By Yona Zeldis McDonough
“Papa’s coming,” Sonya says importantly. Her sister Evgenia continues the game she is playing on the rug and does not look up.
“You said that before and he didn’t come,” she says. This is true: Sonya has been to the window no fewer than four times in the last hour and each time she has said the same thing. Yet Papa has still not arrived.
“It’s different this time,” Sonya says. “This time he’s really coming.”
“No, I don’t think he’s coming…” Evgenia begins in a singsong voice. “Papa’s not coming, he’s not, he’s not…”
“Yes he is!” Sonya flares. “Papa’s coming now and he’s going to bring me a present.”
“He’s going to bring me one too,” Evgenia says calmly, looking down at the dolls the girls have set up on the playroom floor. “He always brings us a present when he’s been away.”
Sonya ignores her and returns to the window. She is short, the same height as Evgenia, who is two years younger, and she has to pull herself up slightly in order to see over the sill. Downstairs, in the parlor, the dining and drawing rooms, the windows extend up from the floor, almost to the ceiling. But up here, the windows begin much higher on the wall.
The courtyard below is quiet. The snow—tamped down and tightly packed as it has been for months—covers the entire area, and one of the kitchen cats delicately pads across it. Sonya scans it, looking for signs. When Papa returns, the whole house bursts into sound and motion, and the courtyard comes alive with the arrival of the glossy red sleigh and the pair of black horses that pull it, their hot breath sending up little plumes of steam that float above their large, quivering nostrils.
Vanushka, the manservant, waddles out to help Papa from his carriage; Papa’s heavy gray cape moves in swirls around his legs. Another servant, this one young and with terrible red welts all over his face, pulls the bags—which are beautiful, caramel colored leather and made from hides tanned in Papa’s own factory—from the back of the sleigh and lugs them across the snow, into the house. Everyone gathers at the door to greet him. It’s a wonderful moment, the moment Papa comes back.
Sonya turns from the window to rejoin Evgenia. The dolls are having a tea party, seated at a doll table, on doll chairs, their stiff, jointed hands positioned around the tiny blue willow cups and saucers that Papa brought from another of his many trips. Papa is often gone. The tannery demands his time and attention. Sonya wishes that Papa had some other sort of work that would allow him to stay at home and not disappear on trips that last weeks or sometimes even months.
“Don’t ever say such a thing!” admonished Mama when Sonya voiced this longing out loud. “We’re so lucky. Do you think most Jews get to live like this?” She swept her arm out in a gesture that included the drawing room with its parquet floors, fine rugs and wine velvet drapes, the piano on which her older sisters had taken lessons, the crystal chandelier with its pendant glass tears.
Sonya, chastened, had said no more. Mama was right. Jews were barred from many professions but tanning was not one of them. Papa said it was because no one else wanted the job. Sonya could understand why. She and Evgenia had visited the tannery once, a cavernous wooden building in a strange, desolate neighborhood where they had never been before. The space inside had seemed to go up and up and up; way at the top, smeared, oval windows revealed shafts of light in which motes of dust hung suspended. Better to look up than around, though. Everywhere she turned, there were mounds of skins. Some still retained the shapes of the animals they had been while others had already been tanned, cut and dyed. So many, she had thought. So many. Men in heavy leather aprons moved between the mounds. Against one wall stood barrels of horrible, amber colored liquid, thick and foul; one of them foamed a bit and a worker hurried over to stir. The floor beneath them was sticky. When Evgenia tried to move her foot, she got stuck and whimpered until Sonya was able to yank her free again. And the smell! She and Evgenia had made gagging sounds until Mama had pinched their arms and told them to stop.
Yet Sonya loves the new black leather boots with the scalloped trim and the buttons running up the side that Papa brings home for her and Evgenia, and the exquisite brown leather gloves—fringed tassels fluttering at each wrist—that Mama wears when they go out walking. She cannot reconcile these things with what she has seen at tannery. And how can her beloved Papa, with his soft voice, his light blue eyes so kind and gentle above his snowy, curling beard be a part of it?
