Friday, November 11, 2011

Stowaway - Flash Fiction

Ivy stood, bewildered, at the bustling Liverpool quay.  By her side was a little girl, clinging on with one hand while clutching a dirty bundle with the other.

"Don't let go, Maggie," she said quietly to the child.

Their journey had been fraught with confusion and danger. Ivy had lost her position as a house servant; the mistress had not taken kindly to Ivy's pregnancy, and sacked her without a moment's hesitation. This despite the fact the child had been conceived with the help of the master.  He had arranged passage on a ship bound for New York, and given her enough money to tide her over until she got there. But with little knowledge of how things worked, Ivy had soon been taken advantage of, as were many of the emigrants trying to make their way to America. A rough looking man, which she now knew was a "runner", had forcibly snatched her bag at Goree Piazza and led her to a rundown lodging house, where he then demanded twice the going price. Exhausted and frightened, Ivy had no option but to pay him. The lodgings were filthy, the food poor, and the price far more than she had expected.

Morning brought more dismaying discoveries.The emigration agents were not employees of the shipping lines, but rather worked for brokers who bought space on the ships just as they did for any other cargo.  And so Ivy found herself anxiously milling around with hundreds of other men, women, and children, most with an odd assortment of boxes, bags and provisions, wondering how there could possibly be enough room for them all.

Two women jostled Maggie, and she dropped the handful of Ivy's dress to clutch her Dolly. An icy trickle of fear ran through the mother's stomach; if she and Maggie were separated, they'd never find each other again. She hugged the little girl close to her.

The last step before boarding was the medical examination. As they stepped to the window, the harried inspector asked their names, had them stick out their tongues, and then stamped their papers. Ivy realized she'd been holding her breath, and let it out slowly.  The last barrier had been cleared.

The confined steerage space, between the upper deck and cargo hold, was already jammed with hundreds of people as the two made their way inside. Rows of bunks, six feet wide by six feet long, lined the space;  most seemed already occupied. Seamen were directing people as best they could, and one of them indicated that Ivy and Maggie should take a particular bunk which was already occupied by two women and three children.

"Surely you do not expect all of us to..." Her heart sank.

Their allotted space would amount to about 18 inches. The crossing would take anywhere from four to six weeks.  Living in such close proximity, she wondered how she would ever keep their secret. She took Dolly from the little girl and pulled the edge of the blanket back. With its eyes closed the waxen face, tinged with blue, did indeed resemble a doll's. It was a mercy that the child had not cried during the long embarkation process.

"Will she get better?" asked Maggie anxiously. Ivy couldn't answer; she had no idea what was wrong with the infant, nor whether there was a ship's doctor on board. She would be terrified to consult him anyway.

She did know there was a high price to be paid for stowaways.

She did not know that the price would be counted in the human lives around them.

Cholera morbus was now on its way to America.



  1. Hey Li. Love the historical aspect of this story. Your last line has me wondering what's going to happen next.


  2. I dunno, Denise. This is pretty much my first foray into yet another new genre. So I'm not sure I'll continue this at some point or not...

  3. Magnificent account of this historical period of immigration in USA. I wish you a happy weekend.

  4. what an ominous ending...i think you should it is a very nice capture of a period with some def real suspense of the times...

  5. Nice portrayal of the harsh realitites of that era. The dismissal, the con-men, the conditions, all ring so horribly true. And the chilling ending just begs for a follow-on.

  6. Wow. That is powerful. I don't think you necessarily have to write any further as my imagination ran wild on the last line. But yes, do write more historical fiction!