It cannot be.
I am captain of the Grace of Ireland, and the twenty-one men remaining of her crew. I have been master of this ship these past five years, so I know – aye, I know – the log should begin with the day and our location and conditions, heading and speed of the ship. Curse me, but I would record all that if I could be sure –
if I could just know –
It cannot be, it cannot!
– if I could only know that I am not mad. That we are not in Hell.
I believe it is the 23rd of June in the year 1678, by the common reckoning. I think we are at anchor in a cove on the eastern shore of the New World. It is the 73rd day since we started our cruise, from Galway Bay in Connacht. The ship is leaking, as it has been since we left Irish waters, but we cannot beach and careen her until the storm that chased us here has passed over. Four men are manning the pumps for now, and the Mate assures me we will survive the storm afloat.
Unless, of course, we are already dead.
I don’t know who to pray to. Or who to curse, come to that.
I prayed for our deliverance as my mother taught me: in the language of our land and our people, stretching back through the centuries, through generations of Gaelic kings to the seven Sons of Mil who wrested Erin from the Tuatha De Danann, and the gods and goddesses who birthed them and watched over them, and over the Milesians in turn.
But I confess to doubting these gods and goddesses of Ireland, for sure it is that prayers rose up to them in untold thousands, washed clean with tears and sanctified with innocent blood, when the English Devil Cromwell descended on our land like the plagues of Egypt, like all the conquerors and raiders and savages out of the west and the north who have laid waste to Ireland since the dawn of time. And these gods, Dagda and Nuada and Lugh, Danu and Goibniu and the Morrigan, they failed us in our hour of need and let the black-souled English slaughter whole generations, and paint the stones of Ireland red with blood that will never wash away.
The gods of old did not save Ireland. They did not save my mother, Maeve ni Cathan, the daughter of kings, the great-granddaughter of Grainne ni Maille herself, with ancient knowledge writ in her brain and her bones and her blood. They let her be raped by an Englishman on the streets of Drogheda. Raped by a Puritan, by a man of God come to conquer heresy and sin – so they claimed.
Raped by my father. And nine months after he gave my mother a bastard son, he gave me the name of his own fate, his doom for the sin of his lust, and the even greater sin of allowing my heathen mother to live after he defiled her: Damnation.
My friends call me Nate.
Perhaps I should pray to the God of my father, the God of Abraham and Saint Patrick. The God of Cromwell. But why should he listen to me? Sure and no man has been born so far out of His sight, the get of a corrupted hypocrite and a proud pagan, raised by one to hate the other.
And I think it no help to my pleas that I have earned my name a hundred times in the ten years since I reached manhood, in seeking my vengeance on half of my blood in the name of the other half. Even if my father’s sins had not passed on to me, I have a gracious plenty of my own, theft and piracy and plunder and aye, murder.
No, the Father of Adam will not listen to me, either. I think he may have already sent us to his Hell and barred the gate after us. Certain it is that the living world, the home of His beloved children, could not hold such things as I have seen this day.
Such things . . . –
I must be mad.
I have lived my whole life at sea, fishing with my uncles before I could walk the length of the curragh, rowing their trading galleys past the English blockades, and sometimes through them. I have been to London and seen the greatest ships ever built by the hand of man, three decks and four masts and enough cannon to drown out the thunder itself.
But that thing that I saw when we came in sight of the shore! I thought it was a part of the land: the White Cliffs of Dover on the shore of the New World. Until it moved. Until it blew smoke from its back, like the spume of a whale, and sounded a horn that could have drowned out Gabriel’s trumpet, and then it sailed across the bay before us. Against the wind. Against the tide.
I looked at it through my glass, and I swear to you it held men. Men crawled over it like lice. They waved and they cheered. It was a ship. A ship that could not be.
I must be mad.
But if I were, would not those impossible sights continue? If my eyes were deceived, if they had betrayed me then, would I see my hands on this page, the quill in my fingers, the spatters of ink from my pot? All is still, now; nothing is unfamiliar to me. We sit at anchor in a cove, the land around us thick with greenery. Though I do not know the trees, still they are trees. My men look like men, my ship still like the ship I have sailed nearly every day since she was refit three years ago, the ship I have sailed thousands of miles in the past two months, from the seas of Ireland to this distant shore.
Could it be the Isle of the Blessed? Have I followed the path of St. Brendan the Navigator, himself? How can I know? We sailed off the ends of charts a month gone. Perhaps we sailed off the edge of the world, too.
But I think we would not be welcome in Paradise. And if we were, sure my ship would not still leak.
It was a hundred feet high, two hundred. Pure white, shining like the clouds in a summer sky. It would have stretched from one end of the village where my mother raised me to the other, and beyond. It was smoking – there was fire on it – fire, the curse of ships, the terror of all sailors. And it sailed through the waves, without sail, without oars.
I looked through my glass and I saw the faces of the men and women aboard. I saw children. They smiled.
I looked at its bow and I saw written there in letters as tall as a man, “GRAND PRINCESS.”
It was a ship. A ship the size of a mountain.
We are in Hell.