ANNA KLAR FOUND IT STRANGE that the fog lay so thick over the sea and land even though the sun was already up and clearly visible in the sky. She hadn’t seen anything like it since she was a child. And she recalled, right then and there, a morning when she was very young and had gone out before getting properly dressed. At that moment she’d imagined that she could gather up the heavy fog like an armful of wool she might hold close and carry back to show her mother. Even though she was freezing, she had gone all the way out to the ditch, which was a good distance beyond the fence. In the fog she saw a couple of long-legged silhouettes, and she took several steps forward with her arms spread wide but didn’t manage to clasp anything at all. In the winter-hardened field stood two birds, tall as men, with slender necks that slowly, as if in a dream, swiveled in her direction. Their eyes were shiny black buttons. She looked at them and then turned and silently ran back to the house. She had never seen such big birds before. Later she found out they were cranes.
Now, inside the white fog, Anna could hear the shriek of gulls. She and the others sat in silence along the rail of the vessel’s foredeck, where they had gained free access after the seamen had opened the hatch and rolled away the sailcloth that otherwise covered the opening. Although it was early June, the morning was unexpectedly chilly. She was already hungry and would soon return below deck to wake the others, who seemed to have settled into the sort of clammy sleep that can come over people in stuffy, cramped spaces with not enough air. The panic she had initially felt when she opened her eyes in the stifling darkness had slowly dissipated out here under the white vault of the sky.
She was sitting with three of the older women whose names she hadn’t yet learned and whose language she didn’t speak. She thought they might be from England. Or maybe Germany. They didn’t say a word as they looked toward land, their eyes focused on something she couldn’t see. One of them was smoking a pipe. All three had dark shawls draped over their shoulders. They had looked up and nodded, neither friendly nor unfriendly, before turning their gaze once more toward the invisible coastline.
A blast from the big steam whistle high overhead shattered the silence. And as if the sound had somehow set the air moving, a very tall and pointed church tower took shape out of nothing.
This was her time alone. Soon she would clamber down the worn wooden ladder, blackened from thousands of hands, to the steerage deck and make sure the others were awake for the morning porridge. The seagulls glided out of the fog on rigid outspread wings, looking exactly like the gulls back home. So far nothing had happened. This was the first morning after they had left England behind.
“There should be five cups,” said Gustaf. “We bought five.”
He peered at Anna from under the lock of hair falling into his face. Elisabet and Ellen stood behind her, each of them clinging to the waistband of her apron, as she’d taught them to do when onboard ship. Carl lay motionless on the mattress, but he was awake now, looking at them expectantly, waiting to see what would happen next.
Again she searched the jute sack at the foot of the mattress, running one hand along the outside, the other rummaging through bundles of clothing all the way down to where Gustaf’s concertina lay hidden. Nothing. She felt his gaze on her back, unwavering and, it seemed to her, more and more stern, while out of the corner of her eye she saw the line growing longer at the foot of the ladder. They were going to be the very last in line. Then she noticed part of the straw mattress sticking up next to Carl’s head. She turned away, without meeting Gustaf’s eyes, and reached down. Her fingertips touched metal.
“Here it is,” Anna said, keeping her tone even. Gustaf nodded curtly and headed for the line of people. The girls stayed where they were, holding on to her apron. She picked up Carl in her arms and handed him his cup. He must have been the one to hide it there. He’d grown so big, it seemed almost as if he’d done nothing but grow since they’d left Göteborg. The boy took the cup, then turned to look over her shoulder, searching for his father. They all went to join him in line.
Behind her stood one of the older women she recognized from the crossing to England. Mrs. Lundgren was a widow traveling with her son, a dark-haired young man named David. Anna didn’t know Mrs. Lundgren’s first name. She seemed a retiring sort of person.
“You should tie them together,” Mrs. Lundgren said now. “Ask the steward for one of those leather straps. There’s already a hole for them in the handle, but they don’t give out the straps because they want you to pay for them. Tie the cups together so they won’t get lost again. The same goes for the bowls and spoons.”
Anna felt herself blushing. She didn’t know how the old woman had discerned their problem, although of course the door to “1A—married quarters,” as their section was called, had stood open. She mutely nodded her thanks and then pushed forward in line behind Gustaf as she wondered what to say to the steward and what “strap” might be called in English. She felt the girls’ hands holding tight to her apron and tugging in opposite directions, like a pair of weights that kept her balanced and steady on the slightly sloping deck.
Breakfast, which was served out on the foredeck, consisted of porridge and bread, still quite fresh and presumably brought from shore. Weak coffee was also served with the food. In a few days there probably won’t be much of either, Anna thought, trying to get the girls to drink their coffee, even though it wasn’t something they were used to. Elisabet made faces at the taste.
Gustaf had sat down on a bench and was holding Carl on his lap, putting his own big cap on the boy’s head. It slid down over Carl’s eyes, making him laugh. Anna wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders and went over to the rail. The fog had gone. The church on shore was now clear to see, and what she’d earlier taken for an unusually pointed tower was actually just the beginning of one. The slender spire was still encased in scaffolding. In front of the church’s gray façade stood a row of small buildings, alternately brown and gray and almost impossible to distinguish from the rock face behind. And on their way out to the Majestic were two small, overloaded boats in which black-clad passengers were crowded all the way forward into the bow. They looked like insects, and everywhere she could see their big rucksacks, which some people were actually holding over the side, probably because every last inch of space had already been taken.
Anna wasn’t happy about their reaching the ship. Only now did she realize why there were a few empty bunks in their section of the married quarters; she had thought they were simply lucky. She felt herself breathing faster, and even though it was getting colder, beads of sweat formed along her hairline.
“There certainly are a lot of them. It’s going to get crowded.”
She glanced over at Inga, who was from the west coast of Sweden. She’d talked to her during the train ride from Hull. Inga had dark hair and brown eyes and was no doubt a few years younger than she was. Inga had explained that she was traveling alone, headed for St. Paul in Minnesota to “find a place.” It wasn’t clear whether this meant a job she hoped to land or a need for greater space. She was short and plump and always wore a black apron with a floral pattern.
“And we probably won’t be able to talk to them,” said Inga. “I’ve heard the Irish sometimes speak English, but more often they rely on their own language, which is impossible to understand. Do you speak any English?”
Anna shook her head, a bit unsettled by the young woman’s talkative nature. “A few words,” she said then. “But where we’re headed, I think we can manage fine with Swedish.”
“Maybe so,” said Inga. “Where is it you’re headed?”
“Gustaf has several different places in mind,” she replied. “I suppose we’ll probably go to Minnesota. But he also says there’s a shoe factory in New York, so maybe we’ll stay there for a while until we make enough money to move on.”
Inga shook her head.
“Everything is more expensive in New York,” she said. “You’ll see. Some people get stuck there because they think they’ll be able to earn enough wages to save up for traveling farther. But if you go just a little farther inland, it’s easier to find work and things aren’t so costly.”
“How do you know all this?” Anna asked, hoping she didn’t sound too nosy.
“My cousin has lived in both New York and Minnesota,” said Inga. “She sent letters home and told us about everything. But now she’s back in Sweden, and she helped pay part of my ticket.”
The sound of voices and boat motors was getting closer, and Anna saw that both ferries had begun to slow as they came alongside the hull of the Majestic.
“It’s probably best if we go below,” said Inga. “Bring your children and husband and sit on your bunks. When the newcomers see how many you are, maybe they won’t spread out so much.”
