Michal's Destiny, p.5Roberta Kagan
Taavi smiled and nodded at her. “I can imagine how you must feel.”
“Mostly it’s worst in the winter. In the summer I can go outside and walk through the forest. In the winter it’s just me and these four walls. And my friend.” She pointed to an old docile wolf that lay asleep in the corner.
“Is that a wolf?”
“Yes, Sheba is a wolf. I found her as a cub. She was dying. I took care of her. We’ve been best friends ever since. Anyway, for the most part, the townspeople stay away from me. Unless, of course, there is a woman having a difficult birth or someone is dying and the doctor cannot be reached in time. Then, they come here. They think I am a witch, but they also think that if they pay me I will bring the child safely into the world or save a loved one. They think my hands are magic.” She looked down at the loose skin on her slender hands and laughed.
“Does it always work? Do you always save them?” Taavi asked, scooping up the last of his soup with a mouthful of bread.
“God, no. I wish I did. Sometimes the medicine works, sometimes not. But I try my best.”
Michal cleared her throat. “Are you?” she asked in a small voice.
“Am I what? A witch?”
Bepa let out a belly laugh. “I’m no witch, although I’ve often wished that I was. My mother knew how to work with herbs, with plants and with all the things that grow here in the forest. She showed me how to crush and blend them together in order to make medicines. I grew up learning what to use to cure a fever or settle a cough. It began when I was very small, when my mother took me with her when she went to deliver babies. So, I learned to do that too. But … no, unfortunately I do not have any magical powers.”
Michal knew that she should not be fascinated by this woman. She should be afraid and run away from this house. Yet, she was captivated and she could not run. And, even if she wanted to leave, there was nowhere to run; danger lurked just outside the thick forest.
“You can stay as long as you like. I don’t mind if you choose to remain with me until the weather breaks. I have plenty of food. People pay me for my services with food. And, as I said before … I wouldn’t mind having the company. The two of you could sleep over there by the fire and I will sleep here on my bed.”
“Oh … we are not husband and wife. We cannot do that,” Michal said. “It wouldn’t be proper.”
Bepa smiled “Of course. Then, I’ll move my bed into the middle of the room and one of you can sleep on each side of my bed. That way we can be sure that nothing inappropriate will occur.”
Michal eyed the old woman. She’s laughing at me, she thought. (Well, let her laugh. I know right from wrong. I will not lose my dignity, my modesty, just because I have been put into this dreadful situation.
From walking barefoot when she and Taavi had first left the village, Michal had lost all feeling in two of her toes. They had turned red and blistered. The boots Taavi had stolen for her were men’s boots and they were far too big. Bepa gave her a pair of shoes that were slightly bigger than Michal’s feet, but she stuffed them with cotton. However, it was too late to save the toes. They turned black. Michal didn’t want to bother anyone with her problems, but when she removed her shoes by the fire one afternoon, Bepa saw what had happened.
“I’m afraid that your two toes that have turned black are going to fall off,” Bepa told Michal.
Michal touched her foot and gently caressed the damaged appendages. “I can’t feel anything.”
“I know. You will lose the toes, but it shouldn’t have any effect on your ability to walk. At least from what I can see.”
Bepa was right. Michal lost her toes, but she was still able to walk without any problem. Looking at her deformed foot made her feel ill. Alone in her bed at night, Michal wept softly as she prayed, asking God why her life had taken such a frightening turn. She prayed that her brother and sister had survived, but she doubted she would ever see them again. Although she tried to be quiet, muffling the sound with her pillow, Taavi heard her and he longed to comfort her. But he knew she would misinterpret his actions if he dared to enter her side of the room. She would be offended and feel that he had broken some silly forbidden law that had been set in place to keep her pure and above reproach by the Jewish Rebbes. It was all nonsense to him. He didn’t want to take her in his arms and make love to her. He only wanted to offer the calm reassurance of a good friend. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. But he would never have attempted to carry out his true desires. He respected her.
