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Maiden

by Rose Esposito 27 days ago in Short Story
Runner-Up in Ship of Dreams ChallengeRunner-Up in Ship of Dreams Challenge
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And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away, and there was no more sea.

Maiden
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The ship's lower levels were a dizzying maze of corridors that seemed to me, at least in my desperate and sleep-deprived state, intentionally designed to punish anyone with a third-class ticket. Hey, you get what you pay for, it said. But Alba, level-headed as ever, just read the gleaming signs on the walls and followed the arrows right to our cabin door.

Once inside, I was distantly aware that we should hug, or cry, or scream out our joy that we were here, that we somehow made it aboard despite all everything: we and everyone we knew had failed to win the ticket lottery dozens of times over, and this was the last launch scheduled for months. Winning now, when we needed it most, was nothing short of a miracle. But once we'd let our belongings fall heavily to the floor, my sister glanced over at me and said simply, "Top bunk?" I nodded and reached over to the ladder – with arms outstretched I could touch the bed and the door at the same time, so small was the room – and swung myself up onto the thin mattress.

I heard Alba drop heavily onto the bed below, and for some reason it occurred to me that we were the first people to ever sleep on these beds. It seemed important to tell her this, but I got as far as blearily mumbling her name before dropping off into dreamless nothingness. After all that, we missed the grand departure, and by the time I awoke we were on our way, land no longer visible beyond our small, round window.

Dry-mouthed and disoriented, I climbed gingerly to the floor, not wanting to wake Alba. The extravagant boasts we'd heard about the vessel's state-of-the-art engine seemed to be true, at least; even at this level its sound was a low, dulcet hum, and the ship's movement was smooth and steady, not the hurtling, sickening sensation I'd feared. Not that we had any freedom to be choosy.

I quietly unzipped my pack and took a long, grateful pull from one of the water bottles I'd brought. I'd been skeptical when the advertisements promised unlimited fresh water for all passengers, but we'd spotted a fountain almost as soon as we stumbled off the boarding ramp and onto the ship, and I had to force myself to fill the bottle and resist the urge to put my entire head until the cool, clear flow. After so many months of rationing and boiling, such a thing was an unimaginable luxury.

Mom's polished wooden box was still at the top of my pack, where I'd hurriedly stashed it after the steward at the gate coolly informed us that we needed only to produce the ID scans we'd undergone at the first checkpoint; our passports and other paper documents were "of no use to anyone anymore." As kids Alba and I had been intrigued by the box, a miniature hope chest of sorts, and then disappointed when we found it contained only papers, the most boring kind of adult nonsense. But in later years she explained that it was important, that it held our can't-ever-lose-these items. And in the time after that, in the days that would prove to be her last, she told us to take it with us if we had to run at a moment's notice, a possibility that was growing ever more likely at the time.

So much more had changed since then, but three days ago, when we heard Cole's final pronouncement and realized the time had come at last, I had grabbed the box without a second thought as we rushed around, grabbing whatever essentials we could carry.

I sat on the floor of the cabin – painted an industrial gray and faintly warmed, like most surfaces on the ship – and placed the box in my lap as Alba slept on, her breathing deep and even. Under our passports were our birth certificates, the deed to the house (against my will I briefly pictured the current state of it, but I forced the image out of my mind: no point in dwelling on a place to which we'd never return), and a handful of letters and cards. A few were just childhood birthday greetings from our grandparents; others were longer missives from other relatives, their old-fashioned, flowing longhand difficult for me to read. I resolved to examine every piece, though; after all, this was all we had left now.

At the bottom was an old leather notebook, its thin straps hanging limp and nearly cracked through in the spots where they'd been repeatedly tied tightly around the cover. The dark brown skin had patches of discoloration and the yellowing pages were warped on one edge in a way that made me suspect water damage, and I opened it carefully, hoping it wasn't about to fall apart in a shower of dust.

On the inside cover were the words "Crafted in County Limerick," printed in what must have once been a bright gold. On the opposite page, in careful, elegant handwriting similar to that in the letters, it said "This Diary is the Property of Miss Muirgheal Ann Darragh, 1912."

Something stirred in my mind at the sight of the name. I shuffled through the papers sitting next to me on the floor, the ones that had recently lain atop the diary, and there it was: Darragh had been my father's middle name. A vague memory surfaced: me as a child, probably sniffing around his office for spare paper to doodle on, seeing the unusual name written somewhere and asking him about it, with all its funny silent letters.

It was a family name, he'd told me, from a long time ago. His great-great-great…how many greats had he said? I couldn't remember. At the time I thought it was strange, to borrow someone else's name as your own; I loved being the only Stella I'd ever met. Now I understood.