Inga nodded and then headed for the far hatch, which led down to the quarters for unmarried women. The younger woman seemed to take everything in stride, while Anna couldn’t get herself to budge. She swayed back and forth on the balls of her feet as she tried to keep her balance on the unsteady deck. Yet the ship still lay at anchor, and the inlet was calm, the surface of the water merely rippled by a light wind from shore. A week, she thought, eight days. It will go fast. She repeated these words to herself several times, like a litany, and the cadence finally got her moving. Behind her Anna heard the thudding of boat motors, and the sharp clang of a church bell. Voices speaking unfamiliar languages glided across the water, answered by the sailors on deck who began lowering the gangplank.
The family who took the unoccupied bunks had eight members, and their name was Gavin. That much she understood. Five of them—the parents and three little girls—were quartered in the married section, while the two older sons and a daughter were housed in the sections for bachelors and single women fore and aft. They protested when the steward said they had to be separated, and that led to a heated exchange. Anna and her family merely sat on their bunks the whole time, pretending not to pay attention. She saw Gustaf’s jaw tense as he clenched his teeth without saying a word.
The steward led away the three youths, still protesting, and then the father of the family, a short, pale man with a mustache and unruly brown hair, turned to Gustaf and said something in English. It sounded like a jocular remark, but Gustaf merely shook his head. The man gave a brief nod and turned back to his own family, which now occupied a large portion of the long and narrow space. Anna felt as if it were her family that was now quartered with the Gavin clan instead of the other way around.
There were no portholes, which made the space stuffy and sweltering. Onboard were eight hundred people traveling in steerage class. Inga had told her that. Down here below the foredeck, they numbered close to three hundred, while there were many more in the other third-class section in the stern, even though the space was about the same size. Anna refused to think about what that must be like; it wasn’t something she could even investigate, because the section for cabin passengers was located in between, with locked gates on either side.
There were people everywhere, but before they docked at Queenstown she had thought they would have part of the between-deck to themselves. That was no longer the case. In their section of the quarters for married people, there were now thirty adults, and she awoke every morning with a pounding headache and a growing sense of panic. The girls, who slept with her in the same bunk, were restless too, constantly kicking and wriggling. Later she would ask herself whether she’d slept at all during the crossing. Some of the Finns at the far end had hung up an old, tattered sheet on the other side of the doorway that led to the ladder, partitioning off the space and creating a semblance of privacy. But that left her family on the other side and alone with the Gavins, who talked far into the night. It was mostly the mother who talked. She was a small, thin woman who always wore a black shawl as she carried the youngest daughter in her arms. She would subject her husband to endless torrents of words. Eventually he would snarl a retort and then try to escape by going up on deck or turning over in his bunk. Anna had no idea what they were saying. And even if she had understood English, she didn’t think that was the language the woman was speaking. Her harangues were filled with hissing sounds, rising and falling in tone. It sounded a bit like Finnish, but it wasn’t. She was able to recognize spoken Finnish and English, but that was the extent of her knowledge. The Gavin little girls seemed to be always hungry, and they would complain long after night had fallen. Only the youngest would remain quiet when the mother nursed the child in her bunk. Then a certain calm would settle over the space.
Anna would lie in bed with her daughters next to her and listen to the Finnish voices on the other side of the stained sheet. And she would count the days.
The food onboard was not as bad as she’d heard it would be, but it was unspeakably dreary. Always potatoes and carrots, boiled too long, and tough pieces of meat that had been cut up and simmered. All of it was served along with the same bread and coffee they had for breakfast, with the previous day’s meat and potatoes mixed together in a big pot. None of it tasted of much, but at least it was a hot meal. Inga said it was called Irish stew, and the Irish passengers onboard ate it with gusto. But as they sat at the long, rough table mid-ship eating their food, Anna was already dreading having to wash the dishes. That and using the toilet were the worst moments of the day for her. The girls always ate slowly, and she often held Carl on her lap, feeding him pieces of potato, so they were usually the last to finish. By then the hot dish water in the trough on deck would have gone cold, and it was transformed into a glistening greenish soup of potato peels and gristly scraps of meat with bits of fat floating on the surface. She would stick their plates into the water, one after the other, barely dipping them in for a moment, and then wipe them off with her hand. Ellen tried to be helpful and follow her example, peering up at her mother to see if she was doing it properly. Then they would set the plates against the side of the bunk to air dry, but the dishes tipped over whenever the ship rolled.
Gustaf was usually among the first to get up after eating. He would try to disappear as much as was possible in the limited space allotted to the steerage passengers. They could go halfway mid-ship before coming to the locked gates that led to the section for cabin passengers. They could also go forward to the bow, where the men gathered to smoke whenever the wind wasn’t blowing from that direction. Gustaf was getting increasingly restless. Sometimes he tried to start up a conversation with crew members if they had a few minutes to spare. He did his best to learn some English words from them, and occasionally Anna saw him sharing a laugh with one of the deckhands or the steward. After one visit mid-ship, Gustaf came back with some leather straps, which he’d managed to talk someone into giving him without charging a fee. Then he sat on the bunk and deftly tied their plates and cutlery together in an ingenious way so that they could be taken apart without undoing the knots. She’d seen this trick before, which involved tying various big knots that could be twined together. It took Gustaf fifteen minutes to get the task done. Then his restlessness returned.
They were sitting on the foredeck. A cold wind had started blowing, but no one wanted to go below as long as there was still some daylight. All the people around Anna were crowded together, sitting on whatever they could find, like hens in a chicken coop. In the gathering dusk she could see what looked like a mist of body heat rising up from those seated across from her with their backs to the west. The girls were quietly playing a game that involved hopping on one leg around each other while counting to themselves; when they reached a certain number they would grab each other’s hands. Some of the Irish children stood nearby, watching, though not wanting to appear overly interested. Carl was sitting on Gustaf’s lap, but now he’d started to squirm. When Gustaf set him down, the boy clung to his father’s leg and wanted to be lifted up again. His whole face contorted into a plaintive mask. He was growing tired, and any moment now he would start to whine. Anna got ready to stand up and take him below. But not yet. She was still sitting there when Inga came over and sat down beside her.
“It’s getting really cold,” the younger woman said.
She merely nodded.
“We’re headed far to the north. I’ve read that at this time of year we might actually see icebergs.”
At first Anna didn’t reply, simply wondered where Inga got all her information.
“Where did you read about that?” she asked at last, just for something to say.
“I got a book for emigrants from the agent. Didn’t you get one?”
“Maybe Gustaf has it somewhere.”
For a moment Inga sat in silence, but then she said in a more serious tone, “Have the two of you given more thought to where you’ll go?” She pushed back a lock of hair that had escaped from under the shawl draped over her head.
“We haven’t had a chance to talk about it yet. There’s been so much to do.” When Anna said that, she felt her stomach lurch. The stench from the women’s privy gusted toward them on the wind. And yet, she thought, so far I haven’t felt the slightest bit seasick.
“Well, you should,” said Inga. “I mean, you have a few days to think about it. But maybe we should talk to some of the others. Together, I mean. Because you have to decide where you’re going before we dock. You have to say where you’re headed.”
The smell was getting worse. Anna was keeping half an eye on Carl, who was squirming more and more on his father’s lap. But part of her wanted to stay and listen to what Inga had to say.
“Who do you think we should talk to?” she asked now.
“I was thinking of starting with Mrs. Lundgren and her son David. They’re going to St. Paul in Minnesota. David’s brother is already there. He has a job with the railroad.”
Anna wondered what Inga’s real intentions were. The young woman had deliberately sought her out and seemed to have some purpose in mind. But right now it was so nice merely to sit and listen to her talking. Inga clearly had goals and plans. It felt somehow liberating to listen to her, almost as if listening to music.
“That’s where you’re going too, isn’t it?”
“So are you suggesting that we should go there? Gustaf has talked about both Minnesota and New York. But he has mostly worked in shoe factories, so . . .”
Inga quietly waited for Anna to go on.