As time went by, Michal found that she liked Bepa’s straightforward ways. The old woman did not flatter or lie, and she never once made Michal or Taavi feel as if they were intruding or that they owed her in any way for her kindness. Michal watched Bepa take a basket down off of a high shelf and fill it quickly with medicinal supplies when a boy from the village came to ask for help for his mother who was having difficulties in childbirth.
“You are welcome to come with me if you would like,” Bepa said to Michal.
Michal felt her face grow hot. How could she refuse to help? After all, both she and Taavi were living under this woman’s roof, eating her food. The idea of assisting in delivering a baby petrified her. There would be blood, and perhaps even death. Michal looked into Bepa’s eyes, which were fixed upon her.
“It’s a good thing to have the knowledge of a midwife. You may need to know these things someday.”
“I’ll come with you,” Michal said, drawing a sharp breath.
The peasants whose home they went to were not Jews. They were farmers that lived on the other side of the forest. When Bepa and Michal arrived, the room was cold. The husband sat on a chair beside his wife’s bed, wringing his hands.
“Don’t just sit there.” Bepa looked at the husband sternly. “Start a fire and warm this place up right away. Then bring me a kettle filled with hot water and also bring several clean towels.” Bepa spoke with authority.
The woman with an extended belly lay sweating and trembling on a slender cot. Her hair knotted and stuck to her face and neck with perspiration.
“You are going to be just fine,” Bepa said, as she smiled at the woman and touched her shoulder.
The man had started a fire in the cast iron stove; it was burning low and beginning to warm the room. After the husband laid the towels and the pot of hot water beside the bed, Bepa told the man and his son to leave them.
Next, she raised the sheet and examined the woman.
“The baby will need to be turned,” Bepa said. “This may hurt a little. I’m sorry. I’ll do my best to make it as painless as possible.” Then Bepa gave the woman a thick rope that she took out of her basket. “Hold on to this. It will help you. Squeeze it when you are in pain. Now, don’t push until I tell you to do so. Do you understand me?” Bepa turned the woman’s head so that they were eye to eye. Again, she asked, “Do you understand me?”
“Yes.…” the woman said in a tortured voice.
Michal watched as Bepa massaged the woman’s belly. Then Michal held her breath as Bepa reached inside of the woman’s body and gently manipulated the fetus. The woman cried out in pain and Michal trembled with horror. She had never seen a child born, and it was a frightening thing to watch. First there was a rush of water.
“Push.…” Bepa said. The woman did as she was told. “Now wait … wait … Now push again.…” The woman let out a loud groan and pushed. “Again … push again … as hard as you can.”
Blood covered the bed as the woman’s body tore open to allow the child’s head and shoulders to come through. And then with the force of a final push, the rest of the small body entered the world.
Bepa held the baby up by his feet and slapped his bottom. A hearty cry came from the infant’s lips.
“You have a healthy son,” Bepa said. Then she took the knife from her basket, tied and cut the cord. As if it were a doll, Bepa handed the baby to Michal. “Wash him,
As Michal gently washed the child with warm water, her hands shook. What she had just witnessed was frightening, but it was also miraculous. She felt tears form in the corners of her eyes. Hashem, the Jew’s name for God, was here today. He used Bepa’s hands to bring a new life into the world. At that moment, Michal knew that she wanted to learn the things that Bepa knew. She too wanted to work as a servant to Hashem, healing the sick and helping to bring new lives into the world.
From that day on, Michal accompanied Bepa whenever the old woman was called upon to doctor a person in need. Michal witnessed three more births and, by the fourth, Bepa insisted that Michal act as the midwife. Michal was nervous, but she had learned enough to carry out the mission.
