‘What if, in the beginning, they arrived by sea and then, in the end, they left by sea too, each in their own way?
’Never once looking back?
‘Because maybe that’s all a compass can really show – the different ways a family falls apart. The pull of magnets, and the push of other dreams.’
Ruth heard the sound of bone before she felt it. The crack was clean, just below the shrivel of her knuckle; her body lurched forward from where it sat on the bed to land on that single, snappable point.
‘Tateh!’ she cried out for her father next to her in the darkness. ‘TatehIthinkIhavebrokenmy—’ the panic colliding all her words into one.
But the ship’s moan was so loud it drowned her out, its very own version of pain.
The prow buckled beneath the force of the crash, the impact rippling along the hull. The waves leapt acrobatic. The propeller paused mid-propel. While above, the Atlantic stars spelled out a Morse Code of dots.
Save our souls
Sinking our ship
Below deck, the bunk-beds were nearly wrenched free from their fixings, the wood already gnarled with splinters that seemed sharp enough to prick the darkness and bleed it out, like a bullock drained the kosher way. As it happened, the ship itself had been for cattle once, herds of beasts sailing off towards the foreign slaughterhouses, the white-pink sinews of their shoulders knotted tightly together, hooves ankle-deep in the muck-splattered straw.
But now the stench of it was back again – the cold, meaty waft of fear.
Because the boat had crashed. An almighty thud. Ruth wondered if it was an iceberg they had hit. Or maybe a whale – she could still remember that story from Cheder; still see the gulp of the Rabbi’s throat as he acted out the moment poor Jonah was swallowed. Whole. But of course, she knew that this here was a different story; a different tale with a full cast of characters – two passengers per bed and sixty beds in total sailing from Riga to America on a promise of could-bes, suddenly thrown forward with hands out to stop the fall and bones that snapped in two like pencils.
‘All right, Bubbeleh. All right, I am here.’
For a moment, Ruth forgot about the throb.
It was the first time her father had spoken in hours. In fact, he had been practically silent for days now, leaving her lonely there on the top bunk, nothing to play with and nothing to listen to except for other people’s mumbles; other people’s prayers; other people’s vomit as it backwashed on the floor below – ten whole days of seasickness worth. Unless, of course, homesickness spews just the same.
Her finger seared again. Eight years without breaking a bone, and now this.
And it had been strangest of all, her father’s silence next to her, because at the beginning of the journey he had barely drawn breath, filling the below-deck shadows with the usual stream of his latest ideas:
‘What about a famous mural painter who is tortured by being forced to watch his creations be covered with layer after layer of white paint?’
‘Or a man and a woman who court via pigeon mail, until the woman falls in love with the pigeon instead?’
Until his wife had had enough – a lash of impatience from the bunk below. ‘Moshe!’ she cried. ‘Won’t you give us any peace?’
Even in the blackness Ruth could sense her father’s blush. ‘It’s all right, Tateh,’ she tried. ‘It is just too dark for stories. We… we cannot picture a thing.’
She had always wondered what her father did with his unused ideas – stones in his pockets, weighing him down. Heavier even than the mounds of baggage they had managed to lug through the snow, across the Latvian border, up to Riga, down the port, along the gangplank to this – an entire existence condensed into a shleppable load. There were the stockings and the pans; the Kiddush candelabras; a compass wedged hard against a little leg making a NorthSouthEastWest bruise. And then of course there were Uncle Dovid’s letters sent back from America, nearly as sacred to the family now as the Torah scrolls themselves. In fact, probably even more so. Because the ancient words could only tell them their past.
In the beginning…
Whereas these letters told the story of their future.
‘Tell it again, Tateh,’ Esther had asked when they first set sail. ‘I want to hear it again.’ Ruth’s beautiful sister Esther commanding their father’s voice to repeat his brother’s words.
So he had done as he was told; had adjusted his window-thick glasses and filled the bloated belly of the boat with tales of all the things that awaited them across the Atlantic. He told them about Manhattan with its buildings that scraped the sky; about the flag lined with stripes and a fistful of stars; about the giant lady with a crown and a torch who welcomed the weary ships in.
And it was only a few more days until their own ship would arrive – two weeks at sea, they had been told. Despite her nausea, Ruth had been counting. And she had even used her compass to try to plot a map in her head, a bit like the one Tateh had had pinned to his attic wall, back where they had come from. It was a yellowed thing, with crosshatch lines for the ocean and a red dot for ‘New York’. Can you see it, Bubbeleh, can you? Only, the dot had been pointed to so many times that eventually it had disappeared, rubbed away by the poke of desperate fingertips as if the place never existed at all.
And now her finger was broken.
