John stretched hugely upon his hay pallet and pulled the thin blanket tighter under his chin against the early morning chill. Eileen lay closely against his back, too cold to sleep in her own bed away from the only fire in the cottage.
It had been a long and vicious winter. Snow had covered the ground numerous times, dealing a death blow to many poor souls finding themselves without food or home. John’s empty stomach was bad enough, yet the thought of finding himself on the road with no roof or warmth to protect him was almost unimaginable.
The lad rolled over, facing the little window across the room. He opened his groggy eyes in the dim light to see snow falling once again outside. It was not a pleasant thought to be trapped inside the tiny house for who knows how long again.
Struggling out of warmth of the bed, John hurried to place several turf logs on the slightly glowing ashes of the hearth. Carefully, the lad stoked the small fire to new life. He rubbed his hands together for warmth and looked at his sister sleeping quietly on the pallet. Joseph also slept soundly on his own pile of straw, rolled into a tight ball in the warming room.
Eileen groaned slightly in her sleep, twitching under the thin covering. The poor lass had been through a difficult time, trying to recover from the loss of two of her brothers. Dark dreams disturbed her sleep more often than not. Her mood was almost continuously melancholy. Even the times that their uncles’ families had come over with music and dancing, she had refused to participate.
The lass awoke with a start, sitting straight up in the bed with a gasp. John looked compassionately at his sister. He could not really understand what she was going through, but he felt a deep responsibility for her well being. Moving to his sister’s side, he put his arm around her trembling shoulder. “Today is not a good day,” she said suddenly, turning toward the window to look outside.
John looked at her with a small smile. “I can see,” he answered quietly. “‘Tis snowing again. And the sheep should be lambing by now.” He followed her eyes out the window. “March is not the month for snow.”
Eileen relaxed slightly, closing her eyes and leaning heavily against John’s shoulder. “Do we have anything to eat?” she asked groggily. “I am hungry.”
“Not that I can find,” John responded, stroking his sister’s hair, attempting to comfort her. “I do have a fire going to warm the room a bit, however.”
“Do we dare use any more of the rent money for food?” she asked again shakily.
“It will do us no good to starve to death with a roof over our heads,” he answered reluctantly. “We have to ask Da what he thinks when he wakes.”
Joseph rustled on his sleeping pallet, eventually sitting up and looking sleepily around. “For the love of Saint Michael, it is cold in here,” he commented gruffly. “John, get the fire started!”
“‘Tis, Da,” the lad responded quickly. “”Tis snowing again.”
Joseph groaned, leaning against the cold stone wall. The man just shook his head and looked out the window. “Do we have food? My stomach is complaining of eating only once yesterday.”
“No, Da,” John answered sadly, “we have nothing. Shall we go buy more in the village?”
Joseph thought for a minute and stood slowly to his feet. “I have no better ideas,” he finally answered, moving in front of the fire to warm himself. “All the money we have left is one pound and a little more than a shilling. When the agent comes he will demand eighteen shillings for our rent. That means we have but three shillings to feed us until we get a crop grown this spring. And we cannot even plant until the weather warms a bit.”
“Two shillings should buy enough Indian corn for a month or so,” Eileen replied. “A few pence more will get us a little wheat flour for bread and a wee hunk of cheese. Molly has gotten low with her milk, so we only have a little butter. But we can make do.”
“Very well,” Joseph agreed, moving to his hiding spot. “Here is three shillings and two pence. Do the best you can. Remember, we do not know when we might be able to plant for the spring.”
John took the money from his father and looked back at his sister. She was busy wrapping her old shoes and feet with rags against the snow. John’s own tattered shoes were not much protection against the cold, but they would have to suffice. He had no other choice. “Come on, Eileen,” the lad prompted, his growling stomach a good provoker, “the sooner we get to town, the sooner we can come back and eat.”
Eileen met her brother at the door and stepped out into the frosty wind. “Sweet Mother of God,” Eileen swore as she plodded through the drift of snow at the entryway. They were met outside by a frigid white blanket covering the entire landscape, dulling the sound of their footsteps and blending everything into one colorless mass.
