Read The Little Bride Online

Authors: Anna Solomon

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

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BOOK: The Little Bride
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She felt sometimes as though she were walking blindfolded through a room, using only her fingers to see, and someone kept moving the furniture.
Galina threw the dice, made a face, threw again. She captured two of Minna’s pieces and hooted. If the mobs were coming, Minna thought, they would know which house to attack first.Yet she couldn’t, somehow, summon fear.
Galina laid one of Minna’s pieces on her tongue, stuck it out, and shouted,
Ahhhhhhh!
The memories came back sometimes. She saw her mother’s face, pale and unsmiling, a rift in her eyes, which looked away. Once, Minna remembered a woman in her father’s house, a faceless, peasant-seeming Christian woman, her skirts wide, her hands coarse, and with those coarse hands the woman plucked every one of Minna’s pebbles off the floor—they had been spread out in clumps, singing and laughing—and threw them in the river.
Minna didn’t trust recollections like these. She suspected she jumbled things, connected the wrong events, dredged up what was convenient. Maybe she made things worse or better than they were. And then there were the episodes which disappeared again—though how could she be sure, of course, if she didn’t remember them? She only sensed their missing, like one sensed a hair caught in one’s mouth.
Galina won once, twice. The third time, unsatisfied by Minna’s silent, shrugging concession, she shouted, “Victory!” and shoved the board off the table. “Whoops,” she said drily as the pieces rolled and bounced across the room. Minna’s muscles twitched, as if to action—
pick them up!
Yet her bones stayed heavy. Early afternoon was turning into late afternoon. Violence suddenly seemed an impossibility. The game pieces settled into the floor cracks. The day after tomorrow, she would board the train, lockdown or not.
Galina watched her across the table. “I couldn’t help myself,” she said.
“Of course.”
“I’m sorry.”
Minna didn’t answer. The seconds made her feel brazen.
“You’ll leave,” Galina said.
“Yes.”
“You’ll hate me.”
One of the black pieces stopped at the wall, on its edge. It blended almost perfectly into the sooted wainscoting; Minna squinted and it was gone.
“You’ll tell people I was a witch. You’ll go flouncing off to America telling your stories and I’ll be the witch. You never talk now but you’ll start to talk and you won’t stop. You’ll be one of those women. I’ll be worse than I ever was. You’ll say I made you leave. That’s true, I’m making you leave. But you won’t tell them I did it to protect you.”
Minna’s eyes snapped into focus. The black piece reappeared.
Galina slapped the table. “Look at me.”
Her eyes were red like she’d been drinking, though she hadn’t; the vodka had run out yesterday. She looked as she’d always looked, Minna supposed: inflamed, mean, ill with longing. But at her temples was a strange yellow hue, as if she’d smeared herself there with buttercups—and above it, wisps of frizzy gray hair. Galina, she realized, had tried and failed to dye her own hair. And with what? Minna felt a sudden, dangerous pity; she found herself wishing that Galina had asked for her help; she heard herself cough in apology. She wondered if this was how people felt when they saw their mothers grow old: sorry but repelled, repelled and sorry.
“I never let them touch you,” Galina said.
Minna swallowed. This was true. Galina’s men had tried to touch her. They started for the attic steps. They groped her at the table. And Galina had always stopped them. She had her own reasons, of course, her slippery pride, her need to prevail. Still, Minna lowered herself now to the floor.
“I’ve guarded your purity.”
Minna started sweeping the pieces toward her. Part of her wanted to laugh, though nothing was funny, though it was becoming less funny by the second. She knew what Galina was referring to. They had never talked about the night of the pogrom: Minna hiding in the attic, balled up under her cot, listening to the men fall upon Galina; and Galina’s growling screams, the disgusting noises she made, so disgusting Minna hated her more than she hated the men. She’d pretended, she’d told herself, that Galina didn’t really mind. Galina had been giving up her body for years, as freely as the old women on the Gigantskaya Steps gave advice. What was left to defend? And she’d told herself there was nothing she could do. If she went downstairs, they would not leave Galina alone, their appetites would simply widen. She thought of them like that, like stomachs instead of men: it was easier to let them go on if they were headless, helpless; it was easier to stay in the attic.
Minna wasn’t proud of these thoughts. She wasn’t proud that she’d used them again in the years since, when the noises haunted her. She wished that night would leave her like other memories, lose its way and be gone. Then she wouldn’t have to feel Galina’s gaze on her now and know what she was seeing. Minna’s humility had been her one weapon, her mask. To admit that she contained cruelty, bottomless seas of cruelty, was to give up her advantage.
“See?” Galina said. “Look at you. You’re too old now, too slow. How can I keep you? It’s not dignified anymore.” She picked up a game piece from the floor near her chair and pretended to toss it to Minna—but too hard and too high, so that it landed on Minna’s back. So that Minna was a horse all over again.
“For whom?” Minna asked impulsively. She saw, suddenly, that to leave here, she would have to do more than walk out the door. The Russian mobs were not coming. Her debt was not shrinking. She was on her knees again, on the floor. The game piece felt impossibly heavy through her dress. The truth was, the whole truth, if anyone should want to know the truth: after the men raped Galina and broke all the china and stole all the silver, after they had gone and Minna had stopped her ruse of having been asleep, after she crept downstairs and found Galina’s door locked and went around surveying the damage, this was what she’d thought: Why didn’t they take the brooms? Or the pots or pans or buckets or spatulas, or anything at all of use? Why should everything, always, stay the same for Minna? She had lived as her father’s daughter and then she’d lived as Galina’s servant, and none of her tools had changed, or her perpetual missing. She missed her father, yes, but when she’d lived with him, she had missed her mother, or at least the idea of her. And before her mother left, she must have missed something else, whatever infants missed when they were slapped through with air.
“For whom is it not dignified?” she asked, and now she did not bother hiding her disgust. She would not, she would never, miss Galina. She made her voice louder. “For whom?”
Galina stared at her. She was not sure, Minna could see, whether she was meant to answer the question, or skip straight to punishment. And there was no one to tell her. All the people who might have told her were dead. She looked, as she often did, as if she wanted to ask Minna’s advice. Outside, there was the long silence. Something like mourning passed through Galina’s eyes. She stood. She lifted her skirts slightly, as if to curtsy. Then she kicked, and the game pieces flew, but her boot barely grazed Minna’s leg.
 