She turned to ask her Tateh for a kiss; to feel the bush of his beard up against. But suddenly he seemed busy with other things, the bash of the boat bringing him back to life. He clambered his way down from the bunk and reached up for Ruth to follow. Confused, she let herself be lifted, her hand stashed tight into her chest. Before he took her other hand and led her on through the blackness, a wobble in her legs from the waves underneath, until there were other legs too, other hands and other wobbles as the rest of the passengers began to follow behind, the pied piper and the rats.
‘What’s happening?’ they whispered, half-terror half-delight. ‘Did somebody say… arrived?’
Ruth climbed the ladder to the deck as best she could, though she was clumsy in Esther’s old shoes, the buckles chafing stockings chafing goosepimple flesh. Once across the gangplank she felt the scuff of dry land beneath her; a breeze that was surprisingly warm. But a fresh batch of whispers had already started to spread, a new confusion doing the rounds.
‘Nu, America is early.’
Ruth checked the sky as if the answer to their questions might be there, but it was just as lightless out here as it was under the deck – the middle of the American night. She half-remembered how Tateh had mentioned something about ‘time differences’, not that anyone had really bothered to hear – they had just assumed it was another of his silly ideas – a story all about clocks. Ruth wanted to ask him about it now, to get him to explain, only he and Mame were babbling something else in a language she didn’t know. Russian? Lithuanian? She could never tell – used to think they were just special phrases only grown-ups were allowed to say until Esther had explained it was called ‘different tongues’. So now the world had time differences and tongue differences and how did they know they weren’t just different worlds altogether? And why was no one sure if this was even the right one for America?
As soon as she saw her, though, Ruth’s head went mute.
The people around her stopped. Dead. Sea leg sways gone still. Their breaths stopped too, the whole cloud of them held tight in anticipation. But also in concentration. Because what if this was it – the moment they had been sailing for? The one they would have to remember now for the rest of their lives, to translate into words again and again for generations to come?
Ruth tried to force some words of her own, to stop her head from spinning away. She started with the ones she had been practising. ‘New York’ and ‘Subway tunnel’. The ‘Centre Park’ where they would go to play and learn the names of different trees. And of course there was ‘Liberty’ too – wasn’t that the woman’s name? The one who stood now down the end of the port, a floppy crown on her head and an eager smile dimly lit by the yellow torch she held in her hand, guiding them in just like Uncle Dovid had said.
In a way, she looked smaller than Ruth had expected. In fact, totally different to the image in her head. But despite her father’s genes she had always struggled with her imagination, so really, what would she know? She just hoped that that side of her would grow up when the rest of her did, to make them all proud at last.
Still nobody around her spoke, unready to believe. Ruth looked at her Tateh, waiting for him to confirm. Or maybe even to call out a greeting – he was the only one amongst them who could speak any American yet, a whole library of borrowed dictionaries piled on the attic floor, building blocks for little girls to make forts. And Ruth wondered now if an idea stayed the same no matter how many times you translated it? And what about a family, she wondered? Or even, a love?
But despite these questions, her father gave no answers. Nothing. The only time Ruth had, or ever would, see him lost for words. So she knew then that yes, they must have made it – that this here must be it.
The right world at last, too perfect even to be said aloud.
While behind them Cork City lay slouched in sleep, snoring off last night’s dregs, dreaming of anything other than the unexpected arrival of a Russian slaughterhouse ship.
There is always a beginning before the beginning, and this one had started with a plague of rats.
He had been an aspiring young playwright in a village called Akmian, which meant ‘a river full of stones’. He sometimes went swimming to check if it the rumours were true. He had a younger brother and a brand new wife and a skull that was full itself – an endless stutter of ideas like a tick or a twitch until one about a plague just stuck.
He felt the scurry of it, running through his dreams.
He wrote for five years; five years on one wooden, time-knotted desk, high away in an attic room where pillars of notes and ideas towered on every side – one sneeze and the pages would fly. While out in the shtetl, the locals all thought him crazy – calls his wife the Princess of the Bees and writes a play about rats?
‘Nu, inside his head must be a zoo.’
‘Noah’s Ark, two by two!’
But once finished, something about the play caught on. First in the shtetl’s tiny shed theatre, the local ramshackle treat; then in the town of Vilnius; then eventually it caught on in Moscow. And every night in the Empire’s biggest city, beneath the ceilings dripping gold, the audience would gaze at the swarms of rodents; at the valiant hero who did not slaughter them, but rather rhymed the rats to death with his poetry, his wit. Though the biggest joke of all was that no one could ever know the name of the man who had created this magic. Anonymous said the theatre programme. Anobody. A genius with a pockmarked face and a pair of bottle-thick specs forbidden to catch even a glimpse of his own work.
Since 1882 it had been illegal for Jews to move to Moscow. So said the May Laws. The no-you-May-not Laws. After the assassination of the Tsar the conspiracy theories had rippled out from St Petersburg, all eyes burning on the underdogs. Until eventually, the truth came out – that yes, there had been a Jewish man involved. Just one. And not even in the killing – not in the hurling of the bomb or the years of conspiracy, just in the hiding, to give the rest of them a place to disappear under the cracks of his floorboards because his people had had a history of being refused such a luxury, so now, who was he to do the same?