I looked at the date again: almost 200 years ago. So she must have been our however-many-greats great-aunt, or grandmother, or some sort of cousin-something-removed, maybe. I turned the page.

5th April 1912

Padraig has given me this lovely little book & says I must record all of my adventures across the sea & in America. I said, who would want to read the thoughts of one silly girl, and he said, why, everyone, someday you shall publish your stories and the world over will be amazed by the bravery & wit of one young Irish lass.

He is forever saying silly things like that, but as I can't let such a pretty book go to waste — I & my brother John & sisters Niamh and Deirdre are travelling to Queenstown in a few days' time, where we shall board the HMS R.M.S. Titanic for New York, where Ma & Great-Uncle Cormac will meet us — how glad I'll be to see them again! The tickets cost a whacking great £7 17s each, Fr. Flanagan took up a collection & so many of our neighbours gave whatever shillings they had. We have promised to remember them all in our prayers forever.

On Monday 22nd April Niamh & I are to begin our positions as domestics in the home of Mr. G— of Park Avenue South, John will join Cormac at the store, and in the autumn Deirdre is to be married to her intended, Fionn Brennan from Castleconnell. He has lived in American for 10mos & Deirdre says she hopes he is still handsome, else she may throw him over for a sailor. Such foolishness, he was always the handsomest boy in the parish.

Again, a faint memory: the story of that ship had been famous once, hadn't it? It wasn't the sort of thing anyone would have discussed anymore, nor would we have learned about it in school – a long-ago disaster (there had been a disaster, of that much I was sure) with a foreign vessel and foreign people wouldn't have had any place in the lessons we were given, except as an example of another nation's failure. Cole would have made sure that every single man, woman and child knew that such a thing wouldn't happen under his state.

There are no accidents, only inevitabilities. There are no unlucky men, only unprepared men. There is no choice, only destiny. I could still recite it by heart, just like Alba and everyone else we knew.

I turned the page. The next few entries appeared to be detailed packing lists of everything Muirgheal and her siblings were bringing on the voyage. There were snippets of squabbles (Niamh wants to bring six books, but they are frightfully heavy and will take up too much room in the trunk, but she declares that if Deirdre can bring a dozen hair-ribbons & even her small looking-glass then she should … Padraig has given me his pocket-knife as a keepsake and I think John is quite envious) that reminded me of Alba and me as kids, and I smiled faintly to myself.

As if she'd heard my thoughts, Alba stirred, rolled over and saw me sitting on the floor beside her. "What's that?"

"A diary, I guess," I said, showing her. "It was in Mom's box."

She slid off the bed and leaned against the wall beside me, taking a long drink from the water bottle as she went. I pointed out the inscription and explained my guess about the writer's identity, and she nodded.

"It sank," she explained, when I added that I didn't entirely remember the story. "On its first trip out. And it was supposed to be the grandest ship in the world, so they didn't bring enough lifeboats and a whole lot of people died. It was a huge story."

"Leave it to you," I said. She'd always had a fascination with the past, especially the parts we weren't supposed to know or care about. I admired it about her, though I didn't really understand; the present was complicated enough for me.

"Keep going," she urged, once she'd caught up, and I carefully turned another page. Some of the entries were only a phrase or two long.

9th April

On the road to Qtown — Ballygran inn comfortable but N snored all night! D says the other girls in our cabin aboard the ship will toss her into the sea if she disturbs their sleep. N stroppy all morning.

10th April

Padraig left us in Cork — cannot bear to think we may never see him again. He made me promise a letter a week until I am wed someday, & after that 1 every day, for I will surely be a very fine lady with nought to do. Fancy that!

11th April — night

No time to write all day! The ship docked at half 11 and it is she is (a gentleman on deck told me that ships are always 'she,' and the right side is starboard & the left is port) the grandest sight ever I saw. The paint is so new that it sparkles like the sea itself, and the crew seems as delighted as we are to be here. A granny on the dock wept at the size of her, and even our John exclaimed 'Begorrah!' when she came into view. Surely every single soul in Cloonlara could fit aboard her a few times over. If only I could take everyone from my hometown along with us so I wouldn't have to miss anyone!

In the inspection queue Deirdre pinched & pinched her cheeks, wishing to look as hearty as can be, though she soon looked as though she had scarlet fever & I feared she might be forbidden aboard! But soon we were waving farewell, waving so hard our arms hurt, to everyone & no one in the crowd below.

N, D & I are sharing a room on E Deck towards the stern (back of ship) with two Swedish girls, Greta and Birgit. We can't make out a word of theirs, & they don't understand us ach oiread, as Ma would say, but we all pointed to our names on our tickets & smiled, and that is enough for a friendship, I should think.

