NYC Midnight Short Story Competition 2019: Round 1
Genre: Historical Fiction
Subject: Opportunity of a Lifetime
Synopsis: A homesteader impatiently awaits his mail-order bride on a train bound for California. Will “two for the price of one” prove to be a good investment?
“Ruchel, Ruchel…” Elke murmured, as the rough rocking of the boat woke her. “Are we in America?”
Ruchel turned her head to face her sister in the tiny cot they shared in the private quarters of the lower deck. “Not yet, Elke. A few more days, I think.”
“Ruchel, you said that yesterday, and the day before.”
Smiling, Ruchel chided her, “Remember, we use our new American names, Rachel and Elise. Perfect English, right?”
Elke pulled the covers to her chin. “Ruchel…Rachel, what do you think he’ll be like, Mr. Jeremiah?”
Ruchel smiled, eyes twinkling. “He will be my husband. That is what he will be like.”
Elke let out a sigh. All her life, she had been tethered to her twin. Ruchel was outgoing, smart and sweet like honey. Her twin, Elke shared the same wild curls, the same last name and more… but she was resigned, quiet and shy. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, she wasn’t surprised when Mama and Papa promised Ruchel to the marriage broker. This was Ruchel’s grand adventure, she had hitched her wagon to Ruchel’s shining star.
Ruchel pulled out a yellowed newspaper clipping from her petticoat pocket. In the dim candle light of the dark cabin, she held the scrap of paper close to her chest. Closing her eyes, she recited the text by memory.
Honest and respectable man seeks hardworking woman, to join him in companionship at California homestead. Must enjoy the plain and simple life, know how to cook, sew and keep a clean house. Object, matrimony.
“But what if he is cruel with mean eyes and the face of an ox?” Elke implored.
“A ber lernt men oykh oys tantsn….Even a bear can be taught to dance. Besides, Mr. Jeremiah is a kind man. He is a generous man—see, he paid for us… first class for both of us. Our own private room. He is a gentleman.”
“What if Gentleman Mr. Jeremiah doesn’t love us… I mean you?” Elke shivered, worried about the rejection that most likely was waiting for them on the shores of America.
“Sister, stop your worrying! Remember what Mama would tell us when we were little? Az Got zol voynen af der erd, voltn im di mentschen di fenster oysgeshlogn! If God lived on earth, people would break His windows! She would tell us that no one appreciated quite how special we were but in America, anything is possible.”
Ruchel was growing tired of Elke’s insecurities.“Enough with questions, we have 5 more days of sailing—and you promised to finish my veil. Think more like the bridesmaid and less like the bride.”
Used to taking direction from sister, Elke dutifully squinted in the dim light of the sooty candle and pulled out her small, mahogany sewing box. Squinting in the dark room, she began to embroider a small piece of ivory lace.
Jeremiah Cooper begrudgingly placed the ad in the Chicago Tribune. The advertisement had cost him nearly three months’ salary, and he was pretty certain it’d been a waste. He had been saving his meager wages from the stockyard for 15 years to realize his dream of being a yeoman farmer. He scrimped and saved every last cent to make the down payment for his California trip, where he could own his own land, farm his own fields and tend to his own livestock.
Finding a wife felt like both a dream and burden to him. In his 35 years, Jeremiah hadn’t much use for the frivolity of women. While his friends and neighbors married and struggled to make ends meet, Jeremiah quietly worked at the stockyards, trimming sides of beef till his hands ached from cold and exertion and his skin had developed a permanent pinkish tinge from animal blood. He saved up his wages in anticipation of starting a new life, away from the coal-choked streets of the city, in the clean land of California.
But farming needed families for labor and starting up the homestead was more work than he could manage. Even though he had saved up enough for the deed and the ticket west, he still needed financial support to purchase all of the supplies to get his new farm up and running. His backer also dictated that marriage was a requirement for the loan, a kind of domestic collateral. After a rash of bad investments during the Gold Rush, the Company wouldn’t front bachelors any more.
