1894 (Part Three) by Jen Michalski
“Well, come on, then.” Matka took her hand, and she banged on the gate to get a guard’s attention. “We need a place to stay,” Matka said, with what must have been her last dignity. “We can pay.”
They were directed to a boarding house on the Pier 9 dock, run by a German, Mrs. Koether. She pointed them to another room linked with beds, this one landlocked.
“We’ll find Ojciec tomorrow.” Matka’s mouth was a tight line, her eyes somewhere else. “He is probably working.” Matka patted the bed. “Well, come on, then.” Safine lay awake and wondered what Ojciec would be like, whether three bodies in space would disrupt the natural harmony that two created. When she looked at Matka, she could see she was awake, too. She wondered if she had the same worries. Morning lighted the windows, brought the clean but bare grayness of the room into focus, bunks full of Poles and other immigrants. Each bed was a breathing cell connected to its partners, in and out, and in a few hours, minutes, this vast system, this superhuman that sailed from Europe would be broken into little pieces, reassembling with others at factories, city blocks, places of worship. It overwhelmed, ached Safine to see the world in full, and when she opened her mouth to try and articulate the wonders of the world, she closed it, gauging her mother’s hard eyes, their drawn corners, the single-minded concentration of zeroing in on one cell in the sovereign city.
The next day, they went to the address on South Ann Street. It was another boarding house, run by a Polish woman named Francine Kowalcyzk. Her face was a broad and thick plaster, like a mask that covered something more beautiful and fragile. From a greasy kerchief, blond-gray hairs escaped and draped over eyes that seemingly had been pushed as far into her head as her knuckled fists could manage.
“Wysekci not here.” She looked over Safine and her mother. “You want room? Two dollars a week.”
“I don’t want room—I want my husband,” Matka pressed, wedging her boot in the doorway. “You know where I find him?”
The woman sighed, a breath that heaved her shoulders and her breasts and bottomed out somewhere near her feet. She invited them inside and left Safine in the kitchen while she spoke with Matka in the front room in murmurs. When Matka returned, she was still Matka, but something was lighter, in ounces, in breaths, imperceptible. She sat down heavily in a chair, gravity suddenly returning, her head in her hand.
“Here—you want slice of apple?” The woman held knife and apple in one hand. She pared a slice, green and moist, and pushed it into Safine’s mouth. In the time that it took for Safine to swallow, bitter, juicy, Matka sat up straight, her blue eyes hard and focused. She sighed through her nose.
“We’ll take the bed,” she said to the woman. “Where can we get work?”
For two dollars a week, they stayed at Francine’s boarding house, two of six boarders that slept three to a room. In return, Francine directed them to the American Can Company on Boston Street, where six days a week, twelve hours a day, women and children peeled tomatoes and peaches for canning. The cannery, a three-story warehouse of concrete, was open on one side of its ground floor to the harbor, allowing access to the trucks that continually moved vats of syrupy tomatoes and peaches to the canning facility at the other end, where the men worked.
A side entrance near the peeling house inhaled large lines of women and children through its doors at dawn and exhaled them in the evening, dark-eyed and stained with the slaughter of tomatoes on their hands and clothes. Inside, the wind off the Baltimore harbor mixed with the steam from the steaming vats, creating strange hot-cold-wet weather pockets that changed every few feet along the skinning troughs. Safine sat with her mother at the troughs, separating skins and seeds in a continual motion that blurred any definitive periods of living. Safine could not tell when she was at the factory and when she was sleeping fitfully against her mother at the boarding house. Her hands continually peeled the skin, gutted the seeds. At night, Matka picked tomato seeds out of Safine’s hair, scrubbed the redness from her little fingers until they were redder, rawer.
At first, the new work absorbed Safine, like a mother drawing a child to bosom. It differed from her chores at home in Reszel, there was the promise of friendship with other children in the factory, and she liked contributing an extra quarter to the household income each day. But Matka had stopped speaking to her shortly after they’d arrived at the boarding house, and she did not know why. Her lips pressed tightly, but her eyes moved wildly, as if they, in addition to her thoughts, sought desperate escape. She imagined Ojciec played a part, but because his absence was still mysterious, at least to her, she did not know for sure.
Safine wanted to tell Matka that she should let all her thoughts fall into the steaming vats, which is where all Safine’s nightmares dropped from her fingers, along with the skinned tomatoes, forever to be boiled into a red sea that sloshed against the steel walls of the vat. But she was afraid of Matka, afraid of what she might do to her, even though she had done nothing to her. There was a quiet insanity to Matka’s methods, her rising early in the morning, her fingers tearing the skins of the tomatoes, her skirt stained up to her knees in the thin red juices. The way her thoughts knitted crazy quilts in bed at night, too long for the feet, too short for the head. They carried no language, sound, but their heated frenzy leaked out of Matka’s pores, covering her in a hot cold sweat that then coated Safine like afterbirth.
