There was a sharp pain in his shoulder as he hit the water. It was a violent crash, like falling through glass. Shock waves coursed through his body, freezing his muscles. Then the cold water enveloped him like a glove, pulling him into its icy embrace. He clawed at the unseen enemy without mercy until it spat him out. Then he heaved himself to the surface and gasped for air.
The ship was already too far ahead. He was treading water in the ship’s wake, slapped around like a useless piece of flotsam in a black, endless ocean. And he was freezing to death.
“Help!” he screamed. He swung his arms and kicked his legs with all the force as he could muster. But it was all for naught. He would do this dance of death as long as he wished to remain alive. And then he would die. Waves broke over his head and choked him. He spit out a mouthful of sea water and coughed in disgust. His mind raced but it always came back to the grim conclusion. There was nobody to help him for miles and miles. He was more alone now than he had ever been in his life. He was entirely alone, like a baby in the womb. Nobody could hear him or see him. And soon the ship would soon disappear from view.
“Help me!” he screamed again. But it was in vain. He knew no one could hear him.
It wouldn’t be long now, he thought. The knife wound on his shoulder was bleeding profusely and it was only a question of time before sharks would come circling for a night of feasting. The thought sent a chill through his body.
The light from the ship was fading fast. Soon it would be gone. A sorrowful full moon hung low on the horizon, the only light that would escort him to the hereafter. The only friend he had in the world. The only witness to his demise.
He remembered his mother. He could see her kneading soda bread back in Belfast. There would be a pot of stew on the stove; its fragrance would be wafting through the house. His sister Jenny would be lounging on the sofa, reading a letter from her boyfriend in the trenches. How she lived for those letters! The smells of home gave him a warm and cozy feeling. It softened his pain.
Then, without warning, he saw his mother punch the dough with barely contained anger. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Her face was red and bruised, as if she’d been hit. A jolt of fear coursed through him. Suddenly she looked down at him and said, “Ian, can you ever forgive me for marrying that man? I know he made your life a living hell. He never should have done that to you. And now you’ve run off to sea… Can you ever forgive me?”
“Of course I forgive you, Ma,” he said. “Don’t cry about it now. It’s all been forgotten.”
She sat down and rubbed her temples. “I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since you ran away. It was all my fault, I know. I was such a terrible mother. I cannot forgive myself.”
“It’s not your fault, Ma,” he said to the starry sky. “I always dreamed of running away to sea. You married Stepfather because I needed someone to kick me out of the house. Otherwise I would have ended up just like Dad and you know it.”
“Oh, no, Ian,” she said. “You had so much promise. You were the smartest of all my children. I had big dreams for you. And now look what happened!”
“It was my destiny to go to sea,” he said. “Please don’t cry.”
“Are you certain?” she said, with a glimmer of hope.
“Yes, Ma. You did the best you could. I don’t blame you for anything. Don’t worry; I’ll be fine. I love you, Ma.”
His mother’s smiling image faded from view, leaving just the starry sky and the mournful moon to share his plight. He figured he was somewhere near latitude seventeen degrees north, seventy-two degrees west, just south of Hispaniola. No man’s land. In that shark-infested stretch of Caribbean Sea that ships rarely traversed. He reckoned another steamer wouldn’t pass this way for another day or two. Or maybe a week. Maybe two weeks. At most he could expect a native fishing boat to pass by within a few miles, but not until daybreak. And that was five hours away. And they would never hear him anyway. And by that time it would be too late. He had too much rum in his veins and too little adrenaline to keep his muscles pumping. He would simply sink beneath the waves and vanish from the face of the earth.
It saddened Ian to think they would write him off as a suicide—or worse, that he’d been drinking and fell overboard. A hopeless drunk. No one would ever know that he’d been in a fight; that he’d caught a German spy and was pushed over the side deliberately. That would be the secret he would take to his grave.
