“In The Time of Dreams,” from The Girls of Jerusalem

 

“In The Time of Dreams” is a story from The Girls of Jerusalem set in Birobidzhan, the colloquial name for the area in Russia that was officially called the Jewish Autonomous Region, which was to be that country’s answer to the “Jewish Question” through Jewish resettlement and colonization. Many Jews saw it as an ideological alternative to Zionism and as an opportunity for autonomous statehood. I dreamed my way into Anna, a young woman from Lublin who travels alone with high hopes, money stolen from her abusive stepfather, and 600 rubles promised if she went to settle the land. Once there, she finds a husband, a lover, and a much different life than the one that was promised.

 

            It was not a land of milk and honey— that was clear from the outset— but a country of densely wooded forests, of green firs and birch trees. Softly graded hills overlooked the river  above the town, with soil that was good for almost nothing unless you dug deeper for coal, copper, and gold.

            The first time Anna saw it, in the middle of April l932, snow had come down those hills and covered the trees with a sheen that turned luminescent in the dim light.

            “Can you beat that?” she said to no one in particular, ”snow in April.”

            The few passengers left on the train remained silent.  They had barely spoken, even though they'd been on board almost as many days as she. The train ride was tedious. She had spent several nights of it sitting up, her head nodding off to one side, trying to stay awake. For what, she wasn't certain. Looking out, all she could see was her own reflection, a face as round as the moon that hung like a stage decoration in the sky, a long, pale nose and forehead and shadowed eyes that stared into the opaque shapes that closed in on her, desolate and unfriendly. She hoped it was not an augur of what was to come.

            Anna was wearing a shirtwaist and a long coat that had belonged to one of her older sisters, boots and warm undergarments. But she was still cold as ice when she arrived, and the conductor unloaded her suitcase and possessions at the station. Some of her fellow passengers were getting off too — a few men, but no other women except for herself.

            Someone was there to meet her. A Miss Judith Becker, who wore thick glasses, and who held out a gloved hand.

            “Are you Anna, the new girl?"

            “Yes,” she said, relieved that they had expected her, after all.

            It had been arranged in advance, and she was happy that she had arrived soon after the sun had risen.

            “It’s not that far,” Judith said as they walked through the slushy streets. Then she bent down to take one of the suitcases.

            “Here, let me help you,” she offered. “I expect you’re not used to snow this late in the year. But we often get it just when it seems that winter is finally over.” Then she added, “You’ll be working in the chicken coops and helping in the kitchen, at least at first. The women and men live separately, dormitory style, but they eat together in the dining room. Most of us are new here. After a few days you’ll feel right at home.”

            They passed small wooden houses made out of logs, and dark forms moving through them like swimmers under water. The town looked naked and forlorn. But it was too late now to back out.  

            Anna came from Lublin, with its fine buildings and houses and renowned schools, where scholars came from all over to study.  Her fare had been paid, and she was promised 600 rubles if she stuck it out. She was not the only new girl, though, she found out soon enough. Others had come, too. It was a country for the young, for those who were strong.

            At that time the village was a ramshackle place with muddy streets at the eastern edge of Russia, shoring up the Chinese border.  It was a raw land, set aside for the Jews, filled with people seeking a new life, hoping they could leave poverty and oppression behind. Some came by rail as she had; others by ship from other countries; and some with horses and wagons filled with their life possessions tied with rope; a few in dilapidated old cars. The houses themselves appeared to lean together, huddled for warmth and companionship. A small number of people in the village still lived in tents and sod houses underground. During the day the children looked about them like moles that had been left too long in darkness, their mothers also pinched and worn with hardship. They came from almost every country, but the faces looked the same. All Jews.

            The tsar had been dead for fifteen years, and now the revolution was still trying to create a new order. Lenin had given them hope. Stalin was continuing the work, while finding a way to solve the Jewish problem, too. Yes, this barren outpost had been chosen for them. So there were Jewish faces, but if you looked deeply into their eyes, you could see the sadness and despair and disappointment, the toll of endless work and poverty, the heat and rain and mosquitoes and disease, and bitter cold in winter, the effort to plant crops and make sure they grew and thrived.

            Not far off, wild animals roamed the country.  Somewhere out there was danger. Who knew what was out there?

 

***

 

The morning after Anna arrived, she and Lena, another new girl, paired off and went together to feed the hens and gather fresh eggs. It was safer that way, protecting them from both man and beast that might take them by surprise.

            "There are no rules here," Judith had told her,  "except what is good for the new society that is being born."

            Eventually there would be a school, a theater where plays were put on, and a group that had services in someone’s house, although religion was not encouraged and few people came. In the beginning, there was the expectation that things would be different: Jews would finally be like other people. It was still an age of possibility and a time for dreams.

* * *

Lying awake in her simple bed at night, with other young women on either side of her, Anna would listen to the wind rattling the thin panes of glass, and to the howling of wolves. But then she sank deeper and deeper into sleep, worn out, and roamed back to Lublin in dreams so vivid that she was not sure where she was when she bolted awake in the middle of the night. In her dreams, she walked familiar streets and slept in her girlhood bed with a comforter of goose feathers instead of a hard wooden one with only a cloth blanket to keep her warm.

