Wolf Street Orphanage was a house exploding with girls. The skinny tall brownstone stood crooked on a street of other brownstones, its striped curtains concealing rooms full of long hair and exuberant voices. When Headmistress Lily Rose made her thrice-daily rounds to check on her girls’ progress with their reading of Upton Sinclair and their Latin translations, she often found Nunsi, the oldest girl, pacing between beds and washstands, her fingers fluttering with nervous energy. Nunsi loved the theater, and that spring, she was usually shouting about the work of Betram Stein at the Orpheum, or about the heartbreaking life of a perennial understudy at the theater. Catherine, obsessed with current events, alternately studied that day’s newspaper and rolled her eyes at Nunsi, while Molly, who had recently decided she wanted to become a scientist, tweezed at the filament of a broken lightbulb.
“Girls, you’re supposed to be translating Virgil,” Lily Rose would say, as she smoothed a rumpled bedspread, set her hand upon Nunsi’s coal-colored hair, bit back a smile.
That April, Lily Rose applied for and received a small donation for the orphanage from a prominent philanthropist. She debated using the money to purchase a new encyclopedia set, sturdier boots for next winter, or even something as frivolous as a new phonograph. But perhaps, she thought, the girls would benefit from travel. None of them had ever even left Boston. As soon as she mentioned this possibility to Nunsi, the rumor spread through the orphanage—we’re going on a trip, Lily Rose got some kind of grant, we’re going on a boat!—and then a host of brochures, pamphlets and guidebooks materialized and before she knew it this journey became the girls’ prime topic of conversation.
The trip was a month off, and Lily Rose was two days away from booking them passage on a respectable older vessel. But that darkling spring evening, as she walked home with Nunsi and Molly from a matinee viewing of a Betram Stein-directed musical production in the Theater District, Molly jabbed her finger at a headline in a newspaper box: Lily Rose Christened at Boston Harbor. Below it, a picture of a sleek ship, three smokestacks, porthole after porthole lined along the stalwart sides.
“It’s named after you.” Molly smiled up at Lily Rose, her dark eyes crinkling.
“Can we take it when we go on holiday next month? Please? Please?” Nunsi always spoke too loud; Lily Rose often shushed her when the younger girls were asleep later at night.
“Her. You call a ship her,” Molly said.
“We’ll see about the expense.” The next day, Lily Rose called the Metropolitan Steamship Company to ask about tickets and found that passage on the ship would cost $600 more than the philanthropist’s grant. Lily Rose did a quick mental calculation of the money she’d tucked away that year, then pulled out a personal check.
The trunks were packed. The tickets had arrived. Nunsi had draped ribbons on her last year’s spring hat. And then the day before departure, Lily Rose stepped on a marble on the stairs, fell hard down three steps, and twisted her back. And so she stood on the docks, leaning on a wooden crutch, waving to the ship as it pulled out of port.
The day after the ship departed, a Saturday, Lily Rose was sorting through a stack of novels when the doorbell rang and a boy in a Western Union uniform stood there holding out a telegram that told her that Wolf Street Orphanage would never again explode with girls, ever.
The morning after she received the telegram, Lily Rose placed eleven eggs in a pot of water. The eggs were half-boiled, the insides marigold-colored mush, before Lily Rose remembered.
She climbed the stairs to the rooms empty like theaters gone bust, where three strands of Nunsi’s long hair stuck to her bedspread, where Catherine’s newspapers sprawled all over the floor and desk. How many times had Lily Rose told Catherine that strewing newspapers around like that was a fire hazard? She picked the newspapers up. She folded them and placed them on Catherine’s desk. She limped down the stairs and flipped through her navy blue Oxford English Dictionary until she found the entry for the word “shipwreck,” but she slammed the book shut before she read it. She smoothed sheets and alphabetized her books. She spent an hour scrubbing one greenish smudge on the brass candlestick that stood on the mantle in the parlor. Come evening, she bent to empty the garbage pail containing the half-cooked eggs. Her hands wrapped around the sides of the pail, but she hesitated, then dropped it and folded backwards against the wood counter. The eggs smelled odd and her stomach leapt up in little bunches and acid rose in the back of her throat.
Two mornings after Lily Rose received the telegram, she woke from a half sleep with the hair on the back of her neck crawling with the suspicion that Lily Rose the person and Lily Rose the ship were one and the same. That instead of a respectable orphanage headmistress with a sore back, she was a proud, bright ocean liner. Her fingers clenched strong as steel rivets against the sheets, her stomach rocked like a fawn-wicker deck chair, and her breastbone and shoulders flattened waves as she cradled her humans and her cargo, keeping them safe.
