Read The Little Bride Online

Authors: Anna Solomon

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

The Little Bride (22 page)

BOOK: The Little Bride
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At her nape, Minna felt the after-brush of Liesl’s fingers braiding her hair before bed. Liesl had said nothing, she’d simply appeared, a warmth at Minna’s back, with a comb. She had a daughter, apparently, grown and gone somewhere as girls go.
Minna could still feel the loosening in her scalp, as though a great itch had been scratched. And now she couldn’t help thinking of what she’d been trying all evening to ignore: her wedding wish, under the
chuppah
and the flour sack and the racket of hands clapping and spoons clanging: she’d wished that she might go home with Otto and his lovely wife.
And here she was.
Did that make it her fault?
But to believe that would be to believe that something or someone had answered her wish. Which would make her wish more like prayer. Minna did not pray. And why would this Something, this Someone, who by all evidence had never given Minna a second thought, suddenly start to answer her wishes—and in such a backward way? Who would think of such a thing as a cow falling through a house? There was danger, it seemed, in making such a wish. Punishment, perhaps, for daring to ask. Maybe you had no right to ask if you didn’t believe.
She lay perfectly still, on her back. She was determined to stay like this all night, so as not to roll or kick by accident.
 
 
D
AYLIGHT, and through Minna’s eyelids:
My house! You destroyed my house!
She waited, holding her breath, willing her eyes shut as if to send away a bad dream, but the cries returned.
My house my house my house!
The bedroom door was closed. Liesl had already risen. At the foot of the bed, she’d laid out a dress for Minna, plain but of a cloth finer than muslin, and with a collar Minna especially liked, dyed dark blue and printed in yellow flowers. She was glad that Liesl had never met Lina, and could not compare Minna to her. She buttoned the dress slowly, pretending that these were her buttons, and that this was her bedroom. The voice beyond the door was only a neighbor, yes, some man who’d come in blustering about fences and trees and vegetables gone to rot and aching bones and oh, what if the world was just outside, with its gutters and feuds!
My house!
She took great pains making the bed. She drew the curtain. She folded the nightgown Liesl had lent her. In a small mirror above the dressing bureau she lifted her chin so that the collar of Liesl’s dress did not sag. She hadn’t seen herself since the wedding, in Ruth’s mirror. What kind of wife, she thought, was not given her own mirror? Lina
beautiful-in-the-way-no-one-disputes
certainly would have had one. I would look better, she thought, with a plumper neck. Smaller ears. My nose leans to the right.
She thought of Samuel. She thought of Ilya, who was better to think on, a mirage now, safe. She thought of Max, who was best to think on, and easy enough, for his cries were on this continent; they were in this house; they were close enough Minna could feel them in her chest.
He was pacing the perimeter of the front room, too absorbed to notice Minna’s entrance, throwing his arms every time he shouted, “House!” while Otto, seated at the table, punctuated the onslaught with sympathetic “mmm”s and sincere nods. His son sat nearby, saying nothing. His name was Friedrich, though Liesl called him Fritzi. Which made Minna feel a little sorry for him. Fritzi. But even when Max daggered a finger at him and shouted,
“Nar!”
—a word which enjoyed the exact same meaning in German—the boy didn’t flinch. He sat backward in his chair, straddling it as he would a horse, his hands hanging loosely over the back rungs as if to show Max how little he cared. “Fool!” Max shouted again.
“Motke.”
But perhaps she’d spoken too softly. She repeated herself with more force, but still he ranted and stomped, and again Minna said his name but now she was humiliatied, standing in this strange room in front of near strangers in a stranger’s dress as her husband paid her no attention. Yesterday, he had listened; she had called his name and he’d stopped and she’d felt a surge of power, a rightness as a wife. But now she felt like a girl playing dress-up. That she was wearing Liesl’s dress didn’t help. And the yellow flowers, she decided, were all wrong; yellow made her look pasty.
“Motke!” she shouted, and grabbed his arm, and as he spun toward her, raising his other arm, Minna thought that he might strike her, and this thought was not entirely unwelcome: to be struck, at least, would demand a response; she would know what to do; when it was over, he would owe her something.
But he didn’t touch her. He wrested his arm free and said, “Do not tell me to be quiet. These people—they destroy our home and they—expect us to stay in theirs, ‘as long as you like!’ they say—they expect us to look at their little man”—he pointed at a wooden cross by the door—“and sleep in their beds and eat their
treyf.

“Motke. It’s only a cross.” This was the only argument Minna could think to make. She was too busy wondering if what he’d said was true—could they really stay as long as they liked? Sheltered from their ignorance, and their lonesome, intimate circling, and the impending return of the boys? And why not? Maybe once they’d retrieved their few belongings, they could haul the rest of the house into the
mikvah
hole and pack it down and new grass would grow and you’d never have to know either one had existed.
“Look,” she told him, pointing. “There is no little man.”
“You’re meant to
imagine
the man!” Max cried. “He’s there, he’s precisely there, as there as I am here. What kind of God hangs on a wall?”
“Motke. Please. They have shown us every kindness.”
“Yes! Kindness! But to leave us a home, to let us alone. Have we bothered them in some way? Does the sight of us—”
“What? Jews? You think they care?”
“You think they don’t? You don’t think that’s exactly what they care about?”
“Why even come here, then? Why bother moving to the middle of nowhere?”
“To be let alone!”
Minna felt a sudden recognition—as if she’d had this conversation before. It was Moses she was thinking of, with his shorn earlock and his fury, his determination, in the wake of his attack, to be more stubbornly faithful and different and offensive than ever before. She felt exhausted. Sad. Embarrassed, at Otto and Fritzi’s presence. She said, “They want to help. We might stay a little while—”
“The whole winter? If we stay now, we are here the winter. As if we have nothing to do these months but thank them—”
“But, Motke—perhaps—”
“We stay until the boys return. That is all.”
“But listen.” The boys. Minna missed Jacob. But not Samuel. Not in the usual way of missing. Samuel she had begun to fear, as one feared sun after days of rain, the brilliant ache behind your eyeballs, the inexplicable desire to stare directly into its glare. “If we stay with Otto and Liesl, we’ll have time to build a better house.”
“Minna. I will not—”
“But, Motke—”
“Do not shame me.”
Max had switched abruptly to Russian; his mouth looked mean and sad at once, then, as it closed, full of grief. For the first time this morning, Minna allowed herself to meet Otto’s gaze. She expected pity, or disgust, but she found only his frank, kind, solid face, and in it an offer of permission, and expectation—that she console her husband now, that she defend. Which made her grateful and also angry, so that she could not apologize or thank him in the polite way she wanted. She felt for Liesl’s collar, tugged it straight, stuck out her chin, then looked at each of the men in turn, including Max, with a fixed, false smile. “Excuse my interruption.” She went to find Liesl in the barn.
 
