The ship heaves violently, knocking Joe off balance. His head thunks the post like a pitched apple but his cursing is lost in a clap of thunder. Rain hammers the decks above our heads and the constant creak of timbers kicks up to a screech as the ship heaves and groans. Brigid and her little friend Alice play under the open hatch, catching the raindrops on their tongues.
“Brigid, pet, come away from there before you catch a chill,” Mrs. Ryan calls.
“We’ll get her,” Joe offers, and I follow him over the berth boards and up a third of the hold to the stairs. The Erin dips and lurches to the left forcing me to grab the table to keep my balance. Light from the swinging lantern above it tumbles the shadows making my head dizzy.
The ship has never rocked so much. The way she whines in protest as her timbers bend and twist makes me think the next creak will surely end with a snap. A crack in her hull would be the end of her, would be the end of us all.
She tips violently to the right sending seawater through the hatch into the hold, as though the sailors were tossing it down by the bucket. Brigid and Alice scream caught in the sudden downpour.
“Douse them lanterns!” a sailor calls down the hatch.
Reaching Brigid I pick her up. She’s soaked to the skin and shivering. Joe gets Alice as passengers reluctantly snuff the lanterns’ light.
“I’m afraid of the dark,” Brigid cries, her arms about my neck as the hold’s black swallows us. A dim shaft of light comes down the hatch, the last glimmer in the hold, and I head for it. With Brigid in my arms, I grab the rope handrail for balance and yell up at the shadow of the sailor. “You can’t leave us like this, in darkness!”
His face shows in a flash of lightning.
“Mick? Mick is that you?” I call. Brigid’s arms tighten in the thunder’s boom. “Can’t we keep a small candle burning? You don’t have to tell.”
“No, Kit. A fire in the hold would kill us all. ‘Tis the Captain’s orders. I’m sorry.” He lifts the hatch door.
“You’re not closing that on us too?” Joe yells from beside me. “You’re not leaving us in total darkness!”
Mick hesitates. “Captain’s orders,” he answers. “I’m sorry.”
Joe scurries up the steps to stop him.
“Mick, you can’t!” I yell. “No, don’t! We--”
The hatch door slams, cutting off all light and words.
In the blackness I hear Joe pound the hatch. “It’s locked! He’s locked us in!”
Curse you, Mick, you thunderin’ eejit. I’ll kill you, I will.
How could you do this to us?
I stand frozen, blinded by darkness and fear as the ship groans and heaves hard to the left.
“The ship is sinking,” a man screams, “and we’re trapped in it!”
“Christ Almighty,” a woman wails. “We’re going to die in here!”
Panic spreads through the black hold like a thatch on fire. In the total darkness people scream and shove, desperate with blind terror as our world tilts.
Brigid’s arms cinch in another notch around my neck making it even harder for me to breathe. Her heart flutters like a bird trapped in her bony chest. Or maybe ‘tis my own heart racing. “I’ve got you, Brigid,” I say, squeezing her back. “I’ve got you.”
“Joe? Where are you? Joe!” I call in the direction of the hatch, my voice drowned in the mob. The ship pitches forward and drops, rolling hard to the left side, slamming me back against the hull. Trunks, kettles, cudgels, chamber pots, anything and everything not tied down flies about the hold.
“My leg!” someone cries near me. “Jaysus, I think it’s broken! God help me!”
Women wail. Children scream. All two hundred feet of the hold is utter chaos in the terrifying dark.
“What do we do? What do we do?” Brigid asks. Everything in my body tells me to run, run away, get out. A half-crazed voice wants me to scratch at the hull, to dig free from this watery coffin. I take a deep breath.
“Grab hold of this post!” I finally say, hugging it and getting Brigid to do the same on the other side. We clutch each others’ arms around the beam. “It’ll save us from getting thrashed about.”
“And what if the boat sinks?” Brigid asks. “What if – ”
A clang sounds on the other side of the pole and Brigid’s grip loosens.
“Brigid?” I shake her slack arms. “Brigid! Answer me!”
But my cries go unanswered, like hundreds more in the darkness.