The Fiery Cross
A short story by Charlotte Salyer
Through a thick fog, Bannon Sullivan slowly made his way home by following alongside the dark outline of a continuous stone wall; just one of hundreds of walls built by the toil of poor Irish farmers. Each stone ripped and plucked from the rich earth to clear land owned by landlords.
Although Bannon appeared to be an old man to others, he was not. He was just one of the many walking dead, a frail body moving closer and closer toward an early grave; a soon to be victim of a famine which had taken thousands and would soon claim over a million. Bannon reached into his pockets to reassure himself that the small chunk of pork, accompanied by two small onions, a potato, and three carrots, remained.
He dared to smile, only to feel the tug of his split lip. The result of fainting and landing face-forward on a large crate while lifting cargo onto a clipper headed toward a far-better place. A job he no longer had the energy to do but couldn’t consider otherwise. He licked the wound only to taste the salty tinge of his own blood. Reaching up to pull down his cap tighter onto his head, he continued to shuffle listlessly forward up the narrow path.
Nearly an hour later, he reached his destination, a small mud and stone cottage which appeared dark and vacant. Bannon quietly pushed opened the cottage’s only door, happy to see a familiar pile. The pile could easily be mistaken as rags. But sleeping under a pile of tattered clothes on top of a small straw-filled mattress near the hearth where a fire used to burn was his one remaining child.
Closing the door softly, he removed a small burlap sack from his shoulder and moved toward the hearth where he placed the sack and then the contents of his pockets. He then knelt beside the pile of rags. He was relieved to see the pile moving in then out in a peaceful rhythm as his child slept. The small girl was wound up inside the ball of cloth so tightly it was impossible to distinguish where her head or her feet rested. A small human, twisted tightly, completely covered and clinging to the only article that remained of her mother, a soiled and tattered coat.
“Mary, my darling; It is Christmas Eve. Is it not?”
Bannon reached under the shabby coat and located a foot covered with a torn wool sock. One single dirty toe was exposed through a raggedy hole. He pinched the small toe softly. “I believe we have had a wee-early visitor, Mary my darling. Did you chance to see St. Nick make his way out? A stealthy man he was, to have come in, then out, without making the slightest sound.”
The small girl, opened her eyes, blinked twice and then threw the coat off and leapt forward into her father’s arms. “Dah, I escaped the wicked witch and have been fast asleep in this gingerbread cottage.” With both arms, Mary held her father, squeezing his neck.
“And, I have slayed a pirate with a long black beard and stolen his bounty!” Bannon replied.
“Is that how you were wounded. Were you cut on the lip by a pirate’s dagger?”
“How clever you are. But alas, no. As I was pulling up anchor, a large shark leapt from the murky depths. Showing nothing but enormous jagged white teeth, he did. I only had time to stab it once through the heart, but not before one of the smallest of teeth grazed my lip. I am a lucky man to be sure!”
Mary frowned, as she knew that the tallest tale of the morning had just been told and that she had no chance of besting it. Softly and sweetly, she merely replied, “I have been as warm as a bumblebee on a sunflower, I have.”
Bannon smiled despite reeling in pain and leaned back slightly to see his daughter’s face. “You must tell this to your toe. As it looks and feels as though it might be made of snow.”
“Nothing a few wiggles won’t fix to be sure.” Thrusting both her legs forward, she began wiggling her toes frantically.
“I believe your feet may be warm after all.” Bannon’s eyes filled with happy tears as he basked in the warmth of his young daughter’s spirit. “Now shall we see what good fortune has brought us?”
He motioned towards the hearth and the child spotted the few bits of food and threw up her arms and clapped her hands together.
“A feast it shall be!” Slipping off the bed, she pulled on a brown, leather pair of boots, two sizes too big.
Bannon pulled a peat brick out of the sack. “A sack full of briquettes for my lady.”
“What a thoughtful gift sir.” The small child curtsied and then giggled with delight.
Soon, a small fire burned bright and Bannon’s pant pocket bounty of vegetables and pork fat was chopped and placed in a pot of water over the fire. Both father and daughter sat anxiously as they waited for an hour for the stew to cook thoroughly. This would be their first meal in several days, and the first fat or meat that the two had eaten in over a month’s time.
Upon finishing the stew, Bannon felt a warm wave cover him like a thick blanket. For a moment, it took all his strength just to hold his head upright upon his tired shoulders. With his limbs feeling even heavier now from hunger and exhaustion than before his meal, he yawned deeply and expended all his might to stand once again. His head quickly swirled from nausea, while his knees buckled beneath him, forcing him to sit down once more.
