© V KNOX
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1907 - 1912
APRIL 10, 2012
I drowned three times. First, in the relentless rain of Ireland, second, in the deep gloom of mourning that settled over my mother, and third, in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.
Even when the sun blared down fierce as the devil, there was the bleakness that settled in our bones like a great damp. Once in a blue moon Mam would pull me into her lap, rocking and singing and hanging on to me for dear life, calling me Michael, her wee angel, and ask me where we were going because sweet Jesus she was lost at sea. It’s sad, how in moments of despair when all a body wants is hope, a still small voice will tell you the truth you don’t want to hear. Because I’m NOT Michael! I’m Finn, and it’s sad how few blue moons there are.
Yes, those are definitely my shoes, there in the museum case. Who would have thought I’d be famous for my shoes. And such a sad pair as that. I wore them the day I stepped onto the Titanic and the day I floated free of it, April 15, 1912.
I’m not sure if I was five or almost six when it happened, but after I drowned I discovered that time is an inexact measurement. Time raced ahead of me, pulling me backwards and spun me around so I met myself arriving. Even now, as the centenary of Titanic’s maiden voyage approaches, it continues to fling me forward, years speeding past me until I come to a full stop without my growing an inch or aging a single day. I’ve never felt more like a child but I’ve never been wiser. I’ve never been more me.
Visitors come to marvel at the miracle of my shoes, awed that a pair of innocent shoes survived the terrifying chaos when hundreds of people perished. The little shrine of the shoes celebrates a moment in time. But not what they imagine. I know their secret. You’d think a dead child’s shoes would make them grief-stricken, entirely. But then I’ve known miracle shoes before and I know how they can capture a soul with magic. I’ve seen them cast a spell. I’ve seen them break a mother’s heart. I can’t go back to Mam shoeless. Sure, she’d skin me alive. Losing my shoes is a sin and I lost TWO pairs in the one day.
My shoes have their own life now, Mam is with her sainted Michael in heaven, and my age of innocence is over. I’ve outgrown my shoes. Hindsight, second sight, and insight are the keys to navigating random events that were meant to happen. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that time is a paradox of frozen promises and fluid reckonings. I’m accountable for the promises I made in childish haste and tried to keep, and the posthumous ones I thought through carefully with no intention of keeping. For these and other sins, I face my fair share of comeuppances – hopefully reaping the benefits of a death well-spent by seeing things through to the end. An end that may not be as bitter as the living are led to suppose. That is why I must stay on to tell my story.
Remaining in spirit form close to the living isn’t being kept after school as a punishment. It’s graduating with honors on a level playing field where I’m both a naïve five-year-old pre-schooler and a scholarly professor of three score-and-ten, although I can’t always control which one will speak. I sometimes use words like paradox and conundrum and vicarious to show off but I prefer the words nearest to my former life. And now, only an invisible headmaster can release me from school.
I’ve only ever had one grownup understand me. Two if you count Lacey. We did everything together. But I always think of her as a child because we met when we were young and I watched her grow old.
Essentially, humans are homing pigeons. We head for the nearest thing to home we can remember. For me it was a person rather than a place. It was Mamie Broughton. We’d only just met but sometimes a chance meeting with a stranger changes everything. Life is a surprise that turns on a breeze. The pendulum swings, and then... ‘worse things happen at sea’. I’m almost free. I have five days to break a promise.
I used to be plain Finn Cleary before I found fame as the unidentified lost child from the Titanic and my shoes were enshrined as an object of wonder. As if no-one else ever had shoes!
THE BIRTH OF MEMORY
FEBRUARY 14, 1912
countdown - 60 days
I’m standing watch on a hill, facing Cork Harbor in the rain. Beyond Spike Island I can make out a thin blue band of the Atlantic Ocean on the horizon. Perhaps I only see it because I know it’s there, always calling. And I pretend I’m the lookout on a grand ship like the ones Da builds in Belfast. Below me are the rooftops of Ballymore. The gulls screeching over the morning’s catch in the inlets along the harbor unnerve me, and I can almost hear the waves crashing all the way from the Statue of Liberty. The wind blows through me as if I’m a boy hanging on Mam’s clothesline.
I think it’s my birthday because it’s raining. That’s all Mam can remember, but maybe even that was part of the birthing fever. Da was away working the shipyards of Harland and Wolff in Belfast, and when he returned, there I was, and time had wrapped its arms around my coming. The life and times of Finnegan Cleary were well into the third month of wailing and hunger and the smell of peat burning in the hearth. Mam says if we hadn’t lived so close to the town she would have died and we’d both be in heaven with my brother Michael, eating bread and jam without a care in the world. But Mam’s friend, Mrs. Donovan, had looked in. Seeing no smoke from our chimney, she’d climbed the hill and found us in a terrible state. Mam, and me inside her, both of us fighting for life.
