When Milotchka was two, she was scalded — not seriously, but painfully — when she spilled hot fruit compote on herself. She loved eating, and as her grandmother brought the cup of compote close to feed her, Milotchka snatched at it. The cup overturned, and the contents spilled — mainly on Grandma, but also on Milotchka. Milotchka burst into tears, and her mother and grandmother began a series of emergency procedures — they dipped her scalded hands into cold water, patted oil on her skin, walked back and forth with her in their arms, and so forth. But Milotchka went on crying, and after an hour Milotchka’s mother got tired and said, “Nu, enough, we’ve cried a bit and that’s enough”; and later, “Nu, enough already, you’ve cried enough, it shouldn’t hurt after we’ve put oil on it”; and afterward, “Enough, enough, how long can you cry for!” Milotchka was startled and fell silent for a moment, but immediately resumed her crying. And then Grandma, who hadn’t had time to treat her own burns, took off Milotchka’s blouse and cried, “Oy vey,” because there was another burn on her granddaughter’s belly, which was already blistering.
On numerous occasions later, Milotchka’s grandmother told her about this incident — which, of course, Milotchka couldn’t remember — in a voice weighed down with guilt: You cried and cried, and we didn’t understand why. Sometimes her mother recounted it too, in a similar tone but with more than a trace of rebuke: See what happens when you don’t have any self-control about food?
This reprimand was hurtful to Milotchka. Dr. Brachfeld, who became her pediatrician once she turned five, had said in the most certain terms possible that she had a metabolism problem, so why did her mother insist she had no self-control? But Milotchka wouldn’t actually say anything, because her mother was prone to migraines and they needed to be careful not to bring on an attack.
Instead, Milotchka would go to bed and look at the small tapestry on the wall. She listened to the regular breathing of her grandmother asleep in her bed against the opposite wall, and, by the light of the streetlamp outside the window, looked at the little goat that was about to be hurt. The tapestry showed the little goat with its six brothers and sisters and their mother, as well as a wolf peering out at them from behind a pine tree. Milotchka’s grandmother had told her about the wolf, who waited patiently until the mother goat went into the forest to gather grass for the family’s meal, and then devoured all seven little goats. Milotchka knew that afterward the mother goat would come, cut the wolf’s belly open with her horns, and all the goats would jump out, but she made frightened eyes during the part about the goats being devoured each time her grandmother got to it, because she felt sorry for Grandma, who had to get down on her hands and knees every day to clean the floor because Milotchka’s mother was allergic to dust. For the same reason, she excitedly expressed her joy when the little goats jumped out of the wolf ’s belly. And only when her grandmother fell asleep would Milotchka pet the one goat on whom the visit to the wolf’s belly was to leave severe traces — for when the mother goat sliced the wolf’s belly open, her horns would graze this goat and harm its metabolism.
Milotchka frequently listened to the grownups’ conversations — those between her father and mother, her mother and father and grandmother, and between her parents and grandmother and visitors. She was unaccustomed to the company of children. She was an only child and didn’t go to kindergarten because her father had made it very clear that there was no reason to expose her to the dubious care of the teachers there when Grandma was at home all the time. The few children she did know weren’t friendly, so she gave up trying to get close to them and waited for the move to another city, which had been talked about a great deal by the grownups. Meanwhile, she listened to the conversations and was fascinated by serious words like economy, the Middle East, abortion, crisis, mistress, antisemites, and beautiful phrases like in the most certain terms possible. Many things were said on the assumption that she was already asleep and couldn’t hear them.
A few days after they moved into their new apartment in the other city, Milotchka looked down at the courtyard from their balcony. There was a lawn and a playground with a swing, a sandbox, and several benches. Two girls were playing, arranging small stones under a tree. Milotchka shook out her doll Ola’s blanket, covered her, and told her not to even think about missing her afternoon nap. By now the girls had noticed her. The fair-haired one was covering her mouth with her hand — as if Milotchka could hear anything from four floors up, or lip-read like the deaf people Grandma had told her about — and whispered something to the girl with the black braids. The dark-haired one laughed, and the fair-haired one went on whispering as she shot glances at Milotchka. All this didn’t bode well, so Milotchka picked up Ola’s blanket again and shook it thoroughly to show the two girls that she was very busy and that their mockery was of no interest to her.
