Brian O’Sullivan’s parents were born in County Cork but met in the Bronx, and Brian was born in Queens, New York. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Temple University and is Associate Professor and Chair of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. During lockdown he rekindled his interest in creative writing. He’s been published in One Art: A Journal of Poetry, Every Day Fiction, and The Ekphrastic Review.
An Honest Weapon
By Brian O’Sullivan
“Cockles! Muss—els! Alive, a-li…”
“Someone shut the old crone up,” ordered Sebastian Greene.
Molly Murphy, craggily grinning through the hoary wisps that fell over her parchment face, had heard such commands before. She was not entirely original either; she had been hawking her wares, in her tinny voice, with the words of the old song, as she’d done almost every day for forty years up to this summer of 1894. She knew there were those who called her Molly Malone, as if she herself had inspired Dublin’s anthem a hundred years ago.
And why not? Molly Murphy had seemed eternal, if only because of a stubborn refusal to die. She had survived the Bad Times (though she nearly starved) even before coming to Bantry; and since then, she’d survived typhoid, beatings and constant contempt. She had seen English strangers come and go. She was not impressed that the good Inspector Greene of Scotland Yard had travelled so far to supervise a Royal Irish Constabulary raid on the Bantry fish market. She would go about her business.
And Molly was not alone in holding to routine. As usual, the sun’s morning rays danced on the seafood and the metal surfaces, and the gulls circled and cawed. Sailors carried unused vat-like tins of salmon from an American ship to a shed near Molly’s stall. And, in his adjacent stall, Big Mick Hurley brought his cleaver down on a row of gleaming mackerel, neatly slicing off their heads, barely troubling himself to look up and squint at Greene’s men as they rushed towards him.
“Put down the cleaver and step back!” Greene shouted.
Hurley lowered his blade but did not release it. “Has Parliament now banned the murder of mackerel?,” he asked. He spat. “I’ve little time for politics, but if England is going to get between a Bantry man and his fish…”
Greene raised his weapon, pointed it at Hurley. “We’ll just see if you’ve had so little time for politics…and if the fish you’re exporting to England are poisoned, we will get in the way. Of that you can be sure.” Greene knew he sometimes sounded like an evil landlord in a melodrama performed by the Fay brothers’ touring company. But nuance was not the thing here—you had to give the locals the voice of authority, just precisely in the way they expected.
“Poisoned?” Hurley half-whispered in wonderment.
Two of the constables were already behind the astonished Hurley, grabbing his arms, but the hulking fishmonger shrugged them off and raised his cleaver. Greene raised his weapon.
“No!” shouted Molly, who had until now been watching calmly and even almost bemusedly. She looked at Hurley with an exasperated fondness, and then, beseechingly, she turned her eyes to Greene. “That old fool Hurley would never…”
Greene fired, Hurley went down—and Molly was on Greene like a demon, shouting, “No! Not him! He’s not…!” She had grabbed a tin opener—a grand metal claw with a nasty cutting wheel—from her table, and she struck a glancing blow on Greene’s shoulder before the RIC dragged her away. “Hold her for questioning,” Greene said grimly.
A few minutes later, Greene walked calmly into the dusty, smokey back room where Molly waited alone, shackled to a chair. “Well, m’dear,” he said, “that was quite a performance. I’d say it could have been toned down a wee bit, though.” He crudely mimicked an Irish accent as he touched his smarting shoulder lightly.
“You deserved worse,” Molly said. “I told you the big idjit knew nothing of conspiracies. All he cared for was fish and money.” A single tear betrayed her real feelings. Idjit though he may have been, Hurley had worked alongside Molly for a long time. She had come to rely on him, like she relied on the sea and the moon.
“Yes, you said he was innocent,” Greene replied drily, speaking down his nose, with his hands clasped behind his back. “But you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, name the real conspirators, so your testimony for Hurley carried no weight. Besides, did you think I’d let him cut my men’s heads off?”
“’Twould have been no surprise—’tis little enough regard for life you strangers hold.”
Greene chuckled. “Funny how you Irish call us strangers. We’re united, after all. And I’m as ‘green’ as they come.”
Molly spat and cried “Ireland for the Irish!” The words came of their own accord, like a reflex, but they rang hollow in her hears. She had betrayed the cause.
“Come now,” Greene said, sneering. “You’ve done a great service to the Crown. Your tip is holding up; our chemists are already testing the fish and finding signs of contamination. I was surprised to hear from you, though; you’re known to be sympathetic to these Fenian dynamiters who’d rather blow themselves up than bow to the Queen. Maybe you’re too doddering to know the difference between the right side and the wrong. But even a dried-up old bird will sing for seed, I suppose.” He dropped a sack at her feet.
