In a small room off a banquet hall in Montreal, Lily Kramer sat in silence with her new husband. It was summer and the room was hot. There were no windows and no door, only a curtain beyond which the guests--almost none of whom she knew--washed down sponge cake and herring with shots of schnapps and vodka. Lily and her husband sat on either end of the couch on which she assumed they were meant to consummate their marriage.
In front of the couch was a table laid with fruit and hard-boiled eggs. Her husband picked up a plum and rolled it in the palm of his hand. His name was Nathan and she had known him for a week. It was his brother, Sol, she had been meant to marry, a man she had corresponded with but hadn't met, who had caught one glimpse of her as she disembarked at the station and decided he wouldn't have her. Lily watched Nathan roll the plum in his hand and wondered what his brother had seen in her that made him turn away.
Nathan picked up a knife and began scoring the skin of the plum into sections. They had not yet touched, not even a brush of hand or lip upon becoming husband and wife. She could still count the number of glances they had exchanged, the first when she'd sat on the couch at the house where she was staying, so ashamed by the rejection at the station that she'd had to struggle to meet his gaze while he apologized on behalf of his brother and entire family.
"Your brother cannot even apologize on his own behalf?" she asked. She was surprised by her shame. Disappointed. She had no time to waste--no strength--on a man who fled at the mere sight of a woman. Or so she would have thought.
"Not even that," Nathan replied.
"No great loss, then," she said, forcing a lightness she didn't feel into her voice. She had crossed two oceans to marry this Sol. She had nothing and no one to return to.
"The loss is his," Nathan said quietly.
She had thought he would leave then, beat a hasty retreat from his brother's misdemeanour, but he didn't. He remained standing before her, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
"Would you like to sit down?" she asked finally.
His eyes were warm and brown; there was no pity in them. And he seemed to like what he saw. Already there was heat in his gaze.
He returned the next day to formalize their engagement. Why the rush? Lily wondered when he reappeared at the door. It was not as if she were fielding other offers, would be taken by another if he didn't quickly stake his claim. But then she knew, thought she knew. It was the rush of colour to her face when he had first entered the room, the lowered gaze that she'd had to force upwards, her chin raised in defiance of what she felt. He had returned to banish her shame. He brought witnesses and brandy--and the same heat in his gaze. He was a lucky man, Lily thought at that moment. His desire inclined him to acts of goodness.
"Do you speak English?" he asked her that day. They'd been speaking Yiddish until then.
"Ticket," she answered. "Bread. Cousin. Suitcase."
Her English was good, near fluent, in fact. It was her anger at that moment that made her conceal it, sudden anger at his assumption that it was she who was the more ignorant of the two--she who spoke five languages and could get by in several others, who had smuggled lives across borders he wouldn't be able to find on a map. Rage, in fact, that it should have come down to this: if Nathan Kramer would have her, she would have him and be grateful. She, who had held all of life and death between her two hands before dying and washing up into this pale afterlife of her own existence.
"Freedom," she continued. "Buttons. Train."
"Buttons?" he asked, smiling.
"Eisenbergs," she said, naming the family that was hosting her, Sol's employer, whose business was buttons.
"Yes, yes, I understand," Nathan said, still smiling.
He knew she spoke English, had known from the expressions on her face as she'd followed his earlier conversation with the Eisenbergs--all in English. He had met greenhorns before, knew their nodding at wrong moments, their delayed smiles, awkward laughter, baffled eyes. There was none of that in her. She was tired, yes, after the long journey she had made, and certainly confused and distressed by his brother's behaviour at the station, but she was not a woman who didn't understand what was being said all around her. She understood perfectly. And yet pretended she didn't. That intrigued him.
