Michal's Destiny, p.17Roberta Kagan
Yana shook her head. “I don’t usually lend money. It’s not easy to come by … but I feel sorry for you. So … a few marks? What’s a few marks?”
“You’ll do it?” Michal was on edge waiting for Yana’s answer. Her only other option was to do what Yana did to earn some cash.
“Yes, here … take this.” Yana handed her a couple of marks “It should be enough.”
“Thank you, thank you so much, Yana. God bless you … God bless you for helping me. I will get this money back to you; I swear it.”
“Yes, well, I won’t count on it. But still, you would make a lousy prostitute, so what other choice do I have? Go now,” she said with a wry smile.
They sent the wire and waited. Meanwhile, Alina had begun scratching her body and crying. Michal lifted her shirt to see that angry red bumps had swelled on Alina’s skin and tiny little mites were running across her midsection.
“Oh, dear God,” Michal said, as she looked at the infestation.
“What is it?” Bridget asked.
“I’m not sure. But there are bugs all over her. I’m going to take her to the pharmacy and ask the pharmacist what this is. I can’t afford to have the doctor come back. We don’t have any money. I’m not even sure how I am ever going to get the medicine to help Alina. All I can do is beg the pharmacist to help us and pray he will take pity on my child.”
“Body lice,” the pharmacist said, after he lifted Alina’s shirt and studied the rash.
“What is that? How can we get rid of it?” Michal asked, close to hysteria.
“It comes from other people who have it and also from poor hygiene. Did she sleep on dirty sheets where someone who might have had this could have slept?”
The shelter, Michal thought, but why my daughter, why not me? I slept there too. Maybe she got it at school? “Yes, she might have. What can I do to help her? Is there a medicine? Is it expensive? I don’t have any money.”
The pharmacist was an elderly man with thinning gray hair and blue eyes that still danced like the eyes of a much younger man. He stretched as if his back was stiff, then smiled at Michal.
“You don’t need any medication. Just give her a very warm bath. Let her soak. Boil the sheets where she has been sleeping. Get rid of her pillows. Make sure you clean all of her clothes in the same way. Now, don’t be alarmed, just be aware. I want you to watch her for any signs of infection. Body lice can cause serious diseases, so although I think she’ll be fine, keep an eye on her. Try to keep her from scratching, because if she causes open sores on her skin, that will make her more prone to infection. If she seems to be getting lethargic or starts running a fever, come back here and see me. Do you understand all of my instructions?”
Michal nodded. “Thank you. I’ll do as you say.”
“Here … take this.” The pharmacist handed her a bar of laundry soap. “I don’t often give this away, soap is expensive, but you should wash her with it every day. Besides, you’re such a pretty young thing that I want to see you smile.”
She smiled at him. “Really, thank you.”
“Remember, keep an eye on her. It’s very important. Sometimes body lice can cause tuberculosis. So, please don’t take it lightly.”
Tuberculosis. My God, please, not this,…Michal thought. But she nodded to the pharmacist and thanked him again. Then she rushed home with Alina and began to boil water.
It was a lot of work to make sure everything was boiled and cleaned, but it took her mind off of Otto. She was consumed with making sure she’d not left any eggs or insects. Because if even one was left alive, this entire process would have to be done all over again. And, in between boiling and bathing, she continued to watch Alina for any problems that might arise.
Michal scrubbed her child with the laundry soap until Alina’s skin turned red. There was no trace of the insects after Alina’s bath, but she was still scratching the red angry bumps. Michal put mittens on her hands and bound them with tape to stop her from attacking the sores. Alina wailed at not being able to scratch the constant irritating itch. Helpless, Michal sat by her daughter’s bedside and finally Alina cried herself to sleep. Bridget, too, had finally fallen asleep. The apartment was finally silent. Michal walked into the dark living room and sat down in her favorite chair. Memories of Otto and the hours they’d spent here in this very room came flooding back to her. Evidence of his impeccable taste was everywhere. From the paintings he’d received as gifts from his artist friends, to the second hand furniture that he’d recovered with matching fabric. How many nights had they all sat together, she in this same chair, Bridget and Alina on the sofa, and Otto on a hardback chair in the center? They had all been enthralled as Otto told the stories he’d written. If she tried hard enough, she could still hear Otto’s voice in her mind. Michal sighed. She thought of Avram, of her parents and her brother and sister, of Siberia. How simple life had been before the pogrom. She knew right from wrong, and had no doubts as to what she would be doing the next day and the day after that. Now, however, she was alone, frightened and confused. Even with all she’d seen, done, and been through, even after the sin she’d committed by falling in love with the romance of Otto and sharing his bed while she was still Taavi’s wife, even after all of the changes she had gone through, she still could not bring herself to sell her body to strangers. Her precious child who slept in the room right down the hall depended upon her for food and shelter and, God forbid maybe even medical care. How could she provide all of this? Finding a job was impossible, and even if she found one, they barely paid enough to buy a few morsels of food. More importantly, she was only available to work when Alina was in school. If Bridget did not go to live with her aunt and uncle, she could watch Alina while Michal went to work. Of course, that is if she was able to find work. But, when she and Otto had lived together, he had brought home some money, not much, but some, and together they were barely scraping by. Now, she would carry the entire burden. It felt as if a boulder had fallen on her shoulders. She had only one viable option. Michal had to swallow her pride and search for Taavi, who had no idea that he had a child. She had no way of knowing if he had found someone else, or even if he’d left Berlin. All she knew was that once the rent for the month ran out, she and Alina would be homeless again. If Bridget’s aunt and uncle were not willing to take her, then Bridget would have nowhere to go. Michal would never put Bridget out on the street. But, how could Michal explain Bridget to Taavi without telling him about Otto? And once she told him about Otto, would he ever forgive her? Well, for now, she would take the girls to the shelter to eat. There they could get at least one meal a day. She had another week at the apartment before they had to leave. Hopefully, she would hear from Bridget’s aunt and uncle before that. Once she knew whether she was going to be responsible for Bridget or not, she could decide what her next move would be. She wasn’t sure how to go about looking for work as a nanny. But, even so, if she had two children with her, it would be more difficult to find domestic employment. And even with only one, Michal was not sure that anyone would hire her as a live in maid or nanny. She’d been fortunate to find Gerta Fogelman, but how many Gerta Fogelmans were out looking for household help? Probably not many. She had just been lucky. The opportunity to work for Gerta had fallen into her lap at just the right time. But now? What now? Her back ached and felt heavy with all of the responsibility and decisions.
She thought about Siberia. Michal tried, but she realized she could no longer remember any of the faces of the people she’d known before she came to Berlin. Not clearly anyway. Not even Avram, dear tender Avram. He’d been such a sweet man, and he’d tried so hard to be a good husband. It was hard to think of the good times she’d had with him, even harder than to remember his terrible end. The beautiful moments hurt far more. She could ask Yana to lend her the money to return to Russia. Then, if by some miracle, Yana was willing to give her the money, she could take Alina to live with Bepa, but she had been so old when Michal had last seen her that Michal wondered i
However, until she had an answer from Bridget’s family, she could not make any decisions. Bridget had always been kind to Alina. She’d been like Alina’s sister. Every night, Michal watched as Bridget sat with Alina on her lap, telling the child a story and twisting Alina’s dark spiral curled hair between her fingers gently. Michal could not, would not, abandon Bridget. If her aunt and uncle were not willing to take her, Michal would have to find a way to take care of all of them. And, without Taavi, there was only one way to do that … prostitution. Michal shivered.
They did not have long to wait. A wire from Bridget’s uncle came two days later. He was terribly sorry to learn of her brother’s death, but of course he was more than happy to take his niece in to live with him and his wife. They had never had any children and they welcomed the idea of having Bridget in their home. Along with the wire came enough marks for a train ticket. Bridget gripped the money in her hand and looked at Michal.
“I don’t want to leave you and Alina. I hardly know my uncle. The only thing I really remember about him is that he hated my brother. Whenever we saw my aunt and uncle, he and my brother always fought. You know how silly Otto was with all of his political stuff? Well, my uncle is the same way, except he is fascinated with the National Socialist Party. He’s quite convinced that the ridiculous little man with the half mustache is going to save Germany from all of her problems. In fact, the last time I saw him, he’d grown the same foolish looking mustache as that Hitler fellow. I don’t care about politics; I could live with his nonsense about the Socialist Party, but I feel so at home here with you and Alina.”
“I know, Bridget. I do know. And I wish to God that I could keep you and take care of you. But, the truth is, I have no choice but to contact Alina’s father and ask him to take us in. If I have another child with me, well, I don’t know how he’ll react. I don’t even know if he has taken on another woman or if he has any money to help care for us. But I can’t see any other way. I can’t find any work and I don’t know where else to search for a job.”
“You want me to go to Nuremberg?”
“Of course I don’t want you to go. In fact, I wish we could all stay together.” Michal put her arms around Bridget, who was trembling, still holding the letter and money in her hand. “But I think it is best.”
“I’m seventeen, Michal. I could get a job and live on my own. Or I could work and help with the bills, then we could all stay together.”
“Bridget, Berlin is a dangerous city. You are a young beautiful girl. Anything could happen to you here. I wish I could guarantee your safety. I wish I could promise that I would take care of you. But the truth is, I am not sure that I will be able to take care of Alina and myself. At least if you go to live with your uncle, you will be safe. You will have a place to live, and food, and … most of all … you won’t end up like some of the young girls that we see on the street every day selling your body and compromising yourself.”
“Do you care about me?”