            Anna was almost all alone in the world. Her sisters were married and busy raising their own families, and now her mother was dead.  She refused to serve as a footstool for her stepfather— who banged on the table for his dinner— as her mother had done. She was pretty because she was young, but she also knew that she wouldn’t be pretty forever. As her mother aged, her face had grown wizened: furrows had planted themselves in her forehead, the color in her hair dulled, and her skin grew yellow.

            After Anna’s father died, her mother took in wash, carrying bundles through the snow and cold, forever at her washboard and iron. Finally, she had married again, a man who beat her every Saturday night after the Sabbath was over.  When her mother’s heart gave out at last, Anna planned her escape. She decided to apply to an organization that gave girls like her money to come to this forsaken place.

            A land for Jews. She couldn't even imagine it: a place where they would speak Yiddish, their own language, have their own schools, work the soil themselves, and own their own homes. After she had been there for a while, though, and the novelty wore off, she found it was not so different after all. There were good and bad people everywhere, cheats and thieves, those she liked and those she didn’t, and others who were lazy and just plain stupid too.

 

***

 

One afternoon when her stepfather was sleeping, she had taken a few coins that he owed her and left his loathsome body in bed snoring. She would have liked to murder him too, but she didn’t.

            “Which way to Tihonka?” she asked.

            “And what takes you there?” the stationmaster responded, as though if he didn’t like her answer, he would refuse to sell her a ticket.

            “My husband lives there,” she said quickly, “He’s sending for me.”

            The man looked at her hard, his eyes narrowing with displeasure.

            “A likely story,” he said, but took her money nonetheless. “The fact is, you can’t go straight there. You have to take the train to Moscow first,”

            “Well, then, a ticket to Moscow.” When he slipped a ticket beneath the grill, she noticed that his fingers were greasy and soiled.

            “You tell him hello for me when you get there,” he said.

            “I’ll do that. You bet I will,” she returned sharply, giving him back some of his rudeness. He was mocking her, she knew, because she was poor and she was a Jew.

 

***

 

Every day she awoke now at five and went downstairs to make a fire before she baked the bread. The summer passed quickly, hot and rainy, and suddenly it was only a memory. The days grew shorter as fall approached, dark and colder.

            Standing in the kitchen, looking out the window at the vast fields and overcast horizon, she could no longer remember a time she hadn’t been here. In the summer, Anna and some of the other girls had picked berries in the woods on their days off until their lips turned bright red, eating and drinking the bread and wine they’d brought, and lying in the thick grass before going down to the river. They took off their shoes and lifted their skirts to wade into the cool water. Once, that first summer, after it had rained for weeks, the river flooded its banks, forcing them to move to higher ground. The land was marshy and the mosquitoes unbearable, but they were young, eager to enjoy themselves even here.

            Sometimes men would come too, on these outings  —young, single men who wore white tunics, jodhpurs and jaunty caps on their heads. It was cool on the hillside, and they picked bouquets of flowers to bring back to the bare rooms of the places where they were staying.

            One of the men was Avigdor Gurevitch. He was tall and strong and well-built, and next to Anna he seemed like a Jewish giant. His hands were the largest hands that she had ever seen. As if to make up for his size, he was quiet and gentle and serious, with a mustache that she thought would tickle if he ever kissed her. He kept stealing glances at her.

            “Anna, Anna,” he said, “you’re as beautiful as your name.”

            She blushed. How could she tell him that she was wondering what it would feel like to have those large, comfortable arms around her, to have his body pressing down upon her—but suddenly the men were running down the hill, throwing off their boots to jump in the water. Only Avigdor hung back. “I can’t swim,” he said, embarrassed. “I never learned.”

            “Neither can I,” Anna admitted.

            The confession brought them closer together. Anna looked closely at him now. His eyes were deep brown and kind, and beneath his mustache, his lips curved into a smile.

            “I want to give you something,” he said and left her.

            When he came back he was holding tiny white flowers shaped like stars. He pulled her to her feet with his free hand and bent down to kiss her on the lips. It startled her and she drew back. Her head was spinning. She had never been kissed before. Not like that. The hard force of his mouth felt wet against her own, his tongue searching out the hidden spaces of her soul so deeply that she shivered even though it was a hot day.

            After that he hung around, surprising her in the kitchen, or as she was coming back from gathering the eggs.   

            Lena told her, “He’s after you, Anna. Can’t you see that?”

            Finally Avigdor cornered her when she was outside, hanging up the wet sheets to dry.

            “I’m tired of meeting you like this,” he complained. “I know a place where we can be alone.”

            “And where is that?”

            “An abandoned house. The family left. They woke up one morning and walked out after their baby died, leaving everything behind.”

            All week she debated whether she should go. But when Saturday evening came she found herself hurrying to the place where he had told her he would be. It was on the outskirts of town, and when she lifted the latch and went inside, she knew how Goldilocks must have felt. Nothing had been touched. The table was spread with a tablecloth, and the cupboard still held dishes and groceries.  Even the beds were neatly made up. Anna tried to picture this family. She felt like an intruder. Everything was left, even a jar of tea leaves.