He had wanted her at once, had decided the moment he'd first stepped into the room. It was not her beauty that drew him. Not merely her beauty. He saw it, of course--how could one not? The fine bones of her face, the smoky blue eyes ... But it was the tension in her, a feral tension, part hunger, part fear. It was that which had quickened his blood, that--not her shame--which had made him return the next day with his witnesses and brandy. He had not expected to find such tension in the living room of Sam Eisenberg, the Button King of Montreal. He had met many girls already in the living rooms of Jewish Montreal. Nice girls and not-so-nice, intelligent girls, beautiful girls, wily, witty, hopeful girls, but this ... no, not this.
"Please," he said now, holding out a segment of the plum, the first exchange of their married life.
He watched her--his new bride--as she took a bite of the fruit. Her eyes filled with tears.
"What?" he asked.
"Nothing." She shook her head, closed her eyes briefly. "It's a good plum, not too sweet."
They had both fasted that day, in accordance with tradition. Should they have broken that fast on something else, Nathan wondered now, begun their marriage with a bite of egg, perhaps, symbolic of new life? A slice of melon, wholly sweet, without the tart edge of a plum?
"It's many years since I tasted a plum like that," Lily said in her near-perfect English. She handed the remainder of the segment back to him, took a long drink of water, then held the glass against her cheek to cool her skin.
"It's warm," he said, and she agreed.
She moved the glass to her other cheek, though it was no longer cool on her skin. Nathan handed her a napkin and she smiled her thanks as she wiped the sweat from her brow and upper lip. He had not seen her smile until then.
LILY AZEROV KRAMER. She was not who she said she was.
No one really is, I suppose, but Lily's deception was more literal than most. Her name before ... she'd left it there, in that beaten village where the first Lily had died, freeing, among other things, an identity card to replace the one she'd discarded, an identity that could propel a future if someone would just step into it.
Someone would, of course. The village was in Poland, 1944. Nothing went unused.
And here are some of the things that that someone acquired when she stole the identity of a girl she hadn't known at all in life: the name, first of all, Lily Azerov; the identity card; a pair of woollen socks; a notebook filled with dreams and other scribblings; a single frosted stone.
She pulled the socks over the threadbare ones she was already wearing. The identity card and notebook she stuffed inside the waistband of her trousers, but not before memorizing the only item of practical worth in the notebook's pages: Sonya Nemetz, Rehov Hayarkon 7, Tel Aviv. The stone, which she knew to be a diamond, she slipped inside her body.
It was only then that she hesitated, only as she was ready to leave that something as strong as her will to survive overtook her. She knew she should flee. Every instinct prodded her to leave that village at once and make her way back to the forest, where she could wait until it was safe to start moving again. And then to move, to join the mass of refugees flooding west in the wake of the liberating army, to fold herself into that mass and begin the life that might, in time, become her own. Move, she told herself, as she had so many times over the past three years, her instincts always keeping her a few inches beyond death's grasp. But something other than instinct rose in her that day. She hesitated. Her eye lingered. Was it the angle of the dead girl's body, limbs slightly askew as her younger sister's had once been in sleep? A fragment of the girl's dreams that had floated up and entered her as she quickly leafed through the notebook? The shadow of the rat skittering, the smell of its next meal luring it closer?
She stayed. She placed her open hand on the smooth, cold brow, passed it over sightless eyes--greyish blue like her own--and brought down the lids. The eyes would be covered. That was the least and most she felt she could do. She could bring down the lids of the eyes and hold them for a moment. This she did for the girl whose future she was stealing. And then she fled.
SOL KRAMER was among the guests at the wedding. The wedding that should have been his. Throughout the evening he could be seen toasting the bride and groom and lifting his brother high above his head in dancing more frenzied than joyous. His voice boomed louder than that of any other guest, his face shone with sweat.
"L'chaim," he shouted, downing shot after shot of whisky. He already regretted his decision.
That was the sort of man Sol Kramer was. If he ate brown bread for breakfast, he later wished he'd eaten white. Didn't merely wish, spent good time wondering how his day would have gone, how much better he would have felt--his gut, his entire being--had he only eaten white bread instead of brown.
