A chilly wind blew through John’s dark hair as he stared out across the dizzying blueness that surrounded him. Nothing was visible but dark rolling blue waves rising against the lighter blue of the sky. Small whiffs of high white clouds were the only breaks the lad had seen in this infernal blueness for three days.
The fidgety lad stood silently as far forward of the bow as he could. The late afternoon sun was angling toward evening, generating a deep longing for his hillside perch back home. There was no place to get away from the overwhelming mass of people onboard the ship. Nowhere was silent. No place was solitary. And the damned ups and downs of the vessel could drive a person insane.
The only relative sanctuary John could find was standing as far forward on the ship as possible, looking out over the empty ocean. His mind rattled nervously. How long could it take to sail to America, he wondered? No one had ever answered that question for him.
The lad turned and looked longingly back across the deck of the vessel. He gazed down the steps of the forecastle where he stood, watching the constant activity of the other restless passengers. Several families were beginning to build cooking fires in the small pits. His stomach was beginning to growl as well, prompting him to leave his post and stroll down the short flight of stairs amidships.
John caught sight of the captain setting up a box of instruments on the quarterdeck. He wished he could get up there to investigate, but the Irish passengers were not allowed up the stairs nor in the private cabins at the rear of the ship.
Punishment for the first violation of that rule was to be locked away in the tiny brig in the dark hold of the vessel for two days. The lad did not care to know what the second violation merited.
The captain never came down onto the deck amidships nor did his only two paying passengers; two Englishmen, dressed in gaudy finery. All three stayed either to their cabins or on the quarterdeck, at the raised rear of the vessel. Not even the crew was allowed to associate with the Irish unless absolutely necessary. Any conversation between crew and passenger was intentionally held to a bare minimum.
His curiosity was now thoroughly piqued, however, and John watched intently as the ship’s master held up a sextant, checking the readiness of the instrument for later use. His attention completely absorbed in the actions astern, the lad rounded the mainmast and rammed head on into someone else. He snapped around to look into the lean face of a lovely redheaded Irishwoman. He grasped her hand tightly as she reeled backwards from the collision. “Oh, Christ, I am so sorry! Brigid?” he questioned, surprised.
The lass caught her balance and smiled back forgivingly at the lad. “Gabh mo leithscéal,” she replied softly, turning slightly red faced. “A Shean?”
John smiled kindly at the blushing lass. “John,” he answered slowly.
“John,” Brigid stammered, unable to fully pronounce the ‘J’. She laughed at her errant attempt at the pronunciation. “A Shean,” she repeated again boldly in her own language.
“Do you speak no English?” the lad asked curiously.
“Eng. . .?” Brigid began, her face suddenly losing its beautiful smile. “Níl,” she replied solemnly. “Níl as Béarla agam.”
John felt strange. He was Irish, he should at least have some knowledge of his native tongue! Yet, that right had been stripped from many of his people long ago. However, when the ship arrives in America, this poor lass will probably be lost without speaking any English. Maybe he should teach her. But how would he communicate with her to begin her lessons? Or even know if she wanted to learn?
“Hi ya’, John!” Mary O’Sullivan called brightly from across the deck. “Lovely day isn’t it?” She approached quickly from behind the thick mast. Arriving at John’s side, her bright face dimmed at the sight of Brigid. “Sorry,” she stammered, “I did not know you were entertaining.”
Brigid looked quickly away, again blushing brightly. Her eyes dropping to look silently at her feet, the embarrassed lass took a halting step away.
“No, Brigid, do not go,” John started, still not quite sure how to communicate effectively. “Mary, uh, hallo.” Now the struggling lad did not know where to proceed. “Uh, Mary, this is Brigid. I almost accidently knocked her over a moment ago. She does not speak English.” John pointed awkwardly at Mary, “Brigid, this is Mary.”
“Dia duit, a Bhrigid,” Mary suddenly responded, much to the lad’s surprise. “Conas tá tú?” The dark haired lass held out a kind hand to her new acquaintance.
“Dia is Máire duit, a Mháire! Tá mé go maith. Agus conas tá tú eile?”
“Tá mé go máith, go raibh maith agat,” Mary replied with a warm smile.
John stood feeling the odd cog. “What did you say?” he questioned curiously.
Mary and Brigid both chuckled. “Just a cordial greeting,” the dark haired lass replied. “Hello, how are you, that kind of thing.”
“Can you teach me a little of that?” John asked, his eyes brightening. “Better late than never, you know.”
“Of course I can,” Mary offered happily, “what little I know myself. I have only learned from neighbors who spoke Irish as a second language. Our family never used the tongue to any extent ourselves.”
