There was once a man named Samuel Yudrutskyy, who lived in a small village in Poland back in 1872. He grew up with his parents and two sisters in a house beside a linden thicket, growing potatoes and rye in fields underneath gray skies. He had a small chestnut horse named Leniwy, and a sweetheart named Marta, who lived in town. One cold spring day, the day before his 20th birthday, the Russian army descended on his town like the plague, raiding storehouses and indiscriminately killing the people. Samuel was walking his horse back from the fields when he saw his house on fire, the Russian soldiers milling about like ants in shako hats. Samuel swung his legs onto his horse and rode towards the horizon, towards the west. He did not stop until a long time after the sun set, bypassing other villages in the night. After that, he kept a furtive routing of riding during the night and hiding in the woods during the day. After five days, Leniwy the horse collapsed and died of exhaustion. Samuel Yudrutskyy continued on, walking for miles and miles until he wore out his shoes. He convinced the odd farmer on his way to let him work for a crust of bread and a cup of weak soup, the hollows under his eyes growing bigger and his clothes becoming more threadbare. After a month of steady movement, he managed find a steady job at a brewery in Silesia, rolling barrels in exchange for food and for being able to sleep in a humid barn. His only company was the cat that chased mice all over the brewery, and he spent his few free moments roaming the angular woods surrounding the brewery. After several more months, the owner of the brewery sent him to ride with a large wagon pulled by a team of horses all the way to Salzburg.
Salzburg was the biggest city Samuel had ever seen, with paving stones in the streets and gas lights. He heard the Russian soldiers’ guns in his head, and decided he needed to keep moving farther away from Poland. He unloaded the barrels from the wagon, shook hands with the teamster who drove the wagon, and then set off to find a coal cellar to sleep in. Samuel found lodging and employment at a brothel, where he was given a bed in the basement and instructed to keep the coal furnace running, with strict orders never to go upstairs or be seen on the street where the front entrance of the brothel greeted its visitors. One late night, Samuel was aroused from his bed by the madam and brought upstairs to a dimly-lit room, where the body of an old man with extravagant whiskers lay, dead and naked. The dead man’s right side was punctured with dark stab wounds. The madam coldly told Samuel to dispose of the body by whatever means necessary. Once Samuel had done so, the madam gave him a train ticket to Brussels and told him never to be seen in Salzburg again, or else the same fate would await him. After a day and a night in transit to Brussels, Samuel noticed that a man in a pinstripe waistcoat and silver watch chain was following him from the train station through the unfamiliar, noisy streets of Brussels. Knowing instinctively that he was to be disposed of, Samuel sought a way to get out of the city as quickly as possible, so he returned immediately to the train station. Using his expired ticket, he bluffed his way into a train carriage car and into a small compartment where an old woman sat across from him sleeping. As the train pulled away from the station, Samuel looked out the window just in time to see the man in the pinstriped waistcoat pull a revolver out of his pocket and fire at him. The bullet shattered the train window and lodged itself in the roof. Samuel suffered cuts on his face from flying glass, and then noticed that the gunshot had failed to wake the old woman. In fact, she had died in her sleep even before Samuel had even entered into the train car. As Samuel checked her for any signs of life, he noticed a wad of banknotes peeking out of her handbag. Further investigation revealed a large amount of francs. Samuel took the money, lay the old woman’s body down on the bench, and furtively left the compartment in search of another. He also took the old woman’s kerchief to staunch the cuts on his face.
The train eventually arrived in Antwerp, after a long night of playing cat-and-mouse with the conductor. Samuel knew he had to keep going, so he sought out a berth on the next ship that would take him as far away as possible. Eventually, he found one, and spent all the francs he had on a large ship (the SS Leopold) destined for America. Cowboy, he thought to himself. The hold of the ship was filled with people from all over Europe, but among the babel of tongues Samuel found three Polish families also immigrating to America, the Zlobykies, the Mankiewiczes, and the Sikorskis. Each were destined for places where they had relatives already: Brooklyn, New York; Cicero, Illinois; and Malinsburg, Oklahoma, respectively. Samuel found fellowship with these families, and spent the voyage with them, discussing farming techniques with the men and looking after the children with the women. The oldest Sikorski daughter, Natka, had dark eyes and hair like a raven’s whisper, and strong, unspoken feelings developed between Natka and Samuel over the month-long voyage. The night before the ship set into port, Natka appeared before Samuel’s berth, took his hand, and led him underneath the tarpaulin of a lifeboat. Samuel fell asleep breathing in the frosted scent of Natka’s hair.
When the boat unloaded in New York City on Ellis Island, it was discovered that three (mother and the two youngest children) out of the seven members of the Sikorski family had tuberculosis, and they were spirited away to a sanitarium. Samuel never saw Natka again, but he merely had to close his eyes to imagine her soft lips on his. Samuel contemplated traveling with the other two families, but decided that the fire in his blood required him to go further. The dank, filthy streets of New York did not please him, and he wanted to find a place with green fields and a brook so he could farm again. Besides, his time in the Czech brewery had taught him a few secrets, and he wanted to try his hand at making pilsner. Samuel quickly found employment at a Polish slaughterhouse in Manhattan, worked for several months, then climbed into a boxcar heading west. His first stop was Cleveland, where the streets were even thicker with mud than New York. On his journey, Samuel struggled with his poor understanding of English, dysentery, and the occasional confrontation with thieves who tried to rob him.
In Cleveland, he met a short, stocky Hungarian named Arpad, where the two men worked loading barrels of beer onto ships traveling Lake Erie. The two men talked as best they could (neither spoke the other’s language particularly well), and they eventually became friends enough to share a small room above a stable near the docks. Arpad described a land of plenty to Samuel, an unspoiled haven where the lakes teemed with fish and the soil pushed up wheat and barley so fast that a farmer could harvest twice in one year. There were forests full of timber and game. Samuel and Arpad began pooling their money together for train tickets further west, but one morning Samuel awoke to find that Arpad had absconded with the total sum they had been saving, leaving behind a note that begged forgiveness. Arpad had wanted to move farther west before the spring had ended, and needed the other half of the funds in order to realize his dream of owning a saloon. Arpad would indeed realize that dream, in a small town just west of Carson City, where he became a criminal kingpin known as The Magyar. He died many, many years later, shot in the head by a young woman with auburn curls, at the ripe old age of 85.
Samuel, devastated, decided his only recourse was to hitch a ride on a boxcar to find the mythical land farther west, and decided to seek out a town called “New Prague”, told to him by a beer baron visiting the stockyard where he worked. This place sounded like the paradise he sought, the one described to him by Arpad. In his mind, it resembled the tranquil, sylvan beauty of the Czech brewery where he had worked, crossed with the familiar green fields of his youth in Poland. It had been almost 3 years since Samuel had fled Poland, and he was desperate to find a foundation and a place to till the soil once again. Samuel gathered up his meager possessions in a blanket and snuck into the rail yard to find an empty boxcar on a train he knew would pass through Milwaukee for destinations farther west. As he tried to gain entrance to the boxcar, a security guard jumped out of nowhere and began running towards Samuel, his nail-studded nightstick raised. Samuel could not open the door to the boxcar, and the train was starting to move out of the station in a cloud of steam. In desperation he climbed to the top of the boxcar, the security guard’s nightstick just missing his ankle as he heaved himself up on the roof. The train picked up speed, and Samuel saw that he would be trapped on top for the duration of the voyage.
Samuel wrapped himself in a blanket to ward off the night chills and the rushing wind as the train bore west. He tried to sleep, and had quick, aggressive dreams about his home village, about Marta, about Natka, about barrels of pilsner, about the dead body he had to dispose of, about carcasses of cows hanging from chains. 2 days went by; when the train stopped, Samuel was unable to climb off because he knew he would be seen and beaten or arrested. In Milwaukee, he was able to sneak off and found water in a rain barrel, but then sprinted back to the train before it left again. He did not want to stop, he could not stop now; Milwaukee was another rotten city full of rust and bones.
After Milwaukee, Samuel observed that the flat, open lands had ample space for farming, and the farmhouses looked freshly painted. The silos he saw, he imagined them full of grain. The barns, full of fat cows that gave gallons and gallons of milk. The train crossed trestles over broad rivers and shiny streams, full of clean, clear water. He knew he had arrived in the place he wanted to stay. In his head, he pictured his white farmhouse next to a bubbling spring, where he would draw water to brew his pilsner in a stone building with three cats. He would have children with dark hair and dark eyes, just like their mother.
As Samuel sat daydreaming in the hazy spring heat on top of the train, he heard a sound that competed with the train’s engine to catch his attention. He looked up, and saw a twisting gray funnel just on the horizon, stemming from a cloud and reaching towards the ground. He could see it churning up soil and trees as it wound its way through the pastoral countryside, towards the train where he sat. He shook in terror as he saw cows and fence posts disappear into the tornado’s malevolent maw. Samuel Yudrustskyy stood and howled at the sky as the funnel collided with the front of the train, picking up the engine like it was a toy. The boxcar beneath him began to tremble violently.