For a long time before she fell asleep that evening, Milotchka gazed at the tapestry. Just like in the old apartment, it had been hung by her bed, and a streetlamp filled the room with comfortingly familiar pale blue light. Like all its siblings, the little goat was still happy, because the tapestry captured it in the scene before it was beset by metabolism. Milotchka stroked it with the tips of her fingers out of deep compassion for all the suffering it had coming.
When Milotchka’s parents came home from work the following afternoon, they packed soap, towels, and a change of underwear in a bag, and went down to the courtyard together with Milotchka and her grandmother. They crossed the lawn and went into the building opposite their apartment, where there was a notice in the entrance: “Bathhouse No. 5.” There was no hot water in their new building, because it hadn’t yet been connected to the gas grid. Milotchka read the words aloud, looking for signs of amazement on her parents’ faces, but they were already used to their daughter knowing how to read even though she was only five and a half. Only her grandmother ran a caress of praise over her curls.
In the bathhouse, Milotchka’s father bought tickets at the counter, gave three to her mother, and went into the men’s section. Milotchka and her mother and grandmother went the other way. A woman with a young face but white hair was sitting at the door of a spacious hall. She was wearing a blue uniform. Milotchka’s mother handed her the tickets. In the hall there were dozens of women dressing, undressing, brushing their hair, and talking by long rows of lockers and benches. “No, no, we’re going to the private showers,” Milotchka’s mother said in fright. “That’s exactly what I wanted to tell you,” the woman said, handing back the tickets. “Go down the corridor and turn left.”
Before they left the hall, Milotchka caught a glimpse of the two girls who had been playing in the yard the day before. The dark-haired one was standing with her back to a woman who was combing her hair. With each pull of the comb, the girl whined, “Mother, it hurts.” The other one was standing beside them, and her damp blonde hair fell in a graceful curve against her profile. Milotchka looked in awe at her shoulder blades, which protruded from her back like two pointed hills. The dark-haired girl’s breastbone could be clearly discerned beneath her pale skin. Milotchka was glad that she wouldn’t have to undress in their presence.
That evening an argument broke out between Milotchka’s parents. As usual, it took place in the most civilized manner possible—that is, quietly and with hate-filled voices. Milotchka’s mother said to her father that the miserable promotion he’d been given was no justification for moving to this provincial city, and her father replied that one might think she was from Leningrad or something, and anyway, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t known where they were moving. Milotchka’s mother said that she was sacrificing herself for his career, which in any case was nonexistent, and that he should have said in advance that there wouldn’t be hot water. But I didn’t know, Milotchka’s father replied. Who could’ve imagined that a building where people have been living for two years still wouldn’t be connected to the gas grid? And if you’ve got complaints about my career, show me another Jew who’s reached a position like mine. Milotchka was already in bed in the other room and couldn’t see her parents, but she knew that at times like this her father took off his glasses and cleaned them with his handkerchief in irritable movements, and her mother massaged her temples to prevent a migraine from coming on. Afterward her father said that if they were talking about making sacrifices, then what about him — forced to endure his mother-in-law living with them so that his wife wouldn’t have to do housework or look after the child? Milotchka was glad to hear the snores coming from the opposite wall, because she loved her grandmother and didn’t want her to be hurt by what her father was saying.
Milotchka observed the courtyard through the green leaves of the climbing vine twined around the balcony rail. Summer vacation had already begun, and children of school age had been playing there since morning. The younger ones would arrive in the afternoon after coming home from kindergarten. Milotchka had already learned to recognize them. Alioshka and Kolka, who at first had seemed so alike it was confusing, were now completely different from one another. Alioshka had a pale face and black hair, and gave orders in a squawking voice. Kolka was quieter, with hair that had faded in the sun to be almost the same light brown as his skin. The blonde girl was called Tanya, and her friend was Pola. Sometimes a younger girl named Valya played with them, but Tanya and Pola were the regular pair.
With Ola in her arms, Milotchka moved to the left-hand corner of the balcony where the vine’s big, bell-shaped purple flowers were. From this corner she could clearly see the shapes that the girls had made out of stones on the ground: squares of different sizes in which they had placed matchboxes. Milotchka looked at Ola with boredom, laid her down under the blanket, and asked her grandmother’s permission to go down to the yard.
