John held a morsel of dry crumbling biscuit to Brigid’s mother’s lips. Though he supported her back heavily with a strong hand, the woman was almost too weak to raise high enough to swallow the small morsels without choking. Her weary eyes were shut most of the time and she attempted no speech.
Mary was doing the same with Brigid. The younger lass was much stronger and able to down the poor food. However, she seemed but a hollow shell of the Brigid that John and Mary knew. Hopefully the illness would pass quickly and their studies could resume soon. Besides, both John and Mary had come to depend on the lessons as a pleasant diversion from the tedium of their passage.
“Did Brigid ever tell you her mother’s name?” John asked, attempting to persuade the woman to take a sip of water.
“No,” Mary answered contemplatively. “But I will ask her right now. A Bhrigid, cén t?ainm atá do mháthair?”
“Síle,” the struggling lass answered weakly.
John smiled and broke off another crumb of his biscuit, placing it gently to the sick woman’s lips. She weakly pushed the morsel away. “Níl,” she replied.
“You have eaten almost nothing, Sheila,” John replied seriously. “You must eat to get back your strength.”
Sheila made no more attempt at nourishing herself. John tried repeatedly to get a morsel of biscuit through her lips.
Eventually giving up, John switched to his water jug instead. He lifted Sheila slightly, placing the jug to her lips. Still she refused any attempts to help herself.
“How do you say water?” John asked Mary quietly.
“Uisce,” she replied, not taking her attention from giving Brigid another bite of food.
“Uisce,” John prompted, once again placing the jug to Sheila’s mouth.
The woman was completely unresponsive. She finally turned her head completely away from the lad. John did not know how to react. How could someone refuse to even try to sustain themselves? He closed the jar back up with a grimace.
“I am going up on deck,” John announced in frustration, stepping away from Sheila’s bunk. He rebundled his food and set it on Brigid’s bunk next to Mary. “How is Brigid?”
“She is very weak, but she seems to be a wee bit better,” Mary responded, brushing her patient’s hair gently from her face.
Brigid weakly opened her eyes and smiled slightly. “Thank you,” she whispered. “My mother.”
John smiled warmly back at the lass. “Tá failte romhat,” he replied, patting the lass’ leg tenderly. The lad turned quickly down between the gloomy bunks. Bounding up the narrow stair, he pushed quickly through the low exit.
The warm, sweet sea air flowed generously through John’s nostrils, washing away the smell of sickness. The dim sun shone hazily through a high, thin canopy. The lad moved away from the opening, sauntered slowly to the port railing and leaned heavily against the thick handrail. John took in a deep draught of sea air, thinking of his ill friend below. He should bring Brigid up on deck while the sun shone and the air was warm. It would do her soul, as well as her body, good.
“Hi ya’, lad,” an unfamiliar voice greeted John from behind.
John turned to meet three young men similar in age to himself. “Hi ya’,” he answered in response. “Fine day isn’t it?”
“Aye, but not for having a funeral without a proper Priest and all,”another lad with bright red hair responded with a sarcastic smile. “Or even that we had a funeral at all.” He looked for the support of his other two friends.
“Ain’t you the lad that stood up to the Englishman the other day?” the first young man questioned eagerly.
“Aye,” John responded hesitatingly, “‘twas myself.”
“Grand,” the lad replied with a bright smile. “I am Connor.” He held out his hand in friendship.
“I am John.” He took the fellow’s hand, shaking it briskly.
“‘Pleasure, John,” Connor concurred. “This is Peter, and himself is Douglas.”
John greeted the other lads likewise.
“We liked the way you stood toe to toe with the English dog.,” the redheaded Douglas interjected, patting John heavily on the shoulder. “Seems you have done that before.”
John just smiled slightly, looking the three lads in the eye. “Seen more than I want,” he responded after several long seconds of silence between them.
“Just as I thought,” Connor commented with a sly grin. “We have seen you around, but you do not seem to socialize much. I think we might have some things in common, you and us.”
“Maybe,” John answered slowly. “But, I have seen enough troubles, I do not want any more now.”
“Us as well,” Peter spoke up for the first time with a serious look on his ruddy face.
“Too bad about the woman dying this morning and all,” Connor changed the subject quickly. “I hear there are more corpses below.” His face grew stern and a little paler in the diffused light. “I have heard tell ’tis the fever. Some say if you even go down below now, it is a sure death sentence!”
John grimaced. “I have just come from below,” he replied harshly. “I have a dear friend who has recently gotten sick and I have been taking care of her. I have seen no more dead souls, nor have I signed a death warrant. Tell me who is saying that we have the fever on board.”
