The Singing Fire: A Novel

The Singing Fire: A Novel

by Lilian Nattel, Lillian Nattel

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With vivid prose and magical realism, Lilian Nattel brings another remarkable novel set in a historic Jewish community—the bustling alleys of London's East End in the late nineteenth century—to life.

Nehama, a young Jewish woman, leaves her family and comes to London to fulfill dreams of independence. But a girl on her own who doesn't speak English is


With vivid prose and magical realism, Lilian Nattel brings another remarkable novel set in a historic Jewish community—the bustling alleys of London's East End in the late nineteenth century—to life.

Nehama, a young Jewish woman, leaves her family and comes to London to fulfill dreams of independence. But a girl on her own who doesn't speak English is an easy target and Nehama is forced into prostitution. Yet with only the whispers of her deceased grandmother to guide her, she manages to escape into the narrow alleys of the respectable East End, where bustling marketstalls and penny seats at the theatre are just a hand's breadth away from the criminal warrens.

Emilia, arrives in London ill-prepared, and pregnant and Nehama takes her in. But Emilia refuses a hardscrabble life and finds refuge in the privileged classes of the West End at the expense of her identity and even her baby, Gittel, who Nehama adopts. As the two women walk their own separate paths, Gittel becomes their nexus; and Nehama and Emilia find the true meaning of their lives in the narrowest of London's alleys.

Lilian Nattel masterfully brings to life a vanished world, embracing the dilemmas of class, gender, culture and history with an imaginative and fearless voice.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A moving novel, a rich exploration of human conditions that are far deeper and broader than the specifics of time, place and culture. Nattel is an extraordinary novelist."
The Baltimore Sun

"Treachery, comedy, heartbreak...A book to get lost in...mesmerizing." — O, The Oprah Magazine

"[A] vibrant, deeply felt narrative, tempered with humor."
Jewish Woman

"Rich and lovingly written...leavened by subtle humor and infused with intelligence."
Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly
Two determined Jewish runaways strive for better lives in chaotic turn-of-the-century London in Nattel's rich and lovingly written second novel (after 1999's The River Midnight). Seventeen-year-old Nehama, who arrives from Poland in 1875, is quickly tricked into prostitution and brutalized by her boss, the squire. She escapes that sordid life-which Nattel unflinchingly, chillingly portrays-when she's taken in by a young couple in Frying Pan Alley. She becomes a skilled seamstress and eventually marries a kind tailor who knows little of her past. In 1886, Emilia, privileged but pregnant and unwed, flees her cruel father and weak mother back in Minsk. Nehama's and Emilia's paths converge when Nehama prevents the ruthless brothel owner who enslaved her from doing the same to Emilia. Emilia, who's posing as a widow, lodges with Nehama, but soon breaks under the drudgery of London's ghetto life. Leaving her newborn daughter with Nehama, who is unable to bear children after two miscarriages, Emilia decamps to London's Soho, where she works as a shop girl and catches the eye of Jacob, a successful Jewish writer who thinks the "golden-haired and gray-eyed" Emilia is a gentile. Both women are haunted by the pasts they conceal from their men, and sometimes comforted by beneficent ghosts: into this story of struggle and assimilation, Nattel skillfully weaves the guardian spirits of Nehama's grandmother and Emilia's father's first wife. The pacing is leisurely, and the prose is lovely, leavened by subtle humor and infused with intelligence. Agent, Helen Heller. (Feb.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Hot on the heels of her much-acclaimed first novel, The River Midnight, Nattel's new achievement is a sensory joy. Vividly drawn sounds and sights bring to life London's 19th-century Jewish ghetto. The story revolves around Nehama and Emilia, a Polish and a Russian immigrant, respectively, who had fled to London to start life anew. While both indeed remake themselves, facing formidable challenges, they do not necessarily find better lives. Each is accompanied by a spirit-guardian who turns up periodically with sotto voce comments about current problems and solutions. The two characters are linked by Gittel, the daughter born to Emilia but adopted by Nehama. Nattel offers a poignant glimpse into a long-gone world, fraught with danger, hardship, poverty, and the daunting boundaries of class, gender, and geography. Highly recommended.-Ellen R. Cohen, Rockville, MD Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Another marvelous tale steeped in Jewish history and culture, from the author of The River Midnight (1999). The Yiddish theater and the teeming streets of London's Jewish ghetto in the last quarter of the 19th century form a vibrant backdrop for Nattel's two strong-minded heroines. Nehama arrives from Poland in 1875 and falls into the clutches of the Squire, who turns the 17-year-old virgin into a prostitute and beats her savagely when she tries to run away. Even after she escapes and marries the goodhearted tailor Nathan, she's convinced that her seamy past is to blame for her miscarriage. So when Emilia, daughter of an affluent but sadistic Minsk notary, turns up in London in 1886, just as unprotected as Nehama was-and very pregnant as well-the rough-edged East Ender rescues the new arrival from the pimps prowling the docks. Emilia flees, leaving behind her infant daughter to be raised by Nehama and Nathan. Their struggles are contrasted with Emilia's comfortable life after her brief stint as a fashionable shopgirl attracts the admiration of successful hack writer Jacob Zalkind, whom she allows to believe she's a gentile. The author paints powerful portraits of two very different women who both hide the truth about their past from their husbands, while also tracing the age-old immigrant conflict between allegiance to ethnic roots and yearnings for the tantalizing freedoms offered in a new society. The ghosts of Nehama's grandmother and the first wife of Emilia's hateful father watch over the action; the Toronto-based author deftly folds these magical elements into the essentially realistic storyline. Her prose is just as finely balanced, rich in humor that's never simply for laughs(Emilia suffers "the ordinary fortune of every woman from the day that Eve was pushed out of her garden and realized that she must find a good address"), and filled with passages of heartbreaking beauty that acknowledge the permanent scars left by tragedy but affirm the healing powers of love and self-knowledge. Beautifully written, strongly imagined, and deeply felt. Agent: Helen Heller

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1: The Sea Sounds Closer

LONDON, 1875

St. Katharine's Dock

The girl was sitting on the step of a shop that sold parrots, their English accent better than hers. She had her bag by her feet on the wet ground, her hands folded in her lap while the Tower of London rose gray and crumbly above dockhands moving cargo. Around them milled men in aprons and caps, owners in silk hats, horses pulling carts, cats eating rats, and snarling dogs fighting over treacle leaked from a burst cask. The girl was seventeen years old and alone, so she prayed to God, Help me please, because that is what a person does when there is no one else.