She ended up saying something different from what she’d planned. “Until he was let go, that is.” Then she fell silent. Yet Inga didn’t seem to pay much attention to what she’d just said.
“I think you should talk to the Lundgrens. They know a lot about St. Paul, because of the letters they’ve received from David’s older brother. He’s told them about places to live and where to find work. If there’s a shoe factory, they might know about that too.”
Minnesota. New York. They were nothing but words in Anna’s head, words without pictures. She’d seen a sketch of the Statue of Liberty in a newspaper, and the same drawing on a poster at the harbor area in Göteborg. Otherwise the names conjured up no images in her mind. St. Paul. Carl wriggled out of Gustaf’s grip and fell to the deck, though he didn’t land particularly hard. Even so, he scrunched up his eyes and opened his mouth to what was certain to be an angry howl.
“Let’s talk more later,” Anna said as she quickly got to her feet.
Then she swept up the boy and headed for the ladder to go below, holding against her shoulder his warm and hard little body, now trembling with sobs. The sea was a leaden black beneath an equally dark gray cloud cover. It was their second night.
About the crossing on the Majestic, Carl would remember only this: how he’d fallen and landed hard on the rough, gray planks of the deck where the varnish was completely worn away except in the cracks. Gray and brown and a sudden white pain. That would be his first memory. Along with being carried beneath the high, dark vault of the railway tunnel and out into a heavy snowfall. Both memories seemed to follow closely upon each other, with no distance from one to the other. Strangely enough, he remembered nothing at all of the big fire that took place in between.
Anna never understood where they’d gotten hold of the liquor. As far as she knew, none could be purchased onboard unless you were a cabin passenger. But the next evening the steerage deck was crowded with shouting people, and a brawl broke out in the forward section reserved for bachelors, on the other side of the central passageway’s endlessly long “dining table” made of unpainted boards. Raucous voices yelled in Finnish and other languages, followed by loud thuds as men were repeatedly shoved against the wooden wall, along with the sound of bottles shattering and glass skittering across the deck. Then someone came running into their section, screaming shrilly. It was one of the Gavin girls. She was crying and calling for her mother. The woman, whose name Anna hadn’t yet learned, simply handed over her youngest child before hitching up her skirts and following her daughter out to the central passageway where a man’s voice bellowed nonstop, with equal parts anger and pure terror.
There Anna sat, holding on her lap a stranger’s child, who stared up at her without fear in her alert green eyes. The little girl was wrapped in a gray woolen shawl, and on her head she wore a white crocheted cap.
With a great deal of noise Mr. Gavin abruptly came in, half carrying and half dragging his son, who was draped over his back. Behind them came Mrs. Gavin and the eldest daughter, who had placed a supportive hand on her brother’s shoulder. She was crying soundlessly, open-mouthed.
They laid him down on the lower bunk. Mr. Gavin took a clay jug from under the bed and poured something on his son’s outstretched arm, making the boy swear and try to get away, but his mother and sister held him in place. Before the women’s backs blocked her view, Anna caught a glimpse of a long, ragged wound reaching up to the crook in his arm. Dark blood was still gushing out. The mother ripped a pillowcase in strips and wrapped them around his arm. The sister squatted down and spoke to her brother in a soothing tone, the way she might talk to a family pet. Then the father held up his son’s arm. Blood was already seeping through the improvised bandage. Anna turned away and closed her eyes tight. She didn’t want to see any more blood.
She opened her eyes when she felt someone sit down on the mattress next to her. It was Gustaf. She hadn’t noticed him come in.
“What a damn ruckus out there,” he said quietly. “The steward arrived and brought a couple of sailors to help him. They’ve seized one of the Finnish boys. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him, but he’s just as drunk as that boy over there.”
He motioned toward the pale and sweaty young Gavin boy, who was now peering up at his bandaged arm, which his father held pressed against the head of the bunk.
The youngest Gavin daughter squirmed a bit as she lay on Anna’s lap, so she looked down at the child. The girl reached up a hand to grab her hair, seemingly unaffected by all the nearby commotion. Things were settling down. Mrs. Gavin stood with her forehead pressed against the edge of the upper bunk, muttering to herself words that sounded like a prayer: sé do bheatha a Mhuire atá lán de ghrásta tá an Tiarna leat.
If not for the bloody bandage visible inside the bunk, it might have been an idyllic tableau. No one said a word. And Anna breathed a sigh of relief as the child grabbed hold of her thumb with her strong little fingers. She was ashamed to admit that her sense of relief came from knowing that Gustaf clearly hadn’t been involved in the brawl.
That was the only incident to occur during the crossing. That night the wind picked up, and the Majestic changed course so as to sail more directly into the wind, which might delay their arrival by as much as a day, or so the steward had said to someone. Yet it did little to ease the seasickness many were suffering. Anna noted with surprise that she remained largely unaffected.
The stench of vomit spread over the entire between-deck, and there was the constant sound of people moaning in incomprehensible languages. Sometimes there were no words at all. Gustaf was able to stay on his feet, but he was even less vocal than usual. They took turns sitting with the children, who lay on the bunks, pale and whimpering. Anna went to get water from the big tank mid-ship and immediately fell into a wordless argument with the steward, who didn’t want to let her use her own cup. Everyone was supposed to use the cup hanging on a string from the tank. Without knowing exactly how she did it, Anna managed to convince him the water was for her children. He then allowed her to fill her enameled metal cup and take the water back, carefully holding the cup in both hands. She concentrated on keeping steady in order to counterbalance the rolling motion of the ship and avoid spilling any water. Before Anna reached their quarters she began feeling a little dizzy. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be seasick, she thought. But the feeling subsided as soon as she looked up and no longer kept her eyes fixed on the rippling water in the cup. The children would take only a sip, and Carl vomited as soon as he swallowed the water, which rose up in his throat and ran down his chin. Gustaf waved her away, signaling that she shouldn’t worry about them. She should go out on deck. Mostly to get out of the way, she did as he wished.
The passageway was filled with people listlessly lying on the floor. Some of them had vomited as they lay there, too lethargic to get cleaned up. Anna wondered if the situation was the same on the cabin deck. In her mind she pictured women wearing elegant clothing spattered with vomit lying next to each other on red carpets, but she quickly dismissed the thought. Holding her breath, she climbed up the ladder and pushed aside the sailcloth covering the hatch.
The sky was a dark gray swiftly turning black. The sea was surging and heaving in every direction. The foredeck, normally teeming with people, was pleasantly deserted and rinsed clean, gleaming in the nebulous dim light. She saw only one other person on deck, wearing a dark shawl over her head and shoulders. At first she thought it was one of the Irish women, but then she recognized Inga. The young woman was sitting in a nook that offered the only shelter, beneath the wall of the bridge and the door to the women’s privy, which thank goodness had been properly latched from the outside. Otherwise the door had a tendency to fly open whenever the ship rolled. Holding on to the rope that acted as a handrail, she made her way over to Inga, who looked as if she was feeling the effects of seasickness but had nevertheless ventured outside to get some fresh air.
At first Anna didn’t speak, merely held on to the rope and stared out at the sea. This was nothing like looking at the ceaselessly rolling waves from shore. Here there was no specific direction. The water seemed to pour in from all sides. The ship rose up on one wave and then turned slightly on the next, which came from a different point of the compass.
“Breakers,” said Inga dully. “That’s what those waves are called.”
Alone on the foredeck, the two women tried to make sense of the unpredictable motion of the sea. For all Anna knew, the ship might have turned around and be headed back to Ireland. There were no directional markers or fixed points on which to focus. She couldn’t tell whether they were moving forward or in circles. The knot in her stomach was not from nausea but pure fear. She wasn’t scared they might sink, because the ship was upright and smoke was streaming from the three smokestacks, but she was frightened by this vast, new world that offered no discernible sense of direction. She’d never seen anything like it before. And that was how things would be for the rest of her life.
