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Sunday, February 22, 2004

Eva


Egeziaca wonders who she will be, after the man at Ellis Island takes her name away.
She is Eva now, and she watches her reflection . All the way to San Francisco, she stares at her herself in the train window. In the daylight, she is a ghost, a fog drawing of a girl floating past farms and fields.

She keeps her hand against the window at night, when Eva is clearest.

She thinks that there are two of them now.
Only Rosa is happy with her name. Rosa Vivadalina is Rose Violet now.
When the man changes Egeziaca’s name, he jabs an indifferent finger at her. “You. Your name is Eva. E-va,” he says, and the christening is sharp and brutal. This is how the world treats a big nosed girl.
But Rosa, he smiles at, and he thinks for a while before scratching the letters onto the papers. “Rose Violet,” he says, pleased with his own poetry. “Pretty as two flowers,” he says, and he rests his hand, priest like, on her auburn curls.

Egeziaca wants Eva to be pretty. She hopes, she prays, she keeps watching. But it is a bad name, the name of Adam’s wife. It is the name of one who will listen to serpents and steal fruit. It is a curse more than a christening.
“Stop crying,” her sister who is now Dorothy tells her. This Dorothy is sharp and angry, and Eva wants Dovozia back. She stops crying, but bangs her feet against the wall of the train. Her boots are big and ugly, they belong to her brother Mico. She wants American shoes with thin straps and designs cut into the leather.
She wonders if she will steal some new shoes, because she has the name of a liar and a thief. She looks in the window, and when Eva looks back, her eyes look dark and waiting in the dim light. Yes, it is the face of a bad girl.
It is cold in America. The train is dirty. Their mother doesn’t listen to them. She looks far away, silent for the first time in their lives. She is a new person too.
Eva wonders if her mother’s husband will be someone new. Perhaps he will become a good person.

“Look,” Aunt Helen says to me, and she opens a black leather photograph album. It is held together with black cord, and the pages are black paper. It has a funerary look.
“Here is your nonna,” Helen tells me. “Just as she looked when I met her. And your Auntie Rose.”
The old women lean close around me. They are the witches from Macbeth with butterscotch candies and lipstick. They summon ghosts from photographs.
Here, here is Eva, six years old, with arms like twigs and knobby ankles, and Rose, only eleven months older, sweet and plump. Her hair waves marcel like above her braids. Helen sits between them, staring at the camera from beneath a shelf of straight bangs. She has a big bow on her head. Her arms are wrapped tightly around both sister’s necks.
Eva is in the shadow of the photographer. Only her nose catches the light, as if someone cruelly planted a potato on the little girl’s face. Her expression is dark and solemn.
“Peh,” says my grandma. She is the first to turn away from the picture. She watches me instead. She strokes my hair, she fusses with my collar. “They had no damned business taking away my name,” she says suddenly. “What kind of a thing is that to do to a little girl?”
“Look,” says Rose, pointing at the next page, “Ma and the old man.”
They never, in all my life, grant him a name.
The grim faces on the page mean nothing to me. I pass my fingers lightly over the surface of the picture, waiting for a message.
My grandma looks at me, and says something that doesn’t fit with her old lady beauty shop hair and her department store blouse. It doesn’t belong on the yellow table.
“I killed him,” she says. “He was an old bastard.”
Helen shakes her head and makes soothing noises, and Auntie Rose smiles a secret, quiet smile.


He tells them they must not leave the house when he is gone, because they are stupid and will get lost. He tells them they must not play with the children next door, because they are Irish and have bugs.
When they come into the small wooden house, he tells them this is his house. His. At home, the house had belonged to Eva’s mother. He has piles of dirty clothes there in canvas bags, stinking with fish slime. They belong to the men who work on the fish boats, and he tells Eva’s mother that this is what she will do in America. She will wash the fish guts from clothes. He keeps the money she earns as a laundress.
Because she is Eva and will go to hell anyway, she spits into the condensed milk he uses for his coffee. Nobody else is allowed to drink it. He needs it, because he works, he says.