            She found Avigdor in the garden gathering tomatoes. When she called to him, he came in carrying an armload of them. “They were ripe on the vine, waiting for someone to pick them.”

            “All this going to waste. What a pity,” Anna said, and thought that she would put up preserves for winter.

            “We could live here,” Avigdor suggested, “if you marry me.”

            “But I barely know you."

            “What does that matter?”

            “Love matters,” Anna said thoughtfully, because it had just occurred to her.

             “But I love you."

             Anna didn’t say it back. She was not sure if she loved him or not, but his presence made her feel so light-headed that she had to catch her breath, feeling the quickening of her heart beating faster around him.

            She boiled water and steeped the tea leaves in a teapot she found in the cupboard. Using another woman’s things, she tried to slip into that unknown life and the grief that had consumed her, for she felt sure that there had indeed been terrible grief. The baby’s empty high chair stared back at her. They drank their tea and sat and talked,

            Avigdor told her that he had grown up in a village not far from Moscow, where he had been taunted by his classmates for being so large, and for being a Jew. Once he had gone to St. Petersburg during the White Nights with his brother, and they had roamed the streets all night, when the light was almost as bright as during the day, joining in the festivities until it was time to come home.

            He was the youngest in his family, and now his parents, who had fought poverty ever since he could remember, were old. He wanted a new life, a different kind of life, and that was why he had come here, to work for something with his own hands. Now he was one of the loggers who went out into the forests to cut down trees and transport them along the river.

 

***

 

They talked until darkness had crept over the house and thrown an icy stillness around them, and when he drew his arms around her and pressed his flesh into hers, she knew that eventually she would give in to him. Not long after, she did just that.

            As soon as she took off her clothes, he gathered her in his arms, and she could feel her naked breasts growing aroused against his bare skin, inhaling the piney scent of the forest where he spent his days. Through the windows, she glimpsed distant stars and wondered what her place was in such a large world. If she hadn’t come here, she never would have met him. How strange that was. How many people there must be in the world. She had come to a small place at the far end of the planet that even God must have forgotten, even though they were not supposed to speak of God here.

            “Anna,” Avigdor said, “I hope you will learn to love me.”

             She had never slept with a man before, but it felt perfectly natural, and when he entered her, she could feel the beating of his heart enclosed within the armor of his body.

            Her dreams were no longer of Lublin, but of the life that was here with Avigdor.

***

 

At the beginning of winter, when ice floes drifted on a gray, silent river where, it was said, night demons played, her bleeding stopped, and she knew that she was with child.

            Gradually, her body began to change. It grew rounder like her face. A seed of new life had been planted in her, and slowly she felt it taking shape. She imagined the tiny head and eyes, like a sea creature she had seen once in a museum, the bones coming together, growing stronger and larger as it swam effortlessly in that interior vessel that nature had created.

            Other things had changed as well, during the past year. A library and a schoolhouse had been built, and passing by she would hear the children chanting, “Lenin is our leader. Our teacher, our friend. . .” In the evenings there were clubs and gatherings: political groups and a reader’s circle—even a fledgling theater that put on performances in Yiddish. The streets were paved, and more automobiles had appeared. By May the crops were thriving, and on one of the farms, they kept bees and sold pots of honey.

            Anna had seen the beekeeper in town one day. He usually wore a mask to go amongst the hives, but once, unprotected, he had been surprised and stung by swarms of angry bees. He was rushed to the doctor, who treated him with a salve. This was the same doctor, Grunwald, who would deliver Anna’s baby—if she wanted him to—otherwise, one of the midwives would do it.

            Within a few months, her movements grew slow and heavy, and she no longer flew down the stairs, eager to begin the day’s tasks. Avigdor helped her before he went to work. He got out her rolling pin and baking supplies, asking her, as she prepared the dough, to marry him and give the child a name instead of letting the child remain a mamzer, bastard, who would never enter the people of Israel.

            “But you said you didn’t believe in that,” she argued. “You said you had to work for the good of the revolution.” She didn’t mention the rumors that were beginning to circulate: that they had been lured here so that they could be eliminated more easily.    

            “But we are still Jews,” he insisted. “Nothing, not even Stalin, will change that.” So perhaps, she decided, Avigdor had heard them, after all.

            In the end she gave in and married him. A group of women got together and made her a dress—white, with a lacy bodice—a soft, flowing drapery that concealed a stomach that was growing larger every day. Her breasts, once small and compact, pressed painfully against the fabric, as though they would burst with milk. She was six months along when they became husband and wife, and she wrote her sisters that she was a married woman now and expecting her first child. Anna sent the letter by post, and it was a long time before she heard from them. It was not likely that she would ever see them again.

