Bodies and bodies of water by Rebecca Ackermann

Bodies and bodies of water

They waited after the long boat ride, all five of them in a line on the island in winter. George was sick — he’d caught it on the ship — but not sick enough to look it, just a cough that shook his little body harder than you’d like to see. The line inched along, one foot in front of the other, one immigrant in front of another, one son in front of his mother, as the officer used a white stub of chalk to mark on the backs of the ones who couldn’t pass through: an X for disease. It meant you had to stay, get back onto a boat or wait again on the cold silent island for a different boat with a different collection of bodies to press against. It meant not getting to hold the hand of your mother as she dragged you to her cousin’s place in Queens that had a small room for you, her, and your siblings to grow up safe and speak a limber language you had never heard before. 

So the mother — my great-grandmother who carried my name before I did — took one icy hand and rubbed at the chalk mark on her son’s narrow back as he struggled to hold in another cough. She licked her sour palm and rubbed again until the mark was gone and he looked the same as any other coat, any other boy, any other immigrant moving through the passage on his way to people he’d never met but his mother called close family in the only language she would ever speak.

And then George was a doctor, practicing in his very own house in a different part of Queens, speaking the once-strange language so nimbly that his jokes made you shake with laughter. He spent his afternoons laying his healing hands on mothers and sons while his wife and daughters on the other side of the thin wall cooked and studied and tried to find their own way forward. He lay his hands more on the mothers, on the nurses — women who saw his strong back and wide smile and wanted to crawl inside of his healthy spirit, far away from whatever they were escaping in their world. His wife and daughters — my grandmother, my mother, my aunt — pretended not to hear; they wanted their own piece of his luck. Sometimes they got it. Once he held a slippery piece of ice to the back of my mother’s ear and pressed a needle to make a tunnel through her skin. The hole bled and bled, but he told her not to cry and she didn’t. It was all worth it, my mother told me, to have a place to put your great-grandmother’s pearls.

Rebecca Ackermann is a writer, designer and artist living in San Francisco. Her short fiction has appeared in Wigleaf, Barren MagazineFlash Frog, and others. She’s also written about making tiny clay food for The New York Times, the tie between girlboss culture and crypto for Newsweek, and her obsession with Tarot TikTok for Gloria. Her work has been supported by the In Cahoots and the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods residencies, and she’s currently a Fiction Reader for Okay Donkey. You can find more of her writing at


Art: Aleksandr Drevin Public Domain ALT Portrait of a young man, wearing a flat cap, painted with thick strokes of oil paint


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