Chapter 2 continues
The story so far: Katka Kovich journeys to the new world.
On the tenth day of the journey, the winds were so loud that the passengers could not hear each other speak, even when shouting. The sky turned an ominous gray, and Katka and Paul watched a storm approach in the distance. They saw sheets of rain darken the gray canvas of sky. Whitecaps tossed the ship until even those with the strongest constitutions began to vomit. Deckhands appeared out of nowhere, ordering everyone back to their berths. Katka and Paul ran toward steerage, but in less than a second the rains were upon them and they were both drenched to the spine.
The captain ordered that the door leading from the upper deck to steerage remain locked until the storms passed. It lasted more than a week. The bedpans filled to overflowing. The stench was suffocating. Those who were not seasick, like Katka, helped prepare meals and take care of other passengers. She read and reread her books. She sang songs to the Zalinsky children and began teaching them the English she knew.
She daydreamed, thinking of her parents and the purple lavender that every spring stretched up the Julian Alps like a pathway to God. She wondered if there were mountains in Minnesota, America. And goats. She wondered if there would be olives and walnuts. She knew nothing about Minnesota except for what Paul had told her. It was extraordinarily cold in the winter, like Siberia. Yet it was hot like Africa in the summer. Her uncle and aunt lived there. There were mines where the men worked. She wondered if Paul worked in the mine. When she saw him next, she would ask him. When would she see him again?
Eleven days later, the storm finally abated and the door was opened, allowing sunshine and fresh air to seep into the cavernous alcove of their temporary homes. The steerage passengers rushed to the light with such speed that a riot ensued, prompting deck hands to force everyone back into their berths. One shouted orders in English, and another translated in Slovenian and Croatian, another in Dutch, another in Italian. “Clergymen first!” Katka translated for the Zalinskys, then peered out of her berth. She watched as a few religious men walked past her quarters.
The next call was louder and more chilling. “Any dead bodies! Dead bodies only!” The quarters grew quiet. Katka watched, without flinching, as seventeen bodies, eight of them children, were carried solemnly to the staircase and up toward the sunshine. Short funeral rites were given to the dead before committing them to their watery graves. Twenty minutes later, they called for the sick, but no one came forward, fearing quarantine or deportation upon arrival in America. Women and children walked up to the air next, followed by the men.
The deck was crowded. Children ran, dodging their parents and playing catch with the newly distributed fruit. The men were unshaven and the women, many of whom had given their diminished food rations to their children, looked even skinnier than before. Jawbones jutted like swords from their wan faces, but most were not unhappy. As they dumped soiled hay into the ocean, they could have cursed God for unleashing this storm upon them, pushing the boat off course, seriously delaying their arrival. But they did not. Instead, most of the emigrants gave thanks in dozens of languages. They interpreted the sunshine on their face as a sign of grace.
Later, Katka saw Paul gazing across the tranquility of the turquoise sea. He stretched his arms high above his head and balanced on his tiptoes, as if trying to elongate his body after a week of being penned up. She walked toward him. She had missed him. She had missed the way he smelled of salt and wind. She had missed their conversations. She had missed how her skin sometimes prickled when his arm brushed against hers. “Been on holiday?” She stood right next to him, stood on her own tiptoes and mimicked his pose.
He laughed heartily. “You look like a cat waking from a nap,” he said.
“You look like a bear,” she said, gesturing toward his thick beard. “And an ornery one at that.”
“I was going for Tolstoy.”
“You like the Russians?” she asked. “After all they did to our people?”
“Think what the Russians did to their own people.” He offered her his arm, and she took it. They strolled around the deck.
“I try not to.”
“Did they teach you anything about Lenin in school?”
“Father Leo taught me about Lenin.”
Paul looked at her with surprise and intrigue. “Father Leo again,” he said. “And what did Father Leo think of Lenin?”
“Father Leo thought the workers should find a way to improve their lot by more peaceful means.”
“Sometimes a revolution is the only way.”
“You sound like a pamphlet,” she said.
“How romantic. I was trying to sound like a poet.”
“Did you hear that our arrival will be delayed?”
“I did. Looks like we’re stuck with each other for a while. You better start telling me some stories.” She told him every story she could think of.
Tomorrow: Chapter 2 continues.