Authors: Lilian Nattel
Copyright © 1999 Moonlily Manuscripts Inc.
All rights reserved under International and Pan American Copyright Conventions. Published in Canada by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, Toronto, in 1999 by arrangement with Scribner, New York. Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data
Nattel, Lilian, 1956–
The River Midnight
PS8577.A757R58 1999 C813′.54 C98-932416-8
FIRST VINTAGE CANADA EDITION, 1999
Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data
Nattel, Lilian, 1956–
The River Midnight
PS8577.A757R58 1999a C813′.54 C99-931058-5
For my mother
who showed me the pleasure of being alive
and for my father
who taught me to look for beauty everywhere.
WANT TO THANK
Jane Rosenman, my editor at Scribner for her excitement, keen insight and intelligent guidance, and her assistant Caroline Kim for her unflagging helpfulness; Marion Donaldson at Review in Great Britain for her enthusiasm and early interest; Louise Dennys at Knopf Canada for her belief in this book. Many thanks are due Helen Heller, agent par excellence and provider of delicious tea and sweets, for her calm sagacity and nerves of steel. I would like to express my gratitude to the Ontario Arts Council for financial support during the writing of this book. I am also grateful to The Writers’ Union of Canada for its mentoring program, and to my mentor Rhea Tregebov, whose precise observations enabled me to fine-tune the final draft of the manuscript. My thanks go also to Jerry Silver and Susan Meisner, who introduced me to Helen. Many other people have been generously supportive of this project, and they have all earned my gratitude, especially Hope Dellon. Most of all, I would like to thank my husband, Allan, my greatest fan, who listened to me read the novel aloud to him scene by scene and draft by draft, and whose shining smile kept me going.
There is a standard transliteration from Yiddish to English, established by the YIVO Institute, and used by scholars. I decided not to use this transliteration because it can lead to strange pronunciation by people unfamiliar with Yiddish. Instead, by approximating the Yiddish sound in words or names as they would be spelled by an English-speaking reader, I hope to ease the reader’s entry into the shtetl world of Blaszka (pronounced “Blashka”). Polish words and names are generally spelled using Polish orthography. One exception is the city of Plotsk, the spelling used under Russian occupation; in Polish it is Płock. The only other exceptions are Warsaw and the Vistula River: I used the English names, which are familiar to many readers, just as the Polish Warszawa and Wisła would be to the men and women of Blaszka.
ime grows short at the end of a century, like winter days when night falls too soon. In the dusk, angels and demons walk. Who knows who they are? Or which is which. But there they are, sneaking their gifts into the crevices of change. Even in a place like Blaszka, less than a dot on the map of Russian-occupied Poland.
Someone might say that so-and-so is an angel or so-and-so a demon. But make no mistake, it’s just a question of style. One sympathizes, the other provokes. But their mission is the same, and so is their destination.
It’s a cold day, the short Friday of winter, the 20th of
5654, or you might call it the 29th of December 1893, according to the Christian calendar. Everyone’s in a rush, anxious to finish their business before the sun sets. Once darkness falls, the Sabbath rules. Candlelight will have no other purpose than its beauty, and women and men will make love in honor of the Sabbath.
Listen. You can hear the excitement in the village square. “Fresh, hot, only two kopecks.” Girls run through the crowd, carrying baskets of rolls, pretzels, pierogies, and herring cut into small rings. The herrings almost speak. Take your pick, the large smelly ones, horse herring, pickled, smoked, or packed in fat. Steam rises from the warm
baskets in the winter air. The square smells of vinegar, yeast, and horse dung. Men and women blow into their cold hands to warm them, pinching this and sniffing that, bargaining as if for their souls, undeterred by the crash of a stall that collapses under its mountain of earthenware. This is what keeps Blaszka together, the flimsy stalls piled high with everything, where people lean toward each other, bargaining, touching what they need, shaking it, holding it up to the light.
Hurry, the villagers say, the Sabbath is coming. Everything has to close early today. Am I asking about money? Do I worry about money? I know that you, lady, will give it to me later, that you will pay. Look at this, straight from Plotsk, the best quality. A pity it should lie here, unused. Let me put it into your basket for you. Just a few kopecks. It costs less than air.
Fifty Jewish families and six Polish tenant farmers live in the village. But on market day, every Tuesday and Friday, dozens of Christian peasants, who farm the land along the Północna River, come down to Blaszka. In the village square they bargain and in Perlmutter’s tavern, they drink vodka with beer and eat cheese and pickles and hard-boiled eggs.
A Jew can never be a peasant, even if he looks and acts like one, nor a gentleman either. Such categories apply only to Christians in Poland, each of them having a place on the land. But by law the Jews are townspeople. Even if they are farmers, they are townspeople borrowing the land; they have no right to it. Within their towns the Jews can make their own distinctions, so long as they service the people of the land. So in Blaszka, Jews buy the peasants’ produce and sell goods from Plotsk. Jews are tinsmiths and blacksmiths and cobblers and tailors and wheelwrights and barrelmakers and butchers and bakers. They speak Yiddish and Polish and a smattering of Russian, on weekdays they bargain and on the Sabbath they rest.
The village square isn’t paved. It’s marked in one corner by the bridge, in another corner by the tavern, by the synagogue in the third corner, and where the square dips down toward the Północna River, by the house of Misha the midwife. Her house stands on stilts so that the spring floods flow under it, bringing a rich mud that makes the vegetables in her garden grow larger than anywhere else. If you stood on the doorstep of Misha’s house, you could see the entire village, the
river curling around it, the woods behind the river, the lanes leading out of the village square, the small houses, each with an eating room in front and sleeping rooms behind separated by a hallway where the hens roost in the winter. Across the river, in the new part of Blaszka, you could see the ruins of the mill and the woods overgrowing abandoned houses.
There is a legend about the Północna River. It’s said that a saint was martyred in the river’s waters at midnight, resulting in the conversion and baptism of the local tribe.
in Polish means midnight, and so the river was named. But others argue that
also means north, the Północna so named because it enters the Vistula River from the north.
The Północna is frozen now, children sliding on its surface. In front of her house, Misha stands beside her stall, her hands on her hips. She’s bigger than any man in Blaszka. Her table is crowded with jars and bottles, powders and ointments and liquids for women’s troubles, and men’s, too. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she says.
All right, the women say, but you’d better watch your behind or the Evil One will send someone to kick it while you’re not paying attention.
“Well, let him just try to make some business with me.” Misha holds out her hand, beckoning the invisible stranger. She grins, her gold tooth flashing in the thin winter light. “Don’t worry,” Misha says, “if someone comes from the other side, he’ll soon be running out of Blaszka with his tail between his legs. You can be sure of it.”
N A SMALL
house off the village square, an old woman is teaching the little girls their letters. Tell us about Misha, they beg. We want to hear the story about Misha and Manya again. Please, please. The old woman puts down her pencil. “Well, I knew Misha’s mother very well. She was so happy when she had a daughter, but she had one fear. Do you know what that was?” The children shake their heads. “That her daughter would turn out like Manya. You’ve heard of Manya, haven’t you?” Yes, yes, the little girls say, Manya the witch comes in the night to steal away wicked children. “But you’re not wicked children, are you?” The girls shake their heads, no, no, no. “Now, listen carefully, children. Before Misha, there was Blema, her mother. Before Blema
was Miriam, Misha’s grandmother. And before Miriam was?” Who? the children ask. “Manya!” The old woman leans forward, wriggling her clawed fingers at the children until they squeal. “Oh, Manya was bigger than any man, and no one could tame her until they put her to death for casting spells. Blema was afraid that her baby should turn out like Manya, God forbid. So Blema named her baby Miriam after her own mother, who was a good woman. Modest and quiet. Like you girls, yes? But you can’t cheat fate, children.
“Blema carried her baby in a shawl on her back when she went to the peasants’ cottages. The peasants liked to play with the little one. They called her Marisha, you know that’s Polish for Miriam. But the baby couldn’t say Marisha or even Miriam. What came out was Misha. The peasants said it must be her true name, and that, since
means bear in Polish, the girl would grow up to be as dangerous as a mother bear. And because Misha is a man’s name among the Russians, she would also be as fierce as a Cossack. This is what came to be. I’m sure you heard your mothers say so. When a woman is in childbirth, even the Angel of Death is afraid of Misha.”
In the village square, the watercarrier rushes by Misha’s stall, his buckets swinging wildly on their yoke. As his foot knocks against a stone, he stumbles, holding onto her table for balance. And then he’s gone toward the bridge.
Across the bridge is what used to be the wealthy part of Blaszka. There among the ruins of abandoned houses, you can see the village well and beside it the bathhouse with its marble columns, built with the miller’s money, may he rest in peace. Beside it is the foundation of the new synagogue, never finished.
Inside the bathhouse, the old men sit naked on the benches, sweating in the steam that rises as the attendant pours water over the hot stones. At the end of the room is the sunken bath, the
, with its purifying water. Before the men leave, they’ll dip in the
to make themselves ready for the Sabbath.
Why does the butcher get to sit in the second row of the synagogue so close to the Holy Ark? they complain. He’s just a
, a plain person, like us. A man should know his place. The
do the work, the
make the money, and the
tell you what to do, either because they’re rich enough or they’re scholars.