Title: Gifts for the Dead
Rivers Book 2
Author: Joan Schweighardt
Publisher: Five Directions Press
Genre: Fiction in a historical setting
About the Book:
Jack Hopper is holding tight to his secret, though it gets heavier by the day. Nora Sweeny is tired of suffering losses and ready to improvise. Their relationship, based on Jack’s lies and Nora’s pragmatism, builds against a background that includes World War I (as experienced from the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey) and escalates when Jack and Nora travel together to the rainforests of South America seeking closure for a life-shattering event that occurred years earlier. Equal parts romance, adventure, and psychological suspense tale, Gifts for the Dead shines a floodlight on the characters’ deepest yearnings and greatest fears.
(1911, Chapter 2, “Nora”)
I was extracted from our flat as soon as my parents began to cough.
I stayed at first with a family in the building next door, the O’Sullivans, who had three children of their own, all boys and all of them bullies. The first night I slept on a pallet on the floor in their room. Half the night they took turns jumping down from their bed to pull my blanket off me and try to grab my feet before I could get in a kick. But I got my share of kicks in anyway, and when I told Mrs. O the next morning that I would not sleep in that room again, her eyes slid off to the side and she shook her head, whether at my whining or her sons’ antics, I will never know. I was only four years at the time.
I identified a closet in the parlor that was not overly full, and Mrs. O helped me to move the boots and shoes out of the way and fit my pallet into the floor space that remained. It was better after that, though it didn’t keep me from missing my parents every minute of every night and day.
Sleeping in the closet with the door ajar, however, afforded me an opportunity to eavesdrop on Mr. and Mrs. O late at night when they conversed over tea in their kitchen, and I learned things I didn’t know before: for one, I learned the Irish were despised there where we were in Manhattan, in a section called Five Points—something my parents had never mentioned. I also learned I was not wanted in the O’Sullivans’ flat, that I was “a bricky little thing,” and “one more hungry mouth” when Mr. and Mrs. O were alone, and “poor wee Nora Sweeny” when Mrs. O’s sister dropped by for a late night cuppa. But none of what they said was truly useful to me until the night they mentioned the rooftop, a subject which came up because one of Mrs. O’s sister’s children had gone up there with another boy on a day he was to have been in school. “It doesn’t help the door being just there in the hall,” Mrs. O’s sister lamented.
I thought about nothing else after that, though it would be awhile until I found myself up on the roof. The problem was I had to keep myself awake until everyone else in the flat was asleep, and that was a trial for me at that age. Then one night I managed it; I stayed awake until I could hear both Mr. and Mrs. O snoring, and then I crept out of the flat and went along the dark hallway with my hand swiping the wall—until I found a door that didn’t have the same feel as the others. It was wider and there was cold pressing up against it. I was certain I would find the stairway behind it that led to the roof.
And then there it was, the stairway before me as I had envisioned it, with just enough moonlight coming in through the upper door’s small window to guide my way. But when I got there I encountered another problem. The door at the top of the stairs was too heavy for me. I could not get it to open more than a crack before it fell back into its frame. I was in tears struggling with it—until I noticed a block of wood with a plane on one side in the corner of the landing. And remembering how my father always jammed a woodcut under my door at night to keep it partly open so I wouldn’t be afraid, I figured out how to use it as a wedge, pushing the door and kicking the wood until I’d made a space I could just squeeze through.
I had no sense of orientation at that age, and at first I could not get my bearings to identify the apartment building that had been my own. I was surrounded by buildings, and they all looked the same from my viewpoint. I had to stand on my tippy toes and lean over the perimeter wall to see down to the street, where I hoped to find a door or stoop that was familiar. And it was cold up there on the rooftop, very cold, and I hadn’t thought to bring a coat. I wasn’t even wearing shoes, and as I navigated the endless space, I stepped on things that felt like shards of glass. But finally I found the building, and by counting up from the bottom I found our floor and then our one and only window. And then it happened, the miracle.
There was a lamp lit in the parlor, and I could see into the room. And what I saw was my parents, dancing, close and slow, staring into each other’s eyes. They didn’t look sick at all to me! They looked like two beautiful people who loved each other heart and soul.
My own heart was beating wildly by then, and though I was shivering with cold, I was prepared to stand there through the night if only I could continue to feast my eyes on them. As long as I could see them, the world was right! I imagined I could hear my father humming. He loved to hum when they danced. Sometimes the sound of his humming would reach me in my child’s bed and I would get up and go into the parlor. They never saw me at first, but when they did their mouths would drop open with surprise and delight, and I would run to them and my father would lift me high into the air and then the three of us would dance together.