After a while, the work grew tedious. Safine no longer felt important to Matka. She didn’t even feel a physical closeness to Matka, despite the spaces they inhabited together—beds, bathing, walks to the cannery through the trash-strewn cobblestone streets. She had no friends. The other children did not talk. They did not make eye contact with her when they met at the vat, when they ate their rolls, peaches, on the floor by the troughs.
Then Ela came. In her dreams, they played. The sun, Reszel, the grass, the bone house grew during her dreams, full of pinks and yellows and breezes as soft as tongues, taking up space in her waking life, safely trapped behind her forehead. But somehow, Ela jumped the barriers. She began appearing at the factory in the face of the older girl who peeled a few troughs in front of Safine. She disappeared in the crowds of women who waited to enter the cannery in the morning, moving in and out of their skirts. She floated in the bottom of the steaming vats, smiling, her hair clotted with tomato pulp. The pulp swirled in Safine’s dreams at night. The bed floated, the room full of rising tides, swirling and knocking the bedstand against the wall. Safine gripped the mattress and waited for the morning. Ela waited for her at the cannery.
I miss you. Ela smiled, her mouth unmoving. Safine looked at her mother, but Matka did not see Ela, and if she did, her mouth remained paralyzed as well, her eyes darting in every direction. The only person who talked to her was the shift supervisor, Olga, a dark-haired Russian with long horizontal lines in place of her eyes and mouth.
“Careful vith ya,” she scolded when Safine slipped on her way to the vats, dropping her tray of tomatoes. The pulp absorbed into the layer of rotting tomato and peach guts that already lined the floor, for days or weeks, but Safine was ordered to bend down and scoop it back onto the tray. She gathered as much as she could of the freshest-looking pieces and took them slowly to the vat. Safine looked inside, her tray balanced on the ledge. Below, Ela lay in the middle, on her back.
Come and play. She beckoned with a finger. Safine gripped the edges of the vat as she watched her tomatoes slip off her tray and onto Ela. Acrid steam watered her eyes. If she jumped in, it would all be a dream. She would wake up in Reszel and milk the cow, scrub the floor of the cottage. Run in the grass without worrying about stubbing her toes on cobblestones, glass shards, dung. She leaned over, feeling the gravity slowly then quickly tip from her feet to her head.
“Vhat’s wrong vith ya?” The hand that wrenched her away from the vat was Olga’s. “If you can’t do the vork, you can’t vork here.”
“Please, ma’am,” she said, shook her head. “Please don’t tell my matka.”
“I don’t run a school,” Olga muttered, walked away.
“You have to go now,” Safine said to Ela, who stood a few feet away, making faces at Olga. She waved a little wave, still smiling, and disappeared through the doors of the warehouse. A victory so easy Safine knew she would be back, that she was just biding her time, over by the docks, flying with the seagulls or smoke that curled upward and upward from the canning side of the factory, whatever witches did.
But she could not worry about it now. The old border, a younger woman named Hildie, was getting married and had moved out. The new border, Linus Polensky, worked at the docks where Ojciec once had. Suddenly, Matka woke from her dream world. She began combing her hair in the mornings, pulling her skirts straight. But Linus was younger than Matka, his mid-twenties, and seemed to pay her no attention other than a nod in passing. He got up earlier than them and returned even later, sometimes smelling heavily of whiskey and cigarettes. He snored like a train. Sometimes when Safine could not sleep—with Ela’s shadow moving across the room, not revealing herself yet, her laughter in Safine’s ears—she noticed that Linus stared at her with his clear blue eyes. They were attractive and soothing in some way to Safine, robin’s blue. Alive and measured, engaged with the outside world, unlike her mother’s.
And he spoke to her. “A hard life for a sweet little girl.”
He sat smoking cigarettes in the kitchen, scratching the blond stubble on his skin while Francine heated a pot of duck blood soup. Linus had come home early with the duck, still alive, and Safine had hidden in the bedroom, hands over her ears, while he wrung the flapping, squawking bird into stillness in the back yard. Then he pushed a piece of wood across the table. A crudely whittled owl.
“G’n.” He nudged it with his elbow. “Take it.”
After dinner, Safine buried it in the yard next to the only other thing she had been given: the herb. She did not know why she kept the herb. She did not understand how anyone could make it through one life, so long, let alone forever. But she did not throw it away. It was hers alone, and the only power she had.
At night, Ela surfaced and sat on Linus’s bed. She frowned at him, putting her little hands on his mouth and nose. But he still breathed, his chest still rising and falling like the tides. Ela kicked at his throat with her foot, scratched at his eyes. Safine put her hand out.
