Mail-Order Bride: from Russia to the Dakota Prairie

The physical inspection was first. Eyes. Nose. On her chin, a thumb opened her jaw. The woman’s hands weren’t soft but they were dry, at least, like salted fish. Minna closed her eyes, then worried she looked afraid and opened them. The fingers tugged at her earlobes. They prowled at her nape.

But now the woman ordered Minna to take everything off, and when Minna had stripped down to her underclothes, she ordered her to take these off, too. Minna felt dizzy. The room was unheated, in a basement, in a municipal building, after hours. The only color came from orange patches of rust on the walls.

The door opened. A man entered the room, followed by another woman, followed by a tall metal contraption she rolled behind her. She held a flame to it; gas flared; white light flooded the room. Minna’s skin went taut. The lamp was the sort they brought to the mines after an accident, the sort they’d used when they pulled her father out. Its cold glare missed nothing. The stone floor was crumbling.

“Off,” the woman said again.

The man waited, a pipe in his mouth. His beard was red and tattered, as if it housed moths. Maybe he was a real doctor. Mail-Order Bride from Russia to the Dakota Prairie fiction by anna solomon Maybe he wasn’t. Minna chose to concentrate on his thin shoulders under his thin shirt, on how he kept his eyes on his fingernails, which he appeared to be cleaning with his thumbnails. He could almost look — if she looked right — apologetic.

She unknotted her bodice and folded it in half. She folded it again, then again, then set it on top of her other clothing, on the floor. Order, she thought, willing her arms not to shake. Show them order. A wife is meant to create order.

“Get on with it,” said the woman. “Drawers.”

The woman’s breath was close, and sharp, like seawater crossed with wine. Minna fended off her desire to pull away. She would never, she told herself, have to smell this smell again. She would live across oceans, she would have a husband, she would have her own house. Her own sink and bath, made of zinc or copper — even stone would do — in which she could wash whatever and whenever she pleased.

Her eyes startled open when the fish hands cupped her breasts and lifted. At her stomach she felt a tickle: the man’s beard. He drew so close he might have been sniffing her.

“You’re sixteen?” he asked her navel.

Minna nodded.

“Your event comes every month, yes?”

Usually by the groom’s family, admittedly — but so many families had already left. Perhaps it was better this way. She’d never have to see these people again. There was a method; there were rules; there was a prize.

South Dakota

It was hard to tell, at first, whether Max was unnaturally tall or the doorway was unnaturally short. He stood as he did in the picture — the real picture, that was, undistorted by Minna’s more optimistic contrivances: hands empty by his sides, feet pointed out, knees locked. His beard was not trimmed in any style; it was simply hair, covering much of his face.

Minna didn’t move. This had been her last chance — her arrival. She’d come so far. Now she was here. And that was him.

For a man standing in front of his own house, he looked nervous; he wore a caught, wincing smile, as if he would like to somehow rearrange himself but feared seeming indecisive. When he spoke, his voice was passably deep but crumbly, like a dough rolled too thin.

“Minna.” He looked at her hand, which she had forgotten to hold out. Then, shyly, he took it in his own, and said, to her horror, “My love.”

Minna almost jerked away. She was embarrassed for Max even more than for herself. He was not young enough to be naive — where had he learned to expose himself in such a way? He could not love her, of course. He’d just met her. And besides, who used that word out loud? Only poor people could marry for love. Minna tasted the salt of rising tears. She was determined, she was desperate, not to fall apart. She thought, At least his fingers are soft — at least they’re not a poor man’s fingers. She ignored the fact that his grip was like wet paper. She ignored what soft hands might say about a farmer. Maybe, she thought, he meant “love” simply as an indicator of fact — the fact of the situation between a husband and his wife-to-be. Like one might look at a bolt of cloth at market and say, out loud, muslin, just to have said it. She took a deep breath. “Hello, Max,” she said.

“Please. Call me Motke.”

Her father, Minna realized, had been younger than Max was now.

The night blared its excruciating silence. Then a groan broke through: Minna’s stomach, announcing hunger. She waited for her face to burn, for her mouth to say zayt moykhl — yet neither happened. She couldn’t locate any desire to impress Max. Instead a belligerence welled up in her. She took the bundle from Jacob and turned to Max. “They told you I would arrive with luggage? You thought I was rich?”

“No. If you were rich, you wouldn’t come here.”

“What did they tell you?”

“Almost nothing.”