To her surprise, someone answered.

"Hello there!" A portly man pushed aside the Chinese sailor who was leaving the shop with a bird in a cage. It took a moment for her to realize that she understood him. "Can I help you?" the man asked in Yiddish. He wore a bowler and a sack coat like the foremen on the dock.

"I'm just not sure which way to go. It's so foggy," she said as she stood up.

"Anyone can see that you're a newcomer, so how could you know? That's why I'm here. I'm from the Newcomers' Assistance Committee. My name is Mr. Blink. It used to be Blinick. Do you have any family waiting for you? A friend?"

"I came by myself." She tried to sound as self-possessed as her oldest sister. There were five older sisters in Poland, all of them either intelligent or married and some of them both.

"Well — don't worry," Mr. Blink said. "I'll take care of everything. What's your name, my girl, and where are you from?"

"Plotsk. I'm Nehama Korzen."

"Such a coincidence!" He beamed. What a friendly face he had. It was all pouches, smaller ones under his eyes and bigger ones under his cheeks and an extra chin that told her this was a man who ate meat every day, as much as he liked. "I'm a Plotsker, myself. I don't know any Korzens. Too bad. But a landsmann is as good as relations, right? You just come with me. First thing we'll go to the city office to pay the entrance fee."

"I didn't know about any fee. How much is it?" she asked, putting her hand over her waist, where she'd sewn a hidden pocket with all the money she had. It had seemed like so much at home. But what was a ruble worth in London?

Mr. Blink stopped abruptly. "You mean no one told you? My dear child, this is terrible. How could they send you off like that — completely unprepared?"

"Nobody sent me. It was my own idea."

"And you didn't know. What a shame. A real pity."

"A Jew doesn't give up a landsmann to the authorities, does he? Please, don't do that," she said.

"You see that man standing there?" Mr. Blink pointed at someone holding a torch as he led his horse through the fog. "A policeman. But if you're with me, he won't pay any attention to you."

"What will I do? I can't go home."

"Maybe I can do something." He put his hand on her elbow. "I might be able to draw on the committee's loan fund."

"Oh, would you?" A black snow was falling on her. It smelled of burnt tobacco. She covered her nose with her hand.

"A promise I can't give, but I'll do my best," he said.


"I'd be so grateful. And a job?"

"There's always something."

"I'm a hard worker." She could picture the tickets to London in her mother's hand. She'd send for all of them, mother and father, her five sisters with their families. They wouldn't think that she was so stupid anymore.

"But first you come home with me," Mr. Blink said. "You have a good meal and a good sleep and things will look better. Tomorrow, I'll make the proper inquiries."

In the beginning, she hadn't thought to run away. She was working with her father, sewing in the sleeves of a satin gown. He was a custom tailor, and she was the last of his daughters to work in his shop. She was singing and sewing and daydreaming about her future, which would include a house of her own and, even more important, some heroic act that would surprise everyone. She cut the thread. "Father," she said.

"Mmm?" He worked carefully, his glasses low on his nose, a religious man in a worn caftan who was bothered by the impieties of younger men but would say nothing, showing disapproval just in his glance and the dismissal of a waving hand.

"I hear that in London a Jew can stand for Parliament," she said. "Isn't that something?" He agreed that it was something. "It's the free land. Nobody has to do anything he doesn't want."

"But in Poland a Jew can own his grave," Father said. "You want something more?" Nehama laughed but Father didn't as he added, "Your home is your home. Nothing else is the same."

The back door was open to the courtyard surrounded by small houses that were old and run-down. In them lived Nehama's married sisters. She was always surrounded by sisters. She couldn't open her mouth to sneeze without one of them saying, Bless you. Where's your handkerchief? Why aren't you wearing woolens? Where's your head? The other sisters were all fair, like Father. Only she and Mama were dark. She'd been named for her grandmother because she was born just after Grandma Nehama died. Nehama means "consolation," but her mother had been inconsolable. She was depressed for a year, ignoring all her fair-haired children, who pinched and slapped the baby when no one was looking. It was their duty to curb the yetzer-hara, the evil inclination, because she was the youngest and Mother let her get away with murder. They should have pinched harder. Nehama still had a strong yetzer-hara.

"If I was young, I'd go to London in a minute," Mama said. The shop was small, the back door propped open with a stone. In the courtyard the sisters' laundry hung like angels in the smoke from the nearby feather factory.

"Then you'd let me go?" Nehama asked.

"Who's talking about going? I only meant in theory," Mama said. Her hair was still dark, her hands scrubbed raw after baking so she wouldn't stain the fine cloth when she came to sew.

"But in theory a boat ticket costs less than a dowry," Nehama said.

"Don't be silly. Sending away a child, that's for desperate people." Mama shook her head. While she sewed she sighed, as if it was hard to breathe in the smoky air that blew in from the feather factory.

"But I'd send for you. I'd send for everybody!"

"You and who else?" Hinda called from the other room. She was the prettiest of the sisters. "You'd better keep the price of the ticket for your dowry. You'll need it because no one's marrying you for your beauty."

"So who needs beauty if you know business?" Rivka said. She was the oldest sister and had a business importing cotton. "I can't keep the store closed more than an hour to take inventory. What are you waiting for, Nehama?"

