The gales of Cape Horn gave way to a comparatively blessed Caribbean languor. Boredom at first seemed an improvement on terror, but within a day, the aimless sloshing about in sticky breathless air drove Cillian O’Rahilly nearly mad. After two months at sea, he craved a meadow, or better yet, a pile of rocks. He’d have abandoned the Argo for the tip of a marlinspike, if only it remained still, because he preferred to be stalled completely than subject to the relentlessly slow-heaving sea.
A breeze of a stiffer character picked up just south of the Mississippi Delta, but it too accorded Cillian only a false relief from what came before. According to the crew, who permitted Cillian alone among the passengers to cultivate their companionship for reasons that seemed attributable to his good looks rather than sound character, the breeze was known as The Whore’s Last Sigh. It was, the sailors claimed, a hot, boozy breath exiting not from the whore’s mouth, but from her derrière, and it stank of an unholy mix of piss, rot, whale oil, mildew, tafia, and tobacco spit. This origin explained why it infected passengers and crew alike with a desperate sense of longing as they entered the mouth of the Mississippi, and their inevitable disappointment produced nothing but intrigue, unease, and regret onboard.
Its strength will wane, the sailors assured Cillian. It’s a last gasp, it’s fading even now, it’ll one day stop plaguing us, God willing, as surely as a dose of the clap clears up in time. But none of the crew particularly pouted when The Whore’s Last Sigh prevailed despite their predictions, and there was a familiarity and affection in their regard for it that brooked no criticism from outsiders, so Cillian kept his disappointment to himself.
Silence was an easy and familiar discipline. The shock of witnessing his brothers’ starvation during Ireland’s Great Hunger in the 1840s had robbed Cillian of all power of speech. From the time he was eleven years old until his twenty-sixth year, Cillian never uttered a word. He was mute even in when charged with participating in an uprising against the Queen. Though only fourteen at the time of the trial, the court sentenced him to transportation to the other side of the globe.
Twelve years later, the crown commuted the sentences of Cillian and other men sentenced as youths. Returning to Ireland was out of the question. Cillian’s family was dead or gone, and reprisal was a distinct possibility. Instead, Cillian set his sights on America to which his older sister Muireann had fled after the uprising. He sent her a letter:
Dearest and Beloved Sister,
Peace be with you and greetings from Van Dieman’s Land, which we all now dutifully call Tasmania to shed the connotation of the Devil’s work. Captivity has been good to me. It’s given me back my speech. They say now that I never shut up to make up for the time lost. You’d hardly recognize me, standing five feet and ten inches tall and twelve stone and more. I’m no boy anymore, if I ever was, after the famine stole my innocence.
Still, Father would be ashamed of me, for I had to dictate this note to my friend Mac, who put it down on paper, because my letters aren’t good enough. The famine and the rebellion surely robbed me not only of innocence, but of schooling, and I never was half so clever as you.
My good news is that my sentence has been commuted! I’ve booked passage to America on a ship called the Argo, which I’m told is an auspicious name and one you will recognize. God willing, in this year perhaps, you and I shall be united again and also my nephew Lorcan, whom I haven’t seen since he was a toddler.
Your true brother,
At New Orleans, the authorities barred the Argo from tying up at the levee, so it anchored mid-river. Choked with the off-scrapings of scuppers and casks, the Mississippi burned as fierce as a dose of the clap. Colored pennants fluttered from cotton bales. Banners touted the far-off cities to which the steamships traveled, and their names were printed in bold letters on their sides: Princess, Magnolia, and Natchez. Women promenaded on the streets beyond the levee and, Cillian—who had seen hardly a single female in over a decade, because transported females were kept in separate camps—could only gape in amazement at such wonderful and exotic creatures, who scared him not a little and who, he thought, must be made of lace and cinnamon and birds of paradise. He suspected if any of them wandered into hailing distance, he’d find himself again with a leaden tongue.
A tender approached the Argo. Its occupant exchanged muffled words with Captain Sessions, a melancholy knave who couldn’t pass Cillian on the foredeck without shoving a passage of Protestant Scripture down his throat.
“There’s some sort of delay,” reported one of the sailors, who overheard the conversation.
Cillian had no experience to judge whether the delay was usual or unusual. But as its hours lengthened into days, the crew grumbled, which was a tell. They complained endlessly of being deprived of access to the whorehouses and took out their frustration on the passengers. Some days, despite the heat, they kept the holds locked and all the passengers below the deck. Others they cut the passengers’ rations in half.