Mam told me how she’d wandered off to the gates of heaven several times during that night where the sunshine was glorious on her face but she always came home. Even from the gates of heaven she could hear me crying, she said, and it was me, the new light of her life, who brought her back. So, I was more than a helpless wee lamb. I was her guiding light like the white towers with the beacons that showed the big ships where to steer clear of the rocks and reach Queenstown.
The rain works itself up from a drizzle until I stand in a downpour, imagining my birthday surprise of scones with cream and jam. I wait long enough for Mam to set the table and race home, but there is only cold soup, and Mam is a huddle of sadness and pain under the blankets waiting for the new baby to come.
MARCH 4, 1912
countdown - 42 days
Maybe it always rains when new babies come, for my Bridie was born on a rainy morning with Mrs. Donovan poking our lazy fire into flames big enough to heat the turnip soup, and curse Da who was off again, needed at the shipyard, and wasn’t it like a man to have the freedom whenever a shipyard called or he took a shine to wander. And I don’t understand for the life of me how freedom can shine in all this rain but it’s a comfort that I’m still a lighthouse for Mam and now for my Bridie. Mam says she’s seventeen days old. She knows for sure because she makes a cross on the wall marking each day closer to the day of leaving. I look at all the crosses. That’s my Bridie’s life there on the wall.
Michael remains the only hindrance to my future happiness. As ever, his presence dampens even the wettest days. But Titanic is about to save me. In the shake of a lamb’s tail I’ll be in New York. Michael can keep his corner and good luck to him. He can haunt all the corners in Ballymore with me on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Dates of birth are less important than if a baby survives its first year. And even then a child’s years are suspect. Michael died before I was born, after he’d grown all the way to eleven. He’d broken Mam’s heart for she cried a little whenever she dressed me in the blue pullover she knitted for him. It was too big for me and hung down to my knees, and Mam would bury her face in it and inhale its magic before she pulled it over my head.
All I know is that when I entered the world in 1907, Titanic was being born on bits of paper amongst a team of designers and engineers. That makes us distant cousins. And when my sister Bridie was born, Da was away to Belfast, riveting the side of Titanic’s starboard hull. But I had real cousins and aunts and uncles in New York who put the finishing touch to Da’s notions of America as our only chance for survival. And the entire joy of it was that I’d be going to school at last.
But today on the cliffs of County Cork, when I can barely make out the Atlantic as a ribbon of darker blue, I know it’s the spring of 1912 and that I’m almost five years-old or already heading for seven, and the possibility of it being my special day fares better than the summer, and that the wind’s bony fingers are pulling at the loose strands of navy-blue wool in Michael’s old sweater, making the holes bigger.
Even with the excitement of leaving Ireland our conversation remains dreary. Rain beats the slates on the roof, droning Bridie to sleep in her cradle. The slow ticking of a mantel clock times my parent’s tasks of concentration so they don’t have to argue. Da polishes his boots by the fire. Mam washes laundry at the sink, up to her elbows in greasy water. And while neither of them are looking at each other, their activities seem to be having a conversation of their own. It’s as if they’re in separate rooms talking to themselves.
Da shivers and asks Mam if she can stop up the draft with rags. Mam says when a body shivers someone’s walked on their grave. I see an image of Michael’s gravestone under a shade tree and send Da a look of panic. “Molly, don’t be frightening the lad,” he says. “Can you not recall a single memory of the gentle breezes of summer, woman?” He remembers but she’s forgotten.
Mam sends him the ghost of a smile. He’s forgotten but she remembers. She tells a lot of stories. Mostly about sea monsters and banshees and the spirits of the dead who died too soon, and the holy terrors of hell and being watched and judged and the consequences of being found lacking, and how I’d better watch my P’s and Q’s. So, I’m that careful to look over my shoulder even when I’m being good.
Da tells me on the quiet that Mam’s stories have been stormy ever since Michael left the world and not to mind so much about the angry winds. They tell him different tales and will blow us clean across the ocean to New York any day now.
The sound of everyday chores draws a battle line between them. Mam scrapes a shirt against the washboard, keeping time to Da’s polishing. If it wasn’t for Michael in the corner, the scent of shoe polish and coal tar soap mingled with the excitement of going to America makes life perfect.
My heart beats faster. Michael will be left behind. I will be free. I hug my knees and turn red from being too close to the fire. I can’t stop smiling, but I don’t want to be upsetting an apple cart again. We don’t have an apple tree or a cart but Da says I do this all the time.
Da describes the size of the Titanic. Its length and the tonnage of coal it will take to cross the Atlantic. Mam holds the shirt under the water and lifts it covered in suds. “Larger than life,” she calls out, shaking her head. I think that if the wind could talk it would sound like Mam’s sigh when she washes our clothes in a fog of sadness.
Her words make me shiver. Larger than life is too big. I’m undersized for my age and everything important to me is enormous.
I pipe up ignoring the apple carts. “Da, is Titanic bigger than the dragon ships that brought the giants to Ireland?”
Da laughs. “My boy you’ve too much of the imagination about you,” he says. “Sure you’re a born storyteller like your mother.”
It’s the wild fables Mam tells that I hanker after, and sure enough they grow with each telling. Especially the ones invented a thousand years ago, so far back that they’ve grown into monstrous fibs to explain the world of stars and magic.
Da’s hands are a blur over the brown leather. “Some stories are larger than life all right, especially the ones your mother likes to tell.”
I’m delirious with leaving and so I ignore the apple cart looming in the corner with Michael. “Larger than Titanic herself?”
“Larger than the miracles of saints,” Da says.
“Heaven preserve us,” Mam says.
Da ignores Mam and continues. “I’ll tell you a tale I heard at the shipyard... and it’s true. The ship we’re going on is named for a race of giants called Titans who, once-upon-a-time, ruled the likes of thunder and lightning and the destinies of us wee men.”
Da has my full attention. “It’s powerless puny we are in the face of giants. Isn’t it Da? And were the giants Irish?”
“It’s powerless puny we are to an ocean,” Mam tells the shirt she’s scrubbing into a rag.
Da explains, his eyes lit like candles. “The Titans lived on a Greek mountain a long way from here and a long time ago. It’s like wee David we are, and we have to use our wits to slay the likes of Goliath.”
Mam’s words blow around the room. “David had God on his side,” Mam tells the ceiling.
I ignore the word Greek. It’s a new word. I know because I treasure each word Da says. Sure he’s a genius. I’ve heard Mam call him that even though her voice had a wee scorn of laughter in it. “But we have Saint Michael don’t we Da? Sure, Saint Michael could murder a giant easy as a dragon.”
Da and Mam’s eyes lock across the room saying things I can’t hear. “Aye, son. We have him, sure enough.”
Da is finished. He lays his boots by the hearth and makes the fire jump with the stained newspaper scrunched into the flames. For a while the room is silent but for the crackling fire and Mam’s concentration on a collar stain. The leap of firelight sends her shadow larger than life on the wall. I shiver because although my face is flushed from the fire my back is freezing. I don’t dare shiver out loud as I don’t want to think of strangers walking on my grave. I wonder if Michael can feel us when Mam lays wildflowers at his feet.
I unlock my knees and prop my feet on the fender. Da stares from the flickering pattern glancing off the sheen of his boots to my bare feet. He’s lost in thought and I think he’s like me, dreaming of America. But he sits up, struck by a new thought. A decision. “You can’t be meeting the likes of rich cousins with charity shoes. Sure, even Saint Michael himself would never present himself to New York in second-hand shoes. Finn, you’ll be needing a pair of store bought shoes.”
Mam wrings the dirty water from the shirt and slaps it into a basket. “And will Saint Michael be providing the money for the new shoes?”
Da slaps my knee and leans closer to my feet as if they can hear. “He will.”
Mam plunges the last shirt, deep into the murky water. The bar of yellow soap scrapes up and down.
“And Molly, you’ll be wearing a new hat, my girl.”
“Sure and that will impress the ocean will it?”
The fire coughs out a cloud of earthy steam. I savor the powerful-sharp aroma of Irish soil. “No charity shoes, Molly,” Da repeats, extra-loud. He stokes the fire with a fresh slab of dried peat. “We’ll not be shaming the Cleary name when we say hello to America.” He chuckles. “God but we’ve a plethora of time to do that later.”
Plethora is Da’s favorite word.
In April we’re going to America on the RHS Titanic. I don’t know what RHS means but Da says it’s the most important ship in the history of ships entirely, which means every ship that’s ever sailed the seven seas from Queenstown to Australia and around the tail of Africa. The Titanic will steam into New York harbor like an enormous black swan, so she will, with brass bands and fireworks, surely making history, and more than that, my story will begin and Mam will notice me and forget the sadness of Michael and all the damp dreary saints and sputtering candles that fill Ballymore Church, and feel the sun of America blessing her face. Da says I’m forever upsetting apple carts and to be careful in front of Mam. What I say could topple her into a huddle of fear and heaven knows I don’t want to do that.
