A RUSH OF WHITE WINGS excerpt
The old man drew his chair near the hearth and settled in to smoke his pipe. As the fire crackled and the flames danced, the door to the stone cottage swung open, and a young boy pattered across the room to climb onto the man’s lap and curl into his arms. They stayed that way for minutes, the old man smoking, the child waiting, their lives bound not by blood, but by love.
In a quiet voice still edged with the strength of years long past, the old man told the boy of the Tuatha de Danaan, the Irish Gods. How Oengus Og, the God of Love, gave kisses so sweet they turned into singing birds. How Oengus dreamt, night after night, of a beautiful
woman with dark eyes and light hair, and so smitten was he that he searched three years to find her. How he came to learn that her name was Caer and she was the daughter of a faerie king living in a castle beside a lake.
But when Oengus went to declare his love, he found not a maiden but a swan. For every other November on the feast of Samhain, when the veil between worlds was thinnest, Caer transformed into a swan for a full year. So Oengus became a swan to be with her. And they rose into the sky with a rush of white wings, singing a song so beautiful that they became human again and lived a long life together filled with great joy.
Cohasset, Massachusetts – October 7, 1849
The first nor’easter of the season ushered in the dawn shrieking of death. Outside Cohasset Harbor, the brig St. John floundered in the raging storm. A savage wind and monstrous
waves battered the ship as her crew fought to keep from running aground on Grampus Ledge, a rocky shelf just a mile offshore.
Sean Deacey joined the townspeople standing along the water’s edge, watching in silent horror. He tightened his collar against the lashing wind and ducked his head as towering breakers burst open upon the rock-lined shore and drenched the gathered crowd with droplets. A chilling cold crept in with the wet, and still the people stayed, lined like sentries along the shore as though their very presence might prevent yet another
A trickle of water traced a path down Sean’s back like a single icy claw. He shivered. “That’s an Irish flag on the stern,” he observed to no one and everyone. His words swirled unheard in the wind and disappeared into the thundering sea.
The old man beside him pulled his brows together in question.
“An Irish flag on the stern,” Sean said more loudly.
“Refugees from the famine they’re saying,” the old man shouted.
“Gone from one hell to another,” someone said from behind him.
The words sank into Sean’s heart like a chill settles in the lungs. How had it come to be that even within sight of America’s shore the Irish were still fighting for their lives?
“My father went to Whitehead to launch the lifeboats.” A young girl stepped close to the water and peered southward. “If God be with us, perhaps we won’t be needing them.”
Sean’s gaze skipped over the raging sea to a spider-like metal structure on nearby Minot’s Ledge, a lighthouse not yet finished. He’d not give his doubts voice, but if God had been
with them, this storm would have waited until the lighthouse was lit.
An anguished cry went up along the shore. Sean jerked his attention back to the brig just as its sails began to shred. He exhaled softly. ’Twould not be long before the captain lost any
ability to steer his vessel.
Suddenly, as if an answer to prayers, the ship jolted to a halt and steadied on the chaotic sea.
“They’ve dropped the anchors,” the old man said.
Sean wiped the spray off his face with a gloved hand. “How deep is it there? Will they hold?”
The answer came from someone else, shouted as if intended to reach all the way to the Almighty’s ears: “If God be with us.”
The wind let out a shriek, like the banshee come to warn of impending death.
“Or luck,” another added. “If luck be with us.”
So there it was. God or luck. The lives of the Irish were, once again, dependent upon forces beyond their control.
Sean bent his head against the wind. Not for him. Nay. It would not be his destiny if he had a word to say of it.
Mountainous waves assaulted the brig, lifted it so high a gasp shot through the crowd. The anchors would never hold in seas like this.
Each new surge of water pushed the brig closer to the ledge. High about the deck, the tattered remains of the sails whipped like frenzied spirits around the spars. Sean’s hands curled into fists. “Drop the masts,” he muttered. “Now. Drop the masts.”
As if his words had swept across the water, the crew cut loose both spars and jettisoned them into the sea. Almost instantly, the anchors caught once again. And held.
The ship steadied. A grateful cry went up along the shore, relief that disaster had been averted.
And then someone pointed across the ocean, at a mountain of water curling toward them. Sean’s breath hitched. He silently begged the monstrous wave to break along some other
shoreline. Luck, just a wee bit of luck was what they needed now.
But it was too much to ask, he knew that. For luck had deserted the Irish three years ago when the potato crop first failed and famine had ushered endless death onto Ireland’s
The enormous wave picked up the floundering brig, tore her anchors from the seabed and threw her onto the ledge. The ship teetered on the jagged rock before another wave lifted her high and smashed her against the outcropping again. And again. And again. Until finally her back broke and water rushed into her belly to claim the passengers below deck. Within seconds, the boiling sea was peppered with people and baggage and the bodies of those who had already drowned.
