Orphan train, p.3
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       Orphan Train, p.3
 

          
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  presentable. The kind of girl a woman would want around the house. Clean and well-spoken. But not too—” She shoots the other one a look.

  “Too what?” I ask.

  “Some women don’t take kindly to a comely girl sleeping under the same roof,” she says. “Not that you’re so. . . . But still.” She points at my necklace. “What is that?”

  I reach up and touch the small pewter claddagh Celtic cross I have worn since I was six, tracking the grooved outline of the heart with my finger. “An Irish cross.”

  “You’re not allowed to bring keepsakes with you on the train.”

  My heart is pounding so hard I believe she can hear it. “It was my gram’s.”

  The two women peer at the cross, and I can see them hesitating, trying to decide what to do.

  “She gave it to me in Ireland, before we came over. It’s—It’s the only thing I have left.” This is true, but it’s also true that I say it because I think it will sway them. And it does.

  WE HEAR THE TRAIN BEFORE WE CAN SEE IT. A LOW HUM, A RUMBLE UNDERFOOT, a deep-throated whistle, faint at first and then louder as the train gets close. We crane our necks to look down the track (even as one of our sponsors, Mrs. Scatcherd, shouts in her reedy voice, “Chil-dren! Places, chil-dren!”), and suddenly here it is: a black engine looming over us, shadowing the platform, letting out a hiss of steam like a massive panting animal.

  I am with a group of twenty children, all ages. We are scrubbed and in our donated clothes, the girls in dresses with white pinafores and thick stockings, the boys in knickers that button below the knee, white dress shirts, neckties, thick wool suit coats. It is an unseasonably warm October day, Indian summer, Mrs. Scatcherd calls it, and we are sweltering on the platform. My hair is damp against my neck, the pinafore stiff and uncomfortable. In one hand I clutch a small brown suitcase that, excepting the cross, contains everything I have in the world, all newly acquired: a bible, two sets of clothes, a hat, a black coat several sizes too small, a pair of shoes. Inside the coat is my name, embroidered by a volunteer at the Children’s Aid Society: Niamh Power.

  Yes, Niamh. Pronounced “Neev.” A common enough name in County Galway, and not so unusual in the Irish tenements in New York, but certainly not acceptable anywhere the train might take me. The lady who sewed those letters several days ago tsked over the task. “I hope you aren’t attached to that name, young miss, because I can promise if you’re lucky enough to be chosen, your new parents will change it in a second.” My Niamh, my da used to call me. But I’m not so attached to the name. I know it’s hard to pronounce, foreign, unlovely to those who don’t understand—a peculiar jumble of unmatched consonants.

  No one feels sorry for me because I’ve lost my family. Each of us has a sad tale; we wouldn’t be here otherwise. The general feeling is that it’s best not to talk about the past, that the quickest relief will come in forgetting. The Children’s Aid treats us as if we were born the moment we were brought in, that like moths breaking out of their cocoons we’ve left our old lives behind and, God willing, will soon launch ourselves into new ones.

  Mrs. Scatcherd and Mr. Curran, a milquetoast with a brown mustache, line us up by height, tallest to shortest, which generally means oldest to youngest, with the babies in the arms of the children over eight. Mrs. Scatcherd pushes a baby into my arms before I can object—an olive-skinned, cross-eyed fourteen-month-old named Carmine (who, I can already guess, will soon answer to another name). He clings to me like a terrified kitten. Brown suitcase in one hand, the other holding Carmine secure, I navigate the high steps into the train unsteadily before Mr. Curran scurries over to take my bag. “Use some common sense, girl,” he scolds. “If you fall, you’ll crack your skulls, and then we’ll have to leave the both of you behind.”

  THE WOODEN SEATS IN THE TRAIN CAR ALL FACE FORWARD EXCEPT for two groups of seats opposite each other in the front, separated by a narrow aisle. I find a three-seater for Carmine and me, and Mr. Curran heaves my suitcase onto the rack above my head. Carmine soon wants to crawl off the seat, and I am so busy trying to distract him from escaping that I barely notice as the other kids come on board and the car fills.