The small flakes of snow continued to fall as the siblings trudged down the icy lane towards the village. Familiar landmarks were obliterated by the white mass. Smoke billowed into the unmoving air from the chimneys of every occupied hovel and cottage. John had even noticed several half-tumbled shanties with a column of smoke emanating through their broken down roofs.
They passed two small groups of local men on the road. They were wretched creatures, barely able to propel themselves down the road with a shovel resting over their shoulders. Most were farm laborers with no land of their own and little hope of survival for their families. Their only recourse was to work on the under paid government programs that were primarily designed to keep them occupied and out of trouble. Some were shoeless, walking bare footed on the frozen road, toes turning black with frostbite.
The rags hanging on the men’s bodies were hardly enough to cover them and far too little to truly protect them from exposure. Almost all the unfortunate lads had bony ribs protruding over sunken bellies and limbs looking more like skeletons than walking human beings. Yet, these fellows were supposed to build roads to nowhere, being paid a handful of Indian corn each day to feed their entire families.
Unfortunately, John had become so accustomed to the sight that he no longer even noticed the extent of the destitution passing him on the road. In the past five months of winter, he had learned to hold his emotion and count the fortunes that had seen his family through this turbulent time. He had seen the burial of two more family members, Tom’s wife and Brian’s youngest daughter, both taken by a combination of hunger and sickness. And he also helped put several unknown persons to rest in the bog. The strangers had been interred with no coffin nor Christian burial, for lack of funds for such things.
Eileen wrapped her blanket tighter around her face and shoulders in an attempt to hold out the cold. Her gait was furious, both to hurry into town and to increase her body warmth. Her eyes were fixed straight ahead and she said nothing as she scurried down the lane.
On the edge of town, the siblings were approached by a young mother and her three children. All four were obviously starving and dressed in nothing but a few tatters to protect them from the biting cold. The two youngest children, probably six and eight years old, held out their boney hands for alms. Their big, sunken eyes seemed to touch Eileen.
The young woman stopped dead in her tracks, looking compassionately upon the unfortunate family. “Please ma’am, do you have a pence to spare?” the youngest lass begged pitifully.
Eileen looked at her brother, her eyes reddening with emotion. “John,” she said quietly, “give me two pence.” She held out her hand to him.
John looked at his sister incredulously. “Two pence?” he questioned, his eyes wide.
“Aye, give me two pence.” Eileen cupped her hand in front of him once more.
“We cannot afford to give away any money, set aside two whole pence!” John protested heatedly.
The lass took the threadbare blanket off her shoulders and wrapped it over the two children. A small tear trickled down her cheek as she knelt in front of them in the piling snow. John quickly recognized the pain twisting his sister’s face and reached into his pocket for a coin.
Pulling a penny from his pocket he handed it to Eileen. “This is all we can do,” he said quietly. “They can all get a bite to eat with this.”
His sister took the coin and handed it to the little one with a smile. “Here you are,” she offered. “Take this to your mum.”
The little lass took the money, her eyes wide with excitement. She spun, running back to her mother she cried, “Mummy! We have money for food. Can we eat now?”
The young mother smiled at the siblings, taking the youngster in her arms. “Of course we can!” she replied happily. The strangers eyes returned to John and Eileen. “Thank you very much!” she blessed the two, “May God bring you many fortunes!” Gathering her children, the mother turned into the village to gather a meal for her children.
John felt a warmth flow through his veins. He watched Eileen stare after the young family and wished he had more to offer. His sister was more like her mother than she probably knew. If she was not part of his family, he would marry her.
A horseman in a fine black cape, riding down the road out of town caught John’s attention. He rode straight through the middle of the little family, scattering the children with a scream. “Out of the way, you wretched little whelps!” the fellow demanded in a roguish English accent. He reined the horse as closely as he could to the family without riding down the children.
Eileen gasped, running at the horseman. “What are you doing?” she cried.
The man smirked and rode by at a trot, looking callously at the distressed young woman. “Savage white Irish apes!” he spat, speeding to a gallop past John.
John watched the man speed past, jumping hastily to the side of the narrow lane. “What the devil was that?” he asked his sister, angrily staring after the fellow.
