Spring came early in 1906, chilly and damp. For months the Chinatown papers had been printing detailed predictions about the chaos and calamity to come. It would be a time of wild reversals, the likes of which descended on the world only every sixty years. The residents of Tangrenbu, San Francisco’s Chinese quarter, did not doubt the dire predictions or the futility of preparing for what was to come.
One night in the first week of April, Donaldina Cameron—or Lo Mo, “Old Mother,” as she was known to the girls of 920 Sacramento Street, or “the White Devil” to those irked or inconvenienced by her work—rescued five girls from a brothel on Jackson Street.
In her six years as head of the Presbyterian Mission House, she’d already provided shelter to hundreds of babies, girls, and young women. Trafficking in girls was common and enforcement cursory. Most of her charges were Chinese, but over the years there’d also been some from other Asian countries as well as Latin America. No state-run institution would take them, and the city was glad, mostly, to have them off its hands.
Anything, Donaldina learned, could happen to girls in this city. They were bought with ease and sold with impunity. In narrow alleyways, in basements, and behind barred windows, girls as young as nine were drugged and dolled up and dressed in bits of cast-off silk. The unruly ones were burned with dripping hot wax, seared with metal tongs, chained to beds. From here few lived longer than four years. When they fell sick from syphilis or flu or mere exhaustion, they were locked into rooms where they either starved to death or died by their own hands—cut their throats with kitchen knives, slit their wrists with rusted nails, swallowed opium or coal or poison—only to disappear swiftly and without a trace.
That night Donaldina Cameron and her aide, Leung Yuen Qui set out just past midnight. Flanked by two police officers from the city’s Chinatown Squad, she charged through the brothel on Waverly Place and filed coolly past the myriad familiar horrors. She’d made this journey hundreds of times. The devil was here, in the dark, fetid basements below Chinatown, but she didn’t fear it. This was her work and she did it well. But all at once she stumbled on a loose floorboard, and that’s when it happened. When she found the girls penned under the floor.
Prying back the board to reveal a trapdoor, Donaldina found four little girls clinging to one another in a suspended box. They were huddled together, pale faces turned up toward her, their bodies naked except for the rags between their legs. They were so thin their ribs showed. One of them was gripping a broom in her small hand and had what looked like a month-old baby strapped to her back.
The sight broke Donaldina, put her beyond words. She wanted to hurt somebody.
“Bring them up!” she ordered the policemen as Leung spoke reassuring words to the girls in their native tongue.
“Bring them up at once!”
She spirited them away to the Mission House on Sacramento Street, where they were bathed and given dinner and put to bed. The next morning, after a lady doctor examined them and treated their bruises and burns, Donaldina drew a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles from her skirt pocket, hooked them on, and inspected the new girls at length.
She hadn’t noticed it before, but she now saw that one of them had bottle-green eyes. Leung had dressed her in the same white lace-trimmed frock as the others, then taken a brush to her long and plaited it into pigtails, with white satin ribbons at the ends. The only clue to her past was the tiny jade amulet strung around her neck. Donaldina thought she was maybe five years old, but it was hard to say for sure.
Donaldina stepped closer to the child. She was pale, thin, and sickly, with bruises, cuts, and lesions all over her body. What medicine couldn’t cure, time could blur and sometimes even erase.
What worried her was the girl’s silence.
At first Donaldina thought she might be deaf or perhaps slow, because when she asked the girl’s name, the child only hung her head. Then she understood: She had no name. Either terror had scrubbed her mind clear of it or she’d never had one in the first place.
In the history of every tortured soul comes a moment when its mind parts from its body—pushes off like a boat without oars from the shore and gives itself up to the waves. It had happened to this child, that was clear, but could it be undone?
“We’ll call you Caroline,” Donaldina said brightly. She spoke with a brogue handed down from her Scottish mother, who’d died when Donaldina was five. Caroline was the name of her childhood best friend.
No response. The girl only stared at her.
Donaldina crouched down, leveled her eyes to the child’s, and smiled. She said the name again, more slowly. “Care-oh-line. It’s a very pretty name, isn’t it, love?”
It was no use. The girl said nothing. She didn’t make even one sound. Not then, and not later, when the girls at the Mission House welcomed her with many names.
They waited until Donaldina retreated to her room for a nap, and then they marched the girl down to the basement, the dark, cramped, low-ceilinged space for which they reserved their cruelest games. “Fish Eyes,” they called her on account of her green eyes, and “Dirty Face” on account of the smattering of freckles on her nose. Two of them held her, pinning her against a wall, as a third girl pressed a hand against her face as if to wipe away her freckles. The girl pressed harder and harder as the others laughed and pointed their fingers. She didn’t belong here, they said. She wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t one of anything.
This went on for a long while, and it was only Donaldina’s voice calling them that made them end their game that time.
Not a week later, a million-year-old seam in the earth cracked in two.
It started out as a lovely evening, the most perfect yet of the year, warm and very still—not a breath of wind anywhere in the city. A week had passed since the raid on Jackson Street, and the green-eyed girl was still refusing to speak.
