Through a Dark Forest
How can you weave a life from fairy tales? This is what I do each night after the chores are done, the gardening and the canning. After the supper dishes are washed, dried, and put away. I put my little girl in her nightgown and hold her in my lap in the rocking chair by the window. Waxy yellow light from the kerosene lantern casts shadows on the walls as I move my hands to narrate my stories. Outside, the wind passes through the spruce trees like an invisible hand, branches scraping and clawing the tin roof overhead. The calendar over the sideboard shows a young woman clothed in an American flag, waving a Liberty Bond. Underneath, the month and year are printed in proud bold red: July, 1918. I have no idea when it will be over, this war that rages like a bloody phantom, like the ghostly shadows that dance on the walls as I tell my daughter the tale of the girl who walked all the way through the dark forest to the sorceress’ house.
I am twenty-two but dress like a crone, all in black. My neighbors call me the Black Widow. I live alone with my little girl in a cabin in the woods like a witch in a fairy tale. Last month, when I first came to this place looking for cheap accommodation, I was nearly turned away. The farmer who rents out these cabins had raised an almighty fuss when he heard my German accent. I told him I was a pacifist, but these days pacifists are suspect, too. I told him, “I hate the Kaiser. I am an American now. I love this country.” This made him soften slightly around the edges without really relenting. The next thing I told him was a story so fanciful, it could have come from one of my tales. Twisting the plain silver band on my left hand, I told him of losing my American husband in the war. “He died in the trenches of Montdidier.” It was this that finally moved the old farmer. He let me and my daughter move into the most secluded of his three cabins, even let me plant a garden.
I don’t think he regrets his decision. I am a good tenant, quiet and sober. I receive no callers and pay my rent promptly. I only go to town to buy supplies at the general store. On Sunday I go to the church up the road, but I leave right after mass without speaking to anyone. I will live alone in the forest with my daughter until my savings run out. Then I’ll have to find employment of some sort. Cleaning other people’s houses, taking in other people’s laundry. But for now I wrap myself in my fairy tales and nurse the wound that no one can see. I let them call me the Black Widow, but it’s not a man I’m grieving.
“And the girl walked through the forest for seven days and seven nights,” I whisper to my daughter. “On the eighth day she came to Baba Yaga’s house.” I tell Russian tales, for they are the most beautiful. “Her house was like a castle. It was golden. It danced on hen’s feet. Round and round, never stopping. So hard to find the door. How do you find the door of a house that’s always moving?”
My little girl is drowsy now, her bright cornsilk head nodding off against my black blouse. Rocking her to sleep, I close my eyes. At moments like this, when the gibbous moon is rising and the kerosene lamp sputtering low, I can step out of this world, erase the past four years, erase the war. It’s like looking in a mirror in a dream. Tracing my way back up the long road that led me to this cabin, this loss. Gathering the scattered threads and weaving them together, as if on a magic loom. Weaving them into a tale, my tale. This is how I mend what was broken, how I summon back the radiant thing I have lost.
Maiden: The Fire
I was born in a forest even darker and more tangled than this one–in the Schwarzwald with its valleys deep as scars. My valley was so steep and narrow, we called it the Höllental, valley of hell. Enclosed by precipitous hills, it got very little sunlight. Bruised clouds shrouded the sun the morning in November, 1911, when I closed the coffin lid on my mother’s face. I had just turned sixteen.
Lashing rain had turned the village graveyard into a quagmire. I stared down the hole they were lowering my mother into. A gash in the earth full of black water. I wondered if the coffin would leak, if the mud would stain the white paper rose I had placed between her fingers. Huddled under his umbrella, the priest spat out the final blessing as fast as he could. He can’t wait to get inside again, I thought. Can’t wait to sit his fat behind in the plush chair next to the stove and fill his gut with apple cake. I did not hear a word of his mumbling. I was studying our family headstone. My mother’s name, newly chiseled, was at the bottom. Just above was my father’s name. He had passed away last year. Above him, my brother, who had inherited his weak lungs. At the very top was a string of five sisters, vague recollections. Babies who had died before they were old enough to leave the cradle. A cruel joke, I thought, that I was the only one who had survived. What would I do now? I wasn’t old enough to get married, wouldn’t inherit a scrap of land. We had sold the farm to pay our debts.
Now my mother’s coffin was at the bottom of the hole. Cloudy water closed in around it. The hole seemed to beckon me. The ground beneath my feet was soggy, uneven. It would be so easy just to slip and fall into that dark wet place. Cling to the unvarnished coffin, a ship on an underground sea taking me to join the rest of them. I wanted to cry, thought this would be so much easier if I could just throw back my head and bawl thunderously like a bad actress in a village play. But I could not. My eyes stayed dry. My tears would not come until much, much later.
Uncle Peter, standing beside me and holding the umbrella over our heads, was crying in the choked silent way that men do. My mother’s favorite brother, the village schoolmaster, the only bachelor over thirty left in our valley, though none of the unmarried women favored him. He was a bit of a laughingstock, a grown man who wept while his young niece remained stoic, this man who lived only for his books, who slept in the schoolhouse for lack of a proper home.