All three young men looked taken aback. “I, uh. . .we did not mean anything personal,” Connor stammered. “My very own mother, who was a nurse at the sanitarium in Cork. She says she has seen the fever many times. She says from what she can tell, the woman this morning died of the fever.” He looked sadly at John. “I pray for your friend, but you would not catch me going down those stairs if the Hounds of Hell themselves were nipping at my heels.”
Douglas and Peter both shook their heads in stern agreement, all three crossing themselves rapidly. Connor wiped his hand absently on his pants leg. “I certainly do pray for you,” Connor repeated.
The doorway to the bunkroom pushed open and Mary appeared out of the gloom. The three lads turned away as Mary approached, stepping aside as she neared. “Good day,” she greeted the trio with a smile.
“Good day,” they each returned, stepping back away from her path. “I think we best be on our way,” Connor addressed his pals. He turned his back and strode quickly away as Mary passed by.
Mary looked quizzically at John. “Such proper lads,” she quipped snidely.
John looked worriedly back to his friend. “They say it is the fever,” he stated simply.
“What?” the lass responded worriedly.
“They said the people down below are sick with the fever,” John elaborated. “Connor says his mother was a nurse at the sanitarium in Cork and she says it is the fever all right. I think we should bring Brigid up here on deck. If it is the fever, she will never get better down there.”
Mary stared at her friend big eyed and mouth agape. “The fever?” she reacted, concern shaking her voice. “Do you suppose we might get it now?”
“I. . .I do not know,” John answered truthfully, his face turning ashen. “I guess I have not thought about it. I do not know how those things work.”
“Nor do I,” Mary answered, mirroring his concern. “The weather has warmed very well. I think we should go bring Brigid up right now.”
Visibly shaken, John nodded his agreement. He looked around and spotted Connor and his two friends sitting across the deck, watching him and Mary intently. “But, what about Sheila? There will be no one left to care for her.”
Mary grimaced. “‘Tis true,” she agreed, “Still, I think we should bring Brigid up here and then deal with her mother.” The lass sighed deeply, looking at her feet and shaking her head negatively. “Will this curse on our people never end?” She looked sadly into John’s eyes, then took the last couple of steps up to him, wrapping her arms tightly around his waist.
“I wish I knew,” John answered, hugging Mary in return. “I certainly wish I knew.”
Mary released her grip on her friend and quickly turned back to the passageway toward the bunk room. “Let’s go,” she directed resolutely.
John followed his girlfriend back down the dark, narrow stair. The couple swiftly scurried down the constricted, putrid aisles, breathing as little as humanly possible. They stopped at Brigid’s bedside where she slept uneasily. Mary touched the lasses forehead with a hand and grimaced.
“She is still on fire,” she informed John worriedly.
John placed his arm supportively around Mary’s waist. He looked up into Sheila’s bunk. Her shallow breathing was almost imperceptible. Touching the woman’s forehead gently, the lad pulled quickly away. “Herself feels like hot coals,” he whispered. “What should we do?”
“Get Brigid,” Mary determined bluntly. She turned toward the stair.
John reached into the bunk and gently lifted their friend into his cradling arms. He gently adjusted the blanket as best he could to better cover the lass. Brigid shifted slightly in his arms and grasped him weakly around the neck.
“Where?” she whispered weakly.
“Shhhh,” John whispered. “We are going up on deck.”
Brigid slowly raised her head, looking feebly over John’s shoulder back toward her mother’s receding bunk. “Mother,” she grumbled.
“I will take care of her,” John promised, not knowing if his friend understood a word.
Out of strength, Brigid relaxed into John’s arms. He reached the base of the stair and carefully positioned the lass as he began the steep climb out of the dark hold. Mary waited at the top of the steps with the door held open. Bright sunlight streamed through the opening, temporarily blinding the lad. Brigid suddenly coughed heavily. Her shaking body threw John slightly off balance. His right foot slipped off a rounded step, sending his left shoulder roughly into the wooden handrail, narrowly missing Brigid’s head. John grimaced, caught his balance and searched for the next step up with a blind foot.
A sharp pain shot down John’s arm, starting from the point where he banged against the railing. Knowing he had no choice but to proceed to the top of the stair, the lad closed his eyes, took a deep breath and forced himself and his passenger upward.
“Mary, Michael, and Saint Peter,” Mary exclaimed as John exited the gloom into the bright sun. “Your arm is bleeding like a butchered pig!” She looked quickly around the deck, then settled for tearing a small corner off Brigid’s blanket to seal the lad’s wound.
John refused to wait any longer as Mary tried desperately to wrap his moving arm. “Let me set Brigid down somewhere, then you can patch my arm.”
The lad moved quickly to his chosen sleeping spot against the forecastle wall. Mary followed closely behind. Reaching the little pile of his belongings, John instructed Mary to roll out his blanket on the rough planks. He then gently laid Brigid on the blanket, resting her head carefully on his little bundle of extra clothing. She opened her eyes slightly and tried a thin smile, shivering heavily with fever.
