Date: July 4, 2011
Location: Miami, Florida
Conditions: Back-stabbed. Marooned. Stranded. Heart-torn.
I was nine years old when my heart first broke. ‘Twas after I rode King Henry, the bull that I had been charged with keeping (along with keeping all our other animals) during my mother’s three-week absence in Dublin. When my mother finally returned and walked into Uncle Seamus’s house, where I lay with my leg broken and a thousand imagined torments piled up in my mind, a thousand possible punishments she could lay upon me for my crime – which seemed unforgivable, then, and only slightly less so now, when I understand how she felt – my tongue seemed to dry up in my mouth, my throat swelling shut with fear even as my eyes stood wide as church doors. I stared at her face, looking for a sign of how my doom would fall. I saw anger, there, and bitter disappointment – but most of all, I saw betrayal. She had trusted me, her only son, to care for her home and livestock in her absence; and not only had I failed, but I myself had been the instrument of her home’s destruction with my blind, foolish mischief. When I saw how deeply that betrayal of her trust had wounded her, I began to weep. I turned away, unable to look at her any more. I longed for her to kill me and end it all.
I hope that those who have betrayed me in this way, who have taken my only home, my only hope, away from me, may feel the same. A curse upon them all.
She came to my side where I lay on a bench, swaddled in blankets. She exposed my broken leg and examined the splint and the set of the injury; she felt my brow, turned my face to her and looked at my eyes, opened my mouth and examined my tongue. Then, without having spoken a word, she turned away and walked out. In the next room I heard her say, “We’ll leave before dawn. Put him in the wagon in the morning.”
Needless to say, this did not assuage my fears, nor my guilt. She couldn’t even stand to talk to me, not even to yell and rage and curse my stupidity. And we would be leaving? Where would we go? Was this the first stage of my own punishment? Dawn – because I faced execution like a common criminal? Was the instrument of my chastisement so prodigious, so awful, that we had to travel to reach it?
Was it a dungeon?
A torture chamber?
Would she have me thrown in the ocean, or abandoned on a mountaintop for wild animals to rend and tear and devour?
I tried to ask my uncle Seamus when he brought me supper, but he shook his head and refused to speak to me, surely forbidden to do so on my mother’s word. Only my exhaustion from hours of worry put me to sleep that night; I still woke when it was the deepest dark, and picked up the thread of my fretting without hesitation.
Within an hour, still before the dawn’s light reddened the sky, my cousin Patrick, Seamus’s eldest son, who had escorted my mother on her journey to Dublin, brought me in a bowl of morning porridge. When I had eaten and stumbled through my morning wash, Patrick came and lifted me in his arms, carrying me out to the wagon. He set me in the back, propping my leg on a bundle and cushioning my back with blankets. When he saw I was secure, he went back into the house. He hadn’t spoken a word.
That was the first part of my punishment. Cousin Patrick drove the team and my mother sat beside him, and they spoke to each other only in voices too low for me to hear. They did not say a single word to me, not for the entire week we traveled. If I said I was hungry or thirsty, Patrick would stop the wagon and bring me bread or a leather bottle of water; if I claimed to feel sick or in pain, my mother would come to check on me, examine my leg, touch my face, check my eyes and tongue as before. Sometimes she would give me a sprig of herbs to chew, or dissolve somewhat in my water and have me drink it; sometimes she would simply return to the wagon’s eat and Patrick would drive on. Her gaze was indifferent when she looked at me, no more caring than if she were checking a dog for worms. She didn’t even look angry any more.
I began to fear that I had lost her. That we were on our way to the place where she would abandon me: perhaps placing me into a monastery, or giving me over to an apprenticeship, or selling me into a workhouse. I stopped complaining of pain or hunger, and drew into myself, becoming little more than a shell surrounding my fear and sorrow.
And then one morning, after a brief breakfast, my mother and Patrick washed and dressed me in my best clothing – still only a wool tunic and trousers, but they were finely made and clean. They put me in the wagon and off we went, still in silence, my fear growing still more intense by the minute, though before I would have sworn that it could not be greater. But this was it. We were here. My doom had arrived.
Imagine my surprise, then, when we turned off the road at the gate of a fine manor house, just visible behind a screen of elms and sycamores. A man in armor, holding a pike, challenged us at the gate, his eyes hard and suspicious, though his speech was polite enough.
My mother told him, “Tell Lord Blackwell that Maeve of Drogheda requests an audience. And she has brought her son.”
The guard blinked and stepped back when my mother named Drogheda. I was confused; we lived in Belclare, clear across Ireland from Drogheda. What was going on? Where were we? Who was this Blackwell? The guard opened the gate for us, instructed Patrick to halt the wagon just inside, and then strode quickly to the door of the manor house and vanished within.
My mother stepped down from the wagon’s seat and came back to me. She helped me down, stood me up straight and brushed off the road dust and bits of hay from the wagon bed. Then she stood, tall and proud with her fists on her hips and her chin high, and looked me over. I tried to stand as well as she, despite my fear that that she was about to inform me that she was handing me over into the service of some English lord, that she would never see me again and was happier for it, seeing as I was such a dangerous and disobedient child. I held back the pleas for mercy, the oaths of love and of the eternal perfection of my future obedience to her every whim, if only – if only she would take me home with her. The tears I could not stop.
She spoke at last – for the first time in nearly a month, speaking directly to me – and her voice was hard and proud. “Though we call you Nate, your name is Damnation. Damnation Kane. The Kane is from me, my family name, and a good Irish name it is, even if the English cannot spell it properly. You are my son, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh.”
She paused then, and her gaze moved to the manor house that loomed before us, built of cold white stone, like ice and snow, without a flower bed or a statue or a single scrap of decoration to lend charm to its cold facade – as I was about to learn, the house was the perfect reflection of its owner. Then my mother said, “It is time you met the man who gave you your other name, and the other half of your blood. Your father.”
My father? My mother had never told me of my father. I think she had never spoken those words in my life. Whenever I asked her, she left the room. If I asked anyone else, no matter who it was, the reaction was ever the same: the face closed up, and turned sad. The eyes pitied me, and then looked for my mother, wherever she was. I learned to stop asking.
But now, at this moment when I had begun to doubt my mother, the one strong pillar that I did have in my life, which had always held me up despite the apparent non-existence of a father; and in this place, this manor house which, for all its stark exterior, still it was all finished stone and dark, rich wood, and large enough to house my entire village – here and now I was to meet the man who made me, whose blood ran in my veins. And – what? Did Mam plan to leave me here with him?
Did I want her to?
I could feel my body begin to shake, the fear in me being replaced by – anticipation. Hope. I did not want to leave my mother, but all of my life I had longed for a father, for the right father, a strong and upright and just man, a man I could take pride in claiming as my own, even as he claimed me as his. Immediately I began to spin a tale in my mind whereby he could have remained out of my life until this point and still been an honorable man: he was wealthy, obviously, and a lord, so perhaps theirs had been a forbidden love. Perhaps my mother had hidden me away, and never told my father of my existence; perhaps he was wed already when they had made me, and in her deep love for him, she had left rather than destroy him with her shame. Perhaps on her recent trip, she had found that he was now a widower, or in some other way free to love her – to love me.
The door opened. My heart seemed to stop – but it was only the guard. He came back across the lawn – which, though it could have supported two or three good milch cows, was clearly trimmed by hand, the blades all perfectly uniform in length – and beckoned peremptorily to my mother. “Come. Bring the boy. Leave your man with the beasts.”
I saw my mother’s jaw clench and her knuckles turn white. I glared at the man, prepared myself to kick him in the shins for angering my mother, noting carefully where his armored greaves ended, just above his ankle. But then I hesitated. This man was my father’s man. Surely I had to defend him, as well? Didn’t we share allegiance? And what had he said to upset her? Was she as nervous as I, to see my father, to realize or end the hope that their love could be rekindled? Was she upset that she had to present me to my father in such a situation, when I had broken her heart with my betrayal of her trust? Was it – it couldn’t be because of Patrick, who had to stay out here with the horses? It couldn’t be: Patrick looked palpably relieved to be excused from going into the house, and I wasn’t sure I didn’t envy him.
But no. This was my father’s house. My father was inside. Of course I wanted to meet him, to see his home, his belongings, his manner of living. Didn’t I?
I had little choice, of course. The guard turned to lead us in, and my mother grabbed my arm in an iron grip and hauled me along at a rapid pace. I could no longer make sense of my emotions: they were too many, and too mixed.
At the door the guard turned us over to a serving man. Tall and thin, old but not in his dotage, the man wore a crisp black suit with a white cravat, a powdered wig, and a deeply contemptuous frown. He gave us a long appraisal, his lip curling more with every moment, my mother’s flush deepening with every lip-curl as her grip on my arm tightened into pain. Clearly this man was not familiar with my mother’s pride, or her temper. Any moment, I thought, she will swing me around her head and beat this man to death with my body as her club.
