1894 (Part Four) by Jen Michalski
Safine thought the blood meant she was dying. She had not noticed at first because her clothes all were stained red, various shades of it. She thought maybe she had sat in it, for the tomatoes were everywhere, on the tables and on the floors and in the outhouse and one’s nostrils and fingernails. As soon as one scrubbed them out at night, they would just as soon appear the next day, and the day after. But this red was different, fresher and darker, and it was inside her too. She wondered whether she was dying and her insides slowly leaking. She felt a pain between her legs, her back, and was convinced it was so. She watched for Olga to walk down the row, as she often did, and tugged on her skirt
“Ma’am, I think I have injured myself,” she whispered in her ear. Olga looked at Matka, who stood beside them, her hands moving, her eyes flicking, the rest of her crushed with Ojciec on the dock. She motioned to Safine and she followed her to the outhouses.
“Show me vhere.” She put her hands on her hips and peered at Safine. She lifted up her dress, spread her legs. She imagined Olga running back to the factory, finding a woman to take Safine to Church Home hospital, many blocks away, in Northern Fells Point. Instead, she laughed, her body shaking as if a bawdy joke had escaped Safine’s lips.
“You’re not hurt. You’re a woman now,” Ogla smiled. “You can have babies.”
“Are you sure?” Safine felt sick. She had gotten the impression from Francine, when she had asked her about babies, that she might have a few more years before she needed to worry about such a thing. And perhaps, in that time, Linus would grow tired of waiting, find someone else.
“Yes, I’m sure.” Olga slapped her thigh. “You need to get a belt. You need to ask your mother to get you a belt. Do you know if she is still using the belt?”
Safine shook her head. She could not ask her Matka, afraid the information would be relayed to Linus.
“Well, go and ask her. You can go home and get the belt and come back, and I will only dock your pay a half hour.”
But Safine did not ask her Matka, and she did not go home. She squeezed her legs together and walked slowly to the vats. Her head and back throbbed, and she felt like she would vomit. She realized, to this point, that she had never really felt pain before, as a child, and if she had, she did not remember it. But she would remember this.
When she got home she took off her chemise and scrubbed it in the cold water of the bucket while Francine heated stew and Matka lay on the bed, disintegrating. Would she bleed until she had a baby? Would Linus stop her bleeding? There was so much she had not asked Francine and could not ask now. She would have to ask someone at the factory. Catherine, a boney maid with a beak nose and eyes like pennies, had taken a light, general interest in Safine, saying good morning to her when she arrived and goodnight in the evenings. She would have to hide it until then. How would she sleep with Linus if she was bleeding?
After dinner, before she got into bed, she pushed a handkerchief of Linus’s between her legs. She hoped he would be too tired to reach for her, as he often had become fond of doing, his fingers kneading her insides like she’d seen the bakers on O’Donnell Street pinch dough, making rolls and dumplings. Perhaps he searched for the blood himself, not trusting her to make the announcement when it occurred.
When he came in from the outhouse, he fell heavily into bed. Hair, bristled and blond, poked from underneath his union suit in little nests around his ankles and wrists. His head was as red as Safine’s clothes, his cheeks ruddy and rubbed raw like her hands. She touched his cheek as he stretched on his back.
“G’night, Mrs. Wysecki,” he said to her mother.
“Fare thee well,” Matka murmured. She had taken to saying it lately, although no one was ever going anywhere. She did not say goodnight to Safine. It occurred to her that Matka was jealous, but she could be heartbroken as well. It was hard enough to do the work required of them each day, and sometimes the only consolation, for Safine, was that she would not do it forever. Something had to change, whether it was marriage to Linus or something else. It seemed unfathomable that they had come to America, the land of the riches, to become slaves. Perhaps if Ojciec had not died, he would have written them not to come.
Safine felt the blood trickle onto her leg as Linus snaked his wiry arm around her middle. She got up and went downstairs to the outhouse, where she sat in the darkness on the wooden bowl, wondered when the bleeding would stop. She listened to the crickets, listened to the dogs and rats feed on the garbage piles in the alley. She heard Francine come out with the scraps of potato skins and bones and toss them clear of the house into the alley.
“Who’s there?” Francine banged on the door of the outhouse.
“It’s me, Mrs. Francine,” Safine answered, grabbing her stomach.
“Just making sure you’re nobody else,” Francine answered from the other side of the door. “Sometimes the vagrants rather sleep in there than out on the ground with the rats. I say neither place is a place where I want to be. Well, are you coming out or have you fallen in?”
“I don’t feel well.”
“Don’t feel well? Nobody else has said anything about my cooking.”
“It’s not that, Francine….do you have a belt?”
“What on earth you need a belt for?” Francine asked, and both were silent as Francine strung her thoughts together like beads. “Oh. You mean a sanitary belt. Does your mother know about this?”
“No. I don’t want anyone to know. Not Linus, either.”
“Well, you are promised to him, girl. He’ll have to know sometime. It’s not like you can hide it from him in your bed. You’re going to sit in the outhouse all night?”
