1894 (Part Two) by Jen Michalski
“Why do you not grow any bigger?” Safine found Ela that night sitting in the tree next to their cottage. She swung her bare feet in the air, her mind somewhere else. Safine hit the bark of the tree with her hand. “You must tell me, or I cannot be your friend.”
“Come back to my house and I will show you.” Ela jumped down from the tree. Safine looked back at her own house for a moment before following. In the dark of the bone house, Ela reached into the hay she used for a bed and held out her hand. When Safine pried apart her fingers, she saw a small stem with several branches of small white flowers fanning out into a bowl. The same flower they had seen together months before.
“Before my matka died, the soldiers had come to our house for her lover, who did a bad thing. A bad thing he blamed on my mother. But my mother made medicines, and some of her medicines were made of this flower. It healed all the rabbits and frogs we maimed. I ate the flower before the soldiers came. Antoniusz, my stepfather, says the soldiers shot me, and he buried me himself. I didn’t remember anything for a long time after that. But I woke up in the ground. Little by little I dug myself out. When I got out so much time had passed, my mother already dead. And many springs have passed since. But I am still a little girl.”
“Do you understand, Safine?” Ela took her hands. “I am very old. But I do not get bigger.”
“But why?” Safine shook her head.
“The herb—do you understand?”
Safine looked at the flower as Ela held it out to her.
“If you eat it, you’ll never die.” Ela nodded to her as Safine shook her head. “Won’t it be fun? We could play dolls and live in my cottage and the villagers will give us things because they are scared of us and want us to stay away. We can have honey and butter and dolls and even meat.”
“Can Matka take it, too?” Safine asked. “I would miss her.”
“Take it.” Ela pressed the herb up to Safine’s lips. “Take it for me.”
Safine felt the herb scratch against her. Ela’s eyes were still, clear. It was a look she recognized in some of the older villagers. Like a buffed stone. No longer sharp, but strong. And possibly dangerous.
“Safine!” The scream came from the bottom of the hill. A moment later, it was joined to Matka’s body, still in her nightclothes. She picked Safine up and pushed at Ela. “Get! Get! Get, you witch!”
Matka mumbled prayers, curses, as she ran down the hill, Safine tucked against her. Inside the cottage, she pushed the table against the door, turned the bed up on its side and pushed Safine behind it.
“What are you doing?” Matka’s eyes narrowed. She slapped Safine, once, twice, before Safine cowered, hid her face.“You want to die? That woman is a witch, a witch! Haven’t I told you?”
“I’m sorry, Matka,” Safine cried. It was hours before she uncurled her right fist, well after Matka was asleep, after she poked her several times and she, heavy with exhaustion, did not stir, when the dim candle of sun turned the room from black to gray and the birds began to chirp. Then she opened her fist, eyed the herb that Ela had stuffed in it before Matka tore her away. Its white flowers were crushed; the dried stalk left indentions like veins on her palm. She did not take it, but she did not throw it away, either.
Erlin’s brother gave them a ride in his cart to Austria. Then, they walked many days along a dirt road, Matka dressed in a coat and skirt, corset and hat that Erlin’s wife had donated, Safine with shoes from Erlin’s daughter that pinched her toes and rubbed her heels. Matka told her about the trains, big steel snakes that moved on tracks, not on roads, fast like horses, that would take them to Bremen, Germany, a city far away, from which they would sail to America, a country even farther away. The distances they traveled would be as great as the changes Safine would experience, both of them incomprehensible except for the constant among them: Ojciec. Ojciec would be there, and they would be a family again.
She thought of Ela alone in the bone house. Safine wrote letters to her in her head, even though she could not write. She repeated them, as her feet moved step over step, mile over mile of the road. When she got to America and learned to write, she could perhaps write Ela. She did not know if Ela could read, but she wanted her to know where they had wound up.
The herb rubbed against the top of her foot. She had hidden it in her new shoes before they left, in the early dawn, the air light purple, the bone house and the trees only shadows, some looming monument of past, significance undetermined. Safine wondered if Ela watched them leave. She figured if she got homesick in America, if she didn’t like it, maybe she would eat the herb and something would happen.
The boxcar in Austria did not look like Matka had described. Benches hung on the outsides of the cars, which were joined by chains. A crowd waited by the tracks, men and women and children of all ages, whole families with little more than their clothes, perhaps a lunch, like Matka had packed. Everyone scrambled for a seat, and Matka pulled Safine on her lap. The train started, whining under the weight and coughing smoke into the sky, but before long it had picked up speed, and Safine could feel the wind in her hair and eyes. She twisted her head and looked up at Matka, who smiled at her. Perhaps everything would be okay in America and they would be rich like Matka said.
