Paralyzed, a girl watches her father on fire in the forest. He runs through the trees, flailing his arms, attempting animally to escape his blazing tormentor. He looks overwhelmingly like a part of the forest, his limbs extending outward like branches, and from them the orange leaves dance in the wind, flickering into nothingness. He gives up and falls to his knees, seeming to recognize the snow beneath him and rolling through it desperately.
A dog the girl’s neighbor once owned rolled in such a manner. It was the kind of dog which always sniffed at her outstretched hand before nuzzling close and bowing in playfulness, hopeful as dogs tend to be; the same dog which cheerfully approached the boy—now likely young man—from down the road who was gifted a pellet gun for his fourteenth birthday. It sniffed the muzzle of his gun as he lifted it to meet the dog’s face and when it fell its eyes were still but the twitching of its legs were like that of a spider’s or a grasshopper’s which has been killed but is too dumb to realize.
Her father rolls and rolls but the fire refuses to go out, burning horribly, and as terrible as it is, the girl cannot remove her eyes from his slowing form, from the body of a man who once had been so full and lively and now kicks like a spider that can’t know that a life on fire is not one worth living. She watches him die and she cannot look away.
The mass of people behind her hasn’t stopped moving, the men who set him on fire have not even stayed to watch. She turns slowly and rejoins the long, unending march where no one has the strength to feel sorry for her, another sudden orphan. With his death, the girl becomes a girl who is unloved. It is five years before they will change her name to Johanna. It’s seven before she’ll be able to write a letter in English to the British family who housed her for five months. In total she lives twenty-seven years. She doesn’t forget her father.
* * * * *
When she is nineteen, a young woman, she moves to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, into a two-bedroom apartment she shares with five other girls. She’s glad that she can’t live alone. She takes one of the girls’ advice and applies to any and every job that will hire her. She’s fired as a stenographer for typing too slow and as a cashier at a small grocer’s for her accent. She ends up sewing pockets onto men’s slacks in a downtown workroom where she’s commended for her quick work and clean lines. When she returns home she often pulls pieces of loose thread from her hair and from her clothes.
She runs errands with the other girls. They buy cleaning supplies and vegetables, bread and sometimes pastries for special occasions; together they can even afford meat on holidays. Before the New Year she walks to the butcher’s alone, the girl meant to go with her having fallen ill that morning. The walk is surprisingly pleasant in the cool early-fall air. The butcher smiles at her as she walks in, asks how he can help her.
She needs a brisket. He says he has the best flat cuts in all of New York and she laughs, asking How could he know? He’s tried them all himself to be sure, otherwise would he not be a false advertiser? He smiles at her again as he walks into a backroom. His humor—really the way he seems so at ease—is disarming.
She’s the only person in the shop. She looks at the different cuts of meat on display in the refrigerator. They glisten under the halogen bulbs and imply luxury. How much meat does a butcher eat? The walls of the shop are covered in posters advertising beef and lamb suppliers, some showing the borders that distinguish the cuts from one another in white dotted lines and the ceiling is higher than one might expect when observing from the outside. The butcher walks back in with a parcel in waxed paper and throws it on the scale. She still hasn’t told him how much meat she needs.
There’s a discount for fine young ladies, he informs her. She’d best leave her friends at home then in future, she says, or they’d run him out of business. They laugh and he tells her the price which she says is far too low but he won’t hear anything of it. She pays him and predicts she’ll need to come back next week in preparation for the pre-fast meal. He’ll be there, he promises.
The next week he asks her if he can take her out, to a movie or something, and she says she thought a butcher might take a fine lady like herself out to a cow farm but she supposes a movie will do. They continue to see each other for a year and a half and then they get married. His mother who lives in Brighton Beach doesn’t like her but they get along passably well. His name is Aleksander and she loves him until the day she dies.
