Night falls and Tati comes home from work. It’s well past eleven. Laya is already asleep beside me. She was restless all day, I could sense that—and I wanted to ask her what was wrong, but I never got the chance. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door.
The knocks are so loud, they feel as if they could wake the dead. I can’t imagine how Laya sleeps through it. I creep to the top rung of the ladder to our loft, where I can just barely see the door. Tati goes to open it. Mami baked all day and into the night—babka for matters of the heart—and I wonder if she knew that this was coming.
Is it the Tsar’s army? Have they come for Tati? So many men from our town have been conscripted recently. Their absence in the village is felt—lights in windows have gone out all over town.
I know, we all know, that something as small as a knock—the rap of knuckles on wood—could change our lives forever. If the Tsar’s army comes for you, they take you for twenty-five years. And we know it means some people might never return.
I wait for the world I’ve known to crumble, with the scent of chocolate in the air.
“Who is it?”
There’s a muffled answer and Tati unbars the door.
A man I’ve never seen before steps inside. He bows before my father and I see Tati put a hand over his mouth and cry out.
But the man doesn’t rise until Tati places his hands upon his head and blesses him.
“Ye’varech’echa Adonai ve’yish’merecha—May God bless you and keep you . . . ” I don’t understand why my father says the priestly blessing. He normally only says it on Friday nights with his hands on Laya’s head and mine—just after we sing “Shalom Aleichem” inviting the angels into our home and before he blesses the wine.
The man lifts up his head and kisses my father’s knuckles.
“Yankl!” my father says again. The men embrace. “What brings you here?” Tati asks. “How did you . . . ?”
“It wasn’t easy to find you, Rebbe, I’ll tell you that much.”
Mami takes a step forward and bows her head in his direction. “Can I offer you something hot to drink? I just made babka.”
“This is Adel, my wife,” Tati says to the strange man. And to my surprise, the man looks at her and says, “I remember.”
He wears a large cloak that looks like a bearskin, and underneath it, a satin overcoat with white stockings that end in large black boots.
“Please—take a seat.” Mami beckons the men to the table as she goes to the kitchen. I can hear her fill the kettle and put it on the fire.
The man sits down at the table and stares at Tati. “It’s good to see you, Berman.”
Tati grunts. “What brings you all this way, my brother?”
Tati has a brother?
The man starts to sway back and forth at the table as if in prayer. “Oh-yoy oh-yo-yoy, oh-yoy,” he chants. “The Rebbe is sick, Reb Berman. He doesn’t have long to live.”
I see Tati’s face go slack, white almost, like he’s seen a ghost.
“Here, have a tipple of something.” Mami takes out the schnapps and offers both men a glassful.
The man—my uncle?—takes a healthy gulp, shudders, and continues. “We need you to come home. The Rebbe needs you, Berman . . . we all need you. Please come back before it’s too late.” He takes another gulp of schnapps, then picks up the mug of tea.
Tati shakes his head. “I have to speak to my wife.”
“There isn’t much time,” Yankl pleads. “It may be too late already.”
“Then what are you doing here? Leave,” Tati growls, and slams his glass on the table.
“Berman . . . ” Mami goes to put her arms on Tati’s shoulders.
“I said I’d never go back, Adel. You know that.”
“You can’t send Yankl back out into the cold.”
Tati grunts and says, “Will you stay the night?”
Yankl stands up. “No. You’re right. I should head back right away. I gave you the message.” He shrugs. “What you do with it is on your conscience.”
“Get out of my house!” Tati yells.
“Berman!” Mami scolds.
I hear Laya turn over in bed.
Tati grumbles, “Es tut mir bahng—sorry,” and looks up at his brother. “I’ll think about it, okay?”
Yankl walks to the door.
“Yankl, I didn’t mean it. You can stay the night. You are always welcome in our home,” Tati says.
“It’s all right,” Yankl says. “I’d best be going back.”
“I’ll pack you up some food,” Mami says, “and a thermos of tea.”
He hesitates, then nods.
Mami busies herself in the kitchen, but otherwise there is silence in the room. The brothers seem to look everywhere but at each other.
“A bi gezunt,” Mami finally says, bringing him a packed basket. She adds in a low voice, “I’ll talk to him. He’ll come. Don’t worry.”
And just as quickly as he’d come, the man is gone.
“Why did you tell him that?” Tati growls when she closes the door.
Mami sits down at the table and takes Tati’s hands in hers. “Calm yourself, Berman. You have no choice, and you know that. You must go back to Kupel. You have to pay your respects.”
“No choice is also a choice,” Tati grumbles. “They never had respect for you, or for me and my choices.”
“Maybe he wants to make amends . . . ”
“We haven’t had word in over a dozen years. They cast us out! I swore to you. I swore to myself that I would never go back. And now they want me back? Me, they said, not you. I won’t go.”
“Yankl didn’t say that,” Mami sighs. “You know how I feel about your family . . . but if your father goes to his oylam, chas v’shalom—God forbid—and you don’t make it back there, you’ll never forgive yourself.”
