The Erin’s Queen was moored in the seething port of Liverpool. Cargo of every shape and vibrant colour heaved from vessel to quay. Sounds assaulted the senses. It was easy to be lost in the cacophony of barked orders from old-men to young-boys, creaking ropes on overworked pulleys and the persistent famished screeching of circling gulls.
The mass migration from Éire had brought news of exploitation, death and unseaworthy coffin ships. Of course I’d heard such things, but there were no choices. Our farm had been seized and notice had been served. Prison awaited, unless our landlord paid for our deportation, which he did in a manner that implied we should be grateful to him.
We had little time to gather belongings and we were told the hold of the ship didn’t have space, yet Aoife insisted on changing into what passed for her Sunday best. “We might have nothing in Quebec, but we don’t need family, or money, or even a job,” she said, lit by the struggling morning rise. “We have each other. We have faith. When we first set foot on new soil we will have excitement and pride and hope. We’ll be reborn. We’ll learn. We’ll thrive, my love.”
When she said such things, I forgot the hardships of toiling the lands and remembered why I married her. I could look into her eyes of blue hope and allow myself to dream, even with my ragged clothes and blooded hands.
Before sail, I held Padraig tightly. My precious boy, my gossoon. Although he was five, he looked like a toddler. Sometimes I feared I would crush him in my embrace. “The journey will be hard, son. You mustn’t cry, whatever you see. It is a long way and we would do best not to upset anyone. Can you do that for me, Padraig, my little man?” To this he grinned and nodded.
The dockland skies were gunmetal grey and clouds pregnant with overdue rain. The moon hung in the morning heavens, a caught trespasser in the dawn. It was only as the ship set sail that I realised the vastness of the anthracite sea. Approaching the harbour walls, a solitary tree jutted out of the stonework, all twisted convex and concave limbs, black and very dead—it stood like a guardian between the worlds.
Before twenty days had passed, we were no longer repulsed by stench of spilled stomachs, other smells filled the air—sickness, disease, the stink of humanity turning on itself to fight for scraps of mouldy bread.
We lost the first one on day twenty-five. An old woman, Josephine. She started the journey with eyes of empathy and wisdom. In my great shame, I was relieved when I no longer had to look at her unfocused and lifeless stare. Once the rattle of the death in her lungs had left her, I could once again hear the churn and crack of the angry ocean. Her family pushed her up, through the square of blinding light. We heard the splash a moment later. No prayer was said.
By day thirty, sharks followed the boat, they say.
On day thirty-three, it was a jumble of bodies, insects and madness. Departed relatives were pushed aside, survivors refused to touch them and the captain paid one sovereign for each body recovered and jettisoned. We watched the boat-hooks descend into darkness and grab what they could—hoisting, dragging—it mattered not, the treatment the dead.
By day forty, Padraig had succumbed. His fever not tempered by his mother’s touch, his discomfort barely eased by the tales of Tír na nÓg, the land of the young. I did not tell him the tales of Oisín and Niamh, but of a forever-gossoon named Padraig.
When he passed, no tears left his eyes.
We would not allow him to be touched, or hooked. When others talked of the disease he would bring, Aoife made inhuman screams and I threatened consequences.
Weeks passed. No words. No mourning.
Stepping ashore the new lands, she straightened her dress and held her head high, carrying our rag-doll gossoon in her arms.
I recall these events for you, my precious girl, for there is hope in everything. Even when enduring a day, minute or second feels impossible, there is a fragment of hope. For you were the first born in these lands and the world is yours. With your first breath, we found purpose.
Follow Mark A. King on Twitter: @Making_Fiction