No Other Choice
Kish stood on the rocky Newfoundland shore and gazed longingly out across the choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The distant shores of his native homeland were far away, on the other side of this great expanse of dark water…
It had not 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 was both good and bad – it 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.
“Come along, Kish,” his mother had said. “Your father’s ready to leave and he’s got your lunch.”
“I can carry me own lunch, Mum. I’m a big boy now, remember?”
“So you are, then,” she replied, hiding a smile. “So you are.”
Kish had walked proudly down the road beside his father and older brother Kadmiel that morning, swinging his little lunch packet. He really did feel like a big boy, and older too, now that he could go to work and help earn money for the family. Sure he was practically a man now!
They had found work that day and on the way home, Kish had walked more slowly. He had never felt so tired in all his life! As soon as he finished his meagre supper of bean soup and bread, 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’d got used to the long hours. He had learned to rest up more on days when there was no work available and on Sundays.
For the millionth time he wondered if he had done the right thing. And it always came back to the same thing – at the time he had felt like there was no other choice. No other course of action seemed to make sense. He sat down on a rock as his mind once more drifted back to the events of those last couple of days…
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 saw his wife’s work-worn reddened hands as she stirred the contents of the cooking pot hanging over the fire. There’d been a gathering of some sort at one of the farms a couple of days before and the mistress had given the leftover meat bones to the women who had helped prepare the food. His wife, Elizabeth, had got a good one with some meat still left on it. Supper for the next few days would be broth instead of water with their bread – a rare treat indeed! It sure smelled good too.
Anger and frustration filled the silence, as tangible as the smoke from the burning peat. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Jacob painfully straightened his aching back as much as he could with any degree of comfort. That second stint in the cold, damp confines of Fisherton Anger Goal had almost crippled him. Even now, 20 years later, it pained him to think about it.
His sons were on the opposite side of the room, waiting for supper to go on the table, Kadmiel (19), Kish (14), Keros (12) and Cornelius (8). This night, however, Jacob’s attention was on Kish, the most rebellious.
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.”
“There’ll be more work in a month or so when there’s plowin’ and plantin’ to be done,” Jacob stated. “An’ in summer there’s work for the whole family.”
Kish clenched his jaw. “But not steady work,” he said. “Not like it used to be. Tis only day to day now.” He breathed deeply. “I hear there’s lots of jobs with the fishin’ fleet that goes to Newfoundland every year.”
“We are not sea people,” Jacob said. “We work on the land. Things’ll get better come harvest time. There’ll be jobs then.”
“Come harvest time them new thrashin’ machines are goin’ to spoil everything. There’ll be fewer jobs, not more.”
“You … we don’t know that,” Jacob cautioned. “We just have to wait and 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.”
“There’s been fires and threatenin’ letters up in Suffolk already. I heard they’re plannin’ to break the thrashin’ machines,” Kadmiel added. “We’ll be lucky to get much work this year.”
“It takes everything we earn between us all just to keep a roof over our heads an’ put food on the table. An’ even with the poachin’ we only gets meat once a week – if we’re lucky! What’s the chances of any of us ever getting’ a life of our own, with homes an’ families?” Kish mumbled between clenched teeth.
Jacob looked at him and then said quietly, “You’ll have the same chances as I had when I was growin’ up.”
“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. “There was more jobs back then but now theys getting’ scarcer all the time an’ when them blo…”
“Kish Keynes! I’ll thank you to mind your tongue now.” Elizabeth never interfered when Jacob was talking but she never missed a chance to let her youngsters know that she didn’t tolerate any swearing.
“Sorry, Mum,” Kish said sheepishly. “But everyone knows how tis, with those machines doin’ the jobs an’ there’s nothin’ left over for the workers.” Kish knew he had a stubborn streak. More than once his father had told him, “You’re just as stubborn as the weather was the year you were born. Snow, wind and bone-chilling frost for days at a time, not fit for man nor beast to be out in.
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. “Get your cups now, everyone,” she said quietly, “an’ come get your broth. Bread’s already on the table.”
Very carefully and precisely, she measured one full ladle of mutton broth into each cup, serving her husband first and then the boys. She filled her own cup last, with about half as much as the others.
They ate in silence and went to bed shortly after. Dawn came early, especially for those who wanted to be first in line for any work that might be available. Elizabeth lay awake long after she went to bed. Things were getting more and more heated between Jacob and Kish and she feared what the future might hold. Both had hot tempers. Now, with work so scarce, they had more time on their hands and Kish had taken to hanging around where the others gathered, listening to the gossip. Sadly, Jacob and Kish did not see eye-to-eye on this. She prayed that everything would work out for the best.
