No Other Choice
(Winning Entry, Creative Nonfiction Category, Canadian Stories Writing Competition 2015)
Kish stood on the rocky Newfoundland shore and gazed longingly out across the choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The distant shores of his English homeland were far away, on the other side of this great expanse of dark water…
It hadn’t been easy, growing up in a family of agricultural labourers, or “ag labs” as they were commonly known throughout the country. All but the very youngest were expected to work in the fields when work was available for each extra pair of hands meant a few more pennies added to the coffers for the family’s winter survival. Being part of a large family meant more hands to work but it also meant more mouths to feed. He went to work alongside his father when he was seven, like all the other boys did, and he could remember that first day clearly.
They found work that day and on the way home, Kish had never felt so tired in all his life! As soon as he finished his supper, he climbed the ladder to the loft and was asleep almost before he fell onto the straw bed. Still, it was not all bad. Once he got used to the long hours, he learned to rest on Sundays and days when no work was available.
For the millionth time he wondered if he had done the right thing. And the answer was always the same – at the time he knew there was no other choice. No other course of action seemed to make sense. He sat down on a rock as his mind drifted back again to the events of that last day…
Jacob Caines sat on a large junk of wood, placed end up beside the open fireplace, elbows resting on his knees, hands clasped, and head down. He watched his wife’s work-worn reddened hands as she stirred the contents of the cooking pot hanging over the fire, the last of their winter supply of cabbage. Elizabeth had a way of making everything last longer than he thought possible.
Anger and frustration filled the silence, as tangible as the smoke from the burning peat. Across the smoky room, Jacob’s tired, sad eyes met the cold glare of his son. This one reminded Jacob of himself at that age – well-built, strong, and far too stubborn for his own good. “You’re too young to understand, boy,” he said, his voice carefully controlled. “Tis always been like this, good years an’ bad years. We takes what we can get.”
“An’ we gets next to nothin’,” Kish shot back at him. “Every day tis harder to find work, ‘specially at this time of year.”
“It’ll be better in a month or so when there’s plowin’ an’ plantin’ to be done,” Jacob stated. “An’ there’ll be work for the whole family come summer.”
“But not steady work,” Kish said. “Tis day to day now. Not like it used to be.” He clenched his jaw, drawing a deep breath. “I hear there’s lots of jobs with the fishin’ fleet that goes to Newfoundland every year.”
“We’re not sea people,” Jacob said. “We works on the land. There’ll be more jobs come harvest time.”
“Come harvest time them new thrashin’ machines will spoil everything. There’ll be fewer jobs, not more.”
“We don’t know that,” Jacob cautioned. “We’ll just wait an’ see.”
Kish stared down at his hands. “Captain Swing thinks it will be bad,” he said under his breath.
Jacob practically growled. “Don’t be speakin’ that name in this house. Tis nothin’ but a way to stir up trouble, you’ll see. Won’t be no good come out of it. We’ll make do with what we gets.”
“Sure we will,” Kish said with a bitter laugh, knowing he was trying his father’s patience but unable to stop now that he’d gone this far. “But jobs is getting’ scarcer all the time an’ when them blo…”
“Kish Keynes! I’ll thank you to mind your tongue now.” Elizabeth never missed a chance to let her youngsters know that she didn’t tolerate swearing in her home.
“Sorry, Mum,” Kish said sheepishly. “But everyone knows how tis, with those machines doin’ the jobs an’ leavin’ nothin’ for the workers.”
From the corner of her eye, Elizabeth could see her son’s face turning as red as her husband’s. They were too much alike, these two. “Eat your supper now,” she said quietly, as she placed steaming bowls of cabbage stew on the table.
After they had eaten the boys went out and Jacob lay down. Elizabeth picked up her knitting. With so many males in the house it was hard to keep enough socks on hand, especially dry ones. The clicking of her needles was a soothing sound and her husband was soon asleep. She knew that well-knit socks could be traded for food or sold for pennies, though it seemed each pair was needed as soon as she finished them.
Cold air swirled through the room when the boys returned for supper, waking their father, who sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Anything on the go?” he asked.
“I’m ‘bout done with lookin’,” Kish said. “I’m goin’ to Newfoundland with the fishin’ fleet in the spring.’
‘Are you daft, boy?” Jacob’s face was red with anger. “All you knows is farmin’ an’ I ain’t heard ‘bout no farmin’ over there.”
Kish drew a deep breath before answering. “I s’pose I can learn.”
“Where’d you get such a foolish notion, anyway?”
“Berwick Fair, back in November,” Kish said. “Joe Bond said his uncle goes fishin’. He said there’s plenty of jobs, good pay, an’ he’s goin’ in the spring. If Joe can handle it then I can too.”
