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REEDSY.COM  24JUL2020

Writing prompt #51

Write a story that begins and ends with someone looking up at the stars.

Birthday Star     clcronan2020

He knew water this cold could kill just as easily as a hundred other things he’d faced so far. He clenched his jaw tight to try to keep from shivering, and he searched the sky for his star. The one his mother gave him. He wondered if it could really be just three weeks ago that she left him, and he left her.

It had always been just the two of them. They had been scrappy enough to survive the filthy streets of Southhampton for all his 20 years. 

Scraping in the streets in Southampton on the Itchen River meant they were near fish to eat from the river, the alms from St Mary’s and a long string of docks to work at, finding odd jobs for a few pence. As a docker he might find a bit of work scraping barnacles from a dory or a ship, swabbing the docks after the fishermen scrubbed their trawlers, or even be invited onboard a factory ship to scrub away the remnants of a giant whale that was gutted for oil, fat, bone and livestock feed. Or he could run messages from ships to merchants. At the end of the day he might have earned a shilling or two. Then head straight into town to buy a loaf of day old bread for a farthing, a cup of soup for 4 pence, and a pint to quench his thirst for a shilling, if he was lucky enough to have one remaining. 

His mum would be off scraping for her own shillings. She always smiled a sad smile, even with a tear in her eye, when he asked what she did with her day. She would only answer, “Each of us does whatever we can, wherever we can find it.” She wouldn’t ask too much about his day either. She felt like a failed mum, that the only life she could provide him was the life of a sewer rat; sometimes called a rough sleeper. A rough sleeper was a person who always had to find a “tuck in” by a staircase, or a factory alleyway, under a bridge, or just a niche in the embankment to lay their head down for a few hours of sleep. His mum said to always avoid the park benches because the do-gooders might sweep him off to a workhouse. She had suffered a terrible but unspoken fate at a workhouse, and she was much afraid the same would befall him. He never felt the threat of things turning bad as much as she did, but he knew it was because she was a mother, where as he was an adventurer.

As he had grown from 6 years, to 7, to 8, he had begun to see the reality of his mother’s existence. He never once mentioned to her that he knew. His dreams turned to rescuing her from a life that was surly killing her, both in spirit and in body. At age 9 or 10, the last ember of his carefree ignorance was snuffed out by the appearance of his mum at the under-bridge. He was barely able to recognize her but for the way she tried so hard to convince him she’d be just fine. He knew rage that night. She saw it set in. He saw that it only added to her sorrow, so he said nothing, but there was no hope of hiding the inferno in his eyes.

Her eyes were blackened, her lip, swollen and bleeding, her one dress, torn in two places, and so muddy she would have to scrub it in the river tonight. Worst of all she was walking like she was made of broken bones.

He gave her his bread and soup and went to collect old newspapers for her to wear while she scrubbed her dress. He wished he could get the church to let him rummage in the alms bin in hopes of a finding his mum something new to wear, but they locked up tight at night, so he couldn’t check until morning. They huddled together for sleep that night as if they could save each other.

In early spring, his mum liked to remember his birthday. She met him at the crooked notch near the Burnley Wharf, with a dripping cake she bought fresh for the occasion. They were both giddy with the indulgence. After it was devoured, they licked their sticky fingers cleaner than they’d been in years. Then they lay back on the damp moss and stared up at the stars. His mum sighed and reached out to take his hand. She said the stars returned to the same places every year. “In April, we will always be able to see the stars the way they are tonight.” She said that at 13 he was fit for man’s work, and with any luck, he might find something steady. When he did, then there would be “no more sleeping out under the stars, unless we want to.” Even a tenement with shared plumbing would be a start. She said hey should wish on a star to appeal to the heavens for help. His mum was not one for talking this way, so he was afraid of what she was leaving unspoken.

She let her eyes search for a minute or two, and then stretched her arm out straight and pointed at the brightest star in the sky. “There! That will be our special star. Your birthday star. Wish now, wish to leave your boyhood behind and find a man’s life, the life you’ve earned with your years on the street.” He made the wish, and added that he wished his mum would benefit from any good luck he might find.

