A Claddagh Story
New York City, 1835
Rory Doherty trudged homeward, unable to keep the spring from his step. Exhaustion gnawed at every fibre of his being, but it was spring, the snow was almost gone, and the future beckoned.
’Twould be a glorious future, to be sure. He was going to college. Mr. Crowley had promised. And not just any college. To Harvard, where he could learn and study to his heart’s content.
Where no one would punish him for writing a bit of poetry or reading a Shakespeare play or studying America’s history.
He would get away from the Five Points, make a good life for himself.
And he would get his mother away from Seamus Doherty.
He drew in a deep breath, the smell of growing things almost enough to disguise the disgusting smells emanating from the tenements, and ran lightly up the rickety fire escape steps to the dark, dingy room he shared with his parents. Only a few more weeks, only a little more time, and he’d be away.
He flung open the door and froze, stifling the cry that rose to his throat.
His father stood over his trembling mother, one beefy fist in her hair, the other holding a crumpled sheet of fine paper.
Had it really come? Had Mr. Crowley’s recommendation really done the trick?
Would he really go to college?
“And what’s this?” Seamus Doherty flung the letter in his son’s face. “The man next door’s after tellin’ me you’re plannin’ to run off and go to college? Over my dead body, lad. There’s no way ye’re goin’ to waste four years of your life studyin’ nonsense. We need ye here, need the money ye earn.”
Elation flooding him, Rory snatched up the letter and devoured its contents. He really had been accepted to Harvard College on a full scholarship! He’d finally succeeded! He could be a teacher, perhaps, or even a businessman. The future was his!
“Do you hear me, lad? Ye’re not going to that college! Oh, no, ye’ll be stayin’ here where ye belong and helpin’ me pay the bills.”
Cold rage eclipsing his brief moment of glory, Rory stared hard at his father. His face was mottled and red, his hair and clothing mussed. He’d been drinking. Anger and hatred glittered in his eyes.
“Oh, I’ll be going, all right.” The devil rising in him, folded the letter with exaggerated care. “And I’ll be making something of myself, too. I won’t end up a useless drunk like you, Da, an illiterate Irish oaf who can’t even pen yer name to paper.”
Rory never saw the blow coming. His father’s fist felt like a length of iron across his head. “Who is this Gerald Crowley who recommended ye, that’s what I’d like to know. I’ll beat ye until ye tell me if I have to.”
“He’s my friend,” Rory shouted back, defiance in every line of his body.
Then he saw the vicious gleam in Seamus’s eyes, and everything inside went cold with fear.
Seamus wheeled about to face Mary Doherty. Rory’s mother went pale. “Please, Seamus…”
“Who is this man, Mary, and why is he so eager to help your son?”
Ma wrung her hands, her eyes brimming over with tears. “I – he – he lives down the street.”
“And how is it ye’re after payin’ him, then?”
“N-nothing. I pay him nothing, Seamus, I swear to you!”
“Have ye been sleepin’ with him?”
“No!” Ma covered her face with her hands.
“I pay him!” Rory cried out, unable to bear to see his mother tormented so. “I’ve been running errands for him, and he’s been teaching me.”
“I don’t believe ye! A man’ll do nothin’ for free.” Cursing violently, Seamus backhanded his wife, once, twice, three times. Finally she fell backward with a small cry, striking her head against the iron grate. She lay there, unmoving, for what seemed forever.
“Ma!” His heart pounding with anguished terror, Rory flew to her, stroking her hair with a trembling hand, struggling to hold back his tears. “Ma, wake up! Please wake up. Ma? Ma!”
His beloved mother was dead.
Rory stared up at Seamus for an eternal moment. Was that triumph he saw glittering in his father’s eyes? Triumph that he’d finally taken away the one person Rory loved, the one person who loved Rory?
Rory got unsteadily to his feet, lifting his mother’s lifeless body in his arms. She weighed little more than a child. His eyes still locked with his father’s, he trudged slowly to his parents’ pallet and laid her down. Reaching under the pillow, he found her Rosary beads. Tenderly, he twined them through her fingers, his tears falling on the work-worn hands that had smoothed his hair, held him when his Da beat him, stroked his cheek and told him he was a fine lad with a promising future in America.
He brushed back her hair, and kissed her good-bye.
Then he turned and faced his father.
Seamus clutched a knife in one brutal hand. He leaped forward, swiping the knife across Rory’s chin. Blood spattered across his shirt, but he had no time to feel the icy agony. Quick as a striking snake, Rory grabbed his father’s wrist and gave a vicious twist. He watched with smug satisfaction as Seamus’s face changed from ugly triumph to absolute terror.
I’m taller and broader than you, old man.
He gave the thick wrist another vicious twist, and the knife fell uselessly to the floor. Seamus dived for it, but Rory was half a second faster. In one smooth motion, he swept up the knife and brandished it in his father’s face.
“Should I use it, old man?” he sneered. “To search for your non-existent heart?” Triumph and grief surged through his veins in great, liberating waves. “You’re scared now, aren’t you? I can see it in those mean little eyes of yours, smell it on your breath.”
A snarl twisting his thick lips, Seamus went for the knife. Rory watched as if from far away as he lost his footing in a pool of Ma’s blood. With an incoherent cry, he fell forward, impaling himself on the knife still clutched in Rory’s hand.
Rory staggered against his bulk, instinctively shoving him away. He watched in horrified fascination as Seamus slid silently to the floor.
The he gazed down at his hand. Warm stickiness dripped over and through his fingers. Blood. Seamus Doherty’s blood. The tangy stench seared his nostrils.
A bubble of that same blood spurted from Seamus’s mouth. Without a single pang of regret, Rory watched him die.
The knife clattered to the floor.
He’d killed his father!
The full horror of the situation hit him, and he sank to the floor next to the body.
He was a murderer. Rory pulled his legs up to his chin and laid his head on his arms, rocking back and forth and keening softly.
He was a murderer.
It didn’t matter that he’d been provoked. Didn’t matter that he’d only been defending himself. There could be no excusing his crime. There could be no absolution.
He was a murderer.
The letter from Harvard College lay forgotten on the floor like a sacrifice. Tenderly, he picked it up and stroked his fingers over the expensive vellum, his tears blurring the ink on the page. A murderer wasn’t fit to walk amongst scholars.
Harvard College was not for him. Not any longer.
He would leave this cursed flat. He’d jump on a boat going south, survive any way he could. Maybe even go back to Ireland someday.
And one day, please God, he’d find peace.