Volume 1
An Online Literary Magazine
July 25, 2008


Stone Lambs


Jana Harris


e climbed out of the ship’s darkness. My hand a small pink seashell in her much larger hand. With her other arm Mother cradled the sleeping baby between her neck and shoulder. He was the size and softness of a loaf of bread.


Suddenly everyone started shouting. The rancid fat smell of the hold disappeared. One of my sisters lifted me up to see a tall lady the color of the sun rising out of the harbor. I would have been frightened if my mother hadn’t been so happy. She adjusted her black scarf, checked its hard knot under her chin. The harbor lady wore a strange head scarf of many spikes. Mother pointed: See her torch. A statue of a school teacher? one of the girls asked. Another said: Maybe in New York, this is the Virgin Mary. Everyone was yelling the one English word we all knew, America. The sea filled with diamonds; my eyes felt weak. It had been so hot below that I had cried all night. Men had smoked their pipes, which made my tears sting.


The crowd pushed toward the bow. I was just a tiny tot unused to walking far, so I grabbed the hem of Mother’s coat next to a clot of coins she’d sewn inside it. “Don’t let go or I’ll lose you forever,” she said.


A tugboat met our steamer and an immigration inspector came aboard to see if any of us were diseased. We walked single file past him. Our baby cried and soon began to wail. The immigration officer had the meaty face of boiled brisket. He stared at mother, then at the baby, but seemed not to notice me, a good boy old enough to know better than to bleat at the top of his lungs. The officer waved us forward. We stood in another line for so long that I began to think Mother looked like the colossal lady.


All seven hundred of us aboard were taken by barge to a pier where a mountain of luggage loomed at a frightful angle. Finally one of the girls found our trunk, which we stood beside until a bald customs agent unbuckled each leather strap, tossed our belongings with a stick, closed the lid, and struck the top with a white chalk line.


Next we were herded into open wagons and taken with our trunk to the Immigrant Depot. Larger than a steamship out of water, the stone fort had circular walls and massive beams. Inside, we again stood in line. Raising my arms, I begged mother to pick me up. What had happened to my father? I had no memory of him, just a vague image of a man in a hat.


We were prodded into an endless narrow hall, walls as high as the icebergs our ship had sailed past. Slowly we approached a tall cadaverous inspector whose blue uniform smelled like wet sheepskin. He said something we couldn’t understand, then motioned mother and the girls to pass. Pulling me aside, he studied my red swollen eyes. A clerk with a huge head and short arms held me while another clerk in a white coat pulled at my eyelids again and again with a silver button hook. In between times he consulted a manual. “Paving stone appearance,” he wrote. “Evidence of granulation.” He cleared his throat: “Sandy Blight.” Later this was translated for us. Mother waited for our paperwork to be stamped Admitted. An inspector pushed us into a shorter line that led to a room where people lay on their coats on the stone floor.


Why could we not continue out the iron gate into the city streets like everyone else? Mother did not understand. She had train tickets for Chicago. I had seen her show them to the women aboard ship. The baby wailed. My sisters stared at their hard black shoes. The cadaverous man stamped our paperwork Detained.


Finally after the sun had set in the small windows way up near the roofline, a translator, Mr. Becker, was located. Fine-boned as a child, he would not stop staring at me. He stood between a doctor and a customs officer as he told Mother that I would have to be sent to a hospital until my eyes healed. Otherwise, it was likely I would go blind and spread Trachoma to every American.


“Trachoma?” Mother’s brow creased.


Mr. Becker continued as if she hadn’t spoken: I could not be admitted to the United States, he told her.


The United States? We had boarded a ship for America. Worse, my mother had no money for a hospital. She had our train tickets.


Did we have a sponsor? Could a relative be located? There was a lot of head shaking.


It seemed that, because of my eyes, I would be excluded, sent back on the steamer’s return trip. The law said that the shipping company would have to pay. I was barely three, too young to go alone, so Mother would have to accompany me and pay a fare. Now both she and the baby cried. My sisters rubbed their noses on the pointed ties of their scarves, which wilted. While all this was going on, Mr. Becker continued to stare at me, his small pig eyes rooting holes in my chest.


