Chapter 2 continues

The story so far:

Katka weathers the storm.

 

After six weeks at sea, someone spotted a seagull. The passengers — dirty, sick, hungry and frightened — began to fill with hope. Steerage passengers who hadn’t spoken for days began to sing. Children stayed on the observation deck long after darkness fell, hoping to be the first to glimpse the new world, or at the very least, another bird.

Katka and Paul looked for birds too. They were doing exactly that, on a dark cloudy day, when a man with a camera approached them. “Care for a photo of you and your wife, sir?” the man asked Paul, in English.

“No,” Paul said quickly. “We are not interested in photos.”

“Why not?” Katka said. “I am interested in photos.”

Paul looked at Katka, her hair hanging free and her face bronzed. Then he looked back at the photographer nervously. “If you take our photo, do you promise to give me the negative, too?”

“What do you have? For currency?”

“Kron.”

“For one American dollar, I will give you the photo and the negative.”

The man beckoned for them to follow him. Up on the deck, he led them to his brother, who had set up a tripod. The photographer told Katka and Paul to stand close together, with their backs to the horizon.

“We want our photographs separate,” Paul said. “We are not married.”

“Of course you are married, sir,” the photographer said. “For five American dollars I can give you a certificate that proves it. You know she will pass through more quickly with a photo of her husband.” He gave Paul a knowing look.

“Even if she has a letter guaranteeing lodging and employment?”

“With a relative?”

“Her uncle.”

“That will probably do. But can you be sure?”

They stood together. Close, but not touching. “Stay still,” the photographer said. He adjusted his lens. “A storm is coming.”

“Another one?” Katka asked.

“Not a big one. One day, maybe two. But you will be my last customers today. Stay still.” Paul’s elbow tapped Katka’s forearm. A shiver went through her body. Thunder crackled in the distance. The photographer clicked his camera just as a jagged flash of light illuminated the sky behind them.

“That won’t do,” the photographer said. “Lightning in the background. Stay still now, and I will try another.” When he finished taking the second photo of the two together, Paul asked him to take a still of each of them alone.

Three days later, Paul showed Katka the photo of herself. Katka looked stern and expressionless. Her hair, however, was blowing wildly in the wind. “Thank you for purchasing it, Paul. Why did you hesitate?”

“It was risky. For reasons I can’t explain. But you were right to insist. Photographs are important, Katka. One day, when you are an old woman, you will tell your children that when you were a child, you boarded a ship with a stranger and sailed off to a foreign land. You will tell them what you saw on this trip. You will tell them about the rats that crawled in your berth. About the sickness on the boat, the dead bodies thrown overboard. The shoddy marriages conducted. The revolting food. And maybe they will believe you and maybe they won’t. But you will have a photo. A photo of you, a beautiful young girl, standing at the ship deck, your hair blowing about your face, a storm at your back.”

He had called her beautiful.

• • •

The day of their arrival was marked with chaotic movement and then waiting. The deckhands yelled “Land ho!” and soon all the children and many of the adults were yelling those same two words, with a mishmash of foreign accents. Steerage passengers, whose luggage had been packed since the first bird sightings, trudged up the ladders to the deck, moving as quickly as their burdens would allow. Katka lost track of Mrs. Zalinsky and her children, but she found Paul. When she first glimpsed the Statue of Liberty, Katka squeezed Paul’s hand.

“Not in the clear yet,” Paul said, pointing. “We must now navigate the “Island of Tears.” Katka thought he was joking, but his face was somber. He was uncharacteristically quiet.

The ship reached its port at Ellis Island. Katka, Paul and the other steerage passengers waited for what seemed to be an eternity as immigration officials came on board and inspected all the first- and second-class passengers. Steerage passengers would endure a much longer process.

Once off the ship, they were shuffled into a large brick building. Katka and Paul waited in the baggage area with thousands of other emigrants, passing the hours playing cards and making up stories about the people they saw. On occasion, Paul wandered off, saying he recognized someone from the old country, then returned. After sitting for hours, they were told to stand and wait in a line, which would lead them up the staircase to the great hall.

“Katka,” Paul said, pointing. “Do you see that man in the dark uniform?”

She looked. “With the hat? Walking up the steps?”

“Yes. Do you see what is in his hand? Look now. He has stopped. He is marking that woman’s coat.” Katka saw him scribble an initial and circle it. “If someone tries to mark your coat, wipe the mark off, as soon as he is out of sight. It is only chalk. If you cannot wipe it off, turn your coat inside out.”

“Yes,” Katka said.

“If you do not have a mark, you should get through quick.” He gave her an encouraging half-smile.

“I will.” Her voice quivered.

 

Tomorrow: Chapter 2 continues.