“I think we should teach Brigid at least some English as well,” John commented, concern in his voice. “She will have a very difficult time in America only speaking Irish.”
“I think you are right,” Mary replied contemplatively. “I will ask if she wants to learn.”
The two young women conversed briefly in their native tongue as John stood helplessly by. A few old toasts and songs by his father and uncles was all he had ever heard of the language. Mary paused and announced, “She agrees. We will meet her here tomorrow morning to start.”
John felt good in himself. Not only would he be doing something good for someone else, but he would have something to do with his time as well. “Tomorrow then, very well,” he responded with a warm smile directed at Brigid.
“Me stomach is complaining terribly,” John continued, taking his leave of the two lasses. “I must get some food for myself. Good evening, lasses.”
“Oíche mhaith,” Brigid replied happily. “Slán go foíll.”
Mary smiled at the lad. “She said goodnight and she will see you soon.”
John just smiled and turned away with a nod. The lad strolled to the doorway that lead below decks. Opening the portal, he was met with a growing acrid stench. Many of the passengers were sick and disabled, confined to their beds will dire illness. Their excrement and body odors were beginning to foul the air terribly. A lack of proper ventilation also aided in the growing stench. There were no windows to the exterior. The only opening whatsoever was the small entry door to the deck.
The lad took a deep breath and entered the hold. Descending the stairs into the gloom, he hurried to his bunk where he had stashed his provisions and belongings. John quickly grabbed his bundle of clothing, his food and blanket and scurried back up the stairs to the deck. The weather was sufficiently warm and dry, so he decided to try sleeping on the deck that night to avoid the foul smell.
The setting sun, slowly falling before the starboard bow, painted the surface of the ocean a dark red with his dying light. The wind had even calmed somewhat, diminishing the wind chill effect of the open sea. He found a protected spot between the line of cooking pits forward and the low wall of the forecastle. That should make a nice place to spend the night.
Unwrapping his crusty biscuit and piece of dried meat, the lad settled beside the warmth of the cooking fire. He spotted Eileen across the deck chatting cheerfully with Martin O’Sullivan. He smiled warmly and waved toward the couple. At least there seemed to be some good to this ordeal after all.
John’s thoughts turned suddenly toward his father. Where could he have gotten off to? Hopefully he found his way into Galway City and found a way to care for himself. Still the lad wished he had gotten the opportunity to say goodbye. He really did miss his Da greatly.
The evening light began to wane as the first stars appeared in the indigo sky. The slight rolling of the ship and the music of the wind in the canvas was beginning to lull the lad into unconsciousness. Several people took a spot around the fire, cooking gruel with their supplies of corn meal and water.
An older fellow who was just settling in across the fire moaned noisily with every movement. His heavily bruised skin looked extremely swollen, especially around his knees, ankles, elbows and wrists. A grey fog seemed to obscure the old fellow’s dark, sunken eyes as he put togther the simple ingredients for his meal. Numerous open sores showed through his tattered rags as well.
Waiting for his food to cook, the old fellow spotted a wee lass of four or five years staring at him. Motioning her over with a boney, calloused finger, the man unwrapped his evening biscuit and handed it to the joyous little girl with a smile. She took the offering, running quickly away to share her prize with a toddler brother across the deck. The old man chuckled brightly.
Finishing the preparation of his mash, the old man closed his eyes, mumbled a few words and faithfully made the sign of the cross over his heart. Then, through toothless gums, he drank the thin, tasteless gruel down with gusto. A broad toothless smile spread across the fellow’s face when he noticed John staring at him.
John felt suddenly ashamed. He had obviously seen much easier times than many of the other people aboard this vessel. His family had never gone completely without food or shelter. Though death had visited their door, it had not been the prolonged agony of starvation with no hope of filling a belly. Yet, the man before him seemed to have suffered greatly and still had the faith of a Saint.
He leaned heavily back against the forecastle wall and looked longingly into the starry sky. He searched his soul for any faith he could find. But, there was very little left there. God, he thought, what do I do when my faith has been left on a distant shore? The lad placed his bundle behind his head, wrapped the thin blanket around his shoulders and drifted slowly off to sleep in the warm glow of the firelight.
John awoke, lying on his side with his back against the forecastle wall. The morning sun was rising brightly over the port stern. The lad sat up, rubbing his eyes and stretched his cramped limbs. He suddenly caught sight of Brigid sitting a few feet away watching his every move. A jolt of surprised adrenalin brought him into full consciousness with a start.
“Maidin mhaith,” Brigid greeted pertly with a bright smile.
John rubbed his face, looking questioningly at the lass. “Good Morning,” he mumbled.
