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Sneak Peek of Edge of Eternity. (2024)
Ulster Plantation, County Cavan
Northern Ireland 1847
Eamon O’Neil dug the pitchfork into the ground and dropped his seventy-two-pound weight on the handle. At first, nothing happened, then the soil slowly gave way, and another section of potatoes rose to the surface.
“Well, boy?” his father’s weary voice interrupted his thoughts.
Eamon's gaze drifted to the darkening sky, a shiver coursing through him despite the mild weather. His mind flickered with fleeting images—laughter around a full dinner table, his mother's comforting embrace—lost moments that felt vivid and distant had to be thrust away to face reality.
Eamon’s clothing hung loose on his small frame, and he was half the weight he should have been for a twelve-year-old. Gaunt would have been an understatement. Eamon’s father stood two rows away, leaning on a shovel, and was in the same condition. They were starving to death. Eamon knew it was only a matter of time until he joined his mother and brothers in the ground. What food they had wouldn’t last much longer. His older brother had eaten the blight-ridden potatoes, and within half a day, Banner had horrible stomach cramps, vomited twice, and then died. Eamon considered his brother the lucky one.
“They’re the same,” he whispered.
Eamon stood a few inches over five feet and had short dark hair and prominent cheekbones. He leaned on the pitchfork to rest as even minimal tasks were trying. The lack of food was taking its toll.
The crops were covered with a fungus and dark spots—the same results as the primary field and the southern acreage. They used to harvest three hundred baskets a day, and now, they were lucky to fill five. Most of the food they did manage to salvage was taken away for sale by the landowner while they ate the rationed oats and corn. The Ulster Plantation used to be one of the most productive farms in Northern Ireland, with potatoes being the main crop. The last three years had resulted in more people dying than Eamon had ever seen. He had two new friends, Hunger and Death, who were his constant companions. So far, Death had yet to play with him, but there was little doubt it would be soon.
“The English take too much from our plates, or we would have a chance.” His father spat on the ground. “I’m sorry, my wee man.”
“I could go fishin’ again?”
Four days ago, he had caught two trout at the lough and smuggled them home hidden in his shirt. As food became scarce, many had died for less reason than fish, and he was careful. They were smoked and rationed between all that remained from a cottage of eight. Eamon mixed his in with the boiled oats over two days—it helped but wasn’t enough.
Eamon held a hand above his eyes and watched the dark clouds approach on the horizon. His father did the same. “Aye. Go ahead. It’ll be pourin’ in a few hours. Be back before she starts.”
The twelve-year-old grinned, stored his pitchfork in the shed, and grabbed a pole and a folded waxed cloth. He had collected grubs and a few worms earlier in case there was time. Annagh Lough was a small body of water twenty minutes walk east of the field. While the lough had been fished heavily in the last few years, there was still a chance. No matter the size of the catch, it would help. Before leaving, he slipped on a larger jacket. The early September weather had cooled, and there was no lack of clothing. His brother no longer felt the cold.
After decades of travel, the hard-packed path from the cottage was from the carts, and Eamon followed it to the main road. The trail to the lough was on the other side, but he stopped and rested the end of the pole on the ground.
A man stood on the opposite side of the road, watching his approach—waiting.
The stranger had a thick red beard, short hair the same color, and looked strong enough to lift a pony himself. The clothing set Eamon back, and he wasn’t sure what to make of it. The brown coat was long, almost to the man’s knees, and had the sheen of leather. A white collared buttoned shirt looked brand new, and so did the trousers. The shoes were unlike anything he’d seen: bright white with a stitched pattern on the sides.
“Ser? Are you lost?”
The man shook his head and smiled. “It’s good to see you again, laddie.”
Confused, Eamon took a step back—more apprehensive than fear—and asked, “Do I know you?”
“Not yet. But we goes a ways back, Banner.”
The accent was close to Eamon’s memory of his mother when she was mad—definitely Scottish. “Sorry, sir. Banner was my brother, but the Lord called him home a few weeks ago.”
Shock, confusion, and sorrow warred on the man’s face and nearly broke the young man’s heart. His voice broke, “Can I ask you a few questions, lad?”
Eamon slowly nodded. The stranger appeared to be not right in the head. How could he know my brother but never meet him?
“Wot’s the year?”
“The year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and forty-seven, ser.” Definitely daft. How could you not know the year?
“And the date?”
“It’s the third of September.”
Lines deepened on the man’s brow as he frowned. From inside the long leather coat, he pulled out a book. The wrappings were also made of leather with a strap to hold them closed. The sheets were white and matched his shoes. A thick finger flipped through the first few pages, and he mumbled quietly.
“Wot’s your name, son?”
“Eamon.” He knew something was wrong but didn’t know what was happening. Why would the man be expecting his brother?
The book snapped closed, and the stranger placed it inside the jacket. “Something has changed, and I don’t know what.”
The man chuckled. “Nothing to do you with, laddie.”
Eamon glanced to the skies. The wind had picked up, and the dark clouds were blowing in fast. “Guess I’m not going fishing.”
The man looked up and agreed. “No, it isn’t safe. Take care, lad.”
Eamon wearily turned around and began to head back to the cottage when the man called out. “Wait. I can’t let you go.”
The man crossed the road and joined him. The bearded man knelt while placing a hand on Eamon’s shoulder. “Son, I can’t let you keep livin’ like this. Your brother would want me to do something.”
Eamon took a deep breath, and his voice warbled in fear. “A… a… are you Death, ser? Have you come for me?”
The bearded man’s eyes watered as he shook his head. “Quite the opposite. I’m here to save you.”
Eamon swallowed the lump in his throat and didn’t know what to say.
“What if I were to offer you a new life, laddie? You will never have to worry about food or hard work. Most importantly, we will do important things and make those who killed your family and kin pay. ‘Wot do you say?”
The man’s hand dropped from his shoulder, and his eyes widened. “No?”
“No.” Eamon was firm. “I can’t leave my father. We only have each other. I’d rather you kill me than leave him alone.”
For a moment, neither spoke.
The wind was biting, and despite the extra layer, Eamon had a chill.
Tears welled, flowed down the stranger’s cheeks, and were lost in the thick beard. “Aye, lad. Things have changed, so why not add another cog to the wheel? Your father must approve, and you’re both welcome to join me. Let’s go talk with him.”
The bearded man and Eamon trod down the path. “What’s your father’s name, son?”
“Pádraig O’Neil, ser.” After a moment, Eamon asked, “may I ask your name?”
“You can call me Hamish. No more calling me, sir. We’re workin’ men.” A calloused hand patted his shoulder. “I’m going to take care of you and your father. You’ll be seein’ the world’s best doctors and a nutritionist to get you healthy again. If you’re half the man Banner was, things will work out fine.”
Eamon thought the man spent too much time outside without a hat, but anything was better than waiting to die. A glimmer of hope shone on the Irish youth for the first time in his hard life, but one question kept rolling around in his mind.
What’s a nutritionist?