Read The Little Bride Online

Authors: Anna Solomon

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

The Little Bride (2 page)

BOOK: The Little Bride
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“Recommend more nutrition en route,” said the man, and disappeared behind her. “Legs.”
The hands tugged her drawers from around her feet. Minna started to shiver. She tried to control it, tried to breathe through her teeth so they did not rattle, to calm her limbs into stillness—but when the fingers poked the soft spot at the back of her knee, her foot swung back. Her heel struck something soft. The doctor swore.
“I’m sorry!” she cried. “I didn’t mean . . .” But her voice had come out sounding like a child’s, and she did not turn to face him. She feared seeming too aggressive, or skittish, or ingratiating.
“Do you work on your knees?”
Minna didn’t reply. Did they want her to have worked on her knees? Did they want humility? Or did too much kneeling cause injury? She had knelt too much, she knew this with certainty.
“Must he repeat the question?” asked the woman.
But perhaps the doctor had already seen some sign of it. Perhaps she was marked, and he was only testing her.
“Sometimes,” Minna said.
“Bring the lamp closer.”
The lamp was brought closer.
“Have her bend over.”
The hands nudged Minna’s shoulders forward. And now the tears that had been waiting ran into her mouth. She pushed back with her shoulder blades, but the hands were firm—then she was folded, upside down, her nostrils stinging. The hands pulled apart her buttocks. Except for the man’s teeth on his pipe, there was silence.
Minna had not been able to wash herself for days. She’d eaten almost nothing but the beets Galina had asked her to buy for a borscht before deciding she didn’t want it; this morning she’d shat water bright as Oriental silk. Her tears poured up and out her nose, then down into her hair.
“Unremarkable,” said the man. “Lay her down.”
 
 
 
O
N the floor, at least, she no longer had to hold herself up. Through her tears she saw water stains on the ceiling, so old their centers were clean again. She bit her tongue as the hands spread her knees, as her own hands slid under her back—an automatic, pitiful bid for shelter.
“Speculum,” said the man.
Cold inside. Minna kept her mouth closed, her nose closed. Cold metal, cold air. Everything that could be closed, closed, her chest pounding like soldiers’ drums, as if—her mind pounding: what they must think.
When the metal withdrew, Minna moved to sit up, but the hands pressed on her feet,
stay
, then there was a prodding—Minna brought her head back down, hard, and tried to focus on the pain. Yet she couldn’t block out—was that a stick? another piece of metal? It was searching for the place that always eluded Minna, the place she tried never to think of because when she did it was gone, and when she found it again, it didn’t seem to recognize her. She approached on tiptoe—or she circumvented, pretending not to care. She’d spent years playing those games, trying mostly not even to try, and now this object was going straight for the place, as if it was—but it was—it was found. The object tapped, twice. Minna clenched her teeth. The object stroked, three times. In her right leg, a muscle twitched.
“Unremarkable,” said the doctor, and the hands closed Minna’s legs.
 
 
 
T
HE room was dim again. Minna was dressed, and alone. She heard the lamp clatter as it was wheeled into another room, then heard boots on the stairs. Another girl’s, she could tell, and felt a mean relief. Someone else would be humiliated now. Someone else was stupid or desperate or brave enough—and which was it?—to have come here.
The steps vanished, a door closed. When Minna’s door opened again, a different man walked in, short and dark, in a tattered coat that looked like it had once been expensive. It was too heavy a coat for late July, which it was. Or which it had been when Minna walked here; it seemed possible now, down in the basement, that summer was already gone. The man didn’t take off his coat, or look at Minna, but motioned for her to sit on the room’s one furnishing, a desk so chewed with knife marks it was nearly blank again. When Minna sat, she felt the ridges of old letters through her skirt: names of the bureaucrats, she guessed, who spent their days here, whistling and sighing, wading through files labeled with other people’s names. They wouldn’t try to understand the people, Minna thought, and she didn’t particularly blame them. There was rarely any advantage, as far as she could see, to understanding another person. She’d been sent to serve Galina when she was eleven, after her father died, but in the five years she’d spent scrubbing Galina’s underclothes, holding her head while she vomited, bringing her soup when she was heartbroken, she’d been careful never to ask questions, or listen too well.
“Psychology,” said the man, and opened a large black bag.
 
