The Moscow Expulsion
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Margie Rynn
“May onions grow from his belly button!”
Fania stood in the doorway. Her hat was wilted, her eyes were wild, her skirts spattered with mud. Loose locks escaped from her chignon, and a tornado of curls swirled around her face.
“Leeches should drink him dry!” She held up a rolled-up newspaper, strangling it with her fist.
“Who?” asked Yankel, stubbing out the cigarette he had been smoking before his wife burst through the door.
“The new governor—he should have been born dead!”
Fania threw the newspaper onto the credenza, where it landed with a thwack. She was beautiful when she was angry, which was a good thing because it happened a lot. Her huge, wide-spaced eyes glowed as if a fire had been lit, her olive skin flushed red-gold. There was something vaguely tropical about her, though she’d never left this cold slice of Russia. Something about the way her nostrils flared, the way her thick dark hair pulled back from her face. The high collar of her blouse set off her long neck, the lace trim on her cuffs caressed her elegant hands, and an intricate cameo pin bounced on her bodice like a medal. A real lady.
“He should lose all his teeth except one,” she bellowed, “and that one should ache!”
Well, maybe not always a lady, but who wants a woman to be a lady all the time?
“What is it mayn shefeleh, my little lamb?” Yankel cooed. “What happened?”
Fania struggled and steamed, pulling at her gloves, tugging at each finger as though she were about to remove it from her hand. Her ring finger got stuck. With a mighty yank, she tore the glove off her hand and threw it on the floor. Then she burst into tears.
Yankel gently guided his sobbing wife to an armchair and made her sit down. He pulled the pin out of her hat and lifted it off, and stroked her hair, his fingers getting tangled in her curls. This wasn’t the first time she’d made a scene like this, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But she was really outdoing herself today. Maybe she should take one of those new nerve tonics.
He set the hat on the credenza. The mangled newspaper was lying there. He picked it up and scanned the front page. His eyes stalled. A headline. Bold type. He tried to read the article below but he couldn’t get past the first sentence. Something cold swept through his body.
“What are we going to do?” Fania whispered.
Yankel didn’t reply. He looked at his wife, at his home, at the sunny color on the wall. He noticed a crack in the paint. Then he carefully placed the newspaper back on the credenza.
“This is our home,” Fania sobbed. “I was born here.” Her shoulders shook in a burst of noisy weeping. “Three months to a year it says. If we are lucky, we have one year!”
Yankel blinked and the words on the page floated around the inside of his eyelids. This simply wasn’t possible. Not now. Not after all the hoops he had jumped through to be here, in this lovely apartment, with an equally lovely wife and child. It had taken conniving, convincing, and not a small dose of chutzpah for an unskilled schmegegge from Mogilev to be living legally in Moscow, earning a living, practicing his art. It was a miracle, if he thought about it. And he thought about it.
No, not even the Russians would do such a thing.
He grabbed the newspaper again and riffled through the pages to find the full text of the edict.
The Governor-General will immediately consider and adopt measures to secure the removal of all Jewish artisans, small traders, publicans, etc. from Moscow and the province of Moscow.
“Wait!” he cried, punching the paper with his index finger. “Look, it says right here, it’s just the artisans and traders! Tailors and carpenters and such! It’s not us! It’s not us!” Relief unlocked his frozen joints. He ran over to his wife and covered her with kisses.
“We’re safe!” he said, pointing to the paper. “They’ll leave us alone.”
Fania looked at him with huge, liquid eyes. “Right,” she spat. “And if my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a trolley cart.”
A soft cloth was lying on the tea table. Fania picked it up and assaulted the samovar. She rubbed its silver belly as if it were a magic lamp, as if a genie would suddenly rise from the teapot sitting on its chimney and resolve all their problems with a wave of its light blue hand. Suddenly she stopped and turned to her husband so sharply that a strand of hair slapped her face like a whip. Her eyes went soft and liquid. Her arms hung helplessly from her shoulders.
“What are we going to do?” she asked again.
Yankel patted his mustache and smoothed his eyebrows. This was a habit of his. As long as his mustache was neat and his eyebrows were under control, all was not lost. Because deep down, Yankel was an optimist. Unlike his wife, he believed that there was always an angle you could play, a secret passageway you could take, a scheme to let you snake around life’s miseries. While everyone else was complaining and howling, he’d be slipping out of his shackles and finding an escape hatch. At least that’s how he saw it.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll talk to Finkel.”
“Finkel? That lunatic? He’ll get us arrested. I’d rather be thrown out of town than thrown in jail, thank you very much. A lunatic!”