  Mrs. Scatcherd stands at the front of the car, holding on to two leather seat backs, the arms of her black cape draping like the wings of a crow. “They call this an orphan train, children, and you are lucky to be on it. You are leaving behind an evil place, full of ignorance, poverty, and vice, for the nobility of country life. While you are on this train you will follow some simple rules. You will be cooperative and listen to instructions. You will be respectful of your chaperones. You will treat the train car respectfully and will not damage it in any way. You will encourage your seatmates to behave appropriately. In short, you will make Mr. Curran and me proud of your behavior.” Her voice rises as we settle in our seats. “When you are allowed to step off the train, you will stay within the area we designate. You will not wander off alone at any time. And if your behavior proves to be a problem, if you cannot adhere to these simple rules of common decency, you will be sent straight back to where you came from and discharged on the street, left to fend for yourselves.”

  The younger children appear bewildered by this litany, but those of us older than six or seven had already heard a version of it several times at the orphanage before we left. The words wash over me. Of more immediate concern is the fact that Carmine is hungry, as am I. We had only a dry piece of bread and a tin cup of milk for breakfast, hours ago, before it was light. Carmine is fussing and chewing on his hand, a habit that must be comforting to him. (Maisie sucked her thumb.) But I know not to ask when food is coming. It will come when the sponsors are ready to give it, and no entreaties will change that.

  I tug Carmine onto my lap. At breakfast this morning, when I dropped sugar into my tea, I slipped two lumps into my pocket. Now I rub one between my fingers, crushing it to granules, then lick my index finger and stick it in the sugar before popping it in Carmine’s mouth. The look of wonder on his face, his delight as he realizes his good fortune, makes me smile. He clutches my hand with both of his chubby ones, holding on tight as he drifts off to sleep.

  Eventually I, too, am lulled to sleep by the steady rumble of the clicking wheels. When I wake, with Carmine stirring and rubbing his eyes, Mrs. Scatcherd is standing over me. She is close enough that I can see the small pink veins, like seams on the back of a delicate leaf, spreading across her cheeks, the downy fur on her jawbone, her bristly black eyebrows.

  She stares at me intently through her small round glasses. “There were little ones at home, I gather.”

  I nod.

  “You appear to know what you’re doing.”

  As if on cue, Carmine bleats in my lap. “I think he’s hungry,” I tell her. I feel his diaper rag, which is dry on the outside but spongy. “And ready for a change.”

  She turns toward the front of the car, gesturing back at me over her shoulder. “Come on, then.”

  Holding the baby against my chest, I rise unsteadily from my seat and sway behind her up the aisle. Children sitting in twos and threes look up with doleful eyes as I pass. None of us knows where we are headed, and I think that except for the very youngest, each of us is apprehensive and fearful. Our sponsors have told us little; we know only that we are going to a land where apples grow in abundance on low-hanging branches and cows and pigs and sheep roam freely in the fresh country air. A land where good people—families—are eager to take us in. I haven’t seen a cow, or any animal, for that matter, except a stray dog and the occasional hardy bird, since leaving County Galway, and I look forward to seeing them again. But I am skeptical. I know all too well how it is when the beautiful visions you’ve been fed don’t match up with reality.

  Many of the children on this train have been at the Children’s Aid for so long that they have no memories of their mothers. They can start anew, welcomed into the arms of the only families they’ll ever know. I remember too much: my gram’s ample bosom, her sma
ll dry hands, the dark cottage with a crumbling stone wall flanking its narrow garden. The heavy mist that settled over the bay early in the morning and late in the afternoon, the mutton and potatoes Gram would bring to the house when Mam was too tired to cook or we didn’t have money for ingredients. Buying milk and bread at the corner shop on Phantom Street—Sraid a’ Phuca, my da called it in Gaelic—so called because the stone houses in that section of town were built on cemetery grounds. My mam’s chapped lips and fleeting smile, the melancholy that filled our home in Kinvara and traveled with us across the ocean to take up permanent residence in the dim corners of our tenement apartment in New York.