Stop. She glared at her. Ela glared back, stood up, and stomped out of the room. Safine waited for her to come back, to smile slyly and beckon her outside, but she didn’t.
Later that week, Matka spoke for the first time in days. After they dined with Francine and Linus, she pushed her bowl away, wiped her mouth with her red-stained hand.
“Safine, Linus Polensky is an honorable man.” She smiled, but Safine could see it was an action, a collection of muscle twitches designed to convince Linus Polensky, perhaps even Safine, of something, something that Matka had no thoughts or emotional investment in. “And he has asked for your hand in marriage. When you are old enough—ready to be a mother.”
“I am saving for a house,” Linus Polensky added, not meeting her eyes. “You can live there. And your Matka too.”
“This is a time for celebration,” Matka added, and Linus produced an orange from his coat pocket, began to peel it. That night, Safine moved from Matka’s bed to Linus’s. His body was hard, an unfamiliar smell, his arm a muscled snake over her body, his loins stiff and pressed against her back, as patient as they could be until she was ready. She mouthed Ela’s name into the darkened room, searched with her eyes in the corners and crack of the door, but she did not come. After several nights, Linus guided her hand over the shaft of his penis, showing her how to stroke it, and she closed her eyes and listened for Matka’s breaths, wondered whether she was sleeping. Upon coming to America, her love for Matka had melted into confusion and now hardened with hate for abandoning her to this strange albeit gentle man. She wondered if Matka had gone back to Poland with Ela, both of them happy while Matka’s body lingered behind, a machine just like the others in the factory, one that rotted rather than rusted. One that could not be repaired, only replaced.
“How did my father die?” Safine asked Francine one afternoon while she hung the linens on the clothesline behind the house. Saturdays were a half day at the factory, laundry day at the boarding house. The sheets, gray and stained, flapped heavy and wet in the sea air. Everything smelled sweet and pungent, like the wharf. It was better than the garbage, the sewage that stained the cobblestone streets and muddied the harbor, but not by much.
“You’re too young to know such things,” Francine answered, throwing a sheet over the line, the fat underneath her arms pocked, jiggling.
“Not too old to get married.” She pulled the wet sheet taut and pinned it with a wooden clothespin.
“It was an accident—lots of men get hurt,” she answered finally, resting on her haunches near the wooden basket. “One of the ropes that hoist the crates—it broke. The crate crushed him. He was a good boarder, didn’t give any trouble. I was happy to offer you the bed. You’re good boarders too.”
Safine understood now. Although Matka had not been there when Ojciec died, because of her love for him, she had been there, through some continuum, and as a result had been crushed as well. The part of Matka that had been crushed was the part that loved, smiled, laughed, lived. The body went on without the heart as surely as the chicken went on without the head, if only for a short while.
How much longer, Safine wondered. She went back in the house and up to the room. Linus would not be home until late. His Saturday shift ended after supper, and he would have his pint at the bar. Matka lay in bed, the thin sheet over her head, like a corpse. Safine crawled in bed beside her, fitted herself around the familiar form.
“Do you wish we had stayed in Poland, Matka?” Safine whispered and drew her chin into her neck, but Matka did not rise, did not hit her. She listened to Matka’s breathing, thought for a moment she considered the question, its levels of complexity, but then decided that Matka had simply not answered. Whether Matka was dead to Safine or Safine was dead to Matka was still open to debate.
The weather warmed. Safine heard the return of the birds in the sky. The days drew longer, like taffy, and offered a promise of sweetness by their mild breezes, children playing in the streets. The cannery would close in the summer, and by listening to the other women, Safine discovered that most of them would take jobs picking beans across the harbor in Curtis Bay. She welcomed the opportunity to work outside, along with the bees, the sun, the dirt. The long hours were negligible; six months of factory work had not killed her. She had been wedded to work as surely as one takes a husband, but she had merely adapted to it. Her tenth birthday came and went with barely an acknowledgement, not even from Linus, although she supposed it was her fault for not telling him.
But she felt older, a contemporary of Matka’s, almost superior. In a few years, she wondered whether she would take care of Matka, pushing her out of bed and to the bucket to scrub her face, just as Matka had to Safine all those years. Already the change was showing. While Safine sprung out of bed, away from Linus’s sweaty, iron grasp, Matka lie still until Safine nudged her, cajoled her, pushed her. It was easy to move her. In six months, there was less of her. Although the muscles of her hands and arms and back were firm and well-shaped by the work from the factory, her bosom, her middle had collapsed and began a gradual descent into itself. Safine wondered whether her mother would tuck herself into nothing, if she would wake up one day and discover nothing under the sheet but a worn nightgown.
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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.