August 8, 1850
“Can you get Cecelia? Or Kate?” My younger brother’s voice wobbled through the damp darkness.
I sat up, facing the sick bay on the other side of the hold where two lanterns cast wavering flickers of light across the floor. “They’re taking care of Papa,” I said.
“But I’m sick too,” Claus moaned.
I sighed and handed him the bucket my brothers, sisters, and I had traded back and forth the entire voyage long for bouts of seasickness. “Claus, you know we’re all sick. Papa has… well, something worse than the rest of us.”
“But Cecelia said he’ll be better soon.” The silhouette of his chin trembled a little as he spoke.
I sighed again. “Of course.” Papa had left Germany a strong man; surely the American shore would see him strong again.
A moment after lying down again, I saw Peter’s sticklike silhouette approaching the row of bedrolls and heard his hoarse whisper. “Mama says the three of us need to get some sleep now. Night, you two.”
I settled back into the layers of blankets, watching Claus let go of the bucket and do the same. “I could have used your help watching him today,” I told Peter. “Have you and Joachim been studying English all evening?”
“I have. Joachim was helping the girls with Papa. Oh, by the way, Anna, I learned a new word today! It’s ‘soil.’”
“Seuel? Like our family?”
“Yes, but it’s spelled s-o-i-l. It means earth or dirt.”
I spun this new fact around in my head. “So, the Americans will think we’re dirt?”
Peter snickered. “Maybe not. Maybe we’ll fit in as naturally as the ground under our feet.” He collapsed on his bedroll on the other side of Claus, whose large blue eyes reflected the flickering light, darting back and forth between the two of us.
I tried to rest, but my bed was beginning to pitch forward and back at sickening angles, rolling on the waves of a new storm. The air in the ship’s hull was humid and stale, the wind’s distant scream flooding my ears.
For the hundredth time, I longed for land. I hardly cared whether it was the meandering river roads and elegant streets of our hometown or the boundless fields I pictured surrounding our future home. I only wanted solid rock beneath my feet. Surely Papa must want it too, though throughout these weeks he had never complained. Then I remembered Mama’s silent tears the day we left and the emphatic ring of Papa’s voice—now so thin and airy—when he told his friends he would never come back.
“Peter. Anna. Claus.” Our oldest sister Margareta’s voice cut into the blur of noise. “Come right now.”
I jerked into full awareness but collapsed against the pillow again. Those words had come too often during Papa’s illness. I rolled over, squeezing my eyes shut.
“Anna, you heard that.” Peter dragged me to my feet with a firm hand, shadows darkening his face. Claus stood behind him, clutching a worn stuffed dog. I fought back the sudden twist in my stomach and followed Margareta, whose shoulders trembled as she walked to the closed entrance of the sick bay.
When I saw Mama, my stomach twisted again, and I looked away for a moment. Her face had become drawn and colorless. Her gaze focused somewhere far behind us, in the emptiness of the ship’s hold where pieces of light shone on sleeping forms and piled trunks. Cecelia and Kate sat on either side of her, their faces buried in the folds of her cloak, while Joachim stroked her back and stared at the floor. The racing thud of my heartbeat matched the beating of rain above. I groped for the splintery wall, fighting to keep my balance. This is about Papa, isn’t it? But he can’t be… He must be all right. I turned toward Claus, whose round blue eyes met mine with a question.
Mama released a faint sigh and faced us, the youngest three. “Children, I…I don’t know what to say. We know our Lord holds everything in His hands—” The ship rolled sideways, sending those of us standing to the floor. Mama clutched my sisters’ hands and tried to speak, but the words stuck in her throat.
“What’s wrong?” Claus demanded. He clenched his stuffed dog tighter. “Did Papa die?”
No one answered. The floor rolled back again, and I bent my head, trying to shut out what must be an absurd nightmare. Of course this is a dream. Nothing like this could ever happen in our family! I heard a muffled sob from one of my sisters, a faraway crash of thunder, a rush of tears from Claus. I felt a tender arm encircle my shoulders, then hot stillness.
“We have to go back home now,” Peter rasped.
“No.” I raised my head to see Mama, who, with a fierceness greater than Peter’s, clenched the fabric of her apron in a white fist. “I never wanted to leave Uetersen, but now I won’t return.” Fire burned in her voice and even in her eyes. “Your father…labored for years and sold everything he treasured to give us a new life in a new land. Home is that way now.” She lifted a shaking finger toward the bow of the ship, toward the wild land called America.
Claus stopped crying and pointed upward. “Papa said home is that way.”
Mama’s posture melted into a slump. “Yes, Claus…home is that way, but it would be so much easier if we all arrived at once.”
She drooped like a wilting flower, her composure dissolving into tears. Joachim reached out to support her with arms brown and strong from metalwork, and my sisters brushed aside tears and crowded about. Mothers were supposed to take care of their children, but now, we children took care of our mother.
The storm weakened to a regular back-and-forth tossing of waves by the time Margareta and Cecelia sent each other, Mama, and the rest of us to bed. Sleepless in the darkness beneath the looming shadows of the ceiling beams, and alone but for the restless twisting and stirring that filled the humid air on both sides, I shoved away each selfish thought that came. Why didn’t I know sooner what Papa’s illness meant? Mama should have told me. We won’t survive in that land without him—Joachim isn’t grown up yet—Margareta doesn’t know how to provide for a family. How will we know what to do?
Though morning came as cold and dim as every other morning that had dawned during the past days, nothing else was the same. Papa did not distribute scratchy kisses or read aloud the family Bible over a breakfast of biscuits, because he was gone.
Our family was broken.
Now that the emptiness was real, I kept to myself, unwilling to share my own sorrow with the rest. Claus abandoned his stuffed dog and clung to me now and then like a kitten, but I tried to avoid Joachim’s sullen stamping, Kate’s tender embrace, Margareta’s feverish bustling, and above all the other passengers. Yet on a small, crowded ship, I could not avoid everyone. There was the ebony-haired woman who asked how Herr Seuel was, who tsked and turned away when I had to tell the truth. There were the little boy and girl who handed wooden toys to me and Claus, filled with pity but void of understanding. Then, at last, there was the woman whose spectacled blue eyes glimmered as she touched my shoulder and murmured, “But isn’t it wonderful that he’s home with Jesus!”
The next morning, we gathered in our usual circle near the back of the ship as Mama passed out another round of biscuits. Over the usual muffled hum of passengers huddling in circles around their own breakfasts, I repeated the woman’s words to my family. Mama’s smile and the smiles of my brothers and sisters were tearful, yet genuine. Cecelia’s smile cast the dimples back to her glowing cheeks, and Claus’s smile was the widest of all. The first touch of healing had come.
Before we had finished eating, I caught a hurried creaking sound above us, over the chattering of the other passengers. I glanced over my shoulder to see a young blond crewman perched on the ladder to the deck. Flashing a crooked smile, he called, “Captain says to tell everyone there’s a seagull in the sky! We’re getting close to land!”
Amid hearty cheers that resounded from all corners of the crowded hull, Mama’s smile dissolved and her posture crumbled. She must want to finish what Papa started, but thinks she can’t do it.
Then I spoke up. “Did you know that there’s an English word for earth that sounds like our name?”
“It’s true,” Peter added. “Soil.”
The watery smile returned to Mama’s lips.
“American Seuel.” Kate tested the words on her tongue. “Maybe that means we’ll grow strong and rich there.”
I almost wanted to laugh, but it had to be true, or Papa would not have given everything to put us on this ship. Someday, in that strange, free land called America, we would be glad we had come.