Read The Little Bride Online

Authors: Anna Solomon

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

The Little Bride (8 page)

BOOK: The Little Bride
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The work made Minna hungry. Her biscuits had molded, but she ate them anyway, until Faga saw and threw them overboard. Then Faga brought out her own biscuits, a special recipe, she said, that her mother had made before Faga left. Faga broke every one in two and gave Minna halves and a pocket to store them in and they went on working, like that, the biscuits divided precisely between them. It seemed to Minna the kindest thing anyone had done for her in a long time. And though Faga’s mother’s biscuits were heavy as mallets, and made as much noise when they broke between the teeth, they never turned moldy.
In she and Faga went, out they went. Minna learned how many steps it took to cross from the deck’s railing to the hatch. She knew, heading back out into the gray glare, how thinly to squint her eyes to prevent blindness. She could balance on one leg, hold up half a body, and kick a latch closed all at once. In, she held her breath. Out, she inhaled deeply. She would forget to keep her lips closed and catch herself slack-jawed, then shut her mouth until she forgot again.
 
 
 
A
woman was found, her skirts soaked in blood. At first the bearers thought it was a miscarriage, and tried to stanch it with straw, but when they brought the woman outside they saw that the blood was brown, sometimes black, and fell away in clumps like wet paper. Three men fought over who would summon the ship’s doctor—each one wanted to see cabin class, each one must have dreamed he might be adopted and never have to return—until Faga swatted them apart and went herself.
The doctor was mustached, his cheeks and collar clean. His Russian was pure. He looked tired but in a temporary way, as if he’d been playing whist in his cabin for too long. He knelt next to the woman’s head, his lips near her ear—an intimate gesture, Minna thought, until she saw his nostrils convulse and realized he was simply avoiding the woman’s lower half, from which an unspeakable stench was rising. The woman could not make words. No one knew her, or where she was from. As the doctor asked her questions, she nodded her head or shook it, or nodded and shook it at once, her mouth open so wide, baring so many teeth, that her pain began to look like hilarity.
The diagnosis: the woman had been so appalled at the lack of privacy on the ship, she hadn’t emptied herself since they left Hamburg. She hadn’t even urinated until last night, when her bladder began to tear. By now it was too late. Her bowels had ruptured.
The other burials had been infants. Their parents had carried them to the rail, swaddled in the cleanest available linens. Falling, they could have been bundles like any other. Feather beds packed with rolling pins. China. A mortar and pestle.
But this woman could only be handled from the waist up. The men lifted her by the arms, dragged her to the edge, and heaved her up until she was performing a backbend over the rail. The dark, clotting stench trailed after her. The men rocked her slowly, pushing her farther out each time, and when they could no longer reach her arms, or chest, or waist, someone grabbed an oar.
She was unconscious, Faga assured Minna, though she did not look certain; her hand, on Minna’s shoulder, began to shake.
She must have had a weak bowel to begin with, the doctor said. But no one was listening to him anymore.
A woman, falling, was unmistakably a woman. Her boots pointed like a ballerina’s slippers. Her dress flew up around her stained thighs. It might have been better, Minna thought, if they could have undressed her. If they’d made her naked, as she so hated to be, she might have been spared from recognizing the falling woman as herself.
 