* * * * *
Things go well for the couple. The young woman quits her job sewing pockets to keep house and she no longer lives with the five other girls. His mother seems to like her a little more, though she would never say it. After two years of marriage—and four months of trying—she is pregnant. They refrain from intimacy during this time so as not to disturb the child’s growth and the baby, a boy, is born two weeks early, cutting short her visit to the grocer.
She loves the baby almost immediately, his dark eyes always following her proof that he knows they are connected in some ineffable way. She loves the baby and she loves her husband and she is again loved after a pause that was once not notable to her but now seems like it would be torture to return to.
She walks the baby down the street in a carriage in the early spring and, as a breeze brings the smell of a wood fire and cooking meat to her nose, she smells the feeling of her childhood. She tries to explain it to her husband when she returns home but the idea that was so instantly clear is also instantly fleeting. In that moment, though, she realizes that she is happy with her husband and her baby, with the friends she sees on Saturday when they go to pray and during the week when they shop together or walk their babies about, the extended family that has accepted her as a part of their ever-changing whole. She is content, and yet in the back of her mind she is always afraid.
Sometimes she awakens in the middle of the night, dreaming that her husband is being torn apart by wolves while she can only stand by and watch. The dream always begins pleasantly enough; they walk the baby through the streets of Manhattan when they come upon a dog across the street from his butcher’s shop, in front of the police station. He reaches down to pet the dog and in an instant its teeth have sunk deep into his hand. The baby and its carriage are gone and she is frozen still as dogs pour out of the police station through the doors and windows, jumping from the roof and transforming into monstrous wolves on the way down. She almost always wakes up before the dream ends but on certain occasions the wolves finish and she is allowed to push through them to see that her husband has been reduced to a pile of ashes that is quickly blown away by the breeze. She develops a great fear of dogs.
She takes care of her husband and he takes care of her and together they care for the baby. She washes the baby in the sink under the warm water, but one day she finds that he is getting too big. She brings him to the bathtub and allows the water to fill up around him, though
it quickly becomes clear that if she does not hold him up he will eventually tip over and fall beneath the surface. She supports him behind his neck while she gently pours the water over him. She washes his body and scrubs his face. She puts a lavender-scented oil in his hair and washes it out, teasing it up into a tall spike before crushing it beneath her palm. The baby likes being bathed.
Would he remember her if she disappeared? He knows her well, as he does her husband and her mother-in-law, but really, given enough time, could he not love others as his family? She remembers an orphanage populated by Anyas and Chavas and Devorahs, younger than she, who could not remember a family and were quick to turn on those who could. It was wise not to mention who you thought you were before you were an orphan because not only were you likely wrong according to those without memories to share, but you could incite malice merely by having a before, by having a history. Suffering, it seemed, had a wide reach and yet was not equal in its torment.
She looks into the baby’s eyes. He meets her gaze and smiles. Will he have a happy life? Will he have a safe life? Will he have a life that’s worth living and, for that matter, is hers? She removes her hand from the back of his head and he sits with his head above the water for a moment before he shifts, and his mouth and then his nose and his eyes descend below the surface. His body doesn’t react instantly to this wholly knew sensation of submersion until he tries to take a breath, air escaping his mouth, and his eyes widen, he thrashes violently, sending water over the edge of the tub and onto her skirt while he tries to scream, but he finds everything muffled—his movements through the water, his voice, his hearing, his sight—and where is the hand that holds him when he feels pain or hunger or anger or happiness?
She watches almost peacefully before she returns to herself, as if from a trance. She drags him from beneath the water and repeatedly strikes his back with an open hand to force the fluid from his lungs. He coughs several times between tears, water spattering from his mouth onto her blouse. By the time she is convinced that he is alright, they are both drenched and shivering. What was she thinking? What has she done to him? She holds him to her breast and they cry together, he heaving short, shallow sobs, she greater, shaking ones that run through both of their bodies. She will not tell her husband, anyone actually, of the incident.
The baby’s name is Yevgeny, after her father.
