“Widowed,” she tells them, at Ellis Island. “My husband died in the war.” And it doesn't matter yet – she is tall, for an Irish girl, and wearing every piece of clothing she owns, to cover a bump that is not yet there – but it will in a few months, when the child is born.
She tells them she boarded at London, not Dublin, and they do not ask which war. For these American inspectors all the wars are far away, and they would not understand that she was drafted into the war still squalling when her father carried her to the priest. Irish Catholic. Irish Citizen Army. Her father dead two years now, come Easter, and the child tucked in her belly a vengeance from a British soldier's boy who hated the syllables of his name. Sarah's lost a lot of things to the war.
Mrs. O'Leary says there's no need to buy a ring, no one will bother her either way, not on our block, and baubles are so expensive now, my dear. Sarah rubs her swollen stomach and spends the last of her savings on a gold band so thin she fears it will rub away. Lev Goldberg hands it to her with a flourish, folds half her money back into the small cloth bag. “There you are, Mrs. Rogers. Tell them your young man saved for years, trying to scrape a few pennies together here and there. Tell them he had been carrying this in his pocket for weeks, before he was called to the front and went down on one knee.”
Sarah flushes a splotchy red, the color spattered over her milky skin. Stares at the floor, ashamed. “Hey now.” Mr. Goldberg's voice is soft, his hirsute hands warm and smooth over her own. “Hold your head up, Sarah. You look outside today? Mrs. Ruesskamp's doing the wash because she ain't got clothes to last her family the week. Bernie O'Malley's home from the war with one leg and a bottle in his hand. You think these people need any more truth in their lives? Why not tell them a story that makes them smile, instead?”
She lets him slide the ring on her finger and take her down to Auster's for an egg cream to celebrate. When Mrs. Ruesskamp asks, Sarah tells her about an Irish boy working two jobs just to save up, then too scared to go down on one knee. The woman's concave cheeks fill just a little when she smiles.
Lev Goldberg dies of influenza four months later, in the summer when people stop coughing and start dying, when Sarah's bump has grown from a cantaloupe to a watermelon and the ring sits on her finger like it was always there. She goes with Mrs. Goldberg to the hospital, is bringing her water when a doctor rushes into her and spills it over them both. Sarah starts to apologize, but he waves it away, looking at his charts more than her. “You,” he says, glancing over. “Are you a nurse?” And he must know the answer, since all the nurses are in starched white clothes and Sarah barely has money for the soap, borrows Mrs. O'Leary's iron where she rents the back room.
“Yes,” she says, because she has been many things on the front lines of her war, seen men wounded and dying in both body and mind. No one remembers to give her a uniform the first month, but they pay her well, to stack cots into the hallways and smile gently at men and women, at children who are on their last breath. Influenza is an enemy none of them understand how to fight, but Sarah has been fighting an unwinnable war for centuries, is born from the ashes and bones of a rebellion that will not die.
She wonders, sometimes, if the influenza seeped into her skin, marking the child's lungs the way her father's enemies marked her womb.
When the boy is born, late that year, as dusty air begins to freeze, she tells the doctor – she knows them all now, is one of the only women on her block to give birth at the hospital, simply because she was already there, because she is always there, surrounded by the dead and the dying – what date to write before she tells him the name, thinking of summer heat and parades and fireworks. “There something wrong with November?” he wonders, even as he scribbles “July 4, 1918” next to DOB.
“It's not poetic,” she answers, slumping against the pillow, watching the small, red-faced infant wave his fists and mewl at the cold. Dr. Parker is from Brooklyn as far back as his parents can recall, and so he would not understand that the words he prints are the child's enlistment papers, the baptism scheduled for next week his induction into the war.
“Especially for the Irish son of a war hero,” the doctor agrees, because he's heard her story. Because people need something beyond the dead lining the corridors, the hungry children snatching penny treats – they need a story that makes them smile. “Gonna name him after his pop?”
“Steven,” she nods, because there is no reason to say that it is her father's name, instead. “Steven Grant Rogers.”
Dr. Parker takes it down in messy scrawl, hands it off to the nurse and smiles at them both. “Well, there you have it, Sarah. Little Steve Rogers, born on the Fourth of July.”
