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A Bend in the Stars
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In physical reality one cause does not produce a given effect, but a multitude of distinct causes contribute to produce it, without our having any means of discriminating the part of each of them.
“The Measure of Time,” 1898
2000: Philadelphia, United States
Ethel Zane stood next to her granddaughter, Lena, in the museum’s rotunda and tried to catch her breath by pretending to examine the painting in front of them. The oversize canvas once served as the backdrop for a ballet, a Russian Romeo and Juliet, and Ethel had studied it so many times she didn’t need to look to see its brilliance. A sun and a moon hung together in a sky ignited by shades of orange.
“Are you ready, Bubbie?” Lena asked. Her curls were dripping, and the dress she’d spent so much time choosing was splotched with rain. “They’re waiting for us.”
“After all this time, another minute won’t hurt.” If only she could smoke inside.
Lena threaded her fingers through Ethel’s. “I’ve always loved the romance in this.”
“It’s not romance. This painting is about an eclipse.” Ethel pulled her granddaughter close. “See, the sun and the moon are converging. There’s the eclipse. And from that you’re sensing passion. You have it, Lenaleh. Passion like that eclipse, like the painting, the kind that makes a woman want to jump into the bath with a man after a sweaty day.”
Her granddaughter threw her head back and laughed. Another woman might have been embarrassed, but not her Lena. Ethel was proud of that. “I suppose with the right man, anyone would like that bath,” Lena said.
They took the stairs, slowly. At the top, a bar glittered with champagne. A florist leaned over a vase heavy with the lilacs Ethel could smell from across the room. On the landing stood the great-grandson of Uncle Vanya’s old friend, Dima. The young man was tall, taller even than Lena. He had deep-set eyes and a thick frame as if there was a sailor’s bearing in his bones, like his great-grandfather. He took Ethel’s other hand. “Thank you for coming to celebrate my uncle Vanya,” she said. “None of this would have been possible without Dima. He was a great man. I just wish I’d had a chance to meet him myself.”
“If only he’d told me more about what happened in Russia before he died, about their adventures during the war and the competition with Einstein.”
Ethel frowned. “That’s the problem. Life doesn’t travel in a straight line. Knowing the end doesn’t mean you can follow it back to the beginning.” She paused. “And I’m not sure they would have called their time together adventures. There was the need to survive, no?”
They turned the corner and Ethel saw the exhibit’s title: The Race to Prove Relativity. Then came the shock: a photograph of her mother, Miriam Abramov, hung on the wall. It was one Ethel hadn’t seen before, one the curator must have found at the last minute. The image was part of a constellation of other new prints, each in their own frame, capturing pieces of life in 1914: the Bern clock tower, a Russian port, the czar’s troops boarding a train, but none of them were important. For Ethel, her mother was all that mattered, and she hurried closer to get a better look. The picture had been taken before Ethel was born, back in Russia. Her mother looked so young as she stood in front of a slice of a shtetl and stared down the camera. Her doctor’s coat was smeared dark, and her face was lined with dirt. She must have been working herself to the bone, but still there was an energy to her. It was conviction. Ethel knew it as a quality she saw in herself and in her granddaughter, a quality passed through the blood. How did Mama stand so tall while the world around her was shattering into war? And who was the man next to her? He wore a military greatcoat and a cap with the visor pulled down so low Ethel couldn’t see his face. Instead of looking into the camera, the soldier looked at her mother. He was inclined toward her, drawn by gravity.
Lena squeezed Ethel’s hand and pointed to the opposite wall. Across from the image of Miriam hung a collection of more photographs, academics posed in front of telescopes. One had a scale model of the solar system suspended behind him. These were all physicists arrayed in orbit around Albert Einstein.
“Where’s my uncle Vanya’s photograph?” Ethel asked. He should have had pride of place above Einstein—Vanya was the whole reason they were there.
“I thought they’d found the journals, that this was about Uncle Vanya’s work. Don’t they know what he did?” Lena asked.
