About the Author

Lilian Nattel

Books by this Author
Girl at the Edge of Sky


August 1943

Her Fall
She bursts through the clouds and opens her eyes. The sound of engines is receding, the sky around her empty. There’s no one to see that her eyes are grey, that she wears a scarf made from parachute silk tucked inside her collar to keep it from chafing her neck, that her boots aren’t regulation, or that she is several kilometres above the earth on which human beings have evolved.

In this war, people are always falling from the sky. They’re flung bouquets picked up by the wind, which carries them over fields and forests and towns. The wind fans pretty flames, it blows ash and smudges the sky. It spits the smell of mud, moss, rot, and the forge. It skims creeks and rustles leaves, it gropes in the gaps between wood and skin and blackening metal. The skin of a plane, the skin of a man, anything loose, anything fluid—blood, water—are all of a piece to the wind, which is neither friend nor enemy, though if you’re the one in mid-air, you might feel otherwise.

Where is the wind taking her?

She has no other thought; the roar of air fills her ear. It presses her skin, and in its touch there’s no protest from wounds, only the pleasure of wingless flight. She has as much substance as a god reclining on a bed of air. Above her, threads of cloud separate, and sun turns the heavens blue, more blue than colour can be. Everything she surveys is exquisite. The sky is her secret retreat, her private sin. She doesn’t need a plane or time. She has no past. She floats without fear.

Her hand pulls the rip cord, knowing what needs to be done now. She feels the yank of straps as her parachute opens, capturing air, halting flight and sound. Her weight dangles from the harness. She comes back to what passes for reality. 

Her name is Lily—Litvak or Litvyak. Something like that anyway.She’s blond by peroxide. She’s small by nature. Her age depends onthe papers you look at. Nineteen is a possibility. This day, August 1 and about midday, she blacked out as she slipped into the clouds, regaining consciousness when warmer air struck her face. The wind is pushing her westward.

Smoke hasn’t left her nostrils, nor the smell of tarry residue, though she sees no trace of the aircraft that were chasing her. Looking down, she finds her bearings by water: the meandering tendrils of green to the left are the Don River and its tributaries; the vast blue pool to the south is the Sea of Azov. She’s over the Donetsk region in the eastern Ukraine, close to the border with Russia but behind enemy lines. Like anyone who still survives, she’s had narrow escapes, and she plans on another as she descends, thinking the wind might drop her in the long grass of a field where she could hide until night.

The Don River leaves her field of vision. Mottled earth surges into shapes, the map below reconfiguring as she descends, more detailed than the one in her flight jacket and yet the same, made by an uneasy alliance of hands, nature’s and men’s: undulating rivers, lumpy hills, tracts of green and gold in squares and parallelograms. Men like geometry. Nature throws herself at her materials with abandon, which is how Lily flew her plane and drove her commanding officer crazy. She wears men’s underpants because the army can’t seem to get the hang of making any for the million women in it. As the harness pulls on her, the underpants get into the crack of her bottom, and the tugging bothers her more than her injured shoulder and the burn on her hand.

A squiggle in the landscape expands to a twisting line closer than the Don. This is the Krynka River, marked on her aviator’s map. It’s small, narrow, a peasant of a river invisible from any higher altitude. The golden fields could be wheat or rye, the green must be corn. It’s been ages since she’s smelled an unburnt field. Her world has been a desert of grey and black and red, its odour of crushed tanks and half-buried corpses reaching a kilometre high.

The river snakes through and around the fields, stopping short of the ruler-straight grey line that is a road. She closes her eyes for a moment, hoping to God, if there is one, that she won’t go to a POW camp. Any other fate she’ll accept. And though she doesn’t pray, she recites a rhyme her grandmother taught her: Don’t give a fuck what people say, make your luck and make them pay.

As the wind dies, she stops moving in a westerly direction anddrops straight down toward shades of green along the peasant river. Colour takes on dimension. Trees spring up: a stand of woods near a stream, and she’s rushing into their humble leafiness, these steppe trees that hug the water, a refuge of sorts. A branch catches her parachute, the harness yanks her shoulders. Still damp from the clouds, she pushes up her goggles and takes stock.

She’s wounded, but not mortally. She has a knife and her pistol. The war is two years old. She doesn’t think she’ll live long enough to have children.

