Gitelle: A Prologue
Whatever crouched beyond the lakes and forests of her green life was unseeable as night. She had never studied a map till it came time to leave forever and then her fingertips traced ceaselessly over what her mind could not picture. The mysteries beat in her like a second heart. The pinprick of her village lay closer to the borders with Poland and Latvia than she’d ever known; the whole country was but a slither in a howling world. There were salt oceans, desert kingdoms. She had the words and the colours on the map but nothing more.
When they stopped at the cemetery on the way out, the carriage driver Nachman said, —A tayter nemt mir nit tsoorik foon besaylem. Dead ones never come back from the grave. The old saying meant what’s done is done but was turned upside down in his wry mouth: here it was the living who would never come back to these graves at the far end of Milner Gass, near the spring and Yoffe’s mill, flashes of the lake silver through the dark trees.
A closed sky kept spitting and everyone wore galoshes against the mud. The peeling birches creaked and dripped; candle flames twitched and fluttered. Her daughter, good girl, stood nicely beside her but Isaac on the other side kept squirming against her right hand bunched in his little jacket. This was a boy who hadn’t stopped jerking and kicking from the second he came out of her with thick hair gleaming like fresh-skinned carrots and his biting mouth screaming enough for twins. Almost five now, about to travel across the earth to meet the father he’d never seen.
Gitelle made them look at and put pebbles on the gravestones of their grandmother and then all their great-grandparents. That was enough: another five centuries or more of buried Jewish bones spread away from them beneath the hissing branches. She adjusted her veil and turned back to face the living – her tutte Zalman Moskevitch, her sisters, the nieces and the husbands. Isaac wriggled free like a cat and ran off. She didn’t bother shouting: the boy needed a leash not more words, hoarse or otherwise. Some of his aunties caught him. Another two of them came up to her. Trudel-Sora hoisted Rively onto her hip and went away while Orli held out her arms. Youngest of the sisters, Orli was plump in the lips and hips and smoothly olive skinned; her black eyes, now liquidly gleaming, matched her thick long hair. She hugged Gitelle close, groaning, and said, I think you’re the first one ever who didn’t need a hanky on her leaving day.
Are you surprised?
Of course not.
Gitelle nodded. How strange tears would be today, after everything. All the years spent gagging on the taste of her breath against the shame of the veil, her words dribbling from her like spatter from an overbubbling pot – such sorrows, encompassed by this place, should not include her leaving too. Never that.
What are you thinking of?
The future, said Gitelle. The living. My husband. What else is there to think of?
Orli smiled: her teeth unpeeled were white as river stones and brilliant in her olive face. Sister, not everyone’s as strong as a tree stump.
Is that what I’m supposed to be now?
It’s what you always have.
She had threaded her warm soft arm through Gitelle’s and pulled it close as they walked back though the gravestones. A sodden squirrel stood up to stare at them, quivering. Gitelle said: Listen. If I can do this so can you. Don’t waste time. Be brave. Don’t ever stop trying. I was twenty-seven before I met my Abel. They said with the way I am such a thing could never happen. And after we had Rively, you think he wanted to go? Men are lazy as stones. I had to nag so much I nearly twisted my own head into craziness – borrow the money, get moving, wake up. And how many years now it’s taken him, drip drip drip, to send back just enough for our tickets . . . But see, here I am, I don’t complain. Today it’s my turn, my leaving day. You understand what I’m telling you, Orli? Remember this day. Don’t ever give in. Don’t ever go slack. Your leaving day will come sooner than you think. All of yours will. It’s the only way we’ll ever see each other again, and we will. We have to.
Orli was drying her cheeks with her free hand. But it was always fated, she said. You and Abel. Like everything.
Gitelle snorted, rippling the line of the veil.
What? There is fate. You two prove it.
Prove what exactly?
How The Name makes His perfect matches for us, in every generation of souls. A heart for a heart, even a wound for a wound. Every shoe must have its foot.
Gitelle was silent, felt her sister’s eyes on her face.
Forgive me, said Orli. Foot and shoe. I didn’t mean—
Ah Orli, said Gitelle, lisping into the cloth. You think that’s what bothers me? My dear sister, you need to forget all that romantic trash if you’re ever going to grow up. Now’s the time to start.
Outside the cemetery the horse cropped at wet weeds with a stretched neck; Nachman had his collar up and his chin on his chest. There was a wait to find Isaac who’d gotten loose again and was giggling somewhere off in the lindens on the opposite side. First would come the station at Obeliai, then a train to Libau on the coast. She had packed goose feather pillows for the freighter’s hard benches and plenty of lemons because lemons are the cure for seasickness: advice from the ones who’d gone before. Africa. She wondered what an ocean will be.
In Southampton on England’s coast they boarded a Union Castle liner with a lavender hull and two fat smokestacks. It took twenty days to reach the bottom tip of the pistol-shaped African continent and on every one of them Isaac found ways to raid the upper decks of first class, returning to steerage with pockets stuffed with glazed tarts and fresh cheeses and Swiss chocolate, with strange and impossibly sweet fruits Gitelle had never seen before. When he wasn’t raiding he fought other boys or kicked the shins of the duty officers. His masterpiece was starting a fire in a life raft with a flare gun. The crew called him Devil Boy and the captain almost had him confined. They didn’t understand it was only that he was born with a little more kaych in him than others, a little extra life energy bubbling and frothing inside like hot milk to get out. When she wiped his face in bed every night with a damp cloth she got him to keep still by promising him the freckles were coming off, and every morning he’d run excited to the mirror to verify her claims.
Cape Town was on a bay raked by salt winds, its streets laced over the roots of a flathead mountain. Colours burned the air: blood flowers, thorny eruptions of vermilion, limeyellow smears on the rocks like veins of fresh paint. The red sun had sandpaper beams. She saw human beings burned the colour of coal or darkbrewed tea or cured leather; she smelled their alien sweat and their tangy cooking, heard the mad bibbering of their manifold tongues. A strange music that made her heart sag in the fear of this shattering place. But later she saw pretty whitewashed houses in a row near the waterfront, with palm trees in tranquil garden squares, and she dared hope that Abel had secured them similar lodgings.
Johannesburg was two ho...