The irate lass shrugged and checked on the children to see that they were all safe. Sending the family once again on their way, Eileen returned to John’s side. “How can anyone be that cold hearted?” she asked. The lass suddenly shivered violently. “Holy Jesus, I am cold!” she suddenly admitted.
John put his arm around his sister and directed her into town, trying to keep her as warm as he could. He had avoided the village as much as possible since the incident with the agents’ deaths. About his only destination had been the church on the outskirts of town. Only one other time had he ventured directly into the town center with his father to buy food at the market.
The siblings hurried up the street to O’Meara’s Market, darting into the doorway and the welcomed warmth inside. Only an occasional snowflake now fell as they entered the establishment. The shelves were only half full, the cost of food now more than many shopkeepers could afford to stock.
Eileen hurried to the counter at the side of the shop. The old proprietor, Sara O’Meara, rose out of her ancient rocking chair to greet the lass. “Can you believe this snow?” she greeted friendily.
“‘Tis incredible,” Eileen responded with a shiver. “We will be needing some of your Indian corn and a few other items.”
“Very well lass,” the old lady complied happily, “How much will you be having?”
“We will have that bag of corn there,” she pointed to one of the medium sized bags of ground corn meal leaning heavily against the counter. “That should do us for a few weeks.”
“Lovely, lass,” the old lady responded. “That will be three shillings. What else will you have?”
Eileen’s jaw dropped. “Three shillings?” she replied in shock. “The same bag was but one shilling four pence only two months ago!”
“I know, lass,” the shopkeeper answered sadly. “‘Tis a horrid thing, this. But of the food that comes to me, I can make hardly enough to keep myself and me poor old husband alive.”
Eileen took a deep breath, motioning to John for the money. She looked disgustedly around the shop. “I see you have some lovely potatoes there,” she finally responded to the woman. “Where did you get them?”
“From America, lass, where there is plenty of food. Came with the corn,” she responded with a gleam in her eye. “I can give you a dozen for one penny.”
“Make it sixteen,” Eileen answered quickly.
The old lady eyed her blankly. “All right,” she finally answered and smiled. “Sixteen for a penny, it is.”
John moved to the counter to retrieve their sack of meal. He picked up the powdery bag and tossed it heavily over his shoulder, its weight conforming to his body like a saddle. Though the bag was only twenty five pounds, it could get heavy before they reached home, especially on an empty stomach.
Eileen gathered sixteen nice potatoes and wrapped them neatly in a square of cloth provided by the shopkeeper. Giving her thanks, the lass led the way out of the small shop. “‘Tis highway robbery, I tell you!” she complained as the door closed behind her. “A poor body cannot afford to eat any longer! I do not know what we will do in a few more months.” She trailed off with a shiver as a cold gust of wind blew heavily against them.
The clouds had begun to break and brief rays of sunshine streaked through on occasion. The wind, however, had picked up, blowing the wet snow into high drifts. Eileen and John both shivered mightily as the gusts blew straight through their old clothing. Both picked up their pace, wanting to get home to food and warmth.
As the siblings approached their cottage, the snow had already begun to melt, leaving slushy puddles in the roadway. John felt as if his feet were frozen solid by the time they reached the opening in their fence. He ran the through the yard, followed closely by his sister. A warm, friendly gust of air greeted the siblings as they opened the door to enter the cottage. Their father sat staring emptily into the bright fire.
“Da, you all right?” John asked at once, concerned.
“The Landlord’s new Agent was just here,” Joseph responded quietly. “I gave him our eighteen shillings. He took the payment then said we owed him another Pound and ten shillings for the rest of the back rent. He also took Molly as a partial payment against old rent he says is due.” He shifted his weight uncomfortably on the stool, never taking his eyes from the fire. “He will be back in two days to collect the total due or we will be evicted.”
Both siblings placed their parcels on the little table and moved to the fire for warmth. “What will we do, Da?” Eileen asked, mortified. “We have no place to go.”
“The agent said we will be sent to America if we do not pay,” Joseph amended himself. “I cannot go to America. This is my home!”
John and Eileen looked at each other in silence. The fire popped, sending a bright spark out toward John’s foot. “Can they send us away from our home?” John questioned, dizzied by the prospect.
“They can do whatever they want to do,” Joseph answered dejectedly. “They are the Government and the Law.”