The man said, “This way. Do not touch anything.” Then he turned and led us down a long hall, the walls of which were as blank and white and clean as the outside of the house, the only color coming from the sconces set on the walls, where pine torches burned with a red, popping flame, the plaster above them seared black with soot. With its high, vaulted ceilings and the doors we passed, doors of dark oak bound with iron straps, this place looked to me like the most sinister and frightening church one could imagine.
Who was my father, that he lived in this place?
The serving man knocked at a door, and then swung it open. He blocked the doorway with his body, snapped his heels together and said, “The strumpet is here, milord. With the boy.”
I glanced at my mother, sure the swinging and clubbing would now commence. But I was shocked to see that all the color had fled her face, leaving her as pale as snow. She looked – scared.
The serving man nodded and stepped aside. Mockingly, he bowed us into the room, but my mother nodded at him just as if she were royalty, and with her head high and her jaw firm, she swept me into my father’s presence.
The first thing I saw was the wall before us, behind him: the windows were covered with heavy drapes, blocking the light, casting the room into darkness despite the early hour and the bright sun outside. Other than the windows, the entire length and height of the wall was covered with books, shelves and shelves of books and piles of unbound pages. I had never seen so many books in my life – I hadn’t thought so many could exist in one place. Those books buoyed up my spirits: my father was the richest man I had ever known! Perhaps all of the lean times, the ragged and mended clothing and the nights when we had to drink and dance and laugh because we had no food to fill our bellies – perhaps those days were all over for us now. I looked around at the other walls: this room was not blank and empty, as the rest of the house had seemed. Other than a cross large enough to hang me on – which, while something that my pagan mother wouldn’t have in our own home, was certainly nothing new to me in Catholic Ireland, though I did wonder why it wasn’t a proper crucifix with the figure of Christ suffering upon it – the walls were covered with battle-trophies. Broken shields, dull and rust-flecked swords and axes, wooden clubs and steel maces with dark stains on them still – perhaps that wasn’t rust dotting the sword blades, after all – bows and arrows, flintlock pistols and older wheel-lock muskets, all hung below a row of torn and muddied flags and pennants, which lined the walls just under the ceiling’s beams.
My spirits took another step up. My father was a warrior! And a great one! Could it be that I would actually have something to be proud of, someone I could brag about to the other boys, when I had heretofore had nothing but sullen silence and fists to answer their teasing with? Oh, I could not wait to tell Angus about this! Him and his father, the best wrestler in our tiny village – pah!
He stood up from behind his desk, and my gaze snapped to him then. My father. And the moment I looked at him, I know I could not brag to the other boys about this man.
Because my father was English.
I recognized the bluff jaw, the stocky physique of a man well-fed on beef and mutton and ham for all of his life. I knew the Puritan’s coat, unrelieved black wool, worn even in his own study in his own home, even on a warm summer morning. I recognized the blond hair turning gray, the sallow cheeks, and the pale eyes, the color of smoke on a winter’s day. And I knew that look of utter contempt, the look every Englishman wears when he sees an Irish face.
In later days, thinking back on that moment, I decided it might have been the worst part of my first encounter with my father, that when he looked at me, his expression changed not at all. He didn’t see a son, neither a source of pride nor of shame, neither heir nor by-blow. He looked at me, and all he saw was: Irish.
He came around the desk, which was massive and plain, like everything else in this house, including the master himself. He stood in front of me and measured and weighed every inch and ounce of me with his eyes. At first I looked carefully, searching for my features in his: perhaps the ears? Something of the chin? But I could not meet his cold, hard gaze, and finally I turned to contemplation of his boots. They were large, heavy, and plain.
“He looks Irish,” were the first words I heard my father say in my presence.
“He is Irish,” my mother responded. My father snorted.
“What name does he use?” he asked.
“Nate,” I spoke up. “Everyone calls me Nate.” I raised my eyes to look at him when I spoke, as I had been taught.
It wasn’t a particularly hard blow; more what one would use to swat a fly, perhaps a wasp. Something unpleasant that one would want to smash. But still, it knocked me back, mainly from surprise; I had never been struck before, not by the back of a man’s hand.
That was the first time my father touched me.
“Children are seen and not heard,” he said to me – or at least in my general direction, as he did not lower his gaze to meet mine.
“His name is Kane,” my mother said, her voice quivering but controlled, her pale face now highlighted by two bright spots of red burning high on her cheeks.
He nodded. “Good. He will never use the name Blackwell, nor FitzBlackwell. I will not acknowledge him, not even as my bastard. Is that clear?”
“Yes,” my mother said.
When he struck her, it was no harder than when he had struck me; my mother didn’t even rock back, though she turned her face away. I was looking at his face when he hit her, and it did not change, not a hair, not a wrinkle. It was as if a man were correcting a dog, or giving a plowhorse instructions to turn, or stop. There was no anger there, no outrage, not even any pleasure.
