The sled bumped on the rutted ice.
Sura saw elk tracks in the deep snow beside the trail. The jangle of the reins was the only sound in the darkening forest. Shadows were deepening between the crooked bog pines. Etta had kept them late at the market trying to sell the rest of the potatoes, and they would be lucky to get back before dark now.
The sled bounced on another deep rut, and Etta gasped and clutched at her belly.
“Don’t be having it now,” Sura said.
“Not having my baby in the forest.”
“That’s good, because you start pushing now, I’m leaving you here.”
Sura flicked the reins to hurry Ivor, their old horse.
“You miss Micha?” Etta asked her.
Sura felt a guilty flush in her cold cheeks. “Sure, I miss him. He’s my husband.”
“You never talk about him.”
“Doesn’t mean I don’t miss him.”
“He’s a handsome man, your Micha.”
Very handsome man, she wanted to say. But what good is a handsome man when he can’t give you handsome babies?
“Soon you will be going to America too.”
Sura didn’t say anything.
“Don’t you want to go?”
“When I go to America, when will I see you and Zlota and Gutta again?”
“It’s got to be better than here. Who ever gets to be a proper human being in Russia?”
Another flick of the reins. Old Ivor was getting cranky and slow these days. A wolf was baying somewhere in the forest. Sura didn’t like how dark it was getting.
“Sura, you and Micha, did you, you know, do it a lot?”
“Sure, we did it a lot. What do you think?”
“To have a baby, Yaakov says you have to do it a lot.”
“Well, sure, Yaakov’s going to say that. He’s a man, what else is he going to say?” Sura glanced at her sister. There was something wrong with her. She looked red in the face, and she kept blowing out her cheeks, like she couldn’t get her breath. Please not now, she thought. Miles to go before we get home. Please don’t let it be now. “Etta, you okay?”
But Etta ignored her. “Why did Micha think he couldn’t, you know?” she said.
“He had an accident.”
“What kind of accident?”
“He fell off a horse when he was a boychick. Onto a pine stump. They had to take him to the hospital, in Tallinn. He said one of his you-know-whats, it was the size of a potato. Etta, I don’t like the look of you. What’s wrong?”
“I think maybe the baby’s coming.”
“You think what?”
“I’ve been having these pains.”
“Since when you been having pains?”
“Since we left the market.”
“Since the market? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I thought maybe I was imagining.”
Sura stared at her little sister. She was trying to look brave, but Sura could tell by her eyes Etta was really scared. She gasped as the sled jolted, and gripped Sura’s arm. “Sura, I think it’s happening.”
“No, it’s not happening. It can’t be happening. Take a deep breath.”
“What good will it do, a deep breath? What do you know from stopping babies?”
“You can’t have it out here!”
She flicked the reins. Don’t panic, Sura, she thought. Not far from the village, if Ivor can keep up this trot. Just a little faster, old boy. Get us home.
Etta gasped again. Sura felt her fingers tighten around her arm, squeeze all the blood out of it. Should have left her home this morning, but she said she had weeks yet. Should never listen to your little sister, Sura, you know that. Never had any brains this one, just like their vati said.
Suddenly the sled lurched and skewed, and they nearly tipped all the way over. Etta screamed as Ivor crumpled to his knees in the snow. The old boy was keening down in the traces and slumping onto his side; only the trunk of a birch tree kept them from toppling all the way over.
Sura was lying on top of Etta, who was moaning, softly. Sura jumped out, and straightaway she could see what had happened. In his hurry Ivor had put his foreleg in a bog. He was struggling to get up, whimpering all the while.
Sura pulled Etta clear of the sled.
“I’m all right,” Etta said. “How is Ivor?”
Poor Ivor, he had pulled their sled between the village and the city for as long as she could remember, but maybe today was the last time. A close look told her the worst: his left leg was snapped. She could see white bone and a streak of bright-red blood. She knelt down, stroked his old head, all the good it would do. Nothing to be done to help him now.
One moment we are talking about having families, she thought, next we are lying in the snow with a crippled horse and Etta is having a baby. She looked around: deepening forest shadows, Etta moaning in a bundled heap on the ground. Sura could see the first evening star above the black tips of the pines.
She crouched there, listening to her sister’s gulping moans. Etta’s breath froze on the still air, each puff a little condensation of pain coming faster and faster.
What was that there, in the dark? Oh, okay, just a squirrel. It watched for a moment, then darted between the trees, leaving tiny tracks in the snow. Her muscles felt frozen. She didn’t know what to do.
