Far From Home
By Varda Fiszbein
Translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
He isn’t anyone you’d invite to your home for a pleasant chat or to enjoy time spent in his company. Or anyone, God forbid, you’d like to have in the family. Nobody you know would feel proud to call him a friend. Of that you can be sure. He’s simply someone you have to rely on because the moment has come when you need him.
You see, if you, like me, have three daughters – may God grant them long life – one of them already of marriageable age and two others who will be ready in a few years, he’s the one you need; there’s no way around it. Because here is not like there.
Here there’s no small Jewish community like the one where you and your ancestors and their ancestors were born and lived in and watched the river flow since days lost in time. There you could be sure that your oldest daughter could marry young Isaac, the butcher’s son, let’s say, or to give another example, little Elías, the boy from the yard goods store, or even, if you were very lucky, some musician’s son, as joyful as a tambourine.
Although it also could happen that your family was among the humblest. Then, to your misfortune, there would be no other option than to be satisfied with a shoemaker’s apprentice. But even then you could be confident it was a matter of good boys, good future husbands, respectful of our Law and lovers of tradition.
But here that’s not the case, because in this country where I arrived partly out of hunger and partly because of the war, following my husband and dragging five children along with me, except for the little one who was the daughter of our reunion, here there’s some of everything, really.
In these big cities live thousands of people of all classes, beliefs, and religions, of a thousand colors and a thousand features that you would never even have imagined could exist in the world.
And the girls, the girls, oh yes, here, just like there, they are how they are and they do what they do; they have to live, don’t you think? They come and go, and they like boys, and you can’t be watching them all the time, especially if you need to send them out to work to help support their parents’ household until the time comes when they think that maybe they could support their own household with their earnings, and that makes them look at the boys with even greater interest, with even more tender gazes and more frequent sighs.
And since you’re a mother, you keep observing all that, of course, observing it and, especially, feeling it in your heart.
My Estercita, for example, works in a candy factory. She wraps the candies that other employees prepare in big copper pots, mixing sugar with honey and mint and other ingredients.
She’s not even allowed to taste those sweets. They’re made for those girls who also enjoy nice, full pockets to buy them with. Those girls really are lucky, and so are their mothers, because when they become old enough to marry, they don’t need to drive themselves so crazy.
But for my daughter that’s not the way things are. And so, when the time comes for her to marry, it’s me, her mother, who must make sure she finds a good boy, someone like herself, of our own faith.
What do you do then? Then you make a honey cake and poppy seed cookies to serve to Efraín, the marriage broker. Because he’s precisely the one required in this case. An old man. May God forgive me, not very clean, with a long, greasy beard and a hat that’s seen better days for more than fifteen, maybe twenty, years now.
And he will accept the invitation, knowing beforehand that you didn’t invite him over to talk about the weather, or the sleepless nights, or the world’s suffering, about which there’s always plenty to say, but not now. No, no – he knows that you invited him to arrange a possible wedding. And how does he know that? Well, because many other mothers of other daughters have invited him before you, for the same purpose as yours.
Efraín pretends he earns his living as a watchmaker, an honorable trade wherever watches exist, and well regarded by our people, but the truth is that he earns his keep by arranging marriages, also a respectable profession, although he prefers to claim the other one.
But what choice is there? If you don’t have a dowry to give your daughter when it’s time for her to marry, then you can’t expect a rich son-in-law to fall from the sky, or try to summon the ideal husband you’d like for her through magic.
Because it’s not like your daughter has had a great education: who would’ve been able to pay for it with so many mouths to feed? – three girls, plus three young men, of whom only the eldest works, and that just occasionally, if something turns up. And at home the only steady wages coming in are what the father earns, poor man, his back more bent with each passing day.
Believe me, our illusions grow smaller all the time; every day they shrink a little more. Who needs a doctor or a lawyer for a son-in-law? Who goes around looking for the heir of a wealthy family? It’s enough if he’s an honest fellow, capable of appreciating loving relatives and a wife – of this you can be sure – who’s pure virtue, pretty, with two copper-colored braids, shining like two suns, rolled up on each side of her head. So shy that she doesn’t even dare speak to any man that’s not part of her own family, with a pair of blessed hands for sewing and embroidering and cooking and whatever. Clean as a newly-polished silver tray. Let me assure you, you could serve a meal off the kitchen floor if my Estercita had scrubbed it first.