“Too much of a risk,” the office man in the starched white shirt told him. “We don’t send men out on their own to California anymore; nothing to keep them firm on the path. No wife to keep them focused and happy. We can’t have you drinking your future away before you even get to your parcel.”
Jeremiah felt obligated to comply. The Company helped Jeremiah fill out his claim for the 160 acres under the Homestead Act. They also had agreed to loan him cash for the supplies and equipment he’d need to start his farm. In return, Jeremiah agreed to work the fields and care for the land, giving a portion back to the company over 25 years. But the deal was contingent on settling down and proving that he was committed to the land and to the farm—and evidently, committed to a wife.
His simple advertisement had been picked up by a marriage broker on the East Coast, who told him for an extra $50, he could find him a wife and a maid. Two women for the price of one. One to marry and one to serve.
The broker filled his head with grand ideas. “Think how much easier it would be with two women to cook, clean, and plow.” The marriage broker filled his head with other ideas, too. “You get tired of one—you have another. Your own personal Eden. Think how life would be if Adam had two Eves … we’d still be in that Heavenly Garden today.” Jeremiah hadn’t thought much of one wife, let alone two … but two for the price of one felt like a good investment.
True to his word, the broker found the sisters in Eastern Europe. Pogroms were good for the matrimonial business, as families were motivated to sell their daughters for the promise of a better life across the ocean (and acquire money to rebuild what they had lost as part of the bargain). Within a few months, the broker had tracked down exotic twins who were well versed in the wifely arts of sewing, cooking and housekeeping. As an added bonus, they spoke English.
But there was a hitch. The broker made clear that the girls would require a private room on the steamship and that would be another $125 for the tickets and lodging. They also would require first-class train tickets and a private sleeping room from New York to Chicago, which would be another $25.
“Twins,” the broker explained, “a true rarity — they can’t travel with the rest of the lot. Think of this as protection. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to your girls on the way over.”
So, Jeremiah handed over the last of his incentive cash from the Company to pay for safe passage for the girls. Like his plow or his chickens, he was hopeful this would be another investment that would pay off dividends. As the broker had told him, he could always sell off one of the sisters once they got to California to recoup his investment.
The rail journey was relatively short compared to the weeks spent on the steamship. Looking out the window, the sisters were struck by the lush green and amber fields blurring by like dreams. They welcomed the heat of the sun on their skin and took advantage of the copious sunlight.
Elke completed the wedding veil, and Ruchel finished the three books she had brought with her on the trip. Her mother had warned her that there would be little time for reading, once she was married.
“A man iz vi an enger shukh: khotsh er drikt, dokh muz a vayb im trogn.” The girls’ mother explained, “A husband is like a tight shoe: even though it’s constricting, a wife has to wear it and suffer.” Ruchel found the words oddly comforting. She knew that there were no prospects for marriage in their village. Coming to America would be a new life for her and for her sister. And besides, a tight shoe was better than walking barefoot.
“Ruchel, you are going to be a beautiful bride,” Elke said proudly, holding up her hand- embroidered veil.
“E-lise,” Ruchel responded slowly, carefully sounding out each part of the name, “you will be a beautiful bridesmaid. I couldn’t have made this journey without you, sweet sister.”
“True,” Elke agreed. “That would have been impossible.”
The sisters smiled at one another, holding hands as the rhythmic click clack of the train and the warm sunlight slowly lulled them to sleep.
“Next stop, Chicago and then to California” Elke muttered as she rested her head on Ruchel’s shoulder.
Jeremiah impatiently paced across the marble floors of Union Station. Checking his pocket watch for the fifth time, he confirmed that the train from New York had been delayed. He wasn’t a man who enjoyed waiting. Finding a bride had taken longer than he anticipated, and with each passing day, he grew more concerned that the marriage broker might not deliver on his promise. Now, the train was delayed seven hours, one hour for each week he waited for his new bride and her sister.
California felt further and further away.
The marriage broker had helped him with the plan — he would board the train in Chicago, meet the girls, and they would travel to California together by rail. Over the course of the trip, he would pick his bride and decide whether or not to sell the other to any number of lonely homesteaders. It had all seemed so easy a few months ago, but now as he sat next to his stack of suitcases at the crowded station, he felt a growing anxiety.
