Mother’s Milk (originally published in Jewish Fiction and Ami Magazine)
Mikhail looked down at his chest, past his black beard bristling with its fresh trim, and frowned. A gold button was missing from his uniform. He didn’t know when or how this one button happened to fall off. If he were back at the army camps, he wouldn’t care. Back there, something was always going missing: a boot, a beaver cap, sometimes even a sword or pistol, or worse. Just a month ago, an officer took a lance and sliced off the ear of another officer after a gambling brawl. When the man later showed up in the barracks with a missing ear, no one blinked an eye. But here, on these St. Petersburg avenues with the polished street lights and fancy carriages and majestic buildings, people would notice a missing button. He was certain of it.
He walked down a busy street, the shops nearly obscured by a recent snowfall. Where would he find a button in this cold, beautiful city? He scratched at the back of his neck – the barber had done a poor job cleaning off the hairs – and groped inside his satchel, brushing past woolen socks, a nightdress, a salve for the corn on his big toe, a small pouch of money, and tucked behind his crucifix, a pamphlet the army gave out to its officers, “How to Find a Suitable Position after the Army.” But he found no button.
A soldier trudged by, not one from his own company, but a fellow with a downy mustache from the next regiment, a youth, really. Mikhail fastened his eyes on the boy’s coat – the soldier was already missing a few buttons, eh? – but then dismissed the impulse. In a few months Mikhail would be released from the army. St. Petersburg was not the army and he needed to remember this. Soon, he would have to find his own way. He had no relatives, or at least not any that he remembered. Since he was a boy of eight, he had served in the army, first under Tsar Alexander, and now under his younger brother, Tsar Nicholas. Mikhail was thirty-nine.
He watched as the soldier kicked his way through the snow and turned a corner. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, they took them so young. He shrugged. Anyway, the button didn’t match.
In two hours he would meet with a Mr. Orlovsky, and he had to look the part, the officer that he was. He was seeking a position of some kind. Other officers were using their family connections to seek a higher position. Some had even been awarded tracts of land. But since he didn’t have any connections or land offers, he would be happy with a clerk or manager position.
A shop sign caught his eye. A general store, he thought, and he stomped the snow off his boots and entered.
He nearly bumped his head against the low ceiling and walked down a few steps. The air felt different down here. What a smell, of old books and old things, and something unpleasantly sweet in the air like rotting candy. He looked about, blinking in the dim light.
An old man with a frightened cast to his shoulders and an old woman, both dressed in old Jew garb, glanced at him and shrank back like startled mice. They cowered behind a counter, the man with his dark Jew cap on the yellow bulb of his head, the woman hooded. Their fear puzzled him. They should be glad to get a customer this early, he thought.
Mikhail’s glance traveled the small, square room, the spools of ribbon, the different colored bolts of cloth tilting drunkenly against one another, a dented samovar, knives of varying sizes, a bowl of hard candy (was this where the bad smell came from? he wondered), a row of little red drums, a wood carving of a doll. Knick-knacks. His gaze swung over to the ancient couple. They watched his every move, as if any second prepared to flee, to leave everything behind down to the last bolt of cloth. Why the fear, he thought irritably. A Russian officer wasn’t a boor. He knew how to conduct himself in the city, even in this ugly little store.
His saber knocked against a pottery item on a low shelf and the pot or glass crashed to the ground. He glanced at his arched saber with its ornate silver mountings, the one he had “requisitioned” from a dead Cossack officer, and as he tucked it closer to his side, he realized with a jolt to his ribs that they had mistaken him for a Cossack. That explained the furtive looks, the pale faces. He was about to make an apology for the broken knick-knack (in the army pamphlet it mentioned the importance of manners), then stopped. Those Jews might dare to ask him to pay for the item. He, a soldier – an officer – of the Russian homeland. “Does this store of yours have buttons?” he said loudly, stepping over the pieces.