The priest slapped his missal shut and made the last sign of the cross, and the guests dashed away to my aunt’s house, where the funeral dinner awaited them. I let them go without me. The thought of food made my stomach clench like a fist. The thought of all those people gawking at me to see how I was coping. I wanted to hide in the forest like an animal.
“Kathrin, come away from that grave.” My uncle was speaking to me. “You’ll catch your death in this rain.” He led me into the empty church, the only place we could be indoors and still alone. I didn’t bother wiping my feet at the threshold. My uncle sat on the back pew and stared into his handkerchief with red swollen eyes, while I paced up and down the aisle, my arms folded in front of me, wondering how much of a mess I could make with my trail of dirty footprints. I found my eyes resting on the statue of the Virgin, her sweet tender face bent to the child in her arms. Swinging around sharply, I marched to the back of the church and sat beside my uncle, who took my hand. How could his hand be so warm? Mine was cold as a marble slab. All the fire had gone out inside me. I thought I would never be warm again, thought the blood inside my veins would freeze. My uncle looked at me, his damp hair falling in his face. I brushed it back for him, and he put his arm around me. “There’s nothing left for you here, Kathrin. You know that, don’t you?”
I set my mouth in a firm grim line.
“I want to send you away from here.”
At first I thought he was joking. “Give me your bicycle,” I said, speaking for the first time since breakfast. “I’ll ride to Switzerland and send you a card.” The Swiss border was thirty odd miles away.
“No, Kathrin. You’ll go farther than that. I’m sending you to America.”
I turned away from him, looking at the cheap oil prints of the stations of the cross. America was a myth to me. Like the North Pole. As distant as the place my mother had gone to. Five years ago my cousin Lotte had gone over. She had sent a few picture postcards of tall buildings like the spires of cathedrals, then silence. America was a place that swallowed you up, and you were never heard from again.
“There’s just enough money for your passage. You can live with Lotte. She’ll look after you and help you find work. Anyone with half a brain can find work over there.Here,” he said with a sharp outtake of breath, “here you’d just be a servant girl until you’re old enough to marry. That’s not what your mother would have wanted.”
I turned to him again, wrapping my arms around his neck, pressing my face against his wet wool coat. Already his voice sounded like it was coming from the other end of the world.
“You were always the best in school, Kathrin. You put the other children to shame. I didn’t spend all those years educating you just to have you marry some farmer who’ll treat you no better than a brood mare.” He spoke plainly. That had been my mother’s fate. Pregnant every other year until my father died. By that time her body had been too broken to make much use of her widowhood.
“You’re a bright girl. Too bright for this place. We’re different from the rest, you and I. We don’t fit the mold. For a man it’s hard enough, but for a woman . . .” He broke off. I thought again of my mother.
“You know you have to forget this place. Wipe it from your memory. Learn English as fast as you can. That’s the most important thing. As soon as you step off that ship, you’ll be an American.”
A vast sweep of brick warehouses and factories flew past me. Smokestacks reared into the air. It was so flat here. The sky had never seemed so close. My first view of Minneapolis was from the window of a moving train. We crossed a bridge over the Mississippi, brown and wide, with flat-bottomed barges carrying timber. As the boy opposite me opened the window to get a better look, a blast of cool spring air hit me in the face, and then I breathed in the city’s smell: the smell of coal smoke mingled with a musty, yeasty odor I could not identify.
When I stepped off the train, I saw a woman in her early twenties who was holding a piece of cardboard with my name scrawled across it in red crayon. I made my way toward her, this strange American who was the cousin I had not seen in five years. She wore a shiny pink dress with ruffles around the neck. Her waist was so tiny, cinched by her corset, I could have fit my hands around it, but her bosom rose above it, heavy, and powerful. With a figure like hers, she belonged in the country. Baking bread and raking hay with her strong arms. How out of place she looked here, standing in a railway station with paint on her face. At home if you painted yourself, they called you a loose woman. She was smoking. Back in our village, only men smoked. I stopped a few feet in front of her, put down my suitcase, held out my hand for her to shake. Wondering what I could possibly say to her and whether I should say it in English or German. But my cousin made things simple.
“Du bisch d’Kathrin,” she declared in a watered-down version of our old dialect. “I’m Lotte. That’s your only bag? Come along, we have to catch the streetcar. I hope you have a nickel for the fare.”
“Nickel?” I had never heard the word before.
“Five cents,” she explained, already exasperated. “We’ll room together at the boardinghouse. It’s cheaper that way. And you’ll work with me at the mill.”
When Lotte said mill, I pictured the old water mill in our village. But the next morning she took me to cavernous brick grain mills painted white as flour, so immense I could have fit my parents’ old farmstead inside them. The mills were clustered around St. Anthony Falls, straddling both sides of the Mississippi. Towering around me, they blocked the sun, just like the hills that surrounded the Höllental. They spewed smoke and pumped out that same yeasty odor I had noticed yesterday on the train. Of course, I thought. This must be the smell of flour.
