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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Celestials: An Excerpt
In the blue of early morning, hours before the arrival of the Chinese boys, Julia Sampson felt her sleeping husband flush with heat and knew that he would stir. She left his body enough space and stroked his arm and chest. Sometimes this worked to cool him.
His head rocked against his pillow and he reached to swipe at his brow.
“Forgive me,” he said thickly, taking her hand and holding it against his chest.
“For what?” she whispered, but he was still asleep. When he woke, she would ask what was wrong. And he would answer that he didn’t know. Outside their bedroom window, dawn was the mildest suggestion. She felt as she always did at that hour. Their world was a world of two; whatever comfort and aid were to be found were to be found in each other. She wished once again for children, and then she shook her head, tucking herself against her husband so that when he did wake, he would wake to her.
Most of the Chinese strikebreakers had their foreheads pressed to the windows of the train’s immigrant cars, their thirteen-day journey nearing an end. The childlike anticipation with which they had set out had been replaced by an anxiety from which all of them suffered and worked to restrain.
The roar of the fire-wheeled vehicle was relentless and deafening. The grit and grime were impossible to keep from their skin and clothes. The iron strips upon which the train shook and rattled, more than a few of them had agreed, looked like the character gong.
Some studied their phrase books: He cheated me out of my wages. They were lying in ambush. He tried to kill me by assassination.
Others tried again to develop a liking for coffee. The taste was like the odor of sheep. Several had refused the stew offered at the last station stop, their stomachs half starved from their continued fear of eating any of the provisions. How could they trust anything from the hands of these foreigners with the complexion of the shark’s belly, whose men and women sat across from each other, their shoes touching?
One of them had seen a man pick up a thick book, brush it against his lips, and then hold it quietly in his lap.
A woman at the first stop had touched her hand to her mouth by way of greeting another descending from the train.
Most of them had been only days off the ship before signing on for this adventure to the east of this most unusual country. A mix of disoriented and weary, they were, however, grateful to have procured work so quickly. Those who had been in the country longer had spent their days well within the confines of San Francisco’s Chinatown, some of them never hearing any language but their own.
Many of them believed that Americans walked in the formation of geese.
This continent, they knew, was divided into two lands: the northern one in the shape of a flying fish, the southern like the thigh of a man wearing a billowing trouser.
And now, headed all the way across this strange land, how would they fare? What would become of them?
With the train’s deceleration, more of them crowded against the windows. What can you see?, they asked repeatedly, though no answers were offered. Their breath smoked the glass, and one of them reached up to wipe it clean with the wide sleeve of his blue tunic.
Their designated foreman remained in his seat, dating a new page in his journal: 6th month, 13th day. He wrote in his labored English, Bright and sunny; no cloud or rain.
Had the train’s route enabled a more elevated view of the town, the Celestials would have seen that North Adams had a peculiarly happy and peaceful look, as if a tea set were balanced in the hollow of God’s large hand. Factories, hotels, and homes shared the roads and riverbanks with trees and hills, wildlife and rock. Great pines grew heaven- ward, the lowest branches as high as a high building. Even the long arms of a pair of the largest of men could not have met around the broad trunks. In spite of stubborn soil and the meddlesome disposition of the Hoosac River, East Hoosuck, later to be North Adams, had been laid out seven miles long from north to south and five miles broad from east to west. It was in shape a parallelogram, the only township in the county of regular geometric form.
To the north stood the Green Mountains of Vermont. To the east rose the Hoosac Range; to the west, the Taconic Range. Early settlers claimed it impossible to see the entire town from any one point of observation. […]
The town tended to vote Republican in both state and national elections, and was devoted in equal parts to the temperance movement and the nostalgia of a simpler past. The temperature had been known to change forty-four degrees in twenty-four hours. There was no month of the year that was not sometimes very pleasant and sometimes its disagreeable opposite. Floods and fires, illness and death were accepted as pages in God’s large book, but so were the clouds settling on the summits and ridges of Mount Greylock, the tallest in the state, and the sharp yellow-greens of the trees’ spring leaves, and the ash-purple blanket laid over the hills at twilight. On this thirteenth day of June, God’s creative hand was renewing His original efforts to adorn the world with richness and splendor; the pastures were clothed with flocks, the valleys covered with fledgling corn, and the worms tunneled into the soft earth of early summer. All was wilderness and its contrary mate, and in the distance, the first whistle of the 4:15 from Troy vibrated rapidly against the thousands of eardrums attending to it.
