The Final Wish
by R.L. Corn
© February 2018
Few things can compare to a spring day in New York City. The warm weather had begun to coax the infant leaves out from the trees in the same manner that the residents were drawn from the winter confines of their homes. Not unlike the bears from upstate, the citizens initially faced their withdrawal from hibernation a little bit hungry and a little bit cranky. But it was nearly impossible to stay cranky on this, the most beautiful day in months. The morning trip to the neighborhood deli for a fresh bagel resolved the issue of hunger, and the bearish ill humor evaporated like the wispy clouds that had been present that morning. Spring had come to New York and the city was awakening.
Mary Catherine’s feet hit the boarded floor of her apartment and never slowed down. Passing her father, and his unheard petition to “be careful”, Mary Catherine was on the street and moving to her favorite morning spot in seconds. Her only plans for the day were to have no plans. The day was a blank canvas which she planned to paint with, or maybe without, the help of her friends…and that was the beauty of a blank canvas. She knew, however, regardless of what the day might hold, it would start off with a trip to Rubin’s Deli just two blocks away.
Times were hard and Mary Catherine had no money. Being perpetually short of cash, she began most days at Kahn’s Deli. Jozsed and Johanne Rubin loved Mary Catherine. Mr. Rubin always had a joke or riddle for her, and Mrs. Rubin usually had a day old scone bagged and ready to go by the time Mary Catherine showed up. Their relationship was one of perfect symbiosis…Mary Catherine had a free breakfast every morning and ceaseless attention to her never-ending stories. The Rubin’s, in return, were the recipients of thankful hugs from a child the likes of which they had never been able to have for themselves. If you had asked the Rubin’s… the hugs were invaluable…even in hard times.
Mary Catherine began today’s declamation on her soapbox as she laid out the details of the latest travesty taking place at school. Jozsed and Johanne listened intently as Mary Catherine, or “Little One” as Joszed called her, spelled out the case against her math teacher as skillfully as the lawyers down on 3rd Avenue. Jozsed had to “shush” one of his regular customers in order to make sure that he did not miss any of the Little One’s details. Aaron, who was just trying to order his “usual” breakfast would have to wait. With a hrrumph, Aaron sat and waited for her story to come to a stopping point before ordering. He had been through this delay before.
After having talked through the problems at school, Joszed and Johanne walked Mary to the curb. With a mouthful of scone, and sputtering out a goodbye amidst the crumbs, Mary took a step into the street. Johanne screamed as she saw a team of large draft horses racing down the street. Grabbing Mary, she pulled her back onto the sidewalk as the horse drawn wagon raced by occupying the same space that Mary had occupied a split second before. The wagon, driver, and horses continued down the street at full speed either because they never saw Mary or just because they had chosen not to.
Trying to catch their collective breaths, Johanne and Joszed hugged Mary so tightly she could barely breathe. The three decided to return to the deli for another scone. Even on the most beautiful of all spring days, the city could be a dangerous place to live.
In 1892, Sean McGee and his very pregnant wife Katherine Jean boarded the Amity May with dreams of a better life for their new family. The Amity May was a beautiful ship with graceful lines and three tall masts. She could make the trip from Cork, Ireland, to New York City in twelve weeks, give or take, based on the weather. Accommodations were basic, but adequate. Sean and Jean slept in a bunk room that accommodated twenty-three other passengers.
The Amity May’s white sails were brilliant as they reflected the morning sun against the cobalt blue sky. Occasionally sea mist would blow into the faces of the young lovers encouraging Jean to lean in closer to Sean. Sometimes the reality of the trip surpassed even the dreams the coupled had for the voyage. Every aspect of the trip was magical, but if was exhausting for Jean.
During the seventh week into the trip, the young couple was staring west over the port bow, and Sean, with his unending optimism, was painting a picture of unequaled happiness in the new land. Still painting their future, he saw Jean drop to her knees and cry out in pain. Something was very wrong. Sean picked up Jean and raced to their bunks. Sean paid no attention to some other passengers who were napping at this time. He desperately wanted to help Jean, but he had no idea what to do. It was not until a passerby offered to get help that he felt his wife and baby might have a chance to survive.
A part time nurse, who was also looking for a new life in America, responded to the plea for help. After a brief examination of Jean, the nurse turned to face Sean; she wore a look on her face that confirmed to Sean everything that he had feared. Jean was a fighter, but the pregnancy had been hard and the seven weeks at sea had proven to be a worthy opponent. The nurse told him to hold Jean’s hand and to help her push. Jean looked so very pale and fragile.
Jean saw Sean’s concern on Sean’s face and told him it would be okay. This was and had always been Jean’s way. She was the rock in the family. Between cries of pain, she asked Sean to promise her that he would name their little girl Mary Catherine after her mother. Confusion replaced concern on his face as he wondered how Jean knew it was going to be a girl. Apparently the nurse and Jean both knew something that Sean did not. Jean and the nurse whispered conspiratorially to each other as Jean had energy to speak. The nurse agreed with Jean that Mary Catherine would be the perfect name for their new daughter. Satisfied that Sean would do as she had asked, Jean gave a knowing look to the nurse and thanked her for everything. Jean died in her husband’s arms and Mary Catherine was coaxed into life by a part-time nurse.
Within minutes after Jean’s death, an employee of the Amity May appeared at her bedside. The steward confided with Sean that his wife’s body needed to be stored below deck for the sake of the other passengers. The steward was young but spoke with experience. He explained to the newly grieving husband that the officers at Ellis Island were very strict. If there was any question as to the health of any family member, the whole family would be sent back to their home country. They would never step foot on American soil. If Sean agreed, Jean’s body could be disposed before the Amity May arrived at Ellis Island. As harsh as it seemed, Sean knew it had to be this way if he and his daughter were going to have any chance at a new future.
In one fluid motion, Sean was handed the tightly-wrapped bundle of new life, and ushered out of the bunk room. He looked back one last time to see his Jean. The nurse was speaking to his wife’s body as if telling her “goodbye” for him.
With Mary Catherine in his arms, he walked in a daze down the corridor and into a quiet spot on the deck. As if his will to live had exited his body in one violent motion, Sean slumped against the wall, and then to the floor. This was not a part of the grand adventure that he and Jean had planned. Sean was not interested in any future without Jean. For a moment, Sean considered joining her as she went overboard. With Mary in his arms, the three of them could be reunited for eternity.
As if to break her father from his semi-conscious state, Mary Catherine cried softly. For the first time since leaving the bunkroom, Sean allowed himself to look at the daughter that he held in his arms. He felt the warmth of his new child, Mary Catherine McGee. Mary Catherine, the child named after his wife’s mother…his daughter…deserved the same future for which he and Jean had dreamed. After all, she had been a part of that dream.
A familiar, but unknown voice held Sean on his knees a little longer. A different future from the one that he and Jean had imagined began to materialize in Sean’s mind. Different but equally glorious! Peace and strength, strength and peace poured into the soul of the Irish man, and he thanked his God for the blessing of this child. While on his knees, he also prayed for the soul of his wife. He prayed for strength that would be required to raise a family by himself in a new land. He whispered to Mary Catherine the same Irish proverb that his mom had always shared with him, “Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal.” And with that, Sean climbed up to the observation deck and looked westward over the waves towards a new life. If he could not have a future with Jean, he would create one in her memory.
