The Patron Saint of Fools

By Gabrielle Sing

It was a strange thing, to dig in a land where the skin-prickling sun and relentless dry wind had leeched all moisture from the earth, leaving an endless expanse of baked clay. Folk often said that you might as well call it quarrying and be done. They mostly hailed from the soft, wet, green isles of Home, the Queen’s dominion. Their skin: once pale, with the blotched, yellowish hue born of perpetual damp and malnourishment: burnt, peeled, freckled, peeled again and eventually turned hard and brown under the colonial sun. Ellen had never known the soggy green hills and closely clustered cottages of old men’s memories. She had been born and raised amidst the endless swathes of dusty brown and streaky green. Despite the sooty black curls and wide grey eyes inherited from her Welsh father and the fresh complexion of her Irish mother, Ellen was a child of summer storms, eucalypts, dusty winds and clear, star-jewelled nights.

To Ellen’s parents, who had known the apprentice’s long toil and the indentured servant’s thankless bondage, the promise of a land that yielded a crop of gold was an intoxicating one. Yet it was a fickle crop. To be sure, it would not blacken and die before your eyes, leaving you to starve or be scattered to the winds as Ellen’s mother and so many thousands of Irish waifs had been scattered. But neither could it be grown, tended, watched over and finally harvested. You simply had to dig. And hope. All sorts came in hope to the colony of New South Wales. The name always made Ellen’s father laugh, saying that he could not imagine a place less like Wales. But it was new, wonderfully new, so south they came in droves.

There were three types of people on the goldfields: those who left in shiningeyed glory carrying even bigger dreams than they had upon arrival; those who left in lean, hungry despair to face the choice between crime and poverty; and those who stayed, barely scraping by, ever hopeful. Those last, Ellen’s father always said, were the foolish ones, and he was one of them.

Dreams made men bold, and disappointment could make them wild. Ellen’s father drank to blot away the pain of his disappointment, however often it returned in the morning. Father O’Leary said that most people turned to some vice or other after enough time spent on this flat, seemingly interminable outreach of earth where neither hope, fear nor depravity had anywhere to hide. Father O’Leary was a kind man with sad blue eyes and a lilting Irish voice. He had none of the quick laughter and infectious energy of Ellen’s own father, but neither did he pour away his money and his good humour into a bottle. And Father O’Leary never grew tired of answering Ellen’s questions, however many and however odd he may have thought them.

‘Where is the East?’ she asked him one day when she was eleven years old. ‘Mam says that’s where the Chinamen come from, but where is it?’ And Father O’Leary had smiled and showed her one of his precious maps, which he kept folded away in a book written all in Latin. When Ellen pointed out that the great Empire of China wasn’t East, not at all, Father O’Leary reminded her that it might not be East of the colonies, but it would always be East of Home. ‘I’ve never been Home,’ she reminded him. ‘Can it still be Home if I’ve never been there?’
He opened his mouth as if to answer yes of course, but closed it again, thoughtful. ‘I think that’s left up to you, child.’

This made no sense, so Ellen ran off unconcerned to play with the dogs kept by the shearers who passed through the goldfields now and then. Ellen liked the shearers, and she liked their dogs even more. The men were gruff, but they weren’t given to such ecstasies of triumph and rages of bitter disappointment, as many of the diggers were. Theirs was a livelihood tended and renewed with the seasons, not wrung from the inconsistent and indifferent earth. Ellen sensed that they did not approve of men like her father, who had left his carpenter’s trade, hard earned in seven sleepless years as an apprentice, to place his family’s life in the hands of Fortune, or Lady Luck as they sometimes called her.

Ellen wondered if Lady Luck might somehow be persuaded to show her father some favour. She imagined the Lady as the most beautiful of women, like the faerie queens in the stories old folk still liked to tell by the fire: irresistible and capricious, by turns benevolent and cruel. But, when asked if there was some way they could pray to the Lady and ask for her blessing, Ellen’s mother’s face tightened as if she were about to cry. After a long moment’s silence, she replied tersely that only good honest work and true faith would be rewarded, and that if Ellen wished to offer any prayers, the Virgin Mother alone should hear them.

‘I’ll dress your mother in the finest silks, and jewels fit for a queen when my day of Fortune comes’ her father had always promised, spinning his daughter around in a circle and planting a kiss on his wife’s cheek. ‘And you, my princess, shall have all the books and dolls and sweets you could ever wish to see.’
And year after year Ellen would clap her hands gleefully and laugh, and, perched on her father’s lap, they would plan all the wonderful things to come. But the promises came less frequently as time passed; and Ellen’s mother would only smile wanly and turn away, her work-worn hands never idle.

When Ellen’s father did, upon occasion, unearth the lovely golden fruits of the soil he so desperately longed for, Ellen was never allowed to touch it for fear that any precious fleck might be lost by childish hands. But she always watched as the oddly shaped grains were weighed and tested, to see her father smile as much as anything else. Never had she seen him weep more bitter tears than when, on one cold, muddy day when flour and meat had long been in short and costly supply, his precious gains were pronounced ‘fools’ gold’ – the cruellest of nature’s tricks. And when the gold was pure and true, there was only ever enough to pay off debts and purchase a licence to begin again in painful hope.

But folk all had their ways of breathing life and warmth into the bleakest of days and most silent of nights. Amongst the higgledy-piggledy rows of tents and fires, they told stories, sang and danced, drank and played at dice, prayed and cursed by turns until another week, month or year had passed. Father O’Leary despaired of their salvation and prayed for them with earnest tenderness in spite of this.

The Chinese camp, some way away and always separate, fascinated Ellen. To her eager, childish ears, their music was harsh and strange, their language devoid of any recognisable rhythm or cadence. But when the Irish sagas of Cú Chulainn, and the adventures of Gawain that her father’s compatriots so dearly loved, brought no new magic in their telling; Ellen wished desperately to know what tales the Chinamen might tell. They had idols, tokens and offerings of their own, and Ellen could not help but wonder if their deities were less austere than the Virgin, or less capricious than Lady Luck. Everyone said that they were heathens, but when Ellen asked Father O’Leary if this was so, he paused a moment and, for the first time, she heard him laugh.

‘I daresay, child, I daresay they are. And I’m sure they’d say the same of us.’

The day finally came when Ellen’s mother wept and said she could live no longer in such a God-forsaken land. Ellen’s father held her close, whispering condolences, tender words and fresh promises by turns, but still the tears kept coming. Ellen sat outside the tent, a shearer’s doleful, lanky mutt for company, and listened as her father murmured every plea in the three tongues they’d carried with them from Home. After so many years of patience and quiet faith, Ellen’s mother wept a storm of tears. Her grief cried out to all those who had died and been buried as Ireland starved; for the child-women who had lost their innocence too soon to become Australia’s wives and mothers; and, finally, to her daughter, for whose future she could not help but fear.

Ellen, unaware of the tears shed on her account, wandered the camp with the stringy dog at her side. Old men drank firewater and sang in Welsh, the comforting dialect of her father’s stories and prayers. She heard her mother’s tongue too, mostly in exchanges between the women who had scratched out a home in this unforgiving world. The Chinese diggers, more reserved, were always just a little out of earshot. Finally she found Father O’Leary, a book in hand as usual.

‘Is this really a God-forsaken place, Father?’
He looked down at her and smiled his sad smile.
‘It very well may be, Ellen.’
He gestured around at the sparse, messy tumble of tents, makeshift facades and exhausted plots of earth.
‘But I think perhaps we’ve earned our own Saint, we poor hopeful fools.’