Fall 2021, Volume 31

Fiction by Diane Lederman

What She Didn’t Know

The noise inside the spinning room seemed particularly harsh and Shanna Spektor needed her laudanum. When the bell sounded at 6:30 p.m., she left hurriedly. She had to get home before her husband Lev.

At the apartment door she listened. It was still, yet she tiptoed into the bedroom pulling the bottle of her drops from her underthings in the top bureau drawer. Lev didn’t know about her need. He might take the drops away if he did. She swallowed six.

 In the kitchen now, she stared into the night from the window, her shoulders tight, her body aching. She feared this emptiness would swallow her like the whale did Jonah and yet never cast her free.

She turned to the door, watching, steeling herself for Lev: for the smells he carried home from his shoe factory every night and for his moods. She moved around him as if he was glass and would shatter if she got too close. His disposition was increasingly mercurial and she didn’t know how much longer she could bear it. Even with the drops.

 She wanted to go home to her father, a rabbi, back in Kishinev. At times, she felt on the edge of panic with her need. But she had no money and just three months after the long voyage to America she wasn’t prepared for the misery of the sea again.

A tentative knock at the door broke her rumination. She hesitated. She wasn’t expecting anyone. But the sound came again.  She opened the door slowly. Ori, her husband’s cousin, stood at the door, his cap in hand, a smile brightening his face, a mirror opposite to Lev’s gloom. She hugged him, hoping he would stay with her, even if Lev was not here. 

“Come,” she said. “Tea? I was going to make some.” The drops were already calming her.

“No. Lev not here?” 

 “No, maybe wait a few minutes. Come sit.”

She moved the notebook she was using for the English words she was learning from the table. “See,” she said to Ori waving the notebook at him. “See how much it is used.” Ori had bought it for her just days after she and Lev arrived in New Bedford from Odessa.

“Good, good,” he said as he flipped a few pages. “Lots of words to know.”

Lev did not know of Ori’s gift, she didn’t trust he wouldn’t be angry. He didn’t want help from Ori unless it was an emergency he had told her. But she had no money and Ori was pleased to buy it for her. Knowing only Yiddish, she needed to learn English as quickly as possible.

 “I have not heard from the pawnbroker. But there’s still time. Lev said the dealer gave him six months. It’s been just four.”  Without asking or telling her, Lev had sold the ring that had been her mother’s and the pearls of her grandmother before they sailed to America.

He said they needed money to travel. But he could have found it another way.  He was blind to her need for her treasures - her bond to the two women she loved most in this world. Both had passed. Ori understood and wrote to the pawnbroker asking how much it would cost to buy the items back. Shanna was less hopeful the more days that passed.

 “Just to make sure the letter did not get lost, I’ll write again.”

“I don’t know what I would do here without you,” she said. He was the brother she could not find. He was her savior. “Have you noticed, these last days, Lev seems so verklempt.” 

 “He’s discouraged,” Ori said. “He wants to begin his business already. He has the patience of a horse hungry for his feed.”

She laughed, feeling better that someone else understood. 
“I thought Mr. Wiseman was helping.” She did not trust the wealthy businessman and yet Lev seemed particularly disposed to his views.

“He is but Lev has to decide what is right. I think he is afraid to make the wrong choice. Mr. Wiseman said he should set a deadline for himself. Lev is thinking too much. Caution is necessary but anything is a risk.”

 “Will you join him only if its shoes?”

“I don’t have skills or interest for insurance. I am happy to stay with the carriage shop if Lev decides insurance is best.” He blinked twice in agreement with himself.

 “I know how much he wants this with you,” she said, touching his wrist.

“It is not good for either of us if my heart is not there.” He brought his hand to his chest now as if it could feel his words pulsing there.

“Ori, I know so little about Lev.” Shanna felt she was betraying a trust by speaking of this but she needed help.

Lev just appeared in Kishinev that winter almost like a ghost. He told them nothing of who he was, nothing of his past.

 He doesn’t talk of his life.  And when his moods are like this...” Her throat tightened; it would be a burden to Ori if she cried. “He said his parents died in some kind of factory accident, that’s all I know. I don’t even know how or when.”

Ori looked at her, his brow wrinkled in confusion, as if she spoke some words he couldn’t quite understand. “He said that? That there was an accident?”

 “Please Ori, you know something. Tell me.” She couldn’t bear to stay in a home like this with so much unspoken. Her face must have revealed her mind. 

 “All right a little.” He leaned close as if he would share a great secret that could not be overheard.

