Scene from the novel
The Oystercatcher of Southwark
by Erica Colahan-Ruggieri, Copyright 2022
Mary woke with a start, sensing something was wrong. Adrenaline shot through her system, and she sat bolt upright, nudging the children. “Wake up!” She hissed at her eldest daughter. “Mollie, get the baby. Sarah, wake up!”
The train had stopped.
Mary saw Angus through the dim light of dawn, across the boxcar—wide-eyed—a finger to his lips. Stay quiet, his eyes implored. Danger. She felt it in her bones—a sense of fight or flight. Mendel whimpered. She snatched him from Mollie, placing her finger in his mouth to suck.
They heard the voices of two men outside the car. The strangers laughed as they went behind the caboose to relieve themselves in the woods beside the tracks. One of the men said, “Yeah, we’ll take a look in there after I have a piss.” Mary looked at Angus in supplication, raising her eyebrows. What should we do?
Angus nodded to the side door, urging them to exit. He slid the door open enough to let them pass. Hopping out, he reached for the children. He placed them on the ground, handing baby Mendel to Mollie. Then he settled his hands on Mary’s hips and whisked her out of the boxcar.
The little group ran into the thick copse of trees in the opposite direction of the men. Once they were well away, Angus turned to Mary and chortled. His sour breath made a cloud of mist before his face.
Her circumstances were so outlandish that laughter escaped through her clenched teeth. Clasping her hand over her mouth in surprise, Mary giggled in earnest, and Angus looked at her and laughed too. The two adults doubled over with mirth, hands on their knees as if it were contagious. Mary felt she would succumb to hysteria if she didn’t catch herself.
Mollie stared at her mother as if she thought she must grow up immediately to take control of the situation. Clearly, her mother was mad as a hatter. Mary shook off the last giggles, sat in the leaves, grabbed Mendel, and held him close to her chest. The baby needed nursing and nosed around her shirt like a truffle pig on the scent of its treat. Angus looked away and coughed.
“And this is where’s I leave ya, Ma’am. I’m away, headin’ west’er here, as I done told ya.” He tipped his hat to her in deference.
Mary panicked, looking around at the woods. “But, where are we?” she sputtered.
“Oh, I’d guess we’re somewheres a bit north o’ Trenton.” Her guide extracted a dented compass out of his jacket pocket. “If ya follow the tracks long ‘nuff, you’ll find yer way to the bridge over the big river and inta P-A. Juss keep goin’ south, an you’ll git to Phila soon ‘nuff. ‘Bout 33 mile,” he guessed.
“Well, good luck to ya, Ma’am.” He gave a little bow in her direction. “Little ladies, gidday.” Angus gave the girls a little wave.
Mendel rooted in earnest now, tugging at Mary’s blouse. She tucked him into nursing while she watched Angus whistling through the woods. The girls watched until he was gone. Then they joined their mother, sitting cross-legged in the grass, dark curls wild about her head, and their brother nursing in her arms.
What now? Their little faces seemed to ask.
Mary patted the ground beside her with her free hand. “Come rest with me awhile, my little doves.” She gave them a tentative smile. The girls complied, snuggling on each side of Mary. The quiet soothed them. Soon, Mendel fell asleep. Mary put him on her shoulder, eliciting a contented burp. Leaning against the nearby tree, she relaxed into a momentary calm.
“Did I ever tell you how oysters changed my life?” Mary gave her daughters a lopsided smile.
“Oysters?” Mollie looked confused. “What do you mean, Muter?”
“No matter, darling, no matter. That’s a story for another day.”