Cillian couldn’t help but suspect that The Whore’s Last Sigh was somehow responsible for their predicament, but he knew something about food shortages from his famine experience, so he felt obliged to reason with the moody sailors on the passengers’ behalf. Despite an exchange of heated words, the sailors came to respect Cillian’s unreasonable fierceness in defense of the other passengers. They not only agreed to invite merchants from New Orleans to send out provisions at the passengers’ expense, but also awarded Cillian a gold hoop for his left ear, which signified successful passage around Cape Horn. When he expressed confusion as to what to do with the gift, the sailors pinned Cillian down and pierced his lobe with a flame-heated marlinspike, while he screamed bloody murder. America, he thought, was certainly a place of very strange customs.
With the help of one of a literate crew member, Cillian wrote again to Muireann:
Though I’m a stone’s throw from the levee, I feel further than ever from you, farther than if I did when I was in Van Dieman’s Land. At first, the authorities said we must quarantine against the yellow fever, which they accused us of importing and encouraging our friends back in Ireland to follow us here with more fever still.
Now, the tune has changed. The authorities—none of whom I’ve ever met, because they’ll speak only to Captain Sessions—are saying we’re abolitionists and negrophiles and suffragettes and infected with continental ideas. Never mind that I’ve not set foot on the Continent in all my life and never saw a Black man closer than the ones I see on the levee. I’d guess New Orleans contains wild specimens of every hue of skin. I personally wouldn’t be surprised to see a man green as moss or red as a Faerie’s cap.
From the merchants that row out to us, I purchased soup fixings tied in a bundle: a bit of cabbage, a leek, a sprig of parsley, a tiny carrot, a still tinier turnip, a bunch of horseradish roots, a little sage and parsley. A soup bone was two picayunes extra. But the merchants refused to take any letter back to you, because they were terribly afraid of the municipal Fever Agents, who have tied a rowboat to the side of the Argo and take a portion of every bit of food sold to the passengers and claim to be observing us for any sign of the dread malady. In truth, the Fever Agents seem much less interested in our carrying the fever than in our participation in Hibernian Societies.
This letter I’ll put in a bottle and hope The Whore’s Last Sigh carries it to shore. Remember how as children we chased the white-tailed deer across the meadows in our bare feet and never quite caught him? I feel much the same here. I’ve imagined you on the levee many times with open arms, and, God willing, with that boy of yours who must by now be nearly sixteen or seventeen, if I have reckoned right. I was never good at figures. Sometimes I see you in your dwelling with a light about your face but no candle in the room at all.
After four weeks, during which The Whore’s Last Sigh never once ceased to blow, every sail had been mended three times over, every spar repaired, every deck washed down multiple times, and the passengers evicted from the holds so they could be rinsed with river water and many of their belongings cast overboard. Though Cillian maintained hope for some change in their situation, the crew regaled Cillian with tales of New Orleans that weren’t precisely encouraging. According to them, the primary occupations of the residents were fornication, fisticuffs, and witless insult. The women were ignorant entirely in the ways of securing their salvation, but skilled at displaying fleshy, disease-ridden charms. Cillian ought to be in serious apprehension of being robbed at noonday, knocked on the head at night by lewd and abandoned women, or obliged to defend a duel against some ferocious American with tremendous whiskers. They claimed that the residents, like Cillian himself, were childishly obsessed with omens and ghosts. New Orleans was, the sailors concluded with heady, rueful enthusiasm, certainly the best place on earth.
Having little else to occupy the restless sailors, Captain Sessions at last permitted them to receive whores. The ladies were hauled from the rowboats and installed in the galley, where the Captain said a prayer over their immortal souls. To the quarantine-starved crew and to Cillian himself, each of the whores—no matter her actual appearance—had unblemished skin, generous bosoms, sword-blue eyes, twin spots of color on her cheekbones, pearls for teeth, and a figure most handsome under a dress light as a breath. When they sang, the milk of the cows on the banks of the Mississippi increased by two thirds.
If the whores had been only ordinary women, boredom coupled with his lack of experience with females in Van Dieman’s Land would have compelled Cillian to engage with them. His favorite was La Sans Regret, who carried her own portable mantle clock because she didn’t trust the seamen to ring the ship’s bells on time. With the reverence he typically reserved for accosting ghosts, Cillian first approached La Sans Regret in the midst of her douche. Tripping over his own tongue, he insisted that he wasn’t seeking her favors but just a moment of craic, so he might learn something about what was happening in the city that was just beyond reach. La Sans Regret said she had five minutes before the next customer, which he could spend talking or fucking as he wished. It was all the same to her.
