Chapter 4 continues
The story so far: Katka makes it through the “lucky line.”
Katka found the train. She boarded it and took her seat in a small compartment occupied by a man who looked to be her age. He nodded politely to her and she nodded back. “No English,” he said in a thick German accent. “Sorry.”
She didn’t feel like talking. When the locomotive lurched forward, her hands began to tremble. She took the photograph out of her pocket. She had glanced at it earlier. Now she had time to study it. There she was, just as Paul had described. Her dark hair blowing in the wind. Her face serene. And there he was. Paul Schmidt, with his locks as curly as a girl’s. His hands were in his pockets. In contrast to her serious face, his showed just a hint of mischief. The photographer had told them to stay still, but he looked as if he were trying to suppress a smile. His lips were pursed together, but his dimples were showing. They looked relaxed, happy. They were completely oblivious to the fact that a large lightning bolt had cut its way through the sky. If the lightning bolt had been a millimeter longer, it would have cut the two in half. The way it was, the bolt stood just above them.
Katka began to miss him. She shouldn’t have left him. She shouldn’t have boarded the train. Surely, there was something she could have done. But the woman — the woman who gave her the photo — had told her to go. She put the photo away, but her hands kept shaking. Finally, she rested her hands on her knees. Then her feet began to tap, nervously. It was as if there was something inside her that simply could not stay put. The energy came out of her like bees fleeing a burning hive. For the first time in many months, she began to cry. She missed her mother. She missed her father. She missed Paul. Her tears were soft at first, like a lady. She tried to stifle them, as a man would. Finally, she gave up and the sobbing came out of her erratically, like a child who had been hurt but was unable to articulate how.
The man in her compartment handed her a handkerchief. “Nicht weinen, Fraulein,” he said. “No cry.” The man handed her a small flask of liquid. She waved it away.
“Trinken,” he said. She took the flask to her lips and swallowed. The liquid burned her throat and stomach. “Ein weider,” he said, gesturing for her to take another swig. She did.
Soon, she was asleep. Fitfully, she dreamed of her mother, not in her last days, when she had been bedridden, moaning and incoherent. But earlier. Picking berries in the sun, her bonnet hanging down her back. Her mother had loved the sun. She had visions of her father, who was a broken man in many ways. He always wanted to own his own land, but something always interfered. When she awoke, her thoughts returned to Paul. Did he own land in America? Was he still in America or had they sent him back to Slovenia?
She distracted herself by looking out the window. There were no mountains here to contain the land. It simply stretched forward. Forest and farm, farm and forest. A house here and there. An occasional town. But when she looked up, never-ending sky. She longed to see the Alps, which had always connected the sky and land, like a wedding. At home, the mountains kept everything in place. Here, things grew rogue. She didn’t know exactly what she hoped to find, but it was not this.
It took two days to get to Chicago. How big was this country, America? It must be like Russia. When she disembarked from the train, she found her connection to Duluth. This time she sat in a compartment with a couple from Sweden. They offered her chocolate.
When she finally arrived at the train depot in Duluth, Minnesota, it was morning. A thick fog emanating from Lake Superior covered the ground, as if a cloud had fallen from the sky. The Swede in her compartment helped her with her trunk, dragging it to the door of the locomotive. Once there, an attendant grabbed it and set it on the ground. He took Katka’s hand and she walked, shakily, down the steps to the platform. Nervously, she looked around at the small throng of people waiting to greet the travelers. She saw another woman, about her age, disembark from a few cars down. A man approached the woman, took off his hat and asked her a question. The woman shook her head and the man moved on. As he approached Katka, she knew it was her uncle. He was average height for a Slovenian, nearly five feet six inches. Although he was thirty-six, his sideburns were beginning to gray, as her own father’s had years ago. The uncle had a scar on his forehead, where he had been kicked in the head by a mule. Her father had been there when it happened and had spoken of the day often.
“Katka?” the man asked uncertainly. “Katka Kovich?”
When she nodded, he hugged her. Then he kissed her on both cheeks. “Josef’s little girl!” he said. “Last time I saw you, you were holding onto your ma’s skirts. Goes without saying you changed some.” He smiled good-naturedly. “Trip treat you alright?”
“Good liar, you are. That trip don’t treat nobody good. You are alone?” he asked.
Uncle Anton frowned and shook his head slightly. “You are a brave girl to come by your lonesome. Weren’t too long ago that I made this trip myself. Ten years, actually. But no child was I, not alone, and still I was scared. This here your trunk? What you got in here, an accordion? Heavy son-of-a-bitch.”
“Not an accordion.”
She shook her head and followed Uncle Anton to his buggy, which was hitched to two strong horses. The back of the cart was filled with crates of supplies. Fabric, sugar, flour, soap, paper, salt, hops, barley, wheat and beans in cans. The crates were secured, meticulously, by rope. “Done a bit of shopping,” he said, placing her trunk inside.
“Uncle, Paul told me to …”
“Tell me later,” her uncle said, softly. “We got some forty-five miles of wretched trail to trek. Not to mention, you look like you ain’t slept in a month.” He helped her into the back seat of the buggy and handed her a basket of food and a blanket. She ate a slice of Slovenian bread, called potica, made by Anton’s wife. Then she lay down with the blanket and slept.
Tomorrow: Chapter 4 continues.