ODESSA, 1919-1974

Daniel, son of Mir,
said unto Miriam, daughter of Aaron,
"Be my wife
according to the Law of Moses
and the custom of Israel,
and I shall love thee,
keep thee and support thee
according to the custom of the sons of Israel,
hardworking, loving,
respecting and supporting
their wives as is fitting."

The lines of the contract
acquire the tint of suffering
under the patina of past circumstance
too fearful to stand comparison
with the simple vows listed above.

Above, high above the expanse
divided into equal blocks,
paved with cobbles and Italian tile,
are built flimsy two-story houses
of golden limestone
with Italianate pretensions,
and wrought iron gates
with ornamental plaques
bearing the date of construction
(usually, the turn of the last century,
an era that reveals an aspect
increasingly akilter as it verges on
becoming the century before last).

She had a piano and a document
certifying that, as a student of the conservatory,
she used the piano as an instrument of production,
not as a bougeois luxury or as a source of income.

And she had a thoughtful husband,
who graduated (barely)
from a miller's trade school, but
who donned a military uniform
despite his natural inclination
and contrary to his education.

Her husband had friends--
commanders in the Red Army.

They often appeared in group photos
with the military bandsmen.
Flags, horns and drums, it seems,
were ornaments of the uniform
and regimented pace of the life.

Then the photos
fell subject to dismemberment.
Faces, groups, whole ranks disappeared,
from the left, from the right and top,
but his face (until a certain time)
remained as a constant.

She wept for weeks, or lay
in silence, curled toward the wall--

or worse--gaiety, hilarity,
dramatic poses in bright dresses,
made-up eyes dilated
with unnatural elation.

He called her a person given to extremes.
Psychiatrists, who documented
her disability as mental illness,
apparently thought differently.

Then he disappeared. The family still keeps
three documents reflecting
three versions of his fate.

In the first, the NKVD chief
informs the applicant that
his very well-informed bureau
has no information at its disposal
pertaining to her husband.

The other two disagree
concerning the time and cause of death.
So, she could take her pick
between two words:
"pneumonia" or "shot".

She read the papers through
and kept them with the document
certifying that her son was killed in action.

* * * * *

Near the end of her life
the bouts of madness
ceased to visit her.

When she was well past seventy
she married a deaf, quarrelsome old man
who slapped her around,
providing the grounds for divorce.

When she was young
she often exclaimed,
"Leave me alone!"
When she was old, they did.

Miriam, daughter of Aaron,
said unto Daniel, son of Mir,
"Oh, take my hand, don't turn away,
but lead me along the gallery
where all the boards are sprung
and the doors and windows
to the left resemble old picture frames,
which would take restorers years of labor
to see that, beneath the layer of soot and dust;
under rust-colored spots and ripped
grey paper with remnants of print,
there is nothing, nothing."

And at the threshold is a heap of clay clods
and these people with ropes and shovels,
wearing quilted jackets. These people--
what are they doing here?

© 1996 Boris Khersonsky. All rights reserved.
Translation by Ruth Kreuzer and Dale Hobson.