“He knows people,” Yankel replied, as if he really were as cool and collected as he wished he were. “He’s in the music business.”
“Music business! Since when is music a business? He might as well be in the circus! Music boxes—meshuga.”
Yankel was fond of gadgets, gizmos, and any new thing; anything that moved, spun, pulsed, or gave signs of mechanical life fascinated him. Fania thought electricity was the work of the devil.
“It’s going to be a big deal, Fania. Big.”
Fania turned and gave her husband a look that made him step back and almost fall over the settee. “You want a big deal? I’ll give you a big deal.” Her voice went quiet. “Soon it will be our turn. We, too, will be thrown out of Moscow. Kicked out like stray cats. That’s a big deal!”
She looked at the cloth which was still in her hand. Then she looked at the samovar. “Where will we go?” she asked it. “What will we do?” She started to sob again.
Normally, this would be the moment when Yankel would straighten his shirt, pat his mustache, and put his arms around his overly emotional wife. He would stroke her hair, kiss her eyes, and whisper reassuring words. She would deflate, her body becoming soft and pliable. This would usually finish in the bedroom, where her passions were most welcome. But this time nothing was normal. What if she was right? Where would they go? There had to be an angle. He’d find it.
Carefully he crept behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. “They can’t throw everyone out,” he said in his softest, most soothing voice. “The city would be in ruins. What would they do without us? Without people like your father and your uncle? Who would provide them with tea, clothes, and financial advice? We’ve got friends here, remember? Russian friends…”
“Friends? Our friends are going to buy our businesses for two kopeks! They are rubbing their hands with glee. That’s the best deal they’ve had in decades.”
He massaged her neck. “I’ll talk to my director.”
“At the bank?”
“No, at the theater.”
“At the theater? Why should he care what happens to you? He can always find another actor.”
Yankel stiffened and walked to the window.
“I believe he values me as an artist,” he said to the muddy street, the rooftops, the onion-domed churches, and the raindrops that started to tap against the glass.
“Artist? Oh, that’s a good one. What you do is art? Ha!”
He turned around. “Theater is an art, Fania. You just don’t understand. You never did.”
She sighed and said nothing. That was fine with him. He wasn’t ready to have this argument again. Not today.
And besides, their yelling had woken up the baby.
A warm bundle rested on Fania’s shoulder. She kissed her daughter’s downy cheek and breathed in the exquisite odor of her skin. Her heartbeat slowed, her mind stilled, and she shed some of her invisible armor. A few short and repetitive trips back and forth across the bedroom silenced Rosa’s cries. Soon Fania felt her tiny body become still and heavy, a sure sign she was falling asleep. Gently she set her daughter down in her cradle, where she dozed silently — so silently that it was frightening. Fania often sneaked into the room while the baby was sleeping and placed her hand on her belly to make sure her little lungs were still filling with air.
Rosa. A rose. Her upper lip rested lazily on her lower one, two red petals curling ever so slightly, the perfume of peace and beauty drifting up towards her mother.
Fania inhaled again. It was like a drug, the scent of her baby girl. It relaxed her shoulders, untied the knot in her stomach, and made her smile despite herself. She loved her baby.
A baby was so delicate, so fragile, so breakable, and yet so strong — a pocket of life, a new land. Who was this tiny creature, sleeping so deeply, and with such trust, her entire fortune in the hands of two adults whose lives were subject to the whims of the Russian Empire?
Her baby was in danger. Spikes of protective maternal instinct rose all over Fania’s body. She had to restrain herself from yanking her daughter out of the bed and hiding her in the armoire. She would stand in front of the door, a sentinel, and eat anyone who came too close. Of course she didn’t and wouldn’t. But she wanted to.
The problem was, Yankel’s happy certainties had no basis in reality. You had only to look back on the events of the last ten years to see that it wouldn’t be long before the decree included everyone, not just the artisans. Laws in Russia were random and often stupid, but they followed a certain terrible logic. They changed with the weather, and over the last few years, ever since Czar Alexander II was assassinated, the clouds had gathered above the Jews. The new czar, his son, was a spiteful dirt clod of a man who rolled back all his father’s reforms, and now had installed some half-brained prince as governor to see to it that life was sufficiently miserable for those he didn’t approve of.
Rosa yawned and wriggled. Fania tucked a blanket around her sleeping body. With monumental effort, she reined in her panic. For the moment, at least, they were safe. They’d have to wait and see what would happen. A terrifying prospect for someone whose mind generally rushed towards catastrophic scenarios.