The train stopped to pick up more passengers on the side of the tracks. Only the engine car appeared to have brakes, and boxcars following it slammed into each other. Like dominoes, people tumbled off into the fields, rucksacks and luggage splayed across the grass, shoes and shirts and blankets and dolls, all of which hurriedly collected before the train started again and jerked to a stop again minutes later. This time Safine, sleepy and unbalanced, fell off, and although she did not break anything, she clung to Matka, sore and frightened, for the rest of the trip. The cars shook them this way, that. No one could sleep.
The man, a clockmaker, taught Safine to count the hours on his pocketwatch, and by the time they arrived in Germany, they had counted twenty-five of them. An actual train awaited them, with seats inside the car. Safine slept in Matka’s arms on the way to Antwerp. She dreamed of her father, sometimes looking like Erlin but mostly looking like Matka with a mustache. She wondered, upon waking, if he remembered her. At North German Lloyd Steamship Line in Bremen, the steamer stood at the dock, flags lining its rigging, taller than any building she had seen in Reszel, a scaly beast. In exchange for the importation of grain and tobacco into Germany, the Nordeutscher Lloyd steamships carried immigrants to Baltimore. Ojciec had done it years ago, purchasing a ticket for sixteen dollars, and he had sent home money to Matka, dollars separated by months, seasons, and even now she had not had enough, borrowing the last few dollars from Erlin, unable to wait any longer. At the top of the gangplank, Matka helped Safine count the sixty flags that flew from her rigging.
“Step for’ard lively!” A man dressed better than any man she’d ever seen—woolen pants, vest, and bowtie—waved his hands toward the between-deck, or steerage, where a line of passengers already pushed forward. Safine’s head pressed against her mother’s stomach, and the back of a woman in front of her pressed against the other side of her face. Before them stood a room as big as the ship itself, lined entirely by portholes. Rows and rows of iron bunks jutted from the curved walls, each with its own straw mattress and blanket, a village waiting to be populated. In the ladies’ section, Matka placed their rucksack on a bunk and then lifted Safine on top.
“Stay here.” She squeezed Safine’s arms firmly, an order and a warning. “And don’t touch anything till I return.” Safine dug in the blanket and found a plate, a knife, fork, and spoon, even nicer than the ones they’d left behind. She stood in excitement to show Matka her discovery, but she’d been swallowed up by the other women. Safine froze, wondering how Matka would find her way back. Never had she seen so many women, been stabbed by so many tongues, high-pitched, throaty, clipped, their words beaks that poked, probed her ears. She scanned the shift of women, pushing, rushing to claim bunks. Perhaps Matka had planned to leave her here, on her own, to ship her off to America and keep her away from Ela. Safine felt for the root in her shoe.
Suddenly, she appeared, a washcloth folded over her arm.
“What are you crying for?” She frowned and cuffed the side of Safine’s head. Matka climbed up into the bunk, pushing Safine toward the wall, and Safine looked out a porthole, fighting tears. Already she’d missed their cottage, the sun on the willows and poplars, the cow, her lalka. Ela. She studied the other steamers in the port, ships as big as towns, with whole towns in them, floating to other places. It was almost a fairy tale, water and steel and migration, only people instead of birds. She wondered if it wasn’t magic.
Eventually the horn of the ship blew, louder than any bird or boar or thunder, and the docks and the dockhands and relatives of passengers lining the port of Antwerp rocked away like a lullaby, smaller and smaller until Safine fell asleep on the straw, comforted by their wishes and prayers of safe voyage.
“Come on, little one.” Matka was happier when she awoke Safine. It was morning. The port had disappeared, and a bowl of water and horizon stretched from one side of Safine’s porthole to the other, erasing past and future, the only certainty a pressing urge in their stomachs. She clung to her mother’s middle, thankful of her gravity, her port. “Time to get a little in your belly.”
They ate oatmeal, its runny, gray broth ladled from a large cauldron and drank watery, dirt coffee. They gnawed on bread that they later fed to the birds from the deck. A flock of seagulls followed the ship, fearless of the men who tried to hit them with their hats and their canes as they tore bread from outstretched hands. On nice days, everyone found their way topside, and a carousel of German maids, boilermakers, Austrian laborers, Polish farmers, and common drunks moved along the promenade, singing songs, dancing polkas, drinking, and smoking. Their optimism peppered the breezy, salt air, their mouths thick with one accent or another, churning words with a ferocious industry complete with chirps and clangs and gravel. Safine mimicked the clipped words and strange dances when Matka wasn’t looking, rolled them in her tongue and her thoughts like butter.
