“‘Tis brilliant!” Mary exclaimed looking up from her language instruction to the colorful sunset. The passing storm system had left a remnant of high cloud that glistened in the setting sun. Bright orange, red and yellow rays intermingled with darker shades of blue and purple to create an extraordinarily picturesque scene. Gold spilled richly across the softly rolling ocean, glistening silver where the ship cut the water into foam.
John looked up into the horizon and smiled. “Aye, ‘tis,” he replied, stricken by the hand painted beauty of the evening. He shivered slightly in the chilly breeze and watched the shining orb slip beyond the brilliant horizon preceding of the vessel. Pointing his finger toward the colorful scene, he directed Brigid’s attention to the beauty.
Brigid turned to face the west and smiled broadly. She shook her head, allowing her thick red hair to blow gently off her face. “Tá sé go h’alainn,” she sighed in her own language. “How say?” the lass queried haltingly.
John smiled back at his friend. “Beautiful,” he answered warmly. “Just beautiful!”
“Beautiful,” Brigid mimicked with a happy smile.
The three friends sat in silence, watching the sun slip quietly beneath the golden waves. The murmur of the prow slipping across the surface of the ocean serenaded the trio. John was happy that the quarterdeck was their own. Everyone else was on the lower deck, amidships, preparing their suppers. That left the front of the ship quiet and set a wee bit apart.
The ship’s progress had slowed with the change in wind direction. Instead of having full sails and a very favorable breeze, the winds now came rather briskly from the northwest necessitating a slight change in tact. However, the seas had calmed to long rolling troughs, making the ship’s rise and fall much more slow and rhythmical.
Darkness began to creep into the sky from the east. Brigid pointed up to the bright evening star. “Réalta,” she stated happily.
Mary looked at the shining point of light. “Star,” the lass informed her friend.
“Star,” Brigid mimicked once again. The lass smiled and added, “Beautiful.”
John smiled sweetly between the two young lasses. ‘Aye, beautiful,” he agreed once again, looking into Brigid’s sparkling eyes. A deep warmth settled into his heart. A warmth of friendship, or even love, that he had never felt for anyone outside of his own family. His only confusion was that he felt very similarly about both women. He had no confirmed direction like Eileen seemed to have found.
Brigid suddenly coughed and shivered in the chilled night air, chuckling as she brought the coughing spell to a halt. The lass patted her chest playfully and laughed aloud. John and Mary joined her laughter, creating a raucous on the forecastle.
Several other passengers down on deck looked up at the happy trio and began to chuckle themselves.
A quiet strain of music began somewhere on deck as someone began blowing a tin whistle. It was a merry tune that wafted into the night breeze. John, Mary and Brigid all turned in unison to find the happy sound. The chords grew louder as several people below spurred the piper on. Another flute joined in harmoniously, increasing the volume of the music. Several people on deck began clapping to the tune. Some of the heartier passengers even began to dance.
John looped an arm through each of the young lasses arms and directed them down the forecastle steps toward the music. They stopped before the two pipers, each smiling brightly. Brigid pulled away from the lad, clapping her hands loudly and tapping her feet. Mary soon followed suit.
Gazing around the growing merry crowd, John chuckled. He spotted Eileen dancing wildly around Martin. Paddy and Honor stood at the edge of the group smiling and clapping happily. A large group of people had, by then, begun to dance all around the tight deck.
A ragged older gentleman joined the pipers, playing a worn out fiddle. John just could not keep his feet still any longer. The lad took each of the young women successively in his arms, dancing brightly around them. Everyone laughed loudly. Even some of the sailors appeared on deck, smiling and clapping to the merriment.
The stars shone brightly on the merry-making passengers. The crisp evening air stole away any remaining heartache or hunger from their gaunt faces. Merry feet tapped the deck joyfully, adding the rhythmic beat of the missing bodhrán to the ensemble.
A bright full moon began to rise out of the shimmering sea behind them, bathing the vessel’s worn wooden deck with a warm golden glow. Gentle shadows hid the faces of the musicians as the final silver thread of the dying day slipped into the deepening west. John felt more alive at that moment than any since his experiences with the death of the English agents. Those awkward experiences now seemed a distant memory anyway.
Brigid suddenly stopped dancing, flopping exhaustedly onto the rough deck. She took a deep breath, coughed deeply, and smiled up at John and Mary. “Tá seo craic go leor!” she exclaimed.
Mary laughed heartily. “Aye, ‘tis great fun!” the lass agreed as she sat down beside her friend.
