A Smidgen of Nellie

OK, now this is part of the beginning, like the agent or editor gets. If you will reply, and let me know whether you want to find out more, I will kiss both two of your feets. Honest.

Nellie gawked at the sails bulging with the wind over the ship docked at the Queenstown Wharf. They looked like the wings of a bird preparing to fly. Maybe the English forced all these other Irish on the wharf to fly away to America, just like her family.  Sure and she didn’t want to lose Mum in all these people. The masts, giant wooden poles that held up the sails, reminded her of those gigantic men who’d burst into their cottage two nights ago. The sun had set over their little farm just a few miles outside Midleton, and she and Fannie were sharing soda bread. “One for me, and one for you.” Right before the men tore a hole in their evening, she’d looked out the window at the stick trees of winter thinking it odd that the sunset could be beautiful when everything else in Ireland had become ugly. All her family and neighbors were thin, ragged and many sick. Their fields were littered with rotten potatoes and smelled like something had died, and it had. Mum said the potato disease had caused famine through every county in Ireland. They all starved because those murderous English stole all the other crops and sent them to England. She knew someone from almost every cottage in Midleton who had died. Even her best friend, Ellen.
The English had stolen not only her country, but the roof over their heads. Irish people would never do that to anyone. Nellie felt helpless to fight such a huge enemy. She was only six, after all. The grownups tried to fight them, but they failed. Once she grew up, she would create a life where she didn’t have to depend on anyone, and could make a lot of money to take care of herself. She wished she could stop thinking about night before last when the sheriff tore their cottage apart.
 One of the men headed for the ships began to sing in a loud tenor voice, and others joined him. She knew this song – The Wearing of the Green. Her family had sung it in the evenings when they gathered in each other’s cottages to relax together. 
… I met with Napper Tandy, and he took me by the hand
And he said, "How's poor old Ireland, and how does she stand?"
"She's the most distressful country that ever yet was seen
For they're hanging men and women there for the Wearin' o' the Green."
"So if the color we must wear be England's cruel red
Let it remind us of the blood that Irishmen have shed
And pull the shamrock from your hat, and throw it on the sod
But never fear, 'twill take root there, though underfoot 'tis trod.
Usually singing made her happy, but today, as they left the only home they’d ever known, the singing voices pulled sadness over Nellie like a fog.

The wooden sailing ship was bigger than anything she’d ever seen, but it looked worn out. Nellie glimpsed splintered holes in the boards of its side as they hurried along, and some of the sails were ripped. The ship didn’t look like it would keep the sea out or sail against a storm. “Mum?”
Mum saw her gaze at the ship and the worry in her eyes. “We don’t have any choice, Nellie. Some people don’t have tickets. At least while he evicted us the landlord included these to get rid of us.” Mum showed Nellie their tickets and shifted Fannie to her other hip so she could take Nellie’s hand. Evicted us. That must be the fancy word for throwing people from their home into the lane, tearing apart their roof and ripping their door off. “Hold my hand so no one will take you. We must hurry. We have to get aboard before she sails! Your grandmother promised she’d pray, and we’ll have to trust God. He is all we have.”

That awful night Grandmother had rocked with a slow creak, creak and hummed a melody Nellie had heard a thousand times. She darned a hole in Nellie’s shawl and had handed it to her just before the men burst in.  Nellie heard their shouts ringing in her head. “Out with ye! Get out now. You have been warned!” Mum wrenched free of a deputy who had grabbed her arm, and scrambled for the bundle she had made of their belongings. They’d had to choose only the possessions they needed and could carry on their backs. Nellie had to stop thinking about it. Stop it!

  Bridget O’Donnell and her two daughters during the Potato Famine in Ireland.  Frances, Nellie and Fannie may have looked very much like this when they left for America.

She tripped and lost her grip on Mum’s hand, and as she fell she wished Papa were here. He would lift her up on his strong shoulders, safe, out of the way of harm. Her head hit hard, and the rough timber of the wharf scratched her face. He couldn’t lift her up. Papa had been in Heaven since before she turned six in August. She hated that she had to search her mind to remember his laughing blue eyes and big smile.

Mum turned. “Nellie!”

Mum and Fannie looked fuzzy, and Nellie felt dizzy. Maybe it would be nice to lie here and rest a bit while her head cleared. She fingered the timber, thinking of Papa’s self-made cottage door and smiled to herself about how he’d crowed over his workmanship to anyone who mentioned it. “No one’s coming through that thick door that we don’t want inside.” But they had, and then they’d torn his door off its hinges and thrown it in the ditch like garbage. She’d heard it splinter. She must, must stop thinking about it. Someone tripped over her legs. She needed to get up before someone stepped right on her. She looked up again. Mum crouched over her, but now Nellie could see her clearly. Fannie’s forehead crumpled, and she looked about to cry. Nellie sat up.

“Are you all right, then?”

She rubbed her elbow. “And it’s just a little scratch.”

