WHEN we got to the top of the ramp, the young stranger got pushed to the right. He turned and yelled something to Lucia but she didn’t hear. He called to her again and again until she finally heard and shook her head, “Yes”. I couldn’t understand how he could talk with her. “Lara,” I said to my big sister, “Where is he from? He spoke Dutch to me and now he is speaking Italian to Lucia!”
But before Lara could answer we were suddenly being “carried” down a tall narrow metal ladder into the bottom of the ship. I don’t even remember being able to see the stairs or touch them with my feet. The people behind us were pushing us down the steep stairs and the bodies in front of us were keeping us from falling to the bottom. It was a terrible sound with so many shoes pounding on the stairs. The sound went around and around us like we were being carried off in a tornado. When we finally reached the bottom of the stairs, we couldn’t see at first because it was so dark. Men with uniforms were shouting at us, but we didn’t understand what they were saying. One of them looked at the white card with the numbers 15: 237-238 pinned on Lucia’s dress and pushed us off to the left. The room was filled with rows and rows of metal beds. Lara saw the number on Lucia’s dress and understood that we needed to find our beds in row 15. All those poor people! Everyone looked so confused [not understanding what to do] and so afraid.
We had two metal beds for the four of us. The beds were all together with a board between our bed and the beds next to us. Our beds were on the top and 4 strangers were below us: an old grandmother and grandfather, and their grown-up daughter and her little baby. Lara and I shared a bed and Lucia kept Lilly with her. Our bed pads were made of burlap [a rough, hard cloth] and filled with seaweed [a type of plant that grows in the ocean and has a strong ocean smell].
Lilly started to cry when Lucia set her on the rough, awful smelling bed. Someone then came and gave us life jackets [jackets you wear in the water to keep you from going down]. The life jackets were also our pillows. Then he gave us each a tin cup, bowl and spoon.
More and more people poured into the room until we couldn’t imagine how any more could fit without the ship sinking. I pressed my hands over my ears, but the noise just got louder. When my arms got too tired, I dropped them in my lap and started to cry. The grandfather below us reached up and pulled me on his lap and held my head next to his chest and covered my other ear with his big, warm hand. His shirt smelled like sheep, but I didn’t care. His daughter, the woman with the baby, found three little pieces of candy in her purse and pushed one in my mouth, and then reached up and pushed one in Lara’s mouth and Lilly’s mouth. Just as I started to calm down, the ship’s horn blew and the whole ship started to shake. It was so loud I thought something awful had happened to the ship. I screamed and the grandfather held me even closer. In that hot, dark belly of the ship it seemed like the whole world was crying.
THE family below us was kind to us. We never left our beds except to go to the toilet room. When Lucia went to get our food we sat with the family below us on their beds. We had a piece of bread with butter in the morning and a cup of milk. At noon we had soup with boiled potatoes in it and a small piece of meat. At night we had another piece of bread, but without butter.
Everything around us was cold, dirty metal except the floor. The floor was wooden. Every morning someone came and swept between the rows of beds and put sand on the floor. It was to help keep you from slipping, because there was so much trash and mess on the floor. By the end of the journey the floor was like a muddy village road.
There was a small room next to the toilet room that had ten tubs filled with cold salt water from the ocean. Here you had to wash yourself, your clothes, and your dishes. There was no soap and no towels. You had to use your hands to wash everything. Poor Lucia tore one of her scarves in half and used half of it to wash us and half to wash our dishes. You just had to try to forget about all the people around you. But it made us so sad to have to wash like that. The first day Lucia tried to bring water back to our beds in her soup bowl. An official person saw her and started to yell at her. The grandmama below us jumped up and ran up to the man and shook her fist [closed hand] at him and made him go away. Grandmama grabbed the bowl and brought Lucia back to our beds. Poor Lucia cried all day. We all sat next to her holding her hands.
When Lucia came back with our dinner on the second day the young stranger who helped us in Bruge was with her. His name was Carmello [KAR-mello] Bellomo. He was from Italy. The rest of the trip he never left Lucia’s side. We never saw Lucia so happy. It was the first time we heard her speak more than four words at one time. We were amazed. We spent the rest of the trip learning about her life in Italy. Carmello translated for us and didn’t once complain. Lucia, we learned, was the youngest of 12 children: 3 boys and 9 girls. Her family couldn’t afford to keep all those children, and so when the girls turned fifteen, they were sent to different places in Europe to become nannies. Her father had to lie about her age and say she was eighteen when he sent her to live with us. She did not know how much money our parents paid her father. We were shocked to think our parents had bought her like a piece of furniture. It made Lara cry, but Lucia said she shouldn’t cry. Her life was better with us, she said.
Lucia’s mother wrote to her only once. Her mother said her father had been put in prison for selling his daughters to families in Europe and for lying about their age. To our shock, Lucia wasn’t angry. She said she couldn’t be angry with people whose lives were so hard. She was only sad that her father was in prison and there was nothing she could do to help him.