And so here is Efraín, the marriage broker, in your house and sitting at your table. You put a plate of cake and cookies in front of him – as many as you imagine he can gulp down – and you offer him all the cups of tea he’s willing to accept and will drink just like we did back there, with the lump of sugar in his mouth, not in the glass, allowing his tongue to remain sweet as the hot liquid goes down and melts it. You may think this is foolish, even ridiculous, but don’t believe it, because when you drink tea that way you can save plenty of lumps of sugar. Take that from someone who’s made a long-standing habit of saving. A habit? What am I saying? A law.
Efraín talks and talks with his mouth full, and he acts like he doesn’t know the reason for his presence in the house. You’re the one who has to bring him around to it, little by little. When he asks for a little more tea, it’s the right moment to ask Estercita to serve it to him, so she can be seen. The marriage broker, who’s nobody’s fool, realizes your intentions and remarks on the girl’s presence with snide comments, which shouldn’t be taken the wrong way, because that’s his job: he has to study the “goods” he’s going to offer.
The first thing he says is that she’s very thin. “Could she be sickly?”
Please, God forbid. You know what girls are like these days: they watch their figures; they don’t want to eat – ha, ha. You have to make excuses.
Ester blushes and her lips tremble. And the old goat goes on, sarcastically:
“Oy, how red those cheeks are! Are you sure she doesn’t have a fever?”
“Come now, Don Efraín!”
May God forgive me for calling this stupid, wretched man “Don”. “My daughter is shy; she’s not used to talking to strangers.”
And when the girl walks away, or rather when she escapes, it’s the right moment to get to the point and whisper:
“Maybe you know someone suitable for her to marry; she’s already turned nineteen.”
“Hmm, is she the oldest?” Efraín asks.
“Of the girls, yes, and you can believe me when I tell you she’s healthy and strong and she’s not afraid of the work involved in having a husband and a home and all the children God may want to send her.”
“Well,” he says dismissively, “one always knows somebody. God has created both men and women in the house of the Israelites, and I, Efraín, make it possible for them to come together.”
Then he makes a gesture that might seem casual but isn’t: he pushes away the nearly empty dish, which we then have to refill in the kitchen with more cake and cookies, which makes me think there will be no chicken to welcome Shabbat, just broth and fish, because the eggs, flour, and honey for these sweets had to come out of the weekly budget, where else? The marriage broker’s snack has consumed nearly half of the Friday night dinner.
And while Efraín drinks another glass of tea, which I can’t join him in because I feel like frogs are growing in my guts from so much liquid, he decides to stand up, look around him, and praise the soundness and beauty of the house. These appear to be ordinary remarks, compliments, but the direction he’s taking is very clear, and you have to hurriedly explain:
“If only it were ours – how I’d love to have the money to buy it, but unfortunately we can barely pay the rent.”
“Come, come, don’t complain; it’s a very big, pretty house, with the advantage that you don’t have to share it with anybody, like many other immigrants do,” Efraín says.
And again you have to make excuses.
“We couldn’t share the kitchen with other people, as you well know, with people who might cook pork or I don’t know what . . .”
When the plate is almost empty for the second time, he stands up again and crosses the spacious patio, breathing the camellia-scented air, stopping here and there to look at the flowerpots filled with geraniums or ferns.
A moment earlier Ester was watering them, although it’s not the time of day to do it. What she wanted was to eavesdrop on the conversation; she doesn’t like any part of what’s happening; she thinks no one has the right to determine her future without consulting her, and much less with the intervention of a stranger, but as soon as she sees the marriage broker emerge from the parlor, she runs to the bedroom, from where the door slam intended to express her displeasure can be clearly heard.
Efraín pretends not to let on; he seems content with the benefits he may be able to derive from our possible transaction, because he belches and after clearing his throat he says yes, he knows the right young man; he’s “like us; besides being a very good person, he earns a good living.”
“Does he have family here?” it occurs to me to ask.
“Well, he lives with a brother, the sister-in-law, and the nephews. The brother – blessed be the Almighty – has a small textile workshop and that’s where the young man in question works. In just two years he was able to save up enough of his earnings to pay off what he owed that brother, who had bought his ticket to immigrate in installments, and he even was courteous enough to give his sister-in-law a set of crystal glasses. You see, a sensitive boy with generous impulses. He loves his family dearly, but he’s already twenty-five and wants to form his own family and stop living in someone else’s house,” Efraín confides, adding:
“That’s the best I’ve got. What do you think?”
I understand all too well that the marriage broker has observed that the living quarters aren’t as great as he pretended when he praised them and that, after his explanations, he must have imagined that we’re paying more than average rent so that the owner will respect our demand not to stick in other tenants, and he certainly knows that our resources are scarce; that’s why he’s offering a humble candidate, from a working class family. What can you do? He’s already assumed that we can’t aspire to anything better.