Well, Sura Levine, you have to do something, cannot sit here feeling sorry for yourself. Your fault you are in this mess, now you have to mend it.
She scrambled over to Etta, grabbed her hands, and sat her up.
“How is Ivor?” Etta said.
“He broke his leg.”
“Poor Ivor. Oh, listen to him, Sura.”
“Cannot listen to him before I listen to you. Is it coming?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know!”
Sura fetched some of the empty burlap sacks out of the back of the sled and put them underneath Etta. She took off her gloves, blew on her fingers, then started to drag down her little sister’s drawers.
“What are you doing?”
“Got to see if the baby is coming. What, you too modest to show me? I’m your big sister, nothing you got I don’t got too.” She pushed Etta’s knees apart. There was a smear of blood and mucus on the sacks, a sticky black mop of a head right there. Took her two other sisters almost a whole day to have their first—here is Etta out in the snow, and she has almost pushed out this little schnorrer just with a few grunts, sitting on the sled. Not enough sense to feel any pain, Vati would say.
“Have to leave me here,” Etta said. “Run and get someone.”
“I am someone.”
“I’m scared, Sura.”
“Nothing to be scared of. I can see the head. You’re nearly done.”
“You can see the head?”
“You must have been laboring all the while we were at market. How could you be so quiet about it?”
“I thought it was just normal. I’m not due till Purim.”
“This little thing don’t have a Jewish calendar in there, Etta.”
Oh, not here, little one, not here! Already Sura’s fingers were so numb, she couldn’t feel them. Her mother and her aunt had helped when her big sisters had their babies, made her run for hot water and towels. She had watched what they did over their shoulders, but she had never had to do it herself. And what did she have for the birth cord? Just the string from the potato sacks and a rusty old knife in her belt she used for cutting them open.
“Run for help,” Etta said. “Run for help, it’s coming, oh my baby, my baby, everything’s fakakta!”
Never even thought she knew that word, Sura thought. Etta screamed again, and Sura watched wide eyed as the crowning head swelled, then withdrew. “It’s almost there,” she said.
Poor Ivor, poor Etta, both of them growling in pain. I can help only one of them, she thought, if I can help at all.
It was getting darker. How late was it? When would someone wonder why they weren’t home and come looking for them? The crown of the head was still there, all glistening with blood and dark hair between Etta’s legs. “Push,” Sura said.
“Can’t have it here!”
“Got no choice. Push!”
Suddenly the head was out; the baby’s face was blue and smeared with greasy vernix.
“What is it?” Etta gasped.
It’s a goblin, she wanted to say, ugly as a forest troll. “I can’t see yet. When you get another pain, push hard!”
Etta’s next cry echoed through the gloaming, and something hot and slippery slithered into Sura’s hands. Vapor rose in a little cloud. She almost dropped the tiny thing into the snow. Etta gasped and lay back, mouth open like she had just died.
Sura bundled the infant in a rough piece of burlap. Oh, it wasn’t crying yet; it was blue and quiet. She cleared away the slime from its tiny mouth and nose with a finger, tapped its bottom, put her lips over its tiny face, breathed life into it. “Wake up, bubeleh, wake up.”
A drop of fluid leaked from the heart-shaped mouth, and it gave a trembling cry. “It’s a girl,” she said.
Etta opened an eye, then held out her arms and took the child from her, Sura reluctant to give her up.
“Feed her,” she said.
“Put her on your breast, yotz. It will help deliver the rest.”
Her aunt had told her what to do with the liver-looking stuff when it came, what to look for. She wished now she had paid more attention. She tied the cord in two places with the rough string, sawed through the cord with the knife. She looked at the bright splash of blood in the snow. There seemed so much of it, but with the child feeding, at least the rush of it had stopped.
The sky was cold and gray as gunmetal, the sun had sunk out of sight now below the birch trees. They could die out here. Poor Ivor was still whinnying in pain, his great flanks twitching.
Her little sister was white like candle wax. How much blood you got in one body, she wanted to ask. Over Etta’s shoulder she saw a fox watching them, its red fur stark against the winter white. You can’t stay out here, it seemed to be saying. Got to get your young back to the burrow, like I did.
“Get up,” she said.
“Got to, Etta. We can’t stay here.”
“No. You take the baby. Go ahead. Get help. It will be quicker.”
“Can’t leave you here.”
“I got to sleep first.”
“Get up.” Sura took the child from her, held the wriggling bundle tight to her chest, put her other arm under her sister, and hauled her to her feet. “Stand up.”