“Don’t stand there with your mouth wide open.” Lotte tugged my sleeve. “People will think you’re some stupid little farm girl who never set foot in a city before.” E’ dumm’s Baremädele. She led me through an iron door into one of those brick fortresses. “This is the Pillsbury Mill, the biggest in the world,” she said. “Write home and tell them that.”
Following my cousin through a maze of electrically lit corridors, I thought of the story of the elves who lived inside the Zauberberg, the magic mountain. Red-faced, blue-shirted men pushed trolleys of grain. Watching them, I felt like a child at a fair. Even their curses sounded wondrous and strange, because they were in American English. I sneezed on the flour dust, which seemed to permeate every inch of the corridor. Like pollen, like snow in summer. The whole place hummed like a wasps’ nest. The smell of flour and machine oil filled my lungs. “Come on, we’ll be late.” Lotte grabbed my arm and marched me into a room with an impossibly high ceiling. Walls of bare brick, grimy skylights at the very top. I thought how hot it would be in summer, how cold in winter. The wooden floor was littered with fabric scraps, dust balls, and odd bits of thread that got caught on the hem of my skirt. This was like a giant schoolroom, except where there should have been desks, there were sewing machines, women and girls hunched over them. Some of them looked so young–twelve or thirteen–but they already had the hooded, dark-circled eyes of old women. They were speaking all languages, not just American. They were pumping the foot pedals of their sewing machines like someone trying to ride a bicycle up an impossibly steep hill.
“You’ll sit next to me,” Lotte said, steering me over to two battered machines in the far corner, within sniffing distance of the lavatory. “We sew flour bags.” She pointed to the crate of white cotton cloth on the floor between the two machines. “Take good care of everything. If you break a needle, they dock your wages. If you break the machine, they make you pay for it. You get five cents for each finished bag, so if you want to bring in five dollars a week, you better get cracking. If you’re good, you can bring in six a week, but while you’re new, you’ll be lucky to get four or four-fifty. Your half of the rent at the boardinghouse is two-fifty,” she added. “Just so you know.”
I sat on the wobbly wooden chair. The seat, at least, was comfortable, worn smooth and deep by the seamstresses before me.
“Here’s where you put the bobbins, and this is how you thread the needle.”
Too transfixed to listen, I stared at the sign on the far wall, the red letters big enough to be seen from every corner of the room. I tried to decipher the foreign words.
No Gum Chewing
No Eating or Drinking
Five Minutes Late Means Fifty Cents Docked from Your Pay
Be in Your Place at All Times
“Kathrin, pay attention! You’ll have to thread your own needle after this.”
“Yes, yes.” I ran a faltering hand over the machine and traced the gold letters stamped on the black cast iron, spelling out its brand name: Phoenix. What a name for a sewing machine! A firebird rising from the ashes.
“Kathrin, what are you looking at? Have you never seen a sewing machine before?”
“Mother never had one. I’m sure I could sew better by hand.”
“Foreman’s coming. Get to work.” Lotte put two lengths of white cotton, already stamped with the Pillsbury logo, under her needle. Her foot flew to the pedal, then the needle burst into motion, the bobbins oscillating wildly. A blur of white and silver. The rattle and hum of two hundred Phoenix brand sewing machines in the same room. Two hundred women and girls sewing away like mad. I gave my cousin one last desperate look, but her face was a mask of concentration. The dots of rouge on her cheeks stood out like streetcar lamps. I found myself staring at her pink taffeta blouse with its plunging neckline, displaying her breasts like melons at a market stall. I looked away and took a deep breath, inhaling Lotte’s perfume along with the stink of the lavatories.
I folded the edges of two pieces of fabric and pinned them together with the rusty pins sticking out of the cushion near my cousin’s machine. Sewing straight seams to make flour bags. The task sounded simple enough. At home I had sewn complicated things by hand. Smocked blouses, gathered skirts, embroidered chemises. Smoothing the fabric out, aligning it to the path of the needle, I put my foot on the pedal. At first so lightly that nothing happened. Then I put a bit more weight on it, started pumping it back and forth. The needle moved up and down like a hen pecking seeds. I moved the fabric along. My hands were trembling. I was practically biting my bottom lip off. Straight seams, any fool should be able to do this. I started pumping faster, trying to get into the rhythm of it. I broke into a sweat, the back of my dress sticking to my shoulder blades like wet leaves. The blur of silver as the needle speeded up, the fabric bunching underneath it, the thread bunching together, the needle jamming. I took my foot off the pedal and examined my handiwork. A string of swear words emerged from my lips, a vocabulary I had never even known I possessed.
