Alex : Chapter Three

The Pith of Sense

         Anna Cleary snuggled deeper under her blankets.  She hated rising on damp spring mornings. Such feelings were slothful she knew, wastingGod’s good lightStill she could not believe that theallpowerful, divine deity would begrudge her a few more minutes of warmth under her covers.Closing her eyes, she slipped back into her dreamimagining Ian Campbell’s body next to her, warming her in the morning cold.  Every Saturday she would carry that dream into the confessional. Father Byrne would warn her against the perils of the fleshand give her ten Hail Marys or Five Acts of Contrition to recite. He would also point out that Ian Campbell, Protestant that he was, could not be considered a proper match for a decent Catholic woman.

For reasons as unknown to her as they were to the priest it was Ian Campbell who had taken her fancy. Foolishness she told herself. Ian was not the brightest man she had ever met.  He was honest enough but so were most men. She did take a secret pleasure in admiring his strong arms and shoulders. From the way he looked at her and from the few awkward words he stammered out to her, she knew he was interested in her.  She also knew that her mother and brothers would never permit her to marry a Protestant.  At twenty-seven Anna was an aged spinster. Her future would be that of a loving aunt to her nephews and nieces and a dutiful daughter to her mother. They, her shop and the church would become her life.

Footsteps on the stairs outside her room broke her thoughts, Alex coming down to fetch water from the pump.  Anna turned over burrowing deeper underneath her blankets. Then something heavy thumped against the stairs causing her to sit up. As she touched the small silver crucifix she wore around her neck, Anna breathed a quick Hail Mary. She rose, donned her dressing gown and slipped her feet into a pair of red leather slippers. She passed through the tiny kitchen sitting room into her shop. At the far side of the shop was the door that led to the alleyway. She unbolted the door and opened it. Her eyes watering from the weak morning light she peered out.  On the landing in front of the door lay a wooden pail. Muffled groans pulled her eyes up the stairs.

Halfway up the stairs his back resting against the railing sat Alex. Curled over he was pressing a hand against his abdomen.

“Are you all right, Alex?”

He gave a slight gasp. Then pulling himself up, he croaked, “Slipped on the damn stairs. I’m fine. Get back inside before you get your death of cold.”

Anna picked up the pail. She sloshed towards the pump that stood at the back of the yard. With each squelching step she cursed the man’s foolishness.

“I can get my own damn water,” Alex grumbled stepping down to the ground.
                Anna replied with a vigorous jerking up and down of the pump handle. If the man had any sense at all, which she doubted, he would make up his differences with Maureen and go home.

Alex waited for Anna to finish working the handle. He picked up the pail and lugged it back towards the stairs. Water sloshed over the brim spilling against his trouser legs. With a tired wave of his left arm he brushed away Anna’s offer to help.  A good two inches taller then Alex, Anna looked down into his sunken eyes. She realised that she was not looking at the healthy tiredness that followed a day’s work.  Alex’s exhaustion showed the complete draining of strength from every pore in his body.

She watched the old man hauling the water back up the stairs.  Father Byrne had often told his flock that they were all spirit trapped within the weaknesses of the flesh. Alex, she surmised, was no different from anyone else.

Maureen should help.  Even if Alex had lost James’s estate, he was still her family. After breakfast Anna would walk over to Kilmarnock Hill and tell Maureen the truth about Alex’s condition. Anna could tell McKay but the doctor was not one to defy his wife. It would have to be Maureen. She was about to tell Alex when he disappeared into his room.

***           

Kilmarnock sat upon a rocky shelf of land that rose at a gentle slope from out of the waters of Lake Lomond. Finding one’s way in the village was never very difficult. One either lived away from or towards the lake. Bordering Queen Street, a sixty-foot swathe of mud were one and two-storied buildings, most wooden, the oldest squared timbered, the newer of clapboard sides. The village boasted two stone churches, Saint Andrews Presbyterian built of brown sandstone, and across the street from it, two years old, made from white granite, the Church of the Sacred Heart. The two buildings faced each other, two wary wrestlers respectful of each other’s strength. Kilmarnock’s two lesser sects, the Methodists and Free Presbyterian proclaimed their lack of worldly vanity with two small white clapboard buildings. Brick still remained confined to three buildings, the McLoughlin Building, Ferguson’s Dry Goods, and the largest building in Kilmarnock, the Royal Arms. 

Anna’s route took her past Campbell’s Forge and Livery Stable.  She never passed by the smithy without the fear that Ian would be there.  He would bid her a good day. She would respond. Anna could imagine all six hundred people in Kilmarnock having nothing else to do than to listen to every word they had to say. She considered steering around the building but rejected the thought.  People might think it strange. Besides she had as much right as anyone to use the road. Keeping her eyes on the road she strode past the forge.

As he tied the strings of his leather apron, Tom Campbell eyed spinster Cleary hurrying past. Odd. Anna should be opening up her shop. Tom had to admit that he had never had much time for the woman. She was a bogtrotter, a snooty one at that. She had a good figure but she was a red head, a sign of a woman with a bad temper. Besides, she was too tall for his taste, a good five and a half feet.  Unnatural it was for a woman to be looking down on a man. A mare was always smaller than a stallion, a cow smaller than a bull.

“You should be watering the horses,” Ian said.  He had come through the back door of the forge to find his brother staring out at the street. Tom was a good worker but at times Ian felt it necessary to remind him who was in command. “Gawking don’t fill the stomach.”

“Looks like spinster Cleary’s not going to work today,” said Tom.

Ian followed his brother’s gaze to find Anna walking towards the covered bridge.

“Must be off to see her mother,” he said.

As she passed the Royal Arms Anna could not keep her eyes from tilting towards the small cardboard sign placed in the great front window. In large black letters two words stared at her. NO IRISH.  When the innkeeper, Joe Morris, had placed it in the window two years before, he had told her that the sign was not meant for the Clearys or other respectable families.  He only wanted to discourage penniless trash.  He intended no personal offence. She took none, Anna had told him with the tightest of smiles. She had not stepped inside the Royal Arms since, content to have what little mail she received to be collected by either Doctor McKay or Alex. She regretted that she had not been born a male free to move away as her brothers had done.

Anna thought of her childhood, of running home crying because the other little girls had laughed at her.  She had promised herself two things. No one would ever laugh at her again.  The other was that she would never forgive Doctor MacTavish for what he had done to her mother and to herself.  She had prayed to the Blessed Virgin to keep her from those men who would lead her into sin as Alex MacTavish had led her mother.

 After James and Jean MacTavish and her own sainted father, Padraic, had died of the cholera, Rebecca had stayed on to keep house for Doctor MacTavish. That was the polite thing to say.  The truth was that the doctor had seduced her, degrading her to the position of a mistress. It had been a scandal throughout Kilmarnock eighteen years before. Most people had now forgotten it except Rebecca’s children and Maureen McKay, Alex’s niece. One thing Maureen and Anna agreed upon. Alex had betrayed them both.

Anna conceded that the betrayal had not extended to his treatment of herself or of her two brothers. Alex had never raised a hand against any of them. He paid for their schooling, clothed and fed them. He had brought them out of the small, overcrowded cabin that had once served as the first MacTavish home into Kilmarnock Hill. When they attained their majority he offered his brothers and her land within the township. Her brothers had refused, first Patrick and then Tim. The MacTavishes, Patrick told Alex, had already done enough for the Clearys.

Anna, being a woman, had lacked the choice her brothers had. She could have married, gone into a convent, become a servant or opened a shop. She did not feel called to the cloister. No Cleary, she had promised herself, would ever be a servant again.  Instead she chose to open a small dressmaking shop in Kilmarnock to remain close to her mother. Rebecca gave her the money for the shop but Anna knew that the money had come from Alex. If it had been from anyone else she would have felt gratitude but not from Alex. For years she had watched Alex try to replace Padraic as their father, taking his place at the head of the table and in their mother’s bed.  Patrick had known that every gesture on Alex’s part, every gift had all been based upon that pretence. A sham, he had called Alex. After all, Alex had never married their mother. Why would he? The Clearys were only Irish.

If Doctor MacTavish had done the honourable thing and married their mother, Kilmarnock Hill would have become the Cleary home.  As it was, they had no claim to the beds they slept in, the chairs in which they sat and the floors they walked on.  Father O’Farrel, Patrick would point out, had called the doctor a pharisee. Denied their rightful place, buffeted by taunts from children every time they passed through Kilmarnock, the Cleary boys saw the source of their shame in the quiet little man who shared their table. What kind of a man was he anyway? The sham was not even a competent physician, said Patrick. If he had been their father, their sister, Mary Francis, and their brother, Sean, would have lived.

           Anna had learned the truth on the day that Morris put up his sign. Anna climbed the stair to Alex’s office. In angry words she told him about the sign. He nodded and said that it was a shameful thing. She had then asked him what he would do about it. Alex shrugged.  He could do nothing.

“It’s wrong,” she said.

“It’s not against the law to be wrong.”

“Morris is a friend of yours. Say something.”

“There’s nothing I can say. The man is within his rights.”

Anna knew then that what Patrick had been saying for years was true. “It’s not against the law to be a coward either, is it Alex?”

Alex of course did nothing. The sign remained. As she remembered Alex of the past she thought of the old man lugging water up the stairs. Alex was not a bad man, she conceded. He was just not a man. She would tell Maureen that Alex was ill. Maureen would persuade her uncle to come home. Anna would at last be left in peace.

***

At breakfast Maureen announced to George that she would begin work on her vegetable garden. The late arrival of warm weather and the heavy rains had kept her from beginning in April. Now, with the clearing of the skies, she decided not to lose any more time.  George, his thoughts elsewhere, half-listened to her plans for the garden. Pecking her right cheek, he mumbled his assent.  Miffed, Maureen left the breakfast to be cleared by Rebecca and went upstairs. There she changed into a grey gardening frock. Going out the back door she went to the tool shed, collected hoe and trowel and marched out to the garden bed.

As she broke up the thick black clots of soil and tossed aside the stones Maureen considered George’s distracted manner. Something was troubling him.  She suspected that something was Uncle Alex. It seemed a reasonable deduction. He was the source of everything else that had gone wrong in her life. Every thrust of the trowel reminded her of how her uncle had ruined her.

 Maureen tossed aside another pebble. The world could have been hers. What had she received? This dirty little collection of huts would be all that she would ever know that and the dark green of the endless forest. Maureen brushed back a strand of yellow hair that had fallen across her left eye. Pulling off her leather work gloves, she tucked the errant strand back under her straw hat. Before she put her gloves back on, she studied her hands. Roughened by work and darkened by the sun they had become so ugly.  Every night she would soak them in a poultice of warm oatmeal paste. It would have all been unnecessary if her life had been what it should have been.

Maureen loved her uncle. She wished that she could like him.  If he had been a Ralph Nickleby, tight-fisted and vicious, she could have hated him in good conscience. Uncle Alex was not a bad man she admitted tossing away a pebble her trowel had unearthed. He was just a bad uncle.

Once, when she had been very small, she had adored him. He was at his best with small children, always seeming to find the time to play with her, make her simple gifts, tell her stories or sing her songs. She remembered asking over and over for her favourites, Annie Laurie and the Minstrel Boy. Then the cholera had come in 1834. It had taken away her father and mother and part of Uncle Alex.

She had been six, too young to understand anything of what was happening, just that she was alone and needing her mother. At night it had been the feel of her uncle’s arms around her, of the rough stubble of his cheek against her face that had allowed her to forget her fear and grief, to feel safe in a world grown too large. During the two years that had followed he became the centre of her life. Rebecca had become a second mother, the Cleary children her brothers and sister.  Then when she was eight Uncle Alex had sent her away.

As the winter had stretched into spring, Uncle Alex had grown silent, almost morose. Even today she wondered if she had done anything to offend him. One day he told her she was going to Kingston, a large city, a full day’s journey by steamer. She would go to school there.   She would learn how to be a fine lady, to wear pretty dresses, how to speak French and how to play the piano.

When told his decision she had screamed and struck him telling him that she would not go. For the first time this failed to shake him.  She then told him that she would go only if he would take her. He agreed. Three weeks later a Miss Dodd arrived by steamboat. She had come to take Maureen to the school. Maureen had run to her uncle and started hitting him, screaming that he had promised. Alex had told her that he was too busy. He would visit her in a few days to see that she had settled in properly.  He had then shown her the new dress that Miss Dodd had brought her. With the greatest of reluctance, she had agreed to go. On that warm August day, hand in hand with her uncle, she had walked down to the dock at the bottom of Kilmarnock Hill where the steamer waited. Despite the years that had passed, she still remembered Uncle Alex standing on the dock, waving goodbye. Her left hand holding on to Miss Dodd’s hand, she had kept waving until Uncle Alex had dwindled to a black dot.  The only thought that had comforted her was his promise that he would come and visit her soon.

The school had not been a happy place for Maureen during her first months there. Kingston, with more than ten thousand people she found large and noisy, very different from the green quiet of Kilmarnock. Above all she had missed her uncle. Every week she had written begging him to come and visit her. All the other little girls received visitors. Why could he not come? It was only fifty miles. Again and again he would write back pleading the excuse of too much to do, but soon he would be free.  The soon never came.  She would not see him again until December when she returned home for the Christmas holiday. She had been brought by Angus Campbell who had told her that Uncle Alex had been too busy to come.

Maureen conceded that Alex had been right to send her to Kingston. She had received a sound education. For fourty pounds per annum she had been drilled in Writing, Reading, Arithmetic, Music, Needlework, Watercolouring, Homemaking, French, Religious Studies and Floral Arrangement. The widow of a Church of Scotland minister, Mrs. McClelland had taught her pupils the Christian virtues of Faith, Humility, Charity and, and above all else, Truthfulness. With lies and deceit Satan worked his will.

                A quick student, Maureen had tried hard to follow Mrs. McClelland’s teachings. At sixteen, Mrs. McClelland appointed her as assistant tutor of Needlework and Music. To the girls under her, Maureen made clear that deceit was not to be tolerated.

During the twelve years she attended Mrs. McClelland’s Maureen would see her uncle only during holidays. Even then he would often be away from Kilmarnock Hill riding the back roads for days, visiting farms and hamlets.  When he was with her he seemed awkward and defensive. At times he seemed to look froward to her returning to Kingston. Yet this same man would write long letters to her every week. She seemed to read the words of one man, and hear the words of another.

Maureen had tried to understand him. She conceded that a physician could fail to keep an occasional promise due to professional demands. She was after all married to a physician. But George always seemed to find the time every other week to take her to Brockville or to Kingston. Not once had Uncle Alex found the time to see her in Kingston. Years of neglect had been followed with an act she could not forgive, his refusal to come to her wedding.

Maureen could have understood if he had opposed the marriage. Instead he had requested that it be held at Kilmarnock Hill, not in Brockville. In her return letter Maureen, tactfully as possible, had pointed out why such a notion could not be considered. George’s family would have to tramp by horse and coach over terrible roads or be crowded onto a steamboat. All that discomfort would have to be endured for the sake of one old man. Even Rebecca and Anna when they had arrived for the wedding had agreed with her. Out of spite or indifference Uncle Alex had refused to come.

“When I was a child I spake as a child.”  Maureen’s view of her uncle had been one of those childish things she had put away. As she had matured Maureen saw him for what he was, a weak, little man who had drifted through life in the wake of a stronger, abler brother, her father, James.

Maureen had once looked upon her uncle as a wise man possessing great and mysterious powers, regarded with awe by his ignorant neighbours. In Kingston and in Brockville she had gained a clearer perception of what medical men were. Tall, plump, well dressed, they owned their own carriages and had servants to tend to their needs. They were leaders of their communities. Doctor James Sampson, a close friend of the McKays had twice been mayor of Kingston, had received the governor-general of the Canadas and had been one of the founders of the Presbyterian Theological College in Kingston. What was Uncle Alex?

He had never served in any public capacity. He never went to any social functions. Every June 18 Judge Strachan, at his estate on the Tay River would hold a ball and dinner to celebrate Waterloo Day. Every year Uncle Alex would be invited. Every year he would decline. When she asked him why, he had told her that he had seen nothing in the day to celebrate.

