a child."

"I can christen the child as well as a priest," said Mrs. O'Brien; "you take a child to the priest to be christened, when it's easy and convenient, but when there's no priest near, and the child is sick and seems likely to die before one can come, anybody can christen it; and that christening stands, and it never has to be christened after. That's the law of the Church. Bring me the water. I never saw a child that seemed more likely to die than this one, if it's a child at all."

And Peter brought the water.

"What do you call the child?" Mrs. O'Brien asked.

"I think we'll call him Terence," Peter answered. "That was my grandfather's name, on my mother's side, and a decent man he was, and uncommon fond of myself when I was a bit of a gossoon, till he died, Heaven rest his soul! and I think I'd like to name the boy after him."

Now all that the child had been doing and all the noise that he had been making before were simply nothing to what he had been doing ever since Mrs. O'Brien first said the word "christen." He was screaming so that all this talk could scarcely be heard, and it was almost more than Mrs. O'Brien could do to hold him, when she took him in her arms. But she did hold him for a moment with one arm, while she dipped up some water with her hand and sprinkled it over him. Then the creature gave one great jump and was away from her and fell on the floor.

Before anybody else could move, Mrs. O'Brien herself picked him up and laid him on the bed. There was no sign that he was hurt. No child that was hurt could have screamed as he did. "Come, John," said Mrs. O'Brien, "we've done all that we can."

"May I walk back with you a piece?" said Peter. "There was something more that I was thinking I would say."

"Come back with us, of course, and welcome," said John.

They left the house and walked along the street.

"I think it was right, what you done, Mrs. O'Brien," said Peter. "I can't think about the child the way you think, but it was right what you done."

Mrs. O'Brien made no answer. "John," said Peter, "there's something that I was thinking of last night and this morning, and it was this: You have a girl and I have a boy, that was both born on the one day. It's good friends we've always been, and your father and your mother and my father and my mother before us. And I was just thinking when your girl and my boy grows up, supposing that they like each other well enough, it might be pleasant to all of us that they'ld be married some time.

"There's no man's son that I'd rather see a daughter of mine married to than yours, Peter," said John, "if she herself was pleased. I'ld not ask her to take anybody she didn't like, but if she came to love him, and he came to love her, I'ld be as pleased as yourself."

"It was that I wanted to say," said Peter, "and I'd better go back to Ellen now."

John and his mother said no more till they were at home. They both went into the room where little Kathleen was. Mrs. Mulvey sat watching the baby. She went out and left them. The child was sleeping as peacefully as if there were no such thing in the world as sorrow or loss or doubt, or a fairy to help or harm.

"John," said Mrs. O'Brien, "I'd think I might have done harm to that child in trying to christen it, only I'm as sure as ever I was of anything that it's not a child at all, but one of the Good People, so I think there's no harm done. I don't know what would happen any of the Good People if he was to be rightly christened. I think he'ld not be able to stand it and would be driven out, so that they'ld have to send back the real child. Now, if a priest ever sees that creature that we've just seen, and asks: 'Has this child been christened?' they'll have to answer 'Yes,' and he cannot be christened again. And yet, with the jump that he gave out of my arms when I sprinkled the water, it's not sure I am that a drop of it touched him."

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