John awoke with a start, completely confused as to where he was. He sat up quickly, banging his head harshly into the bottom of the low bunk above him. Dropping heavily back onto his mattress, the lad began to regain his bearings and remember the details of the day before.
The dim light in the room suggested early morning had broken. He looked slowly around the gloom to try and see the details of where he was. Low voices came from the far end of the room. At least he knew they were not alone.
Looking over the edge of his bunk, John saw Eileen still sleeping soundly. He did not want to disturb her, fearing she might be still exhausted from the day’s journey before. Quickly scanning all the nearby beds that he could see, there was no sign of his father anywhere. Maybe he had found a spot farther back into the room, John surmised.
The lad decided to pause his search until later and slipped quietly out of his bunk and up the narrow stair to the deck. The sun shone brightly, already rising high above the horizon. John squinted his eyes against the sudden brightness as he reached the top step of the stair. He shielded his sight with his hand, spotting a few people milling about the deck or cooking their breakfast on one of the several open fire pits that were placed around the cluttered deck of the ship. The smell of the cooking food made the lad’s stomach growl loudly.
John stepped fully out onto the deck.. Suddenly it occurred to him that he had not even noticed the ships movement this morning. He took a broad sweeping view of his surroundings. A large grin grew on the lad’s face as he turned and spotted the mouth of the bay that led to the open ocean.
“‘Tis gorgeous!” he said aloud, looking out across the dark blue water that continued all the way to the horizon. John scurried to the side railing of the ship, leaning heavily against the thick wooden handrail. He stared out at the ocean with his mouth ajar.
Flocks of large white gulls twisted and turned through the air over his head, darting to and fro on the wind in ways he had never before witnessed. The birds screeched as they dove head first into the choppy water. Two huge white swans swam amongst the multitudinous other birds of all sorts. Most of the creatures the lad had never before seen.
John took a long deep breath of the salt laden air, closing his eyes to the brightness of the morning sun. The constant cool breeze blew stiffly through his shaggy brown hair, whipping it across his forehead and into his eyes. Running his fingers through those oily locks, he cleared his vision for more exploration.
Several fishing boats were sailing through the busy harbor. The small, single masted vessels slipped quickly and quietly through the choppy waves toward the mouth of the bay. John’s heart thumped rapidly with excitement. He gripped the railing until his knuckles turned white. Even the memory of his hunger had diminished. The ocean, he thought, what a brilliant place!
“First time to see the sea, lad?” a man’s voice behind him asked kindly.
John turned to face a middle aged Irishman, made gaunt and thin by poor nutrition. His sunken eyes still held the cheer of his youth, though he had obviously known recent hunger. “Aye, sir,” the lad replied with a smile. “‘Tis such a grand thing! I never thought I would see the ocean, though I have read about it many times.”
The fellow smiled warmly, closing his eyes and deeply drinking in the sea air. “I grew up not far from here, visiting the sea many times. I have never overcome my awe of her wondrous power.” He joined John at the railing and scanned the horizon through squinting eyes. “Some folks around these parts still pay honor to Mananann MacLir. He is the King of the Sea, you know. Some say they have even caught sight of him walking the strand late at night, under the moonlight, when the mist rolls thickly over the sand.” He chuckled, “Do not go in for those fairy folk myself. But I say, people should be allowed to see what they want to see.”
John liked this fellow. He could be a good companion on their journey. He was sure Eileen would be fascinated, as well. “I am John,” the lad responded, holding out his hand. “John Walsh. I am here from Tullamore Town. We just got sent off our farm and put on this boat to America.”
The older man’s gleaming eyes seemed to lose a little luster. “Aye, too much of such things happening as late,” he replied with a sigh. He took John’s hand, shaking it firmly. “Paddy, Paddy O’Sullivan is me name. My wife, daughter, and two sons are here from Ennistimon, down in County Clare. We too are evicted from our family’s farm. We have been on the same patch of land for hundreds of years.” He shifted his weight against the railing. “And you, lad? You here alone?”