It rains a lot in Ireland and there are an enormous number of babies. A plethora of babies, Da says, and plethora means more than a few. Plethora means entirely too many.
MARCH 12, 1912
countdown - 34 days
Our house is still as a church. Mam’s shawl slips to the floor but she doesn’t notice. She’s listening, staring over the box in her lap with a far-off look. Maybe she can see the statue of liberty. If she wasn’t cradling the box tightly with both hands they would be trembling from the sadness. Her shawl has spooled to the floor with her rosary. I pull the wool back over her shoulders and she stirs, smiling a little from the comfort. She takes her hand away from the box long enough to accept her rosary. Her fingers begin to worry the beads I press in her right hand. I know she’s thinking of Michael because it’s the morning mass for the ‘box-of-Michael’ when time stands still and Mam prays over a relic so sacred it’s kept in a place of honor next to a statue of Saint Michael himself.
I’ve seen the ritual dozens of times and I’m sure there are hundreds I don’t see. Mam has most of her Michael moments when Da is away.
It’s my job to rouse the fire at first light even though most mornings the sun is lost behind a wall of rain. Mam tells me, “Finnegan I love you and Bridie, I do, but Michael that’s gone is with me still. He whispers to me. He’s whispering now. Can you hear him, Finn?”
Mam’s sitting there with her bare feet in the draft. I want to make her tea with sugar but the fire’s crumbled to warm ashes and we’re out of tea and sugar. On goes a slab of peat from the corner, and I prod it into life. It catches into a curl of brown steam. “Will I fetch your slippers Mam?” I say. Her slippers are three pairs of Da’s socks, one inside the other. They’re still damp, hanging beside the dying hearth. In our cottage drying and dying loom larger than life.
The word ‘slippers’ startles Mam. Her face goes dark and frightens me for she takes one hand from the box, and there go her beads on the floor again, and she grabs my arm, gripping too tight. “Finn, you must promise me a promise,” she says. “Do you understand?”
“Keep every promise you make,” she says. “A promise is a grand thing, so it is. God hears your promises and He will hold you to them. It’s the devil you’ll pay if you lie to God. Do you understand now?”
She squeezes her eyes as she grips my arm, and when she opens them they’re wet with tears. “Never make a promise unless you’ll move heaven to keep it. Promises are all a body has to hope on.”
This is all about our Michael. He was Mam’s shadow. Da told me how their heads were always together and not a communion wafer could come between them. “Your Mam was different then,” he explained. “I remember the laughter. The two of em near drowned in the pure joy of each other. We’ve had our fair share of hungry days but the light in your Mam’s eyes was poured into Michael to save him and I believe she would have if she hadn’t had to close them for a while. Your Mam believed Michael would never leave her. He promised her that.”
“Mam says God hears my promises.”
“On his last day, Michael made the promise he couldn’t keep and your mother believed him. And so he’s with her still. If she talks to Michael it’s the truth he’s beside her. You’re not to worry. She’s not off with the fairies, Finn, she’s with your brother, and it’s not for us to think different. It’s a strange thing between a mother and her first child.” And then he confided something I didn’t want to know. “Michael died as your Mam sat beside him, drowsing. She had to, son. She was that exhausted. When she woke, he was gone. And the worse of it was, she didn’t cry. Not once. She was silent, all through the prayers and masses and the churchyard. I never heard her grieving but she’s never forgiven herself for falling asleep even though she held your brother’s hand the whole while. She never let go. Not of his hand then, nor his spirit now. Part of your mother went to heaven with Michael. Finn, he was the sun to her, but even the sun has to set, and the consumption came. It came to families, taking one and leaving the others. And it took our Michael. Her beloved Michael.”
For the longest time I believed the saint was named after my brother.
The ritual of the box continues. Mam sings to it and rocks it like a baby – the same song she sings to our Bridie but with a distant look in her eye. Mam is no longer in the room; she’s off in a dream of Michael. The click of her rosary beads make the sound of a clock ticking backwards. Today he’s two, she says. By now I’m too sad to be terrified of her. I want to be a good boy so Mam will have the joy of me, too. So the likes of a communion wafer can’t come between us. I ask her to tell me the story of the night I was born. That night when I was the light of her life who called her home, but it’s the ‘day of the box.’
