This story is the second-place winner of the 2009 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2009 stories were judged by novelist, satirist and poet Erica Jong. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Jong and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
In the gray light of morning, soft as a pigeon’s breast, Shena Lena can be seen silhouetted on a hill, geese waddling and honking before her. She carries a stick in her small solid hand, as much to lean on as to herd her feather-brained charges. Goose down clings in small white tufts to her sweater and long wool skirts. Beneath the sweater are more sweaters that finally button and fit snugly over her stout arms and swelling bosom. She is maturing like the other peasant girls in her village into a large-hipped, flesh-padded woman whom hard, lean young men love to lie on.
Shena Lena is not the smartest girl in the village, but she is the prettiest. She has a round smooth face that bursts with sweetness when she smiles, like a fresh orange. She has deeply dimpled cheeks and white, even teeth. Her auburn hair glows like a red sunset in its coiled braid. Her gray eyes are often empty of feeling, but when she smiles, they light from within, erasing the impression that this young woman is profoundly unhappy.
Shena Lena is 16 and the youngest in a family of five. She is the one who has been left behind while her brothers and sisters and mother have gone one by one to America. Soon she will also go, when there is enough money, even though she doesn’t want to.
Rude boys have tried to kiss and lie with Shena Lena, in the fields, in the hay stacks, hoping to catch a bit of warmth from her flesh, in the chill mornings and evenings, when the cold rises from the ground in mists, visible like a breath leaving a mouth in winter.
But Shena Lena must go to America, and so at dawn, she can be seen crying with the stick in her small solid hand, beating the ground, her charges honking and waddling in alarm around her.
A letter came from her mother Esther, in America. There is a man, his name is Jacob, he has seen her picture and fallen in love with her, has sent money for her passage. He wants to marry her as soon as she arrives. But she is in love with Menken, a shoemaker’s son.
Wild-eyed, skirts billowing, Shena Lena runs to find Menken at his father’s shop.
As she taps frantically at the window, Menken rushes outside. Falling against Menken’s breast, Shena Lena sobs and thrusts the letter into his hand. Reading the letter and holding Shena’s trembling body, he says, “I have no money, Shena Lena. I cannot marry you.”
His father stands in the doorway watching. She pulls away from Menken’s embrace, no longer sobbing. Her jaw is clenched and her eyes look as empty as a pocket full of holes. She grabs her letter. Her long braid has loosened and now uncoils, striking Menken in the face as she whips around and stamps back across the frigid earth, hard like her heart, her skirts and elbows flapping like the wings of a frightened goose gone astray.
Setting out on foot for the ocean, her money for America sewn into her underwear, Shena Lena leaves at dawn. Another goose girl, much younger, is silhouetted against the sky, and as she passes the hill, Shena Lena thinks she hears a difference in the honking of the geese, a cry of distress that will follow her all the way to America.
She comes to a wild river and stands before it in terror. She can’t swim. There are many people crossing the river, families with wooden carts pulled by horses, and for those who can’t afford horses, pulled by husbands and sons.
A young man walks up to her and says, “Can I be of help?”
Shena Lena shakes her head and says, “I can’t swim.”
“I will carry you,” he says.
“Oh, no,” she says.
“Yes. I will carry you for a kiss.”
Knowing she has no choice, she allows herself to be hoisted on the young man’s back, her boots stick out from between his arms and hips, her own arms wrap around his neck, her bundles are tied to his waist with rope. His palms and fingers grip the flesh of her thighs. She is conscious of her overheated body pressed against his back as they wade into the water. The water rises to the young man’s waist, and Shena Lena is afraid to go farther. Both of them will drown.
“Don’t squirm,” he says, when she feels the water soak through the seat of her underwear and between her legs, her skirts floating beside her. “See, you are light as a feather.”
She can smell the oil of his hair just beneath her chin. Under the water his hands have worked their way up higher on her thighs. Her cheeks are red from shame and anger, but she has no choice she tells herself, she has no choice.
“I’ll claim that kiss,” he says, putting her down on shore, untying the wet bundles from his waist. He presses his mouth on hers and she pulls away, slapping at him with both hands, like feathers flying in a storm. He laughs and breaks away.
On the boat she is sick. It’s impossible to keep food down. She rolls inside like the ocean. Portholes terrify her. She is afraid she will see the water slowly rising over those small windows of hope and light. Sometimes, the hum of the engines or the clamor of the other passengers sound like geese honking, but the sound is in her head, changing as it comes through her ears. She holds her hands over them to still the scream of stars at night that blur and spin in the heavens as she hangs over the ship’s rail. Menken is as small as a single star, lost beyond that black horizon. She still sees him with the letter in his hand as she spins, dizzyingly, on her heels, making her sick with memory, hanging over the side of the boat, wanting to beat him with her stick. But when she dreams, she dreams of being held by Menken in the dawn, kissing her over and over on her eyelids, on her cheeks, while the geese throw back their long necks and sing.