“Dah, are you feeling poorly?”
“Mary, darling, I’m just a wee bit tired. I might have eaten just a bit too much to be sure.” Bannon rubbed his now bloated stomach for emphasis.
“Then off to sleep with yah, and I’ll fetch a bucket of cool water.”
“I might just take you up on that my sweet girl.” Slowly this time, Bannon crept off his stool. Remaining crouched, he shuffled onto the bed. “Remember now to let the bucket drop freely. Just in case there is ice. Then wind it up slowly.”
“I will Dah. As quiet as a mouse I will be,” Mary replied, as she gingerly closed the door behind her. Bucket in hand, she vanished into a gray fog.
For the first time in many weeks, Mary didn’t feel cold or sad. Her steps felt light. She felt renewed with energy as the simple bowl of hope fed her soul and warmed her slender, stunted body. With her father’s new work at the dock, she had hope. Hope that they would be fed regularly, that they would survive until their farm recovered and the potato crop grew once more.
It was midday when Mary’s eyelids began to droop heavily. Nothing else needed to be done inside or out, so she remained quietly content until the last flicker of flame from the hearth went out. But rather than tossing in another peat brick to revive it, Mary thought better not to waste the precious fuel.
With his back toward her, Bannon slept soundly, making only the slightest of sound. Yet, the small girl could stand vigil over her sleeping father no more, as she herself yearned for sleep. Silently, she climbed upon a sliver of the small mattress and fell instantly asleep, back to back alongside her father.
It was nearly midnight when Mary awoke, confused as to what time of day it was. In the darkness, she quickly sat up. She reached back and gently laid her hand onto her father’s lifeless body. “Dah, Dah,” she whispered. But, within a blink of an eye, she knew. Something no child should ever know. Yet, she had experienced it before—the lifelessness of a still body, cool and heavy. She could only look directly at her hand upon her father’s back, and she too seemed to be frozen in death’s grip. Keeping her hand, with fingers spread wide apart, upon Bannon, a deep foreboding enveloped her.
An hour had nearly passed before Mary found the only slice of strength she had remaining. First, using the collar of her mother’s tattered coat to wipe away a flood of tears, she then pulled her father’s body back and looked upon his still face. She was relieved to see that his eyes, not like her mothers, were closed. “Dah, sleep now. No need to suffer any longer… no need. Your punishment is over. Surely, it is. Please tell Mama I am well. On the wrong side of heaven, I am. Yet, I shall be good. I promise. I shall be strong.”
It was early morning the next day when Mary felt a warm hand tug softly on her shoulder.
“Mary, come with me now.”
Mary woke to see her cousin, Kristian, standing over her. Next to the door stood her Uncle Andrew.
“Please, Mary, just let go.” Kristian knelt and lifted Mary’s hand off her father’s back. He then slid his arms underneath her and lifted her away.
“Take her now son,” Andrew Sullivan said solemnly. “Reverend Kelley will take fine care of her, he will.”
“But Dah. She’s our blood?” Kristian rebuked.
“Would you take the last bite of food out of your sister’s or your brother’s mouth to feed this child? Tell me son, for what other choice do we have?”
Mary wrapped her tiny arms around Kristian’s neck tighter, as the tall, slender, young man’s arms seemed to loosen their hold on her as he considered his father’s question. Without saying another word, he carried Mary out the door into another cold winter’s day.
Carried for nearly 20 minutes, Mary resisted when Kristian sat her down on top of a stone wall at a fork in the road; knowing one way led to Gaillimh and the other to her uncle’s home.
“Mary?” Mary looked up as Kristian sat down next to her. The boy’s face was streaked with tears and it was clear that he knew what he must do.
“It is fine, Kristian,” Mary said clearly.
“You are strong for a little person, Cousin. Strong like your dah. He was always so kind. I will miss him.”
“I will as well.” Mary turned her face away from Kristian and toward the path for which they had come. “He was a good Dah.”
“He was indeed.”
“The ground is frozen still but you will make sure that he is placed next to my Mama. Promise me.”
“You have my promise.”
“I must be going then,” Mary slid off the wall and began walking away.
“Mary, wait!” Kristian stood then followed her. “Let me walk you the rest of the way. I’d carry you but my arms have lost their strength.”
Mary stopped and turned one last time. “No need. You must save your strength to keep your promise.” Without as much as taking another breath, the small child turned once again.