“G. . . Morn,” she stuttered, trying to imitate John’s greeting.
John chuckled involuntarily, creating a frown on the pretty lass. “No, no,” he replied, forcing the smile off his face. “‘Tis just so bloody early.”
“Early,” she tried again, able to mouth the word pretty well. She smiled again brightly.
“Yes, early,” the lad returned with an exaggerated nod. “I am hungry.” He rubbed his stomach and mimicked putting food in his mouth.
“Tá cinnte, agus míse!” Brigid rubbed her thin belly as well, motioning the lad to follow her.
John struggled to his feet on stiff legs, the early sun glinting brightly in his eyes. The slight breeze felt warm on his face. He stretched once again and scanned the horizon around the ship. A dark line of clouds lay heavy on the horizon directly ahead of them. Maybe ‘tis just fog, he thought absently and followed Brigid to the pantry.
Mary was already waiting, along with a small group of other passengers, for the door of the pantry to open. She smiled warmly as John and Brigid approached. “Nach breá an lá é?” she greeted the pair happily.
“Tá cinnte,” Brigid responded with a happy affirmative nod.
John just looked away nodding his head. Mary laughed. “I thought you wanted to learn the language,” she chuckled.
“I do,” John replied with a smirk, “but, I have to know what you are saying if I am going to learn.”
Mary brushed an errant lock of hair out of John’s eyes. “I just said, isn’t it a fine day today? And Brigid answered, it certainly is. Simple as that.” The lass repeated her statement in Irish, then prompted John to try.
Brigid chuckled as the lad stumbled over the words. John looked at the two snickering young women and burst out laughing at himself. “‘Tis supposed to be Brigid’s time of learning,” he commented with a chuckle. “I will be a learning me own lessons later.”
The sailor in charge of the pantry arrived and wordlessly opened the door. The group pushed in close around the doorway. John’s water jar was almost knocked from his hand, so he grasped it a little more tightly, not wanting to be without water for the rest of the voyage.
A young mother stood in front of John with her five almost naked children. The youngest babe in her arms cried constantly as she waited patiently for her rations. As she reached the front of the line, the sailor eyed the lass suspiciously.
“Are you sure those are all your little whelps?” he questioned the young woman roughly. “I better not see any of them come through here with anyone else! That will be the end of the rations for all of you.”
“But, I am not taking any extra food, sir,” the poor mother pleaded, looking solemnly to the floor. “I am only getting what I need to keep me children’s bellies full.”
The cynical old Tar doled out the family’s food and sent them harshly on their way, spitting belligerently on the floor behind them as they left. John took his rations and left the storeroom as quickly as possible. He passed Eileen on the way out the door.
“Where were you last night?” Eileen asked the lad.
“I slept on deck,” he replied, “‘Twas much too smelly down below.”
The lass chuckled. “I think I might join you tonight,” she replied.
John turned away and headed toward the bow of the ship. The clouds on the horizon were getting darker and closer. The whole western sky was now blue-black with storm clouds climbing high into the heavens. The lad took a drink of his water and bit into his hard, stale biscuit. He hoped there was another food supply on the ship because at this rate their food would be essentially unfit to eat in the weeks ahead.
“Umm, scrumptious,” Mary commented, walking quietly up behind John. She bit into her biscuit as it crumbled into her hand. “Looks like rain,” she continued absently.
“Aye, does,” John agreed. “But I hope not. I do not know if I can stand the smell of the cabin downstairs.”
“Myself,” Mary commented with a wriggle of her nose.
The two watched the clouds get closer as they finished their breakfast. Brigid arrived soon after. She and Mary conversed in Irish for several minutes. John watched the lasses curiously. A look of surprise suddenly crossed Mary’s face.
“Brigid says she takes half of her food to her mother below.” Mary explained to John in a disgusted voice. “She cannot get out of bed to get her own supplies and the old sailor in the storeroom will not give Brigid her mother’s food, so she has to share her own.”
John shook his head in disgust. It was unbelievable to make even the infirmed passengers leave their sickbeds to retrieve their own rations. “Maybe we can help,” John suggested, a look of ire still in his eyes. “Maybe Brigid just cannot tell the old man what is amiss. We can explain the problem to him and maybe help her get her mother’s food.” The idea of confronting the cranky old sailor did not sit with him very well at that moment.
“Could be,” Mary agreed with a slight smile. She relayed the plan to Brigid in halting Irish. The lass seemed very happy and pleased with the idea.
“We will wait until most everyone else has gotten their own food then we will go get Brigid’s mother’s supplies.” John directed with a smile. He and Brigid smiled warmly to each other. There was a communication between them that went beyond language.