Her crudeness, dismissiveness, and hoarse tone made him blink back tears of disappointment, because he had conceived the idea that she must be above the average sailor of his acquaintance, must be an important and consequential in his life, and must be altogether better and less common than she seemed. He hurriedly described his sister and her son, his transportation to Van Dieman’s Land, and the long quarantine. “Do you know my sister? Her name is Muireann O’Rahilly.”
“I know a thousand Irish, and most of them work for my brothel.”
Blushing, Cillian asked whether La Sans Regret could read and write, and failing to heed the answer, begged her to take dictation and deliver the letter afterward.
“Will you not help me? I beg you.”
“I told you, I can’t write.”
“Will you visit with her if I give you the address?”
La Sans Regret said she would think about it. But the next time the whores boarded the Argo, a teenage boy shared their boat. Sailors hooted and hollered and wondered which man among their number had such exotic taste that he had placed an order for such a pretty young lagniappe for his amusement. Cries of derision mixed with outraged jealousy as they fought to put their mark on what wasn’t theirs. The sailors offered to share the boy among them, teasing that one might have the front if he wished, but the others would take the backside.
Despite the passage of years, Cillian instantly recognized the family resemblance—barefoot, willowy, wrists extending too far from his shirt and ankles too far from the pant cuffs, a blackened eye, a head of sandy curls, one of which hung over his broad forehead, sleepy green eyes until they sprang wide with his latest enthusiasm, an adjustment of his crotch in a gesture identical to his father’s from over a decade ago.
“Lorcan!” he called out. “Nephew!”
“They call me Tin-Tin,” the boy said. He spoke with unusual reserve for one whose voice was likely any time to break, and he showed no surprise at meeting his uncle in these unusual circumstances.
Cillian proposed his nephew come to the foredeck, but the sailors told him that, per Captain Sessions’ order—accompanied by some insulting and insinuating snippets from Genesis and the letters of Paul—the boy wasn’t permitted to come aboard. The pair was free to talk, however, until the whores’ business was finished. Whores were one thing. Catamites were another. The Captain could not afford a contagion of sodomy onboard. He assigned an ancient sailor whose whoring years were behind him to chaperone the visit.
To shorten the distance, Cillian leaned over the Argo’s rails, and Lorcan leaned over the rowboat’s gunwales, so that just six feet stretched between them. They talked for hours, and not least of the talk was the telling of the legends of the Fianna, the warriors of ancient Ireland, of which—like all things Irish, including his own name—Lorcan was wholly ignorant. His mother had given him a new life under the Spanish name Celestin “Tin-Tin” Miro to save him from the bad luck that plagued the Irish.
“What do you dream about, nephew?” Cillian asked, unable to use the French nickname Tin-Tin, which was the only name the boy knew.
In a great rush of words, most of which Cillian felt sure Lorcan only half understood on account of his youth and the fact that he’d never been in prison, his nephew explained that war was coming between the States, and he intended to enlist in a righteous cause, defending the freedoms that made America what it was, for which only the South was standing up, defending against the interlopers from the North, who ached to impose their infelicitous and Continental ways on the citizens of New Orleans.
“I want to be a warrior like the Fianna,” Lorcan explained breathlessly. “I want to fight for what’s right and just. I want to be brave and pure.” Lorcan huffed and he puffed, and he vowed and he promised, and there was no diverting him from what he had decided, or fate had decided for him. He blew as steady as The Whore’s Last Sigh.
Alarmed, Cillian reminded Lorcan that slavery was a wicked institution that history would judge.
“That’s what they say in the North,” Lorcan said with a sneer. “How can both the South and North be right?”
“Not everything is all one thing or the other,” Cillian allowed, but he hated himself for equivocating, which a descendent of the Fianna ought never to do.
“But how can a person fight to the death unless he’s certain he’s right? How? How?” Lorcan persisted.
“Yes,” Cillian murmured. “How indeed?”
“And what happens if we’re not right? What if slavery is evil, despite what Père Bonseigneur and the Bible say?”
“This Père Bonseigneur, whoever he is, can’t always be right. Even if he is a priest. Only God is.”
Burning with indignation, Lorcan paced up and down the rowboat, dodging cleats and lines and oars. He couldn’t bear not to be on the side of honor and righteousness, and the coming war with the North was nothing to the war on his face and in his heart.
Knowing a boy cannot be pushed but typically delighted in being contrary, not out of conviction but to show he was his own budding man, Cillian raised his nose and sniffed. “You feel that breeze? It’s called The Whore’s Last Sigh.”