The old man reached for a broom and pan, his movements jerky, almost puppet-like. “Oh yes, most certainly,” he said, one bony knee bent to the ground while he coaxed the fragments into a pan. His voice was strangely cheerful and high, as though he spoke through an obstruction in his nose. Two gray sidecurls hung next to his large ears, and the odd sight made Mikhail burst out laughing. He had not felt mirthful in awhile, and it was almost a relief to laugh. Lately he could not stop wondering how he would live and support himself after the army released him. He wished he had made more of an effort to be friends with the other officers, even though he found them to be a lazy and degenerate lot – always sleeping late, drinking, constantly playing cards and brawling – while he applied himself and worked so diligently. But they might have been useful to him now.
The old man waited patiently for his laughter to end. “Please sir,” the Jew inquired, now settled behind the counter. “What kind of button are you looking for?”
Mikhail frowned. “Don’t you see?”
The old man and woman huddled behind the counter, watchful and silent. Mikhail looked down and realized that his hand was resting on his chest, nearly covering the buttons. He let his arm drop.
“Look at my coat,” Mikhail said. The missing button stood out. It was the fourth button hole. Too bad it wasn’t the first or second button hole because then his beard would cover it.
The old man obliged and raised his flaccid lids to Mikhail’s chest, while the woman reached under the counter and pulled out a rectangular box. She looked down, resting her narrow hands on the box.
“Look here, old woman, look at my coat,” Mikhail said, this time louder, more roughly, holding back an impulse to knock their two heads against each other. He had killed people before, not only enemy soldiers but civilians, though he didn’t believe in killing for the sake of killing, like some of the men in his company. But if necessary… Once, a peasant, a stout hairy fellow, refused to let his men take a few chickens and a pig (army requisitions due to a food shortage), and the peasant spat in Mikhail’s face. Mikhail cut the man to pieces. If he had done anything less brutal, he would have lost the respect of his men and possibly his position.
The old woman lifted her head and her gaze settled on the center of his chest. Her small eyes considered and lingered. “I believe we have the one that matches yours.” She spoke slowly, in a quiet tone, reluctantly releasing each word.
He had heard that slow soft voice before and it pressed hard on the spot where the button used to be. He turned away in an abrupt movement, his saber knocking against something else now. The wooden doll. It wobbled and steadied itself.
Mikhail sat down on a stool, weak. The stuffy, sickly sweet air in this room pressed against his temples. He longed for the bracing winter cold. He pulled the collar away from his neck and brushed off some more hairs. If only that idiot barber hadn’t done such a sloppy job cleaning him up. Maybe the clumsy fool had even knocked off his button in the shop. But what a voice soft like milk she had.
“Bring me a glass of water,” he muttered.
The old man went toward the back, still moving with those same jerky motions. Mikhail said sharply, “Let her” – he gestured toward the counter with his chin, “bring the water.”
Mikhail looked down at his knees. He heard the old man’s footsteps stop. He heard an intake of breath, shuffling noises, then harder sounds, of dishes moving, but he didn’t look up, not even when, a minute later, a woman’s hand placed a glass before him. He took it, drank, but didn’t look at her. He just stared down at his coat and remembered his mother who had a voice like this old woman’s. Unfortunately, he couldn’t recall her face.
But he remembered how, when he was eight, just as he was about to turn into his home, two strange men had snatched him. They were crouching behind the bushes, one tall and fat, the other with foul breath like a dog’s, and they grabbed him and chained his feet and took him away when he was so young, so they could teach him Russian grammar and mathematics and how to march and fight and even sing like a soldier (though he had no ear for music), and toughen him and make him ready for service in the tsar’s army. And here his mother was shouting as they shoved him into a big, rickety cart with all the other crying boys, her yelling something, which for the life of him he cannot recall. Shshshshsh. That’s all he remembered, not a word but a sound. Shshshshsh. It made no sense. Why did she run after the cart, shouting “Shshshsh,” until the horse finally picked up speed and left her behind?
“Here,” the old woman said now. “This button perhaps.” She came toward him, held out the small rectangular box, and pointed at a gold button in the corner.
He looked up. The cloth on her head, some kind of head covering, moved a bit off her forehead, and he saw with a tiny shock to his chest that she was young, not old, even younger than his mother who had to have been 28 or 29 when he left so suddenly that late fall morning. And his mother calling, what was it? — Shsshatta, shpatta, shlatta, but these words he didn’t understand.