 Shanna’s palms grew warm. She took a breath in anticipation.

“His parents did not die in an accident. I don’t know why he said that.”

Shanna shivered, what other lies had he told her.

Ori put his hands under his armpits as if they were cold. “His mother left when Lev was ten. His father cared for him as best he could but later was quite busy with the Bund. He was part of the union’s founding council and wasn’t home much.  He and the others were working so hard to improve conditions for many Jews but that meant he was gone many days and nights.”

 “My mother says ‘Lev stay with us.’ This way he has something to eat and a warm bed. She worried Lev would freeze when his father was gone. The stove was empty and his father left no money. I don’t know if he didn’t have any to spare or forgot. If I were to guess, I’d say he had nothing to give and expected Lev to find a way.

 “Lev is very smart, a scholar really, but you know that. He wanted to study, maybe even become a rabbi but his father didn’t have money. He wanted Lev to work, to join the movement. Said study was for the rich. His father was a man of the people. His cause was great. Lev said his father was a fool. I saw him scowl once when a man said his father was a great man.” Ori stopped talking. Shanna wondered if he was feeling guilty for betraying so much.

“Please,” she said, sensing there was more to tell.

“He stayed with us until the end of the school year but saw we had barely enough for the four of us. My mother would give him half of what she would have had for dinner. My father lost his job at the textile factory after a strike. He was a leader, like Lev’s father. His supervisor hired another man who he said was loyal. 

“My father couldn’t find a job after that. Lev, I think, felt he was a burden. One night, he left only telling us in a note that he’d gone to find work and a place to study.”

“How old was he?” 

“Maybe 15, 16. Didn’t see him for over two years. When he came back, he was strong with muscles and hair on his face. He had worked for several men, one ran an inn, and another was a merchant selling equipment for a farm, another peddled from a cart. He worked in a factory too and studied at the cheder in exchange for cleaning the shul.

“He had started working as an apprentice with a shoemaker when he came back. He said he was going to America as soon as he saved enough and would join me there. I was leaving a week later.

“‘America is where we have the chance for business. No one can take that away,’ he told me. He was as certain as you and I are here speaking. 

 “Another family was living in his house when he got home so he asked me where his father was.  He didn’t know his father had died. I told him to sit so I could I tell him what happened.”

“What did happen?”

“Terrible, terrible,” Ori said, shaking his head. “He was beaten during a demonstration. He hit his head on a stone step and died two days later.”

Shanna put her head in her hands and rubbed her temples. 

 “Why did Lev go to Kishinev?” 

“A man at the shoe factory knew your father and said he had great compassion and would teach Lev even if he did not have money to pay. Lev was devastated by what had happened to his father and angry even though he did not say those words. You could see it in his body, so rigid and on his face tight as if he lost all breath there. I think he sought out your father because he was hoping he would help him understand how this could happen. He needed to hear from God. He didn’t tell me this, but that’s why I think he went after his time learning shoes.”

 “He never told me any of this.” Shanna had more compassion for Lev now but wished he had told her of these things before. “What happened with his mother? Is she still alive?”

“No one knows. No one saw her again. I overheard my parents. They thought perhaps she had someone else and that’s why she left.”

“Brothers or sisters?”

“An older brother Naum left home right after his mother. Lev thinks he went into the Army. He never heard from him, not that I know of anyway. I don’t know if he was killed or just disappeared. Naum could contact my father if he wanted to find Lev. My father knows Lev is here. I am the only family Lev knows. We are brothers and I would do anything for him.” 

Shanna felt as if she was standing on a slick rock in the sea and couldn’t get her balance.  She grabbed the side of the table as if for ballast and closed her eyes.

She felt Ori’s hand on hers.


She nodded too surprised to speak.

“I don’t know why some keep secrets. They seep into the blood like poison. That’s what the rabbi told me,” Ori said.

Shanna thought about all the ways Lev had behaved in the nearly two years of their marriage. Nothing showed her this life he lived before he came to them.

“Why don’t you think he told me?”

“Maybe he is ashamed. Maybe he has forgotten by force of will.”

Either was possible. She let out a sigh, confused by this.

“I’m sorry to upset you,” he said. His face was pale.

“I’m glad to know.”

Her stomach growled, she was suddenly very hungry. “We have tongue and potatoes; will you have something with me.”

“If it’s no trouble.”

