Authors: Margaret Peterson Haddix
In memory of the 20,000 and the 146
ell me about the fire.”
Mrs. Livingston stares at the young woman standing before herâthe young woman who has barged into her house uninvited, unannounced. Mrs. Livingston is known for her kindness and charity; her friends say that Mrs. Livingston will listen to anyone who is troubled or lonely or sad. Even beggars in the street. Even women of ill repute.
But Mrs. Livingston cannot hide her disgust at the sight of this young woman with the dark bobbed hair, her trim body swathed in a fine fur coat.
“You're one of the daughters,” Mrs. Livingston finally says. “Harriet?”
Harriet nods. Slowly.
“Then you were there,” Mrs. Livingston says. “You saw what happened.”
“I was five years old,” Harriet says. “All I remember is smoke and flames and people screaming. And being carried to safety.”
got out safely,” Mrs. Livingston says. “Unharmed.”
“So did you.”
Mrs. Livingston does not disagree. What good does it do to speak of scars no one can see, of grief that never lifts? What would Harriet know of harm?
“Ask your father about the fire,” she says harshly. Then she considers this, curious in spite of herself. “What does he say? The same things he said in court, when he had a lawyer feeding him lines?”
“He won't talk about the fire,” Harriet says. “He'd like to pretend it never happened.”
Mrs. Livingston can believe this.
“Read the newspapers, then,” Mrs. Livingston says. “There were plenty of stories written at the time.”
Mrs. Livingston herself has not read any of them. She couldn't, back then. But she is always amazed at how much other people know, because of the papers: girls who were away at Vassar or Bryn Mawr or Smith in 1911, who can recite the exact number of the dead; women who spent their 1911 all but chained to sewing machines in other factories in the city, who can describe exactly how the flames leaped from table to table, from floor to floor.
“I've already read the papers,” Harriet says. “In English and Yiddish, what little I can read of Yiddish. But it's not enough. The newspaper stories are just paper and ink. It's easy to think it's not real. I want . . . flesh and blood.”
Mrs. Livingston thinks.
Her legs tremble; she leans against the balustrade of the hallway stairs for support. But she does not really want to stay standing. She thinks there is sense in the ancient customs of griefârending one's clothes, throwing oneself to the ground, and wailing to the heavens. Even now, all these
years later, she is not above longing for that.
“Why do you want to know about the fire?” she whispers.
Harriet does not answer right away. She stares past Mrs. Livingston's shoulder for a moment, then brings her gaze back to Mrs. Livingston's face.
“I'm twenty-one now,” she says. “I can vote. Do you remember talking with me about women getting to vote?”
Mrs. Livingston remembers three young girls taking a five-year-old to a suffrage parade. She remembers the three girls being mad for suffrage, each one topping the other marveling at the glories that would come when women had a voice in government. Who would have guessed that the five-year-old was paying such close attention?
“And,” Harriet says, “my father is not a young man. Someday I will inherit
“Blood money,” Mrs. Livingston spits out.
“Is it?” Harriet asks.
The question lies between them. It is amazing how two words can fill a room.
Why do I have to be the one who tells her?
Mrs. Livingston wonders. But she knows. Of the three girls who took the five-year-old to the parade, she is the only one still alive.
“How did you find me?” she asks, which is not quite answering the question, not quite agreeing to talk.
“I hired detectives,” Harriet says. When Mrs. Livingston raises her eyebrow doubtfully, Harriet adds, “My father gives me a generous clothing allowance. But I will not be wearing new clothes this year.”
“So it was shirtwaist money that found me,” Mrs. Livingston says bitterly.
“Nobody wears shirtwaists anymore,” Harriet protests, then seems to realize what Mrs. Livingston means. “Oh. ErâYe-es. Shirtwaist money. Insurance money. Investments.”
Mrs. Livingston hears the waver in Harriet's voice, the shame and guilt.
The sins of the fathers . . . ,
she thinks. But something has changed; she is no longer capable of turning Harriet away. She no longer sees Harriet as just one of the daughters, a formerly pesky five-year-old. She sees her as a twenty-one-year-old who would rather know the truth than have new clothes.
Mrs. Livingston sighs.
“The fire is not the beginning of the story,” she says.
“What is?” Harriet asks. “The strike? I read about the strike, too.”
She is so young,
Mrs. Livingston thinks. But Mrs. Livingston had been young once too. Before the fire. Before . . .
“You wouldn't have seen any of our names in those newspaper stories,” Mrs. Livingston says.
“Bella and Yetta and Jane,” Harriet chants, her voice taking on the cadence of a five-year-old again. “Bella and Yetta and Jane.”
Mrs. Livingston closes her eyes, and for a second she can almost feel her two friends on either side of her, the way they used to walk, their arms intertwined. Then she opens her eyes, and it is only a balustrade she is clutching.
