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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Like a Brother to Me

Jacob Riis Collection
Jacob Riis Collection

Excerpt The Angels’ Lament August Wood

November 3, 1872 Fall River, MA

All of that made me think of Billy. On the most frigid nights, we crawled up into the iron chute that ventilated the basement of the hotel, and we’d nestle down into the grates. Billy had been coughin’ for a whole week before that mornin’.

I went to wake him, and he didn’t move. A strange light fell upon his pale blue face, and his skin was ice-cold. I screamed when I touched it.

I pried myself out of the chute and ran down the street, shoutin’ for help. Course, no one listened until I came across a policeman. I told him about Billy, and he went and got a fireman to help. No one understood that I didn’t want them to take him away. No, I wanted them to rescue him and maybe rescue both of us. But they didn’t listen. They took him away in the poorhouse hearse.

Maybe it was because he was like a brother to me, the best friend I ever had, but I couldn’t let him go, not like that. I chased after him for a bit and fell down in the middle of the street, cryin’, tears frozen onto my face. Carriages swerved, people shouted, and for a long time, no one bothered to stop. Finally, a very good, a very decent woman ran out and dragged me away from harm.

Other memories fade, but her old, craggy face stayed with me, and knowin’ that other than her spirit, she had nothin’ to offer. She was poor like me, but she had enough kindness to spare. She was richer than those who rode by in their elegant carriages, stole from their tenants, and worked in the merchant’s block.

Billy and I left the Children’s Aid Society when I was about eight or nine. As far as we knew, he was a year younger than me. We stuck together, sortin’ bones at the West Nineteenth Street dump, usually stayin’ right there, only runnin’ from the ministers that wanted to take us to the island or put us on a train.

I often thought that he would have lived if I had somehow gotten medicine for Billy. He, too, was worth redemption. So, no matter what it took, I would always try to get medicine. Bein’ poor means you didn’t have the right to take care of yourself. That’s all I ever knew. But, after Billy, I learned never to give up. I would try not to be unprepared or go without.

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From the Author’s Pen

As I continue researching the reconstruction era while penning The Crows’ Path, I will sift through dense and rigid material. Most know that the winter months may be deadly for those without resources. This is especially true in the northern parts of the country, where the temperatures dip into the single digits, and a great deal of snowfall and a lack of adequate housing exist. The characters of the Etched in Granite Series bring to life actual stories, conditions, and challenges faced by those who braved the world following the American Civil War. Photographs captured by those such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine illuminate the children on the streets and in forced child labor situations. It was rampant at that time. August Wood is a narrator in The Angels’ Lament. He shares his colorful experiences as an orphan, beginning as an infant dropped off at a Children’s Asylum in New York City, out in the streets, his anything-but-romantic ride on the orphan trains, and as a millworker, finally leading to success as a lamplighter providing deep insight. We must not forget now, as we sit comfortably by our cozy hearths, to take into consideration those who may be hungry, cold, or without shelter. People in our neighborhood may be forced to go without or skimp on wood or crank down the thermostat out of necessity. May we take a moment to consider the needs of our friends and neighbors as we continue on the path leading to winter and our new ways of uncertainty. My work is always based in truth. There were many children like August and Billy. Where are they now? #winter #orphantrain #EtchedinGranite #poverty #historicalfiction #amwriting

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