“They do now.” Ethel reached for Einstein’s photograph and plucked it off the wall. It was easier to do than she’d imagined. An alarm blared. The curator and his assistants came running. “History needs a narrator,” Ethel said. “Perhaps this museum chose the wrong one.”
The Hebrew calendar is based on three astronomical phenomena: the rotation of the earth on its axis, the revolution of the moon around the earth, and the movement of the earth around the sun.
The fourth month in the Jewish calendar is Tammuz, from the Aramaic, meaning heat, fire, or sun. It is said that during Tammuz, in the midst of battle, Joshua ordered the sun to stand still. God heard his pleas and the day stopped. Only the moon continued, sliding in front of the sun.
1914: Kovno, Russia
On the eighteenth of Tammuz, Miri Abramov sat at the window in her room watching the slip of a moon emerge behind the mottled rooftops of Kovno. Her shoulders were slumped forward, and curls escaped from the braid running down her back. She was exhausted from tending to dozens of patients and couldn’t stop thinking about one in particular—the fishmonger. She lit a cigarette, watched smoke finger the polished glass in front of her. He had been beaten so severely Miri didn’t recognize him, and his was a face she knew. He brought her family his catch every Monday. The word Jew had been scrawled on his chest with so much hate that the charcoal used to write it cut his skin. The letters oozed red. His ribs were cracked and Miri was sure his spleen was pierced. She needed to operate to save his life, but she wasn’t a surgeon. She was still training, couldn’t do anything without permission, and all the surgeons above her—men—disagreed with her diagnosis. They said he was only bruised. But she’d watched his condition deteriorate. She’d recorded his pulse rising, his blood pressure dropping, along with his increasing confusion—all signs he was bleeding internally. Would he make it through the night?
The grandfather clock downstairs struck the hour. It was time for supper. Miri stubbed her cigarette in a pile of ash on a cold saucer and made her way into the hall. Standing on thick, woven carpet, Miri took a deep breath and arranged her face. Making an appearance downstairs in the crowded sitting room where she’d find her grandmother always made Miri feel as if she were onstage. The house, the paintings, the silks and velvets were props in Babushka’s exquisite theater. Her grandmother was Kovno’s most illustrious matchmaker, and she was paid in gifts. Everything her family had was chosen for them. The house was given by the owner of the brick factory on the night of his wedding. Beds were delivered by a carpenter once he held his first child. Baba’s clients furnished one room and then another. All of her needs were provided for in this way. Babushka found wives for tailors who sent clothing, and fishmongers, like Miri’s patient, who delivered food. The only thing Baba refused was help. She didn’t want a cook or a maid. She was the keeper of secrets, she explained with a wink—one clients never questioned. And Miri knew they were lucky to live so well, especially when so many Jews scavenged for food and heat. She was grateful for it, but none of it felt like a home.
Baba was her home and had been since her parents left for America fifteen years earlier when Miri was six and her brother, Vanya, was twelve. The plan had been for the three of them to join Mama and Papa after they were settled, but their parents’ boat sank during a storm. The loss spun Miri into a darkness that left her limp. Every night after Babushka kissed them and thought they were in bed, Vanya rocked Miri until her silent tears stopped, and whispered stories their mother used to tell. Stories about brave girls and boys who fought Baba Yaga. Stories about fearless children who dared travel across Russia in search of treasure. Miri’s favorite was “Levi’s Monster.” Levi refused to follow the rabbis and throw his sins into the river every year at Rosh Hashanah. Instead he let them pile up until they grew into a powerful ogre that Levi had to defeat to save his wife and children. Like Levi, Vanya pushed Miri to fight, and she did. She learned to tuck the darkness away. Sometimes, though, it iced its way back, and she felt it then as she stood outside her room worrying about the fishmonger. But she had to go on, Vanya would say. And she knew he was right. She straightened her back and started down the stairs.
In the front hall, Miri found the usual line of mothers and grandmothers spilling out from the sitting room. The few that spotted her nodded a greeting, but she knew they didn’t dare stand or move to kiss her for fear they might lose their place. All were waiting their turn for an audience with Babushka, for a chance to plead for help in matching their children. Miri leaned against the polished wooden doorframe. It wouldn’t be long before Baba spotted her and realized how late it was. Then she’d finish for the night and Miri would help her usher the women out so they could sit down to eat together.
