Autumn brought unquiet nights. Peering out her kitchen window on tiptoes, Basia could hear the strains of chanting and the wailing from the old synagogue on the corner, could see down the whole of her street until it split off through a field and on into the dark woods beyond. The sight made her lonely: In every pale wooden house a lighted window; in every window, the orange glow spilled out over neat, barren yards, the occasional gardens or chicken, into the cobblestone road. To Basia’s surprise, in the middle of the path, where the light didn’t quite reach, a man walked, headed away from the singing and the warmth.
The man wore a long black coat and a long black beard, but this was not unusual for the men of Skvere. For a moment, Basia even thought he might be her father. But more unusual was the way, even as he hunched forward against the cold, he seemed not to be rushing or trying to shelter his face and chest, but merely to be bowing in acknowledgement, although this was not a thing the inhabitants of Basia’s neighborhood did. Although Basia could not make out the details of his face, the lightness of his steps suggested that he was a young man. So, she thought, did the green feather tucked somewhat illicitly into the brim of his black hat.
Basia pressed her face to the pane, squinting, wishing not for the first time that she had been made with better eyesight, as the man reached the edge of the houses and gradually faded into a small and shrinking patch of blackness against the evening’s gray. Something about him — his walk, perhaps — made a wild, desperate kind of feeling surge in her. She’d felt it almost a dozen times over the last few weeks: it felt like her skin was too tight, the house — overtall as it was — too small, her heart racing, her soul vibrating out from inside of her, shaking her bones to pieces. She wanted to run outside, barefoot and bareheaded, and follow him down the road, into the woods, and past, beyond, until she outran the quiet towns and hazy cities and came at last to the mountains or the sea or a high cliff overlooking an endless green plain.
“Basia,” her mother called, “Would you come and help me with the soup, please?”
Basia lowered herself from the windowsill, trudged over to the kitchen, and set to peeling potatoes. When she was younger, she’d enjoyed the work, loved the way the skins spiraled off them like circling dancers at a wedding. But these days thinking about weddings made Basia feel panicky and a little ashamed. Instead she thought about maps, maps of places that did exist and didn’t, constructing and naming cities and rivers and forests until there was room for nothing else in her head — not weddings, not dances, not her father’s long silences or the sweaty warmth of Asher’s hand on her arm.
Today she thought of the man, and where he got the feather in his hat. It looked like the dyed chicken feathers peddlers sold for a penny at the market, but she decided he’d bought it in a far-off land, where it was summer all year round and all the birds were brightly colored and all the cities had beautiful names, like Aria, or Hyacinth, or Resin. Or Zither, a city called Zither, in a city of white stone on the seashore, where the sun shone brightly and green parrots perched on the branches of the lemon trees. One day the man on the road had come walking, worn and dusty from his travels. Basia was there too, as she imagined it: a native, wearing the long, draping robes of a Greek statue, gold armbands and a green parrot perched on her arm.
She would be sitting on one of Zither’s open porches, drinking sweet wine, impervious to the heat, when the traveler, sweaty, his coat and hat and beard almost entirely tan with dust, would catch her eye — and they would recognize one another as familiar, akin. And she would offer him wine and a feather from the bird (an offer he wouldn’t understand by language, but in the cadence of her voice, in her gestures) and send him off, and he would travel on and on, through meadows and deserts and plains of ice. And when he finally reached Skvere’s gates and, feeling that particular sadness of returning to an empty home after a long journey, thought back wistfully on his travels, and it would be Basia he remembered.
Mother scooped up the potatoes and gently dropped them in the pot. The scalding water sloshed and splashed, landing on her hands and dress, but she didn’t flinch. A few weeks ago, she’d confided to Basia that as a girl she’d hated cooking — too dull, too hot — but now she found the sound of boiling water soothing. (“You’ll see, Basia,” she’d promised, as she’d begun to braid Basia’s hair. “Eventually everything gets easier, even the things you think never will.”) Malka came in and settled down in the corner, knitting, and little Chava followed, seeking company and warmth, and began making a mild kind of nuisance of herself — tugging at Basia’s skirt and grabbing Malka’s needles. After a while Mama began to hum to herself and tap out a rhythm on the rim of the soup pot, and Basia joined in, feeling almost content.
But when Papa returned from shul that night, Basia felt that dread settling over her again, three weeks new and already familiar. He closed the door gently and then stood in front of the entrance for a time, which made him look very small. His arms were at his sides as he watched the rest of them working in the kitchen, setting the table, and he did not smile. Papa was usually a brisk walker, home every night just before dinner was ready, even on the days he stopped for little surprises — raisin cakes or apples or the almonds he always bought for Mama, no matter how tight money got. If he was late now, it was because he had finally done what Basia knew he’d been preparing to do for weeks, and spoken to Asher’s father.
