Frances leaned against the fieldstone wall of her family’s one-room cottage, allowing her hand to brush against the worn rock as she had many times in her eighteen years. The reeds of the thatched roof above rustled in anticipation of what would come.
The fire in the open hearth cracked, shooting sparks above the blackened log. Though the scent of the fire was a nightly ode, it did nothing to calm the anxiety tightening in Frances's chest.
Their home stood barren now, a shadow of its former quaintness. Everything they owned fit neatly into three trunks, but Mama said the memories never would. They couldn’t pack them, and they would fade with every mile they traveled. After Mama brought Frances to say farewell to her grandparents’ grave, her tears never ceased, fueling her incessant cough. But Frances felt no reason to weep.
Papa always knew what was best; he worked tirelessly for his family despite his lame shoulder that had barely recovered from a bullet’s graze decades before. When Papa said they needed to leave, Frances trusted his words implicitly. Though, seeing Mama’s heartbreak tinged Frances’ excitement with a layer of guilt.
Frances knew the scantness of opportunity in her village. Nestled in the shadow of Konopiště Castle, the only jobs were filled by lifetime appointments. Mama joked that the butler couldn’t hear, the cook couldn’t see, and the valet couldn’t walk. It took death or thievery for a position to open. Mama had been fortunate that her mother developed favor with Archduke Ferdinand half a century before when the castle was hardly a castle. He had approved her as the laundress, a position she performed with vigor until her hair turned white and her fingers riddled with arthritis. As her sight dimmed, she passed the role on to Mama, and one day, Frances had thought she’d accept the position, though what young girl dreamed of becoming a laundress?
Papa and most villagers farmed for their families and sold their excess to the Castle’s cook, scouring enough money for necessities. When other farmers began complaining about weevils destroying their crops, apprehension about the future arose. Wrapped in the comfort of green hills, no one could have anticipated anything worse.
Frances could still see the lines of distress on Papa’s face, the same ones that had appeared two weeks ago when Mama returned from work in tears.
“Sophie… Ferdinand, they were killed...”
Papa inhaled slowly and nodded. “We can’t stay here, Marie.”
“But surely, we must. This is our home,” Marie said indignantly. “America will not solve anything. Trouble will follow us.”
Raphael’s voice rose in a way Frances had seldom heard. “America is our only hope.” He stood from the table and raised his calloused hand to the wall, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin- it’s written for everyone to see!”
“How could you say such a thing!” Marie howled as tears stained her cheeks.
Frances scantly understood what Papa meant, though his foreign words echoed in her mind as she counted the reeds on the roof above, listening to his soft snore in the other corner of the room. Without the Archduke, the castle would close, the jobs would disappear, and there would be no place to sell their extra crops- if the weevils didn’t destroy them first.
The violent rustle of papers drew Frances’s gaze back to the stone hearth. Papa dumped page after page into the flames, disregarding where the sparks flew. As the crackle heated into a roar, Frances sensed the urgency to leave; to step away from her only refuge, surrendering her childhood behind her, yet her heart ached for a final moment to memorize each inch of her cottage.
Frances scanned the room as she silently said her goodbyes, but her eyes stopped on the last bit of color above the wooden mantel.
“Baba’s vase!” Frances pointed to the blue and white glazed ceramic pot. Weeks ago, Mama reminded her how Baba sculpted it with the clay from the hills of Konopiště and would have wanted it to return to them rather than becoming chipped and broken in some new land.
“It won’t make the journey, Franceska,” her father began, but Frances had already drawn closer to the flames, determined to reach it. Papa lunged before her, shielding her from the growing fire, and handed her the fragile vase. He peered down at his daughter, his hazy blue eyes filled with sorrow. A mixture of tears and sweat dripped down his bushy beard. “I’ll see you in the wagon, Myška.”
She clutched the vase like a baby and rushed towards the door, glancing over her shoulder to see Papa push the wooden table and chairs near the blazing hearth.
The cold night air slapped against Frances's face, already thick with smoke. She climbed into the wagon, passing her mother, who gripped the reins between violently shaking shoulders. Frances triumphantly cradled the vase, but Mama’s grief blinded her from the sight.
Through the lone window, Frances watched the soft glow explode with orange flames, and she knew it would only be a matter of moments before the fire enveloped the roof. She closed her eyes and clenched the breath in her lungs as she waited for the crunch of Papa’s boots.
Frances finally exhaled when Papa emerged from the shadows behind their house; his long beard escaped unsinged, and the last bag slung across his back. He climbed into the wagon and took the reins from Mama, who still trembled like a leaf in the wind.
“I won’t be a part of a war I didn’t create,” he bellowed into the night. “America is that way.”
Frances wrapped a quilt around her as the carriage shuffled back and forth, calming her like an infant in a cradle. She laid back, gazing at the clear night sky. The constellations glowed with their familiar brilliance as they had many nights before. When she spotted the Big Dipper, with its handle arching down towards her like a smile, she returned the grin, thankful that the stars would hang above her no matter where she went.