“Yes, very much. And I know how close you and Alina are.”
“Oh, Bridget. I wish I had a better solution.”
Bridget nodded. “I understand.” There were tears in her eyes. “You’re right. I will miss you both.”
Alina was crying and gripping onto Bridget, who held her tightly. “I don’t want you to go … Please, don’t go,” Alina said.
“Shhh,” Bridget whispered. “You are going to be just fine, and when you are old enough, you will come to visit me in Nuremburg if your mother will allow you to.”
“I want to go with you now.”
“I know … I know. I want to take you with me. You’ve been the only sister I’ve ever had. But I can’t take you, Alina.”
“I love you, Bridget.”
“I know, I love you too, Alina.” Bridget kissed the top of Alina’s head. “I will always remember you.”
“Who will curl my hair at night if you go?”
“Your mommy will.”
Alina shook her head. Her eyes were red with tears “NO … I hate Mommy. I hate her for making you go.”
“Don’t hate Mommy; she loves you.”
“I want you to stay. Please?”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Alina, but I have to go,” Bridget said, hugging the little girl close to her breast.
“We will miss you too. I will write to you and until Alina can read and write, I’ll read your letters to her. One day, with God’s help, we will be together again,” Michal said, gripping Bridget’s hand. “Can you ever forgive me?”
“I already do. I know you wouldn’t do this if you didn’t have to.”
“I’ve thought it over a thousand times. I can’t see any other way.”
“Will you take me to the train station tomorrow morning so that I can see when the next train is leaving for Nuremburg?”
“Of course,” Michal said, but she felt heartsick and filled with guilt.
Alina didn’t stop crying until the train carrying Bridget away had gone far enough out of the terminal that it could no longer be seen. Then she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and gave her mother an angry look.
“I hate you, Mommy. I wish you were dead.”
Michal felt her heart sink. But she couldn’t say anything except, “I am sorry, Alina … I had no choice.”
Alina refused to hold Michal’s hand as they left the station and headed back to the apartment. The wicked frozen winds of February froze Alina’s tears onto her eyelashes and because it was wet, the skin on her face turned very red and irritated. Well, at least Alina had survived the body lice and had not gotten an infection. Alina wrapped her arms around her body. She walked alone like a little soldier, so brave that Michal felt her heart break. She wished that she could shield her daughter from the pain of life, but she’d learned that was not possible.
Michal decided to wait until the following morning to go to the carpentry shop and search for Taavi. She hoped that Alina would be calmer and easier to manage by then. It was going to be difficult enough to face Taavi and to tell him the truth about where she’d been without Alina throwing a tantrum. Anything could happen. He might walk away from her and deny that Alina was his child. Taavi could very well be involved with another woman by now. It was best not to think of what might happen. All she could do was clear her mind and go forward. Taavi was her last hope.
After Bridget left, Alina was sulky and difficult. Michal decided it was best to wait for at least another day before taking Alina to see Taavi. Of course, the clock was ticking and she only had a little over a week paid for in the apartment. If she avoided the landlord, she might be able to stay an extra day or two before he evicted them. The last thing she wanted was to take Alina back to stay at the shelter. However, it was probably best if Alina appeared to be a delightful child rather than a burden when Taavi saw her for the first time. Well, she had to pray becaus
There was not much food left. Michal had not eaten for a day and a half. She’d given all that was left to Alina. That night, with Alina throwing a tantrum because she didn’t want to go, Michal took Alina to the shelter to eat. The main room smelled of sweat and dirty clothes. Alina folded her arms and demanded to go home, but Michal held tight to her daughter’s hand and led her through the cafeteria line. After their trays were filled with a bowl of soup and a slice of bread, Michal led Alina to a long table. They sat down and began to eat.
“It stinks in here, Mama--”
“Shhh. Eat your food and we’ll go back to the apartment as soon as you finish.”
The elderly woman who had been sitting on the other side of Alina stood up and took her tray to the clean-up area, leaving the seat beside the child vacant. A man with a scruffy gray beard and thin greasy hair sat down. Alina took a bite of her bread.
“Don’t,” Alina said.
“What?” Michal asked.
“That man touched me under my dress.”
Michal stood up and glared at the filthy disheveled man. “How dare you do that to a child? Are you a demon of some kind?”
The man started laughing. It was a sly and bitter laugh. Michal tried to get the attention of someone in authority, but there were too many people in the room. No one heard or noticed her calling for help. She could not leave Alina alone with this man while she tried to find some way to report him. And if she took Alina with her, they would have to take their food because if they left it for even a moment it would be stolen. Looking around frantically, Michal realized that there was nowhere that two seats were open together. She would not leave Alina anywhere alone. It looked like there was nothing she could do except push Alina to the other side and sit beside the disgusting lout herself.
Michal's Destiny by Roberta Kagan / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes