"Hot corn, get your hot corn!”
Her voice cut through the clamor of Broadway but attracted no customers as she made her way south through the teeming crowd, bouncing her basket on her hip. When she reached the gates of the old fort known as Castle Garden, where the immigration center was, she flashed a smile at the guard, entered the premises and quickly sold her corn, several dozen ears, to the usual cast of hollow-cheeked immigrants. The stuff had been dried on the cob in the fall and had to be soaked two full days before boiling, but even so, it had tasted good to her, five years back, after the unrelenting porridge of the passage from Dublin. Here and there, ears that had been stripped clean lay discarded in the dirt, kicked up against the pillars, along with every other sort of garbage.
So she’d sold her corn, but it didn’t earn her much, just pennies a piece. She didn’t mind. Selling hot corn wasn’t why she’d come. Hot-corn girls were notorious for rounding out their incomes by stepping into corners and lifting their skirts upon request, but that wasn’t the sort of compromise Beatrice had chosen to make. She’d found another way to save up the money to bring her younger brother over, and to keep her dignity, too.
“That was fine, miss,” said a boy, politely swallowing a belch. “Have you got any more?”
He was just about her brother’s age. Her voice had sounded that Irish when she had first arrived. Now it was more flexible; she could show her brogue or not, depending on the situation. She let her voice lilt just enough to tell him he was at home there, too, but her answer was no, and she didn’t crack a smile. She had too much to do to linger with him.
She and her friend Fiona generally hit the disembarking passengers together. They were good, the two of them, could make more money as a pair than the rest of the girls in the gang put together, not least because they had fun doing it. They’d never been arrested, not even once. The jobs they pulled brought in plenty of money, but half the take went to their boss, just for starters, and then they split the rest between them. It was better than piecework, but it was taking too long for her to save up enough for Padric’s ticket. She worried about what would become of him if she didn’t send for him soon. And so she had been pleased to learn that morning that Fiona was needed to help on another job, leaving Beatrice free to go out solo. A small lie or two when the gang did their weekly accounts would mean she could keep four times as much as on a usual day, bringing Padric over that much faster. The only problem was, it was also far more perilous, since it wasn’t just the cops she had to worry about, but the boss as well. He would break her fingers if he ever discovered she’d kept his cut for herself.
She took a sharp breath and stashed her basket behind a vast pile of luggage. The day was raw, and she was freezing. To do what she was going to do, she needed her hands to be warm and nimble. Her fingers fluttered in the dank harbor air, then vanished into her dress, leaving the sleeves of her overcoat dangling empty. Her hands darted past cheap gabardine and worn shirting and came to nestle in the heat, the musk, the fine damp hairs of her armpits. Soon her fingers were starting to feel warm. But her arms were trussed, and all she could do, when a gust of wind worked a copper strand loose from its braid and whipped it in her face, was snort and shake her head. Through it all, she watched the steamship’s tenders as they were loaded up with trunks, then passengers.
The first-class passengers had long since gone through a genteel version of immigration and customs on shipboard; their tender landed them at a well-appointed West Side terminal, not Castle Garden. Steerage would be last off, as usual. But a ship this size carried people of every level of wealth and class, and her targets, the second-class passengers, would be the first to disembark here. As the tender bumped against the pilings, Beatrice extracted her hands from her armpits, stuck them nonchalantly back through her sleeves into her pockets and began to move. Her eye followed the parade of ribboned hats and horn-handled canes that parted the crowds in the frigid brick rotunda.
“As if there weren’t enough of these people already,” said a woman in a high velvet toque with a nervous thrust of her chin at the crowds of steerage passengers from earlier ships. Her husband winced and nodded. They’d just spent the season in London. Before the war, they had traveled first class and never had to set foot in Castle Garden, but most of her money was Southern—which was to say diminished since the War Between the States—and they’d been forced to make concessions.
