A Star Tribune serialized novel by Megan Marsnik
CHAPTER 1 • 1915
There was plenty of dust, plenty of whiskey, plenty of red earth, rock and forest. There were not enough women. So they were sent for.
The women came from many countries. Italy, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Croatia and Slovenia. Most traveled alone, but some dragged along small children or nursing babies. The lucky ones had been sent for by their husbands, who had been living in the iron mining community for a year, perhaps more. They had someone to greet them when they arrived.
The least lucky were sent for by the brothel owners. Their passages out of the old country were paid in exchange for a year of service. Most of these immigrant women thought they would be tending bar, serving pints to the exhausted miners and lumberjacks. When they arrived, they quickly learned that other services were expected. They had no money and could not turn back.
Sixteen-year-old Katka Kovich did not fall into any of the usual categories. Her parents died on March 30 and April 7, 1915, both from cholera. Five weeks later, a young man with unruly black curls and a thick mustache arrived at the tiny cottage where she lived, suddenly alone, at the foot of the mountains in the small village of Zirovnica, Slovenia. No one had visited in weeks and her long brown hair was shamefully unbraided. A few unwashed strands blew in wisps across her sunburned face, suggesting an innate wildness about her. Her skinny body was covered with an old, torn frock that had once belonged to her dead mother. The elders from town told her to burn all of her parents’ clothing, but she had been wearing this garment for days and she had not become remotely sick.
“Paul Schmidt,” the young man said, bowing politely.
She stared at him.
“So sorry to hear about your ma and your ata. I had people, too, who caught the fever.”
Katka put her hands in the pocket of her apron. Paul Schmidt peered at her, curiously. “Are you mute?” he asked.
“Here,” Paul said. He fumbled around in his coat pocket until he found what he was looking for. He thrust a letter into her hands. The same message was written twice, once in Slovenian and once in English.
Words cannot express my sorrow. What a terrible accident. My wife and I are prepared to offer you a home in the town of Biwabik, in the state of Minnesota in America. I am sending passage and hope you will accept.
Your uncle, Mr. Anton Kovich
Biwabik, Minnesota, United States of America
Katka folded the letter and handed it back to Paul. “Why didn’t he mention you?”
“If something happened to me, I would have given the letter to someone else to deliver. Your uncle and I had a tough crossing ten years ago, when I first went to America. It is better now.”
“Why did you come back?”
“My mother died.”
Katka said nothing, but her eyes softened.
“My people live not far from here. Anton and his wife begged me to look after you, persuade you to come back with me. They are good people and Anton cared a great deal for your father.”
“Why did he call their deaths an accident?”
“You may need that letter when you accompany me to the States. Cholera is not a word you should mention.”
“Oh,” the young girl said, looking around the rickety cottage that, in her imagination, would always smell of death. She had three brothers, the youngest of whom was ten years older than she. They were all married; all had children of their own to feed. After the burial masses, none of her brothers had offered to take her in.
“I leave from Trieste on the vessel Lapland in two days,” Paul said. “Come with me.” He saw her eyes widen, slightly. “I know. It’s not a lot of time to make a decision.” A skeletal mouse ran across the dirt floor of the cottage and disappeared into a tiny hole near a mostly empty bag of dried food. “Ugly critter,” Paul said, shivering in queasy disgust. “I hate vermin.”
“It’s just a mouse.”
The day after her mother’s burial, the mouse had emerged from under the woodpile. He didn’t run along the walls of the shack; he ran straight across the floor, quickly making his way toward the slowly diminishing bags of rice and grain. The first time she saw it, Katka picked up a book and threw it at the mouse. She missed. Over the next few days she threw more books. She also threw a clay bowl, a rock, the broom. After more than a week of this, she gave up trying to kill it. “You again,” she would say, watching. Her voice, surrounded by the unfamiliar silence that follows new death, sounded barbarically loud no matter how quietly she uttered the words.
“Do you want me to kill it?” Paul asked.
“We all have to get by,” she said. “It’s not doing anything I wouldn’t do.”
“It’s eating your food.”
“What’s a grain or two to me? I have half a sack.”
“To last how long?”
Katka shrugged. “I’m sorry I have no coffee to offer you, Mr. Schmidt.”
