Grandmother Maloney was born in a small fishing village in Ireland. She had talked about the stone buildings with the thatched roofs, the peat lands, the green hills and fields of heather, and the rocks cliffs which sloped down to shores inhabited by seals and sea birds. The legend was that the seals would gather together on the beaches and chose their king.
Her father and brothers had been fishermen and they had been the ones to tell her these tales. Her brothers had teased her by telling her to watch out whenever she passed a gathering of seals. If the king seal sees you and fancies you, he will carry you off to be his queen.
It was said that some of those seals were selkies, creatures which could change from seal to human by shedding it’s seal’s skin. If you posses a selkie’s skin it is under your control until the day the selkie is able to get it back. On that day, it returns to it’s home in the sea. Selkie women were said to be exceptionally beautiful, with wild dark hair and eyes which appear once and twice in every generation of their descendants, and make the best wives.
Da and Mary had wild dark hair and eyes. As a child, Ashlyn had searched her house and the houses of any of her relatives for a selkie skin but had never found one.
Grandmother Coyle had told Ashlyn stories about the fair folk on warm summer nights when she had a hard time falling asleep. Sometimes they had gone for walks in the fields and woods near their house and looked for fairy rings by candlelight.
Ashlyn had liked to build fairy houses out of rocks, twigs, leaves, grasses, and flowers, anything she could find, in hopes that one day she would see a fairy. Sometimes in the little house she built, she would find a note from the fairy queen thanking her for her kindness and telling her to always be a good lass but never saw any fairies for herself. When she got older she realized that the fairy queen’s handwriting bore a striking resemblance to her Da’s.
No one had ever told her that things such as fairies and selkies did not exist, they just let her figure that out for herself.
“Wake up lass” Aunt Nora shook Ashlyn awake. Ashlyn groaned groggily. “come, put on your shawl. Everyone’s going up on deck.”
Ashlyn had fallen asleep in the bunk she shared with her aunt where she had been for most of the time she had been at sea. The weather had been dreadful the entire time and the sea as rough as anything. When the sea had calmed down a little and the sky stopped raining for a moment, she had been able to go up on deck for some fresh air. It was a blessed relief from being crammed down below deck, breathing clammy, stinking air, and being constantly sea sick.
“what’s everyone going up on deck for?” Ashlyn asked between yawns.
“you’ll see” Aunt Nora smiled, the first time she, who had spent the entire trip either praying or swearing, had smiled in days.
At Ashlyn’s side was her carpet bag which contained her things from home including her sewing kit, a bible with photographs of her loved ones tucked among it’s pages, and her passport and papers. But things she had that were of any value, her silver celtic cross, her amber rosary beads, and the money Ma and Da had given her, were kept on her person at all times, worn around her neck and hidden in her blouse.
Aunt Nora put on her coat and tied her shawl under her chin. She helped Ashlyn into her coat. Ashlyn put on her hat and shawl and grabbed her carpet bag to follow Aunt Nora up on deck. The seas had calmed and the sky was cloudy but it was not raining. It was cold for early October but the brisk air was refreshing after being cooped up below deck.
“The weather has been awful these days” Aunt Nora said “remember how we all prayed to St. Christopher for an easy voyage before we left from Belfast. Well I don’t think that St. Christopher was at home that day.”
They had all come to Belfast to see them off, Ma, Da, Mary, her husband, and their children. After staying the night at Aunt Shannon’s, they had prayed for a safe journey and they all cried when they left for Liverpool, even her usually jovial Da.
In Liverpool, they had their hair combed and shampooed for lice and their things fumigated to prevent disease, much to the chagrin of Aunt Nora who insisted that they were clean people and were not carrying any vermin or disease, and boarded the steamship for America.
Soon Ashlyn realized why everyone was gathered on deck. The ship was coming into New York Harbor. When they saw the Statue of Liberty looming out of the fog, there was much cheering and tossing of hats. Ashlyn wept for joy.
The it was, America. And America meant Will.
She had known Will Murray all of her life and had loved him for just as along. Will’s Aunt Deirdre was a friend of her Ma’s. His parents had died when he was very little but they had left enough money for Will to get a decent education. Ashlyn had always been impressed by how clever he was.
As the years passed, their relationship had changed from that of playmates to that of sweethearts and they promised to marry. When Will left for America, Ashlyn assumed that he would forget about her and marry some beautiful young cattle baroness and when months ago he had written to her asking her to come to America and be his wife, she had been surprised but quickly excepted.
“What d’you think New York will be like?” Ashlyn asked Aunt Nora.
“Don’t know, child” she answered “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, how you bothered me with your questions this entire trip”
“I couldn’t help it Aunt Nora, there was nothing else to do”
The ship docked on the Hudsen River and another ship took them to Ellis Island. When Ashlyn saw the red and white bricks and onion domes of Ellis Island, she thought it looked something like something between a fair pavilion and a prison.
“What day is today?” She asked Aunt Nora.
“The tenth of October, I think” Aunt Nora answered.
The tenth of October was Ashlyn’s birthday.
“What a way to spend your birthday” she thought as she and Aunt Nora were herded inside along with everyone else.
