HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Purple Shillings

Fifteen Silver Shillings

1842, Aughnacloy

Fifteen silver shillings, that is the price. The mill overseer counts them into McCann’s hand, bright from the mint. New coins for the dead.
“You’re lucky,” says the overseer. “They pay only twelve up at Dunbar’s.”
The dead child’s age will go down in the book as ten; this is a lie.
In the scutching room, the men at the flax rollers are coughing and feeding, feeding and coughing. Wooden blades whick up and down. McCann sits at his berth and gathers the retted stems from his load and the other men do not raise their eyes to his. Beneath the blades and the pump of the shaft, there is the groaning of the great wheel turning. The coins weigh heavy in his pocket.

The dead child has been washed of dust from the flaxmill and laid out on the table. A cloth covers the worst of the wheel’s damage. McCann brings a stool to the child’s side.
When she comes in from the bleaching fields, McCann’s wife holds out a reddened palm.
“John,” she says, when he does not move. “Where is it?”
“I threw it away.”
“Away where?”
“In the river.”
She strikes him then, hard across the mouth. McCann raises his forearms over his face. His lip is cut; he tongues blood from it. When he lowers his arms, she is gone.
In the corner, the living child stirs the fire and is silent.

He finds her wet to her skirts in the river, searching. In turned-up sleeves he wades in alongside her. The water is winter-cold.
Together, they retrieve nine of the shillings. In the dark, on his knees, he wrings out her heavy skirts. He can feel her shiver against him.
She holds his elbow back across the Mulcahy fields, to where the fire from their own cabin shows like a light at sea.
“We will name the next one John,” she says. Upstream, unseen, the millwheel grinds on.

Ríona Judge McCormack has spent eight years working in various fields of international development – human rights, peace, HIV/AIDS and public policy – in Ireland, Cambodia and South Africa. She is currently short listed for a 2016 Hennessey Literary Award, and has in 2015 been short listed for the Bristol Prize, the Francis McManus Short Story Award, the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize and both the Fish International Short Story and Flash Fiction Prizes.
Her fiction and non-fiction has been published or is forthcoming in the Bristol Prize Anthology, New Irish Writing, the Irish Times, Southword, F(r)iction Series, and on the Irish national broadcaster RTE Radio One. She currently lives in Johannesburg, where she is quarrelling with her first novel.

Twitter: @rionajmcTwitter: @rionajmc
Website: rionajmc.blogspot.com