Jacob shuffled along behind his two oldest sons as they set out to seek work the next morning. It was early March but the winter cold didn’t seem ready to let up yet and a light rain was falling. His arthritic bones were always stiff first thing in the morning and the cold, damp air didn’t help. He should have most of the kinks and stiffness worked out by the time they got to the farm though. Each carried his mid-morning lunch, a small piece of bread without butter, and a few mouthfuls of cheese, wrapped in a square of cotton. Opposite ends of the cotton square were tied in knots and it was carried by holding the knots.
As usual, there wasn’t much work available, but Jacob picked up a morning’s work chopping firewood along with a few other men from the village. It didn’t pay much but it would get a little food and Elizabeth could make almost nothing stretch out for several meals.
When Jacob finished his task and went home at noon, he took with him a few turnips, a cabbage, a small piece of bacon and a little flour. A hint of a smile touched his thin lips. They hadn’t tasted cabbage soup for several weeks now since their own stash had run out but it would taste real good with a little piece of lean bacon in it. The fat part of the bacon was better for frying out with a few potatoes. They still had potatoes and, with the extras they picked up like this, they might have enough till summer. And they still had berries for jam but they were a special treat for Sundays. Come late April he knew Elizabeth would be out searching for fresh dandelion greens.
Trudging home with the results of his morning’s work, Jacob was thankful for what he had. He wondered how the two older boys had fared that morning, if they had picked up work of any kind. Even a few hours would help. Every day it was getting harder to keep food on the table. Jacob knew many others were worse off than they were.
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. A good knitter, she was well aware that well-knit socks could be traded for food or sometimes sold for a few pence. But it seemed that nearly every time she finished a pair someone needed them. She smiled at him when she got up to prepare supper. She put the pot over the fire to reheat the broth left from the day before. Then she set about cutting thick slices of bread to eat with it.
Cold air swirled through the room when the boys returned, waking their father from his nap. He sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Anything on the go?” he asked.
Both shook their heads and Kadmiel said, “I got a job movin’ hay in the mornin’. Mr. Knight got a leak in the roof of his barn an’ he can’t get up to fix it till later in the spring so he’s got to move some of the hay so’s it don’t get wet an’ spoil.”
“I’m soon 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. “You don’t know nothin’ ‘bout fishin’! All you knows is farmin’. Tis what we’ve always done an’ I ain’t heard ‘bout no farmin’ over there.”
Kish drew a deep breath before answering. “I guess I can learn. I ain’t too dumb for that.”
“Where’d you get such a foolish notion, anyway?”
“At the Berwick Fair back in November,” Kish said. “Joe Bond’s uncle goes fishin’. Joe said there’s plenty of jobs, good pay, an’ he’s goin’ in the spring. I figure if Joe can handle it then I can too.”
“Joe’s a year older and he got his uncle to watch out for him.” Elizabeth Caines spoke softly as she continued slowly stirring the broth in the iron kettle.
“I knows I can handle it Mum an’ I could bring home more money for the winter. Cornelius is workin’ now, an’ besides, with me gone there’d be one less mouth to feed for that many months.”
“Tis nearly supper time so we’ll leave it for now,” Jacob said sternly. In his house nothing was ever allowed to interfere with eating.
“Yes, sir.” Kish replied as he took his place at the table. The meal was eaten in silence, as usual. When they had finished Jacob announced that he was going to the taproom for a beer. The rest of the family stayed inside, preferring the warmth of the cottage over the chilly wind outside.
Eight-year-old Cornelius had just gone to bed 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. What could have happened?
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, who was sitting at the table playing cards with Kadmiel. “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. “We all enjoyed what you brought home from poachin’ this winter. Without it there’d have been little meat eaten in our home these last few months.”
“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. It was Silas that told me and he said that his grandson left this mornin’ for London.”
Elizabeth’s knitting needles grew still and she looked up at her husband. “You mean Kish got to leave home too?”
“I don’t know,” Jacob said, “but we know what will happen if he’s caught.”
“Fisherton Anger Goal.” Elizabeth’s voice was a mere whisper. “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?” A chill had crept into her voice, a cold born of sorrow and fear.
“I don’t want to see him in Fisherton,” Jacob said quietly. “Tis awful in there an’ it’s broke the spirit of many men stronger than him. It might be best if we wait and see what happens.” He looked at Kish. “But lay off the poachin’.”
“An’ go hungry again.” Kish could feel it building up inside him – the frustration and the anger. He couldn’t understand why so many had to do without while the few landowners had more than enough. It wasn’t fair and it didn’t seem right to him. That’s why he didn’t feel guilty about poaching. Didn’t everyone have the right to eat?
“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.”
“There’s 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 one fist into the other palm. “I’m tired of bein’ hungry, of bein’ poor an’ not findin’ enough work. I’m sick of it all!”
“You think fishin’ will be easier?” Jacob shot back. “Go then. Try it if you wants to but don’t come crawlin’ back home when you fail.”
Kish’s hands were clenched at his sides. “I’m better than you thinks I am,” he shouted. “An’ I won’t fail!”