Safine opened the door and came out.
“When will it stop?” she asked, and Francine laughed. She told her about how it worked, where babies came from, and how Safine, at ten, was no longer a child. She wondered how old Matka was when she had gotten pregnant. She did not even know how old Matka was now. But she was not young. Safine had an older brother, who lived for a day, before she was conceived.
“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” Safine asked. She wondered whether she could be a spinster, like Catherine. They would work at the factory during the day and share a bed at the boarding house at night. Maybe Matka would speak to her again. Maybe her heart would uncrush a little. Maybe they would all go back to Poland and Ela would be at the bone house, waiting for them.
The next day at dinner, Linus looked at her and smiled. Her mother frowned.
“I am delighted by the news,” he said, sucking the marrow from his stew bone. Safine looked at Francine, who drowned her bread in the soup bowl. She considered running away after dinner. Could she do any worse sleeping on the streets? Maybe Catherine would let her board. But she looked at the way Matka stirred her bowl, the way the skin, so firm on her arms and face back in Poland, separated from her bones, bones that were visible in her neck, her wrists, and fingers, and she thought of the kittens she had seen on the way to the cannery earlier that week: blind, hairless, mewling in the gutter for a mother that had taken her last breath across the street under the wheel of a streetcar.
“I am also,” she answered, feeling her hands open and close underneath the table. That evening Linus gave her a jewelry box, a wooden box with a rose carved in the top that could not be locked because its key was still in Poland somewhere. It had been his mother’s, and he promised to fill it with a wedding ring, a house to keep it in.
That night, he lie pressed against her. She could feel his rod, his sword, against her, ready to stab at her wound. She held her breath and tried to listen to Matka’s breathing in the other bed as Linus straddled her, his union suit on the floor, the expanse of his white, hairy skin over her, protective and yet menacing. Was Matka sleeping? Safine closed her eyes as Linus entered her. She tried not to cry, but the pain, sudden and tearing, shocked her, and she heard the shift of weight in the next bed, a moaning spring. Then nothing. Her own bed rocked against the wall slowly, then quickly, and she knew, after talking to Francine, where this ship was taking her. She was in no hurry to get to port.
When Linus was finished, when he rolled off her and began to snore, she climbed out of bed and made her way to Matka’s. She studied the form of her, dimly in the light, a mountain, and she climbed into Matka’s bed and wrapped her arms around the mountain. But she had found, since sleeping with Linus, that her hands and arms had grown larger or that Matka’s had shrunk, for the mountain was smaller, softer, only a stone now or a collection of stones held precariously together by dirt and pebbles.
When she woke up the next morning in Matka’s bed, Linus was gone, off to work. She sat up and went to her bed and pulled back the covers of her bed, seeing the blood and semen smeared in the middle of the sheets. She went to gather them but stopped. The thought of washing them made her sick. She tore them off the bed and threw them out of the window into the alley.
“Come, Matka.” Safine pushed at the stone in the bed she just vacated. “We have to go to work.”
“I cannot go today.” Matka’s voice, trapped under the sheet, sounded far away. “Tell them I will be in tomorrow.”
“Matka, I will have to tell them you’re sick. They’ll make me take you to the doctor.”
“I will be in tomorrow.”
Safine felt Matka’s body through the sheets. It was warm but not feverish. On the way to work she stopped in the yard and began digging until she found it, the herb. She put it in her pocket and walked to the cannery. If she could get the herb to Matka, get her to eat it, perhaps she could save and send her back to Poland. Matka could live with Ela in the cottage and everything would be as it had been and it would be forever.
She could slip it in Matka’s dinner when she wasn’t looking, or steep the herb in tea. But how would she save the money for the steamship? Maybe when she married Linus she could save some of her own money. She felt trapped but also free, powerful. If she could no longer be a child, she would embrace being a woman. As she walked through the doors and went to her table, she thought she saw Ela, a blur of eyes and hair in the bustle of bodies, sheets and sheets of red stains filing to tables, to position, in the innards of the factory machine.
“Where is your mother?” Olga stood in the empty space that Matka usually inhabited.
“She is terribly sick.” Safine kept her eyes on her table. “But she will be in tomorrow. Please, ma’am.”
“If she’s not here tomorrow, the job will go to someone else.”
“Yes, ma’am. Here tomorrow, ma’am.”
Safine gutted tomatoes and dropped them in the vats as fast as she could. She imagined herself an essential organ, lungs, or a heart, pumping for two, her and Matka. She did not eat lunch, hoping she could make up Matka’s absence.
“Is your mother all right?” Catherine approached her after work. Her pinched expression evoked some tenderness in Safine. Perhaps it was her body, with no more width than a rope, her copper hair, braided and pinned to the top of her head. Safine imagined Catherine unwinding it at nights, whether she thought of a man’s hands, someone’s hands, touching it. Why could Linus have not met Catherine, she wondered, taken her for his wife?
“She’ll be in tomorrow,” Safine nodded, swallowing the lump that swelled in her throat. She was on the cusp of some terrible truth and was afraid to open her mouth, lest it escape.
