THE LAST SHEEHY
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.
Hettienne Sheehy marked that summer of 1946 on The Old Sheehy Place with unfamiliar anxiety. All her summer visits here had been golden, and this one especially should be—she was thirteen, a World War had just ended in victory, all her uncles and aunts and cousins were quarrelsome and safe on the farm. Yet beneath the tan sunlight lancing through wide-flung windows, something was breaking open, she could feel it, like the rupture of peeling skin beneath which shined startling, white flesh.
At the oak table in the library, the three Sheehy brothers hung on every bit of news Hettienne’s father released about the closing of the Office of Price Administration and what that could mean for wheat and oats. Uncle Simon, Uncle James, and her father, John, were so tall their chairs and tumblers appeared miniaturized. The three brothers seemed carved of the same tree. Their blocky hands overflowed their knees. When resting, their small mouths perched in sated but flat smiles on their square faces, which were all three topped with full, reddish-brown hair. Hettienne imagined them as rough children Picasso might have painted in cubes and earth tones. Fashioning them in that Spaniard’s brute light brought something of Chicago here to the Ozarks and calmed her.
On this summer stay at The Old Sheehy Place it was becoming obvious how she was the only child to bear the last name Sheehy. Those men scheming at the table, the acres of forest, lakes, and fields of wheat and oats, even the storied glory of Emerald Park tacked a kind of claiming tag on her. It might be that the joyous sprint of her childhood was nearing its end. On the train down from Chicago, her mother had used the term “young lady” so frequently that even her father had rolled his eyes.
The heart-shaped face of cousin Johanna Ormond loomed toward her now with urgency. Seven of Auntie Kate Sheehy Ormond’s eight kids surrounded Hettienne on the library couch and grew loud and insistent. Waiting for supper, her Ormond cousins wanted a story told. They chiefly cajoled David Ormond, Hettienne’s favorite and the eldest.
“Nineteen ships blowed up by one bomb!” Hal held a finger up then spiraled it downward. “Spooky decks! Two sailors abandoned to fate! Tell that, David.”
“Flying Saucers!” Brent pounded his thighs with his fists.
Both David and Hettienne wondered why it was so often David Ormond asked to tell stories. He wasn’t particularly gifted at storytelling, and his Ozarks accent made even tear jerkers seem like comedy to Hettienne.
“Flying Saucers. Really?” Johanna grunted. “And who cares a red cent what Harry Truman blew up in The Middle of Nowhere Atoll?! I want a story with a Celtic princess. A castle besieged. A mysterious white knight from far off lands.” She reached out her freckled arms and round fingers. “Hettienne, tell a tale of olden days, please, please?” Johanna was a year older than Hettienne, and was never comfortable with the special attention and doting heaped on her Chicago cousin. Hettienne watched her closely.
On the big sofa in the midst of the library Hettienne had drawn her long legs up to her. Surrounded by her Ormond cousins, she seemed to David Ormond like a sparkling white vein of quartz embedded in dull, red chert. Now that she was thirteen, though, something strange was come over her. Those blue Sheehy eyes watched Cousin Johanna as if the Ormond girl were a foreigner. Instead of clasping Johanna’s hand and starting on a legend about castles of yore, Hettienne stretched out her thin fingers. In the mote-strewn sunlight of the library, they were a pearl’s white. She hovered at but did not touch Johanna’s palm with her fingertips, while her long face fell into a strange, slack-jawed gape David had seen on the faces of Aunts Agnes and Helen when they dozed. It was not the Sheehy family’s most pleasant aspect. On Hettienne’s normally poised face, the expression proved unsettling. Her silence continued until the Ormond siblings glanced at one another. Then Johanna, usually bullish, jerked her hand back as if it had met ice.
“Hettienne?” David whispered.
Her father, John, stood. The men at the table quietened.
Hettienne’s face lost its slackness at David’s voice. “It is…” But then she halted like a locked engine, an excruciating pause. John moved quickly to stand behind the sofa and be nearest his daughter. “Tell about Emerald Park, David,” she gasped at last, as if she had surfaced from deep under the lake. “How all Springfield loved to come. Everyone likes that olden day’s story. Please. Tell that, David.”
* * *
It was Hettienne that the Sheehy’s worried most about. The young girl had been vigorous, giddy, with fine and flowing blonde hair and symmetrical if very long proportions and a penchant for any game that involved running and screaming. But in her thirteenth summer she suddenly exhibited episodes of catatonia, somnambulism, and jags of mystifying talk. Lost in these fits, Hettienne saw what was coming for the family—a chaos, a curse, the legend that would haunt her for the rest of her life.
From the moment she stepped down from the train, it was clear to Aunt Helen and Cousin David that she had transformed. She had certainly experienced some of the Sheehy’s predictable growth spurt. But from the way she accepted the conductor’s hand, surveyed the North Town train station, signaled to and thanked the porters, then strode to Aunt Helen and David Ormond ahead of her mother and father, she seemed to have sidestepped awkwardness and retained an athletic poise. In her white and flawless skin, in the hint of muscle at her shoulders and forearms, in the sure movement of this stately girl both Cousin David and Aunt Helen could project a stunning, tall woman soon to be. How disturbing, then, that an outward grace would house such an inward turmoil.
Among the Sheehy’s, children had become a treasure not to be spent. Of four daughters of the family founder, Mike Sheehy, only Kate wed, early and verging on scandal and to an Ormond, a sheet metal worker and volunteer fireman. Adding insults to injuries, Kate’s marriage proved exasperatingly productive—nine live births, eight living children, all of them thoroughly Ormond’s. Of the three sons of the late Mike Sheehy, only John, Hettienne’s father, married. He promptly removed from Springfield, Missouri, to Chicago. But that union produced only one child, Hettienne, to keep the Sheehy name alive.
Once Old Mike died, Uncle Simon Sheehy ran the farm and household. Sticking with tradition, every one of Simon’s nine nieces and nephews returned to the twelve-room sprawl of the farmhouse at Emerald Park for the long summer visit.
But on the Eve of the Feast Day of Saint Maelmuire O’Gorman, the teen Hettienne lost all connection with the activities around her. Amidst preparations for fireworks at the lake and plates of food steaming from the kitchen, she froze stock still like a rambler who has mistaken a shadow for a serpent.
Then at dinner, her eyes capsized into a void. She stared so long in torpor 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 aunts, murmured urgently.
Simon stepped behind Hettienne and placed both of his broad, knotted hands on her shoulders. Everyone halted. “All of you, help Agnes clear,” Simon said firmly. “Dinner has ended. Children are excused.”
Wide-eyed, they cleared rapidly, aunts whispering sharp instructions. At last it was just Uncle Simon, Uncle James, and her father and mother with Hettienne. Tears of embarrassment streamed down her cheeks, silvered droplets wetting her white-collared blouse so her pale flesh now showed there in oval washes. She made no move to wipe her tears, but stared straight forward at the empty tablecloth.
“Child,” said Simon, “tell me that you know where you are.”
Hettienne swallowed. So much was expected of her all the time. She looked at her Uncle Simon coldly. Then, still with a trace of that daze, she droned like a sleepy young man reciting at the schoolhouse: “Up the Aerie Mountain, down the shady glen, / We daren’t go a’huntin’ for fear of opal men.”
At the long cherry wood table decorated with its red, white, and blue table cloth, for a long time the only sound was the simmering hiss of the wind passing through the wands and leaves of the 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 has read that 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. Day dreaming.” Turning, he pointed at her mother. “Once we are back in Chicago, Mother will get her to a doctor.”