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“I won’t,” Shoora said through her veil—her bridegroom and she had just quarreled. A week on the cargo train for honeymoon, not to mention the destination: Benz Goldberg was to be sent to the rear. The order of the Defense Committee was to relocate the Secret Factory from Kiev to Novosibirsk, his fresh engineering diploma put to the test.
Tin forks bent on the meat in the festive soup—the guests did not ask the hosts whether it was beef; at the butcher’s, Rosa herself had dismissed that horseshoe on the cutting board as a hungry mirage.
“The snow-white foam of cherry sweet shall thrive in love with mettle oak,” Oksana chanted. She was scheduled to toast the newlyweds after the bride’s ninth brother. The window glass cracked in praise of the poet, and a pink girdle from the exploded department store across the road fell to her feet.
With moonshine still gurgling in their throats, the guests started home ten minutes past curfew. “Hände hoch,” the tired Gefreiter yawned, and split the dusk with a couple of drowsy shots.
Khaim gave the pale bridegroom a supportive pat on the nape. Rosa divided the back of the room with a calico curtain to give the young couple some privacy for their first night—the muffled fuss, the thudding of limbs against the wall.
“Engineer-schmengineer, can’t even use his second head,” Khaim sneered from the rug in the opposite corner.
“Some can’t even use their first,” Rosa snapped. “Shut up—let the boy concentrate.”
Ten wagons, twelve boxcars, Herr Consul, the knobbly parade of rails. Shoora peered through the chink between the wooden planks: forest steppe had swallowed the city slums. Murders of firs, shoals of birches along the railway were running for life to catch the last messy spurts of the sun.
Plaits, kerchiefs, sweat, bundles—the soothing density of passengers, mostly women and children, made Shoora feel almost home. Different was the odd silence in the boxcar, perhaps an awed appreciation of fortune: belonging to men who belonged to a factory that deserved being saved from the war. A pail of water was passed, two gulps not more, as agreed. Shoora reached under her skirt and poured a triple ratio onto her freshly sore crotch—she didn’t miss her husband at all. She passed the pail on, ignoring the angry glances, and leaned herself against the breathing mass.
Bolts, beds, slides, tailstocks—Benz Goldberg hadn’t sat down since the train pulled out. The order was to stay with the Main Lathe round the clock, not that he minded much.
Tenderly, tirelessly, he was oiling his protégé with wiper pads, checking its joints, tucking in its tarpaulin blanket. When rubbed, the machine smelled like Shoora behind the curtain, only the metal shone with pleasure under his hands. “You will adore this curve line,” the matchmaker had said. The photo hadn’t lied about the sweet undulations; neither had it betrayed the bride’s zero conductivity or high-voltage obstinacy.
Benz wished he could stay in the wagon until the war was over, until his wife aged, until Communism came. Main Lathe was an endearing companion, yet somewhat boring, too straight. Revamped to produce bomb shells instead of pans and ladles, it was irrelevant for the personal needs of a cultivated man. No matter how many decades it would take, one day Benz would craft the technical consort he deserved.
Turn on, turn off with a button; the size of a square tea tray; a smooth mermaid body of cool silver; a face of robust Plexiglas. Benz tickles the face with his right thumb: it lights up like a rainbow and sings him a fanfare hello. For starters, fresh news of the future: dead Stalin; first man on the moon. Main course: Jules Verne, now a genie in the magic gadget with no chance to flee as he did when Benz had to trade the unfinished book for a wedding bow tie. To and fro goes the thumb, turning the ghostly pages—hold on, there is a fancy dessert. No milkmaid—a Hollywood bombshell, blue-eyed, civilized, shiksa-blond. Thumb right—off slings the fox muff, thumb left, off flies the pink gown. Thumb down—she will shortly be naked: quick, quick, before the bomb aims at the train with a major seventh. Thumb up—the stop crane is torn down: from the jackknifed mess, the crescent moon picks Benz Goldberg on the tarpaulin blanket up onto its naked lap.
Shoora crawls up the rampart through derelict kerchiefs and plaits—on moves the train. Six wagons, nine boxcars, Herr Consul. Main Lathe is intact, knock on wood.
“My chestnuts, my gold ostentation—flare out your trains, fight the foe,” Oksana wrote on the last piece of wallpaper she could reach to scrape off. An hour past curfew, and too quiet to fall asleep: the Schweißlochs had been summoned to Bye-Bye Yard, upon the order of the Commandant of Kiev, as well as the Goldbergs and the Steins, “to be saved from the war.” Oksana had already used up all her notebooks, all the old newspapers, and then she had run out of ink. But that night the new stanza wouldn’t come out the way she wished. The head of the line would show up and then disappear again. Oksana lingered a little and went to the kitchen.
A boning knife is a strict midwife for a poem, a kitchen table a hard bed. Keep it plain for less pain and no risk of infection. Cut—scatter the prefix beads, dash—off with the suffix lace. Farewell children in Berlin and Warsaw, fame is not for a poet alive.
My verse—my son—you will live on—the stanza was delivered at last.
The Gefreiter wiped a tear with his knuckle—his eyes were watering for lack of sleep. The last batch had been especially exhausting—an endless Gorgone-haired family smelling of cobbler’s glue. The patriarch couldn’t stop quarreling with his wife even at the edge of the ravine: it was embarrassing to understand their dialect so well. With no more break than a quick date with a nice platoon nurse at sunrise, the next order was issued: clean the quarter to the last human item, whatever its faith. The door of the garret at the end of a long staircase was so feeble it gave in with the first strike.
At the History Museum, you can’t fail to find Oksana’s table, Herr Consul—it is the first exhibit you’ll see. Not even the dumbest schoolchild can fail to learn the boning knife lines by heart—Ukrainian language curriculum, grade one.
Shoora had no intention of drowning herself in the Ob River with Mom’s gills flapping anxiously in her belly. Rather, she wished to stand out from all the young widows at the factory, to be sympathized with, to be caught by the curls just in time, neck-deep in Siberian November, or she wouldn’t have gone into the water straight at the construction site, with Mechanic Popov on a vigil at the Main Lathe. The prettiest girl in the field kitchen, Shoora was worth being pulled out. In his barrack, Popov poured Shoora a mug of moonshine for the warm-up, then melted a spoonful of sugar on the kerosene stove—mmm, how delicious was the treat under his blanket, how comfortingly the spoon fitted. (In the dawn’s early light in Brooklyn, fondly, calligraphically, in strict alphabetical order, fat David Shylock finished labeling the jars in Shoora, his first candy store.)
“Shoora Khaimovna, you will bury us all,” Dad says, wiping his perspiring brow after shooting Grandmother her second daily portion. She bites a lollipop off his subservient palm—my application filled out, Herr Consul—don’t think I am in better command of Ukrainian than you.