Sean and his little Mary Catherine settled quickly into life in the Lower East Side of the City. The old brick tenement building offered one room apartments to immigrants from around the world. The single room served as their kitchen, living area, and bedroom. The small black stove located against the outer wall of their apartment was their source of heat in the winter, as well as their cooking stove throughout the year. Since there were no windows in the apartment, they hung a clothes line diagonally across the room on wash day turning the apartment into the laundry room as well. They shared an outhouse located next door to the apartments. Since there was no running water in the building, the outhouse served around twenty five or so other apartment dwellers.
For all the shortcomings, Sean made the best of their early days in New York. The neighbors were friendly enough, and most of them shared a similar history. The hope for a better tomorrow was the driving force for each family in the tenements, and in this way, the individual families became a larger family. In the early years, neighbors kept Mary Catherine for Sean as he hunted for a job as he kept their children for them.
It was in this dark, cold, and cramped apartment that Sean and Mary Catherine made their home. In the evenings, Sean would hoist Mary Catherine onto his lap and tell her stories about her mother and how much her mother had loved her. During these nightly father-daughter talks, Sean always reminded Mary how lucky they were to be living in the city. They had been blessed and they should never take blessings for granted. Sean missed Jean, but he was pragmatic if not eternally optimistic. He would carve out the future for his daughter. In this new future, he was the king of his castle and Mary Catherine was his princess.
Even with its faults, New York City was still the greatest city in the world. And as the world spun into the new millennia, the next century held a promise for the city that had been unprecedented. Mary Catherine believed that the future would always be bright because her father believed it. And as spring in the great city became summer, there was no reason to believe otherwise. The economy was improving and jobs were plentiful.
The docks at Hoboken were a world of grays. The wooden docks were the color of the winter ocean; each board offering a slight variation of gray creating the illusion of movement. The massive hemp ropes that confined the great ships to their docking places darkened over time with their exposure to the sun and the sea giving them the color of steel. The ropes were attached to huge pillions that engaged in an ongoing battle with the saltwater that strove to change their gray painted surfaces to burnt-colored rust. But amid the endless variations of gray, the docksides were in constant motion. Like a city within a city, the docks exuded energy and life that overshadowed the grayness.
Shortly after arriving in NYC, Sean applied for and was granted a job working at the docks in New Jersey across the water from where they lived. Sean worked the big ropes. He and the crew manhandled the massive ropes that moored the boats to the docks. It was an epic tug of war between man and ship as they wrestled the floating cities against their wills to rest beside the docks and end their journeys. At the appointed time, the crew would reverse the process and coerce the ocean going giants to return to their homes among the waves.
This was not a job for the weak and Sean excelled at it. His muscular arms and back, red hair and constant laughter made him a favorite with his bosses and his peers. This favored position allowed him some flexibility as far as his daughter was concerned. As long as she stayed out of the way, she was allowed to accompany Sean to work. But once she was there, she had to stay “out from under the feet” the dockhands. On slower days, however, it was not uncommon to see her riding the shoulders of one of the Dock Master as he shouted, “to the port, to the port!” as the men wrestled the big boats into submission.
June 30, 1900, was just another day as Sean shook the bed in which Mary Catherine was still sleeping. He boomed another proverb to his sleeping daughter, “Lose an hour in the morning and yee’ll be looking for it all day.” Mary Catherine very seldom understood her father’s Irish proverbs, but she loved the way he smiled when he quoted them. Mary Catherine threw on her summer clothes and followed her dad onto the ferry. She assaulted him with question after question about all the things that young daughters questioned their fathers about. After digging three cents out of her pocket, she rode with her father to the Hoboken Docks without ever slowing the onslaught of questions.
The summer had been hot and today would be even hotter. Sean gave Mary Catherine her daily instructions to be careful, mind what the adults said, and stay out from underfoot. As she turned to run to the foreman’s office, Sean hesitated and turned back calling to Mary Catherine. “Yes, sir?” she asked. Hesitating for the second time, Sean reminded her, “Just you be careful today, OK?”
“Of course…I always am,” and she turned and ran to the administrative offices.
The smells of fish and ocean were amplified by the heat of the day. Sean stopped his work several times, and looked around as if being watched by an unseen assailant. The wind had started to pick up and that meant that handling the “ropes” would be more difficult today as the hulls of the mighty ships would catch the wind and put up even more of a fight.
Around 11:00am, Sean asked one of his mates if he had seen Mary Catherine recently to which he received the answer of, “No…why?”
“Nothing,” Sean responded and went about his job.
By the afternoon, Sean’s anxiety turned into something more tangible as the first hints of smoke filled the air. The workers started to look around to see if they could identify the source. Within seconds, the cries for help were heard from Pier 3. Hundreds of bales of cotton had been stacked for ships bound for Europe later in the week. A fire had broken out and the cotton bales ignited like dry kindling. Dockworkers from all the other docks ran in the direction of the fire grabbing fire buckets as they ran.
Sean heard the first explosion long before he made it to Pier 3. The wind was spreading the flames to the adjacent warehouses that stored drums of kerosene and turpentine. With each minute that past, more and more drums detonated like bombs sending the flaming barrels into the sky only to rain fire down in another location. In less than nine minutes, several ships that were moored at Pier 3 and Pier 4 were burning along with the docks. The gray docks were turning black as they were transformed from weathered wood into ash and charcoal.
Paul Sheppone was the Dock Master on duty that day. Mary Catherine had started the morning by asking him all the questions that she had not had time to ask her father. Paul was the grandfather of eight children whom he loved dearly, and for the time he was at work, he simply transferred his love to Mary Catherine as he considered her one of his own. Paul was in the process of taking another sip of the rancid coffee that he had become accustomed to at work when he heard the cries from the direction of 2nd Street and River Street. Grabbing his binoculars, he tried to locate the cause of the disturbance, but the smoke had grown too dense. He grabbed his ring of keys and the door knob in one motion. Spinning around just long enough to warn Mary Catherine, Paul shouted, “Stay here, Mary Catherine …Stay here. I will come back for you!”
The Hoboken docks were surrounded by warehouses. These were the grey old ladies of the warehouse district. They had seen the coming and goings of every ship, every employee, and every passenger for decades. The great ladies sensed that today would be their last. Today they would pass along into ash and be blown into the streets of the big city across the river. There was no sadness, only acceptance. The winds coming in from the ocean continued to strengthen and were now carrying the flames into these wooden structures igniting them and the materials stored within. Their demise was quick and merciful.
As Paul ran past the Pier belonging to Hamburg Line, other employees fell in beside him. The nightmarish event was spinning out of control faster than the employees could respond. Paul Sheppone was a careful man; not one to succumb to panic quickly or without reason. However, when the dock master gazed in the direction of the fire, a look of horror covered his face and for the first time in his life he knew absolute fear. Through the smoke and flames, Paul saw four large passenger ships from the North German Lloyd Lines directly downwind from the fire. Piers 3 though 7 were occupied by German passenger ships full of passengers, crew, and guests. At the speed in which the fire was spreading, the potential for loss of life was staggering.
Engine House No. 5 flourished under the watchful eye of Captain Archibald Bremen. Having emigrated from Germany in the late 1870’s, Archie had risen through the ranks to become the fire chief of the small fire station located at 412 Grand Street. He obtained the rank of Captain because he just worked harder than anyone else. He loved the station. He loved the Silsby Pumper that the City of Hoboken purchased a few years back. His heart, however, belonged to Coaltrain and Cleopatra.