Every night Maureen would say two prayers. The first was to have a child. The second was that her uncle’s soul might be saved. Neither prayer had been answered. Her uncle’s behaviour had only grown worse. His table manners were atrocious. He would often eat with his mouth open, too buried in thought to take notice of his company. Sometimes Maureen would catch herself staring at how he would sop up gravy with his bread, as if every drop were precious to him. What offended her most was Alex’s indifference to his own soul’s salvation. Not once had he been known to step inside a church. This, Maureen knew, had a disastrous effect upon his reputation as a physician. Sensible people would not place themselves in the hands of a damned soul.

Her father, James, a successful woollen merchant from Glasgow, had invested his savings in land in Upper Canada. When he died he had left behind an estate of 18,000 acres. Included with the estate had been a lumber mill, a gristmill and a foundry. All Uncle Alex had to do was to hold it together until she came of age.   He could not even do that.  How could a man who defied the commandments of both God and man hope to prosper?

Since the time of Knox the MacTavishes had been devout followers of the Church of Scotland. The land upon which Saint Andrews stood had been land donated by her father. As far back as she could remember Maureen had always pleaded with her uncle to make his peace with God. He had always replied that he would. He never did.  More lies.  Once he had told her that he had never felt comfortable at worship, as if feeling comfortable had anything to do with it. Of the four churches in Kilmarnock only one was the true faith. The others were distortions. Even so at least they acknowledged a belief in God. Alex held no belief at all. To hold a false belief was wrong but understandable, but to believe in nothing?

She had heard of Atheists. Shallow soil upon which the good seed had withered and died. That explained why Uncle Alex had failed. He could not believe in anything or in anyone. He could therefore take nothing seriously, least of all the truth. He could see no difference between lies and truth swinging back and forth between both without a thought for the consequences and without any apparent sense of shame or guilt.  Alex the liar. Alex the failure. She had to live with the shame of that.

Maureen also had to live with the poverty he had condemned her to. When she had returned for a visit to Kilmarnock Hill with her new husband Alex had turned over to her eighteen hundred acres, the house on Kilmarnock Hill and nothing else. She had asked him what had happened to her father’s land. He had muttered something about bad investments. Advised by George not to press the matter she had let it drop. During the past year however she had pieced together what had happened to her inheritance.

Land worth at least eight shillings an acre Alex had sold at six pence. During the two years before her return to Kilmarnock her uncle seemed to have been almost frantic in his haste to strip her of her land. As late as 1846 her holdings had still been more than ten thousand acres. Then the Irish had come, drunkards, Papists, filthy, typhus-ridden, spreading disease and immorality wherever they went. What had her uncle done? He had brought them to Kilmarnock and given them her land.

Maureen could understand how it happened. Rebecca had worked her way into Alex’s bed, taking advantage of his kindliness and weakness of character to strengthen the Irish. Rebecca had served as a tool of the priests. Father Byrne and Father O’Farrel before him had worked on her telling her that her soul would be in peril if she did not help her fellow Catholics. The bishops in Kingston and Montreal had seen a rich prize in the MacTavish lands. Through their servant Rebecca Cleary they could overthrow Protestant power in Kilmarnock Township. Maureen had told George to let the woman go. Rebecca could stay with her daughter or one of her sons.   George had looked at her as if she had said something disagreeable. Maureen had allowed the matter to drop resolving that once Rebecca became too old to work she would be replaced by a good, Protestant girl.

In Kingston Maureen had often dreamt of what she would do once she came into her inheritance. She would travel, to New York City, London, Paris. She would keep a fine house along King Street in Kingston, or perhaps even in Montreal. A home filled with flowers and music, she would entertain the finest families. She would not be blind to those less fortunate. “The poor we shall always have with us.” They had their place as she had hers.  Their place was to serve. Her place was to protect and guide.  She would live the life decreed by her father and by God.  That dream had been shattered by the loss of her father’s land. Uncle Alex had betrayed his brother’s trust, Kilmarnock and her.

If she had been a man Maureen could have done something. As a woman all she could do was show Christian forbearance and forgiveness. Her uncle’s indifference and sloth had cost her a fortune. Yet she had not been angry. She had accepted it without a murmur. Her duty had demanded it

Since Uncle Alex failed to show any sense of family responsibility it fell upon her to protect the MacTavish name.  In doing so she might shame her uncle into an awareness of his errors. This, Mrs. McClelland had told her was the duty of womankind, to bear in silence the weakness of the male and in doing so, civilise him. Seek reform through setting an example, making up in moral strength what she may lack in physical strength. So Maureen had borne without complaint her uncle’s boorishness, his atheism, the foul odour of whiskey clinging to him, and his lies.

Uncle Alex’s inability to concede even the smallest point had driven him away from Kilmarnock Hill. It had all been so silly when one thought about it, the argument that had precipitated his leaving. She had invited the Reverend Douglas Mackenzie and his wife Ellen over for tea.  She had begged her uncle to behave himself. So he had, refraining from using bad language and watching his manners during the meal. Ellen and she had such a gay chat about the ladies of the town. George and Reverend Mackenzie had discussed the possibility of a new bell for the church. After dinner they had retired to the drawing room for tea.

Maureen’s mother had always been fond of that room. After her parents had died, Uncle Alex had locked it. When the house passed into her hands Maureen had reopened it. She had insisted on cleaning it herself.  This would be her room as it had been her mother’s before her.

The McKays had settled on the Ottoman, the Mackenzies on the old but comfortable horsehair chairs. Alex had trailed behind, finding a chair towards the back of the room. Maureen had not objected. As long as he kept quiet she would be content. Alex had been so quiet she had not noticed his leaving.  The McKays and the Mackenzies were too involved in agreeing about the character of the recent Irish immigrants infesting the colony.

When she did notice that Alex was missing Maureen assumed that he had gone to bed. Only after the Mackenzies had left did Maureen find him in the kitchen. Coat draped over the back of his chair, his shirtsleeves rolled up, Alex was sharing a pot of tea with Rebecca. The fact that he had insulted her guest, a man of the cloth by not bidding him goodnight had not occurred to him.  An overgrown child Alex had been interested only in what had pleased him.  She had told him that his actions were inconsiderate and that she felt ashamed of him. He seemed to take it to heart. Then he said the unforgivable.

“It’s not Mackenzie’s fault he was born a fool.”

Alex had insulted a man of God. She demanded that he go to the minister and apologise for his behaviour. He agreed. Furthermore, she added, Alex’s practice of inviting Father Byrne for a weekly game of chess would have to end. This, she had told her uncle, was a Protestant house. He would have to accept that if he wished to remain in it. Her father had never allowed a priest in the house. Maureen saw no reason why she should.

Alex had replied by packing his grip and moving into his office in the village. For the past ten months he had remained there returning every so often for a visit and a meal.  Sheer stubborn, wilfulness. Uncle Alex had never liked her and never would. She did not know why but Maureen did know Uncle Alex would have to pay the price for false pride.

What hurt her most was that his stubbornness was beginning to infect her marriage. She had expected George to support her in her dispute with her uncle. Yet ever since coming to Kilmarnock she had detected worrying changes taking place within George, changes that were beginning to push them apart. The first had been the decision to settle in Kilmarnock. That had been George’s decision, not hers and it had been prompted by Uncle Alex.

Before they had married George had planned to take up a practice in Brockville. Within a few years he might buy a wealthier practice in a larger town, perhaps in Montreal. All that had changed after Alex’s invitation had come. Maureen had hoped that such a visit could be avoided. After Alex’s failure to appear at her wedding she had no further wish to see him. Yet the need to settle her affairs in Kilmarnock could not be denied. Neither could she decline her uncle’s invitation without declaring an open breach with him.  To preserve the facade of family unity she had agreed to go.

As she had listened to Rebecca prattle on about the villagers George and Alex had retired to Alex’s bedroom. What they had discussed George never mentioned but that night when they were in bed George declared that he would be taking over Alex’s practice. Maureen had not liked the decision but she had accepted it. The choice of where he wished to work was the husband’s prerogative.  Maureen knew her place.

When she had been twelve Maureen had been fascinated by Mathematics. The logic of numbers had intrigued her. Mrs. McClelland had found her reading Pythagoras when she should have working on a sampler for her uncle. The woman had told Maureen to turn her mind to feminine matters. Dutiful student that she was Maureen returned to her needlework.

What she could never admit to George or to her uncle or to anyone else was that she hated Kilmarnock. Although proud of the fact that her father had created the village, she had no wish to live there. The year before her wedding she had avoided returning during vacation pleading, with some justice, the demands imposed by her work at the school. The courtship between herself and George was also making great inroads on her time. Besides Uncle Alex had never shown any interest in seeing her before. Why should he start now? If she had gone up to Kilmarnock George would have wanted to see her family. What would he have thought of her uncle, of Rebecca and of Kilmarnock?  It would be so much nicer to go to Brockville.

To make her lot even more difficult George would often be away for two or three days at a time visiting remote districts of the township.  Two things kept her sane when George was away.  The house always demanded work, the one benefit of not having many servants.  The other factor was the elevated company offered by the Mackenzies and a few others, the Harrisons and Fergusons and Mister Burke the schoolteacher. In such company provincial though it was, she could play whist and chat about the news from Kingston. Forgotten would be the summer dust and the air poisoned by the stench of privies and swamps.

Maureen stabbed the ground with the trowel. Then she sensed someone watching her. She looked up to see Anna Cleary peering down at her from the back porch. Maureen surmised that Anna had come to see her mother. Disliking the thought of anyone, least of all a Cleary, towering above her, she rose to her full height of sixty inches. She brushed the dirt off her smock. As she did so Maureen told herself that this person had encouraged Uncle Alex to stay away from his home. Even so she was still a guest. Courtesy was demanded.  Maureen remembered to smile. “Miss Cleary. I trust you find your mother well?”

                 “Yes, thank you.” Aware of how Maureen disliked being reminded of her short stature, Anna remained where she was. If Maureen did not like it, Maureen would have to be the one to move.  “Actually it’s not about her that I wish to speak.”

“I see.” Maureen waited for Anna to descend. When she did not Maureen gathered up her tools and walked towards the shed.

.               Anna, resisting the impulse to shove Maureen down into the mud, concentrated upon the purpose of her trip. “It’s about your uncle.”

Maureen lifted up the wooden latch of the shed and returned the tools to their appropriate pegs. A proper place for everything and everyone. Once this shed had been the proper place for the Clearys. “Well?”

“I saw him this morning. He had an accident.”

A pang of concern cut into Maureen but she mastered it. She concentrated upon closing and relatching the door.  The mind, she reminded herself, must always rule the heart.   “I see. Was it bad?”

“Not really. He slipped on the stairs.”

“You came all this way to tell me that he slipped? Most considerate of you.  Would you like some tea?”        

Maureen could sense Anna’s agitation. By remaining calm Maureen would remain mistress of the situation. She walked back towards the kitchen knowing that Anna would have no other choice but to follow.    As for Uncle Alex, the man had taken a slight slip, nothing more.

“It’s about why he slipped,” said Anna, trotting behind.

“Why was that?”

“He’s ill. I don’t know from what but he’s barely more than skin and bone. He might be having a fever.”

“I didn’t know that you were a physician, Miss Cleary.”

“I have eyes.”

Maureen stopped and looked back at her. “So does my husband. He examines Doctor MacTavish every week. He told me my uncle is fine. So who am I supposed to believe, you or him?”

“I know what I saw.”

“Are you saying that my husband is lying to me?”

“Maybe you should go and see Alex for yourself?”

Humiliate herself in front of the entire village? Did the woman hate her that much? Still there might be something in what she was saying. Uncle Alex had been losing weight all through the winter. “My husband is in his office. You should have gone to see him.”

“It’s not him that Alex needs. It’s you.”

“Does he? He’s shown precious little sign of it before. If he does, all he has to do is ask.”

“He won’t do that. You know what he’s like.”

  “Then he had better change, hadn’t he?” Maureen flounced up the back porch steps leaving Anna below on the ground.

“Don’t you even care?” Anna asked.

Maureen, who was opening the screen door, paused. One of the things she looked forward to after Rebecca’s retirement would be denying Anna the right to step upon MacTavish land. “Of course I care,” she snapped. “Alex is a grown man. He is responsible for his own decisions. It was his choice to leave; his choice to remain away. I cannot force him to change his mind.”

“You can ask.”

“I have asked.” What more could she do, beg?  How ill could Alex be? He was a physician.  He was well enough to take care of that thief that Mister McDermott had found in his barn.

“Go to him,” Anna pleaded. “See him, just for a few minutes.”

Maureen shook her head. She knew how Alex felt about her. Besides, if she were going to take advice from anyone it would not be a Cleary. “He doesn’t want me there.”

“But…. ”

  “I will thank you, Miss Cleary “not to intrude in my family’s matters.”

                Anna turned. In a half-whisper, just loud enough to catch Maureen’s ears she uttered one word. “Bitch.”

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Alex, Fiction

Alex : Chapter Two

         The Pride of Worth

George McKay folded his stethoscope and placed it on the desk.  An instructor at McGill had told him that the worst patient he could have would be another medical man. Such patients posed a continual test of wills, the patient’s professional pride clashing with that of the treating physician. George’s instructor had never heard of Alex.

Professional arrogance was not one of Alex’s faults. When asked his opinion, he would reply that whatever George thought was right, must be right. Alex would neither argue nor listen. George corrected himself.  Alex did listen. He listened with all apparent seriousness. He then went away and did the exact opposite. After eleven months George conceded that the only value of these meetings lay in keeping Alex supplied with pills George ordered from Kingston.

   Alex pocketed the small, white paper packet. George closed the desk drawer. The young man then leaned   back in his chair. “How’s your patient, Alex?”

  “Well eough.”

George looked at the old man’s reddened eyes. “When did you last have a good night’s sleep?”

                Alex shrugged as he finished buttoning his waistcoat. “I can’t remember. Does it matter?” 

                “Rebecca’s been asking about you. So has Maureen.” George fiddled with the handles of the stethoscope.  Every week he asked the same question. “When are you going to tell them?”

                Every week he received the same answer. “Soon, lad. Soon.”

                “You’ve been saying soon for ten months. If you don’t tell them Alex, I will.”

                Every week George made the same threat. Alex always countered with the same argument. “No you won’t. You gave your word as a gentleman.”

                At this point George would let the matter drop. Not this time, “What about your word?”

                Alex smiled. “I’m not a gentleman, George. I don’t have one.”

George closed his eyes and counted to five. Never shout at a patient. You cannot bully a patient into good health.  “Damn it, Alex. This is not a joke.”

.               Alex’s smile faded. “I know. I’ll tell them, lad. I swear.”

                “When?”

                “You’ll be in Kingston tomorrow. Saturday after that, I’ll come up for supper. I’ll tell them then. You have my word on it.”

“You don’t have a word. Remember.” Afraid of offending the old man George turned to another matter. “What about your patient? You can’t keep him much longer. You know that.”

“He’s no trouble at all. Most of the time, I hardly know that he’s there. He’s as quiet as a lamb.”

                “That’s not the point.  How much longer are you planning to keep him?”

                “He’ll be gone in another week.”

                George nodded. “So what have you found out about him?”

                “Nothing yet. Ian has promised to keep an eye open for any information but he hasn’t heard anything.”

                “The boy hasn’t told you anything about himself?”

                “Not exactly.”

                “What do you mean by not exactly? Has he or hasn’t he?”

                “I haven’t asked him.”

                “You haven’t?  You do plan to ask him, don’t you?”

                “I’m waiting until he’s strong enough.”  Sensing the young man’s displeasure Alex decided to be more specific. “I’ll ask him tomorrow. He’ll be well enough by then.”

                “Maybe,” George muttered. “But will you?”  He pushed himself up out of his chair and began to pace the room. At moments such as these his thoughts and emotions having overwhelmed everything above the waist, would begin to push down into his legs. George, as Maureen would often remark, was a pacer. “Jesus, Alex. You hardly sleep. You eat barely enough to keep a bird alive and you take a child in?”

