Read The Little Bride Online

Authors: Anna Solomon

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

The Little Bride (6 page)

BOOK: The Little Bride
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“We do not see you anymore,” the woman said.
“It’s true,” Minna said.
“Have you been to another
shul
?” The woman frowned. It was a drastic frown, the corners of her mouth seeming to drop to her neck, one of her many expressions that were meant to be seen from a distance. Yet she stood close enough she might have taken a bite out of Minna’s ear.
“Well?
Have
you?”
“No.”
The
zogerke
raised her thick eyebrows, lowered them, pushed her lips together as if sucking on something. “No?”
“No,” Minna said again. She pointed with her free arm as if at something just around the corner. “I’m going to America now,” she said. Then she twisted her other arm out of the
zogerke
’s grip and watched the woman’s face make its expression of shock.
 
 
 
T
HAT night, Minna showed Rebeka the hidden shelf in the attic where she could store her “personal items.” She knew the words were unkind as she said them. The girl had nothing. Minna could have made up for it by saying she had almost nothing herself. Yet she didn’t. She felt as if she were already living her new life, as if this moment with Rebeka was already a story she was telling and Rebeka was Minna and if Minna was not careful, the Minna who was telling the story would never be able to leave the Minna in the story behind.
She walked Rebeka down the stairs, showing her the middle-of-the-night route. Step here, not there. Not here, there.
She showed her the spoon in the cupboard. A baby spoon Galina must have forgotten, too small to fill the mouth but still. This was the way to eat their leftovers—scooping, silent, never touching the plate.
She showed her an old pillowcase, a scissors, how to cut a strip from the edge, no wider than a quarter inch. This way it will last. Now wrap it around your pinky finger. Now clean out your ears.
Outside, the air was cold, the sky dense with stars. The houses across the street steamed lightly, still breathing out the fog. The night smelled of moss and wheat and fish. Always fish. She thought of the girl’s hands, and of the woman’s hands. Later, she would miss the fish, but now it sickened her. She felt superior, civilized. The stolen rubles were hot in her stockings. She turned to Rebeka.
Never believe her. Don’t believe that she loves you, don’t believe that she hates you. Don’t believe that she is rich, don’t believe that she is poor. Don’t believe that you are safe, or that you will die. Believe in your own flesh. Guard it, even if the way seems wrong.
Minna’s voice had started to shake. She sounded like the
zogerke
, she thought.
She stopped talking and showed Rebeka how to lock the gate.
 
 
M
INNA was half asleep when she felt footfall. Hands grabbing her shoulder, her neck, her arms. She screamed, once, before she recognized the smell: vodka, perfume, salt.
Galina hauled her down the stairs, through the dark of the kitchen. Minna’s hip hit the wall, the large cast-iron pot. She shielded her face with her free hand. Then she was being dragged down the hallway; she knew they’d reached the end when she tripped on the threshold. She caught herself with one hand. Galina yanked her back up and pushed her onto the bed. In the light from the street, Minna saw through Galina’s nightgown: purple and white, hair and ducts and fat. Galina pounced. She grabbed Minna’s hair, pulled her by the scalp down onto her back. Minna fought to get free, but Galina was twice her size; she set a knee between Minna’s legs and pressed upward. Minna wondered if this was vengeance, or envy, or some intimacy she didn’t know the name for. She shouted, but Galina’s fist filled her mouth, tasting of alcohol, then Galina paused, as if considering—her knee pressed harder, like the stone wall Minna used to straddle in secret—until at last, the fist withdrew, and Galina fell onto Minna. She lay there for a while, limp as a victorious wrestler, her nose digging into Minna’s collarbone, her hair covering Minna’s face. Then she lifted her head, and looked at Minna, her face bewildered. She kissed Minna’s cheek, moved off her slightly, and said, “Shh. Sleep. There’s still time.”
 
