The Crimson Thread, p.1Suzanne Weyn
Once upon a time, I believe it was 1880 or thereabouts, a young princess set sail from Ireland for a faraway land. Bridget O’Malley never knew she was of royal lineage, due to the reduced circumstances into which she was born.
Foreign conquest had brought endless brutal war to the land, and the devastation of this strife, coupled with the dire poverty it left in its wake, had long ago vanquished the line of magical druidic priestesses and high kings from which Bridget had descended. Though she did not appear the part in her rags and cloddish, peat-covered boots, Bridget O’Malley was, indeed, a princess, and, on her mother’s side, a distant but direct descendent of the high king Cormac mac Airt of legend.
For anyone with eyes to see, her lineage should have been clear enough. She carried the brilliant, orange-red crown of vibrant, unruly curls that marked all the royal women of her line. She had the unmistakable crystal blue eyes and the spray of freckles across her high cheekbones.
As Queen Avriel of the Faerie Folk of Eire, I have watched these disowned royals, these noble spirits without crowns, for centuries too numerous to count. A descent in fortune may obscure royal lineage in the eyes of mankind, but not so in the realm of Faerie. Here we know that true royalty remains in the blood regardless of fortune’s deviations. And so I watch and record the royal ones, despite the fluctuating cycles of rise and fall that they may experience.
Bridget and Eileen O’Malley were my special concern. After their mother died, Bridget and her wee sister were the last princesses of their line. In my ancient Book of Faerie their histories were recorded with no less attention than when their kinswomen of times past wore the Celtic crowns on their heads.
Bridget and little Eileen’s lives were hard from the start, and then the Great Hunger struck. When the potato crop failed, the already-dire starvation, poverty, and crushing serfdom spun wildly out of control. The famine left mothers to die in their thatched cottages, their frozen babes blue in their arms. Between 1846 and 1850 droves of starving, desperate families set sail for distant shore. They went t lands known as Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and a place called America. Hundreds of them left, their meager belongings in tow, not knowing what lay ahead, but praying it would be better than the crushing life they’d had.
When Bridget’s mother died, her father, Paddy O’Malley, decided that the time had come to do as so many of his neighbors and kin had already done. He would take his children to America.
And so – invisible to all – I went too, in my role as faerie historian. A strange fate awaited Princess Bridget. I never would have predicted the turns of events that she encountered, being unfamiliar with the magic of foreign lands as I was at that time. For the mix and tumble of exotic magic as she experienced was like nothing I could have imagined; nor could have Bridget.
And thus begins this faerie’s tale.
A Brave New World
As she made her way down the steamer’s gangplank, Bridget O’Malley cradled three-year-old Eileen, her younger sister, in the crook of her bent arm. Eileen snored lightly, her head nestled on Bridget’s shoulder, her blond curls like a cloud around her peaceful, round face.
With her other hand, Bridget gripped a battered suitcase. It contained everything she had managed to acquire during her seventeen years in the world: tow skirts, one of them patched and short, coming just above the ankle, the other, longer one with two rows of ruffles on the bottom, each row added as she grew; a worn-soft plaid flannel nightgown; a few sets of bloomers and undershirts; tow faded blouses; a horsehair brush; a blue stain ribbon; a chipped hand mirror; a green and tan blanket of homespun Irish wool crocheted by her mother shortly before her death a year earlier; and two somewhat dull sewing needles.
Bridget squinted against the fierce sunlight. The strong ocean breezes pried strands of curls loose from her upswept hairdo and flung them into her eyes. Setting down the suitcase, she brushed the corkscrews of hair aside.
“Best not let that case stray from your hands, my girl,” her father, paddy O’Malley, advised brusquely in his thick Irish brogue as he stomped down the ramp, flanked by his three sons, nineteen-year-old Finn, thirteen-year-old Seamus, and eleven-year-old Liam. “We’ve come to the land of thieves and pickpockets.”
“Ha!” Bridget let out an ironic laugh. “And here I was thinking this was the land of opportunity. I believe it was you, your very self, who told me so, was it not? Let me think…how many times have I heard it?”
“Only a hundred,” Finn put in, a smile in his green eyes as he set down one end of the steamer trunk containing all their household belongings and Seamus put down the other. Heeding his father’s warning, Finn kept one worn boot propped on top of the trunk.
“No, surely it was two hundred, at least.” Seamus continued the joke. He removed his wire-rimmed glasses and gave them a quick wipe on his shirt.
“A thousand times!” Liam piped up. He had the same red curls as Bridget, but his eyes were a vivid green and they sparkled with mischief now, lit gleefully with the fun of teasing their father. “I’m sure he’s said it exactly one thousand times.”
“Yes, I believe you’re right, Liam,” agreed Bridget with a grin. “‘Land of opportunity’ – I believe I have heard that phrase exactly a thousand times.”
“And so it is!” Paddy O’Malley insisted, taking his children’s teasing in stride. He gazed around at the other passengers who streamed from the ship. They were disheveled and exhausted from the long, cramped trip, dragging trunks and baskets containing all their earthly belongings. Paddy looked on them with benevolent pride, despite their tattered appearance. In his eyes they were kindred spirits, bold seekers of a better lifer who were now teetering on the brink of incipient riches.
