Read The Little Bride Online

Authors: Anna Solomon

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

The Little Bride (9 page)

BOOK: The Little Bride
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Land looked at first like a storm. A piling on of clouds at the horizon, a confession of anger, which suddenly revealed itself to be solid. Trees, rocks, city.
The magician became abruptly penitent, and sociable. In the new light, Minna saw that he looked like anyone else. His cuffs were yellow, his scarf and vest stained with bird droppings. His right eye was black from his beating. His beard was crusted around his mouth. He walked around, finding the Jews and handing them razor blades.
“I’ve heard it from relatives, I’ve heard it from on high! With a beard it will take twice as long to get through. With
, four times! Do it now. God will forgive. You can grow it back later if you must.”
He demonstrated his courage and technique by shaving himself in front of a group of men—“Magic, now,
is real magic!”—then moved about from bunk to bunk, showing everyone the results.
Moses stopped at Minna’s bunk. She was combing her hair; she’d been combing it for so long it had started to crackle. Moses didn’t seem to notice. He was watching the magician, and shaking his head. “You know?” he said. “I tried to free his birds. But they wouldn’t fly. They fell straight into the water. And now I am barely sorry.”
INNA found Faga on the other side of the inspection line. She was waiting just outside the door, for Minna clearly, yet when Minna approached to say good-bye, Faga nodded cordially and said, “Good luck, dear.” There was nothing of the embrace Minna had expected, and wanted, just a little.
“Thank you,” Minna answered. She started to wish Faga good luck, too, then stopped; she worried Faga might be insulted. They hadn’t been peers exactly. Faga had been older and stronger. And now Minna was going off to start a new life while Faga continued her old one, washing clothes, albeit in a new place. Faga had heard all about Minna’s house, with its running water and comfortable bed and even—possibly! Minna had added, for accuracy’s sake, because Faga seemed to trust her—possibly even a servant. So it seemed natural that Faga might be a little jealous.
“I’m going this way,” Faga said, pointing toward the city.
“I’m waiting here. He’s supposed to meet me here.”
Faga touched a finger to Minna’s cheek. She smiled. It was a gentle smile for such a large woman. And Minna understood. Faga wasn’t jealous. She simply wanted for Minna what Minna wanted for herself, and didn’t want to get in the way.
“Don’t worry,” Faga said. “You’re worried, don’t worry. Just keep your eyes up, that you’ll see the handsome man.” Then she walked away, her chin high, her dress jangling with spoons.
INNA Losk.”
Hearing her name, whole, confused her. It sounded like a cousin’s name might—related to her, but distantly. She stood still, in the spot where she’d been instructed to stand, waiting to hear it again.
The voice was deep. The man who appeared before her was short and thick. His nose was broad and bulbous. He wore a strange hat, perfectly round, and a collar without a collar: it simply ended, like a ledge, at his neck.
“I’m not Max,” he said, and smiled as if to reassure her.
“Who’s Max?”
“Max Getreuer. Your husband. Husband-to-be.”
Minna was indeed reassured. Though the name Max struck her as a bit small—gone as soon as it was said, leaving an itch in the back of the mouth. “Then who are you?” she asked.
“Jacob.” He held out a plump hand. “I was sent by Max to
An English word, do you know any English? No? We’ll stick to Yiddish, then—for now. They said you were fair—and here you are. Shake hands, shake hands. Don’t make me look a fool.”
Minna gave him her hand, which Jacob proceeded to pump up and down. His voice, she heard, was growing higher, and up close she saw that his beardlessness was not a result of having shaved. His skin was nearly as smooth as hers, with a faint smudge above his lip as though he’d been rubbed with coal. He was a boy, probably younger than she.
“Where is Max?” she asked.
“Oh, he’s not such a
traveler. Do you know that one,
—no, of course not. And he’s busy, Max. Very busy.”