As the line of passengers dwindled, Mary led the way back to the pantry. One by one, the few people still waiting in line for their food received their supplies and left. The eager lass stepped up to the doorway to be greeted by the belligerent sailor.
“All three of you were here earlier,” he rumbled. “Off with you, I got other work to do.” He started to push the three unquestioningly out the door.
“Wait,” John responded, speaking very quickly to get his say before being shoved out of the cabin. “We are not here for ourselves this time. Our friend Brigid’s mother is downstairs sick and unable to get out of bed. We just want to get her some food.”
The crusty old seaman eyed them hostilely and kept pushing at the small group. “I have heard better stories than that one,” he spat. “Go on now, off with you before I get mad.”
“No it is true,” Mary chimed in. “Brigid does not speak English and she could not tell you before! Now she has to share her own food with her mother, who is starving down below.”
Several more passengers moved up behind the trio waiting for their own supplies. The old sailor’s visage grew even more resolute. “I said away with you!” he hissed once again. “And do not come back here with that cockamamie story again. If’n you do, I will see to it that you get no more food for the rest of the voyage! Go on, get!”
John’s heart burned with loathing. “Listen, come with us and we can show you her mother. Then maybe you will believe us,” he offered, trying desperately to hold his temper.
“I do not need to see nobody,” the seaman spat through clenched teeth. “If’n you cannot get up to get your food, you do not need to have it wasted on you anyway! If I hear one more word from any of you, there will be no more food. That I promise!”
Disappointed and throughly ired, John led the little group away. Brigid looked at him, not understanding what was happening. Mary began to explain to the confused lass as best she could in broken Irish. A look of shock and dismay crossed her face as the explanation developed. Finally another look of grim acceptance settled in her eyes.
“Well, I just cannot let Brigid not eat,” John determined. “I can at least share my food with her.” He turned sharply and lead the two lasses to his packet of food. Unwrapping his second biscuit, he handed it to Brigid with a warm smile.
Brigid looked thoroughly surprised. “Níl,” she protested, holding up her hands in a show of disagreement. “Tá sé dó dínear!”
“She will not take it.” Mary answered for the resistant lass. “She says that is your dinner.”
“How do you say please?” John asked, still looking Brigid in the eyes.
“Le do thoil,” Mary responded, looking amusedly between them.
“Le do thoil,” he stammered, still holding the biscuit out for the lass.
“Agus seo,” Mary offered, also holding out a piece of her jerked meat.
Brigid looked at both of her offering friends. “Ó, tá go maith,” she acquiesced, taking the food from her friends.
Mary smiled, “Oh, all right to you as well!” she laughed, mimicking Brigid.
The hungry lass practically inhaled the food. John and Mary watched Brigid eat her meal in total silence, quickly swallowing every crumb. “Go raibh míle maith agat!” she thanked the both of them as she swallowed her last bite.
“She said thank you very much,” Mary interpreted with a smile.
John did not need an interpretation. He could see the thankfulness in the lasses eyes. “You are welcome very much,” he replied warmly.
A low roll of thunder suddenly caught John’s attention. He craned his head around to scan the sky in front of the ship. The dark clouds he had seen earlier were rapidly closing in. The light wind that had been driving the ship suddenly died completely, slowing their progress. The ocean flattened out, leaving the vessel drifting slowly toward the storm on an eerily calm sea. Her sails sagged on their spars, hardly ruffled by any airflow as the dark clouds mounted, still some miles ahead.
The quartermaster took a position at the railing of the poop deck. He looked cautiously around the horizon, sniffing the air and watching the building thunder heads. The officer barked several orders sending sailors scurrying up the rigging and across the beams. Several of the sails were raised and tied off against their booms. The Captain joined his first officer on deck, scanning the sky for himself.
With another series of orders, the full compliment of sails were hoisted and stowed. The first dark fingers of cloud began to occupy the sky over the dormant ship. Thunder rolled again more closely. A fresh gust of wind from the cloud mass ahead rippled the glassy water. The poignant smell of rain drifted across John’s nose.
Another gust of wind tousled the hair of John and his two friends. And again thunder rumbled through the heavens.
“Unfortunately,” John commented, “it looks as if we will be having our English lesson down in the cabin below.”
The ship lurched slightly with a sudden onslaught of rolling seas. A furious gust of wind tore out of the dark storm and blew a quick froth on top of the rolling waves. The boiling clouds began to obliterate the sun, casting a deep shadow across the suddenly turbulent sea.
“All passengers get below deck,” the quartermaster barked through the howl of the windy onslaught. “Batten down the hatches!”