Someone placed a hand on her shoulder, as if seeking support. She gave a start and then looked up to see Mrs. Gavin’s narrow, pallid face under her shawl. The woman’s colorless lips managed a thin smile as she clung to her while the ship once again made what felt like a quarter-turn. Anna kept a tight grip on the rope. If I close my eyes now, she thought, I’m going to be sick. I have to keep looking at the sea, even if it pulls my soul from me. The other woman held on to her shoulder, her grip firm yet gentle. Inga held out a hand to help them sit down beside her. Then the three of them silently looked out at the sea, which lacked any horizon.
The next day the weather was calmer and a little warmer, so it was a good time to talk. The deck was once again crowded with people, some of whom could not settle down but instead insisted on walking restlessly from the rail on one side of the ship to the other and then back again. Yet it was still much too soon to be dreaming of land. Others marked off a space for themselves in the morning and then guarded it for the rest of the day, or at least until the next meal was served. A man wearing a waistcoat and brimless cap had brought out a fiddle. He sat down on a coil of rope and every once in a while squeaked forth little dance tunes. Some of the Irish youths tried a few dance steps, but they were constantly scolded by the deck passengers after colliding with them. Finally they simply gave up.
Inga was the youngest of the group of women, yet she was always at the center whenever they gathered. Today she’d seen to it that Mrs. Lundgren and her taciturn son David had joined them. Occasionally Gustaf would appear at the edge of the group, holding Carl by the hand. He and his son would disappear in the space between the privies and the bridge over by the rail on the port side, but soon they’d be back again. In addition to the Lundgrens, the group was joined by the slightly older Mr. Nilsson, a carpenter, and his wife and two teenage daughters who never said a word. One of them always smelled faintly of urine. Elisabet and Ellen sat beside their mother, whispering as they played with a paper fortune teller they’d made from a sheet of newsprint they’d found somewhere. At the moment, Mrs. Lundgren was the one doing the talking, though she spoke so quietly it was hard to catch what she was saying. She had brought along some letters, which she smoothed out and then read aloud. They were from her son Jonathan in St. Paul, and she had underlined certain sections. Like the part about how winters were colder than back home in Sweden. And how you needed good shoes and boots. It was possible to find a place to live, her son wrote, at least in Minnesota. When he’d first arrived several years ago, he’d stopped in New York, but things had been much more difficult there. He hadn’t been able to find a place to sleep so he could get to work on time, so he’d spent the last of his money to head west. There were jobs available both in New York and in St. Paul, where he’d started out as a day laborer for the railroad and then found work in the forests to the north. Now he was back in the city. There were several big mills there because of the river rapids, and they were building the railroad north to Canada. The work in the forests was much harder than back home, especially in the wintertime, so he’d decided to stay in the city.
“He doesn’t write anything about the need for maids,” said Inga. She smiled, so no doubt she meant it as a joke. But the widow Lundgren looked uneasy and fixed her eyes on the letters again. David sat behind her, reading over her shoulder. Or at least it looked as if he were reading. His unshaven face was motionless, shadowed by the visor of his cap. There was something about David that made Anna nervous. He was quiet and calm and friendly whenever anyone spoke to him, yet he seemed filled with a great tension, as if he had something very important to divulge. But he never mentioned a word about it as far as anyone could tell. When he looked out at the sea, his eyes were as black as a bird’s.
The widow Lundgren licked her fingertips as she leafed through the letters, the corners of which were already dark with smudges. The stamps on the creased envelopes were red and green and looked quite strange. She kept on smoothing down the paper with her hand, which explained why the letters were so worn looking, as if they were very old. But the latest one had actually arrived only a few weeks before Mrs. Lundgren and her son had set out from their home in Västergötland.
“Gustaf worked in the shoe factory back home in Örebro,” Anna heard herself explaining. Then she looked over her shoulder to see if he’d heard. But her husband and son were now standing with other passengers at the rail, right in front of the locked wrought iron gate leading to the section for second- and first-class passengers.
“Does he write anything about shoe factories?” she asked, a bit more confidently. To her surprise, the older woman looked up and smiled.
“He does, in fact,” she said. “Jonathan says they make a lot of shoes in St. Paul. And everywhere in Minnesota.”
Mrs. Lundgren’s words made Anna’s heart skip a beat. Then she heaved a big sigh of relief, as she could now set some of her worries aside for a while.
“I’ll tell Gustaf,” she said, hoping no one would notice the quaver in her voice. She stuck her trembling hands under her apron.
Silence settled over them. Gusts of wind from the stern whirled the smoke from the smokestack high above; a glimpse of sunlight between the clouds sketched strange, long shadows across the white-painted façade of the bridge. There for a moment, then gone. Shadows of smoke. Shadows of a dream. This is me. Anna. Right here. Everyone else was heading toward something new, while she was heading away from something old and familiar that had shattered. But then it occurred to her that she couldn’t be sure about the others. She didn’t actually know why they were now sitting here around her.
The widow’s son David sat quietly on a coil of rope, staring steadily at the sea, as if he wanted to be the first to catch sight of the new coastline. Yet Anna could tell he wasn’t looking at anything specific but, rather, at something he carried inside him.
“How many of you are thinking of going on to St. Paul?” asked Inga, sounding as if she were asking if anyone wanted a cup of coffee. One by one everybody in the group raised their hands. And, much to her surprise, Anna found herself raising her hand too, without even a trace of hesitation. Later, looking back on that moment, she would recall that David Lundgren was the first to raise his hand, and she remembered how his insolent expression changed to an almost embarrassed smile of pleasure when he saw that everyone was in agreement.
This was a moment that stayed in Ellen’s memory as well. The sight of her mother’s thin, pale hand raised in the air against a billowy, acrid cloud of coal smoke. She knew they were on their way to America on the world’s biggest ship and that things would be better when they got there. There was something about her mother’s face, the way her mouth twitched, the way she let out a deep sigh. The way the lines at the corners of her eyes seemed to smooth out from inside, for just a moment. The way she then looked down at them, smiling. And the way Ellen herself wiggled a loose tooth with her tongue, and how important this all was.
The next day they saw land for the first time. One by one they all went up on deck and pushed their way forward until they could look over the shoulders of the other passengers and see a strip of gray beneath the bank of clouds. The steward told them to keep their shoes and socks on, meaning they shouldn’t get too excited, because the storm had carried the ship off course. What they were seeing was Cape Cod. It was still a good distance to New York, where they would dock sometime the following morning. But now they would be traveling along the coast until they reached their destination. No more open waters.
“Cape Cod,” said Inga. “That translates as Torskholmen in Swedish. We have a place called the same thing back home.”
There Anna and Inga stood, after finally jostling their way forward to the rail. They looked at each other and laughed without really knowing why.
“That’s not something you can just decide on your own,” Gustaf persisted, without looking his wife in the eye.
“But you weren’t there.”
“I was minding the boy. It was impossible to follow the conversation. I couldn’t hear everything that was said.”
Anna felt her words and decisiveness seeping away as she looked down at her hands. Then she straightened up and said, “We had to decide something. And it’ll be good to have some folks with us that we know. We can’t speak the language, after all. And we have to say where we’re going when we show our papers. Inga told me that.”
Gustaf sat on the bunk, soundlessly tapping his foot on the deck, as if he were on his way somewhere else. His jaw muscles tightened, then relaxed, then tightened again.
“I don’t think we should bind ourselves to anything. There may be opportunities we don’t yet know about when we get to New York. There are Swedes living there, too. And probably jobs. It’s a big city.”