“So tired. Let me sleep for a minute, then I’ll do it.”
“Stand up, Etta!”
Sura almost fell getting her upright—they dropped to their knees in a drift of snow—but finally she had her on her feet. The ice crunched under their boots.
All they had to do was follow the track, she thought. Easy enough to do in the day, but not now. She gripped under Etta’s arm, made her start walking, holding up her weight like she had held up Mrs. Levine the day her Micha got on the ship. The little girl had fallen asleep in the fold of sacks under Sura’s other arm, like trudging through a dark forest when you were just born was the most normal thing in the whole world.
“Can’t do it, Sura.”
“What are you kvetching about, you can’t do it. It’s only walking, one foot in front of the other.”
“I’m going to faint.”
“Not going to faint, Etta! If you faint, I got to stay here with you and then I’ll freeze and this little mite will freeze too. Is that what you want, that your little baby dies out here?”
“Don’t make me walk, Sura.”
“Got to make you walk. You know how to walk, one foot, then the other foot. Do it, Etta.”
But soon it was too dark and she couldn’t see the track and they kept staggering into snowdrifts. The infant started making mewling noises, and Sura propped Etta against a tree and told her to try and feed her. But again Etta said she couldn’t. She was too tired, and she had no milk.
Sura peered under the makeshift blankets. Look at the poor thing crying, her pink toothless mouth wide open, eyes screwed shut. Shush, now, shush, not my fault it’s so cold and we’re lost out here and your mother’s nearly dead. You want to get born in Russia, you have to get used to bad luck.
For the first time it occurred to her that they might really die out here. She wondered what Micha would say when he heard about it. It was Micha who was supposed to be in danger, sailing on the boat all the way to America. Funny how life is.
She sank to her knees. Etta had wrapped her scarf around her face, and all Sura could see of her was her eyes. “She doesn’t want to feed, Sura. I think she’s cold.” She was shivering too hard to hold the baby. Sura had to help her.
A full moon hung over the forest, wolves were howling somewhere, she heard something big lumbering through the forest close by, an elk or a roe deer, a wild boar perhaps.
“You should have gone ahead,” Etta said.
“Never leave you, Etta, you know that.”
“Such a good sister, Sura.”
“I’m not good.”
“Sure, you are good. How can you say it?”
I should tell her now, she thought. What does it matter now, no one is going to come and save us, going to die out here. I can tell her what a bad good sister she got. “I always wanted to marry Yaakov.”
“Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to. So jealous when Vati arranged the wedding for you.”
“It’s true. I’m sorry, Etta.”
“But Micha is a good husband. Such handsome man! You are going to America to be rich.”
“Every night since he left, I wish his boat will sink so I can marry someone else and have a family like you and Gutta and Zlota. Everyone thinks I am so good but I’m not. And that is why poor Ivor broke his leg and we are stranded out here. God is punishing me for my bad-wife thinking.”
Etta reached for her, grabbed her coat, pulled her close. “You look after my little girl.”
“Why I should look after her, Etta? Is your baby.”
“You look after her, never mind what happens to me.”
“Don’t you do that, Etta! Don’t you go to sleep!”
Sura was shaking so hard she felt like her bones would break. She wanted to lie down and rest, but lying down was like dying now, and she made herself get up.
“Have to keep walking, Etta. There is enough moon now, I can see the track.”
“No, Sura, can’t walk anymore,” Etta mumbled.
Sura took the child from her, tried to shake her awake, but Etta would not stir anymore. Has lost too much blood, Sura thought. She could see spots of it still in the snow, in their footprints. Perhaps if I walk on, she thought, I can still save the baby.
But how could she leave her little sister? Have to drag her, then, she thought.
She took hold of one of Etta’s hands, pulled as hard as she could, dragged her two feet through the snow, perhaps three, before she lost her footing and stumbled, landing hard on her hip to protect the bundle in her arms.
She lay there, gathering strength to try again, when she heard something in the forest, thought it was the wild boar for sure now, it sounded so big, but then she saw a light.
“Etta, they’re coming,” she said, but Etta did not answer.
She waited and listened. There it was again, people’s voices, and now she could see the light clearly, a torch flickering through the trees. She tried to shout, but her voice was no more than a croak.
She tried again, took a deep breath; the air was so cold it was like fire in her lungs, her shout came out just a hoarse whisper. But then the baby joined in, her cry unmistakable in the forest dark.
“Etta, they’re coming,” Sura said again.
But Etta was slumped onto her side and didn’t stir.