“Well, you give her my best.” Catherine moved toward her, patted her shoulder. “And you be a good girl.”
But she was no longer a girl. She was a woman who wore a belt and whose wound throbbed between her legs. Outside on the cobblestone streets, she followed the girl in a print dress. She blurred in and out of pairs, threesomes, of women walking west along the waterfront home to Fells Point, a light undulating of the waves of the Baltimore afternoon harbor. The girl disappeared, and Safine pushed through the women, red-stained dresses, hands, their thin laughs, sour smell, and she smelled the pungent salt of the water slopping against the docks like water in a pail and there she was Ela, Ela of the raven dark hair, lively eyes, and she stood on the edge of the dock that was clear, clear out to Fort McHenry.
Don’t leave me, Safine said, but Ela, in her dress of flowers, smelling like the sweet grass and willows, put her finger to her lips, her lips pink and pinched, doll face, and she shook her head. She stepped back, closer to the edge, as Safine moved forward. Don’t leave me with him.
We all make choices, Ela answered, then frowned. Safine shook her head, because there were never any choices. She was brought to America and promised as a bride. But then she remembered the herb. She felt it in her dress, among the frayed seam, and pulled it out, opened her mouth. Ela spread her arms out, and fell backward, slowly, gracefully, without a sound. Safine leaned over the edge, and it was not Ela there in the water, but Matka instead, floating, still, like so much garbage clinging to the edge where the gulls swooped and pecked and found a morsel. She screamed.
“Get away from there, little girl, lest ya fall in.” A man smelling of fish and salt, covered in both grabbed her shoulder. “Nothing but trash in there.”
“I thought—” She looked at the oily, rocking water, free of Matka, of Ela. “I thought I saw something.”
“There’s nothing at the harbor for little girls,” he answered, moving along. She put the herb back in her pocket and ran home, a coldness leaking from her stomach into her chest, her arms and legs. She was no longer a girl, no longer a child, even though no one could see it yet. And she knew she no longer had a mother, although she didn’t know exactly how she knew.
Francine stood outside the rowhouse in confirmation, her arms across her chest, as if holding a heavy weight against it. Gravity tugged at every part of her, and with each step Safine took, the gravity tugged at her, too.
“Come with me, child.” Francine held out her arms and pulled Safine to her. Francine’s folds, the lumps and smells unfamiliar, unleashed everything inside her, and she cried, knowing that nothing would ever feel familiar, smell familiar, again. Inside, she ran upstairs to the room and noticed that both beds were without sheets.
“Your mother was sick.” Francine stood in the doorway. “Sicker than maybe she realized.”
“The truth.” Safine’s hands curled. The anger blinded the room white, made her heart tear in half. But she did not know who had caused it. Who she could burden with it. “I want to know where Matka is.”
“She’s gone, back to the father.” Francine put her arms on her shoulders. “I’m so sorry. Fevered and crazy she was. I brought her some soup but she did not eat it. She hasn’t eaten for days, weeks. Have you not seen?”
Safine sat on the bed, her hands on the mattress. Francine put the knapsnack with their possessions, the one they had brought from Poland, on the bed the bed opposite her.
“This is your bed, dear.” She patted it. “I get some new sheets for it. I’ve got a new border coming in tonight for that bed.”
Safine took the sack and ran down the stairs, back outside. She tried to remember the way to Fort McHenry. The evening was warm and people filled the streets. She could feel their closeness with her body but not her heart. The sun leaned down toward the western end of the harbor, darkening the ships tethered to the docks. She walked, feeling the stones in her feet, and she was glad of the feeling, any feeling. Evening slipped into night like a coin in a pocket. She saw the saloons, the bars, the horses pulling carts of softening fruit, but the images passed through her like wind through a barn. She looked for Ela among the shadows, among the moonlight spaces, between the waves of the harbor, a hand, a foot. She squatted close to the edge of the water and called her softly. The water moved toward her, splashing against the walls of the inlet. She wondered how it would feel on her skin. She understood, in some way, that Ela was gone, gone with the child in Safine. Whether it had been real or imagined was not important. She was alone, a cat in the gutter.
“Safine.” She heard the voice but could not place it. It seemed to be everywhere at once. Had the father come for her as well? She slumped on the pavement, exhausted. Whatever she had been searching for could not be found, and whatever she had been running away from could not be avoided.
“Safine.” She felt arms, vaguely familiar, strong, sinewy, lift her up. Linus came into focus. His eyes probed her; they were filled with fear, concern, but not anger. He hugged her to his body. “I’a looked all over for ya. Come, I take you home.”
She could not go back, but she had no choice. There was nowhere else to go. She kissed Linus’s cheek, his face, forcing herself to memorize every indentation, every scar, until it was all she could remember.
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Jen Michalski‘s debut novel The Tide King is available from Black Lawrence Press (2013). She is the author of two collections of fiction, Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013) and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press 2010), which won a 2010 “Best of Baltimore” award from Baltimore Magazine. Her fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings in Baltimore, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown.