Michael leans against the cold window of the immigrant car rattling across the Prairies and stares out at the endless expanse of snow.
His backside is numb from days of sitting on the wooden bench as it rocks from side to side with the rhythm of the train. His face is numb with cold. He is glad, in this unheated carriage, of the body warmth from his younger brother and two small sisters crowded beside him, sleeping on the unforgiving hardness of the wooden seats.
He rubs his hands together to restore the circulation in his fingers. He thinks of the ocean crossing when he couldn’t keep food down. He remembers the relief of arriving in port and the comforting warmth of beef and barley soup, the last thing he ate.
Michael is tall for his twelve years, and growing fast. His cheekbones stick out from his hollow face, his ears from the side of his head. His stomach cramps as his body demands to be fed. Since the soup, he has survived on cups of black tea and the hope that his family will soon arrive at their destination, the free land his father said they had been promised.
His father has disappeared into the back of the train to look for their supplies among the piles of goods belonging to the hundreds of other passengers. His mother has disappeared in the opposite direction to get hot water for more tea. Michael suddenly feels homesick. His eyes fill with tears. He misses his cozy cottage, his friends, and most of all Blackie, his dog, who stayed behind with his grandparents.
A woman across the aisle reaches into a bag at her feet and takes a loaf of bread, a large, serrated knife, a white napkin and a jar of strawberry jam. Michael watches longingly as she lays the napkin on her knees and holds the loaf upright. Crumbs drop onto the napkin as she slices off the top end. She lays the cut piece on her knee with the rest of the loaf, unscrews the lid of the jam jar and scoops out a knob of jam with the broad blade of her knife. He smells the heavy sweetness of strawberries as she spreads the jam on the crusty bread.
The woman looks over at Michael and smiles. “Here, lad. You look as if you could use this.”
Michael reaches out to take the offered food. “Thank you. Thank you, Missus.”
He takes a huge bite. The bread is heavy, satisfying. The jam is sticky, comforting.
He knows that everything is going to be all right.
by Lesley Herbert
Originally from the UK, Lesley Hebert lives on Canada's Pacific raincoast with a sociable husband and an anti-social cat. Her work has appeared in Beyond Words, Canadian Stories, travelthruhistory.com, The First Line, Pocket Lint, A Poetry of Place: Journeys Across New Westminster and Parabola. She recently won first place for non-fiction in the Royal City Literary Arts Society 2023 competition.