Nesting birds call and bring food to their fledglings as if she’s just a fruit or an oversized flower or even a large fungus growing out of the tree trunk. From here she can see the other bank of the Krynka River, steeper, rockier. Pasture without sheep, a ramshackle cottage and beside it a small garden. Beyond her sight, farther west, her grandmother is living under German occupation.

This side of the riverbank is dense with low vegetation where she can hide if she detaches herself from the tree, but she can’t move. Her muscles are flaccid, her brain rambling; all this peaceful greenery is sapping her will. Where the sun falls on her between the leaves, she feels patches of warmth. Shell fragments are embedded in the flesh of her right shoulder. She can bend her arm a bit, but lifting it is agony. Blood seeps into the sleeve, a slow leak, and as long as she stays still, nothing will hurt more. The harness holds her likea child’s swing, like the ones in the Moscow park where she climbed her first tree. She tore her dress and knew she’d get spanked for it, but she pushed herself to the high branches, where she stood as still as if bark grew out of her bare soles, eye to eye with a yellow-chested bird. It was only later, after the spanking and after the rip was sewn up, that she felt remorse over the scarring of her favourite dress.

In the fields beyond the woods, distant figures like cloth dolls bend and stand. If they come any closer, they’ll show themselves as human, and of all the varieties she knows, there are few she wishes to encounter while strapped to a tree. Unthinkingly, Lily moves her left hand, brushing its blistered back against some leaves. She can’t stop the odd sound that issues from the base of her throat, half gulp, half moan, and she clamps the uninjured palm over her mouth. She isn’t entirely alone; she hears voices, they’ve followed her from the plane.

You silly girl, what did you do to yourself? Don’t tell me you can’t get down. Am I talking to a wall? You need a smack to clear your ears? Pull the left strap high up. Like that. See how easy the hand goes through? It’s fine. Don’t make a noise. You want the neighbours to hear? If you’re so feeble, you have no business shooting down planes. How many today—two? My God, what am I going to do with you?

The left strap is off. Panting, head hanging, sweat pooling under her leather cap, Lily holds on to the branch with her burned hand, all the weight of the harness on her shot shoulder as she tries to slide out of its strap. Her grandmother can scold, but Lily is done. She’s going to fall. 

What a face you’re making. It isn’t time for a vacation, lazy girl. Forget the shoulder. Just pull the strap down. Get the arm out. So the parachute is stuck on a little branch. Pull. Again. Don’t sit with it in your arms like a wedding dress. Roll it up. Hurry. Stuff it into the pack.

Her grandmother’s approval was never easy to come by. Lily has to stand, relying on her left arm to support her, clinging to the trunk as she seeks a foothold on a lower branch.

Good girl. My beautiful Lil’ka.

The next thing she knows, she’s on the ground.

When she opens her eyes, she’s on her back and dizzy, long grass striping her view. An accelerating aircraft exerts on its pilot a force several times that of gravity, but a good pilot won’t faint under the pressure. Yet she toppled like a toddler. It’s embarrassing. A fly walks on her cheek, an ant on her neck, everything that’s earthbound creeping and scratching like capitalists. She hopes there aren’t any snakes.

As she rolls over, the sheathed knife in her belt knocks against her hip. She wants to put her hands on the ground and hoist herself up, but her hands have no class loyalty, the left rising to escape the biting grass, the right hanging at the end of a wet string of an arm that refuses to take any weight. Fine, then. She’ll manage without them. Leaning on her left elbow, she humps herself to her knees like a cripple sent home from the war. She slides the elbow up her thigh, moving her centre of gravity as she sits on her knees. Her right arm still dangles uselessly, but her flight jacket and uniform have soaked up its blood. Nothing’s dripped on the grass to mark her presence. Not yet. Softly cupping the underside of her left knee, she inclines right and pushes up from her buttocks and out with her left foot. Uninjured, dependable foot, a shock worker that meets and exceeds quotas. It deserves a medal, the Red Star at least. Shifting her weight onto it, she stands, triumphant at the exertion of her will, recklessly exposed. 

From her magnificent ground-level vantage point, she sees tree trunks. Thin-leafed and thick-leafed bush. A small bird flying up. She turns her head. The steep and rocky left bank looms, a miniature version of great river embankments like the Don’s and the Volga’s. And, in her peripheral vision, a flash of brown that’s offhue, a tint that doesn’t match the woods, like a glint in the sky that is the enemy coming in from the sun. Overhead, crows are chasing a hawk, their loud caws covering the sound of her belated dive into the closest cover.

