To the End Of Her Path

 

To The End Of Her Path

By Nelly Shulman

Translated from Russian by the author

 

Until now, seeing her name on the posters, Frida was somewhat embarrassed. It seemed to her that these red, bright letters are not about her, and that part about the laureate is not. After all, she had grown up in a two-room apartment above a Russian shop, in that part of Brooklyn where retirees in woolen leggingsfeed the gulls on the wooden promenade.

Damp, nasty wind from the north
was throwing the flakes of rainy snow on the poster. Breathing on her frozen fingers, Frida opened with an effort the heavy wooden door of the conservatory.

She was bending over the music stand, flipping through the yellowed notes, pressing the violin to her chin. As always, she thought that now she must raise the bow and touch the strings. As always, nothing was more difficult.

The relief will come later, when black, spidery notes will run from left to right, from top to bottom, when there will be nothing apart from these sticks and hooks, when her very body, starting from the tips of the fingers, will sound and respond to music. Then it will be easy, but not now.

There was a knock at the door. Frida winced. She did not like it when they interfered with rehearsing. She responded in a quarrelsome, grandmotherly voice: “Come in.”

“I am your accompanist. Here, I just wanted to be acquainted…” A man
Frida immediately identified with a trained eye, of her own age in jeans, leaned against the doorframe. "I'm sorry if I interrupted."

“Oh, nothing.” Putting down the violin, she has held out her hand, a cold hand with thin knuckles. The hand that grasped it was quite different: warm, large, twice as big as her baby's paw.

“My name is Martin.” He tilted his head a little. Frida noticed a crocheted, multicolored kippah on his golden, thick as a wheat sheaf, hair. "If you need anything...”

“Yes, yes, well,” she said irritably, feeling like many things
the difference in time zones, fatigue, the onset of a migraine jostled in her head, pushing each other, wanting to break forward first to turn the thin, sharp, ruthless corkscrew.

The lucky one will spit in the palms of his hands, twist the tip of the corkscrew farther and farther until it touches the brain, and then there will be only fiery flashes before her eyes and endless, exhausting vomiting. Others, crowding around, will cheer the winner. Frida always saw it like that.

She closed her eyes, inhaling a few times, deeply, intermittently. When she lifted her eyelashes, the man in the room was gone. He closed the door so softly that Frida felt nothing. The corkscrew in the temple, however, did not stay. Raising her bow, she began to play.


The conservatory settled her in a gingerbread, expensive hotel on a narrow street that stretched up from the market square. In the summer the sun shone here, over the hills above the fast, brown river, over the knight's castle stuck to the slope, over the jugs of white, cold wine at the pavement’s cafés.
 
Now she was hobbling along, cursing the icy rain and her hurting even in prudent, flat-soled shoes feet.

In the room, she set up the Internet and called Mom.

“We have snow,” her mother immediately complained. “Father cleared the paths today, and now he is lying down with back pain. I gave you a belt of dog hair when you flew to Stockholm, and you still have not returned it. Now it would be useful.” The said belt, the prized possession of her mother, was inherited from some long-forgotten neighbor. Her parents dragged the thing all the way to New York. According to some folk Russian belief, the dog hair was a remedy of choice for back pain and a host of other ailments.

Frida had flown to Stockholm to play at a Nobel banquet. Of course, she did not wear a belt under her flowing, floor-length, silk dress. Hell, she did not even pull it out of the bag. Frida could even picture the cursed package in the dressing room of her Manhattan apartment, on the second shelf from the right. It would be impossible to tell her mother that she would need to go to Manhattan for the belt. It would cause complaints from her mother about the weather and the fact that her father, with his radiculitis, diabetes, and high blood pressure, could not be left alone. Frida had to remain silent and listen to a few more minutes of criticism about her irresponsibility and mismanagement. Nevertheless, they said good-bye tenderly. From here, Frida was supposed to fly to London. Mother, as always, asked her to bring her tea. For some reason, her parents never asked for anything except tea, although the same tea could be bought in a supermarket ten minutes' drive from their home.

In a Brooklyn Russian store stood stacks of tea with an elephant on the label. Little Frida had loved to play with the shiny, thick foil. You could make tiaras and crowns from it and rehearse the curtsies in front of a tall mirror, from where a pale girl with hair too fluffy for her thin lips and bent nose, a girl with tea-colored eyes, looked back at her.

“Well, of course. Kiss you. Say hello to Papa.” Turning off the computer, she stretched out on the huge bed. Reaching for the violin and bow, she put them next to her, where they touched her hand.

In the darkness of the room, her Guarneri gleamed like honey. The instrument was a deep bronze color, slightly faded, the shade of her hair, which now spilled over a snow-white cushion.