A strange dream, a grief dream, common for people in . . . in her situation. Lily Rose knew about the theories of the European psychologists, how dreams reflected a person’s inner turmoil. It was natural for that dream to visit her, wasn’t it?
The next morning, Tuesday, she couldn’t shake the dream off for an hour. Footsteps tap-tapped on her sternum and voices echoed between her collarbones-turned-deck rails until her mid-morning tea.
That afternoon, every lightbulb in Wolf Street Orphanage blew out at the same time, filaments exploding, glass falling like feather to the floor. Lily Rose called Westinghouse Electric to ask about a power surge. They told her no one else had reported any problems that day.
Three days later, newspapers flattened against the house’s front stoop, attached themselves to windows, and skittered down the dusty front stairs. Lily Rose stacked them by the front door with a note telling the paper boy to be more careful.
Friday, Lily Rose was flipping through The Interpretation of Dreams in the parlor when water ran down the crease between the west and north walls. She crossed the carpet and knelt next to the stream. It smelled of the docks, like salt water. The walls heaved like the decks of a roiling ship and then more water ran down the crease. It trickled across the oak floor, soaked her house slippers, reached its tendrils beneath the rug that she had bought second-hand at an estate sale in Cambridge.
Lily Rose stood at the edge of her ruined rug in her sodden house slippers, her arms tingling as though they sliced through waves. Slowly, she recounted the events of the week. Molly’s lightbulbs, exploding. Catherine’s newspapers, thudding against the front steps. Salt water, the substance of . . . of drownings, pouring down her walls. Dreams of human-ship transmogrification, dreams she couldn’t shake even in her waking hours.
The stuff of the sort of novels that Lily Rose would never let her girls read. The stuff of ghost stories.
Lily Rose’s parents had belonged to the church of night correspondence school and factory worker protests in the North End, so she had never believed in God or visited a spirit photographer. When Nunsi had asked for a Ouija board last year, Lily Rose handed her a book on female doctors instead. She had spent her youth attending political meetings and even a few suffragette rallies. She had never giggled over planchettes in a parlor like some of the frivolous daughters of her parents’ friends. Last week, before, Lily Rose would have scoffed at her creeping conviction that the girls were haunting the orphanage. Coincidence is coincidence. Nothing more.
But scientists were constantly discovering and cataloguing parts of the world previously considered numinous and unknowable. A century ago a Marconi wireless would have been labeled a witch’s tool. Perhaps Lily Rose was simply experiencing something that in a century’s time would be considered quite ordinary. In that case, wouldn’t she be remiss in ignoring the newspapers fluttering around her doorstep, half of them dated May 24? Or the fact that every lightbulb she tried popped out of existence as soon as she screwed it into any of the empty house’s plain-shaded lamps? Or the water, stinking of salt, that soaked her carpet? Or the growing realization, in the torturous gray hours between sleep and wake, that she was a ship, that her stomach had become a deck, her left kidney a billiards room, her right steerage?
After all, why had the girls so badly wanted to take their holiday on a ship called the Lily Rose? Because they sensed some sympathetic magic between their headmistress and the ship? Did the ship keep them safe, braid their hair, lecture them on socialism and the history of the Public Garden, when the worst had happened? Did the shared name act as a conduit to link them back to her?
Any investigation requires cataloguing evidence, and so Lily Rose started recording her observations in a diary. The leather-bound book grew thick until, one month after the worst had happened, she turned the page and wrote, in her thin straight cursive, they are haunting the orphanage. They want something from me and I don’t know what I can do to help them. I can no longer catalog all instances of these phenomena alone.
Lily Rose gathered her helpers from the orphanage in the South End, St. Anthony’s Home for Children Left On Fire Escapes, Abandoned on Doorsteps or Otherwise Discarded in Ignominious Ways. The children there had never had a mother, even an ersatz one. The mistress at St. Anthony’s was spare with her words and gestures, and taught those children maths and catechism but not much else.
Lily Rose brought them back two each week, filling the empty rooms of Wolf Street Orphanage. She gave them clean clothes, full meals, novels and mathematics books, in exchange for their help with the housework and, of course, their recordings of the strange and potent phenomena in the house. They were younger than her oldest girls and more obedient, more apt to look at their shoes instead of to look her in the eye. She braided these girls’ hair, politely asked about their aspirations, made their beds and cooked them eggs. But the braids were tight and mechanical and she forgot the aspirations as soon as she asked after them. The new girls’ soft footsteps in the upstairs hallway couldn’t drown out the emptiness in the house, and Lily Rose’s mind wandered away from her books without the slap of Nunsi’s fluttering hands against the bannister, the quarrels between Catherine and Molly about the war, the sounds of the younger girls, Leah and Jo, playing marbles at the bottom of the stair.
