John woke up from a troubled slumber. The seas had been heavy all night, tossing him around against the fire pit several times. He opened his groggy eyes in the dim light to make sure Mary was still all right beside him. Her sleep seem especially troubled as well. The lass tossed to and fro under her thin blanket.
The morning was grey and dark. Heavy clouds hung overhead as a chilled wind sang in the rigging. The low roll of distant thunder was just audible over the sound of heavy seas breaking against the bow. The groggy young Irishman pushed himself slowly upright. Mary mumbled something in her sleep, tossing violently and waking with a start.
The lass stared blankly around the deck as if completely lost. Muddled confusion and fear smolthered behind her hazel eyes. Mary spotted John watching her and crawled toward him, laying uneasily into her friend’s lap. The lad tenderly stroked the young woman’s hair. Another dull roll of distant thunder sounded on the horizon.
“I am cold,” Mary chattered quietly, snuggling closer against John. “I had horrible dreams.”
John wrapped his blanket around his own shoulders and then carefully over Mary. “Not a promising morning,” he answered solemnly, gazing around the low canopy. “I hope it does not rain much. I could not stand the smell down below. I am afraid I would have to brave a storm out here on the deck.”
“Myself,” Mary agreed readily. “Seems we are not alone in that either.”
“Aye,” John returned, looking hastily across the full deck. “Seems half of the passengers spend all their time up here on deck, the same as us.”
“And the other half or either sick or have sick family to care for,” Mary added quickly. “How long til we get to America?” She squirmed, pulling the blankets closer around her. “We have been on this boat for more than a month passed now.”
A light mist began to fall, making the gloom even deeper. John readjusted his blanket to protect Mary’s head against the drizzle. Low, distant thunder growled ominously once again. “I wish I knew,” John moaned simply.
Sailors began to make their way nimbly through the rigging. The light, steady drizzle began to soak everything. The other passengers stirred from their soggy coverings, doing their best to stay warm and dry. Some people tried unsuccessfully to light a fire in the damp coals of the fire pits.
The sounds of the crew and passengers seemed to fall noiselessly to the sodden deck. The mist began to turn into a thick fog, obscuring all but the ship herself. The cold, clammy breeze felt almost like the fingers of death trying to pry their way under John’s skin. He shivered involuntarily. No one spoke. Only the sailors in the rigging made any sound at all.
Suddenly, a dull, muffled scream echoed from the bunkroom below decks. John sat upright, listening for further indications of trouble. “You hear that, Mary?” he inquired abruptly.
“Hear what?” Mary queried, suddenly startled. “I heard nothing but the ocean.”
“No, it sounded like a scream down below. Maybe I should go have a look for myself.” John gently slipped away from Mary, stood to his feet and immediately headed for the hatchway to the cabin below.
Before the lad could reach the doorway, however, several people hurriedly filed out of the opening. One young lass of twelve or thirteen was weeping hysterically. Two adults accompanied her, trying to console the wailing girl to no avail.
“My mother,” the lass screamed to no one in particular, “she is dead!”
John stopped in his tracks, choosing instead to return to Mary’s side. “Poor lass,” he lamented to his friend. “I know how herself feels. I lost my own mother at just such an age. But, at least I had my own home to be in.” He sat down beside Mary on the wet deck.
“Is there nothing we can do?” she asked, her face showing the agony that wrenched her heart. “Something must be able to console the poor lass.”
“No, she must be able to mourn her loss” John replied solemnly. “I do not know what we could do for a proper wake. We do not even have a clergyman on board.”
Mary pulled her blanket further over her face against the deepening drizzle and took John’s hand in her own. Another dim roll of thunder sounded in the distance. The mourning young lass who had just lost her mother, sat in the rain, sobbing quietly. The mood onboard the ship was appropriate for a funeral.
Several minutes of silence passed until the body of the unfortunate woman was passed up through the small opening onto the wet deck. Most of the passengers gathered around the woman’s corpse as she was laid gently onto the slick planks. One by one, the soggy passengers paid their respects to both the deceased and the grieving daughter.
John spotted Brigid as she knelt beside the dead woman. The lass quickly crossed herself, stood, and turned away. The lad tried to capture her attention, however, Brigid seemed not to notice. “We should go pay our respects,” John informed Mary solemnly. “‘Twould be improper not to.” He struggled to his feet and helped Mary to hers.