“You may see it as ‘binding ourselves,’” she said, noticing how shrill her voice sounded, yet there was nothing she could do about it. “But the others are going to continue west. There are more Swedes where they’re going. And shoe factories too. Inga says—”
Anna didn’t know what to say, so she kept quiet.
Finally Gustaf said, “I don’t want to decide anything until we get ashore. I want to see how things go and make some inquiries. Is that too much to ask?”
He got up without waiting for an answer and headed for the door. Then he was gone. She stayed where she was, feeling that everything was once again wide open and drifting, like when the ice broke up during the spring thaw. Nothing was solid enough to stand on.
At first the shoreline was merely a darker shadow against the gray of the sea; gradually long sandy beaches emerged from the haze. After a while individual buildings could be distinguished, both ordinary houses and grand estates along the coast. Several ships appeared in the morning, all of them heading for the inlet to the large bay.
All the steerage passengers had already gathered on deck. It was crowded, and everyone was feeling irritable. Anna kept close to Gustaf, who was letting the children take turns sitting on his shoulders so they could see above the heads of the grown-ups. Inga stood on the other side of Anna, holding her well-thumbed book in her hands. She had opened it to a page with a small map and was trying to make out where they were whenever they caught sight of some landmark. Perched on a hill was what looked like a fortress. When they drew closer, Inga said it was a lighthouse, but with a long wall encircling the top. Then they glided past it.
The Majestic issued two blasts on its steam whistle and received a brief reply from somewhere farther away, out of sight. Like cattle lowing in a field, Anna thought. Then she wondered aloud where the tall buildings were that she’d heard so much about. “You’ll see them later,” said Inga. “But I expect we’ll soon be seeing the statue—the Statue of Liberty, you know.” Then she slipped away around the corner, looking suddenly excited.
One of the Irish women abruptly left her place at the rail, and Anna took a step forward, but the space was quickly taken by others, so she caught only a glimpse of a castle-like structure made of red brick. This time there really were cannons sticking out over the parapets. Holding up the hem of her skirts, Inga came rushing back to Anna.
“She’s on the other side,” she shouted. “Come quick!” Then she turned on her heel and again disappeared through the narrow doorway leading to the row of privies. Anna grabbed her daughters’ hands and told them, “Come on,” before following the younger woman. She held her breath as they passed the white-painted doors of the toilets.
Inga had wriggled her way in between some of the stout women wearing gray aprons who were standing at the rail. When Anna pushed the two little girls forward, the women grudgingly made room for them. Their narrowed lips and disapproving expressions showed they weren’t happy about it, but they moved aside. The children pressed their faces between the rust-colored posts of the rail to stare at the island with the high stone foundation. Anna worried that the rust might fleck off onto their skin. Then she looked up.
She had thought the statue would be white, but Lady Liberty was a green hue that reminded her of an old two-öre coin, the way it might look when emerging from the melting ice on the street in the springtime. The ship was now on its way toward the dock, so they could no longer see the statue’s face, only the arm holding the stone tablet and, on the other side, the torch that rose straight up into the gray sky.
“They light it up at night,” said Inga. “That’s what it says in my book.”
The ship made a half-turn in the water and issued yet another muffled blast. Anna was suddenly afraid they might collide with some other vessel. There were ships’ masts everywhere, and because she was standing behind Inga, her view was obstructed. The coastline slowly swung forward, along with buildings on a hillside. But what she at first took for a natural slope turned out to have rows of windows, shining faintly in the gray light.
“Buildings that tall can’t possibly exist,” she said, placing her hands on her daughters’ backs, as if to protect them.
“It’s probably only rich people who live in them,” said Inga, trying to sound knowledgeable. “At least on the top floors.”
“But surely they would collapse,” said Anna. “They must be far too heavy to stay up.”
Inga’s lips moved silently, as if she were murmuring something to herself.
“Fifteen,” she said then. “I count fifteen stories.”
The ship continued turning in the water, as if it couldn’t decide in which direction to go. Then it began moving forward once again with a strong vibration that spread across the deck and made the privy doors rattle. Anna heard from a distance folks cheering up on the cabin deck, so she leaned forward to peer over her daughters’ heads.
As the ship turned, a new island slid into view. It seemed to consist of nothing but buildings, with no shore areas at all. On one side stood a huge chimney of yellow brick, billowing gray smoke. There were rows of black windows in what looked like a warehouse, the walls of which stretched right down to the water. On the other side was a long wooden building with towers and pinnacles. The black slate roof shone faintly in the hazy light.
“That looks like the open-air baths in Strömstad,” said Inga with a laugh. “Although much bigger, of course.” After glancing at her book, she added, with a trace of awe, “It must be Ellis Island.”
Suddenly the engines of the Majestic fell silent for the first time in a week, and everything was quiet. The ship continued to glide more and more slowly past the island, which rested on its own dark reflection in the water. They were heading for the rows of harbor storehouses, where people were waiting on the dock. The cheering on the upper decks was now much louder. But below on the between-deck, everyone stood mutely as they watched the dock approach at an infinitely slow pace.
They waited in line for more than an hour while the cabin passengers disembarked. One by one or in groups they disappeared through the big door to the harbor terminal of the White Star Line, accompanied by porters wearing blue uniforms. Slowly the dock cleared of people. A couple of watchmen emerged and closed the wrought iron gates to the terminal building. Then they coiled away the ropes blocking the gangplanks and allowed the first passengers from the between-deck to move forward on unsteady legs and step ashore.
Soon the line began moving. Anna held Elisabet’s hand while Ellen held on to Carl. Gustaf carried the big suitcase with the number 3304 chalked on the side, and he had their seaman’s sack slung over his shoulder. The vein at his temple was visibly pulsing, but he didn’t say a word. Anna carried the shapeless bundle, wrapped in sailcloth and tied with a string, that contained their bed linens and other belongings. She could hardly see where she was going.
“Watch your step,” Gustaf muttered in a stifled voice in front of her. Suddenly her foot struck a metal threshold and she was out on the sloping gangplank. The people behind her surged forward, but she regained her balance in midstride.
Then they set foot on solid ground. America. Anna still held the bundle under one arm, undecided whether to set it down on the cobblestones. Between her feet she saw that the cracks between the stones were filled with dried horse manure, so she decided not to. Gustaf set down the suitcase, sat down on it, and pulled Carl onto his lap. Anna leaned the bundle against her husband’s back, and he offered no objection. Over the top of the bundle she found herself staring straight into the morning light. At the other end of the bay the Statue of Liberty was still visible like a shadow in the haze. Behind her she heard the city, the sounds echoing through the stone vault on the other side of the double gates, now locked. Shouting voices, wagon wheels, horse hooves against pavement, as well as what sounded like the clang of bells some distance away. Later she would realize it was the streetcars she had heard. Here she noticed the same smell of coal smoke as she’d known in Göteborg. And all around them more and more passengers continued to stream down from the ship’s double gangplanks to form a dark mass of humanity.
The dock was soon teeming with people because they had nowhere else to go. Elisabet fretted and said she was hungry. Anna tried to get her to look at the Statue of Liberty, but the child merely buried her face in her mother’s apron. The air felt hot and damp, even though the sky was overcast and threatened rain. Not the sort of weather she was familiar with in Sweden. She saw Inga sitting on her suitcase a short distance away, holding a parcel on her lap, and with her shawl knotted firmly under her chin, in spite of the heat. Anna waved, and Inga waved back but otherwise didn’t move. Anna called to her over the heads of the other passengers, “What now?”
“Now we wait,” Inga replied. “A ferryboat will come to pick us up.”
“That’s right,” said Gustaf, taking off his cap. “We have to go back over there.”
Anna shaded her eyes with her hand and looked where he was pointing. Over there. Toward the island with the building with all the towers and pinnacles made of wood.