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The River Midnight

Time 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 Tevet 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 Pólnocna 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 Pólnocna 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 halfway 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 Pólnonca 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. Pólnoc in Polish means midnight, and so the river was named. But others argue that pólnoc also means north, the Pólnonca so named because it enters the Vistula River from the north.
The Pólnonca 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."

In 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 misha 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 mikva, with its purifying water. Before the men leave, they'll dip in the mikva 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 proster, a plain person, like us. A man should know his place. The proster do the work, the baalebatim make the money, and the shayner tell you what to do, either because they're rich enough or they're scholars.
Sure, that's how it is in most places, but you can't expect it here in Blaszka. Who would sit in the second row if not the butcher? In the days before the Russians blew up the mill, we had shayner in Blaszka. Fine people. But now? There's just proster. Anybody who was anybody left Blaszka. And why not? You can walk for two hours down the road and you're in Plotsk. The capital of the gubernia. Twenty-six thousand people. A theater. A Jewish hospital. Schools. Everything.
Tell me, what's a town when there's no fine people driving around in their carriages and telling you what's what? That's the kind of village Blaszka is. We have a rabbi whose greatest friends are unbelievers — I saw him get a letter from France myself — and he can't stand the sight of a lit match, either.
Never mind. It's good to be alive. A little schnapps, a little singing, something nice to eat on Shabbas, it's all right. I'm old, but I'm in no rush to leave. Tell me, if it's so good there in the next world, why doesn't anyone come back to tell us about it?
Outside the bathhouse, a lane leads to the bridge and across the bridge, the road from Blaszka leaves the village square, following the Pólnocna River down to the Vistula where it meets the highway that runs from Plotsk to Warsaw. Here, at the juncture of the Vistula and the Pólnocna Rivers, there is a shiny black carriage with THE GOLEM PLAYERS painted in yellow on the side. The horse snorts, flicking her tail, braided with a yellow ribbon. Crystals of breath have formed around her mouth, and the creature licks them off with her thirsty tongue.
The Director, in his top hat, sits aloft, puffing on his mahogany pipe, horns of smoke curling upward. He looks sideways at the landscape, the bare trees striped with snow like soft fur, the frozen river, the flat land. An open, unremarkable landscape. The Director's new partner is walking toward him, carrying a bag with rope handles — a young and very earnest sort of person, the Traveler. The Director smooths his copper mustache and waves. The Traveler's hair sticks up like rooster feathers. He wears a ragged black jacket with a drooping rose pinned to the lapel. His thin nose is crooked, bending a little to the left.
The Traveler climbs up beside the Director. Sighing, he tears a strip of paper from The Israelite, and lines his cracked boot with the headline, "December 29, 1893: More Refugees Fleeing from the East." While the Director relights his pipe, the younger man leafs through a notebook. The notes are in a small, meticulous script that shines as if the ink were made of a green florescence. "So many people hurt and lonely, talents going to waste," the Traveler says, his voice hoarse with sympathy. "But what about this?" He frowns. "There must be a mistake. We can't be expected to waste time on an animal like that." The Traveler stabs the notebook with his finger.
"You have your orders and the fellow is on his way," the Director says, pointing to an approaching cart. The driver is a large man in a fur coat who is whipping his horse till she bleeds while he gnaws on a hunk of salami.
The Traveler shields his eyes with his hands, gazing up the road. "I'd just like to have a choice. Is that too much to ask?"
"It's the price you pay, my boy. You knew that when you came on board." The Director rubs the bowl of his pipe against his velvet vest. "You could resign. But then it's rebirth for you. You interested? I see not. You serious types are all the same." He draws an imaginary bow across an even more imaginary violin that nevertheless plays the opening notes to Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. Tchaikovsky has recently died of cholera. The Traveler looks from his notebook to the absent violin. He is impressed. "It's nothing, my friend," the Director says. "Anyone can do it. Even you."
"What's the trick?" the Traveler asks, looking around for a hidden music box.
"Nothing at all. Just a bit of magic."
"Magic," the Traveler says thoughtfully, studying his notebook again.
"Don't get any ideas. Let me tell you the facts. What's magic? A piece of chocolate. An almond torte. Delicious, and then it melts away. But all of this, the Director says waving his hand grandly, "is something else entirely. Open your eyes and look. Maybe you'll learn a secret or two. But you can't just sit there moping and letting the snow soak through the holes in your boots. No. You've got to look closely and pay attention. Then you'll see where you can give a little nudge and open a door. And who knows," he winks, "what you might find in there? Well, my friend, I can't sit here and talk all day. I have something to deliver in Blaszka. Would you like to join me?"
"No. I'd better wait here. You go on." The Traveler dismounts from the carriage, seating himself on a snowy log.
"Au revoir," the Director says. He picks up the reins and clucks to his fine black horse.
The Traveler pulls up the collar of his jacket as the snow trickles down his neck. "Have to get assigned here in the middle of winter," he grumbles. "Couldn't be Warsaw. Streetcars. Electricity. Unions. Oh, no. It's got to be where people still believe in witchcraft." He shakes his head. "They don't know what's coming to them." Studying his notebook, he taps his chin. "Could be an advantage, though. If you use it right." He looks down the road toward Warsaw, as if he can see the next century riding the train, trailing a line of smoke, the whistle blowing.
Time is a trickster in Poland. In Warsaw they have electric lights. On the farms, peasants make their own candles. And in Blaszka? There, time juggles fire, throwing off sparks that reach far into the past and spin toward the future.
But shh, we can't talk, now. The story is about to start.

