Desperate to escape her squalid life on the streets of New York City, sixteen year-old Fiona Finn seeks help at the magnificent Church of the Ascension where Charles Loring Brace, a social reformer horrified by the plight of New York City’s street children, arranges for her to go west aboard an Orphan Train.
Fiona’s homeless, alcoholic father has other plans, however. He wants Fiona to “work” the streets to support his drinking and pursues her across the midwest until she is forced to abandon the train in Houston to avoid a sheriff bent on returning her to her father.
Alone in the dark on the Texas prairie, Fiona’s terrifying experience with a circus elephant, Bolivar, sets the stage for a future she could never have imagined.
BUY THE BOOK
On her sixteenth birthday, Fiona admired the red dress in the B. Altman & Company store window for a bit too long, so mesmerized by its beauty that she didn’t hear someone coming up behind her until filthy hands clasped around her chest and fetid breath assaulted her nostrils.
“Lookin’ for work, dumplin’?” The rancid aroma thickened as the man pulled Fiona tightly against him. “I kin help you. Know a feller wants a purty redhead’s company tonight. Bet he’d buy ya that there dress if yer nice to ’im.” Bristly whiskers brushed the side of her neck and left ear.
Fiona glanced around. Several blocks separated her from the tenement basement on Eighteenth Street where she and her friend, Nora, slept along with dozens of other homeless street children. A few people still roamed the darkening streets, but none noticed her plight. The man clutched her so tightly she could barely breathe. With fright-fueled desperation, Fiona kicked up and back with the heel of her right shoe, catching the unseen man in the knee. He cursed and loosened his grip just enough for Fiona to wrench her left arm free and bring her elbow back against his nose with a sickening crunch that numbed her whole arm. She spun away and fled without looking back, but she could hear the man staggering after her, hurling curses. She felt him grab the back of her dress a moment before he shoved her to the ground.
The worn flour-sack material tore and Fiona flipped onto her back and kicked wildly. The thin, ragged man was indistinguishable from countless other beggars, pimps, and panhandlers who roamed the streets of New York City, and Fiona knew what would happen if she didn’t get away. She understood these desperate men too well; her father was one of them.
As the man leaned over Fiona’s thrashing body reaching for her hair, a carriage turned up Tenth Street, the horses’ hooves clattering on the cobbled street. Her attacker glanced up long enough for Fiona to roll away and scramble to her feet.
A man’s voice barked, “What in Hell are you doing? Leave that girl alone!” Without a single glance at her rescuer, Fiona darted up Tenth Street, ducking into an alley behind the store and crashing into a garbage bin in the dark. Leaping over the scattered trash, she flew down the alley and came out onto Eleventh. One of her shoes was gone and her torn dress fluttered like a wind-tossed flag behind her.
By the time she crept down the stairs into the tenement basement, Fiona’s bare foot throbbed and tears streaked her face. A few stolen candle stubs cast flickering shadows across the basement as children and teenagers huddled in corners and along the damp walls seeking comfort from the chilly evening. Nora rushed to meet her and pulled her toward their filthy blankets below the stairwell.
“What happened?” she asked. “Didya get nabbed on the street?”
When Fiona finally got her muffled sobs under control, she wiped her nose with her torn skirt. “I wanted to search the bins behind Delmonico’s before I came back, but a man grabbed me from behind. And I lost one of my new shoes the Sisters gave me. Hadn’t even had ’em a week. Cut my foot too. And now we got nothin’ to eat tonight.” She didn’t mention the red dress in the window that had distracted her long enough for the man to grab her. Sobs rose in her throat again.
“There now, there now,” Nora put her arm around Fiona’s waist and helped her sit down on the blankets. “I’ll borrow a candle so I can look at your foot.”
Blood leaked from a cut on her heel, and Nora ripped a strip from the back of Fiona’s torn dress and wrapped it up. “Wish we had some water to wash it,” she said, “but I’ll not be goin’ out to the hydrant after dark.”
“I shoulda torn the bloody kidneys outta him instead of runnin’ away.” Fiona, recovering from the fright, now boiled with anger.
A ragged boy approached in the shadows extending his hand, which held a decomposing head of cabbage.
“Heard you say you got no food tonight,” he said. “I got extra. Here. If you pull off the top part, it’s good inside.” Fiona recognized the boy as one of the newsboys who hawked newspapers on the streets. Several newsboys slept in the basement, but the anonymous darkness isolated the nighttime residents so that they hardly knew one another.