Frida picked the string with her fingernail and shivered. In the huge empty room, the sound was especially unpleasant, as if there were nothing but rain outside the window
rain, cold and endless, and eternal solitude.

In the morning she rehearsed with Martin. Frida, who remembered several dozen previous accompanists, expected the worst: inattention and the likelihood that this person simply would not listen to her.

However, Martin did not just listen; he heard. He leaned over the piano, watching her, following
even the smallest movement of her bow. Even the brief moment she froze, that tenth or one hundredth of a second when it seemed to her that there was an infinite space between her and the violin which she could not fill.

“You seem to be afraid of music,” he said, when Frida, at the break, leaning on the piano, was drinking coffee. “This is a compliment,” he added hastily. “I meant not that you are afraid of it, but that you respect it.”

“It is like with a car.”  Frida even smiled. The coffee was strong and sweet, just to her taste. “You cannot think that you can do just anything; otherwise it will end badly. Only God is omnipotent.”

“Do you believe in God?” He took the cup from Frida. “I'll clean up.”

“What should I say?”  She pensively leafed through her notes. “Undoubtedly, there is some higher power. Tartini, are we playing him?” She turned to Martin.

“We're playing him.” He stood, his hands in his pockets, looking at her, smiling a little.


Tartini dreamed that he was played by the devil himself. In addition, someone probably would have dreamed that God is playing. However, I do not believe in the devil.”

“I believe,” murmured Martin, sitting down at the piano.

Frida raised her eyebrows slightly.

“In this country,” he paused, “you begin to believe that there is a devil. Although, of course, you also believe that there is God. By the way, Tartini fell in love with his pupil, and fled from this love to the monastery.”

“Where's the nearest convent?” Frieda asked derisively, reaching for her bow. “Let's play.”

They left the conservatory at the very hour when, quite unexpectedly, the sky cleared from the veil of clouds. It became, amidst the merry hills, bluish-golden, with a cranberry strip on the bottom where the sun was rolling off beyond the horizon.

Thin, barely noticeable ice covered the cobblestones. Frida suddenly remembered the drive west, across the bridge, where the gray subway train had rattled, where the rays of sunset had played in the windows of countless skyscrapers.

“I want to walk,” she said suddenly.

“Won’t you freeze?” asked Martin.

“You certainly will need a scarf or mulled wine, or both.” Frida pulled on her gloves. “Well, lead. On the other hand, are you
as they say in my distant homeland ‘not local’?”

“I thought you were from New York.” Martin opened the door for her.

“They say that there, too.” Inhaling the brittle, thorny evening air, she fell silent.

“I am the most local.” He caught up to Frida, following her step. “I can even show how much.”

“Come on.” She looked straight into his eyes, the color of blue, deepest sky.

She somehow thought that Martin would take her home, but they came to the cemetery, a long space on the hillside covered with withered, frostbitten grass, with light marble slabs set here and there.

“It's not Jewish.” She went over to one of the monuments with a cross.

“The Jewish one is no longer here. It was destroyed during the Night of the Broken Glass.” These last words he said in German. Frida shivered
sharp words, evil, like a long fragment of a broken glass hiding on the kitchen floor, waiting there to stab you in the soft flesh of the palm, a little lower than the thumb.

“Then a bomb dropped here during the war. After the war, there were no Jews here,” Martin finished.

“But you?” Frida nodded slightly at his kippah.

“I'm not Jewish.” He paused and added: “Not yet.”

“Ah,” said Frieda, turning her back to him.

When she was sixteen, she’d won a scholarship from the Jerusalem Conservatory: three months in a hot, stuffy city, ninety days of lessons and exercises. Until the onset of sweat, migraines, and pain at her fingertips. Her teacher was one of those who’d been taken away from here, on steamboats and trains, wrapped up, frightened, with only eyes sticking out from under hats and scarves. His parents had managed to give him a violin, a tiny one-quarter, the same one on which a three-year-old Frida once played. The little violin hung on the white wall of the class, the only thing left to him from his parents, from his family and all his relatives went who went up in smoke. Sometimes it responded to the sounds of other students’ violins, muttering something of its own, incomprehensible.

“This is the grave of my grandfather.” Martin stopped in front of a simple granite slab. Under the cross, there were dates of his life, almost a hundred years. Counting, Frida clenched her teeth to say nothing. There was also something written in German Gothic, which she did not know.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Martin translated to her. “This is from the Gospel of John.”

“He believed in God?”

“He was a pastor. All his life in the same church. We passed it, the gray one. Well, that is, from 1942 till the end of the war. He was in a concentration camp, not far away. You probably did not hear about it. It”
Martin paused “was only of local significance.”

