Fergus was vaguely aware of a burning sensation on the skin of his right wrist, but there was something heavy on his arm too, and whenever he tried to move this arm the burning was worse, so he kept it still. There was also a throbbing on his bum cheek and so he leaned slightly to the left in his bed, trying not to put any pressure on it.
At least he thought he was in a bed, of some kind. He knew he was laying down, and he thought that the boy, who looked like his cousin, was nearby, but couldn’t be sure. A damp cool cloth on his forehead was replaced and he felt hot and cool at the same time. Someone covered him in a warmed blanket, which felt like it had just been in front of a blazing fire, tucking the edges around his body. He thought he had not felt this warm in years; it had been frigid on his ship, especially after he’d battled that last storm. He’d lost his only hat and gloves, and gotten soaked in sea spray and freezing rain. He could smell the sea in his nose still, feel the salt crystals stuck to his skin, sucking out the last of his body’s remaining moisture. The warmth of the blanket made him even more tired than usual, and so, being fairly certain he wasn’t at the helm of his ship, he let his eyes close.
In his mind he saw his mother’s face, bidding him goodbye. Her usual smile was covered in a protective mask her maid had sewn out of old sheets, to keep the germs from spreading to Fergus. His mother had the influenza. Fergus knew his grandmother had died of the influenza in 1891, 4 years before Fergus was born.
(In those times, you see, there was no flu shot, and people got dehydrated from fever and sometimes died, even if a doctor helped them. Doctors then didn’t know what they know now about viruses, which are tiny little germs that you cannot see called pathogens.)
Fergus’ father, Admiral MacDonnell of the Highlands, was away in England, helping to design a new type of battleship that used steam turbines and would be the fastest of its kind ever built. Although their household had servants on hand to help, and plenty of outdoor space for Fergus to escape to and breathe fresh air, Fergus’ mother was determined that he not contract the illness.
“It’s too dangerous for you to be here now, my lamb,” she’d explained. “You must leave this house at once. You’re old enough to make a sea voyage on your own. Sail to your cousins in Skye. I’ve written to them; they’ll be expecting you. You’ve made the journey before with your father. If you leave at first light you’ll arrive in time for supper.” She had paused to catch her breath and he could see the fear, mixed with tears, in her eyes. “Go tomorrow, Fergus. I’ll write to you when it’s safe to return.”
So, the servants quickly but carefully packed baskets with provisions and clothes, while Fergus gathered his vital supplies: compass, maps, sextant. He would use the sextant as his father as had taught him, to determine his ship’s current position and navigate to Skye. This device would allow him to determine his ship’s position using the sun and the stars, which he could then compare to the few rough maps he had.
Fergus adjusted the sextant to make sure it was in working order, calibrating it, and stored it carefully in its leather case.
Things went well at first. The weather was fine, and Fergus felt confident and in control of his small vessel, My Bonnie, which was but one of a small fleet the family had at their disposal. He wasn’t quite clear in his mind when exactly he’d made the first wrong decision with navigation. He could see land but was it…Skye? He got turned around, and then over corrected. He found himself out of sight of land, despite having checked his calculations several times. A journey that should have taken 1 day turned into 2 days, then 3. He became truly and totally exhausted from trying to navigate using the stars, and suspected the sextant had become unreliable, or had perhaps never worked correctly. Half blind from lack of sleep, he had trouble understanding his paper maps. He encountered a storm; although he managed the ship with skill, a wave took with it a good deal of his food.
Fergus MacDonnell of the Highlands, aged 10, was lost, hungry, and alone.
But in his heart, Fergus was a fighter, even maybe a warrior. In fact, Fergus had descended from a long line of warriors, clansmen who had fought against England for independence hundreds of years before him. They were a determined people, resourceful people, who had managed to make the harsh but breathtaking terrain of the Scottish Highlands their home. He remembered the stories that he’d been told about the great Scots men in history: William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. They had endured far worse–fierce battles, burned homes, friends and loved ones buried.
Using his carving knife, Fergus fashioned several fine spears out of timber he had found below deck. He was able to catch enough fish to have one satisfactory meal a day, and he grew to appreciate the taste of sea kelp and other ocean plants for breakfast. He learned to sleep in 3-hour shifts, just long enough to not drift too far away but also get some relief from his constant weariness.
Curiously, Fergus had not passed or caught sight of any other ships, nor seen land since the first day of his journey. He could not think why this could be, and wondered if he was stuck in some kind of loop, going in circles.
It was the beeping that woke him. There was some strange noise, he couldn’t explain it. It wasn’t like anything he’d ever heard. Was it a bird? He looked around, wincing when he moved his arm. The boy leaned over him.
“Don’t worry, Fergus, they’re coming to refill your IV.”
The boy held a book in his hands.
“Should I keep reading to you? Do you like this story? It’s called Tales from the Odyssey, by Mary Pope Osborne. It’s kind of a long book–200 pages! But it goes fast, with all those adventures.”
Fergus leaned back on his pillow. His bones ached, and his eyes burned.
“Yes, please keep reading, cousin Dashiell.”