Baba sat on her perch, dressed in aquamarine with her thick silver braid resting over her shoulder. She was as wide as she was tall, and she had a chair on stilts, with a footrest to match, so she could sit at eye level with her visitors. She held the hands of the seamstress, Katinka, who was afflicted with a curved spine that kept her half-bent. She was there for her son who had a business delivering vegetables. “He’s a good boy,” Katinka said. Miri knew that since Baba held Katinka’s hands, they were just beginning and the seamstress would be cut short.
“Does he drink too much?” Baba asked.
“Sometimes.” Every woman knew to be honest.
“Does he fight? Use his fists?”
“Good,” Baba said. “What else?”
“He tells me stories about love, about the future.”
“He understands better days will come. Perhaps not this year but they will come.” Baba paused and looked up, sensing Miri’s arrival. She nodded at her granddaughter, then leaned toward Katinka. “You’ll unwrap his story for me in the morning.” Katinka exhaled, showing she understood this meant Babushka would consider his case, and her chest crumpled as if she’d been holding her breath.
“Thank you. Thank you,” the seamstress said.
Babushka squeezed Katinka’s hands. “More tomorrow. All of you, more tomorrow,” she said as she turned to face the rest of the room. The women grumbled. Some must have waited for hours and still hadn’t been heard. And while the rabbi stayed as late as he was needed, Babushka did not. Her clients knew she required sleep to clear her head, to make better matches, and so no one argued. They all wanted to remain on Babushka’s better side.
Just before Miri stepped into the room to help urge the women along, Yuri walked in through the front door. She heard him even before she saw him. One of his legs was shorter than the other, and the shim he used to compensate creaked when he walked. His gold watch swayed like a pendulum from his vest, and he was still in his white surgeon’s coat. “Yuri Chaimovich!” Miri said, excited and alarmed because they’d already said their good-nights at the hospital. His being there meant something was wrong. She hurried to him. Before he’d even had time to hang his hat, she asked, “What’s happened? Why have you come?”
“It’s agreed. Finally.” Out of breath, he put his bag down and took her hands. They stood eye to eye. “You left early. For the first time.” He gulped for air. “The fishmonger, if he survives the night…The other surgeons, they’ve agreed you’re correct. His spleen must be removed. And they’ve agreed you will do it. You will operate—alone.” She must have stepped forward. They were closer now. He kissed her cheek. “You’re being elevated to surgeon.”
“He’ll be saved?”
“Yes. By your hand.”
“It would be better now. We need to operate now.” Hearing the news also had Miri out of breath. Her words came quickly. “He’ll lose less blood. Have a better chance. To live.”
“You know the operating theaters are shuttered at night. We can’t see well enough.” He pushed so close his legs pressed on her skirts. “Did you hear me? You’re being promoted.”
“Surely we can compensate with candles. Gas lamps.”
“We can’t.” He cleared his throat. “Miriam. You’re a surgeon now.”
The house behind them was loud with women’s voices, but as the news took hold it all seemed far away from where Miri stood. “Surgeon?” she said. “You’re certain?” So many mocked her ambitions because she was a woman. Enough told her to give up the dream that she’d begun to hear them, to accept she would never be promoted no matter how great her skills. But oh, how she wanted it. The title would allow her to act without seeking permission, which meant she’d save so many more. She reached for a bench to steady herself.
“I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t certain. You’ll save him. Tomorrow. On your own.” Yuri smiled. He rarely showed emotion. To gain a patient’s trust, he taught, a doctor must appear impartial, neutral to all news. But when he broke his rule for her, she loved it. She thought he looked lighter, younger. “I’ll be there, if you need me. But you will operate on your own.”
“How did you convince them?”
“Dr. Rozen, can’t you hear me?” Babushka called. From the front door, there was a clear view of her on her perch, half teasing, half scolding. How many times had she addressed Yuri? “Dr. Rozen, I asked if you’d care to greet the other women in the house?”