“We can leave right now,” Eileen suggested. “We can leave and find another place to live.”
“Where would we go?” her father responded quietly. “We have no place. The Englishman was leaving here and going to Tom’s house to tell him the same thing. And Brian has a house full of children with nothing to eat already.”
“So we go, just like that?” John asked his father unbelievingly.
“Aye, son,” Joseph answered, “We go, just like that.”
John sat nervously beside his father and sister in front of their little cottage. The lad figured this would be the last time in his life he would ever set eyes on this place. The weather had warmed considerably in the past two days, melting the snow cover and bringing a hint of life to the plants. The morning sun warmed his face as he fidgeted with the little bundle of possessions the lad had gathered to take with him.
He was happy that two days advanced notice had allowed him and his family to say their farewells to their deceased loved ones, as well as his uncles. John stood to his feet, taking a long last stroll through the barren barley field that had served them so well. We should be out here planting spuds right now, he thought, strolling through the old potato patch, not leaving our home forever!
John’s heart felt heavy as a stone, weighing him down like a weight around his neck. Eileen soon joined him in the middle of the little field. “We should not be doing this,” the lad commented to his sister. “We should leave right now. Ireland is our home!”
A small streak of wetness formed along the lasses ruddy cheek. She looked back at her father sitting beside the door of the cottage. “No we should not,” she agreed sadly. “Yet, we have no other options, not and stay together as a family.”
“I feel like a part of me has been flung from my chest and hurled away into the four winds,” John returned dejectedly. “And that part I may never see again.”
Eileen smiled sadly, walking over to hug her brother tenderly. “I feel the same brother,” she whispered into his ear. The lass released John and walked slowly through the stone fence into the empty barley field. She pulled four black feathers from her belt and knelt in the center of the plot. Digging a small hole with her fingers, she placed the feathers in the ground and covered them up. Then she returned to John’s side. “‘Tis done,” she replied simply, staring out toward the distant Slieve Bloom mountains.
John heard the sound of horses down the lane. He looked over to see a column of soldiers coming their way, led by a man in a fine black cape. The lad took his sister by the hand and walked slowly to their father’s side.
Several Dragoons followed the agent into the yard, while the rest of the platoon waited on the roadway. A small open wagon followed the soldiers, stopping at the opening in the fence.
The black clad agent quickly dismounted his steed and strode rigidly to stand in front of Joseph. “”Sir,” he stated loudly, pulling a writ out of a small pouch at his belt. “You are hereby given notice by the Honorable Lord Winfrey of Staffordshire to vacate these premises at once, unless the sum of one pound, ten shillings be remitted to this agent immediately.”
The Englishman waited for a moment with no response from the Irishman. “In that case, sir, I exercise my legal right to reclaim this property for his Honor and demand you leave these premises.”
The family stood wordlessly, watching the animated man present his formalities. John clenched and unclenched his fists over and again, trying to control the fire that boiled in his chest. Maybe he should have listened to Tim after all, maybe he could have fought to preserve his family’s and people’s way of life. Maybe they could have ended this evasive, totalitarian English imperialism in his country. Maybe. . . . But, it was all moot now. The lad drew a long, slow breath and closed his eyes at the monotonous droning of the bastard in front of him.
“You are instructed,” the stiff agent continued arrogantly, “to board the transportation provided here for you and proceed to the wharf in Galway Harbor. There, you will board a ship by the name of the Cushla Machree, bound for New York Harbor in America. The sum of three pounds will await you with an agent on the docks in New York. That agent will meet your ship and call the names of the persons he is to pay. Any money not claimed on the day of arrival will be forfeit.” the man dropped the parchment in front of him. “Do you understand these instructions?”
Joseph sadly nodded his acknowledgment. Two soldiers quickly dismounted and roughly led the family to the wagon. Joseph and John helped Eileen into the rear of the small cart and followed her aboard. As soon as they all sat down, the driver snapped his whip and turned the wagon around toward the village.
John watched as the two dismounted soldiers returned to their horses, lit several torches and tossed them onto the thatched roof of their home. Flames erupted as the dry straw caught fire, sending a growing white column of smoke into the broken clouds. Tears filled his eyes and he wept openly. Eileen burst into loud sobs, burying her face into her hands. Joseph sat stone still as he watched his lifelong home go up in flames.
