NATHAN AND SONIA
Published Fiction, not in the TREASURES book
It was a late afternoon in March, just after the turn of the 20th century. The air sparkled, a spring wedding was taking place. There was clapping, singing and joy in the small shtetl in Krizopil, north of Odessa, the Soviet Union. Sonia’s father, Rabbi Lederman had just officiated at her marriage to Nathan, a tall, sandy-haired handsome young man with kind twinkling eyes and a receding hairline, recently discharged from his tour of duty in the Czarist army. Petite, exquisite Sonia, with dark hair, floated around like a sweet angel in the lace gown she had sewn herself.
Friends in the small farming village had brought flowers to adorn the Central Square, and delicacies for the reception. Everyone danced and joined in with the operatic voice of Nathan’s cousin, Sidor Belarsky, who came in from Leningrad for the occasion. Sonia and Nathan took center stage, dancing the hora, and then frolicked with everyone.
As evening fell upon the gathering, Sonia and Nathan were anxious to leave the party and be alone. Nathan was excited to show Sonia the home he had spent the past few months building for this very day. They said their farewells as he took Sonia’s hand and led her to the edge of the village and their new house where he picked her lithe frame up, the long lace gown billowing around them and carried her over the threshold, placing her gently on to the hand-woven blue and crimson carpet from his mother’s family.
Overwhelmed, Sonia could not believe he built the house himself.
“It was important to me that I bring you into a home, deserving of your presence my sweet,” he said. “The logs are from the near-forest and the thatched roof, they say will protect us from the rains.”
Sonia gave him a hug, then noticed the bed in the corner. A pang of fear shot through her. He squeezed her hand to comfort; she was so young and fragile. “Oh Nathan, that’s for us?”
“Ours my sweet. I made it of birch and the sheeting to cover the straw mattress, I found at the market place.” He went to the corner where he had installed a pot bellied stove and lit a fire to warm the cabin, creating a soft glow and took Sonia into his arms, holding her until tears fell to her cheeks. “Are you happy my angel?”
“Oh Nathan, I never dreamed such happiness was possible.”
As they settled in, the fragrance and warmth of the fire soothed the exhausted couple. So in love, at last in their own home to spend their long awaited first night together. They lay in their new bed holding each other for hours, made sweet love, and slept deeply, entwined in each other’s arms.
Several weeks after the wedding, asleep again, Nathan, alert even in slumber, from listening for the enemy in open fields, during his years in service, heard the sound of horses whinnying off in the distance. As they came closer he heard hooves pounding the ground, crunching leaves. He gently touched the arm of his sleeping bride and whispered, “Sonia angel, wake up.”
“What is it?”
“The Don Cossacks, with torches. The pogroms. Quick! We must leave. Perhaps they’ll spare our house. But we can’t take a chance. Grab your shoes and a coat, they’re coming fast.”
“I can’t leave our new home.”
“Quick, our lives are at stake.”
“My wedding gown . . . took me six months to make and our carpet from your mother . . . “
“Come Angel, I know these things are important, but we have our whole lives ahead of us, let’s escape while we can.”
Nathan took Sonia’s hand and led her out into the pre-dawn darkness, then ran as fast as their legs could carry them into the woods. Sonia could hardly catch her breath or believe this was happening, although she had heard about the pogroms for years from her family. They stopped behind a thick clump of trees in a heavily wooded area and crouched down low. Nathan put his arms around his shaking bride, holding her tight. They stayed very still and watched, as the three horsemen galloped from house to house, until the entire village was in flames. The thatched roofs instantly catching fire in a wild blaze. Then, in a flash, the horsemen galloped on and were gone.
“Mama, Pater, their house . . . ” cried Sonia, as they rushed over to the small home of her parents. She wanted to run inside, but the fire was so fierce, her face bright red as she stood there frantically screaming. When the fire died down, Nathan managed to get inside, only to find both parents still in bed, charred beyond recognition.
* * *
For months, since Nathan’s discharge from the army, his brother Benjamin had been warning everyone in the shtetl that it was time to get out of the Ukraine. The Russian hierarchy was preaching that having one religion, Russian Orthodox, and ridding the country of its millions of Jews would make for a stronger Russia.
Benjamin had already made his way to the new port of Odessa and arrived in America on a freighter, sending word to Nathan, begging him to follow. Nathan was reluctant to run away because of his deep love for Sonia, and his desire to marry and take her with him. Now, they had no choice.
The next day Sonia and Nathan started their trek through the woods to the railroad, which left at 2:00 a.m. They got off the train one hour later and walked through more forest to the next station in the dark, for-boding night. They passed other burned out shtetls on their way and Christian towns totally untouched. Horrified Sonia grabbed Nathan’s shirt to wipe her tearful eyes. They boarded the next train for a much longer ride to the new city. Exhausted from the long walk, Sonia napped on Nathan’s shoulder, awakening as the train zoomed out of the forest into the morning light, her face glued to the window. They stopped at small, villages to pick up passengers. She was enthralled to see the Dnieper River flowing along the tracks. They arrived the next afternoon as the river joined the Black Sea in the bustling Odessa. The mobs at the station and on the street were foreign and frightening to young Sonia.
Through a notice posted at the station, they found an inn for a few nights stay. Locating the new seaport, they investigated ships leaving for America. On the second week, they noticed a large vessel loading.
“Lets see where they’re headed.”
“Maybe we’ll be in luck.” Sonia said as she watched the huge containers being loaded and the activity at the docks. Nathan left her to investigate. It was a world she never imagined existed. Nathan came back with a pile of papers to be filled out and a big grin on his handsome face.
“He agreed to allow us passage if we don’t mind staying in one of the bunkrooms intended for crew in the hold of the boat. The ship leaves next week, and will make many stops, but ultimately will end up in the port of New York. What do you think? Shall we take it?”
“Of course,” she said. “As long as we’re together. We want to get to America.”
While still in the homeport of Odessa, Nathan sent a telegram to Benjamin informing him of the name and route of the ship, allowing him to track their passage.
* * *
Their room was spare and grey, made of steel, with one small bunk and a rack for clothes. They had to share a bathroom with the crew. It was not perfect, but they felt safe and knew this was a chance for a better life.
The first few days they were in ecstasy watching the shoreline as the ship left port. They ate in the mess hall with the crew and slept together in the bunk. It was tight, but they got used to it, and considered it an adventure.
They sailed through the deep Black Sea; first stopping to unload cargo in the Crimea, then Bulgaria to load more crates, passing through Turkey. The ship powered out into the Aegean Sea, stopping at Cyprus. They were fascinated by the different cultures, smells and food they observed in each port. Arriving at Crete, they unload cargo, and then went on to Massimo in Sicily where they debarked finding a café by the water where they tried pasta and Italian wine for the first time. Their last stop was Casablanca in Morocco. It was summer and warm in the azure Mediterranean, the seas were calm.
“Oh, Nathan, the people look so different in each place; I had no idea what the rest of the world was like. We’re so lucky to be alive and to see all this.”
Ashore in Morocco they wandered the market place, eyeing treasures, breathing new smells. With money saved from his army pay, Nathan bought Sonia an emerald green strand of beads and a hand made dress of the same green with accents of blue and purple. Back on the ship she felt like a queen in her new outfit. Her peaches and cream complexion glowed from the sunshine and her euphoria. The ship skirted Algeria for three days, then went through the Straits of Gibraltar, continuing into the quiet Gulf Stream waters, then out into the great North Atlantic.
When the ship got farther into the Atlantic, with no more stops, the green sea became dark and rough. Sonia held onto the wall in the communal shower, afraid the men would see her naked when the boat rocked. She awakened to the realization that she had not gotten her period for three months. In the excitement of visiting the ports, she had put it out of her mind, but now the smell of diesel fumes repulsed her, causing her to be sea-sick.
“Nathan, I think I am pregnant,” she said with terror in her voice.
Roaming the ship’s deck, Sonia found a few other stole-ways escaping the pogroms. She asked the women about being pregnant, but found no one who had had a child. She was alone except for Nathan, who shared her fear. He felt responsible and powerless.
Sonia, sick every morning, knelt on the floor by the dirty toilet, incensed. “I need to scrub the lavatory every day,” she said. “Those men in the crew are such pigs’, they pee all over everything.”