“Never cared for coffee,” Paul said. “Gives me a gut ache.”
“How about some water? I came from the well just a bit ago. And I did some picking.”
Paul sat down at the small wooden table. Katka poured water from a pitcher into two cups and put a basket of blackberries between them. They sat. She popped a berry in her mouth. “Eat,” she said. He grabbed a few berries.
“Who owns your land?” Paul asked.
“I’ve never seen him,” Katka said. “Can’t remember his name. But the man who collects the lease, he will come in five days. He demands fifteen kron.”
“How much do you have?”
“If you like, I’ll give you the money. The money your uncle sent.”
“How much is it?”
“Enough for three months’ rent. Maybe four. Ah!” The mouse was on the loose again. Paul stood up, looked around for something to throw.
Katka laughed and gestured him to leave it alone. “I wish I were like that strange little mouse. Always, he knows where he’s going. I’d run in a straight line, and not stop until I got there.”
Paul pointed to the letter from her uncle that she had placed on the table. “There’s no straight line to get to your uncle’s house. There are only crooked lines, but I know them well enough.”
Perhaps a crooked line was better than no line.
“It is cold where your uncle lives. Colder than the coldest day of your life. Pack your valuables in warm clothes. Dress in many layers. Bring cookware and utensils. Books, if you have any. Lots of books. Your baptismal papers. Do you have any photographs?”
“I have one of all of us, when I was a baby. And the coffin pictures. Cost me twenty-two hellers.”
“You won’t be sorry. Most have no photographs at all. You will come?” He stood up to leave.
“What choice do I have?”
“You have many choices, Miss Katka.” He bent down slightly, and kissed her on her left cheek. “But I will send word to Anton today. I will purchase your passage directly. I will meet you at sunup at the train station in two days.”
Katka thanked him and watched as he walked down the mountain pass toward the market square. His rambunctious locks escaped from the back of his hat. When she was alive, her mother used to joke about handsome men. “Best to find a plain one,” she told Katka. “They make better husbands.”
Her father immediately retorted, “Is that what you did?”
“Certainly not,” her mother said, laughing. “You could make an angel blush.” But of course, her father had been an entirely average looking man, and as far as Katka could tell, he was fully devoted.
A few hours later, after combing and braiding her tangled hair, Katka walked three miles into the market square to buy provisions for her journey. She spent three hellers and filled her basket with dried meat, canned beans, walnuts and rice. On the way home, she stopped at the church. She said goodbye to Father Leo. Of all the people left in the village, this kindly man of seventy-two years would be the one she would miss. She had worked for him as a cook and secretary since she was nine years old. He gave her some books and a blessing. Finally, he stood on a chair and grabbed a simple clay chalice that was resting on the top of a bookshelf. He got off the chair and told Katka to open her apron pocket. He emptied the chalice. As she walked back up the pass, the coins clinked optimistically.
The next day, Father Leo arrived at her cottage with a wheelbarrow. “Father!” Katka bellowed when she saw the old man pushing such an obviously heavy load. “Did you haul that all this way?”
“A present,” he said, smiling his toothless smile. “To bring to America.” Inside the wheelbarrow, draped in wool blankets, was Father Leo’s typewriter, the one Katka had used to type his sermons.
Katka’s steamer trunk was heavy. She had fastened a leather strap on one end, which enabled her to drag the burdensome chest when she could no longer manage to carry it. As for Paul, he had only a small suitcase that seemed weightless under his large hands. At the station in the beautiful city of nearby Ljubljana, they boarded the train that took them to a seaport in Trieste.
For nearly three hours, they waited on the docks before the captain allowed passengers to board. A small man in a seaman’s uniform yelled “All aboard!” and the mad dash began. Paul grabbed Katka’s trunk in addition to his own small suitcase.
“Hold on to me,” he commanded. “Keep up and do not let go.” Paul bandied his way through the other passengers, as if he were playing a ball game. Katka held fast to the back of his coat and stumbled only twice. Paul knew where he was going. He joggled his way to the staircase at the back of the ship that led to the sleeping quarters for steerage passengers. He quickly found a berth not far from the staircase, where the air was less foul, and deposited Katka’s trunk on the stained bed. “You will sleep here,” Paul said. “Sit on your mattress and do not let anyone take it from you. If anyone asks, you are traveling alone.”