Eva watches. She watches her new, silent mother and her new sisters Mary and Dorothy ruining their hands in the lye soap. She watches the fog outside the windows and the little girl from next door that she may not play with. She watches her brothers follow behind the old man as they leave for the boats every morning, and watches them exhausted and silent when they return at night. Stefano is Steven now, and Steven doesn’t sing. Mico has become Michael, and is too big to play. He comes home covered with fish slime, and sleeps over his dinner plate.
Her mother’s husband is only kind to Rose. His fish hands stay too long in her pretty hair, and Rose does not have to help with dishes or laundry, because he likes her to sit on his lap in the evening.
He does not call Eva by her new name. He calls her NasoGrande. Big nose.

At night, Eva whispers stories to Rose. The old man will die, and they will find money. He has hidden gold somewhere. Her spit in the can of condensed milk will poison him.
They will all go home, to the white house with the red roof, as rich as queens. They will play up and down the warm streets, and wade in the blue sea. The sun will be shining, and Visco will come and marry Marija who won’t have to be Mary anymore. They will dance at the wedding in American shoes with tiny heels and little straps.
Rose floats into sleep on dreams spun of convent lace and wine colored roses.
Eva stays awake until the cold house is dark, and the only sound is the heavy breathing of sleep. Then, every night, she makes a spitting noise into her fingers, and flicks them with hatred at the wall that the old man sleeps behind. “Die,” she whispers. “Die.” Her breath shows like smoke in the air, and she watches the curse shimmer white in the night.

He dies an impossible death. He is killed by a tuna.
They bring his body to the door, a policeman and two men from the fishing boat. They have no Italian and no Slavic, and her mother has only a few words of English. But this is what the policeman says. He points at the blood soaking through the shirt tied around the old man’s head, and says over and over, “Il tonno.”
He leaves quickly, shaking his head.
“Stupid Americans,” their mother says, after the policeman is gone. She seems more mystified than concerned with her dead husband. “What does he mean? How can you be killed by a tuna?”
They all stand around the body. Nobody cries for the old man. They stare at him as if he is a bad cut of meat that has been delivered by mistake.
Eva pokes him, to see if he is really dead.
“Egeziaca!” Mary exclaims, and crosses herself.
“A tuna,” her mother repeats, frowning. “What kind of tuna can do this? Did it bite his head? How big are these American tuna?”
They are more words than she has spoken for eight weeks. Eva thinks that the old man has stolen her mother’s voice. Now that he is dead, it is back.
Rose reaches out, and takes Eva’s hand. “Magic,” she whispers, and their eyes trade secrets. “It was a magic tuna.”
“It was no magic tuna, it was a stupid American that knows nothing,” their mother says. “This. This can’t be.” She bends down, and begins unwrapping the shirt from his head. “You little ones, go outside and play,” she orders.
For the first time in weeks, Eva and Rose leave the house. The grass is frosted and cold, and crunches beneath their shoes. They take the coal shovel from the back step, and begin to dig through the patch of yard, searching for the hidden gold.
The little girl from next door comes to join them, a big bow of pale blue silk shining on her pale hair. She smiles at them, and they smile back. She points at herself. Her name is Helen.
Egeziaca hesitates for a moment, and then points proudly at her own chest.
“I am Eva,” she proclaims, and she feels a swell of power. She has saved them all. She is only six, but she has killed an evil man.
They play digging for buried treasure in the sun. Blackbirds fly past like secrets with wings. Helen’s mother bakes a cake, and they sit in the winter sun with the taste of cinnamon and walnuts in their mouths. Helen has a jump rope, they spin it against the street and she teaches them a song.

When Mico and Stefano come home that night, they say that the fish was an ordinary fish, and not an American man-eating tuna. It was just an ordinary tuna that fell from the net and the old man slipped on it and hit his head on a sharp piece of metal as he fell.
Eva knows better.


When there is a sale on canned tuna, Eva and Rose drive together to the Piggly Wiggly Mart, and buy it by the case.

“You should always eat a lot of tuna,” Grandma tells me. “It makes you strong. It makes you smart.” She strokes my hair while I eat my sandwich, and says both my names three times, like a magic spell.


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