“No, sir,” John answered, looking back out over the ocean, still intrigued. “My sister is asleep in the room below, as I suppose is my father. Eileen and me, we left him on the dock late last night when we came onboard.” The lad took another deep draught of fragrant air into his lungs. His stomach growled angrily at its neglect, prompting John’s action. “Where do we get food?” he asked Paddy simply.
Paddy smiled warmly once again. “Come, lad, let us put a mouthful or two in that empty belly!” He put a friendly arm over the lad’s shoulder. Pointing toward the rear of the ship, he directed John to the ship’s pantry.
Another grizzled looking, but younger, sailor sat on a small stool. The tar leaned heavily against a high cupboard running along the side wall of the small, tightly packed room. He peered wordlessly up at the two men as they stopped at the opening.
“My friend, here would like his rations,” Paddy announced happily, patting John roughly on the back.
The grizzled fellow slowly got to his feet and opened another frayed, leather bound register. “Name,” he croaked, turning to the correct page.
“John, John Walsh.”
The sailor checked a column in his book and closed it with a snap. Turning on his heel, he stepped quickly to the high shelf and gathered several items.
John scanned the walls of the small, tightly packed cabin. Huge bags of meal leaned heavily against the far walls with much smaller bags packed neatly across the high shelves. Half-gallon sized glass crocks lined several more shelves, taking up a great deal of room. The lad’s eyes eventually scanned the uppermost shelves, where several tall, dusty bottles of whiskey were stored, secured tightly against the rocking of the vessel.
With his hands full, the seaman returned, handing one of the small bags of meal, three hard crusty biscuits and three palm-sized hunks of jerked meat to John. Again he turned and fetched a crock of water from the neatly stocked shelf. “A day’s rations,” he informed the lad harshly. “If’n you loses the water crock, you will gets no more water!”
John smiled slightly looking at his food. “What about the whiskey there?” he asked innocently, nodding upwards toward the top shelves. “Do we get some of that?”
The sailor’s eyes narrowed to a scowl. “And what would a young whelp do with such a treasure?” he growled. The tar stared at John for several seconds then finally answered his question. “No, the whiskey is for sale. If’n you has the money, you gets the whiskey.” He laughed mockingly at the lad.
John shrugged unconcernedly, knowing there was no money in his pockets. “My sister is here with me, can I get her food as well?” John returned cheerfully, unfazed by the seaman’s ridicule.
“No,” the tar snapped gruffly, tiring of the persistent pest. “Everyone gets their own food, no excuses, no exceptions!”
Startled at the sharp response, John gawked at the sailor. He then took his own rations and slipped back out onto the deck, followed closely by Paddy. “Not much for hospitality, is he?” the antagonized lad chuckled snidely. John suddenly spotted his sister coming up from below deck. “There is my sister, Eileen,” he announced to Paddy.
Eileen sauntered over to the two men, taking a deep breath of damp salty air. A look of amazement came over her face as she looked around the surrounding landscape. She smiled, running over to her brother. “‘Tis so beautiful!” she exclaimed joyously, spinning quickly in a circle to see all around her. The lasses blue eyes twinkled brightly in the sun, her thick flaming hair flying freely in the wind.
John smiled dearly at his sister’s joy. “Eileen, I would like you to meet Paddy O’Sullivan. He is here like we are, but from County Clare.”
“Honored, sir,” she presented her hand with a smile.
“What a lovely lass you are!” he commented gaily. “And about the age of my own daughter! You two should get on well.”
Eileen looked excited. She never thought of making friends on the journey. Maybe this would be a pleasant thing after all. New hope began to show in her face. “I would love to meet her,” the lass responded. “What is her name?”
“Mary,” Paddy returned, “She is helping her mother below. And that is my son, Martin, up there.” He pointed to the bow of the ship, where a handsome, dark haired lad of about twenty years of age sat reading a small book.
