This is a short story I wrote for an English class a few years ago. Hope you enjoy it 🙂
“Gentlemen,” Mark Carlisle, his new acquaintance, said, “allow me to introduce Mr. Zachery Taylor. He is recently arrived here at Harvard. Mr. Taylor,” turning to Zach, he gestured widely around the room, “my friends and peers.”
Zach bowed slightly as the men reclining around the room murmured acknowledgement and nodded at him. One of them, about whom their hung an air of ease and surety greater than that of the other men, inspected Zach closely, then asked, “What is your area of study, Mr. Taylor?”
Zach opened his mouth to reply, but Mark answered for him, “Medicine, of course. Would I introduce to our medical society one whose study was otherwise?”
The man sat forwards in his chair. “Indeed? Well, then, your opinion is much welcome in our current debate.” He gestured grandly in the air. “We are discussing the blemish the dirty Irish immigrants are in this city. I am certain you, being a student of medicine, will agree with me that their presence is a tremendous risk to the health of our city, for they practice no hygiene, and their settlements are rife with deadly diseases. What do you say? Should we take steps to, eh, shall I say, eliminate the problem?”
Zach felt uncomfortable. I know I should answer honestly. Please, my Lord, give me courage. “I-I d-do not believe that’s what we should do. God created all men equ-equal, and they- I think they have a right to live here,” he stuttered. Shy by nature, being in the presence of seasoned scholars such as the ones in the room made him even more self-concious.
The man sat back with a look of disgust on his face. “Created equal does not mean that they remain equal. I am disappointed in you, Mr. Taylor. Your appearance was so promising. Soon you will learn that religion has no place in the academic world. You are young, though- sixteen? Yes- so with time and the right nurturing, you may yet outgrow your foolish fantasies.” Having spoken his piece, the conversation continued, but Zach only observed the rest of it. Defenses and replies to the man’s statement flew around in his head. What shall I say? I’ll start with that. Or should I say that first, then this? Oh, it is too late now. He felt discouraged. I always wait too long, and then the moment to say something is past.
When he left the group later with Mark, his friend told him, “The one who spoke to you first was Doctor Wright. He teaches medicine here. I knew he would be interested in you when he found out your area of study.”
Zach smiled faintly in response. “Thank you for introducing me, Mr. Carlisle. I think I am going for a walk before it gets too late.” They passed a window just then, and the lure of the open air was strong after the last few days of getting settled at Harvard and finding where things were.
“Just be careful where you walk. Irish pick-pockets are everywhere these days- and do not stray into one of their tenement neighborhoods,” Mark warned.
Zach bid his friend farewell and escaped to the bustling streets of Boston. As he walked, his mind drifted to his home, and a wave of homesickness overcame him. Immersed in his thoughts, he lost track of his surroundings. A bang from someone dropping a crate on the ground startled him back to attention, and he realized something that made his heart sink lower: He had no idea where he was. Looking around, he discovered that he had strayed into a poorer area of the city. The houses were old and looked ready to fall in. Scrawny dogs infested with fleas lurked around the buildings, looking for something to eat. He noticed a group of disreputable-looking men, Irish immigrants, watching him, and his discomfort grew. In his suit of store-bought fabric, he clearly did not fit in the neighborhood.
Someone touched his shoulder.
With Mark’s warning ringing in his ears, he spun to confront his attacker. It was a small, young Irish man, about twenty-two years old. He held a basket of potatoes, with another basket, this one full of cabbage, at his feet. Zach watched him distrustfully. Ever since his arrival in Boston, he had been hearing stories of the crimes in the new Irish communities, and they seemed about to happen to him.
The young man looked at him and smiled a friendly smile that was the opposite of what Zach expected. “You lost here?” he asked amicably.
Zach looked at him warily and nodded hesitantly.
“I be Ailín Gallchobhair,” he said, holding out his hand.
Zach shook it. “Allen Gallagher?” he tried to pronounce the name.
“Close enough. Who do you be?”
“Now, friend, where do you be from?” Ailín inquired. “I can see you aren’t from around here. May be I can help you find your way?”
Despite all the stories he had heard, Zach was an innately trusting person, and as Ailín seemed harmless enough, he told him the truth.
“Harvard, now, that is something,” Ailín observed. “Aye, I can lead you back there. Let’s be going now.” He picked up his other basket and started off down the street. “Some heres don’t take kindly to strangers. We’ve been through a lot, ya know. They don’t be trustin’ much of anyone.”
Zach’s curiosity overcame his timidity. “Why did you leave your homes if this is what your lives are like here?” he asked.
“Aye, this is bad,” Ailín agreed. “Now, back in Ireland, it’s all green and fresh, not like this Boston be. But the ground be under a curse, don’t ya know. Two summers ago, when we harvested the pratás—that be potatoes—their leaves turned black and rotted. The smell were foul, enough to make ya gag. The pratás we dug looked good, but they rotted before our eyes in three, four days. We starved. When the landlords wanted payment, we were having nothing to give them. They be wanting to throw us in prison, so we had to go. We starved for two years, then we had to go.”
“I don’t understand. Wasn’t there anything else that you could eat?” Zach asked.
Ailín looked at him in shock. “The potato be what we peasants eat most, don’t ya know? What else would ya eat? There were no other food grown much, and we ate berries, nettles, even grass. We couldn’t catch fish in our little currach fishing boats. The railroads only gave work to a few, and food cost a lot. We starved. People died because there wasn’t food.”
I had not thought of that. If something similar happened to wheat, I do not know what we would eat here. They walked in silence for a while before Zach had another question. “Is life in America better for you?”
Ailín’s expression turned wistful. “No, it be almost as bad. We don’t have the money to buy food or a house. No one be trusting or liking us. My wee deirfuír—sister, she’s sick with cholera, my brathair has dysentery, and me ma has typhus. Me athair—father—and the baby died on the ship from starvation, so I be the only one to earn a penny where I can,” he explained. A chill wind blew down the street just then, cutting through the dirty shreds of cloth that made up Ailín’s clothes. Zach noticed him shiver, and his heart dropped still further as he became aware of the warmth his old coat provided him. Guilt clamped down on him as dirt is clamped down over a grave. That is not good, Zach, he told himself. Remember what the pastor back home always says? “Guilt is the enemy’s version of repentance. The difference is their fruit: guilt brings death, whereas repentance brings life. When the enemy tempts you with guilt, do not give in! Instead, do something to remedy the situation.” What can I do to fix things?
They walked the rest of the way to Harvard in silence, Zach wracking his brain to come up with a solution. Ailín turned to leave him when they came in sight of the university, but Zach grabbed his arm. “Ailín, I want to thank you for helping me today,” he said, looking earnestly into the young Irishman’s eyes. “I promise, sir, I will do whatever I can to help you and your family.”
Ailín returned his gaze steadily, wavering between hope and doubt. Finally, he simply said, “We be seeing if you’re true, Mister Taylor,” and disappeared down the street in the direction from which they came.
That night, Zach sat with Mark and his group of comrades in a comfortable, upholstered chair before a warm fire that crackled under a kettle of tea that filled the room with a homey, appetizing smell, but his mind was in the dirty, cold, impoverished streets of the Irish shantytown. I wish I could help his sick family, but I do not know how. Lord, if only I were a year older and had been in school longer, so I would know what to do! But wait—there is a host of educated doctors right here before me. Surely one of them will help people who are ill, though they are Irish. I will ask them, and I will not stop until I find someone to go back to the tenements and help the people there. I will ask them now. Dr. Wright noticed then that their young, new acquaintance’s mind was elsewhere and said in a loud voice, “Mr. Taylor, do share with us your thoughts, for you are miles away from our discussion.”
His question startled Zach, who did not anticipate anyone addressing him. Instantaneously, his stomach decided to churn and his tongue, fine a moment before, felt swollen and dry. All thoughts fled his head but one: I have to say it. With a quick, wordless prayer for help, he opened his mouth. “I…I was thinking about…” Hearing his voice seemed to clear his mind some. “I met an Irish immigrant today. He told me about—that there is—are many people ill. His family is ill, with cholera, dysentery, and typhus. They have nothing, scarcely even food enough for one meal a day. Will one of you help them? I would, but I do not know enough.”
Snickers of contempt swept the room as he spoke. Dr. Wright looked at him in disdain with his arms crossed over the gold buttons on his embroidered vest. “You spoke right in saying you do not know enough,” he sardonically observed to the group. “Were you more, hm, educated, you would know that we of the academy have nothing to do with the shenanigans of the shanty Irish. Why should I waste my talent on those drunken loafs when there are plenty of decent folk in need of my abilities in the respectable parts of this city?” His heavy brow was deeply etched in a frown.
Zach looked around the room and saw the others nodding in agreement with Dr. Wright. It infuriated him that men apparently devoted to helping others refused a blatant opportunity to do just that. His chin lifted a notch as he replied with passion, “Are you not a physician? Did you not take the Hippocratic Oath, a vow to preserve life? These are people, people in need of help you can give them, people dying for lack of help. You have it in your power to save a life, yet you refuse for reasons of vanity and false pride, calling it decent. So you do not believe in the Lord, Who calls all men equal in His sight. You are an American, whose Declaration of Independence proclaims, ‘All men are created equal and endowed…with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ In your arrogance, you rob these humans of one of their basic rights. Surely, you, physicians, know that there is no difference in the treatment of an English or Irish immigrant, that underneath their skin and hair, they are the same. Won’t you help them? Please, I beg you.” The last words were a whisper.
Through his whole speech, Dr. Wright and his companions’ expressions remained impassive. In the silence following, in which only the fire in the hearth made a sound, Zach forgot to breathe. With everything in him, he willed the doctor to say yes. His heart felt about to snap from the tension of waiting.
When Dr. Wright finally spoke, his voice was terse and measured. “You have made your sentiments quite clear, young man. I know my colleagues, and so I answer for all of us once and for all. We will not disgrace the estimable name of Harvard by squandering what we have learned on those potato-mongers. And we will hear no more words of this from you. That is an order. Let me warn you, young Taylor: if you should be so rash as to forsake the council of your elders and, as far as education goes, your betters, we shall expel you from our society forever. As we constitute the whole of the medical society here, your time will be that of a loner and outcast.”
Wright’s threat echoed in his mind as he tossed and turned in bed that night, unable to sleep. The voices warred within him. He had a decision to make.
They are creations of God, just as I am. I must help them, for “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me” [Matthew 25:40]. But then I will be alone, in a place that is not my home. “I will never leave you nor forsake you” [Joshua 1:5]. Thank You for the reminder, my God. You are with me even here, where no one else believes. What will they do to me? I don’t want to be outcast by them. Besides, what can I do? I do not know how to heal someone with any illness, and I do not have the tools if I did. There, You see, Lord? I cannot help. You have to send someone else, because I can’t do it. “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” [Philippians 4:13]. But what can I do?! Food. I can bring them food. That is it! It will not fix everything, but it will certainly help. I have some money from Aunt Clara to buy a new coat for the winter, but my old coat will do fine. I’ll use the money to buy food for Ailín and his family. How will I find them? What will the people there do to me while I am looking for him? Lord, I am afraid!
In the still room, a silent voice breathed love into his weary body and the words of Psalm 56:3-4 and Isaiah 41: 10 and 13 flowed into his mind. “When I am afraid, I will trust in You. In God, Whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?” “‘So do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, “Do not fear; I will help you.”’”
The room was beginning to lighten up in the grey light of the early dawn when Zach finally made his decision. I am going back. Though none go with me, I will go. Settling into his twisted, wrinkled, messy sheets, he finally dropped off into a peaceful sleep.
What do you think?