“Do you think we could find some water for the children?” she asked.
“I don’t think so. Not until we get over there,” replied Gustaf. After that he fell silent. When she looked at him again, he had dozed off, leaning against the bundle of linens and clothing. Carl was asleep on his lap, both of them sleeping with their mouths open. Tiny beads of sweat covered the boy’s forehead.
They waited for more than an hour. Then a side-wheeler painted a uniform gray arrived and docked next to the Majestic, on the right side of the stern. Gangplanks were slammed into place. Anna shook Gustaf’s shoulder, surprised the noise hadn’t roused him. Then Carl began fidgeting on his lap, and Gustaf abruptly sat up straight.
“Time to go,” Anna told him as quietly as she could. The crowd on the dock was already in motion. She saw Inga heading for the ferry with tall David Lundgren right behind her.
They started gathering up their belongings. The girls moved slowly, as if not yet fully awake. When they reached the ferry, a mustachioed crewman suddenly appeared in front of them, holding out his hand to block their way. “Full,” he merely said, and Anna understood. The people onboard occupied every inch of space, with suitcases clutched in their arms or parked at their feet. She saw row upon row of faces, both familiar and unfamiliar. She thought she caught a glimpse of the Gavin family. She couldn’t see Inga or the Lundgrens anywhere.
“Next,” said the man as he held up a finger in front of Gustaf’s face. “One hour.” He said the words as if speaking to a deaf-mute. Anna noticed how Gustaf squared his shoulders. The suitcase landed with a thud on the cobblestones, and she worried half-heartedly about the fate of the few coffee cups they had left. Gustaf sat down.
The ferry slowly started to move in a cloud of coal smoke, backing away from the dock with water dripping off the big paddle wheel. Then it disappeared behind the Majestic’s dark hull.
“Water,” said Anna. “We need to find water to drink.” Gustaf didn’t budge, his back turned to her as he gazed out at the harbor.
“I’m staying here,” he said. “I have no intention of missing any more boats. You go and look for something to drink, if you like.”
Anna had no idea where to go. She looked around at all the other people and suitcases. Everyone was sitting in silence, as if dumbfounded that the ferry had left the dock without them. The noise from the city beyond the gates grew louder. She suddenly realized how thirsty she was.
She took Elisabet with her. Hand in hand they walked toward the closest and biggest of the wrought iron gates. A guard wearing a blue uniform watched them approach. Holding her daughter’s hand, Anna dared to go over to him. He looked down at them without saying a word. She raised her hand and pretended to lift an invisible cup to her lips and then pointed at Elisabet. At first the guard didn’t react. Then he gave a nearly imperceptible nod to his left before once again staring straight ahead. Anna curtsied, and she and Elisabet followed the wall of the building past rows of windows covered with iron bars. After passing three more gates they saw a group of boys wearing rugged shirts huddled next to the wall. They had dark hair, and Anna thought she recognized them from among the Irish passengers onboard. She saw water spraying over the boys’ bare feet. When she got closer, they stood still. Next to the wall was a simple black faucet. Traces of rust colored the wall’s cracked plaster, and thick, green moss grew along the pavement. She heard the sudden shriek of seagulls, then silence. Her head began throbbing.
The smallest boy made as if to block their way, but a bigger boy pulled him aside so they could step forward. Anna went over and touched the faucet. The metal was still warm from the boys’ hands. When she turned the faucet, a trickle of dark water spurted out and ran over her feet. She leaned down, careful to hold her shawl away, and tried to catch the stream of water in her mouth.
The water was unexpectedly cold and tasted strongly of iron. Anna watched as Elisabet repeatedly caught the water in her cupped hands and slowly drank it, the pooled water reflecting the sky. Then she found herself thanking the boys, as if the faucet belonged to them. They gave her an anxious smile and stayed where they were. Anna took Elisabet’s hand, and they walked back along the dock. A ray of sunshine appeared out in the bay, glided over the waves toward the far shore and then was gone. For a moment she experienced such a sense of calm at being where she was. This is me. Right here. It passed through her like a change in the weather.
She and Gustaf took turns accompanying the children to the water faucet. She thought Gustaf and Carl were gone a long time, and she started to worry. Others had now discovered there was water to drink, and from where she was sitting Anna could see a short line had formed. But her husband and son were back well before the ferry arrived, moving just as slowly as the first one, a dark shape against the gray water beneath a long plume of black smoke. This time they were among the first to go onboard, and they kept having to move farther back as the deck filled with more people and baggage. There was nowhere to sit, just a large open space on the afterdeck. The children sat on the suitcase, dangling their feet. When the boat started moving, Anna gazed at the city skyline where the tallest buildings now came into view. In the opposite direction she saw a big bridge spanning the water, though half of it was shrouded in fog.
“So, we’re off again,” said Gustaf, having to repeat his words to be heard above the din of the big paddle wheel. As Anna stood there, she felt herself smiling.
They were the second to the last family to come ashore and join the line moving through one of the three doors in the big wooden building. It was still hot and humid, and Carl had a bad cough that she thought had been brought on by the weather. “It’s not good that the boy is coughing,” said Gustaf. “They might think he’s sick, and that could mean trouble for us. Get him to stop coughing.” Brusquely he handed his son over to Anna. She pressed the little boy against her shoulder and patted him hard on the back. His arms hung limply down her back, but he was quiet now. She could feel rather than hear every breath rattling in his airways.
The line was slowly moving forward. “Later,” Gustaf kept telling the girls. “Later we’ll have something to eat.” It became a constant refrain. On the small ferry boat that had brought them from the harbor to this island, they’d been surrounded by people Anna presumed were German and Italian. Now in front of them stood a family that must have come from Italy—a short, wizened woman with a gloomy expression, and a tall, silent man wearing a waistcoat and striped shirt. Anna tried several times to catch the woman’s eye to say hello, but she seemed to look straight through her. Or maybe she was merely looking inward, at some distant landscape, now lost.
Finally they stepped through the doorway into a vast hall. When Anna’s eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, she noticed, with a pang of despair, that the whole place consisted of people standing in lines that wound their way between wooden posts toward a row of desks at the far end of the hall. A man stood just inside the doorway writing something on a pad of paper. He pointed to the mountain of suitcases and other personal belongings neatly stacked along the wall. Hesitantly they set down what they were carrying. The man, who still hadn’t uttered a word, tore off a receipt, which he handed to Gustaf. Behind him stood another man, this one wearing a white coat and holding a lit cigarette in his hand. His eyes narrowed, his expression seemingly indifferent as he looked at all the new arrivals slowly passing by him.
The stifling air smelled of dust and barnyards and sweat. Entering at a slant as in a biblical painting, light streamed through a row of windows high up near the ceiling. Under the windows hung a row of American flags, motionless. There had to be several hundred people in the hall. Hovering above the crowds was a muted murmur of voices, words spoken in so many different languages that they seemed to dissolve until they lost all meaning.
Outside in the daylight, yet another ferry had arrived with engines thudding and the sound of water falling from the big paddle wheel. Then came the scraping of the gangplanks and more voices. Soon the line was surging behind them.
Anna had lapsed into silence as they waited. Elisabet pressed her face against Anna’s apron. She placed one hand on her daughter’s head. They took only a few steps forward at a time. Now and then Anna would look around for a familiar face from their own group, but she saw no one she recognized. The line wound its way back and forth between the posts. When they got closer to the far end of the hall, she was able to study the row of desks. Men sweating in their shirtsleeves and waistcoats, with uniform caps on their heads, sat behind the desks and accepted the emigrants’ papers. Without looking up, they asked brief questions, speaking curtly with hoarse voices. Carl squirmed in his mother’s arms, but he was no longer coughing.