Nora nodded and took the cabbage, tearing off the outer leaves and tossing them into a pile of rotting trash. Although the weather had turned chilly, flies buzzed over the garbage and crawled upon the basement’s occupants, tormenting them as they tried to sleep. Nora peeled off some of the under-parts of the cabbage and passed a handful to Fiona. The newsboy still stood watching them.
“I thank you,” Fiona said, glancing up at him. The boy started to turn away and then changed his mind.
“Word on the street is we’ve been spotted comin’ in here at night. Wouldn’t be surprised if the coppers don’t run us off tomorrow. Have you got anyplace else to go?”
Fiona shook her head. The empty tenement house had been condemned, and they all knew that soon it would be torn down and replaced by a building that met the new city code.
“Me and my friends are gonna try the stables behind the Astor House Hotel. They got a stableman that goes back there at night and runs off the vagrants, but we figure we can watch for ’im and sneak in after. You can come with us if you want.”
“Thanks,” Fiona said. “We’ll think about it.”
* * *
The slightly rancid cabbage turned to sawdust in Fiona’s mouth. The basement of the derelict tenement had sheltered her and Nora for over a year, a year in which her life had sunk to depths she had never imagined. When Mam died of consumption during that miserable, oppressive August of 1865, Fiona and her father and brother had hung on in their tiny apartment for several weeks, but there was no work, and the overdue rents built up. Fiona was digging through the bins on Eighth Street looking for spoiled fruit and bread on the day the landlord sent his henchmen to evict them. When she returned with a pair of bruised plums, their few possessions teetered in a small pile on the street out front, her father and younger brother gone.
* * *
The shared outdoor toilets in the tenement yard saw a flurry of activity early the next morning, as each resident rushed to visit the stinking little building before people on their way to work noticed and reported unauthorized activity in a condemned building. Fiona watched the side street while Nora went first, whistling between her teeth when passersby approached so Nora would know to stay inside until the coast cleared.
* * *
The Church of the Ascension’s magnificent spires loomed above the corner of Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street as Fiona and Nora made their way uptown. Fiona limped on her sore foot; she had forsaken the other shoe.
“Where we goin’?” Nora asked as they turned up the walk that led to the church’s massive front doors.
“We’re goin’ to do something to change our lives.” Fiona’s voice held a new hard edge that Nora hadn’t heard before. “If we don’t, we’ll end up like all the other street girls, sellin’ ourselves for a meal and a bed for the night. Nothin’ good will happen to us unless we make it happen, and this church is the only place that’s offered help since Mam died. The Sisters at the Catholic Church told me it would be impossible to find a lost person on the streets of New York City. No one there was willin’ to help me look for my father or my brother.”
“But look at it, Fee.” Nora gestured toward the church’s grand façade. “They’ll not allow a coupla dirty street kids in the door. This is a place for fine ladies and gentlemen.”
“Maybe. But when my family got tossed out on the street, one of the pastors at this church helped find my father.”
“Why are you not with him, then?” Nora asked.
“’Cause he was wrecked on the drink all the time. He didn’t even know where my little brother, Frank, was anymore. He lost him somewhere.”
“Geez,” Nora muttered.
“That’s not even the worst of it. He wanted me to bring money every day—he didn’t care how I got it. Said any kid with half a brain could pick a pocket or steal from a shop, but he didn’t want food. Just money. And he told me not to come back without it.”
* * *
Fiona wished she’d washed her hands and face and tidied her curly hair as she reached for the brass door handle. Her left elbow still throbbed from the blow she had delivered to her attacker’s nose last night. Inside, the deserted vestibule opened into a vast nave. The unoccupied pews, burnished to a warm oaken glow, marched toward the altar like ranks of wooden soldiers. Fiona heard Nora’s muted steps on the polished marble floor behind her as she made her way down the center aisle. Nora still had her shoes.
Near the front of the nave, Fiona led the way into a pew, the velvet seat cushion a deep, rich red. The smooth velvet against her thighs reminded her that the back of her torn dress revealed her cotton underdrawers, once white, now stained a dirty gray. God probably wouldn’t approve of girls showing their bloomers in church, but she pulled out the kneeler and knelt anyway, folding her hands on the back of the pew in front of her and resting her forehead on them. Nora took her place beside Fiona, her mouth agape as she took in the incredible stained glass windows that threw jeweled bits of colored light across the church. Nora held out her hands as if to catch the translucent spots of color.