John turned and watched the musicians intently. The fast-paced jigs and reels had begun to slow to a much more mellow rift of music. Memories of home began to flood his mind, stinging his eyes with bittersweet tears. He really missed his father and both his brothers. The lad could almost see the dim walls of the family cottage and smell the thatch of the roof. Even the acrid smell of the coal cooking fires smoldering beside him seemed to dim into the sweet smell of burning turf. A small tear slipped down John’s cheek. He quickly brushed away the moisture, lest anyone should see.
The young lad felt a pair of arms slip around his waist from behind. He turned slightly to see Mary snuggle against him. Her body was warm in the brisk evening air. John turned slightly and placed right his arm around the caressing lasses shoulder. She smiled warmly up at him.
The music slowed pace even more, becoming an ancient, quietly flowing melody of his homeland. John could feel a soft summer breeze in his face, carried by the wonderful tune. The sweet smell of heather and a vision of green rolling hills flowed all around him. His eyes began to sting mightily as his heart fell into a cold shadow. How could he ever live without Ireland? How could he breathe any air not warmed by the goddess Brid’s own breath?
Another slender arm slipped around John’s waist. His friend Brigid pressed warmly against his left side. Tenderly caressing the second lasses shoulder, he pull both young women tightly against him.
Brigid coughed slightly and sniffled. John looked down at the lass to see tears rolling down her pretty face. She must feel the same thing I do, John thought tenderly. Mary looked between John and Brigid, sadness deep in her eyes as well.
“I miss my home,” she whispered hoarsely. All John could muster was a sad smile back at the sniffling lass.
The music came to a spiraling end. Nothing remained but the sound of wind in the sails and the bow of the ship pushing steadily against the waves, taking them all farther from their homes. Quietly, the group began to disband, most of the passengers heading for their bunks.
“Oíche mhaith agaibh,” Brigid sniffled, pulling John over to gently kiss his cheek. She then slipped around the lad and hugged Mary tightly.
“Oíche mhaith, a Bhrigid,” Mary returned softly. “Codladh sámh.”
“Goodnight,” John returned with a dim smile. He brushed his hand easily through her thick hair.
Brigid stepped swiftly away from the couple, disappearing into the doorway leading below decks. Mary snuggled tightly against John once again, shivering in the chilled, damp ocean breeze. John wrapped both arms around the lasses quivering body, pulling her close to him. The lad looked longingly over the top of the quarterdeck to see the moon, now shining silvery in the dark, starry sky.
John kissed Mary gently on the forehead and stroked his hand through her dark tangled hair. His heart felt as if it had been poured out across the damp deck and trampled on by the disappearing crowd. The lad’s eyes were still on the verge of flowing tears, yet, he dare not cry. A gust of wind blew a tuft of hair into John’s eyes, giving him an excuse to wipe away the dew.
Mary pulled gently away, taking John by the hand and leading him to the starboard gunwale. She leaned heavily against the wooden rail and looked forlorn into the moon at the rear of the ship. John stood behind the lass with his arms wrapped tightly around her waist. “Do you think we will ever see home again?” she asked quietly.
John stood silently, staring absently into the frothy wake. Mary shifted restlessly in his arms and shivered slightly. “With the grace of God Almighty, we will return to our home!” he finally spoke out, his voice clear and firm. “If we do not, there is not a God in the heavens.”
“I am afraid, John,” Mary answered simply. “We do not even know where we are going. I mean, we know we are going to America, but, what will it be like? Will we be able to survive? We have no place to stay once we get off this ship. And we have no money.”
John’s heart finally broke completely in two. Several tears streamed quickly down the lad’s face. He sniffled, pulling the lass as tightly as he dared against his own body. “I am afraid as well,” he admitted. “But, somehow we will get by.”
Mary turned gracefully in John’s arms, wrapping her own arms tightly around his waist. She looked the lad directly in the eyes. “Stay with me, John,” she whispered. “I know we can get by together.” The lass reached up and kissed John warmly on the lips.
The lad was at first taken aback, caught completely by surprise. Yet, a warmth suddenly filled his body, stitching up his torn heart and adding color to the ghostly sea. He pulled Mary tightly to his chest, pressing his lips fully on hers. Time stood still as their hearts intertwined. The air seemed to warm and the glow of the smiling moon flooded even through John’s closed eye lids.
“We will get by together,” John agreed lovingly. “We will do the best we can in America, then, someday, we will return home.
Brigid and Mary followed John to the steps of the forecastle. John halted at the bottom of the small stair, watching several small children playing amongst themselves on the raised deck. The lad smiled at the youngsters and turned to the lasses following him. “Why do we not try another spot? No need to disturb the little bit of playtime the wee ones get on this ship,” he suggested cheerfully.