Lotte lifted her foot from her pedal, dug a seam ripper out of her pocket. “Rip the thread out and try again.” Her words were cut short by a man’s voice, a flood of abuse so elaborate, it made my cursing sound like Sunday school talk. He was screaming at me in a language half-foreign, half-familiar. I turned in my seat to see a squat man with a drooping, snuff-stained mustache. This must be the foreman. His embroidered name patch said Sepp Buchmayer. With a name like that, he could only be Bavarian, which accounted for his barbaric dialect. He was yelling at the top of his lungs, but his speech went through me like air. My eyes froze on the ropy strings of saliva between his yellow teeth, the net of broken blood vessels in his bulbous nose. He was bending over me, grabbing my arm to illustrate his point, attempting to lift me out of my chair.
Lotte sprang between us, sticking her cleavage in the man’s face. I sank back into my seat and started jabbing at the bunched thread with the seam ripper. This isn’t America. This is a bad dream. By the time I had torn the thread out and spread the material under the needle, Lotte was in her chair again, smoothing her hair back into place. I reached out to her, but she slapped my hand away. “I saved your skin. He’s extra hard on new girls who haven’t proved themselves.”
How can you let that awful man come near you, I wanted to scream, but something in Lotte’s briskness told me to leave the subject alone. “Why didn’t he speak English to me?” I asked instead. “I could have been American for all he knew.”
Lotte sighed so heavily, she blew her pin curls off her forehead. “No one would ever mistake you for an American. An American girl would know how to work a sewing machine. Besides, I told him I’d be bringing you in today to replace the last girl he fired. It doesn’t take much to get yourself fired here. If you didn’t have me to look after you, you’d be out on the street.”
* * *
When we left the mill ten hours later, following the stream of men and women out the metal doors into the darkness, I could hear the rush of the falls, could see the yellow streetlights on the other side of the Mississippi, distant with comfort and promise. Black water streamed under the Stone Arch Bridge, where a train snaked away into the night. Something leapt inside me when I heard it whistle. A westbound train. I thought of cities perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, fabulous as fairy tales. I imagined the sun setting on an endless expanse of waves. This is America.
If I were a man, I’d run away and live like a gypsy. If I were a man, I’d never let the likes of Sepp Buchmayer lay a hand on me. I’d throw him against the wall and give him a good pounding for what he did to Lotte. But my cousin seemed to have forgotten the incident. She was adjusting her straw hat with the red satin cherries. A hand-rolled cigarette was sticking out of her painted lips at a jaunty angle. “Come along to the tavern,” she said. “It’s the best part of the day.”
Every night after work, Lotte went to Schmidt’s Tavern in Northeast Minneapolis, just a few blocks away front our boardinghouse. A cramped bar packed with mill workers, mostly German, mostly men. A dim place with weak gaslights and clouds of blue smoke rising to the pressed tin ceiling. The sawdust on the floor was slick with spilled beer the night I followed Lotte through the swinging glass doors. Half the men turned to look at her, greeting her by name. There was one free stool in the rear corner. I headed straight for it, sat myself down, and crossed my arms in front of my rib cage to make myself look as small and inconspicuous as possible. I didn’t like the look of those men. Eight o’clock in the evening and they were already drunk, pawing at my cousin, who didn’t even bother to push their hands away. One of them lurched in my direction. “Wer is’ denn de Gloane?” he asked Lotte.Who’s the little girl? Lotte calmly placed herself between us and pressed a glass of beer into my hand. “Let her be,” she said. “She’s just a kid.” Si ‘sch nur e’ Kind. “A good girl.” E’ brav’s Mädele. “Not your type, at all.”
I took a few sips of beer, but it was flat and lukewarm, acid in my empty stomach. Listening to the smattering of dialects around me, I wondered how I would ever learn English. “I don’t like to drink,” I said, passing the beer to my cousin.
“Suit yourself.” She raised it to her mouth, took a long swallow, then resumed her banter with the men. From my perch on the stool, I watched her flirting, teasing. When they flirted back, she seemed to open up and bloom. The flickering gaslight softened the rouge on her checks. At nine-thirty, when she finally whisked me off the stool, her eyes were luminous.
“We better go,” she said, “if we still want to get some supper out of the landlady.”
* * *
We ate our supper in the boardinghouse kitchen. The meal that night and every night thereafter consisted of a plate of stew. Gray strips of some unidentifiable meat mixed in with slimy bits of cabbage, turnip, and plenty of gristle. Half an hour after downing my portion, I ran to the lavatory, where it came out again, out of my burning mouth and down the sewer pipe.
“It’s because of the gristle,” Lotte told me when I joined her again in our closet-sized room. “That happened to me, too, in the old days, but then I got used to it. You just need to toughen up a little.”
I turned away from her and began to undress for bed.
“You know, for a kid, you’re not bad looking.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her stabbing out her last cigarette of the day into the overflowing saucer on the bedside table. “If you smiled a little more, you’d even be pretty.”
I threw my nightgown over my head, wriggled my arms into the sleeves. I didn’t feel the least bit comely. More like a stray dog with matted fur.
