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Authors: Anna Solomon

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

The Little Bride (4 page)

BOOK: The Little Bride
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C
AN I help you?”
If the old woman guarding the door was looking for a secret word or signal, Minna didn’t know it. She generally avoided the waterfront’s narrow, stinking streets, where the paving stones fell away to rock and sand and men played dice in doorways. The docks left a smell in your hair, of mussels and beer. They were no place for an upright young woman about to start her real, upright life. But Minna had been called back to the municipal building yesterday, where she was given a photograph of her husband-to-be, an itinerary, kopecks for her travel, and this address.
For your papers,
the man said.
They’ll take care of you.
Then, when she’d stared at him a second too long:
Run along now.
He gave a little wave of his wrist. As if Brody, Hamburg, New York, were just around the corner.
Run along.
“Can I help you?
Devochka maya?

The hag’s endearment made Minna suspicious, until she looked more closely: through her wrinkles, the woman was smiling. Minna glanced behind her, at the street, where a Chinese woman wobbled past on shoes made of stumps. Down a little alley, a sailor hawked stolen necklaces; down another, a painted lady beckoned a passerby. Usually the whores in their costumes made Minna’s stomach drop out. She’d feel panic, shame, a shameful fascination—the set of a jaw, the curve of a nose, would make her start. But now she felt the photograph pressing into her waist, the fog-damp square of her husband-to-be, folded in two and tucked inside her bodice. Just as she’d left him.
“I’m here about papers,” she said, suddenly bold, and this was all that was required. The door swung open. The old woman disappeared behind it.
Minna felt her way down a dark hallway of doors, all closed but one, at the end, where a yellow haze of kerosene and smoke trickled out into the hall. She stepped gently across the threshold, and squinted. Three men were playing cards around a table so small it looked like a board balanced upon their knees. When she coughed, the fattest one looked up.
“Let me guess,” he said. “America.”
And when, she wondered, would she stop introducing herself, excusing herself, delivering herself, with a cough?
“I was sent by Rosenfeld’s Bridal—”
“Yes. Like all the Jewish girls. Going off to be brides. Well. Better than you’re sold as a lady of the night, no
?
That is a worse fate, you agree?” The man’s cheeks lifted to his eyebrows—a forced, pitying smile—then it was gone. His eyes hung open, the whites large and tired. His Russian was thick with Greek, it lifted in all the wrong places. “You know,” he said. “You could pass for better than a Jew.”
The other men looked up. One nodded. “Blue eyes,” he said.
“Thin lips,” said the other.
“Almost like there’s no blood in there.”
The first man chuckled. “Is that right?” he asked Minna. “You’ve got a frozen set of lips?” He tapped the table, considering. “So you want to be a nice German girl instead? I got the papers right here. No one ever picked ’em up. They’re more legal than the ones I’d make you.”
Minna looked at the man. He was being straight with her, she guessed, in his crooked way. She could be a nice German girl, with a nice new name. German was close enough to Yiddish—she would get by. The girl’s passport would be her yellow ticket: it would let her drop out of her own life and into another. She couldn’t pretend she’d never dreamed of doing just that. And what better place to begin than in this yellow room so thick with smoke it felt like a jar of honey, on this street of nobodies and everyones. Minna giggled; she couldn’t help it; and as soon as she giggled she started to laugh: her mouth mawed open, saliva rose off her tongue. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed without faking. It tasted sweet, almost amorous. Then the men began cackling with her, showing their brown and gold teeth, pleased and jittery as hens. Minna shut her mouth. Her tongue felt suddenly filthy; she’d let in too much smoke. What kind of woman laughed in front of men like these? And what kind of man would be waiting for a German girl named whatever name they would give her? No one. Or the wrong someone. Whereas the man in the photograph in her bodice was waiting for Minna. Of course, she didn’t know his name yet, and the picture was too grainy to clearly make out his features, but she could see that he looked down at the camera slightly, and that he stood in front of nothing but sky, as though he’d chosen to be photographed on a city rooftop. Which showed, it seemed to Minna, a certain confidence. Men like Galina’s would pose themselves in armchairs, surrounded by whatever trinkets they’d managed to hold on to, samovars and candlesticks and oil paintings bunched together as on a stage set, suggesting they went on forever. Minna would not mind marrying rich, of course. But she imagined herself preferring a quieter, more self-assured kind of wealth. If a man stood on a roof, it was likely to be his roof. Which meant that now it would be Minna’s. A roof and the house beneath it. A sink and running water. And beyond these comforts, beyond these dignities, the man was waiting for her as a man waited for a woman.
When she shook her head, the men let their laughter die. Their faces melted back into a collective fatigue. They looked disappointed, but not surprised—as if they’d known all along that she didn’t have it in her to escape herself.
FIVE
O
DESSA fog arrived like a street cat woke: suddenly; ominously. This time, it flew up from the docks, bringing rumors of violence. Osip Pirigov, who ran the shop below, came up the stairs to tell them. Osip was a small man with a habit of importantly, nervously, checking his pocket watch every few seconds—as if he was still allowed to practice law, as if someone might still be waiting for him at the Fankoni for a lunch of Italian pastry and wicked confidences. His nervousness was heightened by the news. His tongue seemed to shiver. “All Moldavanka is shuttered, the defense is on high alert, what you need from me buy now I’m closing I’m taking the family we’ll be gone within the hour.”
Galina laughed as Osip’s watch came out and he slinked back downstairs. “And where will they go?” she said, stretching out on the tattered divan. “And when nothing happens? When nothing. Happens. How stupid we’ll be. Like every time. Like mice running from our tails.”
It was true that since the last pogrom two years ago, none of the warnings had materialized. Everyone hid and prayed, then they came out a few hours later looking stunned and pleased and also somehow guilty, and they went about their lives. And the “defense forces,” the
yeshiva
students with their wooden sticks, looked vaguely embarrassed: a team of boys without a sport, boys who’d never climbed a tree let alone beat anything.
Yet what could one do but prepare?
Minna locked the gate. She stood in the fog for a minute, breathing, then hurried inside. She snuffed out the lights, closed the shutters, drew the drapes. A queer, involuntary thrill gripped her limbs, the same charge she used to feel just before a storm in her father’s house. He would always sense it, and chastise her—there was wood to cut, and lightning to fear!—but Galina snored on the divan and Minna indulged the moment. It was ridiculous, arrogant, but she felt as if the rumors were for her, to make her departure a necessity, a flight, instead of the unremarkable exit she’d been making for days now: a long, wobbly slide through the city, off the continent, into the sea. She swept the house, then mopped. She dusted what remained to dust. She cleaned with the puerile joy of someone who did not have to clean.
It was nighttime before she remembered Rebeka, in the cellar. She found her sobbing in the dark, draped in a washing she’d abandoned, sheets and towels twisted round her arms and head as if to make herself a ghost. Everything was soaking wet. The girl shivered wildly. Minna dried her off, brought her up to the attic, and tried to distract her from her fears: this is where you’ll sleep when Minna is gone; watch your head, yes, the ceiling’s too low to stand, even for a girl, it was the same for Minna when she first came, you’ll get used to it, your back will grow strong. She talked like this, in a brothy, falsetto voice. She lay with Rebeka on the narrow cot, the girl’s face mashed against her shoulder and thought, I am comforting her, I am giving her something like kinship. But as Rebeka’s sniveling slowed, it grew ugly and deep and knocked like pebbles in her chest. She sounded like an animal.
“Don’t cry,” Minna said. And now her voice had a sudden, iron rod down its middle. “Shush shush. All the
children
will be fine.” Then, though it was a lie in every way that mattered: “You live in a very beautiful house.”
 