Eileen’s smile grew even brighter. “I would like to meet him as well,” she added coyly.
John laughed. “Looks like he has got gumption,” he replied with a smile, then added, “My stomach is almost in rebellion. Maybe Paddy here will show you the way to your food, whilst I have my breakfast.” He looked hopefully at his new friend.
“Of course I would love to escort a beautiful young lass to breakfast,” he offered with a bright smile. “This way Eileen!” He held out his arm for Eileen to take. The two strode merrily to the pantry as John found a seat and began to slowly eat one of his biscuits. ‘Tisn’t the greatest of meals, he thought, but things could certainly be worse.
“James would have just loved all this,” Eileen commented suddenly, a glint of sadness in her eyes. “He just loved boats so.”
“Aye, he would have, at that,” John agreed, closing his eyes to feel the cool wind on his face. “I do wish himself was here with us to see this.”
Eileen sat carefully onto the raised gunwale at the edge of the ship’s deck. Slipping her legs on either side of the railing, she slid forward until her feet were hanging loosely over the water. “I do not understand why so many people have had to die,” she continued sadly. “God should not do that to us, we are a faithful people.”
John tousled his struggling sister’s hair. “Look, the sun is starting to set. Look how the sunlight lays like a blanket over the water.” He smiled sweetly at the lass. “God has his reasons, I am sure. And I know he will take care of all things.”
“So, where do you suppose our Da is?” Eileen questioned her brother, changing the subject slightly. “We have not seen him all day.”
John watched the bottom edge of the sun touch the water on the distant horizon. “Could not say,” he responded, now completely fascinated with the beautiful sight. “Maybe he never came onto the boat.”
“I am mostly sure he did not come onboard with us last night,” the lass answered him worriedly. “But, where could he have gone?” A look of panic was beginning to show in her eyes.
“Oh, he probably went into the city for a while. He will be back before we leave tomorrow.” John tried to calm his sister, sure of his father’s ability to watch out for himself. “If he is not here by the morning, we will go search for him as best we can.”
The sound of footsteps behind them turned both siblings’ heads. Paddy approached happily with his family. They were a handsome group, the men tall, dark haired, and though lean from hunger, of muscular build. The women of the family were very fair of face, shapely, even with their lack of food, and fair haired. All sported beautiful smiles. Their tediously patched clothing, a witness of long hardship, also spoke of toughness and self-pride.
“John, Eileen,” Paddy called out gaily, “I would like you to meet my family. This is Mary, my daughter, Honor, my wife, and my son Martin.” His voice was proud and happy. “And these are my new friends, John and Eileen Walsh,” he introduced the siblings to his family.
Eileen’s demeanor suddenly changed from near panic to curious. She then began to eye Martin delightedly, her gaze smilingly returned by the handsome lad. Mary also quickly stole John’s attention, but being probably a year or two younger than his sister, he was afraid to let the fact be known. They all greeted one another happily and turned to watch the setting of the huge red sun. The high, scattered clouds suddenly caught fire as the disk slipped farther and farther into the inky blue of the Atlantic Ocean. Golden and orange shafts of light erupted into the darkening sky, making a glorious backdrop for the blazing clouds.
“There is nothing like sunset over the sea,” Mary commented quietly, looking over at John with her bright blue eyes gleaming.
He smiled back at the young lass, taking a deep lung full of chilly ocean air. The seagulls cried on the end of the wharf, seemingly to say goodnight to each other and the daylight. Several small cooking fires were lit around the ship, warming meals for the steadily arriving passengers.
“Tomorrow will be a big day,” Paddy commented with a sigh. “A whole new life lies ahead of us all.”
“‘Twill be,” John agreed. “I do not know what to expect next. Partially, I feel an adventure on the way, and partially, a deep sadness for leaving the home I love dearly.”