He looked down at the button in the box. She had given him the wrong shade of gold, and it was too small besides. This Mr. Orlovsky would look at his coat and realize something wasn’t quite right. His release from the army was only months away. What would he do if this job didn’t work out?
The old man mumbled to his daughter in such a low voice, Mikhail couldn’t catch a single word. Only that the words did not seem Russian.
“Did you ever hear of such a word – shlatta?” Mikhail demanded. “Or maybe shpatta?” The old man, who was twirling his sidecurls with a crooked finger, now stopped and turned to his daughter.
“Sir, these words I never heard.” The old man paused. “Maybe you mean shmatta?”
Mikhail sounded the word out loud. He thought perhaps that was the one. “Shmatta,” he consented.
“It means rags, old clothes no one wants.” He positioned the black cap center on his hairless head and again took up nervously twirling a gray side curl.
Mikhail repeated the word. It had a Polish sound. What a silly thing. Shmatta. He took the word inside him, tried it out in his mind, and remembered how they rode in the cart for hours and days and weeks. There were other carts, too, filled with boys. They traveled for months in these carts, each hating the space that the other boys took up with no room to stretch one’s legs (by then unchained, because where was there to run to?), but when the weather turned even colder, they crammed together like brothers for warmth. When they began to die, the skinny, frailer boys going first, they were simply pushed off the cart. New recruits were always brought from the towns they passed, freshly caught boys, squirming and weeping.
One day, they took all the boys to a lake. Mikhail in his stupidity thought they wanted the boys to bathe. But no, not for a swim or a bath. The man with the terrible breath pushed Mikhail’s face into the smelly cold lake. He counted and held Mikhail’s face down in the water – one, two . .. thirty-one, thirty-two…forty-eight, forty-nine…until he would agree to forget something. The waters were like death. It took Mikhail three dunkings to say yes. It didn’t make sense to suffer for no reason. Inside his heart he would remember whatever this thing was that he was supposed to forget. Other boys took five or ten or even twenty dunkings. Some boys were dunked so many times, they never got up. The soldiers let them fall into the lake and be buried there. But what was he supposed to forget? This he cannot recall. That’s how good a job they did with him. He cannot even remember what he was supposed to forget. He advanced through the army to eventually become an officer. The army to this day considered him a success, one of its own. All right, a junior staff officer, but it was something.
Maybe they wanted him to forget his mother? No, the army wouldn’t be so foolish to ask this. For two more birthdays, he cried for her – the other boys made fun of his snivelling – and then one day he stopped. Sometimes a smell – of cloves or cinnamon, or a certain time of year, the autumn – brought back a memory, but each year it happened less and less, until all he now had was a memory of a memory. And now this voice. It bore a hole in his head.
Eventually the cart broke and the boys walked on foot. Of the close to two hundred boys who had been gathered over the months, only eighty arrived at the army camps.
Shmatta. He didn’t know why his mother would shout shmatta for what seemed like hours as the men kept grabbing and catching other boys just like himself. Maybe his mother was crazy. Maybe all the boys’ mothers were crazy, and that was why they were chosen to go on the cart. If only he could remember something from before that day they took him. What he was like as a young boy. If he had sisters or brothers. A father. A pet dog. But the waters of the lake had cleaned his mind.
The young Jewess brought him another button. Again, she didn’t hand it to him but pointed inside the box. A rage exploded in his chest, and he almost knocked the box to the ground. But then he noticed the button was the right shade of gold and the same exact size. “Sew on the button,” he ordered her. He tapped his chest, and his saber swung slightly.
Her face under her dark hood turned gray. The old Jew stepped closer to his daughter, his watery eyes blinking and blinking.
Mikhail noticed how she trembled even as she attempted to smile. “Please, may the officer remove his jacket?” Her soft voice quavered on the word “remove.”
“Sew it on me.” He patted his chest. “Make sure not to prick me with that needle.”
“But I can’t…” She hung her head.
“Why not?” he demanded.
The old man clasped his daughter’s arm tightly. His gray side curls danced. From a yard away, Mikhail could hear the panicky beat of his heart.
“It is forbidden to touch a man,” she said in a halting voice. “Only my father or husband or a child.”