        Anna didn't want to continue living in a place where a child had died, so Avigdor had promised to build her a house. It was not an easy pregnancy, and she was worried, thinking of that other child. Her ankles grew swollen and her good looks disappeared. Avigdor slept and snored while she lay awake at night. She stayed in bed when she could, thinking about the child who was coming into the world. Everyone who was alive had been born once, she reasoned.  Yes, every day people arrived and others left, barely leaving a trace, all forgotten, she thought, after a few decades, even by those who loved them the most.                                  

         She remembered the story of the lively Hebrew women who had given birth before the midwives came and saved their sons from being thrown into the river. As her time grew near, she cleaned the house for the coming arrival, and searched the cupboards for refuse, scrubbing the floors on her hands and knees until she was barely able to get up. The pains grew worse, and she decided to walk over to Dr. Grunwald’s house and wait for him to see her. The room was filled with people—young and old—those who were sick, and others who looked healthy, stricken with some hidden ailment that she could only guess at.

            Dr. Grunwald, a landsman from Poland, she discovered, was tall and thin, and slightly stooped as he went from patient to patient. One by one, the people in the chairs disappeared, and others took their places. The pains were growing worse now, and when she got up and asked if her time to see the doctor had come, the nurse took one look and told her to come in. Waiting in the doctor’s examination room, she liked gazing at the cool precision of the medicines, the drawers labeled with various potions and different size bandages, the clean white floors and walls. She was lying on a narrow table when he entered the room, and for the first time she felt calm. His blond hair was thinning, and his eyes, behind his spectacles, were a pale, penetrating blue. The doctor looked at her for a moment, and as he began to probe her stomach, she noticed that his fingers were long and smooth and tapered, with smooth palms and none of Avigdor’s rough calluses. He looked older than he probably was, in his late thirties. After he was finished, he sat down on a stool opposite her.

            “I’m afraid this is going to be a difficult birth, Anna. The baby’s turned around. We’ll have to do something about that.”

            He looked at the expression on her face and cautioned her.

            “Stay calm and everything will be all right. Someone will contact your husband and let him know where you are.”

            She wanted to ask if she was going to die. He saw the concern that was written on her face.

            “You’re going to be all right,” he reassured her again. “Years from now you’ll look back on this and wonder what all the fuss was about.”

            “Oh, will I?” she managed to say almost flirtatiously, even with her discomfort, and forced a smile.

            “Yes,” he said, “you just wait and see.”

            She laughed despite the mounting pain. And would he be there to remind her he had told her so? She wanted to ask, but the nurse was already helping her up and to the car that would take her to the hospital. Everything settled into a hazy blur. At the hospital, someone guided her to a bed that resembled a crib. The sides came up, and there was no way to get out. When she looked around she saw other women were there too. Some were moaning; others were crying softly. Anna bit her lip until it bled, and bore down with the spasms that rose toward her throat, feeling the baby pressing against her, barely able to catch her breath.

            Lena came, hurrying to see her, with a red face and disheveled hair. She had been baking fresh loaves of bread for dinner, but as soon as she heard, she told Anna, she decided to come right over.

            “So,” she said, “it’s finally time, is it?”

            Lena had grown stouter in the past year. Her hips spread into a comfortable girth as she sat on the chair. She took out her knitting.

            “I’m making something for the baby, but I couldn’t decide on the color, so I chose yellow, good for a boy or girl.”

            She chattered on, but Anna was seeing her whole life fly by. She felt light and airless, and yet melancholy at the same time. Odd scenes from the past rose up and then faded away. She had been given some medicine to soothe her distress, which made her feel as though she was floating, the unpleasant taste of the medicine still lingering in her mouth. She had turned to Lena to say, “Well, we’ll soon know whether it’s a boy or girl,” when Avigdor’s face came into view. He towered above her, his large hands resting on the railings.

            “Why didn’t you tell me it was time?” he said, an edge of anger overtaking his voice.

            “I didn’t know myself until I got here—that is, to Dr. Grunwald’s house.”

             Looking closely at Avigdor, she thought that he might as well have been a stranger. She tried to close her eyes and sink into the throbbing contractions again. Were the feelings she had for him only a snare that nature had planted to trap young women like herself?  All at once she noticed everything that was imperfect about him. The pitted scars from a childhood bout of chicken pox, a nose that was slightly crooked. . . his large clumsy hands. How could she love such a man? But before she saw anything else, he was being directed to the door and told to come back when the baby arrived.

            Suddenly he was gone, and Lena had left, too. Dr. Grunwald came in with an assistant Anna hadn’t seen before. One of them gave her a whiff of something powerful. She closed her eyes and waited for it to be over, as she listened to them discussing in subdued voices how best to turn the baby around. They were quiet for what seemed like a very long time, and she was afraid there was something wrong. Had it been minutes or hours before they spoke, telling her to push? She kept pushing until a searing pain passed through her body that felt as though it would tear her in two, and at last, Dr. Grunwald spoke.

            “You have a son, Anna. Your husband can’t deny this one.” She would soon find out what he meant.