“Moshe,” Mama finally said, smiling tightly, twisting her fingers in her skirt. “Sit down, eat something.” She always fidgeted when she wanted to reach out to Papa but someone else was in the room.
Papa leaned down and pried off his shoes, but not his coat and hat, and they all sat down at the table, prayed, and ate. For a few minutes the only sounds were sipping and spoons striking bowls. Then Papa said, “I talked with Reuven Zieglitz today. Asher is invited to come visit tomorrow.” He didn’t look at Basia when he said it, and he didn’t say anything more. Mama smiled weakly down at her soup. The streets of Zither, Basia thought, would be full of long-haired people dancing, playing the tambourine. Even in the middle of the night, travelers are kept awake by the women playing harps and singing to the moon. Papa’s silence was worse, somehow, than Mama’s — it was not angry, exactly, but it announced itself, rather than fading into the background. Just like the way he tensed — as if trying to keep himself from recoiling — when looking at Basia. Basia understood that, actually; Basia, when she thought about sitting at her little kitchen table with Mama and Papa and Chava and Malka and Asher, who was coming by tomorrow, also wanted to flinch, keep flinching from everything until she had flinched herself out the door.
That night was long, and even curled up under her blankets between Chava and Malka, Basia couldn’t sleep. Her heart was racing. She closed her eyes, thought vaguely about Zither — leaning down in a garden to pick a melon, whole and sweet-smelling — but there was Asher, leaning in close, and Papa, looking stricken as the dancers whirled behind him. Her parents at dinner tonight, unwilling to meet her eyes. The weight of their expectations made her want to lash out, kick off the blankets.
The third time she startled out of her half-sleep Malka elbowed her in the side, and Basia felt that wild restlessness rise in her again — she wanted to shake Malka or hiss that someday she’d be the one having bad dreams, and Basia wouldn’t care. She wanted to kick her sisters, or shove them out of bed, or scream until they woke and left the room of their own accord. She closed her eyes, and thought, it’s all my fault. Then there was a heat rising in her, pressing at the inside of her throat, and she felt that at any moment she would sob out loud and — Chava and Malka, what would they think?
So instead she slipped out of bed, gathered up her coat from the chair where it lay, and tiptoed across the cold floorboards into the kitchen. She sat beneath the window, which was so high off the ground that the moonlight slanting through the panes lit up the floor several feet in front of her.
When Basia’s great-grandfather had built this house, he had been attempting to wed his youngest daughter to the son of a prosperous merchant in Kiev, who over many decades of trade had gained something of a tendency for embellishment. As the merchant told it, her great-grandfather’s future son-in-law had shoulders as broad as a narrow garden and was as tall as a small house. Great-grandfather built a home to accommodate his enormous grandson, who turned out to be 5-foot-7. Basia wondered whether her grandmother was relieved her husband was a normal size, or if she had grown to hate living in that house, always reminded of the lie that began her marriage.
Basia, fourth of six children, had long ago perfected the art of bracing her hands and feet against the sides of the doorframes and shimmying up to the top. (She sometimes secretly imagined this was what the world looked like to God before the flood, but when she repeated that to Rivka, four years her elder, she just laughed and said God was a lot higher up than the ceiling. That was the last time Basia tried to tell Rivka anything.)
But she’d never lost the knack of seeing the world distantly, as if from above. It helped her stay composed when the old women in the square asked her about her plans for marriage. Only a month ago, she’d been pleased by their questioning, because if they were asking about her marriage prospects, it meant that they thought she had them. But now when they asked her, there was a new, knowing tone to it, teasing, almost, and it made her uneasy. She had begun to avoid the square. She knew that they looked her and remembered Rivka’s wedding, and Asher, and that made her remember and feel sick and hollow all over again. It had been already three weeks since that night — three weeks of births and marriages and illnesses, not to mention the chagim. Basia knew that if they were still joking about it now, they fully expected to be doing so for decades. That was how things worked in Skvere: grandparents still told stories about her parents’ courtship, her grandparents’, even. When she saw herself through their eyes, everything felt so inevitable.