“Joe’s a year older an’ he got his uncle to watch out for him,” Elizabeth reminded him.
“I knows I can handle it Mum an’ I could bring home more money for the winter. Besides, with me gone you’d have one less mouth to feed for that many months.”
“Tis supper time so we’ll leave it for now,” Jacob said sternly. In his house nothing was allowed to interfere with eating.
“Yes, sir,” Kish replied as he took his place at the table. When supper was over Jacob announced that he was going to the taproom for a beer. The rest of the family stayed inside, where it was warmer.
When Jacob returned a short time later they could tell by the quiet way he closed the door behind him and the troubled look on his face that something was wrong.
“Jacob?” Elizabeth felt her heart beat faster, knowing that the news would be bad.
Her husband went to the fireplace, holding out his hands to warm them. “I heard some troublesome news tonight,” he said slowly. “Don’t rightly know if tis true, but tis not good.” He turned his head to look at Kish. “You could be in trouble, boy, real trouble.”
“Then you’d best tell me what it is,” Kish said, “so I can decide how to deal with it.”
Jacob turned to face him, hands behind his back. “You knows your poachin’s the only meat we had the last few weeks.”
“Yes sir, and I’m always real careful,” Kish replied.
His father nodded. “I knows you thought you was but seems like twas not enough. Word is that the magistrate is keepin’ a close eye on you and your friends. Silas told me when he said his grandson left for London today.”
Elizabeth’s knitting needles grew still and she looked up at her husband. “You mean Kish got to leave home?”
“I don’t know,” Jacob said, “but we knows what getting’ caught means.”
“Fisherton Anger Goal.” Elizabeth whispered. “Oh dear God, no! He’s just a boy.”
“Poachin’ is a man’s work an’ if you gets caught you gets a man’s punishment.:
"Do you want him to leave?” Her voice was heavy with sorrow and fear.
“Better than goin’ to Fisherton,” Jacob said quietly. “That place ‘as broke the spirit of many men stronger than him. We can wait a while, see what happens.” He looked at Kish. “But lay off the poachin’.”
“An’ go hungry again.” Kish felt the frustration and anger building up inside him. It wasn’t fair that so many had to do without while the few landowners had more than enough.
“We still got potatoes an’ beans an’ flour,” his mother pointed out. “We won’t starve.”
“You knows tis not enough, Mum. We needs meat too.”
“No use wantin’ what we ain’t got,” Jacob said. “We got to make do just like everybody else.”
“I’m tired of makin’ do,” Kish said angrily, slamming his fist against the wall. “I’m tired of bein’ hungry an’ poor an’ not findin’ enough work. I’m sick of it all!”
“You think fishin’ will be easier?” Jacob shot back. “Go on then. Try it. But don’t come crawlin’ back home when you fails.”
Kish’s hands were clenched at his sides. “I won’t fail!” he shouted.
“Tis your life boy an’ your decision. Think on it some before you makes up your mind. If you goes there’s no comin’ back.” Jacob turned and went to bed.
Elizabeth’s heart sank as she looked at her son. She could see in his eyes that his decision was already made. “When?” she whispered shakily.
“Early morn,” he replied. “Tis a 12-hour walk to Poole – or more.”
“Will you be allright?”
He nodded. “I’ll find work to keep me goin’ till I gets on one of the boats.”
She nodded, knowing he was right. “You best get some rest while you can.”
As he was leaving early the next morning, while it was still dark, his mother called to him from the door of the cottage. He turned back.
“I can see no other way, Mum,” he said quietly. “I will not go to Fisherton!”
“I know. Maybe tis best that you try to make a better life for yourself.” She pressed a little cloth bag into his hand. “Tis not much but it’ll help till you gets work.” Then she gave him a larger package. “You’ll want something to eat along the way.” Then she hugged him fiercely, something she rarely did. “God speed, my son.”
He put both packages into the worn and patched blanket that held his one spare change of clothes and hugged her back. “I’ll think of you every day, Mum.”
She nodded, then turned and walked quickly back inside, as if she couldn’t bear to watch him leave.
Kish was used to walking and he made good time. When dawn broke he sat on a rock at the side of the road, figuring it was about breakfast time. He untied the large package his mother had given him and found six thick slices of bread, spread with a scraping of jam, and a little piece of cheese. Kish decided that one slice of bread would do for now. He wasn’t sure how long he’d be on the road or how long this food would have to last. With that thought in mind, he tore the slice of bread in two pieces, figuring he could do with half a slice for now. He scanned the sky as he ate.
As he continued on, the day brightened a little, with the sun breaking through the cloud cover occasionally. He stopped again at what he thought was around mid-morning and ate another half slice of bread. At noon he stopped near a small creek. Cupping his hands to hold the fresh cold water, he drank thirstily. Then he ate another half slice of bread and broke off a few mouthfuls of the cheese. He then checked the little cloth bag and found inside two whole shillings and ten pence. He didn’t know how she’d got that much but it would surely help till he found work.