Mum pulled her to her feet, and they hurried on. Nellie caught the words of a lady they passed. “Right, it’s not enough for the English to be after stealing Paddy’s crops and homes on Erin’s soil. They aim to make us disappear like leprechauns on these coffin ships.” A coffin was for a dead person. Nellie hoped the lady didn’t mean what it sounded like she meant.

They found a building with a sign, M-e-d-i-c-a-l and I-n-s-p-e-c-t-i-o-n on the front.  A man forced Nellie’s mouth open, pressed a stick on her tongue, turned his wrist onto her forehead and pulled her bottom eyelids down. His stick was dry and he smelled like medicine. “Pass.” Mum held out one of the three tickets. The inspector stamped it.  Then he examined Mum and Fannie the same way. Nellie released the breath she’d held when he stamped their tickets, too. They only had each other. They must stay together.

A ship’s bell rang, and Nellie’s mind went back to Midleton again. She heard the church bell in her little village ring for the poor to come for their dole of food. The sheriff pulled Mum’s hand up, and forced those three coffin ship tickets into it. “The landlord says to be on this ship because he will not give you one scrap of anything if you choose not to go.”

“But there are only three. My mother …”

“She’s too old. She would not survive.”

Nellie’s insides turned to fire, and she whispered to Fannie. “One day, when I am big enough, I will find these Englishers and kill them. You just see if I don’t.” Yet inside, even as she hissed those words, she knew she wouldn’t. Grandmother and Mum had both told her that God didn’t want people to kill each other. The English must not count starving the Irish to death as killing.

At the wooden ramp that led to the ship, a man who wore a dark blue coat with brass buttons put his hand out, palm up. He never even glanced at them. “Tickets.” Mum slapped their three into his hand.  HHHe pocketed them, and they started the climb up the slick plank. Nellie began to smell the sour smell of sickness. Irish men, women and children flowed onto the old sailing ship, most bony and poor, just like Nellie, Mum and Fannie.

Her mind returned to Midleton. Their neighbors were almost all sleeping in the church. That wicked sheriff had shouted at their backs. “No rent, no home to come back to.” Nellie and her family had found room among their friends on the rough board floor of the church the night before they left for Queenstown.

 If only Papa hadn’t died. He had though, of the dysentery. Mum had told them the name of the disease that caused him all that pain. Nellie had cried over him almost every day at first. She had decided just after he died, when the pain in her heart made it feel squeezed shut, never to love anyone except Mum, Fannie and Grandmother that much, ever again. He had called her his “right hand man” and his “fine stock” when they pulled up potatoes together or fed the chickens. He had loved her, and she had loved him right back.

But that was before. Now they were at the mercy of sailors instead of the sheriff and his deputies. As soon as they passed a table where a sailor took their names, Fannie pulled at the basket. “I’m hungry!”  Mum was distracted with winding through the crowds, so Nellie unwound Fannie’s fingers from the basket and shushed her peckish sister. 

In a short time, men on the wharf heaved the great ropes off giant logs that held the pier up. The pier slid away from the ship, and Nellie watched a sailor climb up a web of ropes attached to the mast into the pink  and gold morning. She might not be able to fight the sheriff’s men, but sure and she could find adventure up there.

“Mum, I’ll be right back.”

She ran toward the web of ropes and climbed after the sailor.

“Nellie! Oh someone, get my girl.”

Nellie heard Mum, but she just could not stop. She had found adventure, at least a little, and she meant to live it.

The ropes were far apart. She used both her hands and feet to climb. As she did, the ocean and sky opened up before her in waves, clouds and sea birds. The sailor above her scrambled out on a side arm to work on a sail. The air smelled cleaner and cleaner. A strong arm engulfed her waist.

“Escapade’s over, lassie. Down you go.”

She feared to look down and see her captor’s face to know whether he was friendly or frightening. “Oh please, sir, take me up with you. It’s just a little adventure I want.” She hoped he was a friend.

He did not move for a moment, and then he tucked her under his left arm and began to climb. A cheer came up from the deck. Nellie looked down at the people’s upturned faces. They looked small from up here.

“Please sir, could I climb too? I’ve had so much of being forced.”

She felt him hesitate, and she hung under his arm waiting for him to decide. “Put your hand on the next rope. I’ll come behind in case you lose your balance.”

Up and up they went until they came to a little landing at the very top of the mast. “I can’t let you stand there alone. Take a look around. Then we’ll descend.”

When she looked behind her, she saw his blue eyes. Could Papa have found a way to give her this moment? The sailor’s eyes understood, for sure. He smiled at her. “Fill your eyes, lass. Tis a long journey.”

Nellie looked to the north. Ireland’s green looked beautiful against the blue sea where other sailing ships rocked in the breeze, and white gulls glided about in the air almost even with her head. It would be wonderful to fly. To the west were white capped waves. Something swam in the water to the south, but it was too far off for her to tell what it was. She didn’t look east. England was east, and she would not bless it by noticing.

“It’s much easier to climb than to descend. I’ll hold you. If your foot missed a rope, you’d fall. I’ve already taken a risk for you. I’ll not go to the brig, too.”

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