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Authors: Anna Solomon

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

The Little Bride (7 page)

BOOK: The Little Bride
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She paid the toll. And what she had left she spent at the docks in Hamburg, on oranges and apricots and long, heavy, powdery grapes, then on chocolate and walnut brittle, then at the last minute, reprimanding herself for her frivolity, on dehydrated biscuits. Then she ate all of it except the biscuits before the boat even boarded. And so here she was, in steerage, with nothing but biscuits and the sunflower seeds she’d bought her last day in Odessa. She hadn’t expected it to be so foul. She hadn’t expected to long for the hard cot in Galina’s attic.
“You must teach your mind humility!”
Minna had been warned, like all the single girls, against talking to strangers. She’d been warned on the train and on the roads and at the checkpoints and on the docks, by mothers and rabbi’s wives and women who had nothing better to do than shake their fingers at her.
Talk to strangers, you’ll become a slave. You’ll wind up in places you never meant to be. Brazil. Texas. Evil places. You’ll do things you’d never do in your worst nightmares.
But Minna knew the kinds of girls who’d get themselves caught in such a mess. Girls who were taught suspicion, but only of evil spirits; doubt, but only that they would reach heaven. Even before she left the village, Minna hadn’t been one of these girls. Her father would say, as their fathers said, “This is done, this is not done,” but then, unlike their fathers, he would promptly do the opposite himself. He’d lost his willpower; he swung between drink and abstinence, cleanliness and filth. And so Minna learned that it was
this
world you couldn’t trust. She developed instincts. And this man, her instincts told her, was not out to enslave her. Through the cage, with a thin wrist, he stroked his doves; his hands were absentminded, languorous, another sign that he’d known leisure. Galina would call him a
feygele
and Minna thought it could be true.
“The humbled mind lets go, and is released!”
That the man spewed nonsense didn’t bother Minna. Just the opposite, in fact; it made him seem wholly indifferent to the dim squalor around him. The engine roared, the people were poor, an accordion wobbled, a baby screamed—yet the magician was somehow insulated. Exempt. Respectable. Which was how Minna intended to be.
 
 
 