The lass brushed a rain soaked lock of hair from her eyes with her fingers. “‘Tis a sad day indeed,” she replied, walking slowly toward the woman’s body.
John walked reverently to the dead woman’s side, knelt to one knee and crossed himself quickly. He looked into her ashen grey, expressionless face and shivered with cold memories. The woman’s open eyes stared lifelessly into the depths of eternity. The lad’s breath caught in his throat. He gasped and choked. Standing quickly back to his feet, John turned away from the death.
Mary followed suit, kneeling at the woman’s side and paying her respects. The lass quickly turned to John’s side, took him by the arm and lead him to the grieving young girl. “We are very sorry for your loss,” Mary offered the sobbing lass. “I am Mary and this is John. If you need anything please feel freely to ask.”
“Thank you very much,” the young girl sniffled. “I am Aoife. Thank you.” She began crying once again in earnest.
“Do you have other family here?” Mary asked.
“Only an aunt,” Aoife sobbed. “All others died back home, my two brother and my Da. Auntie Kate is sick below.”
“You just let us know if you need anything,” Mary reiterated kindly.
“I will,” Aoife responded with a weak smile. “I will.”
John spotted Brigid once again, standing at the port railing, staring out to sea. The lad directed Mary toward their friend. Brigid seemed not to notice as the couple strode quietly to her side. She stood staring resolutely into the heavy mist with her hand wrapped tightly around the wooden railing.
“Dia duit,” John greeted, forcing a happy tone.
Brigid turned toward them, her blood red eyes filled with mixed tears and light rain. She coughed heavily and attempted a smile. “Dia is Maire duit,” she responded with a forced smile.
“Conas tá tú?” Mary inquired worriedly.
“No good,” Brigid stammered. “My mother sick much. Me no good too.” She coughed again.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Mary squawked, feeling Brigid’s forehead. “You should be out of this rain! John, she is hot as coals.”
John gently touched the young woman’s cheek. “Holy Saint Michael!” he responded. “She is burning up! Let’s get her below, out of this rain.” John took Brigid around the waist and escorted her toward the hatchway to the lower cabin. She was horribly weak with fever and coughed several times before they reached the entry.
Brigid stumbled at the top stair prompting John to gently pick up the lass and carry her down the steep steps into the gloomy cabin. The fetid stench took John’s breath. This will not do, he thought, trying to figure out another place to take the sick lass. Yet, there was no other dry place available for the ailing young woman.
John looked around the dim room. He had not been down into the lower part of the ship in more than a week, unable to endure the horrid smell. The lad was shocked and appalled at what he saw. Feces and vomit lay scattered around the putrid floor. The only passengers still down in the cabin were those who were too sick to leave their bunks. Those poor souls were wasting away, unable to leave their beds to care for themselves or even get their own food. Many of the most unfortunate ones were literally starving to death were they lay.
The horrified lad could readily see at least six such unfortunates near them. He knew there must be more scattered around the dingy room. John’s stomach turned in revulsion. He held Brigid tightly, looking back into the petrified face of Mary. “My God,” he responded, aghast. “This is much worse than I ever imagined. How. . .how can these people be left like this? Is there no way to care for them?”
Mary remained stunned mute. “I. . .they. . .” she trailed off, her jaw slack and disbelief written in her eyes.
Several low moans came from around the room. Brigid coughed heavily once more, then gripped John tightly around the neck. “Where?” John asked the lass quietly.
Brigid lifted her head off his shoulder and pointed toward the rear of the room. John followed her direction, moving carefully between the narrow bunks. He slipped, preferring not to think of what he had just stepped in on that awful floor.
“Anseo,” Brigid directed weakly, pointing to a bunk occupied by a frail, middle-aged woman. “Mother,” she stated quietly.
John gazed into the dimly lit bunk. The only occupant was an emaciated woman of perhaps forty years of age. It seemed the lad could see the fragile woman’s bones through her thin, translucent skin. Brigid’s mother lay unresponsive to their arrival. The dark, sunken pits that were her eyes, remained closed. John greatly feared she might already be dead. A low, slow gasp issued form the frail woman’s thin lips as her eyelids opened weakly.
“Brigid?” the ailing lass’ mother whispered.
