It's a return to Story Time after last week's break! Today's is an excerpt from a novel called God Only Watches by Carol MacAllister. She is a published writer of short fiction and poetry, including selections in two Chicken Soup collections. She is currently working on her MFA.
God Only Watches is a historical fiction that takes place in Gotham circa 1850. It centers on a young boy who is abandoned and left on the streets. I hope you enjoy the first chapter.
God Only Watches
By Carol MacAllister
Little James MacAvoy yawned wide as Mrs. Mackey nudged him awake. He was wedged between her two older boys, Danny and Rob, asleep on the straw mattress set on the floor in their tiny bedchamber. “Up you go, laddie.” He’d lived with the Mackey family since he was six-years old in their third floor walk-up. She steadied him as he stepped over the boys then led him into the chilly kitchen. The cold floorboards nipped his bare feet.
New York City’s streets woke quietly under a blanket of heavy humid air. A mist of gathering clouds promised a spring shower. Only a passing delivery cart rattled over ruts in the dirt roadway, disturbing the waking community cradled in the arms of dilapidated tenements. Even wagons that hauled merchandise, and the sturdy drays filled with supplies for factories, waited half-asleep as workers loaded goods at wharfs and warehouses skirting the East River. Liverymen watered horses in musty stalls to ready for a day’s work of drawing public stagecoaches and omnibuses.
“Stand still, laddie.” James wiggled around as she dressed him with her best spare clothing. A pair of Danny’s worn woolen knickers and a white cotton blouse whose collar had been turned twice and usually worn as a nightshirt. She’d fashioned a neckerchief from a strip of Maura’s old plaid skirt, light blue that matched his eyes, then worked thin knit stockings up his spindly legs. She squared a tweed slouch on his light brown hair, then placed her hands on his narrow shoulders. With a sigh, she tucked two pence and a silver medallion of the Blessed Mother in the front pocket of his patched sack coat.
Kathleen, her eldest at fourteen years, shuffled half-asleep into the drafty kitchen. Her petite frame bundled in the thin woolen overcoat she used as a robe, long auburn hair still in a braid from the night before. She filled the cast iron teakettle from the wooden bucket of rain water on the kitchen’s window ledge then scooped out a bit more to splash her face. She set the kettle on the fat-bellied coal stove to boil.
James yawned as Mrs. Mackey spoke to her daughter in a low voice. “I should be home within the hour, if all goes well. Mind the babies. Leave them sleep. We’ll have the morning meal, later.”
“Yes, Mam. But, we’ve no food. Just tea.”
“I’ll be fetching some money from Mrs. Thompson for me mendin’. I’ll stop for a sack of oatmeal on the way.”
Kathleen’s pea-green eyes widened. “Think they’ll be enough for a Mertz crumb cake? Just a wee one?”
James’s mouth watered at the thought of those sugary crumbs that crunched with a sweet cinnamon taste. He hoped Mrs. Mackey would agree.
“Not ‘til your Pa gets back to work.”
Kathleen’s bright smile faltered. Mrs. Mackey brushed her thin fingers along her daughter’s sallow cheek and cupped her chin. “Ah, Kathleen, you’re a love. I’ll fetch you something special.” She reached toward the wooden pegs on the kitchen wall next to the apartment’s door that opened in from the building’s hallway. There, she’d hung the maroon mohair shawl she’d knitted and her black spoon bonnet. She smoothed back her dark hair and repined the knot at the nape of her neck. She put her bonnet on, taking care to tuck wisps of fallen hair, tied the shiny satin ribbon under her chin and gave it a fluff. She wrapped the shawl around her white blouse, grayed at the cuffs and elbows, straightening its high collar with her fingers. Her cotton gloves were edged with scraps of lace trim leftover from the clothing she stitched for her customers, the “fine ladies”. Then she led James into the hallway that always smelled like boiled cabbage. Old newspapers and trash lay about, waiting to be carried down to the street.