The dolls are abandoned on the playroom floor when Sonya and Evgenia are called down to tea. The maid serves the hot borscht in white porcelain dishes; the deep scarlet color looks so pretty against it. Sonya drips borscht on her apron and under the table, rubs at it surreptitiously. She hopes her mother will not notice; beet juice does not come out easily. Slices of dark bread, thick with butter, are passed around and the maid pours the tea from the highly polished brass samovar that stands on the sideboard, across from the table. Mama dips her bread in the borscht and chews it slowly. Sonya wonders if she is thinking about Papa.
Her two older brothers, Max and Nikki, devour their food greedily, slathering yet more butter on the bread, asking for second helpings of the borscht. Then they ask to be excused from the table. At fifteen, Nikki is six years older than she is, and Max is a year older than that. It feels as if she hardly knows them, these big boys in their heavy boots and knee pants, the buttons on their tunics winking slyly as they swagger through the house.
Sonya has eleven other sisters and brothers, but they are all grown and gone. Most have married and some have moved away to other cities. She would not recognize them if she saw them in the town square. Some have children as old—or older!—than she is; how odd to think that these children are actually her nieces and nephews.
Sonya and Evgenia remain seated with their mother until the maid clears the dishes from the table and they are free to go. Evgenia wants to continue the game with the dolls; she takes out the doll trunk and flips open the clasps. Soon the floor is strewn with doll clothes—ball gowns and petticoats, an opera cape and a muff—but Sonya is too distracted to play. Papa will come later, she is sure of it.
The day darkens and turns to evening and still, Papa does not come. Sonya shimmies into her heavy flannel nightdress and says good night to her mother, who stands in the golden rectangle of light created by the open bedroom door. Papa will come tomorrow, she tells herself as she closes her eyes and burrows down under the covers next to her sister. Tomorrow will be the day.
The next morning, it is snowing when Sonya awakes. She runs to the window to watch the fat flakes drift their lazy way down to the ground. She dresses quickly, stuffing the stained apron under her bed and selecting a fresh one from the cupboard. Then she and Evgenia descend the stairs for breakfast. And when they get to the table, there is Papa, sitting in his morning coat, his white shirt open at the throat.
“Dyevishka!” Papa says holding out his arms. Little daughter. Sonya rushes to him, Evgenia right behind her. “Papa, Papa, Papa!” they cry together, covering his bearded face with kisses.
“Did you bring me a present?” Evgenia asks. “Where is it?” She begins to pat his pockets, searching.
“Why were you gone so long?” Sonya asks. She stands back, looking into his blue eyes, eyes that are the same color as hers. Mama and Evgenia have green eyes, as do Max and Nikki. She doesn’t remember what color the eyes of her other siblings are, but she knows her own blue eyes link her to Papa in a special way.
“Did you miss me?” Papa says. But he is teasing. He knows the answer.
“Yes.” She takes his hand—the nails square cut and clean but the palm stained yellowish brown from the dyes used at the tannery—and presses it to her cheek.
“I missed you too,” Papa says. He disengages his hand and gathers the two girls onto his lap. “I brought you each something,” he says.
“I want to see!” Evgenia says, bouncing up and down on his lap. Papa calls the maid and asks her to bring a piece of his luggage into the dining room. The girl bobs her head and disappears, returning a moment later with the caramel colored bag. Papa rummages through it until he locates a burlap sack. “Here we are,” he says.
Inside the sack are a pair of felt rabbits, one gray and one white, with pink embroidered noses, black buttons for eyes and soft puffs of sheep’s wool for tails. Evgenia immediately grabs the white one but Sonya actually prefers the gray; she knows the white one will look soiled very quickly. There are also bars of dark chocolate wrapped in pale blue paper with elegant gold writing looped across the front. Evgenia wants to eat hers now but Mama says no, she must have breakfast first.
The girls sit down and the maid serves them porridge, black bread, apricot jam and tea. Max and Nikki appear. Papa shakes their hands and kisses them both on each cheek. Then he gives them each a silver coin. Max holds his up to the window; it shines in the morning light.
Papa tells them all about St. Petersburg, where he has been on business. As he talks, Sonya can almost see the graceful bridges that span the city’s arteries of canals and rivers, the sprawling palaces whose reflections shimmer in the water, the workmen who take their ladders from street to street every evening, turning on the gaslights along the Nevksy Prospekt, the ladies and gentlemen attired in their evening finery. Evgenia doesn’t pay attention and instead makes her felt rabbit go hop, hop, hop along the table until Mama tells her to stop. But Sonya could listen to Papa all morning.
When the breakfast table has been cleared, Sonya and Evgenia go upstairs for lessons. The boys don their big coats and lambskin hats and clomp off to the military academy in town but the girls are educated at home. Papa has hired a tutor, a skinny young man with a wisp of moustache above his girlish upper lip, silver-rimmed spectacles, and black and white checkered pants. He comes three days a week to teach them their letters and numbers. Evgenia is often bored but Sonya enjoys the lessons; she already reads quite well.
Today the tutor brings out the big globe on its tilted stand. Sonya loves the way of flick of a finger will make it spin. They are learning world capitals and in her mind, they form a necklace of names, Paris and Rome, London and Madrid. Later, they trace maps from an atlas and color them in. Sonya tries to make hers very neat and is rewarded by a smile from the tutor.
Because it is Friday, lessons end early. The girls go downstairs for lunch, where the tutor is invited to join them. Sonya feels both giddy and shy in his presence; she wants him to think well of her, not that she is a baby like Evgenia. Max and Nikki come in, stomping the snow off their boots. They consume the dumplings, bread, potato soup, tea, and poppy seed cake with the same ravenous appetite they bring to every meal.
After lunch, the boys go off and do whatever it is that boys do. Evgenia tries to get Sonya to play a game with the new rabbits but Sonya wants to be left alone to read. She curls up in a big chair in the study, the chocolate bar a waiting secret tucked in her pocket.
Papa goes upstairs for a nap while Mama and the maid confer about the preparations for Shabbas. Theirs is not a particularly religious family but they still welcome the Sabbath in the traditional way. The maid roasts two chickens and bakes a braided challah. Mama lights the candles and says the prayers. Sometimes, some of their older siblings might join them. After the supper, the grown ups sit and chat, cracking walnuts and sipping tea. Papa reads aloud to the children. Lately, he has been teaching them how to play chess. Sonya surprises everyone with her aptitude; she has beaten Papa more than once.
Sonya finishes her book and stares at the cover for a moment. She wishes she had another book to read; maybe Papa will bring her one from his next trip. But right now, she is bored, and walks over to window to look out. Lips pressed to the glass, she leaves kisses on the panes. Mama would scold if she saw, but Mama is not here. Something, a flash of red, catches her eye. It is Nikki, running very fast across the courtyard, his scarf bright against the gray and white landscape. He skids a little on the packed snow but rights himself before he falls. Max runs up behind him and together, they take off. Where are they going? And why are they in such a rush? Sonya hurries to the door, pulls it open quietly and waits. No sound from upstairs. She grabs a shawl hanging on a hook near the door and steps outside. Nikki’s scarf is her beacon and she follows at some distance from her brothers; she does not want them to see her.
Nikki and Max stop when they reach the neighbor’s house across the road; they duck and slip under the slats in his fence. Their neighbor is a cranky old man with translucent skin through which a network of blue veins can be seen and white hair that rises from his forehead in a crest, like meringue. He spends much of his day sitting by the window, peering out at the road, through the lace curtains in his drawing room. If he sees any of them lingering near his gate, he comes out and shouts at them to go away. So what are Nikki and Max doing here? Sonya slides under the fence slats and follows them out back.