 
 
T
HERE were three tests.
One: a tangle of yarn, to be unknotted. Minna had heard of this at least, a puzzle of patience for the bride-to-be, and taking the yarn into her hands, she was comforted by the notion that anything in this room corresponded with the world outside it. Maybe, she thought, her mother had to do it at her own Look, in front of her father’s sisters, all five of them with their black hair and long, black nostrils. When Minna’s aunts spoke, you might have believed God Himself was upon you. If you believed in God. Yet her mother must have made herself undaunted. She was a rug maker; she knew knots. And unlike Minna, she knew who she was marrying. She knew how the wedding would be, knew the wet wood scent of the old shul, the sweet breads she would eat, the face of the fiddler who would play at her dance. The night she married, she must have believed that she would stay married. Or perhaps she tricked herself into believing this, as she must have tricked the aunts at her Look. She must have fooled them into thinking she was patient, and would stay. She must have unknotted the knot.
The yarn was coarse and thin, all the same dark gray—dyed, Minna suspected, to make it harder to see its edges. She wanted the mining lamp back. Her fingers were stiff, and stumbled. It took five minutes just to find one end and take it between her teeth, then she thought better of it—teeth were bone, mannish, the man was watching—and used her lips instead. She fumbled the yarn apart from itself. When her eyes began to pulse, she closed them and felt, and when they stopped pulsing, she opened them and looked.
After an hour, the yarn had become a dream of yarn, a gray trail passing through her fingers, which had started to blister. It was enough yarn, she thought, to knit a muff. Or maybe—more practically—a shawl. The yarn drifted across her skin like a long, supple knife. She decided upon the muff. She could see herself walking with it, or rather behind it, her bearing stately and slow, the muff drawing her along in an effortless glide. For every foot of yarn she rescued, another inch of muff became itself, and the fantasy grew closer: a winter afternoon in America, floating along a city street, her ever-expanding muff parting the crowd like an enormous jewel, leaving the people’s mouths agape. They’d never seen anything like it. And so she reached the other end.
 
T
wo: two glasses of water, loud with chunks of ice. Minna put her fingers in, like the man told her. At first they were soothed, after the yarn. Then they ached. The numbness, when it came, was preferable. One glass, she thought, was enough to wet her throat for a week. The other was enough to wash her body. She saw dirt lifting from skin. Ash from stone. Galina’s tea leaves from wherever she’d thrown them.
Was this a test of endurance?
Her fingers, when he told her to lift them out, were limp as fish fat, and as white blue and dripping.
 
 
 
