Call It Sleep Prologue

(I pray thee ask no questions this is that Golden Land)

THE small white steamer, Peter Stuyvesant, that delivered the immigrants from the stench and throb of the steerage to the stench and the throb of New York tenements, rolled slightly on the water beside the stone quay in the lee of the weathered barracks and new brick buildings of Ellis Island. Her skipper was waiting for the last of the officials, laborers and guards to embark upon her before he cast off and started for Manhattan. Since this was Saturday afternoon and this the last trip she would make for the week-end, those left behind might have to stay over till Monday. Her whistle bellowed its hoarse warning. A few figures in overalls sauntered from the high doors of the immigration quarters and down the grey pavement that led to the dock.

It was May of the year 1907, the year that was destined to bring the greatest number of immigrants to the shores of the United States. All that day, as on all the days since spring began, her decks had been thronged by hundreds upon hundreds of foreigners, natives from almost every land in the world, the jowled close-cropped Teuton, the full-bearded Russian, the scraggly-whiskered Jew, and among them Slovack peasants with docile faces, smooth-cheeked and swarthy Armenians, pimply Greeks, Danes with wrinkled eyelids. All day her decks had been colorful, a matrix of the vivid costumes of other lands, the speckled green-and-yellow aprons, the flowered kerchief, embroidered homespun, the silver-braided sheepskin vest, the gaudy scarfs, yellow boots, fur caps, caftans, dull gabardines. All day the guttural, the high-pitched voices, the astonished cries, the gasps of wonder, reiterations of gladness had risen from her decks in a motley billow of sound. But now her decks were empty, quiet, spreading out under the sunlight almost as if the warm boards were relaxing from the strain and the pressure of the myriads of feet. All those steerage passengers of the ships that had docked that day who were permitted to enter had already entered—except two, a woman and a young child she carried in her arms. They had just come aboard escorted by a man.

About the appearance of these late comers there was very little that was unusual. The man had evidently spent some time in America and was now bringing his wife and child over from the other side. It might have been thought that he had spent most of his time in lower New York, for he paid only the scantest attention to the Statue of Liberty or to the city rising from the water or to the bridges spanning the East River—or perhaps he was merely too agitated to waste much time on these wonders. His clothes were the ordinary clothes the ordinary New Yorker wore in that period—sober and dull. A black derby accentuated the sharpness and sedentary pallor of his face; a jacket, loose on his tall spare frame, buttoned up in a V close to the throat; and above the V a tightly-knotted black tie was mounted in the groove of a high starched collar. As for his wife, one guessed that she was a European more by the timid wondering look in her eyes as she gazed from her husband to the harbor, than by her clothes. For her clothes were American—a black skirt, a white shirt-waist and a black jacket. Obviously her husband had either taken the precaution of sending them to her while she was still in Europe or had brought them with him to Ellis Island where she had slipped them on before she left.

Only the small child in her arms wore a distinctly foreign costume, an impression one got chiefly from the odd, outlandish, blue straw hat on his head with its polka-dot ribbons of the same color dangling over each shoulder.

Except for this hat, had the three newcomers been in a crowd, no one probably, could have singled out the woman and child as newly arrived immigrants. They carried no sheets tied up in huge bundles, no bulky wicker baskets, no prized feather beds, no boxes of delicacies, sausages, virgin-olive oils, rare cheeses; the large black satchel beside them was their only luggage. But despite this, despite their even less than commonplace appearance, the two overalled men, sprawled out and smoking cigarettes in the stern, eyed them curiously. And the old peddler woman, sitting with basket of oranges on knee, continually squinted her weak eyes in their direction.

The truth was there was something quite untypical about their behavior. The old peddler woman on the bench and the overalled men in the stern had seen enough husbands meeting their wives and children after a long absence to know how such people ought to behave. The most volatile races, such as the Italians, often danced for joy, whirled each other around, pirouetted in an ecstasy: Swedes sometimes just looked at each other, breathing through open mouths like a panting dog; Jews wept, jabbered, almost put each other’s eyes out with the recklessness of their darting gestures; Poles roared and gripped each other at arm’s length as though they meant to tear a handful of flesh; and after one pecking kiss, the English might be seen gravitating toward, but never achieving an embrace. But these two stood silent, apart; the man staring with aloof, offended eyes grimly down at the water—or if he turned his face toward his wife at all, it was only to glare in harsh contempt at the blue straw hat worn by the child in her arms, and then his hostile eyes would sweep about the deck to see if anyone else were observing them. And his wife beside him regarding him uneasily, appealingly. And the child against her breast looking from one to the other with watchful, frightened eyes. Altogether it was a very curious meeting.