Excerpted from The River Midnight by Lillian Nattel. Copyright January 1999 by Lillian Nattel. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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The Singing Fire



They met in a place of smoky bricks and smoky fogs and a million pigeons nesting by a million chimneys. Sea winds blew the fog from the docks to the depot, from the railroad tracks to the high road, from there to the lane, working into all the hidden alleys as narrow as needles. In the mud of the alley, cobblestones separated so donkeys and barrows could enter, brick walls leaned back to make room for stalls, and up high hung clothes that trembled in the air. Everything born and everything made found its way over the river to London. And here they met, the two mothers, the one we remember and the one we forget. The river brought them, the docks received them, the streets took them in.

It was in Whitechapel with the wind sweeping up the high road past the hospital and the convent and the bell foundry tolling bells. Carts and carriages jammed the wide road, steam came from cookshops and drizzle from the heavens. In the wind, street matrons held on to their hats, for every woman wore one, even if it was just a battered sailor hat, and she used her nails to fight instead of hatpins. It was time to retrieve the Sunday boots from the pawnshop, for wage packets were in hand, and shopkeepers stood in doorways shouting their wares above the sound of wheels and wind and the rattle of trains, their windows bright in the gray-green rain. The wind raged past new warehouses six stories high, holding all the goods of the Empire for the West End, it swept past the Jerusalem Music Palace with its twenty-seven thousand crystals in the gaslit chandelier, past the gin palace of dazzling color, past the club, the assembly room, the shooting gallery, past all the old houses, built after the Great Fire, now crumbling from stone and brick into the ash of the street. The wind saw the nuns and the Salvation Army Band, with its brass instruments and its bold uniforms, and everywhere the placards and posters in Yiddish: “Milk fresh from the cow!” “Cheapest and best funerals!” “New melodrama starring the Great Eagle, Jacob Adler!”

This was the high road of the ghetto, the one square mile where Yiddish was spoken, the irritating pimple on the backside of London, the subject of parliamentary debate, the hundred thousand newcomers among the millions, ready to take fog as their mother’s milk here in the East End, where all the noisy, dirty, and stinking industries were exiled from the city.

The Jewish streets stretched up from Whitechapel Road, pushing into the twisting alleys, pushing back the pimps and the prostitutes and the thieves whose stronghold was just above in Dorset Street. Smack in the middle was the Jews’ Free School, to the right was the steam bath, to the left the rag market. The dairyman from Ilford was carting his milk cans full of vodka to sell. If you liked to gamble, down below was Shmolnik’s coffee house, and if you were hungry, you could have the best fish and chips, invented up here by a Dutch Jew in the Lane.