Anna grew tense as their turn approached. She kept swallowing out of nervousness, and she asked Gustaf so many times whether all their papers were in order that he got annoyed and shut his mouth tight, as if he had no intention of ever saying another word.
A man wearing what looked like a police uniform and helmet ushered the Italian family ahead in line, and Anna saw the woman curtsy, almost ceremonially, before the man seated at the desk. Another policeman appeared at Gustaf’s side and pointed them toward a desk farther down the row. Anna shooed the girls forward as she heard Gustaf say “Sweden” to the policeman, who then waved across the room to another tall man wearing a similar uniform with shiny badges on his chest. The man made his way over to where they were standing. “I speak Swedish,” he said, and Gustaf looked relieved. As they talked to the man at the desk, Anna saw the guard at the next desk pick up a piece of chalk and write a big X on the jackets of two of the Italian children who had been standing ahead of them in line. The children were led away, followed by their mother.
The tall man in uniform stood next to Gustaf as he placed their papers on the desk. Anna saw that his hand was shaking. The man behind the desk looked up only briefly, as if to count how many they were, and then stamped the papers. He handed another packet of papers to Gustaf, who exchanged a few words with the Swedish-speaking policeman, and then turned to his family.
“We have to split up,” he said, handing Anna several cardboard tags on strings. “And we have to wear these.”
She handed Carl to her husband, then squatted down to hang the number tags around the girls’ necks. When she stood up, she cast a glance at the door where they’d entered. The line was just as long as before. Hundreds of faces were looking in her direction.
“Why do we have to split up?” she asked, holding the girls by the hand.
“There are doctors who want to look at us. To see if we’ve brought any diseases. They say it goes fast, but they look at males and females separately.”
The tall man in uniform placed a hand on Gustaf’s back and firmly pushed him and Carl toward one of the doors behind the desk. With his other gloved hand he pointed to another door for Anna and the girls. Behind them a new family had already taken their place in front of the desk.
Reluctantly Anna and her daughters joined the line of women wearing dark dresses who stood in front of them in the smaller room next door. They spoke quietly to one another in what she assumed was Italian. No one paid any attention to her or the girls. A doctor in a white coat and a nurse wearing a blue blouse and starched apron stood at a low table. A basin filled with a pungent, brown liquid was on the table in front of them. They dipped several long, shiny steel pegs in the liquid. She knew what this was; she’d heard others talking about it onboard. Using the steel peg, they would turn the person’s eyelids inside out, looking for parasites. She tried to think about something else and found herself worrying about Carl’s cough, thinking the strong smell might make it start up again. As they moved forward, Elisabet began crying harder and harder the closer they got to the doctor and nurse. She tried to pull free of her mother’s grasp, but Anna held on tight. There was nowhere else to go. The doctor raised the steel peg.
Only after they’d passed inspection did they get anything to eat. In a huge dining hall with long tables they showed their number tags and each received a bowl of vegetable soup and a couple of slices of bread. Then they headed for the table with the same number.
Gustaf was already sitting there, holding Carl on his lap and letting him dip pieces of bread in the soup. Anna wanted to say something about how unpleasant, and difficult, it had been to undress in front of strangers. But now that the girls finally had something to eat, they seemed content, as if they’d forgotten all about how they had struggled and cried.
“How did it go with his cough?” That was the first thing Anna said as she sat down.
“It was fine. But if they’d found anything wrong with us, we might have had to return home, even as soon as today. That’s what a few Norwegians were told. I think they took them to a separate room because I didn’t see them again.”
“Can they really do that?”
Gustaf merely nodded.
“What happens now?” she asked.
“They said we’ll sleep here tonight. There are bunks for everyone, although we’ll have to split up again. It’s getting late, but we’ll see each other in the morning.”
Inga looked up and smiled. “There you are,” she said. “I hope everything went well.”
Anna nodded and sat down next to her friend.
“Where are the other Swedes?” she asked.
“They’re here somewhere. I was the first one through, and I’ve been here a while. Do you know where you and your family are going to sleep? You’ll get your baggage back when you leave in the morning.”
Inga regaled her with so much information that Anna had a hard time asking the one question that was on her mind. When Inga paused for a moment, she seized her chance.
“Do you know when we’ll be able to continue on?” she asked. “What happens when we’re done here?”
Inga looked at her for a few seconds without answering.
“It says in your papers,” she then replied. “It says where you’re going. Everyone had to say where they’re headed when they talked to the man at the desk.”
Inga looked at Anna’s blank expression and then went on, as if to fill in the silence: “I’m sleeping here tonight with the others in the group. Early in the morning we’re taking a ferry to Hoboken on the other side of the river. From there we’ll catch a train to Minnesota. Here. See this?” she said, placing her papers on the table. She pulled out a piece of brown paper printed with big letters:
SPECIAL EMIGRANT TICKET
Valid for ONE PASSAGE New York—Minneapolis.
(In emigrant cars only)
The names of the cities had been handwritten in ink, in a slanting style, and the rest of the text wasn’t easy to decipher, but Anna understood enough of it.
“So you were given this paper with the other ones?” she asked quietly, looking down at her lap. Inga didn’t reply. No answer was necessary.
“You’ll have to ask your husband,” Inga said at last.
Anna nodded. She was ashamed that she hadn’t understood before now.
“I assume you’ll stay here overnight too,” said Inga. “I think the last ferry of the night has already left.”
“Yes, I suppose we will,” Anna said in a toneless voice. “Maybe I’ll see you again before you leave.”
She got up and returned to her own table without looking back. The children saw her coming and already looked anxious about what she might tell them. From across the room Gustaf had watched her talking to Inga. Now he had his eyes fixed on the table, and he didn’t say a word as she came back. In silence they sat there opposite each other as the room filled with hungry people who were still filled with anticipation.
The dormitory was situated on the far side of the island, the side facing the tall buildings on shore. Again they had to split up, with Gustaf and Carl ending up on the ground floor. Anna and her husband had barely said a word to each other. Even the children were quiet. She felt exhaustion overtake her like a snowfall that gradually grew thicker, making it harder and harder to see anything except what was close at hand.
She wished they’d had access to their baggage and their own blankets and clothes. But they wouldn’t get their belongings back until morning on the ferry that would take them to a place called Battery Park. It left at 8 a.m. That much Gustaf had told her.
In the women’s dormitory she saw mostly dark-clad Italian women sitting on the beds in twos and threes, talking in low voices. One woman wore a light nightgown and had unfastened her hair. Anna wondered what they were talking about so quietly and intimately, until she realized that many of them had their eyes closed. Then it occurred to her that they were saying their bedtime prayers. Some of them held in their hands the same sort of beads that she’d seen Mrs. Gavin hold onboard the Majestic. But she didn’t see any of the Irish women anywhere. She thought she caught a glimpse of Inga and the widow Lundgren in the inner room, but she didn’t feel like talking to anyone else today.
She had to share a bunk with the girls. Unlike the Italian women, they had no nightgowns to wear, so she told her daughters to take off all but their shifts and get under the covers. There was no sheet, but the gray blankets seemed clean enough. The girls were happy to have the top bunk. They sat side by side, whispering to each other. That was the last thing Anna heard before falling into a dark, heavy slumber that was indistinguishable from sorrow.
She was aware of voices and footsteps on the stairs even before she was fully awake. Someone grabbed her by the shoulder and began shaking her as a calm but insistent voice spoke in her ear, telling her she had to Get up, get up.
Anna opened her eyes and saw a strange light that made her think it must be dawn. But something was wrong. The person tugging at her shift was none other than Inga, fully dressed and with her eyes oddly glittering.
“Listen carefully, Anna,” she said, still speaking quietly. “Tell the girls to put on all their clothes because we have to get out of here. I think there’s a fire. Don’t frighten them, but you have to hurry.”
