City of Liars and Thieves (4 page)

BOOK: City of Liars and Thieves
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I was not sure I agreed. “How is it better?”

“It's faster.”

“And that's better?”

“It is when there are bills to pay.”

As the morning sun seeped through the windows, revealing cobwebs and dust, I recalled my disturbing dream.

“Elma,” I said, resting my hand on her arm. “Shall we go to the water pump?” She smiled warmly, but I felt chilled, as if we were both still trapped in that damp, decaying cellar.

Cocks were crowing and chimney sweeps were shouting in a rousing medley as Elma and I made our way up Greenwich Street, swinging our empty buckets. “That's Joseph Watkins's furnishings, and David Forrest's tobacco shop is just across the way,” I said, pointing out the sights of her new home. There was laundry hanging in yards, mint and rosemary sprouting in kitchen gardens, and slaves splitting piles of wood.

Elma gazed forward and back. “This is the longest, straightest street I've ever seen.”

“New buildings crop up overnight,” I said. After nearly a year in the city, it was still hard to fathom hundreds of houses on a single road. Cornwall's main street had nine homes, all of which I could see by leaning out my bedroom window. “Greenwich Street may not be as fashionable as the Bowery, but it's a respectable address. Many Friends have settled in this part of town. The meetinghouse is just a few blocks away,” I continued. “Last week, there was a visitor from Wales. He said the simplicity of the room reminded him of home.”

“It is wonderful how one can find comfort in such a far-off place,” Elma mused.

“Yes.” I nodded. But it wasn't completely true. Worship here was not the centering force I once cherished.

The benches in our new meetinghouse lined the walls and faced inward exactly as they had in Cornwall, and the raised ones along the northern wall were reserved for church elders. At home—for I still, ultimately, thought of Cornwall as home—I knew where floorboards creaked and which benches wobbled. I knew who would share valuable insights and who would prattle on about nonsense. Waiting for a divine light within, I could look past familiar faces through the tall windows to the cemetery beyond. If there were buds or frost, yellow finches or gray skies, looking outward brought me peace.

New York City was starkly different. With its high windows and thick walls, the meetinghouse blocked distractions, but it did not inspire contemplation. The Bible sat on a small table in the center of the room, just as in Cornwall, but its leather was newer, almost pristine, and less approachable. Often, my mind wandered to laundry and meals. It was wrong to fault Elias for choosing business over prayer, when I was equally lax.

“Hot corn! All you that's got money, come buy your lily-white corn!” cried a girl carrying a basket in the crook of her arm. A small child, with hair shorn so short and clothing so nondescript and soiled it was impossible to say whether it was a boy or girl, followed in her wake, gnawing an ear of discarded corn.

“Everyone moves with such purpose,” Elma said as we fell in with the swarm of craftsmen dressed in leather pantaloons and vendors hollering and cursing in every direction.

“The pace is faster,” I agreed. “It can be overwhelming.”

“Caty,” Elma said, putting a hand on my arm to make me stand still. “It is so kind of you to have me.” I appreciated her gratitude and was happy to take credit for her new start. She sounded as if she were about to recite a speech but was distracted by the tumult around us.

A butcher in a bloody apron led a fat cow across our path, taking orders for different cuts of meat. Another man pulled a dung cart with a bell, followed by cawing crows. People dumped refuse from backyard privies and trash into a filthy rut running down the center of the street, where pigs rummaged, grunting and shoving to get at the choice bits. Men at work on a new home had dammed the gutter to mix mortar, creating a stagnant puddle.

Elma wrinkled her nose.

“Garbage is supposed to flow down to the rivers, but it usually just gets clogged,” I said. “Then it backs up into cellars, rotting storehouses and granaries. I've heard that foreigners who live in underground rooms along the waterfront have to bail out their homes after it rains; bones and feces float in and out with the tide.”

She took an exaggerated step over a pile of steaming manure, her skirts around her calves, and I could not help but laugh.

“It will be good to have thy help and company,” I said, as we continued on. “I worry Elias has taken on too much. He won't say so, but bills are piling up. Thank goodness we're getting a new tenant. We've only had Isaac Hatfield so far.”

“What's he like?” she asked.

I had never known Elma to express much interest in men and was mildly surprised at her curiosity. Then again, perhaps I had simply never seen her in society. Our small community in Cornwall didn't hold much intrigue. “He trades with the Lenape,” I said.

“And?”

“He has a warm smile.”

Elma stopped walking and put her hands on her hips.

“His teeth are a bit crooked,” I admitted, knowing she would not budge until I offered a complete picture. “And his clothing smells like horse feed.” I lowered my voice. “No matter how much I scrub, I can't get rid of the odor.”

Laughing, Elma looped her arm through mine. I could feel my steps become lighter. At home, she had helped me plant my first garden. It felt like a hint of what our futures would yield: A garden for me, another for Elma. Husbands and children, our lives blossoming together. Our move to the city had caused a slight delay, but now things were back on schedule. Elias could have his plan; I had one of my own.