“It is a great land, indeed, and we will find our fortunes here,” he said confidently. “But in the meantime, be wary. Keep your wits about you at all times.”
Bridget smiled at him as the six of them moved forward with the crowd entering the building. This was a strange new world, and they’d have to learn its ways as fast as possible.
But what could be more auspicious than to arrive at the very entrance of a castle? The Castle Garden immigrant processing center was, indeed, very like a castle. In fact, it had been a fort against the British back during the American War of 1812. It stood at the southern tip of New York City, with two grand rivers on both sides and the very ocean at its door. The glistening building dazzled Bridget with its expansive entryway, elaborate scrollwork, and surrounding wall. Beside the doorway, an American flag flapped in the wind.
They joined the crowd of people moving inside to the great, round center room with its high domed ceiling. “Saints be praised,” Bridget muttered under her breath, awed at the sight of the massive room. Even the village church back in Ballinrobe had nothing as grand as this ceiling supported by impossibly thin columns.
They go on one of the many lines and crept forward until they finally reached a desk where a uniformed official sat at a desk with a big ledger on it. Along with her father and brothers, Bridget signed her name in the book, relieved that they didn’t ask her to write anything else. Her name was all she knew how to write.
Crumpling his tweed cap nervously in his large, rough hands, Paddy produced a letter from the traveling country doctor attesting that the family was free of disease. He’d made sure to acquire this letter, having heard far too many stories of others who’d endured the grueling sea passage only to be turned back or, at the very least, stuck in quarantine because their health was suspect.
“Address?” barked the official behind the desk, a scowling, thin-lipped man, without looking up from the papers he was filling out.
Paddy O’Malley rook a slip from hi
“The Five Points, eh?” the man said with a grunt as he glanced up for the first time. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Pardon? The what?” Paddy O’Malley asked.
“The intersection of three blocks creates five corners, so they call they are the Five Points. It’s the part of downtown you people all seem to head for,” he stated with a derisive nod at the others on line. “You can walk there from here; I guess that’s why you all go there.”
“Are there many others from Ireland there, then?” Paddy inquired hopefully.
“Years ago you people controlled the whole rat-infested slum,” said the man, returning to his paperwork. “There was nobody there but a ton of Irish along with a few Black Americans. But now they’re pouring in from Italy, Germany, and all parts of East Europe. You’ve even got Chinese and Jewish down there nowadays. But don’t fret. You’ll still find boatloads of Irish there.”
Paddy nodded, though a look of worry crossed his face. Bridget understood it. Italians! Germans! Africans! Jewish! Chinese! She didn’t even know what an Eastern European was! None of the O’Malleys had ever seen a person who wasn’t Irish, let alone someone all the way from China.
The official glanced up for a second time as he handed Paddy a cardboard billfold of entry papers. “You and your boys might find work at the Paper Box Factory at Mission Place,” he advised. “And your girl here should check with the House of Industry on Worth Street. They can direct her to the uptown families looking for servants.”
“She’ll not be a servant,” Paddy disagreed confidently, “not one as skillful as she is with a needle.”
“Suit yourself,” said the official. “Many women go into the needle trades, but she’ll have to post a one-dollar deposit with any employer she wants to work for.”
“One dollar!” Bridget gasped. Where would that come from? She wasn’t even sure how much money it was, but it sounded like a lot.
“That’s how it’s done. It’s why girls hire out as servants.” The man said gruffly.
With a nod, Paddy motioned his family to move away from the desk with him. They followed him a few paces until he stopped and faced them his ruddy face erupted into a brilliant smile. “We did it! We’re in!” he exulted.
“Where to now, Da?” Seamus asked.
“On to 106 Baxter Street,” he told them excitedly, his face beaming. “The kind gentleman there says it’s but a hop, skip, and jump from here. Let us be off. Our fortunes await us!”
The Crimson Thread
Eileen had awakened during the walk to Baxter Street and now stared around, wide-eyed, as the family trudged up the five flights of narrow tenement stairs. Bridget held tight to her small hand as they struggled up the dimly lit stairway.
Some apartment doors were open, and inside they could see dim, dreary spaces. Dirty, half-naked children overflowed from some of the open doors. And the hallway exploded with the sounds of life being lived at top volume, sometimes in languages they could not understand.
“Gaa, what is that stink?” asked Seamus, his face twisted in disgust.
“I think it’s cabbage cooking,” Finn suggested.
Bridget sniffed the stale air. She recognized the cabbage, but there were other food smells that were completely unfamiliar. And there were odors intermingled that she didn’t think were food at all.
“Are you sure it’s cabbage?” Seamus questioned. “It smells like dead bodies to me.”
“When did you ever smell dead bodies?” Finn challenged with a snort of dark laughter.
“I helped Alice Feeney turn her granddad over, and he had been dead in the sheep pen nearly two days when we found him,” insisted Seamus with a grim pride. “Ew, he was foul.”
“Seamus would do anything for Alice Feeney,” Liam taunted.