  And now here I am on this train, wiping Carmine’s bottom while Mrs. Scatcherd hovers above us, shielding me with a blanket to hide the procedure from Mr. Curran, issuing instructions I don’t need. Once I have Carmine clean and dry, I sling him over my shoulder and make my way back to my seat while Mr. Curran distributes lunch pails filled with bread and cheese and fruit, and tin cups of milk. Feeding Carmine bread soaked in milk reminds me of the Irish dish called champ I often made for Maisie and the boys—a mash of potatoes, milk, green onions (on the rare occasion when we had them), and salt. On the nights when we went to bed hungry, all of us dreamed of that champ.

  After distributing the food and one wool blanket to each of us, Mr. Curran announces that there is a bucket and a dipper for water, and if we raise our hands we can come forward for a drink. There’s an indoor toilet, he informs us (though, as we soon find out, this “toilet” is a terrifying open hole above the tracks).

  Carmine, drunk on sweet milk and bread, splays in my lap, his dark head in the crook of my arm. I wrap the scratchy blanket around us. In the rhythmic clacking of the train and the stirring, peopled silence of the car, I feel cocooned. Carmine smells as lovely as a custard, the solid weight of him so comforting it makes me teary. His spongy skin, pliable limbs, dark fringed lashes—even his sighs make me think (how could they not?) of Maisie. The idea of her dying alone in the hospital, suffering painful burns, is too much to bear. Why am I alive, and she dead?

  In our tenement there were families who spilled in and out of each other’s apartments, sharing child care and stews. The men worked together in grocery stores and blacksmith shops. The women ran cottage industries, making lace and darning socks. When I passed by their apartments and saw them sitting together in a circle, hunched over their work, speaking a language I didn’t understand, I felt a sharp pang.

  My parents left Ireland in hopes of a brighter future, all of us believing we were on our way to a land of plenty. As it happened, they failed in this new land, failed in just about every way possible. It may have been that they were weak people, ill suited for the rigors of emigration, its humiliations and compromises, its competing demands of self-discipline and adventurousness. But I wonder how things might have been different if my father was part of a family business that gave him structure and a steady paycheck instead of working in a bar, the worst place for a man like him—or if my mother had been surrounded by women, sisters and nieces, perhaps, who could have provided relief from destitution and loneliness, a refuge from strangers.

  In Kinvara, poor as we were, and unstable, we at least had family nearby, people who knew us. We shared traditions and a way of looking at the world. We didn’t know until we left how much we took those things for granted.

  New York Central Train, 1929

  As the hours pass I get used to the motion of the train, the heavy wheels clacking in their grooves, the industrial hum under my seat. Dusk softens the sharp points of trees outside my window; the sky slowly darkens, then blackens around an orb of moon. Hours later, a faint blue tinge yields to the soft pastels of dawn, and soon enough sun is streaming in, the stop-start rhythm of the train making it all feel like still photography, thousands of images that taken together create a scene in motion.

  We pass the time looking out at the evolving landscape, talking, playing games. Mrs. Scatcherd has a checkers set and a bible, and I thumb through it, looking for Psalm 121, Mam’s favorite: I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth . . .

  I’m one of few children on the train who can read. Mam taught me all my letters years ago, in Ireland, then taught me how to spell. When we got to New York, she’d make me read to her, anything with words on it—crates and bottles I found in the street.

  “Donner brand car-bonated bev—”

  “Beverage.”

  “Beverage. LemonKist soda. Artifickle—”

  “Artificial. The ‘c’ sounds like ‘s.’”

  “Artificial color. Kitric—citric acid added.”

  “Good.”

  When I became more proficient, Mam went into the shabby trunk beside her bed and brought out a hardback book of poems, blue with gold trim. Francis Fahy was a Kinvara poet born into a family of seventeen children. At fifteen he became an assistant teacher at the local boys’ school before heading off to England (like every other Irish poet, Mam said), where he mingled with the likes of Yeats and Shaw. She would turn the pages carefully, running her finger over the black lines on flimsy paper, mouthing the words to herself, until she found the one she wanted.

  “‘Galway Bay,’” she would say. “My favorite. Read it to me.”

  And so I did:

  Had I youth’s blood and hopeful mood and heart of fire once more,

  For all the gold the world might hold I’d never quit your shore,

  I’d live content whate’er God sent with neighbours old and gray,

  And lay my bones ’neath churchyard stones, beside you, Galway Bay.

  Once I looked up from a halting and botched rendition to see two lines of tears rivuleting Mam’s cheeks. “Jesus Mary and Joseph,” she said. “We should never have left that place.”

  Sometimes, on the train, we sing. Mr. Curran taught us a song before we left that he stands to lead us in at least once a day:

  From the city’s gloom to the country’s bloom

  Where the fragrant breezes sigh

  From the city’s blight to the greenwood bright

  Like the birds of summer fly

  O Children, dear Children

  Young, happy, pure . . .

  We stop at a depot for sandwich fixings and fresh fruit and milk, but only Mr. Curran gets off. I can see him outside my window in his white wingtips, talking to farmers on the platform. One holds a basket of apples, one a sack full of bread. A man in a black apron reaches into a box and unwraps a package of brown paper to reveal a thick yellow slab of cheese, and my stomach rumbles. They haven’t fed us much, some crusts of bread and milk and an apple each in the past twenty-four hours, and I don’t know if it’s because they’re afraid of running out or if they think it’s for our moral good.

  Mrs. Scatcherd strides up and down the aisle, letting two groups of children at a time get up to stretch while the train is still. “Shake each leg,” she instructs. “Good for the circulation.” The younger children are restless, and the older boys stir up trouble in small ways, wherever they can find it. I want nothing to do with these boys, who seem as feral as a pack of dogs. Our landlord, Mr. Kaminski, called boys like these “street Arabs,” lawless vagrants who travel in gangs, pickpockets and worse.

  When the train pulls out of the station, one of these boys lights a match, invoking the wrath of Mr. Curran, who boxes him about the head and shouts, for the whole car to hear, that he’s a worthless good-for-nothing clod of dirt on God’s green earth and will never amount to anything. This outburst does little but boost the boy’s status in the eyes of his friends, who take to devising ingenious ways to irritate Mr. Curran without giving themselves away. Paper airplanes, loud belches, high-pitched, ghostly moans followed by stifled giggles—it drives Mr. Curran mad that he cannot pick out one boy to punish for all this. But what can he do, short of kicking them all out at the next stop? Which he actually threatens, finally, looming in the ai
sle above the seats of two particularly rowdy boys, only to prompt the bigger one’s retort that he’ll be happy to make his way on his own, has done it for years with no great harm, you can shine shoes in any city in America, he’ll wager, and it’s probably a hell of a lot better than being sent to live in a barn with animals, eating only pig slops, or getting carried off by Indians.

  Children murmur in their seats. What’d he say?

  Mr. Curran looks around uneasily. “You’re scaring a whole car full of kids. Happy now?” he says.

  “It’s true, ain’t it?”

  “Of course it ain’t—isn’t—true. Kids, settle down.”

  “I hear we’ll be sold at auction to the highest bidder,” another boy stage-whispers.

  The car grows silent. Mrs. Scatcherd stands up, wearing her usual thin-lipped scowl and broad-brimmed bonnet. She is far more imposing, in her heavy black cloak and flashing steel-rimmed glasses, than Mr. Curran could ever be. “I have heard enough,” she says in a shrill voice. “I am tempted to throw the whole lot of you off this train. But that would not be”—she looks around at us slowly, dwelling on each somber face—“Christian. Would it? Mr. Curran and I are here to escort you to a better life. Any suggestion to the contrary is ignorant and outrageous. It is our fervent hope that each of you will find a path out of the depravity of your early lives, and with firm guidance and hard work transform into respectable citizens who can pull your weight in society. Now. I am not so naive as to believe that this will be the case for all.” She casts a withering look at a blond-haired older boy, one of the troublemakers. “But I am hopeful that most of you will view this as an opportunity. Perhaps the only chance you will ever get to make something of yourselves.” She adjusts the cape around her shoulders. “Mr. Curran, maybe the young man who spoke to you so impudently should be moved to a seat where his dubious charms will not be so enthusiastically embraced.” She lifts her chin, peering out from her bonnet like a turtle from its shell. “Ah—there’s a space beside Niamh,” she says, pointing a crooked finger in my direction. “With the added bonus of a squirming toddler.”