Lorcan said he thought he did indeed feel The Sigh. Or at least he thought he should, so he said he did. But Cillian could see he was far too young. There was no melancholy in him at all to be the echo to the melancholy of La Sans Regret. To the contrary, at his age, he was a white-tailed deer bounding over a sylvan stream. He was a river trout jumping and silvering. If the current or the wind were set against him, it would only be a joy and an opportunity and an encouragement, a chance to flex muscle, to show prowess and leap high, and no barrier or bad luck at all.
Proud and indulgent, Cillian explained, “The Whore’s Last Sigh is that lightest breath of wind, a tease of coolness that never quite delivers from rash and heat. Instead, in my experience, it produces only an infectious melancholy that can be cured only by compulsive copulation.”
Tin-Tin blushed. Cillian laughed at his discomfort. The boy’s posture had lost its starch. He too was certainly a virgin.
Be easy, Cillian cautioned himself. Don’t corner him. Don’t push. As he had learned with the crew of the Argo, reticence and silence were the greater part of discretion. With his tales of the Fianna, he had done enough to kindle the boy’s ardor and now he needed a bucket of water to douse the flame.
“You could set sail for adventure,” Cillian suggested gently. “The Whore’s Last Sigh might take you somewhere far afield and certainly exciting, if you trim your sails right.”
To his relief, Lorcan calmed like a vessel in the Caribbean doldrums. He picked his teeth. He removed some gristle and examined it up close.
“Tell your mother I love her,” Cillian urged.
Lorcan looked startled and then aghast. “Oh, no,” he said, “she’d kill me if she knew I was here. She wants nothing to do with Ireland. She says Ireland is one great humiliation, all shame and poverty and loss and murder and regret and stabbing one another in the back. She wants nothing ever to do with it.”
“Not even with me?”
Lorcan eyed Cillian steadily, but never answered. The Whore’s Last Sigh blew and blew.
For the remainder of his stay on the Argo, the sailors regarded Cillian as a suspect and contemptible outlaw, but being unreasonably handsome, he also received many cautious overtures in the dark when the decks creaked and The Whore’s Last Sigh whispered its insinuations in the halyards long after they’d left New Orleans.
The chance to speak to his nephew proved also to be yet another false relief. Cillian replayed over and over in his head the night of conversation with the delightful youth in whose veins ran the same blood as his, and whose restless enthusiasm stood in such stark contrast to the expressionless ancient chaperone and his lazy cur, who had somehow contrived to get aboard only to be endlessly kicked and fondled, spoiled and cursed. He longed for his situation to change and his loneliness to end, but his next letter was sent from New York City:
Please excuse the old-fashioned seal. We’ve no envelopes to hand, and an old pot of wax must serve. I trust your health is robust and wish you all blessings and a short Lenten fast.
When last I wrote, I was close, but it seems the Fever Agents concluded my fellow travelers and I were a criminal class of persons. It was just the latest reason for our being barred from landing, and never mind my sentence was commuted, and we’re all freemen.
Being no Job, Captain Sessions lost patience. We sailed for Galveston, which is in Texas, which I am told is some distance from New Orleans. They had no such reservations in Galveston as had the Fever Agents in New Orleans, so I was able to put ashore and make my way north to Springfield, Illinois. The work there was good. I had expected to tarry until the spring, comforted by the thought that no one in Springfield harbored any suspicion as to my affiliation with Hibernian Societies, which was a welcome blessing.
But with the secession and the declaration of war, some Young Irelanders we knew back in Erin invited me to New York, where I enlisted with the federal forces in the Irish Brigade of the 69th Infantry. My honor is pledged, but I swear at the slightest encouragement, I would come to you over the land if need be. America is said to be many times the size of Ireland, but I would do it, I swear.
I know Ireland has soured on your tongue, but I am not Irish any longer. I am only American, and, having had a couple hours’ taste of my American family, I want to be uncle to my nephew, to see him grow up to be a man easy to love and respect, and to treat his children as my children. Now is the time, I fear, Lorcan most needs my guidance, when America offers him glory and danger in equal parts. But I swore to him I would not speak to you of our visit. So, enough.
Cillian waxed enthusiastic about the United States for another page or two and meditated on the outcome of the election of Abraham Lincoln and the premature death of the president’s son Willie, which was accounted by all a tragedy, except in the secessionist South, where it was seen as irrefutable proof of the disfavor of God.
We’re told of fistfights on the floor of the Congress in Washington, and Southern juries who won’t convict the masters of obviously illegal slave ships. We hear from many quarters that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Though only lately arrived in America, I find myself becoming a patriot! Bravo, Mr. Lincoln! He was much talked about in Illinois, where he lived many years, though he hardly won any office to speak of.