T
HREE: a bird, small, on a plate. Stunned by something, woozy on its feet, its wings flitting then forgetting.
A rock. A knife. A fork. A nail.
The man started with a nail. He picked out one of the bird’s eyes and let it fall onto the plate. The bird opened its beak, but made no cry, only a gasp, a shuddering. Sinews, vessels, blood wrestled the air.
Minna did not cry out. She did not close her eyes. Endurance, she thought. Again. They wanted to see if she could endure endurance. It was worse—far worse—than anything her aunts might have dreamed up.
The nail stabbed. The other eye fell. The bird fell next to it.
The man put down the nail, and picked up the rock. He placed the rock over the bird’s feet, and with his other hand, pulled. The bird stretched, soundless, until it broke from its feet and started to convulse.
The man put down the rock, and picked up the fork and knife. He looked Minna in the eye for the first time, and she saw, suddenly, that he had a napkin tucked into the collar of his coat.
And then she saw nothing, she made no choice, her hands moved to the bird, they twisted until the neck snapped. The head hung loose. The bird was light, and warm.
“Brava,” said the man, in his dry, dead voice. “Kindness.”
TWO
S
HE was late.
Late to serve supper, late for shock to set in, late for what must be her real life to begin, Minna Losk ran. Off the steps of the municipal building, past another girl heading in, through Sobornaya Plaza, across Moldavanka’s dry streets, her feet calling up dust, for it was indeed still July, the city’s acacias in full bloom, her lizards asleep in the last sun, the scent of tomato plants coming up off the piers, all Odessa in a peaceful late-day glory Minna had never stopped to notice and now, too, she could not stop, she ran in the heedless way of the newly free, and confused, and guilty. She was never late. Soon she would always be late, she would leave and be married and be late to serve dinner forevermore and Galina would have the nightly pleasure of reprimanding her for her absence. It would hardly be any different from when Minna arrived, five years ago, after a long day’s travel, carrying only a pillow, a change of undergarments, and an extra dress. Galina had glanced at her, glanced away. “You might have come sooner,” she said.
Oh, the hope Minna put in that small bundle. She’d carried so little not because those items were all that she possessed, or all that she could carry, but because they were all she hoped to need. Minna had an idea (she did not think of it as a superstition) that whatever one prepared for would happen, that if she packed even somewhat adequately, nothing would be provided to her. And she had a precocious mistrust of sentimental objects, for she had seen her father attempt to keep her mother in the form of dresses hung at even intervals along the closet rod, and jewelry clasped and dusted on the table by the bed, and her mother’s two shawls hung precariously over the bedposts as if she’d been there, that morning, and tried on both before deciding to wear neither. When really she’d left when Minna was five, after a second child was born, a boy, already dying. This much, everyone agreed about. Also, nearly everyone agreed that she’d left with a yellow ticket. A ticket to sell herself to men. What they didn’t agree on was the reason for this behavior. Minna’s aunts said she’d gone off to become a
kurve
because she was one. Minna’s father said she bought the yellow ticket because
kurve
s were the only Jews allowed to leave the Pale of Settlement, and that her plan, once she’d crossed the border, was to send for him and Minna. A woman Minna barely knew told her that the baby boy was the reason, that all Minna’s mother had ever wanted was a son and that his weakness, his
toyt
, had driven her out of her mind.
Minna didn’t understand.
Out of her mind.
As if her mind had been their house.
Her mother’s name was Roza. Her father hid the few photographs of her, saying they made it seem as though she were dead, and instructed Minna, each week, to buy Roza’s favorite almonds, which he kept in a bowl on the table, though he didn’t like them and Minna didn’t dare eat them. When Minna got older, and recognized the despair born out of such hoarding, she dared suggest to her father that they stop “wasting” the money. She hadn’t meant to be rude. Or maybe she had—she frequently felt so desirous of her mother that she wanted to hurt her. “She’s gone,” Minna said. “She doesn’t need fresh.”
Two weeks later a far chamber of the salt mine collapsed with her father in it. Her aunts came like crows, pecking and squacking, and in their presence, Minna was still. But once they’d concluded their
shiva
and gone back to their better towns—moaning and squeezing her cheeks and weeping, a great billowing cloud of relief trying to pose as misery—Minna set to work packing away her parents’ belongings into her mother’s old rug shop. She threw out the almonds, and the bowl. The only thing she wanted to keep was the only thing she never found: the photographs of her mother, which her father had hidden too well.
For a time, she was content in her father’s house, rummaging and rearranging, doing what needed doing each day. She ate frugally to make her father’s small savings last. She washed the windows, as he’d never encouraged her to do. She sold his goat for money and a writing table. She would keep books, she thought, for various businesses in Beltsy. Her father had sent her to school with the boys after all. Only for a couple years, but still; surely he wouldn’t mind if she put it to some use. Minna liked the idea of the sharp black ink, the rows and columns, the questions answered, the answers in place. She found an old ledger of her mother’s, made a list of the men who owned various businesses, and of the women who actually ran them, and prepared the speech she would deliver to convince them of her use.
BOOK: The Little Bride
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