Searching for Brigid

The following is an extract from Seamus Beirne’s “In Search of Brigid Coltrane,” published on Sept. 6 by Fireship Press, is a historical thriller set in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, Ireland, during World War II. The search for an abducted 14-year-girl leads to the heart of a conspiracy involving Nazis, local fascists and rogue priests. In 2016, the Echo published an extract from his previous novel, “Breakout From Sugar Island.”

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

By Seamus Beirne

During the long hours of confinement, Brigid watched the shaft of light sneak through the little barred window near the ceiling of her obscure chamber. Gradually it worked its way across the bare limestone walls, illuminating the room until it disappeared with the movement of the sun. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been in this new place, or how she got here. They had moved her many times, originally to a mineshaft, then to a house in the woods, and now here. The last thing she remembered was the man with the foreign accent pressing a strange-smelling cloth over her nose and mouth. When she awoke, it was dark and her head pounded.

She slipped in and out of wakefulness. At one point she thought she heard singing, but she couldn’t be sure. Maybe it was a dream like the one she often had of her mother opening her arms wide to embrace her. But the light streaming through the window wasn’t a dream; neither was the metal cot on which she lay. And where was that strong smell coming from? She realized it was from her. Her hair and clothes stank.

The last time she touched water was in Lough Gorm, where she struggled to keep her head above the waves by clinging to the neck of the pony. That seemed a long time ago. She ached to see her mother and fall into her comforting arms. She thought about her dad. She last saw him struggling to stay afloat after letting go of the pony. Had he survived? She took consolation in the thought that he was a very strong swimmer. She lost sight of him when the current swept her and the pony around the headland. Was he looking for her? Was anyone looking for her? She missed her school friend Julia. She even missed school. She missed gossiping with Julia on the playground about the curly-haired boy who sat in front of them in history class. Would life ever return to normal? Many nights she cried herself to sleep, wondering when the nightmare would end. Or if it would end.

She sat up in bed and pulled the dirty bedspread back, swinging her feet onto the floor. The flagstones were cold. After taking a few steps, she trod on something moist and sticky. She jumped back in fright. Just a plate, holding the remainder of a meal. Grabbing the edge of one of the grimy sheets, she cleaned between her toes and almost gagged as she viewed her surroundings. A thin sliver of light trickled from underneath the door. The singing resumed, very faint, not like anything she’d heard before. Almost as though it came from another world. So that wasn’t a dream either.

As she tried to sort everything out she gazed up at the barred window, about ten feet from where she stood. She wished she could reach it to look out.

Patches of mold ran along the sill and green tentacles crept two feet down the wall. The only other object in the room was the metal bed. Standing on it wouldn’t give her enough elevation to see through the window. But if she propped the frame on its end against the wall, she might be able to climb up the cross-hatched springs.

Footsteps approaching. She jumped back in bed.

A square of light appeared at the bottom of the door. A hand pushed a tray holding a plate and a mug through a little hinged flap. Then the little flap snapped shut again. Brigid took the tray and sat on the edge of the bed, balancing it on her knees. The meal consisted of bread, cheese, a lukewarm bowl of porridge, and a mug of milk. She ate ravenously. Stowing the empty tray in a corner, she turned her attention again to the window. Yeah, she thought, the bed idea might work. She removed the mattress, dragged the frame over, and placed it on its end against the wall. Removing her shoes she dug her toes into the springs and began to climb.

When she reached the window she was surprised to see that the sill was on a level with the ground outside. Now she understood the source of the green spots. Surface water seeped through the mortar that bound the stones together, creating wet patches on the interior. Her prison was a basement. She grabbed the bars to heave herself higher and nearly toppled off her perch when the bars shifted, loosening several stones that clattered onto the floor.

Fearing the noise might have alerted her captors, she scrambled down the springs and placed her ear to the door. Silence. She looked up at the window again. A large hole had opened up on one side of it. She shifted the bed underneath the opening. Tying her shoes together by the laces, she draped them around her neck and climbed. When she reached the window, she levered the stones back and forth, opening up a larger hole. She managed to get her head and shoulders through the opening. Voices. Growing louder . . .