 
M
INNA ate one piece of bacon, two bratwurst, more chicken legs than she could count, and three bites of a pink, fleshy, frightening, delicious roast they called, simply,
ham.
She snuck these morsels as she cooked kosher meals for herself and Max, kosher meals in the koshered pan he’d made her scrape and boil and store apart from the others, shrouded in cheesecloth. Liesl cooked beside her, and must have seen Minna’s fingers swiftly plucking, but she made no comment. The two women rarely spoke—not in bed, not as they milked, not as Minna helped Liesl sweep the kitchen—and yet there seemed to be no animosity to this not speaking, no ill will or competition. If anything, Minna thought, the silence expressed a certain communion: as if they agreed, without saying so, that Liesl would lie for Minna if necessary, just as they agreed on the proportion of water to vinegar for scrubbing the stove, and on the futility of their husbands’ bargaining sessions in the next room.
There were in fact no bargains being made. There was Otto making offers, and Max rejecting them. No, he did not want Otto to build them a new house. No, he did not want Otto to provide the raw materials. No, he did not want flour and potatoes to last the winter. He wanted justice, he claimed, but for him the only justice seemed to be miracle: to open his eyes and be back in his sod cave. To Max, Otto’s apologies were deceitful, his hospitality insulting, his efforts at reparation laughable.
Eventually Otto would excuse himself and go to work, and Max would take up his post at the windows, worrying his fingers against his thumbs, loudly chewing his beard, and speculating to anyone or no one as to the whereabouts of his sons. Something terrible had happened. They would never return. Or it was Leo’s fault, Leo was keeping them too long, taking a long route back. Or there, there they were, wasn’t that them? But wait, no, it wasn’t even a wagon—was it just a cow?—a buffalo?—a shadow. Minna left Max alone for the most part, attending his basic needs but little more. Their argument had left her seething, but she seethed quietly, flatly. She developed a habit of nodding as he was about to speak, so as to preclude, or at least disassemble, his complaints. “No wonder Fritzi is such a
paskudnyak
, his parents should allow him to read those books,” became . . . “Fritzi,
paskudnyak
, books, anh.” If raising her voice had no effect, she would protest by ignoring him, and stuffing herself with
treyf
(some of which, if she was honest, made her feel a little queasy), and shrugging at Liesl’s suggestion that Max and Minna take the large bed for a night.
She did not think to offer the opposite to Liesl and Otto; one day she would look back and realize that she should have, but at the time she only thought how tranquil it was without Max at her back, and the crude, defenseless stirring that was his signal.
Let the boys stay away. Then Minna could stay here, in clean, gently frayed grace, free from storm and starvation and filth and her own dangers. In polite company, one could forget one’s dangers. And maybe she could manage to get her hands on one of “those books” Max so reviled, which Fritzi carried around with him during the couple days he was home from the cattle drive. He read in corners, moody and slumped. These weren’t newspapers or magazines or prayer books, they were the kinds of books people read for pleasure, with soft, illustrated covers and titles Minna couldn’t read because they were in English, and because, when Fritzi caught her trying, he skulked off. Which made her want to scream. Did he think her a threat? Was there disapproval on her face? Fear? Suspicion? Had she begun to resemble Max, in the way spouses sometimes did, their features meeting in subtle, irretrievable assent?
F
ROM the rubble they reclaimed the long wooden spoon, a blanket, Minna’s bedsheet with its familiar tear, several unbroken dishes, two forks. Minna’s pillow, flatter than it had ever been, even between Galina’s knees. Candlesticks so swollen with soil they looked like knotted lengths of muslin. The empty coffee tin now packed with dirt. Max’s
tefillin
were barely recognizable. These, Minna brushed off—she did not scrub. And she barely touched his prayer shawl, which had been separated from his prayer book and wedged into the frying pan. Whatever she did to these items, she guessed, Max would do over.
She had seen his face collapse when Otto found the prayer book, and his efforts to compose himself as Otto shook it free of dirt and held it out. Max was shy, suddenly; you could see that he wanted to kiss the book, but privately, to kiss it more lovingly, perhaps, than he’d ever kissed a woman. Minna wondered if he’d kissed the Torah before allowing it to be destroyed. She was surprised to feel a tenderness in her throat. She was sorry for Max in a true way, without pity or annoyance—as if he were a stranger she would never have to meet or touch or feed.
Then Max handed her the book, grabbed his shovel, and started digging again. But they had already stripped every layer: the grass, the roots, the sod, even the pitiful magazine wallpaper, now torn into clumps and shreds. They had reached the bottom of the pile that had been the house, that before it was a house had been a hill.
There was something almost natural about the wreckage, though Minna would never say so.
BOOK: The Little Bride
6.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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