Shena Lena finds America ugly. America has no sky. Laundry, strung between buildings, are America’s clouds. Cars that honk are America’s geese. Dawn is a smudge of soot. The air has no light. Black cinders fall from the sky collecting at windows, drifting down to doorways, finding their way in the cracks.
In the summer heat, Shena Lena scrubs the floors of her mother’s apartment and boils the sheets, filling the room with steam. The walls sweat. Shena Lena takes her finger and writes “Menken” in the moisture. She watches the bottoms of the letters drip, then smears them with her hand. She wipes the sills of the windows with dampened rags and complains when the windows are opened.
“You are stubborn and willful,” Esther says when she refuses to visit relatives, saying she has to clean.
“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” her relatives say, “but clean is clean, and enough is enough.”
“Shena Lena, dress yourself, Jacob will be coming to call.” Shena Lena stands in the middle of her bedroom staring at the open doors of the armoire. The dark wood’s whorls and knots gleam from fresh polish, reminding her of Menken’s shoes. Sitting at his workbench, back bent, his square-tipped fingers working the glossy stain into the leather with a soft cloth, the dark curl on the back of his neck, radiant in the yellow light.
Shena Lena has stripped to her summer bloomers and white stockings. She pours water from a ceramic pitcher into a large blue bowl. She soaks a sponge and presses it to her hot forehead, closing her eyes and seeing Menken’s shadow-play, forming the shape of a goose with his hand, joined by another goose, taking flight together.
She opens her eyes and rubs the sponge over her bare arms and breasts.
Menken has uncoiled her braid and pulls it over her shoulder. He takes the end of the braid and presses it to his mouth. “Should I grow a moustache?” he asks, bringing the braid and his lips down to kiss her. “Does it tickle?” he says when she giggles. He allows the braid to swing free. It falls over her left breast. He fondles the braid with the tips of his fingers, brushing the nipple lightly.
She pats herself dry with a large white towel, dabbing at the slickness under her arms, the damp tendrils at the base of her neck. She selects a dark blue cotton dress with a pleated bib and a high white collar. She takes a cameo from her jewelry box and pins it at the throat. Strangled in the dress, flushed with heat, she walks into the parlor.
Jacob is seated beside her mother. He wears gold-rimmed glasses. “He is a man of learning,” her mother has told her. As she enters the room, he stands and comes forward.
“Shena Lena, this is Jacob.”
He presses her hand and smiles. “As beautiful as her picture,” he says.
Shena Lena sees that he is handsome. She sees that he has charm. Perhaps he is even kind. It means nothing.
“Please sit,” Esther says.
Jacob waits while Shena Lena chooses a chair, before being seated.
“So how are you today, Shena Lena?” Shena Lena looks at her feet and nods.
“Jacob is studying English. Say something in English, Jacob.”
“In America, the streets are paved with gold.”
“What did you say?” Esther asks.
“In America the streets are paved with gold,” he repeats in Yiddish.
“Show me this gold,” Shena Lena says looking angrily at Jacob.
“Ah, but it can’t be seen with the eye.”
“With the heart, Shena Lena.”
Then you are a fool, Jacob Goren, thinks Shena Lena. I have no heart.
At night, the walls of the apartment burn with the heat of the day. Inside the rooms, mirages appear, like fever dreams. Shena Lena thinks she sees her flock shimmering in the waves of heat above the stove. She stares at a bare light bulb, and a crimson sunset comes to life in the blink of her eye. Her mirror is a pool of water in which she sees the face of memory, rippling on its surface. Everywhere there is heat. Everywhere there is her passion, now burned to a cinder, which is her heart. Driven onto the fire escape, Shena Lena turns her face to the sky. Above the buildings she sees a glow and beyond that a deep blue blackness that is nothing. America has no stars.
On Sundays her mother visits the relatives.
“You must dress yourself and come with me, Shena Lena.”
“I can’t,” she says.
“What you can’t do is stay in this apartment forever.”
“I have a headache.”
“It’s not normal.”
Shena Lena keeps her eyes lowered and rubs her fingers in her lap. Esther sighs. “I’ll be back at five o’clock,” she says and kisses Shena Lena’s forehead.
Shena Lena sits in the kitchen with the shade drawn and the windows closed. A cool green light, the color of rain, fills the room. She doesn’t wipe her perspiring brow. Her hands sit idle in her lap, palms up. It’s too hot to clean.
There’s a knock at the door. She doesn’t breathe. Time passes, clocked by the tick of fear in her throat. Another knock
“It’s Jacob, Shena Lena.”
She looks frantically around the room, then hides behind a chair.
“Your mother knows I’m here.”
