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Fiction: Little Hen

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 3.54.34 PMIn those weeks of waxing darkness, I worked at Anna’s side, my fingers mimicking hers. We sat in the kitchen of my aunt’s place. I told Anna of my first days in the city, five years before. Of the time, for instance, my aunt had sent me for chickens and I came back empty-handed, crying into my elbow like a small child, unwilling to haggle or even to open my mouth out on the street.

Anna snorted to hear of it. “What did you think would happen to you?” she said. “Afraid of a toothless chicken-plucker,” she said. She shook her head in pity and in disgust.

I wasn’t brave enough to invite Anna’s teasing more than once. There were so many ways to be wrong; at 16, I subsisted on a steady diet of small atonements. So I sat silently for hours at a time, those long evenings in the winter of 1912, while she taught me at my aunt’s Singer. She showed me how to make French darts, vertical darts, side seams. The things I wasn’t learning at the factory, where I made only sleeves, day in, day out. The lessons were Anna’s idea. She must have seen some promise in me.

Anna spoke and I listened. She spoke of her early tangles with New York: schoolmarms, landlords, a litany of bosses. And then she spoke of Vilna, where she was born. Of the time before her father disappeared. “He was a tailor’s assistant,” Anna said, speaking of her father. “To begin with.”

To Mama, Anna told me, she was Khanele, Little Anna. To Daddy: Hunele. Little Hen. 

A new century. The workers in Vilna had been organizing. Jews. For who else made up the bulging undergrowth of needle-men, cutters, tinkerers, cobblers? In those days, the shtarkers—strapping Jews, too, not only Christians—were brought in, swinging pipes as well as fists. The small factory owners and the wholesalers paid to keep the striking workers in bandages. Her father used to say, Come, Hunele, we’re going to the Kitchen.

The Kitchen was in the crumbling center of the city, not far from the university and not far, either, from the Jews’ almshouse and the Jews’ hospital and other rooms filled to bursting with Jews. The Kitchen was heated by a great tile oven and, in winter and in summer, it was too warm. It smelled of cabbage and mildew. Two long tables ran front to back atop the packed-earth floor. And along the benches sat men like Anna’s father, elbows knocking those of their neighbors. She sat in her father’s lap and ate her soup. The soup was the worst she had tasted in her short life, Anna said. She nearly gagged now, speaking of it.

“But the food didn’t matter,” Anna said to me. The food was not the point. For this was the Cooperative Kitchen of the Vilna Needleworkers’ Union. Bowl by bowl, coin by coin, men like Anna’s father would unite Vilna’s workers. And after that, they would bring together all Lithuania’s, and then, in time, all of Russia’s. So Anna’s father said. The Kitchen would be the beginning, he promised, the means to nourish the consciousness of all those who didn’t set out for the West or land in Siberian prisons or (it still sometimes happened) wake up one morning as shop owners, may they rot in the earth. And in the meantime, you could get a bite to eat and dream of the future, when all men would be free. 

Anna remembered the red-cheeked women stirring pots in the back. “They must have been the age then that we are now,” she said to me. Working girls. Revolutionaries. When one spoke, the others would shush her, straining to follow threads of arguments that ran up and down the tables in the din, where the men sat. Anna’s father called one over once, she told me. A girl with black braids and a pocked forehead. Galya, our comrade needs directions, Anna’s father said. The girl had nodded then. I’ll take him there myself, she said.

On her father’s lap, Anna listened to men mumbling and to men shouting. She knew some of the phrases they used. She spoke them to me now. Di natsyonale frage: the national question. Klasnbavustzayn: class consciousness. Ekonomishe teror: economic terror. But at the time she didn’t understand. Not truly.

“Now I understand,” she said, making me look her in the eye, pressing her fingers to my elbow as if to imprint those words upon my skin. She pushed back then from the table and stood beside me, not going anywhere, but standing all the same. By now I had let my aunt’s machine go idle. I didn’t want to miss a word.

Anna recalled an afternoon of endless rain. A rivulet ran below her feet on the dirt floor, there in the Kitchen. She had sat at the table with her father for so long she feared that she had wet herself; she felt between her legs and understood it was only rain that trickled between her boots. We have fists, too, her father had said then to the man across from him, white spittle at the joints of his mouth. No more fearful little Jews, he said. Anna spoke her father’s words to me.

“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

 

© 2011 Lilith Magazine