Sean looked to the lifeboat inching up the coast, appearing at the top of each crest, then disappearing into each trough, its crew hunched over the oars as they fought to gain ground against the fierce wind and waves. His jaw clenched. They would never make it in time.
Several men tried to launch dories into the surf to attempt a rescue but the breakers were too powerful and drove them back to land. Abandoning the effort, they climbed onto the rocks along the shore in a desperate attempt to pluck survivors from the churning sea. It was a nearly impossible task; each time a wave threw someone against the rocks, the backwash instantly sucked them out to deeper water.
Sean joined the effort anyway.
Squinting into the heavy spray, he crept across the drenched rocks to a flat outcropping and dropped to hands and knees. He swept a dispirited gaze over the waves churning with bodies, the living jumbled among the dead, all of them beyond his reach.
Over the next half hour, rescuers managed to wrest a few people from the ocean, but only one still lived—a woman who had clung to a broken plank to keep her afloat. Though she’d been injured and unconscious when brought ashore, her fingers had to be pried loose from the piece of wood that had saved her life.
Sean spotted a man tumbling toward him on a frothing wave, arms wrapped around a leather satchel, eyes and mouth squeezed shut against the cascade of water. Slanting forward, he stretched out an arm, the tips of his fingers only inches from the other’s sleeve. “Give me your hand,” he shouted, but his words disintegrated in the howling wind. “Your hand,” he bellowed.
The sea swept the man out of reach and hurled him against a nearby rock. His eyes shot open, his terrified gaze meeting Sean’s for a heartbeat before the receding surf staked its claim and dragged him like prey, back to deep water. Wave crashed against fierce wave, a battle conjoined, but before Sean could even alment his failure, the ocean was propelling the man toward shore again.
He eyed the wave, gauging where it might deliver its abducted passenger, then slid across the outcropping to position himself, scrubbed a hand over his eyes to clear his vision, and
waited, heart pounding, waited, patience straining, waited until—
Sean shot out an arm, seized the man’s collar in a tight fist and rolled to one side, leveraging his body to drag the man up and onto the flat stone before the sea could prevail again.
He scrambled to his knees, panting. The man lay on his back, head lolling to one side, arms clamped around the satchel. Blood ran from a deep gash down the side of his face; his
battered cheeks were already bruising. The man turned to him, his mouth curving upward, the corners of his eyes crinkling as his smile reached his eyes. Then his lids slid shut and he
exhaled his last.
Sean let out a bitter sigh. One more dead to the sea. One more Irishman who shouldn’t have died. If he had only abandoned his satchel and reached out a hand, Sean could have
pulled him to safety before he received such grievous injuries.
He’d sacrificed his life to save a worn bag full of...what? Sean tugged off his gloves and opened the satchel, stared down at the clothing inside as anger twisted his gut. He’d died to save these wretched belongings?
As if determined to prove himself wrong, he thrust a hand into the bag, drew out a threadbare shirt and then a scarf. Spray drenched him and he brushed a sleeve across his face as he pulled back another piece of clothing...
And saw two tiny blue eyes awash in tears come into view.
His mind staggered. A babe? A wee babe? How was this possible? He tugged the fabric lower and uncovered a small mouth, open and squalling, though not a sound could be heard above the thundering wind and sea.
His throat constricted. “Mother of God,” he whispered,casting a quick, sorrowed glance upon the man who had given his life not for belongings, but for his child.
With shaking hands, Sean lifted the baby out of the satchel, cradled him against his chest and hunched his back to the wind. “’Twill be all right,” he murmured into the child’s ear, though he knew the words were a lie. “You’re safe. You’ll be all right now.”
An ache started in his chest, the pain sharp like the puncture of a blade. Old scars, scarcely strong enough to hold his heart together, began to give way, then ripped wide open beneath the weight of a memory; his wife and newborn twin sons had died in Ireland.
A sob wrenched loose from deep in his throat and he dropped his chin to his chest. One way or another, the famine would make orphans of them all.
By nightfall, the ocean had claimed the lives of more than a hundred Irish. Only twenty-one people survived. The captain. Seven crewmembers. And thirteen Irish: eight women, four
men, and a baby boy.
Days later, the sea was still pummeling the rocky shore, only sparingly relinquishing its battered dead. Grieving families arrived on the train from Boston to identify deceased family and friends and lay them to rest. Over the next weeks, as the small fishing town tried to move past the tragedy, word gently filtered through Cohasset: no one had claimed the baby.
THE SUN ROSE through filigree clouds and bathed the town in a soft light. For an instant, Sean could almost hear his sister Kathleen going on about faerie morns in Ireland, but he shoved away the thought as quickly as it arose. It was easier to keep his mind empty than to remember.