A faraway wistfulness leaped into Seamus’s eyes. “It’s true, I would have, but I guess I’ll never get the chance now.”
“Don’t despair, my lad,” Paddy encouraged his son as he stopped in front of a closed door and checked the number on the keys the landlady had given him. “you will return to Ballinrobe as a rich man someday, and you’ll whisk lovely Alice away in you fine carriage.”
Bridget shook her head in amusement. Her da was a dreamer, to be sure, and his big ideas weren’t always realistic ones. But his exciting imaginings had given them all something to hold on to, so she was glad he was the way he was.
Paddy turned the key and opened the door. “Home, sweet…” His voice trailed off into stunned silence as the O’Malley clan took in the awful sight of their new home.
The apartment was a one-room rectangle, filled with strewn garbage and abandoned belongings from the previous tenant. The faded beige walls were chipped, with large holes in some spots. The wood-planked floor was broken clear through in places.
The kitchen was in the main room. Several of its cabinet doors hung from their hinges. In a corner was a two-burner gas stove, but no sink; nor was there a bathroom. “I suppose we share the utilities,” Paddy ventured gamely. “I saw a sink in the hall. We passed it just now.”
Those things didn’t bother Bridget. At home they’d had to go outside to pump water and use the outhouse behind the cottage, even on the coldest days, so in a way, this indoor plumbing amounted to an improvement on that situation. What did bother her were the squalid filth of the place and the stench of the garbage from the other apartments.
A rush of claustrophobia mixed with panic threatened to overwhelm her. How could she live with this unremitting ruckus and stench? Desperately needing air, she threw her weight into the sash of the only small window in the place, trying to lift it. “Help me, Finn,” she demanded when it wouldn’t budge.
Finn put his shoulder into it but quickly discerned the cause if its refusal to move. “It’s painted shut,” he announced.
The room suddenly felt unbearably airless and foul. It swirled in front of her eyes, and she could feel the blood draining from her face.
Water! She needed water. And air!
Rushing from the room, she ran down the hall, searching for the sink Da ha referred to. It was deep and chipped but a welcome sight. She braced herself against it and began to pump. Instead of the sparkling well water she was used to, rusted liquid trickled down. It was disgusting, and she couldn’t stand to drink it.
The faint feeling threatened to overtake her, so she sat on the floor to avoid falling and injuring herself, letting her head hand between her knees. Maybe she was simply tired from the many days at sea. But this was not what she had expected, not at all.
“So you like New York City. I can tell,” said a thickly accented male voice in a mocking tone dripping with irony.
Lifting her head, she took in the slim man leaning against the wall across from her. He wore baggy trousers belted at the waist with a worn leather strap and an equally baggy white shirt with the long sleeves rolled to the elbows. His forehead was wide under wild, thick dark hair. She wondered if his flat, crooked nose had ever been broken. She decided it must have been, for she’d seen broken noses before.
Bridget estimated that he might be twenty, maybe a little younger. The world-weary hardness in his dark eyes struck her as inconsistent with the high-strung energy evident in his leanly muscular frame.
The hallway had gone oddly quiet, as if, having cooked and eaten their meals, everyone had retired early for the evening, even though the late summer sun still filtered through the grimy hall windows. The apartments that moments ago had teemed with life were now closed and erupted in only occasional bursts of loud conversation.
The young man stepped forward so that he was in front of the
He tossed her something small, and, reflexively, she raised her hand to snatch it out of the air. It was a red and white mint wrapped in wax paper. “Sometimes a little sugar is all you need,” he said. “Don’t you think so, princess?”
She stared at him sharply. Why had he called her princess? How could he know that it was her secret fantasy – that she was somehow royal despite all the evidence to the contrary?
He couldn’t. She was being ridiculous; it must be her overactive imagination again.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
His accent was so thick. Where was he from? She had never known anyone who spoke like this.
“No, nothing. I’m sorry; it’s nothing.” Looking down, she undid the mint’s wrapper but hesitated before popping it into her mouth. Hadn’t Da warned them to be wary? Who knew what was in this mint?
Bridget wrapped the mint up again with the intention of returning it. Despite the kindness of the gesture, the fellow unnerved her.
When she raised her head to speak to him, he was gone.
In the morning they unbundled the last of their supply of cheese and bread and had it for breakfast. Then, using the tools Paddy had brought with him, they began work on the tenement apartment, scraping the walls, fixing the cabinets, and repairing the planks in the floor.
While Da and the older boys worked, Bridget and Liam hauled in buckets of water and did their best to scrub everything down. “Don’t be playing in that,” she had to scold Eileen again and again, as the little girl insisted on splashing in the rusty water.
Finn chiseled into the paint sticking the window shut. Once it was opened, the sounds of the street below poured into the place.
Unlike the quiet countryside that they’d come from, the clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobblestone streets, the squeak and grind of wagon wheels, the call of the pushcart peddlers selling their wares, and the din of chattering people were relentless. “See?” said Paddy brightly. “Mike O’Fallon wouldn’t let us down. He found us the finest place in all the Five Points.”
The Crimson Thread by Suzanne Weyn / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes