Cuff of My Cousin's Coat

The world is scary, frightening, nothing but a total void that cannot be escaped. The room is crowded with people, all talking frantically and fast, in languages I do not understand. I pretend not to hear them, pretend not to hear the chaotic chattering of people all around me. The men in the white coats shout at the top of their lungs, waving their arms like madmen to get us to move this way and that way, move backwards and come forwards. I do not wish to be with those men, to be captured in their arms, to be tortured with button hooks and chalk marks on my sleeves. No one back in Scotland said it would be like this. No one warned Alistair and me that it would be crowded and frantic in this way.

When we saw the lady from the deck of the ship, we had hopes for the future. We saw her standing tall, protecting her country with her everlasting torch. Her green shimmer shone brightly through the dark of the cold night, made humid and wet by the foamy mist from the sea. Alistair and I didn’t notice the wetness of the air. We didn’t see the bodies on the ship, the cadavers of those who had died whilst we were on our voyage to this new place. We forgot all that we’d hated about living on the ship, all of the famine and tragedy that we had faced in Scotland. For a few seconds we forgot all about our troubles. For a few seconds, all had been well and good.

Alistair and I then learned that all good things must come to a close, all magical things must cease. We were sent off the boat by men in double-breasted coats and funny hats and shoes, unlike things any of us had ever seen before. They asked us our names and the countries from which we came, and we answered as clearly as we could from what we could hear and understand. We shuffled into the big room where we now stand, filled with people dressed in rags and tattered old garments that look like they’d been worn by a grandmother or a grandfather, several generations before the person on which they now lay.

Neither Alistair nor I say a single word. I hold on to his decrepit jacket, dirty from the journey from Scotland. There are no buttons on his cuffs like there are on normal jackets; they have all fallen off or been used for other, more important uses. In the locket around my neck is a picture of my mother, who told me to watch over my cousin and never let him get lost. I will never break the promise I made to her. Until we are free from this horrid room, until we have found the love of a new family in America, I will not let the cuff of his sleeve out of my hand.

Suddenly I am pulled forward by a man. He shouts at me over the havoc in the room, in a language other than my native Scottish Gaelic. He makes frantic movements with his arms and checks me all over, peeling back my eyelids with a button hook and looking into my mouth with a small flashlight. Another man takes Alistair and does the same things to him, and when each of the men are done, they push us into yet another crowd of people ahead.

I am caught at the back of the endless mob, behind a woman carrying a crying child. The mother comforts the baby in a soothing voice, much like my mother used to do for me when I was ill or afraid. I miss my mother, and our home in Scotland.

Suddenly I realize that Alistair is gone. He has always been quicker and more agile than I, and must have gotten through the crowd of people. Suddenly I begin to panic, to shout frantically amongst the horde for my cousin. I hear no response from the crowd, no one shouting back to me. Everything seems so much scarier without my cousin, without his shaggy jacket in my hand, without the cuff of his jacket, being adorned only by the splotches of dirt and grime from days and days of no wash. The room seems bigger, the chatter seems louder. I cry out again in frantic Gaelic, nearly unable to hear myself uttering the words.

I promised my mother I would not lose him. But I have lost him.
I feel so ashamed, so angry at myself for breaking my promise to my mother. She was my only confidant in life, the only person that I could ever trust with my darkest secrets. I have betrayed my mother. I feel like a fool, like a filthy, dirty criminal. Alistair is the only person I have coming to America from Scotland, and I have lost him.

I turn to the right and face yet another hallway, though it is different than the others. It has a big, long table with men standing at regular intervals, writing things down on papers. Alistar is still nowhere in sight.

I step up to one of the tables, where a man stands with a pad of paper and a pen. A small fan whirrs on the table, blowing in his face to keep him cool. I suddenly realize that I myself am hot, though my stockings and dress are thin and threadbare. I look around, hoping to catch sight of my cousin somewhere in the crowded room.

“Miss?” I feel someone tugging at my jacket. “Miss?”

I turn to see the man smiling at me. Never before have I seen such a well-dressed and sophisticated man. I want to touch his tie and feel his sleeves, I want to know what they feel like and how they feel to be worn. The man asks me for my name.

“Fionola,” I say. I hope the man can hear me over the chaos in the room, hope that he can understand me through my deep Scottish accent. “Fionola Mackenzie.”

He writes down my name and points to the door, to an exit, where I see, for the first time in hours, a clear sky. White puffy clouds dot the neverending blue of above, and sunlight flickers out from in between them.

As I come closer to the door, I look around for my cousin, praying that I may have another chance to find him. Soon the threshold of the door stands directly in front of me. Outside I see the tall buildings of New York City, sleek black horses trotting down the cobblestone streets. I’m scared to walk outside the room, scared to enter my new home. I’m worried about my cousin, worried about leaving him behind.

My head is down as I walk outside into the sunlight, which floods my eyes and warms my back. I set down my heavy suitcase, and shield my eyes from the sun. There are so many people, I cannot see whether or not Alistair is here. My heart feels heavy, and I dread the new life ahead without my cousin. Never again, I fear, will I see him. Never again will I feel the comfort of his bare cuff, free of buttons from being poor all these years. Never again will I have the comfort of the only remnant I have of my old life in Scotland. Never again will I feel the calming presence of my cousin Alistair.

Alistair was always hopeful, always optimistic that the best things were yet to come. I wish that I could be like my cousin, that I could welcome the imperfections in life. I wish that I could let it go, wish that I could have faith that my cousin is well cared for by a nice American family, but I cannot. I’ve let myself down, let my mother down, let the entire Mackenzie family down. I find a bench and sit down, flinging my suitcase up onto the space next to me. Though I’m glad to have one burden gone, that of my cousin’s loss still remains.

Suddenly I feel a hand on my back. The hand moves from my back to my shoulder, and I feel loose threads against the nape of my neck. I turn my head to look, and, as a last effort of hope, I peer at the cuff of the jacket. No glint from the sunlight catches my eye. I see no shine, I hear no sounds like that of porcelain buttons. I finally lift my head and peer down the wrist, up the arm, and to the shoulder, where I see a pair of bright green eyes that I could never forget.
Alistair, my cousin.

Simultaneously our arms fling around each other's shoulders. We laugh and cry together, talking in fast Gaelic, our voices muffled by the other’s coat.

“We’re home, Fionola,” my cousin whispers. “We’re home.”