It was dark when he reached the city and found a place to sleep in the loft of a blacksmith’s shop. He drank from the shop’s water bucket and ate another half slice of bread. He untied his blanket, laid the contents to one side and sat down on the straw. As he removed his boots he stared at the thick warm socks on his feet. Suddenly he realized where the money had come from – the socks his mother had managed to sell since last fall. It was the last of her sock money and she had given it to him. He lay down, covering himself with the blanket. Then he thought long and hard about the situation he was in and knew what he had to do.
In the morning, Kish went to the docks but the ships that were ready to leave already had full crews. But he got the information he wanted – which ships were sailing first. That afternoon he spent some of his money on bread and cheese. Then he hung around, keeping out of sight till dark, and when the docks were empty Kish snuck aboard a ketch that he knew was leaving the next morning. He crawled into a lifeboat that was covered with sailcloth and settled down.
He knew this was the best way for there would be no record of him signing on the boat for a fishing voyage, or buying a passage. There would be no way to find him – just in case anyone asked.
Four days out at sea Kish was discovered. He crept out of his hiding place before dawn to get a drink from the barrel on deck when a sailor spotted him and grabbed the neck of his coat. “Hello then! What have we here?” Kish remained silent and very still.
“Yo, Cap’n,” the sailor called out. “We got a stowaway!”
The Captain strolled out on deck, hands clasped behind his back and looked at Kish. “Didn’t you ask for a job the day before we sailed?” His voice was deep and his face very stern.
“Yes, sir.” For the first time in his life Kish was scared. What would happen now? He hadn’t counted on being found.
“Set him loose,” the Captain said, nodding to the sailor. “He can’t go nowhere.” Then he looked at Kish. “Is it a job you’re after then, or free passage?”
Kish swallowed hard. “I wants to go to Newfoundland, sir, but I got no money.”
“Don’t look so scared, boy. Are you runnin’ from the law?”
“No, sir.” It was true. The magistrate was not really looking for him. He was just getting away before there was a reason to go.
“Are you any good to work?” the Captain asked.
“Yes, sir. I worked in the fields for seven years,” Kish said proudly.
The Captain frowned. “How old are you?”
“Fourteen,” Kish replied.
“I see.” The Captain rubbed his chin. “King!” he called loudly and the sailor reappeared on deck. “Get the boy some breakfast, put him to work, an’ make sure he don’t slack off!” Turning back to Kish, he added, “No one gets free passage. If you do a fair day’s work I’ll put you ashore when we reach land. If you don’t… well, we’ll see.”
“Oh, I’ll do a good day’s work, sir, an’ that you’ll see.” He could hardly get the words out fast enough.
“Come on then,” said the sailor as he headed below deck.
As Kish started to follow him the Captain called out, “What’s your name, boy?” “Kish, sir,” Kish replied as he hurried to catch up with the sailor.
Kish worked hard during the journey. He carried pails of human waste and galley slops which he emptied overboard; he learned how to mend sails until his fingers bled, and many other things that were part of life at sea. He also learned to like beer because it was safer to drink than the water after a week or so.
After 62 days at sea, they spotted land. Kish was happy to see it, although the journey had not been all bad. The Captain said he was welcome to stay and fish the season then return home in the fall. Kish declined. His father had said there was no coming back and if he was in England he would be tempted to return to his home. No, he knew it was best that he stay here, no matter what lay ahead.
The boat anchored off a small settlement called Rencontre and the Captain informed Kish that they always came here to take on fresh water. He said there were good people here and it would be a good place for Kish to start a new life. Kish hoped he was right but he was very nervous when he stepped ashore.
Now it was all behind him. A Mr. Mullins had taken a liking to Kish from the start. “Me an’ the wife needs someone young an’ strong to help with the chores now that we’re both gettin’ on in years,” he said. “Come along, son.”
Mullins was what they called a planter. He had a fishing room and several small boats. He had a number of boys and young men working for him and Kish quickly became part of the crew. On days when there was too much wind to fish, the others made repairs to the gear but Kish helped Mrs. Mullins with her garden because of his experience in England.
“Hey, Caines! Time to cut the bait for tomorrow.”
With a deep sigh, Kish brought his thoughts back to the present and turned away, ready to return to work. He heard the gentle whoosh of the ocean as it kissed the shore behind him, the sound growing fainter with each step he took. He still wasn’t sure that life in Newfoundland would be any easier but he knew he had done the right thing. Between the magistrate on the lookout and his father’s warning there had simply been no other choice.
© 2015 Fay Herridge