On the Sofa of a Synagogue in Vilnius, 1923

Quintan Ana Wikswo

Her in heavy pants, thick-waxed canvas work apron tied stout around her waist and chest, covered with paints and mud. Her son Leo doesn’t speak—he’s ten, and he has lost all his words, his recognition of her, and now his are the three dark scratches down her nose. In my bag god knows what. A tin of charcoals, blackberries, a bicycle chain for repair. Summer. Around two in the afternoon, before the songs and shouts of children too early gone from school. After the deliveries, glass bottles of milk and medicines on dolly and trolley, precarious on the cobblestones. Her mouth on my nipple—it began with laughing. At the end of the hallway, the old metal door that sticks in the heat with old paint clotted on its hasps. A thick grate across its window, like it’s braced for cheese, or a crowbar. Us on the other side, not waiting.

Enter the husbands in my mind, hers a blackberry, all curls and little seeds of yud. Mine I pretend permissive, this a gift. I am an idiot, and this is where we belong, on this sofa, one foot pressed against the linoleum floor that later I will scrub. It’s what I came to do. The bottoms of my feet black, my nails black grimed beneath, there are crumbs inside her shirt from the little one, unleavened. This is our hour. There is no magic for women in the morning—all is preparing, inventory, reminders, making ready for tasks, errands, disasters of blood and body and book learning. Clothing bought and sold, sizes adjusting for age, accounting for nutrition. List making, stock taking, coals in the oven, and where are the pencils to be sharpened. The knives. Brisket. When will the butcher be ready. For us, the afternoon, the hour of naps.

For an instant I remembered our apartment—in a flash I emptied it—no tables and chairs and children, pots, towels, photographs, curtains—just a wide expanse of cream wall, four windows, and this flat green synagogue couch striped with lust and light.

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