 
I
N the morning, in the kitchen, Rebeka had made Galina’s breakfast by herself. She stood facing it, nodding her small head, moving her lips. She was counting, Minna realized, devising a system for getting the tray right. She would have felt the banging last night, from the cellar, through the walls. She might have heard Minna’s shouts.
“Tea,” the girl whispered. “Tea. Cream.” Her head bobbed frantically. Her hair was so thin it barely disguised the outline of her skull. The girl loved her, Minna realized. But she knew better than to take it personally. “Boo!” she cried, to give Rebeka the fright of a child, so that she gasped, and turned, and laughed—and could be left.
 
 
 
G
ALINA gave Minna one ruble, a coin purse, and a parcel wound in a sheet.
“It’s yours,” she said, her voice smooth, her eyes innocent. Minna’s right wrist hurt from her fall; she took the sheet in her left hand. Inside was a pillow, she could tell, and something else, a bit heavier.
“It’s yours,” Galina said again, and it was difficult to tell if she thought she was bestowing a gift upon Minna, or simply making a statement of fact. This was the pillow Minna had brought with her when she came. She had made it herself, in a room full of goose feathers and women who were trying to make her a better girl. The Charity Women had sent her, just before she left for Odessa—as if a last chance at something, though she was committed by then to Galina—and because she knew it was the end, Minna did as she was told. She’d stripped the feathers from their stems and stuffed the pillow and sewed it, though not so well that it kept its down, not so well that the Russians bothered splitting it open. It was the pillow Galina used between her knees when they ached.
Minna said nothing. She concentrated on Galina’s neck: on the fat folds, the age folds, the drink folds.
“Please,” Galina said. She snatched the pillow and sheet back, then shoved them at Minna again—into her chest this time, so that Minna had to use both her arms, so that she looked like she was carrying something dear to her. “Come. Take it. Go. It’s yours.”
 
 
 