“I couldn’t leave him in the street.”

“Maybe not but you could have told Ian that you’re not well. It’s called telling the truth, Alex. You might try it sometime. Maureen is right. You have less common sense than a five-year-old. I offered to take him off your hands.

That offer is still there. Please Alex, at least think about it.”

                Alex shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. He’ll be gone in a few days.” He pulled a small piece of paper from out of his waistcoat pocket.  “Could you do me a favour, George, when you’re in Kingston?”

                George had grown cautious in agreeing to do Alex favours. “What kind of favour?”

                “I came across a couple of words while reading. I’m just curious to know what they mean. They’re in German, I think. Could you find someone to translate them for me?” He handed the scrap of paper to George who struggled through Alex’s crabbed handwriting.

                “Ma . . . mamin . . . ”

                “Maminka. Someone at the college might know.”

                “I’ll ask around.” Relieved at the simplicity of the request George placed the paper in his wallet.        “Rebecca wants to know what’s happening to you, Alex.”

Alex knew what was to come. “Aye.”

“She’s not an idiot, Alex.”

“I never said that she was.”  The old man’s voice became a bit testy.

 “No but you act as if she is. She wants to know why you keep pushing your food around on the plate without eating it.”

“What did you tell her?” 

                “Just old age; a touch of indigestion.”

                “She believed you?”

                “I’m a physician. Why shouldn’t she believe me?”

                “Aye.”

                As Alex put on his hat he asked George if he could borrow his microscope for a few days. George placed it in its red walnut travelling case. Alex snuggled it under his arm, thanked him and opened the door. As Alex was leaving, George told him, “I don’t enjoy being a liar, Alex.”

                “Neither do I, lad.” Alex clapped him on his right shoulder. “I’ll tell her in two weeks. I promise you.”

                George watched Alex slouch away back up the road towards Anna Cleary’s, the red box tucked under his right arm. Lost in thought, Alex did not notice the rut in the road. He tumbled into it almost pitching headfirst into the road. His arms tightened around the box to keep it from falling. George was about to run forward to help him when Alex caught himself. The old man straightened his back and went on his way.

                Not far from where George was standing two men observed the small bent figure stumbling across the road.  They exchanged nods.  Pity about MacTavish, drunk this early in the morning. George’s face flamed.  He swivelled on his heels and strode back into his office.  The street door slammed behind him.

                                                                                ***        

Smideti. Stinky. That was what he would call the old man. He would watch him until Stinky made a mistake. When he did that would be the time to escape. The old man had locked the door. The boy thought of dropping out of the window but decided against it. People might see him. Stinky would have someone watching.  They always did. In jumping he might break a leg or injure himself in some other way. The best way was the way that he had used before. When Stinky slept he would get control of the door key. In looking through Stinky’s chest of drawers he had found a small box where the man kept his money. He had thought of taking it but that would have been the excuse Stinky would use to have him arrested. Once that happened he would never get away. Waiting would be better.

                The boy took down a copy of Walter Scott’s Ivanoe and carried it to his refuge, the far corner of the room tucked between the bed and a bookshelf, the farthest possible place from Stinky that he could find. He was finishing chapter  one when the old man returned. The boy did not look up from his book. Katrina had told him that, unless called upon, one should remain silent.

                Alex hung his hat on the peg. He placed the box upon the desk and removed his coat. He poured some water into a mug and then popped two pills into his mouth. He washed them down and then wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. Finished he slumped down onto the bed.. As he waited for the pain to ease he looked at the child in the corner.

                “Good book,” he asked.

                The boy turned a page.

                “Are you hungry?” Receiving no answer Alex prepared the child’s breakfast, porridge, toast and tea   When finished, he placed it on the table.

                The boy refused to look at the food.  He was hungry but he was not going to let Stinky know that. He would eat but the time of eating would be his choice.

                After Alex had cleaned the porridge pot he wondered what he should do next. He could clean up the room or do something about the mess on his desk. Perhaps he could sit in the Royal Arms, see what Joe Morris and his customers where up to but that short visit to George had wrung his energy out of him. Later he would show the boy the microscope. For now he wanted only to rest. Alex lay back on his bed and closed his eyes.

                He sensed that the boy would try to slip away. While the boy would have to leave soon his leaving now would not be the wisest thing. In another day or two he could leave but not just yet. Again Alex thought of the microscope. Arousing the child’s curiosity might hold him, at least for a while.  He tried to remember how the slides were prepared. George had shown him but that had been a long time ago. Alex remembered how awkward he had been in handling the slides. He had always been too clumsy with his hands.

                Alex reviewed his conversation with George. He had felt awkward not being able to tell him the child’s name. Everyone should have a name. He could not very well go on referring to him as “it.”  All previous attempts at asking his name had been snubbed.  Perhaps he could be more indirect.

                “I’ll call you Peter . . . if you like. That was my father’s name, Peter MacTavish. He was a fine man, a tailor. My elder brother, he was James. Of course if there’s another name that you’d prefer?”      

                The keys would be in the man’s waistcoat pocket.  He would wait until Stinky slept, take the keys and go.  According to the map in the Gazetteer a large river, the Ottawa, lay somewhere to the north. The river could lead him north or south.  Either direction would serve.                By the time that they arrived he would be gone. He thought of waiting   for the evening. No. Waiting too long had always been the problem in the past.  What if Stinky told them that he had stolen something? He would do that anyway. No. He must take the keys and leave while the man was asleep. He would be miles away before Stinky woke. What difference would his lies make then? They always thought that he was so stupid.

                What if someone was watching? He would have to risk that.  As he gulped down his porridge he watched the old man stir on the bed. Was the man sleeping or just pretending? He put the bowl down on the table and slipped over  to the window. He looked outside. Two men stood in front of the store. They would see him if he jumped. He would have to try the door.

                Alex’s mind kept wandering back to the sounds of the child’s screams. What had he been so afraid of? What had sent him running off into the bush wandering for God knows how long. Where had he been going to? Alex had found nothing on him, not even a scrap of paper, just the scar. Someone in the district had to know something about him. He dozed off and then stirred as he felt something groping in his waistcoat pocket. He seized the small hand as it pulled out the keys.

                The boy bit the back of the doctor’s hand and wrested free. Alex cursed and stumbled to his feet. As Alex lurched towards him, the boy seized a whiskey bottle. Smashing it against the stove, he pointed the broken  neck at Alex

                “You are shit,” he screamed.  “I am leaving. If you stop me I cut you.”

                Alex blinked. Then, puzzled, he leaned down and scooped up the dropped ring of keys. He then slumped back down onto the bed.               

                The boy edged towards the chest of drawers. He pulled open the bottom drawer. Still watching Alex he drew out his jacket and cloak. He then jammed his feet into his shoes. Holding the broken glass in one hand, watching Alex and tying his shoes all simultaneously was not easy but he did his best.

                As Alex sucked at the blood oozing from his wound he considered rushing the boy. He decided against it. Alex was not the rushing kind. Anyway it would prove nothing. The boy would only try again.  “Expect to get far do you?”

                The boy knew that he would have to be careful. Stinky would never allow him to go. “Give me the key,” he shouted. He waved the glass in the air. “I will cut you.”

                Alex wrapped a handkerchief around his hand. “You might get a mile or two before the rain comes.”

                The boy glanced at the window.  A fringe of grey cloud was just visible behind the dirt streaking the top left windowpane. The boy remembered the mud seeping into his shoes, the pelting rain blinding him, the cold eating into him. He shook himself. Stinky was trying to fool him. “You are lying.”

                “Probably.”

                Alex picked up the small bucket that sat beside the door. He dipped a rag into the water bucket and wrung it out. Alex then knelt and mopped up the spilt alcohol. He finished by draping the wet rag on the windowsill.

                Stinky was signalling the two men in the street. The boy yanked the cloth away from the window and threw it onto the floor.

                Alex sat at his desk placing himself between the boy and the door. “They do say if you don’t like the weather here just wait twenty minutes. You might get something better or worse. It changes fast here. You could be walking down the road about midnight; no shelter, no place to go. The rain starts. What are you going to do?”

                The boy waved the doctor’s words away with the broken bottle. “Give me the key.” Then he added in an unconvincing tone, “I do not want to hurt you.”

                “You’re going to have to lad. I’m not giving it to you.” Alex turned and began to open the box that held the microscope.

                The boy knew what he should do. Cut him. Slash him with the glass. Grab the keys and run. He also knew that it would not work. Even if he could get past Stinky the others waited outside.  It was over. The boy slid down until he crouched against the bottom of the wall. Stinky had ceased to exist. None of them mattered. He turned the glass over in his hand pointing the sharp edge at the scar on his left wrist. The broken glass pricked his skin. He remembered standing in the rain outside the hotel. That one time he had known what it was like to be free before the cold and hunger came. He had tried. He had failed. Failure deserved punishment. The boy pressed the glass deeper into his skin.

                Alex leaned forward in his chair. “Why not ask?”

                The boy’s eyes flickered. He looked at the man to see the ring of keys dangling from his hand.

                “You just have to ask.,” said Alex.  “A man appreciates being asked. It shows consideration.”

                About to spit out a curse the boy hesitated. What did the man what? Did it matter? He needed the key.  “May I have the key? Please.”

                With a soft thunk the keys landed at his feet.

              “I keep no prisoners here,” said Alex slumping back down into his seat.

                The boy lunged forward and snapped up the keys. As he fingered them he asked himself what Stinky was doing. He was trying to trap him but how?  To get him outside, that was how. Once he did, those two men would be waiting for him. He glanced out the window. The two men were gone. They must have seen Stinky’s signal. They would be waiting outside the door. He had been right about them. Stinky thought he had been so clever.  Shitty bastard.

                Alex removed his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. “If you’re not in such a hurry you might find a faster way of getting to where ever it is you’re going to.”

                The boy frowned. He wanted the old man to keep still. He needed to think. Should he tell him to keep his mouth closed? Better perhaps to let him spill out more lies, to know what he wanted. “What?”

                “Give yourself a few more days to rest. Weather should be a bit warmer by then. Increase your odds a bit.”

                “Odds?”

                “Chances . . . Luck.”

                “I know luck.”

                “Good. If you wait a week it’ll help your luck even more.”

                “How?” The boy’s question bristled with suspicion.                   

                “I’ll pay your passage on the steamer north to Ottawa or south to Kingston.”

                “Why?”

                “Why not?”

                Stinky wanted him to think that he was a friend. Why would anyone want him as a friend?  Should he pretend to believe him?  He wished that Katrina were here.  He had learned one thing. Part of what Stinky said was true. He needed more rest. Since he held the keys he could choose the time to slip away. Tonight, when the old man was asleep he would go. If the rain came back he would wait. “I will stay tonight. I keep the keys.”

                “You’ll open the door when I have to go out.”

                How stupid did Stinky think he was? “No.”

                “I see. So I am to be your prisoner?”

                “Yes. Until I leave.”

                “Bread and water, eh?”

                The boy pulled out a book and flung it at him. “You think this is funny,” he screamed.

                “No.” Alex picked up the book, his dog-eared copy of Gulliver’s Travels. “I just don’t think that you’ve thought this through. Guarding a man is a twenty-four hour job. Are you planning to give up your sleep?”

                The boy shrugged. He would not stay long. Once the man fell asleep he could slip away

                “A couple of other problems. We’re almost out of food. Are you going to do the shopping?”

                “We have enough.”

                “Then there’s the other problem.”

                “What?”

                “Call of nature lad. The privy’s outside. You won’t enjoy watching an old man grunting over the pot. It’s not very elevating.”

                Let the old man shit himself. What did he care? Even so he had made a mistake. He frowned but said nothing.

                “Then there’s another problem.”

                “You have too many problems.”

                “True but they all have to be considered to make this work. Now what if company comes? Will you be making prisoners of them as well?”

                “You will send them away.”

                “I could but that looks a wee bit suspicious. You have to remember appearances, lad.”

                “Appear . . .?”

                “Appearances. The way things seem. If it doesn’t look as if I’m a prisoner people won’t suspect anything. You don’t want the whole town thinking that I’m being held against my will, do you?”

                “So I let you go?” He knew the old man was trying to fool him.

                “No. Let them come in. If nothing looks wrong people won’t suspect anything. Appearances, lad. It’s all very simple, really. Don’t you think so?”

                He explained to the puzzled child that if company came, it would not stay long. He admitted that he was expecting one visitor. Putting up with him would be less suspicious than turning him away. The visitor would leave believing that nothing was wrong. Refusal to admit him might make the visitor suspicious. “You wouldn’t want that.”

                Instead of answering the boy pulled out another book and crouching beneath the window hid his face behind the volume.  As he stared at the pages he considered old Stinky’s words. The man seemed as anxious as he did to deceive visitors. Was that another trap being set? Whatever it meant he would go along as long as Stinky did nothing to threaten him.  Stinky could neither leave nor call for help without being cut by the glass. For now that would serve.

                Alex busied himself with adjusting the microscope and preparing slides using a drop of water and a smear of his own spit. He hoped that the microscope might attract the boy’s attention.  The hope grounded upon the child’s refusal to move beyond the shelter of his book.  As morning passed into afternoon  Alex began to prepare lunch. Anna had given him an apple tart.  He set that beside the boy.  The boy, once he knew that the old man was not looking, took the tart.

***

                Every Friday after evening mass at the Church of the Sacred Heart Father Liam Byrne would visit Alex.  Contrary to the mutterings of the local Orangemen, the priest’s reason for calling was not religious. Father Byrne brought neither bible nor missal. Instead he carried a set of chessmen and a home-crafted chessboard. Father Byrne and Alex had been duelling over the chessboard for the eight years since the priest had come to Kilmarnock.  After a quick supper the priest would spend a couple of hours with Alex, playing, sipping tea and chatting about the district’s affairs.

Alex had confessed to him that he was not a very good player. He had learned the game while a prisoner of the French. After returning to Scotland he had no time for it and no one to play with. James had always considered the game to be a waste of time. Jean, James’ wife had tried learning it to please Alex. Only when settlers began to arrive in larger numbers had he found a few other players. Alex always claimed that if he had been more dedicated he might have improved. Perseverance he would note had never been one of his strong points.

On the average Father Byrne beat Alex three out of every four games. The priest favoured a strong offensive pinning Alex into a corner and stripping him of his ability to manoeuvre. Sometimes carried away by overconfidence   he would try for a sudden lunge. He prayed to have the strength to resist the temptation. He had lost too many important pieces in the past.  By temperament Alex played a defensive game. As his opponent romped over the board he would remain almost stationary content to concentrate on building walls.  When he sensed a weakness in his opponent’s advance he would then lash out with a knight or a bishop. The strategy usually failed but it did work enough to force the priest to keep alert.

Father Byrne had heard of Alex’s patient. The doctor had asked him if one of his parishioners might know of a missing child. Father Byrne had written to Bishop Phelan in Kingston about the case but the bishop had not yet replied.  Father Byrne was therefore not too surprised to find Alex’s door being opened by a child. What did surprise him was the boy’s reaction. The boy looked up with a sullen glare at the black cassock, white collar, round clerical hat and at the

twenty-eight year old priest’s youthful smile. He paled and slammed the door shut in Father Byrne’s face.

The priest wondered if he should return at a better time. He heard Alex murmuring something about appearances. The boy replied with what Father Byrne hoped, was not an obscenity. He then heard the key being placed back into the lock. The door opened just wide enough to allow him to squeeze through. Once the priest had stepped inside the boy closed and locked the door.

“Evening, Alex.” As the priest hung his hat he heard feet scuttling away from him. He turned to see the boy retreating into the farthest corner of the room, the ring of keys in his hand.

                Alex finished moving the chair and table next to his large chair. The priest noticing the cloth wrapped around his right hand asked him what had happened.

                “Scalded myself. Nothing serious. Take your seat, father.”