Minna was suddenly sorry. But this wasn’t remorse, or even pity. It was closer, perhaps, to sorrow. She wondered if Max was as disappointed by her youth as she was by his age. She wondered with what money he’d paid for her crossing. And the Rosenfeld’s examination? Did he have any idea what he’d paid for? She tried to find his eyes in the dark, then thought it better that she couldn’t.

“Then we are even,” she said.

Max’s outline seemed to melt slightly. He turned. She could see his lips now: thick for a man, and alarmingly pink. “This is a discussion for another time,” he said. “You are hungry. My love.”

Inside, the house — the room — felt even smaller than it looked, the scale almost miniature, as if built for dwarves. There was a short table. Three shipping crates for chairs. One bed, a small stove, a bench lined with buckets. The floor was dirt, the walls were dirt. In one corner, a hole had been dug out: here she saw, emerging from a blanket, curly black hair. Samuel, asleep. Or pretending to sleep, she thought. More likely he just didn’t want to meet her. Which was fine. Minna did not particularly want to meet him. It was enough, for one night, to meet a husband. Better to leave something still unknown — though she wished, instead of a stepson, that it might be a second room. The air smelled of breath and smoke, and something richer, ranker — a pile of horse dung, she saw, by the stove. Their fuel, she realized.

“Please,” said Max, and handed her a steaming plate.

What kind of meat she’d been served, Minna couldn’t tell, but it tasted sweet and was warm. When she offered some to Jacob, he looked to his father, then shook his head. She didn’t offer again. She felt greedy and light, and though the baseness of her hunger disturbed her, along with the baser baseness of how simple it was to ease, she had a sense that her future called for a certain hoarding, and ate the rest without stopping even to say thank you.

The men were gone. Minna felt it before she saw. An earthen stillness in the room. She rolled over. The only window looked like it might have been a mistake: a snag of light near the door, white as a rag. If she faced away she could almost be in her attic in Odessa. If not for the smell of dung. If not for the uncovered straw beneath her, or the knowledge that in this room, this plank bed was the trophy. Last night, before laying himself down in the hole with his sons, Max had lowered his eyes and said, “You’ll have the bed.”

She’d been full with meat, and sleepy, and glad to be left alone. She was glad for it now. Still, there was a flatness in her chest, as if she were trapped beneath a pane of storefront glass. She thought of the eggbeater in Galina’s kitchen. She thought: I should have taken it. I should have taken the eggbeater and the good spatula and the good knife. I should have taken as much as I could carry.

The door was lighter than her hand expected, made of broken-down crates, and opened too quickly: the sky was fierce in its light. She stumbled out squinting; seeing no one, hearing nothing, she squatted to pee. Then haltingly, warily, she blinked her way to vision. She couldn’t believe, at first, that her eyes were working properly, for there was nothing to see but grass, the same infinite monotony they’d ridden through on the train. Minna turned to face the house and saw that it was built into the side of a short hill. It was, she realized, more of a cave than a house. She circled around to the other side, where there was no wall or door; if it weren’t for the little tin chimney poking out, the hill would look like nothing more than a hill. So that must have been where Max had stood for the photograph. He’d appeared to be standing in front of nothing but sky because he was. There might be nothing for miles as tall as this meager hill they called a house. She thought of the brick house on Beltsy’s square, and remembered its secret: there wasn’t a single brick. It was a wood house, like all the others, glued over with tin plate and painted to look like brick. A trick — empty as the magician’s rings. And everyone had gone around adoring it.

She raised an arm to shade her eyes. Behind the hill stood a tree, and tied to the tree, like a horse, stood a cow. Near the cow was a small kitchen garden, a few feet across, and a little roof, under which six or so chickens dozed on their nests. The cow was thin, her udders like raindrops about to split from an eave.

This was the yard, then. Minna lifted her eyes slowly, uncertain she wanted to see beyond. But there was a field, a small field yet real, a real field plowed and planted with a respectable crop of wheat. It was something, she thought. Next year — she dared think it, Next Year, and was proud, for she’d made a promise of her own accord, or as close as she’d ever come to her own accord — Next Year there would be more. More rows, more crops, more food, more money. Minna could picture the order of it, the bounty. She could see fields running to the horizon.

Then she saw more clearly through the sun’s glare: the wheat wasn’t right. The seeds had fallen off; the stems were bent and tangled; in some patches they were lying down, all in one direction, as if they’d been flattened by an impossibly massive wheel. Minna was conscious, suddenly, of the air at her back. She was alone, not as she’d been in her father’s house, or in Galina’s attic, but an alone that made her afraid to move in case she’d find herself gone.

