Sample text for Nothing here but stones : a Jewish pioneer story / Nancy Oswald.


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CHAPTER ONE

The loose thread on Papa's suit is getting longer. I've been trying hard to ignore it, but when I look at Papa's back, it waves at me like a tiny black worm. I want to reach out and pull it, but I'm afraid his coat will unravel like the threads of our lives, and there will be nothing left. If Mama were here, she would use a needle to weave that thread back into the fabric of Papa's suit, and it would look just like new.

When Papa sleeps, the thread disappears. It slides below the top of the seat when he scoots down to get more comfortable... usually at night when the only sound is the groaning of the cars and the clattering of the wheels on the track.

And the snoring. From all over the train, but especially from Etta Stokes. She sounds like Mrs. Washer's cow when it got loose and ran through the streets of Kishinev right into the middle of the Tsar's soldiers. It happened so fast, all I remember is the sound of the shot, a loud bellow, and blood on the cobbled street. Mrs. Washer screamed and started to argue, but one of the soldiers pulled out his whip and struck her.

"Stinking Jews," he said.

Papa's face turned to ashes when I told him. He looked slowly around our house, gazing first at Mama's sewing basket and ending with a long, quiet stare at the bookcase near the table where he taught his Hebrew students. Soon after that we began to pack.

Except for the snoring, I like night time on the train the best. Ruth curls up like a cat with her head on my lap, and after she goes to sleep I press my face to the window and look up at the glittery stars, imagining that one of them is Mama looking down from heaven to make sure we're all well.

Papa says it's not good to dwell on the dead. I try not to, but when Mama died, it left a hole bigger than the black night sky.

Little Leb is awake. Adar is looking back at me. Soon she will say, "Emma, it's your turn to hold your brother."

I don't want to. I really don't want to. My arms hurt, and my legs are tired. I have been bouncing Leb all the way from New York... for almost five days. But I can't say no to Adar. She will complain to Papa that I am not helping, and he will look at me over the rims of his glasses and raise up his eyebrows in a way that says, "What child of mine could be so willful?"

It's not that I am unwilling, but Adar gives me the baby every time he is awake. Those are the times he is squirming to be let down, and I have to bounce and play with him to keep him from crying. If he gets noisy, Etta frowns at me from across the aisle, and everyone else pretends they cannot hear. I can tell by watching Papa when it is bothering him. The back of his suit stretches tightly across his shoulders, and the little black thread stands up straight.

Papa says I shouldn't feel sorry for myself. "Look around you at all the other people. They have traveled just as far. You don't hear them complaining."

When I look around the crowded car, I know why they do not complain. They are too tired of traveling. Like me, they are ready to be off the train.

Mochel Kahn has just changed his seat. I think Adar is trying to impress him by cooing and smiling at little Leb. Adar cried when we left home. "Who will be my matchmaker in America?" she sobbed. She is sixteen, and I think she has time, but the worst thing she can imagine is dying an old maid.

"Wait until you are my age," Adar said to me one day on our long journey across the Atlantic Ocean. "You will worry too."

It is hard to imagine what things will be like in five more years. I can't even imagine ten minutes from now. From moment to moment, out the window of the train, things are changing. At first I thought everything in America would look like New York City, with shops and crowded streets, but I have discovered, the farther west we travel, that there are long stretches of nothing. Absolutely nothing. Places as flat as matzo.

I only hope the place we are going to is not so empty. Papa says it is land for farming. We will grow crops and own land. He says we are lucky because it is something we could not do in Russia. The Tsar would not allow it.

I think we will need more than luck. Before we left New York, I overheard Papa tell Benjamin Stokes that most of our money was spent to pay for the trip across the Atlantic and our expenses in New York City. The rest of the money has been sent ahead to Mr. Reis, who will have houses and equipment ready for us when we arrive in Cotopaxi.

Co-toe-pax-ie. The word hurts my ears. I can't get used to the English language-it sounds so sharp and stiff. I wish people here spoke Yiddish; it's much more like music.

Papa says we will have to learn to speak like Americans, but when I listen to Mr. Stokes translate for us, I think, he does not like it either. His words sound like an ax chopping wood into kindling.

"Where... is... the... train... to... Co-toe-pax-ie?"

This is what he said to the ticket salesman at the station in Pueblo. The man leaned forward and squinted between the bars of his cage. His eyes grew as round as Kiddush cups when he saw all of us standing there.

"Cotopaxi?" the man said, bending one ear sideways as if he could not believe what he heard.

Benjamin nodded, holding up our tickets. The man walked slowly out of his cage to the door of the station. He pointed to a set of tracks that faded away like little stitches on a quilt.

"Good luck," the man said, shaking his head as he returned to his work.

"Mazel tov," Mr. Stokes answered. He started towards the train, and everyone followed in a line. We were last: Papa, Ruth, Adar with little Leb, and me, like a caboose, at the end.

Mazel Tov. Mazel Tov. Mazel tov mazel tovmazeltov mazeltovmazeltov mazeltov. The sound of wheels on the tracks made my eyelids heavy, and I do not remember anything until Ruth pulled on my sleeve.