The little wagon creaked down the rough road, followed by a line of soldiers. Smoke boiled into the sky in the distance as they drew farther from the cottage. John cried until he had nothing left to give. Eventually, Eileen quieted, laying her head softly on her brother’s shoulder. She took her father’s rough hand into her own and squeezed it tightly. Joseph just sat silently watching the diminishing column of smoke as it was carried by the wind currents away from them.
They skirted the village, crossing the Grand Canal just to the west of town. Most of the soldiers dropped off, leaving only four trailing the cart. From that point, the driver took the main road to Athlone, then intersected with the direct road to Galway City. John had never been so far in his life. Twice he had gotten to Birr, a few miles away from his home. However, now he was on his way to Galway, and beyond.
There was an underlying sense of adventure in this journey. If he knew he would return home afterward, he would actually be looking forward to the trip. Every mile was a new sight, alleviating a small portion of the sadness crowding his heart. After all, this was still his country. He could be satisfied here. The hills were still green and the meadows fertile. Sweet smells of early spring filled his nostrils. Early lambs bounced in the meadows and birds sang overhead.
For hours, the group bounced down the rutted dirt lanes. John’s back was sore with travel and his legs had become numb. A headache was slowly developing from his stiff neck. Looking over at Eileen, she looked to be suffering about the same fate as himself.
The lad, however, was really beginning to worry about his father. The man had sat silently and relatively motionless throughout the whole day. He had refused the biscuits offered by the driver and the potato offered by Eileen. He seemed to respond to nothing.
It was late afternoon when they group creaked into Ballinasloe. They changed wagon drivers and allowed the family a few minutes to stand and stretch their legs and backs. A new contingent of soldiers also took over behind the group. Soon, however, they were reboarding the cart and leaving for the final leg of their journey to Galway.
John shifted positions for a while, moving to the rear of the cart and allowing his legs to dangle off the end. Eileen soon joined him. Conversation was at a minimum for the entire trip. No one was in much of a mood for chatter.
Darkness crept upon the group. Fortunately, the weather had favored them all day. The sun had shone more than not and the wind stayed relatively warm and calm. Yet, as evening approached, a fresh, chilly breeze began to blow. Eileen shivered, snuggling tightly against her brother. She looked into the sky, pointing out the bright north star at their side. The half moon was already high above the horizon.
Eileen lay back onto the rough floor of the wagon, the small bundle of her personal belongings under her head as a pillow. She closed her eyes to the moonlight and rolled into a tight ball. John yawned and soon joined his sister, snuggling tightly against her with his arm over the lass for warmth. The lad quickly fell into a light slumber.
A sudden change of sound from the cart’s wheels woke the lad with a start. He sat up in the back of the wagon and looked around at the large city surrounding them. Smooth cobblestone streets had replaced the dirt path, rumbling under the stiff wheels of the cart and vibrating John to his bones. He did not know how Eileen still slept.
After several minutes, he shook his sister to wake her. “Eileen, he whispered in her ear. ‘Tis Galway, Eileen. The city is huge!” He sat up looking around once again.
Eileen stirred and sat up, rubbing her eyes. She looked around at the gas lamps on the street corners. Pockets of people stood silently on the streets under the yellowish light of the lamps. The people here looked no better off than where they had just come from. Everyone John could see looked half starved, their emaciated faces appearing ghostly under the dim light. Men, women and children huddled tightly together against the cold sea air.
The siblings stared at the people as they stared back. “So many people,” she gasped, catching sight of a young mother, crying as she rocked a newborn baby in her arms.
The heretofore silent wagon driver laughed. “You think this is lots of people,” he commented in a thick Munster accent, “wait til you’se gets to New York! This is but a wee village compared to that din of iniquity.”
John turned to look at the back of the man’s head in surprise. He thought an Englishman would be driving their wagon, not a fellow countryman. “Have you been to New York, then?” he asked the man in wonder.