“What was he arrested for?” Frida asked, expecting to hear something about pacifism and preaching.

“He hid two Jewish families and helped them escape to Switzerland. He should have been executed but he was respected in the city. My family has been living here for five hundred years, and always one of us was a pastor. So, they did not dare to touch him.” Martin went over to another grave. "This is my father. He was also a pastor, but I do not remember him. He died when I was two years old.”

Frida looked at the stone. The quote was different.

“Proclaim freedom throughout the earth. This is from the Old Testament,” said Martin.

“I know.” Shivering, Frida thrust her hands deeper into her pockets. The sun had gone down, the angry wind was biting, and the dry leaves rustled in the trees. At dusk her eyes lost their shine and became bottomless lead lakes. “I had a bat mitzvah in a Russian restaurant.”

“My father was a pastor in West Berlin. I was born there. He was shot at the Wall when he helped refugees to cross it. Let us go from here, it is already cold.” Martin gave her his hand and she took it.

“Where is the synagogue?” she asked as they approached the hotel.

“There is none. First there was November 1938, then the bombing. After the war, it was decided not to restore it. We have a cultural center and a rabbi comes every other week. He holds a service and deals with people like me.”

“Thank you.” Frida stopped at the hotel door. “Until tomorrow then. Do not forget, we have a rehearsal two hours before the concert.”

She went inside, into the warmth, feeling his gaze on her back, on her sharp shoulders and the thick knot of her hair.


In the morning, she took a slow suburban train to the concentration camp. It consisted only of a name and a monument: seven sloping concrete slabs on a flat riverbank. Frida stood beside the slabs, wet under the fine rain. She laid a stone at the bottom of one of the slabs. She did not know if there had been any Jews in the camp, but this was completely unimportant.

Because of her name, she was often pictured as a sultry Latina with a mustache above her lip, and steep hips. People were surprised, when they met her, to see a frail girl with bony fingers and pale, hollow cheeks.

Her grandmother, Frida Moiseevna, had been taken, pregnant, out of the besieged Leningrad on the Road of Life. Judging from her pre-war photos, she was a weak-chested child from the alleys in the Jewish quarter behind the Choral Synagogue. Growing up in the gloomy courtyard, she never smelled anything other than the rotten water of the canals and the raw western wind. She taught violin at a music school. After giving birth, she immediately died, either from complications or from dystrophy. No one in the frozen Vologda maternity ward in January of 1942 cared about the cause of her death.  The Party commissar wrote to the front line, to the husband of the deceased. The baby, whom the mother had time to call Anechka, was entrusted to the care of the bottle and the joy of the wartime orphanage.

The girl proved to be tenacious. She clung to existence, in lice and boils, mute, with the official verdict of “lagging behind in development,” until July 1945.

Her father returned from the war without an arm and with a new wife, the Belarusian Valya. The child was taken into the family, washed and dressed. Surprisingly, the girl heard everything, understood everything, and spoke. Valya was not an evil stepmother. A kind one, however, she was not. She was ordinary. As soon as her husband was arrested in 1948, she divorced him, gave her stepdaughter to an orphanage, and left Anna life forever, just like Anechka's father, who was shot half a year after his arrest.

Therefore, it turned out that Anechka's daughter could not be named otherwise except for Frida, since her other grandmother, the loud and hospitable inhabitant of Odessa Liya Semenovna, was still alive. Jews do not name in honor of the living. Only in honor of the deceased. In this case, in honor of Frida,
her grandmother, the teacher of music: frail, stunted, hunchbacked.

Frida came to the rehearsal in a concert dress. Martin shut his eyes. She was like an ancient sword, clad in bronze silk, with a copper necklace lying on thin collarbones. She balanced on dangerously high heels, with a cunningly twisted knot of hair where a barrette protruded, like a ritual dagger.

Her face, bending over the violin, was sharp, consisting of corners and broken angles, without a single soft line. Entering the stage, she glanced around the crowded hall and looked at Martin. Spotlights flashed in her eyes, which suddenly appeared to Martin not to be made of lead but woven from raindrops.

She was a great musician. Martin had heard her before, on recordings, but only now, looking at her, visible to him just from the side
taking in her face, closed eyes, and bitten lip, hearing how she herself became the music, how she fused with the violin did he realize it fully.

After seemingly endless applause, she locked herself in the dressing room.

He quietly knocked on the door. Frida opened it, still in her dress, with a distant, pinched face, pale under the cascade of her hair. How small she is, Martin suddenly thought. Even on those heels, how small.

“I was going to go to the hotel.”

She avoided his gaze.

“Then you will not be able to see how the local people live.” Martin saw that she still was out of breath. “For example, me.”

“Is this an invitation?” She smiled at the corner of her thin lips.