“Is míse,” Brigid answered almost inaudibly, reaching weakly down to grasp her mother’s boney hand. “Tá me anseo.”
A thin smile formed on Brigid’s mother’s pale lips as she once again closed her eyes. Brigid gently released her mother’s hand and reached for the railing of the bunk above. John helped his friend slowly into her bed. He covered her lovingly with her thin blanket.
Brigid shivered visibly with fever under the threadbare covering. “Thank you,” she replied weakly, curling up tightly to try and conserve her warmth.
“Do you have food or water?” Mary asked quietly.
Brigid shook her head negatively. “Níl,” she replied.
Mary turned to John. “I am going to the pantry to get my day’s food,” she informed her friend. “I will bring it back here and give Brigid something to eat. She needs it more than myself.”
“I will do the same when you return and give it to Brigid’s mother,” John agreed.
Mary turned and quickly vanished down the gloomy aisle. John stood quietly beside Brigid’s bunk, watching the shivering lass fall into a restless sleep. He wished he could do more for his friend, yet, he had no facilities in which to do so. If he were back home, he could go to the chemist and find some kind of remedy for her. Here, he could not even fetch his friend’s food.
John gently stoked Brigid’s hair. Someone coughed weakly across the room and then moaned. He had never felt such frustration in his life. He was surrounded by infirmed countrymen, yet, he had no power to aid them. The struggling lad looked slowly around the room, wondering who would be the next to be carried out of that room dead.
A fleeting shadow caught John’s attention. It seemed to be a slight movement at the end of the line of bunks, against the darkest wall. He peered through the gloom, trying to recognize the shape in the darkness. Suddenly, the outline of a small figure came into dim view, pressing tightly into the dark corner between the wall and bunks. The lad stepped away from his friend and toward the figure.
“Hallo,” John called quietly, stopping before he reached the moving shadow.
“Hi ya’,” answered a young sounding, feminine voice. She pressed tighter against the dark wall.
John took another step forward and stopped once again. “Are you all right?” he asked softly. “I will not harm you.”
The young lass seemed to relax just a little. “I am all right,” she answered after a brief silence. She slowly extracted herself from the cramped, dark confines.
“Are you ill?” John questioned again. “What is your name?”
“I am Colleen,” the lass answered shyly. “No, I am well.”
“Why are you down here by yourself in the dark and smell? Is your family ill?”
“No, ‘tis only my mother and myself,” Colleen answered quietly. “She is upstairs getting food.”
“Do you not need to get your own food?” John quizzed the young girl again, puzzled.
“Aye, sir,” Colleen responded shyly once again. “But, I have no clothes.” The lass stepped forward into the dim light, slightly opening the blanket she had wrapped carefully around herself to exposed her unclothed body. She was a young lass of perhaps twelve or thirteen, not much more than skin and bones. Her dirty face smeared with who knows what. The young girl’s black hair was wild as a June storm, falling stringily all about her thin shoulders and face. “When my mum gets back, I will take her dress and go up to get my own food.” She pulled the blanket closely around herself once again.
John’s heart sank even further than he thought possible. Just when he thought nothing could shock him more, something would. “We have got to find you something to wear,” the lad responded incredulously. “You cannot be stuck down here with this sickness all around. Besides, what will you do when you get to America? We must find you some clothes!”
Colleen smiled slightly. “That would be gorgeous, sir,” she replied, heartened.
“John,” a voice called quietly behind him, “where are you.”
The lad turned to see Mary walking down the gloomy aisle behind him. “I am here,” he replied. “Come here.”
“What are you doing? Is Brigid all right?” Mary seemed confused that he was not by their friend’s bedside.
“Just come here.”
Mary shuffled quietly to John’s side. Colleen sunk silently back into her dark corner as the lass approached. “‘Tis all right,” John consoled Colleen, “this is our friend. She will help us get you some clothes.”
“Who are you speaking too?” Mary quizzed, puzzledly. “Is there a pooka in here?” She smiled slightly.
“To herself,” the lad answered, pointing into the dark corner. “This is Colleen. She is here with her mother. But, she has no clothes so she cannot go up on deck.”
Mary peered through the gloom to try and make out the figure. “Hi ya’, Colleen. I am Mary.” She took a step toward the young girl with her hand extended.