These German draft horses were the heart and soul of Engine House No. 5, and he was quick to tell his firefighters the same in case there was any doubt. Brutus, the station’s coach dog was never more than a few feet away from Archibald and could be found sleeping next to him every night in the Captain’s bunk. Captain Archibald Bremen, his five firemen, his horses and coach dog were Hoboken’s first line of defense against disaster.
Captain Bremen smelled the smoke even before the fire bell rang alerting the station that their services were needed. Coaltrain and Cleopatra were draped in their harnesses before the men were dressed in their gear. Brutus positioned himself slightly to the rear of the pumper on Coaltrain’s side. Archibald snapped the reins against the back of the horses and the wagon burst from the station. The pumper wagon led the way with the firemen and Brutus running behind. Even if there had been no smoke, they all instinctively knew their destination in advance. It was a disaster that had been waiting to happen for years.
Coaltrain and Cleo noticed that they were not following the smoke now, but the heat. Glancing at Coaltrain, the team realized that this was not going to be a normal fire. This was something different, and the three animals could feel it. The ebony horse sensed that he would be called on today like never before to prove his worth. Brutus shared this foreshadowing as he and Coaltrain sensed each other’s thoughts quite often. Coaltrain knew Brutus would be there to see him through regardless of the demands made on him today. He did not know fear…he only knew commitment.
Sean ran past the Hamburg Line Pier to the first of the North German Line piers. From here he could see The Saale still tethered to Pier 4. The smoke was dense and dark and had an oily smell. All visibility beyond the Saale was blocked from Sean’s view but he knew that other ships from the German carrier were also in the harbor. These ships had arrived recently and had cooled their boilers as they were to be in port for several days. Without boiler pressure, the ships were unable to distance themselves from the piers and were therefore doomed to burn dockside.
It became apparent to Sean that the Hoboken Docks would be lost that day. The fire was burning too hot and too fast. He turned his attention to the cries for help coming from the Saale. The teak deck was already engulfed in flames blocking any exit from the lower decks by the main deck. He could see panic-stricken passengers trying to push their bodies through the smaller portholes vainly trying escape the heat and toxic fumes.
For the briefest of moments, another of his mother’s saying came to him, “A man may live after losing his life, but not after losing his honor.” Sean had been raised by an honorable man to be an honorable man. To Sean, honorable behavior was defined by what you did when no one was watching. Sean realized that there was nothing he could do, but an honorable man would do something even if it cost him his life.
The voices of the near dead reached his ears again, and he realized there were fewer faces at the portholes than there had been only seconds before. He jumped into the water in an effort to cool the effects of the flames. He found one of the bowlines that had been cut in an unsuccessful attempt to free the ship from the pier, and began climbing upward to the lowest deck. He slowly worked his way to the closet porthole to see if there was a child or baby that could be passed through. No more adults would be rescued today from the Saale, but if he could just save one child… he told himself.
He saw a young mother trying to hold her young child out one of the portholes to his left. With the limitations placed on her by the narrow circumference of the porthole, she had no leverage to hold the child’s weight. Sean arrived as the mother lost her grip and her baby girl dropped into the ocean. Sean cursed the irony of having to see another mother separated from her child by death at sea. He dropped from his position into the water and grabbed the child by the collar. He swam upwind to Pier 2 and handed the child to one of the dockhands.
Sean returned to The Saale and climbed up a different bowline looking for any survivors. His thoughts were of Jean and how she did not live to see her daughter grow up. The mother on the Saale would unfortunately face the same fate as Jean. Sean thoughts turned to Mary. He was concerned about her, but he also knew that most mornings she went to local deli up the street and helped the owner bake. If she did not go to the bakery today, Paul would have made sure that she would be taken to safety. This thought would be Sean’s last. The railing on the main deck had become red-hot and the welds holding it in place started to melt. A large section broke loose knocking Sean off the bowline as it sizzled towards the water line entering the ocean in a cloud of steam.
Mary Catherine could smell the smoke and she could feel the heat from the fire. She knew that she had to obey Mr. Sheppone. He had told her, no ordered her, to stay in the office because he would come back for her. The one rule that was unbreakable while at the Docks, was to “mind” the adults, and stay out from underfoot. So she waited in the heat and smoke. The papers on Mr. Sheppone’s desk were starting to curl. It was becoming more and more difficult to breathe, but when she looked out the office window, she realized that there was nowhere to go. Fire and smoke surrounded the office and she could hear the creaking timbers of the surrounding buildings. She huddled down in the back of the office and waited for Mr. Sheppone. The window in the office building exploded inward and covered her in glass. Mary Catherine’s eyes closed.
Captain Bremen pulled the horses and the pumper wagon as close to Pier 3 as he dared. Brutus reminded the horses to be calm and ignore the flames. This is what they trained for. He came around to the front of the wagon now so that he could maintain eye contact with his charges, and he barked at Coaltrain and Cleo, “The Captain will take care of us. Do your job…I am right here.” They settled in and performed just like the professionals that they were.
The Dock Master saw the men of Engine House No. 5 arriving and raced to meet them. He gave the Captain a calm and succinct evaluation of the situation even though he was internally panicking, “It is the passenger ships; the ships are full of workers and guests. The cargo and the warehouses are gone, but the crews are still on board. The ships are full of people, guest mostly. The boilers are cold and the ships have no way to separate themselves from the fire. We have cut most of the mooring lines, but that does not help unless the ships can move away on their own power. The fire tugs are on their way, but they won’t be here soon enough for the individuals still on board.”
Paul Sheppone, in a gut-wrenching moment of clarity remembered Mary Catherine. “Oh dear God,” he cried. “Mary Catherine’s in my office. Sean’s daughter is in my office! Captain, please…now, you have got to get her away from the docks.” Paul turned and sprinted towards his office.
Mary Catherine awoke feeling refreshed. There was no smell of smoke now and no oppressive heat. She was still in the admin office at the docks and the fire was still roaring outside. There was a lady standing beside her with a pleasant look on her face. “Are you ok, Mary Catherine?” the lady asked.
Mary stared into the eyes of this tall thin figure with long hair and slight features. She had to be at least six feet tall. Her long blond hair was parted down the middle and just touched the tops of her shoulders. And her eyes…they were as blue as the sky had been this morning. Mary Catherine thought that she looked like the models she had seen in magazines. Mary Catherine was certain that she had seen this lady before…but from where. She could have been a customer at Kahn’s Deli? Maybe she had seen her at school. She certainly did not look like anyone who might have lived in their apartment.
Before Mary Catherine could bring the question to her lips, the lady responded to her thoughts by answering, “Yes Mary Catherine, you do know me. I met you on the Amity May many years ago when you were just a baby. I helped your mother when you were being born. I think I was a nurse. But that was a long time ago, and we need to talk about now.”
“You know that you are in a very dangerous situation, don’t you, Mary Catherine.” Not waiting for an answer, the lady continued, “I would like to offer you a wish of sorts. What do you want Mary Catherine?”
Even to an eight year old, the question seemed foolish. “What do I want! I am in a burning building and I can’t breathe because of the smoke. I am afraid that I am going to die! What do you mean, ‘What do I want?’” But there was something about the way the question sounded in Mary Catherine’s mind. Did she actually hear the words being spoken or did she just imagine the beautiful lady saying them?
The question had more weight than mere words would normally have carried. “What did she want…right now and in this place?” Deep in Mary Catherine’s heart, she knew the only thing that she wanted was her daddy.