“It’s pleasure not trouble.” She thought again of her brother Hosea. All she knew he was somewhere in America and had told her he would send his address once he found a place but that was months ago and they had no notice before they fled. She hoped when she found him that Ori and he could meet. They would be old friends within minutes.

The door opened, and Lev came in eyeing Shanna and Ori as if he suspected them of something. He had a pail of beer in his hand. “We are just going to have supper, Ori came to see you.” 

Lev looked tired and his skin had a gray pallor. When Lev went to wash, Ori shook his head. “His moods are a mystery to me too. But you know, he was like this too when he stayed at our house. I remember once after he had shouted at me for a reason I can’t remember my mother told me I needed to forgive him. She said his life was hard. And he was alone.” 


Lev poured glasses of beer for he and Ori and set them on the table before grabbing two slices of tongue and a piece of bread. He started eating as if no one else was there. Shanna didn’t know what it would take for him to come back to himself but with Ori there, at least she wasn’t alone. She didn’t know if she should try to engage him or let him be.

“Lev, any thoughts about what we will do? You still thinking insurance?” Ori asked.
Shanna hoped the question would not make Lev’s mood worse. She hoped Ori knew it would be all right to ask.

 “Soon,” Lev said, running his hand over his face. “And you will be the second person I tell.” He looked at Shanna.


Shanna was finishing the last of the dishes when she heard Lev close his notebook and come stand next to her They hadn’t spoken since Ori left. “You ready for bed?”

“A few minutes,” she said.

His tone was less angry and Shanna let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.

“I’m sorry,” Lev said when she came into the bedroom. “For my moods. I want this so much, but I feel like one thing or another crosses me.”

 “Is there a rush with this business,” she asked.  “Couldn’t you wait? You put so much pressure on yourself.” She remembered what Ori told her. She thought about telling Lev that she knew now about his life and understood.

 “If you don’t mind being poor for years, then, yes, we can wait,” he said, the softness gone from his voice. “I see no reason to prolong hardship. I didn’t come to America to be penniless, nor to be under the thumb of others for years.” 

“I don’t care,” she said. “And we have food, a roof.”

“I care. I care very much.” 

“We’ve been here just a few months,” she said.

“A man I know started his own establishment two weeks after he arrived, selling from a cart and now a store.”

The feeling of compassion Ori had awakened in her was gone, as if it never was.  “I’m going to sleep,” she said. “You should sleep too. You will feel better.”

“Don’t tell me what I feel.”

 He unbuttoned his shirt and then his slacks. He moved now to her bed and climbed in. Her stomach churned. He started kissing her, his stubble chafing her cheek. His breathing grew heavy quickly. He must have thought she was excited because he entered her with force and purpose. “Lev,” she cried. She was dizzy, she couldn’t breathe. “Lev, no.” She started pounding on his chest. “Stop.”

 “What’s the matter with you.” As he continued pushing into her, she couldn’t find her breath.  She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came. It was as if she had a rag in her mouth, like what the Cossacks did in Odessa. At some point, she felt him roll off of her. She smelled the tobacco, the stink of those Cossacks as if they were here with her in this room.

“Shanna, what?” he said finally. “What were you shouting about?”

She couldn’t tell him about the rape just weeks before they fled, she could never say the words. Instead she heeled it to the bathroom and vomited. She sat on the toilet until her breath steadied and she washed her face. “I’m all right,” she whispered. “I’m all right.”

It was over. It was over for tonight. But this was worse than last time. His body felt angry, as if he wanted to punish her for something she didn’t understand.

How could her father have blessed such a union with this man? She remembered overhearing him counsel a man and woman she did not know many years ago now. They were having difficulties, which at the time, she didn’t understand. Her father told them the Bible says a man and women should become one flesh. “You complete each other,” he said. 

She and Lev did not complete each other, they never had and never would. So, what did that say about their marriage before God. Her father should have understood that then. How did he let fear prevail over scripture which was his life like breath? How did he imagine that Lev would keep her safe when she was so anxious with him?

She didn’t go back to the bedroom. She didn’t want to be in the same room with Lev. Didn’t want to hear his snores, or be near his stink.

Instead she folded into herself onto the sofa that creaked with her weight and pulled the blanket over her head, a cocoon against any more brutality tonight. 






BIO: Diane Lederman was a reporter in daily journalism for 40 years and wrote fiction for 25 of those years. Since she left reporting two years ago, she has been writing fiction full-time. She has taken workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Muse in Boston. She recently had a story published in Jewish Fiction.net. Another story is slated for the fall in Adanna Literary Journal.