"Go, go. I'll finish here," Mama said.

Nehama crossed the courtyard with her oldest sister to the small house where the store took up the front room. Rivka planned to have a real shop soon, with two stories and heavy shutters that locked out thieves and rioters.

"Do you think I'm ugly?" Nehama asked, seating herself at the table to write up the accounts.

"Ugly? I wouldn't say that. Your hair is too curly, but it matters more that it's dark." Rivka lifted a bale of fabric onto the counter, unrolling it and checking for holes. She wore a kerchief over her hair but wasn't too pious not to let a few golden strands fall across her forehead. "Too bad you don't have our coloring. I mean mine and Father's. Jewish boys go crazy for fair hair. But your eyes are nice. Very blue. And you wouldn't be so dark if you ate eggs."

"I hate eggs." Nehama erased a sum with a rubber. She added every column twice, and each time it came to something different.

"You hate everything good for you."

"Not everything. I'd like a shop. I could run it."

"There's no money for you to have a shop. You have to be practical about what you can do."

Nehama kept a list of things she might do. Page one: businesses. Importing cotton, wheat, eggs, oranges. Selling corsets, rope, kerosene, wooden barrels. Page two: occupations. There wouldn't be so many for a woman, but never mind. She wrote them in large letters to fill up the page, all her pent-up energy making the penciled letters as dark as black ink. "Why doesn't anyone listen to me? I could be a teacher like Leah and Shayna-Pearl."

"You want to talk ugly? Leah's scarred from the smallpox. It's a mercy from God she became a teacher. And Shayna-Pearl is so badtempered no one could stand her for a week. Thank God that there was enough money for them to go to school. But now, unfortunately — well, when it's the youngest's turn there just isn't much left. You never liked to face reality, but there comes a time when you have no choice."

"You could send me to school, Rivka." It wasn't fair. Nehama added up the accounts herself. She knew what was going in and going out.

"And don't I have my own children to consider? Someone has to tell you how the world works, and I can see it's up to me. Make yourself into an attractive girl, Nehama, and your dowry will stretch further. I mean attractive in temper, not just in looks. You should eat eggs because they're good for you and never mind if you like them. That's what makes a nice girl."

"Fine. If I can't do anything I want here, then I'll go somewhere else." Along the river she'd seen the large boats that carried everything a person might dream about. She could be on such a boat, the force of her desires driving the steam engine. A life that she made herself, one that was worth remembering at the end of it. "Maybe I'll go to London. Girls don't need dowries there."

"I never heard anything so stupid. You don't know what you want."

"How am I supposed to know? Every time I take a step, I have a sister telling me when to lift my foot and when to put it down."

"Thank God, or who knows where you'd end up. Just because Mama makes you a dress in the latest fashion, you think you're a special salami. Let me tell you, Nehama, someday you have to find out that you're just plain beans and you give everyone gas." Rivka slapped a roll of cotton onto the counter. "You see this? It would make a serviceable dress for everyday. The dirt won't show on it. If you want I'll give it to you at cost, Nehameleh, and you can save a couple of yards if you make it up yourself without any fancy-shmancy business. A mother that sees you in this will realize that you know what's what and she'll think of giving her son to you."

"I don't like it," Nehama said. "It looks like an old woman's."

"All right. Insult me. That's what I should expect. Just remember when you end up depending on handouts for a piece of bread that if you weren't so stubborn, it could have been avoided."

Rivka went back to her bales of fabric in a huff, and Nehama added up the columns of numbers once again, hoping that with God's help the sums would stay the same.

On Shobbos they all sat together in the women's gallery of the synagogue, Nehama, her mother, and all her sisters. It was a modern synagogue with an open balcony, where the women could look straight down at the Holy Torah as it was paraded in its crown of silver and its gown of velvet. Her next older sister, Bronya, was breathing noisily. Seven months pregnant and still she did business every market day, charging a few pennies to weigh goods on the scale she brought to the market square in a wheelbarrow. Her husband was a carpenter, not a bad trade, but he stank of onions. How could Bronya stand him? "Your turn next, Nehama," she said.

"Not me. I'm helping Father. He can't afford to marry me off."

"I hear the matchmaker's been sniffing around." Hinda shifted her baby from one breast to the other. "I ought to give her some tips about you."

"There's a fine young man on the next street to ours," Bronya said. "You can smell him coming. Aah — dead animal skins. But a tanner can still be very pious. And just think how you can help him by collecting cow shit for tanning."

"Such language! Don't tease your sister," Mama said. "You know how sensitive she is to odors."

Down below among the men, the Holy Torah, which has no odor, was unrolled all the way to the beginning. The reader chanted: "And the earth was chaos and void. On the face of the deep, in the darkness, there was a great wind from God sweeping over the face of the waters..."

She'd show them all. The time for thinking was over.

Nehama secretly bought the ticket the day that one of her sisters pointed out the tanner and another told her to keep her ideas to herself when the matchmaker came. She didn't consider everything she was leaving until she stood on the boat, looking back at the docks, where no one waved good-bye. The spray from the river and the rain from the heavens splashed her face, diluting her tears the way London merchants diluted milk with water and mixed flour with sawdust. And in the blink of an eye, the Vistula River, queen of Poland, flowing between green banks of willow trees, became the Thames, empress of the world, slapping the base of the Tower of London, where queens were beheaded. On the gray waters of a nation that disdained spices and ate boiled beef, steaming ships came in with the west wind, carrying perfume and elephant tusks and Sardinian sailors with great gold earrings.

Thrawl Street

So this was an English house. There was an iron stove instead of a tile oven, a painting of dogs in red jackets playing cards, and a large menorah with nine silver cups for oil. The menorah was on the top shelf of an open wooden cabinet, beside it a set of leather volumes in Hebrew. Nehama couldn't read the titles, but she could write her initials in the dust.

Mr. Blink worked very hard. All through his meal, men came to call, and for their sake he interrupted his dinner, inspecting goods and making payment from his cashbox. Nehama was uneasy though there wasn't any reason. After all, what kind of shopkeeper back home didn't deal with gentiles? They brought all sorts of small things: silk handkerchiefs, a gold chain, a silver spoon, a pocket watch, ivory buttons. One of the visitors smelled of the river, and one of them smelled of the sewers, and the one that smelled of freshly turned earth brought a wedding ring set with red stones. Nehama wiped the gravy from her plate with a piece of soft bread. It didn't occur to her that it might not be kosher.

She spent the night on a cot in the kitchen. When she woke up the next morning, Mr. Blink's housekeeper gave her some breakfast, sweating heavily as she put the bowl of porridge on the table, and Nehama surreptitiously covered her nose with her hand. The housekeeper sniffed and muttered, pointing to the floor, but if she expected Nehama to wash it, then she was much mistaken. In truth, God alone knew what she was saying, and it was a relief when she went out.

For a while, Nehama sat at the table, too excited to eat. People said that she had her grandmother's eyes, and hadn't she come by boat from someplace small to a bigger world just like her grandmother, who grew up in a small village? It was a shock, Grandma Nehama's first view of the town with the cathedral rising high on the hill. She was young and coming to marry a man with a baby because her family couldn't afford anything better than to make her a second wife. Standing on the boat and smelling the docks of Plotsk, she almost changed her mind, but what could she go back to? So she married the man. His daughter was a skinny baby that was fading away, and of all her children this one was her favorite because she had brought it back to life. When the daughter grew up and had five girls, it was Grandma Nehama who took care of them. It's easier to fall in love with a skinny baby than with a hairy man, she always said.

Nehama stood at the window, wiping away the dust with her sleeve so that she could look out on a street of old and crumbling houses not very different from the heim. It wasn't so frightening. As soon as she got her entrance papers, she could go down and walk in the street like a free person who has no sisters. She wasn't sure what she'd do next, but it would be something marvelous and she'd send for her family. Then she, the youngest sister, would be first.

If she was really listening, she might have heard a grandmother's voice telling her: You want to know about London? If only you'd listen to me, shaynela. I know what's what. Believe you me. In Plotsk you had seven thousand gentiles. Here there are five million. You think Plotsk is an ancient town. After all, kings are buried in its cathedral. But that's nothing. Whitechapel Road was a Roman highway. You think in Plotsk people are poor? Then open your eyes. When these people don't have work, potatoes and onions are a luxury to think on while they boil a crust of bread with salt. Thieves stole the lead from these old roofs, and the water pours through. You want water? You should have it in a lucky hour. Here the water company turns on the tap for just ten minutes a day, please God. And if you just walk a little further on, you'll come to the bank where the money of the world pours without end and everyone in this street is holding out his hands, hoping to catch some. If he has to knock a person over the head to get his, that's good too. Be careful, shaynela.


Barrows clattered in the street as she ran down the stairs to Mr. Blink's pawnshop. He was presiding over his shelves, taking a pair of Sunday boots from a tired wife and giving her some coins in exchange. Waiting by the counter was a man wearing a uniform. He had a thick mustache and a dark mole on the bridge of his nose, and though he was too scrawny to be impressive, it was never a good thing to be in the vicinity of an official. Mr. Blink would deal with him. Perhaps he already had. She didn't think otherwise, for there'd always been someone to take care of things at home in the courtyard surrounded by small houses.

"Good morning, Mr. Blink," she said. "Have you arranged for my papers already?"

He turned toward her, his face covered with stubble like a hedgehog's skin, and there was no friendliness in his eyes today. "Are you crazy? Didn't my housekeeper tell you to stay upstairs, out of the way?"

"I'm sorry," she stuttered. "I didn't understand her. I thought she wanted me to wash the floor."

"Well, you've made a mess of things, that I can tell you. This man here is a police officer."

"Perhaps I can give him something and he'll forget it," Nehama said, trying not to cry. "Is there a place I can exchange my money?"

"It's too late for that," Mr. Blink said. "You'll have to go with him, and I'll do my best for you from this side."

"Don't let him take me."

Mr. Blink was shaking his head sadly. She should have tried harder to understand the housekeeper. Her sisters were right. She never listened.

"I told you that I'll do what I can. I'm sorry, my dear. Very sorry." He stood with his arms crossed, eyes filled with disappointment as the policeman grabbed her by the arm and dragged her out to the police wagon.

Whitechapel Road

They rode through the great street where carcasses swung huge and bloody, music came from every other door, and steam hung out of cookshops above the carts and carriages and hansom cabs. Business was several layers thick: stores with their glass fronts reflected passersby, on the pavement stalls were heaped high, costermongers stopped with their barrows while men called customers to see the wares inside. The high road smelled of the meat market at one end and the hay market at the other, and Nehama couldn't hear her own thoughts for the sound of tolling bells and a marching band. It was just as well, as all her thoughts were grim.

"Mr. Blink will fix everything," she said helplessly. No one could understand her. No one but Mr. Blink, who spoke Yiddish like a brother.

"You sound like all them other girls of his," the policeman replied in his garbled language. "Foreigners every one. But it's no concern of mine. I get my quid from him regular to bring you in. Right, here you go." He was leading her toward a building that seemed too important for a newcomer's papers. It was huge and rotund, surrounded by gardens of rhododendron bushes, standing over the street of old gabled houses like a sultan on an elephant. Nehama recognized the word "London" on the archway. The second word, "Hospital," must mean something like City Authority. Beside the hospital was a mountain of rubbish, and on the stinking mountain women were digging for whatever they might find to sell.