Slowly she rises. She touches her astonished face, as if to compose it with her hands. She smoothes her hair and walks to the door, hoping she can keep her lower lip from trembling. When she opens the door, she sees a fully feathered chicken, dangling, head down, from Jacob’s hand.
“For you,” Jacob grins, offering it to her like a bouquet of flowers. As the bird is turned upward, it sputters and squawks, coming to life.
“It’s alive!” Shena Lena gasps.
“Fresh,” Jacob shouts as the noisy chicken flaps and strains against Jacob’s grip on its feet. He laughs.
“I can’t kill it,” Shena Lena yells.
“I’ve never been able to. I can’t.”
Immediately, Jacob snaps the bird upside down and twists its neck. Shena Lena hears the small break. The silence.
Shena Lena’s hands cover her face. She sobs.
“I’m sorry,” Jacob whispers. “I didn’t know it would upset you.”
He lets go of the dead chicken, letting it slip to the floor. Crossing the few feet between them, he puts his arms around Shena Lena. “Marry me, Shena Lena,” He pleads in her ear. “Marry me.”
In her head, she hears a familiar cry of distress.
Esther awakens to the scratching of a brush over the kitchen floor. Standing in the doorway Esther asks, “What are you doing?”
“I am scrubbing the floor.”
Shena Lena’s eyes are swollen. The tears wash down her cheeks as though they are a force of nature, entirely independent from the movement of her hands and arms.
“You scrubbed the floor yesterday.”
“So, you are being foolish.”
Shena Lena stops scrubbing and doubles over until her forehead touches the floor, and her braid lies soaking in the water and suds. Esther grabs Shena Lena’s wrists and pulls her up so that she is half-raised on her knees while Esther stands over her and says, “Listen to me, Shena Lena. Today you will shop for me. Tonight we will have gefilte fish.”
“It’s so far,” Shena Lena says, her eyes wide with terror, her tears still flowing.
“Nonsense. A girl like you who’s come all the way from Russia by herself shouldn’t be afraid to go fifteen minutes away by trolley.”
But Shena Lena gets lost going around the comer. Often she has to stop and spread her arms against the nearest building, hugging her cheek to the brownstone, eyes closed, feeling like a feather clinging to the roughness, about to be blown away on the next strong breeze.
Slowly walking down the stairs, holding firmly onto the banister, Shena Lena sees herself pitching forward and tumbling to the bottom. The long dark hallway is filled with dusty, amber light coming from the small, square window in the front door. She shields her eyes with her hand as she steps into the glare of the street. In front of the stoop, children hop in chalk-drawn boxes on the sidewalk. A horse pulling a cart of vegetables plods by, while a group of boys race through the spray of an open fire hydrant. Rivulets of water gush down the gutter.
Shena Lena follows the flowing water, hoping it will narrow so that she can cross. Already her heart is beating hard because she’s afraid she will miss the trolley. She paces back and forth on the sidewalk, looking at her new white high-button shoes, hearing the approaching clang.
“Allow me.” She turns sharply to find Jacob standing behind her. Stepping into the water, which rises above his ankles, Jacob lifts her with both hands clasped at her waist; her short legs and tiny feet flail through the air, coming to rest on dry ground. Running ahead, he hails the trolley before it pulls away and helps Shena Lena up the high steps. He waves and smiles at her flushed face. She stares after him until he is out of sight.
She squeezes into a window seat. Block after block, she looks out but does not see. The trolley slows to a stop and Shena Lena focuses her eyes. She thinks she sees Jacob walking across the street. The trolley rocks forward and turns a corner. Jacob, if it is Jacob, is lost from view.
The fish market is so crowded that Shena Lena must elbow her way toward the stand. Pointing to a whitefish, she smiles and shakes her head yes. She buys whitefish, then yellow pike and carp. Still smiling, she turns her head and sees Jacob melt into the crowd.
“Your fish,” the vendor repeats, handing her the package.
“Thank you.” Clutching the fish against her breast she breaks through the crowd, running.
“Are you alright?” She opens her eyes, thinking she will see Jacob’s face, but instead she sees a man old enough to be her father. Shena Lena has her arms spread and her body flattened against a building.
“I’m fine,” she says. “Just a little dizzy.”
“Where are you from?” the man asks.
“No,” he laughs. “I mean where do you live now?”
Suddenly afraid of him, Shena Lena says, “I’m all right,” and lets go of the building. She hurries away.
“The trolley to Delancey Street?” she asks a passerby. The woman shrugs and indicates she doesn’t understand. She sees a man in a dark coat with a beaver hat. He has a beard and peyos, the long curl of hair dangling beside each ear, grown by very religious Jews.
“The trolley to Delancey Street?”
He answers her in Hebrew.
“I don’t understand Hebrew,” she says.
