Wednesday, November 22, 1899
The train slows. Jerks head forward and back. Sister Mary-in-White stands and reaches for Caleb’s hand. “This is where you get off. St. Cloud, Minnesota.”
“I’m afraid not. I’ve got a few more deliveries to make.”
“Who will help me?”
“Some very nice people. I’ll find your contact priest and introduce you. Come along.”
Sister-in-White steps out of train car onto platform.
…Wants to stay on train.
“Careful. Fresh snow makes the boards slippery.”
Sister glows white, snow sparkles.
…Remembers Nana’s fairy godmother stories.
Pulls stocking cap down to eyes. Takes her hand.
“Legs can become a bit wobbly after four days riding three different trains.”
…Could count to five.
Looks around. Points. More kids come out of train. Some climb onto engine. Many big people stand and watch.
…Should make kids come down.
“Those boys and girls are hoping for mommies and daddies to take them to a new home. They’re not as lucky as you are.”
…Not lucky. Want Nana.
“Caleb is a special little boy.”
Hides under Sister’s white veil.
“Many Catholic parents will want you to join their families. Maybe even give a chance to pick a family you like.”
…Wants back on train with other kids.
Sister Mary pulls Caleb from behind veil. “Help me locate the priest who’s here to meet you. He’s described as tall with dark hair but no beard. Of course, he’ll be wearing black clothes.”
Oma doesn’t like Man-in-Black.
Covers face with Sister’s white cloth draped in front.
“Please don’t wipe your nose on it.”
…Tongue finds snot. Snowflakes tickle.
Sister Mary points. “There’s the priest.”
…Man-in-Black! Tongue tastes Oma’s burning soldier.
“Good afternoon, Sister.” Man-in-Black lifts his hat. “This must be Cal.”
“He likes to be called Caleb.”
“Interesting name, for now. Has he been baptized?”
“No mention of it or very little else in his family’s history. Lived with mother and grandmother, according to survivors of the tenement fire. Mother might have been a nurse. Grandmother, probably a widow. No apparent father. I added a few comments about his train ride from New York.”
“How old are you, son? I mean, Caleb.”
Mitten off, hand up, fingers spread.
“Please find Caleb a good Catholic home, Father.”
“Come along, Caleb. The horse and buggy are right around the corner.”
Rubs nose with mitten. Runs to catch up. Sees brown horse!
On Nana’s knee, waiting for Man-in-White with brown horse.
No white wagon—no milk bottles—no Man-in-White.
Nana lets him hold the empty milk bottle. It would break if it slipped out of his hands.
“Climb in back, Son.”
… Not Son.
Foot can’t reach step. Uses spokes in wheel.
“Make yourself comfortable under the quilt the Christian Mothers made for you.” Man-in-Black makes the horse go fast.
Yanks quilt over head. Horse’s clop-clop makes face smile.
Nana says, “Listen Caleb. I hear the milkman coming.”
Mother’s quilt tastes bad. Wants hospital blanket.
Nana’s voice. “Close your eyes. Let the sandman come.”
Feels Nana’s arms around him. Sandman gets close.
Wakes. Has to pee. Crawls out from under Mother’s quilt. Tugs on man’s gray scarf.
“Whoa.” Buggy stops. Horse lifts tail and pees.
“Me pee, too.”
The Man-in-Black laughs and reaches back.
“I get down by myself.” Slides over edge. Foot finds step. White snow sparkles under lantern light. “Where?”
“Wherever you want.”
…Moon not so bright in New York.
“I won’t look, I promise.” Papa laughs again.
…Pee won’t come out.
“When you’re done, you can ride up here with me for a while.” Papa smiles. “Would you like that?
“People call me Father because I am a priest. You will come to understand what that means. You don’t have a Papa.”
Crawls into back seat and hides under Mother’s quilt. Horse’s clop-clop hurts ears.
“Whoa.” Papa’s voice.
Opens eyes. Sits up.
“Good morning, Mr. Dowdy.”
“Morning, Father.” Mr. Dowdy pats the horse’s head. “You didn’t have to run her all night. I wouldn’t charge for a few extra hours over the two-day rate.”
“Needed to say daily Mass this morning. Already missed yesterday.” Papa steps down and reaches for Caleb.
Kicks off quilt. Climbs down. Arms pull coat tight.
Papa grabs the quilt and sniffs. He cuts piece of brown string from a ball with pocket knife. He ties Mother’s quilt into bundle.
Horse’s hoof stomps the dirty snow. “I know, Nellie. You’re tired.” Mr. Dowdy talks to horse.
Milk Man tells horse Caleb is a good boy.
“An easy thirty miles didn’t hurt the horse. Spent Monday night in the bishop’s stable. Grazed and rested while I waited most of Tuesday at the railroad station.”
