Children of Liberty

By: Paullina Simons

Part One


Love—what is love? A great and aching heart;

Wrung hands; and silence; and a long despair

Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter One


THERE had been a fire at Ellis Island the year before Gina came to America with her mother and brother in 1899, and so instead of arriving at the Port of New York, they had set sail into the Port of Boston.

Salvo had been in a bad mood since the day they left Napoli. He had left his sweetheart behind—the girl wouldn’t part with her family. This, among other things, soured him on his. He refused to stay with the girl he loved, but resented his family for his own choice. “As if Mimoo and Gina could go to America by themselves,” he scoffed.

“We don’t have to go, Salvo,” his mother said, and meant it.

“Mimoo!” cried Gina. “What would Papa say?”

“Papa, Papa. Well, where is he, if he is so clever?”

It was summer and Gina wished for a cloudless day. She stood at port on tiptoe and gaped at the sky, wishing for a view of what they had been sailing to for weeks: a city line across the wide open bay to show them the glimpse of a life that was just around the corner. Stretching up she squinted straight into the July fog, her palm in salute to focus her sights on what she had imagined was urban beauty: sprawling metropolis bustling, smokestacks billowing, ships to and fro, civilization. But she could see nothing beyond the thick slate mist and oppressive melancholy. “Ahoy, Salvo!” she called, despite the lack of sight. “Come see!”

Salvo did not come see. Like a sack he sat behind her on the main deck and smoked, his arm around his black-clad mother. They had just lost their father. Five of them had been planning to go to America for seven years, but Gina’s oldest brother had been killed in a knife fight six months ago. A drunken mob had run amok, Antonio had got caught in the middle, there was a struggle with the police, people trampled by horses. It wasn’t a military knife that had taken him, but a hunting knife. Like it mattered—Antonio was still dead.

And less than three months later Papa’s heart stopped.

Papa had wanted to go when the children were still small, but Mimoo refused. She wouldn’t go without money. Imagine! Going to America, starting a new life with nothing. Assurdo! She wasn’t going to come to America a village pauper. But we are village paupers, Mimoo, the great Alessandro had said. He didn’t argue further, there was no point. Gina’s mother declared that when she came to America, she would walk in on her own two feet, not crawl in with her hand outstretched. Papa agreed with that, but then he died.

Some of the money the Attavianos had saved went for Alessandro’s funeral. But Mimoo had promised her husband she would go to America no matter what, and so, a month after he was buried, they borrowed just enough for three steerage beds. When Gina said borrowed, she meant stole: her mother’s older sister took the money from the kitchen lock box of their blind father, putting a note inside which he couldn’t read, saying that the “debt” would be repaid when Mimoo and her children got on their feet in the new land.

Salvo, the middle child, had told Gina, the baby, that Massachusetts Bay, emptying into Boston Harbor, was almost as wide as the ocean that fed it. A vast expanse of water flowed in from three corners of the globe, peppered with flat, green, rocky islands. Lighthouses stretched up from the rocks. Gina was eager to see these lighthouses, these islands. “That’s the problem, Gina,” Salvo said. “You can’t. Lighthouses are supposed to be beacons to guide your way? You can’t see them either in this fog. That’s how it always is. Can’t see nothing until the rocks you’re about to crash into are already upon you. Much like life.”

Frowning, Gina stepped away from her brother and he looked self-satisfied, as if that was exactly what he wanted. She watched the water, wondering what instruments you needed to navigate waters you couldn’t see ten feet in front of, if instruments like that even existed. Please don’t let us crash against the rocks when we are so close. Was that likely?

“If you can’t see where you’re going? I’d say more than likely.” Salvo smirked. He was a maestro smirker. He had an elastic face, ideal for grimaces and sneers. His condescension was so irksome.

She walked from the stern to the bridge to talk to the second in command who was standing like a monument at the bow, peering through a telescope. What impressive concentration. She told him what her brother had said, and asked him to deny it.

“He is right.”

“So how does the ship not crash?”