Yuri turned to face her. “Yes. My apologies.” He removed his coat and hat and started toward her. Baba’s clients made room for him to pass. A few tucked their heads together, likely to gossip about Yuri, or Miri, or both. Their engagement was recent and still had most of them reeling. When Yuri first arrived in Kovno, many of the women had tried to steer him toward their own daughters. He was handsome, respected, and well-off, a bachelor with enviable manners. You want a nice girl, they’d said, a quiet girl to make you a home.
What he wanted was Miri.
Yuri was the only surgeon in Kovno willing to train a woman to reach his rank. The only one brave enough to stand against those who tried to shame him for it. In time, he and Miri had become so close they were rarely seen apart. Still, the women staring now had never gotten past their surprise when the doctors paired themselves. Everyone had assumed no man would have Miri, a headstrong girl, they’d said, who had the gall to think she could work alongside men. But Babushka knew. The day Miri accepted Yuri, a weight came off her and she whispered to Miri that it was bashert, meant to be. And she was quick to dispel rumors that she’d had anything to do with the match because, she knew, Miri didn’t want her to interfere—never had, not there.
By appearances, Miri and Yuri were a natural couple. They were both educated and accomplished, devoted to their patients. She was darker and flushed where he was pale, but there was no doubt they fit well together. Yuri was a gentleman. He was faithful and kind. There was a softness to him, a layer he kept hidden, one that Miri adored. In private, Vanya insisted to Miri it wasn’t a softness, it was something broken, but Miri expected nothing less from Vanya. He was her big brother. He had always been overprotective, and he worried too much because he loved her. He didn’t know Yuri, not like Miri did.
“Good evening, Mrs. Abramov,” Yuri said. He leaned in to kiss Babushka once, twice, three times before they spoke. Miri couldn’t hear what passed between them and so she watched. At a glance, Yuri looked more Russian than Jewish. He was impeccably dressed and sturdy where so many were tattered and gaunt. He had blond hair that had begun to lose its color and blue eyes that other women admired for their appearance but that Miri treasured because they never missed a detail. Even when patients swore they’d described every ailment, Yuri saw more. Just that week he’d treated a rash that might have been confused with smallpox, but Yuri knew it to be varicella. And while women sometimes remarked that his face was attractive save for his ears, Miri thought those ears that stuck out too far were perfect because they detected the slightest rattle in a child’s chest when early diagnosis was the only hope for a cure.
When Yuri made his way back to Miri, she pulled him into the shadows under the stairs, where they’d have privacy. “Tell me more about Sukovich, the fishmonger. What happened after I left?”
“I’ve told you what matters.”
“You’re keeping something back. How did you persuade them?”
“I brought your notes to the other surgeons, told them how you’d watched your patient decline throughout the day. It was your persistence that made them reexamine him. Now they agree with your diagnosis.” He paused. “Perhaps it was also the crime itself. The brutality. Does it matter?”
It didn’t. All that mattered was saving Sukovich. “Let’s go back to the hospital. Prepare for the surgery. I can’t make a mistake. He’ll be even weaker tomorrow.”
“No.” Yuri held her arms in his soft hands. “You’re ready, more than ready. Trust yourself.” He brushed a black curl from her face, tucked it behind her ear, and smiled. “Tell me.” His voice dropped lower. “Weddings. They’re in every nook of this house. But never ours. Will you marry me now that you’re a surgeon?”
“You can’t ask me that now, Yuri.” She looked over her shoulder to see if anyone was watching them. “I have my first surgery tomorrow. And—and think of all the women we lose in childbirth.”
“I love you, Mirele. I’ll take care of you. See you through it.”
“What about my training? I have more to learn. And I have to take care of Vanya and Baba.”
He pulled her to him. “I’ll take care of them. You can continue at the hospital after we’re married. You know that.”