As soon as she stepped outside, she heard her grandmother calling from the balcony, “Milotchka, Milotchka! Remember what we said?” even though only a minute had passed since she’d told Milotchka that she must only play in the courtyard, and that under no circumstances should she go to the other side of the building, which faced busy Lenin Street. Milotchka saw Alioshka snicker and then continue running after the ball. Tanya, too, raised her head and whispered something to Pola, covering her mouth as she spoke. All this didn’t seem encouraging to Milotchka. She sat down on the nearest bench, wondering whether to go over to them or to pretend that nothing bothered her, as she’d gotten used to doing in her previous home.
Kolka kicked the ball, which rebounded off the tree and landed at the girls’ feet. “Fatty!” Alioshka shouted as he came to get it, but then he went back to the game. Milotchka saw Tanya looking at her with cold curiosity in her gray eyes, and Pola smiling maliciously. Milotchka lowered her head and managed to hold back tears.
“Can I play with you, girls?” she asked politely. “My name’s Mila.”
“Mila? We heard you’re called Milotchka!” smirked Tanya.
Milotchka knew that her family’s regular use of the affectionate form of her name, as well as their excessive concern, caused derision among other children. But after her mother had acceded to her request and began calling her Mila, she herself had asked her to go back to “Milotchka.”
“Actually, that’s right, Milotchka,” she admitted. “Everyone calls me that. I’m interested in your game. What are those squares?’
The girls seemed confused. They looked suspiciously at the large girl who freely used grownups’ words like “actually” and “interested,” and who refused to back down in the face of hostility. They examined her fair curls, blue eyes, and thick legs. Pola whispered something to Tanya, who whispered something back.
“Do you eat all the time?” Tanya asked. “You’re fat.”
Milotchka felt her eyes burning. She knew that in a second, if she didn’t make a tremendous effort, the tears would come. She made the effort.
“I’m not fat, I’m full-figured,” Milotchka replied. “I have a metabolism problem.”
She sighed and looked pleadingly at the girls. They clearly didn’t know what metabolism was, but there was something infectious in Milotchka’s sigh. They sighed too, perhaps out of politeness, and exchanged hesitant glances.
A boy with his arm in a cast, and another one who resembled a hedgehog because of his spiky hair — Milotchka already knew that his name was Petka — joined the soccer game. Again the ball flew toward the girls, and Petka came running up. He looked at Milotchka, yelled “Fatty!”, and picked up the ball.
“Go away,” Tanya told Milotchka. “We’re busy.”
The arguments between Milotchka’s parents became more frequent, although they continued to be held in the most civilized manner possible. Like their previous apartment, this one had two rooms, but here they were smaller, and Milotchka’s father complained that his mother-in-law’s presence was felt far more in them. Milotchka’s mother would say contemptuously, “You wanted a career … ” and her father would reply that he had wanted one, and he’d gotten it — but who would’ve thought that his mother-in-law would move to this city with them when she had another daughter in the city they’d left? Here Milotchka’s mother would say that maybe he’d organized this whole move to get rid of her mother, because the promotion excuse would only convince an idiot — and right away she’d get a migraine.
Sometimes during these arguments, when Grandma’s snores couldn’t be heard, Milotchka would get up to make sure that she was asleep and not insulted. On one occasion, she saw that Grandma was awake, but when she went over to her, Grandma closed her eyes. Milotchka didn’t say a word and pitied her more than ever, and the little goat in the tapestry pitied her, too.
She sighed and looked pleadingly at the girls. They clearly didn’t know what metabolism was, but there was something infectious in Milotchka’s sigh.
Most nights, Grandma would bathe Milotchka in a tin tub filled with water heated on the stove. But twice a week the family would cross the lawn to Bathhouse No. 5. They now knew not to go into the big hall, and went straight to the private showers. By the counter in the lobby, they sometimes met neighbors from their building. When she encountered Tanya or Pola, Milotchka avoided eye contact, remembering that they had rejected her. Pola ignored her, while Tanya openly scrutinized her. Once, Milotchka tried smiling and saying hello, but Tanya tugged at her big sister’s hand, and they both looked at Milotchka as if she were a strange, inanimate object.
From her observation point on the balcony, Milotchka discovered another boy she hadn’t noticed before. His apartment was next to theirs, one floor down. A climbing vine similar to theirs twined around his balcony, but there, strings were drawn from the rail to the upper part of the wall, and the plant wound around them, forming an angled green and purple roof. Through this roof, she saw him sitting for hours, assembling an airplane from light, thin pieces of wood. Milotchka’s grandmother told her that it was called a model airplane.