“You should be friendlier to the boys at the tavern.” My cousin spoke decisively. “A few of them liked the look of you.”
“I’m not looking for a boyfriend,” I said and proceeded to give my face a vigorous scrub with white soap and cold water at the washstand.
“That’s the only way you’ll ever get out of the mill.” Lotte pulled back the quilts on the iron-framed bed we shared, motioning me to crawl in beside her. “The only way out is by marrying. As soon as I find someone decent, I’ll leave this place. Just keep that in mind, Kathrin. I won’t be around to look after you forever. Sooner or later you’ll have to get yourself a man. It’s never too early to start looking.”
She shut off the lamp. “Good-night,” I said in English, just for the sake of speaking English. The only English I had spoken that day. I clung to my edge of the bed to keep myself from rolling into the sagging hollow in the middle. Shutting my eyes, I commanded myself to sleep, but every part of my body hurt. My neck and back ached from hunching over the sewing machine for ten hours. My stomach and throat were raw from the vomiting. I couldn’t imagine ever eating again. I would turn into a ghost, a wraith. Don’t feel sorry for yourself! I tried to use reason. Self-pity wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I tried to lecture myself like a stern schoolmistress. Lotte is right. You will grow a thicker skin. You will get used to this place. This is just the beginning.
Kathrin, Kathrin. In my head I repeated my name over and over. First with the German pronunciation. Kah-treen. Then the American way. Kath-run. It made me sound like a different person. A person who could talk back to Sepp Buchmayer in perfect American English, making him ashamed. When I finally fell asleep, I dreamt of a hollow mountain made of flour. Hollow mountains are full of treasure. Two hundred girls and women lived inside that mountain. Running down mineshafts with picks and shovels, searching for diamonds, searching for gold.
* * *
When I found out that the YWCA offered cheap English classes, I signed up immediately. This was what my uncle would have wanted. The teacher was a soft-spoken man in his early thirties who reminded me of him–a second-generation Swede named Peterson. I took that to be a good omen. I was determined to make him proud, make my uncle proud, too. The class was held four nights a week in a cramped room off Nicollet Avenue. There were too many students for the classroom’s forty desks, so if you came late, you had to stand in the back for the whole three-hour lesson. My classmates were mill girls, factory girls, and seamstresses. One girl sat all day in a sub-basement making cigarettes.
We came straight from work, drained and exhausted, and also hungry, because attending class meant skipping supper. I thought that learning could feed me like nothing else, and for a while, it did. I studied my grammar on the streetcar back to the boardinghouse, studied all Sunday after church. Even in the mill, I memorized vocabulary, conjugated verbs in my head as I labored away on my flour bags. I don’t know what inhuman energy was propelling me.
“Why?” Lotte kept asking me. “Where do you think it’s going to get you? Do you think anyone at the mill cares if you speak good English or not?” I ignored her. From April, 1912, when I started my English lessons, to March, 1914, when Mr. Peterson told me I didn’t need to come anymore, I was first in my class. I got a gold stamped certificate with my name penned in beautiful calligraphy. Only when my classes were over and my nights empty again did I begin to wonder if Lotte had been right.
Those spring nights in 1914, when the light stretched later and later into the evening, I began to take long solitary walks, going as far as the university. Those nights I asked myself questions, tried to answer them in my head. What is the difference between hunger and longing? On the surface the answer sounds simple enough. Hunger is a sensation of the body. Longing concerns the soul. But for me in that last spring before the war, before I became a woman and fell from grace, they were one and the same. I could not separate my hunger from my longing. I craved food, books, kindness, everything with a hunger that made me light-headed. Hunger and longing like a siren were leading me away from the straight and narrow, down the path of solitude and exclusion. My hunger drove me to ridiculous acts. By May, 1914, my hunger had grown unbearable.
I still have a photograph of myself taken in the spring of 1914. I keep it tucked away in my journal. A group portrait of some of the seamstresses at the mill. I am the skinny girl in back with the faraway eyes. Those days I spent most of my time somewhere else. Building, then inhabiting castles in the air. Walking to the university every evening after work, then taking the streetcar home was my only cure for hunger and longing. By the time I got there, the campus was deserted. I wandered the vast lawns and pretended my uncle was beside me, imagining the expression on his face as he took in those buildings with their pillars and marble floors. Once I mustered up the courage to go into the foyer of Walter Library, where I spent half an hour staring at the ceiling. It was like the ceiling of an old church, finely carved, painted blue, ivory, and gold, the colors of heaven. It was like the ancient Greek temples my uncle told me about. What was it he used to say? “Beauty is not a luxury but a necessity. It feeds the soul. You can die from too little beauty.”
When the rumbling in my stomach made me dizzy, I sat on one of the stone benches outside the library and opened the paper bag that contained my makeshift supper of stale bread roles and cheap waxy chocolate. Anything was better than the landlady’s stew, which still made me sick. I took a bite of chocolate and let it dissolve in my mouth, eating as slowly as possible to fool my stomach that I was getting more. I wanted this bit of food and peace to last as long as possible. Those spring evenings I came back to the boarding house later and later. Sometimes I dreamt of never going back. Lotte kept teasing me. “Have you finally found yourself a boyfriend?”