He lived in the apartment of Frida’s dreams.

Sleeping in her apartment on Manhattan, uncomfortable, a place she tidied only for photo sessions, she always imagined such rooms, with high ceilings, white walls, and floors of dark wood. Here was also an oval table with Viennese chairs. A balcony of wrought iron overlooked the narrow street and a park behind it. Here stood a spacious sofa, antique engravings, and shelves with many books and vinyl surrounded the room. Outside the window was the deep, quiet silence of midnight. The wet trees rustled in the courtyard as if talking about something. Frida sat next to Martin on the windowsill. He saw her shoulder, pale, smooth, partly uncovered by a dark everyday dress.

She heard him grind his teeth. Stretching awkwardly, she touched his dry, slightly cracked lips. Everything happened. in a way she did not expect. His fingers on the tiny buttons of the dress, his hands on her body, the smell that drove her crazy, compelling her not to break away from him
never, for anything. She felt a part of his big body, bending her back, running her palm along his shoulders. They were kneeling, he could smell her neck, her hair flew around, and he caressed the strands, burying his face there. There was nothing left except her pale skin, her body so quick, her lips and arms stretched forward, clinging to the pillow, her breathless, sweet and honey-like voice. There was nothing finer in the world.
 
She lay at his side. He slowly stroked her radiant face, removing her hair from her forehead, wanting only one thing: to feel her forever, to hold her and never let her out of his hands. He put her head on his shoulder. She reached for him with her lips, arms, and whole body. Embracing her, he began to kiss her deeply, and his every touch became more penetrating, so that their bodies completely intertwined.

“Do not go,” he said afterward, looking at her, so beautiful in the light of the night, sitting in her chair with a cup of coffee. Her dress was half-buttoned, and he thought that he wanted just one thing now, again to be near her. He reached for her like a drowning man for one last handful of air. He knelt in front of her and she saw his face: strange, praying, hopeless, and begging for her touch.

“I'll stay,” she said simply, and threw her arms around his shoulders, tucking her disheveled head against his chest.


She woke up late the next morning. On the back of the Viennese chair was her neatly folded dress. Nearby was a cup of hot coffee. She found a note, with only four words: I'll be back soon. Taking the coffee, she leaned back against the pillow. He found her like this, with her hair down, her eyes closed, and her cheeks flushed.

I can live here, she thought, feeling him beside her, inhaling the smell of the flowers he had brought, still not opening her eyes. Our children will see the mountains in the south and the river. They will grow among the hills and the red vineyards. We will get a dog, a big good dog, and bicycles to ride together. If I want, I can stay.

“Why did you decide?” she asked softly, examining the raindrops on the white rose petals. “To become a Jew? Why now?”

“I've always wanted to,” he said, “but I waited until my grandfather died. He was a very religious person and I did not want to upset him. It is not because of the war, no. It is just because I feel it is my home. Well, like this one.” He gestured around the room. “As if I came home.”

She settled comfortably on his shoulder. “I too would like to return home,” she said, almost inaudibly.

“You're already here,” he answered.


She had never dressed with greater care than this evening. She’d vaguely imagined what one would wear to a synagogue, something long and modest. The concert dress would obviously not be suitable. In the end, she put on a silk skirt and a sweater. Its sleeves stopped above the elbow, but she reasoned that in a small German town hardly anyone would pay attention to that.

She sat next to Martin. As it turned out, here it was allowed. Ahead, on a table covered with a white tablecloth, there were candlesticks, candles, matches in a special porcelain box, challah covered with a napkin, wine, and an old silver goblet. All this, and the people there, and the table laid with food, and the prayer books in Hebrew and German, were so touching that she felt something in her throat. The last time she’d lit candles was twenty years before, at her bat mitzvah.

She picked up the porcelain box and looked at their faces: the sincere, serious German faces, the smiling, dark blue eyes of Martin. Slowly she lowered the matches to the table. “Excuse me. I have to go.”

She went out into the darkness and cold of the autumn evening and wandered off into the distance, not noticing how her soaked skirt clung to her legs or how her hands froze in the rain. She walked northward, to the plain, to the smoke and the nothingness, to the iced earth of the hospital’s cemetery, to the camps and the orphanages, where there is no resurrection or life, and there is only one thing: loneliness and death. All the way to the end of her path, and even after that. 

 

Copyright © Nelly Shulman 2019

Nelly Shulman is a journalist and writer currently based in Berlin. She is an author of four popular historical novels in the Russian language. he is working on the fifth novel in this series and on her first English-language novel, a historical thriller set during the Siege of Leningrad. She is the recipient of the Finnish Writers Association fellowship and a Hawthornden Fellow.
www.nellyshulman.com



 

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