Steve is five the first time he asks where his father is. Sarah is still in her uniform, carrying the onions and cabbage Mrs. O'Leary wanted from the market, short of breath from the five flights of stairs. Mrs. O'Leary swats Steve with a wooden spoon, though not very hard. Steve's body fights its own battles, every day, and Sarah wonders if that is her fault, too, that when he sparked into existence she was gasping for air and unable to breathe. The doctors think it's all nonsense, that it's just asthma and a weak heart, but the O'Learies are from Galway, and they know how it feels to be born with a land and a people already under your skin.
“Sammy O'Malley was bragging about his Da today at the shops,” she warns Sarah, scooping the cabbage out of her hands. “You remember Bernie O'Malley?” Sarah thinks of the gaunt, one-legged man with a bottle tipped up to his lips, the angry lines of his face hidden by glass. The relief Mrs. O'Malley must have felt, when he stumbled in front of a truck before her son was old enough to remember the father dying to forget the war.
“He died in the war,” she tells her son, because he is standing there in a yellowing shirt, with his hair the color of factory smog and eyes like the sky over Brooklyn. And she thinks of Easter, and all the battles before it, and all the carnage left behind.
But the only war Steve understands belongs to the gossip on New York stoops, and he is asking for regiment numbers and purple hearts when Sarah tries to explain fighting through streets and homes, guns hidden under long skirts. So she twists the band around her finger, twists the story to put Steven Rogers in Brooklyn, all fireworks and patriotism, determined to fight for the country he had started to call home.
Steve understands fireworks. Sarah gave them to him, after all, to celebrate his birth.
He is ten before he tries to find a picture, drags his friend off to the library to search for records of the 107th infantry regiment. Dr. Parker's brother had served in the 107th, had given Sarah the story while they stood idle in the ward. He married one of the other nurses a few years before, moved out to Schenectady. He had asked Sarah. More than once. But she shook her head, touched him on the arm and moved away. She wakes every morning on the battlefield, fighting a war between countries, between women and men. Sarah could not explain to a kind, peaceful man that she knows nothing except the fighting: that her son was not born from a marriage, but from a war.
Yet – and it should be impossible, with the dust of her island in his brittle bones – Steve opens his eyes and sees the battle won, the glorious end, even when his dark friend has to carry him home, both of them bloody, their shirts torn. He describes the world in future victories, a word that tastes foreign on Sarah's tongue.
His friend, Jamie, sees the things her son does not. Sees through them all, with eyes the translucent gray of a cresting wave in the stormy Irish Sea. “Look,” Steve demands, pulling out the sketchbook he had come home with one day, thin face bright at the gift his friend had got him. “Bucky found money for the train and we went to Coney Island.” Mrs. O'Leary raps Jamie hard on the back of the head; they all know what it means when the boy finds things. “See, here's the shore.” Steve's drawing is beautiful, filled with seagulls and waves that Sarah can almost imagine sparkling under the sun, lapping against a ship as it sails from Dublin to New York.
“A boy drowned while we were there,” Jamie says, tapping one of the waves with a grubby hand. His voice is low. He does not erupt with strange and salacious information the way most children do, Sarah knows, simply paints the picture he saw, so different from Steve's own. “They think it was the tide. He had blond hair, you could see it over the tops of the waves.”
Mrs. O'Leary boxes his ears. “No one wants to hear that, boyo,” she cries, ladling both boys a helping of potatoes in beef broth, and some milk. “Stevie, you tell us about Coney Island. Only the nice parts, mind.” Sarah traces the wave where Jamie's finger had been, her wedding ring shimmering in the afternoon light.
Steve announces that they must have gone to the wrong library, or that the enlistment records might be confused. The space around his drawings is filled with careful lettering, “Lieutenant Steven Rogers, 107th” written again and again. Jamie doesn't say a word, but he watches Sarah with a gaze that sees boys drown and animals die in the street, from neglect or too much attention of the wrong sort. He, at least, was not expecting to find Lt. Rogers at any library, or in any marked grave.
No one has ever told Jamie a story meant to make him smile.
Sarah knows what that's like, isn't certain how her own stories have taken wing and formed this fragile, golden boy.
