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Authors: Pamela Schoenewaldt

When We Were Strangers (7 page)

BOOK: When We Were Strangers
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There were no such scissors in Opi. Mine were a gift from the blacksmith after my mother died. He had stepped out of the forge as I passed with our laundry and handed them to me. “For you, Irma,” he said gruffly. “In memory of her.” Then he hurried back, beating his anvil loudly to cover my thanks. The blades were as thin as any master smith could make them, but so heavy that much cutting made my hand ache.

“How often must you sharpen these?” I asked Franco. Mine I honed constantly on a heavy whetting stone.

“If you keep them clean and dry, they’ll hold this edge for a year.” He smiled at my astonishment. “Seven lire and they’re yours. Imported, remember.” The stork’s black eye gleamed at me. When I ran a thumb across the slender beaks they grazed my skin like a leaf edge. “They’ll cost double in New York, you know.”

Ciro tugged at my skirt, showing four dirty fingers. “Four lire,” I offered. Franco sighed and took back the scissors. I turned away to his basting thread, aching for that light lift. Then I bargained hard again and we finally agreed on the scissors, silk thread, a pattern book and rosewood embroidery hoop, all for ten lire.

“Where are you from, signorina?” Franco asked.

“Opi in Abruzzo.”

“It must be a hard place for merchants,” he grumbled lightly as he wrapped my package. “You know, my cousin in California cooks and washes at a mining camp. She makes as much as the miners. Gold or no gold, they have to eat.” Franco waved his stubby arms. “Here’s an idea. You could work for my cousin.”

I had been poor all my life but at least not a servant for a tribe of men. “Thank you, but I’m going to Cleveland,” I announced, spinning out my plan: a brother waiting for me, the silk and fine linen I would work with every day. I even named Federico, the fine blacksmith waiting to marry me.

Franco stroked a bolt of English wool with his nubby fingers. “Well then, signorina, God keep you in Cleveland,” he said, handing over the package. When he offered his compliments to Federico, I nearly answered, “Who?”

“Where now?” Ciro asked as we came out to the bright clatter of streets. To see Rosanna in her new home? But perhaps my visit would only draw the child back to a dark time better forgotten. “To buy food,” I said. So Ciro took me to the market in Piazza Montesanto where I bought tea, cheese, dried apples, potatoes, carrots, onions, nuts and salami at good prices, surely less than Matteo’s. There would be bread on board at least and even if food on the
was scant, two or even three lean weeks were nothing compared to a hunger winter at home. Besides, I’d be doing no work, so there was no need to eat like a laborer. In the lodging house I stored the provisions, tested my new scissors and tried not to think of Opi.

For dinner they gave us cabbage stew, bread, melon and wine. Two men from Puglia played accordions while couples danced. Others played cards, drank or argued about America. Children played around the tables, their languages laced together with laughter and shouts. I sat with a circle of single women listening to songs of home. As the city grew dark behind us, many cried, their tears glittering in candlelight. A man from Calabria tugged at my arm, wanting to dance, his body damp with sweat.

“I’m married,” I said, pushing him off. “I’m meeting my husband in Cleveland.” How easy to be a liar far from home. I slipped back to my cot and sewed myself to sleep.

Repairs for the
dragged on
Yet we must not go wandering, the matrons warned, for boarding could begin any time. African heat closed Naples in a breathless oven. Fights sparked easily, for many had counted their coins so tightly that extra days threatened hunger at sea. Yet at night, when street vendors sold cheap wine, many bought freely. Children played and couples found dark corners that hid faces but not muffled heaves.

By day, with hundreds of travelers suffering the pressing heat, any sliver of shade went to the strongest. Grumbles and curses ran down the long tables where we took our meals. “What repairs? There’s not a thing wrong with that ship,” a fisherman from Bacoli announced. “The captain made a deal with the lodging house. Besides, he has our ticket money. He could pull out one night and leave us stranded.”

“I saw the wood they brought on for repairs,” a carpenter said. “Second-rate pine. Could be we never reach America.”

“Shut up,” snapped a day laborer. “I talked to the steward. He says she’s stout enough. And at least we’re not back home working like donkeys in other men’s fields.”