* * * * *
The baby grows into a toddler and on Sundays the young woman takes him to the park. She seats him in a swing and pushes him gently, back and forth. She feels a sense of peace in the park, like she’s another American mother living just down the street from where she grew up and is now taking her baby to the same park she played in as a child, though it looks much different now from how she imagines it would have when she was younger. She speaks with the other mothers, many of them non-American, and they each feel a sense of fondness for each other’s children.
One Sunday after an intense storm cuts power to half the block, a young girl approaches her and the baby and asks, Why if your eyes are blue then are his eyes brown? She is taken aback briefly—it has never really bothered that his eyes don’t resemble hers. Well, she says to the girl, his father has brown eyes and babies get brown eyes over blue eyes. Oh. Alright. The girl laughs and waltzes away, satisfied.
The young woman walks around the swing in front of Yevgeny and looks into his eyes. They dart about and she cannot get them to remain on hers. He has a certain fascination with birds and how they can all look so different from each other. He does not know any of them by name, but as she walks him down the street on errands or to his grandmother’s, he points them out and shouts gleefully the identifying color. In New York the color is very often gray.
She manages to catch his gaze for a moment and his eyes widen, his face expanding into a smile. She knows that he loves her and she loves to see it in the way his cheeks crease and his eyes squint until the tops of his irises disappear under his eyelids. She wishes briefly that the color of his eyes matched hers but, no, he is a beautiful boy. He is a happy boy and he looks like her just as much as he is meant to.
* * * * *
Yevgeny grows to be six years old and he is enrolled in kindergarten. His mother very suddenly has time to herself which she at first fills by cleaning the entire apartment, removing the books from the shelves, dusting, rearranging; she hangs a glass hand with a blue eye beside the front door, a parting gift from one of the girls she once lived with; she sweeps and mops and after two weeks she has done all she can do to beautify the house.
She takes to reading the newspaper but she is not very good at it and it bothers her so she learns how to knit. She knits her son a sweater for the coming winter and her husband a hat, both in a deep maroon yarn that she hopes will not irritate the skin too much. She knits socks for her mother-in-law which are accepted graciously and never worn, and she knits mittens for her friends.
She eventually tires of knitting and settles finally on daily walks. She walks up the East River, past parks with children playing, over small bridges and beside the dense public housing. Boats drift by, stirring the gray-brown water, lifting its dirty ocean smell to her nose. Soon she’ll come to the East River to cleanse herself of her sins, dropping them in little pieces of bread to the waiting ducks below. Every year she wonders whether bread laden with sin tastes different.
On Saturdays in the afternoon her husband and son join her. She suspects they must look to others like a very happy family which, when she considers them, they truly are. They continue their weekend walks well into the fall, past the time when the winds become biting and the occasional spray of water is no longer refreshing but alarming.
Her husband catches cold and she tends to him for a week as he recovers. She writes a small sign on butcher paper, advising his customers that he will return the coming Monday. She moves most of the meat to the freezer, taking home or giving to her friends what she suspects won’t be salvageable when he makes it back. On his worst night, when he is feverish and short of breath, she decides she needs to venture out to the pharmacist to retrieve some sort of medical treatment. She has made him rest for four days, feeding him soups and preparing expensive teas, but his decline has continued.
She’s lucky—she arrives as the pharmacist is closing his shop for the night and he gives her Quinine to alleviate at least the coughing. He recommends that she drape a damp towel over his forehead for the fever which, although she doesn’t mention it, she is of course already doing. She bundles herself up against the cold again and heads back into the night, hurrying home. She walks back along East 12th street towards the river, lost in worry for her husband when she realizes she is being followed. A man—tall, blond, dressed in dark clothing, she can see from the corner of her eye when she turns as though to look for cars as she crosses the street—follows her even as she turns unnecessarily down side streets. She walks as quickly as she can without looking rushed.
He calls out to her.