“Aye, lad,” the driver answered quietly. “‘Twas there but last year. Lost me home and family down in Mallow, I did. Got evicted from the farm me family had worked for a thousand years. Landlord sent me off to America, to New York, and I worked me way back home. I tells you, you’se ain’t seen nothing.” He turned to take a quick peek at the family. “You’se knows I am not supposed to be talking to you.” he added quickly. “I will lose me job and the only way I have got to provide food for me family.”
John sat again in silence, the city sliding by like a blur of light. “How much further. . . to the ship, I mean.”
“‘Tis just ahead,” the man responded quietly. If you look closely, you’se can see the moon reflecting on the ocean.”
Eileen turned to look down the low hill in front of them. Soft sparkles of light danced in the distance. “I have never seen the ocean,” she said quietly.
“Well, lass,” the driver offered, “You are about to get your fill of it, you are.” He then again grew quiet and offered no more conversation, afraid for his livelihood.
The wagon soon rolled onto the wooden docks. The clip-clap of the horses hooves on cobblestone changed to a dull thud of a thick, raised wooden platform. The masts of numerous vessels dotted the harbor, glistening dimly in the moonlight. A hazy fog began to blow in off the ocean, obstructing a good deal of John’s view of his surroundings.
The smell of salt air stung the lad’s nostrils. He had never smelled anything of the sort before. And the rhythmic sound of the tidal surge rolling against the beach dominated the night, a methodic drone of unseen power. He wanted to see everything, yet, most everything was lost in the deepening fog layer. Looking over at Eileen, he smiled. His sense of adventure was now kindled. Even the driver had given him hope that maybe he could work his family’s way back home after all.
The small wagon pulled to a stop in front of the Harbor Master’s Office. A rugged looking older man with a full greying beard walked out to the side of the cart. One of the Dragoons approached, handing a piece of paper to the fellow. He squinted in the darkness, turning the paper to catch what little light spilled from his office window.
“The Cushla Machree?” he questioned, eyeing Eileen lustfully. “‘Tis there, at the end of the quay,” he pointed down a long pier behind him, never taking his gaze off the lass.
Eileen shifted uncomfortably and looked disgustedly away. She drew close to John and shivered at the combination of chilled sea air and sickening gaze. John put his arm around his sister’s shoulders and glared back maliciously at the old seafarer. Joseph just sat silently, staring into the mist that was quickly overtaking the town.
The wagon started off again with a jolt, moving slowly to the end of the quay where their ship was docked. “He we are,” the driver informed them, “end of the line.”
The family members slid one by one out of the rear of the cart. John exited first and helped his sister to the ground. Joseph followed slowly, his eyes absent of focus. The cart pulled away, leaving the family alone with the soldiers. John was confused, unsure of where to go or what to do.
“Move on to the boat,” the Dragoon in charge directed blandly. “Tell the purser your name and they will assign a bunk for you.” His instructions and duties complete, the Dragoon led his platoon away, leaving the group in the dim, foggy moonlight.
John’s body ached with fatigue. The twenty yards it would take to reach the side of the ship looked like miles to his tired eyes. He looked at his father and Eileen, then back at the distant boat. “Shall we go now?” he asked exhaustedly.
Joseph looked emptily into his son’s eyes. “You two go on ahead,” he instructed, “I will be along directly.”
John and Eileen looked at each other. The lad shrugged and turned down the quay, followed closely by his sister. The lass turned to see her father standing idly in the same spot, looking toward the city. “We will be on the ship,” she called back to her father, receiving no reply.
The waves of fog rolled in swiftly, obliterating the moonlight as they approached the tall ship. All three masts of the vessel disappeared into the low clouds, looking as if they had been cut off just a few feet above the smooth wooden deck. Approaching the long gangplank, they could see no one else on board. A small light shone through a tiny porthole cut into one of the rear cabins.
“Hallo!” John called, standing chilled at the base of the walkway. “Anybody up there?” He looked curiously up onto the deck of the large wooden vessel. “Hallo,” he called once again.
Eileen stood tightly against his back, shivering in the light, damp breeze. The sound of waves lapping against the pilings was the only noise the siblings could hear. The lass looked back toward the end of the quay to check on her father. However, the thick fog now completely obliterated her view.