Jacob grinned as if he’d made a joke. Behind him, Minna saw the quiet girls whose fathers or brothers or husbands had not yet come for them being gathered together by a woman in a feathered hat, who was calling, “Clean rooms! Clean rooms!” The woman’s boots were pointed, and polished; her dress was wide with petticoats; she held a parasol against the sun. Minna guessed the woman was either entirely legitimate, or else a kidnapper. “Come, girls!” she trilled. “Come with me, clean rooms! Do not be led astray!”
“How far are we traveling?” she asked.
“Not far.” Jacob grinned again. “Far. Four days—maybe five.” He saw Minna’s alarm. “It’s not so bad, you’ll see, if you like that sort of thing.”
“What sort of thing?”
“Oh. The world, I guess. You look uncertain. Well. No one except me is ever certain about anything. The train leaves in an hour. Are you hungry?”
Minna laughed—at the boy, at the absurdity of his question. Her legs felt suddenly weak. The stones beneath her swelled and rocked. She looked out beyond the arrival station—Castle Garden, they called it, as if here one could be processed and stamped into nobility—and saw NewYork City. It was dark, compared to Odessa, and tall. The mouths of the streets looked like tunnels.
“There’s anything you could want, all sold off carts. Sausages, rolls, nuts, coffee. Every street a market. Anything you could dream of. This morning I bought this hat! You like? None’s kosher, of course, but until we’re back on Max land that’s all right with me. Of course I shouldn’t presume. The lady may feel differently.” Jacob did a little jump, lifting his round hat. “Does the lady feel differently?”
Minna giggled and shook her head. If she had the energy, she thought, if she were not stuck with him, she would probably avoid a boy as overeager as Jacob. At the very least she’d be embarrassed for him. He was like a boy actor playing a man actor playing a boy. She followed him into the narrow streets, stumbling as she learned to walk on land again, her feet slamming it unexpectedly. Jacob bought her meat on a stick, then meat in a roll—“Compliments of Max,” he said. “Thank Max!”—then a cup of coffee which scalded her throat. She asked for another cup, to see if Max could afford it, and because she wanted to be awake to see the city.
But no matter how hard she tried to pay attention, Minna would not remember many details. Less than a mile to the east, a great bridge rose above a river, shining in its newness, but they didn’t know to go look. She would remember the streets: the hard, dark stone, America’s granite; the smell of grease and smoke. Brick and marble and carriages and cripples. The whole way to the rail yards one long stumble, her ears vibrating with the ghost of the ship’s engine. New York, she would think—New York, she would say, years later, once she’d found the right words, and then honed her delivery, once she’d begun attending the sorts of evening gatherings where one said such things—New York is like being in the middle of a parade where everyone has been called home, all at once, in all different directions.
Then she was on a train again, and Jacob had enough money to buy them a bench—“praise be to Max”—and before they left the platform, she fell asleep.
T felt like days, her sleep. She woke only when the train stopped, and even then she woke in sleep, her head flopping against the window. She dreamed the kind of dreams that seem to be dreams of other dreams. She dreamed of Galina curled up in a trunk, and in the trunk a hole leading to the sea. She dreamed of Galina, afraid, not knowing how to swim. Faga holding Galina in her arms, rocking her, cooing. She dreamed she was on a train across America, dreaming. She dreamed of the men who’d shaved, per the magician’s instructions, and of the stark white outlines left by their beards, so that as they stood at Castle Garden awaiting inspection, they looked more bearded than they ever had when they actually were.
Minna felt something touching her face. This went on for years, the fingers traveling her features, again and again, as if the toucher did not trust that Minna was still Minna from one moment to the next. When she finally woke, she was gazing through her own fingers. The train was passing through a woods so thick with ferns it looked bottomless. For a long moment she couldn’t say what continent she was on, then she turned to see Jacob, smiling.
“You’re alive!” He handed her a roll and a square of cheese. “We’re past Pittsburgh. You missed it. Gorgeous, filthy place.”
“Where are we going?”