John scurried to the forecastle to collect his belongings and rejoined the girls at the door to the stairs. The wind whistled across the deck of the ship, threatening to jerk the small door out of his hands as he held it for several people while they plunged down into the gloomy cabin. A large drop of rain spattered on the low roof of the entryway, followed quickly by several more. John looked up to see a dark grey wall of rain headed directly for them at a mad rush.
A bright flash of lightening sent the lad scurrying down into the acrid hold. He gasped as the warm stench rushed up his nose. The lad quickly closed the door behind him as the wall of rain began to pound noisily on the low roof over his head. A deep surge of the ship shifted John precariously on the top step of the stair landing. He grasped tightly onto the handrail.
Several low moans followed the vessel’s sudden shift of motion as she rose from the trough of the wave. The timbers creaked loudly, straining under the pressure of heavy seas. A loud clap of thunder boomed nearby, sending John scurrying down between the bunks to join his friends.
The rise and fall of the ship made the lad’s transit of the narrow walkway difficult. He was tossed roughly against the wooden sides of the racks several times. The sounds of several passengers getting sick around the gloomy room made his own stomach turn in revulsion.
John made it to the side of his own bunk after several minutes of being tossed around into others’. Eileen sat slumped over, precariously in the middle of her own low bunk. She grasped tightly onto the railing with one white-knuckled hand while holding onto Martin with her other. Martin likewise, held onto the side of the bunk and onto Eileen. Both were sheepishly watching John as he stumbled closer.
The lad was relieved that his sister was safe and seemingly in good hands. He decided to find Mary and Brigid and join them. Wordlessly, he clawed his way down the narrow aisle, through the midst of the moaning, sickened passengers. He found Mary reclining in her bunk, holding onto the raised railings for dear life. The lasses ghostly face expressed the fear permeating her being.
“Oh, John,” Mary whispered as he approached her bunk. Paddy and Honor lay together in the little bunk above their daughter. Paddy smiled worriedly at the lad.
John climbed in beside Mary. Instantly, she clutched for him, wrapping her arms tightly around his waist. He sat beside her wordlessly, holding the lass in his arms.
The gale howled outside. The drone of the fierce storm was deafening. Heavy rain pounded onto the wooden deck above, mixing noisily with the waves crashing into the sides of the creaking vessel. Long, deep rolls of thunder were borne on the wailing wind, screaming audibly through the rigging overhead. Children cried as concerned parents tried to calm them. The murmur of prayers intermingled with low moans of agony.
Mary began to sob freely in John’s arms, praying for their safety under her breath. The lad did his best to comfort the frightened lass. He set his own fears aside, caring tenderly for the safety of his friend. Together they rode out the fury of the storm, comforting each other against the wrath of an angry sea.
The Cushla Machree performed admirably. She braved the storm for hours on end, providing safety for all onboard. Though she complained at being tossed around in the violent sea, she held her head and masts high.
Eventually, the storm began to break. The rolling of the ship became less violent and the sounds of the storm became the low drone of a light, steady rain and gusty breezes. The cries and murmurs of the fearful passengers quieted to a collective sigh of relief. Mary’s sobs ended as she relaxed and rested quietly on John’s shoulder.
“Thank God,” the relieved lass sighed quietly. “And thank you for staying with me like this.” She smiled up at John with a little sparkle in her eyes.
John smiled back tenderly, stroking the lasses hair and giving her a small kiss on her forehead. “I am happy I could be of comfort to you,” he responded softly.
Paddy jumped down from his bunk onto the slightly rolling floor. “I got to stretch me legs,” he announced. “Is everyone all right down here?”
Embarrassed at being seen with his arms around Paddy’s daughter, John slipped out of the bunk and stood beside the man. “Aye, sir,” he replied haltingly, “I think all is well with us.”
Paddy slapped the lad playfully on the shoulder and smiled warmly at him. “Thank you very much for watching after me daughter through that,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “A fine lad you are and a good friend, indeed. And if you care to be more at some point. . . ,” he trailed of with a smile.
John blushed hotly. He looked shyly over to Mary, who was herself brightly red faced. “My pleasure, sir,” he responded quietly, looking down at his feet nervously.
Understandingly, Paddy patted the lad’s shoulder once again. “What do you say we go up and see what has happened on deck?” he asked brightly.
“Aye, I will be right behind you,” John answered, looking back to a still blushing Mary with a smile. “Maybe there is some help we can offer on deck.”
John followed closely behind Paddy toward the stairway. It will be good to get some fresh air, he thought, his nose still feeling the effects of the acrid odor in a very confined place.
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