On the tenth day of our journey, Carmello married Lucia. We tried not to show our shock because we loved Lucia so much. If she was happy, that was all that mattered. Carmello found a priest somewhere among all those people. He was pretty amazing in how he could find people he needed just when he needed them. After the ceremony, people all around us began to sing and dance. For a little while, everyone forgot where we were. Grandmama gave Lucia a little handkerchief [a cloth used to wipe your face or blow your nose]. There were beautiful little flowers on it. That night when we went to bed, I asked Lara what she thought Aunt Magic would say when we showed up with a stranger. Lara just laughed and said, “Willy, you silly goose! Don’t you understand? Carmello is rich. We can go back to Belgium now. That’s why Lucia married him. She’ll ask him to buy us all tickets home. He can’t say ‘No’ because he loves her too much.”
“But, Lara, I don’t think Lucia would marry someone for money! She doesn’t care about money. . .”
But Lara was already asleep with a big smile on her face.
THE day before we arrived in New York, Carmello took Lucia’s papers and went off somewhere. I never saw such sad faces as the faces of grandmother and grandfather. They kept trying to tell us something, but we didn’t understand. When Carmello finally came back he had an official looking man with him. Carmello said something quickly to Lucia and then gave her a paper to sign while the man watched. The man then stamped the paper and gave it to Carmello and then held out his hand. I didn’t know what he wanted from Carmello, but Carmello took the man by the arm and led him away from us. I could see Carmello reach in his pocket and then give him some money. Lara saw it too. “See, Willy! I told you! Carmello is buying our tickets home. Oh, I’m so happy!”
The next morning, we hugged the family below us good-bye. They hugged us hard and cried. For a minute it felt strange, like we were leaving another country, just like we left Belgium 12 days before. When we got onto the pier there were official people everywhere—looking at people’s papers, shouting out directions, and moving everyone into different lines. To my surprise, Carmello picked up me in one arm and Lilly in the other and said something rough [not kind] to Lucia. We then walked toward a man with just a few people around him. As Lucia showed him our papers, Carmello said in English, “Special permit. Special stamp. We family. We go right to Boston train!” The man looked at the papers again while Carmello repeated the same words. Finally, the man signed the papers and pointed to a train track across the pier.
When we boarded the train and found our compartment [private room], Carmello told us not to leave the room for any reason and then said he would be back soon. Lara looked at me and her bottom lip started to shake like she would cry any minute. Lucia held her in her arms and said, “Lara tired. Lara sleep now.” Lara looked at me with tears in her eyes. We weren’t going back to Belgium.
Twenty minutes later Carmello came back with his beard and mustache shaved off and wearing different clothes. He laughed and said, “Now it’s your turn to wash.” The train was well on its way to Boston by the time we were all washed and wearing fresh clothes. Carmello said we should try to sleep because we would be in Boston in less than three hours.
We slept most of the trip. When we woke up Carmello was gone again. Lucia smiled and said, “All O.K. Food come. Carmello bring.” For a brief moment we felt at peace and like everything was fine seeing Lucia so happy. For ten days she never stopped smiling, even when Carmello talked roughly to her on the pier. At last our compart- ment door opened, but it wasn’t Carmello. A train conductor said, “Next stop, Boston!” We were so surprised. Where was Carmello? Why was he gone so long? Didn’t he hear the conductor say “Next stop, Boston! . . .”? Something was very wrong.
When Uncle Nikkk finally found us on the platform in Boston we were all crying. We couldn’t make him understand what was wrong. “What man?!” he kept asking. “What do you mean ‘marred’ [married]? I’m sorry. I don’t understand you. Did someone hurt you? . . . Well, we’re all together now and everything will be alright.” We waited for Carmello a whole hour and finally left. Lucia never said Carmello’s name again. Not even to Aunt Magic.
* * *
TEN years later, Lucia got a letter from Carmello asking her to forgive him. He got off the train that day in Providence taking Lucia’s papers and all her money with him. (He even used her money to buy the train tickets in the first class section of the train.) He told her he did love her then and didn’t want to hurt her. He wanted to come with us, he said, but “details” wouldn’t let him. He said he had a wife now and two children. He was living in South America. He named his first daughter, Lucia, because our Lucia had “saved his life,” he said. Lucia cried a little when she read the letter. She still had the handkerchief the grandmother on the boat gave her. The grandmother must have known Carmello was going to break Lucia’s heart.
It took a long while to learn what happened, but Uncle Nikkk finally got a letter back from the police in New York saying that Carmello ran away from Italy so he wouldn’t have to fight in the war. Uncle Nikkk told us that people got put in prison for running away like that. But Lucia forgave him—even for stealing all her money and marrying someone else. She said, “You can’t be angry with people whose lives are hard.”
When I thought about what Uncle Nikkk told us I got really scared. “Weren’t we running away from the war too? Would the police come find us and put us in prison?” For the longest time I stopped playing outside. It was then that I started exploring the house. And that’s when I found the secret room.