T
HE name Ilya was in her mind before Minna realized she was staring at him. To think the name was not odd—she had been thinking
Ilya
every time she looked at the picture—the oddness was his actual presence, here on Staroryeznichnaya: Ilya the dairy boy next to his cart, staring back at her. Minna was halfway to the train station, her parcel white and damning in her good hand. He wouldn’t deliver to Galina’s for another two days; she hadn’t expected to see him again, especially not like this, he making his daily rounds, she making her exit. She had let her foolish fantasy grow more elaborate and far-fetched. And it was foolish, she saw now. Ilya was not the man in the picture. He did not stand tall. His shoulders—not broad—pressed forward even when he wasn’t pushing his cart. His eyes were so round even a poor photograph could not miss them, round in the way children draw eyes, like notions of eyes, unprotected and lit. He didn’t even wear a beard. And he was not impatient, nor particularly industrious, he was simply kind: the kindness with which he looked at Minna made her face fill with blood.
“Fraylin!”
He was still two yards away. She could still turn around, backtrack, take the next street over. With his cart, he wouldn’t catch her.
“Fraylin!”
Yet she was walking toward him, holding her parcel slightly behind her. And she was smiling—a frightful, aggressive smile that made her cheeks shake.
“Ilya.” And all over again, saying the name drew her back into daydream: a new one: here: she was exactly here, greeting her husband-to-be. There was no journey to make, no unknown man standing on an unknown roof in an unknown city. He was here, smiling back at her. They would not live on an upper floor, but neither in a cellar. He would sell his milk; she would learn to sew properly at last; she would fashion a burlap mannequin, place it in the window, and start a business. Their existence would be remarkably normal—the kind of normal Minna had never even bothered to hope for.
“You’re going on a trip?”
Yes. But Minna couldn’t nod. Her capacity for delusion amazed her: that she could go on thinking these thoughts not an arm’s length away from him, that she could so clearly see a world that would never exist. She was like the women they let out at the asylum in the afternoons, who weaved their way around the grounds in gowns as blank as their minds. Only Minna was worse, because she wasn’t crazy. Yes, was the answer. Yes, Minna was going on a trip. She could not escape her escape, which seemed absurd suddenly, the dangers exaggerated, the solution drastic.
“You don’t feel well?”
His eyes raked the parcel, which felt suddenly heavy in Minna’s hand, heavy enough to pull her sideways and down. She had the urge to follow it, to sit in the street and cry. It was too late, of course. She could not go back to the municipal building now and correct herself, admit that she had lied, say yes, yes I work on my knees, no my “events” do not come every month, they are mysteries, I’ve gone ill-fed for too long, no I do not keep kosher or take the
mikvah
bath or perform charity. I do none of it. I don’t even fear punishment for doing none of it.
“You’re pale.”
“Oh,” said Minna. “I feel fine.” She reached into her new coin purse and extracted one kopeck: the price of the milk bottle she’d stolen.
Ilya did not look at her. He seemed to sense that she did not want to be looked at. He seemed to know what she was doing, and to have forgiven her long before, which only made her fingers on the coin sweat more viciously. She held it out, and when he didn’t move to receive it, she grabbed his wrist and pushed the coin into his palm. “I’m late,” she said, with force.
Ilya looked up. He knew everything, she saw—the milk, her fantasy, the fact that she wasn’t actually late. Yet miraculously, awfully, he forgave her all this, too. His wrist was still in her grasp, his fingers resisting the coin by doing nothing. They were clean fingers—and smelled, she guessed, of his cart’s wooden handle—and knew how not to break hundreds and thousands of glass bottles—and she hated them, suddenly, for allowing her to do what she was doing, for thinking she knew anything at all of what she wanted.
“You mustn’t be late,” he said. And there was no condescension or even amusement in his round eyes, which left Minna with no choice but to pull away, pretend not to hear the coin fall to the ground, and walk toward the train, as she’d promised she would.
SEVEN
O
N a ship this large,” the man shouted, “the sickness is worse! The mind cannot perceive the sea, only the body knows its swells. The body knows the swells like a child knows its desires. But the adult forgets! The mind feels tricked, the mind is stubborn, the mind refuses to believe. It is this resistance, this denial, that leads the body into sickness!”
The man went on, his rant sweeping across Minna like a foghorn. She didn’t know what he meant to say exactly, and she didn’t particularly care: anything to distract from the terrible thunder of the engine. She stood in front of his bunk, holding on to her own up above, the wood trembling in her hands, the floor trembling under her feet, everything trembling as if the ship was about to split apart, and yet the man went on, dancing his fingers through the dank air. He claimed to have been a fisherman once, to have worked on boats no bigger than this bunk, but Minna didn’t believe either was possible: the platforms were so narrow you had to lie perfectly straight, and so short you couldn’t lie straight without kicking the next passenger’s head; and the man’s fingers were thin, too delicate to do rough work. She admired this about him. She admired, too, that he wore a vest, a scarf, a cuffed shirt, and a handkerchief, all of it layered and buttoned and tucked with great care. He was a small, compact man. His beard was trim. Next to him stood a cage holding two white doves. He claimed he was a magician now, but Minna didn’t believe this either—or if it was true she decided it must be a hobby, a gentleman’s diversion. He looked like he could afford better than steerage. Minna had had plans to do the same herself; with all her kopecks combined she’d been ready to pay second class, an indulgence but why not: she would ride in style, as Galina liked to say, and land in style; she would make a clean, ladylike first impression. But at the German border there had been a string of outbuildings in the forest, a fence made of wire, teenage boys shouldering rifles—the kind of station only the Germans could make look official. Payment was optional, the guards grinned. You could pay or you could strip.
Minna considered stripping. She had already done it once, after all, in front of strangers whose own legitimacy was doubtful. There must be, she thought, a law of firsts in such circumstances, a limit to humiliation. Then she saw a group of naked women. She saw the boys with the guns peeing on sticks and shoving the sticks into the women’s faces.
BOOK: The Little Bride
12.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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