Kathy hated cleaning, and she especially hated having been ‘nominated’ to help clean out her grandfather’s flat. Grandad MacKenna had always been Kathy’s favorite relative. He’d always indulged her fancies, encouraged her when she’d felt like a failure, and supported her when the rest of the family had shunned her after she’d ‘come out’. His sudden death had hit her hard, and standing here, in the middle of his possessions, brought the profound sadness she’d felt back with a vengeance.
“Damn you, you old fart, why did you have to go and die?” Kathy muttered as she drew the back of her hand across her eyes to wipe the tears she’d been fighting all morning. This had been grandad’s unofficial library cum study. The room’s walls were lined with shelves, but they were all covered, and the excess books, papers and notes lay scattered over the tables, chairs and floor. The one chair that wasn’t buried sat beside the one reading light in the room, an ancient brass thing with a shade that looked as though a stiff breeze would blow it to pieces. She had many memories of him sitting there, reading some book or clipping, and the warm, broad smile that would always spread across his face whenever he saw her. The small table that set beside it was equally clean, having only one book on it: a family Bible her grandfather had always kept close at hand. Of all the things she knew the family would want saved, Kathy knew this beat-up old book would be the first priority. She picked it up slowly, remembering the feel of it’s worn cover from all the times she’d sat in her grandfather’s lap demonstrating her latest advancement in reading. She had never presumed to open it herself, merely reading the passage or page her elder had selected. She turned it spin-down in her hand, relaxed her grip on it, and let the old book open where it would. Her father had that habit, a way, he once told her, of finding out what God wanted you to know or pay attention to. Now, rather than fall open to a passage, the book opened to reveal an envelope.
Kathy drew it out, turned the envelope over, and in her grandfather’s firm handwriting was a simple note: “How the MacKenna Family came to Glasgow”. Now intrigued, Kathy turned the envelope over again and looked at the flap. It was unsealed, so she laid the Bible down and opened it. Inside was a sealed plastic bag, and within it was a single sheet of folded paper covered in what looked like a child’s blocky printing. Kathy had to know what the paper said, so she opened the bag and drew it out. The page was of rough, obviously cheap paper, and from the way the ink on it had begun to fade, she guessed it must be extremely old. Unfolding it carefully, she found herself staring at a letter, and as she read it, one that she had trouble continuing to read. The writer must have had only a limited education, for not only was the text printed, it was riddled with misspelled words that she struggled to translate. Slowly, she worked her way through it, and found a tale of sorrow that made her own seem insignificant.
14 September, 1845
Grosse Isle, Canada
My Dear brother Kevin,
I pray to God that this letter find you still alive, and still in Ireland, for if it does, I must tell you, do NOT follow me across the Atlantic. For all the misery now in Ireland, for all the suffering and death, it is better to endure the hardships there than to attempt the voyage I have just survived.
You will remember, when last we met, how sickly our Kevin was. Through the help of kind strangers, he had shown signs of improving before we boarded the “Fair Cathline” in Galway harbor, but that did not last. Within a day of our departure, a storm overtook the ship, and all the passengers were forced to remain below in the hold. There, we learned that the “Fair Cathline” was anything but.
Even on the first day of our confinement, the hold where we were forced to reside was a nose-some place, and each passing day made those conditions worse. Water seemed to constantly leak, often jet, into the hold both through the hull around us and deck above us. The necessary functions cared not for the weather, or our confinement, so the waste of eighty confined souls mixed with the water, forming a tide of filth that swept and heaved with every motion of the ship. It was in these conditions, in a place no honest farmer would confine a swine, that Kevin passed. He died in the night, and when I awoke, he was already stiff and cold. He was a brave lad, complaining not once during the five days he lived in that hellish place, and passed as quietly. The crew, in response to our calls, opened the hold and offered help, but it was to no avail. I was on deck with Martha as the captain hurriedly read the words and Kevin was put over the side, then we were bundled below. Would that Kevin were the last, but that was not to be the case.