                The visit was a quiet one. They played one game that Father Byrne won handily. He could see that Alex’s heart was not in the game. The man slumped in his chair a shrunken, bent figure. To add to the priest’s discomfort two small brown eyes kept staring at him from out of the corner. They would duck behind a book whenever the priest looked towards them.

 Father Byrne hoped that Alex would mention something about the boy. The old man said little about anything that evening. Between the boy’s staring and the old man’s exhaustion the priest lacked the heart to ask. After the game ended he excused himself pleading a long ride in the morning to visit sick parishioners. Normally Alex would have asked about the nature of the illness but tonight he merely gave a tired nod.  As Father Byrne left he decided to tell Rebecca Cleary after Sunday mass that Alex was ill.

The boy locked the door. Alex remained slumped in his chair his head resting upon his right shoulder. Having glanced at the old man to check that all was safe the boy placed the broken neck of the whiskey bottle under the pillow and settled under the blanket. Once the old man was asleep he would slip away. Stinky had only been lying about the rain. True he had not cried out for help nor had he tried to grab the keys.  The broken glass kept Stinky from trying anything.  Stupid coward. Anyway, tomorrow the old man and the priest would be far away and forgotten.

Above him rain thudded against the roof. He could wait another night, to help his luck.  The boy was still wondering where to go when he tumbled into sleep.

                Alex removed the broken glass from under the boy’s pillow. The child might roll on it and cut himself. He placed it on the washstand. Alex thought of tossing it but the boy would only break another bottle.  Alex dropped back down into his chair.  He was nodding off when the murmuring began. Alex rose and shuffled over to where the boy lay. As he had done the night before, he held the child. Racked by screams, the boy pounded him with his fists. Long after he quieted, Alex continued to rock him, whispering to him that there was nothing to fear.

                After he had finished pulling the blankets over the boy, Alex returned to his chair. The boy would sleep until the morning. He tried to do the same but sleep would not come. Feeling cold he went over to the stove.  He opened the grill, poked at the embers and tossed in a stick. Alex then lit the lamp. If he could not sleep, at least he could read. He went to the chest. Opening it he drew out an envelope and took it back to his chair.  Once seated, he pulled out a bunch of letters from inside the envelope. As Kilmarnock slept, Alex read through the night.  

            Rain thudded against the roof. The boy stirred in his sleep.  He opened his eyes to see the doctor shirtless, washing himself.  Covering his back from the shoulders to the small of  the back were ridges of old scars

                Alex, noticing the boy, reached for a towel.  “You never saw an ugly man before?”

            The boy frowned.

            Alex pulled on his shirt. “Ugly … bad to look at, to see.”

            “You were …hurt?”

           Alex glanced towards his back.  “That?  An accident.  A long time ago.  Go back to sleep.”

Peter reached under his pillow to find the comforting  feel of  the  keys.  He then groped for the broken glass. Around the jagged shard a dirty checkered handkerchief had been wrapped.

          Alex shrugged. “I thought you might hurt yourself.  Should be safe enough now.”

The boy stared at the kerchief. He felt it not trusting that the man had returned the glass. Then, feeling its hardness under the cloth he shoved  it under his pillow.  Not knowing what else to do the boy pulled the blankets up over his head and twisted away from the doctor.

Alex returned to his chair. The boy would sleep until the morning. He tried to do the same but sleep would not come. Feeling cold he went over to the stove.  He opened the grill, poked at the embers and tossed in a stick. Alex then lit the lamp. If he could not sleep, at least he could read.   Going over to the bed,  he leaned over the sleeping boy. The child was in a deep sleep.  Alex slipped his right hand under the boy’s pillow and drew out the keys.    He went to the chest. Opening it he drew out an envelope and took it back to his chair.  Once seated, he pulled out a bunch of letters from inside the envelope. As Kilmarnock slept, Alex read through the night.  

                Towards the morning the doctor dozed off. A familiar throbbing pain in the abdomen woke him. Opening his eyes he saw the cold light of a grey dawn. The old man  rose from the chair, stretched and rubbed the stiffness out of his limbs. He then returned the envelope  to the chest, careful to lock it. He then put on his overcoat. His right hand dug into a pocket and drew out the paper packet he had received from George. Alex swallowed two pills.  Picking up the bucket, he unlocked the door and stepped outside.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alex, Fiction

Alex : Chapter One

 

                     McDermott’s Fox

“Alex!”

A gloved fist thumped against his door shaking Alex out of a troubled sleep.

“Wake up, Alex! You’ve a patient.”

Five bony fingers reached out from underneath a dirty patchwork quilt.  They groped their way over the surface of a washstand. The fingers skirted a shrunken brown cake of lye soap, moved past a shaving brush of badger hair and an old bone-handled razor.  The fingers touched the bridge of a pair of wire-framed spectacles and hauled them back underneath the blankets.

The knocking resumed, louder and more determined. “Alex! For God’s sake man, open up.”

Doctor Alexander MacTavish coughed and pushed himself up into a sitting position.  He cursed the caller.  If no one wanted to see him during the daytime, why in God’s name would they choose the middle of the night?

“Alex!”

The voice, although muffled by the door, Alex recognised as belonging to Ian Campbell, blacksmith and constable of Kilmarnock.  Alex stumbled out of the bed.  He poked his feet into the darkness underneath the bedstead until they found his slippers.  As he scratched at the stubble lining his throat Alex shuffled toward the door.

“Hurry up, Alex.  It’s pouring out here.”

Alex grunted his lack of sympathy.  He groped for the ring of keys in his vest pocket.  No sooner had he unlocked the door when Ian Campbell shouldered his way into the room.

“It took you long enough,” grumbled Ian.  The constable in his heavy black coat resembled a great bear shaking himself.  Water splattered the front of the doctor’s room.  The glint of a lantern shone through the open doorway.  Behind the lantern Alex could see another man clothed in oilskins and wearing a flat wide-brimmed hat.

“Waiting for an invitation, Sam?” Ian asked.  “Come on in. Alex isn’t particular.”

Sam finished scraping the mud off his boots.  The high collar of his oilskin coat and a red woollen scarf covered his face.  As he stepped inside Alex called to him. “Close the door before you let the cold in.” Sam closed the door.

“A little early for calling, isn’t it, Ian?” Alex asked.

Ian nodded and walked over to Alex’s stove.  The dull red of dying embers still shone inside it.  He picked up a stick from out of the wood box and poked at the embers.  He then reached down. Collecting a handful of shavings he tossed them onto the ashes.

“You said I have a patient,” Alex asked.

The sometime constable pointed at Sam.  “You know Sam McDermott?”

Alex nodded. He knew the McDermott farm.  It sat just inside the southern edge of what had once been MacTavish land. “Aye. I know Sam.”

Sam pulled off his hat to reveal a mop of curly reddish hair.  He unravelled his scarf to show the large-nosed features of a gaunt man in his late forties.  Nodding at Alex and stepping past the constable, Sam cleared a space on Alex’s desk for his bull’s eye lantern.

Ian grinned. “Sam apprehended himself a dangerous felon.”

“I thought he was after my chickens,” Sam muttered.  “I heard this noise in the barn and thought it was a fox.  One got two of my best layers last week.”

“Got any tea, Alex?”  As Campbell checked the tea in Alex’s pot he wondered when Alex had last cleaned the pot.  Ian could never understand how Alex, a man once scrupulously clean, could have allowed himself to sink into such squalor.  The man’s poor health during the winter, he surmised, had been a reason, that and the whiskey.

Alex took the tea canister down from the shelf above the desk and handed it to the constable. “Where’s the patient?”

Ian tossed more sticks into the fire.  As he straightened his back he took a critical look at his surroundings.  The growing light from the stove combined with that of the lantern revealed the room in all its glorious disarray.  “God,what a mess.  Don’t you ever clean up, Alex?”

He rummaged through the dishes, and left over foodstuffs strewn over Alex’s table.  Finding a stained

teaspoon, he rubbed it against the sleeve of his coat.  He squinted examining it for any lingering particles of dirt. Satisfied, Ian dipped it into the tea canister.

Alex repeated his question.  “Where’s the patient?”

“Down in Sam’s cart.” Ian settled himself down in Alex’s leather armchair,

“Why didn’t you bring him up with you?” Alex asked.

“I didn’t know how you would take to getting pulled out of bed this time of the morning.  I didn’t want to bring him up for nothing.  It wouldn’t do him any good or me when it comes to that. “

“I thought he was a fox,” McDermott continued to mutter. “Couldn’t see anything.”

Alex pulled on his navy blue greatcoat. Although frayed at the cuffs, it still kept out the cold.  He pulled his old, round grey beaver hat down over his ears, opened the door and peered out into the rain.  “Where’s the cart?”

“Bottom of the stairs,” said Ian.  “Sam’ll show you.”  He planted his boots on the footstool.

“Damn it, Ian” Alex snapped. “Take those boots off.  Where do you think you are, in your forge?”

Looking a bit sheepish Ian kicked off his left boot.

“Why didn’t you see Doctor McKay,” Alex asked. “Why bother me?”

“Sam’s idea.  You were closer.  Besides, I thought you could use the money.”

Mollified Alex muttered, “I could also use the sleep.  Sam, bring that light of yours.  I’ll end up breaking my neck on those damn stairs.”

The rain had softened but not the cold.  Alex shivered and pulled the coat’s wide collar up to protect his neck.  A dull pain throbbed in his abdomen.  He thought of that extra piece of cheese at supper.  He would make up for it by eating a little less.  Through the white mist formed from his breath Alex saw the oxcart in the street below.  A yoke of reddish-brown oxen stood waiting patiently.  Steam rose from their nostrils and warm hides.  The corner of the building hid the back of the cart.  Alex gripped the rain-streaked railing with his left hand and began to descend.

The cart was a sturdy, home made affair held together by leather thongs and oaken pegs.  Thick black mud smeared the two large wooden wheels. A large bundle of sodden canvas lay in the back of the cart.  As Alex bent over the side of the cart, Sam held the lantern up over the bundle.  Alex pulled the canvas away.  By the glow of the lantern he saw a boy’s dirt-streaked face. Light brown hair covered his closed eyes.  A heavy black cloak covered his neck and shoulders.  The boy could not be more then twelve years old Alex thought.  He placed a hand against the child’s face.  The bone-white skin felt as cold as the morning air.  “Who is he?” he asked McDermott.

“Don’t know,” said Sam. “Thought you might.”

The doctor felt the child’s throat.  “You should have waited until this storm was over.”

“No telling when that’’ll be.  Besides I have to get some supplies at Harrison’s.”

As Alex covered the boy he told himself that the sensible thing to do would be to send the boy to Doctor McKay at Kilmarnock Hill. McKay was an abler, younger man.  That would also mean another two miles in this cold and wet.  Two miles could be the difference between saving a patient and losing one. “He’s half-dead now from exposure.  No telling what other damage you’ve done to him. Give me the light.  You brought him. You carry him.”

Sam nodded and handed Alex his lantern.

Ian was dozing by the time the two men re-entered the room.  As the water in the kettle whistled, Alex shook the constable awake. “Put some of that water in the basin.  You’re supposed to be representing her majesty’s law.  Act like it.”

To avoid soaking the doctor’s bed Sam placed the boy in Alex’s armchair.  He pulled away the canvas, bundled it up into a large ball and dropped it onto the floor.  He then poured himself a mug of tea.  As he sipped it, he sat in the chair in front of the Doctor’s desk.

Ian brought the old man a basin of hot water and his black bag.  Alex removed the boy’s clothes.  He began with the heavy, black cloak.  An expensive thing for a tramp to be wearing he thought, but the cloak may have saved the boy’s life by keeping his chest dry.  From the waist down he was soaked.  As he pulled the boy’s shoes off, Alex noted that the leather was of good quality.  However, having been cut below the ankles they had not kept the mud and wet away from his feet.  Alex removed the boy’s shirt and trousers.  He found the trousers to be as blackened on the inside as they were on the outside.  The boy had soiled himself.  A bout of flux, he thought.  He turned his attention to the shoulder wound left by Sam’s musket.

Someone had bound up the wound with clean linen, a remnant of one of Sam’s old shirts.  A tidy piece of work, Alex thought.

“Mary did that,” said Sam.

Alex nodded.  At least one of the McDermotts had some sense.  He cut the cloth away. The ball had torn through the upper part of the skin but the shoulder bone remained unbroken.  The wound would require stitching and cleaning but did not seem too serious.  What worried Alex was the shock and loss of blood combined with the fever. Having scrubbed his hands he cleaned the wound.  He stitched and bandaged it.  He then washed off the filth that covered the boy’s legs and feet.  As he cleaned the child’s feet Alex noted the bruised, blood encrusted soles.

His examination finished Alex told Ian to put the boy on the bed.  As Ian tucked the boy in, Alex wiped his hands.  Sam poured him a mug of tea, lined with a generous dollop of whiskey “to keep out the cold.”

“You said he was a fox, Sam?” Alex asked as he took a tentative taste of the tea.

“Aye,” the man shrugged. “It was so dark I couldn’t see anything proper.”

Alex glanced out of the window.  The night was fading into the grey of early dawn. “You should have waited until morning. It looks like the storm’s blown over.”

“I couldn’t know that, could I?  Mary and me, we thought it best to get him to a doctor.  Someone dies on my land; it might be a legal matter. I don’t want no trouble with the law.”

“If he dies here, that’ll make it legal?” Alex asked.

“That’s not what I meant,” Sam grumbled.  “I’ve just too many other things to do.  It’s ploughing time.”

“What’s your opinion, Ian?” Alex asked.  “You’re the Queen’s law here.”

Ian shrugged.  “Bringing him here is no worse then leaving him in the barn.  With or without the help of Sam’s musket he wasn’t in much condition to be going anywhere.  Won’t be any skin off Sam’s nose.  Won’t be any off yours. Court’ll see to your expenses.”

“Court?” Alex stopped in mid-sip.

“Sam here is pressing charges, ain’t you Sam?”

“For what” asked Alex. “Sleeping in a barn?”

“Trespassing isn’t it,” said Sam. “Besides, how do I know if that was all he was intending?  Hell, if he wanted to get out of the rain, he could have knocked on the door.  I wouldn’t have turned a dog away in weather like that. No reason for him to be there unless he was up to something not proper.”

Alex considered Sam’s reasoning.  One thing puzzled him.  “I thought you wanted to avoid legal problems?”

“I got a right to keep trespassers off my land,” Sam sulked.

Alex took down a bottle from the shelf beside him.  He refilled Sam’s cup, and then Campbell’s. “The quality of mercy Sam is not strained.  It . . . um . . . falls as does the gentle rain from Heaven.  It blesses him that gives and him that receives.”

Sam shifted in his seat to keep himself awake.

“It is mightiest in the mighty.  It is enthroned in the hearts of kings.”

Sam could restrain himself no longer. “How much?”

The question caught Alex in mid-flight. “What?”

“How much?” Sam repeated.

Alex pondered the man’s stolid face.  “How much is what, Sam?”

Sam, gratified that they were now getting down to business, wrinkled his forehead in concentration.  “For my trouble.  Five pounds seems reasonable.”

“Sam, I am not going to pay you five pounds for the privilege of cleaning up your mess.”

“Then I’ll press charges.  He can rot for all I care.”

“You mean that, Sam?” Alex asked.

“Aye. I do.”

Alex thought about what he had seen when removing the boy’s shirt.  A scar, about an inch long, ran across the vein of his left wrist.  “This your idea, Sam?  It doesn’t sound like Mary.”

Sam shifted in his seat.  “Not her concern” he muttered.  “Man’s business, this.”

“We wouldn’t want to have women concerning themselves with children, would we?”

Sam glowered.  MacTavish always did have a way of twisting things.

Alex rose and went over to the chest of drawers standing between the bed and the wall.  He pulled out the top drawer.  From it he took out a small, cheap, tin box battered from many years of usage.  He opened it and shook the contents out over the bed.  Coins thudded against the blankets.  Two one-pound notes fluttered down to join them.  Alex’s savings of a lifetime, eight pounds, seven shillings, nine pence and a solitary American dime tumbled onto the bed. Both Sam and Ian gawked at the small heap strewn over the quilt.