On the third day I found a tree-shaded scrap of wall and climbed it “like a mountain goat,” Teresa said. Perched there before dawn, I watched fishermen row over the glassy bay, their voices floating to shore. A man jumped in the water and swam, not as our boys paddled like dogs in mountain lakes, but churning his arms overhead like a water wheel. Astonishing, but were all these new wonders washing Opi from my mind? Gripping the wall, I closed my eyes to piece out Zia’s high brow, thin lips and wrinkles nesting her eyes.

Suddenly, shrill whistles blew and Gabriella came running, shouting, “Come down, Irma! We’re going to America!”

The lodging house roared like a winter storm, the air thick with straw and wool fluff. We threw wet and dry clothes into sacks, rolled mattresses and shook the guard awake to get our baggage. Women changed shamelessly in daylight, pulling on traveling clothes. “Roll up your sleeves! Show your numbers,” the matrons ordered. “Hold on to your children.”

Outside the lodging house, we stood sweating as clerks checked our numbers against lists. They yanked a coughing woman out of line. “It was my sister’s number,” she cried. “What’s the harm in that?”

“The harm is defrauding the company. You could get prison for it,” a clerk snapped, herding her into a roped-off knot of old, lame and sickly travelers who had tried to sneak on the
. As the woman’s husband protested, begging for the ticket money back at least, the clerk stood stone-faced. “You knew the rules,” he said calmly.

“It’s better this way,” Teresa comforted a wailing woman torn loose from an old man. “If your father dies in steerage, they’d bury him at sea for fish to feed on. Get work in America and send him a first-class ticket. Doctors don’t test the gentlefolk.”

“He’ll die before then,” the woman sobbed.

So I would have to work hard to buy Zia a first-class ticket. What would Father Anselmo say of a land where only the young and healthy are welcome? As we culled lame sheep, perhaps America culled weaklings to make their country strong.

Gabriella tugged at our sleeves. “Let’s go or we’ll lose our place.” Trunks and large packs were taken, receipts issued and anxious passengers assured they would see their goods in America. Sailors and clerks barked orders in many languages, one laid over the other as travelers shouted, “What? What did you say? Where do we go?” In the end we only followed the waving hands and whistles. The
loomed over us with a steep plank up to the deck. I prayed. Teresa’s lips moved as well and she crossed herself for we would not touch land until America.

And then suddenly I was on the
, a rocking mountain of metal and wood. Masts rose between smokestacks wide as our church. Coiled rope, winches, pipes and levers filled the deck. How could this monster float? And how could it fit us all? Those from the lodging house packed the deck and yet passengers on shore stood three and four abreast, mounded with bundles like donkeys.

“Steerage below,” a sailor shouted.

“Look there,” Gabriella cried, pointing to a line of rowboats hung along the ship.

A bald sailor polishing brass called out, “If any of you children give us trouble, we set you loose in there.”

!” Teresa shouted, clapping her hands over Gabriella’s ears.

“Shut up, Sal,” barked a younger man with a rusty beard. “Those are life boats, signora. But the child needn’t worry, my
a good solid ship. She’ll take you safe to America.” Gabriella clung to Teresa, shivering. My knees buckled and I grabbed a brass railing. Would we die on those tiny boats, bobbing in the ocean?

Whistles flew down from rigging where sailors hung like jeering bats: “Look at them, fresh off the field. Already scared and we’re still at port!”

“Down below, go on,” snapped a steward. Through cracks in the crowd I glimpsed a black hole to steerage, the ship’s deep belly. A hot line of sweat rolled between my breasts. No letters home had spoken of the crossing. Not one word of that hole, storms at sea or heckling sailors.

“Go on, move,” a sailor prodded. In the steep, narrow stairway, bodies pressed against my chest. Oil lamps swinging in dusty gloom showed flashes of a milling crowd, each traveler humped with bags. Standing on boxes or perched on pipes, stewards barked orders dividing us in groups: single men, families and single women. I squeezed through a narrow passage and down a second stairway as steep as a ladder.

