A Gift from Heaven


I walked briskly toward the shore, swinging my pail. Molly had trouble keeping up with me. We were twins, but I was tall for eleven, and my steps were longer than hers, especially when I wanted to get somewhere in a hurry.

“Wait up, Paddy. You not be going to a fire!”

We were on our way to collect periwinkles that hid among the stones at the water’s edge. These we sold to Mr. Moylan. He, in turn, made a profit on them from customers in England and France who enjoyed eating the marine snails. In this way Molly and I earned our pocket money. I was saving for a bicycle; Molly, a fiddle.

“The carrageen moss,” she reminded me. “Let’s be getting that out of the way first.”

Our whitewashed, thatched-roof cottage on the west coast of Ireland was but a hundred yards from the sea. The red carrageen moss drifted in on the water, and all we had to do was scoop it up and stuff it into a sack. Mother cooked it with milk to make a sweet jelly pudding.

As we reached the shore, Molly said, “I’ve worrisome news to tell you, Paddy!” She pushed back her red hair and looked anxiously at me. “Timmy’s brother let it slip yesterday that Tim already had four pounds fourteen shillings saved for that bike of Gerald’s you both be wanting.”

It was bad news. I had just a little over three pounds put away. I couldn’t afford a new bicycle, and Gerald’s was the only secondhand one in the area at the bargain price of five pounds. In good condition, it was up for sale only because Gerald’s rich uncle, who owned a cannery in Dublin, had sent him a fine new bicycle for his birthday.

“I must get that bike, Molly,” I muttered. “I hope I find lots of periwinkles today for Mr. Moylan to buy.”

She nodded. “Me too.”

I really needed Gerald’s bicycle. Molly and I and out two younger brothers had only one bike between the four of us. This fall Mike and Dan would be going to school with us, and we’d be having to take turns riding it to school—two riding double and two walking. It was a forty-minute walk each way. If I got the bicycle, we could all ride to school.

“I guess you want a bicycle as much as I be wanting a violin,” Molly said as we stuffed the moss into a sack. “I’ve but three pounds twelve shillings saved, and it’s grateful I am that Mr. Healy is willing to let me have his fiddle for only six pounds. ’Twill take me a while yet to save it all, but there’s no hurry, since I can practice on it in the meantime.”

Molly took music lessons—her one luxury—and practiced faithfully on the borrowed instrument she hoped to buy. It was her dream to play in concerts—she loved it that much—and she seemed to have plenty of talent for it. If ever a girl enjoyed practicing her music, it was Molly O’Sullivan. I hoped her dream would come true.

We were very close, Molly and I. I loved my brothers, but Molly was special—not just because she was my twin, but because she seemed to understand me better than anyone else; and she had a sweet, loving nature. I never heard her fight with anybody. She was the peacemaker in our family.

Our sack full of moss, we fell silent as we concentrated on finding periwinkles.

Suddenly I glimpsed a claw and shouted, “Hey, a lobster!”

Lobsters were a rare find on our shore. With a stick I poked around under the rock until it scuttled out. I pounced on it triumphantly and dropped it into my pail.

“Good for you!” Molly cried. “Do you suppose there be one for me under that rock?”

I poked under the rock again, but with no luck. Then, glancing up at the sky, I said, “There’s a storm brewing, Molly. We’d best be leaving.”

“But I haven’t found enough periwinkles yet.”

“There’s no time now. We have to hurry.”

We scooped up some salt water into our pails to keep the periwinkles alive longer, then hastened to Mr. Moylan’s cottage. He gave us a few shillings apiece for our catch and a few extra for the lobster. Molly and I got home just as the storm broke.

That night, after a good supper of beef boiled with cabbage and potatoes—and carrageen pudding for dessert—I lay brooding in the big bed I shared with my two brothers. I was still one pound short of the money I needed. I knew I could make sure of getting Gerald’s bicycle by borrowing the money from my father. But Timmy and I were friends, and we had made a bargain. Since we both wanted the same bicycle, we were to save only money we earned ourselves. The first one able to pay the five pounds would get the bike. Gerald had promised not to sell it to anybody else. And now Tim needed only six more shillings!

Borrowing from my father would be cheating, but I needed that bicycle—not just to ride to school but also so I could earn more money for the things my father couldn’t afford to buy for me. I needed it more than Timmy did; he had only one brother to share their one bike. I wished I hadn’t made that bargain with him.

When I awoke in the morning, the bicycle was still on my mind. It was all I could think about as I harnessed the family donkey to a cart holding our water barrel. It was my job to get the day’s supply of water each morning from our well, which was some distance from the house. I had to pump the water into a bucket and then pour it into the barrel. It took many bucketfuls to fill the barrel.

If only I had a couple of hours all to myself each day for collecting periwinkles, I thought wistfully as I pumped and poured. But I knew there was too much work to be done on our forty acres of farmland. We all had our chores—chickens and pigs to feed, the cow to milk, potatoes to dig out of the fields, corn to cut, barley to bind into sheaves, turf to cut out of the earth for the fire, and more.