There, at the far end of the field, is a large spotted sow, settled on a bare patch of earth and warming herself in the afternoon sun. Sometimes the neighbor leaves her out front, where she will come up to the fence and snuffle your hand, hoping for an apple, a carrot, a heel of bread. Last summer she had piglets, spotted like she was; they had been so playful, so cute. Sonya wished she could have brought one home.
Max and Nikki plant themselves at a slight distance; they call to her, but she only looks up, and does not come. “Lazy old sow!” says Nikki. He reaches into his pocket and flings what he finds—a stone. It misses. The hand returns to the pocket for another stone. This too misses.
“What’s wrong with you?” says Max. “Don’t you know how to throw?” He roots in his pocket but finding nothing, turns around to see what else he might use. Sonya steps back and ducks behind a corner of the house. She hears a plunk, and then a squeal. When she steps out again, she sees that Max has found a pile of potatoes and is pitching them, one by one, at the sow. As another potato hits, she squeals again.
Stop, Sonya wants to say. You’re hurting her. But she cannot. When the potatoes are gone, Max looks round again. He grins as he grabs the bare branch of a nearby tree and twists and twists, until he releases it with a snap. He moves toward the pig with the broken end raised Sonya cannot, will not watch this. She turns and runs, past the side of the neighbor’s house, across the road, through the courtyard and back to her own door. When she reaches it, she is panting and shivering, hot and cold at once. She hangs the shawl back on the hook and presses her palms to her flaming cheeks. Her face feels unfamiliar and frightening, as if it belongs to someone else.
The house is very quiet. She goes back into the study and returns to Papa’s favorite big chair; when she was very small, she liked to trace her finger over the pattern of the crimson and blue fabric; it soothed her. She traces that pattern now, the paisley like floating teardrops, but it does not work. Her heart is still throbbing, her cheeks still on fire. She goes to the shelf and reaches for one of Papa’s books. It is heavy, and has no illustrations. But she lugs it back to the chair forces herself to read, or at least to try. Reading does calm the hideous pounding of her chest. After a while though, the effort makes her drowsy, and she closes her eyes.
Her light, fluttery sleep is ruptured by the sound of angry voices from the kitchen. Sonya starts, dislodging the book from her lap. It slides to the floor where it lands with a muffled thud. Who is speaking like that? She looks down to see she has smeared chocolate on her apron and does not think she has another clean one upstairs. The voices are louder now, and are coupled with the sound of someone crying. It is only when Sonya is halfway to the kitchen that she realizes the person yelling is Papa. Papa! How can this be? In her entire life, she has never heard him yell. She pushes the door open.
The room is full of people. Mama and Evgenia are huddled together on one side; Nikki, looking ashen, stands on the other. The servants have gathered too, Vanyushka and the rest of them. There are all staring at Papa and Max, who are facing each other in the center of the room. Papa’s face is a feverish pink and his hair is wild, as if he did not comb it when he got up from his nap. His blue eyes are fierce, accusatory. Max’s expression is one of pure terror.
“You idiot!” Papa roars. “Don’t you realize what you’ve done? Thanks to you, we could all be killed, murdered in our beds!” He strikes Max across the face--Papa who has never, ever hit one of them. On rare occasions, Mama might discipline with a pinch,
or deliver a slap. But not Papa. Never Papa! Max falls to his knees. “I’m sorry Papa. I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean any harm; we were just bored and wanted some fun,” he says. Tears fill his eyes. “I didn’t even hurt that stupid pig. See for yourself. The old sow is fine.”
“Fine!” spits Papa. “That’s not what our neighbors think! They think the zhid, the kike, is having fun at their expense, taunting them. And do you know what they do when the zhid taunt them? They slit their throats and set their houses on fire, that’s what they do!” Papa, who is now weeping, shakes his head and tears rain down on his shirt. “You stupid, stupid boy!” He swiftly undoes the buckle from his belt and yanks it from the loops of his pants. Before Max can raise an arm in self-protection, Papa whips the belt—thick black leather made in his own tannery—across his son’s back. Max’s thin shriek seems to jolt Mama in into action.