Mr. O'Leary dies first. There's an accident at the Navy Yard, and they keep the coffin closed for the funeral. Sarah makes enough to cover the rent, and Jamie is already working at the docks, left school at thirteen just after the Crash. Between them, and with Mrs. O'Leary's money from sewing and Steve's commissions from the WPA, they have enough for food and rent and Steve's art school bills. She hears Jamie tell Steve that it was the loading crane, that it had been around since 1890 and they tore it down as soon as Mr. O'Leary died. That no way could something like that ever happen again, so Steve doesn't need to worry, really he's fine.
“That's a good story, Jamie-boy,” she says, when Steve goes to prop up Mrs. O'Leary as they leave the grave.
“Thank you, Mrs. Rogers.” And his voice is quiet, the inflection hardly noticeable as he takes her arm in the crook of his own. “I am from Cork, ma'am. Wouldn't do at all if I couldn't spin a good yarn.”
“Your parents?” she wonders, surprised that she never knew, but if Jamie had parents when he was younger, he never spoke of them. Appeared at their door every morning to walk Steve to school, as though all the imaginary friends her son created had taken flesh. Mrs. O'Leary had scattered salt around him and thwacked him with her cast-iron pan just to be sure.
“No, ma'am, me. Nearly seven when I came over.” Fed on a diet that was more blarney than meat, Sarah senses, can feel the surety of it in her bones and the memory of a boy with hollow cheeks under hair like the Irish soil and eyes like the Sea.
Brooklyn seeped into Sarah's skin and gave her a son with lungs from the war with influenza, hair brighter than the sun over Rockaway Beach, eyes the blue of a New York sky and not a misty Irish rain. Conceived in a battle, but born to a land that had won the war.
But Jamie was birthed into centuries of fighting, his bones etched with loss and vengeance, his tongue tripping off fantastic words and aching for a language it had lost.
“I know you,” she tells him, this Irish Catholic boy baptized in New York Harbor with an American name, the way she baptized Steve with fireworks. She knows the ancestors whose ashes form his bones, the lost battles scarred through their hands and feet, speared into their sides.
“And I know how to tell a good story,” he answers, left hand drifting over her worn fingers and thin wedding band. Steve is waiting for them, murmuring gently to Mrs. O'Leary, allowing her to sob into the fabric of his suit. Sarah's son can tell beautiful stories, weave them out of paper and charcoal and set them alight with his words.
They can all spin tales, crafting them from dreams and the promise of a smile. The difference between them, she knows, is that only Steve has learned how to believe they are true.
Sarah sends Mrs. O'Leary to the sanatorium the first time she sees the blood speckled over the handkerchief, holy wine dripping out of the chalice and onto the altar cloth. Steve does not go back to art school, though both she and Jamie try to tell him that Mrs. O'Leary will be home soon, sewing enough to pay his fees twice over. Steve Rogers is hopeful, but he is not a fool. That alone sets him apart from the father who shared his name. He is not a monster, and that sets him apart from the man whose name Sarah does not want to know.
Besides, he tells them, heating up dinner because Jamie's days do not end until there is no light to see, and Sarah feels as though her days never end, that even when she sleeps she is walking through the ward, sponging blood from chapped lips. Besides, Hitler can't be trusted to stay out of Czechoslovakia, and the U.S. will have to teach him a lesson soon, since England won't. Steve'll be right there in the 107th, like his Pops.
Sarah bites her tongue, tastes blood on her teeth. She wonders if it's her fault, that her son's bones ache for a war he does not know – a language he does not speak – and so he goes searching for wars in alleys, plans to join an infant, mewling war across too many seas.
Mrs. O'Leary dies on the Fourth of July, the same day Sarah coughs into her hand and it comes away red, dabbed with color, the messy flush of a young Irishwoman hot with shame. Jamie takes the day off, forces Steve to abandon his commission and go watch the fireworks. They come home laughing, sunburned, with bloody lips and torn shirts and eyes just a little too wide. She thumps Jamie with Mrs. O'Leary's wooden spoon – if someone found money for whiskey, they all know which of the boys it was, and Sarah is the only one left to box his ears. Then she thumps Steve, gently, because she also knows which boy went looking for a war.
She waits until the next day to tell them about Mrs. O'Leary, and their noses are still red and peeling when they hoist the coffin high above Steve's shoulders and carry it to the grave. She set aside the day for Steve, almost twenty years before, and there is no reason to sully the boy's story with grim truth.
She waits until September to move into the ward, when she can no longer stand for more than half her shift and if she stays with the boys she will endanger them. Steve catches cold every October, like clockwork, and she would not have him catch his death from her lips.
Steve worries, but he also hopes. He goes searching for wars, believing he will end them, but Sarah was born in a place where the only word for victory was in a language she could not speak. She wonders if it's her fault, that Steve is fluent in faith and dreams; that she did not know how to teach loss, only how to live it. She wonders if it will keep him alive, this belief in victory, when she and Jamie were born to understand only the fight and inevitable defeat. Were taught to spin a good yarn, but never to mistake the untapped keg of a promise for the empty cupboard of truths.
It will happen early in November, she knows. Knows what day and hour, because one cannot fight a war against Fate, but she has managed to alter the years, traded a birth for a death. The ward does not allow visitors, and Jamie refuses to let the doctors sneak them in, because he worries without any hope to soften the blow, but Steve comes one afternoon when the dark-haired boy is not at home.
“Tell me about Ireland,” Steve says, sitting by her bed, wringing his hands because she will not give him hers. “Tell me about my dad.”
She tries. Talks, in between hacking coughs, of rolling green hills and and gray skies and little farms filled with sheep. She has read the poems, and Mr. O'Leary had waxed eloquent about raising sheep after a few beers. But she is so tired. The streets and battlefields of Dublin are no setting for a story, but they are all she knows.
And she cannot tell Steve about his father – almost twenty-one years ago, and she feels centuries old, the ache in her bones and the rattling in her lungs. She was a child who had lost her father, and he was an angry boy younger than her son is now, with blond hair and harsh fists, whose father had been killed in combat by her own. They were both children; they were both soldiers in an unending war.
But she also cannot tell Steve about the man who held his name. Her father fought in a war Steve could not comprehend, taught his daughters to strap rifles under their skirts, to fire on troops marching past their bedroom window. He knew nothing of organized trenches and barbed wire, of a war that could end simply because a few men ordered it to be so.
“He looked like you, Steve-o,” Jamie says over the rasp of her cough, wandering in and pulling her son's chair a few inches away.
Steve scowls at him, tries to scoot back, but the other boy – the young man, they are both of them grown and working, older than a girl widowed by the murder of a city – sits on the edge of the chair and hooks his arm around her frail son. “How would you know?” Steve asks, but he sits a little straighter, hoping for the story Sarah cannot tell.
“Your Ma told me.” Jamie lifts his chin toward her, insistent. “When you had rheumatic fever, and us poor saps had nothing better to do than sit and watch you jitterbug for a week.”
She remembers that week, Steve's body spasming with disease, his blue eyes blurry with delirium. Mrs. O'Leary had sewed next to his bed all day, and she and Jamie sat awake into the nights. Exhausted, desperate to hear something that was not her son moaning in pain, Sarah had told truths about the old country. The rush of excitement, when her father dressed her in trousers and sent her to play lookout. The smell of dead fish on the docks when they went to the sea. Jamie had hunched forward, mopping sweat from a forehead plastered with golden hair, and hadn't spoken at all.
“Yeah, Bucky.” Steve's voice is skeptical, but he leans into his friend where most boys would puff out their chests and edge away. “What did she tell you, then?”
“Ah, that Lieutenant Steven Rogers was a dashing young rake, a regular Rudolph Valentino – you know, if Rudy were Irish.” Steve punches him, but Sarah has watched the boys for years, and there has never been any war between them. She is awed by it, and bemused, that they can be steeped in so much blood and yet come to each other in peace. “He had hair like yours, buddy, but green eyes. No asthma, so maybe you'll outgrow that.” And it is so much blarney, as befits Jamie Barnes, who buried his accent in Cork but kept the twinkle in his eyes.