 
 
O
NE memory Minna had never lost: the sound of her brother’s cries, like chickens being chased by a fox. They changed his name three times, trying to trick Death. These were her father’s sisters; her mother had already disappeared. They rubbed the baby’s back with rye bread. They poured salt and pepper into their palms and lifted him over the stove, into the chimney. But he never stopped crying until he stopped breathing. And then they would not speak of him, and they would not let Minna speak of him. She had not been so blessed, they said, that she could afford to tempt misfortune. She was not so good that she could complain. She was not so smart that she would remember, anyway.
SIX
T
HE fog lifted. Minna tried not to be disappointed, though she’d begun to nurture an image of herself departing the next day in its silent shroud. She tried not to be annoyed that the talk of an attack had passed, too; that the glitter in the streets wasn’t broken glass but the fog’s residue, lit with sun; that she had not been anointed a refugee.
She made herself dress and join the procession of fellow Jews toward the market. They walked slowly, heavily, for there had been no declaration of peace this time, only a gradual, collective fatigue with the situation, a calling off of waiting.
Minna meant to plod accordingly, yet she felt her steps quicken. She tried to keep her head down, like the others, but in the aftermath of the fog the city looked radiant, every window gleaming, the limestone columns and steeples and arches so white they appeared weightless. She reached the edge of the market square and here was radiance, too: apricots and cherries pouring into bins, breads throwing their powder, the song of carts coming to a stop.
She wasn’t prepared to feel anything but relief at leaving Odessa. When she first arrived, the limestone buildings had reminded her of the mines, and of her father’s death, but they’d also looked beautiful, which made her ashamed. She didn’t know then—she didn’t know yet—that pleasure was its own necessity, as grimly serious as mourning. So she’d buried it, training herself to see the stone as her father might have, creating her own system : white, strong as marble; green, prone to crumbling; yellow, easiest to work. And don’t forget, he told her. All holes were the same hole, once you’d been down below. Odessa,
pearl by the sea
, was only earth turned inside out.
It had been easy, this way, to think the city poor and temporary as herself. Yet there were the curved balconies adorned with half-naked statues. The gargoyles brooding at the roofs. The polished horse hitches and heavy railings and ornate gates. Here were the old, established cats, sunning themselves underfoot.
She rested her fingers in Galina’s coin purse and counted the money by touch.
She was at the fish stall now, facing the fish girl with her long, curved knife, her admonishing
What?
Minna felt a sudden urge to tell her about Rosenfeld’s: to boast—to beg—to ask her to come with her. She paused, imagining the girl smiling, saying yes. She imagined them boarding the boat together.
But the girl had already gone back to cutting heads for broth; she swatted a fly at her ear. It was nonsense, Minna told herself. This city. This tired, dry square, which she’d traversed countless times only to leave, every time, with nothing of her own. This girl. They’d spent years exchanging fish for money and never bothered to introduce themselves, or even to say thank you, or good-bye. And the girl’s hands stank, Minna guessed, in a way that lemons could not solve.
What?
the girl asked again, when she looked up to find Minna still there.
Usually Minna asked for mackerel or halibut or perch, but she found herself pointing at a cheap, bearded bullhead. The girl sniffed and obliged. Minna took her parcel of fish and headed for the vegetables. Radishes, she thought, Galina would want radishes tonight, for no suitor was coming, always radishes when she was morose. And chocolate. And vodka. But Minna didn’t move to the vegetables. And she didn’t walk toward the chocolate man, worrying his tarp against the sun. Instead she was leaving the square. She took thirty kopecks from the purse for a bottle of vodka—that, Galina could not do without. Then she hid one ruble in her left stocking, and one in her right, and she used what was left to buy herself a pour of sunflower seeds into her apron and a hair comb from a peddler on Komitetskaya whose wares she’d never let herself look at. A small comb, but not the smallest.
 
 
S
HE was almost home when she saw the
zogerke.
She averted her eyes quickly, but too late—the woman was broad-shouldered, her wig elaborate, her perfumes vast: as she swayed toward Minna, she resembled a fat hen. The
zogerke
was the one at the Old Synagogue who prayed for the women who didn’t know how, and showed them when to make their faces sad, or hopeful, or ashamed, and who, when she was off duty, waddled through the streets admonishing girls like Minna who never showed up at
shul
anymore to let her admonish them. For a time, when she’d first arrived, Minna had attended. She’d gone every third week, the arbitrary interval Galina permitted her, and tried, vaguely, to follow the
zogerke
’s directions, her famously agile nose. But Minna wasn’t looking for prayer, or obedience. All she wanted was to hear the sounds she’d heard in Beltsy.Yet the songs, it turned out, were different here. Their tunes were altered, their moods heightened; they sounded foreign to her ears. And the long weeks away made Minna feel like a stranger. Which she was. So she’d stopped going. And now every so often the
zogerke
would spot her in the street and grab her arm and lecture her on the dangers of faithlessness. Minna would nod, and cower, and placate, and nod, and wait until the
zogerke
was satisfied. But today she looked straight at the woman, and saw that her jeweled hairpin was missing most of its jewels.
BOOK: The Little Bride
10.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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