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Emily Alice Katz

Fiction: Little Hen

“It was 1900,” she said. She counted silently on her fingers and sat down again. “No: 1901. Do you see? You might be sent away for years, back then. Over there. You might be killed. Shot and thrown into the river. Just for organizing. For educating the workers. And my father was in the thick of it.”

You can go to jail here, too, I thought—but didn’t say. Thrown in with prostitutes and drunks. For picketing. Outside the factory where we sewed sleeves all day, a woman had lately been passing circulars among us: All For One, All For Union at the top of the paper, in black letters that shouted. You can die here, too, I thought. Jumping from fiery windows. Like the Triangle Shirtwaist girls had done the year before, trying to save themselves. Offerings to Moloch.

“But didn’t he worry, bringing you along?” I asked. Stupid. A question like a child’s tug at a mother’s sleeve. But I couldn’t help myself. “That you’d be swept up by the tsar’s men, too? That you’d get hurt?”

Anna looked at me, uncomprehending.

“You were only six,” I said.

“My father,” she said, “knew exactly what he was doing.”

I didn’t argue. Why provoke her? Anna, in my aunt’s kitchen, teaching me to make a one-piece dress, telling me the things you said only to a bosom friend. I told myself to keep my mouth shut; anything to hold her there, beside me.

“And once, my father did this,” she said. Anna lifted an imaginary piece of paper and mimed ripping it to tiny pieces. Her hands moved, dropping their invisible freight: plunk, plunk, plunk. “He dropped the pieces into each one of the bowls around him. Who knows what was on the scraps of paper? And the men around him, they ate the pieces. Ate them up, with their soup. Every bit of it. So the police would never find a written trace. Fiends,” she said.

“Scum.”

“Who? The police, you mean?”

I reached for Anna’s hand; she batted me away, crossed her arms over her chest.

“He was the bravest of them all,” she said. “Now it’s our turn,” she said. “It’s our turn now.”

And in that moment something in her moved from depth to surface, something I had sensed but from which she had shielded me, till then. My heart raced and my hands shook to see it so nakedly. Her anger: a blue flame of pleasure.

I stood. “There’s work tomorrow,” I said. “It’s time we went to sleep.”

She laughed then. Not unkindly. But she had reached a verdict all the same.

“Always afraid,” she said. “That’s you. Always afraid.”

I knew even at the time that Anna had taught me well; I was hired as a sample maker one year later, not long after Anna vanished.

I collected rumors: Anna had been among those hauled off to jail to molder during the February strike. Anna had boarded a boat at New York Harbor, she was sailing back to Russia to find her father, she was shipping off to Palestine to build a new world with her own two hands. Anna had poisoned herself by eating matches. Anna had suffocated herself with gas. No one had any real news of her.

The Kitchen, Anna told me that night at my aunt’s table, lasted only ten months. Anna’s father went missing even before the place was ransacked by the tsar’s police.

Of course I understand it now: Anna fighting her father’s battle—as she understood it—in the time I knew her. Following the revolution where and when it leapt to life.

But those were the days before I grasped, in full, what Anna had shown me. That some of us are made to burn, animal into smoke. And that some of us are made to gather the ashes.

Emily Alice Katz’s fiction has appeared in several periodicals. She is also the author of Bringing Zion Home: Israel in American Jewish Culture, 1948–1967 (SUNY Press, 2015).

Art: Michal Nachmany, michalnachmanyart.com