There were an equal number of citizens not attending to the train’s arrival, including Mr. Calvin T. Sampson’s wife.
Julia watched her husband that morning as he readied to quit their well-appointed rooms on the highest floor of the eastern tower of the Wilson House.
He had mentioned history, as in history being made. She had not asked for clarification, as she knew he would offer it bidden or not, and he had been making this same point in one way or another for the last several weeks since his plan had commenced. He was in the prime of his life, the pioneer shoe manufacturer in North Adams. She handed him his hat and waited.
“Practically to a one, our nation’s newspapers have sent representation to witness this event,” he said. “These Celestials will transform American manufacture as we know it, and in their hearts those union hooligans know they are finished.” He twisted the brim of his hat and she relieved his hands of it, placing it upon his head. “I did that,” he said simply.
“So you did,” she said with some careful pride. He opened the apartment’s door and turned again to face her. “You might reconsider your decision not to come,” he said quietly.
She smiled and told him that perhaps she would, though she knew she would not. That he would now be even further disappointed when she did not make an appearance was a price she was willing to pay.
By June of that year, Julia Hayden Sampson was forty-three years old and had lost thirteen pregnancies. She did not think of herself as having experienced a common suffering. Each loss had been hers alone. She did not want to belong to that particular and unhappy community of women, and so she imagined herself an unpopulated island to which there was no bridge. A month prior, her woman’s time had not arrived, and she had passed the weeks since occupying that terrible space constructed of the intricate mix of hope and dread.
It did not occur to her that in such a case even those she held dearest could not discover her. She did know that her husband was not a man to fail: since his boyhood, he had accomplished whatever he undertook, showing a power to execute as well as a mind to plan, together with much tenacity of purpose. The Asiatic boys heading their way were fresh proof of that. So the responsibility of the dark cloud over this life he’d built for the two of them was hers and hers alone. And for that reason, she had shared nothing of her latest anguish, planning to surprise him with good news, and dreading having to confess yet again to her utter failures as a woman and a wife. She would not be going to the factory today. Who knew what damage the atmosphere of a place like that could do? If this was history her husband was making, it was history that was at that moment of no concern to her.
Instead, she spent the next several hours before her dressing glass stripped to her skin, interrogating her body. Even when goose bumps raised themselves across her form, she did not stop. Surely, she thought, God would not do this to her again.
In 1870, the population in these United States was well over thirty-eight million. Ulysses S. Grant was president. The Civil War had been over since a bright Sunday afternoon five Aprils prior. The previous spring, Chinese and Irish crews had laid the last two rails joined with a tie of polished California laurel, and the final stake had been driven in the Transcontinental Railroad. Of 63,291 women in San Francisco, 1,452 were Chinese prostitutes. The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified on the first Thursday of February. New York was the largest city in the country, and North Adams the largest manufacturing center in the Berkshires, boasting thirty-eight factories and two hundred cotton mills. Or, in the words of a local historian, North Adams was the smartest village in the smartest nation in all creation: the concentrated essential oil of Yankeedom. Yet one-third of the town’s inhabitants were foreigners—largely Irish, French Canadian, and Welsh—at work in the textile mills and tanneries, the paper factories, and on the formidable Hoosac Tunnel, which had been commenced in 1851 and which wouldn’t host regular service until 1876, at a total cost of $20,241,842.31 and 195 lives.
Five languages were preached from the town’s pulpits. And now another headed toward town: Cantonese, the language of the seventy-five Chinese male workers, most of whom had barely attained their majority, on the late train from Troy, and Omaha before that, and all the way back to their start, thirteen days prior, in Oakland, California.
The Celestials were coming. Denizens of a country so foreign that in America it was known as the Celestial Empire, inhabited by the alien and strange. The Celestials were coming. Two thousand citizens of North Adams awaited their arrival as they would the quiet but firm interruption of an opinionated dinner guest.
It was an unusually mild afternoon, a breeze from the north swaying the elms on the hill as nineteen-year-old Alfred Robinson worried the rock he had slipped into his pocket.
