Mr. MacBranain; like any strong, healthy man of 45 in the 1890s, died soon after his arrival in America, leaving behind a very pious widow and ten very pious children.
The eldest of these children, a boy named Michael, was a kindhearted young man, and the sole male provider left to his family. This was a problem for many reasons. One of them being that he’d heard his new home in New York City was a place of darkness, and sin, and depravity, and Michael knew hungry devils surely lurked in its shadows—as any reasonable person would.
Michael was also very superstitious.
But he had made a vow to his father upon his deathbed to be strong and care for his mother and sisters. And although unsure of the first one, he knew he could do his best and try for the second.
Thus, after an appropriately pious time of mourning, Michael kissed his mum and each of his nine sisters (which took some time) and, with his father's rosary clutched to his chest, stood at the door to their tiny basement apartment.
"You'll see," he promised cheerfully (though his teeth chattered), "I'll have found work by this evenin' "
And also, "Pray that I am not eaten by devils."
The Devil may not have been waiting for Michael as he exited into the cloud tinted sunlight, but darkness most certainly was—or at least something dark-colored anyway.
For there, perched on his neighbor’s laundry line, was a raven, black as sin and night. And it was facing his doorway. Staring at him with dark, intelligent eyes. A sure sign of bad times to come.
The boy threw a shoe at it (the most sensible thing to do), and it flew away indignantly.
Still, Michael could not shake the sudden feeling of foreboding as he went to collect his footwear.
And indeed, the raven was just the beginning.
The first person he applied to was a small neighborhood grocer, who was apparently in need of a clerk. Michael could read, do figures, move boxes, and was rather good with people. Still, the shopkeeper turned him away as soon as he heard his accent, saying he could not abide to employ an idolatrous Catholic.
The farrier he approached observed with a surprising eloquence that redheads were bad luck and, quite likely, the spawn of Satan.
The dockworkers, it turned out, simply did not like his face.
Michael would have defended his face (as his mother thought it handsome, and Mum was never wrong) but was interrupted when a scream--a scream from very nearby--split the air.
"MARY!!" a woman shrieked. "IT GOT MARY!!!"
Turning to see what the commotion was, Michael and the dockworkers observed what looked to be a rag-picker (judging by the nearby cart), kneeling halfway between the shadows of an alleyway and the gray light of the clouded sky. Her face streamed with dirty tears, and she was cradling another, less-than-reputable-looking young woman in her arms.
Already a small crowd of observers—sailors, dockworkers, little thieves, and soon-to-be-passengers—had gathered to gawk at the horror. And a horror it was indeed.
The woman in her arms had flesh pale as bone. Her limbs were stiff, and her eyes vacant and glassy. Her head was tilted at an angle, as though frozen while gazing upward in anguished prayer. Her face...
Her face was the worst of all, wearing an expression of utter despair, so exaggerated and contorted as to almost look like a cartoon in a newspaper. Her caked on makeup looked like blood and bruises pouring down her face as tears, and her soulless eyes seemed to stare right at Michael. Or perhaps right through him toward something darker. Begging. Praying.
Michael felt sick...but also mesmerized by the fear that clamped his gut. So much so that he almost missed the man who said he was a doctor and knelt beside the women to do his duty.
"Her lungs are breathing," the man said, comparing her pulse with his pocket watch with wide eyes. "But her heart isn't beating!"
"She's alive, but she's dead?" a gawker spoke up.
"THERE HAVE BEEN TEN OTHER CASES LIKE THIS!" someone cried in horror. "IT'S A PLAGUE! IT WILL GET US ALL!"
"IT'S THE JACK OF HEARTS!" the rag-picker cried. "HE TOOK MY SISTER FROM ME!!"
But her grieving voice was soon drowned in the babble-turned-roar of panicked voices.
And Michael felt his stomach drop as life returned to his terror-filled mind.
"The Jack of Hearts"? Where had he heard that name before...?
A chill ran down Michael's spine as the foreboding feeling from earlier that morning returned.