In the end, Mother, the baby, and the girls were admitted. I was detained in the immigrant hospital. Mr. Becker helped Mother sell the railroad tickets to pay for a month of cure. Even though the brick hospital felt stark, I was given a blanket and my own bed; the first time I’d ever slept alone, which frightened me. I cried all the time. My eyes became more inflamed. Every morning one of the nurses, bent grandmotherly women, rubbed my inner lids with bluestone, a stick of powdery copper which burned worse than a cinder and turned my eyes crimson.


The smudges beneath Mother’s eyes darkened with each visit. I was in an upstairs ward with other detained children. A girl who’d had measles onboard our ship now had developed Bright’s Disease; a boy who’d tripped on deck and hurt his leg, the wound turning septic. The doctor, a corpulent man with a belly like St. Nick’s, was not at all jolly, his face so red it verged on purple. When the girl with the diseased kidneys caught scarlet fever, our ward was quarantined from the other children who suffered a variety of complaints: favus, ringworm, brain dropsy.


After a month, my eyes showed no improvement and Mother had no more money to pay for my cure. The doctor raised his hand to mark my paperwork Deported. Mother cried bitterly. My sisters remained outside in the street caring for the baby. Mr. Becker, who always seemed to be lurking nearby, said he had a solution. He knew of a charitable family who would take me in—part of an auxiliary to the Immigrant Benevolent Society.


I hadn’t seen the ivory buttons of Mother’s smile since we arrived here. The agreement was that Mr. Becker would send for her when I was cured, but until then, the sheltering family was not to be disturbed.



hat’s how I came to live with Mr. and Mrs. Tubbs in the brownstone on Joraleman Street. Their house had a copper elm in front and a gardener’s cottage in back. Inside, every window was covered with white veils. My room upstairs overflowed with toys and looked as if I had always lived there. I had a cannon that shot real balls at lead soldiers I thought were customs agents. The most magnificent thing was a portrait of me inside a heavy gold frame that hung on the wall.


At home I had amused myself in the cellar with potato sacks, thumped the squashes kept in bins. I missed the dark smell of fresh earth. Except for the hospital, I’d never been in a building with a second story, let alone been asked to sleep in a room by myself.


They called me Frankie. Helga, the maid, called me Lucky. I liked her, she had a face as flat as a cookie and hair like whipped egg whites. Verity, Mrs. Tubbs, looked like a doll with hair as fine as corn silk. She was taking the rest cure and stayed in bed. When Poppa first brought me to her room, she sat up with an excited expression. “Oh, there you are. I’ve been waiting for you for the longest time.”


Poppa, a jovial man with a huge carrot-colored mustache, managed a crutch and cane manufacturing company owned by his father-in-law, Colonel Franklin, who’d suffered a stroke of paralysis. When Poppa went to work, he wore a tall black hat and carried a shiny black stick.


The affliction in my eyes vanished. I was allowed out of my room, dressed in short pants and a plaited blouse. Meanwhile, I’d begun to talk and to learn English. I waited for Mother, eager to show her how well I could ask to be picked up. No longer would I have to raise my arms. Every time Helga answered the door, I stood ready with my lead soldiers in my pockets. I’d grown fond of playing with them and didn’t want to leave them behind.


I was seldom permitted entry to Verity’s room. My visits over-excited her, Helga said. I warmed to Verity; she let me watch her while she crocheted doilies. They reminded me of snowflakes and I found them strangely comforting. Sometimes I snuck into her room and we played with her porcelain miniatures which she kept in a glass case. “I have the entire Spanish Hapsburg Court,” she told me, “including Prince Balthazar.”


Daily I would watch for my chance to get in to see her and play with the Prince and his regents. All these years later, I’ll never forget how she cocked her little sparrow face and said, “You know, you do look just like him.” She was my only playmate. I watched as men with black bags came and went from her room mumbling to Helga.


