THE LEGEND OF THE ALBINO FARM
On the northern border of Springfield, Missouri, there once was a great house surrounded by emerald woods, lake, and meadow, a home place and farm that, to the lasting sorrow of its owners and heirs, acquired a nonsensical legend marring all memory of its glory days. The estate became known and is still known, if it is remembered at all, as the Albino Farm.
The legend, which began to circulate in town just after the Second World War, had no basis in anything like the truth. Albinos did not live on the farm. Never had. They certainly were never tortured there. No one ever was. And who in their right mind would hire an albino for a caretaker? A vast Irish Catholic family, the Sheehys, farmed on 330 acres and lived there in that thirteen-room mansion across the highway from Green Hills Cemetery. If they seemed pale, it was in the winter months. They were, even the women, strikingly tall, all with long faces. Aloof. Better than the rest of Springfield. And strange.
It was Hettienne that the Sheehys worried most about. The young girl had been vigorous, giddy, with fine and flowing blonde hair, and a penchant for any game that involved running and screaming. But when she turned thirteen, she suffered episodes of catatonia, somnambulism, and jags of mystifying talk. Lost in these fits, Hettienne saw what was coming for her family—a chaos, a curse, the legend that would haunt her for the rest of her life.
On the train with her parents in 1946, traveling down from Chicago for their annual summer visit to the Old Sheehy Place, she fretted. Beneath the tan sunlight lancing through the narrow windows, something was breaking open, she could sense it, like the rupture of peeling skin beneath which shone startling white flesh. This trip her legs cramped against tabletops. When she extended them, they jutted like two monstrous icicles.
As the dining car banged across trestles above the sparkling Osage River, a woman tottered around her with newspapers rolled under each arm and steaming coffee sloshing.
“Sit up straight,” her father whispered. “Hettienne …” John Sheehy paused and gave the apologetic traveler the flat hint of a smile, his lips tight as a stitch. “Hettienne,” he resumed once the woman passed, “you may very well be the Last Sheehy.”
* * *
Simon Sheehy ran the farm and household. And, sticking with tradition, all of Simon’s nine nieces and nephews—eight Ormonds and the one Sheehy child, Hettienne—returned to the thirteen-room sprawl of the farmhouse every summer. Maybe the trip exhausted her. But on the Feast Day of Saint Maelmuire O’Gorman, amid preparations for fireworks at the lake and plates of food streaming from the kitchen, Hettienne lost all connection with the joy and bustle around her. At dinner, her eyes capsized into a void. She stared so long at Cousin Lilliana Ormond that the toddler plunked her cornbread into her milk bowl, pointed, then wailed. When Hettienne did not relent, the toddler grew hysterical. The rest of the dinner table hushed. Bolting up like flushed quail, Agnes, Margaret, and Helen, the three spinster Sheehy aunts, murmured urgently.
Simon stepped behind Hettienne and placed both of his broad, knotted hands on her shoulders. All stilled along the dining table, down to the least Ormond cousin. “All of you up! Help Agnes clear,” Simon said. “Dinner has ended. Children are excused.”
Wide-eyed, they cleared, aunts whispering sharp instructions, frantic cousins slipping away to hide and watch. At last it was just Simon, her uncle James, and her father and mother there with Hettienne, the alarmed adults standing, the teen seated. How small her mother, Charlotte, seemed, dwarfed by redheaded Sheehy men. Behind them, casement windows flooded the dining hall with a green, swirling light.
“Child,” said Simon, “tell me that you know where you are.”
The whole dining hall, often gloomy as if its high ceiling were swallowed in a fog, glowed. Then all became a dazzling white, and she heard herself droning low: “Up the Airy Mountain, down the Rushy Glen, / We daren’t go a-huntin’ for fear of little men.”
At the table, decorated with its red, white, and blue tablecloth, for a long time the only sound was the simmering hiss of the wind passing through three willows that sheltered the house.
“Sídhe,” Simon whispered. “You have taught her the old legends, John?” he asked, his voice hinting at approval, one hand now stroking the poor girl’s head. Blonde, straight hair, from her mother, the first Sheehy ever to carry such a head of hair.
“I don’t know what she means. It’s 1946. I’m not trying to make her more Irish.”
Simon frowned. “She’s read the poem somewhere, then?”
“She’s a very popular girl at Our Lady of the Angels,” her mother inserted. “No time for silly, blaspheming books. Tell your uncle, Hettienne.”
When Hettienne did not answer, her father stepped forward and held a hand out to her. She took it and rose from her chair. “She has been speaking in rhymes lately. Losing her concentration. Daydreaming.” Turning, he pointed at her mother. “Once we are back in Chicago, Mother will get her to a doctor.”