“They met at the boat, did you know?” Her son shakes his head, captivated. Sarah sits a little straighter, twists the wedding ring that's been too loose for weeks. Listens to the story of her life, retooled one more time. “Your Ma was just eighteen, caught a ride off the farm – on a wagon filled with chickens, and there's a story I'll tell you later, pal – thinking she'd go work for some fancy rich people in the city, maybe as a maid.” English people, Sarah thinks, and the rebellion shakes in her bones. “But then, the farmer says he has to bring these chickens to the docks, that they ordered 'em for food on the liner bound for New York. So she goes along, and they get to the ocean – first time she's ever seen it, mind, remember the first time we went to Coney Island? Thought we'd found the edge of the world. And she's just standing there, surrounded by chickens, gaping at the water like a loon.”
Steve punches Jamie again, laughing, and eyes the color of a tempestuous Irish Sea catch Sarah smiling. She likes this life. It will be a good one to keep. “And then,” Jamie continues, drawing out the words in an accent that ties both boys to a different island, an American shore. “This incredibly handsome guy comes down the gangplank, dressed in a blue uniform, looking very sharp. Your Ma is in her best dress, of course, but it's covered in feathers and who knows what else besides.”
“Dad was a sailor?” Steve asks, glancing back over at Sarah, seeking confirmation. She smiles, and waves him back into the story.
“I never said that handsome guy was your pops!” Jamie teases, but he looks at her son like he could be walking down a gangplank under an Irish sky, too handsome to be true. “Don't ruin the story. So this guy sweeps down toward the cart, and completely ignores the farmer, and all the chickens. Which took some effort, I'll bet, chickens ain't quiet and boy do they stink.”
“Bucky! Stop with the chickens!”
“Okay, okay. So he walks right up to your Ma, blond hair slicked down, with eyes she said were the color of that sea glass we found, that Mrs. O'Leary put in the window. Greener than a mermaid's tail, your Ma said. And when he's only a foot away, he stops. 'Are you real?' he asks her, 'Or did I dream you up?'”
“Aw, applesauce,” Steve says, rolling his blue eyes. “Nobody says stuff like that.”
Jamie raises his eyebrows, turns and looks at Sarah in bed, lines deep in her face and skin loose over her bones. “Have you seen your Ma?” he asks, smiling at her as if she could have been a girl so gorgeous that men fell at her feet. As if she had been a girl at all. “But you know your Ma, she ain't a coward, so she sticks out her hand and says, 'I'm Sarah. I'm going to New York.' And what's a lovestruck fella supposed to do besides say, 'Nice to meet you, Sarah. I'm Steve.'”
“Really.” Her son's eyes sparkle, even under hospital lights, and he catches Jamie's right hand where it's been miming out the tale. “Because if I were a lovestruck sailor, and she was a looker, I'd have done this,” and he tugs the hand to his lips, and kisses it with a grin, face going an undignified pink at his own bravery.
Sarah worries for them, every time they go out to the boardwalk, every time Jamie finds them girls willing to dance or go to a show and her son's eyes, the blue of a summer sky in Brooklyn, fade with obvious hurt. She worries, but her son smirks with his lips still pressed to Jamie's scarred knuckles, and she thinks perhaps they will be fine. She thinks this must be what hope feels like, this flickering certainty that between them, Jamie knows war and Steve believes in victory and they both might make it after all. Hope must be something contagious that Steve gives away with every breath.
“Yeah, well,” Jamie wriggles, fights down the blush that appears high on his cheeks. “Not everyone is as smooth as you, punk. You wanna hear the rest of the story? They're never going to make it to Brooklyn, at this rate.”
Sarah wants to hear the rest of the story. Wants to know how she should remember Ellis Island, and the inspectors examining her teeth and prodding at her flesh. Wants to hear Lt. Steve Rogers ask to marry her. She thinks of Lev Goldberg, the black hair covering the backs of his hands, the warmth of his palms and the kindness in his dark eyes.
“I wanna hear the story,” Steve says, and the nurse walks by but lets them be, can tell at a glance – the way she could, when she worked at the ward – that Sarah doesn't have long left.
“The problem now, of course,” the dark-haired boy continues, “is that your Ma doesn't have any money for a ticket. She meant to find a job, not hop the first ship out of Ireland. And future Lt. Steven doesn't get paid 'til they reach New York. So -” he looks at her, at Steve, hanging onto the end of the word until they are all leaning forward in anticipation. “- he has to smuggle her on board with the chickens. Do you know how hard it is to hide out behind chickens?”