At the edges of the ruined field, there were rocks, piled into little mountains. Past these, a long, lopsided swath of dark soil had been turned up but not yet planted. It was nearly September. Hardly time to break new ground. Even Minna, who’d done little more than weed her father’s vegetable patch, knew this. Yet there, at the far boundary of the plowed earth, Minna spotted the horse and mule, and three figures, digging up more rocks.

Minna shuddered, a chill through her bones of too much sun too fast. Her ears buzzed, but she could see no insects. Her eyes watered. She closed them, opened them again. And there, way off, so sudden in her vision that they seemed to have grown just for her, was a line of tall, broad-limbed trees, their branches heavy with leaves, following the path of a small creek. She felt a dazzling relief. An exaggerated dazzle, perhaps; even so, she let it wash over her. She thought: I grew up among trees, in the forest. And maybe that, too, wasn’t fully honest, since Minna had grown up on the edge of the forest, or more accurately at the edge of the town. But she was desperate for the story to cohere. It depended, she decided, on which way you faced, and Minna’s father had preferred to face away from the town and toward the forest and Minna had been his daughter and son and done the same. Yes. Minna and her father would eat their supper facing the forest, sitting in silence, side by side, watching until the birds disappeared into the trees and the trees disappeared into the night.

Minna remembered thinking of their watching as a form of guardianship, a supervision of the most natural and necessary sort — as if without her and her father, the trees would never rest. But now she realized she’d been wrong. Standing in the dry air under the hot sun on the hill that was the cave that was now her house, she thought it hadn’t been the trees that needed protecting, but her and her father who’d needed the trees. To see everything all at once, sky whole, horizon whole, sun whole, was punishing. It seemed to suggest that there was nothing else to know.

The method, Minna thought, was not all that it could be. There was a link missing somewhere, a faulty assumption, a confusion of priority. The horse and mule barely worked. They stood at the edge of the dirt, looking smug, facing all the grass that hadn’t been turned over. There was so much grass, growing so brazenly to the horizon, that the farm — the yard and the field and the newly turned soil, even the trees — appeared to be little more than a blemish. Beyond the grass, apparently, was a country, but it couldn’t be seen from where Minna stood. 

Back in the dark of the cave, she could barely see. She sipped from the smallest bucket, hoping it was the clean one, and when the water tasted of nothing worse than wood, she gulped it down. She sat on one of the boxes until her vision returned, then covered her eyes with her hands. Her hands smelled familiar. Blood pounded in her neck. Breathe. She calmed herself in the urgent, giddy way one does when the only other choice is panic. Then she spread one finger at a time, revealing the room in stripes so narrow she could almost pretend that it wasn’t real. Line of board. Slice of blackened iron. There was a clean edge of light. Half a candlestick, curves like knuckles. A scrap of white —

Minna was up, moving toward it, her fingers on the fringe before she realized that it was just the corner of a folded prayer shawl. She stepped back, embarrassed. What had she imagined it might be? A note from her predecessor, offering advice? A piece of lace? Proof, simply, that another woman had existed here? Ridiculous, the very thought — Max’s wife had lasted only two days, barely long enough to see the “house” dug let alone to leave behind a souvenir — yet Minna couldn’t stop herself. She looked under the pillow on the bed, lifted up the blankets in the hole. She peered behind the stove. In one corner was a box with a few shirts, all men’s, all threadbare, the pockets ripping loose. She felt the edge of the table, the undersides — there was no drawer. She opened a sack and found potatoes, opened another and found an inch of flour. In a small tin there were coffee beans; next to the coffee beans was a small stack of magazines which looked to be primers on farming. Under the shawl were two stacks of dishes and tins, a prayer book, a pair of leather boxes — Max’s tefillin — and a possibly dead cricket. Minna laid a finger on its back, easily crushed it, then pulled down the prayer book, which she gripped by the cover and shook. When nothing came loose, she shook harder. Finally a sheaf of paper dropped out and she knelt down to look. But it was only a section of the book, broken off by her assault. She tried to shove it back into place, then realized she was grinding the whole book into the dirt. She yanked it up and the pages fell out again. In the synagogue, she remembered, when a book so much as touched a bench, the women cradled and kissed it. But in Minna’s rush to pick up the pages, she tore one, and in the seconds that followed, which felt like hours, as the letters grew blacker and more accusing, she decided it would be easier to bury the page than fix it. She started to dig. That the floor was dirt suddenly seemed a blessing.

If you were careful, her father said, you could make a decent seamstress. That would keep you. That would be a decent way to live. But no. Never careful. Worse than your mother.