That kind of luck was harder to come by than either of them imagined on that night. As young men do, he started feeling his oats, and his manly rights. He was always in a fisticuffs and had spent many a night in the basements of the pubs hiding from the string of Bobbies who now knew his name. He came to know the women of the circle his mum traveled in, and without a word as to why, he always stroked their hair and kissed their cheek before he departed. He knew the horrors of their lives and was yet unable to refrain from visiting them. He found it excruciating to face his mother if even a shadow of these deeds whispered in his brain. So instead of learning to walk the straight and narrow, he simply saw his mother less often.

When he did see her, she looked aged beyond her years. At first he convinced himself it was from nothing more than her lifestyle. She confessed that indeed the life had taken its toll, so that she changed professions, and that she was now scrubbing floors and emptying bed pans at hospital. He cringed to think her life might be even harder this way, but she just smiled her sad smile and asked how he was making out with all the new temptations manhood brought. He thought she was saying she could see right through him, but she really just meant the distraction of spending days in the pubs drinking and picking fights, and all of those days not being spent looking for gainful employment. She laughed a little laugh and said, “Never mind my dear son, one must take time to sow their oats. Just try not to forget our star, and the wish you made.”

She looked swollen the next time he saw her. He was afraid she’d been beaten, and he was raring to avenge her. She laughed and told him old women get wider, so her face was wider, and there was no avenging to be done, except maybe with father time.

Then a week later, she had a fat lip that looked like it might be days old because the scab upon it was dry and cracked. She tried again to blame age and working with the lye she used when scrubbing floors. She seemed completely worn out, but said it was only that she didn’t sleep well anymore, and that was nothing but another sign of age.

His mounting guilt toward his mums lot kept him from looking for her for nearly four weeks. When he finally did see her she had a shawl pulled forward over her face and joked that it was for his sake, as her aging had been so upsetting to him. He saw her hands and her feet were covered in an angry looking rash. She said she had been clumsy with the lye and these were burns that were nearly healed. And when her scarf slipped away from her face, he saw sores and warts along her mouth and chin. He wanted more information, but he was also afraid that perhaps she maintained enough innocence to believe to story she’d been telling him. He reached out to take her hand, but she recoiled as if he meant to hurt her. They stood looking into each others eyes for a strange, long time, wordlessly making an agreement not to name the demon they both knew possessed her now.

He sought her out the following week, and the week after, but all those in her circle said they had not seen her either. He knew they were covering for her, but could not call them out, and chose to act as casually as if he were not worried at all. 

The next time they met she looked revived. He felt giddy. She laughed at his lightness, he reveled in her good health.

Over the next few years, they both got older. At 17 he knew he was squandering his youthful strength and risking ever finding that job that would get them up off the streets. As for his mum, her hair grew thin, her face filled back out, and her body aches were more and more often debilitating. 

He took work wherever he could find it now. He felt as though his selfishness was killing his mother. She needed to get in off the streets and he needed to find a way to make that happen. 18 and 19 brought him a better reputation, and so more work, and then finally steady work at the docks loading cargo on ships heading out and unloading cargo when the ships returned. Finally they were able to get a flat in the tenement off Chantry Road, which wasn’t far from the docks.

He watched over his mum as she kept getting smaller and smaller, her throat seemed to always be sore, and her legs could no longer carry her out of the flat. She was so irritable that he could hardly see his old mum in her eyes. Against her wishes he brought the doctor up.

Just before his 20th birthday, she got so she needed to be carried to the privy, then, so that he needed the nuns to come look after her needs while he worked. They insisted he move her to a sanitarium for more proper care, but he could not be persuaded. Her water had gone black, and she was asleep unless she was being prodded, but he vowed to be with her until the end. 

She rolled over one night in early spring, looked at him more clearly than she had in a year, and smiled her sad smile. He scooped her up in all her blankets and carried her to the banks of the Itchen, and laid her down in the damp moss. He laid down next to her and scanned the sky. “Mum, look there!” he said as he stretched his arm and his pointed my finger toward their star.