I don’t know how much time passed, but at some point they stopped dancing and merely stood there, looking at each other, searching each other’s faces as if they expected to find all the answers to all the questions in the world there. My mother had to tilt her head back, because my father was so tall. It made her silky red-gold hair fall low on her back, almost to her waist. I thought she looked like an angel with her hair loose like that. My father must have thought so too, because he lifted a strand from the shoulder of her nightdress and bent his head to press his mouth and nose into it. When he released it, she moved into his arms and they embraced. Then she turned from him and came nearer to the window to put the lantern out for the night. And just before the room went dark, she looked my way, and while I knew even at my tender age that she couldn’t possibly see me—my head was no more than a bump at the top of the brick parapet—I saw her clearly enough; I saw her beautiful sad smile and I knew she was thinking of me.
I didn’t plan to tell anyone about my adventure, but as soon as I heard voices in the kitchen the next morning, I dashed out of the closet and ran in and spilled everything. I could hardly catch my breath, the details of my story came back to me so quickly. The boys laughed and called me a liar and a trickster while Mr. O scolded them for being uncharitable, his eyes never leaving the magazine he was reading. When I turned to Mrs. O, I saw her face was as rigid as the cast iron stove she stood beside.
Later that day, after Mr. O had gone to work and the boys were out in the alley playing whip-tops, Mrs. O chastened me. “You couldn’t have found your way up there in the dark,” she began. “Look at the size of you! And you wouldn’t have survived in this weather anyway. The wind would have picked you up and carried you away. And besides, the super keeps the door locked at night, to prevent children like you from getting themselves into trouble.” Her voice grew louder, and there was a bluish vein jumping under the skin of her pearly white forehead. “And for the record, little miss, your parents have a nurse with them day and night now, and they aren’t allowed even to leave their beds; that’s how sick they are. Dancing! What a foolish child you are! Dancing is the last thing they’re thinking of at this point. You dreamed the whole thing.” She raised her hand, which was trembling with her anger, though something kept her from striking me. “You made it up,” she snapped. “The boys are right; you’re a liar. And now you can stay in the closet until you’re ready to admit it.”
I admitted nothing, but I spent the rest of the day in the dark wondering if it was possible that I was little more than a wretched girl who could not tell the difference between the things that were real and the things that came and went in dreams, which often seemed just as real to me. And that night, though I was still awake when the flat went quiet, I did not go down the hall and climb the stairs—not because I was afraid of Mrs. O but because I was afraid Mrs. O might be right and I would find the windows to our flat dark. Then the next day, I got a surprise. My Aunt Becky, my father’s sister, a woman I hardly knew, showed up at the flat, and Mrs. O said, “There she is; I can’t handle her no more myself.”
I hadn’t known I was leaving! I was sitting on the closet floor, still in my nightdress, my blanket around my shoulders like a shawl. Aunt Becky sighed. “Let’s get on with it then,” she said, and while Mrs. O and her boys—who were lined up beside her, sniggering behind their filthy hands—looked on, she pulled me and the sack containing my few possessions out of the closet and begin to dress me.
She was fast and rough, nothing like my mother. Although there were two pairs of clean knickers in my sack, she left me in the same ones I’d been wearing since my arrival and chose a dress I didn’t care for and buttoned it all the way up to the top, pinching my neck in the process. When it came time for my stockings, she had me sit on a stool and lift my feet. “What’s this?” she cried, holding one heel in her palm. “Your feet are dirty and cut to shreds.” She pulled something out from between two toes. “And look here! A pebble? Is that what this is?” She turned around to show the thing between her fingers to Mrs. O, who stared back at it and said nothing. When Mrs. O’s gaze shifted to me, I grinned.
In no time I was fully dressed and Aunt Becky took my hand and said to Mrs. O, “I’m sorry for your trouble with her.”
Mrs. O walked behind us to the door. “She’s a liar or a hellion,” she said. “One or the other. God knows which is worse.”
I turned back and flashed her one more smile before she closed the door behind us. I seemed to sense that was the thing to do. Perhaps I’d seen my mother do it once or twice when she was right and her adversary was wrong. As we walked down the hall, Aunt Becky asked me if it was true I’d gone up on the roof in the middle of the night all on my own without anyone’s permission and watched my parents dance. I looked up at her. My father had been born in New York, but Aunt Becky, who was older than him, had stayed behind with a relative when their parents crossed over. She didn’t come to America until she was nearly fourteen. Yet she had not a trace of an Irish accent. But she didn’t speak quite right either. She spoke slowly, each of her words a solitary thing until the next one came on board beside it. I said it was true; I’d been on the roof and I’d watched my parents dance. She nodded once and said, to my surprise, “Good girl.”
She didn’t say anything more until we were outside the building. “We can’t go up there to say goodbye,” she said then, talking into an icy wind that seemed to want to push us back indoors, “but before we take the ferry across the river, we can stand here and wave goodbye to them.” And that was just what we did.
About the Author:
Joan Schweighardt is the author of seven novels. In addition to the release Gifts for the Dead, Joan’s first children’s book, No Time for Zebras, will release later this month.
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