His fellow Crispins were three hundred strong on the south end of the passenger platform. They had been waiting for hours. The Order of the Knights of St. Crispin was a force to be reckoned with, the largest union in the country, forty thousand members in Massachusetts alone. And on this day they were joined by their brothers from five other local shoe factories, all staging sympathy strikes, refusing, among other things, to consent to a reduction from ten dollars a case to nine during the dull season. If Mr. Sampson had refused to recognize their strength so far, he wouldn’t be able to ignore it for long.
Ida Virginia Wilburn was sixteen and already displaying the resolute density of the woman she would become. Her dress was practical, a gray muslin that wouldn’t easily reveal wear. Her boots were black, purchased by her father in their hometown of Pine View, Virginia, several months back, yet they appeared as if just plucked by a salesman’s clean hand from his store window. She stood across the street from the passenger depot at the side entrance to the Ballou House and could see Alfred, itchy with anticipation, growling and murmuring with those other boys.
Her mother had not been in favor of this trip. She had not been moved enough by the misfortune that dear Lucy Robinson, youngest daughter of neighbors and a friend for years and years, had suffered. Because, pray, what had Lucy expected? What had she imagined could have come of following that headstrong older brother of hers? (Alfred, Ida’s mother insisted, had always had looks, but not much sense. Ida believed him to have neither, but Lucy adored him, so Ida tried to as well.) To work alongside foreigners in the wilds of that northern world, blasting their way through mountain rock that God had obviously not created for anything like a tunnel. It had been foolish.
But Ida’s father had touched his beautiful wife with his farmer’s hands and settled her as he would a horse, pointing out that Lucy and Alfred had taken the best option they’d had. There wasn’t much else they could’ve done. No one had to mention the sad and threatening fact of the death of the Robinson parents the previous year. And Ida had remarked that Alfred wasn’t working in the tunnel anymore; he was a cordwainer now, in one of the biggest factories in North Adams. That showed some sense, did it not? Though, now, watching the jostling and jockeying of his thick-armed union brothers, she thought perhaps he had merely traded one kind of danger for another.
“When we’re tested,” her father had said, “God hands us some of what we need, and it’s up to us to mix up the rest.”
And his wife had retorted that God handed us all we needed and more, but she had allowed her husband’s agreement with his daughter, whose independence and will he much admired, secretly believing it made her somehow more his, that in this time of need, sending Ida up North to do what she could in tending to Lucy was the right and moral choice. None of them believed that Alfred was likely to be up to the task of doing what was necessary in the wake of the violence suffered upon his younger sister. Left unspoken was the small but welcome relief to both parents of the prospect of having only nine rather than ten mouths to feed.
So communication had been struck between the Baptist church of Pine View, Virginia, and its sister church on Eagle Street in North Adams. An appropriate traveling chaperone had been secured, a rooming situation with one of the church’s elder sisters arranged. And Ida had left, her heart pounding in her chest like hooves on packed dirt.
She had not intended to witness the advent of the Celestials. She was not one to seek out violence. She would have preferred to remain in the stifling tenement apartment where Lucy, even several months after the attack, still lay on her single bed, sometimes working up the fortitude to cross the room and sit by the window. The diminishment of her friend filled Ida with impotent rage—at the man who had attacked her, at the inability of the sheriff to find him, at the other girls in town, who had stopped coming to visit and who seemed to Ida inadequate in every sense of the word.
But even this shadow version of Lucy was a joy with whom to share the days, and this caused Ida some considerable guilt. How did she gather such pleasure from being in the presence of one so clearly distressed? It struck an unforgiving blow to the image of herself that she hoped to hold. When Alfred had left that afternoon, secreting the rock he was sure neither girl had seen, Lucy had begged her to follow him. Who knew what would happen when the Celestials arrived? Keep him safe, Lucy had entreated, for me, and Ida had had no choice.
As the second whistle sounded, Ida stepped into the slant of shade provided by the porch of the Hoosac Tunnel offices. If Alfred or the others mixed in some unhappy business how was she to fulfill her promise to Lucy? Could she pull him from the crowd? She looked at her hands. They were broad and thick. One of her brothers had told her she looked as if she were wearing the mittens of Eskimos.
She wished for the shade and serenity of her father’s workshop. She wished for the smell of his tobacco leaves in the rafters, the oil and sweat of his discarded work gloves. She even wished for her brothers, paltry and deficient versions of her father, all elbows and fists, ignorance and temper. Even as a child she had understood that her father was an exception to a rule. His refusal to share in the temper of men was a rare and uncommon thing, and she began, even then, to think of him more and more as a species of one.