Not all of the births were successful. Once they lost the baby. It was born dark blue, with the umbilical cord tied tightly around its neck. Another time they lost the mother and the baby. The baby was stillborn and Bepa could not stop the mother’s bleeding. These were two terrible occasions. But the bad times occurred much less often than the good. And Michal could not help but love being a midwife. She did not enjoy tending to the sick as much. The vile smells of feces and vomit turned her stomach. But even though sometimes blood, feces, and vomit were present at a birth, at least at the end the reward was a beautiful child.
After they had assisted a young girl in a very difficult birth, the grandmother of the newborn baby offered Bepa and Michal a cup of tea. They gladly accepted. Both the mother and baby had survived. The grandmother claimed that the child’s father had been killed by a bear when he was hunting. Michal thought that perhaps the new mother had never been married. Michal decided that it was not for her to judge the woman’s moral convictions. She gazed out the window and waited for the tea to be ready. It was a late winter night; outside, the ground was covered with a soft dusting of new fallen snow. The moon lit upon the white blanket and it shone like diamonds.
“Come, sit down at the table with me,” the grandmother said, pouring three cups of tea, while her daughter and new grandson lay sleeping in the other room. “I want to thank you both for everything that you did for my daughter and her child.”
Bepa smiled and sipped the hot liquid.
“I have no money to pay you. And … very little food. But … I can do something for you that I do not often offer to anyone.”
Bepa tilted her head. Michal sat quietly.
“I can read your tea leaves.…”
“Oh, no,” Michal said. “That scares me.”
“Are you sure? Are you sure you’re not the least bit curious?”
Bepa laughed. “I am not curious about my future at all. I know my future. I will live for a few more years and then I will go to my final resting place. And for me … that’s all right.”
“But, you? You are young … You must be a just a little curious?”
“Yes, perhaps a little.”
“Then finish your tea and hand me your cup.”
Michal looked at Bepa, who shrugged her shoulders “Do it if you want to,” she said. “I don’t set much store in these things.”
Michal longed to hear what the woman would say. She wondered if the woman would say that Taavi was in love with her. She thought that perhaps the tea leaves might tell her if her brother and sister were alive. Curiosity got the better of Michal, so she drained her cup and handed it to the woman.
Michal smiled conspiratorially at Bepa, as if to say that she was not a true believer, only curious.
The woman took a deep breath. Then she sighed.
“Dear child. I am sorry to tell you, but you have a challenging life ahead of you. There will be much love, but there will be many disasters for you to overcome. You will have to be strong to survive. Yes, I am afraid I see a very hard road that you will travel. You said your name was Michal?”
“Yes, my name is Michal.”
“I am sorry, Michal, but your destiny is not to be an easy one.”
The woman shook her head as if she were feeling pain. Bepa stood up. “That’s enough of this. I think it’s time for us to leave,” she said. “Get your coat on, Michal. We have a long walk home.”
They walked for over a half hour in silence. Then Michal asked “Do you think she was right? She scared me a little.”
“Right about your future?”
“Yes, do you think I am going to have a hard life?”
“I think we all have a difficult path to walk. You are strong. If I were you, I wouldn’t give what she said very much thought. Just live day to day and do the best you can with what God gives you.”
Michal nodded. But that night as she tried to fall asleep, she felt uneasy about her tea leaf reading and wished she had never allowed the woman to predict her future. The last words in her mind as she finally drifted into a fitful sleep were, “Michal’s destiny will be a difficult one.”
Working with Bepa helped Michal to avoid thinking about the past. She was too busy to allow herself to be still and remember the horror and pain she’d experienced that night at the hands of the Cossack who’d raped her and murdered her husband. Every day was a new learning experience. Reluctantly, Michal had abandoned her need to keep kosher with her food. It was impossible to keep that law and survive. She knew her mother would have died before eating the treif (non-kosher) food that Michal now consumed, but Michal did not want to die. She was young, and through Bepa had found a purpose for her life. A way to make a difference in the world that she enjoyed.
One night when Bepa fell asleep by the fire, Michal took a blanket and gently placed it over the old woman. She turned to find Taavi watching her.
“You’ve come to really like her, haven’t you?”