A few days later she discovered that the boy’s name was Borya. A friend of his often came to the building and would call up to him from the courtyard. He was usually carrying pieces of wood similar to Borya’s. Together they would go somewhere — a model airplane club, Grandma told her. Borya had no contact with children from the building. Milotchka heard his mother telling hers that he was going into second grade, and that they, too, were new in the building, and that they, too, had been shocked to find out that there was no hot water. Going to the bathhouse isn’t cheap, she said. Maybe they’d stop using the private showers and start going to the public hall.
Milotchka was sorry that she was too young to go to a model airplane club. Her world was limited to the apartment and the courtyard, where she no longer wanted to go. She continued listening to the grownups’ conversations.
“Dr. Neufeld’s prescribed a new diet for her,” her mother told her grandmother in the other room.
Milotchka was already in bed, looking at the seven goats cavorting among the firs. Dr. Neufeld was her new doctor. Dr. Brachfeld from their previous city had recommended him. “But he said we shouldn’t expect miracles. Stabilizing an imbalanced metabolism isn’t easy. It’s important that she learns to love herself as she is.”
“Shh … ” Grandma said, and they lowered their voices so Milotchka couldn’t hear any more. Her father wasn’t home. Recently he had been coming home from work very late, and Milotchka wondered if it was better when he was home or not — she missed him when he wasn’t there, but when he was, he said things that hurt Grandma.
Meanwhile, in the other room, they had decided that Milotchka was asleep and resumed talking in loud voices. “I think he’s got someone,” her mother said. “You’re imagining things. How do you know?” her grandmother replied. “I just know.” Her mother’s voice sounded thoughtful. “It’s someone from work. You should see her. Slim hips, a pencil skirt, heels. Not like me.” Again Grandma’s “Shh” was heard, and then whispering, and afterward Grandma said with finality: “It wouldn’t do you any harm to start loving yourself the way you are, either.”
In the morning, Grandma began following Dr. Neufeld’s instructions. The new diet consisted of yogurt and semolina without even a pinch of sugar. Milotchka ate it reluctantly but obediently. Before she left for work, her mother told her: “It’s important that you aspire to lose weight, but you need to learn to love yourself as you are, too.” Milotchka repeated the lovely word aspire, and longed for an omelet.
“Today also you’re not going outside?” her grandmother asked.
Milotchka shook her head.
“Weren’t the children nice to you?”
The tears Milotchka had managed to hold back in the courtyard now welled in her eyes.
Milotchka began sobbing. “The girls told me they were busy … and that I eat all the time.” She didn’t want to repeat the other things they’d said.
Grandma stood up, groaning with the effort, and lifted Milotchka into her arms. She pressed her to her breast and kissed her curls.
“You’re my beautiful granddaughter,” she said. “What lovely hair my granddaughter has, and eyes, and soft sweet hands. What, hands like a skeleton’s are lovelier? Even if you don’t lose weight — you’re still my beautiful granddaughter.”
The last tears were still flowing from Milotchka’s eyes, and Grandma decided to make her laugh a little. “Come,” she said, “imagine what will happen if you succeed in the two tasks you’ve been given — you lose weight and then, oy vey! You’ve already learned to love yourself as you are, so you’ll have to put the weight back on right away!”
After breakfast, Milotchka plucked up her courage and went down to the courtyard. As usual, Pola and Tanya were playing under the tree, and she went over to them. Tanya raised her head and observed her with a long, direct, unblinking stare, while Pola continued to arrange the stones.
“Good morning, girls,” Milotchka said.
Tanya continued to examine her silently. Pola was preoccupied with the stones, and Milotchka wasn’t sure if she’d heard her or not. In the end she, too, looked up at Milotchka.
“Maybe today you’ll let me play with you?” Milotchka asked.
They looked at one another, then at her, and shook their heads in perfect unison, as if they were twins.
Milotchka hesitated and then said: “You know, in my last apartment in another city, I waited expectantly and impatiently for us to move to our new home.”
She glanced at them to make sure that “expectantly” and “impatiently” had aroused admiration, and went on: “I thought, ‘Now I’ll move to a new home, and I’ll have new friends there.’ When I got here and saw you playing — I thought, ‘Maybe they will be my friends.’ And it hurts me very much that you don’t want to play with me.”