She had spent the war years in Virginia, daily astonished less at the lengths of violence to which men seemed likely to go and more at the relish with which they proceeded there. Indeed, if she’d been asked, she would have been obliged to say that the war had convinced her of a lurking suspicion: that violence against their own was something not that men avoided, but from which civilized society kept them. Men were, one and all, always at the precipice of a high cliff, waiting for an excuse to leap like savages into the air.
Two blocks away, Sampson was issuing more orders, this time to William P. Hurd, local photographer, who was setting up his glass-plate camera and heavy tripod on the factory’s south lawn, making ready for a photograph for which Sampson had generated plans shortly after the Chinese had embarked from California. He stood in the evening sun, checking and rechecking the contents of his portable darkroom—chemicals, trays, and plates piled in the back of a covered wagon led by his astonishingly aged chestnut mare.
Once the Celestials had disappeared into the factory, the accompanying crowd had, save but one or two lingerers, dispersed, and these last few took no note of the man poking around in the back of his wagon. They did not attend to his positioning of his stereo camera—two plate cameras situated on a single mount—or to his worried checking of the falling afternoon sun. Yet the lingerers were rewarded for their loitering when Sampson ushered the seventy-five Celestials out the back door of the factory and spread them across the south wall of his formidable brick building.
The boys were baffled. They had not even had time to change out of their travel clothes or wash their faces. The tea water had been put on but not poured, and more than one of the boys fretted as he was arranged among his fellow travelers that the cooks had forgotten to remove the kettle and the water was, at that moment, boiling away.
The photographer had placed his camera too close, and the group had to wait as he retreated in order to accommodate the size of the gathering. Sampson muttered that he had paid Hurd to be ready, not to watch him make ready, and Hurd, burdened with tripod and camera, promised to be as quick as possible.
“What are they saying?” the youngest of the boys asked Charlie.
“They are fighting,” Charlie answered. “It is not about us,” he added, and the boy seemed reassured.
The low light meant that the exposure time was long. Sampson paced behind the camera, and Hurd agonized that the man’s tread was making the camera tremble in minute but disastrous ways.
The photograph would be, as most of Hurd’s work was, lacking, and the many magazines looking for images of the Chinese in the months following their arrival would not choose this one, a fact that bothered not only Hurd but Sampson as well. What was the point of having gone to this expense to show the world what he was up to if the world would not look? But the world is looking, Julia would remind her husband, fanning the illustrated newspapers before him. Just not at your photo, she told him. Exactly, he replied, closing the discussion.
But the Chinese boys, stiff and tired from their journey, hot against the American bricks in their dusty clothing, would remember the photograph more than they would remember anything else from that day. For most of them, it was the first time they had sat for a photograph. There was confusion and wariness about their new employer’s reasoning. Was there to be a display on the factory walls?
Alfred, one of the few loiterers peering through gaps in the factory’s fence, thought he knew just what Sampson was doing. The man was saying, as clear as if he had written a letter, “Take note, Crispins. See here what I have done to you and yours.” A few weeks after the photograph, the caricaturists would agree. Punchinello would publish the cartoon “Yan-ki vs. Yan-kee,” in which the Chinese swarm across a shoemaker’s dinner table, taking his bread and cake, pulling a patty from his daughter’s hand, stealing his pet dog.
As the years would pass, Ida would remember this day for Charlie’s hands. Alfred would remember it as a symbol of all he was still yet to lose. Lucy as the first day in months she’d had an hour to herself. Charlie would remember it as yet another beginning, and Sampson would remember the weight of those pistols beneath his belt. And Julia, anxious blue-eyed Julia, would remember it as the day she lost her fourteenth child. And as the beginning of the small, hidden path to the fifteenth, the one who lived. And no matter where her mind traveled, it would always end in the same place: the smell of wet earth, the heft of something larger, the cousin sensation to the one she sometimes experienced in church. As if God’s hand had reached down to lay itself across her brow. As if He were telling her to close her eyes, because He had for her a wonderful surprise.
Karen Shepard is a Chinese-American born and raised in New York City. She is the author of three novels, An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy’s Wife, and Don’t I Know You? Her short fiction has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, and Ploughshares, and her nonfiction has appeared in More, Self, USA Today, and the Boston Globe. She teaches writing and literature at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she lives.
The Celestials - June 2013.