John started his days at the Walsh County poor farm like the other residents, with a breakfast of biscuits and eggs and a dose of Dr. Schenk’s Pulmonic Syrup. Among his companions at the table were others, like him, who were old and unable to find work, as well as more deeply troubled petty criminals and others who couldn’t get along on their own. Occasionally, there were women and children left penniless by a husband who had died or left some other way. John’s own wife hadn’t lived long after he had stood before the judge, down to his last ten dollars, and admitted he was a pauper in need of mercy from the state of North Dakota and from the county. The humiliation still made his shoulders ache.
“I’m 72,” he had said in court, “a shoemaker.” The judge asked when he had migrated from Ireland. “I was 50 then, sir, and better able to put in a long day’s work, to go out and find clients.” At that, he went into a coughing fit so obviously consumptive that the judge had said he would have a place here at the farm with the other indigents. It was 1910. Twenty-seven souls now shared his breakfast table: twenty-three men, three women, seven native, twenty foreign born, and one colored. Three others had died this year.
“Good morning, John,” the superintendent said as the Irishman shuffled to the table and sat down next to a sixty-nine-year-old Scottish tailor named James, who nodded, and a Norwegian man of forty-seven, the newest addition. Unlike John, both James and Abe the Norwegian could read and write, and he depended on them to share whatever they saw in the newspaper that was delivered two mornings a week. Occasionally, James would also read passages of the Bible, and on this day, John recognized the music of the Psalms: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” He smiled at this because he knew that the pulmonic syrup contained hyssop, the holy herb native to southern Europe, along with ginger, thyme, and pepper. Together, they granted a touch of mild mint flavor.
The superintendent gave him a hot cup of coffee. Mrs. Mary Farlow believed that the pulmonic syrup was a cure for not only diseases of the lung, but for wasting of any kind, plus fatigue, malaise, liver complaints, and depression, all common there. The wretched suffering of some of the inmates—what they were commonly called—was nearly unbearable to observe, and on this day the Irishman was in low spirits. No family remained for him. He had no children. It was for the best, he thought, again, for he would have had to bring them here, to the farm in Park River, where he would die.
He put out his tongue for the spoon Mary held out to him. “Purge me with hyssop,” he repeated, and she too smiled. He knew he was to some degree a lucky man to have ended up here. He had heard of poor farms where there was contaminated water, dirty bedding, and vermin. He had heard of cruelties, of people sleeping on the floor, people without medical care. He shuddered when he recalled the fate of some women who could not defend themselves, and turned his mind to happier memories, of when he was a boy in Ireland, and the lilting music that had filled his days:
Come all ye young travelers
Come along with me
We’ll sing a song all day long
He swallowed the syrup down and opened his mouth to sing softly, “Ora-diddle-la-diddle-la dee, ora-diddle-la-diddle-la-dee,” and was astonished when James began to cry at the beauty of it. “Go on,” said his friend. “Go on, John,” and so he sang,
Flap your arms young traveler
Fly away with me
We’ll flap our arms one-two-three
And James pretended he was a bird, and so did Abe, and soon the whole table was filled with birds, ora-diddle-la-diddle-la-dee, and the poor farm inmates closed their eyes. “Ora-diddle-la-diddle-la dee,” John sang from his aching lungs, and flew, at last, away.
Tamara Miles is a college English, Humanities, and College Skills instructor at a technical college in South Carolina. My writings and artwork have appeared in Fall Lines: A Literary Convergence; O’Bheal Five Words Vol. IX; Love is Love (a poetry anthology benefitting the families of shooting victims in Orlando); Auntie Bellum Magazine; Pantheon Magazine: Hestia; and UnLost Journal. Upcoming publications that will feature my work include Cease, Cows Journal; The Tishman Review; The Devil’s Doorbell: Vagina Edition (Wicked Banshee Press); Subprimal Poetry & Art; Verity La; New Pages, and Flash Fiction Magazine. The lyrics for the song found in this story were supplied by Marc Gunn.