Nehama went through the doors. What else could she do with the policeman gripping her arm? The entrance was so clean it made her nostrils hurt. Women hooded in white like the sultan's harem glided here and there. What did they do in the eternal light of gas jets, these women with their knowing looks? One of them led her to an office, where she was motioned to sit in a cane chair. Behind the shining desk an official took notes. His jacket was well fitted; a gentleman, then. Standing beside the desk was a young man whose coat fit even better, and on the wall behind him was the portrait of a short, fat woman in a crown.

"Now you might see what I've been telling you," the older man said. "This is how we stop venereal infection from spreading. Lectures are not the same as a firsthand look." He wore spectacles while he wrote, removing them to study Nehama. He looked tired, as officials often do. "Constable?"

"I caught her soliciting, sir."

"Mr. Blink," Nehama said, nodding firmly to let them know that she had a connection in London, who would straighten everything out as soon as he could.

"It were a captain of the navy she approached," the policeman said. "She seen me and run."

"Thank you, Constable." The official turned to the young man. "The Contagious Diseases Act allows the police to pick up anyone they might have reason to suspect of prostitution. We'll have the examination next. If the patient shows symptoms we'll keep her here for treatment."

"And if not?"

"She's released, of course. Though heaven knows we may see her here again before long."

The official rose from his chair and came around to Nehama, moving her head to the left and right, lifting her chin as he examined her. Did she look innocent enough? "Nurse, please," he said, opening the door.

At his call for someone, Nehama nearly fainted, thinking that it was a guard coming to take her to prison. But it was only one of the women in white robes, who took her by the arm as they walked along a corridor with many doors, following behind the official with his tired, reedy voice and the gentleman who walked bowlegged, as if he'd rather be on a horse.

"I expect to join my father in his practice after my training's complete," the young man said. "I don't believe he sees many of this sort in Harley Street."

"Quite so. I've been bitten by more than one. A few less hysterical ladies for me to examine would be welcome." The older man sighed. "I'd be relieved if the Contagious Diseases Act was amended. There's been some discussion of applying it only to women meeting sailors at the docks and those in towns where soldiers are billeted."

"If I may differ, sir. All men have appetites, and good men are diseased. Even my father sees them, and with all due respect, any girl on these streets is likely to offer her favors for her supper. That is casual prostitution, and she won't seek treatment on her own, I assure you."

"Quite so. I can't argue with that. In here."

He opened the door, and Nehama was more confused than ever. This wasn't any prison cell. There was a cabinet in the room. A table with straps. A trolley with instruments.

"Up you go," the nurse said as she turned up the lamp hanging above the table.

Nehama looked at the oak cabinet, with its vials and jars and mortar and pestle for grinding powders. This official now checking her ears and pulling on her jaw with his hand that smelled of spirits, was he a doctor? She wasn't ill, but that was all to the good. They would write a certificate of health and Mr. Blink could bring it to the officials. Then she would get her entrance papers. Perhaps there would even be a discount and she would be able to repay Mr. Blink very soon.

"One ought to be careful of foreigners, if I may say so, sir," the white lady said.

"I'm not sick," Nehama said in Yiddish. "You see that, don't you?"

"Throat's clear," the older doctor answered, pushing Nehama back as if she were to lie down. "Open the dress, Nurse."

Nehama shook her head as the white lady touched her buttons. What kind of girl did they think she was? Looking in her mouth was one thing, this quite another. The lady pushed her hands aside, and Nehama jumped off the table. Enough was enough. "I'm telling you. I'm fine. Show me where to wait for Mr. Blink." The policeman knew Mr. Blink. He could send a message. Nehama made a writing motion

with her hands.

"You see what I mean, sir? Turn on you in an instant, they can." The lady took hold of Nehama's shoulders.

The official doctor grabbed Nehama firmly by the arm. She tried to shake him off. "Please, sir. Send a message with the policeman."

They were lifting her back onto the table under the light as hot as the sun. The older man held her down while the lady buckled the straps over her arms. What did they think to do to her? What would they dare? She kicked the table, the doctor, the woman in white, the young gentleman between the legs, and he gasped. The doctor slapped her. "That's enough!"

She paused in shock, as they meant her to. And it was then that they strapped her legs apart. They pushed up her dress. They pulled away her underthings. She screamed and pulled on the leather straps, arching her back and screaming again. Her chest was bare and her legs open and the air touched the curly hairs that no one but her sisters and her mother had seen. And the strangers watched her. The one with graying hair to his collar and the long jaw like a horse was touching her — here and here and here — while she screamed, pee dripping down her leg.

"Quiet her, Nurse," the doctor said, and the lady tied a gag around Nehama's mouth. She fell quiet. She turned her head to one side, looking at the cabinet with the glass front between scrolled panels, and she memorized the colors of the jars while someone put an instrument to her naked chest. Her nipples rose in the cold. Someone pulled her legs up and forced her knees further apart. The pressure between her legs hurt. She was undone.

"This girl is clear of venereal illness. You can see that her hymen is intact. She may be released."

"I'm sorry that I wasn't able to observe the untreated disease, sir," the younger man said.

"We'll have another patient soon enough."

The white lady removed the straps. She pushed Nehama, sobbing, to the door. Outside the hospital the constable was waiting. She didn't resist as he made her step up into the police wagon to take her to prison. Her sisters would never have allowed it. They would have known whom to bribe. But here anything was allowed.

Dorset Street

The sky was gray and ready to burst when the police wagon stopped, not in front of a prison but at a tavern with a sign swinging on one rusty bolt. A cornucopia was painted on the sign, and out of it fell fruits of some sort, the colors and shapes so worn they weren't identifiable. The sign hung over a doorway, and there Mr. Blink was waiting. Somehow he'd known where to come for her, and at last everything would be fixed. Beside him stood a young woman smoking a short pipe. She looked about the same age as Nehama's next older sister, maybe twenty-one or twenty-two. Her hair was dark and her skin pale as a doll's, her nose long, her lips wide, and when she smiled Nehama could see she had all her teeth. She was short and stocky, a body for pulling plows and surviving famines.