As she finished speaking, a ball landed on the stones that Pola had just arranged, but Pola didn’t look at the ball or at Kolka, who had come to retrieve it and had ruined what she’d built. It was evident that Milotchka’s speech had made an impression on them.
“All right,” Tanya said, “you can build your apartment next to us.”
“An apartment?” Milotchka asked.
“The stones here are our apartments. We build them as if this is my big room, and here’s the little one, and there’s the kitchen and the toilet. Apartment 27. Next to me is 26, Pola’s apartment. And these” — pointing at the matchboxes — “these are tables and beds. You’ll be Apartment 8, because you’re from the first entrance.”
The happy life Milotchka had dreamed about finally began. The boys still made fun of her, but her acceptance by the girls enhanced her status. The name-calling gradually lessened. In the evening before she fell asleep, Milotchka would touch the tapestry with the tips of her fingers, stroke the wounded goat, and promise it that everything would be all right.
She thought about her new friends. Like Alioshka and Kolka, who looked alike only at first glance, the two girls now looked different from one another, too. Their identical height, slimness, and a certain arrogance in their faces became less noticeable, and they were shown to be different not only in the color and length of their hair. There was something fast and compelling about Tanya. It was she who’d initially disqualified Milotchka from joining their games, and it was she who had finally given the signal to let her join them. Pola was contemplative and tended to daydream. Her devotion to make-believe games was absolute. Building the apartments with stones, which she had initiated, aroused great enthusiasm in her, and sometimes, when one of the boys destroyed them, she would boil over and get into a fight. To Milotchka’s surprise, Tanya proved to be far more cautious in such situations. Milotchka sensed that it was important to form a good relationship with Tanya, but also to be wary of her.
At home, the arguments between her parents became ever more civilized. Next to her tapestry, Milotchka listened to their voices, which became quieter as the anger in them increased, until finally they were no longer audible. Milotchka gathered that there was a running battle between her parents about her grandmother living with them. She was gripped by the fear that her father would win. One evening she burst into tears and said that if Grandma left, she would leave with her or die. Her father polished his glasses, her mother got a migraine, and the arguments diminished.
Milotchka started to believe that matters had been resolved. At night she thought about Alioshka and Kolka, Tanya and Pola, and Borya, the boy from the third floor who only came down to the courtyard when his friend came by to go to the model airplane club. But she didn’t have much time to think about him because her own position was still tenuous. After days of quiet, Alioshka would dart over, hit her leg with a slender birch branch, and burst out laughing. The girls, sometimes one and sometimes the other, smiled at him like collaborators. Aside from the insult, the inconsistency troubled her — every time she decided that one of them was her ally, the tables were turned.
In the evening her father listened to Voice of Israel on the radio. After her mother reminded her that she should aspire to lose weight, but love herself as she is, he would explain to Milotchka that she should be proud of being a Jew. “There’s a very important prize called the Nobel Prize,” he’d say, “and the number of Jews to whom it has been awarded is extremely high considering the small number of Jews in the world. Borya — our neighbors’ son who builds model airplanes even though he’s only, what, eight or nine? — he’s also Jewish. So are you proud, my clever one? Are you happy?” her father would ask, and Milotchka would say“Yes,”eventhough she had her doubts: If her father always asked her mother to show him another Jew who’d reached a position like his, then what was there to be so happy about? Not only that, but also one day he told them that somebody had called him a zhid.
Milotchka realized that Pola, too, was Jewish. She had seen Petka mimicking Pola’s mother when she spoke to her once in Yiddish, and she was glad that her parents didn’t speak in that language, which she only recognized because her grandmother sometimes blurted out a few Yiddish words — “Oy vey,” for instance. Out of her father’s hearing, she made her grandmother swear not to say those words in the children’s presence. Pola, with her thinness and friendship with Tanya, could permit herself to be a Jew. Milotchka had enough on her hands with metabolism.
She found great consolation in the fact that the voices from the other room now sounded calmer. One evening they were talking about Chukovsky’s book From Two to Five, in which there were numerous amusing expressions used by children. Her parents laughed, but more than once the reason for their laughter mystified Milotchka. For example, when her mother mentioned a little boy who asked: “How do you know if a baby is a boy or a girl, when it’s born without pants or a skirt?” Milotchka thought that the question was actually the most correct one possible.