Like sheep herded too closely in summer heat, many balked or turned against the flow. Single women who had been swept into a crowd of men fought their way back through grasping hands. A lost child was passed overhead to a woman shrieking, “Over here! Nicoló, Nicoló, come back!” In the rising heat and airless space we grew slick with sweat under layers of clothing. An old woman swayed and crumbled. I reached out, but a surge from behind bore her away. I must have briefly fainted too, for suddenly I stood in rustling grass with blue sky arched overhead and a tumbling stream. Teresa shook me.

“Dormitory A to the left,” a matron shouted. Gabriella tugged me into a steamy hall of stacked berths, the spaces between them clogged with bags and travelers. Teresa must have tipped the matron, for we had places together. The berths were in pairs, bolted on the long edge and butting another pair at the head. Gabriella would sleep between us, Teresa explained, so she wouldn’t fall out at night. Above us was another set of four berths, reached by a rough ladder, making eight in our block.

Exhausted, I unrolled my mattress and sat down to study my new home. The long, rough-paneled dormitory had no windows. Swinging oil lamps sent bars of pale yellow light across the room. There was a center aisle between two rows of berths, forty-eight in each row. There were ninety-six berths, then, but far more than a hundred souls, for I saw three, even four small children huddled on one mattress. It was as if the whole of Opi lived in one smoky room. Since hooks on the walls would not hold all our bags, they would be piled on the floor or our berths. The center aisle was barely four paces wide.

“Look, flying tables,” said Gabriella suddenly. “How can we eat up there, Irma?” I followed her tiny finger to rude tables and benches lashed to the ceiling.

“We lower them for meals, see the ropes?” said a matron. This oddity delighted the child, but glancing at Teresa, I read her thought: apart from meals there would be no place to sit but on our beds. Small lidded boxes bolted to the floor held chamber pots in full view. Even if we emptied them quickly, the room would soon be reeking.

“Washrooms and toilets up the ladder, then left to the forward deckhouse,” the matrons said, but how far that was I had no idea. I tried not to think of this or of the woman great with child settling nearby. In Opi she would be home and tended by my mother and aunts, not a spectacle for strangers.

Two women threw their bags on the berth above us and scrambled after them, chatting brightly. “Serbs,” Teresa whispered. “Our church hired masons who spoke like that.” The two began giggling. What was so funny here? I pulled out my pattern book to study. If I could sew in Attilio’s cart, I could work at sea and have my own world like those Serbian girls.

Our dormitory was filled and yet still more travelers streamed by. This must be a thoroughfare to another dormitory deeper in the ship. As the line slowly thinned, lamplight raked the walls. A boom and shudder made us leap. Then came a grinding churn and steady pounding, louder than giant anvils.

“Boiler engines,” a matron called out. “We’re raising anchor.”

“I’m going up,” I told Teresa, frantic to see the last of the hills and the road to Opi.

“You can’t,” she warned.

But I had already edged past a late-arriving family, their three children clinging to posts while the parents pleaded and pulled them toward the dormitory. Someone tugged at my skirt. “Take me up too, Irma,” Gabriella begged. So I let her worm ahead as we followed a faint stream of daylight and fresh salt air.

“Captain says no steerage topside,” a steward warned a brace of drunks pawing at a ladder. He jostled them down a corridor, offering a good price on new wine. We hid behind a post and scrambled up the ladder.

Finally we were on deck, with wind and space around us, free of the terrible smells. Four young women pressed against a rail facing land. As they waved, pointed and compared hotels, I gathered they were maids to first-class passengers. Hoping to pass as a maid myself, I stood near them, or tried to stand, for the deck rocked like boards that children set on rocks for play. I gripped the railing and made Gabriella do the same. Fishing boats scurried from our path.

“Look,” cried Gabriella, pointing out our tiny lodging house and stubs of offices behind the port. Once-huge palaces shrank steadily, squeezing broad streets to threads. I saw the fishing quarter where we had left Rosanna and roads winding through hills where Attilio might be traveling. Tolling church bells dimmed. As the great city flattened into gray-green hills, the bay cupped behind us and even Vesuvius shrank.

BOOK: When We Were Strangers
8.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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