“The potatoes will grow this year! Big potatoes! Enough for everyone! As soon as they do, I will come for you! I will! Be a good girl Mary! Be good!” Kristian crouched and pulled off his hat, covering his face with it, and sobbed.
Mary continued towards Gaillimh with a heavy heart. As much as she didn’t wish to go to the orphanage for the poor, her fate had been sealed. Confused and afraid, she felt lost though she knew the route well. She had walked past it just weeks prior with her father. Mary, if anything should happen to me, you should come to this place. They will care for you well enough. Her father’s words had replayed time and time again. And now, no matter how deeply she wished that he had never spoke them, she couldn’t deny that he had been preparing her for what was to come.
Within an hour she was standing outside of the orphanage. I’m just passing by… yes, my dah is with me … I’m to stay here, here … yes, I’m here to stay … no? Confusion overcame her as she struggled to think clearly. Fearful of the future, she began to tremble uncontrollably. Her knees were becoming too weak to hold her and, though she was breathing quickly, she was unable to catch her breath.
“Be strong!” she muttered firmly to herself. She peered through the large iron entry gate wearily and could see no one within the small courtyard beyond. Realizing that she might be too small to reach the latch, she stretched her arm into the air while standing on her toes. A bead of sweat rolled down her cheek and her arm felt as if it were made of lead.
Realizing that she would have to come up with another plan, she pulled up the collar of her mother’s coat and wiped the perspiration from her face. Or were these tears? she wondered. Stop crying! Her vision began to blur, so she grabbed onto the gate to steady herself.
From seemingly nowhere a gentle voice asked, “Can I help you lass?”
Mary turned to see a beautiful blonde woman, wearing a blue dress, trimmed in white lace.
“Speechless, are we now?” the woman said with an angelic smile.
“Mama?” was all that came out of Mary’s mouth before she crumpled, lifelessly, onto the ground.
Katherine Kelley knelt beside the small girl, not paying any mind to her oversized tattered wool coat, soiled dress, or oversized leather boots. She stroked the girl’s red hair and then pulled a white handkerchief from her pocket to wipe the child’s tear-stained face.
A slender man quickly lifted Mary up into his arms. “Katherine, come on, we’ll be late. We only have an hour before we sail.”
Katherine hesitated for just a moment as she looked back at the town, the orphanage and road beyond.
“Please, for God’s sake. This poor emp—she can’t weigh more than a feather. Katherine, we must go now!” Reverend Kelley exclaimed.
The reverend was correct. Mary weighed no more than flesh on bone. Yet, he and his wife had been warned by the captain before leaving the ship the night before. In no uncertain terms, they had been told not to bring back a single additional passenger. But Katherine would have none of it. She simply couldn’t leave the orphanage, even if it was merely the body of one child that remained.
Reverend Kelley carried Mary’s lifeless body for two blocks through the streets without notice. As the couple boarded the large schooner, a young sailor rushed up. “Ahoy, Reverend and Mrs. Kelley.” He greeted them cheerfully as he readily relieved them of their burden. Taking Mary into his arms he hesitated, “Another child this is? Does the Captain know sir?”
Katherine confidently replied, “Take the child to our cabin sir. If the Captain has any complaint, the child can take my place and I will gladly stay behind.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the sailor replied. He then dutifully carried Mary below deck.
“Let’s not be late for Christmas dinner,” Katherine said. She then headed toward the Captain’s quarters with the reverend smiling in tow.
Captain Dallas was waiting just inside his quarters with two junior officers. “Good afternoon Reverend, and Mrs. Kelley. I am hoping you found some joy during your leave, though yesterday’s festivities were meager at best.”
Katherine curtsied. “A very Merry Christmas to you. I do hope your Christmas Eve celebration was merry as well, Captain.”
The Captain’s Christmas meal was plentiful, and the Kelley’s delighted in eating roast duck and crisp salted potatoes.
“Where did you find potatoes, sir? The entire crop lies in rot in the fields.” Reverend Kelley inquired.
“Oh yes, this is true, but we always carry a few sacks onboard Reverend. We bring our own, you see. Grown by angels, you can be sure.”
“Indeed, as I have witnessed true suffering here in Ireland. Potatoes covered in rot. No edibles to be found.”
“I am only disappointed that we will not be taking any more passengers with us on the journey ahead.” Katherine added.
“It’s a miserable blight indeed,” Captain Dallas agreed.
“Yes, indeed.” Katherine then spoke softly, “I only wish there were something we could do to help these poor souls. To help them more on their way to a better place or to feed them, perhaps?”