Minna grew aware of herself, scratching like a rat. A shadow had tilted into the room: tall, but not Max. Taller than Max, and with longer arms. But these arms weren’t skinny, and they ended in fists. Minna squinted, trying to make out his eyes, then realized she must look mad. She grabbed the prayer book off the ground and opened it as if to read. He might leave, she thought, and pretend he hadn’t seen her. He might laugh. But he did neither. He stepped closer and squatted down, and now his face came into view: long and sharp-jawed and rough with black stubble. He was better-looking than Jacob, yes, even handsome, yet somehow difficult to look at. Hard. Or maybe Minna couldn’t look at him because he was looking at her as through a nearly gone piece of soap — as if he was seeing fear and sin and bone all splayed out, and this confusion that he’d caused in her fingers and toes, a tingling close to pain.

She closed the book. “Don’t just watch me, then.”

His hand reached toward her — warm from its fist. “Samuel,” he said.

“Yes.” She slipped free. “I deduced that.”

“Are you all right?”

Minna stood. She felt dangerously tempted to answer him honestly. A sudden longing to talk and talk. But the grass, she would say, but the light, but this was not what I expected. But what did she expect?

She dusted off the book with her skirt, turning so he couldn’t see her face. “You won’t…” She stopped.

“No.” Samuel rose from his squat. Again he reached his hand toward her. Minna mistrusted him suddenly — not that he wouldn’t keep her secret but that he would keep it out of kindness. His curls stood in jagged chunks around his head, yet somehow they didn’t look silly; they seemed to be watching her, like his eyes, for another misstep. Which might include, she thought, her taking his hand again. Then he was saying, “What? You want to keep it?” and Minna realized that he was looking at the book. He only wanted her to give him the book. She felt relief as she handed it back, then a stab of injury as she watched him place it on the shelf. His movements were efficient, his back straight. She couldn’t tell if he cared about the book itself, and the words within, or just the fact that she’d been desecrating it. When he turned again, his expression was as illegible as at first.

“Is there anything you need?” he asked.

She wanted to cry.

“To prepare dinner I mean.” He spoke gently. “Is there anything you need. I’ve been the cook, up until now.”

Minna straightened. It was simple, she told herself. A simple question. All he wanted was a simple answer. She brushed her dirty hands against each other, set them on her hips, and swallowed. “What do I cook?”

“That’s easy,” Samuel said. “There are few options. A pancake out of potatoes, a pancake out of flour. There’s butter made last week, in the well” — he pointed at a board on the floor — “and milk from this morning. If there are extra eggs, eggs.”

“And meat?” she asked.

“We’re waiting a shipment. The nearest kosher butcher is at Sioux Falls. He’ll come through in a couple weeks. Maybe.”

“What I ate last night, that was the last?”

“Only the best, for the bride.”

Minna inspected his face carefully, trying to find a hint of venom, but he had nothing of Jacob’s soft cheeks or Max’s nervous eyes, only a self-sufficiency that was beginning to anger her. And the word bride from that perfectly symmetrical mouth. She no longer wanted to cry, she wanted to hit him, this older boy who would be her stepson, who seemed decent, almost gracious, yet also calculating, who made her feel nervous as a hare. She was not used to wanting a person to like her.

She worked to keep her voice steady. “When do you eat?”

“When there’s food ready.”

“I’ll call for you, then.”

“You might try shouting.” For an instant Samuel looked possibly, vaguely, amused. Then he turned to go.

“I can shout,” Minna blurted.

Samuel grabbed the top of the door frame and stopped. He kept his back to her — an affected pose, she thought, meant to make him look like a man. She chose to ignore the fact that it succeeded. “Is there a rake?” she asked.

“A species of one. What for?”

“The ruined wheat. I thought I’d use it to make a fire that didn’t stink of shit.”

“Ah. You’re blunt. And you can shout. Yet you haven’t asked what happened to the field.”

“I didn’t think it mattered. It’s done.”

Samuel released the door frame, let his arms fall to his sides, and breathed out a long, weary sigh — the kind of man’s sigh Minna couldn’t help but feel she’d caused.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Samuel stepped out into the sun. “The rake’s behind the chicken house. But remember,” he said, turning to face her, and she saw a crack now in his facade, the way the deepest cracks appear only in the brightest light. She saw, for an instant, how utterly unhappy he was. Then he smiled — her first glimpse of his strong, white teeth — and said brightly, “When the wheat won’t make fire, it’s not your fault.”

Anna Solomon’s short stories have twice been awarded the Pushcart Prize. This piece is from her new novel, The Little Bride, reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © 2011 by Anna Solomon.