Colleen slowly pulled out of the corner toward Mary. “Hi ya’,” she answered back quietly. “Can you help me get some clothes?”
Mary smiled warmly at the poor lass. “Aye,” she answered softly, “I think I can arrange something.”
“That would be grand!” Colleen shrilled gleefully. “My only dress was so tight, I finally tore it to pieces before we got on the boat.”
“You have been without clothes since you got on this ship?” Mary questioned unbelievably. “I have an extra dress that should fit you well enough to go up on deck. Wait right here and I will be right back.” Mary handed her bundle of food to
John as she turned back down the dark aisle.
Colleen moved swiftly out of her hiding spot to John’s side. “I thank you so much, sir! You are so kind! What is your name?”
“I am John. I cannot bear to see such a lovely young lass without as much as the bare necessities of life.”
Colleen’s eyes shone so brightly the seemed to glow in the dim light. “John it is! And Mary. Such lovely people.” The young lass smiled warmly up at John. “Here comes my mum.” She pointed down the aisle behind John.
A very thin woman with long, dark hair approached rapidly. “Is there a problem?” she asked quietly. ‘Is my daughter all right?”
“I am lovely, mum!” Colleen announced as her mother approached. “This grand gentleman and his lovely wife are getting me a new dress to wear!”
Colleen’s mother arrived at John’s side. “Is this true?” she asked, seemingly astonished.
“Aye,” he responded, blushing at Mary being called his wife. “Colleen seems to need a dress and Mary has an extra one to fit her. But, Mary is not my. . .uh, I mean. . . . Never you mind.”
“Bless you sir,” the woman responded with delight. “We have been in need for a while now. Thank you very much!” She took John’s hand, curtsied before him, then quickly kissed his hand.
John blushed again. No one had ever done that before. “‘Tis nothing special. Colleen has something we can provide, and it will be of no consequence to ourselves.” He tried to hide his embarrassment, yet, he felt his face burn with redness. “I am John.”
“And I am Kate,” the mother replied happily. “Are you here like us, forced off your family’s rightfully owned land?”
John’s bashful smile faded as he returned to the reality of the moment. “Aye,” he responded quietly. “I came here with my Da and sister. But I guess my Da never got onboard the ship. My Mum and youngest brother have died and my other brother, sent to Botany Bay Colony.”
“Aye, ‘tis sad times indeed.” Kate agreed with a deep sigh. “My husband, himself, was sent to Botany Bay. And sent only for taking a few ears of corn to feed his family. That left me, Colleen here, and my two youngest, twins they were, to fend for ourselves.” She sighed once again. “Unsuccessfully, that. The twins, Paddy and Patricia, died a few months later when we had little food and they became very ill. Colleen and myself made it through the fever and very nearly starved to death. Our landlord then forced us here when our rent became due and we had no way of paying, since we had been unable to tend our crops.”
Fire rose in John’s belly. Yet, there was nothing he could do to act on the situation. No one seemed to care about the lives of his countrymen. No one who could make any difference anyway. Maybe his brother was right. Maybe the Young Irelanders were the answer after all. He looked empathetically down into the face of the antagonized woman. She had seen more hardship than even he had endured. The fruit of this woman’s belly had been ripped from her life.
Maybe it was from standing in the midst of filth and sickness, or maybe from his recent close views of death, but, something had gotten his mind spinning wildly once again in the realm of retribution. Whatever it was, had John stoked to the boiling point. “How did we come to the point of losing our country and ourselves?” he asked rhetorically. “I mean, there has to be a way to. . .to take back what is rightfully ours!” Fire glowed in his eyes and he could feel his grip on the bundle of food tighten.
Kate looked understandingly up at the lad she had just met. “Aye, but if we stoop to the same actions as the ones who have taken us over, we will be no better than they.” Her sad eyes spoke to John’s heart far more than her few brief words.
A sudden tidal wave extinguished John’s growing fire. His countenance softened immediately. “Forgive me,” he begged. “I have just seen so much as late. I feel so useless. I miss my home and my family desperately and I guess you just reminded me of that.”
Young Colleen watched the exchange between the two adults disinterestedly. “I am so happy to be getting a new dress,” she finally interjected with a huge smile.
“John, Colleen,” Mary called quietly from down the dark aisle. “Here it is.” Mary arrived at John’s side with a brightly colored dress draped across her arm. “Oh, hi ya’,” she continued, spotting Kate.