Beatrice shed her hat, let down the braids that had been twisted under it and adjusted her posture and face in subtle ways that stripped her of nearly a decade in a handful of seconds: She was suddenly quite a little girl. The second-class couple emerged at the north gate, relieved, with sighs and murmurs of “Ah, New York, so good to be home!” At the curb, while the coachman raised their trunks to his roof rack and the gentleman made to hand his lady up onto the tufted leather carriage bench, Beatrice pressed forward. With her hand outstretched, she said, “Welcome to America, sir, miss! Have you anything extra to help me and my ailing mother?”
The couple looked away—he to the side, his wife to him. That was the trick, of course: to force them to look away.
Beatrice’s fingers were as fast as her eyes seemed innocent. Watches were her specialty, but this time she focused on the lady, who wore a pin on her lapel that reminded Beatrice of her mother’s long-gone gold-rimmed brooch. She wasn’t sure how good it was, how much it would bring, so she also grabbed the silk and suede wallet that protruded from the gentlewoman’s muff, which turned out to be bulging at the seams, though some of the currency was foreign. Then Beatrice was gone, and the couple was grateful. The horse left a loamy turd steaming on the pavement as it strained against its harness. The wheels ground forward. They were halfway home before they realized what they’d lost, at which point Beatrice was just pushing through the swinging doors of Marm Mandelbaum’s pawnshop, wondering what price she’d have to accept on the brooch in exchange for the old shrew’s discretion.
Asleep in the dark, with his limbs tucked up against his belly for warmth, he had made himself small, just a fetal lump in the middle of his narrow pallet. His blankets were topped by his overcoat, and he’d tucked the whole pile tightly around himself to keep it from sliding off into the night. The floor of the tack room had been strewn with hay, the wall by the bed decorated with a couple of nails from which, on warmer nights, he might have hung his clothes. The horseshoe propped upright on a crossbeam above his head was a relic of a previous tenant’s superstitions. There was little in that room to suggest who he was, this stableman, except perhaps the worn cashmere and shredded silk lining of his coat—it had been a fine garment, once. And on the narrow shelf made by another beam, a bowie knife and a few whittled figurines: a bear, a gorilla and a strange hybrid creature, like a griffin, but of his own imagining, composed of assorted parts of the exotic creatures he cared for.
It was no ordinary stable where he worked. The horse stalls were inhabited not by hacks but by dancing white Arabians, and there were no cows at all, but an orangutan, a giraffe, a python, a tiger. He had never expected this land of dreams to be quite so dreamlike, so uncanny. The job he had landed through the Labor Exchange was certainly not what he’d imagined doing in America when he’d left home. What he wanted to do was build cathedrals or, barring such glory, churches, houses, even roads. That was his training and, what with the constant stream of immigration to New York, he’d been sure there would be work for a man with experience in the building trades. It hadn’t been so easy, though. So there he was at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, shoveling dung and hay and whiling away his few bits of spare time carving figures from odd chunks of wood he found lying about.
His other possessions included a second shirt, some extra socks, a sack of apples and a guidebook to New York with a picture postcard tucked between its pages, one side showing an elegant bath hall at Baden-Baden, the other a stamp, a postmark from a decade before, a name and address, a message. His mother had sent her love, said the weather was fine, she was feeling much better and she would be home soon: the usual. Only the name above the address was notable—for its difference from the one by which the stableman was now known, on his documents and to his employers. He didn’t worry about anyone putting that together, though. Sometimes even he was incredulous at the great distance that lay between his present self and that boy who had been missed by his mother at Baden. How far was it from Germany to New York? He wasn’t exactly sure. It wasn’t a journey he’d ever meant to take. Things had happened to him, and he’d responded. Now he was here.
Was he happy? Not by a long shot. But not sad either. It was more that he was waiting for the next phase of his life to begin. In the meantime, his face and features were locked and shuttered like a shop at sundown, cinched tight like a burlap sack of onions with the drawstring knotted and wound around. When he was awake, he was cautiously optimistic—he’d landed on his feet more than once before. While he slept, he snored. And all around him in the stable, buzzing flies joined the noise, awakened from their quasihibernation by a warmth premature for the season and puzzlingly at odds with the weather outdoors.