Before, Lily Rose had had a family to nurture, girls to replace her own erstwhile aspiration of tutoring college students at Radcliffe, a goal thwarted when the school found out about her arrest twenty years ago after quietly chanting Marxist slogans at a suffragette rally—the one daring thing she’d ever done. In those listless days after the dean at Radcliffe had delivered the bad news, Lily Rose had never imagined she would find a house to live in where the simple act of crossing the threshold felt right. She had found it and lost it, and how was she supposed to find it again? How many new lives was an early-middle-aged respectable orphanage headmistress supposed to build?
One day in October she observed one of the St. Anthony’s girls bent over a book, and in the charcoal-colored hair, the fluttering fingers, she saw Nunsi so strongly that it hit her in the stomach. She couldn’t build a new life when they were still here. When Nunsi was still here. A week before the shipwreck Nunsi had slid down the bannister, leapt off at the second-to-bottom stair and proclaimed that she wanted to be an actress. Lily Rose had explained that an actress wasn’t a particularly well-respected or proper profession for a young girl, that Nunsi would come up against all sorts of unsavory types and would be better off going to vocational school or maybe, maybe, if she studied hard and applied herself, even winning a scholarship to a girls’ college. But in Nunsi’s dark eyes shone all the determination and hope of someone with everything ahead of her. She had the eagerness of a calf thumping through the spring forest for the first time. And Lily Rose knew she would find the money to pay for Nunsi’s acting lessons, would take her to the stage herself.
Now that Nunsi would never go to the stage, what could Lily Rose do to help them? What were they trying to tell her? That they needed eggs, newspapers, a mother? That they were happy?
That it had hurt?
Lily Rose met the Bulgarnakovs in October, after she took out small adverts in the Daily Globe and Herald, inquiring about other Bostonians who were studying supernatural phenomena. The Bulgarnakovs sent her a letter and invited her to tea. Nadya Bulgarnakova was old enough to be Lily Rose’s dowager aunt, with thick cheekbones and a wilting feather on her felt hat. Her husband Grigory was shorter, with the kind of swooping mustache popular among the Windsors and Romanovs and a knobby wart on the side of his neck.
Grigory and Nadya were devotees of the Russian court forced to flee for their lives when revolutionaries had toppled their czar. They had traveled to America after they had observed some startling supernatural phenomena outside Paris.
“We visited Versailles, and we stumbled through a thicket and beheld Marie Antoinette herself,” Nadya said in her hoarse voice. “She was tending a flock of lavender-dyed sheep in a meadow of Queen Anne’s Lace.”
They had spied on the queen on several subsequent trips to Versailles, and when she stopped appearing to them they vowed to journey to America and attempt again to visit a lost world in a place where monarchs had once reigned.
Lily Rose thought of the Eugene V. Debs pamphlets on her bedside table, and gritted her teeth as she imagined what Mr. Debs would have said about the Bulgarnakovs striving to recover that lost world. And besides that, the Lily Rose of six months ago would have scoffed at the idea that these royalists had seen the ghost of Marie Antoinette and her five little lambs.
But now, Lily Rose lived in a world where her ship doppelgänger had sailed away with everything, and she had gathered her own evidence, and if her story was true, then so was theirs. She took to visiting their house in the evenings for simple suppers of cod and tomatoes. Nadya and Grigory explained to her the weather conditions for their encounter with Antoinette, drew diagrams of the city labeled with neat arrows and Cyrillic writing, and described the detailing on the dress Marie Antoinette had worn in the pasture at Versailles, the specific shade of gold woven into the threads, and the height of her pompadour (nine centimeters). Meanwhile Lily Rose showed them the ledgers that the new children from St. Anthony’s had filled with descriptions of the water soaking through the beams of her house, the conditions of each and every light bulb and the presence of any and all newspapers.
The orphans from St. Anthony’s found seventy-two newspapers fluttering through the narrow street in front of the orphanage that autumn, three of them in French, one in Gaelic, and one-third of them dated May 24. The lightbulbs in the house held steady and the water pouring down the walls emerged in the same patterns day after day, long twining rivulets like riggings or hair. On the first day of November, opera blared from the house next door, a straight-walled black townhouse that had been silent for all of the ten years that Lily Rose had lived at the orphanage. Opera, the music of the stage, of grand costumes in jewel-tone colors. Puccini or Verdi, Lily Rose wasn’t sure which, but she leaned her elbows on the windowsill and stuck her head out into the early dark. She had never cared for the stage, but Nunsi would have loved this. She would have had the other girls costumed in blankets-as-capes and scarves-as-masks, performing along in no time.