Perceiving the answer before the thought had formed in Mary Catherine’s mind brought an understanding smile to the lady in white. Pulling up the Dock Master’s stool to where Mary Catherine sat on the floor, she explained, “You know Mary Catherine, wishes or prayers or whatever you want to call them are interesting things. Sometimes the answers to these take years to complete…other times they happen instantaneously. The point is that many times the answer to prayers or wishes begin long before they are even asked. Do you know what I mean Mary Catherine?”
Sensing the answer was “no”, the lady continued, “Do you know how sometimes your father knows what you need and gets it for you before you ask?” This was something Mary Catherine understood well and conveyed her understanding. “Well then,” the lady who seemed to glow said, “it is the same thing. Sometimes your needs are known before you yourself realize them. Do you understand?”
Not waiting for an answer, the shining lady added, “Oh…and Mary Catherine, another thing about prayer is that sometimes the answer you want is not always the answer that you receive, but many times it can be the answer you need. In some cases, the answer you receive might be the answer to someone else’s prayer. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes life is hard to understand,” she concluded. Mary Catherine could no longer hold her eyes open. As her eyes closed, she thought that maybe she did remember the lady the day she was born.
Archibald Bremen was and always had been a man who could make decisions quickly. More importantly, he was able to make good decisions quickly. From the moment Paul mentioned Mary Catherine, Archie had begun to unhook Coaltrain from his harness all the while shouting directions to his men. In less than twenty seconds, he was riding bareback out to Front Street and around to the backside of the Admin Offices beating the Dock Master there. Nausea struck the Captain as he saw Paul’s office. If the fire had not gotten to Mary, then surely the heat and smoke had.
Ignoring the flames, Captain Bremen stormed up the stairs that led to the office. Throwing his shoulder into the door, it exploded sending sparks and ash inward. He saw the limp and lifeless looking body of a young girl in the corner on the floor. Without formality, Archibald threw the young girl over his shoulder and spun on his heels racing past the pale faced Dock Master who had just arrived and was standing in the charcoal colored doorframe.
“Is she going to be okay? Dammit Archie, is she okay?” Paul screamed! The look on the Captain’s face told Paul nothing, and Archie was not slowing down to talk either.
The Captain knew that the decisions he made in the next few hours would undoubtedly have consequences for hundreds of individuals. He had the title of Captain and with the title came the responsibility. There would be time for sorrow and second-guessing later, but right now it was a game of minutes, if not seconds. And quickly shifting priorities seldom made for easy decision making.
There was not adequate time to spend trying to save one little girl when there were so many other lives at stake. The Captain checked her pulse. It was weak and her breathing was shallow, but she was alive. And while there was no time for proper care and first aid, he had done all he could do with the time and resources that he had. He laid Mary Catherine sideways across the broad back of Coaltrain with her head hanging to the left and her feet hanging off to the right. The Captain said a short prayer and gave the command to his lead horse, “Station” and slapped him on the rear. Mary Catherine would survive or she would not. The Captain had put her with the one of the most competent members of Engine House No. 5. Her survival was now up to fate and a fire horse.
Moving briskly, but with the awareness that a child was on his back, Coaltrain moved away from the heat and smoke of the docks. Coaltrain lacked his normal sense of confidence, since Brutus had stayed with the pumper and Cleo, but he knew what he had to do. Even without Brutus’s voice gently encouraging him, there was a voice that spoke quietly and calmly to him. He would make sure that this little girl made it to the station.
The fire that had started at four o’ clock in the afternoon the day before had lasted throughout the night. The team fighting the dock fire had grown to represent engine houses from different boroughs throughout New York and New Jersey. Their efforts had been multiplied by fire fighting tugboats from up and down the harbor. Even with the efforts of New Jersey and New York’s finest fire fighters, over three hundred people had been killed, and four ocean liners, scores of smaller boats, and an estimated $10,000,000 worth of property had been lost.
On the morning of July 1, Archie led his men home safely without casualties. His Silsby pumper had sustained some light damage and several of the hoses from the engine house had been lost. Archie shared the concern he saw in the unsettled behavior of Cleo and Brutus. He had not expected to hear anything about the condition of Mary and Coaltrain, but he feared what he might find once he arrived back at Grand Street. Once the Captain felt that fire was being brought under control, he sent Sal, one of the younger fire fighters, back into town. His orders were simple; find Mary Catherine and Coaltrain. Once Sal had located them, he was to bring them to the station and give first aid to them both.
Upon arriving at the station, Archie ran into his quarters thinking that would be where Sal would have placed Mary Catherine if she were… No, he would not allow himself to go there. She was not in his room. Maybe Sal had put her in the bunkroom which was close to the make-shift clinic. Still no sign of Mary Catherine. The fear that Archie had not allowed himself to acknowledge for the last twelve hours settled in hard and unseen tears assaulted the eyes of the experience-hardened Captain.
He sprinted past the other men as they began to enter the bunkroom and started to put away their gear. Careful not to make eye contact with Captain Bremer, each fireman began their own personal practice of dealing with the stress and emotion of their profession. Archie walked out the bunkroom door and across the breezeway to the stables that housed Coaltrain and Cleo. From the stable door he did not see Coaltrain in his stall and for a moment he was not sure if he could survive any further losses today.
As he approached Coaltrain’s stable door, he saw his favorite firefighter lying down in the hay with Sal tending to some minor scrapes and burns on his rear leg. Archie entered the stall and in agonizing sadness dropped onto the hay next to Sal. In the last second, Archie saw Mary Catherine lying next to Coaltrain in the hay. He would have sat right on her if he had not have jumped to the left at the last moment. “Was zur Holle?” Archie yelled and then remembered that he was in the presence of a young girl.
Sal spent the next thirty minutes trying to explain to his Captain what had happened. Archie continued interrupting excitedly. Basically, Coaltrain had brought Mary Catherine directly to the station after the fire. Kneeling in his stall, he let her slide to the ground and lay down beside her in an effort to protect her. When Sal arrived he found that she was badly dehydrated and in need of food. Coaltrain reluctantly allowed Sal to treat her first and second degree burns. She was moving in and out of consciousness, but in the early morning hours she began to stabilize.
By the time the sun had risen, she was beginning to eat and drink. At this time, Coaltrain allowed Sal to tend to his injuries. Archie’s pride welled up inside of him and he stared at Coaltrain with amazement. Archie allowed himself to shed the first tears as the Captain of Engine House No. 5. He was tired and emotionally spent from the horrors he had witnessed in the last 24 hours, but he was also proud of how his team and Coaltrain had performed. He knew that he had put Mary Catherine in good hands, or hooves, as it was in this case.
Seconds later, Brutus rounded the corner and came sliding into the stall apparently thrilled to see that his friend was okay. Coaltrain chided Brutus with a whinny. There was an injured girl in the stall after all. Brutus understood immediately and calmed himself as he sat beside Mary Catherine and licked her hand.
After the initial excitement of knowing the little girl was going to survive, the reality of the situation started to settle in with Archie. He would, of course, have to find the parents and reunite them with their daughter. They would undoubtedly be worried to death. But first things first. Archie and Sal, after convincing Coaltrain that they would take good care of his charge, gently moved Mary Catherine to the Captain’s room and put her in his bed. Brutus took his place beside Mary Catherine cuddling against the young girl. She woke up and looked at Archie who was sitting on the bed beside her while wiping her face with a cold rag.