“I’ve known you for more than seventeen years, Sam.  I’ve known you to be pig-headed, ignorant and mean. I never once thought you would be mean enough to squeeze money out of a sick child. Take what you want.  Then get out.”

Sam stared at the money.  The amount was almost twice what he had wanted.  All he had to do was to reach out and pick it up.  He touched a pound note. Underneath the note, he felt the child’s body stirring.  His fingers paused then dropped away.  “Oh the hell with it.”

The farmer rose, picked up his lantern and the bundle of canvas, and headed for the door.  Before he left he turned to Ian.  “You keep him away from my property,” he said pointing at the boy. “I don’t want him near my place.”

Ian nodded

Sam wished Alex a good day and left.

“What got into him?” Ian asked.

“A bad attack of self-respect,” grumbled Alex putting the money back into the box. “Shouldn’t worry.  Never lasts too long.  It’s not very contagious.”

Ian grunted. “I’d best be going myself.  You’ll be wanting to get some sleep. I have a forge to see to.” As he buttoned his coat, Ian watched Alex pushing his armchair closer to the bed. Alex should have got a little money out of this business. “Um . . . Alex?”

Alex dropped into his chair. “Aye?”

“If Sam doesn’t press charges you don’t get paid for this.” Then he added. “I could charge him with vagrancy.  Keep him in your custody until the quarter sessions.  Court would have to reimburse you.”

Alex shrugged “Never mind, Ian. It doesn’t matter.” He tried to stifle a yawn.

In the growing morning light Ian could see in sharper detail the old man’s yellowing opaque skin, his thinning hair, and his sunken eyes.  He wished that Sam had slept through the night. “Um . . . Alex?”

“Aye?”

Campbell pointed at the bed.  “What are you going to do with him?”

Alex smiled a pale tired smile. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”

Ian nodded.  As gently as he could he closed the door behind him.  Alex laid his head against the back of the chair and slept.

As he squelched back through the mud towards his home, Ian’s thoughts drifted back to the time when he was sixteen. His father, Angus had been a healthy bull of a man of forty-three when he had fallen from the roof of his forge while shingling and broke his neck.  The accident left young Ian with the managing of the forge. Despite his youth he had persevered. Two years after his father’s death, his mother, Sarah, and he met with Alex in his office to discuss the renewal of the lease his father had concluded with Alex’s older brother, James in 1831.  James had died of cholera in 1834.  With the death of Angus in ’39, the matter now rested between young Ian’s mother Sarah and Alex, the trustee of James’s land.

Mrs. Campbell suggested that her family could buy the land upon which her husband’s house and forge stood.  Alex nodded and replied that it might be possible. Sarah took a deep breath and asked what he thought a fair price would be.

“How much have you got?” Alex asked.

“I could raise twenty pounds,” said Sarah

“No, Mrs. Campbell. I mean, how much do you have with you?”

Flustered Sarah admitted to two shillings and a sixpence.

“Good.  Let me have a shilling.”

She fumbled with her purse and took out a coin.  Alex wrote out a transfer of title, deeding the land to Mrs. Campbell for the price of one shilling. Alex had then attached conditions to the transfer of ownership.  Ian promised free stabling and blacksmith work for Alex and any members of his family.  The conditions, not being in writing, were all the more binding.  It was a matter of honour Sarah told her sons.

As he stood in front of his door scraping the mud off his boots, Ian thought of the old man asleep in his chair.  He should not have brought the tramp to him.  Somehow he would have to make up for it.

***

The pain woke the boy pushing him out of his sleep and dragging him up into the morning light.  He turned away from the light twisting deeper under the blankets.  The pain deepened.  He placed his left hand against his right shoulder to find a white cloth wrapped around it.  He moaned as the pain cut deeper into his mind.  The boy had been unconscious for just over three days.

A warm breeze slipped through the half-opened window puffing the faded curtains inwards. It brushed past him causing him to open his eyes.  He lay on a pine bed painted a dark green. Stiff, thin white sheets covered his nude body.  Spread over the sheets was an old patchwork quilt marked by faded red blue and yellow rectangles. The boy remembered where he was. He must be in the house he had turned away from before he had groped his way into the barn.  The man who had found him had taken him there.

His body ached for sleep but his mind considered why the man would want him.  As he winced from pain, the boy pulled himself up until his back rested against the headboard.  He turned his head to see a crude pine washstand.  A white stoneware basin and pitcher topped the stand.  Beside them was a thin brown cake of lye soap.  He looked about the room, searching for a way out.

The man would have locked the door.  How else could he have been left alone? They would take him back.  Perhaps he could find a way to keep from going back. He must try to do something.  In front of the bed was a small deal table on which were set a clutter of dirty dishes and a pewter mug.  Beside them was a whale oil lamp.  Someone had thrown a ragged dishcloth over a plate. At the other end of the table lay a book turned face down.  Behind the table was a window. It might offer a way out. Two bookcases, jammed with volumes flanked the window.  A pigeonhole desk stood near the door, fronted by a straight back pine chair.  The sagging cane seat of the chair needed repair.  A small pot-bellied black stove stood between the desk and the table.  A black pipe rose from the stove disappearing into the ceiling.  On the stove sat a soot-blackened kettle and an ancient cast-iron frying pan. At the base of the stove was a rough wooden box that held firewood.  Leaning beside the box was a black fire iron. Between the bookshelf and the desk was a battered old chest, the sides nicked and roughened from use.  The letters A.M. were burned into its front.

He turned his head again to see a large curved-back leather chair and footstool, the cracked leather of both worn paper-thin.  A small, yellowed pillow streaked with dried perspiration, and an old navy greatcoat lay on the chair.  Beside the door other articles of clothing dangled from pegs. None of them belonged to him. That presented him with another problem.  He had no clothes.  How could he get away without anything to wear?  Of course they had known that.  Taking away his clothes was another way of keeping him here.

Traces of sound drifted through the open window into the room; the clopping of horses’ hooves, the rattle of wagon wheels, the barking of dogs and the faint chirruping of birds. He could also hear occasional snatches of human voices.  The voices reminded him of the need to rise.  Pushing aside the blankets he tried to stand.  His legs refused to support him.  A spasm of pain shook him as he tried to support himself with his right arm.  He sat on the edge of the bed.  As the pain ebbed two other feelings rose in his mind; his need to relieve his bladder and his hunger.

He looked under the bed to see a large white ceramic pot. Crouching down he pulled it out from under the bed. The boy gasped as another spasm burned through his shoulder.  Standing upright he urinated into the pot. Finished he pushed the pot back under the bed.  One need satisfied, he could now concentrate on two others.  Slowly, still unsure of his balance, he stepped over to the window.  Looking out, he realised that he was no longer on a farm. The window looked out over a wide dirt street. Eight feet below him was a wooden walkway. It would be an easy drop but that was something he could only do when no one would see him. On the other side of the street was a new, two-storied frame building boasting a large sign, HARRISON’S: DRY GOODS AND PROVISIONS. Jo. Harrison, Prop. Beneath that sign a fat, balding man swept the entrance to the store and chatted with two ladies.

Afraid of being spotted the boy moved back from the window and looked at the bookshelves.  His fingers ran over the backs of the volumes, pausing every so often when he recognised a familiar title.  One book caught his attention, a small, soft-covered volume, Smith’s Canadian Gazetteer. The boy examined it. Folded inside the front cover was a map.  He unfolded the map tearing the thin paper as he did so.  It showed lakes and rivers but only a few settlements.  Still, it might be of use. The boy shoved it back into its place resolving to study it later, if he had a later.

He went over to the table. There he found something else that he needed, food. Under a ragged piece of linen was a half-loaf of bread, a hard piece of cheese and a small pot containing oatmeal porridge. Picking up a spoon he stuck it into the porridge and tasted it. The porridge was still warm.  He then scooped the porridge into his mouth. When he had finished emptying the bowl he wolfed down the bread and cheese.  As he ate, he found the one other item that he needed.  Between the cheese and the bread he saw the brown wooden handle of a large carving knife hidden under the cloth.  The boy pulled the cloth away and looked at the knife. Dried crumbs of bread and cheese smeared the blade. He wrapped his fingers around the handle and held it up. Knife in hand he made his way back to the bed.  He dropped back onto the bed, making a soft moan as his shoulder struck the mattress. He pulled the blankets up around him and settled his head down on the pillow. The knife he slipped under the pillow.  As sleep crept back over him he looked through blinking eyes at the locked door.

***

Alex unlocked the door and stepped inside.  As he placed his bag and hat on the desk the doctor glanced over at the boy. The child lay on his back, asleep.  His right arm was under the pillow.  The left rested on his chest.  Alex wrinkled his nose.   The sour smell of urine tainted the air in the room. He went over to the bed and felt the sheets to find them dry.  Alex glanced down at the chamber pot.  He remembered having emptied it that morning.  The boy must have awakened and used it while he was away. He lifted the pot, checked the colour of the urine and then sniffed. Both colour and aroma seemed healthy enough.  The doctor took the pot over to the window. After a quick glance down he emptied it.  After returning the pot to its place under the bed, he scrubbed his hands and began his examination.

The boy’s face felt cool. The fever had burned itself out. The boy would sleep for a few more hours. He would be hungry when he woke.  Alex noted the crumbs smeared over the boy’s face and lips. He had eaten. Strong appetite was always a good sign.  When he woke Alex would give him a bowl of broth and dry toast.

He washed the boy’s face.  Then he straightened the blankets.  As the doctor adjusted the pillow he felt something hard underneath it. Lifting up a corner he found the fingers of the boy’s right hand gripping a knife. He stared at the knife for a moment.  Then, gently, one finger at a time, he pried the knife free. The boy stirred but did not wake. Alex picked the knife up and went over to his chest.   He knelt, drew out a ring of keys from his vest pocket and unlocked the chest.   He placed the knife and razor inside the chest and locked it. The chest having been secured Alex sat in his large chair beside the bed. Resting his chin on the back of his hands, he studied the sleeping child.

***

Alex bit through the thread and examined the stocking he had been darning.  The situation reminded him of a time two summers before.  While riding along the North Mountain Road he came across a lynx sunning itself on a rock. When it heard Alex approaching on horseback it sat up and peered down at him. Why it did not dash under cover, Alex never knew. It might have been digesting and felt too sleepy.  It might not have sensed any immediate danger in the man’s presence. The lynx remained there staring down at him. Alex stared back. They remained like that until, growing bored, the cat turned and padded away into the trees. Alex had looked up from his darning to see the boy staring at him with an expression that reminded him of the lynx, a mixture of curiosity, suspicion and fear.  He pushed his spectacles up higher onto the bridge of his nose. “Evening.”

The boy shrank back until only his brown eyes and hair remained above the blankets.  He stared at the old man.  The man’s hair had thinned to a few wisps of white.  His teeth were yellowed.  White stubble of two-day growth encrusted his face.  The man’s eyes resembled reddish dots sunk into black pits, eyes shielded by dirt-streaked spectacles.

“I’m Doctor MacTavish. Just call me Alex. Most people do.” Alex placed the stocking and needle on the footstool. “I’ve some broth on the stove. Would you like some?”

The boy wondered how much they were paying the man and where they were.

“It’s a bit chilly this evening,” said Alex. “You’ll need something warm.  I might have something that will serve.”

From out of his vest pocket Alex pulled out a brass ring.  Three keys dangled from the ring, all worn and stained by age. He selected the middle one and kneeling in front of the chest inserted it and turned the lock.  Alex rummaged through the chest until he found a white linen shirt. His niece, Maureen, had given it to him as a Christmas present three years before.  He had never worn it, having kept it for a special occasion that never came.  As he approached the bed, the boy pressed his head down deeper into the pillow and pulled the blankets up over his head.

“You’ll have your clothes back tomorrow.  I’ve had to have them cleaned and repaired.  This is a wee bit big but it’ll serve for tonight.” Alex placed the shirt on the foot of the bed. He waited for a moment trying to think of what else to say.  Unable to think of anything more to say he decided to check the broth.

The man, standing no taller than five foot four, stank of whiskey and of unwashed clothing.  He was the kind of man they would have chosen, someone who would do anything for a few dollars.  They would be here tonight

or tomorrow. When the man was busy stirring the broth, the boy sat up, reached out for the shirt and pulled it back under the blankets.

As Alex spooned tea leaves into the kettle he heard the soft pattering of bare feet on the floor.  He turned to see the boy grabbing for the knob.

The boy twisted the knob to find the door locked. His fists beat against the door but he could not force it open. Giving it up he turned to face the doctor.  His eyes moved from the man to the window, the only other way out. The stranger stood between it and him. His eyes darted about seeking for a weapon or at least for a hiding place.  The small room offered no place to hide.

Alex placed the kettle on the stove. “You’ve no place to go, lad.  Even if you did, you can’t leave without trousers.  It’s too cold.  Have some broth.”

His back pressed against the wall, the boy inched his way away from the man.  Upon reaching the chest he slid down, crouching beside it as if it offered some form of shelter.

Shock, Alex concluded. “I’ll . . . I’ll put the broth on the table.  If you like . . . you can help yourself.” He poured some of the yellowish-brown liquid into a bowl and plopped a spoon down beside it.  He then shuffled over to a bookcase.  He picked out a small volume and went over to the large chair.  He sat and opened the book.

The boy waited for a moment.  He then lunged forward towards the stove.  Seizing the fire iron he retreated into his space between the chest and the bookshelf.  Back he slid as far as he could squeeze himself, the poker in front of him.  He waited to see what the man would do.  If the man should fall asleep, he would try for the window.

Three hours passed.  The broth had cooled in the bowl.  Alex had remained in his chair, his mind dipping into the book, The Poetical Works of Robert Burns.

He had assumed the boy would grow tired and fall asleep or take the broth.  Neither had happened.  Alex pulled his brass watch out of his vest pocket.  Eight minutes past eight.  Careful to keep his eyes from turning towards the watching child, Alex concentrated on his book.

The pith o’ sense, the pride o’ worth

Are higher rank than a’ that.

The scar on the boy’s left wrist puzzled him.   From the weathering of the tissue Alex estimated it to be two or three years old.  The scar could have been from an accident. He had found no other mark on the boy apart from the one left by McDermott’s musket ball.  What was he doing in McDermott’s barn anyway? The nearest farmstead coming up from Kingston was a good six miles away.

The fire iron thunked against the floor.

“Maminka.”

Alex picked up his lamp and went over to where the boy was crouched. The sleeping child’s eyes were open. He murmured words Alex did not understand.  One word he kept repeating, priester.  Alex thought the language might be German. He did not speak the language but he had met a few Prussian officers in Paris in 1814. The muttering increased. Alex reached out to touch the boy in an attempt to comfort him. The child twisted away.  As Alex pressed closer two balled fists pounded his chest and arms.  Alex held him until the child settled into exhausted silence. Alex then lifted him up and carried him back to the bed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alex, Fiction

The Wretchedness of Man : Reflections on the Iliad

Men are wretched things, and the gods who have no cares themselves, have woven sorrow into the very pattern of our lives

Spoken by Achilles   Homer, The Iliad

The Wrath of Achilles is my theme, that fatal wrath … So the Iliad begins, the first great work of western Literature. Composed by Homer in the eighth century BC it was based upon a bardic tradition that pre-dated him by five centuries.

In the Thirteenth century BC an army of Achaeans destroyed Wilusa a city state allied to the Hittite Empire. The war may have arisen out of a simple desire for loot, a land dispute, or as indicated by the legend of Jason and the Argonauts a desire to control the approach to the Black Sea. That war forms the basis for the Iliad. Who won the war is not known, but who lost is, Wilusa, a small state ground down in a conflict between two stronger states.  The Iliad was born in bardic songs performed during and after the war in the halls of Achaean lords.  Five hundred years after the war and long after the destruction of Mycenaean civilization songs of the war were still being sung. Composed about 700BC  Homer’s version of the Iliad, the Wrath of Achilles,  is regarded as the first great work of western literature.  One of the reasons is the above quote spoken by Achilles  to King Priam who has come to beg for the body of his son Hector.  The scene is as moving an episode as can be found in either the bible or in Shakespeare.  Like other great works the book is timeless  speaking of truths about the condition of humanity.

