Sunday, November 19, 1899
(From 1865 to 1923, two hundred and fifty thousand children were sent west on orphan trains.)
ORPHAN TRAIN KID
Author’s note: The action of my novel progresses in real time through the perception of a five-year-old boy. He thinks and speaks in clipped sentences and avoids pronouns. Back story is developed through his memory and is printed in bold type.
CHAPTER ONE Sunday, November 19, 1899
Flames swallow Oma’s white dress.
Oma’s smile melts.
Nana’s brown dress turns orange.
“My precious grandson.”
Red flames eat brown bonnet.
Nana opens window.
Mouth screams. Ears hurt. Eyes want to cry.
Sister-in-White wipes tears with blanket. “You were just having a bad dream.”
Sister-in-White claps hands. “You talked! Saints be praised.” She leans over bed. “The two women who perished in the fire were your mother and grandmother?”
Nods, rubs nose on Sister-in-White. Eyes find wet spot.
“Don’t worry. My veil can be washed.” She points and whispers, “What is the boy’s name who misses Oma and Nana?”
Name stuck on tongue.
“Who are you?”
Nana’s precious grandson.
Sister-in-White kisses hair and whispers. “Oma and Nana want you to tell Sister Mary Francis your name.”
Helped Nana bake birthday cake. Oma at hospital.
“Who had a birthday? Oma? Nana?”
“Oma likes white Cake. Nana likes green candles.”
“How many pretty green candles on white birthday cake?”
Sits up. Opens hand.
“Yes, yes. It must have been Oma’s five-year-old son. Nana’s grandson.”
Fingers close. Make fist. “Big fire.”
“Oh, my goodness. You think your birthday candles caused the tenement fire?”
“The gas cook-stove exploded. Men rescued you from the window ledge.”
Eyes find ball of fire dangling on string.
“You are safe here at Children’s Hospital.” Bends down and whispers, “Sister Mary Francis wants to hear you say your name.”
Eyes won’t let fireball go away.
“Tomorrow you will be traveling on the Orphan Train. Kids will want to know your name.”
Closes eyes. Fireball stays inside.
“Were you staring at that lightbulb?”
“You don’t know what a lightbulb is?” Sister-in-White shakes head. “Turn of the century and tenements still don’t have electricity.”
Fireball wants eyes back.
“Don’t stare at it.”
Eyes won’t obey.
Sister-in-White takes grey bonnet out of brown bag. “A policeman brought this bakerboy cap when he came to say goodbye.”
Squeezes eyes shut. Thinks of Nana’s bonnet.
“You still looking at that lightbulb?” Sister-in-White puts cap from policeman on head. “The visor will shield your eyes.” She takes shiny thing from brown bag. “Your mother probably wore this locket on a chain around her neck.” Oma’s locket snaps open. “The baby picture is damaged, but the mirror is still good.”
“Show Sister Mary Francis your happy face.”
Takes off bakerboy cap. Fireball glows all around Sister’s head. Nana’s picture of Jesus’ mother with halo.
Nana’s Mother of Jesus asks, “Whose face do you see in the mirror?”
Scared. “Don’t know.”
“You know this boy’s name.” Jesus’ mother scolds. “Now say it.”
“Say it again. Loud enough for saints and angels to hear.”
Sister’s finger taps mirror. “Don’t let anyone forget Caleb!” She closes cover. Caleb goes away.
“Say Caleb again.”
“What is Caleb’s last name?”
“It will come back, just remember to use words. If Caleb goes silent again like the month in police protective care, words might go away forever.”
“Okay.” Puts cap back on. Hides Jesus’ mother.
“Tomorrow Caleb will be on the Orphan Train to Minnesota. Sisters there wear brown and cover their heads with bonnets like Caleb’s nana wore. They’re called Franciscans.”
“Was Nana Frithcan?”
“No. She probably thought older women should wear bonnets. We think Caleb’s mother might have been a nurse but not a sister.”
“Little Sister died.”
“Caleb had a little sister?”
“Oma and Nana pray for her.”
“A family of three in heaven to watch over Caleb.”
Mouth chews corner of blanket.
“Remember, don’t go silent again. Everyone needs to know who Caleb is. Your mother gave you such a nice name.”
“Don’t forget Caleb, or Oma.”
“I’ll put Caleb’s name on the report, so don’t make people think Caleb doesn’t use words.” She takes bakerboy cap and puts it in brown bag with Oma’s locket. “I’ll also mention Oma and Nana and a little sister. What was her name?”
“Tomorrow you will be escorted on the Orphan Train by a sister who dresses in black.
Doesn’t like black. Doesn’t like trains. Likes boats.
Eyes keep looking at brown bag.
Sister-in-White puts bakerboy cap from policeman back on Caleb’s head.
Closes eyes. Not scared of bad dreams no more. Waits for sandman to come.
Oma wears white and black dress.
Hands hold red and black box.
“Never play with matches.”
“Never ever, Oma.” Shakes head.
Oma slides red and black box open.
“Promise again, my son.”
Nods. Hands touch heart.
Oma’s fingers find stick match,
Wooden soldier with red and blue head.
Soldier’s head scratches side of box.
Fizzles. Flares. Tongue tastes smoke.
Fire touches pretty green candles.
Red and blue turn black. Soldier’s head falls off.
Red flames dances on candles.
Opens hand. Counts fingers, one-two-three-four-five.
“Not four-years-old no more.”
Nana, brown dress and bonnet, smiles.
“Yes, my beautiful grandson is five-years-old today.”
Helped Nana bake birthday cake. Oma still at hospital.
“Blow out the candles.”
“Be a big boy and puff hard.”
“No Nana.” Eyes squeeze shut.
Oma scolds, “Blow out the candles.”
Eyes open wide. Deep breath. Blows hard.
One candle stays on fire.
“One more time. Blow.” Nana smiles.
“Don’t want to.”
“Just one more. Please?” Oma begs.
Smells rotten eggs.