One less girl in the family is one less mouth to feed, and now she’s a nineteen-year-old young lady, of marriageable age, but if we don’t keep our eyes wide open and do what needs to be done, right around the corner she’ll turn twenty, twenty-two, twenty-four years old, and instead of a marriageable daughter there’ll be an old maid. God forbid.
That’s why there’s no other solution than to ask Efraín to start dealing with that boy he’s talking about, and to bring him over so we can meet him. As I tell him this and think of two or three matters that I still have to discuss with him, I walk him to the front door, relieved that the visit and the negotiations have ended at last, although the hardest part has just begun.
Outside, the sun is dazzling and it’s unbearably hot, something typical of this land that I still haven’t been able to adjust to, heat and humidity. Inside, the canvas that covers the patio and the plants refreshes the atmosphere a little, and the heat isn’t so noticeable.
Before saying goodbye, I inform the marriage broker of those details I had discussed earlier with my husband. I let him know that my daughter will go to her wedding well provided for. He needs to understand clearly what he’s going to tell the other party. We’ll give the couple bedroom furniture and bed linens: two good eiderdown quilts and goose feather pillows like the ones they use there; here there’s nothing better. Sheets and blankets, too, a couple of sets. And Estercita won’t leave home naked, either: nightgowns, dresses, and footwear for the first few seasons, all of which I myself will sew – except for the shoes – if God grants me strength and health.
He takes careful note of what I’ve said and replies: “Look, here’s what we’ll do. I’m a busy man. It will be better if the boy comes by himself to pay you a visit. Next Wednesday, let’s say, for example, after work. What do you think?”
“Of course. It’s good for the young people to meet as soon as possible.”
But the main thing still remains: what the marriage broker wants to charge. He names a figure; we have to haggle a little. He pretends to be offended: “It’s a blessed task,” he says, “a task that has no price.” Besides, he’s going to provide “a little something for the couple,” a small gift, he promises, if there’s a wedding. Doesn’t he have expenses, too? Isn’t he investing his time? he protests.
Smooth-talking old liar. Expenses! Why, the only thing he does is go around schnorring tea and cookies in all the homes he visits. But it’s all a trifle if you want to marry off your daughter. And in the end you have to accept; if there’s a wedding, he’ll collect what he asks for and we’ll see him, if God grants us life, as a guest of honor at the reception. It’s only logical that he’ll collect a few more pesos from the other party, but what can you do? Those are the rules and that’s how weddings are arranged here.
When I go back into the house, Estercita is out on the patio again, but she doesn’t even cast a glance at her mother. You can see she’s hurt and embarrassed because a stranger is looking for a husband for her. She would have liked to choose. She thinks – poor, innocent girl! – that she’s a princess and life is a romantic novel.
I’d like to go over and comfort her, give her a caress, but she turns her back on me and goes back to watering the plants. If she keeps pouring so much water on, she’ll drown them!
The light that filters through the canvas outlines the pink branches of the hyacinths.
The stupid neighbor women say that if there are marriageable daughters at home you shouldn’t have hyacinth plants because they bring bad luck, and the girls will remain old maids, “dressing the statues of the saints.” What nonsense! We don’t believe in saints. Besides, these things are in God’s hands, God’s and mothers’. The rest is superstition. Typical of here.
There you never heard of such things. Of course there nothing is the same, not even similar. Hyacinths don’t even grow there; there everything is different. But it’s so far away!
Copyright © Varda Fiszbein 2013. Translation copyright © Andrea Labinger 2013.
Varda Fiszbein was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but has resided for many years in Seville, Spain. She is a professor of Hebraic Studies, Hebrew and Yiddish, and edits and translates works from those languages, as well as from English, into Spanish. In addition to her many translations, Fiszbein has authored children’s fiction (for which she has won numerous prizes), literary reviews and critical studies, and adult non-fiction. Her new short story collection, Asuntos de Familia (Family Matters), which includes “Far From Home”), was published by Sefarad Editores (Spain) this year.
Andrea G. Labinger (the translator) has published numerous translations of Latin American prose fiction, three of which were PEN USA finalists. Her recent work includes Ana María Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (Nebraska, 2012); Guillermo Martínez’s Borges and Mathematics (Purdue, 2012); and Liliana Heker's The End of the Story (Biblioasis, 2012), which was listed by World Literature Today as one of the "75 notable translations of the year."