All agreed with the lad. Quietness settled over the group as the sky darkened with the growing evening. Eileen began speaking softly with Martin, their words carried away by the light breeze. John smiled softly towards his sister, she seems to have found a liking for a lad, after all. Martin seemed to be an honorable fellow, and he certainly seemed to be from good stock. John felt happy for her. If only Mary were a few years older, he might have a liking for her as well.
“Look, John,” Mary surprised him, “the evening star.” She pointed to the bright point of light just above the horizon where the sun had just extinguished himself.
John smiled back at the lass once again and nodded his head in agreement. He turned to look across the ship toward the dock. A long line of people was forming at the base of the gangplank. The lad’s hopes of a sparsely occupied ship were being tossed by the wayside. Maybe one of those in line was his father, he would have to keep a closer watch.
The lad pulled his last piece of jerked meat from his belt and bit off a small bite. He turned back to the railing just as a dark object surfaced next to the boat and barked loudly. The noise startled the lad and he jumped away from the rail.
Paddy and Honor laughed quietly. “Have you never seen a seal, John?” Honor asked playfully.
John moved back to the rail to take another look at the noisy creature. “No,” he answered solemnly, “never in me life.”
“Well, you have now, me lad,” Paddy chuckled. “Unless of course, this happens to be a Silkie!”
The settling lad was aware of the legend of the Silkie, how they were creatures of the sea that could come ashore at night and shed their skins to become beautiful human beings. “Is that the creature a Silkie is from then?” he asked delightedly, taking another look at the playful creature rolling around in the dark water. He wished it were still daylight so he could actually see the animal.
Paddy and Honor smiled at the lad. Paddy yawned largely and stretched. Taking his leave, he followed Honor to the stairwell leading to the bunks. Eileen and Martin had wandered quietly down the railing, still chatting and laughing softly.
“I guess just you and I are left here,” Mary toyed happily. She smiled warmly at the lad and moved a couple of steps closer.
John smiled back at Mary as he shifted his weight to rest his forearms heavily against the wooden railing. The chill in the air sent a slight shiver up his spine. He watched the water intently as the seal swam noisily away.
“Where did you come from, John?” Mary asked sweetly.
“Tullamore Village,” he answered, not turning his attention from the dark water. “‘Tis in the midlands.”
“But, still beyond the pale,” she commented with a smile. “Just like us.”
John really wanted to like this lass, why could she not be just a wee bit older? “So you have lived close to the sea, have you?” he tried making small talk.
“Not far from,” the pretty lass replied. “‘Twas born and lived there all me life. Until now, of course.” She shivered noticeably and moved against John. “I am so cold,” she whined.
John put his arm uncomfortably around her shoulder. He looked blankly out to sea, wondering what the following day was going to bring. “You know,” he started, “When we first got on this boat I could hardly walk. With the deck moving up and down and all.” He chuckled silently to himself. “Now I do not even notice the boat moving.”
Mary chuckled lightly, “I was the same way,” she said, “Now I only slightly notice the movement as well.” She snuggled a little tighter against the lad, shivering.
“It is getting pretty cold out here now,” John confessed. “Maybe we should go down to our bunks. I would hate for you to catch your death out here the first night we meet.”
“‘Tis very noble of you, to watch after me so,” she smiled. “I hope I will see you on the morrow.”
“I hope so too,” John replied, slightly embarrassed. “Good night to you, then.”
“Good night, John,” Mary returned quietly as she turned and walked swiftly away. Halfway to the stair, she turned and smiled over her shoulder to John.
John watched the sweet lass all the way to the stairwell. Eileen and Martin chatted beside one of the cooking pits, warming themselves on the fanning flames. The lad strolled around the deck to see if he could catch a glimpse of his missing father. The boat was filling quickly. Many people milled around the deck, as many more were still lined up at the base of the gangway.
Most everyone, men, women and children, young and old alike were not much more than skin and bone. Many seemed sickly, coughing heavily in the damp ocean air. Pallid faces and dim eyes were abundant, many seeming to have very little will to live. The majority of the passengers wore tattered rags, hardly covering essential body parts. Several of the children, especially those that traveled with the most downtrodden adults, were practically naked in the cold night air.