“Tis your life boy and tis your decision. Think on it some before you make up your mind. If you go there’s no comin’ back.” Then he turned around and went to bed.
Elizabeth looked at her son and her heart sank. She could see in his eyes that he had made his decision. “When?” she whispered shakily.
“Early morn,” he replied. “Best not to put it off. 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 work on one of the boats. An’ I’ll be far away from Fisherton Goal.”
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 will help till you gets work.” She also 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 go.
Kish was used to walking and he made good time for the first few hours. When dawn broke he sat on a rock at the side of the road, figuring it must be 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, along with a piece of cheese. She’d also put in the socks she had finished last night. 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 make do with half a slice for now. He ate slowly, looking up at the sky. There were no heavy clouds and he was hopeful that the day would be a good one for travelling.
As he continued on, the day brightened a little, with the sun breaking through the cloud cover now and then. 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 had no idea where she had gotten that much money but it would be a great help till he found work.
It was dark when he reached the city of Poole. A blacksmith gave him permission to sleep in the loft over the smithy. After drinking from the blacksmith’s water bucket, he ate another half slice of bread and a few mouthfuls of cheese. 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 socks that kept his feet warm. He thought again of the new ones and 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 preparing to leave already had full crews. That was fine by Kish since he got what he wanted – he knew which ships were sailing first. In the afternoon he spent some of his money on bread and cheese. Then he hung around, keeping out of sight, waiting 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 of him buying passage. There would be no way to find him – just in case anyone did ask about him.
They were four days out at sea when Kish was discovered. He crept out of his hiding place before dawn to get a drink from the water 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 really frightened. What would happen to him now? He hadn’t counted on being found.
“You can set him loose,” the Captain said, nodding to the sailor. “He can’t go anywhere.” Then he looked at Kish. “Is it a job you’re after then, or passage across the sea?”
Kish swallowed hard. “I wants to go to Newfoundland, sir, but I got no money to pay passage.”
Suddenly the Captain threw back his head and laughed. “Don’t look so scared, boy. I did the same thing when I was your age. I’ll ask just one question – are you runnin’ from the law for committin’ a crime?”
“No, sir.” It was true. The magistrate was not really looking for him. It was just talked that he was watching Kish and some of his friends. He was just getting away before there was a reason to and travelling the only way he could afford.
“Are you any good to work?” the Captain asked.
“Yes, sir. I been workin’ in the fields with me father for seven years,” Kish said proudly.
The Captain frowned. “How old are you?”
“I turned 14 a couple months back,” Kish replied.
“I see.” The Captain rubbed his chin. “King!” he called loudly and the sailor reappeared on deck. “Get the boy some breakfast an’ then put him to work. An’ make sure he don’t slack off!” Turning back to Kish, he added, “No one gets free passage. So long as you does a fair day’s work I’ll put you ashore when we reach land. If you don’t… well, we’ll wait an’ 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?” “Me name is 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.
Finally, after 62 days at sea, they spotted land. Although the journey had not been all bad, Kish was never so happy to see land. The Captain told him that he was welcome to stay and fish with them, then return home in the fall. Kish declined the offer. 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. An old man named Mulliins had taken a liking to Kish from the start. “Me an’ the wife needs someone with strong bones an’ muscles to help with the chores now that we both is 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 also 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 would make repairs to the gear but Kish would help Mrs. Mullins with her garden because he had experience in working on farms. All told, things had turned out pretty well after all but he still thought about home.
One thing was certain here – there was no shortage of food! There was plenty of fresh fish during the fishing season and salt fish in the winter. Every man could kill game for food during the winter without fear of encroaching on a landowner’s property. The vegetables grown by the families usually lasted most of the year though sometimes they ran out before the new crop was ready. When the fisherman “settled up” with the merchant in the fall, he would bring home things like flour, sugar, molasses and salt pork. Kish had developed a great fondness for the partridgeberry jam that Mrs. Mullins served for every Sunday supper during the winter. Great quantities of the ground-hugging red berries were picked in the fall and poured into wooden barrels. The barrels were filled with water and left to freeze. When needed, the berries were chopped out in chunks, sweetened with sugar as they were cooked and then served as jam with thick slices of pan-fried bread which she called “toutons.”
Time and time again he had replayed that last few days in his head but he always came to the same conclusion – there really had been no other choice. It was leave home or risk going to prison. And, after what he’d heard from his father, he wanted nothing to do with the Fisherton Anger Goal!
“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 for the work waiting to be done. He could hear the gentle whoosh of the ocean as it kissed the shore behind him, the sound growing fainter with each step he took. He felt sure he had done the right thing but a year later he still wasn’t sure that life would be any easier on this side of the Atlantic.
He was certain that the life of a fisherman was by no means easier than that of an agricultural labourer, but he did know – there was no going back. He had made his choice and now he must live with it. He would make a life for himself here and eventually have a home and family of his own.
© 2015 Fay Herridge