The bride looked good to him now. There was a boldness in her expression that he hadn't noticed before, that hadn't been there, he could swear, when she first stepped off the train. She'd looked bewildered then, glancing around, waiting anxiously for someone to claim her. Pathetic is how she'd looked, a woman alone with no one to greet her. A piece of unclaimed baggage.
She couldn't be expected to look otherwise, he realized, after all she'd been through. And he, in turn, wasn't expected to love her, just to marry her and stay married for as long as it took to slip her through a crack in Canada's doors, which had not yet reopened to refugees who were Jewish. The marriage, Sol's first, was to be an act of charity. An act of charity for which he'd receive a small payment, a token of appreciation, nothing lavish, just enough to give him the start he'd been needing, the leg up that other young men, through no merit of their own, had received from family or other lucky breaks. Sol Kramer had had no lucky breaks. This marriage was to have been his first. But when he saw the bride he recoiled.
Damaged goods. That's what he saw. A broken life, a frightened woman, a marriage that would bind him--however briefly--to grief.
Let someone else marry her, he decided on the spot. He was a charitable man, no one would dispute it. He would never deny the widows and orphans of the world. But neither, it turned out, did he want to have to marry them. And why should he have to, with his looks and his smarts and the future that hummed just beyond his fingertips? Let someone else marry her, he told the busybody who'd arranged it. His charity did not extend to his marital bed.
But the woman he had left at the station was gone now, had disappeared entirely within the beautiful bride that his brother had taken. She was being lifted in her chair at the centre of the room. As the dancers beneath her struggled to get a solid grip, she sank briefly and her chair tilted, first one way, and then so far to the other that it looked as if she might slide off. A collective gasp went out, a few shrieks from the women, but Lily held on. Laughing, no less. More guests rushed in to help lift her, more muscled arms than were needed, and an instant later Sol watched as she rose straight out of the crowd. The woman who could have been--should have been--his.
She was radiant as her bearers transported her on her elevated throne across the room towards her bridegroom. Triumphant, she seemed to Sol. She didn't bother to hold onto the sides of her chair, which still dipped and bobbed perilously. With both hands free she waved a handkerchief in the direction of her bridegroom--Sol's own brother--who reached to grab the other end. Her eyes never lowered to the crowd beneath her; she spared not so much as a glimpse in Sol's direction.
She noticed him, though, his attempts to draw her gaze with his own. So now he wants me, she said to herself. I know you now; I've met your type before. He was a man who could only want what another had wanted first, she thought, a man whose own appetite for life was so meagre that he relied on parasitic yearnings to sustain him. She met his eyes briefly, then looked away.
I'm nothing to her. Less than nothing. A coward, Sol thought as he sank into the nearest available chair. He watched his brother stretch to reach her handkerchief, heard her laughter as Nathan caught hold briefly before the dancers beneath him bore him away.
"It won't last," said a voice beside him, a voice that emanated from the throat of a woman but had the weight and gravity of a man's.
Sol turned and saw that he had joined the table of a guest he didn't recognize, a middle-aged woman who either was or thought herself to be a cut above the rest of the guests. Her dress, a blue satin, was more formal than those of the other women, her bearing more upright and severe. Her hair was pulled back from a pale, wide brow and lacquered into a shell. She had not left her table the entire evening and had placed a restraining hand on the arm of the teenage girl beside her--her daughter, Sol assumed--every time the girl tried to rise to join the dancing.
"It can't possibly last," the woman said. "Already it's emitting that inimitable smell."
"Mother, please," the daughter hissed. She was clearly mortified. She twisted a napkin between her fingers and stared down at the table, refusing to look up.
"The stench of a bad match is unmistakable," the woman said.
"I see," Sol responded, though of course he didn't. He just didn't know what else to say. He was good in social situations--smooth, some would say--but this particular situation, the woman's peculiar rudeness, was beyond the range of his skills. The daughter, exuding sullenness, continued twisting her napkin. She kept her face down towards the table, showing nothing of herself but the straight part in her dark, wavy hair.
