Hunger by Laura McKendrick

This weekend I am honoured to be able to share a beautifully-written short story by a fellow romance author, Laura McKendrick, who also writes under the name of Eilidh Lawrence.

Author bio

I am an aspiring romance author, songwriter and contributor to the Pink Heart Society (PHS) e-zine. I was a co-founder of #UKRomChat, a weekly live Twitter chat for romance writers, and co-hosted the chat for its first year. In 2018 I finalled in the TARA and WisRWA Fab Five romance writing contests. I’m a former prosecutor and hold a Diploma in Forensic Medical Sciences, but, no, I would not rather be writing crime! I’m all about happy-ever-afters.

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She recently entered the (UK) Woman’s Weekly Fiction Short Story Competition, which was co-sponsored by Mills and Boon and she was one of the runners up with her story, Hunger. I loved it and wanted to share it with you.

Hunger by Laura McKendrick

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Image by Alan Poulson Photography

The Oregon Trail, near Fort Hall, Idaho, 1849

“Your cooking smells of home.”

The unfamiliar voice drew Órlaith’s attention from the pot where she stewed elk over an open fire. It took a moment for her to realise the man had spoken in Gaedhilge. Shadows danced across his gaunt face. A face she didn’t know.

“I’m Liam.” He bent closer, offering his hand. “From Donegal.” His fingers were long, his grip firm. His dark hair contrasted with his pale skin.

“You’ve the charm of an Irishman, to be sure,” she replied in English. They were in America now. “But we both know half the women in this camp are stewing game tonight. It was a good day for the hunting.”

He laughed, a sound she didn’t hear so much these days.

“Well, there’s none cooking it as well as you.”

A charmer indeed.

She returned her focus to the stew. The scent of wild garlic mingled with the ever-present woody, smoky smell that had clung to her hair and dust-coated clothes for months now.

“It really does smell good.” He hesitated. “Can I buy some?”

She studied him. “I’ve not seen you before.”

“No. We joined you today. My boy was exhausted. We rested, the two of us. Our party went on.” He shrugged. “That’s how it goes.”

“Your boy?” There were so many children on this wretched journey. “How old is he?”

“Danny’s but four years.”

“You both must eat with us. As our guests. No charge.”

“Us?”

“My brother Ruaidhrí and I.” She paused. “We’re all that’s left that were still in Ireland. And there’s my babby, Hope. She’s asleep.” Órlaith nodded towards their canvas-covered prairie schooner. The wagon was the closest thing to home little Hope had experienced so far in her hard, infant life.

“I’m sorry.” A respectful silence hung in the air. The clicking of the cicadas seemed clearer. Then he smiled. “Hope’s a pretty name.”

“Will you sit?” she invited, and he did. “I always wanted a baby girl called Caoimhe. But then I had Hope on the crossing. A babby born on the Western Ocean. Who would’ve thought? We were bound for America. Caoimhe seemed too…”

“Irish.”

A moment of understanding passed between them.

“Yes.”

“And what do they call you?”

“Órlaith.”

“Was it The Hunger took your people, Órlaith?”

“Disease.”

The fire crackled.

“I see.” A horse whinnied, and he turned towards the sound. When his face returned to Órlaith, she saw sincerity etched across his strong features. “My Nancy, she made it through the workhouse. Made it through near-starvation. Made it through the crossing. But she didn’t make it beyond Boston.” A single shake of his head conveyed loss and disbelief. “Cholera. Little Molly too. Buried three thousand miles from home.”

He did see.

“We none of us would’ve expected this, when we were young. This loss.” She picked up a stick and poked the fire. It sparked. “My sister and her husband left in ’44. Went to Oregon to farm. I could never leave, that’s what I thought then. But when my husband Ciarán and my parents died everything became so bleak. It didn’t seem like life would ever get better.”

A dark time. It wasn’t the smoke that caused tears to well in the corners of her eyes.

“There’s such misery in our country,” she continued, a catch in her throat. Their eyes met. Her pain was reflected in his. “That’s when Mary finally convinced us to come join them. My brother-in-law arranged it all. It was a good boat, at least. We were lucky.”

He looked away from her and tugged at the left cuff of his worn shirt. Had he not been on a good boat? She knew of the coffin ships and thanked God she hadn’t given birth in those squalid conditions.

From behind them, Ruaidhrí coughed. “I see you’ve met our new friend.”

She hadn’t noticed her brother’s return.

Ruaidhrí stepped from the edge of the fire’s light and slapped Liam on the back. He made friends easily, always had done.

“Well, I’ll get back to my boy.” Liam stood. “We’ll take you up on your dinner offer.” He glanced at Ruaidhrí. “If your brother doesn’t mind.”

Ruaidhri grinned. “The more the merrier.”

She was in dire need of merriment.

“You’re both very kind.” Liam lingered. “And Órlaith, perhaps later, I might have a dance?”

She looked at the Irishman, tall, not yet old, a survivor. But gentle too, and familiar. Like home. She smiled. “That’d be grand.”

The flames between them flickered and leapt.

 

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