Late Afternoon, February 16, 1905

by Claudia Stanek

A chorus of gulls calls 
the Barbarossa into the harbor. 
You are just one kerchiefed girl 
next to innumerable others,
some with heads uncovered, most
whose husbands bar their view. 
You shield your son’s fright 
within the fabric of your worn 
wool skirt. A tattered wrap, 
one satchel all you bring, owning
little to leave in Polish fields 
sown for Austrian overlords. 
Your husband, gone before you, 
has prepared a place for you,
the boy and the daughter offered 
to the ocean three days ago, 
the stench of her loss now overcome 
by the smell of unknown chemicals 
that punctuate your arrival.

As you watch the green sea 
brown, factories reach their grey smoke 
arms for you, pulling the ship to the shore  
and its dense forest of brick and mortar. 
You uncover your son and his fear, lift
him up on your hip. You both 
squint at your new sovereign,
her torch thrusting upward above alien 
shadows, wondering what is 
written in the book she holds.

Diverse tongues converge 
in heated relief as peoples swell 
onto unknown ground, you and they 
sick of each other’s rank continental 
bodies, freight to be hurriedly unloaded 
so New Country goods can fill 
the ship’s hold. The swell shoves you
and your son in a surge of hunger 
for the land you expect to till. Your land,
though you do not yet know
what else must be left behind to find it. 

Hours more spent waiting, at last 
you hear repeated over and over 
the first words of the language 
you will refuse to learn. Here, 
you set down the boy who clings less 
tightly now. You hand papers to a foreigner 
separated from you both by a half wall 
and bars. He reads the symbols written 
on the page in German, not even your own
language, though you could not have read it 
even if it were. You do not know what 
this ink will mean. This man looks down 
at you—you are so short—and your boy, 
speaks to you as his eyes examine 
the grey of yours. You do not respond. 
Your son shrugs off his fear, removes his cap 
and, tapping the counter to draw 
the man’s attention, mouths
the strange sounds he would speak
for you for the next seventy years.

© 2006 by Claudia Stanek. All rights reserved.

Claudia Stanek lives and writes in Perinton, NY with her three shih-tzus. She will receive an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College in January 2007.