With a sudden movement, Mikhail reached for his saber and rested the point on her chin. “Sew it!”
“Hindele,” the father screamed, his voice like a horse’s whinny. “Listen to him, sew the button! I am with you!”
At this, Mikhail laughed, then fell into a jagged fit of coughing.
The woman gathered up a needle and thread. She unspooled the thread and bit it off. She tried to crouch to be level with him sitting on the stool, then gave up and got on her knees. With tiny clever movements she thrust the needle in and out of the cloth. He admired her steady hand even as he could hear the pounding in her chest. Her cheek was close to his. Such a young cheek, with freckles, he noticed for the first time, and, he also saw, a tiny mark on her chin where the saber had pressed. He wanted to rip the stupid hood off her head.
“You’re wetting my coat,” he said in surprise, and she squeezed her eyes shut, shuddered slightly, and shrank into herself, and just like that, the tears stopped.
Shshshshshssh. Always, in the army, he heard a whisper like a shadow behind his back, a whisper that stopped when he entered the officers’ card room, and started when he left.
“Shma,” he said suddenly.
She looked up at him. For the first time he saw all her features. Her eyes were smart and bright even if they were small. “Shma?” she said in a hesitant voice.
“Shma,” he repeated firmly. The sound had sprung into his head. Not just a sound, but a complete word. He knew this was his mother’s word. “What is Shma?” he asked.
She held the needle between her thumb and middle finger. She whispered, “In Hebrew it means to hear.”
Mikhail scowled. It had to be some trick. Why would his mother scream at him “hear”? In Hebrew? As if someone’s life depended on it.
He looked at the daughter and then at the father. Their fear had eased a little. He saw something else in their small shifting eyes. As if an invisible thread wrapped around them, and the three stood within the circle together.
Mikhail got up so suddenly the stool turned over and a mouse scuttled across the floorboards. He lunged, and grabbed the father by his scrawny chicken neck. “Tell me what it means!” he shouted.
He felt the old man’s bony neck throb between his thick fingers. “It’s what Jews say,” the old man yelped in his high-pitched voice.
“Jews?!” he said stupidly. “Like you?”
The old man sighed and nodded.
Mikhail gave another hard shake and the old man rattled off a string of foreign sounds: ““Shmaysraelashemlokeinuashemechad.”
“What does it mean?” Mikhail throttled the old man again.
The old man had gone limp. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One.” He stared back at Mikhail through milky old eyes. “It’s our prayer,” he whimpered. “What we say when we wake up, and when we sleep, and just before we die. It’s in our mother’s milk.” His eyes fluttered.
Mikhail dropped the old man who crumpled like old clothes. He stared down at his chest. The button was not quite affixed to his coat. It dangled askew. He stared at his hands, at his saber with the silver mountings. Shmaaaaaaa. He looked around at the bolts of cloth, the wooden doll, the odd knick-knacks, the daughter rushing to her father on the floor, and he saw his mother running after him, her shoes slipping off her feet, her hand clutching the hood at the neck so it didn’t slip off her head. He heard her weeping and her frantic shouts. Shmaaaaaaaaa. The word wouldn’t end. It just kept going. He realized with a terror he had it all wrong. The men at the lake didn’t ask him to forget something. They asked him to accept and remember. To remember Christ. The boys who refused to accept Him suffocated in the lake, and so Mikhail accepted Him that day. And now, not a day went by that he could forget Christ.
The smell in the room pressed against him on all sides. The shma sound went on and on. If he didn’t leave this store, he would be dragged down, pulled to the bottom of the lake, with all the other boys. He turned so violently his saber banged against the bowl of candies and these fell and scattered. He stumbled and stomped up the stairs, and out the door, into the cold, toward his appointment with Mr. Orlovsky.
From his heap on the ground, the old man stared at the door. His daughter crouched next to him and he pulled her close. He touched the mark on her chin, and her pointy shoulders shook so hard her hood fell off. “Sha, sha,” the old man said. He stroked her delicate head. With a creak and groan, he rose to his feet, and with jerky motions, swept up the last pieces of broken pottery and the candy too. “Cossacks!” he muttered furiously. “Goyim!” and continued to sweep.