Fiction from Issue #45
by Dennis Barone
Yeshia lived to be one-hundred and when he died the family cut up his clothing and distributed the pieces. People believed that having a bit of clothing worn by a man who had lived so long would bring good fortune and long life. People forget that though Yeshia had long life he rarely had good fortune.
Yeshia used to say that if he were a millionaire he’d fill his pockets with raisins. Although he worked hard, he made only a meagre living and would have most likely starved had it not been for the abundant fish from the nearby river.
Yeshia had a single child, Leah, a sweet, pretty girl whose mother had died soon after giving birth. Yeshia and Leah planted pumpkin vines around their small plot of land. Leah learned how to make pumpkin bread and pumpkin soup. Each morning when her father left to work in the fields, she would tend the pumpkins. Before hoeing the soil she spat on the ground three times to ward off bad luck.
It seemed to work, too, for all went smoothly for some time – time enough so that they almost forgot all of life’s problems. But then when least expected, an unwanted notice arrived followed a week later by a small escort of soldiers charged with bringing Yeshia and other men of the village to the city and then from there – no one knew where.
Leah cried and cried. She soon ate the last of the pumpkin bread and soup. She soon ran out of sunflower seeds. She became despondent and then ill. One of the ancient women of the village gave her a flask of golden medicine and instructions on how and when to take it.
One night a message arrived, brought by a handsome young man who soon disappeared into the night. Yeshia had escaped. He sent many krona and a map. On it he had placed an X and had written a time and a date and nothing more.
Leah had never been outside the bounds of her village beyond which the tall trees of the forest grew skyward rendering the land dark, dark and dangerous for she had heard the tales of evil spirits and bandits.
In the cover of darkness the next night she said goodbye to her pumpkin patch and began her long trek. As she walked she felt better, stronger. She did not know if it were because of her exertion or because of the medication in the flask. After a fortnight she reached the outskirts of the city. She could see the lights of the steelworks from atop the hills.
When she reached the prescribed address on Willow Street there was Yeshia, open-armed and ecstatic, but looking older, a bit worn and gray. They hugged as if they would stay entwined that way for all of history.
But eventually Yeshia spoke. First, he thanked God. Then he complimented his brave daughter. And then he thanked his young friend Velvil who had risked his life to get the map and krona to Leah. Yeshia told Leah that their struggles had not ended. The city would be, for them, but a meeting place and soon nothing more than a memory. Their destination had been decided for them. Relatives had settled in New Britain, Connecticut and this American place would be their goal, their destination and future home.
They walked and they rode and they sailed. Then they boarded a train and at the small station distant cousins who spoke their language greeted them, embraced them, and invited them to their home, a two-family house with back porches that overlooked a tool and dye factory.
Cousin told Yeshia that work would be his for the asking and Yeshia felt thankful but also doubtful that he could survive hour upon hour of a steady repeated task beneath a roof that shut him in and separated him from sun and air. He thought of himself as a farmer and a fisherman, not an industrial worker. For Leah’s sake he went to the factory and for eleven hours a day, six days a week he repeated the same motion over and over again. He thought he’d go insane and yet he found such joy in Leah’s happiness as she excelled at school and made friends with the children of the neighborhood.
All of the workers came from the same part of the world as Yeshia and Leah: not the same village, but the same region, a region where national boundaries changed from one war to the next and a region that seemed to be ever at war with itself unlike these miraculous United States. Occasionally, some of the men of socialist leanings printed a paper. The news it contained always referred to events covered by other papers days or weeks before and yet something about the language and its intonation in this paper appealed to Yeshia.
In this erratic paper he read one day about farming communities comprised of people from their region. And so they moved to the nearby state of New Jersey. Leah put up little fuss. She did mention her friends and her school, but Yeshia plied her with the promise of her very own pumpkin patch.
Brotmanville had been founded a few years prior by the industrialist turned philanthropist Ludwig Brotman. He had made his millions in the manufacture of lighting fixtures. Already the settlement had many families from the old country who didn’t so much reject the America of industry and commerce as they welcomed that small town nation of happy farmers and bountiful harvests. Yeshia had been granted fifteen acres with the option for fifteen more if all went according to plan.
Yeshia worked like a spinning dervish with pick and ax to clear stumps from this – as he saw it – gift from God that he had received. He refused machinery so that he could cut costs and save and plant and reap. Soon he had a small barn built with his own hands and in his barn he had calves and sheep; a goat, too. And Leah had her pumpkin patch. Once again they had soup and bread, and seeds to snack upon.
But winter comes to this part of the world as it had in their village. Brotman had wisdom as well as great wealth. He built a clothing factory for work in the off-season and all boats were lifted: Brotman’s, but also all the families that had settled in Brotmanville.
As new pioneers arrived a new business became a priority and Brotman built a toy factory. To survive the town needed an industrial base as well as the seasonal farms. Unbeknown to Yeshia and Leah, the young man who had befriended the former and delivered a message to the latter had arrived to oversee the beginnings of the new factory. This former soldier now would supervise the manufacture of toy soldiers and dolls and simple board games such as checkers and the little baseball bats and caps made for the nearby Philadelphia team to sell as souvenirs.
The day Leah passed by Velvil along the main thoroughfare they slowed a moment and looked closely but failed to recall why they felt a sense of familiarity. Everyone in Brotmanville came from a similar background and a very limited region within the old country and so everyone could feel a sense of familiarity with anyone else. But the sense they had, the odd feeling that had been roused, they knew differed from the usual acknowledgment of some sort of connection.
A few weeks, perhaps a full month transpired. Then Yeshia passed Velvil on that same street, but unlike his daughter, Yeshia immediately recognized his friend and embraced him. They spoke and Yeshia learned of his friend’s escape and learned of his steady and secure work as a supervisor in Brotman’s toy factory. And Yeshia told his friend about his daughter, his joy.
Yes, of course, Leah and Velvil married. While Brotmanville was not the old country neither was it quite the new one. Marriages – usually – were not arranged in New Jersey, but bride and groom often selected one another from a very limited applicant pool, a guarded and compact community of the possible.
For Yeshia, America had fulfilled all his desires. Okay, so maybe he had fine fortune after all, but was that only because he also had a deep faith? He felt free and secure now that his daughter had her mate.
The toy factory closed after the birth of their first child but their farm prospered, especially its pumpkin patch which – as they grew older – became a sort of south Jersey tourist attraction, known for its free hayrides out to the pick-your-own field.
Dennis Barone is the author of Beyond Memory: Italian Protestants in Italy and America (SUNY Press) and Second Thoughts (Bordighera Press) as well as many other books of criticism, fiction, and poetry.