            When she opened her eyes and looked up, the baby was still attached to her. She would never forget that sight as long as she lived—his bloody body, wet and slimy, startled at being thrust into the world, wailing lustily at the insult. It was hard to believe that this giant child had been inside her. She was touched by the well-formed limbs, the mouth, already struggling to survive, that would still find nourishment from her body, his tightly clenched fists. He was perfect— that was all she knew, counting his toes and fingers, marveling at the tiny shell-like spirals of his ears.

            “You see, Anna, what did I tell you? It came out right, after all.”

            She began to cry with relief now that it was over. Dr. Grunwald reached over and touched her hand.

            “You can relax now,” he said. “All your hard work paid off.”

            She smiled, tired but contented. The baby—for they had not yet decided on a name—was already nursing. He had Avigdor’s dark hair, and the length of his body told her that he would have his height as well. Her husband appeared then and bent down to kiss her.

            “So this is our son,” he said quietly.

            She wished that he hadn’t left her so obediently. He should have been there to hold her hand, giving her encouragement until the baby was born.

             Now he waited impatiently until his son had finished nursing before he picked him up for the first time and held him in his arms.

            “What do you want to name him?” Anna asked as they both looked with astonishment at the new life they had created.

            “Iosif,” Avigdor replied without hesitation. “We will call him Iosif after our leader.”

 

***

 

She went home to the new house that Avigdor had finished building for them. It had two bedrooms and a living room, a tiny corridor of a kitchen, and in the back yard he had planted a fir tree in honor of their firstborn. The fragile limbs spread out against the sky, and she thought of the way the summer birds would come to rest on its boughs, and before long, a dusting of snow would gild its branches.

            In the bedroom, her husband had surprised her with a rocking chair. She placed it next to the window facing the front of the house so that she could see people passing by. They settled in, and little Iosif slept in their bedroom in a cradle next to their bed. He was always ravenous, and every few hours Anna had to get up and nurse him until her nipples were raw.  Outside, the stars loomed closer than they had in Lublin, and on these nights she would remember her own mother and father sleeping in their graves.

            Time passed oddly, she thought. She could not see it, and yet it passed all the same, leaving its traces on human lives. In the middle of the night, in the midst of this strange land, the sounds that the wind carried pressed against the house so that it seemed that it might disappear in the forceful gusts of air. It was early fall, but already flurries of snow were piling up at their doorstep.

            The months passed uneventfully. All day she looked forward to Avigdor coming home, when they would sit at the wooden table in the kitchen and discuss the day’s happenings as they ate their supper. Afterwards, he would play with his son, tossing him in the air and then catching him in the nick of time to make him laugh.

            First, the baby smiled. Then he was able to sit up in his high chair and eat his first real food, jabbering noisily as he announced his presence. Little chips of white pearl had come through his gums, and Anna spread vodka on them to ease the pain. Then it was summer, and he was nearly a year old, taking his first steps, holding on to the legs of tables and chairs to make his way unsteadily around the house.

            The summer rains became heavier; the river grew turbulent for days and at last overflowed. Yet logs still had to be cut and transported. Avigdor left for work early in the morning and came home late. One evening, Anna was preparing dinner when someone knocked on the door. She hurried to answer it, drying her hands on a towel. It was Boris, Avigdor’s friend. His face was pale and his voice shook. 

            “There’s been an accident, Anna.”

            “What do you mean?” she asked, but already she felt herself falling down an endless corridor as he launched into a long story. While transporting logs on the river, Avigdor had lost his balance and was swallowed up before anyone could reach him. She heard the sounds, but not the meaning. Her thoughts spilled out in a torrent of words. How could that be? She was expecting him. Dinner was almost ready, and Iosif would be waiting for his father to come home.

            She babbled on until Boris blurted out, “He’s dead, Anna. He’s dead. They just brought his body here.”

            “What?” she asked sharply. “Where?”

            “To the doctor.”

            “Then he can’t be dead,” she said confidently.

            Perhaps he was not really dead but needed some food and rest to put him on his feet again. She ran to the bedroom and snatched Iosif, damp and confused, from his nap, tossed a blanket around him, and threw a shawl across her shoulders. Boris led the way to Dr. Grunwald’s so rapidly that, carrying the baby that had grown too heavy for her, she was out of breath when they arrived.

            Avigdor was laid out on the same table where she had been stricken with her labor pains.

            “There was nothing I could do by the time they brought him to me,” the doctor said wearily. For the first time he looked helpless, a mere mortal and not a god.

           That morning Avigdor had been alive. She wanted to shake him and tell him to wake up. Anna tried to picture her husband earlier, eating his breakfast, full of plans, the touch of his lips on her own as he went out the door. His eyes, which had been alive and warm so recently, were now closed. But more than that, his face was blank, as though he was a man who had never lived. His mouth hung slightly open, as if death had completely surprised him. It was not Avigdor’s face, but that of an imposter who had come to take his place. His huge hands rested limply by his side, and he looked bloated and blue from the water, his skin bruised by the rocks  close to shore.  Even so, she was angry that she could no longer reach him. She bent down to kiss him before the doctor pulled a cover over him.

            “I’m sorry, Anna.”