"Emma, the rocks are taller than the buildings in New York City!" I opened my eyes to see a crystal blue river shadowed by red rock walls that blocked the sun as the train crawled along the track.

I wanted to see the full height of the cliffs, so I opened the window and stretched out, twisting so I could look up. I felt a tug on the back of my dress.

"You're going to fall out." Adar yanked at me with her right hand, still holding little Leb with her left. A hot cinder flicked my cheek and I ducked back inside, hating the way Adar treats me...always like a child... always bossy.

"The rocks are like a giant's mouth. It's going to swallow us up!" Ruth said.

The taller the rocks, the slower we crept, inch by inch, cachug, cachug.

Adar buried her face in little Leb's neck, and I heard her say a quiet prayer.

For a few moments, the train stopped. We hung over the rapids with only the rails and a few timbers separating us from the water that rushed between the red rock walls.

Ruth squeezed my hand, and all through the car people began to talk nervously and point.

Benjamin Stokes wobbled unsteadily to the front of the car and stuttered his English words to the conductor. The conductor smiled and patted Mr. Stokes, who turned and spoke in Yiddish to Hannah and Sophie Shorr as they clung to each other near the center aisle, their faces white as the foam on the rapids.

Papa sat stiffly next to Adar, his shoulders squared and flat. The little thread on the back of his suit held its breath.

At long last I heard a hiss of steam coming from the engine of the train. First it came in long, slow gasps, then in short little breaths that finally heaved into a steady rhythm as the train picked up speed.

Adar stopped praying and opened her eyes; Hannah and Sophie scooted back to the window; the little thread on the back of Papa's suit began to jiggle up and down again. I did not realize that I had been holding my breath, too, and like the train, I exhaled and started to move again.

I looked backwards over my shoulder to see the hanging track where we had just been. The rocks closed in behind us like a large door shutting. Then I looked forward to the place we were going-the place that would be our new home. There was no turning back.

Adar handed Leb to me, and the angel of sleep must have been hovering over him. He leaned against my shoulder and his eyelids drooped. Ruth, too, managed to curl herself into a ball and squeeze her head onto my lap. The car was quiet now, and I wondered if everyone was looking out the window, like me, and thinking, "How will we eat all these rocks?" I wonder if, like me, they were wanting to go home.

"When we are in America," Papa had told me, "we will be safe from the Tsar's soldiers. In America we can own land. In America they cannot tell you where you must live, and they cannot put you in the army for twenty five years because you are Jewish."

The grass near the tracks leaned over, gray and thin, making me think of Grandma Rose when she said goodbye to us. "Why won't you come with us?" I asked her.

"I am too old to change," she said. "My people are here. My things are here. My heart is here."

My heart is there, too.

The train whistle would not let me think anymore. The wheels squealed, and the train slowed to a stop.

"Give me the baby," Adar said. She stood up, straightened her dress, and reached over the seat for him. Papa stood too, taking two bags from the rack above his head and one from below his seat.

I looked at Ruth, not wanting to wake her. Her lips curved into a smile, and she looked like she was dreaming of the sweet cake from the vendor in Denver where we changed trains. He did not even ask us to pay.

"Ruth." I shake her gently. She sits up and rubs the sleep from her eyes, then looks out the window and exclaims. "Why are we stopping? There is nothing here!"

I try to tell her that I have seen a few houses and scattered buildings, but now, from the window of our train, all we can see is a single building with a wide front porch. From the roof hangs a wooden sign with an American word which Papa says must be read backwards from left to right in a way that hurts my eyes.

"This can't be it," Ruth says with her nose still pressed to the window. I pull her away, and by the time I get our bundle from under the seat, the train car is as empty as a synagogue on Sunday.

I hurry to get off the train, bumping the bundle between the seats and pulling Ruth down the aisle. When I turn the corner to go down the steep steps, the rope of my bundle snags on the handrail, pulling me backwards. I fly forward off the bottom step, landing on the rocky ground beside the track. Ruth follows, landing on top me. Behind us comes the bundle, and a shower of our belongings.

I stand slowly, pulling Ruth up by the elbow and dusting off my dress. It is then I look at the group of people gathered on the platform. A man wearing a vest and torn shirt points at me and says something in English. The people near him laugh. He loops his thumbs into his belt, and there I see two guns dangling near his fingertips.

Suddenly, I think of Mrs. Washer's cow and the Tsar's soldier saying, "Stinking Jew."

I kneel to pick up our things: the embroidered challa and matzo covers, Kiddush cups and candlesticks, Papa's prayer shawl, and our best white tablecloths.

It is not even a minute later when the whistle blows again. The train pulls away, and I watch the conductor wave from the caboose and vanish inside. As he closes the door, I look down at the track. On the ground near my feet is Mama's prayer book and a picture of her in her white wedding dress. The picture lies in two pieces, sliced in half by the wheels of the departing train.

I pick up the pieces of Mama, the things from the broken bundle, grab Ruth by the hand, and follow Papa and the others to the waiting wagons.

Copyright © 2004 Nancy Oswald
This text is from an uncorrected proof.



Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Jews Colorado Juvenile fiction, Jews United States Fiction, Frontier and pioneer life Colorado Fiction, Colorado History 1876-1950 Fiction