When Matka became seasick, they remained below deck in the dark cave of steerage, hot and wet with the smell of vomit, feces. The ship see-sawed over the water, and before long, Safine grabbed the edges of the bunk and aimed for the bucket below as well. She listened as Matka, between fits of illness, told her stories of their new home in Baltimore, where Ojciec worked on the docks. Like the docks in Bremen, she explained, but he did not unload people. He loaded and unloaded treasures from Canton, China, fish from the Chesapeake Bay, tobacco and fruits. They would arrive at the Port of Baltimore, where he worked, and where he would meet them. The leftover money from the steerage tickets was hidden in Matka’s breast, underneath an ill-fitting corset and suit, although it was largely impenetrable by thieves, for Matka had not even taken off her lace-up boots, not even to sleep.
“If I take them off, who knows if I get them back on,” she had explained in a quieter, more patient moment, when she was not vomiting or worried that one of the German housemaids would try to steal their extra blanket or that they had not gotten enough fish and stew for dinner, at least not as much as the Polish seamstress and her three girls. Safine did not understand why Matka didn’t enjoy the trip as much as she. Her own dreams were littered with the sights and smells that accumulated in her subconscious throughout the day, where she walked around drunk with fever dream. Aside from the sea-sickness, she did not want the trip to end, for the anticipation of their new lives to wane, the routine of their new lives to begin.
But fourteen days later, the calendar on the door steward’s quarters read November 7, 1895. The other women passengers hurried to work smoothing and putting on their best clothing, gathering up their toiletries, and closing their trunks, tying their sacks. The water around the steamer had taken on a greenish cast as the port came closer, and the men hung over the bulwarks to get a better view as the ship docked at Pier 9 in Locust Point. One man, full of whiskey and rot, swung Safine up on his shoulders to get a view of Fort McHenry.
“’Ere she fly.” His whiskey breath tickled her ear, his wooly coat on the backs of her legs. “The American flag. Now all yer dreams be born, lass.”
Red, white, and blue, it furled lazily, a cat tail against the sky, an indifference, and perhaps cockiness, packed into its folds. The Baltimore harbor opened behind it, and then the city itself, not unlike the one from which they had departed. The gangplank lowered.
“Luggage here, drop your luggage here. Men this way, women and children this way.” A man at the bottom waved his arms and the sea of immigrants parted by sex. Safine followed Matka to the registry room. Since leaving Reszel, life had become nothing but lines, a blur of authoritative, bored men herding them here or there, this way, that. Safine’s stomach, worn from vomiting, scraped itself out from the inside. If she would eat, she would throw up, but if she did not eat, she would faint.
“Matka, I’m hungry.” Safine held her guts as Matka pulled her along in the ladies line for the doctor, a vulture grip on her shoulder.
“Shh.” Her grip tightened. “Hold your tongue and your stomach. Whatever you do, don’t throw up your breakfast. They send us back on the ship.”
A doctor looked at Safine’s tongue and eyes and ears for bumps or swelling, her hair for lice, and even though she was convinced she turned all shades of green and purple and white, he waved her past after a few seconds of inspection. At the Bureau of Immigration, Makta was forced to unearth the few American dollars she had wrapped in her bosom, removing her scarf, her coat, and loosening her corset.
“Does it cost money?” Matka glared at the man at the table. “Nobody told us it costs money to enter America.”
“It doesn’t cost money.” The man did not look at her as he scanned the ship’s manifest against their papers. “But it costs money to live here. You think you just come off the boat and Lady Liberty is gonna feed ya? You ain’t got no money, we just send you back.”
It had never occurred to Safine that they could be sent back. Eyeing the lines of immigrants, the two hours they had already been there, she began to hope that maybe they would.
“Maria Wysecki?” The man eyed Matka, and she nodded. He looked at Safine. “Safine Wysecki? Welcome to America.”
They moved to a final pen to wait for Ojciec, a wooden terminal that leaked cold November air into its cracks. Matka had carefully recorded the date of arrival they had given her at the Bremen station and sent it to Ojciec’s address in Baltimore, the address from which they had not received a letter for six months. Safine had not asked Matka why Ojciec had stopped writing, and Matka had not answered, convinced that the only thing to do was to come. Through the windows of the holding area, Safine gazed at the stark, bare branches of Fort McHenry Park pressed against the dull sky, which stared back at her indifferently as they waited. Matka motioned her to the door, and they walked the perimeter of the fence separating the shipyard from the town, looking for a man, any man, who might step forward and claim them.
The men looked past them, their hands bunched into their coat jackets, their chins in their collars. A gust blew snot out of Safine’s nose. The sun, an orange, dropped behind the trees, and Locus Point descended into unwelcoming darkness. It was hard to see where things would head, and Safine wished to be herded somewhere once more, somewhere warm, quiet, safe. But as others left the terminal with their relatives, the press of bodies that had insulated them against the chill of the wind thinned. They were in America, but they were not home.
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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.