           She was still trying to equate this Avigdor with the man who had held her in his arms the night before.  Was it all an illusion, then? Life? The world itself that could disappear in an instant? How fragile we are, Anna thought. She would never believe again in the genuineness of the world around her, or of the people who inhabited it.

            “What about your husband’s family?” Dr. Grunwald was saying. “How will you inform his parents?”

            Avigdor’s family? She had never met them and seldom thought about his mother and father. She would have to send a letter right away that she was already composing in her mind.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Gurevitch:

            "I am afraid I have very bad news. I am sorry to tell you that your son, my   husband, Avigdor Gurevitch, died today in an accidental drowning while transporting logs downstream.  I am his wife, Anna, and he has a child now, a boy named Iosif who is a year old. Unless you can arrive within the next few days, we will have to proceed with he burial. He was a good man, a good husband and father, and I will miss him."

           

            She didn't know how to conclude it. Love was inappropriate since she had never met them.  

            When she sat down that night to write those words, her hand trembled. At the bottom she signed it simply, “Your daughter-in-law, Anna Gurevitch.”

            She was certain someone would come and tell her it was a joke. But no one came except Lena, who sat with her until she fell asleep.

            At the cemetery she watched in disbelief as the earth opened up, and their friends picked up handfuls of dirt to throw on the coffin after it was lowered into the ground. She felt a swelling of bile creeping into her throat, accompanied by a longing to touch something real to anchor herself to the world she knew. But she was not sure what that would be. The rain had stopped, but the sky was overcast. Around her, fall was already gathering its arsenal in the dark clouds, the chilly breeze that prevailed as soon as the sun went down. The gloom around her crept into her heart and wouldn’t go away.

            Lena took charge of the food. When they came back from the cemetery there was a spread on the table. She had found the good tablecloth and dishes, both wedding presents, and forced Anna to eat at least a few bites: a hard-boiled egg, a piece of bread with freshly made jam, a concoction of noodles.

            Some Party officials stopped by. Were any of them agents of the government she had been hearing about who were on the lookout for dissenters?  But they shook her hand gravely and offered her condolences on the passing of her husband, Comrade Gurevitch, who had helped to make possible the construction of new buildings in this utopia, using his strength to build a new country and a new life.

            One by one the mourners left, until she was alone again. Dr. Grunwald was the last to leave.

            “I wish you well, Anna,” he said, and bent down to kiss her on the cheek. “ If you need help, come and see me.”

            She thanked him, and told him the same lie she had told the others: she would be all right. She would never tell them how afraid she was of making her way in the world again, with a child to take care of now too.

 

***

 

The winter set in, and she did not know what she was going to do. Was Avigdor in the World To Come, or was he simply under the ground, as dead as when she had last seen him? She didn’t know. Either way, her husband could no longer help her. Avigdor had a small pension, and she would have to live on that for the time being. She was hoping that his family might send something to assist her, but it was months before his brother wrote back.

 

Dear Anna,

            I regret that it has taken so long to write this letter after Avigdor’s death. I am sorry that we were not able to come for his funeral. We all grieved here after we received the terrible news. Poverty is still beating a path to our door. Conditions have been very grave. Since you wrote, my parents have both died, one after the other— a difficult time. I hope that you and little Iosif are both in good health. Perhaps we will meet some day.

            Until then,

            Avigdor’s older brother, Leib Gurevitch

 

            She read the letter over and over. He had not asked her to come and live with his family. Nor did he send her any money to help out, as she was hoping he would.

            “So that’s that,” she said in disgust. She would not write again.

           As promised, the desolate skies ushered in a bitter, sullen winter. She stared into the black night and thought of Avigdor buried beneath a blanket of snow, and shivered while the baby slept beside her on the empty side of the bed, sucking his thumb until it was red and swollen.

             The constellations were brilliant and cold in the night sky, without comfort or compassion. There was no one to pray to, and God, the God of her childhood, was far away. In her dreams Avigdor was still alive, an invisible presence who talked to her, telling her to take care of their little son without him. What would Avigdor, a man who believed so fervently in the new order, have said about the rumors around town that grew stronger? 

            "Be careful what you say. There are spies around. They might be your neighbor or friend, or even your own children."

            There was no one you could trust. It created suspicion, and beneath the cordial greetings  was always a layer of wariness. If that wasn't bad enough, many of the crops failed in the spring, and epidemics were killing the children, who died in their parents’ arms.

            One night her own child took sick, running a fever, his face flushing crimson as he struggled to breathe. Anna set up a croup tent and woke every few hours to check him. But in the morning his condition had deteriorated. She decided to take him to Dr. Grunwald, bundling the boy up and trudging through the snow.

            “Why didn’t you have someone come get me?” he scolded as soon as he saw her.

            “I didn’t want to wait. I couldn’t wait. He was too sick.”

            She threw off her coat and looked at the baby struggling to breathe, reminded of the few minutes after she had given birth to him, when she had glimpsed his whole life unfolding before her. 

            “He got worse suddenly,” Anna explained.

            She could hear the baby’s breath rattling in his chest and thought that she couldn't bear it if he died too. There was no one who could help her now except this man. 