“Enough!” she pleads. “Stop hitting him!” But Papa ignores her and lands another blow, and then another across Max’s shoulders. The tip of belt lashes his neck; blood instantly blooms on the spot where it touches. Evgenia presses her face into Mama’s skirt. Mama grabs her hand and then Sonya’s too. “Out of here,” she says, pulling them from the room. “Right now!” She turns to one of the servants, Masha, who often looks after the girls. “Take them upstairs.”
Sonya is relieved to follow Masha away. Evgenia is whimpering, Max is shrieking but Sonya does not cry. Inside, her heart has turned cold and hard, like one of the bricks of ice that they keep in the icehouse out behind the kitchen. Up in the playroom, Masha tries to comfort Evgenia, whose whimpers have become full-blown sobs.
Sonya walks to the window, where again she has to pull herself up to reach the ledge. The day is dwindling, and the growing dusk gives the snow bluish gray cast. She feels a crushing sense of complicity: she saw what Max was doing, but she did not tell. What would Papa say if he knew this? She cannot believe her brother really would have hurt the sow; he was just teasing. But she cannot believe her father would strike Max either.
“What did he do?” Sonya asks Masha.
“Excuse me?” Masha turns to face her.
“To the pig,” says Sonya. “What did Max do to the pig that made Papa so angry?” Maybe there was something else, something that happened after she ran back inside.
“I don’t know,” Masha stammers. She turns back to Evgenia.
“Yes you do, and you have to tell me.” Her voice is firm, commanding. It’s the same voice her mother uses when she speaks to the servants. And it works.
“They cornered it in the field,” Masha says nervously. “And then Max used a stick to poke it. The pig got angry and started making noises. Grunts. Snorts. They thought it was funny. But they didn’t hurt the pig. Not really.”
“Did she bleed?” Sonya asks.
“What?” Masha is confused.
“The sow. Did she bleed?”
“I don’t know...I don’t think so.”
Sonya says nothing but waits until Masha has turned away again. Then she slips out and down the stairs. She crosses the dining room, where the lace tablecloth has been laid in preparation for Shabbas, to reach the kitchen. There is Max, sitting in a chair, arms crossed over his chest. He is quiet now, his face wet, his tunic wrinkled and stained with blood. Papa has taken off his own white shirt and is using it to wash the wound on Max’s neck. “I’m so sorry,” he is saying over and over again. “So, so sorry.” Then he sees Sonya.
“Dyevishka.” His voice is pleading. “Can you ever forgive me? I was frightened, don’t you see? So frightened that there would be a pogrom. You don’t remember the last pogrom, do you, tochter? A nightmare.”
Tochter. He is using Yiddish, not Russian. Papa and Mama almost never speak Yiddish. And he is wrong. She does remember the last pogrom, though she was very small. Papa put out all the lights, closed up the house, and hurried them all into the sleigh. They drove out of town, into the countryside, where a kind priest hid them in the hayloft of the barn behind his own cottage. Evgenia was a tiny baby and Mama had to give her wine, to make her sleep. They couldn’t risk the sound of her crying.
Sonya still remembers the priest’s eyes, which were also blue, but much darker than Papa’s, and the heavy wooden cross he had worn on his black cassock. When they got back to the house, the windows were broken, the drapes torn and some things were missing—crystal, silver, some of Mama jewels. But the house was still standing, and Papa was grateful that nothing worse had happened.
Sonya looks at her father now. How much she wants to sob yes, yes, I forgive you, I love you, I will always love you. But the words do not come. Some curtain has been torn away, and she has seen something that cannot now be unseen. The sight is appalling and she has to close her eyes against it. But it’s no good. In her mind, she
can still see the stripped skins, the hides piled high, the dark line of the belt as it snakes through the air and lands on Max’s flesh, the swell of blood, the wild look in the sow’s eyes. Sees it all, and remains where she is—silent, motionless—in the darkened doorway.