  My skin prickles. Oh no. But I can see that Mrs. Scatcherd is in no mood to reconsider. So I slide as close as I can to the window and set Carmine and his blanket next to me, in the middle of the seat.

  Several rows ahead, on the other side of the aisle, the boy stands, sighs loudly, and pulls his bright-blue flannel cap down hard on his head. He makes a production of getting out of his seat, then drags his feet up the aisle like a condemned man approaching a noose. When he gets to my row, he squints at me, then at Carmine, and makes a face at his friends. “This should be fun,” he says loudly.

  “You will not speak, young sir,” Mrs. Scatcherd trills. “You will sit down and behave like a gentleman.”

  He flings himself into his seat, his legs in the aisle, then takes his cap off and slaps it against the seat in front of us, raising a small cloud of dust. The kids in that seat turn around and stare. “Man,” he mutters, not really to anybody, “what an old goat.” He holds his finger out to Carmine, who studies it and looks at his face. The boy wiggles his finger and Carmine buries his head in my lap.

  “Don’t get you nowhere being shy,” the boy says. He looks over at me, his gaze loitering on my face and body in a way that makes me blush. He has straight sandy hair and pale blue eyes and is twelve or thirteen, from what I can tell, though his manner seems older. “A redhead. That’s worse than a bootblack. Who’s gonna want you?”

  I feel the sting of truth in his words, but I lift my chin. “At least I’m not a criminal.”

  He laughs. “That’s what I am, am I?”

  “You tell me.”

  “Would you believe me?”

  “Probably not.”

  “No point then, is there.”

  I do not respond and we three sit in silence, Carmine awed into stillness by the boy’s presence. I look out at the severe and lonely landscape drifting past the window. It’s been raining off and on all day. Gray clouds hang low in a watery sky.

  “They took my kit from me,” the boy says after a while.

  I turn to look at him. “What?”

  “My bootblack kit. All my paste and brushes. How do they expect me to make a living?”

  “They don’t. They’re going to find you a family.”

  “Ah, that’s right,” he says with a dry laugh. “A ma to tuck me in at night and a pa to teach me a trade. I don’t see it working out like that. Do you?”

  “I don’t know. Haven’t thought about it,” I say, though of course I have. I’ve gleaned bits and pieces: that babies are the first to be chosen, then older boys, prized by farmers for their strong bones and muscles. Last to go are girls like me, too old to be turned into ladies, too young to be serious help around the house, not much use in the field. If we’re not chosen, we get sent back to the orphanage. “Anyway, what can we do about it?”

  Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a penny. He rolls it across his fingers, holds it between thumb and forefinger and touches it to Carmine’s nose, then clasps it in his closed fist. When he opens his hand, the penny isn’t there. He reaches behind Carmine’s ear, and—“Presto,” he says, handing him the penny.

  Carmine gazes at it, astonished.

  “You can put up with it,” the boy says. “Or you can run away. Or maybe you’ll get lucky and live happily ever after. Only the good Lord knows what’s going to happen, and He ain’t telling.”

  Union Station, Chicago, 1929

  We become an odd little family, the boy—real name Hans, I learn, called Dutchy on the street—and Carmine and I in our three-seat abode. Dutchy tells me he was born in New York to German parents, that his mother died of pneumonia and his father sent him out on the streets to earn money as a bootblack, beating him with a belt if he didn’t bring enough in. So one day he stopped going home. He fell in with a group of boys who slept on any convenient step or sidewalk during the summer, and in the winter months in barrels and doorways, in discarded boxes on iron gratings on the margin of Printing House Square, warm air and steam rising from the engines beneath. He taught himself piano by ear in the back room of a speakeasy, plunked out tunes at night for drunken patrons, saw things no twelve-year-old should see. The boys tried to look after one another, though if one got sick or maimed—catching pneumonia or falling off a streetcar or under the wheels of a truck—there wasn’t much any of them could do.

  A few kids from Dutchy’s gang are on the train with us—he points out Slobbery Jack, who has a habit of spilling on himself, and Whitey, a boy with translucent skin. They were lured off the street with the promise of a hot meal, and here’s where they ended up.

  “What about the hot meal? Did you get it?”

 
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