             His attention turned to the baby. He put his stethoscope to Iosif’s heart and lungs and proceeded to examine him. ”He needs to stay here or at the hospital,” he told Anna when he had finished. There is a cot where you can sleep and take care of him. A mother’s care is always better. I will give him medicine to help him through the night.”

            She stayed awake by Iosif’s bedside until she couldn’t keep her eyes open. A nurse went back and forth around the clock while the baby slept, fighting for the life his mother had given him.

             Deep in the night, his fever spiked. Anna sponged him down and prayed that he be spared, although she was still not sure to whom she was praying while he hovered between life and death. Anna asked Avigdor, who was already in that other world, to intercede.

            And perhaps he did. On the third day the child’s fever broke, his forehead was cool when she bent down to touch her lips to it, and he began to get better. When the boy was allowed to go home, Dr. Grunwald came to see him every day. Afterwards, he sat down while Anna made tea. Early in the morning she had baked a cake, and now she cut some slices and put them out on a plate while he helped himself.

            The doctor had grown a beard the past year and perhaps it was that that made him appear  older, but he also looked ill himself. His color was poor, and he had inky smudges beneath his eyes Anna hadn’t noticed before. At first they spoke in generalities, and then abruptly, Dr. Grunwald asked Anna to call him Mordecai. She had thought of him as Dr. Grunwald for so long that the name stuck on her tongue when she asked him about the rumors still circulating through the town.

            “They are more than rumors,” he said. “Some people have already been interrogated. Others have disappeared.”

            “Who?” Anna asked sharply, shocked at this news.

            “Anyone who speaks out, anyone even remotely suspected of not being entirely friendly to the government. There are camps—and worse, executions. I’ve seen with my own eyes what is happening.” He drank the rest of his tea before he said, “You should know that I’m under suspicion too. There are informers everywhere.” Lines had etched themselves deeply around the pale blue eyes that looked into her own.

             “What will you do?” she asked, because she thought that she could fall in love with him.

             I will stay here as long as I can to take care of my patients.”

            “And what is your crime?”

            “I know too much. It’s as simple as that. We Jews are merely an inconvenient deviation from the Party line. I have already spoken out about what is happening. One way or another, we are all doomed.”

            His words frightened her.  She had heard that his wife had died and he had left everything behind in Poland to forget. He told Anna that at night, after his patients were gone, he wrote into the long, cold evenings. But what did he write? About the corruption amongst the officials, he said. He sent letters to the local newspapers and even to Moscow, complaining about the conditions here. He did not have enough medicines and equipment. He had almost no one to help him. Every day children were dying of diphtheria and scarlet fever, smallpox and whooping cough.

            One night the doctor stayed longer than usual. Anna put the baby to bed and came back to join him. She had served a dinner of borscht and boiled potatoes, with almond biscuits to accompany a glass of tea.

            They finished their supper and Dr. Grunwald sat back to enjoy his pipe. He was silent, thinking, while Anna tidied up. Then he asked her, “Would you mind if I stayed?”

            It took her by surprise. She thought about it. She had not slept with a man since Avigdor’s death.

            “Perhaps it will offer comfort for both of us,” Anna said at last.

            They made love in the bed she had shared only with Avigdor, although neither of them mentioned his name. At first it was awkward, but then she warmed to his embraces. She did not want him to leave when he rose to get dressed, refusing to spend the night.

            “What if someone needs me?” he asked, although he did not expect her to answer.

            “Be careful,” Anna cautioned, suddenly afraid for him.

            “Yes,” he replied, as she fell back to sleep and heard the door close behind him. Her body felt satisfied, the way it had not felt in a long time.

             Dr. Grunwald began coming to see her several times a week. She had yet to call him Mordecai, his chosen name, which brought up memories of the ancient Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther in that long-ago Persia, who had saved the Jews from wicked Haman and annihilation. What had been their crime then? Was it possible that it could happen again? Surely some progress had been made. But Stalin had brought them here and had now turned against them.

            Why had he come from Poland? Anna asked the doctor. He had come to forget the past, he said, not only his own personal past, but the whole tawdry specter of hatred that had pursued their people through the centuries. He had come here to help forge a new national identity and to put poverty, ignorance, and hatred behind him, but he had arrived at the conclusion that branches severed from the root die an unnatural death.

              He said this sadly, even as he played with Iosif and delighted in the boy. He put him to bed and told him a bedtime story, making it up as he went along. Anna found out that he had sons of his own, but he had lost track of them after their mother died.

            “How did that happen?” she asked, amazed to hear this. It did not seem possible—one’s own flesh and blood.

            “How does anything happen?” he answered, as though the question itself was absurd.

            He was always busy with his patients, he told her, and hadn’t had time for his wife or sons. In fact, the sons blamed him for his wife’s death because he had ignored the lump that he had felt in her breast, not stopping long enough to take care of her properly.

            “They were right, of course,” he said.  “I have only myself to blame.”  Anna saw at once that his eyes, a color that reminded her of the river after the rain had washed it, were full.

            “Sometimes things happen,” Anna offered, “and there’s nothing we can really do about it except to go on with our lives.”