Fiona’s mother would have told her to pray, but it had been so long since she’d prayed she wasn’t sure she remembered how. As the consumption gradually buried its hooks in her mother’s lungs, Mam’s life force slowly drained away along with such energy-sapping activities as going to Mass and family prayers before meals. All Fiona could remember was, “Now I lay me down to sleep...”
Searching her brain for more appropriate prayers—“Our Father, who art in Heaven”—she heard a door close quietly at the front of the church and footsteps approached along the aisle next to the wall. Her forehead still resting on her folded hands, she felt Nora rise from the kneeler and heard her scurry away toward the church’s front door. For one anxious moment, she wanted to scamper after Nora, but if she did, nothing would change. The footsteps turned into the pew beside her, but Fiona kept her head down, her eyes closed. It took courage to change things, and now it was time for her to find that courage.
“Can I help you, dear?” The voice was warm and deep, and Fiona looked up into the face of a young pastor in a black cassock. Blond hair fell nearly to his clerical collar in tousled disarray, and the corners of his clear blue eyes crinkled when he smiled. Fiona tugged at her torn dress in an effort to cover her backside.
“I hope so, Father,” she whispered, “because I don’t know how to help myself anymore.”
“Come with me, then,” he said, taking her elbow. “I know just the person we need to consult.”
* * *
“I’m Father Brody,” the young pastor said as he led Fiona down the side aisle toward the front of the church. “What would your name be?”
“Fiona Finn. My family came here from Ireland before I was born, but my mother died of consumption, and my father can’t find work. We’ve been livin’ on the streets for over a year.”
“What kind of work did your father do?” Father Brody asked.
“He worked at the docks, once, but that was some time ago. He spent all his earnin’s on the drink.” She decided not to mention his latest demand that Fiona bring him money for alcohol.
Opening a door behind the organ and choir area, Father Brody guided her into a small room occupied by a stout woman in a navy blue wool dress with silver hair piled in elaborate braids atop her head. In her hand, she held a large feather duster, which she applied to all the nearby surfaces with great industry. Father Brody cleared his throat.
“Mrs. Harrington,” he said. “This young lady is Fiona Finn. She has torn her dress and needs something with which to cover herself.”
Mrs. Harrington turned and looked Fiona up and down with a critical eye.
“I’ll say she does,” she said. “Let me see if I can find something.”
She disappeared into a darkened closet at the back of the room and returned with a white choir robe. The hem was frayed, but it looked about Fiona’s size, and Mrs. Harrington gathered it up and lifted it over Fiona’s head. The shapeless robe dropped over her dress, and Fiona slipped her arms through the voluminous sleeves.
“Haven’t you got shoes?” Mrs. Harrington asked.
“Yes, ma’am. At least I did ‘til yesterday. The Catholic sisters gave them to me, but a man grabbed me on the street, and I had to fight to get away. I lost one of them. And I cut my foot.” She was horrified to discover that tears trickled down the sides of her nose and dripped off her chin.
“I see,” said Mrs. Harrington, eyeing Fiona’s foot, which still had a bloody rag wrapped around it.
“Mrs. Harrington,” Father Brody said. “Isn’t Charles Brace scheduled to come by tomorrow to meet with the deacons?”
“I believe so, Father. Perhaps the young lady could come back tomorrow.”
“No, no. That won’t do,” Father Brody said. “I don’t think we can let her go back to the streets, even for one night. Where have you been staying at night, Fiona?”
“In the basement of the old tenement on...” She paused, reluctant to disclose the location where the other homeless children sought shelter after dark.
“Is your father there?”
“No, sir. I don’t know where he is. And my little brother is lost. I’ve tried to find him, but I don’t know where else to look. My father lost him somewhere on the streets. Or maybe he ran away. I’m not even sure he’s still alive.” Her eyes filled with tears again at the thought of Frank wandering the streets alone with no one to look out for him. He would be nine now.
“I’ll take her home with me tonight, Mrs. Harrington,” Father Brody said. “My wife can help her clean up and locate some clothes for her. Is that all right with you, Fiona?”
Fiona’s voice had deserted her and she could only nod.