Weary after endless hours of work with little time off, he trudged down the empty street toward the railroad tracks north of Cohasset. He knew he should be grateful that a cow had been hit by the train, and so the tracks were in need of repair and he had work—and income. And he was. But after more than two years in America, laboring almost without end, he was no closer to getting the only thing he wanted—land of his own—than
he’d been the day he arrived.
Ahead up the street he spotted the town’s only doctor, white head bowed and footsteps slow as though more than age weighed him down this early morn. Sean observed him from a distance and let the thought that had been lingering for days at the back of his mind slide to the fore. Perhaps ’twas a faerie morn after all, for Doctor Foster was one of only a few people who might be able to tell him if the idea he’d been pondering had even a bit of merit.
He hastened his steps to catch up. “A lovely morning,” he said as he reached the other’s side.
“Is it?” The doctor threw a distracted glance upward. “I’m having trouble finding beauty in a sky that continues to bring so much death to our shoreline.”
Sean winced. None who had been present that day had escaped without haunting memories. Even now, weeks later, pieces of the ship and belongings of passengers continued to wash up along the shore. What hope had this town of moving beyond the tragedy when nature kept forcing them back to it?
No doubt the toll on Doctor Foster had been far worse than on the rest of them. He had tended all the injured, fought to save each one and yet watched most die.
Sean brought his gloved hands together as though gathering his thoughts, then stepped through the opening the man had presented. “Since ye bring up that day, I hope you’ll not be minding if I ask...I’ve been wondering about the babe, the wee lad.” His pulse sped up. “Do you know what’s to happen with
The doctor’s mouth pressed into a straight line. “Perhaps you’ve heard...we’d hoped he might have relations in Boston who would step forward. But none have. Each day that now
passes makes it less likely.” He rubbed a hand over his forehead and eyes. “Not even three months old and already he’s alone. The family fostering the boy has no interest in keeping him. We’ve begun seeking a family of his own kind to take him in.”
“You mean an Irish family?”
“We prefer that to the orphanage.”
Sean’s stomach tightened. Only a month had passed and they were already thinking of the orphanage? “Are you having any luck? There are so few Irish in Cohasset...” He didn’t need to finish his sentence for both to know what he was saying: ...and most of those families were poor, itinerant railroad workers like Sean.
“Are you looking for families in Boston, too?” he asked.
“Yes, of course. We’ve written the appropriate organizations there. The problem is, most Irish can’t support the children they already have. And the disease in those slums...” His eyes closed for a beat. “More than half of all Irish children born in Boston die before they’re six. One can hardly blame parents for not wanting another mouth to feed—or death to grieve.”
Sean struggled to form a response. He’d known conditions in the Irish ghettos were bad, but he hadn’t realized how deadly they were. “The child’s lost so much already, an orphanage may not be the—”
“Agreed. But all the children there have lost parents one way or another. Having friends with a similar background might be helpful as he grows up.” A pained expression crossed the doctor’s face, and Sean knew the man didn’t believe his own words. “If no relative comes forward, if we can’t find a family to take him before another week is out, we’ll have no choice.”
Sean’s brow creased. He’d not have expected the foster family to so quickly want the babe gone. He swallowed hard. “I might be knowing of a family.” He tried to sound casual,
offhand, but his heart was thrumming an anxious beat. “What I mean to be saying is, I’ve a sister in Boston. Kathleen. Married two years now to—” He stopped himself from revealing that Jack was an Englishman. “—to a fine man. He’s in shipping, used to be a whaling captain, now he invests in others’ voyages.” No need to mention that Jack had almost gone
bankrupt bringing a ship full of refugees from Ireland nearly three years ago, that he’d been forced to captain one last whaling voyage to pay off investors and save his own financial
situation. Those troubles were in the past.
Sean glanced at a passing carriage, waited for it to rumble past and momentarily wondered whether he was stepping too deeply into Kathleen’s life without her permission. But what
choice had he? Time was running out. He pushed caution to the side. “A nice home they have, a fine life, stability. But no children, though badly they’ll be wanting them.”
The doctor stopped and faced Sean, the rising sun hitting him full face. He blinked and put a hand to his brow to shield his eyes. “Go on.”
“My sister has not been able to carry a child to term,” Sean said in a low voice. “Lost her third this past spring. I’ll be thinking they would gladly take the babe. A blessing to them he
“You’ve spoken to them about this? They’re in agreement?”
“Not yet. I’ve not been to Boston in...a while.” He opened his palms. “But my sister has long been heartbroken over wanting a child. Not a doubt do I have that she and her husband would take him without hesitation. They would love him like their own, that I can promise ye.”
A smile opened the doctor’s face, his eyes glistened. He looked up at the sky, now brilliant blue and gold. “Tell me, Sean, have you ever seen a morning so utterly beautiful?” He put a
hand on Sean’s shoulder. “You have lifted such a burden off my mind. If no one claims the boy by the end of next week, you may take him to your sister.”