April 17th, 1790. Off the Coast of Dublin
John felt the salt fill his nose, chill his ears under his excuse for a cap. He kept his upper lip long, feeling the numbness spread as the waves parted under the bow, each rise pitching the keel up and through the next wave. The sails were full and the ship was making good time. He could see the land fading to the West. The busy town had fallen silent and grew smaller as the moments passed.
They had signed their names in town as best they could, quick crosses beneath a paper that meant nothing to them. A man had stamped and scratched his own name next to theirs in large, looping swirls.
April 14th, 1790. Village on the Outskirts of Naas, Kildare County
The family had seen them off down the road to the port town.
You always wave till they’re out of sight, Hyram had said.
Don’t worry about it, John, his brother had said. Just you do it and keep a look at them waving, too.
John had waved until his arm hurt, then waved some more, a mass of arms large and small swaying back, fading until finally the jostling cart had taken them over the far side of the rocky, green hills at the edge of the village proper.
The cart followed the wind of the River Liffey, a quick mirror of the grey sky overhead.
I never knew the water ran so fast here, Hyram, John said.
The river, it goes so fast in parts.
Oh, right. ‘An Ruirthech’. The old tongue, that’s what they called it. Runs fast, it does. Goes by swift all the way to the sea.
What does it do when it gets to the sea?
Hyram laughed, lying against the edge of the cart with his eyes shut and his cap low above his grin. The sky was a melee of clouds that hung with no sign of the sun behind them.
Well, John, I guess it leaves its banks behind.
But the sea? It’s full of salt. The river’s not salt.
No, just muddy.
So it feeds the sea?
Something like that, surely. It runs along till it’s not a river anymore. That’s about all I know about it, John.
Hyram shifted his cap to cover his eyes a little lower.
Oh, John said and fell quiet.
Shortly they were passing Leixlip proper and on down the road that lead east to Dublin, leaving the banks of the river to the west. The driver lit his pipe leaving the town as the road broadened and the flat, green fields spread out to the horizon. Harrow marks lined off like stiches in cloth.
The horse trotted along the dirt path marred by the depressions of wheels in the dark, damp earth. Smoke trailed behind the cart in a haze that thickened each time the driver breathed from the edge of his lips round the stem of his pipe. The air smelt of tobacco and horse.
They were gone, he and Hyram. Then he realized, and it was too late.
April 18th, 1790. Somewhere in the Irish Sea
It was alright to think about it on the ship. The ship was at sea, and the salt spray came over the side near the bow, cold and hard. He let the damp happen over him. He let it cover his face until it was ice in the wind and he couldn’t feel it anymore.
Come now, you, Hyram said, his big legs making a dull thudding on the wooden deck. You’ll have time for that, later.
We’re never going back, are we?
Well, you never know. Good Lord’s willing.
They knew we weren’t ever coming back. That’s why they stood there for so long. They waved and watched and they knew we’re never coming home again. His voice cracked, but only a little. He wondered if Hyram noticed and felt ashamed.
It’s a bit early for that, John, but you get it out of you, if you the need.
No. I’m fine as I can be.
John stared at the dark grey mass breaking under only slightly lighter clouds. The spray touched his lips and he could taste the salt.
Do you think we’ll like it there?
Hyram looked out at the water with his brother.
A man can like anything he pleases. It’s his choice, and the Lord gives you that choice. It’s up to you to take it.
John decided that he would be pleased. He imagined what it would look like. His mind failed him, but he tried all the same. Hyram put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. John turned to him. Hyram’s eye winked quick with a grin. They walked to their work below decks.
July 26th, 1790. Charleston, South Carolina
When it came time, John readied himself for his step. He knew that he would feel something. The heat was unbelievable. He worked moving the lines as the Quartermaster bellowed and the Bosun screamed, too. The entire ship seemed one mass of shouting and curses.
His hands tried to shake. He bit his lip to keep them from shaking. The sweat poured from his skin and wet everything he touched. He wanted Hyram with him, but he knew that he needed to stand this time, if nothing else.
When they had ported and the stevedores were massing on the pier, John was ready to step onto the loose rope and wood that steeply lead off the ship. He picked his soggy cap up and off his head, running his forearm across his brow and putting the cap back, feeling the momentary cool disappear instantly.
He knew he was ready, and Hyram wasn’t there, but he knew that things would be fine. There was more work on both sides of the gangway.
This would be his first footfall. It was special and that was something. John didn’t know what, but he knew. He was ready.
There was more yelling and his feet moved faster for it. The gangway bounced and swung; his stomach rose in his chest.
The wood on the pier was firm. He shuffled quickly to satisfy the screaming.
The smell of the tide filled him. The damp was steam from a kettle on his face. His eyes darted to the green mass of hills on the horizon and the small brown buildings lining the shore at the end of the long line of planks.
He was here; Hyram was here with him and they would never be going home again. Seven years were an eternity, but they would pass.
He was sixteen years old.