In the end, he was a hanged man.
From that moment onwards, it was his people who were forced to hide. Banished from the big cities; forbidden to own land or to take up certain jobs.
To see their masterpieces on stage.
Until one of them begged and an exception was made – a one-night exception for the Ratman.
It took him an entire day to get there – a bus from Akmian then a local train to Moscow, the carriages filled with prostitutes heading to work. Each clutched a bottle of vodka in one hand and a bright yellow permit in the other, both needed to appease the guards. Yet, at the sight of the patchwork of fishnets the playwright didn’t so much as flinch. ‘Sorry to disturb, ladies, but is this seat taken?’ He buried himself amongst them with a smile as their cleavages ricketed along in time with the tracks. The scent of musk lightened heads. The snow chucked fistfuls of itself at the windows. And the more they gossiped the more he began to listen, enthralled, flattering them with a kind of attention they had never known in all their lonely lives, so that soon he felt the slick of their ruby lips upon his earlobes, whispering, begging for more. Either down the back of the train or in the icy Moscow alleyways where they made their dens. ‘Come on,’ they pleaded. ‘We don’t even charge you…’ Just one chance to steam up the glasses of the Akmian genius who spoke to them nicer than any boychik ever had.
But ‘no’, he eventually managed. ‘No thank you.’ He had his Princess of the Bees waiting back home. And besides, the Commandments decreed – Mitzvah 69 to be precise – that there should be no intercourse with a woman outside of marriage.
The ladies cackled at that; the ladies who made a living out of those who flouted Mitzvah 69.
Eventually they waved him goodbye as he made his way towards the theatre’s back door. He smuggled up to the cheapest seats in the house and looked down at the gilded faces looking up to his rats in awe.
By the time he returned to the shtetl it was the following afternoon, yet he knew his Princess wouldn’t have slept a breath.
‘So?’ she asked. ‘How was it?’ Her black eyes had turned grey in the winter light.
‘Exquisite.’ He pulled her to him. Still his ears rang with the douse of the applause. ‘Austėja, I have been… I think…’ The same sound as torrential rain. ‘I think it is time for us to leave.’
She gazed out the window beyond his shoulder. The snowflakes landed soft thuds on the ledge. ‘Moshe,’ she said, suddenly. ‘You have something on your ear.’
He grabbed the stain between his fingers, ruby red. ‘I must have cut it,’ he replied. ‘Shaving.’ Even though he had been growing his beard since the day they were married, a hive for the honeybees.
It took them ten whole years to save; ten years and two daughters, and one brother Dovid gone on ahead to work. A long wait. And then a crumpled letter arrived with some extra money for four tickets on an orange-rusted cattle ship – yet another beast to add to the zoo.
As well as packing his bags before he left, the playwright had learned his pillars of notes by heart, then built a giant bonfire in the middle of the Market Square. The whole shtetl gathered round to watch the flames feasting on years and years of work, their eyes streaming from the smoke almost as if they were upset; almost as if it were the man himself being burned.
‘In the beginning,’ he joked, perpetual patron of the upbeat, ‘God cremated the heavens and the earth!’
But even hours after the embers died, still the stragglers stood, staring, thinking of other lands. While mothers snarled at sons to breathe in the fumes, just in case the genius was infectious.
The following day they began their shlep, all the way to Latvia and onto the ship where the captain smashed a bottle on the prow – an ancient tradition to launch them out to sea. A bit like a groom breaking a glass on his wedding day to remember, always, the destruction of Jerusalem. A sailor married to his vessel. Though everyone knew the story of the playwright’s nuptials when the glass had refused to crack.
The chuppah had been a beautiful thing, the roses mangled into a perfect arch above the soon-to-be-happy couple. But below it the groom had started to sweat, stamping his foot upon the lump that just wouldn’t flatten, while his almost-bride watched on, forcing a smile, trying to find some symbolism in the glitch – that their bond was unbreakable? Not a single flaw or weakness? Until, finally, another foot stepped in – Dovid’s foot – putting them out of their misery as the crowd cheered and the Princess of the Bees kissed her husband, sucking away the panic and also the flicker of doubt as to which brother she had really married that afternoon; which one she wished she had.
But now, after ten days at sea, they had sailed away from that life. Those whispers. The Akmian playwright with his rats safely stashed in his pocket ready to be translated to a magical place called ‘Broadway’ where everyone would know his nobody name, the exhaustion worth it at last, the roses tossed on stage like a flock of birds scooped up to carry home for his wife, to keep her his and always his.
These were the things he had prayed for; the things he saw now as he slept in the dirt of a dockside shed. While all around him the ship’s passengers lay dreaming their own versions of American dreams.