“The bill, Father?”
“Send it to the bishop. The Orphan Train Program was his idea.” Walks away and turns. Come along, Caleb, the parish Rectory is next to the church.” He points. “You can see the steeple from here.”
…No tall buildings hide steeple.
Runs to keep up. Papa goes into house. Peeks around Papa. Clothes in piles and kettle steaming on stove.
…Nana’s kitchen on wash day.
“Good morning, Father.”
“It’s Wednesday, Stella. Not Monday.”
“With you gone for two days, I made myself available in your office. People are asking questions.”
“Probably shouldn’t have mentioned the orphan in Sunday’s sermon.” Papa glances back. “Come in and shut the door.” He pulls off Caleb’s stocking cap. “This is our token orphan.”
Stella says, “I’ve been waiting to meet you, Cal.”
“My name is Caleb.”
“Then, Caleb it shall be.” She kneels and unbuttons his coat. “You can call me Stella.”
She hugs him. “Father, this boy is wet and freezing to death.”
“I’m sure. You’ll need to wash the quilt.”
“Did the Foundling Hospital send a change of clothes?”
“In a box back at Dowdy’s. When you fetch it, take a couple dollars from Sunday’s collection and pay Mrs. Dowdy. Gavin smelled of alcohol again this morning.” He opens the door. “I’ll be at the church saying Mass.” He turns. “Wash the quilt separate.”
Stella pours water from steaming kettle into washtub. “Take off those wet clothes.” She adds water from pump at sink.
Lifts both arms.
“I have a brother your age back in Chicago.” She pulls his shirt over his head and tales off his shoes, pants, and underwear.
Hands between legs.
“Don’t be ashamed. I’ve bathed Virgil many times before I left home to join the Franciscans.”
“Yes. Very good.” She points at tub. “Get in.”
“Nana? You are Caleb. Who am I?”
“That’s better. We’ll work on the pronunciation. Who brought you here this morning?”
“Father, Caleb. It is important you call him Father.”
He dips one toe, steps over edge. Plops down.
“After you warm up, I’ll suds your hair.” Stella unties quilt and rubs soap on brown marks from string.
Plays Nana’s game, Tug boat on the Hudson, with the bar of soap.
“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.” Caleb hears words, but voices not Nana and Oma. Rubs eyes and nose. Tastes blanket. Not Mother’s quilt Papa gave Caleb for buggy ride. Shakes head, Father not Papa. Sits up, legs over edge of…bed? Underwear, no pajamas? Room not white like hospital. Sees Kitchen but no washtub.
Sniffs. Smells meat?
Oma says, “We’ll have turkey for Thanksgiving. I promise.”
Father’s voice from kitchen. “Stella, I think our orphan is awake.”
…Caleb, not orphan.
Stella, not Nana, comes from kitchen. “Did you have a nice morning nap on the couch, Caleb?”
“This is our living room. Should be a dining room but Father and I never have dinner guests.” She sits on couch. “Maybe, now that you’re with us, it might be used for entertaining.” She points. “Here is your change of clothes from the hospital. Do you want help getting dressed?”
“Caleb dresses himself, Nana.”
Stella smiles and walks away. “When you’re ready, come to the kitchen for lunch.”
Sitting at table, Father says, “Good morning, Caleb. You almost slept through lunch.”
Stella cuts dark meat into small pieces. Adds corn and potatoes. She sets Caleb’s plate on table. “Please sit. This will be your place from now on.”
“Just until the adoption, Stella.” Father scolds Nana.
She set glass of milk in front of Caleb. “I hope you like liver.” She faces Father. “Matt Gerhard butchered last week, and his wife Mary dropped off some cuts of meat after church.”
Father doesn’t smile. “The woman knows her husband must repent before I can do anything for them.” He pushes his chair away from table. “The board will meet in my office this afternoon. Show the boy how to act in the presence of adults.” His face not happy. “His table manners, too.”
Chews long time. Can’t swallow. Tries to drink milk. Stuff bursts back on plate. Sobs. Nana brings a wet rag.
Father says. “I think it best that we put off our council meeting until tomorrow. I need time to get my office back in order.”
Buries face in Nana’s apron.
“When you get this mess cleaned, come to my office. I’ll have notices of the meeting change for you to deliver to the council members. Give one to Emma Kroft at the cafe, Walt at Cunningham Implement, Frank Lorenz at the bank, and Melvin Trask at The Bovine Journal, in that order.”
“Yes, Father.” She wipes Caleb’s face. “Would you like to go back to sleep on the couch or bundle up and walk with me to meet these people?”
“I walk with Nana.”
Nana smiles. Doesn’t make Caleb call her Stella.