B
Y the second day, the floor was slick with vomit. People argued: it was something in the water; no, it was a storm; it was always like this; no, it wasn’t usually this bad. The ones who spoke in Yiddish or Russian, Minna understood, but she couldn’t see how their debates would be of any use. Each time the boat tilted, the sick passengers groaned with the engine. By the fourth morning, they’d started to cry. They muttered unintelligibly, or in foreign languages. The air was too warm—it smelled of rye and urine. A baby died. From light to dark to light, the hold was the same, a vibrating, steamy swamp. A small band of passengers ferried the sick out to the fresh air of the deck and threw buckets of seawater across the floor. Out they would go, in they would come again, led by a man with a bandage wrapped around his head who seemed to think that such ministrations made a difference. They didn’t. People kept vomiting. The air vibrated and steamed. Minna’s head felt like a child’s toy being cranked, its springs about to explode. She waited for the nausea to find her. She swung her head left and right, pursuing vertigo. Only the well, she thought, would go mad.
Yet each morning, she was well. She began to feel as she had in the village, surrounded by other children yet unable to play their games, to follow the rules. There were hundreds of rules.
Always count each other like this—“Not-one, not-two, not-three . . .”—so as not to entice the Angel of Death. Don’t walk backward; for every step you take backward, your parents will burn in hell for as many years. Playing with fire will make you a bed wetter. Eating the first crust of bread will make you stupid.
Minna knew—knowing was her problem—that it was all laughable. She told Galina once about the counting and Galina nearly fell over cackling. “The backward Yids!” she cried, and Minna ended the story there. She never told her how strongly she’d wanted to join the other children. If she believed in the rules, she’d thought, if she believed in God, obedience would come easily. If she feared, like the others, she would be free of choice, and therefore of sin, and she would no longer have to fear. Yet something in Minna had resisted. There was her sense that the other children sneered at her behind her back. There was her stubbornness—her pride—her father’s pride. There was her tendency to stand apart: what her aunts called her dim-wittedness.
She sat hunched in her bunk, facing the wall, cracking sunflower seeds between her teeth. She couldn’t hear the crack; she only knew it had occurred when she felt a stabbing in her gums, and tasted the hull fall away from the bitter seed, and smelled, or imagined she smelled, over the bile, something of land. She spit the hulls into her palm and tossed them over her shoulder. The ship bucked, the bunk bruised her bottom. Minna continued to feel immoderately, noxiously sober. She thought of the “doctor” recommending she put on weight “en route” and wanted to cry. She wondered if there were other Rosenfeld girls on the ship. She’d looked for them on the docks; she felt she would recognize them, somehow, and that they would recognize her. But most of the girls on the docks had been huddled together, in packs. Other Rosenfeld girls would probably ride second class. They would not have succumbed, like Minna, to grapes and chocolate.
She pulled out her photograph.
In the dark of her bunk, the picture held new possibilities. She covered his hands with her thumbs and liked the way he kept them in his pockets: he was a man with his own secrets, his own vices, a man who wanted but did not need a woman. She pressed two fingers, vertically, to the edge of the picture: a house, tall and lean and white; her longer finger the chimney. She hid the man’s feet and liked that he was not so tall that he could afford to slouch. She took out her new comb and, as he watched, tugged the snarls out of her hair.
Yet sometimes she couldn’t help but glimpse the photograph unembellished. She saw details she’d missed, or chosen to miss, when he was first handed to her. The hands were empty and nervous, hanging awkwardly at his sides. The pants were too short. The toes pointed outward. The knees were locked.
She folded him back up, slid him away again, gone.
But on the fifth day, the problems worsened in front of her eyes. The pants seemed up to his knees now. His neck was gooselike, shrivelly, to match his toes. He was fearful and ugly.
In desperation she set Galina’s parcel in her lap. She had saved this pleasure as long as she could, and she unwrapped the sheet gravely, methodically, pretending her fingers belonged to someone more delicate, taking time, at each unfolding, to smooth any wrinkles. She had nothing but time. But Galina’s work was hasty, nothing more than a rough winding of cloth, and the contents spilled out before Minna was prepared: stuffed in with the pillow was a fall of silk, the color of . . . she held it up, then brought it down, trying to see without drawing attention to herself. Lilac. She was almost certain. She found a neckline, trimmed with lace. A hem, more lace. A white satin belt. Attached to the belt was a note, in Galina’s surprisingly graceful handwriting, the product of private tutors:
When my mother wore this, it was very modern, very up-to-date.
“Help.”
The man stood in front of Minna’s bunk, the right side of his head and jaw wrapped in a bandage—which was simply a rag, she saw, blackened with filth. He was the one who led the “bearers,” as Minna had come to think of them. In and out they went, carrying the sick, though it never helped: the patients didn’t revive; the babies didn’t stop dying. In his arms was a girl, Minna’s age perhaps, or younger, or older—it was impossible to tell anymore how old anyone was.
Minna stuffed the wedding dress into the pillowcase and hid the bundle behind her. “I don’t feel well,” she said. “And my hand hurts.” Which was true, but barely—her sprain from her final night at Galina’s was almost healed.
“I can’t hear you,” called the man, “and I don’t care what you’re saying. Get down from there and help. The only person who’s done less is your downstairs neighbor, and he’s got his filthy pigeons for an excuse.”
The man was not large. He didn’t look particularly strong. He was working hard, it was clear, to hold up the girl. Yet Minna felt an odd immobility, a heady delight at staring down at him. His Yiddish was the old kind that sounded like a song, the kind spoken by the oldest men in the smallest villages, yet he was young, so it only made him seem more self-righteous. Minna couldn’t help herself. She leaned down and shouted: “What happened to your face?”
He narrowed his eyes. “You would like to know?”
“Yes!”
“Come down and I’ll tell you.”
“I’d rather not.”
“I can’t hold her up forever.”
Minna shrugged. Where she’d come up with this game, what she wanted from it, she didn’t know. All she knew was that she didn’t want to work on the man’s useless assembly line. She didn’t want to work for anyone but herself, in her own house; and even then, not carrying work. Certainly not carrying other people. She willed herself to throw up, but her stomach was calm as a stone. Then the man had suddenly handed off his burden and jumped halfway up the bunk to face her. He yanked off his rag and glared. Minna flinched. But there was no blood, no deformity. There was only the man’s forehead, pouring sweat, and a vague imbalance to his face, so vague she could not at first locate it, until he shook his head roughly and she saw: one earlock swung at his cheek, but the other was missing. Only a few uneven hairs were left, ugly as chewed thread, sprouting from a patch of raw, red skin.
“There you are. Your Majesty. The Russians had no shears. They used rocks to shred it off.” Then, to himself, “Forgive me, God, I use my wounds as money.” He gripped the bunk and pulled himself closer. He might be crazy, she thought, the kind of crazy that compulsively shared the most personal business, like the drunk who used to roam through Beltsy, stooping into people’s faces and listing off his sins. “Say what you think,” he commanded Minna through clenched teeth. “Say you think it was our fault. You think we did not resist. We asked for it. We are weak. We are men of air. Say it.”
Minna had heard of synagogues where the men had gone on praying even as the windows were smashed. In Balta, two towns over from Beltsy, there had been a pregnant woman who volunteered herself to be shot, as long as her other children were spared. But Minna’s thought, right now, was that she hadn’t thought about these events—she hadn’t thought about anything—as thoroughly as the man accused her of thinking about him. Who could bear to? She thought, despite herself, that she liked being called
Your Majesty.
Then she saw the man anew, as if she were looking down on a forest; she saw how in the midst of his thick hair and thick beard, his clearing of flesh was perverse. Like a cat’s asshole suddenly exposed.
“Or would you rather not, Your Majesty? Would you rather come down from there and be what you are?”
“Stop,” she said. “Please stop.”
What she did next, she knew, would look like charity to a bystander. Even she would look back one day and think she’d acted out of a sudden, selfless grace. But in truth she did it out of desperation: she simply couldn’t stand to look at his repulsive wound.
Galina’s sheet, between her teeth, tasted of lavender and vodka; it tasted, compared to the air in the hold, almost appetizing. She tore a strip from end to end, wrapped it quickly around the man’s head, and tied it off tight.
He didn’t thank her, but neither did he protest. He looked less crazy, more ashamed.
So she had ruined her trousseau. It had been pitiful anyway.
 