John is on G Deck at the bow (front) corridors over with Liam, a fella from Antrim who says himself & his lads built this ship with their own hands (Niamh is dazzled but I think he's shamming), an Italian & another fella from who knows where with a grand happy laugh.

One could live aboard this ship for one's whole life. Everything a body needs is here, viz. a library, fine restaurants, a Turkish bath, a gymnasium, a barber-shop — even a swimming-pool! Of course, most such places are 1st or 2nd class only.

Time for supper. A crewman told us we must walk down a corridor known as Scotland Road — isn't that a laugh? — & find the stairwell to F Deck. Good-bye for now!

Then, at the bottom of the page in smaller print, even harder to read because the ink had run:

p.s. supper was rabbit pie, potatoes, bread & butter, tea, jam, &c, &c, &c! There was enough for all & then some. We 4 have agreed to never tell Ma that it was the grandest meal we have ever had. And Great-Uncle Cormac! How I wish he was here to eat his fill thrice over, his reward for his wretched hungry boyhood…!

12th April

To-day Niamh wished to work on her sketches, though John wouldn't let her mingle with the menfolk in the 3rd class general room without him. She told him she was interested in her pencils & nothing else, but he sat alongside her, smoking & glowering at every fella who glanced her way.

Deirdre & I took the air on the forward well deck, our arms linked, pretending to be grand ladies. There is nothing at all around us but sea and sky, coming together in a tidy, perfect seam at the horizon. We might be the very last people on Earth, or on another world entirely. It is a strange & thrilling sensation. We could see the 1st class people promenading on B Deck, but there was a sign reminding us that we're to stay in our place. "As if we could forget!" Deirdre scoffed.

How I shall miss her when she's a married lady! She has promised that we must visit Fionn & herself for church every Sunday at least, though her hours will soon be taken up by little ones…

"Wait, go back a few," Alba said suddenly, breaking the long silence. I turned back to the first entries, and she pointed at the page. "Fionn Brennan. I remember that name, too. One of Dad's uncles was Brennan, or maybe Finn." She frowned. "I can't remember who, but I know I know the name."

"So that means Deirdre is our great-times-a-million-grandmother?" I asked, confused. "And Muirgheal's our aunt?"

"I guess you could name someone after anyone in your family," she pointed out. "I'm glad Mom went more original with us."

"So am I." We returned to the April 12th entry. More descriptions of meals and the many opulent, forbidden areas of the ship. I turned another page.

13th April

Fizzing party in the D Deck room tonight! Word spread from cabin to cabin all morning & by noon we heard of nothing else. John declared he'd accompany us for no more than an hour, and what a laugh we had at that — as though he'd give up the chance to go on the lash with his new mates on the grandest ship in the world! And indeed, not a quarter of an hour later he had sat himself with every other Irish lad on the ship, plus the Italian & so many others, all shouting & laughing and tippling away.

The 3 of us sat with Greta and Birgit & some other girls from E Deck — with lots of pointing & gestures &c we figured out that they are sisters like us, it is nearly the same word in their language! Their word for ship is hwepp and beer is ell (surely I have spelt those wrong). In return we showed them a bit of Irish dance, and they laughed & tried their best to imitate us. There were fiddles and drums and pipes playing, and though we had to shout every word it was a splendid craic.

An English fella nearby had a little map of America, and the Swedish girls showed us that they will travel on to a place called Minnesota. I must remember to ask for their proper address so we might send letters.

The Englishman also told us that when he'd boarded at Southampton, the ship had very nearly collided with another, a smaller vessel called New York. 'I saw the ropes go,' said he, 'an' she drifted right into our path. Don't know how we turned in time. Must've missed 'er by this much.' He pinched his fingers a hair's breadth apart. 'D— bad omen, if you ask me.'

Niamh looked affronted by his language, but Deirdre leaned forward to speak over the din. 'Omen?'

'Aye,' he said gravely. 'A near-accident at the start of 'er first voyage? Coming so close to New York, but then missin'?' He gave a shudder. 'Don't like it one bit.'

My sisters looked uncertain, but I didn't think much of it. Would he have thought it a good omen if Titanic had struck the ship called New York? Surely not. The fella had put away more than few pints, anyway.

"Cole would love that," I muttered, mostly to myself. Alba looked at me sharply. "Omens and all that."

"Guess so," she murmured. She never liked to discuss him.