We made our way east toward the heart of the city. Housewives joined craftsmen as the dusty streets turned into paved cobblestones. The drumbeat of hammers matched the rumble of wheels as carriages, wagons, and carts raced in every direction. A mangy yellow mutt ran between us, kicking up dirt. Merchants sold pears, corn, even sand to sprinkle on kitchen floors.

“Here's clams!” one called. “Clams from Rockaway! They're good to roast, good to fry, good to make a clam potpie.”

“Oh! Let's get some!” Elma cried.

“Too gritty,” I said, forging on.

We climbed a small slope until we came to the corner of Chambers Street. Elma stopped first. “It's beautiful,” she said, her cheeks flushed from exertion or excitement.

From where we stood, at a slight remove, it was possible to appreciate the city's bustle. The streets looked orderly and deceptively clean. Peaked roofs and chimneys spanned our view. St. Paul's weathervane glistened in the morning sun, and shady poplars swayed around Trinity Church. Beyond the Battery, the island was framed by tall wooden masts. East, west, and south, there was nothing but ships and sails. It was picturesque, so many sails fluttering under temperate winds. The day was clear, and I could see the Brooklyn ferry as it made its way across the East River.

Elma turned toward the Hudson. “It's the same river as home, but it looks different.”

I inhaled the salty breeze. “Here, the rivers are more about commerce than nature.” The waterway was just as grand as in Cornwall, but its character was changed. The banks were lower, the channel wider as it fed into the harbor.

“A bit like Elias,” she said, reading my thoughts, and I felt myself grow warm.

After a single day in New York, Elma had articulated something that had been troubling me for months. The store and boardinghouse were Elias's sole focus. The pressures of our new home seemed to weigh on him. He woke early, worked all day, and sat awake late into the night, reading newspapers or calculating costs. Our faith and values—sim
plicity, austerity—
seemed at risk, and I worried about the example he was setting for our children. Had the city changed Elias or simply revealed his true nature?

The streets grew muddier as Elma and I approached the water pump. A young girl passed, carrying four buckets on a yoke running across her shoulders. Her neck jutted forward and her hair swung from side to side as she balanced the heavy load.

We lifted our skirts to avoid the puddles, but our shoes were soon caked with filth. Gnats buzzed in circles around our heads. Women in aprons, many with young children, stood about, gossiping, seemingly unaware of the stench. Older children chased one another along the outskirts of the crowd. A group of Negroes scrubbed clothing on washboards. One woman took advantage of the warm weather to bathe a protesting infant. She cooed to him in a rhythmic language I did not understand. A man led his horse to drink from a wooden trough. Dogs, pigs, and toddlers splashed through shallow puddles, stirring soapsuds and dirt.

Amid the ruckus, one man stood out. He had a linen kerchief with a delicate floral border tied around his nose and he carried a yardstick, which he used to poke at the sludge. He was commanding and dignified, with broad shoulders and a shock of silver hair. People granted him a wide berth: all but one shabby fellow, who trailed in his wake.

“There's barely a trickle,” the scruffy man called toward the surveyor. Red-faced and thick-necked, he spoke in a garbled British accent. Tufts of whiskers climbed his bristly cheeks like caterpillars.

“There's no water?” Elma asked.

The Brit's ears perked up at the question, and he looked at Elma appraisingly. “There's that,” he said, jutting his chin toward a rusty spigot dribbling brackish muck.

“Elma,” I said, shaking my head to imply that she should not invite conversation with strangers.

“Foul to taste and vile to smell; two gulps and your skin will turn yellow, three and you'll die of fever.” He started to laugh, and his body convulsed into a dry, scratchy cough.

I stepped away, nudging Elma to follow. “Water comes and goes here,” I explained. “And it's only to scrub floors or do wash. Never drink it.” Frustration made the buckets heavy in my hands. Freshwater was hard to come by in New York City. The more difficult it was to gather, the more precious each drop became. Late at night I grew thirsty, anticipating the next day's drudgery.

“But this is an island,” Elma said. “Water's everywhere.”

“We only know the worth of water when the well is dry,” said the Brit, obviously pleased to have an audience. As if sharing a confidence, he moved closer. “Wealth pours into city ports with the saltwater, but it's the salt that poisons the wells.”

“We'll have to go to the Collect,” I said. The idea of trudging to the marshy basin of the cruelly named Fresh Water Pond made me regret our leisurely stroll. The walk there was pleasant enough, but the anticipation of the haul back with sloshing buckets soured my mood. “At least the weather's cooperating,” I said. The only thing worse than walking home carrying heavy water buckets was balancing them in rain, snow, or ice.

“That filthy swamp,” said a woman standing nearby. “I'd save your breath. Yesterday I saw a parched horse refuse drink, and when I came home and drained my buckets, I found pebbles and even some small bones—squi
rrel, maybe rat.”

BOOK: City of Liars and Thieves
3.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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