They were brought upstairs to a large room with large windows and a large American flag hanging at one end. Shafts of sunlight came in through the large windows and glared upon the sea of brown and grey that filled the room below.
The day passed in blurr of seeming endless lines of people being processed and the noises of people talking and shouting in every language possible and their children crying. The medical examinations made Ashlyn nervous because she thought that her weak lungs and heart would be cause for her to be sent back but the doctor did not seem to think those were an issue. The doctor had been a handsome, youngish man who seemed to think that he was the natural person to handle a young girl in her underwear. Afterwards Ashlyn had complained to Aunt Nora that she did not think it was proper that she was handled by a man while half dressed.
“You better get used to the idea of being handled by a man while half dressed if you’re going to be married” Aunt Nora had said.
Ashlyn blushed and thought herself foolish.
Then immigration officers asked them questions and checked their papers. The questions were things such as “what is your name?” “how old are you?” “Where are you from?” “Have you ever been arrested?” “how much money do you have on you?”. Ashlyn answered that her name was Ashlyn Rose Maloney. She was nineteen years old as of today and was from Strabane in County Tyrone Ireland. No, she had never been arrested and she had about five pounds on her.
When the immigration officer said she could go, Ashlyn breathed a sigh of relief.
The entire ordeal had taken less than a day. After they had been processed and accepted, they went and had a meal in the dining room which was a step up from the little bread and little soup on tin plates they had been given on board the ship. Then they exchanged their pounds for dollars and took the next ferry to Battery Park.
Docking in Battery Park, they stepped foot in New York City. Looking through William’s last letter, she followed the address he had given her.
“Just think, Aunt Nora, before you know it we’ll be living in one of those fine houses like those in those society clippings Will sent me in one of his letters”
“easy there love, let’s concentrate on finding where we’re supposed to be living now first”
Ashlyn looked about wide-eyed. The bustle of the city made her feel overwhelmed. Her first impression of the new world was a bit disappointing. It was not quite hell but it was far from the heaven people imagined it was. The streets they walking through were crowded and noisy. The air was filled with smoke, smells, and the voices of people.
A gang of youths loitered in front of a stores and were smoking cigars and cigarettes. They whistled at Ashlyn they walked by.
A shabby, freckle faced little boy toting a bag of newspaper shouted the headlines. Aunt Nora purchased a newspaper from him.
Following the address brought them to a tenement on a street in the Lower West Side.
Two rows of buildings with fire escapes and awnings with an area in between crowded with carts and passers by and a spider’s web of clotheslines hanging above head.
In the doorway of the number building indicated stood a fair haired lady in her forties sweeping the front hall. She came out, stood out under the awning, noticed them, and blinked a few times.
“Hello Aunt Deirdre” Ashlyn said to her, sinking in a slightly curtsy.
“Child, child, child” Aunt Deirdre said “won’t Will be delighted to see you”
“Where is he, Aunt Deirdre?”
“Still at work, but he’ll be home later this evening. ” Aunt Deirdre pinched Ashlyn’s cheek.
Will worked as a clerk for the Metropolitan Police.
“Come inside, come inside”
The Murray apartment was on the second floor of the building which meant it was one of the nicer apartments. In tenements buildings the nicer apartments were on the lower floors. When one entered, they entered into a main room. At the far end were two large windows with lace curtains which lead out onto the fire escape. On one side was a kitchen range and stove for cooking with shelves above them. Pushed into the corner were a medium sized tub and mangle for doing laundry. On the other side was a table and chairs with a shelf above on which were a crucifix and a statue of the Virgin Mary. In the center of the room sat Aunt Deirdre’s rocking chair on top of an old red and black rug.
The walls were papered with an ugly wallpaper of sickly sulfuric yellow color with a florid pattern reminiscent of fungus and seaweed. The room looked warm and cosy and safe.
“There’s a wash stand in my bedroom, if you’d like to freshen up”
At door at one end of the main room lead into a narrow, rectangular bedroom. Inside, the walls were rough, the floor was bare with a faded old carpet on top, and a bulky cast iron radiator took up one corner. Most of the room was took up by a metal frame bed and a changing screen with a washstand behind.
Ashlyn removed her red shawl and her grey coat and then her green tam hat. She gently put the hat and shawl on the bed. They were special to her because Ma and Da had given them to her before they left Belfast. She could still picture him standing on the quay, smoking his pipe and waving as the ship left port.
Aunt Deirdre came in with a pitcher full of water for washing and two towels.
“There’s a bar of soap in the basin” she said “I’ll put a pot of water on for tea and Ashlyn, Will should be home any minute”
Knowing that she would soon she her future husband, Ashlyn thoroughly washed her face, neck, and hands and smoothed and rearranged her hair. She had not been able to properly wash for almost a fortnight and was she looked quite a fright. By the time she had finished freshening up, a young man had taken a seat at the table and was drinking tea with Aunt Deirdre and Aunt Nora.
He was about twenty-three, tall and lithe, with a head of sandy curls and an open, handsome face, merry blue eyes and a cocky, boyish smile. His clothes did not look expensive or stylish but were neat, clean, and suited him well and he carried himself like a duke, with something that would be called arrogance on someone else but seemed perfectly justified on him.