Before taking the streetcar back to my boardinghouse, I often stopped at Jelinek’s Antiquarian Bookstore, located on one of the side streets fringing the campus. In the front window they had the most beautiful goblets I had ever seen, made of brightly colored glass from Bohemia. That evening in early May when I came down the sidewalk, the last of the dying sunset was filling those goblets, making them glimmer like rubies, sapphires, emeralds, amethysts. I stopped and stared, holding my breath, until the brilliant colors danced and wove around me. Only when the colors were embedded in my vision did I turn and venture in through the noisy wooden door. The shop was like a cave. The area near the window was washed in the ruddy bars of the setting sun, but the farther you went into the labyrinth of bookcases, the more shadowy it got. In the very back, they had electric lights burning the whole day long.
I was fortunate in choosing Jelinek’s store as my sanctuary; any other shopkeeper would have shown me to the door. In my limp gingham dress and cracked shoes, I was unmistakably a mill girl. No matter how often I washed, I seemed to give off the odor of flour and sweat. But old Mr. Jelinek greeted me every night by name. “Evening, Kathrin.” From the thickness of his vowels, I knew he was also foreign born. Night after night he greeted me, even though I never spent a penny in his store. He knew I had no money, but he let me look at his books just the same. I handled them respectfully, tenderly, as if they were infants. I couldn’t afford to take any of the books home with me. It was enough to hold them, to leaf through their gilt-rimmed pages. I loved the dense tomes of Shakespeare with the lovely but impenetrable Renaissance English, those doomed heroines with their fanciful names. Desdemona, Cressida, Ophelia. Sometimes I glanced through the more modern novels and plays. Wilde, Shaw, and Zola. I knew these books were considered unseemly, even scandalous, but I never seemed to get far enough into them to understand why. Some nights I contented myself with more pedestrian works. That particular evening I was paging throughSloan’s Handy Hints and Up-To-Date Cook Book. It was the section of etiquette that interested me most. I tried to memorize the rules of how people behaved in polite society. “A gentleman should never take two ladies on his arm,” I read, “unless it is for their protection.”
From the other side of the store, I heard the door jangling open, light footsteps crossing the bare floorboards. Footsteps too light to belong to a man. A funny thing, Mr. Jelinek never seemed to get many women in his shop. This must be an important customer, I thought, because he was greeting her in his most cordial voice. The stranger was asking for a book she had ordered, a book in Russian, stating her request as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. She sounded too old to be a college student. Her speech had depth and breadth to it. She spoke as confidently as a man. Never in my life had I encountered a woman like this. Uncle Peter once told me there were learned women in this country, not just female university students but female professors. Until now I had never believed him.
“Your book’s right here, ma’am. Shall I wrap it up for you?”
“Yes, please. I’ll just take a brief look around the shop if I may. I haven’t been here in ages.”
Her swift footsteps were coming in my direction. I forced my eyes to focus on the page in front of me. “Your napkin is intended for your lips and beard only, not to wipe your face with.” The words hardly registered in my brain. I became aware of someone standing a few feet away. Slowly I lifted my eyes from the page until I saw the lady taking a book from one of the middle shelves and skimming through it, too immersed in her task to realize she was being observed. She was wearing a tailored suit of pale blue linen, the same color as the evening sky. I had never seen a woman’s suit in that tender, fragile shade of blue. She had an elegant figure–slender, not scrawny, not broken by factory work of childbearing. Her black hair was soft and waving, with a touch of silver in it, bound to the nape of her neck with a mother-of-pearl clasp. Her face was calm, serene even, like a statue of some symbolic figure: Peace or Justice. The book she was leafing through had colored illustrations of dragons, firebirds, and knights, but just then she shut the book, glancing up and meeting my stare head on. Her eyes were gray and starlike, quietly amused. Under her gaze, my throat went tight, as if I were choking on a mouthful of dust. I hid my face in my book, my eyes moving up and down the page, the etiquette rules floating around like disembodied voices. “When finished with your soup, do not turn the bowl upside down.” Behind these voices I registered the sound of the lady making her way to the front of the shop, chatting again with Mr. Jelinek. I pricked my ears, straining to follow the conversation, but it was drowned out by the back door swinging open and a clatter of wing tip shoes.
Mr. Jelinek’s nephew John came waltzing up to me with a broom in his hand. “The beautiful maiden of the mill!” he sang out, loud enough to startle the people on the street outside. I imagined the lady hearing that. Beautiful maiden of the mill. It was so ludicrous, I wanted to cover my face and burst out the door. John Jelinek was always inventing names for me. I put up with his teasing, because he reminded me so much of my dead brother. “How are you tonight, Kathrin?” he asked, a few decibels lower this time.
“Do you know that lady?” I whispered, nodding in the direction of the voices on the other side of the bookcase.