The mother looked at Sol, awaiting his response.
He thought for a moment, then smiled brightly and extended his hand. "Sol Kramer," he said. "Brother of the groom."
The woman didn't return his smile, but she did take his proffered hand. "Ida Pearl Krakauer," she said. "And this is my daughter, Elka."
The girl looked up from her twisted napkin. She was pretty as well as sullen, Sol noted with pleasure.
"Ida Pearl Krakauer," Sol repeated. He didn't recognize the name.
"So tell me," Ida said. "Where did your brother find that ring?"
"That piece of chipped glass he thinks is a diamond."
Sol felt his colour rising on his brother's behalf. A full month's earnings had gone into what this woman was now calling a piece of chipped glass.
"Grinstein's," she said, not waiting for his response. "I recognize the style. Lack thereof."
"It's been a pleasure, I'm sure," Sol said as he rose to leave the table. He wasn't about to listen to his brother's taste and judgment being insulted. Nor would he lower himself by answering the woman's rudeness with his own.
"Sit down, sit down. I didn't mean to offend you. If I had known you were such a hothead I would have kept my mouth shut, I'm sure."
Elka smiled slightly at her mother's mimic of Sol--Sol's turn of phrase which he had thought elegant but now knew to be ridiculous.
"And anyway," Ida Pearl continued, "I'm a competitor of Grinstein's, so you shouldn't take me so seriously."
"With all due respect, Mrs. Krakauer, I don't believe you're someone to be taken lightly."
At this Ida Pearl smiled, an actual full and genuine smile.
"Instead of rushing off in a huff, why don't you take my daughter for a spin? I don't approve of mixed dancing at weddings, but ..."
Elka was already on her feet, smiling invitingly if somewhat shyly at Sol.
" ... as you can see, my disapproval is of no consequence."
An odd bird, to say the least, Sol thought as he led Elka into the mixed circle of dancers of which Ida Pearl disapproved. But the daughter was adorable, there was no disputing that. Especially when she smiled up at him and two endearing dimples formed at the corners of her mouth.
A boor, Ida thought as she watched Sol manoeuvre Elka through the crowd. A man who was in love with his own brother's wife and didn't even have the decency to hide it.
"Here. Smell me," Elka said, thrusting her arm under Sol's nose.
Smell her? Sol wondered. But it was a lovely young arm, slender and well formed. Sol took the wrist between his thumb and forefinger, turned it so that the soft underside was exposed, and inhaled.
"Mmm ..." he sighed. "Lilac." Though, in truth, his sense of smell was so saturated with herring, sweat and the perfume of the other guests that the delicate floral scent he thought he detected might well have been imagined.
"Rosewater," Elka corrected. "But that's just my perfume. Can you really not smell it?" She smiled slyly at him.
"Smell what?" he asked, also smiling, but uneasy.
"It's not their stench she smells." Elka pointed in the direction of the bride and groom. "Anyone can see they're well matched. Just look at his face, how he loves her."
But Sol couldn't bear to look at his brother right then, at the happiness that should have been his.
"It's her own marriage to my father that my mother smells. It leaks out through my pores, she can't escape it."
"You smell nice to me," Sol murmured as he cast about for a way to change the subject. What was it with this mother-daughter pair and their bizarre talk of odours? And what kind of girl talked about her parents' marriage in that way to a man she'd barely met?
A pity, thought Ida Pearl, looking in the direction her daughter had pointed. For it wasn't happiness she saw on Nathan's face. It was longing. A longing suffused, at that moment, with hope, but a hope that wouldn't last, couldn't last, Ida knew. And he seemed a decent young man, nice to look at and well mannered. A young man whose future, if not for his bride, might have held the promise of happiness.
IDA PEARL AND ELKA had not actually been invited to the wedding, a fact Sol might have figured out for himself had he given the matter any thought. All the guests were from the Kramer side. They had to be. The bride had no friends or relatives in Montreal. She knew no one except the Eisenberg family that had agreed to host her.
