CHAPTER ONE Sunday, November 19, 1899
Oma wears white.
Hand holds red and black box.
“Never play with matches, Caleb.”
“I won’t, Oma.”
“Promise, my son.”
Oma slides matchbox open.
Finds wooden soldier with red hat.
Red hat scratches. Fizzles. Flares.
Mouth tastes smoke.
Burning soldier lights birthday candles.
Caleb counts one, two, three, four, five.
Wooden soldier shrivels black and dies.
“Not four-years-old no more.”
Nana, dark dress and bonnet, smiles.
“Yes, my beautiful grandson is five today.”
Helped Nana bake birthday cake.
Oma home late from hospital.
“Blow out the candles, Caleb.”
“Be a big boy and puff.”
Eyelids squeeze shut.
“Blow out the candles, Caleb.” Oma scolds?
Eyes open wide. Deep breath. Blows hard.
One candle still burns.
“Again, Caleb.” Nana smiles.
“Just one more,” Oma begs?
Sobs and blows.
Flame flares and grows. Swallows Oma. Fire melts her smile. Lips move. “My big boy.” Nana’s dark dress turns orange. Red flames burst around Nana’s head, eat bonnet. Opens window. “My wonderful grand—”
Screams and screams and screams. Sits up in bed. Sobs.
Sister-in-White says, “You were having a bad dream.”
Stands and buries face in white. “Oma. Nana.”
Sister-in-White kisses hair. “You miss your mother and grandmother.”
Nods, rubs nose on white gown. Eyes find wet spot.
“It can be washed.”
“Yes, God took them on your fifth birthday.”
“My cake. The candles.”
“Oh, my goodness. You think your birthday candles caused the fire?”
“The gas cook-stove exploded. You were rescued from the window ledge.”
…Eyes find ball of fire on string.
“You are safe at the Children’s Hospital.”
Ball sways. Dark shadow goes back and forth.
…Eyes won’t go away from fireball.
“Try to sleep. Tomorrow will be your big day.”
…Eyes pinched shut. Fireball inside eyelids.
“Were you staring at that light bulb?”
“An electric light bulb on a cord from the ceiling.”
Sister-in-White shakes head.” Your tenement building had gas but not electricity?”
…Light bulb wants eyes back.
“Don’t stare at it.”
…Eyes won’t obey.
Sister-in-White moves, hides ball of light. She reaches inside a box alongside his bed. “Let’s see Caleb’s happy face.”
“You mother wore this on a chain around her neck.” Snaps it open. “Baby’s face is damaged from the fire.”
“But, the mirror isn’t broken.”
“Sees Caleb’s happy face. Lays back on bed.
Sister-in-White pulls up blanket. “Sleep tight. Tomorrow you will be on the Orphan Train to Minnesota.”
“Minnesota. The sisters wear brown and cover their heads like your grandma did. They are called Franciscans.”
“Was Nana Frithcan?”
“No, she probably thought older women should wear bonnets. Your mother might have been a nurse like me but not a sister.”
“Little Sister’s in heaven.”
“You had a little sister?”
“Oma says pray for her.”
“Now you have a family up there looking out for you.”
Mouth chews corner of blanket.
“Along with a change of clothes and this locket, we’re including the few facts we know about your family. I’ll add that you had a sister. What was her name?”
She kisses forehead. “Sister Mary Ann will ride with you and the other children on the Orphan Train. Her habit is white like mine.”
Oma wears white hospital gown.