The adventurous spirit that had begun to flow through John’s veins was beginning to turn once again into pity and grief over the fate of his countrymen. It looked to him as if some of these people were being sent away to die, rather than burden their landlords with the details of their survival. At least he and his family had remained in relatively good health and were essentially nourished. Some of these unfortunates seemed as if they might not last the night, let alone survive a long voyage across a wide ocean.
The handful of food given to these people from the ships stores was probably the most some had seen in months. Destitute people were beginning to crowd around the cooking pits, with whole families waiting eagerly for a bite of corn meal mash. Several tiny babies cried for want of food, their mother’s breasts dried up from lack of nourishment.
A large contingent of soldiers sat astride their mounts at the head of the wharf as more and more people gathered at the gangway for boarding. Where would all these people sleep? John wondered. He had not seen that many bunks below. Shuffling quietly through the growing crowd, the lad watched all the faces he could see for his father. However, there was still no sign of the man.
John stopped to warm himself at one of the low cooking fires. The night air had gotten very chill and a thick fog was once again beginning to roll in. The small flames flickered against the mainmast, just to the fore of the small round brazier. He rubbed his hands in the heat and closed his tired eyes to the dying wind.
Feeling the warmth return to his bones, the lad opened his eyes, looking directly into the beautiful green eyes of a lass across the fire. She looked to be similar in age to himself. Sitting cross-legged on the rough deck next to the pit, the lass stared silently up at him. A thin shawl tightly covered her head and shoulders with only her thin, yet pretty, slightly tanned face peering out. A wisp of dark red hair lay softly across the lasses forehead, framing her deep-set eyes beautifully.
She smiled slightly at John, causing his heart to flutter. “Hi ya’,” he greeted nervously, smiling back.
“Dia duit,” she replied in a thick Gaelic accent.
The reply rather stunned the lad. He really did not understand what she had said. “Grand evening, isn’t it?” he continued shyly.
The lass looked up at him and shrugged, confusion in her lovely eyes. “Níl as béarla agam,” she returned quietly, looking away in embarrassment.
Understanding flooded John’s face. “Oh,” he replied, “You do not speak English! You only speak Irish?”
She looked back at him, still puzzled by his words. Looking away again, she slowly stood to her feet. The lass then turned quickly away from John, lowered her eyes to the dark deck and stepped away from the fire.
“Wait,” John called hurriedly after her. The lass turned to look over her shoulder. “I am John.” He pointed to himself. “John.”
The lass smiled back at him. “Brigid is anam dom,” she replied kindly. “Oíche mhaith, a Shean.” Brigid walked off into the darkness, disappearing into a group of people.
Now John felt confused. The lad had known several attractive lasses back in his village, but never had he felt the attraction that he did to both of these women. Maybe it was just the sea air or the new surroundings, he did not know. He needed to sleep on it for the night.
He slipped through the crowd that was quickly congregating on deck, and moved toward the stair to the bunk room below. Maybe he could check the logbook in the morning to see if his father had checked in. If not, he would make a quick survey down the wharf for him.
Slipping down the narrow stairway, he found that a couple of small oil lamps had been lit in the large room. It was the most light he had ever seen in there. The cabin was larger than he had previously surmised, with numerous rows of beds extending from one side of the wide ship to the other.
John quickly spotted the bunk he had left his belongings on. Eileen was already in the bed below. She lay awake, watching her brother approach. “You have a good evening, brother?” she asked with a smile.
“Lovely,” he returned quietly, arriving at the side of his own bed. “And you, sister?”
“Gorgeous!” she replied happily. “Maybe this will be a good trip for us.”
“I pray so,” John responded hopefully. “I certainly hope so.” The lad climbed into his bunk and spread his blanket over himself. Tomorrow will be a new day, indeed, he thought, closing his eyes and feeling sleep come quickly over him.
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