* * *
The Atlantic seemed endless and was rougher than the previous waters. The waves high, the ship rocked and tilted. Sonia could no longer take her daily walks around the deck arm in arm with Nathan. She had to hold on to the railing, and the wild, raging sea with waves as high as mountains frightened her. Sometimes the wind was so strong, she held on for dear life. Her silky, groomed hair had grown long and wild, her soft cheeks turned raw and parched.
She was a hearty girl, a farmer and a seamstress, but only eighteen and not equipped emotionally to handle her changing body and the angry sea. Her protruding abdomen exacerbated her short stature, and her breasts grew enormous as the fetus inside developed. She was in her second trimester and her few clothes had become tight and uncomfortable. The bunk became too small for the two of them. Nathan found another blanket and slept on the cold steel floor. At first Sonia felt the soft kicks of the baby in-uteri. As the weeks passed the kicks became stronger. She would lie on the bunk some days, hands cupping her large abdomen, leaving only to go to the bathroom. The weather turned frigid, as winter set in, their clothing not adequate to shield them. She became frantic, asking Nathan, “What will happen if the baby comes and we are still on the ship? This journey is going on so long, will it never end?”
“I will deliver the baby, my angel, God will instruct me.”
The vomiting calmed, but with the smell of oil and rough waters, she often skipped meals altogether.
“I’m afraid I will die on this voyage.”
“Hang on, my angel, have faith, we will be there soon.”
Each night after he kissed Sonia goodnight, Nathan went up on deck and looked down at the tumultuous black sea, with his bible pressed against his heart, and prayed.
* * *
It had been seven months on the sea, now the end of November and the sun was setting early as the ship plowed through icy waters. Off in the distance they saw a torch high in the sky, and then as they approached, the Statue of Liberty in all its’ glory loomed forth. Excitement consumed the ships crew and other passengers. Everyone ran up on deck, screaming cheers as they floated by the twinkling lights of New York City off in the distance. They passed Ellis Island where a ship was unloading immigrants, but kept going forty five minutes farther, through the back chamber of New York-New Jersey estaway to the port of New York, where cargo ships could unload.
Benjamin came the day they arrived, but they could not disembark. He came the next day and waited again. On the third day, the paperwork completed, amid falling snow, his emaciated brother and very pregnant wife staggered down the ramp, their clothes in rags, Sonia, hot with fever and coughing. Benjamin, remembering her as slim and gorgeous, was aghast to see her bloated body, blotchy skin and long, ragged hair.
When he had came month’s earlier, immigration authorities were confused by his complicated Russian signature, so he gave his previous employer’s name of Brown. Now Nathan filled out his papers with the same new name as his brother. They were in America, now legally Nathan and Sonia Brown.
* * *
Benjamin carried their bags to his carriage and wrapped Sonia in warm sheepskin, all the way up to her head, with only her eyes showing, shielding her from the icy cold. The two brothers rode up top, Benjamin taking the reins. They drove through Newark then on toward Philadelphia where Benjamin had secured an apartment and a job for Nathan. Sonia watched the town pass in a daze, falling in and out of slumber. They stayed one night at a guesthouse along the way, where Sonia had soup and languished in a warm bath. Her face flushed, her coughs non-stop; she had difficulty breathing. They arrived in Philadelphia where Benjamin drove directly to the hospital.
In her confused state, Sonia saw a blur of white. A kind nurse led her to a quiet room, where she discarded her tight, warn clothing, put on the clean hospital gown and climbed into an immaculate bed. Sonia’s breathing became more labored every minute. She lost consciousness; the nurses scurried about fearing she was near death. The doctor finally came in to examine her.
“Lucky you’re here now, young lady. You’re dehydrated, malnourished and have pneumonia. However, I hear a strong heartbeat from the fetus. We can expect the baby to be delivered in about a month.” Hearing this, Sonia worried, who would care for her infant when she was gone.
“I must survive, we know no one here except Benjamin. Nathan and the baby will need me.” She was determined to live. Nathan refused to leave her side. Sonia slept three days straight, waking only to drink water and juice. When she could sit up, the staff spoon-fed her soup, eggs and mush.
They had never experienced Christmas, isolated on the shtetl, but in the hospital, merriment abounded. Carolers went from room to room, cheering the patients, and in the halls Sonia saw lit candles and fragrant holly.
She regained her health slowly, and on the very day of Christmas, went into labor and delivered a healthy baby girl they named Lena Brown . . . my mother.