The rains had been unusually strong that spring. The streets and alleys in Chinatown kept flooding, and for weeks people walked ankle-deep in squelching mud. The mud followed them from the streets and alleyways and into their clapboard shanties and one-room tenement apartments.
The rain had stopped right after Easter. Through the morning and into the afternoon of April 17, fog misted through the streets of San Francisco and clouds hung over the hills, but later in the day a strong wind cleared the skies, turning it a perfect eggshell blue. There was a joy-spangled quality to the city that night. The warm weather drew people out of their houses and shops and into the streets. Girls in their best dresses walked arm in arm. Boys and young men hung around the street corners, their pomaded heads shining in the gaslight. There was talk and laughter from the North Beach coffee shops to the Palace Hotel ballrooms to the Grand Opera House on Mission Street. All
over the city, people said summer had come early that year.
Near dawn, San Francisco began rocking like a boat on a ruthless sea.
At the first tremors, Donaldina Cameron shot out of bed and made for the hallway. The ground tumbled and bucked and twisted. The roof of 920 heaved; the house swayed and groaned beneath the joists. She weaved down the stairwell, gripping the wall to steady herself, glass breaking under her feet, and she had not made it very far when a beam fell and knocked her backward. She lay with her legs pinned under bricks, howling in pain, and that was the last thing she knew for a while.
For the first several minutes after the earth stopped shaking, Leung and the girls of 920 Sacramento huddled under the great oak table in the dining room.
“Where’s Lo Mo?” one of them cried out.
They found her trapped under a beam. She was still and silent. Again and again they called her name, but she didn’t move. Her breathing was slow and heavy, and she might have drifted into unconsciousness and stayed there if the girls hadn’t pulled her from the bricks and then prodded her and shouted her name until she came to.
Donaldina’s eyes fluttered open. Above, where the ceiling should be, there was a jagged slice of sky. She willed herself to stand. Eventually she massed the girls around her and told them to dress quickly and come down to the street.
Five minutes later she led them outside to see what could be seen. The sweep of destruction looked like the end of days. Up and down the streets, people were straggling out of buildings, women with hands to their faces, and men in their long johns, their faces covered in filth, eyes wild with fear or disbelief or some mixture of the two. People had fallen to their knees, praying, certain the world had come to an end.
The Mission House stood at the farthest border of Chinatown, just across from North Beach, the Italian section of San Francisco. The girls gathered around Donaldina, and together they took in the full breadth of the thing. The building was still standing, but the chimney had fallen into a heap of rubble. The rest of Chinatown had fared far worse. Flimsy clapboard row houses slumped into the streets and crammed against one another. Up the street the façade had been ripped clear off a three-story building, and you could see straight through to the ruin inside, the toppled furniture, the shattered lamps, the cracked beams.
It was cold. The thick morning fog felt like a drizzle. For a few moments there was silence and stillness, but then the awful sounds began to emerge: cries and whimpers from within the collapsed buildings.
Donaldina stood stock-still. She was wearing a housecoat and her hair flowed loose and wild past her shoulders and down her back. She looked hard at her girls, counting them once and then a second time. They were all there, all sixty-one of them.
“Come here,” she now told one of the younger girls. When the girl stepped forward, she loosened the sash around the child’s waist. She did the same with a second girl, and then she bound the two girls together, wrist to wrist. When she’d repeated this thirty times, she tied the new green-eyed girl’s sash to her own wrist. Then she stopped and considered what to do next.
Holding hands, bound together by their sashes, the group joined the crowds surging through the streets, moving up Broadway. The teenagers carried the babies, the younger girls led the toddlers. As they walked, Donaldina saw bodies slumped in the debris, and she quickened her step in the futile hope that the girls wouldn’t see.
At the top of Nob Hill, she told them to rest as she surveyed the scene. Disaster, ruin, calamity. Hotels, libraries, houses, stores, brothels, theaters, dance halls, saloons, mansions—all had fallen in heaps of broken brick and shattered glass. Burned-out foundations rose from the ground like gnarled sculptures. Somewhere in the Tenderloin, a fire had sparked, then flared. In the distance, she could make out strands of smoke in the porcelain-blue sky.
As she crested the next hill, her eyes latched on to the bay, following the water to where it met the mountains of Marin County. Tomorrow they would walk west, she decided. Out toward Golden Gate Park, or as far as they could get in that direction.
That night sixty-one girls slept, head to foot, on the pews of a shuttered church. By then their faces and white pinafores had long-since turned black from the soot. The earth had more or less settled down, but what had started as a spark in the Tenderloin was now a wall of flames. A mile and a half long, it was advancing across the city. The girls slept with their shoes on their feet, because who knew what would come next?
Just as she started to nod off, Donaldina remembered: the papers. She’d managed to get her daughters this far, but without their immigration papers they were as good as missing. Or dead. She shook Leung awake and told her to keep watch over the girls, then she made her way back to Sacramento Street alone.