At least half the ward is chuckling, now, muffling their laughter and their coughs into stained cloth. Mrs. Ruesskamp, pulled taut by hunger and the washing that never had time to dry, looked decades younger when Sarah made her smile.
“But the nice thing is, no one goes back to the where they keep the food – and the poultry - except the cook's boy, and by the time he found her, they were halfway across the Atlantic, and your Ma was eatin' better than the passengers were. They were mysteriously low on peppermints. You know how the peppermints we bring home always disappear.”
“That's because you eat them,” Steve points out, and Jamie smiles.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” He winks at Sarah, and looks younger than she can imagine herself, eighteen and folded behind crates filled with chickens and potatoes, sacks of peppermints melting sticky-sweet over her tongue. “So your Da sneaks away whenever his shift is over and they talk and talk. It turns out that he's from the town next to hers, and he's nineteen, ran off to sea as soon as he could. Looking for adventure.”
“I must get that from him,” Steve agrees.
“Yeah, if only you'd stop looking for it with your fists,” Jamie says, flinches when Sarah coughs. He huddles over her son like he can protect him from consumption, throw himself between Steve and his fragile body's war. “Then, once she's caught and they make her help clean the cabins, she and your Da go strolling along the deck at night, looking at the stars. Your Da would make up these crazy constellations, presidents and sheep and stuff, 'til your Ma said she cried from laughing.”
Sarah had spent the trip in steerage, waiting to be shot by German submarines. Surrounded by faces streaked with soot and grime, each expression as blank as her own.
“When they could see the lights from Manhattan, he took her to the bow to show her, said, 'That's New York, there. We'll be there tomorrow. I wondered, Sarah -” and Jamie's voice catches only for a moment, when he reaches for her surname and realizes he's already given it away “- if maybe you'd -”
“He's not down on one knee?” Steve interrupts, and Sarah wants to box his ears, because these are the stories Jamie never tells, even though they are bred into the stones where he was born. “'Cause this is starting to sound like something a man should be on his knees for.” Then he slams his mouth shut and colors, because her son never knows what he is going to say until he has already said it. And she may feel millennia old, each war wound reopened and aching, but Sarah was not raised in a convent, and she laughs until she coughs bright red onto the sheets. “Ma!” Steve remonstrates, half scandalized, and half afraid. Jamie eyes Steve's proffered handkerchief, which has never stayed clean for long, and then offers her his own.
“Well,” Jamie drawls, when Sarah can take a breath without losing the marrow of her veins. “Now, your Da may not have been you, Rogers, but a man knows when to make a good show of things.” And when to get on his knees, he mouths, so that crotchety Mr. Luebke three beds over can't hear. Steve buries his face in his hands, and Sarah rasps out another laugh. “Of course he's on one knee. You got any more conditions for this, or can your Da get on with proposing?” Her son waves a hand almost as thin as her own, and rubs at his pink face. “Well, now you've ruined the mood.
“There's Manhattan glowing on the horizon, and a whole sky glittering with stars over their heads, more stars than cobblestones on the street, packed together like that.” Jamie must have crept to deck, on his own voyage, a little boy hiding amongst the stars. “And he's there on one knee, this fella that your Ma up and stowed away for, that thinks she's an angel in her one good dress and her eyes just like yours. And he says, 'Would you marry me?' and holds up that ring.” He gestures at Sarah's hand, careful not to touch, where the worn gold band has rested since Mr. Goldberg put it there, a lifetime ago.
“How'd he get a ring?” Steve wonders, hushed, the rest of the ward listening in. “If they didn't pay him 'til New York, how'd he buy it? How'd he even know?”
“Sometimes you look at someone and you just know,” Jamie says, staring at her son. “Everything that happens after, it's just the good thing you knew it would be all along.” He drops the hand over the back of the chair onto Steve's shoulder, squeezes once before letting go. “As to how he got it, well. Your Da was a fair hand at cards, and everybody in port knew the jeweler's son was a terrible gambler. So he made a bet, and he won, but he knew if he asked for anything fancy the son would say no, because he wouldn't want his father to see that it had gone missing. So your Da, thinking about your Ma's porcelain hands, about how tiny her fingers seemed over his, pointed at that ring she's got on. 'You'll be lucky if she says yes, after she sees that scrawny thing,' the jeweler's kid said. And your Da told him, 'I'd be lucky if she said yes, even if I offered her the whole damn store.'”