“I have. I was afraid of her at first, but she is a good woman.”
“Even though she isn’t ‘one of us, she isn’t Jewish’?”
“Yes, even though.” Michal smiled. “You know, all that has happened has taught me so much. When I was growing up, I believed that I would spend my entire life in the Jewish community. After I got married, I thought that Avram and I would stay together forever, have children and raise them according to Jewish law, the way I had been raised. Now, everything has changed.”
“And you are sad?”
“Yes and no. It breaks my heart to think about what happened to Avram. He was always kind to me. A good husband. He didn’t deserve to die that way. And of course … well … what you saw the Cossack do to me … still brings me shame.”
He nodded. “I know. But don’t be ashamed; it wasn’t your fault.”
She looked away, too humiliated to meet his eyes.
“Still, even with everything that has happened … at least I have met Bepa and learned a wonderful trade.”
“And me?” he said, lifting one eyebrow.
“What about you?”
“I don’t understand.” She looked at him and saw the light from the fire dancing in his eyes.
“Well … you probably don’t even realize.”
“Realize what?” she asked.
“The way I feel about you.”
She felt her face burn with embarrassment.
“Did you know that since that first day I saw you in the square I was wildly attracted to you? And … even after you married Avram, I still watched you. Do you think it was an accident that I was there at your house when the Cossacks attacked? As soon as the pogrom began and I saw them come riding into the village, I ran to find you. I decided I would save you or die trying.”
Her breath caught in her throat. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. Instead, tell me that the look I saw in your eyes every time you looked at me before the pogrom and even now that we are here together is not my imagination. Tell me that it is real. Tell me that you care for me too.”
“Oh, Taavi.” She could hardly speak. “We should not speak of such things. I am still in mourni
“You want me to wait the year until you are done mourning before I declare myself? If that is what you want, I will abide by your wishes. But … Michal … there is no one to judge you now.”
“And where was God, where was Hashem when our village was attacked? Where was he when that dirty Cossack chopped your husband’s head off? Where was God when that savage tore your dress…?”
“Stop. Stop, please, Taavi. You should not talk this way. We do not always understand God’s mind or his intentions.”
“Is that what you really believe, Michal? Is it? Then why do you eat the food that is treif that the old woman gives us? Are you a hypocrite?”
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore, Taavi. Talking about God this way is a sin. I am going to sleep. Goodnight.”
She got up and pulled the curtain between herself and Taavi. In her former life, before the pogrom, she would not have ever been alone in a room with a man that was not her husband. But things had changed. She lay down on the cot that Taavi had made for her and tried to sleep, but she couldn’t. Where was God when they were suffering? Forgive me, Hashem. She shuddered in fear at the thought. And Taavi … if he had not appeared … what would have happened to her? Would the Cossack have severed her head when he finished with her and would it now be lying in a ditch somewhere, her blood drying into the snow? Michal bit her lower lip. She was so confused…
Meanwhile, Taavi spent his time repairing every piece of furniture in the old woman’s house. He wanted to do as much as possible to earn his keep. All of his life, Taavi had been resourceful. He was not rich enough to rely on anyone but himself, so when he needed to shift in order to survive, he was able to do so without much effort. The old woman had a gun and plenty of ammunition. She kept it, she said, for defense purposes. It gave Taavi an idea. He took it out and taught himself to hunt. Taavi had always been a lover of nature, mostly of animals. However, he knew that they needed meat to survive and the furs could be sold for much needed money. He did not want to use up all of the bullets teaching himself, and so he took branches of trees and fashioned a bow and arrows. Sometimes he caught rabbits or squirrels, which Bepa skinned and boiled. It helped the three of them to survive the vicious Siberian winter. But after a couple of months had passed and the weather was not so severe, Taavi began making trips back to the Jewish village that was still reeling from the pogrom. He wanted to see if any of his friends were still alive.
Michal's Destiny by Roberta Kagan / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes