I awoke feeling as if I had slept on stones. Grey sunlight spilled its dust into my eyes.
The stepmother stood in the alcove boiling water in a scorched pot. Into this, she sprinkled a fistful of damp coffee grounds.
The daughter returned from the privy in the courtyard. She has barely closed the door behind her when she started to assail her stepmother. “Why is there no sugar in the house? How can our ‘guest’ drink coffee without sugar? What do you do with all the money I give you?”
Their bickering went on until the coffee was ready. As the ‘guest,’ I got to drink it out of a shallow bowl whose bottom advertised a brand of Turkish cigarettes.
The stepmother reached into a gap in the wall to take out the ruble I had given her, and announced that she would go out and try and buy food.
When the door closed, the daughter and I were flagrantly alone. I could think of nothing to say to keep us strangers. Ignoring my awkwardness, she stroked my hair and murmured mechanical words of endearment.
The stepmother tactfully knocked, and waited before coming back in. She had been able to buy a piece of hard white bread, a pinch of ground fresh coffee, ten cubes of sugar and a lump of butter, all of it wrapped in a cone of newsprint.
Huddled around their limping table, we resumed our breakfast without further wrangling. The stepmother observed how nice it was sitting here having a meal, just like a real family. Perhaps my arrival was a sign from Heaven, a signal for her daughter to start “a new life.”
I glanced toward the daughter expecting, at the very least, a grin of derision, if not an avalanche of curses at the woman for shaming her in front of a stranger. But her expression was curiously docile, almost resigned.
I wanted badly to get up and leave. But my arms and legs had turned to lead, and the floor retreated under my feet. I had not only lost a lot of blood, but still owed my body a week of sleep.
To break the silence, I asked the daughter to deliver a letter for me.
“Why? To whom?” Her eyes narrowed distrustfully.
While the stepmother rummaged for something on which I could write, the girl asked, “Are you in trouble with the police? We know people who can fix that. All it takes is a little money.”
“It’s to let my parents know I'm alive.” I gave her the address, 72 Pava, of an apartment of a comrade who would know if it was safe for me to return home.
But the daughter read my eyes. “They're after you, eh?” Both women looked at me with fresh respect.
“You can stay here as long as you want,” said the stepmother. “Forever, if you want. She will go out and work for you. You won’t ever need to go outside.”
The daughter, with a proprietary smile, rested her hand on my shoulder. Her touch singed me like a furnace.
The stepmother found a scrap of paper. It happened to be an old handbill, written in Polish and Russian, for which I had helped compose the text. My “Call to Action” suddenly seemed unforgivably foolish, irresponsible, murderous, even. I wrote on the back of it, telling my comrade where I was, and asking for his advice. I sealed the letter with drops of chewed bread and saliva.
While the daughter went on her errand, her stepmother again assured me that I didn’t need to worry; the girl was a good provider.
Feeling a little bit pressured, I asked cruelly, “How does she ‘provide?’ What does she do?”
“She goes with men. I suppose that offends you. She doesn't like to do it, but what else can she do? A girl is like a silk cloth. One stain, and you can never get it clean again. But once she marries, if her husband is willing to work, I swear, you will not find a wife more virtuous, more obedient, more neat and orderly.”
She leaned toward me and dropped her voice. “While you were sleeping she confided in me. Oh, yes; she believes she has fallen in love with you. But promise you will not let on that I told you. It is well known that men pursue only the kind of women who are indifferent to them.”
Feverish with pain and unsure how to hold up my end of this terrible conversation, I looked out the window, impatient for rescue.
“I want you to promise me only one thing,” the stepmother said. “That you will also let me live in your home. I am not her true mother, and I have not always been good to her. But she has sworn not to abandon me. I'll be your maid, your cook, I will take care of your children. You will need to think of nothing but your own pleasure.”
Seeing me silent and glum, she added, “I know you’re concerned. How will you start a home, support a family? Maybe I shouldn't tell you this, but the girl has a wealthy uncle in Lemberg. He once promised he would give two hundred rubles to whichever young man she chose to marry, regardless of whether or not he approved. If I had another piece of paper, I would write to him this minute. Or I could send a telegram, if you will pay for it. Are you wanted by the police?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “What work do you do? I don’t care whether you’re a thief or whatever. I only hope you don’t deal in women. My daughter has not had good experiences with men of that sort.”
At the sound of a sharp knock on the door, I took out my revolver, forgetting it was nearly empty. The stepmother opened the door.
A neighbor wanted to borrow a rolling pin. While this was being negotiated, the daughter returned. She glanced at me as coolly as if we had been banded together in a quarrelsome marriage for many years.
Seeing that she wasn’t going to offer the information, I burst out, “Did you deliver my letter?”
“He thought the police had killed you.”
“He said that for now, it would be best for you to stay where you are.”
“For how long?”
“What is your hurry?”
“He didn't give you a letter for me?”
“You think I'm lying to you?”
The glint in her eyes told me she would not be a good person to have as an enemy.
“No,” I assured her.
“But you lied to us.”
“How did I lie to you?”
“The man you sent me to was not your brother. And you are not a thief. You're a radical, an anarchist, a bomb-thrower, maybe something even worse. If the police caught you here, what would happen to us?”
“You want me to leave?” I offered, perhaps too eagerly.
“Take off your clothes,” she ordered.
“I'll exchange them with a neighbor. It will be easier for you to escape.”
I felt relieved. I didn't know what my comrade said to her, but I gathered the match was off. The uncle in Lemberg could keep his two-hundred rubles a while longer. The stepmother had also given up on me, possibly from seeing how readily I reached for my revolver.
“If you take my clothes, what will I wear?”
“Where are you going, into high society?” she sneered, and went downstairs. Shortly she returned with the clothes of someone who, I guessed, worked in the sewers. I tried on the jacket and took it off quickly. I would take my chances wearing the clothes in which I arrived.
For just one moment, it looked as if I were about to suffer the full fury of her temper. But she controlled herself and sat down, her shoulders sagging with weariness.
I left them most of the money I had in my pockets, which was little enough for having sheltered me and maybe even saved my life.
As I shut the door and limped down the stairs, I heard the stepmother say consolingly, “A dangerous man. You're well rid of him. Wanting us to think he was only a thief!”