"Where were you for so long?" Mr. Blink asked angrily.

"I was in a hospital," she said, and then told him the whole story because someone must comfort her. The young woman with the pipe was nodding and smirking as if she understood Yiddish and didn't think much of it. Mr. Blink was waving his hand to say, Get to the point. Patrons of the tavern came in and out, looking like drunks do anywhere, wounded and stinking. One of them knocked Mr. Blink's bowler hat into the gutter, and he picked it up, rubbing away the dust on the brim, while Nehama cried out, "Why did they do that to me?"

Mr. Blink studied her without saying a word. Nehama put her hand to her hair, fallen out of its pins and hanging loose around her shoulders. Mr. Blink's voice was sad, his eyes empty of any emotion. "So you're no longer a good girl."

"I'm not?" She hadn't thought — well, something had happened but she'd hoped that perhaps it wasn't really the thing and now it seemed that her sisters were right, she was stupid, stupid not to know.

"You know what I mean," Mr. Blink said. "It's too late to do anything about it."

"What will happen to me now? God in heaven." The rain fell, drenching her as Mr. Blink stepped back into the shelter of the doorway.

This was her punishment. Before she stepped on the boat she had made herself a thief, and then God had made her — She wouldn't think of the word. To buy the ticket, she had sneaked into her sisters' rooms and taken from each of them a piece of finery to sell. A pair of earrings, a blouse, a silk kerchief. From the middle sister, Shayna-Pearl, she'd taken nothing. Not because she was afraid of Shayna-Pearl's temper but because her sister only had books and Nehama wouldn't sell a book. She'd left a note that said her dowry should be given to her sisters so that they could replace what she'd taken. But Bronya's earrings were the only thing her husband had ever given her. Repayment doesn't exonerate a sin, does it?

"I told you to stay in my rooms above the shop. And you didn't listen. May God forgive you. Now. Well, now...What shall we do with you? To the loan committee, I can't go. Not under the circumstances. But still the entrance fee must be paid. There's only one thing to do. The fee will be paid by someone I know, and you'll work for him to pay it back."

The young woman with the pipe rolled her eyes. She wore a brightly colored, badly made dress. "Should I take her now?" she asked in Yiddish. Another landsmann. Who knew there were so many Jews in London?

"This is Fayge," Mr. Blink said. "Here they call her Fay. She'll take you to the Squire, and if you can't be a good girl, then at least you can work hard. Remember that you're only here because he paid for you, and he can turn you over to the authorities any time he likes." He walked away just like that. In a big city, people come and go, her grandmother used to say.

Nehama followed the other girl inside, her skirt dripping on the floor. The tavern was long and narrow, and at the far end the Squire sat at a table near the map of London 1809 and a door marked PRIVAT. If only there wasn't so much noise, she might have heard her grandmother trying to talk to her.

You see him? He's called the Squire because he wears a watch with a chain, but he's just a man who used to be a sailor. He's a gentile, of course, are Jews fishermen? But now he makes his business with girls. A good drama he likes, and he can buy the best seat. In the theater he wears a long scarf and an old wool cap. A man in a silk hat is nothing to him. The magistrate doesn't worry him either. But listen to me, my girl. He's afraid of the wind. I'm telling you this so you should know that even a man like him is afraid of something. You don't have to look at the floor. Look at him and see what he is. Then turn around and go away. Right now and not a minute later. Do you hear me, Nehameleh?

But Nehama heard only the noise of the pub as she followed the stocky young woman with her solid walk to the Squire, who was knitting a scarf the color of the Spanish sky.

"That's the Squire's friend, a smuggler," Fay whispered.

The smuggler was a small man, even for these streets, where men didn't grow big, and he wore a Russian greatcoat, the collar around his ears. As he read his newspaper aloud, he took great bites of bangers and mash and swallows of beer, speaking up so the Squire could hear him above the accordion and the click of draughts and the toss of an iron ring at the hook on the back wall.

"There were a row in Angel Alley what put two in the London Hospital. A drowned child found in the Thames. And an ointment from India what cures bad eyes."

"I could do with that," the Squire said. "I smashed my spectacles yesterday. Go on."

"Ships stalled in the channel. An east wind. And one ship lost."

"Bloody wind. Naught you can do about it. Even the best knife won't save a man from drowning in it." The Squire took the watch from his pocket, rubbing the gold back against a piece of silk to shine it.

"This is Mr. Blink's new girl," Fay said.

So this was the man who was going to save her from the authorities because she wasn't fit for the Newcomers' Assistance Committee. The Squire looked her up and down as if he'd be glad to take his price out of her skin. Maybe he'd sell her to a factory. There were terrible factories in Plotsk, where girls breathed fumes all day long and coughed up black tar. "Tell him that I can sew," she said to Fay. At least sewing wouldn't kill her.

"It's not sewing he wants," Fay said in Yiddish.

The Squire nodded as if he understood. "You tell her she cost me ten pounds."

"What kind of work do I have to do?" Nehama asked. She looked directly at the Squire. Her grandmother used to say that if you don't use your eyes while you're taking the train from Pinsk to Minsk, your pockets will be picked clean and you'll have no one to blame but yourself. His face was hard and his lips were soft. He smelled like poison. Later Nehama would find out that he made a special grease to keep his hands and lips from chapping.

MINSK 1875

Moskovskaya Street

The Rosenbergs lived in a stone house with a wrought-iron fence in front and an apple tree in back. The house was three stories, the garden behind it small and private. A doctor lived next door, and sometimes he had musical evenings, the sound of the piano and violin drifting into the garden, where the ghost of the first Mrs. Rosenberg sat in the apple tree. There were now three living Rosenbergs left in the house: the second wife, the husband, and their daughter.