Molly raised her head and sat as straight as her shackles would allow. “Your filthy pounds are no part of the reason I came to you,” she said, “I did it because food is no natural weapon. In An Droch Shaol–the Bad Times–the potatoes themselves were turned against us. Your kind wanted us to starve. What I had to do to stay alive…but then I began to make a living from the sea. And I won’t now let that bounty be turned to sickness.
“And this—this ‘virus’—it would have been worse than the potatoes. I have heard that it would spread from them that ate the fish to them that hadn’t, making a plague far beyond the typhoid. That’s a fearsome weapon, yet a low, sneaking one–not like dynamite. Dynamite’s honest; loud and bright, it declares itself for freedom.”
Greene arched his eyebrows and frowned. “By God, woman, make up your mind; are you a fishwife, a poet, or a damnable traitor? Your words are pretty, but weapons aren’t measured by honesty.” He paused and thought of his service in the Belgian Congo. It was ugly, but…the point of a weapon is not to be honest, but to be efficient.
These uncivilized folk, he had always believed, would never understand the value of efficiency—but in his deepest heart, he half admired the attempted efficiency and the sheer audacity of whoever had almost started an English plague out of an Irish fish market in the middle of nowhere. It was a weapon far ahead of its time. But he would not tell Molly that. There was no sense encouraging the rabble. “If you weren’t half-mad and wholly feeble, I wouldn’t let your treasonous ode to dynamite pass. In fact….” He drew her tin opener from behind his back and tapped it in his palm.
He paused. “Why did you have this, anyway? Don’t tell me you’ve been hawking tinned shellfish as “alive!’ And you talk of ‘honesty’!” His full but neatly trimmed whiskers jiggled with laughter, and he shrugged. “It’s a strange play we’re in, isn’t it? But we are all merely players, and we must do our part. No one will believe that I let some ordinary fishwife attack me with no consequences. Best get on with it. I hope your own weapon will be ‘honest’ enough for you.”
Later, after Greene unshackled her and left, Molly picked up the bloody tin opener and the sack. She walked to the shed and unlocked the door. She dumped out Greene’s money, letting it mix with the dirt and oil and fish scales on the floor. Into the sack she placed a single salmon tin, with the opener.
She walked out of the market, dropping a green handkerchief in a certain empty wastebasket on the way out. Her allies—the rogue Irish Republican Brotherhood cell who had poisoned Hurley’s fish–would notice this signal soon, and they would go to the shed and find what she had left them. They would know what to do. But they would also know that she had tipped off Greene about the fish. No matter what she had procured for them, they would never forgive her. They were stalwart men, these last true IRB warriors; they had held fast to the cause of freedom when others had been broken. Trickles of support from the American Fenians had kept them going, and Molly had used her seagoing connections to help them with their scheming and struggling. But the men were desperate, and they were young; they hadn’t lived through An Droch Shaol, and they didn’t understand the sacredness of food. When they came to her talking of this “virus” and of making weapons out of fish, she knew she would have to stop them, though her treachery would weigh on her soul.
In the face of all the day had seen, the night was stubbornly serene, clear and moonlit. Molly carefully stuck to the shadows. It was a short walk to the police station, where she concealed herself in bushes.
Across the square, she saw a woman catching men’s eyes near the door of the hotel. Daring she was, to be flaunting her wares so near the police—though the police cared but little about how the Irish might use each other, as long as they bent the knee to the English. Watching the woman, Molly thought again of her own youth and of how she had survived the bad times. She wished she had brought some of Greene’s money to share. But she had brought what she needed.
She sliced into a tin with the opener, marveling again at this invention; she remembered when this job took a hammer and chisel. And dynamite was even newer than the tin opener. Progress could be good, when it wasn’t making a plague of fish.
She carefully pried the lid off the tin to reveal the red sticks and serpentine wires. She chuckled. Her navy friends had brought these cans in right under Greene’s nose, so distracted was he by the fishy quest on which she’d set him. “An honest weapon, indeed,” she whispered to herself. Yes, she was shifting around in the shadows now, but soon the other cans, and Greene’s money with them, would be travelling around Ireland—and England too—to strike brilliant blows for freedom. Unless the police stopped them. Plans were feeble things. But in another generation, she knew in her creaking bones, the whole nation would rise, and England would tremble. And Molly would have done her wee part. May Christ, by Mary’s intercession, have mercy on her soul.
She glanced up to see candlelight from a window where she knew Greene would be working. He was near enough. She hadn’t thought to be putting such personal use to part of the shipment, but now Hurley, fool though he’d been, needed avenging.
And as she pictured Hurley now—throwing a fish head to one of the cats who roamed the market, taking the piss out of the fishermen, living his simple and unpolitical life—she thought perhaps he was not such a fool after all. But for her, no more than for him, there was no going back to that now.
She deeply inhaled the salty air, sighed to the moon, lit the fuse, and sang softly to herself:
Selling cockles, and mussels,
‘Twas a life, a life, oh!