It was Saturday night in the Lane, meaning Petticoat Lane and all its contiguous streets. Among the tailors, the corset sellers, the letter writers, the cigar and boot makers, naphtha lamps flared in the darkness. People spoke Yiddish, they spoke English, they spoke in the language of the street, where their lives took place. “Hi! Hi! See the strong man! See the singing dwarf! See the contortionist! Only a penny!” In the dusk there were crowds of buyers and sellers, and between the stalls, one man juggled fire and another swallowed it. The fortune-teller’s bird picked out cards with its beak and every card told a fortune. Signs advertised marvels. Oilcloth guaranteed to last twenty years. Magic firelight that a little child could use. Medicine sure to cure the ills of all five million cells in the human body. Here you could buy used goods of every kind except for one thing. Even in the rain there was a queue for it, people eating supper and talking and waiting. And what did they want that they couldn’t get secondhand? A ticket to the Yiddish theater of course.

No one in the world loved theater more than Londoners, and among them none more than the Jews. When they came to the free land, the old made a match with the new, and a butcher from home who changed his name to Smith built the Yiddish theater. And what a theater! It had a parterre and a balcony, curtains with pulleys, chandeliers, trapdoors in the stage for every sort of magical effect discussed by the people waiting in the rain to buy balcony tickets. The great Jacob Adler was playing the lead tonight, and even the beigel seller, whose husband gambled her meager earnings, had found the pennies for tickets to the theater.

There were other important people waiting in the queue, a boot-maker who wrote poems, a presser who wrote bad plays, a tailor who told bad jokes, and his wife, who was pregnant and dreaming of the baby. All around them was tobacco smoke and the talk of the street, of work and no work, the horse that won, the husband that ran away, the children’s boots given out by the school. Someone spat and someone hissed while ticket holders for the good seats went inside, among them an old man and his grandson, a journalist who had no idea that his future wife was on her way from Minsk. For in the Court of Heaven, there is a golden throne and a golden desk where God puts strange matters into a golden book. And so it was written: the young woman from Minsk and the tailor’s wife. Only King Solomon the Wise could judge between them.

It was all very well for the Holy One above to make such plans in heaven. But earth is for people, and the mother of a people has to go with them. She can’t be left behind with nothing but her shroud crumbling into dust. And so she rose from the graveyard -- maybe it was in Minsk or Pinsk or Plotsk -- and came with the boats to Irongate Stairs. And though her grandchildren would speak a different mother tongue and have customs unknowable to her, they would also rise from the graveyard for the sake of their children, so that they would not be abandoned in their exile. The human heart, knowing it will die alone, needs to belong to others so it can live; those others who are somehow like us -- and in being like us raise us out of the uncountable billions that rise and fall, rise and fall, unremarkable as ants, as cells, as the hands clapping when the curtain rises, torchlights burning at the foot of the stage.