John smiled slightly at Mary’s return. “Kate, this is Mary,” he introduced the women. “Kate is Colleen’s mum.”
“Pleasure,” Mary addressed the older woman. “You have a lovely daughter.”
“Thank you very much,” Kate smiled warmly at the lass. “And thank you very much for offering one of your very own fine dresses to Colleen. That is the grandest thing anyone has done for us in a long while!”
Mary smiled shyly. “My pleasure.” She handed the dress to an ecstatic Colleen.
Colleen danced with glee as she held the garment to her heart. “Look mum, ‘tis beautiful! Oh, thank you so very much!” She turned her back to the group, let the threadbare blanket slide off her thin shoulders, and slipped the dress over her head. “Look, mum, ‘tis but a wee bit big. I will fit into it proper soon.”
“My, but are you not the grand little princess,” Kate coddled her daughter lovingly. “You must be the loveliest lass on board this boat! Or at least one of the loveliest.” She looked smilingly over to Mary.
Mary smiled warmly at the mother and daughter. “I hope to have a daughter just as beautiful as you some day,” she commented to Colleen with a happy sigh. “And I hope I can be as grand a mother as you, Kate. If I can help in any other way please ask.”
“Thank you very much, again,” Kate returned happily. “Both of you are so kind.” She turned to her daughter, “Off with you, now. Go up and get your food. I will be up in a few moments and we can stroll around the deck together!”
John smiled broadly. His heart was lifted by his ability to come to the aid of a countryman in need. “Yeah, I need to get my food as well, before the lovely steward closes the pantry for the day.”
“Come with me, John!” Colleen bubbled. “Come up on deck with me!”
“Go on ahead, I will be right behind you,” he answered kindly. “I just have to stop and check on my friend.”
Colleen smiled brightly and slipped past the little group. She skipped down the dark aisle toward the stair. John turned to follow, stopping at Brigid’s bunk. The lass was sleeping a little more quietly, now. He reach out to feel her forehead. She was still aflame with a high fever. “I will be back shortly,” he whispered, not really expecting her to hear. “You have got to have some food and drink.”
“I will take care of her,” Mary informed John quietly as she slipped up to his side. “Go get your food and get a breath of fresh air.”
“And I will be happy to help when you need relief,” Kate offered happily.
John smiled sweetly at Mary, gently touched her thick hair, and turned wordlessly down the narrow walkway. Colleen had already outdistanced him and skipped up the narrow stair. He heard the dull thud of the door closing as he left Mary’s side.
The putrid odor had already permeated his nostrils, dulling his sense of smell to the point of smelling only a faint stench. He pulled himself up the stairs and out the little door. The sweet fragrance of sea spray immediately brought his sense of smell back to order. The leaden canopy had risen and began to break up. The rain had stopped and a bright band of sunlight lay on the eastern horizon. A large group of passengers stood solemnly at the port side gunwale where the body of the unfortunate woman had been laid.
John moved silently toward the group, taking a position at the outermost edge. “And dear Lord,” one of the passengers prayed, “please take the soul of this lovely lass into your arms. We do not have a Priest here with us to ask you formally, but, I know you look after your own. Amen.”
“Amen,” most in the group repeated under their breath, crossing themselves faithfully. Two of the healthier young lads picked up the body of the woman and let it slide into the waiting arms of the sea. With a dull splash, the body sunk out of sight. Aoife wailed out from somewhere across the crowd. He noticed the face of Colleen standing a few feet away. A confused look of sadness and fear clouded her young face. She really was a lovely young lass, it hurt John that she had to face a life such as this so early in her life.
The lad moved slowly away from the crowd and toward the pantry at the rear of the ship. He put his arm on Colleen’s shoulder as he walked by. “Let us get some food,” he directed gently. He nudged the lass to his side and towards the stern. “Are you all right?”
The youngster looked up to him with big, sad blue eyes. “Did she die?” Colleen asked mournfully. “Just today?”
“Aye,” John responded softly, “I suppose she did.”
“I hope no one else dies,” she added, looking back over her shoulder toward the slowly dispersing crowd. “It is too sad.”
“Aye, ‘tis,” John agreed, steering the lass toward their goal. “‘Tis, most certainly.”
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