This piece won 2nd place in the September Flash Fiction contest in LinkedIn’s Aspiring Writers group, with the paramenters: Historical Fiction, theme: Coming to America, Focus: Uncle Ed’s Store, word limit: 715.
Colin huddled into the smallest ball possible and snuffled back tears as he watched the sailors dump his cousin Brian overboard. Colin didn’t risk a peek over the railing; he didn’t want to see if sharks were still following the ship. A coffin ship, Uncle called it.
The first omen came one week out of Liverpool, when passengers did not get the promised weekly seven pounds of food. Next the daily water ration was cut from three quarts to one. Uncle Eamonn had pulled out his strange haversack, which was a wooden cabinet with doors and drawers and bunches of sacks hooked to the sides. He said that Eamonn was his Irish name, but in America he would be called Edward, Ed for short. The haversack, he dubbed “Uncle Ed’s store”. Opening a small drawer, he pulled out smooth pebbles for the two boys to hold in their mouths against thirst. “I soaked these fine pebbles in the clearest, purest river in all Ireland,” he declared, “feel the coolness and let it soak into your mouths.” Somehow that did make them less thirsty, between the pints that were doled out four times a day.
Hordes of Irish were emigrating, fleeing the Great Hunger. Colin remembered the bridge of tears where he bid farewell to his mum. Gram had gone into one of her spells and had grabbed Colin’s arm and crooned:
“From Kerry ye come, but Cork ye must be
to voyage with Eamonn across the blue sea
in gets ye out, and out gets ye in
if ye but stay down for a full count of ten”
Colin did come from County Kerry, but the rest made no sense to him. Uncle shook his head, warning Colin not to question the prophecy, so Colin put it out of his mind.
Colin’s own sister Eilis had emigrated first, her passage paid by an indentured contract as a domestic. She had saved up to send Colin’s fare. But crossing conditions had worsened in spite of the 1842 Passenger Act. Colin shared his berth (a wooden box six feet long and a scant eighteen inches wide) with Uncle and Brian, each taking eight hours to rest. At least they had an upper berth, so they didn’t have to suffer noxious drippings from above.
Uncle Ed had encouraged the boys to sneak up on deck as much as possible, for the fresh air. Whenever allowed, he sluiced them down with buckets of cold seawater, especially after other passengers started dying of the fever. When the boys were groaning from hunger, Ed dug in the “store” and found stringy pieces of leather that he bade them chew. He must have earlier soaked the leather in some kind of broth, because a pleasant flavor was released, and chewing it calmed their stomachs.
But there was nothing in Uncle Ed’s store to help when Brian got the fever. Colin was ordered away, and found a hidden spot on deck where he huddled and cried. He was still hidden when the cook and carpenter came up to get some fresh air.
“We’re sure to be quarantined,” the cook said, “just like the last run.”
“Aye,” agreed the carpenter, ” we’ll probably get loose after a few days, but those poor buggers below decks will be penned up for weeks.”
“Good thing we’re paid in advance, not on delivery!” the cook said, “won’t many of this bunch make it, especially the women and children.”
Colin waited till they were gone, then scurried to tell Uncle. The grim look on Ed’s face almost scared Colin. “Can ye swim boy?” he asked.
“Aye,” Colin answered, “like a right cork.”
“A cork?” his uncle began, “now I understand your Gram’s warning. Listen carefully.” Uncle described a bold plan and swore Colin to obey it exactly.
When they neared port, Colin was crouched in hiding, watching for the closest point of land. Ed shouted “In gets ye out”, and Colin dove over the side, swimming underwater “for a full count of ten” .
Finally dry, after hiding two days and nights, Colin snuck to the docks. Food was everywhere, more than he’d ever seen. Someone tossed him an apple, “Eat, boy!” He looked up to see Eamonn, Uncle Ed, smiling, “Out gets ye in! Welcome to America!”