Too afraid to sleep, lest he miss his train boarding, Jeremiah busied himself with reviewing his deed and other papers. He was a train ride away from his own house, his own land, and his own life. Everything that mattered to him was packed into two brown leather suitcases. He was too invested to turn back. If that meant waiting another seven hours, that was what he would do. Impatience wasn’t his only vice; he also was stubborn as a bull.
The conductor’s shout broke his concentration. “Inbound from New York, outbound to California. All Aboard Track 12!”
Jeremiah grabbed his bags and hurried across the Great Hall to his platform, where he boarded the train, the first-class ticket clenched tightly in his hand. He scanned the car, looking for his investment, his heart beating out of his chest.
At the end of the car, he saw them. Two young girls, no older than 15, sleeping quietly in the alcove. He was struck by the wild tangle of their curly chestnut hair escaping from beneath their scarves. He quietly approached them, curious to see their faces.
The girls sat side by side, a woolen blanket pulled up to their chins, heads resting against one another. True to his word, the broker had procured him twins. Even with their eyes closed, he could see the resemblance. They both had round faces with a spray of freckles across their cheeks. No visible warts or scars — he was pleasantly surprised. It would be tough to pick the one he would keep. Perhaps he could afford to keep both?
Relieved to see that they were pretty and young, Jeremiah quietly took the seat across from them. He stared at them, unsure if he should wake them. The train conductor gave another yell and the train lurched forward, jostling the girls awake.
There was moment of awkward silence as the girls stared at him with a mixture of fear and confusion.
“Mr. Jeremiah?” The one on the left said, her question filled with quiet anticipation.
He nodded his head.
“I’m Rachel.” She smiled warmly at him, looking him directly in the eye. She sounded like one of the Polish girls, who worked at the bakery. Sugary accents that instantly made him think of sweet rolls and European pastries. The kind of treats he never indulged in.
“This is my sister, Elise.” Ruchel extended her shoulder, forcing her sister to sit up.
“Much pleasure to meet you” Elke quietly stuttered, her eyes immediately darting down to avoid his gaze and his handshake. Mr. Jeremiah looked old, leathery and worn out, like last year’s shoes.
“Rachel, huh? Your English is good.” Jeremiah had never been much for small talk.
“So is yours,” she responded playfully. “I studied at school.”
“How was your trip? You girls make it over safe? No problems?” Jeremiah felt increasingly uncomfortable talking to the young girls. They seemed more like daughters than wives.
Elke slowly looked up at Jeremiah.
“Mr. Jeremiah, I have a question. Are we immigrants or ladies?”
A look of confusion clouded his face.
Ruchel explained, “There are two lavatories. We did not know which one was for us to use.”
“I reckon you are ladies in my book.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jeremiah. We will be back in a minute.”
The girls stood up together in a single movement, the blanket slowly dropping away. He didn’t quite notice at first. A modest and church-going man, he averted his eyes as they adjusted their skirt and blouses. It was as they navigated to the aisle that it registered. Two heads, two torsos, 4 arms, 4 legs, and one waist. The girls were connected, like two ripe cherries on a single stem.
He watched as they delicately navigated to the Ladies’ Lavatory, taking each step in tandem, with the precision of a military march.
“Two for the price of one,” the marriage broker had told him. And that was what he got.
Jeremiah sat in silence, shocked and feeling the rhythmic motion of the train beneath his feet. They belonged to him now. His girls, his investment. A man of simple thoughts and simple words, Jeremiah considered his options.
Year after year, on the night of their anniversaries, Jeremiah would build a bonfire in the backyard of the family farm to tell his story. With his quiet words, he would explain to his children how he had fallen in love with their mothers on that long train trip from Chicago to California.
Elke, embarrassed by the attention, would mend shirts or darn socks, while Ruchel stared lovingly into his eyes.
“What is that thing you always say, love?” he would ask her every year at the end of his story.
“A mensch tracht un Got lacht. Man plans and God laughs.” Ruchel would respond.