Hey. Her back tenses; her entire body stiffens but she continues at the same pace. He calls out to her again, He can see her bracelet. She glances at the charms on her wrist. She’s pretty for a Jew, he tells her. She pretends she can’t hear him. She doesn’t know what else to do. She pretends she can’t hear him and she prays that someone will come and stop him or save her or she’ll come upon a group of people out for a drink whom she can quickly befriend or beg to protect her. In the pocket of her jacket she balls her hand into a fist, then, after more thought, searches for the key to her front door and holds it like a knife. She feels ridiculous. The situation is ludicrous! She should be walking home and nothing more. She should be focusing on the health of her husband but she is instead focusing on the metal in her palm and the presence at her back calling her Jewess and worse and staying always at the same distance. He could run up at any time and grab her.
Why doesn’t he stop her? What does he want?
After five minutes she makes it to her street. At the stairs to her small lobby she takes one last step forward, miming a continued trajectory forward, then she twists left and leaps up the stairs, jams the key into the lock, and flings the door open. She shuts the door behind her and locks it, throwing her body against it to prevent any attempt the man might make to follow her. Through the peephole she watches as he saunters up the steps. He holds in his left hand a dark blue cap and a glinting badge peeks at her from beneath his coat. He knocks three times, loudly. You can’t hide from me! She turns away from the peephole and sits down, her sweaty back still against the door.
The man remains another minute or two. He raps his knuckles against the door, rattles the lock, calls to her through the keyhole. She can hear a dog barking somewhere down the street. Finally he leaves. She listens to his shoes hit the concrete steps as he makes his way down and lifts herself to watch as he ambles away from her house, stopping only to upend a trash can at the corner. She looks down and realizes she is still clutching her keys.
She turns around and makes her way upstairs to her apartment, her heart still pounding and her legs suddenly weak, her fingers trembling. She opens the door slowly. The boy is still sleeping in his room. She removes her boots and her jacket, draping it over a chair rather than hanging it in the closet, and checks on her husband. His fever has abated slightly and she refreshes the damp towel. He has no idea what she’s gone through. She kisses him on the cheek, her cold, chapped lips catching on his damp, warm skin. He truly has no idea.
* * * * *
For two years events proceed in an orderly fashion. The woman prepares breakfast and takes her son to school while her husband heads to work. She takes her walks in the park, runs errands, cooks dinner. Her mother-in-law mentions every few weeks that they should have more children but her husband reiterates that they are perfectly content with the one beautiful boy they have. He’s made the same suggestion to her before, but she doesn’t want to have more children. Why not? he asks. It wouldn’t be right. No, she can’t explain, she simply does not want to have more children. He is frustrated but he recognizes when she’s put her mind to something. When they make love they use a latex condom which she scrutinizes endlessly for any imperfections before allowing him to put it on.
Yevgeny shows promise in mathematics and is permitted to skip the third grade. His principal, Mr. Erickson, assures them that if he continues on the same trajectory there should be no obstacle to his procuring a scholarship to a private junior high school. He dreams, the boy tells them at the dinner table, of being a famous mathematics professor. He wants to be famous in the way Einstein is famous. He takes to teasing his curls out at night before his bath, creating a frizzy, brown mane.
The woman is not there to pick him up from school one afternoon in the early spring. He waits with a teacher who eventually decides he must walk the boy home, as all efforts to reach his mother have proven futile. They walk to the boy’s home together, holding hands as they cross the busy avenues, and reach his front door. It is locked and no one answers even as the teacher beats the door with an open palm. Just as he considers bringing the boy home to spend the night with him and his wife, or maybe to the police station, his father arrives. It is already becoming dark.
The father, having thanked the teacher profusely, leads the boy into the building and upstairs. He opens the door to the apartment and calls for his wife. Johanna? There is no response. He employs another name. Yoni? The lights in their small living room are on but there is no movement in the house. The air is static and cold; a window in the kitchen is open. The father tells his son to begin his homework in his room and he goes along obediently. He checks his own bedroom but she is not there. He calls his mother. No, she has not heard from his wife. He calls one after another of her friends but Last they saw her was Saturday.