The two junior officers nodded in agreement, while the reverend sat nervously twisting his cufflinks, anticipating his wife’s next words.
“We all have our own path to God. I am sure the others will find their way,” the Captain interjected before taking his first bite of mincemeat pie and closing his eyes while he chewed it. A slight murmur of satisfaction escaped his lips, followed by one word, “Yes.” For a wink’s time, it appeared that the Captain was somewhat luminous, as the unexpected sound of fluttering wings was heard throughout the room, followed by a single white feather which floated up behind the captain’s chair and up into the air; finally landing on the table in front of the ship’s first mate.
The Captain then swallowed, opened his eyes, and abruptly cleared his throat, as if he had awakened from a restful sleep. “Yes… yes, indeed. If there were anything, anything at all, but there are thousands dying each day and I regret that what little food we have on board is necessary to see us through our voyage. We did, however, take in a fair number of passengers, like yourselves. Regretfully, we do not have any more room.”
Ignoring the sudden and unexpected appearance of a feather, Katherine refused to be distracted from her purpose, “Does this mean we cannot take even children?” Katherine inquired.
“Yes, sadly so.” The Captain scoffed. “We are only one ship, you see, and we are simply overflowing.”
Katherine, refusing to be deterred, stilled herself, “Captain, my husband and I have spent our lives on earth helping the Irish people and we too are at a loss.” She spilled her words quickly, fearing that a better moment would not present itself. “Yet, a small Irish child crossed our path this morning. A child without even the will to rise. Being one of God’s children, we simply could not stand by and witness it, and certainly could not turn a blind eye.” Katherine dabbed at an imaginary tear from the corner of her eye, though anyone witnessing her performance would have sworn they had seen it.
“So, did you? Did you take action to assist the child?” the Captain asked eagerly, captivated by Katherine’s tale.
“Yes, we did. As Christians, we had no choice. I fear though that it may not have been….”
“Authorized—I see. I am certain that anything you saw fit to do was necessary and no less than one could expect under these dire circumstances, Mrs. Kelley. After all, we must do what we can to help our fellow man. Do you agree, Reverend?”
Reverend Kelley nodded quickly and uncomfortably.
“Well-spoken Captain,” Katherine continued. “That is the very reason that the Reverend and I have taken the poor child in.”
“Taken the child in? Mrs. Kelley?”
For a moment, Katherine seemed to struggle for the right words.
“By taking in, do you mean taking the child aboard this ship?” Captain Dallas asked with a pained expression.
“Yes,” Reverend Kelley replied plainly.
“The child is inside our cabin, Captain. And one need not worry. I will give up my passage for her’s.” Katherine continued. “She is but a small child that will merely take in not much more than the broth from bone. Being on a Christian ship, I can think of no other than the word of Jeremiah 30:17-But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds, ‘declares the Lord.”
The Captain, bemused by Katherine’s cleverness, stifled a laugh, “Indeed, Mrs. Kelley, as the Lord has restored yours and everyone’s on this ship. I believe the brave and clever young child’s name is Mary. If I am correct. She is as strong in faith as her father and mother. You see, they are no strangers to this crew.”
“I can’t be sure, Captain. I have not been afforded the opportunity to speak to her.” Katherine replied, now confused.
“No need to give up your passage my good lady. In fact, you and the reverend have been upgraded to first class. It wasn’t our intention to deceive you, but we all hoped that the child would make it aboard. It was a test you see, and who better to send to fetch her, to ensure that she arrived on-time than you and the Reverend.”
“Blessed you are Captain,” the reverend said with a smile. “Now, we understand the origin of the feather and why and how we all came to be here on this fine vessel. Should we expect more tests in the future?”
The Captain stood, followed by his officers, “None after we leave this earth. Fine meal, Chauncy!”
Chauncy, a scrawny sailor who had watched the entire conversation transpire from his seat in the corner of the cabin, nodded as a rush of feathers unfurled, sprouting from his back, and slicing his shirt into shreds onto the floor. “Thank you, Sir.”
“Let us cast off then. I’d like to clear the horizon well before the sun sets!”
Reverend Kelley then let out a long calming breath and was finally able to enjoy his dessert.
For the first time in a long while, Katherine Kelley was at peace.
Reverend Kelley and Katherine stepped out onto the deck and they were greeted by a much healthier version of Mary. Next to Mary was her father Bannon, her mother and brother.
A few sailors have attested to witnessing the final departure of the Fiery Cross, and all swear that it occurred on Christmas Day, 1856. Though many others have concluded that this cannot be true because the ship was reported lost at sea many years earlier.