John whistled through his teeth. “The Professor’s widow.”
We viewed her through a gap in the shelf. Mr. Jelinek was wrapping up the Russian book for her. She paid him the full price of two dollars without even attempting to haggle.
“She’s our best customer,” said John. “If she ever moves away, we’ll go bankrupt.”
“She is not a professor herself?” I tried to keep the disappointment out of my voice. “A widow? Are you sure? She does not look like a widow.” She seemed as unlike a widow as any woman I had ever seen. There was no air of loss about her.
“Her husband died six years back. You can tell she’s lonely, all right.” John narrowed his eyes and sauntered off.
“Thank you very much.” It was the lady’s voice, smooth and clear as a church bell. The door squeaked open, then shut after her. I put Sloan’s Handy Hints back in its place on the shelf. I’ll go now. But before leaving the store, I sidled over to the exact spot where the lady had been standing and hunted the spines of the books until I found the one she had been holding in her gloved hands. It was, of all things, a book of fairy tales. That explained the beautiful pictures. I leafed through them, one by one. A brooding knight was riding off into a purple forest of tangled trees. A mermaid was weeping, her salt tears falling into the salty waves. Then there was a picture of a woman in a meadow, her long dark hair sweeping down to touch the flower-starred grass. The woman was so stately, she reminded me of the lady. Her eyes were the same shade of gray. The lady was holding a wand, and from the tip of that wand, a river of silver was flowing, a river of silver turning into gold.
“You’re so skinny, Kathrin.” John came up to me again. “I bet I could lift you off the ground with one arm.”
I snapped the book shut, then put it carefully back where I had found it. He’s just joking, I told myself. He means no harm.
He was holding something behind his back. “Close your eyes and hold out your hands.”
“I must catch my streetcar.”
“C’mon, Kathrin. Have some fun for once.”
Feeling like a child, I shut my eyes and held out my hands. I felt him putting something into my outstretched palms. Bread. I recognized the texture and weight. Opening my eyes, I saw a sandwich made of jagged slices of pan loaf with thick yellow cheese in the middle. My mouth filled with saliva. Before I knew what I was doing, I was bolting it down. There was sweet butter inside of the bread. Butter and not margarine. John hung by my side, eyeing me with an air of satisfaction. “Who feeds you when you’re hungry, Kathrin?”
“Thank you,” I said when I had swallowed down the last mouthful. Something about the way he was looking at me made me blink and glance away. “I must go. Your uncle will want to lock up.”
“I’ll walk you to your streetcar stop. You know you shouldn’t be going around the city on your own after dark. Especially with those fraternity boys running around.” He made a face. “Mama’s boys with soft white hands who never had to do a day’s work. They’re the worst. Hey, Jan!” he yelled to his uncle. “I’m walking Kathrin to her streetcar.”
Old Mr. Jelinek looked up from the ledger book. “You do that, John. Good-night, Kathrin.” He smiled at me in such a way, I wished I were his kin, too. I imagined being John’s sister, working in this forest of books. A grateful apprentice. I said good-night to Mr. Jelinek and followed his nephew out the door, treasuring their kindness, which was like an invisible shawl I could take home with me, a shawl shielding me from the cold stares I got on the street, the rude shouts at the mill.
“How are the flour bags?” John asked as we crossed to the streetcar stop.
“They are the same,” I said.
“Don’t you ever get tired of the mill?” He took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and offered me one. I shook my head and watched him strike a match against and lamppost and light up. He smoked thin elegant cigarettes, the kind the college boys smoked. How could he afford them? They didn’t make that much money at the bookstore. Maybe he filched them from the tobacconist on the corner. I wouldn’t put it past him. He was so confident, he could get away with anything. Even in his faded shirt with the celluloid collar, he managed to look smart, managed to make the college boys walking up and down the street look like overdressed buffoons. He was five years older than I was but so full of life, he made me feel old. That’s why I liked to think of him as a brother, teasing me and buoying me up. Not letting me sink too deep inside myself.
“That lady who came in tonight,” he was saying. “You should see if you can work for her. Ladies like that have secretaries and assistants.”
Sometimes John’s sense of humor took me a while to grasp, but I made myself laugh anyway. “Oh, yes. She will hire a mill girl.”
“I’m serious.” He sounded annoyed. “With all your schooling, you could do better than the mill. Or do you want to sew flour bags your whole life like some peasant?”
I turned my back to him. Teasing was all very well, but he had gone too far. The streetcar was coming around the corner. “Here it is,” I said. “Good-bye, John.” Across the street, Mr. Jelinek turned off the lights in the bookstore. Something dimmed inside me, as well. Why did John have to spoil everything, spoil my vision of that lady with his crazy talk, and fill my head with longings that could never be granted?
“Wait.” He grabbed my arm before I could walk away. I flinched a little. I wasn’t used to being touched anymore. Lotte and I never touched. “I’m dead serious,” he said, his hand on my arm, just above the elbow. “I’ll talk to her and see if I can arrange something, but you’ll have to get yourself a decent dress. That thing you’re wearing now looks like an old tablecloth.”