 
 
A
LL night, nothing happened. But the next day, the streets stayed empty, the rumors persisted, Osip Pirigov did not return to his shop, all through Odessa and beyond, in the cellars and barns and attics of the southern Pale, Jews waited. The second night passed the same way, the only sounds Rebeka’s weeping. By afternoon, Galina was practicing old dance steps in the dining room, stomping to her own needle-throated, tuneless music, her fat arms embracing the air. The noise was making Rebeka cry again, which made Galina sing louder. Minna walked the girl back up to the attic, twisted a rag around stockings for her to hold as a doll, and half rocked, half shook her to sleep. Then slowly, clandestinely, deliciously, she took out her photograph. Tilted toward the window, he could almost be smiling; tilted away, he seemed to frown. His age was indeterminable. The picture was too poor to make out much more than that he wore a beard—she couldn’t even tell in what style—but he looked sincere, she thought, in any case. A little anxious, maybe, but that was probably being up on the roof.
Or maybe it wasn’t anxiety, Minna thought, but impatience. Maybe her fiancé had been interrupted for the picture.
She liked this last idea. The man she would marry was a busy man. He would not bluster into the house like the suitors, as if they’d been standing outside all their lives, waiting for Galina to let them in. Minna did not think she could bear such demands. She imagined a good husband being a little bit like a good dog, the ones the wealthiest Russian girls walked on Nikolaev Boulevard: they walked alongside but not too close; they told everyone you were respectable without saying a thing. When Galina first urged her to sign up for Rosenfeld’s—an idea that stunned Minna by becoming more than one of Galina’s passing fancies—she’d said,
being married is like you can breathe for the first time.
Granted, Galina had never been married. But knowing the opposite of a thing often seemed to Minna to be the same as knowing a thing itself. Hunger, after all, was made of food, and thirst of water. On corners, she’d heard the beardless
maskilim
arguing about whether people had once been apes, yet their excitement seemed to her unwarranted—was it so difficult to imagine hair when you were covered in skin?
She named her husband Ilya, after the dairy boy. Ilya was older than Minna but not by much. He wasn’t rich, but he was industrious; he pushed his cart with an ease that masked its weight. It was an ease Minna associated with his being a gentile. Ilya was so fearless, so certain of his place, that he didn’t even bother trying to hide his fondness for a maidservant: no matter how busy he was, no matter how raggedly Minna was dressed, when he arrived and when he left, he always called her
fraylin
and blushed slightly as she dropped kopecks into his palm.
She was sorry for having stolen that bottle from him, for the doctor’s visit. He would never think to suspect her. His toes turned inward as he walked.
 
 
 
D
OWNSTAIRS, Galina was sulking. She wanted to play backgammon. “Please?” she asked, a dreary pleading in her eyes—which was only ritual, of course, the ritual of pretending Minna had a choice. As if they were friends, or sisters. When Minna first came, she’d fallen for it. She’d smiled and felt flattered and made a fool of herself being kind.
But Galina didn’t want kindness. She sat at the head of the long table and directed Minna to sit at the other end—so far away Minna would have to lay out across the table to make her moves. Minna climbed onto the chair, set up the pieces, and commenced the fine art of letting Galina win. The board’s felt was faded a pale, splotched green. Its edges were frayed. It had once belonged to Galina’s mother’s father’s father—or at least this was what Galina said half the time. The other half, she said she couldn’t remember.
A long time ago, Minna had hated Galina for not remembering. She’d hated the indulgence of it, the waste. She’d thought memories were something you could and should choose to keep, that they would not forsake or smother you like real people or things, that if you cared for them, they would be immortal and fixed.
Then she’d begun to lose her own faces. Smells. Songs. What did her father’s morning voice sound like? Who was the owner of the hand that gently stroked her head once, along the main street, and what had Minna done that she’d expected to be hit instead? Who had taught her, patiently, how to write? Had there been a building on the square that was made of brick? Why had she started collecting pebbles when she was very young, polishing them with her skirt, one by one, and putting them to bed in an old tobacco tin?
BOOK: The Little Bride
12.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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