 
 
A
s Minna carried the sick, she did not look at the bandaged man. He was the bearers’ Moses, but Minna refused to be one of his followers. She was determined not to look apologetic, or poor, or contented with her lot. She adopted a birdlike way of carrying so that her underarms would stay dry, and tried for a face like Galina’s grandmother, who’d stared coolly out from the gilded portrait above the mantel, whose lips looked as if they’d never been apart. Minna’s partner in carrying was a Belarusian laundress named Faga, a large woman who talked about the mother she’d left behind, the cousins who awaited her in Chicago, the spoons she carried in her dress, the candlesticks she kept lashed in her bootlaces. Faga belched and laughed and cried as she talked, as though it was always the first time she was hearing about her own life. A useful skill, Minna supposed, to be entertained by oneself, yet also embarrassing and unbecoming. And Faga’s seeming familiarity with everyone they encountered, her easy smile, her lack of apology for her wide hips and shelf of a bosom, all this produced in Minna a discomfort she could bear only by turning it to judgment. Faga’s calves were thick with fat and candlesticks. She carried a rag at all times, not a handkerchief but a rag, to wipe her nose and hands, to soak up the sweat from her brow. Her arms were thick as a man’s, as if she intended to keep doing this kind of work.
“Watch you don’t trip!” Faga called gaily as Minna backed out through the hatch, her fingers slipping in the wet armpits of a girl whose skin had begun to resemble the ship’s drinking water.
The sickest girls were the quiet ones, the ones Minna was not—girls whose husbands or brothers or fathers had gone ahead and sent for them. Their main fear when they’d boarded the ship was enslavement in a strange, tropical land. Now they mumbled that they wanted to die. They wanted a cup of tea. Milk. Slivovitz. Every so often, they gained focus and became aware of the hands on them. Their heads flew up. Their limbs stiffened. They speared Minna and Faga with their eyes.
“There,” Faga would say. “There there, we’re almost there.” Though they were never almost anywhere but the place they’d been half an hour ago. Each group was allowed only a set amount of time in the fresh air. Then they were carried in again, and another group brought out. These were the rules, dictated by Moses.
BOOK: The Little Bride
11.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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