“And then they’ll never let me leave. I’m next in line. You know that. And if they won’t accept you, I want no part of it. What—I should leave my wife and daughters to go see a father who never approved of me?”
Mami’s long thin hands grip Tati’s large ones tightly, her knuckles white. “Yankl wouldn’t have come unless the situation was dire. I think you should leave now. Tonight. I’ll stay here with the girls.” She looks into his eyes and says, “I trust you. I know that you’ll come back for us.”
“It’s not about trust, Adel,” Tati says ruefully. “What would happen if you went back to your family?”
Mami shakes her head. “I could never.”
“So why is this any different?”
“Because the Rebbe is on his deathbed! Really, Berman?”
“And if Dmitry was dying?”
Who is Dmitry? I wish I understood half of what they are discussing. Everything feels both foreign and familiar all at once, as if these are someone else’s parents—but also, as if these are things I’ve heard them discuss in my dreams.
“It’s not the same and you know it. I’m sick of this life we lead,” Mami says. “A hovel at the edge of the forest? A shtetl full of nebbishers who talk behind our backs every chance they get. This town is a dead end. We are on the brink. Maybe this is your chance at salvation. To reclaim all you lost.”
“Maybe we should go to your family, then, eh? Reclaim them.”
“You know we can’t do that.”
Tati raises his voice. “So why is this any different?”
Mami starts to cry.
Tati gets up and goes to put his arms around her. “You chose this life. You chose me. Are you saying you regret that choice?”
“No, never!” Mami looks up. “But maybe you can have both. Them and me. You have a chance now. You know I never will.”
“Adel.” He hugs her tightly and sighs. “I will only go if you come with me.”
“What? And leave the girls?” Mami’s voice is shrill and I hear Laya turn over in bed again.
“If we get there and the Rebbe, my Tati, is willing to finally accept you,” he says in a voice that sounds cracked, “publicly, then we can come back here, get the girls, and move back to Kupel. But I won’t expose them to that kind of spectacle unless I know what my father’s answer will be. They must accept you first. That’s my condition.”
“We can’t leave the girls.”
“The kehilla will take care of them. And anyway, they don’t have travel permits. None of us do. I won’t take the girls on the road and expose them to that kind of danger. If we are caught, it will mean certain death.” Tati rubs his hand across his forehead. “For now, they’re safer here in Dubossary.”
“Are you meshugge? They’ll be prey to any man!”
“Liba won’t let that happen. She’s stronger than she knows.”
“Maybe we should tell them . . . ”
Tell us what?
“No! We said we’d wait until they got engaged and we’ll keep to that. No need to worry them before that. The townsfolk are mensches. They’ll take care of our girls and keep them safe.”
“No girls should be without parents,” Mami says.
“Liba will keep house until we return. She’s nearly eighteen.”
“Which is even more of a reason for us all to go back. What kind of future does she have here? You always say that no one from this town will marry our girls. Well, here’s your chance. Liba is almost of age. You can’t wait forever. It’s time, Berman.”
“When the time comes, I will find them worthy husbands. Don’t you worry about that.”
“When? How old does Liba have to be? You’ll wait until she’s too old for anyone to want her and then see what’s left? Let them come with us. Please?”
My skin suddenly feels cold, coated with pinpricks of ice.
“No!” Tati says. “My girls are more precious to me than rubies and pearls. I won’t risk their lives on the roads.”
I can tell that Mami’s crying in earnest now.
“Adel . . . ” Tati’s voice is instantly soft.
“No!” Mami cries. “I gave up everything I was—everything I had—for you. I did everything right, and it still wasn’t enough. Not here, not there, maybe not anywhere. There’s no love lost between me and your family. But it’s not like things are all that much better here. I hear what people say. I know how they talk. Please go alone. Do it for me. For us. Get his blessing. Then come back safe and sound and we’ll either stay here, or we’ll go.”
“And what if they don’t let me leave? What if I can’t come back? What if my father is on his deathbed for months? I can’t take that chance. I’ll be lost without you. You know how they get into my head. You are my life, gelibteh, I can’t go without you by my side.” He lowers his voice and suddenly sounds nothing like my father. “I don’t trust myself when I’m with them.”
Mami shakes her head and makes a fist. “And if someone murders the girls in the night, or ravages them, you could live? You’re a beast to think to leave them.”
“I am a beast,” he chuckles, “but I haven’t acted like one in many years, and you know that better than anyone.” Then he looks at her solemnly. “In times like these, people change. Maybe everything will be different. And if not . . . ” I can see my father swallow hard, his jaw working. “You’re right. I have a responsibility to my parents. At least to mourn, to say kaddish at my father’s grave if it comes to that.”
“You know . . . if things don’t work out . . . there are other places we could go. People speak of America.”
“America is a fairy tale.”
Mami throws her hands up in defeat. “You’re impossible.” She shakes her head and sighs. “Fine. I’ll come with you.”
Tati takes a deep breath and softens his tone. “The girls will be okay. We will come back for them, I promise. Adel . . . I know you think that I’m against you in this, but I’m not. It is honestly safer for Liba and Laya to stay here.”
