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I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.
My father ran off when I was three years old. He emptied the rent money out of the biscuit tin and took my mother’s only piece of silver—a tarnished sugar bowl she’d found in the rubble of a Third Avenue fire.
“Don’t go . . .” Mama would call out in her sleep, begging and pulling at the blanket we shared as if it were the sleeve of my father’s coat. Lying next to her, I’d wish for morning and the hours when she’d go back to hating him. At least then her bitterness would be awake enough to keep her alive.
She never held my hand in hers or let me kiss her cheeks. If I asked to sit on her lap, she’d pout and push me away and say, “When you were a baby, I held you until I thought my arms would fall off. Oh, Child, that should be enough.”
I didn’t mind. I loved her.
I loved the way she’d tie her silk scarf around her head and then bring the ends of it to trail down her neck. I loved how she’d grin, baring her teeth all the way up to the top of her gums when she looked at herself in the mirror, how she’d toss her shawl around her shoulders and run her fingers through the black fringe of it before setting her fortuneteller’s sign in the window for the day. The sign had a pretty, long-fingered hand painted right in the middle, with lines and arrows and words criss-crossing the palm. The Ring of Solomon, The Girdle of Venus. Head, heart, fate, fortune, life. Those were the first words I ever read.
It was my father who gave me my name. Mama said it came to him at a place called Pear Tree Corner—“whispered by a tree so old it knew all the secrets of New York.” The apothecary who owned the storefront there told my father that he could ask the tree any question he liked and if he listened hard enough it would answer. My father believed him.
“Call the child Moth,” the twisted tree had said, its branches bending low, leaves brushing against my father’s ear. Mama had been there too, round-faced and waddling with me inside her belly, but she didn’t hear it. “It was the strangest, most curious thing,” my father told her. “Like when a pretty girl first tells you she loves you. I swear to God.”
Mama said she’d rather call me Ada, after Miss Ada St. Clair, the wealthiest lady she’d ever met, but my father wouldn’t allow it. He didn’t care that Miss St. Clair had a diamond ring for every finger and two pug dogs grunting and panting at her feet. He was sure that going against what the tree had said would bring bad luck.
After he left us, Mama tried calling me Ada anyway, but it was too late. I only ever answered to Moth.
“Where’s my papa?” I would ask. “Why isn’t he here?”
“Wouldn’t I like to know. Maybe you should go and talk to the tree.”
“What if I get lost?”
“Well, if you do, be sure not to cry about it. There’s wild hogs that run through the city at night, and they’d like nothing better than to eat a scared little girl like you.”
My father had thought to put coal in the stove before he walked out the door. Mama held onto that last bit of his kindness until it drove her mad. “Who does such a thing if they don’t mean to come back?” she’d mutter to herself each time she lifted the grate to clean out the ashes.
She knew exactly what had happened to him, but it was so common and cruel she didn’t want to believe it. Miss Katie Adams, over on Mott Street, had caught my father’s eye. She was sixteen, childless and mean, with nothing to hold her back. Mrs. Riordan, who lived in the rear tenement, told Mama she’d seen them carrying on together in the alley on more than one occasion.
“You’re a liar!” Mama screamed at her, but Mrs. Riordan just shook her head and said, “I’ve nothing to gain from lies.”
Standing in front of the girl’s house, Mama yelled up at the windows, “Katie Adams, you whore, give me my husband back!”
When Miss Adams’ neighbours complained about all the noise Mama was making, my father came down to quiet her. He kissed her until she cried, but didn’t come home.
“He’s gone for good,” Mrs. Riordan told Mama. “Your man was a first-time man, and that’s just the kind of man who breaks a woman’s heart.”
She meant he was only after the firsts of a girl—the first time she smiles at him, their first kiss, the first time he takes her to bed. There was nothing Mama could have done to keep him around. Her first times with him were gone.
“God damn Katie Adams . . .” Mama would whisper under her breath whenever something went wrong. Hearing that girl’s name scared me more than when Mama said piss or shit or fuck right to my face.
The day my father left was the day the newsboys called out in the streets, “Victory at Shiloh!” They shouted it from every corner as I stood on the stoop watching my father walk away. When he got to the curb, he tipped his hat to me and smiled. There was sugar trailing out of a hole in his pocket where he’d hidden Mama’s silver bowl. It was spilling to the ground at his feet.
Some people have grand, important memories of the years when the war was on—like the moment a brother, or lover, or husband returned safe and sound, or the sight of President Lincoln’s funeral hearse being pulled up Broadway by all those beautiful black horses with plumes on their heads.
“Victory at Shiloh!” and my father’s smile is all I’ve got.
The rooms I shared with Mama were in the middle of a row of four-storey tenements called “the slaughter houses.” There were six of them altogether—three sitting side by side on the street with three more close behind on the back lots. If you lived there, there was every chance you’d die there too. People boiled to death in the summer and froze to death in the winter. They were killed by disease or starvation, by a neighbour’s anger, or by their own hand.
Mothers went days without eating so they could afford food for their children. If there was any money left, they put ads in the Evening Star hoping to get their lost husbands back.
My Dearest John,
please come home.
We are waiting for you.
Searching for Mr. Forrest Lawlor.
Last seen on the corner of Grand and Bowery.
He is the father to four children,
and a coppersmith by trade.
Mr. Stephen Knapp, wounded in the war.
I’ll welcome you home with open arms.
Your loving wife, Elizabeth.
They stood in the courtyards behind the buildings, pushing stones over the ribs of their washboards and sighing over the men they’d lost. Elbow to elbow they put their wash on the lines that stretched like cat’s cradles over that dark, narrow space.
Our back court was especially unlucky, having only three sides instead of four. The main attractions were one leaky pump and the row of five privies that sat across from it. The walls and roof of the outhouses leaned on each other like drunken whores, all tipsy, weeping and foul. Only one of the stall doors would stay shut, while the other four dangled half off their hinges. The landlord’s man, Mr. Cowan, never bothered to fix them and he never bothered to take the trash away either, so all the things people didn’t have a use for anymore got piled up in the court. Rotten scraps, crippled footstools, broken bits of china, a thin, mewling cat with her hungry litter of kittens.
The women gossiped and groused while waiting for their turn at the pump, hordes of flies and children crawling all around them. The smallest babes begged to get up to their mama’s teats while the older children made a game picking through boards and bricks, building bridges and stepping-stones over the streams of refuse that cut through the dirt. They’d spend all day that way as their mothers clanged doors open and shut on that little prison.
Boys grew into guttersnipes, then pickpockets, then roughs. They roamed the streets living for rare, fist-sized chunks of coal from ash barrels or the sweet hiss of beans running from the burlap bags they wounded with their knives at Tompkins Market. They ran down ladies for handouts and swarmed gentlemen for watches and chains. Kid Yaller, Pie-Eater, Bag o’ Bones, Slobbery Tom, Four-Fingered Nick. Their names were made from body parts and scars, bragging rights and bad luck. Jack the Rake, Paper-Collar Jack, One-Lung Jack, Jack the Oyster, Crazy Jack. They cut their hair short and pinned the ragged ends of their sleeves to their shirts. They left nothing for the shopkeeper’s angry hand to grab hold of, nothing even a nit would desire.
Girls sold matches and pins, then flowers and hot corn, and then themselves.
From the Hardcover edition.