Once while Poppa was smoking a cigar with his feet propped up on a carpeted stool, I asked him about my mother. “She’s upstairs,” he said.


Not Verity, I told him, my mother. When would she come for me as Mr. Becker had instructed her to do?


Poppa’s face grew pink, his cheeks ballooned. “Never mention your life before you entered this house,” he said sternly. “Verity is delicate. Don’t you dare hurt her.” With his arm like a yard stick, he swung at me.


I fell to the floor, terrified, then began to wail. Helga ran in and picked me up, pressing my face into the stiff white apron that covered her black dress.


“I cannot abide an ungrateful child,” Poppa said in a voice razor sharp.


I didn’t want to harm the doll lady in bed upstairs, so was afraid to say much of anything after that.


Poppa had a library in his smoking room, and I began to try to teach myself to read, but mostly I looked at atlases trying to find Chicago. Often I would sneak into Verity’s room with one and ask her about the place names. “Oh, what fun,” she said. “Let me show you where Prince Balthazar lived.” Even her smile smelled like lilacs. I ached to remember my life before coming to the house on Joraleman, but slowly, as I learned to speak English, it faded from memory.


One day when I was just grammar school age, I stopped at the window, contemplating the sheer lace curtain panels—if I was good, Helga would let me stroke them. Then I noticed a woman lingering in front of our brownstone. My eyes flew to the scarf on her head. That tilt of the triangle that covered her hair, how it angled away from her forehead instead of sheltering her. It was as if her face were a lantern into a day I had not realized had been dark. I recalled the morning I had emerged from the ship’s hold to see the colossal copper lady holding a book and a torch.


The woman on the street—sturdy as an elm and tall—walked up our stone steps. I held my breath as I heard the clap of the brass door knocker. Helga answered. I crouched in a recess off the entryway where coats were hung out of sight.


She spoke to Helga in broken English. After “hello,” I couldn’t make out the rest, but I think she asked a question. Helga’s voice turned sharp: scat, she said. “Valdyslaw,” screamed the woman. The door banged shut in her face. When Helga spun around and saw me standing there she scooped me into her arms, and ran up the stairs, locking me in my room.


That voice, I knew it. Valdyslaw, rang in my ears.


I banged on my bedroom door, then kicked it and pounded the parquet floor. Pulling the sheets off my bed, I tore them with my teeth. Valdyslaw had been my name.


Poppa was sent for. When he arrived, he told me, “Frankie you’ll damage your mother’s health if you carry on any longer.” But that had been my mother at the door, the woman Helga had chased away like a stray cat begging kitchen scraps.


After that, on my way to school—always accompanied by Helga—we walked a different route each day through the park. Black swans patrolled the pond where I sailed the boat I’d been given for my birthday. Whenever I saw a woman sitting on a park bench wearing a triangle scarf tied with a well-proportioned knot under her chin and a certain look in her feathery hazel eyes, I was filled with longing.


That was also when I began to recall shadows of my past. Poppa called them nightmares. “Frankie, if you don’t stop screaming in the wee hours, you’ll kill your mother,” he warned.


I could not. The dreams had begun when I’d heard my mother calling my name, too big a mouthful for a tot to say or even remember. In my sleep I saw bending wheat grass, a village, the thatched roof of our tiny house sitting low to a street rutted with mud and clogged with carts. We must have lived in a cellar, because I recall the smell of damp clay and spiders that wove endless beautiful white webs.


In another dream, I was sitting with Mother on the porch in sunlight as she tied white threads, knotting them into a strange geometry of flowers and birds. There wasn’t room for me in Mother’s lap. When I thumped her apron it made the same thudding noise as when I knocked on a squash. Soon a lump of dough appeared in our bed. Mostly it slept, but in between times it wailed.


