Katerina’s Wish Chapter 1
MY PAPA’S DREAM brought us to America. Momma said only a fool believed in dreams, but she knew Papa, so she packed our trunks. And whether she believed or not, that dream swept us out of Bohemia and across the ocean. We’d arrived, in the autumn of 1900 in “a new land for the new century," as Papa put it. By May of 1901, neither the dream nor the country felt new. They both felt old and worn out. As I stood behind our house, staring at a dozen bundles of filthy laundry, I couldn’t help but think Momma had been right.
Papa had dreamed of a thriving farm where we would live well. He had imagined acres of green fields, not the dry, barren hills of southern Colorado. He had imagined fresh air and sunshine, the bounty of the fertile land filling our larder and our pockets. Instead, he spent long days underground, toiling in the unwholesome air of a coal mine. And even with all this laundry Momma took on, our pockets stayed empty and our larder was never full. Now that my sisters and I were out of school for the
summer, Momma had determined to take on as much washing as we could from the bachelors in town. But it still wasn’t likely to mean much money.
“This is too much wash to do in the kitchen,” Momma observed from the back door.
“It’s too much to do at all,” I grumbled.
“If you want to be going back to school in the fall, you’ll be needing a new dress,” she said. “And the money’s got to come from somewhere.”
The new term would not start until October, when the schoolmaster returned from one of the other coal camps in the area. But saving money wasn’t easy. When we left Bohemia, Papa had thought a year in the coal mines would earn us enough for a farm. We had been here nine months already and had saved almost nothing.
“At least Trina will get a new dress,” Aneshka said. She was sitting on the back step, kicking at the dust. “I’ll just get her old dress cut down to my size, and Holena will get mine that used to be hers.”
“I don’t mind,” Holena said quietly from her seat beside Aneshka. She would be starting school for the first time in the fall.
“Mind or not, it can’t be helped,” Momma said, her mouth setting into a thin, tight line. It was almost the only expression she had worn since coming to America. “And you do have to go to school.” School was important. Momma had had few chances to learn English. She relied on my sisters and me to translate for her.
Momma sighed, looking again at the big piles of coal-blackened laundry. “We’ll take this load down by the creek. That way we don’t have to haul water. Trina, you carry it there, and we’ll all join you when chores here are done.”
I began hauling tubs and bundles of filthy clothes across camp and down the steep slope to the little creek to the west. It took me four trips back and forth across the shabby town, and each time I returned to the house it seemed Aneshka was working slower and slower at her easy jobs. Holena, who was too little to help carry anyway, was watching Momma knead the week’s bread dough. I glared at Aneshka as I gathered the bundles, but she ignored me.
In the creek bottom, I found a wide, grassy spot and built a fire, then arranged stones to balance a tub over the flames. Then I filled the tub with water from the creek. By the time I was done, my sweat-soaked dress clung to my shoulders. My mother and sisters had still not arrived. I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the corner of my apron. Was this all there was to my father’s dreams—sweat and coal dust and endless hours of work?
I stretched and looked around. If I was going to spend the day scrubbing filthy clothes, I wasn’t going to stay here while I waited for the water to boil. I deserved these few minutes to myself. I wandered along the water’s edge, listening to the birds chirp in the low bushes and trying to forget the drudgery of the day ahead.
A short distance downstream, the valley narrowed and turned. The slopes of the valley became steeper, blocking the view of anything around the bend. I had never gone there. For months, I had come only to the creek to draw water. My pace quickened as a flutter of adventure stirred in my heart. I glanced back toward the laundry. My mother and sisters still weren’t there. I had time to see what lay beyond the shoulder of land.
Around the bend, I stopped in amazement. The creek spread out into a still pool. At its edge, an ancient cottonwood tree leaned out, its massive branches reaching across until they
shaded the creek bottom from slope to slope. For a moment I thought I might be dreaming. I had never seen this tree before.
As I approached the tree, the high slopes of the valley shut out all sounds from the mine. For the first time in months, I couldn’t hear the clank and screech of the cables in the hoist. The only sounds were the gurgle of the stream as it entered the pool and the sighing breath of breezes in the leaves overhead. Unexpectedly, tears filled my eyes. How often I had taken those sounds for granted in Bohemia. How foolishly we had left that behind to come here.
I pressed my hand against the rough bark to assure myself the tree was real. The trunk was so thick, I could not have reached even halfway around it if I’d tried. Two massive roots, each as thick as a mule’s haunch, ran from the trunk to the water’s edge, enclosing a triangle of soft grass between water and tree. I stepped over the closer root and sat down, my back against the massive trunk. The roots encircled me like my father’s arms had when I was a child, making me feel safe. In the stillness, the constant ache for our home in Bohemia welled up inside me.
I watched a small leaf spinning lazily across the surface of the water, feeling like I was in a secret place. The mine, the washing, the endless chores had disappeared. There was only me, and the soothing stillness of this place. But as the leaf drifted out over the deepest part of the pool, I realized that I was not alone. A movement beneath the surface created a ripple that caught the leaf and spun it faster. I sat up to see better. With a flash of silver, the thing disappeared under the bank. I crawled forward and leaned out over the pool. The water was clear, and I could see the pebbles on the bottom in the shifting green light beneath the tree. I lay still and watched. After a long moment, a fish emerged from beneath the bank. It was not a large fish, but
larger than I had expected in a creek that size. It watched me, just as I watched it.
A story stirred in my memory. Back in Bohemia, my grandmother had told stories as we helped her stuff sausages. One had been about a fish—but I couldn’t quite remember.
The fish began to rise toward me with slow sweeps of its tail. I leaned closer, until my face almost touched the water. I could clearly see its flat, broad head and the whiskerlike feelers protruding from either side of its mouth and chin. It was a carp, a fish we had considered lucky back in Bohemia. Only a few inches and the surface of the water separated us as it watched me with one shiny black eye. I held my breath, waiting to see what it would do.
A shout from upstream shattered the moment. I jerked my head up and the fish darted away. Aneshka was standing at the bend, her hands cupped around her mouth, getting ready to yell again. I scrambled quickly to my feet and stepped out from the shade.
“Coming!” I called, and hurried toward her. I didn’t want Aneshka here. This place felt special—magical—in a way Aneshka couldn’t understand. She was too much like our mother.
“Where have you been?” she said, her hands going to her hips.
“Nowhere,” I said, and brushed past her without another word. She was five years younger than me; I didn’t have to answer to her. But as I approached the washtubs, I knew I would have to answer to Momma.
“Where have you been, Katerina! I sent you down here to start the washing.”
“The water was heating; it wasn’t ready,” I protested. I hadn’t been gone very long.
“But it isn’t hot, because while you went off daydreaming, the fire went out.”
I looked at the washtub. Weak wisps of smoke and bits of half-burned wood were all that remained of the fire I had started. No steam rose off the water.
“I’m sorry.” I began stuffing fresh wood beneath the tub. Soon the fire was lit again, but Momma wasn’t satisfied.
“Trina, the family needs your help, not your daydreams. You are thirteen, practically a woman, but you act like a child. Honestly, Holena is more help than you some days.”
“I am sorry, Momma,” I said again. What else could I say? I couldn’t talk back to her. And there was no point in saying how I ached with homesickness, not just for what we had left behind, but for what we were supposed to have here in America. That was not the sort of thing I could say to my mother.
I wasn’t sorry I had left the laundry and found that peaceful place beneath the tree, either. It had been worth a scolding to feel still and secure for those few moments.
We boiled and scrubbed laundry until dusk that day, stopping only briefly to eat a lunch of bread and pickles while a fresh tub of water heated. In the afternoon, Momma left us to finish while she returned to the house to form the week’s bread into loaves and begin preparing our supper.
“You are in charge, Trina, so don’t go wandering off again,” she said before she left, proving she hadn’t forgotten my mistake. I hadn’t forgotten either. I had worked extra hard to make it up to her, but I was still thinking about the fish and trying to remember the story.
As soon as Momma left, Aneshka started complaining, but I wasn’t listening. Every time I bent over the boiling tub, I saw the fish in my mind, just beneath the surface. As I scrubbed the
clothes on the washboard, I searched my memory for the story that I couldn’t quite recall.
We carried load after load of heavy, wet laundry to the house, and hung it to dry. When we finally heaped the last pile into the washtub and struggled up the slope into camp, the whistle had blown at the mine and the shift was changing. Aneshka and I were still hanging shirts on the lines when my father arrived, trudging silently, his shoulders slumped by exhaustion. In Bohemia, he had always whistled or sung when he walked. Here, he was just too tired.
I was relieved when Momma said nothing over dinner about my absence that morning. I didn’t want to tell them about the tree or the fish. It would sound childish, like something out of a fairy tale. Besides, my mother’s accusation of daydreaming still stung. I hadn’t been daydreaming. What I had seen was strange, but real.
When supper was over, Papa went out to sit on the porch in the cool evening, and Momma took out her mending basket and sat with him. Before she went, she turned to me.
“Trina, you will wash the dishes tonight. Holena and Aneshka may do as they like.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but closed it again when my mother gave me a sharp look. “They worked all day without complaint—you ran off and left your work undone, which slowed us all down. So this evening, you will make it up to them by doing the dishes alone.”