Friday, August 7, 1914
It had been a week since Frances felt the uneasy sway of the gangplank beneath her feet. The odd sensation of the solid ground becoming dangerously pliable stuck in her nerves. As the ship pitched and bucked, Frances longed for the earth beneath her feet and the normalcy of life accompanying it.
Since embarking, the frigid ocean water dashed Frances's rosy ideals of traveling to America. The beautiful schooner she'd envisioned skirting across the sea was a hunk of steel, and their third-class stateroom snowed paint chips.
The ship's white hallways felt like a sterile institution, but sterile was good, according to Mama. With so many people speaking so many languages, there were bound to be so many diseases spread across the common areas. Mama insisted that Frances limit her time on deck to early morning walks before the common areas flooded with passengers desperate for relief from their cage-sized rooms.
When Frances stepped on deck to see the sun inching above the horizon, the wind revived her weariness. She paced the deck until the sun's rays warmed her, paying keen attention to the younger girls accompanied by chaperones. Though she walked proudly alone, one thought made her cheeks turn the color of her plain mauve dress. Her hair matched each little girl’s. Her brown braids dangled against the breeze, just as theirs did.
This will never do in America. She needed a sophisticated hairstyle to extenuate the beauty of her sun-kissed cheekbones and saxe blue eyes she'd inherited from Papa.
From the ship’s bow, she could crane her neck upwards to see the second-class passengers on the deck above, occasionally catching a glimpse of those in first. Many clutched hats with dainty veils draping before them, but she noticed the most elegant women wore their hair up with swirls and braids. That will be me one day, she vowed. With streets paved in gold, it would be easy to reach far beyond her humble class into a world dipped in elegance.
She unleashed her hair from her braids, allowing the salty air to whirl it about before attempting to sweep it into an elegant updo. She moved from the bow to check her reflection in a window, a confident grin smiling back at her. That looked about right.
She hurried back towards the stairs that descended to her room, eager to show Mama and Papa her updo, but froze when she spotted a familiar sight from her village. His knuckles gripped the metal railings as he leaned away from the ship and towards the crashing ocean. She squinted to be sure her mind wasn't playing a trick on her, but she'd recognize him anywhere; the deep brown Melton of his coat was the distinct handiwork of the village tailor who only used the wool of the Zwartbles sheep. Frances offered a friendly wave and came short of calling out his name.
He noticed her and straightened abruptly, not releasing the ship's rail. His head cocked as he stared at her peculiarly, the usual vibrancy all but drained from his cheeks.
Frances blushed and skirted away from the man, flustered by his lack of response. Could it be her hair? She tried to brush off his silence, but it echoed through her mind. Since the day of Benjamin and Katrina’s wedding announcement, Frances had tripped over the roots of jealousy in her heart.
She turned to look back, tenting her hand over her face to scan the crowd around the man for the fair-haired belle of the village, who'd sprung up like a wildflower and captured his adoration. But she wasn't there.
Perhaps he was a mirage, Frances tried to convince herself as her feet clanked down the metal stairs. She'd heard stories of explorers seeing visions on their journey; some would help them reach their destination, while others would foil their plans. Maybe it was her heart’s way of wrestling with not saying goodbye.
She rounded the corner into the long hall. The fluorescent overhead lights swayed with the ship, casting nauseating shadows that would irk the most seasoned sailor's steel stomach. Her mind shifted with the lights to the evening Mama had told her of Benjamin and Katrina's engagement.
How could she not be jealous? She’d howled as Mama braided her hair. Even though Benjamin and Katrina were perfect for each other, their marriage meant the village's only young eligible man was no longer eligible. When Papa decided Frances was ready, she’d wed one of the widowed men, a stepmother to children nearly her own age.
“They’re more stable, established in life,” Mama consoled.
But Papa noticed the dread in Frances’ eye. When they were alone, he’d whispered, “A fresh wind will come. Mama is stuck in the old, but we will find a new way.”
Frances gripped the cold nob on their stateroom door and pushed it open with her hip. Papa sat alone on his mattress with a book in his lap. He greeted her with a warm smile.
“You look beautiful, Myška, a young woman before my very eyes.”
Frances blushed, “Thank you, Papa.” She hesitated before slipping off her shoes, unsure if it was better to keep them on amidst the accumulated paint flakes on the floor. “Papa, do you remember Benjamin and Katrina?”
“Vaguely,” he said, studying her closely through his round spectacles. “I recall their parents more.”
“Well, I thought I saw Benjamin on deck, but not Katrina. Remember when they wed last November?” she asked, the sound of the church bells still taunting her.
He let out a consoling chuckle. “Don't let your emotions play tricks on you, Franceska. This is a new world. Let go of the old.”
Frances sighed, realizing any more talk would be fruitless. She climbed on her cot and made herself as comfortable as she could. She rolled to her side to glimpse the front page of Papa's newspaper, scanning for pictures and ignoring the letters.
When she noticed the black-and-white picture occupying the bottom quadrant, she asked, “Have they caught the man who shot Ferdinand and Sophie?”
“They did,” Papa replied, still engrossed in his reading.