“Really?” Steve says again, narrow face lit by the story's glow. Sarah imagines her face looks much the same, only pale and haggard under the hospital lights.
“You know us Irish,” she tells him, watching the twinkle in Jamie's eyes, the dust from an Easter rebellion before he was born, molded into his skin. “Nothing worth saying that ain't worth saying grand.”
“Then what happens?” Mrs. Fitch calls, from across the ward. Mr. Luebke grumbles that they're disturbing his sleep, but they've all grown used to ignoring him, and Mrs. Fitch tells him he can sleep when he's dead.
“So your Da's on one knee, terrified some seagull is gonna swoop down and steal the ring, and your Ma is just standing there with her arms folded. You know how she is,” he whispers, and when Steve smiles at her, Sarah knows he is seeing her years younger, scowling at two brash boys. “She frowns at him, for a minute, then goes, 'Well, I don't know, Steven. If we're going to Manhattan, I might meet a Rockefeller.'”
Young Sol Bloom whoops, then coughs and retches into a pan.
“And what's Dad do?”
“Your Da? He tells her they're moving to Brooklyn, instead.” Sarah snickers, feels her fingers tremble against her lips, uses the handkerchief to press her lungs down. “And so, she tells him that she'll take it under consideration. But your Ma said he looked so sad, then, that she had to tell him yes, and he leaped up and spun her around and around, shouting, 'til the captain came out and told them to pipe down, and gave them a bottle of champagne.”
Jamie mimes drinking from a glass, nose up, and Sarah can feel the bubbles spray against her face, the heady taste of sparkling wine, just like in the picture shows. She is not sure how joy feels, but she imagines the sensation would be akin to the way her father's hand felt on her shoulder, after she got the drop on a British corporal, when he told her he was proud.
“And then?” Steve prompts, but Jamie looks at Sarah and shakes his head.
“It's getting late and your Ma needs some sleep, what with all these marriage proposals. We'll come back tomorrow, and I'll tell you all about the wedding. Your Da ended up riding a horse to get to the church on time, an old nag, your Ma di- laughs when she tells it.”
Sarah counts days, on her blood-stained hands, and realizes there will be no wedding. She would like to hear it, the story of her marriage, with horses and probably a hastily mended dress, and a few years of scraping by before Lt. Steven Rogers marches off to a war that her son believes is real. But she is tired, the blood on her hands from the battlefield of her body, this time, the sickness that welcomed her to America and settled under her skin.
“Don't come tomorrow,” she tells them, and the ward boos. “Come the day after. Give me a day to recover from all those chickens.” Steve nods, disappointed but settled under Jamie's arm, curled into the other boy even after they stand. His smile lingers, as though the story didn't end. Her son, one spark in the crossfire of a war, born out of influenza and New York skies, eyes shining with fireworks and dreams.
Jamie does not smile, does not nod. He stares through her with his jaw clenched and his stormy, old world eyes wet with sea spray. Jamie watched a boy drown while Steve drew the sun gleaming over the ocean, and he knows Sarah's lungs will drag her down. He opens his eyes every morning and sees the war, can feel generations of mourning in his bones when another soldier falls. There is no hope, in their war, and there is too much truth.
“I'm gonna use the toilet,” he says, tightening his grip on her son before letting him go. “Say good – night to your Ma. I'll meet you by the door. Don't touch anything.”
Steve shoves him away, rolls his eyes. “I know, Bucky. Go on, get out of here, I'll be right there.” Jamie nods at everyone as he strolls away, with a smile and twinkle in his eye, because he comes from a place where spinning tales is woven into the fabric of his veins.
“G'night, Ma,” Steve tells her, hovering too close. “I'll come back on Thursday, see if I can sneak you in an egg cream. I should be finished with Mr. Donaldson's sign by then, so we'll have the money for it.” They don't have any money at all, actually. Even with Jamie working every day and running numbers for the other dock workers on the side, and Steve taking in commissions and shifts at the deli, the boys can't afford a place that large. But her son has lived his whole life in those rooms, burned his hands on the coal heater and ducked under the tub to escape Mrs. O'Leary's wooden spoon. The shabby, fifth-floor walk-up is soaked into his pale skin, and Sarah is willing to place a bet that the boys will fight a war to stay.