I first read the Iliad some fifty years ago.  I expected that it would follow the usual format of Greek legends. Heroes such as Jason or Hercules would fight horrible monsters using supernatural means given to them by the Gods. However the Iliad remained grounded in the physical world of man. The Gods do pop in and out, commenting on what is happening and playing an occasional scene but unlike the Odyssey, no magical creatures appear.  There are no monsters except men.  In understanding the Iliad it helps to avoid the word Greeks. There is too much nationalistic feeling with the word.  It is better to think of the Achaeans as tribes rather than as members of a nation.

The Iliad is not a history of what is known as the Trojan War. Instead it deals with an incident that supposedly occurred during the ninth year of the war.  The mightiest warrior of the Achaeans, Achilles withdraws from the conflict angry at having been slighted by Agamemnon. Before coming to Troy, he had been faced with a choice.  Remain at home, live a long life with a beautiful woman, bear many children and enjoy grandchildren, but his name will be forgotten.  The other choice is to go to Troy. There he will die a young man but his name will live as long as men remember the Trojan War.

The Wrath of Achilles begins with Apollo’s anger against the Achaeans for their dishonouring of his priest Chryses.  The priest had appealed to Agamemnon for the release of his daughter, Chryseis,  who had been taken on a  raid on the Priest’s city. When the king refuses the priest then appealed to the God who laid a plague upon the Achaeans. The scene in which Agamemnon quarrels with Achilles over the division of the spoils reminds one of gangsters carving up their stolen loot

Death stalked the Mycenaean world, death from disease and natural disasters, death from warfare.  Disease and natural disasters as well as death in warfare were attributed to the will of the gods.  The gods demanded obedience. Violating their will risked destruction. The plague that sweeps through the Achaean camp is attributed to the anger of Apollo who has been offended by the seizure of one of his priest’s daughter.  Bowing to the anger of Apollo, and the pleas of his men,  Agamemnon gives up the priest’s daughter but then in a masterstroke of bad leadership he insists on being compensated by seizing what has already been given to the other warriors.  Since Achilles has led the demand for the king to give up the girl Agamemnon turns upon Achilles.   Jealous of Achilles’ military prowess the king knows that he cannot appear to be weak.  Instead of a nation he leads a group of tribes held together by a promise of loot and fear of  Mycenaean power.  His viewing of Achilles as a threat to his leadership explains much of the vehemence of his attack on the strongest warrior the Achaeans have.

“You must let me have another prize at once.”  He demands  that Achilles yield up a prize of his own, Briseis. “ … to let you know that I am more powerful than you.”  The result is that Achilles, feeling insulted, withdraws from the war in one of history’s most famous sulks,  The term wrath does not refer to a simple mood of anger such as one receives from being frustrated or disappointed.  Achilles wrath is man-killing rage.  His response to Agamemnon’s insults is to begin to draw his sword, an act stopped by the goddess Athena.

The history of civilization is a constant struggle between collective and individual will.  The egos of Agamemnon and Achilles clash, moderated only by the needs of warfare and the Achaean army. It is not that Achilles lacks a sense of morality. He after all led the demand to return the priest’s daughter. What he lacks is the willingness to submit his pride and  lust for personal glory to the public good.  In this he is not alone. We find it in Agamemnon and  in Paris.   The tribal society in which they live accepts the rule of the strongest moderated only by tribal custom and fear of the gods. Those outside of the tribe if defeated in war may be slain at will, often as human sacrifice.  Agamemnon was willing to sacrifice his own daughter for a fair wind to take him to Troy. Achilles sacrifices twelve Trojan captives to honour Patrocles’ funeral.

The Iliad is an interpretation by Homer of a long-lost Bronze Age Civilization. Living five hundred years after the events portrayed, the Bard was an inhabitant of an Iron age society of city-states He must have known that a civilization, whether that of the Achaeans or by the Greeks of Homer’s own time  is built by the  individual submitting his or her ego to the needs of the community.  There is a long tradition of tales of heroes of outlaws, pirates, of those who will not submit themselves to the need of others.  Such persons make great stories. They do not make civilizations.

The prowess of heroes is a key element in understanding warfare in the Iliad. Among the Plains Indians of North America young men would often ride into battle armed only with a curved stick. They would gallop up to the enemy, touch him with the stick and then gallop off. Mystified  American soldiers could not understand such strange tactics but the logic was quite simple. Status in the warrior’s society depended upon their being perceived as being brave warriors. Counting coup as it was called was a demonstration of courage.  Warfare was desired as a chance to prove their courage.  To many of these warriors as with many of the warriors in the Iliad, war is a not seen as a means by which they can win material gains.  War is the end.  It is what they are trained for, the way in which they find glory and prestige, but also something more. Charmei Gethsonai , the Joy of Battle

The warriors exult in battle.    When Patrocles,slays Cebriones, he jokes as the Trojan falls from his chariot, “Ha quite an acrobat I see from that grateful dive.”  Psatrocles races against the Trojan lines.  “Three times he charged with a terrific cry like the Great God of war, and every time he killed nine men.”

The narcotic like effect  of charmai leads Patrocles to his death, as it has done with so many others.

The Achaeans travel to Troy in search of glory,  loot, and to avenge their honour but they  lack any idea of how to take the city. When the tale opens the war is stalemated. The Achaeans have no siege equipment for it has not yet been invented.  They have not even attempted to surround the city cutting off supplies. Instead they cling to their encampment challenging the Trojans to fight.  All the Trojans have to do is to remain behind their walls and wait until the Greeks tire and leave.  Unable to take Troy, the Achaeanss raid neighbouring cities seeking loot and supplies.  By our standards the sensible thing for the Achaeans to do would be to take their winnings and leave but our standards are not Achaean standards. First, honour prevents  leaving.  Anyway, they are not in a hurry.  These men are bred for war. War, not peace is what they desire. Among the  Achaeans prowess in battle is an  indication of strength.   Besides, warfare is profitable.  Lacking pay, the Achaeans seek wealth by plundering.

A pattern that recurs in the Iliad is the confrontation between heroes.  They challenge each other to fight, making long speeches about their genealogy.  If one is slain the victor insult the slain and boast of his own prowess while stripping the corpse.  The oddest part of all this is that often the battle will pause as both sides look on.  Often it seems that this is not war but a spectator sport.  Among the spectators are the gods looking down and arguing about the merits of the fighters.

Heroism and the Iliad

Part of the power of the Iliad lies in that unlike other ancient tales the Iliad is not a tale of fantastic duties.  It is rooted in a world built by man.  Heroes are not gods.  To call a supernatural being a hero would be equivalent to calling a card cheat a fair player.  If I think of a hero in the Iliad I think of Homer defending his city, of Patrocles donning Achilles armour to save the Achaeans from defeat.  A hero gives of himself to help others.  No such giving occurs with either Agamemnon or Achilles.

Why is Achilles a hero? Throughout most of the Iliad he remains in his tent brooding on the injuries to his pride. As he broods the war goes on around him. Without Achilles and his Myrmidons the Achaeans are pushed back to their tents.  The more desperate the plight of the Achaeans the greater Achilles’ satisfaction.  Only when the Trojans attack the ships doers he agree to allow Patrocles to don his armor in the belief that the threat of his presence is enough to force the Trojans back.  It is the ordinary man who to defend his home and family challenging Achilles and Agamemnon that is the hero.

Just before his final fight with Achilles Hector offers him an honourable burial if he will offer the same. Achilles replies that “lions do not make terms with men.”  Skilled predators,  they do not negotiate with their prey.   Predators are useful beasts, necessary in nature but they are not heroic.  Certainly there is nothing heroic about how Achilles treats Hectors, He slays him, ties his body to his chariot and drags him around the walks of Troy and back to the Achaean camp. Achilles has triumphed in killing his greatest enemy, a triumph darkened by his brutal arrogance.  He intends to feed Hector’s body to the dogs. The final humiliation of his enemy.

He returns to the Achaean camp to prepare Patrocle’s funeral. Hector’s body he leaves in the dust. In the day that follows during the mourning feasting and games for Patrocles, Hector’s body remains there a ghoulish memorial to Achilles victory.  Every morning for eleven days Achilles drags the body behind his chariot around Patrocles barrow.

He again is compared  to a lion, this time by Apollo.  “the brutal Achilles … who has no decent feelings in him … but goes through life in his own savage way … Achilles like the lion has killed pity.”

Even the Gods agree that Achilles has gone too far.

To understand a society it often helps to look at the gods that society worships.  The Olympian gods were not the Gods of Wilusa   Neither were they truly  those of the Achaeans.  They were the gods of Homer’s world and in a sense speak for him.

The Mycenean god list derived from translation of Linear B tablets  indicates that many of the deities of classic times had earlier bronze age roots.  Among the gods listed in Mycenean times were some of the Olympian namesHermes, Ares, Posridon and Zeus.  Appulius, a Wilusan god may be a forerunner of Apollo, possibly explaining why Apollo favours the Trojans.  More important is how the gods are viewed by the world of the Iliad.  The one word that seem to sum up the Achaean attitude towards the Gods was fear.

Men are seen as the victims of fate. Disease, accidents, acts of nature are all determined by the gods.  Again and again Homer refers to man’s fate being determined by fate, who is not a philosophical concept but a manifestation of the gods.  “You are going to meet your doom” says Sarpedon  to  Tlepolemus. Whom he slays.  Eventually Sarpedon in turn falls to Patrocles. Patrocles is slain by Hector. The killings reach their climax in the slaying of Hector by Achilles.  There it could have ended with Achilles triumphant but it did not and because it did not the Iliad survives today not as an historical relic but as a living work of art.

Achilles has secured his vengeance but Homers that is not enough.  It is one thing to punish a villain but Hector is not a villain.  He deserved a better fate and so, for that matter, if you believe that he is more than a man-killing animal,  does Achilles.  The Gods angered at his treatment of Hector’s body, sends emissaries to both Achilles and Priam. Thetis the Sea Nymph, mother of Achilles visits him to plead with him to give the body up or risk divine displeasure.  She reminds him that his own doom is near and suggests that he seek solace for the loss of Patrocles in a woman’s love.  He agrees to give up the body. Zeus also sends Iris to Priam to convince the old king to ransom his son from Achilles.

After the mourning for Patrocles, the feasting and the games Achilles sits in his hut.  In comes an old man who falls to his knees and kisses Achilles hands.  Amazed Achilles realizes that the man is King Priam.   Achilles could behead him.  The man is his enemy. Instead,impressed by the old man’s courage. He treats Priam as an honoured guest.  Having already decided to bow to the will of the Gods and return Herctor he accepts the ransom for his body.  The sight and words of Priam also reminds Achilles of his own father Peleus, whom he knows he will never see again.  It is then that and the Iliad turn into something more than just a manslayer sand his story.

Achilles, the man killer still bubbles up, threatening Priam into silence.   Even so, he keeps his word and releases Hector to his father.  Putting aside his longing for glory and an immortal name he thinks of his own aging father, Peleus.  Before leaving for Troy Achilles had been given a choice, to live out his life in peace, toliver to a great age,  to  marry and have children.

Achilles praises Priam for his courage. “You have a heart of iron. ”  He tells the old man to sit and try to take some comfort.

“We men are wretched things and the gods, who have no care themselves,  have woven sorrow into the very patterns of our lives.”  Each life is filled with misfortune. Using the analogy of two jars he describes how Zeus mixes joy and  sadness in each man’s life.  He describes his father Peleus, blessed with good fortune amd yet “with an only son doomed to untimely death.”

The climax of the Iliad is in this scene between Achilles and Priam.  It is suffused with a sense of Pathos, Greek for suffering or experience.  This is the one moment when the reads feels sympathy for Achilles for Achilles himself has shown sympathy for all men.  He has turned away from being an animal and regasined his humanity. . He is still Priam’s enemy  Yet, Homer through the voice of Achilles has reminded his listeners that all men must suffer.  This is what gives the scene its power and secures the Iliad its place as an enduring  literary classic.

Homer, The Iliad, trans. E.V. Rieu, Penguin Books, 1950

Leave a comment

Filed under non-fiction essay

The Road From Bontoc

It is 156 kilometres from Bontoc, the capitol of Mountain Ptrovince to Baguio.  It takes about six hours to travel that road. Why does it take so long?. There are both natural and manmade reasons.  To understand  why it takes six hours you have to know something about the geography of Northern Luzon and Filipino nature.  The firsyt thing you have to understand is that up here is that when it comes to roads there is no such thing as a straight line. Here there are three directions, up, down and around, Bontoc lies deep within the Cordillera, the great mountain chain that forms the backbone of Northern Luzon.  Rising to just under three thousand metres.  There is no pass through these mountains so the only way to Bontoc is to go over them.The road twists its way up and down passing valleys offering great views of mountains river valleys and terraces where farmers grow rice, fruits and vegetables.   Flooding and  rock slides are frequent occurances. Sections of the road  are torn away.  Constant maintenance is required.  Again and again ytou can observe parts of railing torn away. Construction crews repave the surface and replace broken railings and washed out bridges.

Lyn and I had travelled from Baguio to the small town of Sagada, famous for its natural scenery, examples of Ifaguo weaving and the house of hanging coffins.  The last I dedided not to see.  Too many steps and at my age I have no great desire to see coffins..  We spent the night in Sagada..The next morning we caught a jeepney to travel the eight kilometres to Baguio.   There we foubd an interesting museum devoted to the hill tribes including a reconstruction of the village.  Having viewsd the museum we then went to the bus terminal for the retutrn to Baguio, knowing that to be home by dark we would have to leave by one o’clock.At the station a sign told us that the next bus would not b be  until one o’clock, so I settled down in my walker for a waiyt while Lyn went across the street to the market. At noon  a bus pulled in bound  for Baguio.  As people lined up I looked across the street to see if Lyn was there.  Nowhere in sight.  I positioned my walker near the bus door, sat down and waited.  Soon Lyn appeared, a bag of peanuts in hand, hurrying across the street.  We boarded and a few minutes later the bus edged its way onto the road.  It took half an hour for it to clear Bontoc, steering between jeepneys, motorized tricycles, trucks and cars.

Two hours of twisting and weaving.  We then pulled into Atok for a thirty minute stock at a place called Rickton Centre.  It offered  a restaurant and a washroom.  Whoever wrote about the romance of travel had precious little to say about washrooms. Thirty minutes later we were back on the road.

Highway 204 going from Baontoc to Baguio is a two lane concrete road  in width resembling a North American Secondary Road. The maximum speed on the road is about fourty kilometres ands hour but driving is complicated by the fact that the two lanes keep  changing into one.  One reason for this is that construction crews are always found working on damaged sections of the road.  Another reason is that unoccupied flat land is a scare object in the mountains.  The terraces that cover the mountains are proof of this, built to provide land for crops as well as to control the run off from torrential downpours..  The road provides more than a transportation route.  It provides space.  In North America houses are set back from highways.  Here they are on the side of the road. The road is used as a parking lot, a place for displaying merchandise and for drying rice.  The highway does not go around towns.  Instead it serves as the main street for the towns that have grown up beside it which means that the bus has to push its way through the local traffic.. There are no traffic lights and very few speed limit signs.

At five o’clock we crossed into Baguio and for the next hour pushed our way through the city traffic until we reached the terminal.just after six o’clock.  A typical bus ride to from Bontoc had ended.

Favourite Filipino Moments

The Filipino greeting, placing the back of their right hand on your forehead as a mark of respect.  Beats “cold enough for you, eh?”.

On the bus from Bontoc I notice written in green letters PLS. Fasten Seat Belts.  I had seen the same sign before in Jeepneys were belts are provided for drivers and passengers at the front.  On this bus I saw no seat belts at all.  “What is the sign for” I ask my wife.

“For the inspector.”