 
I
N they went, out they went. Minna felt a growing gratitude for the sick passengers’ abundance, and for their permissiveness. They never felt any better, yet they let the bearers go on, lifting, struggling, bearing. So that the bearers, at least, could feel better. For this, Minna was beginning to suspect, was the true purpose of their work. It might be dull, and repetitive, and irrational, but the act of carrying afforded those who carried a certain pride, even a pleasure. Even Minna experienced this. She let herself indulge it. She found herself itching, during breaks, to get back to work, to go in and out at the prescribed times and pick up the prescribed people and set them down again and start all over. Only in the moments before her break, when she felt the toll of the lifting on her arms and back, did Minna see the cruelty in the system. She would find herself, in a moment of exhaustion, slapping a girl’s cheek to wake her. Or she would glimpse another bearer wiping a forehead roughly, or using a not quite necessary force to heave a sick passenger onto a bunk. She wondered if maybe she and Faga and the other bearers weren’t all that different from the basement doctor and his assistants, or from the German boys in the woods, sustaining themselves on others’ weakness. Maybe the more irrational a system was, the crueler it had to be.
She avoided the eyes of the magician, who still looked the part of a gentleman, who did not leave his bunk except to fetch water and relieve himself. He hoarded the same loaf of bread he’d been eating the whole time, singing, “Magic bread!” He broke off a piece for each bird, then one for himself. “Seawater and oatmeal!” he cried, to anyone who would listen. “Wash yourself with seawater and oatmeal!”
But if there were oatmeal on the boat it would have been eaten already. Faga’s biscuits were running out. Minna shared her sunflower seeds, then these ran out, too. The ship’s soup grew thinner each day, until it was only broth. Even the sick complained of hunger. At first, Minna had dreamed of the simplest food: butter on warm bread. Then it was potato soup, thick with cream, flecked with parsley. Now she dreamed of oranges from Messina, raspberry preserves, a frosted cake like a castle. Someone licked the smell of schmaltz off the mess table. Others snapped splinters off the bunks and chewed. A boy was found dead, in a trunk, curled in his own fluids. No one claimed him. When the bearers came for him, someone had taken the bread from his hand. Minna wondered if dignity was not as formidable as she’d imagined it, neither as elusive nor as profound. If it was merely the ability to keep what belonged inside in, and outside out.
 
 
O
NE morning a cry went up from the bunks nearby: two men warning the magician: they were going to eat his doves.
“What right have you?” they shouted.
The magician called back, “I’ll eat your children!”
“But you have your loaf, you braggart!”
“What if I’m hungry for taste?”
“What could be tastier than a dove?”
“Perform us a trick, Mr. Magician. Make us
all
something tasty!”
“Give us something to love!”
“Let me alone.”
“He can’t do it.”
“He’s a fraud.”
“He’s got contraband in those birdies.”
“When we cook ’em, we’ll be rich!”
“Cook the birds!”
A pounding began, a chorus of hands and feet spreading through the bunks, overwhelming even the engine. The magician, emerging from his bunk, took his time. He tucked his rumpled shirt into his trousers, then buttoned his vest. He winked up at Minna, on her bunk. “A regular humanitarian you’ve become.”
Minna said nothing. Before, she’d stayed away out of vanity, afraid he’d judge her. Now talking to him seemed dangerous.
“You won’t assist me, then?”
But he didn’t wait for her reply. He reached into a bag and spun around to face the crowd.
“No! A trick with the birds!”
His hand emerged, flourishing a set of metal rings.
“Birds, birds, birds, birds!”
The magician began to move. He turned, in a circle, dropping the rings from one hand into the other, showing that they were unattached. He rocked from side to side, on tiptoes, his thin fingers handling the rings with a lithe, shocking tenderness. The calls began to subside. When the magician held the rings aloft—“Eight!”—his voice had filled with a tremulous bass. He held up two rings, one in each hand, then began, slowly, to cross them above his face. He drew them apart, crossed them, drew them apart again, so that they looked like boys in slow motion, teasing for a fight. One of the bearers opened the hatch, letting in more light. A stillness overcame the bunks.
The magician crossed the rings. He brought them close to his face, took a deep breath, and bowed. He let go of one ring, but instead of dropping, it swung from the other ring, linked.
The cheer wavered at first, then grew more solid—a heat off the bunks.
“He’s not done yet!” shouted one of the men. “Don’t let him off!”
The magician held up a third ring. He tossed it in the air, snapped his wrist once, and watched his chain of rings grow into three, then he gathered them into his hand, blew, and placed them, one by one, over his neck. He removed two, held them up, and passed one through the other, followed by his arm. He made a farcical strongman face, his cheeks shaking with effort, then pulled his arm, and the ring, back through. He took more rings off his arms. He made stars. He made diamonds. He linked five rings with one blow, unlinked them with another. People were clapping now, not waiting between tricks.
“So prove it! Show us you’re not a fraud.”
The magician lowered his arms. He closed his eyes. He knit his brow, bit his lips, crouched as if concentrating with his entire being—though Minna was close enough to see a quiver in his lips, a private joy. His arms were fluid as he presented three separate rings, then rigid as he pretended to struggle, banging metal against metal. He grimaced. He seemed to stop trying. Then, suddenly, the rings were linked.
“Hurrah!”
“It’s the same trick! We’ve already seen it!”
The magician bowed in all directions, then faced the man who’d been yelling. He walked up to the man’s bunk, bowed again, and held out three linked rings to the man’s largest child, a boy who looked to be eight or nine. “There! My tools. See for yourself!”
People gathered around the bunk to watch. The boy pulled at each ring in turn, then at two at a time, then went through the process again. He closed his eyes. He gnashed his teeth. The magician stood with his back to the boy, perfectly still, his face full of mockery and triumph. The boy shook the rings. He knocked them against the bunk. His father danced around him, snarling directions, his nostrils glowing with impending humiliation. Finally the boy, exasperated, hurled the rings into the air.
It was then that one fell off, rolled in a circle, and returned to the boy.
All fussing, all encouragement, all jeering, stopped. Minna saw the magician dip his head discreetly, eyeing the remaining rings in his hands. The boy picked up the fallen ring and brought it close to his face. He smiled, though in his smile was a kind of dread. “There’s a hole,” he said—or at least this was what he must have said, he wasn’t loud enough to be heard. It was his father who grabbed the ring and cried, “There’s a hole!”
The magician had drained of color so entirely Minna thought he might fall over. He did not look at her. His eyes were on his bunk. The boy’s father was displaying the ring to the crowd, slipping it onto another ring, showing how they linked, slipping it off again. “It’s simple! A gimmick! Any child could do it!”
He faced the magician, holding a ring in each of his hands, which he’d flung out to either side of his ears as far as they would go so that he bore a certain resemblance to the gentile God.
Still the magician did not turn toward him. “Those are not the right . . . you took the wrong . . .”
“Speak up!” the man growled.
“Those are the wrong . . .”
“Wrong? Right? What is wrong and right in magic? Magic must be magic! How else do you expect us to believe? How else do you expect us to restrain ourselves?Your birds are so plump! And if the rings are not magic, what are the birds?”
“Please . . .”
“It is simple to eat a real bird.”
But the man had taken too long with his gloating. A flash of white streaked past Minna. Galina’s sheet. Moses’ bandage. He was running the birdcage toward the hatch. The man went after him for a few strides, quickly lost the chase, stopped. He turned back, and ran at the magician.
When the cage was returned empty, the magician had been beaten, but he wasn’t dead. If I wasn’t so fucking hungry, the man kept saying as he shook and punched and kneed, if I wasn’t hungry, I’d finish this right. Then he took the magician’s bread, and left him alone.
 