“Hold onto the banister, child.” She gathered her softly pleated skirts and stepped from the third floor landing onto the stairs. He walked behind, grasping the splintery railing, carefully stretching out his short legs and the tips of his ankle boots, like a Highland stepper, to catch each riser.
When they reached the second floor landing, he tugged at her skirts. “Where we going?” He rubbed the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hands.
She didn’t look him straight in the face. “Uptown to visit an acquaintance.”
“Where the others? Ain’t dem comin’?”
“Today it’s just you and me, laddie.” She turned aside. “We’ve business needs tending.”
“Will Pa be there? You said he’d come back for me.”
She rolled her eyes and pursed her lips. “You’re right in that. He promised to come back, indeed. It’s ‘nar eight months. Winter’s gone. It’s time.” Her voice lightened. “It’s a soft spring day, laddie. Mind the wet walkways.”
“Time?” James tugged at her long skirts again. “Time for Pa?”
“Just time. Now, let go of me skirts.” She muttered to herself, then shook her head. “Too many mouths to feed.” She pulled at the shawl slipped from her stooped shoulders, then smoothed a gloved hand over her long twill skirt, as if it were made of the finest silk. She and James stepped out onto the stoop. He’d never seen the streets so empty of people, nor heard it so quiet. The racket of wagons, horses’ whinnies as they clopped along, vendors’ carts and passersby usually filled the walkways and roads. The damp smell of rain weighed the air. He looked up toward the ceiling of gray clouds, worrying about a storm. Thunder and lightening always frightened him.
“Off we go now.” Mrs. Mackey led him down the four uneven steps to the planked sidewalk. She paused for a moment and glanced up toward White then over to Pearl, as if deciding which way to walk.
That very moment, someone tipped waste from a night soil pot out an upper window. Mrs. Mackey grasped James by the elbow and whipped him aside, both just escaping the foul brown sludge that spattered across the wooden sidewalk and splashed out into the dirt roadway, mixing with mounds of horse droppings. Mrs. Mackey raised a clenched fist and shouted up at the man still standing at his open window, leaning the metal bucket on its sill. “Schultz! Walk down the steps, like everyone else. Dump the pot in the privy.”
The gray-haired man laughed, then grumbled back in German-pocked English, “Get a parasol, like a respectable frau.”
She shook her fist. “You square-head kraut. I be sending me man ‘round to split your lip.”
“Ja? If Sie kin git him outta Lysaight’s. Always crying over his ale about leaving the old country.”
Mrs. Mackey huffed, threw her shoulders back then pulled James along the empty sidewalk at a quick pace under the canvas awnings of Crocker Printers, then past the saddle shop whose leather trappings always smelled good and across the narrow dark alleyway next to Wilson’s new carpentry shop. They skirted a closed biergarten, the oyster house at number 110 with its piles of stinky shells and the icehouse that scared James because it had no windows and Danny said they stored dead bodies there. Then the tailor’s display of fancy three-piece striped maroon suits, the wig makers show window with clip-on tendrils and curly switches attached to tortoise shell combs and the cordwainer’s display of shiny riding boots and sturdy brogans.
The acrid stench from tanneries mixed with plumes of sooty smoke puffing from chimneys, coal fires from smithy forges and billowing fumes from the ironwork’s fires heating up for the day. Gray ash from factory furnaces joined the mix and the low covering of thick air moved as slow as the stirring of pease pottage. Only thin shards of sunlight sliced through the overcast.
James grew sweaty from the close day and their quick pace. His neck itched and he worked his fingertips under the neckerchief in behind the collar, trying to scratch it as they walked. He tried to dawdle, hoping they’d stop to rest, but each time his pace slowed, Mrs. Mackey jerked him forward, forcing him to toddle along livelier. He found it hard to breathe and puffed like an old nag, trying to keep up. The tip of his ankle boot caught the warped edge of a sidewalk plank and he tripped. She stopped and glared down as he looked up and whimpered, “I’m tired. I’m hungry.”