As soon as I could manage a break in my chores, I hurried out to where my father was reaping barley. Dad’s a big man and a hard worker, but he had hurt his back, and it had slowed him down some.

“Dad, might you be doing me a favor, I wonder? Like lending me a pound?”

“For that bicycle, Padraic?” My father always called me by my proper Irish name.

“Yes, sir. I’ve got to buy it before Timmy does, and he be needing but six shillings more for it, the last I heard.”

My father did not know about the agreement between Timmy and me. He would not have given me the pound had he known. “A bike of your own means a lot to you, eh, laddie? Wish I could get it for you, but I be trying to put money aside for some sheep. ’Tis hard enough to pay for your sister’s music lessons.”

“I know. But she’s deserving of them. Could you just lend me the money? I’ll pay you back from the periwinkles.”

“Very well, Padraic. Run along and tell your mother to take it out of the sheep money.”

“Thanks, Dad!”

I gulped down my lunch in a hurry that day so that I’d have time to go to Gerald’s with the five pounds.

I strode along whistling merrily, thinking of all the good the bike was going to do me. By getting home fast from school each day and having extra time for periwinkle hunting, I’d soon earn enough to buy the pocketknife I’d always wanted, the one with a nail file, a can opener, a tiny pair of scissors, and other useful gadgets. It even had a wee saw. A survival knife, it was called. It made my heart swell just to think about owning such a pocketknife.

But then a still, small voice spoke inside my head. Or was it inside my heart? “You made an agreement,” it whispered, “and now you’re going back on your word. You’re a cheat, Paddy.”

The cheery whistling died on my lips.

“How would you like it if Timmy had got the money from his dad and had already bought the bike?” the voice continued.

Not wanting to think about it, I shrugged and pursed my lips once more. But nothing came out. I no longer felt like whistling, but I pushed on determinedly.

“Listen, Paddy—”

“You hush up!” I yelled at the voice. “I be needing that bike more than Timmy.”

“More than your self-respect?” the voice inside me persisted.

“Hush up! Didn’t I tell you to hush up?”

“Just one thing more, Padraic O’Sullivan. Do you recall a certain scripture you heard in church last month? You even looked it up, remember? Hebrews 13:18.”

It came to me then, those words from the Bible: “… we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly.”

I caught my breath. It was almost as if God were speaking to me! Wasn’t the Bible His holy word, one way He communicated with people? I stood motionless, torn two ways. Finally I murmured, “Good-bye, bicycle.” Then I turned and started for home. At first I dragged a little. But with every step, my heart grew lighter. I returned the borrowed pound, mumbling something about waiting and taking my chances on getting Gerald’s bike. My father gave me a searching glance but asked no questions, for which I was thankful.

A little later I came across a tearful Molly in the barn. “What’s ailing you, girl?” Molly almost never cried. “Sure and it be not bad enough to cry over?”

“Yes it be,” she sobbed. “Mr. Healy sent word he’s moving to Dublin next week to live with his married daughter. ’Tis all so sudden! If I be buying his violin, it must be now. He’s willing to lower the price by half a pound, but ’tis still more than two pounds short I am. And if I don’t buy it, how will I practice?”

Molly tried to stem her tears, but I knew how she must feel. The price of Mr. Healy’s fine instrument was a bargain. With all the hard work and love Molly had put into practicing on it, she deserved to have it for her own. When you come right down to it, Paddy O’Sullivan, I told myself, she’s more deserving of that fiddle than you are of that bicycle.

“If it were just a few shillings, I’d ask Dad,” she went on through quivering lips, “but—”

“I’ll tell you what, Molly girl,” I said, interrupting her. “Let’s really rush and finish the chores today. If we get done early, we can ride double into the village to see Mr. Healy. And bring your money. Maybe something good will happen.”

At Mr. Healy’s, the amount my sister lacked I contributed out of my own savings. What radiance shone out of Molly’s face! Her joy filled my own heart. Surely this made up for the wrong thing I had almost done today.

“Oh, Paddy!” The happy tears in Molly’s eyes were replaced by a look of anguish. “B-But now you’ll be having no chance at all to buy Gerald’s bike.”

“Bike?” said Mr. Healy. “Be ye seeking a bicycle, Paddie? Well now, and don’t I just happen to have an old one sitting out back. You can have it for whatever it be worth to you. Come, I’ll show you.”

The bike was somewhat rusted and missing a couple of spokes, but a coat of paint would do wonders for it. It even had a basket! I handed over the rest of my money quickly, for fear the old man might change his mind.

“Thank you kindly, sir. Come on, Molly. Now each of us will be riding a bike home.”

Molly kissed the old man on the cheek. “I’m sorry to see you leave, Mr. Healy. I hope you’ll be happy in Dublin.” She planted a kiss on my cheek too. “I’m so glad for you about the bike, Paddy. And for myself to be having such a brother!”

I grinned self-consciously. “Turns out ’tis myself I did a favor for. When I came here to help you out, I had no idea ’twould mean a bike for me too. ’Tis almost like … like a gift from heaven!”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Larry Winborg