“I love you,” she tells him, because it is the only good truth she knows. Because almost twenty-one years ago, standing alone on a foreign shore, she could never have imagined her heart could sound out any tune but the steady drumbeat of war. Now it fills with broad smiles and charcoal sketches, a golden little boy and a young man who fights wars he intends to win, his blue eyes and his sharp tongue and his fists all drawn out of Brooklyn, a story Sarah sometimes can't believe. “More than all the stars in the sky, more than all the water in the sea.”
Steve laughs. “Nothing worth saying that ain't worth saying grand?” he echoes, her voice in his mouth, and she smiles.
“And don't you forget it,” she retorts, trying not to mean every word.
“I wouldn't dare. I love you, too, Ma. I'll let you get some sleep before Buck regales us with the misdeeds from your wedding.” Her son keeps smiling when he blows her a kiss, saying goodnight to the other residents of the ward as he wanders away.
Jamie darts back in as soon as he is gone, a shadow in the glare of hospital lights. Sarah tries to cough the ocean from her lungs, but there is so, so much water in the sea.
“I won't let him die,” he promises, wiping his cheeks with his shirtsleeves because she has bled across his handkerchief, and her son is wearing his coat. He sniffles, but straightens his back and refuses to look ashamed about the tears. “Nothing will happen to Steve, Mrs. Rogers, I swear it.” His face glows, at the mention of her son's name, and Sarah is awed once again at how loving one fragile, blond boy is enough to change the cadence of both their hearts. Her son is built out of stories, formed from the gold ring on her third finger and Jamie's bubbling champagne, but it doesn't make him any less true.
“Tell me something,” she asks, trying not to choke on the words. She can sleep when she is dead, and she and the boy both know in their bones what it means to fight an unwinnable war. He leans in, eyes like the breakers against a liner's bow, Manhattan shining in the distance. “Was I happy? When he proposed, was I -” and she has to break off to cough, Jamie wrapping his hands in clean towels before handing her the pan.
“Deliriously,” he tells her, voice low enough that no one else can hear. “You'd never known anyone so wonderful. You couldn't believe that this amazing man would want someone so ordinary. The first time he told you that he loved you -” Jamie breaks off and shakes his head, gives a small, private smile. “You thought he must've been pulling your chain. When he asked you to marry him, you were dizzy even before he got you off the ground, and you thought the whole universe must be spinning away, that no one in the whole world could ever feel as lucky as you did, in his arms.” He stands back up, scrubs the cuffs of his sleeves against his damp cheeks.
“But you know what, Mrs. Rogers?” he asks her, and Sarah shakes her head, unable to force words from the tide rising in her throat. “No matter what the story is? He was the lucky one. You're the best damn woman I know.” He swallows hard, Adam's apple bobbing, then spins and marches away without another word. Soldiers don't say good-byes, and Sarah is one voice in the multitude that sings through Jamie's blood. Her son is standing in the doorway, watching them, and he might be hopeful but he is no fool, her boyo, he sees Jamie crying and buckles, struggles as his friend drags him away. The doctor slams the ward door, shuts off the lights.
Deliriously happy, Sarah thinks, breathing shallowly. What a strange feeling, for a child conceived in struggle and defeat, bred for justice and revenge. For an orphan, and a casualty of war; a poor immigrant and a nurse hired to roll out more beds for the dying. She has been fighting since she was born, has been old since she was a slip of a girl. But she thinks of lips against knuckles scarred by the war, the love in eyes the color of a familiar sea when they light on golden hair. Imagines being young, and standing on the bow of a ship in her best dress, a boy kneeling at her feet with the stars in his eyes. When the vertigo comes, it is because there is a ring on her finger and she is spinning through the air, heart full to brimming and soaring on gleeful shouts and sea-glass eyes. And Sarah can finally stop fighting, because there is no war, not there – only a dizzy, drunken joy, a boy's strong arms and the bubbles of champagne brushing soft against her lips.