“I can’t explain. Not yet.”
“But where will you be?” Katka asked, suddenly terrified.
“Near. And I will check on you every single day.”
“Do you promise? Do you promise I’ll see you again?”
“Katka. I said I would find you. You’ve been on your own before.”
A Slovenian woman shared Katka’s sleeping quarters. She had four children. The baby, who was six months old, was surprisingly quiet, easily lulled by his mother’s capable breasts. The next youngest boy, who looked to be about three, cried constantly on the first day and began vomiting on the second. The two older girls tried, without success, to help their mother calm their brother.
Katka could have helped, but instead she tried to make herself invisible. She knew the boy was going to die. She could smell it. For weeks she had done nothing but care for her parents, and what good did it do them? They were gone and she was alone. She would not get attached to this boy, to this mother. Finally, after six days of sickness, the young boy had nothing left to spew. He lay down, rested his head on his mother’s chest and, within an hour, stopped breathing. Two hours later, the tiny body was thrown overboard.
Afterward, Katka’s little berth was much quieter. The mother cried. When her tears were gone, she laid, stomach down, on the scratchy straw and her shoulders convulsed quietly, as if struck with the fits. The baby remained calm as ever. The older girls, eight and six, began to look like old women who carried their sorrow in their dark black eyes. One night, Katka awoke to find Grete, the six-year-old girl, standing over her bunk. “Do you think the sharks ate Franc?” she asked.
Katka rose to an upright position. “Your brother?”
Katka hesitated. “Did someone tell you that?”
“A boy on the deck. He said, children, they have more juice. That’s why sharks like them.”
“What kind of boy said that?”
“Italia boy. With fat cheeks.”
“That explains it. Italians do have more juice,” Katka said, slowly. “But sharks don’t like Slovenians one bit. No fish do. Slovenian children are too skinny. They get whisked up to heaven straightaway.”
“Franc was very skinny.” Grete said, relieved.
Katka continued, her voice matter-of-fact. “My ma and my ata. They live in heaven and like it more than Christmas. Does Franc like horses?”
“Franc loves horses.”
“There are horses everywhere in heaven. Ten horses for every child. Franc can ride a different one every day.”
“Oh!” the little girl said. “Franc would like that. But what if the horse is too tall for him to get on? What if the horses in heaven are giant horses?”
“My ata would help him get on.”
“Is your ata strong? My ata, he is very strong. He can lift two barrels of hay at the same time.”
“My ata can also lift two barrels of hay.”
“Then he is strong!” The little girl smiled. Then she yawned. “Can I sleep with you?”
Katka opened her arms and Grete nestled next to her. She hummed a lullaby and soon the child was breathing rhythmically. Katka could have let her go. She could have gently carried Grete back to her own berth, next to her sister. Instead, she pulled her tight. The child shivered from the draftiness of the boat; then slowly, her body temperature rose as it seeped heat from Katka’s chest.
Moments after her mother died, while her dead body still lay on the stained bed sheet, Katka laid her head on her mother’s chest one last time and breathed in her smell. The smell of her mother’s skin had been soothing. Cabbage. And soap made of lemongrass and lavender.
As long as this smell survived, she would still have her mother. She would not let death’s stench obscure her memory. Before fetching Father Leo, Katka had boiled a pot of cabbage, then frantically washed her mother’s body with soap.
Each day, at no set time, Paul found Katka. The day after the boy died, he found her at the cook stove, helping distribute soup into the bowls of the emigrants waiting restlessly and hungrily in line. Paul got in line. “The breeze is not too cold tonight on the ship deck,” he said after thanking her for the soup. When she finished her job, she went up, with her woolen blanket wrapped around her shoulders. It was early evening, but the sun had not retired and she let the last of its rays warm her cheeks. She was becoming addicted to the smell of the sea, mixed with the familiar feeling of sunshine on her face.
There were many others on the deck as well, but as usual, Paul spotted her right away. “How is Mrs. Zalinsky?” Paul asked.
“As you would expect. She is a mother who used to have four children. Now she has three,” Katka said.