“‘Tis a grand idea,” Mary agreed quickly. There seemed to be some clear space at the back of the boat.”
“Grand, let’s try it!” John directed, shuffling quickly past the lasses.
Brigid looked confused. Bewilderment covered her face as she followed Mary and John back the way they had just come. She grasped Mary’s arm asking, “Cad é seo? What. . ?”
Mary just smiled, motioning for her to follow. Weaving between the cook fires, people, and stray rigging, the trio made their way toward the rear of the ship. They found an out of the way spot at the base of the quarterdeck along the starboard side of the vessel. John sat nimbly down upon a thick coil of rope, motioning the two lasses to join him. He smiled at the girls as they found a spot to sit next to him.
Brigid still looked somewhat confused, looking toward the forecastle where their lessons had normally taken place. She shrugged and smiled at John. “Lesson?” the lass stammered, then broke into a fit of coughing.
“Dia Linn,” Mary blessed her coughing spell. She patted Brigid on the back with a smile.
“Thank you,” Brigid replied thickly with a warm smile. She coughed once again and laughed.
“All right now, where do we begin?” John questioned. He looked at Mary with a perplexed smile.
“I think herself should learn a few common expressions,” Mary returned looking toward her friend. “Maybe like; I would like this or I would like that. You think?”
“Brilliant idea,” John concurred.
Brigid watched the discussion between the two curiously. Her eyes were bright and she seemed eager for participation. “Brilliant,” the lass mimicked with a smile.
Both John and Mary laughed heartily. Their giggles were soon joined by Brigid. The three friends shared the moment like a gift from Heaven. They wrapped their arms around each others necks and touched foreheads.
“You’se are havin’ much too much merriment!” a familiar voice chirped unexpectedly.
John turned to his sister who had joined the trio unannounced. “Hi ya’, Eileen! Come and join us. We are just giving Brigid a lesson in English. Herself speaks only Irish at present.”
“Only Irish?” Eileen questioned curiously. “I thought the language was only for old men drinking in a pub!”
Brigid stood to her feet. “Brigid is ainm dom. Cad is ainm duit?” She held out a warm hand to Eileen.
Eileen looked puzzled toward John, taking Brigid’s offered hand.
“She said her name is Brigid and what is yours?” John translated.
“I am Eileen, John’s sister,” the lass answered with a warm smile.
“Eileen,” Brigid recanted.
“Tá sí deirfiúr ag Sean,” Mary explained Eileen’s relationship to John.
Brigid smiled warmly. “Brilliant,” she replied.
“Would you like to join us, sister?” John inquired brightly. “I have sort of learned a few things myself. About Irish, I mean.”
“I would love to. At least until Martin comes up from below,” Eileen obliged, then looked to Mary. “He is helping your mother look after some personal effects.”
A cloud seemed to cover Mary’s face. “Should I go and give what help I can?” The lass stood abruptly to her feet.
“No, lass,” Eileen comforted her with a small smile. “All will be fine. Martin will be finished and back up here shortly.”
“Lovely!” Mary replied, “Then we can get back to our lessons.” She sat back into her seat.
Brigid looked worriedly at her friends. Mary smiled reassuringly back at the lass. “Tá sé go maith anois,” she assuaged her worried looking friend.
Brigid’s visage eased. Her eyes sparkled in the rising sun, glowing as blue as the shining sea around them. A sudden puff of breeze blew a thick lock of hair across the lasses face. She tossed her head back to the clear sky and smiled into the warm sun. Sighing deeply, the lass looked playfully at John.
John’s heart skipped a beat. He had never seen anyone do anything that attracted his desire more than what Brigid just did. He swallowed hard just to recapture his own attention. The lad just knew everyone must be able to sense his desire. Yet, he could not allow himself to fall into his feelings and hurt Mary. She was such a wonderfully loving young woman.
“Excuse me,” John suddenly rose and stepped quickly away from the group. He moved quickly to the port railing, looking blankly out to sea. He had to sort out these feelings. He was being fair to no one, not even himself. The far away glint of sunlight on the waves somehow reminded the lad of looking over the Tullamore River.
John closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of the morning sun full on his face. He could hear the rustling of Birch leaves along the river shore and smell the sweet nectar of new rain. A wondrous vision of Brigid sitting beside the Grand Canal, tossing her head back in the gentle breeze and smiling warmly into the noonday sun exploded into his consciousness. It was a grand illusion. Yet, one that frightened him.
