The funnel of the steamboat opens wide, releasing a mournful howl and a cloud of black smoke. The moorings have been dropped, and the gangway has been drawn up. In a wide arc the boat pulls away from the pier and steers out to sea.
Stephie stands in the stern, waving. All the people on the pier wave back: Nellie, Auntie Alma, the little ones, and Vera. Stephie said goodbye to Uncle Evert last night, before he headed off with the fishing boat he works on, the Diana. When he and the rest of the crew return with their catch in a few days, Stephie won’t be there.
The people on the pier are shrinking; soon Stephie can’t see them. The last thing she loses sight of is Vera’s copper-red hair, glistening in the sun.
“Let’s go inside and sit down,” Aunt Marta says. “Our clothes are getting dirty from the coal smoke.”
Brushing a few particles of dirt only she can see off the sleeve of her light summer coat, Aunt Marta precedes Stephie to the passenger area, her little straw hat pressed firmly down over the gray bun at her neck.
Aunt Marta’s wearing her very best clothes to take Stephie to Goteborg, where Stephie is going to board with Dr. Soderberg and his wife, so she can continue her schooling. The school on the island is only for the first six years. One weekend a month, and on vacations, she’ll stay with Aunt Marta and Uncle Evert. It’s all planned.
The air in the passenger area is muggy; Stephie fans herself with a newspaper someone left on the bench where they’re sitting. Aunt Marta, though, sits straight as a ramrod, with her buttons done up to the neck and the corners of her head scarf crossed neatly over her chest. She doesn’t seem to notice the heat.
The suitcase at Stephie’s side contains nearly all her earthly possessions: her clothes, her books, her diary, and her photographs of Mamma and Papa. The only thing she left in the room under the eaves at Aunt Marta and Uncle Evert’s is her old teddy bear. She’s a big girl now, thirteen.
She intends to go by the name of Stephanie at her new school. It sounds romantic and grown up, not childish like her nickname. Sven, the Soderbergs’ son, calls her Stephanie. She’s looking forward to seeing him again soon.
“My name is Stephanie,” she mutters softly to herself.
“What was that?” asks Aunt Marta.
“There’s no need to be nervous,” Aunt Marta tells her. “You’re just as good as everyone else, remember that. Better, even.”
Aunt Marta doesn’t easily dish out praise, or flattery, as she calls it. Coming from her, this is an enormous compliment.
“Aunt Marta,” Stephie begins.
“Have you ever regretted taking me in?”
Aunt Marta looks bewildered. “Regretted? Of course not,” she says. “We did the right thing. There’s no regretting that.”
“But I mean have you never wished they had sent you a different child? A nicer one?”
At that, something even more unusual happens. Aunt Marta laughs.
“Oh, my dear girl, you have the strangest ideas! The thought has never so much as entered my mind. I admit that you do foolish things at times, but you’ve never done anything so bad that both God and I were not prepared to forgive you.”
Stephie can’t help wondering who is stricter, Aunt Marta or her God. Or do God and Aunt Marta always agree about everything?
The steamboat barrels along between the little islands and skerries. Off in the distance behind them is the horizon.
A year ago Stephie and her younger sister, Nellie, made this trip in the opposite direction, from Goteborg out to the faraway island; it was the last leg of their long journey from home. Their parents are still in Vienna. The Swedish government agreed to take in Jewish refugee children, but no adults.
When Stephie was sent to the island, she had to leave everything familiar behind and make her way to a foreign country to live with strangers who spoke a language of which she knew not a word. In a letter to her parents, she wrote, This place is nothing but sea and stones. I can’t live here. She never sent that letter.
This time she’s not leaving because anyone is making her; she’s leaving of her own free will. She wants to go on with her education, study hard, and go to the university, where she’ll become a doctor, like Papa. She’s wanted to follow in his footsteps for as long as she can remember. But from the beginning, of course, she expected to do it all at home, in Vienna.
So here she is, breaking away again, this time from Aunt Marta and Uncle Evert; from Vera, the one friend she finally made; and from Nellie, who’s going to stay with Auntie Alma and her family on the island. Will Stephie never again feel completely at home anywhere? Will she always be on her way to the next destination?
The boat will soon be in Goteborg. They’ve left the sea and are making their way through the mouth of the Gota River to the harbor.
“Couldn’t we go out on deck now?” Stephie asks. “I’d like to see the city from the water.”
“All right,” Aunt Marta concedes. “If it means so much to you.”
They stand by the guardrail on the right-hand side. On that bank of the river is the city center. The other bank is actually an island, a big one, called Hisingen, where all the shipyards and industries are.
“Look, the Seaman’s Wife.” Aunt Marta points to a statue of a woman on a very tall column. “She’s looking out to sea, waiting for her husband to return.”
Although Stephie can’t see the statue’s face, she imagines that the woman looks like Aunt Marta, with those worry lines she always has on her forehead when Uncle Evert is out at sea. There is a war on, the fishing waters are a minefield, and although Sweden is not one of the countries at war, Swedish fishing and merchant vessels have been blown up.
The boat docks at the pier, which is very long, wide near the shore and narrower farther out in the river. Men in blue overalls are loading barrels and boxes from nearby trucks. Stephie feels a bit dizzy; she hasn’t seen so many people in one place for a very long time. Cautiously, suitcase in hand, she makes her way down the gangplank. She and Aunt Marta press through the crowd toward land. Stephie sees a steady stream of traffic; the cars smell nasty to her unaccustomed nose. She takes a big stride from the pier to the cobblestones. It has been a whole year since she set foot on a city street.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Lily Pond by Annika Thor; translated from the Swedish by Linda Schenck. Copyright © 2011 by Annika Thor. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.