The first Mrs. Rosenberg had been a mousy woman who took to her bed after Father pointed out her many failings. When she died, he fetched his distant cousin, a widow from a fine family, to be his second wife and take care of his home and children. She wasn't supposed to get pregnant. He already had his sons.

The girl was too beautiful, more like a shiksa than a Jew, so why should anyone think she was his child at all? In fact there was no evidence. Mr. Rosenberg was a notary and liked the word evidence. It made him feel more like a lawyer. Or even a judge. He'd have been one if he'd been born a generation later, when the czar was more liberal toward Jews and let a few into higher schooling. But as it was, all he was authorized to judge were the bricks made in his factory on the outskirts of Minsk, a town of little distinction.

The apple tree was still heavy with fruit, though it was late in the season. Under the care of the first Mrs. Rosenberg, the tree in the garden bloomed early and bore fruit into the fall. Emilia sat on the bench under it, thinking of how she would live with Mother when they ran away. The ghost of the first wife could come, too. Emilia didn't mind sharing a garden with the dead. In the garden with its brick wall covered by ivy, it didn't matter if Emilia was a bit cold in her fall coat. A thrush was singing, a squirrel chittering, the ghost rustling the branches of the apple tree, all perfectly peaceful while Emilia cut out a string of paper dolls.

"Look!" she called up to the ghost of the first wife, unfolding the paper dolls. She knew the paper dolls were simple, but she was only nine years old. Next year she'd be able to make paper-cuts of roses and trees like Mama. The ghost of the first wife nodded in approval. She never spoke. Probably the dead couldn't speak because they didn't have real bodies. But they listened all the time, and really, as long as a ghost could nod or shake her head, she was just as pleasant as half the guests that Father invited for dinner. He never came into the garden. The only door was through the kitchen, and he wouldn't lower himself to be seen there.

"I don't think Father will be mad tonight, do you?" Emilia asked the first wife, folding the paper for another set of dolls. She'd make boy dolls this time. Maybe she'd show Father. She would say these were her half brothers. She carefully traced the tall hats, thinking that Father would be in a good mood and he would smile as she unfolded the paper dolls.

The ghost of the first wife came down from the tree and sat beside her on the grass as if she'd like to put her arm around Emilia. But there wasn't any need for that. Emilia was a lucky girl, being both pretty and clever. Mama always said so. Mama said that Emilia would not make the same mistakes she had. "When Father sees the boy paper dolls, he'll kiss my cheek and give me a coin," Emilia said to the first wife. "Don't you think so?"

The ghost of the first Mrs. Rosenberg shook her head. She was making a wreath out of fallen leaves. Gold leaves and red, and flowers that blew over the wall for the first wife's use.

"Maybe you're right," Emilia said. "Kisses are for babies." Perhaps he would be in a good mood and not throw the soup today. Yesterday they'd had beet borscht. When the soup hit the wall, it had left a red stain. The maid had scrubbed and scrubbed, Mama too. But there was still a pink mark, and Father was angry that his hard-earned money would have to be thrown out on painters. From now on there would be only chicken soup in the house, he said. Mama loathed cooked chicken. It looked too much like a living thing.

Her mother opened the kitchen door. She was dressed for cooking, with an oversize apron from collar to hem. The cooking wasn't going well. Emilia knew it because Mama's cheeks were red and she was wearing the cameo brooch. Mama always wore the cameo when she was feeling wobbly. "What are you doing, Emilia?"

"Cutting paper dolls." Mama made beautiful paper-cuts, scenes of trees and flowers and sea animals riding waves. Father said that she should stick with playing the piano — paper-cuts were usually made by men to mark the eastern wall for prayer or decorate windows for festivals — but Father didn't refuse to hang them, because Mama's papercuts were so admired by his friends. "Well, come inside and have your lesson," Mama said. "The German Bible is still on your desk, waiting for you to get past Adam."

The house was large. It had guest rooms and a library, where Father met with editors and other intelligent people, but Mama taught Emilia her lessons at a desk in the kitchen. Under the calendar on the left wall, there was a pine cabinet full of books and next to it a sewing chest without a single needle or spool of thread but everything you'd need for cutting beautiful scenes out of paper: the board, the small knife, paper and ink of many hues, stencils of trees, roses, eagles, lions.

"Mama, isn't the brisket done?" Emilia asked as she came into the kitchen. The maid was peeling potatoes, and something smelled burnt.

Her mother poked at the meat with a silver fork as if it might rise up out of the pot and accuse her of anti-Semitism. "Maybe I should pour in a little more water. It will make gravy. Go on. Read."

"But if Father doesn't like it..."

"Don't look so worried. Let me ask you — can he be any worse than a Russian officer?" Mama's voice was tense, but she smiled as she pushed Emilia to her desk.

The pages of the book lying open on her desk were stained with smudged pencil notes. Better a story from Mother. "Tell me about the Russians," Emilia said.

There were two tables in the kitchen — the big one beside the window for preparing meat dishes and the small one for dairy opposite, next to the cabinet of books. Mother waited until the maid came back from the cellar with the carrots. Freida liked a story, too. When they were both settled at the table by the window, peeling and cutting carrots for the tzimmes, she began. "It was in the year of the Polish rebellion. We hid the rebels in the woods around our village, and my husband — my first husband, alleva sholom — gave them boots and coats. It was winter, and you could see the footprints of horses in the snow when the Russian soldiers came."

"And then what happened?" Emilia asked, though she knew the answer. She was watching the shapes the curtains made as they fluttered against the open window. The curtains were yellow and sheer, like candle flames lighting her mother's face.

"When the Russians came to our village, they didn't know who was doing what, but they blew up my first husband's mill just the same. The officers came to our house, and I was sure they intended to kill us all. So I invited them in."

"Why didn't you run away? That's what I would do," Emilia said.