A pair of tender arms suddenly wrapped gently around John’s waist, waking the lad from his dream. He sighed deeply and slowly opened his eyes. Oh God, if you are really up there, show me what to do, he begged silently. He turned in Mary’s arms. Silently, she looked deeply into John’s eyes.
A deep well of turbulent emotions lay behind her hazel eyes. John could see the fear, confusion and disillusionment as readily as if they were painted on the walls of some ancient cathedral. Her soul seemed to be laid bare before him, inviting his adjoining. Her heart called, sweetly, honestly, touching the lad at the moment he could least bear it.
John’s heart ached. He longed for his home. He missed his father, his mother, and his brothers. He felt the confusion of a man lost in destiny. The wrenching of his soul squeezed a tear from his eye. Quietly and warmly, he let the drop roll unfettered down his cheek, still struggling within those green pools of madness.
Mary reached gently up and brushed away John’s tear. She wrapped him up tightly, resting her head lovingly on the lads chest. John stroked her black hair softly, holding the lass tightly against his slightly quivering body. Not a word was spoken, they did not need language.
Funny, John thought, language seemed the barrier to Brigid. Now, the lack of it seems the bridge to Mary. He closed his eyes again, feeling Mary’s warm body pressed firmly against him.
A loud angry voice nearby broke John’s spell. He snapped to attention, looking for the source of the heated anger. Looking up to the quarterdeck, he spied one of the English passengers screaming over the railing at Brigid, Eileen and Martin, who had just joined the two lasses. The three Irish passengers stared up at the Englishman with mouths agape.
“You there,” screamed the Brit, “get away from here! You are fouling the air. Go on, get away now!”
Eileen, Martin and Brigid just stood and stared at the irate man. “We have cause to be here, sir,” Martin finally managed weakly.
“Cause?” the Englishman roared, swatting the handrail in front of him with a thick riding crop. “The Irish have cause for nothing but to get drunkened and sleep in the shite of their wretched pigs! Now, get away from here before I have the Captain run you away!”
“We have the right to be here,” Martin continued a little more forcefully. “We are not up in one of your high class quarterdeck cabins. We are just here minding our own.”
John released his grip on Mary and took a step toward his friends. His heart began to flutter, bringing back old, bad memories. Does it never end, he wondered?
“Captain!” the Brit bellowed, his paunchy belly jiggling with his effort. “I demand you get these waifs away from my seating area!”
The Captain of the Cushla Machree stood at the stern railing, staring out to sea. He glimpsed briefly over his left shoulder at his passenger, then turned nonchalantly back to the sea. He seemed unwilling to get involved in a conflict between any passengers.
“Captain MacMillan, sir,” the Englishman screamed, turning fully toward the officer in an effort to command the man’s attention. “I have paid good money to sail aboard this ship in comfort. Now I demand that you do something with these white apes! They smell so bad they spoil my morning tea.” He placed his hands firmly on his hefty hips, his thin grey hair flying in the ocean breeze.
The Captain refused to move. He stood resolutely looking over the rear of the ship toward the eastern horizon. The helmsman peered through the spokes of the large wheel, smirking at the belligerent Englishman. Several other sailors up in the rigging even stopped their tasks to watch the show.
John moved quickly to Martin’s side. Several other Irishmen milled silently in the background, watching the fracas curiously. Several of the younger lads drew closer to Martin and John, the glow of battle rising faintly in their eyes. Most had been evicted from family owned lands by just such a man as this. An opportunity to exact at least a bit of emotional revenge would be very welcomed indeed.
The Brit’s face turned blood red and his body shook visibly with rage. The man grit his teeth and swatted his riding crop into his left hand. Unable to control himself any longer, he let go a loud growl and strode bruskly toward the steps leading to the lower deck. “Fine!” the irate Englishman bellowed. “I will take care of these stinking oafs myself!” The passenger bounced down the narrow steps, his belly jiggling with each move and his face glowing red as fire.
John watched the man in disbelief. His jaw dropped open in surprise. Did he really believe he was going to do anything by himself, the lad wondered? As the fellow drew closer, John moved into the man’s path, planting his feet heavily onto the rough deck. His hands clenched and unclenched involuntarily in anticipation. Martin moved close up behind him.
The fuming Brit pounded the deck toward the small group, stopping almost nose to nose with John. He was almost a full head taller and out weighed the lad probably two to one. His breath stank of old ale. The man’s oversized belly rubbed unceremoniously against John’s. Sweat beaded down the fellow’s forehead, dripping in large drops onto the wooden planks.
“You bunch of imbecilic Irish louts,” the Englishman hissed through clinched teeth. “Get away from here before I take my crop to you!” He swatted the wall of the quarterdeck loudly with his whip. “Off with you!”
John and Martin stood their ground. John crossed his arms defiantly, looking up into the face of the man. “We have our right to be here, sir. We have honored the rule to not enter any area of the quarterdeck, but in this place, you have no authority over us.”
“Right?” the Englishman roared. “The only right of the Irish is to get howling drunk and be the fools you are! You bunch of heathen rabble, away with you!”
Brigid pushed up beside John, fire smoldering in her eyes. John knew she could not understand his words, yet, the man’s belligerence needed no interpretation. The fiery lass looked up into the face of the man towering before her and sneered. “Sassanach, go hifreann leat!” she cursed, spitting onto his shoes.
The Englishman squealed like a wild boar. His face crimson, he drew back his riding crop as if to strike Brigid. John pushed into the man the man after noting that several lads now closely surrounded the enraged Brit. “You stinking bitch!” he yelled. “You will wish you never did that!”
John looked cooly up at the fellow, the crop still cocked . “‘Tis a poor excuse for a man who would strike a lady, sir,” he replied, forcing himself to hold his composure. “Please lower your whip, sir, and apologize to the lass.”
The Englishman lowered his hand, glowering at the young Irishman in front of him. His eyes seethed with hatred. He raised a hand toward John’s throat, then lowered it, glancing around at the crowd of Irishmen gathering around him. The devil, himself, seemed to stare down at John from behind that malicious face.
“Mr. Whittingham, sir,” the Captain called from the quarterdeck railing above. “I suggest you do as the lad bade and return to the quarterdeck where you belong.” The officers thick Scottish seafarers brogue as hard as the deck he stood on. “I will not come and pick up the pieces left of you if you choose otherwise.”
John shot a glance up toward the Captain with a thin smirk. This was an unexpected twist. The lad shifted, standing up a little taller and far more bold. “Please apologize to the lass,” he requested once more.
Stunned at the turn of events, the Brit looked dazedly around him. Stern Irish faces stared back at the man as the lads drew closer in. He looked harshly up at the Captain who maintained his place at the quarterdeck railing. Setting his jaw and drooping his shoulders a little, the fellow looked coldly at Brigid. “I apologize,” he hissed through large clenched teeth.
“Now out of my way.” He spun, pushing through the lads who stood between him and the steps to the quarterdeck.
The Englishman gained the upper deck at an amazing speed. He shot another evil glance at Captain MacMillan as he strode past. Quickly, the man disappeared down the steps at the rear of the quarterdeck, heading for his berth.
John looked up and smiled at Captain MacMillan, a stoic, immobile rock at the handrail. The Captain eventually glanced, stone-faced, back at John, turned from his post and returned to his position at the stern of the Cushla Machree. John watched the man leave, feeling much more respect for him in his heart. Maybe the Scots are an honorable race after all, he thought, dispelling the tales he had been told all his life.
Several lads walked up to John and Martin, patting each respectfully on the shoulder as they walked silently by. Brigid then turned, grabbed John tightly around the neck and kissed his cheek warmly. He blushed brightly and smiled lovingly at the passionate lass. Grasping Brigid tightly around the waist, John kissed her back tenderly on her cheek and hugged her tightly. “How do you say brave?” he asked Mary over Brigid’s shoulder.
Mary smiled. “I am not sure,” she replied. “I have never had cause to learn that word.”
“Maybe it is time to learn,” John returned with a big smile. He released Brigid, pointed a finger at her with a large smile. He then shook his fist and pretended to spit at the floor, imitating the lass. “Brave,” he stated, pointing his finger once again at Brigid.
Brigid burst out laughing. “Brave,” she imitated, pointing back at John.
“Brave, as Gaeilge?” John queried.
She shrugged absently, then smiled and answered, “fearg.”
“She thinks you are saying she was angry,” Mary laughed. “I know that word well.”
“Ah well, all right then,” John chuckled, rubbing his hand across his face. “Shall we proceed on with the English lesson?” He looked quickly between the two young women.
“Tá, cinnte,” Brigid answered brightly.
“I am ready as I will ever be!” Mary agreed.
Eileen and Martin moved a little apart. “We will see you later,” Eileen called to the trio. “We have seen enough trouble for one day.” The couple moved away toward the front of the ship.
“All right then,” John started again. “I think our first word today should be brave.”
“Brave,” Brigid mimicked once again.
Mary and John both chuckled heartily as the warm, late morning sun shone down brightly.
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