Mami seems to make a decision. She gets up and walks across the room. She takes something out from the trunk beneath their bed.
“Adel . . . ” Tati whispers.
“Don’t stop me, Berman. I need to think. I have to get out of this cabin.”
Mami holds up something white that looks like a cloak, and drapes it over her shoulders. She rubs her arms as if goose pimples dot her skin. She begins to shiver and shake, then hunches down on the ground as if she’s in pain. Her arms arc up, graceful, yet contorted at odd angles. The air shimmers. I don’t understand what I’m seeing, only that I can’t look away. Little wisps of white start to coat her face, then her arms, and feathers, long and white, burst out of every pore. The dress she’s wearing falls to the floor in a pool of cloth, leaving her naked, except it’s not skin I see anymore, but soft white down that shines in the light. She curls into herself, like a white ball of cloud, except for her arms—they reach for the sky. I blink, and in that instant, her arms become ivory wings, feathered and majestic in the moonlight that streams down from the skylight above our heads. My mother is a swan.
My hand is over my mouth. I’m doing everything I can not to shout, not to make a sound. I’m so busy watching the swan in our kitchen that I don’t see my father reach into the trunk. When I notice, he’s taking out a brown fur cloak, one I thought I’d seen him wear before, but maybe not. This one looks different—the fur more lush and lifelike. Like the bear cloaks the townsfolk wear to celebrate the new year. Then I hear a noise that doesn’t sound very manlike and my heart skips a beat in my chest.
I look over, and in the space where my father had been, there’s a bear. This time I nearly do cry out—in fear! I’ve never seen a bear so large. It’s twice his size, like a mountain of rich dark earth. Its eyes are dark and shining, like orbs of obsidian stone, and its teeth, sharp and yellowish, terrifying, poke out of a long snout. The nose at the end of the snout is double the size of a human nose. The bear takes a step forward. His fur is so brown it looks black, like the bark of a birch tree, rippling in a sheen with every move he makes to reveal powerful muscles and paws with claws that look sharp as daggers and dig into the wooden floor. It’s a dream, I keep telling myself, it must be a dream. A fairy tale coming to life in my head, nothing more. I look over at Laya and see that she’s still sleeping. Maybe I’m sleeping too?
I’m trembling so hard I feel as if I might tumble down the ladder.
The bear nudges the front door latch open with his snout and looks back at the swan. The swan leaps onto his back as he lumbers out of the house, careful to close the door behind him. I let myself breathe hard once the door closes. I clasp and flex my fingers, trying to wake myself up, but my fingernails feel sharper and when I look down at them, they’ve grown black and dark, with fine points that almost look like claws. I cry out and reach for Laya, but when my hand hovers over her sleeping form, I see that the hair on my arm has nearly doubled in volume and thickness. I bring my arm back, afraid of what my own hands might do. I hold myself instead, trembling in fear. I close my eyes and let the tears that have gathered fall onto my nightgown, afraid to rub my own eyes and do them damage, and too scared to move lest Laya wake and see what’s happening to me. It’s a dream, Liba, just a dream, I keep telling myself. When you open your eyes everything will go back to normal.
I lie down in bed and try to steady my breathing. I wait, my heart thundering in my chest, until I hear the rustling of bedcovers and the sound of my father’s snores. I open my eyes and look at my still-shaking hands—they look completely normal. I take a deep breath and creep down the ladder, determined to see my parents as I’ve always seen them—human and whole.
Mami is awake, drinking tea at the table. I sit by her feet and put my head in her lap.
“I had a bad dream,” I say in a shaky voice.
“What did you dream?”
“I heard you and Tati speaking,” I confess.
“Oh, dochka. You heard?” She takes a deep breath. “And saw?”
I nod. “Everything,” I say, and my voice shakes.
It’s in that moment that all I’ve ever known changes. Mami always says that fairy tales are real. With my head in my swan-mother’s lap, I start to believe—and I wonder which tale is ours.
Mami leans down and embraces me.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” she says. “But it’s not everything.” She shakes her silky white-blonde hair and her tears fall on my cheeks. “There are things I need to tell you.”
But Mami doesn’t say anything more, and soon I get up and silently make my way up the ladder back to bed. All night I watch the windows and the doors. I can’t sleep. Yankl’s words about the Rebbe dying scare me because I don’t know what it will mean for our future. But the truth of what I’ve seen my parents become scares me even more.
Tati always says that every heart has its secrets, and it is not our role in life to try and uncover them. I’ve uncovered my parents’ secrets, and more terrifying than anything, I think that means I have a secret too.
As I watch Laya sleep, I see her scratch in places where only wings grow, and then I know. My body is thick and large-boned while my sister’s is lithe. We both eat fish, but I hunger for meat.
We both love the Dniester River, but I’m drawn to its dark places, while she loves the tall trees that line its banks and the open air above. My hair is coarse and black- brown, but hers is blonde like Mami’s . . . nearly white. Everything makes sense suddenly, and yet nothing makes sense at all.
There have always been rumors about the Kodari forest and the hidden things within it.
Now I know we are a part of that unseen world.