ODESSA: February, 1932

A Jewish school. Here Solomon and Nadya
teach separate subjects in Yiddish to teens.
Both come home late. Dishes clatter.
They eat face to plate, instead of face to face.
He doesn't ask her, "Why do you hate me?"
She doesn't dare to say, "Dear, go away!"

Nobody asks and nobody leaves
because half a word, half a gesture
will suffice to light the usual row--
even silence may explode.
Solomon's glasses slither down his nose;
he pours himself a shot (Mustn't do that!), then another,
tosses to the cat (Mustn't do that!) a scrap of sausage.

A pity there's a witness--the daughter, almost eight.
She had been spending nights with her namesake aunt the last month.
Raya has nightmares and obsessions, goes wild,
fantasizes--and goes to the sanitarium every fall,
and in spring has a hacking cough and swollen glands,
which may owe more to rejection than infection.

Nadya goes to her bed, sobs and mutters from the corner.
Solomon opens a book: Mendele Mojkher-Sforim,
An Everyday History. Black humor,
reading less like speech than moaning.
"What do we fight for, Lord; what do we fight for?"
"Best not to say--best not to say."

Only half a year of this life is left them.
They will die, one after the other: Nadya, of cancer,
saying (when she received the morphine needle)
that she was afraid of becoming addicted--
Solomon, of tuberculosis, coughing and choking,
finished off by the blood filling up his lungs.

Only the Christian cemetery accepted other nationalities
at the beginning of the thirties, so they buried them there.

Among its crosses I have seen the tombstones:
concrete slabs, marble plaques,
names in Russian and in Hebrew.

But both Rayas, daughter and sister of Nadya-Nekhama,
had a childish fear of death, and so, of graveyards.
No one now remembers the number of the plot.

Sometimes I feel compelled,
to delve into the graves registry.
Instead, I sort through old pictures.
Here is Solomon, two years before his death,
standing tall in a Persian lamb hat
wearing a winter coat with a coachman's collar.
The photo is faded, worn, torn at the corner.

This is Nadya, taken at the beginning of the twenties.
Wide-brimmed hat, big eyes, swollen lips.

Grandmother used to say to me,
"In the first years, I grieved for my sister,
who died before she turned forty,
but everything happens in its time. . ."

* * * *

And I thought the dead, who have already died,
more fortunate than the living, who are still alive
(Eccl. 4.2).

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