“How do you feel Mary Catherine?” Archie asked in a quiet voice. Mary Catherine was confused and looked around the fire station as if she was trying to get her bearings. “Where is the lady?” Mary Catherine asked. “Where is the lady in the white dress?” she asked Archie in a panicked voice.
“What lady…who…’dere’s no ladies here Mary Catherine. You’re at the firehouse, ya’ know…Engine House #5,” Sal offered. Sal knew that his answer would not do anything to answer Mary Catherine’s question, but he also felt as if her recollection of a white lady must have been related to the heat and her injuries.
Mary Catherine’s face fell as her understanding of where she was became clearer. “Mary Catherine,” Archie started again, “the Dock Master said your name was Mary Catherine. Is that right? We need to know the name of your parents so we can let them know that you are ok.”
Large tears formed in Mary Catherine’s eyes. “My mom died when I was born, and my father died in the fire yesterday. He was saving children from one of the boats.” Mary Catherine’s realization of what had happened to her father occurred at the exact same moment that she spoke those words. Somehow she knew that her wish had not been answered, and that her daddy would not be coming back.
Had she learned of her father’s fate from the lady in the Dock Master’s office? She could not remember how she knew, but she was certain about her facts. She hugged Brutus and cried. Emotion and exhaustion reclaimed her consciousness and she slept fitfully as her mind raced from smoke and fire and her father and the white lady.
Days passed and there was no sign of Sean either alive or dead. Paul had not seen Sean but some of the other dock workers had seen him climbing the bow lines of the Saale rescuing a baby. That was the last time that anyone could remember seeing him.
Days turned into weeks and all hope of finding Sean had vanished like the smoke from the fire. Archie continued to procrastinate about going to the welfare office to register Mary Catherine as a ward of the state. Mary Catherine had become inseparable from Coaltrain and Brutus. Mary had taken it upon herself to rename Captain Bremer as Uncle Archie. The name stuck with the firemen of Engine House #5 as well…at least when Archie was out of earshot.
Archie was the first to notice the leaves falling from the trees in September. He was leaning against the front wall of the firehouse in his favorite straight-backed chair. The sky was the deep blue associated with only the clearest of autumn days. With a worn felt hat pulled down almost covering his eyes, he could see his crew cleaning and rolling the hoses. All the repairs had been made to the pumper from the dock fire. It had functioned perfectly in a small house fire back in August. From his inclined chair, he could see Mary Catherine, or Cat, and she had been renamed by the crew at #5 in an elaborate ceremony last month. She had been renamed and given honorary status as a fireman in good standing.
Performing one of her new duties as the only “fire-girl” of #5, and probably the only fire girl in the state of New Jersey, she was washing Cleo and Coaltrain with one of the old fire buckets. She seemed so tiny washing the backs of these twelve hundred and fourteen hundred pound horses from the ladder that she had pulled up. But from day one, she was confident around these horses. Once washed and dried, she would brush them out until their coats shown. Brutus was curled up under one of the trees well out of the way of any water that might be sprayed in his direction. Archie knew that this could not last forever, but he was going to love every minute of this new future that had been given to him and the men of Engine House #5. Uncle Archie knew a blessing when he saw one.
Archie made arrangements to get a few of Mary Catherine’s clothes and items from their old apartment in the lower east side of Manhattan.
The firemen divided the Captain’s room at the station into two tiny rooms. With a little luck and a little larceny, the men had found a small bed and dresser. The room was tiny, but Cat was used to small rooms and this felt comfortable to her. There were still many nights that she cried herself to sleep, but on those nights, she usually found herself leaning against the chest of Uncle Archie as he sang Eyes of Blue, For Old Time’s Sake, or Cat’s favorite Who Threw The Overalls In Mrs. Murphy's Chowder? Nothing could ever replace the life she had with her father, but she was pragmatic and an eternal optimist. After all, she was her father’s daughter!
Interrupting Uncle Archie’s daydreaming that had turned into a nap at some undetermined time, Cat took a seat on the ground next to him. “How long do you think forever is?” she asked looking up at him with the sincerest of looks on her face.
“Now what makes you ask a question like that, Cat?”
“Sal asked me if I would ever get tired of asking questions or if I would just keep on asking questions forever!” I mean I know that I can’t ask questions forever, but how long is forever? What happens after forever? Is there an “after” forever? I guess I just don’t understand how there can be a “forever”, if there is nothing after forever…do you know what I mean? It just gives me a headache.”
Archie nodded and agreed that it was certainly understandable that it gave her a headache. Before he was able to change the subject, Cat asked, “My father said when we go to heaven, it is forever. Is that what you think, Uncle Archie? What will we do forever? Do you think it will be boring? Hey what about Coaltrain and Cleo and Brutus? Oh no! What about them? Do animals go to heaven? Will they have a barn to live in or will they just live outside…except for Brutus, of course, he will have to stay inside with me. It just wouldn’t do for Cole and Cleo to live inside, would it? It would be mighty smelly if you know what I mean.” Cat burst into laughter at her own joke while blushing at the same time.
Uncle Archie started to wonder if Sal had been right after all. Maybe it was possible for Cat to go on asking questions forever. “Oh Uncle Archie…do you know what I was wondering?”
As in all good stories, time passed and one season rolled into the next. Cat grew up under the watchful eye of Uncle Archie and anywhere from eight to twelve surrogate fathers depending on the staffing of Engine House #5. By the time Cat was sixteen, she knew as much about fire fighting as any fireman on the team. She never went back to school after the fire. She had received three years of formal education and that was more than most girls her age, and whatever further education she needed, she was getting as a fireman.
While she was never allowed to actually fight fires, she did become the designated driver of the pump wagon. She was able to weave the pump wagon and horses through the crowded streets of Hoboken. If the wagon and horses could fit through a space, she could drive them through the opening at full speed. But her real value as the driver was her relationship with Cole and Cleo. She and Coaltrain could sense each other’s thoughts and moods. It was if they could communicate without words as she telepathed to him where he was to go and Cleo followed. Likewise, Brutus grew to love and obey Cat as he had with the Captain.
It was not uncommon on any given day to find Cat sitting in Coaltrain’s stall reading a book with Brutus by her side. She would read a few pages and then stop. “Cole…do you think Bobby really likes me? ... or Cole, did you see the way Uncle Archie fussed at Sal last night?’ Coaltrain would invariably think about the question for a moment and then answer with a prolonged whiney. Brutus would agree with a wag of his tail, and Cleo would just continue to eat hay and refuse to join in the conversation. Uncle Archie often joked that he did not have to worry about Cat and boys. There would never be a boy that could live up to her Cole. But there would always be spring!
The spring of 1909 burst from the clutches of winter like New Year’s Eve fireworks over the Hudson. The New York Times had grown to over fifteen pages. While still expensive, a nice apartment in New York City was going for around ten dollars a week. And yet some things did not change. Cat sat in her usual place in Coaltrain’s stall, but now that she was a little older, she sat in the old chair that she had borrowed from the front of the Firehouse. Brutus sat at her feet. “Can you believe this, Cole?” Cat started. The Times says that one of the stores in the city is putting price tags on their clothes. Why do you think they need to do that? Wouldn’t ‘ya just ask someone if you wanted to know how much something cost? Oh, it says here that there is going to be a car show at the Madison Square Garden. Don’t worry Cole; I still think those smelly old cars will ever catch on. Besides, I would never sit in a stall and read the paper to my car!” Cat once again laughed out loud at her own joke making.