Within a day, three more passengers were sick, and before five days had passed, they were dead, and others were following their path. Death became so common that the crew simply came for bodies, and heaved over the side without even the hurried rites Kevin had enjoyed. Within a week, both our twin daughters, Moyra and Sarah, began to show signs of the sickness that was claiming our fellow passengers. Martha and I both labored to tend to them, but it was for naught. They passed from this world within hours of each other, just as they had entered it.
Perhaps it was seeing all her children die that broke Martha. She never demonstrated any of the signs of sickness the others exhibited, which makes me wonder if when she died, it was of grief. The why is unimportant, only the fact that she passed from this life three days after our last child was committed to the deep.
Thus I was alone now, my family dead and gone into the trackless wastes of the sea, leaving me not even a grave for me to pay my respects at. I fear, Kevin, that I gave up on life, and I have confessed to the priest here that I wished, no, I prayed for death. But for whatever reason, God did not chose to take me as he did my family. I remember little of the time after Martha’s passing. I remember praying over her body with the few passengers still strong enough to attend. I also remember the sailors coming for her, and my fervent request to them that they would take me too, but after that, my memory is blank. Mr. O’Donnell, a good man of Donegal descent and one of my fellow survivors, tells me I raved madly for several days after Martha’s death. He also tells me that one of the crew took pity on me, and perhaps from that, that the crew in general took pity on the few survivors, for they were let out of the hold and given food from the crew’s table. I was taken into the crew’s quarters and tied into a hammock. There I was fed broth by Mr. O’Donnell and the crewman who interceded on my behalf for several days until I quieted and began my recovery. It is that tight confine that is my next memory, of the ropes binding me into a swaying, swinging piece of quiet and tranquility.
The crew sighted land within a day of my faculties returning, and while the winds and storms had hampered our crossing, they now bore us swiftly up a river that seemed almost as calm as the Corrib passing through a broad meadow. So it is that I came to this place.
The English (for there are no Irish here except fellow survivors of the Atlantic) tell us that Grosse Isle is a way station, one we will be released from soon. I fear the only release for many of us will be the release of death. There is food here, and housing after a fashion, but both are in far too short supply, and many who had endured the terrible crossing have already perished on this godforsaken piece of Canada. The “Fair Cathline” landed but 23 souls out of the eighty that had left Ireland in her filthy hold, and already, five of those have been buried in the cold soil of this isle. Mr O’Donnell, the man who helped me survive, has taken ill and the doctors here are not sure he will live. He has already confessed to the priest here, and has taken the Last Rites. I do what I can for him, in debt for his efforts to save me, but he has made me promise him that I will write his family and tell them of his passing should it occur. I pray God it will not, for I have seen enough of death to last me until my own time comes.
Now you see why I write you, my dear brother. I do not know how things are in Ireland, not with so much sailing time between here and there, but I cannot imagine that things are worse than what I have endured. If they are so terrible that you must leave, please, please, me beloved brother, go to England, or even Scotland. But I pray you do not follow my path, for I fear it will bring you nothing but the misery.
I must close now, for the priest tells me Mr. O’Donnell has passed, and I promised to see him buried properly.
May God keep you and your family, and may God one day allow us to meet again, if not on this Earth, then in Heaven. Until that meeting, know you have my love and affection.
Your loving brother,
Kathy slowly laid the letter down, remembering something her grandfather had once told her. After she’d announced that she was a lesbian, Kathy had come to the one person who’d always supported her. While everyone else had shunned her, Grandfather MacKenna had listened to her tale of woe, then given her a hug before telling her “Katherine (he was the only person she allowed to call her that), you are a MacKenna, and we’re made of tougher stuff than the average person. We have survived far worse than this, and I know you will too as long as you never give up.”
Kathy looked towards the ceiling, knowing beyond it lay the sky. “Grandfather, I promise: I won’t give up. I’ll make you, all the MacKennas, proud to have me as part of the family.”