“Can’t these intimate moments wait until the wedding?” Vanya said. Miri hadn’t heard him coming. He slid between them so Yuri had to step back. Silhouetted in light spilling from the kitchen down the hall, Vanya’s thin frame looked feeble compared to Yuri’s, his clothing threadbare in contrast to the doctor’s tailored suit. In better light, it would have been even more clear that they were opposites. Vanya was green eyes and wild black curls, while Yuri was bleached and straight. Vanya put a possessive arm around his sister’s shoulders. In his other hand he held a plate with cheese and bread—his dinner. Miri knew he’d go back to his room and eat there while he worked on equations for relativity until he fell asleep at his desk.
Yuri, always nervous around Miri’s brother, fumbled and then held out his hand to shake Vanya’s. “Good evening, Ivan Davydovich.”
“Relax.” Vanya raised his eyebrows and offered a smile without any warmth. “You think I don’t know you’ve kissed your fiancée?”
“Be nice,” Miri said. She nudged Vanya. “Yuri, he’s only teasing you.”
“Of course. You do have a lighter side, don’t you? What brings you to the house?”
“Sukovich,” Miri said. “He’s my patient. You heard about the beating?”
Vanya pressed his lips together and nodded. “Our fishmonger. It’s been getting worse since Beilis.” Mendel Beilis was a Jew living in Kiev. When a local teenage boy was found stabbed fourteen times, a lamplighter swore he’d seen Beilis kidnap the boy. Beilis was jailed for blood libel regardless of the fact that a half dozen Jewish witnesses saw him at work when the murder occurred. The lamplighter was a police pawn, a petty thief, beaten into making his statement, and because he wasn’t a Jew his words held weight. It took two years for that truth to come out—two years during which Beilis rotted in a cell and Russians freely attacked Jews on the street in the name of revenge. Once the lamplighter recanted, Beilis’s name was cleared but the shadow of the ordeal lingered. Newspapers reported on retributions still being extracted from Jews caught in the wrong place at the wrong time—Jews like Sukovich, whose only transgression had been catching more fish that morning than his non-Jewish competitors. “I read Russians are blaming us for the war, too,” Vanya said. “There isn’t even a war yet. But they’re blaming us.”
“There will be war,” Miri said. “Since the archduke’s assassination, it’s inevitable.”
“In any case,” Yuri said. He cleared his throat. “Miri treated Sukovich. She diagnosed internal bleeding. She’ll remove his spleen in the morning. She’s being elevated to surgeon.”
“At last!” Vanya kissed his sister and kissed her again.
“Enough,” she said. “We’ll celebrate when Sukovich lives.”
“No. I must congratulate you now. Can’t you see? It’s awful and wonderful. Awful for Sukovich. Wonderful for you. And for your other patients. Think of all the others you will save now,” he said, beaming. “So long overdue. Mirele, come, I’ll find vodka.”
“Yuri will join us,” she said.
Vanya paused only for a moment. “Of course, brother,” he said, and went to the kitchen.
Miri couldn’t sleep. She was too terrified the fishmonger wouldn’t make it through the night, too ashamed she hadn’t done more to convince the surgeons to operate sooner. And so she lay awake envisioning the surgery, thinking about poor Sukovich and his family. How would they eat if he died? The hate unleashed on him was reprehensible, made worse by the fact that no one intervened. What if it were Vanya or Yuri who had been beaten?
Night ticked forward, and it occurred to Miri that the surgeons only agreed to the operation after the surgical theaters were closed. That meant if Sukovich pulled through to sunrise, he’d be so weak that no matter how perfectly she dissected and sutured, his chances would be minimal. Had they agreed because they knew she’d fail? No. No matter how much they might resent a woman in their ranks, no surgeon would put Miri’s demise above the life of a patient. Would they? She climbed out of bed, added a log to the fire, told herself all that mattered was that Sukovich had a chance and that she’d be able to save more lives going forward. But, after all the condescension she’d faced, after the indignities Yuri himself had suffered for taking her on, what could Yuri have said not only to convince them to listen to her, but to promote her?
- A New York Times Summer Reading Selection
- On Sale
- May 14, 2019
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Grand Central Publishing