A solider was standing guard outside 920. He ordered her not to go into the building. She wouldn’t have it. She climbed the stairs to the house and made her way to her office, where she grabbed the black metal box with the small handle in which she kept the girls’ immigration documents as well as the register that held the names and stories of the 829 charges who’d so far passed through the Mission House.
By the time she returned to the church on Van Ness, fires were advancing from three directions. Her hair was matted with the dust of her vanquished city, and her housecoat was stiff with its ruin. Outside, San Francisco burned and burned.
In the morning they joined the thousands of people streaming out to the western and northern edges of the city, to the gentle slopes and open spaces of Golden Gate Park and the Presidio. By then the entire city—the trees, the birds, the parks, the buildings, the sun—had disappeared; there was nothing but a sky shrouded in black smoke.
The refugees—the quarter of a million people who’d been made suddenly homeless by the earthquake—beat a slow and wordless retreat. The roar of the flames was audible, but otherwise a deep and peculiar silence had descended on San Francisco. People carried what they could on their backs or in trunks, pushcarts, and wheelbarrows. Badly packed bundles of food and crockery. Mattresses and copper bathtubs. A shirtless man pushing a piano up the hill, an elderly woman in a dressing gown cradling a broken elbow, a businessman clutching a vast trove of papers to his chest, a bedraggled, dumbstruck family of ten—it was a vast but soundless exodus. No one screamed, no one wept.
Donaldina, Leung, and the girls continued on. They hadn’t made it far when a soldier stopped them. One of General Funston’s men. Earlier that morning the cavalry had burst through the ravaged streets to impose martial law.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” said the soldier, raising his hand to halt them. He was young and rail thin, with a pimply face and a peaked hat and brass-buttoned uniform at least two sizes too big for him. “They’re setting up a separate camp for the Orientals down there.” He pointed in the direction of Fort Mason.
Donaldina straightened her spine. “These girls are my daughters,” she told him.
“All of them?”
“All of them. I insist they accompany me to the Presidio.”
The soldier stared at the girls for a few moments, then cleared his throat.
“You’re free to go to the Presidio, ma’am, but you’ll have to take your . . .”
“Yes . . . Your, ah . . . daughters. You’ll have to take them to Fort Mason. That’s where the Orientals go.”
They stood there for a moment, staring at each other, until an understanding flashed between them. The disaster had leveled distinctions between rich and poor. At that moment, painted women were walking shoulder to shoulder with fine ladies; businessmen were marching alongside poets and bricklayers. Just a few feet away from where they were standing, a woman in sealskin, silk, and diamonds had camped out on the street corner and was sharing a loaf of bread and a tin of corned beef with a woman and two small children in tattered calico.
For all that, certain barriers had survived. In fact, the chaos had rendered them more inflexible than they’d been before.
Donaldina readied herself for a fight, but then something stopped her. Her gaze swept over her girls. They hadn’t eaten. They were weak and tired; several of them were also badly injured. It would take them hours to reach Golden Gate Park, if they managed to reach it at all today.
She turned away without a word.
She led the group down the hill and toward the bay. All along the way, trunks and baskets lay abandoned in the rubble. Paintings, silver trinkets, crystal vases, Persian rugs, gramophones—precious things saved, only to be abandoned. Then, halfway down the hill, they passed a large wrought-iron birdcage, and here Donaldina felt a hard tug on her sleeve.
It was the green-eyed girl. Since yesterday she’d stood by Donaldina’s side, a small, silent shadow. “Caroline!” she said now, dragging Donaldina toward the cage with a power that belied her twig-like arms. Her voice was high but astonishingly loud. Donaldina bent down and looked to where the girl was pointing. Inside the birdcage, faint beneath a coat of dust, was a small green canary.
She tried to pull the child away, but her tiny body was suddenly so heavy and rigid that she couldn’t move the girl even an inch. Donaldina locked eyes with Leung. The young woman nodded.
When Donaldina Cameron set off toward Fort Mason, she did so with all sixty-one of her daughters in tow, an iron safe tucked under the crook of one arm and a birdcage swinging under the other.
At the makeshift camp for Orientals, there were no tents or blankets and little to drink or eat. When the ferries finally started running again, Donaldina would take her girls across the bay to Marin County, to a theological seminary tucked in the skirts of Mount Tamalpais, but for now what mattered, the only thing that mattered, was that her daughters were safe.
That night, Donaldina closed her eyes and let sleep enfold her. All that night and the next one, the canary sang its wild, sweet song. On Saturday, the weather shrugged off its disguise of early spring and shrouded itself again in the cold and the damp. It began to rain. The fires had reduced San Francisco to ash; the rain now turned it to sludge. Still, there were blessings; there was grace. Summer that year hadn’t come early after all, but the nameless girl with the broom and a baby on her back was Caroline now. She had a name, a pet bird, and a mother, the first and only one she’d ever know.
GET THE BOHEMIANS
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