by Michael Nethercott
Come closer. Now, this is something I have never before shared. Not with my husband, not with my daughters or grandchildren. Not with anyone. But I think, yes…perhaps this is the time… Perhaps with you…
We left Russia, my mother and us four kids, and sailed to Ellis Island. Our father had died that past winter, but Mama had a sister in Brooklyn, so we went. I remember the ocean and seasickness. I remember people singing in steerage and a sailor who did card tricks. I remember, of course, the giant lady with her torch, waiting for us just like we’d heard. But mostly I remember when the men in uniforms checked our eyes and what happened then.
They examined everyone, but when they got to my little brother Mordecai they said he couldn’t stay in America. They were looking for signs of trachoma, you see, and they said Mordecai was infected and had to go back to Russia. Mama spoke a bit of English, like I did, and she tried to explain that it wasn’t trachoma at all. Mordecai had been jabbed in the eye with a stick while playing pirates with some other boys on deck. That was only a week before, so the eye still appeared red and cloudy. But it was certainly not trachoma.
The man who had checked us refused to back down. He said it looked like trachoma to him and Mordecai had to go. Even now, I can still see that man standing above me in his dark suit, almost like a train conductor’s uniform with the peaked cap and all. He had what they call a lantern jaw, very square, and a streaky little mustache and narrow eyes. He spoke with a bit of an accent—not Russian or American, but something else. I was only ten and couldn’t really tell one accent from another, but I guessed he hadn’t been born in America. I remember thinking, They let you in, didn’t they? Now let us in.
My mother argued, but there were a lot of other immigrants behind us, so our inspector called over another uniformed man and told him to take Mordecai away. Away to another line to go back on the ship to Europe. My mother said, Wait, wait. He’s only six. He can’t go back alone.
Then go with him. That’s what the man with the little mustache said. Then go back with him.
Mordecai was being led away, so Mama gathered us three girls to her and kissed us all quickly and said to me, Devora, you’re the oldest. You’re in charge now. I have to go back with your brother, but you three will stay in America. And I said, No, Mama, no. We’ll go with you. But she said that my sisters and I were Americans now, and this is how it had to be. She shoved some money in my pocket and a note with an address on it. You find your Aunt Sarah now. She’ll take you in. Always watch over your sisters, Devora. You’re a strong girl. You can do this thing.
All of us were crying. As she started to move off after Mordecai, Mama called out to say that she would find a way to come back to us someday. She and Mordecai. But I knew in my heart that once they boarded that ship, that would be it. The huge ocean would remain between us, and I would forget my mother’s face. My little sisters struggled with me, but I held their hands tight. Mama had told me to, so that they wouldn’t run after her. I was only twelve and wanted to wipe away my tears, but I couldn’t let go of their hands.
Suddenly, it all stopped. What I mean is that, for a moment, everything somehow became silent, utterly silent, and everyone seemed to fade away. I know that’s an odd thing to say, but that’s how I experienced it. Almost as if the harbor mist had turned darker and thicker, and rolled right into the building to swallow up everything around me. I think I could still feel my sisters’ hands, but I’m not sure. I remember thinking that someone should close the windows, because it had become bitterly cold. Yes, icy like the deep winters back in Russia. Then I saw the old woman.
She had the appearance of a hundred other poor immigrants—rough black clothes, long shawl, wrinkled face and drooping eyes. This woman stood off by herself looking a little sad, perhaps a little angry. When she turned my way, I began to tremble, because I somehow knew she shouldn’t be there. She smiled at me. Not a grin, mind you, just a very thin smile, but there was some kindness there. I heard a small cry and glanced over to where the inspection man was standing. His eyes were wide and I realized he noticed her, too.
His mustache turned up a bit with his own little smile. But that quickly changed to a look of great confusion. Then it became something like fear. The old woman stepped closer to him, so that they stood only a foot or so apart. I saw then that they shared the same lantern jaw, the same eyes. She said something to him in a language I didn’t recognize. I blinked and she was gone.
That lasted only a few seconds. Now everything returned to how it had been. Immigrants in lines, uniformed men with stern faces, my mother and brother walking away forever. Our inspector stood there, swaying a little on his feet. He looked dazed and uncertain. I myself was in shock, really, but somehow I knew my time had come. My time to act. I ran up to our man and said in my broken English, You can’t make them go. You must let us all stay. You must.
He was gazing at the empty space where the old woman had stood. At first, I don’t think he even heard me, but eventually he looked down. I said it again, You can’t make them go. He stared into my eyes for what seemed a terribly long time, and I wondered if he was hunting for the trachoma again. Finally he nodded. His voice sounded strange and faraway when he called out to his partner, the one who was leading off Mama and Mordecai. Bring them back here, he said. Bring those two back.
Our man was obviously shaken up, but he managed to sound official enough when he gave his new orders. His mustache did twitch a little, though. I never told anyone about that old woman. I think I was afraid that if I spoke of her, it might somehow undo things and we’d be separated again. Yes, it’s always been my secret. Out of habit, I guess, all these years. Until now. I’m telling you because, well, I’m well into my nineties, you know…
The next thing I remember is standing out in the streets of the city, all five of us, before we headed out to find Brooklyn and Aunt Sarah. It was night by now and the lights amazed us. It was unimaginable. All the lights of the world blazing away like that. All for us.
Together. We were together.
Michael Nethercott is the author of two recent mystery novels, The Séance Society and The Haunting Ballad, both published by St Martin’s Press. His short stories have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, and Rogue Wave: Crime Stories by New England Writers.