“We did not know one another for long,” Mrs. Livingston says. “We had so little time.” This is both a lament and an accusation. After all these years, she still wants the story to end differently. Three girls meet, become
friends, struggle, find happiness, and have their lives go on and on and on until they are three old ladies in rocking chairs.
It just didn't happen that way.
Mrs. Livingston stares off into the distance, off into the past, off into a time when she didn't know the fire was coming.
“The story begins like so much else,” she says slowly. “With hope. Hope and dreams and daring . . .”
job. Pietro had found her a job.
Bella murmured, keeping her eyes downcast like a proper, obedient Italian girl. Which was funny, because she had been neither proper nor obedient back home in her village, Calia. She'd been the girl whose braids were always coming undone, who ran through the men's bocce games, who hitched up her skirts to chase after the goats.
But since she'd left for America, sometimes she felt like she'd left that girl behind just as completely as she'd left Mama and the little ones. This was a new Bella in the New Worldâa new Bella who didn't even dare to look Pietro in the eye.
“Don't you want to know what the job is?” Pietro asked, a mocking tone in his voice that seemed to say, behind the words,
Stupid girl No more brains than a mule. And she actually thinks she'll be capable of doing some big job in New York City?
Bella said, so softly he probably couldn't hear her over the noise from the streets. There was always noise from the streets: voices calling out, “Apples! Apples! Get your apples here!” mixing with odd music and the clatter of a monstrous elevated train whizzing past just the other side of
the wall. This morning, coming from Ellis Island, Bella had been terrified, clutching Pietro's arm as they fought their way through the crowd. She was afraid that she'd be trampled; she was even a little afraid that the American officials might change their minds and hunt her down and send her back. That had already happened to the family she'd come over with on the boat. The
Bella had planned to live with, the ones who'd dreamed of gold and assured Bella, again and again, “Anything is possible in America”âthey hadn't even been allowed off Ellis Island. It was because of something about their eyes. Bella was just lucky her eyes were different, lucky she'd remembered her distant cousin Pietro, lucky he'd come and agreed to take her on in to America.
She'd even felt lucky when he ordered her to stay inside, sheltered from all the bustle and noise, while he went away. But after hours of sitting alone in an airless room, waiting, Bella's restlessness had begun to outweigh her fear.
The old Bella would have gone back out and found out who was making that music,
she told herself.
She would have examined the apples and imagined which one she'd buy, if she had the money. She would have watched that marvel, the train, so that someday she could tell Ricardo just how it worked
.... Ricardo was her middle brother, the one who asked the most questions. Though Giovanni asked a lot of questions too, andâ
“Bella?” Pietro said, as if to remind her that he was back now, that he was trying to tell her about her job. Maybe he could see that her mind had just traveled back to Italy, back to the family she hadn't seen in three weeks. Maybe he even noticed the tears threatening at the corners of her eyes,
because his voice softened a little. “You'll be working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. It's a good job.”
A factory. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Bella turned the words over in her head, hoping to make sense of them so she wouldn't look stupid again. But it was useless.
“What's a shirtwaist?” she asked.
Pietro's face turned slightly red.
“It's what girls and women wear here. Like a blouse. Except different. With a tight neck andâ” He cupped his work-roughened hands above his shoulders, maybe to indicate puffs of fabric. “And it's really pinched in at the waist. . . .” He blushed even more furiously.
The old Bella would have laughed at his embarrassment. Pietro was a boy and older than herâand she barely knew himâbut she still would have dared to make fun of him. Now, though, she felt her own face growing hot.
“I think I saw someone wearing one of those, out in the street,” she said quickly. “She looked like a princess.” Indeed, Bella had stared after the girl in the delicately embroidered, high-necked, puff-sleeved blouse as though she'd come out of a fairy tale. Bella had done her share of laundry back home-surely only a fairy-tale princess could keep her clothes so perfectly white and clean.
The door swung open just then, slamming against the wall. A stout woman in a black dress stood in the doorway, with a dirty baby in one arm and three equally dirty children clinging to her skirt.
Pietro took a step back.
“Signora Luciano,” he began, and Bella braced for the introductions.
she would say. “Thank you for
taking me into your home. It is so kind of you to have Pietro and me as boarders.” Bella knew how to be polite. She just hadn't had much practice.
But Signora Luciano was glaring at Pietro.
“You talk so loud, everyone can hear,” she shouted at him. “Are you crazy? You got her a job at the Triangle factory? You stupid, ignorant boy. This girl is just off the boat, and you think she can work in a place like that? She'll be fired inside of a day, and then she'll be charged for the thread and the needles and the chair and, I don't know, the electricity. . . .”