Just focus on your domestic duties, she told herself. That will keep you busy. Indeed, being a mother took up a huge portion of her day and the rest was filled with being a wife. She’d never imagined that marriage could be so time-consuming. Before the wedding, her ideas about matrimony were mostly culled from the novels she’d read. In other words, they were useless.
When Rosa was born, she hadn’t the faintest idea how to raise a child. “Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it,” her mother had said. “Just follow your instincts.” Her primary instinct was to ask her mother for advice. Her mother’s main advice was this: “Get a nursemaid.”
Servants were the answer to any domestic problem for her mother. Getting one was never an issue for her since they lived in a big house and Fania’s father’s store was doing good business. What started out as a dry goods store had grown into a fashionable boutique, with clients in Saint Petersburg. At least it had been doing good business until now. Who knew what would happen?
She peered down at her daughter and listened to her breathe. So steady, so sure. She adjusted the lace curtain that hung over the cradle. “A princess bed,” Yankel had called it. It was a Louis Philippe style French affair, the cradle delicately suspended between two carved wooden posts. It took the slightest push to set it rocking. A gift from her parents. It looked absurd in their modest apartment, like the enormous samovar in the salon. Another gift intended for a bright future, when they would live in surroundings that lived up to its curlicues and swirls.
Their future had just fallen off a cliff. That was the problem with the future. You couldn’t pin it down. Just a few months ago, when she turned nineteen, her future was a vast repository of hope and excitement. She was married to a handsome young man and had given birth to a perfect baby. And now this. All her dreams for her daughter’s future. All her fantasies about the life she would lead with Yankel.
The door to dark thoughts opened and she stumbled down its ill-lit corridor. If things went bad they’d be forced to return to the Pale of Settlement — that vast ghetto, an entire region, where Russia stored its Jews. Where endless, ever-changing restrictions made poverty a way of life. You couldn’t own land, you couldn’t farm, you couldn’t do this job, you couldn’t go to that school, and you were taxed for everything from candles to kippas. If they were lucky, they might be able to live in a dirty, crowded corner of some provincial city; or maybe they’d end up in one of those tiny villages, or shtetls, where most Jews lived out their lives in varying degrees of misery.
A tear welled up and she pulled a handkerchief from the lace cuff of her blouse. So much for her fancy education. The French lessons. Her modern clothes. So much for her place in society. Nothing. It all added up to nothing.
The door opened behind her. There was a hand on her waist. Yankel’s fingers pressed her flesh through her dress, his warmth through the fabric. They stood there together, looking at their baby, their creation, the product of their love. Rosa hiccupped. Her eyelids fluttered. The two parents held their collective breaths. Then she started to snore.
“She’s beautiful,” whispered Yankel in Fania’s ear. “Like her mother.”
Fania felt his breath on her neck. He was kissing her on the neck, lightly, and a tingle of pleasure passed down her shoulder and across her back. This was what he did every time they quarreled. This is how he won. With unbearable kindness, a liquid caress, a pleasure potion of beautiful words that she wanted to hear. Something hot and syrupy started to churn in her torso.
She shook him off and bent over Rosa, adjusting her blanket.
“Stop it,” she hissed. “What do you think, that it’s all going to go away if we kiss and make up? That worked before because we could pretend everything was all right, but now everything is not all right and it’s not going to get better.”
“What do you mean, ‘pretend everything was all right’? It hasn’t been all right?” His mouth drooped into a disappointed frown.
“Can’t you look further than your nose? This isn’t about you and me; this is about you and me and her. We can’t think just about ourselves. We are responsible for her.” She turned and looked at her baby. “She’s not a piece of luggage, you know. We can’t just pick her up and throw her in the back of a donkey cart.”
Yankel blinked, sighed, and left the room, and Fania wondered what it was like to be a man and not worry about everything. What gave them such confidence? What signs was she not seeing? Maybe that was a woman’s job, holding down reality while men stomped around the world living out their fantasies. Maybe men didn’t worry because women worried for them.
Rosa turned her head and smacked her lips, clenching and unclenching her tiny fist. Fania looked down at her daughter. Something ineffable and prehistoric fluttered in her heart, something wiser than she was — something that lined up her thoughts, ranked her priorities, and laid them out in front of her beside her sleeping baby. It whispered: This bundle of life is the nucleus of your existence. Cherish her. Protect her. Do whatever it takes.
Rosa stopped moving and was silent. Fania put her hand on her belly and felt it rise and fall, rise and fall.