“You know Cole, I still miss my dad, and I would give anything to have him back, but...you know.” Mary paused to let her thoughts come together. “If my dad had not gotten killed in the fire, you would never have saved my life. I would never have met Uncle Archie. My life would have been so different. I…” and with that thought she remembered the words of a lady in white. “Oh…and Mary Catherine, the other things about prayers is that sometimes the answer you want is not always the answer that you receive, but many times it can be the answer you need. In some cases, the answer you receive might be the answer to someone else’s prayer.”
Mary felt dizzy. Most of her memories of the great fire and the lady had all but vanished. She could not tell if they were even real or not. They might well have been hallucinations brought on by the heat of the fire. And here they were springing up in her memory as fresh as if the fire had been yesterday. She felt her knees giving way and darkness closed in around her.
“Whoa now,” came an unrecognizable voice with disassociated hands that grabbed her. Mary looked up through foggy eyes to see a young, skinny boy trying his best to support her weight. “’R ye ulright,” he asked while helping her back to her chair.
“I uhh, I don’t know,” Cat stammered as she tried to stand up again.
“Whoa now, he repeated. “Don’t be in sutch a rush. You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.” Cole shot her a glance asking her the same question and knowing the answer.
“I’m Aengus. I’m ‘ere about the job as firefighter,” he said a little too confidently.
“And what makes you think you could be a fireman here at the #5,” she shot back with Coaltrain whinnying his agreement.
“Because I come from a lung line of firefighters in “the city” and I am ‘ere to make it on my own in Jarse’ before moving back to my father’s firehouse.
Implying that the Jersey firehouses were in any way a step down from those across the river were words usually spoken before punches were thrown. With fists curled, Cat jumped from her seat. She felt hers arms being held by Archie who had been listening to the conversation from a safe distance.
“So who is your friend here, Cat?” knowing that he was only pouring gasoline on a fire already on the brink of being out of control. But he smiled; he was after all, a fireman!
Aengus stepped around Cat offering his hand to the Captain, “Aengus Walsh at ‘cha surviss. I’ve comes to speak wit ‘ya about the jub as fireman.”
With his smile broadening, Archie continued with the goal of antagonizing Kat even further, “Ooohh…not the son of the long line of New York City Walsh firemen?” Cat groaned loudly and realized that Archie was just being his old irritating self.
“It’s me family, alright. You know, seventh son of a seventh son and all,” Aengus beamed.
“Well Aengus of the famous Walsh’s…why don’t ya join me in me office for a chat…ey?”
Aengus turned to Cat one more time and asked, “Will ye be okay, Missy?” at which point Archie grabbed Aengus by the arm and led him out of the stalls before Cat put a sufficient beating on the poor boy.
Aengus was offered the job and was told he could start the next day. Feeling full of himself, he decided to go by the stables and just check in on the pretty girl that he had rescued earlier. Oh, you’re still here are ‘ya. Feeling alright from the morning?” Aengus inquired in his incredibly annoying accent. Cat just starred back at the newly hired fireman. “Well as me dad used to say, ‘A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures!’” Still no response from the increasingly annoyed Cat. “And from the looks of it, you could certainly use a laugh, ey?” Aengus spoke as he turned and ducked from one of the harness hooks that hit the wall just above his head.
Since this is a short story and not a novel, let it suffice to say that Cat and Aengus put their differences aside. She grew to like his accent so much that her answer to Aengus’s proposal of “Will ye marry me, lassie?” was a resounding yes!
Cat spent the morning of her twentieth birthday washing and combing the coats of the two fire horses. Hours later, with the Silsby Pumper adorned with flowers, Coaltrain and Cleo proudly pulled Mr. and Mrs. Aengus Walsh to their new home just blocks from Engine House # 5. And with the Spring of 1913 within sight, there was another honorary firefighter added to the roster…Mary Jean Walsh was born into a family of approximately thirty…not the least of these were Uncle Archie, Cole, and Brutus and the firemen of #5.
The white lady, even in the brevity of her message, had instilled in Mary Catherine the idea that life was never intended to be a predictable event. Even though Cat did not remember her encounter with the lady, subconsciously she was aware that she had been placed on a different course that neither her mother nor father had intended or even imagined. But she was here… a firefighter, a wife and mother and loved “just like a daughter” by at least thirty of New Jersey’s bravest firemen. Would life have been any better without the events that had shaped her future? Could it have been better? It was impossible to tell, but she never questioned that she had been blessed more than she deserved.
By 1915, the world that Cat and Aengus knew was changing. The first transatlantic phone call had been made from San Fransico to New York City in January. The Lusitania had departed New York City from Pier 54 on May 1 and was sunk off the Irish coast six days later. Closer to home, changes were taking place in the firefighting industry. 1906, the first gasoline-powered fire engine had been built in the States by the Watrous Engine Works. These automotive engines were faster, had a higher capacity for pumping water, and were cheaper to maintain than horses. As much as the firemen loved the horses, they could not compete against the changes brought on by technology. In 1911, New York City bought their first automotive engine and only two years later announced that horses would no longer be used for firefighting. By 1917, the last of the horses were retired in New York City.
Archie knew that Coaltrain and Cleopatra would be replaced along with his Silsby pumper with or without his blessing; it was not his decision to make anyway. Cat was inconsolable. It was paramount to saying that she would have to get rid of her daughter to make room for something better.
“Okay Archie,” she conceded, we will buy the new engine, but we will just have to keep Cole. There is nothing that says we can’t have both the new engine and a horse.”
Archie explained for the tenth time that day, “We won’t have room for the horses and the new engine. The stalls we have to be converted to a garage for the engine. We will have to sell the horses to help offset the cost of the engine. Come on, Cat. I love the horses as much as you do!”
Archie had begun to call Coaltrain and Cleo “the horses” as his own way of distancing himself from them. These horses had been the heart and soul of the Engine House #5. He could not imagine the station without them. He could not imagine being the Captain of the Engine House without them.
Cat and Aengus spent as much time as Mary Jean would allow with the horses. Cat would sit in Cole’s stall reading the paper with Mary Jean in her lap and Brutus in his position at her feet. In the late fall, a representative from the city of New York’s sanitation department appeared in the breezeway door of the stable. “You Cat?’ the representative asked bruskly. I am here to pick up the large male horse…name Coaltrain?”
“I have not heard anything about this,” Cat bristled. “You are going to have to come back later with some kind of paperwork. Coaltrain is not going anywhere until I say he is!”
“I have the paperwork right here signed by an Archibald Bremen. If I am not mistaken, he is the Captain here. Look, I don’t have time to argue, so just give me the horse. The City of New York has paid for this horse and I have to deliver him today.” From around the corner came two other men dressed in sanitation department “blues” and began bridling Coaltrain.
Cole looked at Cat with panic in his large brown eyes and with a wild look, reared up knocking one of the workers down. As his head hit the stall wall, blood appeared at the back of the NYC’ employee’s head. Cat ran in the direction of Coaltrain only to be grabbed and thrown against the sidewall of the stall.
Before she could pick herself up the man in the suit turned and punched Coaltrain below his ear with his balled fist. “I don’t have time for this,” snarled the city worker as he helped his worker up. Put the bridle on that stupid horse and let’s get out of here. The three men and Coaltrain left the stall with Cat still lying on the floor of the stall. Coaltrain looked over his shoulder and sent the unmistakable message to his best friend, “Help me, Cat!”