“You should have seen him, Finn. Your big brother, two years old, bright as an angel, walking across this very floor, so he did, and your Da was that full of Michael that he spared himself the drink and bought him a pair of new shoes. One’s first shoes are a grand thing Finnegan, so they are. A baby’s first steps are a blessing. It’s a brave thing a child does to stand up and walk across a floor.” She points to the far corner where I’ve stacked the peat nice and tall. “Michael was over there.”
She stares at the spot and looks up, through me, a twinkle in her eyes. “And I was right there,” she says, gesturing to the sink.
She is still there. And Michael is still a baby in the corner about to change the world entirely. It must have been a grand day because Mam is beaming like the sun that has no intention of setting.
“We made a game of counting his toes,” she says, “before we wiggled them into the shoes. That day he was a rich baby with kid leather shoes.”
Delight fair radiates from her face and I smile too. I can almost see the brother I never knew, there in the corner listening to the shining tales of his glorious babyhood.
Mam opens the box slowly. A snowy cloth holds something sacred inside. Michael’s first shoes, worn soft from two pairs of feet for they were mine as well. So, I knew Mam loved me. She’d given me the gift of Michael’s shoes and it must have pained her to see me totter over the same floor.
I’d like to say I remember her holding out her arms to catch me, for I know she did, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth of it. I have no memory of the shoes other than the ‘Michael Days’ when out they came with a story or two. I learned to count to six on those shoes. Three buttons on each shoe.
I sit close to Mam and wait. “I remember the day,” she starts, and I lean in, my head on her shoulder. Her voice is gentle with a smile inside. “Ah Finnegan, he loved his shoes, so he did.”
She polishes a shoe on the hem of her skirt.
“Were they mine too?” I ask, even though I know I’d worn them. “Did Michael give them to me?”
She hugs me. “He did.”
“Can I hold them?”
Mam places them in my hands, cupping them gently the way one holds a butterfly. Sure the shoes fair purr in my hand. It’s wild to think my great feet ever fit in those perfect wee shoes because it was the end of the new shoes. Michael mostly went barefoot after that or in knitted socks. Later he wore misshapen charity shoes to school until he was big enough to clomp about in a pair of Da’s old work boots stuffed with newspaper in the toes.
“Will Michael give them to my Bridie?” I ask.
Mam is proud of Michael. When I ask her she says pride goeth before a fall. She looks up at the ceiling as if God were there, ready to bless her soul, or give her a scolding if she gets it wrong. I know what falling is, and Da explained about pride as me being too full of myself, but I can’t get my head around the word goeth. It comes from Mam’s black book with the cross that Michael read to her, him having been to the local school and learning the entire alphabet.
Michael, who never had to be full of himself because Mam was full of him enough for the pair of them. My brother is a brighter beacon than the tallest lighthouse. Sometimes I wish he was alive so he could teach me the rest of the letters in my name, including Cleary, and Mam would knit me my own sweater. The color red would do nicely for me.
I think being dead makes you more loveable. Sometimes I wish I could die of the consumption and stand in the corner and hear stories about myself when it’s Bridie’s turn for the shoes. Sometimes my insides churn after the shoe stories. Sometimes I hate Michael.
I love my Bridie, but wee baby girls are never short of the attention. Da says I’m an in-between. He’s sorry but there it is. I must work harder. I must show Michael in the corner how proud I am to be his brother. And tell him that after I go to the school in New York I will write poems and entire books and never use ‘goeth’ once, and never be so full of myself that I’ll fall short of being a boy Mam is proud of, and catch her if she falls like Michael himself, walking across his heavenly floor.
All-in-all, goeth is a silly word. It doesn’t show its face in normal conversations. Da has never used it, and he has a plethora of words in his head.
Mam kisses each shoe and gently eases them into the box as if she doesn’t want to wake them. She tucks them in like a baby, and closes the lid. It’s like the shoes are in a nursery and Mam has just blown out the candle and closed the door. I expect her to say goodnight. The box is placed next to a chipped statue of St. Michael. Da says he’s the patron saint of mariners and that he can kill a dragon quick as wink. So, I know there must be two saint Michaels: my sainted brother and the angel dragonslayer.
Mam grabs my shoulders and turns me to face her. “Will you promise to look after the shoes when I’m gone?” Her eyes are wild for the answer. “Finn look at me now.”
She searches my face and nods her head, satisfied.
Promises are not light things to Mam. They’re cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die things. So my life depends on it. And it’s a lifetime later, with my new heart and soul, when I realize with a sickening feeling that I’ve had it wrong the whole time. But the worst of it is it’s all a lie. I’m a wicked boy. I deserve to be forgotten. How could I have been so blind?