By the gods, there was anger on my face, then, as I charged him, yelling wordlessly, my small fists flailing. This time he struck me harder, knocking me sprawling on my hands and knees, the taste of blood in my mouth. My mother’s arm swung back, her mouth opened – and then she stopped herself, shaking with the effort. Her teeth bit into her bottom lip hard enough to draw a thin line of blood. She started to kneel down to me, and then stopped herself again, and turned away with her head bowed.
My father looked at me dispassionately with those eyes of ice and smoke. “He has spirit. Good.” He looked at my mother again. “But the both of you are far too pert. Like all your cursed heathen race. When you address me, particularly when you acknowledge my commands, you will say, ‘Yes, my lord’ or ‘Yes, Lord Captain.’ Is that clear?”
“Yes, my lord,” my mother said, her voice as cold as his gaze.
He turned back to me, running one hand over his chin; I could see now that his hands were criss-crossed with scars, the fingers gnarled from old breaks, his wrists as thick as my legs. This man had spent his life using those hands to do violence. Had it always been against women and children as well as men?
“Of course you did not come here hoping that I would accept him as my get. Does he need a place? I will find a workhouse that will take him. Or better, a ship that will transport him to the Indies. The Lord Protector needs men on the sugar plantations there. He is large enough to cut cane, I judge.”
My mother took a deep, heaving breath, and turned back to face him, once more outwardly calm. “No. My lord. I only wished him to meet his father, my lord. To learn of his heritage.”
He snorted again. “Looking at him now, I think there may be some question regarding that connection to myself. I find it difficult to credit that your insipid Irish blood would so overwhelm my own that no trace of me would be visible in the mongrel thus spawned.” He met her gaze. “You were virgin when I took you, but afterwards? Surely a woman of your charms would have no trouble finding an Irish peasant to rut with. If you were quick enough, you could have whelped at the appropriate time to claim a greater sire for your brat.”
My mother smiled, though there was no humor in it. “Whether you believe it or not, my lord, there were no others. Not then, and not since.” She looked at me then, and nodded to the man who stood before us. “Lord Blackwell is your father, Nate. His blood is in your veins.”
I got to my feet, struggling with my splinted leg; both of them stood and watched without offering to help. I went to her, taking her hand in mine. I was too afraid, too angry to speak, but I wanted to beg her to take me home, not to leave me with this man, not to give me away to a workhouse or a plantation in the Indies. I said nothing, but I looked at her with tears in my eyes. She nodded. She squeezed my hand.
She curtsied to my father, and said, “I thank you for your time, my lord. I assure you, you will never need see us again.” We turned away and started to leave.
“You should marry, woman,” he said. My mother stopped, but did not turn back. “Your boy needs training. Even an Irishman could teach you both some better manners. Your beauty has not faded, nor your figure.” He strode to the cross on the wall, running his fingers along it idly.
My mother turned, and speaking to my father’s back, she said, “Somehow, Irishmen are reluctant to wed a woman raped by an Englishman, and with a half-English child because of it.” She squeezed my hand, and when I met her gaze, I could see a love more fierce than I could have imagined, stronger than any adversity – stronger than any shame could ever be. “I have given up hope of marriage, then, rather than give up my son.” She leaned close and put her hand on my cheek, bruised where he had struck me. She whispered, “You are my son. Mine.” I nodded, and she kissed my head. She straightened and took a deep breath. “Come, Nate,” she said to me.
Lord Blackwell said, “You call him Nate. Is it Nathaniel, then?”
My mother stopped and spoke over her shoulder. “No, my lord. When he was born and I presented him to you, you told me then that he was your damnation, and mine.” She met his gaze then. “I named him as you commanded.
“His name is Damnation Kane.”
* * *
I have been shot, stabbed, beaten, burned, and near-drowned. I have suffered insult, injury, heartache, shame, sorrow, and unquenched rage. But that day, when my father struck me down and gave me reason to hate every drop of English blood in my veins – which was, in truth, the reason my mother had brought me there, to show me and give me warning of what lurked in my blood, in the parts of me that came from my father and which she feared had begun to show themselves in my act of wanton, selfish destruction – what I felt then was the deepest agony of my life.
Until I woke in the Glass Palace this yesterday, stuffed into the wardrobe in my adopted chamber there, my head pounding from the blows rained on me and my vision blurred from the drugs fed to me. Until I staggered downstairs and out to the terrace to find that my ship, and my mutinous crew, had left without me.
I am marooned.