The thought sent waves of sadness through him. Then he began to shiver. Hypothermia, he thought. Soon he would lose feeling in his limbs. Soon he would be lulled into a sleep from which he would never awaken. He would go numb and simply sink beneath the waves.
The faces of his brothers and sisters passed before his eyes. He could see little Aidan’s excited face when he learned his older brother was going to sea. He could see Jenny’s surprise and delight. And Colleen. Beautiful, sweet, gentle Colleen, the woman he had promised to marry. Would she shed a tear for him? Memories of his First Communion mingled with scenes of him fishing with his brothers, followed by images of Sister Mary Catherine’s admonishing face and the smell of Ma’s Christmas pudding. His life passed by in a flash.
Then an older memory came to him. It was a man whose face he barely recognized. A tired, sad-faced man hunched over his desk, his eyes sunken. He knew at once it was his father.
“Dad,” he said as he furiously treaded water. “Where are you? Why did you leave us?”
“I never really left you,” said his father. “I was always watching over you. You were always a good boy and I knew you’d turn out alright.”
“But …look what’s happened to me,” he said. “I-I-I’m drowning…”
A wave broke over Ian and he swallowed a mouthful of seawater. He spat it out and coughed as the wind whipped his hair and stung his eyes. It was so dark he could barely see the hand in front of his face. The image of his father’s sorrowful eyes pained him.
“Dad, can you save me please? I’m dying…” he cried, but his voice broke in agony. His father didn’t answer. He looked at him with sad eyes and then disappeared, leaving only the twinkling stars. Tears streamed down his face. He knew it wouldn’t be long now. He had lost all hope and he would have to prepare for the inevitable. His time was short and already he sensed sharks in the vicinity. Their fins broke the surface intermittently, like silent marauding predators. But he wasn’t ready to die.
“Help me!” he screamed from the depths of his soul. He felt lost, alone, helpless. A hapless victim of the elements, the predators, and fate. He closed his eyes and prayed. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death…
Then he remembered an old Irish legend his grandfather had told him about King Lir and his four children. When King Lir’s wife passed away, he decided to marry his sister-in-law Aoife to help him get over the loss of his wife. Overcome with jealousy, Aoife used her magical powers to transform his children into swans. But by a miracle the children retained their beautiful voices and sang like angels. Ian closed his eyes and tried to remember his grandfather’s soothing voice, his soft white whiskers, his gentle demeanor.
Ian’s arms ached and his mouth was burning from salt. His legs were going numb and the waves tossed him about like a rag doll. Exhaustion was setting in. The strength of his limbs was dissipating and his mind was growing tired. Then he saw a flickering light in the distance. Could it be? The ship! They’ve come back for me! His heart soared.
With a surge of strength he began swimming toward the light. His arms pounded the surface like the propeller blades of a plane, his feet kicking with every last ounce of strength.
“Help me!” he cried. “Save me!”
He continued swimming toward the boat, certain that salvation was near. Focusing on the light, he strained to hear the sounds of the engine. By God they hadn’t forgotten him!
Soon the steamer was in his sights. Through the fog he could make out the bow, the bridge, and a search party on the deck with flashlights, scanning the water. There had to be at least twenty of them. His mates hadn’t forgotten him! His heart soared. Like a madman he swam toward the ship, certain that salvation was close at hand.
When the ship came into view he could see the faces of the men. There was his father, his grandfather, his uncles, the parish priest … He wrinkled his brow. Father McGinley? Wasn't he...dead? He realized all at once that all the men were dead.
He stopped swimming, paralyzed with fright. The ship pulled up alongside him and the men smiled and waved. They shined their flashlights on his face, blinding him. He could hear their voices, but when they reached out their hands, he refused to grasp them. But the men only smiled at him and encouraged him. He felt their love and it filled him with a feeling of tranquility. Soon, a feeling of peace came over him. With a sigh of resignation, he reached out his hand and they lifted him into their warm embrace.