Read The Little Bride Online

Authors: Anna Solomon

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

The Little Bride (3 page)

BOOK: The Little Bride
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Then the Charity Women began to visit, pride and suspicion beaming from their faces. Minna served them tea, and mandelbrodt she’d bought at market, and dusted off the chairs—which were not dusty—before she let them sit down. They must have been slightly terrified. They knew about her schooling, knew she could read and write better than they. Yet they also knew—everyone knew—all she had not learned, without a mother. And so they managed to puff themselves up and address her with pity, as they must have addressed the gentile peasants outside town. Minna was like an old woman, they said, already rangy, solitary, unpredictable. She ought to make good of herself. When Minna told them of her bookkeeping plans, they looked at her as they might look at a rolling pin that had warped—and in the same way that they might give such a rolling pin to a child as a toy, to bestow upon it a new purpose, they seemed to think that if they could give Minna away with her own new purpose, she, too, might not go entirely to waste. They would save her. Or at least they would not have sinned for not trying.
They convinced her to hire herself out to clean houses. Any girl could do that, they said. Women in Beltsy cleaned their own houses—this was a source of pride, a permissible fury, a suffering to hold over a man’s head—but they knew of Minna’s misfortune (once upon a time, before her mother had departed, they might even have known Minna, as a young girl), and they gave her work. In their houses, on their floors, were the rugs Minna’s mother had made—old now, stained, worn thin or to holes. Minna had not been taught to clean from the top down, and so she started with the rugs. She dragged them outside, shook them, beat them with brooms, shook them again, beat them harder, dragged them back inside. Then she quit the jobs, one by one, giving no explanation, even to herself. She would simply walk out, midmorning, and go home. She loved that sensation, of ceasing to try.
The Charity Women shook their heads. They were polite—they appeared patient—but Minna could see anguish in their faces:
what will you do with yourself,
they seemed to cry,
apart from shame us?
One suggested that Minna would be better off leaving Beltsy, and starting over. Eleven was not too old to start over. She had a cousin in Odessa, who knew of a situation, a wealthy, finely bred Jewess by the name of Galina Hurwitz. Wouldn’t Minna prefer that?
Minna said nothing. She couldn’t know what she preferred. Her father hadn’t intended for her to be a maidservant, but what he had intended was never clear. He raised her to be his dead son, yet to cook for him—to be his gone wife, yet pure.
She served tea and mandelbrodt and showed the women out the door with crumbs still on their chins. And this exchange became as much a part of her routine as sweeping the steps or feeding the birds or boiling the chickens’ eggs. If it weren’t for her father’s money dwindling, she thought she could go on like this for a long time.
Then she received a letter from her aunts informing her that as a minor, she held no rights to the house and that, as compensation for her upkeep, they would soon have to sell. It would “behoove” her, they advised, to find a more permanent “arrangement.”
Then the explosions started, deep in the forest, far enough away you could only feel them, a feral shudder, and smell them, long after, if the wind blew right. A taste of coal but sweeter. A railroad, the women said, to connect east and west—though it would not stop anywhere near Beltsy; though they had taken young men to build it and promised no return. Ah, railroads, sighed the more worldly of the women, for they already knew these to be the ways of railroads everywhere. The explosions grew close enough that the tree line visibly trembled.
And then one day the birds were gone, and it seemed to make no less sense for Minna to leave than it did for her to stay.
So a decision was made. Or rather a decision was not notmade, and she came to Odessa by not not-coming. She believed—she had to believe—that her mother had left in the same way, without meditation or clear will. Even when she caught herself wondering if her aunts were right, and her mother had become a
kurve
, she thought of her as a good woman who’d been stolen. To believe otherwise would have been to give in to her grief; it would have been like starting to die herself. Which would have made her good, like her brother, but also gone. Which was the one thing she’d always succeeded in
not
being for her father. After her brother died, Minna stayed home for weeks—months. Other children knocked at the door to invite her outside to play, but she didn’t go. She watched her father close up her mother’s shop. He’d worked by his wife’s side, done as he was told, learned well enough to keep the business going on his own. Instead, he began walking out of town, across the Low Bridge, toward the mines. At the mines there were no other Jews, no one to remind him of his shame, and the work left him with little time to go study at the
beis medrash
, where he would have had to see the other men, who slept, still, beside their wives. Soon he stopped going to
shul
altogether. Minna heard people say he’d lost his faith, but it seemed to her simpler than that. His sadness would lift sometimes, and there he would be, as before, strong and straight and seeming to know her when she spoke, but she could never predict when the next bout would come. He was like two men, the miner and the mined, the one who still believed his wife would return and the one who believed she was a whore—and the mined man was two men, too, one stripped empty, the other filled back up with rage. During the filling-up times, there was a way he looked at her, with a certain warning in his face, a kind of beggary: don’t become your mother.
What would Minna say to him now? She’d reached the edge of Moldavanka, the wide, stately dusk of the wealthier Jewish streets, yet the basement was just behind her, its damp air etched into her bones, her exposure stuck to her skin. It had been waiting for her, she supposed, like the vultures who sat on the roofs around the market, stretching their wide, leathery wings. Her father had known to dread something like it; he’d looked at her with that dread ever since her mother left and now Minna had fulfilled it. She’d allowed them to inspect her like a horse.