John escorted us back to our cabin — the silly duffer blamed his stumbling on the movement of the ship, which was smooth as can be — and I remarked that the festivities had put me in mind of the feiseanna back home, except with all sorts of different faces and the sounds of every language there is from all sides. 'That's what America's like,' he told us before he headed off — for the smoking room, I'd bet every shilling in my purse on it.

I hope he's right about that!

14th April

Ma made us swear on all the saints that we'd attend Sunday Mass no matter what — there is not quite a proper church here, but a Father Byles conducted a service in the same room in which we reveled last night (!!) & it seemed like any other Mass. I don't suppose it matters where one is, so long as God is present? After all, He made the land & sea & sky and all the rest of it. (Fr. Byles is English, but still a Catholic, and a kind man, it seems. Still, perhaps we won't tell Ma.)

Spent the rest of the morning writing letters to Padraig & the girls at the laundry. I shall post them as soon as we arrive in New York. I hope I shall have time for writing once I am in service — we are to receive one afternoon of leisure per week + Sunday mornings for services, but what if my work is not up to standard, or what if Mr. G— is plain cruel? Only time will tell.

More merry-making tonight, I hear. Niamh says we must gather our rose-buds whilst we can! (I think she has the line wrong.)

A few lines were left blank, and then, in a slightly more rushed hand:

Something has happened. Returned knackered from party & went to bed, then loud noise + deep rumbling shudder on right starboard side. I thought it a dream but then heard loud voices in corridor.

"That's it," Alba said, leaning even closer and grabbing my upper arm. "That's when it started. They hit an iceberg in the water and it tore open the bottom of the ship."

"Iceberg?" I repeated. "Like a glacier?"

"There used to be a lot of them, especially in the north where it was really cold," she shrugged, and I shook my head in disbelief, though I knew she was probably right.

Another line skipped, and then it continued: Deirdre says it's nothing & stuck her pillow over her head, but Greta & Birgit are whispering. They seem afraid. I want to find out but very cold topside & so warm here. Perhaps a joke or party gone awry?

Another blank line, and the handwriting deteriorated further.

Nearly asleep, then BANG on our door. John pushes in & turns on lights. 'Have to get your lifebelts on and get into a boat,' he says. ' It's not a drill. Liam says she can't survive this.' G&B appalled. Niamh furious.

'You aren't funny,' she tells him. 'Don't talk malarkey. What—'

He grabbed her shoulders hard. Never done so before. She fell silent. Pulled lifebelt from the cupboard & forced her into it. 'All of you, get up top & into the lifeboats now,' he thundered. 'There won't be enough, he told me so.'

I looked down — his trousers were dark & wet almost to the knee. How? We all scrambled for shoes as he found our coats & dropped them round our shoulders. G&B tugged his sleeve, eyes wide. 'Vod hendeh?' (sp?) they asked over & over.

J made ship with his hands, then a gesture like the sea. 'Sinking,' he said. 'Sink. Ship sink.'

All the cabins on our ship had automatic temperature sensors that adjusted to suit whoever was inside, but I felt a chill all the same. Alba was silent as we read on. Now the entries were just words, disjointed fragments of phrases.

Freezing. Shouting, all tongues. Children crying. Red flares in sky. J gone to find Liam & others. 'Women & children only.'

Tilting. Music nearby. Fr Byles praying. This cannot be.

And then, written lopsided along the page, as though written in the dark or by a failing hand:

DEA R GOD

DEAR

GOD

The next page, the righthand side, was entirely blank.

Alba's eyes were bright when I looked sideways at her. "She must have lived, Stella," she said, very quietly. "Right? Or else…"

I had to force my fingers to turn the page. Part of me didn't want to know what was there, or wasn't.

24th(?) April, New York

Morning. I can hear Ma in the kitchen, making a black & white pudding — she is so pleased that I have finally brought myself to rise from bed & eat that she has promised to make all my favourites for as long as I like. I can't tell her that black & white pudding was also Deirdre's favourite.

I know not where to begin, nor what happened first, second, last or only in my dreams of the last week. Uncle Cormac says writing it down may help, like pulling out a splinter, so here is everything I recall:

I remember Deirdre's hand slipping from mine in the crowd as a crewman hefted me into a lifeboat.

I remember seeing the ship poised absurdly against the sky, the lights flickering and then dying for good. I remember the loudest sound I have ever beheld, a howling, crashing roar of metal and wood. I thought it was God Himself tearing the sky apart to reach us and for a moment I thought, thank goodness, it's all over.

I remember seeing Niamh's bright hair buffeted away through the crowd on deck, and an American lady in the boat patting my hand and saying 'she'll be in the next one, dear, don't fret.'

I remember the sound of the people in the water. It was inhuman, a teeming wail that I will never, ever forget. If I stoppered my ears for the rest of my life it would live on inside my head.

