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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

The Ghosts of Grosse Île

Grosse Ile Celtic Cross
Celtic Cross on Grosse Île - 1909

A strong wind blew down river, takin’ us out of the thick fog that had previously concealed all of the views around us. The early mornin’ sun glittered on the surface of the water. I knew better than to have renewed hope. Once we reached the river, we stopped and started many times, either to pass by other ships or to cast off the dead.

For days, we sailed past islands and had seen land. Vessels of various origins, sizes, and purpose, passed by us in both directions. Although the fresh air felt good on our faces, and it seemed as if the sick and dyin’ had a chance at some sort of recovery, it was short-lived. For many, the illnesses were already present when we began our voyage, and others fell ill along the way.

Earlier, I would have been captivated by the beauty of the tall fir trees on the shores, or the lighthouse and small cottages, but nothin’ would soothe the pain from such frequent death and wretched conditions. All that survived were weak at best.

“Would you like this?” A kind man, not one of us, who slept in a cabin beside the captain and his wife, handed me a Bible.

I looked at Daidí as he continued to stare out at the shoreline. He had not spoken more than three words since that awful night.

“Daidí, this kind man is offerin’ me a Bible,” I said.

I broke the spell. Daidí looked at me with eyes that would never be the same. He saw too much. We were different. I saw too much as well, but I knew that I would carry on. Daidí was lost.

“Do you want it?” he asked.

“Yes, I would like it very much,” I said.

“We have no money for it,” he said. “Nothin’ to trade.”

“I am giving it to you to keep as a gift,” the kind man said.

Daidí returned his gaze towards the horizon.

“Thank you,” I said.

I spent the rest of the afternoon readin’ Psalms, finally gettin’ used to the sound of massive, grindin’ chains as we stopped and started, pullin’ up and droppin’ down the anchor. For several hours, we floated motionless on the water. It wasn’t until the break of day when we set sail once again, and the wind favored us.

Since Daidí stopped speakin’ and eatin’, I did my best to cook my own food with what was left of the rations. Even though the sailors added charcoal and alum to the remainin’ water in the casks, it was foul, so many tried to drink the river water. The captain warned us of this because we were in a place in the river where there was still too much salt.

We were headin’ towards our destination, Grosse Isle, when a lovely schooner pulled alongside us. A man, clumsy in appearance yet of high importance, came on board. When he saw the general state of the emigrants on our ship, he looked frightened, as if he wanted to flee. With a cloth over his nose and mouth, he spoke to the captain in broken English. He left a pamphlet, rules I s’posed and quickly exited.

Before reachin’ Grosse Isle, where many vessels awaited inspection, we passed through intricate channels and saw several picturesque islands, as we sailed along the wooded shores of Canada and Maine. It would take weeks to navigate the river.

We hoisted our ensign—a signal for the inspectin’ physician to board. We thought that we would sleep in our berths for another night. We were told that on the followin’ day, a physician would come aboard, durin’ which time, three more people died and their bodies committed to a watery grave—an experience witnessed but not wholly comprehended.

As individuals and between us all, there was not enough strength to sort it out. We needed to breathe. We craved clean water. We lacked sleep, and the pain in our empty bellies had reached beyond the hunger that we carried with us on the beginnin’ of our voyage. Daidí wasn’t quite certain of it, but we needed to live another day. Annie Quinn

July 18, 1847

Grosse Isle, Quebec, Canada Excerpt from The Angels' Lament (Chapter 78) Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series, Book Two


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