“Will?” Ashlyn asked
He turned, looked Ashlyn over, smiled, and stood up.
“there you are” he said.
Will came over and picked up Ashlyn into his arms, kissing her. Diminutive and delicate Ashlyn weighed little more than a feather to him. Then he held her at arm’s length so he could look at her.
Ashlyn fit the definition of pretty rather than beautiful. Her delicate features were a bit too soft and her nose was a bit too crooked for beauty but she had a good fair complexion with rosy cheeks, large and lovely blue eyes, and full lips which curled into a sweet smile. Strands of strawberry blond hair had refused to be held back by pins that held her chignon in place. Only the most fastidious would find fault with her looks She had polite and pleasing manners as good as those of the highest born lady.
Over cups of tea, Aunt Nora related the sorry tale of their dreadful voyage over from Ireland. Ashlyn said that she had not minded it: it had been an adventure.
“Ashlyn Maloney, you’re the bravest girl I know” Will said
What Ashlyn had said was partly true. This trip to America had been the bravest and most exciting thing she had ever done. Certainly more exciting than staying in Strabane and doing the same thing day after day.
The fondness between the two young people had quickly rekindled and they began talking as they had only been separated for a few days. Remembering Ashlyn’s fondness for reading , William showed her the collection of books he had amassed, promising that she could borrow what wanted.
“this one’s my favorite” Ashlyn said when she found a well worn volume of Poe among Will’s collection. She thumbed through the book until she came to a favorite poem.
He smiled, knowing that he plan was working.
He was wooing Ashlyn with books.
After dinner, the family sat in the main room and Will read aloud from the book Ashlyn had chosen. To him, poetry was best enjoyed read aloud.
“I was a child and she was a child, in this kingdom by the sea. But we loved with a love that was more than love- I and my Annabel Lee”
He had a fine speaking voice and the ladies hung on his every word.
That night, Ashlyn slept in Aunt Deirdre’s room. The two Aunts slept in the bed, she slept in the daybed by the window. She had a hard time falling asleep and tossed and turned for what seemed like hours. It felt strange to sleep in a strange bed and also there was the light and noise coming from street and snoring of her aunts.
It suddenly struck her that she felt homesick. When she did fall asleep, she dreamed of home.
Mostly she missed her family, specifically her Da. Seamus Maloney was a big man with a big voice and had been something of a brawler, having spent his youth fighting for money on the docks and pubs of Belfast, but was as gentle as lamb around his wife and daughters. He had never been what one would call a handsome man but had a sort of romantic ruggedness which had caused her mother to fall in love with him. By profession, he was a pewtersmith but he was sometimes in trouble with the law for aiding the fenians. Will Murray was the exactly the type of man Da Maloney wanted for his youngest and dearest daughter. He was glad that Ashlyn was to marry a good Irishman who would take good care of her and raise their children as clean catholics.
Her mother, Margaret, was a small, gentle, sweet faced woman whom Ashlyn greatly resembled in looks and temperament. Her sister Mary was six years her senior and took after Da, being statuesque and dark haired with an easy going charm and a strong force of personality. Mary had been a tomboy in her childhood, having prefered to play cricket and climb trees rather than play with dolls and sew samplers. She was now married to her childhood sweetheart Matthew Dowd and they had three children. But despite the outward resemblance, Mary did not have strangeness most people found in Da. The world seemed to judge certain people as “strange” for whatever reason, mostly because they did not do as they did and Da was one of those people. Ashlyn was also given the same look that “strange” people were given and she had never understood why.
Despite the homesickness she was feeling, Ashlyn knew that following Will to America had been the right thing to. It was an adventure and a chance to start over. This was what she had wanted.
Will stepped into the bedroom having heard Ashlyn crying. He tread softly into the room as to not wake the aunts because it was unseemly for him to enter a maiden’s bedroom even if he was soon to marry her. He sat on the day bed beside Ashlyn. Noticing that he was there, she wiped her eyes with a sheet to get rid of the evidence that she had been crying.
“You miss your family don’t you?” He asked
“Yes” she answered.
“You’ll be happy here, I promise. This place is special, I can feel it.”
Will had taken to New York quickly. He liked the fast paced excitement of the city and he believed that Ashlyn would take to it too.
His words comforted her a little bit and gave her a little more strength. She called upon the rest of whatever strength she had to help her get over her homesickness.
It was silly to dwell on the past when a new life was beginning, but she believed that it would not be as easy as Will believed.
Will turned to leave the room.
” wait, I need a goodnight kiss” Ashlyn said.
He kissed her on the forehead and went across the hallway to his own room.
When he had first seen Ashlyn that day, she had seemed little changed from what she had been four years before. But looking at her again, she had changed from a sprite to a goddess since then, with her long tendrils of red-gold hair loose around her shoulders , her blue eyes sparkling, the moonlight making her fair skin glow, and her nightdress clinging to the voluptuous s-shaped curves of her body.
Will went to bed thinking about how lucky he was. He had everything a man could ask for and he was not yet twenty-four.