The Portrait of Isabella Simmons
1924 Western Connemara, Ireland
The white linen twists, dancing with the southerly breeze, its repetitive flapping sounds comforting to her ears. Ever since turning twelve four years earlier, fear has taken control of her body, cowering each time she hears or sights her father. It was like he suddenly emerged in her life from a dark pit. As a child, he was often absent, working locally as a labourer; but then he stopped, and his days were spent in her home. Johanna soon discovered his nature and his moods.
This morning is no exception. Her hands tremble while holding the white pillow case between her fingers. The outline of the blood stain still visible in the morning sun from another beating her mother received at his cold and callous hands. The flapping of the sheets returns her attention to the clothes lines once more as she pegs the pillow case allowing it to join its comrades in a dance with the wind.
Raising her eyes to the blue sky dotted with only a few specs of white clouds, Johanna inhales the morning freshness. She loves her home, but not the man that rests within it. Her recent memories of her father are ones of fear. His body is large, a stocky man with thick arms and legs. His shouts are like howls to her ears. She would watch as her mother cowers under his commands.
Moving her gaze to her little home, a small cottage with a low roof and single chimney, Johanna focuses on the smoke rising upwards, caught in the morning breeze, disappearing and vanishing before her eyes. Her home is situated on a crest of a low hill facing a valley with mountains rising majestically behind it. Connemara is a place of beauty to her eyes, wild and free. At times, it can be lonely, not having her brother Tim with her anymore. They would joke and laugh when they shared their carefree moments as young children. Her brother ran from home three years earlier, joining a travelling repair man as he journeyed on the roads throughout the county. Tim is good with his hands and can create anything out of steel or iron. She blames her brother for abandoning her, leaving her alone with the monster.
It’s the space she enjoys the most about the wild hills of her homeland, freeing her from the confines and restrictive life inside. Two small sheds stand close by, encircled by a few low trees. This is all that her family has in its name. She longs for more, but what could she ever hope to achieve? Her life is destined to follow her mother and remain under the power of a man in this little house or one like it on the next hill. It is the way of life in the countryside unless you were born into money. Johanna once heard of a girl two years older than her who lived two miles away having been sent to work as a servant girl in a big house owned by a wealthy landlord near Galway city. It’s a possibility for her to achieve this, but she believes her father would never allow it, and she would never dare ask him. Hardly anyone visits her home on the hill; so who would know she even exists?
Reaching for the empty clothes basket, she catches a movement from the front door of the house. Her mother stumbles outwards, with dishevelled hair hanging loosely around her torn dress exposing her naked shoulders. Fear exudes from her eyes, wide, in a panic stricken face.
“Johanna, Johanna!” her mother calls as she attempts to run towards her. A harsh voice booms from within the house, inaudible, but its tone frightens her. Johanna drops the basket, running to her mother, clasping her in her arms.
“Run my child. Run! Get out of here!”
“Momma?” Johanna questions, unsure of what she should do. Fear rides within her, weakening her limbs.
“Johanna!” her name echoes from the front door of the house. “Get inside now!”
Panic pushes her forward towards the man at the door. Her mother grabs her arm.
“If you don’t run, you’ll become just like me. I can’t protect you anymore. Don’t let this happen! Please, my child!” her mother begs, her cheeks tear stained.
Pushed forward by the fear of her father’s call, Johanna moves to the door and follows her father inside. The door slams shut darkening the little kitchen. She screams within her caged body for her mother’s help. She hits the floor from her father’s strike. Her jaw sends pain through her head. Strong hands encircle her body, turning her over onto the stone floor. The heat of the nearby open fire flushes her face. His hands unzip her dress, tearing it open and exposing her back to his rough touch. The blue sky speckled with puffy white clouds fills her vision. The fresh air ignites her lungs and the hills spread out before her onto the valley below. Freedom is before her. The vision disperses and her eyes rest on the low wooden beams of the kitchen ceiling unaware he has turned her body over to face him as he pulls her close exposing her breasts to his wild eyes.
A voice within her awakens. Unsure of what it is, the urge to resist rises up. His body is heavy and his arms are strong. Reaching out in the low kitchen light, her hand falls on the poker placed in the hearth of the fire. If she allows her father to do this, she will become no different than her mother, and Johanna knows her life will never be hers to enjoy. With all her strength, she lifts the poker from its place and shoves it into her father’s open mouth ready to enjoy the pleasure of her body. The sound he emits terrifies her and she strikes again with her weapon against his right eye, knocking his body onto the floor next to her, howling in agony and cursing her with all the sinful words he knows of.
She crawls to her feet, her eyes fixed on his withering body. Power surges through her body at the sight before her. Her limbs turn to action, and using both her hands, she lays the blows fixed and steady onto his head, neck and upper body. With only one eye, his arms flail around awkwardly protecting his body. Anger explodes through her arms with unknown strength as she strikes down onto his neck, the end of the poker tearing the skin. Her blows continue fast and heavy without realising that his terrifying howls have fallen silent. She stands breathlessly in her underwear, staring at the lifeless body. A scream escapes her lips, releasing the build of emotion as she collapses to her knees. The kitchen door opens, illuminating the room once more with her mother standing in the doorway. Her mother’s arms wrap around Johanna’s trembling body having lost all strength in her limbs; she cradles the touch.
