Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Songe d'Automne

Songe d'Autonmne
by Melissa Campbell

My papa was snuggled up close along the back-side of Mum and me, spoon-like, with Bertie there on the other berth, his pale little arms stretched out wide above auburn curls, sleeping calmly, when the sound reverberated loud, like one of Mum's calicoes ripping, tearing metal, and a queer quiver ran through the length of us, deep in steerage bowels, afloat on an icy sea. 

He left us then, to join the men who were gathering on deck to admire an austere mountain of ice, and walking through its crunching scatter atop the boards, gingerly, contemplating.  And all around was peaceful chatter, and no alarms being given.  But he looked and saw some officers letting down the life boats, loosening cords, untangling cables and opening doors to storage where white jackets were stacked like soldiers, just as a precaution.

Urgent hands shook Mum awake, as I lay content on her breast.  "What is it, Luv?"

"We must get the children dressed warmly. Quickly.  I'm afraid we've struck a bit of ice."

Mama's feet dropped quick off the bed and immediately felt the cold shock of icy water underneath.  Adrenaline rushed, and sweat crept down her back and beaded on her forehead as she realized the truth of what was happening.  This couldn't be.  What have we done?  Left everything just to die at sea?  She began to weep and pray, "God have mercy!"

"How much time do we have?"

"Who knows?" he said, slipping his watch into the inside pocket of his worn, woolen coat, always smelling like tobacco.

We hustled to get to the upper deck, with Da holding Bertie, and shouldering a path through panic-stricken chaos.  Somber officers lined the walk, handing out life-preservers to the crazed passers-by.

"Stay close!  We need to go up one more set of stairs," he hollered back, as my mum pressed me warm into the back of him.

We came to a rope strung tight, with an officer guarding, and people pushing to get across.  They called for women and children, and the crowd finally gave way to us.  Da turned and put Bertie down, held me in his arms for the littlest while and kissed me on my head, then wrapped himself around us all, squeezing tight.  With quiet hope he said, "It's time you go."

Two hearts joined as one were beating hard, bending, sinking, bleeding like the boat they had put their faith in, their dreams glued together only for as long as they could embrace.  They held on for one last breath, then ripped apart.  Da pushed away first, with me still in his arms, and watched Mum, sobbing, climb over the rail and into #13.  Bertie went next with the help of a stranger, disappearing into the cold confines of a wooden boat different than our mother's.

There was a tussle next to us.  An angry man with a knife knocked into my father, hard against the rails.  And the officer stood stern and fired a shot and warned there would be no men boarding at this time.

I had been wrapped in a canvas mail sack, one Da found along the way and gave to Mum to hold our clothes.  A sailor used it now to lower me down into her arms, trembling.  And Da was brave as he looked into her hazel eyes one last time, and said, "Don't worry, Luv.  I'll be along soon." 

And then we were gone, jolted, shaken, taken down into the deep with ropes and pulleys.  And all around wake-less waves shone with star reflections.  And White Star Line strings played an upbeat melody, while icy depths seeped through a rip as big as the berth we had been lying on when my papa dreamed of a new life in a new land--he wouldn't live to see.

And grown men fell to their knees and cried like babies.  And some fell to pistol shots, while children whimpered and wives wailed, clinging to their men like they would never hold them again, and mothers screamed for missing children, wrenched from their arms and tossed like packages to the privileged few below.

And Da joined the masses--with Captain Smith looking down from the bridge--of brave martyr-men lining the decks, shoulder to shoulder, waving teary Good-byes and shouting desperate prayers.  He threw us a kiss and yelled for Bertie to hold Mummy's hand and be a good lad--he didn't realize he wasn't with us.  And he said he would see us again, as we drifted away on a glassy sea, each of us fading fast like a shadow, until we were no more.

Two hours and forty minutes after my papa first woke, startled, we watched in horror--a scene that would haunt the likes of us the rest of our years--those gallant groups of men stumbling, grasping, dropping like bees, losing their footing as the ship's stern slowly rose into the air, higher and higher, like a wounded sea-monster raging at the night sky.  

Some fell, and some jumped, and there were screams of terror like we never heard before.  And the strings stopped quiet, and the ship roared with thunder, as one by one the lights snuffed black, on that frigid night when the Atlantic swallowed up my papa's dream.

And the moon waned dim, deciding not to show its face, nor witness the impossible sinking heavy of many brave and mighty men on a ship never christened and never destined to die at sea.

We held each other close, my mother nursing me, floating in the dark on waters four degrees below freezing, south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, waiting for a rescue, while the stars faded, and the voices carrying across the waves waxed eerily silent.

This is a Magpie Tale.

I wrote this to honor the memories of those losing their lives in the sinking of the Titanic.  According to a survivor, Songe 'Automne (Dream of Autumn), was one of the songs playing, if not the last, while the ship went down.  The other song remembered is Nearer My God to Thee.

Photo Credit:  Tess Kincaid.  Used with permission. 


  1. The Titanic tragedy gives me chills every time I think of it. Excellent piece of writing, Melissa.

  2. I was enthralled, very well written.

  3. wow. a mervelously written piece....i can not imagine what it would have been like but through your words a scary for anyone but esp little ones....

  4. really heart-breaking and well written. I really enjoyed reading this.

  5. I thought, 'Titanic" as soon as I began to read. You are a terrific writer Melissa..
    One of the best. Love CML

  6. oh my gosh you wrote this so well....

  7. Thank you, everyone, for your encouraging words! And thanks for stopping to read my first work of fiction. As I wrote this I was really caught up in the emotion of what it must have been like to say good-bye to family members, and was impressed by what I read about the willingness of so many to lay down their lives for others. I wonder what I would have done.

    Hope you have a great rest-of-the-week, everyone!


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