He finally phones the police and gives a description of his wife, what she was wearing that day, where she might have gone. They promise to be on the lookout and that they’ll call if any other steps should need to be taken. It’s seven thirty in the evening now and he hasn’t stopped pacing in front of the phone. It dawns on him that he will have to produce some form of dinner for himself and his son. Perhaps sandwiches. Where the fuck is his wife. He removes the bread from the breadbox and leans against the counter. He feels like crying. He doesn’t want his son to hear him cry. He is worried for when he asks where his mami is.
He leaves the bread on the counter and heads for the bathroom, he needs to wash his face and perhaps fix his hair; he feels disheveled. He opens the door to his wife in the bathtub. He stares at her pale face, framed by the white porcelain dropping off into motionless red water, the color of pomegranate seeds.
The light is off. The water is cold. Her body is cold.
He does not move her. He walks in, closes the door, locks it. He turns on the light and sits beside the bathtub and then he sobs silently, looking intermittently at the place where the tub meets the floor. His lungs fill and empty noiselessly, his pulse beats in his ears and his chest tightens. It’s almost as if he’s drowning. Tears flowing, he studies the cracked grout, sticks his fingernail in to remove the mold that has accumulated despite thousands of washes and wipes and mops that still could never remove all the spores or could never poison them enough. He scrapes it out from beneath his nails onto the tiles. He wipes his eyes on his arm and then he finishes crying. He stands up and washes his hands, drying them on the freshly-laundered towel beside him. He walks back over to his wife and holds her face with one hand. It’s hard to look at her from so close. He closes his eyes and kisses her once on the cheek.
He unlocks the bathroom door and returns to the phone. He tells the police he has found her. He asks what he should do. He doesn’t listen to the response. He calls his mother. She will get on the next train to Manhattan. He returns to the bread and makes his son a sandwich which he brings to his room. He sits and looks over the work his son’s completed so far. He doesn’t really look it over. He doesn’t care.
* * * * *
Yevgeny does not become a famous mathematician. He gains scholarship to a prestigious private junior high school but is at last expelled after myriad arguments with his teachers and fights with other students. He works with his father and becomes a butcher, marrying three times over the course of his seventy-two years. His father never remarries. The woman’s mother-in-law moves into their apartment in Lower Manhattan when she becomes too old to care for herself and Yevgeny takes off work to care for her when she begins to die. He himself has two children, a girl and a boy, who never see him cry. Indeed he only cries once in his adult life, when his father dies. His daughter, conceived in his first marriage, he names Yonah. His son comes from his second marriage and they name him Ronny after his wife’s mother, Ruuta.
His daughter dies of meningitis at fifteen. Ronny becomes a family physician and is able to find him adequate care in his old age. Yevgeny considers himself a successful beneficiary of the American Dream and he dies content, but not happy. He is buried beside his mother, father, and third wife. Ronny will die in twenty years and be cremated. He will not want a burial.
Yevgeny’s grandchildren whom he saw occasionally as they grew up will not know to fear fire. They make fires in the woods when they go camping, huddling under sleeping bags as the wind beats at their tent and snow pounds the ground. In a deserted wood they collect sticks as their father tells them about his father, Yevgeny, whom he knew to be stoic and resilient. The wood is covered in snow and a log slips from the little girl’s arms, rolling a short distance before it comes to a stop. She picks it back up and brings it over to where her siblings are sitting with her father. She’s scared of the darkness of the woods, especially alone, but they contain intrigue for her too. She doesn’t know what’s out there. She throws her log on the pile.
Together they build a bonfire, pour lighter fluid on it, and watch as tiny sparks float into the sky and glow a soft red before extinguishing. They wonder if their ancestors enjoyed building fires the way they do. They will never know.