I remember helping to push the lifeboat away from the side of the ship so we could lower away. I found Padraig's pocket-knife in my coat and gave it to the seaman so he might release the falls. He returned it to me later on, along with a metal flag from one of the boats. I don't know whether to keep them forever or fling them back into the sea.

I remember floating. The sea was lapping gently and the ladies all around me were huddled for warmth, and as it grew quiet I felt, in a daft way, at peace. Nothing was real but the sound of the water, the rocking of the little boat. The woman beside me allowed me to rest against her, and as I half-dozed I thought, I've never touched such a fine mink coat in all my life.

The look on John's face as he pushed the lifebelts over our heads and fixed the straps. We — I — never saw him again after he ran off to look for his mates.

Once aboard — the ship was called the Carpathia, I have since learned; Ma has tried to hide all the newspapers, but I heard a boy calling out on the street, selling the evening edition — I searched and searched for Niamh and Deirdre. Everywhere I turned, everyone was looking for someone. 'Mother?' 'Thomas?' Have you seen Isabella?' 'Has another ship found the rest of the boats?' 'Mein Sohn, mein Sohn.' All wrapped in blankets, cradling steaming cups, eyes red.

Eventually I found Birgit. She still had frost in her hair. 'Greta,' was all she could say. 'Sister. Greta.'

I know their souls are at rest, and I know I should give thanks for my own life. I've heard Ma and Cormac doing so every night & morning since I've been here. But how am I to go on alone? How can I live with myself when I failed to save them?

I saw other girls leaping from boats back onto the ship to rejoin husbands, sisters, parents. Why didn't I? Did I think my life more worthy than theirs?

Another blank page.

19th May

I have attended Confession every Sunday since my arrival, and the father has suggested that God has another purpose for me. Perhaps I was saved so that I might take the vows and dedicate my life to Him. Perhaps such a life would give me the solace and penance I long for. But how do I know if it's my path? How do I know what's in my heart when I left it at the bottom of the Atlantic?

The rest of the page was blank. So was the next one. I quickly flipped through the rest of the book, a little less carefully this time. Nothing. "That's it?" I looked at my sister in frustration. "She became a nun?"

Alba was frowning. "No," she said slowly. "She couldn't have. I mean, her sisters…Deirdre died. She was the only one who made it. So Muirgheal must have gone on to have children."

"Yeah, but…" My brain felt sluggish from hunger. The clock by the door noted that it was almost time for dinner, but I couldn't abandon the mystery just yet. "If that Fionn Brennan was someone in the family, then…"

"That's it. At some point she must've married her sister's fiancé. Something made her change her mind." She looked a little wistful. "Maybe they just fell in love and that was that."

"Wow." I sat back against the wall with a gentle thump. "Lucky for us, huh."

Alba's expression hardened, and I realized too late what I'd said and what it meant. "Why did Mom want us to have this?" she asked, after a beat.

"I don't know," I admitted. Then, because I had to say it, "He would love this. You know he'd show it off as hard proof of everything he's said all along – all these improbable things had to happen for him to exist, but they did. It was all meant to be."

"Meant to be," she repeated, even more sarcastically than I'd said it. "All those people had to die so that his ancestors could be together, that's just fine. Cole would love that." It was the first time she'd spoken our brother's name aloud in months. Many people, probably most of the people on this ship, never said it, or said it and then spat.

"We wouldn't be here, either," I pointed out. I didn't know how to wrap my mind around such a paradox: Muirgheal had survivor's guilt, sure, but what was ours? Existence guilt?

"We wouldn't be here," she shot back, gesturing at the tiny cabin and the star-speckled window. There was no denying it: if not for our brother, our preening, powerful brother, so convinced of his preordained right to be where he was, we would be home, as would so many others. We wouldn't be traveling, through vastness and silence at 17,000 miles an hour, away from the cratered ruins and ashes of his destiny.

We were quiet for another long minute. Finally I said, "She wanted us to have this so we'd know we'd know what we came from. That survival runs in the family."

She nodded slowly. "I like that. I'll take that."

A bell chimed pleasantly somewhere above us. "Dinner is served," said a calm, automated voice.

"And we need to eat," she added, jumping to her feet. "Whoa." She put a hand on the wall to steady herself. "That artificial gravity is strong."

I stood too. "At least we'll have more options than rabbit pie and potatoes." The ads had promised over 500 options at every meal, though I could hardly remember what my favorites were anymore.

Alba linked her arm with mine as we headed down the hall. The ship seemed a lot friendlier now.

Short Story

About the author

Rose Esposito

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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