Authors: Gloria Goldreich
Tags: #General Fiction
By Gloria Goldreich
Copyright 2012 by Gloria Goldreich
Cover Copyright 2012 by Ginny Glass and Untreed Reads Publishing
The author is hereby established as the sole holder of the copyright. Either the publisher (Untreed Reads) or author may enforce copyrights to the fullest extent.
Previously published in print, 1978.
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This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to the living or dead is entirely coincidental.
For Sheldon Horowitz
ALTHOUGH THE MORNING SUN blazed across the fields, turning the newly blossoming wheat a dull gold, it was cool in the attic and the tall girl who stood naked beneath the beams shivered. Stooping slightly, she looked at herself in the long mirror, its frame shrouded in dust and its glass cloudy despite the fact that she had wiped it with a damp cloth only minutes before. It was the mirror which had brought Leah Adler up to the attic this morning and she smiled at her reflection as she had smiled months before at Yaakov, her young husband, when she saw him for the first time at the meeting of Social Zionists which her brother Moshe had chaired. It was a smile of shy recognition, of tentative invitation, of sweet promise. Just as she had offered it to the serious, red-haired youth whose eyes had darted with nervous excitement from her face to the speaker’s rostrum, she offered it now to her own image. It was, after all, the first time in her life that she was seeing herself completely unclothed and she lowered her eyes to greet the young woman who stared back at her.
Her reflection pleased her and she smiled more widely to show her strong white teeth and the small half-dimple that twinkled at the corner of her mouth. Her sister Malcha, small and round, had always told Leah that her mouth was too wide—but Leah had never thought so and did not think so now. One did not want a small thin mouth when the nose was just a bit too prominent and the dark eyes so widely set. There was a seed of sororal malice in Malcha’s observation, Leah knew, but she was too happy to resent her older sister and thought of her instead with pity. Malcha, after all, had submitted to all the things Leah had fought. She had remained at home in the tiny shtetl town of Partseva, dutifully imitating their mother. She worked in the kitchen, weeded the small garden that grew behind the house, and sat behind the counter of the small dusty shop where their mother stocked rolls of dull gabardine and faded cottons which the village women bought to fashion into coats and dresses. Quiet, patient Malcha had adhered to the marriage contract which their father had signed on her behalf when she was only a toddler. The bridegroom, Shimon, betrothed before he could talk, was the son of a kinsman from a distant village.
Leah remembered how Malcha had stood beneath the wedding canopy, a worn prayer shawl held aloft by four relatives, her long hair brushed loose about her shoulders so that it fell like a shawl of shining dark velvet across the white dress. Malcha had shivered suddenly as the rabbi intoned the marriage prayer and proffered the ritual glass of wine—Leah wondered if that sudden tremor was because of the cool of the late afternoon or whether her sister had submitted briefly and reluctantly to a sudden seizure of fear. Malcha had, after all, seen her groom for the first time that afternoon and with each word that the rabbi uttered her life grew more intricately knotted with that of the slender young stranger who did not raise his eyes from the ground throughout the ceremony. When Malcha reached to drink from the marriage cup Leah saw that her sister’s hand was trembling and her own fingers shook in sympathy and protest.
But afterward, at the wedding party, Malcha had danced with wild joy, even tossing off her white slippers to join her sister and her mother in a whirling circle dance that concluded with the three of them laughing wildly and panting for breath. The other women of the village circled about them joyously chanting, “Greeting to the bride—luck to the bridegroom!”
Malcha had even been calm when her hair was cut according to orthodox ritual and the rich thick lengths of black hair clotted the grass at her feet. Leah had cried then and touched her own dark braid protectively, vowing silently that she would never cut her hair and wear a marriage wig.
And she had not, she thought proudly, on this sun-licked morning. Touching the dark coronet of braids that crowned her head, she thought of how Yaakov loved to loosen the dark coils of hair and wind them about his thin freckled fingers. Impulsively, she ripped the pins out of her hair and undid the braids, allowing the hair to flow loosely about her bare shoulders as her sister’s had flowed across her wedding dress. She bent even lower to see her full form in the mirror and she smiled as a sudden shadow sent a shaft of darkness across the pale skin of her stomach and at the dappled patterns the leaves of the Lombardy tree that grew just outside the attic window made across her young breasts. The rose-tipped nipples jutted out of the leafy shadows like small unripe fruit and she touched each gently, marveling at their tenderness and their secret.
She stood to her full height now, shook her hair out, and executed the delicate, intricate steps of a folk dance she had learned at the Socialist meetinghouse. The boards of the attic floor were pleasantly rough beneath her bare feet and she hummed softly, swaying and turning in the mirror, no longer chilled, her blood warmed by her own movements, the remembered music, and the thought of the gentle pressure of Yaakov’s arms and the thrust and force of his strong young body. The warmth vindicated her. She had been right, after all, to resist her parents’ pleas that she emulate Malcha and remain in Partseva, peeling potatoes, unrolling yard goods, and waiting for the day when her own crown of dark hair would be shorn and she would become the wife of a man whose face she did not know.
She never knew where she found the strength to fight their threats and ignore their tears and entreaties, to leave the closeness of Partseva for the broader life and streets of Odessa, just as she had run from the closeness of the kitchen to the freedom of the sweet-smelling broad fields when she was a little girl. Always, she had struggled toward wide expanses, uncharted landscapes, and her mother had often told her that in the days when small girls played house beneath the kitchen table, Leah had climbed a low-slung apple tree and erected her imaginary domicile among its heavy sheltering branches, choosing the sky for her ceiling and the fruit-laden boughs for her floor.
Of course, in Odessa, she had her brother Moshe’s support and the knowledge that he had broken out of the ruthless cycle of shtetl existence years before. She had lived with Moshe and his wife Henia, a gentle fair-haired girl, the granddaughter of a renowned rabbi who had left the mystique of Hasidism for the “practical dream” of Zionism. Henia and Moshe had arranged for her to study at a small academy for Jewish girls and found work for her as assistant to a seamstress. And it was Moshe who had traveled back to Partseva and engineered a tenuous domestic peace treaty so that Leah’s parents came to forgive what they could not forget. They had even come to her wedding in Odessa, satisfied that the ceremony was conducted according to orthodox tradition, even though the bride did not cut her hair and refused to wear her sister’s white wedding dress, choosing instead the full blue skirt and wide-sleeved embroidered white blouse, the festive costume of the young Socialist.
Remembering her wedding, Leah moved closer to the mirror, still lightly dancing, but exchanging her smile for a serious gaze which she practiced with such solemn concentration that her own seriousness made her laugh. But something she saw in the mirror caused the laugh to turn into a sudden gasp of fear and she whirled around, her heart beating wildly, her hands trembling. The delicate green leaves of the Lombardy tree were trapped in an enclosure of flame and the sky beyond blazed with the ominous molten gold of a fire that was not born of sunlight.
She pulled on her dress and dashed to the window, kneeling so that she might see better. The small neighboring house, the home of Zvi Goldenberg, a miller and Torah scholar, had turned into a cone of spewing flames. The fire licked its way skyward, its fierce orange tongues vanquishing the gentle golden rays of August sunlight. From her attic window, Leah saw two figures hurry from the burning house, clutching sacks from which bright sparks of fire danced and crackled. As the men drew closer, she leaned down to call to them but remained silent, her voice strangled in her throat. The running men were peasant farmers and she recognized the taller of the two as a man for whom Yaakov had composed a letter of complaint against the vicious raids of Marshall Grigoriev’s soldiers. The man could neither read nor write and Yaakov had guided his hand so that he could form his signature. These men, she knew, had no business in or near Zvi Goldenberg’s house. Their presence there could mean only one thing.
Leah willed herself to calm, possessed by certain awareness of what had happened. She listened as a child’s distant scream ripped through the fiery sky and died before it had reached full pitch. She recognized the scream as she recognized the flames, as though her knowledge of them had long been buried within her, a secret vein of terror to be mined at just such a time of fire and fear. She remembered her mother’s weary voice, telling stories of a wintry evening—tales of burning villages and screaming children, of men running through panic-ridden streets, clutching at facial holes that had been eyes, now bloodied pools, shouting out the names of wives and children, while the keening voices of women rose and fell and rose again. Her mother had been orphaned in such a pogrom and her father’s father had lost his eyes on the bloody streets of Kishinev.
But that had been before the Revolution, Leah thought, willing herself to reason, to clarity of thought. She and Yaakov were building their lives in the new Russia, where justice and equality would erase ancient hatreds. The thought of her husband spurred her to action and she darted downstairs, her long hair still undone, flowing wildly about her shoulders.
Yaakov was safe, she assured herself. He was in Odessa where he was known and respected as Secretary of the Young Socialist League. He had, in fact, traveled there at the urgent request of a party leader to help draft a manifesto against the raids of the soldiers returning from the Czar’s war who roamed the countryside, pillaging from farms, setting random fires, raping women, and harassing children. She had heard that some of these men chanted the ancient slogans of anti-Semitism—“Strike at the Jews and save Russia!”, “Kill the Jews for the sake of the land!”—but like Yaakov, she felt they mouthed the words without really understanding the sentiment. They were like children who shouted spiteful names at each other, names they neither understood nor meant. One had to sympathize with these displaced peasants who had been exploited by a corrupt aristocracy. Their clothing was torn and their beards and hair were full of the nettles of their hillside beds. They had not yet been educated into the new philosophy and were trapped by their ignorance and their ancient prejudices.
Standing in the kitchen and watching the flames leap in a fiery dance from the miller’s house, she wooed herself into a calm by repeating this catechism of political faith. If there had been any danger, Yaakov would never have left her alone like this, in the countryside at his parents’ home, particularly not at a time when she had been feeling weak and light-headed in the morning, her empty stomach stirring uneasily so that she had to dash suddenly for the bucket to relieve the nausea. She thought that she might be pregnant but she had not yet missed a period. Although they had been married only seven months and she knew Yaakov was not ready for children, the thought of life growing within her was intriguing; even now, with the fear still pounding against her heart, she touched her abdomen lightly, protectively.