She felt only regret, when she remembered how Asher had looked at her, and she had put her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow at him, feeling bold and charming and so unlike herself. Her head had spun from all the wine. Rivka had been so beautiful, standing beside Chaim under the chuppah. They were careful not to touch, but Rivka was smiling so widely that it looked almost painful, and beneath her own joy Basia felt envious in a way she hadn’t in years. When they had been younger their aunts would come to dinner and say, “Oh, what a pretty child” when they saw Rivka, and then smile and add “and Basia! You’ve grown so big,” when it was Basia’s turn to be kissed. Now, seeing Rivka raised on a chair, aglow with joy, Basia had felt misery creep up on her, and downed several glasses of sweet wine in an effort to make it go away.
Normally Papa watched her and Rivka closely on holidays to make sure they didn’t forget their good sense in their wine glasses, but he wasn’t paying attention: he was kissing Chaim, and now lifting Rivka’s chair up in the air, laughing with his head thrown back, and then turning to say something to Mama when she started to cry, his own beard damp as well.
Basia had danced so hard her sides burned, trying to forget her longing for the ease with which Rivka moved through life in Skvere, and when she stopped for breath, Chaim’s friend Asher Zieglitz had been there, smiling at her. Asher was much taller than the man for whom Basia’s home had been built, and Rivka and her friends used to blush and giggle when he walked by. “You dance like your feet are on fire,” he said, and Basia laughed. “Thank you,” she said. “I practice in my fireplace.” It was a stupid response, but Asher had drunk some, too, and as he chuckled, complimented her hair and her eyes, Basia wondered if this was how Rivka felt all the time, how her mother had felt — tense and uncertain and a little vain, all at once.
Asher was saying, “Chaim’s parents must have invited half the town. The time I was at a wedding this size was in Vilna.”
“You’ve been to Vilna?”
Asher paused. “Yes,” he said. “I have a brother in yeshiva there. I try to visit when I can — not even really to see him, honestly.” He shrugged. “I just get so bored of Skvere, sometimes. Even Vilna is better.”
“Me too,” Basia said, “My father used to read to me, stories from the Torah and the Talmud and the Rambam’s letters, and I would to draw maps from them, name all the streets in the cities and imagine the people in them, what they wore, how they lived. Sometimes I’d even pretend I was one of them—” she stopped, embarrassed at saying so much, but Asher was still looking at her with interest, nodding along. This is why people get married, Basia realized. She felt like the edges of her life were opening up into a wide horizon spreading out before her. She hadn’t even realized how narrow it was until this moment.
She smiled, dizzy with wine. Asher leaned in closer, then brushed his hand against her arm and let it rest there. Shocked, Basia tried to move away, but not quickly enough. A man she didn’t know yelled, “Hey, watch out for your Basia, Moshe!” and Basia felt herself flushing as dozens of faces turned to stare at her. She twisted her neck, looking around for her father, but the room was dim and she couldn’t make him out among throng of dancing, bearded men. She pushed away from Asher, mumbled that she needed to wash her face, and then hurried away, twisting past the guests to hide in a corner at the other side of the room. She sat down heavily on a bench, next to an older woman who looked familiar — one of Chaim’s aunts, maybe. The room was too close and far away, and it suddenly seemed to Basia that she wasn’t really there; that the red faces of the dancers were just strokes of oil paint on a canvas that Basia was looking at as she attended a salon in a large and distant city, safe in the knowledge that they couldn’t see her at all.
The woman looked her up and down. She had not been dancing: her wig was still perfectly in place, and unlike Basia, she was not sweaty at all. “You’re so like your mother,” she said.
Basia looked up at her. People sometimes said Mama resembled Rivka, or Chava, but not Basia. “What do you mean?”
“Well you know, her looking like she did, not to mention flirting with every boy within five years her age, and almost running off to Moscow with that Polish boy, her parents married her off fast to the first man they could find. And what a match they made!” the woman laughed, lightly. “You know, your poor mother, she cried for a day when her father told her she was getting married to old Moshe, who couldn’t say hello to a girl without stammering.” She said it casually, as though repeating a joke Basia had heard a thousand times before.
Basia laughed with her, awkwardly. Maybe the woman really was joking, or confused, or drunk. But she felt cold beneath her sweat, almost afraid. It hurt to think about. Her mother flirting and falling in love, back when she was the laughing, lovely girl relatives assured Basia she had once been, doomed to live out a disappointment. Mama humming under her breath when it started to get dark and services drew to a close, a sure sign that Papa would be home soon. Papa, her marriage, a long punishment. Her life, hardening into a life sentence so easily that from the outside it still looked like freedom.
Something, some kind of uneasy feeling made her glance up, away from the woman — and there was her father, standing several feet away, looking at her. There was an expression on his face Basia hadn’t seen before. Not anger, she thought — grief, maybe, or shame. I’m not like her, Basia wanted to say. You don’t have to make me marry him. But she couldn’t hold his gaze, and instead stared down at her knees and wished that the night would just end, or, even better, that she would wake the next day to find that it was just a dream, that she had never been here at all.