But Sol wasn't thinking about the guest list that night, hadn't thought to wonder about the provenance of the only two strangers in the room. His mind was on himself, his own failings. How could he have turned away from a woman like Lily? How could his first instinct about her have been so wrong? He was a man who set great store on instincts. He had to. His future, lacking education or family connections to support it, rested entirely and solely on his astuteness. And now this failure. The bright future that had flashed just ahead flickered and faded in his mind. In its place, a sepia-washed vision: a shapeless woman in a sundress, watering tomato plants on the balcony of a walk-up; a man in an undershirt, chewing sunflower seeds on that same balcony and spitting out the husks on the floor. It was a repellent vision, shocking in its clarity. One in which Sol immediately recognized himself and his future wife.
Was it that vision that impelled him to invite Elka to step outside the hall with him, a need for distraction from his own darkening thoughts?
Elka glanced worriedly towards her mother. She didn't need to ask to know she was forbidden. "I guess if it's just for a few minutes ..." she said.
"We could both use the fresh air," Sol assured her as he guided her towards the door, but there was no freshness to the air outside, just the heavy stillness of a humid summer night. And as for distraction ... he waited for Elka to talk, to complain about the heat, to ask him about himself, his ideas, his dreams.
But Elka had suddenly become aware that she was alone with a man for the first time in her life, an older man, no less--he had to be twenty-three at the very least--and in a situation that, had she asked her mother, would have been expressly and unambiguously forbidden to her. She could think of nothing to say, stood silently, like a dark and sweating lump in the night.
"Shall we walk a bit?" Sol asked.
"Okay," she said, and they walked a few blocks in silence. Every front stoop they passed had someone on it, every balcony, every staircase, people escaping the heat of their apartments, talking, playing cards, fanning themselves with newspapers.
"So tell me," Sol said. "How do you and your mother know Lily?"
"We don't," Elka answered.
"You don't? You know my brother, then?"
She shook her head.
"Then how ... ?"
"We weren't invited."
He smiled. "Well, that's certainly ... interesting." He thought of the huge plate of cake and herring he had seen the mother helping herself to, the chaser of chickpeas and Scotch. It was one of the more ingenious schemes to fill one's stomach that he'd come across, and certainly less arduous than any he'd managed to dream up until now.
"I thought you knew," she said.
"How would I know?"
"Why did you come over to our table then?"
"Well, certainly not to throw you out."
"Oh," she said.
"Do you get thrown out often?"
"What are you talking about ... 'often'? You think we do this regularly? Make a habit of crashing other people's weddings? What do you take us for?" And when Sol didn't answer: "My mother had a cousin by the name of Lily Azerov back in Europe--Azerov was my mother's family name before she married my father. We haven't heard anything from her family, not since the war started. She's been waiting for news, but there's been nothing yet." She looked at Sol, who nodded. His mother, too, was waiting.
"They're still sorting things out over there," Sol said.
"So when she heard from one of her customers that a refugee by the name of Azerov had arrived in Montreal ..."
"But if it was your cousin, wouldn't she have contacted your mother directly?"
"You'd think," Elka agreed. "But I guess my mother thought she might not be able to find us, or something, that maybe she forgot my mother's married name." Elka thought a little more, then shrugged. "I can't explain what my mother was thinking, dragging me here with her, but your brother's wife is not her cousin. She saw that right away."
Which didn't stop her from staying at the wedding and helping herself to food and drink, Sol noted.
"I don't know why we stayed. I know we shouldn't have," Elka said as if she had just read Sol's thought. "And then the things she said ..." A blush rose to her face.
"It was a little peculiar," Sol allowed.
