The Orphan Train by Leah Angstman


The train rattled through the dusk, the interior filled with black smoke that clung to Arthur’s lungs. No discernible shapes shown anymore along the horizon when he peered through the car slats. All he could imagine was that he was somewhere called Indiana, and that this Indiana was a foreign world of flat, endless nothingness. A slop bucket passed along his outstretched feet, but his hunger hadn’t persuaded his stomach to eat the wretched-smelling leavings that were offered. He slid the bucket on down the line with the toe of his shoe and focused on the holes in the secondhand leather that so plainly showed what kind of boy he was. An orphan. He was one of the lucky ones just to have shoes. Who would want him? And for what purpose?

Illinois was the end of the line. Somewhere near the farms of the Mississippi, Arthur would be handed to some family who didn’t know him, someone who was supposed to claim him—perhaps some woman who couldn’t have her own children or some old farmer or fisherman who needed a youthful laborer to do the job. Arthur had heard the stories: the boys who stepped onto the Orphan Train stepped off into slavery. But there was little choice for a scrapper of eleven who slept on Brooklyn’s streets, even in the cold of winter when he’d sold matches and rags to survive. They’d rounded the boys up—big men in fine wool jackets and tweed trousers, bowlers upon their heads, adoption papers in their hands. Arthur fingered the paper in his pocket that had been thrust against his chest by a fat, well-fed fist. The choice had been thus: take the train or take the chain.

Even when the train skirted into Illinois, with its clanking and screeching and deafening Rebel yell, Arthur’s pride wouldn’t let him touch the slop, despite his gnawing hunger. The whistle bellowed like a degüello when the metal beast jolted to a stop outside its destination. A buzz of murmurs immediately followed—Pittsfield, this place was called. The boy hung his head and scowled. The town sounded aptly named.

The door swung open, and the children piled out. There must have been fifty of them in his car, alone, and Arthur was prodded in among them like a head of wayward cattle driven where the master commanded.

“Clean ’em up well in the teeth and behind the ears,” he heard one of those masters—agents, as he’d been taught to address them—call out, and with that, the boys were filed into a large wooden box-crate, stripped of their clothes, and sloshed in the faces and chests with buckets of cold, soapy water.

The chill froze Arthur to the marrow, but he forced his hands to scrub the soap mechanically into his skin as he awaited the bone-chilling rush of the clean water that would sweep the soap from him and down through the crate cracks. Loose-fitting, but thankfully clean, clothes were handed to him, as were his paper, his pa’s timepiece, and the cardboard suitcase that the agents had given him. Not that there was anything in it. He’d never again see the oversized linen shirt that had once been his pa’s, but Arthur supposed that was just as well.

The boys in their new plain clothes were paraded out onto wooden platforms that had been constructed behind the depot for only this purpose. The sweepings of New York’s streets would become rural America’s problem now. Farmers approached—some grubby and dirty, needing cold buckets thrown on themselves, as well—, and Arthur shied away from their poking fingers and inquisitive eyes. Above the din of confusion and the children crying hopelessly for the worlds they’d once known, there rose the bickering words of haggling farmers.

“This one’s too scrawny. Got no meat on his bones,” one said, clenching his fingers around Arthur’s upper arms. Another felt the boy’s skinny legs and commented the same. Two men came by and made Arthur open his mouth to show his teeth, and another made the boy lift his shirt and turn circles in place. Arthur felt tears threatening behind his eyes. Never in his life had he shed tears, not even when his pa hit the bottle and then hit his ma. He’d give anything to go back to that night she died and beg the police to let his pa stay, no matter what the bastard had done. But it hadn’t happened that way, and now Arthur was here. As another farmer came by, rounding up hardy orphans like he might run out of choices, Arthur slinked back, concaving his stomach until he looked emaciated and slumping his muscles until they fair dragged on the platform.

And then a voice caught his ear. It was the lull of a woman, and he could at once hear his mother singing him to sleep again. He could picture her so clearly, where he hadn’t been able to conjure up her image for years. This time, he thought for sure that tears would fall, but the young woman’s voice caught his ear again. She was drawing closer. His eyes unconsciously roamed the crowds to seek the voice. He knew the exact minute he’d found her, with her arm looped through a much-older man’s, talking to him sweetly, the voice floating like wispy clouds above other useless noise.

“I just want one that looks kind, Jim,” she said, “one with sweetness in his eyes.”

Arthur immediately stood upright, puffing forth his chest and forcing as much sweetness into his eyes as he could muster. He didn’t want an old farmer looking at his teeth! He wanted this woman to think he had kindness in him and sweetness in his eyes.

“I’m sure you’ll know when you’ve found the one, dear,” the man replied, eyeing the line of remaining boys with the same look of any of the farmers, wanting one for himself hale enough to do some farmwork.

Suddenly, Arthur didn’t mind doing farmwork for the man if it meant a woman would see kindness in a street urchin. No one had ever said there was anything of merit in Arthur, except his ma. He wanted that back—that feeling of being cherished. He was asking a lot, he knew, but maybe just this once

But the woman passed by. He couldn’t have stood any taller—he gave it all he had. Two more dingy farmers stepped in front of Arthur and blocked the boy’s view.

“What about this one?” one farmer said to the other, going through what had become the routine.

“Nah,” came the reply. “Too soft.”

But with that word, that fate-filled word—soft—, the farmers stepped away, and the woman’s head turned back to Arthur, just as the light left his eyes. He hung his head and didn’t notice when she’d stepped toward him, until she lifted his chin from his chest. Soft eyes looked back into his. Soft.

“This one, Jim,” she said. “This is the one.”

Leah Angstman is a transplanted Midwesterner, unsure what feels like home anymore. She has served as editor-in-chief of Alternating Current Press for two decades, bringing over 200 books by independent authors and poets into the small press ( She writes historical fiction, poetry, and plays; has had 20 chapbooks published; and has earned two Pushcart Prize nominations. Recently, she won the 2013 Nantucket Directory Poetry Contest and took Honorable Mentions in the 2013 Bevel Summers Prize for Short Fiction (Washington and Lee University), the 2013 Baltimore Science Fiction Society Poetry Contest, and the 2013 West Coast Eisteddfod Poetry Competition. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Suisun Valley Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Shenandoah. She can be found at