            “Yes?” Grunwald said hopefully, as though he longed to believe.

            “That is what I have done,” Anna continued, her voice taking on added conviction, feeling his sudden vulnerability. It was only partially true, of course.  Looking at Grunwald, she could still see Avigdor’s face in front of her. Snatches of remembered scenes would appear unexpectedly before her eyes, as though her husband were still alive.                                                     

 

***

           

Anna made herself useful at the doctor’s house. His housekeeper had decided to leave and go back to wherever she had come from, and everything was in disarray. She cleaned all the cabinets, routing out dirt from the corners, lined the cupboards, threw out food that had been kept too long, washed the sheets, stuffed pillows for the rooms where patients waited, embroidered towels and polished the tables. When the weather warmed she went out to the fields and hillsides and brought back flowers that she put in glass bottles that had been discarded.

            “You have performed miracles here,” Grunwald observed as he came out of his office one day and looked around at the changes that were taking place.

            She tidied up his papers and books, taking notice of the titles that he was reading. Two Yiddish writers, he said with resignation when he came upon her bent over them, were in prison, arrested by the authorities for counter-revolutionary activities: Moshe Kulbak and Izi Kharik. The great poet Osip Mandelshtam had been seized for writing an epigram satirizing Stalin, and then released, and, exiled to starve in Siberia.

            In the evenings Grunwald often liked to put a record on his wind-up Victrola and listen to the polonaises of Chopin, their countryman, composed to console a defeated Poland after it fell into Russian hands, or read from one of the medieval authors who centuries before, wrote of their longing for Zion and its golden city bathed in light, even as they were surrounded by Spain’s lush gardens and perfumed flowers.

            “Perhaps I will still go to Jerusalem,” Grunwald said.

            Anna remembered pictures she had seen. A golden city on a high hill. What was it like? Would there be a place for her and Iosif? If Grunwald went, perhaps she would go, too. Fewer and fewer patients were coming. Some days they had none at all, or only a few Koreans, who kept to themselves in other matters, performing the most menial tasks that even the Jews did not want to do.

            One by one as conditions declined, the nurses left. Schools and businesses had been closed, teaching Yiddish was suddenly a crime, and hundreds of individuals were arrested, even some of the town officials. Grunwald asked Anna to help him with the patients who still came. There was something companionable about working side by side while he taught her how to diagnose a sore throat, or how to treat an earache or bad cough, or how to sew an almost-severed finger back on with a fine stitch. She found that her hands were skilled and efficient and that she was calm in an emergency. When the hospital also closed, Grunwald had to deliver babies in his office, calling Anna in to comfort a woman in childbirth whose son was born dead, the cord wrapped around his neck.

            I could have been that woman, Anna thought, as she looked at a frightened girl who was no more than 18, but I was luckier.

            Once, when the doctor was out, men with hard eyes and grim faces came from Moscow asking questions, men Anna did not like. She did not like the way they looked, or the way they looked at her. They asked for Dr. Grunwald, and when she told them that he was out seeing patients who were too sick to come to him, they began looking around to see if she was telling the truth, turning over supplies and medicines and going through the papers on his desk.

            That night when the doctor returned, he heard a dog whimpering outside the window. When he went out to see what was the matter, he found that it had been poisoned. The animal looked at him as if to ask, What did I do to deserve this?

            Grunwald had to put him to sleep. A warning, Anna told him.

            “They won’t frighten me that easily,” he said firmly, determined to continue his work.     

 

***

 

Coming to his house one day a few months later, Anna saw at once that something was wrong. The doctor was gone, the furniture broken, and his phonograph records were in pieces on the floor. The books had been torn to bits, and everything was in confusion. In the dispensary, bottles of medicine were shattered and supplies tossed aside. A shiver of fear and foreboding passed through her. She began to clean up, wondering what she should do. Finally, she went to Party headquarters and found out that Grunwald had been arrested and taken away.

            She never saw him again. 

            For a while she stayed on, hoping to hear some news, continuing to take care of the patients who came. She was the last person left who knew how to treat a fracture or frostbite or any of the other ailments of those who came to the doctor’s doorstep.  Gradually, though, the town became a place where only phantoms dwelled.

           “We are all doomed,” Grunwald had said, as though he had already known that on a sunny summer’s day he would be executed by a firing squad.

            Since he would never go to Jerusalem, Anna decided to take Iosif and go in his place. She settled on a collective farm to the north, a place where the oranges grew as large as a man’s fist. Then came the war, and her sisters and their children were murdered by killing squads who fanned out across the Polish countryside to exterminate every Jew they could find.  When it was over, a different war began, another fight for their lives in Israel, the land she had adopted.

            In that fierce battle, Anna took care of wounded men, treating bodies after limbs had been blown off, skulls were crushed, and burns seared off the skin.

            It had been years since Avigdor and Grunwald had died, but even long after they were gone, at odd moments that surprised her with their brilliant clarity, she would speak of them as though they were still alive— two good men in that forgotten place they had once hoped would be a haven for their lost souls.