Cillian concluded with apologies:
I fear I must bore you, sister. You are in that city so famous for diversion. I assume not a thought is spared there for the foolishness in Washington.
Your devoted brother,
Though he barely could bring himself to dictate the words on account of his dread, he begged his friend Mac to add a post scriptum: You must prevent Lorcan from joining the army of the South; it wouldn’t do to put us on opposite sides.
With a faith renewed by fear, Cillian prayed that Lorcan would learn the discretion of the Fianna as well as their courage. He prayed that The Whore’s Last Sigh might cease at last to blow. He prayed that his sister would not ignore the thoroughly Irish chafing in Lorcan’s breast.
Soon, it seemed, his prayers and petitions were answered. To Cillian’s delight, the Civil War was short in New Orleans. The city fell without a shot in April 1862. But just as the languor of the Caribbean doldrums and The Whore’s Last Sigh had proved only false relief, the federal occupation did nothing to preserve or enhance the freedom of the mails. Cillian prevailed on fellow soldiers to write and write and write, but from his sister he received no response nor any indication of delivery.
Cillian finally accepted that his sister had forsaken him along with their homeland, so he resorted instead to sending letters to Lorcan, but they were met with a similar and terrifying silence. Could Muireann and Lorcan have abandoned the safety of New Orleans? Could the boy have run away to enlist, as so many young men did? From that point on, every time Cillian locked a Confederate in his sites, he feared it must be Lorcan. He saw his face on every corpse. In the dead, he recognized his nephew’s willowy frame, the wrists extending too far from his shirt and ankles too far from the pant cuffs, a blackened eye, or a head of sandy curls. He couldn’t bear the notion of Irishmen fighting Irishmen, blood fighting blood, brother fighting brother, which no just God would permit, but a whore? A whore just might.
The war raged. The blood spilled. Shiloh. Bull Run. Antietam. Gettysburg. Horror marched its inevitable march. The winds of war blew as constantly as The Whore’s Last Sigh. Brave men, living and dead, consecrated blood-soaked soil.
Out of desperation, Cillian caused a priest to send a letter for him to La Sans Regret, whom he described as his aunt. To his shock, La Sans Regret found someone to help her write back. She had become a nurse with the Confederate forces assigned to the same company as his nephew Lorcan, of whom, her surrogate wrote, she had become inordinately fond, as he had become a thorough man, though only a boy. Do you remember, she asked, how I brought him to you when you were on the Fever Ship? Her letter then described a firefight at Antietam, during which Lorcan had sprinted into the fray to apply lint to staunch the wounds of a wounded comrade.
At this sentence, Cillian snatched the letter from the hands of the soldier reading to him. A great animal yowl rose from his throat, a hurricane of grief and guilt. Cillian too had fought at Antietam. He too had admired the courage of a youthful foe and his skill in medicine tending to his fellow soldiers in the field. And he had put a bullet in the young man and a second besides, as was his duty. Cillian was, after all, a descendent of the Fianna, that race of ancient warriors, whom his sister had correctly marked as harbingers of shame, poverty, loss, murder, regret, and stabbing one another in the back.
Cillian tossed the letter on the campfire. He needed no whore to tell him what happened next, because Cillian had witnessed it himself. After the battle, a pure white deer walked out on the battlefield, the kind of animal Cillian and Muireann used to chase in the hills of Cork. It froze and nosed the air as if it had caught a wafting scent and then, without another sound, bounded south, as if to follow The Whore’s Last Sigh back to the mouth of the Mississippi from which it had come.
Scott Pomfret is author of Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir; Hot Sauce: A Novel; the Q Guide to Wine and Cocktails, and dozens of short stories published in, among other venues, Ecotone, The Short Story (UK), Post Road, New Orleans Review, Fiction International, and Fourteen Hills. Scott writes from the cramped confines of his tiny Provincetown beach shack, which he shares with his partner of twenty-one years. He is currently at work on a comic queer Know-Nothing alternative history novel set in antebellum New Orleans.
He can be found at his soon-to-be-completed website: www.scottpomfret.com
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Whore’s Last Sigh: A Civil War Story”:
This gritty and emotional tale told from the perspective of an Irish immigrant takes us to a time outside our experience and puts the reader into the midst of the events. It’s a well-researched and brilliantly wrought piece of historical fiction that wends its way to those gut-wrenching final paragraphs that draw the parallel between the American Civil War and Irish Wars of Independence and the resulting costs.