Something clicked in the doorway behind her. Lily Rose jerked her head back inside fast enough to see the girl who resembled Nunsi snapping her fingers as though the opera were jazz. The girl noticed Lily Rose watching her and scuttled away. Lily Rose turned back to the window and as she did, she stumbled against the sill because her feet were no longer feet, but had curved into a sinuous hull, and the crook in her healing back had flattened to a deck, and she tasted salt water and gamey sea bird on her breath and they were here, they were walking over her flattened back-deck and they flooded through the dining room in her stomach, snatching at sweetbreads and gulping lemonade, and in the library on the E-deck in her shoulder she arranged books for them, and seven knots ahead loomed the slimy expanse of the Sargasso Sea, and she steeled herself for the seaweed churning under her hull, and for the calm caress of the horse latitude winds—
Lily Rose shuddered back to her orphanage headmistress’ body against the hard windowsill. The music had stopped and the sun had fully hidden behind the apothecary across the street. Lily Rose wiped her hair off her face and wobbled downstairs on shaky human legs and flipped her Oxford English Dictionary open to the shipwreck entry. It takes sixty seconds for someone to burn to death, four minutes for someone to drown. Lily Rose’s fingers shook around the fragile paper. They needed her to stroke their hair and read them books and protect them from that nightmare, that holocaust. That was why they were still here. There was simply no other explanation.
Nadya and Grigory invited Lily Rose on an expedition the first day of December. They had received multiple reports of sightings of the ghost of Queen Anne in a cemetery an hour’s ride to the north, and they planned to investigate.
Lily Rose dressed in a warm coat and mittens and met them at North Station a half hour before their train was scheduled to depart. Nadya and Grigory came armed with a stack of books: Prominent American Ghosts, The Reign of Queen Anne, Combing New England’s Cemeteries. Lily Rose came with her diary and with a headache from the rocking on the subway combined with the rocking in her stomach from the waves that buffeted her as she sliced through the Atlantic. On the train, Lily Rose described the ship-sensation she had experienced on the subway, but Nadya and Grigory only made little hm sounds, holding hands and studying farms and bridges out the window. Lily Rose busied herself with writing about the ship-on-the-subway in her diary.
They disembarked the train in a town of white houses and walked north on a one-lane road. The cemetery’s stones angled from the frozen ground in an uneven pattern, between a nest of pines, a darkening sky and a sinister moon. Fog billowed up behind the trees and Lily Rose, Nadya and Grigory settled on a blanket next to the oldest grave. Lily Rose took notes on these perfect conditions for the appearance of a ghost.
They waited until the moon crossed the sky, until true dark crept up from behind the pine trees and descended on the clearing.
Nothing ever appeared except a crow and three geese heading south.
The reports must have been incorrect, thought Lily Rose, and she told Nadya and Grigory that they would keep searching for their ghost. But they wouldn’t make eye contact with her as they walked to the station and boarded the train back to the city.
Lily Rose called on them the next week. Not-Nunsi accompanied her, carrying the diary and a stack of books. Not-Nunsi asked Lily Rose for a Turkish delight at Copley Station and Lily Rose bought it but avoided Not-Nunsi’s eye. When they arrived at the Russians’ house, Grigory showed them in awkwardly, shuffling his feet.
“We didn’t want to say it before, as we thought it worthwhile to investigate the cemetery, but we, well. That weekend in Versailles.” Grigory glanced at Nadya. “We discovered that a group of artists had been holding a costume party on the palace grounds the weekend we visited. I fear Nadya and I never witnessed anything at all. I’m afraid that our old world is just simply, well, gone.”
Nadya had taken up knitting, he explained, and he had resumed the violin studies that he had enjoyed so much as a young boy. Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky occupied his days now, as his wife’s were full of knit purl and skeins arranged neatly in a woven basket.
“That’s a shame,” Lily Rose said, her heart racing. “Too bad it turned out to be nothing more than a coincidence. My research, though—my newspapers, my lightbulbs, my ship—they add up to a much larger picture. . . . ”
Not-Nunsi, her stockinged feet swinging above the carpet, held up the diary as though accentuating Lily Rose’s point.
“Lots of people like to collect newspapers from the day of a tragedy,” Nadya said. “That day, there were three special editions. Lots of papers floating around the city from that day.”