“Sodokota. That way.” He pointed ahead. “It’s not the most cosmopolitan place, but there’s plenty of land. Well. Plenty of grass and rocks. Yes. I can see you know all about it.” He bent over his lap, removed a long blade of grass he’d tucked into one boot, as if to demonstrate—Grass!—then straightened back up. “Didn’t they tell you anything?”
“I don’t know. Whoever Max wrote off to—he’s not a detail man. Or at least he didn’t tell us any details. Where you’re coming from, for instance.”
Jacob let out a whistle. “City of Thieves?” He set the grass between his teeth and let it bounce as he talked. “Well. I won’t lie. Where we’re going, in a word, it’s not Odessa. You could call it a farm, but it’s not really that yet either. We’ve got chickens, one horse, one cow. A mule who may or may not be alive by our return. A tool approximating a plow.”
Minna couldn’t tell if he was joking. She couldn’t imagine him a farmhand, though she could imagine him pretending to be. “How long have you worked for Max?” she asked.
“Oh . . .” Again that slippery grin. “As long as I can remember.”
“And still the farm is not a farm?”
“We’ve only been there one year.”
“And before that?”
“Well. In a word. We were just like you. Sailed into NewYork two years ago, hungry as dogs, then got sent to Cincinnati, where the rich old Jews liked us plenty. They housed us and fed us and gave us English lessons and jobs in a furniture factory. Very kind, the rich old Jews. But then people like us kept coming, and they weren’t so happy anymore. Imagine. Their dilemma!” Jacob drew in his chin and spoke in a booming voice. “‘How will we teach so many, all at once, how to dress properly, and clip their beards to a hygienic length, and walk without their feet flopping and their heads in the sky, and talk without their hands flailing, and tell their women to stop looking, every one, like a widow?!’ You can imagine. They’d worked so hard to prove that they weren’t dirty Jews, and then here we were, thousands of dirty Jews! They sent us out into the towns, in a word. But some, who were willing, they sent further.” Jacob raised a finger. “As a farmer,” he mimicked, “even a Jew can be free! He can build a new Palestine!” He laughed. “
Am Olam
, they called us. Eternal People. As if the name would be enough to sell us on the scheme. Well. It was. The rich old boys . . . well, the rich old boys backed by the richest of them all, the Baron de Vintovich himself, the man who’s concocted the whole mess, they gave us money for tools, and food for the first year—though Max only took half of what they offered.”
“He’s proud?” It was the only question Minna could think to ask, though the answer, she understood, was beside the point. Jacob wasn’t joking. They were headed for a farm. Or a not even-a-farm.
“Proud. Yes. And suspicious. Most of us who joined were sent to colonies like Bethlehem Yehuda. New Jerusalem. There’s even a New Odessa! But good old Max thought it couldn’t be a good idea—so many Jews crammed together all over again. So he decided to go it alone.”
“Did you want to go to a colony?” Minna asked.
“Of course!”
“Then why stay with him?”
A look of despair crossed Jacob’s face. “Well. In a word. Actually.” He winced. “Max is my father. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to trick you. Oh, it’s not funny anymore, I know. Maybe it wasn’t ever funny. Samuel says I’m never funny actually.”
“Who’s Samuel?”
“My brother. He might have come for you, he’s older and most say smarter—and better-looking, too, nose like a Roman—but he’s also the only one of us with half a wit about the farm.”
Minna said nothing. It was hard to tell if the train had sped up or her blood had slowed down.
“I guess they didn’t tell you about the stepmother part. You don’t look pleased, I must say. You look downright
, in fact—now there’s a good one for you. You’ll understand soon enough. But I can assure you, we’re good boys. Samuel’s not half the ass I am. At least not so plainly.”
Minna refused to look at him.
“Don’t worry,” Jacob said. “We’ll survive.”
“I didn’t come here to survive.” This was said before Minna could stop herself from saying it, her voice one she hadn’t heard in years, sharp and stubborn—
thick as clay
, her aunts used to say. The passing trees seemed to be watching her, instead of the other way around. Behind her, Jacob laughed.
BOOK: The Little Bride
10.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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