But I can explain myself, she would say. Couldn’t she? Couldn’t she say that today was simply a means to an end, which would dissolve the means? For marriage, she thought, a lasting marriage, would erase disgrace. She even had a secret idea—secret enough she barely admitted it to herself—that marriage might be more like girlhood than her girlhood had ever been.
She could explain herself, yes. Her father—bewildered, looking at his hands—would consider her explanation. But, see? she would say. Look. She had been given her Look and now just look at her, running toward her duty, the east side of the street turning orange as she ran, the orange light on the limestone making laughter of the sober lamps and wrought gates. She was almost there, at her mistress’s gate. She had not run since she was a girl, and already—see?—she was running, like a girl, her feet pounding, her ears ringing. The perfection of it, the ease, the hysterical grace through her bones, astonished her.
THREE
S
HE threw open the door and immediately regretted it. Her hands, at least—she should have washed her hands. She must smell of that room, the woman’s hands, the doctor’s moth-eaten beard. There would be soot in her hair, weakness in her eyes, rank remainders of nakedness all about her.
But no one looked at her. The younger girl, Rebeka, was serving in her place, legs stuttering, small shoulders at her ears, trying with all her might to balance the tray in her left hand while pouring gravy with her right. The gravy spoon was old, soft silver, bent to an impracticable angle; she dropped it once, twice. Minna stood still and let her drop it a third time. The girl had to learn, now that Minna was leaving: first, how to do it right; then, how to fail and not fall apart. She would always be failing, even when she did everything right. When Minna took the tray from her shaking hand, Rebeka smiled gratefully, then ran from the room.
Galina and tonight’s suitor had noticed nothing, of course. The decanter was already empty. They laughed heavily, gusting the candles with their breath. Minna ladled gravy over roast, then ladled more abundantly when she saw how it soaked in—Rebeka must have panicked and undercooked the meat. Only when Minna coughed, the rust air coming back up in her chest, did they look up.
“Ah!” Galina pounded the table. “Our heroine is back!”
The man pushed himself back from the table, but did not rise—as if briefly forgetting then recalling his own eminence. His nose was red, his jowls so low and swollen they looked stuffed with doorknobs.
“So this is the American bride!” he said, his eyes roaming Minna, up down, breast to breast. Normally she flinched at such attention, but tonight she found it amateur, laughable.
“You’ve passed,” Galina said.
“I won’t know until next week.”
Galina flapped her eyelashes slowly. She’d layered on too much rouge, and not enough lip paint, and looked slightly confused—like a fruit that’s started to rot on one end without even ripening on the other.
“You’ll pass,” she said.
“How couldn’t she?” asked the man. He chewed laboriously as he spoke, his teeth packed with meat. “Look at those eyes!”
“She’ll pass,” said Galina.
“She’ll go to America.”
Galina paused for a second, as if she’d forgotten. As if Minna’s going away hadn’t been her idea in the first place. Then the look of surprise fell from her face, and she leaned in toward the man, raising her glass—
“To America!” she cried.
“America!” he called back. “The American bride!” And Galina and her suitor swayed toward each other and away, toward and away, like the music-box men who walked in pairs along the Bazarnaya and sang along to their cranking.
To call the men “suitors” was a charade, of course. They were no more looking to marry than Galina was young. She wasn’t even rich anymore. Everything in the house had been acquired decades ago, by ancestors who were all dead—and much of that had been stripped away when the Russians came two years ago. Anything that shone, they’d taken. The glass they threw out the windows. They left only what was wood or dull metal and a collection of random objects, like the gravy spoon and the decanter. Galina might have begun to possess her remaining possessions then, to treat these candlesticks, for instance, as her own; instead she ordered Minna to stop polishing them—to stop wrapping them, between uses, in squares of felt wool. Leave be, she said, let the trinkets rot. She sank deeply, indulgently, into living among remains, cursing her grandparents for not warning her, refusing to go to their old box at the Opera House. She didn’t care, she said, what anyone thought. She was cruel one day, punishing the house like a storm; the next she was frail, cowering. Once Minna had found her rocking on her knees, grabbing at her hair, her combs broken on the floor. “I can’t do it,” she cried in a high, small voice. “I don’t know how.” But when Minna touched a comb to her scalp, Galina wailed. She couldn’t even bear Minna’s hand on her arm. It was as if she’d been turned inside out, her nerves laid on top of her skin. All Minna could do was wait until she slept. Then she cut the largest knot from the back of Galina’s head, and Galina, when she woke, looked refreshed, and never seemed to notice her missing hair.
“America!”
A woman like that could not marry.
“America!”
Or maybe, Minna thought—hopefully, righteously—it was the other way around. Maybe, once she’d married, a woman could not be like that.
“America!”
Galina and her man were hysterical now, nuzzling each other, howling.
America, America, America.
The word barreled through the room and Minna remembered another chorus, repeating itself, a tune her father used to sing to her on summer nights like this one. She would have cooked his dinner, then turned into his child. He’d stopped sending her to school by then—she must have been nine, maybe ten. Still he swept the kitchen floor and brought her milk in bed and she would lie there while he sang. He faced away, toward the window, his voice made fuller and warmer by the glass. La dada, la dada, la dada. There might have been words—she didn’t remember. But she remembered the reason behind his song: to coax her to sleep even with the sky still bright. And she remembered, as the drunken revelers flooded the room in their serenade: the night she crept back out and saw her father in his rocking chair on the porch, moths beating around his head, holding a book to his face as the light thinned: the instant she realized there was a trick in his singing, that he wanted her to do what he couldn’t do himself.
FOUR
BOOK: The Little Bride
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