Slowly, he turned.
Perched on a nearby windowsill, was a raven. And its gaze was locked on him.
Michael ran home as fast as he could and threw up.
It was a number of days before his family could coax him to go outside again. He had been right about the devils. But he had been wrong about getting work by that evening.
Job-wise, Michael did not fare better on his second attempt.
Or on his third attempt, his fourth attempt, or any of the others, really.
For what felt like a thousand evenings, the young man trudged home unemployed.
Steadily the discouragement filled him so, Michael didn't even have room to fear the evil spirits who surely surrounded him on the busy nighttime street.
His mum was working herself sick doing other people's laundry, as well as those of her ten children. Michael wondered if she even had time to do her own.
His two eldest sisters juggled trying to find work as a cook or some other womanly occupation with helping their mother care for the rest of the children.
Everyone was exhausted and depending on him to be the new Mr. MacBranain, and the weight of it felt like the whole world was resting on his shoulders and pressing on his gut.
He longed with all he was to do right by them, but...
One night on his walk home, Michael wiped a tear from his cheek and wished it might somehow wash away the freckles there. They helped to give him away, as well as his hair and accent.
"No Irish need apply."
He'd seen those words on so many signs; they just about gave him a headache now.
But Irish folks needed to live too! Michael couldn't understand how anyone could think that way.
All he could think was that the raven must have jinxed him.
Perhaps I am nae' bein' assertive enough, he thought, Perhaps I'm nae tryin' enough places or the right places. Perhaps in the places that don't have those signs, I'm givin' a bad impression somehow. Perhaps I am the one makin' everyone suffer again, and this is all me fault.
This thought made Michael want to curl up and die.
But, as he felt uncomfortable doing this in the middle of a busy street, he instead leaned against a freshly lit streetlight and heaved a tear-thickened sigh.
If only Dad were here. If only they hadn't left Ireland. If only he hadn't...
...If only Dad were here.
Wishing to feel his father's presence, Michael took his rosary from his pocket.
How many times as a child had he seen his father kneeling by his bedside, pouring his heart into the thousands of "Our Father"s and "Hail Mary"s that comprise a lifetime of simple piety? The small token felt soaked in his father's faith and wisdom, his gentleness, and strength.
If I only knew what Dad would say now, he thought, Then maybe I could know what to do to help my family. I wish...
Michael closed his eyes, raising the rosary to his lips.
Oh, sweet Providence! He prayed as hard as he could (assuming the hardness of your prayers is directly proportional to how tightly you scrunch your eyes), if Ye would just let me father guide me in some small way, so I would be able to find the right path! If only he were to send an angel me way, it would be enough. Please, Lord, I beg of Ye...
As if in answer, a cool gust of September wind rushed through the city street, ruffling Michael's hair and carrying the pungent smells of bad food and body odor.
And then something thin and papery slapped him in the face, and he gave a muffled scream.
As it turned out, the thin papery object proved to be...a thin piece of paper. Or more to the point, it was a page of advertisements from a recent edition of a newspaper he didn't know called "The Penny Midnight".
Employment advertisements, conveniently.
Even more convenient was the circle and arrows penciled around one particular advert—an advert, which proved to be very convenient indeed!
Looking for desperate soul for simple job.
Excellent benefits; enough to feed and clothe a family of 11.
Applicants must be recent immigrants—Irish, preferably.
Must be between the ages of 16 and 16, with blue eyes and red hair.
Young men with both first and last name beginning with the letter "m" preferred.
Experience in breathing and blinking required.
"By the saints!" Michael exclaimed jubilantly, "I have all those things!"
Apply to Mr. M at the coffin-maker's shop at ____ on ______ Street.
And do be quick; this ad was an extraordinary expense to post.
"I will indeed!" the young man resolved.
The idea of working as a coffin-maker made him a little uneasy, but it felt worth it to provide for his family. Who would have thought something so perfect would come slapping him thus in the face? It was a miracle indeed!