Archie appeared at the stables about an hour later to find Cat still lying on the floor of the stall sobbing. Archie ran to her and fell on the floor next to Cat. Holding her tight he said, “Oh Cat, I am so sorry. I tried to get here in time, but they must have come early. After a thirty-second pause, Archie whispered, “You okay Cat?” The sense of déjà vu overpowered Archie as he held Cat in Coaltrain’s stall in the diminishing afternoon light. It had been seventeen years since Archie held Cat in this same stall wondering if she would live. Holding cat closely, she was once again a fragile eight old girl, and once again he worried if she was going to live.
“They hit him Uncle Archie. They hit him right in the face and it scared him so badly. He was so scared, and he did not want to go. Tell me he’s going to be alright Uncle Archie…tell me he going to be happy now?” Cat said through wet eyes that were focused on something far away. The sorrow in her voice was replaced by anger now, “Tell me Archie…was this the best thing for my Coaltrain? Is his life going to be better? He was my family and I let total strangers led him away like some kind of lamb to slaughter.” Cat pushed away from Archie and stood up looking down on her uncle. “I don’t think that I can be with you right now, Archie.”
The Ford Model T Chemical Fire Truck was delivered at the end of the week. The body was painted in a shiny apple-red paint with cream pin striping down the fenders and running boards. A large, sixteen-inch brass bell was mounted just behind the driver’s position. The wood-sided bed held the pressurized tank and hose basket, and the wood-spoked wheels were encircled by white rubber tires. She was beautiful although she was universally hated for what she had cost the station.
The stalls were broken down and the stables were retrofitted to house the Ford. The worn leather harnesses were replaced with cans of brass polish. The wooden shelves that had held the brushes and combs for the horses were cleared out to make room for brushes for keeping the tires and red paint polished. A workshop with the tools and materials needed to keep the Ford running was built in the area that had been previously used to keep Coal and Cleo in shoes. Even the old Silsby pumper had been sold to an Engine House in down state New York. Less than two weeks after the appearance of the man from the sanitation department, there was very little evidence that there had ever been horses there.
Cat was inconsolable and refused to go into the garage. With Aengus’s approval and support, the two of them spent their weekends combing the streets of New York in search of Coaltrain. There were thousands of horses in service in the City and no one seemed to know of a solid black German draft horse named Coaltrain. Cat and Aengus walked the alleyways and side streets looking for anyone who knew of such a horse. Each weekend they returned no closer to finding her friend.
On December 18 of the following year, Cat was in the city making her weekly trip checking in with the few contacts that she had made to inquire about a large draft horse. The trips were getting fewer and farther between as hope seemed to dwindle away. It was a miserable evening in the city, and she decided to drop by the Deli before heading home. Johanne met her at the door with a concerned look on her face. “Cat,” she started slowly. “I may have some news for you. I am afraid that it is not going to be good news. I saw a garbage wagon go by late yesterday afternoon. It was being pulled by a black draft horse, but he did not really match your description. I would not even mention it to you, but I just had this feeling, you know. It is probably nothing, but I had to tell you. Jozsed says that I am being foolish, but I have this feeling Cat.”
“Did you follow him, Johanne? Where is he? Do you know where to find him?”
“I did not have to follow him Cat. The name of the business was on the side of the wagon. It is Jason’s Removal…they are located just down the block on 23rd.”
Cat pushed back from the table and ran down the street in the rain and sleet that had started to fall. Jason’s was located about twenty yards off the street creating a cave-like entrance to the store front and stables located in the rear. Pushing past Jason as he tried to lock the doors for the night, Cat explained her situation.
“Please sir, just give me a minute. I have been trying to find this horse for over a year. If it is not him, I promise I will leave immediately.”
“Look lady, this horse wouldn’t be wanted by nobody.” He’s a nag. He’s sick and I don’t think he has much life left in him. What’ya say his name is?”
Maybe because it was close to Christmas, and maybe because of the tears forming in Cat’s eyes, he gave her fifteen minutes. The owner pointed to the last stall.
The length of the barn was punctuated by solitary light bulbs hanging from the roof on long wires. Following the line of light bulbs, Cat started to run down the length of the stables. She spied Coaltrain lying down in the damp hay. He could no longer hold his head up, but when Cat cried at the sight of him, he raised his head and tried to stand.
“No, no, no boy…stay down, stay down” she said feeling all the pain that she knew that Coaltrain felt. He dropped back to the ground. Falling to his side, Cat positioned herself so that she could hold his head in her lap. With the feeling that she wanted to express to him, he received in his mind without any words being spoken. He had lost several hundred pounds. His legs were covered in scrapes and cuts, and his mane that used to be long and braided, was filled with bits of garbage and mud.
Cat’s tears poured from her eyes wetting the area between Cole’s eyes. Each time Cat tried to speak, the words would not come. How could she express her sorrow with the words? Coaltrian spoke first and let Cat know with a shake of his head that there was nothing to be sorry about. It was life, and life could be difficult. She of all people should understand that. He had enjoyed a good life, but it had been made rich and beautiful because he had known her. The miserable last year was nothing compared to the previous fifteen years. Now that he had been able to see her one more time, he was ready to go…and it was okay.
“No Coaltrain, please no. I just found you and I can’t let you go…not now. I can take you back to the firehouse. Aengus, and Archie and I can get you feeling great again…just hold on. From the back corner of the stall, came a voice that scared Cat into a state of near shock. In the dark stall with rain dripping from the holes in the tin roof, stood a beautifully tall lady in a white dress. The filth of the surrounding did not, or maybe could not, stick to her clothes.
“It has been a long time Mary Catherine. I pray that you are doing well,” the lady spoke as if they had just met on the street on a Saturday afternoon.
Mary Catherine’s mind raced backwards almost two decades as she tried to piece together fragments of memories. The voice was familiar. The face was familiar. It was as if her consciousness and subconscious were battling for control. And then as if a switch had been flipped, Cat remembered the lady in white and the brief if not cryptic conversation that the two had twenty years earlier.
“I’m sorry about your father,” she began. “I was there when he died. I know that you did not get your wish exactly, but it is important for you to know that he was a hero, and his last thoughts were of you.
We have never been formally introduced; my name is Giselle. I am so sorry about your horse,” she continued. “He was always so beautiful, but he is tired now.”
“Who are you!” Cat asked coming out of her confused state.
“I told you, my name is Giselle. I was on the Amity May on your birthday. Wasn’t that fun, Mary Elizabeth…oh, I guess it is Cat now? Which do you prefer?”
“Who are you?” demanded Cat this time. What do you want from me?”
“I thought it was you who wanted something from me.” Giselle asked with a confused look. “I have never asked youfor anything! The first time we met, you just wanted to live…and that is what you mother wanted also, you know, for you to live. Then back at the fire, you were very adamant…you wanted your daddy. And I have already apologized for that, but your father was every bit as adamant as you were. He said that he needed to do something...even if it were pointless, he had to try. So again, I am sorry about that, but I tried to make things right by placing you with Uncle Archie ands Coaltrain. It was not so bad was it?”
Mary Catherine could feel the darkness closing in around her. This was not real, and…the line between reality and her dreams was becoming thinner. Mary could feel Coaltrain’s head in her lap. She could feel his breathing becoming shallower. “It is okay, Cat…it is okay. Just relax and listen to the lady,” thought Cole as his head became heavier in her lap.