“Is she showing signs of sickness? She ought not have brought the sick child on the boat. If you see any signs, we will try to move you. Disease spreads quickly on a ship.”
“I have a strong constitution,” Katka said.
Paul reached into his coat and presented her with an orange. “Eat it,” he said. “I need to be certain you won’t give it away.”
“I wouldn’t have,” Katka said simply. She peeled it and bit greedily into the fruit, allowing the juices to run down her lip.
“Missed a bit,” Paul said, wiping a smear of pulp off her chin. He examined her for a moment and laughed. “You do have some child left in you after all.”
“I am not a child,” Katka said indignantly. “I just happen to like oranges.”
Paul licked his sticky finger. “Me too,” he said. “How old are you, Kat?”
His use of this common nickname caught her off guard. “I’ll be seventeen in the fall,” she said.
“I am twenty-five,” he said. “But I feel much older. I have seen many things in America.” He took off his hat, ran his fingers through his curls. “I like to feel the wind in my hair. It makes me feel invincible. Like nothing could hold me back, see. You should try it. The wind is fierce, just now.” He reached toward her neck and untied the dingy twine that held back Katka’s hair.
“Let it go,” he said. The wind grabbed hold of her strands like the tails of a kite. She liked the feel of it too. She didn’t feel invincible, but she did feel alive. And that was something.
Paul liked to talk. Every day, he told her something new. If he ran out of tales from his own life, he told her stories from books. He always changed the names of the main characters. One evening, he told her about a young man who fell hopelessly in love with a woman he was not supposed to love. She was resistant at first, but eventually she had no choice but to give in to his irresistible charms. “What was his name?” Katka asked.
“Paul Schmidt, I believe. He was so handsome the women swooned.”
She laughed. “And her name?”
“I don’t remember. What do you think her name was?”
Heat swept from Katka’s cheeks to her toes, and back up again to her stomach. She felt as if she had swallowed a firefly. For a moment, she thought her feet might give out on her, and her body would drift upward and float off the ship and into the sky. She reached for the railing.
“Everything all right?”
“Of course,” she said, regaining composure. “A little seasick, maybe.”
“Drink this,” Paul said, handing her his canteen. She took a long swig and handed it back to him.
“You are good at telling stories,” Katka said.
“What is the name of the girl, Katka? In the story?”
“It’s not my story.”
“Are you really who you say you are, Paul Schmidt?”
He smiled. “Your uncle sent me to find you. I have found you, and will do my best to bring you to him. That is not a story.” He leaned over and kissed her right cheek. “You are looking pale again. Get some rest and I’ll look for you tomorrow.”
The next day, Katka stayed in her bunk all day reading, or pretending to read, one of the books Father Leo had given her. The dizzy feeling had abated as soon as she left Paul. She had never been seasick, and would never be so, not on a single day of their long journey. A few times, she saw men with Paul’s coloring pass by her berth; each time the dizziness came back.
They met again a few days later. Katka sat, cross-legged on the deck, twisting her long strands of hair. A plum fell into her lap and when she looked up, there was Paul, his eyes vivacious. “Recovered?” he said.
“Quite.” But there it was again. The warmth radiating from under her skin. As she began to eat the plum, he sat down beside her and asked if she knew any English.
“Yes. Father Leo gave me lessons every day, in the summers. His mother was English.”
“I worked for him, at the rectory, since I was nine years old. At first, I just helped with the cows. Later, I helped with the making of the bread, and the last few years, Father Leo taught me to type. He was writing a book. In English. He wrote longhand in English and I typed for him. There are many words I cannot say the right way. But I know what they mean when I read them.”
“Did he pay you decently?”
“Two loaves of bread every day. He paid wages whenever he could. And we needed the money. My father’s plot had stopped yielding and we were in danger of losing the lease to the landlord. My mother helped him in the fields.”
“Was the landlord rich?”
“All landlords are rich. Have you been in America so long that you do not know this?” she raised a mocking eyebrow.
“Some truths are universal,” Paul said.
“You mean the streets are not really paved with gold in America?”
“They are for some. But there is hope for everyone in America. It is a suckling of a country and things will change. You will see.”
Tomorrow: Chapter 2 continues.