“Don’t you worry my child. This isn’t wrong. You had to do this and now you’re free,” her mother reassures her, taking Johanna’s face in her hands. “Listen to me. Now you must leave. You must go from here. No one can ever know what you did. Do you hear me? No one must ever know of this! I can protect you from this incident, but can offer you no more.”
“Momma,” Johanna whimpers. “Where will I go?”
“Away from here my child. Head east for the city of Galway, there you’ll find work. I’ll give you plenty of food. Stay off the main roads and hide if you feel in danger. It will be a long walk, but you’ll get there.”
Johanna embraces her mother, at a loss of what will become of her.
Following three days of walking in a direction Johanna believes is east, having listened intensively as she could to her mother’s instructions on following the daily journey of the sun as it crosses the sky to the position of the night stars, she believes she is lost. Most nights she could not see the stars hidden under thick menacing clouds. But with the darkness, she never feels afraid. It empowers her to be ready for the unknown. Johanna has no idea how many days walk it will be to the city of Galway.
Her legs are tired, and after spending some time staring into her satchel, Johanna also believes she is eating too much food and will not have enough for the journey. The warm tears soak her cheeks, dripping into the bag. An unknown emotion overwhelms her, spreading through her body dropping her temperature. With trembling hands, she wipes the tears that almost don’t stop, only to be followed by deep reaching sobs from within her body. Terrible sorrow fused with fear rides her body almost making her sick. The outburst has surprised her, but she believes it’s to do with where she finds herself now. She is alone. She can rely on no one. She only has herself to take care of. She must be strong if she is to survive and make a new start in Galway. There can be no room for fear. Fear will make her weak.
Standing, Johanna pats down her clothes and fixes her hair. Wiping away the final remnants of tears, she stands firm. She must be strong. Picking up her satchel, Johanna remembers spotting a village a short distance back and decides she will journey to it early in the morning to see if there is an opportunity to secure more food for her journey to Galway. Stretching her legs, she rubs the soles of her feet. Can she steal food? It’s something she never had to think about before. She always had food in her little home on the hill top, but she no longer lives within that protection. Perhaps this is the price she must pay for the sin she has committed. She questions if her mother knew the food would not last, but believes she is protecting her by sending her on this journey. Tiredness soon creeps over her body and the night sky turns to darkness.
The coolness of the early May morning raises her early. The sun has started its climb into the sky for a new day. After eating a small portion of stale bread, she retraces her steps to the little village she had spied the previous day. The morning sun has soared upwards in the sky when she arrives at the village with a central market place bustling with people going about their business. The smell of pigs and cattle for sale overpowers her senses, but through the odour wafts, the sweet scent of fresh bread draws her like a magnet into the middle of the market to find the enticing stalls of food, ignoring the words of caution to remain out of sight.
She stops an elderly man standing by a donkey and asks him if she is near Galway city. His response through the cigarette hanging from his lips is enough to tell her she is not anywhere near her destination, but he mumbles the words that she is in the village of Oughterard.
Moving forward, she reaches the stalls of food, the selection of bread stuns her. She has never seen so many types and sizes. Hunger drives her to eat, but Johanna is unsure. Conflicts roll around in her thoughts. She edges closer almost touching the bread. She spends some moments studying the stall keeper and his distraction with customers. She reaches for a loaf of soda bread, while at the same time, a hand grips her shoulder, causing her to jump and drop the loaf.
“What is this?” the stall keeper, having noticed the scene, steps closer.
Unable to move, Johanna eyes the stall keeper who places his eyes on the person holding her by the shoulder.
“Here,” the man’s voice booms behind her, throwing a coin onto the stall for the keeper. The keeper grunts, picks it up and returns to his other customers.
“Take your bread,” the man instructs, releasing her shoulder and standing to her side. He is a bulky man, tall and strong like her father. She reaches for the bread.
“Thank you,” she replies not removing her eyes from his.
“Where are you from?”
“From the west.”
Johanna remains silent, not sure if she should tell the stranger.
“You can call me Mr. Kavanagh. I’m the land steward for the noble man, Mr. Richard Belfort, owner of Harrington Estate. It’s your lucky day as I’ve been sent to find a new recruit to work in the kitchens of Harrington House. You’ll get a small allowance, have a place to sleep and all the food you’ll want. What do you say?”
Johanna is unsure and casts her eyes around her, but only sees the blur of people overshadowed by the noise of the busy market. “Where do you live?”
“I live east of here, near Moycullen. Look over there, you can see my carriage and coach man.”
Peering through the crowds, her eyes rest on the black coach driven by two horses. One horse is black with speckled grey coat, and the other is a chestnut colour. On top sits the driver.
“I don’t usually mix in places like these, but it’s also a good spot to find help when I need it, and the last time the coach man did the job, the girl he hired was useless, but I’m willing to give you a trial run. You have spirit in you, wild it might be, but it can be tamed, that I am sure. It will be a challenge for old Mrs. Horan, head of the kitchens. What do you say girl?”
“Is Moycullen near Galway city?”
“It’s on the way to Galway for sure. Come girl.”
Johanna nods and follows Mr. Kavanagh to the coach.