"Peculiar" didn't begin to describe it, Elka thought. She had expected her mother to turn around and leave the wedding hall as soon as she saw that the bride was not the lost cousin she had hoped to find. Instead, Ida's eyes had hardened, and her grip had tightened on Elka's wrist. She was transfixed on the bride, and not in the usual, admiring way. Elka could only hope that none of the other guests noticed the expression on her face, a cold, hard expression so out of place at a wedding. It was as if Ida's disappointment had turned into anger towards the bride, Elka thought now as she walked with Sol. As if it were the bride's fault that she wasn't the cousin Ida had hoped she would be.
"I can't really explain it," Elka said again. "Why she would have said those things." To the groom's own brother, no less. And at a wedding she hadn't even been invited to. "She thinks she has a sixth sense about people. You know: what they're like, who they should be with." She glanced at Sol. "For all the good it's done her."
Sol raised his eyebrows in a questioning way.
"Her marriage to my father wasn't exactly a huge success."
Sol smiled. "Maybe her sixth sense works better for other people's business than her own."
Elka smiled, relieved that Sol didn't seem as put off as she'd feared.
"And maybe in this case she's on to something," Sol added.
"What do you mean?"
"It was me the bride was supposed to marry, you know."
He told her about the letters he and Lily had exchanged, the arrangement they'd come to--leaving out the part about the payment he'd negotiated. Then the scene at Windsor Station.
"But it wasn't right," he concluded. "I could feel it in my gut." He looked at Elka. "Sixth sense," he added with a wink.
He expected a smile from her in return, agreement from her that he had done the right thing, that the gut never lies. He expected some variety of the nodding, smiling encouragement he was used to receiving during a first encounter with a girl.
"And so you left her there?" she asked instead. "You left your fiancée at the train station?"
"I didn't just leave her." What did she take him for? "I called the people who had agreed to host her until the wedding." He remembered his desperate call to Eisenberg--his boss and self-appointed mentor since his father's death eleven years earlier. "I explained what had happened and asked them to come and pick her up."
"And then you left her? A refugee who travelled half the world to marry you?"
"It wasn't like that," Sol protested, but it was, of course. He remembered Lily's face as she waited to be greeted, the hopeful lift of her eyes at each approaching man, the disappointment, then confusion, as one after another swept past her to welcome someone else. As the crowd around her thinned, she had developed a sudden preoccupation with her luggage--an attempt, Sol knew, to control her rising panic, rein in her darting eyes. She'd bent over her suitcase, a lone, still figure in the swirling crowd, her grey dress too sombre amid the bright summer colours, its classic cut too severe among all the wide skirts and needless flourishes that flaunted the end of wartime restrictions. How long had she bent over that suitcase, he wondered now, fiddling with the leather strap that didn't need adjusting, postponing the moment when she would have to look up again at the emptying hall?
Someone had bumped him, a girl with yellow hair and a wide red mouth. "Sorry, hon," she'd exhaled. Her eyes were blue, her hair crimped into countless perfect, yellow waves. A doll, he thought, like the one his younger sister, Nina, had loved so many years before. A living doll that would leave on his arm if he would just give the signal. She smiled encouragement, her mouth a blur of red. While across the hall on the periphery of his vision, the grey blot he was meant to marry.
What kind of man ... ? he wondered now, remembering Lily's shadowed face, the dress, all wrong, that had obviously been chosen with care. What kind of man ... ? he heard Elka think, and a hot shame filled him, a shame charged with anger at the silent girl beside him through whose eyes he had just glimpsed a distinctly unpleasant view of himself.
What Elka saw, though, didn't seem to her unpleasant. She liked how Sol kept to the outside of the sidewalk as they walked, as if what menaced her resided in the empty street. She liked the light touch of his hand on her waist as he guided her around corners and across streets, had begun to wait for it at each crosswalk, that light, fleeting touch claiming different parts of her. It was scandalous, of course, that he had left the woman at the station, but she felt flattered to think that she had caught what Lily couldn't. Maybe it wasn't so strange that her mother had insisted they stay at the wedding, she thought now as she smiled up at Sol. Maybe her mother had a sixth sense after all.