“I don’t speak Yiddish,” he says in Yiddish, and walks away.
Shena Lena looks up and sees buildings that have pushed the sky so high with their rude spires that the sky has retreated and become as remote as God. Turning a corner, Shena Lena stumbles onto the trolley tracks.
“Delancey Street?” she asks the conductor. He nods, extending his hand, helping her up the steps. She sits with closed eyes, filling her head with the smell of fish.
“Delancey Street,” the conductor calls out.
Stepping down, she turns her head and sees Jacob seated in the back of the trolley. He smiles at her.
Running down the two blocks, then slowing to a fast walk, Shena Lena glances over her shoulder to see if Jacob is following her. Coming through the front door into the darkness, she gropes her way to the banister. Racing up the five flights of stairs to their apartment, she bursts through the door.
“What happened to you?” Esther says. “I thought you’d never get home. Never mind. I have a surprise. Jacob is staying for dinner.”
Shena Lena sees Jacob step into the door frame from the kitchen.
“Hello, Shena Lena.”
Jacob’s gift of ice cream has already started to melt on the block of ice in the kitchen sink. They hurry through their dinner to get to dessert. Shena Lena’s hands tremble when she raises her forkful of gefilte fish to her mouth.
Jacob eats with a spoon. He asks for more of the gelatinous mold that surrounds the fish ball. The “fish jelly,” as Shena calls it, is like mucous and she can’t bear to look at it. Shena prefers fowl to fish, but her mother does all the cooking in America.
“Shena Lena made this herself,” Esther says.
“Did she? It’s delicious.”
“I can hardly boil water,” Shena Lena says.
“She’s a modest girl. Have some more challah.” She passes the bread to Jacob.
“Delicious,” Jacob says, biting into his second piece. “Made by Shena Lena, too?” He looks her in the eye.
“Everyone ready for ice cream?” Esther says rising quickly from the table.
“Do you like ice cream, Shena Lena?”
“I prefer cake.”
The ice cream sits in a melted pool in dishes before them. Only a little bump is still solid in the middle. Shena Lena flattens the bump with her spoon and swishes the melt in her bowl. Jacob and Esther eat theirs like soup.
“It may not have the texture of ice cream,” says Esther, “but it tastes just as good.”
“What do you think, Shena Lena?”
“You already know what I think. My spoon speaks for me.”
“You have a clever daughter, Esther Himmel.”
“I have an ignorant daughter, who is very rude.”
Shena Lena’s lips tighten until they turn white. Her hand holding the spoon resumes its trembling. “You young people go into the parlor,” Esther says. “I’ll clean up.”
Jacob pulls his chair close to Shena Lena’s so that their knees are almost touching.
“Why don’t you like me?”
“I don’t want to be rude.”
“I won’t think you are rude. Only honest.”
“Well, then, because you have blue eyes.”
Jacob laughs. “I will teach you to love blue eyes.”
“Because you are not poor. Because you are not a shoemaker. Because you want to marry me.”
“I see,” Jacob says. “These are serious objections.”
Shena Lena looks at Jacob to see if he is mocking her, but he is thoughtful.
“He will not be easy to forget, Shena Lena, but you will in time.”
“I don’t want to forget,” she says fiercely.
“No. But you must. Someday I will fill your heart, or a child will, and the ache will disappear. I can give you children.”
“What are children? They are like noisy geese to feed. You don’t love me. You love my picture.”
“Sometimes a picture can capture a soul.”
“I have no soul,” and the tears she had been resisting fall freely.
He kisses her salty cheek. “Marry me, Shena Lena.”
She touches his mouth with her fingers to silence him but instead is moved by the wetness of her tears on his lips.
“I will marry you, Jacob Goren,” she says, already regretting her weakness. “I will marry you because I am tired.”
On the day of her wedding, Shena Lena awakens with the sensation of feathers in her throat. When she breathes, the feathers whip into a small flurry. It is not just her throat. Her heart flutters in her breast. Rising from her bed, knowing this is the last night she’ll sleep alone, she wishes she could walk out the window, five stories up, and step onto the hill at home, to bite the air and taste the cold on her tongue, the voices of geese in her ears.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, it will be Jacob’s voice in her ear.
She moves across the room like an apparition in her white nightgown. Her face is calm, her eyes see only Menken, while her fingers search her sewing table. She grips the scissors in her small solid hand.
In the light of dawn, she stabs at her mattress again and again, slashing her pillow, as a frenzy of feathers, like a cloud of snow, falls on her upturned face, filling her open mouth.
Sally Schloss is a writer for the Nashville Arts Magazine and conducts fiction and memoir writing workshops. This past year she was awarded a scholarship to the Vermont Studio Center, was a finalist in A Room of Her Own Foundation’s fiction contest and published a story in Echo Ink Review. She is working on a collection of short stories and a novel.