The streetcar screeched to a halt in front of us, silencing him and sparing me from having to think up an answer. I yanked my arm free and jumped in the back, clutching the rail. John was still standing there, looking at me. The expression on his face was somewhere between impatience and solicitude. He meant well, but he didn’t know that he’d struck me where it hurt the most. That my education had been for nothing, that I’d spend the rest of my life at the mill.
* * *
An hour later, as I lay in bed beside my snoring cousin, I tried to picture my mother’s face. I had no photograph, only memory. All I could see was the closed coffin in the muddy pit. When I tried to open it, I saw dirt, earth, a blank. It was hopeless. But I could conjure up the woman with the black hair. I could see her clearly as an image on a billboard. She was standing in a sun-drenched meadow with a wand in her hand, a branch of hazel, the wood used by diviners to find hidden springs, buried wells. I stared at the lady until she felt my stare, until she turned to me with those gray eyes like the Mississippi in November, but then I blinked, and she was gone. I remained alone in the meadow, except now I was holding the wand. It hummed in my hand like electricity, like a prayer.
* * *
I never expected to see that lady again. I even stayed away from the bookstore the next week, because I didn’t want to break the spell, didn’t want to hear any more of John’s meddling, however well intentioned. I wanted that evening preserved forever in my memory. The dying sun gilding the Bohemian glass and the scholarly lady’s voice echoing through the shop. The illustrations in the book of fairy tales, the colors as rich as if they had just been painted. And then John’s outburst: beautiful maiden of the mill. In retrospect, I relished the sound of it. My life was bearable if I could think of myself as the maiden of the mill. I pictured myself mistress of an old-fashioned water mill, the big wooden wheel revolving with the tug of the stream. In my fantasy, I did not work in the mill but just sat beside it looking picturesque, wearing a red dress, the kind worn centuries ago, the kind I had only seen in books. My apron was full of soft white bread, which I tore into pieces and threw to the swans, who curved their graceful necks to devour it before the millpond current swept it away. My daydreams grew so ornate, I sewed one jagged seam after the next.
After work I went walking. I headed over the bridge and across the river, past the mills and factories on the West Bank, past the North Star Blanket Factory with its big upside-down star. I went downtown toward Hennepin Avenue with the elegant buildings, the motor cars and delivery wagons, the businessmen bustling past shoeshine boys, the ladies with their powdered faces veiled against the sooty air. The smell of flour carried all the way downtown on hot and humid days. There was no escaping it. I tried to take comfort in the knowledge that even the rich had to breathe the same flour-smelling air as I did.
I walked as far as the downtown public library, but by the time I reached it, it was closed. They locked their doors at seven every night to keep out the derelicts. So I made my way back to the river, back across the bridge. Looking out over Nicollet Island, the big houses with their tidy lawns, the trees leafing out after the long winter, I watched the sun sink behind the smokestacks on the West Bank, the darkness falling over the river, the white walls of the Pillsbury Mills going russet in the sunset. If I hadn’t had to work there, I would have thought they were beautiful.
That night my room had never seemed dingier. I couldn’t lock or even close the door properly. The mildewed ceiling, the dirty pink wallpaper, the threadbare carpet, even the air was heavy and sour, smelling of the landlady’s stew and Lotte’s cigarettes. I sat on the edge of the bed, the mattress springs squeaking under my weight. As I leaned forward to unlace my shoes, I noticed an envelope lying on the bedside table, my name and address penned in a sloping, unfamiliar hand. The envelope was so crisp and perfect, I gave my hands a good wash before opening it.
When are you coming to the bookstore again? Did you forget what I was telling you? I have good news. The Professor’s widow will be expecting you at her house on Sunday morning, eight o’clock sharp, for an interview. I told her Sunday was the only day you have off from the mill. She has some things in German she needs translated. Here is her name and address:
Mrs. Violet Waverly
155 Summit Avenue
Get yourself something decent to wear.
My eyes froze on the lady’s address. Summit Avenue in Saint Paul. Wasn’t that were the rich people lived? I couldn’t believe any of this. John had outdone himself. I should have been ecstatic with gratitude, but I couldn’t help feeling that it must be some fluke, that I would only end up humiliating myself. Elegant ladies do not hire mill girls to do translations.
I slept fitfully that night. The next day I jammed the thread in my machine and had to spend nearly half an hour fiddling with it before it would run again. This did not escape Sepp Buchmayer, who came to stand behind me and breathe down the back of my dress. “Heiliger Birnbaum!” he screamed. “Stupid cow. If you don’t shape up soon, I’ll give your job to someone else.” I straightened my spine and went on with my work. My eyes were glued to my sewing, but what I really saw was the woman with the wand.
# # #
Excerpt from Summit Avenue by Mary Sharratt. Originally published by Coffee House Press.
Book Excerpt | Reader’s Guide