MAYBE IT WILL BE ALL RIGHT, Bella Kramer thought as she sat alone at the table reserved for the wedding party and watched her son and daughter-in-law dance above her in their lifted chairs. The wedding party consisted of three: Lily, Nathan and Bella. Nathan's father, Joseph, had died eleven years earlier, and his sister, Nina, had departed for Palestine as soon as the war in Europe ended. Sol would normally have acted as best man and been seated at the table with the rest of the family, but in this case it was agreed all around that he had no further role to play in this marriage.
Some head table, Bella had thought when she first sat down, a small round table with five chairs, the extra two chairs being for the rabbi and his wife. She remembered the head table at her own wedding, a long table that extended the length of an entire wall in one of the biggest wedding halls in all of Berdichev, with her large and boisterous family filling one end and Joseph's equally large and boisterous family filling the other. Now that was a head table.
Nathan had thought at first that there shouldn't be a wedding party at all, that they should dispense with walking down the aisle, given that Lily had no one to walk with her on the way to the khupah, but Lily had shaken her head. "Why should my misfortune rob you of a proper wedding?" she asked. "Then I'll also walk down the aisle alone," he said, to which she shook her head again. She would not have his mother be insulted in such a way.
Nathan had told Bella about that exchange as the two of them sat in the back seat of the car he had hired to take them to his wedding. They could easily have walked over. The synagogue where the wedding was being held was on Hutchison Street, just a few blocks away from their apartment on Clark Street, and it was a beautiful summer evening. But the way a thing starts is the way it continues, Nathan felt, so it was important to him that every member of the wedding party arrive in as much style and comfort as he could afford.
Just how much was this ride costing him? Bella had wondered briefly, but then she dismissed the thought because she knew how proud Nathan felt to be able to hire a car for the occasion. And not just one. Another hired car was travelling through the same streets at that very moment, bringing his bride to the hall where they would soon be united in marriage. It was a gloomy way to go to a wedding, Bella couldn't help thinking. She had been danced through the streets to her own wedding. She had heard the singing and clapping of her family and friends from a distance and then growing louder and louder as they approached her parents' home. Joseph was already waiting for her at the hall, and they were coming to bring her to him. What a moment that had been. She remembered her joy and feeling of triumph as she was swept through the streets to the man she had chosen for herself and already knew she loved. This quiet drive to her son's wedding felt better suited to a funeral, but she knew Nathan was happy and proud. And she knew he had just told her about that exchange with Lily to paint his bride in the most favourable light to her soon-to-be mother-in-law.
She had patted his knee and smiled.
NATHAN WAS NOT ACTUALLY Bella's first-born; he was her fourth. But he was the first to live past childhood. Her first children had died during the civil war that followed the revolution in Russia. They had not been murdered as so many had been, torn and tortured as each successive band of soldiers reconquered the city; and in that, she supposed, she had been lucky. She shook her head now at that thought, tried to imagine if the hopeful bride she had been would ever have believed what life would soon force her to consider "luck." She wouldn't, Bella knew, but the woman she had become understood the darker shades of good luck. And that's what it had been, a very dark shade of good luck that her children had not been afraid when they were taken. They had gone quietly of hunger and illness while in the embrace of their mother's arms. One after another they had gone, the baby first, than two-year-old Leah, then her first-born, Shmulik, who had been his father's delight.
She had thought then that her life was over, but Nathan had been born just one year later on the passage over to Canada. He had come early, an entire month before the date she had calculated, and neither she nor Joseph had thought of a name for him, neither of them able, at that point, to imagine a happy and usual conclusion to the pregnancy. One of the other passengers had suggested he be named for the ship that was carrying them all to new lives. She smiled now, remembering that passenger--a tailor from Pinsk who was on his way to become a farmer somewhere in the wilds of Saskatchewan or Manitoba. Good luck to him, she had thought at the time, thinking he could farm with a stooped back like that. She wondered now what had become of him.