That was the first alarm that something was amiss—a quiet one. The stableman was sleeping too deeply, dreaming too hard, to hear it. The clear screen of his cornea refracted the image of his optic nerve, and he saw backward into his own mind. The veins were like road maps leading to the time when he’d had a family, friends, a proper home. But that night the subject of the magic-lantern show flashing through his brain was nearer to hand: a sightseeing jaunt he’d taken on his last day off.
He’d been walking back from the Battery when he first saw the girl. She was an average young woman hawking corn from a basket. He’d just eaten. But suddenly he found he was hungry, even for one of those mushy lukewarm ears of corn. The stuff was sold on every street corner by hot-corn girls of every variety: black near Union Square and Irish at the Battery, German further north and east. Wherever he went in New York, there was always one of them singing the same song, but he’d never heard it sung so nonchalantly, so appealingly.
“Hot corn! Get your hot corn! Here’s your lily-white corn.”
And so a woman was conjured into being while he slept, conceived from his memory of seeing Beatrice on the street and a certain strain in the position of his limbs. But then the pleasure of the dream was stymied by the same frustration he’d felt that day at the crowded corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane. There she was, hawking her corn, but just when he’d nearly caught her, she slipped away from him into the crowd. In his sleep, in the tack room, which was filling now with smoke, he thrashed. Shouldn’t he get to taste her corn, if not to hold her, he wondered, at least in his dream? Something had ignited within him, just as the building he slept in so soundly was going up in fire. Oh well, there will be other hot-corn girls, he thought, never guessing, asleep or awake, that the skirts of his fate swished around that very hot-corn girl’s ankles.
She’d disappeared on him, but the heat she brought on remained. At least he was no longer cold, he thought, middream. He was standing before a roaring fire, a marble mantelpiece, a gleaming brass fender. He was back home in Germany, a boy in his father’s parlor. His mother was serving tea. But no, he’d gotten rid of his whole complicated past—or tried to. The dream flickered again.
He’d made it to the new world in steerage—no fine Meissen china anymore—and found himself a bed and a job. He was starting over. Barnum’s stable was a good enough place to wait for spring, when he could go out and look for building work. He thought of Raj, the Bengal tiger, who’d lain shivering in his fourth-story cage in the museum when last the stableman made his rounds. Of all the animals he cared for, Raj was the one he most identified with—his grace and frustration, his power and imprisonment, his obvious desire to burst forth and do something grander than slouch around Barnum’s. He could devour the world if he weren’t chained up in that cage. The stableman felt the same way. He was aware that, cold and poor as he was, the bottom was miles below. What he didn’t see, though, our stableman, was how close he lay to the edge of that abyss, how soon he was going to roll off into it.
That early March night had been frigid, so what then was this feeling that crept over him now—heat? Baking, burning heat. Could it be, he wondered, that he’d frozen to death? If so, he thought, Hell wasn’t quite what the faithful imagined. There was no settlement, no knowledge. Ignorance of Heaven and God persisted, but more cruelly—devoid now of any suspense or hope. Nor, yet, was it the nothingness that he’d expected.So what was going on? The smell of burning horsehair reached him next, and he glimpsed where he was: in a stable. Not Heaven, not Hell, not with the girl from his dream; but neither was this his father’s house in the city or his uncle’s farm. He began to identify the sounds that had roused him: animals’ screams, the trumpeting of an elephant, the banging of animal bodies into metal bars and latched stall doors. He was in the circus stable of Barnum’s Museum, on Broadway, in Manhattan. Yellow flames jetted up in one corner through the smoke that billowed around him. The splintery barn wall by his cot was hot against his cheek; dark wisps of smoke swirled into every orifice. Barnum’s was on fire.
From the Hardcover edition.