A farmer leaves his rice to dry on the road.  Motorists are careful to avoid the drying rice.

Leave a comment

Filed under non-fiction essay

Walls

Walls

 

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

He only says, good fences make good neighbours.

Robert Frost Mending Wall

 

When I was young the East German government buiult the Berlin Wall.    That wall built to keep East Berliners from entering West Berlin became a symbol of the Cold War.  With its watch towers, barbed wire and armed guards it told me that East Germany was little better than a prison.  The Soviet Empire was an empire of walls controlling its peoples.  Freedom of movement existed only in the Democratic West.  When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 Demolished by Berliners I rejoiced.  The west had won the Cold War.  Walls were coming down all over the world.  The crumbling of walls meant more than just the free movement of peoples.  It also meant sa greater flow of ideas abds thre crumbling of authortarian and totalitarian regimes.  Now the walls are rising again.Then came the eleventh of September 2001.  Across Europe and Americas walls began to rise.  The other great symbol of the time representing the west was the Statue of Liberty.

Give me your tire, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.

The song of the Statue of Liberty celebrated the belief in personal liberty that lay at the core of Western Democracies.  The right to seek out a better life, the right to travel freely, to think freely and to speak freelly. Walls stood against that against freedom of movement. That was what the Cold War was about to me.  Did this mean that walls were inherently evil?  Of course not.  They were simply a tool developed as other devices were to serve human needs. In the same way it could be argued that the rightr to the freedom of movement was not an absolute good.  With the masses yearning to be free came cri minals and political extremists.  But there was nothing new there. The benefits in talents that a society received from a leniant immigration policy more thsan outweighed the hazards..
There are two purposes to walls, security and control.  When early man first gathered brush together yo make a primitive shelter he first began to make a wall.  Within these flimsy structures mankind found shelter from predators and from the rain. Keeping people and things in or out was the first purpose of walls.  The second seems to have developed with agriculture, the marking of boundaries.  In pre-agricultural societies, walls, with some exceptions, reflected their builders in being  mobile., tents, igloos or simple grass huts.   Where permanent food supplies existed as with the tribes of the Pacific Northwest.With agriculture  walls became more permanent.  The keeping of herds needed enclosures to protect them from predators and to keep them from wandering off.  The raising of crops brought a sense of attachment to particular bits of land, and with an attachment the need to protect it.  Knowing that the crops were rooted to one spot brought about the building of permanent structures and the need to protect both crops and structures.  The art of building walls contributed to the creating of civilization, to the building of schools, hospitals and homes.  It also led to the building of slave pens, prisons and extermination camps.

Walls are more than a matter of  concrete and steel.  There must be a reason for a wall.  The reason may be  motivated by the common good as in the constructing of a protective wall around a village.  It may be motivated by the fear of another group as in the construction of a ghetto.  For a wall whatever its purpose implies seperation: seperation of people from one another, seperation of people from goods oe from a place but always seperatilon.  By the end of the Twentieth Crentury idealogical and political walla aeemed to be crumbling.  Then came the eleventh of September 2001, the beginning of the twenty first century.

nds locked into Religious extremism attacked New York. The lady wept when New York was attacked but she still held her torch high.  That was her finest moment.  Sixteen years later she still holds it although she is now obscured by the rising walls of ignorance, fear and hate. The words at her base are now being rewritten.

Take away your huddled masses yearning to be free.

Now another wall is being raised, along the Southern border of the United States. Perhaps someday words will be engraved upon the wall.

From California to the Gulf Stream Waters

This land was meant for only me.

Nine Eleven  also witnessed one of Canada’s finest moments.  As American airports were closed dozens of flights found themselves with no place to go.  The Canadian government opened up airports across Eastern Canada. Crews and passengers were taken in, fed,  and kept safe until they could go home.  It was not done for gain, or for gaining political goodwill.  It was simply the right thing to do.  Being a good neighbour is not a matter of building walls.  It is just a matter of helping when help is needed.  Robert Frost knew that as does most people. Good people make good neighbours.

Leave a comment

Filed under non-fiction essay

The Emigrants

1640

Jan Kreuzner groaned in the dark trying to stifle the nausea in his throat. Adding to his misery was a throbbing pain in his head.  The air of the cabin in which he lay, stank from vomit and the dampness of the sea.   A short black-hairy, bandy legged, fourteen year old with a narrow, pockmarked face, Jan Kreuzner, tried to sleep.  On the bunk below him sprawled his sister, Joanna.  He listened to her groaning and then to the sounds of the other two passengers. Hendrick and Bertha Van Gulden.

Hendrik, exhausted by  bouts of vomiting, had fallen  asleep.  Bertha huddled on her bunk praying to God for deliverance. Jan  looked up at the cabin’s low ceiling.  Above him he could hear the sea wind howling and the rigging creaking .  The storm was driving him on towards a new world. If they did not drown first.  Trying not to think of the vast ocean depths beneath him, he turned  towards the cabin wall. As he lay in the dark listening to the creaking of the hull and the howling of the wind, thinking that with every dip , the ship would plunge into the ocean’s deep , Jan cursed the company,  the sea and his fate.

Jan’s earliest memories were of his sister Joanna and of himself, roaming with other camp followers the roads of Central Germany trailing an Hanoverian Regiment. Joanna had told him that a drunken troop of French cavalry had ridden into their farm, taken their animals and food as well as their mother.  When their father tried to stop them they had struck him down.  The two children had fled into the night.  In the morning lost and hungry they had fallen in with the band of followers. There they had found food and shelter. With them they remained as one year moved on into another and then another.  Sometimes they would move south advancing towards Bavaria and Austria.  Sometimes they would retreat north,   Now they were camped in Westphalia living in a small hut built out of scraps of wood and cloth.  In it they had passed the sixth winter with the regiment.

Fleas clinging to a wolf they had followed the Protestant armies,  feeding off them, stealing from them or working for them at anything that would bring them food.  When battles were fought they would wait until the shooting stopped to descend on the dead stripping them looking for anything edible, wearable or saleable.   So the years passed until peace itself became a forgotten dream.

***

Jan stood under an ancient apple tree. From the tree hung a dozen rotting bodies of deserters dangling like unripe fruit. His dress seemed to be made up of previous searches  Everything seemed too large, muddy and torn, a dirty blue coat, broken-brimmed hat, soiled shirt and muddy trousers held up by a broad brown belt..

Ignoring the blackened staring faces of the hanging corpses, and the screeching of crows disturbed in feasting, he pawed through the  dead men’s pockets looking .for anything of use.   The hangmen before him made such a search difficult.  Belts, purses, boots, rings, anything of value had been picked by their experienced hands.  Jan knew this but the hope remained that something had been missed. He frowned upon discovering three pennies.  Shrugging he pocketed them and continued his search.  He could see Joanna approaching, her feet in wooden clogs, ragged brown dress partially covered by a red shawl, a gift from a trooper.

During the past six years he and Joanna had learned to stay alive by making themselves useful to the regiment. From the beginning,  Joanna had worked as a cook, laundress and seamstress. Jan had  gathered wood and run errands.  He had also learned to pick up bits of food when others were not looking.  Sometimes he would be caught and beaten.  Such beatings taught him to be more careful in stealing.  He had also learning that taking from the dead was not considered to be stealing.  So when the chance offered itself, after a battle, or execution Jan would look for anything of value from among the corpses.

Jan had also learned that striking an enemy either someone who threatened or simply had something that he wanted, when that enemy was down was both safer and  more guaranteed of success. Fear whoever was stronger, despise whoever was weaker had served him well.  He had tried the same method with Joanna, cursing  and striking her to  win an argument but with little success.  Joanna was larger and older.  From his earliest days Jan had learned to respect her temper

He frowned at the sight of the red scarf. “The scarf, from a soldier friend?”

“Would you rather it be from a soldier enemy.”

Not wanting to talk about the shawl anymore Jan returned to groping through the dead men’s pockets.

Joanna  sat down on a moss-stained boulder. “The regiment is falling back again.”

“They’ll return in the spring.”

“No they won’t.  Not without more men and supplies. We should leave” Joanna whispered.. Bearing the same ferret-like features of her brother, framed by long brown hair, and white woollen bonnet, Joanna turned her head to assure herself that no one was listening.  Being alone on the road could make them easy prey.  “Not just here,” she added. “We should leave them.”

Jan also knowing this, thought his sister’s request to be odd. “Who?”

“The regiment. I hear the Dutch border is only three, maybe four days away.”

“So?”  Jan began rummaging through another corpse.

“The recruiters are hunting for soldiers again.  They’ll  take you this time.  Do you want to be like them?” She looked up at the hanging corpses.  “Once you’re a soldier, they never let you leave.”

Jan paused.  He looked up at the face of the corpse.  “So why Holland?”

“The regiment’s not there. The country is rich, fat.  At least, that’s what people say.”

Jan frowned.  As long as he could remember there had always been a war, no matter where they had gone.   When he had been younger he had imagined himself a general leading his own army to glory and booty.  Now, he had rifled through too many dead, too many maimed.  He thought of Hans Forster, once a sergeant, now a legless beggar pulling himself along in a cart..  “Why not? When did you want to go?”

Joanna shrugged.  “Tonight.  Before dawn.”

“What will we do there” he asked.

“Find work.”

That night they slipped out of camp following a road that led west.  Five days later they stood on the banks of the Meuse.  On the other bank was the Dutch city of Maastricht.  That night, hidden by the black spring rain, they stole a rowboat and crossed  the river.   Once on the Dutch shore they found a field to sleep in and waited for the dawn.

They entered the city on a wet, cold, Sunday morning..  As church bells tolled,  they begged for  their breakfast from churchgoers receiving more blows than coins.  They could speak no Dutch and the townspeople had seen too many dirty hungry beggars fleeing from the wars,  They received little except curses and warnings to move on before they were arrested.

“We’ll go west” said Joanna as she and Jan gnawed on stale crusts thrown at them by a housewife.

“Where?”

“Where ever we can find work.”

For  ten days They wandered, passing through Eindhoven, Tilburg and Breda, until  they reached the port of Rotterdam.   They had followed the Meuse careful to avoid the Spanish territories.   The scars that had been left by passing armies had begun to heal.  Three years before the Dutch had retaken Breda and the war had receded south.  Buildings had been rebuilt, new crops had been sown. Compared to what Joanna and Jan had  known in Germany the land teemed with wealth. Surely they could find jobs and as home here, but in each town and village they were looked upon as dangerous vagabonds.  Move on they were told, move on.  Begging and stealing food, sleeping in fields and empty buildings they wandered west until they reached Rotterdam.

In a tavern along the docks Joanna and Jan finally came across a ytiny reed brick inn.  Under the green sign of a naked woman with a fish tail they saw a man talking to a wagoner. .    The owner of the Green Mermaid was  outside his inn door overseeing the arrival of a wagon load of gin when he noticed the girl and boy standing watching him.  “Thieves” he thought turning back to the wagon.

“Please Mein Herr,” the girl asked.  “Some food, Mein Herr.”

The man paused in his arguing with the wagoner to look back at the two,  “Deutshe?”

Joanna nodded.

The man sighed,  pointed at the inn and then spoke in German.  “Go around to the back door.   Tell the woman there, Helga,  that Gunther says to feed you.”

Helga, a plump brunette in her late forties, frowned when Joanna gave her Gunther’s message.  Then, shrugging, she told the two to wash their face and hands and then to sit down at the kitchen table.  She served them bowls of beef  stew and chunks of black bread.

A few minutes later Gunther came in. Lighting a clay pipe he sat down at the table next to Jan.

“So, my friends, what are your names?”

Joanna wiped her mouth. “Jan and Joanna Kreuzner.”

“Fust is mine, Gunther Fust.  Fifteen years ago Liesl and I came here from Magdeburg.  “So, Jan and Joanna.  Tell me, what do you know of America?”

Joanna frowned.  Sometimes when sitting around the campfire people would speak of America.

“A land of pagan savages.“

Gunther smiled. “Something like Germany, eh?  So tell me, are you Lutheran or Calvinist?”

“The one that doesn’t kill people” said Joanna.  “Does it matter?”

“To me, no.” Gunther thought for a moment.  “The Dutch are good people.  I’ve done well here, but it’s a small country.  Half of Germany is here and there’s no room for more.  But I do know a man who might be able to do something for you.  You two stay here for a couple of days help out Helga and myself in the tavern.”

Jan would wait until the house was quiet.  As he lay in the bed that he shared with Joanna, he thought about the past day with the Fusts, the cleaning of pots and the work in the stable.  All the time that he had been working Jan had watched Gunther taking in coin from his customers.  Most of the guldens had gone into a small iron box Gunther had kept under the counter in the tavern’s front room.

Jan considered what he should do.  He would light a  candle and pull on his trousers. Then,  glancing back at his sister to ensure that she was still sleeping he would open the bedroom door and step out into the hallway.  Once had secured the money, he would waken Joanna and they would leave.  Maybe there would be enough to buy passage to the Indies. As he had done so many times in the past he turned and told Joanna his plan.

For a moment she lay in the dark and then she turned away from him. “We don’t steal from friends.” She muttered.

“How do you know he’s a friend?”

“How do you know he’s not?”

Jan frowned.  As long as he could remember Joanna had warned him against trusting strangers.

“You’ve always said we shouldn’t trust strangers.”

“I know but sometimes, what they want is what we want.   We’ll wait,” she said.  “If he’s not a friend then we will leave.  For now, you sleep.”

“Why did he ask us about America?”

“I don’t know?”

“Where is America?”

“Near England, I think.  Go to sleep now.”

England, thought Jan.  You would need a boat to go there then.  He remembered how the scow had rocked as they had crossed the Meuse.  He did not like boats.  He wanted to ask more questions but did not wish to anger Joanna.  He closed his eyes and tried to sleep.

***

.A man sat In the Green Mermaid at a dirty, knife-marked table. He wore a wide brimmed hat and a long black cloak, his face marked by scars of the pox, bronzed skin, bristling black eyebrows and a goatee.    A scar marked his left cheek.   In his left earlobe he wore a small gold ring, the only trace of colour he seemed to allow himself.  He covered his left hand with his right,  a habit of old.  It covered his two missing fingers.

For thirty of his forty-five years Piet Steyn had been a soldier, sailor and a traveller.  He had fought the Spanish and the Portuguese, losing two fingers to a saber cut. He had sailed to the Spice Islands of the East and the to the Americas.  Now he was about to sail again, perhaps for the last time.  Tomorrow at midnight he would depart for New Amsterdam. For his service to the company he had chosen to retire to an estate of twenty square miles on the Hudson River.  He could live there with his three children and widowed sister enjoying the life of a patroon, but to secure his land it he had promised to bring over fifty families within four years of the grant.  Thirty-two families now lived on his estate, New Utrecht. On this trip he had secured six more, Baptist farms from outside, originally Germans from somewhere in Westphalia. He did not care for Anabaptists, believing that they lacked proper respect for the established, but they were honest, hardworking farmers and would make good tenants.  The older settlers, being Calvinists might not welcome them at first but would probably get used to them.  What worried Steyn were the ten labourers that he had secured from  the prison.    Rapists and thieves, most of them. Still, they were all single men, all potential fathers and husbands. Maybe  America would change them.  It had changed others including himself. Now, a letter delivered to his ship from Gunther Fust now promised two more workers.

Steyn had known Gunther for years.  An honest man, Gunther, for an innkeeper.  The letter had spoken of two possible workers willing to go to New Amsterdam.  He could meet them at the Green Mermaid.  If the two were accepted Fust would receive a couple of florins as commission.

He offered Gunther two florins.  Gunther waved them aide.“ A favour for an old friend,” the innkeeper told him.   Come tomorrow and talk to them.”

So Steyn had come. He studied the pair that Fust had brought into the tap room.  Debris washed up from the war, he had seen their kind many times before.  Some he had hired for the company. Some he had not.    He thought of the coming voyage to America. The last voyage.  Every sailor had to face it.  He had first gone to sea barely nine years of age, a ship’s boy to avoid starving at home.  Those he had shipped with were all dead now, from disease, from drowning, from war.  By rights he should have died as well, but for reason or other he had lived, climbing through the ranks, becoming an able seaman, officer and finally master.  Now,. owner of an estate on Hendrik Hudson’s River, he would give up the sea.  The ship’s boy had become a patroon.