I remembered rain, the mud turning absolutely black. Across the street, the porch roofs sagged. There was a house of wooden panels trussed with crossrails, like x’s, and a crossbuck door. I recalled so clearly those wooden x’s. A man stood in front of the door across the boggy road where I was told never to wander. The man had a beard and wore a hat. He seemed oblivious to the soldiers who came riding down the street on black horses, manes and tails blowing like flags.


A cavalry officer stopped in front of the door where the man lingered. The officer patted his horse’s neck with one gloved hand, then drew a knife from the side of his belt and slashed an x across the neck of the man who stood motionless. The soldier spurred his horse and trotted away. Slowly the man fell to his knees. Red gushed from his throat and down the front of his collarless shirt.


I don’t remember anything else, other than being on the boat, tiers of berths with many people on each mattress, a dark hold more crowded than our cellar had ever been. Waves as tall as houses rocked us. My stomach rose into the back of my mouth. Vomit was everywhere, everyone’s mixing together. All I wanted was a drink of water.



very time I dreamed of the man with a red x slashed into his throat, I woke up in a screaming sweat. Helga rushed into my room to quiet me so Verity wouldn’t hear.


About six months after my mother had appeared at the door, things started going wrong at the crutch and cane factory. Poppa had to discharge workers. Men with hair that looked chewed by dogs knocked at our door. A week later when old Colonel Franklin died, Poppa stared at me as if I’d taken a kitchen knife and drawn an x across his father-in-law’s throat.


I kept hearing Mr. and Mrs. Tubbs arguing behind her bedroom door. “I don’t want you to go to the cemetery,” Poppa told his wife. “You know how upset you got the last time.” Doctors delivered prescriptions for Verity. Whenever I snuck in to see her, the doll-lady was so fast asleep that I could not wake her.


“The poor grieving woman,” Helga said. She didn’t think that I should go to Colonel Franklin’s funeral either, but Poppa insisted: I was a big boy; besides, I had been named for the old man. We sat in a black carriage as shiny as a rooster’s tail, lanterns lit though it was a sunny morning in August. I wondered if Prince Balthazar had ever ridden in such finery.


As grownups gathered around Colonel Franklin’s open grave, I sat down next to a stone lamb and caressed its soothing marble back, its little cloven hooves, the stub of its tail. I kissed its bald eyes, my fingers tracing the swirls of a stone ruff around its neck. In the sun, its body felt surprisingly warm. At any moment the lamb might nibble my hand.


Then I noticed writing below the lamb’s chest. Chiseled into the white marble was my American name. Franklin Tubbs: Born on my birthday party day. Died 1887. My breath stopped. I felt the cold waters of the Atlantic pour over my head.


Mourners threw handfuls of dirt into the grave. No one saw me slip away. I ran as long as I could and finally reached the pilings of the Brooklyn docks. The granite towers and looping cables of the celebrated bridge looked like a perilous contrivance. With all the power within me I willed myself to cross, then walked for endless blocks in her direction.


I had not seen the colossal copper lady since that day on the steamer. If I was going to find my mother, I had to know what she looked like: The heavy brow, the straight flat nose, the well-muscled arms. The statue was still the color of the sun, but green tears now ran down her cheeks. I sat and stared into the harbor at her torch, her book, the spikes of her head scarf.


What did I really know about myself? First name: Valdyslaw. Surname: Known but to God. Country of origin: Where the black earth of the steppe gave way to strips of wheat, square thatched dwellings, and hardly a tree. Father: dead. Mother: lacemaker. Arrived in the United States: aboard the S.S. Unremembered.


Then I began to wonder: What had happened to the rest of them, the other infirm, detained, and excluded children? There must have been an army of us. Lambs without language or history or name; our pockets empty, except for one single word of English—that gold coin, that light unto our path, America.




This story is dedicated to Judith Johnson and to Harry Smith


Jana Harris is an award-winning poet, short story writer, essayist, and novelist. She is the founder of Switched-on Gutenberg, one of the first on-line poetry journals. Her first novel Alaska was a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection. She is currently working on an autobiographical novel about her life with horses. She teaches for the University of Washington and The Writer's Workshop.







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