Mary was quickly at John’s side, covering Brigid’s quaking body. Making her friend as comfortable as possible, the lass turned to tend to John’s wound. He flinched as the pesky young woman dabbed at his arm with the rough patch of blanket material. John finally stopped to look at his wounded arm, wondering why his friend was so persistent about doctoring him.
Much to his surprise, his whole upper arm was blood soaked. Several large drops of blood had splattered onto the ship’s deck at his feet. “Holy Mother of God,” he responded in astonishment. “How did that happen?”
“I do not know, but you sit yourself down right here until I can get the bleeding stopped,” Mary ordered firmly. “We cannot have you go and bleed to death now, can we?”
John managed a light chuckle. “Suppose not,” he confirmed. “Cannot do a body any good.”
“Hand me my water jug,” she instructed.
John reached across Brigid, picking up a partially full bottle. Mary took the jug, poured a little water on the scrap of cloth and began dabbing at John’s arm once again. The lad flinched, jerking his arm hastily away from his insistent nurse. “Get back here!” she ordered with a sly smile. “I have got to get it clean.”
The lad reluctantly complied, offering his arm for more torture. Mary opened the large slash in his shirt sleeve to try assessing the damage. She grimaced slightly as the blood began to flow once again. “‘Twas gashed pretty well,” she stated, wrinkling her nose, “but, I think you will live to see another day.” She replaced the cloth tightly against his bleeding wound.
“I have but one other shirt,” John complained, looking at his frayed and bloodied sleeve.
“Well do not look to me,” Mary responded snidely. “I have got nothing left that would fit you proper.” She laughed slightly, pulling the rag away from her patient’s arm to view her progress. “Here, hold the bandage on here tightly,” she instructed the lad.
Brigid moaned slightly, shivered visibly and tried to pull her blanket tighter around her neck. Mary moved from John’s side to help the lass. Wrapping her friend as tightly as she could in the two blankets, Mary sat back down between her two friends.
John smiled warmly at the dedicated lass. Mary looked back at him sternly, “And what would you be so smiling about, your torn arm and all?” she queried with mocking antagonism.
“You are just such a lovely nurse,” he replied, smiling even broader.
Mary blushed slightly, tapping him playfully on the leg. The lass reached over to feel Brigid’s forehead. “I wish her fever would come down a bit,” she stated worriedly. “Come here, pray with me.”
John looked at his friend, bewildered. “Pray?” he asked. “I have not done that in so long that I doubt the Holy Virgin even remembers who I am!” He kind of smiled.
“No, now, I am serious. Help me pray for our friend,” she retorted seriously. Mary rose to her knees beside Brigid, crossed herself, and clasped her hands in front of her. She looked sternly over to John.
Reluctantly, John knelt beside Mary, and prepared himself for prayer. “I hope you remember who I am, God,” he teased, looking up toward Heaven.
Mary elbowed him stiffly in the side. Settling back down, she began a silent prayer. John watched for a couple of moments then decided to join her. He figured it probably could not hurt, anyway.
Several minutes of prayer continued until Mary turned and sat cross-legged on the deck. John looked over at his friend and quickly joined, dropping heavily beside her. Looking out across the ship, the lad spotted Connor and his cohorts staring at them. The three lads leaned heavily against the stair shroud, all with arms crossed and soured faces.
After several minutes, Connor took a few steps closer to John and his friends, followed closely by Douglas and Peter.
“The sick ones should stay below!” he shouted hatefully, and turned sharply toward the stern of the ship. All the passengers within earshot turned to see what the ruckus was all about.
John sat silently, glaring at the three young men as they walked away. “Bunch of buggers,” he spat, tensing rigidly with ire. He closed his fist tightly and pounded the rough planking of the deck.
“Let them be,” Mary consoled him with a pat on his leg. “They are a bunch of idiots.”
The indignant lad reached for his aching shoulder that had begun to bleed slightly once again. He stared angrily after the antagonistic group. “No wonder we live as servants to the English.” he stated painfully from nowhere, “we are always at our own kin’s throats.” John looked sadly at Mary. “We will never be free like this.”
Mary looked silently into her friend’s longing eyes. She gently brushed a lock of errant hair from his sad eyes. Taking his hand, the lass interwove his fingers tightly into her own. “We need a leader, strong and brave, but with deep compassion and commitment to our people.”
“Aye, but where is such a person?”
A warm smile formed on Mary’s lips as she gazed deeply into John’s eyes. She pulled his hand softly to her face, rubbing his rough skin against her smooth face. “He comes from the most unlikely places,” she answered softly, looking across the deck at the retched group milling about. “Sometimes he is standing right in front of us and we just turn a blind eye.”
John took a deep breath and followed her eyes across his countrymen.
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