She followed Uncle down the empty alley, her heart skipping beats and her knees shaky as she watched his hunched form lumbering at a fast clip. Her small legs had some trouble keeping up and he would turn back and snarl, “Suives moi!” each time she lagged. “Follow me!” and “Hurry!” and occasionally “worthless child!” were whips that prompted her to trudge on. Mama’s face floated before her. She had kissed it at dawn before the men came to remove her body.
There hadn’t been black drapes or deeply scented flowers for Mama, as there had been for Fat Auntie. Mama died with Fever, on a pallet on the floor at Uncle’s house. It wasn’t a house, really, and it was silly to think of it as such. It was nothing more than a leaning shack stuck near the train yards, and it rattled in the cold and smelled mildly of chickens.
Uncle didn’t want them to come. She knew this because Mama had whispered it to her. They came anyway, having no other options. Papa wanted to follow his brother all the way to America. Papa was certain Uncle would care for them both until they got on their own feet again.
Uncle turned into another alley and counted doors. He finally paused before a blue one, wooden with peeling paint. He kicked the stoop to shake mud from his shoes, then snatched her by her ear and hauled her through the doorway.
The shop smelled of piss. She covered her nose with her bare hand and wished that Uncle had not sold her jacket this morning; she could have buried her face into her sleeve. He had crossed to the counter and was speaking English to a very thin man. They argued for a short while, and she stood uncomfortably to one side and admired (not that there was much in here to admire) a brass lamp with funny etchings on it. They looked like monkeys gamboling around palm trees.
Uncle slid his hand into his pocket and produced a silk handkerchief - Papa’s! He shook it and three items clattered onto the wooden counter.
One was the brooch! Mamma’s brooch was always at her collar or pinned above her heart and so beautiful in the sun. Papa was in there, his image was at least, taken by a photographer who had come to town to photograph the old courthouse before demolition. He had taken that picture and Papa paid good earnings for it. It was so long ago, in France when they lived like human beings. Papa laughing and Mama chiding him for leaving footprints on her floor as he proudly showed off the photograph. Then she thought of Mama’s garden, filled with roses and daisies, and Mama always pruning and plucking to make it just perfect. A flood of smells erupted from fettered memory: cooking smells, Papa’s tobacco, Mama’s talc, her own soft sheets scented with lavender water. And then Papa came home and gave Mama that brooch and she hugged him so. It was lovely and had a picture of Paris in it.
But Papa fell ill, then died in the hospital in America. She thought that maybe the hospital had killed him in the end. This wasn’t true but it eased her mind to think it. “Papa didn’t have a choice to stay with us,” she was fond of telling herself.
Mama took the photograph and had it fashioned into the brooch after Papa died, saying, “This is as a widow should.” Now it lay in Uncle’s hands, and the girl warily watched as he spoke in rapid English to the man behind the counter.
They seemed to barter a while before Uncle nodded and slid the brooch across the counter towards the man. He also gave the man Mama and Papa’s wedding bands. The shopkeeper fetched a few silver coins from a tin box. She could hardly see them passing into Uncle’s hands; tears blurred her world.
“Suivez moi,” he snapped, grabbing her roughly at her shoulder and steering her out of the shop.
He counted out the coins and then grabbed her hand, pressing the smallest ones into her palm. “Prenez ce argent. Suivez votre proper chemin.” He spat on the ground and pointed towards the end of the alley. “Vous êtes insignifiant.”
She stood in the shadows a long time, contemplating his words to her. “Take this money. Go your own way. You are unimportant.” This is what he had said. She allowed her lower lip and chin to tremble, or perhaps she hadn’t any choice in the matter. Uncle wasn’t coming back. Ever. Fin.
“Mama,” she whispered to the filthy bricks.
“Mama!” she shouted and it echoed, startling pigeons into flight. “Allez où?” Go where? “Allez où?!”
Mama did not answer.
*Hundreds of children were abandoned on the streets of New York. Please visit Orphan Train History to learn more.*