The boat creaked and rocked slightly on an incoming surge. John gripped his sister’s arm and carefully climbed the slowly rocking gangplank toward the empty ship. “Hallo,” the lad called again, halfway onboard.
A thin fellow sauntered out of the dimly lit cabin, picking his teeth with a stick. “Oh, I thought I heard someone,” he replied crustily. “Come onboard. What is your names?” The man’s accent was different than any John had ever heard.
John led Eileen aboard the vessel. The slight movement of the deck below his feet made him feel uneasy. He grasped for the railing on the side of the boat as an unusually high wave lifted the deck higher than usual. The boat groaned as she settled back in place.
The seaman saw the lad’s uneasiness and smirked. “You will get used to it, boy.” he laughed.
John looked over at his sister who looked almost as uncomfortable as he was. The largest boats he had ever seen were the narrow barges that cruised the inland canals, transporting supplies to his village. And the canals did not ever really have waves to rock the crafts.
“Come to the office,” he fellow directed, his raspy voice almost as hoary as the rest of him. He limped his way toward the open office door, waving impatiently back at the siblings.
Eileen and John followed shakily as the deck continued to rock slightly. The brightness of the oil lamp in the tiny cabin dazzled the lad’s eyes. He squinted against the unexpected brightness. John grasped at the door post as he entered the cramped cabin. Eileen held him tightly around the waist, struggling to keep her feet.
“What is the names,” the old fellow repeated, sitting behind a tiny desk that was pushed against the outside wall of the room..
“I am John and this is my sister, Eileen,” John offered.
The seaman looked up at the pair contemptuously, “Last name,” he demanded.
“Oh, Walsh,” the lad corrected, moving unsteadily to the side of the desk.
The sailor scanned through the lines of a tattered, hand entered book. He picked up a quill and tapped his forehead nervously with the feathered end. “Ah, there you are,” he remarked, placing a dark tick mark beside each of the names. “And who is this Joseph? He with you?” he asked gruffly.
“Aye, ‘tis our father,” Eileen answered, looking over John’s shoulder. “He will be here soon. He is just running a wee bit slow, I am afraid.”
The fellow placed another check mark next to their father’s name. “I will show you to the hold and you can pick yourself a bunk. Not many people onboard yet, so you should have no problem, even in the dark.” He stood and directed the siblings out of the cabin door. “I will send your pa down whenever he comes aboard.”
The old seaman walked across the deck toward a small, low roof in the center of the ship. John and Eileen followed, swaggering with the moving deck. Opening a low, narrow door, the sailor pointed down a dark stairway.
John led the way, grasping the handrails on each side of the stair tightly and allowing his eyes to adjust to the near total darkness. A faint stale odor permeated the air, growing smellier as he descended. Eileen took a tight grip of the back of his shirt and followed her brother closely. Slowly they entered the dark belly of the ship.
The lad almost tripped as he reached the bottom of the stair, expecting to find another step where there was a flat floor instead. He found a narrow aisle of bunks at either hand, hardly wide enough to walk through. Feeling his way through, it seemed all the beds closest to the stairway were unoccupied. They would do, at least for the one night. In the morning he could investigate in the light and see if there were better options available.
John took Eileen’s hand and placed it on a bunk at about his knee level. “Here is a good one,” he whispered in her ear. “I will be just above you.” The lass agreed and slipped into her spot. John’s chosen bed was at waist level to him, not allowing much room between the racks. He climbed onto the hard, thin mattress and covered himself with a threadbare blanket he found folded up at the foot of the bed. His body ached as he laid down in the narrow bunk. The bed was not much wider than his shoulders with an empty aisle on each side. A low wooden railing ran the length of both sides of the bunk, extending a couple of inches above the top of the mattress. A hard, thin pillow propped up the lad’s head.
The thick, sickening odor seemed to permeate everything, making it difficult for John to relax. However, after rolling over a few times, the lad finally found a reasonably comfortable position. The slight rolling of the vessel, though not good for walking, soon lulled John into semiconsciousness.
“Good night to you, brother,” Eileen whispered, sounding like a Silkie from dreamland.
“Sleep well,” he returned, struggling to listen for his father’s arrival. Complete exhaustion soon overcame everything and John fell fast asleep.
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