“Remember you gave me that star to make birthday wishes upon? Do you know what my wish is tonight, Mum? I wish you could know how much I love you. I wish you could know how much I’ll miss you. I wish you could be young and healthy and rich. I wish I could take away all the pain you have now, and all the pain you’ve know on earth. I wish I had a dripping cake to share with you, just like the night you gave me my star.”

When he sat up and turned to her, he saw she had gone. She had that sad smile on her face, and he felt a painful, tearing sorrow and a sad but great relief. His dear mum would suffer no more.

He did not have any money to use for a proper burial, so he just walked away, leaving her in the moss. It deepened the sorrow he felt. He had tried his best to care for her, and in the end he had not enough to give.

He was sullen in the following weeks, but an idea was forming, and it consumed all of his attention. There was a great ship in the harbor, and she was headed for America. He vowed to be on that ship, but knew he could never raise the fare in time. So, he would stowaway. It seemed like just the thing his life had been training him for: he was stealthy, he was familiar with on loading, he would not raise any suspicions at the pier. The trick was to not be discovered until the voyage was well underway. Then he would very quickly need to make himself valuable enough to not get thrown overboard.

She was a beauty. Many had never seen the likes of her. So large that the kitchen would be hauling food on board by the ton, and that presented itself as just the opportunity he was looking for. For the next day and a half he would be buried under the potatoes. It would require a rigging to keep him from being crushed or discovered, but he knew that much he could manage. He took jug of water, an apple, and some jerky, made a wish upon his star, and then hunkered down inside the bin.

He really did think that he was going to die in that potato bin. It was more stifling than anywhere he’d ever been, and the weight of the potatoes threatened to crushed the rigging right down on top of him. At the end of the first full day at sea he was found out. A cooks-boy was unloading the bin and was startled by the oddity he unearthed. When he lifted the rigging he laughed, and in what might have been Italian, he told a story while pounding one chest and the other, and then back around again. He must have stowed away at one time and was trying to share his story. He shooed the stow away down the passageway and went about his business, still chuckling.

Finally able to breathe properly, and enormously relieved to have passed the first test, he went as far below decks as was possible. He asked in third class, of many folks like him, what work he might do to earn some food, and the right to sleep hidden in steerage. Most laughed at his nerve, some looked as if they’d run right up the stairs to turn him in. No one thought he should be seen above decks, or chance making himself known to any crew.  

By day four he was feeling entirely too shut in to stand it another minute. That night he made his way onto the lower deck for some air. It was glorious. He strolled along the rail until he got out from under the decks above. He ached to see the stars. They looked surreal in their brightness. The ship was sailing so smoothly, and so quickly that the voyage itself seemed surreal.

Suddenly he found himself flat on the deck. He had hit his head rather hard, and for a moment, thought someone had jumped him from behind. But the roaring crunching tearing ripping sound that filled the air was unlike anything ever heard on earth before. His first thought was, “Am I on my way to hell?” The deck filled with passengers in various states of panic and disbelief. He came to his senses enough to remember where he was. Not a soul on board could have taken an interest in him that night.

An iceberg had torn a hole in the side of the ship and she was going to go under. Life boats were for women and children and the wealthy. Not for him. He scanned and scoured for things that would float. One story he learned from working the docks was how when a ship goes under she creates a great suction to bring all in her wake down to the bottom with her. He had to get off this ship now.

Grabbing as tightly as he could to the shipping crates he’d roped together, he jumped from a great height into the icy water. His breath was sucked from his lungs from the shock. No one had known he was on board, and no one knew he was in the water.

If he blocked out all the screaming and the terrible unearthly moaning that the ship was making, and lay back on what of the rigged up raft had survived the fall, and looked up at the stars as he paddled away from the wreckage, it was in fact a beautiful night. And there was his star. Just him, his star, and the unbearable cold.

July 24, 2020 20:21

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2 comments

Gilbert Were
05:28 Jul 30, 2020

A great story, could have been better with some kind of a dialogue.

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17:43 Jul 25, 2020

Amazing! This story was really cool. I think you couldn’t broken up the paragraphs a bit more and maybe added some dialogue to bring it to life, but that’s about it. The beginning especially is awesome—it’s such a great hook. Nice work! Would you mind checking out one or two of my stories? Thank you! -AeRiN!!😁😁😁

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