I bit back my reply as I stacked the plates and carried them to the counter. Couldn’t she tell that Aneshka had dallied at her morning chores while I did the hard work? And, she had done nothing but complain after Momma left us at the creek. Still, I couldn’t talk back to my mother. Soon I was alone in the kitchen,
scrubbing plates while my sisters giggled and played outside.
Our neighbor Old Jan arrived just as I finished. Like us, he was Czechy, or “Bohemian,” as we were called in this country. He and his two sons had lived in the coal camp longer than we had, but had fallen on hard times shortly after our arrival. Old Jan’s leg had been crushed in a cave-in at the mine and had been amputated just below the knee. The old man had not worked since, nor would he again. As they were our neighbors and our countrymen, we had stuck by them, and they had become like family to us. His younger son, Marek, was a year and a half older than me and had gone to school with me at first. After his father’s accident, however, he had lied about his age to get a job in the mine.
Since both sons worked the night shift, Old Jan was alone in the evening, so my parents welcomed him, no matter how tired they were. Momma got out of her chair and scooted it forward for Old Jan, while Papa filled a pipe with tobacco for him.
“Trina,” Momma said, “go put the coffee on for our guest.”
I turned back into the hot kitchen and set the pot on the stove to heat. By the time I returned, Old Jan was comfortably settled. Holena and Aneshka were sitting cross-legged on the porch in front of him, begging for a story. In Bohemia, Papa or our grandfather had often told us stories after supper, but since starting work at the mine, Papa was always too tired. My sisters had discovered, however, that Old Jan was more obliging.
“Come on, Trina.” Aneshka patted the porch beside her. “Old Jan is going to tell a story.”
I was too angry to sit by Aneshka. I gave cups of coffee to my parents and their guest and sat down on the porch steps a few feet away.
“What story would you like?” Old Jan asked.
“A story about a princess!” Aneshka cried.
“And what kind of story would you like, Holena?” Old Jan asked, leaning forward and patting her round cheek lightly with his gnarled fingers.
“I would like a story about animals,” Holena said quietly.
“Animals and a princess, eh?” Old Jan said with a chuckle. “And what about you, Trina? What story would you like to hear?”
“My grandmother told a story about a fish. I’ve been trying to remember it all day.”
“A fish. Hmmm.” He considered for a long moment. “Was it ‘The Magic Carp,’ perhaps?”
I sat up straighter, feeling the same tug of excitement I had felt that morning when I saw the tree. “Yes, that’s it! Can you tell it? Please?”
He smiled. “That is a good story, and it has animals. Very well, then. ‘The Magic Carp.’”
Aneshka scowled at me, but Old Jan didn’t seem to notice as he began the tale.
“There was once an old fisherman and his wife, so poor they had only fish broth for supper and went to bed hungry. One day the old man had caught nothing all day long. He was about to give up when he saw a flash of movement in the deepest pool in the river, so he cast his line one more time. When he did, he hooked a carp with whiskers on its chin. This carp was hardly big enough to eat, but it was all the old fisherman had, so he prepared to kill it.
“‘Stop!’ the little fish pleaded.” Old Jan spoke in a highpitched voice that made Aneshka and Holena giggle. “‘If you let me go, I shall grant you three wishes.’
“‘Three wishes?’ the fisherman asked, amazed.
“‘Three wishes,’ the fish assured him. ‘Spare me and your dreams could come true!’
“Well, the fisherman couldn’t believe his luck! Dreaming of what he might wish for, he unhooked the fish and let the little fish slip back into the water before he knew what he was doing. He thought he had lost his chance, but the carp poked its head up above the surface of the pool. It twitched its whiskers three times and said, ‘Three wishes are yours, before the summer’s end.’ Then, with a slippery white flash, it disappeared into the depths of the pool.
“The fisherman hurried home to his wife and told her of the wishes, but she merely grumbled that he was a fool to fall for the trick. She gave him his bowl of fish broth, even thinner than usual. The fisherman looked into the bowl, and with a sigh he said, ‘I wish just once I had a nice, fat sausage for my supper.’
“And what do you know, just like that, a nice fat sausage appeared on his plate. Well, the old couple was amazed, but immediately the old woman began scolding, ‘Now look what you’ve done! You could have had anything and you’ve wasted a wish on a silly sausage!’
“The old man tried to calm his wife, but she kept scolding until he got angry. ‘Quiet, woman!’ he shouted. ‘I’ve heard enough about this sausage! I wish it were stuck to your nose!’”