As he looked at the brother and sister, Steyn wondered if he could put them as a family.  Perhaps. As he looked up at Joanna and Han Steyn uncovered his left hand.  It was then that Joanna noticed the two missing fingers. Heavy, scared hands, they had been bronzed by a sun stronger than any that Joanna had ever known.

“A soldier” she thought.  She had known men like him.  From his bearing, a sergeant, perhaps even a captain.

The two reminded Steyn of a pair of fox cubs, Their eyes divided between fear of a possible enemy and a possible source of food.  He  sat back in his chair. “My name is Piet Steyn, not that you care.  I work for the Dutch West Indian Company.  I  am looking for workers on my land in the New Netherlands. First, you are Protestant?”

“”Yes, Mein Herr.”

“Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist?”

“Lutheran.  At least, my father was.”

Steyn nodded .   “Doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re not Catholic. Are you interested in going to America?”

“America?  Why would we want to go there?”

“For the same reason you crossed Germany and  came here. Peace.”

“There is peace here in Rotterdam.”

“For now but the Spanish are only fifty miles away.” Steyn opened a folder and took out a piece of paper.

The man held out a piece of paper. “A contract. Terms of Indenture between you and the West Indian Company.  Can you read?”

Unwilling to admit his ignorance, Jan stared down at the floor.

“What does it say” asked Joanna.

“It’s from the  West Indian Company.  We are looking for workers in New Amsterdam.  You will be bound to the Company for six years.  We will feed you, house you, pay you six florins a month  After six years you will be free.  You will be given land, a house and tools. Put your mark on it. or you stay here. Personally, I don’t care either way.”

“The Spanish are in America.” Said Joanna.

“Thousands of miles from where we are going.  I leave for New Amsterdam in a week’s time.  If you want I can arrange passage for you and your brother.  You can come as indentured servants.  Work for six years on my land.  That will repay the company for your passage.  After six years you will be free to buy land in the colony.”

Steyn picked up the pen and held it out to her.

“Boats sink” she said.

Steyn nodded.  “Some do. Most don’t.  If you’re afraid of drowning girl you can always find work in some Rotterdam stew, somewhere, if that’s what you’re interested in.  Maybe the Spanish or Austrians will stay away Maybe. Maybe not.”

Steyn held out the pen.

Joanna and Jan looked at one another.  “Why should we believe you?” asked Jan.  “If we sign, then you will change your words.”

The man smiled.  “You think highly of yourself, Jan Kreuzner.  I would go to all this trouble just to cheat you.  You have my word as a soldier, and as a businessman.  Before the bargain is made, yes, I will try for the best advantage, but once the deal is made, I am bound to it.  I promise you America.  You will go to America. I promise you your freedom. After six years, you will have it..”
“We want someone to read the paper,” said Joanna.“I can read it or would you rather  have someone you trust” asked Steyn.  “Tell me, Fraulein Joanna, who would that be?”

Joanna tried to think.  The only person that she trusted was Jan.  Everyone else was a stranger.

Herr Fust.  What did she know of the man.  He and Gertrude could be working for Steyn. “I don’t know.”

“That is a problem, isn’t it? So it all comes down to a question of trust.”  The girl is no fool  thought. Steyn. He  removed his hat, revealing a thinning mop of grey-streaked brown  hair. He then loosened his cloak.  From around his neck he pulled up a strip of black tarred leather at the end of which was a small gold ring.  The ring had once belonged to his wife, Rebecca, who bow lay in a grave on the island of Manhattan. He placed it on the table and pushed it towards Joanna.  There were times in the dark when he still reached for her longing for the warm velvet touch of her skin to find only rough linen.

“The ring belonged to my wife, Rebecca..  She died of the pox six years ago.  I will give it to you for safekeeping.  In six years’ time,  when you finish your contract and receive land, I will ask for it back.  If the company breaks your contract, you may keep the ring.  Is that understood?”

Joanna looked down at the ring.  She did not like the man. Soldiers like him she had known to be hard, brutal capable of terrible things. Yet in some of them, perhaps in many, there had existed something called honour.  It could take the form of a uniform or of a flag.  Perhaps with Steyn, it was this ring.

She looked at Jan. The boy nodded. Joanna plucked the pen from Steyn’s hand and made an x on the bottom of the paper.  She then touched the ring and pushed it back towards Steyn.

“I do not need the ring,” she said.  Jan looked up at her. Why would she refuse gold?  He wanted to protest but had sense enough to keep quiet.

***

The square-sailed  Galleon, the Lion, lay moored in Rotterdam harbour. For thirty years it had travelled the oceans, as far as the Moluccas in the east and Aruba in the West.  Now the property of the West Indian Company it made the run between Holland and New Amsterdam.  On a wet rain streaked spring evening two wheeled cart pulled by Gunther Fust stopped in front of the galleon  Behind the cart  were Jan and Joanna.  They looked up at the galleon, its masts and snarling figurehead of a lion towering above them.

“Well, this is it” said Gunther. “Steyn will meet you on the ship.  He’ll tell you where you will sleep.”  He lifted a small box out of the cart.  The cart contain offerings from the Fusts, second hand clothes, sausages, needle and thread and twenty florins.

“I’ll leave you here then.”

“Jan and I, we thank you Herr Fust.”

Gunther shrugged.  “If I were a younger man I would go to Americas, but old men like their comforts.”

As he spoke a horse drawn cart approached the dock.  Next the driver sat a sergeant armed with a musket.  Two other soldiers on horseback followed the cart. Eight  young men, aged between fourteen and twenty,  shivering from the April cold,  sat in the cart,  The cart stopped in front of the ship.  The sergeant jumped down and went to the back of the cart.

“Out!” he shouted.

One by one the passengers  got out. Joanna could see that their arms and legs were manacled. manacled.  The last one out, the eldest and largest of the prisoners,  a blond tousle-haired man in his twenties,  brushed back a loose lock of hair.  He smiled as he noticed Joanna staring at him.  He smiled revealing broken, blackened teeth.  Standing over six feet, he towered over both prisoners and guards.

“Move along” said the guard.

The man spat onto the cobbled street.

“On to the ship” said the guard.

As the line of prisoners shuffled towards the ship, Joanna turned to Gunther.

“Who are they?”

“Workers for the company” said Fust.. “Taken from the prison. Thieves, rapists, God knows what else.  Now they belong to the company.  The big fellow at the end, so I hear, is a Swede.  Came south with Gustavus Adolphus. He deserted the army., took to robbery.  Drifted here. The government would have would have hanged him, but the company thinks they can make better use of him in Americas. Maybe. “

Joanna, Jan and Gunther watched the prisoners file pass.

Above them, Steyn looked on as the eight shuffled onto the deck. He waited until the eight had been securely locked in the hold.  There the workers would remain until the ship was well out of sight of land. He then turn and nodded at the Kreuzners.

“Welcome aboard” he smiled.  “Your quarters are waiting for you.  They are a bit crowded.  Boats usually are.   Hendrick  Friesen, a cooper from Leyden,  and his wife, Bertha, have the other two bunks.  They’re German so  you should get along.”

He showed the way to their cabin, clambering down the stairs into the hold of ship.  “Even I have to  share my cabin.  “This way.”

He led them down the same stairs that the prisoners had descended.

“The Friesens are Anabaptists.” Steyn noticed the frowning look in Joanna’s eyes.  I hope that’s not a problem with you.” Then he added in a warning tone. “ I won’t have religious arguments on this ship.”

Joanna shook her head.  “Yes, mein herr.  It’s not a problem.”

Of all the sects dividing Germany Joanna thought of Anabaptists as the strangest.  Disliked by Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholics alike they were reviled for their refusal to accept anyone’s spiritual authority except their own and for their adherence to adult baptism.  Thousands had been slaughtered murdered by Protestants and by Catholics but Baptist remained  clinging to their strange beliefs in defiance of all common sense.

Through a narrow passageway he led them to the door of a cabin.  He rapped on the door.

The door opened. A man and woman looked out..  Hendrick Friesen had a round flat face with a long, brown, chin beard,, small eyes topped by bushy brown eyebrows.   His wife, Bertha, her dull yellow hair covered by a white cap had the solid stocky build of a peasant woman.  Both appeared to be in their twenties.

“Friend Steyn” said Hendrick. “You are welcome.” He spoke in German accented Dutch.

Steyn nodded. “Jan and Joanna Kreuzner.  They’ll be sharing your cabin.”

Hendrick smiled..  “They both are welcome.”

Joanna and Jan frowned at the strange man.

“I’ll leave you here then,” said Steyn  “Hendrick and Bertha will help you settle in.”

“Come in,” said Hendrick.  He stood aside allowing Joanna and Jan to step into the cabin.  They stepped into the center of the room, its interior squeezed between two bunks rising from the floor to the low ceiling.  Much of the remaining floor space was taken up by a large trunk upon which had been placed a bible, mugs and plates.  The floor space shrank even more when Jan placed his trunk on the floor. The ceiling was so low that  Hendrick could stand upright  only by removing his hat..

“On the Lord’s day we gather with the other families for service” said Hendrick.  “Would you like to join us?”

Jan looked at Joanna.  In his eyes she could see the revulsion for a belief worse than that of the Papists.  She nudged him as a warning for him to behave himself.

“We are Lutheran,” Joanna told Hendrick, hoping that would be enough to discourage him.  The last mass she and Jan had attended had been held by the regiment had been held the day after the hanging of the deserters.  As they had sung “Ein Festenberg  ist Unser Gott” they could not  keep from smelling the dangling corpses.

Hendrick nodded.  “All are welcome.”

Joanna gave a narrow polite smile.  “We’ll think about it.”

That night the galleon slipped away from the dock and turned into the North Sea.  By morning as the ship rolled through the waves Joanna and Jan had already begun to feel ill.

***

Jan turned as the woman’s fingers touched his skin.  Through his nausea and dizziness he could see the swirling face of Bertha  Friesen.  The woman would be trying to rob him. He tried to kick her but was too weak  “Get away.” He wanted to scream but the words came out in a dry whisper.

At the sound of Jan’s voice, Joanna looked up. “What are you doing to my brother,” she asked.

“Hush, Joanna,” said Gertrude. “You and he have sea sickness. That is what Captain Herr Steyn says.  It will pass.”

She offered Joanna water but the girl shook her head

.“You are not ill?” Joanna croaked.

“Not everyone is.” Gertrude smiled. “ Herr Steyn says that I am a born sailor.”

As she rested Joanna considered the woman beside her. “Wherever you go, what a person believes depends on what his prince believes.  If the prince be Lutheran, you must be Lutheran. Is that not true?”

“So many say.”

“So why not you?”

“ We must believe what our prince believes, is that what you think?  if the prince’s son becomes a Calvinist or Catholic, the people must therefore follow?  No, Joanna Kruezner.  I do not believe that. Religion is a matter of each person’s soul,. Jesus was a prince of souls, not a prince of land.” Gertrude nodded. “Yes we are few.  Yes, we are poor.   “But is that how you measure a religious belief, Miss Joanna, by whether one is rich or poor, strong or weak? Catholics burned my grandfather. Calvinists burned my father. Yet, we still believe. Perhaps, as you say, we are wrong. I know that there are good Lutherans, good Catholics, good Jews, even good Calvinists.  Who is right, who is wrong, that  is for God to decide. In the New World maybe people can believe what they want to believe. There, we can live in peace.  That is what Herr Steyn promised.”

The Friesens had done  well to have fled Germany, thought Joanna.  There they would have been burnt.  “Peace?” she asked herself  Perhaps but her head ached and her stomach still troubled her.  She would think about it later.

***

For three days since leaving Rotterdam the eight prisoners   huddled  in the dark in a room stinking of their own vomit, excrement and urine. Once a day the cabin door would be unlocked and a bucket  of water and eight loaves of black bread would be pushed inside.   Oskar, as the largest, pushed the smaller ones aside to have first choice to the food and water buckets,.  Only when he had finished helping   himself would they allow the others to fight over what remained.

Four days out of Rotterdam with the Lion well out of sight of land Steyn had the prisoners’ cabin door unlocked.  One by one the eight stumbled onto the open deck of the ship.

Sailors armed with clubs gathered them in front of the stern deck.  Steyn glared  down at them.

“There are those among you who think that in America you just reach down and pick up gold and silver.  It’s not true.  I know. I’ve been there. For some of you the only thing you will find are your graves.  But, if you work. Follow the company rules, in six years you will be free men, better than the prison rats you are now. Now wash your stink off.  Then you can eat.”

The prisoners peeled off their shirts.  Shivering in the cold sea air they washed themselves as sailors poured buckets of salt water over them.

From his perch Steyn looked down at the prisoners, at the six Anabaptist families and at the Kruezners.

“It is a long voyage to America.  Filled with hardships.  I will not have those hardships added to.  Any man who threatens passenger or sailor will be placed in irons until we reach New Amsterdam.” Steyn paused waiting for his words to penetrate their thick minds. “ You people are coming to America for different reasons.  Some come looking for gold, some for adventure.  Some come seeking freedom.  Some don’t want to come at all. Some  will find nothing but their graves.  But those that survive, that learn to live in the new land they will be different… different from us and from anyone else that we knew.”  He turned to the prisoners.  “ Now go, dry yourselves and eat.  There will be no more irons.”

As he watched the labourers file away  Streyn heard  light steps behind him.  He turned to see Joanna Kruezner.. “Something I can do for you girl?”

“You asked to see me sir.”

Steyn nodded. “Yes, that’s right.  “You, eh, you’ve recovered from your sea sickness?”

“Yes, mein herr.”

“Good.  Very good. You must be excited about going to America?”

“Yes, mein herr.”

“I was too, my first time. Still am. Twenty years ago I thought America meant adventure and wealth.  I was a young man then, with all my fingers.  Young men think only of themselves. Now, now I have my children to think of. America is their home My home. “ He turned to her.  “When we arrive at my land,  New Utrecht,  I will need a kitchen maid.  You can have the job, if you like.”

“Excuse me mein herr but you promised that we would have our own house, our land.”

“You will.”

“What about Jan?”

“Jan?  Your brother? “There’s work enough for two.” said Steyn.

Steyn glanced over at Joanna’s brother standing next to the Swede, Oskar.  The two were looking out over the sea.  They seemed to be joking about something.  Steyn had not liked the Swede from the moment that he had seen him but the man was strong and workers were in short supply in New Amsterdam.  The company had hired him so he had to take him.  If it had been up to him he would  have left the man in prison.

Criminals, land-hungry peasants, dissenters fleeing persecution, disposed orphans, adventurers, such were the cargo he was bringing to the new world. Human hands to work new fields.

Four days of being penned into his cabin had left Jan famished  for fresh air.  Ignoring his sister’s advice to rested he had staggered up onto the deck.  As he leaned over the side staring down at the rolling, black water Jan promised himself that once ashore he would never again step onto a ship.

The blade of Jan’s pocketknife cut into the top of the ship’s gunwhale.  He carved in a few crude lines the outline of a man’s penis thrusting into a woman’s vagina.  As he examined his work  Jan glanced up at Steyn and his sister.  He wondered what they were discussing.  “I wonder what he wants with Joanna?”

“Nice picture” said Oskar.  “Still, if Steyn sees you marking up his ship he’s have you whipped.”

Oskar had noticed young Kruezner loitering about the deck a couple of days before.  His scrawny sister had taken up with the bible-thumpers but Jan seemed to be of a more sensible nature.  Besides making a friend of the boy might allow Oskar to get inside his sister’s belly.

Jan shrugged, then scratched out the picture.  “Women are so stupid” he said.

Oskar grinned “Yeah, well, we really don’t want them to be as smart as us, do we?”

Amused by his own joke Oskar sniggered.  Jan smiled and folded his pocket knife.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Uncategorized