The man's suggestion for her son's name had been as absurd as his ambition for his new life--the ship was the SS Vedic--but it had some appeal to Bella. Not because of any shortage of traditional names--there were all the names of brothers and uncles that were not currently in use, suspended as they were by the premature deaths of their previous owners. But Bella hadn't wanted to plant in new earth what had withered in the old. She wanted a fresh name, one unrelated to anyone she and Joseph had ever known. It was she who had suggested Nathan, from the Hebrew for "gift." It was a name, she thought, that balanced the memories of what they'd come through with their hopes for the future. Joseph, though, had had no hope for the future--his or anybody else's--and had suggested Sol instead, the name of his beloved youngest brother who had died at thirteen of typhus, also during the civil war. Bella, however, was adamant: Nathan, she insisted. Joseph's hope would return. They had been given another child, another chance, and were heading to a new life in a new and distant land. But she had been wrong.
In Russia her Joseph had worked with metal. An honourable substance, he had told her the first time they met. A substance whose history paralleled that of man himself. She smiled to remember it, how cocky he'd been. She had agreed with him, of course. She would have agreed with anything he said at that point--he was so handsome and brash--but her agreement went deeper than that. She was a socialist at the time. She shared the view, prevalent among her co-believers, that the metal industry was by far the most valuable and important of all the industries that would build the socialist future.
In Canada, though, Joseph Kramer had sorted buttons. That was the first job he found when they disembarked in Montreal, and it was a fine job for a newcomer, as it required neither English nor French and paid almost a living wage to anyone who could stand the hours.
Joseph, it turned out, could stand the hours. He preferred the hours, Bella soon came to understand, to those he spent at home, mute and stiff with her and their new child. He preferred the procession of buttons that asked nothing more than to be sorted by colour and size.
Bella had assumed the job would be temporary, a stepping stone to something better, especially when one of their neighbours told her that the Canadian Pacific Railway was hiring Jewish tinsmiths and other metal workers. But the weeks went by, and then the months, and Joseph was still sorting buttons.
"What kind of work is this for a man like you?" Bella began to ask. An endless parade of coloured buttons, and Joseph a man who had once tempered the steel that built bridges and ships.
Joseph couldn't explain it. Not to Bella. Perhaps not even to himself. "It's calming," he said finally. More calming than the hot milk laced with rum that Bella prepared for him each night before bed. More calming than the prayer he had given up as a youth and resumed again now in the dark mornings before he left for work. He was a man who had thought he would not be able to go on after the deaths of his children, would not be able to find the strength to bear himself through his life. Forgive me that you and the child are not enough, he implored Bella, though not in words, never in words. He had found his reassurance, Bella understood, in the meaningless work he now performed. In the ceaseless turning of the conveyer belt: a reminder that life would continue with or without the strength of Joseph Kramer. She had not found it in her heart to forgive him.
Who is that? she wondered now as she lifted her eyes from the past to look around the room. She had noticed the woman earlier; she was the only stranger in the room, she and her sulking daughter, whom Sol had just taken outside. Probably a relative of the Eisenbergs, who had been kind enough to host the bride after Sol's misstep at the station. Everyone else in the room, though, Bella recognized. She had not done too badly, she thought, to be sitting here in a room full of people wishing her and her family well.
"I wish your father were here," she had told Nathan earlier, and she had meant it. There's a force to life that sweeps you along, she thought now, as she watched her son dance with his bride. It was a force not unlike that of the guests who had swept her long ago to her wedding and her future. It would have picked Joseph up again if he had been given more time. It would pick Lily up too, Bella thought. Lily was stricken, Bella knew. She recognized grief when she met it. But she'll come along. People come along. It's the nature of our species to come along, she thought. Maybe this really would turn out all right.
She rose from the empty table to join the dancing.
THE IMPOSTER BRIDE. Copyright © 2012 by Nancy Richler. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.