* * *
Sitting under the window, as the patch of moonlight crept further away from her, Basia put her head on her knees and closed her eyes. A few days after the wedding, she had been at the market, picking out a chicken for Shabbos, when Asher walked by with a couple other boys. Flustered, and knowing that if they were seen together, there would be more talk — that had been back when she’d still hoped that everyone would forget that they’d touched — Basia shrunk into the stall, turned her face away from the street. The old man minding the stall watched her, apparently unsurprised, and clicked his tongue. “The Zeiglitz boy, eh? You’re not the first girl I’ve seen hiding from him.”
Basia came very close to asking what he meant, but she didn’t want him to think she actually cared — that would be mortifying. She told Mama about it, haltingly, after another week had passed and Papa wouldn’t read with her in the evenings, or even talk to her beyond muttering about needing to talk with Reuven Zieglitz every time they were in the same room. “I don’t even know Asher, really — we only talked on that one night, and we were both drunk, he probably didn’t even mean to, I didn’t even want him to—.” She expected her, of all people, to understand. But Mama had just braided her hair and said that even good people did things they were ashamed of; what mattered was what they did to make right the damage they’d caused — and Basia should know better than to listen to lashon hara. Then Basia felt her pause, her fingers stilling in Basia’s hair. “Sometimes it takes time,” she said quietly, “but in the end, you’ll see that it was all to the good.”
Basia thought about Mama’s good: a life of being lulled by the sound of boiling water in the soup she made for Asher as she waited for him to come home from shul. When she looked at the potato peels she would remember their own wedding.
Then she got to her feet and went to the door and opened it and looked out. The road is right there. I am right here. I have a coat on my back, shoes on my feet. It’s not such a cold night, for fall, and the moon is high and bright. Her chest ached with how badly she wanted to follow the road through the fields and woods until she reached Lviv and Warsaw and even Berlin — but she couldn’t look at the dark outline of the pines without picturing bandits lurking behind every tree, their knives glinting in the scant light. When she had been younger, about 10 or so, Basia had loved looking out at the road, daydreaming about all the places she would go when she was old enough to travel it herself. But now she was grown, and she was a woman with no money and nowhere to go, and just the sight of a forest at night made her afraid.
She closed the door and sat down heavily on the floor, eyes burning and blurring. She felt like she was breaking open, and that any second she would crumble into pieces, or scream and wake the entire street, or both. Zither, she thought desperately, repeating it like the prayers her father mumbled under his breath every morning, Zither Zither Zither the green feather man leaning against a marble pillar, winding his way through a textile market.
She imagined him walking, with his leaning gait, down the path to the woods, and then she imagined the woods anew and without him: an endless grove of tall trees with smooth trunks and branches drooping with the weight of long leaves and red, spherical fruits. In these woods, there were no bandits, and no one was waiting at home for her. Who needs Odessa or Kiev, she thought, wildly, who needs real roads full of potholes and dangers. She was crying still, but the tears were slowing, and all her grief felt long-past and distant, like the twinge she felt in her old burn scar when she neared a fire. The dim forms of white cupolas rose beyond the trees. If I cried out now, she thought, I’d startle the birds out of their nests, and they’d fly right above me in a emerald rush of wings. She stayed silent, kept her footfalls light, so light.
* * *
The next morning Asher came by the house. In the daylight, as he stood in her yard, he looked pale, washed out. The litheness that girls admired in him — that Basia had admired in him — was there. But she no longer felt a thrill at seeing his slow smile or the confidence in his eyes when he looked at her feet and joked that he didn’t see any burns; he hoped she wasn’t getting out of practice. “No,” she said, “this week I switched to dancing on knives, for a change.” Soon, she and Asher would be crushing glasses under their feet, and her babies would be playing with Rivka’s as they all gathered around a table by the candlelight. She thought about that and realized she was calm.
Asher said, “Good day, Basia — I will see you again soon, I hope?” Mama gently placed her hand on the small of Basia’s back and said, “I’m sure you will.” Chava and Malka looked on smugly from the front door. Behind them, arms folded across his chest, Papa watched, too.
And Basia smiled, and nodded, and thought: a mile beyond the walls of Zither there is a place where the main road crosses a dozens other, smaller roads — from above, it looks like a child’s charcoal drawing of a many-rayed star. She picked one at random and followed it through the sands, until she came at last to a city of clear glass towers, barely visible against the endless sky.