Old Jan paused while Aneshka giggled. Holena clapped her hand over her nose, her eyes wide. “Sure enough, that sausage stuck itself to the old woman’s nose. Well, they tugged and pulled, and pulled and tugged, but they couldn’t get that sausage off! So in the end, they had to use their last wish to wish the sausage away, and they ended up no better off than they were before.” Old Jan paused and turned to me. “Is that the story your grandmother told?”
“Yes. Grandmother always asked us what we’d wish for if we had three wishes.” I ached remembering how we would laugh at our wishes as we worked.
Papa smiled. “So she did. Very well, my girls, what do you wish for?”
“All the plum dumplings I could ever eat!” Aneshka cried, clapping her hands in delight.
“I would wish for blue hair ribbons,” Holena said dreamily.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Hadn’t they learned anything at all from the story? Holena was only five, but Aneshka was old enough to understand the moral.
“You’re as foolish as the fisherman and his wife,” I said. “You would waste your wishes on simple things!”
“Well then, wise Katerina, what would you wish for?” Papa asked, smiling.
I frowned, wishing I hadn’t started the game. “There’s no such thing as wishes.”
“You sound like the fisherman’s wife,” Aneshka said. Then she giggled and added, “Trina’s going to end up with a sausage stuck to her nose!”
“It’s only a game, Trina. What would you wish for?” Old Jan asked.
“It’s a stupid game,” I insisted.
“Just say what it is you want, Trina. Please?” Holena asked, but even her sweetness couldn’t soothe my annoyance.
“I want to go back to Bohemia!” I said, bitterness sharpening my words more than I intended. I could see in my father’s eyes that my words hurt him, but before I could take them back, he gave an answer I hadn’t expected.
“And I would wish us right back to America and onto a farm. So you see, Trina, your wish would be wasted too.”
“But why?” I asked. “It’s horrible here!”
“Perhaps for now it is, but here in America, we will have a better future,” he said.
“That’s right,” Old Jan said. “In America, our children’s dreams can come true.”
“Dreams don’t come true! Especially not here!” I knew better than to talk back to my elders, but now that I had given voice to my anger, I couldn’t seem to stop it.
“They do if you know what to wish for,” Old Jan said. “And if you find a magic carp.”
I opened my mouth to answer, but I couldn’t. Had I found a magic carp? I was staring at him with my mouth open when my mother stood abruptly. “Enough of this nonsense. It is time the children were off to bed,” she said.
Aneshka protested, but I did not. Old Jan’s words had made me uncomfortable, and besides, I was tired from a day of scrubbing clothes. I thanked Old Jan for the story. Taking Holena’s hand, I retreated into the house. I helped her into her nightdress before changing into my own, and the three of us lay down on the mattress we shared. Through the thin walls, I could hear my mother apologizing for my outburst to Old Jan, and my cheeks burned.
“Never mind, Mrs. Prochazkova,” Old Jan said in his kindly way. “She is just homesick. She’s very young yet, after all.”
“She is old enough to know better,” Momma said.
“But she is still a child inside,” Old Jan replied.
His tone had been kind, but I squeezed my eyes shut in shame and turned toward the wall so I could not hear what else they might say. I did not want to be talked about as a child. I didn’t want to be talked about at all. I wanted to go to sleep and forget the day, and, slowly, I did.
I woke in the cool moonlight, lying on the thick cottonwood root, leaning out over the water. A flash of white deep in the pool caught my attention. I leaned farther, watching and waiting, my nose almost against the surface of the dark water. The gleaming carp slipped out into the moonlight and rose to the surface. It thrust its flat head up through the glassy surface and its whiskers twitched—one, two, three times.
“Three wishes before the summer’s end,” it said in a voice that bubbled like washwater. “Wise Katerina, what do you wish for?”
Suddenly I was aware of Aneshka beside me. “Plum dumplings!” she squealed, clapping her hands. “I wish for all the plum dumplings I can eat!”
“And blue hair ribbons!” added shy little Holena from my other side.
“Stop! Stop!” I cried, leaping to my feet. “You’re wasting my wishes!” But it was too late; the dumplings and ribbons had already appeared.
Only one wish was left! I had to formulate it carefully. Before I could speak, Momma appeared from over the hill with bundles of laundry, calling my name and scolding me for dreaming.
I woke with a start, my heart thumping in my throat. I was back on the thin mattress, Aneshka and Holena pressed up against me, breathing evenly. It had only been a dream, but it had seemed so real—just as being beneath the cottonwood that morning had seemed like a dream. Momma was right; I was too old to believe in fairy tales. But if there really was a magic carp in the creek by the coal camp . . . I smiled to myself and snuggled deeper under the covers, comforted by the idea. Soon I had fallen back into a dreamless, forgetful sleep.