They had been standing in this strange and silent manner for several minutes, when the woman, as if driven by the strain into action, tried to smile, and touching her husband’s arm said timidly, “And this is the Golden Land.” She spoke in Yiddish.

The man grunted, but made no answer.

She took a breath as if taking courage, and tremulously, “I’m sorry, Albert, I was so stupid.” She paused waiting for some flicker of unbending, some word, which never came. “But you look so lean, Albert, so haggard. And your mustache—you’ve shaved.”

His brusque glance stabbed and withdrew. “Even so.”

“You must have suffered in this land.” She continued gentle despite his rebuke. “You never wrote me. You’re thin. Ach! Then here in the new land is the same old poverty. You’ve gone without food. I can see it. You’ve changed.”

“Well that don’t matter,” he snapped, ignoring her sympathy. “It’s no excuse for your not recognizing me. Who else would call for you? Do you know anyone else in this land?”

“No,” placatingly. “But I was so frightened, Albert. Listen to me. I was so bewildered, and that long waiting there in that vast room since morning. Oh, that horrible waiting! I saw them all go, one after the other. The shoemaker and his wife. The coppersmith and his children from Strij. All those on the Kaiserin Viktoria. But I—I remained. To-morrow will be Sunday. They told me no one could come to fetch me. What if they sent me back? I was frantic!”

“Are you blaming me?” His voice was dangerous.

“No! No! Of course not Albert! I was just explaining.”

“Well then let me explain,” he said curtly. “I did what I could. I took the day off from the shop. I called that cursed Hamburg-American Line four times. And each time they told me you weren’t on board.”

“They didn’t have any more third-class passage, so I had to take the steerage—”

“Yes, now I know. That’s all very well. That couldn’t be helped. I came here anyway. The last boat. And what do you do? You refused to recognize me. You don’t know me.” He dropped his elbows down on the rail, averted his angry face. “That’s the greeting I get.”

“I’m sorry, Albert,” she stroked his arm humbly. “I’m sorry.”

“And as if those blue-coated mongrels in there weren’t mocking me enough, you give them that brat’s right age. Didn’t I write you to say seventeen months because it would save the half fare! Didn’t you hear me inside when I told them?”

“How could I, Albert?” she protested. “How could I? You were on the other side of that—that cage.”

“Well why didn’t you say seventeen months anyway? Look!” he pointed to several blue-coated officials who came hurrying out of a doorway out of the immigration quarters. “There they are.” An ominous pride dragged at his voice. “If he’s among them, that one who questioned me so much, I could speak to him if he came up here.”

“Don’t bother with him, Albert,” she exclaimed uneasily. “Please, Albert! What have you against him? He couldn’t help it. It’s his work.”

“Is it?” His eyes followed with unswerving deliberation the blue-coats as they neared the boat. “Well he didn’t have to do it so well.”

“And after all, I did lie to him, Albert,” she said hurriedly trying to distract him.

“The truth is you didn’t,” he snapped, turning his anger against her. “You made your first lie plain by telling the truth afterward. And made a laughing-stock of me!”

“I didn’t know what to do.” She picked despairingly at the wire grill beneath the rail. “In Hamburg the doctor laughed at me when I said seventeen months. He’s so big. He was big when he was born.” She smiled, the worried look on her face vanishing momentarily as she stroked her son’s cheek. “Won’t you speak to your father, David, beloved?”

The child merely ducked his head behind his mother.

His father stared at him, shifted his gaze and glared down at the officials, and then, as though perplexity had crossed his mind he frowned absently. “How old did he say he was?”

“The doctor? Over two years—and as I say he laughed.”

“Well what did he enter?”

“Seventeen months—I told you.”

“Then why didn’t you tell them seventeen—” He broke off, shrugged violently. “Baah! You need more strength in this land.” He paused, eyed her intently and then frowned suddenly. “Did you bring his birth certificate?”

“Why—” She seemed confused. “It may be in the trunk—there on the ship. I don’t know. Perhaps I left it behind.” Her hand wandered uncertainly to her lips. “I don’t know. Is it important? I never thought of it. But surely father could send it. We need only write.”

“Hmm! Well, put him down.” His head jerked brusquely toward the child. “You don’t need to carry him all the way. He’s big enough to stand on his own feet.”