“Very well, but there’s water pouring down the walls of my house.”
“Did you ever taste the water? Do you know if it’s salt?”
She hadn’t. She had only smelled it. It smelled briny, like the sea. Like most tap water in the city.
Grigory said, kindly, sadly, “Lily Rose, perhaps you should call a plumber.”
Lily Rose hasn’t visited the port since the day she watched her namesake ship pull away from the dock forever. Tonight, after her brief visit with Nadya and Grigory, she walks twisted brick streets until she reaches the stern customs buildings and swaying cranes and lurid taverns along the docks jutting into the harbor. Not-Nunsi trails her, head down, but Lily Rose ignores her and stands on the edge, arms crossed, staring across the dark ocean and the islands in the harbor that barely disrupt the endless starless night sky. Even the seagulls are silent.
Call a plumber. How quickly Nadya and Grigory folded themselves into a new life and discarded the information they painstakingly gathered these past months. So perhaps their investigation came to nothing, but that has no bearing on Lily Rose. Her evidence is still valid, she’s not just imagining her feeling of ship-ness, she’s still living in a ghost story—
But the papers very well might have escaped from a careless paper boy. The water coursing down the walls of her house very well might be ordinary tap water from a leaky pipe. After all, she hasn’t tasted it.
“What do you think?” Lily Rose says, not looking at Not-Nunsi.
No answer. Lily Rose presses her chin against her shoulder, peers down. Not-Nunsi’s shrugging, gnawing on her lower lip, her dark eyes cast down. She’s afraid. She’s afraid of Lily Rose, who’s supposed to be her teacher, guardian, mother. “I can’t say,” she whispers. “But it . . . ” She straightens her spine just slightly. “It seems a bit far-fetched to me, ma’am, I suppose.”
A bit far-fetched. Why, everyone knew it but her. Far-fetched. Absurd.
She should be relieved, shouldn’t she? For thirty-six years, she learned the world a certain way: rational, logical, strictly divided between the living and the dead. And now the world has returned to that natural state. Everything she saw, everything she recorded in her diary, all the phenomena and all those times she broke into a ship as she awoke in the mornings, they were all coincidences, the grief-dreams of an aging woman who’s lost everything.
And then her arms aren’t crossed anymore. Then she’s snatching the diary from Not-Nunsi, shredding its ink-thick pages, flinging them towards the flat harbor. The wind whips some of them back at her, sticking them to her coat, but she rips them off, crumples them up, tosses them back at the sea. She’s shivering and shivering and she’s glad when the wind freezes the tears springing up in the corners of her eyes.
She’s not relieved. She wanted it to be true. But it was all for nothing, only a series of cruel coincidences. They aren’t haunting her. They don’t need anything from her. Catherine’s neck broken by a falling smokestack. Nunsi’s hair caught fire. Molly floating in water depthless, unfathomable. They’re gone. Simply gone.
Why could Nadya and Grigory dismiss their lost world so easily while her feelings of ship-ness still seep from her dreams into her waking life? Because they have each other, while Lily Rose is the only person left who lived in Wolf Street Orphanage with her girls?
Something flutters near her hip. It’s Not-Nunsi, looking up at Lily Rose hopefully, her fingers moving inches from Lily Rose’s woolen coat. Lily Rose stares down at her, but then something catches her eye out in the half-frozen harbor.
A proud and silent juggernaut whispers against the whispering ocean, the same color as the sea and sky, three muted smokestacks against the dark. A hundred portholes the same color as the night but she can feel them, can hear the rigging whispering together, the ship sailing straight and true.
She would know that silhouette anywhere. Three smokestacks, tall proud foredeck. Yes there are other ships with three smokestacks, but are the smokestacks quite so tall? Are those ships so long, so dark that they blend with the harbor as though they belong here, just as much as the islands or the sky belong?
The ship paces, flattening the waves, and Lily Rose only has time to take three more breaths before it’s disappeared beyond the islands.
Not-Nunsi is reaching towards Lily Rose’s coat, almost touching her, but Lily Rose steps away from the girl, staring at the spot where the ship just disappeared, where she just disappeared: waves and gulls in her porthole eyes, water smashing against her belly, her heart beating in time to churning engines, her fingers stretching into rigging and her stomach curving like a hull, and she knows then that she will never again become the Lily Rose who scoffed at ghost stories, will never take up knitting, never become an expert at the violin or mother to another set of girls, not when water drips between her house’s walls, not when newspapers whip in the icy wind on the street outside the orphanage, not when—
—not when she is a ship called the Lily Rose, whispering through the port at night.