Her friend’s forced calm had an instant effect on Anna. She got out of bed, still half-asleep, and reached up to shake the girls awake as they slept with their arms around each other on the horsehair mattress. “Come along, girls,” she said. “Get dressed now, or we’ll miss the boat. You don’t need to tie your shoelaces.” Anna wasn’t sure why she said that, except she wanted them to hurry.
Inga was already standing by the door when they heard men’s voices downstairs shouting in English. Mrs. Lundgren appeared, followed close behind by Mrs. Nilsson and her teenage daughters. Unlike Inga, they all looked terrified, yet they hadn’t lost their composure. Anna realized that Inga was the person they had turned to with their fear, putting all their trust in her. The flickering yellow light on the wall grew brighter, and she couldn’t think why she’d thought it was the sun. Now she also smelled smoke.
“Everybody needs to stay calm,” said Inga, keeping her voice level, “or things will turn out badly. If you have all your belongings, then let’s go. It’s this way.”
She kept up a steady stream of words, as if it were pitch dark and she wanted them to follow the sound of her voice. But the light from outside kept getting brighter, and the bunk beds cast sharp shadows across the dormitory floor. They heard men shouting and the echo of hurried footsteps, as from a great distance, even though they had to be very close. They also heard boat engines and big paddle wheels approaching across the water.
The Italian women were all on their feet, having quickly gathered up their possessions. The nightgown-clad woman that Anna had seen praying was now fully dressed. The woman exchanged a quick glance with Inga, who nodded. Without saying anything more, the whole group headed for the stairwell.
When they came out to the gravel-covered yard, the smoke and the hot wind from the fire struck them with sudden force. The other end of the island was in flames. The huge hall where they had entered and received their papers was ablaze, with flames shooting out from what was left of the roof beams. Anna drew her daughters close so that they were practically one body as they quickly made their way through the smoky haze toward the dock. They passed policemen, their uniforms unbuttoned, who were urging everyone to keep moving toward the gangplank of the paddle wheeler. Anna looked around, searching through the smoke for Gustaf and Carl. With panic in her eyes, she turned to Inga but didn’t manage to say a word before her friend, still displaying great composure, said, “They’re probably already onboard. The men’s dormitory was on the ground floor, so they got out first.” Then Inga urged Anna up the gangplank and onto the boat. The engine was running, and the deck shuddered with the force of the idling engine.
Everyone seemed to lose their self-possession as soon as they came onboard. Growing more and more agitated, people began shouting at each other as they were jostled this way and that by the crowds that continued to push their way up the gangplank. Anna yelled for Carl and Gustaf, but her words were drowned out in the chorus of other voices yelling frantically for missing family members, names and words that meant nothing to her. The big paddle wheeler slowly began to move, and the roar of the engine grew so loud that Anna could no longer hear her own voice. Yet she kept on shouting. Inga stood next to her, motionless, her eyes fixed on the island and the glow from the fire playing over her round face. Anna turned to see what she was looking at and saw men struggling with fire pumps on the dock. A dog raced along the shoreline to the place where the dock turned and then ran just as fast in the opposite direction, as if in a fever.
Then a warning shout came from the island as one of the towers on the building suddenly collapsed in a shower of sparks that flew out across the water. The men swiftly scattered, long shadows stretching out behind them. Inga leaned closer to Anna and yelled over the engine noise, “It looks like everyone escaped.”
The boat slowly turned in the water, and the island slipped out of sight. The Statue of Liberty came into view, one side illuminated by the flickering firelight, with dark shadows in all the folds of the copper cloak. Then the ferry set course for the opposite shore and the white and yellow lights that looked like a string of pearls. Anna realized she needed to sit down. She felt faint with worry, and her legs were about to give out. But there was no room to sit or even kneel on the planks of the deck, so she stayed on her feet with her arms around the girls. They didn’t say a word as they stared at the burning island. For a moment, in between two heartbeats, she wondered distractedly what had become of the dog.
They went ashore half an hour later, arriving at a dock some distance away from the one where they’d spent the morning. Here too there was a great commotion. Several wagons with fire pumps stood lined up along the edge while curious onlookers thronged outside the partially open wrought iron gates that were being guarded by policemen.
Anna recognized the family’s belongings even before she caught sight of Gustaf and Carl. They sat huddled together, turned away so they could look at the island, where flames were still shooting into the air, with the smoke from the fire lit up from below like a distant thunderstorm. She called their names, again and again, and Gustaf jumped to his feet. The girls ran to their father and grabbed hold of his legs. Anna took Carl from Gustaf and burrowed her nose in his white-blond hair. Both of them reeked of smoke.
Gustaf was still nervous about looking her in the eye. He said gruffly, “They wouldn’t let me go upstairs to find you. I did try.”
Then he turned around and pointed. “But at least I was able to collect most of our things.”
Anna didn’t know what to say. She looked at their bags again and burst out laughing.
The early morning hours were chilly, but now they were greeted with great kindness from everyone. An old woman wearing a Salvation Army uniform handed out blankets. Eventually a steam cart was rolled in, and they were all served weak coffee or hot milk in tin cups. A boy carried around a big basket of fragrant bread, freshly baked. They took two and then sat down on their bags once again to watch the sunlight break through from behind the tall buildings that looked like a row of teeth farther along the dock. Gray smoke rose up from the island out in the river and drifted over the lower houses on the opposite shore. Everything out there was black; nothing moved.
The wrought iron gates now stood wide open, and the police had disappeared. The city was starting to awaken. Anna saw a man she thought must be Chinese slowly dragging down the street a loaded cart, which back in Sweden would have required a horse to move. He took short, quick steps, and the cart was a lovely red color. She saw all sorts of people wearing different types of clothing, staring, pointing, on their way somewhere. Most seemed to be smiling, as if almost elated by the nighttime calamity. And she was surprised by her own thoughts: I could simply stand up and walk straight into the city and no one would ever find me again.
She dozed for a while, leaning against Gustaf’s shoulder. When she awoke, she found someone staring at her. The sun was high overhead, and Inga was standing next to them. Her suitcase was at her feet, and her lovely shawl was neatly knotted under her chin.
“We’re leaving now, Anna,” said Inga. “The ferries have started up again, and they’ll take us across the water.”
Anna didn’t know what to say. She squinted at the water.
“And you’re going to be staying here?” said Inga.
“Yes,” said Gustaf. “We are. At least for a time.”
For a moment no one spoke.
“They say that nobody died last night,” Inga then told them. “In the fire, I mean. Everyone managed to escape. Probably because we all stayed calm.”
Anna still had no idea what to say. She thought about the dog and how it had run back and forth, and it occurred to her that maybe it had been looking for a means of escape. Without success.
“I’ve written down the address,” said Inga. “To where we’re going, although I don’t know how long we’ll stay in the same place.” She handed over a piece of paper, neatly folded in half.
When Anna opened it she read:
Inga Norström, Swede Hollow, St. Paul, Minnesota
Anna merely nodded her thanks. Then she stood up to hug her friend. Gustaf stood up too. Inga gave them a quick smile and then went over to join her group waiting farther along the dock. Anna saw streaks of smoke from the fire in the clear morning air. And she recalled the dream she’d been having as she slept with her head on her husband’s shoulder. Maybe it wasn’t so much a dream as an insight. Still dozing, she’d realized why Gustaf wanted to stay here, in the big city. It reminded her of her own thoughts when she’d seen the Chinese man pulling his wagon. In this place you could disappear and spend your entire lifetime without being found. Even if somebody should decide to come looking for you.
This was the morning of their first day in their new country. Anna stood with her back to the city and watched the other Swedes—dark figures among so many others—heading for the ferry boats that were lined up at the dock, waiting to carry them away.