"No, you listen to me. It's better to open a door yourself than have it smashed to pieces. What can you do afterward with a broken door? I brought out the crystal goblets, and I served them wine until they were drunk. Then I played the piano for them and they cried sentimental tears. Because of that, they only stole everything we had and no one was shot."

"But you lost everything, Mama." Emilia had heard the story many times. How Mama's first husband, the miller, died of a broken heart soon after the mill was destroyed.

"Not everything. I'm telling you — out of this you came. When I finished mourning, I married your father. How would I know that a woman who could charm Russian officers couldn't charm him? He's a stone, your father. A hammer. After the wedding night, he told me that he didn't want another man's child in his house. That was my son by the miller. So I left him with someone — what else could I do? He was fourteen years old. But still, I saved whatever I could, a penny here and a penny there, and I sent it to him. I want you to know that a mother never forgets her child."

"Yes, Mama," Emilia said. But she didn't believe it for a minute. She didn't even know the name of this half brother.

Emilia had her dinner with the maid in the kitchen. On special occasions and the Sabbath, she ate in the dining room, but when she was older she'd have to eat there all the time with her parents and half brothers and their wives. For now she could sit with Freida and wave at the ghost of the first wife, and after Father returned to the factory, she snuck into his study to read.

The study was the nicest room in the house. It had two windows facing south and west, so that it was as bright and warm as could be. Father's desk was in the corner, and Emilia didn't go near it, not daring to take the chance of accidentally messing it up. On the desk were spread many newspapers, which Father used to glean facts obscured by the czar's censors. Cabinets lined the opposite two walls, and under the south-facing window, Emilia sat on the thick carpet with a book in her lap. Today she was reading Travels in Italy and the Levantine. Emilia always read with a purpose. There were certain facts she wished to corroborate, as Father said.

Emilia was so engrossed in Travels in Italy and the Levantine that she forgot to pay attention to the sounds outside the study. She was thinking that she'd take Mama to Italy. In Italy the sky was warm and blue, according to the painting on Mama's wall, and here it was again in the colored plates in Father's book. No one could be sick in such a place.

Father had many books. He was a cultured man. He preferred Russian to any other language. It was just yesterday that he'd said so before throwing the soup. He asked why Mama insisted on teaching her daughter German. He read only Russian. No other language was worth reading, but perhaps his wife thought he was an ignoramus compared with some others he might name. Then he threw the soup. Emilia was in the kitchen, but she heard the tureen smash against the wall. She didn't eat any more dinner after that. Freida took away her plate and brought her a piece of cake. Emilia wasn't hungry, but she had a bite of it so that later she could remember the taste and imagine she was eating cake in the cabin of a beautiful ship sailing away, and Father was left all alone to feel great remorse.

Because Emilia forgot to pay attention to anything but the book and her plans, she didn't notice her father standing in the doorway. He was not a tall man, in fact he stood several inches shorter than her mother, his face ruddy from brick dust, his beard thick and dark and long like Tolstoy's. He wore a frock coat and trousers, though he kept every religious law, because this was the modern age. "What are you doing?" he asked. His voice was loud. It had to rise above the machines in his factory.

Emilia dropped the book, and as luck would have it a page crumpled under it. She sat very still, hoping that Father would forget her while he picked up the book and brought it to his desk, where he carefully smoothed out the page, closed the book, and put another on top of it to iron out the unfortunate crease. Emilia crouched on the carpet, eyes lowered to her father's boots, wiped clean of brick dust. They were his nice boots, the leather smooth and shining. The boots came toward her. A hand pulled her up by the ear.

"What do you have to say for yourself?"

"I was reading, Father." Why couldn't he just smack her and have done with it? Surely her ear would come off her head.

"These books are not yours, I believe."

"No, Father."

"You do not understand, I see, the difference between what belongs to you and what belongs to others." He let go of her ear. It was hot as she rubbed it. "You will bring me something of yours."

"I don't have anything." After she sailed away on the boat, he would realize that he'd lost his only daughter, and then he'd wish that he could beg her forgiveness.

"Nothing? I see clothes on your back. Shoes on your feet. Surely these are not mine. Bring me your Sabbath dress. Hannah!" he called Mother. "Hannah!"

There always had to be a witness. That was the law, Father said.

Mama helped Emilia take down the dress hanging high in the wardrobe, all the while shaking her head as if she couldn't believe the fecklessness of her daughter. "How could you be so foolish?" she asked. "When are you going to learn what's what in life? You want to read something, then take the book and hide it, for God's sake."

Soon Mama and Emilia stood side by side in the study, Emilia's hand hiding in Mama's so that the trembling of her fingers wasn't visible. Newspapers, paperweight, pens fell onto the soft carpet as Father swept them off his desk. The book that he'd so carefully placed there also fell and a dozen pages crumpled, but he paid no attention. He laid the dress on his desk. He pulled it flat, an arm, the other arm, the sound of a slight tearing as threads parted. Then he took scissors from a drawer and cut carefully. A torn collar, a ripped cuff. The corner of a pocket hanging loosely. "Here." He threw the dress at her. A button smacked her on the cheek. "Idiot! You'll wear this for Sabbath dinners. When the dress is too small, you may have another, and perhaps you'll remember the laws of property." Then he shouted some more at Mama, and she took to her bed.

Emilia ran out to the garden and threw herself down. One evening Father had said she looked charming in her Sabbath dress, and she'd give anything to hear him say it again. She cried herself to sleep, autumn leaves blowing across her legs as she dreamed of Italy. She would live in a villa. There she would paint beautiful paintings of green hills and grazing goats. The ghost of the first wife sat with her while she dreamed.

Copyright © 2004 by Moonlily Manuscripts Inc.

Meet the Author

Lilian Nattel won the Martin and Beatrice Fisher Jewish Book Award
for her internationally acclaimed first novel, The River Midnight. She lives in Toronto with her family.

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