The winds blew hard, pitching the massive ship side-to-side. The vessel tossed from the waves while sea water rushed over the sides and onto the decks. Men scurried around the surface, grasping any object to keep themselves from being washed overboard. The night sky gave no light to guide the way.
People stranded in the hold slid aft and fro along with barrels or boxes not tied securely. Children and babies cried. Men stood, some tying themselves to beams with their belts or hemp, determined to grab anyone or anything heading in harm’s way. The smell below was rancid with sweat, vomit and other excrements as well as rotten foods and waterlogged clothing.
Three young women sat huddled deep within the aft of the ship on the starboard side. The oldest tied them together at their sashes to avoid separation. They had been on this vessel for over a week and had little food left to share. The youngest, Theresa Rose, had taken sickly the night before, with a hacking cough and high fever. Her sisters, Lucille and Annunciacao cuddled her body between them to ward off the chill, cloaking her from the water falling from above. The darkness shrouded the occupants and the air was stale from the lack of circulation from above.
Their hopes and spirits were high when the first set sail from Spain. Although their reason for traveling was to locate their mother who stranded them in Portugal, as young women they hoped to achieve new starts in one of the endless cities. Each girl wore a gold cross around their necks along with Saint Christopher medals for safe travel. Being consigned to the hold was acceptable because they were free to walk the upper decks during the daylight to get a bit of air and sun. The vast ocean stretched the horizon. Rarely did they catch a glimpse of any other vessel.
“Lucille, what will we do if we can’t find mama or papa? America is so big.” Theresa worried her rosary beads clutched in her hands.
“Don’t fret little one. America is large but Providence Rhode Island is not. That is where papa lives with his new family. If he doesn’t know where mama is, we have many family members living there who can help us.”
“Papa made it very clear that he didn’t want us. Why ask him?” Annunciacao said, peeved at both of their parents for abandoning them.
“I’m sure that we can survive a week or two at his home until we find mama and move in with her. He may not want us, but mama will welcome us.” Lucille protested.
Theresa began to cry so the sisters stopped their squabble and talked about more pleasant things.
After three days with no more than bread crust to share and the storm holding firm, Theresa’s health faded. The sisters prayed that the squall would soon pass. Theresa lapsed into a fever induced coma and nothing the girls did would awaken her. The cough racked her small chest and she wheezed with each breath.
“We can’t let her die, Lucille. You saw what they did with the old woman who passed away two nights ago. They just threw her overboard. I don’t want the same fate for our dear sister.”
“Hush now, Theresa is young and strong. Once the weather clears and we can go above, I will ask for some broth for her. The sun will assist in her healing. You shall see. She wants to see America so much I can’t see her giving up.”
The next day broke through the clouds and the rains stopped. Everyone was anxious to stretch their legs above, hurrying up the ladders as quickly as the space allowed.
The girls grasped Theresa under her arms, carrying her thin body to the surface. They set her near the tall, belching chimney sending smoke trailing behind the ship. The air blew cool but the sun was warm and soon dried their moldy smelling dresses. Lucille left to locate some food or broth, carrying with her the few coins in their possession. Although she was successful, neither sister could get Theresa to eat. So they dipped chucks of hard rolls into the broth and ate their meal.
When it came time for them to go below, Theresa’s eyes opened and a glow lit her face. “It is so beautiful. I don’t hurt anymore.”
Both sisters looked at the ravaged form of their beloved sister. Her body shook from the fever and each worried that she was now delirious.
Theresa told them she loved them and to not be afraid. While their journeys would take them to special places and people, her journey was beginning on another plain of existence. Looking to the sky, her smile radiant, she took her last breath and died in her sister’s arms.
The ship’s captain allowed for a short funeral. A priest on board gave Theresa last rites and a rosary was said in her honor. Each sister kissed her goodbye and then the shipmates wrapped her in a rough piece of cloth and tossed her over the side. Annunciacao stood stoic, watching her sister sink below the waves. Lucille cried, saddened that they hadn’t been able to save her.
The very next day, the passengers cheered as they spotted their first site of America. They gazed upon the Statue of Liberty which stood proud, awaiting her new guests to their new home. The torch stood as a welcoming beacon to those who traveled to find a better life. The two sisters paused, with arms linked about each other, and silently cried. Each thought of Theresa and the secret she took with her when she died. She saw where it was she was headed but could not share. She did though share the secret that their journeys would be successful and full of hope and joy. Walking off the plank hand in hand they faced America with their heads held high.
Note: This story is mostly true with a little literary license. Hard times with truly courageous people.