All Alynn could see of him was a little bare foot. The rest was hidden in a fort he’d built, the perfect size for a five-year-old. Alynn waited for him to crawl out of his fort and smile at her, his hair tousled and his freckled cheeks red. But he never stirred.
Alynn’s heart skipped a beat. She crawled into the fort, ignoring the twigs that scratched her face. “Tarin!”
She shook his shoulder, and finally, he opened his eyes and stretched. “Look, Lynder!” he said. “I went campin’! Is it mornin’ yet?”
Alynn laughed. She held Tarin in her arms and kissed him and brushed the leaves out of his hair. “Was that a nap you were takin’?”
“It was. Buildin’ a fort is hard work.”
Alynn squeezed Tarin. She wished she could stay in his fort forever, with Tarin in her lap, feeling his tiny fingers stretch out a curl of her hair and hear his giggle as it bounced back. Instead, she put the memory inside her where time could not reach it, and she crawled carefully out of the fort.
When they got home, Alynn undressed Tarin and dried him and put him in his spare tunic, then took care of her own dripping clothes. She was just about to finish making that evening’s soup when the door burst open, and Rowan took Alynn and Tarin into his wiry arms.
“Tarin McNeil, don’t you dare run away like that again,” Rowan scolded, giving Tarin a slap on the rear. “Do you realize how much trouble you’ve caused?”
“I just wanted to go campin’,” Tarin said, his eyes as round as a puppy’s. “We haven’t moved in a long time. Is that normal?”
Rowan was silent for a while. He buried his face in Tarin’s hair and mussed it with his hands. “It should be.”
Alynn’s stomach gurgled with hunger, and she realized she hadn’t put the soup on. As much as she hated to, she left the wonderful group hug to fetch some water. Tarin was sure to be hungry after building his fort.
For a while, everything was alright. Rowan didn’t go back to work that evening. He stayed and told a tale of the legendary hero Cu Culain. He even asked Tarin to fetch his dusty timpan from its trunk. When he began to play, even the stars grew silent to listen. He played jigs and reels and songs that Alynn’s mother had written, and she fell asleep to the sound of a love song.
Alynn awoke to silence the next morning. The air was frigid. The fireplace had died down to embers, and Alynn poked it and blew on it and fed it with kindling until it was flaming gently. Then, she left to fetch the water Rowan had forgotten.
When she stepped outside, a light mist was falling, and she heard noises. It almost sounded like a brawl. She ran to the side of the house to see Rowan near the forest, driving his bleeding fists into an aspen tree.
Nothing good ever happened when Rowan punched trees.
Alynn almost didn’t want to venture over and ask what had happened, but she seemed caught up in a strange force that did it for her. Her voice came out in a squeak, hardly audible.
Rowan gave the aspen one more mighty swing before he turned to her. His eyes were absent and tortured, as if his soul was being dragged towards hell and his body hadn’t quite caught up with it yet. He fell to the ground, his knees pulled up to his chest. Alynn knelt awkwardly beside him.
“Lynder, we’re movin’ again.”
Alynn opened her mouth and shut it again. She tried to hug Rowan, but he stood up and took another angry swing at the aspen.
“I lost my job.” He swore and kicked the tree, then gave it a left hook that left a smear of blood on the white bark. “I left the gate open. The horses got out.” He swore and punched the aspen once more. Alynn wondered if he was crying. “Go pack yer things. We’ll be evicted if we stay past noon.”
Rowan squared his shoulders and went back to the hovel, leaving Alynn shivering at the forest’s edge. Moving. Again. To another house that had fallen into disrepair, most likely, to another church with more people. Different people. Strange people Alynn had never seen before, who wouldn’t bother to learn her name or whom she ‘belonged to.’
And Fiona. She’d be leaving Fiona, the first friend she’d made since Limerick City. Fiona was more like a sister than a friend. She’d always been there, always smiling, always bringing Alynn’s mind from her list of undone chores to a world of light and goodness.
Alynn wrapped the dishes in blankets and packed them in one trunk. Rowan’s timpan and Monika the rag doll went in the other trunk, along with their changes of clothes. Alynn finished in an hour, then asked Rowan if she could tell Fiona good-bye.
Alynn didn’t get more than two steps into the O’Shaugnessy’s spinnery when she realized she wouldn’t be able to do much speaking. She looked at Fiona and began to cry.
“What’s the matter, Alynn?”
Alynn expected a blizzard of sentences to follow, but there was only silence. Fiona was listening.
Taking a deep breath, Alynn was able to blurt out, “Father lost his job and we’re moving again and this is why I don’t make friends ever, because we always move and I can’t take you with me….”
Fiona was silent as she stood up from her spinning wheel and hugged Alynn. “Don’t worry,” she said. “The next town is close. Maybe we can visit!”
Alynn shook her head. “We won’t stay there for long. We always move.”
A scab-covered hand rested on her shoulder, and she jumped. Rowan stood behind her. She hadn’t heard him come in. “We’ll stop someday,” he promised her. “You’ll have friends again, dear heart. On my word.”
Lies. Tears pricked Alynn’s eyes again. It was all lies. They’d never stop moving.
Colum O’Shaughnessy stood from his spindle in the corner, and Kiva quickly stepped out the door. “We’ll miss yer children,” he said. “They’re hard workers, both of them. You’re a blessed man, Mr. Rowan.”
“What are you talkin’ about?”
Alynn pressed her eyes shut. “I told you I worked here, Father.”
Although she couldn’t see Rowan’s face, she knew it was twisted into a question mark.“When? For how long?”
“Every mornin’ for three months!” Colum said. He shook his head. “I wish ye luck in yer next home. Pay attention to yer children, Mr. Rowan. Work’s always there. Children aren’t.”
Rowan’s hand took Alynn’s, and he thanked the O’Shaugnessys again for all they’d done for them. Then they left, a trunk on each of Rowan’s shoulders. They couldn’t afford a pack horse this time.
Just before they left the town, a voice shouted after them. Alynn turned to see Kiva O’Shaughnessy, running towards them with a cloth bundle.
“Here’s a housewarmin’ gift, dear,” she said, giving Alynn the bundle and the wonderful hug of a mother. “Godspeed.”
It wasn’t until the McNeils were in the tiny town of Shanagolden, as snug as possible in the shelter Rowan had built in the woods, that Alynn opened Kiva’s package. There was enough fabric for a new dress for herself and a pair of trousers for Tarin. There were cheeses and dried meats and three apples.
Alynn began to cry again when she saw the brand-new belt, just for her.
Families and friends might be left behind, she decided, but at least she'd always have their memory.
M. J. Piazza is a Jesus-loving, dog-walking country girl who just so happens to write books.