She hesitated, and then reluctantly set the child down on the deck. Scared, unsteady, the little one edged over to the side opposite his father, and hidden by his mother, clung to her skirt.

“Well, it’s all over now.” She attempted to be cheerful. “It’s all behind us now, isn’t it, Albert? Whatever mistakes I made don’t really matter any more. Do they?”

“A fine taste of what lies before me!” He turned his back on her and leaned morosely against the rail. “A fine taste!”

They were silent. On the dock below, the brown hawsers had been slipped over the mooring posts, and the men on the lower deck now dragged them dripping from the water. Bells clanged. The ship throbbed. Startled by the hoarse bellow of her whistle, the gulls wheeling before her prow rose with slight creaking cry from the green water, and as she churned away from the stone quay skimmed across her path on indolent, scimitar wing. Behind the ship the white wake that stretched to Ellis Island grew longer, raveling wanly into melon-green. On one side curved the low drab Jersey coast-line, the spars and masts on the waterfront fringing the sky; on the other side was Brooklyn, flat, water-towered; the horns of the harbor. And before them, rising on her high pedestal from the scaling swarmy brilliance of sunlit water to the west, Liberty. The spinning disk of the late afternoon sun slanted behind her, and to those on board who gazed, her features were charred with shadow, her depths exhausted, her masses ironed to one single plane. Against the luminous sky the rays of her halo were spikes of darkness roweling the air; shadow flattened the torch she bore to a black cross against flawless light—the blackened hilt of a broken sword. Liberty. The child and his mother stared again at the massive figure in wonder.

The ship curved around in a long arc toward Manhattan, her bow sweeping past Brooklyn and the bridges whose cables and pillars superimposed by distance, spanned the East River in diaphanous and rigid waves. The western wind that raked the harbor into brilliant clods blew fresh and clear—a salt tang in the lull of its veerings. It whipped the polka-dot ribbons on the child’s hat straight out behind him. They caught his father’s eye.

“Where did you find that crown?”

Startled by his sudden question his wife looked down. “That? That was Maria’s parting gift. The old nurse. She bought it herself and then sewed the ribbons on. You don’t think it’s pretty?”

“Pretty? Do you still ask?” His lean jaws hardly moved as he spoke. “Can’t you see that those idiots lying back there are watching us already? They’re mocking us! What will the others do on the train? He looks like a clown in it. He’s the cause of all this trouble anyway!”

The harsh voice, the wrathful glare, the hand flung toward the child frightened him. Without knowing the cause, he knew that the stranger’s anger was directed at himself. He burst into tears and pressed closer to his mother.

“Quiet!” the voice above him snapped.

Cowering, the child wept all the louder.

“Hush, darling!” His mother’s protecting hands settled on his shoulders.

“Just when we’re about to land!” her husband said furiously “He begins this! This howling! And now we’ll have it all the way home, I suppose! Quiet! You hear?”

“It’s you who are frightening him, Albert!” she protested.

“Am I? Well, let him be quiet. And take that straw gear off his head.”

“But Albert, it’s cool here.”

“Will you take that off when I—” A snarl choked whatever else he would have uttered. While his wife looked on aghast, his long fingers scooped the hat from the child’s head. The next instant it was sailing over the ship’s side to the green waters below. The overalled men in the stern grinned at each other. The old orange-peddler shook her head and clucked.

“Albert!” his wife caught her breath. “How could you?”

“I could!” he rapped out. “You should have left it behind!” His teeth clicked, and he glared about the deck.

She lifted the sobbing child to her breast, pressed him against her. With a vacant stunned expression, her gaze wandered from the grim smouldering face of her husband to the stern of the ship. In the silvery-green wake that curved trumpet-wise through the water, the blue hat still bobbed and rolled, ribbon stretched out on the waves. Tears sprang to her eyes. She brushed them away quickly, shook her head as if shaking off the memory, and looked toward the bow. Before her the grimy cupolas and towering square walls of the city loomed up. Above the jagged roof tops, the white smoke, whitened and suffused by the slanting sun, faded into the slots and wedges of the sky. She pressed her brow against her child’s, hushed him with whispers. This was that vast incredible land, the land of freedom, of immense opportunity, that Golden Land. Again she tried to smile.

“Albert,” she said timidly, “Albert.”


“Gehen vir voinen du? In Nev York?”

“Nein. Bronzeville. Ich hud dir schoin geschriben.”

She nodded uncertainly, sighed …

Screws threshing, backing water, the Peter Stuyvesant neared her dock—drifting slowly and with canceled momentum as if reluctant.