 
 
I
F the passengers had known that the next day the sea would fall flat, that the gray sky would come undone with sun, perhaps events would have unfolded differently. Perhaps no one would have behaved so poorly if they’d known how close they were to the end: when the hatches were thrown open to the light, there was relief, yes, but also a woozy agony: people moved timidly, guarding faces with elbows, as if remembering a shameful dream that was dreamed too close to the surface of sleep. There was confusion. Minna and Faga felt it, too—they looked at each other shyly. This was the moment everyone had been waiting for. This was the whole point, to come out on the other side, this was what their friends or fathers or sons had done before them, and yet it suddenly seemed as if it would be easier to go back. One forgot that the ship was not the world, in part because of its rocking or your nausea or your need for bread, and in part because you had to guard yourself: if you thought of other people on other ships, making the same crossing a hundred miles to the north or to the south, or if you thought of a house you’d left behind, a particular corner, a doorknob, the scent of a particular drawer, or of the places you had yet to live in, the dish pattern you had yet to eat from, it would seem as though you supposed that you might disembark the ship one day. And if you imagined such an invention as a roller coaster, awaiting you on the far shore; or the game of baseball, awaiting your sons; if you imagined future people, on future ships, with ballrooms, say, and swimming pools, ships people would board for pleasure, for a notion of daring minus any real dare, if you imagined one day being one of these people—it would be as if you aimed to do more than not die.
BOOK: The Little Bride
10.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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