She could still see the Archduke trotting through the trails on his mare. He’d had everything at his fingertips while awaiting his turn to be king, yet he tossed it all away when he fell in love with Sophie. That was true love. It didn't deserve such a tragic end; fairy tales were meant to be happy. She breathed a heavy sigh in remembrance.
A knock on the metal door interrupted Frances's thoughts, and she climbed down from her bed to open it. Mama returned late from her walk, signaling she hadn't followed her rules about going out first thing. But Frances didn’t resent it. She understood how the cramped space could play tricks on one's mind.
She opened the door, expecting Mama, but froze when she saw the mirage from the ship’s deck standing at Mama’s side.
“Raphael, don't you remember Benjamin, Matej’s boy?” She told Papa, hoping her husband would have more hospitable words than hers.
“I'm sorry to intrude,” Benjamin began, “I was so shocked to see a familiar face on board. I heard about the fire at your house, and when I saw your daughter, I thought I saw a ghost.” He looked at Frances. “A terrible omen at sea!”
Papa forced a welcoming laugh, “Dobry Den!”
An awkward silence fell over them as each searched for the right words to say next. Mama's stern gaze lingered on Benjamin, wondering if he'd depart now and return to his room. But Frances’s smile glistened with delight at how right she’d been.
“How about joining us for lunch?” Papa finally said.
The look of displeasure wrinkled Mama's lips, but Papa smiled warmly to overcompensate for his wife's prickly demeanor.
“Of course,” Benjamin replied.
Frances stood eagerly. Anything to get her out of the small stateroom. She walked next to Benjamin in the hallway, her stomach filling with flimsy butterflies. Mama had always laughed when she mentioned butterflies and boys.
“Chasing butterflies should only be done in a field,” she’d warned, “otherwise butterflies are an omen of despair.”
Frances attempted to keep her gaze on the hall, inconspicuously sneaking glimpses at Benjamin, his thick brown curls reminding her of the Bohemian soil and his piercing emerald eyes more vibrant than any she’d seen. Yet, she could feel sorrow radiating from him, weighing down his every step.
They shared a lunch table in the large cafeteria, where they strained to hear each other as conversations reverberated through the metal dining hall like a tin can. Frances ate her crusty sandwich without speaking, allowing her parents to talk with Benjamin. She was still unsure what she was supposed to say about their departure from Bohemia. Her parents didn’t bring it up, and judging by her their stuffiness at the table, they didn’t intend to speak of it.
Papa took the lead, asking when Katrina would join them. Benjamin froze, his expression swallowed with grief. “I didn't mean to pry.” Papa began fumbling for words to patch up the dam he'd just pierced.
Tears filled Benjamin's eyes, and he clenched his jaw to hold them back.
Frances watched as the pain of lost love broke from Benjamin's grip. It had been the best eight months of his life, filled with her laughter and smile. But the baby came too early, and the bleeding was too much. By the time the midwife arrived, nothing more could be done.
The food in Frances's mouth suddenly became like sawdust. Katrina had been so vibrant, and all Frances had felt was jealousy towards her. She hadn’t cared about her plight, only thinking of her own. She forcefully swallowed the conviction with her bread.
Benjamin continued to bare his shattered soul. He couldn’t stay and live out the life they’d dreamed of. His only option was to start again and search for a new life. Even Mama's face softened as he spoke.
When it was her parent's turn to explain their decision to leave, Papa spoke of the fire, how he'd tried to fight it before surrendering their belongings to the flames and escaping with all they could collect in the few moments before the roof succumbed.
Frances studied her mother, whose eyes had wandered to another table to seal her discomfort. Then, she looked to Benjamin, who seemed entranced by Papa’s words, his brows quizzical and his eyes freshly glistening with relief from his tears.
“But why didn't you come to the village to say goodbye? You know collections would have been gathered for you, and accommodations would have been made at the church.”
“I know, my friend, and that is just why we left. Times have been hard and growing worse with the castle closing. I couldn't let our burden fall on others. Not when America beckoned through the night.”
Benjamin nodded and shifted his gaze towards Frances, producing a weak smile. “I'm glad everyone is all right.”
Suddenly, the ship’s horn bellowed, and the cafeteria reverberated. In unison, every head lifted and looked about in nervous anticipation.
“What does this mean?” Benjamin asked.
“Land ho,” Papa said, his mustache and beard parting in a triumphant grin.
They cleared out of the cafeteria in a single file line; the crowds pouring out to the deck to see Lady Liberty emerging as little more than a speck in the distance.
“We should start our new lives by the weekend!” Benjamin exclaimed.
“Once we clear Ellis Island,” Papa echoed.
The orchestra of heels echoed off the stairwell as the masses descended back to their staterooms. When Frances and her family broke through the crowded stairs into their narrow hall, a strange rope blocked the starboard hallway with a sign hanging from it. Papa, Mama, and Benjamin studied the rows of letters in different languages intently while Frances merely watched their efforts. Trying to read had left such discouraging marks upon her childhood that she’d shunned the idea altogether.
Benjamin uncracked the code. “Quarantine,” he announced.