It was a Sunday and her parents were home all day. Perhaps it was this being together that brought about the circumstances leading to the final crisis. Milotchka was on the balcony, watering the climbing vine. In the kitchen, Grandma was making supper. Many people went to the bathhouse on Sundays. Milotchka saw Borya and his parents disappearing into it. Suddenly her mother gave a sharp cry. Milotchka ran into the living room. Her mother was sobbing on the couch, and her father was pacing back and forth with his long strides.
Milotchka nurtured the hope of becoming Tanya’s best friend. Everyone knew that Pola was Jewish — her parents even spoke Yiddish when they walked through the courtyard together.
“What you’re prepared to do to have a live-in maid!” Milotchka’s father said. “To drag your old mother everywhere with you … Who can endure this overcrowding? … Yes, yes, I’m going to a hotel, it’s better that way … ”
Her father looked no less miserable than her mother, and Milotchka didn’t know which one of them she should feel sorry for. At that moment her grandmother came out of the kitchen, wiped her hands on a towel, hugged Milotchka, and said:
“That’s it. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
There was shouting and tears (Milotchka’s and her mother’s); there was an apology (her father’s); and there was even a brief fainting spell (her mother’s). Nothing helped. Grandma’s only deviation from her announcement was that she didn’t leave the following day, but two weeks later — once her other daughter had made arrangements to have her, and all the bureaucratic issues had been settled.
At night Milotchka lay awake in her bed. She held conversations with the goat whose metabolism had been hurt, and promised it that perhaps Grandma would come back, even though her mother had sadly told her that she could forget it. A hastily hired housekeeper made Milotchka’s semolina from a recipe her grandmother had left. The meal had already lost its flavor due to Dr. Neufeld’s dictates, and now it was inedible. Milotchka began to add three or four spoons of sugar, and when her mother found out she was very angry.
Milotchka’s mother had put on weight. The housekeeper did far less than Grandma, and when Mother got home from work, a great deal of housework awaited her. To perk herself up, she’d open a package of wafers and finish it off without even noticing. Her allergy to dust, which had stopped bothering her when Grandma washed the floor every day, erupted again with even greater force. She had a permanently runny nose and red eyes. Her migraines were also more frequent, and so were the arguments with her husband. Now they were about the household budget, which was tighter because they had to pay the housekeeper.
During one of their arguments, Milotchka saw her mother clutch her head and bang it against the wall several times. Milotchka and her father were dumbstruck, until her father said, “Enough, you’re exaggerating.” She did it a few more times. Milotchka, after being terribly frightened, suddenly realized that her mother had banged her head quite carefully, in the most civilized manner possible, and for the first time in her life, she felt contempt toward her mother.
Matters developed rapidly, without any preliminary indications. The school year had already started. Borya came home from school, went upstairs to his apartment, and came right down again carrying a model airplane. His friend from the club hadn’t come by that day — he was alone. As he crossed the yard, Milotchka sensed something brewing among the boys sitting on the nearby bench. Alioshka put his arms around Kolka’s and Petka’s shoulders and whispered something. They burst out laughing. He looked toward Borya, who was just passing them, and whispered again. The laughter grew louder. “Come on!” Alioshka ordered.
He overtook Borya and stood facing him. Borya halted. Kolka and Petka stood on either side of him. Tanya and Pola left their stone apartments to watch what was happening. Milotchka followed them.
Borya looked at the boys surrounding him. “What do you want?” he asked Alioshka. In a swift movement, Alioshka picked up a thin birch branch from the ground and lashed Borya’s leg. “You’re a zhid,” he said. “I saw you in the bathhouse.”
Pola stopped looking at what was happening and went back to arranging her apartment under the tree. Milotchka watched her pick up a matchbox and, after brief thought, put it into another room.
Without a word, Petka also struck Borya with a thin branch. Kolka did nothing; he just stared at what was going on. Borya tried to grab the branch from Petka, but failed. He was shielding the model airplane with one hand, so only the other was free. He made a futile attempt to move Alioshka out of his way. Alioshka shoved him back.
Milotchka looked on with bated breath. She liked Borya, even though she had never exchanged a word with him. The fact that he was being attacked by boys younger than he seemed particularly humiliating.
Borya shoved Alioshka hard. Alioshka staggered back and flushed. He paused, puffed out his cheeks, and squirted a jet of spit at Borya, droplets of which landed on the girls. Tanya winced in disgust, wiped herself off, and stepped back. Then Alioshka grabbed the airplane from Borya, and with a few short, sharp movements, broke it into pieces.
The rumors about what had happened reached Milotchka’s parents.
“Alioshka’s mother went to Borya’s mother to apologize,” Milotchka’s mother told them at suppertime.
“Antisemites! Thugs! Who did he learn this hatred from other than his parents?” her father fumed.
“Alioshka knew Borya’s Jewish because he saw him in the bathhouse!” Milotchka reported. “How did he know?”
“He just saw,” her mother said.
Milotchka’s mother looked at her father. Her father shrugged. “How? What does it matter, how? What, being a Jew is shameful? Let them see, it’s nothing that should be hidden!” he said, and got up from the table.
“Mother, how?” Milotchka persisted.
“You can see that Jews are Jews when they haven’t got any clothes on. You’ll understand when you grow up. Go to bed.”
She helped Milotchka undress and put on her nightgown.
“You’re not losing any weight … you’re still putting sugar in your semolina. What’ll become of you?”
Milotchka looked at her sadly, and her mother’s face softened. She hugged Milotchka and told her to love herself as she was.
That night Milotchka couldn’t fall asleep. After the incident with Borya, she felt glad that Grandma didn’t live with them anymore. All she needed would be for her to blurt out an “Oy vey” in the yard.
She thought about Tanya and Pola. She sensed a balance in their friendship, but its vulnerability was also clear. Tanya loved doing small wicked things, like throwing pebbles at passersby and pretending she had no idea who’d done it. Frequently she enticed Pola to join in. Yet there was a certain independence in Pola; she could say no as easily as she could say yes, and she could immerse herself in make-believe games without needing anybody else — whereas Tanya needed Pola’s company very much.
Milotchka nurtured the hope of becoming Tanya’s best friend. Everyone knew that Pola was Jewish — her parents even spoke Yiddish when they walked through the courtyard together. Milotchka didn’t have that problem.
The sound of an argument came from the other room. Again something about how expensive it was to have a housekeeper. Then her mother’s voice, very agitated. Perhaps she was even crying. “Why are you telling me fairytales, do you think I don’t know? Young, slim hips … ”
And her father’s voice: “You’re imagining things. Calm down, you’re hysterical.”
As soon as he got home from school, Borya settled on the balcony and began repairing the model airplane. His friend from the club was sitting with him, and they were joined by the boy with his arm in a cast. Milotchka looked down on them from above, through the leaves of the vine, and searched Borya for signs left by the awful incident. What would have happened if she had been attacked like that? It would’ve been even worse than the calls of “fatty.” The children hardly bothered Pola, perhaps because she’d been in the building longer, but poor Borya … And yet there was nothing to be seen on him. He was wholly focused on fitting the broken pieces of his airplane back together.
In the afternoon Milotchka’s mother came home from work, sent the housekeeper home, and took Milotchka to the bathhouse. She bought tickets at the counter as usual, and they went to the women’s section. Milotchka ran ahead to the end of the corridor, passed the entrance to the big hall, and was about to turn left when she heard her mother calling her back.
“No, Milotchka, no, we’re going in here today,” she said, and went into the big hall, the one they’d mistakenly entered the first day. She handed the tickets to the woman with the young face and white hair. This time she didn’t send them to the private showers, but silently tore off the stubs. Again Milotchka could see the dozens of naked women — women dressing, undressing, combing their hair, and talking by the long benches and the lockers. She looked at her mother.
“We have to start saving money, Milotchka,” her mother said. “The public showers are cheaper.”
Milotchka tried to take in the meaning of the change. In the big hall, the variety of white-pink female nudity was there for her, and everyone else, to see. Shoulders, breasts, arms, buttocks, thighs, damp hair, bras and underpants, incessant noise.
“Maybe we’ll even be happier here,” her mother said, as if convincing herself as well. “Isn’t it true that we were a little sad, just the two of us in the shower, after Grandma left? And look, Tanya’s here, too.”
“Tanya?” Milotchka felt a strong warning current hit her spine. Tanya was coming toward her, smiling and holding her big sister’s hand. “Mother, let’s go, quickly!”
“What’s the matter with you, Milotchka? We’re not going anywhere. Come and take a shower.”
“All right, but where we always go. Let’s go to the private showers.”
“Milotchka,” her mother said, shifting into a whisper, “I don’t want to have to tell you again, people can hear us … The private showers are expensive. It’ll be fine here, you’ll see.”
Tanya looked at them curiously and unblinkingly, and Milotchka recalled the first days in the courtyard.
“No,” she told her mother, shaking her head. “No!”
Her mother’s face reddened. “Come.” She took Milotchka’s hand and led her to one of the benches. With hard fingers, she lifted Milotchka’s dress and tried to pull it over her head. “Lift your arms up.”
Women were staring at them.
“No!” Milotchka shrieked. More important things hung in the balance. She pressed her arms to her sides so her mother couldn’t take off her dress.
Her mother’s hands began to tremble. Milotchka looked at her face and saw that her lips were trembling, too. Her mother pressed her fingers to her temples and massaged them for a long moment. Then she turned to Milotchka again.
“Are you ashamed of being seen?” she asked. Milotchka didn’t reply. “You eat like a cow and then you’re ashamed of being seen naked?”
Milotchka couldn’t believe what her mother was saying. Tears sprang to her eyes.
“Get undressed right now.”
Milotchka shook her head. Her mother grabbed her arms, forced them up, and pulled at the dress again.
In an attempt to free herself, Milotchka threw herself onto the floor. Her mother bent over her. Now she was no longer flushed but as pale as the walls. Her face was twisted.
“You don’t want people to see you? Love yourself as you are! Just as you are!”
“No, Mommy, it’s not only … ” Milotchka tried to explain in a whisper so Tanya wouldn’t hear. “I’ll explain later … ” But her mother wasn’t listening.
“Get up off the floor and stop making a scene,” she whispered. “Get up right now.”
Milotchka didn’t get up. Enraged, her mother grabbed her by the hair and tried to pull her to her feet.
Over her mother’s shoulder, Milotchka saw women watching them, whispering to each other. She mustered her strength, managed to free herself, and fled from the bathhouse.
That night her father sat beside her, ran a hand over her curls, and asked her to stop crying. Her mother had told him about Milotchka’s behavior, which had shamed her in front of everybody in the worst possible way. He asked Milotchka what had happened, but she couldn’t stop sobbing long enough to answer. Eventually he said good night and left the room.
In the dark, she slowly stopped crying. Her mother was now a foreign, hated woman to her. She had called Milotchka a cow and hadn’t wanted to listen to what she had to say. The roots of her hair still hurt, and her elbow was bruised.
She turned her face to the tapestry. Suddenly, despite the insult and the pain, she smiled. She had endured a hard battle, but she had won.
Tanya hadn’t found out that Milotchka was Jewish.
Who knew what would happen tomorrow, and the day after, and in two weeks. Her mother was liable to decide to shower in the public section again, to undress in front of the neighbors and undress Milotchka, and her father was likely to do a similarly stupid thing in the men’s section. But these worries could be put off until tomorrow. In the meantime, the disaster had been averted, and Milotchka smiled.
By the light of the streetlamp, her best friend, the goat with metabolism, was looking at her.
From Children’s Mate by Bella Shaier, 2011, Hakibbutz-Hameuchad/ Hasifria Hakhadasha. Translated by Anthony Berris with the support of Am Ha-Sefer — The Israeli Fund for Translation of Hebrew Books, Israel Ministry of Culture and Sport.
English translation © 2015 by Bella Shaier and Hakibbutz-Hameuchad.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and events are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Bella Shaier was born in Chernivtsi, Ukraine in the Soviet Union in 1957, and immigrated to Israel at the age of twelve. She holds an MA in literature from Tel Aviv University. Shaier worked for twenty-five years as a computer systems analyst before starting to write. In 2012, her collection Children’s Mate was awarded the Ramat Gan Prize for debut literature and was shortlisted for the Sapir Prize. Sandcastles, a short film based on a story in Children’s Mate, was released in 2016. Many of Shaier’s stories have been published in anthologies and literary periodicals. A translation of Children’s Mate was published in 2021 in Ukraine.
Anthony Berris was born in the United Kingdom and lived in Israel for most of his adult life. He was a translator and editor.