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Web of Angels

On a narrow street in the grey of dawn, in a row house with stained glass, a sixteen-year-old girl lay motionless. Her hair was blonde, short, gelled in spikes, her legs unshaven, her pink nightgown straining over a nine-month belly. Her sister leaned against her, whispering her name, while far away in a watery world, the baby opened her eyes. She tried to turn the other way, her heart beating quicker as she searched for the sound of her mother’s heart. She kicked hard, but she was wedged downward, stuck. All she could do was wait, watching shadows darkly drifting. Watching light shine crimson through a membrane. And while she waited, the sun rose through a veil of sleet, rainwater licked the gutters in front of her house, alarm clocks rang up and down the nearby streets.
The house was in Seaton Grove, a city neighbourhood south of the railroad tracks, a refuge for academics and artists with kids. They’d given up protests and all-night cafés and wearing black to renovate tall, gaunt houses with peculiar wiring and gasping plumbing. They sank into Seaton Grove, they nestled into it, a village annexed in 1888 by the growing city on the shore of Lake Ontario, a bubble of the golden age where cultures and races mixed and met, married and celebrated every tradition. As their houses rose in value and people who were better off bought into the neighbourhood, they felt confirmed in all their virtues. This was not the suburbs where trees were spindly and neighbours too far from each other to hear what went on behind closed doors. Here the streets were lined with old silver maples, lindens, cherry and mulberry. And though the trees were bare, sap was rising with a promise of shade and fruit for anyone who happened to look up.
A block and a half from the railway tracks, in a house on Ontario Street, Sharon Lewis was lying in bed that Friday morning, listening to her husband, Dan, sing in the shower. Their bedroom was under the slanting roof, facing east, and as clouds broke up, the sun touched the curtains and the wall hanging and the cushions kicked onto the floor, colour springing back from the neutrality of night, gold and russet, earth colours in the velvety fabrics Sharon loved to touch. She sewed, she baked, both of which she enjoyed, and she kept the accounts for Dan’s company, which she did not. There were three children asleep on the second floor, a teenage son in his room at the back and little sisters in the front bedroom, a seven-year-old in the top bunk and a five-year-old in the bottom. There would have been more children if Dan hadn’t said enough is enough.
He showered for exactly fifteen minutes, and at 7:15, when the second alarm rang, he turned the water off, dried himself and walked into the bedroom. He bent to kiss Sharon, whose eyes were still closed. He made her beautiful with his kiss, even though she believed she was too skinny, too fl at, too red-haired, too freckled, and now, at forty, too old to have another baby without the assistance of modern medicine.
He’d just turned forty-two, his birthday on Groundhog Day. His father was Jewish, his mother Chinese, joining the planet’s least and most populous peoples who, in a symbiotic miracle, share the same taste in food. In Dan they’d produced a man of average height with brown hair, black eyes, a smooth chest and a mole on his shoulder, which Sharon regularly checked for changes. His teeth were perfect due to his own diligence, wearing out a toothbrush a month. He owned a company that ran fundraising campaigns for causes that were both good and respectable.
“Did you call the plasterer?” he asked, getting cotton briefs and wool socks from the dresser.
“I forgot.”
“How could you forget?” From the wardrobe he extracted a freshly pressed shirt, polished shoes, a good suit and a hideous tie, which was a birthday present from the girls. They’d picked it out and paid for it on their own, making Sharon wait near the entrance of the dollar store. “It’s on the list,” he said as if she ought to notice a list on the fridge just because she knew exactly where everything was in the dining room, where she kept a mess of cloth and yarn in various stages of completion. A finished sweater was in a bag on the table. The quilting squares were on the third shelf of the cabinet. On the bottom shelf, in the back, was her money jar, with cash and cheques that she was always forgetting to deposit because her head was filled with too many thoughts, too many opinions, too many silent arguments.
“Daddy, you’re wearing the tie!” Nina shouted as she ran into the bedroom, jumping on the bed, Emmie right behind her.
“Of course,” he said. “It’s my birthday tie.”
Her older daughter and her son both looked like Dan, and Sharon was glad of that. Only Emmie took after her, with curly red hair, green eyes, and chipmunk cheeks, pinchable cheeks that she would probably outgrow as Sharon had. She closed her eyes. Maybe she could sleep for another five minutes while they jumped on the bed. She’d been up late again, chatting online; morning always seemed so far away at midnight.
“Mom! I can’t find my calculator,” Josh shouted up the stairs. Sharon kept her eyes closed.
“You’d better get up,” Dan said.
“You look,” Sharon said.
“I’d just be wasting time. You’re the finder in the family.”
He glanced at the mirror on the dressing table, giving his tie a twitch to straighten it.
They’d celebrated Dan’s birthday at the rink in Christie Pits, yesterday. She was someone else skating, lithe and free and not shy at all. That was how she’d met Dan, by skating backward right into him, laughing as they both fell. They always celebrated Dan’s birthday by going skating with their children and his sister and her family, who lived around the corner. Yesterday Josh’s girlfriend, Cathy, had come, too, and afterward they’d all had cocoa at Magee’s. Cathy was his first girlfriend, and Sharon was glad she was a nice girl—her mother a doctor and her father a professor. The family lived near the public school.
A thaw hinted at spring, mud under the sprinkling of snow. They’d gone home along Seaton Street, stopping to look at the funny house painted candy colours, the yard a display of plastic frogs and superheroes arranged around the fountain of the naked boy, turned off for the winter. A knife grinder had come along in his truck, his bell ringing, and stopped when the owner of the house flagged him down. Josh and Cathy had walked ahead of them, two gangly kids with skates slung over narrow shoulders, ignoring his sisters who’d followed making kissy noises. Cathy had a white jacket. How she kept it white was a mystery. She had straight blonde hair, too, and a perfectly straight part. Perhaps people with that kind of hair simply repel stains.
“All right.” Sharon opened her eyes and sat up. “You can stop shouting, Josh!”

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