Giselle, appearing closer to Cat than she had been earlier, spoke again, “What do you want, Mary Catherine? I know that this is a very difficult moment for you, and that is why I am here. What do you want?”
Mary Catherine was no longer eight years old, but she had no better idea how to answer that question that she did twenty years ago. As a wife, mother and twenty eight year old, she had a pretty good understanding of the real world and what was possible and what was not. Coaltrain was old. He had been mistreated. And no parlor trick magic in the world could keep him alive forever. But for just a moment she felt closer to being eight years old than she did to twenty-eight.
“I don’t know what to ask for,” as she dropped her head and cried. She cried for her mother and and her father Sean. She cried for Coaltrain and for the pain of separation and mistreatment he must have felt this past year. There had been loss over the years but there had also be blessings beyond measurement. Maybe she did not want anything. Maybe there was no need for wishes any more.
Mary Katherine looked up at Giselle and said, “You have been kind enough. You have answered the wishes of my mother and father. You have answered my wishes and exceeded the scope of anything that I had intended by them. I think that maybe I should just thank you for your willingness to hear me all these years.
Giselle smiled radiantly and nodded her head, “You have grown up well, Mary Catherine. Before we part company, I will ask you one more time. What do you want?”
Mary Catherine looked down at Coaltrain. His breathing had become so labored and she knew he must be in pain. Laying her head on his, she said, “I wish that there would be no more pain in Cole’s life…no more work. I wish that he could experience only happiness. I wish that he could bring the same happiness to others that he brought to me.”
She was interrupted by the stable owner who was standing at the door to the stall and clearing his throat. Looking around, he asked, “Are you okay? Who are you talking to?”
Cat looked around to see an empty stall. “I am sorry about your horse,” the stable owner said. Cat looked down to see Coaltrain lying lifeless in her lap.
“Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal.” Wasn’t that what her father had told her once? It had been over two years now since the death of Coaltrain. Uncle Archie had passed away late last year. She had seen Paul Sheppone at her uncle’s funeral. He looked old…but then again, he was old! Several of the retired firefighters that had worked for the Captain were there. Sal had become the new Captain. He was a good man and would make a good Captain, but he was a lot older than Archie was when he had taken the job as Captain.
With the growth of their family, Aengus and Cat decided to leave their careers as firemen behind and move back into the city. It was a difficult profession under the best of circumstances and now that Uncle Archie was gone, the passion for Engine House No. 5 had left them both. Cat had heard that Rubin’s Deli was coming up for sale. After loving negotiations were completed with Jozsed and Johanne, Aengus and Cat agreed to buy the deli if the original owners would agree stay on as “consultants”. Once again, the relationship played out in perfect symbiosis.
Deli hours were long, but there were always Sunday afternoons to explore the city. The favorite outing for the family was a trip into Central Park where the family picnicked and took long walks. One fall afternoon, when leaves of red and gold were swirling around the feet of park guests, Aengus had what he considered one of his greatest ideas. Today was going to be the day that little Sean was old enough to ride the park carousel. Sean and Jean both thought that this was a great idea. As Aengus went to buy the tickets, it became Mary Catherine’s job to select just the perfect horse for Sean…Jean was old enough to chose her own.
Approaching the Merry Go Round, little Sean broke loose from Mary Catherine’s hand and ran to make his own decision. Running around the Merry Go Round, he stopped beside a large black horse and started calling for his mother, “This one Mother, I want to ride this one.” Mary Catherine finally caught up with her son. “Oh, this is a fine looking horse,” she exclaimed. “ Do you think you are big enough to ride such a fine looking horse?” she asked waiting for him to establish just how big he was now. Mary placed little Sean on the back of the big horse and stepped back to take it all in.
Sean was growing up. He would be five soon. She asked Sean if he needed her to stay next to him during the ride to which she received a resounding “No Mother!”
Smiling at her son, she stepped off the ride and took her place to watch. As the ride started up, she took in all the colors of the painted horses and their hypnotic movement. On the third revolution of the ride, she noticed the horse that Sean was riding on. He was a beautifully carved horse. While all the other horses on the Merry Go Round were painted in bold primary colors, Sean’s horse was jet black. From the hoofs to his mane, he looked as if he had been carved of a single piece of ebony. He had been carved with his head held back as if he were whinnying to be heard by someone far away. He was beautiful.
Apparently, Mary Catherine’s imagination had started to run away with her. She though that the horse’s head moved each time the carousel rotated. On the fifth revolution, the head was still head high but looking outward from the ride. Mary Catherine was not sure what she was seeing, but she panicked and ran towards the circling carousel and jumped onto the ride. Weaving in and out of the other horses and carts and children, she knew that she only wanted to get Sean off the ride. Mary Catherine ran up to her son from behind just as the ride began to grind to a halt.
Sean was laughing and yelling, “This is the best horse ever. Can I ride him again Mother…just one more time? My horse was the fastest of all of them. Did you see him, Mother?”
Mary Catherine was embarrassed that she had let her imagination get the best of her. She hoped that Aengus had not seen her moment of panic. Still…why did she think that the horse was moving. Mary Catherine dropped to her knees in front of the horse and stared into the carved face. He was an old horse and had probably been carved in the mid 1800’s when the carousel was installed in Central Park. He was very old and yet still beautiful…and he was familiar. The brown marble eyes that were embedded in the exquisitely carved face seem to look at her with an acknowledgment.
A voice from a great distance sounded in the back of her mind, “I’m okay, Cat. No, I am better than okay. I am wonderful! Thank you.” Large, hot tears fell from her eyes. This time the tears were not formed in sorrow but from a very deep sense of peace. Maybe everything was going to be okay now…for everyone.
As she stood to face little Sean and his continuing request to ride again, she saw a carved nametag on a carved gold chain hanging around the neck of the horse. She dropped back down to her knees to try to read the plaque. Even though her vision was still blurred by tears, she knew what this horse’s name would be. Wiping her eyes, she was able to make out the name that had been carved over a hundred years before - Coaltrain.
“Come on Mother…just one more time,” Sean pleaded.
“Well, this horse is special,” Mary Catherine agreed as she wiped her eyes. “Sure…why not? Let’s ride him again.”
“Do you want to ride next to me this time Mother?”
“Yes, I would love to,” she said. The music started and the carousel began to move. The brightly painted ponies chased each other around the carousel never gaining nor losing ground to the others. But the black horse named Coaltrain still held his head high in perpetual joy.
The day began to wind down as did the energy of her two children. Aengus and Mary Catherine knew that they still had a bit of a trip to get back home, so they gathered their belongings. Aengus inquired of Mary Catherine several times on the trip back home about what she was thinking. He could see it in her eyes that she was preoccupied with something, but she always responded with “I don’t know…just thinking about the children, I guess”. She leaned over and gave him a meaningful kiss on his cheek. Aengus had been married long enough to know when to stop asking.
Mary Catherine held her Mary Jean’s hand while Aengus put Sean on his shoulders. As they turned to walk back home, Mary Catherine looked back one more time to see Coaltrain. She caught a glimpse of him going around the far side of the ride. She could not be sure, but it looked as if a lady dressed in white with long blond hair was riding him. As the carousel came back around, Coaltrain’s only rider was a small girl with her mother standing alongside of her.